Monday, January 08, 2018

The Bottom 5 Worst Films of 2017

1) BRIGHT – Despite having an otherwise banner year with noteworthy releases like Mudbound, Okja and Gerald’s Game, Netflix also barfed out its most revolting high profile creative disaster to date! Directed by notoriously problematic auteur David Ayer (Suicide Squad, Sabotage), this gritty Will Smith/Joel Edgerton fantasy cop clunker stumbles as badly as an orc at a tap dance recital. Both a boringly inept action picture and a deeply offensive commentary on race relations, Bright is two hours of drooling, knuckle-dragging bluster operating under the pathetic delusion it has relevant and thought-provoking things to say. If ever a title stood in stark, brutal contrast to the actual product, this is it!

2) TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT – Hard to believe it has been ten whole years since we first witnessed an Autobot pee on a dude. How far we’ve come, right? This fifth installment in the nonsensical Michael Bay series is pretty much more of the tedious same; another sadistically overlong and insipid orchestra of messy CG pandemonium, sputtering actors, juvenile gags and lecherous misogyny. While it’s debatable whether The Last Knight is the worst Transformers flick or not, it’s definitely the most lethargic and half-assed, lacking even the spark of madness that made its predecessors mildly amusing to ridicule. And if you can’t make Anthony Hopkins wielding a gun-cane while trading quips with his robot butler interesting, then why even bother?

3) THE MUMMY – Following in the clumsy footsteps of Amazing Spider-Man 2, 2017 saw Universal simultaneously launch its Dark Universe mega-franchise and kill it with a single bumbling blowout. An ill-conceived and cynical patchwork of spin-off set-ups and sequel bait, The Mummy never once gives any impression the studio cared if it was good or not. Starring a curiously miscast Tom Cruise in full vanity mode (multiple characters reference the 55-year-old’s youth and sexual stamina), Alex Kurtzman’s anonymously-helmed blockbuster bomb is about as ambitious as those musty, churned-out 1940s efforts where the title character just shuffles awkwardly around the studio backlot for 60 stretched-out minutes.

4) THE SNOWMAN – From the acclaimed filmmaker of Let the Right One In and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy came… this?! Famously declared unfinished during the press tour, Tomas Alfredson’s soggy serial killer whodunit would be forgettable if it wasn’t so fascinatingly incoherent. Plot threads are laboriously introduced and dragged out, only to be jettisoned unceremoniously, while great actors such as Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg and J.K. Simmons fail to elevate their energy level above drowsy. But, on the bright side, The Snowman did gift the world with a hero named Harry Hole, so there’s that!

5) THE BOOK OF HENRY – The most bewildering effort on this list, oft-criticized director Colin Trevorrow followed up his global smash Jurassic World with this smarmy confection about a child genius teaching his flighty mother how to pull off the perfect murder via hilariously detailed audiotapes. And if that synopsis sounds like an absurd joke, you better believe the movie isn’t in on it! Gratingly precocious and totally nuts, The Book of Henry belongs in the same special crap pile as legendarily bizarre Oscar-grab misfires Collateral Beauty and Seven Pounds.  


Thursday, January 04, 2018

The Top 10 Best Films of 2017

1) DUNKIRK While Hollywood awkwardly struggled against the growing threat of online streaming and increasingly stellar home video options in 2017, Christopher Nolan unleashed a towering testament to the unrivalled power of the theatrical experience. A marvel of historical recreation and state-of-the-art film-craft, this white-knuckle depiction of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation had zero close competition last year when it came to majestic blockbuster storytelling. More than its innumerable technical achievements, however, Dunkirk saw the consistently innovative writer/director casting off the pervasive near 20-year influence of Saving Private Ryan and reinventing the war movie from the ground up as an immersive POV-driven study in the cruel randomness of battle, where survival is often the only victory to strive for. A magnificent visual feast given restless pulse by Hans Zimmer’s driving ticking clock-score, Nolan’s latest was his most intensely focused attempt at channeling pure cinema yet, and his most astonishing high-wire act.

2) A GHOST STORY – Quiet and unassuming, David Lowery’s follow-up to 2016’s delightful Pete’s Dragon reimagining delicately lulls you into its tranquil, melancholy rhythms with such ease you can’t help but be unprepared for the tear-jerking emotional rollercoaster ride it ultimately takes you on. Told from the mute perspective of Casey Affleck’s wandering spirit as he grapples with grief (Rooney Mara, as our protagonist’s girlfriend, is heartbreaking), existence in limbo and the fleeting nature of time, A Ghost Story is a solemn contemplation that seems initially small but offers bountiful universal rewards to those willing to surrender to it. Profoundly intimate, the film conjures the poetic spirit of Terrence Malick and yet feels utterly original, imbuing its simple tale with shattering depth, intelligence and sensitivity.

