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3 stars

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I just finished Blood in the Water, an exhaustive history on the Attica uprising and its aftermath.  And lo and behold, Brubaker hits the cable movie rotation.  I remember it being overly preachy but engaging, but times have changed, and now, Stuart Rosenberg’s (Cool Hand Luke) film seems rather reserved and even-handed.  It isn’t but that’s how it feels today.

No matter the prevalence of a particular bent, the picture juggles its message and a gripping mystery within the prison adeptly, the feel is right, and it is never dull.

Henry Brubaker (Robert Redford) is a reform warden incarcerated incognito as an inmate in the Arkansas prison he will soon be running.  From the outset, he witnesses abuses by trustees (prisoners given the right and authority to be armed and act as corrections officers) that include brutal beatings, theft of food for resale, and extortion for basic necessities.  As for the conduct of the governmental officials of the prison, it is no better.  The doctor charges for services, the cooks charge for edible food, and the warden hires out men to local businesses for free.  Rape is rampant and problem inmates (including a young Morgan Freeman) are shut in dark, airless cells in a separate area of the prison.

Brubaker soon reveals himself, and in his attempts to change the prison, he is met with stiff resistance from the local community, the trustees, and soon, even the governor who appointed him.  His liberality is thrown in his face by the conservative elements, who see him in league with the prisoners, while the liberal faction sees only the damage done by his upending the system and his refusal to take half a loaf.

There are problems.  Redford is plagued by his good looks.  His embedding into the prison population without notice is a stretch.  He is also so self-righteous and literal, it grates, and the end is just piling on. Also, a potential sexual chemistry between Burbaker and assistant to the governor Jane Alexander is needlessly left unexplored.  And Roger Ebert, per usual, hits the nail on the head:  “The movie (refuses) to permit its characters more human dimensions. We want to know these people better, but the screenplay throws up a wall; they act according to the ideological positions assigned to them in the screenplay, and that’s that. … Half of Redford’s speeches could have come out of newspaper editorials, but we never find out much about him.”

Still, the film melds political tract and thriller pretty effortlessly, and it is extremely well-acted, featuring strong performances by David Keith and Yaphet Kotto in early roles.

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This is a competent, amusing, even mildly affecting film, but ultimately, it is no great shakes.  It presents the story of Tommy Wiseau (James Franco), a mysterious no-talent who bankrolled, directed, wrote and starred in his own film, The Room, which was so terrible it became a cult classic.  Wiseau is indeed awful in all respects, so there is a lot of cringe-worthy viewing.  His idiosyncrasy and idiocy, however, travel only so far, and when there is nothing more to plumb from this weirdo wannabe, the mind wanders.  There’s nothing to root for (Wiseau is a bit of a cretin to his cast, collaborators and friends) and the film doesn’t compensate with enough humor.  So, it’s fine, but forgettable.

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The orgasmic acclaim is a little much, but this is mostly good fun. A little Lion King, a little James Bond (they have their own Q, who shows off the technological gizmos, and a CIA operative Felix Lighter) and even a Millennium Falcon. There’s also some simplistic politics thrown in. Should Wakanda, a magical African kingdom powered by vibranium (a kick ass metal that provides strength, power and wealth) stay hidden in its borders or should it come out from shadows and take on the world struggle for the black and dispossessed?

I dunno. Who cares? Let’s cut the high-minded chatter about what happens when vibranium becomes plentiful and get to clever quips and fisticuffs.

As with most of these movies, it is weakened by the need to have comic book characters in silly suits address weighty matters (guess what? Vibranium is going to revitalize Oakland!) but as these things go, it’s a solid popcorn flick, and the action is first rate.

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Mini-Mask, this is the perfect storm of sentimentality and sweetness. The set up alone is enough to make you reach for the nearest Kleenex: a boy with a facial deformity moves from being home schooled by his mother (Julia Roberts) to the unprotected world of prep school, where he navigates the treacherous waters of casual kid cruelty.  And his sister has her own issues because she feels left out given the attention given the boy.  And the dog, the ‘effin dog!  What is it with Owen Wilson movies and their casual approach to the lives of dogs (see The Royal Tenenbaums and Marley & Me)?  It all becomes too much at the end, and you feel a little pummeled, but it is still worth the watch.  Last thought:  a sweet kid says “when it is between being right and being kind, be kind.”  And on its surface, that seems like the right call.   It certainly is heartwarming.  Until you realize the insidious reach of the phrase, which essentially equates to the Fall of Western Civilization.

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Robert De Niro‘s second film as director is methodical, atmospheric, and very well acted. It is also a long, hard slog. Ostensibly about the origins of the CIA through the eyes of altruistic Yale Skull and Bonesman Matt Damon, we watch as his sensitive poetry student becomes a soulless spy master, bringing dread and calamity to all he loves while doing the dirty work of the agency.

I like Matt Damon. He is perpetually ignored or overshadowed in films where he delivers. He was the engine of The Talented Mr. Ripley, yet all of the good notices went to Jude Law. He was the most interesting character in The Departed, but the buzz went to DiCaprio, Nicholson and Marky Mark. He was the best thing about The Martian by far, so good that when you left him on the lonely planet to check in with all of the smart, hip, “every day is casual Friday” types at NASA, you quickly became bored.  Here, he is again very good, even though you sense he is shadowing Michael Corleone, becoming more brittle, more shallow, and more sinister as each scene progresses. Yet, even at his most unconscionable, Damon gives you a glimpse into his tender and sensitive side.  His scenes with his son, both as a child and as an adult (Eddie Redmayne) are touching.  It is a very strong performance.

The story itself is also intriguing. The theme of the lure of patriotism and secrecy to the yearning and vulnerable Damon is well-developed, for a time. Unfortunately, the film is over long and eventually, repetitive. Characters tell Damon on at least half a dozen occasions “trust no one” or something to that effect, a sentiment that hardly needs to be verbalized when every single scene in the film communicates that you really shouldn’t trust anyone.

Still, this is a pretty decent flick.

 

 

As close to a musical as you can get without anyone actually singing, Edgar Wright’s (The Cornetto Trilogy) crime joyride is a mixed bag, but what is good is very good. Baby, (Ansel Elgort) a virtuoso wheelman who appears to be just under the drinking age, owes his respectable but lethal crime boss (Kevin Spacey) services for a prior boost of Spacey’s merchandise.  There is a semi father-son relationship going on here, but Spacey is a harsh father, forcing Baby to drive with increasingly erratic and dangerous robbers (Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzales, Jon Bernthal, and, inevitably, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers).  Baby, of course, just wants out, and his desires increase when he meets just the most adorable diner waitress you’ll ever come across (Lily James).  Things, however, go terribly wrong.

Did I say musical?  Baby suffers from tinnitus, which is tempered by his ear buds, which are always inserted, providing him  – and the audience –the soundtrack to his life.  For the most part, this gambit works, and is particularly effective during the driving scenes.  Other times, it’s overstretched.  Baby is a bit of a cipher, and it adds little to his meager backstory to have him Astaire his way to get coffee.

This is mostly a crisp, canny flick, but it still falls a little short, and after the initial euphoria of viewing, it dropped from a 4.5, settling in at this score. Wright has abandoned his comic glee for a foray into Tarantino Land, and he produced a pretty good facsimile.  Still, I miss the unbridled fun of the Cornetto Trilogy.