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The Mummy (2017)

Posted June 10, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

Does anybody else remember Dracula Untold? I do. Not the film itself, of course — it was so drab, grey, and deliberately uninspired that there really wasn’t anything worth remembering. But I do distinctly recall that Dracula Untold was supposed to be the beginning of a massive Universal Monsters superfranchise before it failed to get the numbers it needed. Luckily, that movie was so unmemorable and did so little world-building that it could be swept under the rug very easily.

So it was that Universal took the Mummy film in development at the time and rejiggered it to be the true beginning of the Universal Monsters superfranchise. And this time, they went all-out. They hired such A-list stars as Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe for the inaugural outing, while tapping Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man and Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s Monster for future installments. Word has it that Universal is going after Angelina Jolie and Dwayne Johnson to respectively play Frankenstein’s Bride and The Wolfman.

And for the cherry on top, Universal commissioned a new pre-credits bumper scored by none other than Danny Elfman himself, marking all films under the newly christened “Dark Universe.”

So regardless of how The Mummy (2017) does, we’re getting more. There’s no sweeping this under the rug. There’s too much work, money, and publicity poured into this venture to pull out now. The bad news is, Universal will likely have to throw a lot of good money after bad, course-correcting this wet fart into something worth all the effort of making and sitting through. The good news is that course-correcting should be surprisingly easy, as the film is a totally forgettable bore that leaves nothing accomplished, and all the copious screen time given to world-building is nothing but so much hot air that doesn’t really tell us anything at all.

Let’s start with what works: The film wants for nothing. The production design is impeccable from start to finish, with jaw-dropping sets and impressive costume design. It’s a gorgeous-looking film… or it would be, if it wasn’t for the multitude of crappy day-for-night shots and cut-rate CGI.

As for the Mummy herself, Sofia Boutella is an outstanding new talent, and casting her to play a more seductive monster was a brilliant reinvention of the character. Plus, Ahmanet is a young woman who was promised a kingdom until her father had a son, so she made a deal with the devil to kill her family and take power for herself. That’s a legitimately compelling backstory, such that we can understand where this monster comes from in a way that doesn’t diminish how evil she is. Additionally, this mummy can drain the fluids and flesh of other people to restore her own strength (as with Imhotep of the ’99 reboot), and her victims become mummies that she can command as henchmen. It’s a neat touch. Really, if it wasn’t for the useless and ridiculous “two pupils in each eye” thing, this would be a genuinely great interpretation of the monster.

(Side note: Keep an eye out for a very prominent Easter egg that pays homage to the ’99 reboot.)

Then we have our hero. Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) is a soldier in Iraq who routinely goes off-mission to steal priceless antiquities, rescuing them from destruction to sell on the black market. Unfortunately, when he unearths the sarcophagus keeping our supernatural villain imprisoned, he learns that the warnings surrounding her weren’t just for show. He’s now cursed, subject to hallucinations and hypnotic commands from the very evil he’s trying to fight.

Again, it’s a great setup. The war-torn Middle East, where relics as old as humanity itself are under constant threat of getting destroyed as collateral damage, makes for an ingenious backdrop to set a Mummy film against. Additionally, ancient curses are such a ubiquitous part of the lore that putting our protagonist under such a curse for disturbing the villain makes all kinds of sense. So how does it go wrong?

Well, to start with, Tom Cruise barely seems like he’s trying. The filmmakers are clearly going for a rough-and-tumble adventurous scoundrel, like Nathan Drake or Brendan Fraser’s old character. Instead, Cruise sleepwalks through yet another rerun of Ethan Hunt. What makes it even worse is that a male hero who’s inherently likeable and charming no matter how much shit he pulls should fit squarely into Cruise’s wheelhouse. Instead, Cruise is consistently undercut by a script that makes his character into a totally irredeemable asshole. The filmmakers were clearly depending on Cruise’s charm to salvage the character, but it simply wasn’t enough.

Then we have the female lead (the one who isn’t undead, I mean). Again, this character had potential. Annabelle Wallis is a perfectly capable performer, and she seems like a fine choice to play a credible archaeologist.

(Side note: Say what you will about Cruise, but it’s an outstanding trend that so many of his movies have powerful female leads. Just look at Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow, Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, Rosamund Pike and Cobie Smulders in the Jack Reacher films, etc.)

The problem is, she contributes nothing to the plot. She gets kidnapped, and she’s a font of bad exposition, and that’s about it. Such a waste.

Exposition is a huge problem with this picture, which is spectacularly unforgivable. We’ve got the psychic connection between our hero and our villain. Our hero is haunted by the spirit of his comic relief sidekick (Chris Vail, played by Jake Johnson, who sadly doesn’t get killed off nearly soon enough). We’ve got gorgeous props and set pieces with inscriptions to be translated. There are so many amazing and enthralling devices for exposition, and they are all totally squandered. What we get instead are massive expository monologues, conveying all the necessary information in the most blunt and boring way possible, often repeating what was already made perfectly clear before.

