This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Agony Booth review: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

I've beaten this point to death numerous times already, but I'm finally letting it all out in my latest review for the Agony Booth.
Like Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula generated buzz when it originally premiered and won Oscars for its technical achievements, but as the years have gone by and the buzz has died down, it’s now regarded as simply inferior to the 1930s original.

In the case of Coppola’s film, that indifference is more than justified. The reason for this is because, for all the claims by both Coppola and screenwriter James Hart that this would be the definitive screen adaptation of Stoker’s 1897 novel, the end result is no more faithful to that great book than many of the other movie versions. Hence, this film has an even more misleading title than Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. (I think it says it all that this supposedly faithful adaptation deviated so far from the original book that it merited its own novelization.) But the crimes Coppola’s film commits don’t stop there.

The movie begins in 1462 at the height of the Crusades. Vlad Tepes (Gary Oldman) AKA Vlad the Impaler, the real life figure who Count Dracula was partially based on, returns to his castle after fighting (and impaling) the Turks only to discover that his wife, Elisabeta (Winona Ryder), has killed herself because she was told that he died in battle.

A priest (Anthony Hopkins) tells Vlad that because his wife has taken her own life, her soul is now damned (almost like watching this movie). Vlad then renounces God, and somehow, this causes the cross in the chapel to bleed, and him to become a vampire called Dracula as he shouts out in a hammy manner.

Jump forward to 1897, and we see British solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves; yes, Keanu Reeves) on a train bound for Transylvania to meet Dracula to arrange real estate that the Count has recently purchased in London. We also learn that Harker’s colleague, Renfield (Tom Waits) was committed after he had previously met with Dracula.

Harker meets Dracula, with Oldman now wearing old man makeup and a bizarre gray wig reminiscent of Mickey Mouse. Before long, Dracula sees a picture of Harker’s fiancée Mina (also played by Ryder) and believes that she’s the reincarnation of his beloved Elisabeta. Dracula remains outwardly calm about this revelation, but his apparently autonomous shadow lacks a similar amount of self-control. The Count then leaves Harker at the mercy of his three vampire brides while he sails off to England. Bogus, dude!

As Dracula arrives in England, Renfield goes ranting at the asylum, which is near Dracula’s new property at Carfax Abbey. His ravings attract the attention of the asylum’s Dr. Seward (Richard E. Grant).

Meanwhile, the Count transforms himself into a young man again, and tracks down Mina, and soon courts both her and her friend Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost). One stormy night, the two ladies seductively dance with each other before Dracula transforms into a wolf and bites and rapes Lucy.

Her later, bizarre behavior leads Seward, Lucy’s former beau, to send for his mentor Professor Van Helsing (also played by Hopkins). The professor deduces that Lucy has been attacked by a vampire. At the same time, Mina receives word that Jonathan has escaped the castle and is at a convent. She goes to Romania where she marries him, while Dracula wallows in self-pity.

Shortly after Lucy dies, Van Helsing, Seward, her other former flame Quincey Morris (Billy Campbell), and her fiancée Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes) head to her grave. Naturally, they find her glass coffin empty, and Lucy has now become one of the undead. All but Van Helsing are startled by her vampiric ways, but the quartet manages to drive a stake through her heart, and also decapitate her.

Mina and Jonathan return and are brought up to speed by Van Helsing. As the men hunt the Count, Dracula enters Seward’s asylum and kills Renfield. Not that it matters much, since we hardly knew this movie’s version of the guy.

Dracula next pops in on Mina and they annoyingly make goo-goo eyes at each other. She then pathetically goes apeshit on him for killing Lucy, before turning on a dime and telling him she loves him. Geez, if I wanted stupid romantic turnarounds, I’d watch Friends, thank you very much.

This scene leads to the movie’s lowest point, where Mina lovingly implores Dracula to turn her into a vampire. As anyone who’s read the book can tell you, Mina becomes a vampire against her will. However, the filmmakers seem to think that having this be a consensual act in their movie is faithful to the book. Mina’s line “Take me away from all this death” is as painful as Anakin Skywalker saying that Padme is not rough like sand in Attack of the Clones.

Happily, this awful attempt at a moving love scene is interrupted by Van Helsing and his cavalry. In the movie’s only genuinely scary moment, Dracula startles both them and the audience by popping out in his giant bat form. Van Helsing shoves a cross in his face, but Dracula is able to somehow set it on fire. I guess we shouldn’t wonder how, since the movie doesn’t. He then says Mina is now his bride before bolting.

Mina begins her transformation into a vampire, and this prompts Van Helsing to hypnotize her to find out where Dracula is going. His fellow hunters head for the Bulgarian province of Varna, although the Count manages to outwit them thanks to his connection with Mina.

As Van Helsing and Mina continue to the Borgo Pass, the Count’s brides (remember them? Didn’t think so) arrive. Their influence overwhelms Mina to such an extent that she attempts to seduce and convert Van Helsing, but he manages to outsmart them by forming a ring of fire around the two of them, which keeps the brides at bay. The next morning, they arrive at the castle, where Van Helsing decapitates all three of the brides.

Dracula, with the other vampire hunters in hot pursuit, arrives at the castle as the sun begins to set. After a brief fight with the gypsies who were transporting the Count, Morris heroically sacrifices himself by getting stabbed in the back before he thrusts his bowie knife into Dracula’s heart.

This is how the Count meets his demise in the book, and after he turns to dust, Mina, Jonathan, Van Helsing, Seward, and Holmwood spend the last couple of pages mourning Morris. Mina even notes that she and Jonathan named their son after him.

However, this is further proof that screenwriter Hart read a different book than the rest of us, because this movie completely forgets about Morris after he heroically dies. Why? Because the pathetic Dracula/Mina love story is what the book is really about, at least, according to the filmmakers.

