Tag: doug liman

American Made


American Made (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Executed with great style and energy by director Doug Liman, “American Made” becomes all the more baffling with each passing second as it tells the story of an airline pilot named Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) who is recruited by a CIA case officer (Domhnall Gleeson) to take pictures of enemy camps over South America. A quirky premise, one loosely based on a true story, quickly evolves into an entertaining dramatic thriller with both real stakes and enough nuanced comedic touches designed to release our astonishment only to build up again as increasingly tricky situations present themselves. It is for the curious viewer for the material demands the viewer to pay attention and have fun, too.

Cruise fits the role like a glove, banking in on his dependable charm to make the portrayal appear effortless or easy. But imagine a different performer in the role and realize that waking in Seal’s shoes is to traverse a minefield of traps; one wrong note is certain to disrupt the suspense of disbelief that the ace screenplay by Gary Spinelli establishes right from the get-go. While some may cite the fact that Cruise has played similar roles in the past, I argue that it is necessary to have such experiences because the role requires specificity, without leaning on well-worn clichés, in order to come across as believable.

I enjoyed that there is minimal character development. In a way, the story being told does not require it since it is meant to show a risky lifestyle or occupation, one that is not solely motivated by money or luxury but rather excitement and danger. Notice Seal’s reactions when he is about to get caught by authorities. The fear is there—but it is marginal. The realization that it is over and the growing disappointment inch toward the forefront. It is these moments that we get to see Seal not as a smuggler, or a husband, or a father but as a person with an addiction for thrill. Cruise delivers an intelligent performance.

The weakness of the picture, as colorful as it is, both in tone and how it looks, is its lack of willingness to dig more deeply in its supporting characters. For instance, Sarah Wright plays Seal’s wife who knows something is up, Jesse Plemons plays the observant sheriff in a small town in Arkansas, and Caleb Landry Jones plays Seal’s brother-in-law. As the picture goes on, it becomes apparent that any of these three could have done more with their potentially interesting characters. During dramatic moments, Wright appears to have the emotional range to go head-to-head against Cruise. Plemons can give half a suspicious look and it communicates paragraphs. And Jones is such a wildcard that a slight change in body language can turn into a threat. While the material is indeed Seal’s story, it could have been more intriguing had there been more detail regarding the people who surround him.

I found it fresh that at times the film dares to invoke the look and feeling of a music video—certain to alienate viewers who expect a more mainstream way to digest a biographical crime film. Instead, the filmmakers choose to embody the thrilling but dangerous lifestyle of the subject rather than forcing an elegant or restrained tone that is so common within the sub-genre. This gamble pays off because while the content is not especially memorable, its sense of style, its levity, has a good chance of lingering on the mind.

Swingers


Swingers (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mike’s girlfriend of six years broke up with him to be with another man. Being a good friend, Trent (Vince Vaughn), a smooth talker, tries his best to help Mike (Jon Favreau) keep his head up and move on from the split. Since Mike moved to Los Angeles from New York City just recently to pursue being a professional comedian, what better way to find inspiration and women than Las Vegas.

One might take a look at the title the film and assume the worst: a tacky, sex-crazed, mindless frat-boy comedy with neither depth nor ambition to incite genuine laughs that everyone can relate with. I certainly did. I was happy to have been proven wrong even before the opening credits.

Written by Jon Favreau, “Swingers” pays equal attention to the awkwardness of a good-hearted sad sap trying to jump back in the dating pool and the friends who give him the confidence to not be so hard and down on himself. There is a formula to the personalities of the people surrounding the protagonist but it is never apparent or distracting.

Rob (Ron Livingston) is the most sensitive, always having the time and patience to listen to Mike talk about pretty much the same thing each time they go out. Sue (Patrick Van Horn) is the most generous when it comes to sharing his thoughts, lacking a filter as well as the timing of someone used to being attuned to another’s feelings. And then there is Trent, commanding a balance between Sue’s macho act and Rob’s words of wisdom. It makes sense that Mike spends the most time with him.

The funniest scenes involve Mike and Trent getting into all sorts of increasingly embarrassing situations until we want to cringe and hide our faces in order to preserve the remaining dignity they have. The trip to Las Vegas is especially amusing. The duo are convinced somehow that if they entered a casino wearing suits, people who work there would notice and free goodies would be given to them. Though it is of no surprise to us that their plan backfires, their commitment is hilarious on top of their ceaseless effort to come off as high rollers. The comedy works because they do not recognize their situation as funny but everyone else around them—including us—do.

What surprised me most is the picture’s well-written screenplay. Instead of relying on one physical gag after another, there are plenty of instances when characters are allowed to talk. Somehow, there is an unfortunate Hollywood fabrication that guys do not like to talk about their feelings especially when it comes to their perceived inadequacies. This is an offensive assumption and I was impressed that the picture subverts this trend. Yes, young males like to drink, play video games, and hook-up but it does not mean that they are incapable making deep and lasting connections with their fellow male friends. There is a complexity here that is easy to take for granted because it all flows so well.

