Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Dracula

Year of Release:  1931
Director:  Tod Browning and Karl Freund (uncredited)
Screenplay:  Garrett Fort, based on the stage play Dracula by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker
Starring:  Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan
Running Time:  75 minutes
Genre:  Horror

This is one of the most influential horror films ever made.  an English solicitor, Renfield (Frye) arrives in Transylvania to finalise the purchase of an old abbey by mysterious nobleman Count Dracula (Lugosi).  Renfield soon learns that Dracula is, in reality, a vampire.  Driven insane by his experiences and enslaved to Dracula, Renfield helps the Count travel to England.  Once in Britain, Dracula sets his sights on Mina (Chandler), the daughter of Doctor Seward (Herbert Bunston) who runs the lunatic asylum next to his abbey.

There have been many screen adaptations of Dracula, and this is neither the first or the best of them, but it is still the most influential.  The film bears little resemblance to Bram Stoker's original novel of 1897, being largely based on a hugely successful 1924 stage adaptation which turned the novel into effectively a drawing room mystery.  The film has some extremely atmospheric scenes, particularly early on, capturing a real sense of decay and mystery.  As it comes along the film becomes increasingly flat, it's stage-bound origins very much in evidence.  A lot of the important sequences take place off-screen, including the film's climax, which is hugely disappointing.  There are also plot elements and characters that appear and are dropped without explanation, and it doesn't really flow.  However, Bela Lugosi is the definitive Dracula, even though he bears little resemblance to the character as described by Stoker he is still what comes to mind when you think of "Dracula", and to this day his portrayal is parodied, copied and referenced.  With his slow, fractured, heavily accented speech (Lugosi couldn't speak English at the time and learned his lines phonetically), along with his icy hypnotic stare, he has an otherworldly sense about him that dominates the screen.

This is not a good film, and it really hasn't aged well, but there are some great things in here and it is a key film in the canon of American film and the evolution of the horror film, which make it worth watching, and it is a must-see if only for Bela Lugosi's performance.

Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) and Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) in Dracula
  

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Taika Waititi
Screenplay:  Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, based on the comic-book character Thor created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum. Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins
Running Time:  130 minutes
Genre:  Fantasy, science-fiction, action, adventure, superhero, comedy

Two years after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), the Asgardian Thunder God Thor (Hemsworth) is hunting, unsuccessfully, for the powerful Infinity Stones, but is tormented by dreams of Ragnarok, the end of Asgard.  Returning home to Asgard, he finds his trickster half-brother Loki (Hiddleston) in charge and his father, Odin (Hopkins), missing.  With Loki's aid, Thor manages to track Odin down to Earth, where he reveals that he is dying and that his death will allow his first-born child, the Death Goddess Hela (Blanchett), to escape her imprisonment and seize control of Asgard. 

This is the third Thor movie, and the seventeenth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the shared universe centered on movies based on Marvel Comics characters.  This film is very light in tone, and often very funny, playing more as a comedy than a straightforward action adventure superhero film.  The cast all seem to be enjoying themselves, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston are both very good comic actors and they bounce off each other very well, Cate Blanchett goes full on panto villain as the evil Hela, and Jeff Goldblum is hilarious as the intergalactic warlord, who rules a planet where Thor and Loki find themselves trapped on.  To add to the fun, Mark Ruffalo reprises his rule as the Hulk , and Benedict Cumberbatch has a brief appearance as Doctor Strange.  The film manages to balance the humour with enough drama to give scenes some emotional heft if needed, and sometimes comedy makes drama all the more affecting. The film is definitely too long,and the humour doesn't always land, but this is still a fun and funny comedy adventure.

Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarok   

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Good Morning

Year of Release:  1959
Director:  Yasujiro Ozu
Screenplay:  Kogo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu
Starring:  Keiji Sada, Yoshiko Kuga, Chishu Ryu, Kuniko Miyake, Haruko Sugamura, Shitara Koji, Masahiko Shimazu
Running Time:  94 minutes
Genre:  Comedy, drama

Set in a Tokyo suburb, the film focuses on two young brothers: Minoru (Shitara Koji) and Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu), who are desperate for a TV set, but their parents refuse to buy one for them, partly because they are expensive, and partly because the boy's father (Ryu) believes that television turns people into idiots.  Angered by their parent's refusal, and sick of being told to keep quiet all the time when adults indulge in pointless small talk and conversational niceties that don't really mean anything (such as "Good morning", "How are you?", "Good evening" etc.), the boys resolve to stop talking altogether, a decision which causes tension and misunderstandings in their gossipy, close-knit neighborhood. 

This is a gentle, sweet-natured comedy from legendary film-maker Yasujiro Ozu, and is a loose remake of his own 1932 film I Was Born, But....  As always with Ozu, this is beautifully shot film, in vibrant Technicolor.  Every shot is perfectly composed and designed, largely filmed in low-angles with the action framed in doorways or corridors, and sometimes taking place in the distance.  It's also sedate, moving at a very slow pace, with very little actually happening.  However, it is funny and joyful, although it is hardly a laugh-riot.  It is also a deceptively simple film, it has weight, dealing with traditional Ozu themes such as the generation gap, and the changing of Japanese society.  It also pokes fun at small talk and everyday conversational pleasantries, while also acknowledging that they are kind of a necessity. 

Silence is golden for Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu) and Minoru (Shitara Koji) in Good Morning

   

Friday, 17 November 2017

Justice League

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Zack Snyder
Screenplay:  Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, from a story by Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon, based on the comic book series Justice League created by Gardner Fox
Starring:  Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J. K. Simmons
Running Time:  120 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, fantasy, action,

While the world mourns the death of Superman, Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, (Affleck) becomes aware of strange, flying cybernetic alien creatures who are behind a string of abductions in Gotham City and Metropolis.  Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman, (Gadot)  recognises them as Parademons, the army of the evil multi-dimensional entity Steppenwolf who wants to fid three powerful devices that will enable him to take over the world.  Recognising that Steppenwolf is far too powerful for them on their own, Bruce and Diana decide to recruit a team of superheroes:  Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman, (Momoa), from the undersea kingdom of Atlantis; Barry Allen, aka The Flash, (Miller), who suffered an accident that gave him the ability to move at superhuman speeds, and Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Fisher), who was cybernetically reconstructed with alien technology following a near-fatal accident.

This is the fifth film in the DC Extended Universe series, based on characters appearing in DC Comics.  Here they seem to be following the Marvel mold, with more humour than usual and also two post-credit sequences.  The DC movies tend to be criticised for being too dark, and while this is still pretty bleak, it is still much lighter than usual.  The first half of the film is putting the team together, and introducing the characters of The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman into the film universe, previously having only been seen in brief cameos in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), although of course The Flash is likely to be familiar to viewers through the TV series The Flash (2014- ).  The putting the team together scenes are too long, and Steppenwolf and his plan are all revealed too early and feel like kind of an afterthought and the action scenes don't have the sense of danger necessary to really be thrilling.  The performances are fine, Gal Gadot in particular is fantastic as Wonder Woman, and Ezra Miller is very funny as The Flash.  However, when the team are together and interacting and joking that is when the film really takes off.  The added warmth and humanity in the film is welcome, and point to a very promising future for the franchise.  A truly great movie is waiting to be made with these characters.  This isn't it, but gives cause for hope.

Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) are ready for action in  Justice League.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Strange Days

Year of Release:  1995
Director:  Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay:  James Cameron and Jay Cocks, from a story by James Cameron
Starring:  Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Vincent D'Onofrio, Michael Wincott
Running Time:  145 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, thriller

Set during the last two days of 1999, in a nightmarish Los Angeles on the verge of all-out war, the film tells the story of Lenny (Fiennes), an ex-cop turned black market distributor of illegal virtual reality recordings (known as "SQUIDS") which allow the user to relive the memories and experiences of the recorder.  When Lenny stumbles upon a recording of a murder, he and his friend Mace (Bassett) find themselves the targets of a high-level conspiracy.

Watched now, this film feels like a dry-run for Bigleow's Detroit (2017), dealing with similar themes of racial tension and police corruption albeit in a science-fiction setting.  The film is visually stylish, and Bigelow is an excellent action director ensuring that the set-pieces are well-staged, and she creates a real apocalyptic feel to the whole thing.  However the film feels stretched and strangely dated, inevitably due to the setting and the technology, and it never quite escapes it's mid 1990s roots, also Fiennes is too clean-cut for the scuzzy Lenny.  Angela Bassett is impressive, though, as the ass-kicking limo driver, Mace.        

To be fair, it's not really a bad film, and cyberpunk fans should enjoy it, but it's certainly not spectacular. 

