“Baby Driver” (2017): Music To My Earbuds

Comedies are so flatly directed these days. While many aim for the improvised laugh style of Judd Apatow, they hardly get the type of visual vibrancy that can really enhance a joke. While his latest isn’t a flat out comedy, writer/director Edgar Wright still displays his usual panache in both funny and brutal ways throughout Baby Driver. After a brief delay caused by production problems on Ant-Man, Wright shows off his skills as a true auteur with a vision as Baby Driver commits to the type of carefully crafted filmmaking Wright does best. There’s clearly inspiration all over the place, mainly for 60s/70s car chase films like Bullitt that show Wright is a fan of that era. Yet, the story has a modern digital sheen and colorful display of confidence that speaks to his specific abilities as a director.

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Given its premise of a getaway driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort) getting mixed up in his final-job-gone-wrong, the story of Baby Driver isn’t an unfamiliar one. The basic plot is more than a bit predictable, showing that Wright – who has a sole writing credit for the first time in his career – is far more focused on the details rather than building too elaborate a story. There aren’t as many of the perfectly set up and called back jokes or moments that he and Simon Pegg put into the scripts for Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead. Yet, it’s not like the story built by Wright here is lazy or poorly plotted because it’s simple. The story provides solid terrain for the set pieces and moments of pure adrenaline to drive on as things become more chaotically visual along the way. A fable of searching for a better life that collides our characters into one another. We’re given enough to feel invested in our titular driver and his struggles with a life he’s grown accustomed to. His relationships with his boss/mentor (Kevin Spacey) or his newfound love interest (Lily James) are both simple on the surface, but have enough charm and grey morality to keep the drama going on when pedal isn’t being put to the metal.

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Besides, that pedal metaling is what Baby Driver aims to mainly sell and boy is that sold so damn well. Baby Driver has such meticulous craft to every single frame. Not just with how a car chase scene is shot, which is immaculate in every instance. It’s also in the flow of the editing, which gives us the type of brilliant beat-for-beat set up that has been missing from so many modern action films. Every single chase and action scene has this meticulous timing. Quick cuts to show impact, long takes to show the incredibly tense intricate stunt work.Not some chopped-to-oblivious exercise in headaches that passes for modern action film editing. All of this is shot with a poppy sense of lively adventure by Bill Pope. Each moment has pinpoint purpose that Wright lacks any delusion about.

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All of this is extenuated by the various other technical elements. The sound design hits a chord so deep that it penetrates the spine as one sits to watch. Every song on the soundtrack  gives the most propulsive slap to the eardrums that speaks wonderfully to the scene at hand. Wright has always had a great penchant for soundtrack choices, from Shaun of the Dead‘s iconic use of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now to Scott Pilgrim Vs The World‘s hilarious use of The Door’s Alabama Song. In Baby Driver, the track list feels like a blistering rush of creative gumption. We see Baby planning actions to the beats, getting the audience firmly planted in his head space. We see how the music drives him, allowing us to ride in the backseat of his decision making in ways that elaborate dialogue would contrive us to connect to. It’s not just style over substance. The style IS the substance that connects us to the character, his journey and his motivations.

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Baby Driver also benefits from a pretty stellar cast. Elgort is a baby faced marvel of quiet brooding, showing an unflinching confidence that’s tempered by an adorable vulnerability. When he emphasizes his need for music, it feels like far more than just an impulsive tick. And so much of that is conveyed through small interactions and facial movements. Lily James is adorable, but not totally reliant on Baby to be investing. She’s a sweet hard working woman who just wants escape from the mundane. Something Baby gives her a peak at through his unconventional personality. They are circled by an impressive roster of a supporting cast. Kevin Spacey balancing sleaze with respectful action. Jamie Foxx exuding menace and charm with relative ease. Jon Hamm showing wide range of personality that extends far beyond his recent Mad Men hushed tones or Bridesmaids comedic wit.

