Tag Archives: Superman

Undercooked Stake — “Dracula Untold”

Dracula Untold at least the costumes are good

by Gabriel Valdez

The most important factor in telling a story is having a reason to tell it. It can be a small reason – this year’s Godzilla asked a modern horror filmmaker to return the monster to demigod status. It can be a big reason – The Monuments Men addresses the sacrifices made not just to save people, but to save their very culture during World War 2.

Whatever your reason is, it doesn’t need to change the world, but you do need to have one. Dracula Untold has no reason. It has a vague plot, involving Prince Dracula’s people resisting a Turkish army bent on taking 1,000 of their boys as tribute. Dracula seeks out an ancient beast in the mountains in order to borrow his vampiric powers for the coming war.

Leaving aside yet another tired “anybody east of Greece is inherently evil” plot line, everything that needs to be there in a period tale about the famous vampire’s origins is there. A great lead (Luke Evans), detailed set design, good costuming, solid music, nice visual effects. Take each of these components on its own and it holds up well. Put them all together and there’s something vital missing.

Dracula Untold feels like the first two minutes before a TV show that recap all that’s come before, except it goes on for an hour and a half. There is no, “And now for the conclusion.”

Dracula Untold the makeup budget was spent on my predator vision

Universal wants to use its classic movie villains (Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein) to establish a Marvel’s Avengers-like team of monstrous anti-heroes. It’s a good idea on paper, but the film that gets you there feels like it’s rushing you through so you’ll be prepared for the sequel two years from now. We pay to see movies in order to be thrilled, not rushed.

Certain scenes play well, like the various ones that steal directly from Superman movies. Dracula first awakening to his newfound powers, for instance, feels like every time Clark Kent discovered a new Superman power on Smallville. Dracula flying across the landscape to catch a loved one feels like Christopher Reeve flying across a cityscape to do the same. It’s just Superman didn’t have to turn into bats to do it. Even silver gets used an awful lot like kryptonite. This Dracula bears little resemblance to the terrifying ones we’ve seen before; he’s Superdrac (now with Predator vision!) This would be fine, but only if you have a reason beyond wanting to be like Marvel.

Nowhere is this film’s dismissal of its audience better represented than by its explosions of sound and light. When characters pull a sword or strike a torch, it’s enough to make the audience cover their ears, and my theater wasn’t particularly loud. Similarly, when you’re straining your eyes to make out details in a dark, moody scene, you don’t want to suffer a quick succession of blinding white flashes. It was so painful, audience members had to shield their eyes and look away at certain points. That’s profoundly inexcusable.

By the end of the film, Superdrac (now with Predator vision!) is flying at jet speed while Turks are magically transporting from the top of a cliff to the valley a thousand feet below. And no, that’s not according to some superpower, which would be fine. They’re magically transporting according to shoddy editing that strips out any sense of geography or consequence in the action scenes. It’s laughable, which my audience regularly took advantage of.

Dracula Untold totally not trying to be the hobbit ok maybe a little

The fight choreography is good. It might even be great, but you won’t see much of it. Shaky cameras, blur effects, and trick shots – like seeing half a battle in the reflection of a thin sword – are relentlessly abused, and there isn’t the skill behind the camera or in the editing room to incorporate them in any way that makes sense beyond “the director really likes blur effects.”

Dracula Untold has solid design elements and a lead who’s fun to watch. You may recognize Evans from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, in which he plays Bard. He doesn’t act any different here, but that’s fine – he has a compelling demeanor. It’s a good thing, because few other characters are given names, let alone anything resembling characterization.

Dracula Untold just doesn’t care about your experience. It’s checking off boxes on the “start a franchise” clipboard, and that’s not enough reason to tell a story.

It’s somehow rated PG-13 despite the fact that the last five minutes are spent skewering people on stakes and watching their skin fall off as they dissolve into corpses, hinting at a movie that at least would’ve been far trashier than the one we got. But PG-13? I don’t think so.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Dracula Untold have more than one woman in it?

Technically, yes. There is Dracula’s wife, Mirena, played by Sarah Gadon. There’s a Governess who barely appears, played by Dilan Gwyn, and whose importance to the plot you can derive by the fact she has no name, and is simply listed as “Governess.”

Other women occasionally appear in the background doing oh so important background things like looking dramatically at Luke Evans, or looking dramatically at the camera, or looking dramatically at each other.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Hah!

3. About something other than a man?

Haha!

Look, Dracula Untold may technically pass the first rule of this test, but only because if all the extras were men, we might think Superdrac was running a gay kingdom, and something like that still matters to some people. Personally, I think that would’ve made a far more interesting movie. Shoot, why didn’t they try that 40 years ago with Tim Curry as Dracula – oh, wait a minute, they basically did.

But I digress.

Dracula Untold is all about super awesome European men protecting their women and children from evil Turks, who do such nefarious things as wear copious amounts of eyeliner. Pick up your swords! Trade your souls for demonic powers! Our European children must not be forced to wear copious amounts of eyeliner!

Seriously, Dracula Untold is ridiculous. That I’ve already written 1,000 words on it means I’ve put more thought into their movie than its writers did. What did I just watch, is it possible to nuke it from orbit (it’s the only way), and who thought this could function as the beginning to a multi-tiered franchise?

Not only does Dracula Untold fail the Bechdel Test, it also fails the Are You Racist Test, the Try Not to Blind Your Audience Test, the Prosopagnosia Test, and the Not Throwing Up in My Own Mouth Test (patent pending).

Honestly, when it comes out on DVD, this could be the new mainstay of bad movie nights*, but it certainly doesn’t do anything for feminism or tolerance or the English language. Only through Luke Evans being Luke Evans and its own general ineffectiveness at everything, including being hateful, does it fail to threaten 300: Rise of a Thin Gaza Metaphor as worst movie of the year.

