Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: What is the long-term takeaway of the failure of Pirates Of The Caribbean and now The Mummy to incite any excitement among moviegoers, Peter? Maybe we need to wait for the next Transformers to be sure, but I would say that these committee-formulated summer studio franchises are facing what many felt was inevitable: they are hitting the wall, hard. So is the star system. Remember when a superstar’s presence could guarantee a big U.S. opening weekend?
BART: In “studio speak,” franchises are out and universes are in, in terms of production initiatives. Yet it’s hard to remember a moment when an initiative has met with as much skepticism as Universal’s Dark Universe line of genre movies (already dubbed “dim universe” by the New York Times). And the critical drubbing accorded The Mummy has turned up the noise.
FLEMING: Universal Pictures must have felt like its charmed franchise run would continue forever, with The Mummy sandwiched between the $1.2 billion-grossing The Fate Of The Furious and the upcoming Despicable Me 3. But this Mummy felt as stale as the lining of a sarcophagus; it had to be the studio’s most disappointing attempted franchise launch since Battleship. The stakes here are enormous for the studio. Universal signed big established stars for classic movie monster resuscitating, from Frankenstein to Bride Of Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf Man, Dr Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. I have never understood the enthusiasm, even when Guillermo del Toro explained it to me when he was entrusted with many of those properties. He said the classic literature origins were so indelible that there was plenty a filmmaker could to do to engage today’s audiences. To me, they all seem like slow-moving, dust-covered B&W relics locked in an era that has no relevance. I quite liked the last Mummy iteration, the playful Stephen Sommers-Brendan Fraser-Rachel Weisz films that spawned a theme park ride and launched Dwayne Johnson (who is now mentioned as a potential Wolf Man). Those Mummy movies borrowed the Indiana Jones romance model. What did the new Alex Kurtzman-directed iteration have, besides a game Tom Cruise? They could have made it scary, with a terrifying villain and ominous mummy henchmen. But it wasn’t that, at all. It wasn’t really a romance, either: we’re told early that Cruise’s character spent a night with Annabelle Wallis’s archaeologist and pissed her off by stealing a map. There were no onscreen sparks between them. Kurtzman could have made Sofia Boutella’s title character an exotic Cleopatra-like seductress — Boutella is capable of that, as evidenced by the Atomic Blonde trailer and her performances in Kingsmen and even last summer’s Star Trek. Then you could have understood why Cruise’s character would fall under her spell and why a future of immortality with her would be appealing. Instead, they made her an annoying, decaying, half-formed mess with tattooed symbols that made her look like the wife of the lead character in Memento. That left us with a bunch of pricey set pieces that could not compensate for the lack of real characters or tension or genuine scares. This launch of the Monsters line goes down as disappointing even if it covers its costs overseas the way that DC’s Batman V Superman did. Universal still has to convince us that, in an era where audiences are scared by terrific grounded fright films like Get Out, Split and Don’t Breathe or TV shows like The Walking Dead, that these monsters old enough to be public domain literary properties do likewise.
BART: I thought The Mummy was on its way to being an entertaining horror picture in its first hour. Then I could hear the studio shouting, ‘we have Tom Cruise; ‘let’s up the budget and the pyrotechnics.’ At that point, the movie began to spin out of control. It’s a mess. And it does not auger well for Universal’s future line-up of star-laden horror films like Bride of Frankenstein or The Invisible Man (Johnny Depp will be invisible).
FLEMING: Is it possible to breathe life into these musty old monsters? Even though the lack of humor and subtlety in his DC movies like Batman V Superman troubled me, Zack Snyder launched his career with a remake of Dawn of the Dead. Going in, I wondered: how can you make George Romero’s slow moving corpses seem menacing? The movie opened with Sarah Polley running from a zombie that just killed her husband. This corpse chased her like Usain Bolt running the 100 yard dash. That put me on the edge of my chair. Universal execs have done an exceptional job casting its Monster Universe: Javier Bardem for Frankenstein, Depp for Invisible Man, maybe Angelina Jolie for Bride of Frankenstein and possibly crying wolf with Johnson. But the formulaic pollination we see with Marvel and DC films won’t work here. Each of these movies better be scary as hell, or bear some stylistic genre signature all their own. If they are going to follow with Russell Crowe’s Doctor Jekyll (he debuted the character in The Mummy), use that actor’s estimable gifts of intensity and intimidation and physicality to make him the most terrifying sociopath since Hannibal Lecter. That would mean a better-drawn character than I saw last weekend, where Jekyll’s Hyde persona could be eradicated like the measles, with an inoculation.
