Super Troopers 2

Directed by Jay Chandresekhar

Starring – Kevin Hefferman, Jay Chandresekhar, Steve Lemme

The Plot – When a border dispute arises between the U.S. and Canada, the Super Troopers are tasked with establishing a Highway Patrol station in the disputed area.

Rated R for crude sexual content, adult language throughout, drug material and some graphic nudity

POSITIVES

– The chemistry is better than ever between the five members of the Broken Lizard squad. Through mountains of personality and an endless supply of ricochet banter, these troopers easily pick up the ball where they left it over sixteen years ago.

– There’s a surprisingly solid amount of poignant social commentary on Canada, as well as the United States that allows the finger to point back at those of us who are firing the shots. When you really think about it, for everything that we say about Canada, it’s all materialistic, when America is deeply rooted in social and economical problems that (like the troopers themselves) we’ve turned a blind eye to.

– When I saw the trailer, I was scared completely that this film, like other comedy sequels before it, would rely far too heavily on the first movie. Thankfully, that wasn’t an issue at all, as I counted only four examples of jokes and puns from the first movie coming into play. This allows ‘Super Troopers 2’ to carve out its own respective chapter, proving that as a writer Chandresekhar is no one trick pony.

– High intensity chase sequences. Considering the entirety of this film was funded by fan donations, it’s mind-blowing to see how beautifully sequenced and adrenaline-fueled the camera work is for the picture. The opening involving two cameos is probably my favorite scene in the movie for this exact reason, and it nails home the thought that a comedy can overachieve if sequences out the most enticing camera angles.

– As a director, what I appreciate from Chandresekhar is the selflessness that he commands in taking a noticeable backseat to the rest of his co-stars. His character was arguably one of the more focal points of the original film, and here it’s obvious that he’s playing a supporting cast mate to those adorned with more lines of dialogue. He knows what and who to exploit the most in this sequel, and his influence behind the camera is needed much more than on-screen where no fewer than five other characters maintain the weight.

– Whether you view this film as stupid or intriguing, I think audiences will be won over by the feel good atmosphere that this second chapter indulges in. Leaving the theater, I knew this film was miles behind the first movie, but I couldn’t shake that undeniable feeling that this movie gave me 95 minutes of fun and excitement that a majority of comedy sequels blunder away. It’s a passion project at its finest, and through that inspiration we see five friends who are above all else having fun reclaiming the roles that helped them steal the show nearly two decades ago.

NEGATIVES

– While I did mention that the comedy doesn’t follow in the shadow too closely of the original film, I can’t say the same for the structure of the script. From a drug bust intro, to a rivalry with another local police force, to an ending resolution that practically screams redundancy, this script could’ve tried a lot harder in voiding itself of the predictability that weighed it down heavily.

– Because this is a sequel to a movie that hit it big, there are no shortage of celebrity cameos. None of them are too offensive, just rather pointless. When I get a cameo, I want it to leave lasting weight on the remainder of the movie, and with the exception of Rob Lowe as a hockey player-turned-mayor and Emmanuelle Chriqui as the new love interest for one of the troopers (There’s that first movie again), a majority of those one-off actors serve as nothing but a wink and nod to those of you paying attention at home.

– I get that this film is a goofball comedy, but has anyone in Broken Lizard ever heard of a Canadian or French Canadian accent?? There are examples in this film of supposed Canadian characters whose accents sound closer to Indian, Italian, Swedish, and even African more than Canadian. What’s even better is that none of them are consistent from scene to scene.

– The law of averages with laughter is noticeably lacking when compared to the first film. While I did laugh a lot during this sequel, I can say that what hinders the lasting power is how long the cast will sometimes beat a joke into the ground, or how repetitive the material can feel. One such example is a joke involving Fred Savage that eventually gets a payoff at the end of the movie, but isn’t worth the mind-numbing amount of times it’s mentioned throughout.

6/10

Beirut

Directed by Brad Anderson

Starring – Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Mark Pellegrino

The Plot – A U.S. diplomat (Hamm) flees Lebanon in 1972 after a tragic incident at his home. Ten years later, he is called back to war-torn Beirut by CIA operatives (Pike) to negotiate for the life of a friend he left behind. (Formerly titled High Wire Act)

Rated R for adult language, some violence, and a brief nude image

THE POSITIVES

– Razor Sharp Editing and technical prowess. Much of the scene transitions and man-to-man perspective conversation pieces rattle off of one another with the kind of precision that constantly keeps the audience engaged. In addition to this, I also greatly appreciated the incorporated images of historic Beirut film that cinematographer Bjorn Charpentier pulls from marvelously for visual design work.

– Excellent communication in storytelling. While I felt that the film struggled in informing us of the ugly and dangerous pasts between those at war, I did feel that at least the tone and conscious of the environment was replicated wonderfully. In particular, Hamm’s intro to the film divulges a sad-but-humorously true metaphor for why this place is plagued with the reputation it has garnered for itself.

– Most of the performances come and go, but as a lead Hamm dissects his character as two different people, before and after the incident, and does wonders in cementing the leading man status he’s always yearned for. The most evident difference between these sides is that this now feels like a man scarred by his past and his newfound hatred for what this hostile land has taken from him.

– The characters are written as so much more than good versus evil, and cater more to the shade of grey that allows you to understand every motivation for said action.

– Two supercharged twists that absorb great weight in the overall growing complexity of the story. What matters most of all is that these twists make sense, an art that many films can’t seem to connect when drawing the dots together.

– What’s interesting about this screenplay is how one vivid night that only affects a small group of friends has a butterfly effect with where screenwriter Tony Gilroy’s spy thriller goes. There’s a reason why Hamm’s character is called upon, and everything lines up in a kind of air-tight execution that Gilroy attained in films like The Bourne trilogy.

THE NEGATIVES

– There are impactful, albeit brief action sequences in the very beginning and very end of the film. This makes it difficult to attain the thriller tag in ‘Spy Thriller’, doing nothing but harm to the already tiptoe pacing that is fading away before our eyes.

– Hamm’s character suffers from alcoholism, and this plot device is very seldom used in generating something of a character flaw for him to overcome. It’s a kind of tell-not-show kind of exposition that is rarely if at all explored and never adds any kind of growing concern to the way he performs under pressure.

– I had a major problem with the overall lack of Muslim actors and characters in the film who weren’t terrorists. I get that terrorism is associated with a lot of their people in this instance, but in an era where White-washing is all the craze, maybe offer some examples of diversity for dissection in instilling the thought that not all Muslims are gun-toting terrorists.

– The screenplay was written in 1991, and that’s clearly evident for how the film misuses Rosamund Pike’s leading lady character. Pike makes the most of what limited opportunity, but it’s a shame that in a character who surprisingly has a lot of resolve with this particular plot doesn’t exactly come across as a major player in a male dominated ensemble.

