The Mummy (2017)

The new Mummy has less to do with the Brendan Fraser Mummy than it does with Universal’s new attempt to dredge up its old monster movies and weave them together into a new “Dark Universe.” With that in mind, one might it expect it to bear some resemblance to the original Mummy movie, from back in the Universal monster golden age. Not so much.

While those born in the first half of the twentieth century filled their nightmares with Frankenstein and the Wolfman, I filled my young head with another terrifying revenant: the Latin language. Lucky for me, that’s exactly where this movie begins.

It’s A.D. 1127 and what looks like a bunch of Templars are droning out a dark and mysterious chant deep under the surface of Rome, as they bury their comrade with an ominously blood-red gem. At least, I’m sure that was the intended mood and effect. All I heard was “panem nostrum quotidianem, da nobis hodie,” and just about burst out laughing. Their “ominous chant” was the Lord’s Prayer, which I’m pretty sure most Latin students start chanting in the third grade.

That set the tone for the whole movie. Folks, this is a Tom Cruise flick, where he does the airplane thing he did in the last Tom Cruise flick. The trailers tried so hard to make that epic, and so hard to impress you with—wait for it—a girl Mummy. Also, there was voiceover from Russell Crowe, and Paint it Black was playing, so it was pretty much designed to draw audiences in the cheapest way possible. I went in expecting a flat, poorly made flick that would basically serve no purpose beyond fueling my popcorn addiction.

Well, this was no Wonder Woman, but I was pleasantly surprised.

This movie deserves to be rifftraxed, and not because it’s that bad, but because that’s how seriously it takes itself. Like its flawless namesake, the “present” timeline starts out with our hero and his sidekick in the Middle Eastern desert facing down gunfire from the locals. The sidekick, though, is no Benny. He honestly belongs in a comedy movie set on a beach somewhere. He reminds me of Owen Wilson in the Shanghai Noon movies, or Steve Zahn in Sahara. He exists for witty banter and to show us how reckless Tom Cruise is—until he goes Obi Wan in the most hilarious way possible. I’ll let you figure what that means.

Tom Cruise, by the way, is a guy that always gets my views, but more out of sympathy and nostalgia than anything else. He’s kind of a nut, but he’s also Ethan Hunt, and Mission: Impossible was my kind of movie back in the day. Anyways, he plays the same Tom Cruise he plays in every other Tom Cruise movie, but the writers actually gave him enough character to make this Tom Cruise seriously flawed and kind of sleazy, and definitely in need of a redemption arc, which the movie is certainly ready to provide. Like Brendan Fraser’s O’Connell, this is a hero frequently played for laughs, though the humor is somewhat more adult, seeing as it’s largely based on an undead Egyptian princess wanting to turn him into her lover from beyond the grave.

The other half of the adult humor and of the redemption arc is, for me, the most disappointing character in the movie—the Hollywood-pretty archeologist “Jenny.” That’s about all there is to her character. I don’t know why Cruise has a crush on her, but he does, and that factors into the redemption arc. It also factors into the unexpected moment where Jenny is told to run. I immediately thought of Forrest Gump, because, like I said, this movie deserves a rifftrax.

And it really does. There is a deliberate and direct allusion to this video, played totally straight. Ish.

But all this humor is only oddly out of place because the movie is so often kind of dark. Cruise’s character is seriously flawed, and we’re not a third of the way through the movie before he is dead. Then, in a moment that should have been accompanied by pop-goes-the-weasel music, and was in my theater, he returns to life. But the lingering implication the whole time is that if the Mummy is put down, he’s going to be dead again. He wants redemption, and there’s a time limit to it.

The darkness lies in other areas as well. There is betrayal and implied horrific torture by people that are sort of the good guys. Things go badly wrong towards the finale, and Cruise’s redemption may be farther away than he anticipated. Also, a baby is murdered just off-screen in flashbacks. Twice. And this is referred to multiple times throughout.

So the humor and the darkness play against each other oddly, and so does the cast. If Tom Cruise were the only big star here, this might be a cheap studio action flick. But Tom Cruise gets played off Russell Crowe, whose role forces him to be far zanier than I expected. These two get stuck in a room together several times, but in one scene it’s just them, and it’s like a battle of the stars. They play off each other in very distinctive ways, chew up scenery, and that alone was worth the price of admission.

But the real surprise was Sofia Nutella Boutella as Amunet. I was expecting the role to give her far less acting and far more sauntering down exploding London streets. Turns out her face is a window into a dark universe inhabited by the Platonic forms of bitterness, anger, sorrow, and vengeance. In the Brendan Fraser Mummy, Imhotep was intimidating because he was taller than you and had supernatural powers. In this one, it’s because she radiates all sorts of emotions that boil down to “I am sorry, but you are very dead.” It was very appropriately haunting.

In the midst of the darkness, the humor, and the heavyweight acting, the themes of this one are also a bit more hefty than I expected. They really are worried about death, and about redemption. Neither is as much of a driving force of the movie as I would like—it really is an action flick. But it’s there.

And that really sums it up. This is a movie that is not grand, not a classic. But it really does try. It has a lot of character, a very distinct flavor that makes you want to like it. It’s hilarious, and occasionally moving, and pretty darn coherent up until the climax. Even after that, it stumbles into a recovery that made me genuinely look forward to future Dark Universe movies. If you’ve got money to burn and evening to waste, this is not a bad place to waste it.

Unless, of course, you haven’t seen Wonder Woman yet, and could be watching that. In which case, that’s clearly what you need to be doing.

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Wonder Woman

I saw Wonder Woman last night. After @jenningsaxfl voiced his disappointment, and @GKRaptorton said this was as expected, I rose to its defense. They asked for a review. Here it is, relatively spoiler-free, and short. By my standards.

 

I went into Wonder Woman expecting two things: feminism and cheap action thrills.

Given the superhero in question, and the current cultural climate, I expected Wonder Woman to be a story about girl power and the flaws inherent in mankind (males), who would of course have been ruining the world in the absence of sensible warrior-queen leadership. That’s not what I got at all.

