American Assassin



I was surprised by the scope of American Assassin. The film does a lot of globe trotting and in this way feels like the next Borne or Bond installment. If you have been reading the L & D at all you know how often I bemoan the big explosion at the end of movies. I think it should be its own genre: THE BIG EXPLOSION movie. And it’s not just action, it seems like anything outside of Jarmusch or Baumbach has one. However, I will give credit where credit is due and say that American Assassin has got an enormous explosion at the end that actually contains a lot of drama.  American Assassin is well crafted and passable for what it is.

If you are interested in turning your mind off and pretending the world is made up of easily categorized good guys and bad guys then this is right up your blindly patriotic alley.  I however have watched 6 hours of Ken Burns & Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War since I watched American Assassin, so I am under no illusions. Spoiler Alert: Lyndon Baines Johnson lied about how good we were doing, when in fact we were losing and had no way to win.

Back to American Assassin. If you like to watch action, things blowing up, close range firing and don’t mind a little “torture-lite” this is the right thing for you. It will be cathartic. Of course, the world will have become two hours more complicated then when you entered the theater but remember, it is a movie and you can catch up. I did think that the star, Dylan O’Brien did a solid job. Shiva Negar as Annika was also convincing.  And of course, I was glad to see Michael Keaton but it did make us wonder why he did such a typical movie after such a great recent run including Spotlight, Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Spider-Man Homecoming and The Founder. I guess he has to feed the Hollywood machine sometimes too.



One of the problems with this film is that the 5 dollar Thursday threshold at the cinema is now 6 dollars. The bar has been raised and not just any twisted film can catapult over it. The other problem is that Mother! hits the same note again and again. No doubt Aronofsky is the dark prince of allegoric cinema but as an audience member it feels like a hammer is pounding your skull over and over —in the same place. That’s his point. You may also like the motorik of modern electronic dance music. If so, you may like this film.

There are a lot of truly disturbing and plain old disgusting things in Mother!. And frankly, that’s what I expected. What surprised me was that the build up of the house (that the entire movie was shot in) having a supernatural life of its own never pays off. The film itself is extremely claustrophobic and nausea inducing. Mother! makes Dunkirk feel like the aerial shot of Maria frolicking on a hilltop alpine meadow at the beginning of The Sound of Music. And the intensity doesn’t let up. But there are a lot of gimmicky “Boo!” moments. And the flavor of the film, being that it lacks scope, is overbearingly literary. It certainly feels like an adaptation from a novel, whether or not it is. However, this film really does take you on a tour of the bad acid trip that is Aronofsky’s imagination. There certainly is horror, torture, evil, pain and suffering in the world and he has no problem reminding you of that fact, even if you were hoping to escape it for a few hours.

One thing that gets on my nerves though is hearing protesters chanting “The People United / Will Never Be Defeated” in Spanish as part of a cacophony of chaos, looting and destruction that is going on in the house. It takes a lot of gall for a white guy writer/director to lump in legit protesters with an unruly mob. What has Aronofsky himself ever had to take to the streets to protest? Is ICE raiding his family at a Motel 6 in Phoenix because employees think they may not be citizens? That’s America today. “The weekly newspaper reported that federal immigration agents arrested at least 20 people at two Motel 6 locations in the Phoenix area between February and August. Motel employees told the New Times they regularly delivered guest lists to ICE.” — Source: CNN from the story, “Motel 6 says it will stop sharing guest lists with ICE”. It just reveals to me that in his mind fighting for your rights like people like Cesar Chavez did, is just a confusing mess to him. Though I am sure he has his favorite Mexican joint in Brooklyn and some of his best friends are Latino. Sure they are. If you look at the Latino and people of color representation in the film, it’s especially lame. On the other hand, no one really gets off the hook. But knowing Aronofsky, I wouldn’t expect it. I suppose he walks on water and heals the sick in his spare time.

With all that said, this review will end in a similar vein to my Lucky Logan review. I thought it was pretty bad but if you can overlook a lot of things you might like a story about good ol’ boys, never meanin’ no harm. In this case, if cannibalism, cult ritual, random symbolic blood, fever dream lapidary and just open wounds in general and extreme close-ups in particular do it for you, then this just may be the film you have been waiting for.  In the end of course, the film is trying to make a great point about the cruelty of self-indulgence. It is ironic that Aronofsky thinks he is the one to make that point.

