Wednesday 28 July 2010

The Top 5 Romantic Comedies For Guys.

The rom-com, it's fair to say, comes under a lot of unfair scrutiny these days. Probably because movies like The Ugly Truth (Robert Luketic, 2009) and Leap Year (Anand Tucker, 2010) have regressed the hybrid-genre into a cliche ridden, sappy sick-fest with no new stories and horribly flawed character arcs. Indeed the rom-com has somehow morphed into the 'chick flick' (simply defined by 2D women who are so hollow they can't be happy until they're married) leaving no trace of the classics that I highlight here. Indeed the romantic comedy is a genre that should appeal to everyone - it should be easy-going, sweet and funny. But over time, possibly due to shifting audiences, possibly due to critical receptions (that would demand another article) it has lost a lot of charm and appeal, and become a lazy production line of features to aim at, it has to be said, the female demographic. Many men look upon the rom-coms of today (The Back-Up Plan, Alan Poul, 2010, for example) with deflated uninterested... they dread being dragged along to the next saccharine fantasy. But there are plenty of rom-coms in cinema history that will appeal to men in one way or another. I searched through my DVD collection in search of a definitive Top 5. My first stop off was two recent releases, (500) Days Of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009) and Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009) - both very honest and sweet natured dramas with plenty of humor along the way - and the leads (Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Zooey Deschanel and Jesse Eisenberg/Kristen Stewart respectively) have great chemistry. Adventureland especially will have a sense of nostalgia for those who encountered first love in the 80s. Ultimately though these are films for a younger audience and I think there is a film in this list that serves the youth in a more romanticized and time-specific way. Say Anything... (Cameron Crowe, 1989) would be a solid candidate for the young-people-in-love movie but I chose another of his movies, one that rang much more true with me and doesn't indulge in as much of his sickly style. Other recent contenders were Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007) - sharp as a razor, totally unsentimental, strong male and female characters and a debate about who is the better horror maestro - Dario Argento or Herschell Gordon Lewis? Ultimately though it's indie-spirited, cutesy approach may be a little too much for audiences of any gender to swallow as plausible. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (Charlie Kaufman, 2004) was another strong contender - a movie purely about love with some brilliantly subtle humor - and it's really, really smart. But it also has strong sci-fi and surreal elements and it is about the end of love - in fact, it's pretty sad. Personally I would nominate the wonderful Bridget Jones's Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001), but I think that, as a guy, i'm pretty alone on that front. The 80s movies of John Hughes may hold fond memories for both males and females - Sixteen Candles (John Hughes, 1984) and Pretty In Pink (Howard Deutch, 1986) especially. But they didn't make the list. Nor did, sadly, the greatest multi-sex-appeal romance movies of all time, Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2006). Mainly because they contain no comedy. Of course everyone will have their own choices and I encourage readers to leave their Top 5 male-orientated rom-coms in the comments section. But until then, we countdown from 5...

5. City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
This may be a somewhat controversial choice, seeing as it could be argued that most modern audiences would be put off by it being a silent movie. But I hope that Chaplin still holds appeal for the masses - male or female - and there's a lot of laughs to be had in City Lights. Chaplin understood slapstick like very few comedians and the fantastic pace and likable characters instantly give this one appeal. What people really underrate about the mustached mime however, is his heart. The central romance between The Tramp (Chaplin) and a blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) is what really holds attention and provides such a sweet core to the movie. Being a silent film the actors have to convey emotion through actions and gestures... which we all know speak louder than words. It's been uplifting since the moment it started but the final scene where The Tramp and the blind girl recognise each other, after being forced apart, is one of the great moments in movie history. There's rarely a dry eye left... prepare your manly cough.

4. Singles (Cameron Crowe, 1992)
This is the youth movie (well, mid-twenties). Everything from the fashions (just see the picture above) to the music (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins) is pure 90s and this tale of love between friends is period perfect. Easily Cameron's most underrated film it has an honesty and sweetness that the genre rarely hits today. Its rooted in music culture (Cameron was once a writer for Rolling Stone) which will appeal to many males, as will its nostalgic 90s feel and lack of saccharine contrivances. The characters feel like they may have existed and most important for men... they feel like people you'd hang out at the pub with. Bridget Fonda, Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick and Matt Dillon are all perfect in their roles (especially Dillon in a perfectly comic role) and the script sparkles. "I was just nowhere near your neighborhood".

3. Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
This was a tough one to choose but no list of male movies is complete without Woody Allen. His movies appeal to women too, sure, but the voice of his films is distinctly male. His insight and honesty about women and relationships has always been valuable and he has always done it with razor sharp wit and cunning one-liners ("That sex was the most fun i've ever had without laughing"). Manhattan may be the better film but Annie Hall set up a formula that would influence decades of rom-coms. Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) is charming and likable, her innocent bouncy-ball persona at perfect odds with Allen's anxiety ridden complainer Alvy Singer. It speaks volumes about the complexity of love and its honesty (no happy ending y'see) very rewarding. Plus, it has this Christopher Walken moment:

2. When Harry Met Sally... (Rob Reiner, 1989)
Arguably the greatest rom-com of all time, this classic 80s romance features career best turns from Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal. Nora Ephron wrote one of the best scripts of all time (rightfully nominated for an OSCAR, wrongfully beaten by Dead Poet's Society, Peter Weir, 1990) with the story of Harry and Sally, two strangers thrown together who learn to hate, like and eventually love each other over the period of a decade. The best thing about the movie is that it's equally pitched - neither Harry or Sally are stereotypes, they both feel real and form emotions in the way real people do. The appeal for guys? Well, watching meg Ryan fake an orgasm in her prime is worth the admission, but it's really Harry we can relate to. All his fears, all his desires, his humor and his heart - he's a guy we'd all love to know. And he knows how to chat up the ladies... "I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to I go to sleep at night. And it's not because i'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realise you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible". Perfection.

1. High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000)
Yes ladies and gents, this is the one. The No.1 rom-com for guys is the story of Rob Gordon (John Cusack), owner of a record store and connoisseur of lists - including his "desert island, all-time top-five most memorable breakups". His life revolves around music, girls and making lists about music and girls - in fact, it's all he talks about. Directly to camera at times. Based on the brilliant 1995 novel by Nick Hornby, Rob is the guy we all wish we could be. Dressed like he doesn't give a damn, yet still managing to look cool. An encyclopedic knowledge of music, which gives him the ideal opportunity to chat up pretty girls that may wander into his store. His apartment is perfectly organised (alphabetically) and he's insightful, honest and very, very funny. Cusack has always been something of an everyman and here he's perfectly cast in a role that at some point all men have projected themselves into. High Fidelity is, to quote the tagline, 'A comedy about fear of commitment, hating your job, falling in love and other pop favorites'. It may be about music and the nature of obsession (particularly concerning men) but it's also a real love story. The film starts with Rob ending a relationship and then taking us on a wonderfully reassuring journey through his history of relationships. He shows us how to exercise old demons and win back the love of your life... and he does it all with foppish good looks and an awesome soundtrack. "Hey, i'm not the smartest guy in the word, but I'm certainly not the dumbest. I mean, I've read books like 'The Unbearable Lightness Of Being' and 'Love In The Time Of Cholera', and I think I've understood them. They're about girls, right?" As long as you say so Rob. As long as you say so...

Tuesday 27 July 2010

Suspect: Genre

Walter Neff: Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money - and a woman - and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty isn't it?
- Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

Dixon Steele: I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.
- In A Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950)

Genre. noun. A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.

First of all, lets establish the ground rules. Is Film Noir a genre? Many would say yes. Some would say no. I'd wager that the majority would swing in the favor of the former. Just type Film Noir into Google and be met by articles, definitions and essays. Type it into Amazon and be met with a plethora of books and DVD Box Sets. It's one of the most popular genres in the history of cinema; its twists and turns thrill mainstream audiences and its complex antiheroes and aesthetics fuel the fire of film academics. IMDB also has it listed as a genre and many critics would (and have) acknowledged it this way. The people who answer no would likely tell you that it isn't so much a genre as a mood, style or tone of a film. But doesn't that fall under the definition of genre anyway? Don't those little elements of familiarity in a film determine its genre? Would shadows projected across alleyways, femme fatales puffing on a cigarette, a suited hero running for his life and a voiceover of anxiety and despair not be the codes and conventions of the grand American genre Film Noir? I think they would. When you write your essay on Noir you may choose to categorize it differently but for now Film Noir is a genre. Now, allow me to disprove it...

The problem lies in definition. If we were to take Film Noir under its literal translation, which would be 'Black Film', we would be entering a whole other world of connotation - think of the cinema of Spike Lee or Tyler Perry for example. The fact is that the term 'Black Cinema' in relation to the crime and gangster movies of the 1940s and 50s is a very lazy grouping which proves inaccurate with todays film theory, readings and the attitudes of modern society. It's true that these films work in a collective sense and can be studied as a body; the aforementioned femme fatales, sharp suited heroes and voiceovers are their conventions. So it's easy to see why people would want to label them for study. 'Black Film' just isn't the right term. The crime, mystery and gangster genres (which are true genres and all fall under the inappropriate label in discussion) were influenced in design by the films of the German Expressionist/Weimar Film period (which ran from approximately 1920-1929). Themes of the movement involved sexuality, psychology and changing technologies/attitudes but it's really the visual style that informed 'Noir'. Weimar Film (which takes in filmmakers like F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and Robert Wiene) was all about light and shadow. Consider the scene in Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) where Count Orlok (Max Schreck) creeps up the stairs to the bedroom of Ellen (Greta Schröder) and his shadow projects across the wall ( - the use of darkness and shadows and the emphasis on a fearful image (normally the antagonist) can be traced all the way back to this movement. There is a very specific design to those films that 'Noirs' like Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944) echo perfectly ( So how do I propose we label this fine body of cinema? Simple. Expressionist Crime Cinema. It's not catchy, I know - but since when was it about being catchy? We're all using wrong terminology anyway. 'Film Noir' or 'Black Cinema' doesn't exist; it's a false grouping for an excellent collection of crime orientated pictures that deserve better. Taken individually their own genres apply but as a body of work, for academic purposes, we must refer to these films properly as Expressionist Crime Cinema.

So what, you say, of Neo-Noir? Literally translated as 'New Black', this is another false label for a collection of Post-Classic crime/gangster films that employ colour and have updated themes to reflect their society. The connotations are, again, questionable at best and seeing as Noir never existed in the first place this label exists on a whole other plane of incorrect. Films like Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) and Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005) are of the same genres as Expressionist Crime Cinema, they have gumshoe detectives, compelling mysteries and femme fatales. Films like Se7en (David Fincher, 1995) (which arguably comes under the label) literally uses a form of light and shadow descending from Weimar Cinema. So what do we call that? Simple again. The New Crime. Now that is catchy...

So, is there weight to the theory or are we too stuck in our ways and too far into academic dissection to turn our backs on 'Film Noir'?

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) is part of The New Crime.

Monday 26 July 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev, 2009) Review

Noomi Rapace stars in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo...

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the first in an already-filmed Swedish trilogy based on the books by the late Stieg Larsson, landed in UK cinemas this March to major critical acclaim. Hailed as one of the best thrillers of the year with a strong heroine and a dark, consistent tone, it seems everyone has fallen head over heels for the tale of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), an introverted, tattooed computer hacker who aids disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) in his search for a girl who disappeared 40 years ago - and is presumed by everyone but her Uncle to be dead. The DVD, released today, will likely sell many copies before follow-up The Girl Who Played With Fire (Daniel Alfredson, 2009) hits cinemas this summer. Sadly, upon my much anticipated viewing of the story starter this morning, this critic won't be onboard the hype train.

The plot, very clearly adapted from a novel as thick as a door-wedge, has many strands, themes and character arcs. Problems begin in the first 30 minutes, which are dedicated to establishing character. Mikael is perfectly fine - his arc is an outward exploration, juxtaposed against the introverted depths of Salander. He's facing a prison sentence following a scandal in his journalistic career - everybody knows who he is and nobody trusts him. So when a stranger comes out of the blue and places 40 years worth of secrets on his shoulders, his arc becomes one of redemption. He solves the case and his personal journey is complete. Because of the nature of the trilogy Lisbeth's arc feels much more uncomfortable and this is the film's biggest downfall - its baggage. One of the first things we learn about Lisbeth is that she's on probation and attends meetings with a guardian whenever she needs money. The officer is a misogynist pervert (in fact, misogyny is a theme that runs through the film and provides parallels with the main missing person plot) and in one dark scene he rapes her. Lisbeth takes her revenge by torturing him, threatening him with legal action and then the arc is never mentioned again. Very little is revealed about Lisbeth and her motives and the excuse given is that her character (and indeed this arc) plays a bigger part in the sequels. Such is the nature of adaptation. But ultimately I shouldn't have to sit through three movies to feel comfortable with one, and the way in which the filmmakers abandon such a grueling and affecting scene is infuriating. Indeed, The Girl Who Played With Fire has a lot to answer for.

The rest of the cast do reasonably well in their roles and the film isn't without merit. It's at times contrived and way, way too long (Zodiac, David Fincher, 2007, is roughly the same length and spans a crime story over decades) but it's a well put together piece of cinema with an atmospheric score and cinematography that sets a pretty bleak tone. The central theme of the film is also interesting and may have played better under its alternative title; Men Who Hate Women. The aforementioned parallel between Lisbeth and Harriet (the missing girl) and the circumstances in which they have been mistreated are quite compelling but incidental as the film never really makes anything of them. Strangely this is a film that would have benefitted from shaving a half hour from the running time and playing as a straight thriller as the plot revelations and suspense set-pieces are truly gripping. But it plays on several different planes and ties nothing together. It could be that when the pieces fall together in the trilogy finale and the jigsaw of Lisbeth is complete I will look back on this film more fondly. But I also get the feeling that after a further four and a half hours of viewing I simply won't have the energy or patience to look at this in a different light. And why should I? The constant gearshifts and uneasy approach to sexual abuse will likely still feel out of place in a thriller that, for once, was begging out for formula.

