Dracula (1979, John Badham)

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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: The entire film takes place in and around Whitby – so we never see Castle Dracula nor go to London. It’s slightly later than the 1890s of the novel, evidenced by the presence of cars. Some sources claim it’s 1913.

Faithful to the novel? The script is based on the 1920s stage adaptation of Dracula and differs from the book in several key ways.
* As mentioned above, the action is limited to Whitby.
* The story begins with the wreck of the Demeter and the eponymous character’s arrival in Britain.
* Unlike in the novel, Count Dracula (Frank Langella) makes friends with the good guys before starting to seduce the women.
* The hero characters’ relationships have been jumbled around. Lucy (Kate Nelligan) is now the daughter of Dr Jack Seward (a fruity Donald Pleasence), rather than someone he wants to marry. Her other suitors from the book, Arthur and Quincey, have been dropped. And her role in the story has also been swapped with that of her friend Mina (Jan Francis), who now becomes Dracula’s first victim. In another break from the book, Mina is the daughter of Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier), who appears on the scene after she dies.
* Because of the Lucy/Mina switch, solicitor Jonathan Harker (an over-keen Trevor Eve) is now the boyfriend of Lucy. He also never goes to Transylvania, though is still dealing with the Count’s affairs.
* Local man Renfield (Tony Haygarth) is not an inmate at Seward’s sanatorium, as in the novel, but he still falls under Dracula’s thrall.
* The building the vampire has bought, meanwhile, is in Whitby not London – and is a Gothic castle rather than a townhouse.

Best performance: Frank Langella had been playing Dracula in a Broadway revival of the stage play since October 1977. Whether trading cool repartee over dinner or climbing down the side of a building, the Count exudes charm and authority. He wears a cape but uses a neutral accent and, at the insistence of Langella, never flashes any fangs.

Best bit: Well, it’s certainly not the bit where Mina can’t breathe after her sexual encounter with Dracula. What does medical expert Dr Seward do? He slaps her round the face and shouts the word ‘Breathe’ a few times. Not too surprisingly, she then dies. More positively, the sight of the undead Mina is a creepy bit of make-up.

Review: There’s some great staging in this film. The sets are very impressive, while the wreck of the Demeter on a beach is achieved via a full-size ship on a real location. There’s also a good attempt to beef up the gothic-romance side of the story, especially in the subplot of Lucy’s fascination with Dracula. (Their ‘sex scene’ is dramatised by trippy, music-video-like visuals put together by James Bond title-sequence designer Maurice Binder.) John Williams’s score is terrific too. But the whole enterprise has a very earnest tone. The cast – some good, some poor – are fighting against a lacklustre script and the cinematography is very cold with lots of drab, lifeless greys. (Although, perhaps I’m being unfair on that last point because the movie on DVD looks very different from its 1979 print. Director John Badham had wanted to shoot the film in black and white – partly as a homage to the 1931 Dracula – but was overruled by his bosses at Universal Pictures. So when it was released on Laserdisc in 1991, he took the opportunity to de-saturate the image, bringing it closer in line with his original vision. That’s the default version now, which is a shame.)

Six children of the night (what sad music they make) out of 10

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The Karate Kid (2010, Harald Zwart)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

American Dre Parker is the target of bullies when he moves to Beijing, so the local handyman comes to his aid…

