Category Archives: Now Showing

RICHARD JEWELL






Producers: Clint Eastwood, Tim Moore, Jessica Meier, Kevin Misher, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Davison and Jonah Hill   Director: Clint Eastwood   Screenplay: Billy Ray   Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez, David Shae and Wayne Duvall   Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Grade:  B

When Clint Eastwood played lawmen in movies, they were guys who might have bent or broken the rules, but always in a good cause and with positive results.   In “Blood Work,” for example, Eastwood was an FBI agent who suffered a heart attack chasing down a killer, but came out of retirement to track down what he presumes is another murderer.

Now that he’s behind the camera, however, it’s quite a different story. In this fact-based film based on Marie Brenner’s article about the Atlanta security guard who was accused of planting the bomb he discovered at the 1996 Olympic games in the city, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), the FBI agent in charge, comes off very badly indeed.  Not only does he jump to conclusions about an innocent man’s guilt on the basis of a speculative perpetrator profile, but leaks the erroneous identification to ambitious reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde).  She’s hardly a prize, either, being willing to do anything, if you get my drift, to induce the guy to give her the story, which sets off such a firestorm that the accused must secure the help of anti-establishment lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell).  His other great supporter is his doting mother Bobi (Kathy Bates), and after a grueling public circus that drags on for months, he finally wins a grudging admission from the Bureau that he is no longer a person of interest in the case.

This tale of an innocent man—and a hero, though an unconventional one—abused by the system of interlocked government power and press recklessness is a natural for Eastwood, and among his recent fact-based movies bears a striking thematic connection with “Sully,” about Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who landed his stricken airliner in the Hudson in 2009.  That retelling was framed within the context of an often hostile NTSB investigation of the incident, in which his decisions during the emergency were debated.

Of course Sullenberger himself reflected on the choices he’d made, wondering whether they were the right ones under the circumstances.  Here, Jewel has no such qualms, knowing that he had absolutely no role in the bombing.  As depicted by screenwriter Billy Ray and portrayed by Hauser (who was so memorable as the wacky hit-man in “I, Tonya”), Richard Jewell is hardly an average Joe.  Physically puffy and submissive to a fault, he’s a quirky lawman wannabe who follows the rules so obsessively that he’s looked upon by those who employ him (like a college dean) and colleagues as something of a joke—until he discovers the bomb-filled backpack at Atlanta’s Centennial Park, which turns him into a hero until the FBI scrutiny makes him a browbeaten pariah for nearly three months.  The real bomber would not confess until years later, during which time Jewell remained under a cloud of suspicion despite the public quasi-exoneration, and the stress perhaps contributed to his untimely death in 2007 at only forty-four.

Simply as a “wrong man” scenario, Eastwood’s film is effective, building up audience sympathy for Jewell, oddball a character as he might be, as the target of a couple of unlikable villains, the smug FBI agent who treats him condescendingly and the reporter whose ethical sense is decidedly imperfect. (Unlike the lawman, however, she is given something of a redemptive scene in the end, tearing up when she attends a news conference in which Bobi pleads for justice for her son.)  Their extremely negative portrayal is perhaps not of great moment insofar as Shaw, a composite and so essentially fictional figure, is concerned, but Scruggs was a real person, and no longer able to defend her reputation (she died in 2001).  Her portrayal as a woman who used sex to advance her career has been condemned by those who knew her (and many who did not, but find the suggestion sexist and offensive).  Ironically, Ray and Eastwood are being accused of the same sort of character assassination of which they argue Jewell was a victim. 

If one can set aside that controversy and concentrate on the trio of characters at the center of the drama—Jewell, Bobi and Bryant—the film certainly works as a tale of a modern-day David confronted by a couple of Goliaths, the government and the media.  Hauser, Bates and Rockwell all have meaty roles, and each takes advantage of the opportunities they offer, while Nina Arianda is a scene-stealer as the lawyer’s aide.  Eastwood directs in typically low-key, no-frills style, abetted by Kevin Ishioka’s production design (especially good in its recreation of the Jewells’ middle-class apartment, where much of the action takes place), Yves Belanger’s unfussy cinematography and Joel Cox’s unforced editing.  (The team does, however, rouse itself to deliver an exciting, “you are there” recreation of the actual bombing.)