Lucky Logan


The milieu this film depicts is only known to me through my obsessive childhood viewing of The Dukes of Hazard and Smokey and the Bandit. Just like Bo, Luke and Daisy or the Bandit and Cledus, brothers Jimmy (Channing Tatum), Clyde (Adam Driver) and sister Mellie (Riley Keough) try to break out of a streak of bad luck by making money on the other side of the law.

There are some bizarre casting choices. The only word that comes to mind is incongruous. Like Daniel Craig as Joe Bang, the genius bomb maker. It’s wonderful to see him act and he does steal this film but at the same time, you are constantly wondering what James Bond is doing locked up in West Virginia jail cell. Not too dissimilar is Hilary Swank’s turn as FBI agent Grayson. It seems to me these actors should be doing some Globe Theatre work on the West End but are forcing out performances here for some reason. Did they lose a bet at director Soderbergh’s weekly poker game? Finally and most glaringly there is Seth MacFarlane, the voice of Stewie on Family Guy. Here he is doing the voice of Stewie as an evil stock car driver with a bad pasted on mustache. I can’t suspend disbelief that long and no one should ask me to.  If you are looking for a comedic bad guy NASCAR driver, it will be a long time before anyone tops Sacha Baron Cohen in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  To paraphrase Lloyd Bentson, “Sir, I’ve seen Talladega Nights and this is no Talladega Nights.”

For all the A list stars in this film, I was not a fan of the cinematography. After the impressive and tightly choreographed camera movements in last years heist favorite Hell or High Water, there is no excuse for shaky, motivated or unmotivated camera moves. And also, natural lighting doesn’t mean you let the characters fall into shadow. It’s not that kind of film. I don’t know the reason but I guess most of the budget was spent on the car racing segment because those scenes look like they are from a totally different film.

Besides all these thorny issues this film can even melt the heart of a hardened Yankee like myself with a sweet rendition of Take Me Home Country Roads by John Denver. If this song doesn’t get you, doesn’t pull at your heart strings, you should really have your circuitry checked out, because you are a robot. Even if this moment does come at the expense of Rhianna. What did Rihanna ever do to writer Rebecca Blunt? But I can accept that like Waylon Jennings’ Dukes theme song Good Ol’ Boys, the movie is just trying to have a little fun without meanin’ no harm. So if you can lower the bar and just want to go along for a hi-octane ride you can still enjoy Lucky Logan.

An L&D Digression: The Mayweather-McGregor Fiasco

I’ll admit it, I’m a boxing fan.

And I will say that I am not looking forward to the Mayweather-McGregor event coming up this evening posing as a boxing match.

Floyd Mayweather, Jr. is possibly the greatest fighter of this past generation, and is certainly the greatest defensive fighter I have ever seen (save, perhaps, Pernell Whitaker).   His phenomenal athletic talent and dedication to training are legendary. Add to that his father’s defensive techniques, including the elusive shoulder roll, and what you have a fighter that is virtually unhittable.  And so McGregor will not hit him. Unless, that is, Mayweather is careless or clowns or gets old overnight, none of which are likely.

What is more likely is that Mayweather picks his spots, lands a lot of straight rights, and skates to a unanimous decision victory.  This is the likely outcome.  It is possible that McGregor will be so poor defensively and so open to shots that Mayweather will pummel him into submission.  Although this seems possible, Mayweather’s last knock out was a victory over Victor Ortiz on what was arguably a cheap shot.  But, McGregor is clearly the rawest and weakest fighter Mayweather has faced in about 15 years, so maybe we’ll catch a break and this will be over early.

At any rate, I don’t know much about McGregor, other than that he is some sort of UFC phenom.  What I do know is that he brought in Paulie Malignaggi, a light-hitting, lighter weight, former “champion”, to spar with him, and the results provide nothing to suggest McGregor possesses any tools to break down Mayweather’s defense or land a “big punch”.   Bringing in Malignaggi as a sparring partner for Mayweather is akin to reading Fun with Dick and Jane as preparation for the National Spelling Bee.

