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Schultz reviews: 'The Little Things' and 'The Way I See It'

Schultz reviews: 'The Little Things' and 'The Way I See It'

Carl Schultz

 

 

“The Little Things”   Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 127 Minutes, Rated R, Released January 29, 2021:

Fans of actor Denzel Washington know that each of his pictures contains a reason the highly-principled actor (and son of a Pentecostal minister) was attracted to the project--a moral intent, emotionally uplifting component, or lesson he wanted to impart to the audience.  Even audience-pleasing action thrillers like “Man on Fire” or the “Equalizer” films carry subtexts about the dichotomy between good and evil, and our responsibility to others.

The actor’s fans might have to dig a little deeper than usual to find such an uplifting lesson in “The Little Things,” the new psychological thriller from Warner Bros. Pictures now playing in theaters and on the HBO Max streaming service.  But no matter how widely the viewer searches for the moral, this time he might come up short.

In “The Little Things,” Washington plays Joe “Deke” Deacon, a disgraced former Los Angeles homicide detective now toiling as a deputy sheriff 100 miles away in Bakersfield, Kern County.  Sent back to his old turf on a lowly errand to transport a piece of evidence in a trivial crime his department’s been investigating, Deacon lands in the middle of a case involving a serial killer with methods similar to the murders he was investigating at the time of his downfall.

When Deacon requests vacation leave from the Kern County PD to casually investigate the Los Angeles case, he soon bumps heads with detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), the LA Sheriff’s Department sergeant who replaced him on the force.  As the two lawmen gradually combine their investigations and become reluctant partners, Baxter begins to display the same disquieting emotional characteristics Baxter suffered prior to his undoing.

A tough, humorless but mostly undistinguished police procedural in the tradition of “Dirty Harry” and “Seven,” “The Little Things'' is given prestige by its trio of Academy Award-winning star--Washington and Malek as the cops, and Jared Leto (“Dallas Buyers Club”) as their primary suspect.  Written and directed by John Lee Hancock (''The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks”), the bad news about the new movie is that with virtually any other contemporary actors in the top roles, the picture would likely have been released without fanfare and quickly forgotten.

Based on a script filmmaker Hancock wrote some 30 years ago, “The Little Things” for no other discernible reason is set during the 1990s, as if Hancock was either too bored or too lazy to blow the dust off his screenplay.  With the exception of the vintage automobiles the picture looks and sounds contemporary, but the payphones and pocket pagers are a dead giveaway, at first puzzling the viewer and then becoming a real distraction.  This is the rare movie in which the older viewers might need to explain the technology to younger audience members.

Denzel Washington doesn’t invest much of himself into “The Little Things,” at least partly because Hancock’s script doesn’t allow the actor much to work with.  As a character, Joe Deacon is fairly one-dimensional, sympathetic but not particularly likable.  For a charismatic performer like Washington, that’s a real problem.  The actor coasts along as far as he can on his own magnetism and the audience’s goodwill, but contributes little to the picture besides his presence.  This is as close as Washington’s likely to get to walking through a picture--it’s a workmanlike performance, but hardly among the actor’s best.

As Baxter, Rami Malek is all quirks and idiosyncrasies.  The actor’s chin-first delivery, unblinking gaze, and measured, deliberate vocal vocal tones impart more menace and aggression than Hancock’s routine cop jargon might otherwise contain--every line of dialogue becomes a challenge.  Malek’s performance is more a review of his signature mannerisms than a characterization.  Jared Leto does much the same as the cops’ prime suspect--with his fixed stare and infuriatingly soft voice augmented by prosthetic makeup and extra padding in his costume, Leto lets the gimmicks do most of the heavy lifting.

Plainly inspired by the manhunt for the Zodiac Killer who terrorized Northern California during the late 1960s and early 1970s (“Dirty Harry” in 1971 and “Zodiac” in 2007 were also based on the still-unsolved case), “The Little Things” contains portent and pretense aplenty, but no real substance and even less of a payoff.  While all signs point to a surprise twist at the end, filmmaker Hancock seems to omit the climactic segment.  In the process, the filmmaker commits the one unforgivable error in a dramatic structure--his film fails to provide a satisfying resolution.

