Friday, November 8, 2013

Halloween Horrors: Coppola & Branaugh








Francis Ford Coppola was one of the golden children of the New Hollywood movement, which describes the revitalization of artistic cinema, thanks to an infusion of European sensibilities and other cultural and industrial shifts throughout the last couple years of the 1960s and fizzling out in the first couple years of the 1980s.Although filmmakers like Warren Beatty and Mike Nichols captained the flagships of the era, BONNIE AND CLYDE and THE GRADUATE, respectively, Coppola is arguably the figurehead of this period in the film industry, thanks to American classics like THE GODFATHER (1972), THE CONVERSATION (1974), THE GODFATHER PART II (1974) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), which won him two Palme d'Or awards (the top prize at Cannes Film Festival), Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (he also won the award for Best Original Screenplay for 1970's PATTON, one of his early successes, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner) and Best Director, and all four of those films are part of the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, films selected for preservation as "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant".Somewhere along the way, Coppola lost his golden touch though, and after the 1970s, he never touched the same greatness again.There were a couple of minor charmers during the 1980s, like THE OUTSIDERS (1983) and PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986), but even when he returned to the Corleone saga that he had served so well, THE GODFATHER PART III (1990) was like a sputtering last gasp from the legend, receiving mixed reviews, many lambasting the casting of his own daughter, Sofia, in one of the most infamous performances of all time.It was still nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, but this is generally thought of as a courtesy nomination more than anything else.

Then came along the announcement of DRACULA, usually known by its more distinguishing title, BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, the promise of a brand-new Coppola masterpiece was on the horizon, marketed as the a collaboration between two uncompromising masters, Coppola and Stoker.Unfortunately, what we got was an incredible production, and not a lot else.

The screenplay by James V. Hart modifies the story from Stoker's novel by introducing a love triangle as Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) is revealed in a prologue as a Romanian knight, a variation on the historical Vlad Tepes III, who fought for Christendom in 1462 but renounced God when a misunderstanding led to his wife's suicide, damning her according to the Christian priest.In 1897, Dracula is now an eccentric shut-in buying up land in England, and Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is the young solicitor tasked with assisting the Count in his property purchases, after the previous solicitor, R.M. Renfield (Tom Waits), has gone mad and been committed.Dracula notices Jonathan's picture of his fiancee, Mina Murray (Winona Ryder), and is struck by her resemblance to his long-dead wife, believing her to be her reincarnation.Once Dracula's affairs in England have been prepared, he leaves Harker to the mercy of his vampire Brides, and sails for England to find Mina.Intermittently seducing Mina and sucking her breast, er, I mean, best friend, Lucy (Sadie Frost) dry, Dracula's vampiric menace is discovered by brilliant and eccentric Dutch professor, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), who enlists Lucy's suitors, Sir Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), Texan Quincey Morris (Bill Campbell) and sanitarium psychiatrist Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant), in a perilous mission to put an end to Count Dracula.

Count Dracula is the most frequently depicted movie monster in history, beginning with the unofficial silent film adaptation, NOSFERATU, in 1922, and the first official and best-known adaptation in 1931's DRACULA.However, by the time Coppola took his artist's brush to the material, the legendary horror had been beaten down by dozens of campy and juvenile interpretations, to the point that the iconic vampire could just as well have been children's character, and with such examples as breakfast cereal mascot Count Chocula and Sesame Street muppet Count von Count, he actually was.Coppola's was the first sincere adaptation of Bram Stoker's story in decades.

