New Rockfall, Injury At El Capitan

A day after one climber was killed and another injured, a larger rockfall has hurt someone in the same place in California’s Yosemite National Park.

Climber Ryan Sheridan tells the Associated Press that the new slab that fell from El Capitan — which was full of climbers undetered by Wednesday’s fall — was three times larger than the section that broke off the previous day.

Climber Ryan Sheridan had just reached the top of El Capitan when a new rock slide let loose below him on Thursday.

Peter Zabrok/AP

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Peter Zabrok/AP

He said the debris crashing down from the monolith filled the Yosemite Valley with smoke.

Vehicles were shrouded by a cloud of dust from the new rockfall from El Capitan on Thursday. Rangers closed a road on the north side of the park because of the rock fall.

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Tamara Goode/AP

A park spokesman said the person injured Thursday has been flown out to a hospital. The person’s condition has not been released.

The Fresno Bee reports:

“Thursday’s rock fall appeared to be in the East Buttress area where Wednesday’s rock fall occurred. Traffic was being cleared from a nearby meadow and visitors were gathering to watch as one helicopter hovered over the debris. Later Thursday, the park announced that Northside Drive exiting the Yosemite Valley was closed due to the rock fall and advised drivers to leave via Southside Drive.”

Larger rockfall on El Capitan today, with one injury. Debris reached a road, so detour in place; drive with caution in Yosemite Valley. pic.twitter.com/wciTNR5SkT

— Yosemite National Pk (@YosemiteNPS) September 29, 2017

Park officials said the man killed in yesterday’s rockfall was Andrew Foster, 32, of Wales, and his wife, who was seriously injured. Her name was not released. The officials said the couple were in the park to climb but were not climbing at the time of the fall.

The National Park Service noted in a statement before Thursday’s event:

“Rockfalls are a common occurrence in Yosemite Valley and the park records about 80 rockfalls per year; though many more rockfalls go unreported. The rockfall from El Capitan [on Wednesday] was similar in size and extent compared with other rockfalls throughout the park, though it is not typical that that there were victims.

“It has been 18 years since the last rockfall-related fatality in Yosemite National Park. In that incident, rock climber Peter Terbush was killed by a rockfall from Glacier Point June 13 1999. There have now been 16 fatalities and more than 100 injuries from rockfalls since park records began in 1857.”

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Beyoncé Joins J. Balvin And Willy William For 'Mi Gente' Remix

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J. Balvin released a remix of his Latin pop hit “Mi Gente” on Thursday night, and the guest verse could not have come from a bigger star.

Beyoncé joined Balvin and the song’s original singer Willy William in what they surely hope is the crossover follow-up to Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” remix with Justin Bieber.

Queen Bey sings in both English and Spanish on the track, which features a lyric video made up of social footage of talented dancers of all stripes.

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Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Voted Out Of Office

Dave Archambault, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, stands outside court in Washington in October 2016, where appeals court judges heard his tribe’s challenge to the Dakota Access pipeline.

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Jessica Gresko/AP

The chair of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota has been voted out of office, just about one year after the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.

Unofficial results show Dave Archambault received about 37 percent of the 1,710 votes cast. His challenger, current tribal councilman Mike Faith, received 63 percent.

Archambault conceded defeat in a statement on Facebook:

Under Archambault’s leadership the tribe opposed the 1,000 mile, $3.8 billion dollar pipeline. It transports up to 520,000 barrels of crude a day from North Dakota to Illinois.

A section of the pipeline is located just north of the tribe’s reservation and opponents argued construction would compromise sacred lands. They also worried that part of the pipeline under the Missouri River could leak and pollute local drinking water.

The tribe’s opposition inspired protest camps that attracted demonstrators from around the world. There were clashes with police and hundreds of people were arrested.

While the pipeline protests were an issue during the election campaign they were not the only one. The Associated Press reports:

“He [Faith] said he personally opposes the pipeline but thinks the large-scale protest took focus away from other issues, including health care, education, elderly needs, suicide problems, illegal drugs and a poor economy.

