AMERICAN MADE (Movie Review)

AmericanMade
*** out of ****
Rated R
(for strong language throughout and some sexuality/nudity)
Released:  September 29, 2017
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Alejandro Edda
, Fredy Yate Escobar, Mauricio Mejia

A fast and loose movie about a guy who played fast and loose with the law – and The Law itself – American Made follows the (mis)adventures of Barry Seal, the pilot who ran drugs in the 1980s for the world’s largest cartel while also running covert missions for the U.S. government who had engaged in a newly minted “War on Drugs”.

The duplicity here went beyond Barry Seal. It was in our government, too, starting with Seal’s opportunistic CIA handler who saw the thriving business potential in illegal contraband. For him, Seal’s shady history was a virtue, not a liability. And for Seal, who lived for the thrill of seeing how successfully he could game both sides, he was living a mercenary’s version of the American Dream.

Compounding the corruption, Lt. Col. Oliver North and the Reagan administration saw an opportunity to use the whole operation to aid the Contras against a USSR-backed communist regime (yep, this all led to Iran/Contra, as you’d expect) but, just as you might expect American Made to track a strictly liberal bias, the story throws then-Governor Bill Clinton under the bus, too.

This whole bizarre escapade, as directed by Doug Liman (Swingers), plays out like a gonzo Big Short sort of spree, carousing in the absolute absurdity of what was being pulled off. Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow superstar Tom Cruise revels in it all, too, with a swagger that’s locked-and-loaded with a full mag of his charisma.

Filmed with gusto, spunk, and a real cinematic flair (it’s a slick whirlwind awash in lush colors, Central America especially), the first half of American Made is a high-octane romp that lacks a necessary undercurrent of unease, or a satirical gravity that the subject requires. The frivolity – as entertaining as it is – only goes so far.

Inevitably, though, it all starts to unravel, and the movie gets better when it does. Stakes are raised, tension mounts, and legitimate consequences emerge – from legal jeopardy to life-and-death peril – as things spiral out in ways you can’t expect. This weightier second act starts to match Liman’s fluid and assured kinetic style, more suitably self-aware than David O. Russell’s recent batch of self-important Oscar baits (American Hustle, et al).

For as criminal as these events were, it’s hard to be as shocked as we once might have been. Politically speaking, we’re hard-wired for cynicism right now. Astutely, Liman doesn’t strain for shock value, instead choosing to keep this telling squarely in the lane of being a wild ride and, for Cruise, an actor’s showcase (even if his Southern accent is never really credible).

Still, that larger-than-life esprit ends up serving as its own indictment, and the sudden, final sobering moment packs a truly powerful punch. American Made may not have the moral reckoning that a Scorsese-in-his-prime might have reached, but there’s something to be said for Liman respecting his audience enough to know we’ll get the point anyway.

STRONGER (Movie Review)

stronger
***1/2 out of ****
Rated R
(for strong language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity)
Released:  September 22, 2017
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Lenny Clarke, Clancy Brown, Danny McCarthy, Nate Richman, Richard Lane Jr., Carlos Sanz

Real world authenticity is a hallmark of David Gordon Green dramas (All The Real Girls, Snow Angels), each one elevated by philosophical reflections.

That track record makes him a perfect yet subtly subversive choice to bring the story of Jeff Bauman to the screen. Stronger is the dramatization of Bauman’s struggle to overcome the loss of his legs after the Boston Marathon terrorist bombing of 2013, but it’s not a typical Hollywood version.

In a brave choice of its own, Stronger becomes a deconstruction of what it means to be a hero. Even considering such an approach seems tone deaf, and possibly offensive, especially since movies that deconstruct popular, accepted ideals are often (and perhaps always) cynical. But not this one.

Stronger deconstructs the notion of what a hero is, but with grace and empathy. It’s inspiring because of its candor, not some contrived mythologizing. The point here isn’t that everyday heroes like Jeff Bauman don’t deserve our admiration or praise, or even our hagiography; they do. But what Stronger shows us – with stark intimacy – is that we must be careful not to burden our heroes with the weight of that label.

Jeff Bauman was your average blue collar Bostonian who found himself mere feet from the bomb that exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. His legs were obliterated from the knees down. Of all the people injured, he became a public figure because his proximity enabled Bauman to identify one of the bombers. That, coupled with his fight to walk again with the aid of prosthetic legs, made him the symbol of the rallying cry “Boston Strong”.

That fame, however, became more of a burden than a comfort. As if recovering from major trauma wasn’t enough, Bauman was working to repair his relationship with a woman, one he had sabotaged with his own arrested development. Becoming “a hero” didn’t instantly make him mature. Add to that the economic challenges of his own lower income family (with an alcoholic matriarch), and the yoke of “hero” became more than Bauman could bear.

An entire city began to track its own recovery with his, as if Bauman himself was the gauge. Even though that public solidarity was an expression of support and love for Jeff, that’s just too much responsibility for one man to carry. Stronger examines this in ways both tender and unflinching.

It asks necessary questions of us as a society but without indicting blame. It understands that these complexities are the result of very genuine human impulses, ones that come from the need to reconcile gruesome inhumanity with a practical faith that we can use to heal and move forward.

A part of that instinct is to incarnate a symbol of that struggle, to find a hero. Stronger doesn’t ask us to avoid finding heroes; it pastorally challenges us to reconsider what we expect from them.

Green’s approach removes the typical melodramatic polish. His movie doesn’t try to manipulate our emotions; he strives to legitimately capture theirs. Instead of constructing scenes for maximum dramatic effect, Green often lingers quietly at length on a specific character, allowing each to carry us through an entire moment. We don’t need multiple angles, reactions, or perspectives; a great performance is more than enough, and actually more convincing.

To that end, there’s at least three actors here worthy of serious Oscar consideration while others, in much smaller roles, deliver some of the film’s most effectively raw sentiments.

A recurring refrain in Jake Gyllenhaal’s career is “this is his best performance yet”. That applies once again here. Dialing back his penchant for intensity (and saving it for one crucial scene), Gyllenhaal achieves his most naturalistic and internalized acting to date while delivering a thoroughly credible Boston accent. This is a transformative performance that’s also his most believable.

Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) imbues Jeff’s girlfriend Erin with her own necessary courage. She clearly loves this man, but to commit to him all the way requires several acts of faith, and occasional leaps, not just for the obvious challenge they face but also because Jeff’s never fully proven himself worthy of Erin’s fidelity. She’s fighting the fight no one sees, and is a hero in her own right. Their love story is as real as it gets.

Conversely there’s Jeff’s mother Patty, an alcoholic that Miranda Richardson doesn’t overplay for awards season clips. It’s a candid expression of Patty’s own brokenness. This native Brit, too, feels as if she’s walked right off the Boston streets.

Indeed, this whole Bostonian world is entirely authentic. That region is such a magnified culture, with big emotions and thick accents, it’s virtually inevitable that any depiction would slip into parody from time to time. Green’s movie and cast, however, never does.

In every regard, Stronger feels like a movie made by and with real Bostonians, even though key collaborators are not. Green doesn’t work overtime to make any of this “gritty” either. The entire milieu, down to every last beat, is completely honest.

“Boston Strong” would seem the appropriate title for this movie, yet Stronger is actually more fitting. That’s because “Boston Strong” is just a slogan, but “stronger” is a virtue. It’s one we see throughout this story, and through many people, right up to a heartbreaking confessional from the man who saved Bauman’s life.

Being “stronger” doesn’t mean we’re impervious to the trials that test our mettle, the ones that reveal how fragile life truly is. “Stronger” is a virtue that’s forged and earned from rising out of life’s darkest valleys, despite how easily we – or anyone – could’ve succumbed. Including heroes.

 

New Trailer For DARKEST HOUR Shows Churchill Against The World (VIDEO/IMAGES)

Serving as a perfect companion piece to this summer’s Dunkirk, the upcoming biopic Darkest Hour is an Oscar season hopeful about Winston Churchill confronting Britain’s most dramatic turning point of WWII.

Gary Oldman stars as the iconic Prime Minister in a powerhouse performance that’s already being billed as a lock for Best Actor. Hype aside, under the direction of Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice), Darkest Hour should offer history geeks and cinephiles a fascinating look at one of the 20th Century’s most crucial figures.

Co-starring Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, and Ben Mendelssohn, Darkest Hour opens in limited release on November 22, 2017 and expands through December.

The Darkest Hour

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Eerie Sci-Fi Vision On Display In First ANNIHILATION Trailer (VIDEO/IMAGES)

If Ex Machina was the promise of a great new filmmaker, Annihilation looks to fulfill it.

Alex Garland follows up his directorial debut with this adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer‘s the best-selling novel, an eco-horror thriller that boasts a spectacular vision with a (female-heavy) cast to match: Natalie PortmanJennifer Jason LeighTessa ThompsonGina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, and Oscar Isaac. (Yes, Padme Amidala and Poe Dameron are co-starring in a sci-fi movie together.)

Annihilation opens in theaters on February 23, 2018.

Click any picture for larger image gallery.

COLUMBUS (Movie Review)

columbus
***1/2 out of ****
Rated R
(for strong language)
Released:  August 4, 2017 NY/LA; expands through fall
Runtime: 104 minutes
Director: Kogonada
Starring: John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parker Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes

Columbus is, on the surface, the movie equivalent of a great coffee table book about modern architecture. That’s a compliment, to be clear. Shot in a small Indiana town, Columbus is one of the most visually striking films of the year.

In every precisely-designed frame, this directorial debut from Korean-American auteur-to-watch Kogonada basks in a beautiful visual symmetry. It’s a wonder to look at – contemplatively, not because of eye-popping spectacle – just as one would deliberately consider an exhibit at a museum, patiently, allowing it to reveal itself and speak to you.

This visual canvas is both front & center and, ultimately, a backdrop to two strangers meeting at the intersection of similar life crossroads. But like so many lines in architectural angles, this man and woman need to go in opposite directions.

Casey is a post-high school young woman whose life is in limbo, but not for lack of talent or ambition (far from it). Jin is nearly twenty years her senior; he’s flown back into town from Korea because of a family crisis. Randomly crossing paths at first, they connect over Casey’s love of architecture (she’s a full-blown nerd; his dad is a noted expert), but then more deeply over the fact that each has a strained, complicated relationship with a parent.

Jin’s never been close to his dad, who’s now in a coma, with the distance between them being literally halfway around the world. Casey’s mom is a drug addict, but her response to this delicate disease is to stay even closer to her mother, not to run, even sacrificing her own dreams to help. Jin’s solution is to avoid his dad; Casey’s is to not leave her mother. He wants the parent/child relationship to end, she wants to repair it.

Much of the film is made up of Jin and Casey’s conversations as they stroll around Columbus, Indiana, looking at and talking about the town’s unique modernist structures, their histories, and what they evoke. These are very intriguing conversations, as are Casey’s with her Doctoral student library co-worker Gabriel, that grow from the intellectual to the philosophical, and eventually the personal.

What makes their connection fascinating, beyond the romantic chemistry, is the unique dichotomy of how Casey and Jin share similar problems that require opposite solutions. He’s been absent while she’s remained, but he needs to stop running and she needs to let go. You could say they need to switch virtues, she to fulfill her potential and he to make things right.

Ironically, the best thing for each of them, the necessary thing, is to heed the council they give to the other and then, for themselves, do the reverse. Actors John Cho (the new Star Trek films) and Haley Lu Richardson (The Edge of Seventeen) engage each other with genuine compassion, empathy, and tough truths. In their exchanges, there’s real tenderness.

For an intimate character piece, Columbus is uncharacteristically short on close-ups. Its explicit focus on architecture is the reason why, but architecture serves as more than a modernist milieu. Environment informs character and, in that, architecture becomes a fitting metaphor.

Architecture isn’t just about design; it’s about space. How space is created within structure, how we respond to that space and that structure, how we exist in it, and how we share it.

In that sense architecture is like life, and how life is lived. At its core that’s what Columbus is about, too, as these two strangers help each other discover the necessary Feng Shui of their paths forward. Within that journey, Kogonada crafts a lush visual poetry with a spiritual one to match.

HBO’s SPIELBERG Documentary Takes In-Depth Look At An American Master (VIDEO)

The man who’s made the most popular (and some of the best) movies of a generation is now the primary focus of one.

Spielberg is just that, a feature length documentary about Steven Spielberg, one of the greatest film directors of all time. Produced by HBO, documentarian Susan Lacy conducted almost 30 hours of interviews with Spielberg himself, then also sat down with numerous others in an all-star lineup of industry giants and Spielberg collaborators (many being both):

J.J. Abrams, Christian Bale, Drew Barrymore, Cate Blanchett, Francis Ford Coppola, Daniel Craig, Daniel Day-Lewis, Brian de Palma, Laura Dern, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, Ben Kingsley, George Lucas, Liam Neeson, Martin Scorsese, Oprah Winfrey, and Robert Zemeckis. 

Spielberg premieres on HBO on Saturday October 7, 2017, and will play for free for one month – even for non-subscribers – on HBO Now (hbonow.com).

You can also read my reviews for every Spielberg film ever made in my ranking of The Spielberg Canon.

spielbergposter

Prep For BLADE RUNNER 2049: Prequel Short Film “2048: NOWHERE TO RUN” (VIDEO)

The long-awaited Blade Runner sequel is almost here, but before it hits screens director Denis Villeneuve and Warner Bros. are releasing a prequel trilogy of short films to setup where the dystopian world is now, forty years after the original. This one, titled 2048: Nowhere to Run, centers around the character of Sapper Morton, a vigilante replicant played by Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) in a very non-Drax like dramatic role. Blade Runner 2049 opens on October 6, 2017.