Monday, May 9, 2011

The Round-Up#45

Film Review: Thor: Take one of Marvel's least appealing comic-book characters, a mostly stellar cast who are in it for the paycheck, and a stylish director who doesn't know what kind of movie, exactly, he's trying to make, and you get Thor, a bizarre if entertaining near train-wreck of a film.

The story: a prince named Thor, who is next in line to become King of Asgard, a realm of demi-gods and magic, is banished to Earth after defying his father the king's orders and starting a war with a breed of monstrous being called the Ice Giants. After arriving to Earth without his powers or Hammer of The Gods, Thor unites with a meteorologist to try to find a way to get back to his realm, Asgard, which is on the brink of annihilation due to his treacherous brother's nefarious plans.

Director Kenneth Brannagh, who claims to be a huge fan of the comic-books, doesn't know how to handle the campy material and the thin storyline. And despite creating a couple of stunning action sequences, the second half the film devolves into a juvenile, over-plotted, incoherent mess, with over-the-top dialogue and failed attempts to turn the story into a sort of tragic fantasy.

So what is there to like about Thor? There is the previously mentioned action sequences, some marvellous production design, and the pleasure of watching a bloated, yet strangely naive, blockbuster directed by a talented filmmaker who is trying his best to turn what's basically a campy action-fantasy film into something better, and failing to do so. Next up for Thor, The Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon. So let's hope he fares better in that one!

Book Review: Dracula: Asylum by Paul Witcover: Designed as a sequel to Universal's infamous 1931 film adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, starring the immortal Bela Lugosi, Dracula: Asylum is a rare book, in that it took me by surprise. As a huge fan of the 1931 film directed by Tod Browning, I sought out the book primarily due to it being an official sequel to that film, expecting a fun, quick read, with a thick-accented Dracula roaming the streets of London, drinking blood and spouting one-liners. What I got was something else entirely.

Author Paul Witcover uses the 1931 film and Stoker's novel as a starting point and then proceeds to transcend both, with a novel so well-written, so ambitious in its complexity and ideas, that it becomes a masterpiece of dark fantasy that manages to achieve the impossible: Add a new twist to the Dracula mythos.

The book takes place in London during WWI, following Dr. Lisa Watson, a psychiatrist who is transferred to the Seward Sanitarium for shell-shocked British soldiers, hoping to help her fiancée get back his memory, which he's lost due to the traumatic experiences he suffered in battle. Now he thinks himself Sherlock Holmes and doesn't remember anything about his true identity. Meanwhile, in the catacombs of the asylum, Renfield, who is still alive, but has become a mentally damaged mute, discovers that the corpse of Count Dracula, his master, is still there, with a stake through its heart, waiting to be revived. So he pulls out the stake, reviving the dark Count, and all hell breaks loose, as Dracula, whose slumber for the past twenty years has strengthened his psychic powers, plans to destroy the world.

Although the above synopsis doesn't do the story justice, the less told about the twists, turns and revelations of the plot, the better. Suffice it to say that if you think you know where the story is going, think again, as Witcover has a multitude of ideas and surprises under his sleeve, and, with his rich, stylized Gothic prose, lays them out one by one, continuously delving into darker psychological territory. Witcover's Dracula is the most cunning, malevolent version of the Count since Bram Stoker's; an evil, shrewd master of darkness and manipulation who is much more dangerous than previously thought. This Dracula's evil is almost biblical in scope. While the main characters, Lisa and Denis, are three-dimensional and flawed, and Witcover allows us to go under their skin to see the light and darkness within them.

Despite the novel's overly dark tone and Witcover's lifting of a couple of ideas from the films They Might Be Giants and Dracula 2000, the writing is so rich, the attention to detail so admirable, the story so original and well-plotted, that this novel deserves to be called a masterpiece of dark fantasy that transcends genres. And, if there's any justice in the world, it should become a classic.

Extra! Dracula's Daughter: This edition's Extra! selection is the 1936 film Dracula's Daughter, the sequel to the 1931 classic film starring Bela Lugosi. Dark, disturbing, and surprisingly daring for its time, this stylish film directed by Lambert Hillyer is worth re-discovering.

That's it for me. Till next time, keep browsing those shelves.

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