Cast and story:
* This remake of The Karate Kid, filmed 26 years after the original, follows the same basic storyline. But there are also some significant changes.
* Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is an American boy who’s forced to move to China when his mother, Shelley (Taraji P Henson), gets a new job. Unlike the original movie’s 16-year-old Daniel, Dre is just 12.
* They leave a drab, saturated, rainy Detroit and fly to the vibrant, bright, busy Beijing. It soon becomes clear that one of the aims of this American/Chinese co-production is to show off China in a positive light. Both the city and the surrounding countryside look gorgeous, while the film ignores any difficult political stuff.
* Having moved into an apartment building, Dre soon meets handyman Han (Jackie Chan). He’s a bit of a loner and doesn’t mix with the other workmen. (Han solo, you might say.) He also tinkers with a damaged car that’s parked inside his home.
* Dre then plays basketball with some new friends (not football, as in the 1984 film). He flirts with a girl called Meiying (Wenwen Han) but irritates a local bully called Cheng (Zhenwei Wang). Cheng and his cronies are soon picking on Dre, who tries to fight back but ends up getting hurt.
* So, wanting a way of defending himself, Dre seeks out a local kung-fu school. (Yup, that’s right. Because we’re in China, the story’s martial art is kung-fu not karate. They kept the movie title from 1984 just for marketing reasons.) But wouldn’t you know it? The school he investigates is where Cheng and co are being taught how to be thugs by a psycho sensei.
* This telling of the story has no fancy-dress party, but Dre – like Daniel before him – still can’t resist tipping water over Cheng and legging it. Cheng gives chase through the streets and eventually corners him. Cheng and his gang then start to beat Dre up, but Han appears and stops them with ease… Now, here is a significant area where this movie has missed the point of the original. In the 1984 film, it’s a huge moment when the elderly, short, meek Mr Miyagi quashes a rough, tough gang of aggressive teenagers. He shouldn’t be able to do that! Here, however, the teenagers have been aged down to 12. And the Mr Miyagi figure is played by Jackie fucking Chan. *Of course* he can best a gang of brats. He’d still win if there were a hundred of them! The surprise, the wow factor, is totally lost by these casting choices.
* Han visits the king-fu school and – like Mr Miyagi in 1984 – strikes a deal with the bullies’ teacher, Li (Yu Rongguang). Cheng will leave Dre alone until after an upcoming tournament. The sequence is capped by a good gag: because the deal is struck in Chinese, it’s only on the walk home that Dre finds out he has to fight in a competition. “Huh?” he asks, not unreasonably.
* We then get the equivalent of the wax-on/wax-off stuff from the original – but with a nice twist. Dre has a habit of dropping his coat on the floor, and Han had earlier seen his mother getting irate about it. So, to begin with, Dre’s training regime consists *only* of him hanging his jacket up, putting it back on, taking it off, hanging it up again… and so on, ad infinitum. Of course, Dre gets frustrated with doing this a thousand times, but he’s unconsciously learning the basic kung-fu moves.
* Meanwhile, Dre is also still trying to chat up Meiying. They see each other at a shadow-puppet show and share a kiss. But her fussy parents object to her dating an American boy when she should be practising the violin. (Later, though, they’re impressed when Dre learns how to suck up to them in Chinese.)
* Jackie Chan then gets the same drama scene that Pat Morita had in the original: Dre finds Han drunk and mourning his dead family. Mr Miyagi’s wife and son died 40 years earlier in childbirth; Han’s were killed in a car crash – in the car he’s now obsessively tinkering with. It’s a very sweet moment when Dre pulls his friend out of his depression.
* After a training montage, we’re into the Open Kung-fu Tournament. The story then follows much the same beats as in 1984.

Review: This remake of The Karate Kid is enjoyable enough, with a mixture of pros and cons. It’s directed with an indie sensibility, so as well as lots of handheld camerawork we get some lovely and kooky images. When the drama comes it’s often effective – especially the moment when Dre realises Han’s been teaching him to fight – while the fights themselves are great; helped by some violent sound effects, you feel every punch and kick. But the movie is too long (135 minutes) and lowering the characters’ ages works against the story. Writing Dre and the other kids as 12-year-olds makes the bullies seem silly rather than menacing; gives Han an unfair advantage; and pushes Dre’s ‘romance’ with Meiying into uncomfortable territory. Presumably the switch was made so that Jaden Smith – the son of executive producer Will Smith – could be cast.

Six cobras out of 10

The Karate Kid Part II (1986, John G Avildsen)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Mr Miyagi hears that his father is dying, he returns home to Okinawa. His young friend Daniel comes with him, but both are soon the targets of bullies…

Cast and story:
* We begin with a recap montage of the first film. (Don’t you miss sequels that did that?) So we’re reminded of how schoolboy Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) met handyman-cum-karate-teacher Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita) and how a close friendship developed between them. It’s a lengthy sequence: almost five minutes.
* Then there are scenes set immediately after the climax of the first film. Daniel’s mum and girlfriend are said to have gone on ahead to a restaurant (to save hiring the actresses), but bad guy John Kreese (Martin Kove) is there. He’s aggressive and racist, so Mr Miyagi puts him in his place and embarrasses him.
* We then cut to six months later. Daniel has been dumped off-screen by Ali, while his mother has to go away for a few weeks for work, then Mr M gets a letter from an old pal in Okinawa. His father is seriously ill so he must leave for Japan. Faithful Daniel goes too because he’s now at a loose end over summer.
* When they arrive, things don’t go well. Miyagi’s former best friend, Sato (Danny Kamekona), is still holding a grudge from 45 years earlier and wants a fight to the death. Turns out, Mr M fell in love with a woman who was planning to marry Sato.
* Our heroes also meet Chozen Toguchi (Yuji Okumoto), a young thug with a shit-eating grin who works for his uncle Sato. He takes against Daniel because… well, you know, plot.
* Also living in the village are Yukie (Nobu McCarthy), the woman Miyagi fell in love with, and her hot niece Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita), who shares a flirtation subplot with Daniel. In one romantic sequence the young pair explore a coastal area typified by some dodgy matte paintings of ancient ruins.
* After Mr M’s father dies, Sato gives him three days to mourn but then wants the duel he’s been waiting 45 years for. Meanwhile, Daniel has pissed off Chozen (somehow) so he’s got problems of his own.
* After a lot of going round in circles, things finally reach a head when there’s a violent storm. Sato’s house is destroyed, but because Mr M is a nice guy he saves his rival’s life. Sato is grateful and the grudge is forgotten (yay!).
* However, Chozen still wants to hurt Daniel (seriously, pal, get over it!). So he gate-crashes a ceremonial dance being held in the matte-painting castle and attacks Daniel. The pair fight and Daniel gets the upper hand, but because he’s a nice guy he declines to kill his rival.

