Saturday, October 31, 2015

Dracula (1931)

Director: George Melford                                Adaptation: Baltasar Fernández Cué
Music Supervisor: Heinz Roemheld               Cinematography: George Robinson
Starring: Carlos Villarías, Lupita Tovar, Eduardo Arozamena and Pablo Álvarez Rubio

Oh, what might have been. If only we could take the American cast from the original Dracula, and put them into the Spanish-language production headed by George Melford. Not only would it have been the best horror film from the classic period, but possibly the best horror film of all time. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Universal’s simultaneous production of Drácula, made for the Central and South American market, was filmed at a time when there were no dubbing capabilities, and Hollywood--used to being able to market their silent films all around the world--did the only thing they could think of, and remade the films with separate casts in different languages in order to sell them overseas. In this case the American cast, under the nominal direction of Todd Browning, would film all day, and then the Spanish-speaking cast and crew would film all night on the same sets. At the head of the nocturnal production Universal put contract director George Melford in charge, and with the assistance of Spanish-speaking Enrique Tovar Ávalos, they would look at the rushes for that day and attempt to come up with subtle improvements in filming that would make their film superior. And they succeeded, but for one thing: the actors. While the film is infinitely superior, the acting by Bela Lugosi stand-in Carlos Villarías, and some of the rest of the cast, pulls the entire production down.

On the positive side, even the opening titles suggest a more atmospheric production. While the American version shows the credits over a static silhouette of a bat, the Spanish production shows them over a live shot of a candle with spider webs on it wafting in the breeze. But there are also many establishing shots and long shots, as well as second unit work, that are used from the original film rather than reshooting. Pablo Álvarez Rubio does a nice job as Renfield in the opening sequence, better than he would do in the later scenes. When the scene shifts to Dracula’s castle, instead of cutting away from the coffin the camera is moved behind the hinge, with smoke announcing the emergence of Carlos Villarías as he rises from behind the lid. But while the actor was probably chosen for a passing resemblance to Lugosi, his movements and facial expressions are anything but menacing and diminish much of the tension as a result. The next scene is a case in point. Instead of showing Lugosi coming down the stairs while Dwight Frye walks backward toward the stairs, Rubio chases away a bat flying by him and when he turns around Villarías is suddenly there on the staircase, holding a candle while the camera rushes up to him. It’s a fantastic change, but the absolutely comical look on Villarías’s face in the close up completely ruins any fear the change might have produced. And unfortunately that is Villarías’s role through much of the film, destroying the suspension of disbelief.

One of the omissions in the Spanish version, however, is Dracula chasing off his brides and attacking Renfield himself. And instead of killing the girl when he first arrives in London, Villarías’s Dracula goes straight to the theater where he meets Lupita Tovar for the first time. But the production also chose to costume and show sailors on the ship before Dracula attacks them, rather than just the stock footage of the storm. And the flight of the prop bat when Dracula attacks Lucy is far more realistically done. The Spanish version changes the order of scenes the next day. Where the American version introduces the sanitarium and goes right to Renfield, the Spanish version concentrates on Eduardo Arozamena as Van Helsing before going there. But despite the changes in blocking and camera setups, as well as shifting scenes around, the story bogs down when it gets to London, just as it does in the original. And with the obvious limitations of Villarías in the title role, the Spanish language version is unable to rise above the original overall. There is no music to speak of, just as in the original, and that makes for a strange viewing experience. And the comedy relief in the Spanish version seems far more forced than the British veterans in the original.

The primary aspect of the film that differentiates it from the original is the extensive camera movement by cinematographer George Robinson, especially in the stage-bound second and third acts. Robinson would go on to shoot many of the great horror films from Universal’s second wave including Son of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and would continue his work at the studio on into the fifties in films like Tarantula. Another of the obvious differences between the two films is the clarity of portions of the Spanish-speaking print. It had been assumed lost until it was discovered in the 1970s and, like so many other lost films, the fact that it was not used to make numerous copies accounts for the pristine quality of most of the print. At the same time, the soundtrack is much cleaner and, along with the use of visual effects lacking in the original, it gives the Spanish language version the feel that it was produced in the forties rather than at the beginning of the sound era. The Spanish version of Drácula has a lot to recommend it in terms of advanced production, and it’s almost painful to watch at times because of how much better the American cast would have been in it. But ultimately the Lugosi version remains the better of the two simply for the greatness of its stars.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Recovery (2012)

Director: Michael J. Prosser                              Writer: Michael J. Prosser
Film Score: Keith Schreiner                              Cinematography: T.J. Civis
Starring: Elle Poindexter, Christopher D. Harder, Aaron McPherson and Benedict Herrmann

One thing is clear about the independent directors coming out of Portland, they have an eye for visual style that seems unchallenged even by Hollywood standards. Recovery, by Mike Prosser, is one of the more recent examples of this phenomenon. The title is a good one, doing duty on several levels. There is the emotional recovery of a family after a tragic loss, the recovery of a password protected computer folder that may explain the tragedy, and the physical recovery of one of the family members after her own tragic accident. That multi-layered aspect of the title is also carried over into the director’s screenplay. While the film has the feel of a supernatural thriller, it takes its time in getting to that aspect of the story, allowing the viewer to get to know the characters in what almost feels like real time. And that pacing works well in establishing the viewer’s concern for the characters as they wrestle with their conflicting emotions. Prosser has used a wide range of storytelling techniques in filming this edgy family drama, mixing “European-style art-house drama with Japanese and B-movie horror elements” and “drawing inspiration from Ordinary People and the original Pulse.” And while that might seem an odd mix of genres it has resulted in an extraordinary cinematic experience.

The film opens on a quote from Nietzsche, “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.” Then the music begins, and the singing on the soundtrack quickly cuts to Chris Harder as the front man of a band while the credits roll. It’s not until Harder gets into his car, an ultrasound photo on the passenger seat, that the establishing text of Portland, OR is seen. At home he makes what appears to be a suicide call to a number that doesn’t answer, while elsewhere in town Marilyn Faith Hickey dreams of her baby crying and not being able to help. Harder then pulls a gun out of drawer, listens to a loving message from his wife on the answering machine, and fires the gun into his mouth. From there the scene shifts to an artist’s studio in Brooklyn. Elle Poindexter wakes up to a phone call, and then walks topless into the bathroom to wash her face. There she flashes back to an appointment with her doctor, Mike Prosser, who tells her the accident she was in will prevent her from having children. At an art gallery the next morning her boyfriend, Richard Topping, tells her he has gotten another woman pregnant and she rushes out in anger. He picks up the crumpled note she was going to leave him and that’s when the audience learns that she is Harder’s sister and she is going back to Portland for her brother’s funeral.

Harder’s widow, Jennifer Skyler, is pregnant and comes over to Hickey’s house with her small girl, Linden Hosack, while Hickey’s husband, Benedict Herrmann, brings his daughter, Poindexter, home from the airport. In her brother’s old room Poindexter flashes back to a discussion she and her brother had about religion, and then tries to get into his computer. Downstairs, Herrmann notices an extra place setting, which has been put there for Harder’s therapist, Aaron McPherson, the character who holds the secret to Harder’s death. Throughout the film, Prosser weaves several narrative strands together. One is a series of mysterious phone calls to everyone in the family that actually starts with Poindexter in the beginning of the film and seems to hint at communication from beyond the grave. Another is the religious philosophy and iconography of Harder’s that is an extension of his father’s strict religious beliefs. There is also the accident that has left Poindexter unable to have children, and the relationship that Harder had with McPherson before seeking his help as a psychologist. As a director, Mike Prosser has an impressive visual style that includes the use of overlapping images, especially in the flashback sequences, extreme close ups and a moving camera, all of which closely mirror the story rather than being used simply for effect. At the same time, the director does a tremendous job of creating increasingly disturbing images as the film moves toward a very satisfying climax.

Though the film overall is impressive there are some inescapable flaws, but this is to be expected in low budget, independent films. Young directors with solid visual conceptions are rarely as accomplished as writers, and must typically be given time and resources in order to allow their writing to catch up to their imagery. Unfortunately that rarely happens, as the money generally isn’t there for future projects. In this case the lack of polish is in the screenplay is overly emphasized by the generally poor acting, another pitfall in independent filmmaking. On its own, the writing actually has some engaging moments, and while the more uninspired moments could have been overlooked had they been in the hands of better actors, that doesn’t happen here. It’s the plot itself that is forced to carry the picture, and while along with the visuals it is strong in many respects, it’s not quite enough, and falls short of the greatness it was aiming for. The things that are good about the film, however, are very good. Even the open credits sequence stands out. The suicide montage is also excellent, allowing the viewer to sense the impending act while not necessarily making it so abundantly clear that it precludes any other possibility. The short sequence with Elle Poindexter in the bathroom and the flashback to her doctor are also cleverly done. The fact is, the flashbacks are really at the heart of the film, and the viewer’s impatience with the present timeline as it seems to get in the way of the revelations in the backstory only adds to the suspense of the film.

But Prosser also has a sense of humor, and in one of the flashback sequences he uses sound design to great comic effect as both Harder and McPherson move from the front to the back seat of McPherson’s car. Other moments of humor include the self-referencing nature of the screenplay, something that might be off putting to certain viewers but I thought were great. In a subtle homage to Jaws--hopefully intended--McPherson brings over both a bottle of red and white wine to dinner. And later, as he drives Poindexter to a bar to get a drink, a pretentious line from the psychologist gets turned into a reference to Titanic by his passenger. Though Elle Poindexter is the nominal lead in the film, and she does a solid job in her role, some of the best acting in the film comes from Benedict Herrmann as her father. The other standout is Eric Martin Reid as an old crush of Poindexter’s. In fact, he’s so good that one wishes he could have been cast in the crucial role played by Aaron McPherson. While Chris Harder is the axis around which the story revolves, his screen time is minimal and doesn’t allow him to explore the full range of his talents. The film score by Keith Schreiner is definitely on point, and assists Prosser perfectly in getting several genuine scares throughout the film. While the acting in Recovery definitely lets the production down, there are plenty of positives that make this indie film worth seeking out.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Milk (2008)

Director: Gus Van Sant                                   Writer: Dustin Lance Black
Film Score: Danny Elfman                              Cinematography: Harris Savides
Starring: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco and Alison Pill

Say what you want about Sean Penn--and there’s a lot to say that isn’t good--but his passion for the essential dignity and rights of all humanity should be an inspiration to everyone. And it should make right-wing fascists like Jon Voight and James Caan ashamed for the way that their party attempts to disenfranchise huge swaths of our population in a transparently vainglorious desire to accumulate wealth and power at the expense of anyone in their path. But this war on humanity started long before the twenty-first century, and just one of those episodes is examined in Milk. The film tells the story of the country’s first openly gay politician, Harvey Milk, a San Francisco supervisor who was murdered, along with Mayor George Moscone, by fellow supervisor Dan White. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two, the first a well-deserved Oscar for Sean Penn in the starring role, the second for the screenplay by Dustin Lance Black. The origins of the film began with an attempt by Oliver Stone to produce his own screenplay of Milk’s story. He initially brought in Gus Van Sant to direct, but Van Sant left the project citing creative differences and sought out a new screenplay in order to make his own film, that at one point had Matt Damon playing Dan White. Though the studio sought to avoid controversy, the juvenile state of our country on issues like this was once again highlighted upon release. Still, the film made a substantial profit and was nominated for best picture and best director Oscars.

The film begins in a New York train station with Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, attempting to pick up the much younger James Franco. Against his better judgment, Franco goes with Penn and the two of them eventually wind up in San Francisco as the city emerges from the hippy era, still a magnet for those who live alternative lifestyles. After renting an apartment in the Castro district, Penn decides to open up a camera shop and is immediately informed by the local business owners that they’ll be run out of town if they cater to homosexuals. But Penn has no intention of letting this happen, and begins to harness the economic power of the gays in the area to boycott those businesses that won’t serve homosexuals and succeeds in running them out of business. Charged with this success, he decides that he’ll run for the board of supervisors for the area that includes the Castro. At first it’s more of an exercise than a serious bid for power. But with each successive year, as his numbers begin to climb, he becomes increasingly determined to get true representation for the gays in the community. In fact, his focus on the elections becomes so intense that it drives away Franco. For the next election Penn shaves his beard, puts on a suit, and because the districts have been redrawn so that those running don’t have to represent the Castro, he is finally elected. And while initially focused on local affairs, the national anti-gay politics of those like Anita Bryant and John Briggs propel him into a larger arena in which the stakes affect the gay population of the entire country.

The story is essentially told as a lengthy flashback while Penn narrates into a tape recorder his fears about a possible assassination, fears that would tragically come true. Sean Penn does an incredible job of inhabiting the character of Harvey Milk, and his portrayal is at once impressive and heartbreaking. The film doesn’t flinch from the gay lifestyle, and what have since become gay stereotypes, but neither does it wallow in them. In fact, Director Gus Van Sant seems more at home in this milieu than he does with more fictional stories, as demonstrated by his work on another true story, Promised Land, in which he was reunited with Good Will Hunting star Matt Damon. The first thing one notices is that the film is able to replicate the look of the seventies more accurately than any previous film, mixing in documentary footage with the kind of confidence that dares the audience to find fault with the art direction and costume design. And Van Sant’s directorial touches are perfectly subtle, allowing the story to be the star rather than the direction. A brilliant cast does the rest. James Franco is terrific as the boyfriend who ends the relationship with resignation rather than drama and cliché. Josh Brolin is equally good as the assassin, Dan White, the tightly-wound supervisor whose rigid views Penn believes are a cover for his own homosexual leanings, like something out of American Beauty. Assisting Penn in his political errands are Emile Hirsch and Alison Pill who are solid in their support, as well as Victor Garber as Mayor Moscone and Denis O’Hare as John Briggs. Milk is a powerful film as well as a sad reminder of just how far this country still has to go in granting all of its citizens the equal rights they justifiably deserve.