First Reformed

By: Kevin Jordan

The Thanksgiving conversation of the ages.

(Award season consideration has returned, so my mini-reviews are back as well.  Enjoy as I rapid-fire them at you through the end of the year.)

First Reformed is an ambitious film that attempts to take on multiple, major societal and political issues through the lens of a preacher.  Abortion, climate change, corruption, and religion are all crammed into an hour and fifty-three minutes as protestant preacher Father Toller (Ethan Hawke) is forced to confront those issues whilst coming to terms with his own mortality via a cancer diagnosis and the death of his son.  Unfortunately, the ambition proves too great when the film comes to an abrupt end with zero resolution to any questions asked throughout the film.  In fact, the last two minutes of the film will raise so many questions that you end up cursing every name scrolling by in the premature end-credits.  Without giving away too much, where the hell did the barbed wire come from and, huh?!  This is not like the end of Inception where you are left wondering if DiCaprio is still in a dream because the movie did a fantastic job of setting you up for that question.  This is a full-fledged “where the hell is the rest of the movie” or “no, seriously, that cannot be the end of the film.  There was no setup for that at all.”  Like last year’s It Comes at Night, First Reformed will leave you completely unsatisfied, including getting any insight into any of those major issues.

Rating: Ask for five dollars back or the fifteen minutes of film missing from the end.

I have a lot on my mind.

American Made

By: Kevin Jordan

This actually happened.

If the only thing you think of when you hear the word contra is up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-b-a-b-a-select-start, you’re not alone.  Even with as much history as I consume, I still haven’t jumped into the events of the late 1970s and early 1980s involving the Central and South American rebels and their U.S. backing.  But, I did know of them prior to watching American Made, which probably puts me ahead of most people.  Also, I never did beat that game in just three lives.

I’m not a big fan of Tom Cruise the human, but I am a big fan of Tom Cruise the actor.  I especially like him when he plays against type.  In other words, when he’s not sprinting somewhere or hiyaah-ing people.  In American Made, Cruise plays Barry Seal, and actual guy who flew covert missions for the CIA, including capturing photographs of enemy Junta camps and running guns to arm the contras.  I know that sounds exactly like Cruise’s typical characters.  Admittedly, I thought the same thing prior to this film because the only thing I knew about it was the movie poster, that Tom Cruise is in it, and that it’s billed as an action-comedy.  Just trust me or look at this actual photo of Barry Seal.

I mean, look at that guy.

Believe me now?  The actual story begins with TWA pilot Barry Seal.  Barry is bored of his job, smuggles Cuban cigars, and doesn’t have sex with his scorching-hot southern belle of a wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright).  One night, Barry is approached by Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleason), a CIA agent who blackmails and bribes Barry into working for him.  It starts with Barry taking the photos, but Barry is soon captured by Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Pablo Escobar (Mauicio Mejia), who would eventually come to be known as the leaders of the Medellin drug cartel.  They offer Barry a lot of money to smuggle drugs back to America for them and Barry’s only concern is how much cocaine he can carry in his CIA-gifted plane.

The film follows the same formula as movies like Gold and The Wolf of Wall Street.  The hero rises to the top, has piles of money and spends a lot of it, then crashes back down to Earth in spectacular fashion.  What makes this movie more fun than those two is that Barry is just a schlub in way over his head.  The lead characters in those other two movies are both conniving thieves trying to screw people out of their money, whereas Barry is just doing what people ask him to do because the money is really, really good.  Okay, Barry is not completely innocent.  He has a deal with the cartel to trade some of the guns to them for shipping cocaine back to the United States, and Barry gets a massive amount of money.  And he figures it is fine because many of the contras don’t really want to fight anyway, but they are still getting some of the guns.  Incidentally, those are not the same contras in the Nintendo game.  The Nintendo guys are dead serious.

It’s like Schafer is looking at toe jam.

Of all of the Tom Cruise movies I’ve seen, I’d argue that this is one of his top five performances.  Barry is a lovable schmuck that gets to play secret agent and live it up in a massive house in Arkansas with his wife and kids.  He doesn’t have to sprint anywhere or hold his breath for eight minutes or shoot a gun.  All he has to do is fly a plane, be a bit of a southern goofball, and sprinkle some trademark Cruise cockiness on top.  You will root for Barry, not just because Agent Schafer is an arrogant prick, or because drug lords are bad people, but because Barry is friends with those drug lords and is genuinely just trying to provide for his family.

