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Schultz reviews: 'Mortal Combat,' 'The Dig' and 'In the Earth'

Schultz reviews: 'Mortal Combat,' 'The Dig' and 'In the Earth'

Carl Schultz

“Mortal Kombat”   Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 110 Minutes, Rated R, Released April 23, 2021:What you see is what you get.In the outrageously violent “Mortal Kombat,” with an ultimate goal of conquering Earth, the extraterrestrial realm of Outworld has bested our home planet’s team in nine out of the past ten Mortal Kombat deathmatch tournaments, a sort of exaggerated, no-holds-barred martial arts competition. 

But as a means of fulfilling an ancient prophecy, Earth begins to recruit a new generation of Mortal Kombat champions in order to prevent Outworld’s tenth and decisive victory.A fantasy adventure based on the video gaming sensation first marketed by Midway Games in 1992, “Mortal Kombat” is precisely what you either hoped it would be (if you’re a fan of the game) or afraid it might (if you’re not). 

Starring an assortment of actors, models, martial arts experts, and stunt performers, the film contains plenty of CGI-augmented action and violence but little personality or style...and not a shred of wit or intelligence.  Worst of all--the movie takes itself much, much too seriously.  This one’s for fans of the video game only.

My eleven-year-old nephew describes “Mortal Kombat”--the video version--as “just a stupid, boring video game jazzed up with too much violence and blood”...which is also a good way to describe the movie.  For what it’s worth, the filmmakers needed to tone down the video game’s carnage quotient in order to avoid a fatal NC-17 rating from the MPAA.  Think about that the next time your child disappears to indulge in hours of online gaming.Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Simon McQuoid from a script by rookie screenwriter Greg Russo and “The Expendables” and “Godzilla” writer David Callahan, “Mortal Kombat” is rated R for graphic, bloody violence and language concerns throughout.

“The Dig”  

Distributed by Netflix, 112 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released January 15, 2021:Superb performances and straight, uncomplicated storytelling illuminate two periods of world history in “The Dig,” a new drama streaming on Netflix that tells the story of a discovery of ancient historical artifacts and priceless treasure.Based on the actual events surrounding the 1939 archaeological excavation at the Sutton Hoo estate near Woodbridge in Suffolk, England, in “The Dig” estate owner and history enthusiast Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) has an idea, part research and part wishful thinking, that a remote part of her property might contain historical treasure. 

Acting on her hunch, Pretty hires rough-edged, self-taught amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (an excellent Ralph Fiennes) to investigate and begin digging.Suspecting at first that a Suffolk excavation is likely to yield only some fairly routine Viking artifacts, Brown begins digging at one of the large mounds on Pretty’s land and quickly begins to uncover relics from an even earlier age.  And as the excavation continues, the unschooled expert Brown and the history buff Pretty are astonished to find the buried remains of an entire 7th-century ship of Anglo-Saxon origin, completely intact, a relic of the Dark Ages outfitted for the burial of a king and filled with priceless relics.Directed by Simon Stone from a screenplay by Moira Buffini, “The Dig” is one of those rare movies that seemingly flies so far under the radar that at first you barely notice it at all, but then becomes a movie you’ll never forget.  No matter how successful or prosperous, everyone’s an underdog in some respect, or feels that way. 

And when a movie tells a true story of gifted amateurs who through persistence, hard work, research, and a love of their craft achieve their highest hopes and wishes, it celebrates us all.The Sutton Hoo excavation provided one of the richest sources of archaeological artifacts from a previously misunderstood period of England’s development.  Basil Brown’s discovery modified history’s knowledge of some of the first chapters of British social evolution, and provided a light into the Dark Ages.  Thanks to the efforts of the gifted and uneducated amateur archaeologist and his benefactor Edith Pretty, an entire era of English history once believed to be uncivilized and backward was instead revealed to be cultured and sophisticated.In the nearly three decades since his breakthrough role as the morally bankrupt concentration camp commandant Goeth in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” Ralph (pronounced Rafe) Fiennes has never allowed himself to craft an image or personality in the public eye.  A consummate character actor, movie fans begin to suspect that, like Lon Chaney, Ralph Fiennes does not exist between movie roles. 

