The Unwatchables — The Mummy

mummy

I hold Tom Cruise directly responsible for some of my worst experiences in the movie theater. In the summer of 1990, I committed to co-producing and co-hosting a weekly movie review program at my college radio station. The plan included a debut episode on Labor Day, looking back at the biggest hits since Memorial Day. (This was back when blockbuster movies were largely confined to the warmer months, when school was out). It was my obligation to seek out as many of those hits and potential-hits as I could. As always, it was a decidedly mixed bag of features, but only the dreadful Cruise vehicle Days of Thunder made me question the wisdom of committing to the weekly grind of seeing every movie released.

In the years that followed, I suffered through many more lousy movies that suffered from Cruise’s star machine ego, from downright crummy efforts (Far and Away, the first two Mission: Impossible films, Vanilla Sky) to otherwise intriguing films in which Cruise’s performance was easily the weakest element (The Firm, Jerry Maguire, Collateral). He had his moments, either do to shrewd casting that played to his limitations (Eyes Wide Shut) or yet rarer instances of directors who pushed him to go deeper than he previously seemed capable (Magnolia), but Cruise mostly settled in to a groove as the movie star least likely to deliver a pleasant surprise.

This preamble is meant as mildly chastened acknowledgement of the way my sentiments have shifted. I come to praise Cruise, not to bury him. In recent years, he wild-eyed zeal for entertaining the audience, at practically any cost to his life and limb, has been perversely charming. His taste in projects remains highly questionable, but, by Xenu, he consistently gives it his all. When Cruise’s banzai-charge insistence meets a theme park ride big and bold enough for him to him to ricochet around within it, the results can approach cinematic bliss.

I think the filmmakers behind The Mummy believed they has fashioned just such a platform for Cruise. Intended as the linchpin of an interconnected cinematic universe of famed movieland spooky creatures, The Mummy is confused from the first frames of ponderous backstory.

Cruise plays a military man with the super-masculine name Nick Morton. He’s on a mission in Iraq when a massive underground tomb is discovered. He explores it with his requisite wise-cracking buddy (Jake Johnson) and a young, foxy archeologist (Annabelle Wallis), who, it just so happens, Nick knows from an earlier tryst. Down in the tomb, Nick does really helpful things, like fire bullets at pulley ropes on a hunch. That leads the trio to find a sarcophagus that’s been the longtime prison to an Ancient Egyptian princess who was buried alive after she took deadly issue with the patriarchal preferences in lines of royal succession.

As directed by Alex Kurtzman (whose mattresses are probably stuffed with the wads of cash he’s made by writing the Transformers movies and other ruinously bad franchises), The Mummy is simultaneously hectic and boring, ladling on chintzy special effects that wouldn’t have passed muster back when Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz were romping their way through Universal’s prior, more successful attempt to extract riches from this long-held property. Cruise’s eagerness to invite physical mayhem upon himself for the sake of his art leads directly to a fairly inventive nosediving plane sequence, but the rest of the film’s ideas are collectively the equivalent of cooked noodles hurled at the drywall. Some stick, some don’t, and it all lands as an incoherent mess.

Amusingly, Cruise seems utterly perplexed the whole way through, as if no one told him anything about the film he’s in. I don’t mean his character is taken aback by the paranormal foofaraw converging upon him. I mean very specifically that Cruise himself appears baffled, by everything, whether its the props, the scenery, the frothing overacting by Russell Crowe (as Dr. Henry Jekyll and his internalized alter ego), or even the most basic plot points. When Wallis strides up and lays out the exposition of her character’s relationship to Nick, Cruise looks like a pained individual feeling overwhelmed on his first day of improv class. It’s not exactly the headlong foolhardiness I’ve learned to appreciate in Cruise’s later career, but it provided some amount of amusement in an otherwise dismal film.

I made it approximately two-thirds of the way through The Mummy.

 

Previously in The Unwatchables
— Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, directed by Michael Bay
— Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton
— Due Date, directed by Todd Phillips
— Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder
— Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau
— After Earth, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
— The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster
Now You See Me 2, directed by Jon M. ChU

Playing Catch-Up — The Hero; Paddington 2; Deepwater Horizon

hero

The Hero (Brett Haley, 2017). Brett Haley conceived of this character study after working with Sam Elliott on a previous effort. The genesis of the project is clear in the finished product, if only because there’s barely any purpose beyond giving the veteran actor a chance to flash his laconic charm with a dose of uniquely stolid vulnerability. Elliot plays a cowboy actor of middling success who earns his living with commercial voice-over work. He’s feeling his mortality for reasons having to do with age and some dire medical news. And that’s about it. There’s not much story, making the film into a character study that’s paper thin, more warm tribute than sharp analysis. Elliott is a fine presence and acquits himself well in moments that are more emotional that what he’s usually provided, but he doesn’t dig all that deep. The performance is fine and admirable without ever feeling essential.

