Happy Death Day (Landon; 2017)

Movies which use the same central conceit as Groundhog Day, that is that a person is reliving the same day over and over again, are becoming regular enough that it’s beginning to become a small sub-genre of its own.  Since the original we’ve had Run, Lola, Run which is different from the original in that Lola isn’t really experiencing the day over and over, the audience is just being shown the same scenario in different ways it could have played out.  Then, there is Edge of Tomorrow (Live, Die, Repeat) in which Tom Cruise relives the same day over and over due to having inherited the powers of an alien, and learns that he is not the first to have gained this power.  In ARQ a science experiment causes a time loop which has a couple of scientists and a crew of mercenaries raiding their laboratory to relive the same day over and over.  So far, the premise has continued to hold up as in each incarnation a new, interesting twist is thrown in to keep the story intriguing in a different way.  Now we have Happy Death Day, which is a film about Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) who starts the day waking up in a strange bed in a dorm room after a night of heavy drinking and ends the day by getting murdered by a person in a mask.  This day also happens to be her birthday, and she keeps reliving it over and over again.

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A film like this relies heavily on the talent and charisma of its star.  Jessica Rothe (if she seems familiar, she was the blonde roommate of Emma Stone in La La Land) does have charisma aplenty, but it’s a little hard to determine the depths of her talent.  She does chew the scenery splendidly in Happy Death Day, bringing us a truly over-the-top bad stereotype level sorority bitch as the movie starts and becoming more of a decent person as the film goes on, but this is a film that isn’t interested in the least in realism, nuance, and honest character development.  To her credit, Rothe seems to recognize this and revels in her role for what it is – a walking talking plot device we are meant to root for rather than a fully fleshed out person.  She starts as a stereotype and as the movie moves forward just changes which stereotype she is for reasons that aren’t reasonably explained.  Given that’s what she has to work with, she does as admirable a job as anyone could be expected to.

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Scott Lobdell’s screenplay is another element of Happy Death Day which almost seems to revel in its imperfection.  Happy Death Day very obviously knows what kind of movie it is, going so far as to compare itself out loud to Groundhog Day at one point, and so it plays on the audience’s expectations of what they expect from a time loop movie.   The way it plays with the audience is both clever and fun, but it isn’t internally consistent.  Changes to a person’s character just happen because that’s what these movies do, not because the story gives us a real reason.  The film definitely has fun with and gives us a decent twist on the sub-genre, but it isn’t smart enough to always (and, the always is important here – sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t) incorporate those twists in a way that meshes with the story line, and can even seem counterintuitive to it.

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The most important factor of Happy Death Day, though, despite its many flaws and inconsistencies is that it is an entirely self aware movie.  It knows it exists simply to allow its audience to have fun via scares and playing around with our expectations.  Those things it does very well, and while I would have liked to see more from it in particularly the characterization department, I also don’t know what restrictions the cast and crew had to work with.  Perhaps this is a case of focusing almost entirely on the main thing the movie wants to do and letting other factors slide was the wise and not the lazy choice.  I’ll never know, but I do know that Happy Death Day is a film that is a ton of fun most of the time despite its flaws.

Final verdict:  While I wouldn’t quite classify Happy Death Day as a horror comedy, it is such a fun, unpretentious film that it will most definitely scratch that itch should you have it.  Its characters are shallow and change purely because in a plot like this you expect them to, but I can’t deny that all the actors here are charming and likable.  This is the exact opposite of the movie you should go to if you are looking for anything with any level of heft or depth at all, but if you like campy horror meant more to make you jump and laugh than to disturb or scare, then Happy Death Day is a surprisingly fun ride.

 

mother! (Aronofsky; 2017)

If Eugene Ionesco or Samuel Beckett, your surrealist playwright of choice, were alive and working in Hollywood today I imagine the fever dream which is mother! is the sort of thing they’d come up with.  mother! is the latest offering from Darren Aronofsky the writer/director who gave us Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain, among quite a few others.  mother! combines his obsession with the artistic process with his proficiency for creating images which are at once disturbing and beautiful and his penchant for creating an experience for the movie viewer more so than telling a story.

