Monday, March 31, 2014

The Mummy Returns


We finally finished up the Appalachian shoot with close-ups of my aerial ballet under the natural bridge in West Virginia. I packed up the Vuitton, and had Miguel point the motor home north and west to Chicago where we were to film the next segment of the What A Friend We Have In Cheeses campaign for the American Dairy Council. They had been focusing on gathering quaint rural scenes for the campaign and decided we really needed some urban excitement for contrast. For this segment, I am to lead a line of a thousand tap dancing kiddies down Michigan Avenue to the haunting strains of Cheeses, loved by little children. All the children of the world. The producers are importing child tappers from all over the country for the shoot and I was somewhat aghast to hear that Mrs. Tuttle's Tapping Tots are here from Utah. I warned the production manager in no uncertain terms that those horrid little no-necks should be kept at the back and far away from all incendiary devices.

In keeping with the family friendly images of this segment, I am being dressed in flowing orange chiffon, the color of Velveeta with bugle beads in the shape of Cheetohs forming a contrasting trim down the front and on the hem. There has been some talk, in certain quarters, that this campaign borders on the sacrilegious. To prevent any further rumors of this kind, the producers have imported a very nice young priest from somewhere in Indiana, a Father Kurt, who is to monitor the shoot and make sure it is all liturgically correct. In return, I'm going to help jazz up his sermons with a little interpretive modern dance.

After an endless round of production meetings, getting ready for the shoot in the morning, we succeeded in banishing all the tap happy little urchins and their stage mothers back to the Chicago Hilton while I retired to the motor home for Miguel's magic massaging hands, a margarita, and a movie. Today's choice was The Mummy Returns, the recent sequel to the surprise 1999 hit with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. I had actually attempted to view this film several times in the past but found that it put me to sleep faster than Sominex. On this, the fifth viewing, I finally was able to see how it ended.

The sequel takes place a decade after the original. Dashing Rick O'Connell (Fraser) and Evie (Weisz) are now married and practicing Egyptology 101 together aided by their precocious little moppet, Alex (Freddie Boath). The film opens with a scene-setting prologue in which an animate lump of granite, known fittingly as 'The Rock', plays a legendary warrior, The Scorpion King. He loses a great battle and is banished into the desert where his army all dies but where he obviously is left with a large supply of conditioning shampoo, dentifrice, and depilatories. He dedicates himself to the god Anubis and, in a series of not very good effects shots, he conquers Egypt with a bunch of CGI jackal headed warriors, creates an oasis with a magic pyramid out of the sands, and is eventually imprisoned in the underworld, leaving his bracelet behind. His bracelet is, of course, discovered by Rick and Evie who take it back to Merrie Olde England after a sequence involving tarantulas, a flood, collapsing columns, and in which we learn that Evie is the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian princess. (Are you with me so far?)

The villains, led by Mr. Hafez (Alun Armstrong), the curator at the British Museum, are also after the bracelet as they need it for their plot to conquer the earth. If they resurrect the Mummy, Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) and give him the bracelet, he can conquer the Scorpion King, take over his army of jackal men and they can rule the world. The villains are an odd lot. Beside Hafez, who runs around in a lot of strange red middle eastern robes, even in London, there is Meela Nais (Patricia Vasquez), the reincarnation of Imhotep's lost love Anck-su-namun. Where she came from and how she knows where to find the mummy in the destroyed city of Hamanaptura (see the first movie) is not explained. There is also the wild eyed Lock-Nah (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) armed with various wicked knives and a trio of scumballs straight out of central casting who seem to exist mainly to give the Mummy a good meal once he is freed from what seems to be a huge lump of amber.

