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by Bill Gibron

5 Aug 2008

For some reason, the stoner fails to get the same cinematic respect as other substance abusing characters. The alcoholic and the heroin addict are usually wrapped in semi-seriousness, while the pot head gets demoted to pharmaceutical comic relief. Granted, it’s hard to take the personality type seriously when incessant giggling, non-stop gluttony, and a lack of world perspective follows their wake and bake activities. From Cheech and Chong to Harold and Kumar, the standard strategies apply - toke, smoke, and joke. But not in the latest entry from the Apatow factory. Pineapple Express wants to take the blunt into some uncharted cinematic territory. And thanks to some sensational performances, and an interesting perspective behind the camera, it more than succeeds.

Process server Dale Denton really loves his life. He spends his days smoking pot and delivering subpoenas. He spends the rest of his time doing bong hits and hanging out with his high school aged girlfriend Angie. Dale buys his dope from a well meaning dealer named Saul Silver. Typical with most marijuana merchants, this long haired ‘dude’ feels a close bond with his clientele. When Dale witnesses a murder, he runs to Saul for help. Seems the weed may connect the witness to the crime, and since a local mobster and a crooked cop are involved, our hemp-infused heroes are not safe. With the help of Red, another chronic connection, they will try to survive this trip down the potentially lethal ‘Pineapple Express’.

Wonderfully vulgar, brilliantly performed, and accented with action reminiscent of an ‘80s buddy film, Pineapple Express is one late summer success. It takes the patented funny business formula that resurrected comedy over the last few years and fine tunes it into something both inventive and indicative, retro in its drug-fueled farce while up to date in its more dangerous elements. Concentrating on character more than situations, and drive by expert direction from indie icon David Gordon Green (George Washington, Snow Angels) many will find this clever combination off putting. While we like other unlikely cinematic amalgamations (horror/satire, crime/comic book) the often jarring juxtaposition between dope and danger does take some getting used to. But once it clicks, Pineapple Express becomes that rare experience where we’re satisfied on both accounts.

Acting is key to accepting such strategies, and both Seth Rogen and James Franco deliver amazing performances. The Knocked Up/Superbad star finds new ways to turn his hound dog delivery and personal pathos into a winning, often aggravating soul. We want to see Dale succeed, but not in the hedonistically juvenile manner he seems to prefer. Rogen’s moments with Amber Heard as his barely legal gal pal Angie have an uneasy, ‘go on and grow up’ kind of immediacy. Later, when he finally meets her parents, the foul mouthed confrontation confirms that this relationship may not be the best thing for either party. Rogen is the audience’s window into a world most probably never knew (or, at the very least, haven’t revisited since college), and he does a fine job as a narrative casement.

But it’s Franco that’s the real revelation here, offering up a kind of permanently stunned slacker with a code of ethics so scattered they tend to blur the lines between truth and THC. Most of the time, it’s hard to tell who’s talking - Saul or the smoke. With his eyes glazed over and his cadence recalling the classic character type, we expect this performance to be pat and kind of stereotyped. But Franco fools us over and over with his unbridled brilliance. He uses elements that might seem maudlin or meaningless (he only deals so his grandmother can live in a “nice” nursing home) and infuses them with power and emotion. When the last act gunplay hits the fan, we’re struck at how concerned we are for this dope peddling drone’s well being.

Most of this comes from the screenplay, another Rogen/Evan Goldberg gem. But the influence of filmmaker Green should never be discounted. Because his movies have mainly focused on people and how they react to specific circumstances, he’s the perfect guide to turn the outrageous into something believable and worth rooting for. Even when Danny McBride shows up as the weirdly anti-hip Red, with an unreal collection of pop culture leftovers, Green makes him into something endearing. Even better, the direction here flaunts the requirements of a big screen stunt spectacle. The showdown between our heroes and the basic bad guys (Gary Cole and Rosie Perez in sheer scenery chewing mode) doesn’t come as a shock so much as a natural extension of the environment these individuals function in.

This is, in fact, Pineapple Express‘s most interesting conceit. We often fail to realize that marijuana, while somewhat socially acceptable and highly recreational, remains a very illegal substance. Police and Federal Drug Enforcers no longer turn a blind eye toward the casual user, and the money to be made on such an in-demand diversion puts everyone involved on edge. That things suddenly explode between Dale, Saul and Red, and eventually with the local crime syndicate is to be expected. Yet most stoner comedies treat the law and the lawless as something to be mocked or merely ignored. Pineapple Express is perhaps the first pot laughfest that actually takes its crime and punishment seriously.

That sudden shift into outsized reality will definitely lose some fans. ‘Feel good’ should never be combined with ‘feel scared’, at least for most moviegoers. But the brazen way in which Pineapple Express messes with the formula, the way it flaunts genre while moving beyond its limits suggests the future of the format. For a long time now, the movie comedy has suffered from a stagnancy borne out of laziness and a lack of ideas. The Apatow camp consistently proves that almost anything can be added to the satiric mix with maximum results. Whether it’s a hit or not is beside the point. Pineapple Express satisfies on so many levels that to undermine its effectiveness seems pointless.

by Bill Gibron

4 Aug 2008

Not every composer gets to add the soundtrack to a major motion picture. With so many small movies out there, and so many potential musicians, there must be some manner of professional pecking order to see who accents the blockbusters, and who toils away in obscurity. Of course, all film scorers had to start somewhere. John Williams started out in B-movies and TV (Lost in Space) while Danny Elfman took a rock star to cult icon (Pee Wee Herman) path to importance. From Randy Newman to Elmer Bernstein, fame was not instantaneous, especially in the mostly unsung world of such craft. Few films are remembered exclusively for their music. Instead, when functioning perfectly, a score solidifies its place as part of the overall cinematic experience, neither overly intrusive nor singularly memorable.

It usually takes an entire career (or one huge commercial success) to bring a movie musician out into the limelight. In the case of the four artists featured in this week’s edition of SE&L‘s Surround Sound, many were part of the journeymen aspect of the artform before universal acknowledgement arrived. In the case of two of these individuals, there work may speak louder than their actual names. What all four albums represent, however, is the everyday product of artisans hoping to define themselves to the next potential employer. A composer is only as good as his next job, so to speak, and the level of proficiency shown here illustrates why they represent some of the industry’s best.

The Life Before Her Eyes - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

James Horner has had a very interesting career trajectory. Many first noticed him in large part to his steel drum tinged music for the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte hit 48 Hours. But there were many facets to this composer’s character, aspects he explored while creating the soundtrack for Star Trek II and III, Aliens, and Commando. By the late ‘90s, however, he had become a more mainstream fixture, earning Oscar nods for Field of Dreams, Apollo 13, and Braveheart. It was another collaboration with James Cameron, that finally earned him Academy gold. Titanic remains the biggest film of all time, and Horner’s score, and the song “My Heart Will Go On”, are now part of cinema history. Oddly enough, that was 11 years ago, and Horner remains a fixture in filmmaking. His most recent work on the Uma Thurman thriller The Life Before Her Eyes, proves how provocative and daring his work can be.

Built around simple piano lines ala Michael Nyman, and yet structured in a way that recalls the moody atmosphere and tension inherent in the storyline, Horner’s music for Life is very haunting. It aches in places, recalling lost memories and painful experiences. Elsewhere, as in the final track “Young Diana’s Future - A Future that Could Have Been” some of his familiar ‘mechanisms of dread’ come to the fore. What’s most compelling about this collection is that it could easily be enjoyed outside the cinematic experience. Almost ambient in the way it approaches its form and melody, Horner really excels in selling a certain sentiment and feeling. You can practically feel the emotion buried beneath the unseen storyline. While The Life Before Her Eyes was not a box office success, this score certainly is a triumph of his talent.

