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American Made

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Hark to the tale of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) underachieving, high-dreaming commercial pilot who, in the mid ’70s, is approached by a shadowy (aren’t they all?) CIA agent (Domhnall Gleeson) to start doing a few odd jobs for The Company.

At first it’s pretty hair-raising but almost innocuous stuff, like snapping a few reconnaissance photos over particularly volatile patches of Central America. Then it’s running money to “friendly” figures like Panama’s Manuel Noriega. Before long it’s making nice with Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel. And then, almost before you know it, our man Barry is the de facto head of Air America Mark II, running guns, drugs, money, and Contra rebels in, out and across the USA, all at the behest of Uncle Sugar. The money is fantastic and the work is interesting, but how long before it all goes to hell in a handbasket?

We’ve seen this kind of story before – the unreliable, garrulous narrator, the guided tour through the underworld, the colourful characters, the dizzying highs, the inevitable fall from grace. Scorsese’s Goodfellas is the most obvious and best example of the breed, but consider also Lord of War and Blow. American Made might not be as fine a film as Goodfellas (to be fair, few are), but it’s still a propulsively entertaining ride through the underbelly of America, thanks to deft, energetic direction from Doug Liman, and a charismatic, layered performance from the Cruiser.

It’s sometimes easy – and encouraged – to forget what a committed performer Cruise is, especially with dross like The Mummy still in the rear view mirror, but he gives a great turn here as the affable, “aw shucks” Seal, whose journey into the dark heart of American foreign policy is made palatable by Cruise’s easy charm. As Seal’s exploits get weirder, the crimes get bigger, and the money begins to pile up (literally – one of Seal’s logistical problems is trying to hide literal bales of cash) to the point where it beggars belief, it’s Cruise’s to-camera narration – a conceit that comes to make sense in the final stretch of the film – and “I know, right?” attitude that helps us go along with even the most outrageous story elements, such as when Seal is running a training camp for Contra guerrillas on his rural property at the behest of the CIA.

That, more than anything else, is Seal’s function as a character in his own story – to put a human face on the almost unbelievable machinations of the secret state, and to guide us through the murky nexus where crime, espionage, politics and business commingle. On the surface, American Made is the story of an individual, but in its heart it’s really about these titanic forces, how they play against – and with – each other, and what happens to the people caught in their gravity.

Of course, America Made is a “print the legend” affair, and while Seal’s career as a drug runner is well documented, his connections with the US intelligence community are far more dubious. Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli know which version of events makes for a better story, though, so it’s best not to get too caught up in notions of what is verifiable – or even plausible – as Seal’s exploits take him right into the nerve centre of ’80s America’s “war on drugs” and the Iran-Contra scandal, complete with close encounters with Oliver North and other key players.

Inevitably the wheels come off, of course. Will it be due to Seal’s ne’er-do-well brother-in-law (Caleb Landry Jones doing another of his trademark dirtbags), who just can’t seem to keep a lid on the good deal Seal has engineered for his family and friends? Or will Jesse Plemons’ small town sheriff finally twig that the sheer amount of money Seal is bringing into their little burg is a bit beyond the pale? Or will the Medellins or the Company simply remove the shoot-from-the-hip Seal in the most efficient and ruthless manner possible? That would be telling (then again, so would a quick Google search for the real life Barry Seal) but, as in so many things, it’s the journey, not the destination.

And American Made is quite a journey. There’s a deep cynicism at the heart of Liman’s film even when it’s being irresistably entertaining, a mistrust of the American systems of both government and commerce – and particularly the ways in which they interact – that colours the proceedings, giving a bitter edge to even the most madcap of Seal’s adventures, and the inevitability of his fate is a crucial part of the equation. Ultimately, American Made is about how individuals are used and abused by monolithic, complex systems of power and money, disguised as a wild ride with the cocaine cowboys of Reagan’s America. For all his bravado and daring, his cocksure charm and can-do attitude, Cruise’s Barry Seal is just one more asset among millions, and his rugged individualism can’t save him from the scrapheap when he’s outlived his usefulness.

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Good Time

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When you consider Cosmopolis, The Rover, Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper, The Lost City of Z and now this, who would have guessed that some of the most interesting and original films of the last decade would come from the two leads of the Twilight series? Robert Pattinson’s come a long way since then, and Good Time further solidifies him as one of the most exciting actors working today.

Here, his physical and behavioural transformation is scary. He plays the kind of guy you never want to cross paths with; fearless, violent, and surprisingly charming when he needs to be. He somehow manages to be likable even after doing things that will utterly disgust you.

Writers Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie (who also directs with his brother Ben) waste no time setting up the narrative. Pattinson plays Connie Nikas, who along with his mentally-challenged brother Nick (also played by Ben Safdie), is in the business of robbing banks. Connie is protective and nurturing,  but also carelessly dragging his brother  down a very unsafe path for someone in his condition – and that’s where things go horribly wrong. Nick panics in front of police and gets himself caught, and the remainder of the film revolves around Connie’s desperate attempt to raise $10,000 in one night for Nick’s bail.

What the Safdie brothers (Heaven Knows What) have done really well is to construct an almost real-time feature that doesn’t lose momentum throughout its entire 100-minute runtime.

Despite his scumbag appearance, Connie is quick-thinking and highly resourceful, which allows the film to move from one scene to another in a believable manner. Sure, some of the supporting characters and plot devices aren’t introduced very subtly, but they do regularly shift the entire course of the film to keep you on your toes.

This is some of the most intense filmmaking you’re likely to experience this year, and much like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, incorporates very clever audio and editing techniques to raise anxiety levels – most important of which is the penetrating score by Oneohtrix Point Never.

While it isn’t as stylish as Drive, clever as Run Lola Run or disturbing as Irreversible, Good Time is a remarkable feast for the senses.

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The Dark Tower

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Stephen King’s The Dark Tower book series is epic in every sense of the word. The eight volumes span time, dimensions, other worlds and close to 5,000 pages. It’s strange, majestic and occasionally infuriating, but it makes an unforgettable impact. It’s puzzling then that The Dark Tower movie adaptation is so bland that a mere 24 hours after watching it you may find you struggle to recall any of the details.

The story revolves around 11-year-old Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) a young man with a powerful “shine” aka psychic power. He dreams and draws pictures of a tower, a sinister Man in Black, Walter (Matthew McConaughey) and a heroic Gunslinger, Roland (Idris Elba). Jake believes his dreams are real, but his mother, Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) fears for his sanity.

Leaving aside its bastardisation of the source material, this isn’t a bad set up for a fantasy movie. The problem is that before your bum has had time to settle into your cinema seat, and certainly before an effective tone can be established, Jake whisks himself off through a portal into Mid-World and meets Roland with minimal audience engagement. This, sadly, is a recurring theme in The Dark Tower. Stuff just seems to happen in a blur of murky CGI and underwritten characters.

Director Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) directs the film with scant flair and absolutely zero atmosphere, delivering a product that manages to make monsters wearing human skins and concentration camps full of psychic teens dull. Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey try valiantly to breathe some life into Akiva Goldsman’s shallow, derivative script but are defeated at every turn by wince-inducing dialogue and baffling character decisions.

Ultimately the best thing that can be said about The Dark Tower is that it’s short. At a mere 95 minutes including credits you won’t have to endure it for long, but one can’t help but feel the sting of wasted potential and misused actors. Stephen King fans will be disappointed, obviously, but it’s hard to imagine even the most forgiving general audience finding something to love in this disjointed, inspiration-free enterprise.

The Dark Tower is a bad film, certainly, but even worse it’s a profoundly ordinary one. An utterly generic take on one of fiction’s more unique tales? Thankee-sai, but no thankee-sai.

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Logan Lucky

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What if Steven Soderbergh directed The Dukes of Hazzard? That thought exercise doesn’t map precisely onto the brisk, brash crime caper that is Logan Lucky, but it should give you a good idea of the tone of the thing, which sees the eponymous down-on-their-luck Logan siblings plotting to rob the home of NASCAR, North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway, during the biggest race of the year, the Coca-Cola 600.

So, it’s a heist movie, something Soderbergh knows a thing or two about, having called the shots on Ocean’s 11 through 13, not to mention the classic Elmore Leonard adaptation, Out of Sight. What sets it apart from his previous endeavours in the field are two things: the setting and the characters. For one thing, this is a flyover state piece of pulp fiction, set in the deep red states of backwoods America, not the coastal metropoles we’re used to seeing on the big screen. For another, our cast are, for the most part, not professional criminals, but down on their luck working class heroes who wouldn’t need a big score if there was any such thing as a steady job in modern America.

Our mastermind is former miner Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), his football career killed by a bad knee, who needs the cash to keep seeing his daughter, who’s in the custody of his estranged wife (Katie Holmes). His brother, Clyde (Adam Driver), tends bar with his one good arm, having lost the left in Iraq. Sister Melly (Riley Keough), works in a downmarket beauty salon. They’re all underachievers, labouring under what Clyde thinks is a family curse – they’re all, as the title says, “Logan lucky”.

Bringing much needed criminal expertise to the exercise is Joe Bang, a safe cracker and explosives expert played by a peroxide-haired, tattooed Daniel Craig, clearly having a blast being free of the 007 yoke and oozing dangerous sexuality and down-home charm. Unfortunately, Bang is himself banged up at the time of the planned robbery, but that’s not much of an obstacle for the Logans, who are considerably more canny than anyone expects them to be.

What proceeds is a nimble, footloose sting on what is, as far as the world of the film is concerned, the beating heart of America – the home of NASCAR. It’s here that Soderbergh tips his hand a bit, briefly but unmistakably demonstrating a deep distrust of this element of American culture, with its flag-waving patriotism and militarism, its roaring engines and roaring crowds, its conspicuous consumption and crass commercialism. It’s a case of “hate the sin but love the sinner”, though, as Logan Lucky has ample affection for its cast of hangdog heroes. Imagine a Coen Brothers movie that actually liked its characters – to be fair, there have been a few – and you’re on the right track.

Ultimately, it’s all about the little people sticking it to the Man, but the film is smart enough to know that the Man is often clothed in the things we think we love: NASCAR, energy drinks, fried chicken, Jesus and Coca-Cola. That Soderbergh manages to revel in the spectacle of it all while giving us something to chew on is quite a feat. Those deeper themes never overwhelm the action, though; you’ll find no pontificating on the American condition here. Still, for a fast and funny crime flick, Logan Lucky has plenty of grunt under the hood.

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Terminator 2: Judgement Day 3D

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In 1991 director James Cameron unleashed Terminator 2: Judgement Day on an unsuspecting world. If you weren’t alive – or just too young to be aware of films at the time – you should know the effect on cinema was seismic and indelible. T2 redefined what action movies were capable of, set a new standard for storytelling in genre cinema and showcased a director (Cameron) and actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton) at the height of their powers.

Cut to 2017 and cue the limited release of Terminator 2 in 3D. While you may question the need for the re-release there’s no doubt time has been extraordinarily kind to the movie. Time and James Cameron remastering the film for a crisp 4K print, that is.

The plot may not have the dark poetry of the original The Terminator (1984), but the story of young John Connor (Edward Furlong), his damaged but fearless mother, Sarah (Linda Hamilton) and reprogrammed, protector T-800 aka “Uncle Bob” (Arnold Schwarzenegger) remains engaging and surprisingly layered. The screenplay contains not one single wasted beat – which is impressive for a movie that clocks in at a hefty 137 minutes – and the action is of a quality that’s damn near timeless. In fact the only jarring moments that occur are with the use of then-groundbreaking CGI, which looks like a low res screensaver now, and “cool” 90s slang, which was always a bit rubbish to be honest.

The one dud note in the whole enterprise is the 3D, which isn’t bad per se, but doesn’t add much to the proceedings – except in the future war opening and Sarah Connor’s still-harrowing nuclear strike dream. Still, if 3D is the price that needs to be paid to get a stone cold classic like T2 back in the cinema, it seems a small one.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a great film when it was released 26 years ago and remains a great film today. If you’ve never seen it on the big screen, or want to experience it properly again, head to the cinema in the week starting August 24. Before Skynet becomes sentient.

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Feeling a little lost after her late philandering husband leaves her struggling with debt, London-dwelling American Emily Walters (Diane Keaton) is adrift. Her well-meaning son (James Norton) tries to get her to simplify her life, while her coterie of “ladies who lunch”, all residents of the same upmarket Hampstead apartment house, underwrite her crisis, because what’s five thousand pounds between frenemies?

Emily finds her focus when she stumbles across Donald (Brendan Gleeson), a hermit living in a handmade shack on wooded Hampstead Heath. As it eventuates, the land he’s been squatting on is of considerable value and is due for development, and Emily resolves to help the curmudgeonly but wise Donald keep his ramshackle castle. But could the pair ignite a spark in each other they both long thought had winked out?

Well yes, of course you know going in what kind of movie this is, and you’ve got a fair idea that the end result is probably not going to map exactly onto the real life story of Harry Hallowes, which inspired the film (for one thing, there is no Emily). Hampstead is a strong but somewhat bland hybrid between Notting Hill and the gray market Autumn romance of your choice – call it The Best Exotic Tumbledown Squat, if you like.

Which is not to say it’s without charm. Keaton remains as watchable as ever, even if she is just playing a late-life variation of Annie Hall, complete with kooky fashion sense and whimsy. Putting her next to the ursine Gleeson turns out to be an inspired choice, the latter’s broad, rough-hewn charisma pairing nicely with Keaton’s quirkier appeal.

