The Glass Castle *½|****

Naomi Watts and Brie Larson in The Glass Castle

Adapted from the best-selling memoir of the same name, The Glass Castle depicts the unorthodox childhood of writer Jeannette Walls (portrayed by Ella Anderson in flashback) as she moves from town to town with her parents and three siblings. Her father Rex (Woody Harrelson) seems to be full of inspiration and wisdom when speaking with his children but we soon learn of personal demons that manifest themselves through alcoholism and fits of anger that contribute to his inability to maintain a steady job. Her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), an aspiring painter, doesn’t fare much better in attempting to support her kids but still remains hopeful even as their financial situation gets increasingly dire.

This backstory is intercut with scenes of Walls as an adult (Brie Larson) in late 1980s New York, now a writer for a gossip column who is happily engaged to a promising financial analyst (Max Greenfield). Her attempts to expunge the memories of her painful past fail when her parents turn up, desperate as ever, in Manhattan and they seek to reconnect Jeannette with the rest of her family in a series of doomed meet-ups. Her parents don’t give up, however, and through continued exposure with them, Walls rediscovers the fleeting moments of bliss that occurred during her rocky upbringing and aims to find resolution with her struggling parents before it’s too late.

The film and its director Destin Daniel Cretton seem to contend that Rex and Rose Mary are worthy of such absolution but based on the two hours that I spent with them, I can’t say that I agree with that stance. These are more than flawed characters trying to make their best out of a bad situation; these are narcissistic, negligent, selfish parents who demonstrate time after time that they’re ill-equipped to handle raising one child much less four. Not only does Cretton often seem to give them a pass on their reprehensible behavior but he tends to double down on his efforts by attributing bits of noxious pseudo-philosophy to their actions, as when Rex repeatedly throws Jeannette into the deep end (literally) of a public pool and then has the gall to follow up with “I can’t let you cling to the side your whole life.”

Rose Mary gets in on the action too and early on as well, as we’re only a few minutes in when she tells her hungry child (probably 3 or 4 years old at the time) to make her own lunch since she can’t be bothered to take a break from her painting and Jeannette’s attempt to boil hot dogs results in horrifying burns. What, exactly, is the point of opening the story this way if I’m to have anything but utter contempt for a woman who would allow something so despicable to happen to her young daughter? In case this wasn’t enough, the plucky strings from Joel West’s cloying musical score are a distressing reminder that this movie thinks it’s a quirky dysfunctional family tale à la Little Miss Sunshine when it’s closer to something out of a Texas Chainsaw Massacre spin-off.

If there’s a saving grace, it’s in the high-quality cast that’s been assembled and the generally excellent work (inconsistent accents aside) that they showcase even with such problematic material at the forefront. Harrelson and Watts do a reliably solid job but it’s Larson that again proves she’s the real deal following her Oscar win for Room, as she navigates through complex emotional territory without losing the audience in the process. Even the caliber and conviction of the performances doesn’t change the fact that I spent so much time rolling my eyes during the events of The Glass Castle that it’s possible I saw more of the ceiling in my theater than what was taking place on the giant screen in front of me.

Detroit ***|****

John Boyega in Detroit

Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow teams up with journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal for a consecutive third time to create their most unflinching and unshakable material yet with this stark period piece. Detroit centers around the Algiers Motel incident that took place in the summer of 1967 when racial tensions and rioting were at an all-time high for the titular city and no one seemed to have a feasible solution to the problem. The film itself doesn’t provide any easy answers either and will no doubt generate a variety of impassioned opinions, both positive or negative, but it’s difficult to deny the skill and dedication that Bigelow has brought once again to her craft.

After some early scenes of context that outline the tumultuous setting, we’re introduced to several key characters who eventually converge at the Algiers Motel, including up-and-coming soul singer Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and local security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega). When a man fires a starter pistol from the window of one of the rooms, the National Guard and local police overrun the building and round up all of its residents to seek out the potential shooter. Things turn from bad to worse when the officers led by Philip Krauss (Will Poulter) resort to intimidation and violence to find their suspect, which ultimately leads to multiple killings with dubious motives.

