THE MUMMY (USA/15A/110 mins) Directed by Alex Kurtzman. Starring Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson.
THE PLOT: In ancient Egypt, Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) is angered with her father. She sets down on a path of evil, making a pact with Set, the God of Death. She’s later captured and entombed alive for eternity in Mesopotamia. Fast forward to present-day Iraq. When he’s not battling insurgents, soldier Nick (Tom Cruise) is something of a tomb raider along with buddy Chris (Jake Johnson). The discovery of Ahmanet’s ancient tomb also brings Nick’s former fling Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) into the fold. Nick accidentally releases Ahmanet’s sarcophagus. They bring it back to London, where Nick discovers that he has been chosen by Ahmanet. A fact that Dr Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) intends to use…
THE VERDICT: ‘Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters’ intones Dr Jekyll, channelling a much earlier cinematic mad scientist, Dr. Pretorius. Indeed. That link with the past of Universal’s revered 1930s horror franchise is brought into the present day, with the series of classic monster movies now rebranded as Dark Universe. The opening salvo is a reboot of ‘The Mumm’y. However, this is not the musty Mummy of Boris Karloff or even the more recent Brendan Fraser adventures. This is an altogether modern take, fronted by star power and a slightly darker edge (hence the tougher rating).
With a host of experienced screenwriters onboard like Christopher McQuarrie and David Koepp, this Mummy would have to be something special to justify the reboot tag. It’s not quite special, but it does show some signs of promise for this new Dark Universe. ‘Star Trek’ writer-turned-director Alex Kurtzman was obviously keen to distance himself from earlier versions. He amps up the more horrific elements, like the rotting corpses chasing our hero. There’s also some throwaway, John Landis-style scenes involving Chris, who pops up occasionally to talk to Nick about the afterlife. Think of it like ‘An Egyptian Mummy In London’ at times. The zippy action is well-paced, though the 3D adds nothing to the spectacle.
The most obvious flaw, surprisingly, is Cruise himself. He’s not the most obvious fit here for an action hero amidst Egyptian curses, cadavers and a doomsday scenario. In that sense, The Mummy is very much a Cruise vehicle left on cruise control throughout. This reviewer likes Cruise as much as the next film fan, but couldn’t help the feeling that another actor would have suited better. A slightly hammy Crowe is also miscast. However, the magnificent, versatile Boutella more than compensates. She’s by turns totally evil and humanly vulnerable, so she steals the film from her male co-stars while looking cool at it too.
As undemanding summer popcorn horror, ‘The Mummy’ is reasonably acceptable. It’s certainly entertaining, but is more like ‘The Mumm’y rollercoaster ride at Universal Studios. A more discerning horror fan like this one would have hoped for something edgier and less star-driven. This Dark Universe needs to head towards midnight, not twilight. Let’s see what Bill Condon has in store for ‘The Bride Of Frankenstein’. For now, ‘The Mummy’ should do.
RATING: 3 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
BERLIN SYNDROME (Australia/ 16/ 116 mins)
Directed by Cate Shortland. Starring Teresa Palmer, Max Riemelt, Emma Bading, Matthias Habich.
THE PLOT: Clare (Teresa Palmer) is a photojournalist and backpacker who has arrived in Berlin by herself. Wandering the streets and taking photos, she strikes up a conversation with schoolteacher Andi (Max Riemelt). As he shows her around, there’s an instant attraction which develops into something more passionate. She spends the night at his apartment, only to wake up the next morning and find that he’s left for work and locked the front door. Thinking he forgot to leave a spare key, Clare waits for Andi to come home. That’s when she realises that he’s not going to let her out. Trapped in a seemingly abandoned building, Clare will have to find a way to manipulate her captor…
THE VERDICT: Based on the novel by Melanie Joosten, ‘Berlin Syndrome’ is of course a play on the Stockholm Syndrome theory, in which captives develop a psychological alliance with their captors as a survival strategy. That forms the basis of this suspenseful dramatic thriller, in which characters are not always what they seem on the surface. When we first meet Clare, she’s a quiet, self-contained person who is either running away from something or trying to find something that has eluded her up to this point in her life. Andi is similar in some respects, keeping an air of respectability with his schoolteacher job and friendly approach to tourists. But Andi harbours his own dark secrets and thus begins a power struggle between these two well-drawn characters.
