Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Too Much TV: DRACULA (2020)

The creators of Sherlock claim that one purpose of their free adaptation of Bram Stoker's famous character -- to call their Dracula an adaptation of Stoker's novel may go too far -- is to make the king vampire the central character, "the hero of his own story" as it were. They then open their first of three episodes with a framing device ensuring that, as ever, we will see Dracula through Jonathan Harker's eyes. Harker tells his story at the convent where he takes shelter in the novel, to an irreverent nun (Dolly Wells) who apparently is the sister of Abraham Van Helsing, sharing his preoccupation with the undead. Harker (John Heffernan) as narrator is an unsettling sight, far more damaged than we're used to seeing, as if Deadpool had mated with a 1980s AIDS patient. This comes to seem appropriate as Harker endures a more severe ordeal than even Stoker had imagined through the hospitality of a rapidly-youthening Count (Claes Bang). This all begins quite promisingly; for much of the first hour co-writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat succeed at making a Dracula story feel more disquietingly Gothic than Stoker's novel by introducing the idea of a secret prisoner in Dracula's castle and later showing how the Count treats some of his victims as experiments. This sets the tone for the rest of the story, establishing that Dracula, after so many centuries, remains uncertain about exactly how his vampiric powers work and whether they're inherited by his "brides," female or male. But a discordant note begins to creep in as the vampire, absorbing Harker's knowledge by drinking his blood, starts talking in a familiarly glib, almost slangy way, calling his guest Johnny and generally sounding more and more like a standard 21st century charismatic villain. At the same time, commenting throughout on Harker's story, Sister Agatha tends to quip in drastic hit-or-miss fashion. The writings clearly aspire to accessibility at whatever cost, and the tone becomes too comic -- however fun it may be to hear Sister Agatha taunt Dracula near the end of the first episode -- for its own good. But I'm probably mistaking my own idea of its own good for its creators' intentions.

The second episode -- all three run approximately 90 minutes -- comes closest to the Dracula-as-central-character idea, though it also interposes a framing device, this time with Dracula narrating his famous voyage on the Demeter to a surprisingly friendly yet still skeptical Sister Agatha.  This second episode is also the worst by far of the three, introducing a shipload of thinly sketched passengers for the vampire to victimize before Agatha breaks out of the framing device and reclaims the upper hand. Inclusiveness substitutes for substance here as the passenger list includes an Indian scientist and his mute daughter as well as the black gay lover of this episode's walking in-joke, the decadent Lord Ruthven. Yet this group may as well have come from a Russian novel of Stoker's time compared to the cartoon characters who pass for the Demeter's crew. They all amount to vampire fodder, of course, and with Dracula the focus rather than his victims his attacks are more reminiscent of Bugs Bunny's inevitable triumphs than they are horrific to any extent. It becomes less a question of which of the crew or passengers will survive than whether the viewers will survive -- and yet it's all nearly redeemed by the episode's closing twist.

The finale picks up threads of Stoker's story in the present day, as Dracula wakes from more than a century of recuperative slumber underwater to walk into a trap set nearly that long ago by a vampire-hunting organization founded by none other than Mina Murray, whom Dracula spared from a bad predicament at the end of the first episode for no apparent better reason than that the writers needed someone to found this organization. Working for this shadowy group is a familiar face: Zoe Helsing, Agatha's great-great-grandniece. She survives a vampire attack because her blood sickens the Count, for the all-too-mundane reason that she has terminal cancer. Other stories make dead people's blood potentially fatal to vampires, so this arguably is a modestly plausible leap forward. Zoe's organization wants to preserve Dracula and experiment on him, but they're thwarted by, of all things, a lawyer. Try and guess his name! After this presumably powerful, possibly malevolent organization meekly gives up its prisoner, the episode introduces us to a 21st century Lucy Westenra (Lydia West) and her familiar suitors -- minus one if the gay guy was supposed to be Arthur Holmwood. Dracula becomes obsessed with this reckless girl without really understanding why as we pick up the thread that may unravel the vampire after all. Just as he's never fully understood his own powers, this show proposes that Dracula has never understood, or at least hasn't fully come to terms with, his own nature. Inquisitive Agatha had wanted to know why Dracula fears Christian symbols -- apparently, their being holy never satisfied her inquiring mind, and in any event we'd seen another vampire in the first episode regard the same stuff without fear or pain -- and the Count's own half-baked idea that Christianity's bloody history makes the cross a symbol of death isn't satisfactory either. His fascination with Lucy -- who suffers an even more horrific fate than in the novel -- offers an important clue, but Zoe needs to drink Dracula's own blood in order to get insight from her feisty precursor Agatha. The resolution of all of this is weak: Dracula the mighty warrior, it turns, out, has always been ashamed of his own fear of death, and flinches from the traditional portents of his extinction -- the cross, the sun, etc. -- even when they won't hurt him at all, as Zoe/Agatha proves by aping Peter Cushing's heroics from Hammer's Horror of Dracula. So enlightened, our protagonist decides he may as well die. I'm not sure if that follows, but I suppose it effectively preempts any talk of another season -- unless, of course, the vampire rises to shrug, "Well, that didn't work!" and goes on about his business, should the ratings require it.

