April 25, 2013

Bram Stoker's Dracula

In 1897, Dracula was published and experienced moderate success. Its author, the Dublin-born Bram Stoker, never knew how enduring his novel would become. When German filmmaker F.W. Murnau filmed Nosferatu in 1922, Stoker's widow came after Murnau for violating the copyright she held over Dracula. Florence Stoker wasn't able to stop the movies from getting at her late husband's most interesting and most sustained novel, but she did receive some remuneration from Universal when they made Dracula in 1931. And yet, if Dracula hadn't been made all the more popular on the stage and then on screen in these two afore-mentioned films, we likely wouldn't be talking about it today.

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 min.

April 22, 2013

Real Genius

Real Genius (1985) has a group of precocious students at Pacific Technical University developing a laser beam for their professor (William Atherton), who is, unbeknownst to them, working in conjunction with the CIA to use this technology unethically. The plot and characters of Real Genius seem somewhat lazily slapped together by the screenwriters (Neal Israel, Pat Proft, and Peter Torokvei), but Real Genius has a quick wit and an endless supply of one-liners that keep it buzzing along at an agreeable (if overlong) pace. Val Kilmer demonstrates his ability to play the aloof genius with an affable, smartass charm. He plays Chris Knight, the star brain of the college, who welcomes a 15-year-old newcomer, Mitch (Gabriel Jarret), who's something of a child prodigy, into his dorm room and his laboratory.

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 min.  

April 14, 2013


Danny Boyle's Trance is like Inception meets Headhunters (the Norwegian film about a professional art thief who steals a priceless painting from a professional killer). In it, an art auctioneer (James McAvoy) tries to double-cross his partners during a heist, and winds up in the hospital after being hit hard on the head. When he wakes up he can't remember what he did with the painting (a Rembrandt, no less), and his partners-in-crime are furious and ready to kill him. He goes to a professional hypnotist (Rosario Dawson) to try and recover his memory and retrieve the painting. But that's only the beginning. What unfolds is a perplexing labyrinth of "who's playing whom?" type games.

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 min.

April 13, 2013

Valley Girl

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 min. ½

April 12, 2013

Just One of the Guys

Frustrated that nobody takes her seriously as a journalism student because she's an attractive girl, high-schooler Terry Griffith (Joyce Hyser) switches schools and assumes a new identity as a boy. Just One of the Guys (1985) is a charming teen comedy that navigates the terrain of a  "message movie" with surprising adeptness. While Terry is certainly incensed by the stereotypes that "gender" people's ambitions, she doesn't stay on a soapbox for the entire movie. It's just as much about her relationships--be they platonic, romantic, or somewhere in between--as it as about her mission to prove herself as a budding journalist and rankle the boys' club mentality that exists even at the high school level.

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 min.

April 05, 2013

For the Critic

"Ugh...The critics hate everything. If they pan a movie, I know I'm probably going to like it, and vice versa. They just like to criticize." People have said this to me (or some variation of it) so many times, apparently unaware that I am a person who loves movie critics and movie criticism. There's nothing like reading a good movie review. Whether you've seen the movie or not, whether you loved it or hated it, or were indifferent to it, a good review is in itself entertaining. And generally speaking, a good review makes you see things differently, sometimes literally. Sometimes, a good review makes you question your own judgment. (Although it's wrong to make a person feel like an idiot for liking something that you hated, the temptation to do so is understandable when you feel a particular disdain for a movie that's truly awful.)

Roger Ebert is probably the most well-known film critic who ever lived. When I told people I wanted to be a film critic, they almost always said, "oh, like Roger Ebert?" Well, yes, I suppose so, I would think. Although he's not the only critic, and he's not even my favorite critic. Although I do read his reviews regularly. And they're always sharp and enjoyable, even when I disagree with them. And yes, there were times when I felt validated by one of his opinions because I wasn't confident enough to have faith in my own. Ebert is probably so well-known because, in addition to writing for The Chicago Sun-Times, he was on television (paired with the late Gene Siskel), which made him and his co-host available to a much wider audience, much more so than if he had been writing at a magazine like The New Yorker or a newspaper like The Los Angeles Times. Ebert was sort of "the people's critic." That's not to say that he was a voice for the uneducated masses, or that he had no taste, but that he wasn't a snob. He was a fairly democratic reviewer. He appreciated trash and he appreciated good movies and he was adamantly offended by bad movies (as am I), whether they were bad trash or bad art.

With the passing of the nation's most well-known film critic, it seemed appropriate to write something about this much-maligned discipline. The quote I opened with seems to be a pretty good example of how lots of people feel about critics. The critics who are conjured up in the imagination by such a quote are pointy-headed snobs looking down on the culture at large, staring at the innocent, well-intentioned artist with looks of stern, hostile judgment, ready to push him down at any moment and then laugh with pompous glee at their own strength of mind and aloofness of observation.

But that's not truly how it is. Of course there are show-boating film critics who spend hours trying to think up one ruthlessly clever line to shred some director or actor or writer with. There are bad critics. But there are good critics too. Like there are bad doctors and good doctors and bad ditch-diggers and good ditch-diggers. You can't lump everyone in with the one obnoxious example. (Or two, or three.) And what's more, we really need to be thankful for the good critics. These are people who love movies. But not just movies: they love good television and theater and books and music and sculpture and dance and every kind of art imaginable...they're art junkies and pop culture junkies and they thrive on the stimulation provided by these media. But moreover, they're people who can make sense of it all. They give us perspective. They deflate the pompous self-importance of a movie like The Help, and show us the difference between bad trash (like The Fast and the Furious) and good trash (like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo).

