Winona Ryder

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, Francis Ford Coppola)

On one hand, with the Wojciech Kilar score, Bram Stoker’s Dracula can get away with just about anything. On the other, with Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves playing leads… well, it needs something to help it get away with anything.

It helps neither Ryder or Reeves are the actual star of the film. Neither is top-billed Gary Oldman (as the Count). The star is director Coppola and his crew—cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, production designer Thomas E. Sanders, costume designer Eiko Ishioka (for better and worse), editors Anne Goursaud, Glen Scantlebury, and Nicholas C. Smith. And Kilar, of course. And whoever did all the amazing practical special effects; Bram Stoker’s is a very audiovisual experience. As the story itself belies reality, why should the film itself be any different an experience. Lots of inventive transitions, lots of creative composite shots to show Oldman’s faraway yet so close impact on the world of his victims. Shame James V. Hart’s screenplay isn’t anywhere near as experimental or imaginative. The script’s big deviation from the novel—in addition to Anthony Hopkins’s Van Helsing being crude—is Ryder falling in love with Oldman because she’s his reincarnated fifteenth century wife, who killed herself thinking he’d died in battle, which caused him to renounce God and become… a vampire.

The most interesting thing about Bram Stoker’s is how any of it would make sense. Like, Oldman’s castle is full of paintings done after Ryder’s death—Ryder the queen, not the young British woman with the questionable accent. Did he pay the painters or eat them? Because even though the film “humanizes” Oldman a little, it never makes him particularly reasonable as a character. Why, for instance, does he regrow a mustache when he de-ages himself and then shed it when he gets old again. Also, why does he get old again so often. Why did he get old in the first place? Wasn’t he eating enough villager? Seems like he was eating plenty of them.

Anyway.

None of those details matter because Bram Stoker’s looks great and has that Kilar score. Ryder can be bombing a questionably written scene—though, to be fair, it’s not like there are any strong performances in the film. Oldman’s got a few strong moments, a lot of okay ones, and some piddly ones too. But Kilar’s score can save the heck out of a scene. Given the lack of chemistry from Oldman towards Ryder and the lack of chemistry, accent, and acting from Ryder towards… everyone (save, maybe, best friend Sadie Frost), the melodramatic nineteenth century romance but kind of saucy scenes where Oldman has to remind himself to keep the fangs in are all mesmerizing thanks to how the music compliments the image. Bram Stoker’s is masterfully made. It’s far from a cinematic masterpiece, but Coppola does provide a solid facsimile of one. As long as you ignore the acting and the writing.

Whether Ryder would be better if the character were better—she falls in love with Oldman while fiancé Reeves is being held captive in faraway Oldman’s castle (it’s kind of hilarious how easily Reeves slips her mind—the film utilizes the novel’s epistolary format, turning the diary entries into narration from cast so we know she’s not thinking about Reeves); the falling in love while the dude’s away is literally her only thing. Ryder’s not even worried about Frost, who Oldman’s attacking every night because she’s slutty and Ryder’s virginal. Or something. It’s unclear why Oldman targets Frost in the first place, though maybe there was a scene explaining it… along with his London base being right next door to Richard E. Grant’s sanitarium, which is important but not really thanks to Hart’s script. It’s like Coppola came up with all the visual machinations to distract from Hart not having the best narrative.

Of course, it’d be disingenuous to the source material if Bram Stoker’s had a solid narrative.

And at least Ryder and Reeves are failing with questionable (at best) accents. Actual Brits Grant, Frost, and Cary Elwes all have extremely bad moments where you wish they’d just be screwing up accents. Grant can’t seem to take the thing seriously, Frost is out of her depth, and Elwes always seems like he’s just coming into the film for the first time, scene after scene. He makes no impression. Neither does Billy Campbell (as a very Texan Texan). In an extremely odd case of stunt-casting, Tom Waits disappoints as Oldman’s first solicitor, who’s gone mad and been committed and now eats bugs. Waits’s eccentric take seems more appropriate for a TV commercial than drama.

