Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Victor Frankenstein

Year 8, Day  279 - 10/5/16 - Movie #2,461

BEFORE:  Today was my set-up day for the New York Comic-Con, and it's a day I usually think about karma.  If I did my paperwork properly, if I packed my boxes correctly, if I thought hard enough about what merchandise will sell, then my booth will be successful. My actions have a direct effect on an outcome, good or bad, sure I realize this hinges on superstition, because things can always go wrong, no matter how prepared you are, and things can also go right if you fail to plan. (I guess...)

But I've also dabbled with creative visualization, this is a technique where you tell the universe the outcome you would like, and this helps to focus efforts, whether individual or collective, to bring about the desired result.  I told the universe that I still needed to find a monitor stand for the booth, and also an additional small table for my boss's wife, who wants to sell some of her own art for the booth.  For the TV stand I thought about all of the items in my house, surely there must be an expendable piece of furniture I could bring (though in past years I've found things to put a TV on just by dumpster-diving).  And I looked around and settled on a large picnic cooler - lightweight but sturdy, easily portable, and if it were to get stolen or lost at the con, easily replaceable.  One down.

Then on the way in to work today, as I walked down the block where that nut planted a pressure-cooker bomb in a piece of luggage, I passed what looked like a folding table, about two feet across, but sort of resembling a metal briefcase, just sitting on the sidewalk, as if someone had thrown it away.  I dropped off my cooler and satchel upstairs and came back down to the sidewalk, and it was still there, with no owner around.  Sure enough, it was a folding table, exactly what I needed, and the universe provided it for me.     

With the aid of two co-workers, all of our equipment and merchandise into the convention center, and we finished just at 3 pm, which is when the convention sponsors start pouring free beer in the lobby, for anyone working hard setting up their booth who wants to take a little break.  So I got a free table, and two free beers (I could have had more, but I wanted to be fair to others...) and karmically, I felt I was on the right track for a good convention.  I put in the hard work, and I got a reward. 

This linking's easy, Charles Dance carries over from "Dracula Untold", where he played the older vampire, the spiritual "father" to Dracula.  Tonight he's the elder Frankenstein, father of Victor.  I did re-watch "Young Frankenstein" about a week ago, I hope that doesn't influence tonight's judging.

THE PLOT:  Told from Igor's perspective, we see the troubled young assistant's dark origins, his redemptive friendship with the young medical student Viktor Von Frankenstein, and become eyewitnesses to the emergence of how Frankenstein became the man - and the legend - we know today.

AFTER: The novel "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley is really all about karma, even as it questions the process of life and death and rebirth.  Victor puts in the hard work, trying to re-animate dead flesh, but at the same time, he's trying to subvert the natural order.  Would life be more important without death, or perhaps meaningless?  By what right does something that died deserve to come back? 

"Dracula Untold" re-cast the vampire as an action hero, and this film essentially does the same for Victor Frankenstein.  And last night we found out that maybe Dracula wasn't such an evil guy, tonight we find out that Igor wasn't even really a hunchback!  And he wasn't so dumb and subservient, he was really a medical genius, perhaps even smarter than the notorious doctor.  That's revisionist history for you, sure, let's just reboot the novel and change everything around.  

It turns out here that the hunch on Igor's back was just a really big zit.  God, I wish I were kidding about that.  And then once it's gone, Victor gives him a back brace so his body can re-train itself to walk properly upright.  I mean, I see WHY this was changed, because the police were looking for a man with a hump who escaped from the circus - but it still feels like a narrative cheat. 

But if the role of Igor got expanded, the role of the monster really, really downplayed.   The monster is only seen briefly, and regarded as merely another failed experiment that needs to be put down.  Of course, this is a different ending from the one in the book, where the "good" doctor had to chase his creation across the arctic tundra, in the book's famous framing sequence, which is totally abandoned here.  And it gets replaced with Igor pining over a beautiful circus performer, a sub-plot which seems like it has its origin in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame".  (Igor's not in the original novel at all, by the way, I think he was more of a convention from the early Hollywood films.) 

And that's the inherent problem with reboots.  What pieces of the original novel (or film, or TV show) get saved?  And which ones get changed, and who makes those decisions?  Because if you stick too close to the original source material, then why are you making a new version?  And if you go too far in various other directions, then can it really be called by the same name, is it really the same story?  

