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Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Mummy

THE MUMMY

** SPOILERS **

There's a lot going on in director Alex Kurtzman's reboot of The Mummy, but also not a lot going on. It's weird. Here we have a movie hoping to launch an entire shared universe that tries to be so many things and falls short of everything it could be. Sofia Boutella, the scene stealer from Kingsman: The Secret Service and Star Trek Beyond, is the new Mummy, an ancient Egyptian princess named Ahmanet. She was supposed to be Queen of Egypt, until her father the Pharaoh went and had a first-born son, putting the kibosh on her ascension. Ahmanet's response was to make a deal with Set, the Egyptian God of Death. Set turned her into a mummy a demon who murdered the Pharaoh and the rest of her family, but she was caught and mummified alive. That's how a princess who became a demon became The Mummy. 

Ahmanet was imprisoned far from Egypt, in a tomb deep beneath modern day Iraq. There she's inadvertently found by Tom Cruise, who plays a soldier of fortune named Nick Morton. However, this isn't the usual invincible Tom Cruise we normally see in Mission: Impossible films; this is more like the Tom Cruise from Edge of Tomorrow - an amoral jerk who gets his ass kicked a lot. I mean, a lot. Tom gets his ass handed to him by the Mummy and all her undead underlings throughout the movie. Cruise and a fetching archaeologist played by Annabelle Wallis survive a plane crash when they try to transport Ahmanet's unearthed sarcophagus, unwittingly unleashing the Mummy upon jolly old England. There's also the matter of the Mummy fixating on Cruise; she decided he's her chosen one whose mortal form will be inhabited by Set - all she needs is a dagger with a special ruby buried with a 12th century Crusader knight found in the bowels of London.

Doing his damnedest to make sense of all of this is Russell Crowe, who breathlessly narrates most of the movie's plot points and backstory. Crowe is the Head Explainer of a shadowy organization called Prodigium, which is headquartered beneath the British Museum of Natural History and tasks itself with "recognizing, examining, containing and destroying evil." Specifically evil in the form of gods and monsters, the more ancient the worse better. Crowe himself is one of those very monsters, as he portrays Dr. Henry Jekyll and his sadistic and cockney alter ego Mr. Edward Hyde. As the leader of Prodigium, Crowe's other duty is to set up the future of what's now branded as Dark Universe - Universal Pictures' shared universe of movie monsters. Prodigium's trophies include easter eggs of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, a vampire skull, and probably the Invisible Man (we don't see him in Prodigium, but isn't that the point?).

The Mummy is pure B-movie schlock. Like a real mummy, it's missing some blood and guts, and at 107 minutes, it zips along like it's got somewhere else to be. Ahmanet, emaciated after 5,000 years of mummification, spends much of the movie trying to get her hotness back (#MAHA - Make Ahmanet Hot Again) and become the queen she was supposed to be (#MAGA - Make Ahmanet Great Again.) Despite this, and a couple of perfunctory but neat looking moments like unleashing a patented Mummy sandstorm with a Mummy face right in the heart of London, Boutella's talents are oddly underutilized as The Mummy. Cruise and Wallis have some fun on the run throughout the movie, and Cruise amusingly gets tossed around by Ahmanet in every fight, until he decides to give in to his destiny and become a monster to save Wallis' life. Thus, Tom Cruise becomes not just a monster but, by virtue of becoming the host of Set, Tom Cruise becomes a god. One cool thing about being The Mummy and Set is that when their evil magic kicks in, Cruise and Boutella each have four eyeballs. Makes rolling their eyes at the silliness of The Mummy doubly effective.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Wonder Woman

WONDER WOMAN

** SPOILERS **

In Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins places a perfect human being right in the middle of the starkest of horrors humanity is capable of and asks us to consider her, as she in turn considers us. Not that Princess Diana of Themyscira (Gal Gadot) is a human being. She is an Amazon, one of an ancient race of female warriors created by Zeus himself to defend humanity. The daughter of Zeus and of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana is much more than a mere Amazon. Goddess is a more apt description, and not just to be complimentary. With her bulletproof gauntlets, glowing golden Lasso of Truth, and her unshakable belief in herself and in the best of humanity, Wonder Woman is who all the world has been waiting for. As Hippolyta says, the world doesn't deserve her. To which, Diana learns, sometimes it isn't about what you deserve. Thank gods.

