This Mummy Should Have Stayed Buried…

the mummy

In 2014 Universal released Dracula Untold and bravely announced it would be the first of a Marvel Cinematic Universe-style reboot of their classic stable of monster characters. Despite a reasonable return at the box office, this toothless retread received a decidedly lukewarm reception and it seemed the studio’s monsterverse was stillborn.

Jump ahead a few years and Universal announce another stab at The Mummy, which will herald in the first (or rather, the first yet again) of its Dark Universe films (now playing down Dracula Untold’s connection and seemingly forgetting poor old Luke Evans’ Transylvanian Count in the process).

This latest catalogue of Egyptian shenanigans has more in common with the previous trio of movies headlined by Brendan Fraser (The Mummy, The Mummy Returns and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon God) than the 1932 original starring Boris Karloff (or that film’s four successors). This means we’re in for another round of big budget, high adventure rather than anything remotely horrifying.

Tom Cruise is dull and woefully miscast, in a role that might have worked better with someone more adept at comedy (I kept thinking of Bruce Campbell), as a none-too-bright treasure hunter (read: thief) who inadvertently revives an evil Egyptian Princess with a plan to find a human host for the god, Set. The Princess has her eyes on Tom (presumably for the way he looks, because his character is rather irritating), and once Set moves in they’ll… I don’t know, take over the world, or yada yada, blah blah. It’s entirely possible I may have zoned out for a moment or two and missed some of the finer details.

This kickstarts a lot of big action set pieces, some dire attempts at comedy (including a huge and completely inappropriate swipe from John Landis’ seminal An American Werewolf in London), a lot of running around and away from dull CGI, and not one sequence that manages to be creepy or horrifying. Rather unfortunate for a would-be horror franchise, I’d say.

Russell Crowe shows up in an attempt to be the glue which holds together the Dark Universe but settles instead for chewing huge chunks of scenery and (presumably unintentionally) hilariously descending into a Mary Poppins/Dick Van Dyke Cockernee accent when his Doctor Henry Jekyll begins to play Hyde and seek. #sorrynorsorry

Sofia Boutella, as Princess Ahmunet/The Mummy, tries hard to do something with her role, managing to reveal shades of vulnerability through the bandages, through sheer force of will rather than anything the script gives her. It’s a shame the writers, producers and director didn’t trust the actress with more to do.

It’s astonishing and sad that Warner Bros/DC and now Universal have looked at the Marvel movies and learned nothing whatsoever from their success. When will studios understand that trying to shoehorn a shared universe into one movie is a bad idea!?

The film feels like nothing more than a checklist designed by a committee who wanted to tick off as many boxes as possible for Tom Cruise fans, giving them the kind of action they’ve grown used to from the Mission: Impossible series. Sadly this committee have seemingly never actually watched, or at least understood, a horror movie (and certainly none of the studio’s original films from the 1930s and 1940s), because bolting together a Tom Cruise action movie and a horror movie with no horror is most definitely a failed experiment that would have Doctor Frankenstein hanging his head in shame.

Finally and lethally, The Mummy is boring, it isn’t scary and the Dark Universe it tries so desperately to unwrap is dead on arrival.

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The Defenders: Better Together (And Shorter)

defenders

After the double-stumble of the generally entertaining but stuttering Luke Cage and the thoroughly tone-deaf and lazy feeling disaster of Iron Fist, the Netflix/Marvel universe was on decidedly shaky footing. It was beginning to seem like the growing promise of Daredevil and Jessica Jones had been blown in two seasons of stretched-out superheroics, so I’m happy to say that The Defenders puts our heroes firmly back on track.

Marvel’s anti-team alternative to The Avengers began in the pages of Marvel Feature # 1, in 1971, before gaining its own long-running title the following year. The reluctant, non-team initially consisted of Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner and The Hulk, but soon expanded to include a rotating cast of heroes. Although both Daredevil and Luke Cage tagged along for a while, they were never core members.

Netflix’s The Defenders takes this group in name only, instead bringing together the casts of their previous shows: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Also brought along for the ride are returning supporting characters and villains.

The first big plus point here is the big bad, none other than Sigourney Weaver. Weaver is quite obviously having fun with the role, clearly relishing her many arch lines of dialogue, but the character is given some essential moments of vulnerability too, leaving us with another in the stable of successful Marvel TV villains (after Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin and David Tennant’s Killgrave).

But you came here for the heroes, and of course The Defenders delivers these in spades. Daredevil continues to be tortured (though with some welcome added humour), Jessica Jones is all-snark and snap, Luke Cage is the picture of wounded noblility and Iron Fist is, well, he’s actually rather likeable here. Consider that a triumph after being an asshole for thirteen episodes of his own show. In fact, for long-term comic book fans, seeing long-term buddies Luke Cage and Danny Rand spar off against each other will be a genuine buzz.

Which brings us to another big score for The Defenders. I’ve said repeatedly that the fixed thirteen episode season format has harmed the Netflix/Marvel shows (even the good ones), taking interesting stories and stretching them way beyond their shelf life. The Defenders is a relatively brisk eight episodes and boy, can we feel the difference!

