Fragile Creatures: The Beauty And Pain of The Rider

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Chloé Zhao’s contemporary western drama, The Rider, starts out with a young man in pain, recovering, as we later see, from injuries sustained during a rodeo.

The following ninety minutes or so explore that pain further: not just the physical injuries, but the mental scars inflicted on someone whose dreams are taken from them and crushed, when he finds his body will no longer allow him to do the thing he loves most.

Shot with a cast of non-professionals (Brady Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lane Scott, and Cat Clifford) who play versions of themselves in an almost documentary style, and with a magnificent eye for beauty (several shots made me literally gasp), Zhao’s film is intimate, harrowing and painful, but also majestic, and sweeping.

Zhao keeps the camera tight on Jandreau for much of the film, and the young, non-actor gives an astonishing performance, with a minimal amount of dialogue we share his joy and pain, as the recovery he appears to make is short-lived. This world of horse trainers and rodeo riders is fragile and fraught with physical peril, but Jandreau’s character, Brady, desperately wants to stay in the saddle.

The film feels like a mixture between a later period Springsteen song and an early period Terrence Malick film (before he became TERRENCE MALICK and disappeared off into the edit suite to cut yet another interminable version of Tree of Life). Malick could benefit from watching The Rider, for while this film could stand to lose a few minutes, even with the extra fat Zhao never loses sight of the cinematic story she’s trying to tell.

So much of The Rider is ambiguous: should we admire Brady as he puts himself through another agonising experience just to keep riding? Should we sympathise when he takes on a stultifying job to make ends meet, or pity him for giving up what he loves? Zhao smartly doesn’t provide pat answers, but allows the complexities of Brady’s path to carry us through.

The Rider is a quiet, purposeful and powerful movie, shot with a true cinematic poetry, whether out on the plains or in a run-down trailer. With her second movie, Zhao has established herself as an exciting voice in cinema.

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Hereditary: New, Old-Fashioned Scares

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I’ve seen many reviews stating that Hereditary is a “new kind of horror”, and similar nonsense. In fact, there’s very little new about Ari Aster’s film, but that doesn’t mean that what he does with it won’t creep the living daylights out of you.

Rather, what Aster and co. do is not wholly rely on what have become the standard, tired tricks of a great deal of modern horror: the jump scare of something appearing in frame, or a door slamming, the sudden burst of sound and music. Instead, we are treated to long moments of dread and unease, surrounded by a film which takes its time exploring the emotions of its central characters and wrapping it all in the universal pain of grief – in particular, how we often don’t deal with it. Only once we’re pulled in by all this does Hereditary blow up with reanimated corpses and family members crawling across the ceiling.

And then, of course, it gives us that much talked about ending, which will really test whether or not the film has you in its hooks.

Hereditary begins quietly, pulling a little Stanley Kubrick Overlook maze trick from The Shining with a model house, but doesn’t do so frivolously: it’s a great unsettling moment, revealing one of the movie’s first pieces of disturbing symbolism, teasing us that there’s something not quite right about this family home. More of the film’s themes are immediately set out as we follow the family preparing for a funeral, for the mother of Toni Collette’s Annie.

Soon enough, both Annie and her two children, Peter and Charlie, are sensing things around the house and at school, and we see the family, rounded off by Gabriel Byrnes’ father, Steve, resolutely not coming to grips with not only this death but also events that have occurred in their lives previously.

Tension builds, and Aster, along with editors Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnston and committed performances by the cast, allow their film all the time it needs to do so, as we are gradually introduced to wilder events beyond the confines of the house and the family, before one of the truly great shock moments of cinema leads us into a more heightened third act, letting the story fully off the leash in the last fifteen minutes or so. One or two of the final scares and revelations almost threaten to derail the careful build, but by the time they come we’ve been engulfed enough by the family’s deterioration not to stop us from enjoying their obvious pleasures.

It’s difficult to discuss the final five minutes without veering into spoiler territory, but suffice to say the various breadcrumbs laid throughout the previous two hours are brought together in a truly off-kilter way, with an ending which reminded me both of Rosemary’s Baby and of Robert Egger’s modern classic, The Witch, being both truly horrific (as you understand the fates of two of the central characters) and utterly bizarre.

