Thursday, October 27, 2016

Guest Review: Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

by Jason

Roland Emmerich, just give it up. You’re done. D-O-N-E. You’ve strip-mined disaster movies of everything they’ve got. You literally have nowhere else to go unless you blow up a whole galaxy. Then again, that might have been a better idea for a film than what we ultimately ended up with.

The Plot

It’s Independence Day all over again. Another alien ship shows up, lots of cities go boom, we fight back but our military is no match for them, we go to Area 51, we hatch a plan to get through the aliens’ defenses, an important character sacrifices himself to help beat the aliens, we win, main characters gather in the desert to celebrate the victory, roll credits. Now imagine all that done half-assed, and you have Independence Day: Resurgence.
The Good

Okay, snark aside, there are some good ideas in this movie. The film’s first act reveals that the war against the aliens started in the first film actually continued for a while in certain areas such as Africa, with a warlord who waged a guerilla war against some of them for a long time. We also learn that David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) has been working with the world’s governments to use alien technology captured from the first invasion to help strengthen the planet’s defenses to the point where they can build a functioning moonbase and fighter planes that can fly in space. Meanwhile, former President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), long bearded and apparently ailing, senses a new ship of aliens is approaching as a side effect of having telepathically linked to them in the first movie. The telepathic warning also reaches a comatose Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner), who wakes up from twenty years after his encounter with the alien in the Area 51 lab and starts writing weird alien symbols all over the wall.
The Bad

Unfortunately, Emmerich doesn’t develop these ideas into anything compelling, mostly because the movie gets swallowed up in rehashing the first movie, only Resurgence doesn’t even do that well. In the first film, we got treated to big city-sized flying saucers shooting down beams that blow away whole cities. Here, we just get another mothership that only wrecks havoc because it’s surrounded by a gravity field that lifts up whole cities as it descends to the planet and then drops them back across the planet. I couldn’t tell whether the aliens were doing this on purpose or if it was just a byproduct of their ship’s arrival. And humanity’s air counterattack against the aliens? Boring and a mess. It’s like Emmerich forgot how to shoot an aerial dogfight scene. I could follow the air battles in the first movie much better.

The movie does introduce some new characters plus new actors that play grown-up roles of two kids from the first movie, but with the exception of Whitmore’s daughter, they’re all bores. Most of the original cast does return, even an ailing Robert Loggia (R.I.P.) who gets a quick cameo at a presidential ceremony in his old role as General Grey, and they pretty much outshine the newbies. There’s a female president played by Sela Ward who makes one big dumb mistake in the course of the film and is later killed by the aliens. That’s pretty much her contribution. Jeff Goldblum is still Jeff Goldblum, just a little older and grayer. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen all the “Goldblumisms” that are worth seeing. Meanwhile, Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s dad is back and he ends up with a subplot so irrelevant it’s shocking that it got past Emmerich. After he survives a tidal wave brought on by the alien ship’s arrival, he dusts himself off, escorts a bus of children through the aftermath of the alien invasion to Area 51…and that’s it! On the other hand, this movie loves Brent Spiner’s Dr. Okun, so if you liked his short role in the first flick, be prepared to have lots more Okun served up in the sequel!

As an aside, the movie dumped Margaret Colin’s Constance Spano (David Levinson’s ex) even though the actress is still very much active and seemed from what I can tell ready to reprise the role. Why? Let’s see. Colin is currently 58 years old, while the actress that plays the new female character that partners with David is 45. Yeah, I think we can draw the expected conclusion here and move on.
How the Aliens Lose

I have to reserve some special scorn for how the human race fights the aliens in this movie. In the first, Goldblum and Smith fly up to the mothership and upload a virus that shuts down the deflector shields on the alien craft and allow the military to take them down. Simple, easy to follow, even if the fact that Goldblum’s laptop can successfully interface with an alien computer left more than a few moviegoers rolling their eyes.

In Resurgence, the strategy is to lure the aliens’ queen out of the mothership so they can kill it, and without the queen, the mothership will stop its attack on Earth and just leave. That’s it. The climax is basically a battle between a giant alien queen who’s the size of a Transformer plus some of her escort fighters. Once she’s dead, the aliens suddenly stop as if they get a mental blue screen of death, pick up, and go. Never mind that their mothership is still fully functional, they just can’t do the job any more. Queen dead, they go bye-bye. I don’t know if I have the words to communicate how both stupid and underwhelming this is.
Time to Hang It Up, Roland

Whatever filmmaking talent Roland Emmerich still possesses ought to go to other kinds of films, because this movie shows he’s completely out of gas when it comes to disaster and mayhem. Actually, I’d say this movie’s failure is a greater symptom of audience fatigue for these kinds of movies as a whole.

When the first Independence Day came out, movie audiences of the time had not seen special effects movies that depicted mass destruction of landmarks and cities, certainly not so realistically. You’d have to go back decades to flicks like War of the Worlds and Earth Versus the Flying Saucers. Usually, mass destruction was a threat that movie heroes could stop in the nick of the time. So when Independence Day depicted an epic war between humanity and an invading alien race, it wasn’t a shock that people flocked to see it.

Now Emmerich has essentially given us the same movie twenty years later and it’s a snoozer. Why? Because mass destruction has been done to death. The Transformers movies have done it. The Marvel movies have done it. The DC movies have done it. Emmerich himself has done it twice, in The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. There’s only so many ways you blow up city streets, buildings and skyscrapers. I’d be shocked if by now Industrial Light and Magic doesn’t have a “blow up a city” computer program to click on demand.

Final Verdict

The first Independence Day was lightning in a bottle. It was a huge success because of its basic alien invasion plot, effects that (largely) still hold up, and a cast that included a few ab-libbers to add some chuckles to the film (notably Hirsch, Smith and Goldblum). But it’s clear all the inspiration was used up for the first film. It’s like in that 20 year gap between films, Emmerich forgot how to put together a cohesive story, so he just rehashed the first one but made it less fun, less understandable and much more underwhelming. If Emmerich truly wanted to make a sequel, he should have done it years ago, and if the sequel hook from this film suggests the kind of film he wanted to build up to, a “let’s go into space and take the fight to the aliens,” thing, there was no reason he couldn’t have done that story then or even now.

