ZERO STARS/**** Image A Sound A Extras D
starring Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, Michelle Yeoh
screenplay by Alfred Gough & Miles Millar
directed by Rob Cohen
*/**** Image A Sound A Extras D
starring James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman, Terence Stamp, Angelina Jolie
screenplay by Michael Brandt & Derek Haas and Chris Morgan, based on the comic books by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones
directed by Timur Bekmambetov
ZERO STARS Image B Sound A Extras C-
starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Stellan Skarsgård
screenplay by Catherine Johnson, based on the songs of ABBA
directed by Phyllida Lloyd
by Walter Chaw Fast becoming the post-Welles RKO without a commensurate Val Lewton to grease the transition from art to filthy lucre, today's Universal Pictures finds itself a long, long way from Psycho with a bumper crop of genuinely bad movies reverse-engineered from past box-office champions. Each of them--The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Wanted, and Mamma Mia!--broke the golden 100-million dollar mark, since they were made with just the Benjamins in mind; sadly, only the criticism of flaccid attendance was likely to curb an endless march of identical pictures this year. For the simpleminded, the success of these films despite the near-universal condemnation of them by anyone with a working prefrontal lobe is proof positive that critics are out of touch with the common man. On the contrary, I'd offer that, asked whether he thought the atrocious The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (hereafter The Mummy 3) would be financially successful, the average critic would have said he'd be surprised if it didn't do a hundred-mil in its first three weeks of release. Out of touch is believing that something is good because it makes a lot of money.
What's more interesting about these pictures as phenomenology is the idea that they're designed, like so many things in our culture, to have a shelf life that merely paves the way for the next big thing. They're the film equivalents of the four-year mark on cars, and their warranty expires the moment the credits have finished scrolling. Although it took me a good three days to get through The Mummy 3, I still had to rewatch giant swaths of it before moving ahead each time, as it was always as though I'd never seen it before. Something about it--something about Wanted and Mamma Mia!, too--is wired for maximum forgetfulness. The snarky would say that you're blocking it out; the cynical would say that they've somehow created the cinematic equivalent of that memory-erase thing from Men in Black; and the correct would say they've produced the endlessly replicable screenplay: It's not that you don't remember the film, it's that you can't distinguish it from any other like film. Crack is crack.
Be that as it may, The Mummy 3 is obviously the low-grade stuff: users will get their fix but recognize it's been cut too thin, no matter how many bells and whistles were crammed into the mainframe. Begin with the bad miscalculation of Maria Bello taking over for Rachel Weisz (as if anyone could), going after her accent with a bucktoothed Buckingham Palace gusto that makes her sound positively Antipodean. Poor Maria. Continue with Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh, wasted so completely and unbearably that it's almost as big a hate crime as the Rush Hour franchise. End with the surprise appearance of football-playing abominable snowmen--so aggressively dada as to play as openly hostile towards its audience. The film thinks you're an asshole and it's probably right. The film thinks you're an idiot to hang with it long enough to see the gridiron Yetis and, hell, it's right again.
The Mummy 3 opens with a prologue in a clearing-house "olden times" where, long ago, a powerful emperor (Li) does terrible things to a witch (Yeoh) who has promised him the secret of eternal life. What she's done instead, see, is curse the emperor with, um, eternal life by turning him into a statue that could be awakened with some doodad and is endowed with the power to control the elements as well as take on the form of any "horrible monster" he chooses. In post-bellum Shanghai, lovable oaf of a mummy-hunter Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser), armed with a bag teeming with Indiana Jones rippers, joins his plot-desperation swashbuckling apple off the tree Alex (Luke Ford) in a comic misadventure of epic proportions. Or so the assholes would have you think. In reality, another legend of Hong Kong cinema, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, is chewed up and spit out in the most disrespectful way imaginable. It hurts, but not as much as the understanding that Li, Yeoh, and Wong signed up for this the same way all those Chinese actors signed up for Memoirs of a Geisha--the same way Jackie Chan mortgaged his soul and a good portion of his legacy to be in three movies with Chris fucking Tucker.