Hereditary allows a few howlers through which occasionally threaten its entry to the hallowed halls of classics such as the aforementioned Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Haunting: clunky lines of dialogue here and there (“Dad, it’s the cemetery,” “About what?”), the discovery of a book (“Guide to Spiritualism”) which might as well be labelled “plot device”, and some irritatingly, The Deadly Bees level superimposed flies (yes, I’m being nit-picky, but these elements stand out like sore thumbs in an otherwise classy affair like this).

But despite these caveats, Hereditary works like a dark charm because it picks at a sore scab and works at it: grief is something most of us struggle with, and while we may not conjure up dead loved ones in an effort to deal with that grief – or at least, I presume we don’t – we are given time to empathise with the very real and raw emotions experienced by the film’s family, and the unravelling of that family as a result of their inability to deal with their pain. And that’s true horror, after all, even with the addition of a meddling witch’s coven.

To return to my original point, Hereditary might not actually offer us something new, but it does what it does to a mostly masterful level, where the simple sound of a vocal clicking is made scary, and follows the lead of John Carpenter’s Halloween by using the frame to create unease.

And if you’re unfortunate enough to have dealt with death and the ensuing emotions we’re left with, it will resonate long after a dozen pump-up-the-volume, jump scare Paranormal Nun horror movies have faded into one another.

This Is The End – Avengers: Infinity War * spoiler free review

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The Marvel films have always struggled with villains, it’s a frequently heard complaint that few villains beyond Loki and, arguably, Erik Killmonger, have left too much of an impression. So let’s get this right out there – not only was Thanos worth waiting for, but he instantly ranks at the top of the hall of infamy.

There was concern that the Mad Titan would be a let down, that he couldn’t possibly live up to the almost ten-year build which has led us to this point. But the combination of a wonderfully layered performance from Josh Brolin and superlative animation effects work brings Jim Starlin’s deranged creation to full, terrifying life in Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.

This feat is even more impressive in a film which (as I’m sure you know from the hype) brings together all the expected characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and perhaps even some unexpected ones).

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo (and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) do a splendid job of pulling together an increasingly active number of franchises, giving most characters a neat arc and/or several great moments, though there are exceptions, inevitable even with a two-hour forty minute running time, and a certain amount of shorthand is definitely at play. That they manage this without spending an hour on exposition is a minor miracle, and a testament to deft storytelling (and the good will engendered by eighteen previous films).

There’s an undeniable frisson of excitement (especially for a Marvel geek like me) to see new combinations of characters, having Spider-Man and Doctor Strange interact left me with the biggest grin on my face, but the filmmakers know they need more than just a Marvel Team-Up to make a satisfying film.

There are real stakes here, literally the fate of the universe (or half of it… you’ll see…) hangs in the balance, with a number of different strands occurring in different locations on different worlds, and the action feels all the more vital because Marvel have taken the time to build these worlds and make us care for the characters. And it’s no spoiler to say your emotions will really be put through the wringer – I wept a solitary, manly tear on more than one occasion.

But don’t think the threat of the universe coming to an end or talk of tears means it’s all doom and gloom: this is a thrill-a-minute adventure that hits the ground running and barely lets up on the action, but as usual it’s mixed in with some fabulous and funny character interplay – Thor with Peter Quill and Doctor Strange with Tony Stark bring unexpected delights.

There’s also a distinct feel here of the beginning of a changing of the guard – the first ten years of Marvel movies has seen a very definite roster of characters and Infinity War shows us that the company’s willingness to shake things up is part of what makes them so successful, and which lends even more weight to the story, of course. Even the obligatory post-credit scene nods in that direction (it’s a nod that literally made me whoop in the cinema).

Is there a downside to all this? I suspect that a casual filmgoer would be rather lost but y’know in that case, get with the Marvel game like the rest of the population, I guess.

Avengers: Infinity War is a huge, and hugely exciting, comic book, sci-fi epic that really sees the gutsy long-game approach taken by Marvel pay off, giving us the Empire Strikes Back of their bold, long form narrative, and finally giving the Marvel Cinematic Universe its own Darth Vader, a cosmic villain with a welcome emotional core.

And really, so as not to wander into the spoiler zone, that’s about all I can say, except that this is the huge Marvel adventure we’ve been waiting for.

This is the end*… but bring on May 3, 2019 and Avengers 4 as soon as possible please, I only have so many fingernails left to chew through.

*Speaking of the end, you KNOW to stay right through to the very end of the credits, right…!?

Franco’s Film Is No Disaster – The Disaster Artist

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When talking about James Franco’s The Disaster Artist it’s probably best to get the elephant in the room (no pun intended) out of the way first.