3) THE FLORIDA PROJECT – If 2015’s scrappy, high-voltage attention-grabber Tangerine proved writer/director Sean Baker to be a talent worth watching, 2017 established him as one of the most exciting auteurs of his generation. Fascinated by those existing on the fringes of society, the helmer aims his unobtrusive viewfinder this time at the impoverished residents of a rundown Florida hotel as they go about their mundane and occasionally tragic daily lives. Employing a humbly noble Willem Dafoe and a cast of utterly convincing unknowns – Bria Vinaite, as a woefully ill-fit mom, is a genuine find – Baker expertly conveys the crushing realities of modern economic disparity and its generational ramifications with empathy and a documentarian’s insight, finding gentle humanity amidst depressing uncertainty.

4) WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES – Whereas most geek-property series unfold in a frenzied tornado of noisy fan speculation and anxiety, the modern Apes pictures feel liberated by their ability to just do their own brilliant thing in relative secret. Poignantly closing out the arc of Andy Serkis’s tragic protagonist Caesar, director and co-writer Matt Reeves crafted one of the most stunningly impactful and extraordinary entries in the franchise’s proud 50-year run. A bleak mythic meditation on the shattering effects of violence and hatred on the psyche, War for the Planet of the Apes was a timely feel-bad blockbuster that left you pondering its richly layered themes and ideas long after the bracing thrills of its superbly-rendered spectacle had calmed. 

5) THE LOST CITY OF Z – Beyond the classic man vs. nature epics of Werner Herzog, no movie has captured the agony and the ecstasy of jungle exploration as powerfully as James Gray’s captivating biopic of Col. Percival Fawcett. Starring Charlie Hunnam as the feverishly driven British surveyor, The Lost City of Z unfolds like a hypnotic dream as we follow our hero on his increasingly maddening journeys into the Amazon’s intoxicating emerald abyss in search of answers. A lush, foreboding depiction of natural wonder – cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven, Amour) delivers uncanny work – the film seduces us into sharing our hero’s unyielding passion for discovery while also hauntingly underscoring the punishing cost attached to it.

6) STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI – If 2015’s The Force Awakens drew criticisms for hewing a little too closely to the A New Hope playbook, Rian Johnson’s go-for-broke sequel unabashedly shattered preconceived notions in high, dizzying style. Boasting the requisite show-stopping space opera action fans have come to expect – including two staggering ship battle sequences that rank near the top of the franchise’s incredible pantheon – the quirky Brick and Looper writer/director expands George Lucas’s galaxy in unexpectedly audacious ways while also infusing his debut entry with heretofore unparalleled thematic heft. Joyfully nailing down the unique identity of this third Skywalker trilogy, The Last Jedi was surprising, moving, clever and endlessly exhilarating; essentially everything we hope a great Star Wars picture will be.

7) GET OUT – Arriving almost out of nowhere and blowing up into one of 2017’s most exciting and well-deserved box office dynamos, Jordan Peele’s provocative horror satire is an astonishing blast of razor-sharp social critique, big laughs and super-fun crowd-pleasing scares. Revelatory, smart and confident from beginning to end it feels like the work of a master at the height of his craft, not a first time director. In addition to being the best possible fright-fest for our all-too-ugly times, Get Out leaves no doubt it’s destined to be one day mentioned in the same reverential breath as enduring terror icons The Shining, Halloween, The Exorcist and, one of its primary influences, Rosemary’s Baby

8) LADY BIRD – Not content to just star in one of this decade’s best female coming of age comedies in 2012’s Frances Ha, Greta Gerwig also went and wrote and directed one last year that’s even better! A wry semi-autobiographical take on the helmer’s own angsty lower middle-class teenage years in Sacramento, Lady Bird is a breezily hilarious and perceptive glimpse into complicated mother-daughter dynamics and the restless frustration of being an artistic-minded youth desperate to break free and embrace life. There’s a wonderful undercurrent of authenticity and truth coursing through Gerwig’s low-key, thoughtful sophomore effort, given beautiful life by dueling powerhouse leads Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, and an endlessly endearing supporting cast.

9) THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI – Recovering from the messy overindulgences of 2012’s all-over-the-place Seven Psychopaths, acclaimed In Bruges writer/director Martin McDonagh once again sharply channels the acidic cynicism and foul-mouthed wit that made him so electrifying in the first place. A blackly comedic portrait of grief and anger taken to its most uncomfortable and destructive extremes, Three Billboards slyly sidesteps expectations and clichés with crafty aplomb, forcing the audience to constantly reconsider the messy morality of its complex characters from scene to shocking scene. Drawing beyond sensational performances from Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson, McDonagh’s polarizing come-back is equal parts offensive and compelling; a crude and wicked little gem that burrows into your head and sticks there.

