Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

UntitledLess than a week after it was released, Grand Theft Auto 5 has earned more than $1 billion in sales and reignited the debate about its rampant violence. The news coverage of the game’s more appalling details strikes me — a person whose reaction to the typical video game controller is confusion and boredom — as disturbing.

But my bigger question is this: What makes the violence in Grand Theft Auto 5 different from the violence in other works of the imagination?

For example, Breaking Bad is a cultural phenomenon which has millions of Americans rooting for a man who cooks meth, manipulates his friends and family, kills adults as well as a child, and is in possession of a machine gun which is likely to figure in the show’s finale.

Macbeth is a monument of English literature which draws audiences of refinement and taste to watch the slaughter of kings, friends, innocent women and children, and soldiers while somehow persuading them to suspend judgment of the man who is the agent of all this slaughter.

I suppose the great difference among these works, if you can establish the difference, is that Grand Theft Auto 5 celebrates violence for the purposes of entertainment, while Breaking Bad and Macbeth explore the nature of violence to demonstrate its consequences.

The point of the video game is to be a criminal and win, or at least escape any consequences for your bad behavior. Macbeth, of course, doesn’t escape consequences in the Scottish play. And we are guessing that Walter White, who already exists in a self-created hell, is likely to suffer more before the show finishes at the end of the month.

But I’m not entirely persuaded by this argument I’ve just made. Part of my doubt is that I’m not sure you can demonstrate that the violence in Grand Theft Auto 5 is of a different kind than Shakespeare’s.

Defenders of the game claim that it is a satire, which would turn the game into social commentary, although social commentary on the level of Brett Ellis’ American Psycho perhaps.

At this point, then, we are required to decide if Grand Theft Auto 5 is a satire done in good faith (ie, “we’re serious about our message”) or bad faith (ie, “we’re pornographers looking to protect our revenue”). And making that judgment is about as slippery a task as a critic could assign himself or herself without helpful emails provided by Edward Snowden.

I’m also not persuaded because of this question: Would Grand Theft Auto 5 or Breaking Bad or Macbeth be as popular as they are WITHOUT violence?

For example, would you really want to watch a play in which Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth talk about their frustrations with their lives and careers, while playing the polite host to King Duncan and making sure he likes the brie and that his room is comfortable? Not really.

The violence is an essential part of Macbeth‘s appeal: appealing, I think, to the dark impulses the human race all feels but which we as social animals need to suppress. These impulses also need an outlet however, and imaginary violence is a much better outlet than actual violence. Grand Theft Auto 5 is a more direct outlet than Macbeth, but this only makes it different in degree. Not different in kind.

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Breaking Bad season 05Since I am perpetually behind all trends in popular culture, I am just now discovering that Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is as purely addictive as the crystal meth his anti-hero Walter White cooks on the show.

I’m also just discovering how Breaking Bad has so magnificently balanced its “entertaining” and “serious” elements, which is another way of saying – broadly – that it has succeeded as a narrative built on character and situation as well as a narrative based on plot.

Before I get around to solving the problem of how I’m going to watch Season Six when I don’t have cable, let me throw a few semi-organized thoughts at you.

Breaking Bad Season Five: Addicted to Story

All stories are driven by conflict. And to vastly over-simplify matters, these conflicts fall into two broad categories: interior conflicts, which tend to emphasize character, and exterior conflicts, which tend to emphasize plot.

In its early seasons, Breaking Bad placed greater emphasis on internal conflict. Walt is a high school chemistry teacher driven to cook crystal meth because he fears he will die of lung cancer and leave his family penniless; and while the mechanics of working in the drug business are explored, more time is devoted to the conflicts Walt’s illness and the lies he tells to hid his business cause in his family, and then to conflicts Walt’s wife’s discovery of his profession cause in their marriage.

This balance begins to shift in Season 3 as Walt’s involvement in the drug business deepens, and he is increasingly threatened by other criminals and by law enforcement agents. The latter half of season four delivers a rush of pure narrative delight as Walt scrambles to kill his former business partner, before he kills Walt and his family; and the story barrels into the shows of Season Five with Walt declaring he wants to build his own drug “empire”.

It would be hard to over-praise Breaking Bad for how beautifully it manages its story, like a thoroughbred running the best race of its life, hitting all the beats, managing the minor cliffhangers of a commercial break and the larger cliffhangers of each episode’s conclusion.

Add to this “the mob meets MacGyver” elements, as Walt applies his Mr. Science skills to eliminate one threat after another. And top it off with a question: how does Vince Gilligan make story lines that sound ridiculous when you describe them to your wife so convincing and affecting on screen?

