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American Made – A Movie Review


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american-made-final-poster-401x600While he is not everyone’s cup of tea, Tom Cruise is a movie star of a type that we do not see on screen with much regularity anymore. One can argue about the films he chooses to make (but I liked The Mummy) and one can, correctly, critique his religious choices, but it is hard to argue that Cruise is not movie star. He may not be able to open movies on the strength of his name alone anymore, but, once you come to a Tom Cruise movie, you are more likely to be entertained than not.

Cruise’s star talents are on full display in American Made which tells the (almost) true story of Barry Seal, a TWA pilot who made a personal fortune spying for the CIA, running drugs for the Medellin Cartel and supplying weapons and a training location for the Contras. Only someone with ridiculous self confidence and a massive ego could pull of the schemes that Seal kept afloat a Cruise, in his best performance in years, does a wonderful job of conveying a kinetic recklessness in Seal. He carries the film, is in almost every scene of it, and makes the character more appealing than he likely was in real life.

Cruise relies on very few of his tropes here. Seal has no father issues, is not a superhuman action star and does not seem to do much well except flying. It is the flying that first catches the eye of the CIA when Seal is recruited for a series of spy missions taking photos of Central American hot spots from the air. It was a simply step, made completely palatable in Cruise’s performance, to segue from these missions to picking up and dropping off cocaine for the Cartel.

How Seal became a part of training and arming the Contras is another crazy matter entirely.

Cruise, as is his wont right now, carries the film and it suffers when he is not on screen. He is surrounded by capable actors, the only two of whom who make much of an impression are Sarah Wright and Dohmnall Gleeson. Wright wrings some humor and joy out of a fairly narrowly written role as Lucy Seal, Barry’s all too trusting wife. She is able to hold her own with Cruise and the ample chemistry they show might owe to the fact that they are a couple in real life. Gleeson is also very good in a one-note role as Schafer, Seal’s CIA contact. What is amazing about Gleeson is how different he is in each-and-every film in which he appears. It is truly hard to recognize him from one film to the next and he is always worth watching.

Other characters populate the film, but I found myself wishing more had been done with them, especially the pilots Seal recruits to help him juggle his schemes.

But it is Cruise’s movie and he really does deliver a fine performance here. He is engaging and funny, but smart enough to know his character has a dark side or at least a broken moral compass. Though Seal is often smiling, there is something empty behind that smile, something sad. Cruise’s Seal is no one’s hero. He is not even much of Robin Hood like anti-hero. He was a guy in the right place at a series of wrong times and is barely keeping all the balls in the air. Cruise masterfully plays the confusion that Seal felt when he realized the money was not enough to make him happy.

The movie, as enjoyable as it was, does not do enough to indicate just how high the stakes are, right up until the conclusion. People live and people die. Lives are changed. Many are hurt but director Doug Liman is more than happy to let his star carry the action without suffering many consequences of his choices. This is a good decision for the movie – because Cruise is the best thing in it – but it hurts what might have been a more powerful exploration of the time in which it takes place. Name dropping Bill Clinton, including George W. Bush and Oliver North as characters and wrapping the whole thing up with real news footage of the time illustrates what might have been. Cruise is very much worth the price of admission, but American Made could have been an even better movie.

AMERICAN MADE receives FOUR and KILOS OF COCAINE out of a possible FIVE.

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Battle of the Sexes – A Movie Review


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The-Battle-of-the-Sexes-poster-345-600x894There is very little I did not like in Battle of the Sexes.

Okay. There was nothing I did not like about Battle of the Sexes. Boasting superior, multi-faceted performances, deft and subtle direction, a lovely score and a 1970’s production design that kicks off from the promotional materials (take a look at the poster on the left – the folds are part of its design) and does not let go until the closing credit sequence (which itself features a terrific and moving song If I Dare by Sara Bareilles), Battle of the Sexes immediately moves towards the top of the class for Academy Award consideration. It is important. It is compelling. And it is eerily timely.

Smart, touching, funny and complex, the story of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs’ so-called “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, pitting the mid-50’s Riggs against the late 20’s King, is so accomplished at involving the audience in the lives and motivations of its two main characters, the actual match feels like something of an anti-climax. Emma Stone, perhaps the most chameleon-like actor of her generation, disappears into the part of Billie Jean King, the sometimes reluctant poster woman for the 1970’s women’s rights movement. Stone’s performance is garnering Oscar talk for good reason. She is powerful and sympathetic in the role, simultaneously balancing the confidence of a superior athlete with the confusion of someone confronting questions of sexual identity. The tension between these personas is powerfully played and Stone makes King a poignant protagonist, someone for whom to cheer but for whom Stone generates enormous sympathy.

This is primarily accomplished without lengthy monologues or preachy dialogue. Rather Stone’s performance – her body language or the expressions on her face – tell the story. While Kine may have known what she was getting into when she took on the powerful, male- dominated apparatus of the professional tennis world, she did not seem to understand where she was headed (and what trail she was blazing) when she first acknowledged her sexual orientation.

There are prescient themes at play in Battle of the Sexes and, while the movie was in production before the political events that have driven the cultural conversation of the last 18 months, it is likely that the filmmakers shaped the film to have immediate relevance today as the pulled it together in editing. The story of Battle of the Sexes feels all too important in our current climate.

One of the reasons the film plays out as well as it does owes much to the performance of Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs. Carell is a talented guy (and his physical resemblance to Riggs is nothing short of uncanny) and is the perfect person to nuance a role which, in the hands of someone else, might push into parody. Never willing to let his Riggs become a buffoon or an out-and-out villain, Carell’s portrayal provides enough shading for the audience to connect with a man who is on the wrong side of progress and is incapable of understanding that fact.

Battle of the Sexes is an excellent movie with a tremendous supporting cast (Alan Cumming deserves a special call-out). The material, in lesser hands with a lesser group of actors, may have been handled in a much more formulaic fashion. Battle of the Sexes rises above this trap by focusing less on the actual battle on the court and more on the battles going on in the character’s hearts and the film is all the better for the choice.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES receives FOUR and a HALF BLISTERING BJK OVERHANDS out of a possible FIVE.

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American Assassin – A Movie Review


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American Assassin

The Cinnamon Girl and I have very much been looking forward to American Assassin. The initial previews promised a taut thriller, with solid action and a couple of lead performances which could carry an excellent movie. They also pointed to a nuanced film that might have some philosophical depth to it.

As previews continued to churn out, our conceptions about the movie began to change (nuclear explosives? a rogue former protegee?) but we held fast the our anticipation, especially as it related to seeing Michael Keaton in what promised to be a solid role as a tough military man, intent on protecting America and training the next generation.

Good news: Keaton is great and steals every scene in which he is featured. His line delivery is wonderful – quirky and off center – so much so that the intensity he imbues in his Stan Hurley is utterly believable and totally magnetic. I bought Keaton in the role and wanted to know more about him than I did about Dylan O’Brien’s main character, Mitchell Rapp.

It is not that O’Brien is bad, he is simply not Keaton nor is he given much with which to work and, while an actor of Keaton’s ability can develop a character seemingly out of whole cloth, O’Brien is not in that league.

As the movie wore on (and that is the correct word, unfortunately), I wanted more of Keaton and less of… well… everyone and everything else.

Though the story was not particularly inventive (mentor’s old protegee and new protegee go up against each other – who will survive?), the action shifted all over the place from small situations to increasingly gigantic and increasingly hard to believe ones.

We’re in a tunnel! We’re in a hotel room! We’re in a car! We’re on a speed boat! We’re approaching a carrier group and… my God, is that a nuclear explosion?

Here is the thing, for a movie called American Assassin, there was a lot of action that did not feel covert. This was an over-the-top, superhero culture inspired extravaganza that I did not expect and the change from expectation to reality was not welcome.

While I loved Keaton’s performance (and he gets to chew some scenery here – literally) and was entertained by a set piece or two, the overall effect of American Assassin was far less than the sum of its parts, its violence, its action sequences and the many, many modes of transport the characters used and fought in and around.

Marginally enjoyable, utterly forgettable, this movie is a disaster without Michael Keaton. Actually, it is a disaster with Michael Keaton. Let us hope that his renaissance is not derailed by it.

 

 

AMERICAN ASSASSIN receives TWO PLANES, TRAINS and AUTOMOBILES out of a possible FIVE.

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Dunkirk – A Movie Review


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dunkirk-poster

The true story behind Dunkirk is stunning: during World War II, 400,000 Allied soldiers were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, France awaiting some kind of rescue. The tactical decision to not send significant forces to their aid is surely not easily made, but, to do so could mean the crippling of the English army, navy and air force and could hand Germany the keys to overrunning Europe.

The men on the beaches of Dunkirk are essentially on their own.

Into this scenario, steps writer/director Christopher Nolan. Deservedly regarded as one of the best creators in film today, Nolan may have just directed his best movie to date. Without question, Dunkirk solidifies Nolan’s already sterling reputation. Sparse, spare and deeply affecting, Dunkirk unfolds with minimal dialogue and at a breakneck pace – a pace metered by the ticking of a stopwatch.

Time is an important element of the movie, perhaps the most important: how long will it take to get to a rescue boat, how long can the spitfires remain in the air, how long before the “little navy” is within range of the beach? Time is also an element that Nolan cleverly manipulates and, in that manipulation, lies the riveting excellence of the film.

Dunkirk is a really, really good movie.

And then, suddenly, it is a brilliant one.

It would not be fair to spoil how good Nolan here. Suffice it to say that this movie is as much about a writer/director’s prowess as any recent release of which I can think. A thinking person’s film about war, a summer blockbuster, a harrowing true story, Dunkirk wildly succeeds at being all 3.

The movie is short, which is something of a surprise for a Christopher Nolan film. Typically, Nolan’s movies are broadly scripted and involved and lengthy as well. Coming in at well under two hours, Dunkirk feels over before it starts and leaves one wanting to queue up for a repeat viewing.

From Tom Hardy’s (hey, can we ever see the guy’s entire face?) spitfire pilot, to Kenneth Branaugh’s Commander Bolton, to Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson, the actors are as good as their director. Each creates an indelible impression as do the young men (most notably a terrific Harry Styles) whose stories of trying to survive the beach tie the film together. As Dunkirk is very much a textbook on “show, don’t tell,” the cast has to make the most of the moments they are given. All of them do.

Dunkirk may well win Christopher Nolan his first Best Director Oscar and the movie is all-but certain to be nominated for Best Picture. Whatever accolades it receives, Dunkirk deserves.

There is not another movie like it in theaters now. They may not be another war movie like it, either.

Dunkirk showcases a master filmmaker at the top of his game.

 

DUNKIRK receives FIVE TICKING WATCHES out of a possible FIVE.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming – A Movie Review


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Spider-Man Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming has a lot riding on it. Billed as a coming-of-age story constructed in the vein of a 1980s John Hughes movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming is also the first joint venture between Sony and Marvel with Marvel controlling the content of the film. It brings Spider-Man firmly under the control of Marvel Studios and fully into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is intended to re-launch perhaps the most famous Marvel Comics character into a series of successful solo movies.

It is likely to succeed very well in this ambition.

The best – the very best – thing Spider-Man: Homecoming has going for it is star Tom Holland. Marvel movie fans got a taste of the actor in Captain America: Civil War when he joined the super hero clash and the screen lit up whenever Holland was on it. Pitch perfect in that movie, the actor is even more appealing here in his solo venture. Following two very good performances as Spider-Man (in Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield), Holland had a bit to live up to as he stepped into the high tech tights. He is more than up to the challenge. In fact, for my money, he is the best of the bunch. That is saying something as the others were very good themselves.

