Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Dracula-Why, Coppola, why?

I just recently read Bram Stoker's legendary 1897 novel Dracula for the first time and am trying to catch up on a few of the many movie adaptations that've been made over the years. I started with Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula. Coppola is a director who has given us 4 of the greatest movies ever made with the first two Godfather movies, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now. So it's astounding how he gets nearly everything wrong in this movie. I have no problems with changes between page and screen, books and films are different mediums and things cannot be translated exactly. But I'm not even sure why he put Stoker's name in the title, not even the basic story outline is the same (maybe half of it is).

Coppola never gets the atmosphere correct, something that is essential in a horror/thriller like this. Stoker goes to great pains in the novel (occasionally too much) to set up his characters as real people in a real world dealing with a real threat. Coppola turns it into almost a cartoon. There's little of the tremendous mood piece that is the first 50 pages of the book, as Jonathan Harker approaches and stays at Castle Dracula. The frightening, dream-like encounter with the 3 vampire women in the castle is bungled as well. There's a difference between mysterious and strange, something Coppola doesn't seemed to have grasped. This is especially true in that Dracula is the main character of the movie, even though I'm certain he can't have been in 1/4 of the book's 400 pages. He's kept off screen for a reason, it builds up anticipation for his return. This is actually the biggest flaw of the novel, the interplay between Jonathan and Dracula is terrific, but there's none after that first 50 pages. Still, to make Dracula the main character (or maybe it's just the way he's handled here) is to deprive him of his mystery.

Part of Coppola's problem is the cast that he's chosen. None really display the kind of gravitas needed to pull off their roles in any believable way. Keanu Reeves gets a lot of (deserved) flack for his truly awful performance, but he's far from the only guilty one. Actually, only Anthony Hopkins and Gary Oldman come out unscathed, and both are nowhere near perfect. Hopkins creates a decently interesting character, but the Van Helsing in the book was far more fascinating. Oldman does what he can with Dracula, but the role is terribly written and he can only do so much with it.

About the only things worth mentioning in a positive light are the costumes, sets, and (mostly unnecessary) make-up. They're truly incredible, particularly everything inside of (and including) Castle Dracula. I just wish they'd been used in a good movie. There was so much potential for someone like Coppola to treat Dracula as he treated The Godfather, with respect and intelligence and a control of his craft. Instead he turned it into a campy mess of disappointment.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Solaris-my first Tarkovsky film

Ah, now here is what science-fiction was meant to be, a genre of ideas. The genre of writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, or in this case Polish author Stanislaw Lem and Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky. I have not read Lem's famous 1961 novel Solaris, I've only seen two of the three movie adaptations (this one, and the recent one made by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney) but apparently Lem was not happy about this version. He and Tarkovsky had communicated and worked together early on in Tarkovsky's adaptation, but ultimately they had different ideas. Lem thought the movie should simply be a direct adaptation of what was in the book, whereas Tarkovsky felt that the movie should be based on the book, but different enough to stand up on its own as an independant work of art.

The movie begins as psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is readying to leave Earth for the spacestation orbiting Solaris. He's been called upon to make a judgment regarding the mental state of the crew of the station, and whether or not the station should even continue. Humans have been studying the planet for years, with no true findings to present. When Kelvin arrives, he is not greeted by anyone, and the station seems to be in a rapidly declining state of neglect. He finds that his friend Dr. Gibarian has committed suicide in his room, but has left Kelvin a cryptic video message in which he insists that he's not insane. He is given a vague warning by Dr. Snaut, one of the two remaining crew members, that should he run into anything strange, he should stay calm and not overreact. Kelvin doesn't understand the message until that night, when he wakes from sleeping to discover a woman in his room, despite his barricaded door. The woman is his wife, Hari (played by the mysteriously attractive Natalya Bondarchuk). He's taken aback by her appearance, because Hari had comitted suicide many years before. The next morning, Dr. Snaut is more forthcoming with Kelvin, now that he has been visited by a "Guest". Snaut explains that all the crew members were visited by Guests after they tried to x-ray the surface of Solaris. They theorize that Solaris may not be just a planet, but some sort of sentient being beyond their comprehension. The Guests seem to be manifestations of people the crew members want to see, created by Solaris.