Ralph Fiennes and Angel Bassett in Strange Days

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Freddy vs. Jason

Year of Release:  2003
Director:  Ronny Yu
Screenplay:  Damian Shannon and Mark Swift, based on characters created by Wes Craven and Victor Miller
Starring:  Monica Keener, Robert Englund, Ken Kirzinger, Jason Ritter, Chris Marquette, Kelly Rowland, Lochlyn Munro, Katharine Isabelle
Running Time:  93 minutes
Genre:  Horror, action, comedy

The spirit of child-killer Freddy Krueger (Englund) is trapped in Hell and can't get out.  The children of Springwood have forgotten about him, thereby denying him the ability to enter their dreams.  Krueger decides to recruit the aid of serial killer Jason Voorhees (Kirzinger).  Posing as Jason's beloved mother, Freddy convinces him to go to Springwood and start murdering the local teenagers, in the hope that the residents will start to remember, and fear, Freddy again, and thusly give him back his power.  The plan works perfectly, but now that Freddy doesn't need Jason anymore, he realises that he hadn't thought how to stop Jason.  Didn't think that one through, Freddy!  For his part, Jason is too busy enjoying his favourite pastime, and has no intention of returning to Hell.  Meanwhile, a rapidly diminishing group of teenagers have to work out how to survive and stop both of them.

Back in the 1980s, Freddy Krueger (of the A Nightmare on Elm Street films) and Jason Voorhees (of the Friday the 13th films) were the titans of screen horror, as the number of sequels in both franchises mounted up, alongside TV shows, video games, books, comics, and a deluge of other merchandising, fans were keen to see them both go head to head, and initial plans for Freddy vs. Jason were discussed as early as 1987.  However, at the time, the characters were owned by different studios, and they couldn't agree on a story, as well as the fact that both franchises started to decline in popularity.  The resulting film is fairly mediocre, with most of the best scenes being before the titular showdown.  The problem is that neither of the characters can really be hurt.  They stab, slash, punch, burn, kick and drown each other, as well as being thrown around like ragdolls, without apparently being hurt much at all, for what feels at times like an eternity.  Also it's kind of hard to care.  Robert Englund, as ever, seems to have a great time as Freddy Krueger, and adds some much needed vest to the proceedings.  Ken Kirzinger as Jason (taking over from Kane Hodder the actor most identified in the role) has little to do but shamble around.  The teen characters (which include Monica Keener from Dawson's Creek, singer Kelly Rowland from Destiny's Child, and Katharine Isabelle from Ginger Snaps (2001)) are given some attempts at backstory early on, but by the second half of the film are little more than spectators.  The performances range from passable to abysmal.
This is really aimed at fans of the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street films, and they probably will enjoy it.  Newcomers, however, are likely to be completely lost. To be fair, it has a few cool scenes and special effects, and some of the jokes are quite funny, if you are in the right frame of mind for it, you can have fun with this one.  It's a bad movie, but is kind of fun in a bad "B" movie way.

Jason (Ken Kirzinger) and Freddy (Robert Englund) are badly in need of a good plumber in Freddy vs. Jason.               

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Happy Death Day

Year of Release:  2017
Director:  Christopher B. Landon
Screenplay:  Scott Lobdell
Starring:  Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine
Running Time:  107 minutes
Genre:  Horror, comedy, slasher

Obnoxious college student Tree (Rothe) wakes up on the morning of her birthday in a stranger's dorm room.  She goes through the rest of a pretty miserable day, being as horrible as possible to everyone around her.  Until the evening when she is murdered by a masked killer.  However, Tree wakes up in the stranger's dorm room, and soon realises that she is being forced to relive the day of her murder, over and over again, until she can stop the killer, and survive the day.  And you thought your birthdays were bad!

The obvious comparisons to make are with the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day (which has the same concept of a person being forced to relive the same day over and over again - and which is namechecked in the film) and with the 1996 film Scream (with which it shares a similar sense of humour).  The film starts slowly and it takes some time to really get into it, but once it gets there it is funny and exciting.  Jessica Rothe gives a fantastic performance in a difficult central role.  She plays a very unlikeable character, but gives her enough depth, so that the audience goes along with her through her journey. There are elements in the film which are introduced but not really followed through on, such as her relationship with her father and what happened to her mother.  Some horror fans may be disappointed because it is neither particularly scary or particularly gruesome, but there are plenty of shocks and an intriguing mystery.  The film does a good job of building and maintaining the mystery, and the scenes were Tree conducts her investigations are very funny.  The killer's creepy baby mask is memorable, and it's a good film for people who may enjoy the odd scary movie, but are not big horror fans.       

Look behind you:  Jessica Rothe in Happy Death Day