Dracula: The Dark Prince (2013, Pearry Teo)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: There’s a short prologue set in 1453, then the main action takes place a century later. Despite being set in Romania, everyone on screen seems Anglo-Saxon.

Faithful to the novel? No. It’s a period film with yet another telling of the myth based on Vlad the Impaler. It’s also another film where Dracula’s long-dead love is resurrected as another character – in this case a woman called Alina (Kelly Wenham), who dresses in kinky leather as she searches for a mythical weapon. Dracula (Luke Roberts) is said to be the descendent of the Biblical Able. He renounces God after his girlfriend is killed by invading Turks, so a touchy God responds by condemning him with immortality. The non-Bram Stoker storyline sees Alina team up with others, including a vampire hunter called Leonardo Van Helsing (Jon Voight), to fight evil. In nods to the novel, Dracula has several Brides at his CGI castle, as well as an advisor called Renfield (Stephen Hogan).

Best performance: No one’s great. Jon Voight – an Oscar-winning actor, of course – is especially poor with a cod accent and a Monty Python prosthetic nose. But Ben Robson isn’t too bad as a charismatic thief called Lucian.

Best bit: The prologue contains a battle sequence stylishly – and presumably cost-effectively – presented as animation.

Review: It’s never very clear what any of the characters actually want in this straight-to-DVD movie. There’s a MacGuffin that seems to be important; Dracula is keen on knowing Alina. But nothing drives the story – certainly not any of the characters. It’s corny, cliched trash for the most part. The near-constant incidental music drones on, treating every scene as if it has equal importance. And that’s also true of the flat, drab and uninteresting storytelling.

Four frozen seas out of 10

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My 20 favourite TV title sequences – part four

Note: I’ve restricted myself to dramas and comedies.

Part one here. Part two here. Part three here.

5 Magnum PI (1980-1988)

4 Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)

3 Black Sails (2014 onwards)

2 The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996)

1 Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989-2013)

 

Climax!: Casino Royale (William H Brown Jr, 21 October 1954)

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SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists.

“Live!” a dramatic voiceover declares at the start. “From Television City in Hollywood!” This adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first novel was the third episode of Climax!, an anthology series shown on American TV network CBS. Without its advert breaks, the surviving copy runs for about 50 minutes – so let’s see how it measures up… It begins with a short introduction by host William Lundigan, who explains what a shoe is in a game of baccarat. It’s nice of him, but I’m not sure why we need an intro. We’re then into an abbreviated version of the book’s plot. The episode is entirely shot on interior sets, a necessity because it was broadcast live, while the script is dialogue-heavy. It’s melodrama, essentially, and not especially engaging. We don’t get to the crucial card game until about 25 minutes in, and when it arrives it’s a drab seven minutes, lacking any tension. Sadly, the stakes don’t feel especially high. Better is the final act set in a hotel room – events turn surprisingly nasty, though it’s a shame that Bond wins by simply nabbing a gun and killing the bad guy. Five razor blades (for slashing purposes) out of 10

Bond: Barry Nelson became the first actor to play 007 on screen, though this is not the character as later defined in the film series. This guy’s American, works for a nebulous ‘combined intelligence’ agency, and people call him Jimmy. It’s not an especially good performance, but to his credit Nelson seems genuinely in pain during the torture scene.

Villains: Peter Lorre plays the bad guy, Le Chiffre, who has bodyguards called Basil, Zoltan and Zuroff. (Basil!) He’s oddly watchable in the classic Lorre style, though the performance lacks the sparkle the actor used in, say, The Maltese Falcon. He seems to be going through the motions. (Presumably the script was tailored once Lorre was cast: Le Chiffre is called a ‘toad-like creature’.) After losing all his money to Bond in the card game, Le Chiffre threatens to torture him to ‘a point beyond madness’. He then brandishes a pair of pliers and does something with them to Bond’s foot. (This is 1950s American telly, so of course there’s none of the novel’s testicle-bashing.)

Girls: Valerie Mathis (Linda Christian) is like a film-noir dame – all tortured and haunted. She’s an ex of Bond’s who now works for the French secret service, but is being coerced by Le Chiffre. She’s basically taking book character Vesper Lynd’s role in the narrative, though she doesn’t suffer Vesper’s fate.