This is not to say WW is not feminist in the sense of being something else. How could an Amazon heroine be anything but? It’s simply that the movie is just not that concerned with those themes. Instead, the differences between a woman-only and a male-dominated society is mostly played for laughs as Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor and Gal Gadot’s Diana get to know one another in the context of their two subsequent fish-out-of-water experiences. Even when she proved more capable in combat than any of the men in the “world of men,” it was not used to make a point about women being equally capable, but just like another super-powered human in a world of mere mortals.

So the first thing I began to notice was the degree to which it wasn’t feminist. The second was the way it played to my Mummy-loving heart.

A bit of context: I realize The Mummy is not the best film ever created, and it’s certainly not deep, but it’s easily one of my favorite. I’m a big fan of exploring strange worlds, of high adventure with a competent crew of odd individuals, played as much for self-deprecating humor as it is for the thrill of chase scenes and shootouts. I haven’t seen a lot that hits those notes and does it well since The Mummy. It’s kind of my gold standard for this sort of thing, I’d given up expecting something in the twenty-teens to give me that.

Wonder Woman did. Themyscira was a strange, interesting place. The architecture was very Greek, and the climate was very Mediterranean, which I suppose was to be expected, but it felt like somebody actually enjoyed creating that world. The Amazons have a weird semi-mythic, semi-scifi flair to their civilization, besides the weirdness of being women-only, that made it absolutely fascinating to try and figure out.

Then you throw in Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor. In many ways, he’s just the Chris Pine we’re used to. But Chris Pine is exactly the sort of heroic yet self-deprecatingly humorous presence that can capture something like what Brendan Fraser did in The Mummy. He goes through his fish-out-of-water tale, which I find to be pretty fresh. It doesn’t go for a lot of obvious jokes, and the ones it goes for are played pretty well.

Now Diana is really interesting to me. She’s got this thirst to see combat and to be a hero that I can very much relate to, having, y’know, been a kid once. What’s interesting is the way that’s played as maybe unhealthy, but more importantly, naïve. This kid does not understand what war is. She does not know what it means, what it costs, the ugliness of death and destruction, the darkness in humanity it exposes. She has never seen the darkness of humanity. She naively believes that all war can be ascribed to the influence of Ares, and that when he is killed, war will end. She believes mankind is basically good.

Now I don’t want to go into detail, but this is the heart of the movie. It’s not about girl power, though there are powerful girls. It’s not about dudes being sleezeballs. It’s about the darkness in humanity, the sin nature, and Diana’s coming to grips with its existence. It’s not played how you might expect—she doesn’t lose her ideals the moment she hears about dead civilians, or the first time she sees cowardly generals, or the first time she’s exposed to the horrors of WWI’s trench warfare and killing technology. Remember, she has Ares to blame for that. Or so she thinks.

But beyond the confrontation with what a Christian would call sin nature, there is the question of what to do about that. Wonder Woman has godlike powers, and the nature of the story allows her to do things for humanity no one else can. When she finally does realize what humans are, she has to decide what to do about it. That’s where this movie gets even more theological.

Now I’m going to back away from spoilers. I also got pretty deep into the themes of the movie, which really come out in the latter half, even if the groundwork is well-laid for it early on.

The first half consists of a lot more Mummy-style high adventure. London is as strange and foreign a world as Themyscira, and Diana has her own fish-out-of-water story to go through. There’s a ragtag band of scoundrels to be assembled, including a Scottish sniper with PTSD, an American Indian smuggler, and a lovable Middle-Eastern rogue who is the Lando of this feature, but with Benny from The Mummy’s hat. This movie’s got fights in alleys, sneaking into fancy German castles and scary German munitions factories, undercover dances at galas, aerial combat, ridiculous low-tier villains, a respectable boss, explosions, good fight choreography—it’s just a fantastic adventure.

But there’s one last element I want to mention, and that’s the romance. I kind of expected there to very pointedly not be one, because Diana’s a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man. That’s not what happened. Nor is there some sort of role reversal where instead of the girl always being the damsel, the guy is always being the damsel. Nor is she put off by his having her back in battle. She respects it and thanks him for it.

This is actually a love story, absent of any tortured gender politics that might have been inserted. There is some mild battle-of-the-sexes stuff, but it’s in the context of two people who fall in love in a very traditional way, with very traditional iconography. And it’s not shallow, either. There’s humor to cultural gap between them, but there’s also a lot of humanity to her soon-to-be-crushed idealism and his deeply scarred knowledge of the horrors of war and of human nature, but his willingness to keep fighting despite that. They have a common mission, not just in the literal movie sense, but in the sense of the kind of people they are. They are, dare I say it, helpers meet for each other. A complementary pair. And it’s moving, and tender, and also features mad suicidal dashes through no-man’s land. I like it.

So there you have it. This movie was far less political and far deeper than I expected. It was also a lively adventure in strange places with fun characters, theologically interesting, and rounded out with a dash of good old-fashioned romance. It is what Marvel wishes it could be, and what I never thought DC would become. Thanks to this movie, I am actually going to walk into Justice League with a smile on my face.

And if that doesn’t tell you something, I don’t know what will.

The Count and the Camera (Part One)

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a fantastic book, well worth reading in its own right, and doubly significant in light of the way it introduced the vampire to the popular culture. I recently listened through a series of lectures on the novel given by Corey Olsen, otherwise known as the Tolkien Professor. In the course, he first takes the listener through the book itself, and then through five film incarnations of the infamous count’s reign of terror. In each telling we see wildly different takes on vampirism, Dracula’s character and motivations, the significance of Christian imagery, and the characters of erstwhile victims as presented in the original novel.

Here is a quick refresher on the plot of the novel. Clerk Jonathan Harker goes to Transylvania to help a reclusive count buy property in England. While there, he discovers that the count is a monstrous bloodsucking fiend, and he is held hostage for over a month until making a miraculous escape. Meanwhile, in England, Jonathan’s fiancée, Mina, corresponds with her friend, Lucy. Lucy is proposed to three times in one day. Her first two suitors are an insane asylum doctor, John Seward, and an adventurer from Texas, Quincy Morris. She accepts the proposal of the third, Arthur Holmwood, soon to inherit the title of Lord Godalming. Into this mess comes Dracula, who drains Lucy of blood over the course of weeks, killing her and turning her into a vampire. Dutch renaissance man Abraham Van Helsing correctly diagnoses the cause and drags the three suitors and the recently recovered Jonathan Harker into a hunt for the count. Soon Mina is bitten by the vampire, but they drive him back to Transylvania, where our heroes pursue him back to the castle and dispatch him, thus redeeming our damsel in distress.

