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

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

Playing Catch-Up — A United Kingdom; Downsizing; Girls Trip

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A United Kingdom (Amma Asante, 2016). It’s almost jarring to see a modern movie as staid in its dramatization of noble societal perseverance as A United Kingdom. Based on real history, the film follows the heartbreaking travails of Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), member of the royal lineage of the Bechuanaland Proctectorate in Africa whose rightful ascendancy to leadership of his people is denied by the British government after he marries a white Londoner named Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike). The couple endure brutish bigotry, often delivered with the added weight of government authority by figures of sneering, suit-jacket, administrative evil, including one played by Tom Felton, trapped forever as a angry, simpering Malfoy. Oyelowo and Pike both give nice, nuanced performances — and, not incidentally, there are utterly charming in their courtship and comfort as a couple — but the film moves with the clacking dramatic reticence of any of the well-meaning dramas of slow-but-sure social justice on the African continent that peppered art house calendars twenty to thirty years ago. Amma Asante directs as if she’s making a product suited for the genteel trepidation of the classroom rather than the more emotional landscape of true cinema.

 

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Downsizing (Alexander Payne, 2017). Following a successful string of films in which director Alexander Payne found wry humor in the simplest human stories, the Nebraskan creator returns to the brand of stealthy, in-through-the-side-door satire of his first features. In the near-future, scientists combat the calamity wrought on the planet by clumsy humanity by shrinking a portion of the population down to roughly action figure size. Around that basic premise, Payne and his usual screenwriting collaborator, Jim Taylor, brick up a teetering tower of plot. There are interesting ideas throughout, but the entangled complexities ultimately become too unwieldy. It’s as if Payne tried to compress a full season of an HBO series into a couple hours. The methodology undermines the film’s strongest element, the generally strong supporting performance by Hong Chau, as an refugee who lost her leg in a gruesome human smuggling event. The screenplay defaults to often to brash generalities in the character. That Chau plays them with sprightly conviction doesn’t fully redeem the troubling shorthand.

 

 

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Girls Trip (Malcolm D. Lee, 2017). This comedy about college friends reviving their annual vacation together with a raucous trip to New Orleans has only a wisp of a story, the post-Bridemaids conviction that females being bawdy is all that’s needed to generate laughs, and characters so confined to their basic types that its hard to fathom how the camaraderie every developed in the first place. It’s also got a performance from Tiffany Haddish that demands the coining of a term stronger than “star-making.” That’s plenty to give the film a reason for being. She’s utterly magnetic in the film and mercilessly funny in her fearless bravado. Much as Malcolm D. Lee deserves credit for smartly tilting Girls Trip to Haddish’s considerable strengths, he also takes a pedestrian approach to the visuals and pacing, which grow more problematic as the film adheres to the recent movies comedy trend of sprawling to a running team that’s at least twenty minutes too long.

Playing Catch-Up — Darkest Hour; The House; Dear Heart

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Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, 2017). Director Joe Wright does his damnedest to pump up Darkest Hour with tricky visuals and little jolts of energy, but the stodginess of this drama is finally overwhelming. The film depicts the early tenure of Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) as British Prime Minister, with particular attention to how he bucked political pressure when his nation’s soldiers were stranded at Dunkirk, trying to bring them home without engaging in peace talks with Nazi Germany. Oldman is fine as Churchill, though I feel he sometimes lets the makeup do the heavy lifting on the performance. More problematically, the screenplay by Anthony McCarten trudges along as a dull history lesson dressed up with rudimentary narrative trappings, like the plucky newcomer (Lily James) who serves as a sort or audience surrogate and the wry wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) who’s wistfully supportive at just the right time. Churchill is a towering figure in world history. Darkest Hour suggests he might be too big for the screen.

 

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The House (Andrew Jay Cohen, 2017). The premise of this comedy is woefully thin, and Andrew Jay Cohen shows little concept of how to effectively pump it up. A middle class couple (Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler) are blindsided by the cancellation of a scholarship they were counting on to send their daughter (Ryan Simpkins) to a pricey private college. They land on a scheme, cooked up by an emotionally reeling friend (Jason Mantzoukas) to open an underground casino in their idyllic suburban neighborhood. Besides the inevitable appearance of comically threatening gangsters, that’s really about it. There are ringers throughout the cast, but no one can really make a joke land, a flaw that is probably less on them than on Cohen’s wobbly directing. As co-writer of the recent Neighbors comedies, Cohen evidenced at least a little interest in slipping actual ideas amidst the scatalogical banter. There’s none of that here, leaving just a joyless romp.