6/10

Chappaquiddick

Directed by John Curran

Starring – Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Ed Helms

The Plot – The scandal and mysterious events surrounding the tragic drowning of a young woman, as Ted Kennedy (Clarke) drove his car off the infamous bridge, are revealed in the new movie. Not only did this event take the life of an aspiring political strategist and Kennedy insider, but it ultimately changed the course of presidential history forever. Through true accounts, documented in the inquest from the investigation in 1969, director John Curran and writers Andrew Logan and Taylor Allen, intimately expose the broad reach of political power, the influence of America’s most celebrated family; and the vulnerability of Ted Kennedy, the youngest son, in the shadow of his family legacy.

Rated PG-13 for thematic material, disturbing images, some strong adult language, and historical smoking

THE POSITIVES

– Casting directors Marisol Roncali and Mary Vernieu confidently conquer the immense task of putting together an ensemble cast that emotionally and especially visually brings these historical figures to life. In seeing the real life pictures of Mary Joe inserted throughout the film, you really see an eerily similar identity to that of Mara who plays her.

– The makeup and props department set the bar high, offering a subtle touch for Ted’s trademark teeth and signature hairstyle granted to Clarke. What I love is that their influence is nothing over the top in a characature kind of way. The influences are subtly deposited, and make the immersion into buying these actors that much easier by comparison.

– This really is an eye-opening kind of movie for many actors who you didn’t think had it in them. From a comedic standpoint, Jim Gaffigan and especially Ed Helms are two people who I didn’t expect to steal the film with dramatic depth, but most certainly make the most of the occasion. Clarke too, is better than I have ever seen him, breathing in Kennedy with kind intentions, but not exactly the kind of intelligence needed for thinking on his feet at all times. Clarke’s Australian accent is nowhere to be found, and his Boston tongue in the film is impeccable throughout.

– The screenplay by Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan captures the immense pressure that comes with such a heralded last name. To be a Kennedy is to have your whole future mapped out for you, and that ensuing pressure to always pick up where your brother left off, surrounds the movie, giving us a taste of a protagonist constantly living in bigger shadows.

– Beautiful cinematography by Maryse Alberti, who brings to life the 60’s essence of Cape Cod beaches and colorful surrounding neighborhoods with a sunlight glow. Alberti shot one of my favorite movies of all time in 2008’s ‘The Wrestler’, and it’s clear she hasn’t lost her touch, paying homage to a past era of baby-boomers in ‘Chappaquiddick’ that define the bad things happening behind picket fences kind of logic.

– Entertainment Studios has been anything but a success for the films I’ve reviewed so far. After stinkers with ‘9/11’ and ‘The Hurricane Heist’, ‘Chappaquiddick’ is easily the best film for the studio to date, making the most of minimal budgets and third-tier reputation amongst studios in crafting an entertaining slice of history that anyone familiar or unfamiliar with the story will indulge in.

– Curran’s direction feels influenced by this tragedy in American history. His depiction of events leaves enough room open to still fuel speculation for the very holes in this story still unanswered, yet settles in close enough to Ted to grasp the weight of a developing situation that will no doubt take everything from him. On some instances early on, this feels like a horror film, but it’s in the lunacy of a situation that Curran settles down with later on and relates that this nightmare could happen to any of us, even a U.S Senator.

THE NEGATIVES

– Much of the movie builds up these characters for 96 minutes, and at the end of it all it solidifies just how different the justice system is for the rich and powerful. What this does in terms of damage is speed up the process of you souring on these people because everything that they go through is pretty much all for nought. Frustrating

– This film, while exceptional in almost every way, would be better served on HBO or a cable network that allows them more time to expand on the character developments and mystery surrounding the events that is needed to push the intrigue further. People switch motivations and sides without much reasoning, and Ted’s wife (Played by Andria Blackman) comes virtually out of nowhere during the final twenty minutes in presenting us a side to their marriage that could’ve played a pivotol role in fleshing out Ted.

– There certainly are consequences that are talked about throughout the unfolding events of this night, but overall I felt a great lack of suspense or thrills from the film to keep Ted on his feet. The strategy scenes with his legal council feel like they do more damage than good, and Ted’s third act epiphany feels like one that comes and goes without much logic or defining emphasis behind it.

7/10

You Were Never Really Here

Directed by Lynne Ramsay

Starring – Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Larry Canady

The Plot – Balancing between feverish dreamlike hallucinations of a tormented past and a grim disoriented reality, the grizzled Joe (Phoenix); a traumatized Gulf War veteran and now an unflinching hired gun who lives with his frail elderly mother (Roberts); has just finished successfully yet another job. With an infernal reputation of being a brutal man of results, the specialized in recovering missing teens enforcer will embark on a blood-drenched rescue mission, when Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the innocent 13-year-old daughter of an ambitious New York senator, never returns home. But amidst half-baked leads and a desperate desire to shake off his shoulders the heavy burden of a personal hell, Joe’s frenzied plummet into the depths of Tartarus is inevitable, and every step Joe takes to flee the pain, brings him closer to the horrors of insanity. In the end, what is real, and what is a dream? Can there be a new chapter in Joe’s life when he keeps running around in circles

Rated R for strong violence, disturbing and grisly images, adult language, and brief nudity

THE POSITIVES

– My Love is deep for the way the camera revolves and studies each new room that the story takes us through. This allows us time to soak in the placement of every person and object. Beyond this, much of the framing in the film keeps Joe’s facials out of focus to relate the very struggle for identity within himself.

– Lots of mystery to the compromising, out of context visuals that you are seeing. This keeps the story intriguing and edgy from a cryptic standpoint in wondering what’s real and what is part of Joe’s delusions. This is credited to Joe Bini’s razor sharpe editing that always illustrates colorfully the outer dimension that we’ve seemed to slip into with this film.

– Johnny Greenwood again musically lifts the emotional palate straight from the pages, giving breath to the very nightmarish dreamscapes in lighting and environment that the film takes us through. His strident touch is quickly becoming one of my favorite musical composers, and has really given new life to his turn in music after his work in Radiohead. Beyond this, the inclusion of 50’s AM radio favorites from time-to-time gave the film a dreamy fantasy like feel to counteract the nightmare playing out before us.

– Phoenix’s physical performance that inhabits not only the sadness of this tortured soul, but also the very motivation for why he excels in such a field. He toes a fine line between paranoia and sensitivity that constantly feels like a struggle for control within him.

– My appreciation for not necessarily tying things up with this entire screenplay is very high. I think sometimes in film we try far too much to illustrate a silver lining, but Ramsay’s plan is to keep things grounded in communicating to the audience that things don’t always get better after help is sought.

-Joe’s remaining humanity really rests upon his sometimes comical relationship with his mother. These scenes feel like a warm blanket surrounded by an otherwise toxic cloud of violence that engulfs this troubled soul.

– I love a thinking person’s film, and this one gave me a few theories based on the evidence in the film that hinted to me that maybe not all is as it seems with Joe and Nina. Obviously based on the novel, which is more in-depth, that is not the case, but the film leaves enough room in leverage to bring to light some of your own theories with the side of Joe’s mind that is being covered up by all of the traumatic fright.

