Charming Rogue Death Dealer

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Title: American Made

Rating: 2 Stars

American Made is about Barry Seal, a drug smuggler turned DEA informant ultimately murdered by the Medellin Cartel.

I’m not going to spend too much time actually talking about the movie. It was pretty pedestrian. Tom Cruise has gotten to the point where it appears that all he can do is be Tom Cruise. He’s at the point in his career where he’s basically happy being a caricature of himself.

Actors seem to end up in that situation. This is not a knock on Cruise because many actors much more greatly respected than him end up there as well (ahem…Al Pacino or Robert De Niro).

The story is your classic American rogue’s tale. As he’s importing tons of drugs in exchange for arming drug lords, you’re just supposed to just chuck him on the chin and say, that’s all right, you’re a decent boy at heart.

The film takes many liberties with Seal’s tale. It appears that they’ve taken every even scant rumor about him and thrown it into the film as fact. It has him getting recruited by the CIA while flying for TWA. It has him arming the Contras. Realizing that the Contras have no interest in the guns, he turns around and actually arms the Medellin cartel, whose cocaine he takes and brings to the US. In the middle of all this, he somehow ends up also bribing Noriega on the CIA’s behalf and setting up the Sandinistas in a drug sting (a plot apparently hatched by Oliver North). His name leaks from the drug sting, which leads the Medellin cartel to put out the hit on him.

Now, I don’t know what the truth of Seal is. In broad outlines, it does pretty accurately describe our meddling in Central America. The Reagan administration is terrified after the Sandinista revolution takes over Nicaragua. As Nicaragua goes, so goes the rest of Central America, with the ultimate domino being Mexico, which of course means that the Reds are now at our back door!

I’m really not exaggerating. In retrospect, it seems like the Cold War was some insane Kubrick bitter satire, but that was the reality. I was there. People legitimately thought that the desperately poor overthrowing their rich land owners in a tiny, impoverished Central American country was an existential threat to the United States.

Since this was taking place in ‘our’ hemisphere, this could not stand (kind of a reversed fucked up Monroe Doctrine). So, even if the movie threw way too much plot into Barry Seal’s life, it is certainly true that the President tried to arm the Contras to overthrow the Sandinistas, despite explicit direction from Congress not to provide any material to them (you know, the arm of our government that is supposed to control the purse strings). We did basically treat Noriega as a puppet, despite his known corruption.

Most shamefully, there is strong evidence that the CIA actually did aid drug running into the country as another means to fund the Contras and thus accidentally if not actively fostering the crack cocaine epidemic.

And, of course, the coup de grace, the administration that promised never to negotiate with terrorists proceeded to sell arms to Iran so that it could use its influence to free hostages in Beirut. The proceeds from the arms sales went to, …yes, the Contras.

All of those illegal deals, millions if not billions of dollars, immoral acts, and the loss of basically a generation of inner city youth to crack resulted in…the Contras being hounded out of Nicaragua and being forced to hide out in Honduras.

I’ve written about all of this now a couple of times (search for Iran or Contra and you’ll find it). I’m slightly obsessed with it because this was, in my lifetime, the clearest example of the American government just doing outright evil things with obvious grounds for impeachment. In addition, I’m not a tinfoil hat guy and generally speaking, large organizations (and you don’t get much larger than the American government) are way more likely to be incompetent than evil, but here was a case where a small cadre of people actually launched an absolutely bat shit insane conspiracy and got caught, so sometimes the tinfoil guys are right (which of course feeds them into even deeper conspiracies; to see this in action please check out exhibit A: The Octopus and Danny Casolaro).

So, I’m guessing that this was probably done intentionally, but all of this was basically glossed over in the film as some aw shucks good guy going about and doing these absolutely immoral things.

Was this film making a statement that America is so full of its self image as this beacon of goodness, freedom, and liberty that it literally does not have the self awareness of the consequences of its action? Is Tom Cruise, that eternally youthful movie star with the glamorous smile and twinkle in his eye, actually America itself?

