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


Many readers of my Facebook page and my movie blog ( 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.

Logan Lucky Hits the Jackpot

Image for Logan Lucky

As heist movies go, “Logan Lucky” is a hilarious romp.  This is a laugh-out-loud film from “Ocean’s Eleven” director Steven Soderbergh.  But don’t expect to see a bigger than life heist movie with all of the Hollywood glitz and star glamor and sophistication of the “Ocean’s” movies.  This looks more like an indie film with a real down home feel.  In fact, the cast is so likeable, you feel as if you are one of them as they hang out in the local West Virginia bar, the Duck Tape owned by Clyde Logan (Adam Driver).

Clyde is convinced that the Logan family is cursed.  And we may come to believe this when we see big brother Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) limp out of the boss’s office after being fired from his job because the big wigs noticed he walked with a limp and did not want to assume the liability of a preexisting medical condition.  Actually, Jimmy is pretty decent about the whole thing – he’s that kind of guy.  But Clyde can trace the family’s hard luck to a host of events including his left forearm being blown off during his second tour of Iraq and Jimmy’s loss of an NFL career when his knee blew out – hence the preexisting medical condition.  This list goes on and sweeps in little sister Mellie (Riley Keough) who is still unmarried and drives an old souped-up red Nova when she isn’t working at a tacky hair salon.

Jimmy has a hard time keeping a job.  He is also dealing with custody issues over his daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) with his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) who is married to a jerky car salesman Moody Chapman (David Denman).  Dad and daughter seem have a great relationship, but when Bobbie Jo threatens to move across state lines so Moody can open a new car lot, there will be additional legal hurtles to deal with.

Regardless of how we get there, Jimmy decides his best course of action is to plan a heist of the Charlotte Motor Speedway because they do a huge cash business and Jimmy knows where the money literally flows, since he previously worked on excavation under the race track shoring up the underside of the track which is beset by sink holes.  So Jimmy enlists the aid of his siblings and explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and Joe’s weird brothers Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam Bang (Brian Gleeson).   Problems arise because Joe Bang is “In-Car-Cer- Ated” as Joe emphatically explains to Jimmy, and he has only a few months to go before his release.  No problem; Jimmy has a plan for that – although it involves sending brother Clyde back to jail for a short spell.

As it turns out, the speedway is hosting its biggest event of the season, the Coca Cola 500.  This merely adds to the drama, and the noise, and certainly to the size of the haul.

This is a totally endearing movie with a fabulous cast of characters who rip off line after line of hilarious repartee (if there is such a word in this West Virginia vocabulary).  The Bang brothers are phenomenal in their roles and you can’t help adoring their eccentricities.  Craig’s performance is especially note-worthy as a musclebound convict with a great sense of comic timing.

What I like about this movie is its lack of slickness – it is the antithesis of “Ocean’s Eleven”, and I love Soderbergh for serving up a fresh heist that leaves us smiling and laughing at the same time.  Bravo!

Detroit – a Relentless Focus on Reality



3 ½ stars

It is impossible to watch “Detroit” without feeling overwhelmed by horror of what emerges on screen, awaking our vague recollections of the summer of 1967 when the Detroit riots were the main topic of all national news media.  And because it is only dimly recollected after 50 years, we can forgive director Kathryn Bigelow (“Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”) and screenwriter Mark Boal for taking some liberties with the facts.

What we do know is following a raid on an unlicensed black after-hours club by the nearly all-white Detroit Police Department, black citizens were publicly rounded up and arrested which spurred a looting and arson spree in the predominantly black community known as the Near West Side. Governor George Romney called in the Michigan National Guard and President Lyndon Johnson also sent the Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.  The rioting and chaos lasted five days, and at the conclusion there were 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.

The focus of “Detroit” is a little known incident at the Algiers Motel.  In the film, we focus on several main characters.  Disdukes (John Boyega) is a black security guard for a local shop where the riots are unfolding.  He attempts to ease tensions between the black citizens and the police and predominantly white guardsmen and becomes enmeshed in the violence by being accused of the murders ostensibly committed by the Detriot police.  In the midst of the riots, a local singing group called The Dramatics are about to go on stage at a crowded theater, knowing that a record contract may be in the offing if they perform well.  But due to the riots taking place outside the doors, everyone is sent home.  Ultimately, lead singer Larry (Algee Smith) and his some-time agent/friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) escape the chaos of the street and seek sanction in an $11 a night room at the Algiers.  At the motel they meet two white party girls from Ohio, a black Viet Nam veteran, Greene (Anthony Mackie), and a trouble-maker, Carl (Jason Mitchell).  Carl has a tiny starter’s pistol which he discharges, calling police attention to the motel who believe a sniper is housed there.

The local police are led by a sadistic racist, Krauss (Will Poulter) who immediately kills Carl and proceeds to terrorize the remaining guests in an attempt to locate the non-existent sniper gun.  Green and Larry are horribly brutalized by the police and two more innocents are murdered by the police before they withdraw from the motel.

The power of the movie occurs in the endless interrogation and brutalization by Krauss and his cohorts of the several guests who survive a fate only slightly less than death.  The camera is merciless in recording the terror and humiliation the police visit upon these people.  In the end, Larry is near death and his friend Fred lays on a slab at the morgue.

The trial of the three white Detroit policemen, which more or less returns to recorded facts, takes place before an all-white jury presided over by a white judge.  Although two of the officers on trial have confessed to the police murders, the judge throws out the confessions, the jury discounts the testimony of the witnesses who are maligned and abused by the defense attorney, resulting in no charges – not even assault – brought against the white criminal defendants.

Even today, fifty years after the riots, it is still an open wound to see how our justice system failed, and continues to fail, the black victims of crime, abuse and outlandish prejudice.  It is enough to make me burst into tears, if not for the numbing effect of this powerful verdict on our society.

Just before the closing credits, there are small biographies of several of the main characters presented in the movie, testifying to the reality that many of those black lives were afforded very little value by a predominantly white society.  The movie is more than 2 hours and 20 minutes long and is positively exhausting.  But it reminds us of how far we have yet to go.  In the Chicago Tribune of June 11, 1969, a very brief article tells of the acquittal of suspended police officer August.  The article is one-eighth the size of the Montgomery Ward ad which ran next to it.