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.

C+

Photo credits go to slashfilm.com, laineygossip.com, and gq.com.

For additional detailed thoughts on films both small and large, games, and the key moments that comprise each, check out ThatMomentIn.com

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Bridge of Spies: Movie Man Jackson

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“Aren’t you worried” 

“Would it help?”

If yours truly ever gets in big trouble, I want Tom Hanks defending me. The year is 1957, which means the Cold War has just really started to escalate. Spies are deployed by both warring sides, and one KGB spy, Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), is captured and brought to America for justice. Justice is used in the most loosest of terms; it is of the belief of everyone that no resistance will be sought by his assigned defense.

The man tasked with defending Abel is James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer from Brooklyn who hasn’t practiced courtroom law since basically undergrad. Though everyone expects Donovan to play along, he’s a honest man. Which means doing his job and giving his defendant a honest chance. While this scenario is an unlikely one that Donovan finds himself in, it is nothing compared to what he is asked to do later: Extract a fellow American pilot being held in enemy Soviet Union territory by swapping one of theirs for ours.

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Historical/biographical movies, especially those that release around Oscar season, can be hit or miss sometimes. At least for yours truly, that is. Part of it could simply be that I am not a history buff; I find it interesting here and there but do not know (or honestly care to know), of every single minutiae of every historical event. Another part could just be that so many of them seem to lack spirit, soul, and the like. Bridge of Spies, at a few times, feels like such. But, it also has the benefit of legends Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, two established commodities who know what they’re doing.

Throw those two in with a script helmed by the Coen Brothers, and BoS absolutely affixes itself in the middle of award season hopefuls. But, as Tom states on his blog over at Digital Shortbread, the multiple superstars create an expectation that is really impossible to reach, even for the most optimistic of viewers. Too many cooks in the kitchen? Not necessarily. To the credit of Spielberg and the Coens, Bridge of Spies never feels like separate visions, but it just lacks in the interest factor in spots.

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This film may not be a riveting watch, but it is far from a complete chore to get through, and does shed light on a man I knew nothing of. Trailers give the idea that the bulk of the runtime is mostly in court, which probably would have made for a slower watch for a film already clocking in at 141 minutes. But, the courtroom drama only makes up a piece of the story, and it is actually a piece of the story that is intriguing. There’s wonder in how morally righteous lawyers are able to defend people who deserve no such defending, and while Bridge of Spies‘ particular character in question actually does prove to be a guy worth defending, Spielberg and the Coens still show the internal struggle of how it would be the easy thing to succumb to what the public believes, it may not be the right thing. It is more about ideals and justice than anticipated.

Mr. Tom Hanks has never been one of my absolute favorite thespians to watch, but the man is absolutely a professional, workmanlike and consistent in just about everything he’s done, and that is no different in Bridge of Spies. And, though it can get a little repetitive always seeing him as a good guy, he’s so damn good at being likable. His Donovan is an upstanding, idealistic individual in a profession that is often crooked and shady. He’s really an embodiment of America and her truest values and tenets, a man that believes that everyone is of equal value no matter their status. While he is a guy driven by value, he’s not oblivious like, say, Emily Blunt’s character in Sicario. Donovan is almost always kept in the dark, but he’s not shocked nor blind to it. He uses his wit, and sometimes humor, to get out of the most dire of situations.

The stirrers of the drink are no doubt Hanks and Spielberg’s directorial style. Most of the rest of the cast is relegated to the background with little to do. But, if there is a garnish to the drink, it is easily Rudolph Abel, played by Mark Rylance. Honestly, it wouldn’t be crazy to consider the stage actor the standout star. His screentime fades as the plot moves along, but his presence remains, thanks to some superb early scenes that open the movie and ultimately get it to the real second half drama. Abel isn’t bold or even all that layered as a character, but he’s sympathetic and just as likable as Donovan.

Brooklyn lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) meets with his client Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet agent arrested in the U.S. in DreamWorks Pictures/Fox 2000 PIctures' dramatic thriller BRIDGE OF SPIES, directed by Steven Spielberg.

The tandem of Spielberg and Hanks delivers, and should be reason enough for most to take a walk across the Bridge of Spies. Sure, the rewatchability is on the lower end of the spectrum, but as a one-time view, it is a surprisingly interesting and fairly resonant story about what makes America America without being totally preachy.