If Hancock’s script had been framed as a multi-part episode of virtually any hard-hitting television cop drama from the 1980s forward, from “Hill Street Blues” to “NYPD Blue” to “Law and Order,” ”The Little Things” might’ve passed without notice or distinction.  Framed as a major motion picture event, the film’s narrative flaws are magnified and enhanced until they sink the picture.  It’s appropriate that the picture debuted simultaneously online--it’s a big step in the right direction.  The trailer for “The Little Things” is actually better than the movie.

“The Little Things” is rated R for violent and disturbing images, adult language, and nudity (a corpse during an autopsy scene). 

“The Way I See It”   Distributed by Focus Features, 102 Minutes, Rated PG-13.

Released September 18, 2020:

As Americans, we routinely enjoy so many liberties and advantages that we sometimes don’t even notice our blessings even as we rely on them day after typical day.  Qualities like kindness and simple decency among our leaders are just unthinkingly accepted as the standards of our natural rights, and rarely are even noticed beyond that...at least until they’re threatened or gone entirely, or when life becomes difficult.

Viewers who love American History are encouraged to take a look at “The Way I See It,” the new documentary from Focus Features now streaming free on NBC’s Peacock TV.  Produced by Academy Award-winning actress Laura Dern, this elegant and wonderfully moving picture details the life and career of photojournalist Pete Souza, the official White House photographer during both the Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama presidential administrations.  Intimate and often moving, “The Way I See It” looks at life within the walls of the White House from the inside out, and from the bottom up.

Born in Massachusetts in 1954, Pete Souza was educated at Boston University and Kansas State University, and was a photographer for the small-town Hutchinson News in Kansas during the 1970s before moving to job with the Chicago Sun-Times in the early 1980s.  In 1983 at age 29, Souza was invited to join the staff of White House photographers during the administration of Ronald Reagan, and became Reagan’s official photographer when predecessor Michael Evans resigned his post in 1985.

In 2004, Souza was asked by CNN to take photographs for a project documenting Illinois politician Barack Obama’s first year in the US Senate, an assignment which eventually led to the publication in July 2008 of “The Rise of Barack Obama,” a collection of Souza’s photos of the popular senator between 2005 and 2008.  In the process of completing the continuing CNN project, Souza and the senator grew close enough for the photographer to naturally follow Obama to the White House when he was elected President of the United States.

During his tenure(s) as the official White House photographer, Souza sought to both preserve the dignity and gravity of the Office of the President of the United States and humanize the person occupying the position many Americans view only as a national symbol.  In an article published in 2020, Souza wrote, “The presidency deserves someone who is competent and honest, someone who has empathy and compassion, someone who upholds the dignity and shows respect to the office--someone who has character and knows ultimately the presidency isn’t about him (or someday her), but about us.”

In “The Way I See It” we see some of Souza’s most famous photos, accompanied by the recollections from the photographer and often by television news footage depicting the same events.  In his narration, Souza tells the stories behind the photos, and fills in some of the details with personal anecdotes and recollections further humanizing the events depicted, adding warmth to the sometimes momentous developments the photos illustrate.  We also see the quiet times behind the history, and the personal side of the people who shape our lives and our futures.

In Souza’s photos, we see President Obama filling in as a coach for his young daughter’s basketball team at school, and fighting back tears as he struggles to find words to console the parents of the children killed at Sandy Hook.  We see the President of the United States frolic happily in the snow with his two young daughters, and hear the details of Souza’s iconic photo in the White House Situation Room during Osama bin Laden’s capture in 2011.  And when Souza became engaged in 2013, we hear how the President spontaneously insisted the wedding be held at the While House...with Obama himself officiating.

The surprising part of “The Way I See It” is not the amount of fascinating and compelling information the film contains, although it’s considerable.  Rather, the surprise comes in the number of times the viewer’s likely to be moved to tears--tears of pride in the warmth and empathy we’re capable of reaching, tears of sadness at how cruel and impersonal we occasionally become...and tears of hope for a better and more compassionate future.  This wonderful little movie is highly recommended.  Check it out.

“The Way I See It” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

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