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Still Don’t Want To Relive The ’70s

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Title: Battle of the Sexes

Rating: 4 Stars

It’s interesting when a film covers events that I distinctly remember from my childhood. It forces me to look at events with fresh eyes. This film is about the so called battle of the sexes, in which a 55 year old Bobby Riggs took on 29 year old Billie Jean King in a $100,000 winner take all match.

Bobby Riggs had previously beaten Margaret Court rather handily, but it was generally accepted that Billie Jean King was the best woman’s player, so even though this was just an exhibition, there was a tremendous amount of hoopla over it.

The film did a good job describing the atmosphere and building up to the climatic match. It also covered King’s awakening sexuality in a sensitive manner.

From what I remember from 1973, when I was 10 years old, there were a large number of people actively rooting for Bobby Riggs. There was a general feeling that women should  know their role, stick to it, and be appreciative for the morsels that they were given. Those ‘women libbers’ might have had a point when they started but now they’ve gone too far. Why should they demand equal pay when everyone knows that men are the breadwinners?

Obviously there are people who still think that today but in the 1970s it was blatantly overt and mainstream. It wasn’t unusual on the television for some self satisfied old white guy to sanctimoniously give advice to girls about their place. Looking back, I can only imagine how much that steamed those women looking for more than just life outside of the kitchen and the bedroom.

In hindsight, it seems kind of insane that somehow the establishment decided to put itself behind Riggs, an, even at that time, known gambler, self-promoter, and hustler, in contrast to the hardworking and earnest King. His character fits the rogue narrative that main stream America mostly just chuckles at and lovingly calls a knucklehead. Barnum would have been proud.

This was the same time when Title IX passed, which mandated that women should have equal access to participating in college sports. Before it passed, one percent of college athletic budgets went to women. Athletic scholarships were given exclusively to men.

I remember when it passed. There was much gnashing of teeth. Who would want to see a woman play sports? There’s no money to be made with women’s sports! It was taking money from deserving men! Women don’t really even want to play sports, right?

Interesting enough, this happened during Nixon’s second term. Even though he probably wasn’t in love with it, he directed the executive branch to execute it, and to their credit, they did. Can you imagine a Republican administration in today’s climate doing this?

In fact, I’m surprised that Title IX hasn’t been targeted yet. There seems to be a movement that thinks that somehow making America great again involves removing hard won equal rights from those that previously were lacking them. (otherwise known as ‘special rights’).

All of this backdrop makes the film’s message all that much more important. The battle was won (OK, maybe not won but substantial progress was made) but the war is not over.

 

This film is an example of how to make an engaging film that also has an important message. In this case, the message is equality and acceptance. In the year 2017, it’s pretty sad that this message is still important to champion, but it definitely is, so kudos to the film for making it.

Holy Mother

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Title: mother!

Rating: 4 Stars

Um…wow.

mother! starts off pretty conventionally. You have a older successful writer (Javier Bardem) (actually a poet) and his young wife (Jennifer Lawrence). The house they have been living in has burned down and the wife is slowly but surely restoring it to its original glory. Meanwhile, the poet is trying to write again but has been blocked, apparently for some time.

An unexpected visitor (Ed Harris) drops in. The wife is clearly discomforted by his appearance, but her husband encourages him to stay. The next day the visitor’s wife turns up (Michelle Pfeiffer). The visitor admits to the poet that he’s dying and that he intentionally dropped in on the poet to pay his respects. Meanwhile, the visitor’s wife intrudes upon the poet’s wife and generally makes a mess in the house.

Later the younger and older sons of the visitor show up. The younger son is infuriated with his planned inheritance, and in the ensuing argument, strikes and kills his brother.

Having nowhere else to hold it, the wake for the son is held at the house. Many people attend, the poet’s wife becomes increasingly distraught as people willfully damage the house. Finally, the poet’s wife goes off on everyone and chases them away. Afterwards, the poet and the wife fight but then passionately make love.

The next morning, the poet’s wife announces that she’s pregnant (because that’s how that works). With the previous night’s carnage in mind as well as the news of his now pregnant wife, the poet is inspired to write.