Coppola isn't so interested in the horror though as he is in the erotic aspects and visual flair.The vampire myth is most commonly psychoanalyzed as being associated to venereal diseases, as there's an undoubted sensual aspect to vampires, and the act of penetration, albeit with fangs instead of phallus, factors in to the transmitting of the vampiric curse.To be made a vampire requires an exchange of bodily fluids, strictly blood though, and the curse is passed from person to person through intimate interaction.It's a fear rooted in medieval and Victorian prejudices, like much else in Bram Stoker's novel; vampirism is a primitive fear based in fear of sexuality.These themes are touched on in BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, but much of the time they seem disorganized with minimized purpose as buxom bared breasts and sexual perversion flows through the screen space with excess.Dracula, the book, makes a point of vilifying female sexuality, as women are divided between the virtuous and chaste virgins, Lucy and Mina, who must only experience sexuality through their husbands, and the menacing "whores" of Dracula, one of whom Lucy becomes, who are defined by nothing but their evil sexuality.In the book, Lucy is an unrealistically saccharine sweetheart beset by the affections of noble men, but without an explanation that I can reason, this personality is exchanged for an equally irritating one, played by Sadie Frost, as a lusty and sexually frank aristocrat who seems even more sexually-minded before she is turned.Frost is an alluring and starry-eyed vixen, but her sultry British voice is grating, plus she has sex with a werewolf.It seems as if Coppola is making a point that Lucy's fate is a result of her sexual nature, while the purer Mina works out better, even as the vampire's victim.

Oldman is in overdrive as the Count, acting through several sets of thick makeup, and while he steps over a bit too far from time to time, it's generally a very strong performance, and Hopkins, fresh off his Oscar win for SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), is great as Van Helsing, but some his 'comedic' moments in the script are irritatingly lacking in subtlety.Reeves' performance as Jonathan Harker is infamously bad, and it is as bad as you've heard.For all the good things that manage to get through, Reeve's is a nearly smothering force of miscasting and an atrocious attempt at a British accent.Reeves is kind of like the Sofia Coppola of the film.

The production is undoubtedly the strongest aspect of the film, designed with highly imaginative Gothic visuals, combining accents of several other styles.The special effects play especially heavily into this, creating atypical split-screens and transitions, creature effects and the like, as well do the flamboyant costume designs.Coppola famously fired his original visual effects team who told him that the effects he wanted would require modern digital technology.Instead he hired his son, Roman Coppola, to create the film's special effects using only archaic techniques, which is astounding considering the very showy look of the film.There are incredible images like a train moving along the upper half of the screen, atop the lower half filled with an open journal, and the many creature effects and makeup involving Dracula.

Unfortunately, the result is a frustrating and gorgeous shell filled a little trickles of insubstantial substance, and a really bad Keanu Reeves performance.Coppola's film production studio, American Zoetrope, made two more gorgeously stylish major film adaptations of classic horror stories during the 1990s, but his own DRACULA is the most disappointing, and most amazing.








Irish-born actor/filmmaker Kenneth Branaugh exploded onto the scene in 1989 with his directorial debut, an adaptation of William Shakespeare's HENRY V, starring himself in the title role, and earning him Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Actor.He remains best known for his excellent cinematic renditions of the Bard's plays, but his first big budget feature was MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN, also known simply as FRANKENSTEIN, in 1994.Produced by Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope studios, it followed in the footsteps of Coppola's own BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA (1992), as the second part of an unofficial trilogy of horror films based on classic horror stories and produced by American Zoetrope during the 1990s, completed by Tim Burton's SLEEPY HOLLOW in 1999.

Produced for $45 million (compared to his previous film, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1993), made on $11 million), FRANKENSTEIN was not a domestic success, barely grossing half the cost in the United States, and even for people who can otherwise remember movies from the 90s fairly well, it's barely a blip on radar, if that.It was not an actual failure however, and globally, it pulled together a respectable $112 million.