Hampstead is never quite sure what it’s actually about, though. There’s some lip service paid to notions of class division, gentrification, and self-determination, but it’s all a bit woolly – feel-good platitudes rather than anything actually thought through with any degree of clarity of discernment. Still, it’s a pleasantly enjoyable amble up the gentle slope of rising action to a fairly familiar destination.

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A warm movie set against the cold background of Nova Scotia, Maudie is an intimate homage to the life of Canadian painter and unwavering optimist, Maud Lewis.

Lewis suffered from rheumatoid arthritis from childhood, and the juxtaposition of Maud Lewis’ beautifully optimistic personality, exemplified in her artwork, and her sad life is where the film truly digs up its most emotional moments.

For those unfamiliar with Lewis’ oeuvre, the film provides a wonderful story of an exceptional woman that lived her life carefree of the obstacles thrown at her. The screenplay by Sherry White is accessible to those unfamiliar with the artist and allows for rich performances by the leading cast, Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke as Maud and Everett Lewis, respectively, that give insight into the day-to-day life and hardships of the Lewises.

Maudie tells the story of the invincibly optimistic painter and her gruff husband. Their relationship is difficult at times to watch unfold, but the actors’ performances save the movie from falling completely into despair.

Hawkins’ performance is award-worthy. Her commitment to the unique mannerisms of the character go beyond a mimic of the artist’s disability. Hawkins’ performance comes from an emotional place and manifests itself within the confines of Lewis’ body, giving more depth to an already intimate film.

Hawke is unrecognisable as the jaded and demanding Everett Lewis, Maud’s boss-turned-husband. Hawke’s performance of an insensitive man is, conversely, deeply sensitive. The rest of the cast allow Hawkins to shine as the lead, especially Kari Matchett as Sandra, the New Yorker that is depicted as the first to ask for Maud’s paintings and a friend to Maud during the film’s emotional climax.

Director Aisling Walsh gives Maudie an appearance evocative of the artist’s work, going beyond the script to show the world in a way Lewis may have seen it; it’s as if the film is picked from the mind of Maud Lewis, which is perhaps why it is so warm and inviting. The musical score and composition, for example, take away some of the emotional heft and allow the film to breathe during the happier moments. The film is drawn out and, despite being charmingly quaint at the start, begins to drag on to a slow, yet fulfilling, finale.

Maudie is not a romantic movie, despite being about a long relationship. It is inspiring and beautiful, but the life of Maud Lewis as depicted onscreen is anything but happy. A woman cast aside in her life and celebrated mainly after her death, her story is equal parts engrossingly tragic and joyful.

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The Wall

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In the dying days of the Iraq War, a US Army sniper team consisting of gunman Shane Matthews (John Cena) and his spotter, Allen Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are dispatched to investigate the massacre of a repair crew and their security detail at a remote desert pipeline. There, they are attacked by Juba (Laith Nakli) , a legendary Iraqi sniper. With Matthews badly wounded and lying exposed, Isaac takes cover behind… well, it’s in the title.

This is an interesting little formal exercise from Amazon Studios and director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, American Made), and you can certainly view it as an exploration of the possibility of doing a low-budget film with a known cast that can compete, if not go toe-to-toe, with the blockbuster behemoths that bestride that current theatrical landscape. The Wall is budgeted at US$3m, takes place in one location, and – one sequence aside – has a cast of three, one of whom we never see, and another of whom spends the bulk of the film unconscious.

And it works a treat, due to Taylor-Johnson’s one man show as the wounded but cunning Isaac, and tense, terse direction from Liman, who isn’t afraid to reach into the horror toolbox to find something to tune up his small-scale war movie. Seeing as he’s the only active character for much of the film, our sympathies lock onto Isaac from the get-go, and the script never makes him betray them. Isaac never does anything that shifts him into the “too dumb to live” category. He’s smart, capable, tough (he deals with a leg wound in a wince-worthy but admirably stoic fashion), but he’s pinned down by an unseen assailant, low on rations, stuck under a merciless sun, and almost completely out of options. The fun and tension comes in seeing him use his brain and his limited resources to deal with his situation before either Juba puts a draft through his dome or he simply bleeds out from his wounds.

There are a couple of points that push the envelope in terms of plausibility, mostly in terms of Juba’s almost supernatural accuracy with his rifle, and the film’s final movement feels like we’ve jumped genre tracks entirely, but not enough to break the compact with the audience. This is a tight little thriller custom-made to straddle the line between cinema-worthy and streaming fodder. No matter the context you catch it in, you’ll have a good time.