Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Best of 2017: The Phoenix Scorches the Snake (Year of the Woman)

The age of the Woman has begun and there's no going back. Have they ever, aside from the last time, when Anita Hill and Take Back the Night got tangled up in The Rules-roosted third wave snottiness? That was just the launch pad, this time, baby, the outer atmosphere got penetrated and we're holding a solid orbit as decades of held-in rage is at last screamed out over the land like a purgatorial rain. The big Halloween costume pick of 2017 was a true WONDER, directed by a woman, and the best-reviewed film ever on RT is written and directed by a real LADY, and the coolest retro-feminist counter-intuitive mindbender since swingin' 71 was about a WITCH, and produced-wrote-directed-and costume-designed by a woman. Sure, there's been some newly iconic masterpieces made by men this year, but this list will focus on woman-helmed films, or movies with badass chicks in them, and TV comedy shows (cuz drama's too much a bummer in this unendurably bummer year, so don't wait for me to follow you deep into dystopian oppression. You heard me, MAIDS!) In short, Rejoice, I, a SWM, have affirmed your right to shine. Let the bitter misogynists jeer in frustration from the belly of their mom's basement, blind to that pathetic irony and therefore blind to it all. Ladies, it was your year, and if you find yourself sliding backwards in this next one, just ask a man to explain what you should do next, then sacrifice him to Kali. KALI!

PS - I finally made it to Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" on permanent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Here it was, a mere ten minute walk from my current apartment, and I haven't been... ever. It was a moving, spiritual experience, and clearly the right year for it, as the above rant makes clear. If you're in town, go, man, go... Kali gets a plate. Emily Dickinson gets a plate. Virginia Woolf gets a plate. Gets ain't the right word. They take the plates. This is the year they take all the plates

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig

Neither shying away from the romantic faux pas nor the cool little moments of triumph that come with growing up artsy but confident, here's a Catholic school girl movie that avoids all the tired (albeit necessary) sexual endangerment/obsession we get with all the 'women's coming-of-age' stories (the ones written by dudes). Gerwig allows us clearly autobiographical triumphant sing-outs like the take down of the visiting anti-abortion rally speaker, the brilliant and ridiculous aspects of an after-school drama club, the disillusionment and joy of teen sex. As someone who went to public school and lost my virginity at 17 to a drama club Catholic chorine who insisted on using both a condom and vaginal foam from Planned Parenthood but who is now an anti-abortion zealot, I can vouch that this is right up there with Superstar and at any rate way better than Little Sister or one of those things that seems cobbled together from contemporary lit adult education workshops more than actual life. This feels real, and tells the story, not of some 'average' girl buffeted by the winds of change in her rocky search for the right guy to surrender her freedom to, but of a specific strong-willed young woman, not quite as mature as she acts but totally free of anything resembling a cliche'd trait, a girl for whom the most important thing is not any one boy, but her own dream of going to New York to college instead of one of her local (state-subsidized) California options, despite her domineering-but-loving mother's protests. Lovingly filmed and acted, especially by star Saoirse Ronan, with brilliant vignettes and tiny moments zipping by too fast to stop and praise in any single viewing, its keenly observed connections between family members feels both well rehearsed and totally spontaneous, lived-in, and there's some dynamite sweaters and autumnal colors. It's an amazing achievement that fulfills the halo of stoner grace I saw over Great Gerwig as far back as 2009's Baghead, where she was unfortunately burdened by her inescapable mumblecore cronies, the various Duplasses, Partridges and Swanbergs, and later the self-indulgent and myopic (lately) Noah Baumbach (much as I love Bird I can't stand five minutes of his Gerwig-starred Frances Ha). Sure, Baumbach's ghost influence is to be felt here, but this is Gerwig's Live through This, her Exile in Guyville. It's the writing on the wall outside the gates of Eden, written in the blood of uncored apples.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

(PS - I snuck this in sshh) One of the trippiest, wildest, most insane biblical fables ever. Even if you don't dig the symbolism, it's also a perfect emblem of its time, considering the Woman as Avenger and seamstress of life theme, or something. What gets me is the editing and pace- the seamless evaporation of time so that we never really notice the sea changes wherein a single night elapses from a few fans dropping by to a full scale riot is one of the most terrifying and exhilarating extended sequences I've ever seen, perfectly capturing the nightmare vibe of an acid test party where all these people you don't know show up, you're too messed up to get rid of them, your pad getting trashed, packed with people, tearing it apart, robbing you blind, rending and tearing, calling their friends to come over and help themselves, everyone ending up, writhing in a pile on the floor, the rooms get full of strangers, you can't even hide out in your own bedroom, and you end up having a nervous breakdown for lack of privacy, maybe you even call the cops on your own party, except you can't dial a phone in your stage. I can't go on because to explain it or try to nail it down does it a disservice. It's too horrible. It's beyond horrible, back into blissful, and it's weird, but it's not as sadistic or pretentious as some of Aronofsky's earlier work, and it's above all, the truth. It's the allegory we need, and Jennifer Lawrence, so terrible in her last few 'big' pictures, like the X-Men reboot, redeems herself as her generation's golden wild child. You'll never look humanity in the eye again after this, but Aronofsky is a genius, for all our faults. 

Written and directed by Anna Biller

The drugs in this amber brew are potent, vibrant and rich, infused with an ingeniously stilted ceremonial acting style; thou cannot help but succumb to the film's cohesive look and sound, its adept deconstruction and Pagan rearrangement of the kind of pre-Quixote romantic Thoth Tarot blueprint for mythologizing reality into delirious love overload. Teen girls smitten with Disney and afternoon soap operas might imagine Love Witch while taking a mid-afternoon nap but never dream it could be a movie. Brechtian dissolution of the 'western eye' and a cohesive, eerily familiar beauty... Wait, is that even a sentence? Why am I getting so relaxed? What's in this flax, flaks... flask? I know now what love is, and it's fucking terrifying, but colorful, and Ennio is there. (See Bell, Book, and Hallucinogenic Tampon)

Directed by Kitty Green

Directed by young Australian auteur Kitty Green, CASTING JONBENET is a true story, on both levels, both the making of a movie about a real-life unsolved murder, and the meta making-of the recreation. Green kept the interviews and screen tests from the auditions by local actors culled from the Ramsey family's Colorado hometown, all with their own tangential connections to the events. The details of story unfold and the sidebars become the main content. Green's not after the truth but the elusive way truth vanishes in telephone game clouds on the horizon. Green trusts us to unpack the massive electric charge inherent in watching an actress audition by performing the mother's real life unconvincing (but possibly real) phone call to 911. Seeing more than one actress try to nail this weird ouroboros strip paradox is to realize an even broader canvas, the mutability of the truth along a mythological axis. Even if we've never heard the actual Ramsey phone call (and we don't within the film, nor do we see any actual images of the actual participants) we know the 'type,' and the child kidnapping/murder is a tabloid boilerplate fastened with adamantine bolts to the mediated public consciousness. Like jazz, the variations are endless but all recognizable as the same tune. (more)