Directed by Doug Liman, “Swingers” is far from a run-of-the-mill buddy comedy. It has sensitivity and insight sandwiched between good times at parties and bars.

Edge of Tomorrow


Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★

Five years since the invasion of extraterrestrial beings called Mimics comes hope that these formidable creatures can be eradicated once and for all. To claim surefire victory, General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) spearheads Operation Downfall which involves troops being airdropped on a beach in France, closing out the west side of Europe as the Chinese and Russians do the same from the east.

Brigham assigns Major Cage (Tom Cruise) to be with the troops, as a symbol of support and as additional hand in the defining battle, but Cage insists that he is not at all combat-ready. He urges that he remains only as a spokesman for the United Defense Forces. The next day, Cage wakes up at Heathrow Airport, stripped off his title, while final preparations for the crucial attack are made.

Confident in execution and proudly wearing its inspirations on its sleeve, “Edge of Tomorrow,” based on the screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, is a rousing, funny, entertaining sci-fi action with enough brains and visual spectacles to satisfy a spectrum of audiences. Note, however, that it is neither the most thoughtful movie about mortality nor an allegory of facing the so-called Other, but it impresses on multiple facets, mainly on the level of a summer blockbuster flick—and that is not a backhanded compliment.

Cruise shows that he is a seasoned actor not because he does his own stunts and capable of delivering lines in a very intense way when absolutely necessary—although these are impressive on their own—but because he is aware that in order for his character come across as a believable protagonist, he must act as he if he were in a dramatic picture even though the genre is clearly science fiction. Notice the subtle transition of cowardly Cage to someone who commands a fiery will to protect a woman he has fallen in love with (Emily Blunt) and win against the alien invaders. Subtlety in acting is uncommon when it comes to movies that, in Roger Ebert’s immortal words, blow stuff up real good.

The plot is a mixture of the opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s excellent “Saving Private Ryan” and Harold Ramis’ highly amusing “Groundhog Day.” Cage gains the ability to reset the dreaded day over and over as long as he dies—by accident, by being killed, or by his own hand. He is a smart character and able to learn quickly from his mistakes. The drawback is that he is stubborn and he tends to lose track of the bigger picture when his love interest is involved. I enjoyed that the screenplay is aware that believable heroes have both internal and external flaws. Imperfections keep the audience watching.

Admittedly, the conceit of resetting the day began to wear me down eventually. Although I knew it was necessary to the plot and the story, I wished that the writers had found a way to change the rules of the game halfway through instead of pushing it until the final quarter. Yes, the picture changes gears eventually.

I wanted to know details about the invaders. For example, what do the aliens want from Earth exactly? We never learn for sure. There is one line of speculation during the first ten minutes of the film and the rest is thrown out the window. Are there many others out there with Cage’s ability? There is talk of the person with the reset ability being psychically linked to the aliens, but given that there are other humans out there with the same or similar ability, can they connect with each other’s thoughts?

Perhaps these are not questions I should be asking. But my point is this: It would not have hurt the film if it had been more ambitious. It gets the look exactly right, from the so-called strength-amplifying jackets that soldiers must wear to fight against Mimics to the bare ruins of once beautiful cities that tourists from all over the world once relished, but the scope of its universe feels very limited. Great science fiction films are unafraid to take risks and go beyond what the audience expects.

Directed by Doug Liman, “Edge of Tomorrow” is nonetheless a movie worth seeing because it is fun, energetic, visually striking, and has a sense of humor. One word of warning: If one goes into this looking for plot holes (it must be terrible being a cynic), one would likely see them and inevitably be disappointed. But if one goes into it just hoping to be entertained, one would likely get exactly what he or she wants. Sometimes that is more than enough.

Fair Game


Fair Game (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) was a covert CIA agent who worked in the Anti-Proliferation program where she and her team gathered secret intelligence concerning possible weapons of mass destruction. She was connected internationally and she gained people’s trust even though their lives were on the line. But when a man in the government leaked her identity to the papers, with impunity, all for the sake of shallow revenge involving the article her husband (Sean Penn) wrote aimed to criticize the Bush administration, Valerie and her family’s lives were turned upside down my the media, politicians, and the people they knew back when they still had valuable anonymity. Directed by Doug Liman, “Fair Game” was an effective thriller about an injustice in America and the unnecessary betrayal Valerie had to go through just because some men wanted to remind themselves that they still had power. The acting was top-notch. Watts did a tremendous job in making Valerie sympathetic but not so much that we ended up feeling sorry for her. Instead, she controlled her character in such a way that, if we were in her shoes, we would be outraged by what was done to us, especially when all we wanted was what was best for our country. She was a smart and strong woman, fully capable of thinking on her feet, in a thankless job where they could easily deny connection to you when things went sour. I was surprised that she didn’t receive more acknowledgement for her performance here. Much of the film’s strength was the complexity she injected into Valerie. The suppressed emotions were just as vivid as the expressed. Penn was also wonderful as the husband hell-bent on finding some sort of elusive justice. Although not always making the smartest choices in which his strategy was to appear in all sorts of interviews to gain exposure, his persistence was admirable. I loved the scenes between Penn and Watts as they evaluated their marriage amidst the chaos of revealed identities and realizing that what they had romantically might be beyond repair. What’s more impressive was the picture worked even if it was based entirely on fiction. It was exciting because we cared for Valerie and her family, the enemy was invisible and powerful, and it offered no easy answer except for the fact that revealing a CIA agent’s identity, while very active in the field where other lives depended on her, was a crime. I thought “Fair Game” was brave for showing its audiences the nastiness and ugliness that happens in America just so we would have the comfortable illusion of control or prosperity. We (or most of us anyway while others remain in denial) are all the wiser of the incompetency of the Bush administration, but it isn’t any less maddening when we are reminded of the fact that we allowed charlatans to rule our country for eight years.