Walter White: Lured by Vanity, Enthralled by Winning

One answer is Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, who Vince Gilligan describes as a person who begins as Mr. Chips and who ends as Scarface, but who I think is much more interesting than Scarface.

Walt doesn’t really want money, although he begins cooking meth as a way to pay his medical bills and provide money for his family after his death. What Walt really wants is agency and recognition.

This becomes evident fairly early in the show, because Walt quickly makes enough money to take care of his family, but he is more concerned about his image as a nice but feckless and impoverished cancer-stricken dweeb than by the practical problem of how he is going to launder a half million dollars in cash.

Walt craves success then, and even more importantly, the recognition and respect that come with success. This is one of the reasons he keeps getting lured back into the drug business, because only there is his success – as the well-paid maker of the world’s best crystal meth – recognized.

It is also in this world that Walt’s intelligence and (as it turns out) decisiveness is acknowledged. He’s driven in part by desperation. He has to kill his business associates before they kill him. He has to elude the DEA. But the more often he wins, the more he likes it and the more he doesn’t stop to count the bodies that are piling up on route to his next victory.

Only when his wife shows him the pile of money he’s amassed, literally as big as a Mini Cooper, that he retires – right at the end of season five. What was Walt chasing? What were all those deaths worth?

We’ve Been Seduced by the Monster Who Is Walter White

This is a popular opinion and it’s true. Walt is a monster. The list of murders he’s committed prove it. So why are we on his side?

Part of the answer is that Walt wants what most people want: to be self-sufficient and respected. Part is that we humans are social animals who chaff at the restraints our societies put on us even as we embrace them, and stories about criminals or seducers or other people who break the rules are a safe way to dream away our frustrations with society’s restraints.

But a greater part of the answer is perhaps the loveliest fact in all narrative art. The social purpose of story and character, the moral purpose of literature – regardless of medium – is to teaches us empathy.

Story asks us to inhabit the lives and experiences of the characters on which it turns its powers, and to understand them, even if we don’t like them – even if in the end we are right to condemn them. Macbeth, Milton’s Satan, Humbert Humbert, Walter White.

It’s a great paradox of narrative art that rooting for bad guys can make us better people. But it can. At least when the bad guys are creations as brilliant as Walter White.

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before midnight linklater hawke delpyIn the movie Before Midnight, the team of director Richard Linklater and actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke set themselves the monumental task of portraying a single day in the life of a privileged Franco-American couple, while summarizing the last nine years of their relationship, and fall just short of creating a masterpiece.

Before Midnight is the third installment of a series that began with Before Sunrise (1995) and continued with Before Sunset (2004).

Each film portrays less than twenty-four hours in the lives of two characters, the French environmental activist Celine (Deply) and the American writer Jesse (Hawke), entirely through conversations.

All of the films are deeply committed to a realism that emphasizes the flow and rhythm of actual talk. So the movies allow Celine and Jesse’ words to jump wildly from point to point, and expose their characters’ thoughts and emotions in ways that are raw, immediate, sometimes uncensored, and sometimes painfully unflattering.

Which means the experience of the Before movies is much closer to the experience of living our lives than watching a typical movie, in which a controlling intelligence works hard to clean up the dialogue, make the characters look good (or chooses exactly how and how much they will look bad), and impose a structure on events that gives them an implicit sense of purpose and meaning.

These choices are particularly effective in Before Midnight because you no longer have the pleasure of watching Delpy and Hawke meeting or re-meeting cute, with an unknown happy future in front of them, but rather seeing them living the reality of that future in which their romance, their jobs, and the work of raising their children have become highly specific and in many ways, unsolvable problems.

Before Midnight is also powerful because the movies gets so deeply into the characters of Celine and Jesse that whether we as the audience like them or don’t like them, or whether Linklater-Delpy-Hawke care if we like them or not, is irrelevant.

The questions are whether Celine and Jesse can like themselves, or each other, or find a way to preserve the mystery of the love between them – now that the persuasion of its first blossoming is long past – or find happiness from lives in which it seems clear no transcendence will emerge.

Both Hawke and Delpy should get medals for acting courage in Before Midnight, but Deply in particular deserves praise. Her Celine is in a state of greater crisis than Jesse, and she holds nothing back. She looks and feels her age in a way women in movies rarely look or feel.

My only quibble is a technical one. Because Before Midnight has nine years to cover in the life of Celine and Jesse, it sometimes feels over-packed and over-busy.

For example, during a long argument in a hotel room, Celine brings up a whole basketful of problems she’s had with their relationship, and the realism of the conversation slips into the feeling that Linklater-Delpy-Hawke are trying to shove a summary of their last nine years into a single take.