Review: This disappointing sequel suffers from three main problems. Firstly, it lacks drive. There’s a sedate pace to the storytelling – especially in the middle third – while neither Mr Miyagi nor Daniel are ever attempting to achieve anything beyond ‘not getting beaten up’. Secondly, the dialogue is often tiresome with lots of scenes of Daniel asking questions and Mr M explaning Okinawan culture. There are also several lines that feel like they’ve been added to explain a plot hole (“But I thought you said…”, that kind of thing). And thirdly, the story is difficult to get excited about. The plot sees grown men bullying the elderly and a teenager over something that happened 45 years ago. You spend half the film wondering why Daniel and Mr Miyagi don’t just shrug their shoulders and go back home. Even potentially interesting story material feels thrown away. Our characters’ overseas visit is a trip back in time – to a country of old cars, antiquated customs and rock’n’roll music. Meanwhile, a nearby US Army base is eating up the village, bringing modernity and danger. Helicopters sometimes fly past in the background of bucolic scenes. But none of this has any bearing on the story.

Six handheld drums out of 10

Be Here Now (1997)

oasis-be-here-now-artwork-large-1469112956Cover: An archly staged shot of the band in the grounds of a Georgian mansion. The Rolls-Royce in the swimming pool is a reference to an urban myth about Keith Moon of The Who. What’s less obvious is that the motor’s number plate (SYD 724F) is the same as a van’s on the cover of the Beatles album Abbey Road. Be Here Now’s release date (Thursday 21 August) is visible on a calendar, while the inflatable globe is a call-back to the Definitely Maybe artwork. The album title doesn’t actually appear on the cover.

Best track: D’You Know What I Mean? was the album’s lead single and is its opening track. It’s a Hollywood blockbuster with huge guitar sounds, massive production, electronic noises, a string section, a wild guitar solo and even aircraft flying by. The lyrics mention two Beatles songs – The Fool on the Hill and I Feel Fine – while some Morse-code beeping is a reference to another: Strawberry Fields Forever. The track also uses the ‘Amen break’ drum pattern, one of the most copied pieces of music ever. In 2016, a remix called D’You Know What I Mean? (NG’s 2016 Rethink) was released. It tones down some of the excessive production and is a blander listen. The strings are more prominent, but it misses the original’s oomph.

Honourable mentions:
* Noel Gallagher sings the lead vocal on Magic Pie, which starts out pleasingly gentle then takes off. There’s a vaguely psychedelic feel at times, as well as lyrics that paraphrase a speech Tony Blair gave at the 1996 Labour Party Conference: “There are but a thousand days preparing for a thousand years.” (Coincidentally, Be Here Now was mastered on the first day of Blair’s premiership.) The track does admittedly bang on, which is a recurring problem with this album.
* Stand By Me was the album’s second single. It got to number two, being held off the top spot by Elton John’s Candle in the Wind 1997. Written while Noel had food poisoning – hence the line “Made a meal and threw it up on Sunday” – it’s obviously not a patch on the Ben E King song of the same name. But it’s still a likeable, string-driven ballad.
* Fade In-Out has a Wild West-sounding opening – all stark, skeletal guitars, like something from a Bon Jovi B-side. Then a primal scream at the 190-second mark kicks it into a higher gear – the idea for which came to Noel late one night and he woke his wife up by trying it out. Incidentally, Johnny Depp plays slide guitar on this track. (It was the 90s.)
* The soulful Don’t Go Away was written in 1993 when Oasis were hanging out with a band called The Real People, who later hinted it was a naughty copy of one of their tracks.
* All Around the World is frankly ridiculous – a nine-minute, repetitive, derivative and simplistic singalong with three key changes. But you have to chuckle at the sheer gall. It was actually written before Definitely Maybe, but Noel held off recording it until he had the muscle to produce it as an overblown epic. The song became the longest-ever number one when released as a single in January 1998. Hardly original in itself, it was then uncannily echoed in the melody of Hear’Say’s 2001 hit Pure and Simple. Noel was asked whether he’d like to sue for plagiarism. Showing the kind of self-awareness he rarely gets enough credit for, he just laughed.