The film’s centerpiece is the hour or so that captures the horror of that event at the Algiers and while it’s grueling to watch and can be repetitive at times, every artistic and technical aspect comes together to make it an almost overwhelmingly gripping experience. The acting, especially in the case of Poulter’s sadistic policeman, is first-rate all around and does the most to contribute to the idea that everything we’re seeing is just how it was experienced by those who were there that night. The guerrilla-style camerawork from Barry Ackroyd (best known for his work with director Paul Greengrass) is fast-paced but always focused clearly during pivotal points of action both big and small.

Bigelow spends most of this long sequence at the motel to showcase the cruelty of men abusing their powers but she also takes care to assert the humanity of the victims before and after the event. For instance, we meet Dismukes as he settles a dispute in the street between a young black man and a white officer but in doing so, we learn of his personal dilemmas about keeping the peace when doing so was sometimes perceived as cowardly by those in his community. Reed is another character who gets a fair amount of screen time, most notably in the scenes where his singing is showcased and Smith’s performance is so good that his voice alone goes through its own narrative arc and informs the emotional state of his character.

If the film suffers, it’s due to the fact that neither the often clumsy build-up to the Algiers incident nor the generic courtroom follow-up reach the dramatic heights of that captivating stretch in the middle. I suspect that if Bigelow had focused more thoroughly on one character, as she did so well in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, it could have given the story a more personal framework and made things a bit more cohesive from a narrative perspective. Detroit is instead more a sociological study of a truly disturbing moment in American history that has a saddening amount of relevance to the current state of race relations even 50 years later.

A Ghost Story **|****

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story

David Lowery reunites his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara for this idiosyncratic and indefinable work that has some touching meditations on the passage of time but is largely aimless and didn’t quite land with me on an emotionally resonant level. A Ghost Story begins by introducing characters credited as C (Affleck) and M (Mara) as they share a few moments of quiet intimacy and are later awakened in bed to loud noises in another room. The following day, C is shown in the aftermath of what proves to be a fatal car crash but after M visits the morgue to identify her late husband, he awakens on the table and his spirit seems to envelop the white sheet that covers him.

His ghost then saunters back to their home, wordlessly watching his former wife grieve her loss (which, in one instance, manifests itself in an audacious one-take scene of Mara binge-eating an entire pie) and try to land on her feet as she contemplates whether or not to move out of their storied house. When she does eventually move away, the ghost is left in the house as time then begins to progress rapidly and  he silently surveys future tenants unnoticed in his increasingly tattered outfit. In his isolation, C’s spirit wanders through space and time to search for answers and a way to move past the seemingly hopeless state of his quasi-existence.

Lowery settles on a more studied pace as he fixates on static shots centered around minimal bits action; one scene that depicts C lying lifeless on a body tray and then eventually rising up runs a little over 60 seconds, a lifetime by modern film editing standards. These long takes lend themselves to a more contemplative experience that allow us to take in every aspect of the frame (including the deceptively intricate costume design) and the patient storytelling juxtaposes poignantly against the fleeting nature of the ghost’s timeline, which seemingly can span years in a matter of “seconds”. To aid this effect, Lowery actually shot the ghost character at a different frame rate (33 frames per second than the traditional 24) than the rest of the scene and created a composite of the two for the final product.

Despite this low-key technical wizardry, A Ghost Story never fully landed for me and I chalk this up to the lack of emotional investment that I had in the characters and their struggles. We only spend a few moments with the central couple before one of them passes on and even in flashback, we’re not given enough detail into their lives together and the connection that they have to lead to some kind of eventual catharsis from their grief. After Mara’s M exits the story, we’re left with Affleck’s character as he sulks around his former house and tries to communicate with a neighboring ghost via subtitle, which probably wasn’t intended to be funny but had me laughing nonetheless.

There are ways in which this general story could have worked quite well but instead of making romance the centerpiece of the film, Lowery gets more existential and esoteric by taking a grander scope to the ghost’s tale and, in the process, loses the immediacy of the film’s earlier scenes. When he does eventually bring things to a close, the conclusion feels oddly unearned and a more saccharine send-off than the more ponderous narrative probably deserves. A Ghost Story showcases some well-honed artistic impulses but doesn’t have a compelling enough central story to make its flourishes come to life.

