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Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

All my aimless thoughts, ideas, and ramblings, all packed into one site!

Tag Archives: Michael Cuesta

American Assassin (2017)

American Assassin

After a devastating terrorist attack kills the woman of his dreams, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) is pulled into a dark, unrelenting world of tracking these terrorists down and getting his own sort of revenge. But just as soon as he gets close enough to do so, he’s whisked away by the CIA who, having tracked all of Mitch’s actions in the past year or so since the attack, like what they see and feel as if they can use it to their own advantage. However, Mitch is a bit of a hot-head and while he has the skills to shoot a gun and kick all sorts of ass, he needs to know how to control his temper so that missions can be completed, without any issues whatsoever. That’s when Mitch is sent to an isolated boot-camp, headed by Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a former Marine who is quite the ass-kicker himself. Together, Stan and Mitch track down a terrorist (Taylor Kitsch), who has plans of starting a global war, but once again, it all comes down to whether or not Mitch can control himself, when the push comes to the shove.

Do they allow those kinds of hair-do’s in the CIA? Or should I say, hair-don’ts!

The first 40 minutes or so of American Assassin are actually pretty good. Director Michael Cuesta, who, oddly enough, has made quite the name for himself in small, rather disturbing indies, doesn’t really speed things up, as much as he lets it all play out in front of our own eyes, in a very mannered-way. In a way, that makes the violence all the more shocking and graphic. Sure, having an R-rating attached certainly helps things, but rather than seeming like an action set-piece in a big-budgeted movie, American Assassin‘s action, in the first-half at least, feels like it’s going for something colder, darker, and deeper, than just blood, guts and terrorists doing bad thing.

Then, it all goes away.

At about the half-way mark, the movie then realizes we need a mission, we need a story, and oh yeah, we need some sort of conflict that isn’t just Mitch and Stan constantly dick-measuring – there needs to be a baddie, a reason, and oh yeah, way more action. When this happens, American Assassin eventually turns into a very dumb, over-the-top, and surprisingly safe action-thriller that wants to keep on being dark and meaningful, but is just too silly for its own good. It’s as if Cuesta may have gotten thrown out of the director’s chair about halfway through production when the powers that be eventually realized he wasn’t making the Bourne rip-off they so desperately wanted.

Cause even in something like Bourne, at least the politics of that movie, while challenging, at least feel fully realized. The action happens for a reason and while it is no doubt played-up for thrills and chills, it still comes from a very dark, realistic place, in a world where these sorts of things happen each and every day. In American Assassin, the politics are way too troubling and one-sided, almost to the point of where I wonder whether it was made before, or after Trump got elected.

In other words, it’s so jingoistic that it borders on xenophobic.

Kick some ass, Mikey. Do it for ‘merica!

Then again, the villain is a disillusioned and paranoid former-soldier from the South, so I guess that kind of saves it? I’m not sure, actually. What I am sure of is that for the final hour or so, American Assassin gets pretty rote and well, boring. It’s action isn’t all that exciting, it’s script continues to get sillier, and yeah, we see where it’s always going. The first-half had at least some surprises and excitement to it, because it felt a little fresh, but once that goes out the window, we’re back to crazy action-sequences that you can see perfectly fine, but do you really want to?

The only real saving-grace above this all is Michael Keaton, who feels like he’s way too good for the material and may have signed-up for something else entirely. Still, as the strict and mean Stan Hurley, Keaton gets a lot of mileage out of being the angriest and possibly, toughest guy in the room, despite himself being quite tiny and over 60-years-of-age. Still, it’s a testament to the kind of actor Keaton is, because he helps this thing move, probably when it shouldn’t.

As for Dylan O’Brien? Yeah, the verdict’s still out on him.

It’s not that I see him as dull, either, it’s just that the material he’s given here either doesn’t give him enough room to stretch, or he himself doesn’t know how to take this character. He’s jacked and handsome, but when you get down to it, there’s still this kid-like vulnerability to him that doesn’t quite register and makes this character feel like Jr. Bourne.

But hey, as long as he doesn’t get injured again, at least he’s got the Maze Runner to fall back on, right?

They still make those, right? Somebody help me.

Consensus: Despite a very promising start, American Assassin soon turns into a full-blown action-thriller, that’s never as fun, or as smart as it clearly wanted to be.

5 / 10

Baby Looney Tunes are taking over the CIA! Help us, foreign nations!

Photos Courtesy of: Aceshowbiz

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12 and Holding (2005)

Small towns are way too weird.