Definitely, Maybe - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 8]

Like Danny Elfman before him, Clint Mansell got his start as part of a rock act. As the former lead singer and guitarist for ersatz industrial badboys Pop Will Eat Itself, he was known to explore all facets of sound. When the group disbanded in 1996, he got a shot at film scoring thanks to his friend Darren Aronofsky. After supplementing the sci-fi surrealism of , he would gain massive fame and obsessive recognition for his work on Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain. Much of his material has focused on the spooky, spatial New Age evocations of tone and environment. But Mansell has been known to break out of that dreamscape mode now and again. He did so with 2007’s Smokin’ Aces, and he does again with his charts for the amiable romantic comedy Definitely, Maybe. While there are times he reverts to the epic, most of the music is a grab bag combination of influences, inflections, and straight ahead instrumental fun.

Sometimes rendered in evocative snippets only, Definitely Maybe is a celebration of all that modern music has to offer. There are nods to the ‘60s, the bombast and Beatlemania. Mansell tosses in Eastern accents, Latin beats, and lots of rock posing. By the time the familiar strains of one track have settled in (“It’s April”, “Panic Stations…”, “Summer’s Over”) we jarringly move onto another composition. There are long form wonders like the horn and fuzz guitar driven “The Candidate” and the beautiful piano solo “The Happy Ending is You”. Toward the end, a trio of tracks - “Brooklyn Bridge”, “Countdown”, and “April’s Story” suggest Mansell’s work on Aronofsky;‘s magnificent immortality allegory. But luckily for listeners here, this is one artist who also acknowledges his previous work. For all its career spanning references, Definitely Maybe is definitely good. Very good.

The Promotion - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 7]

While his name is relatively new to the mainstream movie scoring department, Alex Wurman has a long and studied career behind the composer’s desk. After nearly a decade writing in relative obscurity, he got a huge break when George Clooney pegged him to create the time traveling treats of the A-lister’s directorial debut, the Chuck Barris biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. From their, he went on to give the Will Ferrell/Adam McKay hit Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy its retro kick. After another collaboration with the pair (Talladega Nights), Wurman went back to smaller films, focusing on such efforts as The Nines and the Simon Pegg RomCom Run Fatboy, Run. The Promotion, his most recent score, is perhaps the greatest nostalgic shout out Carter Burwell never wrote. But thanks to an infusion of sly humor, Wurman’s work stands on its own.

Like listening to a time traveling Esquivel as channeled through an indie rock heartthrob, the work here is stunning in its recall. You literally feel the old ‘50s business model manufactured by films like The Apartment in Wurman’s arrangements. Sometimes, the material maneuvers over into kitsch, as with the feisty “Fight Dance” or the follow-up track, “Masculari Horriblus”. But for the most part, this soundtrack keeps itself low to the ground and very enjoyable. Of course, with any invocation of a certain time and place (although the film is set in our current social clime), things tend to get overly familiar after a while. By the time “I Am Peanuts” and “Four Handed Promotion” roll around, we’ve had more than enough of the sly pseudo jazziness. For all its pointed positives, Wurman’s work on The Promotion is just like the film it defines - fun, if ultimately overstaying its welcome a little.

Before the Rains - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

Mark Kilian’s is a name mostly unknown to film score fanatics. After a time as a TV composer, working on such efforts as F/X: The Series and Jake In Progress, he got lots of recognition for creating the fascinating backdrop for Gavin Hood’s Oscar winning foreign film Tsotsi. Now he’s back with another cross culture creation. Working with renowned Indian cinematographer turned director Santosh Sivan, he provides the sweet, sassy, and quite savory aural environ for the filmmaker’s first English language effort (the nationalist themed Before the Rains). With its exotic mix of ethnic sounds, tone poem pieces, and standard symphonics, what could be a tired bit of traditionalism actually comes across as exciting and quite evocative.

The first three pieces prepare us for the various soundscapes to come. “Main Titles”, “Honey Drives”, and “Hand Lines” all summon the spirit of Hindi culture, a mix of modern and authentic instrumentation taking us into the heart of this complex civilization. There are frequent nods to Islam, with call to prayer cries subtly working in the background. The familiar call of tabla and mukhavina is ever-present, and there are even some aboriginal and other tribal tinges here as well. Around track 10 - “Sanjani’s Struggle”, things begin to turn more mainstream and maudlin. The next few pieces offer the kind of simple piano and string arrangements we come to expect from such soundtracks. It makes Before the Rains a little disconcerting. Where once we had music that dared to combine the elements of all environs, the finish (except for tracks “Coming for TK” and “End Credits”) is devoid of such out of the ordinary flourishes.

by Bill Gibron

3 Aug 2008

The divorce has been coming for some time now. We’ve been separated for years, but it’s only recently that I’ve even considered taking the final step. Lord knows I’ve tried to make it work. I indulged the flights of fancy, the ‘creative excesses’ if you will. I supported his change of scenario, hoping that Europe would unlock some hidden store of talent that would make our future together tolerable. I even ignored the tabloid way he decided to undermine his personal life. But after a couple of fleeting glimpses of the old brilliance, the same old sad self-indulgence set in. Now, with his latest attempt at interpersonal angst, I’ve decided I can’t take any more. After nearly FOUR decades of dedicated fandom, I am divorcing Woody Allen once and for all.

Oh, we’ve had our troubles before. During the late ‘70s, his Fellini-inspired slap in the audience’s face - otherwise known as Stardust Memories - was a particularly hard time. All we wanted from our cinematic hero was a little of his old comic joie de vive. It didn’t have to be Sleeper or Love and Death, but would it have hurt to follow a more of that Annie Hall/Manhattan style of wit with worry? Apparently, since everything about the 81/2 rip was a visually arresting rant against trying to pigeonhole an otherwise indefinable artist…except, Allen had made his entire career on comedy. Asking for a few more jokes didn’t seem like such a major request.

Granted, it was probably unfair to dwell in the past like that. After all, it must be tough for any creative type to live down such a start. His first few efforts remain gems in a frequently faltering genre. Still, he must have been insulted by the non-stop comments about those “early, funny films”, enough to make a mockery of such a sentiment. And this was even after we tolerated his back-peddling Bergmania. Interiors has its moments, but it just can’t compare to the Swedish master being mimicked. Similarly, A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy proved that, when it comes to calm country mannerisms, a Jewish American filmmaker can only stumble like a stooge.

But he kept coming back. Zelig was an experimental wonder, growing better and more poignant with time, and the next four films - Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Radio Days - proved he had lost none of this nostalgic character craftsmanship. Even after going off the tracks again with September (completely recast and reshot during production, thus beginning the mythos), Another Woman, and his “Oedipus Wrecks” segment from New York Stories, he delivered Crimes and Misdemeanors. Only the most cynical cinephile could deny that film’s power and glory. It looked like things might just work out between us.

And then - disaster. One sloppy, subpar production after another. It’s a list too long to discuss here, but from 1990 to now (almost 18 years) Allen has made only three good films (Husbands and Wives, Bullets Over Broadway, Match Point), two tolerable efforts (Manhattan Murder Mystery, Deconstructing Harry) and a bunch of god-awful garbage (and before you bellyache, go ahead and defend Celebrity, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and Melinda and Melinda). Perhaps even more unsettling, Allen has yet to make another movie that matches the critical buzz and acclaim of some of his older works. Even the ersatz musical Everyone Says I Love You is now just a forgotten speck on an usually blemished resume.

There will be some who disagree with the assessment, and it is there right to. I can only go on my own experiences with Allen. I first fell in love with his work when I saw Sleeper as part of an ABC Sunday Night Movie broadcast premiere. I laughed hysterically at this sci-fi spoof, even if I didn’t understand all the jokes (I was in my very early teens at the time). When Annie Hall opened, I was one of the first in line, and again, I was swept away on how mystifyingly magical his movies were. Allen was definitely a thinking man’s humorist, and some of his references were so arcane that, after looking them up, they have stayed with me my entire life (like Oswald, the character from Ibsen’s Ghosts, and his infamous headache).

That was the joy of a Woody Allen movie. He never talked down to his audience. He assumed they were just as bright, intelligent, and educated as he. He wasn’t afraid to infuse his characters with outsized idiosyncrasies, as long as they were grounded in the urban everyday surroundings of their life. Many see Manhattan as his masterpiece, and rightly so. It walked the precarious border between arrogance and amiability with a style and a substance that continues to draw fans and fanatics alike. For a while there, it was hard to completely dismiss an Allen film. You could find massive flaws in what he was attempting, but the level of success was usually measured in some kind of entertainment.

But all that stopped somewhere in the ‘80s, and September is a good example of why. By this time (1987), Allen was seen as a legitimate American auteur. He already had eleven Oscar nominations (and three wins) and a kind of creative carte blanche that studios wanted to be a part of. Working almost exclusively for Orion (who had a distribution agreement with Warners), he had final cut, was capable of casting whomever he wanted, and could even go so far as to keep completed scripts away from his hired help. Actors longed to be in his films, his Academy pedigree (especially in the realm of Best Supporting Actress) almost a given. In essence, he had all the power a filmmaker could ever want - and it seems to have gone about systematically abusing same.

September was meant as a “chamber” piece, a filmed play as it were.  Over the course of the production Allen recast the lead twice, and after editing the first version, did indeed rewrite, recast, and refilm it again. In today’s money-oriented clime, that would be unheard of. But Allen’s productions were always cheap, and up until this point, aesthetically successful. September changed all that. It showed the writer/director as insular, moody, and discontented. It didn’t help that the movie was a bore. Even after Crimes and Misdemeanors (his last true masterpiece), efforts like Shadows and Fog and Hollywood Ending smacked of the same artistic recklessness. Of course, had he only made Love and Death for the rest of his career, trading on his high concept hipster humor for every successive film, we’d be crucifying him too.

But Allen’s recent miscues - the dull Scoop, the awful Cassandra’s Dream - are perhaps the most troubling of all. At a recent screening of Vicky Christina Barcelona, I was struck with how little I cared about the filmmaker’s whiny, overly wistful characters. The story of how love conquers and confuses is something he explored (far more successfully) when I was in high school, and his choice of actors - Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson - seemed more show biz then sensible. Like the passionate painters he depicts in the film, Allen has become an artist wholly in love with his own devices. He no longer feels a need to experiment or explore. Instead, he rounds up the current crop of A-list faces, places them in his overly talky tableaus, and shoots everything like the hand-held POV camera was a novel and new device.

The worst thing an ex can do is make you long for the early days of your relationship. It’s even worse when you dread the next expression from their already tired canon. For me, Allen stopped being exciting over a decade ago. Now, I merely tolerate his presence within the motion picture schema. Maybe he has another laugh out loud comedy in his kit (his last attempt, Small Time Crooks…), or perhaps he can mine individual turmoil and moral turpitude for one more knock out drama (Match Point). Unfortunately, I’m not willing to wait. I’ll gladly have cinematic egg on my face should this prolific 73 year old regain his aesthetic footing. Until then, I’ll resign myself to the past. It’s what any new divorcee would do.

by Bill Gibron

31 Jul 2008

For filmmakers, nostalgia is a double edged sword. Pick the right era, and audiences are with you and your cinematic wistfulness. Dress things up in the wrong period, however, and you threaten to alienate anyone without your fond memory set. This is the problem facing Jonathan Levine’s rap-tinged dramedy The Wackness. Celebrating the gansta days of the early ‘90s, a time frame foaming with post-grunge grooves and early Clinton optimism may seem like something worth commemorating. But all Sundance standing ovations aside, there is a central problem with this movie that makes it a rather unfulfilling journey down short term memory loss lane.

