MAD: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Jun14

MAD: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

(2008 Universal/Watched on DVD) Ancient Emperor of China comes back from the dead with his Terracotta Army. I think he’s supposed to be the same guy from Hero, which is confusing, but he has no presence, so who cares? This film did away with Stephen Sommers as both writer and director, Jerry Goldsmith and Alan Silvestri as its composers, Arnold Vosloo, Oded Fehr, Dwayne Johnson, Patricia Valesquez, Freddy Boath, the Egyptian setting, sand, water, and worst of all Rachel Weisz. In fact the only three things it seems to have kept are Brendan Fraser and John Hannah, neither of whom seem to be having any fun, and the name and basic concept of The Mummy. As a result it feels horribly divorced from the first two to the point of being vestigial. Because it’s actually *fine* to lose all that much and start afresh, provided that you have something solid enough to form a compelling replacement. Weisz, allegedly, was quite pregnant when she was offered a reprise of the role of Evie O’Connell, and she cited that rather good reason, along with a loss of faith due to her friend Steve no longer directing (though mystifyingly he was still producing) and issues with the script when she declined. That being the case, if your leading lady drops out, unless you literally cannot do this without Evie, unless she is abundantly key to the plot (and she isn’t) my policy would be *don’t recast*. This is especially the case if she doesn’t like the script, accept that maybe your script isn’t the best, and rethink. Feature Rick, focus on his relationship with his adult son (which they sort of half heartedly do, but there’s so much clutter that never gets room to breathe), have Evie referenced and get in Rachel for a quick day’s cameo. People loved this couple and she and Fraser had great chemistry. I personally love Maria Bello, but it’s too much of a jarring change in attitude and delivery. Luke Ford plays a grown-up Alex, and does so in utterly forgettable fashion. He’s basically taking the young son of the seasoned adventurer role that Shia Lebeuff so singularly failed to earn just a few months earlier in May of that same year in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And you know what really cheeses my onions? Another young actor was employed by that same studio, Universal, in a movie they released in June of that year, they paid him to be a nasty creep of an office worker and a betraying best friend who got smacked in the face with a keyboard in Wanted, when they...

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MAD: The Mummy Returns
Jun13

MAD: The Mummy Returns

(2001 Universal/Watched on Blu Ray) Somebody on my twitter feed referred to this film as an abomination. That stood me in good stead for reappraising it with a kind eye, because I remember it being very silly, but not by any means worthy of that damning label. It’s curious that you can find yourself being hard on a film because it’s contemporaries are so sky high amazing (in this case Terminator 2 and I can only presume the *trailers* for Lord of the Rings that it is trying so very hard to capture the action and epic scale of) but when you go back, the more cynical fare that has emerged in the intervening years aspiring to be nothing more than the first film in a lucrative, ongoing series of interconnected promotional business ventures, and you find yourself really digging the movie that’s just trying to be a twelve year old’s version of awesome. One of the tiny little features that I really liked was at a point when Imhotep, arisen again, is in no mood for theatrics, he’s being shot at from a balcony by O’Connell, and rather than taking cover or even retaliating, rather than shouting at him, something along the lines of “Curse you O’Connell!” Or “We meet again, for the first time, for the last time!” or something similarly trite, this walking corpse, clearly Vosloo in performance capture, angrily glares at him while bullets tear through his desiccated flesh. He strides around to intercept, pushing hoods out of the way as he does so. He owns the scene and moves with purpose, and definitely doesn’t give a flying fuck about being shot, thus rendering modern human weapons utterly impotent. There is a definite chemistry between our two leads who made great romantic sparring partners before but now, in my humble opinion, do one of the best onscreen jobs of convincing as a married couple. They converse in the right way, they canoodle in the right way, they fight in the right way and when their son is kidnapped, they keep one another from completely losing it in exactly the right way. It’s a lovely evolution of the more immature relationship in the original. Which makes a scene in the third act remarkably poignant because something feels genuinely lost there.  It’s shot and scored melodramatically, but the actors do extremely well at keeping it low key. I do far prefer Jerry Goldsmith’s score in the original ’99 Mummy. It has more of an inspiring sense of scale and history and cinema past, but Silvestri’s Sandcastles and the new main theme is still terrific. There’s a bit...

