Saturday, January 20, 2018

Movie Reviews: American Made, The Change-Up

American Made
directed by Doug Liman
When investigative journalists talk about the American government turning a blind eye to or even assisting in criminal activity for reasons of "national security" or pure greed, the public often ignores those people in real time. Mainstream media mouthpieces or military-industrial complex muppets mock such people as loons and conspiracy buffs. It's only after the evidence has become impossible to ignore or many of the major players have passed on that the mainstream entertainment industry feels comfortable depicting some of the events.  American Made is a fictionalized retelling of the life and times of Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), who morphed from a shady and bored airlines pilot to a CIA intelligence asset and supplier of the Nicaraguan contras (Iran-Contra affair) to a drug and gun smuggler for the Medellin Cartel to a DEA informant and military asset. There wasn't always a clear delineation among these roles. Seal made a lot of money; he had multiple bosses in different organizations. Unfortunately for Seal he wound up in a position where he had betrayed the cartel , but wasn't considered important enough for the U.S. government to protect. 

So as the saying goes, live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse. That last is important for this film as the slender and seemingly ageless Cruise (his only concession to advancing years appears to be some deepening lines around eyes and mouth) looks absolutely nothing like Barry Seal, who was a porcine good old boy from Louisiana. 

Cruise brings a wink and nod party feeling to this film which helps with its fast pace and satirical nature. I think a less conventionally handsome actor wouldn't have been as able to get audience sympathy and interest. This theme was explored in films such as Blow, Traffic and The Infiltrator. So American Made will give you some feeling of been there, done that if you've seen those other films. Although Seal is often working for very dangerous and quite sadistic people American Made downplays that reality to lull the viewer into some complacency. You aren't really rooting for Seal, except maybe at the end of the movie as the walls close in on him. 

The movie deftly removes or reworks a lot of events in Seal's life to make him, if not quite a victim, then certainly someone who was manipulated and used by other people. The film doesn't suggest that Seal was ever innocent but it leaves out some inconvenient facts about his criminal history. Seal is a TWA pilot who occasionally smuggles Cuban cigars or other minor clandestine materials for business or pleasure. The CIA has noticed his activities. The Company sends an operative calling himself Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) to recruit Seal for some special jobs. Schafer appeals to Seal's patriotism, corrupt nature, and boredom. The money won't be bad either.  

Initially these jobs are minor tasks such as spying on Sandinistas in Nicaragua and collecting intelligence from American asset Manuel Noriega in Panama. Lacking the benefits and pension that TWA offers, Seal decides he wants more money. Schafer "accidentally" arranges an "introduction" to the men who would become infamous as the leaders of the Medellin Cartel.


Before long Seal is making so much money that his leggy and previously skeptical wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) is not only running out of places to stash the cash, she's excited enough to want to do the do with him while he's flying. Seal and his family move from Louisiana to Arkansas to avoid nosy local prosecutors. Seal builds his own "air force" to transport drugs, guns, contras, and other contraband wherever his handlers direct. Seal finds that he has political protection he didn't know he had from Arkansas Governors (Clinton) and even Presidents. But nothing good lasts forever. The federal government is not a monolith. The FBI, IRS, and DEA are not onboard with Seal's activities, despite what Schafer or an ambitious Colonel Oliver North (Robert Farrior) may promise. And there's only so many ways you can launder money in Arkansas before government agencies whose job it is to notice financial irregularities come calling. Stupid relatives complicate Seal's life. An irritated Colombian drug lord is a dangerous Colombian drug lord. The film captures the paranoia felt by Seal, who doesn't speak much Spanish, when Pablo Escobar and other Colombian drug lords have conversations in Spanish in front of Seal.

I liked Cruise in this role. Cruise gives a hectic performance. Cruise is going full bore every second he's on the screen. However, I thought that Gleeson stole the movie. Gleeson's interpretation of Schafer perfectly embodies the soulless backstabbing corporate middle manager or government bureaucrat who can dive into a barrel of s*** and come up smelling like roses. Schafer is the fellow who gets the corner office while seemingly doing as little work as possible.  Schafer is a happy sociopath. Purpose is everything to Schafer. People aren't so important. This movie is as much a satire or farce as anything else.
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The Change-Up
directed by David Dobkin
Freud theorized that there were five stages of psychosexual development. I don't know if psychology experts still consider Freud's theories to be accurate. When I was younger, people made frequent attacks on Freud, especially from a feminist perspective, because he had gotten some basic facts wrong about female physiology. And if a scientist makes one big mistake, then probably all of his work should be double checked. One of the steps that Freud postulated was the anal stage, in which the person gets pleasure from removal of waste. Were Freud alive today he would certainly view this older film as support for his theories. The director and writer(s) are blissfully stuck in the anal stage. Most of the jokes are not just lewd or crass but downright disgusting. The filmmaker wants (literally) to wallow in excrement. Much of this movie's humor is aimed at people who think that urinating in the punch bowl at a party or throwing a bag of their feces at a Monet painting is amusing. I wouldn't have watched this film but for the fact that I caught the scant five or ten minutes about halfway through the movie that were actually funny. Intrigued I then went back to watch the film from the beginning. That was a big mistake. You don't need to make that same mistake. 

This film could have been funny. It's a reworking of the Freaky Friday/Prince and the Pauper theme: two people proceeding on different journeys in life wish that they could switch lives because they think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Obviously that proves not to be the case but perhaps by walking the proverbial mile in the other person's shoes, the protagonists will begin to appreciate their original lives and learn something from their friend. This wasn't only the theme of the Freaky Friday movies but also of classic tv sitcoms where the husband would stay home with the kids while the wife would go to the office or factory. 
Here, instead of a husband/wife couple or a mother/daughter couple the two protagonists looking enviously at the other person's life are a stolid corporate attorney about to make partner, Dave Lockwood (Jason Bateman) and his free wheeling actor/playboy friend Mitch Planko (Ryan Reynolds). Dave has three kids with his wife Jamie (Leslie Mann). The couple's entire life is scheduled, including intimacy. They married early. Dave occasionally thinks he missed out on some fun, sexual and otherwise. Dave never gets to stop and smell the roses. Although Dave would never cheat on Jamie he sometimes has lustful thoughts about his sexy paralegal Sabrina (Olivia Wilde). Mitch bounces from job to job and woman to woman. Although Mitch thinks he's happy, from time to time he wonders what it would be like to have purpose, to have one woman who loves him, and to have the respect of his father (Alan Arkin). Through a magical accident, which of course occurs via a gross method, the men switch bodies.

For me a small amount of toilet humor goes a mighty long way. This film's director is more interested in spewing filth and a fair amount of homophobic/homoerotic banter than he is interested in making a stronger and funnier case about the fish of out water situations in which Dave and Mitch find themselves. The actors barely try and mostly fail to send up each other's verbal tics, facial expressions and physical approaches. When your strongest joke for Leslie Mann includes explosive diarrhea maybe you should consider rewriting well, everything. Unless you're into almost exclusively scatological discourse, you don't need to see this film. Freud would no doubt be fascinated by it for professional reasons.
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