Made in America (1993)

Made in America, a film about surprising discoveries, manages one of its own. The first half plays like a manic comedy, something along the lines of star Whoopi Goldberg’s performances in Ghost and Sister Act, but the second half dials back the energy and settles into a thoughtful romance, one that takes advantage of Goldberg and Ted Danson’s considerable and real-life chemistry.

But it takes awhile to see that, and the first hour of the movie is wasted on establishing the lead characters as opposing stereotypes. Goldberg plays Sarah Matthews, the fiery owner of a black bookstore, The African Queen, and mother to Zora (Nia Long), a star science student. Danson’s character, Hal Jackson, has an equally loud personality but is a used car salesman with a penchant for cowboy get-ups and acrobatic sex partners. The two come together when Zora finds out, via a blood typing assignment, that Sarah’s deceased husband is not her father and that she was conceived via mystery sperm. After asking her friend Tea Cake (Will Smith) to help break into the sperm bank, she learns that her biological father is none other than Hal.

What follows is endless hysterics, granted much of it justified, from all three characters. Zora can’t get over her mother’s deception and the fact that she is half white, Sarah is aghast that her requested donor, an intelligent black man, ended up being a hee-haw showboat, and Hal doesn’t know how to handle the sudden intrusion of two black women into his life. The scandal is dominated by race and ensuing questions of identity, but any nuanced examination of this is overshadowed by a misguided attempt at physical comedy. This newfound reality creates its own fireworks, but the movie decides it needs to throw in a circus to draw out the humor. There are literally a bunch of circus animals parading around, all in the service of Hal’s daffy television ads, and I wish they’d traded the dancing elephant and monkey for some tamer conversation scenes.

It’s apparent how unnecessary this noisy clash of personalities is when the story finally quiets down, and that’s when the movie starts to do something special. Once Sarah and Hal shed their comic exteriors, you suddenly see two very real people inhabiting these roles, two deliberating adults trying to make sense of this confusion. It’s delightful watching Goldberg and Danson together. Rather than broad, showy gestures, they allow their relationship to reveal itself in details, like the way Sarah holds her gaze at Hal after a first date and the way he kisses her. It leaves you longing for more, both from the couple and from movie relationships in general.

Long contributes a great deal to this chemistry too. She gives Zora a tenacious spirit worthy of an MIT-bound student but also a vulnerability of a young woman who wants and needs her parents in her life. I also liked Smith’s performance, which didn’t carry as much emotional weight as the others but still proved to be inspired comic relief. It’s no wonder things worked out for the young star.

The strong cast allows you to make an investment with a good payoff in the end, but I can’t help but think about how this movie plays out in 2017, some twenty-five years after its release. The electricity and honesty of Goldberg and Danson’s middle-aged, interracial relationship is still a rarity, and as surprised as I was to see it in this time capsule of a film, I was reminded at how surprised I would be to see that portrayed in any movie today. There are other more questionable eyebrow-raising moments though. Despite Hal’s connection to Sarah, he is bold enough to use their brief and tenuous history to suggest taking certain liberties with her on their first night out. It’s presumptuous and offensive. A pair of elderly white ladies who visit Sarah’s shop also make an impression, though not a good one. In what’s supposed to be a jab at their ignorance on the history of white racism – they claim to have “had no idea we’d done so many awful things,” the humor and mockery doesn’t register. Instead, it amplifies the shocking sense of privilege that contributes to the racism we continue to experience.

Released: 1993
Prod: Arnon Milchan, Michael Douglas, Rick Bieber
Dir: Richard Benjamin
Writer: Marcia Brandwynne, Nadine Schiff, Holly Goldberg Sloan
Cast: Whoopi Goldberg, Ted Danson, Nia Long, Will Smith, Jennifer Tilly
Time: 111 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

That’s My Boy (2012)

The movie begins with an affair between a junior high math teacher (Eva Amurri Martino) and her student. They are discovered bonking at a school assembly, she gets pregnant and a thirty year prison sentence, and he cashes in on his fame as the kid who lived out “the ultimate teenage boy’s fantasy.”

It’s at this point you should really just stop and turn your attention towards something more cultivated, Planet Earth perhaps or Ken Burns’s The Civil War. Both are on Netflix but, as the streaming service recently announced, subscribers have spent half a billion hours watching Adam Sandler movies. That’s eleven zeroes. There are real problems in this world. Donald Trump is president. Why are we doing this to ourselves? I confess I’ve contributed to that total, though in an attempt to understand this part of the cultural zeitgeist. It’s an effort that evolved into ritual hate watching, and I haven’t been able to stop. But I may have to take my own advice and forgo future screenings, especially after latest this assault on my good senses.

By now I’ve lost track of which Sandler film is most offensive. Each one feels like a worthy titleholder. That’s My Kid makes a pretty good case for the top honor since it is premised on child abuse. Besides that, it just wades in juvenile muck. The “lucky” teen – he gets a hero’s welcome from friends and strangers alike – grows up to be a whiny-voiced Donny Berger (Sandler), a man with nothing to show for except a $43,000 tax bill and fifteen expired minutes of fame. In order to avoid jail time, he strikes up a deal with a tabloid TV producer who agrees to give Donny the money if he can finagle a reunion between him, his son, and his still-jailed lover (Susan Sarandon, Amurri Martino’s mother and veteran Motherlover).

Donny immediately sets off to find his lost offspring, Han Solo Berger (Andy Samberg), only to discover that he’s changed his name to Todd Peterson in order to shed any connection to his embarrassing past. The high flying hedge fund manager has also concocted a story about his parents’ death, making any reunion an awkward affair, like the one that happens when Donny crashes Todd’s wedding weekend. A crass, drunken father is the last thing Todd needs as he’s about to marry Jamie (Leighton Meester) and finally get a family of his own. But rather than reject this intruder, everyone from Todd’s boss (Tony Orlando) to his fiancée’s intense Marine brother (Milo Ventimiglia) embraces Donny’s vulgarity, much to Todd’s surprise since he still hasn’t been able to win many of them over.

The jokes, if we’re going to call them that, come at you rapid fire. It’s a good technique if you don’t trust your humor to make much of an impact. So the film tries to distract you by lobbing one bit of crazy after another, lest you pause and consider how lewd and unnecessary it all is. One running gag is Donny’s sexual attraction to the boss’s octogenarian mother. There’s also an extended bachelor party sequence that starts with some harassment at a spa, spills into a strip club that Donny frequents, continues with public urination and other hooligan behavior, and ends with Todd making love to Jamie’s dress. Some gags about the Asian help get thrown in too because why the hell not?

Buried beneath all of this is a story about a broken father and son. If you find room in your heart, you may find Donny’s overtures of reconciliation genuine and even touching. Of course you will also have to accept that his paternal instincts are all about toughening up his son into an alpha male and mocking Todd when he doesn’t live up to those expectations. I’m not buying any of it though, and as much as I like Samberg slightly goofy demeanor, Sandler’s shtick is just too overpowering.

Released: 2012
Prod: Adam Sandler, Allen Covert, Jack Giarraputo
Dir: Sean Anders
Writer: David Caspe
Cast: Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Leighton Meester, Vanilla Ice, Milo Ventimiglia, Peggy Stewart, Tony Orlando, Will Forte, Susan Sarandon, Eva Amurri Martino, Justin Weaver, Ciara, Luenell, James Caan, Rachel Dratch
Time: 114 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

Having never cracked open a Tom Clancy novel or seen any of the films featuring the titular hero, I watched this latest reincarnation with a willingness to embrace whatever Jack Ryan wanted to throw my way. And now that I’ve seen it and we’re a few years out, I only wish the Chris-Pine-as-Jack-Ryan tease would have lasted a little longer. A tight spy thriller that doesn’t try to outdo itself, Shadow Recruit keeps you on edge to the very end.

One reason is that our hero is not cut from the same cloth as steelier spies like James Bond or Jason Bourne or even Harrison Ford’s version of the same character. Instead, Pine sheds the bravado for a younger, untested Jack Ryan, a CIA analyst working undercover as a compliance officer on Wall Street to identify terrorist funding. His riskiest encounters happen during shadowy cinema screenings when he passes information to his handler. He is unprepared to step into the front lines of the spy world but is forced to after noticing suspicious activity on a major Russian account. Ryan goes to Moscow to investigate further but must improvise his first kill before he puts down his suitcase.

That he’s so out of his depth makes him an appealing and even reassuring lead character. Our screens are filled with so many cocky superheroes these days that Ryan’s fear and insecurity only emphasize his intelligence and humility. After he drowns his would-be assassin, Ryan fumbles his way through a call to his CIA contact and, while he’s waiting for the cleanup crew to arrive, surveys the scene with blanket shock. This isn’t what he signed up for, and in his uncertainty, you can easily see how the whole spy game might go south. But then again, this is also a guy who joined the Marines post-9/11, midway through his Ph.D at the London School of Economics. While recovering from severe injuries suffered during a helicopter explosion, in which he rescued two of his men, he rebuffs an initial offer to join the CIA because of moral objections (this being the Bush era). Pine, proving that he is equally skilled as the anti-Captain Kirk, creates a character who you trust will pull his shit together when it’s all on the line, even if Ryan has his own doubts.

This shot of realism pairs well with the Russian context, which might have seemed old hat just a few years ago. Ryan doesn’t just uncover financial dishonesty but a far more devastating plot to collapse markets and sow chaos for more terror attacks. There’s an eerie prescience to the storyline in this age of Trump. With persistent reports of Russian efforts to disrupt Western democracies, you could imagine a duplicitous Viktor Cheverin character (a delightfully cold Kenneth Branagh) lurking in the background. Though he leans towards parody – our introduction to him involves opera, drugs, and someone getting their head kicked in, Cheverin controls most of the assets in question and effectively draws the U.S. government into a daring two part chase. The first ends up being a game of cat and mouse that darts between the streets of Moscow, his glass bunker of an office, and a fancy restaurant across the way. The second is on American soil, right in the heart of Wall Street.

Grounding all this action is seasoned officer Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who recruits Ryan and then shadows him in Moscow. His ability to keep unflappably cool and maintain an even inside voice contrasts with his edgy protégé. Costner, ageless and dignified, disappears into the role like a good spy should. Meanwhile, Keira Knightley, playing Cathy, Ryan’s doctor/girlfriend, does quite the opposite. Though the relationship could benefit from more heat between the two actors, that doesn’t lessen her performance, and she really lights up when her character crashes into Moscow like a woman scorned. Cathy is just this side of a nagging stereotype and is saved by Knightley’s resolve and occasional glower. After Ryan again pleads with her to marry him, she looks at him like he’s been asking the wrong question this whole time.

Released: 2014
Prod: Mace Neufeld, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, David Barron, Mark Vahradian
Dir: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: Adam Cozad, David Koepp
Cast: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Len Kudrjawizki, Alec Utgoff, Elena Velikanova, Peter Andersson, Nonso Anozie, Gemma Chan
Time: 105 min
Lang: English, some Russian
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

White House Down (2013)

As we near Donald Trump’s first hundred days as the President of the United States, it’s safe to say that we are living in truly absurd political times. I figured the appropriate way to cope would be to watch an equally absurd politically themed movie, so here we are. As things sometimes turn out, this bombastic action thriller is marginally more sober-minded than whatever it is that we’re currently watching unravel in the nation’s capital. At least White House Down makes perfect sense within the Roland Emmerich world of apocalyptic shit shows, and there’s the satisfaction of knowing that not only do the good guys always win but the bad guys definitely get punished.

So, possibly helped by the times, I must recommend White House Down, the enjoyable political disaster movie starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx as the heroes our country desperately needs. One (Tatum) is in the mold of your traditional action star. A brusk loner with an authority problem, John Cale recognizes the sins of his past and just wants to do right by his girl, Emily (Joey King). She is his precocious middle school daughter, a walking encyclopedia of political history and current events, but is none too impressed with her estranged father. In part to earn back some daddy points, he hopes for a career upgrade from protection detail for House Speaker Eli Raphelson (Richard Jenkins) to Secret Service agent.

It’s on their way out from the interview that they crash a White House tour and meet the other man of the hour, President James Sawyer (Foxx), channeling his very best Barack Obama. Six months ago, a chill black president who’s a little too professorial and a little too much of a dove would be par for course, but now there’s something Twilight Zone about it. If only Obama really had gotten that third term, maybe we’d all be laughing now. In any case, Sawyer rebuffs Cale, not knowing that this man will save his life and his whole damn country by nightfall. That’s because a group of mercenaries, some with elite military training and a massive grudge, has infiltrated the Capitol Building and the White House, and they’ve got inside help. There is just so much treachery in Washington.

