Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Cold War

Cold War (2018)
Dir. Paweł Pawlikowski
Written by Paweł Pawlikowski Janusz Głowacki Piotr Borkowski
Starring Tomasz Kot, Joanna Kulig

For a Polish artist born in the 1950s and exiled from his communist homeland at the age of 14, what title could be more auspicious than COLD WAR? Any artist could spend a lifetime examining the topic and never get to the bottom of it. But Paweł Pawlikowski (IDA) is most surely not just any artist, and he aims to do it in a slim 88 minutes, fully an hour less than just part I of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. He does this by finding the vast within the intimate, focusing not on the corridors of power or the abstraction of politics, but on a brilliantly elliptical, intensely focused portrait of the ebb and flow of the relationship between musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), as they navigate both the geopolitical turmoil around them and long-simmering emotional turmoil between them. 

Pawlikowski does not idealize their relationship; if there is a certain undeniable chemistry between them, it’s not expressed in tranquil compatibility, and they’re absolutely never happy together. But the possibility of happiness feels remote to the point of indifferent abstraction here. Their decades-long fractured courtship emerges not as something desirable, but as something primal, inexorable, fundamental and grounding in a world of titanic and impersonal forces constantly shifting and destabilizing the puny mortals gripping onto it for dear life. And it is this instinctual immediacy which grounds their story, which is told not so much as a narrative as it is a quick succession of laconic moments in time, reducing years and decades into crisp, mysterious vignettes that reveal the story’s center in the orbits its gravity produces on our unhappy couple.

It’s a compellingly understated love story --if it can even be called a love story, “a hopeless self-destructive desperation story” having a somewhat less iconic ring to it-- anchored by two outstanding performances from the two protagonists, but transcended by the pure aesthetic beauty of Pawlikowski and cinematographer Łukasz Żal’s haunting black-and-white images, which trap the characters in a curiously boxy, constricted aspect ratio for reasons which are rather obviously symbolic, but no less effective for it. There is, of course, no shortage of potentially symbolic elements here, this being called, after all, COLD WAR, not DYSFUNCTIONAL CODEPENDENT ROMANTIC FIXATION: THE MOVIE. But to Pawlikowski’s enormous credit, it is a character-driven work first and foremost, far more interested in the specificity of these characters and their strange, frustrating journey than in making sweeping generalizations about the historical forces which shape them. If they are to be symbols of geopolitical turmoil, it is because they are so intrinsically shaped by it, not because they exist to symbolically embody it. Their compulsive, self-destructive need for each other is every bit as fiercely real and irresistibly powerful as the relentlessly turning wheels of history which have caught them up. The result is a movie which is every bit as seductive and immediate as it ruminative and abstract, and that in may just be a rather incisive act of political filmmaking in itself.


Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers (2018)
Dir. Jacques Audiard
Written by Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain, based on the novel by Patrick deWitt
Starring John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed

All Westerns are fairy tales, and they all say more about us than they ever did about some brief historical period in the Western United States which was mostly defined, as far as the culture is concerned, by the East-coast pulp writers who spun a unique sort of fantasy out of scraps of overheard, imagined and embellished stories that drifted back to them over the years, secondhand. The first Westerns rode by on a quintessentially American fairy tale of rugged masculinity, of potent individualism made flesh in the larger-than-life heroes of that era: John Wayne forcefully ensuring neither Indian nor bandit nor bureaucrat would tell him what to do, Shane confidently riding into town to supplant father and lover alike. Eventually, this took on a mournful tone, casting that fetishization of manly power as a nostalgic reminder of a bygone era; consequently, all subsequent Westerns were not only fairy tales, but requiems. Eventually, when the hollowness of this particular fairy tale began to show through the increasingly threadbare seams, the revisionist Western was born, a new sort of fairy tale for an era where the shortcomings of the old one had become too obvious to ignore; now, Westerns were about demystifying the icons of our fathers' generations, about telling ourselves that the "true story" is a lot more complicated and morally ambiguous than the white hats and black hats of yesteryear would have it seem.

THE SISTERS BROTHERS, along with SLOW WEST and a few other Westerns from the last decade (THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSES JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, THE REVENANT) have sometimes been called "revisionist Westerns," but I'd argue they're actually something else entirely, maybe even something more honest. While the Revisionist movement tried to ground the familiar genre tropes in gritty, self-consciously unromanticized realism, these movies more openly embrace the mythic nature of the Western, returning to the deeper truth of fairy tales, which have much more to tell us about reality than the gritty reimaginings of old cowboy pulp tales from the late 19th century ever could. Of all of them, though, the SISTERS BROTHERS tells the most complex fairy tale; if the revisionist Westerns tried to sully the clear lines between the black hats and white hats, director Jacques Audiard (A PROPHET, which remains his masterpiece) reimagines the conflict completely, into something whimsical, tragic, and baffling; there is some kind of moral here about the loss of Eden, but it's a slippery, nebulous thing. Characters who seem set up to give us clear moral parables shift subtly as the situation changes, find themselves stranded in unknown territory, and wander onward blindly, eventually emerging blinking into the light, unsure how they came here. 

The setup seems simple enough; we have two titular Brothers (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly, looking only vaguely like the same species, let alone brothers) veteran bounty hunters a little down on their luck, sent by a nameless Commodore (Rutger Hauer, RIP, in a wordless cameo) to work with a spy (Jake Gyllenhaal) to execute a penniless (but erudite!) prospector, one Herman Warm (Riz Ahmed) for crimes that are at first not specified. That the movie intends to undermine the seeming simplicity of its premise seems obvious; exactly how it does so is what makes the movie so unique and interesting. 

At first, it seems like a fairly straightforward post-modern gag: Phoenix, the dominant brother, is the archetypal Western hero in the John Wayne mode, a man of masculine power and violence, benevolent but flawed, principled but fiercely independent, a protector, a hero and an outcast. I think it is not overstating the case to say this is the rough shape all true action heroes in American fiction, and Audiard wants us to be acutely aware of it. A character like this is the expectation in a Western, but here he's comically joined by his partner (and older brother) John C. Reilly, nobody's idea of an action hero, an invading force of soft modernity, contrasting our placid modern values against the righteous Old Testament virtues of the genre cinema of the past. Where Phoenix is blunt and confident, Reilly is neurotic and tentative; where Phoenix’s flaws are tragic and dignified, Reilly whines and suffers comic indignities. The joke, it seems, is that Reilly is something of a man out of time, skeptical and uncertain about the rough and tumble world around him that everyone else seems to easily take for granted.

But things are not quite what they appear; after a while, it seems like the movie is making the opposite point, a point I've maybe always wanted to see in a movie: Phoenix’s macho code of violence is basically psychopathy, and Reilly's humble dorkiness is actually a sanity which only looks goofy because men like Phoenix have ruined the world. And to compliment that interpretation, we have the parallel story (which for much of the first half threatens to become the main story) of Gyllenhaal and Ahmed, who stumble together onto a genuinely different way of being, something based in earnest love instead of violence (maybe it’s just seeing Gyllenhaal in a cowboy hat again, but I took their relationship to be more than simple business partners, though the movie is not explicit on this point). The movie, then, seems headed towards a gentle bit of optimism about the possibility of changing ourselves into kinder, more humane beings. But just when it seems like this is coalescing into a clear moral, things shift again, and everything turns topsy-turvy, and we're left with nothing to do but slink away scratching our heads, wondering what it all meant. 

