Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Celluloid Anticipation Redux!

Movies I am looking forward to!  And why.

I've only recently learned that Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman and Virginia Madsden are starring in a motion picture version of Little Red Riding Hood.  To be honest, the poster here is not official in any way, shape, manner or form.  Just something I whipped together.  Here is the official synopsis:  Set in a medieval village that is haunted by a werewolf, a young girl falls for an orphaned woodcutter, much to her family's displeasure.You can read (a little) more about the film here, so there really isn't much I can say for certain.  Still, I like the whole idea of a retelling of this classic (and very Freudian) fairy tale, especially when linked explicitly with the legend of the werewolf!  As you can probably guess, I'm quite the fan of Neil Jordon's Company of Wolves.  It is supposed to be a "gothic" retelling and is directed by the same person who did the first Twilight movie.  Expected release date is March 2011.

One film I've know of for a little while is The Tempest based on Shakespeare's play, directed by Julie Taymor (who also did another Shakespeare film, Titus). Interestingly, the lead's gender is changed but that I don't mind at all.  The cast is stellar with Dame Helen Mirren as Prospera, Felicity Jones as her daughter Miranda, Alan Cumming as Sebastian and Russel Brand as Trinculo.  You can see the trailer right here.  I think it looks spectacular!  This was one of the Bard's mature plays, and has a slightly melancholy air despite the many hijinks and puns.  Film gives us the potential to see the magic, and frankly looks to put Harry Potter to shame!  Look for it December 10, 2010.

Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader surprised me, simply because I thought the decision had been not to make the thing!  To be honest, C.S.Lewis' works don't touch me as much as do Tolkien's but that doesn't mean they aren't fun.  Methinks (will have to check) this is the first adaptation of the third Narnia novel, about a quest to the very edge of the world.  If one thinks Ulysses, or the Argonauts with a few dashes of Sinbad but through a Narnian lens you won't be far off.  For me, having always loved to live near waves and the smell of salt air, this fantasy which comprises a sea journey holds a special attraction.  Take a gander at the trailer right here.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Guest Blogging & Some Thanks!

Did a few more guest blogs, this time on almost-vampire Mina Murray and of course her fiancee (and sometimes vampire hunter) Jonathan Harker.  These form part of a series I'm doing about the major characters in Dracula.  Another series is on the major actors who've played the world's most famous Transylvanian (the second methinks would have to be Johnny Weismuller, Olympic swimmer and star of many a motion picture about Tarzan).

As October ebbs to its climax (Halloween!!!!) I am also moved to render thanks to some celebrities.  Without going into details, let me admit many aspects of my life are a mess.  I have far too many bills, even more regrets, estranged family members (and in all honesty I cannot avoid some blame for that), an ongoing health problem I've created for myself (having to do with sugar and teeth, if you must know) and on top of all that I am alone.

On the other hand, there are some celebrities who remind me on a visceral level how lucky I am, how wise, how prudent, how generally un-screwed up I am at present.

So thank you for that Mr. and Mrs. Randy Quaid, Miss Lindsay Lohan, Mr. Mel Gibson, Mr. Michael Jackson (rest in peace, you seemed like a nice guy but c'mon!), Miss Britney Spears, Mr. Nicholas Cage and of course Mr. Elvis Presley (DEAR GOD MAN YOU HAD IT ALL!).

I'll have something substantive to say later this week.  Promise.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Creationism's Threat

Warning:  Strong opinions ahead!

Growing up in the Deep South, one of the many issues I ended up exposed to (albeit not until college) was a pseudo-science called Creationism.  These days it goes by the name Intelligent Design.  Many people don't realize the reason for the name-change.  Simply, Federal Courts ruled that Creationism is religion, not science.  Reading the actual decisions makes this pretty clear.  Science is open to change, based upon evidence.  Creationism is not--by definition it rejects even the possibility it could be wrong no matter what the evidence.

Hence the name-change.  It offers up a perfect example of what Creationists engage in on a routine basis--deceit.  Not the rank and file person on the street has next to no knowledge of biology and feels overwhelmed a changing world.  No, the liars are the leaders and writers and spokespeople of the Creationism movement.  They engage in a concerted campaign to distort facts, studying hard to do so.

Case in point--Piltdown Man.  This was a hoax "discovered" in 1912, an early human fossil or so it seemed.  It had its detractors from the very start and eventually it was exposed as a hoax in the 1950s.  Creationists routinely try to use this as proof of how unreliable evolutionary biology must be.  Now think about this for a moment.  Apply this same standard to all human endeavor.  Think of one subject which has not been the subject of a hoax or a mistake.  If you can think of one, do so more research.  I'll bet money you're wrong.  Error is part of the human condition, which is why protocols exist to check and re-check all scientific findings before they get published in accredited journals.  Creationists sneer at this process (when they acknowledge it) as a way of smothering dissent.  This viewpoint alone indicates how little they understand (or are willing to mention) about scientific journals--the widely diverging views and often-acrimonious debates about all kinds of questions that go on there.  More, Creationists don't bother to talk about the actual standards being used--which are scientific, standardized and offer no impediment to anything that has some evidential backing, even if inconclusive.  Creationists cannot meet those standards, so they attack them.

