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Monday, October 13, 2014

Dracula Untold



Vlad To Meet You

I'm Vlad I saw Dracula Untold. Well, I'm not Vlad. Luke Evans is Vlad, the 15th century Transylvanian prince the world would come to know as Dracula. As the most celebrated of all vampires, Evans has mighty big fangs to fill - luminaries like Bela Lugosi, Frank Langella, and Gary Oldman have all sucked the blood of the living as Dracula, but none of them have natural incisor fangs in his teeth like Evans (it's true, he was born with fangs). Evans' Dracula differs from his predecessors in that we know him in his early days of vampirism. Dracula Untold is Dracula Begins, who he is and how he came to be the prince of darkness. With a name like "Dracula" (translated depending on whom you ask as "Son of the Dragon" and "Son of the Devil") Vlad is inescapably destined to be a monster, in spite of his best efforts. Dracula Untold chronicles Vlad's best efforts.

Borrowing from the intriguing medieval politics of Game of Thrones, Dracula Untold tells us that 10 year old Vlad Dracula was given over as a hostage to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, along with one thousand Transylvanian boys to fill up the Turkish army's ranks. Vlad grew into a hell of a warrior, becoming feared by both Europe and the Turkish army for his blood lust in battle and his penchant for impaling hundreds of his victims and leaving their corpses to rot in the sun. This earned him the super cool title "Lord Impaler." (If I ever start a band, I'm calling it Lord Impaler.) Though to hear Vlad tell it, tales of his sadism were greatly exaggerated; for every village he impaled on stakes, he actually spared a dozen. Whatever. Eventually, Vlad was allowed to return to Transylvania and begin ruling his people properly as their prince, all the while serving as a vassal to the Turks. Vlad took a hot wife (Sarah Gadon), sired a son, and kept the peace for ten years.

Even in peace time, the Prince of Transylvania has 99 problems and a vampire is one. Atop one of Transylvania's forbidding mountain peaks, there is a creature that men fear which comes in the night and kills people, Turkish scouts and Transylvanian soldiers alike. Next thing Vlad knows, history repeats itself and the new Sultan (Dominic Cooper) demands another thousand boys for his army and Vlad's son as a hostage. Or else, he declares war on the poor, raggedy people of Transylvania. Out of love for his family and his country, Vlad makes two very bad decisions: 1) he refuses to hand over his son, thus declaring war on the Turks. 2) Lacking an army to wage war, he decides to seek the aid of the monster in the mountains that slaughtered his friends and nearly killed him when they first met.

The monster is, naturally, a vampire, played by Charles Dance, also borrowed from Game of Thrones. According to Dracula Untold's rules of vampirism, once Vlad drinks his blood, he becomes Tywin Vampire's replacement, "freeing" Tywin from this eternal torment and allowing him to start his plan of revenge on the demon that sired him (already, Tywin is thinking sequel). As a vampire, Dracula has super strength, super speed, can become a giant flock of bats, and even control the clouds of night. Plus he has an out; if he can go without drinking blood for three days, he reverts back to being human. Easier said than done. And yet, Vlad optimistically plans to win a war against a hundred thousand Turks all by himself in three days. 

Day one of the war goes pretty well; newly superpowered Vlad wipes out a thousand Turk soldiers all by his lonesome, slamming into them in swarm of bats-mode and then taking them out in fang to neck combat. Unfortunately, that leaves 99,000 Turk soldiers to deal with. Meanwhile, his own people, including his hot wife, notice strange things about their prince who disappeared and suddenly reappeared, like how he was able to wipe out a thousand enemy soldiers singlehandedly ("Never ask what happened here today," Vlad warns his peeps) and how he convulses with pain whenever anyone around him has a paper cut. Plus his silver wedding ring makes his flesh burn, he avoids sunlight, and he has glowing red eyes. The monks they hide with in a mountaintop monastery figure it out right away and decide to burn their prince in a religious frenzy. Dracula scolds them for being a bunch of ingrates. But instead of killing them all in a rage for betraying him, he continues to try to win the war against the Turks. Mainly he wants to save his son and his hot wife, though he tried to eat her one night because she's so hot (blooded).

By day three of the war, things go very badly indeed for Vlad. While he conducts legions of bats like a symphony, using the bats as battering rams against the Turkish legions, the sly Turks trick their way into the monastery, kidnap his son, and chuck his hot wife off a cliff. This lends to a rather lovely visual of Dracula in half bat-swarm, half human mode, arms outstretched, reaching to save his plummeting wife. All to no avail, as Spider-Man could tell Vlad. Finally, Dracula makes another poor decision and turns a bunch of his Transylvanian people into vampires to go settle the Sultan's hash once and for all. The Sultan was ready for Vlad and faced him in a mano e undead mano fight in a tent full of silver coins. Fiendishly clever of the Sultan, and it nearly worked, but he fatally underestimated Dracula when he was down for the count. After saving his son and making him prince of Transylvania, Dracula has another problem of his own doing on his hands: a bunch of vampires he sired looking to go rogue. In the last of his noble acts, Vlad lets the sun shine in on all of them, including himself, thus ridding the world of all vampires once and for all. Except the great, great, great, great, great + a few more greats grandfather of Renfield saves Dracula from his attempted suicide and restores him to full vampirinity.