The prominent cast members of mother! are Jennifer Lawrence as mother, Javier Bardem as Him, Ed Harris as man, and Michelle Pfeiffer as woman.  The cast is impressive, and they do an excellent job for the most part, but what I wanted to point out here is the fact that no one in mother! has a name.  It’s one of many factors which make the film such a dreamlike experience, one of the many factors which make for an experience which is always on the border of being familiar, but never comes close to being intimate.

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mother! is a nearly impossible film to discuss on anything but a sheerly technical level without giving away spoilers, so past this I’m not really going to try, but it’s a film that is steeped in metaphor and in which the story such as it is is really only there to rope you in and give you a framework to start you on your journey into the nightmare which the movie ultimately ends up being.  No one has a name, yet you know who everyone is.  Everyone but you and Jennifer Lawrence seem to understand perfectly what is happening, but you and your anchor in this world are lost, scared, and confused.  It’s more dream than movie, and like a dream, mother!‘s purpose is to send you a message which is anything but obvious.

The performances in mother! aren’t going to win any awards, but they are what we’ve come to expect from a crew of veterans, and its especially nice to see Jennifer Lawrence return to form after the dreck she gave us in 2016.   Michelle Pfeiffer is the real standout among the main cast, in my opinion, giving us a performance brave enough that I’d wished she’d been playing roles like this for more of her career.  Javier Bardem and Ed Harris are more foils and excuses to move the action along than actual characters, but both perform this job admirably enough that you don’t notice that fact at all while the story is unfolding.

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The true draw for this movie, though, is the combination of sights and sounds which are at once gorgeous and disturbing, breathtaking and mundane.  The camera frames each shot in a way which is both practical and artistic, making the feel of a dream which Aronofsky so obviously is striving for making sure we are looking exactly where he wants us to be, but still unsure of exactly what it is what we’re seeing except that whatever it is is fascinating.  The combination of sounds and art direction add so much the proceedings and transform the house all the action takes place within into another character, and a character that in many ways is more important and more developed than the people living inside of it.

So, what kind of movie is mother! aside from an artsy one?  It’s closest to a horror film in that it is disturbing, creepy, and bewildering, but it’s goal is to unsettle more so than to scare.  What it primarily is, is a message to unravel, a puzzle to take apart.  It’s unclear if Aronofsky had one theme in mind, but I saw messages about immigration, fame, the process of creating art, environmental concerns, and others.  mother! is an art house film that somehow got a major release, and I really hope it gets the audience it deserves.

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Final verdict:  mother! is a difficult film, but it’s one worth unraveling.   It’s the act of unraveling, in fact, which makes mother! so fascinating.  To anyone who thinks dream interpretation is a good time, you will love mother!  To others, mother! is a hard movie to recommend, not that I don’t recommend, just that what you get out of mother! is going to depend an awful lot on what you’re willing to put into it.  If you want to turn off your brain, relax, and just let entertainment come to you when you see a film, avoid mother! like the plague.  If you want to actively engage with a film, sifting through its sights and sounds for meaning like a detective ferreting out clues at a crime scene, and if you don’t mind or even enjoy more a film which practically demands more than one viewing to take everything in, than mother! is exactly what you’ve been looking for.  I know I definitely plan on taking it again when I can.

It (Muschietti; 2017)

There is little point to reviewing the story elements of It.  The classic Stephen King novel has been read by nearly every fan of horror and by a great many who aren’t, and there was also a television mini-series made of the novel in 1990 for those who haven’t.  If you haven’t been exposed to the story behind It already, it is either because you are a newborn (who apparently was born able to read – congratulations!) or you have never had the least bit of interest in It in the first place.  In the interest of full disclosure, though, I have to admit before getting into the review proper that my feelings on Stephen King in general and on It in particular is that he is horrible at writing plot, okay at writing character, and one of the best in the business when it comes to description and atmosphere, so take that as you will.