He finishes his poetry. His work is so powerful that it immediately sells out (again, because that’s how poetry sales work). He is immediately overcome with exuberant fans that over time treat his words as cultish wisdom and that over some more time form dangerous, violent, conflicting sects at war with each other.

And then it gets weird.

And when you think it’s done being weird, it gets weirder.

And when you think it’s about as weird as it can get, it gets fucked up.

So, what’s going on here?

First of all, from the name of the characters (Him, mother, Man, Woman, Younger Brother, Oldest Son, um…Cupbearer), it’s pretty clearly some form of religious parable (think Christian traveling from City of Destruction to the Celestial City in Pilgrim’s Progress).

The filmmakers point to the poet’s wife as being symbolic of mother earth and the poet being God. The visitors are the human race coming to worship God and despoiling (in an almost casual manner) mother earth in the process. There’s obviously a Cain and Abel thing going on there. Without going into too much detail (since it’s still in theaters and I don’t want to ruin the experience of the millions of my readers), there is a sacrificed son aspect to the movie (which, by the way, is heads and shoulders the most fucked up part of the movie, caveat emptor).

Pretty clearly, if this is a religious allegory, it’s a pretty bleak one. The process moves shockingly fast from exuberant fans to worshipful fans to cult like fans to reckless/raucous fans to mass organized violence, chaos, and anarchy. If the message here is that this is the cycle that all successful religions ultimately pass through, then it’s a pretty grim one (although sometimes possibly hard to argue with).

I also think that there was a fame message to it as well. Once a person becomes famous, then his/her personal life effectively ceases to exist. The poet’s wife has basically built her life around providing a refuge for the poet to feel safe and secure to write in. Once he reaches a certain level of fame, despite his obvious love for him, he has no choice but to turn his back on her to feed his ravenous public. The poet, willing to sacrifice literally everything for his creativity, regretfully but greedily takes everything that his wife has to offer.

The Goonies Fight Krusty

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Title: It

Rating: 2 Stars

This had come in with so much positive buzz that I had a lot of high hopes for it. Unfortunately, I left the theater disappointed. It was OK, but it certainly did not meet expectations.

Most of my issues with the film surround trying to distill a very dense, plot thick novel into a movie. It looks like it’s going to be at least two movies. Even so, this film involved the initial appearance of Pennywise in the children’s lives, which is still a pretty big story in of itself to tell.

The main challenge is that there are too many characters that each had some kind of plot arc. Stephen King is the master of weaving characters in and out of a complex plot. However, King has a thousand pages to accomplish this. A movie has about 135 minutes.

Under that constraint, you have to cut characters. Here, the filmmakers don’t. There are seven (count them, seven) child actors that are all in mortal danger. Not only that, but they all have personalities that need to be developed. One is an overweight budding architect. Another is a gifted mimic. Yet another is a hypochondriac. And so on. In the limited time frame, there just isn’t enough time to define and then create space for each character to develop.

I’m in the midst of reading It when I went to the film, so I know the characters. Even with that background, there were moments where I was confused. Wait, is that the kid who can’t stop talking or is he the hypochondriac?

I would have much preferred for characters to be excised from the plot than to have these one dimensional characters with carefully parceled out lines and scenes. Everybody had to have their special moment or two, which left the overarching plot a bit of a mess.

My second issue with it might come from the fact that maybe I’ve become somewhat inured to horror. Yes, the special effects were amazing and the transformation of Pennywise from creepy clown to flesh-eating hellion was impressive, but there were actually relatively few moments in the film where I actually jumped.

It might actually be an age thing as well. Perhaps I just can’t relate any more to the child in danger motif. I’ve long sense lost the innocence of youth. The perils of walking down the street and being tormented by bullies perhaps just doesn’t resonate with me anymore. If so, I’m assuming that the next chapter, if this chapter is successful, will take place the usual 27 years later, at which point the children would then be adults. Perhaps this type of horror will resonate more with me?