“‘We kind of neglected our own’ by taking the lead on the pipeline protest, he said. ‘We did what we had to do, but we didn’t realize we were going to hurt our economy that much.’

“The state shut down the highway near the protest camp for months. The highway also was the main route for patrons of the tribe’s casino, its main source of revenue.

“‘People want to see how we can fix ourselves,’ Faith said. ‘We have to look at not depending on the casino so much. We have to look at enticing companies to come down here.'”

Still, the pipeline is an ongoing issue for the tribe. It continues to battle the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, in court even though oil began flowing through the pipeline this summer.

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FAA Restricts Drones Over Major U.S. Landmarks

The Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota is soon to be off limits to drones flights.

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Mike Stewart/AP

The Federal Aviation Administration has issued a new regulation restricting unauthorized drone operations over 10 Department of Interior sites, including the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore.

The announcement Thursday says the two federal agencies “have agreed to restrict drone flights up to 400 feet within the lateral boundaries” of the following sites:

  • Statue of Liberty National Monument, New York, N.Y.
  • Boston National Historical Park (U.S.S. Constitution), Boston, Mass.
  • Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Pa.
  • Folsom Dam, Folsom, Calif.
  • Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell, Ariz.
  • Grand Coulee Dam, Grand Coulee, Wash.
  • Hoover Dam, Boulder City, N.V.
  • Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis, Mo.
  • Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Keystone, S.D.
  • Shasta Dam, Shasta Lake, Calif.

The announcement says the action comes at “the request of U.S. national security and law enforcement agencies.” It says it marks the first time the FAA has restricted drone flights over Interior Department landmarks, although many of the sites were covered by a National Park Service ban on drones issued in 2014.

But that ban pertained to “launching, landing or operating unmanned aircraft” in national parks. The FAA’s announcement includes the airspace above parks and landmarks.

The latest restrictions take effect on October 5, 2107. Violators “may be subject tp enforcement action, including potential civil penalties and criminal charges,” according to the announcement.

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Puerto Rico Relief Goods Sit Undistributed At Ports

Crowley shipping containers with running refrigeration systems are lined up in the port of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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Angel Valentin for NPR

Millions of people in Puerto Rico need fuel, water, food and medicine. More than a week after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, major infrastructure is still down. Stores have trouble filling their shelves. Families are running low on the supplies they stockpiled before the storm, and across the island, many residents say they haven’t seen any aid deliveries.

Meanwhile, at the port in San Juan, row after row of refrigerated shipping containers sit humming. They’ve been there for days, goods locked away inside.

It’s one thing to get supplies to Puerto Rico. But officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which administers FEMA, say moving goods around the island is the bigger challenge.

Diesel is short. Drivers are scarce. And authorities say some roads are still impassable, although local officials dispute that explanation.

These containers were brought to the island by Crowley, a maritime shipping company. The company started unloading shipments on Saturday. By Friday, it will have received four ships, with a total of about 4,000 loaded crates. Crowley says it has more than 3,000 containers there now. That’s just one shipping company, at one port. Several other ports are accepting shipments and stranded crates total an estimated 10,000.

“This is food, this is water, this is medicine,” says Vice President Jose Ayala, who notes a barge a day has arrived since the port opened on Saturday. “It has reached Puerto Rico. The problem is we can’t get it on the shelves.”

“Plenty of vessels can get cargo to the island,” agrees Mark Miller, Crowley’s vice president of communications. “But the real difficulty is getting the goods to the people via trucks.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of pounds have been delivered to the airport by commercial airlines, and the Department of Defense and FEMA have also been bringing in deliveries by air. Everybody — the government, aid groups and private firms — is having trouble moving those goods around.

Hundreds of refrigerated containers here posing an extra problem. Stores without fuel for their generators can’t accept goods that need to be kept cool.

The Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration tells NPR that the government is working with the truck driver’s union to find a solution for driving with downed power lines and damaged roads, and the Department of Defense says it has sent teams to work on clearing blocked streets.

