Tag Archives: B-

AMERICAN MADE

Producer: Doug Davison, Brian Grazer, Brian Oliver, Ty;er Thompson, Kim Roth and Ray Angelic
Director: Doug Liman
Writer: Gary Spinelli
Stars: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright Olsen, Alejandro Edda, Caleb Landry Jones, Mauricio Mejia, Jesse Plemons, Jayma Mays, Lola Kirke, William Mark McCullough, E. Roger Mitchell, Robert Farrior and Cuyle Carvin
Studio: Universal Pictures

B-

You have to wonder whether Tom Cruise intends ever to grow up and embrace roles that will force him to set aside the youthful bravado that earned him stardom in “Risky Business” and “Top Gun” and that he’s maintained as his essential character trait ever since, even in a debacle like “The Mummy.” He might actually be an actor able to suppress the toothy grin and boyish charm and deliver a real performance in a serious drama, but his Jack Reacher potboilers haven’t proven that, and “American Made” doesn’t either. Doug Liman’s film aims to be a satire on the folly of American policy in Latin America during the seventies and eighties, but though done up with lots of visual razzmatazz, it’s much less cutting than it ought to be, coming off as just another Cruise vehicle and dependant largely on his persona top carry the day. He manages to do so, but the picture could have been much more than it is.

It’s based on the checkered career of Barry Seal, a pilot who got involved with both the Medellin drug cartel, transporting their product to the United States, and with the American intelligence community, which used him in its clandestine program to overthrow the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua by arming and training the so-called contras. The double game eventually got him killed. (Seal was a minor figure in Brad Furman’s “The Infiltrator” last year, meeting his end in a different fashion than he actually did, as shown here.)

A great many allegations have been concocted about Seal’s earlier activities by conspiracy theorists, but Gary Spinelli’s script, based on several book about the guy, ignores them, beginning only in 1978 when he is a TWA pilot bored with the routine of his job. Caught smuggling Cuban cigars, he’s recruited by a CIA agent calling himself Schaefer (Domhnall Gleeson) to fly risky missions over various Latin American countries in a super-fast spy plane to photograph rebel groups in their camps, though he conceals the fact from his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen), who keeps the home fires burning.

His CIA-sponsored flights bring him—unbeknownst to his handler—to the attention of Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia), up-and-coming drug lords who insist that he add a lucrative sideline to his operations by taking bales of their cocaine to the U.S. Though he has doubts about the short runway they insist on his using and refuses to fly the coke to Miami as they wish, he devises a workable plan to drop it off in Louisiana and relies on his guts to make it into the air. The deliveries become a regular part of his itinerary, making him a rich man without Schaefer being any the wiser.

Both sides of Seal’s operation grow exponentially, and though setbacks involving the DEA necessitate his moving with his family to a small town in Arkansas, before long he owns a large tract of land as well as an airport, hosts a contra training camp run by the CIA, hires a squadron of oddball fliers, and is so flush with cash that he literally runs out of room to put it all. Unfortunately, the arrival of his careless, greedy brother-in-law J.B. (Caleb Landry Jones) throws a monkey wrench into things, and leads to his being dragged into the Reagan White House’s efforts to tie the Sandinista regime to the drug trade as an informant against the cartel—which ultimately not only brings about his downfall but seals his fate.

One could never accuse Cruise of holding back here—he invests Seal with every bit of energy he can muster, rushing about almost maniacally as he flashes that trademark cocky smile and rattles off reams of smooth talk, even under the worst pressure. The truth is that in his hands Seal comes across as little more than an older version of Pete Mitchell, but that’s precisely why a great many viewers will take to him.

Nor does Liman hold back: he and cinematographer Cesar Charlone (“City of God”) serve up a dazzling array of images, shot in a hyperkinetic hand-held style that’s further accentuated by the furious editing of Andrew Mondshein. To tie the escalating complications of the plot together in a way the audience can understand, Liman resorts to various devices—crudely-drawn animated inserts, montages of archival news footage, and excerpts from a video “confession” prepared by Cruise’s Seal over his last days, which also allows Cruise’s flyboy to impress upon us how increasingly wild and crazy the whole chain of events became.

The approach gives the convoluted plot some shape while preserving the messiness essential to Seal’s habit of escaping trouble by coming up with some outlandish excuse or absurd seat-of-the-pants decision. The most outrageous example comes when he’s seemingly trapped in mid-flight by a couple of DEA planes, only to choose to make a sudden landing in a suburban neighborhood; it would be an understatement to say that the episode defies credibility.

That points to the fundamental weakness of “American Made”: as satire it seems shallow, even juvenile, more buffoonish clown show than edgy dissection of real events. It’s not simply that the characters are all caricatures—that’s part of the natural process of satire, after all. It’s that they’re not sharply-drawn caricatures; compare Gleeson’s dull Schaefer to George C. Scott’s Buck Turgidson, for instance, and the contrast is obvious. The targets in the Reagan Administration offered far more scope for skewering than they receive here. Moreover, there’s too much easy condescension to the way Lucy, J.B. and other southerners are portrayed; redneck humor is like shooting fish in a barrel. One could, of course, also grumble that giving a semi-heroic cast to a guy who made hay ferrying cocaine into the country isn’t such a good idea. But that would undo a long history of cinema’s glorifying the antihero.