It's 1918, the First World War - the War to End All Wars - has raged for almost a half decade, and the war comes right to the shores of the Amazons' Paradise Island. When an American pilot spying for the British named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes near the magically camouflaged island of Themyscira, with German boats in hot pursuit, the Amazons face the male half of the human race for the first time in millennia. Man now has more deadly weapons: guns, bombs, and for the first time, mustard gas, which doesn't discriminate who it gruesomely murders. Faced with this reality, Diana, trained from youth to be the greatest of the Amazon warriors, decides she must go and fight to save the world. Diana and Trevor escape the island, and the roles are reversed: Diana is now delightfully a fish out of water in a world she hardly understands. The deeply ingrained patriarchy of Georgian society certainly doesn't understand this beautiful, headstrong, sword wielding woman who can't possibly be Steve Trevor's 'secretary.'

As confused and occasionally repulsed as Diana is by the world she finds beyond her island paradise, she believes mankind is simply being coerced by Ares, the Greek god of war, who is the last survivor of the Greek pantheon after murdering all of his siblings, including Zeus. Diana believes wholeheartedly that she must simply kill Ares and it will end not just this war, but all wars, forever. As cultured and learned as Diana is in many other respects, her naivete in this matter is downright charming. Who Ares is and where he's hiding is a mystery, though all signs point to General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), the German leader who wants nothing to do with signing an armistice that signals Germany's surrender, preferring to gas everyone he can thanks to his pet chemist Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya). Finding out that human beings aren't completely under the thrall of an evil god - that people, including Steve Trevor - are messy, complicated, and prone to having all kinds of petty failings, is a crisis of conscience for Diana. In the end, what makes Diana a superhero - what makes her Wonder Woman - isn't her incredible power or prowess in battle, it's her ability to find empathy for people, even those who don't deserve it.

"I wish we had more time," Steve says to Diana, and we agree. At times, Wonder Woman feels a bit slight with its superhero origin story meshed with a gruesome war movie - though there are lots of familiar odes to Justice League director Zack Snyder's 300 as well as echoes of Wolfgang Petersen's Troy and Captain America: The First Avenger - right down to a blond soldier named Steve concluding the movie by hopping in an airplane and flying off to his doom. (Not to mention Wonder Woman's spiritual predecessor, Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie.) This is a film that could actually have been even longer, with more connective tissue to add more robustness, especially to the villains and all the characters who aren't Diana and Steve. Yet there are moments in Wonder Woman that truly sparkle, like Diana and Trevor's conversation and first night "sleeping together" on a boat, Diana's interactions with Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) in London, and a magical night in a tiny town in Belgium after Wonder Woman spectacularly liberated it from the German army. Even more moments like these would have been wonderful.

What makes Wonder Woman work - and why it rises high above its brethren in this current era of DC Comics superhero movies - is Patty Jenkins, who completely understands the power, grace, majesty, and boundless capacity for empathy that makes Wonder Woman special, and Gal Gadot, a magnetic, endearing screen presence who ranks with Christopher Reeve's Superman and Robert Downey, Jr.'s Iron Man as a most perfectly cast actor to play her chosen superhero icon. Jenkins proves time and again, both in quieter character moments between Diana and Trevor and in a handful of truly awesome action set pieces - the No Man's Land centerpiece battle is one of the all-time greatest superhero movie action sequences - that she knows exactly who Wonder Woman is and what we want to see her do. In Gadot, she has the greatest partner, a superstar born for this role you can't take your eyes off of, who delivers above and beyond, and makes you believe in Wonder Woman. Most importantly - because gods know we need it - Wonder Woman believes in love, and in us.


Monday, May 29, 2017

Baywatch

BAYWATCH

** SPOILERS **

Baywatch is like a fish pulled out of the water, flapping around hopelessly on a boat deck. Even the visuals miss the boat: If one thinks hard of the "classic" TV series and can see past the image of the buxom lifeguards in their high-cut red swimsuits, one recalls the bright blue skies and sun-kissed California beaches the show was set in. The Seth Gordon-directed feature film, set in "Emerald Bay," substitutes South Beach and Savannah, Georgia for Malibu, and the dreariness speaks for itself. Only a small percentage of the movie takes place in South Beach, or on the beach in general, and somehow they forgot to shoot scenes when the sun is out. Most of Baywatch takes place in Savannah and comes off more like the ill-fated spinoff Baywatch Nights, with the lifeguards performing a lot of nocturnal undercover detective work in a nonsensical plot the movie takes great pains to try to explain - as if anyone in the audience cares for even an instant.

In spite of its enduring 1990's camp value, the Baywatch television series was never technically a comedy. So I suppose it's fitting that Baywatch the movie isn't either, though it would be surprised to learn such. In Baywatch, Dwayne Johnson plays Mitch Buchanan, the hero of the beach. Johnson is in full-on Samoan Thor alpha male mode, which rankles new recruit Zac Efron, who plays former two-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming Matt Brody. There are fleeting jokes surrounding Efron not being very bright but overall the main joke driven into the sand is Efron being utterly baffled that Johnson and his Baywatch brigade think being lifeguards requires them to perform routine crime-fighting duties best left to the police. If they'd kept the action confined to the sandy shores, Baywatch might have tread water safely. Instead, the plot plunges headlong into an endless and immensely boring investigation of Priyanka Chopra's nefarious activities. She's running some sort of drug smuggling deal concurrent with some kind of real estate swindle. It doesn't make sense, and it doesn't matter, but it's the most important thing to the Baywatch lifeguards to stop and it eats up most of the movie's 2 hour run time. (That's two episodes of the old TV show, of which most people could only endure watching a few minutes at a time. Guess which scenes. Meanwhile, Baywatch the movie is at pains to provide any of those scenes.)

As Johnson and Efron take turns dominating the screen, languishing off to the side being utterly under-utilized are the three female Baywatch babes: Kelly Rohrbach as CJ Parker, Alexandra Daddario as Summer Quinn, and Ilfenesh Hadera as Stephanie Holden. Combined, they have virtually nothing to do except stand around and give reaction shots as Johnson and Efron muscle each other across center stage. Daddario fares the best of the three, in that Gordon's camera realizes her expressive blue eyes give off the best reaction shots. Meanwhile, the comic relief Jon Bass heroically provides struggles mightily to register in a film that has zero understanding of comedic timing, how to stage suspenseful action sequences, or even competent editing. Dutiful walk-on cameos are provided to Baywatch's two greatest icons, David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson, and even these make zero sense as The Hoff and Pam are also playing Mitch Buchanan and CJ Parker. Not that it matters to Baywatch, which manages to be both desperately unfunny and bewilderingly unsexy; an R rated slog that is under the mistaken impression anyone at all turned up to see Zac Efron diddling a bare penis in a morgue. Baywatch ends up being an utter waste of a valuable beach day

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Alien: Covenant

ALIEN: COVENANT

** SPOILERS **

38 years ago, (not yet Sir) Ridley Scott directed Alien. Since 2012, he's been on some sort of mission to put together a cover band and recreate the old hit. His first cover band, Prometheus, couldn't get the number quite right. This new band, Alien: Covenant, gets a lot closer. That Alien: Covenant takes the title of Best Alien Movie Since Aliens is faint praise, but Covenant clears that low bar set by every attempt to make an Alien movie after James Cameron's space marines v Xenomorphs sequel. No one ever tried to remake Cameron's masterpiece; everyone else who made an Alien film riffed on Ridley Scott, including Sir Ridley Scott (twice).  

Alien: Covenant plays the old notes with ready familiarity. A rough and tumble space crew employed by Weyland-Yutani, the corporation with the worst business model of the future - send humans into space to die in droves - is en route to a new colony with 2000 cryo-sleeping souls on board. A distress beacon coaxes them to land on an Earth-like planet surrounded by ion superstorms. The crew, led by Billy Crudup and Katherine Waterston (who looks like she's perpetually about to burst into tears at any moment), of course discover Aliens, which attack with merciless abandon and slaughter their panicked, hysterically outmatched crew. But also on the planet is David (Michael Fassbender), the android from Prometheus, and boy, is he a piece of work. 

Also on board the starship Covenant is Walter (also Michael Fassbender) an identical but newer model android. The two Michael Fassbenders on screen provide Covenant's most interesting moments, as they recite Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias" to each other, fight each other, and gradually reveal what David is really doing on this planet: This is the homeworld of the Engineers, the pale, bald, giant space gods which created the Xenomorphs and probably humanity as well. David and Noomi Rapace, the survivors of Prometheus, arrived on this world on board the Engineers' ship, whereupon David unleashed the Xenomorph virus on the Engineers and slaughtered them, turning the Engineer City into a "dire necropolis." Then he killed Rapace and used her as one of his incubators for his genetic experiments to breed the perfect Alien, i.e. one that looks like the original version designed by H.R. Giger in the 1979 film.

One can almost imagine Sir Ridley Scott rolling his eyes in boredom recreating the same old scenes of facehugging, chestbursting, and of humans running from Aliens hunting them in dark, blood-splattered space ship hallways. Sir Ridley seems far more engaged whenever Michael Fassbender is talking to himself on screen. Fassbender delightfully alternates between Walter's labored American workaday accent and David's high-falootin' British foppishness. Sir Ridley also seems to think audiences really give a rat's ass where the Xenomorphs come from and how - they're the creations of David, who hates humanity, especially the one particular human who created him, played by Guy Pearce

Otherwise, Alien: Covenant is Alien Redux: the same old scares shined up like new, with a couple of nods to Alien movies past (which happen in this universe's future), like using an industrial crane claw to trap an Alien; an ode to Sigourney Weaver using a loading bay exosuit to fight the Alien Queen in Aliens. Sir Ridley Scott reportedly intends to make two more Alien sequels leading to the events of the 1979 film. Two more fucking Alien sequels! Two more of the same fucking thing before we get to Sigourney Weaver, the first fucking thing. These Alien movies are a Xenomorph eating its own tail.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD

** SPOILERS **

Behold Your Born King!

When musing about King Arthur, what comes to mind? What do you expect to see in a King Arthur movie? Never mind any of that, director Guy Ritchie and Charlie Hunnam will answer for you with the thing you didn't know you wanted from King Arthur: swagger. In King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword - the first of a planned six film (!) Arthurian cycle - Ritchie and Hunnam, as the Born King, give us an Arthur unlike any before: bristling with the maximum swagger of a Men's Health cover boy and the best dressed man in Camelot. Almost nothing in Legend of the Sword is business as usual King Arthur. The Holy Grail? What's that? Sir Lancelot? Who's he? A love triangle with Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot? No one's got time for that, mate. 

Your Classical Literature Professor will be utterly baffled by Ritchie's reinvention of the mythology of Camelot, but that's all part of the bloody fun of this ribald adaptation of King Arthur.  Legend of the Sword is Camelot by way of a Guy Ritchie heist film, where a motley gang of back alley scalawags plot a revolution to snatch the throne of England from the usurper King Vortigern (Jude Law) lock, stock and smoking barrel. But first, some backstory, and quite a lot of it. Legend of the Sword is King Arthur Begins, a three hour movie delivered in two hours by way of hitting the fast forward button. Ritchie rockets past tons of exposition in montages of breakneck speed. Keep up now: 

When Arthur was just a young lad, Camelot already existed. In an unspecified era of England, the country is at war. Men, led by King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), who wields the magical sword Excalibur given to him by Merlin, battle an army of Mages, led by Mordred (who is not Arthur's son as is tradition). Uther wins the war but is immediately betrayed by his brother Prince Vortigern, who succeeds in his coup. Uther and his wife Queen Elsa (no, not that Queen Elsa) are killed, but young Arthur escapes by boat. The boy floats down river to the city of Londinium, already a multinational city. Arthur, who has repressed memories of his royal lineage, grows up in a brothel and ends up running it as a grown man with his randy mates. He also learns how to fight in a dojo from a Chinese martial arts master named George.

Meanwhile, circumstances place Arthur back in Camelot, where the Sword in the Stone awaits. Of course, Arthur draws the sword. Then he faints, besieged by visions. Soon he is about to be executed, for England cannot have two kings and Vortigern rather likes ruling the kingdom too much. This has to be the first and only King Arthur movie where Arthur's head is placed on a chopping block. Arthur escapes with the help of his mates and a Mage sent by Merlin (Astrid Berg├Ęs-Frisbey). The Mage has the most frustrating job in the movie, trying to get Arthur to accept Excalibur and his destiny to rule as the Born King. Arthur is stubborn. He has no desire to be King. He even throws Excalibur into a lake, where the Lady of the Lake catches it and then literally forces the sword back into Arthur's hand. When Arthur finally accepts Excalibur, he becomes a fighting machine worthy of being one of the Avengers. Excalibur grants him superpowers; he can fight with astonishing speed, cutting down a horde of Vortigern's soldiers with ease. This merely adds to Arthur's swagger.

The Legend of the Sword offers unexpected surprises around every corner of Londinium and beyond. Giant magical monsters, like war elephants the size of mountains? Check. A secret magical island called the Dark Lands where even more giant animals dwell? Check. The ghastly Syrens, comprised of three women with octopus bodies who transform Vortigern into a giant skull-faced demon covered in fire? Check. Arthur's mates, including his father's former lieutenant Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and a criminal archer named Goosefat Bill (Aiden Gillen) turn out to be the Knights of the Round Table as Arthur raises them up to knighthood when he claims the throne. Gillen's participation is extra fun for Game of Thrones fans; as the guy who plays Littlefinger, it must inspire him to see a brothel owner become King. Even if Littlefinger ever won the Iron Throne of Westeros, he could never carry himself with the swagger of Arthur, dragging Excalibur behind him as he strides into the fight of his life against his evil uncle. When King Arthur confronts a gaggle of Vikings at the end of the movie, his swagger is at maximum levels. "You are addressing England," he decrees to the Vikings before they bend the knee to him. Bloody hell, what's next? God save England, God save us, and God save our weird new King.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Screen Rant One Million

SCREEN RANT ONE MILLION

A little under five months ago, I began my venture as a Feature Writer for Screen Rant. In my head, I had a number I wanted to hit: 1 million page clicks. An arbitrary number, but 1 million was a big round number where I felt if I could hit it, I would feel like I'd 'made it.' I figured it would take the entire calendar year to hit that number (100K page clicks a month even sounded like a goal too lofty to be realistic), but my plan was to write like hell, be productive, do hopefully good, entertaining work, and see what happened.

This is what happened: 1.01 million clicks in just under 5 months with 59 published Features. Un-fucking-believable. THANK YOU to everyone who has clicked on my work, read my work, incessantly shared my work and even filling their own FB timelines with links to my stuff, and everyone who has offered support or encouragement or even complained about some dumb thing I wrote about Arrow or some shit. Special thanks to Iron Fist for being the single biggest Feature I've written so far (149K clicks), and thanks to your friends and mine, the Guardians of the Galaxy, who pushed me over the top. Achievement unlocked, and yes, I do feel like I've 'made it.' I'm a million clickionaire now and I couldn't have done it without you! 

