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Movie Review: The Mummy (2017)

Tom Cruise stars in Universal’s The Mummy, which looked like it might be a throwback to classic horror movies. In spite of Cruise, whose movies are often almost as formulaic as his acting, I wanted to like The Mummy. With David Koepp, whose cinematic adventure stories (Jurassic Park and Spider-Man, and also the underrated Zathura) can be enjoyably childlike, as a credited screenwriter, I knew it might be fun (and, to some extent, it is).

There’s more to The Mummy than Koepp’s storytelling and Cruise’s appeal, however. The more that’s piled on, the less engaging it gets. Russell Crowe (Man of Steel) as a mysterious Dr. Jekyll and steampunk atmospherics might have infused The Mummy with psychological subtext. But the movie is diminished by bad acting (not Crowe’s), flat directing and poorly written lines.

“You have been selected as the vessel of the ultimate evil.” Audiences might have reason to expect such a line in a comic book-based movie and Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll as the default narrator of this retelling of the mummy as monster delivers it as best as he can. As with so much of The Mummy, it stands out for its silliness, exacerbated by the unevenness of the whole movie. Corpses from the Crusades, a plot point which starts things off, might also have been developed into an interesting subplot. But, they, too, are depleted and reappear predictably and without finesse. This tale from the crypt of a power-lusting, tattooed, erotic zombie (Sofia Boutella) in black-haired bangs borders on camp.

With an Egyptian backstory, the plot about this bloodthirsty monster being “mummified alive” sticks to its pretzel-twisted logic. Wasting Courtney B. Vance as a military leader, Cruise and sidekick roam Iraq with the U.S. military while searching for treasure to loot. Indeed, Cruise for the first half is like a sobered, showered and shaved cousin of Captain Jack Sparrow. He’s a scoundrel, a thief and a looter, as when he forces his partner to join him on a dangerous mission, which turns out badly for the sidekick. Cruise’s character is as lovable a wreck as Sparrow, which is not meant as a compliment.

None of the characters in The Mummy are sympathetic, which derives from the picture’s theme that everyone, including Jenny the archaeologist (milquetoast Annabelle Wallis) is flawed and that life’s a grand trick to redeem oneself. Again, it might have all clicked into place on its own terms—opposing views aside and despite the generics and histrionics—had the parts been affixed rather than discarded amid silly distractions. For example, following a harrowing plane crash, Jenny and Cruise’s character stop for a beer. This after he went down with the plane and miraculously survived; no scars, no serious shock, no blood, bandages or medical treatment, just bar banter.

Add a sandstorm, corpse close-ups, spiders, parasitism and necrophilia and The Mummy tops implausibility with effects over essence. It may look exotic, but it starts to get incomprehensible. An Arab terrorizing London with a looming threat of mass death heightens the ghoulishness (now that’s bad timing). Cruise’s character is drawn to the berserk mummy as to a siren which is more puzzling than involving until you realize that it sets up The Mummy‘s point that one must “sacrifice for the greater good”.

In short, it’s a newly rearranged blend of stuff you’ve seen and heard before. This includes overstylized films such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, the atrocious War of the Worlds (complete with Cruise’s character running with the apocalypse) and Cruise’s own immortal ghoul vehicle, Interview with a Vampire, only with milder homoeroticism, and, of course, the superior World War Z. The Mummy is not awful. It’s merely mediocre. It might have been better.

Devoted to Olivia

I was sorry to learn today that Olivia Newton-John is “reluctantly postponing her June U.S. and Canadian concert tour dates”, according to an authorized statement on her behalf, as the back pain the singer initially attributed to her sciatica “has turned out to be breast cancer that has metastasized to the sacrum.” Olivia pledged in the announcement to pursue natural wellness therapies, complete a short course of photon radiation therapy and is “confident she will be back [on tour] later in the year, better than ever…”

I decided on my direction of therapies after consultation with my doctors and natural therapists and the medical team at my Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia,” says Olivia Newton-John.

I have long admired her work as an actress, songwriter and singer—since the 1970s, when I first heard Olivia’s hit songs on AM radio during family road trips to Wisconsin and soon discovered Olivia’s albums in record stores. I had the pleasure to meet and interview Olivia at her home in Malibu and, years later, backstage at her shows at the Greek and in Las Vegas, where I attended a preview concert which was the basis for her Vegas show’s first review.

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I know firsthand that Olivia, whose 2008 duets album, A Celebration in Song, provides some of the best music for those with cancer, is a thriver, as she once told me. This outstanding artist is a leading champion for finding a cure for cancer and she does so with grit, grace and strength. As I wrote of her collection of inspirational songs on this blog in 2009, Olivia makes music “for anyone battling cancer or any of life’s difficulties.” From the opening anthem, “Right Here with You” to the last track, Belinda Emmett’s (1974-2006) “Beautiful Thing,” it’s one of her best. “Courageous” is the perfect tune for summoning one’s innermost abilities to thrive in life. I’m wishing courageous Olivia a speedy recovery and the best of everything with love.

Rescheduled concert dates will be posted on her official Web site “in the coming weeks”, according to the statement.


Related Links

Official Olivia Newton-John Web site

Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre

Exclusive Concert Review: Olivia Newton-John in Las Vegas

Music Review: ‘Hotel Sessions’ by Olivia Newton-John

Music Review: ‘This Christmas’ by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John

Exclusive Interview: Brett Goldsmith on ‘Hotel Sessions’ by Olivia Newton-John

The Bambi Articles

Three of my articles about Walt Disney’s 1942 classic, Bambi, are now archived on the site. The movie, which was based on a novel and adapted from a 900-word screenplay, made during a world war and lost the studio money for years, has a fascinating history with relevant lessons for today’s moviemakers and moviegoers alike.

My film review is based on my first viewing of the animated motion picture, which I saw for the first time when the movie debuted on DVD 12 years ago and was surprised to find I thoroughly enjoyed. I wrote about Bambi for a movie site in which I was a partner (which was sold to a database subsidiary of Amazon that no longer offers in-depth articles). Read my review of Bambi, which includes details of Disney’s 2005 Platinum edition DVD, here.

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This was one of my first themed online series. My starting point for Bambi was an essential history of Walt Disney’s wartime follow-up to Dumbo and Snow White, which includes basic facts, such as box office stats and budget, and tracks the movie’s origins, background and legacy. The editorial experiment worked, too, I’m happy to say (not all of them did) as pre-social media readers read, shared and printed the articles in high numbers, especially considering that they came to the site for statistics. I created the Bambi series to entice them to stay, read and browse other site pages. The history of Bambi and the other two articles formed the editorial model for my thematic approaches to covering film, particularly classic film, which extended to our in-depth coverage of Star Wars, classic Disney and Sony’s Spider-Man pictures, as well as films about Islamic terrorism, Alexander the Great and the Alamo. Bambi got things started. Read the Bambi history here.

As editor and writer of the movie site, and wanting to add a third article for a trilogy of rotating pieces heralding the arrival of the film on DVD, I also sought interviews with some Hollywood artists whose work I’d admired whom I had reason to think might be interested in, and possibly influenced by, Walt Disney’s Bambi. Among these were a Back to the Future screenwriter, the creator of Hollywood’s most popular animal-themed franchise since Lassie and an animator who had attended the highly regarded, Disney-made Cal Arts academy in the Santa Clarita Valley. During extensive interviews with each, their comments and insights went far beyond the usual and predictable compliments for influential movies. Read the article about artists praising Disney’s Bambi—incuding their thoughts on its most controversial scenes—here.

Twelve years after these articles were first published about the movie which basically made me an instant classic Disney fan, the Burbank, California, studio is planning to release what they call a Signature Collection Blu-Ray/DVD combination set. So, Bambi goes on sale next week (May 23) on iTunes, Amazon and all that (support the site and buy the new collection here). Bambi remains one of my favorite Disney pictures and, if you read the articles, I think it’s easy to see why. In the future, I’d like to give all the great movies, works of art and singular histories the fuller examination they deserve.


Related

Movie and DVD Review: Bambi (2005)

History of Bambi (2005)

Hollywood Remembers Bambi (2005)

Pre-Order Bambi

Movie Analysis: Empire of the Sun (1987)

On its own terms, Steven Spielberg’s epic Empire of the Sun doesn’t make an everlasting impact. The 1987 movie is too stylized and self-conscious to successfully execute a coherent theme. It is an engaging movie nonetheless.

Made as a response by the director to critics claiming he makes movies about only innocent childhoods, Empire of the Sun is best understood as a transitional and reactive film in Mr. Spielberg’s career. Every frame of this movie about a British boy’s wartime separation from his parents in Shanghai—resulting in imprisonment in a Japanese internment camp—moves with a sense of purpose, unfolding the story of one child’s trauma, loss of innocence and damaged, stunted growth. From the opening scenes’ floating coffins, children’s choir and comic books to the elegiac final picture of a drifting collection of what’s been lost and dispensed with, Empire of the Sun is somber and severe.

Introducing Christian Bale (American Psycho, Terminator Salvation, Batman Begins, Swing Kids, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) in his movie debut as a diplomat’s only child on the eve of Japan’s invasion of China, the film’s main character goes from being called James to Jamie to Jim. For two and a half hours, Bale’s boy makes a full circle with his angelic choirboy’s voice. Interestingly, this film is extremely focused on the choirboy’s view of the world and it’s interesting because the exposition leaves out what informs and contextualizes that viewpoint.

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For instance, his worship of the Japanese kamikaze, which entails a fascination with militarism which could be born of his lack of power over his own life in a foreign land where his parents are detached, is inexplicably persistent. Certainly, children become obsessed with certain things. But this kid goes out of his way at an elaborate costume party to go off on his own and play with his model airplane. The model is a Japanese zero—the kamikaze’s fighter plane used in the sneak attack that destroyed Pearl Harbor—but why this child is drawn (and encouraged) to worship it remains elusive.

In any case, the zero is what fuels Jim’s imagination, allowing Mr. Spielberg to juxtapose the horror of war with the beauty of life and love. He did this, too, in 2005’s atrocious Munich. There are echoes of several future Steven Spielberg motifs, notions and themes here: the scrap and random subsequence in war of 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, the smoke, ash and nonstop death of 1994’s Schindler’s List, the pacifism and equivocation of 2011’s War Horse and Munich.

Other scenes are as warm, potent and majestic as only Steven Spielberg (Jaws, The BFG, The Sugarland Express, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Always, Bridge of Spies, Hook, Jurassic Park, Lincoln, Raiders of the Lost Ark) can produce. A thief’s slap of contemptuous envy, a promotional mural for David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind as Shanghai falls to the Japanese, learning the word ‘pragmatist’ while learning the cost of living by doing only what’s convenient in the moment, the imagined fancies of a traumatized child in captivity—all and more make Empire of the Sun immensely watchable.

But the film impresses for what’s left off the screen, too. How Jim survives imprisonment in terms of food, clothing and shelter are clear, as Jim trades on material possessions and cigarettes, however, how he relieves himself (apparently, he doesn’t) is left untold. There’s also—in retrospect, not surprisingly—very little of the Japanese in Empire of the Sun, which is based on the war memoir by J.G. Ballard, adapted by playwright Tom Stoppard and produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. In fact, the imperial Japanese were voraciously mystical and religious—like today’s Communist North Koreans, they worshipped a state dictator as a deity—brutal and barbaric. But Mr. Spielberg omits any serious and lasting references to such key facts, which are crucial to grasping Japan’s empire, invasion of China and lust for war with the West.

Yet his Empire of the Sun, unlike the tribalist Schindler’s List, focuses on the individual. “You’re an American now,” a gruff but decent scoundrel (John Malkovich) tells Jim during internment, and, for all the dodging and hustling Jim does, he means it as a compliment, signalling a turning of the tide in war. This is another Steven Spielberg imprint; jaunty Americanism matched by what’s regarded as a fundamental emptiness in what makes an American—specifically, that he’s self-made, especially through trade. Empire ties this theme into its final frames.

Seeing himself in a Japanese boy he tries to save, catching a Hershey’s bar and manmade goods that fall from the sky as hallelujahs play in song (on a score by John Williams), Jim the boy finally faces reconciling what he’s been through even as he’s forced to march or die. That Jim goes from worshipping self-sacrificing Japanese to cheering self-reliant Americans doesn’t mute that he also makes himself something of an easterner who discards his possessions and begins a postwar childhood devoid of idealism. The boy’s romanticized empire marches in, gets real, and dissolves. Jim’s cherished Empire of the Sun comes to an end.

Leaving gaps while immersing the audience in the color of bomb blasts and the rising sun, Steven Spielberg counters his early movies’ benevolent intimacies with a hollow if stunning epic about the wreckage of a boy’s sense of life.

Event Review: Festival of Books

The 22nd annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is a unique combination of book sales, signings and promotional events. I’ve attended for years and, still, I enjoy it while acknowledging its deficiencies. My top complaint is the same as always: volunteers, event staff, venue staff and security are poorly equipped and trained to direct the over 150,000 people who come to the University of Southern California campus. Event maps are lacking. One volunteer in a festival information booth gave me the wrong directions to the Salvatori Computer Science Center, not to be confused with an arts and letters building donated by a Salvatori with that name emblazoned on it. Getting around the festival, important if you favor lectures and panel discussions as I do, gets worse every year (read my thoughts on last year’s festival here).