 

dear heart

Dear Heart (Delbert Mann, 1964). Geraldine Page plays Evie Jackson, a small town woman who journeys to New York City for a postmasters convention. As conceived by writer Tad Mosel (who adapted his own short story for the screen), Evie is a vivid crafter of flattering fictions about herself. In many stories, that quality would intertwine fingers with a pitiable neediness, but that’s not quite the case here. There’s fortitude to Evie, too, and Page prospers in exploring the character’s layers. Mann also offers witty, withering portrayals of the default gruffness of New Yorkers and the unfettered social debauchery of the civil servants away at their annual boondoggle, all of which Mann depicts with a keen eye for detail. The plot sags a bit in the third act as it skews towards the conventional in Evie’s budding relationship with a greeting card salesman (Glenn Ford, out of his depth against the sparkling inventiveness of Page), but overall Dear Heart is steely and cunning.

Playing Catch-Up — Murder on the Orient Express; Roman J. Israel, Esq.; A Cure for Wellness

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Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, 2017). This adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s most famed novels finds Kenneth Branagh in his happy showman role, both in the officiously constructed visuals and in his leading performance as detective Hercule Poirot. The famous sleuth is pressed into service when a brutish train passenger (Johnny Depp) is murdered in his cabin. The screenplay by Michael Green (whose packed slate of 2017 releases also included a justly lauded superhero reinvention and a couple lousy science fiction brand extensions) obediently follows the rhythms of the nearly inscrutable mystery story, with colorful suspects pleading their innocence right up to the big reveal, which of course includes a snarled admission of guilt. It has the makings of grand, theatrical fun, but only Michelle Pfeiffer seems to realize the best approach is to swing for the fences with every line reading. Between this and mother!, Pfeiffer is showing that if she’s destined to age into less glamorous roles, she’s damn well going to do it with admirable gusto.

 

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Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Dan Gilroy, 2017). In the sociopolitical push and pull of Academy Awards nominations, the voting body of the MPAA could certainly have done worse than a citation of merit they gave to Denzel Washington’s work as the titular character in Roman J. Israel, Esq. The performance certainly doesn’t rank among the very best from the screen titan (and, being honest, probably isn’t as strong as that of the Oscar hopeful he likely displaced, freshly reestablished problem child James Franco), but it’s at least markedly, blessedly different, giving Washington the rare opportunity to call on some character actor inventiveness. To the degree that Washington flounders as an unorthodox, socially maladjusted lawyer, it’s most attributable to the rickety efforts of writer-director Dan Gilroy, who follows the well-meaning but eye-rolling inanities of Nightcrawler with a similarly compromised exercise in eager plumbing of slippery modern morality. Gilroy’s storytelling isn’t as twisted and daring as he seems to think it is, giving the film an ugly sheen of smug self-congratulation.

 

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A Cure for Wellness (Gore Verbinski, 2017). This utterly wackadoodle horror-thriller suggests what Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island would have been if it had no interest in — or maybe capacity for — psychological gamesmanship. Certainly that impression is only heightened by the presence of Dane DeHaan, resembling more than ever Leonardo DiCaprio recovering from a bout with tuberculosis. And then there’s the decision to defer to bygone costume and art direction styling at every turn, despite the contemporary setting of the story. It would be baffling, except so little of the film makes any sense at all that quibbling over mildly incongruous storytelling trappings is like clucking about wallpaper design as the house burns down. Before he set sail with the Jack Sparrow money machine of diminishing returns, Gore Verbinski was an intriguing director, albeit with a troubling tendency towards the hyperkinetic. Now his artistry is as sadly confused as the various characters flailing in circles in A Cure for Wellness.

Playing Catch-Up — A Ghost Story; I Am Not Your Negro; Mudbound

ghost story

A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017). There’s been some chatter lately about the divide between film critics and general audiences. I thought about that quite a bit while finally catching up A Ghost Story, David Lowery’s ruminative tale of grief and holding on too long. The feature showed up on plenty of lists tallying up the year’s best movies, but I imagine most viewers would regard the 90 minutes spent with its deliberate, spare storytelling as a form of punishment. I’m somewhere in between. I admire Lowery’s unyielding commitment to his concept, but I don’t exactly warm to it. In depicting a household marked by loss, in which the dearly departed (Casey Affleck) haunts his former romantic partner (Rooney Mara) in a spectral form straight out of a Peanuts strip, Lowery is so reserved that he leaves barely any room for character — and therefore emotion — to infiltrate the proceedings. The result is a movie that’s a fascinating feat, but its ultimately too arid to sustain feature length. As a short, I might very well have been spectacular.

