Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979, Werner Herzog)

Back in cinemas just in time for Halloween Werner Herzog’s remake of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors (1922) is an idiosyncratic take on the vampire movie. As with his recent reworking of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992) it resembles the original but has a lunatic poetry of its own. Instead of replicating the expressionist techniques used by Murnau, Herzog filmed on location in Germanyand Romaniaand makes wonderful use of natural light.  The opening credits play over shots taken of mummified corpses twisted in agony as Popol Vuh’s haunting somnambulistic music sends a shiver down your spine. 
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors is the first screen version of Bram Stoker’s novel ‘Dracula,’ Murnau adapted the story without first acquiring the rights. Changing the Count’s name to Orlock couldn’t hide the plagiarism and Stoker’s widow sued, although mercifully the court rejected her plea to have the film destroyed. Herzog is free to call his vampire Dracula and keeps the main story from Stoker’s novel intact. Jonathon Harker (Bruno Ganz) travels to Transylvaniato negotiate a property deal with the Count.  Dracula traps Harker within his castle and leaves to seek out his prisoner’s wife. There are minor changes from the novel; the Harkers live in the coastal German town of Wismar. Mina, the leading lady in Stoker’s novel is demoted to a supporting role, while Lucy (Isabelle Adjani), takes on her characteristics of purity and innocence and also becomes Jonathon’s wife. Dr Van Helsing is no world authority on vampyres, but an ageing ineffectual small town Doctor with no real knowledge of what he is fighting against. 
Herzog regular Klaus Kinski has roughly the same look as Symphony’s Dracula Max Schreck. Kinski retains the black coat, pointy ears, bald head and fang-like teeth, but his face appears more human than Schreck’s misshapen monster. Kinski’s vamp is remarkable, as pitiful as he is unsettling. Alone in the world there is nobody else like him. Nor are there vampire babes hiding in his castle waiting on his every command, as if they were vampiric versions of Hugh Hefner and The Girls of the Playboy Mansion. Unlike Christopher Lee’s tall, suave aristocrat, who takes women at will, Kinski’s vamp literally begs Lucy to let him drink her blood and like a lot of bald men on the pull he is turned down flat. The eroticism present in the post Anne Rice vampire movie is entirely absent. Dracula feeds like a parasite, not a lover. All he brings is death, not so much by his own hand, but by the pestilence that follows him, the rats streaming into the town and infecting it with the plague. 


Bruno Ganz and Isabelle Adjani are both touching as the lovers destroyed by Dracula. Often these roles are a thankless task for actors as the Harkers are ciphers for moral innocence, but both Ganz and Adjani have the ability to flesh them out and make them seem real. Herzog conveys the intimacy between these young lovers in subtle ways, most notably a long-shot of them embracing by the sea. Most directors would use a close-up and have them express their love through words, but Herzog keeps his distance as if getting in close would be an intrusion. Adjani in particular is a spirited heroine, with her pale skin and jet black hair rendering her as haunting in appearance as Kinski’s Dracula.
Herzog provides some spectacular images, such as the town square filling up with the townspeople carrying coffins, or of a last supper as a group of people infected with the plague hold a farewell dinner party for themselves. In one astonishing wordless sequence Harker (Bruno Ganz) leaves a village on foot, walking past the side of a cavernous river, climbing past a waterfall towards the peak of a mountain. As Harker rests and takes in his surroundings Herzog cuts between shots of him and the mist-covered mountains until Dracula’s Castle reveals itself as a ruin on the horizon. 

The German title is Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht which suits the film. Kinski’s ghostly figure is at once menacing and pitiable. Another of Herzog’s lonely obsessive outsiders at odds with the world around them and straining against its limitations. Herzog’s film is more unsettling than horrifying, it’s unease emanating from the hypnotic visuals and the feeling of doom present throughout. Often overlooked even by Herzog fans Nosferatu the Vampyre is one of his finest films and a worthy companion piece to Murnau’s masterpiece. 

LFF 2013 – Story of My Death/Pioneer

Two great seducers, Casanova and Dracula meet in Spanish director Albert Serra’s latest but this is no playful horror movie. In fact I’m not entirely sure what Story of My Death is meant to be. Serra apparently shot 400 hours of footage for the film which beggars belief because hardly anything happens during the film’s two and a half hour running time as it is. An aged, repellent, and decadent Casanova eats a lot, gives half-baked philosophical advice on the nature of women (“women are all the same”), sexually exploits maids in a manner that would get him lifted nowadays, and laughs a lot for no apparent reason. It’s entirely possible the other 397 and a half hours are more of the same.

Serra claimed not to be interested in the horror genre but he’s made an interesting counterpoint to Stoker’s novel with Dracula here as a liberator of poor servile women letting them turn against the patriarchy and become powerful instead of victims.  Endurance test The Story of My Death might be Serra is clearly a gifted filmmaker albeit one who likes to punish his audience. The director gave a charming introduction to the film in which he said it was okay if people walked out which may have been reverse psychology as almost everybody stayed to the end. I don’t ever want to see The Story of My Death  again save for a wordless sequence in which would be lovers flirt at the dinner table after a meal. Free of all the dreadful pretensions Casanova spouts about love and its meaning I’d rather have seen that movie instead. 


I couldn’t get a ticket for Gravity so Erik Skjoldbjærg’s conspiracy thriller Pioneer proved a decent alternative. Set during the North Sea oil boom of the 80’s as the Norwegians are forced through inexperience and lack of resources to collaborate with an American company on finding ways to extract the oil from the depths. The expeditions are highly dangerous and involve experimenting with hitherto unused techniques. When Petter (Hennie) passes out during a test dive causing the death of another diver he resolves to find out what went wrong putting himself and those close to him in danger. Skjoldbjærg crashed and burned in Hollywood with a dire adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s  Prozac Nation (2001) while Christopher Nolan’s remake of his 97′ debut movie Insomnia put the British director on the Hollywood A-list but did nothing much for him. It’s easy to read Pioneer as a reaction to this with the plucky Norwegian battling the forces of American cultural imperialism but Skjoldbjærg presents both countries as having their own agendas with so much at stake. Pioneer is a tense, claustrophobic affair with a compelling lead performance from Aksel Hennie and good support from Wes Bentley, Stephen Lang, and Jonathon LaPlagia. 

LFF 2013 – The Congress (Ari Folman)

Waltz with Bashir (2008) director Ari Folman melds together Stanislaw’s novel ‘The Futurological Congress’ and the career of actress Robin Wright for this odd but moving mixture of live action and animation. Wright plays a fictional variation of herself, a narrative device made popular after Being John Malkovich (1999, Spike Jonze) and one which allows filmmakers to play around with a star’s persona. In The Congress Wright becomes a washed-up Hollywood dropout living in an airport hangar with her two children Aaron (Kodi Smit-Mcphee) who is losing his hearing and idealistic teenager Sarah (Sami Gayle). Wright has spent the intervening years since her early success in The Princess Bride (1987, Rob Reiner) driving her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) nuts by making bad career choices.
A lucrative offer from ‘Miramount’ studio boss Jeff (Danny Huston) to submit to an experimental new technique designed to replace ageing actors with CGI avatars so they remain forever young forces Wright to make a final decision on her acting career. Fade way or remain onscreen as an A-list simulacrum. Huston’s casting may be a nod towards his role in Bernard Rose’s fuck you to Hollywood Ivans XTC (2000) which combined the tragic life of agent Jay Moloney with Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich.’ Here however the satire is laboured and feels inauthentic. Though he makes fair points about how the industry sidelines women over forty and audiences are complicit in their preference for younger stars Folman has never made a Hollywood movie and it shows. These kinds of attacks work better when those involved have done time there like Rose and have scores to settle.
Folman is on stronger ground adapting Lem’s story about a future where people imbibe chemicals allowing them to escape from reality into a fantasy world of their own construction. Both filmmaker and novelist share thematic interests. Waltz with Bashir is essentially a journey through Folman’s memories to uncover a moment lost to him. Likewise Lem’s work particularly in ‘Solaris’ deals with the hold the past can have over a person especially if loss is involved. Twenty years after signing away her career and letting her CGI replacement take over Wright is summoned to a meeting in an entirely animated world called Abrahama.
Though this place is supposed to represent a new medium replacing motion pictures Abrahama has the retro feel of a Twenties cocktail party and the look of the animation resembles the work of old cartoons. People take comfort in the past, turning themselves briefly into Hollywood idols, or in the case of a lovelorn computer programmer Dylan improving their own physicality by turning himself into a tall dark and handsome matinee idol lookalike. Dylan is affectingly voiced by Jon Hamm who possesses one of the loveliest and saddest voices around. As Wright searches for her missing children in this strange new world The Congress becomes another mesmerising waltz through a dreamscape, once again set to a haunting Max Richter score.
The Congress is bound to divide audiences and admittedly it can infuriate as well as mesmerise often in the same scene. Yet any film featuring Robin Wright singing Leonard Cohen tracks, impersonating Sterling Hayden, and confessing she may have married unsuitable men has my vote. The Congress also features a remarkable monologue delivered by Harvey Keitel which is at once a confession of betrayal and of love which is worth the price of a ticket alone. 
 