Directed by Patty Jenkins

There's an ingenious long forward momentum sequence about halfway through this film --the camera trailing after Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) and her male escorts as they weave through the empty wastelands of WWI France to the front line trenches, past starving desperate civilians, wounded men, and beaten horses, the filthy trenches, across no-man's land, and into the hail of gunfire from an occupied enemy town. Diana's never really let loose before this moment with all her goddess strength until now when adrenalin and anger triple her capabilities. Flipping over a tank, leaping from roof to roof, she's someone we both identify with and admire through Chris Pine's haunting blue eyes. Her determination to find the literal Aires, God of War, seems at first naive; she presumes he's presiding over the launch of a German poison gas factory (presided over by a disfigured/masked female gas chemist, based on the [maybe] real-life French lesbian chemist who had her formula stolen by Fraulein Doktor) and her man presumes he doesn't exist, but he sure needs her help. And there's a valid point behind her singular focus, coming from a paradise free of men and machinery, the horrifying atrocities we've gone blind to in the interest of disaster triage. While the look, time, and feel indicate that perhaps the CGI crew were borrowing steampunk hard drives from Captain America the First Avenger, this is a whole other thing, gender reversed (with the man here the insider spy and the woman the innocent superbeing). It's worth noting that this is directed by a woman, and as such it avoids countless invisible gender-based subtextual faux pas. And Gadot is gorgeous all get-out, when she smiles which is rarely she lights up the world, but her intelligence and ferocity come first and Pine never dares condescend. We're so used to seeing the old devil sexism come creeping back in the subtext or in the performance (we know from The Mummy how passive-aggressive Tom Cruise would be in that role) but as Pine proved in last year's Hell or High Water, he's a superb actor--even when rocking a masterful German accent-- who knows how to step back and support other actors' big moments and here lets Gadot blazes luminous and unrestrained. With massively large and diverse London crowd and Belgian front crowd scene chaos, cathartic action and character growth, and a score that includes a mix of ripping electric guitars and bottom-dropped-out brass, it's bound for glory - not just a superhero film but a legitimate road marker on both a social and mythopoetic level, and not a single glimpse of our bloated new Bruce Wayne. Praise Athena!

Dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska 

It's a few years old but never released widely here, and so 2017 is its real debut, the year its Criterion Blu-ray released, showing it to everyday America for the first time, and what a gem it is, mostly. With a great look, an elaborately realized nightclub full of green and blue lighting, wove through with tracking shots dazzling enough to evoke Magnolia, Polish provac-auteur Agnieszka Smocynska delivers a knockout feature film debut. In fact, I was going to put it at #1 except for the bummer ending, which--though true to the myth on which its based (a variation of the same source material that gave us The Little Mermaid) leaves a bad feeling in the air. Considering the more progressive resolutions of Frozen and the under-appreciated Maleficent, it feels needlessly punitive, like Stalin kettubg the Warsaw uprising partisans get slaughtered near the end of WW2. Either way, it's got some great songs and a special shout out to Aqua-Man, in an early film appearance!

Dir. Sofia Coppola

An endearingly-awkward mix of stiff period finery, natural/candle light photography, wildly disparate performance styles, lack of effective musical score (oh for some eerie drones ala There will be Blood), and downright sloppy editing, Sofia Coppola's Beguiled is reminiscent of late 60s-70s period pieces by Francois Truffaut, where the costumes never quite seem fitted or natural - more like a dress-up masquerade shot off the cuff with no sense of art direction or framing. But hey that's all OK, Sophia Coppola has always conjured feelings of being stuck in the 60s nouvelle vague in her Merchant-Ivory-Hal Ashby hybrid style, coaxing a female perspective from the raw materials of the boy's club around her, not well, perhaps but too wisely. Adapting the source novel more than the Eastwood-Siegel original film, her Beguiled has what Smoczynska's Lure lacks, a strongly pro-feminist Dogville-style ending, rather than some dumb 'throw your sisterhood under the bus for patriarchally-manipulated love' sacrifice, the maddening sort censors would have demanded in the 50s, or some 'maybe next season' promise of blood-soaked Atwoodian vengeance. At 90 minutes, it doesn't linger much longer than the average Corman horror movie before delivering the cathartic blow. The moral, like some bizarro mirror to Picnic at Hanging Rock: love and sex may soothe the savage beast, but he'll still wind up dead, roasted and plated on the ladies' banquet table before he gets a second chance to roar. 

7a. 68 KILL 
Written and Directed by Trent Haaga

The title is the only bad part of this wild midnight road odyssey of amok feminine carnality, this explores a terrain similar to Scorsese's After Hours or Demme's Something Wild but with far darker streaks of high-octane black humor, tactile druggy trailer park Spring Breakers wild women and Devil's Rejects-style methed-up sidebar freaks, as passive but sweet Chip (Mathew Gray Gubler) is roped by crazy hottie girlfriend Liza (AnnaLynne McCord) into robbing one of her sleazy clients (of $68,000) and going on the lam. It's never that easy of course, turns out she really exults in his death rattles, and soon Chip's on the run with a different girl, his first in hot pursuit, and it just gets darker and more darkly hilarious from there. I can't reveal any of the strangeness in advance as it's better to just roll with its crazy punches, reversals, and vividly etched sex-hungry madwomen - it's got the fuel of a dozen Faster Pussycat Kill Kill and Last Seduction viewings in its system, and evokes Tarantino when he still had darker shoot-from-the-hip noir edges. Haaga got his start writing stuff like Citizen Toxie so you know he knows how to deliver thrills far outside the morality-taste spectrum that so ensnares his fellows and despite its filthy darkness, 68 Kill keeps a fun summery feel (it's shot on 35mm or has a great cinematographer, or both) and a bravura turn by  Sheila Vand (the lead in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) as the psychotic gravel-voiced emo bitch Monica, and Alisha Boe as the sweet but equally psychotic Violet.

Dir. The Safdie Brothers

This is a certain strata of outer borough living a lot of us 'aging hipster' New Yorkers don't really get to know anymore, not since the advent of cell phones made buying illegal drugs a "we come to you" thing not a "let's take a subway up to the shadiest section of the Bronx and see if that guy who knows that guy is still there' kind of thing. And as rents rise, the lower world dregs are continually pushed farther and farther uptown, and marijuana more and more decriminalized, it becomes hard to find them. That's why --even if your only connection to it all is a few week-stint palling around with your roommate's glomming townie boyfriend freshman year-- scenes like the one with twitchy Jennifer Jason Leigh desperately trying to shout her way onto one of her mom's long-canceled credit cards from the bail bondsman's office, or hearing a monologue from a newly-awakened car jumper swept up in Connie's drama (probably no better such recap montage since the one in  Rules of Attraction), like a whole separate movie in a quick flashback form, will kind of blow your mind. The Safdies capture the mix of slumming thrills and the way these sorts of hustlers sweep you up in their drama so fast that what started as you buying a dime bag and getting the hell back to your friends downtown winds up in you putting up your car up as bail for someone you barely know after running from the police through a neighborhood you don't recognize, with a head full of angel dust you didn't know you'd smoked and taking another of your dealer's friends to a hospital ER waiting room, hoping to get him admitted before the cops show up and you have to run all over again, and you're too young and/or naive and/or nice and/or stoned to figure out how to make your goodbyes and extricate you from this hustler's Jenga hodge podge of quick fixes before it topples down into handcuffs or a bullet.

Dir. Sean Baker

For all her ratchet tats, foxy Bria Vinaite is hellfire and ice cream in the sexiest cutoffs ever, so I'm content to watch her frolic and expose her wild children to danger (the "project" is a cheap residential motel near Disneyland inhabited by various transient families eking by week-to-week while their children run amok in the parking lot). I generally avoid 'social worker' movies, but I actually liked these kids since they're allowed to be so wild and untamed they conjure a rare and vivid primal force that no other age can e'er exhibit. And the cinematography and sun-scathed imagery is so vivid and arresting. I liked Willem DaFoe's protective but vaguely annoyed presence as the hotel manager, suggesting another form of 'great 70s dad' as a kind of peripheral game warden, keeping the lion cubs out of the cooler and away from poachers, but otherwise letting them do as they will.  I even liked the CPS people - who try their best to do their job and aren't far wrong in their diagnosis of endangerment and unfit motherhood: these kids are running too wild - starting fires and panhandling and setting themselves up for all sorts of troubles, but it's the summer and the gorgeous Florida skies have seldom looked more candy flip delightful. The hotel is overrun with deep purples and greens that vibrate against the clear blue in some truly breathtaking panoramas, as when a rainbow surreptitiously arrives overhead. The kids and Vinaite have great rapport - all are real forces of nature and every scene throbs with a vibrant resonant life, for better or worse. Scenes wherein she, realizing the CPS are coming to take her kid, brings her to a hotel open brunch bar ("Just walk in like we're guests") and we just see jump cuts of the kids ex temper prattle glimmer with something of the profound mythic magic we used to get out of Tennessee Williams. A masterpiece.

