Movie review: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Shadow of the Vampire is a creative story about the filming of the famous 1922 silent film Nosferatu. The movie takes quite a bit of liberty with the facts but has an engaging and somewhat spooky storyline.

Nosferatu was F. W. Murnau’s masterpiece, a German film about vampires that took Bram Stoker’s Dracula as its inspiration. (Stoker’s widow would not give Murnau the rights to make a movie based on the book.)

In Shadow of the Vampire, Murnau is an egomaniac, driven to make the perfect film no matter what the cost. And the cost, it turns out, is huge. He keeps his cast and crew in the dark about some scenes, locations, and most importantly, the actor playing Count Orlok (his movie version of Count Dracula). Orlok, he pronounced, will be played by Max Schreck, a certain actor that no one else knew. Schreck would stay in character the entire time, never coming out of character even when no filming was taking place.

People thought Schreck/Count Orlok odd, but no one thought much of it. Not even when cast members had to be replaced because Orlok was attacking them to drink their blood. This is not to say that the cast and crew weren’t weirded out by Orlok—they were. But no one really thought anything was amiss.

And then during one drug-induced bout of honesty, Murnau confides in some crew members about Orlok’s true nature, where he found him, and what he promised him. The crew members who heard the truth were horrified. But not horrified enough to try to prevent the inevitable from happening.

The film follows many of the shots and scenes in the original Nosferatu. Murnau shoots Gustav approaching the castle, Gustav and Orlok looking over and signing the contracts, and Orlok attacking Greta. The original story is spooky enough but the storyline of the new movie adds a new layer on top, more horrifying than scary.

Once the crew is in the know about the truth—that Murnau made a deal with Orlok—they go along. That is almost more horrifying than the deal that Murnau made—if Count Orlok acts in his movie, in the end, Murnau will give the vampire Greta, the female lead. In the end, those in the know become victims of the vampire too. All the while Murnau films—one death after another—until the vampire is killed by the rising sun.

Shadow of the Vampire truly sports an unusual storyline and is populated with outstanding actors. If you are a fan of Nosferatu, the vampire genre, or horror, you will likely enjoy this movie. The horror revolves around how far one man will go for glory and others will go as passive enablers. The movie resonates with history. Just a decade or two after the movie takes place, Germans would be passive enablers of Hitler. Horror indeed.

Movie review: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965)

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is an adaptation of a John le Carré novel. I don’t tend to enjoy movies made from his novels. At least with this 1965 movie, I could (mostly) follow the plot.

Richard Burton stars as the spy who, despite the title, didn’t come in from the cold. Alec Lemas had one last assignment. He was to defect to the East and by doing, implicate an East German spy as a double agent. Well, more accurately, he allowed an East German spy (Fiedler) to believe that a fellow East German spy (Mundt) was a double agent, all the while vigorously denying it himself.

Only things start to go terribly awry. Mundt has Lemas and Fiedler arrested and a secret tribunal is held. The very plot that the British had hatched—to draw the East Germans into thinking that Mundt is a double agent—is described in the tribunal. As if Mundt knew what the British had planned.

Lemas’ new girlfriend, a British woman who is a devout Communist, travels to party gatherings in East Germany. She is brought in as a witness in the tribunal. Nan is depicted as an innocent, idealistic Communist in contrast to the hard-nosed real Communists behind the Iron Curtain. As a Western Communist, she is into free love. Things do not end well for her.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was shot in black and white, which gives it a grittiness. Black and white is the perfect medium for a spy movie set in the bleak Cold War era. For example, the opening scene occurs at a border crossing between the Allied and Russian sectors of Berlin. The lights at night glisten on the damp cobblestones, giving the spy movie an air of film noir-ness and reminding me of The Third Man (1949), which influenced so many movies.

Movie review: Persepolis (2007)

Persepolis relates the experiences of a young girl who lives through the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Iran-Iraq war, and the aftermath of the war. To the average American, Iran is only a repressive Islamic state. Persepolis brings a human face to modern Iran, showing the cost to actual people who lived through the revolution and the war.

Persepolis tells its story through black and white animation. The film is an Iranian-French-American collaboration in French, based on the story by Marjane Satrapi, who is also the heroine of the story.

At the start of the revolution, Marjane is a young girl, brash and courageous as some young girls are. She loves Bruce Lee and wants to be a prophet.

She supports the Shah until her father recounts how the Shah came to power, the repression he conducts, and an uncle imprisoned by the regime. Marjane learns about struggle, political prisoners, and communists—among her own family and in the community at large.

Along the way, we learn about some of modern Iran’s history. In one scene, the political collusion between the Shah-to-be and the British is made explicit—one wants unlimited power, the other oil. (The version of Persepolis I saw was in French with English subtitles. Listening to the British figure speak French was quite comical…and painful.)

The movie also provides brief lessons on the Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Initially so hopefully, the revolution quickly turns from freedom to repression under a strict interpretation of Islam. Police to enforce conduct and clothing abound. Women are forced to cover their hair.

