April 25, 2013
First of all there was a much more popular horror novel released in 1897: Richard Marsh's The Beetle, about a shape-shifting bug terrorizing London in much the same fashion as Count Dracula. The Beetle was forgotten (no movies have been made of it to my knowledge) and even though it has recently experienced a sort of literary resurrection among critics, it effectively switched places with Dracula after Stoker's novel was adapted to the big screen. Second, there was another vampire novel from 1897 called The Blood of the Vampire, by the prolific Florence Marryat. Marryat's vampire, Harriet Brandt, was a psychic vampire: she drained the life out of people without resorting to fangs and bloodsucking. And Harriet wasn't affected by sunlight or crosses or holy water. But like Dracula, she was cursed. (Harriet was mixed: her father a white scientist with an interest in vivisection and her mother a black slave and voodoo priestess from the island of Barbados.) I have often wondered what vampire movies would have been like if Marryat's had been the lasting work and not Stoker's. Would we have been stuck with Twilight either way?
Fast forward to 1992 and the release of Bram Stoker's Dracula, directed by none other than Francis Ford Coppola (The Godafther, Apocalypse Now). Watching it for the third or fourth time, I am struck by the visual splendor and ecstasy of Coppola's version. He and screenwriter James V. Hart point up the erotic overtones in the novel. The film's visual composition has a sense of passion that makes this a supremely interesting movie to watch. It's a breathtaking, thrilling, visceral movie visually speaking: the black silhouettes against an angry orange sky during the scenes of the Crusades that initiate our understanding of Dracula the warrior (although the book doesn't really touch on this much); the howling wolves in the distance as Jonathan Harker changes carriages en route to Count Dracula's foreboding Castle deep in the Carpathian mountains of primitive Eastern Europe; the grey, grim yet Dickensian-looking skyline of 1890s London; the stark reds and greens that permeate the entire film, from the backdrops to the costumes to the blood and the flowers.
As for the plotting, Dracula unfolds in a relatively straightforward and faithful way, except for the beginning, which is an attempt to link the fictional Dracula to his alleged historical persona, Vlad the Impaler. Even when the film seems a bit poky, there is the beauty, the sheer intensity, the sensationalism, as well as the passionate music score of composer Wojciech Kilar. Coppola's ability to turn up the suspense and the terror is quite limber and surprising, and there's a sick, amusing sense of humor in the movie too. Even though this rarely if ever turns campy, it's an unashamed celebration of the excess of Gothic sensibilities. Gothic novels, going back to 1764's The Castle of Otranto, have always fixated on the passion and darkness that rattled and sometimes derailed modernity's reliance on things like science and rationalism. That is the chief allure of a story like Dracula: it's simply genius to have a vampire leave the superstitious culture of Eastern Europe and head to the mecca of European progress and imperialism: London. Nobody believes in vampires there--and even God has become a relic, removed very much from the common life of the modern world--so Dracula is free to feast on the blood of unsuspecting British ladies Mina (Winona Ryder) and Lucy (Sadie Frost, who really ratchets up Lucy's burgeoning sex drive) with hardly anyone to suspect his existence.
Gary Oldman plays the Count, and he imbues him with a sense of loss and emotional torment without sacrificing the qualities that make Dracula a dangerous and frightening enemy of pure British sensibilities. Anthony Hopkins--presumably trying to balance the scales after playing such a memorably devious character as Hannibal Lecter--has a fun time playing Dr. Van Helsing, the eccentric metaphysician and philosopher who figures out what's terrorizing the English ladies; Keanu Reeves is a bit of an embarrassment as Jonathan Harker, especially since his British accent fails to hide that stoner-surfer tone in his voice. But Reeves is handsome and works as a sort of 90s Joe Dallesandro, as though Coppola were nodding a little to Andy Warhol's 1973 Dracula movie. Reeves is also fairly convincing whenever he's being defiled by Dracula's three lascivious vampire wives (one of whom is played by Monica Bellucci), who keep him a prisoner in Transylvania while the Count travels to London. Harker is such a dull, passive character that having a not-so-great actor portray him isn't such a bad idea. You don't worry that he will overshadow Anthony Hopkins or Gary Oldman, and he balances out their intensity with his banality. (I'm really not trying to insult Keanu Reeves. If you're reading this Keanu, I just want to thank you for The Night Before, a forgotten 80s teen classic.)
With Richard E. Grant as Dr. Seward, Cary Elwes as Athur, Billy Campbell as Quincy Morris, Tom Waits as Renfield, and Monica Bellucci as one of Dracula's vampire wives. 128 mins.
April 22, 2013
Director Martha Coolidge has a tendency to let her films ramble along in a breezy sort of fashion. It usually results in likable but unfocused movies like Valley Girl, but in Real Genius the relatively snappy writing helps lift some of that aimlessness. Besides, that aimlessness works better for a film like Genius: it has one of those kids vs. big-bad-adults plot lines that made movies like War Games (1983) seem heavy-handed and simplistic. Instead, you get something a lot more tongue-in-cheek that does not take itself seriously, even when it does resort to the cliches of its particular plot line. The end--in which the professor's house is filled with laser-beam-produced popcorn--is quite odd but very amusing. There's always something slightly surreal going on in Coolidge's movies.
With Michelle Meyrink, Jon Gries, Robert Prescott, Ed Lauter, Yuji Okumoto, Patti D'Arbanville, Joanne Baron, and Deborah Foreman. 108 minutes.