But this fight was never about boxing.  Mayweather has an extraordinary talent for promoting himself, and he saw an opportunity here to exploit McGregor to the tune of $100 million by appealing to the crassest elements of combat sports (and that’s saying a lot). How many PPV snoozers does Mayweather have to be in before people get wise? That people are shelling out $100 for this is almost beyond comprehension, just underscoring how gifted Mayweather really is.

For McGregor’s part, he certainly knows as much as I know, specifically that Mayweather is not a puncher.  So McGregor is evidently willing to take some straight right hands and look like a chump for his $30 million purse, not a bad deal.   And I suppose it’s possible that he’s delusional enough to think he has a chance of overwhelming Mayweather and landing that big white whale of a shot and ending it all.   Who knows what is in the depths of a man’s heart?

Possibly the most interesting part about the fight is what has happened with the gambling lines.  They opened at -2000 or so for Mayweather (that is, bet $2000 to win $100), but so much money came in on McGregor that the line has shifted to -500.   This being boxing, there’s probably a 5% chance or better that Mayweather hurts himself, gets disqualified, or is subject to some heinous decision — prime Roy Jones, Jr. was unbeatable, and he got hosed at the Olympics and was DQed for punching Montell Griffin after knocking him down.  Indeed, I thought that Mayweather could have been DQed against both Ortiz (for the cheap shot) and Zab Judah (when Mayweather’s trainer jumped into the ring).  So a Mayweather loss isn’t out of the question.  My theory on the money is that people are treating a McGregor bet like a lottery ticket — it’s a lot more fun to bet $100 to win $1500 or so than to risk $2000 to win $100.  As a result, so much money has poured in that the Mayweather odds have moved all the way to -500, fire-sale price for sure.  Consequently, the smarter, well-heeled heads have brought some very tall dollars in, sending Vegas into a tizzy.  Hell, I would take -500 in a heartbeat if I had a book handy.  It’s like betting that Steph Curry hits his next free throw.

It might be the case that the fight is the least interesting part about this fight.

The bottom line is that if Mayweather wanted to box the best and prove his all-time greatness, he’d move up to 160 and fight the improbably named middleweight champion, Gennady Golovkin (39-0, 33 KOs).   But, that would entail real risk against s real puncher with a real chance for much less money, so what’s the point of that?  And, honestly, who can blame him?

My advice is to save your money and pay for Golovkin-Alvarez on September 16.   Mayweather easily defeated Alvarez a few years back, and my guess is that Golovkin will go to 40-0 and add another knock out to his resume.  But, at least this will feature a real fight with real fighters in a legitimate boxing match, not the clown show that is McGregor-Mayweather.  I hope you, like me, will keep your money in your pocket and find some other way to pass the time this evening.


The Big Sick


I went into The Big Sick with higher than usual expectations and it did not disappoint. That is saying something. The film is produced by Amazon Studios. In 2016 we saw another notable Amazon film, Love and Friendship, which was an excellent work from Director Whit Stillman. Each year it will feel less and less odd that online companies are also in the film biz as producers. In this case Amazon was smart enough to team up with Judd Apatow and in turn with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon. Kumail, who is also the star, and Emily are the writers and The Big Sick is based on their life experiences.

I am not exactly sure how The Big Sick got an R rating. D explained to me that F bombs are dropped. Is that all it takes these days? Well, it’s a shame because I think younger folks would get a lot out of watching this movie. It’s not preachy but it is intelligent and gets its points about relationships and culture across in a humorous and meaningful way. On the other hand, kids will stream it on Amazon. So much for the MPAA and its outdated ratings system.

This film reminded me a lot of When Harry Met Sally. There is even a scene at a batting cage. Though it is not the theme, the movie is driven by the question, “When do you know you’re in love?” The twists here involve the cultural roadblocks Kumail faces in pursuing his relationship with Emily, in a strong performance by Zoe Kazan.

Some of the best moments happen when Holly Hunter as Beth and Ray Romano as Terry, Emily’s parents, storm onto the scene.  This is a critical part of the film as one of the main stars is in a coma i.e. the sick part of The Big Sick. At this point the movie really heats up with some high drama at a comedy club involving Hunter and a xenophobic heckler and Romano having an intense heart to heart talk with Kumail on an air mattress. The film never sinks to schmaltz, the actors bring it —  the emotion and intensity — and the writing remains honest and moving.