We're not morons. I get it. (Okay, we're not all morons.) We can decide for ourselves what we like and what we don't like. But for me, reading film criticism has always been liking having a friend who happens to know a lot about something I'm interested in (movies) and being able to talk about this subject (movies) whenever I want. And even when this friend and I disagree, I come away having gained something valuable from engaging with her or him. Because a good critic somehow weaves a personal story into each review. Even when we're not reading any details about the critic's life, we are getting a rich history of that particular critic's taste. And our taste is something that has taken years to form and grow and morph and--although here we should remain resistent--calcify. And how many of us can say our taste developed on its own? (After all, we're not like small business owners, who did everything on their own with no help from anyone whatsoever.)

I will say, it kind of feels like I discovered my first film critics on my own. I was at the public library, and I came across Leonard Maltin's massive video guide, providing capsule reviews of any movie you could think of. This was about 1996, which means I was about ten or eleven years old at the time. I read Maltin's book as though my life depended on it, devouring the reviews like they were drops of water preparing me for a coming film criticism oasis. I became a loyal customer of Maltin's, buying his updated review guide every year for several years. I remember going through the 1600-page volume and meticulously typing out the title of each movie I had seen (along with the year of its release). It's the reason I still remember the year every movie was released. Seriously. Ask me. (Yes, shout-out to all nerds.) Anyway, I think the list had over 1100 titles on it when I was finished, which seemed like not very much, considering Leonard Maltin's book had 16,000. SIXTEEN FREAKING THOUSAND! But I was a kid, and he'd been doing this for like thirty years. How could I compete?

And then I discovered Pauline. Her reviews weren't like Maltin's. They were much longer, and sometimes she talked about things that had nothing to do with the movie at hand. And she often referenced other movies in her reviews, which of course sent me searching for other reviews and other books on those movies. I discovered her book I Lost it at the Movies while I was in high school (once again at the public library). It was her first book of criticism, published in 1965. (All of her books had wonderfully suggestive titles like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and When the Lights Go Down and Taking It All In.) Pauline Kael was something of a legend in the film criticism world. (Yes, there are legends in this world too.) Kael disliked the formal, pretentious tone of most movie reviewers. She determined to write in a more casual, distinctly American style: the way we actually talked about movies as we were walking out of the theater.

Reading Pauline Kael will make you smarter, I'm quite sure. But it might also turn you into a nervous wreck. Like the time I read her review of Ordinary People, a movie that I had connected to very deeply and felt was a shattering, brilliant portrayal of the breakdown of an upper-middle-class Chicago family. The movie stars Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore as the husband and wife, and Timothy Hutton as their troubled teenage son, and it was directed by Robert Redford. I had been so strongly affected by Ordinary People (I remember feeling sort of numb after it was over), and so moved by it the next few times I watched it, that I was utterly shocked to read Pauline Kael's review. She pulled it apart. It wasn't powerful at all, she said. And Mary Tyler Moore, so famous for playing a perky, lovable TV sitcom character, "seemed to be doing penance for giving us a good time." I wanted to protest, but Pauline was gone by then. (She died in 2001 at the age of 82). I had to reason it out for myself: "You can like Ordinary People even if she doesn't. Maybe she's right. Maybe you should dislike that movie too. Of course you should. What an obvious, "important" movie that's actually quite unimportant. You were taken in, and she's trying to keep you from being taken in! What were you thinking liking that in the first place? But, I did like it," I thought. "I really liked it. It seemed very believable, and like a very sad critique of the American dream." And then I thought: "Is there something I got from this that she couldn't have gotten? Perhaps because of our drastic age differences? And our very different upbringings? And, more importantly: Why the hell am I so hung up on this? Seriously, what's the deal?"

Yes, the dangerous side of film criticism is the paralyzing feeling that nobody agrees with you. That you are an idiot and have liked a shitty movie, or that you've overpraised a good movie by calling it brilliant, or that you didn't have the sophistication and brains to appreciate a movie you found insufferable that other, better people liked very much. Yes, this is the inner-battle every critic faces. And perhaps every person who has ever had an opinion about anything and cared what someone else thought about that opinion. It's the way of things: we look up to certain people, because we respect their taste and think they're smart and cool and funny and exciting. So naturally we're afraid for that moment when our tastes separate, as though it were normal for all tastes to converge and remain joined together at all times.

Reading critics has given me a lot: Not just a vast knowledge about movies, but a renewed appreciation for culture and popular culture and the possibilities of art and the merits of trash and the insultingness of bad movies. We're all bound up in this cultural machine. We have to find someone to share our thoughts with, and more importantly, we have to find someone who can open up new windows and explore new passageways and serve as a sort of cultural and narrative tour guide, showing us things we didn't know existed, making us laugh, occasionally leading us astray, sure, but always leaving us richer for the journey.

So, raise a glass for Roger Ebert, and any film critic you've ever enjoyed reading. If you look hard enough, there's a film critic out there for you. Someone will inevitably have similar tastes to yours, at least 50 percent of the time. And when in doubt, just read Pete Hammond, who is probably writing a four-star review of Tyler Perry's Temptation as we speak.