It would be, I suppose, easy enough to accuse a movie which so carefully avoids the expected moral lesson of a kind of lazy nihilism, the sort of offhanded cynicism with which French movies (it’s actually a French-American co-production) so often get stereotyped. But I don’t think that’s the case here; there’s a warm affection for the characters which is evident from the start. I think Audiard would genuinely love to give them all a happy ending, but he also knows that life is random –not even cruel, per se, although that’s certainly always a possibility— and the story you think you’re living doesn’t always arrive at a clean catharsis, the lesson you think you’re supposed to learn isn’t always the one you come away with. Everything becomes complicated and messy and confusing, and who knows what it all means? We tend to think of the past as a simpler time, compared with the endlessly complex, unpredictable modern world, where all our actions ripple out and return in ways we can never wholly imagine or prepare for. THE SISTERS BROTHERS is a good reminder that nothing about the human condition has ever been simple (even their name is contradictory!).

Of course, the (intentional) anti-climax and chatty, journey-not-the-destination structure might be off-putting to some. I suppose it’s probably the result of the film’s novelistic origins; the written word can be a more direct medium to communicate an author’s intentions than cinema has historically been, meaning that a film like this, which doesn’t want to tip explicitly into the avant-garde, is probably more essentially narrative-driven than its written progenitor. It presents itself as being a normal narrative, and then deliberately undermines the expectations it sets up, and I could certainly understand why that would feel disappointing, or even like cheap shot. But at least in this case, with a glass or two of red wine in me, I was able to get on-board with the movie’s uniquely off-beat, shaggy vibe, and it really resonated with me. There’s a kind of fatalistic melancholy here which feels all the more acute for the movie’s generally unflinching, unsentimental tone and refusal to bend itself into the expected lessons. The world can be a hard, confusing place which offers no easy answers and resists our most carefully crafted plans to make sense of it. And yet, there’s no alternative but to just live in it anyway, to keep going forward. It’s impossible, and sometimes horrible, but also sometimes kind of beautiful, if you stop to pay attention to it.

On hand to remind us about that beauty part is cinematographer Benoît Debie (LOST RIVER). You don't need a talent like Debie's to make the West look gorgeous, but it sure doesn't hurt, especially in the nifty way he frames nighttime gunfights as eruptions of orange fire in the deep blue-black of the landscape (some people have complained about the garish digital color grading here, but I sort of like how it eschews the usual Western palette of drab earth tones by turning the landscape into a candy-colored wonderland). The incisive, almost minimalistic score (by Alexandre Desplat, Wes Anderson’s go-to guy, but obviously most notable as the composer for VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS) also packs a big punch, though in the movie’s typically unpushy way, and does much to lightly suggest its weary, vaguely mythic tone.

The craft on display here is certainly indisputable, but it doesn’t seem like most reviewers connected to the movie the same way I did. It’s certainly understandable; what’s an audience to do with a film that isn’t really a drama, or a comedy, or an art film, or an action film, but has little streaks of all four shaped into a narrative which just rises and then withers on the vine? To a lot of people, it seems to have added up to a whole lot of nothing. To me, though, it seems deeply, even painfully, evocative of my particular time and place in history. It’s not a wholly nihilistic film; in fact, it’s a film which very much wants the best for and sees the best in people. But it’s also a film acutely aware that this is a world full of good ideas that die random, ignoble deaths, good people trapped in a cycle of doing bad things, good intentions which are not the right intentions for this particular moment. Evil doesn’t usually prevail, but then neither does good; only chaos and entropy can be counted on consistently in a universe that cares neither for our souls nor our values. Obviously one need look no further than the front page of a newspaper to learn this lesson, but there’s something about the way that Audiard blends that sense of mournful hopelessness with the classic American iconography of a Western that feels poetic and poignant, both deeply admiring of American idealism and moral rectitude and simultaneously clear-eyed and despairing of how naive and brittle it all is.

We'd like to have a journey with a clear purpose, a moral arc that lets us tell a story to give it all some meaning. We’d all like to live by a code, to be the hero, to be upright and uncompromising, self-sacrificing, independent, ultra-competent, powerful but benevolent.  We’d all love to be John Wayne, we’d all love to be Shane. But of course, they never existed, they were just a fairy tale, a fantasy we told ourselves about what we wanted to be and maybe ended up believing a little too much. There's a sweetness to that aspirational fantasy, but also something stifling, even dangerous in its ignorance. We're not John Wayne; even John Wayne wasn't John Wayne, he was just some prima donna actor, another American huckster peddling a comforting lie. We are not mythic heroes; Instead, we’re all John C. Reilly; unfulfilled, undignified, uncertain, groping blindly towards doing, if not the right thing, at least hopefully not the wrong thing either, and maybe --maybe-- a few times in a lifetime, seeing some kind of profound truth, some kind of divine path, only to watch it slip out of our grasp before we can put ourselves upon it. And when that happens, what are we left with but to trudge home, older and more broken but barely any wiser than before, towards that dim hope of simple human comfort. And maybe just a little bit of beauty along the way.

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Favourite

The Favourite (2018)
Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
Written by Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
Starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult

Only a guy with films like DOGTOOTH and THE LOBSTER on his resume could reasonably describe THE FAVOURITE as his “most normal” film, but that’s the position we find ourselves in with Yorgos Lanthimos in 2018. But if the film represents a retreat from the brazen surreality of Lanthimos’ earlier work, it certainly loses nothing of the savage misanthropic satire which makes his filmography such a prickly treat. On the surface, this resembles any number of mannered British period pieces; it concerns prim aristocrats in ornate costumes who vie for social standing and power in the Royal court (in this case, the court of Queen Anne in 1708). But unsuspecting moviegoers envisioning a big-screen Downton Abbey are going to be in for a very nasty shock indeed. Without doing anything obtrusively anachronistic, Lanthimos and his superb cast bring a minor episode from the dimly remembered past to lively, venomous life, full of slippery power dynamics (both political and sexual) that feel ripped right from today’s headlines.

That cast really is something to see: Olivia Colman (HOT FUZZ) is so spectacular as the fragile, desperate Queen Anne that she steals the movie right out from under an absolutely terrific Rachel Weisz (DREAM HOUSE), something I frankly didn’t think could be done. But pretty much everyone is superb; Nicholas Hoult (ABOUT A BOY), as a venal rival aristocrat, is giving far and away the best performance of his career, and is still by a comfortable margin not in the top three best performances in the movie (for her part, Emma Stone [THE HOUSE BUNNY] builds her role around a scrappy live-wire vivaciousness which makes her both likably earnest and curiously enigmatic). Still, the movie’s strength is not solely, or even primarily, in its acting; Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan shoot their opulent royal spaces with a queasy unease that sometimes warps into out-and-out distortion, masterfully turning chambers of extravagant luxury into agoraphobic nightmares of oppressive emptiness. It’s never out-and-out surreal (the plot remains firmly fixed in reality) but it uses the tools of surreal cinema to add a potent layer of alienating disquiet to the already anxious machinations we’re observing.

