REVIEW: “The Mummy” (2017)

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One of the most popular (and priciest) trends in today’s movie culture is the shared cinematic universe. Easily the biggest belongs to Marvel Studios. DC Films is following behind them. And then outside of the superhero genre you have 2014’s “Godzilla” and this year’s  “Kong: Skull Island”, the first two films in Legendary’s MonsterVerse.

The more recent entry into this craze comes from Universal Pictures. It’s called the Dark Universe and it’s meant to be a shared-world revitalization of the classic Universal monsters. Some couldn’t care less. As a fan of those great oldies I was anxious to see what they would come up with.

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“The Mummy” is the first film to get the reboot treatment and serves as the launching point for the Dark Universe. It’s essentially an origin story but one that doesn’t resemble either the Boris Karloff classic or the more fun-loving Brendan Fraser films. It’s definitely its own thing but defining it beyond that isn’t that easy. Is it an action movie? Is it a horror movie? Is it a Tom Cruise vehicle? Yes to each but especially the third.

Cruise is clearly the centerpiece which works for and against the film. I still like him as an actor and he brings an unquestionable star power to the movie. On the other hand maintaining that star power sometimes outshines everything else. His character resembles roles he has played variations of in other films and he is intent to stick with that type. So much so that when this particular character flirts with some interesting new directions he never goes all the way.

After an obligatory prologue the film introduces us to Cruise’s character Nick. He’s a sergeant with the U.S. military who has a side gig as a soldier of fortune. He and his stereotypical sidekick (played by Jake Johnson) nab artifacts and sell them on the black market. While in Iraq the two stumble across the ancient tomb of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), an Egyptian princess who sold her soul to Set, the God of Death (see the aforementioned obligatory prologue). They extract the sarcophagus with the help of Jennifer Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) a spirited archeologist and Cruise love interest.

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As you can guess they manage to release Ahmanet (aka the Mummy) and computer-generated death and destruction follow. Nick becomes her conduit, Russell Crowe pops up as Dr. Henry Jekyll, Cruise gets a running scene, and a not-so-likely sequel is set up. Here’s the thing, in between that titillating synopsis are moments of good ol’ corny fun. And there are a couple of action sequences that are pretty exciting. But there is just as much that doesn’t work – the goofy humor, a bad ‘return from the dead’ angle inspired by “An American Werewolf in London”, and any attempt at romantic tension.

In the end “The Mummy” is a generic middle-of-the-road movie. I don’t think it’s as bad as many critics say and it’s certainly not as good as a studio would want. It simply has no true identity. It’s all over the map in terms of tone and quality. With big names already signed up for Dark Universe installments – Javier Bardem’s Frankenstein, Johnny Depp’s The Invisible Man, Angelina Jolie’s (rumored) Bride of Frankenstein – it’s clear Universal has big plans. You would think the franchise launching point would be given a little more attention.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Magnificent Seven” (2016)

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It’s no surprise that Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua would work together again on a new project. They certainly struck gold with the popular and the acclaimed “Training Day”. But I have to admit I was a bit surprised at their latest creative endeavor. I’m not sure why though. After all this is the age of remakes, reboots, reimaginings, re-everything else.

Their newest collaboration is “The Magnificent Seven”, a modern action crowdpleaser anchored by a fun ensemble cast. The original 1960 Western classic was based on Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Seven Samurai”. This updated film tends to pull further away from its roots but never so far as to lose its identity. It embraces the basics of the story while adding in a few details of its own. And as expected it attempts to do everything bigger most notably the furious wild western action.

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If you haven’t seen the 1960 Western, Yul Brynner led a hired band of misfits to protect a small Mexican village from a gang of violent bandits. In Fuqua’s version the Mexican village is exchanged for a small mining town named Rose Creek and Peter Sarsgaard’s Bogue  is the vile industrialist terrorizing them. Washington takes Brynner’s spot. He plays Sam Chisolm who is approached by a young woman from Rose Creek (Haley Bennett) seeking help.