Dir Rupert Sanders

Too often these days 'flash mob opinion' seems to so warp the actual film; we can no longer see said film as itself, it's tainted. Hopefully not forever; in this case it's the damning label of whitewashing in the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major, a character who started life as a Japanese anime. Too bad the admittedly-valid cause picked this one to make a stand in, as it's the most underrated and appreciated film of the year, and way shorter than Blade Runner 2050. To avoid any residual guilt over this issue while watching, see it on a Blu-ray with a Japanese dub language track and English subtitles. Hearing a Japanese actress speaking from inside ScarJo's shell will likely make all the difference, and fit the thematic subtextuality with a poetic eloquence the film might otherwise lack. At any rate, it shouldn't be made into such a pariah for doing what every other mainstream Hollywood film has ever done, cuz it's fuckin' amazing. And there's the best nurturing friend relationship between a hotshot hottie detective and her coterie of tough men cops since Stendahl fucking Syndrome! (full)
OK - Women Section over, with a vengeance - come down in the basement to hang with the boys and the mounted deer antlers.

Dir. Christopher Nolan

The fusion of Christopher Nolan's three-tier approach: sky  three Spitfire Hurricanes shooting down the Luftwaffe; underwater (drowning in torpedoed ships), and the surface. The boys are all trying to get back to Britain so they can fight another day. And the captain of the small boat on his way to pick up some lads while Hans Zimmer's propulsive minimalist drum and eerie industrial drone score is like one long slow build up to mounting dread that compiles disaster upon disaster with tick-tock momentum, foregoing all the usual pitfalls (one shudders to think the pompous, anthemic drivel John Williams would have brought), going for a thumping relentless heartbeat industrial drone that seems to fuse with the rivets of the boat hulls and the terrible thuds of bombs and torpedoes. Seeing it in the theater you can feel the thickening metallic thud of bullets and torpedoes against steel hulls. The camera bobbing in the flaming oil-slicked waves while troopers swim desperately towards one torpedoed ship only to find it's already capsized from an arial bomb before they're all the way there and the next trick is to not get caught up in the burning oil slick. Nolan's eye for putting us deep in the thick of the action makes it a triumph of foley work, with big rippling sound you can feel in your belly.

And above all what registers--and is missing from most war movies--is the vastness of sky and sea; even in the throngs of desperate men, in hundreds of thousands of evacuees, the beach still dwarfs them all. Choices are made and are hard: a pilot dooming himself to capture by choosing to run out of gas on the French side in order to fight off a diving Messerschmidt about to strafe a barge loaded with British and French wounded; grabbing a random stretcher and using at an excuse to force your way through the crowded dock to get on a hospital ship, sneaking under the dock and crawling onto the hull and in on a lower level when that plan doesn't work; and then the ship is torpedoed a mile or two out from shore, and back you go, if you're lucky. The way friendships are made on the spot, a matter of desperate necessity. Nolan edits on the military ratatatat beat so well you wonder what regiment he served in. And of course, you realize something about your own self in wartime, and the way heroes are not made, or born, but shot.

Dir. Jordan Peele

When white writers and filmmakers try to voice the African-American experience we run into one of two thorny morasses at the end of two distinct paths, in the first we fantasize--seeing being black as a kind of freedom and increase in soul power, cool, confidence, and badass gravitas (ala Tarantino) and wind up in the morass of black intellectual backlash; in the other we solemnly celebrate some idealized portrait of the noble, spiritual blackness triumphing over racism and sashaying forth into a sunnier tomorrow (ala Stanley Kramer) and wind up in the morass of boredom (via Oscar). In each we're objectifying and simplifying our perceptions in ways that make us feel freer or self-congratulatory, positing our own sense of superiority in each instance in ways we're mostly blind to. In Get Out, Jordan Peele shows us how liberal whites look to a black eye when trying either of these strategies and in the process we're compelled to admire the way the black spirit endures even being expected to seem grateful for white attention to white racism. You can feel this movie coming together years ago during some similar weekends Jordan Peele spent meeting his Italian-American girlfriend's parents for the first time, and dealing with a kind of smiling oblique racism, where his blackness is as a flag no liberal can allow to pass unsaluted while at the same time leading to undoubted tension along the old school Spike Lee pizza parlor lines.

So it's keenly observed, and relatively new territory, for in Get Out racial identification erupts as a side effect, not as a direct focus. The conceivably objectionable idea of garden variety racism (i.e. a black man is sleeping with your hot young white daughters, doesn't that bother you?) is hardly broached at all here. We begin the film well past that, and before us loom a whole new set of hurtles. This isn't a movie about the white experience of blackness but a movie about the black experience of the white experience of blackness being experienced by affluent, liberal white people. It's that double meta-shift that makes the difference. Here the lead's blackness is not seen as some abomination or litmus test for white liberal acceptance but something far less obvious and more relatable and sympathetic. Not unlike Ray Milland grafted to Rosie Grier in The Thing with Two Heads, the overall message is that we can't ever possibly separate, we're merged and the only way to keep our heads on our own bodies is to gang up on terrorists, or North Korea, or in my personal Maryland camping experience from the early 80s, the Goatman.

As with his Comedy Central show, Key and Peele, the insight stems having a white mom and seeing the black-white divide from a perspective that's not quite all the way either one, coupled to a horror fan's familiarity with the way paranoia erupts from small, every day social occurrences and the way canny groups can obscure their evil actions by conforming them to the phantasmic outlines of everyday social paranoia. With Allison Williams (light years cooler than her character on Girls) rocking what are easily the sexiest bangs since Eleanor Friedberger or Chrissie Hynde and this is first time ever where a TSA agent named Rod (Lil Rel Howery) gets to be the good guy/cavalry --a tougher, more paranoid Arbogast / Dick Hallorann buddy initially assigned to just dog sit and provide phone call reassurance, he becomes the lifeline of all time, making us re-evaluate the TSA and our perceived indignities going though their airport checkpoints (where white people get a taste of what life as a black man is like).

Dir G.J. Echternkamp

This movie saved my life back in January when I was in the midst of a Trump-fueled alcoholic relapse. I came to it in despair, and in my despair it found fuel for a catharsis, and lo, I was reborn in the bloody joy that's always there at the core of our fucked-up nation. No matter if it's the food co-op co-op board protesting the political affiliations of their soy distributor, or the NASCAR beer-necks running up the sails, our great American craft of madness will find some fertile breeze to blow it. And then we'll set in on fire.