 

i am not

I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016). The spine of this documentary is derived from writing James Baldwin did in the nineteen-seventies, as he tinkered with a proposed book project reflecting on the lives and impacts of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers. Raoul Peck’s film takes its cues from Baldwin as it expands from there, endeavoring to take in the whole of the famed writer’s life and influence as more of a thoughtful, exploratory cinematic essay rather than some dutiful trek through career highlights. It is dizzying and powerful, especially in the resonant delivery of Baldwin’s words by a atypically understated Samuel L. Jackson. Mostly, it stirs regrets about the ways public discourse has degraded over the years. It’s only been fifty years or so since Baldwin was invited to go on national television and expound on the issues of the day with profound intellectual force. Even with a vastly expanded landscape, there’s practically no room in the clattering modern discussion for someone who addresses the nation’s shared challenges with such articulate assurance.

 

mudbound

Mudbound (Dee Rees, 2017). A fantastic example of serious-minded, large-scale filmmaking, Dee Rees’s adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel Mudbound is an emotional powerhouse. Set in small town Mississippi shortly after World War II, the film concentrates on two different families. The McAllans, who have purchased a downtrodden farm, and the Jacksons, who work that lands ostensibly as employees, but really under the imposed servitude of a bigoted South. The film’s dense complexities are reminiscent of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime — and the underrated 1980 film version, directed by Milos Forman — and Rees rises to meet the challenge, handling the overlapping and intersecting plot lines with astonishing skill. The cast is terrific across the board, with especially strong performances by Carey Mulligan, Jason Mitchell, and Garrett Hedlund. And Rachel Morrison’s cinematography — which has already earned her a place in Academy Awards history — is a pure artistry, tapping into the natural majesty of rural America. It calls to mind Haskell Wexler’s Days of Heaven photography, but with a dose of brutal realism, like a heavy leather bible that gives off a certain glow, but is rough to the touch.

Now Playing — Phantom Thread

phantom

It’s probably not one-hundred percent correct to say that Phantom Thread is unmistakably a Paul Thomas Anderson film, but it sure feels right. The new cinematic offering is meticulously crafted, resolutely erudite, psychologically complicated, packed with insightful acting, and careens into compromised territory before it’s through, mildly undone by the filmmaker’s ambition to instill the unconventional when a more straightforward approach would do just fine.

Phantom Thread is set in London in the post-war tepid rejuvenation of the nineteen-fifties. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a revered fashion designer, with an elite client list and an ire raised by the most delicate affronts against his preferred routine. His professional and personal existence is kept in order by his spinster sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). When he follows the completion of an especially demanding garment by taking a holiday, he becomes enamored with a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). Reynolds aggressively woos her, incorporating her into his life as lover, model, muse, and dutiful worker bee.

The film largely operates as a triptych character study. With elegance and aplomb, Anderson renders the intertwining codependency. There’s a cunning to the explorations built into Anderson’s screenplay. The individual characters’ reactions reactions fold and flow like well-draped fabric. Day-Lewis and Manville are both enlivened by the undulating nuances handed to them, giving every last line reading shadings of surprise and thrilling discomfort. They are obviously and wonderfully driven by discovery.

Phantom Thread proceeds with a highly refined, classic Hollywood sensibility (Anderson has acknowledged a debt to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca), imbuing a timeless air about it, a quality further enhanced by Anderson’s cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s lovely score. Even the film practically begs to push through to the last frame of its final reel, Anderson takes the obsession onscreen to a heightened level that feels off in comparison to the rest of its narrative wisdom. No matter how well-mannered the storytelling, Anderson always seems to want a point in which he sends amphibians tumbling from the skies. The third act turn in Phantom Thread isn’t as provocative as that, but it relies on a version of the characters that rings false (and, maybe more damningly, it is forecast with a painfully obvious plot point, hardly the sort of misstep to which Anderson is prone). It’s as if the normal machinations of flawed people doesn’t strike Anderson as daring enough. The audience must be tested.

For me, the chief disappointment is how easy it would be to cleave out the offending plot digression. Every bit of it could be removed, and the pathologies of the characters would remain in place, and would likely read as more intriguing. The ideas that drive the film would be even more profound. I’m sure Anderson and his most devoted adherents would strongly disagree, but the film loses its way when it most strains to expose the darkness of the soul. Phantom Thread is greatness, undercut.