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MAD: The Mummy
Jun12

MAD: The Mummy

(1932 Universal/Watched on DVD) To really get my teeth into what Universal are attempting I’m doing what it seems few of the executives in charge of green-lighting the Dark Universe have done. To actually sit down and watch the classic Monsters in action. Effectively this film, the ’99 version and the ’17 version are the same. An undead, cursed being is brought back to life by twits, and then spends the duration trying to reawaken their lover from back when they were alive and doing villainous things to the Pharaoh and his family in all cases, utilising the body of one of the main living human characters. At an hour and ten minutes running time, this is barely a movie, such a mercilessly brief journey back in time by 86 years. And within just ten minutes both of us were riveted and on a knife edge. Nothing could surprise me more than being breathless with apprehension while Boris Karloff unfolds himself excruciatingly slowly from his burial wrappings. The 4:3 ratio creates claustrophobic perimeters around the picture leaving the Mummy creeping about unseen, and even just the simple act of slowly opening his eyes is so much more unsettling than any CG effect. And it turns out to be only a tiny percentage of the run-time but those few moments are more effective than the entirety of Tom Cruise’s Mummy. Coupled with that, the fact that this leaves the victim gibbering with laughter like he’s taken a faceful of Joker toxin serves to build up this antagonist as something far more powerful than just a slow Jason Vorhees style murderer. It’s incredibly economical, using stock footage of Egypt wherever they can to keep things feeling like they’re on location. After Imhotep returns, ten years later and shockingly well adjusted to modern life in Egypt, he dominates every room and every conversation he gets into. He kills guys like a combo of Darth Vader and Mumm-Ra just by looking into his scrying pool and willing them a heart attack. It may evoke the curse of misfortune upon those poor saps in real life who raided Tutankhamen’s tomb, but you can also trace some of the best late twentieth century villains back to this one extraordinary performance. All that said, once the rest of the film starts and most of its real estate is taken up by stuffy men having conversations, a lot of that tension is drained. Considering where we are now, looking back on early films like this feels like appraising a kiddies nativity play. That it has any effective moments at all is noteworthy. They aren’t standing on the...

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MAD: The Scorpion King
Jun11

MAD: The Scorpion King

(2002 Universal/Watched on DVD) Due to the popularity of his seventeen seconds on screen during the prologue of The Mummy Returns, his place as the central, unseen McGuffin in that movie and his replacement with a cartoon at the end that presumably borrowed the rendered face from WWE Smackdown: Shut Your Mouth on PlayStation 2, this was a cheap spin-off named The Scorpion King, and it was all about a scrappy assassin who had precisely dick-all to do with the arachnid monarch glimpsed in those brief segments. It was also the first starring role for Dwayne Johnson, who was, at the time, coming off a career as one of the world’s most beloved wrestlers. So when you get a chap with as much raw charisma and a killer body like this as your hero, you’re going to need a seriously impressive bad guy or it’s going to feel grotesquely lopsided. Why then, have they hired this Sean Pertwee-looking chode to play wicked king Memnon, a man rendered all-powerful purely because he’s apparently the world’s best fighter? I don’t recognise him, but he has a long, rat-tailed mullet, so he’s almost certainly an MMA pugilist, because that would make his inevitable clash with Rocky spectacular, right? Nope, this was Steven Brand’s first film and he’d done nothing to suggest he might be the match for the People’s Champion. He’s just a white guy, surrounded by people of colour in the ancient world. Luckily he has a chinless little fellow with a stick-on beard to make up the white numbers, and King Theoden himself, Bernard Hill is skulking around in the background, trying his best to inject some class. So OK, the villain is a washout, and even when the big fight happens at the end it’s dull and hardly a stretch for Johnson, but this is the story of how Mathias went from being nobody to being a supernaturally powered monarch, right? Nope again, just a lite Conan romp. OK well maybe Johnson got to do something interesting in the sequels? Nope, they were straight to video and recast Mathias twice. OK, well at least they close the gap and detail the sorcery that makes him a cartoon scorpion, culminating in a satisfying, but sobering conclusion that power is as much punishment as it is strength… a fourth time NOPE, they don’t. This is a series that shouldn’t exist, kept alive by fans of films called “The Scorpion King”. It’s the only explanation. On the upside for this particular film, Dwayne is very watchable and takes the role seriously rather than just lazily turning up to pick up a cheque,...