Which is not to say it’s not ribald and funny --it certainly is!-- but the comedy has a merciless edge to it that makes the movie a tense watch. It’s a nasty, misanthropic thing, not at all afraid to play rough with its characters, while simultaneously refusing to turn any of them into outright villains. All three women at the film’s center are flawed, opportunistic, abrasive, manipulative… and sympathetic, or at least pathetic enough that we root for them. We’d like to see them all end up happy, but the roles they’ve cast themselves in place them unmistakably at odds with each other, and consequently the shifting emotional power dynamics feel vital and dangerous. If there’s such a thing as a political thriller, perhaps THE FAVOURITE is best described as an emotional thriller. There is, of course, always the looming threat of actual death or political catastrophe, but it says something about the film’s bitter empathy that those threats barely register next to the film’s real horror: being rejected and pushed out by those you love. This is, I think, the film’s secret weapon; for all its vulgarity and cynicism, there’s a streak of hopeless desperation for love and acceptance which runs through it, and grounds the rest of the film in a tender vulnerability which makes the sting more than purely superficial, the schemes more than simply tactical. For all its splendidly odd affectations, its earnestness and wounded humanity give it its real power.

Anyway, it’s certainly about the most I can imagine myself enjoying a movie about repressed courtly power struggles amongst English royalty in the 18th century.  While Lanthimos’ brand of uniquely confounding magical realism is too special to give up entirely, THE FAVOURITE offers definitive proof of his ability to fully utilize his distinct strengths as a filmmaker in service of other goals.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019


Roma (2018)

Dir. and written by Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Jorge Antonio Guerrero

Well, Alfonso Cuarón can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned; his last film was one of the best films of that year, and so was his previous one, and I have every reason to reserve a space on that list in advance for whatever he makes next. But after the bombastic GRAVITY, I was a little surprised to see him turn so intimate for his next project, producing his first Spanish-language film since 2001’s Y TU MAMA TAMBIAN, and likewise returning for the first time since that film to both his home country (Mexico) and, after more than a decade as a fantasy/sci-fi guy, to something resembling a realistic setting. Quite realistic, in fact, in the sense that the film is reportedly out-and-out autobiographical, though an autobiography with an interesting twist: it’s the story of a period of his childhood, told from the perspective of the family’s indigenous maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio, an untrained actress of Mixtec and Triqu heritage, making her film debut).

The result is a unique and affecting bit of storytelling (to the extent that the film is interested in anything that could be called a “story”), with the expected domestic drama happening around the periphery, seen from the perspective of someone who is deeply enmeshed with the family without exactly being part of it, while we simultaneously examine the hidden life of someone that the world is generally taking very little notice of. It’s about a world experienced entirely from the outside, both by its central character and the audience; it doesn’t so much present its characters to us as it forces us to enter their world and experience them on their own terms. It’s a curious strategy, which unexpectedly uses our alienation from the characters to draw us closer to them, resulting in a deeply, almost painfully intimate immersive experience which fiercely resists pat, easy characterization or cheap sentimentality. Though the whole film takes place from Cleo’s perspective, we almost never directly hear what she’s thinking and feeling -- mostly because no one ever asks, but I’m also inclined to think there’s more to it than that. She’s so completely powerless and detached from her life that I’m not even sure she could tell us what she feels if she could break the fourth wall and speak directly to the camera; she’s a character whose life is completely reactive, defined and dominated by other characters who see her (if they see her at all) as a mere supporting player. It’s the Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead of low-key domestic dramas.

You could argue -- and I’ve seen it argued-- that this is an infantilizing, even dehumanizing way to portray an already marginalized character,* but I see it as quite the opposite: a very honest and empathetic examination of the psychological alienation that results from being so entirely invisible and ignored that you begin to see yourself as a bit player in someone else’s story. Humans are social animals, and our lives and feelings exist, to some extent, only to the extent they can be shared. Left entirely apart from humanity, adjacent but parallel, Cleo’s experience is curiously half-formed, like a dream related by someone else. It’s not that she’s a cypher as a character, it’s that without an outlet, her thoughts and feelings must remain entirely internal, unarticulated and roughly formed. For my money, this makes for a far more intriguing approach to the character than the weepy, hectoring melodrama this would surely have been in someone else’s hands, though I certainly understand why some critics felt otherwise. It’s a unique way to structure a film, at any rate, and a testament to the profound strength of the filmmaking that something so deliberately alienating can be so evocative and moving.

It’s little surprise that the filmmaking is exemplary, of course, given that Cuarón’s superlative talent is already a matter of public record. But even so, the film is full of surprises; for something so intentionally intimate and authentic, it has a curious tendency towards spectacle and visual poetry. In fact, Cuarón’s fussy visual style is so fastidiously committed to capturing the chaotic detail of real life that he ends up overshooting realism and landing in some kind of meticulously curated hyper-realism, which seems mythic and timeless while still evoking something that feels very honest and specific. The production is deeply rooted in everyday reality, but it feels hypnotic and dreamlike just as often as it feels mundane and grounded, particularly during a few bravura long takes which wander meditatively through strange, fastidiously constructed dreamscapes that hover just on the precipice of the surreal. You could argue that this is a misstep which distances the audience from the gritty reality that the film seems to think it’s offering, but for my money it just makes it that much better. What kind of nut would stage an elaborate and jaw-dropping battle scene in the middle of his quiet little character piece? The kind of nut who knows his way around great damn cinema, that’s who. ROMA (the title refers to the neighborhood in Mexico city where the family lives) may not be quite as naturalistic as it believes itself to be (or at least as it present itself), but what’s not in dispute is what it is: vital, patient, masterful cinema, and very possibly a new high-water mark for one of cinema’s most virtuosic modern auteurs.

*And the fact that it’s a movie being made by a rich, Academy-Award-winning director about his childhood maid doesn’t exactly help matters, regardless of how much affection and sympathy he obviously has for her.


Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin (2018)
Dir. Armando Iannucci
Written by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin
Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Jason Isaacs, Paddy Considine

Armando Iannucci (IN THE LOOP, Veep) is known for making black comedies which juxtapose the seriousness of real-world politics with the absurd, ignorant behavior of the flim-flamming egotists who are inevitably in charge of everything. But I guess he might as well stop right here, because THE DEATH OF STALIN pushes that formula about as far as it can go and still be considered comedy. Centering around the power struggle following the titular death, the film chronicles the machinations of various self-interested imbeciles bumbling their way towards a leadership role that has the potential to steer the Soviet Union in either a much more humane or a terrifyingly oppressive direction. The “humane direction” is personified by ambitious but essentially benign bureaucrat Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi, I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY, GOWN-UPS 2, THE COBBLER), while its opposite is embodied in the despicable, vicious Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale, previously unknown to me and absolutely tremendous here). Both men are quickly caught up in a mad scramble to secure enough support to put them on top, resulting in a flurry of desperate politicking with their very lives, as well as the country’s future, on the line.

That doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff of big belly laughs, but the comedy comes from the absurd complications which pervade everyday routine in an authoritarian country where one poorly-phrased comment can result in a horrible death. And Iannucci doesn’t shrink away from the inherent grimness of this premise the way a less confident director might. The first scene (which recounts an anecdote from Testimony, the disputed, posthumously published memoirs of composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich), tells us everything we need to know about the world we’re stepping into: a harried radio producer (Paddy Considine, HOT FUZZ) receives a phone call from Stalin himself, requesting a record of the concert he’s just heard on the radio. With mounting terror, the producer discovers that no record has been made. Knowing that disappointing Stalin has the potential to be professionally disastrous and perhaps fatal, the producer frantically corrals the musicians and audience into recreating the exact same concert a second time, in a desperate effort to produce a single record for a single listener. In part, this is a simple comedy of manners, with the producer’s officious panic and the bruised dignity of all involved juxtaposed against the ridiculousness of the request. But the stakes make all the difference; this may feel like an episode of Fawlty Towers, but it’s one where put-upon John Cleese might just be dragged into the street and unceremoniously executed by nonchalant soldiers if he doesn’t pull this off.

Iannucci leans into that pervading feeling of real, tangible danger, and doesn’t blink at following it to its grim conclusion, including some hilarious physical comedy about an execution which may well qualify as one of the darkest jokes I’ve ever seen on-screen. It’s a dangerous gamble for a comedy, but it pays off: rather than resulting in a bleak bit of misery porn, the shocking bluntness of the violence and perversity on display make the comedy all the more potent, galvanizing the deadpan insults with a real livewire suspense. If comedy is all about stakes, this has some of the highest in the history of the genre, and Iannucci and his magnificent cast (which also includes Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough and an unexpectedly funny Jason Isaacs) are almost miraculously surefooted at manifesting the seriousness of the situation without undercutting the queasy humor. It works so perfectly that it almost seems simple, a trick that only the most carefully constructed and fastidiously orchestrated comedies can ever pull off, making the exquisitely complex look easy and intuitive. Of course, easy is not the same thing as easy to watch; it is a comedy, but it’s a merciless, nihilistic one that might well leave you with a knot in your stomach. Indeed, some critics have argued that the film turns a little too bleak and corrosive in its final minutes. But as much as it might put an end to any giddy, transgressive fun we might be having, it's also the only appropriate way for this particular story to end. That final shot of bitterness eloquently caps off a film which is consistently and thoroughly bitter about humanity, and reminds us that if there is something funny here, the joke is certainly on us.


Wednesday, June 5, 2019


Blindspotting (2018)
Dir. Carlos López Estrada
Written by Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal
Starring Daveed Diggs, Rafael Casal, Janina Gavankar

Collin (Daveed Diggs, VELVET BUZZSAW) is a easy-going guy with a lot of problems in his life. First, he’s a working-class black man in a very rapidly gentrifying Oakland, CA, watching much of the city he knew and grew up in slipping away into an uncertain future which may or may not hold a place for him. Second, he’s on his last three days of a strict, lengthy probation (the result of an earlier conviction for a not-immediately-specified felony), and any slip-up could send him back to jail for years. Third, his best friend is Miles (Rafael Casal, the upcoming BAD EDUCATION), a white guy who grew up with him but whose reckless behavior and overriding concern for his tough guy rep is constantly threatening to drag Collin into exactly the kind of trouble he needs to avoid right now. And to make matters worse, he just witnessed a cop shooting an unarmed black man in the back. And the cop is played by Ethan Embry (EMPIRE RECORDS), so we strongly suspect that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of this guy.

            That all sounds pretty bleak, and, of course, it is pretty bleak. But that’s not the whole story here. BLINDSPOTTING is a movie with a lot of issues on its mind, but it’s also a movie which, like its characters, is mostly more interested in living than preaching. It’s much more of a hangout buddy comedy than a social polemic; it just happens to be about a pair of buddies who can’t extricate their lives from the tumultuous and frequently hostile social upheaval going on around them. Still, for a movie so obviously ripped from the headlines in an increasingly angry and polarized society, it’s almost shockingly low-key, funny, and big-hearted. That alone would be something of a minor miracle; the fact that it maintains that tone consistently and successfully without ceding an inch of its moral indignation is something close to outlandish. If it doesn’t quite stick the landing, it comes about as close as any movie I’ve seen in years to detailing and exploring the injustices --primarily but not exclusively the racial injustices-- of modern American urban life, without dissolving into pedantic lecturing.

            Its secret, I think, is its genuine authenticity; Diggs and Casal really were childhood best friends growing up in Oakland, and the film was shot there on-location. If the story isn’t explicitly autobiographical, it’s certainly based on the kind of affectionate, comfortable familiarity with a place and its people that generally only comes with some real lived experience. One gets the strong feeling that the writers personally know the characters they’re portraying here, that the fiction arises naturally from a lived reality they’ve seen inside and out. And this kind of intimate understanding allows the film to be surprisingly generous with its characters, even at their worst. And it’s not shy about showing them at their worst, either; it doesn’t allow its affection for them to cloud its vision, it just equally understands that seeing people clearly also means seeing beyond their worst moments. Seeing the worst in people is the easy part, and that’s as far as most people get. But true understanding means being able to see something more complex, both in a person and in a society. It means being able to identify your own, --oh, hey, the title!-- blind spots.

            BLINDSPOTTING sets itself the task of doing just this, within the microcosm of shifting identity in an Oakland that is very rapidly ceasing to be what it has been and becoming something altogether different. Of course, what it was and what it’s becoming, and what either of those things mean, are by no means a matter of widespread agreement; even Collin and Miles have different perspectives and approaches. And well they should, because just as the culture around them is in flux, they, too are still in the process of shaping themselves and the face they present to the world. For Collin, his awareness of the fear and suspicion society places on young black men --especially convicted felons-- is ever-present, and places him in the position of constantly having to prove his harmlessness (his probation officer [Kevin Carroll, the Leftovers] tell him as much directly). But the quickly shifting culture around him might actually offer an opportunity for just the kind of personal growth he’s attempting; if he can learn to get on-board with vegan burgers and $10 bodega juice, maybe there’s a place for him here, after all.  For his buddy Miles, on the other hand, the recent changes are a disaster: the influx of white hipsters into the area means that he’s in danger of being mistaken for a recent transplant, shattering his self-image as a white guy who has fought hard to be accepted in a culture which is now vanishing around him. They have, of course, essentially the same problem; people are drawing the wrong conclusions about them based on lazy stereotypes. But the difference is that for Collin, this misunderstanding could turn fatal, as the shooting he witnessed drives home. And Miles doesn’t quite seem to understand the danger he’s putting his buddy in with his aggressive, overcompensating attempts to prove he’s legit.

            It would be easy to see Miles as the bad guy here; his selfish fixation on defending his rep is putting Collin in real jeopardy, and moreover, we later learn that he was just as involved in the crime that Collin went to jail for, and yet seems to have avoided taking the rap. He’s the very embodiment of white privilege, even if that doesn’t in this case equate to a life which seems very privileged overall. And yet, to its eternal credit, the movie doesn’t hate him. Despite what a handful he is, we also see why Miles is charming and fun, and why Collin needs him -- why they need each other. But they are going in opposite directions at the moment, and headed for a reckoning one way or another. For a while it seems like the moral of the story might be that Collin needs to dump his buddy if he wants to grow up, and that’s certainly the opinion of the character who seems like she’s being set up to be the moral center of the movie --Collin’s ex, Val (Janina Gavankar, The League, True Blood)-- who disapproves of Miles and thinks Collin would be better off without him. But the movie disagrees. (SPOILERS) At the end of the day, she has a blind spot too: she’ll never be able to see past Collin’s assault conviction. But Miles will. He’s a moron, and deserves the dressing-down he gets from Collin over what a selfish asshole he’s been, but in the end he sheepishly grows a little, they remain friends, and the movie is openly glad for it. Me too. (END SPOILERS)

            The movie’s friendly refusal to paint anyone as a clear villain extends even beyond Miles; it would be easy to make fun of fussy photographer Patrick (Wayne Knight (!) JURASSIC PARK), but the movie affords him a certain bemused dignity (and hey, he’s also being displaced out of the neighborhood where he could once afford to be an eccentric artist). Likewise, it could resent unlicensed gun dealer / uber driver Dezz (Jon Chaffin, The Haves and Have Nots) for wholeheartedly playing into the stereotypes Collin is desperate to get away from; instead, it sees him as a beloved local institution, the kind of larger-than-life character who gives the city its unique flavor. Even the much-derided gentrifying hipsters we encounter turn out to be very friendly and inviting, just like the $10 “green juice” that has turned up at their local bodega turns out to be pretty tasty, once you get used to it. It doesn’t mean they’re not causing problems, of course, but they’re trying, in their own way, to be neighborly. They just have, you know, some blind spots.

(SPOILERS FOR THIS WHOLE PARAGRAPH) Most surprising of all, even the inevitable final confrontation with the killer cop refuses to allow him to be a clear-cut villain. If there’s anyone who should be the heel of this story, it would have to be this character, the focal point of all the unfair pressure that’s been bearing down on Collin. And yet, when we finally meet him, he’s more of a pathetic figure than a threatening one; we meet him in his house, weeping inconsolably. He, too, is moving out of the area. Possibly he and his family are no longer safe here now that he’s known for, you know, murdering a guy, but is it too much to wonder if his cop salary doesn’t go as far as it used to in Oakland? He may be the victim of the same forces pushing Collin and his friends out of their home. Maybe they should be on the same side. But of course they’re not, and Collin gets to give him a piece of his mind. You might think, especially knowing what we know about him, that this cop would respond with defensiveness equal to Collin’s fury, but he doesn’t; instead, he just offers a wheedling plea that he “didn’t mean to.” In a way, that puts him in the same boat as Collin and Miles; people look at him and see a killer, but he doesn’t see himself that way, doesn’t want that label. He’s got a nice wife and a cute little kid, probably has a grill out back and an apron with some dorky dad joke written on it. That’s who he thinks he is, he doesn’t think of himself as the face of systemic ethno-cultural oppression. But unlike Collin or Miles, he’s gotten to this point not because of what he looks like, but because of the choices he’s made. He may not think of himself as a racist or a hateful guy or a fascist oppressor, certainly didn’t wake up that morning planning to kill an unarmed black man. But he didn’t have to pull that trigger in that moment, and when the time came, he chose to do it. Which makes Miles' reply to his doleful plea that he “didn’t mean to” just about perfect: “you sure?”  (END SPOILERS)

It’s an interesting ending, and maybe an inescapable one, but it’s also the one part of the movie where its righteous indignation might get the better of it and push it to the parochial sermonizing that it has up to that point managed entirely to sidestep. It’s raw and explosive enough that it works emotionally, even if it doesn’t quite work narratively, and it has the benefit of a cathartic rush, amplified by the dreamlike strangeness of being the one scene in the movie which seems utterly divorced from the down-to-earth realism of everything that’s come before. It’s a crazy, ballsy thing to suddenly pull on an audience, and it has the overwhelming feeling of something Diggs and Casal just had to say aloud, had to get out there, narrative logic be damned. And it almost comes close to working, which is an impressive achievement all by itself. Earnestness and urgency get you a long way, but ultimately there’s no way around the fact that it also smashes the movie’s structure by adding a second climax which it just doesn’t need. The heart of the movie is the relationship between Collin and Miles, and that plot has already reached its perfect conclusion; adding an abbreviated final act afterwords disrupts the quiet momentum that’s steadily been building --mostly unseen by deeply felt-- for the entire runtime, just to directly spell out everything the movie has already demonstrated far more powerfully and intractably. It’s understandable that two first-time writers --and especially two rappers-- would ultimately prefer to put their feelings into words, but I hope the next time around they trust that the nature of cinema is always that it is better to show than tell. And the movie is so good at showing that it’s a shame to retreat to telling right at the finish line. It ends up feeling like a rare moment of insecurity in a movie which is overall almost preternaturally sure-footed.

Still, it’s a moment only, and not even a wholly bad moment, just a somewhat destabilizing one. And it’s the one off-note in a stunningly ambitious melody which is certainly not lacking in notes. Much of this seems like it absolutely should never work. Mixing broad jokes with fervid social commentary, mixing grounded realism with strange flights of fancy, mixing a buddy hangout movie with the gut-wrenching tension of Collin’s precarious place in light. But somehow it all does, and I guess that’s mostly the result of how emotionally authentic it feels, and how well it captures the vibrant life of a particular time and place (director Carlos López Estrada, a music video guy, has a real knack for capturing vivid details in the environment that immerse us in the specificity of the places we visit, though he also has a first-timer’s enthusiasm for flashy tricks that doesn’t always serve the movie). Simply put, it’s a rare movie that invites you to truly inhabit the world as someone else sees it, and Diggs, Casal, and Lopez Estrada have lived and imagined richly enough to make the experience a completely immersive and transportive one. Any missteps it make make out of overeagerness are completely forgotten in the face of its amiable, but unmistakable, ambition. Movies this timely and incisive are rarely so warm and appealing, and it’s enough to genuinely leave one hopeful for the future. Hopefully that’s not my blind spot.

Also, happy belated 2018 I guess. For the next little bit we’ll be revisiting those heady days fully half a year ago when we were all still so young and full of hope.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Mummy (2017)

THE MUMMY (2017)
Dir Alex Kurtzman
Screenplay by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman, Story by Jon Spaihts, Alex Kurtzman, Jenny Lumet (uh oh)
Starring Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, Russell Crowe.

            Let us steel our nerves and consider, for a moment, THE MUMMY. No, not THE MUMMY (1911), nor THE MUMMY (1932) nor THE MUMMY (1959), nor THE MUMMY (1999), though you’d be forgiven some confusion. And in fact, I’d wager that confusion is not unintentional; every Mummy film ever made since the first one has been animated primarily by the cynical hope of coasting off the good name of another Mummy film and hoping that vague recognition alone will be enough to inspire good will in audiences. The whole concept is simulacrum made flesh (and then desiccated and mummified and revived years later believing that some British blonde is is the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian princess, but that’s neither here nor there).

But there has always been one fatal flaw in that logic: there is no “good name of another Mummy film.” And that’s because every single extant mummy film is terrible.* Even the “classic” 1932 Boris Karloff version is, let’s face it, even more boring than it is racist, and frankly has maintained its iconic standing more through association with its worthier peers in the Universal Monsters canon than through any inherent value in the film proper. The Mummy itself --all caps as a proper noun, for the concept is by this point an intrinsic part of the American cultural psyche far more than it is a reference to any specific artistic work-- may well have the singular distinction among the horror icons of achieving its lofty status without ever at any point actually being associated with a single film which was any damn good at all. It is, I have come to believe after an absolutely exhausting survey of Mummy fiction, a trope which has always owed its entire existence to hustling coattails-riding. It’s never been good, but somehow it did manage to become familiar, which in marketing terms is just about the same thing.