Not everyone believes roadways are the problem. Roberto Ramirez Kurtz is the mayor of Cabo Rojo in southwestern Puerto Rico, which is about as far away from San Juan as you can get on the island — a 2 ½ to 3-hour drive.

He says more than 5,000 homes were completely destroyed in his town, and people are running out of water and insulin. But aid and resources, “they’re staying in San Juan,” he says.

Kurtz was in San Juan to ask for help, and having made the trip himself, he doesn’t believe that road conditions are an obstacle. “The roads are open,” he says. “I’ve been able to come here. So why haven’t we used this to [transport goods] west?”

Meanwhile Juan Carlos Garcia, the mayor of Coamo in the south of the island, says the only aid his town has received is five pallets of water. “The state never came to provide diesel to the hospital,” he says. People are running low on food supplies and hysteria is growing, he says.

He, too, says the roads are clear — and that he’s in San Juan to ask why no aid has reached his town.

Along with road conditions, authorities and shipping firms also say diesel shortages are to blame. Long lines for gas are persistent all over the island. Distributing fuel across Puerto Rico is FEMA’s number one priority, the Department of Defense says, to help alleviate the issue.

Richard Darmanin, the vice president of Capitol Transportation Inc., says import paperwork is having to be done manually, which is also slowing down the process. And standing outside the port earlier this week, looking at the rows of containers, he said an even bigger problem is the lack of drivers.

You have a shortage of drivers who have lost a lot during the storm,” he says. “You may have a huge fleet but they ain’t moving themselves.”

“Whatever driver shows up, we put him to work,” he says.

The governor of Puerto Rico has issued an appeal for anyone with a commercial license to help distribute gas, Darmanin says.

Delivering goods by air isn’t an automatic solution either, says Nino Correa, the director of search and rescue for Puerto Rico. He’s also been tasked with coordinating drops of food and water from helicopters to aid stranded residents.

“It’s difficult because of the make-up of our island,” he says. “It’s very mountainous and it’s very dangerous for air operations to be taken to certain places,” he says — risky not just for the air crew, but for people on the ground.

The government is carrying out drops as best it can, he says.

“This is the first time in our island that we have received a hurricane that has impacted us like this,” he says. “And we know that if life is difficult during an emergency, during a disaster it’s a lot more difficult.

“We’re working very hard for this,” he says. “There are a lot of people working hard to build [Puerto Rico] back up.”

Angel Valentin, Adhiti Bandlamudi and Jose Olivares contributed to this report.

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After Scuffle, Census To Add Sexual Orientation Question To Marketing Survey

Copies of the 2010 Census forms are on display in Phoenix. The U.S. Census Bureau is no longer considering removing a question on sexual orientation from a marketing survey for the 2020 Census.

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After an outcry from advisers to the U.S. Census Bureau, the federal agency is no longer considering a proposal to remove a question about sexual orientation from a marketing survey for the 2020 Census.

Members of a working group of the bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations on a conference call on Tuesday with bureau staffers raised concerns after learning about the proposal to change the draft questionnaire for the Census Barriers Attitudes and Motivators Survey, or CBAMS, according to meeting minutes obtained by NPR.

Responses to this survey help the bureau craft its marketing campaign to encourage different segments of the U.S. population to participate in the 2020 Census. The survey’s questions try to gauge why certain people — especially among what the bureau considers “hard-to-count” populations, such as racial and ethnic minorities, unauthorized immigrants, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community — do not participate.

The bureau first commissioned this marketing survey in 2008 for the roll-out of the 2010 Census. In preparation for the 2020 Census, the bureau published a Federal Register notice in August to collect public comments on a new draft questionnaire, which included for the first time a question about the respondent’s sexual orientation.

On the conference call with advisory committee members, Census Bureau staffers struggled to explain why the bureau would get rid of the question, according to interviews with four of the advisers on the call.

“The rationale wasn’t there at all,” says Hassan Jaber, executive director and CEO of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn, Mich.