As for Hopkins… he could be worse. He’s not good, he doesn’t take the part seriously (how could he), but he could be worse.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a gorgeous exercise in technical filmmaking. And not much else.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola; screenplay by James V. Hart, based on the novel by Bram Stoker; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by Anne Goursaud, Glen Scantlebury, and Nicholas C. Smith; music by Wojciech Kilar; production designer, Thomas E. Sanders; produced by Coppola, Fred Fuchs, and Charles Mulvehill; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Gary Oldman (Dracula), Winona Ryder (Mina), Anthony Hopkins (Van Helsing), Keanu Reeves (Harker), Richard E. Grant (Seward), Cary Elwes (Holmwood), Billy Campbell (Morris), Sadie Frost (Lucy), and Tom Waits (Renfield).


Great Balls of Fire! (1989, Jim McBride)

There’s no point to Great Balls of Fire! As a biopic it’s shaky–lead Dennis Quaid only gets to be the protagonist when he’s not being too despicable, which isn’t often and the film has to distance itself from Winona Ryder, playing Quaid’s love interest.

And thirteen year-old cousin.

So it’s understandable director McBride and co-screenwriter Jack Baran don’t want to delve too deep into the characters.

It’s also not a comedy, because even though Quaid plays Jerry Lee Lewis like an affable buffoon, it’s never clear if it’s all an act and Quaid (or Lewis) is really calculating or he’s just an idiot. Either way, he knows perving on his thirteen year-old cousin is wrong because her father–John Doe–is also putting a roof over Quaid’s head and playing in his band. During one montage sequence–when Lewis performs on “The Steve Allen Show”–suggests Fire could be some kind of rumination on American culture in the fifties, as the film cuts to various television shows of the era with the characters watching the television in shock… but it’s just that one sequence.

Otherwise, Fire just sort of churns along through the timeline. Hit records, marriage, failure. Sort of. There’s no arc to any of it. No one gets one. Not Quaid, whose character has less internal activity than a three scene cameo by Michael St. Gerard as Elvis. Certainly not Ryder, who gets a fun montage where she’s shopping for her home, then a breakdown when she realizes she’s just a kid then… relatively nothing until she starts getting abused by drunken failure Quaid. Doe kind of gets an arc. But it’s all background, going on when McBride is paying attention to other things. Doe probably gives the film’s best performance, partially because of that arc.

As his wife (and Ryder’s mom), Lisa Blount is fine. She’s in the movie a lot but gets absolutely nothing to do actually do. Except calm Doe occasionally.

Trey Wilson and Stephen Tobolowsky are the record producers. They’re fine. Wilson’s a little better, though both their parts are razor thin.

Then there’s Alec Baldwin as preacher Jimmy Swaggart (real-life cousin to Jerry Lee Lewis). He’s okay? His presence in the film is simultaneously sensational and pointless.

Quaid’s really good at pretending to play and sing the music. The real Lewis recorded all the songs and there are piano stunt doubles for the harder stuff; but what Quaid does, he does really well.

Technically the film’s more than proficient. Good production design from David Nichols. Solid photography from Affonso Beato. The problem’s the script. No one can act it well because it doesn’t want to be acted well. It gets queasy dwelling on its caricatures.

In the end, Fire just fizzles out. It’s often entertaining, sometimes engaging, but McBride and Baran don’t have a handle on the story they want to tell, much less how to tell it.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Jim McBride; screenplay by Jack Baran and McBride, based on the book by Myra Lewis and Murray Silver Jr.; director of photography, Affonso Beato; edited by Lisa Day, Pembroke J. Herring, and Bert Lovitt; production designer, David Nichols; produced by Adam Fields; released by Orion Pictures.

Starring Dennis Quaid (Jerry Lee Lewis), Winona Ryder (Myra Gale Brown), John Doe (J.W. Brown), Lisa Blount (Lois Brown), Trey Wilson (Sam Phillips), Stephen Tobolowsky (Jud Phillips), and Alec Baldwin (Jimmy Swaggart).


Beetlejuice (1988, Tim Burton)

How did Beetlejuice ever get past the studio suits? It really says something about eighties mainstream filmmaking and today’s. It’s not just the absence of a likable protagonist—Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are the main characters for the first forty-five minutes, then hand the film off to Winona Ryder, who carries it until the last quarter, when Michael Keaton finally takes over—but it’s also just really strange.

The script’s a tad tepid. I’d forgotten the conclusion; it turns the movie into a sitcom pilot. I imagine Burton didn’t really care about the script being solid, because he makes the film look spectacular throughout.