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All of this provides the stew that makes Baby Driver a delicious treat. There’s not a single frame here that feels wasted. Much in the same way 2015’s Max Max: Fury Road took a simple story and used it as the core of a very visual way to connect us to it’s characters, Baby Driver is a technical marvel to behold. Yet, it doesn’t forget to use this stylish overlay to keep us invested in what’s going on. One could easily dismiss this as flashy pop nonsense that uses its actors as window dressing. Yet, that could all very easily be thrown out the side door. Modern blockbusters love to throw shiny things at the screen to distract us from their convoluted plots and underwhelming characters. While the characters in Baby Driver aren’t as detailed, their actions speak louder than conversations. They’re driven – heh – to their moments by the stylish roadways of A-to-B. Edgar Wright knows how to make every stylish moment matter. Every homage work within this new context. The use of songs mean something more than just “here’s what’s on my Spotify playlist, y’all!” In that way, Baby Driver is honestly taking the type of filmmaking Quentin Tarantino made famous and doing a far better job of capturing the pop culture splash of fun & tension than he has in about a decade.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 160GB iPods

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“The Book Of Henry” (2017): A Book Missing A Spine

SPOILER WARNING: This review contains spoilers for The Book of Henry. Proceed at your own risk.

Director Colin Trevorrow is rising up in the world. In 2015, he made Jurassic World which managed to be one of the highest grossing films of all time. It was a job so lucrative that he managed to get a job directing Star Wars: Episode IX. Of course, his career didn’t start that way. Prior to this, he worked in TV and short documentaries before eventually making his feature film debut with Safety Not Guaranteed, a grounded sci-fi dramedy that mainly relied on character interaction. It’s a highly underrated film that quite honestly has far more heart in it than any second of Jurassic World. So, before he steps into space, Trevorrow decides to get back to his routes with the independent film The Book of Henry. Not an uncommon move for a director who started out in the indie scene, but would he be able to capture that same charm he got to bubble in the surface for Safety Not Guaranteed? Or did Jurassic World truly rip him of any sense of convincing emotional engagement?

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Well, that accusation is a bit unfair, given Trevorrow doesn’t have a writing credit on The Book of Henry like he did on his two previous features. Comic book writer Gregg Hurwitz is the credited screenwriter and in many ways, the titular Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is a superhero. He’s a child with an incredibly high IQ. He’s far beyond the intellectual thought of his fellow eleven year olds in school, making elaborate inventions and handling all the financial planning for his mother Susan (Naomi Watts) & brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay ). Plus, Henry is also planning a rather decisive plot against his neighbor Police Chief Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris), who he believes is abusing his stepdaughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler). Henry is the Superman that keeps his world from tumbling, with his mother, brother and even many of his classmates relying on his genius to help them through life’s biggest troubles.

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This is all meant to be so precocious. The Book of Henry assumes we’ll be wildly charmed and endeared to this entire group because they rely on an eleven year old for so much. This makes sense for his younger brother Peter, who actually feels like a real child. Jacob Tremblay gives a believable childlike performance. When Jacob is disappointed in his life’s downturns, he has this authentic sadness on his face that carries us through moments of the film. His mixture of regret and youthful charm is infectiously cute yet emotionally honest enough to not be maudlin. It’s a shame literally NO ONE ELSE took Tremblay’s lead.

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The emotional manipulation on display in The Book of Henry is insulting. Every twenty minutes has a massive tonal shift. We go from this precocious family dramedy to a medical drama to a family grieving movie to a thriller within the span of an hour and forty five minutes. There is absolutely no smooth transition going on here and a juxtaposition that honestly feels flabbergasting on a story and directorial level. We cut between a children’s talent show and an elaborated attempted assassination like this is The Godfather, which completely distracts from any sort of emotional investment. The emotional whiplash is paralyzing here, making The Book of Henry feel like the disappointing spawn of the worst Lifetime Original Movie, the worst Amblin movie and the worst dark thriller film ever made. Any emotional tether we had to this story died the moment Henry spoke his first line, but only managed to rapidly decompose by the time he breaths his last breath.