It’s the Summer of ‘94. Luke Shapiro has just graduated from high school. Over the next four months he intends to hang out, hook up, and deal drugs. Then, it’s off to college. Selling pot from a pushcart, he’s a neighborhood fixture. But when he sells some weed to ditzy psychiatrist Dr. Squires, he soon finds himself in indirect therapy. Turns out that Luke has several pending problems. His parents are constantly fighting over finances, and there’s a distinct possibility they will be evicted from their apartment. Even worse, his raging hormones have the young man desperate and dateless. But when he takes a sudden shine to Squires step-daughter Stephanie, it changes the dynamic between all three of them.

Stripped of all its summer swelter and hip hip revisionism, The Wackness is really just another in a long line of quirky indie character studies. Luke is the typical horny teen, unable to make sense of a life that reeks of insecurity (personal, parental, professional) while working his wannabe “wigger” poses. His pot-addicted shrink, Dr. Squires, is the typical ‘physician, heal thyself’ symbol of authority in need of its own intervention. His wife is nothing more than a tepid trophy, a used to be hottie who can’t quite acknowledge her newfound status as a ‘nottie’, while their daughter Stephanie is the kind of emotional cipher that only a small outsider film could champion. In mainstream Hollywood, this human user would be vamped up in Goth gear and given some kind of eating/mental/psychological disorder.

As a result, your enjoyment of The Wackness hinges on how well you cotton to these obvious eccentrics - or better yet, how you react to the actors trying to bring them to life. The cast is more than capable, especially Josh Peck, who seems hellbent to leave his Nickelodeon days in the dust. Through a thick haze of marijuana smoke, and a face overflowing with black culture epithets, he’s quite effective in a major mouth breather kind of way. Director Jonathan Levine obviously doesn’t care that his star spends most of the movie with his jaw agape, eyes transfixed on a future which is apparently playing out somewhere just off screen. To call it navel gazing would falsely give the ever-present gesture some direction. Like the movie itself, Peck is perfectly capable - it’s the ‘what’ of his actions that is up for discussion.

Similarly, Sir Ben Kingsley continues his odd downward spiral into career irrelevance by playing a psychologist who causes more insanity than he cures. Certainly, the director must dig seeing the artist formerly known as Gandhi macking on a waifish Olson twin (Mary-Kate, if you’re counting) and there are times when Squires resonates as an unlikely if unassuming life coach. But with just the slightest ‘Nu Yawk’ honk hiding his droll British-ness, and a wardrobe that seems lifted from a Miami Beach rummage sale, he’s all put on. We want to understand why this mad doctor still loves his wife, why his step-child’s virtue (or lack thereof) is so uncomfortable for him. There are layers of Squires that Levine will not let us in on, and it causes us to grow frustrated with this quaint quack.

The weakest link here, however, is Olivia Thirlby’s Stephanie. As an object of affection, she’s more ordinary than obsession. She comes across as spoiled and rather simplistic, hedonism without a context to enjoy such high living. Luke’s lustful stares may give us some meaning to their potential partnership, but the truth is that theirs is a relationship we can never support. She will clearly destroy him, and he will never ever achieve the kind of ardor nirvana he is looking for. The doomed nature of their pairing fails to provide the dramatics Levine is looking for, and when accented by Kingsley’s overprotective panto, The Wackness runs into a decided dead end. As the narrative meanders toward its perfunctory, all things must pass conclusion, we start to wonder why we wasted our time.