            With all that in mind, THE MUMMY (2017) starts to make a little more sense. But even still, only a little more sense. There is, I guess, a certain sadistic logic in making a new movie called THE MUMMY, in that it is, you know, a name people would sort of generally recognize and with which they might perhaps harbor vague positive associations without being able to explicitly name any concrete reason as to why. In fact, even its ostensible creators may have had a pretty hazy idea of what, exactly, there were supposed to be ripping off: it was originally billed as a “reboot of Universal’s ‘Mummy’ Franchise,” though whether that referred to Universal’s original 1932 Mummy series or Stephen Sommers’ 1999 series starring Brendan Fraser was never made clear, and may in fact never have been explicitly decided one way or another by any of the 60 or so people who manifestly had a controlling stake in what could generously be called the “creative process” here. It certainly hews closer to the latter’s mix of corny action beats and desperate comedy, but really resembles neither in any meaningful way except through the incidental presence of, you know, a The Mummy. Which, of course, is the sole reason for its existence in the first place; this was not a story told because someone had an idea for a story; it was a story told because someone had to write a story to justify the existence of that title. But if we must simply remake every single thing that has ever existed and wormed its way, however undeservedly, into the broader cultural consciousness, this was inevitable anyway and we might as well have gotten it out of the way in 2017 as any other time.

So sure, it all makes a kind of nihilistic sense, radiating a kind of soporific calculation so inescapable you can basically watch it unfold on-screen in real time. And yet, even knowing all that, even having written it all down in black and white, I still can’t quite overcome the unbelievable wrongheadedness of taking a classic horror icon and trying to fluff it into a huge-budget action franchise vehicle. I mean, how could anyone ever have thought this was going to work? To the extent that the Universal Monsters are known at all, it is as clearly and starkly as horror icons as anything fiction has ever produced. What in the world would make anyone think they would (or should!) have any salience outside that context? I get why Universal Studios would want them to (money), but even at that most cynical, mercenary level, surely someone had to see that this was hopeless. I can see why they’d want to sell it, but who in the world did they imagine would actually want to buy it?

 Let’s just say what we mean here: this 2017 movie currently enjoying our critical attention exists thoroughly and unreservedly to fulfill some Universal executive’s dream of having a popular shared-universe franchise (embarrassingly branded the “Dark Universe”) just like Disney has with Marvel. And since Universal didn’t buy superheroes, they’re banking on their stable of classic monster movies to generate the distasteful but unavoidable “content” necessary for there to be a universe to share. This is the goal --the entire motivating force behind the existence of THE MUMMY (2017)-- and the marketing guys have sunk their teeth into this plan and aren’t gonna let it go til it ain’t moving.

But the thing is, nobody except Universal executives and their associated marketing teams have ever showed the slightest bit of interest. They keep starting this thing, failing spectacularly to find an audience, abandoning it in disorganized, humiliating defeat, and then inexplicably starting over (the 2004 VAN HELSING debacle, the 2010 WOLFMAN debacle, the 2014 DRACULA UNTOLD debacle, and now this too died at the box office). But no matter how often it fizzles, they can’t seem to accept that the problem is in the fundamental idea. All the money in the world can’t convince people that they want something which has no practical reason to exist.** Just because something enjoys a wide name-recognition among the lucrative 18-34 demographic doesn’t mean you can utterly upend its context and still maintain its original power, no matter how much you might wish otherwise. And I just can’t imagine any sane writer or director feels otherwise. Nobody had a burning passion to make this movie any more than anyone had a burning passion to see it. But in order for it to be marketed, it had to be made, so here is it. All Hollywood movies are made for crass commercial reason, of course, but it’s rare indeed to find so many resources being spent to craft a work of art entirely at the behest of the marketing department.

Well, and at the behest of Tom Cruise, the only marquee brand here whose name is not THE MUMMY. In the wake of the movie’s failure, people seem to have been eager to shift the blame to the actor, who supposedly exerted a huge amount of control over the finished product, from re-writing the script to supervising the editing. And that seems like a pretty plausible theory; It’s not at all hard to see some very distinct parallels with the star’s recent MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and JACK REACHER pictures and their similarly relentless march of globetrotting nonsense stringing together a parade of mostly-practical stunt-work setpieces. This sort of wham-bang blockbuster cinema is laughably out of place in a movie about a Mummy, of course, with its very best sequence (a legitimately cool uncut take of Cruise and a bunch of stunt-people tossed around weightless --for real!-- in a crashing plane) having almost nothing to do with the title character at all. But even if you want to blame the entirety of the film’s misplaced action-movie ambitions on Cruise, he’d still only be responsible for one of the three or four completely unrelated movies vying for supremacy during the film’s unexpectedly demure 110-minute runtime (practically a short film by the standards of modern blockbusters). And it’s by no means the worst of them.

Those four unrelated movies are as follows, in descending order of tolerability: A mummy movie, an action vehicle, a prequel to a mummy movie, and a labored franchise-servicing purgatory starring Russell Crowe. All are bad in their own way, of course, but some are rather more exotically dismal than others. In the first of these movies, a couple of incessantly quipping mooks --Cruise (AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER), Annabelle Wallis (ANNABELLE [and niece of Richard Harris!]) and Jake Johnson (that smarmy millenial fuck-o from JURASSIC WORLD***) find a --hey! what have we here?-- mummy’s tomb [!] due to some sort of convoluted horseshit about the US military in Iraq,**** and get themselves cursed in the process. Standard mummy stuff, but made tolerable by its likable cast, by-the-book plotting, and surprising deftness for horror staging. You’ll notice, in fact, that this simple premise would be comfortably sufficient to fill out an entire movie. But this is a big studio blockbuster in the year of our Lord 2017, so “enough” is, of course, never enough until it’s “far too much.” And thus we get three additional movies competing with the only one which has any real legitimate reason to exist.

 The second movie is some kind of setpiece blockbuster doggedly committed to hurling frantic stunt sequences at us every now and again, and mostly indifferent to the fact that it’s about a The Mummy or whatever. These sequences are pretty middling by Crusie’s usual standards, but the plane crash bit is a winner, and there’s even a rambling chase sequence that occasionally remembers that it’s in a horror movie and uses its mammoth budget to give us some enjoyable zombie mayhem which you could never get in a movie with a normal zombie budget, so not a total wash. Third, we have, intermittently, the story and --ominously, as longtime Mummywatchers are all too aware-- the backstory of the title character (Sofia Boutella, CLIMAX). Supposedly this was once a more prominent part of the movie, as in the final product Boutella has almost nothing to do but stand around looking menacing and flash back to the origins of her Mummying in a rather wearying repetitive manner. Here we might actually be able to thank Cruise for jealously excising his co-star’s tiresome life story from the final cut, because this is, of course, utterly dire stuff. Still, it’s a venerable and --more to the point-- inescapable part of the basic Mummy movie boilerplate, so we could hardly be surprised that it remains, even in the year 2017, an inconvenience that veteran connoisseurs of mummy fiction expect and resign themselves to endure.