THE NEGATIVES

-There’s definitely great restrain from Ramsay’s direction with what we’re shown in action or violence, catering more to the psychological side of action movies. But I feel like it can occasionally lose its genre designation with such long spans in between that showcase why this man is so good at his job.

– The dissection of this character will leave more to be desired by some audiences. For me, it’s kind of refreshing to not have to be spoon-fed every single detail of his tortured past, but I can certainly understand why some people require more context to the visuals that are stylishly pasted in.

– Terribly unauthentic sound effects that don’t accurately register the weight of a particular blow. For instance, one scene involving a tie being whipped in the face of a character, sounds like a brick. This gives a cheesy underlying to an otherwise seamless presentation on the violence side.

7/10

Gringo

Directed by Nash Edgerton

Starring – David Oyelowo, Joel Edgerton, Charlize Theron

The Plot – Combining dark comedy with dramatic intrigue, ‘Gringo’ joyrides across the border into Mexico, where all is not as it seems for mild-mannered American businessman Harold Soyinka (Oyelowo). Crossing the line from citizen to criminal, Harold tangles with duplicitous business partners, Mexican drug lords, international mercenaries, and the DEA. As he attempts to survive in one of the most dangerous places on earth, the question lingers: is this ordinary man in way over his head, or is he two steps ahead?

Rated R for adult language throughout, violence and sexual content

THE POSITIVES

– This cast is far too good for this film, and prove it as they make the most of their thinly written characters. Theron and Edgerton definitely steal the show, playing two upper management snobs whose quick wit retaliation gave me flashbacks of the Farelly Brothers in their writing prime. There were times when I wanted this to be just their film, and I feel that I was the most intrigued whenever this sensational duo showed up and ate up the scenery

– Despite seeing the trailer a lot, the twists and turns of this screenplay gave me more than a few surprises, and certainly wasn’t bashful about upping the stakes for all of the players seated at the table.

– While I had many problems with the overall tone and genre classification of this film, it’s in my opinion that the film worked best when it tried to be a comedy. Oyelowo’s consistent Nigerian accent, as well as his reactions to the complete mayhem that was unfolding around him, gave me more than a couple of hearty chuckles that served as a piece of relief for the rest of the film that took itself too seriously.

– It’s beneficial and interesting to note that Oyelowo’s character isn’t the bumbling buffoon that the trailer makes him out to be. There’s clearly a game of mental chess taking place here, and this man takes many intelligent measures known to the audience before he makes his next move.

THE NEGATIVES

– The movie is sold as a comedy, written as a Mexican drug cartel shootout, and presented as a dramatic piece. The word of the day for this one is Scatterbrained because at times these three polar opposite directions clash with one another and soil the integrity and honesty that each are trying to convey.

– I mentioned earlier that Theron and Edgerton steal the show, and it’s clear that the movie thinks so as well. Midway through, Oyelowo’s main character status is put in jeopardy as he is sharing screen time with no fewer than three other subplots that each get an equal share of the script. Subplots usually show up in one out of every four to five scenes, but here the dedication in keeping up with every single character tested my patience to no end.

– Gringo is probably the last film that I expected to complain about the visual effects, but it’s rare for me to be this dumbfounded about the careless nature put into them. Snowflakes and butterflies are given a C.G rendering here, and not only does their movements make you question the authenticity of every scene they’re in, but the fact that they both fall/fly in the same pattern proves the rushed nature of this effect to me.

– Frustrating transition scenes. This heavily flawed script just isn’t sequenced out enough to harvest the entertainment factor of the material. There are multiple exposition scenes without a payoff in between, as well as cuts in editing between scenes that feel jagged and sloppy for the style.

– I’ve heard of neatly tied up endings before, but Gringo’s is so bad that it inadvertently pays homage to Austin Powers. Let me explain; there’s a character in the film who is insulted because she used to be fat. Well wouldn’t you know it, during the closing scenes she becomes fat again because she’s an awful person. This serves absolutely zero purpose in the overall scheme of things other than to answer one more unnecessary question about another unnecessary character.

– Speaking of unnecessary characters, Amanda Seyfried and her boyfriend in the movie are completely wasted and given absolutely no clarity for their involvement in the film. It’s another example of two characters whose final destination make you scratch your head the more you think about it, and only did wonders in weighing the entertainment factor down for the film each time they came on screen and weighed the pacing down.

4/10

Death Wish

Directed by Eli Roth

Starring – Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Elisabeth Shue

The Plot – Dr. Paul Kersey (Willis) is a surgeon who only sees the aftermath of his city’s violence as it’s rushed into his ER -until his wife (Shue) and college-age daughter (Camila Morrone) are viciously attacked in their suburban home. With the police overloaded with crimes, Paul, burning for revenge, hunts for his family’s assailants to deliver justice. As the anonymous slayings of criminals grabs the media’s attention, the city wonders if this deadly avenger is a guardian angel…or a grim reaper. Fury and fate collide in this intense action-thriller.

Rated R for strong bloody violence, and adult language throughout

THE POSITIVES

– The decision to set this film in Chicago is definitely one that makes sense to the social commentary on firearms, but also infuses the use of modern technology with such a battle zone so immense.

– If Eli Roth has done anything right in his career, it’s his thirst for brutality and violence that is second to no one. While some of the death scenes feel a bit fetishized when compared to the way the rest of the film is shot, it does at least cast the extra emphasis in consequences for playing this kind of game. Everything else might be watered down, but this simply isn’t.

– Respect is given that Eli can finally stay behind a camera and not insert himself into his own movies. These scenes usually serve absolutely no point, and thankfully he exerts enough patience in keeping his ass in the director’s chair.

THE NEGATIVES

– Every single situation in the film relies on convenience. From Willis not being seen and identified, to pictures of addresses being in an antagonist’s cell phone that helps Willis in finding leads, there are too many of these instances that had me rolling my eyes for just how sloppy this screenplay was. There’s even one scene when Willis so obviously faces the direction of a girl filming with her cell phone, only for it to later not include this instance.

– Mixed signals?? The film never quite made clear what side of the firearms debate that it sits on. There are plenty of times during the film when Roth not-so-subtly hints that the only way to stop this epidemic is if more people arm themselves, yet by the end of the film there’s a violent shove in material to letting the police do their jobs. You can’t be both on this particular issue, and if you can’t make a choice in 102 minutes of screen time, then the film will often feel like it is being written by two different people.

– The performances are terrible. Willis himself hasn’t been a big screen presence for decades, and after seeing ‘Death Wish’ I understand why. There’s an overall lack of emotion or energy from his demeanor, and it never rises from that grounded level. A film will never suffer as much as it does with a main actor who so obviously doesn’t want to be there, and Willis’s can’t-be-bothered retort has a lasting wound on the film that it never sews shut. Not to be outdone however, Shue herself reacts to a break-in with no tears or screaming, giving you the kind of paycheck collection film that big name actors flock to once the scripts come in the mail further between.