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MAD: A Dangerous Method
Jun10

MAD: A Dangerous Method

(2011 Sony/Watched on DVD) This is an account of several years of correspondence and study carried out by the fathers of psychology, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. It details Jung’s relationship, first as doctor and then as lover, to one Sabina Spielrein. It is directed by David Cronenberg, and he’s a superb match for exposing the intense, psychosexual and emotional involvement that has always been hidden behind a respectful screen of propriety. Think A History of Violence territory, only in pre-War Vienna. Also Vincent Cassel plays against type as a nonchalant, horny, philandering Frenchman, so… hurrah for stymying expectations. Virgo Mortensen is measured and confident as the fussy and stubborn Doctor Freud, but Michael Fassbender has a ton more to work with as Jung, a man horribly conflicted by fascination with his patient, loyalty to his wife, adherence to societal expectations, not to mention the code of ethics as a man charged with helping people, plus a chunk of old fashioned lust. From a superficial viewpoint it’s a bodice-ripper, but since it is couched in the period of evolution of all kinds of mental re-evaluation, there is a sense of the historical and the profound about it too. And Knightley gives an astonishing performance as Sabina, unhinged and self-loathing at the beginning and brittle and melancholy at the end, her honest accounts of the darkly sexual awakening that fills her with shame are truly a sight to behold. Her push towards becoming a psychologist, both inspired by the man who helped her and keen to advance the fields herself, was particularly gratifying to watch. I especially liked Jung’s parallel of using psychology to free their patient from whatever mental bonds they were trapped in, self-imposed or otherwise. I had not thought about it in those terms before. And when Jung is spanking the daylights out of Spielrein, she certainly seems to have been, albeit briefly, freed. On the one hand, being a straight drama, it was out of my comfort zone, on the other, the subject of psychological study, specifically Jungian psychological study, puts it right in the ballpark of familiarity, to the point where I was almost annoyed that they didn’t dig a little deeper. But ultimately the thinking wasn’t there yet, and we have the benefit of the advancements made in the century since these events to be able to read more into these pioneering, brilliant, often weak, revolutionary figures. For example, a dream Carl had about a horse being waylaid by another, smaller horse dragging a log is interpreted by Freud as the animal being Jung himself and the log being a penis. I, however would...

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MAD: Westworld
Jun10

MAD: Westworld

(1973 MGM/Watched on DVD) I’d never seen this movie and now that I have I’m amazed it passed me by for so long. Not only is this a brain-prodding B-movie that functions today as a perfectly serviceable and entertaining future shock, not only has it led to a TV series which, by all accounts is excellent, but this film has clearly inspired some of my favourite sci-fi, including Jurassic Park, The Terminator, Blade Runner (regardless of the electrically sheepish 1968 source novel) and Itchy and Scratchy Land, one of my top five episodes of The Simpsons. It’s a simple setup, albeit somewhat tied to the Silent Generation (born 1925-1942), the last to have strong, collective memories of playing Cowboys and Indians as children, (because Buzz came in during the 60s to oust Woody off to the annals of history. You yourself may have played Cowboys and Indians, but the movies that were coming out at the time were, by and large, not aimed at kids); theme park sets up a Wild West town and lets humans stay in saloon hotels and hang out with frontier themed robots. The twist is that the humans absolutely HAVE to know that they can get into gunfights with these mechs, and that they will always win. They also need to be able to fuck them without complaint. If we don’t have that measure of supreme control over them, if they’re just paid actors who aren’t really dying or western-flavoured prostitutes, for some reason that’s not compelling enough for us. It doesn’t make for a remarkable enough experience of Demi-Godhood. This paints humans in a pretty repulsive light and serves as an absolutely superb macrocosm of our irresponsibility as a species for our actions and the fallout of our dreadful behaviour. Our leisure, our pleasure, or comfort and convenience, all of these things come before our need to make things right. We do have people who prize these virtues, rather a lot of them in fact, but they are all too often outweighed or out-shouted by the worst and most irresponsible, who are themselves aided in their dominance by a swathe of the apathetic. Science Fiction (particularly mid twentieth century writing) serves as a warning against dark futures, using disastrous stories like this, wherein the robots eventually decide they don’t like getting shot or fucked and decide to destroy us instead. Sci-fi warns of consequences that the writer doesn’t even have to put a finger on because they are working in continuously re-applicable allegory.  This is why I get my drama from the best sci fi, and why just plain drama on its own...