Director Emmerich guides the story along with the steady hand of one who has blown up presidential quarters before, which is useful since the White House proves to be a very big playground. The action isn’t always graceful and is too often reliant on unimpressive special effects and green screen, but the movie rushes along at a steady pace, zipping back and forth between considerable explosions, tight firefights, and actual fights. All of this is supported by a low-key chemistry between Tatum and Foxx that keeps the mood serious but only just so. Tatum has less rapport with Maggie Gyllenhaal, a former love interest and potential superior. They don’t share many scenes together, but it doesn’t matter because the appeal is Tatum shooting things whilst clad in a tiny tank top.

And to be sure, there is a lot of shooting going on here. Some people will be aghast at the carnage. I don’t mean the body count, which gets pretty high pretty quick, but the priceless artifacts that are used as target practice. The only person who senses the devastation is the droll tour guide (Nicolas Wright). In fairness though, this physical blowing up of the White House is preferable to the metaphorical one that is happening right now.

Released: 2013
Prod: Roland Emmerich, Bradley J. Fischer, Harald Kloser, James Vanderbilt, Larry Franco, Laeta Kalogridis
Dir: Roland Emmerich
Writer: James Vanderbilt
Cast: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, James Woods, Joey King, Nicolas Wright, Jimmi Simpson, Michael Murphy, Lance Reddick
Time: 131 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Take Me Home Tonight (2011)

Take Me Home Tonight is a weak excuse for an 80s throwback reunion film, two of the lazier genres out there. It’s a needless movie that probably wants to distinguish itself by capitalizing on the nostalgia craze but doesn’t and slips out of your mind as easily as it goes in. The action takes place on one night in the late 1980s as a group of former high school classmates gather for a giant house party, as twentysomethings do. Matt (Topher Grace), a recent graduate from MIT, is wasting away at his job at Suncoast Video – look that up on Wikipedia, kids. While he isn’t putting his expensive education to good use, he does get a chance to reconnect with his high school crush, Tori (Teresa Palmer). In order to impress her, he lies about working at Goldman Sachs, which gets him an invite to the party.

He doesn’t need one though because the host is his twin sister Wendy’s (Anna Faris) boyfriend, Kyle (Chris Pratt). Wendy is adjusting to post-college life a little better than her brother. She’s awaiting an offer to study at Cambridge but needs to work some things out with her goofball, partying boyfriend. He doesn’t even know where Cambridge is, so you can guess where this relationship is heading. Rounding out their crew is friend Barry (Dan Fogler), an unhappy car salesman who’s just been fired for his devil may care attitude.

The story touches on all the usual clichés about reconnecting with your past in order to figure out your present and future. Matt and Tori are hitting it off, but the deeper they get into his fantasy, and lie, the bigger the fallout promises to be. It’s a similar situation for Wendy when Kyle proposes to her after an already tedious night of playing co-host. You can be sure that these friends will sort out some important life decisions though. There’s a bruising run-in with the law that involves a stolen car, cocaine, and Matt’s police officer dad, and if that doesn’t help clarify things, then a climactic giant steel ball race that ends in a near drowning surely will.

None of this helps the movie stand out. Faris, as usual, grabs the spotlight by alternating between very funny and very vulnerable. Fogler also has some moments as the resident wild man. But the extras don’t do much, like the 80s theme, chosen for no other reason than to add some extra neon and use a song-as-movie-title gimmick. The story diverges slightly because it’s not a high school graduation blowout or a ten year reunion, but the post-college timing is a bit awkward for this kind of reflective comedy. It’s at once too removed from high school and not enough to relive petty rivalries and reevaluate friendships. The big issue seems to be Matt’s lack of seriousness when it comes to finding a job, to which I say, the kid just graduated from MIT; I think he’ll be alright.

Released: 2011
Prod: Ryan Kavanaugh, Jim Whitaker, Susan Bowen
Dir: Michael Dowse
Writer: Jackie Filgo, Jeff Filgo
Cast: Topher Grace, Anna Faris, Dan Fogler, Teresa Palmer, Chris Pratt, Michael Biehn, Lucy Punch, Michelle Trachtenberg, Demetri Martin, Michael Ian Black, Ginnifer Godwin, Bob Odenkirk
Time: 97 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017