Rob Cohen directs the film like a seizure at an epilepsy convention, passing from one bad episode to another with a heedlessness that feels less like whimsy than like well-funded attention-deficit disorder. A punchline of "the yak yakked" is preceded by a gag that's possible to describe if impossible to excuse; The Mummy 3 is a confluence of bad ideas carried by worse dialogue to no possible good end. Perhaps suspecting that there wouldn't be as much heat exchanged between Fraser and a badly-mugging Bello, or just that fresh blood was required lest the picture be mistaken for Cocoon 3, Alex acquires a yellow beard in the form of Lin (lovely mutt Isabella Leong), martial artist of course and ancient guardian of the undead statue of the Dragon Emperor of course, but also badly in need of a white guy to give her a context through which to exist in a Hollywood blockbuster. Whatever. All ye need to know about The Mummy 3 is that it's easy to sit through it and hard, almost impossible, to pay attention to it. The thing is slippery as hell, the noise coming through your apartment wall--you recognize it's there but would be hard-pressed to recall details beyond it being a nuisance. Every time the Dragon Emperor pops up post-resurrection, there arises a brief hope that Li will re-enter the fray instead of the CGI phantom Cohen and company have calculated is more interesting than Li. But, alas, the only foe that can defeat Li is this American machine, which demands that a Brendan Fraser (or a Mel Gibson or a DMX) will ultimately triumph, mano-a-mano, because some mysterious cultural empiricism commands it.
Then there's ADD megatard Timur Bekmabetov's deeply stupid Wanted, coming along to confirm that his deeply stupid Night Watch and Day Watch were no accident--were, in fact, an auteur proclamation announcing the arrival of a new, dim light on the action-as-diarrhea scene. Adapted from a graphic novel with manic energy and a truly obnoxious literal fanaticism, the picture is a Looney Tunes cartoon with headshots and graphic gore, its heroes likewise indestructible (a dip in a restorative mud-bath and bones are ready to be broken anew), its physics similarly plastic, and its plotting similarly designed to be consumed in seven-minute bites. Submitted for your approval, one milquetoast Wesley (James McAvoy), a cubicle rat with the pedigree of a natural born killer. His dad a great assassin himself recently retired, Wesley is recruited into an ancient society of Sirhan Sirhans bent on maintaining order in the universe via the judicious pruning of human outliers. Through it all, a scene where Wesley gets to look up Angelina Jolie's skirt while driving a hot car remains the most tantalizing prick-tease of the whole phallus-obsessed cock-and-dagger.
If only we had that POV to go with a later peep at Angie's impossible ass as she steps out of an oil bath, the film might garner a recommendation. As it is, there's just more of Morgan Freeman cashing a check and a metric ton of incomprehensible action that not only is impossible to follow, but also gives off this essence of puerility as our man has the shit pounded out of him in a comic-book shortcut to badass actualization. (The only thing missing is Wesley beating on giant sides of hanging meat to a driving montage tune... No, wait, that's in there.) Wanted is wish-fulfillment of the kind that gives comic books a bad name. A ravishing, devastatingly beautiful and strange woman reveals to you that you're a superhero billionaire with an archenemy she's going to help you defeat and an ex-girlfriend she's going to help you make jealous. Too mindless to be offensive, Wanted is empty, showy juvenilia without a reason for existing beyond the gratification of itself. It proves that it can be done (judging by its car chase alone)--that a film can reinvent the mousetrap to no useful purpose and for no obvious gain. Oh Timur, you irrepressible scamp.
Yet the box-office queen of this unholy trinity isn't the one with the blood and Jolie's perfect crescents, nor the third in a popular series of garbage flicks (this time with wuxia chinks!). No, the winner is Phyllidia Lloyd's absolutely bumfucking, impossible to jellify Mamma Mia!. It's a movie based on a musical based on a songbook, which maybe isn't the worst thing in the world considering Singin' in the Rain is also based on someone's songbook, but if I'm not mistaken, Singin' in the Rain didn't allow the songs to also be the book and, help me Jesus, the stratagem guiding the performances. Open with three pretty young things cavorting through a sylvan veldt, vertiginously orgasmic over the prospect of our heroine Sophie ("Big Love"'s Amanda Seyfried) inviting three men who boinked her mom around the point of her conception to her own upcoming nuptials. How delicious! How ripe for delightful romantic intermezzos! Good Christ, better to shove bamboo in my eye-sockets. I got about five minutes in the first time before having to turn away--this from someone who's watched the Miike episode of "Masters of Horror" twice without anything approaching the same level of revulsion. This from someone who actually likes ABBA.
