“THE FAVOURITE” (2018) Review

 

“THE FAVOURITE” (2018) Review

From the moment I first saw the trailer for Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2018 Oscar nominated comedy-drama, “THE FAVOURITE”, I wanted to see it. Badly. Being something of a penny pincher, I had figured I would not get a chance to see the film until its release on DVD, cable television or streaming television. But my sister, who also wanted to see the film, finally convinced me to spend a few extra dollars to see the film while it was still in limited release. 

What was the reason behind my fervent desire to see “THE FAVOURITE”? One, it was a period film . . . and I am a sucker for the genre. Two, the movie was set during the reign of Queen Anne of Great Britain, a period I have not personally seen on screen since my viewing of the 1969 miniseries, “THE FIRST CHURCHILLS”. And three, judging from the trailer, the movie struck me as funny, witty and very original. I love originality.

“THE FAVOURITE” is basically Lanthimos’ take on the political rivalry between two of Queen Anne’s courtiers and cousins – Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and Abigail Masham, Baroness Masham – for her favor. The movie begins with then Abigail Hill’s arrival at Kensington Palace to serve as a scullery maid (?). Abigail, whose father had lost his fortune during a game of whist, owes her job to her cousin, Sarah Churchill. The latter is the Queen’s premiere courtier and has an emotional hold over the monarch, due to their sexual affair. However, Sarah’s powerful standing in Court begins to decline when Abigail manages to win the Queen’s favor after using her to help relieve the latter’s pain from the gout. Abigail and the Queen eventually begins an affair and former’s standing in Court not only increases, but also threatens Sarah’s.

Lanthimos’ movie had a lot going for it. Thanks to his screenplay, “THE FAVOURITE” featured political intrigue . . . well, somewhat; and three lead characters and a supporting character that proved to be fascinating. Queen Anne’s twelve-year reign proved to be volatile than I had ever surmised. To be honest, I have not given a thought about Anne’s reign since watching “THE FIRST CHURCHILLS” a long time ago. The movie did occasionally focused on the conflicts between the Tory and Whig parties. Abigail Masham, like Queen Anne and Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford, favored the Tory party and Sarah Churchill favored the Whigs. The latter party supported Britain’s participation in the War of the Spanish Succession aka Queen Anne’s War, and the Churchills had benefited from John Churchill’s command of British troops during it. Due to Sarah’s emotional control over the Queen, the Whigs under Sidney Godolphin, 1st Earl of Godolphin maintained control over Parliament. However, that changed after Abigail’s arrival at Kensington Palace due to Lord Oxford’s insistence that she spy on the Queen’s relationship with Sarah and later, her growing favor with the monarch.

The movie touched upon all . . . or, most of the political aspects surrounding Queen Anne’s Court. However Yorgos Lanthimos, along with screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, had decided to focus upon the emotional and sexual triangle that had formed between Anne, Sarah and Abigail. Watching this triangle unfurl was like being sucked into some emotional vortex – fascinating and at the same time, dangerous and volatile. Davis, McNamara and especially Lanthimos provided moviegoers with a period biopic that certainly skewered from the usual output from both the Hollywood industry and the film industry overseas. Both the best and the worst aspects of all three women and some of the supporting characters seemed to be on display. Some critics have claimed that “THE FAVOURITE” is basically a satire on period dramas. I agree, but it also struck me as a cautionary tale about the acquirement, use and abuse of power. This cautionary tale especially seemed to encompass the Abigail Masham and Lord Oxford characters, as they use Queen Anne to overcome Sarah Churchill’s control of the Court and the Whigs in Parliament. But this theme of abuse of power also touched upon Sarah Churchill and her attempts to maintain her control and the Queen herself, who becomes increasingly determined that she would be the one in control and no one else.

The production’s visuals and designs proved to be first-rate. Robbie Ryan had received both an Academy Award nomination and a BAFTA nomination for the film’s excellent photography. I thought his photography captured the beauty and color of the movie’s English locations. Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton won a well-deserved BAFTA award and earned an Oscar nomination for the movie’s production designs. Both Crombie Felton did a superb job in re-creating the look of Queen Anne’s Court of the early 18th century. And what can I say about Sandy Powell’s costume designs, which earned an Academy Award nomination and won a BAFTA? I thought she did an excellent job in re-creating . . . well, almost re-creating the fashions of early 18th century England as shown below:

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Powell’s designs are not completely historically accurate. Although she accurately shaped the costumes, Powell made them from Nigerian fabrics found in London. And the costumes’ color schemes seemed to feature white, blue, gray and black. Very original, very beautiful, but not particularly accurate.