The notion ironically might’ve been the only obstacle to the actor becoming either a household name or a motion picture superstar.Also a Tony Award-winning stage performer, Fiennes modifies his personality and even his appearance from movie to movie, alternating effortlessly between leading roles in blockbusters like 1996’s “The English Patient” and supporting parts in edgier fare like 2008’s “The Reader” or 2009’s “The Hurt Locker.”  It’s almost appropriate that Fiennes’ most visible role to date is all but anonymous, buried beneath makeup and prosthetics as the evil Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter pictures.

As Basil Brown in “The Dig,” Fiennes continues the tradition of the great British actors by seeming to quietly disappear into his role.  His face a mask of stony British stoicism and indifference, Fiennes’ Brown betrays neither elation when he discovers the scope and importance of his Suffolk excavation nor outrage and dejection when more prominent and educated archeology experts arrive at the site and try to push his contributions aside. 

The actor’s impassive manner as he mounts his bicycle and pedals home after his more accomplished colleagues arrive at the site is heartbreaking. In the smaller--or at least less prominent--role of Edith Pretty, Carey Mulligan continues a methodical climb as one of the finest character actresses working in motion pictures.  Already the recipient of a Best Actress award from the National Board of Review, Mulligan like Fiennes has a gift for disappearing into her roles:  There’s little continuum between her characterizations in 2013’s “The Great Gatsby,” 2015’s “Far From the Madding Crowd” and the current “Promising Young Woman.” 

As Pretty in “The Dig,” Mulligan quietly but firmly provides the inspiration for Fiennes’ determination.“The Dig” adheres fairly closely to the actual events of the Sutton Hoo excavation in 1939.  A fictional romantic triangle between Pretty’s dashing RAF cousin and the neglected wife of one of the archaeologists is added to the dynamic, but it’s easy to overlook.  And Pretty at the time of the excavation was in her mid-50s, but the age was implicitly lowered for the movie when Mulligan replaced actress Nicole Kidman in the role.  As in real life, the artifacts from the Sutton Hoo project were stored in the London subway for safekeeping during World War II, and now reside in the British Museum.

All things considered, “The Dig” is a gem among recent motion picture releases.  Intelligent. engaging, illuminating, and sweetly inspiring, it’s the rare film that educates while it entertains.  Check it out.Filmed in the lovely Surrey countryside not far from where the actual events took place, “The Dig” is rated PG-13 for brief sensuality and a quick flash of partial nudity.

“In the Earth”  

Distributed by Neon Pictures, 107 Minutes, Rated R, Released April 16, 2021:There’s a scene about thirty minutes into the new horror picture “In the Woods” in which the two central characters are lost in the woods and being stalked by unseen forces.  You can see from the expressions on their faces that they’re wondering what in the world they’ve gotten themselves into. 

Sadly, it’s also at about that time that the viewer begins wondering precisely the same thing.In “In the Earth, while the world’s in the throes of a devastating (fictional) global pandemic, a medical journalist and a wilderness guide flee the chaos of civilization in search of a rumored scientific research facility located in the remote forests of England.  

After enduring various indoctrination procedures, the two finally discover evidence of the research station, only to learn they’ve delivered themselves into the hands of an estranged couple of obsessed naturalists, and are about to be used as either subjects for their hosts’ demented scientific experiments...or as bait for something much, much worse.

Probably the very first horror thriller of the post-Covid era (the end credits list a Covid Health and Safety Advisor), “In the Earth'' opens with a disclaimer warning away viewers sensitive to photoelectric-induced seizures, and then spends the remainder of its running time seemingly thinking up ways to outrage, nauseate, or otherwise repulse virtually everybody else.  

This is one time when the destination is definitely not worth the journey, especially for an audience already weary of the relentless existential despair of a global viral epidemic.  Written and directed by Ben Wheatley, “In the Earth” is plainly inspired by Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” but also contains elements of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Blair Witch Project.”  The makeup effects are persuasive, for what it’s worth, and designed to put as much of the carnage as possible right in the viewer’s face...including a pointlessly prolonged scene of traumatic amputation.  If that’s how you spell entertainment, the movie is effective enough. 

For the rest of us, “In the Earth” unfortunately crosses a line early on and becomes sadistic.I watch nonsense like this so you don’t have to.  The best advice:  Skip “In the Earth” and wait for the movie to be released for streaming online.  And then skip it again.“In the Earth” is rated R for...well, pretty much everything it contains--the movie should’ve been rated NC-17.  Look for the eventual home video version to contain footage removed from the theatrical release at the insistence of the censors, and be released in an unrated edition.

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