Which brings us at last to the Prodigium. This is the secret organization led by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) for the purpose of unifying the Dark Universe films. Instead, the Prodigium takes up what feels like half the screen time, spinning its wheels as Crowe talks a lot while explaining nothing. All we really get is a bunch of self-defeating nonsense about how there is good and there is evil, and evil must be defeated through whatever hypocritical means are necessary, and there’s nothing more specific about precisely what constitutes “evil”. That’s seriously all we get.

For comparison’s sake, let’s look at some other cinematic superfranchises.

  • Marvel: SHIELD is there to get the Avengers together, and then the Avengers get to face off against Thanos in an adaptation of the epic Infinity Gauntlet storyline.
  • DC: Batman pulls together the Justice League so they can eventually face off against a looming invasion from Darkseid.
  • Monsterverse: Godzilla takes on King Kong before facing Mothra, Rodan, and motherfucking King Ghidorah.

With Dark Universe, what do we have? What are we so badly waiting for that we would sit through so many disparate movies and franchises? There’s no mention of a team-up down the line, no looming catastrophe, not even a mention of Van Helsing. All we get is a whole lot of meaningless talk about “evil”, a few clumsy Easter eggs, and a resolution so half-assed that it opens more questions than it resolves. Seriously, if this vague and boring Prodigium is the best hook you’ve got, you can fuck right off.

It sucks because there are so many times when I can so clearly see what the filmmakers were going for. When the movie actually focuses on the titular mummy, that ideal blend of action and horror is just barely within reach. Alas, because the characters are so thin, the plot is so predictable, and the timing is utterly fucked, every single joke and scare falls flat.

As for the action, it’s outright pathetic. That airplane crash is the one getting all the promotion, and rightly so, because it’s the only one that was put together with any kind of creativity or effort. Yet it also breaks the film, as Nick’s curse allows him to walk away without a scratch. After that, I’m supposed to believe that anything could seriously harm him? To repeat, fuck right off.

A lot of these complaints come back to hiring Alex Kurtzman as the director. This is the same guy who helped to bring us the live-action Transformers films, the Star Trek reboot, Cowboys and Aliens… basically, he and former partner Roberto Orci specialize in CGI blockbusters generic enough to court all four quadrants without offending anyone. I’d say that the decision to hire him would be exactly the sort of thing that could only seem like a good idea to a corporate executive, but even that doesn’t check out — if you’re trying to get a shared cinematic universe off the ground, why the fuck would you hire one of the writer/producers who already tried and failed to do precisely that with The Amazing Spider-Man 2?!

The Mummy (2017) is a self-made failure. The characters are either thinly developed or hopelessly unsympathetic. Aside from the fabulous production design, the visuals are shit. The plot is predictable, bogged down in exposition, and pitifully constructed. The filmmakers spend a lot of screen time into building a world, but put so little effort into it that the “Dark Universe” has all the depth and complexity of a cardboard facade. The filmmakers barely even try at giving us a reason to wait for the next Mummy film, much less all the other Dark Universe films.

But what really hurts most of all is that the premise is legitimately good. The titular mummy herself is easily the best thing about this movie. Such a damn shame that the setups were clumsily executed and the film never even tries at giving us a worthy payoff. As with Dracula Untold, I just wish the Universal execs would get out of their own goddamn way and let talented filmmakers draw us into this world instead of trying to force it down our throats.

As I said before, we’re probably getting more Dark Universe films whether this one succeeds at the box office or not. Until one comes along to redeem this whole enterprise, don’t even bother.

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Posted June 10, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

…Sure, why the hell not?

No, I’ve never been the least bit interested in something with a title like “Captain Underpants”, and I was already out of grade school (barely) when the character debuted. The film adaptation was written by Nicholas Stoller, whose CV is all over the place in terms of quality (The Muppets and its inferior sequel, Yes ManZoolander 2Sex TapeGulliver’s Travels, etc.). On directing duties is David Soren (taking over from exec producer Rob Letterman, also of Gulliver’s Travels infamy), and Soren’s directing experience is slim. His only other feature credit is for Turbo, not exactly one of Dreamworks’ greatest hits.

Speaking of which, this is DreamWorks’ cheapest film to date, with a reported budget of only $38 million. Likely because this is Dreamworks’ final picture in collaboration with 20th Century Fox, before restructuring takes them to Universal. Seems to me like that could make the prospect of a Second Epic Movie rather thorny. Though that apparently wasn’t a problem with Boss Baby, which already has a sequel in the works, so what do I know?

