Lee catches up on six films of 2017: The Mummy, Raw, The Circle, The Belko Experiment, Sleepless & Pirates of the Caribbean – Salazar’s Revenge (AKA Dead Men Tell No Tales).
Loaded choices this time around!
How often we are left unprepared for the world; teenagers being balls of questions with little in the way of answers who are then frequently tossed into huge crowds of similarly ill-informed teenagers whose only solutions are trial and error. Perhaps the system is gamed against us; there’s so much to learn and we start getting crazy at a time when our independence starts kicking in and our education often drags us into bigger circles. Or perhaps there are some things that should be obvious to parents, and that their impressed beliefs and conditions leave us staggeringly defenceless against the oncoming challenges of adolescence.
Raw zeroes in on that experience with terrifying precision, detailing in an absurd amount just how hard life can be with a lack of information and experience. Justine sees herself as average, but it’s clear from the start that her background isn’t the same as the other kids; she’s sheltered, a prodigal daughter, her diet’s backwards and she’s new to sex. And from there, we see her put through trial after trial as she struggles to find her identity and humiliates herself often in the process.
It’s hard-hitting, cruel, gross and altogether more real than any film documenting adolescence has any right to be. Her relationship with sister Alex relatable, the damaging expectations she forces on her roommate Adrien foreseeable, and the relative simplicity of the idea of cannibalism as a placeholder for something simply not fitting in a comfortable or safe way is ingenious.
While it may give a little too much away by the end, Raw takes a great concept and makes a greater film from it – no lean feat by any means. Provocative and built for discussion, this an experience that will stick in the viewer’s mind long after the credits roll.
The concept at the outset is almost endearingly simple: a son, driven by his desire to see his father walk amongst the living, even despite his father’s protestations, challenges himself to finding the Trident of Poseidon which should undo the curse that ensnares the man. It’s a great mood-setter for a simple adventure, one with perhaps overtures of parental separation or an exploration of a child who has grown up without a father, presenting some lessons the younger characters might learn about themselves along the way to adulthood.
Then the movie wheels out Captain Jack Sparrow, everyone’s favourite asshole pirate, and all pretences of a straightforward adventure are then swiftly thrown out the window for another meandering soap opera about how Jack keeps ruining everyone’s lives.
A predictable heel-turn for the series, as Jack stopped having anything resembling an arc after the first movie and has continued to simply show up and make life difficult for everyone else like an eternal pirate trickster god. But this time it just feels that much more frustrating, because the story lying just beneath – about a man and woman, each abandoned by their parents, attempting to stitch their lives together in their absence – is ultimately a pretty interesting and exciting one, if it had only been the actual focus of the film.
Instead the usual gang show up for more escapades and tomfoolery and it’s all so very trying to care about it all. There’s a scene, admittedly pretty funny at first, where Jack is sentenced to death at the newly invented guillotine, and just barely escapes by spinning while hanging from his feet so the blade travels up and down continually towards his neck, always just short of making the cut. It seemed almost like an in-joke with the filmmakers, and a cruel depiction of how their requests to finally kill the bastard have continually fallen on deaf ears.
The film attempts to pull some heartstrings; it fails. The film attempts to be funny; it usually fails (especially the weird looks-shaming wedding scene). The film attempts to be swashbuckling fun; it fails. Too much bloat, too much melodrama, too many characters you don’t care about stealing the spotlight from our leads. If not for the sheer amusement that comes from watching a film this dull have a budget this big, there’d be practically nothing left to recommend.
The mind races considering the difference another draft might’ve made of The Circle. It’s one of those hazardous zero-gain sum hypotheticals, but it happens to be the questioning result of viewing a film that manages to have all the right elements in there and yet feel generally scatterbrained.
What if John Boyega’s character had actually worked as more than a fleeting guide at some point, and became a string-pulling rebel within the Silicon Valley-esque Circle? We establish so many times that Mae Holland is the surrogate of the gullible viewer, yet the script never quite wants to rob her of any success by curtain fall, and with this hovering mystery character in the background you can’t help but think maybe there was a dot yet to be connected here. His arc by plot end is that of any tertiary tech character; why set him up as a jaded prodigy?
Mae in general is a reactionary character, which may lead you to expect this story to become something of an analogy or cautionary tale for exercising self-awareness; it is not. Instead, Mae stumbles upon the right move after months of wrong ones, and the whispers of potential ruin down the line are only tapered in the subtext despite the movie’s adoration of pretext. Hell, those whispers might not even be in the subtext, that might just be wishful thinking.
As a cautionary tale or even a think-piece on privacy, social media, tech culture and moguls, it’s fine. Overt works in this case; no point dancing around the shiny new Nineteen Eighty-Four we’ve walked ourselves into. The message just happens to be a little off-point, as our protagonist doesn’t necessarily earn her occasional triumphs nor our support as she walks into trap after trap. Maybe we’re supposed to believe this is an assailable problem; if so, the outcome would have been more believable if Mae actively wanted to fight this system. Ultimately, The Circle is an unsatisfying effort.
There’s praise to be given to the occasional neutral film. The Mummy has obvious problems: its lead exhibits no particular engagement regarding the story he appears to be in, the concept around the story is more complicated and less thrilling than it should have been and the finale is the kind of absurdist set-up that could only fly in our modern times of desperate interconnected stories pushed cynically on the masses by cynical movie production companies. All that and there are considerable structural issues, especially regarding the poor handling of narration and characterisation.
