Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Monday, October 24, 2016

Ancient Curses And Grumpy Egyptians

“It is better to be the right hand of the devil than in his path.” ~ Beni

 “I only gamble with my life, never my money.” ~ Rick O’Connell

“You lied to me!” ~ Evelyn Carnahan 
“I lie to everybody, what makes you so special?” ~ Jonathan Carnahan 
“I am your sister!” ~ Evelyn 
“Yes, well, that just makes you more gullible.” ~ Jonathan

“We are part of an ancient secret society. For over three thousand years we have guarded the City Of The Dead. We have sworn at manhood to do any and all in our power to stop the high priest Imhotep from being reborn into this world.” ~ Dr. Bay

“This creature is the bringer of death. It will never eat, it will never sleep, and it will never stop.” ~ Ardeth Bay

“By the way, why did you kiss me?” ~ Evelyn 
“I dunno, I was about to be hanged. It seemed like a good idea at the time.” ~ Rick

With the walking ego otherwise known as Tom Cruise starring in a new Mummy film next year, it seems appropriate to review two of the films from some years ago, which didn’t take themselves too seriously and odds are will prove to still be more entertaining when compared to Cruise’s film. In 1999, director Stephen Sommers brought The Mummy to the big screens. It was a loose remake of the 1932 original, stressing action, adventure, and fantasy with a rich sense of humour in a tale of a cursed Egyptian high priest coming back to life in the 20th century.

The film opens in ancient Egypt, where the high priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) has a secret romance with Anck-su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez), the mistress of Pharoah Seti. Their relationship is exposed, the  lovers kill the Pharoah, and while his love takes her life rather than be captured, Imhotep is ultimately punished with an ancient curse and buried alive with flesh eating scarab beetles. The order of bodyguards who have carried out the punishment at Hamunaptra, the City of the Dead, vow to guard the site forever.

In the wake of the First World War, members of the French foreign legion are bracing themselves for battle with desert raiders at the ruins of Hamunaptra. Among them is an American, Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and a cowardly soldier, Beni (Kevin J. O’Connor). During the skirmish, Rick sees something disturbing amid the sand. Several years later, Evelyn and Jonathan Carnahan (Rachel Weisz and John Hannah), a sister and brother pair of Egyptologists living in the country, meet Rick at a prison where he’s due to be hanged; Rick knows where the City of the Dead is, and his life is worth saving. And so the three are tied together in a journey to the city... where the cursed dead still waits in his sarcophagus.

The idea of an updated version of The Mummy had been around for a few years, starting in the early 90s. At one point Clive Barker had been on board to direct a pure horror take on the concept. At another point, George Romero was attached. Finally Stephen Sommers came on board with a premise that was along the lines of an Indiana Jones film- the serial style adventure film with a sense of humour, swashbuckling more than horrific. Sommers had done a number of different projects before- The Jungle Book, Tom and Huck, and Oliver Twist. His previous film prior to The Mummy was something that had a similar sort of tone. Deep Rising had featured horror, action, adventure, humour, and rogues as characters. The studio liked his proposal, and brought him on board to direct what would end up being a film that had fun with itself- something one doubts we’d ever see out of Tom Cruise.His style as a director, which admittedly can be up and down in terms of quality, works well here, as the film flows swiftly and he invests a good sense of humour into his directing style. For a look at the down side of his work, try wasting two hours of your life by watching one of those G.I Joe films, though as I said... it would be a waste.

The screenplay by Sommers has nods towards the original 1932 classic- the alias Boris Karloff’s Imhotep uses in the modern day matches the name of one of the characters in this film, and resurrection from the dead using the Book of the Dead is revisited here. So too is the idea of the villain single-mindedly pursuing the resurrection of his lost love. Where the original film stressed horror and suspense, this remake goes off in different directions, mixing action and adventure into the tale, as well as a rich sense of humour. There’s a lot of the influence of Indiana Jones in the story, with the setting in Egypt and the idea of tomb raiding and ancient mysteries, as well as the swashbuckling aspect of the characters.

