THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR * *
Cert 12A 112 mins
Seven years and a slack career on from The Mummy Returns, Brendan Fraser joins forces with xXx director Rob Cohen for a threequel. Back too is John Hannah who, presumably short of a few bob, reprises his turn as Rick O’Connell’s comic relief whining brother-in-law John. What job satisfaction he must have in being able to say lines like “my ass is on fire”.
However, clearly a woman who recognises a disinterred corpse when she smells one, Rachel Weisz declined to return, the role of Evie going to Maria Bello who gives perfect English accent but seems totally oblivious to anything she’s actually saying.
It’s 1947, and fed up with retirement, the husband and wife adventurers are persuaded to take on one last job, returning an ancient artefact to China where John now runs a nightclub. Arriving, they discover son Alex (new addition Luke Ford) has made the world’s greatest archaeological find (clearly things like this don’t make the papers in Oxfordshire), the tomb of the Dragon Emperor (Jet Li, looking utterly bored).
He’s a world dominating wannabe cursed in the prologue to leak chocolate sauce (sorry, terracotta) and become a statue for eternity, along with his army, by sorceress Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh) after he tried to kill her.
Not to waste more time explaining the plot than was spent concocting it, suffice to say the O’Connells turn out to have been stitched up.
The Emperor’s resurrected by a paramilitary faction looking to restore China’s power and, in command of the four elements, sets off for Shangri-La to shed the remnants of the curse, gain immortality and pick up where he left off. Good job that Yuan’s still around along with her immortal daughter (Isabella Leong) to try and stop him. And that there’s daredevil pilots and Chinese speaking Yeti (no, really) on hand to help save the day.
If I make this sound in anyway exciting, I apologise. Slow to get going and taking forever to end, it may be packed with frantic car chases, noisy explosions and martial arts somersaults, but that’s just to hide the fact that it’s relentlessly no fun. Even Fraser can’t seem to summon any enthusiasm.
Lifeless, forced and plodding with a thin, tired script more soggy than pulp, given to clunky exposition like “oh, no, his powers have been fully restored” and with a vapid Ford taking up far too much screen time, it makes you wish for embalmment.
There’s an amusing sight gag when one of the skeletons raised from the dead to battle the Emperor’s forces knocks off another’s head and tries to screw it back on, but it’s hardly worth exhuming a franchise for.
Early on, one of novelist Evie’s fans asks if there’ll be another mummy adventure. This film pretty much settles that question.
DEATH DEFYING ACTS * * *
Cert PG 96 mins
Having made five films during the 90s, Little Women and Oscar & Lucinda among them, Australian director Gillian Armstrong has been rather less prolific this century. Her last feature was seven years ago with the misfiring Charlotte Grey and her latest, again a fictionalised narrative built around a real figure, has been awaiting release for almost a year.
It arrives now in the wake of both The Prestige and The Illusionist, two other period pieces films involving magicians and romantic entanglements. Here the real life character on which the story’s extemporised is legendary escapologist Harry Houdini, played with brooding style but little regard for physical likeness (the real Houdini was a short, stocky Hungarian-German Jew) by Guy Pearce.
Although seen performing his popular water tank escape, the narrative, which is set in 1926, takes its chief cue from Houdini’s obsession, following his mother’s death in 1913, with debunking psychics and mediums.
Arriving in Edinburgh on tour, Houdini throws down the challenge to offer $10,000 to anyone who can make contact with his mother and reveal her last words. Enter Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who works a theatrical psychic con act with her teenage Houdini fan daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan).
Broke and in need of the cash, she puts herself forward and is chosen by Harry to give it a go. Matters are complicated, however, as an inevitable romance begins to spark between them. There’s also the matter of Houdini’s protective cynical manager, Sugarman (Timothy Spall) who can tell a con artist when he sees one.
Although Zeta-Jones might have been more convincing as a destitute woman if she hadn’t looked quite so Hollywood glossy, her scenes with Pearce have spark while Ronan, who made this prior to her Oscar nominated work in Atonement, steals every scene she shares with her co-stars.
As far as historical facts go, pretty much everything can be taken with a pinch of salt (even his death is a loose variation on the truth), but as a romantic drama on a theme of the performances we put on for others with a pinch of the paranormal thrown in, it’s entertaining enough.
However, its one screen local release means you’ll likely have to wait until it passes over to the other side and you make contact through the medium of DVD.
THE FOX AND THE CHILD * *
Cert U 94 mins
As with his previous March of the Penguins, Luc Jacquet’s latest foray into the natural world has been dubbed from the original French and given a new narration. For Penguins you got an authoritative sober Morgan Freeman, this time it’s a rather cloying Kate Winslet.
