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Review: Energized ‘American Made’ glides on Cruise control

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Tom Cruise plays the drug smuggling pilot Barry Seal in “American Made.” (Universal Pictures)

It’s good to see Tom Cruise acting again!

Not to put down Cruise’s work as a supremely entertaining action hero, but Ethan Hunt’s character arc wrapped up with Mission: Impossible III. Cruise has been playing a variation on the super spy melody ever since (what ‘Mummy’ remake?).

Cruise gets a chance to fully embrace his more boisterous inner-thespian in this ludicrous, quick-paced crime comedy based off the real-life exploits of Louisiana-born TWA pilot Barry Seal. Seal, to earn a little extra cash on the side of his commercial career, made a habit out of sneaking cigars back into the states during flights to Cuba. This, of course, does not go unnoticed.

In the late 70s, the giddy pilot is approached by a mysterious, redheaded CIA clerk named Schaffer (Domhnall Gleeson) who offers him a job as a CIA operative. The name of the game? Flying over and nabbing pictures of secret Soviet military installations down in Central America. Giggling, Seal accepts. For a bored pilot who’d resorted to deliberate nosedives of commercial airliners for the sake of spicing up his monotonous routine, the offer (much like this movie) is too thrilling to pass up.

Eventually, Barry gets so good at his new job (as he puts it in the film) that the feds increased his shady workload. Seal began working as an intel courier for the Panamanian dictator (also a CIA-informant) as well as smuggling weapons to the U.S.-backed Contra in Nicaragua. Sometimes Seal even snuck young Nicaraguan troops into and out of the states who needed to be trained to combat Commies back home.

Seal’s dubious relationship with the CIA is carefully groomed by Schaffer. And though he doesn’t get much screen time here, Gleeson steals the scenes he’s in with an appropriately awkward performance.

In exchange for his services, the CIA agrees to look the other way once Seal gets involved with Pablo Escobar (Alberto Ospino) and starts running cocaine for the Medellin cartel. Before he knows it, Seal is literally drowning in riches (there’s a funny sequence wherein Barry, struggling to find a place to stash his dirty money, opens a closet door only to have a huge pile of cash spill out all over him).

It’s more money than he and his family can spend or bury in the yard. It’s more even than they can launder, though that’s not for a lack of trying. The Seals set up several fronted businesses that help transform Mena, Arkansas into a pseudo-boom town.

Director Doug Liman (whose previous works include the Matt Damon-led ‘Bourne’ films as well as the Cruise-helmed Edge of Tomorrow) takes a cavalier approach to the story at hand. American Made never pauses to acknowledge the destructive repercussions of Seal’s crimes or their ensuing insanity. Nor does it delve into the cruel inner workings of cartel business. Instead, Liman keeps flying from one crazy episode to the next.

That same momentum which keeps American Made airborne also keeps it from soaring to greater heights. We never learn much about anybody, including Barry Seal. In fact, he’s made out to be a greedy, Reagan-era caricature.

Ultimately, American Made floats on Cruise’s charm and charisma. It’s the actor’s most enthusiastic performance in a long time and it’s impossible to resist that superstar smile of his. We know Barry Seal is a one of the bad guys, but it feels right rooting for him to come out on top of all the insanity.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ (Out of 4)


Director: Doug Liman

Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright

Rated: R (for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity)

Year: 2017
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Review: ‘Annabelle: Creation’ is one of the scariest films of the year

Director: David F. Sandberg 

Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Miranda Otto, Lulu Wilson, Talitha Bateman, and Alicia Vela-Bailey 

Synopsis: Several years after the tragic death of their little girl, a dollmaker and his wife welcome a nun and several girls from a shuttered orphanage into their home, soon becoming the target of the dollmaker's possessed creation, Annabelle (IMDb). 

Rated: R

Year: 2017

The flick of a switch was all it took for last year’s Lights Out to transition from fractured family drama to bone-chilling creature feature. This simple yet clever hook solidified David F. Sandberg as an original voice within a genre otherwise cursed by convention.