Dunkirk **½|****

Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy in Dunkirk

Dunkirk, the new World War II film from director Christopher Nolan, tells the harrowing story of the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation from three different narrative perspectives with its primary focus on the beach area where thousands of troops including British  Army soldiers Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles) are desperately awaiting rescue. We also follow the efforts of those who volunteered to travel across the English Channel to pick up as many men as possible, including a mariner named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney). These stories are intercut with scenes in the air featuring Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) as he shoots down German planes while also trying to conserve enough fuel to make the trip back home.

This triptych structure unfolds at different rates of time (one week on land, one day at sea, one hour in the air) and is told in a non-linear fashion but unlike the tricky structures of previous efforts like Memento and Inception, Nolan doesn’t quite pull off the narrative acrobatics this time around. The stories do occasionally intersect in compelling ways — for instance, we see two instances of a downed pilot waving to his fellow airman with drastically differing contexts — but there aren’t enough of these payoffs to make the storytelling device work as well as it should. The timing of events also suggests that we should spend very little time in the air and much more on land but it felt to me that there was just as much footage of Hardy in the sky as there was following the action on the beach.

The most glaring difference in storytelling from the rest of Nolan’s oeuvre lies not in how it deals with sequencing of events but rather how little background and exposition we’re given as to what’s happening moment to moment, as the director instead decides to throw us right into the action with little context. Any detail that Nolan does give, as in the breathtaking opening scene where soldiers are walking aimlessly down an empty street as propaganda papers that demonstrate their helpless situation fly through the air, often gives us situational awareness but little personal insight to the characters. Nolan’s critics have often accused him of having characters over-explaining plot points within his own films and instead of finding a more happy medium, he goes completely the other direction and gives the audience very little to go on, which is a bold artistic choice but not one that paid off completely for me.

The biggest disappointment of Dunkirk is just how little dialogue Nolan, who has writing credits on all of his films excluding Insomnia, uses to not only set the scene but also to give us the character foundation necessary to be personally invested in what’s occurring on-screen. We’re barely able to learn all of the characters’ names before we’re asked to follow them into battle and we’re not given much more clarity into who these people are by the actions that they take; everyone fights for their survival and that’s about it. Again, I understand that this was a deliberate choice made for this film and I might not mind it if Nolan was a subpar screenwriter but he’s proven with his previous films that he has a great ear for clever and engaging dialogue and the decision to cut this aspect of his work out is a detriment to the final product.

Despite my misgivings, I was lucky enough to experience the film in the 70 mm IMAX format and there is no denying that Nolan and his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema have crafted plenty of indelible and unforgettable images within this film to make it as visually immersive as possible. The sonic package, also impressive but not mixed quite as effectively as it could have been, is filled out by the blending of a meticulous sound design along with Hans Zimmer’s pulsating and characteristically bombastic musical score. Dunkirk is as technically accomplished as anything Nolan has done up to this point but by denying himself the ability to utilize his most refined skills as a storyteller, he simply leaves too much unsaid.

The Big Sick ****|****

Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick
Most married couples tend to have charming anecdotes about how they first met or what their first date was like but comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon have a bit more to bring to the table when it comes to discussing their early relationship. The unorthodox story of their courtship is the real-life basis for the new romantic comedy The Big Sick, an ambitious and often hilarious film that is also genuinely heart-warming and humane in a way that few companions of the genre can claim to be. Nanjiani and Gordon co-wrote the brilliantly layered screenplay together and the two putting their heads together not only gave the script a balanced sense of perspective but also allowed them to pack in so many rich details that make this true story feel even more authentic.

Nanjiani plays himself as a struggling stand-up looking to break out of the Chicago comedy scene with his friends CJ (Bo Burnham) and Mary (Aidy Bryant) while also making some money on the side with a semi-regular gig as an Uber driver. One night, Kumail is accidentally heckled by a graduate student named Emily (Zoe Kazan) and when they meet after the show, it’s clear that the two have an immediate connection and after a few dates centered around viewings of vintage horror movies, they officially become a couple. Things are going well until a misunderstanding and ensuing argument seem to derail their partnership but after an unexpected incident following their breakup draws Kumail back into her life, he forms a bond with Emily’s parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) that gives him the clarity to renew the relationship.