The final movie, though, is something wholly unexpected. This is because, crudely sutured into this thoroughly quotidian paint-by-numbers Mummy Movie yarn, we find something exponentially weirder, a subplot about a secret society of monster hunters which feels like the jarring intrusion of a completely separate movie, because that’s in fact what it is: the covetous tendrils of the “Dark Universe” creeping their way into a unambitious self-contained little thriller to force the world, against its better judgement, to acknowledge the existence of a shared universe which does not, by God, actually exist yet, and may never exist. And thus it is that before we meet a single character who will actually be germaine to this particular tale, we encounter one Dr. Henry Jekyll***** (Russell Crowe, NOAH) owner and operator of a monster-hunting franchise called “Prodigium” which appears to be quite a lucrative venture judging from their expansive, well-appointed headquarters with enough jumpsuit-sporting henchmen and technological goo-gahs to handily pass for a Bond Villain’s lair.

Crowe is, for whatever reason (possibly alcohol-related), obviously having a ball hamming up a performance which consists wholly and without exception of tedious exposition, most of it necessary only to explain his own incongruous presence in this mummy movie. He’s clearly decided that the only possible means of survival is to turn the thing into some kind of high camp parody of a terribly-written exposition-spewing non-character crammed into a movie that has neither need or space for him, entirely in a labored effort towards servicing a franchise which may never actually exist. But while this is obviously the correct approach, and does something to render this little sub-movie slightly short of instantly lethal, everything about this plotline is useless and burdensome and completely stops the movie dead in its tracks, efficiently euthanizing any lingering bits of momentum that might have been building up while the creative team wasn’t paying attention. Without it, THE MUMMY 2017 would simply be unfocused mediocrity; with it, it becomes something closer to a genuine boondoggle, something which will seem absolutely confounding to a hypothetical future audience who does not have the proper context to understand why there’s a 30-minute teaser commercial for a non-existent franchise jammed into the back half of an otherwise stock mummy flick.

In a way, a spectacular disaster is a more interesting thing to have in the world than a middling studio flick too unimaginative to embarrass itself in any noteworthy way, which passes unremarked upon through cinemas and promptly vanishes from human memory. But you know, there are moments -- and only moments, to be sure-- where one wonders if perhaps “middling mediocrity” and “staggering folly” weren’t the only two possible outcomes here, if there wasn’t an actual good movie to be found here, if only someone had stopped to notice it. Those moments have little to do with Tom Cruise stunts --which are found in profusion, and in rather more colorful array, in other movies better suited to their charms-- and are certainly never found in the enervating mummy backstory or even in the disposable clutter or the basic plot. Where they are found is the only real surprise in the whole film, because they turn up in the one place the movie seems least interested: its mostly-forgotten origins as a horror movie.

For whatever reason (craftsman’s pride, perhaps, or simple boredom, but surely not a deep sense of belief in the project’s artistic merit) “creature designer” Mark 'Crash' McCreery (JURASSIC PARK, LADY IN THE WATER) actually designed some pretty great-looking reanimated corpses which make full use of the film’s indefensible budget to offer us a range of impossible herky-jerky movements and imaginative demises that are simply out of reach for horror films that don’t employ an army of visual effects artists. I also very much like the double-iris eyes which makes for the film's most striking visual. Most important, though, THE MUMMY 2017 offers something that almost no other Mummy film has so far been able to convincingly produce: a skinny, desiccated, unwrapped mummy lurching around on brittle bones like a malevolent spider on the hunt. It looks, in other words, like a genuine mummified corpse, not like some beefy guy wrapped in toilet paper, a distinction which lends it an unexpected visual potency despite its familiarity.

 The image of a spindly, half-skeletal ghoul has actually been part of Mummy fiction for quite some time; Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 gothic classic Lot No. 249 --which comprises, along with Bram Stoker’s 1903 Jewel Of The Seven Stars, the baseline popular origin of the genre******-- describes just such a creature, which would have, in fact, likely been more familiar to the Victorian Egyptophiles of his time (who delighted in “mummy unwrapping parties” -- a pass-time only slightly less morbid than today's "unboxing videos" ) than the bandage-swaddled version which has since become the standard iteration of the concept (and certainly saw its high-water mark with Christopher Lee’s imposingly buffness in Hammer’s 1959 THE MUMMY). McCreery, cinematographer Ben Seresin (PAIN AND GAIN) and director Alex Kurtzman (first-time director,******* but long-time bane of screenwriting as part of the dreaded Orci/Kurtzman duo) make the most of the exotic design by highlighting its boney, impossible movements against --why, what have we here?-- gothic swirling mists in an old abandoned churchyard! Holy shit, it’s almost like this was the correct context for a century-old horror icon all along! Who woulda thunk it?

It’s a trivial thing, of course, in the face of so very much howling sound and fury signifying nothing, but it’s also a frustrating glimpse of the simple pleasures which were right at the filmmakers’ fingertips, had they bothered to notice them. For all the miserable, inept mummy movies that have been made (and they’re all miserable an inept), there is something about this concept that has continued to stir the imagination of generations of horror fans. At a particularly low point in my journey through mummy fiction, I lamented that a mummy is basically just a solitary zombie that can’t bite you, and maybe we ought to admit it simply isn’t a cinematic concept worthy of much more exploration. But that’s not really true; or anyway, not entirely true, though it’s certainly a fitting complaint for virtually every single iteration of the concept I’ve ever seen on screen.

Fundamentally, a reanimated mummy should (or could, at least) have a little more resonance than that. A mummy doesn’t just traffic in our discomfort with dead bodies and the appalling wrongness of their return to some sort of unnatural half-life (though of course it does this too, and with a unique tactile quality perhaps better embodied in this movie than any other, of a body not rotting or mutilated, but rather desiccated, drained of its vital fluids in an uncanny parody of preserving vitality). More than our fear of dead things, it traffics in an almost Lovecraftian sense of unknowable antiquity reaching into the present in unanticipated, incomprehensible ways.******** Very nearly 200 years after Jane C. Loudoun published The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (the earliest tale of a reanimated mummy that I can identify) our knowledge of the ancient Egyptian culture has grown exponentially, but it still maintains its ability to mystify and intrigue us, as evidenced by its integral place in the essential folklore of our time, from conspiracy theories to ancient alien hypotheses. For all our technological progress, we are still awed and humbled by the scale and permanence of what they achieved, and the level of sophistication they reached literally thousands of years before our time.

A mummy, then, is less a metaphor for our fears of death and loss of personal identity than it is a cultural avatar from a forgotten past, challenging our smug certainty that we are the unquestioned masters of creation. In a chapter of Jewel Of The Seven Stars which he deleted from subsequent editions, Stoker actually makes this point explicit: if, in fact, the central mummy succeeds in using the unknown magic of antiquity to revive itself, the staunch Englishmen don’t just lose a battle, they lose their very sense of identity. Their belief in the essential correctness of their culture, religion, and basic understanding of the mechanics of the universe, get swept away into a terrifying chaos of uncertainty. This, I think, is the key to The Mummy’s persistence as a iconic figure despite a century of dull film iterations; at its core, the Mummy symbolically challenges not only the frailty of human life, but the fragility and vulnerability of our most fundamental assumptions about ourselves and the world. It is an alien, an other, emerging from a world out of time, a world utterly unfamiliar and remote but so manifestly remarkable that its very existence is a challenge to our innate sense of superiority. If the mummy bests us, we’re not just in physical danger, we’re existentially at risk of being forced to relinquish our place as the arbiter of civilization to its rightful heir.

