Review: American Made

Directed by: Doug Liman
Written by: Gary Spinelli
Starring: Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domhnall Gleeson, Caleb Landry Jones, Jayma Mays, Jesse Plemons
Released: August 24, 2017
Grade: B

American Made
Why go to the effort of creating fiction when you can use a true story as crazy as this?  Brought to the screen by writer Gary Spinelli and director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity), American Made is based on the life of Barry Seal.  His tale is a reminiscent of George Jung, the drug dealing kingpin whose misadventures were chronicled in Ted Demme’s Blow (released back in 2001).

We’re introduced to Barry (Cruise) while he’s sitting in the cockpit of a jumbo jet.  The year is 1978 and he’s the youngest pilot to have ever been employed by the airline TWA.  You could make an argument that he suffers from an attention deficit disorder.  His mind is continually wandering and he has an obsession with keeping busy.

After a long haul flight, Barry is pulled aside in a hotel bar by CIA agent Monty Schafer (Gleeson).  He knows that Barry has been sneaking in boxes of illegal Cuban cigars aboard his flights but he’s not there to make any arrest.  Rather, he wants to recruit him.  It’s important to note this was at the height of the Cold War when the Soviets were doing their best to spread communism in South America.  Monty wanted Barry to fly across Colombia in a twin propeller plane, under the guise that he runs his own small airline, and take reconnaissance photos which could be used by the CIA.

That’s where it starts… but it’s certainly not where it ends.  Barry befriends the likes of Pablo Escobar and it is not long before he’s smuggling huge drug shipments into the United States.  The CIA learns of this but doesn’t seem to care.  In fact, they encourage the sale of drugs and arms because it’s putting money into the hands of powerful cartels that will hopefully overthrow the communist governments of these countries – a goal in America’s best interests.

It’s a role suited to Tom Cruise who portrays the lead character as a likeable larrikin who lacks intelligence but makes up for it with charm and personality.  He’s bumbling his way between events but it’s hard not to laugh at his antics.  There are a couple of great scenes where he tries to hide ridiculous sums of cash but has run out of decent hiding places.  He resides in a small town of about 3,000 people but it’s not long before every major bank is opening up a branch on the main street.  They know Barry by reputation and are keen to assist with his wealth protection.

There are other characters in the mix but we don’t get to know them in acute detail.  Sarah Wright plays Barry’s wife and she blindly goes along with his activities without thinking of the ramifications.  Domhnall Gleeson plays the overeager CIA agent who doesn’t seem to be accountable to anyone despite the risky nature of his work.  There are also cameos from the likes of Jesse Plemons as the town’s naive sheriff and Jayma Mays as the state’s aggressive Attorney General.

After an intriguing set-up, things get a little repetitive during the second act as Barry’s accumulates his wealth.  You know his illegal lifestyle can’t last and you’ll be anxious to see how it all pans out.  Spinelli’s screenplay provides a curious finale that introduces darker elements while still maintaining the film’s light, humorous tone.  I’m not 100% convinced by the approach but the story alone makes this worthwhile viewing.


Review: 47 Metres Down

Directed by: Johannes Roberts
Written by: Johannes Roberts, Ernst Riera
Starring: Claire Holt, Mandy Moore, Matthew Modine, Chris J. Johnson, Yani Gellman, Santiago A. Segura
Released: August 24, 2017
Grade: B

47 Metres Down
There are plenty of dangerous animals in the wild but we do seem to have an unhealthy fascination with sharks when it comes to making movies.  Jaws set the almost unreachable benchmark in 1975 and it’s been followed by the likes of Deep Blue Sea, Open Water, The Reef and The Shallows.  Also worth a mention are a group of farcical spoofs headlined by Sharknado.

As a trained deep sea diver as well as the film’s writer-director, Johannes Roberts has tried to create something different with 47 Metres Down.  The setting is the most noticeable point of difference.  Instead of the protagonists being stuck on a boat, a rock, or a floating object, Roberts takes us below the surface and into a much darker world (literally).

How they get there is fairly formulaic.  Lisa (Moore) and Kate (Holt) are two young women holidaying in Mexico.  Lisa needs some cheering up after being dumped by her long-term boyfriend and Kate is doing her best to be the supportive best friend.  Having ticked of a few of the normal “touristy” things, Kate suggests they do something more adventurous and go on a cage diving expedition off the Mexican coast.

