Saturday, December 25, 2010

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Drive Angry Trailer

Again, I am rooting for the next few Nic Cage films. We need insane genre pics like long as they are good.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dracula [The Horror of Dracula] (Fisher 1958)


Dracula (known as The Horror of Dracula in North America) (Fisher 1958) is not an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famous novel in a traditional sense. Rather, the Hammer Films' production is a total subversion of Stoker’s novel, parodying the underlining paranoia found in the novel about “uncontrolled” female sexuality, the loss of Western male agency, and the supposed threat of the racial “Other.” This subversion results in Dracula being less a horror film than it is a black comedy of cuckold husbands and lovers trying to secure their own feeling of sexual prowess, and in the process, explores the dysfunctional nature of heterosexual relationships within Western society.

This parody of Stoker’s concerns starts immediately as the film begins, with Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arriving at Dracula’s (Christopher Lee) castle to act as a librarian. In the first of many major shifts from Stoker’s text, Jonathan has arrived at Castle Dracula with the full intent of killing the Count, a complete inversion from the usual opening of Harker arriving to help the Count move to London, with Dracula posing the threat to the Western world by bringing his evil into London. The Dracula of this film shows no such signs of leaving his home anytime soon, or that he wants anything from Jonathan other than for him to look after his books. This Dracula is, oddly enough, a rather domestic individual, with a single female companion as opposed to several brides, and a rather warm and friendly décor (for a castle) in the central hall. He shows no special interest in Jonathan, and seems content to just let Jonathan settle in and get to work. The worst that can be said of Dracula is that he is a little perfunctory as a host, but that is hardly a crime.

As such, Jonathan is the invading monster, not Dracula. Jonathan’s particular threat is the domestic, heterosexual home which Dracula has established, and to the phallic power of Dracula as Jonathan attempts to give Dracula‘s companion the “help“ she begs for, help which turns out to be Jonathan’s blood. The scene in which she partly succeeds is rather remarkable, shot in a manner that is not unlike a seduction, giving the scene a rich subtext, which explodes as Dracula catches this act, resulting in the first shot of Dracula in “vampire mode.” Vampirism as a metaphor for sex and sexuality has a well documented history, but with this scene director Terrance Fisher underlines it in a fairly explicit manner, as Dracula attempts to reassert his phallic power over his companion, taking her out of the room and leaving Jonathan alone.

In fact, Harker finds himself the next morning back in his bed, seemingly treated with care. So naturally, Jonathan decides the logical thing to do is to make his way into the lower levels of the home, to the tomb of Dracula and his companion, and then kill the companion. The murder is a fairly loaded moment, as Jonathan attempts to reassert his own phallic power, brought into question by falling for the companion’s charms, and is the final violation of Dracula’s own heterosexual power as Jonathan “cuckolds” him.

The visual importance of Harker’s decent into the tomb, to the castle’s very foundations adds further complexities to the already complex opening act of the film. As noted, Dracula’s home is a rather domestic site in this film, and the placement of Dracula’s tomb/bedroom at the foundation of the home, shared with his companion, acts a visual metaphor for how heterosexual coupling is the foundation for the traditional Western family structure, and by extension the social/cultural structures that flow from this foundation. Yet clearly the relationship between Dracula and his companion is a strained one, a strain where the mere presence of Jonathan is enough to break the relationship down.

It is this strain and anxiety within the heterosexual relationship that becomes the central point of the rest of the film, and the weak point which Dracula strikes at in achieving his revenge against Jonathan (as well as shoring up his wounded phallic power). Dracula’s targets are the Holmwood family, which include Harker’s fiancée Lucy (Carol Marsh), her sister-in-law Mina (Melissa Stribling), and most importantly, Mina’s husband Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough). It is at this point that the film becomes almost a bedroom farce, as Dracula sneaks into the Holmwood home and attacks/sleeps with Arthur’s sister and wife to the near obliviousness of Arthur and Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), the seeming protector of the heterosexual relationship. But more on Van Helsing further on.

Long time Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and director Fisher construct the Dracula “attack” sequences in a manner that plays off of the audience’s familiarity with the Dracula legend, and furthers their probe into heterosexual anxiety. In the past, Dracula has been given the ability to hypnotize his victims, and one could assume that is what is happening in this film. Yet at no point is it suggested that Lee’s power-reduced Dracula even has the ability to hypnotise his “victims.” Instead, it is more than likely that Mina and Lucy willingly (and with great pleasure) go alone with Dracula and his escapades. Consider the looks on the women’s faces as they are confronted by Dracula: is it terror in their eye, or excitement? Why is it that Mina seems so happy after her encounters with Dracula? The brilliance of the film is that it allows the audience to take either possibility as being the case, while never actually giving any real evidence to suggest the hypnotic power of Dracula is to blame. As such, Arthur and Van Helsing’s conviction that Dracula is to solely blame comes across as them being in denial to the women’s dissatisfaction with their intended lovers, a denial likely to be shared by some of the audience.

One of the sharpest choices made in the film is how Arthur is set up as a mirror to Dracula and his failed relationship with his companion. It is not merely that Arthur’s marriage comes under threat from the sexual dynamo that is Dracula, but how the strength of Arthur’s agency and relationship with Mina is brought into question before Dracula’s arrival through one little detail: the absence of children. Mina and Arthur are a slightly older couple, and the implication is that they have been married for some time. Yet, if the point of marriage, both at the time the film was made and within the time frame the narrative takes place, the key point of marriage was for the act of procreation. We are never given a reason for the lack of children. In fact, it is easy to miss, given that Arthur and Mina spend their time looking after Arthur’s younger sister Lucy. Yet the absence of children is a striking omission, and in the absence of other answers, begins to lay the ground work for Arthur’s later impotency in the face of Dracula.

Of course, there is still the question of where Van Helsing fits into these issues of sexuality and agency. More than any other figure in the narrative, Cushing’s Van Helsing complicates and subverts Stoker’s attempts at shoring up the power of male heterosexuality. While Stoker’s Van Helsing was an elderly male helping to guide the young, virile men in the protection of “their” women, and thus maintain the “normalcy” of white, male heterosexual privilege in sexual relations, the Van Helsing of Hammer's Dracula is a powerful foe to Dracula because he is asexual. At no point are we given any indication that Van Helsing holds any interest in sex or sexual relations: he resists the female vampires that Arthur cowers from, and whom Jonathan is seduced by with ease. More importantly, we see Van Helsing living out of a well kept bachelor pad, with no sign of their ever having been a lover of any gender in his life. He is still fairly young, is highly intelligent, and as the conclusion of the film makes clear, he is a physical match for Dracula. Yet Van Helsing’s life is seemingly dedicated only to his work, and the somewhat predictable path of Van Helsing substituting for Jonathan in Lucy‘s life is never even hinted at as a possibility. Given all of this, Van Helsing is a figure who sits outside the heterosexual family dynamic, a point made clear early on when he is distrusted and ignored by the sneering Arthur: he just does not seem to belong.

Yet, like the cowboy figures who could bring civilization to the west, yet not be part of it, Van Helsing is a protector of the heterosexual lifestyle while living apart from it. Given that vampirism is connected to heterosexual desires in the film, Van Helsing’s clinical study of vampirism can be read as an understanding of human sexuality, a study which like so many others necessitates a level of detachment from the subject. Interestingly, and somewhat contradictory, if read in this manner, Van Helsing is not merely the protector of heterosexuality and male privilege, but also its destroyer as he hunts Dracula. What is more, given that Van Helsing sent Jonathan ahead to take care of Dracula at the start of the film, he is the instigator or the whole chain of events!

Given this, is it possible to read Van Helsing as the true site of horror, and thus ascribe a conservative reading of the film where the “aberrant” sexuality is the “problem” in the film? Possible, yes, but I do not believe that is what is quite going on here. Remember, the cracks in the heterosexual relationships were present before the start of the film for these characters: Van Helsing’s actions merely brought the problems to the surface, and did not cause them. In this context, Van Helsing is the bringer or light, both figuratively and, at the conclusion of the film, literally, exposing the problems at the very heart of Western social structures such as the family, upon which the rest of society is built.

He is not, however, the individual designated to solve these problems. No one is. As Dracula comes to a conclusion, we are left on an ambiguous note, with Mina “returning” both to humanity and Arthur, yet no attempt is made to resolve the complex issues raised in the film. There is no final child born, as in the Stoker novel, to suggest a supposed return to “normalcy.” Stoker’s traditional conceptions of good and evil are instead tossed out the window, and the audience is left to sort out the pieces that remain. It is this refusal to contain these issues that not only transforms Hammer’s Dracula into a subversion of Stoker’s classic work, but allows it to be a superior work to its source as well.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cinematic Dreams for 2011

Sorry for the lack of updates this month: it has been a busy time in real life, which combined with a bit of a post October writing funk has done nothing for my reviews. I plan to have at least one more up before the end of the month (and year), and should have a fresh crop ready to go in January, 2011.

Speaking of the New Year however, and the mostly miserable failings of 2010 at the cinema, I would like to take this time to go over my hopes and dreams for 2011 and beyond.

The “Death” of the Blockbuster

Well, the death of the blockbuster as the cornerstone of Hollywood’s financial game plan. In a year filled with financial and critical disappointments, it is about time Hollywood finally took notice that the blockbuster might not be the best suited to ensuring the film industry’s existence. Take a look at the past weekend’s box office, where the 150 million dollar third entry in the Chronicles of Narnia franchise opened at number one, at yet still is a disappointment. Better yet, consider film The Tourist, with what are supposedly the two biggest movie stars on the planet. A 100 million dollar plus (reported) budget, and a 17 million dollar opening. Hardly seems worth paying those two the cash, does it?
Speaking of which...

The Movie Star IS Dead. Accept It.

I am not saying that there are not actors people are willing to pay to see, but the time in which you could slap the name of a star or two above a poster and expect to sell a ton of tickets is gone. Ask yourselves this question: since Will Smith, has there really been anyone to come along whom, on almost name alone, could sell a film?

Part of the problem is the saturation of the media with supposed “stars.” Look back at the greats, from the Classic Hollywood Era till around the 1990s: Humphrey Bogart, Lauran Bacall, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro, and hell, even Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yes, each has headlined at least one bomb, but at their prime, they sold tickets like nobody’s business. In each case, there was that special “something” about them, even if it was just the sheer physical spectacle of their body (in Arnold’s case). The testament to their power was when they could star in a mediocre film, or a film that was solely built around their personality, and sell tickets. No high concept or name branding to hide behind.

These days, there are plenty of “stars,” but no guarantees. Leonardo DiCaprio is a fine actor, but his biggest successes have not been sold on his name alone. George Clooney is one of the smarter stars in Hollywood, with creative and financial success. But it took the combined presence of Clooney, Brad Pitt and other big names to sell the Ocean’s Eleven series of films. And for those of you waiting to point to The Expendables as an example of movie stars still holding power, ask yourself this: if this film had only featured Stallone, and maybe even Jason Statham, instead of building itself around the combined spectacle of as many legendary (i.e. older) movie stars in one film, would it have been nearly the success it was? Also keep in mind that the film was made on a modest budget overall, and that its success is highly relative compared to the heyday of each of the film’s stars.

Adults are Your Friends. So are Low Costs.

Or rather, adult content is your friend.

Look at the following list of films from the past year: Inception; The Town; Black Swan; The King’s Speech; The Fighter. All of these are titles of adult oriented films, and all thus far have been outperforming the youth oriented films that drove the box office this year. And better yet, most of these were fairly inexpensive to produce, save the obvious exception.

Yes, I understand that youthful audiences have the most disposable income, but with the wide variety of media fighting for their attention, most are likely to be, well, fickle. And it is not JUST the youth I am talking about here; older audiences are just as guilty. Point is, it is the hardcore cinema fans, the ones who are willing to show up each week, even to see the same film again, that carry a given movie beyond week one at the box office. THAT is the audience you should be chasing.

And that audience tends to want substance.

Look, anyone who has spent any time at this site knows I love some straightforward fun, but that is all Hollywood seems to be trying for these days (and failing to achieve I might add). We need substance. I don’t care if you have to import it from another country, but please make the option available! I love Netflix, but honestly, I do want to be excited to go to a theatre once and a while. So come on Hollywood, throw us a bone. Please.

More “Mini-Majors”

Or how about a series of new, smaller studios not connected to the majors?
Part of the problem with modern Hollywood is the lack of competing studios. Even in the late 1980s, there were companies like Orion Pictures to give the majors a little bit of competition and release some odder films. These days, even New Line cinema has been absorbed into Warner Brothers, Mirimax has just managed to get out from under Disney, and the Weinstein Company has barely dodged being put out of commission. That leaves us with the majors, and their “indie” companies, if you really believe them to be separate companies.

The only new studio in recent years has been Summit Entertainment, which despite being built on the backs of the Twilight Saga, has proven itself willing to take on some projects other studios have not been willing to touch. These includ The Hurt Locker and the upcoming, financially dicey project The Beaver, which stars Mel Gibson. While hardly backing or releasing projects that are all that boundary pushing or independent, the studio is proving to be slightly riskier with its releases.

But it is still not enough. We need more studios to diversify the types of films released into general theatres, and we need more voices making it to the silver screen. Perhaps it will take a breaking apart of the currently existing majors, or a group of young upstarts, but news studios are needed to create competition. And with competition, hopefully some better films.

And those, my dear readers, are my cinematic hopes and dreams for 2011. Will they likely come true? Well, not likely in 2011, but as the next decade rolls on, I continue to live in hope that some of these will come true. And who knows? Perhaps with enough voices demanding it, we’ll get at least one or two of these to happen.

Monday, December 13, 2010

New Opinion Piece Tomorrow

Sorry for the lack of updates: life been a bit busy, combined with a bit of writer's block (aghhh!). New piece tomorrow however!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dreamscape (Ruben 1984)

What does it mean to be original? It is a question that has been asked time and again in the arts, particularly in contemporary times. In a media saturated landscape, the question is rather confusing, with so many voices, projects and ideas being tossed about at nearly the speed of thought. For many, the very concept of originality is dead, with all art considered a reworking or synthesis of old ideas and concepts into a new form.

Yet, the concept of originality remains an obsession in our culture, particularly when it comes to cinema. How often do we hear people complain that a given film is unoriginal, or similar to another idea? Putting aside that such complaints tend to miss that the very films they grant the status of being “original” are merely re-workings of other texts themselves, these complaints tend to associate the idea of being original as “superior” to the works that come later. It ignores the possibility of refinement, improvement or an alternative take on similar ideas.

Certainly, there is some merit to the lack of “originality” in modern cinema: the endless parade of remakes are a testament to Hollywood’s never ending cannibalism of its past. Yet, the vast majority of cinema is built upon cobbling ideas and concepts from elsewhere: classic Hollywood frequently adapted, “borrowed” and outright stole ideas from other media. These other media were frequently drawing from other sources and ideas themselves. Even the great William Shakespeare’s plays were frequently synthesising other works that had preceded him.

While films, at least within the commercial system, often rely on a blend of innovation and the familiar, what people respond to most often is how well a given film is executed. When a film enjoyed, the complaints about originality tend to be mild. Certainly, a brilliant premise is a great place to start, but if the execution of that premise is lacking, or even outright awful, then it matters not how strong the premise is. Likewise, a thin or well worn premise properly executed can become a magnificent film.

Which brings us to the 1984 science fiction film Dreamscape and recent comments by filmmaker John Landis (The Blues Brothers) regarding the similarity of Christopher Nolan’s Inception to the earlier film. While Landis praised Nolan, he made sure to make clear that the film was not an original, referencing Dreamscape as having beaten Nolan to the punch by 26 years. And indeed the basic premise of the film, in which a man is able to enter the dreams of others, is similar to the premise of Inception. Furthermore, like Inception, Dreamscape’s narrative centers on the eventual invasion of the mind of an important man and the blurring of various dreams together. Yet Dreamscape is a decidedly inferior work compared to Nolan’s Inception, with its unique premise serving little purpose beyond spicing up an otherwise conventional thriller that is filled with the stock characters and situations, which are executed in a fairly tired manner.

Dreamscape focuses on the character of Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid), a young psychic who is dragged into an experimental program by Dr. Novotny (Max von Sydow), who years ago studied Alex when his abilities first emerged. Novotny has created a device which allows psychics to enter the dreams of others as a form of therapy/psychoanalysis. Alex is blackmailed into helping Novotny, but he at least sees the project as a way to try and woo Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw), another scientist working on the project.

The thriller side of the film is provided by Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer), a high ranking head of a secret government organization and friend of the President of the United States (Eddie Albert). The President is suffering from recurring nightmares of a nuclear holocaust, and has decided to push the country towards nuclear disarmament. Blair, fearful such an approach will put the United States at risk, decides that the only course of action is to eliminate the President while he dreams. When Alex stumbles upon the plot, he is put on the run in a desperate race to save the President’s life.

The lack of ambition on the part of the filmmakers is evident in nearly every frame of Dreamscape, starting with its cast of characters. For a film that involves human psychology in its very premise, the film is peopled by cartoons found in below average thrillers. Dennis Quaid is once again stuck playing a second rate Harrison Ford as Alex, the supposedly loveable cocky bastard. Quaid does his best with the material, but given how simplistic the character is, he is reduced to getting by on charm, which becomes hopeless after a certain sequence (more on that in a minute). Capshaw, Plummer and von Sydow fair no better, being stuck with the roles of the hero’s love interest, bad-for-the-hell-of-it-villain, and wise old mentor figure respectively.

The closest the film comes to dealing with the psychology of its characters is a scene in which Alex enters Jane’s dream, which quickly becomes an erotic fantasy. The scene is played for its seeming sexiness, yet the context of this “love” scene involves Alex entering Jane’s dream without her permission, evoking notions of rape. The film however chooses to ignore the implications of this scene, brushing them under the rug as quickly as possible to get on with the plot. The aftermath of these scene is doubly damaging for the film, introducing an unsettling and complicated side to the otherwise bland Alex that might have been interesting, if disturbing, to explore, only to ignore the subject while asking the audience to keep finding Alex a likeable rogue. As such, it is hard to find the film a fun romp as much as the film would like to convince the audience it is when our “hero” comes close to being an out and out sexual predator.

Speaking of the dreamscapes, these might be the most disappointing aspect of the film overall. As with everything else in the film, the dream reality is treated in as safe and standard a manner as possible, marked off from reality with extreme lighting, off kilter camera work and a far too literal correlation between the fears of characters and their realization within the dreamscape. Why is it that one patient is struggling at achieving an erection? It is because he is afraid that his wife is sleeping around, and that is just what happens in the dream. What is the weakness to the assassin sent to kill the president? Why, it just so happens to be the personal detail Alex learns early on. The imagery for snake monsters and demonic dogs is so by the book that it is astounding that the filmmakers even bothered with them, and the fairly poor effects work in achieving these visions does nothing to help combat the lack of threat found in these dream sequences.

The worst sin of the film is how it fails to integrate the various components of the film together. The science fiction, thriller and romantic sides of the story all feel as if they are distinct films forced to exist together without any thought to whether they should coexist in the same narrative. Inception manages to successfully blend the various genres it pulls from together because the film is unified in its focus on the psychology of protagonist Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose issues ultimately subsume the dream worlds he finds himself in. Dreamscape lacks any similar type of unifying principle, bouncing from scene to scene without any goal. It is as if the filmmakers had three different scripts, snipping scenes from each one and stitched them together in the most basic fashion possible. The film was written by three writers, David Loughery (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier), Chuck Russell (The Blob) and director Joseph Ruben, and the film shows the signs of too many hands trying to guide the final product.

Given these problems, it is hard to give Dreamscape’s “original” premise any merit given its complete lack of originality in terms of execution. Yet, What damns Dreamscape all the more is not its failings in comparison with Inception, but its failings compared to another 1984 film: Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street. With that film, director Craven blends reality and the dream world to much greater impact and thematic resonance, cleverly addressing issues of abuse and the disintegration of the American family within the seemingly limited confines of the slasher genre. As such, Craven’s film still feels modern and of our times; Dreamscape feels twenty years older than it is.