American Made


Tom Cruise wonders if he can call his agent collect.

(2017) Biographical Dramedy (Universal) Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemmons, Caleb Landry Jones, Lola Kirke, Jayma Mays, Alejandro Edda, Benito Martinez, E. Roger Mitchell, Jed Rees, Fredy Yate Escobar, Mauricio Mejia, Robert Farrior, Morgan Hinkleman, Alberto Ospino, Daniel Lugo, Felipe Bernedette, Jayson Warner Smith, April Billingsley. Directed by Doug Liman

 

Some stories are too out there to be believed. Some stories are truths that are stranger than fiction. Some stories could only be made in America.

Barry Seal (Cruise) was one such story. A one-time TWA pilot bored with his commuter plane career, he smuggled Cuban cigars into the country to make a little extra cash, bringing him to the attention of the CIA. Not to prosecute him; to recruit him as it turned out. His handler, Monty Schafer (Gleeson) – not his real name as it turns out – wants him to take pictures of Leftist commando units in Central and South America from the air. Barry, ever the adrenaline junkie at heart, gets the best pictures imaginable.

He begins another smuggling sideline; this time bringing drugs into the country for guys like Manuel Noriega (Ospino) and Pablo Escobar (Mejia). Soon, Barry has more cash than he knows what to do with. His wife Lucy (Wright) – suspicious at first – turns a blind eye when she gets all the material goods that she ever dreamed of.

Stories like this rarely end well and Barry’s doesn’t either but while the ride is going on it’s entertaining. Liman seems to know how to get the best out of Cruise who still has that youthful smile but is beginning to show signs of middle age. Nonetheless Cruise again shows his star appeal by being likable while working for some pretty terrible people; well, onscreen anyway.

Liman gives us an almost Steven Soderbergh-like film; brash and full of itself. There is certainly a good deal of entertainment value here but in some ways it’s a cookie cutter movie. It doesn’t really rise above similar stories and nothing happens that the audience can’t see coming a mile away. Still in all, you won’t go wrong renting this puppy although I might think twice about buying it. It’s one of those movies that you see once, enjoy it at the time and promptly forget about it afterwards.

REASONS TO GO: There is an almost Soderbergh-like feel to the film.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a bit too formulaic for my own taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots and lots of profanity as well as some sexuality and a bit of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The plane that Seal used in real life was featured in the movie; tragically, it crashed on the final day of filming, causing two fatalities.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Air America
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Django

San Andreas


Either The Rock is striking a heroic pose or he accidentally gave this girl The People's Elbow.

Either The Rock is striking a heroic pose or he accidentally gave this girl The People’s Elbow.

(2015) Disaster  (New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandria Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue, Colton Haynes, Todd Williams, Matt Gerald, Alec Utgoff, Marissa Neitling, Morgan Griffin, Breanne Hill, Laurence Coy, Fiona Press, Dennis Coard, Simone Kessell. Directed by Brad Peyton

When the earth starts to shake and buildings begin to fall, who are you gonna call? Dwayne Johnson! When the fault cracks in two which the tsunami rolls into, who’ll see you through? Dwayne Johnson!

Disaster movies were a thing of the 70s for a short while, all-star casts of big stars put at risk by natural or man-made disasters. Irwin Allen was the king of these films, and things like The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno were big box office champs back in the day. These days, most of those disaster effects are done on computers which you’d think would save money in the budget for amazing casts but here in this 21st century disaster movie, after legitimate stars Johnson and Giamatti as well as next-tier stars Gugino, Daddario, Panjabi and Gruffudd, things get a little thin. Where’s William Holden when you really need him?

Ray (Johnson) is a LAFD rescue helicopter pilot whose devotion to his job increased exponentially when one of his daughters drowned during a rafting trip and he was unable to save her. His remaining daughter Blake (Daddario) adores daddy, but he emotionally shut down after the tragedy and after trying and trying his wife Emma (Gugino) is now his ex-wife and is moving into the palatial mansion of architect Daniel Reddick (Gruffudd) who seems like a genuinely nice guy. When a massive earthquake in Nevada ruptures the Hoover Dam, forcing an all hands on deck call to any rescue helicopter pilots in the neighborhood, Ray has to cancel on a planned road trip to take his baby girl to college. She instead hitches a ride to San Francisco with Daniel. And Emma takes a lunch with his bitchy sister (Minogue).