The story of It focuses on an evil clown named Pennywise who appears every 27 years to terrorize and kill the children of the Derry, Maine.  It’s never explained what the clown is, why it appears as a clown, why it has to do this, where the clown gets its powers, what its powers are, where its weaknesses come from, and any number of other questions.   The book’s story is about a group of children who have to confront Pennywise in their just barely pre-teen years then again 27 years later as adults.  This film deals only with the first confrontation as children, though it is more than just hinted at that we will get the film which shows them as adults later, and the children are fairly 2 dimensional characters painted with broad strokes, but at least they are very likable characters we can recognize as at least friends if not as ourselves in some way.

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What It wants to do more than world building, more than giving you strong characters, more than giving you ideas to ponder is scare you, and this it does.  It is an incredibly atmospheric film with days that never seem to be sunny, old buildings that have no business still standing, sewer tunnels, and many other dark claustrophobic locations which you can tell the art directors had a great time working on. The darkness is a tool here, and never a crutch meant to hide the action, just to lend a sense of dread of the unknown to the proceedings.  The special effects and makeup are also incredible making the lack of clarification surrounding Pennywise seem like less an annoying lack of effort on the author’s part and more a genuine use of fear of the unknown.

The best part of It, though, is the performances given by this group of child actors.  Again, what should normally be a weakness of story is used to best advantage in It as the fact that the characters are very two dimensional allow the young actors to grasp onto one or two strong character traits and run with it in their performance.  We have the stutterer who is loyal (Bill played by Jaeden Liberher), the girl outcast tomboy (Beverly played by Sophia Lillis), the foul mouthed smart ass (Richie played by Finn Wolfhard), and so on.  Normally, these broad swathes of characterization would make for dull, predictable protagonists, but here it actually works allowing the kids to really latch onto their roles and give an ensemble performance that really works.

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The R-rating of this version of It means that it is much closer to the book than the 1990 television version.  The kids in this version cuss, there is blood and gore including small children being dismembered, it even addresses some uncomfortable subject matter regarding kids beginning to come into their sexuality, though the incredibly disturbing ending of the children’s story in the book is smartly dropped and changed to something which still gets the same idea across without dealing with child porn.

Compared to the other horror films coming out over the last year or so, It lacks a lot of the intelligence we’ve been treated to.  In films like Lights Out we’ve been treated to three dimensional characters making intelligent decisions or in It Comes At Night we have our lack of knowledge coming from a point of view rather than from a writer lazily not filling in details.  It is a true 80’s throwback in that it relies entirely on atmosphere for its scares making those scares purely emotional, never thought provoking in the least.  While I definitely prefer the more intelligent horror we’ve been getting, and hope Hollywood continues on that trend, It is so well made that this throwback is more entertaining than annoying.

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Final verdict:  It is such a faithful, but fortunately not too faithful, adaptation that fans of Stephen King are almost sure to love it and his haters are quite unlikely to change their minds.  Just like the novel itself the story is silly and makes absolutely no sense under even minor scrutiny, but the kids – characters and actors alike – are so great and the atmosphere so intense that the story’s flaws can be easy to overlook.  Everything about the making of the film is of top notch quality, so whether I recommend it to you or not hinges entirely on how much you like Stephen King, and if you’re neutral I can only say that It is one of the best looking and acted horror movies to come out in a while, but It shows its age where intelligence in the story is concerned esecially when compared to Hollywood’s horror output over the last year, or so.