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Jaeden Lieberher – despite his impressive work in last year’s Midnight Special with a more sci-fi style gifted character – is the type of far-too-smart genius/socially outcasted child that grates on the nerves. Every philosophical flight of fancy he spouts distances himself further from any sort of human behavior. He has the type of confidence that makes him feel more like the father of this family than the oldest son. Makes some sense, given that the father is written off as having left the boys and Susan. Still, so much is put on this kid’s plate that it honestly feels like some form of abuse for Susan to be so reliant on this kid to simply keep this household together. Even as he is dying from this tumor in his brain, Henry has little emotional contemplation, instead trying to work out everything before anyone else can say it. He manages to even be smug and unlikable as a child on his damn deathbed.

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Susan’s inability to decide makes this even worse. Especially given she literally can’t make the choice to give consent to allow her child to have surgery as he is having violent seizures without asking that very same child for his thoughts. The same woman who spends more time playing video games than doing any sort of tough decision making, even after Henry’s death. Now, while all of that behavior is awful, one could maybe forgive that if The Book of Henry gives her some sort of arc. And it sort of tries? “Sort of” is being very kind, given she spends the fallout of Henry’s death by brain tumor going with the meticulous plan he mapped out to catch the abuse going on next door for her step by step… until moments before she could commit the awful deed. Keeping in mind this involves:

  1. Completely accepting that any kind of outside help is out of the question
  2. Buying an illegal assault weapon
  3. Training herself to shoot this weapon instead of providing for her living son or even watching out for him
  4. Establishing an alibi of being at a talent show
  5. Setting up a trap by baiting the police chief neighbor with… a bird call via walkie talkie taped to a tree?
  6. Shooting that man from her sons’ clubhouse and discarding all evidence

She manages to go with five out of six of those steps, only stopping short because she realizes that Henry was “a child” via photos of him as a child that conveniently pop up there thanks to an invention he had in his clubhouse. It’s meant to be the big emotional crux of The Book of Henry, but it reads as hollow to a enraging degree. There’s so much talk of Henry not being a parent and that he didn’t teach her how to be a mom… but she’s a horrendously untrustworthy parent. No good mother would take so long to question this elaborate set up that is going on. No good mother would intensely play video games and dump all fiscal responsibility on her eleven year old son without any sort of fight. No good mother would THEN ask him to take things easy and not accept any responsibility for what’s going on. All of this makes Susan emotionally immature to the point of neglect… yet she ends up getting total custody of the abused girl next door at the end?!

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None of this is helped by the lack of any concrete adult character in The Book of Henry. Dean Norris just sort of scowls out the side of his face like a mad puppy without any kind of guidance. Sarah Silverman is here to have an implied alcohol problem, look pretty and kiss a dying child on the lips in an incredibly creepy fashion. Lee Pace is… just there to smile and be at least a foot taller than every other cast member. All are passing ships in the night to get our more prominent and horrendous lead characters from Point A to Point B. The other authority figures are dense to the point of being pretty much on level with Henry’s classmates, including the principal (Tonya Pinkins) who can’t seem to see the lack of emotion on Christina’s face.

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Then again, much of that has to do with Maddie Ziegler having little to no resemblance to human behavior. Of course, we also don’t have any real weight to the child abuse elements. The Book of Henry is willing to let us wade through a child dying from sudden brain tumor death and an elaborate plan to kill a corrupt cop, but not once show the true lasting consequences of the abuse. The child abuse here is magically hand waved as merely making Christina feel mopey. We get no context from her point of view or lingering effects beyond Ziegler sort of acting aloof. Henry even references bruises that we never see, perhaps to show the implied-but-never-developed Machiavellian brilliance of her stepfather to cover up this abuse. One might blame this young actress, but when even Naomi Watts can’t make any of this anywhere near authentic, there has to be something wrong with the direction.