Evoking the great edgy fun pro-feminist approach of Corman slap-dash jobs of the past, this puts the man back into in the big leagues of the emerging realms of low-budget green-screen hipster sci-fi genre pastiche, ala John Dies at the End, Bounty Killer and Iron Sky. Don't even try to question why this kind of crunch car smash surreal green screen zip feels more real than most of Hollywood's gritty busters, that's just 'the future' talking and you're already in it. I bet even now, there's a difference between how you see yourself in your mind's eye (and the mirror with good lighting), and in a selfie. Don't listen to that selfie, son or daughter. Know that you look like everyone else in the rooms of your nearest beginner AA group, not some spectacular bleary-eyed butterfly. Floor it on through the illusions, jump that uncanny valley and fear no hard landing future, left or right, of the dial. Even if the next crunch you hear is your own hard candy coat cracking, thou wert only ever pixels. (full)


Everything from

You can argue all you want, superhero movies are the shit right now. You can't compare them even to the original comics, or any other adaptations --Marvel, especially, in particular the MCU (which is all of a piece and different than the universe occupied by the X-Men or the one with the apes). They are the truly enduring myths of our meta moment, especially for the alienated boys of the world, and the cooler women. Soaring with high concept wit but lacking the self-serious posturing of DC, Marvel hits every base required of great Jungian myth and do so with quips and succinct no-BS dialogue that make all competitors melt away. This year saw, finally, a good Spiderman movie, a hilarious Thor movie and a damn solid Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel is so hot right now they could even do a woman-helmed movie with someone other than ScarJo or the Scarlet Witch. What about She Hulk!??? Take a chance Marvel, give the Scarlets a rest and go green...

There's a moment in WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES where the main gorilla guy looks down at the captured human prisoners and his face has such an exact and miraculous mix of gorilla expressions met with human inquisitiveness, malice, curiosity, fear, and anger, it's like we're seeing the next stage in human evolution, the Uncanny Valley crossed, via a hidden rope bridge, via Darwin, with the profound bizarro force equivalent to when the first ape touched that black monolith all those years ago. Mark my words, history was made in that gorilla glance. The valley bridge shall soon be opened.


Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino
Amazon Prime

The quality of this eight part series is so high, the tracking shots and crowd scenes so sublime and intricate that the whole thing swirls with a high mix of Coen Bros Inside Llewyn Davis, and AMC's Mad Men, and all the loving recreations of the late 50s-early 60s era, when Lenny Bruce was getting arrested for using charged language. Every last dust speck of the Bleeker Street record stores and clubs are lovingly recreated, but unlike similar fetishist art director-cum-auteurs like Todd Haynes, Maisel's narrative line is never inert but instead flows like beautiful river. The violence is nil, the Big Life Lessons non, the laughs earned, the trauma naught, the charm high, the wit razor-sharp, the clothes heavenly, the lead actress Rachel Brosnahan staggeringly beautiful and talented. In her flawless dark red outfits, eyes alight with that distinctly NYC woman character that overflows the borders of gender prescription in such a way there's no stopping her, and though it's all very theatrical there's no musical numbers, unless you count classic period songs set to tracking shots so well choreographed they create something like a joyous earthy version of Kubrick. Even the pisher husband is sympathetic--to an extent-- and looks good without a shirt. The problems are all humorous without being overly-simplified yet it's not so subtle you struggle for meaning. It's so tight, from the interweaving camera that glides along through elaborate but seemingly breezy crowd scenes with the grace and panache of Midge herself, there's not a moment of dead space in the entirety of its season. Whatever all that other shit was trying to do, it's done right here.

BROAD CITY (season 4)
Created by Abby Jacobson and Ilana Glazer 
Comedy Central

Yo, these girls have electric comedic crackerjack chemistry, timing, and wit they crack open the borders of women in comedy and jab a giant stick through the eye of the basement trolls tweeting that women aren't funny. They may sometimes get roped into falling into some familiar sitcom-ish barrels, but overall they're the only ones to nail what so many 'young single ladies living just enough for the city'-shows try for - the type of girls who bite the big apple with the force of a steel trap, right through the core and out the other side, free of all liens, materialism and encumbrances. Whether howling with the witches in central park (including Diane Keaton) or shrooming through the West Village (some hilarious wiggling pop art animation), this was their year. They mostly got rid of one unbearably hammy roommate, now there's just one more who overplays and sends it all into a spiral only Billy Eichner could undo, but he was on Difficult People, so you'd need Hulu.

BIG MOUTH - episode 2 "Everybody Bleeds"

One of the genius touches of this animated Netflix series is to have the emerging male libido appear to young puberty-stricken Westchester Jewish boys as a furry but friendly monster, a mix of Looney Tunes lion, Will Arnett, and one of Sendak's wild thing.  Episode 2 goes one better: the girl version, voiced by Maya Rudolph, suddenly erupts with the first menstrual blood of the lead girl, and it's a truly thunderous and terrific moment. We can feel this smart young girl's sense of self, her power and pain widening to encompass her sudden mix of pain, shame, confusion, anger, and then flow past her own bedroom in a primal cry that mom heeds on instinct only to be shut down brutally. Rudolph invests the voice with such from-the-hips force as she sweeps through her charge's bedroom, throwing out the tomboy baseball glove and declaring that now is the time to "listen to Lana del Rey on repeat while you cut up your T-shirts!" You feel the parameters of social acceptance for frank discussion of menstruation and bodily female changes erupt into public acceptance with a devastating primal scream that shatters and widens social reality itself. The feminine use of temporary raging insanity as a defense against the mood-crushing inescapability of menstruation is made tangible to even the most cliched macho dumbass. What's done cannot be undone. Also, Jordan Peele plays the ghost of Duke Ellington, counseling a possibly gay kid on the pansexual liberation in the jazz age; I forget if he mentions Billy Strayhorn, but does he really have to for this to get eighty stars?

Cartoon Network

In a way I guess I'm lucky that my relative age-related social marginalization led me to not learning about RICK AND MORTY until the third season as I would have gone crazy waiting over two years for a new one to happen, with the first two seasons being only 10 or 11 eps each. Now it's all over and I have no choice but to deep freeze myself until season four finally arrives, presumably in 2020 or later. I'm already scratching my arms and wild-eyed grasping. I can't go on. I can only endeavor to forget. Isn't that, really, what 2017 was all about? The remorse of knowing our sci-fi ecstasy may well be behind us, thanks to a news channel more cruelly insidious than Goebbels and Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines combined?

The world is two separate paradigms now, depending on whether you watch Fox or MSNBC, or CNN or whatever else. One side still valiantly labors to keep facts straight and raise the alarm, the other preys upon the fault lines of paranoid white male consciousness until fissures erupt. When the president gets his briefings from the latter, we're truly in trouble. We may soon have no choice, change the channel and bask in the warm allure of denial, or go mad from the sluggish pace of clarity. Luckily, there's no hiding place better than the screen, and its accessible to all. God bless and deliver Robert Osborne to the heaven he so deserves, for he led us to ours.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Angels of Death VI: Girl Mummies

Sitting here in the tomb that is my office building on the day before the high holy feast of Thanksgiving, I'm reminded of mummies... excavated from the depths.. and how excited I was to learn the new MUMMY was going to be a girl! Again! Another adaptation/variation on Bram Stoker's 1903 novella, "Jewel of the Seven Stars" perhaps? 

The tale of a mummy hand severed from a powerful Egyptian priestess, the "Stars" has been adapted / riffed on several times over the years, more than any male mummy's source material, thank you. The 1932 Universal film was based--like 1931's Dracula, on a John L. Balderston play, and followed a very similar route. The Stoker story of "Stars" was a unique, real original-off all on its own crazy reincarnation tangent. The first adaptation was by Hammer in 1973 --the right year, country, approach, right studio and right actress in the central double role. Twenty-five years later--in a hipster riff on Ireland, alcoholism, and the Hammer film, more than Stoker's story was Michael Almereyda's The Eternal. The same year came the made for cable or VHS version, rife with 80s Cinemax-style sex and gore. 

Stoker's girl mummy didn't really stop there or begin there. The first girl mummy appeared in a 40s Universal Mummy sequel and there's a 70s Curtis Harrington TVM that's partially inspired by Stoker as well as Universal. In short, the girl mummy is immortal!  Unstoppable. Even Tom Cruise, I imagined--hearing he'd be replacing genial lummox Brendan Fraser as the romantic lead--wouldn't be able to sink this lady's chances at mythic world domination. 