Annabelle: Creation (Sandberg; 2017)

2016’s crop of horror movies was one of the best we’d seen in years if not decades.  It didn’t bring us any classics like Alien or The Shining, no, but the overall quality of films in the genre as a whole was a giant leap beyond what we’d been getting.  The best of those films, in my opinion, was Lights Out which was a truly scary film with smart characters, a plot not overly reliant on cheap tricks, and a higher purpose than just scaring its audience.  The biggest pleasant surprise of the horror genre, and really of any film for the whole year, was from Ouija: Origin of Evil which, as a prequel to the worst film of 2014 horror or otherwise, gave us a memorable and scary movie with realistic characters, intelligent writing, and a truly distinctive feel.  The horror movies of 2017 have continued the streak of better quality, but nothing so far has been as good as those two films.  With Annabelle: Creation being made by the director of Lights Out, David Sandbergand starring the ever so creepy Lulu Wilson form Ouija: Origin of Evil , however, things were looking like the true horror movie season could be starting out on a high note.

Annabelle: Creation, much like Ouija: Origin of Evil, is the prequel to a not so great 2014 horror movie (which itself was a prequel to a very good horror movie – The Conjuring) in which a family is terrorized by devil worshipers and an evil doll.  This is the story of how the doll came to be the conduit of evil which we see in the 2014 film.  Annabelle: Creation focuses on a group of girl orphans who are taken in by a couple who lost their own daughter twelve years earlier in an accident.  The patriarch of the family was once a toy maker and he keeps his daughter’s room exactly as it was when she died, though he warns the girls newly under his care to never, ever go into her room and that the door is to always stay locked.   Of course, one of the girls just can’t resist the temptation to go in, and when she does, the doll Annabelle is unleashed on the household.

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Annabelle: Creation is another prequel which stands head and shoulders above the film it is based upon.  Annabelle was a typical stupid horror movie which wouldn’t work if the characters acted like real people relying nearly entirely on obvious jump scares for its “horror”.  Which, of course, means it wasn’t really scary at all, merely surprising and surprising in a cheap manner, at that.    The prequel, while certainly not without its flaws and pitfalls, is much better written.  Seemingly incidental events are brought back later to haunt us making the power of the scare more intense when we can see the set up.  The characters seem like caricatures who make dumb decisions at times, but again, the movie often brings things back around shedding light on what earlier seemed like bad cliche giving the scares some poignancy, as well.  Not every bad horror stereotype present in the film gets this treatment, unfortunately, there are some jump scares which are merely jump scares, but it happens often enough that you get a bit of a wry smile when you realize that the film makers are playing off of your expectations.

The acting by the ensemble cast is also very well done, especially since so many of them are children.  Miranda Otto and Anthony LaPaglia are the most recognizable names in the cast, and they are both quite good as the Mullins, the creepy owners of the house turned orphanage, and both are able to give some nuance to the people who seem at first to be stereotypes.  Lulu Wilson and Talitha Bateman play the focal orphan girls of the story, and both are excellent child actors, with Wilson in particular managing to greatly differentiate herself from the role she played last year in a very similar movie showing that she isn’t just playing herself.  Bateman also needs commendation in her performance showing a character who has true self awareness, and this is something most children her age lack in themselves, let alone have the ability to project that quality onto a character they portray.  The remaining cast don’t stand out quite as much as these four, but all do great work at ably toeing the line between cliche and authenticity the film calls for, the only one standing out in a perhaps negative fashion being Stephanie Sigman as Sister Charlotte who avoids stereotype in her caretaker nun character by simply being dull.

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The type of horror on display here is not of the slasher variety, there is very little gore on display here, in fact, excepting for one particularly grisly scene which is probably what garners the film its R-rating.  The scares here are more of a fear of the supernatural unknown variety ala The Exorcist.  Annabelle: Creation doesn’t bring us anything truly new where scares are concerned.  Aside from the fact that charcter decisions are revealed to not be as silly and arbitrary as was first believed, the source of the horror here we’ve seen many times before.  That being said, it’s still about as well done as can be expected, utilizing perspective, pacing, and timing excellently to scare you even though you can see the scares coming.