Meghan Maury, policy director for the National LGBTQ Task Force, says she and other advisers were surprised after Census Bureau staffers disclosed the proposal on the call. Not including the question, Maury says, could hinder the bureau’s outreach efforts to the LGBT community and lead to an incomplete count for the 2020 Census.

NPR also spoke with two advisers on the call from Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Washington, D.C. — John Yang, the advocacy group’s president and executive director; and Terry Ao Minnis, director of the group’s census and voting programs. They echoed the concern about the proposal.

Two days after the conference call, the bureau released a statement to NPR saying that the question on sexual orientation “remains a part of the initial set of proposed survey questions. Given the sample size of the CBAMS, the expected response rate, and the percentage of the U.S. population that is LGBT, we would expect the survey to yield a sufficient amount of data upon which to make statistical inferences.”

NPR has sent questions to the bureau about who proposed to remove the question and why, but they have been left unanswered. It is also unclear when the survey questions will be finalized.

The bureau’s decision about the marketing survey comes six months after it sparked controversy for declaring there was “no federal data need” to ask about sexual orientation and gender identity on the largest survey in the U.S., the American Community Survey, despite requests for LGBT data from at least four federal agencies.

Democratic Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware and Sen. Kamala Harris of Californi — both members of the Senate committee with oversight of the Census Bureau — have requested an explanation for the bureau’s decision. The bureau’s response is more than three months overdue. In a written statement to NPR, the bureau’s spokesperson, Michael Cook, wrote, “We fully intend to reply to this inquiry. Our response will be submitted to the [senators] once it has been properly reviewed.”

Still, Maury says she is concerned about a pattern of recent proposals at multiple federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, to remove questions about sexual orientation from federal surveys.

Maury says while she is “excited” about the Census Bureau’s latest decision, the scuffle is a reminder that “we can’t stop watching for a single moment.”

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ISIS Releases Audio Of Leader's Purported Speech, Suggesting He Still Lives

Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, purportedly seen here in video posted in 2014, had not been heard publicly for nearly a year — until Thursday, when ISIS released a possible audio recording of Baghdadi.

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AP

Nearly 11 months since the last time Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi spoke publicly, the leader of the Islamic State purportedly broke his silence Thursday. ISIS media released a 46-minute audio message that plays a speech by Baghdadi, according to the militant group.

It remains unclear when the message was recorded.

But its release comes at a troubled time for the Islamic State, whose territorial claims have eroded significantly since Baghdadi was heard from last. The Islamist militants, who once laid claim to a wide expanse of land straddling the border between Iraq and Syria, lost the major Iraqi city of Mosul — where Baghdadi declared the group’s caliphate in 2014 — earlier this summer to the Iraqi military. And U.S.-backed rebels are now racing against the Syrian regime to retake the oil-rich province of Deir ez-Zor in Suria. Rebel forces have also pushed progressively deeper into Raqqa, ISIS’ so-called capital.

The US.-led coalition has rained down more than 5,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in August alone.

As NPR’s Ruth Sherlock notes, the speech reflects such losses:

“The voice, which sounds like Baghdadi, calls on supporters not to see the loss of territory as a defeat of the group. He tries to energize his faithful, saying the lives of jihadis lost in Mosul and in Raqqa — their stronghold in Syria — should not be in vain.”

The New York Times notes the speech also appeared to make “indirect references to recent attacks on the Underground in London, in the heart of Barcelona and in Russia.”

In June, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the country may have killed Baghdadi in an airstrike — though Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reportedly acknowledged he had “no 100 percent confirmation of this information.”

U.S. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the international military coalition against ISIS, later said he did not believe Baghdadi was dead.

“We’re looking for him every day,” Townsend said last month.

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Trump Deleting Strange Tweets After Luther's Loss Raises Legal Questions

President Trump holds a rally for Alabama Republican Senate candidate Luther Strange on Sept. 22 in Huntsville, Ala. After Strange loss the primary race, Trump’s tweets promoting him were deleted.