The warning bells start going off in the heads when they see the rusty looking boat and its rough crew.  Still, they’ve paid their money and decide to follow through.  They put on their scuba gear, jump in the cage, and find themselves lowered just beneath the surface.  The views are stunning and they get a close look at a killer shark from behind the cage’s protective bars.

It’s at this point where the “fun” begins.  The winch breaks and the cage plummets to the ocean floor - 47 metres below the surface as noted in the film’s title.  Making a mad dash to the surface is not an option given the risk of decompression sickness.  They could stay in the cage and wait to be rescued but with no radio contact and just an hour’s worth of air, that too comes with serious risks.  The clock is ticking.

Once it gets past the ho-hum introduction, 47 Metres Down becomes a tense thriller that makes the most of its claustrophobic setting.  We only see things through the eyes of the two leading characters and have no perspective about what’s going on back on the surface.  Has the boat called for help?  Is someone coming to rescue them?  We’re in the same position as Lisa and Kate in that we have no idea.

It’s also a movie that should get audience members thinking.  What would you do in the same situation?  Would you be able to keep calm and think things through in a level-headed manner?  Do you take an “every man for himself” mentality and focus on your own survival above that of your friend?  Do you take a chance and try to formulate an escape plan or do you wait and hope to be rescued?

Johannes Roberts had a few different ideas when it came to the finale and I’m not fully convinced by the choice he made (without giving too much away).  That said, he deserves full credit for the strong second act and the realistic scenario.


Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Directed by: Luc Besson
Written by: Luc Besson
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock
Released: August 10, 2017
Grade: A-

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
A lot has been said and written about the budget for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  The total production cost was roughly $200 million which makes it the most expensive film to have ever been shot and produced in France.  It was a big gamble but the risk was shared around.  Funds were pitched in from a substantial number of production companies and distributors across the globe.

This is now relevant because the film has been labelled a “box-office flop”.  It opened in 5th place at the U.S. box-office in mid-July and slipped outside of the top 10 within two weeks.  The early figures out of the United Kingdom (where it opened last weekend) weren’t much better.  Thankfully, the home crowd threw their support behind it.  The opening day box-office in France was the second highest of the year thus far.

Roughly 25% of the cinema releases in Brisbane this year have been a sequel, spin off, reboot or remake.  Some of those films were watchable (e.g. Cars 3) but if I had the choice between a sequel or something fresh, I’d always choose the later.  It’s therefore a shame this film hasn’t found an audience.  French director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Lucy) has reached into the depth of his mind and crafted one of the more creative action films we’ve seen in recent years.  It saddens me to think that the formulaic, mindless Transformers: The Last Knight sold more tickets.

I’ll willingly admit this script isn’t perfect but there’s more than enough to compensate.  I’m describing Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets as a cross between Star Wars and The Matrix.  It’s set several centuries into the future where a human-made space station, known as Alpha, is now home to hundreds of alien species from across the universe.  They all live in harmony (well, kind of) and their vast and varied knowledge.

When the film begins, we’re introduced to Major Valerian (DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Delevingne), two members of a security unit that help maintain law and order.  Working under the instruction of their commanding officer (Owen), they travel to another planet and recover a small animal known as a “converter”.  They’re not sure what it’s needed for but they realise it has significant value.

Things get messy when they return to Alpha.  A radioactive zone has been identified and if not contained, the entire space station could be consumed within a week.  Further, the commander is kidnapped by a group of mysterious aliens and taken to an unknown location.  Valerian and Laureline are drawn into the situation but they’re unsure about their role and end goal.

This is a fun, cool, wild ride.  Besson taken the French science fiction comics created by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières and brought this beautiful, colourful world to life on the big screen.  There’s an incredible level of detail and you can appreciate the high price tag.  The creative opening sequence in the marketplace where characters straddle between dimensions sets the early benchmark and there are many other highlights throughout (including a great cameo from Rihanna).

