May 18th, 2004

Van Helsing, 05-16-04

We were glad to have seen this creature feature for matinee prices Sunday afternoon, which made it seem fair value for the money. “Van Helsing” is visually stunning to the extent that it exalts style over sense over and over again. In fact, “over again” might be the theme of the movie, as it repeats itself internally many times, as well as of course being an attempt at resurrecting the ‘Universal Monsters” franchise. The movie opens with a scene that echos the ending of the orginal “Frankenstein” movie complete with the monster trapped in the burning windmill. We then see Van Helsing in Paris, hunting down the monsterous Mr. Hyde in a sequence that also borrows heavily from “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” I’m just not sure if the huge and apish Hyde portrayed here is intended as an homage, or is just a blatant ripoff of “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” but the similarity is obvious. In the first of many stylistic riffs, Van Helsing masks his face with a bandanna that bears the Illuminati eye in the pyramid sigil. Task accomplished, he returns to Rome for scenes out of James Bond—debriefing and new mission assignment from the acerbic superior, plus the visit to Q Branch to be outfitted for vampire hunting. (A major one of the nonsensical stylistic touches occurs here. His major weapon is a crossbow, which incorporates a pneumatic machine gun that actually propels the bolts. In that case, why bother with the bow and string, which he never uses? The answer is, “it looks cool”.) The forces of good are under siege in Transylvania--. Van Helsing and henchman take ship across the Adriatic, presumably to avoid crossing the Alps, but end up crossing snow-covered passes anyway—eh? Oh, it’s winter in Transylvania—even though, as we find out later, he set out well before All Hallows’ Eve, which date occurs later in the film. Since the movie also includes werewolves, full moons occur with unnatural frequency, apparently about a week apart. The plot manages to tie together Dracula, Frankenstein, and werewolves with reasonable coherency for horror/adventure movie standards but one could wish it existed as more than just an excuse for stringing together over-the-top fight scenes and special effects. As it turns out, Van Helsing is immortal, and can take a licking and keep on ticking, OK. But Anna Valerious, although she comes from tough stock, is merely human, and therefore withstands a ridiculous number of spine-shattering impacts. And I don’t care, if you aren’t Spider-man, if you’ve already fallen twenty stories, you CAN’T catch yourself on a conveniently dangling cable and swing to a soft landing, something which Van Helsing, Anna, and even the Frankenstein Monster (!) all do at least once. The sheer amount of “action” is actually wearing after a while.

Oh, well. Take your critical brain out of gear and enjoy the thrill ride. The vampires look great, and the lightning-fast transformations between forms are very smoothly done. Drac and his brides have been reading Anne Rice, since they are able to do a lot of her vampires’ tricks like moving too fast to be seen and levitating without changing to a “bat”. The brides’ harpy-like flying forms are one of the best design elements in the film, along with Dracula’s demonic form, which seems to refer to the “Demon of the Mountain” from “Fantasia.” In fact, catching the other film references is one of the fun things about this movie. Other than the ones already mentioned, you can see references to “The Lord of the Rings,” (every castle in Transylvania seems to have been designed by Sauron), “Vampire Hunter D,” in Van Helsing’s outfit, “Blade,” in some of his weapons, “Alien,” “The Terminator,” “Young Frankenstein,” and of course all of the original classic monster movies.

One other quibble: Why does Dracula, who, according to this movie, became a vampire in 1470-something, seem to have his fashion sense stuck in 1780?

It’s hard to distinguish acting in this film from direction and characterization as written. Van Helsing is a very stiff-upper-lip character with “issues”, so we don’t see a lot of emoting from Hugh Jackman, rather disappointing from the actor who made “Logan” the most likeable character in the “X-Men” movies. Kate Beckinsale as Anna (who is the Princess/Queen of Transylvania/the Gypsies/the May?—another muddle.) plays a good, no-nonsense tough-minded character and manages to maintain her accent evenly throughout. David Wenham as Carl, the friar from Q-branch, adds a good bit of “Monty Python/Blackadder” comic relief. Richard Roxburgh makes his Dracula another one of the long line of mad villains intent on taking over the world—respectable, but not how I think of Dracula.

Mefistofile, San Francisco Opera (video)

Mephistofle, San Francisco Opera (video)

From the ridiculous to the (more nearly) sublime, we spent parts of the last couple of evenings watching a video-tape of the San Francisco Opera’s production of “Mephistofle,” by Arrigo Boito. The video is produced by Kultur (, who has a deadly dangerous catalog of Opera and live theatre performances. Their blurb on the video sums it up: “Samuel Ramey has won overwhelming critical acclaim for his performance in the title role of this San Francisco Opera production of Boito's operatic masterpiece based on Goethe's "Faust". Robert Carsen's sumptuous post-modern production is a gloriously decadent and theatrically stunning realization, and the San Francisco Opera's performance has been unanimously acclaimed in both Paris and San Francisco. Also featuring Gabriela Benackova and Dennis O'Neill, conducted by Maurizio Arena.”

Boito’s adaptation of the Faust myth is daring in a number of ways, chiefly in that he makes the tempter Mephistopheles, whom many critics acknowledge is the most interesting character in the story, the main character. Boito does so by opening the opera with the devil literally climbing out of the “pit” (in this case, the orchestra pit) to visit Heaven, where (borrowing from the story of Job) he makes a wager with God that he can corrupt and claim the soul of Faust. The story plays out in the classical fashion as Mephistopheles temps Faust with youth and power, leads him to seduce and abandon the innocent Marguerite, to be seduced and abandoned by Helen of Troy, to try and fail to rescue Marguerite, and finally for Heaven’s grace to reach out and pluck Faust from the devil’s grasp at the last moment. Mephistopheles’ defeat is wonderfully ironic, since he gives Faust the key to escape: he taunts Faust, telling him that hi unhappiness is due to his failure to say to any moment in his life, “Stay, for thou art beautiful.” Instead, Faust has always wanted more, pursued the next illusion. When Faust is granted a vision of heaven, he cries out the words the devil has given him, acknowledging the eternal beauty of Heaven, and is saved thereby.

Boito’s opera is less frequently performed than the more familiar “Faust” by Charles Gounod, partly because of its subversive take on the subject matter, but, as we saw, it can be hugely expensive to mount. San Francisco’s 1997 production pulled out all the stops, including using a huge chorus and cast of supernumeraries, who appear in each scene except the prison scene, and must be costumed as angels, carnival revelers, or ancient Greeks, depending upon the act (plus, a corps de ballet for the Greek scene). Samuel Ramey was indeed great in the title role, using a very expressive face and body as well as beautiful bass voice to get across the wit and humour of the character. Gabriela Benackova has a big voice and sang wonderfully in the dual role of Marguerite and Helen, and both were ably supported vocally by Dennis O’Neill in the role of Faust. This video is well worth tracking down and seeing if you care for opera at all. Your public library system may have it (ours did).