Like, the main point of the novel "Frankenstein" was to posit the return to life of dead flesh, and then explore that creature that resulted.  Does it think, does it feel, is it truly alive?  And the problem here is that "Victor Frankenstein" not only doesn't answer those questions, it spends so much time on other things that it never gets around to even asking them.  And in that sense, it fails to capture the essence of the original Shelley novel, where the monster walked around and talked, and had a sense of reason.  I mean, isn't the re-animation of a man made of dead parts the main point of the story? 

Note that I just say "the monster" - when you say "Frankenstein", you should really be referring to the DOCTOR, not the monster.  In the Shelley novel the monster was UN-NAMED, only calling him "Fiend" or "Demon", though I think the doctor wanted to call him "Adam" because he was the first re-created man.  The subtitle of the book is "The Modern Prometheus", which compares the DOCTOR to the character from mythology that gave fire to humans.  (This film compounds the confusion by calling the monster "Prometheus", and that's wrong wrong WRONG also.) Please, PLEASE do not call the monster "Frankenstein", people!  It's just not his name!  Sorry, pet peeve of mine.  

Off to New York Comic-Con tomorrow, for real.  Back to movies on Monday.

Also starring James McAvoy (last seen in "X-Men: Apocalypse"), Daniel Radcliffe (last seen in "Trainwreck"), Jessica Brown Findlay (last seen in "Winter's Tale"), Andrew Scott (last seen in "Spectre"), Freddie Fox (last seen in "The Three Musketeers (2011)), Daniel Mays (last heard in "The Adventures of Tintin"), Bronson Webb, Callum Turner, Mark Gatiss (last seen in "Match Point"), Spencer Wilding, Alistair Petrie. 

RATING: 5 out of 10 hidden tunnels

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Dracula Untold

Year 8, Day 278 - 10/4/16 - Movie #2,460

BEFORE: One more day on the vampire beat, before I move to another monster topic.  I happen to know one of the writers of this film, he used to date my sister back in college.  I'm not sure where he's been working the last couple of decades, because there's a big gap in his IMDB credits.  But maybe that's typical for a writer, there could be long stretches of down time between projects that get produced.  

Linking from "The Lost Boys", Edward Herrmann was also in "The Cat's Meow" with Ronan Vibert.

THE PLOT: Young prince Vlad Tepes must become a monster, feared by his own people, in order to obtain the power needed to protect his own family and his kingdom, which is being threatened by the Turks.

AFTER:  There was an impaler named Vlad, 
who history says was quite mad.
But compared to the Turk
Who was more of a jerk, 
Hey, maybe this Count wasn't so bad.  

I never thought I'd see the day, where a film felt the need to "explain" Dracula, his reasons for becoming a vampire - turns out he had a darn good reason.  Oh, well I suppose that makes everything OK, right?  I mean, kill a few hundred Turks and thousands of peasants, impale their heads on pikes, as long as you've got a darn good reason.  My boss recently made a mockumentary about Adolf Hitler, something that cast him as a misunderstood wanna-be animation mogul, along the lines of Walt Disney, and I can't help but notice the correlation.  So, Dracula had good intentions, and was just misunderstood?

For the third film in a row, I'm bogged down in the minutia of vampirism, the little rules that make the whole system work, or not.  Vampires are weakened by silver in this film, in addition to the aforementioned holy water, garlic, crosses, wooden stakes - geez, is there anything that doesn't hurt a vampire?  And for the third night in a row, we learn that there are degrees of vampirism, as Vlad becomes a half-vampire before transforming into a full vampire - he drinks a vampire's blood, and then if he can resist the urge to feed on more blood for three days, and you just know that's going to be difficult, then he will lose the strength and other powers and revert to human.  

There are other catches as well - if he gives in and drinks more blood, then the vampire who gave him powers will be freed from his curse, and released from his cave.  It seems there can only be one major vampire at a time, but this sort of contradicts other vampire stories, where the goal is to make more and more vampires, and form something like a high-school gang. #vampiresquadgoals ?

Vlad made the deal in the first place with this cave-vampire in order to get the power he needed to defeat the Ottomans, who demanded 1,000 young Transylvanian boys to turn into soldiers.  Actually, make that 1,001 because the head Turk also wanted to raise Vlad's son.  It seems Vlad himself was raised by the Turks, so there's something of a rivalry between the two kingdoms.  It's not really clear whether Transylvania was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time, or whether the sultan was within his rights to demand such a sacrifice.  A little research tells me that the real Vlad Tepes was a prince of Wallachia, but was treated as a puppet by the Turks, at least for a while.  

