An incredible display of wonderful nonsense, A CURE FOR WELLNESS is one of 2017's most visually striking films, one which embraces well-worn (but little-used in recent years) genre story staples and marries them to superb filmmaking. At its heart, the movie is fundamentally a mad scientist tale (albeit one that plays with some delightfully kooky ideas), and though it's set in present day, there's an almost old-fashioned feel to the narrative here, and that's actually kind of fun. There's a distinctly off-kilter vibe to everything, which - coupled with the ominous mood - makes for a compelling watch and should reward fans of a certain sort of horror movie. It doesn't all fully add up, nor does it impart any great meaning, and at the end of the day the plot is wholly secondary to director Gore Verbinski's visual style, which is on full display. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, filled with painterly and haunting compositions, and also a sense of stillness and crispness at times; it's one of the most beautiful movies of the year. That said, the movie's chief weakness is its excess; it kind of revels in its overblown qualities, clocking in at two-and-a-half hours. It's leisurely paced at points when the natural contours of the story should be accelerating, and I think the movie would be immeasurably improved if it were 30 minutes shorter. There's just no reason for this pulpy and ridiculous story (and those are compliments) to be near-epic length, though it's always a visual pleasure to behold. The score by Benjamin Wallfisch is superb, unabashedly going big and grandiose in ways that are really effective. Given its lukewarm reception when it hit theaters, I was not expecting much from A CURE FOR WELLNESS, but I was very pleasantly surprised by its classic horror inclinations and its incredible visual flair. It's a "style over substance" movie all the way, but what style!
Representing Universal Pictures' latest attempt to revive their dormant monsters for the silver screen, THE MUMMY offers game performances from several of its cast members and a few moments of cool imagery, but at the end of the day THE MUMMY just isn't great. That pains me to say more than it probably should. At the risk of getting personal, the classic Universal Monsters movies of the 1930s and 1940s mean a great deal to me. They were my introduction to the world of horror, and their atmospheric, perpetually fog-drenched visual styles forever imprinted on me, just as much as the captivating supernatural characters at the center of those stories did.
It was with that in mind that I was rooting for this movie to work and do solid business, knowing that its success could pave the way for further re-imaginings of Universal's classic horror properties; supposedly those new versions are still coming (the next, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, has a release date set for 2019), but THE MUMMY is far from a grand announcement of intention. Yes, it teases the future arrival of some additional classic monsters, and that's kind of neat, but at the end of the day, THE MUMMY needed to work primarily as its own story, not a teaser for things (potentially) coming down the road. On that basis - on its own - its an unsatisfying and familiar outing.
The film presents the story of Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), a treasure hunter/adventurer/mercenary-type with questionable morals who discovers the burial chamber of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), a murderous Egyptian princess who was mummified for her crimes. Disturbing her tomb triggers a curse which not only revives her, but also condemns Nick to an undead existence and threatens to end humanity. Supernatural shenanigans ensue, involving ghosts, the living dead, ghouls, magical daggers, demons, and Prodigium, a shadowy research outfit led by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), determined to study and/or fight paranormal or monstrous occurrences.
The screenplay is where the heart of the movie's problems reside. It's usually never a good thing when you have six credited (which means there were surely even more uncredited) writers working on a project, and that absolutely holds true with this film. You can feel a patchwork sort of quality, as if individual scenes (which themselves may actually be good and fun) were plucked from several separate drafts and sewn together, Frankenstein monster style, with little regard for making a cohesive whole beyond doing just the bare minimum of smoothing over the edges. It doesn't matter how talented the writers are (and some of the credited writers on this movie are talented, and a couple of them are great), it's often a fool's errand to try to tie disparate voices, styles, and approaches into anything resembling a tonally and narratively coherent final product. The way the script utilizes several of the major characters is also perplexing, as characters like Annabelle Wallis' Jenny and Jake Johnson's Chris never really feel like they contribute anything substantial to the story and are often only there so there's somebody for Cruise to bounce off of, or to supply the frequently artless exposition required by the story.
Ultimately, though, it's the fault of director Alex Kurtzman that the movie never quite feels like it knows exactly what it wants to be or what it's trying to do. There's no defining vision, no overarching authorial intent. This is corporate product, and while Kurtzman's efforts behind the camera are not totally incompetent, there's total anonymity to the filmmaking. The lack of personality here is truly striking, and that's squarely on the shoulders of Kurtzman. The classic horror films from Universal - even at their most pedestrian - always had personality. This doesn't. A few key moments have some vitality, but for the most part the proceedings - on a filmmaking level - are uninspired.