Keep all this in mind, because the film guys are going to take that plot and go nuts with it.

Bela Lugosi: The Definitive Dracula

The 1931 Dracula is the version every American is born knowing, even if they’ve never seen it. Do you imagine Dracula as a tall man in a suit and cape with a high collar? You can thank Universal Pictures. That weird accent you associate with Dracula? One hundred percent pure Bela Lugosi. Is the Dracula in your head clean-shaven? Don’t thank Bram Stoker, thank director Tod Browning and the 1931 Dracula.

And this version of Dracula is definitive for a good reason. From start to finish, this movie is nonstop tension and chilling atmosphere. All the chief actors got their start on the stage, and they have a presence that doesn’t depend on camera angles, multiple takes, and a well-done cut to captivate audiences. Aware of this, and relying on it, the director allows the camera to linger on each character, soaking up their every expression, their every stance, their every movement. Lines are delivered with an unhurried deliberateness that draws the audience in, and the occasional pause allows the characters to size each other up.

One scene in particular highlights this—a heart-stopping battle between Van Helsing and Dracula. Where later movies are quick to give us hand-to-hand combat, gunfights, or special effects, both budget and artistry pushed the 1931 version towards a far different scene. Dracula’s hypnotic powers play a major part in this adaptation. When he discovers that Van Helsing is quite aware of what he is, they engage in verbal sparring before Dracula simply tries to tame him with psychic power. The viewer watches, spellbound, as the doctor tries to resist with nothing more than his will. Such an unseen struggle relies heavily on the skill of the actors, and both these men deliver.

Of course, neither this scene nor the rest of the movie would be half so tense if it were not for the score that backs it. Behind Dracula’s every glowing-eyed gaze, behind every attempt to resist him, behind the battles of will and the trips to crypts in castles and in Carfax abbey—behind it all lies the steady thrum of strings, the inevitable piercing high notes that sound as if a scream had become a refrain in a song of horror. At times, the score is so powerful it seems like we are watching an early music video instead of an early movie. Yet, as overwhelming as that eerie tune is, it only adds to the overall tension of film.

The story is, oddly enough, a far less interesting one than in either the novel or in most other Dracula adaptations. Based on a stage play that was itself a reworking of Stoker’s own stage version, it has cut out many of the characters and most of the locations. It is Renfield, rather than Harker, who visits Castle Dracula. Arthur and Quincy are gone, Lucy’s part is reduced, and Mina is Dr. Seward’s daughter. The narrative is thus simplified, and in some ways does not make a whole lot of sense. Very little is added in the way of themes or iconography, and much that was in the book is muted. Yet despite all this, the film still succeeds as a film.

In the clearing away of the story, we may have lost the complex portraits of the characters and their journeys that existed in the novel, but we are given instead something else very worth having. That haunting tableau of Castle Dracula, with the silent emergence of the count and his brides from their tombs, and the slow procession towards the upper world—we have time for that. We lose travel notes and discussions of science, folklore, and theology—but we gain Renfield’s long introduction to the broken ruin, and the count’s lines delivered in such a lingering, strange, powerful, and ultimately iconic fashion.

“I do not drink…wine.”

“Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.”

I… am Dracula.”

And indeed, he is Dracula. Everything this movie does have is presented with such care, cultivating a mood of rising tension, of creeping horror, that the images haunt your memory long after you have forgotten the plot. And in so doing, it’s fantastic. Watching this, from the silent stares to the slow advances, it’s no wonder it struck a chord with pop culture, and no wonder Bela Lugosi became known as the master—the definitive Hollywood Count Dracula.

The Horror of Dracula: The Hunt for Christopher Lee

This movie is absurdly cool—but cool in a very 1950’s way.

Nosferatu and Lugosi gave us Dracula on the silver screen in a time when movies—and talkies—were becoming a very big thing. Lugosi’s version of the count in particular took pop culture by storm, inspiring Universal to make five more movies featuring the caped creeper over the next twenty years. By the time Hammer Films decided to try their hand at the tale, the vampire was no longer new to movie-going audiences and Dracula himself was a household name. There was a risk the whole thing was going stale. If they were going to be successful, they would have to adopt very different tactics.

And they did.

The movie begins in a manner far closer to the novel than either the 1931 version or Nosferatu. It is actually Jonathan Harker who goes to meet the count, and we are told this in a voiceover of his diary—the same epistolary format as the book. But things quickly turn in another direction. Jonathan is not here to help Dracula with real estate matters, but to organize his library. He is, it seems, a renowned librarian. Dracula himself is a dashing Christopher Lee, without any of Lugosi’s affectations, who welcomes Jonathan in a business-like manner to a very clean and well-kept castle. He leads him up to his room, and departs.

Then comes the reveal. As Jonathan scribbles away in his diary, the voiceover informs us that this is all an elaborate ruse. He is here to infiltrate Dracula’s castle and, “forever end this man’s reign of terror.” Cut to a caped Christopher Lee billowing down the pathway outside. Like he owns the place. Darth Vader, eat your heart out.

So Jonathan is apparently a man on a mission, a genuine vampire hunter. This was not a profession that existed in the previous major films, and I’m tempted to think this one invented it. Harker has no personal stakes in this struggle that we know of, but plenty of stakes for Dracula and his bride. (puns) As he sets about exploring the villain’s lair, there is an encounter with a bride of Dracula—parallel to the encounter with three of them in the book—but it results in Jonathan’s own vampirization. Yes, our protagonist is down halfway through the movie. Now you know they’re serious. Just like Hitchcock. This, by the way, includes the all-time best surprised Dracula face, and the fact that it’s not a meme disgusts me.