The Congress
Written by Ari Folman, 
based on ‘The Futurological Congress’ by Stanislaw Lem
Directed by Ari Folman
Running time 122 minutes
 
 

LFF 2013 – Mystery Road (Ivan Sen)

For years now Aboriginal actor Aaron Pedersen has been a charismatic presence on Australian TV shows like Water Rats, the recent Jack Irish adaptations, and a personal favourite of mine The Secret Life of Us. In Ivan Sen’s thriller Mystery Road.  Pedersen finally gets a leading role as a police detective returning home from the city to the dead-end outback town he left a decade earlier. Why Jay Snow (Pedersen) came back is anybody’s guess. Snow’s fellow officers patronise him and his own folk hate him for turning cop. There’s an ex-wife Mary (Tasma Walton) but she’s drinking her life away and angry at Snow for ignoring their daughter.
As with Jindabyne (2006, Ray Lawrence) the murder of a young Aboriginal woman causes conflict in a small town. While in Lawrence’s relocation of a Raymond Carver short story the killing causes much soul searching amongst the townsfolk here nobody seems to care. Found near the highway with her throat slashed the teenager was a drug addict who prostituted herself to passing truck drivers.
Snow is given no resources to investigate the murder even though there’s a long list of suspects including a kangaroo hunting sharpshooter (Ryan Kwanten), a drug pusher (Damian Walshe-Howling) preying on the Aboriginal community, and maybe even Snow’s enigmatic colleague Jonno (Hugo Weaving) who has a habit of turning up at inopportune moments. Weaving is exceptional as a man whose threatening nature is only slightly softened by his avuncular manner and whose wardrobe seems to consist entirely of faded denim sleeveless shirts.
Racial tensions simmering under the surface of everyday life and the marginalisation of indigenous Australians are placed within the framework of the Western genre. Like the US show Justified it is interested in how poverty in small deprived communities often forces people towards crime or finding an escape though drink and drugs. It’s no grim affair either with Sen’s screenplay providing a dry sense of humour and Pedersen’s understated performance holds the attention. When the inevitable showdown arrives it’s one of the finest shoot-outs in recent memory. An intense fifteen-minute exchange which is chaotic, messy, and unusually for an onscreen gun battle everybody involved seems to fear for their lives.
Sen’s slow burn approach burns a little too slowly and there is too much heavy handed symbolism on show. Occasionally the reliance on lengthy conversations with suspects makes the film feel a little too much like a television police procedural. Despite these minor flaws Mystery Road is engrossing and should provide both writer/director Sen and Aaron Pedersen with international breakthroughs. 
 
 
Mystery Road
Written and directed by Ivan Sen
Australia
2013
112 minutes
 
 

The Impossible – Screening Notes

“I will find them, I promise you that.”

The Impossible is based on the true story of the Alvaraz family and their incredible struggle to survive the Tsunami which devastated Thailand in 2004. Though the family’s nationality has been changed from Spanish to British the film is apparently a credible recreation of events. Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts play parents whose career worries fade into insignificance when they are separated from each other by the disaster. Henry (McGregor) is left with two of their boys, while eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) is swept away with Maria (Watts).
Director Juan Antonio Bayano made his feature debut with the creepy horror film The Orphanage (2007) and you can see the influence of that genre here. Bayano builds tension with close-ups of everyday objects being used (a juice blender, a ball bouncing) that coupled together with the ominous music seem to act as portents. The first act makes it very clear the devastating the effects of the Tsunami hitting the resort and the sound design department captures every crunching noise as trees are snapped like twigs, buildings demolished, and people dragged underwater. Camerawork is often handheld and used to disorient the viewer.
It would be unfair to reveal any more except to say after this powerful opening sequence the film becomes a journey through a ruined landscape as the survivors come together and try to find their own folk. While Watts received an Oscar nomination for her performance and McGregor also impresses young Tom Holland steals the film as the resourceful Lucas. There is also a striking but all too brief appearance from Geraldine Chaplin as a kindly stranger. The Impossible is a powerful but ultimately rewarding viewing experience. 


