Film

Happy Birthday Mr Stoker

Born – November 8, 1847
Died – April 20, 1912
167 Today!

In honour of Bram Stoker’s birthday I offer a review of Dracula Untold, the latest movie which draws on characters created by Bram Stoker in his novel Dracula. Like the novel, the film turns the historical figure of Vlad Dracula into a vampire.

Spoiler Alert
The following discussion gives away key points in the film.

Dracula Untold – The Man

The film tells the story of how Vlad Dracula becomes a vampire to save his country from Ottoman forces. Narrated through the eyes of his son, the film is a confused melding of historical fact and fiction. Sadly the Vlad Dracula in Dracula Untold is less a formidable warrior and more a passive negotiator.

After spending part of his childhood with the Sultan as a ransom, Vlad returns to rule his Transylvanian homeland bearing physical and psychological scars. Vlad is portrayed as a peaceful and benevolent ruler, a doting father to his son Ingeras and a loving and romantic husband to his wife Mirena. The only thing they fear is the encroaching Ottoman Army. Vlad dutifully pays the Sultan his tributes and hopes that as he obeys the law the Sultan won’t try and conquer Transylvania. Nonetheless he is constantly on the lookout for any signs of invading Turks.

Early in the story representatives from the Sultan gatecrash dinner at Vlad’s. They have come for their monetary tribute and to tell Vlad the price has gone up – the Sultan now wants young boys for his army. When the time comes for Vlad to give Ingeras to the Turks, he meekly complies until, bullied by his wife, he finally decides to fight. And that is when we see the first glimpse of who and what Vlad Dracula is – a brilliant and deadly fighter!

Sadly, that’s the only glimpse we get. Fearful of the Sultan’s retaliation Vlad becomes a vampire so he can fight the Ottoman Army. Using his newfound powers he single handedly takes on the Ottoman Army. After a few battles, Vlad finally wins the war but at the cost of his wife. Having secured the safety of his son, Vlad gives up his vampiric life, dies but is resurrected by a mysterious stranger. Ingeras is installed as the new Transylvanian leader. Ingeras talks about the legacy of his father, saying that people think he was a monster but that he knows the truth –  his father died a hero.

A major issue with this filmic Vlad Dracula is that he is so disconnected from his warrior past. When Vlad has to don his Dragon warrior suit of armour he is reluctant. Rather than being proud of his Dragon history he says it is something he wished he never had to do again! The historical Vlad Dracula was proud of his family heritage, the role he and his family played in protecting Wallachia from Ottoman rule and their ordination into the Order of the Dragon. The real Vlad Dracula never shirked away from battle. He was a master strategist and a fierce warrior. He fought until the end. Yet his skill and pride in being a warrior is not portrayed in the film. Vlad seems more a shambling desperado than a ruthless and strategic leader who foiled and bewildered the Ottomans time and time again.

Vlad also appears to have no standing army and no way to defend himself from the Turks. The first battle he has after becoming a vampire is fought on his own. Vlad strides into enemy forces wielding his vampiric skills, but where are his Transylvanian soldiers? After the battle is won Vlad returns home where a few of his men are holding swords. Vlad eventually has to turn them into vampires so they can beat the Turks. This is not the army the historical Vlad led. The historical Vlad’s army was vasty outnumbered by the Turks but still managed to best them multiple times.

Vlad’s role as a husband and father is also problematic. Vlad seems to be led more by his wife and his need to protect his son, than by his desire to protect his people and his land. One thing we know about the historical Vlad is that he put his country first and desperately fought against the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire into Wallachia. Little is known of his role as a husband and father but, for the small amount that is known it is probably a good guess to say he wasn’t going to be winning any husband or father of the year awards! For those of us with some knowledge of the historical Vlad Dracula, watching this cinematic version waltz around as a love-sick pacifist is deeply disturbing.

But the main issue with Dracula Untold is that one of history’s greatest and most feared warriors is successful, not through his own skills, but by becoming a vampire and gaining supernatural powers. The real truth is the historical Vlad Dracula didn’t need magical powers to beat the Ottoman Army – he was just that good!

Dracula Untold – The Vampire

So how did Vlad become a vampire in this filmic version?