It opens with this beautiful shot of a model—Thomas E. Ackerman’s photography is wondrous throughout; it’s a shame Burton didn’t bring him along for Batman—and every subsequent shot is great.

All of the model work is fabulous—even if some of the composite shots are problematic—making Beetlejuice a joy to watch.

What’s not a joy is some of the acting. The script’s weak enough, it’s probably mostly the screenwriters’ fault but still….

Davis and Catherine O’Hara are both bad. Glenn Shadix is, politely speaking, too broad.

But the rest of the cast is great—Baldwin, Jeffrey Jones, Winona Ryder, Sylvia Sidney. Great small stuff from Robert Goulet and Dick Cavett.

And Keaton? He’s funny, but he doesn’t make the movie. The role’s too easy.

But, like I said, Burton’s direction (and the mostly strong performances) make it a joy to watch.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Burton; screenplay by Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren, based on a story by McDowell and Larry Wilson; director of photography, Thomas E. Ackerman; edited by Jane Kurson; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Bo Welch; produced by Michael Bender, Richard Hashimoto and Wilson; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Michael Keaton (Betelgeuse), Alec Baldwin (Adam Maitland), Geena Davis (Barbara Maitland), Winona Ryder (Lydia Deetz), Catherine O’Hara (Delia Deetz), Jeffrey Jones (Charles Deetz), Glenn Shadix (Otho), Annie McEnroe (Jane Butterfield), Rachel Mittelman (Little Jane Butterfield), Robert Goulet (Maxie Dean), Adelle Lutz (Beryl), Dick Cavett (Bernard), Susan Kellermann (Grace) and Sylvia Sidney (Juno).


Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)

I hate responding to films like Black Swan because I don’t know where to start.

From the first sequence, Aronofsky defines his approach as singular. Except for that first sequence, he never tries to film a ballet. He’s always filming a ballet performance. But he manages, filming those performances, which he tends to shoot in long shot–approximately the audience’s view of the dancers–to make them the most exquisitely filmic ballet sequences I can remember having ever seen.

While ballet makes up a good portion of the film’s running time, it’s not necessarily a film about the ballet. Until the third act, Aronofsky is making one of the stranger character studies. We spend the entire film with Natalie Portman’s ballerina and I don’t think there’s a single expository conversation involving her. Aronofsky and screenwriters Heyman, Heinz and McLaughlin (given the importance of gender, it was a shock to discover three men wrote the film) offer infrequent insights into Portman’s character. Black Swan is a character study with very few people and a lot of “action” (the ballet scenes); the discovery is gradual.

Saying Portman’s performance here is her best work is misleading. Her previous work never suggested she was capable of such a performance.

Aronofsky holds her in these intense broken moments and brings in Clint Mansell’s beautiful, disturbing score and the film transcends.

Great supporting work from Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey.

I’ve been waiting nine years for Black Swan and I didn’t even know it.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Darren Aronofsky; written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin, based on a story by Heinz; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Andrew Weisblum and Kristina Boden; music by Clint Mansell; production designer, Thérèse DePrez; produced by Mike Medavoy, Arnold Messer, Brian Oliver and Scott Franklin; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Natalie Portman (Nina Sayers), Mila Kunis (Lily), Vincent Cassel (Thomas Leroy), Barbara Hershey (Erica Sayers), Winona Ryder (Beth Macintyre), Benjamin Millepied (David) and Ksenia Solo (Veronica).


Star Trek (2009, J.J. Abrams)

There really isn’t anything to dislike about Star Trek. Well, maybe the music, which isn’t bad, just isn’t as good the rest of the music in the series. There’s a lot to like–Chris Pine (though the wife disagrees), J.J. Abrams’s direction is outstanding, there’s some nice little stuff (Zoe Saldana’s Uhura and her romance, Leonard Nimoy’s reaction to Pine, Karl Urban’s woefully underused McCoy). Oh, wait. What’s his name… Eric Bana? Was it Eric Bana? He was awful. Oh, and Ben Cross. He was lousy too.

