Summer of 84


Just a bunch of teenage badasses.

(2018) Thriller/Horror (Gunpowder & Sky) Graham Verchere, Judah Lewis, Caleb Emery, Cory Grüter-Andrew, Tiera Skovbye, Rich Sommer, Jason Gray-Stanford, Shauna Johannesen, William MacDonald, Harrison Hourde, Aren Buchholz, Susie Castillo, Reilly Jacob, Jaiven Natt, J. Alex Brinson, Patrick Keating, Patrick Lubczyk, Jordan Buhat, Mark Brandon. Directed by Anouk Whissell, François Simard and Yoann-Karl Whissell

We remember our childhood with a certain tinge of nostalgia. The era we grew up in – be it the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s or aughts – live in our memories with a sepia glow of comfort and warmth. Summer nights spent bicycling around the neighborhood with our friends, looking for whatever adventures might be found in the nooks and crannies of where we grew up are precious to us as we grow older, careworn and further away from our youth when anything was possible, before we found out that life isn’t always beautiful.

Davey Armstrong (Verchere) grew up in the 80s in a small Midwestern town which was about as suburban as it got. His dad (Gray-Stanford) worked as a sound man for the local TV news. His best friends were always around the neighborhood and summer was an endless time of hanging out, talking about girls and neighborhood games of manhunt.

It is also a troubling time for his parents who are fully aware that several boys around town have gone missing. Davey is a bit of a tabloid conspiracy nut and most of his friends and acquaintances have heard all about his oddball theories but at least this one is plausible; Davey believes his next door neighbor, Wayne Mackey (Sommer) is a serial killer responsible for the disappearances. His friends – leather jacketed punk Eats (Lewis), rotund Woody (Emery) and smart-as-a-whip Curtis (Grüter-Andrew) are skeptical at first but soon they come to believe in Davey and set out to proving it.

This will involve things like going through his garbage, staking out his house and eventually breaking and entering. But that’s not the only thing Davey is keeping an eye on; his pretty former babysitter Nikki (Skovbye) has a habit of undressing in front of her window which Davey’s bedroom window faces. Her parents are divorcing and she’ll be moving away from the neighborhood shortly; she is upset and Davey becomes her confidante, which ends up dragging her into their detective work. She is also skeptical about Davey’s theory since Officer Mackey is outwardly a very nice guy, but there is also a very creepy side to him. As summer comes to a close and the chill winds of autumn and school beckon on the horizon, Davey and his crew will come face to face with something truly monstrous.

The vibe here is a bit Hitchcock meets vintage Spielberg. While there is very much a tone similar to the hit Netflix series Stranger Things this isn’t exactly the same thing. There are no supernatural elements here and for awhile I had a real hard time convincing myself that this belonged among my Six Days of Darkness collection but then again there’s the last ten minutes which…well, I’ll get to that.

The synth-heavy score certainly sets the tone; the music is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s music from the era. There are also lots of visual cues, from the arcade to the G.I Joe walkie-talkies that the boys use. The parents here are generally well-meaning but clueless which brings in the Spielberg element. The idyllic nature of the environment adds not so much to the era but to the time of life of the protagonists. I think that’s a time of life that we all appreciate.

There are some clichés in the plot and characterization. Those who are familiar with Rear Window or Suburbia will feel like they’re on a well-trodden path and Davey’s group of friends are pretty much standard issue for these sorts of Hardy Boys-type films. Also, the identity of the person behind the disappearances is not that hard to pick out if you’re paying attention.

But then there are those last ten minutes. At a certain point, the movie kicks into overdrive and you will be sitting on the edge of your seat, jaw firmly resting on the floor as you watch these filmmakers whose previous film was the decent Turbo Kid absolutely come of age. The last ten minutes of Summer of 84 may be the best ten minutes of any film you see this year.

REASONS TO GO: The last ten minutes of this movie are as good as any you’ll see. The filmmakers keep you guessing.
REASONS TO STAY: There are more than a few clichés here and the killer is fairly easy to spot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including crude sexual references and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are a variety of shout-outs to 80s movies including The Karate Kid, The Thing and the Star Wars franchise.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play,  iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stranger Things
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness Day Three

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Mandy (2018)


Nic Cage is never happier than when he’s driving a car while drenched in fake blood.