Worst track: Whereas the enormous production on D’You Know What I Mean? sounds tight and controlled, My Big Mouth is just a rambling mess. It reportedly has 30 separate guitars on it, which swamp an already boring tune. People who dismiss Oasis as ‘dad rock’ probably think this is what all their songs sound like.

Weirdest lyric: In the drab title track, this nonsensical verse appears twice: “Wash your face in the morning sun/Flash your pen at the song that I’m singing/Touch down bass living on the run/Make no sweat of the hole that you’re digging.” There’s then a mention of Digsy, the band’s mate who had a whole song written about him on Definitely Maybe.

Best video: The promo for All Around the World drops Oasis into a surreal animation that owes a great debt to the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine and not a small amount to the work of Terry Gilliam.

Review: The week of Be Here Now’s release seemed amazingly stage-managed. On the Tuesday there was a hubris-heavy documentary about the band on BBC1. Radio play of the album’s tracks was limited (reportedly because the record company thought they weren’t very good). Then branches of HMV opened at midnight on Thursday morning for eager fans to buy the album as soon as possible. All this created mystery and anticipation and resulted in first-day sales of 424,000 copies – an astronomical figure. But now it’s been 20 years (!) and the dust has not only settled but been blown away and forgotten, how does Be Here Now stand up? Sadly, it lacks the quality-control of the first two Oasis LPs. A number of songs are bland, almost all of them are too long, lyrics plumb new depths of meaninglessness, and the production is overblown in a way that only cocaine-quaffing rock bands can achieve. There is good stuff here, but it’s overshadowed by the bad.

Six questions are the answers you might need out of 10

Dracula: The Impaler (2013, Derek Hockenburgh)

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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: The modern day, plus a few flashbacks to the 15th century. We start somewhere in America, then the main bulk of the story is in Transylvania – specifically at Vlad the Impaler’s castle.

Faithful to the novel? This low-budget, straight-to-DVD movie starts with seven friends celebrating the end of high school with a pool party and beer pong. They’re all off to college soon, so decide to go on a holiday beforehand. Based on a dream had by rich kid Adam (Christian Gehring), they decide to visit Vlad Tepes’s castle in Transylvania. They’ve all heard of the fictional Count Dracula, who was based on Vlad, because Bram Stoker’s book exists in this fiction. At the castle, they meet a young woman called Veronica (Diana Busuioc). She plays host and tells them about Vlad (Gregory Lee Kenyon), who in 1476 or so accepted being an immortal vampire as a trade-off for his love Elisabet being spared death. The film soon becomes a slasher-flick: the fat friend (Mark Jacobson) is attacked by weird baldy men caked in mud, the phone-obsessed friend (Rocco Nugent) is impaled, and the blonde friend (Christina Collard) is torn to pieces by Dracula’s Brides-types who appear in that one scene. At the climax, as one survivor is tortured by another, we start to question whether what we’ve seen took place the way we saw it…

Best performance: In tone and performance, the sexy Veronica is not a million miles away from the Red Woman in Game of Thrones. She’s played by one of the movie’s writers, who’s also the wife of the director.

Best bit: When the survivors find two of their friends dead, their reaction is one of violent distress. One character even retches. It’s a nice bit of genuine emotion, which lifts the film above the Scooby-Doo surroundings.

Review: This is a poor film with plenty of blemishes: the cast is variable, the story is muddied, scenes set at night are lit by floodlights, unwanted shadows appear on people’s faces, a scene set on a moving train is filmed with a rock-solid camera and actors sitting stock still… But there are a few things in its favour. For a start, the gang of friends do actually feel like real pals. They swear at each other, have in-jokes and take the piss, which helps set them up for when they go through the various traumas. The script also contains a couple of funny scene transitions and there’s some trippy editing. It’s barely a vampire film, barely a Dracula film, but it passes the time well enough.

Six promise rings out of 10

Doctor Strange (2016, Scott Derrickson)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After neurosurgeon Dr Stephen Strange is badly injured in a car crash, he loses the full use of his hands. Feeling that Western medicine has failed him, he seeks guidance from the Ancient One, an expert in mystic arts….

