Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Wonder Woman, The Mummy, It Comes At Night, My Cousin Rachel Reviews

Wonder Woman
Dir. Patty Jenkins
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A lot was riding on Wonder Woman's shoulders. For Warner Brothers it represented a major investment; it had to recoup its large (but not extravagant) blockbuster production budget of $150 million, it had to introduce a new character that's planned to be prominently featured in sequels and the upcoming Justice League, it had to reignite the flame for the DC Cinematic Universe, struggling to connect with critics and audiences after Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad, it had to prove to Hollywood gatekeepers that both a major female-led and female-directed superhero movie could prove profitable (if this failed, I loathe to think the "lessons" big wig producers would've taken away), and last but not least, it had to live up to the expectations for those Wonder Woman fans who've waited their entire lives for this flick. Unbelievably - I think Wonder Woman accomplishes all of these things and then some.

Shockingly the first time Wonder Woman has had her own big screen adventure, it just feels like the right time for a movie about Amazon warrior women kicking ass. Princess Diana (Gal Godot) has been trained since she was a child to be an unstoppable warrior on the mysterious, "off the map," ladies-only island of Themyscira. However, one fateful day an American WWI pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), pulls a "Bermuda Triangle" and crashes into the surrounding sea. The long-sheltered Diana rescues him a la David Hasselhoff (minus the hairy chest) and learns for the first time about the constant conflict raging outside of her idyllic island paradise - and also all about men and ding-dongs. Convinced that she can stop the war and destroy "Ares," the god of war, whom she believes is behind the conflict, she leaves home for the first time and fights alongside a ragtag group of soldiers to end the "war to end all wars."

Wonder Woman picks and chooses lots of elements we've seen from other superhero movies lately to great effect. It blends a wartime aesthetic with a superhero origin story like Captain America: The First Avenger, it has the "god among men," fish-out-of-water comedy of Thor, and it also functions as a kind of  "badass" version of a Disney princess movie. Like we recently saw with Moana and Tangled, Diana is a similarly young, naive gal with lofty ambitions journeying into the "real world" for the first time, discovering who she is and what she believes in the process. Its familiar groove doesn't feel cliched, however, as the characters feel fleshed out, the script is smart and funny, and there's a sharp feminist bent under the surface that elevates the material to something more "important" than your typical mindless action flick.

The thing that scared me the most going into this movie was the casting of Gal Godot. Even director Patty Jenkins has mentioned that Godot wouldn't have been her first choice for the role. Her past work, including small roles in the Fast and Furious franchise, hardly indicated to me she was anything but a vacuous physically-capable beauty. However, Jenkins, who directed Charlize Theron to an Oscar with Monster, took her limitations and used it to the film's advantage. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator films, another actor with a limited "range," Godot's sometimes "awkward" delivery makes total sense here narratively, as she's playing a foreigner in a new world. She's the "Crocodile Dundee" in this movie - out of her element and unaccustomed to basic social conventions (this is also used throughout the film as a brilliant feminist commentary, as Diana finds the era's clothes impossible to battle in and receptionist positions no different from slavery). It's also worth noting that Jenkins, likely aware of Godot's limits, had all the other Themyscira warriors adopt Godot's accent for the film, instead of doing it the other way around - which I find both ingenious and hilarious.

My biggest complaints about Wonder Woman are what it carries over from previous "DCCU" movies - things that Jenkins likely had less control over. Like Zack Snyder's preceeding DC films, the color palette yet again feels completely devoid of life, as if someone during editing desaturated every scene and gave it all an ugly, deep blue hue. Its lack of color is a little more understandable in this film given its subject matter (war), but I'm just getting sick of these DC movies' unrelentingly dour and self-serious look. Even the comedy scenes look like The Revenant.

Also, like Batman v Superman, the final act battle sequence devolved into an empty, weightless, CGI mess. While Wonder Woman boasts some impressive action sequences earlier in the film (especially the "No Man's Land" scene), the lasting image I had coming out of the theater was a metric ton of ugly, artificial fire effects unnecessarily thrown into my face. Especially since the preceding action felt more grounded (being a war setting), the ending put this sour note over the entire movie.

While it's not perfect or wholly original, I think Wonder Woman is still one of the most important movies released this year. Even though I'm a guy, there were moments where I started to tear up just because I understood what this movie will mean to so many women, young and old. It's moving to see this island full of the most bad ass women you've ever seen living independently and to go on this journey with Diana "Prince" as she realizes the outside world is messed up, deciding to take responsibility as a god-like being to protect humans. That "gods among men" idea was captured better here than in any previous DC comics film thus far, and in my mind is what defines the best DC comics characters (as opposed to Marvel, which features more "relatable" characters like Spider-Man).

Wonder Woman is a fantastic superhero movie, and I only hope that Warner Brothers realizes that everybody wins when they focus on one character, telling a single, solid story instead of cramming as many characters and "universe-building" material as they can into 2.5 hours.

Rating: A-

The Mummy
Dir. Alex Kurtzman
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Speaking of cinematic universes... Universal's "cart before the horse" franchise started off with a real bellyflop stateside as The Mummy, the first of the studio's extravagantly planned-out "Dark Universe," lost to Wonder Woman in its second weekend, making a measly $31 million on a $125 production budget. What this means for the future of the "Dark Universe," set to resurrect all of Universal's old monster properties like The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein, is too early to say, but this film is not a good omen. Despite the inclusion of Tom Cruise's intense running, Alex Kurtzman's The Mummy is a tired, unengaging, ugly, mess of a movie that was embarrassingly bad, failing at pretty much everything it tries to do.