Gleeson is also really good, delivering an agent who clearly looks down upon Barry and treats him little better than plastic eating utensils.  Schafer never grows a conscience and never does anything to defend Barry.  He doesn’t even try to get Barry more money when Barry asks for what is essentially hazard pay.  Then, there’s Lucy.  Wright isn’t given much to do, but she owns the little she has.  Lucy tries to have morals a couple of times, but succumbs to the riches as quickly as Barry.  But, she’ll defend her family to the death, even if it means giving up everything they’ve amassed from Barry’s adventures.

Giving new meaning to the phrase “riding high.”

American Made is neither an action film nor a comedy, but does contain a bit of both.  As I have said in past reviews, I love a good based-on-a-true-story history film, especially one that doesn’t tell me a story I already know.  This one keeps the story front and center by not overdoing the action and comedy, but using it in just the right places to enhance the tone the film.  It’s the kind of move that makes you want to read more about what actually happened and about the full scope of events referenced.  As much as I enjoy Mission: Impossible and every science fiction movie Tom Cruise does, American Made reminds us that Cruise isn’t just an adrenaline junky who must run everywhere he goes.  Now, if you’ll excuse…b-a-select-start.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and look at that picture of Seal again.  Seriously, that guy.


By: Kevin Jordan

Bloody hyperbole.

As I’ve said on multiple occasions, you probably aren’t going to find more of a Wolverine homer than yours truly.  I inexplicably told you to see X-Men Origins: Wolverine twice and gushed about The Wolverine without mentioning how kind of terrible the Sliver Samurai was portrayed (though I stand by The Wolverine being an excellent movie).  So, when I tell you the hype for Logan is definitely overblown, know that it comes from someone who would consider buying a life-sized Wolverine statue if he wasn’t married and never wanted to have sex again.

It’s not that it wasn’t a good movie – it was, but something didn’t sit right with me after the movie was over.  I’ve had almost two weeks to digest this movie since the screening and I’m still not sure what it is about the movie that left me a little disappointed.  Perusing through a couple of the early reviews that are out there isn’t helping either.  Those reviews read like your typical film snob reviews – praising the technical aspects and performances without mentioning even a word about the plot of the movie.  And you know my priorities – plot, plot, characters, plot, technical stuff (sometimes).  What good is making a technically proficient film if that film doesn’t tell an equally proficient story?

(As usual, in order to discuss this movie and my mild disappointment, I must give SPOILERS.  Also, nearly every review and soundbite for this movie talks about it being a fitting end for Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, so the end is kind of already spoiled.)

Logan picks up Logan’s (Jackman) story at least twenty years from now, which can only be twenty years from the end of Days of Future Past.  Logan is scraping by as a limo driver, living in an abandoned factory on the other side of the Mexican border.  With his friend Caliban (Stephen Merchant), a mutant who can sense and track other mutants, Logan is also caring for a partially senile Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), keeping him locked up in a fallen water tower to protect the world from Charles’ seizure-caused psychic blasts.  Logan’s goal in life now is to save up enough money to buy a boat and go live on the ocean with Charles where they can both die in peace.  Oh, and they are the last three mutants on Earth, no new mutants have been born in twenty years, and Logan’s healing powers are fading.  That’s seriously the setup for this movie and, yes, I have a lot of questions.

When you’re healing factor gets a large denominator.


What happened to the rest of the mutants, especially the X-Men?  It’s only been twenty years.

Why is Logan’s healing factor failing?  Isn’t that kind of a contradiction in terms?

Wouldn’t Deadpool still be alive?

Isn’t it a weird creative choice that one of three remaining mutants has the power to detect other mutants?  Also, how did he survive whatever killed every other mutant?

Am I thinking way too hard about a superhero movie?

The answer to that last question would only be yes if critics out there weren’t literally calling Logan an early best picture nominee (seriously – Mark Hughes of Forbes said exactly that).