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Wonder Woman
Jun09

Wonder Woman

This is a big one, a DC movie that we not only don’t hate, but actively love. Wonder Woman is breaking all sorts of new ground and Gal Gadot looks set to be the next universally beloved big screen superhero, joining a fairly small group that includes Reeves as Superman, Maguire as Spider-Man, Downey Jnr. as Iron Man and Evans as Captain America. To mark this occasion we assembled a dream team of Bob Chipman of Geek.com and Laura Kate Dale of letsplayvideogames.com We spend two and a half hours discussing Diana’s debut in solo form, highlighting the best aspects and touching on a few of the flaws. Largely though this is a celebration of a magnificent, empowering, inspiring experience. https://schoolofmovies.podbean.com/mf/download/waxduz/Wonder_Woman.mp3Podcast: Play in new window |...

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MAD: Fortress
Jun09

MAD: Fortress

(1992 Dimension/Watched on DVD) I’d never seen this before, even though it’s the kind of movie I’d have loved at age twelve. This was first released in Hungary 1992 and then in America nine months later, and appears to have the budget of two episodes of Red Dwarf, so you know it’s going to be top notch. In the near future, couples are only allowed to have one child. Christopher Lambert is one half of a pair who dare to have another, and as punishment, he and his wife are sent to the Fortress. A crazy prison where pretty much everything is punishable by “Intestination”, whereby a bomb explodes in your belly. Everything of course except savage rape, which is such a staple of prison movies that they’ve clearly made it exempt. They even spy on your thoughts and give you a serious migraine if you dare to think about previous sexual encounters so… I guess it’s the current ones or nothing. All this is presided over by wicked warden Kurtwood Smith, who played Clarence Boddicker in RoboCop, and I can’t think of many men I’d rather not have in my head, although apparently in real life he’s a big sweetie, so that just proves how excellent he is at acting like human garbage. There’s a bit with one of those big gyroscope things you used to be able to ride in at certain malls and exhibitions you’d find Virtual Reality at of the kind where you could count the polygons using your triangle hand. What Lambert sees might in fact be a Jefferson Starship music video, only without the music and with more boobies. And then he finds a baby crib full of snakes and screams like he’s having all kinds of quickenings and tries to pull his eyes out. It’s weird. The whole setup is ridiculously inconsistent and sadistic. In a prison movie it’s possible to understand one or two screws with a screw loose, on a power trip murdering inmates because things go over the line, but the whole technological system is built on inflicting appalling pain and bloody carnage on a whim, and when unruly behaviour is handled by punishing people at random and blowing a hole in a guy’s stomach the size of a laundry basket (it’s gloriously gory, by the way) there’s no stability to cling to. All the inmates would either revolt because they don’t know what else to do and have nowhere to go but violent fury, or else, like an electrocuted dog, they will just lie down and die. It’s well meaning and very clumsy dark future, social sci-fi, and...