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Final verdict: If you are a horror aficionado, Annabelle: Creation is a borderline must see film.  It’s a film that, while steeped in cliches of the genre, uses those cliches as well as they can possibly be used making for an interesting study if that’s your thing, or just a really fun scary movie if that’s more your style.  While those who aren’t horror movie buffs won’t enjoy this film quite as much, Annabelle: Creation still has respectable acting, interesting writing, and excellent technical work backing it up making for an experience you will most likely enjoy even if it’s your horror movie loving friend or significant other dragging you along to see it.  If you despise horror films, or just have a low tolerance for nightmare inducing images, then this is a film to avoid.  It’s a good example of the genre, but not one which will elevate itself to a status where all audiences will enjoy it, and it is horrific enough that I guarantee it will give all but the most jaded among us the creeps when the lights are out for a couple days afterward.

 

It Comes at Night (Shults; 2017)

While genre is a necessary tool helping us to classify film, it’s a far from perfect one.  Comedy and drama as genres are so broad as to be nearly no help at all in letting us decide if a film is one we want to check out.  Even more narrowed genres like science fiction can mean a multitude of things – is it a movie about space exploration? artificial intelligence? fantasy which uses faux technology in place of magic?  I’m glad I got to see It Comes at Night with a small crew of friends, for as we were leaving the theater one of them remarked, “I was expecting a horror movie.”  I completely understand why she said that, because It Comes at Night uses gore very sparingly, and what little it does use is either unrealistic or flashed on screen so quickly our brains can’t process what our eyes just saw.  The director goes out of his way to avoid anything resembling a jump scare, going so far as to change camera angles when a character is walking up behind another just to make sure the audience isn’t startled.  There is no supernatural creature stalking a group of protagonists taking them out one by one, nor a psychic worming their way into anyone’s head.  But, It Comes at Night is still most definitely a horror movie.  In a way, it’s one of the most horrific movies I’ve ever seen.

It Comes at Night is an incredibly low budget movie.  If it weren’t for the obvious quality of the cameras used to capture the story and the fact that Joel Edgerton plays our lead character (former history professor Paul) this could be a movie that a very talented amateur could film in their own home.  It Comes at Night uses no CGI effects, the sets are very barebones – just an oldish house and the woods surrounding it, and while this isn’t the first film for the majority of the cast, not a one is an instantly recognizable name and face.  This means that the entire story hinges on acting, script, music,  and cinematography, and all four of these elements are absolutely top notch.

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The horror in It Comes at Night comes from feelings of claustrophobia, isolation, and being kept in the dark both literally and figuratively.  Drew Daniels through his cinematography paints the perfect picture to keep us in a state of dread by showing us that not only are we stuck in a world made up largely of bare, long, dark corridors with no handy exits, but even when we are not in that closed in world there is still no help anywhere to be found in the outside world.  Camerawork when done well can be art, it can excite, and in this case, it can instill in us paranoia and hopelessness as everywhere we look there is no escape from the trap gradually closing in on us, but never giving us any real clue as to what that trap is, just that it’s there.

The performances in It Comes at Night are amazing in their understatement.  This again, isn’t a typical horror film as there is very little panic, screaming, nor speeches about the thing out there that’s going to get us.  The people here are very real – the father who is devoted to protecting his family, but not always knowing the best way to do that and having to keep a brave front (Joel Edgerton).  The mother who wants the same, but feels the best way to do that is to back up her husband and lend him guidance but never undercut him (Carmen Ejogo).  The seventeen year-old boy who has no companions excepting his mother, father, and dog until they let another family move into their house and he finds himself being drawn in the way seventeen year-olds are to the young wife in that family (Kelving Harrison Jr. and Riley Keough respectively).   Every performance here is nuanced and realistic and never once goes over the top.  We get that these are real people, we get why each acts the way they do, and all this is again absolutely necessary in amplifying our dread.  We not only feel for the characters, we allow them to become stand ins for ourselves.