Sam agrees but first he’ll need a team of gunfighters to train the townsfolk and lead the defense against Bogue and his gang. His merry band of wild west outcasts includes a boozing gambler (Chris Pratt), an ex-confederate sharpshooter (Ethan Hawke), a deadly assassin (Byung-hun Lee), a wanted Mexican bandit (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a big burly tracker (Vincent D’Onofrio), and a disillusioned Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier).

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Fuqua, screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk do a good job of building a fun camaraderie between their characters. It’s one of the film’s key ingredients since it genuinely wants to be a buddy-cowboy picture. There is plenty of playful banter, ribbing, and jests but never too much. That’s because it’s also aiming for something more – an old school western.

Watching the movie I couldn’t help but feel a little bit nostalgic. Fuqua tips his Stetson to a number of classic western angles both narratively and visually. His use of the camera is fantastic (great cinematography from another “Training Day” alumni Mauro Fiore) and the score features some of the last work of the late great James Horner. And you’ll clearly notice Fuqua channeling from an assortment of western directors from John Ford to Sergio Leone.

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Expect some fierce and energetic action especially in the inevitable final showdown (which is especially fun). Following a familiar blueprint each character is given their moment to show off their gun-twirling, knife throwing, or dynamite-chunking. What you won’t see is any deeper sense of emotional struggle between these characters. We get glimpses of it especially from one specific character but never enough to divert it from its clear desire to be a straightforward action film.

That leaves “The Magnificent Seven” open to reasonable criticism. It’s not a deep contemplative character study or emotionally heavy drama. It certainly misses some opportunities to incorporate those elements which may have made it a better film. But I’m fine with it since that isn’t what this film is aiming to be. It’s an action romp and Denzel and company pull it off nicely. They are clearly having a blast doing it and I must say I did too.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Mustang”

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“Mustang” begins innocently enough. The school day ends for five orphaned sisters. The youngest girl and the film’s main protagonist Lale (played by Gunes Sensoy) is giving a teary-eyed goodbye to her favorite teacher who is leaving their small Turkish village for Istanbul. On the way home the five girls take a detour and have playful outing in the sea with some local boys.

But co-writer and first time director Deniz Gamze Ergüven wastes no time peeling back the many complex layers to her story. The townsfolk believe the girls to be unruly and promiscuous and are quick to judge their swim with the boys. By the time they get home their grandmother and guardian (Nihal Koldaş) has heard the neighbors’ salacious rumors and physically punishes the girls despite their pleas of innocence.

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That opening event sets the table for the film’s main idea – five young sisters coming of age in a hyper-conservative, religiously stringent home. With each conflict their home becomes more of a prison both literally and figuratively. Ergüven’s honest portrayal doesn’t skirt around the physical and emotional hardships each girl experiences. We still get those playful and warm moments between them, but we are quickly reminded of how painfully serious and heart-wrenching their situation is.

One thing “Mustang” does so well is give all five sisters their own identity. This works thanks to great attention to personal detail in the writing and fantastic performances all around. Lale is the youngest and serves as our eyes and ears. Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu) is a fireball and closest to Lale’s age. Ece (Elit İşcan) is the sister who often languishes in her middle child status. Next is Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan) the rebellious one who sneaks out of the house with no regard of consequence. And last is Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu) the quiet and reserved one who as the oldest girl faces the brunt of punishment.

So many variables factor into the lives these girls are forced to live. The village’s strict religious tradition strips the girls of nearly every youthful experience they long for. It may be a trip to a soccer match or simply falling in love. Their vile uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) is even worse – verbally berating them, subjecting them to medical virginity tests, barring their windows, and in some instances far worse.

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“Mustang” can be intensely uncomfortable and its bleakness often clouds any hint of optimism. But Ergüven never abandons hope. In many ways “Mustang” is a celebration of the youthful spirit and spotlights the longing for personal freedom and independence. That is what kept me glued to the story and emotionally bound to these young girls. That is what would sadden me in one scene and then have me laughing out loud a few scenes later.