Kumail’s family and their cultural ties factor prominently into his life and subsequently into the story, as their desire for him to settle down with a nice Pakistani girl and pursue a more serious career than stand-up comedy is antithetical to how he’d like things to play out for himself. Even with his differing perspective, Nanjiani writes the roles of his family members in incredibly mature fashion and treats their more conservative viewpoint with respect instead of just throwing them under the bus for easy laughs. There is a harrowing conversation late in the film between Kumail and his parents, in which their Western and Eastern philosophies collide and threaten to do irreparable damage to their relationship, that is likely the most heartbreaking and brutally honest scene I’ve seen so far this year.

Director Michael Showalter is probably best known for co-writing sketch comedy touchstones like The State and Stella along with cult classic Wet Hot American Summer but he shows considerable talent behind the camera as he effortlessly manages some drastic tonal shifts. There are so many shortcuts that he could have taken when translating this true story to the big screen and I really came to appreciate just how much thematic ground this movie covered from the persistence of young love to the uncertainty of trying to carve one’s path in the world. At two hours long, it seems like The Big Sick would have a tendency to drag or include more material than is necessary but the pacing is always right where it needs to be and no matter how heavy the story gets, Showalter proves that he can still get a laugh when you least expect it.

Much of the humor is there on the page but the credit for the film’s frequent source of laughs goes to Nanjiani’s lead performance, which showcases the comedian’s self-effacing style beautifully while also including tender moments of dramatic poignancy. Holly Hunter does excellent work here as she always does but the biggest surprise to me was Ray Romano, who I had a passing familiarity with based on his Everybody Loves Raymond success but with this role, proves that he’s graduated well past his sitcom roots to offer something more resonant. I’d love if all three were nominated for acting awards come Oscar season but even if they aren’t, I’d be surprised if The Big Sick doesn’t garner some attention in the major categories as a comedy this uniformly excellent doesn’t come around all that often.

Spider-Man: Homecoming ***½|****

Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming

After an auspicious cameo in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man now has his own standalone feature in the MCU and and I’m happy to report that it more than lives up to the promise of his previous appearance. Spider-Man: Homecoming is the third on-screen iteration of the illustrious web-slinger, as directors Sam Raimi and Marc Webb previously had separate swings at the characters, but in many ways, this seems to be the first version that truly understands what makes the character unique and indispensible in the superhero realm. If Raimi’s trilogy exhibited an earnest campiness ripped straight from the comic book pages and Webb’s pair of films was brooding retort to the Dark Knight series, then this film casts a lively signature of its own that’s defined by soulful storytelling and perfectly pitched humor.

Tom Holland reprises his role as the young Peter Parker, who is desperate to become a full-time Avenger after the thrilling battle of Civil War but is told to lay low and not get into anything too perilous by his burgeoning father figure Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) Eager to help his community, he ignores the advice and crosses paths with arms dealer Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), who harvests the alien technology brought to Earth during The Avengers to create advanced weapons for criminals all around the city. Parker also must balance this new conflict with the everyday dilemmas of teenage life, including a best friend (Jacob Batalon) who accidentally learns of his secret identity and a new love interest (Laura Harrier) who challenges him on the academic decathlon team.

The film’s subtitle is a nod to the fact that Spider-Man has “come home” to Marvel Studios after 15 years of Sony hoarding the character rights but it’s actually more telling that it refers to the big homecoming dance at Parker’s high school, as the movie tends to play out more like a coming-of-age teen comedy than traditional superhero epic. As opposed to the high school scenes of previous Spider-Man movies that mainly consisted of “kids” in their late twenties sitting around in room made to look like a lunchtime cafeteria, Midtown High School actually feels like a believable setting complete with awkward gym classes and dreadful detention sessions (there’s even brief chess club shoutout, for good measure). Homecoming understands that the stakes of the story are established by Parker’s interpersonal conflicts and are not just defined by the big showdown with Spider-Man’s villain of the week.

This emotionally grounded mentality extends not just to Parker but also to Toomes as well, whose evil plan isn’t to blow up the planet or take over the galaxy but rather to just stay under the radar peddling guns on the black market so that he can support his family. Keaton’s portrayal of the Vulture (the Birdman jokes write themselves) is one that’s steeped in desperation and circumstance rather than sinister clichés that have infected many a Marvel villain in the past, which makes the character one of the more compelling examples in the category. When Spider-Man and Vulture do arrive at their final confrontation, the shared history between the two comes to the forefront and creates a poignancy that makes their airborne showdown that much more thrilling.