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Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

After the candidate whom President Trump backed in Tuesday’s Alabama Senate primary, Luther Strange, lost to Roy Moore, Trump summarily deleted several tweets he had made in support of Strange. However, they were archived on ProPublica’s Politiwhoops website.

Among them: “Luther Strange has been shooting up in the Alabama polls since my endorsement. Finish the job-vote today for “Big Luther”

And: “ALABAMA, get out and vote for Luther Strange-he has proven to me that he will never let you down!#MAGA”

It’s not clear why Trump (or someone on his behalf) acted to attempt to remove the evidence that he backed Strange. The president had been very vocal in his support for Strange, including holding a rally in Alabama on Sept. 22. And while on the Internet nothing is ever really deleted, Trumps actions to remove the tweets from his feed has raised some legal questions.

In June, two government watchdog groups, the National Security Archive, and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington brought a lawsuit against the Trump administration in part for deleting other tweets, arguing it was in violation of the Presidential Records Act.

According to the website of the National Archives, which administers the act, it places “the responsibility for the custody and management of incumbent Presidential records with the President.”

At the time the lawsuit was filed, CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder said that “by deleting these records, the White House is destroying essential historical records.”

But the Alabama Senate tweets may be another matter. In an email, CREW communications director Jordan Libowitz said Trump can delete “purely political tweets,” which he said are not covered by the Presidential Records Act.

However, Libowitz said Trump has been deleting a lot of tweets, and that “particularly as the government has acknowledged @realdonaldtrump tweets to be official statements, deleting those tweets which are not purely political would violate the [Presidential Records Act] if the tweets are not archived.”

Lauren Harper of the nonprofit National Security Archive, which advocates for public access to government information, said Trump is the head of the Republican Party because of his position as president, and so there is not much differentiation between his role as party leader and president in the instance of deleting his tweets about Strange.

Noting reports that at least six current or former White House officials used private email accounts for government business, Harper says the deletion of the Strange tweets “is part of a larger pattern” of the Trump administration not taking record-keeping seriously.

Following the email reports, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Tuesday, “All White House personnel have been instructed to use official email to conduct all government-related work.”

Many of the tweets Trump has deleted are to correct typos. The night of the Alabama race, for example, Trump congratulated Moore and initially told him to “WIN in Nov.” A new tweet later corrected that to “in Dec,” when Alabama will hold its general election.

There was also the “covfefe” kerfuffle in May, when Trump tweeted the mysterious non-word, which was retweeted more than 100,000 times before being deleted. In June, Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., introduced the “COVFEFE Act of 2017” to officially make social media part of the Presidential Records Act.

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Take Me To The Pilot: 'American Made' Soars

I’d Like to Fly the World Some Coke: In American Made, Tom Cruise plays Barry Seal, a drug- running pilot in the 1980s.

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David James/Universal Studios

Slickness is a virtue in American Made, a cheerfully blistering yarn starring Tom Cruise as real-life-TWA-pilot-turned-CIA-stooge-turned-cocaine-smuggler Barry Seal. Piquant and picaresque, it’s essentially a hybrid of Goodfellas and Air America. Those movies — one rightly revered, the other all but forgotten — were released about a month apart from one another back in 1990, a long-ago cinematic era when either one might nevertheless have starred… Tom Cruise.

He’d just scored an Oscar nomination playing real-life Vietnam vet-turned-antiwar activist Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, then immediately re-upped with Top Gun director Tony Scott for the NASCAR action flick Days of Thunder. Sure, Goodfellas was the best American film of 1990, but Days of Thunder grossed nearly twice as much. A few years shy of 30, Cruise had found the golden mean of artistic cred and bankability that few movie stars achieve. Four years later, no longer content to race stock cars at 200 miles per hour, he would earn his pilot’s license. American Made director Doug Liman claims the star performed all of Seal’s daredevil low-altitude flying scenes himself.

We’d infer that, at this point. Among its other virtues, American Made takes the longest-lived, most hands-on A-lister in the history of cinema and gives him a line — repeated twice in the movie — that sums up his range and staying power better than anything Maverick or Jerry Maguire or the top-knotted MRA guru he played in Magnolia ever said: “I’m the gringo who always delivers.”