Franco has had a number of troubling accusations leveled against him, and while trial by social media is a dangerous arena you’re going to have to put them aside if you want to enjoy this film as it’s the Franco show all the way.

Still with me? Okay, well this recent news is made all the more sad and frustrating because Franco has made one hell of a film. Telling the story of the unlikely friendship of Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero, and their even unlikelier journey to making one of the truly great cult movies of all time, The Room.

If you’ve ever seen that remarkable creation, or have knowledge of the bizarre circumstances of the film’s production, you’ll understand that it would have been all too easy to make The Disaster Artist from a position of sneering at its subject. Instead, Franco and co have crafted something which not only gets as close to finding the man beneath the enigma that is Wiseau (who lies about both his age and background) as we’re ever likely to get, but does so with a surprising amount of heart and frailty. More importantly we’re allowed to see the sheer force of will it took Wiseau to self-finance and write, produce, direct and star in his own movie. Fans of The Room will not be disappointed at the lovingly recreated sections of that most bizarre of movies (and stick around until the end of the credits for a typically gonzo appearance from Wiseau himself).

Anybody who has ever attempted an act of creativity will empathise with Wiseau and marvel at the true story of something that became derided but loved by millions of moviegoers. Much like Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, this is a film about the outsider and one which celebrates and exalts that position.

It’s possible Franco is about to get firsthand experience of being a Hollywood outsider, and if the allegations against him are proved true then that will be deservedly so, but until we know more I’m going to judge the film on its own merits, and this is a warts-and-all look at a true individual and is one of the most enjoyable movies I’ve seen in a long time. Highly recommended.

“This Is Not Going To Go… The Way You Think!” – Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Spoiler Free Review)

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“This is not going to go… the way you think!”

Luke Skywalker’s ominous words, highlighted in the trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, could easily stand as the film’s throughline.

The overwhelming message of Star Wars: The Last Jedi is that families are complicated and move in unexpected directions. It also has a lot to say about being screwed up by our fathers.

Overwhelming also accurately describes what I felt about the film at the end of its two and a half hour journey. It’s somewhat overlong but it features some astonishing action sequences, is one of the visually richest Star Wars films and contains what might be my single favourite moment from the entire franchise.

In many ways, The Last Jedi mirrors both the darkness and structure of the Original Trilogy’s middle film, The Empire Strikes Back, but writer and director Rian Johnson is smart enough to take off into some truly wild new directions during the final third.

Picking up right where The Force Awakens left us, this new installment hits the ground running and the pace barely lets up. The expanding group of characters, old and new are pretty successfully juggled so that everyone is given satisfying arcs, this particularly benefits Oscar Issac’s Poe Dameron, and Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill as Leia and Luke. Daisy Ridley continues to command the screen, especially in her dealings with Adam Driver, their interactions are electric.

John Boyega gets to play off new-to-the-franchise Kelly Marie Tran – both of who are great value but unfortunately shuffled into the film’s weakest thread – a trip to a casino world that’s given a decent barbed comment on the social structure of the Star Wars galaxy but feels rather unnecessary, structurally, and also, dare I say it, feels rather like an outtake from the dreaded Prequels. Indeed, this thread also manages to waste the always welcome presence of Benecio Del Toro.

While Johnson’s generosity to give everyone breathing room is commendable it does also see The Last Jedi surrender some of Empire’s structural elegance in favour of a more scattershot approach that leaves the film feeling a little overstuffed.

Still, this is a film with more on its mind than just rehashing the franchise for a new generation or showing off special effects. The relationship dynamics established are nicely developed, and not all in ways you might be expecting, Johnson keeps things surprising, and manages that to the very last frames. The Last Jedi is drenched in darkness but garnished with light and hope.

The consequences of familial actions, in particular those of fathers, is a deep running vein through the film, but it also suggests that family finds its own shape and can be forged in new ways.

Alongside all the drama Johnson gives us breathless action and some of the most gorgeous filmmaking and visuals of the series, using the colour red to particularly strong effect. An opening space battle and a dizzying lightsabre battle are among the highlights.

There are lots of callbacks (visually and thematically) to both Empire and Return of the Jedi, and a beautiful closing moment for one character which returns us right to the heart of Star Wars (Episode IV). To say any more would involve spoilers, but suffice to say there are some big emotional pay-offs.

