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.

The Wolf of Wall Street

ImageIn 1986, a young People’s Critic was playing with his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, reading Spiderman comics, and watching Knight Rider; meanwhile The Wolf of Wall Street suggests that there was an entirely different story of the 1980s to tell.  Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio collaborate for the fifth time and the result is their most polarizing effort by far, but also DiCaprio’s greatest performance of his career.

Last year at this exact time, I made quite a bit of noise about Leonardo DiCaprio’s sneaky but brilliant performance as Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.  This year, I will make even more noise about his turn as Wall Street stockbroker, Jordan Belfort.  The film depicts the rise and inevitable fall of Belfort after he gets a taste of what the high life is like and never stops wanting more.

That “taste” comes in the form of an early scene in the film.  In it, Belfort the naïve intern meets the senior partner of his firm (Matthew McConaughey) for lunch.  Here Belfort is seemingly learning the ropes from a guy who’s been around for a while, but on second look Belfort is actually staring his future self right in the face.  McConaughey fiercely and skillfully poisons and corrupts Belfort but leaves him dazzled and impressed.  He sells Belfort just like another client, setting the wheels in motion for the “wolf” to rear its head.  When his brokerage closes after Black Monday in 1987, Belfort recruits a band of like-minded sleezeballs and opens his own brokerage firm called Stratton-Oakmont.  With consciences checked at the door and a script of Belfort’s own design, Stratton Oakmont prays on the rich and the poor, selling worthless “penny stocks” and reaping commissions hand over fist.  Belfort’s partner in crime, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), represents the “Greed is good” adage from Wall Street to precision.  Together the two cut a swath through the financial market and find themselves absurdly wealthy and yet impossibly insatiable. Balfort symbolically leaves stability behind when he leaves his  kind and caring wife, Teresa (Cristin Milioti) for sexpot, Naomi (Margot Robbie).

While clearly a Scorsese film, the director’s presence from a technical standpoint is rather restrained.  He fills the frame with decadence, debauchery, and dishonesty, but never has he relied on his actors to make a film work as much as he does here.  Fortunately, they are up to the task, but this circumstance is why The Wolf of Wall Street is not the classic Scorsese film that it could have been.  Nonetheless, like all other Scorsese films, the plot is nothing but a mode at which to create a commentary on a deeper subtext.  Belfort’s story is used as a way for the filmmaker to tell a story about intoxication, greed, and the destruction of the American fabric.  He does all of this with a playful tone however, which is what gives the film such energy!  The irreverence of this film is impossible to capture into words and that’s exactly what Scorsese intended.  With a running time of three hours, it is clear that Scorsese did not want to shy away from the bacchanalian excess that plays such a large part in the film.  At the risk of hitting the audience over the head with this fact, the drug of choice for most characters is the “lude” (short for Quaalude), which tenaciously reflects the conduct of everyone in this film.  In one scene, high on ludes, DiCaprio has lost all sense of mobility and yet must crawl, writhe, and tumble his way to his Ferrari in the hopes to then drive home and stop Donnie from revealing money laundering evidence into a tapped phone.  This scene is one of only a few characteristically Scorsese scenes, and for DiCaprio it is particularly impressive.  Never has DiCaprio been more physical, comedic, energetic, and kinetically charged than he is in this film.  Jay Gatsby would literally implode after one second in Jordan Belfort’s shoes.

In a montage towards the end set to the Lemonheads cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” the line “Every way you look at it, you lose,” critically suggests that the intoxication of the previous 150 minutes is beginning to ware off.  We have a moment to finally catch our breaths after the yachts, the mansions, the sex, the money, and the helicopters are all out of sight and we are amazed at what we’ve witnessed.  
After an Academy member premier of the film, a screenwriter very publically shouted, “Shame on you!” at the legendary director.  Accordingly, I witnessed several people walk out of the screening that I was in. Certainly, the world DiCaprio and Scorsese explore this time around is fearlessly audacious.  Nonetheless, the film is based on Belfort’s own memoir, and the screenplay is co-written by the man who wrote and produced The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, Terence Winter.  Those shows and this film all have the united goal of exploring morally bankrupt people who fill that void with the greatest drug of all, money.  Our society is badly hooked on this drug and as good as we are at hiding the evidence of what greed has done to us, stories like The Wolf of Wall Street serve as reminders, reminders that make some filmgoers uncomfortable.  Still, as much of a fan as I am of this film, I submit that The Wolf of Wall Street is Goodfellas-Lite: Henry Hill enters stock market.  I think a 5 and ½ hour American nightmare double feature is in my future!  A-

The Wolf of Wall Street is rated R and has a running time of 3 hours.  Look out for many recognizable faces in supporting roles including the real life Jordan Belfort.  This film is packed to the brim – there is so much to discuss and mention, but this review is long enough! 
Also, prepare yourself for that ‘ludes’ Ferrari scene, it’s phenomenal! 

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