Jacob and Rudy (Conor Donovan) are identical twins, in terms of the way they look and sound (sort of), but they are different in their own ways. Rudy is far more outgoing and considered “the golden child”, whereas Jacob, mostly due to a birthmark covering a large portion of his face, is forced to mostly stay indoors and keep to himself. However, they both get along well enough to where they spend as much time together and even build a tree-house, for them and all their friends to hang. But disaster strikes one night when, after messing with some bullies, the tree-house is lit on fire, with Rudy inside, trapping him and, as a result, killing him. Now, it’s up to Jacob to take most of the attention from his brother and he uses that attention to make a name for himself. Meanwhile, Leonard (Jesse Camacho), another friend, is overweight and trying to lose it all, while Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum) tries to befriend an adult named Gus (Jeremy Renner), who is in town and doesn’t quite know what to make of this new friendship, as inappropriate as it may be.

Uh, like step away?

12 and Holding is another odd movie from the likes of writer/director Michael Cuesta and I mean that in the best way possible. Granted, compared to his debut, L.I.E., 12 and Holding doesn’t quite hit the same emotional notes, but it’s still interesting in that it focuses on a small, core group of people, gives them some development, a sense of conflict, and allows their stories to just be told to us. Sure, the stories don’t always work, but at least Cuesta’s trying something, right?

Well, yes. And no. Sort of.

See, one of the issues with 12 and Holding is that it tries a lot harder to be an outright comedy this go around, unlike L.I.E., that was far more serious and disturbing. There’s still that sense of dirt and grit here, but not nearly as in-your-face as it was with Cuesta’s debut; this time around, the disturbing-features are played up more for cringe-inducing and awkward laughs. Occasionally, Cuesta will hit a high spot for comedy, but often times, it can feel as if he’s maybe trying a tad too hard, as if the material itself wasn’t, on the surface, funny enough.

Which is odd to say, I know, considering that in the first 15 minutes, a kid literally gets burned-to-death, but still, you can tell Cuesta is going for the darker-laughs this time around and he doesn’t always hit his mark. He does develop these characters and give them enough to work with, however, he also can’t help but give us the occasional quirk, too. It would have helped if these quirks were, at some point, funny, but they aren’t and because of that, it can feel straining.

“So, how’s the food?”

That said, the drama still works and had the movie just been with that, then yeah, it probably would have been a slam-dunk.

If there’s one thing that Cuesta gets right, is the small-town, suburban malaise that, in a way, American Beauty dealt with. Sure, that movie did it a whole lot better and effortlessly, but 12 and Holding does something interesting in that it shows how grief messes with each and everyone of us, regardless of if we are willing to accept it or not. Cuesta shows that we all deal with it on our own terms and because of that, we act out in somewhat rather outlandish and insane ways; we can’t really diagnose it, or even excuse it, as it’s just in our human nature.

If anything, 12 and Holding is much more sad and depressing than anything, and had the movie focused on this much more, it would have been better. However, it didn’t and it dealt with comedy a tad too much. Still, the ensemble is pretty great with nearly all of the child and adult-performers putting in solid work. Perhaps the most shining star in the whole thing is Zoe Weizenbaum as Malee, the incredibly curious and sexually vivacious teen that makes a good half of this movie pretty uncomfortable. However, she’s so charming and lovely to watch, with Renner’s Gus helping out, too, that it makes these scenes go down a lot easier.

Not like L.I.E., of course, Nothing can quite be as disturbing and as off-putting as that.

Consensus: Uneven to a fault, 12 and Holding tries to be way too funny, when it probably didn’t need to, but still works as a small, sad and thought-provoking indie about small-towns and grief.

6 / 10

Gonna grow up to be some awfully weird adults. Just like the rest of us.

Photos Courtesy of: IFC Films

L.I.E. (2001)

Get out of Long Island the first thing you do.

Still affected by the death of his mother, Howie (Paul Dano) has been having a bit of a rough go at life, for the time being. His dad (Bruce Altman) doesn’t seem to get him and is too busy spending time with his new girlfriend, who Howie obviously detests, and his best-friend Gary (Adam LeFevre), who he also has a love for, plans on moving out of their small suburban town in hopes of achieving his dreams of being rich and famous. Howie wants to profess his love for Gary, but he finds it easier to just go around causing all sorts of shenanigans with him, like for instance, robbing random people’s houses. One person that they rob is Big John (Brian Cox) an older, very charming man who has a certain affinity for young boys and immediately takes a liking to Howie. The later, all confused as to who to love or care for, immediately takes to Big John, too, and they both forge something of a friendship that gets dangerously close to being something much more. But will the two take the plunge, or learn to just respect one another?

Did Howie get his candy yet? You know, like he was promised?!?

A part of me feels like a great deal of the positive reception and, dare I say it, hype around L.I.E. has to solely due with the fact that it was touching on some really disturbing taboos that no one could get away with. Sure, the movie got slapped with an NC-17 rating nonetheless, but mostly that was due to the fact that it dealt with homosexuality, pedophilia, and sex in general, all featuring characters who seemed to be clearly underage. You could make the argument that the movie’s just another case of Larry Clarke’s Kids, but that would actually be an insult to L.I.E.

