Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Director Report Card: Stephen Sommers (2009)

8. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

For years, blockbuster films have sold toys. With the success of Michael Bay's “Transformers,” studio execs suddenly had the realization that they could cut out the middle man and just make blockbusters about toys. “Transformers'” success led to a flurry of toy-based movies getting greenlit. A few of these – like “The LEGO Movie” or “Battleship” – made it to theater screens. Most of them – “M.A.S.K.,” a new “Clue,” a new "He-Man," “Frisbee,” a “Monopoly” movie directed by Ridley Scott for some reason – failed to materialize. As Hasbro's second biggest action brand after “Transformers,” a “G.I. Joe” film emerged as well. Unlike most of those toy lines, which barely had enough substance to support a film. “G.I. Joe” had years of cartoons and comic books to pull from. Though less popular than the giant robot movies, “G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra” still launched a franchise of sorts.

In the not too distant future, weapons manufacturer James McCullen has invented a frightening new type of war machine: Missiles equipped with nanobots, which can eat away at any metallic substance. Secretly, McCullen is the head of an terrorist cell and has used the technology to create an army of super-soldiers and hi-tech weapons. He has plans for world domination. Opposing him is G.I. Joe, a secret military organization. Duke and Ripcord, two regular soldiers, end up discovering the Joes and being recruited. Together, they work to stop McCullen and his cohorts' schemes. Duke, however, has an unexpected personal connection to the bad guys.

On paper, Stephen Sommers seems like a solid choice to direct a “G.I. Joe” movie. A lot of his films resemble Saturday morning cartoons already. “The Rise of Cobra” attempts to capture the spirit of a children's cartoon show. So there's a lot of plot points you're just not suppose to think about too hard. How can a covert operation as huge as the Joes operate in secret? How can the bad guys afford to build a huge underwater base and hundreds of vehicles? “Don't worry about it,” the movie whispers. However, “G.I. Joe” eventually becomes too dumb to be entertaining. A secret military group is one thing but how can it be secret when its agents rampage through a major city? How can G.I. Joe be so wide ranging but so easily infiltrated? Why do the villains not notice Duke activating a tracking device near the end? The film is ultimately too preposterous to be entertaining.

While I've been know to enjoy a “Transformers” action figure or cartoon show in my time, “Beast Wars” especially, I never had much fondness for “G.I. Joe.” Robots and dinosaurs trumped army guys, in my youthful eyes. I think my greatest attachment to the show was thinking the Baroness was really attractive. Yet even I can tell that “The Rise of Cobra” deviates greatly from the source material. The film attempts to build an origin story for Cobra, the Joes' enemies. Yet we have little reasons to care about how Destro, the Baroness, and Cobra Commander came to be when they barely resemble the versions we know. Many of the defining characteristics of the Joes are stripped away. Not to mention the visual design is vastly different and simply not as appealing.

While “The Rise of Cobra” is practically “G.I. Joe” in-name-only, the film is also hampered by an overemphasis on back story. The film frequently pauses the pace cold, in order to explain the character's origins. The movie opens with an irrelevant flashback, showing Destro's ancestor. Later, we learn all about Duke, his relationship with his girlfriend and his presumed dead brother-in-law. There are long moments explaining Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow's young adventures. “The Rise of Cobra” stops just short of explaining the life stories of everyone in the film. This stuff not only kills the story's forward-momentum, it also leads to a script that feels weirdly uneven.

I definitely recall “Joe” fans being concerned when it was announced that Marlon Wayans would star in the movie. The filmmakers assured the fans that Wayans' brand of broad comedy would not destroy the film. Fans' fears would be well-founded. The comic relief in “G.I. Joe” is painfully bad. Wayans' character, Ripcord, is so grossly incompetent that you don't know why he's allowed to stay on the team. While wearing a high-tech powered armor, he makes a mess in Paris and then cracks especially weak quips about it. He hits on a female co-worker in crude ways  that would surely classify as sexual harassment. Characters frequently make off-hand remarks and crack jokes, all of which take the viewer out of the film due to how weak they are.

Sommers was supposedly attracted to the material due to its resemblance to the “James Bond” franchise, a series he already pay homage to in “Van Helsing.”  However, this love for elaborate gadgets ends up derailing the film. Goofy vehicles and gimmicks obviously have their place in the “G.I. Joe” franchise but the movie possibly takes it too far. The film pauses to linger on fancy vehicles, like drilling submarines or overly complex jet-packs. One especially egregious example is a camouflage suit that makes its wearer all-but invisible. A character slips into the suit during a fight where it's almost useless. The prop is then never mentioned again. It seems a lot of this stuff was included just because the director thought it was cool.

As an action movie, “The Rise of Cobra” satisfies at least some of the time. The hand-to-hand combat scenes are well choreographed. There's a pretty cool moment where a fight breaks out during a vehicle chase, Snake Eyes reaching through a vehicle and being repeatedly blocked. The ninjas continue to be a source of decent action. During a flashback to their youthful days, Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow leap over a hot stove. Later, the two have a pretty neat sword fight near the end, leaping between bars of burning electricity. There's also a surprisingly brutal fist fight between Scarlet and Baroness.

However, many of the other action scenes are less satisfying. Sommers' tendency to lean on CGI effects continues in “G.I. Joe.”  The computer generated images are generally more convincing than those seen in “The Mummy Returns” and “Van Helsing.” The green fart clouds of nanites look pretty bad but, otherwise, it's okay. Instead, CGI is used to casually violate the laws of physics. The film's own frail sense of reality is foiled but the overly elaborate effects. Like the entire sequence devoted to the Accelerator Suits, likely included to ride 'Iron Man's” coattails. Characters leap through the air, while surrounded by increasingly larger explosions, in a way that becomes cartoonish. A later submarine chase has a similar problems, the film becoming completely detach from believably.

Even more disconcerting is how unpolished many of those action scenes are. This is not Sommers best directed movie. He's smart enough to stay focused on the big CGI set pieces and the decently prepared melee fights. However, the movie largely lacks the energetic and clear direction that distinguished his work up to now. The Paris chase scene is frequently difficult to follow, especially once the pursuers enter a train station. The concluding raid on Cobra's aquatic base is overly dark and blurry. There's even a few instances of shaky-cam! There's at least one moment of slow-mo too, though thankfully no crash zooms.

The film's cast is another problem. Channing Tatum stars as Duke. This was before Tatum reinvent himself as America's lovably doofy older brother. At this point in his career, he was just a slab of bland, hunky meat. As Duke, Tatum is never convincing. He is unable to bring any life or personality to a thinly defined character. Tatum isn't the only talented actor wasted in the film. Rachel Nichols' Scarlet is treated terribly. She parades around in revealing outfits, the film lingering on her cleavage. Despite supposedly being a highly trained agent, Scarlet is repeatedly beaten, outsmarted, or made a fool of. It's embarrassing and I feel bad that this was what Nichols was given to work with. (Considering another female character is brutally killed on-screen, “G.I. Joe” ends up feeling distressingly sexist.)

The rest of the cast is more varied. Dennis Quaid does an amusing John Wayne impersonation as Hawk, the Joes' commanding officer. Most of the villains seem to be having fun. Christopher Eccleston and Joseph Gordon Levitt happily ham it up as the soon-to-be Destro and Cobra Commander. Arnold Vosloo enjoys his sadistic villainy as Zartan while Lee Byung-hun is intense and intimidating as Storm Shadow. Yet for every enjoyable performance, there's an underwhelming one. Like Wayans, who nearly destroys the movie single-handedly. Or Sienna Miller, as the Baroness, who seems way out of her element. (Sommers sneaks in cameos for Brenden Fraser and Kevin J. O'Conner, in case you were wondering.)

Following “Transformers'” lead, Paramount and Hasbro hoped to launch a franchise with “G.I. Joe.” The film is peppered with sequel hooks. By the end, Duke and Ripcord are established as Joes, Cobra has risen as a formidable foe, and the President has been replaced with an evil doppelganger. The film was a financial success but was poorly received by fans and critics. The eventual sequel ejected, killed off, or flat-out ignored many of the original's characters and story points. And was likely better for it. I actually sort of liked “Rise of Cobra” the first time I saw it, enjoying it for a brainless popcorn flick. I guess I've gotten grouchier in the last eight years, as I found this to be one of Sommers' weakest films upon re-watch. [Grade: C] 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)

“The Mummy Returns” made lots of money but the franchise, for the most part, seemed to have run its course. Universal didn't seem to think so. In 2006, they randomly announced a Rick O'Connell solo movie, presumably focusing on his pre-”Mummy” adventures. This project quickly morphed into a third “Mummy” movie. Stephen Sommers and Rachel Weisz both opted out but the project continued forward anyway, with “The Fast and the Furious” and “xXx's” Rob Cohen directing. “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” promised to relaunch the franchise. Well, the movie also made money but fans hated it, forcing Universal to put the Mummy on ice for ten years and finish this iteration of the franchise altogether.

Set thirteen years after the events of “The Mummy Returns,” Rick and Evey O'Connell are now retired from a career as World War II-era spies. Evie now writes romance novels based on their adventures while Rick, uneasily, settles into a domestic life. Their son, Alex, is now twenty and has grown into an adventurer himself. In China, he uncovers the tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The emperor built the Great Wall of China, mastered the five elements, and sought to become immortal but was cursed to become a deathless mummy instead. Naturally, a conspiracy awakens the Dragon Emperor, forcing the O'Connells to team up with the guardians of the emperor's tomb and save the world again.

I can't believe I'm saying this: Rob Cohen's direction makes me yearn for the comparatively subtle filmmaking of Stephen Sommers. For a man who has directed some enormous hits, I'm shocked at how clumsy Cohen's direction is. While exploring the titular tomb – which actually plays a small role in the film – Alex and his friends set off some booby traps. One, a spinning death disc that somehow seeks out its victims, seems to literally come out of nowhere. Later, the Dragon Emperor decapitates a minor villain. We never actually see the blow. We only see the guy's head fly through the air in slow-motion. Throughout the film, Cohen employs some deeply tacky visual stunts. In addition to his abuse of slow-motion and shakycam, Cohen is also fond of tossing shit into the camera. Sommers did the same thing in his two “Mummy” films but Cohen takes it so far, that the audience feels like their eyes are being gouged out.

Scripting-wise, “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is really no more or less silly or dumb than Sommers' “Mummy” films. The story is another lame MacGuffin chase that features successively bigger scenes of CGI-assisted action. There's even some conceptually fun ideas in the film. Such as Jet Li kicking a rocket into a trolley train. Some of the goofiness seems like a natural extension of the Chinese setting. Such as the field goal kicking yetis, the Terracotta soldiers, or the Dragon Emperor turning into both King Ghidorah and King Caesar. The execution of these ideas, however, leave something to be desire. As “The Mummy” trilogy went on, the CGI somehow got worst. The yetis look unnaturally light-weight. The Emperor's mummy form is stiff and doll-like. The various transformations are cartoonish. The army of good mummy soldiers that show up at the end look like Playstation 2 era cut scenes. How does a movie made in 1999 have better digital effects than a movie made in 2007? The mind baffles.

“Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” does have a pretty good cast. Getting Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh in the sequel should've been big deals. Yeoh is as radiant as ever but the script has her dully barking exposition. Li, meanwhile, is mostly replaced with CGI, reducing his natural charisma. As for the other new additions to the cast, they fare worst. Alex O'Connell is ten years older but still super annoying. Luke Ford plays him as a posturing, would-be macho bad ass that gets on the audience's nerves. Maria Bello, on paper, seems like a decent replacement for Rachel Weisz. In practice, Bello goes for exaggerated camp, instead of Weisz' sweet sincerity. Brenden Fraser, meanwhile, just seems tired. John Hannah, returning as Jonathan, struggles to get laughs out of dire material, such as falling in love with a yak puppet.

Expanding the “Mummy” franchise past Egypt is kind of a neat idea. This one covers China. The final scene promises a fourth adventure in Central America. You can envision a further sequel inspired by the bog mummies of Europe. Sadly, “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is a trite, weary affair. None of the cast members want to be there. The script is lame. The effects are terrible and the action is a mess. The sequel provides further proof that some things – evil mummies, over-the-hill action franchises – should stay dead. [5/10]

Director Report Card: Stephen Sommers (2004)

7. Van Helsing

In 2004, there was no movie I was more excited for than “Van Helsing.” My adolescent brain hadn't caught up with the obvious flaws of Stephen Sommers' “Mummy” movies. I was still a huge fan of those films. At the time, it was already obvious to me that Sommers was a true blue Universal Monsters fan. By then, my obsession with the classic monsters was burning just as bright as ever. So the idea of Sommers putting his big budget stamp on the studio's iconic creatures was incredibly exciting to me. The movie did not live up to my expectations. In fact, I was so disappointed in “Van Helsing” that I turned on Sommers pretty much overnight. Thirteen years later, has my impression of the movie changed any at all?

Sommers' film doesn't follow the Abraham Van Helsing of Bram Stoker's original “Dracula.” Instead, this movie is about Gabriel Van Helsing. Van Helsing works for the Vatican, hunting monsters and supernatural beasts all over the world. His latest mission takes him to Transylvania. There, he comes into conflict with Dracula, a villain he has apparently confronted before. The count hopes to unleashes his undead progeny. In order to do this, he needs Doctor Frankenstein's monster. Van Helsing, working up with the daughter of a local vampire hunting family, hopes to stop the Count before he's overtaken by a werewolf curse.

“Van Helsing” was Universal's first attempt to retrofit their classic monster characters as a modern blockbuster. Considering Stephen Sommers had managed to balance horror, action, and spectacle with his first “Mummy” movie, he was honestly a good choice to do with the same with Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman. The director would mash the classic monsters up with his trademark, over-the-top comic style. He would also mix in some obvious James Bond-like shenanigans. This Van Helsing works for a secret organization, has a grouchy boss, and a sidekick that provides him with wacky gadgets. Sadly, by focusing on these elements, the director looses sight of the horror atmosphere he managed to capture with “The Mummy.” This is a preposterous action film in monster movie drag.

What makes “Van Helsing” difficult to swallow is its brainless screenplay. The script has some seriously huge leaps in logic. Dracula using Frankenstein's devices and monster to bring his offspring to life is a contrived excuse to get the two monsters together. Dracula's castle is occupied with an army of Jawa-like minions, whose appearance are never expounded on. Later in the film, a masked ball occupied by vampires appears. Where or how these vampires became involved in the story is never elaborated on. Van Helsing gains access to Dracula's castle, near the end, thanks to a convenient plot device. Considering how many other castles there are in the film, I'm not sure what's so special about Dracula's. Another example of sloppy writing is how Dracula's weakness – an allergy to werewolves apparently – is randomly revealed: Via a magic painting a character stumbles upon.

“Van Helsing” was prepped to be a franchise from the beginning. Because of this, Sommers made sure to include plenty of hints at a larger mythology. Much like Hugh Jackman's Wolverine character, Van Helsing also has a mysterious past he doesn't remember. More than once, the script hints that this Gabriel may be the archangel Gabriel. These attempt are ham-fisted. The backstory concerning Anna's family, and the laughable way her eventual fate is handled, is totally uninteresting. Add to that a horde of vampire babies – since when can vampires have babies? – and even hardcore nerds found themselves annoyed, confused, and underwhelmed.

With “Van Helsing,” Sommers' somewhat self-destructive relationship with special effects continues. From a design perspective, “Van Helsing” looks pretty good. The monster designs are pretty neat. The werewolves, especially, are fantastically realized. They are huge, fanged, muscular, and pretty much everything I'd want from modern day werewolves. A nice touch has the human host tearing off his own skin when transforming, the wolf bursting through the human body. The production design of the movie are generally awesome. The various gothic castles and Eastern European villages are fantastic sets. The costumes are all great. The visual approach, heavy on fog and bluish colors, suits the classic horror characters just fine.

However, once again, Sommers relies too much on half-baked CGI effects. When left to their own devices, the CGI creations look fine. When forced to interact with actual human beings, the seams really show. The super cool looking werewolf doesn't seem to occupy the same plane of reality as the window he leaps through or the huge cage dropped on him. The vampires in the film are fond of stretching their jaws, revealing their fangs, an effect that hasn't aged well. Dracula's brides turn into bat-like she-demons. This effect is far from seamless, as the human heads often look awkwardly placed atop CGI bodies. There are lots of other examples in the film of the director overdoing the effects.

“Van Helsing” came fairly early in Hugh Jackman's career as a superstar. This was Jackman's first really big movie, after the first two “X-Men” movies. On the surface, the Aussie star may seem like an odd pick for the vampire hunter. He's certainly a long way from Edward Van Sloan and Peter Cushing. Jackman suits the part alright. He has no problem with the action hero elements of the story. He can summon a decent amount of gravatas when the story calls for it. However, Jackman does not seem horribly invested in the proceedings. More than once, he strains and grumbles against a CGI-filled adventure that he's clearly struggling to understand. All things considered, Jackman is the least of the movie's problems. He's mostly fine.

The casting in Sommers' films are usually pretty solid. “Van Helsing,” however, contains two deeply miscalculated performances. This was Kate Beckinsale's second vampire related film, after the “Underworld” films. While Beckinsale was fine in that movie, her acting in this movie is questionable. As Anna, she sports a ridiculous accent that shifts scene from scene. That makes it difficult to take Beckinsale seriously but her performance is, otherwise, quite flat. Going in the other direction is Ricahrd Roxburgh as Dracula. Roxburgh hams it up to grotesque levels. He shouts, sweats, and stretches his face in all sorts of direction. He's not a very convincing Dracula. Moreover, he's a totally ridiculous villain.

Like Sommers' other films, “Van Helsing” has its share of sidekicks. Some of these are more essential than others. Shuler Hensley, an old buddy of Hugh Jackman, plays Frankenstein's Monster. The design is interesting and, while Hensley goes a little over-the-top, his heart is in the right place. Kevin J. O'Connor, after playing a similar character in “The Mummy,” appears here as Igor. His make-up, which makes his face waxy and square, is odd. However, O'Connor is amusingly shifty in the part. Less entertaining is David Wenham as Carl. Van Helsing's sidekick exist mostly to provide him with gadgets, a role that easily could've been diminished. Wenham is supposed to be comic relief but comes off as slightly irritating.

As an action movie, “Van Helsing” features few memorable set pieces. The opening battle with Mr. Hyde in Notre Dame's bell tower is overly heavy on CGI and people flying through the air. An attack on the village by Dracula's brides is cool on paper. The vampire hunter using a steampunk machine gun-like crossbow to battle flying vampire monsters is cool. However, this is undone by the shaky effects. A heavily advertised moment was a carriage chase through the Romanian woods. That scene never quite reaches the exciting level it seeks and concludes with an unconvincing fall into a gorge.

What makes these scenes tolerable are the filmmaker's energetic direction. He frequently has his camera sailing through the air with his characters and actors. The best visual moment in “Van Helsing” is its opening. In gorgeous black and white, we are greeted to a classical sequences of angry villagers chasing Frankenstein into a burning windmill. The sequence is beautifully orchestrated, as a fantastic homage to classic horror... Up until a CGI gear flies into our face, which basically sums up the entire movie in one scene. Sommers includes a couple of other classic horror references too. The masquerade and acid splashed into face is a likely “Phantom of the Opera” homage. The heaving bosoms of Dracula's brides are a likely Hammer horror homage.

Universal had huge plans for “Van Helsing.” The film was accompanied by a direct-to-video animated prequel, a comic book mini-series, toys, video games and even a slot machine. The movie certainly made money, grossing well over 300 million against a 145 million dollar budget. However, the movie was critically despised, causing the studio to decide against continuing the franchise. Since then, Universal had made at least two other attempts to retrofit their classic monsters into modern action franchises. Their latest attempt, the possibly already defunct Dark Universe, was supposed to include a new version of “Van Helsing.” Knowing how the studio is, they'll probably try again some day. While there are elements about “Van Helsing” I appreciate, it's ultimately a senseless and deeply disappointing film. [Grade: C]

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Director Report Card: Stephen Sommers (2001)

6. The Mummy Returns

Stephen Sommers' “The Mummy” would gross over 400 million dollars, which was an even bigger number in 1999. Supposedly, the day after the film opened in theaters, Universal executives called the director up, demanding he make a sequel. Sommers went right to work on “The Mummy Returns.” The sequel would have a surprisingly fast production, coming out only two years after the first film. “The Mummy Returns” would nearly match the “The Mummy's” box office and launch the career of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Reviews, however, were not especially kind at the time, most critics calling it inferior to the first. Certain fans, however, love part two just as much as part one. I shared that opinion as a kid but it's fair to say my taste have evolved a bit since then.

Ten years after the events of “The Mummy,” Rick O'Connel and Evie have married. Their son, Alex, is just as precocious as his parents. Through their adventures, they uncover a magical bracelet related to the Scorpion King. An ancient warlord, the Scorpion King made a deal with the god Anubis, granting him terrible powers. Now, it's said that whoever controls the Scorpion King's powers will tumble empires. A group of villains resurrect Imhotep, with the goal of killing the Scorpion King and ruling the world. Alex ends up with the magical bracelet strapped to his arms. The bad guys take him and his parents have to rescue him, along with stopping the Mummy and defeating the Scorpion King.

“The Mummy Returns” is the purest definition of an excessive sequel. The movie sets out to top the spectacle of the original in every way. It outright references many of the first film's beloved gags. Meanwhile, it piles on the CGI, subplots, monsters and madness. Sommers' sequel is so determined to be bigger than the original in every way, that many of the elements that made the first film charming are left out. Characters are lost in a sea of special effects and sloppy writing. That last point especially sticks in my teeth. Many times, it becomes apparent that “The Mummy Returns” was written and produced quickly, to cash in on the original while it was still fresh in the public's mind.

The first “Mummy” had a MacGuffin or two. It threw in some poorly explained lore. The sequel, meanwhile, is practically built upon these things. There's at least three magical artifacts. There's a number of mythological events that must be completed for the plot to advance. If this person isn't in this location by this time, they'll die. If you do this to this person, this other thing will happen. Characters gain and loose superpowers as the script demands it. Exposition is heaped on the viewer by the bucket load. The script is a tangled mess of bullshit that barely makes any sense within its own universe, much less our's.

There's a story troupe I dislike that “The Mummy Returns” is especially guilty off. All the characters are connected by some grand destiny. In the sequel, we discover that Evie is the reincarnation of an Egyptian princess. But not just any princess but the daughter of the Pharaoh that Imhotep killed. Turns out she had a rivalry with Anck-Su-Namun, which is reignited when Evie meets her reincarnated soul. This is a real ass-pull of a plot point, barely justify by a brief line in the original where Evie mentions she has Egyptian blood. "The Mummy Returns" doesn't stop there. Rick, we learn, has a significant tattoo that marks him as a Medjai, part of a sacred order of chosen warriors. Funny that didn't come up in the first movie, isn't it? It's all too neat and smacks of a writer who has run out of ideas.

What's another desperate move sequels make when they are out of ideas? How about we introduce a kid? Alex O'Connel is as brilliant as his mom and has his dad's smart mouth. A precocious kid is the last thing this overstuffed sequel needed. As is usually the case with child character, Alex is fucking annoying. Most of the movie is his fault, as he just couldn't resist a shiny bracelet. He spends the majority of the film annoying a fearsome warrior, who is wholly justified in his desire to murder him. Freddie Boath, who turned down “Harry Potter” for this movie, is super aggravating. He puts too much childish zest into every line, coming off as entirely obnoxious.

“The Mummy Returns” is smart enough to bring back every major player from the first film. The overstuffed script pushes the limits of Brendan Fraser's charm. He is actively, visibly baffled by the events happening around him. Despite this, Fraser's skill with a joke is still present. So is his chemistry with Rachel Weisz. Evie has transformed from a dowdy librarian to a sexy she-warrior in this film, kicking nearly as much ass as her husband. Weisz actually excels as this, embracing the stunts. John Hannah and Oded Fehr are back as Jonathan and Ardith Bey. Hannah happily hams it up while Fehr plays a more sensitive version of his hero. As the title promises, Arnold Vosloo returns as well, glaring and flexing as much as he did the first time.

Sadly, the many new additions to the film add very little. Patricia Velasquez served her role in “The Mummy,” appearing in the opening flashback as the living Anck-Su-Namun, prancing around briefly in a loincloth and body paint. Elevated to a regular character here, the limits of Velasquez' range become apparent. She's a wooden actress stuck in an empty character. There's far too many villains in this one. The exceptionally voweled Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje shows up as a heavy, grunting and swinging a sword. Alun Armstrong appears as an evil museum curator. There's a whole collection of grave robbers, all of them annoyingly broad. Among the good guys, we're also introduced to Shaun Parkes' Izzy. Parkes' mugs furiously in every scene, mostly existing to get our heroes from point A to point B. The cast is stuffed to the breaking point, these newcomers having only the most superficial personalities.

“The Mummy” had its share of CGI shenanigans. However, the computer generated effects were mostly well utilized. The sequel, however, overdoes it in a serious way. Despite having a bigger budget than the first and being made further along in the age of CGI, the effects in “The Mummy Returns” actually look way worst. An early scene has mummies leaping around the walls of buildings in a way that looks super cheesy. Later, Imhotep controls a wall of water, his face appearing in the waves. This looks egregiously bad, the actors clearly never being in the same place as the effects. Once the pygmy mummies and humanoid-scorpion monster shows up, “The Mummy Returns” has left any semblance of reality behind. None of these effects are convincing.

As with everything else, “The Mummy Returns” features far more action than “The Mummy.” There's a shoot-out in the O'Connel residence, a shoot-out in the museum, a chase scene in a double decker bus, just for starters. Some of these action scenes seem especially forced in, like a duel in ancient Egypt utilizing Japanese sais. By the end, “The Mummy Returns” features an army of jackal-headed anubis warriors. These scenes are fitfully entertaining. However, Stephen Sommers' direction is busier. He employs far more slow-mo. This is most evident in the climatic fight between Rick, Imhotep, and the Scorpion King, which devolves into embarrassing “Matrix” style bullet time.

I've already criticized “The Mummy Returns'” screenplay. However, the bullshit writing choices on display in the last act deserve special attention. Rick and Alex outrun the rising sun, which is a level of ridiculousness too high even for this movie. A minor villain is brutally killed off for no reason. It's as if Sommers remembered this guy was still floating around and decided he had to go, somehow. A major character is killed off and then brought back to life in the cheapest, laziest way imaginable. Lastly, the unstoppable Scorpion King is killed off thanks to a blatant deus ex machina. What makes this plot point especially insulting is that how the heroes discover it. The way to kill the Scorpion King is printed on a wall... In his own temple! That seems like poor planning.

“The Mummy Returns” sets out to do about one hundred different things. Among those goals is introducing the Rock to the film-going public. Now, Dwayne Johnson is maybe the biggest movie star in the world. In 2001, he was merely a popular pro-wrestler, attempting to break into mainstream movies. Most of “The Mummy Returns'” advertising campaign was devoted to hyping up the Rock's Scorpion King character. He would receive his own spin-off the next year, which would spawn three direct-to-video sequels. Despite this, Johnson himself only appears in the opening scene. For the finale, he's replaced with a seriously underwhelming CGI creation. The massive charm and affable attitude that would make Johnson a star aren't very evident here. In fact, his delivery is stiff and unconvincing, even if his impressive physicality is already on display.

“The Mummy Returns” was certainly popular in its day, though wasn't quite as big a hit as the first. It's easy to see why kids loved it. It has just as much humor as the first but even more insane action. Yet, watching with adult eyes, it's obviously a weaker film. Sommers is trying too hard to top himself, resulting in a garbled script and overdone special effects. Most parties realized the series had run its course... Until Universal would crank out another “Mummy” movie, seven years later, that proved even worst than this one. As overstuffed as “The Mummy Returns” is, Stephen Sommers at least knew when to let sleeping mummies lie. [Grade: C-]

Monday, November 27, 2017

Director Report Card: Stephen Sommers (1999)

5. The Mummy

In the early nineties, somebody at Universal got the idea to revive “The Mummy.” The studio envisioned a low budget horror series. A number of promising names were attached. Clive Barker nearly delivered a kinky, mystical take on the character. Joe Dante's version was more of a direct remake and would've starred a brooding Daniel Day-Lewis. George Romero's interpretation would've been modernized but romantic and featured some zombie movie-style gore. Writers such as John Sayles, Mick Garris, and Frank Darabont did passes on the scripts. Ultimately, Stephen Sommers' promise of transforming the old monster movie into a blockbuster adventure is what sealed the deal. Sommers' approach worked. “The Mummy” would be a surprise hit in 1999. Though dismissed by most critics at the time, Sommers' “The Mummy” has attracted a faithful following, thanks to nostalgia from teenage millennial who grew up with the film. Is such nostalgia misplaced or is this “Mummy” actually worth remembering?

Sommers' film is a loose remake but maintains the basic idea. In ancient Egypt, the high priest Imhotep commits an unspeakable blasphemy. In this version, his love for Princess Anck-Su-Namun is consummated and they end up murdering the pharaoh. For his crime, Imhotep is mummified alive and cursed to live forever as an undead monster. From there, 1999's “The Mummy” goes off on a totally different direction. Set in 1926, the film follows librarian Evelyn and her swindler brother Jonathan. They discover a map to Hamunaptra, the fabled Egyptian city of the dead. They team up with former soldier and treasure hunter Rick O'Connor. They successfully discover the city, dig up Imhotep's mummy, and accidentally bring him back to life. Imhotep goes about killing people and inflicting the Ten Plagues of Egypt on the world, in order to revive his dead girlfriend and become all powerful.

While the previous filmmakers attached to remake “The Mummy” wanted to make a serious horror film, Stephen Sommers had a different vision for the remake. He wanted to fuse the classic monster movie with a pulpy, “Indiana Jones” style adventure. This approach, largely, works. Both genres, after all, have their roots in the 1930s. Sommers, just like an old-timey serial, keeps the pace speedy. The script is always throwing a new monster, boobie trap, or danger at the protagonists. The story is always escalating so the audience is never bored. The result is a tongue-in-cheek action/adventure flick that moves quickly and goes out of its way to entertain the audience.

Stephen Sommers' script is, one must admit, slightly tacky. He is not above setting up plot points that will be important later in the hastiest fashion possible. Early on, after Evie wrecks a library, her boss mentions the Ten Plagues of Egypt. This, naturally, proceeds the Mummy using the plagues as a weapon later in the film. After showing the map to the City of the Dead to the same man, it's mentioned that the city can sink into the sand at the slightest whim. This, of course, also happens before the story is over. Little details characters mention, like an off-hand reference to a key, set up plot turns later. This approach is a bit heavy-handed and comes dangerously close to spoon-feeding the audience. It is also undeniably concise. The film lays down most of the shit that's going to happen early on, satisfying the viewer when it does.

In order to smooth over a script this circular, Sommers makes sure to include plenty of humor and one-liners. Evie's brother Jonathan is often stumbling into a goofy situation, such as fooling a crowd of Imhotep's followers or struggling to read a magic book. Rick O'Connor is just as fast with a quib as he is with his pistol. Highlights include commenting on the juicy state of the mummy or threatening a friend-turned-enemy. That character, Beni, becomes a Renfield-like sidekick to the Mummy. He's also the film's primary comic relief. When first encountering the creature, he prayers to whatever deity he think will save him. He nonchalantly admits that the mummy wants Evie for his ritual. Kevin J. O'Connor, reappearing from “Deep Rising,” has a ball in the part, consistently making the audience laugh.

Despite focusing on action and humor, this “Mummy” does feature enough horror content to satisfy genre fans. Say what you will about his films but Stephen Sommer is undeniably a monster kid. Sommers engineers a number of jump scares, the best which focuses on Imhotep springing back to life after hundreds of years. The way he drains the life from his victims, sucking out eyes and tongues, slowly morphing from a rotting corpse to a human body, is pretty grisly, as far as PG-13 blockbusters go. Workers are sprayed with skin-rending salt baths. Hordes of flesh eating scarabs strip people down to the bones. And the film certainly doesn't skimp on the mummies, as Imhotep eventually raises a small army of mummified henchmen. None of its exactly scary but it is pretty cool.

Probably the best thing this “Mummy” has going for is its lead actors. “The Mummy” would birth that brief period in time when Brendan Fraser was a viable box office star. Though an unlikely action hero, Fraser is hugely amusing in this film. He has the handsome good looks, befitting a pulp hero. He has a way with a one-liner. He's also has an appealing physicality, working in the action scenes. Moreover, Fraiser has great chemistry with Rachel Weisz, future Academy Award winner, as Evie. Their relationship begins with an unsolicited kiss but Weisz is believably enamored with him. His feelings for her grow through a series of natural moments. A key scene, where she drinks too much and comes on to him, is quite cute. I'm entirely certain that “The Mummy” wouldn't have worked without the levity and charm Fraser and Weisz bring to the film.

The supporting cast is pretty strong too. Arnold Vosloo, previously of “Hard Target” and those direct-to-video “Darkman” sequels, plays Imhotep. Vosloo isn't very imposing but he brings enough intimidation to the part, making him a fitting horror villain. John Hannah is very amusing as Jonathan, bringing enough charm to the part of a not-quite-gutless con artist. Oded Fehr plays Ardith Bey. Originally Boris Karloff's alter-ego, Bey has become a protector of Imhotep's tomb. Fehr is solid in the part, making his ludicrous, exposition-rift dialogue sound natural. Character actor Bernard Fox, in his final cinematic role, is amusing as the drunken old pilot that O'Connor calls midway through the film.

Being a blockbuster from 1999, you'd think “The Mummy” would be filled with CGI that has aged badly. There are plenty of computer generated effects in the film. Surprisingly, most of it still looks okay. Imhotep, when he's a decomposing mummy, looks cartoonish but in a way that works for the film. Similarly, the mummy soldiers Imhotep calls upon in the last act don't look too bad. Really, only a few effects don't hold up to greater scrutiny. The various CGI sandstorms, which often contort into human faces, don't look very real. The mummies have this weird habit of stretching their jaws out, an effect that hasn't aged well. Otherwise, Sommers' “The Mummy” is pretty smart about fusing computer effects and practical effects, without pushing either too far.

Honestly, some of my favorite stuff in “The Mummy” revolves around the creepy crawlers. The flesh-eating scarabs were an inspired addition. Their introductory scene, which involves the bug crawling up into someone's body, got some squirms out of me in 1999. (The CGI is another example that hasn't aged well.) One cute scene has Imhotep munching a scarab that crawls into his still exposed, skeletal mouth. Incorporating the Ten Plagues of Egypt into this “Mummy” film raises some interesting questions, about how the Christian God and Gods of Ancient Egypt can coexist. But it's a pretty cool gimmick. A mummy that can call down balls of fire, raise a storm of locusts, flood the waters with blood, and controls a horde of henchmen covered with boils is certainly a more threatening villain than the slow, shambling, ineffective mummy Lon Chaney played.

As an action flick, “The Mummy” offers plenty of cool stuff too. The chase between Imhotep's giant sand face and an airplane is a solid sequence. The finale piles on a horde of mummies for Rick and Ardith to blast through, leading to a number of satisfying shoot-em-up scenes. The finale, where O'Connor picks up a sword to slice through a secession of mummy warriors, is especially amusing. Sommers' action direction is loopy. He delights in tossing torches, mummy faces, and explosions into the viewers' face. Honestly, it's a bit of a shame that his career dried up before the 3D fad of the late 2000s. He would've been perfect for it.

Granted, Sommers' screenwriting abilities are not rock steady. The plot is overly convoluted. Mythological nonsense are thrown around fast and loose. Who can keep track of which magical book is located where? Why are the rules of magical resurrection so damn complicated? Why is the mummy afraid of cats? Sommers throws in a clarifying line or two to justify this stuff. Yet it's obvious that these additions where mostly done to justify a plot move or a moment that director thought was cool. In addition to that, there are too many characters, most of them existing to become victims of the mummy.

Ultimately, “The Mummy” is a very silly movie. I don't mean that as an insult. The film is fun, entertaining, and fast enough that you don't mind the obvious plot holes. The cast is having a ball and the effects are cool. The blending of cheesy adventure troupes and classic horror elements were novel enough in 1999 to make me a fan. I think the recent reevaluation that this is the greatest mummy movie ever is going way too far. However, this “Mummy” still a very fine popcorn flick with a healthy sense of humor about its self. It is also, in all likelihood, Stephen Sommers' best film. [Grade: B+]

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Director Report Card: Stephen Sommers (1998)

4. Deep Rising

In the mid-to-late nineties, there was a brief revival of interest in monster movies. For the first time in a while, major studios were willing to spend lots of money on gory creature features. Maybe the new toy of CGI made filmmakers interested in putting monsters on-screen. Maybe the historical success of “Jurassic Park” made films about big beasties chasing people through corridors seem profitable. Whatever the reason, for a few short years, films like “The Relic,” “Starship Troopers,” “Mimic,” “Virus” and “Phantoms” flashed across theaters screens. Even low budget filmmakers got in on this, non-gems like “DNA” and “Within the Rock” hitting the direct-to-video market. Few of these films made much money, which is probably why the trend was so short lived. Somewhere in there was “Deep Rising,” Stephen Sommers' fourth feature.

Finnegan makes his living steering a boat over the seas. He ships whatever a client wants and doesn't asks questions. This makes him the perfect partner for a shifty gang of mercenaries, led by Hanover. Finnegan and his crew doesn't know it but the mercenaries are planning on robbing a near-by cruise ship. However, when they arrive at the ship, they find it wrecked and deserted. Soon, it becomes apparent that something has attacked the boats. The few survivors say monsters are responsible. The intruders soon discover this for themselves. A giant breed of prehistoric worms have infiltrated the boat and is eating anyone it can get its tentacles on.

Stephen Sommers' previous movies were rated PG, being family films of one sort of another. “Deep Rising” is a major shift in style. It's an R-rated monster movie, Sommers' first stab at the horror genre. He also mixes in action and heist movie elements, with a little bit of humor. The director would find his greatest success with a similar combination of genre. “Deep Rising” is nastier than “The Mummy” movies though. The horror scenes are more intense. Such as a moment where someone is dragged back and forth by an unseen creature, under the water. Or a suspenseful moment when the beasts slam on the walls of a hallway, trying to get at its meal.

In fact, “Deep Rising” gets pretty grisly at times. The film doesn't skimp on the blood and gore. An early moment has a woman, hiding in a bathroom, being sucked down into the pipes, blood splattering over the mirror. Later, one of the monster's victims is coughed up. He's been half-digested, his skin melted away so that his skull and brains are visible. Later, the characters come upon a hallway that is covered in blood, partially devoured skeletons lining the floor. This leads up to an even bigger moment, when a room full of corpses is discovered. That's some pretty explicit gore, coming from the director of “Huck Finn” and “The Jungle Book.”

However, even when making a movie full of dead bodies and people being eaten alive by horrible monsters, Stephen Sommers can't help but throw in some humor. Despite being in a very perilous situation, the characters are frequently telling jokes. Quips are often treated. More than once, while monstrous jaws snap right over their shoulders, the heroes express their disbelief in amusing ways. Probably the funniest scene in the movie involves the gang riding an elevator up, only to be greeted by a muzak version of “The Girl from Ipanema.” Later, a character can't get that song out of his head. Some of these moments got decent chuckles out of me.

Ultimately, Sommers does not balance these conflicting tones as well as he would in his future films. “Deep Rising” feels flippant at times. When you have hundreds of people being eaten alive by monsters, their bones spit back up later, jokes and one-liners leave a bad taste in people's mouth. This becomes especially apparent near the end. One character realizes his girlfriend has been killed. He's given only a minute to mourn before the plot moves forward, getting back to the jokes and gags. Later, Finnegan experiences something similar, believing a friend of his has been taken. When a supporting guy becomes an unhinged villain, that also feels a little at odds with the story up to that point. “Deep Rising” is a bit too horrific to be an effective comedy but a bit too comedic to be an effective horror film.

Like a lot of these late nineties monster movies, “Deep Rising” does have a novel central beast. It seems like creature features of this period were eager to distinguish themselves from the movies that had gone before. The organisms responsible for eating all these people are revealed to be ottoias. That's a meat-eating, aquatic worm species that went extinct during the Cambrian period, 500 million years ago. In real life, ottoia rarely grew over three inches long. The creatures in the movie are massive. Mostly, they seem to be huge tentacles slithering through the interior of the ship. They are covered in spikes and reveal dividing maws full of razor sharp teeth. In one of several nods to “Aliens” the film makes, the individual worms are later revealed to be appendages of an even bigger mother organism. That the design is impressive should be surprising, considering “The Thing's” Rob Bottin worked on the film.

While the creature design is impressive, the special effects that bring them to life frequently leave something to be desired. Stephen Sommers would frequently be criticized for relying too much on CGI, many years before the platform was at its greatest strength. This began with “Deep Rising.” The worms are primarily computer generated. While they sometimes look all right, too often the effects are underwhelming. The mother ottoia at the end is especially egregious, looking like something from a video game cut scene. This is not the only example of weak effects in the film. There are a few scenes, such as when the heroes are outrunning an explosion, when the actors are obviously performing before a green screen.

The part of Finnegan was written with Harrison Ford in mind. This is all too obvious. He's exactly the kind of roguish hero you'd expect Ford to play. He's grouchy and somewhat reluctant but ultimately driven by his love of adventure. He also pilots a big vehicle. Ford, of course, passed on the film. Treat Williams would be his unlikely replacement. Williams at first seems like an odd fit for the part. However, as the film goes on, he develops into a likable hero. He's well suited to the action theatrics and is good with a one-liner or a shotgun shell. He also plays well off Famke Janssen, the resourceful thief who ends up being a survivor.

There's actually quite a few familiar faces in “Deep Rising.” Kevin J. O'Connor plays Joey, Finnegan's sidekick. This is the first of several sidekick roles O'Connor would play for Sommers. O'Connor's ability to generate laughs from neurotic behavior is nicely deployed here. Wes Studi is believable as the serious and stern leader of the mercenaries. Anthony Heald, who looks a lot like Nick Nolte in “Cape Fear,” plays the owner of the cruise liner. Though how the script handles the character strains believably, Heald is amusingly unhinged in the part. Jason Flemyng, reappearing from “The Jungle Book,” shows up in a similar role as the nervous, somewhat cowardly mercenary. Djimon Hounsou, years before making his mark as a character actor, also appears as part of Hanover's team.

For its flaws, “Deep Rising” is a quickly paced film. Stephen Sommers' direction is energetic. His camera is frequently moving, sliding through the labyrinthine tunnels of the cruise ship. He even throws in a dutch angle a few times, providing an askew feeling to some of the attack sequences. While Sommers keeps “Deep Rising” moving at a decent clip, some of his more tacky tendencies continue to shine through. There's at least two of those rough crash-zooms he likes to use. Just before the movie is over, he throws in some slow motion. At this point, it's clear that these aren't the quirk of a developing director. Instead, I guess that's just Sommers style.

Jerry Goldsmith composed the score for “Deep Rising” and its one of the film's highlight. Instead of going with a seafaring theme for the ocean-set movie, Goldsmith throws in a Caribbean feel. There's some steel drums and lightly plucked strings. This also provides a light-hearted feel for the film, matching well with its more comedic moments. Goldsmith also provides plenty of heavily pounded percussion and rising horns, for the more thrilling moments. Few did bombast better than Goldsmith, so you know he ramps up the tension during the horrific scenes. Over all, it's a sweeping, adventurous score and sometimes better than the movie that accompanies it.

“Deep Rising” was not successful upon release. The reviews were overwhelmingly negative. The box office receipts topped out at around 11 million, far below the movie's 45 million dollar budget. This would make the sequel teased by the ending unlikely. Maybe the advertising had something to do with this. I distinctly recall seeing the posters all over my local video store as a kid. It wouldn't be until years later that I learned the film was a monster movie at all. The movie has its defenders but I wouldn't exactly call it a cult classic either. There's enough cool, interesting, or funny moments for me to enjoy this one, even if it has some pretty serious flaws. [Grade: C+]

Friday, November 24, 2017

Director Report Card: Stephen Sommers (1994)

3. The Jungle Book

Within recent years, Disney has discovered a surefire formula for success. Many of their animated films are iconic, beloved classics that are well-known all around the world. Translating these stories into live action, sprinkling a few recognizable faces in the cast and piling on the CGI spectacle, has resulted in multiple massive blockbusters. It doesn't matter that these movies range from bland to outright offensive, because they make a shit-ton of money. Disney shows no sign of slowing down either, with CGI-heavy, quote-unquote live action versions of “Dumbo,” “Aladdin,” and “The Lion King” coming next. But this trend is not as new as you might think. In 1994, just in time for the 100th anniversary of Rudyard Kipling's book, a new live action version of “The Jungle Book” would hit theater screens. Following the modest success of his “Huck Finn” for Disney, Stephen Sommers would direct, placing Kipling's famous characters into a homage to classic pulp adventure cinema.

