Van Helsing

  • Title: Van Helsing
  • Director:  Stephen Sommers
  • Date:  2004
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Genre: Horror, Action, Adventure
  • Cast:  Hugh Jackman, David Wenham, Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh
  • Format:  B/W prologue only, then Color/Widescreen (old)
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“You’ve never been out of the Abbey, how do you know about vampires?” – Van Helsing
“I read.” – Carl

“My life, my job, is to vanquish evil. I… I can sense evil. This thing, man, whatever it is, evil may have created it, may have left its mark on it, but evil doesn’t rule it. So I cannot kill it.” – Van Helsing (re: the Creature)

Van Helsing is much more about style than substance, though as the CGI-heavy film moves along, it does improve – and it has some great moments.

The film opens with a black and white prologue – Dr. Frankenstein is doing his famous experiment to create the Creature, but after it becomes alive, he is confronted by Count Dracula. Dracula kills Dr. Frankenstein, but the Creature escapes with Frankenstein’s body to the famous windmill. There, a crowd of local people confront the Creature with torches, quickly burning down the windmill, presumably killing both Dr. Frankenstein and his Creature.

One year later the film opens into full color, and shows Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) chasing Hyde of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde fame. Unfortunately, when Hyde falls off a roof he turns back into Jekyll – and dies. Van Helsing is blamed for the murder. However, he really doesn’t have much to worry about because he goes to a supernatural MI6, where the cardinal, like M, is the voice of exposition. M explains that Van Helsing must go to Transylvania to rescue the last members of the Valerious family by destroying Dracula. Due to some sort of curse, that Van Helsing’s Secret Order was also involved in, if Dracula isn’t destroyed before the last members of the Valerious family die – the entire family (including the dead members) will be cursed for eternity. Yeah, OK – it doesn’t make much sense, but plot is more of an excuse in this film, than something that’s well thought out. Have plenty of popcorn and enjoy the show. Anyway, while at his secret headquarters, the Cardinal, like M in a James Bond gives Van Helsing basic info, some clues, and a torn piece of a scroll bearing a mysterious signet – which is identical to the signet on Van Helsing’s ring. Conveniently, Van Helsing has also lost his memory. After getting information from M, I mean the Cardinal, Van Helsing goes to see Carl, a friar with more than a passing resemblance to Q in the James Bond films. Carl (David Wenham) kits out Van Helsing with special gear. However, Van Helsing surprises Carl by requesting he come along to Transylvania. As he is a bookish, scientist-type, Carl isn’t that happy about it.

Van Helsing and Carl travel to Transylvania where they meet Anna, the last member of the Valerious family (her brother had been recently transformed into a werewolf). Anna, Van Helsing, and Carl need to find and defeat Dracula.

There is a lot of CGI in the film, and the entire thing is digitally graded to make it look darker. The action scenes are good to excellent but lack depth because the characters are not that well drawn. This is probably why I haven’t watched the film since it originally came out and I originally purchased the DVD. Anna is strong, capable, and an excellent fighter – but still manages to get captured by Dracula and has to be rescued by Van Helsing. Carl is an excellent character, and his ability to put together information from libraries and stained glass windows is a valuable addition to Van Helsing’s quest. I also liked his character. Van Helsing is cool – especially his costume, and his weapons, but because he has no memory, and the audience for the most part only sees him when he’s fighting – he’s an enigma, so as a character he’s hard to like – despite a good performance by Hugh Jackman.

About halfway through the film, as Anna and Van Helsing are escaping through some water-logged tunnels, they encounter the Creature. However, the Creature speaks, and feels bad for himself because everyone hates him. He also knows Dracula’s secrets. Despite orders to the contrary – Van Helsing not only works with the Creature but in the end lets him go. The Creature shows surprising humanity, and is one of the better things in this film.

Overall, Van Helsing felt like a graphic novel adapted for the screen, though the credits list it as an original film (that is, written for the screen). The visuals were very typical CGI, but at times were impressive. They made have been more impressive in 2004. The entire cast, especially some of the smaller roles, also did a very good job – the acting can’t really be critiqued negatively. The director also at times did some great things. A scene with a mirror in what turns out to be Dracula’s Summer Palace is particularly memorable. Likewise, there’s a hidden door scene that’s far from the norm done seriously in so many films and parodied brilliantly in Young Frankenstein. However, the film also reminded me of The League of Extra-Ordinary Gentlemen.

