Tag Archives: Fantasy

The Mummy (2017)

[2.5 stars]

This movie was clearly in trouble from the first few moments with the silly voice-over and set up. It then went on to try and recapture the 1999  sense of humor, but misses completely. The relationship between Tom Cruise (Eyes Wide Shut) and Annabelle Wallis (King Arthur) isn’t compelling and Jake Johnson (Jurassic World) doesn’t come across as either a soldier nor suitable side-kick for Cruise.

The original 1932 Mummy is kitschy, but also a wonderful classic. The 1999 remake is filled with action and humor. There have been many spin-off and sequels based on this Universal monster over the 80+ years of its life on screen. So if you’re going to do it yet again, especially to launch a new monster-universe franchise, you’d think the studio would spend some time on the script. I’m not sure how they went wrong, but having six writers involved couldn’t have helped no matter how successful most of them have been on their own in the past.

I have to admit, the ideas and intent were interesting, at least on aspects of the mummy part. But the script and story are simply put: crap. And I won’t even touch the Russel Crowe (The Nice Guys) Dr. Jekyll role, who apparently would be a bridging component between the planned movies. But let’s talk about some of the issues (and only some and a tad spoilery, but nothing that really matters since you’ll know it all going in):

  • Why, when you have an ultimate evil well imprisoned would you have a way to break them out of that prison already set up and ready to go
  • Crash victims are already in the morgue for identification while wreckage is still being discovered and burning
  • Consecrated warriors are taken over by “evil” without a struggle or even a nod to the power of the faith the movie tries to make into reality
  • And let’s talk about the Westernization of Egyptian myth. Set is neither evil nor the devil. He is the ruler of wild lands, the deserts, foreign lands, and the storm, and protects the Boat of Ra during the night journey when it is threatened by the serpent monster of chaos, Apep. (Thanks, Matt, for the detail and correction.) And he isn’t a monster, as stated in the script. To paraphrase one of the great moments in Buffy: he’s a god.
  • Then there was all the distracting nods to other horror films like An American Werewolf in London and Night of the Living Dead (pick a version)
  • The decisions around how to solve the main problem of the tale are a stretch at best and stupidly risky as worst. For the love of a god, just break the offending object of power and be done with it!

But it wasn’t just script choices, and there were so many more, the direction of the characters was often weak and ill conceived.  Annabelle Wallis is completely non-credible as an archaeologist. Sure, she has her secrets and such, but her actions and reactions are all in service to the story to come rather than realistic reactions in the moment of the action. That is on the director Kurtzman more than her, but it was very frustrating and weakened her character.

Generally, this movie was a weak mess that has some entertainment value, but a whole lot of meh (to quote some friends). I leave it entirely up to you if you want to watch it. I won’t be putting it on again, if that is any help in your decision making.

The Mummy

 

 

Death Note (2017)

[3 stars]

Death Note has had many incarnations: manga, anime, live action (twice over with this entry, and the previous one was a trilogy). It is a great story that continues to draw an audience. Each version had its own focus and sensibility, but the overall message remained the same throughout: With great power comes great decompensation.

Basically, given the ultimate power over life and death, what would happen to a teen…y’know that age when we’re all so incredibly stable as it is. Let’s face it, it isn’t a pretty concept, but it is a fascinating ethical problem.

Nat Wolf (The Intern) and Margaret Qualley (The Nice Guys) make an interesting Bonnie and Clyde (or Sid and Nancy) combo. Each plays their part and path well without overselling it. Having them grounded really brings out the horror of what happens as the story progresses. And Wingard has plenty of blood and creative carnage to accompany the tale. And Willem Dafoe’s (The Great Wall) vocal talents to help drive the amused bedlam.

Lakeith Stanfield (Get Out) as L is a bit less believable for me. The character is already an absurdist rendition of an OCD hacker, but that seems to work fine in Anime. And the previous live action versions toned him down a little to get to believability. In this production he starts odd, and gets even odder. It is a good counter-point to the ethical dilemma about abuse of power, but Stanfield just didn’t sell me with his delivery that this person could really exist.