An even bigger problem here is that they are asking us to believe that Celine kept many of these problems to herself all this time, and Celine is a character who the films have conclusively demonstrated keeps NOTHING to herself.

But these are small flaws compared to what the movie achieves. Few films hold a mirror up to its audience as relentlessly and unflinchingly and persuasively as Before Midnight. Go see it.

Other Massey Movie Reviews – kinda random as selections go, but what the hey

Much Ado About Nothing directed by Joss Whedon

Django Unchained directed by Quentin Tarantino

Sunset Boulevard directed by the great Billy Wilder

The Hunger Games directed by Gary Ross


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Django Unchained by Quentin TarantinoWhat is the relationship of movies to reality? In a strict sense, there is no relationship at all. The world of imagination, and the conventions and techniques of movie making, exist entirely on their own terms and make their own reality.

On the other hand, I can’t think of any successful movie that does not deal with the truth, at the very least the emotional truth, of human experience. Music and painting can traffic in abstraction and succeed. But movies? Rarely if at all.

Between art and reality comes the great mediator, the artist, who imposes her or his vision on art and reality. Sometimes the result is a rare gift of sublime pleasure and transcendental insight bequeathed to us, the grateful audience, for all time.

And sometimes the result is a steaming hot mess, dumped in our laps, for us to clean up and figure out. Or not.

Ladies and gentlemen, in case you couldn’t guess, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is irrefutably the latter. Whether it is a brilliant mess, or simply a mess full stop, is the question.

Django Unchained: The Obligatory Plot Summary

Tarantino’s latest movie primarily concerns Django, a slave played by Jamie Foxx, who is purchased and then freed by a German dentist and bounty hunter, King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz.

Schultz initially buys Django because he can identify the Brittle brothers, who were brutal overseers at a plantation where Django was enslaved and who Schultz wants to track down and kill to collect the reward. After this is accomplished, Schultz frees Django, trains him as a bounty hunter, and decides to help Django find his wife, who has been sold to a particularly sadistic Mississippi plantation owner, Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Django and Schultz agree on a plan to free Django wife’s which does not go smoothly, to say the least.

Like many of Tarantino’s films, Django Unchained is a movie about movies. His famous love of old B movies and exploitation flicks is again on overabundant display, in this case spaghetti Westerns and the 1975 movie Mandingo among others.

Also again, Tarantino demonstrates his inability to distinguish his A material from his B material, which is reflected in the movie’s 180 minute running time; in the conversations which spin on at length; in a story line that manages to be too busy and meandering at the same time; and in the climactic gun fights which continue long after real-world human beings would have run out of bullets and blood.

Complicating  Django Unchained, and making it more than a fan-boy exercise and a guilty pleasure (if watching Django is the sort of thing you’d call  pleasure) are its anachronistic sense of humor and especially the moments, which are not frequent but are significant, when Foxx’ Django and Waltz’ Schultz step out of their roles as “characters in a B movie” and into scenes that confront the lived horror and violence of slavery.

Even more complicating is Samuel Jackson’s performance as Calvin Candie’s head house slave, Stephen. Jackson makes Stephen an Uncle Tom so malignant, a character so utterly twisted by servitude and yet so utterly invested in the slave system, that he threatens to break the movie apart; similar to the way that Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice can bring the play to a dead stop (at least for modern audiences).

Django Unchained: Blazing Saddles with Blood and Vengeance

There were moments during Django Unchained when I swore I was watching a Mel Brook’s movie.

This was particularly true during the sequences when Django and Schultz visit a Tennessee plantation owned by Big Daddy, who is played by Don Johnson.

There is a long conversation where Big Daddy tries to instruct his slaves how to behave toward Django, who can’t be treated like a slave because he is a freeman, but who can’t be accorded the same courtesy as a white man. There is also an utterly inept Klu Klux Klan raid led by Big Daddy which Tarantino plays for laughs (and which is an example of Tarantino’s ubiquitous and happy indifference to historical accuracy, since the Klan was founded seven years after the movie is stated to take place).

Equal ridiculous are the clothes Tarantino puts on Foxx for him to play the role of Schultz’ “valet” as they visit Big Daddy’s plantation. Django is decked out in a sky-blue satin fop suit complete with knee breeches and an enormous white neck cloth tied in a bow.

But in these clothes, Foxx’ Django simmers with barely contained anger. He and Schultz have come to the plantation to find the Brittle brothers, the men who also savagely whipped Django’s wife.