Clearly, Levine is looking at the ‘90s Big Apple through a pair of reflective rose-colored goggles. He sees New York as a Giuliani-inspired ghost town, a changing metropolis as a series of sweltering backstreets and out of frame ambience. Squires delivers the mandatory “this city is changing” monologue, hoping that audiences outside Manhattan actually care. It’s a lot like the graduated cameo appearance of true hip hop icon Method Man. Sporting a convincing Caribbean accent and looking every bit the pusher with a heart of gold, we want more of the authenticity he brings. But Levine isn’t really interested in perception. He believes his characters, and the four months they spend in vignette like exploration, will be enough to pull us along.

And for a while, it is. For those who still see the ‘90s as an integral part of their maturation, a generation now hitting their late ‘20s and tired of the world web weariness of existence, The Wackness will function like a patchouli-laced blast from the past. It will seem realistic even though it begs fantasy, and will sound authentic even if the constant slanging of the era grows Hella-tired, yo. But for older/younger film fans wondering if there’s more to this movie than sensimilla and shout outs to urban parlance, the answer will be underwhelming at best. As a study of personalities in fashionable free fall, this is one scattered, smoke-filled failure. While it has some intriguing elements, this backwards glancing bong hit will leave you hungry for less, not more.

by Bill Gibron

30 Jul 2008

It’s never pleasant when something that was lightweight (albeit cheesy) and fun is forced into profit sharing mode. Put another way, when a franchise has to jerryrig its purpose in order to pump out another meaningless sequel/tre-quel/quad-cast, there’s very little entertainment fuel left for the fire. Take the latest unnecessary Mummy movie about to hit theaters this Friday (1 August). Here’s a flaccid little excuse for escapism that has the audacity to squander two of the finest talents ever to grace a Hong Kong action epic, and then it dumps the series’ signature character in favor of a last act battle between zombies and statues (trust us - it’s not nearly as cool as it sounds).

No one begrudges a movie star from earning a paycheck. Even our most celebrated and seasoned actors (Sir Ben Kingsley, are you listening?) have been known to lower their standards in order to up their income bracket. That being said, their profiteering doesn’t always have to be so obvious, or god-awful. This year alone, we’ve seen the aforementioned Oscar winner playing a crosseyed cornjob in Mike Myers seminal stink bomb The Love Guru. Joe Montegna - The Simpsons’ Fat Tony and Broadway’s original Ricky Roma - went effete for a turn as Larry the Cable Guy’s buddy in Witless Protection. Heck, even John Turturro took another break from indie angst to revisit popcorn land in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (last year, it was Transformers).

Naturally, there are some who would never consider such a step down, or who simply bow out before they can capitalize on their newfound fiscal fame. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor has a perfect example of this high idealism in Rachel Weisz. Back in 1999, when Stephen Sommers was hired to bring the old school Universal creature up to date, his choice for the female lead - Evie Carnahan - was a fresh faced British actress with some minor onscreen credits. In 2001, when The Mummy Returns arrived, Weisz was more well known. Four years later, Oscar awarded the hard working performer for her turn in The Constant Gardener. Even then, Weisz expressed interest in reprising the role for this latest turn. Clearly, somewhere along the way, cooler aesthetic heads prevailed.

This happens a lot. Stephen Spielberg wanted Sean Connery back as Indiana Jones’ Dad for the latest installment of the action hero’s serial on steroids adventures. The temperamental Scottish legend said “No”. Similarly, Michael Keaton dropped out of the Batman movies when Tim Burton bailed. There are also instances where series staples are unceremoniously “dropped” from the planned follow-up. Imhotep himself, Arnold Vosloo, was told by original Mummy man Sommers that a follow-up was in the works, and they there were plans on bringing his character back. Fast forward a few years and Egypt is out, Jet Li is in, and the entire narrative was jet set over to China. That really must suck - especially when you’re the character everyone is supposedly clamoring for.