The first two episodes take their time to get moving, somewhat pointlessly reintroducing the various characters and their supporting casts, but they soon begin to pick up speed and then the third episode is where everything comes together: narratively and literally.

Episode three is one of the best hours of Marvel TV to date, with a fast-paced, driving narrative, kick ass action sequences, snappy dialogue and great interaction between the leads. In fact there were one or two moments that had me punching the air in delight, definitely a first for Marvel TV.

From here the story moves deliberately and enjoyably, neatly pulling together a lot of threads which had been left dangling in other shows and at last we have a show which doesn’t feel like a chore to get through. Netflix/Marvel, please take note: eight episodes is the perfect format for these shows and unless you have an incredibly compelling reason otherwise, this should be your model!

There’s still the odd bit of clunkiness lurking around and overall I’m not sure there’s too much in the way of character development (except, surprisingly, something of a maturing for Danny Rand/Iron Fist), plus The Hand have proven to amongst the most ill-defined and ineffectual bad guys ever (after four whole seasons yet) but despite these failings, and in terms of watchability, Netflix/Marvel have definitely upped their game with The Defenders. Whatever failings the show has are more than compensated for by its brisk pace and fun antics. And there is a lot of fun to be had here.

With more seasons announced for all four main characters, plus a first run for Jon Bernthal’s Punisher, it’s clear the superhero train will keep on running on Netflix. Let’s hope they learn all the right lessons from this enjoyable Marvel team-up!

Netflix’s Empty El Chapo

chapo

I’m a sucker for a good series about crime lords, gang wars and drug trafficking, so when I saw articles suggesting Netflix’s El Chapo might be their answer to The Wire, I was practically drooling.

Sadly, anyone seeing this show as being anywhere near as dramatically satisfying as David Simon’s classic tale of the narcotics trade in Baltimore is probably getting high on their own supply.

Co-produced by Netflix and Univision, El Chapo recounts the beginnings of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in 1985, when he was a low-level member of the Guadalajara cartel until his rise to power and his last fall.

Guzmán’s story makes for rich dramatic picking. From 2009 to 2011 Forbes magazine ranked him as one of the most powerful people in the world, and named him the 10th richest man in Mexico in 2011, with a net worth of roughly US$1 billion. The magazine also called him the “biggest drug lord of all time.” The U.S. federal government considered him “the most ruthless, dangerous, and feared man on the planet.” So, you know, there’s quite a lot to get your teeth into here.

There is a wealth of great material: the cartels and their various squabbles, the involvement of the U.S. government, the rise of a lowly government official to a position of power involved with the underworld, a crusading reporter, appearances by Pablo Escobar (and the show’s first real dropped ball by not getting Narco’s Wagner Moura to reprise his role, robbing us of the chance to experience a Narcos shared universe) and of course, the trials and tribulations of Guzmán himself.

The show looks fine, though it doesn’t exactly drip with period feel, but what really lets down the whole endeavour is the writing.

As I’m typing this review I’m six episodes into the nine episode run and I know literally nothing more about Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán than I did at the beginning of the first episode. Oh sure, the events are all in place and there are sporadic bursts of excitement and bloodshed, but Guzmán remains nothing more than a cypher, as in fact does every single character in the show. Guzmán stays unknowable, as does his wife, his girlfriends, friends, allies, rivals and enemies.

No one speaks about their emotions, nothing happens that’s character-driven, and no one has an inner life of any kind. The scripts must have been a doddle to write, because never before have I come across a high-profile show of this kind where the dialogue is 100% functional. Characters tell us where they’re going, what they’re going to do, who they’re going to kill or pay off… but never why.

The nearest we get to an actual living, breathing character is Humberto Busto as conniving politician Conrado Higuera Sol “Don Sol”, but even he never gets a single line of dialogue that does anything but gloss over the veneer of his actions.

As a result El Chapo is purely functional, moving people you’re not allowed to care for, empathise with or hate from one situation to another. The events themselves are interesting, but ultimately it’s a hollow shell. As drama it’s a complete disaster and an object lesson in how not to write compelling, nourishing TV because there’s no meat on El Chapo’s bones.

UPDATE: the final two episodes deal with Guzmán’s internment and also give us a glimpse of his formative years (and therefore something passing for character development). It’s a mystery why this material wasn’t spread out as flashbacks throughout the season, as it would have added sorely-needed depth.

So finally, the show ends with some improvement but sadly it was a case of too little, too late for me.

Godzilla R.I.P. – Sayonara, Haruo Nakajima

Haruo-Nakajima

Haruo Nakajima (中島 春雄 Nakajima Haruo) the Japanese suitmation actor best known for portraying Godzilla from the original movie in 1954 through twelve consecuctive films until Godzilla vs Gigan in 1972, has passed away at the age of 88.