On one of his scouting missions Vlad finds a Turkish helmet in the river. Vlad thinks the Turks are holed up in a cave in Broken Tooth Mountain. When Vlad and his team investigate they find not just the dead Turks, but a monster who kills Vlad’s men and nearly Vlad himself. Vlad drags himself into the sunlight and saves himself – but not for long.

After killing the Turkish soldiers, Vlad returns to the vampire’s cave to make a deal. He wants vampire powers so he can take on the Ottoman Army. The ancient vampire makes a deal with Vlad and allows him to drink his blood. Vlad will have all the powers and all the restrictions that come with being a vampire for three days. If he can control his raging bloodlust for that time he will revert to being a human again. If he gives in to his bloodlust then he is doomed to remain a vampire. Vlad sets about conquering the Ottoman incursion in three days.

Throughout his three days Vlad is able to curb his bloodlust even when tested by a stranger who tries to lure him into drinking his blood. On the final day of Vlad’s vampirism, Ingeras is taken by the Turks and Mirena falls to her death. As she lays dying in Vlad’s arms she forces him to drink her blood to become a vampire permanently so he will have the time and strength to save Ingeras. Most of Vlad’s subjects have been killed by the Turks so Vlad transforms the survivors into vampires. With his vampiric army Vlad is finally able to conquer the Turks and rescue his son. As he stands there with Ingeras, Vlad’s vampire army surrounds him and demands that he kill the human child for them. But Vlad has used his power to cloud over the rising sun and, to save Ingeras, he dismisses the clouds, letting the sun burn away his army and himself. Ingeras is taken away to safety by a priest. Shortly afterward, the stranger who tested Vlad returns and feeds Vlad his blood. Vlad is resurrected.

The final scenes are set in the present day. Mirena, now named Mina, has been reborn and Vlad has come to claim her. The two walk off together, unaware that they are being followed by the ancient vampire from Broken Tooth Mountain. The ancient vampire says “Let the games begin”. And so the film ends.

The vampire part of the film is the most interesting. Having a three day clause where you can have all the powers of the vampire and then give them back is an interesting idea. Of course you can’t drink blood in those three days. It is this aspect that is slightly problematic as much of Vlad’s vampiric time is spent trying not to succumb to his blood lust. We are therefore denied scenes of him drinking the blood of his enemies – although that does eventually happen! The main focus of Vlad’s vampiric power is his ability to use bats as an army. Vlad can summon a swarm of bats and aim them at the Ottoman troops. While they are busy protecting themselves from the bat swarm, Vlad, who can also turn himself into a flock of bats, wades in and kills them.

The final battle is between Vlad and his Turkish nemesis Mehmed. It is a classic grudge match. Vlad and Mehmed were as close as brothers when Vlad was a “guest” of the Sultan. But now Mehmed has waged war on Vlad, killed his wife and taken his son. When Vlad confronts Mehmed in his tent he finds sliver coins strewn everywhere. In this film, vampires are allergic to silver. What is interesting is that the coins are Transylvanian – they are the tribute Vlad has just paid to the Sultan. When Mehmed throws coins into Vlad’s face he is symbolically “rubbing Vlad’s face” in his powerlessness. Weakened by the coins Vlad falls and Mehmed tries to stake him, remarking on the irony of the Impaler dying by being impaled. But Vlad uses his bat power to morph and ends up staking Mehmed. He then bites Mehmed and drinks his blood proving that Vlad is no longer a victim but the victor.

One of the interesting issues with Vlad as vampire is that he, like his human self, lacks strategic knowledge. Once Vlad becomes a vampire he can use his strength to best the Ottomans but not his military know-how. It seems that every step that Vlad takes, the Ottoman Army is one step ahead – they find his monastery sanctuary and, while Vlad is engaged in battle, kidnap his son and kill his wife. By weakening Vlad as a man they have weakened him as a vampire. Vlad’s seeming ineptitude is so different to not only the historical Vlad but also to Stoker’s vampire Vlad. What makes Dracula so hard to find in England is his military background and strategic nous. Dracula plans his move from Transylvania to England with military precision. He buys property around the country for his hiding places. He employs multiple companies to do his transactions so that no one company or person knows all his plans. Fundamentally it is Count Dracula’s life as Vlad Dracula that makes him so hard to find and kill. He is ultimately caught, but only because the vampire hunters employ the same strategic skills as Dracula in their quest.