One cool and interesting thing to me is its long and eclectic soundtrack. Everything from Boz Scaggs to Veilumuth Chitralekha.  And as well as it is doing in the theatre, I think The Big Sick will even have greater success as a streaming title.  I thought The Big Sick was an excellent film that gave new angles to a story that feels familiar.

Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde tries really hard to tell a story that isn’t there to begin with and the attempt is a strain all around. It’s self-indulgent, it drags, there is needless exposition and even a strange epilogue. However, there are some memorable and cool moments in the film, including an especially jaw dropping/teeth clinching/jaw dropping car chase scene.

And if you think you’d like seeing Charlize Theron beat, kick, punch, stab with a 5 inch stiletto, strangle, psychologically accost and verbally berate dozens of guys, while sprinkling in a lesbian spy love affair, then by all means don’t miss this film.

The art direction was truly impressive with spot on depictions of the Berlin Wall and its blockades and guard towers. Apparently since the last war movie we saw dealing with the GDR, Spielberg’s Tom Hanks vehicle, Bridge of Spies, the sun still refuses to ever shine in communist East Berlin.

Scenes like the one in the nightclub where Theron rendezvous with a sexy French agent, Sofia Boutella, (who was strong in Star Trek and unsteady in The Mummy) are really well done in terms of their mix of realism and fantasy. Great dramatic tension and acting make it easy to suspend disbelief. Here, an adjacent space painted red with light next to a  packed dance floor allows for the privacy of a long conversation about the perils of espionage, some gun play and even foreplay. Why not!

James McAvoy proves once again without a shadow of a doubt that he has impeccable acting range. It’s a pleasure to watch him do his thing. And as a period piece, the soundtrack rocked with some favorite bands and songs of the era. This is one film that, like Baby Driver, will have you rockin’ and head bobbin’ to a killer soundtrack.

So the movie has a lot going for it. The style of a DePalma at the height of his kinetic powers, fantastic actors unleashed, solid art direction, fun music, some kicking royal ass action sequences. Ultimately the wonderful elements don’t add up to an exceptional film but Atomic Blonde does have its moments and there is no doubt Charlize Theron is a bona fide badass.

Atomic Blonde


Atomic Blonde is the latest in a series of movie-length music videos, this one featuring the synthy sounds and backbeats of the late 1980s.  The movie’s action is set in East Berlin right at the cusp of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the script is that of a low-grade Cold War espionage thriller.

The movie features Charlize Theron in the role of “Blonde, James Blonde,” a female incarnation of the invincible British secret agent, only Theron drinks Stoli on ice, no vermouth.  We first find her soaking in a tub of ice water with a body full of bumps and bruises and cuts and lacerations (but, remarkably, no broken bones, no limp, no discernible handicap), and then the movie proceeds to show us how she got that way. The film isn’t shy about showing Theron in the buff, beginning with an extended scene of her checking her beaten up body out in the mirror, but also featuring a couple of gratuitous lesbian exchanges.

If you don’t think about it terribly hard, the plot itself is pretty straightforward.  Theron sits down in an interview room with her “superior” (Toby James, that round-faced dude from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and American CIA agent (John Goodman). There is also an even more superior boss man watching through the glass that probably signifies something important here, though not important enough for me to try to figure out. Theron then details how she was sent to East Berlin to meet up with a British agent embedded in the terrain (David MacAvoy) and recover some sort of important list that seems to be contained inside some guy’s watch.  Meanwhile, a young French agent (Sofia Boutella) is following Theron around taking pictures about as inconspicuously as a fashion model in a skin-tight leather suit riding around on a motorcycle in Communist Eastern Europe could back in those days.  Then there are a bunch of Russians and local thugs, and, well, you’ll figure it out.

But, who needs a plot when we’ve got action?  And there is plenty of action to go around. Theron survives at least three major car crashes and is in a couple of extended hand-to-hand melees reminiscent of early Apollo Creed-Rocky Balboa bouts (at one point L shouted: “Stay down, kid, stay down”).  Indeed, one of those fisticuffs was about three minutes too long, so it turned from drama to comedy as the kids in the back of the theater began to laugh, but it segued into a terrific car chase scene that probably constituted the best few minutes of the movie.