In the book, the setting for the children’s horror is 1958. From a pure American folklore point of view, 1958 is probably the better setting for the children’s section. Derry is presented as this typical small town with a dark shadow hanging over it. Setting it in 1958 makes this dichotomy even more apparent. The myth of the 1950’s is that of a time of bucolic innocence (well, if you’re white, anyways). Moving it into the 1980’s, while maybe will make the next chapter (ie 27 years later) a little easier to film and more relevant to our current time, caused the larger issue of lost innocence to be lost.

Finally, I wasn’t that impressed with the CGI. If anything, it was just a little too CGI-y as Pennywise seamlessly transformed into impossible shapes. Sure, from a technical point of view it was impressive, but again, maybe this is me, but horror is more effective when it’s simpler. Just last month or so I re-watched the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was I’m sure literally made for less than this film spent on catering.  Re-watching the shock and horror of that film and seeing how effective that was makes this one seem tamer, even though it clearly had way better pedigree / production values.

So, not a horrible movie, but clearly a disappointment.

Where Does She Put Her Shield And Sword?

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Title: Wonder Woman

Rating: 4 Stars

It was a good movie. As should be apparent by now, I’m not a huge fan of either DC or Marvel movies but kind of feel obligated to go to them since they’re such a part of our cultural fabric. So, I’m not going to spend much time on the plot or characters or much about the film itself and write more about what I was thinking as I was watching it. I do have to say that her little lasso of truth thing was pretty crappy CGI.

Wonder Woman as a character in a comic book was first created in 1941. As is obvious, this was the apex of Nazism, and yes, as can be expected, she took on the Axis powers of WWII.

What’s interesting here is that the movie moves her creation story (which is pretty close to the same as the comic book) to the time of WWI. In WWII, the Germans are clearly the bad guys. Without going back to someone like Vlad the Impaler, it’s really hard to find a more evil guy in history than Hitler.

However, in WWI, this is significantly more ambiguous. Sure, at the Treaty of Versailles, Germany is assigned prime responsibility for starting it, but that was pretty much the victors dictating the terms. In a war in which both sides gunned, gassed, and bombed each other with impunity with no other obvious war aims than to gain some territory, it’s really hard to paint Germany as the purely evil force.

In particular, General Ludendorff was certainly a leading general in Germany. However, there is no evidence that he was some diabolical force of evil. In fact, in 1918, when it became clear that his army was collapsing, he and Hindenberg went to the chancellor to plead for an armistice. Having said that, he’s not totally in the clear; even though he asked for the armistice and said that the army was collapsing, after the war he claimed that it was actually the politicians that sold Germany out and that the soldiers could have continued fighting. It was this ‘stab in the back’ argument that helped doom the Weimar Republic and ultimately helped to lead to the rise of Hitler (he actually participated in the ill-fated Beer Hall Putsch).

Wonder Woman becomes convinced that Ludendorff is actually Ares, the god of war. This seems asinine because clearly, if anyone is Ares, it would be Hitler. And, although WWI was imaginably horrible, it turns out that mankind has a very active imagination, because WWII, with the Holocaust, atomic weapons, and the mass slaughter on the Eastern Front, pretty much eclipses it.

So, why move her origin story to WWI? This calls into question Wonder Woman’s reason for existence. Allegedly she was created by Zeus to be the god killer of Ares so that mankind can live in peace. Well, if Ares is killed and yet war continues on, what does that say about her mission? And mankind?

To the film’s credit, moving her story to WWI actually allows these questions to be asked, which in of itself adds a layer of complexity to the film that was unexpected. It’s not often that a superhero movie leads me to question the origin of evil and the nature of evil in us (usually it’s more like finding evil and then removing it and saving the world). Killing off the evil Hitler would have been the easy route to take, so I have to give credit to the film for not taking it.

By the end, Wonder Woman discovers herself to be a goddess. This brings up the same question that Thor and, for that matter, Superman (who on this planet is effectively a god) have. Why should they give a fuck about the human race?