One could easily write a book about all the different tricks and deceits practiced by the Creationist movement--from cheery picking to deliberate misinformation to ad hominem attacks and straw men, false analogies and non sequitors to a thousand other stunts.  One particular thing anyone playing close attention will notice is how Creationists change the subject whenever an obstacle of knowledge and data lies ahead.

But more to the point, what is this all about really?  Why do they care?  Creationist organizations are nation-wide and often well-funded, doing their best to divert education away from everything current in biology towards...what?

Therein lies the rub.  What are they trying to promote?

It isn't hard to find that out, actually.  A "return to Christian values" by which they mean a certain brand of Fundamentalist Protestantism.  A specific literal interpretation of the Bible (not just any literal interpretation, theirs and theirs alone).  No more belief that we are shaped by our environment in any way--because that would justify society acting to help each other out.  Hence higher taxes to pay for things like feeding the hungry or healing the sick, or cleaning up after natural disasters.  Officially sanctioned prejudice against women, homosexuals and non-Fundamentalist Protestants, as in Judea of Old (or their imaginary version of same--these folks generally know as little about history, theology and Biblical studies as they do about biology).  Legislating norms in the arts.  Banning certain paganistic holidays and practices.  Leading children into prayer by government fiat, specific prayers of a specific religions POV regardless of what those children or their families think.  Theocracy--not overtly as in Iran but more along the lines of Utah or the Soviet Union (in theory the Communist Party was a different entity from the government--it just happened that the leaders of one were identical to the leaders of the other).

Did I mention I'm a Christian?  A quite devout one?  Of course, in the eyes of Fundamentalists I am not because my opinions do not slavishly follow theirs--and they claim absolute authority to make that decision. History shows what happens when Fundamentalists get their hands on things like governments, avoidable tragedies follow.  One--which understandably gets eclipsed amid the shattered lives and all-too-often bloody corpses--is the spiritual loss of direction.  Just as the Pharisees saw the Messiah as a threat to be destroyed, so the Pharisees of our own time see genuine search for Faith as something to be controlled rather than encouraged.

Creationism denies all kinds of truths--but in terms of Christianity, it denies any vision of God's works can possibly be valid save their own narrow one.  In a child, this kind of stubbornness remains understandable, forgivable, little enough to cause concern.  Grown-ups are supposed to be wiser.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Most Mysterious Dracula

A guest blog I wrote for Vampires.com is about Max Schrek, star of the first film version of Dracula.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

30 Days of Night: Dark Days (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

A major event among fans of the undead--especially those with a liking for graphic novels--remains the publication of 30 Days of Night, later made into a film of the same name.  In particular this work and its sequels were heralded for "making vampires scary again."  One can hardly argue.  Rather than anguished fallen angels, the creatures at the heart of these stories were the equivalent of sharks--hiding in the shadows and then grabbing those who strayed too far from safety.  The central plot idea--of the vampires enjoying a orgiastic feast in a small Alaska town that "enjoys" 30 days of night--added a nicely creepy Night of the Living Dead and/or The Thing feel which worked nicely.

Now a sequel to the first film has arrived on DVD.  Loosely based upon the actual sequel 30 Days of Night: Dark Days follows the efforts of survivor/widow Stella to deal with her grief.  At first she simply tries to tell the world.  As the film opens, she finds herself recruited by a small band of vampire hunters.

Melissa George does not reprise her role as Stella, that part being taken over by Kiele Sanchez.  The latter is a more obviously tough-looking person, which in a way shows what has gone wrong with this production.  Most folks might not realize how startling it was years ago when Jodie Foster got the part of Clarice in Silence of the Lambs, given that she was this tiny actress then best known for rather more feminine/victimized roles.  In hindsight, the choice was brilliant.  Not so here.  None of the actors are bad.  All do their jobs well.  But with one exception none of them shine, none rise above the material.   The best actors add nuance to their roles, and dive deep into whatever each character experiences moment by moment.  Only one member of the cast really managed to that here.  Rather they show the surface and maybe one layer underneath.

We'll get to the one exception in a moment.

