American Made: Movie Man Jackson

Stuff is only illegal if you get caught doing it. Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) makes his living as a TWA pilot in the late 1970’s, raising a family along with wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Always something of a free spirit, Barry’s one of the best in the world but deep down desires more.

Enter Monty Schaefer (Domhnall Gleason), a CIA agent who offers Seal the opportunity to fill that wild spirit void—and to make solid coin—by taking airborne pictures of Central America for reconnaissance purposes. It doesn’t take long for Seal to attract the attention of the locals, particularly the powerful Medellin Cartel and Pablo Escobar (Mauicio Mejia), who quickly approach Seal and ask him to smuggle their product into the U.S. With the CIA looking the other way, Barry is allowed to live large while increasingly taking on more improbable and dangerous missions.

There’s always those few movies that come out around the fall movie season that feel more like light summer fare. Director Doug Liman’s (Edge of Tomorrow, The Bourne Identity) latest in American Made is one of those movies. Despite the traditionally dark and gritty treatment the subject matter often generates in cinema, Liman and star Tom Cruise go the other way, opting for a telling that is breezier and fun—if empty.

Honestly, the term “movie” barely fits American Made. That’s not a complete negative or indictment as some of it is intentional. Liman goes for a documentary-esque approach in even the most elementary of scenes, and the narrative framing relies on voiceover from Cruise done through grainy videotape to spur the on-screen events forward and add the occasional necessary exposition. It works solidly enough, the ol’ “style over substance” approach.

Emphasis on style. Because, American Made has little in the way of meat to chew on. Even compared to similar-minded, relatively light films based on unbelievable and/or embellished real-life individuals in War Dogs and The Wolf of Wall Street, American Made kind of makes those films look like thought-provoking works. Perhaps it’s due to the telling of the story, which comes off as a series of increasingly insane events stitched and put together rather than real story cohesion. No real pronounced act structure exists; the time frame of the events will often jump years ahead without warning. Maybe it’s just representative of it’s whimsical main character, a dude living for the thrills without thought given to anything else.

Sometimes being a mega-star is a bad thing that renders a viewing audience unable to distinguish the star from the part they’re playing. This is one of the reasons The Mummy 2017, starring mega-star Tom Cruise, failed. Whereas some roles and films benefit from a lesser name, others depend on it.

Resembling in no way, shape, or form Barry Seal, it doesn’t matter much because Tom Cruise gets across Doug Liman’s vision of him. It’s hard to see many deliver the charisma, swagger, and “don’t go away because you might miss something outrageous” feeling Tom does here. Seal’s a guy with questionable morals at best, yet hard to despise significantly. Obviously, he’s not the only performer that appears in American Made; Domhnall Gleason and Sarah Wright are perfectly fine, but they’re definitively overshadowed by Cruise. Love or hate him, the man still has the undeniable “it” factor.

Firmly in the group of biopics made to entertain first and educate second (if at all), American Made is a middling romp, but a romp raised in quality by Cruise.


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Big Eyes: Movie Man Jackson


“The eyes are the windows of the soul.”

Emotion can be conveyed in a multitude of ways, but it always seems to be the eyes that are recognized first. Big Eyes tells the true story of American artist Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams), who in 1958 leaves her husband and decides to start life anew with her daughter and her paintings, most of them featuring people with big eyes. Mother and daughter are now rejuvenated in North Beach, San Francisco, a progressive place and an artist’s dream for someone of Margaret’s caliber.

A companion is needed though, and Margaret finds it shortly in the form of smooth-talking Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), also a passionate artist. Walter not only serves as a partner, but also the only thing that could keep her daughter Jane in her possession. They end up getting married, and things appear to be a perfect blend. With Walter, the new Mrs. Keane starts getting the money she deserves for her work, but it comes with a price: No one knows it is her creating the paintings, as Mr. Keane, a guilty conscious absent from his mind, willingly takes all credit.


For what seems like forever now, the mention of director Tim Burton’s name invokes images of dark, odd, out-there scenery and characters, be it of the animated or live-action variety. In no way has yours truly seen every work in his filmography, but in recent years it does feel that if you’ve seen one of Burton’s films, you have sort of seen them all, especially as Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are present in about every last one of them. Big Eyes, sans Depp and Bonham Carter, represents an entertaining, well-made, grounded, and mature effort to a feature film from a man who many doubted if he had it in him.

