THE MUMMY (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence, Action and Scary Images, and for some Suggestive Content and partial Nudity

Directed by: Alex Kurtzman

Written by: David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie & Dylan Kussman

Starring: Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Marwan Kenzari & Russell Crowe

To be perfectly honest, I consider 1932’s THE MUMMY to be the worst Universal Monster movie (right below the missed opportunity that was THE INVISIBLE MAN). More honesty, I love the 1999 Brendan Fraser reboot and even like THE MUMMY RETURNS. I was looking forward to Universal’s new reboot of THE MUMMY and appreciated they were sticking to a more action-oriented approach. However, 2017’s THE MUMMY is not so much its own movie as it is a prologue that lays groundwork for future films in Universal’s so-called Dark Universe (interconnected reboots of classic monsters). I’m sad to say that this new MUMMY isn’t much fun at all and easily ranks as the worst big screen outing I’ve had since 2015’s FANTASTIC FOUR.

In Iraq, thief/soldier Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and his bandit buddy Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) accidentally uncover a hidden tomb. Inside the underground burial site, there’s treasure, camel spiders and one mercury-covered sarcophagus. Much to the dismay of his archeologist love-interest Jennifer Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), Nick shoots a chain and awakens a cursed mummy. The mummy is Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) and she’s “chosen” Nick to be her future vessel for Egyptian god of violence Set. Jennifer and Nick desperately try to break the curse before it’s too late, all while Ahmanet raises rotting henchmen and tries to piece together a cursed dagger to bring about her evil plan. Also, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (Russell Crowe) pops up as a Nick Fury type character…for some reason.

One might hope that Tom Cruise’s sheer charisma might save THE MUMMY from being absolutely insufferable to sit through, but you’d be terribly mistaken. Cruise is playing his role on auto-pilot, lacking a single ounce of his usual action-hero swagger or one believable emotion. THE MUMMY is easily the worst film in Cruise’s rather good filmography. During many points, Cruise just seems to be trying to imitate Brendan Fraser’s character from the 1999 version and failing to understand why Fraser was so good in those movies. Every time Cruise attempts a bit of off-kilter humor or a one-liner, it hits with a dud and winds up being shockingly unfunny.

However, Cruise’s performance seems award-worthy when compared to costar Annabelle Wallis, who comes off like the discount version of Emily Blunt. She’s bland, wooden, and lacks any charm whatsoever, though she attempts to be funny at certain points too and even tries (and fails) to inject emotional stakes into the proceedings. Jake Johnson is annoying as Cruise’s partner, who pops up in a gimmick that’s ripped off from the decaying friend in AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Also, Russell Crowe is in this movie as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde…for some reason.

Finally, there’s Sofia Boutella as the titular monster herself. This actress was fantastic as the blade-legged baddie in KINGSMAN, so I was hoping she would deliver a cool villainess here. I was sadly mistaken because Princess Ahmanet can’t seem to do a damn thing for herself. She kisses people to death and has a lame final confrontation, but that’s about it. Her other scenes typically involve undead henchmen helping her, alongside poorly rendered CGI sand storms and occasional spiders/rats.

Speaking of which, THE MUMMY’s effects are piss poor to the point where they resemble something from 2004’s horrid VAN HELSING or a typical Syfy channel movie. The worst example of this comes in Mr. Hyde, who’s just a grayish cross-eyed CGI version of Russell Crowe. There’s also a monster in the film’s finale that’s cartoonishly awful and somehow Universal expects to re-incorporate this effect into their later Dark Universe installments. This all being said, I did have brief fun watching Cruise fight Ahmanet’s mummified henchmen in two scenes and that alone saves this movie from being a complete failure.

THE MUMMY’s biggest sin is that it’s barely a movie and plays more like a feature-length prologue for other movies in the Dark Universe line-up (the next being 2019’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN). That Dark Universe now seems highly unlikely, given that this film has underperformed at the box office and received negative responses from both critics and audiences alike. There was not a single gasp, cheer, scream, laugh or emotional response to be found from the audience I saw this film with. THE MUMMY is a dull piece of non-entertainment, in which story, scares, and fun all take a backseat to set up future installments in a series that probably won’t even happen. THE MUMMY is everything wrong with modern Hollywood because it treats the audience like idiots, recycles material without ever realizing what made it work in the first place, and hopes that viewers will be suckered into coming back for the next chapter in a cinematic universe. You should treat this film like an ancient Egyptian curse and avoid it!