“Richard Jewell” naturally engages in compression and simplification in dramatizing the story of a man who was hounded for—as he explained—simply doing his job (though he did it with a degree of commitment many found off-putting).  But it’s emotionally compelling, even if in making its case it engages in some troubling melodramatic choices. 

AFTER CLASS






Producers: Courtenay Johnson, Larry Greenberg, Jordan Kessler, Matthew Helderman and Luke Taylor   Director: Daniel Schechter   Screenplay: Daniel Schechter   Cast: Justin Long, Kate Berlant, Michael Godere, Lynn Cohen, Fran Drescher, Richard Schiff, Silvia Morigi, Becky Ann Baker, Tyler Wladis and Dana Eskelson   Distributor: Gravitas Ventures

Grade:  B-

Josh Cohn (Justin Long), an Adjunct Professor of English at an unnamed college in New York City, juggles professional and personal crises in Daniel Schechter’s dramedy, which has enough truthfulness to make up for a tendency to be loud, simplistic and rather overbearing. 

Cohn’s academic career is threatened by a classroom incident that baffles him.  During a discussion of a student’s short story about a date, he good-humoredly prods her to be more honest about the sexual encounter it ended with.  He thinks it’s been a good session—a lesson in how to use your experience to write better.  But the explicit nature of the discussion has nonplussed another student, who goes to the dean with a complaint that her safe space has been violated.  Cohn is called on the carpet and encouraged to apologize, though he’s certain he did nothing wrong.

The situation escalates when other students in the class get actively involved.  Some boycott the class.  One begins to film Cohn with his phone.  A seminar meeting turns testy, with two girls accusing him and some of the male students of sexism and racism, and some of the white guys responding that they seem ready to condemn any disagreements or criticism by raising such charges.  A couple of them suggest that they’ll become Josh’s protectors, expressing views that could easily take a slippery slope down to right-wing venom.

All of this is happening while Josh is confronted by a family emergency—or series of them.  His beloved grandmother Agatha (Lynn Cohen) is hospitalized with cancer, only the latest of her ailments, and may not survive.  He’s annoyed that his mother Diane (Fran Drescher) seems to be anticipating Agatha’s demise, already deciding how her property will be parceled out.  Meanwhile his free-spirited sister Jackie Kate Berlant), a podcaster, intrudes on his life, badgering him into letting her stay in his apartment, and he’s constantly at loggerheads with his brother David (Michael Godere), a successful Wall Street type, who thinks that Josh is a flake who never takes things seriously.

The family dynamic is further inflamed by the refusal of Jeff (Richard Schiff), Diane’s ex, to come and visit Agatha.  He’s forbidden to by his shrilly insecure second wife Sherry (Dana Eskelson), with whom he has a son, Ben (Tyler Wladis), who’s a completely uncontrollable brat.

Josh’s double trouble leads to a great many shouting matches, and much of “After Class” has a frenzied air marked by reams of overlapping dialogue—a technique that is true to life but as aggravating to us as it is to the characters.  (At one point David insists that Josh shut up for a minute, which Josh does, timing the ticking off of the seconds on his phone as David makes his spiel.)

Add to that the shrillness of the campus confrontations, in which many of the students are portrayed as utter snowflakes incapable of having a reasonable conversation about anything.  And though the two parts of the picture are generally kept separate, in one case Jackie gets involved in the dispute with the students, and of course only makes it worse. 

Schechter does quiet things down toward the close, when Josh finally gets the opportunity to listen to his student’s complaint and reflect on why his insensitivity so upset her, and Jeff overrules his shrewish wife to visit Agatha one last time. 

Even before that, “After Class” (originally titled “Safe Spaces”) benefits from Long’s likable personality and excellent turns from Drescher, Cohen and Schiff, though Berlant’s intensity would work better in smaller doses, and the one-note performances by Wladis, Eskelson and many of the youngsters playing Josh’s students are often grating.  The picture will win no awards for visual beauty, but the technical contributions by cinematographer Gregory J. Wilson and production designer Cassaundra Franklin give it a believably lived-in look. In sum, this is an uneven piece about “trigger issues” in one man’s professional and personal lives, but the strengths outweigh the weaknesses, if only by a slight margin.