' Cinema Romantico

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

30 for 30: Celtics/Lakers: Best of Enemies

Sportsmanship is all well and good, sure, at the youth level mostly, but once you reach the upper echelons of sportsball events, like, say, the National Basketball Association, chivalry and decorum is best put out to pasture, as the latest ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, the three-part “Best of Enemies”, goes to show. Even a fresh-faced hardwood novice could probably tell you the NBA’s most famous rivalry is Celtics v Lakers, so fabled is the level of antipathy between these two colossal franchises. The one moment in Jim Podhoretz’s film when a little mutual respect is shown by way of Boston’s legendary Larry Bird, in the aftermath of the Lakers usurping the Celtics for the 1987 championship, admitting that L.A.’s illustrious Magic Johnson got the best of him is not really applauded but met with disgust by a few of Bird’s teammates. There is a reason why the documentary ends not with a peace offering but with Magic declaring, for like the twelfth-hundred time, that he will always hate the Boston Celtics.


Such antagonism is given voice by dual narrators in the form of L.A. native Ice Cube for the Lakers and Boston native Donnie Wahlberg for the Celtics, tour guides for this expansive history lesson, reciting names and dates and scores, sure, but who throw significant cross-country shade throughout. Perhaps to an impartial viewer that will become grating, but in the spirit of the film it nevertheless feels just right. Rivalries are not about impartiality. They are about biases and paranoia, like the Lakers, fearful of their Gatorade being tampered with by Celtics personnel, bringing their own supply of the liquid energy replenishment to Boston Garden. They are less about facts, which theoretically should be irrefutable, like the Celtics have this many championships and the Lakers have this many, and more about fandom, which is why Jack Nicholson, L.A.’s #1 fan is something like a silent supporting character, constantly glimpsed throughout in archival footage.

That’s not to suggest that “Best of Enemies” fails to wrestle with the hard stuff, such as race, the age-old incendiary topic that, like it or not, informed this rivalry just as much as a James Worthy statue of liberty dunk or an obliquely angled Larry Bird jumper. It began early, as “Best of Enemies” shows, and while it often could, like the games themselves, be suggestive of the predominantly white Boston and the multicultural L.A., with the former populated by white players and the latter by blacks, it was rarely that simple. Some of the doc’s best footage is old interviews of the Celtics’ Bill Russell, and later the Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, towering over small, bulky white reporters who are asking inane but simultaneously loaded questions. Russell and Abdul-Jabbar look like they want to go off, though, of course, they can’t, lest White America get uppity, and these interviews are juxtaposed against a later photo of a beaming Magic Johnson welcoming the white media surrounding him, as if he’d deduced how best to manipulate the media for his own benefit.

Red Auerbach, Celtics coach at the inception of their dynasty and then the team’s President during their 80s run, might have deduced it too. Talking head Bryant Gumbel floats the hypothesis that Auerbach drafted black players when no one would and white players when no would, suggesting race as something less than human classification and more like transactional worth, which is just as potentially disturbing in its own way. Of course, Gumbel’s thought is a product of having the whole picture, looking at all this through the prism of time, which is what “Best of Enemies” really brings home.


It only seems like in this era of the instantaneous that we are more than ever prone to hot takes. “Best of Enemies” remind us hot takes were always made to order, recounting how early Magic Johnson failures got him labeled “Tragic” Johnson and how after Game 1 of the 1985 NBA Finals Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was written off as over the hill before he woke up the echoes in Game 2. This sensation cuts even deeper when it is recounted how Boston’s Kevin McHale played in the 1987 Finals with a fractured foot, of the moment valor with far-reaching consequences, plaintively brought home in Larry Bird’s down-home dialect. He says of McHale: “He laid it on the line for us. But if you watch him now, he don’t walk very well.” Ugh.

But that merely underscores how big this rivalry was, lording every other aspect of the NBA and all of its other teams to such a degree that the Houston Rockets, who actually played Boston in the 1986 Finals, not the Lakers, are basically just written off in the documentary as interlopers, unworthy of the team they literally beat and the team that beat them for the championship. That is how romantically we view Celtic and Laker dominance now, from the safe space of 30 years away, which makes me wonder if all this handwringing over the present day dominance by the Cleveland Cavaliers and, especially, the Golden State Warriors will, 30 years from now, be devalued too, leaving us to remember the mid-twenty-tens NBA only as the best of times.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Wonder Woman

“Wonder Woman” opens with a CGI shot of Earth, reveling in the peace our blue planet projects from space, before drilling all the way down to ground level, as if uncovering all the grit and grime lurking just beneath so many winsome atmospheric layers. It’s a shot essentially putting Earth under the microscope, foreshadowing how the idealism of the film’s titular character, though she is never called that, only Diana (Gal Gadot), is also thrust under the microscope. She cultivates this idealism amidst an all-female Amazon society on the picturesque island of Themyscira, free of standard place and time, given to them by Zeus as a refuge from the war god Ares. And while the inhabitants have trained themselves into great warriors, as if expecting idiotic male intrusion at any time, this idyll also becomes emblematic of countless kinds of true love, like that of a daughter and mother, Diana and Hippolyta (Connie Nielson), gracefully demonstrated by director Patty Jenkins in a racking focus shot when Diana leaves Themyscira that shows daughter and mother’s mirrored emotions even as they move apart.


Her leaving is tied to Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy she saves after he crashes a German warplane into the sea, and who proceeds to tell these insulated Amazons about WWI, a cause to which Diana commits herself instantly with the lofty goal that she can end find Ares and slay him to conclude The Great War. Though a man is part and parcel to the inciting incident, the choice to go is all Diana’s and indicative of her agency throughout. And though the stakes are pitched at a global scale, Jenkins, working from a screenplay by Allan Heinberg, is careful to keep the story intimate while never rendering the people all around her as irrelevant. If Superman always seemed determined to blend in with humanity, until humanity needed him to save it, that is, this Wonder Woman flouts blending in as she walks around the streets of London with her sword like Beatrix Kiddo strolling through airport with a samurai sword in “Kill Bill”.

Wonder Woman was always rooted to feminism, and while the film does lean that way, it seems to partially limit itself in interest of box office, eschewing full-throated advocacy to evoke its ideology more through fish out of water comedy. That sounds awful, but in this Gadot’s performance is the key. Though she gets out her action movie kicks with a confident calm, she is equally adept at evincing guilelessness, turning a perplexed cocking of her head into a subtle running joke, entering stuffy rooms populated by stuffy men, who gasp when they see her, because she simply assumes she belongs, underscoring just how stupid such sexism was in the first place, and using her screwball-ish scenes with Chris Pine to effortlessly cut through all his character’s halting cynicism and inherent let-me-take-the-lead machismo. Diana and Steve’s double entendres when she inadvertently walks in on him bathing could have come straight from Philip Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood Rutledge horse racing banter, though Gadot plays it less amorously than with an I-Don’t-Know-How-You-Guys-Walk-Around-With-Those-Things incredulousness.

Yes, she and Steve fall in love, that’s a given, though it is less a screenplay necessity than an evocation of Diana’s compassion. If so many lousy men around her might get her guard up, she still detects Steve’s benevolence, given life by Pine’s agreeable lack of presumption, like a scene in a small French village where they dance in the snow. There Jenkins forgoes an emotionally manipulative score for the pub’s awning quietly whipping in the snowy breeze, and the notes of a saloon piano wafting through the door, sort of conjuring up a first dance au naturel. Later, when Diana kiddingly but lovingly compliments Steve’s Scottish sharpshooter Charlie (Ewen Bremner) on his singing voice, her accompanying wide smile will make you believe, if only fleetingly, in peace on earth, goodwill towards men who may or may not deserve it.