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Colin Trevorrow does a decent job with all the technical aspects of The Booky Of Henry, but misses the character stuff at every single turn. Which is fatal. Any solid visual or moody bit of lighting falls flat when the characterization feels as emotionally hollow as most everyone is here. This is really where my worries come for him taking on Star Wars next. The way he handles the family dynamics here show a complete tone deafness for what is actually going on vs the foolhardy attempts at getting us to the end of all this. For all the big moments of spectacle, the thing that has kept us connected to Star Wars really has always been the familial level connection between the characters. Even if he didn’t write this, the fact that he was willing to sign on to this based on the very basic story beats shows a lack of self awareness. With Trevorrow handles this story, I am highly sceptical of how Episode IX will end the new trilogy. Hell, at least Jurassic World was more consistent.

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Anyhoo, The Book of Henry is one of the absolute worst films of the year so far. It’s astonishing how inept this feels on the most basic story level. One wonders how this story got passed the outline stage, let alone script completion and green lighting. Despite the technical craft on display that’s tolerable, there’s no authentic emotional grounding beyond Jacob Tremblay’s character and performance. Everyone else is either a hollow husk of a character or a completely unrealistic perception of humanity. Nothing here gives us an emotional grounding worth following. All of this comes off as genuinely naive on a storytelling level, to the point where every decision is questionable on every layer. The few moments of self awareness are fleeting, more as a brief write off to attempt to dispel anyone’s questioning. Unfortunately, The Book of Henry writes itself into so many corners, providing solutions that merely boxes itself into another corner on the opposite side of the wall. It’s both excessive in its attempts to be cute and painful in how it attempts to deviate from that into genuine drama or tension.

Rating: 0.5 Out of 5 Pages from Henry’s Book

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“Cars 3” (2017): Rules of the Road (And This World) Don’t Apply

The ever popular incredibly unsettling universe of vehicles without humans is back, baby! Cars 3 features race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) trying to find himself back on the track. Despite issues with the overall premise and execution of the universe created in 2006’s Cars, this plotline is at least a return to basics. In fairness, this is following the disastrously awful Cars 2, which took the simple premise of “race cars go vroom” and turned it into a subpar Austin Powers style spy parody. Leaving McQueen in the dust so his sidekick Mater the Tow Truck (Larry the Cable Guy) could hog the spotlight obnoxiously. Now, McQueen’s racing foibles are back in the spotlight and Matter is used very sparingly… even though he gets to say “Git R Done” twice. Returning to the sports story is a far better route for Cars 3 to travel. The question is does Cars 3 have good enough Lightyear brand tires to run that terrain?

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Well… sure. Cars 3 is a very simple “comeback story”/”training the next generation” sports movie. A Rocky Balboa that transforms into Creed. There’s not much to it. Still, it’s a step up from Cars 2. Unfortunately, the passage of time really isn’t felt because of something like Cars 2. In the original film, McQueen is a rookie. A rebel who doesn’t play by anyone’s rules, to the point of losing track of the journey rather than the destination. Now – after a stupid spy movie that used Lightning’s racing as the thinnest excuse for Matter to be an ass – he’s suddenly supposed to be an ancient car. Sure, there’s a montage that tries to emphasize this, but it feels underwhelming and rushed as a way of making up for lost time. We never really got the chance to see Lightning as the head honcho in his heyday, which deflates the power of seeing him crash and be accused of being past his prime.

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This is obviously a commentary on modern technology (vehicular or otherwise) and how quickly we leave the past in the dust. These newer more aggressive high tech cars like Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) don’t have an appreciation for the old style that McQueen managed to have, giving him the role reversal of the first film with Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a high tech trainer who hasn’t had any real world experience. She is learning more than McQueen is at a certain point, turning from a reliance on tech to an appreciation for the real dirt in between your toes – er, I mean treads in tires. Cars 3 builds this chemistry solidly, particularly with a rather over the top demolition derby scene… even if thinking about that scene in context for even a moment makes one question the bloodsports going on in this universe. The high energy back and forth between Alonzo and Wilson is what keeps this boat afloat, especially when interacting with the likes of business tycoon Sterling (Nathan Fillion) or the crazed roller derby bus Miss Fritter (Lea DeLaria).