The problem with the film is its uselessness. I saw it in a theater packed with college students who hooted and hollered during the Transformers sequel–Abrams isn’t exactly going for a high brow audience. The script, from Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who often really stink), isn’t bad. There are some lame moments, but the dialogue’s solid–Pine delivers it with an unbelievable swagger, playing Kirk as a superhero, something Shatner never really recognized in his essaying of the role–and there are some neat developments. But it’s really all about Abrams’s direction. Whether it’s the–as far as I know, I haven’t seen the more recent Star Trek films–outstanding CG space shots (Abrams’s composition of these scenes is utterly unlike any other Star Trek direction I’ve seen, much more visceral… in fact, it sort of resembles the new shots from Bob Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture director’s cut), amazing action scenes. Abrams, on his second film, does a fantastic job.

So Pine’s excellent, something he establishes from his first scene. Saldana’s good, playing well off Pine and Zachary Quinto. Quinto’s okay… adequate. The problem is how good Nimoy is in his scenes. His link to the original incarnation, not to mention his lovely (there really isn’t any other word for it) scenes with Pine… Quinto can’t really compete. Maybe in the next one (in this one, there’s a hint at a solid chemistry between Pine and Quinto). And, really, all Star Trek is about is waiting for the next one.

Because Karl Urban? He’s really not in this one enough. He probably gives the best performance and, even without a lot of back story, has the most interesting character.

Bruce Greenwood’s kind of useless. Abrams should have tried harder to get Tom Cruise.

Simon Pegg’s hilarious as Scotty. John Cho and Anton Yelchin are kind of useless too. They’re both all right, but there’s no part for them in the film.

The script’s got a bunch of logic holes and probably many more if one were to think about them, but one isn’t supposed to think about Star Trek. One’s supposed to enjoy the action, laugh at the jokes, get the references. And it works.

For an absolutely pointless two hour franchise “relaunch,” it’s about as good as it could be and it’s pretty good.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by J.J. Abrams; screenplay by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, based on the television series created by Gene Roddenberry; director of photography, Daniel Mindel; edited by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Scott Chambliss; produced by Abrams and Damon Lindelof; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Chris Pine (James T. Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Leonard Nimoy (Spock Prime), Eric Bana (Nero), Bruce Greenwood (Capt. Christopher Pike), Karl Urban (Dr. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy), Zoe Saldana (Nyota Uhura), Simon Pegg (Scotty), John Cho (Hikaru Sulu), Anton Yelchin (Pavel Chekov), Ben Cross (Sarek), Winona Ryder (Amanda Grayson) and Chris Hemsworth (George Kirk).


Alien: Resurrection (1997, Jean-Pierre Jeunet), the special edition

Joss Whedon has never met a cheap, cheesy one liner he didn’t like. He also feels the need to revise future technology based on modern developments (androids with wireless modems, which they would have had in the first Alien movies… except the lack of that technological possibility when said films were made). The first problem is an exceptional one (especially since he can’t go two minutes without one of those awful one liners), while the second one is just stupid. Alien: Resurrection is the first fanboy-written film. Its failure means it isn’t responsible for what came next (the utter eradication of quality science fiction or “genre” films from Hollywood), but it’s perfect foreshadowing. Even when it’s really bad, it’s no worse than the crap coming out today. With the exception of the bad CG, it’s probably even better.

The film–I watched the 2003 special edition–is actually all right for a bit at the beginning. Accepting the idea such an extraordinarily useless, artistically-soulless commercial venture can be all right, anyway. Then Winona Ryder and the crew of “Firefly” show up. Whedon essentially turned an Alien sequel into a pilot movie for his characters. Fine, whatever, it’s 115 minutes and there are some occasionally interesting moments… but I don’t like watching movies and pitying the actors. Watching Alien: Resurrection, one just has to pity Sigourney Weaver. It’s just terrible in parts. The other interesting thing about the pre-Ryder moments is Jeunet’s direction. Most of the film just looks dirty and green, but the beginning has some real Jeunet flourishes–which the new opening credits sequence illustrate well, even if the CG is cheap. While Brad Dourif’s got terrible dialogue, he, J.E. Freeman and Dan Hedaya really look like they belong in the film.

Alien: Resurrection being an acceptable waste of a couple hours comes mostly from the cast (there’s some effective scoring too, I suppose). Weaver does have some good moments–though it wasn’t until I watched the film this time, my fourth time in ten years, I realized Weaver and Ryder’s relationship was supposed to mirror the Ripley and Newt relationship from Aliens or something (yes, Joss Whedon is that incompetent). By the end, the good ones even outweigh the bad and embarrassing ones. Dourif’s not good, but Freeman and Hedaya are both excellent. Ron Perlman and Gary Dourdan are both saddled with terrible lines, but they’re fine. Michael Wincott and Kim Flowers are both really good (Flowers’s death scene is fantastic, the only effective death scene in a film with a dozen or more).

Alien³ is a film incapable of supporting a sequel, certainly one with Weaver anyway, but Resurrection isn’t as terrible as it could be, I suppose. It’d be much worse if it were made today. I remember when it bombed–after Fox spent a fortune making it–I realized no one had been really asking for another Alien movie. Fox was just trying to jump-start the franchise, a slur I’d never use against the Alien films. But there were comic books and toys and–really, Whedon seems like he learned how to write off of comic books, with no real understanding of how dialogue plays out off the page.

It’s an interesting film in parts, the way it’s made, some of what Jeunet does, but it’s so idiotically written–and I think that aspect is what makes it most like Hollywood films today, the absurdity of the writing being acceptable to someone who… can read–it doesn’t really matter. Even if it’s interesting, it’s still a stinky pile of crap.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet; written by Joss Whedon, based on characters created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; director of photography, Darius Khondji; edited by Herve Schneid; music by John Frizzell; production designer, Nigel Phelps; produced by Bill Badolato, Walter Hill, David Giler and Gordon Carroll; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Winona Ryder (Annalee Call), Dominique Pinon (Vriess), Ron Perlman (Johner), Gary Dourdan (Christie), Michael Wincott (Elgyn), Kim Flowers (Hillard), Dan Hedaya (General Perez), J.E. Freeman (Wren), Brad Dourif (Gediman), Raymond Cruz (Distephano) and Leland Orser (Purvis).


A Scanner Darkly (2006, Richard Linklater)

For a while–during the film–A Scanner Darkly is a great film. It sets itself up as a significant examination of man’s identity and its relation to the people around him. It’s based on Philip K. Dick and that theme is one Dick used at least one other time (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). When adapting the novel, which I haven’t read, I get the feeling Richard Linklater kept it a little too close, keeping summary storytelling. The film races through its last act, which is around eleven minutes long, and never solidifies the many excellent elements. They don’t quite disappear, they just don’t get the attention they deserve. For example, Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder have this wonderful relationship, which even endures a “surprise,” but Linklater doesn’t finish it up. It isn’t like he sacrifices it for anything. The problem with A Scanner Darkly is its length. It’s not long enough.

The film’s pseudo-animation style–Linklater filmed the actors, presumably together–then had computers draw over them, works perfectly for the film. Linklater doesn’t account for the style, however, which is probably a mistake. Besides certain special effects considerations, the style is appropriate because Darkly is about drug addiction and its effects. The style works as a visual representation of those effects. I imagine Linklater didn’t want to label the style, but it just seems another thing he withheld.

Where Linklater did good–wonderfully–was his casting and his directing of his actors. Keanu Reeves probably gives his best performance and there are these scenes between Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson… Linklater’s scenes about drug addicts are easily the best since Trainspotting, but he’s also got a great feel for the rest of the material, the alienation material. Throughout, the film’s scenes are, like I said, great. Winona Ryder is so good, I was wondering who was playing her role, as the animation made it possible it wasn’t her and she was so good, I couldn’t believe it was Ryder. The only acting problem is Linklater regular Rory Cochrane, who mugs for the camera. With one exception, an excellent scene, Cochrane’s bad when he’s alone. When he’s with other actors, he’s fine. Alone, he mugs the whole scene.

A Scanner Darkly ultimately fails. Actually, it ultimately achieves something more than mediocrity, but it does offer an excellent eighty-five minutes. Unfortunately, the film runs a hundred minutes (and should run around 135 minutes).

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Linklater; screenplay by Linklater, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick; director of photography, Shane F. Kelly; edited by Sandra Adair; music by Graham Reynolds; production designer, Bruce Curtis; produced by Anne Walker-McBay, Tommy Pallotta, Palmer West, Jonah Smith and Erwin Stoff; released by Warner Independent Pictures.

Starring Keanu Reeves (Bob Arctor), Robert Downey Jr. (Jim Barris), Woody Harrelson (Ernie Luckman), Winona Ryder (Donna Hawthorne) and Rory Cochrane (Charles Freck).


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