Category Archives: 2002

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002, Guy Maddin)

To put it mildly, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary is narratively erratic. The film–a filmed ballet “converted” to a silent movie–opens with panic over Eastern Europeans entering Britain. At least, the onscreen text implies this panic. It’s quickly forgotten; after doing cast introductions (also with onscreen text–these aren’t intertitles, these are just text onscreen alongside live action), the film immediately becomes about Tara Birtwhistle. She’s not Dracula, but she is–presumably–the title Virgin. She has one of the two diaries in the film, after all.

Birtwhistle’s great, both as a dancer and as an actor. Director Maddin shoots a lot of closeups and it’s during her scenes the film comes closest to fulfilling the concept. There’s a lot of symbolism, like two of her suitors and pervy Van Helsing (David Moroni) giving her a blood transfusion with the three men in frame thrusting at her. When Dracula is toying with the idea of being about Victorian sexual repression and sexual violence, it’s at its best. Or its most ambitious. Well, at least during Birtwhistle’s part of the film.

But Birtwhistle doesn’t get the whole picture. Zhang Wei-Qiang’s Dracula barely shows up, usually just there in insert shots, which don’t match the film stock–though Maddin, cinematographer Paul Suderman, and editor Deco Dawson do such lackluster filters and speedups on the film, it’s hard to say what the film stock should look like. Most of Dracula looks like bad video (it’s apparently not, it’s apparently terribly filtered film).

Anyway, once the action moves to (unnamed) Transylvania, Zhang, and betrothed CindyMarie Small and Johnny A. Wright, the charm is gone. Small can dance, but she can’t act. Zhang might be able to act–he can definitely act–but Maddin doesn’t focus on his performance so much as his presence. Wright has a terrible part–once Small discovers he’s had sexual experiences (maybe he’s the Virgin), she tries to seduce him in a terribly edited sequence. Small being sexual repulses Wright and he abandons her to be attacked by dancing nuns and then Zhang. Luckily, he teams up with Moroni and his vampire hunters.

Except, of course, Dracula spells it vampyr. Because most of the onscreen text choices are obnoxious enough to produce eyerolls. They’re not even pretentious–something pretentious would use better fonts for the onscreen text and far better filters on the film. Dracula is artificially grainy, artificially zoomed (to atrocious effect); it’s like the filmmakers didn’t want to pay for an iMovie filter pack.

Maddin and Dawson try to make the film intense through fast cuts and exaggerated angles, but neither have any grace. The film’s got constant music–natch, it’s a ballet–but the music never really syncs with the onscreen action. The “silent movie” gimmick is the point, not the ballet. It’d probably have been better if someone else had shot the ballet and Dawson had cut it into a silent? As long as there had been some competent iMovie filters.

Instead, Maddin fakes a silent movie style. There’s lens distortion–because the movie’s supposed to be old maybe–and Maddin has no rhyme or reason to which shots get which style. Maddin uses iris shots poorly, then goes to wide shots (Dracula’s widescreen, not Academy), then cuts to a fake zoom shot, then another fake zoom shot. All with weak photography. Whatever filter they used removes the natural grain and detail and instead distorts.

The less said about the sped-up sequences the better.

But Dracula moves pretty well. Definitely during the first half or so, when it’s Birtwhistle’s show. The momentum keeps it going to the finish, even though nothing’s successful in the second half. Zhang ends up playing third fiddle to Small and–even worse–Moroni, who hams it up.

The idea of the film isn’t bad, but Maddin’s not interested enough in creating something singular. It’s a gimmick, a filmed ballet performance, not a filmic ballet. It’s certainly not some great homage to silent filmmaking. Especially not with Maddin’s weak establishing shots. The ballet had great sets–including some set design visuals Georgia O’Keefe would appreciate (or have her lawyer call on)–but Maddin and Suderman don’t shoot them well.

Dawson wouldn’t be able to cut them well anyway.

The film’s cynical at best, craven at worst.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Guy Maddin; ballet by Mark Godden, based on a novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, Paul Suderman; edited by Deco Dawson; production designer, Deanne Rohde; produced by Vonnie von Helmolt; aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Starring Zhang Wei-Qiang (Dracula), Tara Birtwhistle (Lucy Westernra), David Moroni (Dr. Van Helsing), CindyMarie Small (Mina), Johnny A. Wright (Jonathon Harker), Stephane Leonard (Arthur Holmwood), Matthew Johnson (Jack Seward), Keir Knight (Quincy Morris), Brent Neale (Renfield), and Stephanie Ballard (Mrs. Westernra).


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xXx (2002, Rob Cohen)

Maybe if there were anything good about xXx–there are a handful of things not bad about it–but if there were anything good, the sky’s the limited compared to the mess director Cohen finishes with. As is, xXx is an overlong, boring, James Bond-knockoff. It starts with a James Bond stand-in getting killed in the first scene during a Rammstein concert; it’s so extreme, a guy in a tux being too lame for a metal concert. But it turns out director Cohen has never wanted anything more than to direct a crappy James Bond movie, one with a rocket boat in it.

So eventually it’s Vin Diesel vs. rocket boat, which isn’t a particularly good sequence. Cohen and editors Chris Lebenzon, Joel Negron, and Paul Rubell have no feel for the subject matter. With Randel Edelman’s drawn-out score, they’re really trying to cut together this seventies James Bond movie. Only Rich Wilkes’s hideously crappy script is all about this punk rock extreme sports bro getting forced into foreign service by Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson’s bad. He’s got a scar, which only exists for Diesel to mock, and it still doesn’t get Jackson any sympathy. He’s just bad.

As for Diesel, he’s not good, but he’s trying. He’s clearly passionate about doing this extreme James Bond knock-off where he makes bad one-liners and objectifies women. If xXx were a spoof, it might work, but Cohen’s an earnest director. He really thinks giving Diesel a dorking, also objectifying Q-like sidekick in Michael Roof is good. Cohen really thinks his actors are giving good performances under his expert guidance. They’re not and his direction of the actors is abysmal–Asia Argento is clearly more capable than the material Cohen (and Wilkes and Diesel) give her.

Oh, maybe if Marton Csokas weren’t painfully weak as the villain, it’d be a little better too.

Still, the stunt work is impressive and until the lousy CGI takes over, there’s a really impressive avalanche sequence. If xXx had another brain cell–just another one–there’d have been great opportunity to juxtapose Diesel’s workman solution to an eye-roll inducing sequence in a Bond picture. Except Cohen maybe is just doing a resume for a Bond movie? It’d at least be an excuse. Otherwise it’s just gross negligence.

But, like I said, Argento seems like she could’ve done better and Diesel gets some sympathy for being in this tragically unhip hip, “extreme” movie.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Rob Cohen; written by Rich Wilkes; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by Chris Lebenzo, Joel Negron, and Paul Rubell; music by Randy Edelman; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; produced by Neal H. Moritz; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Vin Diesel (Xander Cage), Asia Argento (Yelena), Marton Csokas (Yorgi), Samuel L. Jackson (Gibbons), Michael Roof (Shavers), Richy Müller (Milan Sova), Werner Daehn (Kirill), Petr Jákl (Kolya), Danny Trejo (El Jefe), and Eve (J.J.).


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Personal Velocity (2002, Rebecca Miller)

Personal Velocity: Three Portraits. Writer and director Miller (adapting her own collection of short stories) ties together three very different stories, each with its own structure, each with its own narrative approach. Velocity is short too–under ninety minutes–so Miller is fast to establish her protagonists. The biggest disconnect, of course, is the narration; John Ventimiglia narrates these three women’s stories. It’s a close, omnipresent narration too. Otherwise, even though men both pervade and infect the film and the protagonists’ lives, the film’s entirely from its female protagonists’ perspectives. Even when the narration is doing fill-in exposition on a male character, it’s always from over the female protagonist’s shoulder. Even if she’s not present. Miller and editor Sabine Hoffman go wild on the summary flashbacks in the second story.

The film starts serious and sincere. Kyra Sedgwick is a thirty-four year-old, low income housewife with three kids and an abusive husband (David Warshofsky). Miller’s even cruel about revealing the abuse. She and editor Hoffman introduce it as a glance, something for the viewer to fixate on or ignore. Michael Rohatyn’s music–maybe the most affecting in the first story–doesn’t slow down, doesn’t change tone. They may be poor but they love each… then it stops and Miller throws the viewer for Personal Velocity’s only “loop.” Less than five minutes into the film, she dismisses the idea she owes the viewer any expectation for the narrative. The rest of Sedgwick’s story, where Sedgwick’s shockingly unlikable, is about dismissing the viewer’s expectations for characters as well now.

Personal Velocity is digital video. It’s very digital video. Ellen Kuras does light the heck out of it, but she and Miller are going for specific level of verisimilitude. The first story takes place in upstate New York. There’s an expectation of Americana and Kuras and Miller make sure it works as an appropriate setting for Sedgwick’s performance. Because Sedgwick doesn’t tear up the film, she slow burns. For the first story, the film is about seeing what Sedgwick’s character is going to do (Velocity is like eighty percent hard character study) and how Sedgwick is going to essay those actions.

When Sedgwick’s story ends, there’s a feeling of “time’s up.” The sturdy first act Miller gives to the segment doesn’t come with a third. She sort of slices into the second act and pulls the narration higher. Sedgwick’s left a bit of a mystery.

Then Parker Posey’s story. It’s the most different in the film. Its narration is very different, its editing is very different. It’s a light romantic drama set in New York City with book editor Posey and her doctoral student husband Tim Guinee. She’s a disappointment to high-powered lawyer dad Ron Leibman, but then she becomes a success. The narration walks Posey through almost every action, every decision. The editing becomes far more creative–freeze frames, both for action and summary, building on the first story’s occasional usage–the pace is different. The tone is different. Different, different, different. Why is the difference important?

