“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.

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“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.