As I mentioned before, The Last Jedi also features a sequence, possibly my favourite of the franchise, so balls-out audacious that it more than makes up for any deficiencies the film might have. You’ll know it when it arrives, a moment so glorious and exciting it will leave you very happy that Johnson is forging the future of Star Wars with his upcoming new trilogy.

I’m not certain The Last Jedi is quite the masterpiece many have been proclaiming, it’s too inelegant for that, but it’s eager to please and will leave you exhausted as you emerge from the cinema. It’s a shot of pure Star Wars adrenaline.

Like family, The Last Jedi is messy and doesn’t go the way you think. Ultimately though, you can’t help but love it.

Epic! The Avengers: Infinity War Trailer Is Here…

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The trailer for Avengers: Infinity War has landed and, wow… you need to see this:


I know, right!?

It’s not the same trailer that wowed audiences at this summer’s San Diego Comic-Con (yes, yes, I peaked at the leaked version) but if anything it feels even more epic.

Rumours are running rife that this may be the last time we see some of these characters (at least in their present forms), so better make the most of… hm, well, that would be telling, right!? In the meantime, we can look forward to the ultimate Marvel Cinematic Universe mash-up of The Avengers, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther and the Guardians of the Galaxy as they face up against the Josh Brolin-shaped cosmic might of Thanos.

Avengers: Infinity War arrives May 8th, 2018. The hype starts here…

Have You Heard The One About Thor: Ragnarok?

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Thor: Ragnarok has laughs. Plenty of them. Perhaps too many. Allow me to explain…

I’ll start by saying there is a huge amount to love about Marvel’s third solo outing for the God of Thunder. First of all it’s the most fully rounded vision of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby’s four-colour hero to date, Kirby’s cosmic visuals are like a roadmap for Thor: Ragnarok. It’s also yet another step forward for both the Thor solo franchise and indeed the Marvel Cinematic Universe in embracing its comic book roots.

There’s little desire to coddle non-comic book fans with grounded scenes set on Earth (and the whistle-stop moments we do get on our home planet actually push things into even geekier comic books realms, particularly in one cameo sequence, teased at the end of a previous movie). Within the first twenty minutes or so we’ve been taken to Hell (or the Norse equivalent), Asgard (including another couple of genuinely jaw-dropping cameos), Earth and then into the vast reaches of outer space. It’s all colourful, exciting and breathtaking, and the pace doesn’t really let up, cutting between Thor’s adventures in space and events back on Asgard.

We’re also given the best version of the onscreen Hulk yet, realised by Mark Ruffalo along with state of the art mo-cap, animation and fine attention to detail with character so he now has full Hulk-speak dialogue scenes (and jokes) with other characters. Special mention to Tessa Thompson too, for giving us a delightful, kick ass version of a much-loved Marvel character. I really hope we see more of her in future movies. Idris Alba is given a little more screen time as Heimdall but still feels wasted. Director Waititi features as another comic character, alien stone man Korg, engaging and pretty much played for laughs.

The film also mostly succeeds in breaking the curse of the underwhelming Marvel villains by giving us several of them, all in various hues and shades of villainy. Cate Blanchett is obviously having a bad guy ball as Hela, Queen of the Underworld, Karl Urban crops up to reaffirm his geek cred as Skurge, The Executioner, there’s the ever mercurial Loki brilliantly essayed by Tom Hiddleston, of course, plus we have Jeff Goldblum doing his best Jeff Goldblum thing as The Grandmaster. They’re all layered, interesting and fun.

Ah yes, then we get to the laughs. Ragnarok might best be described as Marvel’s first comedy, so far do Waititi and his team push the humour of the film. I’m all about seeing Marvel broaden their canvas, playing with expectations and giving each film a fresh tone,  an approach that’s paid dividends with the likes of James Gunn and it mostly pays off here as this is most definitely a Taiki Waititi film. It’s an approach which should help the longevity of Marvel movies and keep audiences on their toes (and anyone who thinks of Marvel films as being cookie cutter affairs really needs to open their eyes to the palettes of movies as far apart as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and now Thor: Ragnarok).

So far, so Marvel dandy. However, we’re also here for the drama, and occasionally the jokes are laid on so relentlessly in Thor: Ragnarok that they frequently end up severely undercutting the drama.