At the plantation, Django finds two of the brother’s preparing to whip another young black women for the crime of “breaking eggs”. Ignoring the plan, Foxx shoots the first brother, then seizing the whip, beats the second brother into submission with a ferocity founded in authentic anger, then coldly shoots him as he lies prostrate on the ground.

A British critic noted that Jamie Foxx often seems to not be in on the movie’s joke during Django Unchained.

But I think the truth is that neither Django nor Foxx can accept – could make themselves tolerate, if they tried – that the movie is a joke because the experience of African-Americans under slavery in the United States was manifestly not funny.

This approach to violence is not consistent in Django Unchained. In particular, at the end of the film, Django enters a fantasyland of violent revenge. But the cycling between different attitudes toward violence in Django Unchained keeps demanding we try to reconcile its fake artifice and real truth (yes, I know the redundancy is redundant) while guaranteeing that we can’t.

Which is one of the reason I speculated the adjective “brilliant” might apply to the noun “mess” when discussing Tarantino’s film.

And Django isn’t the only character that complicates our judgments about the film.

King Schultz Gets the Joke in Django Unchained … Until He Doesn’t Anymore

In the beginning of the film, Schultz is a dapper, eloquent bounty hunter who is in the business of “selling corpses” as he cheerfully explains to Django.

Schultz may not necessarily enjoy killing men, but he clearly enjoys outwitting and outgunning them, and his good humor doesn’t obscure the fact that he kills ruthlessly.  (Schultz goes so far as to persuade Django to gun down a wanted man in front of the man’s young son because this is what bounty hunters do.)

In a similar way, Schultz is perfectly reconciled to the existence of slaves and slavery. He despises slavery, mocks those who engage in it, shoots slavers without compunction when it suits his purposes, and befriends Django against all the customs of the time, but at the end of the day, Schultz sees slavery is a nasty fact that doesn’t have very much to do with him.

Until he meets Calvin Candie, at least.  Candie owns Django’s wife, Broomhilda (played by Kerry Washington), and Django and Schultz agree that they will try to rescue her by pretending to be interested in Candie’s “Mandingo” slaves who Candie buys and trains to fight to the death for entertainment.

Schultz can barely disguise the horror he feels watching Candie relish a Mandingo fight, and Schultz is further unnerved the next day as he witnesses Candie taunt a slave who has been traumatized to helplessness by the three matches he’s been forced to fight, then has his dogs tear the man apart.

Still, Schultz retains his humor and his cool enough to carry out their plan, which is to persuade Candie to sell them Django’s wife. The plan goes awry but still succeeds. Candie discovers their intentions, but does sell them Broomhilda at an extortionate price.

Candie draws up the papers nice and legal, Schultz signs them, and then expresses his disgust and contempt for Candie. Candie, in return, demands Schultz shake his hand to finalize the deal.

Instead, Schultz shoots Candie and unleashes a series of events that threaten Django’s life and end in a bloodbath.  Just before he is killed in turn, Schultz apologizes to Django, “Sorry, I couldn’t resist.”

What was tolerable to King Schultz at the beginning of Django Unchained became intolerable to him at the end. The violence is “fake fun violence” until it isn’t. We are watching a “movie about movies” until we aren’t. And Tarantino keeps throwing questions at us faster than we can answer them.

Samuel Jackson’s Stephen is the Shylock of Django Unchained

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is the villain and an object of “amusing” abuse who refuses to play his role. He insists on his humanity so powerfully that he fatally disrupts the play’s comic and romantic storylines and sours us on the drama’s heroine, Portia.

For modern audiences, Shylock renders the drama almost unplayable. Shakespeare’s treatment of him so offends our fundamental principles that witnessing Shylock’s humiliation and punishment can only be painful; and since we are a willing audience for the play, it also delivers a sense of complicit guilt.

Samuel Jackson’s head-house slave Stephen plays a similar role in Django Unchained. In front of his masters and other white people, Stephen puts on a minstrel show (there really is no other phrase to describe it) that left me squirming in my seat and grabbing my head. And the fact that it was Samuel Jackson playing Stephen – an actor who I am used to see playing characters with power and agency – made it worse.

In the kitchen and servants’ rooms, Stephen was a tyrant every bit as sadistic as his master, Calvin Candie. Stephen also seems to hate Django, a free black man with power, even more than the whites do, and he conspires to think of a punishment for Django more harsh than anything the whites could think up.

Through it all, Jackson makes us feel that Stephen is still a man – not a character in a movie, not stock villain, not a comic type – but a man who has been horribly damaged by a long life of servitude.

At the climax of the movie, after Django has killed all the whites, he and Stephen confront each other in the plantation house. Django shoots Stephen multiple times, then leaves the old slave screaming in pain as he lights the fuse that will blow up the house and Stephen.

Is this justice? Is this mercy? Or is it Tarantino getting rid of a character no one wants to confront? Amid all the B movie artifice and random jokes, Tarantino asks a lot of hard questions.

Django Unchained – Mess or Brilliant Mess? You Decide

My judgment is brilliant mess because I believe as Chekhov believed, that the role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them; particularly since when people demand that art answer questions, what they really mean is that art should ask THEIR questions and offer THEIR answers. Thus it has always been with philistines, ideologues, and tyrants. That’s why tyrants don’t much like artists, and artists don’t much like tyrants.

I can’t tell if Django Unchained is the result of deliberate strategy, careless accident, unconscious inspiration, or a byproduct of Tarantino’s unrestrained enthusiasms, but whatever the causes – the results are challenging, disturbing, puzzling, funny, sometimes annoying. For me, that’s plenty.

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The Hunger Games movie posterFor a carefully engineered pop-culture phenomenon and money-minting machine, the movie version of The Hunger Games ain’t half bad.

As you likely know, the film takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where the United States has become the totalitarian nation of Panem (a country that seems to be built from equal parts Walker Evans photography and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis).

Every year, the rulers of Panem hold the Hunger Games, a live televised gladiatorial spectacle for which 24 teenagers are chosen by lottery to participate. These children are required to fight and kill each other until a single boy or girl remains alive.

The movie follows 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen who volunteers for the games to save her younger sister, and who joins the boy chosen from her “district” to participate in the games – a boy we’ll discover soon enough has a crush on her.

What The Hunger Games Gets Right: Totalitarian Brutality, Katniss, and Haymitch

Gary Ross’ film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novel gets many things right. The bland, calculating ferocity of Panem’s leaders – who use the games to terrorize the half-starving masses and distract the luxury-addled ruling class – is persuasive as is the palpable fear and loneliness you can read on the children’s faces each time no one, except the audience, is watching.

Ross and the actress Jennifer Lawrence also get Katniss right. She is brave and resourceful, but she is not a preternatural self-confident and decisive Alpha girl. Katniss possesses an awkwardness and uncertainty that make her seem like a real teenager, too, although these qualities can also make Katniss a blank sometimes.

Woody Harrelson, as former Hunger Games’ winner Haymitch Abernathy and Katniss’ mentor, does more with a smaller role, suggesting both the damage the games have done to him and the caginess of a man who knows that the rulers of Panem still want to use him as a pawn.

Finally, and thankfully, the deaths of the Hunger Games participants’ are brief and discrete, rather than exploitive, although this discretion is much more about making the movie safe for mass consumption than it is about making a statement concerning the violence itself.

What The Hunger Games Gets Not-So-Right: Moral Quandaries and Teen Romance

Rendering The Hunger Games safe for mass consumption requires more than not lingering over the dramatization of children killing children, however.

It also requires contortions to prevent the moral depravity of the movie’s premise from tainting its heroine and our sympathetic identification with her (not to mention our willingness to pay $12.00 to watch fictional children slaughter each other).

To do this, the movie turns some of the Hunger Games’ victims into villains: specifically the kind of sadistic bullies that have populated movies for teenagers every since Hollywood started making movies for teenagers, except instead of insulting your clothes or hitting you in the nuts during dodge ball, they – you know – stab you in the heart with a sword.

This same requirement also demands that Katniss never have to make a morally compromised choice. She only directly kills one on the villain-victims as an instantaneous, defensive reflex. She is the indirect cause of the death of two other bullies, both of whom were threats to her. And she is the stalwart protector of the games’ youngest and most vulnerable participant as well as that boy with the crush on her, a doe-eyed but strapping young fellow by the name of Peeta.

Peeta is, of course, the other great concession the story makes to the imperative of mass consumption, in this instance to the ostensible requirement of young female audiences that a movie have a romance no matter how utterly out of place it is.

For example. When a girl is trapped in a high-tech colosseum run by dystopian dictators, what does she need more than food and shelter? More than medicine? More than better weapons or allies? More than a Deus-ex-machina revolution breaking out to save her?

She needs a boyfriend, apparently.

Anyhow, following the old formula, Peeta is sexually non-threatening, but following the newish formula (I’ll date it from the 1997 appearance of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on TV), he is less lethal than Katniss, but still able to throw a pretty kick-ass sack of flour in a pinch. I’m not making that up.

So The Hunger Games distorts itself around the creation and preservation of this relationship, to the extent that even the ruthless despots running the Hunger Games are helpless before it.

