Monday, November 7, 2016

Eight is Enough

Dracula (1931): adapted by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston from the play by Garrett Fort adapted from the novel by Bram Stoker; directed by Tod Browning; starring Bela Lugosi (Dracula), Helen Chandler (Mina), David Manners (John Harker), Dwight Frye (Renfield), and Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing): This stagey, bloodless Dracula was a big hit in 1931. It has the hallmarks of early sound film -- that super-heavy, static sound camera pretty much necessitated a nearly immobile, stagey shot. 

Bela Lugosi is great, especially in the first section set at Castle Dracula. Dwight Frye is a hoot as Renfield, the foundational figure for so many crazed characters to come in horror movies. Once the action moves to England, things become a bit tedious. And the censorship people ensure that Dracula dies off-screen with barely an "Argh!" to mark his passing. F.W. Murnau's bootleg Dracula, Nosferatu (1922), is a far superior work, as are many of the later adaptations. Still, Lugosi remains a bracing presence. Recommended.

John Carpenter's Vampires (1998): adapted by Don Jakoby from the novel by John Steakley; directed by John Carpenter; starring James Woods (Jack Crow), Daniel Baldwin (Montoya), Sheryl Lee (Katrina), Thomas Ian Griffith (Valek), Tim Guinee (Father Guiteau), and Maximillian Schell (Cardinal Alba): One of John Carpenter's crappier offerings. Oh, sure, it has its moments. But it's crippled by a totally uninteresting vampire antagonist (Thomas Ian Griffith), sloppy writing, and the perplexing choice to have Daniel Baldwin play a character named 'Montoya,' complete with dyed-black hair to, I suppose, trick the audience into thinking Baldwin is Hispanic. The treatment of women is a bit... problematic, given that women in this movie are either prostitutes or vampires (or in Sheryl Lee's case, both).  I was entertained, but not a lot. Lightly recommended.

Krampus (2015): written by Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields, and Todd Casey; directed by Michael Dougherty; starring Adam Scott (Tom), Toni Collette (Sarah), David Koechner (Howard), Emjay Anthony (Max), and Conchata Ferrell (Aunt Dorothy): Michael Dougherty's ode to Gremlins isn't as good as Gremlins (which was also set at Christmas), which may be more an indictment of studio interference than anything else. Krampus, which visits the Germanic anti-Santa Claus on a small American town that has forgotten the meaning of Christmas, needs sharper editing in its first half, which seems to run on forever while we wait for Anti-Claus to show up.

Thankfully, Krampus and his twisted minions -- horrible snowmen, horrifying toys, homicidal gingerbread men, and a really nice looking evil Christmas-tree Angel -- do arrive to scare and stalk Adam Scott's family, who are too angry and fractious for The True Meaning of Christmas to take hold. There are some lovely effects both mechanical and CGI animating the various monsters, including Krampus itself. And there's a real sense of menace as things roll towards the end.

Depending on one's interpretation, Krampus either manages a treacly happy ending, a slightly menacing happy ending, or a refreshingly bleak ending in which not even a baby is safe from damnation. Seriously. At 100 minutes, Krampus feels about 15 minutes too long and two sugar packets too sweet for some stretches. But I still enjoyed it. I also enjoyed that it offers an odd commentary on this year's U.S. election: Republican or Democrat, Krampus is taking none of your self-serving bullshit if you're committed to a world where only money matters. Recommended.

The Forest (2016): written by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell, and Ben Ketai; directed by Jason Zada; starring Natalie Dormer (Sara/ Jess Price) and Taylor Kinney (Aiden): Dull film set mostly in Japan's 'Suicide Forest' (but filmed in Serbia) wastes a solid turn by Natalie Dormer as twin sisters. That this movie is actually inferior to the straight-to-cable, bafflingly titled The Last Halloween/ Grave Halloween is an extraordinary feat of wasted opportunity. Among other things, features characters following a river by walking away from said river at a 90-degree angle. OK! Not recommended.

