Saturday, April 26, 2014

Van Helsing


The production crew for American Idyll has returned to the greater Los Angeles area to resume taping on the series in which one of our lovely little lasses between the ages of four and eight years will be crowned the Shirley Temple of the new millennium. Of the ten finalists, four have been eliminated to date through a series of unfortunate occurrences; the remaining six have taken up residence again at Chateau Maine along with their mothers. This morning, I had to call a mothers meeting; it had come to my attention that a number of them were trying to give their offspring an unfair advantage in this process of weeding out of those little girls not up to true diva standards. I informed them there would be no more castor oil snuck into morning orange juice, no more mysteriously shredded tap costumes and no more screaming insults at the competition from off-camera.

Normy, my musically talented husband, has been working hard at a very demanding elimination competition for the episode filming next week. Each of the little darlings will do a soft shoe to a John Philip Sousa march of choice while juggling clubs emblazoned with the American flag. Just a little idea we picked up from watching the dedication ceremonies of the new World War II monument. I tried to get the girls included in that program and thought it would be an absolute shoe-in given my long involvement with USO entertainment, but the invitation to perform seemed to have gotten lost in the mail. Ania, my new Polish dramaturg, will give it all a sheen of high culture; she's selecting famous works of American poetry and fitting them to the music. Her efforts have been a great success so far as she's managed to make most of the works of Emily Dickinson singable to The Yellow Rose of Texas.

As it's a long weekend and the crew are off with their families, I found myself with some extra time so Normy and I headed for the local Cineplex where we decided to catch up on one of the summer movie season's earlier releases, Van Helsing with Hugh Jackman, Universal's latest collaboration with writer/director Stephen Sommers in the summer film sweepstakes. Sommers came to the fore in 1999 with his hip adventure remake of Universal's old horror classic, The Mummy. The blend of Saturday matinee serial plot devices, state of the art effects, loopy good humor and wry performances that characterized that film made Sommers the darling of the Universal lot, especially with the film's hefty gross. This led to two sequels, of dubious quality and a serious case of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom syndrome, the idea that action film sequels must focus on delivering spectacular stunt sequences while ignoring such niceties as plot and character development.

Having more or less mined Ancient Egypt for all he could get, Sommers turned his attention to the rest of the classic Universal horror catalog including DraculaFrankenstein and The Wolf Man. Rather than focusing on any one, he decided to throw them all in the blender and hit puree, coming up with an original story based vaguely on the character of Abraham Van Helsing, Dracula's nemesis in both the original novel and the classic Bela Lugosi film. In order to keep the character out of the public domain, Abraham was tossed in favor of Gabriel, although it's not explained if Gabriel Van Helsing is a relative of Abraham or if there's a visit by the character to the courthouse at some point for a legal change for unfathomable reasons.

Hugh Jackman, the Australian actor, stars as the title character; he's some sort of nineteenth century James Bond type anti-evil crusader in the employ of the Vatican (which seems to be dominated by some sort of cabal of all the major world religions - at least that's what I think the rabbis and Buddhist monks were doing in the basement of Saint Peters.) Dracula, long a bane of the forces of good, has been acting up in Romania so Van Helsing is sent to confront him, with no assistance other than a somewhat vague friar named Carl (David Wenham). Dracula is trying to use the Frankenstein monster (Shuler Hensley), conveniently transported forward in time seventy years, as a power conduit to hatch the eggs laid by his three brides. In the meantime, he's unleashed a werewolf against his old enemies, the last descendants of the gypsy family Valerious who have vowed to defeat him. Van Helsing arrives in Romania to find Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) engaged in fighting vampires while her brother Valken (danseur Will Kemp) is having a real bad time with unsightly hair growth. As if this weren't enough plot, this is just the first twenty minutes of chases, narrow escapes, reversals of fortune and trans-dimensional travel that occupy the next two hours. Don't worry if you can't follow it, the film moves on to a loud new action sequence about every three minutes so there will be something else to watch.

Sommers seems never to have met a film idea or cliché he doesn't like. They're all there without much rhyme or reason, as if assembled by Mixmaster. Within ten minutes there will be a sequence stolen from James Bond, an homage to The Wizard of Oz, shots reminiscent of Hitchcock, stunts from Indiana Jones, and a recreation of a moment from a classic black and white horror film. It all goes by so fast that I was wondering if he and Baz Luhrman are having some sort of contest to see who can stuff the most film ephemera into an hour of celluloid. The result is entertaining, but you leave the theater exhausted after two hours of constant visual and auditory assault. The film starts out promisingly enough with a sly recreation of moments from the original version of Frankenstein but it rapidly deteriorates into a mélange of sound and fury, with the usual significance.

All of this action and stunt work and general business overwhelms the actors. Hugh Jackman is a wonderful leading man when he's allowed to take center stage and create a character. Here, he's hidden in shapeless clothes and plastic hair extensions and left to wander aimlessly amongst oversize sets and visual effects. We first meet him in Paris where he's battling Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on top of Notre Dame (a mistake as Jekyll/Hyde was an MGM rather than a Universal film creation and as the sequence is way too reminiscent of last year's turkey, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). The best thing about it are the shots of a half built Eiffel Tower in the background. Jackman is given no time to create a person about whom we might care. It's just wham bam slug fest from the first moment on in. As the obligate love interest, Kate Beckinsale looks like an escapee from a road company of The Student Prince; I kept expecting her to break into Jeanette McDonald trills and dance a czardas. She also has no character to play, but her hair extensions are much nicer than his. The monsters fare a bit better; Shuler Hensley, under pounds of grey cake make-up, brings out the Frankenstein monster's wounded humanity. The Brides of Dracula, one brunette, one blonde and one redhead, also have some nice moments, even if their bare breasts have no nipples. Will Kemp looks gorgeous in his few brief scenes; most of the time he's a CGI lycanthrope. Richard Roxburgh, another Australian best known for his villain in Moulin Rouge, makes some interesting choices as Dracula and tries for something different than other interpretations. He's overpowered by the production and his choices look odd when everyone else is playing straight cliché. The only actor who survives relatively unscathed is David Wenham as the comic relief sidekick, Friar Carl. With his hunched up body language, doofus haircut, and slick timing, he's a far cry from the virtuous Faramir from The Lord of the Rings and makes his scenes watchable. I'm looking forward to seeing more of him in other, more suitable projects. There's also good work from character actor Kevin J. O'Connor as Dracula's sidekick, Igor.

The film rockets along on five cylinders and is always interesting to look at with impressive art direction by Steve Arnold and cinematography by the talented Allen Daviau. It's also very loud so I can't tell you if the music or sound effects are good as it's one big wall of sound descending from the DTS surround sound speakers. I will say that I was diverted for the time I was in the theater; but today, the day after, I have no idea what exactly happened or why or even which character was which. It's the cinematic equivalent of Chinese food - gone in an hour.

Burning windmill. Shattered rose window. Exploding liquids. Harpy attack. Genitalialess lycanthropes. Gratuitous friar defrocking. Gratuitous court jester costume. Prague location called Budapest. Green slimy nasty flying things. Exploding green slimy nasty flying things. Telescoping stake. Magic painting. Map fragment. Runaway horse drawn carriages. Errol Flynn daring do rope swinging. Steal from Anne Rice's Theatre de Vampires.

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