The movie Vlad gets super action-hero powers, like super-speed and dexterity, and the ability to take down a whole Turkish army by transforming into a flock of bats, so hey, what's the downside?  Who needs an immortal soul when you can be a total bad-ass on the battlefield?  But it turns out the army was something of a distraction, to keep Vlad busy while assassins entered his castle to threaten his wife and son.  For revenge, he turns a bunch of his people into vampires - which admittedly does seem to be a roundabout way of protecting them. 

But then the Turks don't stand a chance, and the only problem is, what are they going to do now with an army of vampires, and nobody to feed on?  Oh, if only they knew someone who was good at impaling things...but what good it is, wishing for things we can't have?  Wait a minute...

NITPICK POINT: It's a little unclear where the name "Dracula" came from - here it's the name of a castle, but how does that relate to the family name, Tepes?  It's suggested that it means "Son of the Dragon", but commonly mistranslated as "Son of the Devil", but then Vlad himself uses the "Son of the Devil" moniker at the end, in conjunction with the name.  Did he just get tired of correcting people, or was he lying about that whole dragon thing?  And who names themself after a castle, shouldn't it be the other way around?

NITPICK POINT #2: The tagline on the poster reads "Every Bloodline Has a Beginning", which implies that we're going to learn how vampirism came to be a thing, like maybe Dracula was the first one - but instead he just gets his powers from drinking another vampire's blood.  So how did THAT vampire get his powers, and how did the one before HIM get his powers?  That's not really the beginning of anything, then, it's just a continuation.  And who was the first vampire then?

Also starring Luke Evans (last seen in "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies"), Dominic Cooper (last seen in "My Week With Marilyn"), Sarah Gadon (last seen in "Maps to the Stars"), Charles Dance (last seen in "Woman in Gold"), Art Parkinson, Paul Kaye (last seen in "Match Point"), Diarmaid Murtagh (last seen in "The Momuments Men"), Noah Huntley (last seen in "28 Days Later..."), Zach McGowan (last seen in "Terminator Salvation"), Ferdinand Kingsley, Joseph Long, Thor Kristjansson, Jakub Gierszal, Joe Benjamin, Paul Bullion, Mish Boyko, Dilan Gwyn, Arkie Reece.

RATING: 4 out of 10 missing Turkish scouts     

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Lost Boys

Year 8, Day 277 - 10/3/16 - Movie #2,459  

BEFORE: I usually start watching my movies right after midnight - because I like to get a jump on the next day.  That's all year long, by the way, but only in October does it really start to make sense.  What better time to watch a scary movie than during the witching hour?  

I've got the New York Comic-Con coming up this week, so even though I just got rolling again, I'm going to take a four-day break, starting Thursday.  Working at the Javits center from sun-up to sundown, then coming home just to shower and sleep and do it again - that leaves no time to watch movies.  So two more films after this, then I'm on break again until next Monday.  Still plenty of October to get to my whole Halloween chain. 

I've got no direct linking out of "Vampire in Brooklyn", but at least Joanna Cassidy from "Vampire in Brooklyn" was also in "1969" with Kiefer Sutherland (last seen in "Flatliners") so that helps justify staying on a vampire theme.  This is a film that has sort of fallen through the cracks during previous Halloween seasons - I suppose it would have made more sense to watch this last year and link from "Flatliners", but I didn't think of it, nor did I have a copy of this at that time.

THE PLOT: After moving to a new town, two brothers discover that the area is a haven for vampires.

AFTER: Talk about a movie being released at the right time - the "Goth" culture was just coming in to its own in 1987, if my memory serves.  So every high school in the U.S. probably had a gang of kids with spiked up hair, dressed all in black with longish fingernails, who were only wearing all black because they couldn't find anything darker.  Logically, it's not much of a stretch to suspect that those misfits were up to something, drugs at the very least, if not dabbling in satanic rituals.  And from there it's just a short jump to vampirism, right?  

OK, maybe that's just me, because I never hung out in the courtyards with the cool kids, or even the kids who were so cool that they didn't care about being cool.  Silly me, I was in the library studying, or possibly taking a nap, since I was balancing school, extracurricular activities (singing, not sports) and a part-time job.  But every high school had the "outsider" kids, and if you were lucky then these troubled youths found each other and formed a gang - if you were unlucky I guess they stayed loners and shot up your school.  But I digress.

Last night I covered vampires in Brooklyn, NY, tonight it's sunny California, which doesn't seem to make much sense at first - vampires can't be exposed to sunlight, after all.  But these come out at night and patrol the boardwalk of a seaside town, and ride around on motorbikes.  Newcomer Michael notices a girl that's always hanging out with the Goth kids, and when he tries to get close to her, he draws the attention of the gang.  A few childish dares and a couple of pranks later, and he starts to notice that it's hard to see his own reflection in the mirror.  Hey, what was in that drink, anyway?  

Fortunately, his younger brother made friends at the local comic shop by properly organizing the Superman comics (finally, a social interaction I can understand...) and those friends are well-versed in the rules of fighting vampires.  "Just drive a stake through your brother's heart - simple, right?  Oh, wait, you like him?  Well, then it gets tricky."  Instead they have to find the lead vampire and kill him, then all of the "half-vampires" he created will revert to human.  That's the theory, anyway.  

I wish there had been time to really examine the process of a teen turning into a vampire, and the best ways of fighting back against them, but there just isn't that kind of time, the movie's only 97 minutes long.  So there's not much time for character development, and there are a lot of shortcuts.  Usually involving the help of a dog, or people picking up on situations rather quickly.  Umm, except for Michael figuring out he never should have gotten involved with this gang in the first place.  But I guess if you're not IN the gang, then you could become one of their victims, which seems to explain why so many kids end up with their faces on milk cartons.  (What WAS up with that in the 1980's, anyway?)  

NITPICK POINT: I just don't think it's that easy to confuse garlic with shredded cheese.  Sure, I've seen bakers on cooking shows accidentally mix up salt and sugar, but there's just no way to mince garlic that would cause it to have the texture of parmesan cheese, and I think anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Italian cooking would have to agree.

The title is a reference to "Peter Pan", of course, since he never grew up, and vampires don't either.  There are other vague references to the J.M. Barrie story, like a dog named "Nanook" instead of "Nana".  I've got two "Peter Pan"-related movies on the watchlist, but I won't be able to get to them this year.  And the fictional setting of Santa Carla is a spin on Santa Cruz, which really was labelled as the "murder capital" of the U.S. at one point, due to a serial killer in the 1970's.  But Santa Cruz translates as "Holy Cross", so it's doubtful you'd find a lot of vampires hanging out there. 

I had some technical issues with this film, a lot of the dialogue was out of sync, but I'm going to assume that there was some problem with the pay-per-view broadcast.  I also had several scenes appear in black and white, but I think that was due to a worn-out VCR. Yeah, I still use good old videotape to transfer my movies to DVD, it's an extra step but one which is supposed to help me spot problems before I burn the film to disc.  Epic fail tonight.  But these are technical problems with my equipment, I can't really hold them against the film.  I mean, who makes a vampire film in black and white, right?  What good is it if you can't see all that rich, red fake blood?

Also starring Jason Patric (last seen in "The Prince"), Corey Haim (last seen in "Silver Bullet"), Dianne Wiest (last seen in "Sisters"), Edward Herrmann (last seen in "The Great Waldo Pepper"), Jami Gertz (last seen in "Quicksilver"), Corey Feldman (last seen in "Maverick"), Barnard Hughes (last seen in "Best Friends"), Jamison Newlander, Alex Winter (last seen in "Freaked"), Billy Wirth, Brooke McCarter, Chance Michael Corbitt. 

RATING: 5 out of 10 canteens of holy water

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Vampire in Brooklyn

Year 8, Day 276 - 10/2/16 - Movie #2,458   

BEFORE: For most of the year (except for February and October), I've fallen into the pattern of paying close attention to cast lists, because if I assemble the chains properly, I never need to wonder what I'm going to watch next, the chain dictates the order.  And that's worked out pretty well for me these last few years.  But with a special focus on films about love in February, and films about scary matters in October, I have to think thematically as well.  Do I put all of the non-connected films about ghosts together, then focus on vampires, then deal with alien invasions?  I'm going to move off of ghosts (but I'll get back to them in a couple days, hint hint) and for the next 3 days the blood-suckers take over.  Unfortunately that means I have to juxtapose films that don't share actors, and hope I can come up with at least an indirect link.  But this one's a no-brainer, Eddie Murphy carries over from "The Haunted Mansion".  

THE PLOT: Maximillian is the only survivor from a race of vampires on a Caribbean Island, and as a vampire, he must find a mate to keep the line from ending.

AFTER: Ah, Brooklyn.  Lived there for about 14 years, and I still have to pass through it every day to get to the subway.  At Halloween so much of the focus is on the Village parade in Manhattan, but Brooklyn is home to scary things too, like the Greenwood Cemetery, the Coney Island Freak Show, and the hipsters of Bushwick and Williamsburg.  Or maybe it gets called KILL-iamsburg at Halloween time, along with FRIGHT-on Beach, SLAY Ridge, DEAD-ford Stuyvesant, BOO-rum Hill, and Windsor TERROR-ace.  There's even a neighborhood called Gravesend (for real), and that must be a fun place to go trick-or-treating.  (Hey, Hollywood, why not a horror film called "The Vampire State Building"?  I'll give you that one for free, I got a million of 'em.) 