 

paddington

Paddington 2 (Paul King, 2018). Elevated by the warm, inventive visuals of director Peter King, this sequel is a unexpected, lovely delight. The titular bear (voiced with sweet care by Ben Whishaw) with a taste for marmalade and a gentle life with a human family in London finds himself imprisoned when he’s framed in theft of a rare pop-up book worth a fortune. Paddington’s family tries to free him by identifying the real criminal (a washed up actor, played with zippy gusto by Hugh Grant) as he befriends — and somewhat tames — a group of roughneck fellow inmates, including a gruff chef (Brendan Gleeson, marvelous in a role that winks at his usual typecasting while still giving him a chance to do something completely new). The screenplay (co-written by King and Simon Farnaby) is smart, dense, and economically makes certain every detail counts. King’s astonishing approach to the film’s look that takes Paddington 2 to another level. The charms are boundless.

 

 

deepwater

Deepwater Horizon (Peter Berg, 2016). Drawn from massively impressive New York Times reporting on the 2010 disaster involving a offshore drilling rig that killed eleven people and leaked countless gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, this film is obviously well intentioned. It’s also deeply flawed. For all his clear skill as a director, Peter Berg defaults to a muscular bluntness that can sometimes make him seem like Michael Bay with taste and a conscious. Instead of providing plainspoken authenticity to the procession of details of the fateful day, Berg’s approach strips away all tension. The film resembles any generic, explosion-filled action movie, problematically undercutting the real life tragedy depicted. There’s laudable authenticity to the scenes of regular guys just doing their jobs in the lead-up to everything falling apart, though the depiction of the BP executives (especially in the performance by John Malkovich) is grounded in an oily villainy that tilts toward the manipulative.

15

cakers 2018

I and some of the most brilliant people I know once again devoted a huge swath of time in recent days to the annual staging of The World’s Largest Trivia ContestTM  by a college radio station with an enduring hold on my heart. In addition to the usual straining of brains and testing of livers for which my crew is semi-famous, the geographic location where we gathered was pummeled by a historic blizzard, delivering over two feet of snow over the course of a couple days.

The weather added plentiful complications, and yet my team, the Cakers, finished right in our regular zone, landing in fifteenth place. I’m too tired to add much more. We’ll get back to non-Trivia words tomorrow.

From the Archive — Triviatown

triviatown

I’m a little weary and preoccupied (and maybe a little tipsy) at the moment this posts. There is a documentary out there in the world that helps explain why. This was my stab at reviewing the film shortly after seeing it for the first time. 

Every April the college radio station in Stevens Point, Wisconsin mounts a 54-hour on-air trivia contest as a fundraiser. The event regularly draws over 11,000 participants, especially significant since this is a community with a population just under 25,000, which provides some idea of how thoroughly the contest takes over the city during the weekend it takes place. Years ago, it was designated as the “world’s largest trivia contest,” a title no one has ever really stepped up to dispute. The new documentary Triviatown is largely about some of the teams that make this descent into minutiae a yearly ritual.

It’s extremely difficult for me to evaluate Triviatown as a piece of filmmaking. One way or another, I’ve been deeply involved with this trivia contest for about eighteen years. I fully understand the rigors of helping to organize and stage the event, and I’ve experienced every one of the strange, particular energies inherent with being a player. Everything onscreen produces an emotional response, regardless of how adeptly the filmmakers have portrayed it. It’s like watching a film adapted from a family photo album.

Oh, and I’m actually in it. Luckily, it’s fairly brief and I seem fairly lucid. Unlike one of my teammates, I managed to keep my pants on, so that’s a relief. To a degree it doesn’t matter, though. I could be enagaged in oration that was positive Churchillian, but the mere fact that the movie screen is briefly serving as a sort of mirror is enough to send me crawling under my chair.

The documentary is very much in the mode of Wordplay, the film from earlier this year that spends ample time depicting the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and those who lavish in letting their puzzle solving slip over into the realm of obsession. Triviatown is equally concerned with the ins and outs and twists and turns of the cognitive competition and picks out a handful of teams to carry the narrative. As opposed to the crossword battle between individuals, participants in the Stevens Point trivia contest assemble into teams, usually using the event as a sort of makeshift reunion weekend for family members and old friends. While the different teams generally have a few things in common–some computers, stacks of books–the style of play ranges from businesslike to raucous. The film revels in contrasting the serious, focused approach of Network, a team largely comprised of old high school buddies that has absolutely dominated the contest over the years, to that of The Cakers, a collection of radio station alumni usually shown dancing wildly or consuming prodigious amounts of alcohol, seemingly oblivious to the fact that people are reading questions on the radio.

Yeah, I should probably note here that I’m on that second team.

Directors Patrick Cady and Brit McAdams effectively capture everything that any Trivia maven would want to see. They catch moments of narrowly missed questions and breakneck attempts to get an answer called in before the musically-dictated time limit (teams have the length of two relatively short songs to call the radio station). There are controversies, weird behavior, mass collections of people scrambling for information, and tales of team lore that will be familiar to anyone who has slogged their way through the hundreds of queries that parade out of speakers during the course of the weekend. But I wonder how much appeal it will have to those whose knowledge of the event derives strictly from this film. Never mind Peoria, will it play anywhere outside of Triviatown itself? I have my doubts. Time spent on side stories like teams who violate the rules by sharing answers or the dueling admiration and resentment of the top team may push all the hot buttons of the faithful, but I’m less convinced it will keep the average viewer engaged.

It’s worth noting that the station itself is almost a non-presence in the film. That certainly makes some sense; you don’t see them spending a lot of time in Wordplay focusing on how the Stamford Marriott prepares for the crossword tournment. Besides, with over three decades of learned lessons passed down to the students who make it happen they’re approaching that fabled clockwork comparison, although when you’re largely dealing with amateur broadcasters, it can get a little hairy at times. Leaving that aspect on the cutting room floor is understandable, but as someone who remembers what it’s like to have your contributions largely ignored by the teams picking up their trophies, it would have been nice to hear a few more student voices.

To a large degree, these reservations are pure guesswork on my part. I’m far too close to the pasttime held up for inspection in Triviatown to accurately gauge how effectively it passes that first test of a documentary: clearly and thoroughly informing filmgoers about some place, event and people that they previously knew nothing about. When a trivia player tells a story about telephoning Bud Somerville, I was completely drawn in, almost in a state of joyous wonderment, as ridiculous as that sounds. What kind of reaction awaits for a future viewer who has no automatic means of relating to the story? I really don’t know, and while I watched the film, I blissfully didn’t care. Triviatown is a spectacular memento of something that means a great deal to me. For that, I am plainly grateful.

One for Friday — The Kings, “Anti-Hero Man”

kings

I’ve spent this week spilling out personal lore associated with the annual staging of The World’s Largest Trivia contest by my student broadcasting alma mater. Until I revive the tradition next year, I have one more.

Years ago, to fill a gap created when a driving scavenger hunt portion of the contest was briefly discontinued, the trivia contest added a Music Question, editing together teensy bits of eight songs for teams to identify. Since my team include many fellow radio alumni on the roster, we have always felt it necessity to do well on this particular Trivia offering. Our cherished shared history foisting our music preferences on Central Wisconsin fairly mandates it.

In one of the earliest years of the question, before there were a bevy of tools to help out, one of the snippets in the music question almost sounded like two different songs. It was obviously a tactic to confused teams about the location of the edits. One of my cohorts wasn’t fooled for a second, and we correctly wrote in the title “The Beat Goes On/Switchin’ to Glide” on our answer sheet. For a variety of reasons, this earned us big points, one of our earliest experiences with reaping the rewards that come with being one of the few teams to nail a tough question (or, in this case, portion of a question).

Largely because of that I have a nostalgic soft spot for the band the Kings. Their minor hit didn’t register for me when it was first released, but no matter. Thanks to the Trivia moment, I think they’re dandy. That led me to grab a vinyl copy of their debut album, The Kings Are Here (which leads with the linked tracks that got us all those points) when I found it reasonably priced at a used record store.

Fittingly, the first time I listened to the album from start to finish, one lyric, found in the song “Anti-Hero Man,” jumped out at me:

Life’s too short for trivia, there is no time to waste

I guess I must concede that I’m not doing a great job adhering to that tenet.

