Saturday, 10 June 2017

Alex Kurtzman - The Mummy

Prolific Screenplay Writer and Producer since 2000, here are my spoiler free appreciations of Alex's two forays into the Director's Chair so far: "People Like Us" in 2012 and "The Mummy" in 2017.

It is not my intention to provide spoilers for the coming two films, but rather my purpose is to give an overall flavour as I do not want to spoil these films in any way. Moreover, all of my film blogs are an appreciation of the film's crafted by a wonderful Director and a thorough recommendation to suspend your disbelief and enjoy these uniquely different cinematic creations.

People Like Us (2012)

"That's how he discovered Kajagoogoo. So he made a major contribution to the human race!"

Inspired loosely by the true events of the Director's own life, Alex Kurtzman's directorial debut is an intriguing and heartwarming familial tale of how one person's duplicitous behaviour can leave a trail of unanswered questions that flow through a family for future generations, but in the hands of Kurtzman and fellow co writers Roberto Orci and Jody Lambert the story is infused with warmth, generosity and with bold streaks of sardonic humour. "Sam" (Chris Pine) is a New York Salesman or self proclaimed "Corporate Facilitator" who with his motormouth, somewhat desperate style flies by the seat of his pants in closing colossal deals that will net him the much needed commission he requires to clear the huge debts hanging over him. He is also the "King of Mistakes" who with a distant and frosty relationship and upbringing from his parents struggles to deal emotionally with the world around him and finds comfort in retreating and running away from his problems. This is shown in ever more focus as he has to return home to Los Angeles to attend his Father's funeral after his unexpected death and in desperate need for some money from his estate is bequeathed his hugely successful Record Producer Father's vast collection of vinyl records and a wash bag. That contains $150,000! And a simple instruction to pass this cash to a boy named "Josh Davis" (Michael Hall D'Addario) and look out for him.

I have one simple gripe with the film which, if I outlined it, would give away a fairly substantial plot spoiler so I won't, but although it's also a huge through line of the film I also felt it was too contrived and could've been resolved in a far different way. This would of course have resulted in a far different film and as the film is loosely following or inspired by true events this isn't or couldn't be possible. A contrived central through line or not, I loved the film as a whole with its eclectic mix of characters combining with the frenetic editing of Robert Leighton and cinematography from Salvatore Totino that really energises and propels a film that never feels baggy or drawn out. It is also well supported by some wonderful music tracks from the likes of The Clash and Bob Dylan, as well as a music composition that always inspires light and hope from the acclaimed composer AR Rahman, for it is a familial drama that should inspire hope in all of us to conquer adversity, anxiety, grief at the passing of a parent or loved one, or simply to inspire us to stand tall and stop running. Which is what the film's central character Sam has done all of his life and it is entirely through his eyes that we see the film and way before his brilliant performances in the Star Trek franchise or his outstanding role in Hell or High Water, this is a wonderful character portrayal from Chris Pine. As Sam, Pine really injects a conflicted sense of self to the character, one of seemingly helping (or trying to help) others and their problems but never resolving his own and this is mirrored in a way by another wonderful performance that really impressed me from Elizabeth Banks as "Frankie". A streetwise, sassy and attractive young lady, Banks' portrayal of a recovering alcoholic and single mother to son Josh is another of the film's shining lights, as is the performance of her son by Michael Hall D'Addario in only his second outing in a feature length film. Impressive cameo performances abound, whether it's Michelle Pfeiffer as Sam's frosty amateur artist Mother "Lillian", the ever dependable Philip Baker Hall as Attorney "Ike Rafferty" or Olivia Wilde as Sam's girlfriend "Hannah". Wilde's brilliant performance in particular injects a moral heart and soul into the story.

Aside from the somewhat contrived plot device that will remain unrevealed for spoiler reasons, I was particularly impressed by People Like Us for a variety of pleasing reasons. The entire story itself could have become lost in a reverie of the music of the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's but cleverly uses this device (and many classic songs of the period) whilst firmly rooting the film in an everyday present of angst, personal recovery, revelation and the warmth of family reconciliation. There is a delicate balance drawn between melancholia and acerbic humour, with neither dominating and the balance between the two just about right. The well drawn characters each have a life story arc, given the screen time to do so and are brilliantly realised by a well cast set of actors who are placed narratively in some impressive and beautifully lit and created locations, be it a late night stroll high above a city teeming with lights or watching the sun set from the beach. I remain mightily impressed with People Like Us and it's without a doubt a very worthy directorial debut film from Alex Kurtzman.