This movie’s much more thoughtful, whereas Clarke’s was just over-the-top and disturbing, for the sake of being so.

But still, L.I.E. isn’t quite nearly as good as it should be. One of the main aspects holding it back is that it’s the directorial debut from Michael Cuesta and in ways, you can tell. The movie’s dark, dirty, gritty, and grainy look, while giving it a realistic-look and feel, also feels amateurish, especially when the movie decides to stylize itself up a bit more with random, floating montages. You could say that it’s “pretentious”, but it isn’t entirely; a good deal of the movie is small, contained and actually, subtle, but there’s the other deal that also seems like a first-time director having a bit too much fun with a budget and a script in his hands.

That said, when the movie does settle down, L.I.E. works as a thoughtful and smart character-study of two troubled people coming together in a surprisingly believable way. It helps that we get to know each character very well before they meet one another, however, it also helps that Cuesta was able to get both Brian Cox and a very young Paul Dano in these lead roles, because they don’t just work well together, but they are actually the heart and soul of the whole picture.

Which is saying something, considering that the movie itself is pretty damn dark.

Don’t do it! Or do. It’s okay!

As Big John, Cox has the really troubling job of making a despicable and disgusting character seem somewhat sympathetic. And well, it works – not only do you come to care for this heinous wreck-of-a-man, but you also actually seem to get charmed by him. A part of the charm is his act and how he reels people in, and Cox gets by on this in spades, while all still seeming like one creepy individual. There’s more to this character that, in all honesty, deserved to be explored, but as far as portraits of actual monsters go, Cox’s Big John remains one of the more fully-realized and well-done.

Which is a shame because despite him trying very hard, Dano’s Howie doesn’t quite resonate as much. See, one aspect behind Howie’s character is that he’s a whole bunch of things that teenagers at that age are; confused, naive, angry, upset, and constantly fluctuating between emotions and how it is that they feel at any given moment. We get to see a lot about Howie and Dano makes it all work, but then, Cuesta comes around to making there more to Howie, like how he writes poetry, understands certain pop-culture references, and watches old movies, that don’t quite work. The movie wants to make Howie more than he actually is – which is just another upset teenager – and because of that, it takes away from what was already a smart and understandable character to begin with.

Oh well. Both Dano and Cuesta would continue to go on and do much better.

Same is obviously said for Cox.

Consensus: By touching on some disturbing themes in a very in-your-face way, L.I.E. can often times seem a little cloying, but still works because of the smart, understated and thoughtful performances from both Dano and, especially, Cox.

6.5 / 10

Love at first face-piercing.

Photos Courtesy of: Alter Ego Entertainment

Kill the Messenger (2014)

What’s a newspaper?

Middle-aged journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) isn’t necessarily the type of writer who searches for a big story, but if it ever comes his way, he’ll more than likely take the opportunity to jump on it right away. That’s why when Webb stumbles upon a lead that may take him all the way to uncovering that the CIA channeled drugs through the U.S., he gets on top of it right away, interviewing possible sources, even if that includes him taking trips out to to the villages of Nicaragua and putting his life on the line. However, Webb is a true journalist and will do anything to make his story the best possible one out there and for all of the world to see, which is exactly what happens. It gets his name known, story re-published in larger, much more respected news outlets, face on TV, and even an award for “Year’s Best Journalist”. Everything looks wonderful for Webb’s life and career, that is, until the government actually gets involved and starts putting pressure on him, as well as his news publication to stop pursuing the story any further, or else. This leaves Webb at a stand-still: Continue following the story his career was made for and lose everything he has, or, listen to what the government demands so that he can live a normal, comfortable life, like everything was before all this press? Decisions, decisions.

There’s certain movies that, to me, may speak volumes, while to others, may not at all. I understand this because while most critics out there like to say that they “have no bias” when it comes to reviewing a certain movie, from a certain creator, on a certain subject, the fact is, we are all biased. Which isn’t a problem, it’s just a fact of life that every human being has deep down inside themselves, regardless of if they want to admit or not.

A notorious drug kingpin who plays golf? Hmm...

A notorious drug kingpin who plays golf? Hmm…

The reason why I say this, is because a movie like Kill the Messenger is made exactly for me: A movie about an respectable journalist, taking place in a time when journalists truly did matter to the mainstream media, and doing what most journalists do, day in and day out. I too, am an aspiring journalist and while I do realize that the world is starting to need fewer and fewer of them, it’s still a profession I love and will continue to pursue until the day I die, regardless of if I have a job in the field or not. So yeah, as you could probably tell by my statement, that this is the movie for me.