The second half of the film shifts to Van Helsing. Van Helsing, like Jonathan, is a more or less professional vampire hunter, who has studied with some of the greatest authorities in Europe on the matter. He explains this to Arthur while donning his shnazzy suit jacket. Everybody in this movie has a shnazzy suit with a shnazzy jacket. Arthur was somewhat skeptical, but confronted with Jonathan’s diary and the oh-so-impressive monologue of the world’s most confident, most British Van Helsing, he has to relent.

The sheer, respectable, professional, 1950’s coolness of Harker and Van Helsing is of course matched by Christopher Lee for the remainder of the film. He has no more speaking lines, instead electing to run around in his cape, brooding and looking remarkably youthful in comparison to the middle-aged monster hunters. The sexual reading of vampirism starts bleeding in here, with Dracula’s victims looking both excited and terrified as they throw open their windows and await the coming of their tall, dark, and handsome visitor. After transformation, the ladies also adopt a far saucier countenance than the blank-eyed victims of Lugosi’s era.

Again, this film is decidedly 1950’s. You can see this in the competent, take-charge menfolk, in the somewhat mindless and helpless women around them, and in the dangerousness of the handsome youth who comes around to turn their quiet domestic scene on its head. But you can also see it in the way religious elements are handled.

The novel constantly contrasted the Eucharist with Dracula’s anti-communion, and Christ’s self-sacrifice and giving of life with Dracula’s parasitic feeding on the life of others. On the one hand we have a holy resurrection, on the other an unholy, eternal un-death. This movie keeps the imagery of the cross and its ability to repel the vampire, but robs of it of its distinctly Christian meaning. We are explicitly told that it strength comes not from being a depiction of the bodily sacrifice of Christ, but from the fact that it is a symbol of the generic, “power of good over evil.” In a very 1950’s way, Christian imagery is kept as a cultural symbol of goodness, but robbed of any specific religious content. Because, of course, if we paid too much attention to specifics—say, the difference between a Protestant cross and a Catholic crucifix—then we might have sectarian conflict. And we can’t have that. If we have that, the commies win.

Speaking of crosses and crucifixes, the ending of this movie is just as cool as everything that goes before. Van Helsing has a showdown with Dracula in serious fight scene reminiscent of early action movies. The central portion of the climax was actually so horrific that it was cut from most releases, and only re-inserted later. The final shots are also filled with significance, but I’m not quite sure what said significant shots signify. Let’s just say you can’t do certain things with the set and the camera and not mean something by it.

A few things are notably different from the book: no Quincy, Seward, or Renfield. Harker and Holmwood swap wives. Also, Lucy is Mina’s sister. Everything is in Germany, or maybe Austria. Even the Romanian location uses its German name. There is one vampire bride, not three, and her relationship to Dracula is a bit more ambiguous. Dracula never transforms, and is probably a freak of nature rather than a freak of supernature. Nobody weeps, and everyone is cool.

Overall, this was a very fun spin on the Dracula tale. It was far less interesting than Nosferatu, and far less iconic than Lugosi. It spawned eight sequels, six starring Christopher Lee, and is exactly the kind of 1950’s horror movie that would. Pop some popcorn, grab a coke, and watch this one with your good buddies or your spouse. Just don’t go in expecting something deep. All it wants to be is cool, and it succeeds.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula: The Metal Twilight

Do not take your kids to see this. Maybe don’t take yourself. For decades academics have insisted that Dracula is all about sex, and Francis Ford Coppola is the man who set out to prove them right.

The premise of Bram Stoker’s Dracula—a wildly inaccurate title if ever there was one—is that Dracula’s entire vampiric existence is motivated by the loss of his one true love, the princess Elisabeta. In life he was a warrior for the cross, who set out against overwhelming odds to face the might of an invading Turkish army. He succeeds, but his enemies trick Elisabeta into believing that Dracula has died, and she plunges to her death from the castle walls into the river far below. Upon learning this, the count renounces God and politely informs some priests that he will rise from the grave with all the powers of darkness to avenge his lost love. They are understandably taken aback. As is Winona Ryder when she finds out that she is Elisabeta reincarnate, and Dracula has come all the way from Transylvania just for her.

Before I kick this puppy, let me say some nice things about it. The cast is fantastic. Dracula is Gary Oldman at his best—and Gary Oldman has to be at his best here. He plays old Dracula, young Dracula, three kinds of monster Dracula, good Dracula (kinda), in love Dracula (definitely), distraught Dracula, arrogant Dracula, and angry Dracula. Every Dracula in the book. Opposite him is Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing, very pointedly hunting down a cannibal the year after he played the iconic Hannibal the Cannibal. Winona Ryder, playing opposite the count in a very different sense, is Mina/Elisabeta. Cary Elwes makes a delightfully punchable Arthur, and Keanu Reaves is a terrible but amusing Jonathan Harker. The cast is great, and this was the only one that messed with the pictures of the characters I had in my head.

In addition to an awesome cast, this movie was finely crafted. Francis Ford Coppola paid extraordinary attention to all sorts of visual minutiae. One cut brings us from a woodcut of Dracula dining on his enemies to Dracula waiting for Mina at a fancy restaurant. Another has Dracula rise dramatically from the grave just before Lucy flies down the steps in the same screen-space shouting, “I love him!” Over the course of the movie, Mina’s dress and hairstyle slowly change to more closely resemble Elisabeta’s from the flashbacks, and her seduction by Dracula is intercut with her fiancée falling into the river below Dracula’s castle. The attention to detail is stunning—from the opening flashback to the closing Christological imagery. A+, Francis.

But when I compare this to Twilight, I’m not joking. Dracula is, in this movie, quite the heartthrob. The central thread is a tragic love story, from the frenzied despair of the count’s renunciation of God, to the struggle between his desire to be reunited with his love and his fear of condemning her to an eternity of torment. Mina too is caught between her love of the monstrous count and the life she chose before he came along, before he made her realize who she was. Dracula is driven by the agony of love lost, and his entire performance is charged with both bestial sexuality and a more tender, human passion. If only Gary Oldman could sparkle.

That bestial sexuality absolutely destroyed the other characters. For the only time on this list, every major character from the book is present in the film adaptation, but most are unrecognizable. Lucy has become an innuendo-dropping, constantly topless sex kitten, absolutely delighted by the range of men fawning over her. While she adores Quincy’s big… knife (not my joke), she apparently prefers Arthur’s wallet. The three suitors are all apparently there just for her skankiness, and any trace of their honorable character or respect for Lucy as a person is entirely removed. Mina, by the way, wishes she could be more like Lucy, and have all the boys fawning over her. She is, in fact, deeply disappointed with her Jonathan, who insists on waiting until their wedding night. What a shmuck.

You might expect Van Helsing to bring more of an adult presence and sense of restraint to these randy young folks. You would be wrong. Anthony Hopkins’ Van Helsing is something of a dirty old man, though a more defining trait is his cold-heartedness. He does not care about Lucy, feeling free to belittle her after her death, and shows no compunction about needlessly distressing Mina. A grandfatherly figure in the book, here he is more monstrous than the vampire he hunts. Which is, one suspects, exactly the point. This adaptation is designed to humanize Dracula, and what better way than by making his chief antagonist as unsympathetic as possible? Those with a keen eye, by the way, will find what appears to be Hopkins in another unsympathetic role earlier in the film.

By that standard—rendering Dracula sympathetic—does this movie work? I’m not sure. In some ways, most definitely. Gary Oldman lends a whole lot of complexity and nuance to the character, and the film definitely puts the tragic love story up front. That defines the count far more than his vampirism. However, his vampirism, because it is sexual, is far more rapey than in other adaptations. One might object that Lucy clearly appeared willing, but this doesn’t help. Even ignoring his psychic whammy powers, that only turns the apparent rape into a very creepy liaison with a woman who is most definitely not Elisabeta. And judging by his harem back at the castle, Dracula apparently thinks nothing of regularly sleeping around on his beloved, and this continues well after he realizes who Mina is. Are we supposed to think his love is as powerful as he pretends? His faithlessness cheapens his character, and Mina’s own flakiness when it comes to her two lovers doesn’t make me want to root for her either. If that makes me stodgy and old-fashioned… I don’t really have a problem with that. Rape’s not cool, and neither is sleeping around on your lady.

Overall, I was fascinated, repulsed, and ultimately disappointed. Francis Ford Coppola made an excellent film, but one that gutted the characters of all the chivalry and virtue they possessed in the book. His project—making us sympathize with Dracula—is interesting, but could have been done in a far less slimy way. I feel like I got the same sort of mixed messages one gets from watching Fight Club. Maybe the lesson wasn’t supposed to be “love justifies being a dirtbag,” but it sure feels like that’s what we came away with. So overall, much respect, but no thanks.

Stay tuned for a very different take on vampirism, and a very different kind of sympathetic portrayal. Nosferatu, Dracula 2000, and Shadow of the Vampire will be dealt with in Part Two.

Aronofsky’s Noah

Last night I had the pleasure of watching Darren Aronofsky’s Noah on the big screen over in Pullman.

I entered the theater with the highest of hopes, and a great deal of trepidation. The past several months, and the past week in particular, has featured an unceasing onslaught of uncharitable pre-reviews, quotes taken out of context to damn the director, and pure, irrational, outrage and hatred. Christians who a few weeks before had gathered together to proclaim their loud support for L’oreal Jesus in a hastily re-cut movie salvaged from what was meant to be an entire season’s worth of Gospel retelling, spewed bile at a skilled director who was absolutely in love with the story he wanted to present, and who had spent decades working up to it. We neither knew this, nor cared to find out. The truth of the situation was not our concern next to the necessity of cheering on our team in the culture wars.

So I went in hoping Aronofsky would give us the movie he promised, and that the mudslinging that lead up to its release would be as unfounded as it appeared. I was not disappointed. The following is my reading of the movie, heavy on spoilers.

The Garden

A child of the Piney Woods, I have always loved the creation narrative and the image of an unspoiled garden paradise. Likewise, man’s sin and fall from grace, and the slow unraveling of the world around him as death spreads its hands over creation has always resonated with me. Aronofsky takes this vision and makes it come to life. The original garden world was green and beautiful, filled with plant and animal life, untouched by evil. Then man’s taking of the fruit changed everything.

One of the slanders running around the interwebs was that Aronofsky’s take on the fall was an environmentalist screed; that man’s original sin was abusing the earth. That is far from the truth. In Noah we have a picture of mankind disobeying the Creator, an ever-present figure, and being cast out as a result. The corruption of the environment occurs as a result of original sin, but is not the sin itself. Nor is it the only major thread windings its way through the narrative. Just as prominent, if not more so, is the story of Cain and Abel, of a man killing his brother. Yes, the post-Fall world is one where man exploits the earth, but it is also one where man kills man.

In the Bible, this is indeed how the story goes. Man is supposed to tend the garden, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and take dominion over it. He fails at this, and his failure brings thorns and thistles on the ground, and death to animal and human life. His days become occupied with sweating to make a living, not with beautifying creation. And as man descends further into sin, he kills brothers and strangers, builds proto-Babels, and establishes a name for himself on the earth. When man sins, both mankind and the creation he was meant to tend are corrupted.

A Man of Vision

Our hero is Noah, the son of Lamech, the last of the good line of Seth in a world overwhelmed by the sons of Cain. He is troubled by visions and dreams, not explicit voices, but the tapestries of symbol Aronofsky is so good at weaving. Noah understands that these are communications from God, but struggles to interpret their meaning. Shaken, he travels on a long journey across the wasted earth to visit the green mountain of his grandfather, Methuselah. After a strange and wonderful trip, and a powerful encounter with the excellent Anthony Hopkins, he is sure of what is to come. God is sending a Flood to cleanse the earth of sinful man. Noah must build an ark to save the innocent—the animals.

Justice And Mercy

It is at this point the central themes of the movie come to the fore. Noah and his family believe that the animals are innocents brought down by man’s sin, and that the whole world of rebellious mankind, the sinful sons of Cain, deserves to be wiped off the earth. Early on in the movie, Noah’s view of the innocence of his own family is somewhat ambiguous. While they are penitent and faithful, the righteous in a world of the wicked, they too share in Adam’s curse. The assumption is that they will be saved, but Noah’s young sons have no wives, and the orphaned girl they rescued was wounded in the belly and will never bear children. Perhaps mankind will be saved, but the guarantee of that salvation lies uncomfortably in the future.

As the pace accelerates, the issues grow more serious. The young girl, now aged into Emma Watson, is madly in love with Shem, Noah’s eldest. It is clear, however, that her wound was serious, and they will have no children. Shem’s younger brother, Ham, is old enough now to feel the pangs of loneliness. He has no wife, and as a member of the last faithful family, he wonders whether God will provide one. Japheth is too young for such concerns, but Noah’s wife is clearly worried. Noah himself tells Ham not to worry, that God will provide.

As miracles accumulate and birds and beasts flock to the forest which sprang up overnight to provide Noah with lumber, the sons of Cain and their king, Tubal-Cain, make the journey over the wastes to see what is happening. Tubal-Cain, the grizzled old warrior who slew Noah’s father and stole a relic of the garden from him, discovers who this mad prophet is, and the nature of his mission, and demands admission into the ark for himself and the crowds who travel with them. Noah refuses. God has judged mankind, and they must die. There will be no escape for the sons of Cain. Tubal-Cain and his armies retreat into the forest and prepare for war.

It would be a shame if I went any farther without mentioning the Watchers. The Watchers are angels who saw mankind cast out of the garden and descended to the earth to help them. As punishment for leaving their posts and aiding the rebels, God encrusted these spirits of light in the molten rock of the earth. Nevertheless, the Watchers continued to help man. But soon the full extent of man’s corruption became obvious as their cities spread, they consumed the raw flesh of living animals, and went to war among each other. The Watchers retreated to the wastelands and rested until Noah came, building his ark. They see he was sent by the Creator to deliver the earth from wicked man, and immediately begin to help him. At this point they have repented of their own rebellion, recognize the sinfulness of man, and seek to do the will of the Creator. It is they who help build the ark, and scare Tubal-Cain away.*

As the time for the Flood draws near, Noah goes down into the enemy camp to rescue some starving girls and bring them back to the ark as wives for his sons. While there, he has a vision of himself among the starving, cannibalistic, murderous masses. The vision-Noah flees into a corner, tears into a miscellaneous chunk of flesh, and then looks up at the dreaming-Noah and snarls. Horrified, Noah returns to the ark, no women in tow. Ham is disappointed and Noah’s wife is confused. Later they have a conversation at the door of the ark. All men are sinful, even the apparently righteous sons of Seth. God may not destroy them in the Flood, but there will be no wives, and the barren Ila (Emma Watson) will have no children. The race of man must die out with this family.

This becomes a crucial turning-point in the narrative. On the one side is the army of Tubal-Cain stressing the autonomy, self-will, and supremacy of mankind in a universe where the Creator has abandoned them. On the other is faithful Noah, committed to obeying God whatever the cost to himself, or mankind. Torn between them is Noah’s family, acknowledging man’s sin and the necessity of the cleansing Flood, but horrified at the prospect of a long life alone ending in the death of mankind—a new Eden for animals and the earth, but not for man.

This, I believe, is the central theme of Aronofsky’s retelling: mankind is worthy of being obliterated, but will God follow through with it? Will he have mercy? Should he? Obviously, we know how the story ends. God delivers Noah, and delivers mankind. And that is a powerful statement. To Aronofsky, that is what the story is about: mercy and justice:

“So, why go through this? What is the reason for it? To me, that’s what’s powerful about it. It’s meant as a lesson. It’s poetry that paints images about the second chance we’ve been given, that even though we have original sin and even though God’s acts are justified, He found mercy. There is punishment for what you do, but we have just kind of inherited this second chance. What are we going to do with it?”

***

“We constructed an entire film around that decision. The moment that it “grieved Him in his heart to destroy creation,” is, for me, the high dramatic moment in the story. Because think about it: It’s the fourth story in the Bible. You go from creation to original sin to the first murder and then time jumps to when everything is messed up.”

***

“So what we decided to do was to align Noah with that character arc and give Noah that understanding: He understands what man has done, he wants justice, and, over the course of the film, learns mercy. What’s nice about that is that is how I think Thomas Aquinas defined righteousness: a balance of justice and mercy.”

The Scriptural story of man’s wickedness, his deserving to be wiped off the earth, and God’s salvation of the faithful through destruction is a big part of what Aronofsky is exploring here. Justice and mercy. Man is sinful, but God does not destroy man.

A Balanced Perspective

As I was reading a review the other night from an atheist perspective, the reviewer mentioned how weird it was watching a movie where the bad guys were secular humanists. That struck me as a complete mischaracterization of what was going on. In fact, I loved the fact that Aronofsky blew up those categories and refused to play the culture war game. He was exploring the themes of the Bible, not the themes of late 20th/early 21st century American politics.

On one side you have men obedient to God who govern creation with kindness and gentleness. They don’t eat meat, which is accurate to the Bible, as meat was not given to man to eat until after the Flood. They keep the heritage of the line of Seth, acknowledging that God was right to kick them out of the garden and that man is sinful.

On the other you have not a family, but cities and kingdoms. These men refuse to acknowledge God’s authority, setting up their own will in its place. They tear apart each other as much as the earth, and seek to trample down all remnants of the line of Seth. They are Man, and Man will rule supreme.

Seth’s line is filled with pious believers. The fact that having any environmental conscience shocks us says more about our politics than it does the Biblical story. The earth is, after all, our responsibility. The line of Cain is filled with godless humanists, yes, but they also embody the worst excesses of fascism and so-called capitalism. Neither side fits easily into our political boxes, and for that I am thankful. That is not what the Bible is about. Though it may have political applications, it is playing another game entirely—telling the story of God’s relationship to sinful man and the world man corrupted.

The Way God Talks to Us

The climax of the movie’s action comes when Noah refuses to kill the twin girls Ila miraculously bore while on the ark. He looks down at humanity, knows it deserves to be wiped from the face of the earth, but his heart is filled with nothing but love. He cannot kill his own granddaughters. Feeling that he has failed, when the ark finally runs aground and the new Eden is founded, he wanders into a self-imposed exile and spends his days drinking himself into a stupor. He has failed God.