10) BLADE RUNNER 2049 – The only thing more awesome than the overwhelming artistic pleasures of Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s watershed 1982 classic is the fact it even exists at all. Given a massive bankroll and pretty much unlimited creative space to unleash his wildest ambitions, the apparently unstoppable Canadian director transformed a no-win scenario into an utterly transfixing and thought-provoking triumph of big idea science-fiction. Matching up Ryan Gosling’s troubled replicant with Harrison Ford’s world-weary icon, Blade Runner 2049 honors the massive achievements of the past while also boldly opening up new doors of future-noir intrigue and jaw-dropping motion picture splendor on the very grandest of scales.


Monday, June 26, 2017


Since its inception in 1968 Fox’s Planet of the Apes franchise, based on Pierre Boulle’s novel, has represented the best in mainstream science fiction cinema, projecting engrossing, smart allegories against a broadly fun and thrilling backdrop. Eerily tapping into the zeitgeist of the day almost every time out, these pictures have become an unlikely success story; a reliable earner that consistently deprives viewers of happy endings or easy answers. This proud tradition evolved beautifully over the past few years with Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Matt Reeves’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which married the series’ bleak and daring integrity with state-of-the-art WETA wizardry to awesome results. And, in the latter film’s crushing ending, the ground was laid for an unforgettable conclusion to the arc of Andy Serkis’ chimpanzee revolutionary Caesar.

It’s beyond satisfying to report trilogy capper War for the Planet of the Apes is a towering achievement; a haunting and challenging final chapter that’s as impressive as its predecessors. Easily the most despairing entry yet, it’s something of a miracle it even exists in an age of obsessive market-testing. But, under the confident watch of remarkable director Matt Reeves (who also shares scripting duties with Mark Bomback), the descent into misery is earned and thematically appropriate, propelled by the wounded souls of the characters, not mean-spirted nihilistic manipulation. A self-professed student of Hitchcock, he implicitly understands the importance of subjectivity and offers each crucial participant an opportunity to express their own invaluable point-of-view.

What Reeves has fashioned with his second Apes picture is an honest examination of war. He has little interest in cranking out splashy, sensationalized action spectacle devoid of consequences. No, instead he’s fascinated in exploring the dehumanizing effects and psychological cost of battle. Much like in 2014’s Dawn, the grandly conceived mayhem is ugly and unpleasant, committed by desperate men weakened by fear. This approach to the violence is the correct one. It intensifies our sympathetic bond with tormented protagonist Caesar, whose yearnings for peace and community mirror our own.

War kicks off in bravura style, with a tension-soaked, largely dialogue-free sequence wherein a small militia force attacks an ape encampment in the deep forest. This conflict, which results in untold casualties, ultimately draws Caeser back out of the shadows. Despite proposing an honorable ceasefire, his dreams are unspeakably shattered when the ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson, appropriately Kurtz-ian) leads a stealth assault unit right into the heart of his hidden home fortress. Racked with fury, and still harboring guilt from killing former friend Koba (Toby Kebbell), our hero, along with loyal lieutenants Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary) and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), embark on a quest for vengeance against their deranged enemy. However, the mission proves far more fraught with complication than anticipated, as staggering revelations regarding the world, and the apes’ place in it, come to nightmarish light.

All too often creative fatigue sets in by the third franchise instalment. Not the case here! Continuing to expand the Apes universe in bold directions, Reeves early on employs a basic road trip structure as a means of introducing fascinating new characters and concepts. Most compelling, and likely crowd-pleasing, among War’s additions is Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape, a meagre, Gollum-like figure who has long survived as a lowly scavenger. Supplying the film’s only real comedy relief, there’s nonetheless a tangible sense of melancholy to his goofiness; the wacky eccentricities born primarily from past pain and isolation. He offers a fresh perspective on the long-raging struggle, as does a young mute girl (Amiah Miller) fatefully brought into Caesar’s circle. She adds unexpected poignancy and grace to some of the movie’s most seemingly hopeless moments.

These two forces of warmth and decency are balanced out by the problematic Rex (Ty Olsson), the fearsome gorilla who leads the Colonel’s Donkey division - a platoon of human-collaborating apes who’ve accepted slavery in exchange for self-preservation. Reeves’ and Bomback’s screenplay smartly uses this tragic villain (a welcome follow-up to Dawn’s Koba), and his self-loathing simian allies, as a means of blurring the battle-lines and deepening the film’s remarkable moral complexities. By fleshing out his internal struggles, and those of the fallible members of Caeser’s own army, the picture paints a sadly relevant portrait of the corrupting power of terror.

In Caesar, these modern Apes tales have fashioned one of the most captivating blockbuster protagonists in recent memory. While savior figures often come across as impenetrable and difficult to relate to (especially when presented, as here, with heavy biblical overtones), his tormented, doubt-filled journey has proven consistently compelling. In War we see him in his rawest state yet, nearly broken by the burden of leadership and unsure of both himself and the future of his species. There’s frankly no better word to describe Serkis’ performance than magnificent. Despite acting through layers of incredible technology he once again imbues his masterpiece creation with stunning emotional sophistication and touching compassion. His noble chimp visionary - far and away the franchise’s greatest protagonist (sorry Chuck!) - faces insurmountable hardships and stumbles, and we’re right there with him for every grueling, uneasy step.

