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THE MUMMY (1999)

Jeepers Creepers Starring: Justin Long, Gina Philips, Jonathan Breck. Director and screenwriter: Victor Salva
I love a good horror movie.  Unfortunately, “good” and “horror movie” rarely find themselves together in the same booth, so most of the time when I watch something that’s supposed to be scary, it ends up being more of a theme park ride than anything that really stirs up dread.   I watch, I can admire the skill in some cases, I can applaud the attempt, but the fact remains, Hollywood is so drenched in irony—which is the art of keeping one’s distance—that being affected by anything other than technical achievement is pretty rare.

Jeepers Creepers manages to be an actual good horror movie for most of its length, and that fact certainly helps when it drops in quality toward the end.  The good will built up by being good and scary will carry over the lame parts, as opposed to most horror movies, which start out lame and get lamer, finally ending in some “spectacular” makeup effect.

The opening moments, when two siblings are menaced by a huge black truck, is remarkable for its quick, visceral punch, which carries the film for quite a distance.  Shortly after, when the lead characters start doing stupid things, you can come very close to forgiving the film as 1) the reasons given, while they wouldn’t convince me, are better than the typical “The plot won’t start otherwise” ones, and 2) the atmosphere is still pretty thick and helps you to justify stuff.

(The truck, by the way, has a vanity license plate, BEATINGU.  Don’t you have to register those every year or something?)

Writer/director Victor Salva also has an excellent eye for placing elements in a scene and moving around them.  Shortly after the truck scene, the sibling car passes an old church; in the yard, the black truck is clearly visible, and moving away from the house is a tall figure dressed in dark clothes (and a hat), carrying something person-sized wrapped up in a sheet.  Good enough on its own, it’s the way Salva’s camera frames the scene from the moving car, with the figure moving in the opposite direction, yet keeping the degree of motion similar, that really makes the scene stand out.  The fluidity of the shot makes it very nightmarish.

The film is not without flaws, however.  It has, for a start, a Bad Ending.  I won’t give it away other than to say, be prepared, but I still have to wonder why this kind of a fatalistic, down ending is so attractive to film-makers.  I suppose it makes the menace that much more menacing; if everyone escaped its clutches, it wouldn’t be much of a menace.

Secondly, when you think about it, the leads do make a lot of stupid choices in their actions.  It’s to Salva’s credit that he keeps the atmosphere thick enough that you don’t notice that the characters are even thicker at times.    But, on the other hand, there is at least one occasion when female lead Gina Philips drives a car repeatedly over a short stretch of road that makes you think, “They should do that in all horror movies.”  (The fact that it has no real effect doesn’t diminish the smartness of it.)

As Bryan J. Wright points out, the ending, which starts in a police station, has enough witnesses to see the ultimate form of the antagonist that there’s no way a sequel could pass the creature off as someone’s imagination, or a hoax, or a legend, or all the other terms that seem to bedevil Jason Vorhees.  

As for the creature, I don’t think he’s really well designed, but he’s adequate.   There’s a little too much of the Paul Blaisdell built-in-snarl for the mask to work all that well.  I think it’s smartly kept to the shadows most of the time, other than at the ending. 

So, I recommend this one.  Salva is definitely a talent worth watching.   And the sequel is pretty good, too.    Let’s go on to that….

Jeepers Creepers 2 Starring: Ray Wise, Jonathan Breck, lots of teenagers. Director and screenwriter: Victor Salva.
(This one has a number of spoilers, though they’re common knowledge for anyone who’s seen the first film.  Be ye warned, etc.)

The idea behind the Creeper, the monster from Jeepers Creepers, is that every 23 years, for 23 days, he gets to eat people.   As revealed in the first film, he does this to replenish or enhance his own body parts—if he eats, say, six hearts, that’s five times he can have his heart destroyed before it affects him.  At least that's the gist I got out of it.

Victor Salva says in one of the “Making Of” shorts on this DVD that he chose the 23 year period precisely so a sequel would be really difficult (The Creeper’d probably have a flying death truck in 2024, but his victims would have flying cars too—the whole thing would end up looking like a cross between Friday the 13th and Star Wars.  Damn, there’s another million dollar idea I won’t get a dime from).   However, the fact that the film was a big success and MGM needed some more success at the box office made the sequel pretty much a given.  Salva got around the 23 year business by setting this one a couple of days (the 22nd day, in fact) after the first film, so we’re still in that feeding period.