Following ‘Somersault’ and ‘Lore’, Shortland essentially makes this a two-hander in which Palmer and Riemelt spar and play off each other, but not in ways you would expect. Whereas another director might balk at the idea of Clare becoming submissive and accepting her captivity, Shortland is brave enough to go with the character all the way. Shortland doesn’t back down in depicting the mutually dependent relationship that develops. Both of these characters are lonely and need a human connection with each other, but the relationship is built on a falsehood that becomes ever more dangerous as time passes. Clare’s journey from darkness into light is riveting to watch.
Hollywood has often cast Palmer in pretty girlfriend roles, but here she gets to go full Brie Larson and tackle a meaty role with real substance. The comparison with ‘Room’ will no doubt come up, but Palmer makes the role her own. She’s superb here, showing a depth of range that speaks volumes, even with a small amount of dialogue. You can see why she’s called it the most liberating film experience of her career. Even when Clare’s behaviour comes under question, Palmer keeps her on the right side of audience sympathy throughout. Riemelt holds back from turning Andi into a psycho, making him that bit more human, adding subplots involving his ailing father (Matthias Habich) and a student (Emma Bading). Complex and tense, ‘Berlin Syndrome’ marks a career high for both Shortland and Palmer. It comes highly recommended.
Review by Gareth O’Connor
NORMAN (Israel / USA/ 15A/118 mins)
Directed by Joseph Cedar. Starring Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Michael Sheen, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dan Stevens, Steve Buscemi.
THE PLOT: Norman (Richard Gere) is what you call a New York fixer. A small-time Jewish businessman whose office seems to be the Manhattan streets, he sets up businessmen with influential connections to further their interests. This is where he meets Israeli Deputy Minister Micha (Lior Ashkenazi), whom he uses his charms on. Norman sees real political potential in this man, so he buys him an expensive pair of shoes and arranges for him to meet New York’s movers and shakers like Philip (Michael Sheen) and Bill (Dan Stevens). Several years and many small favours later, Micha is now the Prime Minister of Israel. Their long-standing friendship is about to be tested, as the political wolves come closing in on Micha…
THE VERDICT: Although it’s mainly known as ‘Norman’ for short, this film comes with an onscreen title of ‘Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall Of A New York Fixer’. That gives you some idea as to what to expect from this beautifully written and very well-acted singular character portrait. Norman isn’t just a character. He’s a man of character, generously offering his help to connect people in ways that might benefit them, though not necessarily him.
Yet, we only get to know as much about Norman as the other characters do, which is an interesting perspective. Most films clue the audience in, so they’re one step ahead of the other characters. Writer-director Joseph Cedar is more interested in keeping Norman an enigma, which works in the film’s favour. Divided into four acts, Cedar’s script builds up the friendship between Norman and Micha before it eventually has to come down. This is done in subtle ways which are brutally honest about the nature of power and how it can change and test people over time.
‘Norman’ is in a sense a companion piece to ‘Time Out Of Mind’, Gere’s previous collaboration with Oren Moverman, who produces here. It’s fascinating to watch the former Hollywood leading man take a late career turn towards independent cinema. He could easily play father roles or go down the predictable route followed by Robert De Niro. Instead, Gere is responding more to intelligent, well-written scripts which are more about finding the character on the page than in the paycheque. He’s excellent here, conveying the likeable irritability of Norman. It’s only getting a small release amid the clash and bang of summer blockbusters, but ‘Norman’ is a real find. Go see.
RATING: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
THE SHACK (USA/ 12A/ 132 mins)
Directed by Stuart Hazeldine. Starring Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Radha Mitchell, Tim McGraw, Alice Braga.