A major event, foreshadowed all the way through, actually comes to pass near the end of the movie. It should be quite the dramatic moment, as it affects most of the characters and shakes up some of the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So, a big deal. There’s a nice, humorous set up to the moment, then straight after it happens any drama arising from the scene is wiped out with a not particularly firing-on-all-cylinders quip. It’s unnecessary, and damaging to our empathy for the characters we’ve been following for six years since Kenneth Branagh’s first Thor movie. That’s quite an investment, and one that takes a hit for the sake of a throwaway gag.

I should reiterate, Waititi and Marvel have produced a top-notch film which will undoubtedly leave you with a smile on your face and the knowledge you’ve spent a good night out at the cinema. But finding that sweet spot between drama and humour takes a careful aim, and this time it feels like Thor’s hammer missed the target by a few inches.

More Human Than… Blade Runner 2049

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Let’s get this out of the way first: Blade Runner 2049 has not resulted in the kind of film I feared it would be when I first heard that this belated sequel would happen and thought: “That has to be the worst idea in the history of bad ideas.”

Quite the opposite, in fact. Director Denis Villeneuve, screenwriters Hampton Fancher (also partly responsible for the original) & Michael Green, executive producer Ridley Scott and their crew have offered up one of the most powerful science fiction films of the new millennium. It’s been a long time, in fact, since we’ve been given a cinematic experience as pure as this.

Set 30 years after Scott’s classic, the sequel sees a mystery set in place when Ryan Gosling’s Blade Runner retires a Replicant-in-hiding who has been guarding a secret which could change the course of the world forever.

From just that plot description it’s clear this is no mere retread of the first movie, which had a fairly contained hunter versus hunted narrative.

Villeneuve and company paint on a much broader canvas, and this time the questions seem to revolve around not what it is to be human, but what it is to be more than human. It has an utterly palpable mood of tense gloom, giving you the constant feeling that something big and awful is about to happen, but it does this by widening the scope of Scott’s world, which is quite an act to pull off.

The music (by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, with plenty of nods to Vangelis) is bold and wonderful, the sound design by Theo Green and Mark Mangini is overwhelming and the cinematography by the cinematic god that is Roger Deakins is dazzling and beautiful, all of which work together to produce something that absolutely demands to be seen on the big screen. As big a screen as possible.

Gosling is great in the lead (as ‘K’), and while it’s a little difficult to go into depth on his role while avoiding spoilers, he finds just the right balance of what must have been a tricky character to get right. The rest of the cast is filled out by superb actors who know how to make the best of smaller roles, but the film really belongs to Gosling and, of course, Harrison Ford.

Ford returns as Blade Runner, Deckard, and I honestly can’t recall when I last saw him so fully engaged and fully immersed in a role. He is magnificent, Deakins’ camera loving every deep crag and crevice on his sandblasted face, and is a full-on the movie star of the old guard. I hope this is the beginning of a renaissance for the actor, because I’ve missed seeing him do great work onscreen.

There is a slight thorn in this rose, however. An unfortunate element that stands out is that the future as presented here is very much patriarchal: street-walkers roam in packs, artificial women are everywhere, as companions and toys for men, their sole aim to pleasure. And there’s a great deal of violence towards women (four female characters are brutally murdered). This troublesome theme pushes to the forefront of the story with Jared Leto’s Wallace, as he casually kills one of the synthetics his company has just given birth to. It’s a (deliberately) horrific scene, and I’m still trying to decide whether this is a deliberate part of the texturing, a barbed comment on misogyny in society and even if so, whether it was a necessary choice for the film. I’m not so sure.

I love the original with a vengeance, and while I’m glad they didn’t attempt to replicate (…sorry…) that film, what results is a somewhat colder effort than Scott’s remarkable and enduring tone poem, and only time will tell whether this will similarly work its way into my affections.

It’s rather like hearing  a new track by Led Zeppelin, riffing on one of your favourite Beatles songs, you know you’re getting something astonishing but you’re not sure if you’ll grow to love it.

However, against all the odds, Blade Runner 2049 is a towering achievement, a smart, powerful juggernaut of a movie which ultimately suggests something akin to hope for mankind. In an era of cookie cutter sequels that we’ve been given a sequel to a great movie that forges it’s own unique path is close to a miracle, which means that, much like the original, it’s a film which comments on its own premise (you’ll need to see the film to fully understand that).

Movies like this don’t come along too often and when they do we should celebrate them. Go to a cinema and experience it.

 

This Mummy Should Have Stayed Buried…

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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.