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MARSHALL – the Man; the Movie – Bigger than Life

 

Marshall Movie Poster

4 Stars

If the real Thurgood Marshall was as cocky, handsome, driven, talented and intelligent as the man Chadwick Boseman portrays in “Marshall,” he was clearly bigger than life.  Rather than focus on Marshall’s landmark US Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, which brought desegregation to public schools, Director Reginald Hudlin choses a lesser known case to showcase Marshall’s legal prowess and an incredibly talented cast.

In a very white Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1941, a black man, Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown), is accused of the rape and attempted murder of a white Greenwich society woman, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson).  Marshall was then a New York City lawyer working for the NAACP – in fact, he was practically the only lawyer working for the organization and was shunted across the map of America fighting for the rights of blacks who were often on trial simply because they were black.  Nowhere was the racial hostility more apparent than in that dusty Connecticut courtroom as the self-righteous and socially connected sitting judge (James Cromwell) refused to allow some uppity black lawyer from New York to argue before his bench – decreeing that only attorneys licensed to practice in the State of Connecticut could appear before this self-important body.  As a consequence, Co-counsel Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a Jewish insurance defense lawyer who had never tried a criminal case before, was forced to argue the case.

The slow evolution of a potent relationship is forged between the unlikely co-counsels.  Where Marshall is confident and self-assured, Friedman is frightened and halting, and justly so since Friedman is in way over his head.  It is a masterful case, as so many court dramas are that make it to the screen.  But this was real life.  The parallel between the “nigger” lawyer and the “kike” lawyer is not over played.  Both men were maligned, curse, threatened, beaten and condemned because of their minority status and that they dared to take on the white establishment.  The year is 1941, and Hitler was annihilating German Jews with impunity.  As a consequence of this case, Friedman went on to become an advocate and voice for civil rights causes.  Of course, Marshall went on to become the first African-American justice of the United States Supreme Court when he was appointed to that post by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.  Prior to his tenure in the high court, Thurgood Marshall represented and won more cases before the United States Supreme Court than any other American.

This is a feel good movie.  It’s the sort of film where people applaud the screen while credits are rolling at the end.  As a period piece it is very well done – right down to Marshall’s two-toned shoes and silk pocket square. It is also a remarkable slice of life representing a dark time in our country’s history but with a hint of a promise of a better tomorrow.  I guess it is this promise that audiences applaud.

 

Blade Runner 2049 – Better than original 3 1/2 Stars

It’s safe to say that the updated version of “Blade Runner” over the 1982 original, and its several iterations thereafter, is a total triumph.  The story is more nuanced; the action is fiercer; the sets are brighter (even in the persistent rain); and the acting overall is just better.

The original story is simple enough.  The year is 2019 (yes, a mere two years hence). In this future, the powerful Tyrell Corporation has bioengineered synthetic humans known as replicants to work in off-Earth colonies.  Well, the Earth is a mess: pollution hides the sun and there is constant rain.  When a fugitive group of replicants escape back to Earth, burnt-out Los Angeles cop Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) accepts one last assignment to hunt them down. During his investigations, Deckard meets Rachael (Sean Young), a stunning advanced replicant who causes him to question his mission.  Needless to say, Deckard takes out the runaway replicants, but he then disappears with Rachael – hence, the sequence.

It is now 2049 and Los Angeles is worse than ever.  Trees and other living remnants of fruitful life have long since died and snowplows are used to keep the streets clean.  Mostly it rains.  But now, the city is using replicants to act as police, since they have been engineered to be more obedient.  Ryan Gossling plays the replicant LAPD cop (simply known as K) whose job is to round up outdated replicant models and do away with them.  In his search, he discovers the remains of a replicant who died in childbirth – the ID shows it is Deckard’s replicant lover Rachael.  This could be a new horror for the Earth – replicants that reproduce.  K’s boss Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) assigns him to track down the offspring and annihilate it.  Also seeking the secrets of the replicant offspring is industrialist Wallace (Jared Leto) who assigns his replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to track the tracker.

In a great side story, K is haunted by some troubling images.  He is unsure what may be true memory or simply memory implants.  Seeking the missing child and his own “identity” K visits a Dr. Ana Stelline, a memory designer who lives in sealed bubble.  She tells K that his recollection of childhood actually occurred.  This leads K to suspect that he might be Rachael’s son.  K is finally led to the secret lair of ex-cop Rick Deckard – a plush, empty Las Vegas casino.  Once discovered, both Deckard and K are sought out by conflicting forces.

Here I leave you.  Is K the missing child of Deckard and Rachael?  You will want to see this stunning movie to find out.

 

American Made – Masterful

American Made

It is impossible not to relish “American Made.”  Tom Cruise is perfectly suited to his real life character Barry Seal – a one-time TWA airline pilot who gets recruited by the CIA to take aerial spy photography over South America, then run AK 47’s to the Contras operating to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and then smuggle in the Contras to the US for military training.

True to the mentality of the Federal Government (according the film script), the CIA simply doesn’t pay Seal enough money to support his growing family – in spite of the highly dangerous services he performs (like getting shot at taking those super-low reconnaissance photos).  So it’s no surprise that Seal is soon recruited by charismatic South American elements (Pablo Escobar played by Mauricio Mejia and Manuel Noriega played by Alberto Ospino), to run drugs and divert gun shipments from Nicaragua to Colombia.  As if this double-cross on the Feds isn’t enough to make you scratch your head, Seal is finally re-recruited to continue the drug dealing operations on behalf of Ronald Reagan’s White House.

If all this strikes a familiar – though highly fantastic – note, it should.  This is the dumbed-down version of the South American arm of the Iran-Contra Affair.  It was the clandestine illegal sale of arms to Iran (something expressly forbidden by Congress) that financed the Contras of Honduras in their guerrilla war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Enter Barry Seal, a man of dubious character and an unquenchable thirst for high adventure.  You’ve got to say this for Seal:  he was a pilot of uncanny ability – if we are to believe any of the air acrobatics this film depicts.  Still adorable at the age of 50, Cruise’s enigmatic smile, his smart delivery of one-liners, and those sweaty looks of total amazement when he’s squeaked through another tight spot, endear us to the actor and the character he portrays.  Cruise plays the part masterfully – as it is right up his alley.

As a drug and arms dealer, Seal is making more money than he can possibly launder even with the spending power of his air-headed wife Lucy (Sarah Wright), who thinks her husband is some type of airline executive.  But Lucy nails it when hubby first proposes his idea of starting an airline company:  “But you’re a pilot; what do you know about business?”  Truth said, not much.  Finally, with bags of cash buried in the back yard and overflowing the storage space in the airplane hangar, it is all more than Seal can handle.

Although the entire cast of the film is exceptional, Domhnall Gleeson is excellent as the self-possessed spook who initially recruits Seal and turns up from time to time.  Clearly, he is a rising star in the CIA and the envy of his office-mates (all cube entrenched).  At times we want to strangle him for his aloofness while his recruit is struggling with life and death issues.

An important film sequence is when Seal relates his adventures on his VHS, austensably to survive him in the event of his imminent demise.  If you read my last review, “Brad’s Status,” I harangued about the first person narrator.  They could have taken a lesson from this film – advance the story, tell the narrative, and show the passion and the mind-set.  Bravo, director Doug Liman.

Call it a dark comedy, a mock documentary, a high velocity thriller.  Whatever you call it, it is well worth seeing.  Cruise is a real charmer in this made-for-him film.

BRAD’S STATUS – Nothing to Brag About

Brad's Status

2 ½ stars

Two things bothered me about “Brad’s Status.”  The first was the musical score.  Persistent strident violins were truly annoying and often kept me from focusing on the action.  Second, the continuing narrative from Brad’s (Ben Stiller) perspective seemed to be a crutch for real action.   But those elements aside, the movie does bring something substantive to the screen.

Brad Sloan lives in Sacramento where he manages a non-profit organization, his brain child, while his wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) is a government lawyer – not a lot of extra cash generated by the parents of college senior Troy (Austin Abrams) who is a music prodigy and looking for a college where he can hone his craft and perhaps gain entry to a career.

The two men, father and son, take an autumn trip to Massachusetts for campus tours and college interviews.  Brad is a graduate of Tufts (not his first choice – which was Yale), and he projects his own sense of failure and frustration on his very talented son.  Part of Brad’s sense of failure is his own comparison between his accomplishments and what he perceives as the higher social and economic status of his college friends.  Brad’s friends are hugely successful on the surface – one a Hollywood mogul, another, a hedge fund billionaire, another, a gay guy whose house appears on the cover of Architectural Digest Magazine, and the fourth, a celebrated author and perennial TV guest.