Most importantly, the film never takes itself too seriously.  I enjoyed the banter between stars Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as they continually flirt with each other whilst also trying to stay focused on the job at hand.  One could argue that it’s a little cheesy but I was still amused by their sly remarks and insults.  The lack of a villain also frames the film has a quasi-mystery.

Not everyone will go for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  It’s bold and unorthodox – qualities that have hindered its positive world-of-mouth to date.  Forget the naysayers.  Go in with an open mind and be entertained. 


Review: The Dark Tower

Directed by: Nikolaj Arcel
Written by: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel
Starring: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Abbey Lee, Jackie Earle Haley
Released: August 17, 2017
Grade: C+

The Dark Tower
The Dark Tower is a series of 8 books written by acclaimed author Stephen King between 1982 and 2012.  Several attempts had been made to bring them to the big screen without success.  They were labelled “un-filmable” by some given their length and dense material.  After a lot of false starts, it has finally fallen upon the shoulders of Danish director Nikolaj Arcel (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) to launch the movie franchise.

Stephen King is largely associated with horror-thrillers but there have been plenty of exceptions.  The Shawshank Redemption, regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, originated from a Stephen King short story.  The Dark Tower series is his foray into the world of science-fiction and fantasy.  He admits to being inspired by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, in first putting pen to paper.

Having not read any of The Dark Tower books, I can’t make a definitive statement as the authenticity of the adaptation.  However, I’ve read several online articles which have been critical in this area.  They speak of rich detail being lost given that the narrative from several of the novels has been condensed into a surprisingly short 95 minute running time.  My advice is to therefore tread carefully if you’re lover of King’s works.

As to the narrative, the film revolves around an 11-year-old named Jake Chambers (played by newcomer Tom Taylor) who has strange, vivid dreams.  He sees a giant tower that is continually under attack and he also sees a “gunslinger” who is helping defend it.  His psychiatrist forms a reasonable conclusion – these dreams are a way in which Jake is coping with grief following the death of his father.

Jake thinks otherwise.  He believes the dreams are “real” and the attacks on the tower are linked to a series of powerful earthquakes which have struck New York City.  It isn’t until two sinister-looking individual arrive on his doorstep that he realises the truth.  Through his dreams, he is peering into a parallel universe.  If the tower in that world should collapse, the shockwaves would be powerful enough to destroy Earth.

After putting the few pieces of a puzzle together, he travels into the alternate universe and teams up with the Gunslinger (Elba) to destroy whatever evil confronts them.  Their end goal is defeat a power hungry sorcerer (McConaughey) but they’ll need help from a few other people along the way.

You can see what this film is trying to be but it’s not all that interesting.  It rushes between events and there’s not a lot of room for character development.  Matthew McConaughy isn’t a convincing villain and his background isn’t fleshed out in much detail.  The more interesting dynamic is between Idris Elba and Tom Taylor but they don’t spend a lot of time together.  When they do, much of their conversation is superficial.

There is hope this will become a long-running movie franchise but based on what’s been served up here, I have doubts about those ambitions.


Review: An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

Directed by: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk
Released: August 10, 2017
Grade: B

An Inconvenient Sequel
Released back in 2006, An Inconvenient Truth tried to raise awareness about global warming and its possible effects.  It was well received.  Along with numerous other awards, it took home Oscars for best documentary feature and best original song (the Melissa Etheridge tune ‘I Need to Wake Up’).

A decade has since passed but in the eyes of many, progress on climate change has been disappointing and it’s become a political issue.  On the Internet Movie Database, the public can weigh in with their thoughts on each film and give a rating between 1 and 10.  For this sequel, 40% gave it a score of 10/10 whilst 42% gave it a score of 1/10.  That division highlights just how passionate some people are their views.

For the record, I believe in the work performed by the overwhelming majority of scientists and that climate change is real.  We need to do whatever is necessary to stop global warming before it is too late.  That said, I’m still happy to look at this film objectively and review it on its merits. 

Director Davis Guggenheim wasn’t available this time around and so he handed over the reins to Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk.  Their film doesn’t delve into too much scientific detail but rather, tries to prove global warming in a visual form.  It refers back to prophecies made by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore in the first movie which leads into footage of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy and the destruction that was caused.  We also travel to the world’s biggest glaciers and witness their deterioration over time.