I was concerned that the 100 minute treatment of the first part of this tale would feel thin or overly compressed. But director Adam Wingard (You’re Next) took the script from the combined efforts of the writers of Immortals and Fantastic Four (not great bona fides) and wrangled it into something really pretty engaging.

Death Note

Marvel’s The Defenders

[3 stars]

One of the biggest challenges coming into this collective mash-up was that each of the prequel/origin series had very distinctive styles. Daredevil was a sort of stylized, dark police/action series. Jessica Jones was a gritty, street detective show. Luke Cage was borderline black exploitation, but with a positive flare. Iron Fist was much closer to pure martial arts comic book than anything else, and with a weak lead to drive it.

This is is also the first time I’m aware of multiple shows feeding into a single new entity (and done so with intent, not a temporary cross-over or spin-off). Aspects and mysteries from each of the shows come up and are woven back into a single tapestry for a sixth season climax (Daredevil has had two seasons already). You just have to appreciate the audacity of it, if not always the execution.

The melding of the styles actually worked rather well; the first half of the season spent time mixing them together into a blend of something that absorbed aspects of each. They also didn’t immediately form the team, for which I was grateful. The Defenders are an uncomfortable alliance of, often, reluctant heroes. Fate and The Hand insist on throwing them together, but sometimes they’d rather be throwing each other. It makes for some nice moments of tension and humor, as well as the iconic Marvel “moments in the restaurant.”

In addition to our main heroes (and enemies), adding Sigourney Weaver (A Monster Calls) to this cast was a a coup. She plays one of the most quietly competent and confident leaders of the opposition I think I’ve seen. She never loses her cool or focus, though she  does manage to show some levels.

But as a series unto itself, as clever and fun as it is, the entire plot rests on the shoulders of the Iron Fist. Frankly, Finn Jones is just not up to the job. He comes across as immature and petulant rather than as broken and troubled while trying to find his way. It weakens the result and keeps you from emotionally committing to the effort. You just want to slap sense into the man-boy. It particularly makes the events leading to the climactic reveal feel silly. The ongoing reluctance of Daredevil’s sidekicks was a drag on the story as well, though it is handled significantly better.

Ultimately, the series goes where you’d expect, which is fine. This is a super-hero trope and the journey is as important as the results. The fact that clues to it are throughout the previous five series is really fun. I do want to see what comes next, but I’m hopeful/hoping that the focus will be on a different character, and that Danny Rand will finally grow into his long pants and be a bit more Tony Stark than Pee Wee Herman (and aren’t there golden fists jokes to be made there?). But you do have to see this if you’ve committed to any of the previous lead-ups just to see the other characters grow. It certainly isn’t wasted time, but I had hoped for something better given the strength of the other three leads.

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Series 3)

[3 stars]

OK, I honestly didn’t see myself writing about this reboot again. The first series was wonderfully surprising, but still aimed a bit young for my taste. The second series was middling and felt like it was simply pushed out too quickly.

This third installment, however, has a bit more subtlety to it. Lotor, the new evil, is actually a bit more real, a bit smarter, and a lot more intriguing…especially given our world today. He conquers with kindness, stealth, and power. It is a great evolution in how cartoon enemies are drawn for this kind of story and this audience. Shades of grey are always more interesting than simple black & white.

Frustratingly, despite the interesting start, the end of this series was rushed. The final episode is just a huge flashback explanation on the origins of the war and, as it happens, Voltron. The explanations are clever and made me appreciate the writers. But then, well, let’s just say they fell back on what they knew rather than continuing to go someplace more interesting. I have a sense where series 4 will go, but I do hate missed chances.

At least we don’t have long to wait to see what happens next. Series 4 arrives in October.

votron

Game of Thrones (Series 7)

[4 stars] As we gallop ever more away from George RR’s personal vision and into Weiss and Benioff’s take on it, there were some big shifts in tone and approach for this massive fantasy. With only 7 episodes, rather than 10, the plot really moved along without ever sagging. Previous seasons felt like they slowed down or had filler (usually in the shape of nudity, sex, or violence that wasn’t needed). This season clipped along sharply, providing a breathless sort of movement. On the other hand, as the season wrapped up, it became a lot more predictable as well; more familiar, less surprising.

