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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. 


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

RISK Review

2017, 87 minutes
Not Rated

Review by Joshua Handler

Laura Poitras has long been a respected documentarian, but in 2014, she achieved a new level of fame and importance with her Oscar-winning CITIZENFOUR in which she interviewed Edward Snowden as he blew the whistle on the US government. The film was history in the making and kept a secret until a few weeks before its surprise premiere at the New York Film Festival.

CITIZENFOUR was made while Poitras was a few years into making RISK, a documentary about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks that’s as unnerving and essential as CITIZENFOUR. In 2011, Poitras began interviewing Assange, continuing for multiple years. The footage is unsurprisingly jaw-dropping, with the most memorable being when Assange disguises himself and flees to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London (where he remains to this day).

RISK originally premiered in 2016 at the Cannes Film Festival to mixed-positive reviews. But, the story of Assange and WikiLeaks kept taking dark twists and turns, and Poitras decided to restructure and recut the film, adding new footage and information as recently as two weeks ago. As revelations about the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election were revealed, Poitras reportedly made the film less favorable to Assange and WikiLeaks.

Like CITIZENFOUR, RISK takes that which we read in the news and makes it personal. Poitras very responsibly (you’ll know why I use the word “responsibly” when you view the film) inserts herself into RISK with voiceovers, adding some much-needed commentary to the film that further distinguishes it from any others that will likely be produced about Assange. 

While Poitras captured some stunning footage, Assange largely remains frustratingly elusive. We do not gain many deep insights into his thought process and don’t entirely understand him better by the film’s end. That being said, when the information and footage are this riveting, flaws like the above don't detract much from the overall film.

RISK is an important piece of work both for the questions it raises and for the historical value of its footage. Anyone with any interest in world news should not miss this film. Poitras continues to be the foremost filmmaker on docs about government whistleblowers and surveillance, and given that RISK was produced over a period of six years, one only wonders what bombshell Poitras is working on now.