But our great goddess Tera still waits, in the ether, for the right hand to bring her into the new century. 

Functioning as a fine 'fear of the vaginal chthonic hydra' tale example of Victorian horror literature, cursed only with (two) unsatisfactory (rushed?) endings, "Stars" concerns an ancient evil ancient mummy priestess whose hand is cut off (shades of Demonoid) and whose soul travels the cosmos for aeons until the time is right to return in a new body. She waits for when the 'seven stars' in the Big Dipper align in accordance with a mystic jewel on a ring on her severed mummified yet perfectly preserved hand. She psychically calls to the Egyptologist of her choice from his pell-mell lodgings in Whitehall, whispering to him where to dig, and making his wife back in London gives birth right at the moment he first lays eyes on her perfectly preserved corpse. Naturally she's a reincarnation dead ringer for this ancient priestess, and there's some tricky aeon-spanning cosmic scroll shit going down. 

Time and again, this mummy broad shall rise! 
Come sacrifice a bird with me, then, in the forlorn hope we'll one day get more movies about genuinely badass ancient sexy goddesses, the types beyond good and evil due to their vast expanse travels and epoch-spanning existence. Let us praise SHE who dares view human life the way we might view dandelions or insects. 

We cannot judge Ahmanet, or Tera, "She who cannot be named" anymore than a turkey can judge us for not taking a moment to honor its sacrifice, to feel its pain, to sing it to heaven as we sit down to devour its plucked and roasted carcass for our November holiday. We can't expect her care about our welfare any more than the ghosts of the long-slain Native Americans can be expected to care about our blind adherence to the 'family' tradition of honoring their (foolish?) generosity. 

Soon we'll all be in the same hunting ground anyway and hopefully all past strife will be forgotten. We'll become as the stardust in the wind... 

Not Tera, though. She'll still be waiting, always, outside space/time -- a unified coherence of energy no aeon's cosmic tedium can diminish. 

 Sofia Boutella as Ahmanet
(2017) Dir Alex Kurtzman
**  / **1/2

If you look gamely into the rubble of collective abuse heaped on this year's MUMMY a true fan may find a true treasure in the form of lithe Algerian dancer/actress Sofia Boutella. As the warrior priestess assassin Ahmanet, Boutella (in the prologue) kills the pharaoh's baby or some lovely thing and is mummified alive in an unmarked tomb. Naturally she astral travels, tracing the seams in the fabric of time and space, riding the centuries like a surfboard until she's found just the right sky cult-brainwashed, Illuminati orgy-crashing, aging A-list actor to exhume her and see her safely ferried across the channel to jolly England. Damn right I'm talkin' bout you, Tom! 

Along the way, in the middle stretch, come the highlights: a vast murder of CGI crows ripping through the plane's windshield; a great sandstorm made of crushed London window glass whooshing down the city streets, bouncing off the buildings as it rushes forward like thick smoke up the neck of a giant whooshing Graphix bong; Boutella's arched back and smiling/chanting when in chains in the Mi6/Torchwood offshoot's secret chamber. Required to convey great reams of unholy ancient power with little more than a half-smile, she's so cool even Russell Crowe as a burly Jekyll-Hyde-cum-Allan Quatermass hybrid group leader seems anemic by comparison. Saddled with mountains of terrible dialogue, he seems to shrink away inside his burliness in an incoherent blur. Any scene between him and Tom, full of bad acting arguments, is a cause for the bathroom break. There's never a doubt in our minds who amongst the whole dreary lot is the most sympathetic, the coolest, and the most succinctly delineated, no matter how awful the things she may treat us. 

And if Crowe's coming off bad, you can only imagine how Cruise--ever determined to appear waggish--comes off. Instead of --as in the story--a stodgy British Egyptologist, or a gallant Victorian doctor would-be-fiancee, he's the male version of Lara Croft. Endangering his friends via unsanctioned tomb plundering while supposedly working for the US Army (or Halliburton). There's a certain amount of heroism inherent in his character's plundering ancient sites for posterity minutes ahead of idol-smashing ISIS, or grabbing things for museums before that strange and all-powerful black budget group Russell is heading disappears them forever. But he's still a doofus and expects us to like him so much he has to constantly preen for the camera. He knows it's not working, and he's not good enough to fake his own cocky vanity.  

Another wrankle is we're expected to root for or like Russell for being the head of an MI6 archeologist division, a British version of our own MAJESTIC-12, who keep all the fun monster stuff from the monster-starved public. At a certain point, avoiding panic becomes choking off the true wonder of the world at its root --keeping us in a monsterless dark ages of buzzkillery. With a decent rewrite, this aspect could be explored in counterweight to the ISIS relic-smashing frenzy --as if each organization is determined to prune off any evidence of a world outside their own narrow definition of reality. Naturally that idea, too, has been smashed, subsumed under the massive weight of Cruise's white dwarf ego. His clear uneasiness in playing 'light' action comedy makes the whole ship lurch with seasick moral swaying. 

That's not to say it's beyond him. When his overwhelming narcissism is welded to the right role (as in MAGNOLIA, TROPIC THUNDER), he can be magnificent, beyond awesome. But how often do these parts come along? How few of his diamond characters are flawed to the point of cracking apart, rather than merely bedecked with some slight scratch of 'brash cockiness' that some underwritten female exposition totem is sure she can buff to a like-new sparkle?  

I'm not a fan of the 90s MUMMY films (the 1999 'remake' and its sequels), but I respect their good-natured goofiness, their complicated, romantically-forlorn pharaoh villain, and that Rock Hudson-meets-Jim Belushi of the Middle East, Brendan Frazier. A big lovable slobbery sheep dog of a man, Frazier doesn't need to be adored in the compulsive insecure perennially self-flagellating way of Napoleonic terriers like Cruise. Frazier loves women, he doesn't need their love first. But Cruise is the opposite. Cruise needs to see women seeing (and wanting) him. We didn't understand that in the 80s. Now it just seems tragic. 

He's still got it though. Look at how young he looks! 

In this MUMMY there's actually two strong women with a weakness for Tom. Annabelle Wallis - (above) is the requisite Michael Bay-style 'cool' archeologist in tight fetishized 'safari' shorts who wishes he'd take things a but more seriously (Wally Ford in THE MUMMMY'S HAND seem stoic in contrast to Cruise's stilted mugging in the face of danger). The other is Boutella's Ahmanet, who can create sandstorms out of broken glass and murders of crows and re-animate the dead and keep Tom young for all eternity (!) -and what's more she's well acted--not hammily but sinuously and compassionately--by the Algerian-born dancer/actress Sofia Boutella.

There's no comparison of course between the two girls: Boutella wins every contest except for the 'swallowing colonialist patriarchal morality dogma' challenge, but from a mile off it's easy to guess who Tom ends up with. Since chunks in the middle--the sandstorm and crows in particular--are good enough that we briefly wonder why the film got such a razzing, it's not hard to guess audiences were really irritated by a protracted stilted awful final act when, you know, he has to make a decision. Stay young forever with a hot crazy Algerian dancer, or accept the sands of time with Wallis. Come on Tom, change the channel!

I decided to stop watching right after the part of the climax wherein it looks like Tom's going to willingly die on the altar of Ahmanet's ceremonial dagger and then reincarnate as his ageless, deathless, immortal self in order to 'live' cosmically with her, ever after. The scene drags, so there's plenty of time to get up and press stop or to FF and scroll up to the credits and pretend it ends with the destruction of the world. Do that and it's **1/2 rather than **. And really, two stars are only because of the way Boutella moves, and that Mona Lisa smile while she generates her plagues and murderous magic.

One day, please lord, let a lady mummy win a hand!

