Jon Jon Briones in The Last Voyage of the Demeter


Every time some mildly or massively popular piece of literature is adapted for the screen, there's sure to be a contingent that complains, not without reason, that the movie is no match for the book. How, after all, can any feature film possibly capture the breadth of character, incident, and detail found in a work lasting hundreds of pages and requiring many hours of a reader's attention? So maybe, if the writer's strike ever ends, more screenwriters and studios should follow the lead of director André Øvredal's The Last Voyage of the Demeter and fashion big-screen entertainments from a book's single chapter. Not only would they stand a better chance of not enraging fans, but think of the franchising opportunities! Seventeen movies adapted solely from the first Harry Potter! Nine-hundred-and-twenty-nine releases courtesy of the Bible – and that's just the Old Testament!

Some of these yarns would no doubt be duller than others, so filmmakers would probably want to stick to the books' juicier chapters. And if memory serves, individual chapters rarely get juicier – figuratively and literally – than “The Captain's Log” from Bram Stoker's 1897 Dracula, which serves as inspiration for The Last Voyage of the Demeter. It's the segment of Stoker's novel that explains how the vampire originally traveled from Transylvania to London aboard a cargo ship, and recounts the horrific fates that awaited the crew, livestock, and Demeter itself. With Last Voyage's script credited to Bragi Schut Jr. and Zak Olkewicz (though numerous other writers took a stab at the material during its decades spent in Development Hell), “The Captain's Log” proves to be fertile ground for Øvredal's oceanic creep-out – a dark, rain-drenched, serious-minded monster flick in period attire. In both form and practice, the movie might frequently remind you of Ridley Scott's Alien, John Carpenter's The Thing, and Joe Carnahan's The Grey, which, after 12 years, remains the finest of the gazillions of macho-badass thrillers clogging Liam Neeson's resume. It's unfortunate that Øvredal's handsomely produced, fiercely acted endeavor isn't half as scary as those aforementioned titles. It's also too bad that the end result isn't shorter, given that I yawned far more often than anyone should during a gory take on “The Captain's Log.” Not all book chapters, as translated to film, need a full two hours for their tales to be told.

Corey Hawkins and Aisling Franciosi in The Last Voyage of the Demeter

Still, with Dracula safely secured in a dirt-filled crate during daylight hours, the Demeter's human manifest makes for engaging company. Introducing himself as one of the first Black men allowed to graduate from the University of Cambridge, and possessing narratively convenient knowledge of both medical science and astronomy, our chief protagonist is Clemens, whom Corey Hawkins portrays with subdued charisma and bristling intelligence. He's matched in courtliness and gallantry by Liam Cunningham's Captain Elliot, who welcomes Clemens aboard the Demeter as a last-minute recruit, and vows that this trek from Bulgaria to England will be his last professional voyage. (It's the horror equivalent of a doomed cop in an action movie announcing that he's one day away from retirement.) While they initially view Clemens with suspicion, there's a refreshing lack of overt racism expressed among Captain Elliot's crew, and the swarthy, heavily accented seafarers are an unexpectedly likable bunch: Jon Jon Briones, Stefan Kapičić, Nikolai Nikolaeff, Martin Furulund, Chris Walley, and that exceptional character actor David Dastmalchian, whose first mate Wojchek may be the film's most ultimately moving figure. There's also Captain Elliot's adorable grandson Toby, played by the young performance wizard Woody Norman, and Aisling Franciosi's ravaged stowaway Anna, who knows precisely what kind of mess she and the other Demeter passengers have gotten themselves into.

Although Last Voyage eventually bungles many of the elements more-or-less required of a first-rate bloodthirsty-monster movie, it at least gets one thing right: We actually care about the people involved. This isn't the same as having a work wholly composed of likable characters; sometimes what we care about is one particularly repellent asshole meeting the grimmest end imaginable. But despite knowing what's in store for the Demeter gang from the outset, that doesn't diminish our rooting interest here. (Especially when we consider that while the entire crew was thought to be lost, the fatalities might not include new hire Clemens and/or the stowaway Anna, whose names, of course, wouldn't have appeared on the ship's manifest.) Øvredal's ensemble is a strong, beguiling one to be trapped at sea with, and even if Captain Elliot's charges don't display much in the way of individual personality, they all have exquisitely memorable, lived-in faces – their expressions, and the tenor of their readings, frequently fill in the blanks that the script doesn't.

David Dastmalchian, Chris Walley, and Corey Hawkins in The Last Voyage of the Demeter

Obviously, there's one significant Last Voyage character I haven't yet discussed, and it's my pleasure to report that the hideous bald nightmare with fangs and wings and an incessant taste for blood is not a feat of CGI. Dracula is, in fact, portrayed by six-foot-seven-inch Spanish actor Javier Botet, and on the rare occasions in which we get a good look at him, his look is terrifying. A spindly, shrieking being, this vampire resembles a more-emaciated version of F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu blended with that airplane-wing monstrosity that scared the bejeezus out of John Lithgow in Twilight Zone: The Movie. He's a truly hypnotic demon, and Øvredal wisely parcels out his Dracula sightings. What the director can't seem to do, unfortunately, is stage the creature's killings in ways that don't echo formulaic unseen-intruder attacks from myriad other fright films; over and over, we're given the threat of the vampire's sudden appearance, a two-second moment of quiet, a character turning around in relief, and then – Aaaaaa! – an inevitable assault. While the viscera is impressively rendered, the shocks are practically nonexistent, and the atmospheric gloom and crap weather don't do the murders any favors. On a couple of occasions, I couldn't even tell which crew members were being butchered – which was a real shame, because I actually would have mourned their passing.