Marjane’s parents fear for her safety—she is a headstrong and outspoken girl and people are disappearing left and right. They send her to Vienna, where she bounces from group to group to group trying to fit in…and from residence to residence to residence. She ends up living on the street…and then lands in a hospital. She phones home, asking to return. The war is over so it is semi-safe for her to return to the repressive state that is Iran.

She returns to Iran as a young woman, no longer the little girl her parents knew. The state is as repressive as ever, much worse than anything under the Shah. The silliness of the rules appear in her university art classes. Botticell’s Venus is censored to the point that it really isn’t an artwork to appreciate. Drawing class is a farce with female models fully clothed in headscarves and long shapeless black robes.

Persepolis is ultimately a human story. Like people the world over, Marjane, her family, and others she interacts with just want happiness, enjoyment, and to live a good life. They struggle to attend parties and live life in the midst of the repression and the threat of imprisonment, torture, and death.

My favorite character next to Marjane, who shows such spunk as a girl but loses it to depression and despair in her young adult life, is her ever-present grandmother. So full of wisdom, she seemed to be a steadfast rock in the life of Marjane.

At one point, Marjane was in despair about her marriage ending. Her grandmother put it all in perspective. She herself divorced 55 years ago. Better to be alone than with a jerk. Besides, the tears weren’t for the marriage, her grandmother wisely said, they were for being wrong; admitting mistakes is hard.

I can easily see why Persepolis received the accolades it did. Delve into the chaotic world of Iran during the last couple decades of the 20th century through the eyes of an Iranian girl coming of age. Persepolis shows the experiences of an Iranian girl/woman struggling with the new Iran and with European culture.

Movie review: House of Flying Daggers (2004)

House of Flying Daggers is your standard Chinese action movie. The story is set in early medieval China around 859 CE when the famous Tang Dynasty was in its decline—sword play, martial arts, fight scenes, rebellion, romance abound.

House of Flying Daggers refers to an organized anti-government society. Low-level government officials are originally tasked with destroying the group. The rebel leader had been killed but his blind daughter is rumored to be in the area. The assignment of two government officials (Leo and Jin) is to find and capture her.

Through elaborate tricks and double-tricks and triple-tricks, Jin sets out to befriend a woman who is presumed to be the blind daughter. In numerous fight scenes, Mei gives a convincing performance of being the woman they are looking for.

Only she isn’t. Jin isn’t the only one pretending to be something he is not. As it turns out, she is not blind. And she is not the recently assassinated rebel leader’s daughter. She is a decoy to lure the government into a trap.

Leo isn’t what he seems either. He is a stooge for the House of Flying Daggers, a spy for them in the government. He loves Mei and has been separated from her for three long years. His love turns to anger when he discovers that Mei has fallen in love with Jin and out of love with him.

He attempts to rape Mei but is stopped by the leader of the House of Flying Daggers who chastises him with the words “You can’t force a woman against her will.” His anger only increases and simmers as he is sent back to his role as government spy.

I was struck by this scene. The theme of strong women and their rights to bodily integrity that I have witnessed in other modern Chinese action films is a welcome change. In the end though, Mei is killed by Leo. Restraint of violence against women can only be curtailed so far, it seems. The message from House of the Flying Daggers: While raping a lover is frowned upon, a spurned lover killing the object of his obsession is still OK.

House of Flying Daggers centers on the relationship of Jin and Mei as they flee from government soldiers. Neither are who they seem, but the organizations that they are a part of aren’t either. Mei, Jin, and Leo are simply cogs in organizations greater than them that merely use them and do not exist for their wellbeing—a damning commentary of rebellious organizations…and the government.

Movie review: Atonement (2007)

Atonement is an exceptionally well-made movie and exceedingly sad story. This British film starts on a country estate in 1935. Briony is an inspiring writer with the imagination and ignorant naïveté of a thirteen year old. Her elder sister—elder by many years—was on the verge of a romantic relationship with the son of the housekeeper. Robbie had been put through school by the girls’ father and was planning on continuing to become a doctor.

But that changed one evening with evidence that Briony gave to police. In the blink of an eye, his future was destroyed, the dreams with her sister wiped out, and families torn apart.

At dinner it was discovered that visiting twin relatives left a note before they disappeared. The members of the dinner—the main family, a brother’s friend, visiting relations, and Robbie—went off in the night in search of them. During the search, Briony stumbles across someone attempting to rape her cousin Lola.

Briony was convinced it was Robbie, based on an impassioned note that Robbie had written to her sister and her catching them having sex in the library before dinner. Robbie was a sexual pervert. He must have attacked Lola.

Only he didn’t.

But to prison he went and then to the army to fight in France. Ultimately he died, never making it back to Cecila, who was waiting for him all those years to restart their lives together. Cecila herself a nurse in London was killed a few months later seeking refuge in a subway during a bombing blitz.

Briony became a professional writer, carrying with her the lifelong shame of providing false testimony, ruining the lives of so many, and losing her own family in the process. Her last book was Atonement, a recounting of the story with changes to the ending that brought Cecilia and Robbie together to enjoy the happiness they deserved instead of their separate deaths.

Atonement is a hard story to watch…and a reminder that something so simple—an erroneous eyewitness account—could have such dire consequences.