That’s when Big One #2 hits, in Los Angeles. Ray is forced to save his own wife from a collapsing high rise and when they realize that Big One #3 is going to hit San Francisco at any moment – thanks to earthquake predicting software developed by Dr. Lawrence (Giamatti) whose partner (Lee) was buried alive in the Hoover Dam thing. Now Ray and Emma are heading up to San Francisco to rescue Blake who has been abandoned by the as-it-turns-out cowardly Daniel and has hooked up with a lovestruck Brit named Ben (Johnstone-Burt) and his precocious little brother Ollie (Parkinson).

The effects-heavy San Andreas features lots of buildings and other structures collapsing, people crushed by fallen masonry, a tsunami that takes down the Golden Gate Bridge and Ray driving anything that isn’t nailed down be it on land, in the air or at sea. There’s plenty of shark jumping and WTF moments that will turn your brain into peanut butter if you think about it too hard. My advice is, just don’t think about it and go with the flow.

Other than the adequate and occasionally delightful effects, the big draw here is Johnson. He’s not the most accomplished actor on any given set, but he doesn’t need to be, particularly on movies like this. He gets by on his irresistible charm, his rippling biceps and his genuine heart. You can’t help but like the guy no matter who he’s playing; it will be interesting to see what he does with a villain role in the upcoming comic book hero movie Shazam. Here even at the movie’s most godawful plot moments, he rescues it just by being himself.

Writer Carlton Cuse (Lost) doesn’t deliver his best work here which is kind of a shame; I would have loved to see his ability to draw up fascinating characters in impossible situations transplanted here, but the movie is just so engaging in terms of effects and disaster goodness that it’s hard to really fault Cuse for not bringing on the A game here. This isn’t going to break box office records, nor is it going to redefine the summer blockbuster. While it could have used a more judicious hand in the editing room – dodging falling buildings repetitively gets pretty old after awhile – it nonetheless accomplishes what most of us are looking for this time of year which is a fun ride at the movie theater.

REASONS TO GO: Dwayne Johnson saves the day. Fun summer entertainment.
REASONS TO STAY: Paint-by-numbers plot. Probably a good half hour too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Intense action, disaster mayhem and a few choice curse words here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Riddick’s San Francisco headquarters is actually the Bank of America building, the same building (enhanced with optical effects) that was used for the 1974 disaster classic The Towering Inferno.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Earthquake
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Peace, Love and Misunderstanding

American Hustle


The 70s - the sexy decade.

The 70s – the sexy decade.

(2013) Drama (Columbia) Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner, Louis C.K., Jack Huston, Michael Pena, Shea Whigham, Alessandro Nivola, Elizabeth Rohm, Robert De Niro, Paul Herman, Said Taghmaoui, Adrian Martinez, Anthony Zerbe, Colleen Camp, Steve Gagliastro, Christy Scott Cashman, Becki Dennis. Directed by David O. Russell

Ah, the 70s. The Disco decade; home to the bellbottoms generation in which fashion and hair were so hideous that even the 80s looks more reasonable. The era in which the music scene was so stodgy that punk had to be invented to kick start rock and roll from a moribund existence (although to be honest I’ve always thought the accusation a bit unfair). In movies it was the time of the anti-hero when Travis Bickle, Dirty Harry and Billy Jack roamed the silver screen. Rodney Dangerfield might have said that the 70s don’t get no respect.

It was also the time of ABSCAM, an FBI sting operation that netted corrupt politicians amid accusations of entrapment. The latest from Oscar-nominated director David O. Russell is loosely based on that affair. Here, manic FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) has small time con man and dry cleaner Irving Rosenfeld (Bale) by the shorties. Irv has been selling fake loans to desperate businessmen and pocketing the fees. He is aided by his sexy girlfriend Sydney Prosser (Adams) who affects an English accent although she’s from Albuquerque.