It may sound like serious business but believe me when I say that there are plenty of laughs along the way with loads of quick visual gags, ping-pong dialogue and some brilliantly conceived bits that reference other segments of this Universe (there’s a running joke featuring another MCUer that’s delightfully unexpected). Like The Lego Batman Movie, this is a film written by people who know how to get plenty of comedic mileage from riffing on aspects of their respective characters’ legacies but they do so respectfully, taking care to avoid mean-spirited jabs in the process. People are rightly skeptical of reboots, especially with franchises that have had as much recent activity as this one, but Spider-Man: Homecoming proves that a fresh vision on an existing property can sometimes have truly amazing results.

Baby Driver ***|****

Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver
From the “Don’t Stop Me Now” zombie beatdown of Shaun of the Dead to the battle of the bands sequence in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, music has always played an integral part in helping Edgar Wright distinguish his cheeky and kinetic style apart from his peers. His new film Baby Driver takes the concept of an integrated soundtrack further and doesn’t just underline the big scenes with memorable musical cues but orchestrates the majority of its action along with the beats of the selected songs to create an impeccably synchronized experience. It’s not quite a musical, at least in the traditional sense since characters aren’t belting out lyrics that correspond with the songs that are being playing, but everything plays out with such a deliberate rhythm that the driving force of the music almost acts as the main character of the movie.

In a more literal sense, the story centers around a young getaway driver (Angel Elgort) with the code name Baby who escorts bank robbers under the supervision of the kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey), who Baby crossed paths with early on in his life and has remained indebted to ever since. Seeking to get out of the crime life once and for all, he agrees to do a final job stealing money orders from the Post Office with the violently impulsive Bats (Jamie Foxx) and the quietly intense Buddy (Jon Hamm) in order to square his arrangement with Doc. Prior to the heist, Baby meets a diner waitress named Debora (Lily James) with whom he instantly falls in love and sees as a perfect companion for his pending getaway provided everything goes smoothly with the final robbery.

We’re told early on that Baby suffers from tinnitus, which he assuages by connecting his ever-present earbuds to a menagerie of vintage iPods and keeps his music going constantly in the background, even during conversations with others and during plotting sessions where Doc breaks down each step of an upcoming stickup. More often than not, we’re treated to the effect that Baby is essentially sharing one of his earbuds with the audience, as we are also hearing the eclectic playlists that are going through his head at the same time he is. This leads to fun choreographed moments big and small, from an opening chase sequence designed shot for shot around The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s rousing “Bellbottoms” to something as simple as setting down a set of coffee cups along with the tempo of song.

When it moves to the music, Baby Driver is as exuberant and satisfying as anything that Wright has done up to this point but the movie occasionally getting bogged down in the more conventional elements of its storytelling and loses some of its charm and cleverness along the way. It revels in tropes of the crime genre (“one last job” and a new love that leads to salvation, for instance) that it seems like Wright should be either lampooning or delivering with some kind of a quirky twist but he presents them about as straight-faced as possible. It’s fortunate that he still has a knack for writing snappy dialogue; it’s just a shame that he couldn’t have put more thought behind giving the characters unexpected things to do in addition to giving them unexpected things to say as well.

Even with a more routine plot at its center, the mashup of mayhem and music is the biggest selling point of the movie and the precision with which Wright executes these sequences is more than enough reason to sit in the passenger’s seat for this wild ride. Two big standouts for me personally are a heist gone wrong set to The Damned’s “Neat Neat Neat”, which Baby actually rewinds at one point just to ensure that the action will match up with the music, and a frantic footrace set to Focus’ indefatigable yodel anthem “Hocus Pocus”. If the Ant-Man dispute with Marvel put Edgar Wright’s career in a bit of a temporary stall, Baby Driver has put him firmly back on the right track and in the fast lane towards more mainstream success.

Menashe ***½|****

Menashe Lustig and Ruben Niborski in Menashe

Taking place entirely in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, Menashe is a gentle and heart-warming family tale that places us in an insular world that many of us have never experienced and still finds a way to connect and make it genuinely relatable. The film is not only a showcase for the rarely depicted Hasidic community but it also utilizes Yiddish, a language that audiences likely aren’t accustomed to hearing at length, as its primary method of communication. Its inclusion of authentic locations and real Hasidic actors lends a credibility that crucial for a movie like this to succeed and even though the story is small in scale, it’s no less absorbing and poignant than more ambitious work that’s come before it.