There are still some good things about the movie, though. Tom Cruise is surprisingly funny here; this isn't just a mere side step away from his MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE persona, this is a kind of goofy guy who finds himself in way over his head, and there's a twinkle in his eye, a playfulness, that makes his scenes enjoyable, and which actually make a decent contrast with the more horror-ish elements of the story.
And there are horror-ish elements of the story. Yes, there is big-scale action. Yes, there's a ton of visual effects work. However, a little credit (a tiny bit) has to be given to the filmmakers, because they were obviously keenly aware that the original MUMMY film starring Boris Karloff is far, far from an action film . As such, they've taken care to make sure that - at least in the first half - the supernatural threat that Ahmanet poses is handled with a bit of mystery, a bit of atmosphere (though not nearly as much as it should be), and a bit of creepiness. There's also some fun to be had with the reanimated corpses that Ahmanet uses to do her bidding, and the moments featuring them are the ones that feel closest to capturing some of the classic feel.
No, this is not a frightening movie, but you can at least feel the film trying to cast off assertions that it's just an action fest. The early scenes of Ahmanet scuttling around in mummy form are effective, as are (for that matter) just about any of the scenes where Boutella gets to brood into the camera lens or just generally do evil stuff. I'm unconvinced that she's a great actor, but she's got tremendous presence and an unexpected sensuality that she brings to the physical elements of the performance.
And then there's perhaps the best part of the entire movie, Russell Crowe's Dr. Jekyll. On paper, this character shouldn't work, and shouldn't even be in this story because he only exists to setup future events, but Crowe makes the most out of limited screentime. The way he presents Jekyll as a good-natured man fighting back his darker impulses (i.e. Mr. Hyde) is kind of compelling, and I'd happily just watch a straight adaptation of the Jekyll and Hyde story with Crowe.
Taken together, Boutella, Cruise, and Russell Crowe are almost enough to warrant a soft recommendation, but at the end of the day, THE MUMMY just never feels right. It's tonally at war with itself, and its narrative is being pulled in too many different directions at once. It's not a bad movie, but it is a disappointing one - a misfire. The good stuff almost redeems it, but unfortunately it's not enough.
All things taken into consideration, WONDER WOMAN is unquestionably a good movie. It is not, however, a great movie, as its antagonists and climax are too fundamentally flawed to overlook, but the central performance from its leading lady is more than enough to elevate the film into the category of a qualified success.
The story begins with Diana (Gal Gadot) on the mythical, hidden island of Themyscira, an entirely female place where Amazon warriors (depicted in Greek mythology) train to defend the planet should the long-defeated God of War, Ares, ever return to threaten the world. When Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a spy in World War I, accidentally crashes on the island, a series of events are ignited which see Diana entering the larger world of man (from which she has been completely sheltered) on a mission with Steve to prevent mad German general Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston) from unleashing a devastating gas attack that would potentially threaten millions.
The superlatives will come soon enough, but first a few words on some of the more disappointing elements of WONDER WOMAN. Chief among these is the plot as outlined above; the story of the movie - concerning Diana's awakening to the state of human affairs during World War 1, and how that crystallizes her heroic resolve - is great, but the plot, which gets bogged down with cliched, hackneyed villain machinations, is pretty uninspired, "we're just going through the motions here" sort of stuff. The villains are extraordinarily, monumentally unimpressive, and the ultimate confrontation at the climax feels limp and contrived because the story never bothers to give us any reasons to care about the villainous scheme at the heart of the conflict beyond purely perfunctory ones (i.e. the villains do villainous things because they're the villains, not because they're interesting characters with goals and desires that make any sense). There's so much more that could be said on this subject, but for the sake of spoilers, we'll leave it at that. The climax also features the worst effects work of the film, which turns what was intended to be a spirited and intense culmination into a CGI meltdown of epic proportions. It's a bafflingly rote (save for one moderately daring decision made with respect to one of the characters) and visually unappealing finale that comes very close to putting a truly sour cap on the whole enterprise.
So not much of that stuff works. What does work, then? Pretty much everything else, starting - most importantly - with Gal Gadot. She was essentially an unknown quantity walking into this movie. Yes, she appeared as Wonder Woman in BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, but the usage of the character in that film did not demand anything from her acting skills. Here she's required to show considerably greater range, and she proves to be up to the task. Her Wonder Woman in this film is not merely a credible physical presence (and she very much is, as Gadot throws herself into the action with gusto), but also a fully rounded progression from her introduction in last year's BVS; she embodies all of the classic elements of Wonder Woman from the comics (her kindness, her independence, her unflinching willingness to defend others, her semi-outsider nature), but also synthesizes these into a package that doesn't feel trite or old fashioned for a modern audience. At the heart of it, she's fully human, a relatable and strong heroine. There's also a potent blend of semi-comic naivete, deep intelligence, and profound optimism which makes Gadot's Diana a thoroughly charming anchor for the film.