DVD Extras: Interviews, including one with Rapace which, while revealing nothing interesting about the film, shows exactly how good her performance is, sharing no traceable connection to her onscreen character. The original UK trailer and sneak-peek at sequel The Girl Who Played With Fire are also included.

Sunday 25 July 2010

Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010) Review

Every so often a film comes along that is so utterly perfect it reminds me why I love cinema in the first place. Even when I don't particularly need reminding, it's a film so special that it transcends everything else and just inspires. Toy Story 3 is exactly one of those films. Arriving 11 years after the much-loved Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter, Ash Brannon, Lee Unkrich, 1999), the hype and critical praise surrounding this summers mega sequel had me hoping for the best. There's nothing worse than being built up just to be knocked back down... especially by a series I have my childhood invested in. So how, when I went in so aware and so expecting, did Toy Story 3 catch me off-guard and secure the coveted position of Film Of The Year? Lets start at the beginning...

Well, to start at the beginning we'd need to discuss Day & Night (Teddy Newton), the new (and now customary) short that accompanies all of Pixar's features. This time two characters, animated personifications of day and night, attempt to get along against a black stage. They are classically animated whereas their insides (yes, they're see-through) are CG animated and reveal all the positive aspects of their cycles - a sunny day on the beach or a night in Vegas for respective examples. It's an odd little experiment that works surprisingly well - it lacks the humor of a short like Presto (Doug Sweetland, 2008) but makes up for it with invention and a strong message - no matter where you come from, colour or creed, we are all the same. It may be saccharine but if there's one studio that can pull it off with style, it's Pixar.

The main feature begins in the same vein as Toy Story 2 - a fake set-up action sequence. Mr & Mrs Potato Head (Don Rickles, Estelle Harris) are train robbers in the Old West, but Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) is hot on their trail! A fight between hero and villain ensues with Woody eventually being knocked off the high-speed locomotive - only to be caught by cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) and loyal steed Bullseye. The evil potato heads blow up the bridge ahead and leave Woody to make a decision - apprehend the villains or save the train of orphans (trolls with multi-colour hairstyles). Woody boards the train and slams on the brakes but it's not enough as the train hurtles off the collapsed bridge. But it's Buzz (Tim Allen) to the rescue! He places the train back to safety and heads off, with Woody and Jessie in tow, to apprehend the bad guys. After a Slinky (Blake Clark)/Rex (Wallace Shawn) showdown a spaceship appears - but it's no ordinary spaceship. It's in the shape of a piggy bank and it's carrying the dastardly Pork Chop (Hamm, voiced by John Ratzenberger). A horde of monkeys are unleashed on the heroic trio and as they are trapped by the chimps we suddenly cut - to a home-video. It turns out this whole adventure is taking place in the imagination of a young Andy - the Andy we recognise from the first two films. This is the beginning of an opening credits sequence that takes us on a journey through Andy's childhood to his teenage years. He's now 17 and preparing for college. After a mix-up with some boxes (and an excellent action sequence recalling Woody accidentally being put out for the yard sale in Toy Story 2) the toys get sent off to a daycare center called Sunnyside.

This perfectly designed, brightly coloured playpen is split into two districts - Butterfly for the older kids and Caterpillar for the pre-schoolers. Our favorite toys are designated to the Caterpillar zone by residents Lotso (Ned Beatty, relishing his finest role in years) and Ken (Michael Keaton, also relishing the part). Woody wants to go home and, in a very affecting moment, leaves to be reunited with a college-bound Andy. To say any more about the plot would be to ruin laughs, excitement and drama but as you can probably tell from the trailer, the cuddly Lotso isn't all what he seems and the daycare may turn into a nightmare locale...

The locals of Sunnyside are not what they seem in Toy Story 3...

There are many things to tackle in the reviewing of Toy Story 3 and very little space in which to do it. Firstly the visuals. Pixar have always been masters of design - their attention to detail and focus on atmosphere has been staggeringly effective even in their weaker efforts and while they have yet to beat the first 40 minutes of Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) in this department (the echoing loneliness and desperation haunts me to this day) Toy Story 3 certainly comes in at a confident second. There is also something to be said for Unkrich's direction and the way he lets us absorb every location. The sweeping opening shot of the movie, which swoops over a high valley to focus on the train speeding through the canyons, is marvelous and the early shots of the beautifully lit (and incredibly detailed) Sunnyside are amazing to behold. The lighting is exceptional, the sense of space and the weight of the characters in their environment... Unkrich and his team have perfected the animation technique they brought to life with the original Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995) all those years ago. One scene sees Woody in the house of a child named Bonnie (Emily Hahn) - along with new toys Trixie (the wonderful Kristen Schaal) and Mr. Pricklepants (an underused Timothy Dalton). The young girl plays with the toys, sending them careering around the room on her own adventure - the toys are flung into the air and in slow motion, against an almost angelic lighting, fall with her onto a plush bed. As well as being beautifully cinematic it perfectly recalls the feelings of childhood innocence and, well... fun. The most visually impressive section of the film though is in the latter action sequences. I won't reveal the circumstances in which the toys come to be in danger by a giant melting pit but as they lunge over a fiery death pit (so wonderfully animated and lit you can literally feel the heat) they all join hands. Unkrich moves from close up to close up as well-worn hands come together in a union almost as heart-rendering as the ending itself. The metal underneath the toys shimmers, the bright light reflects off their anxious, fearful faces - the fire bubbles and the dark night projects its shadow into the pit. If I weren't so invested in the characters and their situation I would have had time to step back and look at this composition as a work of art - and that's about the highest compliment I can give.

The voice-acting is, as ever, top-notch. Hanks and Allen sound as youthful as the day they started, so perfectly cast, they nail every line. Cusack is also tremendous as ever and newcomers Beatty, Keaton and Dalton add new and totally believable flavor into the mix, bringing with them menace, comedy and drama. Even the young Hahn, who could easily warrant her own movie, is perfect. Of course their talents are given room to shine by the smart, funny and heartfelt screenplay by Michael Arndt (a masterful writer, the scribe behind 2006s Little Miss Sunshine, Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris). He balances the characters and situations perfectly, forming comedy out of drama and drama out of comedy, also setting-up a tremendous pace and some inventive set-pieces (the toys break-out of Sunnyside is brilliant).