The lead character of this film is an arrogant, rich genius with a goatie beard who’s played by Sherlock Holmes. His demeanour is marked by lots of sarcasm and showing off, but he then suffers a trauma that makes him question his place in the world. After a period of training and experimentation, he decides to dress up and fight evil… While Doctor Strange is not exactly a remake of 2008’s Iron Man, the similarities are remarkable. One huge difference, however, is that this movie turns its back on the plausible science of Tony Stark’s world. In its place comes full-on weirdness. At the start of the story, Dr Stephen Strange (a reliable Benedict Cumberbatch) is working in a New York hospital. He’s good at his job, swaps banter with his colleagues, and flirts with ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer (an underused Rachel McAdams, who was coincidentally in Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock movies). It’s a thoroughly modern feel, full of ER procedures, pop-culture references and even a long walk-and-talk shot in a corridor. But Strange’s life turns upside down when his hands, so vital to his work, are badly damaged in an accident. (Eagle-eyed viewers – and people looking for things to mention in blog posts – will spot a ‘hand’ motif in this film. There are many close-ups of hands, lots of actors use hand gestures, and at one point Stephen even hallucinates about hands growing out of hands growing out of hands.) Desolate and depressed, scientific Stephen surprises himself by seeking help from mystics in Katmandu. At their mountain retreat, he meets the explains-everything-earnestly Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the never-cracks-a-smile Wong (Benedict Wong) and their boss, the not-Asian-like-in-the-comics Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Strange begins to learn about astral planes and mirror dimensions and shaping reality and sacred texts and time loops and sling rings and sorcerers of antiquities and Eyes of Agamotto and planet-defending ‘Sanctums’ in New York, London and Hong Kong. It’s a daunting assault of mumbo-jumbo, for both Stephen and the viewer. At one point during his training, Strange is passed a piece of paper with the word ‘shamballa’ on it. He reasonably asks if it’s a mantra, but Mordo replies that it’s the wi-fi password. A good gag, sure, but a bit sniffy considering how much mysticism Stephen has recently been exposed to. In fact, Mordo is generally a bit annoying: his only role in the story is to have a grave enough expression on his face that we’ll accept what he’s saying as important. Librarian Wong is more fun, and there’s a likable run of gags between him and Strange. Meanwhile, the Ancient One is a very powerful Celtic mystic/wizard/priest type who can harness energy, cast spells and control time and space. Swinton is good value, but her casting drew accusations of Hollywood whitewashing. (Arguing that sticking to the comic book’s vision of a male Asian teacher would be too close to a Fu Manchu cliché, director Scott Derrickson conceded that casting a white actress still wasn’t ideal. “What I did was the lesser of two evils,” he said, “but it is still an evil.”) Strange learns from her quickly and soon uses a magical portal to travel to New York, where he defeats Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former pupil of the Ancient One who wants to summon an interdimensional entity called Dormammu. (Are you keeping up with all this? I had to take notes.) Our hero gets help from a self-aware cloak that floats around of its own volition like it’s Orko from the He-Man cartoon. Quite why this cloth-with-personality does this is not entirely clear – unless you’ve read the comics, one suspects – but then again not a lot is entirely clear with this film. It’s a world far removed from logic and reason and science. This may be a deliberate contrast with the medical jargon and Manhattan lofts of Stephen’s earlier life, but you get the sense that the script is using it as an excuse not to justify things properly. Compare with Star Wars, in which Ben Kenobi has one line about the Force – “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together” – and we all get it instantly. Doctor Strange, however, bombards us with made-up rituals and silly names. It’s difficult to understand (or care) about what’s happening. After the Ancient One is killed, for example, Strange and Mordo chase Kaecilius to Hong Kong. He’s destroying its Sanctum because he wants… um, Dormammu to take over? Is that right? Admittedly, this action climax has a fun twist on the usual superhero formula. We still get Marvel’s obsession with urban carnage, but Stephen and Mordo actually turn up too late. The area has *already* been levelled by Kaecilius. So Stephen rewinds time to put everything back the way it was: a fun, visually interesting idea. Conversely, while the film’s earlier action/fight scenes play in real time, they do plenty of peculiar things with space: city streets bend beneath characters’ feet, architecture melds and changes before their eyes. It’s all very impressive (unless you’ve seen the Christopher Nolan film Inception), as are the psychedelic sequences when Stephen uses his new powers. But overall this is a simplistic movie that’s been made superficially complicated by lots of empty razzmatazz.

Six men on a bus out of 10

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Frankenweenie (2012, Tim Burton)

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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: It’s the modern day, albeit a stylised version that’s stuck in the 1960s. The story takes place in the town of New Holland.