April 14, 2013
You will likely find yourself being pulled into this murky yet lithe, enticing thriller against your will. The script by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge thrives on keeping the audience in the dark, and Boyle doesn't seem to mind this a bit: we're never able to trust where it's all going, and much of the plot seems unnecessary except that we're counting on some big twist at the end to suddenly connect all the seemingly loose threads to each other. It may help the viewer to know that this does happen, but only at the end, and I did spend much of the time frustrated that there would be no relief to this deliberately complicated movie.
The saving grace of Trance is that, pointless as some of its story developments seem, it's a very entertaining movie. It's like chewing bubblegum and not knowing how long the sweetness will last. But you're content while it does, and it provides enough of the sensations promised to justify its existence. The casting is very good too: McAvoy convinces as the somewhat pathetic auctioneer whose life is in jeopardy; Vincent Cassel makes for both an intimidating and suave mastermind with Danny Sapani, Matt Cross, and Wahab Skeikh playing his cohorts, and Rosario Dawson exudes a kind of sexy control over all the male characters.
The questions Trance raises about our very unreliable memories are probably the most fascinating thing about the movie. These have been asked before, perhaps most recently in Inception (and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). But Trance goes the route of science rather than dreams, allowing that the right person with the right training and knowledge can erase someone's memory or help him recall it, and this proves to be a site of anxiety for the movie to exploit. After all, much of if not all of one's identity ultimately finds its grounding in memory and the idea that we are free agents who do things which become indelibly etched into the past, our past. Our memories prove that we have lived. McAvoy's character becomes helpless because of his inability to remember the crucial piece of information--where he put the damned painting--and Dawson becomes a sort of memory shaman.
Trance has a preposterous "what-the-hell" quality that simultaneously puts it in the ranks of the purely entertaining thriller and the purely ridiculous one, depending on the moment. But it's exciting and fun despite (or perhaps because of) its mock-cleverness, which makes it a very hard movie to resist. 101 minutes.
April 13, 2013
Valley Girl (1983) is sort of a critique of 80's teenage materialism and the rigid social hierarchy that exists in high schools. It's also a romantic comedy about two people from different social spheres. But more than anything, Valley Girl is a leisurely stroll through a particular time and place, the Valley circa 1982, where well-to-do teenage girls spend their afternoons and weekends racking up debt on their parents' credit cards at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, speaking in a kind of other-worldly dialect that's equal parts ridiculous and amusing.
The main "Valley Girl" is played by Deborah Foreman, who's a charming actress but whose character, Julie, is only slightly less vapid than the rest of her superficial girlfriends. Julie is dating the typical jock-douche bag, Tommy (Michael Bowen, who seems made for parts like this), but is tired of the way he treats her. So when she sees Randy (Nicolas Cage), who's more punk than preppie, crashing one of her friends' parties, she decides to pursue a romantic relationship with him, even though he's "different." Randy takes Julie outside the Valley and exposes her to different sub-cultures and this all serves as an eye-opening experience for her, but she's pressured by her friends to dump him because dating an outsider will not do.
It's hard to feel very invested in Julie's plight, and while Nicolas Cage, whose puppy dog face is the primary reason for his charm, is believable as the alluring outcast-lover, he's also a bit obsessive. (On the other hand, he's genuinely devoted to Julie where Tommy is interested in having a girlfriend for his own selfish reasons.) Randy's plan to win Julie back fails until the end when he crashes the prom and punches out Tommy. Immediately, Julie goes back to him. There was never much of a strong case for staying with Tommy, anyway. However, Valley Girl doesn't have enough good ideas in its script to make its plot come together. It all just sort of lies there and lumbers along. There are funny bits thrown in--typical of director Martha Coolidge's films--and viewers will appreciate Valley Girl more for its bubblegum flavor than its staying power. It's a fun movie but it never manages to rise about the valley girl shallowness it half-heartedly seeks to make fun of.
There's an amusing sub-plot involving one of Julie's friends, Suzi (Michelle Meyrink), who's vying for the attention of a boy named Skip (David Ensor), but must compete with her beautiful young stepmom. The supporting cast includes Elizabeth Daily, Cameron Dye, Heidi Holicker, Lee Purcell, Joyce Hyser, and Colleen Camp and Frederic Forrest as Julie's ex-hippy parents. Written by Wayne Crawford and Andrew Lane. 99 minutes.
April 12, 2013
Along the way Terry meets a nice guy named Rick (Clayton Rohner), and the two form a confusing but genuine friendship, and she also manages to arouse both the sexual interest of an impressionable girl and the disdain of a musclebound bully. Just One of the Guys has everything you could ever want in a movie: gender confusion, bad fashion, nerds who pretend to be aliens doing "research" on adolescent earthlings, a pretty awesome scene where Rick stands up to the bully who terrorizes all the unpopular kids in the school, and then of course there's Terry's sexually insatiable younger brother, Buddy (Billy Jacoby), whose idea of good interior decorating is covering his bedroom walls with Playboy centerfolds.
It's not a brilliant movie by any means, but it's a fun one. And are there any movies geared toward teenagers nowadays that are half as smart or as bold as this one? I ask you! Directed by Lisa Gottlieb. With Toni Hudson, William Zabka, Leigh McCloskey, Sherilyn Fenn, Deborah Goodrich, and Stu Charno. 100 mins.