If the original Annabelle was anything, it was conventional. How many similarly lame haunted house flicks feature the happy family that falls victim to some demonic presence that they unknowingly let into their home? I cringe imagining the number.

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Now Sandberg inherits Annabelle’s unholy mantle and with it is tasked with crafting an unnecessary prequel to a spin-off nobody wanted. And though it’s just his second film, Sandberg whittles Annabelle: Creation with expert detail despite the lingering presence of a familiar formula.

The minute Sister Charloette (Stephanie Sigman) and the small band of orphan girls she looks after step into the massive, decrepit farmhouse that will become their new home, you know exactly how things are going to play out. It will be quiet at first with a bump in the night here and there until the tension slowly ratchets past ten to a climactic third act throwdown with whatever supernatural entity is antagonizing our poor protagonists.

And for the most part, Annabelle: Creation delivers on those story tropes. However, the focus here is on the scares and Sandberg cleverly utilizes tools of the trade to construct a relentless house of horrors. Lighting and composition perfectly capture the eerie stylization of The Conjuring universe and the manipulation of sound consistently forces your imagination to do the heavy lifting when most of what you’re seeing is pitch black.

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Once Sandberg starts showing you glimpses of what’s actually dwelling in the darkness, it lives up to any anything you might have concocted in your head. Special and practical effects often come together, often seamlessly, to create terrifying images that will permanently burn into your mind.

Sandberg also makes inventive use of the environment. Sure, we get a small sense of the layout of the house at the beginning while the Mullins’s playfully terrorize their young daughter Annabelle, but we don’t get to truly explore the old mansion until years later when the orphans arrive. The camera snakes in and out of corridors, establishing the larger physical space as well as specific details that all come into play once everything goes topsy-turvy.

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But technical prowess alone doesn’t get an audience emotionally invested. They have to care about the characters in order to care about what’s happening to them. Thankfully, the heart of ‘Creation’ belongs to Lulu Wilson (Oujia: Origin of Evil) and Talitha Bateman. Respectively, they play Linda and Janice, two orphans who are so close that they are practically sisters. In fact, they’ve made a pact to be adopted as a pair. Their deep love for each other is heartwarming and provides an emotional anchor the film.

The love doesn’t stop there. While the sisterly bond between the young orphans might have been enough to pull an audience in on its own merits, Sister Charlotte gets in on the love too. She plays the role of the orphans’ mother/big sister and it’s easy to tell she cares for them in that way. Stephanie Sigman does a nice job portraying both the loving and strict sides of Sister Charlotte without ever leaning too far into one or the other. It’s easy to root for these girls once the evil enters their lives.

Grade: A-

What did you all think of Annabelle: Creation? Was it better than the original? And are you now open to seeing more horror movie prequels? Let us know in the comments below! And if you’re interested, check out our list of the best horror movie prequels of recent memory.

The storied histories of the ‘Wonder Woman’ movie

comicsIt’s just beginning its theatrical release and already there is a lot of history behind the new Wonder Woman movie. For starters, there’s the story behind the titular heroine herself. Diana Prince of Themyscira first debuted back in 1942 as the creation of one William Marston, an American psychologist and inventor of the polygraph machine (think Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth).

That was 75 years ago. Since then, Wonder Woman has become one of the most iconic and influential superheroes of all time (joining Superman and Batman as a founding member of the Justice League and one-third of DC Comics’ so-called “Holy Trinity”). She even had her own television show starring Lynda Carter back in the late 1970s. Though despite these successes, the Amazon Princess hasn’t been able to break into the movie business until now.

It is fortuitous then that the responsibility of lyndabringing Wonder Woman to life on the big screen should fall to Patty Jenkins, who’s had difficulties of her own trying to make it in Hollywood. And though Jenkis directed Charlize Theron to her first Academy Award in Monster (Jenkins’ first film), the director has not made a movie since. That was fourteen years ago.