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Then there is the script.  This is a story that doesn’t rely on the usual scares nor a lot of dialogue, it’s a story that relies on making sure the audience doesn’t know anything more than the characters in the story do, which is really what makes them our perfect stand ins.   Many of the events in the story take place because of something that happened outside of our protagonists field of vision and thus outside their knowledge, and these events are never explained to us.  Trey Edward Shults, both writer and director of It Comes at Night, said explicitly that while he knows the impetus of everything that happens in the film’s running time, he very purposely left us without any clues that would let us know anything more than our characters do.  This is the element that truly solidifies It Comes at Night into the realm of horror more so than any other.  Even in films like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity which It Comes at Night has a lot in common with we are given some sort of release in the end as we find out what it is that’s been tormenting us throughout the film.  It Comes at Night gives us no such release.

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Final verdict:  It Comes at Night is a film for film critics and auteurs more than for general audiences.  There is little to no fun to be had in this movie, as it is a non-stop barrage on your emotional state with never ending dread, claustrophobia, paranoia, and powerlessness.  This elevates horror to a level we rarely see and makes it some of the most realistic, and therefore least fun, horror ever seen in film.  The true enjoyment to be gleaned from this movie is the dissection of it – the study of how such minimalist pieces done so well can make for such an intense film.  If that is your thing, then I can nearly guarantee you will love It Comes at Night.  But, if you are going in to see a standard scream fest, you will not only be disappointed, you may honestly be devastated.  It Comes at Night is not for the faint of heart, and it’s one I recommend to only a very select few, but for those select few who can really get into how a less is more take on film making can get to us on such a deeply emotional level then this suddenly becomes a must see film.

 

The Mummy (Kurtzman; 2017)

Everyone wants to get on that train to big money which Disney/Marvel Studios and DC/Warner Brothers are on by starting up their own cinematic universe.  The Mummy is Universal Studios attempt in which they bring out their classic era horror movie monsters such as Frankenstein’s Monster and The Invisible Man and, of course, The Mummy,  into the modern day with a series of films known as “The Dark Universe”.  Right out of the gate they are making the same mistake Warner Brothers made with their DC Comic Universe by starting in the middle of a story already well underway and expecting their audience to just run with it.  However, unlike DC the characters they are using are not so iconic and ingrained in our culture that they can get away with stumbling out of the gate based on the draw of the characters alone, and with The Mummy the Dark Universe may be doomed before it even begins.

The Mummy starts out in Iraq with Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson playing Nick Morton and Chris Vail respectively, both soldiers in the U.S. military who use the fact that ISIS is destroying monuments in the area as an excuse and a cover up for their own activities of stealing precious artifacts from sites in the area and selling these artifacts on the black market.  This unfortunately is everything there is to these two characters, they have no families we know of, no ambitions beyond selling artifacts, we don’t even know the branch of the military they are in nor their jobs within that branch.  This is true of every character in the film, they are merely a reason to be in the film attached to a good looking countenance and absolutely nothing more.  Russel Crowe’s Dr. Henry Jeckyll runs a mysterious organization and occasionally turns into a monster, we know nothing more about him nor his nor his organization’s history even though they have apparently amassed astounding numbers of trophies and pieces to study from a great many monsters over the unspecified amount of time they have been around.  Anabelle Wallis’ Jenny Halsey works for Dr. Jeckyll and likes Tom Cruise for some reason.  Sofia Boutella was an Egyptian Princess who got angry at her family and is now an evil mummy.  If you want to learn any more about any of these people, you’ll have to hope this universe continues and these characters are in future movies, because that is all you’ll learn about any of them here.