What a wonderful unexpected gift this new series has proven to be. To see a studio plunge ungodly resources into rebooting such a strange, downbeat property, and then show a steadfast commitment to artistry, innovation and well-crafted storytelling over easy money, is such a stunning rarity it warrants respectful appreciation. And it is undeniably exhilarating to see their hard work pay off! The commanding War triumphantly solidifies the Caesar saga’s rightful place, alongside the Lord of the Rings and Dark Knight pictures, as the one of the very finest contemporary epic trilogies. “Apes together strong,” indeed.

4.5 out of 5

Saturday, June 24, 2017


Although it may not be immediately obvious, 2017 marks a significant milestone for the world of cinema. No, not the 40th anniversary of Star Wars, silly! This year commemorates one glorious decade of Michael Bay Transformers movies! A historic era, if ever there was one, defined by its maker’s steadfast determination to project crude racial caricatures, slobbering misogyny, blatant product placement and brain-scraping, assaultive chaos in front of the eyes of children of all ages. Let us all make a solemn plea to the higher powers that future generations not hold this franchise’s four billion dollar worldwide earnings against us. For we will have no answers, only silence. And shame.

The fifth entry, Transformers: The Last Knight is exactly what one might expect if they’ve waded through the previous four. Whereas the Pirates of the Caribbean series, for example, has degraded over time, these unstoppable things haven’t suffered any real franchise fatigue. They’re still the same stupid, incoherent expressions of gleeful adolescent rage the original was when it wowed audiences in 2007. The mythology has gotten exponentially more labyrinthine (if that’s possible), but you can still watch any single film and be able to tell others you’ve seen them all. Sure, this one tosses Arthurian legends - passed off as legitimate history – into the mix. However it’s just dopey window-dressing to gussy up the typical screeching, ugly visual overload that makes up the majority of the run-time.

The Last Knight probably isn’t the worst Transformers picture, but it is the least tolerable to endure (so far... *Gulp*). The sheer idiocy, political incorrectness and nihilism of these movies used to at least spark outrage or bewilderment. No longer. There is zero emotional response to be mined from this film’s 149-minutes. It is the epitome of anti-art, furiously bombarding you with relentless over-stimulation (the spectacle is consistently frantic, while the actors have three speeds: solemn, sputtering and psychotic) until its time is up and you’re free to listlessly remove yourself from the theatre, bored, blank-faced and pondering what to have for dinner.

A pretty lame result, given modest early hopes this one would take a slightly different tact. The Last Knight is the first project to emerge from Paramount's recently assembled franchise brain-trust, which was created in order to expand the brand in fresh and exciting ways (screenwriting pox Ehren Kruger, whose fever dreams fuelled the last three, is MIA here). Alas, new additions Art Marcum & Matt Holloway (Iron Man) and Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down) – with assistance from wildly inconsistent veteran Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, Batman & Robin) – have churned out a clunker that feels almost entirely indistinguishable from that which came before. Money well spent, guys!

Rewriting the origin of the gigantic robots’ arrival on Earth for the umpteenth time, The Last Knight opens in the Dark Ages (the inspiration for Bay’s race and gender politics, hey-o!), where Merlin (Stanley Tucci, the brief bright spot) receives a Cybertronian wand that clinches victory for the overwhelmed Britons. Smash cut to a decimated modern day Chicago: the U.S. government, in an effort to rid the globe of the walking extraterrestrial junkyards, has assembled a deadly mechanized strike time that controls the streets with brutal force. With potential savior Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) gone on an extended trip back home to kill his Borg Queen-like creator Quintessa (Gemma Chan), the city has devolved into carnage, leaving Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), 14-year-old Izabella (Isabela Moner), and their massive clanging allies, alone to rise up against the unjust crusade.

Aggravated by their destructive rebellion, America makes a desperate bargain with the evil Megatron (Frank Welker) to help exterminate the Autobot threat. It’s all a ruse, clearly, as the gravel-voiced baddie actually seeks to usher in doomsday for humanity. Eccentric academic Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) is on to him, and recruits Yeager and brilliant historian Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock) to recover Merlin’s long lost weapon, which can thwart the apocalyptic Decepticon menace lurking within our planet’s core. As our heroes valiantly strive to outrace their deadly pursuers to the prize, Optimus struggles under the corruptive influence of his seductive deity’s hypnotic spell.

If any of the above plot details sound at all comprehensible, rest assured such is not the case when channeled through the mad, amped-up sensibilities of Michael Bay. The director – who delivered a decent movie last year with 13 Hours - again chooses crazed, explosion-y style over substance, letting his simple chase plot carelessly devolve into a confused jumble of overwrought exposition (John Turturro shows up to literally phone in jibberish) that grows more and more puzzling until you give up trying to connect the dots all together. Multiple characters (including Moner and Jerrod Carmichael as Cade's nervous sidekick) are exhaustively introduced and then forgotten, and rampant unfunny comic riffing and extended sequences of grotesque CG bedlam cause the momentum to lurch and stagger. No joke, about 45 minutes could have been cut without harm (preferably all scenes involving Burton’s obnoxious split-personality robot butler, played by Jim Carter).

You kinda have to admire Bay though. While Terrence Malick works with comparative shoestring budgets, Bay, the manic auteur, has ungodly resources to throw around in service of exploring his own inimitable obsessions and fantasies. Rarely in big budget moviemaking has an artist been laid as bare as he is in these films, boldly inviting us into his own hyperkinetic psyche where crass sensation trumps sense or accepted morality. It’s a genuinely strange place: affection is articulated through hostility, science is dumb, violence solves all, ethnic stereotypes dictate behavior and women are fetishized and resented for it (at one point Cade sneers at Vivian for wearing a “stripper dress” as the camera creepily lingers on her). Maybe this why he keeps coming back to the franchise; they’re insanely lucrative therapy sessions.
Either way, The Last Knight leaves one with a definitive feeling that enough is enough. In an age where Marvel, LucasFilm, Pixar and so many others are producing rousing family-friendly blockbusters filled with wit, fun and technical daring these repetitive cookie-cutter Transformers flicks – which can’t even be bothered bringing the title characters off the flipping sidelines – don’t cut it no matter how many expensive 1s and 0s noisily bounce around the frame. Ten years without a glimmer of maturation is a really damning sign it’s time to grow up already and move on.

1 out of 5

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Film Review - THE MUMMY

Universal’s The Mummy is a dried out, moldy husk of creative bankruptcy that symbolizes the very worst in modern blockbuster moviemaking. Lazily pilfering the graves of the studio’s famous horror icons in a sweat-stained attempt to conjure up a quickie shared mega-franchise in the Marvel template, the film offers zero artistry or ambition. Instead it’s aggravatingly smug in its self-satisfaction, a feature-length Dark Universe series prologue that dimly assumes audiences will hunger for more after being fed two hours of filler. This isn’t so much putting the cart before the horse as it is strapping the bewildered animal to a teetering pile of wood, metal and nails.   

The studio has been eager to relaunch its famous monsters line for a long time. However, it appears the box-office failures of 2004’s Van Helsing (Bad!), 2010’s The Wolfman (Good!) and 2014’s Dracula Untold (Bad!) have left them baffled as to how to proceed. The original classic films, which ran from 1930 to 1956, weren’t exactly high octane fare. Rather, they were strange creature showcases, heavy on ominous German Expressionist atmosphere and dread, that allowed some of the industry’s most stylish off-beat visionaries – such as Tod Browning (Dracula), James Whale (the first two Frankensteins, Invisible Man) and Karl Freund (The Mummy) - to work their eerie magic. The devil with source material fidelity though, moody horror rarely yields boffo franchise dollars anymore! Superheroes on the other hand...

Thus, this iteration of The Mummy isn’t interested in being a spooky blast, or crafting colorful characters, so much as ham-fistedly foreshadowing future Avengers-esque crossovers. Similar to 2016 debacles Independence Day: Resurgence and Warcraft, what we have here is a textbook case of Phantom Sequel Syndrome, wherein payoff is almost entirely dependent on follow-ups which may or may not ever happen. It’s a terrible approach to producing entertainment and buries this otherwise wholly mediocre genre clunker under an unnecessary ton of embarrassing baggage. It inspires wistful nostalgia for Brendan Fraser’s bombastic adventures among the undead.

If one were feeling charitable, credit is at least due to this Mummy for trying something new in attempting a female take on the archetypal antagonist. Named Ahmanet (the invaluable Sofia Boutella), she’s a vengeful Egyptian princess with designs on reawakening Set, the god of death (note: in actuality the god of desert, storms and violence, but whatever), who will help her conquer the land. Exhumed in Iraq by opportunistic treasure hunter/U.S. military man Nick Morton (Tom Cruise, doing what he can to enliven Underworld-grade material), she hitches a ride to London with designs on recovering the lost piece of a ceremonial dagger long buried beneath the city in a Crusader Knight’s grave. While Nick and his archaeologist love interest Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) fight to stay one step ahead of their vengeful soul-sucking enemy, the mysterious Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe, in hammy Man with the Iron Fists check-cashing mode) lurks behind the curtain with a grander game in mind.

It is peculiar how needlessly convoluted and confusing The Mummy is given the fact the general premise is ridiculously simple. Cobbled together by six credited writers, including director/producer Alex Kurtzman and heavy-hitters David Koepp (Jurassic Park) and Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), the picture screams ‘committee-made.’ Showing little faith for the intelligence of its viewers, the screenplay shoehorns in constant creaky exposition – often repeating information learned mere moments ago – and, in both Jekyll and Jack Johnston’s comic sidekick, establishes two different spokesmen to tirelessly spew it. The dopey narrative technique proves futile, though, as the film never nails down its increasingly stupid mythology, or provides coherence to the dreary procession of awkward action sequences and plot beats inelegantly smashed together in the editing room. Perhaps the raging sandstorm of nonsense would be less tedious with engaging heroes and villains to latch onto. Alas, they’re all generic types whose alleged personalities are spoken of but never glimpsed.   

Alex Kurtzman was a disastrous choice to oversee this ramshackle product. A Hollywood mega-producer, and writer of tent-poles both fantastic (Star Trek, Mission: Impossible III) and execrable (Transformers 1 & 2, Amazing Spider-Man 2), he arrives with only one directorial effort under his belt in the completely forgotten 2012 dramedy People Like Us. For a franchise steeped in a rich history of fantastic uncanny imagery he’s a barely competent journeyman lacking the required panache to deliver effective scares or satisfying action. There’s nary a single shot in The Mummy that lingers in the imagination (it frequently looks inexplicably cheap), and even the much-ballyhooed zero-G plane crash scene only leaves you pondering how much cooler it might have been with a skilled eye behind the camera. Although it’s tempting to cut Kurtzman the helmer some slack and assume his work was compromised by relentless corporate interests, it’s impossible to neglect the sad truth that Kurtzman the producer was essential in forging this shaky blueprint, and already bungled the same crass business strategy with the second Andrew Garfield Spidey flick.
How many times must Hollywood learn that an audience’s loyalty isn’t won on vague promises of future rewards alone? By sloppily serving the interests of too many masters, The Mummy fails on every conceivable level. It’s not fun, rousing or creepy, and easily the weakest and most unappealing variation on the ancient formula to date. Yes, even more so than Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. It’s undeniably pathetic the first chapter of the Dark Universe franchise can’t even make a convincing argument against tossing the boring old book back on the shelf.

1out of 5

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Film Review - WONDER WOMAN

The last 15-plus years must have felt like a cruel joke for die-hard Wonder Woman fans. Since X-Men and Spider-Man launched the superhero craze, a steady parade of male icons have headlined their own showcase vehicles as comic-dom’s definitive heroine sat dormant, ignored in favor of low wattage players like Ant-Man, Hellboy and Jonah Hex. Victim to the dumb belief audiences weren’t interested in female-fronted adaptations – thanks to reasonable public indifference to low-rent crapfests Catwoman and Elektra - the Amazonian crusader finally arrived last year with a brief-but-buzzworthy turn in the dire Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Given the DC Extended Universe’s lousy track record though, the potential for a good solo movie seemed highly dubious.
Let it be said firstly that Diana Prince’s first cinematic spotlight adventure, directed by celebrated Monster helmer Patty Jenkins, winningly honors the icon herself, who first exploded from the pages of 1941’s All Star Comics #8, even if the picture as a whole doesn’t deliver the desired punch. It’s a frustrating effort that gets so much right it becomes extra aggravating when it makes the same unfortunate stumbles - albeit to a less crippling degree - DC Films’ previous efforts have made. For a character brimming with confidence and bold individuality, why, oh why, couldn’t her movie follow suit?

Similar to 2013’s Man of Steel, Wonder Woman also dazzles from the get-go with an astonishingly well-crafted opening section depicting our lead’s origins in a grand far away land. Instead of a Kryptonian spacey prog-rock utopia, in this case it’s the lush and beautiful mystical island of Themyscira, created and hidden from mankind by Zeus, inhabited by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her legion of fierce Amazonians. Growing up in the protective shadow of her cautious mother, Princess Diana (Gal Gadot, with younger versions played by Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey) yearns to pursue the warrior heritage she sees embodied by her fearsome aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). And, after at last receiving permission, she trains grueling year after year in order to earn her rightful place alongside her fellow protectors.

As fate would have it, the island’s serene bubble is soon burst when a plane carrying WWI spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) inadvertently tears through its portal, luring German troops into paradise. Sympathetic to her American visitor’s haunted accounts of mankind’s suffering, Diana pledges to accompany him to home wherein she will vanquish the banished god of war Ares, who she holds responsible for the brutal conflict. Revolted by the limitations placed on women in early 20th century London society, she accompanies her new ally and his ragtag team into the grim, muddy hell of battle. There, she quickly begins providing hope for the hopeless, even while nefarious fiends Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) plot to thwart the impending ceasefire with weapons of unimaginably ghastly power.
Whereas MoS, BvS and Suicide Squad inexplicably went out of their way to completely bungle the company’s most beloved heroes and villains, Wonder Woman warrants major kudos for being the first of the studio’s efforts to completely understand the psychology, iconography and moral compass of its main character. No doubt helmer Jenkins - working with a screenplay by Allan Heinberg, a former writer/producer on The O.C., Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal - played a key role in this achievement given her history of crafting grounded character studies. Although Diana faces similar challenges in translation as many of her fellow brand-mates, being essentially an invincible God lacking the messy and relatable quirks of Marvel’s creations, the film finds compelling methods of opening up her through her commitment to decency. While she can undeniably kick ass with the very best of them, without ever falling victim to action figure tedium, it’s the unwavering focus on her deep compassion, unflagging optimism and refusal to back down that draws us in. In the otherwise weirdly aggressive DCEU she’s the first truly inspirational protagonist to emerge.

All involved were extremely fortunate to find Wonder Woman’s ideal conduit in Gal Gadot, one of those perfect-in-every-way casting coups akin to Thor’s Chris Hemsworth or original Superman Christopher Reeve. Exuding benevolence, and boasting impressive physicality, solid comedic timing and an ability to sell both the crowd-pleasing and quietly intimate moments, the actress can frankly have the role as long as she wants it. Her Diana plays nicely off of established charisma-bomb Pine – whose Trevor is nicely layered and hyper-capable – and succeeds in finding the emotional truth in scenes that occasionally veer into cornball territory. Nailing ace material is impressive; however her ability to make even the script’s clumsier bits work on a character level is an even more profound testament to her skills.

Were this an auteur-driven superhero epic like those produced before the Marvel Studios model was born, such as Nolan’s Bat-films or Raimi’s Spider-Mans, Wonder Woman might have been as incredible as its star. Jenkins’ fascination with exploring the deeper themes of the character is commendable, and a sad rarity in franchise moviemaking. Alas, she must also serve the grand DCEU game plan, which means there’s only so much room for outside-the-box thinking. And part of the problem is the unnecessarily self-serious tone established by the preceding franchise entries, which runs awkwardly headlong into the picture’s high-spirited attitude and beaming hopefulness.

There’s a lightness of touch missing to these films that holds them back from ever truly soaring. You can feel it gradually overtake this movie bit by bit until the whole endeavor capsizes into a messy and tedious third act display of monologuing villain nonsense, ugly CG bedlam (after a thrilling early beach skirmish the action noticeably degrades into spastic choppiness throughout the runtime) and Captain America: First Avenger-ish payoffs. It’s curious why the studio is so determined to suck the fun and joy out of their work, when those elements have been so crucial in winning over generations of readers.
It really doesn’t help that Wonder Woman offers up some of the most uninspired antagonists in recent memory. Simply put, they bring next to nothing, and play an almost entirely insignificant role in Diana’s story, which seems like the sort of thing that should have been remedied before shooting. At least Dr. Maru strikes an impressive visual, with her deformed face covered by a makeshift cosmetic appliance echoing Boardwalk Empire’s Richard Harrow, yet she’s the epitome of disposable outside of a solid scene with Pine. As for the big bad, let’s just say he’s somehow less impressive than BvS’s big lame-o Doomsday, which is a not an admirable feat.

Because of the obvious passion and fantastic contributions from Jenkins, Gadot and Pine you can’t help but root for the movie to work (especially when our heroine’s killer theme music kicks in) despite its forgettable batch of (non-Themyscira) supporting characters, hacky bookends and often sagging energy. Perhaps the greatest takeaway from Wonder Woman is witnessing her worthy ascension to the top of the DCEU hero pack, which at least leaves us encouraged that next time around Diana may get the triumphant picture she truly deserves. Because there’s little question the silver screen needs her right now.

2.5 out of 5

Thursday, June 08, 2017


Last summer Hollywood learned a costly lesson about the dangers of investing in unwanted blockbuster sequels. With massively-hyped follow-ups like Alice through the Looking Glass, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and Independence Day: Resurgence imploding at the box office it became painfully evident that in an era of constant franchising there’s nothing special about returning to the familiar anymore. Especially if the predecessor wasn’t loved.

That lesson continues this season – it typically takes studios two-to-three years to course correct – with the release of fifth (!) and sixth (!!) entries in the once mighty Pirates of the Caribbean and Alien series. And in both cases these sequels come with the burden of having to erase the sting of disappointing previous instalments (2011’s nigh unwatchable On Stranger Tides and 2012’s muddled Prometheus, respectively) by attempting to rekindle the creative fire that sparked their beloved original launches. Although neither totally reinvigorates their brand, or offers an abundance of new or innovative ideas, one film nonetheless comes pretty darn close, while the other flounders.

When we last left Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), at the end of On Stranger Tides, he had defeated the nefarious Blackbeard, lost the Black Pearl to a shrinking spell and pretty much totally bored audiences into submission. Thus, many of that film’s hanging plot threads – such as Penelope Cruz – were jettisoned in favor of this loose reboot, Dead Men Tell No Tales, which introduces Henry Turner (bland Brenton Thwaites), teenage son of Pirates power players Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), and sends him on a quest to free his cursed pop from Davy Jones’ curse (see movie #3). This fateful mission draws in Jack, a now prosperous Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) and Carina (bright spot Kaya Scodelario), a rebellious young woman of science who holds a cryptic map to Neptune’s trident, which could forever end evil magic on the high seas. Of course, in order to capture the mystical weapon, they have to contend with Javier Bardem’s ghostly Captain Salazar, an ooze-drooling fiend with a fiery hate-on for our iconic lead character.