Few movies have held my heart in its hands like “Mustang”. As the film moved forward I found my affections for the five girls growing. As a result I experienced joy, sympathy, shock, outrage, despair, and hope, all within Ergüven’s dramatic scope. “Mustang” is earnest, authentic, and brave enough to challenge specific social norms without a heavy hand. But it always comes back to five young girls desperate to experience life. That focus is what made “Mustang” such an extraordinary film.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M

REVIEW: “The Mortal Storm”

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The global political climate was dramatically changing in 1940 especially in Europe. The Nazi machine was already wrecking havoc and the United States was a little over one year away from entering World War 2. It was during this time that “The Mortal Storm” was released. When reading up on the film I learned that this was one of few openly anti-Nazi movies to be released prior to America’s entry into the war. The film and subsequently all other MGM movies were soon banned in Germany.

“The Mortal Storm” was directed by Frank Borzage, a filmmaker I was relatively unfamiliar with but who had a lot of success during the silent era and with early talkies. Here he tackles very potent and relevant topics of the time – Naziism, the rise of Adolph Hitler and the effects these things had on families and friendships. It’s a sincere and effective adaptation of Phyllis Bottome’s 1938 novel and it’s full of passion but also tragedy.

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The film is set in 1933 and takes place in a small Bavarian town. The opening ten minutes cleverly sets up the gut punch we get later on. We’re introduced to a prominent science professor named Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan). It’s his birthday and we get a series of playful scenes revolving around that. At his home later that evening we sit in on his birthday dinner with his family and old family friend Martin (James Stewart). We see his daughter Freya (Margaret Sullivan) become engaged to the cordial and mannered Fritz (Robert Young). Everything is painted as happy and intimate.

But one radio broadcast changes that forever. During their meal it is reported that Hitler’s power has grown and the Nazi party has become the one German political party. In an instant the happy moments at the table turn tense and contentious. Fritz and Prof. Roth’s step-sons show their previously unseen support of the Nazi ideals. Martin and Prof. Roth show concern and hesitation over embracing Hitler and his direction for Germany. From there things only get worse and the once joyous and united household is torn apart by intolerance and strife.

The story takes several interesting turns including a romance angle that at first seems wantonly obvious. But the romance doesn’t smother the film’s bigger points and instead is used to serve them. It’s also interesting to see how the film tries to soften the edge of its message while still pounding it home with clarity. For example the term “Jew” is never used in the film, but Dr. Roth and others are called a “non-Aryan”. The implication is clearly there. Also the film rarely uses “German” or “Germany” in its dialogue and the setting is rarely discussed. But these things do nothing to dull the blade the film uses to cut into Naziism and a different sides of its influence.

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One of the few difficulties I had was seeing the cast as German citizens. Think about it, Jimmy Stewart, not even attempting an accent, with that distinct voice of his being a German farmer. This really stood out to me. But that doesn’t mean the performances are bad. Quite the contrary, they are fantastic. Margaret Sullavan shines as the lovely and conflicted Freya and the seasoned Frank Morgan is the beating heart of the story. Also look for a young Robert Stack playing one of Prof. Roth’s sons. It was his second film performance.

This was the last of Stewart and Sullavan’s four movies together. Shortly after the film Stewart would enlist in the military and fight during World War 2. Sullavan made only five more movies before sadly being engulfed by personal issues. Still “The Mortal Storm” is a fine reminder of their beautiful chemistry. But it’s also a gutsy film with a much stronger message than people were accustomed to hearing. And even today the film stands strong as a testament to the persuasive power of the movies.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Meru”

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Nestled in the heart of India’s Garwhal Himalayas stands a beautiful yet ominous mountain called Meru Peak. Topping at an elevation of 21,850 feet, the mountain features three peaks, one being Meru Central which is considered by mountaineers as one of the world’s toughest climbs. Meru Central features a 4000 foot granite wall called the Shark’s Fin and the route around it has been tried and failed by the world’s best climbers.

This documentary tells the story of three climbers who first attempted to conquer the Shark’s Fin in 2008. The three determined men endure a major storm, harsh temperatures, and a shortage of supplies only to be forced back down a few feet away from conquering the peak. It’s disappointing and demoralizing for the team but it is nothing compared to the adversity each would individually face in the three years that followed.