(2018) Horror (RLJE) Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouéré, Richard Brake, Bill Duke, Line Pillet, Clément Baronnet, Alexis Julemont, Stephen Fraser, Ivalyio Dimitrov, Kalin Kerin, Tamás Hagyuó, Madd’yz Dog Lollyta, Corfu, Paul Painter (voice), Hayley Saywell. Directed by Panos Cosmatos

 

Nic Cage has, in this stage of his career, carved out a reputation as having the best freak-out in the business. Perhaps not what he had in mind back when he was considered one of the finest actors in the business for serious works like Leaving Las Vegas and Peggy Sue Got Married but it’s always good to be good at something.

Here he plays Red Miller, a taciturn lumberjack living in the Pacific Northwest woods of the Shadow Mountains circa 1983 with his hippie chick girlfriend Mandy (Riseborough) who makes a living doing illustrations for fantasy and science fiction-themed album covers. She’s a bit of an aging waif with anime eyes who brings in a little extra cash working as a cashier at a local gas station/grocery. Walking home, she is espied by Jeremiah Sand (Roache) who decides that this is the woman from him. He sends Brother Swan (Dennehy) to see that she sees the light.

Using an odd instrument called the Abraxas Horn Swan summons a group of demonic bikers who use a sort of liquid extreme LSD to get themselves in the mood for violence. They break in to the rustic cabin of Red and Mandy and restrain Red in a kind of barbed wire manacle. Mandy is brought to Jeremiah who makes an art form of tooting his own horn. His attempts at seduction don’t get him the results he wanted so in a fit of Trump-like pique he decides to teach the couple a lesson.

The results aren’t pretty. Mandy meets a grisly end witnessed by her boyfriend who is stabbed and left for dead. As you can imagine, this doesn’t sit well with Red and he goes about collecting himself an arsenal and then going on a little ass-kicking expedition and you know it won’t end until every mutha who messed with his girl exsanguinates all over his face.

For those who, like me, love Conan O’Brien’s Nicolas Cage threat level gauge, he delivers one here that is sure to be Defcon One the next time O’Brien puts one together. Through the first half of the film Cage is fairly quiet but once Mandy is taken from him he goes full-on Nicolas Cage and that can be highly entertaining.

Director Panos Cosmatos isn’t above ratcheting up the crazy, using a good deal of psychedelic footage and LSD-inspired footage melds that with a largely electronic and almost progressive metal score from the late Oscar-nominated Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannson that really captures the heart of the film. Any movie that starts out with King Crimson’s criminally underappreciated “Starless” is a friend of mine.

Riseborough is not your usual lead here; oddly, Jeremiah seems to treat her as a younger woman but she’s clearly middle aged. I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder but her character’s new age babble is a little bit distracting. What isn’t distracting is the final half of the film which is essentially one long action sequence with all sorts of gory violence which is bound to bring a contented smile to most horror fans.

This is not your typical horror movie; there are some themes of love and violence, obsession and ego. There are some animated scenes that are sort of like a Roger Dean album cover come to life. So it’s very much a situation of the 70s have called and they want their horror film back. This isn’t a movie from that era (even though it’s set in ’83) but it captures the spirit of psycho horror films of that era nicely.

REASONS TO GO: Cage is at his most ludicrously demented which is saying something. The action sequences are bizarre but in a good way.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie does take a little while to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: Deep breath now; there’s gore and violence (some of it extreme), the full Monty, copious drug use, profanity and likely lots of mean thoughts.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Roache and Brake both previously worked together in Batman Begins in which Roache played Thomas Wayne and Brake played Joe Chill, who murdered him.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Drive Angry
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Bill Coors: The Will to Live

MDMA (Angie X, Cardinal X)


Annie Q knows you can never truly relax when you’re a drug kingpin.

(2017) Crime Drama (Shout! Factory) Annie Q, Francesca Eastwood, Pierson Fode, Scott Teiji Takeda, Joseph John Schirle, Ron Yuan, Noah Segan, Yetide Badaki, Henry Zaga, Elisa Donovan, Allyrah Caldwell, Angie Wang, Devon Libran, Kyle Zingler, Zoe Winter, Ed Moy, Shoyi Cheng, Dexter Masland, Cooper Chow, Jason J. Lai, Jackie Dallas. Directed by Angie Wang

 

In the mid-80s, “Just say no” was the kind of thing knowing club kids used as a kind of electronic irony. Just say no? Why on earth would anybody do that? Drugs were profitable (for dealers and their suppliers) and moreover, drugs felt amazing. And yeah, so long as you didn’t get hooked on something like heroin they were essentially harmless, right?