In addition to directing, Branaugh also stars, as he often does, in the role of Victor Frankenstein, but the film opens with Captain Robert Walton (Aidan Quinn), commander of a sailing ship on a scientific expedition, hellbound to find a route to the North Pole, when his ship becomes lodged in the ice in the Arctic Circle after a terrific storm.Facing mutiny for his unrepentant quest for glory, Walton has his men working to break the ship free when they discover a lone man on the ice; this is Victor Frankenstein.To explain his situation, and maybe convince Walton of the perils of his thinking, Victor tells him his own story.Born and raised a nobleman of Geneva, Switzerland, Victor was raised in the mansion of his father (Ian Holm), a man of medicine, along with his adopted sister and betrothed, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter).Devastated by the death of his mother in childbirth with his youngest brother, Victor leaves to the university at Ingolstadt with aspirations of conquering death.Though most ridicule this notion, he learns that one of his mentors, Professor Waldman (John Cleese), came very close to the creating of new life, but Waldman warns him to put the notion out of his mind, that such knowledge should only be used for the preservation of life.Waldman's death allows him access to the doctor's journals however, and combined with his own knowledge, Victor creates a 'man' from pieces of the dead.Horrified at his creation, the unnamed Creature (Robert De Niro), Victor abandons it, and believes it has been killed by the cholera epidemic sweeping the city.The Creature survives though, and cast out from society, he cowers in hiding, learning, or perhaps 'remembering', to read and write, and discover the journals of Victor Frankenstein.Using that information to locate Victor, the Creature demands a mate, a companion and lover to live with in peace, but with Frankenstein's refusals, the Creature starts killing off Victor's friends and family members one by one, and Victor unable to explain what he knows is going on to his fiancee, Elizabeth.


The original novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley, never elaborates on how the Monster was created.Other than the involvement of electricity, and the point made that the Creation had to be giant sized (8 ft tall) because of the difficulty of working with minute details, there are no specifications of the process, only of the results, with tightly-wrapped, yellowed and translucent skin, watery yellow eyes and perfect white teeth, as well as his imposing stature and supernatural strength.We all know well about the Monster being assembled out of pieces from dead bodies stitched together, and of course the brain, and then being electrocuted on a laboratory table during a lightning storm, but those were factors invented out of necessity for the classic 1931 James Whale-directed version, because Shelley leaves that major plot point shrouded in mystery.Branaugh's film, based on a script by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont (the latter who received huge acclaim the same year for writing and directing THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION), probably has the most creative and elaborate process of the "Creation Scene" of any major film, taking full advantage of this blank space left by the book.In this film, Victor still creates the Creation from dead bodies stitched together, but combines a mechanical interpretation of a natural birth, involving a copper womb-like tank filled with amniotic fluid purchased from midwives, with Chinese acupuncture, involving electricity-charged needles penetrating the proper pressure points, and some stranger elements involving electric eels.

Branuagh's version is probably the most faithful to the source of any other cinematic adaptation of Frankenstein, taking only relatively minor variations from the book prior to a major and very demented revision of the "Bride of the Monster" part of the story late into the film.Unfortunately, this faithfulness works more as a weakness to the film, in part because it overcrowds the two-hour running time, but even more so because despite the novel's classic status, it's protagonist is a really selfish asshole who is unsympathetic but meant to be sympathetic right up until the last chapter when there's some more balance.The same effect translates to the film, watered down a bit but still there, as Victor behaves abhorrently and selfishly, creating pain for everyone around him, but we're still expected to pity this jerk.

De Niro, still in the late prime of his career, before he descended into self-parody with movies like ANALYZE THIS and MEET THE PARENTS, gives one of his many great performances as the Creature, underneath heavy makeup.Unfortunately, the character is loosely formed, too often playing second fiddle to Victor the jerk, but what De Niro does is excellent in spite of the script's weaknesses, and his makeup is efficiently gruesome, even painful, to look at.The best and most sympathetic character in the film is Helena Bonham Carter's Elizabeth though, and yet she becomes the ultimate victim of the hero's selfishness (with two spectacular death scenes, no less).

Produced with the same spectacular visual theatricality of BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA and SLEEPY HOLLOW, FRANKENSTEIN's production is top-notch, the sort that R-rated movies could succeed on during the 1990s, before the turn of the Millennium brought a new wave of success for teen-aimed sci-fi action and with that, a decrease in money spent on adult fare.However, MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN is a movie far more interesting than it is good.It has nothing on the films of Jame Whale, but it's taking steps in a worthwhile direction, if only those steps were the correct stride.
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