Literally from the movie’s opening, Universal’s The Mummy starts off on the wrong wrapped foot. To be sure, it has plenty of promise and several intriguing ideas: for starters, there’s no monster who remains in a morally grey area (in typical Universal Monster fashion). The protagonist, Nick Morton, played by Tom Cruise, also makes for a more human hero than the usual altruistic, always-saving-the-day kind of character, even if the rest of the cast mostly walk a familiar line between right and wrong. Imhotep – the male mummy of Karloff and Brendan Fraser’s days – has been replaced by Ahmanet, a vengeful Egyptian princess erased from history, whose introduction and design are visually striking and chilling, appropriate for the birth of a monster in the modern age. Distinctive set designs, engaging action, suitable ambiance, and quality creature effects make for a perfectly watchable film, but unfortunately, an atrociously muddled script and lack of direction can’t make the most of these elements. The result is a lifeless monster romp that fails to inspire and is far from a worthy start to the newly-minted Dark Universe, the shared universe of the new Universal Monsters.
When Nick Morton and colleague Chris Vail (Jake Johnson), both U.S. soldiers and soldiers of fortune, go searching for ancient artifacts of value in modern Iraq, they accidentally uncover the cursed tomb of an ancient Egyptian princess absent from the annals of history. Only with the help of archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) and a mysterious organization headed by an equally shady doctor (Russell Crowe) do they begin to understand that the mummy they unearthed isn’t merely a piece of history, but evil itself incarnated. That sounds like an adequate narrative for a mummy movie, but that’s also just the terse version of the story, without the weak scenario building brought about through lazy exposition and a relentless effort to lay the foundation of a cinematic universe. In reality, there’s a sandstorm of ideas and plot points in The Mummy: mummies, gods of death, templars, secret organizations, a plethora of hidden tombs, an inspection of what makes a man a man, and a look at what makes him a monster. Had the filmmakers narrowed their focus to just the best of the ideas, had this been an honest attempt to reimagine a classic horror movie for today’s audiences, the result could have been better. Instead, the focus is as scattered as the sands of Egypt (or London in this case). The Mummy is simply trying to do too much, and not doing any of it all that well.
Things might be more excusable if it was only the half-baked plot that got a little messy, but the characters feel equally as underdeveloped, and not because of the performances. While Cruise’s Nick has some substance, charisma, and doesn’t just feel like Tom Cruise in another action movie, the film gives his character no time to grow and evolve. He begins as a scoundrel, not unlike a certain Han Solo, but whereas Solo is given enough screen time to prove that he has a heart of gold by the end of Star Wars, Nick Morton never exceeds audience’s first impressions of him – he’s a self-interested, lying thief who lacks the smarmy charm to make audiences like or even care for him. Worse yet is Jake Johnson’s Chris Vail, who is nothing more than a silly sidekick archetype. Devoid of funny lines in an all around unfunny movie, the character comes off as annoying and borderline unnecessary. Despite a decent performance on Annabelle Wallis’ part, Jenny Halsey feels like just a plot device, there to translate hieroglyphics for Tom Cruise and to be the damsel in distress, which is distressing in and of itself as the film pushes to be current with its powerful female antagonist, but even more so because it fails to utilize the damsel to develop any sort of tension – which, may I remind you, is how you develop scares.
That brings us to the titular character herself: Ahmanet. Sofia Boutella does admirably in the role, as from her introduction, she sells the character as sinister, cold, and calculating. When Ahmanet returns from the dead as a decrepit mummy, the design and unnatural movements of the character are suitably unsettling and horrific. It’s just unfortunate that Cruise and the rest of the cast don’t truly encounter the character all that much. The Mummy is too distracted with weaving unnecessary story threads to allow the movie’s central threat to actually threaten its primary characters. Half of the time Nick encounters the Mummy in a trance-like state, which isn’t used to create eerie, surreal moments but instead works more to undermine any potential tension in an annoying “it was just a dream again” sort of way. The character is also about as undeveloped as she is underutilized. While this is certainly a more sinister backstory for the Mummy, the character lacks the humanity that made all previous Universal Monsters and past their iterations so unique. Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, and the original Mummy –they’re all relatable, sympathetic characters whose situation is as horrific as they are. Imhotep, for example, was a priest persecuted for falling in love with the princess, a love forbidden by law. Ahmanet’s plight, on the other hand, doesn’t exactly explain the lengths she’s willing to go to in her quest to destroy the world.
The ambiance is perhaps the only thing that gives The Mummy any semblance to the source material, but even that falls short. Some settings are truly reminiscent of the classics, like the ruins of an ancient abbey, a dark and damp British street, or some ancient flooded tunnels; any classic Universal horror would feel right at home here. The abbey in particular – and the surrounding forest where the Mummy first comes to life – genuinely reminds me of some of the original movies, but like so much of the rest of the film, they aren’t utilized to their fullest, most horrific effect. Perhaps it’s because early encounters with the Mummy involve clearly killable characters (I’m surprised they weren’t wearing red shirts), and as the further the film moves from its horror roots, the more lost it becomes. Other locales are there simply as set pieces for action sequences, which often look pretty impressive and offer some thrills, but when you don’t care about the characters, the scenes feel hollow. Most disappointingly (and all too frequently) the chills just aren’t there in scenes and settings where they should be a gimme. When Nick and Chris uncover Ahmanet’s tomb, there’s no sense of wonder or apprehension; instead of building atmosphere, the film distracts itself with stupid details like a magically unending supply of mercury. As the characters delve deeper and deeper into the tomb, there’s a notable lack of foreboding, no sense of unease at all. Perhaps this is because the characters seem to show no misgivings about what is clearly an evil tomb, or perhaps it’s because the film satisfies itself with muted colors, calling that tone. Whatever the reason, it’s not for a lack of trying. All the pieces seem to be there – it just lacks that spark of life.
Our universe may have began with a bang, but Universal Studios Dark Universe begins with a dud. Perhaps there’s a lesson here: the pyramids weren’t built in a day, and a universe can’t be built in one movie. Still, I think that if the intention was there to truly revitalize a cherished monster for the love of the creature, its franchise, the genre, and its brilliant history – if the film had set about to reawaken that fascination and fixation with the darkness that we all seem to carry deep in our hearts where monsters lurk within us all – then we would have gotten a very different movie. Instead, we got a movie that feels rushed, muddled, and uncertain of what it truly wants or needs to be, uncertain of the proper proportions of wit and charm, horror and adventure, stand alone and franchise. As a result, The Mummy can’t hold a torch to its peers. So, “welcome to a new world of gods and monsters.” Is the Dark Universe doomed? No, not yet. Hopefully it’s just in its awkward infancy stages. Hopefully, to quote The Bride of Frankenstein once more, our beloved monsters never have to plea with their creators that “we belong dead.”
‘The Kingmaker’ is a Probing Look at the Wife of a Despot
The Queen of Versailles, released back in 2012, was one of the best documentaries of the decade. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, it followed Jackie Siegel, the trophy wife of David Siegel, founder of the timeshare company Westgate Resorts. The film depicted the family’s construction of what was to be the largest residential home in the United States, which quickly went awry once the 2008 financial crisis hit their business hard. The documentary showed that Greenfield has a unique gift for understanding the lives and pathologies of the super-wealthy. Seven years later, Greenfield is back with The Kingmaker, another documentary portrait of a rich lady — one who, like Jackie Siegel, also had a cartoonishly evil husband and a weakness for both opulent residences and rare exotic animals.
The Kingmaker is a portrait of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines from the 1960s to the ’80s. Imelda is known in the popular imagination as the supportive wife of that country’s dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for frequently meeting with world leaders, and for her extensive collection of thousands of pairs of shoes. This one is set on the other side of the world, but is just as instructive, not to mention entertaining.
Greenfield’s film catches up with the now 90-year-old Imelda, and depicts her life today as she luxuriates around her various estates, reminisces about late husband, tells stories about meeting with leaders from Reagan to Mao to Saddam, and pushes the political career of her son, known as Bongbong, who ran for vice president of the Philippines in 2016.
For the first half hour or so, The Kingmaker looks like an attempt to humanize and even rehabilitate Imelda’s image. She opens up about her mother’s death and her husband’s serial infidelities; he claimed he was constantly sending her around the world because he feared a coup, but really it was so he could conduct extramarital affairs.
We start to think this is, if not a puff piece, the equivalent of one of Errol Morris’ docs, where he gives a controversial political figure a chance to have their say while also challenging them.
But eventually things turn, and The Kingmaker lays out that the Marcos family had in fact engaged in massive human rights improprieties, from torturing political dissidents to rigging elections, to a scheme that entailed razing an entire residential area in order to build a zoo of exotic animals which were imported from Africa via bribes. Perhaps it was a clue early on when Imelda revealed how well she got along with the likes of Richard Nixon, Moammar Khadafy, Mao Tse-Tung, and Saddam Hussein.
The Marcos family also plundered billions from their own people, which paid for real estate all over the world, priceless art, as well as that famous shoe collection (The Kingmaker shows, among other things, that the Philippines could really use an Emoluments Clause.) What Imelda has to say now (she only ever refers to her husband as “Marcos”) makes it clear that she was not only complicit in the dictator’s crimes, but continues to defend and profit from them to this day.
And from what we see of the Marcos’ son, Bongbong, he’s a uniquely untalented and uninspiring politician who has inherited all of his father’s corruption, but none of his charisma. The Kingmaker also ties in with the modern-day politics of the country, as its current president, Rodrigo Dutarte, is shown as the true heir to the Marcos tradition, depicted as a Trump to Bongbong’s Jeb Bush.
The Kingmaker also recalls Joshua Oppenheimer’s great 2013 documentary The Act of Killing in the way it demonstrates how national myths are established and carried through the generations. We see schoolchildren reciting why the imposition of martial law was actually a moment of national glory.
Greenfield’s last film, last year’s Generation Wealth, was a big step down, lacking any focus and for some reason concentrating a great deal on people from the porn industry. But The Kingmaker is a return to form for the filmmaker, as it shows she’s honest enough to speak ill of her own subject.
‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past
Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.
After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.
The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.
The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.
However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.
A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.
Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?
The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.
‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.
‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire
Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.
Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous.
This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection.
Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom.
When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness).
These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us.
Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results.
Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.
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