Anyway, I was tempted to give Captain Underpants a pass, all things considered. But the reviews were solid and I wanted to put off reviewing The Mummy (2017) just a little bit longer, so I went ahead to see what I was missing. And ultimately, I’m glad I did.

For those who don’t know the story, let’s get you up to speed. Our main characters are actually a couple of grade school kids, names of George Beard and Harold Hutchins (respectively voiced by Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch). The two of them are best friends and constant pranksters, doing everything they can to bring laughter and joy to the draconian Jerome Horwitz Elementary School. In addition to their class clowning, George and Harold run “Treehouse Comix Inc.” out of a treehouse in George’s backyard. There, they put their wild imagination into comic form, their most treasured creation being… wait for it… Captain Underpants.

Let’s look at what we’ve got so far. We have two lead characters who perfectly evoke the subversive joy in sharing secrets and getting into trouble with a childhood friend. Perhaps more importantly, we have a movie that celebrates the act of creation. It’s all about having fun and making something that nobody else could even dream of. And even if the creation itself is inane and ridiculous, it’s still a step toward something even better — several times, the characters themselves explicitly comment on how they’re always improving.

As the film continues, we get some very prominent messages about our education system. While none of them are overt enough to distract from the stone-simple and fast-paced nature of the story, we do get a couple of subtle yet sharp references to how our teachers are overworked, underpaid, and undervalued. Far more notably, the movie makes a powerful and direct statement in favor of keeping art and music in our schools. And while the film has a wild anti-authoritarian streak, quite explicitly telling kids that adults aren’t always right and a little civil disobedience is necessary at times, that message is carefully tempered with a scene that demonstrates the clear need for responsibility.

But let’s get back to Captain Underpants himself. To start with, how could anyone come up with such a ridiculous idea in the first place? Well, George and Harold themselves break the fourth wall (Yeah, they do that a lot in this picture.) to explain that superheroes already look like they’re flying around in their underwear, so this is just taking it one step further. Which is actually kinda genius. Oh, and he has a catchphrase of “Tra la laaaaa!” because… well, why not?

And how exactly does Captain Underpants himself fit into the narrative? Well, that’s actually another neat little twist in the premise: Our main hero and one of our main villains… are actually the same person.

Principal Krupp (Ed Helms) is the bullying blowhard who runs his elementary school with the express goal of crushing all creativity and fun. During one of his many, many office meetings with George and Harold, they somehow manage to hypnotize him with a toy they found in a cereal box. Yes, really. And when they notice that Krupp just happens to perfectly resemble their own comic book creation, they hypnotize Krupp into thinking that he really is Captain Underpants. So he switches from one alter ego to the other, and sometimes acts as the Captain while maintaining Krupp as a secret identity. Only trouble is, he doesn’t actually have superpowers (until later, but we won’t get into that). Hilarity ensues.

But while Krupp is certainly a prominent villain, he’s not exactly a supervillain who poses a direct threat to our superhero. Enter Professor P, voiced by Nick Kroll. He’s a mad scientist badly masquerading as a grade school science teacher, using his students as guinea pigs for an experiment that will end all laughter. He’s pissed off because everybody keeps laughing at his name, you see — his real name is “Professor Poopypants”, and his full name is even worse.

The filmmakers take great pains to note that the Professor’s name isn’t his problem. It’s his inability to laugh at himself that’s the problem. I can’t possibly overstate how huge an emphasis is placed on laughter. According to this movie, laughter is what brings people together, inspires creativity, cures all ills, and defeats all evils. Even if it’s laughter over something so base as potty humor, at least it’s a sign of joy in an otherwise gray and dreary world.

But let’s take a step back and comment on the notion of bodily humor as the lowest kind of comedy. That’s not necessarily true, and this film is proof — humor without effort is the lowest kind of comedy. Talking about shit or showing shit and expecting to get a laugh on the premise that shit is inherently funny is the lowest kind of comedy. And mercifully, the film never goes that low.

While there is more than a fair bit of potty humor in this movie, there is incredible effort put into making every joke land. One notable example concerns a showstopping number in which the Captain (disguised as Krupp) conducts a grade school choir that plays music on whoopee cushions. With actual farts and various bodily noises mixed in. It’s such a tired premise, but it comes so completely out of left field, with so many different kinds of jokes coming in so quickly from all manner of directions, that it becomes hysterical. Plus, it’s rooted in the premise of “If you were a grade school kid and you had total control over your principal, what would you have him do?” And this answer to that question is genuinely funny.

Then we have Poopypants himself. It comes as no surprise that his name is treated as a bottomless source of humor. But it’s almost entirely based on the premise that if somebody actually had a name like that, everyone who heard it would either crack up laughing or die from the strain of trying not to. A name like that would be worth a lifetime of ridicule, such that anyone might be motivated to become a mad scientist just to make it so nobody would ever laugh again. Both concepts check out, at least to the extent that this movie sets the bar for suspension of disbelief.