And lastly, Tom, if you're so desperate to appear an 'ageless male' that you need to be seen saying no to immortal beings who want to grant you eternal youth, may I suggest you say it to your 'handler' next time? I'm sure the ghost of Captain Ron will be most amused at your independence. Can't you hear the cruel echo of Satanic laughter accompanying the film's 'bomb' stature? That's Ron, Tom! That's Ron!

But I didn't write all this to bash Cruise. I wrote it to praise Boutella, who wins our loyalty almost as fervently in the MUMMY as when she played Jaylah in STAR TREK BEYOND (left): a cute alien with white skin and black tribal cat markings (denoting the Clan of the Cave Bear's ancient alien ancestor?), scrabbling for survival in a world occupied by the ISIS-ishmaniac Krall (Idris Elba) and his vast marauding army. There she's made a home in an invisibility shield-protected ancient starship that crashed long ago, and welcomes the shipwrecked Enterprise crew aboard, forming a nicely platonic bond with Mr. Scott, and proudly blasting her "loud beats and screaming" from an old boom box. The imperious way she kicks back in the captain's chair, and doesn't surrender it to Kirk, forcing him to stand around by her side, is worth seeing the film in and of itself. It also gives us us a chance to see the way a real man handles a potentially emasculating moment (Cruise would have demanded such a moment be edited out).

One last great thing about Boutella: she is one of the few dancers-turned-actress who don't exaggerate and luxuriate their every movement. You know what I mean: they lead with their necks, moving shoulders sinuously, the rest of their bodies following in an exaggerated serpentine sway, ending with pendulum hips the bob up and down to some unseen sound wave. Boutella instead moves with an extraordinary blend of carnal rock swagger, gravitational grace, and disarming earnestness. She acts not just with her whole body but with everything else as well. She's fully present, yet she doesn't rub it in our face. She doesn't show off, she just dazzles.

And, being Algerian, she's so much more vivid a mummy than just another white B-movie star coated in tanning bronze. She makes such makes an ideal incarnate of.... what? The MUMMY people call her ultimate evil but I prefer what Corbeck (James Villers) says of the Ahmanet-like Tara in Hammer's BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB: Tera is far beyond the laws and dogma of her time -- and of ours!”  In the words of the brazen Mr. Subtlety,
Writer Christopher Wicking somewhat craftily universalizes the lingering doubts Stoker’s characters had in the absolute correctness of their beliefs, to go beyond the cultural into the philosophical.. “Beyond good and evil?” asks Margaret. “Love, hate. She’s a law beyond good and evil" notes Corbeck, "and if we could find out how far beyond… how much we can learn.” There’s a certain moral horror there, a sudden, gut-wrenching shift that occurs when the stable ground suddenly and jarringly moves beneath you, destroying your illusions of a constant, comforting reality. The characters can hardly deny that maybe this five-thousand-year-old magical spirit might know better than they do. Who are they to call her “evil” when her understanding of the universe is clearly so much more profound than theirs? 

Valerie Leon as Margaret/Tera
(1971) Dir. Seth Holt

The first time I saw this I fell madly in love with Valerie Leon and the story itself. As if echoing the reincarnation elements of the story, I got a weird sense of de ja vu the first time it came on (TCM, I think) since I was reading Bram Stoker's novella--The Jewel of the Seven Stars--at the exact same time it was on! Me not knowing the film was actually based on said novella until about halfway through (since I missed the credits). Since the story is all cosmic deja vu it was a perfect meta moment for me. What are the odds, after all, that I'd read a super obscure Stoker story right before seeing this relatively obscure Hammer film, not knowing in advance it was an adaptation of what I was in the middle of reading? A zillion to one? Was that any different than how Queen Tera 'chooses' archeologist Andrew Keir from across time and space to discover her tomb since his then-unborn daughter Leon is her reincarnated self, thus ensuring her tomb accoutrements be at hand when the 'seven stars' are aligned as depicted in her magic ring? Just as Margaret "happens" to  have been given the Jewel of the Seven Stars ring on the proper birthday for her to be inhabited by the ancient mummy who just happens to look identical to her, so too did I exist just to read Stoker's story and then bask in Valerie Leon's rock and roll-meets-Emma Peel swagger making her the perfect partner for her beyond good-and-evil aesthete Steed, James Villers.

Oh Valerie... to see this film to enjoy the way her mere presence so intimidates and terrorizes a legion of British character actors they run shrieking from the room! "It was her!" notes a terrified tomb excavator, "as large as life-- she who has no name!!" The the intelligent Jimmy Sangster script never overstates the obvious or wastes time with the inevitable doubting boyfriend; named puckishly "Todd Browning" even he admits "she has some sort of power, that's obvious." And he never even flinches when she suddenly becomes Tera to get the tomb familiars from the various Brits. And the way Leon suddenly becomes imperious and cool is masterfully done.

To top it off, she has a cool gay evil bestie. A swaggering aesthete who'd be right at home blackmailing REBECCA or helping Dorian Gray hide the body of one of his snooping lovers, James Villers is so slick, and his relationship with Tera/Margaret up there with of all the great conniving bitch/bemused aesthete relationships in movies (ALL ABOUT EVE, MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING spring to mind, as well as of course TV's Avengers) that it's like a wellspring from which modern mummy vitality flows beyond time and space.

PS - If all that 'you have to die to live forever' jazz seems confusing it's likely the result of the Egyptology's widespread study in Victorian England, a craze climaxing with the King Tut's tomb discovery in 1922. This stuff would be a trend in Stoker's time, like spiritualism and phrenology was in the previous century (Stoker even spends a sentence or two giving a few of his characters  phrenological descriptions), and thus more aspects of the ancient beliefs were widely known, rich with sexy currency:

In ancient Egyptian belief, for example, according to the Smithsonian:
The idea of "spirit" was complex involving really three spirits: the ka, ba, and akh. The ka, a "double" of the person, would remain in the tomb and needed the offerings and objects there. The ba, or "soul", was free to fly out of the tomb and return to it. And it was the akh, perhaps translated as "spirit", which had to travel through the Underworld to the Final Judgment and entrance to the Afterlife. To the Egyptian, all three were essential
So in this case, Tera wants to... what exactly? Why Tera wouldn't just take over Margaret's body is a mystery that can only be answered by the laws of pulp fiction. There needs to be a bloody sacrificial climax in which Stoker's lack of control over the ending/s of his original story becomes immanent. We can guess that Tera's ka needs her tomb objects (which Keir has deliberately spread amongst  various expedition members to keep them separate, much like Set hiding the body parts of Osiris) to totally reincarnate. But why bother? Her unaged body is still young in the Hammer version, so the purpose of all this is vague. Possessed Leon's Tera/Margaret visits each expedition member and takes the animal sculptures and then the ghost animals kills their keepers in a flurry of close-ups, for no clear reason.

Though these murders are the film's weakest moments actually (as Holt's camera zooms in and out on inexpressive statues and close-ups of wild-eyed old English hams for far too long); in between, it's pretty grand watching Leon sweep through Hammer's semi-realistic sets, her long fashionable nightgown or purple overcoat billowing from otherworldly gusts of air out of the broken windows with the curtains and glass shards, a black choker over alabaster neck, her gorgeous un-augmented, womanly body (the type of sex symbol all but gone from today's marquee), her assured gutsy diction and voice (1), the sly way she underplays recklessly in a double role, that sexy imperiousness when she pretends to be or is Queen Tera and the way pretending becomes reality, those sleepy, drowsy bedroom eyes, it all coheres into,  for my money, the best of all girl mummies. Just look at that awesomely haughty ambivalence in her eyes above! She could be watching us slowly drown, disrobe in bed, or plead for mercy, it's all the same in the end. As Margaret later notes: to Tera, who has seen millennia come and go, everyone but her is just dust in the wind.