In truth, the ABBA-liking demographic is the one that should be most offended by the picture in all its desperate, piebald attempts to re-fashion the songs into something they're not in the service of an exceedingly questionable pursuit. After this, after "Movin' Out" (based on the deplorable songbook of one Willliam Joel), it's not even satire to suggest that the next big thing on the Great White Way will be a musical inspired by the oeuvre of Howard Jones. No one is to blame, indeed. No one, that is, except the dead-eyed fishwives thronging like a Romero mob--a phenomenon no one's ever outlined better than Joe Queenan in his Red Lobster, White Trash, & the Blue Lagoon--through the gate so that there's no reason in hell studios like Universal shouldn't continue to bankroll dryrot like Mamma Mia! with avaricious zeal. I'd be curious to hear how Queenan feels now that his bête noire "Cats" has been supplanted in the gallery of cultural abortions by this little trainwreck.
Mamma Donna (Meryl Streep) is the mattress-back of the hour while Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), and Harry (Colin Firth) are the sperm donors--each fustily turned-out, each successful in their chosen field, and each eager to travel to a faraway Greek isle on the off-chance they've acquired a surprise dependent. The gaggle of malchicks is matched, spring/winter-like, to Donna's MacBeth-ian triumvirate, completed by Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) in death's-head grimace and iron-on-iron screech. As Donna sad-eyed solemns "SOS" in a weird attempt to bestow upon the song actual human existential pathos, well, spank my hide, it's more disturbing in its way than anything in the deeply disturbing Synecdoche, New York. Mamma Mia! is freakish--not because it's terrible (lots of things are terrible without being freakish), but because no movie so manifestly bad should be so popular. To speak overmuch about the picture's laboured choreography (flippered dudes on the beach for "Dancing Queen"? I can't begin to decipher the complexity of signs and signifiers in this mess--we collectively owe Agnes de Mille an apology), its tin ear, or its devotion to icky formula is to touch on the Fall of the Roman Empire. Once the masses begin to dictate the shape of their art, we're not long from, as Idiocracy suggests, a 90-minute reel of an ass taking home the Best Picture Oscar. In fact, when Slumdog Millionaire or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button claims that dubious honour next week, the prophecy will be at least partially fulfilled.
Universal shepherds its trio of cash cows home in bloated DVD releases. Start with The Mummy 3 in a super-groovy 2-Disc Deluxe Edition whose slipcover houses a normal-sized swing-tray keepcase. The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is impeccable, let's face it--unsurprising given that conservatively half the flick was born in a computer. And the DD 5.1 audio is booming and obnoxious in every channel. Less impressive is a film-length commentary from Cohen that, as I guess you could only expect from someone who consistently makes movies like this and worse, takes the tactic of discussing the picture's historical accuracy. He namedrops Joseph Campbell at the 25-minute mark, citing him as a personal acquaintance after betraying his sole moment of modesty a minute earlier in observing that this film is almost identical in terms of structure to the two previous entries in the franchise. When he's not saying ridiculous and patronizing things like how he felt it important to show his viewers where China is on a globe in relation to the United States, or exhaustively narrating every single thing unspooling onscreen, or noting how throwing stars are "age-old Chinese things," he's apologizing for the historical inaccuracy of the Great Wall's appearance in the opening scene--only to lapse into long reveries about the sets and friends he's inserted into the film. He provides a lot of historical information gleaned from WIKIPEDIA and amuses himself with jokes like "sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll--well, swing!" (guffaw!) as he holds court over his Joe Lunchbox thrall. The total absence of humour and insight renders this commentary an unusually gruelling test. Given what it decorates, you'd expect no less.
Eleven minutes of deleted/extended scenes are nothing to write home about, beginning with the good General's arrest and a brief shot of a dis-articulated arm and progressing through redundant exposition. The best thing about Cohen's yakker? His Freudian slip of referring to the "misery and ruthlessness of this editor." Clarity at last. Startup regales us with forced trailers for the Scorpion King sequel, an extended promo for Coraline, a look at the already-cancelled NBC series "My Own Worst Enemy", a promo for the Wanted video game, a trailer for the dtv nightmare Beethoven's Big Break, and Universal's Blu-ray reel. But wait, there's more. Insert Disc 2 for a soul-crushing "Making Of" (23 mins.) in which Cohen declares that for him movies are entertainment--to which I say, better luck next time. You hate Michael Bay because he's the anti-Christ; you hate Cohen because he's fucking Forrest Gump. When some asshole refers to Cohen's "great cultural knowledge," it sort of tightens my chest in a dangerous way. Not surprising that the bulk of time is given over to the set design and visual effects and costuming, with commensurately less attention paid to the ass raping. "From City to Desert" (16 mins.) sees the principals contributing unsurprising soundbites, with Bello no longer disappointing when she gushes about her experience on the film after having referred to Robin Swicord of The Jane Austen Book Club infamy within that piece of shit's special features as one of the best directors she's ever worked with. I know no one watches this shit except critics, but it's eternal. Watch your mouth.
