American Made (Liman; 2017)

Doug Liman, the director of this latest Tom Cruise vehicle, has a fairly hit or miss career as a director to date.  The Bourne Identity is now a classic which revitalized and revolutionized the spy genre, Swingers is a cult comedy classic, and Edge of Tomorrow (also titled Live, Die, Repeat in one of the worst marketing blunders in film history) was one of the biggest surprises of 2014 and is destined to become something of a sci-fi classic in its own right.  He also brought us Go, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Jumper, and I’m betting the only reason you remember one of these movies is more for behind the scenes tabloid level drama than the film itself.  So, I wasn’t sure which Doug Liman we’d be getting as I went in to see American Made, I kept my expectations moderate, and leaving the theater I was pleasantly surprised having seen a film that I would rank up there amongst the films I just called classics – and while it’s going to take some more time and perspective to really classify American Made, my first impression and instinct is that I like it even more than two of those three great ones.

American Made is the Hollywoodized true story of Barry Seal, a TWA pilot recruited by the CIA to spy on the Soviet backed Nicaraguan Contras toward the tail end of the ’70s.  It’s the story of the beginning of the War on Drugs and its connection to the Iran-Contra scandals, but it’s the story told through the point of view of one of its lesser known central figures, which makes for an experience that’s both familiar and fresh at the same time.

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I probably shouldn’t have been so tepid in my expectations for American Made since it is pairing up Cruise and Liman for a second time, and Cruise has always shown he can give one hell of a great performance when paired up with a director who understands him, and Liman has already proven once before that he works really well with Cruise.  I won’t oversell Cruise’s performance here as one of the best of the year, but it is quintessential fun, charming Cruise.  Most of what Cruise gives us as Barry Seal is the manic charm that seems to take far more energy than a man in his 50’s seems capable of giving, but there is a nuanced vulnerability here, as well, that we see in many of Cruise’s best works. While he’s always go-go-go, we can also sense that Seal knows he is capable of making a bad decision despite his chutzpah and talent, and that bad decision which could ruin his life and his family is a nearly visible burden Cruise manages to subtly portray giving Seal a dimension which is all too often absent in your typical Tom Cruise action thriller.

The supporting cast also does a wonderful, if never quite spectacular, job bringing us a group of characters which are familiar enough to ground us but never dip into stereotype.  Domnhall Gleason as Schafer, Seal’s CIA recruiter, is definitely the shifty, never know exactly what he’s up to character we’ve come to expect from a middle-man secret agent type, but he also displays a lack of confidence in his own abilities that is incredibly rare in this same type of character making him a unique, memorable figure.  Sarah Wright as Lucy Seal, Barry’s wife, is also excellent truly embodying a family focused woman who loves her husband and children more than anything, hates what he’s doing, but is blinded by the money coming to the family so much she overlooks her own values and instincts.  She, in fact, is probably the most three dimensional and well acted character in the entire ensemble, and if I were to pick out a possible award winner to come out of this film, it would be her.

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The visuals of the film are excellent.  While I’m sure there is some CGI in the film, a scene in which two planes touch wings is one instance that comes to mind, it’s not at all obvious and it seems like what we are viewing is a combination of excellent cinematography combined with practical stunts and effects.  The cinematography really is excellent with its combination of gorgeous aerial shots and more practical yet still stylistic work when the action is grounded.  It’s nothing I would ever call truly artistic, but it most definitely has a style which meshes perfectly with its screenplay.

That screenplay is the most stand out element of American Made, a film which I obviously feel has quite a few stand out elements.  The tone and structure is one which reminds me a great deal of The Big Short from a few years back in that it educates its audience on a series of events that we are familiar with but may be lacking on details unless we are a scholar on the era and events, that education is not just on the history but also looks forward to how those events effect us today, and it does it all with a light, entertaining touch which makes the lesson oh-so-easy to take in that we don’t even realize we’re learning as much as we are until the film is over.  Combine that with the excellent character work mentioned earlier and snappy, witty dialogue, and you have the makings of a truly memorable bit of writing.

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Final verdict:  American Made is yet another highlight in a year filled with so many of them.  It’s an important film with not an ounce of pretentiousness.  It’s a film with true weight and depth, but with such a light touch there is nearly no effort on the part of the audience to take in its insight.  It’s a film which is equal parts comedy, thriller, biopic, crime film, spy movie, and true history, and it works on every single one of those levels.  There are not many audiences I would not recommend American Made to, though I have a feeling those with a kinder vision of the Reagan era than the movie portrays may be offended by some of what the movie has to say, but I will also say that as fantastic as the film is, I don’t think many, if any, would pick it as their favorite film of the year.  As odd as it sounds, the film may be perhaps too well made because it seems to lack the spark of humanity present in the greatest works of art.  Still, this is one hell of a well made film, and if the premise interests you in the least I’d have to think you will get a lot out of it.  It’s good enough that I think it will even thrill a great many who find nothing to grab them from the marketing campaign alone.