In this film, instead of a brother and sister, the Creeper sets his sights on a whole school bus full of people—a basketball team, the cheerleaders, the coaches and the driver.   These folks already have a lot of issues with each other (there’s bickering a-plenty) without tossing a hungry monster into the mix. 

And the Creeper seems to know right away this is his table.  He no longer drives a truck, but he seems to run pretty fast without one, and he’s got some throwing-star type things he’s made out of bone and metal that can blow out a bus tire easily.  Which he does, twice.  After that, he’s airborne most of the time as he scouts out his victims.

As for them, at first, no one realizes what kind of danger they’re all in, but no one does any stupid “I think I’ll wander around by myself in the oncoming dark” stuff; the adults are all aware that they’re in a situation where they need to stay together until help arrives.

But the Creeper this time around is incredibly fast.   He darts out of the sky and picks off the adults in short order, usually in extremely quick drop-and-fly attacks.   They’re so quick, in fact, that no one suspects anything until he decides to make his presence known.

Which he does quite overtly, by the way.  In contrast to the first film, where he spent most of his time hunting from the shadows, here he’s right in everyone’s face, pressing his own face against the windows of the bus and smilingly pointing out which ones of the kids he’s going to be snacking on. 

As expected, this has the result of making some of the non-potential snacks turn on the potential snacks in a case of sacrifice-you-to-save-me thinking.  The bickering and blame start to spread pretty quickly.  This gets more play than the results warrant, but it is a pretty good way to try and differentiate the kids for us. 
The budget for this one is much higher than the previous one, and Salva makes sure the money is on screen.  For such a dark and grim tale, the night shooting is remarkably beautiful, and like the previous film, Salva has a kinetic, flowing eye that I haven’t seen since early John Carpenter.   Even if his script was awful, the film would be worth it for the look alone.

Luckily, the script isn’t awful.  There are a lot of suspenseful scenes, which is again a surprise when you figure that there are only so many ways that a monster can attack a bus; Salva manages to make them escalate subtly enough so that you don’t think, “Oh, again?”

The ending, which is set 23 years in the future (though established only through dialogue and Ray Wise’s wig—no flying cars) is quite clever, though it would seem to indicate that Jeepers Creepers 2 is the end of the line for the franchise.  I think it’s just as well, as any more movies wrung out of the premise wouldn’t have a whole lot new to work with.   Still, as Ray Wise sits there patiently by his mega-harpoon gun, watching the Creeper strung up in his barn, I have to wonder—couldn’t they burn the damn thing?  Or chop it up into bits and seal them in metal boxes?

I guess there’s the lure of all those five-dollar bills….

Again, this one is recommended.  Watch it as a double feature with the first and have a time of it. 

Be forewarned, they couldn’t resist mucking with the DVD menu.  Instead of simple commands like “Play” and “Scene Selection” and so on, they give us “BeatingU,” “Feedings” and such like that.  Yes, I know, I’m totally closed to new ideas, but still, I’d like to know how to get the thing to play.  Luckily for us all, the first option highlighted is the “Play” one.

Victor Salva is definitely a name to watch.   Let’s hope it isn’t 23 years before he makes another good ‘un.

The Mummy Starring: Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, Arnold Vosloo, Kevin J. O'Connor. Director and screenwriter: Stephen Sommers.
The Mummy is a really good adventure film, and I recommend it to those who like really good adventure films, especially those with good doses of horror, humor, grandeur and action.  (Is there anyone out there who likes really mediocre adventure films?) 

Best of all, it doesn’t have any post-modern winking at the audience; everything is played pretty straight, though (as noted) not without humor.

The heroes and villains are well done, though the Mummy himself seems to lack any sense of honor.  Fortunately, that only comes into play one time that I can recall (unlike the sequel), so one can put that down to his zealousness rather than a personality flaw.  And I loved Rachel Weisz’s drunken declaration, “I am…a librarian!”   The chemistry between her and Brendan Fraser is nicely organic.  And her brother, who is kind of a greedy weasel (though not without moral standards) is a hoot.  Finally, you gotta love a movie where a cute tabby cat is used to (temporarily) defeat the villain (twice, in fact).