The film follows Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), a soldier/Indiana Jones wannabe who raids ancient sites around the world to steal priceless artifacts, selling them to the highest bidder. When Nick and his partner, Sgt. Vail (Jake Johnson), come under fire in the Middle East, they unearth a thousands-of-years-old entombed Egyptian princess, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). Of course, the damn thing springs to life during transport to London, and in no time starts to wreck havoc all over JK Rowling's homeland.

This movie is as by-the-numbers as you could possibly imagine, but that doesn't stop anyone from going over the same pointless exposition over and over again. We hear the "origin" of the female mummy no less than three times, via flashback as well as orally by "Dr. Jekyll" (Russell Crowe), who's meant to be the Dark Universe equivalent of The Avengers' Nick Fury. I don't even think we needed to hear it once, because it has no real bearing on what little plot there is. The humor also unfailingly falls flat every time a joke is attempted, with Jake Johnson popping up randomly as (SPOILERS) Nick's dead friend, in an unfunny homage to An American Werewolf in London. There's one moment in the movie when Cruise narrowly escapes a CGI double-decker bus that hurtles towards him, and Johnson's character pops up saying "that was intense!" You could tell the filmmakers wanted the audience to agree; this unpleasant degree of desperateness is felt throughout the film.

In his last handful of features, Tom Cruise has outdone himself with his stuntwork - whether it's doing all his own stunts in Edge of Tomorrow or literally hanging off the side of an ascending airplane in Rogue Nation. The Mummy has one interesting sequence that takes place in a crash-landing airplane set in zero-g, but other than that, every setpiece in this movie feels uninspired. Even the Brendan Frasier film, which came out close to 20 years ago, is more visually inventive and scary (remember those flesh-crawling beetles?).

If Universal wants to resurrect their old monsters again and differentiate their product from all the other blockbusters dumped into cineplexes, I think they should have actually made scary, straight-up horror films like the 1930-40s originals instead of aping the "Marvel" formula for a quick buck. The Mummy (2017) lacks any kind of identity as a film, acting only as a transparent attempt to capitalize on a new franchise. There is literally no reason this movie should exist. A giant waste of time, and one of the worst movies I've seen so far this year.

Rating: D-

It Comes At Night
Dir. Trey Edward Shults
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...and now for a movie that doesn't fail at delivering horror! It Comes at Night is a low budget antidote to the empty "thrills" of The Mummy. It tells the story of a family living in the middle of the woods who've survived an unexplained deadly virus by isolating themselves and establishing "Bear Grylls" level survival instincts. However, the simple, day-to-day life that the patriarch (Joel Edgerton) has established between his wife and son is put to the test when another desperate family seeks refuge at their cabin. Edgerton's character wearily agrees to accept the newcomers, and throughout this atmospheric, slow-burn thriller, both families grow more and more paranoid of the other, until the horrors inside and out of the group become more and more intense.

It Comes at Night is a simple, but extremely effective little movie that plays on many different kinds of horror: the horror of the unknown, of disease, of others, of protecting your family, even of yourself. While this is hardly new territory for this genre (The Stand, 28 Days Later, etc), the bleak, minimalistic, dark tone director Trey Edward Shults brings to the film is deeply unsettling, and the actors across the board bring a humanity and intensity that elevates the material. I don't want to risk over-hyping this movie, but like Wonder Woman, It Comes at Night is an exemplary entry into a well-worn genre.

Rating: A-

My Cousin Rachel
Dir. Roger Michell
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Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors of all time, and one of his "go-to" authors was Daphne du Maurier, whose works he adapted three times (including The Birds and Rebecca). I was hoping Roger Michell's My Cousin Rachel would be in that same vein, but unlike the Master of Suspense, Michell translates du Maurier's work to the screen with the intensity and intrigue of an old woman crocheting a scarf.

The story follows Philip (Sam Claflin), a young Englishman whose father-like cousin Ambrose dies in Italy. He suspects foul play from Ambrose's missing wife, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), but when he finally meets her, he immediately falls under her seductive charms and grows obsessed with his cousin... yuck!

Instead of playing up the horror of the situation, the complexity and hypocrisy of Philip, or the mystery behind Rachel, the film simply limps along without focusing on any one thing for too long, feeling like the "SparkNotes" version of the story. The amount of time between when Philip is literally calling Rachel the devil and looking at her as if she's an angel is absurd. After meeting with her one time for tea and crumpets, he's quick to hand over all his mother's jewelry and personal goods to her. Over and over again major things happen with little fanfare or reflection - Philip once nearly falls off a cliff to his death, then gets up and goes about his day like nothing happened.

My Cousin Rachel fails to achieve the heightened sense of tension it's aiming for (indicated by the overbearing, melodramatic music score), and the characters act in nonsensical ways that I can only imagine were handled more delicately in the novel. While it looks nice, with beautiful cinematography around the countryside, I was left mostly bored and confused. This movie just makes me wish Hitchcock were still alive to direct it!

Rating: C-

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