Production took place primarily in Morocco and the United Kingdom, as Egypt at the time was deemed too unstable for filming. Location shooting involved exterior settings, while a good deal of underground chambers and passages, in which the film indulges in with regularity, was done in studio settings, with setwork taking on the look of ancient Egypt, both in terms of that time period and in terms of ruins in the modern era. There’s a lot of attention paid to detail in terms of set work, costuming, and props that give both periods- ancient Egypt and the 1920s era- a sense of reality. One feels they’re dropped down into the desert with period clothing and vehicles.

The CGI and special effects of the film do as they’re required. Much of that revolves around Imhotep himself, as well as the use of the various powers the curse has given him. It’s probably most spectacularly seen in his use of a sandstorm to thwart the heroes in the latter part of the film, but reflects as well in his appearance as his body regenerates, or other techniques he uses along the line. The CGI is also used in other resurrected mummies- Imhotep’s fellow priests- and in the periodic use of scarab beetles, who have a way of picking a body clean within seconds, which the real scarab beetles don’t do, but it looks good and horrific on screen. Throughout the film, the CGI does look real and effective- something that went slightly awry with one of the special effects in the sequel. The score by the late master composer Jerry Goldsmith is one of my favourites by him, filled with themes that stress adventure, romance, mystery, humour, and the exotic themes of a place not our own.

I like the choice in casting throughout the film. That goes from the major players to relatively minor ones. Bernard Fox, the British character actor who’s been in countless movies and television series, has a fun but poignant role as Winston Havlock, an acquaintance of Rick and military pilot who’s gone to seed in the desert, drinking his way into oblivion and lamenting the fact that he didn’t go down in glory like the rest of his friends in the Great War. Erick Avari, who came to North American attention first as a tribal leader in Stargate, plays the curator Dr. Bay, first coming across as a fussy and humourless bureaucrat before we learn that he’s also the leader of the Medjai, and a courageous man of knowledge. Jonathan Hyde often gets cast as unlikable stiff necked characters, which applies here. He’s an Egyptologist, Allen Chamberlain, leading a group of Americans. The character is dismissive and haughty, which Hyde plays to.

Patricia Velasquez appears in the prologue as Anck-Su-Namun, the object of Imhotep’s affections. We can see what the villain sees in her, though she’s as treacherous as he is, willing to do whatever she must to free herself of the position she’s in. There’s a boldness in her that matches Imhotep’s own. Boldness is something we can’t see in Beni, the lowlife henchman in the modern era. Kevin J. O’Connor had worked with Sommers in Deep Rising, and while the snarkiness carries over into this character, he’s less sympathetic. His Beni is a greedy, opportunistic coward, the sort who runs from danger but bargains with the devil; it’s hard to feel sorry for him when he’s getting his butt kicked around.

Arnold Vosloo is perfectly cast as Imhotep. His performance may be augmented by special effects, but it’s strongly grounded in him as an actor. He plays Imhotep as determined and ruthless, single-minded in his quest to resurrect his lost love. Thus from his point of view, he’s not the villain, which makes the role work so well. There’s a strong sense of menace in his performance, and while everyone else in the film seem to be playing their parts with a wink in the eye, Vosloo plays the role completely straight. His character, caught up in this supernatural curse, is a formidable adversary.

Oded Fehr was well chosen to play Ardeth Bay, a warrior leader of the Medjai who comes into contact with the main characters. He and his order, a secret society of desert warriors, have sworn to protect the secrets of the City of the Dead, and that first brings them into conflict, and then alongside, the three main characters. Ardeth is humourless at first, though we do catch a dry sense of humour as things go along. And he’s courageous, formidable, and decisive as a leader of men, though he does defer to Doctor Bay- one assumes they’re son and father, though the film doesn’t touch on that.

John Hannah is one of those actors who can make a role interesting just by talking. His Jonathan is a fun role for the actor; while he’s apparently an Egyptologist, he doesn’t take the job that seriously. Jonathan is something of a bumbler, a greedy sort of fellow with few scruples. He’s not that interested in history, more in just getting rich, and that drives him. Jonathan is also something of a grifter and thief, a man fond of lying, especially if it gets him out of trouble. Fortunately he’s also a whole lot of fun, and while he’s not above taking advantage of his sister’s good nature, he’s fond of her too.

Rachel Weisz was perfectly cast as Evelyn. The first impression she makes on the audience is of a bookish but clumsy librarian, eager to prove herself to fellow Egyptologists, who dismiss her as a woman. She’s peevish at times, particularly with her brother, and then early on with Rick, who she dismisses as arrogant and rude, even though she has need of information he knows. And yet the bickering dynamic she has with him gives way to a bond, and we can believe the chemistry between Evelyn and Rick, because it develops as the film goes along.

The leading role had been offered to various actors at one point or another- Cruise himself, as well as Brad Pitt or Matt Damon had been offered the role. Fraser got it, and was well suited to the role. He brings to Rick the sort of swashbuckler sensibility that Errol Flynn would have gotten, and the actor doesn’t take himself too seriously, which is vital for Rick’s world view. Rick is a scoundrel and a rascal, which makes him a fun character to watch, but he’s also courageous and finds a reason to see things through as the film develops. Fraser makes the role fun, and his Rick is a convincing leading man.

The Mummy might be a loose remake of the original film, but it goes off in its own direction and takes on a life of its own. It’s a satisfying adventure with a lot of humour, finding a balance between horror and thriller. In some ways it is a comic book tale or a roller coaster story, but the pace always moves along well, and the characters are memorable and fun. Add to that a formidable adversary, and the resulting film is an enjoyable one. Even though it’ll leave you shuddering at the very words scarab beetle.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

So You Want To Conquer Death?

With Hallowe'en coming, I thought I would review three films appropriate for this time of year. This is the first.

“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.” ~ The Creature

“There was something at work in my soul which I do not understand.” ~ Victor Frankenstein

“Lives come and go. If we succeed, our names will live on forever. I will be hailed as the benefactor of our species.” ~ Captain Walton

"I'm here to become a mere doctor. I'm told that has something to do with healing the sick, which is a pity, really, because I find sick people rather revolting." ~ Henry Clerval

“I’m frightened that if I tell you the truth, I’ll lose you.” ~ Victor Frankenstein 
“You’ll lose me if you don’t.” ~ Elizabeth

In 1994, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein came to theatres, as something of a companion film to the earlier Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The first film had been directed by Francis Ford Coppolla with a screenplay by James V. Hart, and both men were producers for this adaptation of Shelley’s classic horror novel. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, who starred as the overly ambitious scientist trying to conquer death by creating life, the film is overwrought and operatic at times, but also faithful to the source material, presenting a different take on the monster and the man who created him.

The film travels back and forth in time, much of it as an extended flashback, a story told in 1794 by a depleted Victor Frankenstein (Branagh) to Robert Walden (Aidan Quinn), a ship’s captain in the Arctic obsessed with reaching the North Pole. He reveals his tumultuous history, growing up as the son of the Baron Frankenstein (Ian Holm) and his wife Caroline (Cherie Lunghi), along with the young girl they took in when he was a child, Elizabeth, who grew to be the woman he loved (Helena Bonham Carter). The death of his mother in childbirth becomes the great shattering blow for the young Frankenstein. He vows that no one ever need die.

At medical school, Victor makes friends with a classmate, Henry Clerval (Tom Hulce), challenges his professors, including Professor Waldman (John Cleese), who harbours his own murky secrets about experiments in life and death. Victor begins to conduct his own experiments, heedless of the consequences, determined to cheat death by creating life. Assembling his creation by stitching together body parts, he brings it to life, but finds it to be a failure, renouncing the course of action he took. His creation (Robert De Niro), however, has other ideas.

The screenplay by Frank Darabont and Steph Lady closely adapts the novel (though Darabont himself has stated his own issues with the finished product). It weaves together themes like madness, selfishness, obsession, ambition, the meaning of existence, and the consequences of actions- or disregard for consequences- all of which run deeply through Shelley’s narrative, which is one of the reasons it resonates so deeply as a classic. Including the framing device of Captain Walton’s presence as a bookend for the beginning and ending of the film was something that hadn’t been done before- the character appears in the book, but not the various movies. It gives a different structure to the film and different nuances than earlier versions.

The story also presents the creature in a different way. He’s been presented in films as a sad wretch or a killing machine (and truthfully those can be seen here), but the script gives the creature depth, showing him as a new life trying to understand his place in the world, and driven to destruction because he’s been rejected by the world. As time goes on, the creature shows himself to be a mixture of intelligence and puzzlement, scarred by a horrible appearance and capable of profound thought. His relationship with his creator is a contrast- Victor fears what he created but also is capable of pity for him, while the creature both hates the man who rejected him but also views him as a father.

Branagh’s directing and cinematographic style throughout the film tends to be grand, dramatic, over the top, and frantic at times, perhaps best expressed in the creation sequence, with rapid edits, swooping camera shots, and Gothic set pieces. The film has an operatic quality, perhaps to the point where we wonder if the film itself has become something of a monster of the director’s creation. And yet the film is also rooted deeply in horror, as it should be. Branagh effectively brings to life an eighteenth century setting in terms of the locations chosen for filming- the Frankenstein manor feels like quite a grand place. The same applies to the costuming and props the crew contribute to the film, giving an authenticity to the film. Even the machinery Frankenstein uses feels plausible for the era.

And the look of the creature, essential to the story, is well rendered through make up and prosthetics- De Niro looks stitched together and scarred, limping along, as his legs are uneven; he does look like a nightmare. The film got an Oscar nomination for its makeup effects, and that’s well deserved. The score by Branagh’s frequent collaborator Patrick Doyle matches the mood of the film: occasionally intimate, but often Gothic, brooding, and operatic, rising to the point of nightmarish at times.

The cast is well chosen. Ian Holm, who had worked with Branagh before, is well cast as Baron Frankenstein, a wise and kind man, the patriarch of his family. Cherie Lunghi plays his wife- at least until her death early on in the story, and they make a believable, grounded couple; the viewer might wonder what Victor might have turned out to be like had his mother lived. Would Victor have ended up following his dark obsession without heed of the consequences?

John Cleese, who’s known as a comedic actor, instead plays the professor Waldman with gravity and seriousness, no trace of the wink in the eye that you’d expect of the actor. Tom Hulce takes what could be a cliché character and works well with it. Henry is loyal to a fault, an intelligent man who’s something of a bumbler at times. He befriends Victor early on, stays friends with him, and in fact acts as a voice of conscience to him. Even if Victor isn’t heeding Henry’s warnings of the course he’s chosen- Victor listens too often only to his obsessions- that voice is needed, and Hulce brings that across through the film.

Aidan Quinn’s presence at the beginning and ending of the film, providing a framework for the story, restores Shelley’s narrative flow from the book, and his character provides a counter balance to Victor’s obsessions. When we first meet Captain Walton, we see a man driven by ambition to make his place in history, so much so that he’s disregarding the discontent of his crew, all of whom are worried about being trapped in Arctic ice and their prospects of reaching home again. After hearing Victor’s story, and seeing with his own eyes the creature that was the result of his obsession, Walton is able to do what Victor could not- turn back from his ambitions before it’s too late. He’s humbled by what he sees, takes lessons to heart, and treats the creature with sympathy, treating him as a human being, something that the creature has rarely experienced. It’s a good touch for the character, and the actor conveys that personal shift- from obsession to epiphany- in the right way.

Helena Bonham Carter is well cast as Elizabeth. The character is a mix of seriousness, spirit, and enjoying life. There is intelligence, life, and energy in her, in a way that you might not expect out of a woman in the 18th century (a nod to the author herself). Carter’s performance gives Elizabeth depth and makes her complete in and of herself. That shows itself in how she deals with Victor- the romantic bond is certainly believable, but she is also able to give Victor enough of an ultimatum to pull him back from the edge. And where she ends up by film’s end shows another side of the theme of consequences to actions- her choice demonstrates to Victor that disregarding consequences only ends in destruction.

De Niro has the strongest performance of the cast as the Creature. He first appears as a criminal about to be executed, but spends most of the film as what is supposed to be a monster, and yet turns out to be a mix of terror, pathos, and ultimately humanity. The Creature comes into a world not knowing where he belongs, finds himself driven out by society, and out into the wilderness. Gradually his intelligence asserts itself and he learns how to read and speak, but his fleeting encounters with humanity tend to end badly. The audience can feel for him- and does when we see his pain, both physical and emotional. De Niro conveys that strongly, as well as the sense that the Creature is ashamed of his appearance. When he is finally drawn back to the life of his creator, we see him as something of an intellectual equal to Victor, capable of asking deeply philosophical questions- the question as to if he has a soul certainly is something that resonates deeply. De Niro plays the role as a mix of pity and rage, driven by revenge over his rejection by the world. Ultimately, however, the rage is spent, and his final act is one of compassion and humanity- which makes the character all the more compelling.

Branagh’s take on Victor matches the film itself- Gothic and over the top at times. His best work is opposite De Niro and Carter- especially a conversation Victor and the Creature have amid an ice field in which Victor is trying to make amends. It’s a quiet moment in a film that’s often frantic, and yet it’s one of the best scenes in the film, two master actors in very different positions having a philosophical discussion. The character though is inherently selfish- brilliant but obsessed with his goal to the point of shutting out everything else. At a pivotal moment late in the film, he asks not “are you okay”, but to “say my name”, a telling sign of his selfishness. Victor is so bound in his ambitions and his experiments that he fails to take into account the consequences of his actions- which is one of the things that makes the character and book so compelling. It’s the pursuit of knowledge without taking everything into consideration that continues to make it a classic. Instead Branagh’s Victor learns the lessons far too late of what his obsessions have cost him. It’s only after everything he’s valued has been destroyed and taken from him that Victor understands the penalty of ambition.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein does follow the book closely, for the most part, and strongly delves into the themes. Two centuries plus on, the book remains a classic because it asks difficult questions, profound questions that challenge us. In a world with cloned sheep and the acceleration of artificial intelligence, we would be wise to heed its lessons. This film adaptation captures the era well, featuring strong performances in a narrative that does go over the top and completely operatic in its scope at times, but presents the characters with depth and humanity- especially a vengeful Creature who has far more empathy than his creator could have imagined.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A Day In The Life Of A Cat

And now it is time for the cat to have her say. Pay her the appropriate amount of respect, for she is one of the supreme life forms on this planet, after all.

7:19 AM. Waking up at home. Taking a big stretch. Considering whether or not I should go to sleep for another hour or seven. Well, maybe I’ll stay awake until nap time. I haven’t had breakfast yet, and that’s always important. 

7:23 AM. The staff comes down the stairs, all dressed for that work place she goes to. I wonder what it is she does for a living. The way she dresses, she could be a banker, a lawyer, or a globe-trotting spy. Well, maybe not that last one. She tends to come home every night, doesn’t have a Walther PPK under the pillow, and doesn’t drink vodka martinis, shaken or stirred. 

7:25 AM. The staff has finally gotten around to providing me with breakfast. As usual, there are field rations in one bowl, but the staff seems to be getting the message and providing me with something proper, as in this case I have a bowl of milk and a plate of tuna. Very good, staff, but we’re going to have to get you to work on delivering all of this in pre-chilled tableware.

7:28 AM. Eating contentedly. The staff is seeing to her breakfast. 

7:37 AM. The staff is on her way out the door for the day. I give her a head bonk to the leg and suggest she bring some extra catnip when she comes home. Plus a good sized box for me to hide in. Boxes and cats. It’s a thing we have.

7:38 AM. Watching the staff get into her car to leave for the day. Okay, time to get ourselves organized, figure out the schedule for the day. Naps of course will feature prominently. Along with lots of staring out at the vastness of my domain and occasional brooding.

7:45 AM. Up on a windowsill on the second floor. Watching the world outside. Lots of fall colours. The distant sound of barking from that annoying mutt from down the road catches my ears. What purpose dogs serve in the greater scheme of things is beyond me. 

8:10 AM. Lightly dozing while sitting on the windowsill. You know, this morning sun really makes me sleepy. I could just enjoy a quick doze right here.

8:21 AM. Awoken by rustling sounds from outside. I open my eyes, look out on my lawn... and see that despicable dog running around in the fallen leaves and making a spectacle of himself. Hey! Dog! Get lost!

8:22 AM. The annoying mutt finally notices me and starts wagging his tail. Who gave you permission to come onto my property? Because I certainly didn’t. Scram! And I mean right now!

8:24 AM. I give the dog my full measure of disdain by giving him the finger. He seems confused. Dogs usually are.

8:25 AM. The dog finally leaves my property. I’m going to have to do something about him. Like have a skunk or porcupine drop in and pay him a visit. Teach him some manners. But dogs being dogs, I doubt the lesson will take.

8:39 AM. I settle down in the living room for a good nap. 

11:42 AM. Waking up from the nap. Feeling quite refreshed.

11:58 AM. Despite reluctance to subject myself to it, I eat some of the field rations.

12:09 PM. Watching some of the noon news. Much concern about creepy clown sightings. A rather paranoid member of something called the Anti-Clown Society Of America says we need to wipe all the clowns off the face of the planet, just like a plague of ancient Egypt. Oh, yes, you sound rational and well adjusted, lady. 

12:11 PM. Wolf Blitzer is telling the irrational loon that her remarks could be taken as anti-clownite. She says that’s kind of the point, that clowns are evil. No, lady, they’re obnoxious, not evil. There are some big differences between the two.

12:13 PM. Turning off the television. Okay, that’s enough of having my intelligence insulted for one day. I can’t believe all day news runs all day when they’ve got all of thirty minutes of actual content. This is all just nonsense cooked up to hype Hallowe’en. 

12:16 PM. Reminded of the fact that Hallowe’en is not that far off. And with my luck, the staff’s idiot relations will bring their rugrats around here for trick or treating. I really don’t get that whole tradition. Bunch of kids show up at your house going on three or four hours, demanding you give them candy for services not rendered, with vague hints of a threat about egging your house if you don’t follow through. Who started this whole thing anyway?

1:29 PM. I was just starting to drift off a nap when I was rudely awakened by the distant barking of that dog through the windows. Checking the clock. Mailman must be passing by. I wonder if it ever occurred to dogs that mailmen are just doing their job.

3:54 PM. Waking up from a nap. Slept well. Dreamed of jack o’lanterns and scarecrows and the Headless Horseman all chasing Wolf Blitzer. What kind of name is Wolf Blitzer anyway? It sounds like the sort of name he picked out of a Cracker Jack box.

4:46 PM. Waiting on the staff to come home. Feeling impatient.

5:21 PM. The staff walks through the front door, carrying a couple of grocery bags and a box! Praise be to Isis! A box! I deliver a head bonk to the legs and follow her into the kitchen. 

5:27 PM. The staff is putting away some of that Hallowe’en candy. I meanwhile am sitting pretty in my new box, which until thirty seconds ago contained a new coffee maker.

6:35 PM. Dinner with the staff. She’s having asparagus with her lamb. I’m just having strips of lamb. Tastes good. I don’t know why anyone would ever subject themselves to asparagus, but that’s just me.

11:41 PM. The staff is off to bed. Good night, staff, sleep well, and keep the bedroom door open so that I can run all over you at three thirty in the morning. If you happen to dream about Wolf Blitzer getting chased by the Headless Horseman, that would probably suggest we’re telepathically connected, you and I.

Which I doubt. I mean, after all, you keep putting field rations out for me first thing in the morning, despite all my protests, and if we had that mind reading thing going on between us, you’d understand that.