THE PLOT: Mack (Sam Worthington) is a mid-western man who has come from a troubled childhood background. Yet, he made good and is now happily married to Nan (Radha Mitchell). He also has a son and two daughters. On a camping trip, his youngest daughter goes missing in the woods. Police later find her red dress in an abandoned shack. With his daughter missing and feared dead at the hands of a child killer, Mack blames himself for not watching her closely. Several years later, Mack is still consumed by grief and guilt. He finds a letter in his mailbox from ‘Papa’, his youngest daughter’s name for God. He returns to the scene of the crime, where he finds something altogether different. God (Octavia Spencer) wants to talk to him…
THE VERDICT: The latest faith-based film from the US is another head-scratching cocktail of magical realism and wish-fulfilment that stretches the imagination to breaking point. Based on the book by Canadian author William P. Young, the modestly-titled ‘The Shack’ asks the audience to suspend disbelief, before then pulling the rug from under their feet. It could also be called ‘My Wild Weekend Retreat With God’.
Mack turns up at the shack to find an idyllic woodland / lakeside house where God is played by Octavia Spencer (Who else? Were you expecting Anthony Hopkins?). She has a daughter who collects human tears (stop sniggering) and lets her garden run wild, while her son is a carpenter who likes to walk on water. Okay. God wants to heal his pain, helping him to understand what happened to his daughter and why evil is still allowed to exist in the world. Mack also gets to talk to cave-dwelling spirit Wisdom (Alice Braga) and watch a magical light show, wherein he’s re-united with a face from the past.
This film really has to be seen to be believed. A literal leap of faith is required, but even then it becomes too much to take in. The idea of a grieving father encountering God is actually an intriguing one, but director Stuart Hazeldine blows any chance of making it meaningful. Instead of being a soulful exploration of the grieving process, it becomes a spiritually bankrupt depiction of a religious fantasy. All Mack really needs is some grief counselling. While he can be bland at times, Worthington is actually thoughtful here and is the one good element among this wishy-washy mess. ‘The Shack’ is the kind of guff that might go down well in Bible-Belt America, but the rest of us should avoid it like a plague of locusts.
RATING: 1 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
MY COUSIN RACHEL (UK / USA, 12A, 106 mins)
Directed by Roger Michell. Starring Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Iain Glen, Holliday Grainger.
THE PLOT: Philip (Sam Claflin) has been raised by his cousin and guardian Ambrose on the Cornish coastline, along with his godfather Nick (Iain Glen) and his daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger). Ambrose goes away to Italy, where he falls under the spell of Rachel (Rachel Weisz). As the letters arrive from Florence, Philip becomes distressed at the news within. It appears that Rachel has bewitched Ambrose, sending him to an early death. When Rachel comes back to Cornwall to claim her rightful inheritance, Philip chafes at the idea. He makes her wait and acts in a cold manner towards her. Yet, the Cold War between them soon thaws when Rachel uses his charms on him too. Is Rachel a black widow seeking her next little fly… or is she just a woman making her way in the world?
THE VERDICT: Adapted by director Roger Michell from the 1951 Daphne Du Maurier novel, ‘My Cousin Rache’l is an intoxicating story of love, passion and the legacy that people leave behind. Very much a Du Maurier story then, as it draws you into the complex relationship between its main characters while keeping a tight grip on your emotions. This particular story is a period piece, but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine it working in the present day either.
Love can be an obsessive experience of losing control in any age, with the power to either lift people up or destroy them internally. Du Maurier clearly understood that and ‘My Cousin Rache’l is one such story of crazy love. The gradual building up of the relationship between Philip and Rachel is subtle, with Michell hinting at an instant attraction, even if Philip bristles at Rachel’s mere presence. As the story develops, the characters become more entwined with each other. Yet, Michell leaves some elements open to interpretation so that we never really perceive Rachel as being manipulative or evil. She’s just making the most of her situation as a widow.
That open-ended balance of emotions is expertly portrayed by Weisz. She has an air of cool confidence about her character, which works well opposite the barely-contained anger and repression of Claflin’s Philip. Both actors spark off each other well, portraying a complex relationship which is potentially doomed. Michell keeps his direction stylish but self-contained, focusing intensely on his actors’ faces. ‘My Cousin Rachel’ is no stuffy Sunday afternoon film. It’s a period piece with a modern feel in its depiction of male-female relations. It’s a story that really draws you in, so that it becomes an involving and rewarding experience.