The title character, played by Menashe Lustig, is, to borrow a Yiddish term, a bit of a putz and can’t seem to navigate through the obstacles that life has thrown in his direction. Following the loss of his wife, his teenage son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) is mandated not by the courts but by the head rabbi in their community to live with Menashe’s disapproving brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus) and his family. Without the presence of his son in his life, he left to reside in a depressing studio apartment and slave away at his unfulfilling job at the local market, waiting for things to turn in his favor.

Menashe tries to step up and rise above his circumstances in small and big ways throughout the story but for one reason or another, the struggle always ends up being more than he can handle by himself. He feels pressure to re-marry, in part for the partnership but mainly so he can create a fitting household for his son, but in a brutally humorous scene which depicts an arranged blind date that goes sour in a hurry, it’s clear that there may not be another woman out there for him. A planned memorial for his late wife seems to be another occasion where he can prove to Eizik and his judgmental friends that he’s on the path to mensch-dom but even a “bachelor-proof” kugel recipe proves too much for Menashe’s culinary capabilities.

First time writer/director Joshua Weinstein crafts the perfect combination of situations in which to place his main character so that we can take in such a thorough and tender portrait of a struggling widower. It’s hard not to be empathetic to someone whose hang-ups constantly seem to be getting the better of him, especially when the person in focus is such a gentle soul by nature, and Weinstein plays these day-to-day dilemmas with just the right mixture of comedy and tragedy. Lustig and Niborski also have a playful chemistry that had echoes of the father-son relationship in Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, even though the stakes in this story are decidedly much lower.

The production is rounded out with some exceptional technical aspects, including simple but effective camerawork and editing that never takes its eye off of our harrowed protagonist. The spare but gorgeous score, which introduces a lovely melody on violin that flows out over a quartet of strings, is the perfect way to musically encapsulate Menashe and within the first minute of it playing over the opening scene, the hair on my arms stood on end and soon goosebumps followed. Menashe is a small delight of a film about standing out in a closed group that doesn’t reward individuality and finding one’s own slice of happiness away from the overbearing constraints of society.

The Mummy *|****

Tom Cruise in The Mummy

There’s a moment early in the desperate and downright embarrassing Mummy reboot that achieves a level of meta resonance that only monumentally stupid movies can achieve by pure coincidence as opposed to genuine self-awareness. The film’s first big action setpiece finds Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson running rampant across Iraqi rooftops while avoiding insurgent gunfire and as they duo drops to the ground for cover, Johnson yells the same four words that Cruise’s agent should have invoked when he considered taking this role: “what are you *thinking*?” It was the same sentence that kept popping into my head many times while watching Cruise in The Mummy, which squanders just about every good opportunity that comes its way and indulges in a host of bad opportunities that could have been avoided with even a modest degree of common sense.

Cruise stars as Nick Morton, a brash soldier turned smuggler who gets in over his head when he accidentally uncovers the tomb of the ancient Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) with his partner Chris (Johnson) and chief archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). While transporting the sarcophagus on a military plane, a massive wave of crows causes a violent crash that leaves no survivors with the exception of Jenny, who is parachuted off the plane before it goes down, and Nick, who is seemingly cursed by Ahmanet’s ghost. The pair team up with Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), head of a secret society called Prodigium whose goal is to rid the world of supernatural evil, to contain Ahmanet before her plans to unleash the Egyptian god Set on the world can be carried out.

The Mummy is to be the first film in Universal’s Dark Universe, which is an attempt to incorporate vintage movie monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula into an all-encompassing franchise complete with cloying callbacks and Easter eggs that feel like product placement for the future film entries instead of clever bits of fan service. On a corporate level, this is Universal’s rebuttal to Disney’s Marvel Universe and Warner Bros’ DC Universe but the effort to emulate the world-building tactics used by those studios is as tacky as it is transparent. There’s something profoundly arrogant and cynical about making a movie that is as shamelessly mechanical and soulless as this while also presuming that the audience is already on board with more installments before they’ve even had a chance to experience the first entry.