Simultaneously grand visually yet thin-blooded, Dracula Untold ends up telling us Dracula was a really a noble guy but a bad prince who made a lot of bad decisions. As Dracula, Evans is a speak softly and impale you with a big stake kind of vampire; a loving family man constantly trying to do the right thing because his heart was in the right place, even after it stopped beating. Evans bemoans becoming a monster but his Dracula is Mr. Nice Guy every time it counts. Dracula Untold skips right over how Vlad regains control of Castle Dracula and the centuries he spent terrorizing Transylvania, siring hot, lusty vampire wives and all that. Instead, Dracula Untold launches into an epilogue in 21st century England, where a dashing Vlad encounters the spitting image of his hot wife, and her name is Mina, wouldn't you know it. Meanwhile, Tywin Vampire is still lurking about. He has his own plans for Vlad Dracula. Those plans, as yet, remain untold.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Gone Girl



Take My Wife, Please

Gone Girl ranks among the very finest adaptations from novel to motion picture ever made. Written by Gillian Flynn, who penned the best-selling novel, and directed like a maestro by David Fincher, Gone Girl is a lurid, feverish, spellbinding, jaw-dropping exploration of a marriage between two modern day thirty-somethings gone horribly wrong. Horribly wrong. It's an indictment of our bottom-feeding news culture that exploits tragedy for ratings. It's a love story twisted and mangled into something grotesque and abhorrent. It's a wondrously wicked game of he-said/she-said show and tell that yanks the carpet out from underneath you midway through. It's riveting from start to finish, bursting with wild surprises and dark, gallows humor. And if you look really closely at just the right moment, Ben Affleck's penis does indeed make a cameo. (Might as well put that out there since the week of Internet media leading up to Gone Girl's release seemed to be 90% about the rumored presence of Affleck wang. Confirmed. It's there.)

Is it safe to say from an acting performance standpoint, Ben Affleck has never been better? Yes. Ben Affleck has never been better. Ideally cast as a less-than-ideal husband to the titular gone girl Rosamund Pike, Affleck centers Gone Girl like the movie star he is. Affleck transforms throughout the movie from a sad, pathetic guy you hate, to a sad, pathetic guy you kind of like, to a sad, pathetic guy to you kind of root for because holy crap, his wife! As Nick Dunne, a beaten down, angry sad sack who has given up on his marriage, Affleck spends most of the movie being indicted in the court of public opinion and investigated by the police when his wife disappears of the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. The evidence of violence in the house, mysterious credit card statements, a million dollar life insurance policy, and all other signs point to him. The only people who believe Affleck is innocent (more or less believe, anyway) are his twin sister Carrie Coon and their high-powered, slickster defense attorney Tyler Perry (also terrific). Admittedly, Affleck is not a good guy. He has a secret young, busty mistress, he's a callow, habitual liar, and he may have physically abused his wife in a boiled-over rage.

Affleck's romance with Pike, who plays "Amazing" Amy Elliott Dunne, a beautiful, well-heeled New Yorker, is narrated by Pike via the gimmick of diary entries, showing their rosy meet-cute and happily affluent life in New York City, which is gradually upended into a series of defeats and disappointments as they are laid off from their jobs as magazine writers, and forced by money troubles and Affleck's parents' illnesses to relocate to his Missouri home town. Amy Eliott Dunne is born from psychologist-writer parents who mined her childhood (and bettered her accomplishments and failures in print) for "Amazing Amy," a series of popular children's books. Pike comes with her own baggage; a history of ex-boyfriends who she claims stalked and raped her. She mysteriously has few friends, and five years into their nuptials, she is essentially a stranger, and an unwelcome one, to her husband. And then she is gone, girl. Gone Girl plays like a fascinating exploration of a failed marriage-cum-tragedy and then at midpoint, it takes a wild left turn towards crazy-bananas Albequerque and never looks back.

Did Affleck kill his wife? What really happened to Amazing Amy? Where did she go, girl? Why does Neil Patrick Harris, a fabulously wealthy, effete former lover of Pike, lurk on the outskirts of the investigation? What do all the clues and treasure hunts Pike left for Affleck really mean? The answers are insane, diabolically, entertainingly insane. Gone Girl's second half gleefully smacks down the rows of dominoes it carefully builds, as we marvel at the answers to the mystery and the truth behind Amazing Amy. We find out the name "Amazing Amy" does indeed suit Pike, but not necessarily in ways anyone can find admirable. Pike herself is incredible as Amy, simultaneously appealing and terrifying, intelligent and nefarious, a wife you could be proud to call yours, if you were a psychotic super villain. No one is entirely innocent of blame in Gone Girl, certainly not Affleck, and absolutely not Pike, but in an utterly bizarre way, those two kind of deserve each other.* Forced to choose between two fortunes, for better or worse, richer or poorer, until death does them part, poor Affleck chooses to pick from barrel A:

* Affleck's "You fucking bitch." to the bloody Pike when she returns to his arms after her "abduction" may well be the best delivered line reading of 2014.