Alongside his physically demanding role as the King of the Monsters, he performed suitmation roles as monsters in an unprecedented number of kaiju eiga including Rodan (1956), Mogera in The Mysterians (1957), Varan the Unbelievable (1958), Mothra (1960), Matango (1963), Baragon in Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), Gaira in War of the Gargantuas (1966) and even the Eighth Wonder of the World himself, King Kong in King Kong Escapes (1967). He would also work with Godzilla special effects genius Eiji Tsuburaya in a number of the popular Ultraman TV series.

Nakajima’s impressive career began at the age of 33 in Sword for Hire (1952), before taking on roles in The Woman Who Touched the Legs (1952), Eagle of the Pacific (1953) and Farewell Rabaul (1954) – both for original Godzilla director Ishirō Honda, which led directly to his casting as the beloved monster – and then Seven Samurai for Akira Kurosawa in 1954.

After his retirement from film and television work in 1973, Nakajima would become a popular and much loved figure at many Godzilla conventions around the world.

In the short film The Man Who Was Godzilla, Nakajima said: “In the end the Godzilla I played remains on film forever. It remains in people’s memory, and for that I feel really grateful.”

Rest in peace, Godzilla.

Guardians vs The Hoff in Disco Inferno!

hoff gotg

Not much to say about this one except here’s the music video released to promote the digital release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which will probably be the greatest thing you’ll see today.

Starring the entire Guardians Vol 2 crew (and director James Gunn himself) in 70s kitchen foil disco suits along with The Hoff, there’s even room for the obligatory Stan Lee cameo.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 lands on digital on August 8th and Blu-ray & 4K on August 22nd.

Enjoy, and remember: We Are Groot!

Valerian – The Flawed Jewel

Valerian-and-the-City-of-a-Thousand-Planets

I didn’t know exactly what Luc Besson would be giving us with his big budget adaptation of the Valerian and Laureline comic books, but a sci-fi film with a pro-EU message definitely came as a surprise.

Besson first seriously considered adapting Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin’s long-running comic book series while he was making The Fifth Element. The decision to hold off until special effects caught up with the imagination needed to fully realise the characters and the universe they inhabit was probably a wise one, and it has paid off handsomely.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets literally screams out to be experienced at the cinema, preferably on as big a screen as possible – and in 3D if your local theatre understands how to properly project that format. It is without a doubt one of the most visually luxuriant films you’ll see this year (and possibly many other years), and is a thing of pure, unadulterated beauty.

Besson’s film takes no prisoners, and with little pre-amble launches us into a fully-formed world (or rather, universe) and expects us to embrace the story in progress. It’s an exhilirating rush and one which might leave some viewers who expect to be spoon-fed information a little disoriented (don’t worry, there’ll be another Transformers film for them soon, I’m sure). Valerian is a Luc Besson joint, full of the off-centre tics expected from his work, and is draped in his wonderful Gallic sensibility like a well-cut designer outfit.

It’s decidely not a Hollywood cookie cutter film, instead it’s madly ambitious and joyfully exhuberant though I didn’t feel quite the same eccentric voice as The Fifth Element was being given full reign. Perhaps this film’s astonishing budget led to more pressure on Besson.

Even if this was the case, Besson has mangaged to present us with something wonderous and completely topical, because snuck in between all the talk of extra-dimensional shoppng centres, converters and space pearls is a message that seems to focus on the importance of unity between different races. And with much of the action taking place on Alpha, a space station where millions of creatures from different planets live peacefully and exchange their knowledge and cultures, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the current situation between the UK and the EU seeping through into the fabric of this production. It’s quite a thing to see but with its core message of space unity, Besson has seemingly given us the first “we’re better together, despite the problems”, anti-Brexit, sci-fi fantasy.

Cara Delevingne makes for a fetching and spiky Laureline, the camera loves her and the character is pretty much elevated to the lead role (something which might irritate comic book purists, but fuck them because it works), another quality which sees the film stand out from the crowd. Indeed the film might better be titled Laureline and the City of a Thousand Planets, which does lead me to the one big issue I had with Besson’s choices.

Dane DeHaan is a fine actor, but he has a dark, somewhat surly quality which I didn’t feel was right for this role. While there was certainly no need to have Valerian as a wisecracking, Peter Quill/Starlord clone, the chemistry with Delevingne feels somewhat unbalanced at times, and a lighter touch was needed to stop Valerian coming across as something of a creep towards his partner. While this moves their interplay away from cliche, it also undercuts vital empathy and an actor with a little more screen charm would have worked wonders. It’s a shame because this central dynamic is vital to the film, and that spark could have made a big difference. I’m sure he’d disagree (hey, it’s his movie) but for me it’s a rare moment of casting weakness from Besson.

But this unusual misstep shouldn’t deter you from seeing Valerian, for despite this it’s a big, glorious attempt to give cinema something different and in an age of blue and teal colour-graded action movies that’s to be cherished and celebrated. Valerian is a jewel of a film, albeit one with an unfortunate flaw at its heart.

If nothing else, Valerian is a cult film in the making, and I can pretty much guarantee that in fifteen or twenty years time enthusiasts will be singing its praises as one of those films that everyone should have gone to see at the cinema.

Vive le Besson!