– There is nothing remotely fresh of impactful in this film that we haven’t seen in the hundreds of other vigilante films that each borrow from each other. This script feels every bit as recycled and derivative as it does clumsy for inserting no twists or leverage on its audience.

– What I loved about the original ‘Death Wish’ is its gritty psychological unraveling of this protagonist who we ourselves interpret that overwhelming sense of loneliness. How Roth depicts this manner is to instill comedic personality to a man who doesn’t grieve his wife’s death for more than two scenes after it goes down.

– So many directions go unfulfilled. Whether the one-and-done scenes of characters like Shue’s gun-toting father or Mike Epps lone scene as a surgeon (You read that right), or the way the third act treats the antagonist like a mystery that is building to a big reveal, the film never explores these avenues. This is a jigsaw puzzle in which many of the central pieces are missing, and I never settled down from the way Joe Carnahan as a screenwriter proposes so many ideas only to drop the ball with every single one.

– If there is one thing that Willis and this film need more than anything, it’s an antagonist that they can bounce off of. Once the break-in happens, we never see these burglars again until the end, proving just how little the film cares in seeing things from their vantage points. Without this dedication in minutes, we as an audience never feel how vital the revenge of Willis truly is, nor do we ever question if this predictable ending will spin us to surprise.

3/10

Den of Thieves

Directed by Christian Gudegast

Starring – Gerard Butler, O’Shea Jackson, Pablo Schreiber

THE PLOT – A gritty Los Angeles crime saga which follows the intersecting and often personally connected lives of an elite unit of the LA County Sheriff’s Dept. and the state’s most successful bank robbery crew as the outlaws plan a seemingly impossible heist on the Federal Reserve Bank of downtown Los Angeles.

Rated R for violence, adult language and some sexuality/nudity

THE POSITIVES

– Gerard Butler gives arguably his best performance since ‘300’. It’s probably not saying a lot positively when Butler gives the best performance in a film, but as Nick Flanagan, Butler rides a double identity that has him juggling family life and a dangerous career to stay afloat.

– The sound design here is an up-roaring achievement. Through a few shootout sequences, the amplified echo of automatic riffles transformed Los Angeles into a think-fast warzone, over the all American dollar.

– Some beautiful exterior shots of the city of angels that hints at a Michael Mann kind of influence behind Gudegast’s inspirations. As to where Mann fell in love with the flashy neon’s of the southeast, Christian balances the beauty and ugly under the same west coast sky where millions reside.

– There was never a role where I felt that anyone was miscast. Bridges in particular continues to be a commanding presence on the silver screen, carving out a name for himself that reminds us that he is anyone but his father when it comes to projects he accepts.

THE NEGATIVES

– Two hours and fifteen minutes is an endurance test for any film, let alone one whose story could easily reside under two hours with some attention to necessary trimming in expositional over-abundance. Considering the big robbery begins with an hour left in the movie, it’s mind-boggling why that was the area of the film that plodded the most.

– In addition to the previous point, there are scenes that serve little purpose the more I thought about them, as well as character traits that go absolutely nowhere. For instance, Jackson’s character is a well known speed demon behind the wheel, but this never comes into play during the robbery, so why include it in the story? Another scene involves 50 Cent’s daughter being taken to a dance, only to be intimidated by his group of criminals. Where this goes in the long run? Why nowhere but a standard throwaway scene for the audience to remotely chuckle between scenes of suspense. It’s mood-ruiner 101 at its finest.

– Some of the dialogue in this film points to late 90’s anti-homosexual spouting that seems severely outdated with our current scene on Hollywood. It’s embarrassing and stands out like an unnecessary sore thumb during the tense scenes of the two gangs colliding.

– In my opinion, the film progressed the smoothest when the lines of comparison between the two sides seemed apparent. So it angered me deeply when so much of the second act becomes a dick measuring contest between Butler and Schreiber’s characters, limiting the rest of the supporting cast to disappearing acts that only re-appear when the film absolutely needs them to.

– Obvious C.G blood that reminded me of Syfy movie-of-the-week’s when it splattered in front of the screen. The closer its depiction, the worst it looked in terms of believability.

– The finale reaches for a twist that honestly isn’t defined as an actual plot twist. In addition to this, it’s obvious because the film showed its hand during the first act in a throwaway line in which they felt no one was paying attention. Probably because no one but me actually was.

4/10

November Criminals

Two curious teenagers are on the hunt for the killer of their friend’s untimely death, in ‘November Criminals’. Based on Sam Munson’s 2010 of the same name, the story revolves around 18-year-old Addison Schacht (Ansel Elgort), a Jewish high-school senior in Washington D.C with a careless attitude and a beautiful girlfriend (Chloe Moretz) to boot. After a typical routine of coffee and conversation with her, Addison receives the devastating news that one of his closest friends has been gunned down in the very coffee shop that Addison frequented only minutes prior. After the police investigation offers little results, Addison decides to open an investigation of his own, seeking information to anyone who might know the details of this terrible tragedy. What comes of it will have him discovering new details regarding his friend, as well as a self-examination of his own life that has been through recent turmoil. ‘November Criminals’ is written and directed by Sacha Gervasi, and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content including teen sexuality, drug material, brief violence and strong adult language.

Whether you like or dislike a film, it usually succeeds in leaving a lasting memory with that one watch. Then along comes a film like ‘November Criminals’, and totally swerves the concept of such logic with a movie so inept and ineffective that it fails to garner any kind of remote emotional response that hammers home the proof in its result. This film belongs exclusively on Freeform, a cable television channel geared towards teenagers who embrace a show like ‘Pretty Little Liars’. However, unlike that show, Gervasi’s crime drama comes across with such miniscule effort that drowns it in a sea of obscurity as a result of a tone-deaf atmosphere and entertainingly lagging screenplay. This is a script that knows it suffers from the simplicity of its plain direction, and because the majority of the film rests on Gervasi’s shoulders, he requires the addition of two Hollywood starlets in making it interesting for his teenage audience. But this is one lesson that will mature those moviegoers fruitfully, as ‘November Criminals’ is arguably the most boring film that I have seen this year.

Most of that distinction falls heavily on a script that is all over the place in terms of tonal complexity, as well as firmly planted feet in calculation that keep it from ever reaching above and beyond. Clocking in at 80 measly minutes, ‘November Criminals’ never puts in the time and effort in establishing the unions all around that establish the dramatic circumference of the film’s emotional material. The loss of Addison’s friend comes and goes without much resonance internally because the film rushes through the set-up that anyone who watches the trailer or reads the plot knows is coming from a mile away. On top of this, the film is constantly trying to establish itself as the lost chapter of a John Hughes movie that was never good enough to see the light of day. I say this because the mood of this film feels like it is appealing to a hip perspective that feels parallel to the events that transpire. With a more committed approach to drama, this could’ve benefited not only the versatility of the story that constantly remains on one-layer, but also in the performances of the cast that are often the deer reacting to the bright headlights above.

On the subject of some of those cast members, the chemistry within Elgort and Moretz is certainly evident, but the film’s script gives them such little wiggle room in free range of character deposition that they almost have to approach these people as self-representations. Elgort’s Addison is easily my favorite character of the movie, reeling from an emotional surrender to his own life prior to the loss of his fallen friend that paints a fragile being. My problem is that the film only hints at this blurry past and doesn’t exactly give us a illuminating epiphany in drawing the two events of past and present together to reflective territory that bring to light their ironies. Moretz plays Phoebe in the same way that she has approached every teenage character not named Hit-Girl, with a lack of great concern and gravity that establishes her influence on the role. Moretz warming smile and endearing soft delivery appealed to her tender side, but the character never has the energy or passion from within to ever make this feel like anything other than a paycheck role. It was great to see David Strathairn and Catherine Keener as the parental units of the previously listed, but this is a teen story first and foremost, so the brief offering of adult influence is something that is unfortunately only for the temporary.

Perhaps the strongest in terms of negatives for the movie is in that of its mystery that leaves much more to be desired. This is first and foremost a crime mystery, yet Gervasi as a screenwriter approaches this aspect as uninterested, pursuing the film’s greatest possible strength at nothing more than face value. Tweeking with the aspect of possible suspects and scenarios could’ve done great wonders in enhancing the conundrum of this fallen friend, as well as padded out the runtime to give the film that big screen presentation that it greatly lacked. As a result of no mystery, there also feels like there is this noticeable void of urgency that the film could never find itself on the same side of. There was never a point during this film when I felt like the movie was building to anything bigger, and because of such, it’s often difficult to determine when one act begins and another one ends abruptly.

Not all is a negative however, as Gervasi’s presentational aspects lend themselves to some of the more capable perks within the film’s properties. There is exceptional framing within the film, especially considering there is an array of scenes that involve more than one character. There’s also not a lot of cuts or overdone edits between scenes that build the chemistry of Addison and Phoebe, bridging together what feels like some impressively done long-shots in manipulation that could impress the right kind of film lover. The shooting locations were also eye-catching and quite synthetic to the kind of details in the novel that painted a vivid detail in imagination. The high school itself looks like a college because of its immensity, bringing to mind the ideal that this masked gunman’s identity promote on a wider scale. These aspects didn’t champion in a film that was anywhere near as strong as promoted, but they did make the sometimes enduring challenge of a heartless sit that much more appealing by proxy.

THE VERDICT – It is criminal to think that Gervasi’s film is anywhere up to the kind of intrigue in teenage dramas that are getting smarter with each passing generation. ‘November Criminals’ is a film that is lacking mystery in development, identity in character, and satisfaction in an ending that is every bit as conventional as it is dull. Elgort and Moretz are appealing, but the lack of depth in script hinders them from ever elevating their character’s lasting power. There are certainly worse films this year, but very few as boring as this drama that tries to be smarter than it rightfully is.

4/10

Suburbicon

Matt Damon brings trouble to the once peaceful suburbs in George Clooney’s newest directing effort, ‘Suburbicon’. The miniature housing complex named Suburbicon is home to the town’s elite. It is a peaceful, idyllic suburban community with affordable homes and manicured lawns. Overall, the perfect place to raise a family. But in the summer of 1959, amidst the ever-changing landscape, the Lodge family’s plans of a prospering future go out the window. Under the tranquil surface masks a disturbing reality, as husband and father Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) must navigate the town’s dark underbelly of betrayal, deceit, and violence to see what’s bubbling its way to the top at the level of the once friendly neighbors. This is a tale of very flawed people making very bad choices. This is ‘Suburbicon’. ‘Suburbicon’ is directed by George Clooney, and is rated R for scenes of violence, adult language and some sexuality.

It’s certainly easy to comprehend and even appreciate the sincere message being played at hand within ‘Suburbicon’, but its jumbled direction and tone deaf presentation within the ever-changing atmosphere, made for one of the more puzzling experiences with a film that I have had in 2017. As a director, Clooney once again goes all in with the context of his audience either grabbing ahold of this plot, or they simply don’t, and while I can appreciate and value a director whose all-in approach can provide the greatest divedends for the chances that he takes, I cannot under any circumstances overlook the aspects in this production that depreciated the value in something that could’ve provided the sharp sting of social commentary. On that respect, the film’s storytelling medium floats somewhere between the past and the present, bringing together the social politics of two different generations to prove that no matter how far beyond we think we’ve advanced as a society, the bigotry of prejudice still subsides in the very same arguments being made today like a passing of the torch from generation to generation.

This is a film so opposite in approach from the continuity of its contextual trailer that I often wondered if I was indeed watching the same film that I was once promised. But this time something entirely different in material makes itself apparent, as the film juggles two different plots that are purposely being played off of one another simultaneously. The first is the household of this Lodge family, whose lives change entirely over the course of one night that leaves the Mother murdered and the Father and Son scrambling to put the pieces back together psychologically. The second and personally more engaging story for me, is a racial divide between the whitely-dominated community and the new black citizens that move into their territory. By themselves, each of these meaty directions could’ve provided an entertaining enough sit, but when they are attached together at the hip, it becomes obvious that one of them greatly suffers due to time constraints; and that’s the second story. For his money, Clooney really has two appealing angles here, but to have each of them serve the same master feels contradictory not only in the two completely different atmospheres that are being accomplished here, but also sacrificial considering the pieces don’t fit together in flow no matter how much the four screenwriters here want them to.

On that perspective, the thought of too many cooks being in the kitchen at once definitely seems clear here, as the vicious tonal shifts that plague the movie required me often to ask of myself what emotion I should carry for each scene. There’s a lot of seriousness as I already mentioned with the plots, but the way Clooney and company approach it as a depiction makes it feel like nothing is being presented with a serious emphasis to propel its urgency. What’s commendable is the material feeding into that train of thought where the most vicious events happen behind picket fences, but everything included feels so watered down by this train of thought that there’s never a moment that the film capitalizes on its provocative appeal. The quirky domination being displayed here certainly pays homage to Coen Brothers comedies (They co-wrote the script), but the key word there is “Comedy”, and that is a version of tone that should never exist in a film about a little boy’s Mother being murdered, or an entire white community that make the lives of a black family a living nightmare.

Not all is a loss however, as Clooney’s stylistic choices for the movie pay a faithful homage to the 50’s and 60’s decor, when the clothes and housing looked unnaturally new from the radiant sunshine reflecting down from above. With the very first seconds of the film, we open up with a commercial for the Suburbicon community that feels corny and artificial in the same vein that television was decades ago. This establishes not only the backstory of the location, but also the benefit of immersing ourselves within this slice of Heaven that no one watching could wait to see for themselves. The cars and houses reflect a faithful value to setting the stage appropriately, and the camera work by Clooney is certainly no slouch to boot. The more you start to pay attention to the way George shoots tension and unfolding circumstance, the more you start to see the sprinkles of wisdom that he bestows upon things like reactions and pausing with speech patterns that really simulate human confrontation wonderfully. The film was rarely an entertaining one in narrative, but the production value that serves as a callback to a far but not forgotten era, was one that an art lover like me could envelope himself in when I found this 100 minute sit to be taxing through scenes that it felt like no one took seriously.

Before I go on, I will say that there are two credible performances in the film, one from Oscar Isaac, and one from the youngest of the Lodge family, Nicky, played by Noah Jupe. Unfortunately, Isaac is only in the film for a couple of scenes, but his invasion gives the film the kind of prestigious boost needed to get it through the final act. Jupe himself is a revelation though. For someone like me who does grade kid performances, Jupe’s felt stirring and very authentic when challenged with the backbone of human emotion that kids his age usually balk at. Unfortunately, the other characters and performances alike are nothing special for the film. Matt Damon phones this performance in because the film gives him little in the way of psychological perspective for him to hang his chops on. Julianne Moore performs double duty as two sisters of the Lodge family, and neither makes her presence as an award winning actress feel credible by design. I say this because Moore is reduced to nothing but a gentle housewife for the entirety of the film, and it undercuts any chance for her to make the role her own. I mentioned that I hated most of the characters in this film, and that’s because there seems to be no moral clause between any of the adults. I think Clooney does this intentionally to see things through the kid’s eyes, but as to where Jupe was our protagonist of sorts for the first two acts, the screenplay virtually silences him for an important third act that is deemed necessary to remind us what hearty characters can be.

THE VERDICT – Clooney and the Coen’s would’ve been better served by leaving ‘Suburbicon’ on the shelf of monotony three years ago where they found it. While the film isn’t anything bad enough to stake a claim amongst Hollywood’s worst, the forced surgery by these four screenwriters who are anything but on the same page leaves the film’s once honorable intentions feeling hollow when swallowed by conflicting directions in narrative and tone that crush its messages. The vibrancy of artistic integrity proves George was the right man for the job, but his finished product feels like he has watched too many Coen Brothers movies to ever serve as the necessary landlord to make this suburbia flourish.

5/10

The Snowman

The disappearance of a local woman sends a team of investigators on the hunt for a killer with a chilly side, in ‘The Snowman’. Michael Fassbender , Rebecca Ferguson and Charlotte Gainsbourg star in this terrifying thriller from director Tomas Alfredson. Based on Jo Nesbø’s global bestseller of the same name, the film begins when an elite crime squad’s lead detective, Harry Hole, yep that’s his name, (Fassbender) investigates the disappearance of a victim on the first snow of winter. Harry fears an elusive serial killer may be active again. With the help of a brilliant new recruit, Katrine Bratt (Ferguson), the cop must connect decades-old cold cases to the brutal new one if he hopes to outwit this unthinkable evil before the next snowfall. ‘The Snowman’ is rated R for grisly imagery, brutal violence, some adult language, and sexuality involving brief nudity.

History has proven that novels are often the winner in their often times inevitable showdowns with the big budget adaptations. More times than not, a book can grant you the kind of freedom from restrictions that hinders a film cold from keeping up the entertaining factor. No sentence will better define ‘The Snowman’, as this jumbled, melted mess that limps its way to a finish that had me questioning where it all went wrong. It is my opinion that much of the problems that screenwriters Peter Straughan and Hossein Amini encounter is in their desire to over-convolute a story that doesn’t require a thinker’s approach. The case within this story is your basic serial thriller, so when the film tries to demand that unnecessary reach to intelligence, it comes up short in its returns that bore you out of your seat. At nearly two hours, so much of ‘The Snowman’ can be trimmed or edited to fit its narrative, but this film is so poorly directed that it makes it easier to understand the negative side of when a film is left in improper hands, the making of such a decision that soils Alfredson’s often prestigious name and leaves him out in the cold for a story that fumbles at nearly every given chance.

The story for the film makes the conscience decision to craft this as a dual narrative for the first half of the movie. This second tier is led by Val Kilmer as an alcoholic detective nine years prior whose own obsession for The Snowman Killer ruined his life. I see the importance of what this arc played to our story in the bigger picture, but its insistence upon eating up valuable minutes of exposition comes at quite a hefty price. This could’ve easily been used in various flashbacks throughout the film, but every fifteen minutes or so, we are reminded of its existence by a brutal shoving in the script that doesn’t distinctly signify when this flashback happens or give any kind of indication of the time switch. Elsewhere, this screenplay feels gobbled up by a series of gaps and holes in sequencing that leave its audience struggling when trying to keep up. Things just kind of happen without any rhyme or reason, leaving me to wonder if a bigger director’s cut is lurking on a shelf somewhere. Either way, I’m not interested. As for the mystery itself, it’s somewhat intriguing, particularly during the early third act when it does start to feed into its ambiguity, but it’s ruined on one brutal shot of spoiler with about twenty minutes left in the film, that gives away everything without reaching a beneficial shock in its reveal. The final fight sequence is so underwhelming in its conclusion that I found myself asking repeatedly if that was it.

Possibly my biggest problem with the film is in the editing that can’t possibly be justified at a professional level. I’ve already mentioned that it feels like this script is subject to holes in progression that make it feel like an entire movie is missing, but the true horror comes in the fact that somewhere someone lacks that kind of personal imprint from the director that tells them when a scene should be shortened or ran longer. With ‘The Snowman’, there are many scenes left in this final cut that had me scratching my head for what pivotal role they played. There are also scenes that I felt were finally getting us somewhere, but were jarringly ripped from the screen with malicious intent. The editing is so devastatingly awful in this film that it in its own way is responsible for the mind-numbingly dull pacing that never bothers to pick up momentum or move cohesively as one continuous movement. Until the third act when things start to somewhat pick up in mystery, I was bored to tears because of the lack of energy or impressionable character that exerted itself into this movie.

On the latter of that concept, the performances within the film are about as good as they could be considering this top notch cast is getting no direction beyond the camera. Considering this is a film that takes place in Oslo, Norway, not one character speaks with the proper accent or even remotely struggles in speaking English. Fassbender can only do so much, despite being one of the most versatile actors working today. As Harry, we hear about a legend that has done so much, but there’s nothing about him that ever makes you understand why he is depended upon so much. To me, I feel like Harry’s biggest positive is that he’s in the right place at the right time, and that’s about as underwhelming with a protagonist as you can get. Val Kilmer is depressing because you can see on-screen how much life has worn him down, and shitty films like this will only make it worse. Kilmer’s painfully obvious ADR voice-dubbing is something that adds a jarring aspect of immersive break for me in each scene, and Kilmer can barely move at this point, let alone invest every emotional muscle to giving a performance for the ages. It’s just not there. J.K Simmons and Charlotte Gainsbourg are wasted in the bigger picture that doesn’t involve their characters holding weight within the complexity of this screenplay, and sadly Chloe Sevingly is only in one scene for the movie. Possibly the only actor who gets away with a passing grade is Rebecca Ferguson. Her performance at least feels like one with the proper kind of motivational pull, and there were times in the film where it feels like this should definitely be more of her movie than Fassbender’s Hole (Sounds terrible) because of this perspective. Ferguson commands Bratt with the kind of intensity in vengeance that has me screaming out to Hollywood and begging them to put this woman in a STARRING role for once, atop her own movie. To make something out of this hodge-podge, we owe her at least that.

Not all was terrible for me however, as the film’s visual compass was stunning in its overall cinematography and tonal volume that visually appealed to me. ‘The Snowman’ is very much an absorbing kind of movie that locks you into its setting almost immediately, and you can’t help but feel transfixed by the seclusion in immensity of the grand scale being depicted in the film’s opening shots. The sound mixing could’ve been better in audibly immersing me tighter in the experience, but the landscape shots and shooting locations were used superbly in setting a stage that unfortunately lacks the fire in material to combat the ever-enveloping cold around us. What this setting does wonderfully is replicating in detail the kind of character response that eats away at our main cast almost entirely. It feels like Harry and company have lived here for too long, becoming a product of their cold, harsh environment that has swallowed them whole and left them bitter.

THE VERDICT – ‘The Snowman’ collapses under a series of devastating plot holes and contrivances that leave it struggling to reach air from its numbing series of unnecessary plot contrivances. This underdeveloped mess of a film wastes its talented cast almost entirely, and leaves itself falling as the latest victim to being inferior to its multimedia predecessor of the same name. Adaptations can be done with excitement, but Alfredson’s dreadful direction here leaves this snowman without a base to prop itself up on.

4/10

Marshall

The rights of black citizens inside of the courtroom falls on the hands of one prominent attorney tasked with presenting perhaps the most important case for equal rights ever. ‘Marshall’, is based on an early trial in the career of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. It follows the young Thurgood (Chadwick Boseman) to conservative Connecticut to defend a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) charged with sexual assault and attempted murder of his white socialite employer (Kate Hudson). Muzzled by a segregationist court, Marshall partners with a courageous young Jewish lawyer, Samuel Friedman (Josh Gad). Together they mount the defense in an environment of racism and Anti-Semitism. The high profile case and the partnership with Friedman served as a template for Marshall’s creation of the NAACP legal defense fund. ‘Marshall’ is directed by Reginald Hudland, and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexuality, violence and some strong adult language.

‘Marshall’ is one of those bittersweet pills to swallow with cinema, not because the film is done terribly or anything of that nature, but it serves as a constant reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go for minorities to receive their entitled justice in this country. In the same ways that this Summer’s ‘Detroit’ offered an original take on racism and the kind of injustices that this disease instills by law and order, ‘Marshall’ too finds its original stance on the subject by pitting us in the heart of the battle with the judicial system, right where it belongs. This certainly isn’t anything original for the subject matter, but what compelled me further with this film where others have failed is in its ability to speak directly to the audience, catering towards the kinds of depictions of events that put us in the chair as a juror and lets us decide our own verdict piece by piece. The cause and effect’s of this film take place in the 40’s, but so much of what Marshall and Friedman deal with in terms of opposition in this film is sadly still present today, proving that many more building blocks must still be stacked, and that its title character was only the first in the much bigger picture.

The screenplay rides heavily on the courtroom drama procedurals, residing an overwhelming majority of its screenplay on the very grounds where these battles are fought and won. If these kind of procedurals don’t do anything for you in film, then ‘Marshall’ might be a difficult sell right off of the bat. For me, I indulge in these kinds of mental chess matches because it shows you that the biggest battles are won in the smallest of margins, giving way to the glaring holes in logic that were in their cases from the very beginning. The marvelous screenplay by Jacob and Michael Koskoff signifies the importance of jury selection, courtroom location, and even lawyer/client relationships that can determine how you choose to hide the negatives of those you serve. Marshall was a student of the game in this perspective, and the film has enough leverage to dabble in the cerebral of one of the truly great minds of the game without becoming silly. There’s something beyond intelligent about the way the Koskoff’s depict this courtroom, leaving just enough room for the theatrics within a deposition to leave the audience watching glued to the screen.

As a biopic, there is a healthy offering of what makes Thurgood the kind of modern day legend that he has become. He’s a constant workaholic who the movie points out “Is depended upon by thirteen million African Americans”, and what this establishes within this particular story is that this man is rarely ever home, sacrificing a life with his beautiful wife to serve as the profit to wake this world up. I found him to be easily respectable on this sacrifice alone, but even more so for the way the Koskoff’s instill that at the end of the day he is only human. There are some adversities and challenges with being on the road so much that don’t garner him in the most appealing of lights, but it proves that the film isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty in valuing the truth of the material. If I did have some slight problems with the film, it’s in the early minutes of the third act that do come across as sluggish. At 113 minutes, this is a lengthy sit, but there’s nothing that can easily be cut without doing more harm to the integrity of the case. This is a problem because the minutes do start to catch up later when it feels like this film should be wrapping up, only to have another twenty minutes. Beyond this, the only other problem I had were with some of the longshots in logic that the people around Thurgood open his eyes to that play just as important into his case. We’ve all seen these scenes where a character will speak a throwaway line, only for a lightbulb to go off in the main character that makes him rush out of bed to tie everything together. In this instance, the scene is just a little too big of a leap for me in tying it all together, and it’s in those brief examples where the film sometimes sacrifices so much of the intelligence that it pieced together patiently.

I want to talk about presentation as well, because so much of the value within this picture is in the smooth transitions that Hudland and company preserve in replicating the style of its title character, as well as production that give it the authentic spin of the age. The musical score by composer Marcus Miller echoes the vibes of the jazz music age with such soft and tender focus on horns, cello’s, and of course the importance of piano that add class to any circumstance. In these tones, Thurgood walks with an air of confidence that makes his character anything but unlikeable, preserving him with the kind of swagger known to overtake a room. The visual compass as well sparks some original dabs in editing that give the movie character to play into the procedural stance. This isn’t a consistent thing, but early on in the film when the two lawyers meet and start to study the case, the scene transitions are given a typewriting sound of keys clicking that establishes smoothly the hours that are being put in around the clock. The lighting is soft within the courtroom scenes, and thankfully it never overrides its authentic influence by too much technological enhancement, making it stand out as something that feels manufactured to what the movie’s production team contend for themselves.

