Sunday, October 15, 2017

American Made

Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) is a master of finding the humor in even the most dire situations. When he teamed with the eternally affable Tom Cruise for the sci-fi "Groundhog Day" feature Edge of Tomorrow, the result was a major scre. Liman's American Made adds to that mix the nearly unbelievable story from the '70s and '80s of hot shot commercial pilot Barry Seal, who is hired away from TWA by the CIA (Domhnall Gleeson) to conduct secret airborne surveillance o...f rebels south of the border. He is later coerced by the Colombian Medellin drug cartel to smuggle cocaine into the U.S., and then blackmailed by the CIA to transport rebel fighters to the U.S. for training and then, later, to smuggle arms to Contras in Nicaragua. The backdrop, of course, is the American-backed, Latin America-based "anti-communist" crusade of the Reagan era that evolved into the Iran-Contra conspiracy. By that time, Seal had already amassed millions of dollars in cash, while building a family with his lovely and fertile wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) in a small Arkansas town known for nothing before the Seals moved in, bringing a smuggling operation and mountains of money with them. It's a tale well told and Cruise is as breezy and winning as ever.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


In "Marshall," television director Reginald Hudlin (known to many black-film audiences as the director of House Party and Boomerang) delivers an entertaining though at times frustrating bio pic on the Civil Rights lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a film that will be a welcome palliative in these "take-a-knee" times. South Carolina's own Chadwick Boseman plays Marshall with a bluster not often seen in portrayals of African American historical figures. ...It's a refreshing take but in some scenes gives the great man a brutishness that belies the delicate work he was engaged in as the NAACP's only attorney in the 1940s. I suspect that for some, Marshall, the man, will come across as pretty unlikable. In his dealings with Jewish attorney Sam Friedman (a terrific Josh Gad), Marshall is portrayed bullying the diffident Friedman into being co-counsel for a black man in Bridgeport, Connecticut, (another great performance by Sterling K. Brown), accused of raping his white employer (Kate Hudson) and tossing her into a reservoir. Marshall and the NAACP (represented by Roger Guenveur Smith as Walter White) needs to win the case to demonstrate to donors the organization is still vital. Though the film is about the trial, of which I was not familiar, it is mostly about the dynamic between Marshall and Friedman, who would go on to become an important civil rights attorney in his own right. True to Hollywood tropes, racist whites are portrayed as menacing specters that emerge out of the mist to terrorize. This characterization, of course, plays well for motion pictures but ignores the true perniciousness of systemic racism and turns it into simple villainy.

Brawl in Cell Block 99

That S. Craig Zahler's Brawl in Cell Block 99 ended up in a cineplex with little fanfare belies its grindhouse sensibilities -- there is nothing subtle or understated about the film. This story of a decent bad man who takes a wrong turn while trying to do better by his wife is as artful as a crowbar but its bluntness is what makes it so entertaining. Vince Vaughn plays Bradley Thomas, a stoic bruiser-bagman who winds up on the wrong side of a botched drug deal and is sentence...d to prison. His humorless partner in the deal (Dion Mucciacito) wants restitution and kidnaps Bradley's pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter) to get him to do a favor behind the wall. It's a given the favor is wetwork but Bradley will do what he must -- facedown the sadistic warden (Don Johnson), snap bones, pummel and mutilate. Vaughn as the Bradley beast is fun to watch but the brawling might be excruciating for some.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Brad's Status

Mike White writes keenly observed film stories about people struggling with those small but indelible moments in life when they feel emotionally exposed (Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl, Year of the Dog). White's latest, Brad's Status, which he also directed, stars Ben Stiller as Brad, the neurotic father of a high school senior (Austin Abrams) on a college visit weekend to Cambridge so son can interview at Harvard and Tufts, Dad's alma mater. Brad's neurosis, which is deeply ...rooted in an entitlement that he's blind to, leads him to question the rightness of nearly every person, thing or event in his life. His insufferableness, which is mostly interior throughout the film, does boil over on occasion, leading to some wonderfully uncomfortable exchanges. Brad is by most measures a successful man, living in Sacramento with his dutiful wife (Jenna Fischer) and his son, a talented musician whose emotional makeup bears little resemblance to his flinty and judgmental father. Brief encounters with Brad's estranged posse of college buddies (all of whom are wealthy and living the life) leads Brad to some realizations but not those the audience might hope. Stiller's performance as this insecure and selfish man is one of the best I've seen this year.

Blade Runner 2049

Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) is an undisputed visionary whose best pictures feature stunning camerawork and breathtaking tableaux in service of complex narratives that never lose sight of the human element. Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 is a near-epic sequel to Ridley Scott's masterpiece from 1982 that is as thoroughgoing an exposition on humanness as I've seen in a while. It stars Ryan Gosling as an LAPD detective in 2049 who, like Harrison Ford's character 30 years earlier, is commissioned to track down replicants (artificial humans) originally created to slave for real humans but now deemed defective and when found are to be destroyed. Gosling's "K" is himself a replicant, an obedient model, who answers to a severe police lieutenant he calls "Madam" (Robin Wright) and lives alone in a teeming and desolate post-apocalyptic La La Land with a holographic companion named Joi (Ana de Armas). While "deactivating" a rogue replicant (Dave Bautista) on a remote farm, K discovers bones buried beneath a tree and this discovery opens the door to a trail that leads to replicant manufacturer Wallace (Jared Leto), his deadly enforcer Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) and eventually Ford's Deckard. Villeneuve uses 35 years of cinematic advancement to expand Scott's original vision and explore with greater effectiveness, IMO, central questions about truth and authenticity, human connectivity and memory. Blade Runner 2049 is both visually and intellectually arresting but it might be too long and deliberately paced for some tastes. Highly Recommended.

Queen & Slim

In the soon to be iconic photograph from Melina Matsoukas's distressing Queen & Slim, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith...