Monday, February 23, 2009

Dracula '79

Night Fever: Frank Langella oozes an oily charm as Dracula. His seductions are aided by the smoke machine that follows him around.

This movie came up in my Tivo's fortnightly scan for Laurence Olivier. Though this is a dangerous period for his films since he was in the habit of acting for anyone who paid him to help abate personal debt, I thought it would give it shot since it also stars Frank Langella who is in the news these days because of Frost/Nixon. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Dracula (1979) wasn't as cheaply made or poorly acted as I expected. To the contrary, the whole cast is excellent, the script, though not true to Bram Stoker, is at least intelligent and the production values are first-rate.

Director John Badaham (Saturday Night Fever) has a leaden touch when it comes to creating a gothic atmosphere with a gloomy washed out color pallet, acres of spiderwebs, bug eating coffin bearers and an elaborate insane asylumn set. Sometimes his effects connect with the viewer to produce genuine horror, such as the scenes of the madhouse in an electrical storm or Dracula crawling up and down buildings, but other times it all just a bit much. The most successful aspect of the movie is the relationship between Dracula and his intended victim/bride Lucy (Kate Nelligan). The pair have genuine chemistry and when she arrives at his run-down abbey for an ill-advised dinner the mood shifts from spooky to romantic.

The script moves the setting from Victorian era forward twenty or thirty years to the the early twentieth century to give more a leeway to turn Lucy into a headstrong, modern heroine. Trevor Eve gives a subtle performance as Lucy's fiancee, Jonathan Harker, who can't quite wrap his Edwardian man-brain around the fact that his girl would prefer to sleep in a coffin with the undead than wait out their long engagement.

As I watching the movie I got the feeling that I had seen it before. The love scene with Dracula in Lucy's room with its cheesy effects sequence seemed familiar. After a bit of research, I think I was remembering Love at First Bite (1979) which had a comic version of this scene. The spoof film had an inspired piece of ironic casting with supernaturally tan George Hamilton as the Count.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Phantom Menace (1999)

This movie is ten years old. Wow. Ten years since George Lucas went from creator of beloved universe to "childhood memory rapist" as some of the most disappointed fans put it. Ten years since the greatest confluence of hype and mediocrity in the history of cinema. Had Lucas made a decent movie in that ten years, all would be have been forgiven, but sadly the other to "prequel" movies were just as deeply flawed in different ways as "Episode One."

Phantom Menace was always my favorite of the prequels because though it is long, uneven, busy, overblown and creaky it had a few advantages over the later installments. The twenty year hiatus allowed Lucas to indulge the audience a bit in seeing the origins of characters from the original trilogy. The later installments do this as well, but it seemed more ok, somehow to indulge in this one. The first time R2 saves the day, a character actually shouts, "that little droid did it!" Moments like that worked for me in 1999 and they are still fun. Phantom Menace also has Liam Neeson, which the later films do not. By being the first Jedi in his prime that we'd seen, fans finally got to do more than just dip their toe in lightsaber fights, mind tricks and that special combination of kung fu and pseudo religion that we'd been teased with in the original trilogy.

I dragged Episode One out recently because my kid plays with my Star Wars toys and he has taken a shine to a twelve inch figure of Qui Gon. He was so happy to find out that there was a "Qui Gon movie" as he calls it, that I dug it out for him, even though I was pretty sure it was a little old for him. Maybe it's just not old enough since he was bored a great deal. He watches Cars which is just as long and more character-driven. He liked certain action set pieces, but there are too many talky meeting scenes that aren't really made any more bearable by the fact that the people in them are crazy long-necked aliens. They still suffer from Dam Busters syndrome.

The effects were a major selling point of the movie and I think they still hold up. I'm no huge expert in this area, though. I still watch the unadulterated Original Trilogy (no special editions, thank you) without being bothered by the effects. Heck I watch Errol Flynn movies and am not bothered by the effects. The film is busy, but not as cluttered as the last two installments in the prequel trilogy.

George Lucas really only has one way of ending a movie. An outnumbered squadron of underdogs must blow something up (a death star, a shield generator, a control ship, a series of Dams that provide hydroelectric power for Nazi Germany....oh wait, that was Dam Busters again) before a bunch of other characters get wiped out. There will be spectacular effects as the squad moves through a purpose-built landscape that only exists to give some variety for the matte painters and to tantalize the viewer with how spectacular it all is. This may sound harsh, but I really mean it as a compliment. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies are to dancing on improbable staircases what Jedi Knights are to fighting in reactor cores. Any franchise with a successful formula has to simply shuffle the elements and give the people what they want. In that respect, The Phantom Menace is more of a success than a failure.

Dead Again Again (1991) is an innovative and intelligent contemporary noir film directed by Kenneth Branagh with a really original premise. I'm not going to go into the plot in depth, because watching it unravel is one of the joys of this film. I will tell you that Kenneth Branagh plays a detective, Mike Church, who tries to help an amnesia victim (Emma Thompson) recover her memories with the help of a hypnotist (Derek Jacobi). Andy Garcia and Robin Williams have interesting small parts and Seinfeld fans may be surprised to see "Newman" (Wayne Knight) turn up as Church's assistant.

The movie takes on the conventions of noir, and most of the familiar tropes are here: a beautiful, possibly deadly lady in distress, supposedly helpful people leading the detective astray, and lots of scenes of driving around Los Angeles chasing down leads. The plot has enough twists for a couple of M. Night Shyamalan movies and benefits from an amazingly able cast. If anything the acting talent is almost a bit distracting. Not that they over- play their roles, but it can be difficult to forget that you are watching some of the most accomplished Shakespearean actors alive doing what amounts to a pulp thriller.

I think the reason Branagh, Jacobi and Thompson were drawn to the material is that it becomes a philosophical meditation on reality and imagination and deals with a lot of themes that are present in Hamlet in particular. What is sanity? What is reality? What is the point of revenge? Once a cycle of murder and revenge is set in motion, can anything stop it? Do we have free will or are we the pawn of fate? What if we are just acting out a drama that has occurred before? Is there an afterlife and can it connect with this life? Who is real and who is a "player?" All that sounds like pretty heady stuff for noir, but I promise that the Dead Again is completely entertaining in a surface way as well.

The ending of the movie is a bit of a mess. The final action is 30 seconds drawn out to five minutes of slow motion with confused editing. I could see that Branagh was aiming for a bit of Vertigo mixed with Spellbound, but he is no Alfred Hitchcock. There are worse sins than for a movie to be too ambitious and the strength of Dead Again is that you probably be thinking about it long after it's over.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Dam Busters

My husband maintains that this movie plays continuously on Saturday afternoons back in the old country (The United Kingdom) and that watching it one should imagine you are without the myriad of tivo, cable and download options you have and just pretend that it's either this, cricket or a Welsh language documentary about cheese production. If you can pull this off then The Dam Busters is jolly enjoyable. If not, you can always focus on counting the number of pointless procedural meetings that are "dramatized" and form the bulk of the "suspense" in the first half of the movie. I found myself thinking of Lawrence of Arabia quite a bit during Dam Busters because in that movie these sorts of scenes are actually entertaining. Remember the scene where he goes before General Allengate and Allengate says, "I know you're well educated Lawrence, it says so in your dosier." At this point my husband wondered why I was chuckling to myself when nothing funny was happening on screen. On screen Michael Redgrave was explaining something complicated about physics to a room full of people who were pretending to care.

Another faintly amusing way to pass the time during Dam Busters is to drink every time Richard Todd says the name of his dog in the film. The name of his dog is the n-word. Yeah, I know. Is that really necessary for historical accuracy? Can't they dub that out now? It's one of those occasions where you drink to forget as much as play the game.

I recorded this movie because it has Michael Redgrave in it. He gives a decent performance as the engineer who invented the bombing technique which ultimately destroyed the critical German dams. To be honest, he doesn't have much to do as an actor. Mostly it amounts to him standing around in meetings looking anxious.

Umm, I have no idea who this actor is.

The dam busting scenes use some innovative in-camera special effects. Some of these look pretty badly dated, but I found the effects a welcome relief from the scenes of the interiors of the bombers since these are all exactly the same. The problem is that for historical accuracy all the actors have to wear full face oxygen masks. It's kinda hard to communicate complex emotion when you don't know who is talking and all the actors are limited to using only the upper third of their faces. I guess it works well enough because all they have to communicate will be repeated via telegraph back to the war room where it will be reacted to by the generals and poor Michael Redgrave who is really giving his anxious face a work out.

I'm sure there are people out there who love Dam Busters and will find my review hateful. That's probably fair enough since I do think the movie does a good job of telling the story that it is trying to tell and making a complex topic and a big cast of characters into something that can be followed. Of course, a straight forward documentary (in English please, no Welsh) would probably do just as well and all those tedious meeting scenes could be summarized quickly instead of playing out in real-time.