The American


The American (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jack (George Clooney), an assassin whom his superior (Johan Leysen) considered to be losing his edge, took refuge in an Italian village after his last job had gone horribly awry. When Jack wasn’t gathering materials to create a weapon for a fellow contract killer (Thekla Reuten), he spent his time with a prostitute (Violante Placido) who wanted to get out of the countryside and a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) who sensed that Jack had something to hide. “The American,” directed by Anton Corbijn, was an atypical thriller about a hitman dealing with the prospect that his career was coming to an end. It was a great exercise in tone and mood. While I admit that I do agree, to an extent, with audiences’ critiques involving the pace being slow, I relished every second because once an action sequence was thrown on our laps, it was like we were paralyzed and there was nothing we could do but to stare at a bomb about to explode in under five seconds. I enjoyed the picture because it was surprisingly character-driven. Clooney did a wonderful job in balancing a character who wanted redemption because he suspected that perhaps the small village was his final destination. He wondered how lower-level assassins were able to find him even though he was convinced that he covered his tracks well. Did one of the people who he had a conversation with simply a disguise and he failed to noticed it? Paranoia started to seep through his mind. When he slept and heard a creak, grabbing a gun was an automatic response. He was like a machine or a weapon he so desperately wanted to perfect. Maybe he really was starting to lose it. On the other hand, even though deep inside he knew he wouldn’t be able to lead a normal life, he wanted to explore the possibility of settling down with a woman. She was warm, free-spirited, easy to form a smile–a complete opposite of himself; he was cunning, calculating, suspicious. The only time they seemed to be on the same page was when they shared a bed. But even then he had to pay for her services. As one scene switched tone from Jack’s personal to professional battles, Clooney would go from a nondescript man in a café to a predator whose one and only purpose was to catch his prey. In Doug Liman’s “The Bourne Identity,” my favorite scene was the silent duel between Matt Damon and Clive Owen in the yellow fields. All we could hear were rapid footsteps, bullets flying, our protagonist gasping for air, and the birds. “The American” captured that brilliance for the majority of its running time. However, it certainly isn’t for those without patience or audiences who are expecting adrenaline-fueled entertainment. I’m no assassin, but I think if they were to lead some sort of a life, it wouldn’t be far from Jack’s lifestyle.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith


Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★

Two very attractive assassins (Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt) decided to get married, unaware that the other worked for their agency’s rival. Five or six years into their marriage, they found out the truth and they were assigned to kill each other or else they would be the ones that would end up dead. I saw this movie back in 2005 but it was not at all what I remembered it to be. While it did have over-the-top and very in-your-face destructive action sequences, I did not expect it to have more than a handful of funny running jokes. Some of which included living in suburbia and adhering to its unstated rules, keeping their extracurricular activities a secret (or is their extracurricular activity their marriage?), the rut of being in a relationship where both are sick of trying to pretend to be normal and, most common of all, the increasing frustration on both parties when sex was taken out of the equation for quite some time. I thought the picture was at its peak in its first two-thirds when the characters were not aware of the truth and the decisions they had to face when finally found out each other’s true identities. It was painfully obvious that they weren’t going to kill each other (I thought it was hilarious that Jolie hit Pitt in the face multiple times but not vice-versa) but I had a good time picking sides regarding who would outsmart the other (I was on Jolie’s team). The two leads were very different and that’s the reason why the movie worked. Mr. Smith liked to have fun on the job and wasn’t afraid to detach from the plan and let his instincts take over. Mrs. Smith, on the hand, was very dedicated to sticking with the rules and was not willing to compromise both on and off the field. The last third was more or less a typical action picture where the protagonists tried to evade grenades, raining bullets and rocket launchers. I started to get bored but at least Pitt and Jolie looked good and it was obvious that they were having fun. As for the supporting actors like Vince Vaughn and Adam Brody, they did not bring much into the film but when they were on camera, it was a nice break from the deafening explosions and pots and pans hitting the floor. However, it would have been nice if there was some sort of twist involving those two. Written by Simon Kinberg and directed by Doug Liman, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is a very commercial action movie that everybody can watch and have a good time. With movies like this, it’s easy to try too hard and difficult to be effortless. Fortunately, with Pitt and Jolie’s charm and a great script, the film was effortless when it came to balancing action, comedy and sexiness.