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MAD: Dog Soldiers
Jun08

MAD: Dog Soldiers

(2002 Pathe/Watched on DVD) A group of British soldiers on training manoeuvres in rural Scotland run across a pack of werewolves. Retreating to a farmhouse they try to hold out for a long night of lycanthropic attacks. This is directed by Neil Marshall, the man behind The Descent and Centurion. He’s experienced at squeezing something really punchy and gruesome out of a low budget. Werewolves, as we established earlier this year, are notoriously difficult to get right onscreen. If there’s a guy in a suit or makeup, they never seem to be able to move enough like an animal to convince us they are no longer human, if they’re a puppet, they almost always look like a puppet, and if they’re CGI they always look like garbage, pasted onto the screen, the fur is too shiny or flat and the light never falls upon them correctly. For some reason, this is one of those creatures our brains find hardest to accept on a big screen. The irony is of course that the mythology of the werewolf stems from a time we were desperately afraid of the dark, and the terrors out in the night. We conjured the best werewolves in our heads, and now we can’t do the same for cinema. We have become too complacent with monsters. Especially when the standard route is just to conjure them with polygons and chuck them onto the screen. Dog Soldiers relies on establishing this troop of squaddies and their general macho rapport with one another, only to have that crumble under pressure when we see these men afraid to show how scared they are around one another. To that end it reminds me of both Aliens and, because it’s full of short haired shouting, swearing, beefy British Isles residents, Alien 3. Its strengths are the ability to maintain tension, of introducing a situation of sustained injury that is unusual for cinema, for the bond between one leader and another. Its weaknesses are a slightly feeble preoccupation with humorous quips which dispel the drama rather than engage us with the characters more, or relieving tension in a measured fashion. And while the werewolves, when they do appear, are hulking brutes and scary in their own way, they are also slow and slightly awkward in how oversized and occasionally inexpressive they are. Our fear of wild and savage animals stems from them going from growling to sudden, blindingly fast and overwhelming attack. Too much of the aggression of the werewolves comes from clawed hands reaching in through windows and holes in the wall to grope about blindly for a human shoulder. It’s definitely...

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MAD: The Mummy
Jun07

MAD: The Mummy

(1999 Universal/Watched on Blu Ray) In preparation for the new Tom Cruise version I picked up the one from the late 90s in HD to see if it has become dated and embarrassing, a film only of its time filled with crummy effects and clumsy scripting. I didn’t really expect those things, I hoped it would be good in fact, but it’s always a risk when travelling back, as much as every new blockbuster released after 2012 runs the risk of being made with the agenda of cementing a new cinematic universe. In actuality it’s a better Indiana Jones film than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it’s better shot than you remember, as the 1080p transfer will attest, with absolutely stunning desert photography from Adrian Biddle (Aliens, Thelma & Louise, The Princess Bride), fantastic costumes, a memorable Jerry Goldsmith score (God rest his ivory-tickling bones) and a screenplay by director Stephen Sommers. This specific dual role is often very conducive to a smoother ride as the person directing the actors knows exactly what the writer was thinking with each line. It’s also filled with sexy people. Brendan Fraser would never be more attractive, as much an influence on Nathan Drake as Indy was, rough, funny and charming with that hapless quality under the bravado, Rachel Weisz is adorable as Evie, a woman way ahead of her time, an educated, enthusiastic librarian with agency who the meat-headed boys would be lost without, even Arnold Vosloo has that bare-chested, imperious, exotic glow about him, much like his similarly cue-ball headed predecessor Yul Brynner. Let us not forget Egyptian George Clooney, Oded Fehr as mysterious medjai Ardeth Bay, king of impressive delivery. And while John Hannah, Omid Djalili and Kevin J. O’ Connor spend the whole time as a bunch of shrieking (if amusing) self-interested weasels, the other cast members are simply made more appealing by contrast of the mix. By far the worst aspect (and it’s still bearable) is the early stage Mummy, from the point he gets unearthed to the point where he is finally 100% Vosloo again. The early CG is unreactive to light and never registers as anything other than an effect. He’s got a ridiculously stretchy gob and doesn’t seem constrained by physics which is key to being convincing, It’s a few notches above The Lawnmower Man, but nowhere near the kind of computer assisted nemesis, whereby you simply watch the performance and marvel at the look and presence of them, like Captain Barbosa or Davy Jones. But of course, this was that crucial stepping stone between the two. The liquid, smoke and sand effects, the walking corpses...

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