Once at the destination, which could be anywhere around USC’s wonderful campus near downtown Los Angeles, you’re often afforded outstanding opportunities to listen, learn, ponder, explore and examine the world of books and ideas. I spent much of the two-day weekend event roaming around booths, visiting small university presses, independent booksellers, university writing programs, USC’s many schools’ showcases and booths for various authors, theaters, publications, schools and products, from Atheists United, Titanium sponsor Acura dealers of Southern California and the Ayn Rand Institute to author Zoe Summer and YaYa’s Creole Products. Add music—the Trojans’ marching band is always a favorite—cooking and kids’ areas, and C-Span’s Booknotes interviews and scads of other contests, prizes and free samples, from books and prints to power bars and bags (which come in handy with California’s plastic bag ban, which amounts to a tax) and the book fair truly is a festival. Subtract the presence of book publishers that dominated early festivals, however, and there are fewer and fewer books, especially new, major books and authors.

I had previously attended a conversation with author Glenn Frankel at an event at the Autry Museum of the American West in LA’s Griffith Park several weeks ago. His book about High Noon and what he and many others in Hollywood refer to as the blacklist (Hollywood’s highly touted 1950s’ blackballing of presumed Communists or Soviet sympathizers, not the list of unmade scripts) makes Frankel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting and worked for the Washington Post, an attractive guest speaker. So, I already knew that Frankel, who also taught journalism at Stanford and the University of Texas, knows his subject well. He’d told the Autry audience, for instance, that High Noon was shot in 32 days on a low budget, that screenwriter Carl Foreman was called to testify to a congressional committee about his membership in the Communist Party and that star Gary Cooper was the son of British immigrants, that he may have been impacted by childhood visits to Montana’s state house, where he saw a painting of Lewis and Clark, and that he was not very political.

When I saw that Frankel was on a book festival panel on classic Hollywood, I decided to attend. Knowing that, at the Autry, he had dropped the context that the United States was under threat of attack by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), something that people who talk about the Hollywood blacklist usually do, and that we know that the Soviets funded subversive efforts to undermine the U.S. government, I wanted to hear a detailed analysis of classic Hollywood, including the blacklist, through panel discussion.

Instead, the panel was the opposite. Moderated by USC writing instructor, Newsday political cartoonist and author M.G. Lord, who wrote a book on Elizabeth Taylor titled The Accidental Feminist, the panel was a barrage of uncorroborated claims and arbitrary assertions about the blacklist which turned into a political rant against Trump and conservatives with hardly any discussion of classic Hollywood. Author Jon Lewis, a movie professor at Oregon State University, declared that Trump’s election means democracy is dead in America (seriously). Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times film critic, whom apparently everyone calls Kenny, barely spoke about classic film, though he did mention being raised as an Orthodox Jew. Frankel, who is both extremely knowledgeable and fundamentally mistaken in his book’s assertion that Ayn Rand is to blame for what he sees as the injustice of a Hollywood blacklist, gave the most substantial classic Hollywood analysis. Others went for laughs and digs at Trump or the blacklist.

To her credit, Karen Maness, a scenic artist and co-author of The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop and painting instructor for the University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance and scenic art supervisor at Texas Performing Arts, gave very interesting facts and insights about classic movies’ backdrops.

The classic movies discussion was disappointing but a panel on writing short stories was worse, despite efforts by PEN Center USA literary programmer, author and moderator Libby Flores. Given the team’s credentials, I was astonished that no one really talked about writing short stories. Channelle Benz, who earned her MFA at Syracuse University, has published short stories in The American Reader and is the recipient of an O. Henry Prize. Author Dana Johnson is an English professor at USC and winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Brooklyn writer Rebecca Schiff graduated from Columbia University’s MFA program and her stories have appeared in The Guardian. Deb Olin Unferth, who writes in Austin, Texas, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award and her work has appeared in Harper’s, the Paris Review, and Tin House. So I was looking forward to a detailed examination of writing short stories. The panel started late and veered into the writers’ rambling thoughts on why they are fascinated by “the color of blood” and admissions and confessions of personal tastes and idiosyncrasies. When I asked if they have an explicit theme in mind when they write a story, only Schiff answered and she didn’t say much. No one else spoke.