The impetus of this scene is a charge on a German platoon to liberate the village, illustrating the film’s nimbleness at continually segueing from big battles to smaller moments, the latter crucially underlining what’s at stake in the former. To get there, however, they must cross the frightening width between trenches, “No Man’s Land”, explains Steve, and a hopeless endeavor, he continues, that they would be wise not to even attempt. It’s a bout of mansplaining, really, one which Diana ignores, and thank God too because the ensuing scene, in which she emerges from the trench, the music seemingly carrying her, and spurs the attack, is such an astonishing jolt of pure cinema my eyes got misty. If so many movies in recent years, comic book or otherwise, have rendered untold faceless extras as mere collateral damage in the name of special effects, in this bravura sequence the faceless extras become the point as Diana refuses to write off their lives. And while Jenkins leans heavily, as she does elsewhere, on speed ramping, a la “The Matrix”, it is less run of the mill than emblematic of how Wonder Woman simply exists on a different plain. You see this too in scenes where she implements her bullet deflecting bracelets, often shot from above, as if Zeus is looking down with approval.

If superhero origin stories on screen often center on gradually coming to understand one’s powers that never quite happens with “Wonder Woman” as this scene demonstrates, simply allowing what she is to intrinsically rise up in her actions. Instead her hero’s journey turns on grasping this world where people so readily turn to evil in the face of despair, and the elixir she consequently needs to acquire isn’t so much physical as emotional, the idea that humanity, for all its flaws, is worth saving, or at least protecting, which is where “Wonder Woman” winds up, in an action-packed conclusion. This sequence, per comic book movie tradition, goes on too long but still comes off because of the thematic heft of its cross-cut narratives, a man who makes a decision for something bigger than himself and one Wonder Woman who puts the rest of mankind on her shoulders.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings (1975)

As W.W. Bright (Burt Reynolds) watches the fledgling country band Dixie (Conny Van Dyke) and her Dancekings, of whom he has appointed himself manager, in a manner of speaking, play to no one but a bartender in some small dive, he asks said bartender: “You think they got anything going for them?” She replies: “The best thing they got going for ‘em is you, that combination of horse manure and sincerity.” W.W. takes this in and, after the bartender has moved along, reasons aloud, “You know, she’s right.” Yes. She is. There might be an alternate version of “W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings” out there, the one that screenwriter Thomas Richman apparently intended that did not make it to screen, which so vexed Quentin Tarantino that he cites it as a reason he wanted to write movies, where the plight of the Dixie and the Dancekings and their ascent to the Grand Ole Opry is paramount. But that’s not the version director John G. Avildsen put on screen. No, this version, which is both busy, underscored by Avildsen indulging in every dissolve in the book, and laconic, mirroring its low-pressure leading man, is a star vehicle, totally and truly, opening with Reynolds as W.W. cruising down some country road in his 1955 Golden Anniversary Oldsmobile Rocket and right past a billboard declaring “Christ is coming soon.” W.W. smiles and you can’t help but think he thinks that sign portends his own arrival. Not many actors could get away with it, but Burt Reynolds’ combination of horse manure and sincerity carries the day. No one’s God complex ever looked so charismatically aw-shucks.


“W.W and the Dixie Dancekings” is such a star vehicle, in fact, that it allows a good half-hour of its star, playing a Tennessee con artist cum mostly good guy, to just sort of wander around from problem to problem, place to place, person to person, as if trying to determine what kind of movie he wants this to be. At one point he squires some young lady we don’t even see him meet to the drive-in where they watch “The Sun Also Rises” allowing him to opine on Errol Flynn. We never see W.W. watching “Adventures of Robin Hood”, probably because no self-respecting southern man would be caught dead watching men run around tights, but W.W. seems to model himself after Robin Hood anyway, robbing S.O.S. gas stations and only S.O.S. gas stations, evading capture by tipping the attendant and effusing charisma, an extension, of course, of Reynolds’s own movie star wattage.

That alone might have been compelling enough for a standalone movie, especially given the eventual presence of John Wesley Gore (Art Carney), a one-timed lawman turned devout Deacon, hired by the S.O.S. chairman (Sherman Lloyd) to ascertain who’s been plundering all their filling stations. Though little about “W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings” suggests reality, and thank God for that, this sequence between the Chairman and the Deacon, with thunder rolling outside and the dialogue pitched to a hammy boil, still feels, as Deacon Gore himself does, like broad caricature compared to everything else. It’s as if Deacon Gore, so fanatical in his Biblical obeyance, so devoted to vengeance against those whose devotion to God is suspect, has come marching in from a complete different movie, which, come to think of it, might well make it just right, as if he really was in another movie, got wind of W.W.’s antics and decided to re-cast himself to keep order over here.