The Mummy (2017)

"The past cannot remain buried forever"

"Welcome to a new world of Gods and Monsters" and welcome to Alex Kurtman's second directorial outing and the latest re-boot of a classic film and the first of Universal Studio's "Dark Universe" franchise. Beginning with an Egyptian prayer of resurrection before propelling the audience from England 1127 AD to a present day of opportunist tomb raiders in Iraq, The Mummy commences at a breakneck speed that truly never lets up throughout as we experience glorious set piece action time and again but the film's huge flaws reside inside and indeed everything else that surrounds this, sorry to say, clunker of a film. I take no pleasure in stating this as I had eagerly awaited it's release for many weeks and was particularly taken in by it's action packed and enticing trailer, however the film as a whole never matches the promise of the trailer and this is even more disappointing considering the stellar cast of Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe and Annabelle Wallis, directed by Kurtzman and a screenplay credit from Christopher McQuarrie.

From present day Iraq we bounce to London, England and here the majority of the film is set whether it's the surrounding countryside and the scene of the spectacular aeroplane crash alluded to in the trailer and The Natural History Museum, home to and overseen by "Henry" (Russell Crowe) a brilliant scientist desperately seeking a cure to personal and worldwide evil impulses as well as acting as a mentor and guide to "Jenny Halsey" (Annabelle Wallis), a headstrong field archaeologist. After stealing pointed correspondence between Henry and Jenny, "Nick Morton" (Tom Cruise) a Sargeant in the US Army persuades his erstwhile partner and Army Corporal "Chris Vail" (Jake Johnson) on a tomb raiding adventure, of sorts. Morton is a selfish, self centred but heavily motivated renegade and self titled "Liberator of precious antiquities" and all outside of his army purview. Their antics however unearth something far larger than any of them imagine or could have conjured in their wildest dreams and they are thrown together with both the aforementioned Jenny Halsey as well as "Ahmanet" (Sofia Boutella), the titular Mummy, reborn and back to unleash the dark spectre of evil and hell on the world. For Jenny, their find is her "life's work" and for her boss Henry, a chance of personal redemption as well as a possible cure for the ills in the world.

So far so blockbuster type spectacular eh? Well, yes and no! The film's true highlights are the set piece action sequences, be it the much vaunted aeroplane crash, the raid of Iraq or the brilliantly realised chase and escape from the countryside inside an ambulance. These are all true highlights but the film quickly becomes one set piece action sequence after another and in between is some horrendous, clunky and frankly boring dialogue as well as totally superfluous additional dialogue that is included for comedic purposes but never really lands to any effect. My other main gripe of the film as a complete whole is the repetitive use of exposition, telling the audience constantly what is happening, why and for what purpose, and then introducing another character who simply repeats the exact same process! Even worse is the use of repeated scenes from earlier in the film, with the Director almost saying to the audience "Here, remember this?", but on so many occasions that it began to grate and rather than suck me into the film, actually took me out of it.

Of the five main character roles on display, there are accomplished performances from Jake Johnson, Annabelle Wallis and particularly so from Sofia Boutella as the titular Mummy but the same cannot be said for Cruise and Crowe. As you will see from my blog posts (do feel free to delve into my archives!), I am a huge fan of both of these actors and consider them to be genuine, old fashioned movie stars as well as actors of their generation but they fail here spectacularly and are equally spectacularly let down by the Director and the six (six!) credited screenplay writers who compiled this plodding story and dull script. Rarely does a film succeed when written by more than a singular voice but six? As above, the film repeats itself, is far too exposition heavy and has a dialogue that just fails horrendously to hit the mark. The same can be said for the comedic interludes that fall flat, the jumps and scares that fail to materialise and you have Crowe continually "blocked" out of the screen during his dialogue (his best scenes are in the trailer) and Cruise simply runs a lot, then runs some more and when stationary has that perfected quizzical look on his face as well as a look of complete and utter confusion. I'm tempted to wonder whether this is his Tom Cruise performance these days or a reflection of the film as a whole. And all this criticism from a genuine, life long fan of his. 

So much anticipation and yet such an anti climax and clunker of a film that draws such inspiration from the classic of old as well as the Indiana Jones franchise, Tomb Raider, the PlayStation behemoth game Uncharted as well as an American Werewolf in London but The Mummy really fails to live up to these inspirations and I left the cinema today feeling what a letdown and clunker this film is.

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