I certainly had no complaints about the cast. Most of the supporting cast for “THE FAVOURITE” – Joe Alwyn, James Smith, Edward Aczel, and Mark Gatiss – all gave solid performances. However, I must admit that there were times when Gatiss, who portrayed the Duke of Marlborough, barely seemed visible and obviously wasted in this film. However, there was one supporting performance that really impressed and entertained me. It came from Nicolas Hoult, who portrayed English statesman and occasional sadist, Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford. Was the real Lord Oxford a sadist? I have no idea. But he did try to gain Abigail’s assistance to gain favor with Queen Anne with no scruples. Hoult managed to capture his character’s slightly sadistic, yet ambitious nature with such subtlety and skill that I found myself enjoying his performance more than any other in the film.

If I must be frank, the true backbone or backbones of “THE FAVOURITE” proved to be the three leading ladies – Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. As much as I enjoyed Hoult’s performance, I realize that this movie would have been nothing without them. Many may wax lyrical over Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s Oscar nominated screenplay, Sandy Powell’s costumes or Yorgos Lanthimos’ direction. But the performances of the three actresses made this movie and all three gave superb performances. Olivia Colman won just about every (or nearly every) acting award under the sun for her portrayal of Queen Anne of Great Britain. What I admire about her performance is that she gave emotional depth to a character that was in danger by the screenplay into devolving into a caricature of an idiot savant. I could probably say the same about Rachel Weisz’s portrayal of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. There were times when the Sarah Churchill character seemed in danger of drifting into some stereotype of the “butch” lesbian trope. If it were not for Weisz’s excellent acting, for which she received an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actress, I would have lost all interest in the character. Emma Stone was lucky that her character Sarah Hill Masham, Baroness Masham never drifted toward the edge of caricature. In a way, she had it easier than Colman and Weisz. But I admire her performance for two reasons. One, she had to master some kind of upper-class English accent without overdoing it. And two, the actress did an excellent job of revealing Abigail’s cold ambitions behind the warm and feminine facade, layer by layer.

And yet . . . despite my admiration for the cast’s performances, the film’s visual style and certain aspect of its narrative; I did not like “THE FAVOURITE”. I did not hate it like some who did. But I did not like it. The movie seemed like a cinematic version of a drama queen. The cinematic epitome of pure titillation. When it comes to historical accuracy in films and television, I seemed to have mixed views. I can tolerate it, if it works for me. I tolerated Sandy Powell’s historically incorrect costumes. I tolerated the fact that the Earl of Oxford character, as portrayed by Nicholas Hoult, was a good 15 years younger than the real Lord Oxford during the film’s setting. And I tolerated the historically inaccurate characterizations of the film’s three leading characters . . . only to a point in which I admired their performances. But the movie had crossed too many lines for my tastes.

Queen Anne kept rabbits as pets to symbolize the 17 children she had lost? Rabbits as pets? During the early 18th century? They were either regarded as food or pests over three centuries ago. What was the point of those rabbits in the first place? What did her lost children have to do with the movie’s narrative, other than reveal Abigail as some uncaring monster? Was that it? What happened to Anne’s consort, Prince George of Denmark? Her husband who was still alive when Abigail Masham née Hill first joined the Queen’s Court? Why was he kept out of the movie, but not Sarah or Abigail’s husbands? His death had proven to be one of the main reasons why the Queen and Sarah first became estranged in the first place. Anne had loved him very much and Sarah’s dismissive attitude toward Prince George’s death sparked the beginning of the two women’s estrangement. Why did the film failed to mention that Abigail was also related to Lord Oxford, as well as Sarah Churchill? And why on earth was her first position at the Queen’s Court as a scullery maid? A scullery maid? Seriously? Someone with her blood connections? Both Sarah and Lord Oxford would have found it socially embarrassing to have a cousin working as a scullery maid within the Queen’s household.

And of course, there were scenarios and scenes that left me scratching my head. One of the scenes I refer to is that ridiculous scenario in which Abigail had poisoned Sarah and had the latter dumped at some whorehouse outside of London. One, it was stupid plan that could have easily backfired. And two, what was the movie trying to say? That Abigail was familiar with places before her arrival at Court? And could someone please explain the reasoning behind the scene that featured a nude, giggling fat man being pelted by blood oranges by Lord Oxford and his cronies. What was the point of that scene? What exactly was Yorgos Lanthimos trying to say? Also, what was the point behind Samuel Masham’s line dance performance (courtesy of actor Joe Alwyn) in the film? What was that about? Or was it another scene for shock value? Honestly, scenes like Sarah in a whorehouse, the pelted naked man and Masham’s dance routine are just examples of the absolute, over-the-top nonsense that I had found in this film.

But what really pissed me off about “THE FAVOURITE” were the changes that Lanthimos, Davis and McNamara made in regard to the history between Queen Anne, the Duchess of Marlborough and the Baroness Masham. What was the point in these changes? It seemed as if the director and the screenwriters had striped away a great deal of the historical conflict between the three women in order to convey a tale of a sexual triangle filled with ambition and passion. And nothing else. This struck me as unnecessary and frankly, a little insulting as a woman. It almost seemed as if the movie found it difficult to take the political beliefs and/or abilities of three women seriously, especially Queen Anne. The estrangement between the Queen and Sarah, along with Abigail’s ascendancy was pretty interesting in real life. Aside from showing Sarah’s political influence within the Court, the movie never really explored the political differences between the Queen and Sarah . . . or the fact that Abigail genuinely shared the former’s Tory politics. Or that Queen Anne had not only grown weary of Sarah’s bullying nature, but also resentful of the latter’s Whig politics. Instead, moviegoers were presented with a tale mainly about sexual power, with very little politics involved.

In fact, there is no real proof that Queen Anne was ever in any sexual relationship with either Sarah or Anne. I dislike the fact that Davis and McNamara’s screenplay solely blamed Abigail for the Queen and Sarah’s estrangement. In reality, Sarah was the main instigator of her own political downfall. In fact, she was also the main reason behind her own downfall within King George II’s Court, some twenty years later. I realize that Davis, McNamara and Lanthimos wanted a “Eve Harrington” figure and they saw Abigail Masham as the perfect figure for this. But if they had wanted a LGTBQ remake of “ALL ABOUT EVE” that badly, why not create original characters for this movie? Why use historical figures who were never proven to be gay in the first place? One more thing, it took me a while, but I finally realized that “THE FAVOURITE” reminded me of another movie. I am speaking of the 1989 comedy about a divorce called “THE WAR OF ROSES”. Like “THE FAVOURITE”, the 1989 movie started out as a movie filled with sharp humor and devolved into something ugly and lurid. And in the case of “THE FAVOURITE” . . . laced with exploitation.

I hate to say this, but “THE FAVOURITE” proved to be a major disappointment for me. Perhaps this would teach me not to judge a film, based upon a trailer. When I first saw it, I had assumed that the film would be a satirical comedy with strong political overtones. Instead, I found myself watching a film in which the comedy became repetitive and not as funny as I had originally assumed . . . and a movie with the historical background changed drastically for the sake of shock value and sheer exploitation. Director Yorgos Lanthimos, along with screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, pretty much ruined this film for me. And not even the excellent performances of Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz or Emma Stone could save it, as far as I am concerned.

 

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“THE MUMMY RETURNS” (2001) Review

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“THE MUMMY RETURNS” (2001) Review

“THE MUMMY”, the 1999 remake of the 1932 horror film proved to be a major success for filmmaker Stephen Sommers and Universal Studios. Two years later, both the director and the studio reunited its major stars for a sequel set a decade later. In doing so, Sommers and Universal created a four-movie franchise. 

Like the first film, “THE MUMMY RETURNS” began thousands of years ago, in ancient Egypt. However, this flashback focused on an Egyptian mercenary named Mathayus, who makes an unsuccessful attempt to conquer the land. He and his army is exiled to the desert of Ahm Sher, where most of them die from heat exhaustion, except for Mathayus. The latter offers his soul to the god Anubis for the power to defeat his enemies. The latter creates an oasis called Ahm Shere to hide the newly dubbed Scorpion King’s pyramid and gives the latter a legion of humanoid jackal warriors to seek revenge. The Army of Anubis sweeps across Egypt, destroying everything in its path. But once their task is finished, Anubis claims the Scorpion King’s soul and his army.

The movie jumps to the year 1933, which finds the O’Connell family – Rick, Evelyn (“Evie”) and their son Alex – exploring the ruins of Thebes. Evie and Rick discover the bracelet of Anubis, unaware that Alex has stumbled across a trio of mercenaries attempting to take the bracelet for themselves. The family returns home to England, and unbeknownst to his parents, Alex tries on the bracelet and experiences a vision with directions to the Oasis of Ahm Shere. Unfortunately, a group of Egyptian cultists, who had hired the three thugs, invades the O’Connell estate and kidnaps Evie. The O’Connells’ old comrade, the Medjai warrior Ardeth Bay, arrives to help, but is unable to prevent Evie’s kidnapping. The cultists take her to the British Museum, where they resurrect the body of Egyptian high priest and sorcerer Imhotep. They plan to use his power to defeat the Sorcerer King. Rick, his brother-in-law Jonathan Carnahan, Alex and Ardeth arrive at the museum to rescue Evie. After the O’Connells, Jonathan and Ardeth manage to escape the army of mummified soldiers, Alex – who is still wearing the Anubis bracelet – is kidnapped by the cultists. The four adults track him to Egypt, where they recruit the help of Rick’s old World War I friend, Izzy Buttons, to rescue Alex from Imhotep and the cultists and prevent them from reviving the Army of Anubis.

I usually dislike horror films. But I noticed that the 1999 movie, “THE MUMMY” seemed more like an adventure film in the style of the INDIANA JONES movie franchise. I could say the same about ” THE MUMMY RETURNS”. And considering my dislike of horror films, I say “thank God”. However, the movie has enough elements to satisfy those who love this particular genre. This was especially apparent in the scenes that featured Imohtep’s murder of the three mercenaries, the O’Connells’ battle against the high priests mummified soldiers during the bus ride through London and during the finale sequence inside the Scorpion King’s pyramid at Ahm Shere. The sight of the Scorpion King as a transformed centaurid (or scorpion-monster) was enough to give me the heebie-jeebies. But if I had to select the one sequence that truly captured aspects of the horror genre, it was the one that featured the O’Connells’ attack upon the cultists in the Ahm Shere jungle that I found particularly off putting. Not only did the movie’s heroes have to attack the cultists in order to save Alex, both sides of the conflict had to deal the pygmy mummies that attacked and killed anyone or any army that marched through the jungle. What can I say? Those pygmies really freaked me out.

“THE MUMMY RETURNS” did feature a good deal of action sequences that seemed more like an adventure than a horror story – thank goodness. The O’Connells’ escape from the flooding of the Thebes pyramid, their escape from Imohtep’s attempt to drown them with a tsunami wave, their escape from the destruction of the Ahm Shere pyramid and various hand-to-hand fight sequences thankfully reminded me that “THE MUMMY RETURNS” was more of an adventure story. Also, Stephen Sommers provided a great deal of rich characterization and humor in his screenwriter. Like the 1999 film,“THE MUMMY”“THE MUMMY RETURNS” featured some sophomoric humor. But if I must be honest, a good deal of the humor seemed sharper and wittier this particular film – especially in the hands of one particular character, Izzy Buttons. In fact, my favorite line in the film came him:

“Whatever it is, whatever you need, I don’t care. Forget it, O’Connell. Every time I hook up with you, I get shot. Last time, I got shot in the ass. I’m in mourning for my ass!

I never mentioned this in my review of “THE MUMMY”, but I was also impressed by Sommers’ handling of the sequence featuring Imohtep’s background and introduction at the beginning of the film. The opening sequence featuring the Scorpion King’s introduction struck me as mediocre. But I was very impressed by the flashback sequence about Evelyn’s past life in the form of the Princess Nefertiri and her witness of her father, Pharaoh Seti I. Sommers has a real talent for costumed melodrama and it would be nice to see him exploit it in the fullest in his career. This sequence also featured a first-rate fight scene between Rachel Weisz’s Nefertiri and Patricia Velásquez’s Anck-Su-Namun.

Of course, one cannot talk about “THE MUMMY RETURNS” without bringing up its visual effects. First of all, kudos to cinematographer Adrian Biddle for continuing the beautiful photography for which he was responsible in the first film. I especially enjoyed his work in the sequence that featured the parallel journeys across Egypt by both the O’Connell and Imohtep parties. Allan Cameron and his crew did an excellent job in re-creating not only England and Egypt of the early 1930s, but also ancient Egypt. The team of Ahmed Abounouom, Giles Masters and Tony Reading added a great deal to Cameron’s work with their beautiful and colorful art designs. I have always enjoyed Alan Silvestri’s music in past movies. But I must admit that I really appreciated his use of Middle Eastern or North African-style in the movie’s score. I do admire the special effects created by the movie’s visual effects team. I was especially impressed by their work in the Ahm Shere jungle sequence. However, there were times I found it a bit over-the-top. I noticed that Sommers hired his costume designer from the last film, John Bloomfield, to design the costumes for this film. And I wish to God he had hired someone else. I had no problem with Bloomfield’s costumes for the ancient Egypt sequences. His costume designs for the 1933 scenes – namely the costumes for the female characters – were another matter. Honestly, they sucked. I was far from impressed by Bloomfield’s re-creation of 1920s fashion for Evelyn’s character in the 1999 movie. His re-creation of early 1930s fashions for the female characters were just as bad – as shown in the images below:

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I can only shake my head in disbelief. The above were Bloomfield’s idea of 1932-33 women’s fashion? Really? They looked more like a modern-day take on the fashions of that particular era. The fact that both Weisz and Velásquez are sporting modern hairstyles does not help.

At least I cannot complain about the acting. An episode of “STAR TREK VOYAGER” featured the first project in which Dwayne Johnson portrayed a character other than himself. He had nothing to do but engage in a fight scene. “THE MUMMY RETURNS” featured his second role in which he portrayed another character. Again, he had no lines. At least Sommers managed to effectively direct him into expressing his character via body language. The other cast members, on the other hand, had speaking lines. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of Bruce Byron, Joe Dixon and Tom Fisher as the three thugs hired by the cultists to assist them. Alun Armstrong gave a surprisingly effective performance as Mr. Hafez, the leader of the Egyptian cultists. Unlike most Western actors, Armstrong managed to portray a non-Western villain without resorting to theatrical acting. My favorite performance came from Shaun Parkes, who was both hysterically witty as O’Connell’s old friend, Izzy Buttons. I usually have mixed feelings about child actors. But I must admit that I enjoyed Freddie Boath’s engaging performance as Rick and Evelyn’s boisterous son, Alex. “THE MUMMY RETURNS” was the first movie or television production I had noticed Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. And his performance as Mr. Hafez’s chief enforcer, Lock-Nah, was . . . well, magnificent. In fact, I could say the same about his screen presence.

Patricia Velásquez may not have been the world’s greatest actress. And there were times I found her verbal performance as femme fatale Meela Nais and ancient Egyptian courtesan Anck-Su-Namun a bit limited. She more than made up this flaw with a strong ability for silent acting and a very impressive screen presence. Again, she proved to have a great screen chemistry with Arnold Vasloo, who returned as the Egyptian high priest, Imohtep. What can I say about Vasloo’s performance? The man is Imohtep – both in presence and performance. He did a marvelous job in conveying both the frightening aspects of his character and the latter’s passionate love for Anck-Su-Namun. Happily, Oded Fehr reprised his role as Medjai warrior Ardeth Bey. And not only was he great, as always. For the first time, I became aware of Fehr’s talent for comedic acting. John Hannah was as funny as ever as Evelyn’s ne’er do well older brother, Jonathan Carnahan. I found him especially funny in his scenes with Boath and Parkes.

Rachel Weisz reprised her role as Evelyn “Evie” Carnahan O’Connell and I was surprised by the level of development in her character. Weisz did an excellent job in conveying the mature development of Evie and maintaining the character’s familiar quirks at the same. Weisz was also excellent as the Princess Nefertiri, who was not only fervently protective of her father, but also suspicious of Anck-Su-Namun. The character of Rick O’Connell also struck me as surprisingly different in this movie. Like Evelyn, marriage and parenthood had developed him into a more mature personality. And like Evelyn, he also maintained some of his personality quirks. And Brendan Fraser did an excellent job in conveying both the familiar and different aspects of Rick’s character.

“THE MUMMY RETURNS” effectively continued the exciting adventure and horror of the 1999 film, thanks to Stephen Sommers’ writing and direction. And I enjoyed it very much, along with the entertaining performances of the cast led by Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. But as much as I continue to enjoy it, there is a part of me that wished Sommers had not been so over-the-top with some of his direction and the special effects featured in the movie. It seemed as if he was trying to outdo his work in the first film. And sometimes, that is not a good thing.

“OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL” (2013) Review

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“OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL” (2013) Review

I have a confession to make. I have always liked “THE WIZARD OF OZ”, the 1939 adaptation of Frank L. Baum’s 1901 novel, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. I used to watch it on a yearly basis as a child. But if I must be brutally frank, I have never developed a deep love for the movie. So when I learned that the Disney Studios had developed a prequel movie to the 1939 film, I did not exactly jump up and down with joy.

I was surprised to learn that the Disney Studios’ history with Frank Baum’s fantasy world of Oz proved to be a long one. Walt Disney had wanted to create an animated film based on the 1901 story, but he and his brother Roy Disney discovered that Samuel Goldwyn had first purchased the film rights before selling it to Louis B. Mayer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Disney managed to purchase the rights of Baum’s remaining Oz novels in 1954. And in 1985, the studio produced and released the sequel movie, “RETURN TO OZ”. However, the film proved to be a box office bomb. And the movie rights to all of Baum’s novels ended up in public domain. Twenty-seven or 28 years later, Disney tried their hand at another Oz movie. The result is the prequel to Baum’s 1901 novel and MGM’s 1939 film – “OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL”. Set twenty years before the novel and the film, “OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL” begins in 1906 Kansas with barnstorm and small time magician Oscar Diggs working in a traveling circus. Oscar is also something of a scam artist and ladies’ man who has no qualms with seducing the young wife of the circus’ strongman. Oscar is also in love with a young local woman, who has been encouraged by him to marry a respectable farmer. When the strongman learns of Oscar’s flirtations, the latter escapes the circus in a hot air balloon. But he is sucked into a tornado and finds himself in the “Land of Oz”.

Once in this new land, Oscar meets the first of three witches who will turn his life upside down – Theodora. She believes he is the prophesied savior who will overthrow the Wicked Witch that killed the King of Oz. While she escorts him to Emerald City to meet her sister Evanora, Theodora is seduced by Oscar, leading her to fall in love with him. The pair also meets a flying monkey named Finley, who pledges a life debt to Oscar when the latter saves him from a lion . . . at Theodora’s instigation. Upon their arrival in Emerald City, Oscar is charged by Evanora to prove that he is Oz’s prophesied savior by traveling to the Dark Forest where the Wicked Witch resides and kill the latter by destroying her wand. During Oscar and Findley’s journey to the Dark Forest, they meet China Girl, a young, living china doll whose home and family had been destroyed by the Wicked Witch. When the trio reaches the Dark Forest, they discover that the “Wicked Witch” is actually Glinda the Good Witch of the North. She tells them that Evanora is the true Wicked Witch. And when Evanora sees this with her crystal ball, she manipulates Theodora against Oscar by showing him together with Glinda, claiming he is trying to court all three witches. Evanora offers the heartbroken Theodora a magic apple, which she promises will remove the younger witch’s heartache. Theodora eats the apple and transforms into the heartless, green-skinned future Wicked Witch of the West. Oscar, Glinda, Findley, China Girl and many others soon find themselves in a war against Evanora and Theodora for control of Oz.

“OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL” earned mixed reviews upon its release, despite becoming a box office hit. Many complained that it failed to live up to the “magic” of the 1939 movie. I do not know how to respond to this complaint. After all, everyone has a right to his or her own opinion. Were there any aspects of “OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL” that I disliked? Well . . . I do have one major complaint and it has to do with the relationship between Oscar and Theodora. What I disliked was Oscar’s failure to apologize to Theodora for exploiting her feelings toward him when they first met. Instead of admitting that he had been wrong to seduce her in the first place, he merely offered her the chance to live in the Emerald City in peace if she would allow goodness back into her heart. And nothing else. Instead of an apology, Oscar offered her a sanctimonious offer of redemption. What an asshole. In other words, Mitchell Kapner’s screenplay refused to allow Oscar to consider that his careless seduction of Theodora gave Evanora the opportunity to transform her into an evil and heartless witch.

Despite this unpleasant exercise of relationships gone wrong, I actually enjoyed “OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL”. In fact, my feelings of the movie seemed to be the same as the 1939 film – I enjoyed it very much, but I did not love it. It was fun, entertaining in its own way. And I could see that the movie greatly benefited from Kapner’s well-paced screenplay and director Sam Rami’s twisted sense of humor. This especially seemed to be the case in Oscar’s relationship with the long-suffering Findley and one of Emerald City’s citizens, the tart-tongued herald and fanfare player, Knuck. Rami and Kapner also did a clever job of allowing the plot to mirror certain aspects of 1939’s “THE WIZARD OF OZ”. The Kansas sequences at the beginning of both movies were filmed in black-and-white, both protagonists (Dorothy Gale and Oscar Diggs) arrived in Oz via a tornado. Both acquire sidekicks during their journeys through Oz. In Oscar’s case, both Findley and China Girl become his companions on the road. After meeting Glinda, he also acquire the friendship of Knuck (sort of) and the Emerald City’s Master Tinker. And both movies end with Oscar providing gifts to most of the protagonists.