Undeniably. Incontrovertibly.

Disclosure: I have not seen The Mummy.

But I have seen American Made, and I am here to tell you it’s everything you could want from a flashy true-crime biopic skewering the hypocrisy and malice of the Reagan Administration’s covert war in Central and South America. That included the C.I.A.’s recruitment of skilled, flexibly-scrupled pilots like Seal to work as snoops and gunrunners.

Gary Spinelli’s screenplay takes liberties with the facts of Seal’s life, but not with the sheer scale of the conspiracy. Liman calls the film “a fun lie based on a true story.” That’s notable only because it’s a story to which the director has a personal connection: His father, Arthur Liman, was chief counsel of the Senate Iran-Contra committee of the late 1980s. By the time the elder Liman was among those questioning Oliver North about his role in government-sanctioned drug trafficking on live TV, Seal had already been dead for more than a year.

In this telling, Cruise’s Seal is so bored flying for TWA circa 1978 that he fakes an episode of turbulence, scaring a cabin full of passengers awake. The ubiquitous Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson, playing a white-collar spook who knows all about Seal’s sideline smuggling Cuban cigars, fast-talks him into serving his country while also indulging his need for speed, setting him up with a sleek Piper Aerostar 600 equipped with special cameras. The scenes between Gleeson and Cruise are especially fun: Cruise’s character is a huckster himself, so he knows he’s being taken. Game recognize game.

Seal is a reliable, daring pilot, but also easily led by the nose and good at keeping his mouth shut, so his employers turn a blind eye once he begins flying shipments of cocaine from Medellín, Colombia to Louisiana, dropping the bags in the swamp for pickup before landing. Liman shot on location in Colombia, and these scenes are alive with tension and detail, right down to the sweat stains that threaten to dissolve the fibers of Cruise’s enviable wardrobe of pearl-snap shirts. Seal forms a not-entirely-voluntary compact with young Pablo Escobar (Colombian actor Mauricio Mejía), soon to become the Steve Jobs of coke smuggling.

Liman and Spinelli do a good job with the practical how-tos of dope smuggling, and they make great comic hay of Seal’s increasingly desperate attempts to launder or just-plain-store his gym bags full of cash. (A FBI agent drives down the main street of tiny Mena, Arkansas, where the Agency has set up Seal and his family once the local cops drive him out of Louisiana, and finds nothing but banks with fresh paint on their signs.) As competing law-enforcement agencies close in, the Reagan administration’s shadow war — backing the Contras against the Sandinistas — becomes Seal’s saving grace. Liman works in real clips of First Lady Nancy Reagan urging American children to “just say no” and the President answering reporters’ questions about what he knew and when he knew it with bromides about how delicious his Thanksgiving turkey is going to be. A sub-two-hour movie covering an eight-year period inevitably means dollops of exposition, but Liman handles this adroitly, with a mix of animated segments and VHS video diaries from Cruise. Seal really made videos like this, so it doesn’t feel like cheating.

Cruise affects a mild Louisiana accent, but he hasn’t gained weight or shaved his hairline back or made any other awards-baiting attempt to resemble the historical Seal, who was almost a decade younger than Cruise when he died. He’s past all that now. The arguments for this are the same as the ones for casting Cruise as the tall, blonde literary antiheroes Lestat and Jack Reacher: His room-filling energy is more notable than any distinguishing physical feature. He’s a huckster. He has the liar’s superpower of being able to make himself believe anything he needs to believe.

American Made is also a perfect fit for Liman, who began his career with the sweaty indie comedy Swingers, was nearly fired from the franchise-launching The Bourne Identity (Universal did not invite him back for the sequels), and found common cause with Cruise on Edge of Tomorrow, one of the shrewdest and most original shoulda-been-a-blockbusters of the 21st century. He’s got almost as many misfires on his resume as hits, and that’s because he allows a perceptible measure of chaos into his movies. In the case of even a fictionalized biopic of a guy like Seal — a man who literally flew by the seat of his pants, low enough to brush the treetops, until what would eventually become known as the Medellín cartel caught up to him in a parking lot — that Demme-esque wildness is exactly the right method. And Liman is tireless: He shot, edited, and released the micro-budget war thriller The Wall for Amazon Studios during the interval while American Made was in postproduction. He’s at least as much a one-for-them, one-for me guy as Christopher Nolan or Steven Soderbergh.