DiMaso has Atlantic City mayor Carmine Polito (Renner) in his crosshairs and thinks that Irv and Sydney can sweet talk the mayor into accepting money from an Arab sheikh to help rebuild Atlantic City and erect the casinos that he knows can turn the city around. While the FBI doesn’t have any sheikhs sitting around headquarters with nothing to do, Irv knows where to get one and it looks like he might just get out of this thing okay.

But things quickly start spiraling out of control. Irv’s wife – yes he has a wife too – Rosalyn (Lawrence) gets wind of what’s going on and knows enough to really throw a monkey wrench in the works. Carmine also brings in a mobster (De Niro) from Miami who is no fool and doesn’t play nice if he thinks that things are snarky and brother, nothing is more snarky than what’s going down in this hustle. To make matters worse, Carmine turns out to be a pretty decent guy who only wants to help the people of Atlantic City; he’s just willing to take an inadvisable shortcut to do it and Irv starts to get second thoughts about nailing him.

The story is more parable than plot having to do with control and power and how it corrupts, but that’s really not what the movie’s about. What the movie is really about is the characters and Russell may well be the best ensemble director in Hollywood right now. He has collected an impressive group of actors, some of the best working today.

Nobody throws themselves into  a role as physically as Bale. He gained some 50 pounds for this role and affected a slouch (which led to him being treated for two herniated discs) as well as a hideous combover which all became affectations of the character which helped sum up Irv in just a glance. Irv is wary about the world and doesn’t trust anyone and with good cause. He’s smart, smart enough to know that while he’s smarter than most people he’s not as smart as everyone and that the best strategy for any good con is to have a way out. Bale makes this character who might easily have become just another lowlife loser in lesser hands into a sympathetic almost-a-hero.

In fact, all of the characters wind up gaining a certain amount of sympathy from the audience which is quite a feat, even the somewhat loathsome DiMaso. Cooper understands that Richie is desperate to become somebody and lives in fear that he will be forever a non-entity. That fear drives him, makes him take unrealistic chances and to leap when he should look. It also creates a rage within him, a rage that he takes out on his hapless boss (C.K.).

Lawrence has become one of the most capable actresses in Hollywood over the last few years and while her role here is clearly a supporting one, she has one scene that is absolutely breathtaking. Just listen for the strains of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” and you’ll understand. Rosalyn is a Jersey princess who comes off as plenty dumb but is a lot smarter in the end than anyone might think. She also rocks the lame dress you see in the poster.

Me though I thought the performance of the film belonged to Amy Adams. Dressed in sultry low-cut dresses she’s always threatening to fall out of, this is a strong brassy character but inside she is a frightened little girl holding off the cruelty of life with an English accent. When that vulnerability shows through as it does on a few occasions, Adams just rips it up. I don’t know that she’ll get an Oscar nomination for this one but she not only richly deserves one, I think she might just have put together a performance that beats out Sandra Bullock’s in Gravity. It’s neck and neck in my book for best actress of the year.

With all that going for it, you’d think I’d have loved the movie but curiously I didn’t love it. I liked it a lot, respected it a great deal but I just didn’t fall in love with the movie. It didn’t connect with me somehow; maybe it’s the length which seems to drag on a bit. Maybe it’s just that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it – there are elements of black comedy here as well as a scam movie. I admire that Russell stayed true not only to the setting but the way movies were made in that era. From a strictly craft point of view this is excellent filmmaking.

So take my lack of enthusiasm for what it’s worth. Sometimes you see a movie you admire but you just don’t connect with it for whatever reason. It happens. I get the sense my wife loved the movie more than I did but I don’t think she was all that enthusiastic in her love either. In any case from my point of view this is a movie that inspires respect and admiration more than devotion. Take from that what you will.

REASONS TO GO: High level performances all around.