Thus, the narrative begins.  Sacramento is hardly a noteworthy “California address,” compared to living in Hawaii, Malibu, New York and Washington, DC – as do his old college chums.  The only reason the Sloans live in this very low status California town is that Melanie had a job opportunity there.

Brad has not kept in touch with his old college friends, and they have not made him the center of their lives – his one friend had a wedding gala and invited all the old pals except Brad.  Brad takes everything personally and his perceived failures fester to the extent that his son Troy suspects his dad is having a nervous breakdown.

Brad projects his own failure onto his son, so that he is ill prepared when Troy announces that all of his teachers, counselor and mentors think that Harvard would be a shoo-in for Troy.  For a moment Brad is stunned: his son has achieved the success Brad failed to attain.  He does not know whether to celebrate or be envious.  And this is the heart of the film.  What is success?  How is it measured?  How is it even recognized by a guy who is so self-absorbed that he is unable to recognize his own son’s abilities?

This is also a movie about the destruction of idols.  Troy has long held a Harvard music professor in high esteem.  But when he finally meets with the man, he is clearly disappointed that this much admired music icon is a bit of a jerk.  Brad has a similar rude awakening when he has dinner with his old friend Craig (Michael Sheen) who, one by one, dissembles the illusions Brad has created regarding his old friends.

We will never like or celebrate Brad Sloan.  He has earned his status as a middle aged underachiever; and we dislike his momentary lapses into fantasies which are take-offs on what he imagines are the perfect lives of his college friends.  As always, Stiller is really good at making us hate him.  The performance of Abrams as Troy is excellent with just the right amount of awkwardness, embarrassment and modesty you might expect from any teenager.  Even though there is a brief awakening of Brad at the conclusion of the movie, I found it easier to relate to the adult in the son rather than the sniveling child in the dad.  Still, the film is clearly worth a viewing.

“IT” Has Its Moments

It Movie Poster

First off, I hate clowns.  Who doesn’t?  But I never even liked Clarabelle the Clown on Howdy Doody – well, I didn’t much care for Howdy either.  But I digress.  The clown who is a central character of the most recent film adaptation of Steven King’s novel of the same title “IT” is Pennywise, the Dancing Clown, skillfully and scarily played by Bill Skarsgård.  Pennywise is an ancient menace who appears every 27 years in the little Maine town of Derry to abduct, mutilate and kill little kids.

In 1988 we spot the first victim, Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott), who gleefully floats a paper boat along the gutter during a rainstorm.  We know right off the bat that this kid is going to come to no good end when he has to brave the cellar steps to get provisions to complete the crafting of his boat – made by his big brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher).  First off, the cellar steps are mere rickety wooden planks and, you guessed it, the light is not working.  Out on the street, little Georgie watches his boat float down a sewer drain.  I won’t tell you what happens next, but that’s the last we see of the real Georgie.  Flash forward to the next summer – just as summer vacation is set to begin.  More children have gone missing by this time.

Brother Bill is one of several children who are bullied, abused and generally molested by the tough kids in their school – as well as their own parents and respected members of the community.  There isn’t a decent mentor in the whole town.  These are the kids who are labeled “losers” by their peers and their own families.  Their home life is so unbearable that going into an abandoned house in search of the murderous clown Pennywise is less frightening than staying at home.

As a movie about kids coming of age and facing their worst nightmares, the film strikes a high note.  I really liked these kids.  Bill is the brains of the operation and has a slight stutter – good teasing material there.  Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis) is purported to be a slut by the community – though she is not, except that her father has been sexually abusing her for years.  In fact, she confesses to Bill that she has kissed a boy only once.  Bill and Bev are the puppy love aspect of the film.  Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer) has a repulsive looking mother who keeps him believing he is weak and frail by feeding him placebos.  Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs) is a black kid who is forced to labor at a slaughter house.  Jeremy Taylor is the typical “fat kid” who is abused because of his weight.  But overall, it is a cool bunch because they trust and rely on one another, thereby gaining strength and learning survival skills.