Sure, all three of the characters discover love and somehow love is a driving motivation for all of them. The point is, they are effectively immortal. The person that they love will die and yet they still have millennia to live on. It’s the equivalent of me falling in love with a house fly. Civilizations will be born and will die and they will still just be. They will see unimaginable changes. As essentially immortal gods with what appear to be human emotions, how will they not go insane? At least Thor has his own universe to go home to. Superman and Wonder Woman are pretty much stuck here.

Interestingly enough, this topic is broached in the overlooked but I personally think pretty amazing movie “He Never Died”. Henry Rollins stars as Cain, as in the brother that murdered Abel, now in the current day, doomed to wander for eternity and to feed on human flesh. Cain, in the present day, is simply overcome with boredom and barely finds the motivation to feel anything.

This has to be the end result for all of these immortal superheroes. I’d really love to see someone tell that story.

Granddaddy Slasher

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Title: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Rating: 4 Stars

For some reason, this film has been making the rounds a bit with various media lately. It is not its fortieth anniversary. Maybe the collective hive that is the mass media just happened to coalesce around this topic or maybe there’s some patient zero article that inspired a pile-on.

Regardless, it was, at least self-consciously, on my mind, so I thought that I’d watch it again. I’ve seen it a couple of times, and of course, there’s a scene or two that is part of the cultural landscape, but it’s been a pretty long time since I’ve sat down and watched it in its entirety.

I have to say, it holds up pretty well. Even now, there’s a scene or two that legitimately made me  jump. There’re also scenes that are just so grotesquely creepy that they kind of make your skin crawl.  All in all, for a forty year old movie made on a shoestring budget, it’s pretty amazing.

I’m old enough to remember (vaguely) when it first came out. The rumor was that it was based on a true story. I was underage, so I could not see it myself (and this was way before even VCRs and there was absolutely no way that it was going to be shown on any of the three channels that controlled the airwaves), so there were all kinds of rumors of how bloody, disgusting, disturbing, distressing, and grotesque it was. In fact, the whole idea of people being massacred by a chainsaw is just horrifying in concept. It just seemed to me, at the time, as one of the ultimate outlaw bad-ass movies that would probably scar me for life if I were to watch it.

Now, watching it in 2017, I can smile at my naive 1974 self. Don’t get me wrong, it’s disturbing and scary, but it’s really not all that graphic. So much of the horror is implied. In fact the first killing (of Kirk, I apologize if that’s a spoiler, but seriously, it’s a forty year old movie, for fuck’s sake) is Leatherface hitting him on the head with a mallet, dragging him into the abbatoir, and slamming the door. It’s maybe a ten second scene, but holy shit, if you’re seeing it for the first time, it’s shocking. Even now, after listening to Franklin graphically talk about what it’s like to kill a cow in a slaughterhouse and then a short time later, watching Kirk’s legs jerk spasmodically as a macabre visual to that description is pretty fucking disturbing.

Later, watching Leatherface rip (again, with virtually no blood involved) the wheelchair bound Franklin apart is both scary and disturbing. Franklin, trapped in his wheelchair, unable to run, while Leatherface looms over him with a screaming chainsaw is just messed up.

The last third of the movie moves from straight horror into some kind of bizarrely surreal family sitcom nightmare, where a mummified grandpa is brought back to life by sucking on Sally’s bleeding finger and Leatherface, now wearing apparently a woman’s facsimile of a face, complete with clown like eye makeup and lipstick, and a matronly dress, serves dinner.

So, yeah, it’s a freaky story. It’s not based upon a real story, but Tobe Hooper was certainly influenced by Ed Gein, a truly bizarre killer / grave robber that actually did make furniture out of human bones and masks out of human skin (among many other disturbing things; check his wiki if you want to be disturbed not by a film but by humanity).