This is perhaps because these are hero’s journeys and are recognizable and/or because George RR didn’t really write these…it is being done by the show’s creators since they are off on their own path without much of a guide or same well of talent, and far off from the books that exist and the books to come. Also, in trade for the pace, there is a compressed sense of travel time between places and events and some scope of the world. People get from place to place rather quickly, though we are meant to intuit time passing for everyone as they do rather than seeing other plots for an episode or two while they are in motion.

Still, in many ways, this is the strongest season in its structure and focus, even if more predictable. We’re in heroic fantasy in this world, so getting ahead of this penultimate pause wasn’t surprising. How it all wraps up is full of bigger questions.

Some spoilers and thoughts

The start of this season was one of the strongest episodes they have done. It was on point, full of information, deliciously evil, and set up what has to come next in a beautiful kick-off. It even had real, honest-to-god humor. That was a lot of promise. Still, the expectation was set that this season will be the uniting of the kingdoms while the next will be the battle with the Night King, because you really can’t do one without the other. At this point, my prediction for the final show is The Wall collapsing and the hoards coming south toward whatever heroes still remain. (And that proved out.)

Another interesting aspect is greyscale. Up till now it was a colorful little disease that has remained persistent, but in the background since we met Stanis’s daughter. But now that Jorah has it my brain finally clicked that it must be important. By the second episode my thought was it will either protect against the army of the dead (or help somehow) or protect against dragon fire. Not sure which and not sure why they are peeling Jorah out of the shell and what that may or may not mean for my thoughts, but wanted to capture them in case I turn out to be right. Perhaps we’ll learn more next season, or I’m just out of my mind.

There was a lot of wrap-up going on in this season as well. For instance, Arya and her dire wolf. A missed opportunity to my mind. Arya and a wolf would have been so cool! But now it looks like they’ve parted ways. And, for that matter, we’ve not seen Ghost in ages. On the other hand, we are finally seeing Sansa grow up and grow into herself. Can’t wait to see where that goes wrong. But, clearly, we’re headed to a world of women rulers, which in and of itself is a fascinating set of choices. I say this even knowing the end revelations.

I was going to add a chunk on the third ep, but Esquire did a great job of summing up some of the changes. However, I will add one important bit. The structure of the writing felt better to me this season than it has ever been, even if the big reveals weren’t as well handled. The symmetry of structures in the third episode, the echos of themes, as well as the satisfaction of moment were among the strongest they’ve had. I don’t agree that Cercei became sympathetic in the third episode, but seeing all the strings come back together rather than more and more chaos being heaped on is great. And, yes, Jamie’s brief moment of realization, whether it develops into a conscience or not, was heartening. Certainly, the end of the season builds on that doubt. (Esquire did a similar round-up of the full season as well.)

The wrap of the season is exactly where we’d mostly expected: the fall of the great wall and the invasion of the hoard, and the revelation of Jon’s parentage. What I didn’t see, though should have, was the setting up of betrayal by Cercei. I’m an optimist, what can I say? I figured she’d die before being that idiotic. But Jamie riding off was a nice plus. Little Finger’s comeuppance was also brilliantly set up and executed (sure we saw it coming, and it happened a bit to slap-dash, but I still liked it)…and about bloody time.

However, the equivocating and ineffectiveness of our 3 eyed raven is getting annoying. Yes, oracles are generally cryptic and on their own timeline, but he just seems to be holding back info to be an ass and, more importantly, doesn’t even seem to see the full truth (vis-a-vis Jon, for instance) until prompted, so just how good is he at this? And where did the Night King get those big-ass chains? Or how did Euron know to storm off because the “undead can’t swim” or was he that good an improviser?

As to where we go, I’m betting on a pregnant Daenerys and Jon handing her the throne or at least the High Queenship. But there is also some revelation to come about the Night King, I’m assuming. There is something rather personal about all of it, and I don’t think we’ve gotten all the info yet.  Could be barking mad on that one, but having him as just a faceless, unconnected evil doesn’t feel like George.