In American Made, he’s found his shaggy-dog happy place: It’s one for us.

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In 'Super Dark Times,' An Act of Violence Imperils A Friendship

Teen, Idle: Owen Campbell stars as Zach in Super Dark Times.

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The Orchard

The first time we meet Zach and Josh, two high-schoolers and best friends who gets tangled up in violence, guilt, and psychosis in Super Dark Times, they’re hanging out in the basement, assessing photos of girls in the yearbook and watching softcore porn through the bars on a blocked cable channel. The year is 1995, but it’s little details like this that make the time stamp unnecessary. In our current age of high-speed internet and smartphones, they would troll through the Facebook or Instagram pages of their classmates or watch the limitless pornography that’s only a couple clicks away. But now, these latchkey kids are squinting at the TV, occasionally catching glimpses of bodies, enough to pulse their imagination.

There are other distinct markers of the time, too, like idle games of Minesweeper and nunchucks and thick cordless phones with antennas jutting from the receiver. But it’s important on a practical level to know that teenagers still had to communicate with each other in person or over landlines, and it’s also important to acknowledge that director Kevin Phillips, in his debut, has evoked the feeling mid-’90s adolescence with tremendous care, like a memory recalled with vivid tactility. It may seem odd to think of a film set in the ’90s as a period piece, but Super Dark Times has the ambience of coal-black Stand By Me, even as it’s betrayed by a story that gradually steers into the ditch.

Before taking a gruesome turn that leads it deeper and deeper into the dark, the film follows Zach (Owen Campbell), Josh (Charlie Tahan), and a couple of other teenage boys as they tool around their upstate New York town on bikes. They stop at a convenience store to dare each other into trying dried squid. They stop at Josh’s house, where he shows them his brother’s room, which includes a stash of marijuana and a samurai sword. With his brother away on active duty, Josh agrees to take the sword to slice through milk cartons, but he gets in a fight with another kid and accidentally drives the blade through his throat. In a panic, Zach, Josh, and the other remaining boy cover the victim in leaves, chuck the sword down a well, and quietly walk away.

It’s here when Super Dark Times gets interesting. There’s a scramble to get their stories straight and cover up their involvement in the slaying, but mostly they struggle to come to terms with what they’ve done. Zach, the more outwardly sensitive of the two, can barely bring himself to speak to his longtime crush Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), but he cries on her shoulders. Josh doesn’t come to school for a couple of days, despite the conspicuousness of his absence; when he returns, he immediately gets sent to the principal’s office for calling his teacher the c-word. Violence and shame have poisoned their consciences and their friendship, and it’s to the film’s credit that their carelessness in covering up the incident isn’t deemed as consequential as how they process it.

Yet the script, by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, goes wildly astray when it starts treating the boys’ psychological stress as the grease that lines a slippery slope. When Super Dark Times makes the shift from somber coming-of-age film to out-and-out grisly thriller, its credibility as a character study withers away in the process. Perhaps the filmmakers felt there was some need to understand how teenage minds are warped by circumstances that can lead to violence, but getting from where Zach and especially Josh are in the beginning of the film to where they are at the end of it is more a leap than an evolution.

Still, for a first-time director, Phillips has an unusually strong handle on the finer arts of setting a mood and evoking time and place. Through his lens, an average town in upstate New York carries the gray, lonely, foreboding quality that seeps under his characters’ skins just as much as the incident that sends them over the edge. Whatever the story’s failings, his impression of teenage life in the mid-’90s lingers potently enough to forgive a little. His locale is alive with menace. Next time, maybe he’ll get more persuasive material.

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