Faithful to the novel? Not at all. This black-and-white, stop-motion animated film is a parody of Universal Pictures’ pre-war horror films, especially Frankenstein (1931). A young boy called Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is distraught when his dog Sparky is run over and killed. So, inspired by a science teacher called Mr Rzykruski (Martin Landau), he resurrects the pooch via the electrical charge of a lightning bolt – ie, in the same way as in the 1931 classic. There are two minor Dracula connections. Victor’s next-door neighbour is a girl called Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder, coincidentally one of the stars of 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula). And in one scene Mr and Mrs Frankenstein (Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) watch 1958’s Dracula on TV.

Best performance: The stop-motion animators and cinematographer Peter Sorg. The high-contrast, black-and-white photography is very Universal Horror, and the physical puppets and sets really are quite beautiful.

Best bit: The newly resurrected Sparky wags his tail so furiously it falls off. “I can fix that,” says Victor.

Review: A fairly routine animated film, in that there’s plenty of whimsy, a lot of visual humour, and flashes of sweetness and sadness. With the story predictable enough for kids to follow, you start counting off the nods and winks. A character who looks like Vincent Price? A corpse resurrected during a lightning storm? A haircut like Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein? A climax in a burning windmill? Check, check, check, check.

Six robotic buckets out of 10

Captain America: Civil War (2016, Anthony and Joe Russo)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The Avengers are torn apart when their two leaders disagree over whether the group should sign a document that would limit their authority…

Not so much a movie as a balloon debate, Captain America: Civil War features a plethora of characters wanting our attention. Unlike The First Avenger (2011) and The Winter Soldier (2014), this third ‘solo’ outing for Steve Rogers is basically an Avengers film in disguise and has a bloated cast to match…
* A short prologue set in 1991 shows us Bucky Barnes aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) during his time as a brainwashed Soviet assassin. (We know it’s 1991 because of a big, fat, Futura-font caption. This device occurs throughout the film, usually telling us which city we’re in.) Cut to the modern day, and Bucky is going about his life, wearing a baseball cap and buying fruit in an eastern European market, when a creepy guy called Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl from Inglourious Basterds) frames him as a terrorist. Zemo’s doing this in order to draw the Avengers to the secret base in Russia from where the Winter Soldier programme was run. He wants revenge on them, you see, for what happened a couple of movies ago.
* The psychic Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is now part of the Avengers team after temporarily siding with the bad guy in Age of Ultron (2015). And she kicks this film’s plot off when she accidentally kills some civilians while the gang are chasing a villain in Nigeria. Why this bothers Wanda and her friends more than previous times they’ve caused carnage is not clear. But then comes outside pressure: US Secretary of State General Ross (William Hurt, returning to the series for the first time since 2008) insists on UN checks-and-balances for the Avengers; the press start to question their legal authority; and team leader Tony is guilt-tripped by the mother of a friendly-fire victim. These films have often shown a ridiculous disregard for collateral damage. Characters seem to blithely accept innocent deaths and massive destruction of property, so this feels like the producers trying to right that wrong. Significantly, the same year’s Batman/Superman crossover contained similar ideas: time had clearly come for the superhero genre to address the elephant in the room. But despite feeling horrendous guilt for what she’s done, Wanda still objects to Tony being overprotective. Brat.
* Meanwhile, Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) ain’t playing ball. He doesn’t like the idea of politicians being in charge of the Avengers and thinks they should remain self-governed. It’s a brave bit of storytelling, which basically casts the film’s nominal lead character as a villain. But it’s also a real head-scratcher. Steve is a man who voluntarily signed up to fight fascism despite being a weakling weighing 98 pounds. Now he wants to live without the law? Hmm…
* Fellow Avenger Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) is another surprise. She’s previously shown a healthy disrespect for authority and even once walked out of a Senate hearing. But now she’s all for adhering to government oversight. There’s some unconvincing dialogue to explain her change-of-tune.