One thing that’s cool about this film is how many scenes / motifs are in it that are now considered standard fare in slasher films. Here is a incomplete list that I just quickly came up with:

  • Young, hip, sophisticated people in a rural area that apparently progress has forgotten about. There is this strange undercurrent theme in movies where they clearly acknowledge that the urban life is ascendant and that rural life is on the decline, but when the two come face to face, it’s rural that gains the edge. I don’t know if this is an urban filmmaker expressing some self conscious fear of the unknown or if by having one victim ultimately prevail (ie survive) that this somehow demonstrates the inevitable triumph of urbanity.
  • Characters thinking it’s a great idea to go out on their own and investigate this highly suspiciously looking house separately.
  • The sexual undertones of Kirk and Pam, as they head out to a watering hole with a blanket all on their own is a precursor to succeeding slasher films where couples hooking up is almost a guarantee that they will next die.
  • Killer as somehow sub-human. The previous gold standard for serial killers was of course that nice guy next door, Norman Bates. Here you have a serial killer that does not appear to be verbal. You never see his face, but you imagine it to be horribly disfigured. He seems to be mentally handicapped. This starts the idea in slasher films of the killer actually being something more of a monster than a human.
  • Woman running through the woods is now pretty much standard fare. Here, since it’s an early attempt, it goes on way too long. Was anyone surprised when she tripped and almost knocked herself unconscious as Leatherface rapidly approaches?
  • Woman as sole survivor. It’s not the strong men that survive. In fact, the two full bodied men are dispatched rather quickly. Sally is the sole survivor. On the one hand, you’d think that’s somehow empowering. However, consider the fact that she does not save herself. She’s basically just running around screaming. It’s the truck driver that actually diverts Leatherface and it’s the pick-up driver that ultimately rescues her. Not a lot of women’s rights progress taking place here.

So, yes, although my eleven year old self would never have predicted it in 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is actually a classic and important film that had a large impact upon the industry.

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

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Title: Good Time

Rating: 3 Stars

A mentally handicapped man, Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie), is apparently in a treatment center undergoing therapy when his brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) busts in and takes him.

We next see the two brothers rob a bank. They’re successful, but a die pack explodes, causing them to panic and to flee. In the ensuing chaos Nick is captured, arrested, and thrown in Rikers. There, he does not fare well, and is severely beaten.

Connie bears the full responsibility for Nick being in jail and desperately tries to free him. He first tries to bail him out, but does not have enough money. He then hears that Nick has been beaten so severely that he has been removed from prison and is placed in a hospital. His mission becomes to free his brother from the hospital.

His attempts take most of the night, and fair to say, they don’t go well.

Connie, although deeply caring of his brother, is a violent man with poor impulse control. He thinks quickly, but never wisely. Connie clearly thinks of himself as some kind of master criminal, but his tactics are anything but.

Pretty much everyone he comes into contact with, his brother, his girlfriend, a young woman he befriends, his accidental comrade in crime (Ray), a security night guard, all end up worse off having met him. Everyone who he consciously manipulates into helping him end up being hurt.

In fact, by the end of the movie, when Benny is back in the treatment center, it becomes apparent that this is a healthy environment for him and possibly be the place that he should have been along. Connie’s poor decision of ‘rescuing’ him set off a cascade of many other bad decisions.

The movie was effective at portraying the actions of a violent, desperate man. Pattinson shed his romantic lead heart throb personae and threw himself into the role. His eyes are constantly desperate and calculating. Casting Pattinson was probably a bit of a stunt, but his efforts offset the calculated nature of the choice.

One big demerit is the soundtrack. At various times, it sounded like some odd cross of Hitchcock and Nine Inch Nails and Velvet Underground at their most pretentious. That’s not a compliment. It was grating and annoying and actively detracted from some of the key scenes.

Other than that, the movie was basically episodic. There’s a long side story concerning Ray that could have been shortened.

At times the plot was obvious. There were a couple of plot twists that you could see coming from a mile away. The bank teller took an awfully long time filling the bag. Perhaps that was the point. Connie, who thinks he’s a genius criminal, is willfully blind to things that would be obvious to the even most amateur of criminals. Perhaps Bennie isn’t the only member of the Nikas family that has a below average intellect.

Regardless, it was a good film with adult themes that was grimly entertaining. In the midst of the lightness of summer, that is often enough to make a good movie night out.

 

Dukes of Hazzard Meets Ocean’s 11

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Title: Logan Lucky

Rating: 4 Stars

Steven Soderbergh takes his caper film trope (Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen) and moves it decidedly South.

