Stephen Sommers' action thriller Van Helsing, the first of 2004's torrent of summer blockbusters, is big, loud, frenetic, and almost no fun at all. For those who've missed the omnipresent previews, the film is a special-effects bonanza featuring Hugh Jackman as the titular character, a taciturn growler who spends 130 minutes attempting to rid his corner of Europe from a series of CGI-created monsters, and it's all treated with such solemnity that I wouldn't have been surprised to see Henrik Ibsen listed as a screenwriter.
I mean, really, how do you make a movie wherein the hero battles Dracula, befriends Frankenstein's monster, and scrapes with dozens of werewolves and vampires, and forget to include the jokes? (Granted, there's a comic-relief character in the form of a timid friar, but like all comic-relief characters in summer blockbusters, he isn't remotely funny.) Recent spectacles of this sort, such as Spider-Man or the X-Men movies, have found a way to incorporate actual human drama with the material's inherent campiness, resulting in exciting entertainments that were surprisingly moving, and Sommers' own The Mummy films - The Mummy Returns, especially - showcased a writer-director with a keen understanding of just how much cheese he could get away with without alienating viewers over the age of eight. This latest work, all effects and art direction and precious little joy, plays its camp with too straight a face, which proves to be a treacherous way to go; even though the movie is chockfull of ear-splitting "Boo!" moments, it's a visually audacious bummer. (Van Helsing is for viewers - all four of them - who yearn for another League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.)
You can feel the ways in which Van Helsing is going to fail from the very first sequence, a visually spectacular black-and-white recreation of '30s-era horror movies. The production design, with its nods to European expressionism, is impressive, but as soon as you hear the actors reciting their grade-D dialogue with overblown, unironic abandon, you fear that the next two hours will (occasionally) tickle your eye but turn your brain into Jell-o. Your instincts are proven correct. Somehow, Hugh Jackman manages to maintain his dignity, though he's never been less interesting onscreen; actors including Kate Beckinsale, Richard Roxburgh, and Shuler Hensley, however, just end up looking silly. (Poor Hensley, swathed in latex as Frankenstein's monster, is such a dead-ringer for Peter Boyle that you half-expect him to burst into a chorus of "Puttin' on the Ritz.") Van Helsing is, of course, merely the first in a series of Hollywood action behemoths to be hitting the multiplex in the coming months, and for those who are looking for nothing more than tony eye candy, the movie might, momentarily, fill the bill. Yet for all the movement and dazzling-looking detail in Sommers' latest work, Van Helsing remains sadly uninspired, proof that a movie doesn't have to be inert to bore the hell out of you.
LAWS OF ATTRACTION
Almost without fail, romantic comedies - romantic comedies starring adults, at any rate - are centered on extremely smart people doing extremely stupid things, all in the name of love. When you watch You've Got Mail or Miss Congeniality or The Wedding Planner, the characters played by Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Lopez might act like twitterbrains, but you're continually reminded, through their dialogue and choice of profession, that they are, in fact, quite intelligent; their characters act like morons because they're either unaware of their romantic feelings or all too aware of them. (Love can make anyone behave idiotically.) This is part of the genre's appeal, yet it can also be its chief hindrance; when a movie's plot machinations force smart characters to act in a way that's contrary to everything we're told about them, it's easy to find yourself rolling your eyes and giving up on the movie entirely.
For a while - 10 minutes, maybe - you may find yourself jazzed by the notion of Laws of Attraction. It's a bickering-lawyers-in-love movie, like the Hepburn-Tracy classic Adam's Rib, and it stars Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore, two beautiful, proudly middle-aged performers with not nearly enough romantic comedies on their résumés. (For my money, Brosnan has never been as relaxed onscreen as he was on TV's Remington Steele, and Moore, one of modern movies' most heartbreaking tragediennes, should be required by law to make more films where her characters are allowed to laugh.) But Peter Howitt's romantic comedy is mostly a disaster, not because the screenplay, by Aline Brosh McKenna and Robert Harling, isn't funny - though God knows that doesn't help matters - but because Brosnan's and Moore's characters are so relentlessly imbecilic that you can't believe a single thing they say or do. The trouble begins with their first courtroom showdown, in which Brosnan surprises Moore with information about her client that should have been the first thing asked at a pre-trial meeting, and the stupidity just escalates from there. From then on, these supposedly brilliant attorneys are required by the plot to either act like petulant teenagers or drunken half-wits, and I mean this last part literally; the script is so uninspired that it requires both leads to get roaringly drunk and not recall the previous night's events. (Their characters don't need a matchmaker so much as an intervention.) Brosnan and Moore carry on gamely enough, but Laws of Attraction is an embarrassment for all concerned; it makes you long for the wit and sophistication of a Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicle.
Gus Van Sant's Elephant, winner of the Palme d'Or and Best Director citations at 2003's Cannes Film Festival, has just been released on DVD and video, and it's the perfect antidote to a season soon to be overrun with Van Helsings; very little happens, even less is explained, yet you might find yourself positively haunted by it. Clearly inspired by the 1999 massacre in Littleton, Colorado, Van Sant's quiet, terrifying mood piece follows the daily activities of numerous students at a suburban high school, a normal day that turns tragic when two students, armed with a fully-loaded arsenal, suddenly begin shooting. Employing improvised dialogue and a mostly nonprofessional cast, Van Sant's experiment might seem like a peculiarly grim folly until you realize how rigorously structured and technically accomplished it actually is - the sound design is extraordinarily good - and despite the amateurish acting, Elephant achieves the pull of a truly primal horror film; the lead-up to the inevitable violence, with Harris Savides' camera gliding, Kubrick-like, through the high school's hallways, is both hypnotic and deeply frightening. Though the film offers no rationales and nothing in the way of traditional dramatic catharsis (its ending is brilliantly abrupt), Elephant, in its unconventional way, says more about the senselessness of random violence than any movie I've seen before, and days after having seen it, I can't get it out of my head.