Then again, I’m not sure this movie was even an action movie.  It might be better described as a vehicle for Charlize Theron to show off her super awesome self in some super awesome clothing, with her duds even matching the lampshade at one point according to my more fashion-sensitive companion.  This was partly utilitarian, as she beat at least one person to death with her shoe.  But I was concerned from a narrative standpoint about how she fit an entire wardrobe into such a tiny suitcase.  Perhaps she went shopping?   But where do you get a screaming red dress in East Berlin in 1989?  The questions pile up quickly in this one.

It is also possible that the movie is Theron’s response to getting passed over for the Wonder Woman role — she is definitely gorgeous and she definitely shows her chops as an action hero, even grabbing a bright yellow lasso of justice (a staple in most urban eastern bloc households, for sure) and beating the crap out of a bunch of Commie henchmen at one point. I guess you’d have to ask her.

Overall, over the $5 bar for its excellent music video qualities, but that’s kind of assuming you’ve seen the many high-quality action movies already out this summer – Wonder Woman, Spider Man, Baby Driver, Dunkirk.   It also assumes you sit in the theater with the good sound system (e.g., the Marcus SuperScreen DLX) for you to get your 99 Luftballoons on.

When writing this up I learned that this was directed by the guy who got his directorial start with John Wick, and, there it is, I buried the lede.   Evidently, he is also directing the second Deadpool movie, so here’s hoping that one goes a little better.


Dunkirk Format.jpg

The script for Dunkirk must read something like this:

Page 1. The Battle of Dunkirk. / FADE TO BLACK /  The End

There is that much action and that little dialogue. And most of the dialogue is in any case unintelligible due to accent and vernacular. Luckily, the story of Dunkirk is not one of words but deeds.

The Director, Christopher Nolan, has great respect for the power of intersecting story structure. As in Memento, where he tells a story in reverse, Dunkirk follows three unique but intersecting strands. Unlike Moonlight where the three chapters come in chronological order, Dunkirk’s structure follows its own order. The acts, as explained through titles at the start include the sea, whose day long story is the anchor the others jockey towards and past. The story of the beach takes a week to unfold and the story of the air, one hour, or the amount of time that it takes for the gas tank of a Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane to run dry. Dunkirk is revealed in the cross cutting of these stories. As V.I. Pudovkin wrote in his 1930s seminal anthology Film Technique and Film Acting, it is through the control of time and space in editing that filmmaking is elevated into art. And that is true here. I can’t think of a war epic since Battleship Potemkin that has used editing in such a groundbreaking way. And in terms of the cinematography of Hoytema, the achievement is on par with Apocalypse Now and will no doubt be a front runner for the Academy Award next March.

Which brings me to the format of this film, IMAX 70mm. This is over twice the size of a typical 35mm film. In IMAX 70mm, the aspect ratio, or relationship between the vertical and horizontal, creates a large square frame. You may have seen an IMAX movie at a science museum. In the USA, the film is being screened in IMAX 70mm, the way Nolan shot it, in under 100 theaters. The nearest IMAX 70mm screening of Dunkirk to the L & D is at the Minnesota Zoo, four and a half hours away.  Weirdly, Alabama, not exactly known as a film mecca, actually has two theaters showing Dunkirk in IMAX 70mm. Here is a link to all the IMAX 70mm theaters screening Dunkirk: Dunkirk in IMAX 70mm.  The nearest cinema from the L &D screening the 70mm print is outside of Milwaukee in a place called Waukesha, about an hour and forty five minutes away. Here is a link to all the theaters showing the film in 70mm: Dunkirk in 70mm.

So what this means is that I watched Dunkirk in a cropped aspect ratio. The movie itself did not fill up the entire screen, neither sides nor top or bottom. Not knowing anything about the production of Dunkirk going into it, this definitely confused me. Back in the day, this issue would have been corrected by having a curtain come in from the sides and top and bottom to cover the blank parts of the screen. But theaters in the multiplex era are spartan affairs in this regard and the thinking is that ninety-nine percent of the films will have no issues since it is only Tarantino and Nolan who shoot features, like the The Hateful Eight, in 70mm. I found the blank screen distracting and it bugged me. An IMAX film camera goes for a million dollars. The quality of the resolution is off the charts. So it’s kind of a bummer not to be able to see Dunkirk in its full glory in terms of projection quality and aspect ratio.  However, if you are planning on waiting to watch this at home on Blu-ray, don’t bother, you won’t get it. Unless I suppose you are sitting about a foot away from your flat screen.

What to say about the rest of this film. There are flawless effects, brilliant combat scenes including the aerial dogfights, the acting is seamless and engaging. And I think its ultimate victory is something D said, it’s claustrophobic. For an IMAX formatted movie to be at once epic in its scope and claustrophobic in its atmosphere is a testament to the greatness of everyone who worked on this picture and the vision of Christopher Nolan.

War for the Planet of the Apes

If you are ready for some top-flight man on monkey violence, then War for the Planet of the Apes is the movie for you.   But it is so much more than that.   It is a nuanced exploration of racism, sexism, compassion, and possibly the greatest cinematic meditation on existential philosophy since The Seventh Seal.

Nah, I’m just kidding. It really just amounts to some good only man on monkey violence.  It’s not that the movie doesn’t try to do the things listed above, it just doesn’t do them very well.  The apes are generally set up in the “good camp” and the humans in the “bad camp” in this one, and we spend probably an hour of the movie literally watching the apes ape various stages of grief and angst and heartbreak while we wait around for the film to get to Woody Harrelson.

But, get to them they finally do, featuring one spectacular, borderline insane expository monologue that nearly saves the film along a number of fronts.  By the time they got around to the monologue, I had almost completely checked from the story, but he introduced enough material to bring the story back in play.  He is also able to almost — almost — blur the “good ape, bad man” line with his historic account, enough to give us a little sympathy for the human side.  Like the greats, he makes those around him better, so things that had been annoying me to that point got a little less annoying. But, alas, even the Hestonesque charismatic burst doesn’t save the film, and what we are left with is a few great pieces of film making in a movie that is pretty stupid and at least an hour too long (but do check out L’s review for a pro’s perspective on some of the legitimate cinematic achievements).

There are a couple of big plusses here.  Some of the action is great, including a super awesome wrinkle in the climactic scene.  Although I am kind of bashing on the movie here, even haters like me will take the drama seriously enough to enjoy the action in the context of the dramatic narrative, unlike action for action’s sake in, say, the Transformers or Alien v. Predator movies.  It’s probably worth mentioning again that Woody is must-see tv.  And, finally, this is one of the few movies where you can feel license to enjoy the fabulous Marcus 128 oz soda specials, because there are plenty of spaces between the pauses here to take a pit stop or two.

Over the $5 bar for some great action and for Woody, but I would have been willing to pay more for less for this one.

War for the Planet of the Apes (L)

war for the planet of the apes.jpg

First of all, for the record, I love Woody Harrelson and could watch an entire feature film of him eating a salad. I’m not sure why it would take him an hour and a half to eat a salad but there you go. The movie Woody Salad I’m certain would have more unpredictable twists and turns than War for the Planet of the Apes. Big explosion at the end? Check. Not to pick on it, the last three films we have seen, Baby DriverSpiderman and Wonder Woman also end with big explosions. I think the screenwriters start all the movies with a massive explosion and reverse engineer a script from there.

This particular film could have undergone at least an hour of cutting. It has the scale, the sets, the score of Doctor Zhivago but without the story to prop it up for over 2 hours.

Personally, I did enjoy the film from a purely technical point of view. The apes themselves are a marvel. Not necessarily better than the original apes from Planet of the Apes in 1968, which garnered an honorary Academy Award for make-up artist John Chambers. Back then you could still tell who the actors were. You could see it was Roddy McDowall down there and that made it even better.  These days, it is more of a photorealistic effect, if you will. But it still works for me, it’s just different.

And then of course there is the aforementioned Woody, doing this wacky mix of an evil Michael Stipe meets Apocalypse Brando — and it works. His scenes form the apex of this film for me. If you are into this series, War for the Planet of the Apes is a must see but ultimately for the rest of us, popping in or streaming the original Planet of the Apes with McDowell, Heston and the Statue of Liberty would most likely be a more worthwhile experience.