Special Note:  I have the Ultimate Collector’s Edition, which not only includes the film Van Helsing but the original monster films Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man from the 1930s – all of which are worth watching at least once. And the original Frankenstein can easily become a Halloween tradition to re-watch.

Recommendation: Some good elements, but a bit average
Rating: 3 out of 5
Next Film: Wayne’s World

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Moulin Rouge

  • Title:  Moulin Rouge
  • Director:  Baz Luhrmann
  • Date:  2001
  • Studio:  20th Century Fox
  • Genre:  Musical, Romance
  • Cast:  Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh, David Wenham (Cameo)
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and to be loved in return.”

“You expect me to believe that scantily clad, in the arms of another man, in the middle of the night, inside of an elephant, you were rehearsing?”  — The Duke

“Hurt him to save him.  There is no other way.  The show must go on, Satine.  We are creatures of the underworld, we can’t afford to love.”  — Zidler

Moulin Rouge is an incredible, incredible film.  The color, music and dancing all reflect a surreal, hyper-reality feel.  Yet the story is a simple story about love — an impossible love.  Christian is a young naive Englishman who makes his way to Paris, to the heart of the Bohemian Revolution to become a writer and experience love.  He quickly falls in with a group of Bohemian artists, and is chosen to write their new show.  Needing backers, they go to the Moulin Rouge and Howard Zidler, and his head courtesan, Satine.

Through a misunderstanding, Christian meets Satine, and they fall in love.  However, Zidler needs money to convert his nightclub and bordello to a real theatre.  He promises Satine to the Duke.  The Duke even gets Zidler to sign over the deeds on the Moulin Rouge to him.

Satine is shocked to discover the man she’s really falling in love with isn’t a rich Duke after all, but a penniless Bohemian writer.  The plot revolves around their love triangle — Christian and Satine and Satine and the Duke.  And the question is:  Will Satine, a Courtesan, choose true love with Christian or go for the money she can get from the Duke (which Zidler also encourages, since he’ll lose the Moulin Rouge if she doesn’t).  The love triangle is even built into the show that Christian is writing to debut on the new stage of the Moulin Rouge.  It may seem like a simple and traditional plot — but what pulls Moulin Rouge out of the commonplace is it’s style and look.  A style that’s surreal, hyper-reality, more real than real.  And Ewan McGregor as Christian and Nicole Kidman as Satine really do give the performances of their lives.  And my gosh can they both sing!

The majority of the music in Moulin Rouge is modern music.  Rather than keeping to a historical look and feel to the film — Baz Luhrmann goes completely in the opposite direction — accentuating the way it would feel to someone in 1899-1900 to be in such a remarkable place.  The opening dance number is a whirl of lights, color, movement and loud music.  One knows this won’t be your typical musical when the can can girls and the men in white ties and black tails are singing and dancing to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

Satine’s song that she performs as a courtesan is a medley of  “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and “Material Girl”, though the song she sings when she’s on her own is, “I’ll Fly Away”, because her ambition is to be a real actress – or at least to get out of the Moulin Rouge.  Christian first courts her with Elton John’s “Your Song”, but he’s most impressive with the song he writes for her, and the only original song in the film, “Come What May”.  (Though “The Pitch/ Spectacular Spectacular” could be argued as original – only the lyrics are, the music is The Can Can.)

But it’s surprising and even amusing to hear the modern music in the film, though the mood always fits.  “Elephant Love Melody”, for example, is an argument between Christian and Satine where they throw lines from romantic pop songs at each other.  Zidler gets to sing “Like a Virgin” to the Duke, when he’s trying to come up with an excuse as to why Satine has missed a date.  There’s also a very impressive Latin Tango done to “Roxanne”.  And many others.  It’s also common for lines of dialogue in the film to be quotes from famous music (Christian even gets his writing job by quoting “The Sound of  Music”).  Yet, somehow, it fits, it’s like when you and your friends quote lines from movies you’ve seen or books you’ve read.  Christian, Satine, and even Zidler quote lines from music.

There are also some remarkable special effect sequences in the film – and as showy as they are, it merely emphases the point at the time.