A final shout must be given to the original music supplied by Randy Newman, who has gone some way to defining the tone and flavour of the Toy Story films. His music here goes from pulse-pounding (the opening and closing action scenes) to just plain lovely (the final goodbye). What can I say? Everything about the movie is crafted with total care and passion. Every frame holds a thousand wonders - watching it once simply isn't enough. I may hold a more personal connection than some - having grown up with Andy and recently having to throw away old toys of my own, the ending struck a particularly powerful chord. More than one tear was spilled and it would be a cold heart that felt nothing at all. Pixar have struck gold with perhaps their finest film yet (remember, it's only the first 40 minutes of Wall-E that count) and certainly, certainly the best film of the year. Honestly, it's about as perfect as cinema can get. To infinity and beyond indeed...

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Whatever Works (Woody Allen, 2009) Review

"Let me tell you up front, I'm not a likable guy." Whatever Works (2009)...

It seems like every other year that Woody Allen is making a 'return to form'. After the misjudged London-set drama Cassandra's Dream (2007), the sun-soaked flourish of Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) made a refreshing change of pace, and featured a glorious firecracker turn from an Oscar-winning Penélope Cruz. But, true to formula, Whatever Works finds Allen off-form in an overfamiliar regression which signifies not so much another dry patch as a full creative drought.

The story follows grumpy old man Boris Yellnikoff (Larry David) as he bemoans the world and falls in love, despite his better judgement, with a young runaway named Melody (Evan Rachel Wood), whom he finds living rough outside of his apartment. There are some inspired lines dotted throughout the screenplay ("botanically speaking, you're more of a venus flytrap") but they're few and far between, and usually wedged between endless monologues, like the opening rant in which Boris drowns himself in hyperbole and reveals that this "won't be the feel-good movie of the year." No kidding. This level of narcissism was funny when somebody as naturally anxious as Allen took the lead, but David's obnoxious tone (perfected on Curb Your Enthusiasm) soon becomes tiresome. His voice is too distinctive for Allen's specific dialogue, and the tone always feels more HBO than Manhattan. Yellnikoff is about as appropriate as monikers get.

The emotional tone is also off. Allen's 70's work had real heart and feeling, and something to say about the nature of relationships (they're like a shark), but the message of Whatever Works sounds distinctly like a man giving up: "Whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace. Whatever works." It's an amusing sentiment, especially when Melody applies it to sheep (Allen nodding to his own Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex..., 1972), but it's too lazy to really connect, and matters aren't helped by the creepiness of the central relationship. Melody is a genuinely sweet-natured character (can this be the same actress who played Pretty Persuasion's devilish Kimberly?) so what she's doing with a cold, misanthropic, intellectually aggressive cramp, decades her senior, is quite the mystery. Boris even describes her, after they've been married (yes, that's just one of the contrivances) as a "sub-mental baton twirler." Lifts the heart, doesn't it?

As if all of this wasn't tedious enough, the introduction of Melody's mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson) as an uptight religious fanatic who transforms into a sexually liberated artist is frankly absurd, and falls miles over the wrong side of parody. She wears her hair down in a bandana, occupies ménage à trois' in her (probably café-topside) gallery, and discusses with complete strangers the profound nature of art. At this point, you might have guessed, the film is beyond redemption. It frequently looks back to Annie Hall (1977) for inspiration, but too often just descends into another mean-spirited tirade against Melody.

There are moments of interest, notably in Allen's camerawork, but a few tracking shots can't make up for dialogue this ear-splitting. The supporting cast (bar Clarkson) are all effective in their roles, and allow for a break from the audience berating waffle of Boris, but the whole production just feels too old hat for us to care, and when a character breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience they're "idiots" it's hard to think of reasons not to leave. Oh, and considering that Allen has spent the last decade or so frequenting London, the appearance of an Englishman named Randy is just unforgivable.

Monday 12 July 2010

Predators (Nimród Antal, 2010) Review

"All of a sudden, there was a light. And then, I was falling".

Predators begins with professional hardman Royce (Adrien Brody) freefalling into the dense, hostile jungle of an alien planet. He's soon joined by Cuchillio (Danny Trejo), Nikolai (Oleg Taktarov) and Isabelle (Alice Braga) among a variety of mercenaries, revolutionaries and criminals. They all have one thing in common: they're dangerous. But next to the jungle's regular inhabitants, the fearsome predators, they're easy prey. This is a bleak world with only a doctor by the name of Edwin (Topher Grace) to ease the tone with some likably jokey material. For a summer sequel seeped in expectations and formulaic design Predators feels brilliantly refreshing. It's not in 3D. It makes great use of practical effects. And it's paced 80/20 in favor of character development and survival. Despite what the trailer would have you believe Antal's fourth feature film isn't another all-out actioner. It's suitably dark, violent and surprisingly engaging. In fact it's probably the best Predator movie there's ever been.

That may be a controversial statement to make but what the original Predator (John McTiernan, 1987) had going for it was macho appeal and special effects. It's about as deep as a puddle and the butch, one-liner strewn tone feels very dated. Of course a franchise with its eye squarely on setting pulses pounding doesn't exactly need to be character-driven but Predators is compelling in its approach of making the characters interesting and allowing them to develop over the course of the film. By the mid-way point you really feel like you know them and when the film does reach the fiery, blood-letting finale there are emotions invested. It's also vital to note that none of the characters are especially likable. At one point Edwin gets injured in a trap, disabling his leg. An argument ensues between Isabelle and Royce as to whether they should take him with them; they both know he'll slow them down. In any other film it would be a moment of morality where the hero reflects and, in the end, saves the helpless victim. But in Predators there are no heroes. "They expect you to be human" says Royce. The land of Predators is full of killers, human or inhuman. Morals don't even come into it. And it's a good job the film has this card to play because despite everything it's mind-blowingly unoriginal. The characters are picked off one by one as they wade through a stilted script full of exposition, a key exchange being "How do we kill them?", "However you can". For all its focus on character and exploration of team mechanics and primal instincts Predators can sometimes grate on the ears. Which is why Antal and producer Robert Rodriguez (Planet Terror, 2007) had the sense to hire some real actors.

The main point of interest is of course OSCAR winner Adrien Brody (The Pianist, Roman Polanski, 2002), notoriously thin in appearance and intense in his craft. He's one of our finest actors and to find him in this kind of material is initially confusing. But that's exactly why he's here. Not only has Brody significantly beefed up for the role (he's not Schwarzenegger, but you wouldn't take a swipe at him), he also invests Royce with psychological depth and a believable world-weary attitude. Watching him take on a predator in the films final stages could have been laughable but instead it's exciting, dramatic and very, very cool. As an actor he didn't need to prove his range to anyone but with Predators he confirms the obvious; Adrien Brody can do no wrong and his presence in a film always assures a level of interest. The rest of the cast do well in their roles but are predictable choices. The least effective character is Hanzo (Louis Ozawa Changchien) who doesn't speak for most of the film but does engage in some Crouching Tiger Hidden Predator towards the end, in an uninspired set-piece.