The movie goes on from there to explore themes of love, what it means to be human, and what we're really hoping to find in space travel and research. Tarkovsky has made a movie that is certainly not for everyone, many people complain that Solaris is boring and slow, but I never thought so. Early on, while still on Earth, we get an absurdly long scene of a man driving through the city. I'm sure some people don't think this had a point, but I think Tarkovsky was trying to evoke the extended time it still takes to move around Earth, there are no teleporters or easy fixes just because this is science-fiction. I also think that Tarkovsky uses long takes, and a "slow" atmosphere to get the rhythms of daily life. Life isn't the roller coaster ride we see in many movies, it's often slow and quiet, and I think the people and (even outlandish happenings) seem more real because Tarkovsky has set us up into a realistic feeling world. Steven Soderbergh tried to do this in his adaptation with George Clooney, and the main complaint about his version was that it was slow. It almost has ADD compared to Tarkovsky's.

Movies like Solaris are what sci-fi movies are supposed to be. We get fed a lot of the same sci-fi over and over again, but sometimes a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Children of Men, or Dark City comes along and reminds us that ideas are what makes science-fiction so great. Sci-fi can tackle any subject in any way, because it is not tied down to anything, it can create its own world. On the other end of the spectrum, sci-fi can get too bogged down in ideas, and forget to create real people with whom the audience can identify. Solaris comes along and gives us what is often missing from sci-fi, humanity and ideas.

Monday, March 23, 2009


Inspired by my friend That Film Girl's recent write up about it, I decided to revisit the first true "art-film" that I ever saw, 1966's Blowup. Here's her piece, you should check it out, it's great: http://thatfilmgirl.blogspot.com/2009/02/spotlight-michelangelo-antonionis-blow.html. I first came across Blowup when I was about 14 or so. I watched it due to the promise of naked women within (which as a 14-year-old without the internet was reason enough to do anything), and was instead exposed to my first real taste of European cinema.

Blowup was the first English language movie by legendary Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, and it deals with about 24+ hours in the life of a London fashion photographer named Thomas (David Hemmings). He's bored with the models he's working with and decides to visit the park and shoot some landscapes to clear his mind. He sees a couple strolling through the park and includes them on a few of the photos. But when the woman (Vanessa Redgrave) sees him and almost hysterically demands the film, Thomas is intrigued and develops the film back at his studio. What he sees in one shot is the woman looking off into the bushes where he thinks he sees a man with a gun. In another shot he took, he sees a body lying in a different set of bushes. Has he seen what he thinks he's seen? Is his mind playing tricks on him? Some (though not all) of the pictures just look like indiscernible black and white shapes to us, but Thomas obviously sees something there. If the man in the bushes had a gun, and the other man in the bushes is dead, why didn't Thomas hear a gunshot? Why is the woman, who seemingly isn't directly involved in the murder, so adamant about retrieving the footage?

Antonioni plays this like his version of a Hitchcock thriller. But whereas Hitchcock typically wanted his audience to be caught up in the story and the characters, Antonioni looks at things a bit more psychologically here. More importantly, he gets us to think about it too. All of the questions that come up, their seeming unconnectedness; hell, he even had me wondering when Thomas is talking to a neighbor about his photos and she asks "I wonder why they shot him?" it made me think "Hey, Thomas never said anything about 'shoot', just 'murder'. And the picture of the guy in the bushes isn't out for her to see." It made me wonder just how Redgrave was able to so quickly find Thomas when she comes to his apartment. Is this neighbor woman involved somehow? Is it Redgrave that ransacks his apartment after he's (purposefully) given her the wrong film role? Wouldn't she have just destroyed the film? There's no reason for her to have developed it and found out he gave her the wrong role. She probably wouldn't have even had time to do it. Antonioni never gives us the answers, but never leaves things so vague that you think he's just messing with us.
The final sequence has been much discussed. It's a scene where Thomas good humoredly observes a group of mimes acting out a tennis match. When the "ball" gets knocked over his way, he picks it up and tosses it back to the mimes. He continues to follow the game and begins hearing the actual sounds of a tennis match. Antonioni is making a point about the nature of reality. The ball is real to the mimes, so what does it matter that it's not technically real? Thomas believes what he saw in his photographs, does it matter that it might've not actually happened that way? What did happen? Where do reality and perception meet and where do they part? Few major films have ever explored such a concept as well as Blowup.

P.S. These concepts were in fact explored in other major films. Notably the Francis Ford Coppola movie The Conversation, which he made between The Godfather and The Godfather, part II. It starred Gene Hackman as a guy who does audio surveillance on a couple. Did he hear "He'd kill us if he got the chance" or did he hear "He'd kill us if he got the chance"? It wasn't a straight up remake, but it was fairly close. However, it is also a masterpiece and required viewing for all movie buffs (some even consider it Coppola's greatest achievement). The same concepts were supposedly again explored in the Brian De Palma/John Travolta collaboration Blowout, but I haven't seen it.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Gus Van Sant's biopic Milk is the portrait of an incredible man, one who fought for what was right at a time when most people weren't even prepared to accept his lifestyle, much less listen to what he had to say. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to major public office in the United States. He was elected as a city supervisor of San Francisco in 1977. He preached against the anti-homosexual laws being passed at the time, and even challenged his enemies to public debates. His position was that denying anyone their civil liberties was un-American ("We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights" he quotes from the Declaration of Independance). His fiery speeches and charming personality helped to put a face on the gay movement in the 1970's. His assassination at the hands of Dan White, another city supervisor with whom Harvey had butted heads, made him into an icon of gay culture. He had only served 11 months in office.

We first meet Harvey (Sean Penn) in 1970 as he picks up a young man named Scott (James Franco) in a subway station in New York City. It's Harvey's 40th birthday, and he's unhappy that he's still living in the closet and has not done anything he feels he can be proud of. Scott suggests that Harvey needs a "new scene" with new people and friends, so they move to the burgeoning gay scene of Castro Street in San Francisco, California. He opens up a camera store, and soon becomes a sort of rallying point for all gays in the area as Harvey pressures the intolerant businesses around into acceptance of the gay lifestyle. The way he does this is simple, the stores that are good to the gays are supported with business, and the ones that aren't, aren't. Before long Harvey gets caught up in more widespread gay activism and decides to run for office, with Scott as his campaign manager, but is defeated. He runs again the next year, and is again defeated. He runs for a different office, and is again defeated. But Harvey never loses hope. Hope for a better place, a more tolerant America, and is determined to fight until it comes true.

He runs into the widespread opposition of people like California Senator John Briggs, and singer Anita Bryant, who both campaigned for laws that allow open discrimination against gays. Harvey appeals to these "Christians" (I use quotation marks because no real Christian would ever oppose anyones civil rights) that they're teaching their children a lesson of hatred and intolerance of anyone different than themselves, both things that Christianity preaches against. Much of the movie is in showing how Harvey always fought the good fight, often to the deterioration of his personal relationships, and refused to accept anything that wasn't equal treatment. Dan White (Josh Brolin) is one of Harvey's co-supervisors, and is at first accepting of Harvey, even inviting him to his sons christening. But when Harvey doesn't back him on an issue that Dan thought he would, Dan turns on Harvey, becoming openly hostile and uncooperative. Harvey thinks Dan might be a closeted gay who's challenged by Harvey's open lifestyle (the movie never gives the audience any reason to think this, but just presents it as one of Harvey's theories).

Harvey was not a difficult person to like, and Sean Penn's performance makes him actually quite lovable. He's all smiles and upbeat attitude as he discusses many of the same issues that Dr. Martin Luther King had been fighting for 15 years before him ("All men are created equal, that's America. Love it or leave it" he says). Sean Penn would not have been on my shortlist to play Harvey, he's not exactly ever been known for his cheery nature. But he's phenomenal here, always showing the intelligence and empathy deep within Harvey, but not ever letting Harvey's anger at the widespread prejudice get too far below the surface. It's a remarkable performance, and much deserving of the recent Oscar it won. Also delivering solid performances (but none that are on the level of Penn's) are Brolin, Franco, and Emile Hirsch as one of Harvey's most loyal and vocal friends. It's nice to see that the colossal flop of Speed Racer didn't ruin Hirsh's career, he's a talented young actor and I look forward to seeing more of him in the future.

Finally, I want to applaud Gus Van Sant's use of archival footage in Milk. He seamlessly integrates the real life announcement of Milk's assassination into the first few minutes of the movie. There's also a deeply moving archival shot of a sea of people holding candles to mourn Harvey's passing. Reportedly more than 30,000 people lining the streets of the city, like an endless line of stars shining just for Harvey. It's a beautiful and poetic moment that Van Sant doesn't cut short.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Nine Lives

I've just run across an extraordinary little movie called Nine Lives. It came out in 2005, and although it has one of the most amazing casts you could ever hope to assemble, it was passed over by the general public. It was probably ignored by the public because it received only a limited theatrical release, which is a shame because it's a special movie. It's the story of 9 different women at particular moments in their lives. Those moments might be their time in prison, their chance encounter with an old lover, or maybe visiting the cemetary with their daughter. It's told as 9 separate stories, making the movie play like a short story collection. Sometimes the stories overlap, sometimes they don't. A wonderful thing about the stories is that they're all shot in single unbroken takes, occasionally seeming like a gimmick, but mostly working as a way to let the actors act their parts in real time, making them that much more powerful in their key moments. Nine Lives was written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, son of legendary author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and it has the subtle attention to detail that one would expect from great literature.

Each story is designated by the name of the woman who's the focus of the story. My favorite of the stories is the chance encounter one, "Diana", starring Jason Isaacs and Robin Wright Penn. They run into each other in a grocery store after many years since they were together. Both married, she's pregnant. They make small talk and go their separate ways, but he comes back to tell her he still thinks about her. The two actors are astounding in the piece, trying to put on their happy faces so that the other doesn't see how much they still care. Both of them unsure whether they want to say what they're feeling, or just leave it at the pleasantries. They love their spouses, but they hint at things that happened in the past, old connections and old wounds that they'd both love to tend to. "We're still 'Damian and Diana'. And we always will be."

My other favorite is "Lorna", about a woman (played by Amy Brenneman) who attends the funeral of her ex-husband's wife. It's another story of things said and not said. And again, the actors are phenomenal. The amount of talent on display in this film is unbelievable. Holly Hunter, Kathy Baker, Sissy Spacek, Ian McShane, Amanda Seyfried, Glenn Close, Dakota Fanning, Joe Mantegna, William Fichtner, Aidan Quinn, Mary Kay Place, it really is one of the top ensembles I've ever seen. I understand that a movie that plays like a short story collection might not be the easiest sell, but I highly recommend that if you ever run across this movie, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Saturday, March 7, 2009


Writer Alan Moore has received unprecedented praise for his limited comic book series (later collected into graphic novel form) Watchmen since its initial publication in 1986/87. He and artist Dave Gibbons won many awards, including a prestigious Hugo Award, and being the only graphic novel listed by Time magazine as one of the 100 greatest novels since 1923. The book has been in development for a film adaptation pretty much since it was published, but was usually described by people as being "unfilmable". The book is set in an alternate 1985 (one where Nixon is still in office) and deals with a group of superheroes, only one of which actually has superpowers. Finally, after adapting the graphic novel 300 with his previous movie, director Zack Snyder gives us the movie of the legendary book. It's not great, but it is honestly probably the best version we were going to get.

The plot is set in motion when aging retired "masked hero" The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is suspiciously murdered in his apartment. Paranoid psychopathic "hero" Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) gets it into his head that someone is trying to do away with the old crew of "masks", and he starts looking into it. His investigation leads him to getting back in touch with his old partner Dan/Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), as well as Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who is superpowered to the point of being something of a deity. Dr. Manhattan is doing work for the military and for Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), one of the few masked heroes to have identified himself to the public (and helping him become the richest man in the world in the process). The deeper Rorschach's digging goes, the more the plot seems to thicken and become about more than just picking off retired heroes for the hell of it.

Billy Crudup is brought to life terrifically from the comic as the glowing blue god that is Dr. Manhattan. I have to commend both Crudup and Zack Snyder as a director for not only wonderfully translating this character onto the big screen, but in making him an interesting character to watch and not ever feel like just a cool special effect. I also have to praise the work of Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Jackie Earle Haley in their respective roles. Their interpretations of The Comedian and Rorschach are exactly the mannerisms and voices I heard in my head while reading the comic. Not fairing as well, I thought, are the women. Malin Akerman is certainly a gorgeous woman to look at, but I found her Silk Spectre II a bore. I also wasn't crazy about her mother, the original Silk Spectre, played by Carla Gugino (an actress I usually love). I thought Gugino was good in the flashbacks of her in her heyday, but was a weak link playing under her age makeup in the movies present day scenes.