The Mummy (Kurtzman; 2017)

Everyone wants to get on that train to big money which Disney/Marvel Studios and DC/Warner Brothers are on by starting up their own cinematic universe.  The Mummy is Universal Studios attempt in which they bring out their classic era horror movie monsters such as Frankenstein’s Monster and The Invisible Man and, of course, The Mummy,  into the modern day with a series of films known as “The Dark Universe”.  Right out of the gate they are making the same mistake Warner Brothers made with their DC Comic Universe by starting in the middle of a story already well underway and expecting their audience to just run with it.  However, unlike DC the characters they are using are not so iconic and ingrained in our culture that they can get away with stumbling out of the gate based on the draw of the characters alone, and with The Mummy the Dark Universe may be doomed before it even begins.

The Mummy starts out in Iraq with Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson playing Nick Morton and Chris Vail respectively, both soldiers in the U.S. military who use the fact that ISIS is destroying monuments in the area as an excuse and a cover up for their own activities of stealing precious artifacts from sites in the area and selling these artifacts on the black market.  This unfortunately is everything there is to these two characters, they have no families we know of, no ambitions beyond selling artifacts, we don’t even know the branch of the military they are in nor their jobs within that branch.  This is true of every character in the film, they are merely a reason to be in the film attached to a good looking countenance and absolutely nothing more.  Russel Crowe’s Dr. Henry Jeckyll runs a mysterious organization and occasionally turns into a monster, we know nothing more about him nor his nor his organization’s history even though they have apparently amassed astounding numbers of trophies and pieces to study from a great many monsters over the unspecified amount of time they have been around.  Anabelle Wallis’ Jenny Halsey works for Dr. Jeckyll and likes Tom Cruise for some reason.  Sofia Boutella was an Egyptian Princess who got angry at her family and is now an evil mummy.  If you want to learn any more about any of these people, you’ll have to hope this universe continues and these characters are in future movies, because that is all you’ll learn about any of them here.

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The Mummy is billed as an action/horror, but it is definitely much, much more action than horror.  There are three major action set pieces in the movie along with quite a few minor ones, and this is where the movie excels.  While the action scenes are insanely over the top to the point that they shatter suspension of disbelief even in a film of this nature, they are still creative in their execution and reasonably well shot, though they do rely far too much on quick editing for my tastes.  The horror half of that equation is lacking, lacking to the point that I think the only reason it’s labelled as such is because there is a mummy in the film, and mummies are classic movie monsters.  Aside from that factoid the only thing even bordering on the horror genre is the mummy’s ultimate plans for Tom Cruise’s character, which I won’t go into detail on as doing so would spoil one of the few interesting parts of the story’s plot.

That plot manages to somehow be at once incredibly simplistic and confusingly convoluted at the same time.  The main story of the mummy wanting to destroy or remake the world, we’re not really sure what she’s trying to do, actually, is a really straightforward chase movie.  She threatens, the protagonists run, she follows then threatens again, repeat until end.  But, due to a lack of any motivation on the part of any of the characters and a world steeped in lore which we the audience have not been introduced to and know next to nothing about, the reason for this chase and reason for anyone beyond the three who initially find the mummy’s tomb getting involved is next to impossible to fathom.  How did Dr. Jeckyll start his shadowy monster hunting organization and how do they know all these things in the first place?  Why can this random military officer order Tom Cruise around and how do they know each other?  If the mummy has the power over life and death, why does she need to murder people with a knife and fight them hand to hand karate style?  None of this makes any sense.

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The movie does have some charms, and is even able to surprise you once in a while with its sense of humor.  While the characters make cardboard look layered, they do manage to milk them for all they are worth giving us humor which really works on a more than superficial level despite the fact that there is nothing more than superficial to them.  As I mentioned, the mummy’s plan is also interesting, even if it doesn’t make a whole lot sense, and the way they end the film makes for an intriguing enough situation that, while I won’t go so far as to say I want to see more of these films, I wish the rest of the movie could have been creative and engaging enough to live up to the premise set up in its climax.

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Final verdict:  The Mummy is not the worst movie of the year as its horrible Rotten Tomatoes score would suggest, but it’s certainly not good enough to recommend seeing.  It does have some quality humor and action, and it’s finale sets up interesting sequels, but everything else is so simultaneously rote and poorly thought out that these few good elements can not overcome The Mummy‘s myriad and overwhelming flaws.   This should be a lesson to other studios wanting to start a cinematic universe out there – think long and hard about whether it’s a good idea, because it probably isn’t, and even if you feel it is you can not rush the story to the “Avengers” stage within the first couple of movies.  Cinematic Universes need time to germinate and develop in the minds and hearts of their audiences, and rushing to the “fun part” is only going to end in failure.