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Much in the way that the Toy Story trilogy deals with the legacy and meaning of items, Cars 3 tries to inject some of this pathos into its universe. The relationship between McQueen and his mentor from the first film Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman, who has a bit of new audio inserted into this) plays heavily into the themes here. As McQueen looks at his own failure, he remembers the wipeout that put out Doc so harshly. Both McQueen and Cruz are lost and need a shot to prove themselves, making them mutually grow to learn from their past greed or misguidedness in order to learn what it truly means to race. One does feel the impact in the rather brutal crash scene that sends him out of commission. It’s a noble idea, especially with the additional factor of the hand off being to a female & hispanic… car. Diversity models can come from anywhere, I suppose.

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Yet, the world of Cars 3 continues to crumble because these stories are so simple. With Toy Story or Monsters Inc, there are plenty of questions going on about this universe. Hell, sites like Cracked or Buzzfeed have made an industry out of over questioning these premises and packaging them into articles that “Ruin Your Childhood.” Yet, when watching those films, one never really questions what’s going on on that macro level because the micro character focused level matters so much more. With Cars 3 and the entire Cars franchise, those emotions don’t hit as high because the stories and characters are ultimately so simple. Like a mini-van with rather limited features.

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The animation is up to the usual Pixar standard, as it is rather immaculate on that level. The shine on these cars and the rustic vs high tech nature of the varying settings is grounded in a reality that gives this world some stability. This stands out especially well when we see old footage of Doc Hudson racing, with the projected film having just the right amount of grain to recreate the past. Yet, it’s not enough to keep the emotional investment that consistent. It’s lush style without much substance. Now, there’s nothing wrong with these films being more focused on broader childish appeal, but Cars 3 wants to have it both ways without doing the work. Paying lip service to the introspective themes of legacy while throwing in silly moments of vehicles doing pratfalls. Cars 3 is less a Pixar film and more like a lesser studio trying and failing to catch the right mojo to appealing to everyone consistently instead of one audience member age group at a time.

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Of course, a big part of the confusion here is mainly the fault of this world building. When the story doesn’t distract, this entire human-less vehicle driven universe falls apart. Cars 3 throws unfunny puns and visual gags at the screen to reference our modern culture… but the lack of a laugh just leaves us time to unravel the horrific what ifs at play. For example, at one point the cars go to a resturaunt referred to as a “bar and grill.” These personified vehicles do drink oil… but what do they grill? Is it the tractor cows we keep seeing? And if they do grill the tractor cows, does that make them cannibals? What makes a tractor less personified than a regular car, to the point of not being able to speak? Is it some form of car evolution? Did those tractors evolve into the regular cars our lead characters resemble? Does that mean Jackson Storm and the other new racing cars are the next link in the evolutionary chain? Is McQueen fighting the progression of his species by wanting to race? HOW IN THE HELL DOES ANY OF THIS WORK?!

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These are all questions that the story should be able to distract us from. Cars 3 does attempt to ground the story in its characters, though while servicing some of its least endearing elements like puns. McQueen’s line of “Life’s a Beach, Then Your Drive” is a low gut punch to those who respect their intelligence. It truly is lesser rate Pixar material, despite the gorgeous animation and a nudge towards developing the characters. A noble, but ultimately middling effort that’ll at least be appreciated for not referencing Matter’s past as a spy car. Still, Pixar’s bottom of the barrell is at least better than much of the animated material that gets tossed out there. A parent will likely be looking back fondly on this as they’re forced to sit through this summer’s Emoji Movie.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Pairs of Lightning McQueen Mudflaps

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THE MUMMY (2017): Dark Universe Ain’t Lit