A Confusion Of Draculas

The problem with combining the historical Vlad Dracula with the literary Count Dracula is that Vlad Dracula does not need Dracula. Prince Dracula is an incredible figure with a history that doesn’t need to be attached to vampire mythology. The real question is “Did the literary Dracula need Vlad Dracula”? Would Stoker’s vampire have been so powerful without the name Dracula? Would he have been so captivating without his Transylvanian history? It is a question that can never be answered, however I suspect he did.

The beauty of Bram Stoker’s creation of the vampire Count Dracula is that he alludes to the history of Vlad Dracula but never actually makes anything really clear about the warrior Prince. We know that the vampire Count Dracula is the once human Vlad Dracula aka Vlad The Impaler/Tepes. There are some historical inaccuracies, but overall, Stoker remains faithful to the spirit of the historical Vlad Dracula.

Similarly it is never made clear in the novel when, how or why Dracula becomes a vampire. Was Vlad a vampire during his years of battle with the Ottoman Empire? Did he become a vampire after his death? We also don’t know how he became a vampire. There is talk of him attending The Scholomance – the Devil’s School. Did he learn the art of vampiric transformation there? And why did he become a vampire? Did he turn willingly or unwillingly? Was it for power or for love? Again there are no answers in the novel. The reader is left with many questions and the power of their own imaginations! By not letting us know when, how or why Dracula became a vampire, Stoker cleverly leaves the historical Prince Dracula the dignity of his human history as a warrior and a Prince. If only this movie could have given Vlad Dracula the same respect.

Ace of Stakes

Dracula Painting

Maleficent Obsession

I’m not surprised that witches rarely get to speak their own truths in popular culture. It seems when they do, they don’t have anything positive to say about men in power.

Following on from Wicked comes the movie Maleficent. Based on fairytales and the Disney Film Sleeping Beauty, the film is Maleficent’s version of what really happened in Sleeping Beauty.

There are so many ways of approaching and analysing this film. One easy way is to discuss it in three parts:

The Early Years

Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Retold

The Ending

It’s a classic narrative structure – beginning, middle and end. But what happens in these sections is not necessarily classic, nor expected.

The first part sets the scene. There are two worlds that live side by side. The Fairy World, called The Moors, which is magical, rich, peaceful and free of rulers. Over the river is the Human World, which is not magical, has rich and poor people, is warlike and ruled by a tyrannical King.

Stefan, a poor, young human boy, goes to The Moors to steal some of their precious jewels. He is caught and meets the young Maleficent who is a winged and horned fairy. The two, who are both orphans, form a friendship that, over the years, turns to love. Or does it? On her 16th birthday Maleficent is given a gift of “true love’s kiss” by Stefan. However, he then goes back to the human world and pursues a life of politics and no longer visits Maleficent. Maleficent is heartbroken but grows up to become The Moors’ strongest and most powerful fairy. Scenes of her soaring through the sky on her majestic wings, towering above the land like an archangel, emphasise her power and majesty. Consequently, although they don’t really have rulers, she becomes a leader and defender of the Moors.

When the human King decides he wants to conquer The Moors and take all their wealth, he is met in battle by Maleficent. The King and his warriors are quickly overpowered by Maleficent, her magical powers and her tree army. Back in his castle the defeated, mortally wounded and humiliated King offers the throne to the man who can kill Maleficent and bring him her head. Standing by his bed is Stefan – what will he do?

Well what he does ushers in the main part of the movie – the reworked Sleeping Beauty. But before we get to Disney, we have to watch something quite traumatic and quite extraordinary. And now sadly I have to issue the inevitable SPOILER ALERT. The rest of the discussion will give away nearly everything in the film so if you don’t want to know what happens, watch the movie and then come back here 🙂

Stephan returns to Maleficent to warn her about the King. It is as though the years of separation have never been. Or that’s what Maleficent thinks. Stefan says he will stay now and offers her a drink. Those of a suspicious mind like me suspect that the minute she drinks that drink she is doomed. Sadly, we are right. Maleficent is drugged and falls asleep. Stefan grabs his knife and gets ready to kill her. But he can’t. Instead he cuts off her wings and takes them with him. When Maleficent awakes and finds out what has been done to her she screams and that scream resonates through the cinema, down our spines and into our souls. It is this scene that has been most discussed since the movie’s release, but what has actually happened?