The whole thing feels remarkably assured too. Antal, while not the greatest director in the world, has a clear vision for this 15 rated outing and the bleak tone, careful unfolding of plot and pumped-up action are perfectly balanced. The photography and score offer nothing groundbreaking but work effectively in the piece as a whole. It's perhaps not as good as a 20 year wait would suggest (the last official Predator film was released in 1990) but it's better than we had any right to expect. With as little CGI as possible (the predators look awesome) it has a very old-school feel and the ending leaves open the possibility of another installment. In a world of Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007) and 2012 (Roland Emmerich, 2009) quite frankly i'd go freefalling for another Predators film. And a blood-soaked trek through the jungle, as it turns out, wouldn't be such a bad place to land...

Thursday 8 July 2010

Interview With A Film Critic

In response to my interview last week, casual moviegoer Jason Birbas has accepted my proposal of a reverse interview. Here I tackle his questions on why I love film and my thoughts on directors and the industry...

JB: Okay. So lets just start off nice and light by talking about cinema that you enjoy. In recent times you cited Magnolia (P.T. Anderson, 1999) as one of your favorite films. What makes this film stand out above all others?
ME: Firstly a correction. I have stated that I think Magnolia is the greatest film of all time and I've said that since I first saw it five years ago. And as for why? Film is a directors medium. Anderson is a brilliant storyteller and I think Magnolia would be the best film of all time even on a technical level. The music, the editing, the photography... it creates an incredible mood and atmosphere and I think the mastery behind the camera is stunning. But it also works on a much more intimate, emotional level. Every character, even if I don't relate to them, I feel for them. Every time I re-watch the film it's like meeting up with old friends still in the same dislocated pit of despair and I want them to get better. It's such a complete vision and just overpoweringly emotional, filled with great scene after great scene. The ending has me in floods of tears.

JB: One of the things I felt about Magnolia was that if a standard audience that was used to seeing your standard family film blockbuster saw this, they would very much not enjoy themselves. Is this true in your eyes? What are your thoughts on the matter?
I think it's very untrue and I would argue that you're projecting your negative response to the film onto a presupposed audience, which is always unwise. I think as a three hour melodrama it would be tough to adjust to but people need variety. What better break from family friendly spectacle than a gritty, emotional character piece? It's all about investment. If you don't invest in Magnolia you won't like it. It doesn't matter about colour or religion or background; film is universal. I think Magnolia is a work of art and no matter what you're used to or where you're from if you invest in this story you have the possibility of being rewarded. It's an incredibly affecting piece of work.

JB: What are the films that really get to you? Shed a tear or two maybe? What are these films and why did they make you react in that way?
ME: Well obviously Magnolia. I think the last scene is a beautiful moment; the joining between two lonely and broken souls who need each other so desperately. It's a confession of love in a film that has been unrelentingly bleak and every time it makes me cry and gives me hope. The films of Lars von Trier make me cry often. The Idiots (1998) and Dancer In The Dark (2000) especially. To say why would be to spoil moments in those films but I felt strongly for the characters and their circumstances. The Idiots actually made me sad for days, it took a while to get over. The ending of Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) lifts my heart. I wept like a child at the swimming pool scene. I don't shed a tear for Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995) because it's not that kind of film, but it's my second favorite film of all time and it fills my heart with joy and sadness equally. The feeling of innocence, love and hope and uncertainty in that conclusion (and equally in the sequel Before Sunset, 2004) is incredible.

JB: There has always been a divide to what the critics think and what audiences feel when they watch a film. Do you think this is because of a different mindset or because of the circumstances of the two audience types?
ME: It probably is down to mindset but this is hard to answer. A critic still enjoys a film, they still experience it because they are an audience member. It's just that they have a more detailed knowledge and point of reference to back up their opinion. So this is always acting subconsciously (or consciously) when looking at the mise-en-scene etc. I've never known how not to watch a film that way, so I can't speak for the public. But I find it hard to believe a mainstream audience member doesn't notice differing quality of direction or coherency in a film, or doesn't feel offended by certain morals that are present in 'light' entertainments or even artistic works.

JB: There are many types of film genre. What are your favorites and why?
ME: I think science fiction and westerns are extremely interesting as they can work in both an entertainment and artistic sense, as well as being existential and elegiac respectively, which are interesting themes to present technically and emotionally. They're both very accessible and popular genres for exactly that reason. Most people can kick back to Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) or Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) and those are great films. But the genres also pivot off into fascinating dimensions such as The Ninth Configuration (William Peter Blatty, 1981) and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007). Action is also lots of fun to kick back to, when it's done well. Horror is also a big one for me, I love being scared by a film and taken into the dark depths. This is a hard question to answer as a critic because i've seen amazing films from every genre. Magnolia is a drama so how can I not say that? A character study will always appeal to me. The genre I like least is comedy but there are films in that genre that I think are masterpieces.

JB: I think it's more obvious that audiences today would like something more action packed or glamorous compared to say an arthouse film that inspires thought and creativity. How do you think the film industry needs to overcome this problem? Or rather do you think they plan on correcting this 'mishap' at all?
ME: I don't think they plan on fixing anything as long as the films they distribute widely are popular. If something makes money Hollywood assumes people like it, so they make another one. And people keep going to see it because it's there and they don't have the time to look outside of the listings for their local multiplex. They have lives to live. Most people want to go to the cinema after work or at the weekend to have a good time and invest into something, so it has to be easy. If you make the art easy, if you put it in the cinemas there's a 50/50 chance that people will give it a try. And if that makes money we'll get more of that. Hollywood just needs to be more adventurous. America makes great films like they always have, it's just that they get released for three days in an underground theatre because Transformers 2 (Michael Bay, 2009) is on general release. And it's as simple as that.

JB: Lets see what you make of certain directors. John Woo has made several masterpieces in both the western and eastern markets of film. Which would you say are the best and why?
ME: The only difference between his Eastern and Western work is tone. There are stinkers and masterpieces in both. The Eastern work is slightly more stylised and cheesy, but they are also products of their time. The Killer (1989) is his best Eastern film. It may be very silly and has no continuity but the action is relentless and brilliantly directed. His worst work in this market is the early musicals he directed, which he really didn't want to be making; subsequently the direction is uninspired. As far as his Western work goes Paycheck (2003) is rubbish and Broken Arrow (1996) is formulaic but fun. Face/Off (1997) could make a claim for the greatest action movie of all time; it's absurd, sure. But the character relationships and psychological aspects are great, the performances are spot-on and the action is just exhilarating. But his best film is M:I-2 (2000) which is his cheesiest and silliest piece of work, but for that reason I adore it. Everything from Tom Cruise's hair to the Hans Zimmer score and the gunfights is pure popcorn pleasure. There are very few films I can re-watch as often as that one.