The villains show up at the O'Connell country home, a sort of smaller version of Wayne Manor, as does the Madjai protector Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr) and Evie's no good brother Jonathan (John Hannah) and soon there are knife fights, gun fights, kidnappings, narrow escapes and a race through a geographically impossible London in a double decker bus. The views of 30s London are lovely but St. Paul's cathedral seems to have moved to Battersea and Tower Bridge crosses the Thames at Charing Cross. The villains end up with the precocious tot and the bracelet and our heroes are soon chasing them back to Egypt where they meet up with an over-acting pilot (Shaun Parkes) who flies them on a Cook's tour of various monuments in a hot air balloon borrowed from Terry Gilliam. By the time they crash into a set left over from Jurassic Park and are running away from Mummy Muppets, I was as confused as my readers are now. Suffice it to say that the third act of the film brings violent deaths and resurrections, the return of the Scorpion King as a cheesy special effect, narrow escapes, and Brendan Fraser running at about 800 miles an hour in order to move faster than the rising sun.

I enjoyed The Mummy a good deal when I first saw it at the matinee and later on video. I thought that writer/director Stephen Sommers had caught a nice balance of humor, thrills, and high adventure in the film. The special effects were fun but never overbalanced the characters and there were enough slower paced scenes in which we learned about both our heroes and villains, that we could catch our collective breath. It reminded me a good deal of Raiders of the Lost ArkThe Mummy Returns has a bad case of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom syndrome. Everything has become bigger, faster and more frenetic. The characters no longer exist as people but rather as agents for elaborate action and special effects sequences which pile on top of each other in rapid succession leaving the audience exhausted and having forgotten why they cared for these people in the first place. Even the jokes feel forced as they're exactly the same jokes as in the first film, only bigger and louder and, therefore, stupider. Perhaps this explains the soporific effect, somewhat similar to the works of Hegel.

The leading players, all of whom are veterans of the first film, obviously enjoy making these films and each others' company. There is an easy camaraderie to their performances, even when they are saddled with ridiculous lines so they can get the exposition out of the way and move on to the next action set piece. Fraser and Weisz, have matured their characters although I miss the romantic tension that existed in the first film as they stumbled towards each other. Oded Fehr remains sexily noble. John Hannah, does dissolute comic relief with practiced insouciance. Patricia Velasquez, notable mainly for her body paint in the first film, shows some smatterings of acting talent as the villainess and Arnold Vosloo takes
what could be a stock villain and imbues him with some dignity and humanity.

The production design is lovely. There are widescreen shots of deserts and ruins and cityscapes which are thrilling to behold. The interiors of temples and magic pyramids are lovingly rendered. The whole thing reminds me of a late 30s pulp adventure comic book brought to life. The digital animators also had fun with the creatures. Even in the wide shots, there are hundreds of little details in the corners which provide much to look at. 

The DVD contains the film in its original widescreen format and a super 5.1 Dolby soundtrack. The image seems a little pixilated and phony at times, especially during some of the heavy visual effects shots. Besides the film, there are a large number of extras. There is a collection of 'blooper' out takes where the cast mugs for the benefit of the camera and each other. There is a pointless music video. There is a preview of a Mummy attraction at Universal theme parks which seems to be an Egyptian variation on the midway spook house. There is a commentary tract featuring writer/director Sommers and editor/producer Bob Ducsay that's fairly informative as they actually talk about the filmmaking process rather than just explain the plot. There is an exclusive interview with "The Rock" about the next sequel The Scorpion King in which he stars and a preview of that film which reveals it to be shot in the murkiest light possible: I could not tell which of the flailing shadows was supposed to be hero and which villain. They all seem to fly across digitally enhanced ancient backgrounds with the greatest of ease, however. There is a charitable plea form Oded Fehr. There is some explanation of how visual effects were done by an ILM geek with a strawberry blond mullet.

All in all, I found the film disappointing as I so enjoyed the first one. It needed more panache and humanity and less reliance on digital tricks.

Armies clashing. Evil jackal headed warriors. Nile drinking. Nile dunking. Better mousetrap. Gratuitous scarab beetle explosions. Museum burning. Hiding in bathtub. Smashed soldier mummies. Gratuitous train lavatory. Wall of water escaping. Pygmy mummy stabbings. Gratuitous quicksand. Gratuitous girl knife fights. Oasis vortex. Giant diamond rescue. 

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