Grade: D-

WAR MACHINE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: David Michod

Written by: David Michod

(based on the book THE OPERATORS by Michael Hastings)

Starring: Brad Pitt, Ben Kingsley, Anthony Hayes, Emory Cohen, RJ Cyler, Daniel Betts, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, John Magaro, Scoot McNairy, Will Poulter, Josh Stewart & Tilda Swinton

Based on the non-fiction book THE OPERATORS, WAR MACHINE is the true-ish story of a military general’s rise and fall. Anti-war films and satire have gone together before. We’ve seen this combination in various TWILIGHT ZONE episodes and Stanley Kubrick made possibly the ultimate anti-war comedy in DR. STRANGELOVE. WAR MACHINE seems to be aiming for a satirical target, but frequently forgets the laughs and also tries to play itself up as a serious-ish drama at points too. This leads to an uneven film that’s not good and not bad, but somewhere in-between.

The war in Afghanistan has raged on for years, so the USA has sent in General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) to bring the conflict to an end. Instead of simply toning things down and readying to withdraw the troops, McMahon takes the unwinnable “war on terror” as a challenge and vows to come out with a victory. His quest for greatness leads the ego-driven military man and his colorful soldiers on a publicity-filled journey to win the war. As you might imagine, things don’t exactly go according to plan…because, well, you probably saw on the “war on terror” ended?

WAR MACHINE’s best quality comes in Brad Pitt’s performance as the determined general. At times, the film seems to almost turn into a character study of sorts and Pitt’s Mahon serves as a fascinating subject. He’s not a bad guy, not at all. His intentions are good and he wants to end his career on the noblest note possible. He just doesn’t seem to understand that he’s been thrust into a hole and keeps digging himself deeper. In certain moments, Pitt gets some chuckles in his reactions to the less-experienced higher-ups’ decisions (like having to wait for not one, but two, elections before going into combat). Furthermore, moments between McMahon and his wife provide extra effort in humanizing this character. Pitt’s McMahon, based on real-life general Stanley McChrystal, is easily one of the film’s biggest highlights.

The supporting cast is noticeably weaker as A-list actors briefly pop in for cameo-like appearances, while other actors are wasted on one-note stereotypes. There’s the geeky hacker soldier, the guy with anger issues, the one who doesn’t do much of everything, and the press guy who tries to put a positive spin on everything. Out of these four so-so characters, the only real performance of note is Topher Grace as the press relations guy and he gets occasional chuckles. Scoot McNairy plays a substitute for real-life Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings, while Tilda Swinton receives one scene as an inquisitive German journalist. Ben Kingsley only has two brief scenes, the latter of which serves as one of the film’s more powerful moments as he reveals he knows his consent isn’t a big part of this war.

On a positive note, WAR MACHINE looks great. There was clearly a budget behind this project. Unfortunately, solid production values and a good leading performance can’t save the disjointed tone of the entire film. WAR MACHINE gets laughs early on, but then feels like it’s half-assing the comedic angle. As it tries to become more serious, it finds only a decent amount of success as a character study thanks to Pitt’s performances and a few good scenes showcasing the McMahon’s admirable qualities and weaknesses. The film falters when it comes to its most important aspect…being a war film. There are too many mixed bag moments before admittedly effective later scenes, so the final message feels disingenuous.

In watching WAR MACHINE’s tepid attempts at humor and not-quite-earned final message, I couldn’t help but wonder why David Michod didn’t just make a drama about a troubled general in the final days of the Afghanistan war. There are a few good laughs early on and great bits of drama that arrive in the second half, but the rest of the film feels confused and unsure of itself. Brad Pitt’s performance is a plus and I don’t consider WAR MACHINE to be a bad film at all. It’s just very messy and completely scattershot. It’s confused and unfocused, kind of like the “war on terror.” You can’t win a war against a concept and you can’t make a proper anti-war film without clear focus from the beginning. WAR MACHINE is just okay. If you need a two-hour time killer and like war movies (or Brad Pitt), this might do something for you.

Grade: C+

THE NICE GUYS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Sexuality, Nudity, Language and brief Drug Use

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Directed by: Shane Black

Written by: Shane Black & Anthony Bagarozzi

Starring: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Matt Bomer, Margaret Qualley, Murielle Telio, Keith David, Kim Basinger & Beau Knapp

If you only read the synopsis for THE NICE GUYS, it sounds like a dark crime-thriller. You’d be wrong in this assumption though, because this movie is written and directed by Shane Black. He’s the guy behind movies like LETHAL WEAPON, THE LAST BOY SCOUT and KISS KISS BANG BANG. In short, Shane Black seems to have a knack for making action clichés feel fresh, creating great characters, and incorporating lots of laughs into otherwise tense plots. THE NICE GUYS combines a neo-noir thriller and a buddy cop comedy into one hugely entertaining creation. Driven by a compelling mystery, riding on the shoulders of strong characters, and boosted by a 70’s atmosphere, THE NICE GUYS is a blast!

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Los Angeles, 1977. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is an enforcer, willing to beat anyone to a pulp…as long as he’s being paid to do so. Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is an inept private investigator, who isn’t above scamming his clients and getting drunk in the morning. Healy and March cross paths due to a strange girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley). What begins as a simple missing person case quickly escalates into a conspiracy connected to a porn star’s mysterious death and murderous criminals. Soon enough, Healy and March are working together, dodging bullets, screwing up, and trying their best to get to the bottom of a complicated, dangerous mystery.

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THE NICE GUYS masterfully balances two very different genres. The film’s mood frequently shifts between laugh-out-loud hilarious to tense thriller territory, but never once feels like a mess. This multi-genre tone may sound difficult to execute, but Shane Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi make it look easy. Lots of laughs come from the undeniably witty dialogue, but there are over-the-top visual jokes too (e.g. a cigarette smoking bee). These moments are utterly ridiculous, but never seem to distract from the danger at hand. When this story gets dark, it gets downright bleak. This screenplay packs in a lot of surprises and one twist left me stunned for a solid five minutes.

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Besides having an excellent script, THE NICE GUYS also showcases one of the best actor pairings in recent memory. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling have great chemistry and play off each other in ways that feel completely natural. Each brings their own sense of comedic timing to the mix, but both are able to balance seriousness in their characters. March is a bumbling jerk with a drinking problem, but has genuine goodness in him and cares deeply for his daughter. Crowe is a hardened guy trying to do the right thing, but occasionally does very bad things along the way. NICE GUYS doesn’t pretty up these characters’ flaws or make light of them, which makes the serious moments work and the many humorous moments even more amusing.

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THE NICE GUYS follows the structure of a buddy cop comedy, but purposely goes out of its way to not follow the typical conventions of that formula. On a side note, there’s something to be said for a film that includes a child sidekick and does so in a way that’s not annoying in the slightest. This character is Holly, March’s daughter, and is played to perfection by Angourie Rice. Holly is able to see the goodness in both of these men and doesn’t hesitate to point out their problems. As a result, teenage Rice manages to steal a few scenes away from Gosling and Crowe.

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There is one exception to the story’s mostly non-conventional nature and that comes with a bit of revealing exposition. A couple of obvious clues give away surprises before they’ve fully been revealed. Every audience member might not immediately catch onto to these telegraphed bits, but one scene seems a bit too heavy-handed in laying them out for the viewer. However, THE NICE GUYS more than makes up for this with some of the most unlikable villains that I’ve seen in a long time. I was rooting for these bad guys to get seriously hurt as tense confrontations played out and the movie doesn’t disappoint in bloodletting as the comeuppances are beyond satisfying in their over-the-top violence.

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The 70’s atmosphere and great soundtrack are merely icing on the cake. THE NICE GUYS juggles multiple genres, rides on well-developed characters, and is bound to get you laughing. It’s simultaneously hilarious and suspenseful, which are two words that you don’t often hear in describing one film. The chemistry between Gosling and Crowe is perfect! I sincerely hope that we get to spend even more time with them in a potential sequel. If you want a mystery that doesn’t skimp on the suspense and a comedy that will keep you laughing from start to finish, THE NICE GUYS lives up to its title in being nice…and then some!

Grade: A

AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Pervasive Drug Content and Language, Nudity and Sexuality

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Directed by: Ridley Scott

Written by: Steven Zaillian

(based on THE RETURN OF SUPERFLY by Mark Jacobson)

Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Lymari Nadal, KaDee Strickland, Ted Levine, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Clarence Williams III, T.I., Carla Gugino & Common

AMERICAN GANGSTER is a project that probably sounded brilliant on paper. This gangster epic was helmed by Ridley Scott, based on one of the most notorious African-American crime figures in US history, and sports a cast of A-list talent. The film even got a couple of Academy Award nominations (Art Direction and Supporting Actress) and was in a long production hell (at one point the project was scrapped entirely). Ambition set aside, AMERICAN GANGSTER plays very fast and loose with its fact-based source material. To be fair though, Frank Lucas seems to have embellish certain events on his own. AMERICAN GANGSTER is undeniably well shot and has good production values, but the script isn’t all that interesting and the running time feels long-winded (the director’s cut stretches almost 20 minutes longer too).

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The time is 1968 and the place is Harlem. Driver-turned-drug-dealer Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is doing his best to take over illegal operations left by his recently deceased mob boss. Meanwhile, detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) has made the difficult decision of turning in 1 million dollars of mob money, therefore making himself a pariah in the deeply corrupt police precinct. As Roberts engages in a fierce custody battle with his ex-wife, Frank Lucas begins running a hugely successful heroin racket (100% pure and from the jungles of Vietnam). These two men progress through their very different lives until fate sets their paths against one another…with bullets flying and a body count rising.

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I cannot fault AMERICAN GANGSTER on either of the performances from its two leads. As Lucas, Denzel Washington plays the gangster with a quiet dignity. He’s not simply a heartless monster, but also a family man who shares his wealth. However, the film doesn’t exactly glorify him as we see that he can shift from loving husband/caring son to cold-blooded killer in a matter of seconds. On the opposite side of the law is Russell Crowe as the honest cop with questionable morals at home. Even though he’s based on a real-life police officer, the character of Richie Roberts feels familiar and clichéd. We’ve seen this type of cop before in many other crime thrillers. I felt that Roberts was like a slightly toned down version of Popeye from THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

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As far as the supporting cast goes, the remaining big names are wasted in brief cameo-like roles. Ted Levine shows up as a bland fellow officer on Crowe’s special team. Cuba Gooding Jr. is wasted in the role of a rival drug dealer, while Chiwetel Ejiofor and Common fall by the wayside as two of Frank’s forgettable relatives/partners in crime. Idris Elba makes a good impression as a rival gangster, but doesn’t receive much of a role in the grand scheme of things. The only supporting performance that I feel was undeniably strong belongs to Josh Brolin as a greasy-haired corrupt cop who serves as an antagonist towards both Washington’s Lucas and Crowe’s Roberts. It makes me wish that a lot of the other side characters (and family drama) had been excised in order to give Brolin more scenes as a threat to both sides.

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Ridley Scott has proven himself in the past to be a stellar director, even when taking on less-than-stellar projects. The same goes for this disappointment, because AMERICAN GANGSTER looks great and wanted to be a huge gangster blockbuster. Though the film was successful at the box office and definitely has its fans, I felt it was very underwhelming. The script seems like a mishmash of gangster tropes and melodrama. While the gangster tropes are fun to watch (especially in the final 30 minutes), the family melodrama is a dreary slog to sit through. The aspirations to make this into a gangster movie with heart were noble, but the execution feels like a been-there, done-that experience. I watched the theatrical cut and found myself frequently bored when I should have been invested in both Crowe’s cop and Washington’s criminal. Instead, the film feels overly familiar and frequently dull.

