After suffering through the insufferable “Assassin’s Creed” (made redeemable for its flashes of Michael Fassbender’s shirtless upper torso), I had abandoned hope there would be a half-way decent, even mediocre, cinematic — or TV — adaptation of a video game.
Some have gotten close (“Silent Hill” happens to be my favorite), but most attempts are downright awful.
Netflix defies this curse. The streaming giant’s new and way too short four-part series “Castlevania” works.
It’s a gory Gothic experience, a visually arresting production made all the mightier by punchy right hooks of dark humor from writer Warren (“Red”) Ellis, an icon in the adult comic world.
The premise is intriguing: Count Vlad Dracula goes on a rampage in the 15th century after his smart, scientific-focused wife is branded and then burned at the “witch” stake by Catholic detractors.
That all happens in the prologue. In ensuing episodes we meet the sexy but fallen-from-favor Trevor Belmont (voiced by “The Hobbit’s” Richard Armitage), a demon-buster who is a reluctant hero, but a hero nevertheless. He decides to help out.
His fighting skills are much needed since Vlad has gone cuckoo, summoning devilish huge bats to level villages and exterminate everyone. Will the peasants and innocents survive?
The final episode sets the stage for an uprising, and then just ends. But that’s OK.
Why “Castlevina” works while many other adaptations failed is because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Ellis’s irreverence ensures that the carnage (bloody indeed) is balanced with wit. Ellis’s influence makes even the most tried-and-true horror tropes — which are summoned forth here — appear original, even daring.
From the raves garnered by this series, I’m hardly a lone wolf on liking it. Netflix too realizes that it has a hit on its hands, and has already ordered another eight episodes.
Need more recommendations on what to see at this year’s Frameline, S.F.’s LGBTQ film festival?
Here are quick reviews of must-sees I haven’t mentioned yet:
Wednesday, June 21:
“Sensitivity Training”: Due to her blunt put-downs, the HR department orders a tactless but brilliant scientist (Anna Lise Phillips) to undergo vigorous sensitivity training officiated by a perpetually perky life coach (Jill E. Alexander). That setup results in a heartwarming, funny odd-couple matchup, well-excuted by first-time feature director Melissa Finell. (9:30 p.m., June 21, Elmwood; 6:30 p.m., June 24, Victoria)
Thursday, June 22
“4 Days in France”: In this moody, slyly rendered drama with gusts of knowing humor, a lover suddenly disengages from his boyfriend and goes on a rudderless tour outside of Paris. The journey of Pierre (Pascal Cervo) takes unexpected turns as he encounters and sometimes hooks up with strangers. Jerome Reybaud’s long but meaningful debut sticks with you. (noon, Castro)
Friday, June 23
“Alaska Is a Drag”: Shaz Bennett’s feature debut is a winner, a fully realized character drama about Leo (Martin L. Washington Jr.), an athletic young man who dreams about being a drag star while working in a cannery in Alaska. His interactions with his dad, sister, former friend and hunky co-worker (Matt Dallas) pave the way for this compassionate soul to discover more about who he is and what he wants out of life. (9:15 p.m., Castro; 9:15 p.m. June 24, Piedmont)
Frameline — the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival — overflows with well-made and exciting features to mark its 41st year.
Here are seven standouts — in addition to the 10 previously mentioned — you need to check out during the festival’s run, June 15-June 25.
In the days ahead, I’ll be posting short reviews of others, including one that’s my favorite in the lineup.
“Beach Rats”: Talented filmmaker Eliza Hittman’s so-real-it-aches Sundance winner is an insightful character study of a hunky, closeted Brooklyn guy and his sexual hookups and hangups. Featuring a breakthrough performance from Harris Dickinson, it fearlessly visits uncomfortable places and spaces. Watch Hittman’s feature-length debut, “It Felt Like Love” too. It’s a knockout. (7 p.m., June 22, Roxie)
“Prom King 2010”: A college student tries to find his groove, not to mention a rock-solid relationship, while in New York. But alas sex and love in the big city is never easy. Christopher Schaap stars and directs, and his first feature is a sumptuously photographed find. (June 19, Castro)
“God’s Own Country”: Francis Lee’s award-winning, feature-length debut makes you feel not only like you’re a part of the rugged Northern England terra firma but that you’re rolling around in earthy passion. His rich drama about two men — a farmer (Josh O’Connor) and a Romanian ranchhand (Alec Secareanu) — and an undeniable attraction is not only wildy sexy but elemental and real. I love this film. (6:30 p.m. June 17, the Castro)
“A Date for Mad Mary”: An anger-prone maid of honor who’s been freshly released from a prison stint makes a mess of things while finding a date in director Darren Thornton’s observant Ireland-set dramedy. This is beautifully played in every way; funny and touching, and best of all honest. Lead Seana Kerslake is a revelation. (June 18, Victoria; June 24, Piedmont)
“Handsome Devil”: In this formulaic but satisfying coming-out tale, a troubled rugby player (Nicholas Galitzine) rooms with his seemingly polar opposite, the much more demonstrative and picked-upon Conor (Fionn O’Shea, so good). What elevates John Butler’s Ireland-set dramedy from its adherence to a template are the characters and performances, including another standout turn from “Sherlock’s” Andrew Scott as a gay English teacher. (1:30 p.m., June 17, Victora; 9:15 p.m., June 20, the Victoria)
“Becks”: After catching her L.A. girlfriend in the cheating act, a forlorn folk singer Becks (Lena Hall) sullenly shrugs her way back to her conservative Midwest roots. Once there she deals with a faith-centered mom (Christine Lahti, stealing every scene she’s in) who struggles to balance a staunch religious convictions with her desire to support her daughter’s happiness. Meanwhile, Becks strikes up a close friendship with the wife (Mena Suvari) of her former high school tormentor. Bolstered by a nifty soundtrack and good performances — particularly from Lahti — “Becks” is a treat. ( 6:30 p.m., June 21, the Castro)
I’ve been covering Frameline for awhile and believe this year’s program is one of its strongest yet.
Below are 10 films I recommend you check out. The opening night selection — “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin” — along with the closing-night one — the thought-provoking “After Louie” — are must-sees.
I gushed a bit. But, hey, filmmaker Steve James more than deserves it. His new documentary is the, compelling, prize-winning “Abacus: Small Enough to Fail.” On Saturday afternoon, I met Steve and moderated a Q&A after the film was shown in Berkeley.
James is one of America’s finest documentary filmmakers. “Hoop Dreams” is a hallmark, and it remains one of my all-time favorite films. (It makes for ideal viewing during the NBA finals).
Two of his other documentaries, “Life Itself” — on the life and legacy of the iconic film critic Roger Ebert — and “The Interrupters” — about committed Chicago been-there-done-that advocates trying their damnedest to prevent violence — particularly moved me. His “Abacus: Small Enough to Fail” did too. It speaks softly yet effectively.
Scared off by the harsh reviews for “Baywatch” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”? Then seek out “Wakefield,” an indie drama that proves why Bryan Cranston is one of today’s best actors.
Here’s my review.
Anyone stuck in a nightmare commute on a daily basis understands the urge to want to run away from it all.
For most of us that’s temporary fantasy, a coping mechanism until the gridlock lightens up and we arrive at our doorstep.
Howard Wakefield sees his day-in/day-out routine leading to a dead-end street. The cruelly self-absorbed Howard (Bryan Cranston, nailing the part from start to finish) is the unlikeable but fascinating anti-hero dominating director/writer Robin Swicord’s intense character study, an incisive adaptation of an E.L. Doctorow story. Her “Wakefield” gives a complex portrait of a rich white middle-aged man taking drastic steps to upend a cushy life. Howard is a miserable and insufferable man. His life overflows with the comforts the American Dream. He chooses to abandon it all: his high-paying job as a New York lawyer, his gorgeous, former dancer of a wife (Jennifer Garner, so good here), his two indifferent teenaged daughters and, even, his tony suburban home.
What triggers ditching a manicured New York life is a power blackout that interrupts his train commute ride home.
Through voice-over narration delivered with a thespian’s understanding of timing and modulation, Cranston taps into this affluent white guy’s unstable mindset as he holes himself up in the cluttered attic of the family’s garage and watches rather than participates in their life.
It’s incredibly creepy and unsettling as Howard grows a beard, pees in water bottles and scavenges and fights for food scraps and clothing that’s stuffed in overburdened garbage containers. Life in the ‘burbs here is consumed and spit out.
Why is Howard making such a U-turn? He claims he wants to feel a part of something wild and elemental. But, he goes about it in a wretched way, thrusting his family into a crisis and then watching them like Jimmy Stewart as if they were specimens.
Well-placed flashbacks provide more context to who Howard is, particularly how his marriage was the result of a jealousy-fueled competition. One of the most telling exchanges comes in an argument between Howard and his wife Diana. She says to him: “All I want to is to get through the day.”
It’s a telling line that reverberates through the entire film. “Wakefield” provides a shattering portrait of a couple and family that has attained it all yet feels wholly unfulfilled.
While its message — money and privilege won’t buy happiness and fosters guilt — isn’t new, the execution by “The Jane Austen Book Club” filmmaker Swicord mostly is as she confines us into the interior musings of a man unhinged. Unfortunately, the ending is a letdown, and it’s a crucial — and frustrating — misstep given the buildup.
Regardless, Cranston’s performance is masterful, a high mark in the “Breaking Bad” star’s brilliant career. Oscar voter must be reminded about it near year’s end.
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O’Mara, Beverly D’Angelo
Director and writer: Robin Swicord
Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Rating: R (for some sexual material and language)
Stars: 3 out of 4 stars
Where: Opens May 26 at the Shattuck in Berkeley, the Embarcadero in SF and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center
Those demonic CGI creations bring urgently needed bite to “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” the fifth entry in a long-winded voyage that has been slowly keeling over ever since we met swashbuckling scalawag Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp in his most famous role) in 2003. Too bad the spectacularly animated critters — so weird and nasty — arrive late to the party and then retreat so quickly.
The rest of “Dead Men” could have benefitted from their gonzo style.
“Pirates” charts a familiar course even as it unites the search for Poseidon’s Trident with the deadly deeds of a band of dead pirate haters whose captain has a vendetta against the drunken Sparrow
Intermittently, it recalls the rousing spirit of the first “Pirates,” but fails to do anything bold or unexpected. In fact, for 30 minutes after an eventful prologue, the film goes flat. It later rights itself enough as the pirate haters go beserk.
“Dead Men” mostly sticks to the tried and tired during what amounts to an unfunny first part cluttered with routine bank-robbing antics and screwball getaways. It all seems better suited for a reboot of the studio’s “The Apple Dumpling Gang.”
The plot is as tangled as sea kelp, too intent on further lengthening out a mythology than the story can handle. It all but positions itself for a sequel.
Part of the mayhem occurs when Sparrow trades his compass for a bottle of booze, unwittingly placing a big target on his back. A dead crew of pirate exterminators commandeered by Captain Salazar (a game Javier Bardem and one of the film’s high notes) go after him. Salazar is hellbent on payback over a less-than-friendly first encounter (told effectively in flashback) with a younger Sparrow.
Meanwhile, Sparrow’s thorn-in-his-side Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) and his monkey join in on the search of Poseidon’s Trident, a treasure that could stop these dead sailors and help in other ways I’m just not going to reveal.
Who initiates all this talk about Poseidon and the Trident? The hunky Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites more than fulfilling his hunk duties) who happens to be the son of cursed “Pirates” lovers Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) along with a brainiac astronomer type Carina (Kaya Scodelario, in a lively performance) who’s been branded a witch.
Along the way, Paul McCartney pops in as a Sparrow relative and Depp regains his unsteady comedic footing after being handed some terrible lines that sound cribbed from the last four installments. His character is too predictable, and Sparrow shouldn’t be predictable. That changes a bit in the second half as the humor starts to gel.
Incoming directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (“Kon-Tiki”) do whatever they can with what they’ve been given, but the reality is the screenplay from Jeff Nathanson and Terry Rossio is rote and there’s not that much here.
There are a few clever surprises along the way and a showdown that’s an exciting and impressive, from a special effects angle.
But that’s not enough to prop up the sails of this franchise, even if a tasty morsel at the end of the film’s credits intrigues. The next “Pirates” needs to give “Sparrow” something more interesting to do, a more risk-taking development that will force Depp to stretch and the story to steer toward a more original direction.
But whatever they do, let’s hope they keep those killer ghost sharks and Bardem too.
“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”
Starring: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Geoffrey Rush, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario
Running Time: 2:33
Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of adventure violence and suggestive comments)