Oh, and also: The centerpiece of the climax is literally a giant toilet. That’s taking potty humor to such a ridiculous extent, it demands a certain kind of respect.

Probably the absolute best thing I could say about this movie is that it commits. And it commits hard. This is a movie that knows exactly how stupid it is, to the point where our main characters break the fourth wall to make sure we know they know how stupid it is. Yet it’s done with such overwhelming effort and gleeful abandon that the jokes still work. The filmmakers know that they’re being juvenile, and they know that they’re making stuff up that doesn’t make any sense, but they so clearly don’t give a fuck about it and they’re having so much fun that it’s hard not to get swept up in it. While this is definitely a stupid movie, it’s not a brainless one — the jokes are all so perfectly executed and made in the service of such a clear message that the filmmakers very obviously knew exactly what they were doing (see also: The Lego Movie).

Unfortunately, this works as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, things need to be heightened for the sake of humor, and the filmmakers needed to create a world in which a laughter-hating mad scientist named “Professor Poopypants” could plausibly exist. On the other hand, this overly heightened world does no small amount of damage to Captain Underpants. His presence is supposed to be something miraculous and extraordinary, a superhuman in an otherwise mundane world. That doesn’t work nearly as well when a guy running around in his briefs, claiming superpowers he doesn’t have, doesn’t even rank in the top ten weirdest things about this picture.

To be entirely honest, I thought it was weirder that George and Harold go to such outrageous extents in protecting the Captain and his “secret identity”. I have no idea why the kids kept doing this. It’s not like they have any reason to care about what happens to Krupp, and watching destructive mayhem at the expensive of deserving assholes would be entirely in character for them. I fail to see any reason for them to save the Captain from himself, save only that the plot demands they do so.

Speaking of plot problems, there’s Mr. Krupp’s ongoing threats to destroy George and Harold’s friendship by placing them in separate classrooms. To be fair, this is used to make a poignant statement about how friends tend to drift away over time, done in a way that will surely resonate with any adults in the audience. On the other hand, even the  characters themselves know that this dastardly plot is pure bullshit. There’s nothing to stop them from meeting each other at the treehouse, after all, and they still live right next door to each other! I really want to stress that the looming threat of their friendship getting destroyed through separation into different classrooms is a HUGE component of the plot, easily the biggest defining factor in these boys’ interactions with Krupp. And it’s pathetically weak.

Moving on to the voice cast, I can’t help feeling like the leads could’ve been stronger. While this certainly isn’t the worst Kevin Hart performance I’ve ever heard and Thomas Middleditch does all right, I don’t think they were necessarily the best choices to play a couple of grade-school kids. Nick Kroll fares a lot better as the Professor, putting on the thickest possible accent in a way that simultaneously makes the character funny and menacing. But the standout of the main cast has got to be Ed Helms. Whether he’s Krupp or the Captain, Helms always sounds like he’s having the time of his goddamn life. I can guarantee that his “Tra la laaa!” will be stuck in your head for days, he makes the catchphrase that iconic.

The supporting cast is regrettably weaker. Jordan Peele plays a brainy teacher’s pet named Melvin; and Kristen Schaal is the voice of Edith, the lunch lady and possible love interest for Krupp. Both are immensely talented performers wasted in thankless roles.

As for the music, I was consistently nonplussed with the brief musical numbers that got thrown in. Easily the best song in the movie is the theme song played over the end credits, written and performed by “Weird Al” Yankovic. Which makes all manner of sense.

Captain Underpants is a parody that — on its own eccentric terms — stands apart from and equal to the very thing it’s parodying. It’s random from start to finish, yet constructed with such clear attention to detail that there’s clearly a method in the madness. It’s stupid, but not brainless. Silly, but totally sincere. So yeah, Yankovic’s style couldn’t possibly be a more perfect match for this film.

This movie is gleefully, defiantly stupid. It’s subversive and irreverent, with a lot of messages about laughter, friendship, creation, responsibility, and other such themes all presented with a distinctly individualist tone. Yet the film itself is simple enough and funny enough, with such an infectious sense of childlike joy, that audiences of all ages can find something in it to appreciate. It also helps a great deal that the movie comments on itself and makes fun of itself to such an outlandish and endlessly inventive degree — often commenting directly on many of its own flaws — that the film almost makes itself immune from criticism.

If you think this isn’t your thing, you won’t lose anything by waiting for home video. If you have to get dragged to the theater by your kids, I’m sure you’ll have a good time with this one. In any case, I was very pleasantly surprised by this one and I can definitely recommend it.