I did not find the film particularly scary.  There were no places where I jumped out of my skin or clutched the armrests.  In fact, the parts that were the scariest for me were the scenes where the older high school bullies, led by Nicholas Hamilton as Henry Bowers, threatened grave bodily harm on this group of cast-offs.  Perhaps part of the reason the film seemed less than terrifying to me is that the banter among the little band of losers was hilarious at times.  And humor always has a way of easing the tension.  I particularly liked it when the kids figured out that the menace of missing children occurred every 27 years – which they compared to the cyclical nature of locusts.

In short, there are lots of reasons to see this movie, none of which are for its sheer horror.
 

 

What’s Streaming – and What’s on DVD

MOONRISE KINGDOM

Many readers of my Facebook page and my movie blog (mcvittymovies.wordpress.com) confess that they are not movie-goers but read my reviews anyway.  While that’s flattering, my objective is to get you out of the house and into a movie theater – because there is simply no other experience like it – the big giant screen, the comfortable reclining leather seats (you must visit MY theaters) and being at one with the magical screen – letting yourself be pulled into the action without pushing the pause button so you can get another beer or replenish the popcorn bowl.  But I know for many of you, this will only happen a few times a year – maybe when the grand children are visiting and you see a Disney or Pixar movie.  But there are still many films out there that have already left the theaters and can now be found on DVD’s for purchase or rental (Netflix or Red Box) or streaming on any number of websites.  Here are my recommendations.  Keep in mind this list is not exhaustive.  (If you are reading this on this website, you don’t need to be encourage to go to the theater.  You already do.)

Good Adaptations of Recent Bestseller Books.  “The Light Between the Oceans” is a beautiful film starring Michael Fassbender as Tom Sherbourne and Alicia Vikander as his wife Isabelle.  This film was decimated by the critics, but their arrows were misdirected.  The acting is excellent and the pathos very real.  The scenery is positively breathtaking.  Unhappily, one cannot change the ending and remain true to the book.  I also recommend “The Girl on the Train.”  I was not crazy about the book which I found not particularly well-written and I was positively irate at Rachael Watson for not getting her act together.  In the starring role played by Emily Blunt, I found the character far more sympathetic.  The acting is wonderful and even if you know the outcome, it is still a spellbinder.  In “My Cousin Rachel” (adapted from Daphne Du Maurier’s novel – 1952, so not recent), Rachel Weisz is enchanting and mysterious as Rachel and Sam Claffin is totally believable as young Philip Ashley out to avenge his guardian’s death.  This is also a wonderful gothic period piece.

Super Stars in Film.  Have you ever seen a Matthew McConaughey movie that wasn’t well-acted?  “Magic Mike” is pure, well, magic.  And even though the plot in “Gold” is not stellar, it is worth viewing just to see McConaughey – he is so good. And speaking of him, watch “Dallas Buyer’s Club,” “Interstellar” and “Mud.”  Tom Hanks is always a good choice if you are looking for a great movie (I would forego “Hologram for a King” and all of the Da Vinci movies).  If you haven’t seen them already, watch “Captain Phillips,”  “Castaway” and “Sully.”  And if you want to see Hanks at his most romantic, watch “Sleepless in Seattle” (again and again); and for the best young Hanks, watch “Big.”  Meryl Streep is another winner.  Streep is at her best when she is playing larger than life women.  “The Devil Wears Prada” shows her at her snarkiest.  In “Iron Lady” she is more Margaret Thatcher than Maggy Thatcher herself (although what a pity that the film concentrated on the declining years of this great stateswoman).  In “Julie and Julia” her portrayal of Julia Childs makes the real Julia Childs look like a sham.  And although I thought “Florence Foster Jenkins” was not worthy as a character, Streep played it to the hilt – creating a pathos that was so essential to understanding this unrealistic woman.

Comedic Films.  The best comedic films seem to be behind us – or perhaps comedy is not something that people find funny across the board.  For instance, “The Big Short” is very funny, but not everyone will see it as a comedy.  I think one of the most charming comedies I have ever seen is “Bridesmaids” with Kristin Wiig as Annie Walker and Melissa McCarthy as the groom’s sister Megan.  And speaking of McCarthy, I laughed myself silly in “Spy”- although I am not certain the audience was on board.  You have to watch the closing credits on this one – positively hysterical.  I thought “Ghost Busters” with McCarthy was better than the original.  There is probably no finer comic actor than Bill Murray.  “Ghost Busters” (the original) is a classic, as is “Caddy Shack” and “Groundhog Day” (my personal favorite); and don’t forget “St. Vincent,” “Meatballs,” and “What About Bob.”  When it comes to comedy, it’s a good idea to look at the real life comics – Tina Fey and Steve Carell.  “Date Night” is a classic of enormous proportions on the laugh meter.  Oh, and don’t forget “Best in Show.”

Coming of Age Movies.  At the top of my list is “Moonrise Kingdom” which I suspect few movie-goers have seen.  It is a delightful film about young love and exploration.  “The Way, Way Back” is probably a film you missed.  Steve Carell plays an absolute asshole as the bullying boyfriend of Duncan’s mom, as they plan to spend the summer at a New England shore resort.  Allison Janney plays the perpetually drunken neighbor.  It is a great film with a real feel-good ending for a change.  “The Edge of Seventeen” is a 2016 film about an awkward high school junior Nadine, whose best friend starts dating Nadine’s brother – a senior who is probably the most sought after boy in his class.   “The Kings of Summer” is a Sundance Film Festival winner about three teen boys who leave their dysfunctional families and go into the woods to live off the land.  “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is about an awkward teen Charlie (Logan Lerman).  He is befriended by free-spirited Sam (Emma Watson) and her stepbrother Patrick (Ezra Miller) who help Charlie discover the joys of friendship, first love, music and more.

There are lots of great movies out there and I hope this encourages you to explore what is as close as your TV set.

The Only Living Boy in New York – Oscars all around

The Only Living Boy in New York

“The Only Living Boy in New York” takes its title from a Simon and Garfunkel song which plays throughout the film.  Thomas, a young recent college grad (Callum Turner) from an affluent family – publisher/father Ethan (Pierce Brosnan) and clinically depressed/mother Judith (Cynthia Nixon) – is trying to figure out what to do when he grows up.  He has an affair with an older woman Johanna (Kate Beckinsale).  So right away you are thinking “The Graduate” – but you would be very wrong to stop there.

Thomas is hopelessly in love with Mimi (Kiersey Clemons) who uses Thomas as a go-to guy when she isn’t with her steady boyfriend, which sends a confusing set of mixed messages to poor Thomas.  But when Thomas discovers that Dad is secretly courting Johanna, Thomas takes it upon himself to find out who Johanna really is with an aim to terminating the relationship – believing that discovery of the affair would clearly send his mother over the edge.  When Thomas confronts Johanna, she seduces him – no surprise there, since Mimi has kept Thomas in a state of sexual tension no man should have to live through – let alone a lonely sensitive guy like Thomas who is simply bursting with hormones.

One reviewer likened this film less to “The Graduate” and more to a Philip Roth novel – brilliant Jewish boy living in New York in a world he can’t quite comprehend with the full focus of the story on the artistic young man.  I concur that it feels more like a Philip Roth story except that in the end things turn out right.  I never quite got that impression from most of the Roth novels I have read.

The best part of the movie is the friendship Thomas forges with a mysterious alcoholic who moves into Thomas’ trashy apartment building.  Unknown to Thomas, the mysterious neighbor is W.F. Gerard (Jeff Bridges), a renowned author of 10 books whose life and face remain a mystery to the reading universe who snap up his books as fast as they are published.  This is a boon to Thomas who shows some of his work to Bridges.  Father Ethan has already disqualified his son as a writer, calling his work, merely “adequate.”  But Bridges’ opinion and influence help Thomas see his true calling.

I will not spoil the rest of the story for you, so I encourage you all to see the movie – which, sadly, has been ignored by most reviewers and most movie theaters.  So I suspect you will soon have a chance to see it on DVD or any number of streaming locations.

The acting is wonderful.  Brosnan is a perfect specimen of the father who feels in competition with his only child.  Tsk, tsk.  Bridges is his usual magnificent self – capturing the entire scene whenever he is on screen – and so positively believable as the wayward alcoholic that we can almost smell the alcohol permeating from his breath.  Nixon is great as the fragile mother figure (every Jewish boy adores his mother and Thomas answers the call) who, for all her money never seems to find her way to a decent hair stylist when she has all of Manhattan at her fingertips.  Callum Turner is perfect in his portrayal of Thomas – a boy on the edge of manhood.

Kudos to director Marc Webb (“Gifted”) and screenwriter Alan Loeb.  Mark my word, when Oscar nominations are handed out, you will be glad you saw this Oscar-heavy movie.  You read it here first.