Angie Wang (Q) is a young sparkling-eyed freshman going off to college at an expensive private school in California (think: Stanford). Her father (Yuan), who works at a Chinese restaurant in New Jersey, can’t afford the tuition, but lets his daughter go anyway. Once there she befriends her roommate Jeanine (Eastwood), a blonde and pretty debutante sort whose life is much more messed up than it appears to be on the surface, with an alcoholic and judgmental mother who seems hell-bent on putting down her daughter about as far as she can go. Angie’s mother left with her little brother when Angie was a little girl, enduring an abusive husband until she couldn’t.

It turns out that Angie is no stereotype, no prim and proper Asian princess. She parties hardy and has sex whenever and with whoever she chooses. A swimmer with Olympic aspirations turns her on to Ecstasy, then a legal recreational drug (the title is based on its scientific name which is abbreviated as MDMA). Supplies are extremely limited as its only manufactured by a single lab in Germany; chemistry major Angie thinks she can synthesize it in the chem. Lab all by herself. As a result she becomes the leading supplier of the drug on the West Coast, referred to in the clubs as “Cardinal X.”

The money allows her to pay her tuition and live a lifestyle more to her liking. She joins the big sister program and becomes a mentor to Bree (Caldwell), the daughter of a crack mom (Badaki) more concerned with having beer and smokes readily available than seeing that her daughter wasn’t hungry. Her lab partner Tommy (Takeda) urges her to get out of the drug dealing although he doesn’t report her; he’s crazy in love with her after all, and hopes that he can save her from herself. However, it’s already way too late for that and soon things spiral out of control.

Wang called this “a dramatic telling” of her life story, which means that likely some events were fudged, embellished and/or compressed somewhat. She recalls the club scene of the mid-80s (what I can remember of it) pretty accurately, other than if they were Bay Area clubs there should have been a larger presence of gay men than there are in the movie.

Annie Q is a former child actress whom readers might recognize from the TV show The Leftovers. She gives Angie a good deal of strength and sass without reverting to Hollywood Asian stereotypes. The movies definitely need more characters like Angie in them – not necessarily as role models for young Asian girls since Angie does a lot of really bad shit in the movie – but simply to show Asian women in a more realistic light.

Some of the plot points feel a bit overdone with the final third of the movie feeling like every one of the main characters are constantly in tears. The dialogue sometimes sounds a little awkward as well. Still as first efforts go, this is a mighty fine one. The soundtrack is full of 80s goodness and Wang wisely keeps things simple, not trying to show off unusual camera angles to attract attention to herself. She lets the story take center stage which some new directors forget to do. Wang may not necessarily be proud of her past but she can be proud of her movie.

REASONS TO GO: Annie Q gives the story a strong Asian woman lead, something not seen often.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a little overwrought in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of drug use and references, violence, profanity, sex and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wang, who wrote and directed the film (and also appears in a cameo role), based the movie on her own life experiences.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, ITunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: White Boy Rick
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
A Greater Society

The Blood of Wolves (Korô no chi)


Sometimes you can’t tell the cops from the criminals.

(2018) Crime Drama (Toei) Kôji Yakusho, Tôri Matsuzaka, Gorô Ibuki, Yoko Maki, Yôsuke Eguchi, Hajime Inoue, Megumi, Tarô Suruga, Renji Ishibashi, Takuma Otoo, Kyûsaku Shimada, Junko Abe, Marie Machida, Takahiro Kuroishi, Eiji Takigawa, Pierre Taki, Shun Nakayama, Joey Iwanaga, Tomorô Taguchi, Ken’Ichi Takitô, Tomoya Nakamura, Katsuya, Issei Okihara. Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi

In movies there are actual touchstones; Hitchcock for thrillers, Chaplin for comedies, Ford for Westerns and Scorsese for gangster movies. Scorsese himself was influenced in turn by Asian crime dramas which in its own way is somewhat ironic and circular.

Shiraishi says that the 1973-74 five part series Battles Without Honor and Humanity was his main influence for his work but that in turn was influenced by some of Scorsese’s earlier work such as Mean Streets. This film, based on the novel of the same Japanese name, is set in Hiroshima in 1988 at the height of a gang war. The Odani-gumi Yakuza gang have been in control for 14 years; the Machiavellian leader of the Irako-kai gang (Ishibashi) has cut a deal with the volatile leader (Shimada) of the Kakomura-gumi to retake the territory the Irako-kai had lost – and then some.

Trying to stave off what would be another bloody gang war is a cop as rumpled as the packs of cigarettes he smokes incessantly Shogo Ogami (Yakusho) who has just been saddled with a naive straight arrow partner named Shuichi Hioka (Matsuzaka). They are investigating the disappearance of an accountant from a financial institution that is actually a Yakuza money laundering front. As tensions between rival gangs grow, Ogami – who never met a rule he wasn’t willing to break – utilizes informants including his best friend Ginji Takii (Taki) who is a low-level guy for the Odani-gumi to get closer to the rival gangs. Soon Hioka suspects that Ogami is protecting the Ogami as well as himself – there are rumors that the last gang war ended because Ogami, then a uniformed officer, murdered a top man for the Irako-kai. That has been neither forgotten nor forgiven.

In between chasing down sadistic Yakuza and indifferent bureaucrats, Ogami and Hioka hang out in a bar administered by the beautiful but volatile Rikako (Maki) whose past is key to the last gang war and what is leading to the next. Sake will flow and blood will spill – sometimes in buckets – in this brutal, bloody Yakuza film.

Very often during a movie there will be periods where my interest wanes and my attention will wander a little bit. Not so with The Blood of Wolves – there wasn’t a moment that my attention wasn’t focused to the goings-on onscreen. While there is a fairly large cast of characters and many are essentially disposable Yakuza foot soldiers and cops, the main characters are well-developed and especially veteran actor Yakusho deliver some marvelous performances.

As here in America, the gangster film has fallen on hard times in Japan. Once a staple of their film industry, in recent years the Yakuza film has been relegated to the periphery. This particular one is old school and has that epic quality that the best films of such genre greats as Scorsese and Coppola possessed. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good examples of the genre still being made in the Land of the Rising Sun and this is an example of it. It has already screened at the New York Asian Film Festival this year but as the powerhouse Toei studio is behind it there is a pretty good chance further American audiences will get a chance to see it and this is absolutely worth seeing; it is one of the highlights of the Festival this year.

REASONS TO GO: The comparisons to Scorsese are unavoidable in a good way. The story keeps you riveted to the screen. Yakusho gives a compelling performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the violence may be too much for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of brutal violence and some over-the-top gore; there is also plenty of profanity, some nudity, sexual situations and references and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel that is itself a fictionalized version of a  actual gang war that took place in Hiroshima and the neighboring suburb of Kure.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gangster’s Daughter
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Rock in the Red Zone

Whitney


The Queen of Pop in her salad days.

(2018) Musical Documentary (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Whitney Houston, Cissy Houston, Bobby Brown, Kevin Costner, L.A. Reid, Michael Houston, Brad Johnson, Clive Davis, Keith Kelly, Rickey Minor, Lynne Volkman, Pat Houston, Steve Gittelman, DeForrest Soames, Donna Houston, Nicole David, Cinque Henderson, John Houston IV, Joey Arbagi, Babyface, Mary Jones. Directed by Kevin Macdonald

 

On February 11, 2012 the great pop star Whitney Houston was found floating face down in a bathtub in the Beverly Hilton Hotel. It was the end of an era and the end of a life, one that began with promise which was later fulfilled as she became one of the biggest stars of the 80s and early 90s. She remains the only performer to ever notch seven number one Billboard pop hits in a row – and they were her first seven singles at that. It is a feat not likely to be ever altered. She also is the biggest selling female artist of all time, and holds the biggest selling single (“I Will Always Love You”) of all time for a female artist.

In between her early days and her tragic end, Whitney Houston became a revered public figure although not without controversy. The daughter of singer Cissy Houston and the cousin of legendary pop icon Dionne Warwick, Houston had greatness in her DNA. She was impressive as a singer from an early age singing for her church choir and mentored by her mother who was, by all accounts, an often difficult taskmaster.

After being signed to a contract with Arista Records boss Clive Davis, she rocketed to fame with her debut album which in many ways defined her era. In the mid-80s you really couldn’t go very long without hearing her songs on the radio and while there was some grumbling about how she was being marketed to a white audience (as a light-skinned black girl, she had been bullied as a youngster in Newark where she grew up) she nevertheless grew up to be one of the most formidable talents of her time.

But there were pressures on her to maintain the success and the gravy train that had been created by that success. Most of her family was employed by Whitney (her estranged father who had divorced her mother when Whitney was a young girl was her manager and her brothers were road  managers) and the carefully marketed “good girl” image that had been created for her began to crumble. A marriage to R&B singer Bobby Brown put further cracks in the veneer and as the 90s progressed it became apparent that Whitney was using drugs.