Grade: B+

Photo credits go to huffingtonpost.com, comongsoon.net, and pop.enquirer.net.

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Black Mass: Movie Man Jackson

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“If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”

Wise words from a notorious criminal. It’s the 1970’s, and the city of Boston, Massachusetts has become rife with criminal activity. Many gangs run the streets, like the Winter Hill Gang, led by Boston native James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), brother of state senator William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch).

As much as the FBI would love to shut down all criminal organizations in the area, sometimes a one-or-the-other choice has to be made. In a land of big wolves, the biggest is the Italian Mafia, and it takes a wolf to catch a wolf. Knowing this, an old childhood friend of Bulger’s, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), approaches Bulger with a deal: Become an informant, giving intel of other local empires, in exchange for the bureau turning a relative blind eye to Whitey’s operation. Originally believed to be the lesser of all evils, the FBI soon finds that Bulger is the biggest one.

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Director Scott Cooper’s (Out of the Furnace) Black Mass asks one real question: Does it mean anything to take down the house if a stronger one is built on the side? The clear answer is no. Aside from that, though, Black Mass isn’t a new spin on biographies or gangster flicks. But, it is engrossing once it gets going, and benefits from a strong cast, spearheaded by a guy who the world has been begging of to sink his teeth into something other than a pirate, a vampire, or an art-dealing buffoon.

Yes, Johnny Depp, delivers here. Instead of the makeup and the accompanying appearances making, or in some cases, marring, his more recent roles, Depp’s appearance here, though still with makeup, is minimal enough to allow Depp the actor to shine through. His Bulger, make no mistake, is very evil, so if looking for a truly dynamic lead character, it may be best to look elsewhere. But, from the first scene Depp appears in, it never feels like he’s has to “warm up” to be evil; he’s ready from the jump. The performance is high quality throughout, featuring many scenes packed with tension as to just what Whitey will do. Sometimes he does something, and other times he doesn’t, but the unease and unpredictability are always present.

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It may be too early to say, but Depp should almost certainly in the nominee pool for Best Actor. His character’s counterpart of John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton, should almost certainly be in the nominee pool for Best Supporting Actor. Seeing Edgerton’s character devolve from an agent who wants to do the right thing by aligning with a lesser evil to bring down a bigger evil, to desperately trying to convince himself he’s still doing the right thing is equal parts fascinating, sad, and even funny at times.

The relationship between Connolly and Whitey is more brother-like than Whitey and his own brother, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a good but “I still see this actor/actress” performance. In defense of Benedict, he’s not really on screen enough to build any momentum. In smaller roles, Dakota Johnson, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, and Peter Sarsgaard all fit nicely and contribute as key pieces all revolving around Whitey and John.

Filming around the same areas where so much of Bulger’s criminal empire occurred is a great (and probably necessary) choice that gives more authenticity to the movie. Cooper lends some solid camerawork to the story’s events, nothing spectacular as this is an intentionally drab visual palate, but technically sound it certainly is. It’s the story itself, however, that works well enough to get into, but, based on what appear to be a mostly true telling of events, doesn’t ascend to classic mobster and crime movies. As a whole, it just sort of lacks that emotional hold that similar movies in the genre possess.

Additionally, Black Mass suffers somewhat from a slow start as the result of an iffy effort to flesh out Bulger beyond being only a bad guy. It doesn’t truly get going until about 25-30 minutes in. And, while the events are told in a very straightforward manner, gaps exist and seem to be evidenced by fade-to-black timelime jumps that possibly could have given the movie opportunity to explore more relationships and key characters if additional runtime was given.

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The term Black Mass has a religious origin, literally defined as the darker inverse of the traditional Catholic mass, bordering on parody and obvious blasphemy. As for the film Black Mass, the story isn’t a parody, or treated glamorously, but brings, what feels like at to yours truly at least, a true-to-real-life history lesson presented on the silver screen of a guy who I only knew of through America’a Most Wanted.

Grade: B+

Photo credits go to liveforfilms.com, blogs.indiewire.com, and boston.cbslocal.com.

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