Monday, January 13, 2020

THE KING (2019)

He may not play the title character, but the true auteur of David Michôd's history play may well be its co-producer, co-writer and co-star, Joel Edgerton. The King is an innately audacious project: a do-over of the story of King Henry V of England, the subject not only of Shakespeare's play but of two highly acclaimed films made from the play: Laurence Olivier's of 1944 and Kenneth Branagh's of 1989. Edgerton, however, has assigned himself perhaps the most audacious task of all: a dramatic makeover of one of Shakespeare's most beloved characters, Sir John Falstaff. That puts Michôd and The King on a collision course with Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight on top of its other challenges. Edgerton himself may have written the film's most audacious line, in which his Falstaff compares the fate Michôd and Edgerton have planned for him with a more ignominious finish which is pretty much what Shakespeare gave the character, and declares the King version the better ending. Except that Edgerton to a great extend underplays the role, his conception of Falstaff is what you might imagine Marlon Brando doing with the character, albeit without that actor's dubious British accent. That is, Edgerton and Michôd make Falstaff the conscience if not the outright hero of their story. The fat knight's aversion to combat is here more a matter of principle than it is in the original, in keeping with the new film's overall antiwar stance. But then Falstaff is shown to be the author of the winning strategy of the Battle of Agincourt, staking his own life on it by leading a virtually-suicidal feint intended to goad the French enemy into an even-more suicidal cavalry charge against English longbowmen on muddy terrain. For what it's worth, this Falstaff is neglected for a time but never publicly shunned by his old pal Prince Hal (Timothee Chalamet), who later resents the fat knight's refusal to commit war crimes but respects his counsel too much to hold it long against him. To each his own Falstaff, of course; Welles, selectively following the letter of Shakespeare, still made the character largely a mirror of himself. If Michôd and Edgerton's Falstaff seems sometimes like a mirror-universe version of Shakespeare's, the core idea of their conception seems to be the traditional fool who can tell a king the truth -- something the writers feel that Henry V desperately needed to hear.

The King's Henry shares Falstaff's aversion to mass slaughter, but is dangerously sensitive to personal slights that threaten his standing as a new, young heir to a usurping father. That makes Henry even more dangerously susceptible to manipulation by war-seeking advisers, particularly the Poloniesque William Gascoigne (Sean Harris), who manufactures conspiracies against Henry to be blamed on France and expendable colleagues. It doesn't help matters that the French Dauphin (Robert Pattinson in a critic-proof performance as a complete idiot) wants to get into some kind of pissing contest with the new king, or at least wants to fart in his general direction. Falstaff and later the French princess Catherine (Lily-Rose Depp) act as Henry's conscience against the tide of war, constantly questioning the need for war and reinforcing his own instinctual skepticism, born of resentment of the belligerent ways of his father (Ben Mendelsohn). Henry's the type who prefers to settle things by single combat when possible, as he does with the archetypal Hotspur rather than see his own brother waste an army and his own life in a pointless battle. A nice touch in this film is the way it shows Henry becoming Hotspur, i.e. the son his father really wanted despite Hotspur's treason. Another touch is the way that character arc ends with a parody of the early Hotspur fight, as the Dauphin challenges Henry to single combat after the big battle -- Michôd acquits himself fairly well in the shadow of past auteurs, by the way, and Chalamet works hard in long, violent takes --  but can't put one armored foot in front of the other without sprawling into the mud. The film ends with Catherine replacing Falstaff as Henry's good conscience and his evil counselors done away with all too neatly. But while it's all too obvious when actors are mouthpieces for the writers' opinions rather than real characters, and the film is absolutely not to be taken seriously as history, The King is a nicely made piece of work and mostly quite entertaining, especially if you're a sucker for historical epics like I am. It's just too bad that as a self-conscious alternative to the Shakespearean "Henriad," it's doomed to comparison with greater films instead of facing judgment on its own terms. 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Happy New Year: 1917 (2019)

So what happened? Nothing, really -- if anyone was wondering. There was just a period where I didn't watch much worth writing about, or else I found myself having nothing I thought worth writing about the things I saw. The turn of the year usually encourages increased productivity, however, and by then I had seen some things I wanted to write about. It then became a matter of resuming the old habit. Finally getting back to a movie theater after a few months provided the occasion, and from here I'll backtrack a little to cover some stuff I saw less recently. Where better to start, though, then more than a century in the past?...

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Now that history has taken World War I beyond living memory, it finally starts to feel like just another war. For a time, it seemed like it actually might be the war to end all war, because it seemed to be the one that discredited war as a concept. It stood for futility and tragic stupidity, an indictment of leaders military and political alike. But the most recent Great War movies -- at least in English -- have been far less bitter about the conflict than the classic familiar takes on the subject. Peter Jackson's documentary They Shall Not Grow Old and Sam Mendes' new film are inspired by ancestral memories on the grunt level, where the war was perceived, so it seems, as just another job of work. There is little in either film of the indignation characteristic of Great War movies going back at least to All Quiet on the Western Front and at least as far forward as Gallipoli. In fact, 1917 is to some extent Gallipoli with a happy ending. If that exaggerates things slightly, it's still fair to say that neither the Mendes nor the Jackson film is explicitly an antiwar film, as nearly all World War I movies were implicitly for a long time. Saying this isn't an indictment, only an observation of a change in tone that comes with a change in perspective.

It may exaggerate things even more to call 1917 World War I as a video game. It certainly will look that way to some people, but the effort by Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins to make their film look like a handful of long takes -- however obvious the cutting points actually are -- really seems rooted in an engagement with past war films. All Quiet remains arguably the most indelible of Great War films because of Lewis Milestone's epic horizontal tracking shots of advancing troops mowed down by machine gun fire, while Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory is well remembered for its lengthy tracking shots in the trenches and on the battlefield. 1917 may not be so much an attempt to top these films but a resort to a common cinematic language that somehow seems suited to the subject. Film buffs associate that war in particular with long takes and tracking shots, so if Mendes was going to make a film about that war, this was the way to make it feel especially like a World War I movie -- at least superficially.

Watching 1917, I had the obscure thought that Mendes and Deakins would have been ideal adapters of the work of Leonard H. Nason, an unsung author whose 1920s pulp stories of American soldiers blundering their way across the western front capture something of the chaos of war with considerable black or at least hard-boiled comedy. Instead, of course, Mendes and co-writer Krysty Winston-Cairns took inspiration from tales told by Mendes' grandfather. Whether grandpa told the future director a tale with a Private Ryan-style "mission is a man" hook, however, I don't know. The idea is that two soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman and George McKay) must traverse dangerous terrain on foot in order to prevent a sure-to-fail attack that will jeopardize the life of the brother of one of the protagonists. Their journey inevitably is full of incidents, and as I hinted earlier, their mission ultimately is a success by the narrowest of margins. Your archetypal World War I movie probably would have ended differently, but 1917 plays out, to mix historical metaphors, like an Apocalypse Now that finds the colonel at the end of the long trail a surprisingly reasonable man. Crossing historic boundaries to make that comparison feels justified because 1917 is as much a tour de force for Deakins as the Coppola film was for Vittorio Storaro. The beloved cinematographer not only gives you your standard Great War mudscape, but also a wide range of settings permitting a more vivid and sometimes lurid palette of colors than we might expect from the archetypically monochrome imagery of that conflict. Whatever you think about the story -- which comes with a twist or two and may actually depend on our expectations for Great War films to maintain suspense -- 1917 is a treat to look at, as long as your definition of "treat" includes lots of moldering corpses. The horrors of war are plainly there to see, but at this point in movie history Mendes feels little need to editorialize over them. That certainly doesn't make this a pro-war film, but longtime movie fans will feel a difference from earlier Great War pictures, whatever they make of it. 1917 feels more like an exercise in style for its own sake, both because of its stunt quality and because the characters aren't really that interesting, than its famous precursors, but I think it'll be safe to say that it won't make anyone wish they could have their own World War I adventure, except perhaps in the comfort of their game room.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

On the Big Screen: THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

The sophomore jinx has hit Robert Eggers, whose feature-film debut was the rightly-acclaimed The Witch from 2015. His new film is another piece of period Americana, this time taking place in 19th century New England. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and his new assistant Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrive on an island for a four-week stint as keepers of its lighthouse. Wake is a vulgar, flatulent, superstitious drunk who drives Winslow relentlessly and tries to goad the apparent teetotaler into imbibing with him at dinnertime. On top of that, he forbids Winslow from entering the light of the lighthouse itself. Ephraim has issues of his own. A scrimshaw mermaid inspires him to masturbate frequently, while one particular seagull seems to make a point of getting in his way all the time. He's warned not to harm the bird -- Wake believes that seagulls harbor the souls of drowned sailors -- but the enraged Winslow finally takes the gull in hand and dashes him to pieces on a rock. As if by coincidence, a severe storm indefinitely delays the arrival of their replacements. If Wake had been somewhat mad before, Winslow quickly catches up with him....

The Lighthouse has no real subject other than madness, and madness as an end unto itself isn't firm ground to plant a film on. While in The Witch Eggers arguably was saying something about Puritanism, patriarchy, family, etc., in his new film the director (co-writing with his brother) seems more interested in evoking mood or genre. It may be wrong to ask what the point is, but viewers can hardly help doing so. The real problem may be that, at 110 minutes, the film is too long for its own good. The length tempts the Eggers brothers into too many self-indulgent twists as their characters struggle for dominance and deteriorate further into insanity. At one moment Wake is challenging Winslow's (and our) sense of reality by contradicting a version of recent events that we saw play out on screen as if it were objective truth. Not long afterward, Winslow has beaten Wake into such canine submission that he will walk, on a leash, into an open grave. But then Wake recalls himself and charges back inside for a perhaps-climactic attack. By this point both men have become so repellent that no rooting interest in either man is likely. No rooting interest is strictly necessary, to be fair, but by this point most viewers have probably lost hope at getting to the bottom of the whole situation. There seems to be no point to the exercise, or to the excellent black-and-white cinematography and production design, other than to have Dafoe and Pattinson act crazy. Dafoe is an old hand at this, but more eyes will be on Pattinson, whom we find at a pivotal point in his career. He is our next cinematic Batman, and by coincidence will have a high-profile role in Christopher Nolan's next film. By two years from now the ghost of Edward Cullen may be exorcised for good and Pattinson's real movie-star career will have begun. Will he be a respected actor by then? Some may argue that his work for David Cronenberg already should have earned him respect, but for most people the jury is still out or the memory of Twilight is still too strong. Can we see the future Pattinson here? He has deglamorized himself with an old-school moustache, several layers of grime and a slightly erratic character voice, while what might ungenerously have been called cow eyes a few years back are now capable of a penetrating gaze. Beyond that, it's hard to judge his interpretation of a character of whom his own author seems to lack a clear conception. We learn that Ephraim Winslow isn't what he initially introduced himself as, and the pressures of his situation further assail his sense of self, but neither Pattinson nor the Eggers brothers ultimately can give him the kind of empathetic reality that even characters in psychological horror films require. The problem isn't that we don't care what happens to him, but that we lose interest in the all too-protracted process.

While Eggers fails as a writer this time, he retains a strong directorial eye. Some of the best scenes are relatively simple but well-shot bits of Winslow struggling through his daily chores. If The Lighthouse feels ungrounded in other respects, it does feel grounded in a particular time and place. Strange as it may be to say, while panning this film I left it with the feeling that Eggers, with his firm sense of period and a visceral sensibility, might be the person to bring Cormac McCarthy's horrific western epic Blood Meridian to the screen. In other words, Lighthouse isn't the sort of disaster that exposes its auteur as some sort of fraud or one-trick pony. Instead, it's a failure that leaves much of Eggers' potential as a filmmaker intact, while leaving us hoping he'll find more critical collaborators next time.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD (Der Fluch der grünen Augen, 1964)

Hungarian director Akos Rathonyi filmed this German-Yugoslav production featuring a mostly German cast, along with African-American expatriate John Kitzmiller, who ends up being the most interesting thing about the film. Known as "The Curse of the Green Eyes" in its original language, the movie follows an Interpol inspector (Adrian Hoven) into a village where a serial killer seems to be at work. There's a lot of superstitious suspicion about the deaths of several young women, but the local doctor dismisses the twin puncture marks on the most recent victim's neck as "superficial scratches." The local witch tells a different story, urging Inspector Dorin to carry protection against vampirism. We soon find ourselves in a whoisit as a number of candidates for the role of the killer emerge, including the reclusive professor (Wolfgang Preiss) conducting blood experiments in an old castle, his lovely assistant, his black servant (Kitzmiller) and a belligerent deaf-mute (Emmerich Schrenk) -- and you can throw the aggressively skeptical doctor in, too, if you're in an expansive mood. Meanwhile, Dorin sleeps through a failed vampire attack thanks to the power of the cross, while a persistently disappearing corpse finally separates the doctor from his skepticism.


 Unfortunately for anyone expecting suspense, the perpetrator's true identity isn't that hard to guess, and that lack of suspense only underscores the picture's overall lack of thrills or scares. That leaves only the admirable black and white cinematography by Hrvoje Saric and the subplot involving Kitzmiller's character to admire. It's unusual if not unique for a European vampire film to go off on a tangent about racism, but that's what Rathonyi and his co-writer do here. John, the black servant, serves as sort of a red herring for a while, if only because of his color. He faces in-you-face hatred from the mute, who tosses him out of a tavern despite the innkeeper's own tolearance, and even the witch, otherwise treated as a benign character, mistakes him for a monster when he happens to look into her window one night. The film tries a tricky balancing act, since John is thisclose to being the stereotypical scaredy-cat black servant, but it also shows us that John has real reason to worry, though not so much about the supernatural. This subplot could have been better integrated into the main story; the witch's prejudice might have undermined her credibility with the more cosmopolitan inspector, for instance, maybe making him less likely to adopt her safeguards. As it is it seems all too easy to vanquish the vampires once their lair and leader are identified, but I get the impression that the filmmakers may have seen all the undead stuff as a Macguffin enabling them to say something more interesting about small-town Mitteleuropa. Their message comes across as muddled or muffled, but it's hard to say whether the English dub accurately represents what the creators actually wanted to say. But since the U.S. release was sure to maximize the film's scare quotient, the lack of real scares in that version is pretty damning. Cave isn't a bad film to look at, but I wouldn't make it a high priority when you're scheduling horror movies for Halloween season.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

DVR Diary: THE VALIANT (1929)

