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16.-20. Films from my travels

16. Byzantium (2012), dir. Neil Jordan

This was another Google Play Movies film, which I hadn't consciously heard of before this year, but which came up when I started typing search terms such as 'Dracula' and 'vampires' into their database. It sounded from their description like it was going to be pretty trashy and maybe even a bit porny, but the pickings of vampire films which they had available and which I hadn't already seen were slim indeed, so I downloaded it anyway, and watched it in a wonderful log-cabin in Queensland (LJ / DW) with nothing but darkness and the sounds of the rainforest all around me.

Happily, the on-site description turned out to be almost entirely misleading. It is actually a really great film, and I think one of the most feminist vampire films I have ever seen. The basic crack is that there is a secret society of vampires called The Brethren, all of whom are white, male and aristocratic, and who jealously guard the knowledge of how to become a vampire to keep it for themselves and their chosen associates. Early in the 19th century, a young woman called Clara has her innocence exploited by a human aristocrat to seduce her and push her into prostitution, and soon ends up broken and riddled wih tuberculosis. But when she over-hears a visitor to the brothel telling her exploiter that he knows the secret of vampirism, she sees her chance at life, steals the secret and takes immortality for herself. Once transformed, she secretly watches over Eleanor, her daughter whom she had borne early on and been forced to give up to an orphanage, and when Eleanor in turn is raped and infected with syphilis by the same exploiter, she uses the secret once again to transform her too into a vampire and save her.

Most of this we learn gradually via flash-backs from the present day. Eleanor and Clara are still living together and have been on the run ever since from the Brethren, who are of course furious that two low-born women have stolen their secret power. Clara, still fiercely protective of her daughter, ekes out a living as a sex-worker because that's all she knows, and torches the places they have occupied each time they move on to help hide their tracks. Meanwhile, Eleanor tries to come to a moral accommodation with her vampirism - for example by killing only those who are near to and actively longing for death anyway - and periodically risks their safety by trying to befriend humans and telling them about her and Clara's past.

Things resolve in a somewhat more traditional fashion at the end of the film, when Eleanor and Clara are saved from the Brethren by an old admirer of Clara's (rather than saving themselves), and both women are rewarded by getting paired off into happily-ever-after romances. But still! A film which is basically about disadvantaged women stealing noble men's privilege, forging their own paths with it and triumphing in the end? I am totally here for that.

17. Let the Right One In (2008), dir. Tomas Alfredson

This one I watched in Melbourne on my friend mr_tom's clever magical telly-box full of downloaded movies. It is widely highly-regarded amongst vampire film fans, and I absolutely agree. I thought it was beautifully shot and scripted, and loved how it gave vampirism a sense of reality by showing it as utterly brutal and animalistic while also thinking hard about how such a creature would operate logistically in the modern world. Apparently the main vampire character, Eli, is supposed to be gender-ambiguous, but I'm afraid I missed this on viewing and only really know about it from reading the Wikipedia page. I just thought the human boy character was surprised to see Eli's pubic hair, rather than any scar, when he saw her without clothes on, and that when Eli said "I'm not a girl" he / she simply meant they weren't human. I wish I had noticed at the time, though, as I feel it adds an extra layer of poignancy to both characters. The ending is ostensibly a happy one, as they appear to have settled into an accepting relationship all of their own, much like the vampire girl and the human boy (Arash) in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014). But I felt that, given the beginning of this film, there was considerably more scope for predicting an unhappy fate for Oskar (the boy) a few years down the line. After all, its opening scenes already showed us Eli's last human devotee, Håkan, failing him / her and dying miserably as a result...