When Katniss and Peeta decide to go Romeo-and-Juliet on the murderous bastards, rather than decide who will die for the other, the bastards cry “Uncle!” and declare both can live.

Thus it appears the moral of The Hunger Games is that when Power Lust throws down against Puppy Love – Puppy Love wins. It sure sells more tickets, in any case.

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Bela Lugosi's DraculaFilmmakers generally take liberties with novels when they turn them into movies. And they should. What director wants to make a movie that is simply a faithful adaptation of someone else’s work?

At the same time, it comes as no surprise – for those with a nose for box-office profit – that the liberties directors like to take with novels often have to do with matters of sex.

This is certainly the case with two familiar versions of Bram Stoker’s vampire novel Dracula: the 1931 movie directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi and the 1992 movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola, with Gary Oldman in the title role.

In Stoker’s novel, Dracula is a predatory monster who is indifferent to his victims. He is also a peripheral character. Dracula is largely absent from the pages of the book after the scene shifts from Transylvania to London.

In both 1931 and 1992 films, however, Dracula is a central character who develops a romantic relationship with the heroine of the story, Mina Harker.

Lugosi’s Dracula is a debonair aristocrat who tries to cart off Mina to be his demon bride against her will. Oldman’s Dracula, by contrast, turns up the dramatic volume. His vampire is a Romantic hero who finds in Mina the reincarnation of his much beloved, long-dead wife and who persuades Mina to fall in love with him and participate in her supernatural transformation.

The 1931 version is a classic, but the film is no longer interesting to watch except as a period piece. Its major problem is that it is just not scary anymore. The old-fashioned style of the acting, which mixes the naïve with the declamatory, doesn’t help. And the film is a victim of Bela Lugosi’s indelible performance, which is so familiar even to people who haven’t seen it that his original interpretation looks like a caricature.

Gary Oldman's Dracula directed by CoppolaCoppola’s version is a middling success, not a classic, but it’s more fun despite its problems. Most of these are caused by the cast. Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder are bloodless in their roles, which is a big problem in a vampire flick; and a post-Silence of the Lambs Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Van Helsing serves up a disappointing piece of lukewarm ham, instead of his savory fava beans and Chianti.

Luckily, there is an exquisite Gary Oldman as Dracula. Coppola’s film restores enough of the characters and story lines eliminated from the 1931 version to make the title’s claim to being “Bram Stoker’s” Dracula reasonable. Further, Coppola gives the film an interesting visual style. It doesn’t have the pedigree of German Expressionist films, from which Browning cribbed for his Dracula, but it is distinctive enough.

All in all, you could choose many worse films to get you ready for Halloween than these two movies.

But having rewatched both films and read Stoker’s novel recently, I have to admit the best vampire movie I’ve seen doesn’t feature Dracula and doesn’t come from Bram Stoker.

If you’re only going to watch one vampire movie this month, it’s hard to beat the superb combination of sex, style, horror, melodrama — and especially haute cheese — that Neil Jordan delivers in his film adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. Sorry, Bram.

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** I have a habit of including spoilers in my reviews. This one is littered with them. **

"Sunset Boulevard" by Billy WilderBilly Wilder is the greatest of all 20th century American film directors because he created masterpieces in two genres: the sublimely silly “Some Like It Hot” in comedy and the wrenching “Sunset Boulevard” in tragedy.

Now “Sunset Boulevard” is more often described as a combination of film noir and black comedy than a tragedy, with characters that shade toward caricature instead of complexity, and this is also true.

Both the deluded, forgotten silent-film star Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, and her creepy butler Max, played by Erich von Stroheim, sometimes behave as if they are in a horror movie. And the film’s main character, the thwarted writer turned boy-toy Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, narrates the story in a style that would make Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe smile with recognition.

But beneath the surface caricature of each of these characters are moving, complex human qualities that give “Sunset Boulevard” its force and its greatness. And the force of the movie begins with Norma Desmond.

Norma Desmond: A Woman Destroyed by Hollywood

Norma Desmond has been broken in that particular way Hollywood breaks people, by persuading them to trade their humanity for stardom. She was once worshipped by millions. As “Sunset Boulevard” opens, she has been forgotten for years and lives alone in a decaying mansion.

Norma Desmond has almost no identity left outside of her movies and the photographs of herself that are everywhere in her home. She is an example, as Cecile B. DeMille says in the film, of how “a dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.”

Norma seems incapable of forming a meaningful relationship with another human being, and almost hollowed out of humanity.