The film’s biggest focus is the lead up to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference which took place in Paris.  After a lengthy period of negotiation, many world leaders agreed on the “Paris Agreement” – a document that set greenhouse gas emissions targets that would hopefully lead to meaningful change.  The cameras follow Al Gore and his team as they meet with influential people in the lead up to conference.  Trying to get close to 200 countries to agree on a single issue is not an easy assignment.

The timing of this sequel is appropriate given that global warming is back in the political spotlight.  Research showed that the original movie did change the views of many around the world.  Cohen, Shenk and Gore will be hoping that’s again the case here.  With President Donald Trump announcing two months ago that the United States will be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, this is a subject that will be soaking up plenty of media time in the weeks and months ahead.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power makes some important observations but its power isn’t as strong as the original.  Perhaps that’s because I’m already on the side of Al Gore and he’s simply “preaching to the converted”.  Perhaps it’s because this issue now gets far more attention than it did 10 years ago which makes this documentary slightly superfluous.  Perhaps it’s because there’s not as much material to cover this time around and the weighting given to the Paris conference is too much.

Qualms aside, does this film need to be seen by as many people as possible?  The answer is a clear “yes”.


Review: Logan Lucky

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Rebecca Blunt
Starring: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Seth MacFarlane, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes
Released: August 17, 2017
Grade: B+

Logan Lucky
54-year-old director Steven Soderbergh has made some terrific films across his lengthy career – Sex, Lies and Videotape, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Magic Mike and the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy.  He also won an Academy Award in 2001 for creating one of the best films of that year, Traffic.  Given his success and reputation within the industry, it was a big surprise when he announced his retirement in 2013.  He told reporters that he was fed up with studio interference and the lack of creative control he was afforded as a director.

Soderbergh was clearly frustrated but the good news, certainly for his fans, is that he has returned to the big screen with his first feature film in four years, Logan Lucky.  Things are different though.  Soderbergh has taken matters into his own hands and is trying to change Hollywood’s risk-averse mentality.

Rather than relying on a major studio to distribute the movie, Soderbergh made a deal with the recently created Bleecker Street Media, a small company based in New York.  As part of the deal, Soderbergh had full control over all trailers, advertising and other marketing.  This is unusual within the industry.  Bigger distributors have fine-tuned marketing machines that seek minimal input from directors.  It’ll be interesting to follow the box-office over the coming weeks.

Turning to film itself, Logan Lucky taps in a genre that Soderbergh has already explored through the Ocean’s Eleven franchise.  It’s a heist movie.  The theme is a little different though.  It’s about the poorer class of society getting a little revenge against the wealthy who have tipped the scales too strongly in their favour.

Jimmy Logan (Tatum) is an Iraq war veteran who is now making ends meet as a lowly paid construction worker.  When his boss sees him limping on the job, Jimmy is called into the office and told that his services are no longer required.  The company doesn’t want the hassle of the additional medical insurance.  His brother, Clyde (Driver), has had a tougher run.  Left with just one arm after the Iraq War, he works in a dingy bar and puts up with taunts from rude customers.

With the help of a few others, they concoct a plan to rob the nearby Charlotte Motor Speedway during a major race.  There are tunnels and rooms under the track that allow millions of dollars to be transferred directly from the concession stands and into a bank vault.  They intend to intercept the cash and sneak it out of the stadium.

This is a fun film.  These characters aren’t the brightest tools in the shed and they make a few mistakes along the way.  Aside from Channing Tatum and Adam Driver, there’s some great banter between others involved including Daniel Craig, who plays a slightly off-hinged safe-cracker, and Seth MacFarlane, as a cocky race driver.  These are distinctive, memorable characters.  I’d give the screenwriter credit but I’m not sure who they are!  The credit belongs to a “Rebecca Blunt” but she has no previous credits and no one has been able to prove she exists.

I love a great heist flick and so I only wish the plan relied on more skill as opposed to luck.  As the title suggests, there are a few too many parts to the film that are convenient and coincidental.  They could have just bought a lotto ticket instead given their good fortune.  Perhaps I watch too many real-life crime documentaries but I prefer realism over fantasy.

The bottom line is that Steven Soderbergh is back and I know that many are going to be happy.