Review: American Made and The Wall

american-made-headerAmerican Made

Reteaming with the director of the only non-Mission Impossible film of the past decade to brandish Tom Cruise’s famously lop-sided, megawatt smile as anything more than a known-quantity was surely a smart decision for the sometimes-struggling, sometimes-alight box office Cruise. He used to be the biggest actor in America; now it’s difficult to tell, unless another of Cruise’s most-vaunted Impossible films traipses into theaters to electro-shock his reputation once again. But director Doug Liman, if not exactly a great filmmaker, is certainly a great director of Tom Cruise. As his criminally underrated 2014 sci-fi actioner Edge of Tomorrow is testament to, Liman – and Cruise for that matter – take great joy in mangling Cruise’s pretty boy looks with near-psychotic charisma. The blunt-force efficiency of skittering, shiv-like editing in that film routinely hits with a felt force that suggests Cruise – the best runner in modern cinema – sprinting right up into the film’s resistance to him, its willingness to play with his seemingly implacable, irrepressible superstar confidence by beating him up and tearing him to pieces. Continue reading


Review: Battle of the Sexes


battle-of-the-sexesJonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ helplessly routine Battle the Sexes desperately wishes to be consequential, yet it is hopelessly afraid of what that really means. Written by Simon Beaufroy, the film is at once emotionally-vacated sports drama, interpersonal farce, one-man-burlesque that doubles as a commentary on personality as a performance, a semi-interiorized portrait of a woman torn between personal life and public persona, a budding-sexuality tale, and a three-ring circus about male showboating and casual sexism. It touches on nearly everything it can think of, and, when another theme saunters by, it quickly brushes off the necessary pressure it has thus-far built-up, turning each theme not into dramatic leverage but a greatest-hits tour of 1973 culture. Continue reading

Reviews: Darkest Hour and All the Money in the World

lead_960Darkest Hour

Empty and vapid, conservative and conservatively-styled, Darkest Hour is a cinematic tale as old as time, and as cloying. It’s the sort of dog-tired Oscarbait equally at home in the 1950s, the 1990s, and apparently today. It’s a stodgy and unfortunately-not-antiquarian film that is, dramatic theatrics and Nazis aside, essentially comforting in its bog-standard reactionary simplicity. By reactionary, incidentally, I mean something different than and I suspect deeper than a matter of political principle. I refer to something more akin to a sensibility, an animating assumption for not only the film’s political assumptions but its personal style and attitude. Darkest Hour is a conservative film in demeanor, in its very soul, a regurgitation redolent of Hollywood royalty and something we’re told is the steadfast British spirit, but is in reality a timid, blanketed, blinkered view of the world and cinema’s place in it.  And by redolent, I do not simply refer to the screenplay’s self-apparent similarity to The King’s Speech, another slice of 2010’s Oscarbait. Continue reading

Reviews: Brawl on Cell Block 99 and Lucky

brawlincellblock99_01Brawl in Cell Block 99

A grindhouse film with the violent self-composure of Bergman, S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 continues to stake this pulp-impresario’s claim as the modern Sam Fuller, a filmmaker equally scrimmed with a brutal intensity and a deliciously hazardous sense of stillness. Even the title sounds like a Fuller picture newly recovered. In Brawl, the placid momentum of the early goings, a continual combustion engine masquerading as a lugubrious art film, turn inertia into pure cinematic action of the mind. Most action films turn human motion into a given, a guarantee, such that each successive movement loses its individual impact. Yet every minute twitch and quiver of the body in Brawl in Cell Block 99 does not merely hit with a ton of bricks.  It genuinely ruptures the soul, shattering the visage of a tough, silent man and recombining the pieces with a violent force that acknowledges complete reconstitution is an impossibility. Continue reading

Review: The Shape of Water

screen-shot-2017-09-14-at-9-49-54-am1With The Shape of Water, Guillermo Del Toro effuses different fluids from those in the vein-severing Crimson Peak, and I’m not only writing of the ones which discharge when protagonist Elisa (Sally Hawkins) does have sex with the gilled-man at the center of The Shape of Water, as has been widely reported. But Shape of Water isn’t primarily a carnal tale, nor a bloodthirsty one, nor one that is drawn primarily to the weirdness and curiosity of the body and its fluids at all. In fact, it’s almost devoutly un-perverse, afraid of unpacking its questions even as it freights the film with those very questions. Despite the wonderfully imagined suit that animates him, the film’s amphibious man (Doug Jones) is obviously a purely abstract construction, a metaphor for human preconception and the loneliness and ennui and that beleaguers protagonist Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and her fellow cleaning lady, the African-American Zelda (Octavia Spencer, the most spirited member of the cast, and probably the best if we rule Jones out). Although Jones drip-feeds the creature a personality through visibly hesitant gesticulations and a curiosity exposed only through his eyes, the character is plainly allegorical. Which also means that he never has the capacity to resist the confines of his allegory. Continue reading

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

murder-on-orient-express-2017-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000Director Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express is little more than a palate cleanser, a film-length hangout-sesh with various actors dropping in to bide time with Lumet while he’s stuck between his point of origin, his scintillating 1972 Serpico, and his destination, the sun-scorched, swelteringly humid Dog Day Afternoon from 1975. In the latter film, every drop of sweat hitting the ground both stems from the pours of and falls into the cracks of a deeply torpid, entirely exhausted post-civil-rights, post-dream America just waiting for a 12 hour news story both to shock itself back to attention and to distract it even more. That’s a real masterpiece, and Serpico is a quiet near-masterpiece as well. The middle passage film, Orient Express, is a  lark, a nice way to spend a couple of hours, but don’t miss any sleep over not seeing it, unless you have a fetish for showpiece ensembles coasting on their fame. (I mean, who doesn’t?) Continue reading

Review: Justice League

justice_league_film_posterJustice League arrives in theaters with the stench of self-seriousness, not to mention the load of legitimizing a frail, failing franchise, on its back. While its predecessor, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, remains a perennial fanboy punching bag 18 months after its release, the light of the much-adored Wonder Woman, for me at least, grows more dim by the day in both its faux-feminist politics and its glum, dirge-like aesthetics. Now, I’m no Marvel partisan. Even the frissons in those films, from Dr. Strange’s psychotropic visual shenanigans to the feisty caper escapades of Ant-Man to the comic filigrees of James Gunn’s Guardians dyad, only nominally search for an escape hatch from their franchise’s homogeneity. In actuality, they mostly stress-test the walls of their franchise by providing merely minor disturbances that the Marvel Universe can still accommodate. The ebullience of their alternative imaginations of a “Marvel Movie” is routinely limited by the dawning awareness of the unactualized possibilities they imagine for films actually unmediated by the Marvel Machine. A go-for-broke James Gunn space comedy, a true-blue hallucinogen, a real-deal frothy ‘60s comic caper flick. Marvel films gesture toward these alternative paths, but they cushion their weirdness by shoring up the house that contains them. They’re the cinematic equivalent of receiving a flu shot: small doses of bodily insurrection in service of making Disney’s profits all the healthier in the long-run. Continue reading