Dracula Untold


Enter the dragon.

Enter the dragon.

(2014) Horror (Universal/Legendary) Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Art Parkinson, Charles Dance, Diarmaid Murtagh, Paul Kaye, William Houston, Noah Huntley, Ronan Vibert, Zach McGowan, Ferdinand Kingsley, Joseph Long, Thor Kristjansson, Jakub Gierszal, Joe Benjamin, Paul Bullion, Mish Boyko, Dilan Gwyn, Louise Parker. Directed by Gary Shore

You may think you know the story of Dracula but most of us only know his Victorian-age story as told by Bram Stoker. However, even by that point the infamous vampire was centuries old, the undead creature once known as Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century Transylvanian prince who was already a bit of a monster while he was still alive. Of course, history is often a different tale than what those who were there might have narrated.

Vlad who as a boy was sent to live with the Turks as a sort of tribute (and also to keep the numerically superior Turkish army from annihilating the Transylvanians) wants nothing more than to live in peace with his people and his family – his wife Mirena (Gadon) and son Ingeras (Parkinson).

But that is not to be. A Turkish delegation arrives, demanding that the Transylvanians supply them with a thousand boys to serve in the Sultan’s army – including Vlad’s own son. Vlad tries to reason with them, but the envoy won’t hear of it. When a small party of Turks comes to take Ingeras, Vlad kills all of them.

Knowing they can never defeat the massive Turkish army who are well-armed and well-trained, Vlad turns desperate to protect his family at all costs. He ascends a forbidding mountain and there meets the Master Vampire (Dance), a creature half of myth and legend but certainly real enough. He cautions Vlad that the price for power is staggeringly high. If Vlad drinks of the vampire’s blood, he will have most of the vampire’s powers for three days. If he can keep from drinking human blood in that three day period, he will return to his human form. Should Vlad drink any human blood during those three days, a vampire he’ll remain for eternity and the Master Vampire will be freed from his prison and be allowed to walk the world again after centuries of imprisonment.

At first it seems like Vlad made a great bargain; he defeats a Turkish battalion by himself, able to change into bats, control the creatures of the night and possessed of the strength of a hundred men. However, the thirst is proving to be more difficult to resist than he might have thought possible. He also discovers that this was just a diversionary tactic by the Turks and they are coming with an army of hundreds of thousands to wipe out the Transylvanians, led by the Sultan (Cooper) himself, once a boyhood friend of Vlad’s. Can he find a way to defeat the Turks and keep his humanity at the same time?

This is one of those movies that mixes in fact and fiction together to create a different kind of brew, although the “facts” are somewhat fast and loose. In fact, just about the only thing the writers got right was that Dracula which translates depending on who you ask as the Son of the Dragon, or the Son of the Devil, was a prince of Transylvania who would impale his enemies as a means of intimidation. There the distinctions stop. There were no Turks in the 15th century; back then it was known as the Ottoman Empire and the Turks were but one ethnic group in the Empire. Also, his wife’s name was Ilona, not Mirena. He had a daughter named Mircea and a son named Mihnea but no child named Ingeras. Nor was Vlad all that popular among his nobles who were angered by his usurping of what they thought were their rights. Vlad wanted autocratic authority.

All that could have been forgiven if we’d been given a dynamic Vlad but Evans doesn’t deliver one. We get a fairly bland portrayal of the legendary nobleman, one that lacks force or charisma. We never get much of a sense as to what Vlad is like other than that he’s a devoted family man. That’s all well and good but we get a sense of his cruelty only by reputation; Vlad the Impaler might as well have been nicknamed Vlad the Doting Dad. There are a couple of scenes of stakes with Vlad watching them in anguish but that seems pretty at odds with the kind of guy who had no problems letting his enemies die horribly painful deaths. Evans seems distracted, like his mind is on a different movie than the one he’s shooting.

Mirena’s role isn’t well-defined. One gets a sense she’s supposed to be fiercely devoted to her son and husband and that she was strong enough to stand up to her sometimes hot-tempered husband but then at other times she seems uncharacteristically meek and submissive. Thus we are unable to get a real handle on who the true Mirena is.

The special effects are nifty, particularly Dracula transforming into a flock of bats, or controlling the storm near the end of the film. By and large though this isn’t as effects-driven as you might think; mostly this is a costumed action-adventure film in horror sheep’s clothing. The sets are extravagant looking and the cinematography of Ireland (subbing for the Carpathian Mountains) is lovely.

It can be said that this is lovely packaging for essentially an empty box. The suspense element is by the boards because we all know that Vlad is destined to be an immortal vampire so we know that he is going to consume the blood within those three days; it’s just a matter of how and when. So we’re left with mindlessly entertaining,,merely a trifle that will be forgotten the moment you leave the theater.

