Bram Stoker’s Dracula

It’s been forever since I read Bram Stoker’s classic gothic horror novel, but I can’t really remember Dracula giving the female heroine her sexual awakening. Nevermind, I do have a soft spot for the Beauty and the Beast trope and Gary Oldman as the monstrous yet tragic Dracula is captivating and sensual… well at least when he’s in his young human Gary Oldman form with the fabulous long hair. Not so much when he’s hanging from a ceiling as a hideous human-sized bat.

In this version, Vlad the Impaler turns to vampirism after the tragic death of his wife, who hurls herself off a parapet at the false news of his death. The priests tell him that a suicide will never enter heaven, which enrages Vlad; he renounces God and embraces the immortal life of a blood-sucking monster. Fast forward 400 years to the end of the 19th century, and Dracula sees a spitting image of his wife staring at him from a photograph belonging to a young attorney (Keanu Reeves, a.k.a. What the Heck Am I Doing In A Period Piece) who visits Dracula in his picturesquely sinister castle.

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this adaptation is by no means perfect, but it’s a gloriously decadent feast for the eyes. I first watched this movie almost twenty years ago and its opulent imagery imprinted on my brain just from that one viewing. The imaginative production design, the sumptuous costumes, the unrestrained romanticism, the fantastic horror score are all a thing of beauty. There are billowing Victorian dresses, creepy shadows, long red cloaks, rooms full of candles, evil vampire succubi, bleeding crosses, and many many transitions between various circular shapes (like the eye of a peacock feather transforming into a railroad tunnel at the start of the film). The special effects and make-up still look good, other than a few decidedly cheesy shots of Dracula in his animal shapes. At the very least, even when the practical effects look dated and clunky you know that what you see onscreen is actually there.

The original novel was written as a series of documents, and the film largely preserves this episodic structure, switching between several protagonists and multiple narrators. This is somewhat to the detriment of the film, which feels like a succession of set pieces rather than a story with a real drive. The performances are a mixed bag; as mentioned before Gary Oldman is utterly magnetic and his line readings in the first half of the film as the bouffanted old Dracula (Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!) are just delicious. I couldn’t decide whether Winona Ryder is actually good as Mina, or whether it’s just that she has such a perfect look for the film with her huge dark eyes and her angelic beauty. Anthony Hopkins’ over-the-top turn as the vampire hunter Van Helsing is hit-and-miss, sometimes it works and other times his wacky ways fall flat. Tom Waits is heaps of fun as the deranged bug-eating Renfield.

Keanu Reeves… ooh dear. I confess, I can never really hate Keanu Reeves even when his performance is like a walking wooden plank, but god he’s terrible here. Jonathan Harker is a pretty dull character to start with, and Reeves almost made me wish for Mina to dump her boring husband and go for the depraved immortality. Despite these shortcomings, there’s still plenty to love about the movie, especially from the visual standpoint, and it’s a fantastic take on the classic monster.

Get Out

My only regret with this film is that I already knew the big reveal beforehand from watching a spoiler-filled review. I’ve no idea why I did this to myself, I can’t even blame the reviewer who was thoughtful enough to include a spoiler warning – but I just kept on watching. The movie was still hugely enjoyable and suspenseful, and had other twists and surprises up its sleeve, I just wish I came into it knowing as little as possible.

The hero of Get Out is Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, in an instantly sympathetic turn), a young black man who is about to meet the parents of his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) for the first time in their affluent rural home. Rose never told her parents that her boyfriend is black, and Chris worries about their reception despite Rose’s assurances that her father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could. A different, simpler movie might have played it so that Rose’s parents are awful in an obvious racist way, but in Get Out Chris’s visit turns into a nightmare because Rose’s liberal neurosurgeon father and psychiatrist/hypnotherapist mother are just so hellbent on broadcasting how totally fine they are with Chris. But this awkwardness might be the least of his problems, as he gets increasingly creeped out by the very odd behaviour of the other two black people in the house, a groundsman and a housekeeper. They move around the place in a ghostly, silent manner, and when Chris tries to be friendly with them they’re cold and just plain unnerving.

If you briefly summarised the main mystery to someone who hasn’t watched the film it would sound incredibly silly, but it totally works in the context of the film, much like the potentially silly reveal of The Stepford Wives works in Ira Levin’s classic satirical thriller (Ira Levin I think would have enjoyed Get Out a lot). It takes care to lay the foundations for the reveal, so that when it happens it’s genuinely horrifying rather than inviting ridicule. There are certainly implausibilities, but you’re generally too busy being carried away by the film and its suburban-Gothic vibe to stop for nitpicking. It’s a superbly made thriller that juggles horror and humour, most of the latter coming from Chris’s lovable best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), TSA Officer whose natural inclinations to conspiracy theories come in handy.