The final scenes of this film have the dying Count crawling in the chapel where he somehow became a vampire at the beginning of the movie. Mina follows him inside and tearfully grieves, calling him “My love.” They kiss before she puts Dracula, the tragic romantic hero, out of our misery by shoving that knife through his heart and into the floor. Mina then yanks the sucker out and decapitates the count.

The final shot of the film is Mina staring up at the ceiling at a painting of Vlad and Elisabeta, symbolizing that they’re now together. Personally, I’m wondering how she and Jonathan will be able to enjoy any future wedding anniversaries after all this.

Many say that Keanu Reeves’s attempts to sound English were the worst part of the film, but, trust me, he’s the least of this movie’s problems.

Someone once called The Godfather Part III Coppola’s Phantom Menace, meaning that both films were highly anticipated but rightfully ended up being disdained. With that comparison in mind, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is Coppola’s Attack of the Clones. Both films have a horribly acted love story, and even more damningly, basically say that everything we were told about their primary characters over the decades is now suddenly wrong.

Prior to Clones, we were led to believe that Anakin Skywalker was once a noble figure who tragically became the frightening Darth Vader. However, Clones makes Anakin an annoying prick and nothing more, which is why his transformation into Vader in Revenge of the Sith isn’t tragic at all. Likewise, Stoker’s book paints its title character as a monster that must be stopped. Both Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee made their careers by playing the Count in this manner. But Hart and Coppola claim that Dracula is simply a misunderstood hero who’s the victim of a tragic love story and is simply seeking love and redemption (by the way, in real life, Vlad’s wife didn’t kill herself out of anguish, but because she didn’t want to be taken prisoner by Vlad’s enemies, who were closing in on them). Hell, the tagline of this movie was “Love Never Dies”, which doesn’t exactly make me expect a horror movie.

Defenders of this movie claim that humanizing Dracula in this manner makes the film unique. I might go along with that, were it not for the fact that Coppola and Hart stated numerous times prior to the movie’s release that this would be the most faithful adaptation of Stoker’s book ever, which creates certain expectations that we assume will be met.

In fairness, this film makes more use of Morris than any of the previous movies (I don’t even recall seeing Morris in any previous Dracula film, myself). Other pluses include Hopkins’s Van Helsing, which is every bit as terrific as Peter Cushing’s (although, was the priest at the beginning of the film supposed to be Van Helsing’s ancestor?). The movie also won Oscars for makeup, costume design, and sound effects editing, and they were all well-deserved.

But these pluses are ultimately overshadowed by the movie’s own hypocrisy. Having a different take on the Count is one thing, but explicitly stating that this Dracula will be the most faithful to its source and then having the finished product showcase something else makes a critical analysis imperative.

If you want a movie that does justice to Stoker’s book, watch the classic movie versions Nosferatu, the 1931 Dracula, or Horror of Dracula. They may take liberties with the book, but they’re all nicely atmospheric, and like the book, they don’t portray the Count as the precursor to Edward in Twilight.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Victim (2011)

"I saw a film once where this guy says, 'I don't deserve to die.' And this other dude looks at him and says, 'Deserving's got nothing to do with it.' Then he blows his head off. That's what I believe. Deserving's got nothing to do with it."
-Kyle Limato.



While making Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez suggested to one of his stars, Michael Biehn, that he make his own grindhouse movie.
Biehn would oblige by writing and making his directorial debut with this movie. He also stars as loner and ex-con Kyle Limato, who simply wants to live a secluded lifestyle (so it may be a bit ironic that his first scene in the film is of him paying for a meal he just enjoyed at a restaurant).
Alas, this solitary life ends one afternoon when a woman named Annie (Jennifer Blanc, Biehn's real-life spouse) frantically knocks on his cabin door begging to be let in. Although skeptical, Kyle obliges and manages to get Annie to tell him that she's on the run from policemen James Harrison (Ryan Honey) and Jonathan Cooger (Denny Kirkwood) who have just murdered her best friend Mary (Danielle Harris).
Much of what follows are flashbacks, which show Annie and Mary taking a break from their jobs as strippers by having a romantic time in the woods with the two cops. As Cooger and Annie get cozy, Mary and Harrison are in another area having sex until Harrison gets a little too rough and snaps her neck. He desperately tells Cooger and they agree to bury the body, along with Annie. But Annie overhears them and bolts.
As it turns out, both killers arrive at Kyle's door shortly afterward. Kyle manages to convince them that Annie is not at his place, but he wants to know what's going on as the cops revealed that she has an arrest record. She insists, though, that she can't go to the police because of the cachet Harrison carries with them.
Annie agrees to take Kyle to where Mary was murdered. As they drive, she flashbacks to hanging out with Mary before their tragic date. As they catch up on news reports of missing girls, Annie asks if Mary wants to double date with her with Cooger and Harrison.
But, upon arriving at the crime scene, Kyle and Annie don't find Mary's body, as the killers buried it.
Eventually, the killers catch up with them and briefly beat up Kyle before he and Annie manage to kill them.
As they still haven't found Mary's body, Kyle decides to bury the bodies before slightly going off on a rant about serial killers and even tossing a quote from Unforgiven (1992) as you'll note in the above quote.
This film is certainly reminiscent of films such as The Last House on the Left(1972) and, indeed, Annie uses a method seen in that film to distract Cooger before killing him in the climax. There's even an obligatory love scene between Annie and Kyle.
Happily, this film, with its lively cast and kinetic violence (and even sexy scenes between Blanc and Harris) is entertaining, even more so than Grindhouse basically because its tongue isn't too much in its cheek like that film's was.