It is then that Emma Watson’s Ila comes to visit Noah, and ask him why he drinks. Noah explains that he has failed God, and Ila replies that this is not the case. As Noah himself repeatedly said, God chose him. God chose him because he knew that Noah would get the job done. God chose him because he knew that man was sinful and deserved destruction. God chose him because he would have no mercy on the Cainites outside. God chose him because he knew that he would care for the animals and see that the new Eden was safely founded. And God chose him because he knew that looking at man’s sin and not flinching, he would also look into the eyes of his children, as God had done, and choose mercy.

This, to me, was the most interesting aspect of the movie. God does not speak directly to Noah. At first God gives him visions, but eventually these fade away. Noah does his best to discern God’s will, as we all must do, without clear explanations. And when he does, he is ruthlessly committed to obeying God. But here, in the end, God offers him a choice. God has given him no vision to say what the fate of Noah’s family is to be. He has no divine word on what must happen to these baby girls, the hope of the human race. That decision is left in Noah’s hands. And he does what God did. He spares them.

After speaking with Ila, time passes and Noah returns to his family. He passes on his blessing to his sons, and the new Eden is reborn, with a second chance for mankind. It is at this moment that God sets his bow in the sky—and it is a fantastic, spectacular rainbow, a supernatural promise of mercy that embraces the whole sky, and on which the movie quietly ends. God has preserved his children, and they have received his blessing.

What was Missing

Darren Aronofsky, despite his childhood love of the story and his devotion to its themes, could not capture everything. And perhaps, being immersed in Jewish rather than Christian culture, it is no surprise that he did not include the greatest factor in that interplay between justice and mercy. In casting mankind out of the garden, God promised a Seed that would crush the head of the serpent. Throughout Genesis, God is narrowing down his chosen line, building towards that Seed. From the beginning, the promise was that Christ would come and the world would be redeemed.

This meant that as the Flood approached, the historical Noah knew that mankind would survive, knew that a deliverer would come. In telling the version he did, Aronofsky played with powerful themes, Biblical themes, and illuminated a part of that story which needed illuminating. He did not, however, tell the full Gospel story. He paved the way, showing a God of justice and mercy, indicating a promise of future hope, but that lingering promise has no focus, no concrete Christ in which to trust. Not every story needs that explicitly, but I hope this fantastic rendering of the Biblical tale has prepared us for a future where that can indeed be the case. Noah tells a story that resonates, but the Gospel story has far more meaning.

A Bit of Hubris

It is quite apparent that Aronofsky took certainly liberties with the story of Noah, not only adding where the Bible is silent, but changing details where it is not. I will not provide a full-on dissertation defending this, but I do want to briefly set forth my view on retelling Bible stories.

The Bible is the inspired Word of God. It is filled to the brim with meaning, and every new reading is capable of teaching us more. You could preach a thousand sermons on the Noah story and not sound the bottom of the truths contained therein. So when Christians demand that a retelling of a Bible story be an exact audiovisual representation of what is in the text, capture the exact meaning and sense of that passage in every detail, what I see is not faithfulness to the Word, but hubris.

Who are we to think we can transfer the Word in all of its glory into a new medium and expect it to capture everything the original text was meant to capture? A sermon picks and chooses the lessons it will glean, and a retelling of a story must do the same thing. Aronofsky could not capture every possible meaning or connection of all the details of the Noah story, and we should not expect him to.

The Take-Away

We are not here to capture everything, and to think we can is arrogant, so let us instead strive to understand the story Aronofsky is telling. If we want to capture a different facet, let us go and retell it ourselves. But sadly, it appears Christians on the whole cannot. Why is it that we are unable to see the themes of the Bible and take them seriously, to recognize that they are relevant to all mankind and are not just part of the insider jargon of “our team?” Why do we have to knee-jerkingly hate on a serious retelling of Scriptures simply because it came from the wrong side? How can we do that and then complain about the dearth of skillfully made, serious Bible movies? Aronofsky, a pagan, takes our story seriously and retells it with a seriousness Christians rarely match. He shows us up, and because we have judged him already, we fix on whatever details we can find in order to condemn him.

This weekend I was not disappointed by Aronofsky’s failure to reach to the Scriptural heights. I was disappointed in our hostility at the attempt, and our consistent inability to match such an effort. I know there are thoughtful Christians in the background, who rose above the fray and considered what was actually happening. But right now, our loudest voices showed no courtesy, no Gospel grace, and no calm consideration. One day I hope that changes.

*I was kind of hoping for the Watchers to be Nephilim, since they are more Biblical than apocryphal, and would also make a killer story. But, despite not being Nephilim, these guys were quite the treat. Maybe in a future movie.

Aladdin

So in our trek through Disney, we’re not looking for artfulness or originality or sheer entertainment, we’re focusing in on straight-up morals. What do these shows teach our kids, and are those things okay? With Aladdin, I think the issues are fairly straightforward. First off, we have Aladdin’s starting point–he’s a thief–and then we have his overall storyline/where he goes from there. Finally we have Jasmine. Hit those three points, and I think we’ve got a solid analysis of whether the overall message is good for kids.

First stop we have is Aladdin the thief. Aladdin is a penniless street rat dressed in rags with nothing but a fez and a monkey. He does not steal for profit, he steals to keep from starving. Furthermore, he willingly gives up his plunder to cute little orphans less reckless than he. Does this justify his thievery? I’ll leave that up to you. I think the movie paints it as ambiguous. It’s a commentary more on the pressures of poverty than on the morality of thieving. And I think at some point nice middle class kids with good home lives and television sets should at least be introduced to the concept of people with neither homes nor jobs.

But regardless of what you think of Aladdin’s thieving, the main moral is not in the beginning, it’s in the path of the whole story. Aladdin seems to be a fairly nice guy at the beginning, giving up his dinner so little kids don’t starve. But he also seems fairly self-centered. He is willing to lie up a storm to get out of poverty and into a palace with the girl of his dreams. Genie repeatedly tells him that honesty is the best policy, but instead Aladdin… well, he “follows his heart” and keeps on lying. He even reneges on a promise to free Genie and lashes out at Abu and the magic carpet.