Celebrate your Independence Day from this film!
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Monday, October 24, 2016

Monsterpiece Theater: Dracula Films That Keep You Up and Listening to the Children of the Night

by Rustbelt

For most of the 1970’s, vampires were associated with (consequence-) free love and counterculture lifestyles. Count Dracula was turned upside-down and remade into a sexual liberator- a sort of vampiric Timothy Leary, if you will. It seemed as if Bram Stoker’s intention to create a monster symbolizing the pure evil side of human nature had been completely forgotten. This wasn’t helped by a flurry of B-grade horror films in the spirit of Roger Corman that reduced the Count to a campy figure bent on world domination, creating a race of mutant supermen, or... whatever. Of course, the creation of cereal seller Count Chocula, Britain’s animated ‘fowl fiend’ Count Duckula, and Sesame Street’s resident math teacher from the dark side Count von Count didn't help either. As the 1980’s dawned, Count Dracula seemed more at home with King Tut and Egghead from Adam West’s Batman show than the coming likes of Jason Vorhees and Freddy Kreuger.

But, apparently, a few filmmakers decided to read the book and realized the popular story being sold wasn’t what the author had written. With the release of two films, the story of Dracula was about to return to its chilling roots.

Count Dracula (BBC, 1977)

We start with a good one. This version is a mini-series, not a movie per se, so it has the time to show more than the average production and allows things to build. Unfortunately, I can hardly find any background information for it. Even when it was finally released on DVD in 2007, it had no bonus features. So, we’re going to have to jump right into the synopsis.

Unlike most adaptations, this version follows the story very closely. However, it takes advantage of being a miniseries and moves at a much more careful pace. For instance, a great of time is spent in Transylvania. This allows the naïve Jonathan Harker (Bosco Hogan) to walk into the castle of Count Dracula (Louis Jourdan) as an innocent. However, he gradually becomes aware of the Count’s true nature (and his status as a prisoner). His admiration for the Count believably transforms into fear and then into hate. Thus, his overwhelming desire to destroy the Count feels more natural, rather than forced. This miniseries also has the most effective use of the scene where the Brides eat the baby Dracula gives them- a complete inversion of motherhood that lurks behind pretty faces.
The scene then shifts back to England, where many of the subplots of the story are largely left intact. These include Renfield’s (Jack Shepherd) bargain with Dracula, which he eventually renounces. Lucy (Susan Penhaligon) has time for her relationship with Quincy Holmwood to grow; making it hurt even more when Dracula kills her. The filmmakers also keep Harker and Van Helsing’s (Frank Finlay) quest to find Dracula’s boxes of Transylvanian earth, which I think demonstrates Van Helsing’s detective skills to a greater degree.
There are other nice touches, such as the coachman at the Borgo Pass (actually the Count in disguise), handing Harker a flask of slivovitz (plum brandy) to hold off chills from the cold night. Castle Dracula is also almost exactly how I pictured it from the book: thick, Roman-esque walls, tiny hallways, and a dirty, unkempt, decayed, claustrophobic appearance. Renfield is also shown gathering his flies and spiders to fill his zoophagous (that is, life-devouring) habit. Nothing really too rushed or drawn out. That being said, there are a few issues. The first is Susan Penhaligon’s vampire screeching, which could has the potential to break a mirror. And there’s the horrific character of Qunicy Holmwood (Richard Barnes). We’ll get to him in a second.
Dracula: Louis Jourdan

Film fans (and, certainly, Commentarama fans), probably know Jourdan best as the slimy, yet refined Bond villain Kamal Khan from Octopussy. Here, Jourdan puts his classy demeanor to work for great effect. Jourdan’s Count is brooding and calculating. He never loses his temper, always knowing that he has the upper hand. (One Internet article called him the ‘thinking man’s Dracula.’) This time, there is no effort to make the Count romantic. His cruelty is on full display as he taunts Harker and nearly lets him be devoured by wolves when Harker tries to leave the castle through the main door. He also ridicules Van Hesling’s use of the crucifix, accusing the professor of hiding behind a tool of humiliation and execution (recalling the Roman’s use of the cross). It really takes all of Van Helsing’s faith to hold his poise and declare that Christ had made the cross a symbol of triumph; as a lesser man may have lost some nerve.

The script also allows for Jourdan to justify Dracula’s existence, saying he does nothing more than feed and create needed servants, which is simply as natural to his nature as a person eating an animal. Here, I would say Dracula truly takes on a satanic mode. His attempts to justify his own evil mirror that of the devil trying to justify sin through either natural desires or jealousy of God. This is a Dracula who always seems to be prepared for his foes. The only thing missing- as noted by Internet reviewer Obsessed Movie Man- is the Count’s trademark rage towards humanity that often shows when he sees blood. However, I don’t think it hurts the performance. Jourdan portrays an immortal vampire who doesn’t care about frivolous human things wants and desires and instead pursues his own agenda.
A (Mostly) Strong Cast

Frank Finlay is one of the strongest Van Helsings ever. He balances the character’s eccentricity and professional approach with grace. He approaches things as a scientist, but isn’t afraid to reach a conclusion of supernatural activity. However, his empathy and deep-rooted Christian faith is also on full display, making him the perfect foil for Jourdan’s Dracula. His presence and courage come through and make the viewer understand why he leads charge against the Count. Other notables include Hogan as Harker. He truly captures the cowardly character forced to find his own courage and defend the woman he loves. Jack Shepherd is also good as Renfield. He is quite believable as an asylum inmate, and his eventual renunciation of Dracula is deeply satisfying.
Some liberties had to be taken, mainly making Mina (Judi Bowker) and Lucy sisters instead of best friends. But the bottom of the barrel is Quincy Holmwood. Richard plays a combination of Arthur Holmwood the Texan Quincy P. Morris, who works at the American consulate. Barnes gives one of the worst Texan accents ever recorded and it nearly ruins several scenes. Britain’s revenge for Dick van Dyke as Burt in Mary Poppins?
The Count’s True Nature

Despite Jourdan’s Count trying to justify himself, this miniseries shows the Count for what he is. Just to drive the point that Dracula is not a romantic character, Dracula is shown using hypnosis- a date rape drug, in other words- to get Lucy’s attention after using his wolf form to shock her mother, killing her via heart attack. He then has his way with Lucy. Later, he uses hypnosis on Mina to get her to drink his blood and begin turning her into a vampire. In the book, Dracula does this to create a mental connection with Mina (so he knows what the men will try to do to kill him), and to destroy her in order to personally hurt the men hunting him. Not exactly romantic. In fact, when the Count leaves and Mina snaps out of her trance, she screams in agony at what she’s done and what’s been done to her. If this isn’t vampire rape, I don’t what is.
This is the Count’s true nature. Evil and diabolical. (At least here, Jonathan was asleep under the Count’s control. In the book, it’s inferred he might have been awake and forced to watch Dracula molest his wife.)

Full Movie (please forgive the Portuguese subtitles; it’s the best one I could find)

Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht (Phantom of the Night), a.k.a. Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, München, 1979)

Now, when I say ‘art movie,’ what jumps into your head? Over-the-top symbolism? Prodding pretentiousness? A script designed so that only the director can understand it?- and then taunt you for not being smart enough to understand it? Well, I don’t know about you, but that’s what I think of. Fortunately, here we have an art movie that you can- have I used this line yet? I forget- sink your teeth into.

Bidding Homage to a True Classic

This movie is the result of director Werner Herzog’s desire to re-make and perform reverence to the F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Dracula adaptation, Nosferatu. In order to make everything as authentic as possible, Herzog wanted to film on the same locations, but the East German government wouldn’t let him cross the border and make the film in Wismar. Stupid communists. Herzog proceeded anyway with a few obvious changes. First, he shot the film in color as opposed to black and white. Second, with Dracula now in public domain, Herzog used the characters’ original names as opposed to those from the 1922 plagiarized version. And third, at the request of American distributor 20th Century Fox, the film was shot in both German and English. No Toho-style dubbing here.

I had hoped to view the German version with subtitles (my German’s really rusty) as the filmmakers consider that to be the more “authentic” version. (They just put more effort into that one, I suppose.) However, lack of a copy and time left me reviewing the English version. Well, here we go.
Returning to Wismar

The plot keeps most of the deviations the original 1922 film made. The real changes are what director Herzog added to enhance the feel of the story. This starts with a blood-curdling shot of decaying bodies in states of torment as the opening titles flash and an eerie, unsettling choir plays in the background. (For the sake of your stomach, I won’t post any pictures of this.)
From there, Harker (Bruno Ganz) travels to Transylvania. This time, the innkeepers don’t just try to keep him from going to the castle, they take him to a band of gypsies who have been ‘on the other side’ of the Pass in the hopes that their stories will keep Harker away. Then Harker and Dracula (Klaus Kinski) play out many of the same scenes originally shown between Hutter and Count Orlok. In both the castle and the ship, Herzog recreates several classic images of the vampire, but doesn’t go too far. Later, the Count arrives on the boat in Wismar and releases thousands of rats in the city. Just as in the previous film, the plague is blamed for the sudden increase in deaths. Unlike the first film, the city is shown decaying as the population dies off.
SPOILERS: The final addition comes at the end. After Harker’s wife, Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) sacrifices herself to trick Dracula into exposing himself to sunlight, Van Helsing (Walter Ladengast) stakes him. The vampire’s body doesn’t disintegrate this time. However, Harker, who returned from Transylvania, accuses Van Helsing of murder. The professor is arrested by the lone surviving city official. Then, Harker, now sporting Dracula’s rat-like teeth and bulging eyes, says he has “much to do” and heads off to the Count’s castle.
Dracula: Klaus Kinski

We last saw Herr Klinski as Renfield in the Franco version of Dracula. Here, he’s been promoted from the Count’s slave to the Count himself. And he does a near perfect imitation of Max Shreck while sporting the original actor’s makeup. For the most part, Kinski moves slowly and deliberately, which is fitting for the film’s pace. For most movies, this could easily become a campy way to act. However, here it works. For instance, when Dracula bites Harker for the second time, he descends on Harker slowly, knowing there is no way for Harker to escape. Of course, the audience knows this, too. It makes the attack all the more unsettling. Kinski’s moaning and breathing (yes, the vampire breathes here, but it actually adds to the atmosphere so it gets a pass), make Dracula more animalistic, as though he can’t control himself. There’s also an attempt to portray the loneliness that an immortal, yet disgusting, creature must endure. In Wismar, the Count tries to demand that Lucy love him the way she loves Jonathan. When she rebukes him, the subplot seems to fall off. I think it was a nice idea, but unnecessary.
Of Mummies and Music

The opening shots of this movie feature the infamous mummies of Guanajuato, Mexico. These are the remains of victims of a massive cholera outbreak in 1833. Many of the bodies, which mummified naturally due to the climate, were disinterred and stored elsewhere over disputes involving burial taxes between 1870 and 1958. Many of the mummies- macabre and seemingly frozen in a state of torment- are now on display in a museum, and caused none less a visiting luminary than Ray Bradbury to want to get out of Mexico as fast as possible. During the opening shot, a haunting chorus groans softly in the background. The chorus is played several times in the film, always when the Count, or his effects, is on the move. It’s a good non-verbal cue that indicates death and destruction are coming. Herzog adds to the operatic feeling with several Richard Wagner pieces which perfectly compliment the chorus.
The Plague

Vampires are harbingers of death and often associated with outbreaks. No movie stresses that more then this one. Thousands of rats leave the ship after Dracula arrives. Within days, Wismar is awash in death due to the presence of the Count. Coffins pile up in the town square, the entire government and police are killed, anarchy reigns, rats cover the city like rain, and people try to revel one last time before their time comes, too. The whole thing reminded me of medieval drawings of the Black Death, which is fitting since the city itself seems to be dying.
Lucy the Heroine

Whether Harker’s wife is Lucy or Mina, depending on the adaptation, the character has never had more to do than in this film. Like the 1922, original, Lucy sleepwalks and feels terror as her husband is assaulted by the vampire several countries away. And here she again sacrifices herself to stop the Count. Only this time, in between those scenes, she leads a one-woman charge to convince her fellow city folk that a vampire, not the plague, is responsible for what’s happening. Her efforts are, of course, in vain, though she does manage to convince Van Helsing of what’s really happening. And it’s through her eyes that we see the decay of Wismar in its streets and city center. We feel her frustration and realize she may be the only hope for stopping the monster. You could also say she manipulates Dracula, since after rebuffing his advances, she knows he lusts for her and then uses that against him to draw him out into the sunlight. It’s an interesting enhancement of the original film and a fascinating, yet relatable take on a character that normally stays in the background.

Full Movie (English version)

Vampires: So What Are They and How Do You Kill Them?

Today, vampires are often depicted as sexy in a ghoulish way. And if the last 20 years are any indication, they split their time between drinking, rolling in ze hay because their immortality leaves them in a beautiful, coitus-prone state forever, and playing awful tricks on us uncool mortals. At least, that’s how Hollywood’s sex-and-youth-obsessed writers and directors would have us believe. (And, yes, I blame this entirely on Joss Whedon.) The reality is much, much different. Death is the one thing all men and women fear and all of us are fated to eventually face. As such, nearly all cultures have tried to put a face on death, creating a litany of legends about monsters that come back from the dead to prey on and torture the living:
Upier/Wampyr (Poland), Izcacus (Hungary), Vrykolakas (Greece), Strigoi mort (Romania, male) Strigoaică (Romania, female), Nosferatu (unknown)
For this article’s purposes, we’ll focus on the myths originating from (mostly eastern) Europe. And I must warn you now, dear reader, that many of these details are not for the timid. Continue at your own discretion and peril.
In classical folklore, vampires are corpses that have come back to bring pain, suffering, and death upon their friends and relatives. And when I say ‘corpses,’ I don’t mean beautiful people with pale complexions. Vampires of folklore are emaciated beings. They have darker skin, long, protruding teeth and fingernails, bulbous eyes, little (if any) hair, a bloated body shape, and blood oozing from the mouth, nose, and eyes. Simply put, they are the very embodiment of death.

So, where does this appearance come from? It comes from the natural appearance of a corpse. Today, we live in a world where we seek to put the best face on- and distance ourselves from- death. Embalming and modern burial standards have removed many of the more gruesome aspects of death. Unembalmed, the outer skin of a corpse disintegrates, leaving the thicker, darker (dermal) layer exposed. This, combined with recession of the muscles, causes the teeth and nails to appear longer. And as the organs decay, gases build up in the body, causing it bulge out. Eventually, these gases force their way through any available orifice- mouth, eyes, etc. It’s not hard to see medieval people without modern knowledge opening coffins and believing their loved ones had become monsters.
Now, we must ask where these beliefs came from. As mentioned, such legends are common across the globe. But there can be more specific origins for the vampire in Europe. Much of the folklore has been traced to the Middle Ages. Vampires were often blamed when people began dying en masse; particularly during the onset of the Black Death (bubonic and pneumonic plague), in the 14th century. Surviving records tell us that it would always start with one person becoming sick with the dreaded black splotches on their skin. Then, gradually, more and more would fall ill, as though a specter of evil had fallen on the town like a mist. Chroniclers in cities like Venice, Paris, Rome, Cologne, and others tell of the dead and dying piling up in the streets; of the stench of decay that permeated everything; and the struggle to bury the hundreds of bodies as quickly as they could. It’s possible that some of these unfortunate victims, not being clinically dead, tried to escape their coffins just before burial- increasing belief in the undead.
Identifying and destroying vampires was a careful practice in folklore. Digging up graves was tiresome, not to mention psychologically and spiritually demoralizing as well. In the case of plague, the first victims would be the first corpses to be examined. More specifically, people who had been murdered, committed suicide, or died violent deaths were likely candidates. Those believed to be vampire victims were also suspect, as their deaths had left them in a restless state as well. There are, of course, more obscure ways to become the undead- such as being the seventh child of the same sex in a family, die without being married, or be executed for perjury. (Romania) Or one could become a wraith-like beast that, unable to part with its worldly goods, attacks anyone who comes close to its burial mound. (Iceland) Sometimes a lack of rigor mortis in a corpse was a sign of impending vampirism.
This leads to the need to destroy vampires. And just like the movies, various regions of folklore have many ways to accomplish this. The traditional stake in the heart (Slavic Europe), works only with the vampire in the grave. (It pins the creature to the ground.) Other methods include decapitation, cutting out the heart and burning it, burning the body, and burying the corpse upside-down (so it will forever dig out in the wrong direction). Protection from vampires also varied. Since vampires were associated with Satan, symbols of Christ- crucifixes, rosaries, holy water- were used to ward them off. Garlic was widely used, often hung or rubbed on windows and entryways. Its usefulness comes from the Latin phrase simila similibus curantur (“similar things are cured by similar things”). The rationale was that, since vampires are corpses covered in the strong stench of decay, the strong-smelling herb could cancel them out. Sharp things, such as knives and roses (for their thorns), have been used to drive off vampires. In fact, sickles were sometimes buried with suspected vampires to decapitate them in their graves when they tried to sit up.

The folklore fight against the undead wasn’t just about destroying suspected monsters. It was about keeping death at bay so that the living could enjoy life and live their lives to the fullest, with death coming only in advanced age and the soul moving on into the afterlife. Vampires were a perversion of this process, spreading death as by a plague to destroy humanity before it could grow and prosper, with victims barred from eternal rest and forced to spread the misery. No pleasures of life. No fulfillment. Not a condition we humans would ever envy.

A Few Bonuses!

-The BBC Documentary I mentioned a few articles back:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

-Vincent Price’s Dracula! (You can’t go wrong with a host like this.)
-The many first meetings of Dracula. (See how the clips compare.)
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Friday, October 21, 2016

Guest Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

by ScottDS

[sigh] Okay, here it is. Was it worth all the trouble and the hate and the exabytes of thinkpieces and blog comments? To put it bluntly: NO!! I chuckled a couple times and I laughed out loud once near the end. That’s about it. So let’s take a look at the Biggest Political Football of 2016, aka a movie that was liked by few and disliked by many.

Please note: there will be spoilers, and a few uncensored curse words. Starting now. The misogynists and the trolls can go fuck themselves. Not just because they suck (they do), but because they make regular geeks like me look bad! Those of us who didn’t like the film deserve better than to be lumped in with these losers.

And the studio PR people and the filmmakers can go fuck themselves for courting the controversy instead of taking the high road. Those of us who didn’t like the film have legitimate reasons for doing so and deserve better than to be lumped in with the aforementioned losers. Between this and screwing up Spider-Man (twice!), Columbia Pictures deserves whatever happens to it. (Uh, unless that “whatever” is good, in which case it doesn’t.)
Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) is up for tenure at Columbia University. Her childhood friend Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) has re-published a book they wrote – and Gilbert disowned – years earlier on the paranormal. Gilbert visits Yates and her eccentric co-worker Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and the three of them soon find themselves encountering a ghost at an old mansion. Embarrassing footage of the event ends up online, Gilbert is fired, and Yates and Holtzmann are thrown out of their institution as well. They decide to start their own agency: they rent an office above a Chinese restaurant, they hire a moronic assistant (Kevin, played by Chris Hemsworth), and they call themselves Conductors of the Metaphysical Examination. They’re soon joined by MTA worker/amateur historian Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) who has recently encountered a ghost herself.

The ghosts are being summoned by a… weirdo named Rowan (Neil Casey). He’s been bullied his whole life and wants to see the world end. The climax takes place in and around Times Square. After possessing Kevin, Rowan takes the form of the Ghostbusters’ logo (which is originally seen as graffiti in the subway). The ladies use the nuclear reactor aboard the Ecto-1 to close Rowan’s dimensional portal. A defeated Rowan manages to drag Abby with him but Erin jumps in and comes to the rescue. So all’s well that ends well. The mayor’s office decides to privately support and fund the team even though they have to disdain their work in public to avoid a panic. And I stopped caring an hour ago.
The movie could’ve been titled something else and the whole thing would’ve been forgotten about. Like most comedies made today, it’s way too bright and sterile, the jokes are either too long or poorly shot or over-explained (or some combination of the three), there’s so much meaningless technobabble that I thought I was watching a bad Trek episode, and the backstory is boring and useless. There’s nothing “New York” about the movie, possibly because most of it was shot in Boston. The whole thing walks a fine line between half-baked homage and full-on parody. I’ll try not to compare it too much to the original but when the filmmakers go out of their way to include references and cameos, well, I guess I can’t help but compare.

So… the backstory. Who cares? Ray and Egon were interested in the paranormal, Peter was a fraud but Dana gave him a reason to care, and Winston was your average no-nonsense everyman who wanted a paycheck. That’s all we needed to know. And while Bill Murray was great at the whole ironic self-aware thing, he could also play sincere and we believed him. He sold it. Wiig and McCarthy can’t sell it. I’m sorry to say this, especially since Wiig can be a very good actress (see The Skeleton Twins or Welcome to Me). I bought the friendship but I couldn’t buy them as serious scientists nor could I buy them as scared. The whole time I kept asking, “Who gives a shit?!”

The original is such a unique blend of humor and horror that if a studio exec asked me to remake Ghostbusters, as much as I want to play in that playground, I’d say no. In fact, the former head of Sony Pictures reportedly asked several filmmakers, “Why do all of you keep turning this down?” To them, it was sacred ground. Paul Feig’s opinion was basically, “They’re gonna remake it. It might as well be remade by someone who cares.” But I’m not so sure he did. And since I’m not a fan of his films anyway (his TV work was excellent, though), it’s a moot point.
Anyway, the two better actresses are McKinnon and Jones. Jones comes off very well as your average no-nonsense everywoman. Yes, all the stupid jokes from the trailer are in the movie, but she’s actually convincing when faced with a ghost. And I feel terrible for all the shit she’s been through in the Twitterverse. McKinnon, as mentioned in other reviews, is in her own universe… and I want to live there. The one laugh-out-loud moment I had was one of her lines and she does a better job with the babble, but it’s still mostly useless. I love her look and you know what? This movie would’ve been so much better as a 90-minute buddy comedy with Jones and McKinnon. By the way, I watched the extended cut of this film: the original 1984 film managed to be a hundred times more coherent and entertaining while also being 30 minutes shorter!!

The rest of the cast is way too over-qualified or doesn’t belong at all. Andy Garcia plays the mayor and his presence proves the idea that dramatic actors are oftentimes better at comedy than comedians. But he’s only in it for five minutes. Charles Dance is Wiig’s superior and he’s way too good for this movie. But this leads me to another problem: nearly everyone has schtick, they’re all going for the punchline… it would be like populating the original’s supporting cast with the likes of Harvey Korman and Dom DeLuise. (Actually, that might be kinda awesome!)

We see familiar faces like Silicon Valley’s Zach Woods and MADtv’s Michael McDonald (to be fair, Veep’s Matt Walsh got a chuckle out of me) and it made me think of the original where the guys were the only ones allowed to be funny, plus Rick Moranis. Not everyone needs to be “the funny one.” There’s no Dana character to ground this movie – everyone’s a comedian! It gets old and it’s why there’s a lack of authenticity to anything. And once again, I can tell when the actors are improvising because it’s the material that could easily be cut without affecting the rest of the story. Look, I sympathize – I wrote part of a screenplay in high school and ended up with a 200-page first act! But when did filmmakers, especially comedy filmmakers, forget how to edit?!
Rowan the villain is pretty ill-defined. So he wants to watch the world burn. Fine. Go with it. Make him like the Joker… but he was a victim of bullying and he’s into the occult… and that’s really it. The use of “ley lines” was appreciated but I missed the original’s use of real history to tie things together. Not to mention the rules of this world are pretty inconsistent: some ghosts let people pass through them while others are… solid?

And yes, there are a few anti-male jokes… look, I wasn’t offended BUT it was enough to make me notice, and enough to make my friend give up after 15 minutes. (And my friend is no activist – politically, he’s basically in the “Fuck ‘Em All Party.”) Now was this material added after the controversy? In the script or ad-libbed on set? I don’t know. But I do know you don’t have to make your heroes look good by badmouthing someone else. And in this case, that someone else is me!

Of course, I don’t have to vent my frustration on Twitter like some assholes. [wink]
And finally, the cameos. A bored Bill Murray shows up as a skeptic and is done after one scene. Dan Aykroyd is a cab driver who gets an iconic tagline, but it’s more sad than anything else. Ernie Hudson (ageless!) shows up at the end as Jones’ uncle. Annie Potts is a hotel clerk who gets to reprise one of her iconic lines. Sigourney Weaver shows up as Holtzmannn’s mentor and it’s worth it just for her bizarro look, but her dialogue is awful. And Harold Ramis appears as a bust sitting on a shelf. Speaking of Murray, we see a clip of a Ghost Hunters-type show at the beginning and you think it might pay off later. Nope. In the trailer, we see Times Square revert to its gritty 1970s form. Does this pay off? Nope! And Rowan asks the Ghostbusters to choose a form for him, à la Gozer in the original. Except there’s no motivation for it at all.

This is where I get off. I know I can’t convince you of anything and I didn’t like it enough to even give it a half-assed recommendation like I did with Battleship a few years ago! Better to put this all behind us. They most likely won’t make a sequel but if they do, they could use Max Landis’ treatment which involves a multi-gendered team (real equality!) and other Ghostbusters franchises from across the country. Better yet, they could hire Leslye Headland to write and direct the film. She did an indie comedy I like titled Bachelorette (better than Bridesmaids imho) and she can write and direct a good joke! Is that too much to ask of a comedy?

P.S. The film’s most egregious sin? Thanks to a product placement deal, the ladies eat Papa John’s pizza. In New York City!
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Monday, October 17, 2016

Monsterpiece Theater: Dracula Films That Hate the Source Material

by Rustbelt

Remember when Andrew took a bullet for the team and reviewed Twilight? Well, this week I took not one, but two silver bullets and, by the end, I was begging to be vanquished by the dawn.

A few years ago, fellow film aficionado tryanmax reviewed Hotel Transylvania. In the comments, he and I discussed several adaptations of Dracula and he sent me a link for reviews he had done on various Dracula films. You can read his reviews HERE. We both agreed that one of the films I’m looking at here didn’t like the book; hence the inspiration for today’s review.

There’s been a noticeable trend in recent decades to not only alter the plot of Dracula, but to basically defecate all over Bram Stoker’s legacy. In Interview With the Vampire, Anne Rice (through her characters), claims that Stoker had no idea what he was talking about. Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000 had the Van Helsing character refer to the novel as the “ravings of an Irish madman.” So, why all the hatred for the man who wrote a great story and pretty much established the vampire genre as a literary staple? Sadly, I don’t know, but I can tell you with full confidence that Dracula will still be talked about long after Louis, Lestat, and Freddy Kreuger are long forgotten.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (a.k.a. Dan Curtis’ Dracula) (Latglen Ltd., 1973)

This TV film is the brainchild of director Dan Curtis. Curtis was the producer of the 60’s supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows. One of that show’s main characters was Barnabas Collins, an 18th-Century vampire who had come back to find his long-lost love. It seems Curtis believed in the old adage of, “if it worked once, why not again?” So, he decided to update the story of Count Dracula by adding a love story and making the King of Vampires a tragic figure. What went wrong? The answer is: “Everything!”

The film starts with one of the most rushed Transylvania scenes of all time. The film jumps from Bistritz to the carriage ride to Borgo Pass to Castle Dracula in almost record time. Then, in even less time, Harker (Murray Brown) and the Count (Jack Palance) complete the business deal, Harker is trapped, and the brides attack and kill Harker. It all happens at breakneck speed (if that’s a pun, I’m fine with it).
The odd part with all of this is that after the hurry-up feel to relocate the story from Transylvania to England, (the wrecking of the ship Demeter and Dracula killing its crew is finished in seconds), everything almost grinds to a halt.

Basically, Dracula saw a picture of Lucy (Fiona Lewis) that Harker had on him and found her to look exactly like his long-dead wife. Believing she’s the reincarnation of his lost love, Dracula seeks her out to vamp her and live wickedly ever after. Of course, the plan is thwarted when Dr. Van Helsing (Nigel Davenport) and Arthur Holmwood (Simon Ward) stake Lucy in the crypt. In an act of jealous revenge, Dracula goes after Harker’s fiancée, Mina (Penelope Horner), while the men stand around and do nothing. The chase ensues and ends in the castle with Van Helsing stunning the Count with sunlight and impaling him with a spear. Credits roll. Oh, yeah. And Harker got turned into a vampire, attacks Arthur, trips, falls, and get impaled on a stalagmite. You know how it is.
Dracula: Jack Palance

In researching for this film, I was surprised to learn that Palance was widely sought after at the time to play Dracula in several potential adaptations. This was a shock because he just didn’t look comfortable in the role. Palance is best known for playing tough guys, either unhinged or just about to lose it. Here, he seems to be holding back in just about everything he does. He wants to yell at Harker, but doesn’t. He wants to seduce Lucy, but just doesn’t pull it off. He wants to be angry, but acts like he’s trying to build up the desire to do so. He just seems completely miscast. Harrison Ford in K-19 The Widowmaker miscast? Not quite. But not too far from it, either.
But if you like surprises, try this one: while searching around Youtube, I came across an obscure interview with Christopher Lee. When asked who his favorite Dracula was, he said it was…Jack Palance! Well, that certainly was a shock. I’ll just try to comfort myself with Lee’s performances and try to forget this opinion.
Yes! The Script Annoys Me! Yes! The Direction Annoys Me! And, Yes! You, Movie, Annoy Me!

As I said, this films hurries to cover Transylvania and get it over with. Exactly why befuddles me. All the interesting stuff happens in Transylvania. The England scenes drag on forever with little, if anything, happening. Even the novel’s most interesting character, Van Helsing, is dumbed down, going from a Danish eccentric to a common British bore. This is also the first film to try to connect the Count with a certain 15th-century Wallachian Prince. Flashbacks show him in love with his lady love and then being dragged away by guards as the poor girl lies in a pool of blood in her bed. It all leads up to… nothing. Just a light mention in the end credits. WHAT?! That’s supposed to the whole crux for making the Count a tragic figure instead of a demon! It all builds up and then goes poof! Bad enough they change the character, but they don’t even finish the job! What I oughta…

Was this some TV screenwriter giving it his first major push? Nope. The screenwriter was Richard Matheson! Remember him? He’s the author of I Am Legend, Hell House, and 16 episodes of the Twilight Zone? How could he be so bad here? I have no answers at this point. Just the perplexed act of scratching my head.
There are other questionable decisions too. Castle Dracula looks pretty well kept, rather than the above-ground tomb it’s supposed to be. The rooms look like they could be in an any English castle or American plantation mansion. Even the crypt reminds me of an American colonial wine cellar. Also, Dracula greets Harker wearing a 1970’s style Victorian tuxedo before later switching to his all-black outfit. And did I mention the music? Well, with the Count searching for his reincarnated love, most of the soundtrack consists of what sounds like a little girl’s music box mixed with a fifth-grader learning to play the flute for the first time.
But the biggest sin is outright theft. This film steals a lot from the Hammer version. This includes killing and vampirizing Harker; making Holmwood a more prominent character; tracing Dracula’s coffins; and Van Helsing ripping the curtains down to expose the Count to sunlight. I guess it just goes to show that some ideas only work in the hands of people who know what they’re doing.

BTW: This movie was supposed to premiere on TV in October, 1973. However, President Richard Nixon took over the time slot that night to announce that Spiro Agnew had resigned the Vice Presidency. Maybe we can just blame this whole thing on Nixon.

Dracula (Mirisch Corporation/Universal, 1979)

Okay, so we’re going back to the silver screen with Dr. Loomis from Halloween, the Nazi who asked, “is it safe?” from Marathon Man, the actress who almost won an Oscar for The Prince of Tides, and Skeletor from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. This will be good! Right? Right???

Definitely a Product of the Times

From what I’ve read, director John Badham got the idea for this movie while watching Langella star in a revival of the Deane-Balderson play based on the novel. (That’s the same play that inspired the 1931 Universal version.) It seems Langella’s performance was very sexually charged, and Badham chose to make a love story the focus of the film.
And although I can’t say it belongs to this genre for certain, there is a very strong American New Wave feeling to this movie. The genre is characterized by a gritty, more realistic feel along with inverting traditional characters; thus making the usual heroes into annoyances and fools, while changing traditional villains into misunderstood anti-heroes.
(It’s also worth noting that screenwriter James V. Hart saw the play and wrote his own version that eventually ended up in the hands of Francis Ford Coppola.)
This movie is what happens when hippies take control of the production. Just about everything from the novel has been turned upside down. First, the Demeter lands in Whitby. Yeah, why skim the Transylvania scenes when you can just skip them entirely? Count Dracula (Frank Langella) arrives at the home of Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasance), whose upper levels are a mansion and lower levels are his personal asylum. Talk about Upstairs and Downstairs! It’s as if the good doctor bought Downton Abbey and used it to lock up all the fans who went stark-raving mad when the series ended.
The Count takes a fancy to Lucy Seward, but, after witnessing her in a late-night rendezvous with fiancée Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve), he settles on Mina Van Helsing (Jan Francis) for a snack. Mina dies and her father, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier), arrives and diagnoses vampire attack. He and Seward later encounter the undead Mina and are forced to destroy her.
Dracula then goes full lovesick vampire and pursues Lucy. The two share several moments of passion, including a full psychedelic scene created by Maurice Binder. (The guy responsible for the opening credits of many James Bond films.) The rest of the film consists of Harker and Van Helsing trying to kill Dracula while Lucy does everything she can to protect the Count.
Dracula: Frank Langella

An alternate title for this film could be Dracula Goes Casanova. That is exactly how he’s portrayed. He’s the Hollywood hunk who has come to free poor English girls engaged to successful men who might suffer from the crime of being slightly less exciting in bed. Langella himself refused to wear fangs (though vampire Mina and Lucy do), and said that he thought of the Count not as a monster, but as an aristocrat with the problem of needing to drink blood. In other words, the Count isn’t a bad guy and shouldn’t be judged as good or evil. This has the effect of rendering Seward, Harker, and Van Helsing as the real monsters for not letting Dracula just be himself. And this is where my main problem with this film lies.
Just as the Jack Palance version tried to make Dracula tragic, Langella’s Count is a liberator. Lucy is, of course, repressed and kept from his wonderful counterculture lifestyle by those silly values and mores society forces on her. So, instead of being portrayed as a horrible state of living death, vampirism is now cool as heck! This goes against everything in the book. Vampire sex (the act of biting) isn’t a state of pleasure; it’s an act of murder that creates another murderer. (As opposed to normal sex, which is supposed to create a new life.) But the filmmakers see it as free love without the nasty potential side effects of pregnancy or STD’s. Dracula, therefore, is the rebellious be-sandled counterculture figure leading the revolt against fuddy-duddy traditionalists like Harker and Van Helsing. In short, this is how hippies would rewrite the story of Dracula.
Why This Movie Doesn’t Work

This film has many defenders. They call it “stylish and sexy.” They also say it adds new depth, new directions, revitalizes old topes, blah, blah, blah. In other words, the kind of stuff Roger Ebert probably wrote in his review (which I didn’t bother or care to read).