In the end, W.W.’s reasons for turning to robbery have less to do with any kind of ideals than a helpful set-up for when he needs quick cash to help spur success for the Dixie and the Dancekings, whom he only encounters one night after escaping the clutches of a state trooper. But by bringing the band into the scheme, W.W. implicates them too, which gives Deacon Gore the chance to swoop in and put them all away, and right before the requisite Grand Ole Opry climax, a musical number which is refreshingly low-key, befitting the weekly concert’s barn dance origins rather than the over the top Opryland it’s become. W.W., however, intervenes by taking the fall, which brings us back to that “Christ is coming soon” billboard, as if this con artist is coming clean by sacrificing himself for the greater good. That doesn’t quite happen, however, because the movie lets him off the hook. It does, one might argue, because of a deus ex machina, but then the deus ex machina is Burt Reynolds. He is the star of the movie; the movie is the machine; he is its god.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

and then he was done


So Daniel Day-Lewis retired from acting. His announcement bore shades of notoriously demure professional basketball player Tim Duncan who last summer announced his retirement with but a press release. Day-Lewis also went the press release route, handing it off to Variety which published the notice in full. “Daniel Day-Lewis will no longer be working as an actor. He is immensely grateful to all of his collaborators and audiences over the many years. This is a private decision and neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on this subject.” It is almost Ron-Swanson-ish in its brevity. What else does anyone need to know other than he’s discontinued acting? All other details are irrelevant.

Throughout his legendary career, after all, Day-Lewis was often aloof and fiercely private, though that admirable insistence on maintaining privacy in a profession that put him so squarely in the public eye made it never-endingly easy for that privacy to be errantly transcribed into mystery and that mystery to be errantly transcribed into lunacy. Indeed, his infamous dedication to Method Acting was often portrayed with a lunatic bent in the press, nearly every article or interview with Day-Lewis dutifully recycling the myriad stories of his exhausting preparation and the almost disturbing commitment to remaining in character, all of which provided material for so much comic fodder, which is why every fourth tweet in the wake of his retirement on Tuesday cracked some variation of a joke about Day-Lewis retiring to research a role about an actor retiring.

Granted, he often harmed his own cause by remaining so engimatic on the subject, half-deflecting queries of his process, then sort of offering some vagaries as mock wisdom, mostly expressing his discomfort with having to try and elucidate with words something that he quite simply just did. And his non-acting dalliances, apprenticing as a carpenter and a cobbler, often for years at a time, were also strictly off the record, only furthering the already expansive allure surrounding him.

By shrouding his process in secrecy and by famously being so selective with his roles, each performance he did give felt larger than life, both in the lead up and in what was eventually rendered on screen, which is why it’s so easy to think of him in terms of the towering Daniel Planview or Bill the Butcher. But he could be quiet too, often with an edge, like “Last of the Mohicans” where he was something like an immovable object in the face of a westward expansion, or lacing Abraham Lincoln’s folksy wisdom with just right the amount of political spin, or occasionally with a tenderness, like in “The Boxer”, where for all the rope-jumping and in-the-ring punching he did, he nevertheless played the part so inwardly, like a man who had let all the rage just dissipate from his body until nothing was left other than the last few gentle embers of his soul.

As an actor, I suspect Day-Lewis considered himself as a craftsman, not unlike the carpenter and cobbler he very much became. And for a craftsman, whatever trade he or she might ply, the quality of the finished product is paramount and the only commentary one needs on the process and career behind it. As such, the performances of Daniel Day-Lewis are frozen on film, their quality self-evident. What else do you need to know? He acted, rather righteously, now he doesn’t. All other details are irrelevant.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

We're Gonna Die (a theatre review)

Art, as “Manhattan’s” mononymous Yale once opined, is nothing if not a working through, which Young Jean Lee’s play “We’re Gonna Die” so invigoratingly demonstrates, opening with the Singer of a punkish New Wave band played by the literally (figuratively) ablaze Isa Arciniegas in the Haven Theatre production helmed by Josh Sobel I saw here in Chicago, sauntering on stage and launching not into song but confessional. And while she does eventually kick out the jams, each one is precipitated by a monologue as soul-bearing as it is comical. It suggests an episode of VH1 Storytellers told from a therapy couch. But see, that actually sells “We’re Gonna Die” short because even if it probes the psychological depths of the Singer, it is not a morose personality study or some methodological exploration of the songwriter’s process. It captures, in a way I never really dreamed possible outside the live music experience itself, the way in which rock concerts – whatever the band, whatever the venue – become rhythmic church services of sorts, where sins are ineffably confessed and forgiveness is melodically tendered. By the end, when this production is hurling balloons into the air and dropping confetti from the ceilings, whatever was weighing you down when you walked in has been miraculously lifted.


The Singer’s first confessional concerns a youthful encounter with her Uncle who inadvertently and unknowingly indoctrinated her into the meanness of this world. She explains she turned this harrowing memory into a song which she then performs, mirroring the structure of the whole show, monologue/song, monologue/song. And the rawness and occasionally deliberate unwieldiness of the monologues only works to spotlight how a great song can condense and elucidate what we feel. And the songs are premium all the way through, though they gradually rise in not only quality but meaning, emblematic of any great concert’s ascending route, and filled out by a backing band (Spencer Meeks on guitar & bass, Sarah Giovannetti on drums, Jordan Harris and Elle Walker on keyboards) that could have held its own in the heyday of The Pyramid Club.

The band is present for the whole show, even throughout the Singer’s stories, mostly listening but occasionally chiming in with peanut gallery annotations or comical drum fills, which seemed to me not necessarily planned themselves but just sort of implemented in a Do It When The Spirit Moves You kind of way. This underlines how any great show is spontaneous and wholly original unto itself even if the setlist never varies. Unintentionally this was further illustrated when Arciniegas momentarily got her foot tangled in the microphone chord, grinned knowingly and then carried on, because a great frontwoman is never deterred.

Arciniegas is a great frontwoman. She’s doing that thing, that thing that Bruce Springsteen does in concert, where what he’s saying might obviously be something he’s said many times before but nevertheless effects the power of a preacher’s scripted sermon. Arciniegas, after all, is ministering to the congregation, truly, moving to the edge of the stage and appealing directly to the audience, holding us in the palm of her hand as she lifts us up. The stories she’s telling, while no doubt partly pulled from Young Jean Lee’s own life, are universal, evoking life events familiar to all of us, and that universality is part and parcel to the best concert experiences when everyone in the room is standing up and singing together. And so when the Singer’s concluding monologue inevitably broaches the thorniest subject of them all – namely, death – the show achieves the zenith of universality, holding up everyone’s darkest fear and then just sort of blasting it back with a zero fucks cannonade, jubilantly illuminating how live music not only gives you life, it takes the edge off death.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Some Drivel On...Contact

Director Robert Zemeckis has never shied away from look-what-I-can do technical pizzazz and the opening sequence of “Contact” (1997) is no exception, an outer space set shot that begins at our peaceful blue planet and then pulls back, back and back and back, through the vast reaches of our solar system, past all the planets, including Pluto (which was not excised from the version currently streaming on Amazon Prime leaving me to obviously assume that “Contact” still considers Pluto a planet), and then out of our solar system and into the furthest reaches of the galaxy, as all the while accompanying radio broadcasts grow older and older, as evocative an illustration of distance equaling time as you will cinematically encounter. What really astounds, however, is the scene’s capping shot, when the camera, still moving backwards, seems to emerge from the eye of the main character, Ellie Arraway. “Contact” was just as much A Carl Sagan Film as a Zemeckis film, given that Sagan wrote the book on which the film was based and consulted on its production, and Sagan was a S.E.T.I. advocate, a man who believed in looking, searching for what was out there, a sensation evoked in this shot and throughout by Zemeckis’s oft-fluid camera, like a later shot that starts outside of Ellie’s youthful home before the camera drifts up, finding her through a bedroom window as she sits at her desk with a shortwave radio.


There are other moments, however, particularly later when the movie moves ahead to adult Ellie, with Jodie Foster taking the acting baton, when the camera calms down and focuses, giving way to the stillness of Ellie with a pair of headphones simply listening, suggesting an inner peace that comes from escaping the omnipresent noise of earth for the soothing white noise of space, like a galactic thunderstorms CD, or something. At the same time, however, it is suggestive of a potentially dangerous escapism, tied back to the death of Ellie’s father (David Morse) in the opening scenes and how she goes to her radio transmitter trying to make contact with him through the heavens. This moment is in the wake of a minister telling Ellie that her father’s death means having to accept God’s will, which Ellie refuses to do, discussing it in strictly pragmatic terms, reasoning that if they kept her father’s medicine downstairs he might have lived. Foster lets this hard edge inform her entire performance, where for as much wonder as she gets searching the stars, she has a different streak down here on Earth, good-hearted still, yes, but also combative and rigid in her own science-friendly, liberal worldview.

That worldview is put to the test in the wake of First Contact. Because First Contact brings everyone out of the woodwork, from good ol’ boy politicians (Rob Lowe) to Christians cum terrorists (Jake Busey, doing a fine impersonation of his dad) to the President’s National Security Advisor Michael Kitz (James Woods) to the President’s Scientific Advisor David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt). (Because this was 1997 the President is played by Bill Clinton by editing archival footage of Clinton press conferences into certain scenes. This prompted blowback from the White House, perhaps because it so effortlessly, unintentionally underlines how political press conferences are rife with so many banalities they can be used to say pretty much anything in any context. We continue.)

Many of these supporting parts are written fairly one-note and that, frankly, is just fine, evocative of how such an event causes everyone to retreat to his/her corner and close ranks. In a way, it’s difficult to argue against anyone’s viewpoint, if you allow yourself to see the situation specifically through that person’s eyes, even Drumlin, merely operating on his own behalf, a narcissist to the very end. And that becomes a source of extreme vexation for Ellie, who struggles to see this through anyone else’s eyes, marking her as credibly compelling, a character forced to confront her own insecurities and her belief system’s limitations, a nifty contrast against the limitless expanse of the universe.


This is brought home in her relationship with Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), “a man of the cloth, without the cloth.” This, more than any scientific inaccuracies, which any scientist would be happy to go long on for you, might be the film’s weakest point. Though the questions of science v theology that their relationship engenders are compelling, the chemistry between Foster and McConaughey never comes off. Foster, frankly, plays more to the cosmos in terms of a muse, and even her late father, which means that when the movie has Joss repeat verbatim a line that Ellie’s father says and then Ellie immediately moves in for a kiss, well, like, you know, yikes. And it is almost entirely undone by a late movie moment when Joss, placed on a committee to determine who among a group that includes Ellie will be sent into space to possibly meet these extra-terrestrials, admits he voted against Ellie going because, as he says, “I don’t want to lose you.” For this, she kisses him. I wanted her to punch him in the face.

But, after ample rigmarole she does go. And where she goes is through a wormhole to Vega where she meets not aliens but her father, which is to say she meets aliens who have taken the form of her father and of a childhood dream, of sorts, to say hello, which plays like an advanced civilization’s nod to us Earthlings as boats against the current. Afterwards, an obligatory inquiry of faith, literal and figurative, must and does occur, though its conclusion is an open end, allowing for both sides, religion and science, to intrinsically, if heavy-handedly, emerge and strike something like a truce. It’s rather wonderful. And after first seeing this movie for the first time, on the cusp of adulthood and with so much hope in my heart, 20 years ago in the summer of 1997, I now find myself thinking that the odds of finding extra terrestrials are no doubt better than us American earthlings meeting together on middle ground.