*Seek out Dario Argento’s Phenomena, people, and your bad movie nights will never be the same again.

Wednesday Collective – Bollywood Evolves, Shark Attack, The Lion in Winter, and So Many Jake Gyllenhaals

We’re running 3-5 articles a week here now, so there are some efforts to simplify the blog – browse down the left hand side and you’ll see a new Categories section that breaks articles down by type: Awards, Guest Writers, Movie Reviews, Television, and Wednesday Collective, which I hear is pretty fantastic. There will be some bigger moves toward streamlining, and the eventual transition to a more full-service website down the road.

For now, please enjoy this week’s collection of the best articles on film and storytelling from around the web.

ARTICLE OF THE WEEK
The New Wave of Indian Art Cinema

Ship of Theseus

Janaki Challa at The Aerogram writes about the evolution of Bollywood, the independent film movement in India, and its burgeoning supply of arthouse directors (if not arthouse audiences) seeking to tell more realistic, socially insistent narratives. The article centers around Anand Ghandi’s new film Ship of Theseus, a relatively unknown film in the West that has jumped to the top of my radar.

The Wonders of GoPro

holyshit

It’s been a very good week for the phone-sized (and sometimes smaller) sports camera. It’s rugged nature and affordable price-tag mean everyone from independent filmmakers to divers can capture unique footage that proves the adage “everything’s been done already” dead wrong.

My favorite, perhaps of all-time, is spear-fisher Jason Dimitri’s recording of his reef preservation work off the Cayman Islands on March 13. While culling invasive lionfish, a 10-foot Caribbean Reef Shark gets curious. The pair engage in an extended battle that is enthralling, terrifying, yet safe for work/family-viewing. I have no qualms saying it’s among the best three minutes ever put to screen. Watch it full-screen, but not if you’re looking forward to the beach this summer. Thanks to Lara Hemingway for making me aware of this.

A cute narrative film comes from Corridor Digital, a studio that specializes in combining short films and visual effects. They combined footage from a drone with CG and ground footage to create a short film entirely from the perspective of Superman. Some clever editing gives the impression this is drawn from one long continuous take.

GoPro curates many of these user videos on YouTube. There’s this clip of a pelican in Tanzania learning to fly and this rescue of deer stuck on ice by two men with hovercraft. If those don’t make you tear up, there’s always “Fireman Saves Kitten,” which I’ve seen turn the burliest of men into balls of weep.

“The Lion in Winter: The Reason I Became a Medievalist”

The Lion in Winter

My favorite experience as a performer was as Philip, the king of France, in The Lion in Winter. It was during my first year of college and it was when I was still oblivious enough to think everything was running smoothly when, in fact, I’m pretty sure the entire crew was either killing or dating each other behind-the-scenes. The experience introduced me to a number of friends and a few mentors when it came to film and theatre.

The blog An Historian Goes to the Movies goes over some of the historical nuances of the Oscar-winning film version starring Katharine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Hopkins, and Timothy Dalton, and explains why it’s enough to make anyone change their planned career path. The articles on The 13th Warrior and 300 are also worth checking out.

“Film as film: What’s the point of movie criticism?”

Rear Window 1

This brilliant article by Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson at Prospect Magazine asks the question, “In the digital age, what is left for a critic to supply?” His response is very close to my own view: the rote summarize-and-judge template of criticism is obsolete. There are too many audiences and too many resources available for viewers to do this themselves without reading 700 words.

The job of the modern critic is a difficult one – to fuse knowledge of cinematic techniques with emotional response and, through doing so, translate what the experience of the film itself is like. It echoes something I said in last week’s Wednesday Collective, that an ideal review should read two different ways before and after readers see the film: translating the experience beforehand to give the reader a sense of whether the film is for him or her, and drawing technique and meaning from the experience afterward as a further contemplation of what they’ve just seen.

Doppelganging Jake Gyllenhaal

Gyllenhaacalypse

Writer JP Hitesman got a chance to see Enemy, Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to last year’s Prisoners. It follows a milquetoast college professor played by Jake Gyllenhaal as he tracks down a bit actor played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Suspensefully paranoid hijinx ensue. Villeneuve got something out of Gyllenhaal in Prisoners that’s always been hinted at, but isn’t always realized in his films, so I’m very excited for an even more out-there story from the pair.

Hitesman wrote a reflection on Enemy and on the understated qualities of Canadian theatergoing.

Mica Levi on Under the Skin

Under the Skin

Speaking of actors breaking into new territory, Scarlett Johansson’s avant-garde Scottish nymphomaniac alien mindbender Under the Skin opens soon. I’ve heard some of the score by Mica Levi, frontwoman for Micachu and the Shapes, and it is a strange, brave thing all on its own. The Guardian has a brief piece on her influences and experiences while writing and recording the experimental soundtrack.

Mendes. Sam Mendes.

Jarhead

We’ll close with director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) and his 25 rules for filmmaking. I have a love-hate relationship with Mendes. His best, most raw film may be Jarhead (starring Jake Gyllenhaal, no less). American Beauty and Revolutionary Road are beautiful, but have some issues of staging, broad stereotyping, and overt showmanship. Skyfall is a discussion all in itself, a film shot so gorgeously it often forgets to give its viewers proper access into its action scenes. It also betrays Mendes’s perspective by replacing the nod-and-a-wink sexism of most James Bond films with an outright and unsettlingly violent misogyny. Nonetheless, that’s three successes and a popular miss, and much of this is good advice, so Vanity Fair‘s article on Mendes’s 25 rules of directing is worth checking out.