Written by Sergio G. Sánchez, Maria Bélon
Directed by Juan Antonio Bayano
Running time 114 mins

EIFF 2012 – Pusher (Luis Prieto)

“Frankie my friend, you owe me money.”


Sadly not a Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009, Werner Herzog) style reworking with the premise of an earlier film turned into something strange and new, this flashy remake moves the action from Copenhagen to London and mimics the style and plot of Nicolas Winding Refn‘s debut Pusher (1996, ) but fails to capture its emotional intensity. Frank (Richard Coyle) botches a drug deal after getting lifted by the police while carrying gear borrowed from amiable gangster Milo (once again played by Zlatko Burić who appeared in all three of Refn’s Pusher movies). While comparisons are inevitable Luis Prieto’s film remains watchable enough thanks to a charismatic turn from former Coupling star Coyle cast against type and the strength of Refn’s narrative which still grips from the moment Frank finds himself in trouble. 

There is plenty of gangster movie posturing in Refn’s movie but there was a sense these people had inner lives; that they existed outside the clichés of the genre. In one memorable sequence the towering Serbian enforcer Radovan (Slavko Labovic) spoke of his dream of retiring from a life of ripping out kneecaps and opening a restaurant. Most of the characters seemed trapped by their circumstances be it poverty or their involvement in crime. Moments of reflection are skimmed over in the remake. There is a hamfisted attempt at conveying the human cost of Frank’s trade with a harmless old shopkeeper being leaned on a little too heavily but when Prieto cuts to a close-up of a dog sadly observing the aftermath the effect is anything but subtle.


You could understand why Kim Bodnia’s Frank worked with Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen).  These two seemed like friends and Frank was a thug, smarter than Tonny but not by much. Coyle’s Frank is more intelligent and would surely figure Tony (Bronson Webb) for a liability long before he lands him in it.  While Coyle and Burić are effective the rest of the cast act like they are in an episode of The BillAgyness Deyn looks far too healthy for a woman who is supposed to be hooked on drugs and desperate to escape from her destructive lifestyle. Pusher 2012 is an interesting film to watch for long-time admirers of Refn, though a new entry in the series would have been preferable. The film is worth seeing however for Coyle, the impressive neon-tinged visuals by cinematographer Simon Dennis, and the score by Orbital. 

Coriolanus (2011, Ralph Fiennes) – DVD Review

“Go Get you home you fragments.”

Ralph Fiennes directorial debut sees him returning to a role he played on stage back in 2000. Together with Gladiator (Ridley Scott 2000) screenwriter John Logan, Fiennes has moved the action into a modern Balkans style war zone. Shakespeare’s play is one of his lesser known tragedies but its themes of public disaffection with the political process are certainly relevant to contemporary audiences. 

Coriolanus is a war hero whose refusal to play the political game leads to his downfall. Instead of being pragmatic and flattering the people Coriolanus is brutally honest with them. They hate him for it. You can see why Fiennes wanted to bring this play to the screen in an age where spin and public opinion now play a huge part in politics. The need to be seen to be doing and saying the right things nowadays is often more important than actually doing the right thing.

Fiennes worked with director of photography Barry Ackroyd on The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow 2008) and has brought him in here to lens similarly gritty action sequences. Coriolanus incorporates actual newsreel footage into its opening scenes and then uses extras to convey riot scenes and a dissenting populace. Unfortunately the Serbian locations recall the cheap and cheerless output of straight-to-DVD action stars like Jean Claude Van-Damme and Steven Seagal.

Fiennes is physically impressive as Coriolanus, looking every inch the warrior. Acting wise he is at his best in his quieter moments, but when he gets animated and carried away with his enunciating he sends spittle flying towards his co-stars. Vanessa Redgrave is formidable as his mother, but again this depends on how theatrical you like your acting. Surprisingly it is Gerard Butler who gives the best performance. Now it is quite possible Gerard Butler has never been in a theatre in his life, but that’s not a problem because here he brings movie star charisma and understatement to his role as Tullus Aufidius, deadly rival to Coriolanus.

Coriolanus will at least provide pupils studying Shakespeare at school a decent skive during English class, but it is a long way from the best Bard adaptations. Fiennes direction is workmanlike at best, though the approach taken to the play is intelligent. When Coriolanus is banished he swears revenge and seeks out Aufidius as an ally. These scenes of bromantic longing onscreen bring the film to life, but the rest is a chore.

Extras

Audio commentary with Ralph Fiennes and a making of documentary.