BART: I’d go back to the drawing board and trace the problems of The Mummy. Let’s begin with the cast and the question: Do horror pictures need movie stars, or vice versa? Tom Cruise has been a star for almost forty years and I agree with Joe Morgenstern of The Wall St Journal that this is his worst role, spending most of the movie “getting beat up by an infestation of digital mummies.” Nor does the movie need him or Crowe, intoning pseudo-scientific nonsense as Dr. Jekyll (characters are tossed in just to set up further movies).
FLEMING: They might not be worthy of first dollar gross deals, but I like seeing stars. I enjoyed Crowe in The Nice Guys and like seeing him lend his commanding presence to populist fare like this, and I have been a fan of Cruise since Risky Business. The Mummy has prompted cynics to declare that Cruise is over. He isn’t, of course but the star system is, save for maybe Denzel Washington and Leonardo DiCaprio. Maybe it’s their careful selection process that has made them exceptions: Washington’s making his first ever sequel, The Equalizer. Like John Wick and Sicario, The Equalizer was a one-off that left audiences wanting more, which was how franchises like Die Hard and The Terminator got built. DiCaprio’s eyeing his own serial killer turn, but his will be the real life ghoulish doctor who terrorized the Chicago World’s Fair, with Martin Scorsese likely directing The Devil in the White City. There is no franchise there, but that seems more interesting to me than the umpteenth incarnation of Dr Jekyll.
I’m not sure why Cruise felt he needed another franchise, with Mission: Impossible in good standing, and I’m not sure what this means for a Top Gun sequel more than three decades after a hit that bore Tony Scott’s stylistic directorial imprint and came during the gung-ho Ronald Reagan presidency. Are global audiences going to line up for an homage to macho U.S. military might when Donald Trump is alienating both allies and enemies on Twitter, or will they have to minimize the Red White and Blue as was done with Wonder Woman? Cruise is still the longest running superstar act in Hollywood, and I know he likes barnstorming the world to promote his big movies. I recall him telling me that, growing up poor, he dreamed of visiting the countries he saw in movies, and petitioned studios to let him travel abroad doing press tours, so he could see these places. Believe it or not, he said studios fought him at first, when the priority was domestic receipts and video, and not foreign. His curiosity birthed the template of stars globally promoting their films, and he has never stopped tirelessly promoting his films like that. He made a mistake here, I think. But The Mummy was preceded by a trailer for American Made, the fact based drama where Cruise plays a pilot who flew drugs and weapons for the CIA and found himself up to his eyeballs with the likes of Manuel Noriego and Pablo Escobar, and all the danger that implies. That’s a Tom Cruise movie I want to see.
BART: At 54, Cruise faces issues similar to those of Brad Pitt and George Clooney, but he’s not handling them as well, committing himself to junk genres while his confreres are tackling quality projects. I miss the Cruise of Jerry Maguire and Rain Man and even Tropic Thunder. As for the studios, they’re not helping. Warner Bros is re-inventing its DC Universe and Sony its The Dark Tower universe based on Stephen King novels. But they’re all about high concepts, not character concepts; movie stars would do well to forage elsewhere in the intellectual property universe to keep their careers alive.
FLEMING: You are wrong, I hope, on The Dark Tower; excepting the Magnificent Seven remake and Blazing Saddles, how often do you see a Western franchise anchored by a black actor playing the lead gunslinger? This could be a breath of fresh air this summer. You always knock Clooney in these columns, but bringing him up allows me to establish the difference in this discussion. Clooney stopped chasing franchises after his Batman foray. Whether his movies work or not, his motives are purer and it has led to a great career not about making the most money possible. He empowered Gravity when it teetered after Robert Downey Jr dropped out and other male stars didn’t want to spend 15 minutes of screen time propping up Sandra Bullock. There is Syriana, Michael Clayton and Good Night and Good Luck. Clooney misfired in Tomorrowland, but you can’t fault an actor for buying into the vision of a great director like Brad Bird, much as you can’t fault Idris Elba’s The Dark Tower costar Matthew McConaughey for doing the same on Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
BART: You leaped so quickly to George’s defense that I wonder what gift you sent for his newborn twins. What I was trying to do is illustrate a Cruise conundrum: other male stars like Clooney, Pitt and Washington are aging and becoming more interesting to watch. Cruise looks the same as he did 20 or 30 years ago.
FLEMING: When we talk about actors setting up franchises they don’t really need, I’ll be curious to see how Downey and Stephen Gaghan do with Dr. Dolittle. I guess the idea is to replace Iron Man, but to me it’s another idea that feels like a head scratcher because it has been again and again. Meanwhile, I just saw Baby Driver, this Edgar Wright-directed heist picture. After seeing Pirates and The Mummy, I was struck by the exhilaration of sitting in a theater, watching a well told story with distinctive characters and visual style and not knowing where it was all going. Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx playing deliciously awful people around this adorable getaway driver played by The Fault In Our Stars‘ Ansel Elgort. I hate to see studios lose money, but maybe they need to be reminded that sequels aren’t like Amazon stock certificates.