REASONS TO STAY: Too long. For whatever reason I couldn’t connect with it.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a ton of swearing, some brief violence and some sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming in Boston was delayed because of the Boston Marathon bombing; afterwards Adams, Cooper, Bale and Renner all visited victims of the attack in area hospitals.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 90/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Iceman

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Apocalypto

Red 2


Helen Mirren takes aim.

Helen Mirren takes aim.

(2013) Spy Comedy (Summit) Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Byung Hun Lee, Neal McDonough, Catherine Zeta-Jones, David Thewlis, Brian Cox, Tim Pigott-Smith, Garrick Hagon, Jong Kun Lee, Steven Berkoff, Philip Arditti, Mitchell Mullen, Martin Sims, Tristan D. Lalla, Nathalie Buscombe. Directed by Dean Parisot

That pesky Internet. Just when you think you’ve found peace and quiet in a suburban retirement far from the stresses of your job, WikiLeaks goes and publishes a document that links you to a CIA plot back in ’79 to smuggle a WMD into Moscow. Now you can’t even shop at Costco without having wackos taking a shot at you.

That’s just what happens to Frank Moses (Willis), once the CIA’s most skilled assassin but now enjoying his golden years with his new lady Sarah (Parker). In fact, he is shopping at Costco with his somewhat bored Sarah when they are accosted by Marvin (Malkovich), Frank’s twitchy partner (you’d be twitchy too if you were fed LSD every day for several years) in the power tools aisle.

He lets Frank know that the two of them have been linked to some operation called Nightshade that neither one of them can remember and now it looks like there’s a big nasty storm headed in their direction. Turns out he’s right.

It also turns out going on the run with assassins – including Han (Lee), the world’s best – after them is just the kick in the pants Frank and Sarah’s relationship needs. Of course having homicidal Victoria (Mirren), one of the finest killers-for-hire there is – on your side doesn’t hurt. Frank and his crew will need to break Dr. Bailey (Hopkins) out of jail, never mind that he’s supposed to be dead. Oh, and the CIA has sent Jack Horton (McDonough) to see that Frank is captured and interrogated none to gently and it turns out Han has a personal grudge against Han and all Frank wanted to do was get a new barbecue grill.

Movies like this need to be lighthearted and Parisot uses an undeniably light touch. Maybe too light – the movie is almost devoid of weight like it was filmed on the International Space Station using elaborate sets to make the audience think it was completely earthbound. There’s no substance here – and there isn’t required to be – but the lack of it might turn those who want a little meat with their mousse off.

Willis excels at these kind of roles these days, the weary hero. If you’ve seen his last three Die Hard movies you’ll know what I mean. He is a bit grumpy and a bit smart alecky but when the rubber hits the road the man is still one of the best action stars in Hollywood. Some might sniff that he’s playing the same part he has for 30 years but then again that’s true for most of the actors in Hollywood in one way or another.

Mirren steals the show though. She’s got that patrician look and accent and when she pulls out a big effin’ gun, she looks so gleeful it’s hard not to feel a surge of the same emotion yourself. She has some interesting byplay with Parker, who is a lot better here than she was in the first movie where she was a bit overwrought. She goes more subtle here and it works better.

Lee is impressive; I’m hoping that we see more of him in similar roles. With most of the great martial arts action stars aging, it’s nice to know that there are some guys ready to step in and fill the void. Malkovich, of course, is Malkovich. He does what he does

The first Red was fun, unusual and unexpected. While its sequel retains much of the first quality, it lacks the second two. Still, there’s enough of that one quality to allow the audience to have a pretty good time at the movies. It may be disposable, but sometimes that’s just what you need.  

REASONS TO GO: Mind-numbing fun. The cast is a hoot.

REASONS TO STAY: Exceedingly lightweight. Has lost its novelty.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action of the gunplay variety, some car chase property destruction, a little crude language and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Hopkins and Cox have played Hannibal Lecter in the movies.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100; the critics weren’t so enamored of this one but at least they didn’t hate it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Losers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Back to the Future Part III