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.

Pacific Rim

ImageDo you know where your inner child is? Well with Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro has created a dazzling visual spectacle determined to find it for you and leave you wide-eyed and astounded.

Pacific Rim finds the world in the near future with alien monsters emerging from the sea where they have been at rest for millions of years. Finding our deteriorating atmosphere well-suited to their biology, masses of these nearly 300 feet tall creatures known as Kaiju begin laying siege to Earth claiming millions of lives and squandering its resources. Setting its differences aside for perhaps the first time in history, the world comes together, pooling its global assets to develop a weapon that can combat these enormous threats. The answer: 250 foot tall robots called Jaegers controlled simultaneously by two pilots who through a mind meld process called “Drifting” are able to provide the neural power necessary to run the massive machines.

Del Toro is no stranger to the fantastic. He has co-written the screenplays to the recent Hobbit series as well as written and directed the fantastic over-the-top Hellboy films and Blade II (the best one). However, the film he may be best known for is his remarkable twisted fable Pans Labyrinth, which won three Oscars. Here del Toro continues his hitting streak by accomplishing the very thing that has seemingly puzzled Gore Verbinski and Michael Bay for years: creating a wildly epic action film that isn’t clunky, irritating, or devoid of excitement. It would seem very likely for an audience to become detached from a film about giant alien monsters fighting massive robots, but in Pacific Rim, this is not the case. Travis Beacham’s script develops his characters and not just the action. Furthermore, del Toro’s directing makes sure we care about each battle and understand what’s at stake at every turn; this allows the audience to never feel desensitized by the escalating preposterousness.

Who is Charlie Hunnam? Well if you don’t watch Sons of Anarchy, you’d assume he’s a British guy trying his damndest to play an American and not succeeding, and you’d be right. Hunnam plays Raleigh, a modern reincarnation of the Maverick archetype from Top Gun (look for the “you can be my wingman” moment mid-way through the film). Nonetheless, this type of bravado induced superstar with a chip on his shoulder is exactly what a film like Pacific Rim needs at its core. Accent aside and tempered only by his new partner, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), Hunnam is extremely likable and handles the sensitive tough guy persona nicely. Hunnam is joined by a bevy of fun supporting characters who del Toro seemingly mined from successful television shows. Idris Elba from The Wire and Luther commands the screen as General Stacker Pentecost, and it would be a safe (and welcomed) bet that we’ll see Elba on the big screen again and often. Hellboy himself, Ron Pearlman, (and Sons of Anarchy alum) sinks his teeth into the campy role of black market entrepreneur Hannibal Chau, a name he geniusly created based on “his favorite historical figure and his second favorite Szechuan restaurant in Brooklyn.” Finally, there’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day, who channels Rick Moranis as Dr. Newton Geiszler who plays the Oscar to his partner’s (Burn Gorman) Felix in an “Odd Couple” of scientists looking to discover a brainy solution to the Kaiju attack while Raleigh and company cover the brawn angle.

I’ll admit, Pacific Rim was the film I was most anticipating for the summer. Yet all bias aside, it is an example of everything a big, fun summer movie should be, and if you’ve seen Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness, then Pacific Rim should be next on your list. A

Pacific Rim is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 11 minutes. It is a post-convert to 3-D film, so it is not necessary to see it in that format, yet The People’s Critic will admit that the conversion is top notch. Also, be sure to stay at least mid-way through the credits for a very rewarding bonus scene that is worth the wait. Those who wait through the entire credits will get a minor, yet potentially important reward as well.

Oblivion

ImageHot-shot pilot moves in expensive, cutting edge fighter jets, wide-scenic shots of Tom Cruise on a motorcycle…get “Take My Breath Away” out of your head – we’re talking about Oblivion here! While the similarities between Oblivion and Top Gun end at the aforementioned, there is no question that “Maverick” has all the right moves to portray galactic mechanic, Jack Harper in the most visually dazzling film of the year so far.

Oblivion opens in 2077 after an alien threat has left Earth a barren wasteland fit only for extracting a few vital resources before humanity abandons the planet altogether to start a new existence on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Cruise’s Harper is a glorified serviceman who supervises and repairs the various resource-extraction devices along with his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). As the two near the completion of their jobs on Earth, Harper begins having visions of his life prior to the mandatory memory-wipe that is required for service-workers. These visions lead him on a chain of events that cause him to question everything he thought he knew about his life.

Director Joseph Kosinski creates a vividly rich and nuanced futuristic environment where much of the technology feels like what truly is on the horizon. Kosinski directed 2010’s under-rated visual spectacle, Tron Legacy, and it is apparent that he has his finger on the pulse of crisp, sci-fi style. Narrative-wise, Oblivion is a much more complex story than is likely expected. The complexities do provide some depth to the film and force the audience to pay close attention; however, the juxtaposition between the style and the narrative is not smooth. Occasionally, the film is forced into a lull as it tries to tie up its intricate plot points without sacrificing its visual pageantry. This is most apparent in the scenes that develop the sub-plot involving a human resistance leader named Beech (Morgan Freeman) and a mysterious NASA survivor named Julia (Olga Kurylenko).

Oblivion’s chief attributes are clearly its visual elements. Freeman and Kurylenko’s characters are thinly developed and the actors are mostly unremarkable. However, it is becoming more and more apparent that any film that features Morgan Freeman in any role is most likely not a bad movie. Thematically, the film is successful at developing some intriguing ideas about discovery and purpose. The film acts as a subtle homage to familiar films like Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even Wall-E. Speaking of familiar, the score is oddly reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films. This is simply an observation, but having Morgan Freeman in the film as well certainly makes one wonder if this is some form of statement. Regardless, while some will no doubt be puzzled or dissatisfied with the conclusion, Oblivion mostly works as an epic and visually alluring entry into the science-fiction canon. B+

On a side note, seeing the film in IMAX or an XTREME screen is recommended as the film has so much to offer visually. Oblivion is rated PG-13 and runs 125 minutes.

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