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Tuesday, September 26, 2017


Courtesy of Universal Pictures
2017, 115 minutes 
Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity

Review by Joshua Handler

Some "based on a true story" movies exist to be meditations or reflections on the world like The Social Network or the new (and excellent) Battle of the Sexes. Others simply want to entertain. Doug Liman's new film, American Made, falls squarely, proudly in the latter category. The film tells the story of Barry Seal, a cigar smuggler and TWA pilot who is recruited by the CIA to fly planes over South America to secretly photograph Communist groups. However, Seal's talents are also recognized by Pablo Escobar's nascent MedellĂ­n Cartel who begin to pay Seal obscene amounts of money to smuggle drugs into the United States from South America while on his government missions. As Seal becomes increasingly wealthy and used by both the US government and the Cartel, his life spirals out of control.

Liman has proven adept at creating fast-paced thrillers over the years with Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and The Bourne Identity, and American Made, while not as action-packed as the aforementioned films, is no exception. Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli keep the film moving at a clip, never allowing it to slow down. Every few minutes something happens that further complicates Seal's life and gives the audience something else to laugh at or marvel at. As a side note, I'm curious about how much of American Made is true and how much was invented for the film, as the story on screen could easily have been played much darker instead of for laughs.

While American Made is a non-stop, frequently jaw-dropping story, it wouldn't work without a major star leading it. Thus, Tom Cruise was a perfect casting choice. Cruise brings a sense of charisma and confidence lacking in most actors nowadays. Every time Cruise steps in front of the camera, everyone else seems to fade away. While the character of Barry Seal feels less like a character and more like Tom Cruise, he works and carries the movie effortlessly.

Overall, American Made is solid piece of entertainment from a director and star who consistently deliver. It isn't groundbreaking or life-changing, but it is a fascinating behind-the-history story that should please both fans of Cruise and adults looking for a fun night out at the movies.


Friday, September 22, 2017


Tatiana Maslany and Jake Gyllenhaal in STRONGER
Photo credit: Scott Garfield
Courtesy of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions
2017, 119 minutes
Rated R for language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity

Review by Joshua Handler

In the past 10 months, there have been two films about the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013: Peter Berg's intense PATRIOTS DAY and now David Gordon Green's STRONGER. While these two share basic subject matter, they are very different from one another. PATRIOTS DAY focused around the bombing itself and the manhunt that followed. STRONGER has a brief scene of the bombing but mostly focuses around the physical and psychological effects it had on Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany). 

Jeff was standing next to one of the bombs when it exploded, causing him to lose both of his legs. In the ensuing months, Jeff struggled with the trauma of the incident as well as the unwanted heroic designation his city gave him. 

Structurally, STRONGER is another inspirational film about a man struggling with adversity. However, largely due to Green's sensitive direction and careful handling of the love story at the film's center, STRONGER is elevated above other films of its kind. This isn't a "greatest hits" version of Bauman's story - Green isn't interested in that. He immerses the audience in Bauman's life and world, choosing to treat the more triumphant moments with equal importance to the smaller ones such as when Jeff and Erin sit on Jeff's roof enjoying each other's company - a rare moment of calm. 

Bauman isn't depicted as a hero. He is a flawed human being whose irresponsibility and consistent drinking are amplified by the trauma of the bombings. It is to the credit of Green and screenwriter John Pollono that Bauman's personal troubles aren't glossed over and that he isn't depicted as the hero that he never wanted to be. With Jeff's overpowering yet loving mother (Miranda Richardson in yet another performance that proves why she's one of the most versatile actresses working today) straining his relationship with Erin and his increasing reliance on alcohol, Jeff's life takes a downturn, plunging him to new lows. Jeff bounces back, but when he does, it's treated as a series of small triumphs, not one large moment of triumph where the music blares and the camera swoops. 

Gyllenhaal and Maslany individually give performances of quiet power individually while complementing each other together. The internal torment and physical challenges that affect Jeff throughout the film are brought to life with a sense of dedication, dignity, and realism by Gyllenhaal. There's never a moment when this performance feels like a performance. Erin is Jeff's rock and his most consistent support and Maslany conveys this with grace and subtlety. Watching Gyllenhaal and Maslany track the highs and lows of Jeff and Erin's tumultuous yet committed relationship form the emotional core of this film, keeping the audience consistently engrossed and engaged.

Overall, Stronger is a familiar story told with skill and a genuine sense of care. There's a good chance audiences will dismiss this as either another inspirational drama about overcoming the odds or another Boston Marathon bombing movie which would be unfortunate, as this is an unexpectedly unconventional film that could inspire not through contrivance and clichĂ© but rather through the sheer integrity and perceptiveness of the work of those who made it.