Snyder is hit and miss with his direction. Sometimes he's on top of his game, he can definitely film the hell out of some fight scenes. But there are multiple attempts at humor which either don't work at all (which I blame on the writer), or are poorly staged (such as the climax, pun intended, of the sex scene). These kinds of things are not necessarily terrible on their own, but contribute to what I feel is an inconsistent atmosphere. Snyder also slavishly follows the panels of the comic, on more than a couple of occasions making the movie feel uninspired in its visuals, like it's confined to only show particular shots in this scene. It never develops a style of its own, something which is needed in the translation between mediums. On the bright side, I don't think anything he does screws up the movie. There are plenty of times that everything could've gone very wrong, but I don't think it does.

In the future, Watchmen will still be remembered first as a classic graphic novel and second as a movie, but I think Zack Snyder has given us a damn fine adaptation and one which was actually a lot better than I had prepared myself for it to be.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Mad Men-The best drama on TV

I would've never thought that a TV show about people involved in advertising in the 1960's would've been any good at all, much less one of the best shows I've ever seen, but Mad Men is a truly remarkable achievement. It was created by Matthew Weiner (pronounced Wy-ner) while working as a producer and writer on the monumentally awful Ted Danson show Becker. He shopped the script around to all the major networks, with no interest. David Chase got ahold of it and loved it so much he offered to have Weiner join the staff of his show, The Sopranos. Weiner was an executive producer and writer for The Sopranos until it ended, and he then began shopping around his script again. He was lucky to find that cable channel AMC was looking to start producing original programming and figured they would take a chance on something a little different rather than spin out the same shows the other networks did. They also weren't afraid of Weiner wanting to cast relative unknowns in all the major roles (despite interest from many prominent actors), helping the audience to more easily lose themselves in the show.

The show itself revolves around Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his life both in and out of the offices of the Sterling Cooper ad agency. As a character, Don is very much in the mold of Tony Soprano. He can be a good man, a good husband and father, and is brilliant at his job. But he also cheats on his wife Betty (January Jones), with multiple women, is a casual racist and misogynist (not that that separates him much from the times), and has a shady past that no one really knows anything about. Yet Jon Hamm is so magnetically sensational in the role, that we can't help but be on his side even when he's occasionally doing terrible things.

Our entry into the world is somewhat through the eyes of Don's secretary Peggy Olson (the extraordinary Elizabeth Moss), whose first day on the job is the first episode of the show, so we learn as she learns. Peggy is naive, but intelligent, ambitious, and very hard working, which puts her in Don's good graces immediately. She is shown around the office by the queen bee of the secretaries, Joan Holloway (the wonderfully curvacious Christina Hendricks), who lets her in on the finer points of dealing with the men in the office. One of the men that stands out the most is a slimy young ad man named Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), who just seems to rub everyone the wrong way, especially Don. Another that stands out in the crowd is Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Don's boss, and hedonist extraordinaire. I could keep going with some of the amazingly well crafted characters we meet, but the shows ensemble is so strong that I'd keep going all day.

Probably the biggest theme of Mad Men is change. The show starts off in early 1960, so there is still very much a 50's attitude among many of the characters, but there's also the widespread cultural change of the 60's which is in its infancy at the time. The Nixon/Kennedy election is on the horizon, the government is cracking down on truth in advertising, and Don has to figure out how to sell Lucky Strikes now that research is coming out saying that cigarettes are dangerous. We see some elements of change in Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff), a fiercely intelligent and forward thinking woman taking control of her fathers department store. She and Don butt heads, and Don is not used to being challenged by a woman in the workplace. But we also see a different kind of change brewing in Don's mistress Midge (a delightful Rosemarie DeWitt), an artist and proud beatnik, very much involved in the pre-hippie culture in Greenwich Village (she doesn't own a TV, and her "big plans for the night" sometimes simply involve "getting high and listening to Miles").

I can't talk about this show enough, or do it real justice in my talking about it. But I'll just say that if you found Tony Soprano as intruiging a character as I did, then you'll love Don Draper. I've only seen the first season, because it's the only one on DVD, but the show has finished its second season, and is apparently doing very well in the ratings, and is cleaning up at the awards shows. I'm sure I'll be talking about this show more in the future, but I just wanted to plant the seed of interest in anyone who may've not known just how tremendous everything about this show is. Outside of The Office, it's probably my favorite show on TV right now.