Tom Holland makes the movie work. Though he is surrounded by wonderful actors (all the students in the movie are terrific, especially Zendaya as Michelle and Jacob Batalon as Ned), his energy outshines them all. This is quite a feat when considering Michael Keaton and Robert Downey, jr (not to mention Jon Favreau) are all on hand. Keaton and Downey, jr as as one would expect, both fully committed to their roles as the antagonist The Vulture and the mentor Iron Man respectively. Keaton, in fact, is a far more fully developed villain than we have come to expect from most Marvel movies and Downey, jr is so good as Tony Stark that it is difficult to determine where the character stops and the actor starts.

A common issue with these movies is that they try to do a bit too much, and Spider-Man: Homecoming suffers a bit from this malady. I loved the cameos (especially the one at the end!) but are they critical to the film? There are some nice set pieces, though some of the action sequences are fairly muddy in their execution. The entire side trip to Washington, DC seems excessive and unnecessary. It seems to me that everything that scene accomplishes could be handled in New York which is where the character belongs. But Spider-Man: Homecoming is Holland’s movie and, while it is not a perfect film, Holland makes up for all of these shortcomings and then some.

Beyond casting Holland, the filmmakers make two important decisions for Homecoming. First, they do not re-tell the origin of the character. Been there. Done that, thank you very much. Second, they put Peter Parker in high school. Spider-Man has always worked best as a teenager going through the struggles of coming-of-age. This Spider-Man has girl troubles, homework and a curfew (that he regularly breaks). He is trying to understand who he is and what he can do. He is carving out his place in the world and the movie does a terrific job with that arc.

Here is a Spider-Man that changes over the course of the film. Here is a Spider-Man that is funny and engaging. Here is a Spider-Man that is not driven by angst (the best versions of the character are not). Here is a Spider-Man that simply wants to be heroic.

Spider-Man: Homecoming succeeds in evoking a feel of high school movies of the past (think The Breakfast Club but Anthony Michael Hall with superpowers). It succeeds in incorporating the character into the fuller Marvel Universe. It succeeds in launching this version of the character. It succeeds in being a fun, summer entertainment and places itself firmly on the list of very good – not great – Marvel movies.

In many ways, it does feel like Spider-Man has come home.

 

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING receives FOUR AND A HALF (because Holland is just SO good) FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOODS out of a possible FIVE.

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Baby Driver – A Movie Review


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Baby_Driver_poster

Is there a more hyped movie coming out this summer than Baby Driver? Have you seen the commercials for it? It has been hailed as the most original film in years. It has been called brilliant. It has been widely praised.

Could it possibly live up to the advance press?

As it turns out, almost. It comes very, very close to delivering, dare I write it, on all cylinders.

What struck me most about Baby Driver is that, in a time of franchises and shared universes and sequels dominating the box office, this movie is original. It is a singular vision, fully realized by one voice: writer/director Edgar Wright. It is clear from the first frame that each and every aspect of the movie is under Wright’s control and each spins out of his mind.

And that is a lot of fun.

I love superhero movies and sequels as much as (more than?) the next person, but, as I watched Baby Driver I marveled at how fresh it felt. There is fun to that. And there is a palpable danger to it.

In the typical summer movie or the latest chapter in a franchise, a definite set of rules dictate the proceedings. The conclusion of these sorts of films are all but known as the opening credits unspool.

Such is not the case with Baby Driver. It is wild. It is fun. It is unpredictable and, because of that, it is dangerous. Very few of the characters behaved in a predictable manner. Very few of the situations played out as I thought they would. I did not see the end of the movie coming.

What a pleasure!

Ansel Elgort makes a terrific protagonist for Wright. As the soft-spoken, music-listening, fast-driving, Mozart in a go-cart Baby, Elgort effortless exudes cool. He is the center of the wheel in Baby Driver and Wright chose his lead very well. This could be a breakout for the star and his upcoming roles suggest that we will be hearing more from him. But, as good as Elgort is, Wright was smart enough to surround him with a truly remarkable cast.