I really can’t think of any obvious flaws, except perhaps that Kevin J. O’Connor, as an actor, works better as the hero’s goofy sidekick (think director Sommers’s Deep Rising) than as the villain’s goofy sidekick.   He's as weaselly as the brother, but he should have some menace to him. That’s a pretty minor cavil, though.  Oh, and some of the CGI effects are pretty primitive, but not to worry, the movie is not about effects, it’s about having a grand old time at the movies. 

If you enjoyed the Indiana Jones films, this one should be right up your alley.  Give it a shot if you haven’t already seen it.   If you have seen it, watch it again.  It’s that good.

The Mummy Returns Starring: Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, Arnold Vosloo, Patricia Velasquez. Director and screenwriter: Stephen Sommers.
The second Mummy film isn’t as good as the film that spawned it.  That’s generally true of most sequels (though not all), but in this case, I think the film-makers miscalculated what made the first film so much fun.

For one thing, there are a lot of action set-pieces here, way more than we really need to have a properly scaled adventure.   Sure the first film had action, but the amount seemed calculated to generate thrills without becoming tedious. Here, there’s a rock mummy attack (rock as in stone, not as in music), an assault by skeletal pygmies (which works better than it ought to), another “Mummy tries to envelope the heroes in a force of nature with his face on it” like the sandstorm from the first film, a couple of attacks by jackal-headed undead troops, some CGI vistas from a wrist-mounted scorpion, attacks by those flesh-eating bugs, sacrifices and attempted sacrifices, knife-fights, spear fights, the Scorpion King (at the beginning and the end), collapsing temples, hot-air balloons, trains, double-decker buses, dream sequences, mysterious tattoos, reincarnation, death and resurrection, armies of thousands, an oasis that arises instantly from the sand (and destroys itself messily)…do you get the idea?

The first half of the film is unfortunately its weakest part, as the clichés pile on thick and fast.  Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz are married now, and have a young son (perhaps ten years old).   The Mummy, well, returns and is in some kind of fight with the soon to be resurrected Scorpion King, and Brendan Fraser and company all get in the middle.  After some running around and fighting, the Mummy kidnaps the young boy to get the scorpion bracelet. It's a powerful bracelet, though I forget what it was supposed to confer on the wearer (other than death if he doesn't get it off in time).

At this point, the movie improves considerably.  The characters seem to relax and the wide vistas are really incredibly beautiful.   Stuff still happens, and a lot of it, but the film seems to widen a bit to try and encompass it all.  Then, we get the dream sequences. 

Personally, I’ve never liked dream sequences.  It always seems like the film-makers are sitting around, and one of them says, “Hey wouldn’t it be great if we could do [whatever]?”

”Yeah,” the other one agrees, “but it wouldn’t make sense in the rest of the movie.”

”No problem,” says the first.  “We’ll stick it in a dream sequence!”  And they all agree this is the best plan ever.

Uh, where were we?   Ah yes.   It appears, unless I’m very much mistaken, that this dream sequence reveals Rachel Weisz to be the reincarnation of Nefertiti, which is something of a stretch.  Also, that she’s very good in a dagger fight, which as I recall does a 180 from the first film, where she was incredibly clumsy. 

Eventually, our heroes and villains arrive (separately) at the tomb of the Scorpion King, just before he awakens.  And the mummy and Brendan Fraser have to battle one another, and then the Scorpion King, while outside those jackal-headed troops are about to sweep the world before them (with swords, not brooms).  Not to ruin it for you, but the day is saved, so no worries there.

Aside from an over-reliance on tiresome, cliché action (apparently under the impression that the audience might slip away otherwise), the main flaw with The Mummy Returns is the Mummy himself.   He’s pure evil, without a single shred of honor to him.  We see far too much of his casual cruelty and betrayal (and that of his entourage) to ever have any sympathy for him.  We just want to see him defeated and destroyed as soon as possible.  Hell, even Dracula has a certain majesty to him; the Mummy just seems like someone without any morals at all.  The only time he seems remotely like an antagonist we can identify with, is when he levitates the boy (who is up to some trickery) and shakes his finger at him, naughty naughty.  It’s a nice moment that is never followed up on or even hinted at again.  In fact, late in the proceedings, he casually kills one of the good guys by stabbing this person in the back!   And then he and his girlfriend (who matches him in nature) pass on to do their resurrecting business.

They’re all just despicable.  And I don’t think you can have a successful villain who doesn’t share some of the qualities of the audience; they have to see the axis of hero versus villain as something two-sided, not just moral against anti-moral.  There has to be a moment when we can look at the villain and think, “Okay, I can see why this guy does what he does.  He’s still evil, but I understand his actions.”

(The only successful anti-moral villain that I can think of is Frank Booth, from Blue Velvet, and he was pretty much one of a kind.  Even if his fate was different in that film, I cannot imagine him appearing in any sequel.  He’s simply too evil.)

So, should you see it?  It’s your call.  It doesn’t approach the level of the first film, but the weasely brother (now brother-in-law, too) is in it a lot more, and he’s a fun character.  The level of spectacle is sometimes astonishing and surprising (the pygmy attack is quite good), and the heroes have a good chemistry together. 

It’s just that blah first hour (or so), and the lack of any redeeming features in the Mummy (ie, if he were a more fun villain), that keep this one out of the easily recommended slot.   A lot of the rest of it is really first-rate, and one or two jalapenos shouldn’t ruin the whole salad.  Still, after you’ve bitten one, your hesitant about the rest.  At least, I am.  I liked some of this film but not it as a whole. 

A definite “maybe” then.  You may like this one a lot.  I didn’t.  Your move.   

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid. Director and screenwriter: George Lucas.
Warning:  Contains spoilers.

2nd warning: Contains spoilers.
3rd warning:  Don’t blame me if there are spoilers here.

A few nights before I went to see Revenge of the Sith, I’d dreamed that I was seeing it in a theatre.   I remember only that there was a long, involved explanation of how “Obi-Wan” Kenobi came to be known as “Ben” Kenobi.   Oh, and also that the movie was so long, they had to bus us to another theatre to see the second half.

Thankfully, neither of those things came to pass, and I guess on balance I kind of liked Revenge of the Sith.  But only kind of.  Like the whole pre-trilogy trilogy, it all just seems like a shaggy dog story, “…and that man’s name was--Darth Vader!”   Like a series of filmed footnotes to the original Star Wars film.  Or, perhaps more fittingly, like the first filmed adaptation of fan fiction.

You know what fan fiction is, right?  Fans, captivated by a film or television show, will write their own stories, detailing new adventures or background explanations of the characters, or history leading up to events that everyone has seen.

The Star Wars prequels all feel like that.  It’s easy to see Star Wars fans writing stories about how Boba Fett came to do what he does (Fett is the fan favorite par excellance—here’s a guy who had all of two or three scenes before being devoured by a pit monster, yet the fans couldn’t get enough of him).   Whereas Joe Schmo might have six or seven Boba Fett novels on his hard drive, George Lucas was the one who actually stepped up to the plate and gave us his backstory.

Fett doesn’t appear in Revenge of the Sith, which is by far the best of the prequel films (which isn’t really saying much, is it).

I’m sure you’ve either seen it by now, or the other prequels have made it so you don’t really care about spoilers; nonetheless, there are spoilers here. 
First off, as usual, the design, art direction and special effects are terrific.  There are some moments of real beauty here, even when the setting is some molten hell-hole.  There was one brief shot of Coruscant at night, with red rings of light that looked wonderful; blink and you missed it, though. The aliens aren’t as stupid-looking as those wasps from the last film or that short-order cook guy.  There’s one bunch, in fact, of tall guys who look like Pinhead without the pins who look pretty darn cool.  I was hoping they’d have more to do than just show up, but you take what you get, right?

There are still plenty of robots, excuse me, droids, and they all say things like “Uh oh!” and “Say, what was that?” and stuff which leads me to believe technology has long gone past artificial intelligence into artificial stupidity.  They get killed in unbelievable numbers throughout the film.

While there are some boring talks between characters, there aren’t any scenes like those in Clones (between Anakin and Padme) which will have you wanting to use that Jedi trick to strangle them.  However, the scenes aforementioned are boring, probably the first time in Star Wars that I can say that about non-action scenes.  (Cringe-worthy isn’t the same as boring.)

