Archive for November 1992

Aladdin

November 25, 1992

A competent Disney film, but generally no more than that. The basic problem is that Aladdin himself is a bore — just one more variation on the old Disney trope that upright dullness equals virtue. Once Aladdin learns to Be Himself, he can win the heart of Princess Jasmine … who probably wouldn’t have given him the time of day if he hadn’t posed as a prince and whisked her away on his magic carpet. Disney also has a depressingly utilitarian concept of magic: You use magic to get what you want and then discard it; in the meantime, it does things for you that you can’t do yourself. Sorry if I don’t find this philosophy as inspirational as it’s meant to be. Aladdin is best when it hands the screen over to the Genie, who’s almost “The Illustrated Robin Williams.” Otherwise the movie is shallow and frantic. Predictably, one of Howard Ashman’s most biting songs, “Humiliate the Boy” — written for the film when Ashman was dying of AIDS — was deemed too harsh by the Mouse. Disney also bowdlerized a couple of lines in “Arabian Nights” for the home-video release.

Malcolm X

November 18, 1992

Late in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, the man of the title (Denzel Washington) sits in a hotel room and listens to the phone ringing. He doesn’t answer it; he picks up the receiver and puts it back in its cradle, knowing that each call is another whispered death threat. Lee intercuts this with shots of Malcolm’s wife Betty (Angela Bassett) at home: Frantic and terrified, she too has been getting crank calls. Throughout, the jaunty oldie “Shotgun” plays, a chilling omen of what’s in store for Malcolm.

With Malcolm X, Spike Lee, after a couple of bummers (Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever), has rediscovered the joy of combining crackling filmmaking with solid drama. For Malcolm’s life was nothing if not great drama — a narrative of moral empowerment. What other public figure of recent history pulled himself hand over hand out of the depths of hell to become an internationally recognized leader, and then continued to redefine himself right up until his murder? Such material demands a rock-steady director, an artist prepared to illuminate all the faces of Malcolm. The Spike who made the scattershot Jungle Fever couldn’t have managed Malcolm X. This is the work of the Spike who made Do the Right Thing. Lee, I’m relieved to report, is a master again.

Reworking an old script by James Baldwin and Arnold Perl, based on Malcolm’s autobiography as told to the late Alex Haley, Lee shapes Malcolm’s life as a portrait in perpetual change. Malcolm was a hard man for anyone to pin down; here, you see that he couldn’t quite pin himself down, either. He spent his days working towards something, some way to get people of color out from under the boots of whites, and the nature of his mission kept shifting from an encompassing hatred of whites to a philosophy closer (but not identical) to that of Martin Luther King. (If people today peg Malcolm solely as a white-basher, that may be because his “white devil” rhetoric was more widely publicized than his more temperate later views, after he realized that hypocrisy existed even among Muslims.) Dramatizing the stages in Malcolm’s development (zoot-suit stud, hustler, prisoner, Muslim, husband and father, leader), Lee puts across the excitement of intellectual growth, the thrill of empowerment through words, the magic of oratorical genius.

At the very least, Malcolm was a bit of sand in the machine of the white conscience. Loud and uncompromising, he was a symbol to everyone — a great symbol for his black brothers and sisters, a worrying symbol for status-quo whites. The challenge is to find the human being inside the symbol, and Denzel Washington, like his director, has his game face on. In a stunning scene, Malcolm strides into a police station, demanding to see a Nation of Islam member who has been arrested and brutally beaten. Outside, awaiting further instructions, stand a massive and neat formation of Malcolm’s followers. Out in the street, after the wounded prisoner has been taken away via ambulance, Malcolm raises his gloved finger, and hundreds of people quietly disperse. We might not buy this moment if not for Washington’s subtle yet steel-hard authority.

Washington plays the younger Malcolm as something of a fool, a black man so carefully removed from his roots that he subjects himself to a painful conk to make his hair straight and “white.” (Lee, in another self-deprecating performance, plays “Shorty,” Malcolm’s sidekick in the early days, who gives Malcolm his first conk; Lee himself appears with a conk, perhaps out of solidarity with his star.) Gradually, as Malcolm educates himself and becomes serious (yet still charismatic), Washington’s performance takes on a Shakespearean elegance and heroism. And also Shakespearean tragedy: When Malcolm realizes the full extent of the forces against him — that his violent death is no longer just a possibility but a given — Washington’s face goes dead and numb. The dazzling heat and charm are gone, leaving only exhaustion and resignation — the human being near the end of his journey.

Malcolm had a way of fascinating some of the same people he repelled; he did it by speaking plainly and ferociously, using impeccable logic, slashing white hypocrisy with razor-precise strokes, lashing out at the “Uncle Toms” and “house niggers” he felt were a hindrance to black advancement. Wisely, Lee reproduces some of Malcolm’s great speeches verbatim and lets Washington use every ounce of persuasion in his repertoire to sock Malcolm’s points home. You’re not just seeing an actor reading Malcolm’s words; you’re seeing Malcolm’s spirit come through Washington, as a force that cannot be denied.

The point of Lee’s engrossing, scathing epic, which begins with the nightmare blur of the Rodney King video, is that as long as racism lives, the spirit of Malcolm will — must — live. That’s the reason for the epilogue, with the classroom kids saying “I am Malcolm X.” They’re not saying “I, too, will hate white people”; they’re saying “I, too, will work hard and make the best of myself despite the resistance of some white people.” Malcolm himself must have wished there were no need for Malcolm X. But there was a need for him, then and now, as there is also a need for Malcolm X.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

November 13, 1992

According to legend, Bram Stoker got his initial inspiration for Dracula after waking from a nightmare induced by eating some bad shellfish. Francis Ford Coppola might have had the same dish before cooking up Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a blur of a movie with the puzzling logic of dreams. Coppola’s approach takes some getting used to: Parts of the movie could be titled My Own Private Transylvania, with surreal images bumping together; some moments (a woman raped by a snarling wolfman incarnation of Dracula) are borderline stupid. Yet it hangs together, this feverish mish-mash, and if it occasionally stumbles while trying for grandeur, at least it tries.

Unlike the book, the film opens under the red skies of 15th-century Transylvania, where the noble Prince Vlad Dracul the Impaler (Gary Oldman) shoves spears into Turks on the battlefield, leaving their impaled bodies wriggling by the road in the name of Christ. (Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart take a decidedly generous view of Vlad, on whom Stoker is widely — some say erroneously — believed to have based Dracula, and who is considered one of the most vicious rulers in history.) Returning home, Vlad finds his wife dead, a suicide: She’d received false word that he died in battle. What’s more, because she took her own life, her soul is damned. “I renounce God!” shrieks Vlad as gouts of blood pour forth from a giant cross. Eager to join his beloved in hell, Vlad catches some blood in a chalice, gulps it down, and begins his reign as Dracula, Prince of Darkness.

After this entertainingly melodramatic prologue (with its echoes of Excalibur, Kurosawa, and so on), Coppola gets around to the events of the book. Four centuries later, the aged Dracula shuffles through his ornate and crumbling castle, his face pale and creased with wrinkles, his long, spidery fingers reaching, reaching. Wearing a wig that makes his head resemble a large valentine, Gary Oldman has a grand time camping it up through layers of prosthetics. He puts on a creaky, preposterously theatrical Romanian accent; if bats could talk, they’d sound like Oldman’s Dracula. When the young real-estate agent Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) arrives at Castle Dracula to finalize a deal with the Count, the old vampire offers him a cheery yet ominous greeting: “Enter freely and of your own veel. And leef some of da hoppiness you breeng.”

The young, callow Harker isn’t up to dealing with Dracula, and neither is the young, callow Reeves, who gives an embarrassing performance. Reeves carries too much contemporary baggage to be credible in a 19th-century milieu, and his English accent is about as persuasive as Kevin Costner’s in Robin Hood. Luckily, we don’t see much of him, though he keeps a straight face in the film’s loopiest scene. When Dracula’s trio of voluptuous brides descend on Harker, they bare their fangs and begin sucking every inch of his upper body. As if anticipating our own wayward thoughts about where this is going, Coppola has one of the brides move her mouth somewhere south of Harker’s belt buckle. (He responds like a proper, horrified, and suddenly quite interested Victorian gentleman.) It’s one of many moments that teeter between the queasy, the erotic, and the hilarious.

Taking the prologue a step further, Coppola turns Harker’s fiancée Mina (Winona Ryder) into a reincarnation of Dracula’s lost love. Hence Dracula’s obsession with Mina, and hers with him. Following Mina to London, Dracula, now youthful and handsome, seduces her in a peep-show joint (a bizarre scene — the flowering of evil at the birth of cinema). Oldman and Ryder manage some heat in their S & M couplings; for a few scenes, the movie becomes about a kinky couple that’s into biting. But this smooth, dashing Dracula is a bit dull compared with the elderly, cackling Count; Oldman, in the movie’s first section, has stolen his own thunder. Whenever Coppola cuts to the bug-eating Renfield (Tom Waits, growling impressively) or to the dedicated, slightly demented vamp-slayer Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins, chewing the scenery and spitting it out), the audience is so starved for over-the-top acting that it perks up immediately.

Coppola, however, never stops putting on his own showboat performance. His Dracula isn’t like anything else around. He presents the material with a certain heaviosity, as if this weren’t just a vampire movie but the vampire movie. Going for the gold medal in sepulchral gloom, he lays on the darkness, the pea-soup fog. The characters step into suffocating shadows, never to emerge again. The atmosphere of evil spreads like a stain across the frozen countryside. The white, white faces of the vampire women — including Mina’s doomed friend Lucy (the touching Sadie Frost) — hover in the dark, grinning. When Dracula first sees a picture of Mina, his shadow demonstrates what he’d like to do to his rival Harker, while he himself stands still.

All of which makes for a movie of considerable visual fascination, and I’d like to see Bram Stoker’s Dracula one or two more times, despite minor misgivings; it strikes me as the sort of intoxicating spectacle that improves upon repeated viewings, like Brazil or Blade Runner. Flaws and all, Coppola has pulled off a genuine achievement here: He’s redefined the way we think of Dracula visually. And I’ve figured out why the movie looks so dark and jumbled: This is the way a vampire, in his blood fever, might see the world. If you want the Dracula story straight, with no frills or sketchily drawn characters, read Bram Stoker’s Dracula. If you want dazzling images and the thrill of watching a major director push the envelope of fantasy film, see Bram Stoker’s Dracula.


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