No longer set in glitzy Las Vegas with its Rat Pack milieu, most of the planning takes place in a West Virginian dive bar named Duck Tape. The plan is to steal all of the cash that is stored at a vault at the Charlotte motor speedway.

Leading the crew is an unemployed construction worker Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) that needs some cash so that he can continue to be close to his daughter, who is moving with her mother over the state line. He enlists his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), who is missing part of his arm from a tour in Iraq and his hair stylist sister Mellie (Riley Keough). He needs help blowing the vault, so he enlists a currently incarcerated explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who insists that his two dimwitted brothers who have recently discovered God be brought along as well.

So, the plot involves getting Joe Bang out of prison and back in before it is noticed, blowing up the vault, getting all of the money, and making good on an escape. As is usual in such films, at several points things appear to be going completely haywire. However, in true Danny Ocean form, Jimmy seems to have a plan for everything and the heist continues on.

As a heist movie, it was just about par for the course. It had the usual complex elements requiring some pretty serious suspension of belief as events move in perfect synchronicity.

The characters were fun, especially Daniel Craig in full Southern accent. He appeared to be having good fun with his role. His use of fake salt and gummy bears as his explosive device was a fun wink at the sophisticated devices used in the Oceans movies.

It pokes hopefully gentle fun at Southern culture. You see characters playing horseshoes with toilet seat covers. A major plot point revolves around whether or not Jimmy will be able to make his daughter’s beauty pageant. His daughter is less than ten and at the pageant is in full JonBenet Ramsey makeup and hair.

It was not a film for deep thought. It was fun, entertaining, and had a couple of solid laughs.

And yes, Steven Soderbergh has pretty much made his fortune showing how much crime pays and how much fun you can have while committing crimes.

Saving The World While Wearing High Fashion and High Heels

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Title: Atomic Blonde

Rating: 4 Stars

If I was in the business of giving halvsies, I’d give it a 3.5. But I’m not and I really don’t like giving out 3 stars, so 4 it is.

Set in 1989, right as the wall is coming down, Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 spy sent to Berlin to recover a list of spies. She teams up with the Berlin station chief, David Percival (James McAvoy), to try to recover it. She quickly discovers that Percival is not to be trusted and that the KGB is hot on her trail. Extreme violence ensues.

It would be charitable to describe the plot as convoluted or contrived. A more accurate description would probably be nonsensical. Especially in the mid part, the plot is about as important as the plot is to a porn movie. Even for spy / action movies, the plot here verges on the ridiculous.

However, Charlize Theron legitimately is a kick ass action hero. I loved her in Mad Max and here again she is a presence. She is tough, strong, and fearless. After an endless string of dudes, it really is great to see Theron positioned as a top line action star, which right now she unquestionably is.

James McAvoy has a special gift for portraying authority figures that have gone to seed. His performance of a spy who has been in Berlin for too long and has been corrupted by it reminds me a bit of his role as the police officer in Filth.

The style of the film is reminiscent of the John Wick films and to Kingsman. The violence is graphic, gory, and voluminous. In fact, the violence reminds me of nothing more than a graphic novel. Considering the fact that both Atomic Blonde and Kingsman were based on graphic novels and that John Wick was later turned into a graphic novel, I guess that’s to be expected.

I’m guessing that all three of the films themselves owe a debt to the Matt Damon reboot of the Bourne series, which in hindsight was a landmark in action film development. They all share the same graphic, extremely short take fight sequences.

Atomic Blonde and Kingsman take it a step further. In both cases, they’re an absurdist ironic reboot of the essential spy film genre. The violence is more graphic, the sex is more explicit, and the plots more ridiculous. The actors all but wink to the camera as the film progresses.

In fact, including the phrase Atomic in the title is a throwback to the 50’s and the 60’s, when atomic warfare was on everyone’s mind. During that time, the phrase atomic appeared in multiple cultural contexts (watch the documentary Atomic Cafe for a more thorough discussion of this).

Another reference to the 1960’s in Atomic Blonde was to its pervasive use of fashion and music. This seemed pretty clear to be a subtle wink to the Mod movement in England. Whereas Mike Myers openly and absurdly exaggerated this movement in his Austen Powers movies, here the irony is less broad but still quite apparent.

What’s interesting to me is…what’s next? Once you’ve completely deconstructed a cultural archetype through irony, what do you do next? What is post irony? Will the movies just keep getting more and more cartoony (perhaps ending up like the movie Idiocracy where there’s an entire series devoted to nothing more than a man getting hit it in his balls)? Or will it cycle back and movies become sincere again? Or will the genre just die off with nothing interesting left to say?

If you’re really interested in the role of irony in art and the impact that the pervasive nature of television (and if he was still alive, I’m sure he’d say internet now instead) has had in drowning us in a sea of irony and what impact that will have on art in the future, please read David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”.

One final note. Yesterday, I finished reading Legacy of Ashes, a searing review of the incompetence of the CIA. Reading this before served quite the contrast to Atomic Blonde, which portrays intelligence agents, even if they are corrupt, as ruthlessly efficient. Don’t be fooled, our intelligence agencies don’t even have a fraction of the knowledge, ability, and competence that is shown in this film.

A Week, A Day, An Hour At The Beach

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Title: Dunkirk

Rating: 3 Stars

This is a hard film for me to rate.

The basic plot, in case you really need this to be spelled out to you, is about the WWII evacuation of Dunkirk after Hitler inexplicably halted his panzer advance just as the German army was about to push the British and French forces into the sea. There were some 300,000 British soldiers trapped on the beaches. Fearing a German invasion, the British did not want to risk their navy, so they marshaled an entire flotilla of small boats to come out and bring the soldiers back to England. In so doing, the British army was saved.

Clearly the evacuation of Dunkirk, from a historical perspective, was a huge undertaking. The film narrows its scope to land, sea, and air vignettes. The land part, which takes place over a week, concerns a soldier trapped on the beach trying to get home. The sea part, which takes place over a day, concerns an English civilian sailor that takes his boat to Dunkirk to rescue all of the soldiers that he can. The air part, which takes place over an hour, is three airmen that fly out to try to keep the skies clear of German fighters. The three stories are told in an inter-weaved, nonlinear manner,

First of all, I’m not sure if Christopher Nolan can make a bad film. I’ve seen all of his full length movies. Even the one that I liked least (I’m looking at your Interstellar), was thought provoking and visually appealing.

Dunkirk was certainly a panoramic film. I saw it in 70mm, which heightened this effect. Especially in the air part, you really get an idea of the vastness and the emptiness in which pilots have to operate. Also the theater I watched it had a state of the art sound system, so the sounds of war came through loud and clear.

The cast was also top notch. Any movie with Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, and Cillian Murphy is going to feature top tier acting.

As usual with Nolan, he handles time confusion masterfully. The three episodes, taking place over a week, a day, and an hour are effortlessly integrated together.

The film was beautiful. The acting was top notch. The plot was engaging. So, what was the problem? For some reason, the movie seemed to lack drama. I never really felt on the edge of my seat. There just didn’t seem to be much suspense in the little boat crossing the channel to pick up soldiers. The shell shocked soldier (Murphy) fighting the civilian captain Mr Dawson (Rylance) almost seemed to be a plot contrivance to add drama to the crossing. In all three sub-plots, there seemed to be an air of almost detachment that kept me from becoming completely engaged.

Maybe there was just a little bit too much British stiff upper lip to me. Hardy’s, Rylance’s, and Branagh’s characters all seemed to just calmly go about their duty. I never really sensed any conflict or fear or doubt in any of them. I know that the WWII British ethos was to Keep Calm and Carry On, but this just seemed to take this to extremes. Near the end of the movie, you hear that Mr Dawson very recently suffered a serious loss. The only reaction in the entire movie that you get of that pain is a slight grimace.

Because none of the leads seemed to show any concern regarding their well being, it in turn made it difficult for me to really feel engaged in the plot.