But, ultimately, George’s version of the world is probably way more detailed and complex, and in ways that the show can never replicate without the template to adapt from. It is a shame that they need to forge ahead on their own rather than wait for George. Next season will be hard and bloody and, hopefully, with George steering it a bit more than he did this season so we get a satisfyingly complex and impactful finale.

Game of Thrones

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

[3 stars] Reimagining classic tales and myths is not something new. It has been going on for as long as they’ve existed. As a writer myself, it would be hypocritical of me to say it is something that shouldn’t be done. Writers steal and riff all the time. Sometimes the effort gives you new insight or ideas about a tale, like when you tell it from a different point of view or change one aspect of a main character to help explain aspects of the story.

Director and co-writer Guy Ritchie managed to pull this approach off with his Sherlock Holmes series. Holmes retained, just barely, enough recognizable aspects of the stories to be an entertaining riff, though you had to let go of the original. And Ritchie isn’t alone in playing with Holmes. Sherlock and Mr. Holmes are just two other recent riffs that worked (better in my opinion) as well.

But you have to have a reason to make these changes. Just screwing with a well-known story because you can or because you want to use the title for marketing achieves nothing. In fact, it works against you as people walk in with expectations and then have their heads whipped around. That approach risks never getting them back on board for the ride.

King Arthur has been dog-piled on by critics far and wide. It is overblown, unfocused, only mildly entertaining, and it shreds a known classic to no great advantage. If we’ve learned anything from Game of Thrones, you can create a magical, pre-industrial story that will sell if you write it well enough. The group of writers on Arthur didn’t.

There are some aspects of this movie that aren’t bad. The sequence showing Arthur growing up is classic Ritchie, as is some of his early, bantering encounters. They also didn’t turn this into a romance in any way, and had a wonderful idea on the genesis of the sword in the stone. And Ritchie did pull together a talented cast to try and sell the melange he put together.

Charlie Hunnam (Crimson Peak) pulls off the intelligent barbarian pretty well, and he understands humor. And Astrid Bergès-Frisbey (I Origins) provides a nice analog to Merlin, though she remains rather on the outside of things in a way that diminishes her in the overall story. Jude Law (Genius) tries to enrich his Vortigern, but it just isn’t in the script. There are a slew of supporting characters. Most effective in that crew: Neil Maskell (Utopia), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Vera), Bleu Landau (Eastenders), and Aidan Gillen (The Lovers).

But let’s be clear, this movie is only marginally passable, quite long, and more sound and fury than substance. It had been intended as the launch to a massive franchise, but ended as one of the biggest flops on record. The lesson here isn’t “don’t screw with a classic” but rather “if you’re going to screw with a classic, write a damned good script.” So for a popcorn night with some libation, this will pass muster. However, go in with low expectations and a willingness to forget anything you may have known about King Arthur.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (Di Renjie: Shen du long wang)

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame was visually entertaining and intriguing enough that this follow-up prequel by the same writers and director caught my attention. Director and co-writer Hark Tsui has a boundless imagination and nearly overwhelms you with creative scenery and fights. Actually, if you are stuck with subtitles, it can be exhausting as the dialogue can be fast and furious, even during some of the action sequences.

But the story is full of action and humor and crazy, wild plot choices. Though there is a huge cast of characters, the film is really propped up by three actors: Mark Chao, Shaofeng Feng (Monkey King 2), and Angelababy (Independence Day: Resurgence). The fights are replete with wire work, which isn’t my favorite for martial arts, but this is a fantasy and that is part and parcel of the genre. The fights are still entertaining and inventive…even if they defy all known physics. 

I’m not sure why Tsui decided to loop back on Dee’s timeline to slip in this prequel even while he was planning the next main timeline movie, but perhaps that will become clear when Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings releases. In the meantime, you have this confection to chew on, if you are into this kind of thing.

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

It is going to kill me to write this review. Of all the movies this summer, this is the one I was really waiting for; the first big Luc Besson (Léon: The Professional) film in years. I still think you should go see it, but I’ll get to why later. First the painful part.

The source material for Valerian predates and influenced a good part of the ‘classic’ scifi movie cannon, but it is coming to market long after they got to establish themselves. So what we see appears to be part Fifth Element and part Avatar, with healthy doses of Star Wars and Babylon 5 thrown in for good measure. It is visually stunning, no question. It also has some of the best depictions of AR done yet on film. But for all its inventiveness it feels a bit like a pastiche of what you already know even if the comic influenced them first. But that isn’t where the move is weakest.

The main weakness isn’t even in the plot. The plot is relatively obvious by design. There is no pretense about who is good and who is evil in this tale. Clive Owen (Words and Pictures) is about as subtle as a nuke in his role. And are you really unclear that the species experiencing genocide is probably on the side of right? The story, at its bones, is interesting and has captivated audiences for years in comic form as a classic good and evil struggle. Besson could have softened that a bit, grayed out Owen’s role, in particular, to help raise the emotion and tension of the decisions, but it could have worked either way.

No, the weakness of the film is squarely on the acting of the two main characters.

Because there are few character surprises, the strength of the film has to rely on the chemistry between Dean DeHaan’s (Life After Beth) and Cara Delevingne‘s (Suicide Squad) characters. Much like the Bruce Willis/Mila Jovovich interchanges in Fifth Element, it isn’t so much what is happening around the main characters as much as what is happening between them. And, sadly, there is bloody nothing happening in that space for DeHaan and Delevingne. Zip. A gallon jug of liquid nitrogen couldn’t cool their romance any more than it already is. They don’t even seem to react at the carnage they leave in their path during their normal day-to-day assignments. It may be, in part, the directing, but, frankly, neither of these actors has impressed me much in their previous roles. So let’s say it is as much a casting as an acting problem, which still is at Besson’s feet.

All that said, you do have to see this film for a couple reasons. First, it is a big screen experience, no question. The level of detail and artistry on the screen has rarely, if ever, been matched. Second, it is one of the few original ideas out there in the tentpole space. Everything we’re being fed this year is spin-off, sequel, prequel, or remake. Besson is giving us something new. That is a gift in these days of recycling properties and studios too scared to try something new. They need a reason to gamble and that means showing them “new” can sell. Go in knowing you’re there for a visual ride and you’re fine.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2015)

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Really, yet another Midsummer Night’s Dream?” Or, perhaps, “Shakespeare? Honestly, why do I need to see this?” The answer to both is: Julie Taymor (The Tempest).

Taymor is one of the most visionary stage directors of our time. She employs simple techniques to create magnificent effects. Think the puppets in The Lion King, which have become her trademark. Midsummer certainly leverages that aspect of her talent, but also her ability to distill a play to its essence and manifest it. The opening moments of this filmed performance will grab you and make you wish you’d been in the audience. She takes several minutes before the first piece of uttered dialogue to visually create the world and your expectations, to invite you into a magical realm, to escape for a while into the silliness of this comedy.

There are a number of solid performances, but chief among them in Kathryn Hunter (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). Her Puck is brilliant and carries the show well through acting, voice, and movement. As Oberon, David Harewood (The Night Manager) brings both a power and heart to the self-important ruler, though it is still rather hobbled by the plot he must walk.

The Mechanicals, led by Max Casella’s (Jackie) Bottom, are suitably absurd, and each has their moment. But it is Zachary Infante (Carrie Pilby) as Flute that really shines in one of the play’s most important moments near the end of the film.

The approach to filming the play is done rather well, capturing both an audience feel and “in the action” keeping it from feeling too static. There are a few moments that I’d rather have seen from long shots, to really appreciate the staging, but generally, the cameras floated among the characters like the fairies in the play.

So here’s the truth: The play isn’t perfect. Frankly no Shakespeare is. Sensibilities have moved on and the plays tend to be a bit longer for their purpose than modern times tends to care for and, clearly, a little too forgiving of cultural mores that are well out of date. In the case of Midsummer, the opening scene and the overlong wrap-up probably will grate a little. You are also forgiven for wondering why the heck we have to sit through the mechanical’s presentation while the Duke and co. heckle them. The Mechanical’s play is funny and, really, it is used to get to the single moment with Flute, whose declaration of love is one of the most heart-felt in the entire play, which is full of overblown histrionics by design. That moment brings it all back to earth. More generally, in today’s terms, Shakespeare had written himself into a corner and needed to wrap up the threads and entertain the cheap seats. However, to be a little more fair, the original intent of the play was about (and for) the wedding.

If you’ve never seen Midsummer, this is a great one to start with. If you have, it may well become your favorite interpretation on a broad scale. There have certainly been better and more memorable individual performances of characters in this play, but as an overall delivery, this version is truly extraordinary and wonderful to watch.

A Midsummer Night

Spider-Man: Homecoming

So here we are: the third bite at the apple for Sony. Say farewell to the Rami trilogy and the misfired Amazing Spider Man duo. I have to admit, when I heard this was all in the works, my enthusiasm was low. The trajectory of the character has been driven at Sony more by the drive to hang onto the rights than to make good films. But let’s put that aside for the moment. The fact is this reboot is really quite good and finally has a young kid playing Peter Parker at the right age for a change.

From the casting of Tom Holland (The Secret World of Arrietty) to starting off with The Ramones for the soundtrack to kick it all off, this co-release with Marvel really hit all the right marks. Holland is young enough to really feel like a gangling 15  year old who, limbs at all angles, fearlessly swings around NYC and environs trying to do good. He isn’t an antihero like Deadpool, but he isn’t the typical superhero either.

And this is where Marvel and the six credited writers (yes, six) really deserve some applause. They know that we’re fatigued with these films. They know that we find it all just a bit silly. They play into that idea, allowing Peter Parker to be both superhero and little hero. He bumbles around and is more an Everyman than ever before. It really helps sell the movie as both a fun ride and as something relatable. But they also weave him into the Avengers universe with clips from Captain America: Civil War so that we have context. It works wonderfully. But, most importantly, it isn’t entirely predictable. It keeps throwing in curve balls and surprises, and of course, humor. I have no idea who to really credit with all that given the number of people involved, but that it all works together with that many cooks is a feat unto itself.

Along with Holland are some great, supporting roles. Michael Keaton’s (Robocop) role is particularly nuanced. He starts in the prologue with solid motivation, and then, like many things, it morphs into something else. And the prologue is worth mentioning as it winds back the clock to just after the first Avengers movie, in a world shattered and newly aware of aliens and superheros. Spider-Man can play-out in parallel to the movies that followed, though the Civil War reference gives them a bit of a time paradox problem, but just blink through it and it won’t bother you too much.

There are other main adult roles. Marisa Tomei (Love the Coopers) is sadly underused in this movie, though she definitely has some important moments, and is there in Peter’s mind at all times. Jon Favreau (Chef) however, gets a bit more screen time and his own little subplot through the movie. And Robert Downey Jr. (Avengers: Age of Ultron) gets some moments as well. The biggest surprise in the adult cast for me was the very nice turn by Donald Glover (The Martian). I’ve like the actor for a while, but he delivered this part, small as it was, with great skill. There are other surprises as well, but I won’t expose them here.

The film really focuses, rightly so, on the younger cast. Jacob Batalon quietly carries a lot more of the story than you expect. Laura Harrier and Zendaya add some nice confusion and, let’s say goals for Peter Parker to focus on. Only Tony Revolori (Dope), really feels forced in this group. Here I mainly blame director Jon Watts (Cop Car) for not holding him in check.

This is a rocket-fueled adventure, but very much from an adolescent’s eyes, even if there is plenty for adults to both relate to and enjoy. It is a great addition to the Marvel Universe, but I am dubious that Sony will recognize what they have and keep their mitts off of it. We’ll see if they can sustain the franchise this time. They have made it clear it is only leaving their hands when they’ve turned to dust, so that means a movie every three years, regardless of quality or value. If I sound concerned, suffice to say that whispers from the industry already suggest that the future is heading off the rails, which would be a damned shame. They really have something here, and a star that can sustain them for a good long while before he’s too old to play the part. Here’s hoping they see that and protect it.

Meantime, go and give your summer a kick to get it rolling again after several weeks of disappointing releases.

Spider-Man: Homecoming