Because the differences between first and second stories help set the film up for the third. The second story isn’t just less dangerous than the first one, more erudite, it also changes how Miller’s going to have the protagonists relate to the viewer. Miller changes how she’s portraying these characters from story to story. The second story is the closest the film gets to having fun–Miller, Kuras, and Hoffman are doing slow motion, they’re doing the freeze frames, there’s flashbacks; there’s a lot of enthusiasm. By the end of it, the film has held the viewer’s hand into getting inside Posey’s perspective. Thanks to the filmmaking, thanks to the writing, thanks to Posey, Miller has gone from outside the protagonist’s perspective to inside it and then turned it around. The viewer understands the character’s decision-making without the narration to explain it anymore.

It’s an important change because the third story mostly drops the narration. It also speeds up a lot. Fairuza Balk has a lot of action, not much summary. Some quick flashbacks, but the third story is all about Balk and what’s going on in her head. A fifth of it has got to just be Balk in close-up, thinking. As the viewer gets to know her better, they get to know what she’s thinking too. It’s a very gentle story. Miller keeps all three acts intact, making it different from the first story, but the lack of narration makes it very different from the second story. But Miller’s really just leaving room for reflection in the third story. It’s about the viewer identifying, relating, considering. Miller sort of uses Balk as a guide. The story even starts out in the city and then goes to the country. It’s completely unrelated–narratively–to the first two stories. Yet Miller needs the viewer to make the connections to succeed.

She does, thanks to Balk, thanks to the crew, thanks to David Patrick Kelly, Patti D’Arbanville, and Lou Taylor Pucci. Everything works out really well, which is something since Hoffman changes up the editing style yet again in the third story. These stylistic changes mean Miller and Hoffman have to introduce them and establish them while the stories are already trying to get the protagonists and ground situations set up. Personal Velocity moves very fast, very pragmatically. But only in the pace. Visually, Miller’s an exuberant director. Lots of visuals, lots of imagery. She’s setting up the best angle into her individual protagonist’s stories.

Acting-wise–Balk’s best, then Sedgwick, then Posey, or you could reverse it, or just mix it up and pick one. The viewer’s relationship with each protagonist is so different, they’re all three just phenomenal. Ventimiglia’s narration is great. Supporting cast is all good. They’re not as essential in the first two stories as the third. Though Leo Fitzpatrick does get a touching monologue of sorts.

Personal Velocity’s fantastic. Miller, her cast, her crew, all do awesome work.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Rebecca Miller; screenplay by Miller, based on her book; director of photography, Ellen Kuras; edited by Sabine Hoffman; music by Michael Rohatyn; production designer, Judy Becker; produced by Lemore Syvan, Gary Winick, and Alexis Alexanian; released by United Artists.

Starring Kyra Sedgwick (Delia Shunt), Parker Posey (Greta Herskowitz), Fairuza Balk (Paula), Ron Leibman (Avram Herskowitz), Wallace Shawn (Mr. Gelb), David Warshofsky (Kurt Wurtzle), Leo Fitzpatrick (Mylert), Tim Guinee (Lee), Patti D’Arbanville (Celia), Ben Shenkman (Max), Joel de la Fuente (Thavi Matola), Marceline Hugot (Pam), Brian Tarantina (Pete Shunt), Seth Gilliam (Vincent), Lou Taylor Pucci (Kevin), Mara Hobel (Fay), and David Patrick Kelly (Peter); narrated by John Ventimiglia.


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Welcome to Eltingville (2002, Chuck Sheetz)

“Welcome to Eltingville.” You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. You must be cautious. I suppose the first thing to say about “Eltingville” is it has a very, very limited audience. It’s a spoof of fan culture from the inside. It’s knowingly spoofing the absurd.

It’s not just spoofing the idea of obnoxious fan culture, it’s spoofing the idea of spoofing that culture. Writer Evan Dorkin (the pilot is based on his long-running comic book series) has to limbo through all the references and who gets to say them. It’s a really sharp, really tight script. The time flies by, but “Eltingville” still has time to make distinct impressions.

Excellent voice acting from Jason Harris and Troy Metcalf in the leads. In the supporting parts, Corey Brill and Larc Spies aren’t anywhere near as impression. It’s partially because of Dorkin’s script, partially because Brill has nothing to do and a lot because Spies isn’t giving a performance, he’s doing an accent. But they’re fine enough. They’re still funny when they need to be funny.

“Eltingville” is an awesome twenty minutes. Though I can see why it didn’t get picked up to series. There’s just too small an audience for a show.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Chuck Sheetz; written by Evan Dorkin; music by Denis M. Hannigan; aired by Adult Swim.

Starring Jason Harris (Bill Dickey), Troy Metcalf (Josh Levy), Larc Spies (Pete DiNunzio), Corey Brill (Jerry Stokes) and Tara Sands (Jane Dickey).


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