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The Mummy is billed as an action/horror, but it is definitely much, much more action than horror.  There are three major action set pieces in the movie along with quite a few minor ones, and this is where the movie excels.  While the action scenes are insanely over the top to the point that they shatter suspension of disbelief even in a film of this nature, they are still creative in their execution and reasonably well shot, though they do rely far too much on quick editing for my tastes.  The horror half of that equation is lacking, lacking to the point that I think the only reason it’s labelled as such is because there is a mummy in the film, and mummies are classic movie monsters.  Aside from that factoid the only thing even bordering on the horror genre is the mummy’s ultimate plans for Tom Cruise’s character, which I won’t go into detail on as doing so would spoil one of the few interesting parts of the story’s plot.

That plot manages to somehow be at once incredibly simplistic and confusingly convoluted at the same time.  The main story of the mummy wanting to destroy or remake the world, we’re not really sure what she’s trying to do, actually, is a really straightforward chase movie.  She threatens, the protagonists run, she follows then threatens again, repeat until end.  But, due to a lack of any motivation on the part of any of the characters and a world steeped in lore which we the audience have not been introduced to and know next to nothing about, the reason for this chase and reason for anyone beyond the three who initially find the mummy’s tomb getting involved is next to impossible to fathom.  How did Dr. Jeckyll start his shadowy monster hunting organization and how do they know all these things in the first place?  Why can this random military officer order Tom Cruise around and how do they know each other?  If the mummy has the power over life and death, why does she need to murder people with a knife and fight them hand to hand karate style?  None of this makes any sense.

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The movie does have some charms, and is even able to surprise you once in a while with its sense of humor.  While the characters make cardboard look layered, they do manage to milk them for all they are worth giving us humor which really works on a more than superficial level despite the fact that there is nothing more than superficial to them.  As I mentioned, the mummy’s plan is also interesting, even if it doesn’t make a whole lot sense, and the way they end the film makes for an intriguing enough situation that, while I won’t go so far as to say I want to see more of these films, I wish the rest of the movie could have been creative and engaging enough to live up to the premise set up in its climax.

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Final verdict:  The Mummy is not the worst movie of the year as its horrible Rotten Tomatoes score would suggest, but it’s certainly not good enough to recommend seeing.  It does have some quality humor and action, and it’s finale sets up interesting sequels, but everything else is so simultaneously rote and poorly thought out that these few good elements can not overcome The Mummy‘s myriad and overwhelming flaws.   This should be a lesson to other studios wanting to start a cinematic universe out there – think long and hard about whether it’s a good idea, because it probably isn’t, and even if you feel it is you can not rush the story to the “Avengers” stage within the first couple of movies.  Cinematic Universes need time to germinate and develop in the minds and hearts of their audiences, and rushing to the “fun part” is only going to end in failure.

Alien: Covenant (Scott; 2016)

In 1979, Star Wars had recently made science fiction a very cool genre and studio after studio was looking to capitalize on that by giving the public bad clone after bad clone of the film that had inspired so many to flock to the theaters for swashbuckling space opera.  Ridley Scott took a different tack.  Instead of flashy pulp action heroes jetting through space in fighters and fighting off bad guys with blasters and laser swords, he gave us a horror movie which just happened to take place light years away from Earth starring blue collar grunts hauling ore and machinery on their space semi tractor-trailer.  Needless to say, with Alien he hit a nerve where movies such as The Black Hole, Starcrash, and Laserblast failed, and now 38 years later Ridley Scott once again returns for his third installment in the franchise he started – Alien: Covenant (the second installment directed by Scott would be 2012’s Prometheus).

Alien: Covenant takes place ten years after the events which occurred in Prometheus.  After a brief prelude, the real action of the film opens on a colony ship making a seven year long journey to its final destination.  All of the colonists and ship’s crew are asleep in cryostasis for the duration of the journey and the only the ship’s android Walter (played by Michael Fassbinder) and the ship’s computer “Mother” (voiced by Lorelei King) are active.  During a routine recharging stop, a freak accident damages the ship forcing the crew to be awakened prematurely to deal with the situation.  While repairing their vessel, a message is received from a nearby planet which should be uninhabited and uninhabitable, but upon further investigation the crew finds that this planet is in fact a sort of paradise world that their deep space scans somehow missed and this may be a perfect place to start their new colony rather than going back into cryogenic sleep and continuing their journey.

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If this all sounds familiar, be prepared to feel that a lot throughout the course of the film.  The major problem with Alien: Covenant is that far too much of the film feels less like an original plot, and more like a “Best of Alien” special in which we get to see all the best scenes from Alien movies of the past shown again except with different actors.  They even go out of their way to make Daniels, our main female protagonist played by Katherine Waterston, look a hell of a lot like Ripley.  No spoilers, but throughout the course of the film you can practically make a checklist of Alien tropes as they appear over and over.

Another of Alien: Covenant‘s flaws which is hard to overlook is the premise that the ship’s crew is made up almost entirely of couples.  Now, couples being sought out as the focal point of starting a new colony makes a lot of sense, and is a smart idea, but extending that to the crew who does emergency maintenance on the ship if it is in trouble is problematic.  While it makes sense that a crew member would have a spouse or loved one making the journey with them, to be a coworker making decisions upon which the fate of the entire ship rests is a less logical choice, and this very dynamic is what leads directly to the majority of the bad decisions which drive the crises which make up the plot of the movie.  Heck, couples usually aren’t allowed to work together in a modern office or retail environment, who the heck would look to hire couples specifically for a dangerous job in which many lives depend on the quality of their decisions?

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While these two flaws are large enough that Alien: Covenant becomes a movie impossible to recommend to everyone, the rest of the film is very well done.  The special effects are really impressive, the aliens themselves have never looked better, and the art direction and scenery is at worst effective and often is a straight out wonder to behold.  This is, to date, the best looking film in the Alien series in every way except for cinematography.  Though, while Alien and Aliens are both a little better in the cinematography department, this one lags only a small distance behind making for an entire visual package which is a wonder to behold.

The acting on display here is also fantastic with even minor characters whose only jobs are to be gruesomely killed managing to project a personality using little more than facial expressions and body language.  The main cast really outdo themselves, though, with Billy Crudup embodying the ship’s captain thrust into a situation he couldn’t have predicted and is not prepared to deal with, the aforementioned Katherine Waterston chanelling Sigourney Weaver as the incredibly strong “with it” protagonist, and Michael Fassbender gives us a true tour de force playing two roles, both androids, who have to be similar enough that we recognize them as similar model mechanical creations, but different enough that we can tell the two roles apart at a glance.  I won’t go so far as to say Michael Fassbender outdoes himself here, but he does prove yet again what an incredibly talented and dedicated actor he is.

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How would I rate this film compared to the myriad other Alien films?  I haven’t seen the Alien vs Predator movies, and they aren’t considered canon regardless, so I will leave them out of the equation, but Alien: Covenant is nowhere near the masterpiece which both the original Alien and the perhaps greatest sequel of all time Aliens are but it is a good deal better than both Alien 3 and Prometheus and light years ahead of Alien: Resurrection.

Final verdict:  Aside from Michael Fassbender’s performance(s) there is nothing in Alien: Covenant that hasn’t been seen before in the Alien Franchise, and it has a plot which relies too much on people making bad decisions.  However, it also as some eye popping settings and special effects and impressive performances from every single actor who appears on screen.  Alien: Covenant is not a film I recommend unequivocally, but if you’ve somehow never seen an Alien film before in your life, this could be an excellent introduction to the series.  If you’ve seen every entry so far, then your mileage may very.  It could be a fun action packed bit of nostalgia or it could merely be a shameless retread.  I personally found it to be the former, but your mood upon entering that theater could greatly influence how you feel about what you’ve seen upon exiting even more so than with most films.

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