Though it’s a dubious accomplishment, Dead Man Tell No Tales is a marked improvement over On Stranger Tides, which – bafflingly massive international business aside – left the franchise beached and lifeless like the Kraken in At World’s End. Piloted by Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, who showed great promise in their debut, 2012’s Oscar-nominated real life adventure tale Kon-Tiki, this Pirates again emphasizes colorful showpieces (such as a great guillotine sequence and a zombie shark attack) and character banter over plot. Working from Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay, the duo is unable, like Gore Verbinski and Rob Marshall before them, to wrangle the absurdly over-complicated mythology into a coherent yarn. With two major McGuffins (the trident and Jack’s magical compass), and one minor (Carina’s map) in constant play, there’s no compelling focus, and pointless additions like Golshifteh Farahani’s exposition witch – who really should have been reconfigured into a major character – only muddies the already murky narrative waters.

Alas, it's also relentlessly obvious we’re essentially watching the fourth remake of Curse of the Black Pearl. All the elements are the same, including a stuffy British Naval adversary (David Wenham) and subplot involving parentage, albeit with a little more jazziness and vigor than last time. It’s a bit head-scratching, frankly, why the rinse-and-repeat formula has been so rigorously embraced. If ever there was a potential heir to the Indiana Jones episodic adventure throne, Pirates should have been it. But now? The whole enterprise feels soggy, from Depp’s one-joke protagonist – who lacks the necessary dimension that fellow character-actor-in-quirky-superstar-mode Tony Stark has in spades – to the recycled character types (Bardem at least deserves credit for a suitably loathsome bad guy turn, cartoonish motivation be damned!) and needlessly complex over-reliance on random incident over disciplined storytelling. Dead Men Tell No Tales isn’t offensive or painful by any stretch; it just shows total ambivalence towards setting sail for newfangled creative horizons the way the first chapter did back in 2003. Yargh.

Hey! Speaking of ridiculously convoluted mythology, remember Prometheus? The weirdly confused prequel that almost instantly killed all interest in Ridley Scott’s return to the universe he (chest) birthed in 1979? Well, the acclaimed helmer is back with Alien: Covenant, an intentionally scaled down xenomorph-happy follow-up that doesn’t reach the heights of the original, or James Cameron’s unstoppable Aliens, yet surprisingly flourishes under the weight of low expectations and financial constraints.

Transpiring a handful of years after the gruesome loss of the Prometheus vessel, Scott’s third series entry opens with the crew of the colony ship Covenant experiencing a tragic loss during a long expedition to their prospective home. Upon discovering an alternative planet that appears to support life, acting captain Oram (Billy Crudup) orders an investigation of the world’s resources and environmental conditions. As so typically goes, though, the unit’s exploratory trek is abruptly interrupted by an infectious agent that proves a mite deadly. Before long chaos reigns and it's clear the vast majority of the unlucky visitors, including second-in-command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) and android assistant Walter (Michael Fassbender, far and away the movie’s MVP), will have truncated lifespans. When it seems the situation couldn’t get any stranger, out the darkness emerges David (Fassbender 2.0), the abandoned AI last seen one movie ago as a decapitated head, with dark secrets to divulge.
While visibly a product of artistic backpedaling, intended to better service the wants of fans, there’s a tightness, simplicity and tension to Alien: Covenant that genuinely works. It’s undeniably less ambitious than Prometheus, but it’s also more engaging, answering its predecessor’s complex questions with greater interest than one would have ever hoped. Curiously, in fact, it is this further world building, and revelations involving David and Walter, that prove infinitely more rewarding – it is very odd the director isn’t overseeing the second Blade Runner given his obsession with AI here - than the usual H.R. Geiger creature stuff, which Scott seems only half-heartedly interested in. Despite introducing new breeds of nightmare fodder, there’s not a whole lot of variety in their modus operandi, and the director struggles to find memorable ways to stage their bloody attacks, outside of a truly gripping extended sequence in a medical bay.

Whether this experiment has been worth the investment still remains up for debate, if slightly less now. The film, like Prometheus, also stubbornly refuses to establish a sufficient bridge to Alien, however, due to the brilliantly twisted collaboration between Scott and Fassbender, and frequent bursts of sinister imagination peppered throughout, it’s hard to feel ripped off. Covenant succeeds in fueling the appetite for more, should Scott be allowed to once again release his terrifying xenomorphic children into the shadows.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales: 2 out of 5
Alien: Covenant: 3.5 out of 5