The Universal Monsters were the original cinematic universe. Long before DC & Marvel got their chance Dracula, Frankenstein and indeed The Mummy crossed over. Whether it be to fight or bumble around Abbott and Costello, the popular monsters met each other on multiple occasions. Now, Universal is calling back to this with their newly branded “Dark Universe.” A lot of The Mummy sets up this connected universe. Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe) is our Nick Fury, the leader of a secret organization set on collecting and studying these supernatural creatures. Well, studying and killing them. Which upsets the people who were being chased by The Mummy (Sofia Boutella). Who is trying to bring back an evil Egyptian god in human form. Are you losing track? Don’t worry. It’ll be exposited to you every twenty minutes.

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The Mummy is a pretty frustrating experience. It’s the ultimate example of putting the cart before the horse in terms of trying to start up a massive franchise without laying solid groundwork. The Marvel Cinematic Universe focused on making a good Iron Man movie without heavily bombarding the audience with teases for a new universe. Hell, even DC tried to do that with Man of Steel. Here, the titular villain becomes much more of a means to an end rather than an intimidating presence to fight against. Boutella tries her best, attempting to give her undead goddess a slinky confidence that’s more than the script could give her. Especially when her ultimate purpose is to unleash dull CG windstorm/rats/shambling corpses upon the world. Still, she and a rather game Russell Crowe as intellectual Dr. Jekyll/cockney tumbler Mr. Hyde are at least trying to give this some life. Though we don’t focus on them nearly enough.

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Instead, most of our time is spent with Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), a two faced thief and liar that’s supposed to be our hero. While attempting to have some kind of redemption arc, Nick helps his generic love interest/damsel in distress Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) once. Then, after said saving, Nick consistently leaves her to die, disrespects her knowledge and treats any kind of supernatural force without an ounce of gravity. While not Tom Cruise’s worst film in recent memory, The Mummy features a rare Cruise in pilot mode. No, that’s not a Top Gun joke. The type of effortless charm Cruise usually displays is represented as an empty shadow. The chemistry with Annabelle Wallis’ non-character is non-existent. Every attempt at roguish charm framed to make us become endeared to Nick Morton comes off as petty and ignorant. Even the stunts are unconvincing and listless.

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Nick Morton is the type of insecure dumbass that no one would want to follow or – more importantly – have any kind of sympathy for. With the original Universal Monsters, a tragic empathy was crucial to the general characters. The Wolfman contemplated suicide. Frankenstein was a being brought back from death to scorn and outrage. Imhotep – OG The Mummy as played by Boris Karloff – merely wanted to find his love again in a new life. It’s something co-writer/director Alex Kurtzman tries to strive for with Nick Morton, with his internal make up being severely affected by his encounters with The Mummy. The audience is meant to extend tragic feeling towards Nick as his mind is under the control of our titular beast. Yet, there’s nothing there. A soulless vapid entity that feels incredibly close to a woman who he constantly doesn’t seem to care about after only having a one night stand with her. It’s the most hollow thing this entire affair could hang its coat on.

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Morton’s encounters with the supernatural elements of The Mummy are rather unimpressive. The elaborate sandstorms amounts to little excitement, only making one recall the amazing Dubai sandstorm chase scene in Cruise’s Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol. His constant visualization of a decaying Jake Johnson calling him to do things that will obviously end up killing him with attempted comedic frankness. So, the worst impression of Griffin Dunne’s character in American Werewolf in London. The methods in which Boutella even brings people back from the dead only serve as lingering reminders of the earlier Brendan Fraser mummies from the dawn of the new millennium, a reminder that makes those films look far better in retrospect. Especially since the 1999 originator of that incarnation of the series knew to at least do one thing right; keep the plot simple.