The documentary by veteran filmmaker Macdonald isn’t the first on Houston (Showtime aired one just last year) but it is perhaps the most personal; interviews with her family members give us a better picture of the real Whitney than her Showtime doc did. The documentary follows her life relatively chronologically although a revelation about two-thirds of the way through the movie of an incident that happened when she was much younger makes for some dramatic footage but it also throws the flow of the movie askew. There also seems to have been a reluctance on Macdonald’s part to follow up too deeply on that revelation – in fact, he seemed reluctant to follow up on any of the really unflattering aspects of her life at all.

Of course her drug use was the elephant in the room and while it is addressed, Macdonald almost regards it as a corollary to her fame and fortune, almost as predetermined as having paparazzi following her around. There is no footage from her train wreck of a reality show Inside Bobby Brown and when Brown is questioned about his ex-wife’s drug use, he says in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t want to talk about it. Well, what the hell did he think that any documentary about his wife’s time with him would want to talk about him with?

The last days of Whitney’s life are particularly hard to watch. While the performance footage of her during the prime of her career is a reminder of just how powerful and beautiful her voice was – and how absolutely she had control over it – footage of her singing during the last year of her life is almost painful. Her voice is raspy and off-key and when she tries to hit the high notes…well, it’s not pretty. It acts as a cautionary tale to any aspiring performer who thinks that they can “handle” drugs.

Still, if you want to look at this as a celebration of her life the film does that quite well. Fans of the late singer can renew their affection for her. Those who weren’t particular fans of hers probably won’t end up being converted to blind admiration but if you know anything about music you absolutely have to respect her voice and her work ethic early on.

I get the sense that we get a little deeper into who Whitney Houston was and that’s a positive. There are a lot of talking heads in this picture and occasionally they go over the same territory perhaps to distraction but this is simply put essential viewing for fans of the diva and of 80s pop music in general. Bring plenty of hankies though; it’s hard to watch the highs without the thought of the lows that were to come and would lead to her end alone in a hotel room drowning in a bathtub, a fate tragically shared by her daughter just three years later.

Still, I don’t know anyone who listens to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” who isn’t instantly uplifted with the joy of being alive. Whitney Houston could do that with her voice and it is absolutely tragic that it was taken away from her – and us.

REASONS TO GO: The final days of Whitney are truly heartbreaking. Some of the performance video from when she was in her prime reiterates how powerful a singer she truly was.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit rote as documentaries go. Macdonald seemed to be unwilling to ask the tough questions.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as drug use and other drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were a lot of interviews that were filmed but never used. Macdonald felt that they were banal and added nothing to the narrative.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Blood of Wolves

Three Identical Strangers


Bros in triplicate.

(2018) Documentary (Neon/CNN) David Kellman, Robert Shafran, Eddy Galland, Ron Guttman, Silvi Alzetta-Reali, Adrian Lichter, Andrew Lovesey, Michael Domnitz, Howard Schneider, Ellen Cervone, Alan Luchs, Hedy Page, Elliott Galland, Alice Shafran, Ilene Shafran, Justine Wise Polier, Mort Shafran, Janet Kellman, Brenda Galland, Lawrence Wright, Paula Bernstein, Elyse Schein, Rachel VanDuzer. Directed by Tim Wardle

The maxim goes “Truth is stranger than fiction” and while that isn’t always the case, it certainly was in this story. Some of you who lived in the New York area around 1980 might remember some of it.

Bobby Shafran was attending a community college for the first time and knew nobody there – but a lot of people seemed to know him. They seemed to have a case of mistaken identity; they identified him as Eddy Galland. With a close friend of Eddy’s, he decided to meet this guy and was shocked to find out that they looked identical and like him, Eddy Galland was adopted. It turned out that they were twins who had been separated at birth.

But the story gets weirder. Their story appears in Newsday, the Long Island paper of record and is seen by David Kellman who is shocked to see two other guys who look exactly like him. It turns out that they were identical triplets, an incredibly rare occurrence to begin with. The three guys all had the same taste in girls, all smoked the same brand of cigarettes, all had the same bright smile.

As it turned out, the three boys had been placed into three completely different environments; one in an upper class home, another in a middle class home, a third in a working class home. One of the fathers was a disciplinarian, a second more laid-back, a third somewhere in between. Despite all the similarities between the boys (which would indicate that in nature versus nurture, the former trumped the latter) they grew up to be different individually speaking. So that nature versus nurture thing (a big theme in the film) may not be quite so settled after all.