JB: How about a star this time. Tom Cruise. A man that's been in many films with many themes. What are your favorite scenes that this actor has performed in and how do you think his style has changed over the years of his A-List Hollywood career?
ME: He's managed to balance the action movies and intense dramas perfectly. You have to ignore his personal life as it has nothing to do with his art and he excels as an actor. I've already expressed love for Magnolia and M:I-2 and they show the full extent of his range. Magnolia is an ensemble drama but Cruise stands out because his intensity and the qualities of his character are at odds with his grinning star image. The scene where his character, Frank Mackey, is sat at his fathers bedside and begins to break down, equally saddened and resentful, is some of the best acting i've ever seen. M:I-2 is a more physical performance and in this area he succeeds as well. It's hard to determine what makes somebody a convincing action hero but Cruise has done it time and time again. His style hasn't changed that much, he's just learnt to challenge himself in a variety of roles. You could argue that Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999) is more accomplished than War Of The Worlds (Steven Spielberg, 2005) but he brings the same dedication to every role. That smile may have won over many people but it's the steely glare that got him accolades and an OSCAR nomination as an actor. Basically he has it all.

JB: We've recently watched Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001). What was it like watching a film that had a non-linear storyline with a very surreal body compared to your standard family film i.e. the latest Harry Potter.
ME: Watching a film with a non-linear storyline is always interesting, when used effectively. Lynch delves into dream worlds and fantasies and he blurs realities so it's perfect. For me it's an instantly engaging experience because it just demands more attention. Fundamentally the difference is that one is a work of art and one is a mainstream product. I really like the Harry Potter films, they have great production values, talented directors, a great British cast and it feels like a really coherent vision with passion behind it. As franchises go I think they've just got better and better. But it's aimed at the kids. There's simply no point straying into surrealism and non-linear narrative in that kind of movie. It works for what it is but it's a throwaway product. Mulholland Drive is something to take with you. It's layered and endlessly fascinating. No matter how much effort goes into a Harry Potter production it won't be a David Lynch film.

JB: Do you think this film could have been marketed better during its day so that it was brought to mainstream audiences? Possibly giving them a better insight into what film can do?
ME: I think Mulholland Drive is an excellent film for mainstream audiences to watch because it has elements of noir, mystery and romance, also referencing popular films like Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950). It's surreal and complicated but it has a familiar point of access and you can market that quite easily. Ultimately I think David Lynch films are easy to promote, just put all the genre convention into the trailer and you'll lure in an unsuspecting crowd. Again, it's all about investment. Unless you don't give a film like Mulholland Drive a chance from the start and instantly write it off as pretentious you can't help but be drawn into it. No matter the product I think people like to talk about films after they've seen them and Lynch knows how to provoke discussion.

JB: Lets pan outwards now. Cinema as a whole can have many uses. It can portray a simple moral or argument. Or it can comment on an entire era and society. What makes you so passionate about cinema? What keeps you watching films and not drifting on to new pastimes?
ME: It would be too easy to say a fascination with the moving image, but that's what it comes down to. The composition of a piece of cinema, the way a story unfolds is just endlessly interesting and exciting to me. Every film is a new experience, it'll take you somewhere new and because of the range of cinema; genre, country, decade - the possibilities are endless. I think it has a lot to do with retaining a sense of wonder too. I opened myself up to films when I was young, I didn't go out very much and every day held a new story. There is something almost childlike about cinema fanaticism. Watching an auteurs body of work is a treat for all the senses. It's visual, aural, it gets the brain working and the heart pumping. Take Alfred Hitchcock for example, and Psycho (1960). I think that's the best example of storytelling in cinema history, nothing unfolds the way that film does. And it has all you could want. Complex story, interesting characters with psychological depth, mystery, horror, excitement. It's perfectly made too, as with most of Hitchcock's films. The shower scene is a great example of what cinema can do - it's when a master storyteller turns his tale on its head in a powerful moment of sex and violence, perfectly directed, edited and scored. And most of the themes in that moment and many of his stylistic flourishes, reoccur in his body of work. The way cinema explores dreams, space, history, fantasy, relationships, crime, sexuality, religion, nature, addiction, music, architecture, violence... nothing else compels me in the same way. Cinema makes me laugh, cry, jump out of my seat and think hard about issues and themes not just in the past, not just in the present but also in the future. The depth of cinema is profound beyond all other art forms. The beautiful scenery of Manon Des Sources (Claude Berri, 1986), the wit of Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979), the pure thrill of Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi, 1987). I owe my life to cinema. It's the most important thing in the world and I say that with absolute sincerity.

JB: Think about what we discussed about audiences being passive and watch this: (Clash Of The Titans, Louis Leterrier, 2010, trailer). Perhaps do the more emotive, provocative films have an impossible task in trying to get the audiences attention and non-passive time when they have films like this to go up against?
ME: Hard, but not impossible. When I look at the trailer for Clash Of The Titans I see what everybody else sees - an action-packed piece of popcorn entertainment. And it's a pretty good trailer in terms of representation of its product so I understand why people would want to kick back to that on a Friday night. But they, as well as I, must know that it's just popcorn entertainment. We have to remember that not everyone who sees these movies which make millions of dollars actually like them. I'm sure many people leave the cinema wanting more. The problem is that the cinemas which screen blockbusters like this one only show trailers for the next big blockbuster so people simply aren't aware of the diversity they could have. The two big releases this week are Predators (Nimrod Antal, 2010) and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (David Slade, 2010) and they'll be filling multiplexes all over the country. But there are also films like Frownland (Ronald Bronstein, 2007), Leaving (Catherine Corsini, 2009) and London River (Rachid Bouchareb, 2009) finally getting releases over here, the latter of which I think is an important film for audiences to see. But they'll never hear of it until they stumble across it on television in four years. If the task is impossible it's only because of Hollywood marketing. If you advertise these films in the cinema, if you play these films in the cinema, audiences will embrace the ability to choose.

JB: Now watch this one: (The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan, 2010, trailer). Perhaps certain film studios have become so confident in their money making schemes that the actual products they are releasing to the public no longer fit the bill. Would you agree?
ME: Yes and no. Yes because you're talking about blockbuster season and as long as a movie has a target audience or a demographic that Hollywood can aim at, they'll release the movie. No because the quality of the product is down to the people making the film. Unless something is literally so bad it's unwatchable I think Hollywood will meet its release dates - it's bad publicity if they don't and the movie has a bigger chance of flopping. In this case it's an M. Night Shyamalan film so the chances of a masterpiece are slim nowadays. But it has an audience. And on the other hand there are movies like Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) and Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010) being released this summer which have got some of the best reviews of the year and they look brilliant. And it's because they're being made by a visionary filmmaker and an animation studio with five OSCARS behind them. Filmmakers believe in quality; Hollywood believes in quantity.