Yet my biggest impediment to enjoying Øvredal's effort as much as I wanted to felt like the result of dawdling, because as with many short films adapted to feature length, it's hard to escape the feeling that much of what we're witnessing in this chapter of Dracula is succeeding only as filler. I appreciate the screenwriters' attempts to deliver backstory (and even a few humorous interludes), and was never less than impressed by the production design. But there's a lot of repetition involved as the Demeter crew first attempts to discern what's causing the rats to abandon ship, and then tries to find the culprit, and then formulates survival strategies. All the dead air starts to lead to questions perhaps better left unasked. Questions such as: Who stashed Dracula in that crate of dirt in the first place? Who transported the crate to the Bulgarian dock? If Dracula has wings, and he does employ them several times during the movie, why didn't he just fly to London? Maybe those answers will come in a prequel based on whatever chapter preceded “The Captain's Log.” Or maybe they're arrive in a potential sequel hinted at in the finale. Or maybe it's best to just appreciate The Last Voyage of the Demeter for what it is: a vampire saga that may not have the preferred bite, but that most assuredly doesn't suck.

Jade Quon and Ben Kingsley in Jules


In a movie-going landscape, and a movie-going season, increasingly dependent on wowing us, it's important – perhaps even essential – to be at least occasionally reminded of the pleasures of the pleasant. Written by Gavin Steckler, director Marc Turtletaub's Jules is the tale of an extraterrestrial who wins the hearts of three small-town senior citizens while attempting to mend his busted spacecraft, and it's about as friendly, genial, and nonthreatening as any big-screen release I've seen in years. (The overall vibe of this fuzzy dramedy is so mellow that it obviously fooled the MPAA's ratings board, who awarded the film a PG-13 despite the “F” bomb being dropped a full three times.) That Turtletaub's film is so inoffensive isn't necessarily a virtue; under most circumstances, it would be closer to a death knell. Yet there's so much inherent charm in the conceit and central performances that I'm reasonably sure I smiled at this unapologetic riff on E.T. and Cocoon for nearly all of its just-right 90 minutes. While you could, and easily might, ask for more from Jules, the resulting breezy happiness is its own kind of wow.

Employing one of his customary, regionally unspecific American dialects that I've grown to adore, Ben Kingsley plays Milton Robinson, a 78-year-old Pennsylvanian who's evidently in the early stages of Alzheimer's. No one in his sleepy burg pays Milton much mind, though the citizenry becomes convinced that the man is losing his mind when, during his weekly city-council appearance, he complains that a U.F.O. has landed in his backyard, has crushed his azaleas, and has deposited a mute blue-gray alien with an affinity for apples. Eventually, fellow seniors Joyce (Jane Curtin) and Sandy (Harriet Sansom Harris) become privy to the space being's actuality, as well, and before long, the trio are hiding the creature they name “Jules” from the authorities, trying to determine his purpose, and dressing the naked alien in novelty T-shirts. (My favorite was one left at Joyce's house by her daughter: “I'm not a lesbian – but my girlfriend is.”) All manner of weighty subject matter for the AARP crowd – and I'm a card-carrying member myself now! – is explored in Jules' tight hour-and-a-half: aging, failing health, loneliness, estranged adult kids, pet euthanasia, the inability to master a home printer. But the serious themes never overpower the winning sweetness of Jules (deadpan comic Jade Quon) and his earthly interactions, and they don't undermine the giddy weirdness of a few of Steckler's conceits. Not to spoil things, but the revelation of Jules' secret power is a total WTF?!? moment (if a strangely unexplored one), and I wouldn't dream of revealing what this little bugger uses as spaceship fuel.

Jane Curtin, Harriet Sansom Harris, Ben Kingsley, and Jade Quon in Jules

Although the movie itself isn't a spaceship, there are times in which you may be convinced it's a time machine, whisking you back to the mid-'90s heyday of Ivan Reitman's Dave and Junior – films with profoundly ridiculous premises turned almost Capra-esque through good humor and utter sincerity. With Jules' twinkly score (by German composer Volker Bertelmann, a.k.a. Hauschka) and genteel-dark-comedy leanings, you might also think you've been transported to the mid-'00s indie-comedy scene exemplified by Little Miss Sunshine, which Turtletaub helped produce. Had this been released decades prior, however, we wouldn't have enjoyed the casting coup of Kingsley, Curtin, and Sansom Harris as 70-somethings. Despite their project's unmistakable failings – overabundant quirkiness, a dopey surveillance subplot, narrative logic that doesn't defy so much as annihilate belief – these performers prove worth the wait.

From 1982's Gandhi on, Kingsley has always been All Actor in his screen roles, and it's a low-key thrill watching him gently slide into the comfortable skin of Milton Robinson. As his concerned daughter Denise (Succession's Zoë Winters, wonderfully empathetic) is aware, Milton is slowly drifting away. Yet Kingsley appears lit from within after Jules gives Milton renewed purpose – or at least someone to watch Judge Judy with – and the actor finds worlds of conflicted emotion even in simple phrases such as “Oh my.” Curtin can never be on-screen enough for my tastes, and despite her recent transformation into movies' go-to Comedic Crank of a Certain Age (see also Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Queen Bees … and please do see them), she's both reliably hilarious and quietly devastating here. Best of all is Sansom Harris, who, in Christopher Nolan's Memento and the Paul Thomas Anderson two-fer of Phantom Thread and Licorice Pizza, has already given three of the grandest brief performances in all of 21st-century cinema. She's no less bewitching as a character with loads more screen time, and with Sansom Harris' eccentric line deliveries never failing to amuse, she was also responsible, in Turtletaub's offering, for my completely unexpected tears. It's entirely possible that Jules will have left the area before you finish reading this. Remember its title, though. On some dreary fall or winter weekend when you're absentmindedly scrolling through streaming options, trust me: This is a perfectly pleasant entertainment you'll be glad you caught.

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