Tag: stephen sommers

The Mummy Returns

The Mummy Returns (2001)
★★ / ★★★★

For the many things that Stephen Sommers’ “The Mummy Returns” does right, the few that are wrong—dead wrong—manage to overshadow the positive qualities. There is a sequel worth telling here, but an uninspired third act, which is special- and visual effects-heavy, nearly derails what could have been a grand family-driven adventure involving mummies, Egyptian gods and their armies, resurrections, and those reliably horrifying flesh-eating scarabs. The attitude here is “bigger must be better,” but it loses much of its charm in the process, especially when taken side-by-side against its well-balanced predecessor.

A few years have passed since Rick the adventurer (Brendan Fraser) and Evie the librarian (Rachel Weisz) met and got tangled in their first adventure. They now have a young son, Alex (Freddie Boath), while Jonathan (John Hannah), Evie’s brother, still manages to get himself in trouble without meaning to. When the screenplay plays upon the personality dynamics of these characters, not only is it fun but also a natural evolution for the characters we have come to love in the previous film. One of the best decisions in this earnest follow-up is that it assumes the viewers have seen the original and so there is minimal backtracking. This helps because the plot demands a constant and breathless forward momentum in order to prevent most viewers from poking at the plot holes.

Familiar villains resurface, like the immortal priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) and the woman he loves named Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez). And there are new ones like Hafez (Alun Armstrong), the cult leader whose aim is to find Imhotep’s body and resurrect him, alongside the deadpan funny Lock-Nah (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who is given the task to babysit the feisty Alex. I enjoyed watching these antagonists because I felt they fit this particular universe. Most ineffective is the addition of The Scorpion King (Dwayne Johnson) who is given some background in the opening sequence, making a deal with Anubis and the like.

But when The Scorpion King appears in the final act, it’s utterly ridiculous; he is completely composed of CGI, he has no personality, just a really ugly sight. It is so uncomfortable to see Johnson’s face plastered on a giant scorpion. It would have been much preferred to have Johnson—without computer magic—battle it out with Vosloo and Fraser. Must The Scorpion King be a literal scorpion? It just doesn’t work. Not even on the scale of tongue-in-cheek silliness. What a waste of budget to have created something so unnecessary and worthless.

Needless to say, the first half is far stronger than the latter half. The “must drink from the Nile” sequence in the ancient ruins where we are reintroduced to Rick and Evie (she’s tougher now) possesses so much energy and wit, it functions as a promise of a good time. Then it is followed by a rescue mission in the British Museum of Antiquities which then results in an extended chase scene (with wall-climbing mummies) in London involving a double-decker bus. It is all so propulsive. But alas, the film begins to run out of steam about halfway through. There is one too many flashbacks.

Reliance on CGI is not the only key shortcoming. The second half might have been less problematic had there been further character development between Rick and Evie. Despite being married for years, it’s bizarre that many of their scenes are reductive and almost always ending up with a kiss. I felt the talents of character actors Weisz and Frasier being wasted every time Rick and Evie go for a forced kiss. At one point, someone (finally) declares, “Get a room!” Clearly, more effort is put into how to make, for example, a wall of water look good than to provide more depth or dimension to its characters. This is why when someone’s life is threatened, there is minimal drama—even for an action-adventure.

The Mummy

The Mummy (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★

Stephen Sommers’ “The Mummy” is a love child of Steven Spielberg’s rousing “Indiana Jones” pictures and 1930s screwball comedies. It could have easily made the mistake of relying on special and visual effects to create a semblance of fun and adventure, but notice its love for juggling cheeky dialogue, CGI effects and practical cosmetics, and propulsive action sequences. What results is a work that’s a real joy to experience, savor. It is apparent that those behind and in front of the camera are having fun and so we cannot help but have fun, too.

Loosely adapted from Karl Freund’s 1932 classic of the same name, Sommers’ version is a proud action-horror adventure flick. Its goal is to draw a smile on your face. Giant wall of sand, flesh-eating scarabs, salt-acid booby traps, creepy catacombs, resurrection spells, rooms filled with gold, the ten plagues of Egypt… somehow these are interwoven into the story in a way that make sense. It helps that the pacing moves so swiftly that it does not leave much room for us to breathe and think. It is often that the next plot twist is waiting right around the corner.

When it does leave moments of pause, like characters sitting around a campfire or observing someone make a mess of a library or watching a horse versus camel race, emphasis is placed on the environment. It involves us by inviting us to look at the surrounding area and appreciate how hot it must be out there in the sand dunes, to imagine the hours it would take to reorganize (or peruse) books that have fallen out of shelves, to feel the excitement of treasures (and curses) have yet to be discovered. Subtle details are what separate a generic action movie from an action picture that you wish to revisit again and again.

The film is elevated by Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz’ terrific performances. He is an American adventurer/treasure hunter who comes across the location of Hamunaptra, also known as the City of the Dead, only to be driven away by guards called The Medjai (Oded Fehr) that wish to keep the site unknown to the world. She is a British Egyptologist who wishes to get her hands on an ancient book after her brother, Jonathan (John Hannah), gives her a present that so happens to be a key of sorts. (Inside it is a map to Hamunaptra.) Fraser and Weisz evoke an innocent and playful sexual chemistry; they don’t have to try so much to be likable together or apart. When together, they deliver their lines not with a wink but an earnestness—to discover one another and whatever it is they hope to find throughout their journey. The romance is effortless.

Less interesting is the central villain named Imhotep played by Arnold Vosloo. Although I enjoyed that the character simply wishes to resurrect the woman he loves (Patricia Velásquez), there is a problem that cannot be overlooked: strip away Imhotep’s superpowers and invincibility and realize this antagonist is not at all interesting. It is probably why the filmmakers make the choice of Imhotep having to destroy something or kill someone nearly every time he makes an appearance on screen—to create an illusion of formidability because there is not much else to the character. Still, it beats another antagonist wishing to take over the world.

“The Mummy” is popcorn entertainment through and through and there is no apology offered. Why be shy of its identity when so many elements are working in its favor? Call it cheesy, silly, or inconsequential. I ask, “So what?” There is room for movies like this—and there is certainly an audience for movies like it. If only other projects were equally unabashed, more mediocre movies that took the half-assed, halfway approach would have likely ended up better than they did.

Odd Thomas

Odd Thomas (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Odd Thomas (Anton Yelchin), a short order cook, sees dead people. Only two people know of his abilities: his girlfriend, Stormy (Addison Timlin), and Chief Porter (Willem Dafoe), who has grown to trust Odd for his knack for finding clues and tracking bad guys. Lately, however, creatures called the Bodach, invisible to those who lack the special sight, have begun to follow residents of Pico Mundo. These shadow-like creatures crave the scent of people who are about to die. Odd becomes convinced that someone is planning to execute a mass killing.

“Odd Thomas,” based on the novel by Dean R. Koontz, is a fast-paced mystery-thriller but despite its very hip and modern embellishments, from the rapid cuts and editing meant to exude cool to the quirkiness of the dialogue between Odd and the girl with whom he thinks he is meant to be with forever, it never moves beyond mild entertainment. The mystery lacks a level of urgency despite the possibility of hundreds of people being killed and so the investigation is not all that interesting. Some of the quirkiness gets in the way of building a forward momentum and thus lacking the building blocks for suspense.

Yelchin and Timlin create a cute screen couple presence but Stephen Sommers, the person in charge of shaping the screenplay and directing, seems to forget that this is not a romance picture. After finding just about every piece of the puzzle, Odd and Stormy must engage in either a light banter or expressing how they care for one another—on the phone or in person. These two are attached to the hip and it does not work. So, it quickly becomes a challenge to enjoy the film as a supernatural detective story.

There is far too much visual effects. A lot of it do not look first-rate—which is not a problem if the concept or story is strong enough to keep us engaged. Here, since the tone is a mixture of action-adventure, mystery, and comedy, adding the visuals on top of an already busy plot makes the picture look cheap or trying too hard to be impressive. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it better if Odd were the only one who was able to see the Bodach. This way, it might have inspired us to imagine how these creatures look. Seeing them leaves nothing to the imagination. I did not find them scary.

Standout performances include Dafoe and Yelchin. If the screenplay had been sharper, it would have placed the father-son dynamic between Porter and Odd front and center. To me, the partnership between the cop and his aide is the heart of the picture because when Porter’s life ends up in grave danger, I found myself not wanting to miss a blink. I wish I can say the same about Stormy. She is sweet and has some nice lines but there is no depth to her.

The problem with “Odd Thomas” is that it feels too much like a TV show that can likely thrive on the CW—maybe the WB when their standards were different. Take a two-hour pilot episode and a two-part season finale of a solid—but not impressive—show in its first year and this is the result. Quite frankly, the movie reminded me of the first season of Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Its knees may be wobbly but the potential is just waiting to be let out of the box.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Three Persian princes (Jake Gyllenhaal, Richard Coyle, Toby Kebbell) invaded a holy city protected by a princess named Tamina (Gemma Arterton) because their royal intelligence led them to believe that the city provided weapons to Persia’s enemies. In truth, the false information was created and spread because someone wanted a special dagger that had the ability to turn back time. Based on the video game of the same name, “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” directed by Mike Newell, plays out like a typical video game: the main character Dastan (Gyllenhaal) was heroic and had a heart of gold, he met villains-turned-friends (Alfred Molina, Steve Toussaint) along the way, and the identity of the big bad was eventually dramatically revealed even though we could see it coming from a mile away. But prior to watching the film, I decided to have an open mind and not take it too seriously. Surprisingly enough, I quite enjoyed it because its energy reminded me of Stephen Sommers’ action-adventure “The Mummy” although not as funny and creative with the action sequences. I thought the film worked best when it showcased the fighting scenes such as when Dastan would try to evade the enemies by jumping from one roof to another à la Jason Bourne in Paul Greengrass’ “The Bourne Ultimatum” only with more sweat and sand. However, I have to admit that the bickering between Dastan and Tamina did get under my last nerves. I knew that they were going to end up in each others’ arms eventually so I kept wondering when they would actually be useful together in order to finally drive the story forward. Perhaps Arterton was to blame because although she was beautiful on the outside, the way she played her character lacked charm. I thought she could have played her character with more cheekiness and far less self-righteousness. I didn’t understand why Dastan would fall in love with her because she acted like a spoiled brat for the majority of the time. When she wasn’t, she acted like a common damsel-in-distress. “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” ticks all the boxes in terms of what makes a good and entertaining action flick. I especially liked the visual effects toward the end when Dastan and the princess went under the holy city and danger was literally found in each step. However, I wish the filmmakers would’ve challenged themselves more (or, more importantly, challenged us more) by toning down certain evil looks by characters that had murky allegiances so that it would have been less predictable.