Almost, but not quite. Norma Desmond is imperious, deluded. She treats every interaction with another person as if it were a scene in a silent movie, with the grand exaggerated expressive gestures actresses used before sound came to film.

But Norma Desmond is still human enough to be desperately (even pathetically) lonely; still human enough in her despair to attempt suicide; still human enough to command the sympathy and devotion of the only two people who care about her at all: Joe Gillis and her butler, Max.

Max Von Mayerling: Sinister Servant, Selfless Friend

Max Von Mayerling may be the most intriguing character in “Sunset Boulevard” because, at first, he seems the most preposterous.

Wilder makes Max a horror movie sidekick, the “Igor” of “Sunset Boulevard” – going as far as to have him play Bach’s “Tocata and Fugue in D Minor” on the mansion’s organ . Wilder reinforces this idea by shooting Norma Desmond in a way that makes her look like the Bride of Frankenstein in several scenes.

Max becomes more preposterous when we learn his back story. He was the director who made Norma Desmond a star as a teenager and who became her first husband. He begged to return to her because life without her, as he tells Joe Gillis, was “unbearable”.

So by all the facts, we should see Max as a creepy stalker-ex-husband with twisted, selfish motives.

But I don’t think this true because I can’t answer one question: “What’s in it for Max?”

Max has turned himself into Norma Desmond’s servant and she treats him like one. He gets no affection or respect from her. Max works tirelessly to maintain Norma’s belief she is still a star. He delivers her every wish, including to help her trap Joe Gillis the way a spider traps a fly.

Max watches constantly over Norma to make sure she has neither the means nor opportunity to commit suicide. He has no visible life outside the mansion. If he is stealing Norma’s money, there isn’t a hint of it in the movie. If he gets pleasure from being mis-used, he never shows it.

The only explanation that makes sense to me is that Max Von Mayerling is in that empty mansion with Norma Desmond because he’s trying to help her, as best he can, and because there is no one else in the whole wide world who gives a two-cent damn about her. Until Joe Gillis comes along.

Joe Gillis is Not a Gigolo

This statement should be easy to refute. Norma Desmond is a rich once-beautiful woman of 50. Joe Gillis is a poor, handsome man of 27. Joe lives in Norma’s house, eats her food, drinks her champagne, wears the clothes she buys, and sports the jewelry she showers over him. And Joe has sex with Norma.

That, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is proof Joe Gillis is a gigolo far beyond a reasonable doubt.

Except Joe Gillis is not a gigolo.

Joe Gillis is the main character in “Sunset Boulevard” and deserves to be because he is the movie’s most engaging and complicated person. Joe has been half-seduced by the promises of Hollywood – but only half.

He’s perfectly willing to sell his talent as a writer to earn a big paycheck. But Joe Gillis isn’t willing to sell his humanity, his essential decency, to live the Hollywood life. Joe is morally compromised. He isn’t, however, morally bankrupt.

This is demonstrated by all his interactions with Norma Desmond.

When Joe stumbles on Norma in her Hollywood palace, while trying to outrun the men who want to repossess his car, he doesn’t try to sweet-talk or seduce Norma. He makes fun of her.

It’s only when Norma mentions she’s written a movie about Salome that Joe sees an opportunity to take advantage of her. He offers to edit the screen play, for a fancy price, even though he doubts he can salvage anything good from Norma’s work.

Norma makes living in her mansion while he works a condition of the job, and with a few qualms, Joe makes himself comfortable, and manages (so he tells us) not to notice that Norma Desmond is trying to seduce him with fancy clothes, manly baubles, and a better room in her house.

Regardless, when Norma makes it clear that she wants Joe to be her lover – during a New Year’s Eve party at which he is the only guest – Joe rejects Norma and leaves. Then he calls Max from a friend’s apartment and asks him to pack up just his own old clothes and his typewriter.

Why would Joe Gillis leave with nothing, at the moment when he has snared Norma, at the moment of his triumph, if he were a gigolo? Why would he leave if what he wanted was to get Norma’s money?

During the phone call, Max tells Joe that Norma attempted suicide after he left the New Year’s Eve party. Joe rushes back to the house and refuses to leave until Norma promises not to try to kill herself again. Norma, distraught, says she will and Joe surrenders to her.

Like Max, Joe realizes Norma is alone and like Max, he can’t abandon her. Joe also sees the change in Norma his love causes. She becomes happy, even playful, and confident she can restart her career with her screenplay for Salome.

Everything slowly falls apart, of course. Joe can’t save Norma from the delusional and desperate belief that she’ll be a movie star again, and he can’t save Norma from her jealousy, and Joe can’t save Norma from his own unhappiness and self-disgust.