Many have questioned why there is such a scene in a film that will be seen by children. Some reviewers point to its allegorical link to date rape. Others have drawn links to the mutilation of female bodies. Some braver reviewers, following on the theme of female mutilation, have mentioned the actor Angelina Jolie’s recent double mastectomy and drawn links there. What do I think?  All of the above. But twelve years of feminist psychoanalytic film theory can’t stop me from thinking of Freud, and with Freud comes Oedipus and castration. Although the mutilation scene in Maleficent is almost text book Freud, there is no way I will go into a discussion of oedipal/castration theory – I still sometimes wake in the middle of the night, terrified I’ll have to read Jacques Lacan again! But it is an interesting way of exploring the film, if you’re into that stuff 🙂

Stefan believes that by taking Maleficent’s wings, not only has he won his place as next in line to the throne, but that he has disarmed and nullified a powerful threat. But rather than disempowering Maleficent, all he has done is take away a form of mobility from her. Granted it is a magnificent and spectacular form, but that is all it is. She still has all her magical powers and thus remains powerful. Maleficent uses a crow, Diaval, to be her wings and bewitches him into human form when she needs information. When Diaval brings Maleficent the news that King Stefan is having a christening for his daughter Aurora, we move straight into a new version of Disney.

Maleficent arrives, uninvited to the christening. She may lack wings but her all black outfit and magnificent horns exude power. Horns were an ancient symbol of power before christianity turned them into a symbol of evil and the devil. Ironically, some of the women at the christening are wearing those medieval hats that make them look like they have horns, but they don’t. The women in the human world are powerless. The only powerful woman in the room is Maleficent. She has two real horns – double the power! And she wields that power!

Maleficent curses the baby Aurora to prick her finger on a spinning wheel spindle and fall into a permanent sleep on her 16th birthday. Stefan pleads with Maleficent to undo the curse. She says she likes to see him beg and makes him get down on his knees. He does. The camera pans around the room to show the disapproving faces of his subjects. He then begs her. Maleficent relents. She will allow the curse to be broken but only by “true love’s kiss”; a vicious dig at Stefan’s birthday gift to her all those years ago. She leaves and chaos ensues.

King Stefan demands the destruction of all the spinning wheels in the kingdom and sends Aurora off to live with three pixies. It’s never explained why these three pixies from The Moors are there and why they obey the impotent King Stefan. Perhaps not surprisingly, they are completely inept at their job. If left to their guidance and care, baby Aurora will never make it to her 16th birthday.

This is where the film takes a major turn. To make sure her curse will come to fruition, Maleficent, in secret and from the sidelines, steps in and helps raise the baby Aurora. During the years that follow she forms a close bond with the girl and realises that she doesn’t want her to be cursed. She tries to revoke the curse but her own words – “no power on earth can undo this” – come back to haunt her. She fails and Aurora will go on to fulfill her cursed destiny. But we all know that Aurora will be woken by “true love’s kiss”. Or will she?

As she approaches her 16th birthday, in quick succession Aurora meets a young prince, finds out the truth about Maleficent and her curse, discovers that it is her father who betrayed Maleficent and took her wings and returns to the castle in time to prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a cursed sleep. Maleficent brings the young Prince Phillip to the castle to undo the curse. He kisses the sleeping Aurora. Does she wake? Well no. Both Stefan and Maleficent believe that there is no such thing as true love – their own relationship proves that. So what happens? Aurora is awoken by “true love’s kiss” but it is Maleficent’s kiss that wakes her. After waking up, Aurora decides to live with Maleficent in The Moors and the two try to leave the castle. But one last fight remains.