* In the resulting argument about what to do, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) sides with old pal Steve for no reason other than Steve is his pal. (Bear in mind that Sam was a test pilot in the US Air Force. And now he thinks a chain of command is a bad idea. Does that sound plausible?)
* Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) is the leading voice advocating that the team sign the Sokovia Accord, a document that would limit their powers and give the UN jurisdiction. Um, that’d be Tony Stark the independent, dictatorial, billionaire businessman, then? (Incidentally, his argument doesn’t stop him later illegally smuggling a teenager out of New York City and into Germany…) So here is the film’s central conflict. The civil war of the title is the two opposing factors led by Steve and Tony. It makes you wonder why the movie’s not called Captain America vs Iron Man…
* Also in the mix is Vision (Paul Bettany), the powerful entity created in Avengers: Age of Ultron who now dresses like a Kennedy brother having a day off. He’s on Tony’s side of the divide, presumably because his personality is based on Tony’s old AI computer.
* James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes (Don Cheadle) sides with old pal Tony. Being a colonel in the Air Force, this one actually makes sense.
* A new character being introduced in this film is T’Challa aka Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). When we first meet him, he’s the son of the king of fictional country Wakanda. After his dad is killed in an explosion, T’Challa seeks revenge on the man he thinks is responsible: Bucky. To do this, he dresses up like a panther. He presumably just happened to have the all-black cat-suit lying around in case he needed it. In recent years we’ve all grown tired of superhero origin stories, but this character goes too far in the other direction – he’s introduced with such little effort it’s difficult to care about him. Because the now-brainwash-free Bucky is a member of Steve’s gang, this automatically puts T’Challa in Tony’s camp during the conflict.
* When Steve and his colleagues refuse to sign the Accord and go rogue, Secretary Ross gives Tony 36 hours to bring them into line. So what does Tony do? Does he use the vast resources of his multinational corporation? Ask for help from the UN or the US military? No, he spends at least half of his allotted time travelling to America so he can recruit an untested teenager from Queens who’s been beating up muggers. The introduction of Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is one of the film’s sillier elements, which highlights the fact that preparing the ground for sequels now seems more important than telling a good story. It must be said that Holland is decent in the role and it’s also nice to skip the character’s origin story (which has been filmed twice in recent years). But the only reason the character is in this film is to promote an upcoming solo movie. His involvement in this plot makes little sense. Peter has a hotter-than-usual Aunt May (Marisa Tomei).
* Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) doesn’t appear until the 80-minute mark, then joins Steve’s team. For some reason.
* The movie gets a good boost of comic energy when Scott Lang aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) shows up. He’s just pleased to be involved and is star-struck by Steve and Wanda (“I know you too, you’re great.”). During the massive, 12-character showdown between the two camps at an airport, Scott tries out a new trick: rather than shrinking down to a few millimetres high, he massively increases in size. Ant-Man becomes Giant-Man.
* Also involved in the story is Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Steve’s friend from the last Cap film, while Martin Freeman shows up with a phoney American accent as a dodgy civil servant. But there’s no sign of Thor, Bruce Banner, Pepper Potts or Nick Fury.
As indicated, how the superheroes fall into the two camps feels anything but character-driven. A cynic might suggest that the sides have been artificially balanced – each team has a famous Avenger (Steve/Tony), a famous Avenger’s best friend from the US Air Force who’s played by a black actor (Sam/Rhodey), a character of dubious motives (Bucky/T’Challa), a woman from eastern Europe dressed in an outfit that accentuates her breasts (Wanda/Natasha), a newbie who feels like a real person rather than superhero (Scott/Peter) and an ancillary character who’s easy to forget about (Clint/Vision). It’s almost like a committee have cast the parts depending on how cool the line-ups will look while fighting each other. It’s certainly far from engaging storytelling. This is a shame, as there are things to enjoy here. The cast is entertaining, while the fights and chases are often energetic and weighty. But this is barely a film. It feels more like a season of television that’s been compiled into a highlights reel. We get the big story beats and lots of action scenes. The whole thing rattles along with some fun and style. But we’ve lost the ebb and flow of a well-structured movie.