But the most remarkable aspect of  this musical is the end – it really is astounding and surprising.  I’ve seen this film now several times and I always enjoy it and appreciate it more with every viewing.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating 5 of  5 Stars
Next Film:  Network

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

  • Title: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
  • Director:  Stephen Norrington
  • Date:  2003
  • Studio:  20th Century Fox
  • Genre:  Action, Adventure
  • Cast:  Sean Connery, Shane West, Stuart Townsend, Richard Roxburgh, Peta Wilson
  • Format:  Widescreen, Color 
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“I’m a representative of Her Majesty’s government, the Empire needs you.”  Sorenson
“But the question is, Do I need the Empire?”  — Allan Quartermain

“You’re missing a picture, Mr. Grey.”  Allan Quartermain to Dorian Grey

“I’ve lived long enough to see the future become history, Professor.  Empires crumble, there are no exceptions.”  —  Dorian Grey

The League of  Extraordinary Gentlemen starts with a steampunk bang as a tank bursts out of a building, crushes a bobby, and then bursts through the walls of the Bank of England to commit a robbery. However, the object of the robbery isn’t just money, gold, or even jewels — it’s documents.  The robbery seems to have been conducted by the Germans, but next on the hit list is a German Zeppelin factory — which is blown sky-high.  Thus Britain blames Germany and Germany blames Britain, while in the background the mysterious Fantom seems to be orchestrating everything.  The film is set in 1899.

And thus, M, the mysterious leader of the League of  Extraordinary Gentlemen assembles the extraordinary men and women of the League to prevent a war — he says.  And the League is assembled: hunter and adventurer Allan Quartermain (Sean Connery), Mina – the vampire lover of Jonathan Harker, a thief named Skinner who has stolen the formula for invisibility, American Secret Agent Tom Sawyer, Dorian Grey, Captain Nemo (and his Nautilus) and Hyde (and his alternate identity Dr. Jekyll).  Now assembled M tells them they must prevent the mysterious Fantom from sinking Venice and killing the world leaders assembled there for a peace conference.

Reaching Venice, the League discovers they are too late, Venice is already starting to fall.  They manage to stop the destruction, and discover that they were set up.  Dorian betrays the crew, he’s working for M who’s stolen something from him.  Skinner (aka the Invisible Man) whom the League thought was guilty is innocent, but steals aboard the small Nautilus excursion pod with Grey.  Skinner is able to send a message to the League and they are off to stop M where he’s using the unique talents of the League members (Vampirism, invisibility, Jekyll’s potion, etc) to create new superweapons, as well as his tanks, mechanical men, etc.

The League reaches M’s new hideout and manage to win the day.  Allan Quartermain dies but passes the torch to Tom Sawyer whom he calls a “hero for a new century” (Quartermain being the hero of the old century).  M is revealed to be behind the Fantom, and also to be Professor Moriarty.

The League of  Extraordinary Gentlemen is a good film, but I think it could have been better.  I loved the Victorian literary references (other than Tom Sawyer who seems too young and out of place in the film). Besides the main characters, Quartermain makes a reference to Phileas Fogg going around the world in 80 Days.  Sorenson is a Sherlock Holmes reference, it’s Holmes alias during part of his “missing three years” after Reichenbach Falls. That M is really Professor Moriarty is also another Sherlock Holmes reference.  There are some marvelous quips as well.  Sean Connery is brilliant, and the rest of the cast does a competent job.  However, I can’t help but wonder how much better the film could have been with a more experienced and better known cast.  Also, far too much time is spent assembling the League — time that could have been spent firming up the plot.  I didn’t like the obvious CGI Hyde (and the “super-Hyde that fights Hyde at M’s fortress is just silly-looking).  The initial CGI effect for the Invisible Man as he smears on cold cream to show his face is extremely well done, but the very next scene in the car has the actor with white greasepaint on his face that’s applied so badly you can see his beard stubble.  One or the other effect would actually have worked, but switching between both is distracting and screams “we didn’t have the money to do this right”.  The Nautilus is gorgeous, but is apparently solar powered, which makes no sense for a sub.  In Jules Verne’s novel it’s a nuclear sub — maybe the filmmakers were afraid to say so?  Nemo’s car is also beautiful.  Overall, this film felt like a nice intro, but its a real shame no further sequels were made.  I almost think it would have been better as a television pilot than a film, especially as a television series could have brought in even more fictional and real Victorian characters.

There is plenty of action, however, and the look of the film is actually really, really gorgeous.  And I did like the cast, they all do a competent job (I just think they could have done better in casting).  In a sense the film suffers from unfulfilled promise.

Recommendation:  a fun movie for teens and adults, see it
Rating:  4 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  The Lost Weekend