Speaking of which, he action sequences are all pretty good, though I found the fight scene that opens the film to be way too frantic.  That’s probably just me, though.  (I think there was a continuity glitch too, as one moment the characters are trying to keep from being sucked out into space, the next they’re all fine. I might have blinked, though.)  And there are way too many light-sabre duels.  The first trilogy got this exactly right, by having one duel per film, making such duels seem like a big deal; here, they’re all over the place and I found them just as uninvolving.  Sorry, I always found sword-fighting scenes boring in movies, unless they were over pretty quickly.  No luck with that here.  There’s one with Yoda and the Emperor that just goes on so long, I was really afraid I would have to be bussed to another theatre. 

Speaking of Yoda, his mangling of the English language, while charming and alien-like in the real trilogy, becomes flat-out irritating here.  On Dagobah, where he gave the impression of having spent his whole life, I could buy that he wouldn’t know proper grammar.   Here, having frickin’ lived in a big city full of English speakers who do so quite well, it comes off as an affectation.  And I thought the Jedi were against that sort of thing.  I could have done with a lot less Yoda in this film, though the one scene where he flattens a couple of red guards was nice and startling. 

Finally, the final transformation from Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader is one standout scene.  It’s at the end of the film, but it works really well in a gruesome yet compelling way.

That’s the stuff that works.  What doesn’t?   Well, the acting.   Now, Hayden Christensen is a lot better than he was in Attack of the Clones.  He has improved 100 percent, though to be honest, a poster of Hayden Christensen would have been less stiff and wooden than the man himself in Clones.  I almost thought it had to be another actor, he was that much improved.  Natalie Portman is given less to do here than in Clones, and this alone improves her performance.  Of course, the acting has never been a strong suit in any George Lucas film; he’s done his best when he’s hired good actors who can convincingly mouth his dialogue on their own, without direction from him (Ewan MacGregor does very well here, and Samuel L. Jackson feels like he finally belongs in these films.)

The story has some stupid bits, too.  Even the credit crawl starts out by saying “War!” then goes on note that there is a war, that “there are heroes on both sides.  Evil is everywhere.”  Honestly, this sounds more like some secretary’s notes during a story conference than what should be on screen.  But hey, it’s only a credit crawl.

There’s been some press about how this film is supposed to be Big George Lucas taking on President Bush and showing him What For, and there are certainly some remarks in the speeches that can be taken that way.  The only problem is, they’ve been just shoved into people’s remarks and make no sense other than as soundbites.   Padme’s widely-quoted remark, “This is how liberty dies—to thunderous applause,” is simply flat-out stupid.  In the scene where this occurs, the Senate has overwhelmingly decided that having the Emperor have an Empire like he always wanted is a great plan.  Only Padme and her pal sit this applause out. 
This is, of course, the common political assumption that if things don’t go your way, it’s because everyone else is stupid.  But consider, though, that in this Senate there are hundreds of different beings, representing hundreds of different worlds, and they all think this Empire thing sounds grand.  Are they ALL dumber than Padme?  Only someone with a mile-wide streak of contempt for everyone could think that her opinion was voted down “because all you of the Republic are idiots.  You see?  Your stupid minds, stupid, stupid!” (Not a quote from the film, but pretty close.)

Speaking of that Empire bit, that’s another thing that doesn’t seem to flow well.  Palpitine has just said that the Jedi tried to assassinate him; because of that, he’s going to turn the Republic into an Empire.  Huh?  (That’s all I’m going to say.  Huh?)  (By the way, he got real ugly when he fought Samuel L. Jackson.  Is that something that Jackson did to him, like, on purpose or something?  What’s that about?)

The rest of the so-called political commentary feels just as shoe-horned in.  Besides, who on earth gets their politics from Star Wars? Even more to the point, why would Lucas put his political philosophy into the mouth of the most ignorable major character in the whole Star Wars universe? Come on, Padme is here to give birth to the future. I can't think of a single memorable thing she's done other than that.