Monday, June 19, 2017

The Mummy

In his tentpole movie roles Tom Cruise often has a supernatural quality resistant to vulnerability. In the exquisite  “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” his otherworldliness is played for a joke. When a certain bit of potential derring-do requires his character to hold his breath underwater for over three minutes, Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn comically, incredulously remarks “You can do that.” Of course he can! And he does! Tom Cruise is invincible! So it only makes sense, I suppose, that Tom Cruise would need, in this era of cinematic superheroes, his own superhero movie. But what if Marvel or D.C. Comics or whoever else has no need for your services? You find another way in obviously, and so here is Cruise in the re-boot of the Universal Monsters film franchise “The Mummy”, transforming it something less than a project based on a version of the 1932 Boris Karloff character and more the superhero origin story of Cruise’s Nick Morton. I might even be tempted to call Cruise’s move a little brilliant if not for the fact that “The Mummy” is so rarely enjoyable.


Its unenjoyability stems directly from a kind of inadvertent More Becomes Less philosophy, where the myriad writing credits suggest a focused original concept that erupted into an out-of-control cinematic bloomin’ onion. For if its official basis is the Karloff black & white original, its real basis is the Stephen Sommers 1999 “Mummy” reboot, less horror and more action/adventure, even though its conspicuous lack of breezy execution is more in line with Sommers’ atrocious 2004 “Van Helsing.” The latter suffered from monster overload and so does this version of “The Mummy”, stretching to even make room for Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), who occasionally goes Hyde, a non-Universal property that, seeing as how little we get to know him, seems to suggest a move for the next movie in line. Director Alex Kurtzman has made his bones in the business as a producer, a role given to Ideas rather than artistic follow-through, and it shows as he struggles to coalesce this preponderance of material, resulting in a lurching cinematic behemoth which is why more times than I could count he fell back on explanatory voiceovers laid over montages, emitting strong whiffs of editing cover-ups.

The unwieldy story opens with a monologue and montage, in fact, recounting the ancient tale of Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), set to become Pharaoh until her father has a son, stealing her birthright, the impetus for her giving her soul to the Egyptian God Set for a special dagger with an extra-special gem to kill her father and his son and then sacrifice her lover as a means to give Set bodily form. Alas, she is stopped pre-sacrifice, arrested, mummified, and entombed alive, while the dagger’s gem finds itself re-located to England. It is the tomb that Nick Morton (Cruise) and his sidekick Chris Vail (Jake Johnson), military contractors cum grave robbers, discover in present-day Iraq and remove from its resting place which, as it must, arouses Ahmanet to mummified life to unleash unholy terror trying to finish the job at which she failed so many centuries ago.

This is not an uninteresting opening. That Nick and Chris find the tomb at all is owed to an airstrike on an insurgent stronghold, just as the all-important gem to Ahmanet’s dagger is discovered in London on account tunnel construction, little seemingly throwaway plot details that actually underline the intrusion of man into an ancient world where they do not belong. To that point, the shots of Nick and company descending into The Mummy’s prison, where mercury floats in the air, evokes modern men out of time, and vice-versa. The film’s most comical line, in fact, for good and bad, is Ahmanet in the present day explaining her age-old evil: “It was a different time.”


That sentiment might be challenged by Jenny Halsey (Anabelle Wallis), archaeologist, obligatory love interest for Nick and member of Dr. Jekyll’s Justice League-ish anti-evil contingent, who enters the picture by literally punching Nick in the face for his roguish behavior, though that is pretty much the high point of her fieriness, as she gradually morphs from Marion Ravenwood into Willie Scott. In the second half of the film Jenny is reduced to doing nothing much more than following Nick into cavernous, ominous rooms and saying his name over and over and over. “Nick?” she’ll say, as if she’s afraid of the dark.

Though Ahmanet is not afraid of the dark, her character is essentially shunted there anyway, taking a backseat to Nick, who takes the form of her lover in the present day so that she can slay him to unleash Set on the here and now. That it does not go quite as planned goes without saying, though, of course, it is part of “The Mummy’s” broader plan all along, wherein Ahmanet, for all the power she possesses, is nothing more than a conduit to conferring supernatural status on Nick to make him, for all intents and purposes, a superhero in order to no doubt propagate so many superhero sequels. Alas, Tom Cruise’s greatest supernatural feat would be getting a sequel to this stinkbomb greenlit.