One unexpected delight of the film for me was its score, which often sounds like it was lifted from the old-school horror movies with their shrieking violins, an interesting juxtaposition with the modern-day setting. My Mum who watched the film with me remarked that, just when you think that nothing new can be done anymore, a film like this comes along, and yes Get Out is the sort of fresh take on the genre you cherish.

P.S. The actor who plays Rose’s douchy brother looked naggingly familiar to me, and I only realised later that the same guy played the sweet-natured Banshee in X-Men: First Class. He’s certainly no sweetikins here!

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Yes yes I know I’m three years late to the party with this one. Missed it at the cinemas, was going to watch it on Netflix at my Mum’s for ages before it was taken off, so I finally rented it at my local DVD place. In a nutshell, I thought it was the strongest Marvel movie I’ve seen by a long margin and the first one I could say I loved since the first Iron Man. If you take out all the superheroing stuff, at the heart it’s a gripping political thriller/1970s-esque spy movie tackling themes of national security vs personal freedom, a debate which is rather timely in the world we live in now.

I haven’t seen the first Captain America movie, but The Winter Soldier helpfully summarises its events for the newbies like myself. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is busy adjusting to the life in the 21st century after spending most of the 20th century asleep, concentrating on workouts and special missions, but no dating just yet. Though he can’t see a life outside of S.H.I.E.L.D., he becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the amount of secrecy and lies going on in the organization, despite the assurances of boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) that such compartmentalization is for the best. However, when Fury himself is locked out of some top-secret files just before the launch of a new defense project that would give S.H.I.E.L.D. the ability to wipe out potential threats with a push of a button, it becomes clear that something rotten is going on. Who is up to the task of cleaning out the poison?

The movie does lean heavily on the usual spy movie tropes, such as the hero on the run from his own organization, but there are also surprises, brutal and grounded fight choreography, terrific action sequences full of nifty little details, and some compelling emotional drama too (I won’t spoil what it is but suffice to say it’s of the variety that’s pretty much guaranteed to move me). Even when it gets to the obligatory big-scale Marvel third act where things go kaboom, it never feels like it’s something the filmmakers shoved in just because every superhero movie needs a big action-driven finale.

Captain himself is an interesting aberration in today’s comic book movies where heroes are supposed to be flawed or anti-heroic and even Superman can’t just be an earnest corny Superman any more. But his staunch old-fashioned decency is what makes Captain America so endearing, plus the perfect casting of Evans who practically radiates all-American wholesomeness (and is nice to look at, I won’t lie). It helps that he gets to have lively interactions with the supporting characters like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who make the most out of their screen time. The addition of Robert Redford to the cast as the shady figurehead Alexander Pierce lends the movie a seriously classy touch and he underplays the role nicely.

The only thing that truly sucks in this movie is the Winter Soldier’s Russian, which is pretty bad but oh well I’m used to my native language getting mangled by non-Russian speakers. The Marvel quipping is not done to the obnoxious degree, thank god, though I could have done without a couple of one-liners. There was also one gratuitous lingering shot of Black Widow’s derriere that made me roll my eyes. But really, this movie is awesome. If only all Marvel films were as good.

The Witch

A very effective and disturbing exercise in slowly escalating dread, The Witch is the sort of movie where you sit on the edge expecting something really bad to happen any minute now. It doesn’t have many big jump scares but the claustrophobic setting, moody and muted visuals (the film is shot in natural light, with only candles providing the artificial one), spooky music and the unsettling implications of horrible things happening offscreen all work together to create a superb atmosphere of unease.

The setting is the 1630s New England, and in the opening scene a devout family of seven leaves their Puritan settlement over religious differences to reside on a farm by the edge of a forest, far away from human contact. I was glad to have subtitles while watching the movie, because everyone in it speaks in the archaic English based on the written records of the time, with thee and thou and dost and so on. It has a certain poetry to it and adds a lot to the authentic feel, but man would it have obscured the dialogue for me. One day, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy of the eerie wide-set eyes, seen most recently in Split and giving another strong performance here), the eldest child of the clan, takes her baby brother outside, where he vanishes into the thin air. I don’t think it’s a big spoiler to say that, contrary to my expectations, the movie actually doesn’t toy with the audience regarding the existence of the titular witch – it shows upfront that yes she’s real, and what she does with the baby is not pleasant.