But, underneath the obvious faults, there are plenty of decent aspects to The Mummy to keep most viewers watching. The most important being a decent understanding of adventure; granted, one muddled pretty badly by that aforementioned narration taking most of the mystery out of the set-up, but there’s still fun to be had. Mysterious corporations ran by shady figures with their own set of problems getting deeply involved in the case of a man who supposedly died before coming right back to life is a neat idea that manages to hold the attention even while exposition pours out of each character’s mouth like oily carbonated water from a champagne fountain.
There’s an element of boyish humour throughout that, agreed, doesn’t always land, but does give the script some much needed levity and bounciness to it. Sure, the characters never quite take-off in any one way and once again we’re saddled with a female lead whose only job is to be a stick-in-the-mud for the lads, but the plot moves fast enough from set-piece to set-piece so that the experience as a whole doesn’t drag or suffer for the lack too much.
And there are some genuinely fun moments, most importantly. The plane crash looks good, the creepy organisation suitably creepy, the villain genuinely threatening at times, the setting endearingly bizarre and almost certainly forced by production restrictions or tax breaks; there’s also a super fun Mr. Hyde portrayal that actually makes you curious to see more of this baffling ‘dark universe’, god help us all.
Probably the most notable drawback however is that the action does often fall flat, as the actors typically interact with stuff that isn’t there and of course there are zombies, why wouldn’t there be zombies? All the elements just reek of B-movie and, well hey, wouldn’t you know, that’s exactly where the inspiration for this universe comes from. How jarringly apt to see our modern blockbuster expectations met with the same standards that befell the Universal classic monster movies of yore.
For what it’s worth, it’s hard to hate The Mummy despite its numerous flaws. It’s bad, but the fun bad that gets the feel of the movie right while fudging all the details, and that’s pretty much the definition of classic B-movie. Critics will, of course, stick their noses up at the sight of its lack of class, but once exposed the masses will likely make a little spot in their heart for the goofy charms of Uncharted: Tom Cruise Edition.
Despite its conventional plot (cop’s family gets caught up in his business and he has to save them), there’s an interesting experiment in Sleepless – one that doesn’t quite work, admittedly, but had the mind racing non-the-less.
The decision is made to play Jamie Foxx’s character as unlikeable from the get-go; he’s seen as a criminal, one who lies to his family and workplace, and ultimately deserves the mess he gets himself into for being greedy. From an audience perspective, I think we’re supposed to revel in this man’s cause? Hope for his redemption? It’s hard to fixate on exactly what the filmmakers expected us to root for during the first half of the movie, before its revealed Jamie is actually, conversely, a good guy who deserved our support all along.
Is this an inversion of some genre tropes? Subversion of audience expectations? Perhaps commentary on how we see the police state? Whatever it is, the execution doesn’t work here, as it’s hard to imagine any viewer making it to the halfway point just to find out they were supposed to care all along.
The action is passable, the setting neat, the villains cartoonish and unthreatening; there’s a female detective who we’re supposed to assume is bad at her job because the script keeps telling us she’s on the wrong side of the conflict until, eventually, she gets thrown a bone and takes all the credit like she knew all along. Again, it’s hard to imagine what the original vision was for this but, again, it doesn’t work in practice.
Perhaps it really was commentary about the police state, and how our opinions are often half informed, and that women cops are twice as egomaniacal with none of the credit to back it up, just like assholes think. But then how about the traitor in the line-up; where does he fit into this grand scheme? Scratch that, it’s just not a very well written film.
The vital question: exploration or exploitation? In The Belko Experiment, it appears that the filmmakers want it both ways. A pudgy drama filled with romances, office politics, caricatures of middle management and all those little work-a-day challenges that just so happens to also be a sparring pit for moral compasses and a gore-fest to elicit satisfaction and/or horror from the cast’s inevitable death.
It works in parts; the first deaths are shocking, the final deaths cathartic. Some characters you root for, most characters you just don’t want to die in general. The situation miserable enough where you can kind of see where most of the violent nutcases are coming from, but also vague enough where you can hold out hope with the pacifist lead. But for the most part, the movie is a sleek-looking, decently paced slog to which the central concept is really to blame.
We don’t need a Belko Experiment to know humanity thrives on survivalism – we have human history for that. The worst moments emulate the mentality of the people who ran concentration camps in Nazi Germany met with glimpses of the mass public at those times that let it happen because the forces at play were too powerful/dangerous and, ultimately, they weren’t in the line of fire so best play it safe. That’s just an obvious example, but we know people will do most anything to survive already – what else is there beyond that?
The office politics aren’t strong enough an aspect to either be funny or especially meaningful, the romance is pretty much a non-starter and is basically an excuse to bounce concepts of morality back and forth, and the actual situation is so bleak and so obviously a dead-end that it’s hard to find much room for investment – and that’s before the rules shift early on to prevent even optimism from being an option.
It gives us none of the pop hero saga we liked in Hunger Games, the perilous solemnity and horror of Battle Royale or even the wit, cynicism and sharp distaste for corporate America that Office Space so perfectly surmised. It’s neither artful nor particularly engaging aside from sporadic bursts of decent production and performance, and while it’s occasionally satisfying to see cartoonish violence, context is everything and the context here isn’t nearly insightful enough to warrant it.
The niche crowds will still love it – some people just crave suffering no matter the context – and that’s absolutely fine. For most, this will not surprise, shock or entertain you.