Next stop: 2 million. Here we go.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

** SPOILERS **

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is an incandescent starburst of coloful joy candy, the gooey center of which is the heartwarming theme of family. Director James Gunn's deeply personal and idiosyncratic follow up to his 2014 smash that truly made the Marvel movies a cinematic universe, Vol. 2 brings big laughs, all the feels, and doubles down hard on everyone and everything audiences loved from the original film. Yet Vol. 2, packed to the gills with jokes, songs, heart, and good times, ends up with too much of those things while not enough of important other things. 

As we careen across the Marvel multiverse with Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), we visit some far-flung and truly odd-ball places as the Guardians work out their various family issues. First and foremost is the issue of who is Peter Quill's father? A flashback to Missouri in 1980 reveals it to be Ego (Kurt Russell), an ancient and powerful Celestial. Ego is a god (small G) on a mission: to seed the inhabited worlds of the universe with himself. He hopes to spawn an offspring capable of wielding his Celestial powers while his seedlings grow to allow Ego to absorb all those planets into himself. In Star-Lord, who previously held an Infinity Stone in his hand without dying, Ego has found a son worthy of following in daddy's footsteps. Peter and Gamora, who's committed to not dealing with the unspoken sexual tension between them, don't trust Ego, but follow him anyway back to his planet - which is also Ego. Originally a giant brain floating in space, Ego became a planet, and then became a man, taking the form of Kurt Russell and later David Hasselhoff while still being a planet. It's weird. 

Meanwhile, the Guardians are being hunted by the Sovereign, a golden race of perfect beings, whom Rocket promptly stole from after taking a job from them to fight a giant space monster. The Sovereign's high priestess Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) soon turns to the Guardians' old nemesis the Ravagers, lead by Yondu (Michael Rooker) to kill the Guardians for her. Yondu has other ideas, and as long-held secrets as to why Yondu, who was hired to abduct Peter Quill as a boy, never delivered Peter to his father Ego are revealed, Rocket begins to commiserate with the tortured soul Yondu really is. More family issues: Nebula (Karen Gillan) is back, looking to murder her sister Gamora for a lifetime of abuse inflicted on her by their adoptive father, the Mad Titan Thanos. All of these belabored family dynamics come to a head in a series of heartfelt conflagrations where the characters gradually make peace with their long-held resentments and come to understandings with themselves and each other.

Vol. 2 is overflowing with 1980's TV and movie references and major laugh out loud moments where Gunn trades wholesale on the warmth and love audiences feel for the Guardians. It's also crammed with more of Gunn's favorite hits from the 1970's and 1980's; the previous Guardians soundtrack was so commercially successful (its style of blasting hits since shamelessly copied by other superhero movies like Suicide Squad) that Vol. 2 rocks out even longer and harder. What Vol. 2 is missing, however, is a powerful through line for its story. Much of Vol. 2 sees the various Guardians separated from each other and waiting around while information is gradually revealed to them before they come together for the slam-bang big fight finale in, on, and all around Ego the planet. 

The biggest victim of this malaise is Drax, who literally has nothing to do for the entire movie except sit around, point, and laugh at his fellow Guardians while being brutally and hilariously honest and forthright with Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Ego's antennaed, empathic servant. It's a testament to Dave Bautista's charisma that he repeatedly gleans the biggest laughs in the movie. A detractor might say the real Ego of this movie is James Gunn, who operates without limits and pushes Vol. 2 as far into excess and absurdity as it can go, but Gunn routinely pushes all the right buttons for sweetness and feels, even when a world literally ends around the Guardians. In the end, the Guardians of the Galaxy are more than an island of misfit toys jaunting through outer space; they're the family we wish he had when we have no one else. We are Groot and we love them.

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