At the same time, both Rami and Kapner were wise enough to remember that “OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL” is the product of early 21st century Hollywood, and not the film industry of the late 1930s. As I had stated earlier, the humor featured in the film struck me as slightly perverse at times – which I loved. And Oscar Diggs’ moral compass proved to be a lot more ambiguous than the innocent Dorothy Gale. Mind you, I disliked his handling of Theodora. But one has to remember that his character has always been something of schemer and opportunist – even in the 1939 film. Speaking of ambiguity, I was surprised to find a few hints of it in China Girl’s character – especially in her enthusiasm to seek and kill the Wicked Witch. In regard to the film’s villains, they seemed to be a different kettle of fish in compare to the Wicked Witch of the West in “THE WIZARD OF OZ”. Although Evanora proved to be evil in a one-dimensional manner, she seemed to be more subtle and manipulative in carrying out her deeds. And Theodora proved to be a real surprise. Her evil seemed to be born from a broken heart thanks to Oscar and her sister’s manipulations, making her the most sympathetic character . . . at least for me. Many reviewers – especially male reviewers – seemed confused over Theodora’s transformation from the naive young witch to the green-skinned, heartless evildoer. It almost seemed as if they did not want to acknowledge the part that Oscar played in her transformation into evil. And I find that rather sad and a little disturbing.

Speaking of the characters, they would not have worked without the first-rate cast that portrayed them. James Franco did an excellent job in conveying Oscar Diggs’ journey from the cheap and womanizing showman to the responsible civic leader that helped free the Emerald City from the evil Evanora’s grasp. Michelle Williams gave a luminous performance as Glinda the Good Witch. Although her character did not strike me as particularly complex, she managed to inject some much needed mystery into the character, making her more interesting than the 1939 counterpart. And Rachel Weisz seemed to be having a ball as the sly and manipulative Evanora. The movie also featured some solid performances from the likes of Bill Cobbs as Master Tinker, Tony Cox as the sardonic Knuck, Abigail Spencer as Oscar’s naive, yet very married Kansas assistant May; and a humorous appearance by Rami veteran Bruce Campbell as an Emerald City guard. But there were three performances that really impressed me. One came from Zach Braff, who added an expert touch of the long-suffering in his outstanding voice performance as winged monkey Findley. Another first-rate voice performance came Joey King in her portrayal of China Doll, who expertly conveyed both the character’s vulnerability and exuberant aggressiveness. And finally there was Mila Kunis, who did a stupendous job in her portrayal of Theodora, the naive young witch who became the murderous Wicked Witch of the West. I was more than impressed by Kunis, for I believe she had the difficult job of making her character’s transformation believable.

“OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL” is a beautiful movie to look at. Production designer Robert Stromberg did a solid job in bringing the land of Oz to life. Thanks to him and cinematographer Peter Deming, audiences were able to enjoy the movie’s rich and colorful look that brought back happy memories of the Technicolor featured in the 1939 movie. My only complaint are the few moments when it seemed I was looking at matte paintings instead of CGI during Oscar’s first moments in Oz. I was especially impressed by the scene that featured Theodora’s first appearance as the Wicked Witch of the West. Thanks to Rami’s direction, Deming’s photography, the make-up department’s work and the special effects team, I was more than taken aback by this frightening moment.

In the end, I really enjoyed “OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL”. I did not love it. Then again, I do not love the 1939 movie. But I do believe that this new movie more than made up for the failure of 1985’s “RETURN TO OZ”. Thanks to screenwriter Mitchell Kapner, a talented cast led by James Franco and some first-rate and slightly twisted direction by Sam Rami, “OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL” proved to be a surprisingly entertaining film.

“THE MUMMY” (1999) Review

“THE MUMMY” (1999) Review

As a rule, I dislike horror movies or thrillers very much. Not only do I dislike today’s slasher films, I am NOT a fan of the old horror classics that feature actors like Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Lon Chaney Jr., and Boris Karloff. In other words, the slasher films disgust me and the old horror classics tend to creep me out. 