Six FedEx delivery guys out of 10

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Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, Joss Whedon)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When an artificial-intelligence programme called Ultron is let loose, he wants to destroy the world – only the Avengers stand in his way…

This second Avengers film is big, flashy and at times a lot of fun. But because it tries to squeeze so much into a paper-thin plot, none of the elements gets enough attention and the film also feels too long. It’s 136 minutes and sags in the middle under the weight of too many characters and too many action sequences… In the first scene, as the Avengers launch an attack on a scientific base, there’s a continuous, 59-second shot that reintroduces the six core members of the team. (Well, it’s not actually continuous – you can spot how various elements have been stitched together in post-production – but it’s still impressive.) We meet Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bruce Banner aka the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). They’re a well-drilled team, complementing each other’s abilities and trading quips while they fight. But some big things have changed since the first Avengers mash-up movie. The SHIELD agency that recruited the gang has been disbanded and our heroes are now a self-governed collective (who even have their own logo). Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), Rhodey (Don Cheadle) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), three secondrary characters from previous films, are still giving them occasional support – but there’s dialogue to explain why conspicuous absentees Pepper Potts and Jane Foster can’t be arsed to turn up to a party. This post-SHIELD set-up feels like a storytelling backwards step after the political machinations of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s more simplistic and less interesting. For example, the film doesn’t make much effort in placing its story in any context – we see lots of civilian extras looking scared, and a few local cops who defer to these vigilantes at a moment’s notice, but there’s little sense of the wider world the characters are trying to save. The Avengers exist in a bubble, so their storyline feels very inward-looking… Having stumbled across some research into artificial intelligence, Tony Stark wants to use it to run a global defence system. But when the AI system, Ultron, is prematurely activated it goes rogue and – for some reason – decides to wipe out humanity. Tony has other problems too: most of the team didn’t know what he was up to and are angry with his arrogance. Then, after a big action sequence that includes an Iron Man/Hulk face-off and yet more MCU urban carnage, the group is struck by paranoia thanks to one of Ultron’s sidekicks. Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are twins who want revenge on Tony for building the weapons that killed their parents, so initially team up with Ultron. Pietro is super-fast, while Wanda is psychic and plants hallucinations in our heroes’ heads. Tony sees a grim future where his friends are dead; Thor thinks he’s home on Asgard; Natasha flashes back to her cruel childhood; and Steve fantasises he’s at a party with old flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell showing up for a one-line cameo). So, riddled with doubt and fear, the team are in a bad way. The film is too. As the Avengers hide at a safe house, the pace seriously flags. There’s plenty going on – Thor buggers off on a nonsensical subplot; Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) crops up; Natasha angers internet fans by referring to herself as a ‘monster’ because she can’t have children; there’s a sweet romance between Natasha and Bruce – but the script short-changes the 573 subplots and character stories. A new one even gets added into the mix late on, when Tony creates a new being called Vision (Paul Bettany) by combing the personality of his computer Jarvis with an organic body. It’s all very scrappy. At least the big, third-act sequence has a twist. This series of films has coined a new action-movie cliché: big things falling onto a city. Now, it’s the city itself that’s about to fall because Ultron has floated it up into the sky with the intention of crashing it back to earth. (It’s a big job and means our villain is busy off-screen for curiously long stretches.) The team fight an endless supply of robots, helpless people need rescuing, Avengers make gags. But it all feels very mechanical and verges on boring.

Six WW2 vets out of 10

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Boo! (1932, Albert DeMond)

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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: N/A

Faithful to the novel? This is a 10-minute comedy short produced by Universal Studios, who in the 1920s, 30s and 40s were behind some very successful monster movies. Boo! is an affectionate parody of the genre, using sarcastic narration over repurposed clips from The Cat Creeps (1930), Frankenstein (1931) and, slightly oddly, the German film Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922). Why writer/director Albert DeMond didn’t – or couldn’t – use excerpts from the studio’s recent Dracula (1931) is unknown. Other than the title sequence (see pic above), the only new footage in Boo! is of actor Morton Lowry. We first see him reading a copy of the novel Dracula that strangely has its title printed on the wrong side of the cover. A narrator (DeMond) then explains the premise of the film: to explore how nightmares can be entertaining. The man falls asleep and dreams a surreal episode made up of clips from old movies… Firstly, Dracula (actually Count Orlok from Nosferatu) wakes up in his coffin and spooks someone. Next, Frankenstein’s monster wakes up on the operating table, kills a doctor, and then bumps into Dracula and is scared. This historic on-screen meeting – the first ever in cinema – is achieved by cutting together clips from different films. We then meet actress Helen Twelvetrees in footage from The Cat Creeps – “Maybe the nightmare is going to become a pleasant dream!” trills the narrator. The monster approaches her (again, via some cross-cutting) and then Dracula’s hand reaches in and attacks Helen’s male friend. Being a scene from The Cat Creeps, the hand actually belongs to the bad guy from that film. Scared, Helen later goes to bed, where again the monster watches on as Dracula attacks her and another male friend. Then, inspired by Dracula’s actions, the monster heads off to spook actress Mae Clarke (in footage from Frankenstein). We then end on the man from the start of the short, who’s woken up while hanging from a chandelier.

Best performance: N/A

Best bit: The clips used from The Cat Creeps are the only surviving footage from that film. It seems to have been an unsettling horror with a villain not unlike Lon Chaney in the similarly missing London After Midnight. It was a remake of a silent film called The Cat and the Canary (1927).

Review: What a bizarre little thing this is. The clips are mostly silent, with narration commenting on the action and sometimes providing silly voices and groans, while some footage has been reversed or repeated for comedic effect. The continuity isn’t especially convincing or important. The narrator sometimes assumes different characters are the same person, for example, and there’s even a joke about it: “So the caretaker comes downstairs with a hatchet. I don’t know how he got upstairs [because in the previous clip he was in a cellar], but anything can happen in a nightmare.” Some gags work, some don’t. But at least it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Six woman automobile drivers out of 10