I’m sure most of these would take offense to my Puritan swipe at this movie. They’d probably also point out some horrific effects of Dracula’s presence. These include the sailors Dracula murders in grisly fashion; Mina’s decayed vampire state; Olivier’s Van Helsing breaking down in tears as he holds the vampire body of his daughter before he destroys her (Olivier was reportedly very sick during production and his castmates were amazed that he finished the shoot); and- most disturbingly of all- the woman running through asylum after Mina kills her infant and the subsequent shot of the dead baby in a pool of blood. I’m sure these defenders would say these scenes show vampirism as evil and that that’s enough.
No, it’s not. You see. All of that is undone by the ending. In the film’s climax aboard a boat bound for Transylvania, a dying Van Helsing stabs the Count with a hook that Harker wheels up through the cargo hatch and into the sunlight, burning Dracula and supposedly killing him. Lucy’s face loses its fangs and red eyes and all seems right with the world. However, Drac’s body floats off like a kite and Lucy longingly smiles at it. In other words, after all the people Dracula has hurt or destroyed- including Lucy’s father- the filmmakers are essentially saying that the Count is the best and most fulfilling man Lucy could ever have.
It’s not about life and death, people. It’s only about sex. Drac’s victims were acceptable losses in the battles against repressive 1890’s/1950’s-style authority. I suppose if this movie had a moral, it would be along the lines of, “if only those repressed, small-minded fools wouldn’t hunt those noble, misunderstood vampires, the world would be a better place.” That’s what I think.
Dracula: Who Are You?

So, who is Dracula? Where did Stoker get the idea- and name- for his legendary character? Well, according to Sir Christopher Frayling, who studied Stoker’s notes for the novel now held at the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia, the inspiration for the name came during a holiday in Whitby, England. During a typical rainy day during a typical English summer, Stoker stopped at the town’s museum and philosophical society to read through the books and old newspapers for tidbits of inspiration. From one of those papers, he learned about the Demitri, a Russian schooner that crashed on a Whitby beach a few years earlier in a storm. (Thus the arrival of the Count on the Demeter in the novel.) However, he also came across a book called An Account of the Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. He copied down several sinister-sounding words for reference. One of those words was ‘Dracula’- a Romanian word for ‘devil,’ sometimes given to warriors who displayed great courage or cunning. (Gotta admit: it’s better than the original name, Count Wampyr.)

Now, that might be enough by itself. But 25 years earlier, two Boston College professors, Raymond McNally and Radu Florescu, read between the lines of the novel and went to Transylvania- modern-day Romania- to investigate. What they discovered was a man who used the surname and could have been the inspiration.
Vald III of Wallachia was born in 1448. At a young age, his father, Vlad Dracul, left him and his brother, Radu, as political hostages at the court of Ottoman Sultan Murad II as insurance against Turkish invasion. Six years later, after the deaths of his father and eldest brother, Vlad returned home and became Voivode- ‘sovereign’ or ‘military leader’- of Wallachia. Vlad was quickly thrown out by the local boyars (Romanian nobles) and it was eight years before he took the throne again. And that’s where the terror began.
Vlad captured all of his boyar rivals and worked them to death, building a commanding fortress, Castle Poenari, on the Transylvanian border. This was followed by rounding up all of the poor thieves, murderers, and other criminals on the pretext of giving them a feast- only to then set the building on fire. (He seems to have favored the middle class.) From that point on, he ruled absolutely, with all criminals being sentenced to the fate for which he was best known- impalement. This act of execution- running a spear through the abdomen and then setting the victim up on the stake- was kind of a poor man’s crucifixion. It was horrible. It was humiliating. And, worst of all, it was slow death. Thousands were killed in this manner by Vlad- including six thousand Turkish prisoners in the so-called ‘field of the impaled’ as a warning to the Ottoman sultan- and it earned him his nickname- Vlad Tepes (“the Impaler”).
Vlad’s reign ended after an ultimately unsuccessful guerrilla war against the Turks and several sorties into Transylvania against powerful German forces that he thought threatened his rule. He was then imprisoned for unclear reasons for 14 years in Hungary. He was released to again fight the Turks, but after only months on his throne he was killed (probably in battle), in 1477. His severed head was allegedly taken to the sultan as proof of his death while his body was buried at Snagov Monastery, (though his remains have never been found).
Was Vlad the inspiration for the Count? Like Al Capone’s relationship with his nickname ‘Scarface,’ Vlad never called himself ‘the Impaler.’ (Only those with a death wish said that to his face.) His father was called ‘Dracul’ because he belonged to the Order of the Dragon, a fraternity of nobles who swore to protect Christian Europe from the Islamic Turks. In Romanian, an “ah” sound at the end of a male name means “son of,” so Vlad always called himself- and signed his letters as- Vlad Dracula.

McNally and Florescu’s work seemed convincing, but they’ve been challenged since the 1970’s. Dracula scholar Leslie Klinger says that although the Count recalls much of Wallachia and Transylvania’s history when he talks to Harker, the talk is vague and could easily match other incidents. Moreover, the Count claims to be of the Szekely, a Hungarian line that allied with Transylvanian Germans. (They can also trace their lineage to Attila the Hun!) And in his study of the notes, Frayling says Stoker found some information about Vlad- and may have based Dracula’s features on a woodcut of the Imapler- but it’s still uncertain how much (or little), Stoker actually knew of the man.
And maybe it was just the name after all. The latest theory is that the Count was based not on the Impaler, but on Sir Henry Irving, Stoker’s employer and owner of London’s Lyceum Theater. Irving was a dominating, powerful man with an incredibly commanding presence. (Little wonder he was a master of Shakespeare.) He also seems to have had little tolerance for criticism and was prone to vicious tirades. He made Stoker his business manager after Stoker wrote a flattering review of Irving’s performance as Hamlet. From that point on, Stoker’s life consisted of running the boss’s business affairs and keeping him happy. It seems Stoker both worshipped and feared Irving, going to extreme lengths to please him. (When Stoker died in 1912, his friend, Hall Caine- the guy Dracula was dedicated to- wrote a eulogy in which he described the relationship between the two as one where “one life was completely absorbed by the other.”) Irving is a very likely candidate as the model for the Count’s personality. Consequently, some view Dracula and Renfield’s master-slave relationship as a caricature of the Irving-Stoker relationship.

So, was Irving the inspiration? Was it Vlad? In my humble opinion, only Stoker knows.

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