Though Rudyard Kipling's name was above the title on the poster, this “Jungle Book” is really only inspired by his writing. In this version, Mowgli is a young boy traveling with a group of trackers through the Indian jungles. After their camp is attacked by Shere Khan, Mowgli is lost in the woods. Eventually, he's adopted by a pack of wolves and becomes accepted as a citizen of the jungle. Years later, now a man, Mowgli is rediscovered by humanity. He's taken in by Colonel Brydon and Dr. Plumford, who try to teach him the ways of man. Along the way, he falls in love with Kitty, Brydon's daughter. But Kitty is already engaged to Captain Boone. When she rejects him, Boone becomes violent and insists Mowgli leads him to the mythical city of Hanuman, a place full of treasure and danger.

Yes, Sommers' “The Jungle Book” is a pretty loose adaptation of Kipling's book. Aside from the some of the characters, the two have pretty much nothing in common. Considering most of Disney's modern remakes of their cartoons are practically shot-for-shot remakes, I somewhat welcome this. Instead, Sommers uses the concept as a set-up for a modern day jungle adventure movie. The jungle adventure was once a very common genre in the forties and fifties but fell out of fashion years ago. Sommers joyfully hits most of the trademark notes. There's quicksand, secret treasure, boobie traps, friendly animals, deadly animals, mysterious Hindis, a lovely maiden, pith helmets, and a hero who is very familiar with the jungle. About the only thing that's missing is the safari stock footage.

What perhaps elevates “The Jungle Book” over its flaws is that it's actually about something. The differences between the law of the jungle and the law of man is the story's backbone. While most takes on “The Jungle Book” focus on how Mowgli is pulled between the jungle and the world of man, in this version, Mowgli represents the purer world of nature. He comes from a place where there's no greed, where residents never take more than they need. Men, meanwhile, kill for sport or gold. The film is not subtle about this. The “civilized” bad guys are far more vicious than the “savage” hero. Mowgli outright dismisses the ways of man several times. However, it adds a little more gristle to what would might've just been a standard adventure flick. The movie clearly takes target at imperialism and the exploitation of nature.

On the surface, Jason Scott Lee probably doesn't seem like the best casting for Mowgli. Mowgli is probably the most famous Indian character in Western literature while Lee is Chinese/Hawaiian. Lee, however, is fantastic in the part. His earliest moments on-screen are silent. The lack of dialogue doesn't prevent Lee from creating an interesting character. Later, as Mowgli learns to speak English, Lee's performance really comes to life. He mimes the English words in a hilarious way. His body language is perfectly controlled and precise, such as a moment where he mocks Captain Boone by copying his movements. Lee manages to make dialogue that might've been overwrought seem totally sincere. He's perfectly convincing as a boy raised in the jungle, more attuned to nature than the world of man.

Starring opposite Lee is Cary Elwes, who happily hams it up as Captain Boone. Elwes is the face of British snobbery. He is prim, proper, and utterly stuck-up. He's also a huge asshole, relishing his privilege as a military officer in a foreign country. This makes him an ideal foil to Lee's Mowgli, as Elwes' Boone represents everything that's bad about the world of man. As the story goes on, the character becomes more obviously villainous, giving the actor a chance to really chew up the scenery. He's a perfectly hatable bad guy and ideal for this kind of story.

As in Sommers' previous films, he pulls together a really solid supporting cast too. Years before “300” and “Dredd” brought her to a new audience, Lean Headey played Kitty here. She's not a bad-ass in this movie, instead playing a more innocent character, but Headey still excels at playing a character standing up to tradition. Sam Neill is likable as Colonel Brydon, the film's reasonable authority figure. He also provides the film's lyrical opening and closing narration, taken directly from Kipling's book. Jason Flemyng is well suited to the part of Wilkens, a cowardly and increasingly nervous member of Boone's team. My favorite supporting player is John Cleese as Dr. Plumford. Plumford is also perfectly British in his stuffiness but plays it for comedic effect, something he's obviously very good at.

“The Jungle Book” would be Stephen Sommers' first proper action movie, bringing him to the genre where he would find the most success. It's easy to see why. His “Jungle Book” is fleet-footed and inventive. This becomes clear during a chase through the busy Indian streets, which concludes with an amusing gag on a levitating rope, something that feels right out of a classic jungle adventure flick. There's a well orchestrated shoot-out midway through, boosted by triumphing elephants. Lee's Mowgli transforms fully into an action hero during a cliff side fight with one of Boone's henchmen. The scene concludes with a guy carrying a large stone being pushed away, a moment the director would practically reprise in “The Mummy.”

In fact, “The Jungle Book” is a pretty clear predecessor to Sommers' “Mummy.” Both features a team of unsympathetic rivals to the heroes, who are killed off in increasingly grisly way. Scenes of drowning in quicksand or tiger attacks probably push the limits of the PG rating. The comparison becomes utterly unavoidable in the last act, taking place in an ancient temple full of boobie traps. Such as a room slowly filling with sand or a torch that lights up the whole area. (Sommers would also reuse that one for “The Mummy.”) Honestly, it's pretty clear that “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was a huge influence on Sommers. He draws from some of that energy with this one.

The director's visual skills continue to evolve. “The Jungle Book” features some of the same excesses he showed in “Huck Finn” but they are better used. A scene where Mowgli runs in slow motion, tears streaming down his face, probably would've been utterly ridiculous. Yet the it somehow works here, perhaps thanks to Lee's performance. Sommers also peppers the film with wipe transition, another deliberate homage to classic matinee cinema. Overall, “The Jungle Book” is excellently shot and edited. This movie also marks the first time the director would use CGI. It's briefly used to bring Kaa to life, who has been recast as an anaconda that has magically transported itself to India.

Some of Sommers' narrative trademarks become apparent here as well. Primarily, his love of gratuitous foreshadowing. In the opening scene, a man picks up a playing card showing a tiger. Seconds later, Shere Khan appears. Around the same time, a young Mowgli explains a dream he had, where he is linked with a tiger. Naturally, he comes face-to-face with Shere Khan – who functions more as a plot device than an antagonist here – before the story is up. Long before Mowgli and Boone becomes enemies, they have a conversation discussing the possibility that the Captain might someday hunt him. The last act, with the giant snake and room full of treasure, is essentially a reprise of an earlier scene. It's maybe not the cleanest way to write but, you know, it satisfies. The dots connect in a comforting way.

“The Jungle Book” also has the benefit of a fantastic score. The great Basil Poledouris handles the music. He includes lots of sweeping themes, powerful waves of strings that wash over the audience. This establishes the film's period setting and also the sense of adventure. When paired with large shots of flowing waterfalls or jungle trees, it really grabs an epic feeling. He also fills the soundtrack with sounds that hint at the jungle setting, clicking and rattling. There's a flavor of exoticism too, with mysterious sounding woodwinds and hollow drumming. While not the composer's most memorable scores, it's a very strong piece of music that elevates the film.

