American Made

AMDirector: Doug Liman

Screenwriter: Gary Spinelli

Cast: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, and Jesse Plemons

I had an idea once for a movie where I’d pluck out a completely inconsequential character from a well-known film, and then base an entire story around that character. What I love most about this idea is that the film I write would stand firmly on its own two feet with no overt mention to the protagonist’s connection to the larger, famous work. Only those who pick up the subtle clues would ever even be able to connect them.

I had a similar experience watching American Made. I’ll admit that I am not up to date on my drug cartel history, but I do watch and love the Netflix series, Narcos. So as I’m sitting, watching, and enjoying Tom Cruise’s new film American Made, I suddenly start thinking, “I know the name Barry Seal. Wasn’t he in an episode of Narcos?” And then two things happened: 1. I felt what it would be like to have that revelation of realizing a frivolous character from one story is now the subject of another, and 2. I realized I knew everything that was going to happen in this movie. I loved realizing the first thing, but I was not as excited about realizing the second one.

The good news is I love Tom Cruise, and he made up for all the predictability that followed. So it turns out, yes, this is the story of Barry Seal – they guy from Season 1, Episode 4 of Narcos. Seal, played by Tom Cruise is a TWA pilot, who as America is in the grips of the Cold War during the 1970s catches the attention of a CIA agent, Monty Schafer (Domhnhall Gleeson). Seal has been smuggling Cuban cigar exiles into the states as a means of additional income, and Schafer sees Seal’s activity not so much as punishable but as exploitative. Schafer offers Seal a chance to work secretly for the government, taking reconnaissance photos of South American guerilla camps and delivering bribes to Nicaraguan and Panamanian politicians and military personnel for information.

Of course, the CIA doesn’t pay much, and Barry wants nothing more than to make a great life for his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and kids. That being said, it doesn’t take long for the Columbian drug cartel headed by Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), Carlos Ledher (Fredy Yate Escobar), and an up-and-coming-kid Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía) to take notice of an American spy plane running in and out of South America on a pretty regular basis. The cartel sees Seal’s activity not so much as punishable but as exploitative…rinse, wash, repeat (see what I did there?).

The movie spends the rest of its focus watching Seal bounce back and forth between running drugs for the cartel and informing on “Commies” for the CIA. Meanwhile Seal just keeps getting richer, and richer and richer.

Still, the movie doesn’t jive like I wanted it to. I think director Doug Liman and screenwriter, Gary Spinelli bet on the fact that most people who see this film wouldn’t have seen episode 4 of Narcos. I also think they knew Tom Cruise in a plane is something people enjoy. Additionally, this marks the second collaboration between Liman and Cruise after 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, or was it called Live Die Repeat? No one knows for sure. Anyway, that was a great movie and Liman directed the hell out of it, a film which was basically Groundhog Day meets Terminator and has Cruise reporting to Brenden Gleeson. So why couldn’t Doug Liman direct the hell out of a movie that is basically The Wolf of Wall Street meets Top Gun where Cruise is reporting to Dohmnall Gleeson? He can and he pretty much does. Liman gets a great performance out of Cruise, and a little birdy tells me there are at least two more Liman/Cruise joints in the works. This is good news.

What doesn’t quite jive for me in this film are the circumstances, a deficit that I think mostly falls on the writing. There is a lot of coincidence and shrugging off of impossible situations in American Made. At one moment Seal is in a Columbian prison as government agents are about to raid his New Orleans home with his family asleep inside. The next moment, Seal and his family are living in Arkansas and they own an airplane hanger. It’s not quite that sudden, but it’s pretty close. Gleeson’s Agent Schafer character is also oddly underdeveloped and while I understand his persona is supposed to be mysterious, he seems contradictory and far more dramatic than necessary. Lastly, Jesse Plemons is in this movie as a local sheriff, and I have to assume there is a cache of great footage of him on the cutting room floor somewhere because what’s left of his character is barely an arc.

All in all, Cruise continues to entertain and gives more than just an action-packed performance. In a fall season where all there is to see is It for the 10th time, this is a worthy film that has far more high points than low ones. B

American Made is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes.