JB: Last one: (Taken, Pierre Morel, 2008, trailer). We have often disagreed on how good this film is. But could it not be said that a simple message of the power of love between family is all that needs to be portrayed in a film to get a point across? And the more flamboyant the way this message is put across can only reinforce the message and make it stronger to its audience? Surely that's a satisfactory role for cinema that has the passive audience but at the same time that moral value?
ME: Sure, but you're assuming that Taken has all that when it doesn't. Any message the film was trying to make (and i'm not sure it has one) is lost in the fact that Taken is such a stupid and racist production. These moral values of an audience you talk about should be able to pick up on that. There are many films about the love between family, many of them dramas, some of them action films, but none that spring to mind involve killing every cliched sex trafficker in Europe (which seems to be what their non-specific population consists of). It's not a satisfactory role for cinema, as long as you're packaging it in this kind of product. Taken is the most basic level of a long-established genre and it says nothing interesting about its central theme - the love of a father for his daughter. I don't think anyone left Taken with a sense of accomplishment or a stronger sense of values.

JB: So overall what puts you off a film? The story? The themes? The messages and feelings it tries to promote? (if there are any!)
ME: As a cinema fanatic and critic i'll watch pretty much anything but you get to a point where you know certain things will hold nothing of value for you. Catherine Breillat is the most horrid, stupid hack of a filmmaker and i've seen five of her films. She's made quite a few more but at this point I know they'd do nothing but make me angry so I avoid them. Same goes for these football hooligan films starring Danny Dyer etc. Because those films are really stupid and lacking in morals. A lack of morals will always turn me off a film; if something is racist or sexist for no reason other than being that way. This Is England (Shane Meadows, 2006) has a lot of racist content and themes but it's making a point about them and it's a very affecting drama and a fascinating time capsule for our country. Context will always be the deciding factor for me I think; the context in which a theme or idea is displayed. I also don't like films that preach to me, that can be annoying. But I think it's important to have an open mind and embrace as much of the medium as you can. Because cinema is a very special thing and the stories it holds are endless...

Sunday 4 July 2010

New Dawn Rising: The Vampire Movie

Anders Hove as Radu in Subspecies (Ted Nicolaou, 1991).

Vampirism, it seems, is no longer moonlight exclusive. Peruse the shelves of your local DVD store, check the cinema listings of your nearest multiplex or flick through the channels of Sky Movies and, clear as day, you'll find bloodsuckers present. With the release of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (David Slade, 2010) the world is once again going mad for vampires. The teen based series is harmless - moody, angsty and a little bit dull, aimed at a generation that have never heard of Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau, 1922). But every time one of these films comes around (which is about every six months) it raises some discussion about the history of vampires in cinema. Of course they also have a rich history in literature with Bram Stoker's 1897 novel 'Dracula' being a popular point of reference for tales to come. They've emerged in comic books (the underrated Batman: Nosferatu), kids entertainment (Mona The Vampire) and of course, TV. In the wake of Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008) a slew of vampires hit the small screen in British sitcom Being Human and the more adult US series True Blood and The Vampire Diaries (both of which present a more romanticized version of the creatures). There's also the classic Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which popularized an all-american, ass-kicking female protagonist who did battle against vampires and demons. It was great (for a while), launching the career of Sarah Michelle Gellar and providing a spin-off in the form of Angel. There's also the little seen but absolutely brilliant Ultraviolet, a six-part Channel 4 series starring Jack Davenport and Idris Elba, revolving around a government team waging war against underground vampires. You can now get vampires in whatever form you want; Japanese mash-ups (Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, Yoshihiro Nishimura, Naoyuki Tomomatsu, 2009), popcorn based blockbusters (Van Helsing, Stephen Sommers, 2004) or kung-fu comedy musicals (Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, Lee Demarbre, 2001). So, where to start?

Obviously it's important to begin with the classics. Nosferatu is a film in the German Expressionism/Weimar movement, which fundamentally focus on darkness and shadows. Real estate agent Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) travels to Transylvania to meet the mysterious Count Orlok (Max Schreck) who plans to buy a property in Wisborg. The Count casts his eye on a picture of Hutter's wife Ellen (Greta Schröder) and sets sail to Wisborg to make her his victim. It's a classic story of loneliness, terror and sexuality, with some viewers reading anti-Semitic themes into the lead character and his voyage. It's certainly an effective film, Schreck investing Orlok with a reserved, rat-like presence that ensures we feel for him while being repulsed by him. One scene sees the crew of the Wisborg set ship dead with only the Captain and a sailor remaining. The sailor, hatchet in hand, heads below deck in search of Nosferatu. The score (by Hans Erdmann) crescendos into a thunderous state of horror as the vampire rises from his coffin. The sailor runs above deck, jumping into the water for safety. Nosferatu has taken control of the ship. Blood stains the wooden deck. Wisborg and Ellen aren't so far away. The true horror of the film comes from the stunning use of light and shadow, as Nosferatu creeps his way up the stairs to Ellen his darker self is projected large onto a nearby wall, enhancing the tension and terror. Her ultimate willing to be a martyr for the town is both the axis of emotion and also a compelling sexual metaphor - the bite that Orlok wishes to plant on her neck a sign of her sexual liberation in a repressed time? Nosferatu may not be perfect, but its place in history is deserved.

The film was remade in 1979 by master Bavarian director Werner Herzog. Starring the immortal Klaus Kinski as Dracula (renamed from Orlok), the tale was a much more eerie, intense and weird affair, given a strong injection of sex by the brilliant Isabelle Adjani (Possession, Andrzej Zulawski, 1981). The beautiful actress lends a strong sense of femininity to the role but she also grounds Lucy (renamed from Ellen) believably as the loyal wife, investing us more into the relationship. The scene where Dracula enters Lucy's room for the first time, unseen in the reflection of her mirror, is a sinister delight with strong sexual undertones and an emotional gravity. Dracula asks Lucy "give me your love". The sexuality that was more metaphorical in Murnau's vision is here fully embraced by Herzog. Although no sex is present in the film, the climax is much more sensualised and graphic, with Kinski's performance providing more in the way of a longing for flesh (before biting on her neck he lifts up Lucy's nightgown). The true highlight of Herzog's work though is the plague-ridden town of Wismar. A strong, cold wind blows through the empty streets. The camera pans down to the ground, revealing rats infesting the gutter. Coffins are laid out ready for the dead. It's eerie as hell and the score by Popol Vuh makes it all the more haunting. As well as being one of the best remakes of all time Herzog's Nosferatu is also one of the best vampire movies. It gives a true sense of impending doom as well as making us feel something for Dracula - a man eternal who wishes for nothing more than to die.

Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931) is a direct adaptation of Stoker's novel and another classic genre entry. Shot in a creeping black and white around perfectly designed, creaking locales, Bela Lugosi plays Dracula as a brilliantly controlled killer. It may seem hammy by todays standards but the immortal line "Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make" is like a dark poetry coming from his ghostly presence. It's not perfect (Browning was clearly struggling to adjust to talkies) but it benefits from the cinematography by Karl Freund, who lit many films in the Expressionist/Weimar period and clearly understands the power of light and shadow. The entire film has an ominous and eerie tone, from the misty roads to the moonlight chambers of the castle and it's one of the better films in the Universal production line. The film was also remade (or some would argue readapted) by Francis Ford Coppola in 1992 to lesser results. Gary Oldman impresses in the title role of Dracula but the film, like Herzog's Nosferatu, fully embraces sexuality, this time losing something for it. Some of the creeping atmosphere is lost and the supporting cast (including a cringeworthy Keanu Reeves) do little to help matters.