Eventually Aladdin’s lies come unraveled and he is left alone in the snow at the ends of the earth. He realizes that he messed up bad, putting himself before others. Having learned his lesson, he heads back to Agrabah to save the day. His street savoir faire serves him well, and he is victorious. At last, he is given one final challenge. A law prevents the conquering hero from marrying his lovely lady, so Genie offers to give up his freedom in exchange for a final wish which will circumvent the law. Aladdin refuses, using his last wish to free Genie instead. Sultan, touched by the scene, does what he could have done ages ago: changes the law. Everything ends well.

So, the moral of Aladdin’s story seems to be 1) tell the truth, and 2) put others first. Good morals if you ask me. But there is more to it than that. One final thread of the story must be examined: Jasmine.

Jasmine starts the story being wooed by an endless train of international royalty. You see, the law states she has to be married to a prince by her next birthday. She has been rejecting all the suitors, apparently. One even leaves without the seat of his pants. Playful tigers, you know. Well, Jasmine doesn’t like this. She feels trapped. She runs off, pretends to be a commoner, and nearly loses her arm while absent-mindedly stealing so a small child can eat. Aladdin rescues her and they lament over how they are both trapped. Eventually she goes back, meets Aladdin in his royal alter-ego, and falls in love with him again. She finds out who he is, gets captured by Jafar, gets rescued, and lives happily ever after.

I suppose the Jasmine storyline is a follow-your-heart narrative, but it’s not a very compelling one. Maybe it’s just me, but Jasmine bugged me. She actually did very little most of the story. Other than run away from home and play with Jafar’s beard. But besides that, she was mostly just a chick with attitude, sometimes justified, sometimes not. She didn’t earn her happy ending, and though she followed her heart, it was hardly in a dramatic way. Most of the movie she follows her heart by doing what her father said. Not exactly egocentric anti-authoritarianism.

So here’s my ruling on Aladdin: watch it. It’s a solid rags-to-riches story that abounds in hilarity and adventure. Your kids might learn honesty and putting others first, and maybe a little sympathy for street rats. But I seriously doubt they will cast off morality and sense and start doing whatever their heart tells them.

Stay tuned for more.

To Disney, Or Not To Disney?

I grew up on Disney. The Lion King, especially. And the Jungle Book, definitely. Mulan and Aladdin as well. And Sleeping Beauty and Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame and A Goofy Movie and The Rescuers Down Under and The Little Mermaid and The Black Cauldron and– I should stop now. I could go on. I have seen almost every Disney animated feature since Snow White, including several poorly done sequels. I loved them. Disney movies, together old myths and coming-of-age fantasy novels, were my bread and butter.

But in the world of Reformed Christianity, and especially in the sectors where we skip out on public schooling in favor of Christian education, Disney is not always welcome. Those movies, so it is said, promote rebellion, self-centeredness, and following one’s heart. Rather than one’s head or one’s authority figures, I assume. Furthermore, Disney creates unrealistic expectations regarding romance, dreaming big, and happy endings. Such things are not good.

I was becoming acquainted with this view at about the same time as I was switching from cartoons and kids shows to action movies, crime dramas, and psychological thrillers. I was not very motivated to explore what was being said. Instead, I shrugged and went back to conducting Ode to Joy as John McClane shoved terrorists out windows. Years went by, I became a college kid, and watched enough Quentin Tarantino to last a lifetime. It was painful.

So here I am, having come full circle. I want to reconnect with my storytelling roots. I want a little nostalgia, and some lightheartedness. I am tired of exploring the grey areas and dealing with twist endings and reminding myself that I have to be careful what movies I recommend to people. Give me family friendly, give me good guys and bad guys, give me a Disney classic.

So, as I began this journey back through the long-untrod paths of my childhood, I figured, why not put that old disapproving notion to the test? Why not see if these movies were as bad as they say? I want to look at their problems, and at their redeeming values, and I want to lay it out here for your consideration. So, over the next good while, I will be both reviewing and re-viewing Disney movies. And this, dear friend, is your invitation to join me on that noble quest.

So come on down,
Stop on by,
Hop a carpet and fly…
…cause we’re starting with a lamp, a street rat, and another Arabian night.

The Amber Spyglass

Trying to comment on The Amber Spyglass is a bit problematic, because many of the things in it which are worth talking about belong in a discussion of the series as a whole. And so, I’m going to do that, and this post will be short and sweet.

  • In terms of pure literary skill, the other two were better. As Pullman deals increasingly with his philosophical themes, the characters are allowed to make odd and sometimes downright nonsensical decisions. He still hops perspectives, and there is the odd turn of phrase that reaches just beyond where his prose can actually take us. It’s still an interesting book to read, but it relies somewhat on the steam of the previous books to carry it through.
  • Lyra is still weirdly more childish around Will, who is still fairly bossy.
  • We get a solid look of the Church (at last), and I found it very disappointing. For all Pullman’s talk about patience and understanding (especially at the end), he has very little of either for the Church. Christians are simply stupid, cowardly, rabid, and devious. Perhaps he is simplifying to make a point, but in so doing he builds something of a straw man. Then again, I’m one of the people being critiqued, so I’m a bit biased.
  • There is a last-minute attempt to humanize Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, and it defies everything we know about them. Asriel’s prolonged and explicit indifference towards his daughter and Coulter’s outright cruelty are sprinkled with fairy dust and become a very extreme form of self-sacrifice.
  • Iorek makes a series of stupid decisions, which take the sting out of his moment of doubt. I still respect him more than some of the other characters. He has a practical bent that I’m sure Pullman finds too simple, but I think in reality is often more perceptive than, say, Mary Malone’s philosophizing.
  • The ending is a bit flat. In a series full of last-minute rescues and miraculous little chances, the final predicament is… out of character. He’s trying to make the point that life is really hard, and that adds value to it, but I’m not sure the rest of the book is half as pessimistic as the ending. There are too many moments of grace for such a conundrum to fit. Then again, that conundrum is balanced by another sort of hope, and maybe Pullman thinks that is compensation.

Despite all this, The Amber Spyglass was compelling. Pullman throws together vastly different worlds and people, investing all sorts of moments with extraordinary importance. He loves the pageant of life, and it shows. He also displays very real fears, and portrays them equally as well. At the end of the day, wonder and sympathy can carry a story past a load of faults. And in that sense, Pullman did well.