Joy (2015): written by Annie Mumolo and David O. Russell; directed by David O. Russell; starrimg Jennifer Lawrence (Joy), Robert De Niro (Rudy), Bradley Cooper (Neil Walker), Diane Ladd (Mimi), Edgar Ramirez (Tony), Virginia Madsen (Terry), Isabella Rossellini (Trudy), and Dascha Polanco (Jackie): Another enjoyable David O. Russell/Jennifer Lawrence/Bradley Cooper movie, not up to the standards of American Hustle or Silver Linings Playbook but still solid, quirky drama. 

It's all expressionistically based on a real person, nearly broke new Jersey housewife Joy, who's suppressed her creative and financial acumen for much of her adult life until she invents a new type of mop. With some aid and a lot of the exact opposite of aid from family members and friends, she eventually becomes a home-shopping success. 

The acting is fine -- fine enough that it sometimes takes time to register what utter dinks Joy's father (De Niro), his new girlfriend (Rossellini), and Joy's half-sister can be, and are, most of the time. A story of female empowerment through engineering and financial acumen is a pretty unusual thing. And the legal ins and outs of patent law end up being pretty gripping. The ending needs more work, and the partial-flashback-with-narration structure never quite seems to gel. Nonetheless, Lawrence is splendid, as is most of the supporting cast. Recommended.

Jack Reacher (2012): adapted by Christopher McQuarrie from the novel One Shot by Lee Child; directed by Christopher McQuarrie; starring Tom Cruise (Jack Reacher), Rosamund Pike (Helen), Richard Jenkins (Rodin), David Oyelowo (Emerson), and Werner Herzog (The Zec): Surprisingly fun thriller with 5'7" Tom Cruise playing novelist Lee Child's 6'4" hero Jack Reacher. The Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie knows how to write a decent script and how to direct it. A long cameo appearance by Robert Duvall is a bit wonky. Surprisingly for a modern thriller, there's neither any real development of a love interest for Reacher -- he and Rosamund Pike remain platonic pals -- nor any touchy-feely character development for Cruise's character. He's just a hyper-competent guy living off the grid. Recommended.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014): written by David Koepp and Adam Cozad, based on characters created by Tom Clancy; directed by Kenneth Branagh; starring Chris Pine (Jack Ryan), Keira Knightley (Cathy Muller), Kevin Costner (Thomas Harper), and Kenneth Branagh (Viktor Cherevin): Paramount attempts to reboot the Jack Ryan franchise by moving the characters about 40 years forwards in time and turning Ryan from a naval expert to a financial wizard. The first half actually goes pretty well, with Chris 'NuCaptain Kirk' Pine playing Ryan as a sort of Captain Kirk of the banking system. Indeed, the relationship between Pine and his CIA recruiter-turned-controller Kevin Costner plays an awful lot like the Kirk/Pike relationship in the 2009 Trek reboot. Kenneth Branagh, slumming again, does an able job. But the script goes completely awry in the second half, degenerating into an endless car chase that satisfies not at all. And let's face it -- computer-based financial warfare just isn't as interesting in a cinematic sense as a submarine chase. Ultimately, not recommended.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959): adapted by Peter Bryan from the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle; directed by Terence Fisher; starring Peter Cushing (Sherlock Holmes), Andre Morrell (Doctor Watson), Christopher Lee (Sir Henry Baskerville), Marla Landi (Cecile Stapleton), Ewen Solon (Stapleton), and Francis de Wolff (Dr. Mortimer): Zippy, relatively faithful Sherlock Holmes movie casts an energetic though diminutive Peter Cushing as the great detective and Christopher Lee as the target of the Baskerville curse. This came from Hammer Films, generally best known for horror in the 1950's and 1960's -- indeed, the interiors of Baskerville Hall previously served as Dracula's home in Horror of Dracula. As usual for Hammer, the movie looks great and moves with great pace to its conclusion. It's a shame Hammer didn't make more Holmes movies. Recommended.

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