The final battle between King Stefan and Maleficent is brutal. Stefan has remembered from his time in The Moors that the fairies can be burned by iron. He traps Maleficent in an iron net and prepares to kill her. Weakened and trapped she puts up a good fight but she is overwhelmed. Meanwhile upstairs, Aurora finds Maleficent’s wings in a glass case. She breaks the case and the wings find Maleficent and attach themselves to her. She is made whole again and given a means of escape. Stefan realises his daughter has helped Maleficent and he grabs Maleficent’s leg as she escapes through the window. They continue their fight. Maleficent bests him but rather than kill him she suggests they just let it go. Stefan can’t and makes a final attack which sees him plummet to his death.

We now enter the very short finale – the happy ending. Maleficent and Aurora are in The Moors. The place is beautiful and light, for it became a cold, dark place after Maleficent lost her wings. Aurora, whose name means Dawn, has brought light back to The Moors and restored Maleficent’s broken heart. Maleficent holds a gold crown in her hands and proclaims Aurora Queen of both the Moors and the human world. The two worlds are finally united. Prince Phillip watches from the sidelines. He and Aurora will possibly get married but the power structure in that relationship is vastly different to Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Phillip did not awaken Aurora and is therefore not her saviour. Phillip is also a Prince whereas Aurora is now a Queen, of not one realm but two. In Maleficent, the power in both realms has been given by and taken by a woman. It would seem that in this world true power comes from women and to women.

Although the happy ending is the shortest part of the film it packs the biggest punch. From the moment Maleficent awakens Aurora, the bond between mothers and daughters and the power of female friendships takes on new meaning. In Maleficent, true love is that between a surrogate mother and her child. Maleficent, rather than fear or resent the younger Princess, as so many fairy tale step-mothers and witches do, happily passes on her position of power to the next generation. Aurora is also given one last source of power. The narrator informs us that it is she, Aurora, and not Maleficent, who has told us this tale. And that is a powerful voice to have – the voice of narration. By working together, Maleficent and Aurora achieve mighty things. Maleficent gets back her stolen wings, her broken heart is healed and her realm restored to its former glory and Aurora becomes a Queen of two realms.

Maleficent would have us believe that it is not men who wield personal, political or magical power but women. If this is what they have to say, is it any wonder powerful, magical women have been kept silent for so long?

 

waiting to brew

waiting to brew

ACHOO! The sneeze heard across the world

It started on my Facebook feed with a friend liking the post of someone I didn’t know. The post was about a viral youtube clip being made into a movie. The clip – Sneezing Baby Panda. The film – Sneezing Baby Panda: The Movie. So thanks to this Facebook like I got to see a movie I may never have known about otherwise.

The movie, made by the two Australian documentary filmmakers who shot the original footage, is an unusual blend of documentary and fiction. The film is about an Australian zoologist and her struggling zoo. When she sees the footage of the sneezing baby panda on youtube, she decides to travel to China and bring back Chi Chi, the grown up sneezing baby panda. She hopes this will encourage more visitors to come to her zoo. The grown up Chi Chi is played by the famous American born panda Tai Shan.

Tai Shan

Tai Shan: The Movie Star

While it was fun it was also jolting. In between the fiction fun there was documentary information about pandas. The hardest bit to sit through was the footage of the devastating earthquake that hit the Sichuan Province in May, 2008. The damage wrought by the earthquake was immense. One of the many places destroyed was the Woolong Panda Research Centre. Sadly one of the pandas, Mao Mao, was crushed to death in her enclosure. In the film Mao Mao is supposed to be the mother in the Sneezing Baby Panda clip. I’m not sure if this is true or simply a way to bring Mao Mao into the film. That is one of the issues with melding documentary with fiction – you are not quite sure what is real information and what isn’t. But, I am pretty sure that the panda surfing and jumping a shark is not based on fact! So while the film is mostly funny, those of us who remember Mao Mao will be saddened by the reminder of her tragic death. Australia’s Adelaide Zoo panda Wang Wang is Mao Mao’s son. I can’t help but remember his mother whenever I see him.

Wang Wang

Mao Mao’s son Wang Wang

Today is Mother’s Day and I thought I would pay tribute to all the mothers in the wild and in captivity who are doing their job and making sure our beloved animals continue roaming our beautiful planet – our Mother Earth.

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hitching a ride koala style

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icelandic horse cuddle

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hippopotamus snuggles

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peccary kiss

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watchful tree kangaroo mum

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time for a turkey talk

 

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hungry baby fur seal

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something better than bamboo – panda milk!