Future Oscar-winner Paul Muni made his movie debut in William K. Howard's Fox Film production, adapting a Broadway play. Watching it at the time, you might not have predicted an award in Muni's future. It's not that he's bad in the lead role, but that everyone speaks their lines in that stilted early-talking fashion exemplified by the legendary  "take him ... for ... a ride" from The Lights of New York. No one, it seems, can speak a full sentence without at least one pause, pregnant or otherwise. The artificial cadences are bad enough, but the implausible situation makes things worse. The Valiant is an exercise in the pathos of renunciation that thrilled Twenties audiences. The idea here is that our protagonist, a confessed and convicted murderer who's kept his real identity secret since turning himself in, will not identify himself to his sister when she visits Death Row, their aged, ailing mother suspecting from photos that "James Dyke" (he took his pseudonym from a commercial calendar at the precinct station) is the son she hasn't seen since before the Great War. He's stuck with the Dyke name despite the cops immediately recognizing the fakery in order to avoid disgracing his family, and thinks that his people will be better off believing he'd died long ago rather than say a real goodbye to a murderer. The title tells you what the filmmakers think of this. All of this sets up the centerpiece scene when the sister (Marguerite Churchill) interrogates the prisoner, hoping that he'll betray some memory of their shared youth. Instead, Dyke contrives a story of witnessing her brother's heroic death in the war as a comrade-in-arms. Believing that her boy died a decade ago supposedly will make the old lady feel better than knowing that her daughter got to see and talk to him. That's the psychology at work here, in a time when popular fiction was committed to concepts of honor that seem alien from the almost a century's distance.  Muni can't do much with the material and was clearly still learning how to act for the screen; a few years would pass before he fully figured it out. The film itself is dull and stagebound except for the opening sequence. After the Muni character kills his man offscreen, he staggers onto the street, already remorseful. He looks for a cop to arrest him, wandering through several slices of city life with adults and children going about their business or play with Brueghelian indifference to the protagonist's torment. Ironically, it's in these essentially silent bits that Muni shows promise as a film actor and Howard shows some skill as a director. The rest of the picture has that obsolete quality that doomed so many early talkies to actual oblivion.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

THE GOLEM (2018)

As portrayed by German actor Paul Wegener, the Golem was the first cinematic horror icon. Compared to other iconic monsters, there have been relatively few Golem films, the most notable in English being the 1967 film It! Now an Israeli film, with Doron and Yaov Paz directing Ariel Cohen's script, revives the legend, linking the lore of 17th century Prague with more modern concerns. In this account, a young girl witnesses the destruction of the Prague golem (and its creator) after it had massacred the congregation it was supposed to protect. A generation later, the girl has grown into a midwife and all-around wise woman in an embattled Jewish community in Lithuania. In this same village, Hanna (Hani Furstenburg), has a Yentl-like ambition to learn the Kabbala, volumes of which are smuggled to her in baskets. Hanna's son drowned some years ago and she's been barren ever since -- or so it seems. She's actually taking treatments to suppress pregnancy, but when nearby gentiles blame the Jews for a plague, and their leader threatens the midwife and the village with death if they fail to heal his daughter, Hanna suggests creating a golem for community defense. Against everyone's advice, she performs the ritual herself, but instead of the hulking entity Wegener played, or the shape we saw in the Prague sequence, her golem takes the fleshy form of a young boy, triggering a dangerous maternal instinct in his creator.

Cohen and the Paz brothers reshape the golem myth to fit their thematic concerns and genre ambitions. Hanna develops an empathetic relationship with her golem, feeling the pain it doesn't when it's attacked, while he turns his fury on people, both Jew and gentile, Hanna perceives as threats. When she's unconscious (or preoccupied with sex) the boy golem's own defense instincts kick in. Though the golem looks like a child, it remains a super-strong force of destruction, enabling some cheap and sometimes laughable gore effects. Since the filmmakers didn't have the means to show the boy fighting his enemies, those unfortunates usually get torn to pieces off-screen, their bloody limbs flying across the screen. Better still, this golem is a scanner, causing his foes' heads to explode without touching them. Meanwhile, Hanna goes through the "my precious boy can't be evil" denial arc before the golem's inevitable, indiscriminate attack on villagers and gentile attackers alike forces her to do the necessary thing. That undermines whatever feminist message or other commentary the filmmakers intended while reducing the golem legend to all-too-common horror tropes. The awkward mix of thematic ambition and genre crassness renders this golem film a disappointment and leaves this reader wishing that someone with real ambition and genius would put Marge Piercy's great golem novel (crosscut with science fiction) He, She and It on the big screen. Until then, however, there aren't so many golem movies that people shouldn't try again.