This “Jungle Book” would quickly become a favorite in my boyhood household. I watched it just as much as the animated version, if not more. The cute animals appealed to my mom, the hunky guys appealed to my sister, and I liked the well-executed adventure. (And my mom is still annoyed that Disney has never reissued the film and used copies go for way too much on-line.) I even played the point-and-click computer game, though I suspect that iteration doesn't hold up too way. For the most part, Sommers' “Jungle Book” is just as entertaining now as it was then. It's a really fun adventure flick. It would set up the framework that the director would continue to follow throughout his career. [Grade: B+]

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Director Report Card: Stephen Sommers (1993)

2. The Adventures of Huck Finn

Being the primary work of perhaps America's most iconic writer, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” have been adapted many times over the years. IMDb lists at least forty-six adaptations, ranging from films to TV shows to animation and even foreign language productions. My introduction to Twain's boy adventurers was Disney's 1995 film, “Tom and Huck.” Though apparently a box office flop, I recall the movie being kind of a big deal. Weirdly, that film was a follow-up of sorts to an earlier Twain adaptation, also from Disney. Stephen Sommers, who co-wrote that film, previously wrote and direct “The Adventures of Huck Finn.” To be totally honest, I had no idea it existed before beginning this project.

Since most of you probably read the book in high school, I'll be brief with my plot synopsis. Huckleberry Finn is a boy living in Missouri in the antebellum South. After his abusive father returns, Huck runs away from home. He soon meets Jim, a runaway slave hoping to escape to the South. The two begin to float on a raft down the Mississippi River. Along the way, they run into various colorful people and adventures. At the same time, Huck also changes his opinions on slavery.

Sommers' “Adventures of Huck Finn” does touch upon many of the positive attributes of Twain's novel. This is a film full of colorful characters and interesting settings. It successfully captures the episodic structure of the book but never has a halting or uneven pacing. The particular Southern atmosphere impresses the reader. There are a number of amusing episodes, like Huck convincing a group of men on a raft that he has leprosy. Moreover, Sommers' “Adventures of Huck Finn” does capture some of Twain's themes. A sequence near the end, where a group of angry townsfolk put two men on trial, successfully speaks to concerns about mass hysteria and group thought.

However, sometimes this “Huck Finn” comes off as a little sanitized. Twain's book has famously been challenged many times over the years, for its blunt and realistic depiction of racism and slavery during the Antebellum South. This, on the other hand, is a PG-rated Disney movie. There are no N-words in this “Huck Finn.” Yes, there is a scene set on a plantation. We see Jim working in the fields. He removes his shirt and shows the scars on his back. A whipping scene happens just off-screen, the actual blows unseen by the audience. The film retains Twain's moral lesson, of how Huck comes to realize Jim – and all black people, by extension – are just as human as he is. That it is sometimes good if things don't stay the way they've always been. However, by removing the harsher elements, this can't help but function like a cleaner, friendlier version of a history that was anything but.

The main bit of praise this “Huck Finn” seems to get is reserved for its cast. Casting Elijah Wood as Huck Finn back in the early nineties was a no-brainer. Wood was the right age and probably the most talented male child actor at the time. (He was certainly a better choice for the role than the other big name kid actor of the day, Macaulay Culkin.) Wood is not just the right age but has the right attitude. Finn is always a rascal, fond of telling tall tales and getting himself into wild situations. Wood embodies all these qualities and more, creating a young anti-hero that the audience can root for. He makes Finn's evolution, from a selfish person to someone with a sturdier moral center, seem very believable.

Starring alongside Wood is Courtney B. Vance. As Jim, Vance is a warm and likable presence. He's believable as the boy's best friend, always ready with a big smile or anecdote. This is best displayed in a scene where Jim and Huck goof around on a boat, talking about French or pretending to sword fight. However, Vance is ultimately underserved by the material. He can only hint at the sadness of his character. The script has him frequently mentioning his wife and children, who he intends to buy once he's a free man. Yet we never get a sense of how much he cares about these people, so they remain vague concepts. Moreover, the detached and sanitized approach to the material means the difficult life Jim lives, as a slave in the South, is only depicted in broad strokes. Vance is good but he can only do so much with an underwritten part.

This “Huck Finn” does have a colorful supporting cast, full of recognizable names and faces. A lively bunch of performers are brought together to bring Twain's collection of scoundrels to life. Ron Perlman is perfectly utilized as Huck's abusive father. Outfitted with scraggly hair that emphasizes his distinctive facial features, Perlman plays the part practically as a monster. He's a growling, foaming asshole that certainly makes an impression on viewers. Jason Robards and Robbie Coltrane appear as the King and the Duke, the con men Huck and Jim fall in with halfway through the film. Robards is charming without loosing sight of the character's unsightly motivations. Coltrane is gruffer and having just as much fun as Robards' frequently silent companion.

The film is also full of faces familiar to anyone who watched too much television in the nineties. Soon-to-be-Nickelodeon-star Danny Tamberelli is immediately recognizable as one of Huck's friends, briefly glimpsed in the opening minutes. Renee O'Connor, otherwise known as Xena's girlfriend, has a small role as one of the young women on the plantation. Character actor Curtis Armstrong, with his scratchy voice and diminutive appearance, has an amusing bit part as an intoxicated man. Anna Heche, meanwhile, is in what appears to be a standard role before showing a little more fire later in the story.

Sommers' film may only keep a small percentage of the episodes from Twain's book. However, Sommers includes another mechanic in hopes of keeping more of Twain's spirit in the film. Huck Finn has a running narration through most of the film. Though it gets more of Twain's writing in the movie, it's also pretty unnecessary. Sometimes, Huck is explaining stuff to us as it happens on screen. Only once does the narration really interact with the film in an interesting way. Huck is walking along, speaking voice-over, before a hand pulls him off-screen. His narration cuts off at the same time, which is a cute subversion.

As a visual filmmaker, Sommer's has already grown a lot from his debut. “The Adventures of Huck Finn” is a surprisingly moody looking movie sometimes. The appearance of Huck's father occurs late at night. The interior of the home is lit with lots of shadows. Later, Sommers employs a blue coloration to make the nights seem peaceful, if slightly ominous. This style returns during a scene set on a flooding boat, which is actually quite tense. Over all, the movie looks quite nice. It helps that the location, the buildings and forest along the Mississippi, make for such a visually rich setting.

Not all of Sommers' choices are that strong though. Occasionally, he employs some very tacky tricks. During one scene, he employs some slow motion, Huck Finn screaming for a fallen friend. Later on, while the young hero hides in a casket, there's an especially rough zoom. I'm not quite sure why the director would throw stuff like this in, as it badly contrasts against the rest of the movie's presentation. While “Adventures of Huck Finn” is always nice to look at, it's also a bit bland visually. The film doesn't distinguish itself nearly enough.

Adding to the movie's handsome quality is a score from Bill Conti. Conti mixes regional music with bigger themes. Southern strings and bugle horns make up Huck's theme, providing a feeling of youthful fun while also staying true to the deep south setting. The weightier aspects of the movie are hinted at with the score's more sweeping side. Much bigger brass and pounding drums add a historical element, suitable to the film's period setting. The two sides exist side-by-side nicely, building up the different tones of the movie.

I might not have heard of it until recently but this “Huck Finn” was apparently a decent hit for Disney, back in the day. The film opened at number two at the box office and grossed well over its budget. While I have no doubt that it has been shown in many high school English classes, the film ultimately isn't very memorable. It's a respectable but somewhat unremarkable adaptation of Twain's book. You could do worst but, considering how many different versions of the story exist, you could probably also do a lot better too. [Grade: C+]