Top 11 Saturday Night Live Movies

SNL 40th Anniversary SpecialIn honor of Saturday Night Live’s 40th Anniversary, I have decided to recognize the impact the show has had cinematically by listing the top SNL films. In terms of criteria for this list, I will consider films that include at least 2 actors and/or writers who can owe their success to the show. That means no Martin Short, no Christopher Guest, no Billy Crystal, and no Robert Downey Jr. Almost 50 films fit my criteria, but only 11 films have been made that are truly based on an SNL skit, and honestly most of them are terrible. Therefore, I have prepared a Top 11 list to replace that one and here they are!

Austin Powers11.  Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery – Clearly some of you are already calling shenanigans on this pick, but hear me out. Yes, this is a Mike Myers vehicle all the way and you have to go pretty deep to make this film fit my criteria but a relatively unknown Will Ferrell does play the scene stealing Mustafa, henchman to Dr. Evil. However, what really makes this film deserving of this list is the fact that Myers admits that his portrayal of Dr. Evil is directly based on an exaggerated version of SNL creator and executive producer, Lorne Michaels. Groovy, baby!

Happy Gilmore10.  Happy Gilmore – Adam Sandler films, on the whole, are relatively unremarkable, and at times they are downright insulting and offensive. However, as you’ll see later on this list, when SNL and golf get together, sometimes lightening strikes twice. Adam Sandler plays a hockey player turned golfer with a knack for the tee shot but that’s about it. Sandler’s buddy and cast-mate Kevin Nealon plays the zen-like foil to Sandler’s temperamental Happy and SNL writer Robert Smigel shows up for a moment to put the SNL stamp on this one.

Spies Like Us9.  Spies Like Us – This one may not have aged as well as the previous two, but it is the first one you can’t deny belongs on the list. Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd are two dopey government employees who get chosen by the CIA for a mission as decoys for two other real spies who are working to take down Soviet defenses. The Paul McCartney theme song alone is worth it, but the film works in the style of the old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road movies.

Bridesmaids8.  Bridesmaids – Don’t worry ladies, SNL is not just for the boys (although, this list does lean heavily in that direction). Kristin Wiig and Maya Rudolph craft a real crowd pleaser with Bridesmaids. Sometimes discussed as the female Hangover, this film is undeserving of such derivative talk. There’s real magic in the comedy of this film and it has everything to do with the chemistry of the stars and Wiig’s clever script, which earned an Oscar nomination, rare for SNL films.

Blues Brothers7.  The Blues Brothers – Oddly, as “SNL” as these characters are, Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, and James Brown are the reason to watch this film. Still the “getting the band back together” plotline to complete a “mission from God” is a lot of fun. Whether they’re leading 100 cops on a car chase through a mall or taking down the Illinois Nazi party, Jake and Elwood and their sunglasses are always on!

Trading Places6.  Trading Places – Based on a rather high-brow social experiment, Trading Places finds the lives of socialite Dan Aykroyd and street-bum Eddie Murphy suddenly switched as part of a wager between two rich CEOs.  The nature vs. nurture wager revolves around whether Aykroyd will resort to crime when he loses everything and whether Murphy will become a responsible executive when given opportunity.  As serious as this may sound, the movie is a triumph of the comedy legends.

Tommy Boy5.  Tommy Boy – Spade and Farley were a great team on SNL, so it was only a matter of time for the two to hit the big screen. Tommy Boy is a road movie with loads of quotable lines and some real smart supporting characters, including Dan Aykroyd and Rob Lowe. It’s definitely a film that can be viewed over and over and still be funny, of course it helps if “your brain…has a shell on it.”

Caddyshack4.  Caddyshack – This is one of those movies that is beloved by everyone. Bill Murray and Chevy Chase may have had a cantankerous relationship on the set of SNL, so much so that this film nearly did not contain a scene between the two of them, but there’s much more comedy to go around thanks to Rodney Dangerfield and Ted Knight. The sequel should be avoided at all costs, but Caddyshack may be the film that proved that the not-ready-for-prime-time players may just be ready!