Even if you strip away the context of Hollywood’s incessant addiction to franchise filmmaking, there’s still plenty in The Mummy that would qualify it as a total non-starter even if its mission was to just be a standalone popcorn flick. The script is nothing short of a disaster, rife with inane, ear-scraping dialogue so witless that it’s a miracle the actors could muster the courage to deliver the lines to one another and with characters so thinly written that they slip through one’s fingers like a fistful of sand. The director Alex Kurtzman is known primarily as a screenwriter for big budget fare like the Transformers and Star Trek series but in his first attempt at heading up such a spectacle, he fails to tell a comprehensible story or deliver any action sequences (save for the plane crash) that have any sort of momentum or vigor.

Still, much of the blame can rightly be put on Cruise, who turns in a charisma-free performance so listless that I wondered if he had been working through a concussion or two from bouncing around in zero gravity for his stunt work. I suppose it doesn’t help that he is saddled with a bumbling fool of a character who spends most of the story confused or defeated and the decision to misuse the talents of such a bankable star was likely embedded from the outset by executives at Universal who didn’t care if Cruise would be a good fit as long as the box office numbers could justify it. It’s too early to tell if they’ll learn their lesson this time around but if The Mummy is an indication of how the rest of the Dark Universe is going to play out, then we have a long dark road ahead of us.

It Comes At Night ***|****

Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott in It Comes At Night

It Comes At Night is writer/director Trey Edward Shults’ follow-up to his superb debut Krisha and stars Joel Edgerton as a former teacher named Paul who lives in a desolate house in the woods with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as they fight against a mysterious virus that has seemingly wiped out most of humanity. A stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their house scavenging for supplies one night but after interrogating him, Paul learns that he has a family close by who are depending on him for survival. As a family man himself, Paul empathizes with Will’s situation and offers his house to the new family but seeds of mistrust and paranoia planted early on during their residency are eventually sown to devastating effect.

With its deliberate pacing and haunting imagery, It Comes At Night has discernible elements of both horror and thriller genres but the end result is something much more illusive and difficult to categorize with one neat label (this might explain why the marketing was a bit all over the place). There are some surprising scary moments and plenty of tense scenes as well but the film doesn’t move like any kind of conventional post-apocalyptic tale that we’ve seen so far, even if it does have a few of the genre’s nagging cliches. It’s defined more by mood and tone than any specific narrative choices as Shults casts a perpetual state of unrest across a cast of characters that seem to constantly be at wit’s end amidst increasingly dire circumstances.

While there are some clues early on as to what may be happening, there’s an intentional ambiguity to both the circumstances of the characters and the presumed threat that they are facing, which some will find maddening and others could find refreshing. I personally found myself at both ends of the spectrum while taking this movie in; I’m certainly not someone that needs to be spoon-fed exposition just to know what’s going on but I can also appreciate the need to set-up bits of background so that the payoffs can land more effectively. The push for more veiled storytelling seems to be built into the design of the film, as Shults has stated in interviews that he wanted the audience to know as much as the characters themselves know so that we can effectively feel like we’re a part of the story and not just experiencing it as passive viewers.

Even if the lack of clues were to leave one frustrated, it’s difficult to deny that It Comes At Night is masterful on nearly every technical level but especially in the lighting and location work, which contribute greatly to the ominous feeling of dread that is inescapable during the course of the movie. The decision to cast each scene primarily with either daylight or with limited illumination from lanterns is integral to creating a feeling of hopelessness, as every setting seems to be coated with the very thing that we’re taught to distrust. The set design of secluded stronghold seems to be maximized for discomfort as we witness characters crouch down just to make it through certain doorways or huddle closely together so that they can fit as one on top of the same bed.

In his first two features, Shults has demonstrated a deeply personal brand of filmmaking that is all too rare even in independent cinema but while Krisha seemed to have a more cathartic sense of purpose, it’s hard to tell exactly what he’s trying to say with this new venture. It’s a sorrowful tale about the terrors of facing the unknown and the darkest impulses that infect human nature but the kind of heartfelt connection to the material that was so evident in his debut is now shrouded by this nightmarish filter. Despite some of these more esoteric misgivings, It Comes At Night is an effective arthouse horror-thriller that will no doubt have people talking (and hopefully thinking) long after the credits roll.

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