That said, I do realize that not every movie out there that works for me, won’t work for others and while I do want to jump into this movie head-on and talk about Webb, his practice, and how he, the real-life figure, makes me happy to be an aspiring journalist, I have to judge the movie on its merits. Merits which, mind you, may be a bit fuzzy to me and my inner-bias.

Sorry, people. I’m only human, after all.

But as I was saying, Kill the Messenger is a pretty typical biopic; while it definitely tries to shy away from being by-the-notes, it hardly ever flies away from this convention and just tells its story like how it was presented to us. Which isn’t a bad thing, because if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it, and such is the case here. Webb’s story, as is, is an interesting one that doesn’t need to go through any interesting, yet shocking, twists to liven things up – all it needs to do is be told to us as it was, with every bit of information known about who he was and the controversy that surrounded a good portion of his life. Sort of like an article as is, but I won’t go on any further about that!

Anyway, director Michael Cuesta, while not necessarily the most flashy director in the world, doesn’t need to be so because the strength of the movie is in the real-life story itself. Of course with most of these biopics, there’s always the wonder of how much we are seeing presented on screen is actually how it happened, or how much is just made for the sake of making the movie entertaining, but for the most part, I couldn’t find any punches pulled by Cuesta. Even if there were any, they were so thinly-done, that it was hard for me to notice and hardly ever took me away from the real strength of this movie, which was the character of Gary Webb himself. But most of all, the actor portraying him: Jeremy Renner.

By now, within in the past five years of seeing the Hurt Locker, I think the world has come to realize that Jeremy Renner is a wonderful actor that’s more than capable of handling a movie on his own (for some of us, it may have been earlier, but you know, I’m talking about the mainstream audience here, you hipsters). So for him to be involved with a biopic such as this, it made me interested in seeing just how far he could go into making us see him as somebody, and not just him playing somebody. And honestly, it’s impressive how well-suited for this role Renner is; though we don’t know all that much about Webb, the real-life person, what we see from how Renner plays him, we get the idea that he was a sweet and lovable, yet also troubled, family man. Because Renner has such a charming screen-presence, there’s an idea that he gets along with practically anybody he’s around and doesn’t hold anything back when it comes to telling it like he sees it. Which is, once again, all thanks to Renner’s wonderful performance that may not get a lot of press, but definitely should, because it’s probably his strongest since the previously-mentioned Locker.

The guy who played Omar Little, as a drug-dealer? Really?

The guy who played Omar Little, as a drug-dealer? Didn’t see that coming!

But what Renner, as well as the movie, tells us about Webb is that he was a hard-worker, who stuck to his journalistic guns, even when it seemed like, for the well-being of everyone around him, he shouldn’t have. However, that’s what brings us to the main dilemma that the movie discusses: How far should a journalist go to pursue a story? Should they go in so deep that they practically abandon those who love and count on him/her for support? Or, should they create their story and jump off of it right before the story itself gets all sort of unwanted press?  This, to some, may seem like an obvious point made by many other movies concerning the world of journalism, but to me, a fellow journalist, is a problem I struggle with everyday. Not because I myself am throwing myself right into these highly controversial stories that could put my life on the line, but more because that could definitely happen some day. A person could easily read a story of mine that they don’t like and could decide to take matters into their own hands, which, I know, sounds barbaric, but crazier things have happened, people.

But enough about me, because while I found a way to connect to this movie with my own journalist-mind intact, I think the real wonder of this movie that makes it easy for almost anybody to appreciate is that it gives a glimpse into the life of a man not many people discuss or even know about much anymore. Webb, while seeming like a slightly troubled-fella, really did love his job, but most of all, loved discovering and unraveling the truth about those in power and all of the wrong-doings they were committed. Which is why it’s sad to see not just his family begin to bail on him once this story gets too hot, but also his publication that doesn’t want to be involved with a journalist who may, or may not be, good for their image.

It says something about journalism as a whole, but also says something about how this man, Gary Webb, truly did want people to know that he was telling the truth just about every step of the way. But that it only takes a few of those in power, to be angry, and make sure that whatever skeletons they have in their closet, stays put. It sucks, but it’s a reality and it was inspiring to see someone like Webb stand up for himself, even when it was the riskiest choice he could make.

Even if I was the only one who felt it.

Consensus: Kill the Messenger isn’t just a testament to the legend of Gary Webb and his journalistic pursuit to discovering the truth, but also to journalism as a whole, and presents plenty of strong questions, with hardly any answers. The way it’s supposed to be told.

8 / 10 = Matinee!!

Once he starts throwing pieces of the puzzle on the wall, we all know its downhill from there.

Once he starts throwing pieces of the puzzle on the wall, we all know its downhill from there.

Photo’s Credit to: Goggle Images