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Though AMERICAN GANGSTER definitely has its moments and two strong performances (three, if you count Brolin’s ten minutes as a side character), it ultimately feels like a by-the-numbers disappointment. I am an avid fan of gangster movies and frequently seek them out, but I was constantly bored throughout the nearly three-hour-long running time in this fictional version of Frank Lucas’s story. The movie isn’t necessarily made better by both of its actual counterparts coming out against it as exploiting a real-life story as a melodramatic fluff. Two solid performances, a few good scenes, and solid production values aside, AMERICAN GANGSTER is kind of a snoozefest.

Grade: C

THE WATER DIVINER (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 51 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for War Violence including some Disturbing Images

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Directed by: Russell Crowe

Written by: Andrew Anastasios & Andrew Knight

(based on the novel THE WATER DIVINER by Andrew Anastasios & Meaghan Wilson-Anastasios)

Starring: Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, James Fraser, Yilmaz Erdogan, Jai Courtney, Cem Yilmaz, Ryan Corr, Jacqueline McKenzie & Isabel Lucas

THE WATER DIVINER, based on a novel of the same name, marks Russell Crowe’s first film where he’s pulling double duty. Aside from starring as the main character, Crowe also directs this magical realism tale with an iffy eye behind the camera. There were clearly good intentions in every part of WATER DIVINER and the story is interesting, but the actual execution of the material makes for a mixed bag of a movie.

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World War I has come to a close and Joshua Connor, an Australian father, has lost all three sons as a result. His boys were all killed on a single day in the battle of Gallipoli and their deaths have taken a toll on Connor household. After his wife commits suicide, Joshua sets out to recover his sons’ bodies from the battlefield in order to give them a home burial. Connor’s journey takes him to foreign lands where he’s not exactly a welcome visitor and begins to give him a new lease on life when he’s given a reason to hope again.

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WATER DIVINER is a good-looking film and well acted for the most part. Russell Crowe plays Connor quite well as a man who is bound and determined to bring his (deceased) family together again. Olga Kurylenko is great as a hotel owner in Istanbul who takes a reluctant shine to Connor. There’s nothing of poor quality in the performances given by the entire cast, nor in the beautiful locations where this film was shot. However, technical flaws in post-production stick out like a sore thumb. WATER DIVINER loves using slow motion to an unhealthy degree. The (many) scenes in which it is employed don’t really need it to hammer home the tragedy inherent in a post-war society either. The slow effect itself looks cheap too as if Russell Crowe unnaturally slowed down the frame rate in a shoddy video program. There’s not a huge need for special effects in this film, but one scene with unconvincing CGI fire was distracting. Finally, the music in this film ranges from inspiring to downright schmaltzy. The worst of these moments comes in a TWILIGHT-esque montage of two people having a dialogue-free conversation while obvious romantic music booms over the scene.

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The technical flaws are the worst part of WATER DIVINER as the rest of the film is, at the very least, interesting. The ways in which the movie captures the devastated emotions on both sides of the war are entirely sincere. There’s a sense of true loss throughout the film as many people seem to forget that World War I was just as horrific as World War II. The globe had never seen a conflict this large break out before and massive losses were taken everywhere. Pieces of dialogue and subdued performances really hit these points home. On the lighter side of the story, Crowe and Kurylenko have believable chemistry together and though their romance was predictable, I enjoyed watching it play out. There is a definite magical realism side to this film, but it seems largely ignored, except for when it makes for a convenient plot device.

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WATER DIVINER is a so-so film as a whole, but that’s not because of its script. The story may skimp out on its magical realism a bit too much, but the film was compelling enough to keep me interested. The technical side of things is where I had problems. Cinematography, performances, and locations are all solid, but the post-production values, special effects and an overly annoying soundtrack really put a damper on the film. I can definitely see people loving THE WATER DIVINER as well as those saying that it’s mere a ego-driven project for Crowe. I fall somewhere in between. The story wasn’t perfect, but problems of a first-time director (even for an actor as experienced as Crowe) are definitely evident. WATER DIVINER is a middle-of-the-road movie for me. Not bad, but not necessarily good either.

Grade: C

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