Unferth was the most entertaining short stories panelist, using humor to lighten the dense discussion, which did not include mention of a single writing habit. Unferth, who told the audience about a story she wrote in which a shooter contemplates whether to gun down a child at the top of a hill, was asked about the most memorable reader response to her writing. She made the audience laugh when she admitted that a blogger once posted—and apparently kept posting—about how he hated one of her stories, which he wrote was a downer that kept dragging him down. Imagine that.

When Flores asked everyone to name the first story to make an impression, no one could think of a single story to name. At some point, Schiff did manage to credit Kurt Vonnegut with the advice to “make your character want something—even if it’s just a glass of water.”

Titles among their material might have been a cautionary clue that they aren’t terribly interested in breaking down the writing, let alone editing and publishing, process. Benz is the author of The Man Who Shot Out My Eye is Dead. Johnson’s newest book is titled In the Not Quite Dark: Stories. Schiff’s latest book is called The Bed Moved.

Easily the most stimulating panel came late in the festival on Sunday. Whereas the short story writers gave the impression that writing is mysterious, magical and indecipherable, the writers on the “From Page to Screen” panel stressed the opposite idea.

Panelists included Brian McGreevy, author and screenwriter (and co-creator of AMC’s The Son with Pierce Brosnan), who was a James Michener Fellow at the University of Texas. His latest novel is The Lights. Also on board: novelist Tod Goldberg, who wrote novels based on USA Network’s Burn Notice and co-authored the Hammett Prize finalist Gangsterland, for which he’s writing a sequel, Gangster Nation, scheduled for publication this fall; Los Angeles writer Pamela Ribon who recently co-wrote Disney’s Moana and former Dark Shadows actress Lara Parker, author of three novels based on NBC’s cult soap opera, who attended Vassar College, graduated from Rhodes College in Memphis with a BA in philosophy and received her MFA in creative writing from LA’s Antioch University. The moderator, USC writing instructor Richard Rayner, who’s written nine books, including an LA crime history, A Bright and Guilty Place, and an interesting article on Rudyard Kipling, liked to talk more than he liked to let the panelists talk.

When they did, the page-to-screen writers were hilariously insightful and incisive, generously sharing their insecurities, showing their battle scars and being utterly candid in every detail about their writing. Contrary to the painfully pretentious short stories panel, these writers were quite self-aware and purposeful in trying to help the audience grasp the hard work and wrenching business of writing. They fed off of Goldberg’s delightful banter with Ribon, which was at once politically incorrect and perfectly suited to the occasion, delivering with good humor the necessary tips, tools and knowledge to manage Hollywood’s often anti-conceptual handling—more like belittling—of the writer. Goldberg wisely explained that he knows his limits (he didn’t put it this way) by focusing on prose writing. McGreevy had said something similar.

Everything Tod Goldberg said, and he is enormously successful, and, not coincidentally, decent, kind and gracious in person, tracks to not letting the pain of pursuing a livelihood in writing go too deep down into your soul. In his own introverted way, McGreevy, too, let the audience know how to let off steam and cope with adversity in the potentially ruinous page to screen process, alluding to horror stories while delivering a blistering breakdown of the term “showrunner” as a total lie. McGreevy, who explicitly embraced writing’s solitude and said that he really doesn’t like spending a lot of time with people, explained that he studied the creative process from a primarily different orientation—that of the perspective of those titans of the technology industry. He said he read many of their books on being productive and gained real value. He also encouraged writers to take breaks often to give detachment and distance to the material (my writing class students may recognize this particular writing lesson).

Parker shot down the moderator’s attempt to credit her acting with any meaningful tie-in to her writing, crediting her own reading of great works of horror literature, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula to more recent novels and, finally, her decision to mimic the structure and approach of Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca, Jamaica Inn). She derided the box office bomb movie version starring Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins (“Tim Burton is not interested in story”, she said) and, having played a villainess, the witch, she pointed out that the franchise Dark Shadows is a supernatural thriller rooted in serious, universal themes of life and death through gothic romanticism. Asked by Rayner after she griped about having to deliver bad lines as an actress to name the worst line, Parker fingered The Six Million Dollar Man on ABC, in which she played Col. Steve Austin’s love interest who told him at the end of the weekly episode that: “There will always be a candle buring for you in the window, Steve.” To which Mr. Goldberg deadpanned, a moment after audience laughter subsided: “Was this during the Civil War?”

All of which only made this writer want to read their books.