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Here, Alex Kurtzman and his five other credited writers do the worst possible job of taking the basic premise and repeating it over and over. And over. And over. And over. And over. And over again. Yet, they’ll further convolute the entire throughline by giving the macguffin of the dagger multiple parts that need to be found and a rather confusing climactic twist that shows a triumph based on… literally nothing inherent to our main character. It’s the type of writing that Alex Kurtzman has contributed to modern blockbusters with his work on the first few Transformers films, where drama and conflict is confused with plodding narrative. And most of that comes from the decision to build up this Dark Universe concept rather than an engaging individual story with The Mummy.

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None of this helps the fact that The Mummy is merely Kurtzman’s second film, following the long forgotten romantic drama People Like Us. The inexperience shows in spades with Kurtzman’s attempts at creating dynamic action scenes or horrific atmosphere. He relies so much on dodgy CG and over editing to give our titular monster any kind of threat and the action sequences a sense of propulsive kinetic excitement. But neither help in any fashion. Every decision feels like Kurtzman wanted to emulate directors he’s written for like Michael Bay or JJ Abrams, but without an ounce of ability in terms of selecting angles or creating dynamic flow to the action moments that they have. Yet, even a Michael Bay Transformers film has better moments of action than this.

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The Mummy is a disaster. That should be pretty obvious after all of this. An attempt to bring these monsters together, only to drive them off the screen with a complete dud of a first outing. The sad thing is these characters could work in a modern universe context, but not this way. As a tribute to its horror source material, it fails to capture the basic integrity of tragedy or scares. As an attempted action film, it fails to generate much excitement in that fashion. What results is an identity crisis for this supposed universe that notes a lot of voices trying to stir this pot, only for the meal to be a failure pile of a stew. The Mummy is everything that’s wrong with modern universe building in Hollywood franchises. It’s the equivalent of if Marvel started their universe with Iron Man 2 instead of Iron Man. But that’s an insult to Iron Man 2.

Rating: 1 out of 5 Horridly CG Rats

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“Wonder Woman” (2017): Wonderful Rises From Rubble

The DC Extended Universe films have had a rocky start. Man of SteelBatman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad each had massive problems. All of them ambitious to some degree, but underwhelming in execution for varying reason. However, the most common connection between them simply is a lacking development of character. Batman, Superman, Lex Luthor, Joker or any other number of characters weren’t given room to breathe amongst the muddled themes and intensely overstuffed world building. Unable to find the type of balance that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has made effortless. With so many great characters in their roster, one would hope that DC could find a film that gets them back on track and gives these timeless heroes their time to shine. Luckily, Wonder Woman manages to crash through the piles of ash like an ember soaring into the sky and burning your cheek with a rush of excitement.

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Wonder Woman was introduced in Batman V. Superman as an inconsequential yet welcome personality to spar with the male heroes. Here, we get a full-scale introduction to what made Princess Diana that badass. A full look into the varying tug and pull of her upbringing. Sometimes this can be a bit too exposition heavy, but director Patty Jenkins and main writer Allan Heinberg manage to alleviate the clumsiness by displaying Diana’s gumption and her mother’s fear in equal measure. With an island of female warriors wanting to train her for battle, Diana’s still suppressed by her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) wanting to save her from the wars of the world of men. It’s an understandable motivation, particularly as men eventually invade their shores and impede the peaceful existence they’ve had for centuries. The conflict is one based in a human connective tissue of not wanting to see those we love be harmed. A recurring theme that enriches Diana’s struggles as a protector further down the line.

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There’s an earnestness in that idea that gives Wonder Woman such wonderful legs. Gal Gadot gives her a curiosity and audacious sense of righteousness that instantly endears us to the character. As she learns more about the disconnected bureaucracy of man in war, her lack of tolerance for such bully makes her a true hero fighting against something bigger than a giant villain. She wants to save everyone. Live up to her status of a massive warrior and stop all war from happening by living up to the stories she grew up on. Even when we do get big battle sequences, they’re still steeped deeply in Diana’s desire to save the humanity that both ignites a flame of endearment within her while constantly trying to destroy their own beauty with brutish force. Something that Man of Steel utterly fumbled on, while Wonder Woman does in an effortless fashion.