Waynes World3.  Wayne’s World – “It’s Wayne’s World, Wayne’s World!” Mike Myers and Dana Carvey take Wayne and Garth’s public access show out of Wayne’s basement and onto the big screen in clearly SNL’s most successful skit-to-screen film ever. The key to its success is how smart this dumb movie ended up being. Chris Farley and Brian Doyle Murray make this the SNL-iest film on my list, and resident sleazebag, Rob Lowe is at his smarmy best. It really is excellent, party on!

Groundhog Day2.  Groundhog Day – While Groundhog Day may just be my favorite film of all time, I reserved spot two for it on this list as its SNL ties are not quite has strong as my number one pick. Chris Elliot and Robin Duke, along with Brian Doyle Murray (of course) are all SNL alums, but unlike most of the films listed prior, there is not a strong second SNL acting presence as this film is all about Bill Murray as Phil Connors who is trapped in a time warp, forcing him to relive that peculiar title holiday over and over. This film is by far the best overall film on this list and is genius writer/director Harold Ramis’s masterpiece, but as for SNL films, if there’s one Bill Murray and Harold Ramis film worth mentioning…who you gonna call?

Ghostbusters1. Ghostbusters – Murray and Aykroyd along with Ramis play university scientists in New York City who strap proton accelerators on their backs and start busting ghosts. Originally written for John Belushi, the film was rewritten and turned out to be a real solid hit. And the legacy continues as SNL cast alums Kristin Wiig and Kate McKinnon will head up the all female Ghostbusters reboot, to be released in 2016 and co-written by Dan Aykroyd.  Ghostbusters represents what the best of SNL films all strive for, to touch the pulse of pop culture in a way that kids, teens, and adults can all appreciate.

Edge of Tomorrow

ImageEdge of Tomorrow, the latest sci-fi/action film from Tom Cruise, is best marked coincidentally by two outrageously dissimilar events: the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the 30th anniversary of the film Groundhog Day. In fact, 70 years to the day prior to the US opening of the film Edge of Tomorrow, allied forces invaded Normandy suffering tremendous casualties but contributing to what would eventually be an allied victory in World War II. Now one may ask, who in their right mind would choose a day like that to live over and over and over? Well, that is precisely what John McQuarrie explores in his screenplay for Edge of Tomorrow.

Cruise plays Major Bill Cage, a coward of a military officer who has used his business experience and education to stay as far away from combat as humanly possible even with the world under siege by a brutal and powerful alien race. However, after pissing off the wrong general (Brendan Gleeson), Cage finds himself on a London army base under the command of Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton) with transfer papers listing him as a deserter and stripped of his rank. Now, Private Cage will be among the first to land on the beach of Normandy in a secret mission to catch the enemy by surprise.

It turns out the aliens have a secret weapon that makes the human resistance utterly useless. Several aliens known as “Alphas” possess an ability to “reset” upon death and relive the day with the knowledge of what will happen next. Thus, the aliens can always anticipate every enemy move and plan for it on a continual basis until victory is won. What the aliens didn’t count on and what cowardly Cage inadvertently discovers is that if a human were to slay an Alpha and be covered in its blood, that human would then absorb the same power to “reset.”

Armed with his new power but entirely without any skills to fight a war, Cage teams up with Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) a legendary soldier who secretly once had Cage’s power but lost it. Together, Cage and Vrataski may have what it takes to save the world.

The “reset” gimmick is most notably and skillfully used in the late Harold Ramis’s film, Groundhog Day. Many films have used similar gimmickry – some to good effect, some poorly – but few have used it so identically. Nonetheless, director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Go, Swingers) captures the fun nature of Ramis’s film and instead of using this concept for romance, he re-purposes it for a more fitting genre: science-fiction. Liman gets the tone just right as he tracks Cage’s evolution from detestable loser to someone of merit, and it’s a fun ride. He weaves together a story that pulses with energy and humor, and the alien antagonists are worthy opponents, fast moving and very deadly. The film does get a bit lost in its own absurdity once in a while and Liman shamelessly uses the “reset” plot device to hit the audience over the head with the film’s theme about humans being in control of their own fate (Bill Paxton’s character is basically a Ned Ryerson, designed to spew the same thematically rich monologue every 15 minutes!). But I liked Edge of Tomorrow. Cruise proves he’s still up to the challenge of carrying a big tentpole of a movie, Blunt is a fine co-star, and Liman has produced a film that while somewhat familiar, is just fresh enough. B+

Edge of Tomorrow is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour 53 minutes.          