Regulars: Clarence Leiter (Michael Pate) is a combination of two characters from the novel: Felix Leiter and Rene Mathis. After a fun bit of coded business with matchsticks, he and Bond confirm who the other is and team up. Leiter works for British intelligence and gives Bond his mission.

Action: A smattering of gunfire at the start. Bond is seemingly knocked out by a goon, but the key hit comes *during an advert break*. Later, there are a couple of minor scuffles.

Comedy: There’s an amusing bit where Bond and Leiter discuss the case, but have to switch to a jovial chat about baccarat if anyone walks up to them. Later, there are funny cutaways to Le Chiffre listening to the bug he’s placed in Jimmy’s room (Bond has turned the music up loud).

Music: There are a few short bursts of dramatic incidental music, which sound like library cues.

Personal connection: Viewing the episode in order to write this review was the first time I’d ever watched the whole thing through. It was thought lost for many years, but then an incomplete copy was found in 1981. Most of the remaining footage has turned up since.

Serenity (2005, Joss Whedon)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In this movie spin-off from Firefly, the crew of Serenity must protect one of their own – the ‘reader’ River Tam – who’s being hunted by an assassin…

Written and directed by Joss Whedon.

Best performance: Oh, let’s just say all of them. This is one of the great ensemble casts, and it’s so lovely that they got a chance to shine on the big screen.

Best bits: Listing every single one would go on forever, especially given how witty the dialogue is. So despite its length, this is still a cut-down selection…
* The opening scene, explaining the world for viewers who don’t know the TV series… which is then revealed to be a dream as we cut to River being experimented on in laboratory… a scene that’s then revealed to be a hologramatic recreation being watched by a mysterious Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
* The never-named Operative’s partly noble, partly sadistic way of killing people. It involves paralysing them and letting them fall on a sword.
* The first image of Serenity itself: a CG shot of the ship entering a planet’s atmosphere. (You can see Mal through the cockpit’s window: cute touch.)
* A 253-second-long take, which introduces the seven crew members on board and lays out Serenity’s internal geography – all while the ship rocks and rolls from the re-entry. The dialogue is smart and stylish, and the shot ends on key character River. (There’s actually a hidden edit halfway through the four-minute shot as Mal and Simon move from the ship’s upper level to the lower.)
* The crew’s hover-buggy vehicle.
* River’s steampunk goggles.
* The slick sequence of the crew robbing a bank, which of course goes badly.
* The zombie-like Reavers show up! (These savage, barbaric people were hinted at in early TV episodes, but then seemed to drop out of the mix. A 15-certificate movie allows them to be seen, not just discussed.)
* Mal kills someone rather than leave him to the Reavers.
* River: “I swallowed a bug.”
* Kaylee, frustrated that her crush Simon is planning to leave: “Going on a year now I ain’t had nothing betweixt my nethers weren’t run on batteries.” Mal says he doesn’t want to know that; Jayne says he could stand to hear more.
* River beating up a room full of people – an action sequence demonstrably performed by actress Summer Glau herself.
* Simon explains that he has a trigger word that will put River to sleep. When he nearly says it, Jayne panics – assuming it works on anyone.
* Mal and Inara’s guarded chat over a vid-link. It’s obvious they haven’t spoken for a while (she was planning to leave the ship as the TV show ended), while there are fun cutaways to Wash, Zoe, Kaylee and Jayne eavesdropping on the chat.
* Mal says Inara’s call for help is a trap. The others question how he knows that. “Do you see us fight?” “No.” “Trap.”
* Mal’s first confrontation with the Operative. There’s cagey dialogue, then the Operative says he’s not armed – so Mal shoots him.
* Mal faces mutiny from Jayne. “You wanna run this ship?” Mal asks in frustration. “Yeah,” says Jayne. Mal: “Well… you can’t.”
* Shepherd Book dies…
* Mal’s macabre plan to pose as Reavers.
* The saturated look to the scenes on the planet Miranda.
* A super, smooth, circular Steadicam shot of River as she freaks out.
* Oh, look: it’s Sarah Paulson from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
* Serenity crash-lands.
* Wash is killed! On first viewing, it was around now that I started to assume the film was going to kill off the entire crew – an idea that the story then teases you with as virtually everyone is injured or placed in a life-threatening situation. (According to rumour, Wash bit the bullet because actor Alan Tudyk refused to sign up for potential sequels without a big pay bump.)
* Kaylee resigns herself to the fact she’s going to die. But then Simon says his biggest regret is never being with her. “As in sex?” she asks, perking up. She then resolves to survive the battle.
* River dives into a room full of Reavers and the doors close… When we next see her – in a dramatically framed hero shot – we discover she’s killed them all.
* The coda scene of Mal flying Serenity with River as his co-pilot.