Now flash forward a decade. Though Wonder Woman is still a few years out, Hollywood is proliferated by superheroes. Marvel has struck box office gold by bringing their comic book characters together on the silver screen. They’re experiencing so much success, in fact, that now every studio is grasping at straws for some semblance of a cinematic universe and Marvel’s “Distinguished Competition” over at DC and Warner Bros. is no exception.

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Enter Zack Snyder, who at this point has established himself as a visionary filmmaker with films like the Dawn of the Dead remake, 300, and Watchmen. WB has brought Snyder on to direct the Superman reboot Man of Steel and to establish what he would later deem the “DC Extended Universe” (or DCEU for short).

Man of Steel ultimately crushed at the box office, but Snyder’s film was divisive among fans and critics. Over the next few years Warner Bros. continued to build their universe with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. Though financial successes, neither film put up the boffo numbers that Warner Bros. executives were hoping for and both films were critically panned. To make matters worse, a myriad of potential writers and directors were signing onto then leaving future DCEU projects. Suddenly, the skies were not so blue for the House of the Big Blue Boy Scout.

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Now, standing at the edge of oblivion, a hero emerges. Not only is Patty Jenkins’ second film the first DCEU entry to earn a fresh rating on the Tomatometer (60%), but it’s blown past expectations earning a 93%. Critics and early audiences obviously love Wonder Woman but will this be a case of too little, too late?

It’s a story 75 years in the making and it’s still not over. How will Wonder Woman fare at the box office after three disappointing DCEU outings? Will the combined popularity of the storied Amazon and the underutilized talent of a neglected superstar be enough to accomplish what no man has yet to achieve? Only time will tell.

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Wonder Woman hits theaters today. You can catch our video review here!

T2 Trainspotting 2 (2017)– Movie Review

Director: Danny Boyle

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Johnny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremmer, Robert Carlyle 

Synopsis: After 20 years abroad, Mark Renton returns to Scotland and reunites with his old friends Sick Boy, Spud, and Begbie (source: IMDb). 

Rating: R

Despite the fact that there is and always will be only one “T2” (Terminator 2: Judgement Day), I really enjoyed Trainspotting 2. Yes, after two decades Danny Boyle and company finally reunite for the highly-anticipated sequel to the 1996 classic. And unlike a lot of recent sequels to twenty year-old classics, Trainspotting 2 genuinely feels like the natural progression of an initial story rather than an exploitation of a beloved title.

The film picks up in real time with Renton (Ewan McGregor), now middle-aged and sober, returning home to Edinburgh, Scotland where he reunites with his rag-tag friends. The catch is he hasn’t seen any of them since turning his back on them twenty years earlier.

Director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) has a talent for peeling back the layers of the bigger picture to examine stories through the eyes of his characters. It’s an intimate approach that helps us understand where each character stands both with him/herself as well as with each other after all these years. Some relationships have been damaged more than others but everyone’s actions (both of the hilarious & more dramatic varieties) as well as the resulting chaos feels warranted because we know where they’re all coming from.

Unlike our protagonists, Trainspotting 2 has matured with age, at least when you’re talking about the technical aspects of storytelling. It’s as kinetic as the original, but the focus is more on presenting a coherent narrative. There’s not as much an emphasis on the trippy shots and cracked coloring that helped make the original so iconic. This refined technique mirrors the “cleaner” state of life that most these guys are now living. Credit to Boyle for letting the progression of the overall story dictate the technique instead of simply going with what worked the first time.

Visually, the Trainspotting films are pop art where the colors pop off the screen and the camera is living almost as an equally frantic character within the stories. But the artistry doesn’t stop there. The soundtracks are equally dazzling, with tracks from Iggy Pop to Queen, Blondie, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and more. Your senses are always engaged with this film.

Trainspotting 2 is the perfect compliment to the original cult hit.

Grade: A

What did you all think of Trainspotting 2? Are you glad we got a sequel after all these years or should Danny Boyle and team simply left well enough alone? Hit up our comments section and let us know!