Like her insanely perfect black nightgown (and a later pink one), it fits that Leon is the only woman role/s in the cast (aside from a museum assistant, an older woman psychic), and the rest are all mostly terrified middle aged males of no small talent or stature, ripping into the material that's still as ageless and only slightly moldy as it was a century ago, all cowed by this young beauty and the ancient beautiful 'beyond good and evil' force swelling within her.

Allison Elliott as Nora/Niamh
(1998) Dir. Michael Amereyda

The 1990s had already seen one trippy European bog mummy film, this with a male/eunuch shaman with some still active 'flybane' mushrooms in his pocket reincarnated as a rabid nymphomaniacal Communist with one spoon in her lover's brain (See The Ancient She-Shaman and her Shrooming Exhumer). But the frothing at the mouth stylizations of Zulawski are hard to sink into as a genre horror film and the rote 'innocent girl possessed by an executed, entombed or defiled soul for its methodic revenge' thing of Hammer's a hard rut to get out of. Almereyda mixes the two just right: there's enough druggie downtown acumen to make it decent company next to Jarmusch and Abel Ferrara, and enough wry nods to the classics to fit next to Freund, Hammer, and Lewton. I don't have to read a Wiki to know Almereyda is a true blue classic horror film lover, for The Eternal pulses with the found value rhythms of Ulmer, the rustic seethings of Hammer, and the murk of the moody Browning. Even the deadpan macabre wit of Whale flows through in a steady bucket trickle. If you know these names, Almeyreda's Eternal is the film for you, Johnny-O. Ignore the bad RT and imdb scores. What do they know about the ancient gems, severed hands, genetic alcoholism or Iron Age moral compromises?

In my old review, looking it over (here), I realize how off-track I got bemoaning its lack of exposure/distribution due to, in my opinion, a terribly bland overused title and shabby cover art that makes it look like a washed-out softcore SOV waste of time. I only found it through researching Almereyda's imdb page  after basking in the glory of Nadja, (rather belatedly). But after another recent viewing I feel ready to try and write about the amazing qualities of Alison Elliot's low-key double performance. Coming out of a centuries-long sleep as Niamh the bog mummy, she's both ambivalently homicidal and sexually starved, and thirsty, yet still seems mostly  dead - a hard combination to pull off. She stabs Walken while making out with him, eyeing his death throes with the dispassion of someone still mostly unconscious. Clad in a Walken's slick dark red robe, her hair flowing wet and wild, her carnal open-mouthed wordless needy eyes towards her mortal counterpart's husband Jim (Jared Harris), who bounces around the place like a cool hipster. We learn too he has no job, living off Nora's inheritance, so of course he's fancy free, and the news of the son not being his (but rather some townie idiot's) doesn't translate to less fun fatherly affection --his main crime is trying to taper off his wife's alcoholism while indulging his own on the DL, the punter. It's natural then that the climax involves Niamh grabbing the son and holding him hostage in the basement. How does Jared try to free him? Of course by being friendly and offering her the whiskey bottle. While Nora and the surviving humans watch in shock (Nora slowly deteriorating as Niamh gets stronger); he and Niamh start drinking dancing together and we start to like this mummy more than we like anyone else; and we like everyone by that point, even the locals.

After all, it's not Niamh's fault that Uncle Bill (Walken) found her body down in the basement and cleaned her off, or that Nora's increasing headaches are a side effect of Niamh either becoming her or sucking up her akh. How can she help being a force of nature. Talking about her before she wakes up, Bill theorizes, in grand Walken style, a version of Corbeck's beyond good an evil speech:  "She was uncontrollably herself," he says. "It was the Iron Age -- you had to a do lot of nasty things to get by."

As it is with Tara in Blood from the Mummy's Tomb and Boutella in the new mummy movie, even after all the death and chaos she wreaks, we excuse Niamh from our same self-governing morality because of this 'beyond good and evil' idea. Though as a druid her ways and traditions are far less chronicled (2), her power is undeniable and though we may fall under the bedroom eyed sway of Elliot's dreamy Niamh, we have to ultimately side with the generic composition of the nuclear family. Right or wrong, we're living in modern linear time. Whomever its real father might be.  (full review here)

Amy Locane as Margaret / Tera 
(1998) Dir. Jeffrey Obrow

Coming out the same year as Michael Almereyda's looser adaptation, The Eternal, Obrow's adaptation of Bram Stoker's novella Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903), Legend of the Mummy, follows the source material sufficiently close to warrant its "Bram Stoker's" prefix. As with Hammer's Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, it also finds a better ending. Filmed in the flat grey sky way that often denotes "Vancouver" (though shot in SF) and set mostly in and around a rather modern looking street corner mansion, it's very ROTM in a lot of ways (softcore grinding, cheap gore, etc.) but there's a different (black-ish) actress as the ancient Terra (Rachel Naples), which is unusual (usually Margaret and Terra are usually played by the same woman), and Louis Gossett Jr. is Corbeck! How novel to have blackness return to ancient Egypt!

It's still pretty lousy, but if you're a fan of girl mummies, you'll want to see it anyway. Amy Locane makes a very low-key, lovely, and intriguing Margaret: becoming more and more imperious and reserved as Terra takes her over, Locane makes small, tiny behavioral and facial changes; the music and lighting don't have to do a thing to make you notice how quietly low-keyly evil she's grown even though you never noticed the moment she changed. Aubrey Morris plays the same family doctor part he played in 1971's Blood! Lloyd Bochner is Margaret's comatose Egyptologist father! What a cast!

Ugh, I forgot about the rest of cast. 

Aside from those mentioned above, the bulk of the cast are pure dreckitude: as Sgt. Daw, Mark Lindsay Chapman seems to think the film is set in Victorian England so he hams it up with a thick Brit accent like he's in a Mike Leigh film; Eric Lutes is flat-out terrible as the romantic lead Robert; Gossett alternates between overt hamminess and half-asleep disconnect, as if mentally firing his agent alternating with trying to do such a bad job he gets replaced. As for Obrow's directing, the various strands of occultist plotting in Stoker's material routinely get too subtle for him, making full engagement difficult. (I had to watch it in reverse, skipping back chapters from the end, to make it stranger for myself).

Variations from Stoker's text include a lot more mummies on the grounds than just Tera, including one or two who come alive and chase or kill humans for no real reason (except maybe because it's expected in a mummy movie); and there are mummy pieces (as in limbs) buried all around the house for Corbeck and Robert to dig up. Contemporary victims of Terra's indifference are tossed into a basement quicksand pit with little passages that open up to release lots of giant cockroaches, that.... slowly... climb.... on.... faces. Is that necessary though?

Luckily Obrow is faithful to the text where it counts, like the big ceremonial climax: Light and shadow make the ceremonial cavern come alive in wild ways; the dusty tomb look recreated for this ceremony outclasses even the Hammer version, which never looked like more than an ordinary basement with hieroglyphs painted on the walls. The goriest and most sex-filled of girl mummy films on this list, Legend of the Mummy has its cat-chewed charms and doesn't deserve the terrible 2.7 it gets on imdb (last I checked). And of all of them, this has probably the 'happiest' ending as far as evil is concerned. Long live Terra!

Meredith Baxter as Rena / Bast
(1974-TVM) Dir. Curtis Harington 

Dividing its inspiration between Lewton's Cat People and Stoker's Jewel, Curtis Harrington's richly referential/reverential TV movie concerns a mummy chick brought to life when an imprisoning amulet is removed from its neck by a thief breaking into a recently deceased Egyptologist's relic collection. Soon a shy little catlike girl named Reina (Meredith Baxter) is getting a job at a spooky Satanic bookshop run by Gale Sondergaard (after her predecessor mysteriously falls from her 10th story balcony). Everyone associated with the amulet as it makes the rounds of pawn shops dies a grisly death by cat attack, but not before Harrington gives some eccentric character actors some bits of business and a few lines, so we can recognize them from the old classics, and probably a couple of bucks for a day's pay in their pockets!