One of those old horror classics happened to be the 1932 movie, ”THE MUMMY”, starring Karloff. It told the story of an ancient Egyptian priest named Imhotep that became a mummy and ended up terrorizing Cairo. Seventy-six years later, director Stephen Sommers remade the old classic into a half-horror/half-adventure tale in the style of Indiana Jones about how members of a treasure-seeking expedition in 1920s Egypt, revived Imhotep, who wrecked havoc upon the expedition camp and Cairo. I had been prepared to ignore this remake, until a relative informed me that this version had been filmed in the style of an Indiana Jones movie. Being a fan of the Lucas/Spielberg movies, I lowered my guard and saw the movie.

Looking back at my decision, eleven years later, I am glad that I had seen ”THE MUMMY”. My relative had been right. The movie felt more like an action-adventure film, with a touch of horror. Well, more than a touch. After all, this was a tale about an Egyptian mummy that came back to life. But I loved every minute of the film. Well . . . almost. But I believe that it was a perfect blend of action, the supernatural, adventure, comedy and romance. My two favorite sequences featured the Medjai (descendants of Pharaoh Seti I’s palace guards) attacking the Nile River steamboat conveying the heroes from Cairo to Hamunaptra, site of the treasure they sought and Imohtep’s remains; and Imohtep’s reign of terror in Cairo, as he sought the three Americans and the Egyptologist who possessed the canopic jars that held the mummy’s preserved organs. I especially enjoyed this last sequence, because I feel that it managed to evoke the surreal and mysterious atmosphere of the old 30s horror films more than any other sequence in the movie.

Another one of the movie’s major virtues turned out to be its cast. Brendan Fraser did a great job in portraying the aggressive soldier-of-fortune, Rick O’Connell. He must have been at least 30 years old around the time he shot ”THE MUMMY”. And I must say that he also managed to project a strong and masculine screen presence, with a touch of sly humor. Creating screen chemistry with Fraser was Rachel Weisz, who portrayed the inexperienced yet enthusiastic archeologist, Dr. Evelyn Carnahan. I really enjoyed how she injected a mixture of charm and spirit into the very ladylike Evelyn. And John Hannah rounded out the golden trio as Jonathan Carnahan, Evelyn’s humorous yet slightly decadent older brother. Hannah was very funny as Evelyn’s self-serving brother, who seemed more interested in making a quick buck, instead of doing hard work.

Kevin J. O’Connor, a favorite of Sommers, gave a sly and hilarious performance as the Hungarian born Beni Gabor, Rick’s amoral former Foreign Legion comrade that becomes Imohtep’s willing minion. O’Connor was especially hilarious in a scene that featured Beni’s attempts to save himself from Imohtep’s wrath by invoking God’s help in different languages. Actor Oded Fehr provided a great deal of dash and intensity as Ardeth Bay, the leader of Medjai. Actors Stephen Dunham, Corey Johnson, and Tuc Watkins provided plenty of their own comic relief as the three American adventurers seeking treasure from Hamunaptra. Jonathan Hyde provided a stable contrast to their lunacy as the Egyptian archeologist who serves as their expedition’s Egyptology specialist. Patricia Velásquez gave a brief, but very memorable performance as Anck-Su-Namun, the ancient Egyptian courtesan that happened to be the love of Imohtep’s life. Speaking of Imohtep, Arnold Vosloo literally made a name for himself as the imposing and ruthless high priest and future mummy, who becomes obsessed with reuniting with his love through any means possible.

Despite its vast array of virtues, ”THE MUMMY” had its share of flaws. One, some of the humor and so-called wit struck me as rather silly and sophomoric. I also found it annoying that the Rick O’Connell character seemed inclined to constantly use a gun for every situation – especially when they worked fruitlessly against supernatural beings like mummies. Costume designer John Bloomfield did a piss poor job with Rachel Weisz’s costumes. I realize that Westerners in the far reaches of the British Empire tend to dress more conservatively than their fellow citizens in Great Britain. But that was no excuse for why Evelyn wore an outfit and hairstyle dated a decade older than the movie’s 1920s setting:

However, my biggest problem with the movie happened to be the final showdown between the heroes and Imohtep inside the temple at Hamunaptra. How can I put this? Director Stephen Sommers added new meaning to the phrase ”over-the-top”. Not only did the action and special effects struck me as excessive, but it almost seemed to go on with no end in sight.

Despite my misgivings of ”THE MUMMY”, I still enjoyed the movie very much. It is a fun movie filled with memorable characters, humor, suspense and some genuine fright. For me, it turned out to be one of the better summer blockbusters of the late 1990s.