Gary Oldman as Dracula in Dracula (1992).

The character has also been immortalized, of course, by Christopher Lee in the classic Hammer Horror films of the 1970s. He made his pasty, theatrical (and a little camp) mark on the character (and indeed the horror genre) in films like Count Dracula (Jesus Franco, 1970), Dracula A.D. 1972 (Alan Gibson, 1972), The Satanic Rites Of Dracula (Alan Gibson, 1973) and Dracula And Son (Edouard Molinaro, 1976) among others. The character has seen many incarnations over the last 80 years and has been played by actors as diverse as John Carradine (Nocturna, Harry Hurwitz, 1979) and Frank Langella (Dracula, John Badham, 1979) - but none have really beat the classic quad of Schreck, Lugosi, Kinski and Oldman.

Hammer Film Productions were responsible for many great British horror films, taking in characters like The Mummy and Frankenstein as well as Dracula (they also made a group of 'cave girl' movies including the classic Raquel Welch starring One Million Years B.C., Don Chaffey, 1966). But the British have a larger, sadly forgotten stake in the vampire movie - Vampyres: Daughters Of Darkness (José Ramón Larraz, 1974). A trashy but beautifully shot lesbian vampire movie, Vampyres retains the same oddworld, eerie tone of The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973). Like so many vampire movies it supposes a relationship between sex and death and the unexplainable thrill that lies in the climax of both acts. Vampyres portrays some pretty graphic softcore scenes between the main characters - two seductive vamps of the night, buxom beauties caped head-to-toe in doom, the black velvet that secures their deadly bodies luring in any weak-willed man that may pass by - played by the excellent Marianne Morris (Percy's Progress, Ralph Thomas, 1974) and Playboy model Anulka Dziubinska. One scene sees them bathing together in a shower - they grasp each others wet bodies and embrace in a passionate kiss. The camera (a P.O.V. shot from leading man Murray Brown) spies on them from afar, making us the voyeur. There is a genuinely erotic sense to the sex scenes, partly down to the smoldering leading ladies and their performances, but also because of the cinematography by Harry Waxman (who also photographed The Wicker Man, explaining the haunted, misty visual style the films share). Every room of the old castle is creaky and worn down with most rooms having only a candle, lamp or dim chandelier to shed light onto the dusty, deadly corners. The countryside is brilliantly captured - graveyards seemingly come alive in spirit and one shot sees early dawn filtering through the woods - it's really astonishingly beautiful. This is a gem of British and vampire cinema that deserves to be rediscovered!
Of course, this wasn't the first or last in lesbian vampire cinema. The Vampire Lovers (Roy Ward Baker, 1970), Lust For A Vampire (Jimmy Sangster, 1971) and Countess Dracula (Peter Sasdy, 1971) made their mark on the sub-genre. The weak-blooded 2009 parody Lesbian Vampire Killers (Phil Claydon) is less notable, although... plentiful.

The 1970s was really the decade that sexualized Dracula, with Andy Warhol's Blood For Dracula (Paul Morrisey, 1974) being a particular point of interest (indeed the tagline is 'He couldn't live without a virgin's blood... So a virgin had to die!"). It's not a masterpiece in any sense of the word. Given Warhol's reputation and legacy it could probably be best described as 'trash art'. But there is something ghostly and unnerving about Udo Kier's ("the blood of these whores is killing me") interpretation of the fanged lothario that stands confidently alongside the more famous performances by Christopher Lee. Much like the Warhol/Morrisey/Kier collaboration Flesh For Frankenstein (1973, still the best 3D movie) this is the traditional tale with a twist and given an injection of softcore sex and sloppy guts. It's notable for its intense sexuality as from the 1980s onwards the main theme of vampire movies became rather more repressed again... which came with good and bad consequences...

Andy Warhol's Blood For Dracula (1974) takes a more sexualized approach.

The 1980s started to shift its focus to teens and angst. Sure there's the full-blooded Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987) and the bitingly satirical Vampire's Kiss (Robert Bierman, 1988) ("Am I getting through to you, Alva?"). But the 1980s was undeniably ruled by John Hughes and The Brat Pack. Teens and their troubles were in, and nobody was stopping them. It could be argued that the movement started with Martin (George A. Romero, 1977) but the real incarnation is The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher, 1987), which follows Mike (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) moving into a small town supposedly inhabited by vampires. Stylish and superbly soundtracked (INXS, Echo & The Bunnymen), it's best summed up by its tagline 'Sleep All Day. Party All Night. Never Grow Old. Never Die. It's Fun To Be A Vampire'. It was the movie that injected a sense of youthfulness and entertainment into the genre - fast paced, glossy and loud was the order of the day. This led somewhat to the screen incarnation of Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008, Chris Weitz, 2009, David Slade, 2010), conveniently around the same time as the 80s revival. The adaptations of Stephanie Meyer's books have become mega-blockbusters making stars out of leads Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, despite being rather hollow and miserable vampire regressions. The 00s have also given kids a taste of the myth with The Little Vampire (Uli Edel, 2000) and adults have rejoiced the stylish smarts of Daybreakers (Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig, 2009) and the full-blooded but rather dull 30 Days Of Night (David Slade, 2007). The foreign market has also had a say in the current trend with Park Chan-wook's excellent Thirst (2009) and my favorite vampire movie of the last thirty years, Sweden's Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008).

Let The Right One In does everything Twilight wishes it could do but can't and remains a unique and strangely sensitive entry into the screen vampire canon. Beautifully shot by DoP Hoyte Van Hoytema, it tells the story of lonely, bullied Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and Eli (Lina Leandersson), and their midnight meetings in a snowy playground. But she holds a dark secret - she's really a vampire. It does have scenes of violence (a bed bursting into flames and the gorgeous, emotional swimming pool finale) but the real theme of the movie is innocence and love. The quiet, unexpected romance that forms between Oskar and Eli is wonderfully etched and thoughtfully played, as well as honest and believable. The upcoming American remake will surely be terrible (for one it has been retitled, showing a gross misunderstanding of the movies theme of trust - god only knows how it will treat the films most iconic and important scene; see below image), but for now the memory of Let The Right One In is an enrapturing one. The performances are perfect, the score is lovely and its treatment of the vampire legend and character is perfect for study. Oh, and the ending is painfully, demonstrably heartbreaking.

Vampires have been a staple of the silver screen for decades - from Schreck to Lee to Morris and Leandersson, may their legacy live forever...

Eli in Let The Right One In (2008).