The script doesn't help, showing as it does pretty much the same flaws.  Whereas the graphic novel didn't shy away from the really dark and disturbing stuff about our central characters, this movie does.  It is a subtle thing, but important.  Stella, our hero, is a ravaged soul.  We use clinical terms like trauma or distress to define what she endures, but in terms of the character herself her world has been shredded into bleeding strips.  Her husband gave his life to save her from an unearthly horror.  Her ability to cope with that fact (and all the details associated) has frayed Stella's mind.  She is taking insane risks.

She is not quite at the point where the movie's ending makes sense, however.  Comparisons to the source material aren't always fair, because we are talking about different media.  Books can be read at leisure, savoring each sentence and image.  Movies rush at you at 25 frames per second.  In this instance, though, doing so leads to exactly what doesn't work in the film.  The dramatic punch is pulled.

Dane is arguably one of the most interesting characters--a vampire who retains enough of his humanity to consciously help the hunters.  The graphic novel has him a stronger person than the movie.  Stella even likes him, to her surprise.  He says most vampires are "assholes" simply because most people are.  Not the route one can take in the films, because those who adapted it from the start went with an interesting route.  Their vampires truly are beasts, predators ruled by their instincts.  In both films this allows a certain formula for victory.  Successfully kill the Alpha of the pack, and the rest of them will simply not oppose you.  It comes across as instinct.  Dane in the film is a vampire in whom those instincts didn't quite "take" for some reason.  That makes sense, given the movie's mythology.  It makes Dane the vampire equivalent of a sociopath--he doesn't feel kinship with his fellow bloodsuckers so can go against the pack mentality.  Give credit where credit is due--that is a fascinating idea.

Unfortunately, the reason for having Dane there gets lost.

In the graphic novel Stella is not only surprised to find herself liking Dane, but is fascinated by him, eventually making love to him and is deeply upset when he's killed.  The film has her only ever tolerate him.  She beds another of the hunters, a more ordinary man rather like herself but maybe just a little bit emotionally healthier.

Okay but here is the kicker.  The movie keeps the graphic novel's ending.  Stella finds out there is a way to bring a vampire back.  She then goes back to Barrow Alaska, site of the terrible siege, and digs up her husband Eben.  He had made himself a vampire specifically to gain the power to save Stella and a few other survivors.  Then he watched the sun rise with her, saying he didn't ever want to not love her.  She watched him become a man-shaped cinder.  Now she does what it takes to resurrect him--and he immediately bites her throat.

A good ending.  Except that it wasn't set up.  Stella didn't go through the kinds of changes to lead her to do such a thing--a reckless act of desperate loneliness and hope, emerging from her experience with Dane.  Nor did the actress have the chops (and impressive they would have to have been) to carry that out on her own.

One actor in the ensemble did rise above the material.  Mia Kirshner plays Lilith, the undead Queen Bee.  As a bit of trivia, this marks Kirshner's third time essaying a vampire--previously on The Vampire Diaries and as a teenager for two episodes of Dracula: The Series.  These days she's probably best known for five years as the mercurial Jenny on The L Word, but in that and other roles she's revealed what a startlingly interesting and often fearless actress she can be.  She's tiny, yet dominates every scene in which she appears.  The weirdly sing-song voice, like a little girl almost playing with dolls, added to her creepiness and strangely enough to the sense of power conveyed.  Even more so her body language--regal and still and yet animalistic at the same time.  Imagine Graf Orlock from the silent classic Nosferatu but as a pretty woman.

Do I recommend the movie?  Depends on your mood.  None of the performances are bad (quite a step up for many direct-to-DVD productions).  Some are good.  One attains real quality.  The excitement of the basic story--the hunters trying to take out Lilith and so destroy her nest--is there, transposed in some interesting ways.  A few details are just cool, while at least horror itself remains intact.  Stella's journey through the bowels of that ship includes stuff one expected the studio to balk over, but evidently they didn't.  Lilith's unique method of feeding from a handsome young man was something I've never seen before--and was erotic in a skin-crawling kind of way.  But don't expect something with the emotional power of Let Me In or Shadow of the Vampire or even The Wolfman.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Night of the Living Puppets

My latest guest blog for vampires.com...

Pinocchio the Vampire Slayer was a 2010 graphic novel, with a sequel in the works. The title makes a weird kind of sense, given that the titular hero is in effect a living weapon against the undead. But another thought comes to mind almost immediately.
Would Pinocchio have to fight vampires who were also puppets?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

My Guest Blogs!

I've been guest blogging lately at vampires.com and thought to share some of them...

Children of the Night is about child vampires and what their portrayal may tell us about ourselves.

What To Do With Dracula? examines the way we seem to have wrung everything we can out of the book and character--or have we?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Let Me In (Review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Over a  year ago my friend Nadia raved about a Swedish vampire movie titled Let The Right One In.  After watching it, my own praise for this film became extravagant.  Then came the day I got to read the novel.  It too proved marvelous.