Listen or download —> The Kings, “Anti-Hero Man”

(Disclaimer: I’m not sure if the Kings album in question is available as a physical item that can be purchased at your favorite local, independently-owned record store. If it is, you should run not walk to turn over your money in exchange for a fine, fine piece of recorded music. I am sharing this track as encouragement to commerce, not a replacement for it. Even so, I know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Trivia Answer of the Day — The Breakdown

This coming weekend, I’ll participate in The World’s Largest Trivia ContestTM. As per tradition, this week is filled with idle reminiscing about memorable answers in past years. This time around, I’m focusing answers on the supplemental “Unplugged” version of the contest, which is staged a few times per year in Central Wisconsin. 

breakdown

A side effect of participating in 90FM’s Trivia is that I feel less compelled to hold in my memory banks the most basic facts of the pop culture I consume with its eventual contest usefulness in mind. It wasn’t always the case. At one point, I took ludicrous pride in being able to rattle off the fundamentals of touchstone movies and television series, as if the skill would someday prove heroic. A building is burning down and the only way these people can be rescued is if someone can quickly provide the name of the rival drinking establishment that regularly engaged in a prank war with the gang at Cheers! Now, that information can be readily Googled up before I could even push through the crowd. Whoever has the strongest signal on their phone saves the day.

Things are a little different in the Unplugged competition, though. Material that can be mined from the internet in a matter of moments is unavailable. Suddenly, it’s prime fodder for questions. For example, the question could be “What is the name of the news program co-anchored by Chuck Pierce and Portia Scott-Griffith?” Or maybe something like “What is the name of the network program that is taken over by executive Diana St. Tropez?”

These questions were posed in successive Trivia Unplugged events I attended. I have watched every episode of the television series Great News and immediately recognized it as the source for the questions. The name of the fictional television news program at the heart of Great News is all over the place in every episode: on clothing, on coffee mugs spoken multiple times by various characters, in gigantic letters on walls and in the studio where there characters practice their noble broadcast journalism.

In the first Unplugged in which I was confronted with this should-be-easy question, I quickly and confidently provided my answer: “The Rundown.” That is the title of a well-regarded BET late night program, an E! Snapchat series, and a movie costarring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Rosario Dawson. It is not, however, the name of any fictional program on Great News.

A smart person would learn from this mistake, of course. But my intellect is evidently more in the range of Bart Simpson confronted with an electrified cupcake. Mere weeks later, I was at another Trivia Unplugged, and another Great News question was asked, again seeking the name of the fictional news program. This time I agonized over two options, eventually settling again on “The Rundown.”

I share my pain to cleanse and heal. And I also detail this blundering shame in hopes of putting out the necessary mojo into the universe to deliver unto me a Great News question this weekend that can provide some personal redemption. Because in this nutty game we play, no matter what glories or heartbreaks we have just endured in our answer hunts, there is always the next question.

 

More info about 90FM’s Trivia can be found at its official website or at the radio station’s online home. There’s also a feature documentary about the contest, but it’s fairly hard to come by these days. To see how my team is faring over the weekend, Twitter is probably the best bet.

Trivia Answer of the Day — Steve Rogers

This coming weekend, I’ll participate in The World’s Largest Trivia ContestTM. As per tradition, this week is filled with idle reminiscing about memorable answers in past years. This time around, I’m focusing answers on the supplemental “Unplugged” version of the contest, which is staged a few times per year in Central Wisconsin. 

bernie

There are a multitude of ways in which 90FM’s Trivia — especially the “Unplugged” version — can leave a participant feeling deeply humbled. For me, few things rankle more than when I am left utterly blank-minded up against a question on a topic that I once mastered with encyclopedic command. It can be tough to accept how decisively I could be bested by the fifteen-year-old version of me.

We were asked to provide the first and last name of the comic book character who was once engaged to Bernie Rosenthal, one of the most talented glass blowers in New Yorker metroplex. Luckily, as I sat there agonizing over gaps in my memory, one of my teammates — whose current comic acumen should inspire envy in all — piped up and said, “That’s Captain America, right?”

Sure enough, the civilian alter ego of the star-spangled Avenger was the correct answer, and we secured a hefty amount of points. Pleased as I was to celebrate with my teammates, I knew the teenager I once was looked on with a touch of disappointment that I wasn’t the one who confidently piped up as soon as the question was read. I guess I need to go back and do some devoted rereading.

 

More info about 90FM’s Trivia can be found at its official website or at the radio station’s online home. There’s also a feature documentary about the contest, but it’s fairly hard to come by these days. To see how my team is faring over the weekend, Twitter is probably the best bet.