Dispensing with documentary, the new film, the subject of which is pretty much wrapped up in the title, adopts a narrative approach as, loosely based on a childhood encounter of his own, it charts the almost fairy tale relationship between a freckled young redhead (Bertille Noel-Bruneau) who lives with unseen parents in some unspecified wildlife-rich forested region of France and the fox she encounters one day on her way back from school.
Determined to make friends with the creature, she sets out to track her down only to wind up breaking a leg in the winter snows. Come Spring, she’s back on the case, discovering her fox has now become a mum and eventually gaining her trust sufficiently to spend hours sitting on the hillside together. Only when she attempts to domesticate her do things go awry.
While mercifully avoiding any attempt at Disney-like anthropomorphism, this is still firmly a kids movie in much the same fashion as Fly Away Home, and youngsters will doubtless be charmed by the many scenes between girl and animal.
There’s some mildly scary bits, as when the child gets lost following Lili (as she names the fox) into caves and winds up having to spend the night in the forest, while younger, sensitive animal lovers may be distressed at the sight of the vixen’s mate dying after being poisoned by those who regard them as pests.
Slow yet pleasant enough (though not sufficiently to explain its huge French box office success), but with a narration that insists on spelling everything out and Noel-Bruneau’s incessant giggles and dubbed dialogue making her your worst Heidi nightmare, the best mo ments are undeniably those without any two legged interference.
ELEGY * *
Cert 15 112 mins
Having made the acutely poignant My Life Without Me, it’s a bit depressing to find director Isabel Coixet trudging through the male fantasies that tend to fuel Woody Allen movies or Michael Douglas’ marriage.
Classily adapted by Nicholas Meyer from Philip Roth’s novella, it offers up Ben Kingsley as English professor and cultural pundit David Kepesh.
An ageing lothario who walked out of his marriage because it constrained his independence and belief in “sexual happiness”, he makes a habit of bedding graduates while still maintaining the three weekly sessions he’s been having with a former student, now high -powered businesswoman (Patricia Clarkson), for the past 20 years. No prizes for surmising the man has commitment issues.
So when he seduces clever, attractive and elegantly self-assured Cuban ex-pat Consuela (Penelope Cruz) and finds himself falling in love and becoming jealously possessive, it throws him into a bit of an emotional turmoil.
Consuela in turn is totally charmed by the old goat, even when he pushes her into revealing intimate details of her previous lovers, but is wary that he’s not prepared to go the extra mile she needs to see her as a future rather than a physical work of art.
Advised by his equally womanising and wildly uninsightful poet best buddy George (Dennis Hopper) to grow up and get out now because she’ll leave him eventually, he’s all rather nonplussed about what to do.
There will, naturally, be a parting of the ways and some time for self-reflection before a melodramatic denouement that walks a thin line between the moving and the risible.
Although Kingsley can be a little mannered and never quite masks his inherent pompousness, he gradually reveals David’s vulnerability and fears while Cruz proves capable of making you focus on her acting rather than her naked breasts.
A scene between them, foreshadowing events to come, as he is unable to reassure her that he’d still love her if her body was no longer perfect, is brilliantly played.
There’s solid support too. Clarkson is excellent as Kepesh’s female mirror image, Hopper is in uncharacteristically restrained form and both an unrecognisable Deborah Harry (as George’s wife) and Peter Sarsgaard (as David’s estranged doctor son who’s never forgiven his dad for walking out) make the most of their brief appearances.
Indeed, the brittle, barbed scenes between him and Kingsley often touch on high comedy.
Ultimately, though, arty, airless and laced with Bach and Vivaldi to give it that melancholy middlebrow mood, it’s a cold affair and, while the film remains non-judgemental, there’s little to persuade you what Consuela sees in a man who, regardless of age differences, is too self-regarding and lacking in empathy to forge any kind of lasting relationship.
MAKE IT HAPPEN * *
Cert PG 90 mins
Stop me if this sounds familiar. Dance student leaves smalltown roots and moves to big city to make it big, gets rejected by pompous dance academy choreographer, gets work in a night club but keeps dancing when no one’s around (she thinks), offers to step in when regular dancers don’t show, becomes the star turn (thereby upsetting slinky bitchy rival), returns for second audition, yada yada.
The hackneyed follow your dreams plot’s already been danced to death in the likes of Step Up, How She Move, Save The Last Dance and, most especially, Coyote Ugly of which this is a teen-friendly rework. But here it is wheeled out again with minor plot variations and some extra shopping montages, this time with the legs attached to Death Proof’s Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
She gives good moves but can’t do anything to rise above the predictable cliches, lazy direction and flat dialogue. Impossibly chaste (Ruby’s must be the most wholesome burlesque bar ever), as the certificate suggests this is Showgirls without the show. Make it stop.