Opposite Gadot is a very, very game Chris Pine. Pine's Steve Trevor exudes a decency that could have been trite in other hands, but Pine tempers what with a terrific undercurrent of warmth and humor, as well as a hint of complexity. Steve is not unaffected by the horrors of World War I, and Pine sells the character's motivation to try to stop Ludendorff from engaging in further mass murder. Pine and Gadot have a great connection on screen, and by the end of the film it's easy to buy that the characters mean something to each other.
Spinning out from Gadot and Pine's work, the overall tone of the movie is refreshingly earnest and sincere, and credit to director Patty Jenkins (at the helm of her first theatrical release in 14 years!) for striking the fine tonal balance required to make everything work. There's an almost complete lack of cynicism, and there's an embrace of the fantastical title character and her background that reminds one of Richard Donner's triumphant SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE from 1978. In some ways, WONDER WOMAN is a more optimistic and uplifting film than MAN OF STEEL, and that film focused on the superhero who used to have the market corned on optimistic and uplifting. One gets the sense that when she meets up with Superman again JUSTICE LEGUE later this year, she'd be in a great position to give the Man of Steel a pep talk about the virtues and worth of humanity, because she certainly seems more happy to help than the current iteration of Superman has been so far.
The action mostly satisfies for the first half (there is an occasional overuse of slow motion during some of the scenes that feels borderline parodic), but then, around the midpoint of the movie, things kick into high gear with a fabulous setpiece which takes place in No Man's Land and a bombed out town just beyond, and which features the first emergence of Wonder Woman in her fully-formed glory. This is unquestionably the greatest action sequence of the year so far. Not only are the choreography and staging of the scene exciting and thrilling, but - more importantly - the sequence is deeply based in character: Diana is unwilling to keep moving past the atrocities of the war, and defiantly takes to the battlefield to help those who are suffering. To borrow hip parlance, she kicks all kinds of ass, and it's enormously satisfying to watch.
That scene is a distillation of the best elements the movie has to offer - Gadot bringing the goods, Pine ably backing her up, and director Jenkins treating the material seriously but in a way that still allows the audience to have fun. The fact that the villains and the climax don't work (at all) is definitely a bummer, but even if all the movie had to offer was Gal Gadot being a credible and inspiring Wonder Woman, it would absolutely still be a success. Toss Pine into the mix, and I've got no problem calling this a winner.
More a visual metaphor than an actual dynamic story, RAW nevertheless has some potency, even if the final result isn't entirely satisfying. To label RAW a horror movie does it a disservice, because while it trades in some ideas of the genre, and is unafraid to viscerally shock and disgust the audience, I really think this is more a satire than anything else. There's some really darkly funny stuff in here (which is surely intentional; if it isn't, then I guess that says more about my sensibilities than anything else), and it paints an extremely heightened portrait of college hazing and initiation that is too outrageous to really take literally (or at least it struck me that way; the kind of ritual, nonstop hazing and humiliation done to students by students is so utterly foreign to me, that I find it impossible to buy as realistic). RAW uses its basic genre trappings - including the classic notion of cannibalism - to really act as a metaphor for one young woman's coming of age experience at college. In the lead role, Garanace Marillier is absolutely terrific, and she ably sells the character's transition from shy, sheltered girl to a more sinister, feral person. The movie has been labeled as "extreme" and the like by many, but there's nothing in here I found to be utterly repulsive or abhorrent; there's some gross and disturbing stuff, certainly, but the tone and presentation of that content may be what people are reacting to the most. At the end of the day, it's an interesting movie anchored by dynamite central performance, but I don't think it's saying anything terribly new with its thematic statements. Still, director Julia Ducournau clearly has an eye and a voice, and it will be interesting to see what she tackles next.
Any time we arrive at the fifth film in a franchise, it is worth considering the potential options the filmmakers had before them. Do they reboot, and take everything back to basics? Do they change things up, and deliver a new take with a new vision? Or do they just give us more of the same?
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES is absolutely more of the same, for better or worse, though objectively it's the most competently-constructed of the series since DEAD MAN'S CHEST. It offers up a production of giant proportions (all of the money is up on the screen, as they say) and no small amount of energetic fun. It won't win over any new fans to the franchise, but those who've stuck with it up to this point will likely find themselves having a good time with it.