A more traditional directorial effort doesn’t mean that Burton completely abandons his trademark style. It is still found here in places, but the style isn’t a crutch for the movie. Those infrequent instances that are vivid and surreal with vibrant color tones and quirky imagery highlight these moments more, showing off the artistic element (technical-wise and script-wise) of the movie, and giving them more importance in comparison to past works which featured the same stuff throughout.


Maybe all it took was a true story. There is a notable level of respect that Burton conveys with this effort. I had never heard of Margaret Keane, but her tale is legitimately interesting, and he (Burton) lets the story plays out naturally for the most part. The social commentary regarding women and whether the public fully accepts their work or contributions isn’t heavy-handed, but it is thought-provoking, and still matters today. However, even at a pretty standard 105 minutes, the movie is overlong from time to time.

Not to discredit anyone else who appears here, but after Burton’s direction, Big Eyes boils down to two people and performances: Amy Adams as Mrs. Keane and Christoph Waltz as Mr. Keane. Both are veterans and immensely talented, and reaffirm that again in this. For a movie with a focus on eyes, Amy Adams knows how to utilize hers. Her attempt at a Southern accent may come and go, but those eyes remain. There are many scenes in which she fully exhibits the sadness and worthless feeling her character is subject to by Walter. Still, not a ton is known about Margaret, but it can be assumed that this isn’t the aim of the movie. There might not be enough character-wise for serious award “contendership” but the performance is very, very sound.

If Adams’ character work is unassuming here, her counterpart Christoph Waltz’s portrayal is anything but. His character revels in the spotlight, addicted to the glamour and acclaim, all style in his exterior and little substance behind his interior. Waltz looks to know this, presenting the audience with an animated and spirited portrayal of Margaret’s husband. While it does feel very over-the-top especially near the end, apparently this was exactly how Walter was in real life according to the real Margaret Keane, who served as an adviser of sorts. If that is the case, then Waltz certainly does a spot-on job, but that doesn’t change the fact that it can become quite comedic.


It would have been very easy for Burton, especially with the source material, to make Big Eyes in the same motif as previous features. But the proverbial comfort zone is left, or at least pared down substantially, and a great movie exists as a result. Perhaps this will open up his eyes a bit; not every feature needs to be a fantasy.

Grade: A-

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Wild: Movie Man Jackson


“I’m lonelier in my real life than I am out here.”

The great outdoors is loaded with a lot of peril in every step, but it is also loaded with the potential for finding yourself in the process. Wild is the story of Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), who goes on a three-month trek totaling over 1,000 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). At first glance, this may be self-indulgent, but it really isn’t.

There’s a reason for this journey. Cheryl has gone through much tumult through her life, and to wash away the sins of the past, she must go forward into the present. Only then will a future manifest itself.


Hiking has never appealed to yours truly, but there is immense respect had on my end for those who have done it and do it on a consistent basis. With that said, Wild really isn’t a movie solely about hiking; in fact, it has very little to do with it it. It is featured, but only as a backdrop to the main story. I imagine if I ever did go hiking, my feelings on it would be like the ones I have towards Wild: Cool to do once and interspersed with pleasant moments, but sort of an average experience with no desire to undertake again.

Make no mistake, Wild, produced by Reese Witherspoon’s, is her vehicle and no one else’s. Her role as Cheryl Strayed is not a showy performance,  but it would likely be odd if it was. The performance is more of a low-key, unglamorous, and less-is-more one. Reese is able to bring her character’s naivete and self-doubt throughout. She doesn’t really get much of a chance to deliver that attention-capturing moment, but a big part of that may be due to the character she is playing. Still, she essentially carries the film from beginning to end, which is a challenging task, especially in the format that the story is told.


The work of Laura Dern here needs to be appreciated as well. Her screentime is not likely enough to build any buzz for awards, but the character she plays as Cheryl’s mother is an important one. For all intents and purposes, she becomes the tipping point for her daughter’s straying away from the woman she can and is expected to be. Each time she appears, her connection with her daughter is evident, which makes it easy to see why Reese’s character suffers when something bad happens. In these scenes, when it is just she and Reese, it can even be argued that she outshines her star counterpart. Others who appear here aren’t really worth mentioning, as most, especially the men, seem to only exist to either provide a danger element in spots.

The storytelling approach in Wild is different from most. Under the direction of Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club), he opts for more of a flashback approach. Little of the story is told is told by Cheryl in the present. Instead, people she encounters and just the difficult trip itself trigger those past events and give insight as to why she is doing this.