These trio of performances involved also instill a lot of weight to the depth in this screenplay, highlighting a fresh cast of male energy that strike all for their own respective reasons. Chadwick Boseman is someone who has taken on a few of these legendary figures from our past in movies, but in Thurgood we get a possible sleeper contender for some academy recognition. Boseman might lack the visual similarities to the title character, but he more than makes up for it in his dedication to vocal tones and attitude that ring true with Marshall. Boseman is so unlimited with charm and appeal that it’s impossible not to perk up any time he enters a scene, and the chemistry with Gad might be my pick for the best one-two punch in cinema this year. On the subject of Gad, he’s rarely someone who appeals to me in films, but ‘Marshall’ proves that he has what it takes to spice to instill his brand of sarcastic wit to any film without ruining the consistency of its atmosphere. Samuel is someone who faces the kind of serious backlash from his community in ways that Marshall does as well, but with more to lose to feed into the empathy of his character. This gives Gad’s Friedman a much deserved chair at the table in this story where he rightfully belongs. Dan Stevens is also solid, playing the antagonist lawyer of sorts to combat the team of Marshall and Friedman. Stevens is menacing, deceitful, and most importantly; determined to do what he has to for the victory. This sometimes can cast him as a superhero villain of sorts with the structure of his character coming out of nowhere, but Stevens calm delivery casts great fear in the kinds of things he says that you know he believes, and it’s further proof that every good conflict needs a beneficial antagonist.

THE VERDICT – ‘Marshall’ harbors two equally compelling directions in its courtroom procedural, as well as the biopic centering around its title character that gives you two pleasures for the price of one. With a rich vibe in tone and texture, the film objects to ever being deemed under a ‘Movie of the week’ kind of classification, and the value of three electrifying performances on top of it makes the verdict of Hudland’s latest guilty of being an effective drama with lots of historical pull.

9/10

American Made

An airline pilot will have to fly above the clouds in order to escape the feds who are hot on his trail, in ‘American Made’. Director Doug Liman and Tom Cruise team together one more time, this time centering around the story of Barry Seal (Cruise), a TWA pilot in 1978 who is recruited by the CIA, specifically a seedy mastermind deep within the department named Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to provide reconnaissance on the burgeoning communist threat in Central America. Barry soon finds himself in charge of one of the biggest covert CIA operations in the history of the United States, smuggling in hundreds of pounds of cocaine to the Southern territories. This story spawned the birth of the Medellin cartel and eventually almost brought down the Reagan White House with the Iran Contra scandal that rocked nations across the globe. ‘American Made’ is rated R for adult language throughout and some sexuality/nudity.

Pablo Escobar is perhaps the most notorious drug trafficker ever, so there’s certainly no shortage of screenplays based on his controversial life as a smuggler. ‘American Made’ is yet another of those chapters, but with a bit of the twist that supplants the domestic side of its surreal storytelling. The film itself features Escobar for all of about twenty minutes, choosing instead to focus on an original narrative to the story by centering it around one of his pivotal chess pieces when it comes to moving his product in. When you think about the harsh realities of how drugs have shaped and poisoned our society, guys like Barry Seal shouldn’t come to mind, but the green of dollar bills will make even our own citizens do the most irrational of things, and that is what we have here. ‘American Made’ feels like a take on entrepreneurship post ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, and while I do feel like those comparisons in structure and the complementary breaking of the fourth wall are completely justified from Liman’s film, this one does fall remotely short in capturing the same kind of immersive essence that kept me on the edge of my seat for nearly three hours with its predecessor.

Many things do however compliment this as a strongly put together piece of cinema, pushing authentic vibes in cinematography and direction that craft this as something so much more than just an entertaining film. We are treated to some intricate levels of artistic merit throughout the presentation that really establishes the kind of setting in time that showcase just how different and untested the laws were then. Many films anymore include the choices of authentic 70’s grainy footage during that era for its establishing shots and narrative storytelling, but it’s in those same grainy filters and cheap style choices that Liman brings along with us to keep its visual enticement fresh and consistent. From the guerilla style shooting, to the tight-knit camera angles, there were many times during the film when I felt like I was watching government footage that I just happened to stumble across. In addition to this, the beautiful and breathtaking cinematography is aplenty, focusing on the depiction in differences between the landscapes of Arkansas and South America that figuratively and literally fly by with our protagonist’s plot.

On the subject of style alone, this film is a ten, but some of the lasting power of the screenplay by Gary Spinelli does leave slightly more to be desired. This isn’t a boring film at all, and there was never a point when I wasn’t invested in the unfolding series of uphill climbs that Barry faces, but the film takes very little time, especially early on, to get to know the man when he isn’t in the cockpit. To that degree, this feels like a one-sided effort that focuses entirely on his missions and less with what makes him such a protagonist to get behind. What I did enjoy is Barry’s breaking of the fourth wall by narrating to a video camera to us who are watching. Narration is always a slippery slope, but because the career of drug-smuggling is one that requires further elaboration, there’s plenty of chances for Barry to get personal, and it works in furthering the exposition that are skimmed but not scanned in the first act. Besides this, there is also a great overall attitude to the film that does poke fun at the cynicism and mounting tension of this once prosperous pilot being in over his head in a world where he knows very little. This kept the film at a light-hearted atmosphere while playing up plenty of the consequences that shock and level Barry and his surrounding set-up. Because of this, I feel that ‘American Made’ does have solid replay value because it chooses to never weigh to heavily on conscience, instead remaining focused on just having a good time.

The pacing for the film is slightly uneven during the first act, mainly because it feels like it is in a rush to get to the good stuff, but the later acts smooth things out by feeling like it is taking what necessary time it needs to educate. On the subject of that first act, it was flooring to see how quickly this plan all came together, and I do wish that more precious minutes were used to hammer home who Barry was before it all went down. This could give us reasoning to side with Barry and understand his desire to do something that he himself knows is illegal, but pushes forward. The runtime too is valuable in this aspect. At 105 minutes, ‘American Made’ can feel like some angles are being glossed over, but the focus remains firm in supplanting the audience with the kind of insurmountable odds that Barry and crew now have to overcome. This could all of course fall behind with redundancy before the grand finale, but the tempo of this direction always keeps us one step ahead by giving us an easy sit in the face of all of the mayhem.

As for performances, this is all kind of a one man show, but that doesn’t mean that one man doesn’t commit himself to a role that doesn’t cast him in the most admirable of lights. Cruise is of course that guy, and as Barry we see a man who is a bit rude, a bit careless, and even a bit lost in something bigger than him. Through his usual endless energy, Cruise commands Barry to dizzying distress and an unflinching southern accent that grants him a nosedive into this charismatic side. Tom seems to be accepting these roles in the later part of his career that don’t highlight him as the flawless hero, and that embracing of the vulnerability that has garnered him some acclaimed attention over the past few years, has granted him staying power decade after decade. Despite this being a one man show mostly, Gleeson is also sneakily terrific as the boss of sorts for Barry. Domhnall is quickly carving away a reputation for versatility in the jobs he undertakes, and the spin of Schafer here is certainly no different, as Gleeson feels conniving and brash in a race for riches that is unlike anything we’ve seen him in yet in his blossoming career.

THE VERDICT – The success of ‘American Made’ is based solely on its impeccably authentic artistic expression, as well as the fiery wild card performance of its male lead that feels fine on Cruise control. Doug Liman’s cautionary tale about 70’s greed and corruption feels rushed in some spots early on, and overall lacks the kind of permanent, poignant humbling that better films in the genre unleash upon, but there’s enough charm in the air from the familiar off-screen dance partners here to leave it on auto-pilot and just let it fly.

7/10