BART: I felt the same way, seeing The Big Sick.
FLEMING: People want to be surprised. The people at Universal are smart and I’m sure they’ll figure out how to hone the monster formula they’re so invested in, as Warner Bros brass did with Wonder Woman.
BART: In terms of movie archaeology, The Mummy became an instant ruin not only because of the critics but also because of Wonder Woman, which is a lot more fun to experience and which opened to $220 million worldwide (it held up well in its second weekend). Patty Jenkins won high plaudits for directing her super-heroine – ironically her first hit was titled Monster, starring Charlize Theron, but Jenkins was smart enough to steer clear of further monster movies.
FLEMING: My takeaway there is how unpredictable the movie business is, and how satisfying when things fall into place. After Jenkins guided Theron to her Best Actress Oscar playing the serial killer drama in Monster, how could it possibly have taken 14 years for her to get another movie to direct? You’d think another actor would say, I want an Oscar, too; get her! Jenkins only got Wonder Woman after another director dropped out, and boy did Warner Bros get lucky. I’ve heard she and Geoff Johns are working right now on a sequel take that they’ll likely bring to screenwriter Allan Heinberg to turn into a script. Jenkins has to make a deal, but you can bet it won’t take another 14 years for her to make another movie. This is a great Hollywood story, but it doesn’t adhere to any formula other than you gotta remember to tell a good story with characters you care about. Wonder Woman did that, and The Mummy did not.
BART: While I appreciate Wonder Woman’s qualities as entertainment, I am perplexed by the adulatory press response to the movie. Its opening triggered an almost Trump-ian tweet-storm – the most tweeted movie of the year. Meredith Woerner wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the “sight of female warriors kicking ass” was so empowering that she started to cry. Jenkins was hailed for “saving the DC universe.” In interviews, Jenkins said that, as a woman, she felt free to make Wonder Woman “vulnerable, loving and warm,” suggesting that male-directed superheroes have been downright chilly. Actress Gal Gadot, her star, also has found a loving press. “Daughter of Israel is a source of wonder,” headlined the Los Angeles Times. As a result, Wonder Woman has attracted more women than male ticket buyers – remarkable for superhero movies. Several pieces about the film predicted that it may empower many women to ask for a raise at work (the two ‘heavies’ in Wonder Women are older grey-haired guys who look like the typical workplace bosses). Still, Wonder Woman is a comic book character; perhaps Marissa Mayer’s $900,000 a week pay check during her years at Yahoo would provide more practical inspiration.
FLEMING: You could see signs of this when girls of every shape and size at last San Diego Comic-Con wore Wonder Woman outfits. I’m sure Jenkins did bring touches that a male director would have overlooked. Women have been waiting for an opportunity like this, and now we’ll see more because the movie is a hit. The Walking Dead samurai sword-swinging heroine Dania Gurira is expanding her badass warrior character from Black Panther to Avengers: Infinity War; and maybe this will goose to the start line another Mad Max that brings back Theron’s Furiosa character. I hope we see a version of this when Black Panther births the first freestanding black superhero movie character since Wesley Snipes in Blade, and that The Dark Tower also works with Elba in the lead. It’s important for studios to see rewards for thinking outside the box.
BART: Next topic: The New York Times list of Best Movies of the Century, so far. Whenever I give a talk, I always dread that moment when someone asks, ‘what is your favorite movie..?’ I have lots of favorites. When critics are asked that question, their responses are predictable. Critics like to prove their macho by naming those films as ‘favorites’ that are the least entertaining and least intelligible. Hence Manohla Dargis comes forth with There Will Be Blood, the poor man’s Citizen Kane. Paul Thomas Anderson had no idea what he wanted to say in this gloomy dirge of a film. Also on the “best’ list is Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers still-born movie about a failed musician who managed the feat of making the ‘60s folk music scene tedious. The bottom line: Critics see too many movies.
FLEMING: Critics are obliged to bring obscure choices to the table. Not me. I agree that There Will Be Blood and The Hurt Locker are great movies, but how about Spotlight, The Revenant, Man on Fire, Love Actually, No Country For Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, Inglorious Basterds, American Sniper, Gladiator, Brokeback Mountain and Casino Royale? To me, the most glaring omission is Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the most exhilarating realization of an author’s vision I have ever seen in a movie since The Silence Of The Lambs. I haven’t even gotten to James Cameron’s Avatar and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Am I forgetting anything?