18. Crimson Peak (2015), dir. Guillermo del Toro

Another one from mr_tom's telly-box, which I had meant to see in the cinema but never quite got round to. Pace [personal profile] calliopes_pen, whom I know loves it, I'm afraid I found it hugely disappointing. It's one of those films which sounds good on paper – Tom Hiddleston, a haunted Gothic mansion in Yorkshire, a dysfunctional family with a violent past – but just doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. It lost a lot of points in particular for the fact that the family house looked exactly like a classic American haunted house, and nothing at all like anything in the UK, let alone Yorkshire specifically. I don't mean that merely as an aesthetic complaint or gripe against the primacy of American culture, either - it's symptomatic of a major problem inherent in the film, which was the sacrificing of potential atmosphere, all the stronger for being rooted in realism, for over-blown symbolic pastiche. The same issue applied to the ghosts, which were far too corporeal, so that they reminded me more of the roaring CGI monsters in the terrible 1999 remake of House on Haunted Hill than anything creepy or otherworldly. Similarly, where we could have had a compelling psychological portrayal of Edith (the main character)'s slow realisation of her circumstances, we were just flipped straight into melodrama and quivering terror instead. And it annoyed me that she was supposedly 'a writer', but nothing much was ever made of this and it didn't seem to me to make any difference at all to the way her character experienced the events of the film. In short, a very good example of why I usually avoid modern horror films and stick to those made before about 1980 instead - though, to be fair, Byzantium and Let the Right One In above are both strong counter-examples, so it does clearly pay to explore beyond my comfort-zone sometimes.

19. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) dir. David Yates

Watched on the plane from Sydney to Singapore. It would undoubtedly have looked better on a big screen, allowing all the strange creatures and scenes of 1930s New York to shine in their full glory, but it was still very pretty and pleasant to watch. That said, Eddie Redmayne was a bit more Hugh Grantish than I would have liked, and I had difficulties with the ending. The whole film is all about how Grindlewald’s plan to wipe out muggles (or ‘no-majs’, as they’re called in the States) is a Bad Thing, and how the mainstream magical community’s own strict rules about non-mixed marriages aren’t exactly helping to counter it. So, great, there's a good and very appropriate message there about how full-blown fascism is facilitated by structural racism. But then the no-maj character who has accidentally become embroiled in the magical world, fallen in love with a witch and (crucially) proven himself absolutely trustworthy to the magical community doesn't get to be straightforwardly celebrated for his role in defeating Grindlewald, and his relationship with the witch hailed as the first step towards a new and brighter future. No, he himself cheerfully agrees that it’s probably best for him to voluntarily step into some magical rain which will obliviate his memories of the whole thing, including their relationship. Even worse, just as he is standing in the rain and his memories are fading, the witch he’s fallen in love with steps forward and kisses him, knowing he won’t know she's doing it or remember anything about it. A follow-up scene in which we see her coming into his bakery and both of them smiling at each other with the implication that they will start all over again isn't enough to redeem all this for me, either. Why couldn’t they have just kept the honest, straightforward relationship they already had, rather than having to forge a new one which will be imbalanced from the start because she already knows lots of things about both of them which he doesn’t remember, which has the potential for dishonesty because she can now choose to keep him in the dark about her true magical nature, and is tainted by the fact that she has already kissed him when he didn’t know about it and couldn’t consent? I basically just really hate memory-wiping of all kinds in fantasy stories - it's lazy writing at best and very often (as here) comes as part of a package with characters trampling merrily over any notions of consent. So, down with that, and boo to it being in this movie.

20. Spectre (2015), dir. Sam Mendes

Watched on the plane on my final leg of the journey, from Singapore to London. I probably didn’t follow every detail of the plot, because the sound was ill-balanced, so that I could only follow what the characters were saying if they articulated clearly and crisply – and not all did. Still, it doesn’t really matter for a Bond film, does it? Essentially they are about expensive cars, jet-setting and looking cool, and this one did not disappoint in any of those departments. I liked that the overall plot carried a very liberal message about the dangers of centralisation and cyber-surveillance, and that the main female lead told Bond he couldn’t teach her anything about guns and rescued him at one point. Job done.

OK, that's enough of a batch for the time being to hit 'post', I think. Plenty more still to come, though! ;-)

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