Early into the film it’s easy to see these guys as nothing more than free-spirited adrenaline junkies. You would have to be a bit crazy to take the deadly risks they take and to put your body through the stress they do. But after the failed attempt to summit Meru, team leader and one the world’s best climbers Conrad Anker, his trusted partner Jimmy Chin (who also directed, co-produced, and shot the film), and young but trustworthy Renan Ozturk each experience personal tragedies or near-death experiences that completely alter their lives.

The documentary takes a detour from climbing to look at these tragedies and show us the effects they had on these men. Tackling Meru was no longer important. Life had taken darker turns and each man was bearing his own heavy burden. Through this Anker, Chin, and Ozturk become more to us than adrenaline junkies. It grounds them on the most human levels. As a result we empathize with them when they decide to go back to Meru Central. We understand their personal motivations and we too see this as more than just a climb.

At times you may feel like your watching one big North Face advertisement. The logo seems to be in every shot. There are also moments where the narrative transitions are a little rocky. Other than that “Meru” hits every important note you want from a documentary. But it also has an intriguing structure that teases you to make negative assumptions before unveiling its deeper human component. That is when I knew “Meru” had a lot more going on under its surface. I ended up caring about these men, empathizing with their perspectives, and reflecting on my own viewpoints. I love it when a film is able to pull that kind of reaction out of me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

 

REVIEW: “The Maze Runner”

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Fear not my friends, teen dystopian science fiction is still alive and well! Don’t believe me? Just check out the laundry list of films that fit the description. As we speak “The Hunger Games” and “Divergence” are two franchises currently going (or recently ended) that are based on popular teen books. Add to that list “The Maze Runner”, the first installment of the film adaptations of James Dashner’s popular 2009 book series.

“The Maze Runner” serves as one big introduction to the characters, the setting, and the circumstances. It functions specifically as the opening of a series and it does little to expand its identity beyond that. First time director Wes Ball follows a pretty bland blueprint in establishing his world. There are several cool elements at work and the entire premise is pretty intriguing. There are also several common shortcomings that plaque many of these types of films.

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The story begins with a 16-year old boy (Dylan O’Brien) suddenly waking up in a moving service elevator. He is met at the top by a group of boys in a place called the Glade – a big grassy area completely surrounded by huge stone walls. The boy (who we later find out is named Thomas) doesn’t know who he is or how he got into the elevator. And obviously he has no idea what kind of world he has awoken to.

The boys of the Glade have built a social structure filled with several of the usually character types. Thomas and the audience learn about the world through scene after scene of exposition. For a while it seems like each character he meets has to stop a lay out another explanation of what this group of people does or of what that particular threat is. Very little is allowed to happen organically in the first half of the film.

But even amid some pretty generic table setting an intriguing  foundation is laid and the second half of the film builds upon it. The walls around the Glade actually lead to a giant maze filled with a number of dangers. The group has given into the idea that they will never make it out of the Glade. Thomas defies that reasoning and sparks a movement to learn the maze and escape their captivity. But what is actually looming behind the maze? Don’t worry, you’ll have three whole movies to find out.

THE MAZE RUNNER Minho (Ki Hong Lee, left) and Thomas (Dylan O'Brien, right) search for a way out of the maze. TM and © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.  All Rights Reserved.  Not for sale or duplication.

The suspense builds up pretty good in the second half and I was genuinely hungry to get some hints as to what was going on. Unfortunately “The Maze Runner” offers up very little in terms of answers. There also isn’t a big cliffhanger high. Instead it simply ends. It also leaves you with plenty of plot holes to ponder. I’m not talking about obvious storylines that we can expect to be answered in future installments. These are portions of the story that just doesn’t make sense.

You could point to other storytelling deficiencies and you could pick apart the performances of some of the young cast. Yet despite its pretty glaring flaws, “The Maze Runner” managed to do one of the most important things – it left me interested in seeing where the next film was going. I did find enough here to get me involved and I did find myself curious about the secrets being kept. And there are a few unorthodox angles that I did find pleasantly surprising. These are reasons I can slightly recommend “The Maze Runner”. At the same time it isn’t a film I’m anxious to see again and I can certainly understand why others would be even less enthusiastic.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars