Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Film Review: THE MUMMY by Mike Sullivan

Maybe 30 years from now people will stumble upon this review and laugh. Not because they happen to love hacky, easy jabs at Tom Cruise but because it got everything wrong. “Pfft! What a fuggshettity ghost-brain,” some man will cuss in future-speak while wearing his ‘I’m Thinking’ t-shirt memorializing one of the most iconic Cruise lines from THE MUMMY. “I guess people back then couldn’t comprehend the beauty of an Alex Kurtzman film,” the man will mutter as he places a porcelain maquette recreating that memorable scene of Cruise being forced against his will by Universal Executives into pretending to enjoy being in the same room with co-star Annabelle Wallis in his display case of Dark Universe memorabilia. Maybe this could be like a Coen Brothers movie and we won’t ‘get it’ until five years from now. Maybe I’m wrong and Universal Studios’ misguided attempt to beat Marvel Studios at their own game won’t end prematurely and remembered only by people who write listicles about failed movie franchises. But there’s just something doomed about that Dark Universe logo. The fact that it’s incorporated into the Universal Studios logo with the kind of overblown pageantry that’s reserved for something established, familiar and well-liked places it somewhere in the realm of off-putting and unearned. It’s saying, “Hey, here’s that thing you love” with the misplaced confidence of your Mom’s dorky boyfriend who keeps buying you puzzles of Pink Floyd album covers because the only thing he remembers about you is that you ‘like music’. Even if it preceded a good or simply solid movie, the prematurity of the Dark Universe logo would smack of unchecked hubris and understand, THE MUMMY is neither good nor simply solid. In fact it looks unusual playing inside an actual theatre and not within its natural habitat: following a marathon of FRANKLIN & BASH episodes in the wee hours of the morning on TNT. THE MUMMY isn’t the cornerstone on which cinematic universes are based. It’s the cornerstone on which an ironic GAME OF THRONES throne entirely constructed out of flea-market VHS tapes is based.

Deceptively, THE MUMMY starts out well enough with an origin of its titular character Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). The backstory about an Egyptian Princess whose thirst for power leads her into making a pact with Set -- the god of storms and squalls -- only to find herself buried alive in a sarcophagus filled with mercury, is basically de rigueur for modern Mummy movies. But what separates this from the pack is its visceral qualities. The throat of an infant is slashed early on and even though we don’t actually see it, we do get a queasy sound effect of the newborn’s death rattle. Additionally, Boutella’s eerie, feral presence in these scenes is just fun to watch. In fact, every scene she’s in is entertaining. Whether manipulating those her around her in order to escape from Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe)’s secret lab or straddling Cruise at knifepoint on top of a mausoleum tomb, Boutella is the one reason you may want to half-watch this as you perform household chores when it finally arrives on basic cable a few years from now. But Boutella’s presence raises expectations in a way the filmmakers can’t help but betray. Even though Boutella’s Mummy is the most interesting character on screen, she is, for whatever reason, not the focus of THE MUMMY. That honor instead goes to Cruise.

Rumor has it that the original script for THE MUMMY gave equal screentime to Cruise and Boutella’s characters. It also revolved around a far more interesting idea involving a team of Navy SEALS fighting mummies in Iraq. But when Cruise came on board, he commissioned his screenwriting cronies Dylan Kussman and Christopher Quarrie to beef up his part and add a subplot about his character becoming possessed by Set. Reportedly, Cruise also oversaw the editing and, more or less, co-directed the film with Kurtzman. If true, this explains why THE MUMMY is a failure but it doesn’t explain why Cruise looks so disengaged from the material. It’s not a performance as much as it is a begrudging favor and this is strange because it’s nothing more than a vanity project thinly disguised as a franchise tentpole. Not only does Cruise receive God-like powers at one point, he’s so funny and sexy that corpses spring to life just to make out with him. But apart from Cruise’s clear yet befuddling indifference, he’s terrible at playing any character that isn’t a muted, less terrifying version of himself. Ethan Hunt is Cruise minus the perceived skeletons. You don’t watch MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and wonder if Hunt laughed when someone sort of like David Miscavige (but for legal purposes, isn’t) told him an embarrassing anecdote about the time he accidentally farted in front of that woman he handcuffed to the hotel sink and eventually starved to death for being a “suppressive person.” You don’t assume that when Jack Reacher is alone he screams into a pillow until thoughts of that swarthy key grip on the set of EDGE OF TOMORROW step outside of his poor ungay penis and leave it alone for the moment. Cruise’s Nick Morton is not a typical heroic Cruise surrogate, he’s a scumbag with a heart of gold. If the film were made a few decades earlier, the character would have been played by Bill Murray or Harrison Ford in full-on ‘can-we-get-the-fucking-shot-already-I-have-diarrhea-and-I-just-want-to-sit-in-the-dark-in-my-fucking-hotel-room’ angry grandpa mode. But considering that Tom Cruise can’t play anything besides a grim-dark variation on Tony Robbins, he has no idea what to do with this character. Cruise’s performance doesn’t suggest someone who won a Burger King sweepstakes to play a role in an upcoming Dark Universe movie because it suggests someone who won a Burger King sweepstakes to play a role in an upcoming Dark Universe movie but, through some scheduling mishap, could only shoot their scenes minutes after surgery when the anesthesia still hasn’t worn off. Disoriented and annoyed, Cruise’s Nick Morton is an indifferent shrug of a character who has zero chemistry with everyone on screen. Particularly Wallis, with whom he’s supposed to share a will they/won’t they vibe with even though everything about their forced coupling screams “please don’t.” He’s dead-eyed and oily, she’s a lifeless, immovable object and whenever they’re together it’s like watching a burnt-out Amway salesman make half-hearted love to a mid-century boat figurehead.

To be fair, Cruise isn’t entirely to blame for THE MUMMY. Tonally awkward, the film can’t make-up its mind about whether it wants to be a horror movie or a light and breezy, tongue-in-cheek action movie. Premature ejaculation jokes happen right in the middle of scenes where a zombified Jake Johnson starts stabbing everything in sight, including Courtney B. Vance in a thankless glorified cameo -- incidentally, while we’re on the subject of Jake Johnson’s pointless character: He gets possessed, murders a few people, dies and then his ghost strong-arms Cruise into being sacrificed by Ahmanet? Why exactly does Cruise utilize his newly acquired God-like abilities to bring this weasel-y asshole back to life at the film’s end? Did test audiences respond to Johnson’s comedy-like, quasi-quips that much? Additionally, it’s anti-climactic. The final showdown between Cruise and Boutella ends with a fight that feels like the cinematic equivalent to getting dumped via text. Even worse, THE MUMMY is a convoluted mess simply because of all of the spur of the moment world-building it’s forced to perform. Never mind that the Marvel movies didn’t get mired in their Moebius strip, every-movie-feels-like-the-second-part-of-a trilogy-that-will-never-end story structure until THE AVENGERS, yet in THE MUMMY what little momentum this film has built up grinds to a halt the moment we take a detour into Dr. Jekyll’s lab. Serving as this cinematic universe’s Nick Fury, Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll is a walking info dump whose only purpose is exposition. Not just for this shitty movie but for movies that haven’t even happened yet. Specifically that nebulous Monstervengers film where Cruise, Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem and The Rock team up to fight -- I don’t know -- The Phantom of the Opera, Fu Manchu and Sara Karloff? I guess? I miss the days when potential franchises weren’t really expensive TV pilots.

Considering the pathological need studios have for extended cinematic universes, I suppose the idea of a Universal Horror-verse isn’t a bad idea if we must have one, I guess. It’s just a bad idea to follow the Marvel Studios model this closely. A horror concept doesn’t work if it’s forced to conform to the mechanics of a superhero movie. Even still, THE MUMMY wants to be a Marvel Studios movie in the worst way but the differences between these franchises are glaringly obvious, right down to the in-jokes and Easter eggs. But whereas the sight of Klaw or Howard the Duck will cause a theater to echo with the dull, nerdy thud of ribs getting elbowed, THE MUMMY’s in-jokes err on the side of duh. Hey, there’s the severed hand of the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Dracula’s skull and that golden book thing from the Brendan Fraser Mummy. What’s that? You didn’t even notice it? Yeah, nobody did. Most likely because nobody really wanted to see this movie. I feel like the only people who sat through this were those who couldn’t get into that sold out screening of WONDER WOMAN or families who got the times wrong for CARS 3 and didn’t want to wait an hour. Seeing this is about as good as not seeing it because you won’t remember a single moment from THE MUMMY.

Friday, June 9, 2017


What happened to Johnny Depp? Wasn’t there a time when he was more than a steampunk scarecrow made out of black eyeliner and whatever was found in the dumpster behind Urban Outfitters? Didn’t he used to be cool? In spite of the fact that Johnny Depp’s public image has morphed into that of a petty, vain, abusive asshole who allegedly keeps a sound engineer on retainer because he’s too lazy to memorize his dialogue (reportedly, Depp’s dialogue is fed to him via an earpiece he wears on set), prevailing logic would dictate that he was cool at one time. Very cool. In fact, as late as THE LONE RANGER, I was still insisting he was cool. It wasn’t until his bizarre portrayal of Whitey Bulger as Nosferatu in Fonzie drag in BLACK MASS that I finally realized that Depp isn’t just currently uncool, he was always uncool.

In retrospect, the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series was one of the worst things that could have ever happened to Depp in that it raised his profile, revealed his one-note tics and made them so goddamned inescapable. Even before PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, Depp played almost every role like a precocious theater kid who wings you with his bamboo cane in the halls of The San Diego Comic Con because he got way too into his Charlie Chaplin cosplay. The main difference is that he was doing it in disposable, quietly-released-in-February fluff like DON JUAN DeMARCO, CHOCOLAT and BENNY & JOON. Critically acclaimed films like ED WOOD, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS obfuscated his more commercial endeavors and helped maintain his cred as a cultish, arthouse fixture. Even if one or two of those cultish, arthouse fixtures carried the sort of safe, mall-punk qualities of a Hot Topic hoodie. Depp was a B-list leading man but an A-list character actor, he was Crispin Glover minus all of that Andy Kaufman-esque face kickery: quirky, but not too weird for your mother. Depp carried the vibe of an indie minded Hollywood outsider but only because we were getting him in measured doses. Of course, after the first PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN film, the world started mainlining him and it wasn’t long before all of us were hunched over, grinding our teeth and left with the bitter realization that we all got burned on this deal.

Yet, in spite of the fact that I carry almost no respect for the infinity scarf wrapped mummy formally known as Johnny Depp, I can’t help but keep up with his career. A misplaced sense of nostalgia for films like DEAD MAN have left me dopesick waiting for the next fresh hit of buzzy, warm, mannered quirkiness. Who knows, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES could be the right kind of summer garbage that could help us all relive that massive, toe-curling high? Right? Well, no. I should have known from the trailers that DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES was a waste of time. Seeing a 54-year-old Depp pretend to be drunk in a Rasta wig yet again is like watching a 53-year-old Bob Denver slip back into his red polo shirt just to make an ironic appearance on an episode of ALF. There’s a sense of overwhelming sadness behind it. Imagine someone begrudgingly repeating that scene from STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. where the house falls around Buster Keaton for fourteen years. Now imagine someone doing it because they need the money to buy 70 custom Les Paul guitars and a giant red, white and blue cannon to fire the ashes of every dead writer that appeared in Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism. It ceases to be sad and morphs into infuriating. And understand, DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES is infuriating. Like an estranged, unloved family member who shows up uninvited at your birthday party but still manages to look bored and annoyed, DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES feels like it’s doing you a favor simply by being there even though you haven’t really thought about the franchise since 2007. Yet in addition to DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES’ clear disinterest and misplaced sense of obligation to exist, it’s also impossible to follow. Granted, this isn’t exactly a new observation. This complaint has plagued the franchise since the beginning. However, I’m not sure if these movies are hard to follow because they’re convoluted or if it’s because PIRATES is so boring it’s difficult to pay attention to whatever bullshit is unfurling on screen. Either way, I have no clue what’s happening in DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES.

One of the first few images we see is Orlando Bloom and he has barnacles all over his face. He is a ghost? I think? It’s up to his sylph-like, blank slate, walking Bop Magazine pin-up of a son (GODS OF EGYPT non-entity Brenton Thwaites) to reverse his ghostiness with a trident that doesn’t exist but does? I guess? I don’t know. From there Jack Sparrow trades his magic compass for rum and this somehow allows an undead Javier Bardem to leave the confines of a Bermuda Triangle-like purgatory to kill Jack Sparrow and also track down the trident that doesn’t exist but does. For some kind of a reason. I’m assuming. Nothing is clear nor does it matter. Oh, and in case you had a burning desire to understand Jack Sparrow’s relationship with a character we’ve never met before, we get an overlong origin sequence needlessly explaining the rivalry between himself and Bardem. Long ago when Jack was just a hastily generated CGI bobblehead with lopsided, weirdly proportioned facial features, he tricked Bardem into steering his pirate ship into a bunch of rocks, causing him and his crew to explode into a series of poorly rendered ones and zeros. Other things happen too. For example, a sassy, cleavage lady (Kaya Scodelario) is nearly executed for loving science but learns her father (Geoffrey Rush) has an ornate peg-leg, Paul McCartney appears in a fleeting cameo but isn’t recognizable or funny, penises are alluded to as a reminder that some of us have handled them and it is hilarious. Eventually it all ends with confusingly written sequence that appears to be the end result of an extensive reshoot (Bardem’s character suddenly has the ability to possess the living? Why is this the first time he’s taking advantage of this power?) on a set that looks like a churro stand, Snow White’s Scary Adventure and somebody’s angry, red-faced mother nearly slapping a crying nine-year-old are in danger of sneaking into frame. In other words, it’s a mess filled with way too many characters, a surfeit of meandering action sequences and far too many undeveloped storylines that trail off into nothing. DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES is essentially just out of sequence footage of two different, late period Robert Altman movies edited into stock footage of exploding pirate ships. Why is something that’s based on a dark ride where things are never more complicated than the sight of pirates getting outsmarted by a dog insist on only the most impenetrable, befuddling world-building and plotting?

When Depp has finally shuffled off this mortal coil (presumably with his personal sound engineer in tow, who will be buried alive right next to him in his spirally, Tim Burton designed tomb in order to accommodate an eternity of all of those ALICE IN WONDERLAND and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN sequels he’ll be making in hell), it’s clear what series of films Depp will be remembered by. PIRATES and Depp are so closely intertwined, that you can’t describe one without inadvertently describing the other. Both arrived at just the right time, both seemed fresh and interesting at first and both eventually became tiresome, self-important tchotchkes collecting dust on the bureau of the apartment of that friendless Wiccan woman whose body was found in front of her TV as it blared the DVD menu of THE CORPSE BRIDE for nearly six days straight. It would be nice to say that DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES has effectively stalled Depp’s career but considering that he will be appearing in seven upcoming films, including a pair of wannabe franchise tent-poles, it’s safe to say we’ll probably never escape this much-loathed-but-still-inexplicably-bankable leading man who reminds you of that slimy dude at a party who makes fun of your taste in music while he tries a little too hard to sell you on the virtues of polyamory.