Anyway, I think the audience watching this is going to care most about this Anakin-to-Darth transformation.  Surprisingly, Skywalker’s transition to the Dark Side is very swift.  One moment, he’s telling Samuel L. Jackson that killing the evil Emperor is wrong, the next he’s lopping of Mr. Jackson’s (digital) hand.  The Emperor then tells him he should kill all the Jedi, and Skywalker is again pretty down with this in record time.  He even kills the Jedi children, though of course this isn’t shown, and they are referred to as “younglings” rather than children, I suppose to make this more palatable.  (You’re not supposed to think of Anakin as a child-murderer after all, but as a tragic figure.  Hard to do that with someone who kills children.)  Then, when Padme confronts him after he’s done some more evil, he does that Jedi choke thing on her and nearly kills her.

Which is odd, because he turned to the Dark Side to save her.  See, he was having these dreams that she would die in childbirth.  The Emperor told Anakin that if he joined him in the Dark Side, he could save her.   (Apparently, his prophetic dreams are pretty narrow and specific, since he didn’t seem to foresee any of the bad stuff he’d have to do, or the bad stuff that would happen.   Either that or he didn’t care.)  For him to try to kill her now, in a jealous rage, makes no sense.
Of course, the idea is that the Sith use their passions as the source of their power, and thus, maybe their passions can control the Sith more than the Sith control the passions.  But the Sith are Jedi, too, trained in the discipline of the mind.  The Emperor, after all, chief of the Sith (I could call him a "sithhead" but won't), put into place a plan that would make him Emperor that would take TEN YEARS to come to fruition.  That’s patience.  That’s not some fly-off-the-handle kind of guy.

Of course, Anakin is a fly-off-the-handle kind of guy, which (I suppose) goes some distance toward explaining how he was so easily turned and how easily he could kill or attempt to kill those close to him. However, it doesn't go the whole distance.

What else?  Well, remember how C3PO would have to be a dunderhead to forget all the stuff from the prequels when the real trilogy came about?  I guess that bothered Lucas too, so C3PO gets a “mind-wipe” at the very end of the picture, ordered by one of the good guys.  It seems kind of mean to me, but it’s played partly for laughs, because C3PO is always getting the short end. Then R2D2 laughs, the little bastard. 

And it’s only C3PO that’s specified for this treatment.  Which means R2D2, knowing what he does now, could have saved everyone a whole bunch of grief in the real trilogy by spilling selected beans.  Robots, can’t figure them, can you?  Sorry, I meant droids.

Also, despite Anakin’s turning to the Dark Side just to save her, Padme dies after giving birth.  Dunno what this says about the power of the Dark Side, but Padme’s death, well, Mad Magazine once called this “old movie disease” and I agree.   (Incidentally, the medical droid attending her calls her offspring “babies.” Doesn't he mean “prelings” or maybe “protolings”? If we're going to have goofy nomenclature—and there's never been a shortage of that in Star Wars—let's be consistent, eh?) The Emperor later tells Anakin (now in Darth mode) that he himself (Anakin) killed Padme in his anger.  The Emperor smiles evilly at this, and you know, it’s about the most evil thing he’s done on-screen.

Hmm, anything else to talk about?

Oh, there’s a pretty cool rob—er, droid named General Grievous.   Yes, stupid name, but he’s pretty cool, though you have to wonder why a robot has a racking, tubercular cough.  Turns out, I guess, because he’s actually a kind of cyborg.  So, they replaced the rest of his body, but kept his diseased lungs because…uh, he…they were his favorite organs of all and he couldn’t bear to part with them.  That must be it.  Only, whoever build his body forgot to give his guts any kind of, you know, protection (aside from occasional dumb luck).  Other than that, he’s much cooler than most of the other folks here.

But you know, no matter how many arms you have, you shouldn’t be fighting Jedis with a cough like that.  There’s one scene where he runs into a room to take a call from the Emperor, and he coughs so hard he almost throws up. 

Despite my caveats, I had a good time, though I did keep looking at my watch, and I also moved my head sideways a lot during the dull discussions.  As noted, this is the first time I can recall that Star Wars bored me.  Still, if you’re a fan, you…well, you’ve already seen it, so never mind.  If you’re not a fan, this won’t make you one, though it is better than Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones.  (Talk about aiming low, though.) 

Overall, though, I liked it, and I think it was satisfying…in the only way that I suppose fan-fiction can hope for.