REASONS TO GO: Some nifty effects sequences. Lush cinematography and nice sets and costumes.
REASONS TO STAY: Evans is a bit wooden. Bloated and stodgy in places. Some historical inaccuracies.
FAMILY VALUES: There is war violence, scenes of bloody vampire attacks, some disturbing images and a little sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sam Worthington was originally set to star until he had to drop out and was replaced by Evans.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 24% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Van Helsing
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness begins!

Advertisements

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (Bai she chuan shuo)


Not all the great visuals are CGI.

Not all the great visuals are CGI.

(2011) Martial Arts Fantasy (Magnet) Jet Li, Raymond Lam, Eva Huang, Charlene Choi, Zhang Wen, Vivian Hsu, Miriam Yeung Chin Wah (voice) Kar-Ying Law, Suet Lam (voice), Chapman To, Wu Jiang (voice), Gao Hai Bo, Yin You Can, Li Dan, Han Dong. Directed by Siu-Tung Ching

China has a rich and varied history of lore and legend from which they periodically draw inspiration for their films. Fantasy is huge in China, and with a whole pantheon of demons, monsters and God-like creatures to choose from, it’s no wonder that some of the best fantasy films in recent years have come from there. So where does this one stand.

A young herb-gatherer with ambitions of one day becoming a doctor named Xu Xian (R. Lam) is observed picking herbs in the bucolic mountains by White Snake (Huang), a thousand-year-old snake demon who is curious about humans. Her mischievous sister Green Snake (Choi) decides to play a trick on poor old Xu, appearing to him as he climbs up a particularly treacherous section of the mountain which startles the would-be physician so badly that he falls off the mountain and into the lake below. White, realizing that the herb gatherer will drown because of her sister’s prank, goes down into the lake in human form and kisses Xu, not only imparting oxygen to the young man but also part of her vital essence.

Xu can’t stop thinking about his savior nor can White stop thinking about Xu much to Green’s amused disgust. With the dragon boat festival in full swing, White decides she needs to see Xu and Green somewhat bemusedly agrees to help.

Fahai (Li), abbot of the Lei Feng Pagoda, has spent his life tracking down and capturing demons. His apprentice Neng Ren (Wen) is a little bit impetuous and not nearly as strong as his master. While chasing a group of bat demons, Neng meets up with Green without realizing she’s  a demon. White at last with Green’s help finds Xu and decides to reveal to him that she is the one that saved him that day. The two wind up getting married.

This is something Fahai cannot allow as it violates every principle of human-demon relations. Only ill can come of this and he does everything in his power to prevent the union from continuing. White’s love for Xu will have devastating consequences both for him, the Pagoda and possibly for all of China unless Fahai can make things right.

Ching is best known for directing Chinese Ghost Story along with being an action choreographer on several well-known Chinese films. Here he pulls out all the stops in a movie that is drenched with CGI as animated demons, sometimes in the form of their animal totems and sometimes in human shape (the Asian cut of the film features much more of the latter; the American cut has more of the former which is a bit jarring as they come off as kind of Disneyesque creatures with juvenile voices).

Li has progressed into more gruff old man kinds of roles – a decade ago he would have been the herbalist. Although he is no longer as youthful as he once was, he is still as graceful a martial artist as has ever been on the screen and his moves are still just as fluid and economical as they ever were. Plus he has the experience of decades of screen time not to mention his own natural charisma that you just can’t teach.

Lam is a big star in the East but little known here, but he makes for an engaging Xu. His character is a bit naive, a bit unobservant and a bit of a bumbler but fiercely loyal and remarkably brave and selfless. Lam conveys all of that with an easygoing charm. He doesn’t have quite the martial arts proficiency of Li (but in all fairness very few people on the planet do – including those who are martial arts masters) but he pulls off his fight scenes pretty well.

Like most Chinese heroines Huang has an ethereal beauty that is breathtaking. Her sensuality is more coy than overt, a bit schoolgirl-ish at times but there’s no denying her emotional intensity, particularly in her last scenes of the film. I’ve always been partial to Michelle Yeoh among Asian actresses but Huang certainly is one to watch.

Nearly every scene is laden with special effects of the CGI variety. They are less concerned with the realistic nature of CGI in the east than they are here so in some ways the effects look less practiced than they do on major Hollywood films but they get the job done. The fight scenes, surprisingly, are less compelling; the choreography is almost an afterthought and there isn’t a lot of care given to those scenes seemingly, which is extremely disappointing.

Still, this is a movie worth seeing. It’s available on VOD right now and in theaters in selected cities. Martial arts fans will no doubt be making a beeline to see anything with Li in it to begin with but to see a major production such as this with such a venerated director. This isn’t the best work by either of them, but it’s good enough to take the time to find it.

REASONS TO GO: Somewhat sweet-natured and inventive. Always good to see Li.

REASONS TO STAY: Fight scenes are disappointingly banal. Special effects not up to Western standards.

FAMILY VALUES:  Action of a fantasy variety, a few images that might be too disturbing for the very young and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Li complained later that this was one of his most tiring roles because most of his fighting opponents were women for whom he’d have to hold back some but who would go all out on him.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100; the reviews are pretty dismal.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart 2013 Day One

Season of the Witch


Season of the Witch

Oh, those kinky Catholics!