The three young men became inseparable, moving in together in New York City and opening up their own restaurant, Triplets, in SoHo. They were regulars on the downtown club scene, and made the talk show rounds on such shows as Phil Donahue and the Today show. At first glance this might be one of those “whatever happened to” kinds of documentaries but then the story turned yet even weirder…and darker.

More than this I will not tell you. This is a story that will seem at first like a trip down memory lane for a feel-good story that grabbed the attention of New Yorkers in the early 80s but it will take you in a completely different and unexpected direction and it works best if you don’t know what comes next. Suffice it to say that you will leave the theater completely blown away.

The actual format of the documentary isn’t particularly different than most; lots of talking heads, lots of archival footage with the occasional re-enactment of scenes to heighten the drama. Nothing new here but the story itself is so compelling, so riveting that you won’t be able to look away let alone notice that the style isn’t particularly innovative. And you probably won’t notice that things slow down a little bit in the final third of the film, although I did. However the movie will come at you like a gut punch and leave you breathless as you leave the theater. It’s only playing in a few cities at the moment following a run on the festival circuit but you should pester your local art house to book this one; it’s easily one of the best documentaries of the year.

REASONS TO GO: The story gets more bizarre as you go along. The movie you think you’re going to see is not the movie you actually see. Nature versus nurture is a large part of the story. This is the kind of movie that will blow you away.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags a little bit in the final third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at Sundance earlier this year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
This is Congo

Beirut


It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad in the desert.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Mark Pellegrino, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Jonny Coyne, Leila Bekhti, Kate Fleetwood, Alon Aboutboul, Larry Pine, Sonia Okacha, Mohamed Zouaoui, Ben Affran, Ian Porter, Idir Chender, Nora Garrett, Mohamed Attougui, Anton Obeid, Jay Potter, Brahim Rachiki, Max Kleinveld. Directed by Brad Anderson

 

Lebanon has a history of being a cosmopolitan, beautiful country. Beirut was once described as the Paris of the Middle East. There were sizable Christian and Muslim communities but in the 1970s with an influx of Palestinian refugees Beirut became a powderkeg that exploded into Civil War that by the 1980s left Beirut the usual analogy for dangerous, hostile places.

Mason Skiles (Hamm) in 1972 was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. A disciple of Henry Kissinger, he was the fair-haired boy in the State Department, on his way to an ambassadorship of his own and at the very least becoming a major player in the diplomatic corps. Then, a terrible tragedy leaves his career in tatters and Skiles personally broken.

Fast-forward ahead ten years and Skiles works as an arbitrator in labor negotiations and not a very good one at that. Maybe it’s due to the fact that Skiles has fallen into the bottle and shows no signs of emerging. However, he is summoned to Beirut – the last place on Earth he wants to go – ostensibly to lecture at the American University there but in reality he is savvy enough to know that’s only a cover.

In fact, his good friend Cal (Pellegrino) has been kidnapped by a PLO splinter group and they will only negotiate with Cal for reasons that will become readily apparent. The problem is that Cal, who works for the CIA, knows enough to make life uncomfortable for the agency in the Middle East. Mason soon discovers that everyone in the American embassy seems to have an agenda of their own; nobody is trustworthy, not even the assistant/handler Sandy (Pike) who has been assigned to Mason. Getting Cal back alive will be no easy matter, not will it be easy for Mason to stay that way as well.

Veteran movie fans will note that Tony Gilroy wrote the script and won’t be surprised at the often convoluted plot – nor will it be surprising that the story is interesting throughout. Anderson is a strong director who keeps the pace brisk without going too fast and glossing over things. Despite having a plot that requires some concentration to follow, this is nonetheless an easy movie to watch.

.Hamm has been on my radar ever since he starred in Mad Men and I’ve always thought that he was going to one day be a big movie star; he’s just one good role away. This is the closest he’s come to that role; despite his character being deeply flawed, Hamm makes him sympathetic. He shows a great deal of charisma and onscreen charm from start to finish. In short, he’s the best thing about the movie which is saying something in a movie with Rosamund Pike in it.

The dialogue can be a bit noir-ish (which can be a bad thing) and the flashbacks can be jarring. Most negatively, there are sequences in which handheld cameras are used that are literally jarring. Those are all minuses to be sure but the pluses just edge them out enough to make this worth a shot.

REASONS TO GO: Hamm continues to show off star quality. The pacing is very crisp.
REASONS TO STAY: There are some unnecessary handheld camera sequences. The ending is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and a brief image of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Hodge and Hamm have appeared on the Netflix series Black Mirror.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Feels