Again, he packs his old clothes and typewriter. He give her back her clothes and trinkets. He turns down her offer of money. And he leaves Norma’s mansion – or tries to leave, until Norma shoots him – with not a dollar more in his pocket than the day he meet her.

These are the human stories beneath the film noir and the black comedy, beneath the Hollywood stereotypes and the horror movie trappings. It is these human stories that make “Sunset Boulevard” superb. And it is the humanity beneath the caricatures that makes Norma’s madness, and Max’ failure to protect her, and Joe’s death, tragedies.

And I’ll go further and add an adjective to that noun: “Shakespearean”.

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It’s a mystery to me why there are not more movie versions of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It’s perfectly suited for the big screen. It has superb characters. A dramatic plot. Extraordinary dialogue you can lift right from the page. And a happy ending.

Nevertheless, there have been only two film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice during the same time period in which Hamlet has made it to the big screen five times. It makes you wonder if it is a conspiracy, or obtuseness, that causes producers to bet their money on the sulky Danish prince instead of the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet.

At least when Jane Austen’s great novel has made it to the screen, big or small, the results have been worth watching. Here are my picks for the best Pride and Prejudice movies, in order of personal preference:

Best Pride and Prejudice movie - Keira Knightley1. Pride and Prejudice (2005) starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden. The celebrated 1995 A&E mini series features better performances from its two lead actors, but I think this movie directed by Joe Wright is the more satisfying adaptation overall.

One of its strengths is the fresh perspective Keira Knightley brings to the role of Elizabeth Bennet. Her Lizzy is a teenager, not a woman. She is less polished and more vulnerable than other Elizabeth Bennets, while retaining the intelligence and self-possession that make Austen’s most famous character so appealing.

Another strength of the 2005 film is its refusal to deal in caricature. Austen often diminishes the humanity of her secondary characters in the pursuit of comic effects, a tendency the screen can amplify. Not so here. Donald Sutherland locates a dark vein inside Mr. Bennet’s aloof benevolence, while Brenda Blethyn brings a gratifying sympathy and balance to her Mrs. Bennet.

Wright neatly compresses the plot and many of the liberties he takes with the book work quite well. There are some clunkers, however. The second proposal scene is almost entirely replaced with new dialogue, and manages to feel both overheated and undercooked. Austen purists may also find the cooing, post-coital coda a bit hard to take.

As for the acting, Knightley and Macfayden performances are quite good – and more impressively – survive two moments of extreme danger. During both the Netherfield ball and the rejected marriage proposal scenes, Knightley and Macfayden come close to overplaying their parts and throwing the movie off a cliff. That they stumble along the edge, but don’t fall, somehow makes the film more affecting to me.

2. Pride and Prejudice (1995) starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. This television series justly deserves its reputation as the definitive adaptation of Pride and Prejudice based on the strength of its two lead actors. In particular, it is a pleasure to watch Ehle inhabit every corner of Elizabeth Bennet’s character over the six hours of the mini series.

But this length also has disadvantages. The pacing feels dutiful and the camera tends to pick a spot and sit there. This may be true to the book, but books and movies are different mediums, and must play to their different strengths. Movies need motion to be effective.

A more serious issue is the “Mrs. Bennet problem”. She is such a shrill fool in this adaptation that she can make the scenes in which she appears nearly impossible to watch. And she’s not the only one-note character in the series. Mr. Bennet, Caroline Bingley, Mr. Collins, and Lady Catherine all add up to less than the sums of their very few parts. That fully realized human characters are presented side by side with (sometimes grotesque) cartoons is jarringly dissonant at best. At worst, it comes close to a moral failing.

3. Pride and Prejudice (1940) starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. This is a highly entertaining romantic comedy of the period, but it ain’t Austen’s novel.

The film-makers have used almost nothing from the first half of the book, and pretty thoroughly eviscerated the second half. Laurence Olivier’s Mr. Darcy is charming and solicitous, with few marks of the pride which is such a driving force in Austen’s work. Mr. Collins is a librarian. Lady Catherine conspires with Darcy to promote his engagement. In the end, all five Bennet girls have husbands, although Mrs. Bennet seems to have kept Kitty and Mary’s men stuffed in a closet until the last twenty seconds of the film, then yanked them out to make sure everything’s tied up neatly.

And yet the spirit of the two main characters is somehow intact. Greer Garson gives a wonderful performance as Elizabeth Bennet and Olivier is appealing in his role. And much of the re-writing is very good (Aldous Huxley worked on the screenplay). It’s just not as good as the material it replaces.

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