Friday, May 07, 2004

Van Helsing

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 7 May 2004 at Loews Boston Common #1 (first-run)

I'm an idiot.

Normally, when someone who writes about his moviegoing experiences sees a bad movie, it's traditional for the review to disparage the intelligence of the people who made it, or if the writer is feeling really nasty, the audience. And I suppose I'm doing the latter, because, let's face it, I paid $6.50 to see this movie. I paid it despite knowing the time could be better spent at home, doing some spring cleaning or just watching the ballgame in its entirety. I paid it despite not being terribly impressed with any of the trailers, the recent work of the director and stars, and being completely aware of the utterly poisonous buzz around this movie. Why? Obviously, I'm an idiot.

Of course, I'd made it worse for myself. This is not a good movie to see the night after The General, a 77-year-old action movie that worked with efficiency and wit. The General is a story where everything is in constant motion but also very clear, while Van Helsing is simply chaotic. Or consider that it comes a scant month after Hellboy, another film about monster-hunters, but one which has a certain elegance to it as opposed to feeling crudely welded together as Van Helsing does. In Hellboy, information was parceled out at logical times, as opposed to the awkward exposition dumps that inform the audience of Van Helsing's mythology.

I wonder what's happened to Stephen Sommers. He was never a great filmmaker, but he had a nice run with The Jungle Book, Deep Rising, and The Mummy; those were enjoyable pulp adventure movies which, though lightweight, were professional, with a sense of logic behind them. Van Helsing, like The Mummy Returns before it, seems to be made with imprecise tools. There's several instances of idiotic writing, like when Van Helsing climbs to the top of a tower to try and unchain the monster so he can't power Dracula's machine, despite the phenomenal number of exposed wires just begging to be cut by any of the multiple sharp objects Van Helsing keeps on his person. Sommers doesn't seem to be able to walk the line between homage and camp that he once handled so well. Here, he falls into the trap of too much deliberate anachronism, both in terms of technology and the manner in which characters speak. There's no pride to Richard Roxborough's Dracula, as an example, no sense of him having some wisdom and refinement commesurate with his advanced age. It's one of the least compelling screen versions of the Count ever.

Hugh Jackman manages to escape with most of his dignity intact, but he's about it. Pretty much all the other characters are grotesqueries, with wacky voices and means of behavior. Particularly frustrating is Kate Beckinsale, woefully miscast as Transylvanian monster-hunter Anna Valerious. Her sleek, Audrey Hepburn-esque charm his hidden beneath big hair, a ridiculous costume, and a painful accent. No sparks between her and Jackman. And the action thing just isn't her bag. Stick her in a comedy of manners or a contemporary drama, and she's great, but beating people up just isn't something she can do. She's not outright awful like longtime Sommers mascot Kevin J. O'Connor is as Igor, but that's damning with faint praise. Really, about the only other actor who escapes looking good is Shuler Hensley as Frankenstein's Monster.

And here we get to the frustrating part - the little nuggets of gold hidden among the sea of crap. I loved Sommers' conception of Frankenstein's Monster, from visual to characterization. It's perfect in almost every way. The black-and-white opening prologue is also just a gas, and Alan Silvestri's score is a lot of fun. Not close to subtle, but bombastic in a good way. The image of werewolves shedding their human skin is also a great one. It's stuff like that which keeps me from dismissing Sommers as a hack who got lucky, but also makes the rest of the movie such a disappointment.

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