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Wonder Woman truly is a superhero based in the concept of compassion. She has a love for the people around her that isn’t simply a feminine motherly instinct. It’s a compassion instilled into her by everyone from her mother who instill compassion to her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) who trains her in secret to defend herself to even Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) showing her the full scope of humanity’s strength and faults. Trevor in particular is fascinating character. Chris Pine’s charm is incredibly nuanced, having all the confidence of a human spy yet being confused and eventually humbled by Diana’s abilities. There’s an attraction between the two, but it isn’t a flat typical Hollywood romance. It’s based in mutual respect for their abilities, yet still allows for barbs and fish out of water humor that never feels too forced.

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Wonder Woman‘s compassion continues to the other soldiers in her rag-tag battalion. The trio of Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) each give Diana further perspective on man’s world. One where mortals take from each other or lose confidence in themselves, but also try to hold up their own even when facing impossible odds. This crew manages to show how Wonder Woman manages to one up its Marvel competition, as this crew manages to be a far more improved version of The Howling Commandos from Captain America: The First Avenger. Some of them don’t get full closure, but their character moments with Diana gives us further insight into her struggles in dealing with humanity.

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The conflicting motivations of man challenge Diana’s perceptions of humanity, allowing for a stronger conflict for when she starts to kick major ass. The villains Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) and General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) represent both the comic book supervillainy and the truly demented evil at hand. There’s a few comic book moments of destruction with them and the hints of Aries, but the ultimate form of evil in Wonder Woman is one that’s far more sinister and chilling than expected. One engrained in allowing the self-destructive nature of humanity to feed on itself. Something that Diana is tempted towards in a way that makes her relate to man’s plight. Especially as the story goes along with some genuinely surprising turns.

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Patty Jenkins’ direction for Wonder Woman is a triumph over the previous entries in the DC Extended Universe. Sure, there’s some of producer/story writer Zack Snyder‘s speed-up slow mo style action, but it isn’t as navel gazing. There’s a purpose to the slow-mo, showing off Diana’s grace and direct line of sight as she clobbers those in her wake before brutally displaying her strength in regular motion. Admittedly, there are points where the CG is rather uneven. Sometimes it’s a gorgeous recreation of human features. Other times it’s about as uncanny valley as a Robert Zemeckis motion capture film. Though the lesser CG is more during the first half anyway, allowing the finale climax to have far more consistent graphics that don’t distract from the emotional stakes or action choreography.

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Jenkins really shines during the more intimate moments. When Diana shares a conversation with Trevor, there’s a genuine charm and grace that’s displayed during the close ups. There’s a sort of Billy Wilder-esque inspiration to the use of close ups and the back-and-forth editing style during these scenes, allowing Wonder Woman the luxury of authentic human interaction that these DC movies have been missing. This is something Jenkins carries over from her previous feature Monster, though with less psychotic murder at play. With Wonder Woman, the admiration comes off in equal measure between Diana and her allies from Man’s World. The type of comradery that allows her to both respect their views and question them when someone like Trevor allows protocol to get in the way of people’s lives.

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Sure, Wonder Woman is ultimately an origin story. Something the superhero genre has often played like a sour fiddle of a note. There’s not a huge amount of complexity to the narrative structure here, though it’s necessary to give Diana a full back story. Really, the complexity arrives in the emotional turmoil of her character. One who can kick ass, but can often feel helpless when the full potential of depravity with humanity hits her in the face. The murky waters of morality in this world confuse and frighten her, but they never break her spirit. They deconstruct her world view, but allow her to think on her feet and discover what matters more. That intriguing dimension instantly sets Wonder Woman apart as not only the best DC movie in years, but one of the best recent offerings for comic book films in general. It’s a crowd pleaser with intelligence and understanding as to its themes of war and human morality that don’t get bogged down in ethics. There’s color, fun and brain all working together here. Let’s hope Warner Bros can keep it up.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Impractical Battle Outfits

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