Thomasin and her family live in a world governed by faith and superstition where God, Devil and sin are a daily pre-occupation and the idea that the Devil might take on an animal shape is nothing out of the ordinary. It sure made me happy to live in the present day where I don’t have to think of myself as a born sinner and worry about hellfires all day long. When other strange and inexplicable things begin to happen, the family is slowly consumed with fear and paranoia that leads them to turn on each other with accusations of devilry. I thought that The Witch worked best as a quiet psychological thriller about the breakdown of the family – when it did attempt a few deliberately scary moments they mostly made me titter. They’re just too over-the-top compared to the overall subtle approach of the film.

Taylor-Joy is the standout in the cast, as The Witch is also an unconventional coming-of-age story of a young girl in the Puritan age, but Ralph Ineson and Katie Dickie (both seen on Game of Thrones), are also solid as the father who is sympathetic but too weak and prideful to admit he’s taken his family to ruin, and the brittle, emotionally damaged matriarch with a shade of Lysa Arryn. Without spoiling twists and turns, looking back it’s satisfying to spot all the clues the movie plants early on that hint on where the story will eventually go. It certainly has one of the most memorable endings in a film I can think of.

As a random aside, I wish I could think of ways to incorporate the line “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” into my daily conversations somehow.

Apocalypto

I came across this one thanks to the most excellent History Buffs YouTube series, a show dedicated to reviewing historical movies run by a British guy called Nick Hodges. Nick is not a fan of Mel Gibson movies to put it mildly and he panned Apocalypto mercilessly for its many gross historical inaccuracies and the overall misrepresentation of the Mayan culture, with Gibson rolling his Mayans and his Aztecs into one. While his criticisms seemed legitimate, I’m way more forgiving towards the movies fudging historical facts for drama, and the film looked visually interesting at the very least. Besides, who else out there is making movies about a pre-Columbian civilisation shot exclusively in the Mayan dialect? I’ll take my Mayan movies where I can get them.

The story is very simple: Jaguar Paw, a young tribesman living in a jungle village with his little son and very pregnant wife, gets captured by the raiders from a nearby city, where he and his fellow villagers are due to be sacrificed to appease the angry gods. The collapse of the Mayan society is imminent, with the dying crops and strange diseases decimating the population, and nothing less than a constant waterfall of blood will do. Jaguar Paw manages to hide his wife and son in a pit cave before he’s taken, and he must escape and return to his family before it’s too late.

There’s some social commentary about the decline of a civilisation, with the scenes showing environmental degradation, the contrast between the pampered ruling elite and the sickly poor, and the cynical manipulation by the religious leaders. Some of it is as subtle as a brick, such as the creepy little girl prophesying the end of the Mayan world in a typical Creepy Child fashion. The movie really works best as a crazy, audacious, ultra-violent adventure story. Whatever else you can say about Mel Gibson, he knows how to pack a cinematic visceral punch and film a tense chase through the jungle, as the hunted becomes the hunter and picks off his pursuers one by one through the ingenious and often gory means. It’s like Home Alone, Mayan style.

The city scenes can be truly stomach-churning with the decapitations and cut out hearts galore, but they’re also visually stunning and feature the colourful body paint, eye-popping costumes and tribal decorations the likes of which I’ve never seen onscreen before (all that jade jewelry! The film is at least accurate about the Mayan upper class decorating their teeth with jade, as I got to learn on my recent trip to Mexico). I don’t know how historically accurate they really are, but they sure do look spectacular. The cinematography makes the most of the lush green jungle and other naturally beautiful locations. The indigenous cast, many of them first-time actors, do a fine job, especially Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw, and there’s a surprising amount of humour in the scenes where we get to know our hero and his fellow tribesmen and women before everything goes to hell.

Hans Zimmer @ Rod Laver Arena

Hans Zimmer’s name might not be instantly recognisable among the general public, but most people would know the popular films he had scored: Gladiator, The Lion King, Inception, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Rock, and many more. An impressive body of work to say the least. I have my sister and her husband to thank for letting me know about this concert: they’re big fans of Zimmer’s work and were blown away when they saw his show in Prague last year. I could only afford cheap tickets at the very top of the arena, which unfortunately blocked about a third of the orchestra from view, but in the end it didn’t matter so much.