Kevin Spacey is perfect as Doc, the brains behind each heist in the film. Witty, cool, unpredictable, Doc is an immediately indelible Spacey creation. Jamie Foxx is equally good as Bats, also unpredictable (seeing the pattern?), fully energize, Foxx is having a lot of fun in this one, and he shares that fun with the audience. And Jon Hamm rounds out the leading quartet brilliantly. His smooth charm, his steely gave and his good looks that cannot be hidden under a silly haircut or behind a three-day growth serve to make Buddy a key part of this unexpected joy of a film.

It should be noted that the suddenly everywhere Lily James is wonderful as well. She plays Debora, Baby’s girl friend, and makes a role that could fade into the background in a cast like this stand out. She and Elgort have chemistry and are well matched. She more than holds her own.

The characters are fascinating and well drawn. They are three-dimensional and clever. They are dangerous, like the movie itself. The plot is twisting, turning fun. The action (done without the aid of any CGI) is stunning. The music buoyant. The only thing that holds the movie back the slightest bit is the weight of expectation. It is great? Yes. Is it the greatest thing I’ve ever seen? No.

But it is a hell of a lot of fun.

In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more fun time at the movies this summer.

BABY DRIVER receives FOUR AND A HALF iPODS out of a possible FIVE.

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The Mummy – A Movie Review


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The Mummy

I am not a movie critic. And, by that I mean, I am not critical of movies in the manner in which those who have more refined tastes might be. I tend to know what I am going to like going into a film and tend to buy tickets to movies I know I am going to enjoy. Additionally, I typically set my expectations where I think they will be met.

So, while some films disappoint others because they fail to be more than they suggest they will be, I often find myself saying of those sorts of movies: that was just what I expected and wanted.

Case-in-point: The Mummy.

This Tom Cruise vehicle was exactly what it looked like it would be: an over-the-top romp with solid action, simple characterization and tongue-in-cheek dialogue.

Cruise stars as Nick Morton, an unscrupulous solider of fortune who finds himself in the wrong place at the right time when he and his sidekick Chris Vial (delightfully assayed by Jake Johnson) accidentally unearth the titular mummy’s tomb. Suspecting there is money to be made, Nick ensures that the sarcophagus of the mummy is raised and that he is along for the ride back to London with it.

What could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, pretty much everything.

It is spoiling little to mention that transport of the mummy is interrupted by a plane crash that all of the characters do not survive. Following the crash, some resurrections and chase scenes, the mummy ends up in the heart of London, reanimated, angry and harboring an intense fixation on Tom Cruise’s Nick.

Let the games begin.

And let yourself go. Know what the movie is and you will enjoy it. Expect high art and you might be disappointed.

Sofia Boutella is the mummy and she is making something of a career out of playing characters buried under piles of makeup. While she was far more engaging (and playing a much more developed part) in last summer’s Star Trek Beyond, she is more than up to the challenge of playing the raving and revenge seeking mummy and, if the particulars of her plot are not entirely clear, who cares? Aren’t we all having fun?

Certainly Russell Crowe had the kind of fun only an actor of his caliber who can rise or lower himself to the level of his material can. Again, it is not much of a spoiler to reveal that he plays Dr. Henry Jekyll (yes, that one) and he seems to be the key to comprehending the goings on of the movie. Because he is Russell Crowe, he handles the massive exposition he is asked to relay with ease and, because he is Russell Crowe, he absolutely kills in a scene in which he is allowed to cut loose. I hope to see more of him if Universal’s Monster Movie Plans launch the way the studio would like them to.

Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise. He gives himself completely over to the movie and the jokes about him being mummy-like in the fact that he never seems to age are absolutely on point. We all know there is a dividing line between those who like Tom Cruise and those who hate Tom Cruise. I am in the I love Tom Cruise camp. What do I expect from Tom Cruise? Exactly what I got in The Mummy.

Perhaps I should want more from a movie. Granted, that is a defensible perspective and, yes, I do like to be surprised by a movie, surprised by twist and turns and defiance of expectations. But I did not need that from The Mummy. It was just what I desired on a summer evening. Is it particularly memorable? No. Was it perfectly fun? It absolutely was.

THE MUMMY receives THREE DOUBLE PUPILS out of a possible FIVE.

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