Review: This film faced a tough task: having to appeal to both fans and newbies. And given that Firefly wasn’t a mainstream hit, most of the audience for this movie version would be coming to it fresh. So the River situation – the biggest character arc from the series – is focused on again, but the script actually goes deeper than ever before so old hands don’t feel patronised. We get a decent story, providing lots of action, a huge amount of wit and plenty of suspense. It’s extremely entertaining. It’s well written too, with information smartly hidden beneath breezy dialogue, and looks very cinematic. (The camerawork is often expressive and classy.) Maybe what’s most impressive is the economy. Many scenes are doing double-duty, servicing plot and character, action and exposition, drama and comedy… There’s just a sharpness to everything, which means the film rattles along and is never boring. It has very little fat on it. In fact, you could say it’s gone on a diet – presumably writer/director/creator/geek god Joss Whedon thought having nine regular characters was too cumbersome for a movie script. So two of them are absent as the story begins, while Wash is reduced to a pilot with mostly functional dialogue. Inara only joins the action after 42 minutes; Book is little more than a cameo. But this streamlining works well, with maybe only Book feeling short-changed. It’s practically criminal that the Firefly story ended here.

Ten certain older civilised cultures out of 10

Firefly: Objects in Space (13 December 2002, Joss Whedon)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A man sneaks aboard Serenity, hunting for River…

Written and directed by Joss Whedon.

Best performance: Guest star Richard Brooks as the bounty hunter Jubal Early. He has a whimsical manner and spouts philosophy, yet is stealthy, dangerous and threatening. (Joss Whedon modelled the character in part on Boba Fett.)

Best bits:
* The opening SFX shot: a zoom into Serenity, through its innards and ending on River – the key character of the episode.
* A series of moments where River observes her colleagues – Simon and Kaylee, Jayne and Book, Wash and Zoe, Mal and Inara – and we see the conversations through her warped and possibly psychic POV.
* A stunning cut from River holding a stick to what’s really going on: she’s actually holding a loaded gun.
* The incidental music is great, especially an oboe-like cue linked to the character of Jubal Early.
* Silently, calmly and efficiently, Early breaks into Serenity while it’s alone in deep space.
* A pair of camera moves in the same scene of the crew discussing River – one goes through the floor to reveal River eavesdropping from below; the other goes through the ceiling to reveal Early eavesdropping from above.
* Wash scoffs at the idea that River is psychic. “That sounds like something out of science fiction,” he says. Zoe: “You live on a spaceship, dear.”
* Mal unexpectedly comes face to face with Early in the ship’s corridor.
* Early confronts Kaylee in a scene of real menace. “Have you ever been raped?” he asks nonchalantly.
* Simon asks Early if he’s “Alliance,” but Early mishears him: “Am I a lion? [Considering it] I have a mighty roar.”
* River talking over the Tannoy, claiming to have become the incorporeal essence of the ship. It’s a stunning bluff, coming just as you’re starting to think the episode is morphing into 2001: A Space Odyssey.
* River, despite only talking to him over a radio, knows that Mal has pulled a face.
* The reveal of where River is actually hiding: in Early’s spaceship.
* Jayne, who’s been sleeping through the whole incident, is woken by the noise of a nearby fight… so turns over and goes back to sleep.
* A super 77-second Steadicam shot that moves through various spaces, encompasses all nine regulars and ends on a smiling River.