Throughout, it bears mentioning, Cohen shows himself to be a special kind of asshole. We're talking major-league, late-'80s Mickey Rourke asshole. "Legacy of the Terra Cotta" (14 mins.) allows Cohen to say, "We must never forget that the word 'history' has the word 'story' in it." Wow, Rob, this is fun. It also has the words "shit" and "riot" in it--which, y'know...more pertinent. This one mentions the hard historical research that went into a film with animated yetis scoring a field goal against a Chinese bad guy in the 1940s. "A Call to Action: The Casting Process" (5 mins.) is redundancy upon redundancy by this point, though there's endless joy in hearing Jet carefully enumerate the "first part," the "second part," and "my part" as he's discussing the trilogy. Bello caps it, though, by concluding that these movies just keep getting better and better. For fuck's sake--how about "bad to worse" as a face-saver? Then there's "Preparing for Battle" (11 mins.), wherein stunt guys on strings fly around, then actors fly around, then...clips from the movie. If you can think of a worse way to spend 11 minutes, I don't want to know you. In "Jet Li: Crafting the Emperor Mummy" (8 mins.), Cohen repeats that he thought it'd be keen if Jet were a CG character made out of baked clay. The man's a genius, am I right? "This is all cutting edge animation," drones Cohen, who points out that what he has here is a "liquid solid"--bitch, didn't James Cameron do this in 1991? And better? Finally, "Creating New and Supernatural Worlds" (9 mins.) is more blather about "the tradition of the Mummy films" and storyboards and greenscreens and shooting Montreal-for-Shanghai. If you so desire, a Digital Copy of the film is available on this second platter for transfer to your PC or handheld--ditto Wanted and Mamma Mia!.
Turning our attention to Wanted's 2-Disc Special Edition now, the first disc of which cues up with another promo for the video game modeled on the film, trailers for Burn After Reading, "My Own Worst Enemy", Slap Shot 3, and The Scorpion King 2, and that Blu-ray reel again. Glad to report the lack of commentary or any further extras until we head over to disc 2's "Extended Scene" (2 mins.), featuring more necrophilia of the Bad Boys II variety. That's followed fast by a twenty-minute "Cast and Characters" short that plays exactly like the standard EPK bullshit, asking its actors to explain the basic plot movements of the film. If you've seen the movie, it's completely useless, and if you haven't, it's fair warning. "Stunts on the L-Train" (2 mins.) illustrates how greenscreen works, I guess, while "Special Effects: The Art of the Impossible" (8 mins.) does the same at quadruple the length. If you've ever wondered about how anything was done in this crap, well, here's your chance to have your bubble burst. "Groundbreaking Visual Effects" (8 mins.) compares animatics to the finished film. Predictably, people are gathered to say that Wanted is like nothing anyone has ever, ever, never, ever seen before or thought about ever before in the history of imagination. I did like the comment that "Timur's language is not English." Yeah. "The Origins: Bringing the Graphic Novel to Life" (8 mins.) intercuts panels from the comic with Timur pontificating on how this guy who doesn't speak English (him) wrote the screenplay from a comic book. With all the shooting going on in the film, you'd think it'd have the decency to save a bullet for its poor audience. Comic writer Mark Millar is interviewed and his may be the only talking-head of interest. The story he tells about his own creation story is sincerely fascinating.
"Through the Eyes of Visionary Director Timur Bekmambetov" (9 mins.) has select cast and crew describing the filmmaker as "weird" and "brilliant" plus shots of the man himself in action. Jolie informs that her set master took 6 years of "art" and Freeman lets slip that he calls Bekmambetov "Becky." He also says that he's never, ever, ever, never, never, ever seen anything like Wanted before. Ever, motherfucker, aren't you listening? "Wanted: Motion Comics" (14 mins.) reminds of a similar animation on the Max Payne DVD and reveals that in the translation from comics to film, Wes's monstrous boss morphed from a normal-sized black lady into a fat white chick. If the racism is neutered, thank God the misogyny's intact. Unsurprisingly, Millar, unfiltered by non-English-speaking Bekmambetov, reads a helluva lot better. "The Little Things" (3 mins.) is a music video of said song--not a bad song, either, all things considered. "The Making of Wanted: The Game" (10 mins.) rounds out the presentation with screen shots and interviews with game designers that offer no insight into the process of turning a video game-like movie based on a comic book into a video game. Seems they read the script and saw the movie in production before embarking on the game design. A/V specs for the main event (2.35:1, DD 5.1) are meanwhile up to par.