Though just a short, cheap little TV movie, Cat Creature flows with a special Lewton-esque sensitivity and melancholy, with Baxter's subdued low-key vibe casting an intriguing spell over everything around her. Making her first friend in an archeologist (David Heddison) helping the cops track the killer down, she makes you want to put a shawl over her and take her walking in the park as the magic hour fades to a chill October night. Like all the mummy women, she's beyond good and evil, yet it's inevitable that she can't continue living in world void of tolerance for senseless killing (full review: here)

1. Virginia Christine - as Ananka / Amina
(1944) Dir. Leslie Goodwins
Accessing some pulpy core of dream poetry, the final entry in Universal's Mummy cycle manages to evoke nocturnal contrasts between cheery warmth (the opening scene in Tante Berthe's homey little tavern) and darkness (the ruined abbey climax) not unlike the mix of Dante's, the Italian restaurant vs. the chilly Satanist salon in Val Lewton's Seventh Victim. (only here the black Bettie Page bangs belong to willowy lovely reincarnated mummy princess and not the dour, short and suicidal Satanist. The acting isn't great, except by a weird few, again almost by accident: as Kharis, Lon Chaney gives a small master class in how to act a role with just your eyes and one bandaged arm; Peter Coe's weirdly silken vacuousness as the requisite fez wearing high priest would be bad in a normal film but here serves the hypnotic spells fairly well; Martin Kolseck is great (as always) in a small role as his aide; Dennis Moore is insufferable as the entitled prick archaeologist; and Virginia Christine rocks in he dual role (?) of mummified Princess Ananka and her own (later?) reincarnation, Amina. Neither of her characters' arcs make any sense, but that can be explained as the will of Amon Ra.

Christine's acting is understandably uneven as the role is a hybrid of so many script glitches there's no way to play it except as a hot amnesiac. To recap: Amina was a (modern age) archeologist in the previous film in the series, The Mummy's Ghost. Kharis carries her into the swamp at the end, after he recognizes her as the reincarnation of his lost Ananka. But unlike say, Yvonne Furneax in Hammer's 1959 Mummy, rather than be rescued from the swamp at the last minute, she's 'turned' somehow by his touch and begins to age into a mummy herself, all without explanation. It seems rather unfair. Why reincarnate at all if an old flame can just yank you back into your ancient shroud the minute he decides to shamble into town?

The last in the series, Curse is different than the usual 'slog, bog and snog' formula of its predecessors. This is Amina's story more than Kharis's. We see her first as a figure emerging from the dried mud at the bottom of a claw loader scoop hole during a swamp drainage project: it's as if she's coming out of a clay mould: her face almost like a half-formed clay sculpture come to life. She arises, caked in dirt but clearly loving feel the touch of the sun, which beams down at her, Ra-like, and she staggers along looking for a puddle to wash in; if anyone sees her, they ignore her, just another walk of shame. We've been there, we city-folk, pulling ourselves off the floor after what seems like a 25 year black-out, weaving home from the party of the night before, warmed by the afternoon sun, still in our filth-encrusted party clothes, walking through the morning commuters like a phantom. Weirder things happen every day, so there's no reason that vibe can't be evoked. For example, why are the workmen saying it's time to quit for the day and go home when the blazing sun is still high in the noonday sky? No wonder the foreman is stressed.

Then begins Amina/Ananka's odyssey of somnambulistic drifting. Cajun Joe, who just left his bulldozer back where she came out of the mud, now spots her while walking home (he must have got lost. Again it makes no sense as he should be home by now, considering how clean she's made herself via a small puddle, hair dry and combed). Joe takes her to Tante Berthe's cafe, as-ah she will-ah know what to do-ah (she's probably a midwife as well as saloonkeeper). Sweet Berthe puts this amnesiac hottie (with very modern Bettie Page bangs) to bed in her room; almost immediately the mummy bursts in and kills poor Berthe like some slow-mo one-armed strangler ex-husband, jealous even of a well-meaning older woman. Terrified. Ananka runs off into the swamps again, and the killing and stalking goes on. In the best section, she's rescued by the archeologists in the area and we see her basking in the sun doing research via microscope, looking at old recovered bandages from Kharis, her firsthand memories wowing smug Dennis Moore. She could find a nice niche in that field even though the men would probably take credit. (the self-entitled way Moore says "you could be a great help to me" makes you want to smack him) but the mummy always shows up like that abusive stalker ex, killing anyone who tries to protect her or promote her, so he can drag her back down into her outmoded gender straitjacket.

On the surface there doesn't seem to be much thought put into Curse at all but it manages to use its limitations and stupidity to access the same twilight realm occupied by Carnival of Souls and Dementia. And it's an unusual sort of tragic. Seeing people basically killed for being good samaritans makes us feel the pain and waste of these murders ala Lewton's Leopard Man from the previous year. Tante Berthe is loved by everyone in her corner of the bayou, including us, so when she's killed for trying to protect Ananka we feel it. We mourn for a victim for the first time in the whole series - she's more than just some tomb robbing white man. And the foreigner Egyptian conspirators give off an air of domestic terrorism. Why command Kharis to kill indiscriminately if not for some ancient cult zealotry and impersonal hatred against first world capitalism and Christian decency?

But as with the others in this list, what gives the film it its real alchemical magic is the girl mummy, and the actress who plays her. It's the posh accent, confidence and cat woman litheness of Virginia Christine as Ananka that makes it a small gem. A colorful Italian local in the bayou notes "it's been-a 25 years since a mummy drag a girl in the swamp." But what girl? The last film was only made the year before; there she was just an archeologist named Amina and played by a different actress. This time we're compelled to gaze deep onto those modern bangs and wonder. Who is she really?

There is no real answer so we're better off trusting that it 'feels right' and that's what dream logic is all about. And Christine is great at splitting the difference ("its like I was two different people... two different worlds.").

Bearing out the split/subject aspect is the similarly coiffed and tempered Kay Linaker as the drainage project foreman's understanding assistant. 100% 20th century, she's the 'lucky' girl who winds up with the leaden lead, Dennis Moore. Amina meanwhile reverts to the bandaged dead Ananka as soon as her head hits the sarcophagus pillow. Why she rapidly ages back into mummy bandages at the end (just as she did in the previous film) is never explained, but by then, like a psychoanalyst session, the hour is up. The dream ends.

And we keep the memory, of how the brief tragedy of Amina's plight luckily is offset by her fashion-forward bangs and use of a night dress as evening swamp-wear. I don't generally like those Betty Page bangs --you have to be damn hot, willowy and with the right mix of bad girl, demure kitten, and assertive intellect to pull them off.  Amina/Virginia Christine has all that and a good dress designer too. Since her character is neither here nor there as far as soul-body-mind-incarnation-century cohesion, her dress is neither nightgown nor formal evening dress but a sublime hybrid. She could either be lost on her way home after an all-night party in the 50s or sleepwalking in the Victorian age. Christine pulls both options off at once (in 1944), and looks damned great being carried around by Lon. Man, she's so leggy, when Kharis is carrying her uphill, her feet almost touch the ground.

Naturally the more I see this film the more I forget its weaknesses, but amnesia has always been the B-movie lovers' friend. Is that why 'forgettable' and 'dreamlike' go so hand in hand, and why these girl mummies are like the ultimate in repeat viewing anti-heroines?

I forget, but it seems like I wrote this all before... 


1. Knowing Hammer, she's maybe dubbed - but don't spoil it for me by confirming that rumor. 

3. (I'm not mentioning some of the really bad riffs, especially the ones who make the mummy a man, or who downplay the fear of the feminine angle)
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