Review: Objects in Space is a lyrical episode, full of beautiful imagery, mounting tension, deep questions, point-of-view switches and smart storytelling. In fact, it often feels more like an art film than an episode from a science-fiction show. Various threads in River’s character arc are drawn together then weaved into a thriller plot featuring the deliberately arch and cool Early. He and River are two sides of the same coin. They share an overwhelming awareness of existence and each *experience* life and the physical world, rather than just live in it. “People don’t appreciate the substance of things,” Early says at one point, not long after we’ve seen River fascinated by her mundane surroundings. Questions of how meaning is created also run throughout the story – for example, River picks up what to her is a harmless object, but we recognise it as a gun. Yet this is far from a drab existential exercise: it’s also gripping, exciting, tense, classy. What a sensational ending to the series, which makes you ache even more that it was cut so short. At least there’s still a movie to watch…

Ten embarrassingly large stacks of money out of 10

Firefly: Heart of Gold (4 August 2003, Thomas J Wright)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Inara is contacted by a friend who asks for help in defending her brothel from a local thug…

Written by Brett Matthews. Directed by Thomas J Wright.

Best performance: Another lovely turn from Morena Baccarin as Inara.

Best bits:
* The whorehouse is covered in solar-panelling – a nice sci-fi twist.
* Inara disturbs Mal while he’s cleaning his guns. “It’s not altogether wise to sneak up on a fella while he’s handling his weapon,” he says. “I’ve heard that said,” replies Inara.
* Mal assuming that the distress signal is for him. It’s actually for Inara.
* Jayne doesn’t want any part of the job, but then Mal says, “They’re whores.” Jayne: “I’m in.”
* Jayne’s glee at being in a brothel. “My John Thomas is about to pop off!”
* The scene at the theatre, including a sadly briefly seen shadow-puppet show.
* Having met bad guy Ranse Burgess, Mal decides they should all run away.
* Jayne braiding his favourite prostitute’s hair.
* One of the hookers goes into labour. Simon and Inara, who’ll have to deliver the baby, say it’s their first time. “Mine too,” adds River.
* A shockingly nasty moment when Burgess forces a prostitute who works for him to give him a blowjob.
* Inara learns that Mal and her friend Nandi slept together – she pretends to be fine with it, but then we see her crying in private.
* River’s mostly dialogue-free fascination with the labour.
* Nandi is shot by Burgess and dies. Mal and Inara share a killer look that says, ‘Get him.’
* A shock ending: Inara says she’s leaving the crew.

Review: After a run of sci-fi-heavy stories, this is the most Western-y the show has been since at least Jaynestown. Featuring a brothel, bad guys on horses and a torch-lit frontier town, it evolves into a cowboy-style siege-and-shootout episode. It may have a rather dull and one-dimensional villain – not for the first time in this series, it must be said – but there’s also some typically witty dialogue and another boost of energy to the Mal/Inara romance.

Eight small, concealable weapons out of 10

Firefly: The Message (28 July 2003, Tim Minear)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The crew call in at a post office to find a package waiting for them. The package contains a dead body…

Written by Joss Whedon and Tim Minear. Directed by Tim Minear.

Best performance: Surprisingly, given that it’s not especially ‘about’ her, this is a good Kaylee episode. Jewel Staite has flirting and frustration to play in scenes with Simon, while the A-plot affects her character deeply.

Best bits:
* Kaylee and Simon swapping playful banter while at a freak show – until, that is, Simon jokes that every other woman he knows is married, a prostitute or his sister, so Kaylee’s his only option.
* River and her candy-floss-style confectionary that dangles from a string. “My food is problematic,” she says.
* Jayne received a package from his mother: it contains a hat. (“Pretty cunning, don’t you think?” he says.)
* Mal and Zoe received a package too: it contains a dead body.
* A flashback to seven years previously: Mal and Zoe fighting in the war and meeting a guy called Tracey (who we recognise as the corpse).
* Zoe: “First rule of battle… Never let them know where you are.” Mal then runs in, screaming and shouting at the enemy troops he’s shooting at.
* The space station, with its Asian aesthetic and big-screen advertisements, is not a million miles away from Blade Runner.
* Kaylee’s hammock in the engine room – a delightful example of how good this show’s production design is. There’s storytelling in every little detail.
* Simon begins an autopsy… and the body wakes up.
* Wash freaked out by seeing Tracey alive and well.
* Jayne wearing his new hat during the climactic showdown.
* The gang delivering Tracey’s now-dead-for-real body to his family on a snow-covered planet. Aside from one small pick-up, this was the final scene ever shot for the series, a fact the cast knew at the time.

Review: A low-key episode that – despite a nice melancholic tone – never quite punches home. Still eminently watchable.

Seven other schools of thought out of 10