The actual plot of this movie is that a corporation called Transigen is making test-tube mutants and are trying to recover a bunch of child experiments who escaped Transigen’s facility.  Young Laura Kinney (Dafne Keen), with the help of a Transigen nurse (Elizabeth Rodriguez), seek out Logan to help guide them to a safe haven in the Dakota area.   Always, the reluctant and angry hero, Logan rejects them at first, only to be threatened by Transigen’s lead henchman, Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook).  Seriously, Wolverine fights a guy named Donald.  Also, Donald has a Terminator hand (it literally looks like the one Miles Dyson kept in his vault at Cyberdyne in Terminator 2), as do many of his henchman.  When Laura, Logan, and the henchman (and Donald) collide, the hero’s journey kicks off as Laura, Logan, and Charles take off in Logan’s battered limo leaving a pile of bloody bodies behind them.

One of the themes this movie tries to explore is Logan relearning how to care about someone (Laura), except the movie goes out of its way to show us how much he already cares about Charles and Caliban, so it doesn’t really resonate in that way.  It’s really more like relearning why life is worth living, done by making Laura Logan’s “daughter.”  I use quotes because Laura was injected with Logan’s DNA and given the same adamantium treatment, though she has two claws per hand instead of three (and one per foot).  See what they did there?  Another theme is the aspect of loneliness, which goes along with that first theme and covers the idea of being the last mutants left on Earth.  The biggest problem with these themes is that the movie wants to have its cake and eat it too.  All the mutants are dead, except for all the mutants Transigen is creating.  Logan doesn’t care about other people except for the other people he cares about.  Logan has to learn to want live, but spends the entire movie explaining how he just wants to die.  Logan even has a special bullet to kill himself with even though he’s dying anyway.  Mmmmm….cake.

I love you man.

Speaking of dying, I spent the entire movie wondering what was wrong with Logan, which might explain why I had so many questions at the end of the film.  I really want to see this movie again to focus on what I might have missed because all I could think about was waiting for someone or something to explain why Wolverine’s healing factor was failing.  In what is the weakest part of the story, Transigen’s mutant experiment leader, Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), monologues for a while, including this throwaway line “I put something in the food and water to prevent the mutant gene from occurring.”  Well, that explains the no new mutant births, but doesn’t really explain existing mutant powers failing or why it doesn’t affect his new mutants.  I realize it can be explained away with more DNA words, but it’s very unsatisfying considering everyone would have had the same question on their brains as me prior to that reveal.  It’s also supremely unsatisfying that this movie recycled the Weapon X program storyline to justify a super-lethal ten-year old.

And this is before puberty.

Perhaps the worst part of the plot is who Logan has to fight (twice) to save the kids.  Take a guess.  Nope, try again.  Nope, you’re not even close.  He fights himself.  No, really, he fights a clone of himself.  All growed up and everything.  I told you, cake and stuff.  For whatever reason, Transigen decided to inject children with mutant DNA they collected even though they can literally clone those very same mutants.  Of course, Transigen also decided to train little Laura into a killing machine, but forgot to train the rest of the kids they imbued with powers.  This is painfully showcased in the climax when all of the kids suddenly forget they have powers and simply run away from the henchman.  Even Laura runs, who earlier in the film took out a dozen heavily armed henchman (pun intended) all by herself.  Now you can see why those other critics decided not to talk about the plot.

The good news is that the technical aspects do make the movie much better than its plot, including bumping the movie to an R-rating, which should have happened at least three movies ago.  Logan’s claws finally draw blood, we get to hear him utter actual curse words instead of Sesame Street curse words, and even Charles gets to let the expletives fly, which you know is what he was thinking every time Logan walked into the room during the entire franchise.  The decision to go with a grittier palate rather than a glossy polished look made the R-rated stuff feel organic rather than forced.  And, yes, the performances from Jackman, Stewart, and Keen were top notch, including some great new depth to characters we’ve spent nine movies with.  Oh – and did I mention the blood?  If you thought Deadpool was bloody, Logan matches it in spades, as well it should.

Like science fiction movies, I will always cut a Wolverine movie some slack.  I’m not sure that Logan is better than The Wolverine, but I’m sure it’s not worse.  And if this really is Hugh Jackman’s last turn as Wolverine, I will be sad because Jackman never disappointed, but this is a good movie to end his run on, even if it’s not even close to a best picture nominee.  Truth be told, it never needed to be because it’s freaking Wolverine.

Rating: Ask for a dollar back because a clone of Wolverine was a little too close to evil Deadpool in the Origins movie.