It isn’t a full blown narrative, as the storytelling is more seeing her internal thoughts compared to hearing her verbalize them. As she gets deeper into her plight, more and more flashbacks are used. It is an interesting method, but it does become tiresome. Because they are deployed so often, the movie lacks fluidity and as a result actually makes it feel longer than it is.


The terrain that Cheryl navigates isn’t necessarily the focus as alluded to, but it still serves as something pretty to look it. Vallen does a good job at utilizing those occasional wide camera shots that truly establish the detail of what the main character has to traverse. It is a nice reminder that though the journey is a largely mental one, the physical aspect still plays a formidable role. While it may lack fluidity in its story, the editing never suffers.

Wild may not be engrossing or truly fascinating, but it is a fairly uplifting and solidly told film of one woman and her desire—need—to undergo a arduous hiking trip to put herself back together and reclaim control of her life. The experience in the great outdoors wasn’t bad, but exposure to the wild is a trip yours truly will only make once.

Grade: C+

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Captain Phillips: Movie Man Jackson


I’m the captain now. 

Survival at sea is the name of the game in “Captain Phillips,” based on the true story of the 2009 ship hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, obviously captained by Richard Phillips. The captain is tasked with getting the ship to Kenya, but in order to do so, he must make his way around the Horn of Africa, which, in recent days/weeks, has been inundated with pirate activity. These pirates are real menacing, and ready to seize a fortune.

I was not able to see Captain Phillips in theaters, as I unfortunately missed the second run. However, I am not sure if it would have made a difference, as far as actual feel goes. Some movies are enhanced when watched in the theater, while others can serve the same experience from the comfort of your home. After finishing this film, I am under the belief that it is a good, solid film, but definitely not a great or stellar one, like some of its 2014 Best Picture competition.


Tom Hanks does give a pretty good performance as the title character. At times, his plight was moving and engaging. But, aside from the last 15 minutes (which is amazing acting, and everyone I talked to/seen on message boards seems to agree), I wasn’t particularly impressed. His accent did seem to be hit or miss, and aside from the aforementioned 15 minutes, nothing stood out. There are quite a few people who seem to be up in arms that Hanks did not get nominated for Best Actor. Me? I have not seen Nebraska or Dallas Buyers Club, but Hanks’ captain role does pale severely when compared to DiCaprio, Ejiofor, and Bale’s nominated performances.


Much ado has been made of Barkhad Abdi’s job as Muse, the ringleader of the crew that infiltrates the carrier and the man that matches wits with Hanks. Count me as impressed, but not amazed. For his debut performance, he definitely never felt out of place, but again, solid if unspectacular. He did receive a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and while it is hard to dispute his inclusion, the performance is kind of one-note. With that said, I am excited to see where he goes from here, as all things considered it was a damn good way to announce your arrival. Hanks and Abdi are the only real “memorable” performances; everyone else for the most part is just there, but I would be amiss if I failed to mention one of Muse’s henchman, portrayed by Faysal Ahmed. Like Abdi and the rest of the intrusive pirates, this is his first role. He is just so unpredictable and, at times, frightening. He brought a physicality to the role that the rest of the crew did not possess, and while this film is a vehicle for Barkhad, I could easily see Ahmed having the more lucrative career down the line.

This movie is marketed as a drama with thrilling moments, but if I am being perfectly honest with you guys, I was bored out of my mind for half of this movie. Most of the dramatic moments did not hit home for yours truly, and while one or two of the thrilling sequences left me in a “WOW” stupor, the rest resonated in more of the “Ho-hum” variety. I’m not really sure if this story translates well to the silver screen. However, what struck the biggest nerve from my vantage point was easily the directing which can be summed up in two words: Shaky Cam. Director Paul Greengrass is noted for employing this technique often, namely in a few of the Bourne movies. I have never had a huge issue with it, as most of the films I have seen use it, such as Elysium and Cloverfied, for example, use it effectively in a way that makes sense. But, some movies overuse it, and this is one of them. I suppose you could argue that the director was going for a uneasy feel at sea, with all of the motion. All I’m saying is that it just felt unneeded, and a steady hand would have done the trick in my view. I guess this explains why something felt “off” when I saw the trailer repeatedly.


A good chunk of this review is negative, but this is not a bad movie. It is just solid, which is probably a word that you have heard me say or allude too much to in this review, but I stand by it. This is just one reviewer’s opinion, and it is entirely possible you could find this film one of the decade’s best, and well deserving of a Best Picture win. Opinions are opinions however, and I will remain in mine. Underwhelming.

Grade: C+