All this was right there for the makers of this film, which had every conceivable resource to realize these themes if any film ever put to (digital) celluloid could ever be so described. And the most infuriating thing is that the ingredients are all unmistakably there; the film has a great sense of the disturbing corporeal wrongness of the mummy’s reanimated remains (when the filmmakers bother to try for it), and even adopts Stoker’s essential structure of a possession tale, personalizing the basic metaphor of culture being supplanted by the malevolent manifestation of the ancient primordial past. Hell, it even goes one step further and adds the unnecessary but intriguing detail that this is the product of imperial overreach: for the Victorian and Edwardian Brits presiding over an uneasy globe-straddling empire, anxieties that the “natives are restless” found outlets in the “Imperial Gothic” tales of the time which provided the fertile soil from which sprung the origins of mummy fiction. But in 2017’s THE MUMMY, we find the inciting incident to be the product of a different type of colonizer: a US soldier looting native treasures in American-occupied Iraq. It’s almost enough to tempt one to wonder if someone here, writing some far-removed early version of the script from which these tiny vestigial details were retained even absent their original significance --as a dozen more writers brazenly re-shaped the tortured mass into new and ever more contorted convolutions-- knew what they were doing. But probably they just happened to blindly snare a couple key ideas in their brute trawl of every possible cliche their predecessors had yet devised.*********

So it has the right ingredients to actually make something of its premise, though hopelessly mixed into a haphazard, overflowing pile of unrelated and contradictory detritus. As I have admonished so many times in the past, however, ingredients are not a meal. And it will come as no surprise to you that despite these potentially salient elements being present at various points in the plot, the movie makes absolutely not the slightest thing of any of them.The uniqueness and majesty of Ancient Egypt, in particular, is woefully neglected; though we do get some requisite flashbacks, the Egypt our antagonist occupies is a bland, undefined space, filled mostly with medium-sized candle-lit rooms which are furnished almost exclusively with billowing curtains (which actually seems like kind of a fire hazard, but I guess you worry a lot less about that in houses built of giant limestone and granite slabs). With the exception of name-checking notorious Egyptian heel-god Set (sometimes also called Seth), “Princess Ahmanet” might as well be a villainous witch from any time and place in history, or, perhaps more likely, from no specific time and place at all. And if it can’t even be bothered to engage with the one essential element of its own basic premise, you can hardly expect it to do any better with the more tangential elements: The film abandons its promising horror imagery almost as quickly as it stumbles upon it, and shrinks away from its provocative Iraqi war elements with a pronounced discomfort which is almost palpable.   

Which is, I realize, not telling you anything you don’t already know. 2017’s THE MUMMY is dumb and bad, just like all mummy movies are dumb and bad, which was already so obvious to you that you’ve never even considered seeing this piece of crap and have only read this far into this review in the vain hopes of trying to understand why I would so unwisely do so. And yes, it’s dumb and bad. But I’m sorry to say you’re going to have to see it anyway, and I’ll tell you why: for reasons too pointless to get into, the action eventually moves to a secret crypt hidden under London’s subway system, where the bodies of returned crusaders have been interred. And what does the Mummy do when she arrives? Why, raises the departed knights from their tomb, of course. And just like her, they’re ancient, eyeless, desiccated corpses still wearing the symbols of the ancient Templar order to which they belonged. You see where I’m going with this? Undead, eyeless Templars! This is basically the fifth BLIND DEAD movie!********** And at one point Tom Cruise punches one of them and gets his hand stuck in his ribcage! So it’s not all bad news. In fact, compared with the rest of the BLIND DEAD movies, this is probably one of the two or three best! As both reanimated mummies and the filmmakers behind the venerably lowbrow subgrene of Mummy fiction almost always eventually discover, context really is everything.


* THE MUMMY (1911), being a lost film and therefore unseen my me, is a possible exception, though the plot synopsis does not exactly inspire confidence.

**  Or anyway, can’t always do it; that the BEAUTY AND THE BEAST remake from 2017 grossed over a billion dollars provides ample evidence that it certainly can be done, and also also as a bonus definitively proves that there is no God and we live in a cold, indifferent amoral universe where ‘justice’ and ‘right’ are empty, meaningless abstractions which crumble like dry leaves before the might of Lord C’thulhu.

*** He did play “Jesus Christ” in A VERY HAROLD AND KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS, though, so I can’t be too mad at him.

**** A weirdly tone-deaf plot device by any metric, and made even weirder by its absolute needlessness and total irrelevance to the rest of the so-called story.

***** Dr. Jekyll, of course, was never part of the Universal Horror canon (there was a 1931 Paramount version with Fredric March and a 1941 MGM version with Spencer Tracy) though, as with VAN HELSING, Universal Executives seem absolutely convinced to the contrary. Perhaps they’re getting confused by the existence of 1953’s ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, as near as I can tell the only classic Universal production to ever include the character? But if meeting Abbott and Costello is all it takes to be considered a iconic Universal Monster, the Keystone Kops may also turn up in the “Dark Universe.”

****** Of course, we can trace the lineage back further than that, as I intend to do in my forthcoming book-length A Cultural Anthropology of the Mummy. But for today’s purposes, I think it’s fair to call those two stories the basis of the modern conception of “The Mummy” as a distinct boogeyman of the horror genre. (Bonus trivia: Louisa May Alcott, of Little Women fame, wrote a very early “Mummy’s Curse” story called Lost in a Pyramid; or, The Mummy's Curse in 1869, decades before either Doyle or Stoker. It does not, however, feature a resurrected, ambulatory mummy seeking revenge)

******* And why not hire a first-time director for a huge franchise-inaugurating iteration of an iconic screen classic with a budget of $200 million?

******** Indeed, Lovecraft himself wrote (or co-wrote/ghost-wrote, with Hazel Heald) a mummy story of his own: 1935’s Out of the Aeons. Of course, Lovecraft was racist enough that he damn sure wasn’t going to situate a great lost civilization in Africa, so it’s a mummy from the lost continent of Mu. But we know damn well where mummies come from, Howard. UPDATE: As commenter Matthew points out, Lovecraft too knew where mummies come from; early in his career, he ghostwrote a story called Imprisoned With The Pharaohs (1924) for none other than Harry Houdini.

********* A quest which also snared, I might add, some decidedly non-mummy related fiction; how else do we explain the brazen daylight robbery of several specific plot elements and even scenes from AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON? Did one of the writers misread the memo and start watching werewolf movies before someone corrected him about the genre he was supposed to be ripping off?

********** Or sixth, if you want to count the other unofficial BLIND DEAD sequel, John Gilling’s 1975 La cruz del diablo.***********

*********** By the way, I want to point out that that tenth footnote marks a decisive record for most ever footnotes on a single piece I’ve written! Thanks, THE MUMMY!

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