The real face-melter is the Mamma Mia! SE, sporting the film in eye-destroying 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen finery with correspondingly hostile DD 5.1 sound. It opens, as it must, with forced ads for the Beethoven flick and the already-cancelled "Lipstick Jungle". It also has a promo of some sort for the stage version of itself, the stage version of "Billy Elliot", and the ABC Family series "The Secret Life of the American Teenager". Of them, only the last made me want to barf, which tells me that I've built up a weird tolerance to shit. The equivalent of licking strange floors, I reckon. A trailer for Milk and an anti-smoking campaign join the Blu-ray reel in rounding out the first fucking hour of the experience. You can watch the film with a sing-along bouncy-ball if you want, by the way, or you can listen to a yak-track from Lloyd in which she admits that she was surprised to be tabbed to helm this big-screen adaptation of the musical she directed, thus explaining why she's still astonished by day-for-night shooting techniques. Lloyd gushes over her cast, gushes over her crew, gushes over the material--you want to shove a tampon at her, it just seems appropriate. Lloyd ventures that the island is a character and points out that a lot of the film was shot in a studio. Lloyd remembers that it was hot on location and so it was a good thing they filmed most of it in a warehouse. Lloyd admits she had fun dressing up her leading men in crazy costumes! Lloyd reveals that the songs were pre-recorded. Lloyd explains that a scene where Streep was hanging upside-down was accomplished by hanging Streep upside-down. Capping off the first disc is a deleted musical number, "The Name of the Game" (3 mins.).
Into the home stretch now, the second disc contains eight minutes of deleted scenes like a cat offers a headless canary. Basically they're establishing shots, extended, of my three possible dads, in addition to a genuinely horrific A Farewell to Arms bit that ends with a bunch of mostly-naked men leaping from the surf to menace our one-piece-clad heroine, supine. How a female director of this self-described light musical comedy could have gone ahead with that is one for the ages. Two minutes of "Outtakes" is Streep acting like her character from Defending Your Life, basically, and Brosnan demonstrating that he's more The Matador than 007. The "Making of" (24 mins.) has the author of the musical, Catherine Johnson, recalling that she once had the idea to make a musical out of ABBA's songs. One briefly considers sticking an icepick into one's forehead before one realizes that everyone involved with the film has already done it for one. When the producers say they thought it best to keep the original creators on the project, what I hear is that they have no idea why anyone's going to this thing in any number, much less the droves it's attracted, and so it was best to leave the asylum to the inmates. In the course of decrying the picture's status as camp curio and chick flick, it reminds me of another notable picture with women involved at every level of creation, Jane Campion's In the Cut, and its relative failure. I weep. "Anatomy of a Musical Number: Lay All Your Love On Me" (6 mins.) has the actors in rehearsal, singing, filming it over the course of three days--it's sort of like that Karaoke video game in movie form. When Seyfried asks if it looks "weird" when she crawls across a beach in a swimsuit, I confess I suddenly got interested. "Becoming a Singer" (11 mins.) has surviving ABBA-ite Benny Andersson taking ownership of the musical performances, showing that the old guy still has his chops at the ivories. Funny how it's this deep into the production before anything of interest arises. Either that or this tumour just keeps getting bigger. More likely, the alien parasite that sucked Streep's brain out through her eye has done the same to me.
"Behind the Scenes with Amanda" (4 mins.) shows Seyfried to be adorable as she cracks wise and displays a remarkable lack of vanity, a lot of her dialogue consisting of needing to urinate and wondering if a spot on her hand is leprosy. "On Location in Greece" (4 mins.) is so fucking useless that I'll probably never fully recover, while a "Look Inside Mamma Mia!" (3 mins.) resurrects archival concert footage of the legendary quartet so the filmmakers can opine about how great ABBA is/was and we can hear again that the musical was inspired by the thought that the songs of ABBA should be a musical. "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!: Music Video" (4 mins.) is just that, its footage sourced, I think, from a looping session with Seyfried doing the Disney Songstress duties. "Bjorn Ulvaeus Cameo" (2 mins.) excerpts Bjorn Ulvaeus's cameo in the film. Follow? Savvy? Good. Originally published: February 17, 2009.