News of an English-language version.  I am not someone who rejects things out-of-hand without some good reason.  Had Joel Shumacher, for example, been attached as director I'd've been nauseous.  Ditto George Lucas, Uwe Boll, a dozen others any of us could easily name.  Yet Matt Reeves was both writing and directing the film.  Matt Reeves of Cloverfield fame.  Or infamy.  Depends on one's pov, yes?

Long story short (too late!) I felt cautiously optimistic.

Now that I've seen it, my feelings are a blend of "impressed" "thrilled" and "disturbed."  Impressed because this is a movie that captures the ruthless yet tender heart of the book at least as well as the first film.  Yes, at least as well.  "Thrilled" because this was not only a good retelling of the novel into a new medium, but in some ways a startlingly original version.  "Disturbed" because this film actually creeped me out in ways the Swedish motion picture did not.

At the core, novel and films explore loneliness--how it distorts while it tortures.  Owen, the main character (Kodi Smitt-McPhee in a performance that makes me long to see him as Hamlet in a decade's time), is a very bright but disturbed boy.  His parents are mid-divorce.  Father isn't present.  Mother (whom we never quite see) numbs herself with religious platitudes and wine.  Neither seem to have the slightest idea about their child's unhappiness.  Bullied viciously at school, Owen seethes with fear and rage.  He has begun to enter puberty, yet still gobbles up candy like a very small child.  Pleasure clearly exists in such tiny amounts, at least in Owen's life, he rarely hesitates when given any chance--even if it means spying on the pretty young wife in his apartment complex.  The wall in his bedroom says it all.  It shows a view of Earth from the cold landscape of the barren moon.

Enter Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz who stole the movie Kick Ass earlier this year as Hit-Girl).  Seemingly another lonely child.  In fact, she is precisely that, but is also a vampire, who-knows-how-old.  Her companion, a man people assume is her father (Richard Jenkins, a marvelous actor in his own right), is clearly devoted to Abby beyond words.  Beyond life.  Interestingly, in the first film my reaction to this character was "Pedophile."  Here I thought it pretty clear that he was once what Owen is now--a lonely child drawn into orbit around an even lonelier, much older and more dangerous semi-child.

Much will be made of the question--Does Abby care?  Is she pursuing a ruthless agenda of recruiting another caretaker as her previous one begins to fail?  Or as one relationship disintegrates, does she happen upon someone about whom she can genuinely feel affection, even love?  Methinks the answer to that question says most about the person giving the answer.  Let Me In keeps any possible final answer on that question ambiguous.

Yet there are hints.

Abby could lie to her Caretaker.  She does not.  At his end, she could have been ruthless instead of gentle.  She didn't have to keep those photos of him for Owen to find.  When her vampire-self began to take over, she managed to save Owen.  Yet she was also hovering around Owen at the end, waiting for the chance to save him from the bullies.

My own answer to that question is--both.  She was looking for a new Caretaker, and she found him in a boy she could love.  Possibly she loves Owen more than any other.  Maybe not.  But she needs him.  She wants him.  She feels for him.  All these and more wrapped up into one emotional package.  Life is complex like that.

But what really sticks in my mind is the ending.  Owen has found his friend, escaped from Los Alamos New Mexico, been saved from his tormentors and begun a new adventure as companion/familiar of a beautiful creature out of legend.  Yet he gobbles candy.  He sings an advertising jingle.  He remains a child, one who began this story disturbed in many ways and is he much better?  Happier, yes.  For now.  He's in love.  More, I believe he is loved.  No small thing.  But he has entered the same trap that Abby inhabits.  No matter how old he gets, how much growing up can he possibly achieve really?

She is an eternal little girl.  By choosing her, Owen has condemned himself to being an eternal little boy.  Even when his hair turns gray and his teeth fall out--still just a little boy.

A little boy who will kill for her, one day.  Just as she has killed for him.  Yet will never grow up.  Neither of them.  A little bit of heaven, maybe, on top of more than a few drops of pure hell.  For them both.

Technically I will say the rhythm of the story seemed slightly rushed in a few spots.  One gets the impression of scenes cut to keep the playing time a reasonable length.  Let us hear it for Director's Extended Cuts!  Likewise a time or two the beautiful musical score intruded (although barely--mostly it meshed perfectly with events and helped to create atmosphere virtually from frame one).  For those wishing to compare, this is in now way a shot-by-shot remake.  Neither is it a hack job.  The three actors at the heart of the film carry its burden and they do not stumble.  Jenkins and Moretz are already known to me as exceptional artists.  Smitt-McPhee, with whom I'm not familiar, is a revelation.