The story concerns Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), a young man who seeks to release his father, William Turner (Orlando Bloom), from a curse which traps him as the undead captain of the dreaded Flying Dutchman for eternity. Henry's plan revolves around a search for the mythical Trident of Poseidon, which is said to be able to break any curse. Also searching for the Trident is a ship of ghostly pirate slayers led by Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), who also has a personal vendetta against the one man Henry needs to help him find the Trident... Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). Along with an intrepid young astronomer named Carina (Kaya Scodelario), Henry and Jack race to beat Salazar - and Jack's sometimes foe, sometimes ally Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) - to the Trident.
If that sounds in any way convoluted, that's because it is. The story is unapologetically convoluted, with key beats hinging on which character has Jack's magical compass at what time, or which set of characters on which ship are headed to which locale and when. The movie, rather cheerfully, doesn't dwell on the logistics of how its plot works, and that's probably for the best, considering that the least-good movie in this series, AT WORLD'S END, became almost incomprehensible for some due to its labyrinthine plotting. DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES makes enough sense as you're watching it that the plot holes don't leap out immediately.
Over the course of the complex shenanigans, though, there's an undeniable sense of nautical adventure and mischief that is quite appealing. The action sequences, though often more on the funny and silly side than the truly swashbuckling side, have an energy and an inventiveness that does remind of the franchise's heyday with THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL and DEAD MAN'S CHEST. The first big setpiece, involving the attempted robbery of a bank vault, is impressively preposterous, as is a delightfully goofy sequence where Jack and Henry are attacked by rotting zombie sharks. Aiding the action is very solid cinematography; a dodgy digital shot here and there aside, the visuals are splashy and colorful, and even downright beautiful at times. There's a sequence set on a hidden island of volcanic rock which is embedded with thousands of sparkling jewels, gems, and diamonds that is one of the more striking photographic moments in the series.
Javier Bardem, despite wearing a layer of makeup and CGI enhancements, commits to the role of Salazar. Save for a small handful of moments, he plays the role straight, and deftly projects the seething, nearly righteous anger and subtly wounded pride of this man who blames Jack Sparrow (correctly) for the predicament of himself and his crew. Geoffrey Rush is once again a pleasure as Barbossa, Jack Sparrow's frequent piratical adversary, though Rush finds himself saddled with an emotional subplot that feels out of place. He does his very best to sell it, and almost manages to make it work, but it feels both unearned and totally out of character based on everything we've ever seen from Barbossa in the previous movies. Though Barbossa is very entertaining, he's narratively misused here.
Brenton Thwaites proves to be a fine successor to Orlando Bloom... in the sense that he competently plays the straight man to the more colorful and interesting characters in the story. There's an earnest quality about Thwaites that is nice, but his Henry is easily the least compelling major player in this tale. He's upstaged by Kaya Scodelario, who takes the cliched "fiery and smart young woman in a man's world" and does a lot with it; she projects a keen wit and in-your-face independence which makes her a quite engaging presence. She's also tasked with handling much of the gobbledygooky exposition (and there's a lot of it), and she does so in ways that feel fairly natural. Being entirely unfamiliar with her before this film, Scodelario seems like a real find.
Then, of course, we have the legend that is Captain Jack Sparrow, and there's something weird going on with Johnny Depp this time around. I mean, granted, his Jack Sparrow has always been weird, but the issue in this film is that Sparrow has essentially become a parody of himself. To be fair, the movie does attempt to give a story justification for this (Jack is down on his luck and has hit the bottle even harder than usual), but if you go back and watch the first PIRATES movie, you will find that Sparrow is not merely a funny, buffoonish character; he's got a sharp mind, and his antics more often feel like a put-on persona than anything else. The next three films slowly stepped away from that and embraced the drunken goofiness more and more, until we finally arrive at DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES, where we're presented with the most broad version of Jack Sparrow we've seen so far. But here's the rub... I still found that enjoyable. That's the truly weird part of this. Perhaps against my better judgment, I found myself willing to be pulled along by the mugging and silliness of what Sparrow's up to. Objectively, I think the characterization and usage of Sparrow in the screenplay is problematic on narrative and continuity levels, and the degree to which you're still able to enjoy what Depp's doing will likely determine how successful you think the overall movie is. But I was entertained by him.
That's sort of the movie in a nutshell. At the end of the day, if you've (more or less) liked the previous movies, you will find things to like in here. If you haven't, you probably won't. Despite having problems with the shameless mumbo jumbo of the plot and the inconsistent characterizations, enough buckles were swashed for me to enjoy my time with DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES.