Tag Archives: Dracula

Malkovich makes Crossbones arrrr-fully entertaining

John Malkovich in 'Crossbones.'

Don’t call him Blackbeard! John Malkovich gives a rich, flamboyant performance as Edward Teach in NBC’s new pirate adventure series ‘Crossbones,’ which premieres tonight.

Most broadcast networks rely on a heavy lineup of unscripted “reality” programs during their summer months, so it’s especially encouraging to see NBC rolling out the lavish and almost unlawfully fun pirate saga Crossbones tonight, with Emmy winner John Malkovich as the legendary Blackbeard.
Whoops, sorry. Make that “The Commodore,” because the B-word is frowned upon on the secret Caribbean island where Edward Teach (Malkovich) holds court, some 11 years after his reputed death during a 1718 sea battle. “We don’t use that name here,” he purrs quietly yet dangerously to each newcomer who finds himself in Teach’s presence. His logic? If Blackbeard is “dead,” no one is likely to come looking for him.
From his tropical hideaway, Teach dispatches crews of pirates to retrieve precious treasures that have caught his eye. As the story opens, his latest fixation is the Longitude Chronometer, a new invention that allows ships at sea to stay unerringly on their course. When Teach sends out a massive attack on the English vessel entrusted with delivering the chronometer into royal hands, however, his pirates are in for a jolt: The supposedly mild-mannered medical officer aboard the vessel is actually Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle, Coupling), a spy whom the ruthless governor of Jamaica (Julian Sands) has charged with protecting the invention – and, oh yeah, also assassinating Blackbeard at this earliest opportunity.
Lowe is able to destroy the chronometer during the attack, but the pirates retrieve the inventor’s encrypted notebook containing instructions on how to build another of the devices. In a very ballsy move, after Lowe and his loyal cabin boy, Fletch (Chris Perfetti), are captured, Lowe memorizes the key to the encrypted book, then burns it, ensuring his own continued well-being at Teach’s hands.
As Crossbones unfolds, Teach and Lowe discover a grudging respect for each other, although the old pirate is determined to secure his prize at any cost. Meanwhile, Lowe falls in love with Kate Balfour (Claire Foy from the 2008 Masterpiece Classic miniseries adaptation of Little Dorrit), the pretty and very resourceful quartermistress entrusted with buying and selling supplies in their island community.
Malkovich, as always, is absolutely fascinating in the principal role, sketching in a characterization that is both fiercely intelligent and quirkily eccentric. Coyle, who starred as Piper Perabo’s secret lover in Season 3 of Covert Affairs, makes a splendidly cool foil for Malkovich’s sometimes over-the-top flamboyance.
Crossbones is one of those international co-productions (like NBC’s recent failed series remake of Dracula), so don’t expect to recognize that many other faces among the cast. Special effects are just so-so (the CGI looks, well, computer-generated), but the set and art direction in some of the scenes is absolutely stunning.
Crossbones is no masterpiece, but it has enough energy and imagination to qualify as perfect summer entertainment.
Richard Coyle in 'Crossbones.'

Richard Coyle co-stars in NBC’s new pirate drama ‘Crossbones,’ premiering tonight.

A new Sleeping Beauty in the manner Bourne

Hannah Vassallo and Dominic North star as Princess Aurora and her selfless lover, Leo, in 'Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty.'

Aurora (Hannah Vassallo) is awakened from her long sleep by Leo (Dominic North), who has given up his mortality to be with her, in ‘Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty,’ a ‘Great Performances’ presentation premiering tonight on many PBS affiliates.

The genius hailed by The New Yorker as “the most popular choreographer of theatrical dance in the Western World” wakes up a ballet classic in Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, a Great Performances presentation airing tonight on many PBS affiliates (be sure to check listings in your area).
Bourne explains during the two brief but illuminating interview segments that bookend this Sleeping Beauty that his family didn’t listen to much classical music when he was growing up. As in his earlier productions of the two other Tchaikovsky dance masterworks – The Nutcracker, which Bourne set in a grim Dickensian orphanage, and Swan Lake, which featured an all-male corps de ballet of swans – Bourne’s principal focus is on telling a story that is dramatically arresting while still satisfying fans of the piece in its traditional form.
When he sized up the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, which dates from the 14th century, Bourne immediately noticed that, in terms of its love story, the yarn was a resounding flop.
“This prince kisses her and wakes her up, she looks at him, and next thing you know, they’re getting married, someone she’s never even met,” Bourne says. “You don’t really feel anything at all.”
Instead of using the traditional fairy-tale period setting, Bourne opens his production of Sleeping Beauty in London’s Victorian era, circa 1890 (the year of the ballet’s premiere). In the first act, we encounter the rambunctious baby Princess Aurora in the form of an intricately designed marionette that causes the palace staff endless headaches. In the next act, when we meet the 21-year-old Aurora (Hannah Vassallo), she’s a spirited, almost tomboyish young woman who has flouted convention and fallen in love with Leo (Dominic North), the royal gardener. Obviously, that enhances the love-story element in the ballet, but it presented Bourne with another conundrum: If Aurora has to sleep for 100 years, what happens to poor Leo?
“Aurora has fallen in love with someone who then has the problem of trying to stay alive for her when she wakes up,” Bourne says of his and Leo’s dilemma.
Happily, as it turns out, the production’s setting roughly coincided with London’s obsession with Gothic literature (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for example, was written in 1897), and Bourne found his audacious solution while watching HBO’s True Blood. Instead of pretty ladies in pastel tutus, the good fairies of Sleeping Beauty would be a family of benign vampires in elegant yet slightly moldering garments, led by the powerful Count Lilac (Christopher Marney). That concept also gave Leo a poignant way to demonstrate his love for Aurora, by surrendering his very mortality in order to stay by her side.
Like all of his other productions, Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty is jam-packed with fantastic stage images, such as the stormy entrance of the dark fairy Carabosse (Adam Maskell) and her minions, who look like one of the Furies crossed with a satyr. When she pronounces her curse on the baby Aurora, her dark prophecy is mimed by an Aurora double with a blank, mannequin-like face. It’s chillingly effective, as is the moment in the second act when Carabosse’s vengeful son, Caradoc (Maskell again), activates the curse not with the tainted spindle of a spinning wheel, but via a thorn on a black rose that was his late mother’s favored calling card.
In traditional productions of Sleeping Beauty, once the prince has awakened his sleeping beauty, the story effectively is over, apart from another half hour or so of celebratory dances at the royal wedding. Bourne, however, interjects yet another plot twist that sends the narrative in a totally unexpected direction and keeps the suspense going almost until the very end of the ballet.
A press release from Great Performances describes Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty as “a gothic fairy tale for all ages,” and that’s largely true. Bourne’s earlier productions of, say, The Car Man (adapted from Bizet’s opera Carmen) and Swan Lake may have raised some eyebrows with their unmistakable currents of homoeroticism, but there’s nothing in this Sleeping Beauty to frighten the horses or, more pertinently, parents of youngsters. Very small fry who know and love the traditional Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, however, probably will be very confused by many of Bourne’s somewhat eccentric narrative changes.
There’s no denying, though, that Bourne has given one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular ballets a welcome dose of creative caffeine. I won’t point out all the ingenious little character touches this master choreographer comes up with, but I have to mention a moment that occurs early in Act Three, set in contemporary (2011) London. The massive, locked iron gates surrounding Aurora’s palace have become a tourist destination, and as guidebook-toting visitors take selfies for their Instagram pages, a young woman tenderly sticks a commemorative rose into the metal bars. As she does so, she pricks her finger and fairly swoons, overcome by the cosmic romantic significance of the accident. It’s a tiny moment that’s both funny and touching.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in Matthew Bourne’s head, which apparently is the scene of constant and boundless creativity. I’m just glad that every now and then I get to visit there.
Count Lilac and Caradoc

Count Lilac (Christopher Marney, left) tries to vanquish the evil Caradoc (Adam Maskell) at the climax of ‘Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty.’

Anemic ‘Dracula’ needs transfusion of scariness

Jonathan Rhys Meyers stars in "Dracula" on NBC.

Dracula (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) dallies with Lady Jane (Victoria Smurfit)

Since its publication in 1897, Bram Stoker’s masterful gothic thriller Dracula has inspired several films (ranging from the ‘30s classic with Bela Lugosi to a slapstick farce from Mel Brooks), multiple stage adaptations, a musical, a TV miniseries and several TV movies, and even a ballet. I’m pretty sure, however, that NBC’s new series adaptation, which premieres tonight, is the first time Dracula bas been turned into a sleep aid.
This muddled new show opens in 1881 Romania, as two shadowy figures break into Dracula’s crypt and reanimate his dessicated corpse via a blood sacrifice. The old bloodsucker cleans up very well, in the form of Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers. Here’s where things start to get confusing, though. Somehow we’ve flashed forward a decade or so to London, where Dracula is passing himself off as an American industrialist called Alexander Grayson. He’s ostensibly in the British capital to drum up financial support for his new wireless electrical technology that will brighten the London nights. His real motive, however, is to take down many of the city’s wealthy movers and shakers, who are members of an ancient and deadly secret society that cursed Dracula with his plasma-craving immortality centuries ago, a project in which he finds a very unexpected ally.
Dracula’s attention is divided, moreover, after he encounters Mina Murray (Jessica De Gouw), a lovely medical student who immediately fascinates Dracula with her uncanny resemblance to his long-lost wife. The vampire resolves to have Mina for himself, despite her engagement to Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a handsome but somewhat oafish young journalist. At odds with both these suitors is Mina’s best friend, Lucy Westenra (Katie McGrath), whose devotion to Mina appears to go well beyond the sisterly.
I haven’t even gotten into the medical experiments Dracula is underwriting with an eye to getting over his fatal aversion to sunlight, but it should already be obvious that series creator Cole Haddon is heavily reimagining Stoker’s sturdy original thriller, to dubious ends. Tonight’s premiere is a sluggish hour in which I spent most of my time just trying to figure out what was going on and who each of the many, many unfamiliar characters was in relation to the people around him or her. Mina and her young friends are shallow and not very interesting, while Dracula’s minion, Renfield, has morphed from a gibbering, pasty-faced, bug-ingesting madman into a strapping and well-spoken black lawyer (Nonso Anozie) who is both faithful companion and confidant to Dracula.
The most interesting character, for my money, in this new series is Lady Jayne (Victoria Smurfit), a Victorian Buffy the Vampire Slayer who dashes through the night in sexy steampunk outfits dispatching Nosferatu, as she calls Dracula’s ilk. (She has fabricated the serial killer Jack the Ripper, we learn, to explain the mangled human bodies left by vampire attacks).
After watching all five of the preview episodes NBC helpfully sent out for review, eventually I started to untangle the snarled threads of this complicated narrative and to find parts that are fairly compelling. Getting there, however, means slogging through lots of very tedious scenes, although on the whole, the series looks as expensive as it reportedly is.
I also am still looking for someone to root for. The show seems to be trying to make Dracula into a tragic hero, and Rhys Meyers is very charismatic in the title role, despite a distracting free-range American accent. Yet while Dracula’s main adversaries are truly terrible men, it’s hard to overlook the fact that Dracula seems to have no compunction about murdering both guilty and innocent alike if it suits his purposes. And sadly, as noted above, most of the more conventionally heroic characters are dull and colorless.
Worst of all, this series is simply not very scary, which is kind of the minimum I expect from a show called Dracula. I’m not encouraged that the showrunner and head writer is Daniel Knauf, who created a supernatural-themed HBO series called Carnivale about a decade ago. That series started out with tremendous promise before it got lost in its own murky mythology, sluggish pacing and mostly unsympathetic characters. I wish I could say I don’t foresee history repeating itself, but as tonight’s premiere episode reveals, this bloodless Dracula just doesn’t have a lot of dramatic bite.