This was definitely a very unique and memorable event. I was a bit amused to see the arena full of young dudes who probably wouldn’t be caught dead at a classical music concert, cheering a classic orchestra for over two hours. There was also Zimmer’s own band, which included the more traditional rock instruments like the electric guitar, a badass female cellist and a drummer with a long bushy beard Leo Tolstoy would envy. Despite his self-confessed stage fright, Zimmer was a wonderful showman, very warm, personable and loveably dorky. No stuffy conductor, he wandered the stage, bantering with his band and sharing a few anecdotes from his long career about working with Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan, and hanging around the Louvre while it was closed off for filming Da Vinci Code.

The first half of the show included medleys from film scores for Sherlock Holmes (I always loved the jaunty main tune but had no idea it was Zimmer’s), Crimson Tide, Pirates of the Caribbean, and my personal huge favourite, Gladiator. The Holst-inspired battle theme was stirring and the more ethereal, emotional parts were made even more so when Lisa Gerrard, who had collaborated on the soundtrack and lent her gorgeous otherworldly vocals, came onstage. It was a truly spine-tingling moment. The Lion King introduction, with the dramatic red sun lighting up the screen and the instantly recognisable lyrics (iconic despite the fact that most people including myself have no clue what they actually mean) drew the biggest cheer from the crowd, as the original singer of the intro was joined onstage by the other vocalists who sang their way through the film’s themes. The Lion King is my favourite Disney animated movie and the Zimmer score, I’ve come to realise, is a big reason why.

After a short intermission, the show resumed in a superhero mode with the selections from Man of Steel, The Dark Knight, and an amazing rendition of the Wonder Woman theme which is probably my favourite thing from the wretched Batman vs Superman debacle. I actually couldn’t remember the music from The Dark Knight all that well, but the menacing Joker theme was brilliant and a proof that you don’t need nostalgia for the great film score to stand up on its own. Overall it was a darker, heavier, more sombre second half, never more epic than when the booming Interstellar theme came along; sadly they didn’t bring their own real organ onstage but even with the synthesizer it sounded overwhelmingly majestic live. It was accompanied by a cool onscreen image of an organ floating in space, which gave me very strong Pink Floyd vibes. The Thin Red Line theme was yet another familiar and very emotive piece of music I didn’t realise was composed by Zimmer.

Interstellar officially closed the show, but of course there was no way they’d skip that track from Inception, and yep Zimmer and the rest came back for the encore to perform Time. What a magnificent way to cap off the concert with this deceptively simple theme which just builds and builds and swells and explodes into celestial epicness before ending on the same intimate piano notes.

Now of course I want to re-watch all of the films featured in the show, and hopefully catch Mr Zimmer live again down the track.

Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey

I’ve always loved short stories and this collection certainly has a unique premise. Each of the ten short stories is narrated by a soul of a different animal caught up in the human conflicts of the last century, and ends with the tale of their deaths. Among them is a female cat surviving in the trenches of World War I, who reminisces about her life with her bohemian actress owner; a bear slowly starving to death in the zoo of the war-torn Sarajevo; a tortoise who crosses paths with several literary geniuses and dreams of travelling to space; a young mussel who goes on a road trip Kerouac-style.

I confess, it took me some time to get used to the concept of the book and read it on the author’s terms, because initially the idea struck me as painfully contrived. I’ve read a few from-the-animal’s-point-of-view books before, but Dovey’s stories ask you to accept her animals as incredibly self-aware, articulate and literate creatures who care about the beauty of a piano and the poetry of Sylvia Plath. As such they felt to me more like human consciousness forced into an animal shape, and the words coming out of their mouths came off as very unnatural. It’s not really a book to make me think about the humans’ treatment of the real-life animals when they’re anthropomorphised beyond recognition.

However, once I finished a couple more stories and got over this contrivance, Only the Animals turned out to be a beautifully written, original, inventive and empathetic treasure trove of a book that’s completely devoid of excessive sentimentality or cutesiness animal stories can sometimes fall into. The book is also not preachy in some sort of overt “animals = good humans = baaaaad” kind of way. The animals remark on the humans around them in a frank, matter-of-fact manner; sometimes they’re bemused by them, sometimes they’re horrified, and quite often they’re sympathetic.

Since every story ends with the death of its main character, they’re inevitably poignant and tragic, but they also can be quite playful and witty; the story of the mussel in particular comes closest to the outright parody and feels slightly different in tone to the others, in a good way. What binds the stories, other than the themes of violence and human cruelty, is the literary connections: famous writers like Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf and George Orwell sometimes appear in a story as the background figures, or it’s their work that has inspired the animals in some way; or the author uses an existing work (such as Kafka’s A Report to an Academy) as a jumping off point for her own story. I’ve probably missed out on some of the references and homages to past writers, but I don’t think this knowledge is necessary to enjoy the stories on their own.