[Fresh on Blu-ray] Damon’s ‘STILLWATER’, Aretha Franklin biopic ‘RESPECT’ are varying degrees of Oscar bait

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

STILLWATER

Rated R, 139 minutes. 
Director: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Matt Damon, Abigail Breslin, and Camille Cottin

It’s easy to forget how good an actor Matt Damon truly is. Almost twenty-five years after his career exploded with GOOD WILL HUNTING, he proved he was talented as Mr. Ripley, helped redefine espionage action as Jason Bourne, and he even put up with endless ABBA music while stuck on Mars (in THE MARTIAN). 

When Damon committed to a project where, from the outside, he looks like a MAGA supporter about to go all Liam Neeson when it comes to exerting parental vengeance, I knew STILLWATER wasn’t going to be a conventional thriller. The reason: writer-director Tom McCarthy. 

On the success of his Oscar-winning newspaper drama SPOTLIGHT, McCarthy rips from the headlines again with a story about a father desperate to free his incarcerated daughter. As Bill Baker, an Oklahoman oil rigger with a protruding midsection on account of his steadfast diet of fast food, Damon is the proverbial “Ugly American” on account of his gait and appearance. His well-worn snapback ball cap with knockoff Oakleys on the brim, and an assortment of denim jeans and plaid flannels from Carhartt and the like, Bill is unbecoming at first glance. What livable earnings he does make goes to frequent trips to France to see his daughter, Allison (Abigail Breslin), once an exchange student now currently serving a nine-year prison sentence for killing her lover.

The foreign legal system is a quagmire, and trying to make any headway can be a Sisyphean ordeal. But fortunes change in unsuspecting ways for Bill when he meets Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her young daughter, Maya. Up until then, Bill’s trips were one of economy; his normal haunt was staying at a Best Western where he would eat the foot-long sandwich he picked up at a Subway nearby.   

Bill and Virginie’s chance encounter becomes a kind of character reformation project. While the advertising may have been heavy in pushing it as a thriller, which it does veer to that territory at times – and are the least appealing aspects about STILLWATER – this is a lived-in adult drama. A relationship develops while another is on the precipice of crumbling and it is Matt Damon stuck in the middle. By the time it ends, the thousand-yard stare Bill Baker exudes, in the beginning, is refracted in the closing moments, leaving a gazing impression. 

STILLWATER includes the following special featurettes:

  • An Alchemy of Viewpoints
  • An American in Marseilles: The Locations of Stillwater
  • With Curiosity and Compassion: Director Tom McCarthy

Grade: B (a solid rental)  

RESPECT

Rated PG-13, 145 minutes
Director: Liesl Tommy
Cast: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Titus Burgess, Marc Maron, and Mary J. Blige

Sometimes the measure of an artist can’t be properly portrayed in a film. Most biopics, regardless of person or profession, tend to fall into the trap of the kitchen-sink approach – needing to go from birth to grave in exploring their evolution. We get the pivotal moment that takes an emotional toll, the setbacks, and of course, the key event that will make us enshrine or lament our subject. 

Aretha Franklin was a brilliant singer with the voice of an angel. She sang about what it meant to be treated properly and how it all boils down to a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. But, unfortunately, her biopic never captures what made Aretha the “Queen of Soul.”

Liesl Tommy’s all-encompassing treatment of Franklin’s life and career plays like a class project on American idols recited in a low murmur until Jennifer Hudson – handpicked by the queen herself –sings the chart-topping hits. She does as good a job as a singer of her stature can at imitating the musical icon, but this sincere form of flattery strikes more wrong notes than right ones. 

What the biopic fails to grasp is what it should be intimating all along.

Who is this person?

RESPECT cuts a wide swathe – twenty years give or take – showing us Aretha from her stern upbringing as a preacher’s daughter through the gospel album recording of “Amazing Grace” in 1972. Outlined like a Wikipedia entry with her personal life, musical career, activism, and faith, the biopic plays everything safe. The traumatic childhood episode that would forever change Franklin is so evasive that it’s downright insulting.

You can tell Tommy and Hudson went into this project wanting to make a character portrait worthy of the queen’s approval. But highlighting the highs and putting liquid paper on the screenplay when it comes to the dark and more complex aspects is not the way. The luminesce of greatness flickers throughout but would have remained lit if it ran on soul power.

What should have been a cinematic coronation instead becomes a flat swan song.

RESPECT includes the following special featurettes:

  • The Making of Respect
  • Becoming Aretha
  • Capturing a Legacy
  • From Muscle Shoals

Grade: C (skip and watch the music documentary AMAZING GRACE instead)

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