About Time

AboutTimeThe posters and trailers for About Time prominently tout that it is from “the creators of Love Actually, Notting Hill, and Four Weddings and a Funeral.”  While About Time is curiously missing an appearance by Hugh Grant, the film is absolutely deserving of being listed as an equal among those films.  It is a warm and heartfelt film that feels incredibly “Romantic” in every sense of the word.

About Time stars Domhnall Gleeson, who American audiences know as Bill Weasley from the final two Harry Potter films, but not much else.  Gleeson, son of the great Irish actor, Brendan Gleeson, plays Tim, a name curiously similar to the principle word in the title, “Time.”  Thus, the movie is as much about Tim as it is about “time.”  On his 21st birthday, Tim is given the odd and unbelievable news from his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in his family have the ability to travel through time.  For a romantic comedy, it is surprising to see a plot resting so firmly on such an absurd and fantastic premise.  Yet, one must only look back 20 years to a little film called Groundhog Day, perhaps the greatest modern romantic comedy ever made, that succeeds due to a bizarre and unexplainable time rift that allows the film’s message to flourish and evolve!  About Time clearly tips its hat to the Harold Ramis classic in several humorous scenes where Tim bounces off to try and undo some foolishly embarrassing moments.

But About Time is not at all subjugated by its premise.  Tim’s father asks him what he plans to do with his new gift, and the film is quite ideal in its treatment of such a power.  Tim decides that he will use it for love.  Thus, Tim moves out of his parents’ house and strikes out for London where he will practice law and search for love.  He finds it in Mary (Rachel McAdams), an American publishing house editor working in London.  It is here that the movie firmly kicks into romantic gear.  While it successfully emphasizes the passion, beauty, and emotion of young love, the time travel element allows the film to search deeper into modern romanticism as Tim is able to slow down, explore the natural beauty of the world, experience the trials of the mind, free himself from the corrupting forces of society, and most importantly – discover how to make the most out of life.

Director, Richard Curtis has made a beautiful film with About Time.  Elegant, cozy country-side scenes are balanced with busy but scenic city-scapes. Curtis gives London the Paris treatment, making it look far more inviting and relatable than other films have in the past.  But like all romantic comedies, the true magic lies in the chemistry of its leads.  Gleeson and McAdams are easy to root for, and their relationship is not hokey, nor does the film commit the cardinal sin of having Tim use his powers to manipulate Mary.  Instead, his power is used to create opportunities, but it is Tim that must make the most of them.  A fine example lies in the scene where Tim and Rachel first meet by happenstance.  Ironically this first meeting is in a restaurant called Dans Le Noir, a restaurant where diners sit in total darkness, an immersive experience that emphasizes the other senses and provides a clever way for Tim and Rachel to build the foundation for their relationship.  Soon, a mistake made by Tim during time travel causes this first meeting to be forgotten leading Tim to find a way to create a new opportunity to make an impression on Mary.  Now, that is not to say that Tim does not play “puppet-master” with other people’s lives, which is a bit off-putting.  Nonetheless, these minor valleys are certainly not enough to degrade the film’s peaks.

The sentimentality of the film is authentic and while occasionally heavy-handed, it is quite effective.  The Tim and Mary story is central to the film, but Curtis as writer and director makes sure to develop the father-son relationship between Tim and his Dad.  It is in this relationship where most of the “heartstrings” are continually tugged upon.  Nighy’s inclusion in the story adds warmth but also some complexity as he too can travel through time.  The bond between the men, the shared experiences, and the lessons learned all work to make the film about more than just a love story.

About Time is a pleasing and successful film that does not exploit its premise or undermine its characters.  Fans of romantic comedies (especially those of Curtis’s) will be satisfied and touched by this film.  B+

About Time opens on November 8th, and has a running time of 2 hours and 3 minutes.  It is a beautiful and well-made film that would make an excellent date-night option in a fall movie season full of thrillers, action, and suspense.  It also accomplishes the dual task of making us forget about the other far more disappointing Rachel McAdams time travel romance, The Time Traveler’s Wife. 

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