Though this over-the-top Cruise-Liman combination is sporadically amusing, its raucousness often comes across as desperately frantic rather than satirically telling. Frankly, the machinations surrounding the Iran-Contra scandal deserve something more than a jokey send-up. For what it is, though, it earns a marginal pass.

THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE

Producer: Dan Lin, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Chris McKay, Maryann Garger and Roy Lee
Director: Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher and Bob Logan
Writer: Bob Logan, Paul Fisher, William Wheeler, Tom Wheeler, Jared Stern and John Whittington
Stars: Jackie Chan, Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Fred Armisen, Kumail Nanjiani, Michael Pena, Abbi Jacobson, Zach Woods, Olivia Munn, Michael Strahan, Robin Roberts and Kaan Guldur
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

B-

This newest feature spinoff from the Lego universe, a much simplified version of a long-running animated TV series, is essentially a spoof of a “Power Rangers” season, with a father-son estrangement added as a plot element. “The Lego Ninjago Movie” isn’t as consistently amusing as either “The Lego Movie” or “The Lego Batman Movie,” but it has its moments.

The script, credited to no fewer than nine scribes, is bookended by live-action segments, vaguely reminiscent of the opening and closing of “The Forbidden Kingdom,” in which a cute young boy (Kaan Guldur) wanders into a Chinese curio shop run by an elderly fellow (Jackie Chan) who—seeing the kid’s loneliness—takes his well-worn Lego figure and spins a tale of heroism about it for him. Segue to the Lego city of Ninjago, a happy place overall but for the fact that it’s constantly being attacked by the arrogant warlord Garmadon (voiced by Justin Theroux) from his floating offshore volcano (which he also employs to dispatch generals who displease him—some of whom will show up later at an awkward time).

Ninjago is defended by a group of color-coded teen ninjas in their huge mechs. Their leader is Green (Dave Franco), and his five companions are Red (Michael Pena) Black (Fred Armisen), Gray (Abbi Jacobson), Blue (Kumail Nanjiani) and White (Zach Woods), the last actually an android. Except for Green, each has an elemental power attached to his or her color—fire, earth, water, lightning and ice, respectively, and together they are mentored by elderly Master Wu (Chan), Garmadon’s understandably estranged brother.

The Ninjago public adores the ninjas, but unknown to them, Green is actually Lloyd, the son of Garmadon who is therefore treated as a pariah by everyone but Wu, his five ninja colleagues and his mother (Olivia Munn). Garmadon, meanwhile, has ignored the kid for sixteen years, leading Lloyd to be understandably perturbed too.

When Garmadon attacks again in an impenetrable super-suit, Lloyd breaks the rules by purloining Wu’s “Ultimate Weapon” to use against him. It turns out to be a simple laser-pointer that, unfortunately, invites an even greater threat to the city—a giant (live action) cat called Meowthra, which predictably attacks anything toward which the laser is pointed. Matters get worse when Lloyd loses the device to Garmadon, who takes over the city. The only hope is for Wu and the ninjas to proceed deep into a dangerous forest to seek the “Ultimate Ultimate Weapon,” which turns out, of course, to lie within them. Garmadon eventually joins them, and along the way bonds with Lloyd. But are his evil ambitions truly quelled by the experience?

The essential problem with the movie is that, to be perfectly frank, the heroic figures are generally bland and uninteresting. Chan’s Wu has a few good moments (as when he toots “It’s a Hard-Knock Life,” from “Annie,” to Lloyd on his flute), but Franco’s Lloyd is a colorless fellow, and none of the other ninjas are characterized except in the most sketchy fashion, nor do the actors add much beyond the obvious.

The compensation is Theroux’s villain, a supremely arrogant but singularly inept guy who gets almost all the good lines and bits of business (like his demonstration of the benefits of having four arms). There’s a strong Darth Vader vibe to his outfit, which only accentuates the “Star Wars”-ish father-son plot. Apart from that, though, Garmadon is reminiscent of the obliviously goofy self-confidence that marked Lego’s Batman, which is almost as enjoyable now as it was then. The Meowthra episodes are also fun, though it’s obviously adults rather than kids who will be able to recognize the reference to old Japanese sci-fi movies like “Mothra.”

It also helps that “The Ninjago Movie” boasts colorful computer-generated animation, though the battle sequences (even in 2D format) are visually rather messy (in 3D, they will probably be even more muddled).

In sum, this is a genial but undercooked Lego product, one that tries hard to apply the recipe of the brand from previous films—smart dialogue and witty visuals—to an inferior story, and only sporadically succeeds. But even Pixar nods, so there is hope that the Lego folks can recapture the full magic in future efforts.