This was the first of Eddie Murphy's two horror-themed films (assuming you don't count the horror that was "Pluto Nash"), and some of the plot points are very similar to the more family-friendly "Haunted Mansion".  In both films there's a beautiful woman who bears a strong resemblance to a woman in an old painting, and in both cases, they never really explain how that's possible.  We sort of have to fill in the gaps and assume that she's either a descendant of the woman in the painting, or some kind of reincarnation, or perhaps it's just all a coincidence.  It's called exposition, and both films should have strongly considered adding some by way of explanation.  

(EDIT: Ah, there is some literary precedent, in vampire lore there is something called a "dhampir", which is the child of a vampire and a human.  The character of Rita was apparently one of these, but I wish the film had made this more clear.  But it doesn't explain WHY a vampire needs to have sex with a human, because that's not how you make more vampires.  See rant below.)  

The Brooklyn Navy Yard is where the film opens, when a ship crashes into port, with all of its crew dead, and a cargo of just one coffin, and a large dog/wolf that vanishes into the night.  That's a real plot point from the original "Dracula" novel, by the way (only in the book the ship ran aground in London) and of course the dog is really a shape-shifting vampire.  But other than the use of a Renfield-like thrall, the rest of this film's plot seems more like it was borrowed from "Coming to America".  Because here the vampire is Caribbean royalty of sorts, and he's come seeking a mate, which he somehow knows is located in the borough of Kings.  (I know, it was Queens in "Coming to America", but work with me, here.)

This also means that Eddie Murphy once again took the opportunity to play multiple roles, a conceit that has worked well for him in the past ("Bowfinger", "Nutty Professor"), but has also backfired horribly ("Norbit").  Here it's worked into the plot along with the vampire's shape-shifting abilities - supposedly after he kills someone and drinks their blood he can take their shape, but apparently only if he seeks out victims who look a little bit like Eddie Murphy to begin with.  So Eddie gets to also play a black preacher and a white Italian hitman.  But come on, you know all along that it's him, so it's not really much of a stretch, and it's quite distracting.  And in the case of the "whiteface" makeup, possibly also offensive.  

I don't get it, did Murphy get some weird career advice at some point that made him think he was a better actor if he played more characters in a film?  Or is it some kind of ego trip, where he thinks that each movie would be better if he played all of the parts?  Look, I enjoyed Jerry Lewis in "The Family Jewels" when I was a kid, too, but I always was aware that he played all 7 or 8 of the crazy uncles.  I mean, you can only do so much with make-up.  And it didn't really make him a great actor, just a bigger goof-ball.  

Now, as for problems with the plot - why does a vampire need to find a mate?  And why THIS woman in particular?  There's some suggestion that she's a true vampire by nature, but that isn't really a thing, according to the rules of vampire stories.  I mean, if she's ALREADY a vampire, then why does he need to seduce and bite her?  It doesn't make much sense.  Plus, vampires don't reproduce like humans do, they can make more vampires just by biting people and passing on the virus or whatever it is.  My understanding is that they can either drain a victim dry, or drink like half their blood and then after three days, boom, new vampire.  

Oh, sure, there are emotions involved, but usually it's a form of hypnotism or enchantment that puts people under their spell.  But as the undead, I would assume that vampires are beyond the petty human concerns of love and companionship, and are more concerned with feeding on blood and spending the daylight hours in their coffins, right?  Look, it's just that there are a lot of rules about vampires, and movies should reflect them - you can't see them in mirrors, they're repelled by holy water and garlic, they can't enter a house unless you invite them in.  If you're going to scrap all of those rules and replace them with other things, they should be things more interesting than giving a vampire the ability to re-decorate a Brooklyn tenement apartment overnight.  That's just not one of a vampire's powers.  

Also starring Angela Bassett (last heard in "Curious George 3: Back to the Jungle"), Allen Payne (last seen in "The Perfect Storm"), Kadeem Hardison, John Witherspoon (last seen in "The Five Heartbeats"), Zakes Mokae (last seen in "Outbreak"), Joanna Cassidy (last seen in "Club Paradise"), Simbi Khali, Messiri Freeman, W. Earl Brown, with cameos from Mitch Pileggi (last seen in "The X-Files: I Want to Believe"), Jerry Hall. 

RATING: 4 out of 10 limousine rides