Proving again that a Dogmatic vow of chastity can lead to a certain purity of hogwash, Kristian Levring’s The King Is Alive is endearingly pretentious—as if it swallowed a thick brick of Beckett and can’t pass the uncooperative Beckettian stool. Shot in fiery digital-video hues, Levring’s scenario begins compellingly: A busload of passing-through American and European misfits get stranded in the North African desert, with only a nearby ghost town (the rooms brimming with sand) and a few crates of very old canned carrots to sustain them. For its part, Levring’s movie attains a stunning sun-and-sand-blasted ambience. But the inevitable “fantastic striptease of basic human needs” becomes collateral narrative; you don’t maroon bourgeois in the African outlands anymore (at least not since Antonioni’s The Passenger) unless you’re creating a parable on alienation or social collapse. The characters are stock (Janet McTeer and Bruce Davison’s discontented married couple, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s empty-headed hipster, Romane Bohringer’s brooding student, Brion James’s hotheaded Ugly American, etc.), and their petty battles and outbursts are perfectly rote.
Levring’s lip service to the Dogme 95 rules has its benefits: The desert light and textures are immediate. (You wish Michael Palin were here, unfolding maps.) Too bad there are no chastising guidelines for script writing—before long, grizzled Englishman David Bradley begins writing out King Lear (why Lear? why not The Tempest?) in longhand, and the strandees all decide, rather lethargically, to put on a show. Frankly, talking to a soccer ball makes more sense, but this is a pseudo-naturalistic castaway tale in which the lost ones conserve hydration by swilling whiskey, rutting like minks, and dancing to disco. Standing out in the sun reciting their lines like Tanguy figures, Levring’s characters are barely more absurd than the film’s arbitrary ideas. Haplessly evoking the memory of more sensible movies (particularly Robert Aldrich’s 1965 The Flight of the Phoenix, in which James Stewart and Co. gave no thought to Shakespeare and rebuilt their airplane instead), King feels like penitence for its actors, stuck as they are with2-D personae slowly whittled down to 1-D by the script and the elements. Your heart goes out particularly to poor Janet McTeer, looking so lost between psychodramatic tit gropes.
Lost in its own desert, Stephen Sommers’s The Mummy Returns is first and foremost a trial run for a Universal Studios ride. For those susceptible, its precursor was a trivial but spry launch into Egyptological matinee daydreams: oil-lit tents, torchlit catacombs, pit helmets, sarcophagi, scarab plagues. The sequel does little more than repeat the need-a-bigger-boat jokes, triple the digital effects, and forget entirely about the old Universal B-movies in favor of an even-more-dated Indiana Jones trampoline bounce. Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz are now the Nick-and-Nora-with-kid (Freddie Boath) of ghostbusters, and their concern is a series of crisscrossing curses and the requisite evil British Museum curators that will summon up both Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) and the Scorpion King (WWF’s The Rock), who will struggle over control of the god Anubis’s infinite army of hound-headed drones. For all that, a series of slo-mo wrestling matches predominates.