Of course none of this matters in a monster movie. All we really care about is the spook show. The Mummy films were never what you’d call frightening. They were more like heightened hype-horror - excess which might have been terrifying were the obvious strings and zippers not constantly reminding you of the schlock value. Sommers is an expert at such goblin grandstanding. Look at Van Helsing (you’d be wise NOT to take that advice literally). It took every famous fiend in Hollywoodland and transformed them into a computer generated free for all where logic and fun were shuttled aside and sacrificed for more and more Dracula-babies. Such showboating is standard operating procedure for this cinematic kid in a celluloid candy story. Unfortunately, in turning things over to Cohen, Sommers and the series went from the frying pan to fiasco’s fires.

Cohen completely misses the purpose of the Mummy franchise. He thinks he’s making Indiana Jones: The Far Less Professional Years. He handles action sequences with all the grace of someone who once made a movie about a killer airplane (Stealth - look it up) and uses every camera trick and editing ploy in the book in hopes that no one will notice the ineptness. When you have characters careening down a Shanghai street, their fireworks truck poised precariously to explode, one should be on the edge of their seat, not shrouding their eyes in dull skepticism. Not all spectacle stuntwork has to seem plausible, by Cohen’s take on this material gives one’s suspension of disbelief a major high impact workout.

Even worse is the aforementioned corpses vs. ceramics showdown. Like the infamous pygmy mummies from the second Sommers film, the amount of visual overkill on display is enough to give audiences a virtual headache. As every mainframe in California renders the ridiculous undead melee, Cohen keeps his camera as far away from the reality - literally and figuratively - as possible. This means that, at any given moment, the epic finale of Tomb of the Dragon Emperor looks like the final ant confront from a high octane version of Phase IV. Even worse, when we do eventually get close-ups, it’s hard to tell the motion capture performers from the computer generated fighters.

The last straw, however, has everything to do with the regional relocation and Vosloo-less casting decisions. Jet Li is, without question, one of the genre’s greats. His work with Jackie Chan in this spring’s The Forbidden Kingdom was that half-baked hackwork’s sole saving grace. Even as he approaches middle age (and a self-imposed desire to work in ‘straight dramatic films’ only), he can still kick major hinder. Now, add in a frequent female co-star of the mighty martial artist, the equally amazing Michelle Yeoh, and you’ve got a match made in Shaw Brothers heaven. When they square off, swords blazing and skills matched, it should resonate with heavy Hong Kong energy.

But Cohen blows it again, thwarting the choreography and avoiding the whole “wire fu” thing for some overcranked Ridley Scott-ishness and incompetent framing. Even the skeletons and statues are treated with more respect. To say that Li and Yeoh are wasted here suggests that anyone entering this latest Mummy massacre will actually have heard from them (or better still, recognize their non-Tinsel Town turns before the lens). Instead, they are merely the fodder for another pointless chapter, a ‘no one asked for it’ return trip to a place that wasn’t that interesting the first two times through. Weisz was right to bail - especially in light of how horribly underwritten this updated Evie ends up being (Maria Bello as her replacement is just bad).

About the only person to come out of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor not reeking of friendly yeti feces (don’t ask) is Brendan Fraser. Sure, the 39 year old is given a college age son in the film (it’s a soap opera level of biological time teasing) and he’s reduced to little more than a comedic foil for the foolishness surrounding him, but the ladies sure do love his shirtless musk (there was an audible girlie gasp in the theater when his semi-chiseled form got a loving close-up). Indeed, he’s got a Teflon talent which tends to wick away any lasting impact from his frequently incomprehensible career move - Dudley Do-Right? Monkeybone?  As a perfect example of unnecessary coffer stuffing, this latest Mummy installment will probably be profitable enough to warrant yet a fourth foray into sarcophagus. And if part three is any indication of quality, the next cloth wrapped creature feature will be even more uninspired.

//Mixed media

Indie Horror Month 2015: 'Dark Echo'

// Moving Pixels

"Dark Echo drops you into a pitch back maze and then renders your core tools of navigation into something quite life threatening.

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