(2011) Supernatural Action (Relativity) Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy, Stephen Campbell Moore, Robert Sheehan, Ulrich Thomsen, Christopher Lee, Stephen Graham, Rory McCann. Directed by Dominic Sena

In a land ruled by fear, decimated by plague and depleted by war, innocence and guilt can be more of a matter of political expedience. Fingers, looking for blame to point at, may choose the most convenient target.

Behmen (Cage) and Felson (Perlman) are medieval knights, pledged to the service of the Church in the Crusades of the 13th century. For a dozen years, they labor in the Lord’s army, smiting down the infidels and butchering the soldiers of God’s enemies. When they are ordered to put an entire city to the sword, butchering innocent women and children, Behmen balks.  He rejects his oath and deserts from the army, his faithful pal Felson walking off with him.

They return to Europe to find it in the grip of the Black Plague, victims rotting in their beds. They ride into a town to purchase horses and supplies but they are recognized – apparently word travels fast in Medieval Europe – and arrested. In order to avoid execution, they agree to transport an accused witch (Foy) to a remote abbey where the last copy of the Key of Solomon, a document containing all the spells meant to exorcise demons and destroy witches, resides.

They will be accompanied by Debalzaq (Moore), a zealous priest and Eckhart (Thomsen), a grieving knight whose entire family (including his beloved daughter Mila) had been taken by the plague. They also recruit Hagamar (Graham), a swindler who is the only one who knows the way to the abbey. Behmen, weary of killing the innocent, agrees to go on the condition the girl gets a fair trial at the abbey and is not just summarily executed.

Along the way they’ll deal with escape attempts, a precarious bridge, a wolf-infested forest and things that go bump in the night. The journey is so perilous and things go wrong so coincidentally that it’s not a coincidence even Behmen wonders if the girl may not actually be a witch. 

This movie was a victim of MGM’s financial difficulties passing from studio to studio, release date to release date. It’s actually been in the can for two years but only just saw the light of day as the first wide release of 2011, which may sound like an honor but is generally bad news for a movie; usually the first weekend of the year is absolute death for a new release, competing against the big releases over the Christmas week.

I think that some of the critics who saw this were predisposed to disliking the film given its checkered past. It’s gotten really horrible reviews and I found some of the criticism unfair. Quite frankly, this is an action movie with horror overtones that’s not meant to be a serious study of life during the Black Plague; it’s supposed to be fun and mindless, and boy does it succeed in that regard.

Nicolas Cage has taken his lumps as an actor of late, and he has taken his lumps for this performance. He underplays the role big time, leaving his over-the-top twitchiness which he often employs at home. Behmen is terse and all business; it’s perfect for what the role requires.

I’ve always liked Ron Perlman. He’s great not only in the Hellboy movies but in virtually every role he assays, going back to his “Beauty and the Beast” days. He has enormous presence and he can take over a movie without thinking about it. Here, he acts as a great foil to Cage and they play nicely off of one another. It’s a bit of a buddy movie in that regard. 

Graham, who was recently seen as Capone in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” is fine in a small role. Foy mostly gets to cower although she has a few moments where she displays her considerable sexuality. However, of all the backing players Moore is the most memorable, walking a fine line of the character’s dogmatic devotion to the Church and his desire to be a caring prelate. Christopher Lee is unrecognizable in a brief cameo as a cardinal stricken by the plague – that’s him on the bed in the photo above.

The action sequences are fairly well-done, although the battle sequences from the Crusades at the movie’s beginning are almost all filmed with hand-held cameras which is annoying as all get-out. There are a number of battles placed back-to-back with minimal differences, which drag on far too long. The point could easily have been made with a single sequence and a few lines of dialogue.

Most of the special effects are practical make-up effects until near the end. The climactic battle is well done, and the shots of plague victims are stomach-churning but in a good way. While the vistas are meant to portray a dying land, the Austrian Alps are far too beautiful to have their majesty hidden by mud for too long. It isn’t what I’d call grand sweeping cinematography but it suffices.

This really isn’t a bad movie at all. There are far worse movies out there wrestling for your entertainment dollar but the horror aspects might be putting off a certain segment of the audience while the medieval fantasy elements put off another. It’s a tough sell, but at the end of the day, it succeeds in entertaining and you can’t really ask for more from a movie than that.

REASONS TO GO: Decent special effects and solid performances by Cage, Perlman and Moore made this a better movie than I expected.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many battle sequences in shaky-cam style and a few action film clichés submarine what could have been a really strong movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence and some disturbing horror imagery. In addition, there’s some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Key of Solomon is an actual work, a grimoire attributed to the biblical king but more likely first produced during the Italian Renaissance. Several editions exist today.  

HOME OR THEATER: While a few of the scenes are definitely better on a big screen, the movie works just as effectively on the small.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Quarantine