Monday, October 20, 2014

Happy Birthday, Bela Lugosi!

It's been interesting reading about Dracula, the play that made the rounds of theatres in the 1920s. It is from this adaptation of Bram Stoker's classic that we receive the popular vision of Dracula as a smooth, urbane supernatural menace.

It seems Stoker had long tried to interest Sir Henry Irving (the famous stage actor that Stoker had long assisted/toadied for) in playing Dracula onstage, only to be continually rebuffed by the actor. After Stoker's death, his widow Florence entered a deal with Deane to allow him to adapt Dracula for the stage. Playing to the conventions of the day, Deane retooled the title character into a suave, exotic foreign presence who could easily mingle with polite society, unleashing his menace from within it. Deane's initial adaptation, though not a critical success, proved extremely popular with audiences from 1924 onward. And thanks to the somewhat exorbitant financial demands of the widow Stoker, the only way Deane could turn a profit from his adaptation was to tour it. Extensively.

For its 1927 Broadway run the play was extensively revised by writer John Balderston (one of many things streamlined out of the Balderston rewrite was, intriguingly a female Quincy Morris). A new actor was sought for the title role, preferably a non-name who would work for cheap. As luck would have it, an experienced Hungarian actor with nothing to lose came up for the role, and though no one could have expected it, this actor, born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, would come to be a very personification of movie horror.

The rest is history, with Universal's 1931 Dracula drawing heavily on the Broadway production, even enlisting Lugosi for the title role. (The play's Van Helsing, Edward Van Sloan, wasn't far behind.) Bela Lugosi became a horror icon overnight, but, much to his consternation, he became typecast as a horror villain almost as quickly. The disrespect suffered by the horror genre over the years, combined with some severe health problems and addictions, would plague Lugosi to an early grave. But he defined Dracula at a crucial period in film history, and remains fondly remembered by horror fans to this day. And his surprisingly extensive stage career speaks to actor capable of far more than even the iconic roles for which he's best known - wouldn't you LOVE to have seen Lugosi play Jesus?

It is of course the perfect season to reacquaint oneself with Lugosi's work, and we're delighted to call him out on this, his birthday.  Dracula, as we've argued before, is always worth revisiting, and you could even chase it with Son of Frankenstein, one of our favorite Universal horrors, with Lugosi in another villainous but otherwise completely different role. Or see him take on a rare comic role in Ninotchka.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Happy Birthday, Udo Kier!

How do we keep missing this? This iconic occasion keeps going by us (unthinkable, especially as a milestone in the run-up to Halloween), but dammit, we're taking notice this time. Because he's one of our favorite actors, because he's style, grace, and more than a little sexiness on screen, because he's clearly willing to act in anything, anywhere, anytime, we are delighted to say Happy 70th Birthday, Udo Kier!

The man's cult status is assured, given his appearance in a number of A- to Z-grade horror movies. But we've seen him cameo in a number of Hollywood affairs, including Armageddon and the Pamela Anderson vehicle Barb Wire (a movie once described good-naturedly by Kier himself as "high-paid trash"), and he's worked with a diverse slate of some of the finest directors in world cinema, including Paul Morrissey, Dario Argento, Lars von Trier (who must find him something of a muse), Gus Van Sant, Werner Herzog, and Monika Treut. He brings elegance, fearlessness, and a gentle willingness to do whatever crazy shit he's asked to do, from studiously avoiding the gaze of Kirsten Dunst to losing body parts to a gate closed on them.

Frankly we don't think Udo Kier has ever made a terrible movie. Because even a terrible movie with Udo Kier in it...HAS Udo Kier in it. We are so delighted that he's still making movies, still embraced by so many collaborators. Udo Kier is acting royalty, as far as we're concerned. Long May He Reign.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Recommended!: Key Largo (1948)

In the wake of the lamented passing of screen goddess Lauren Bacall earlier this year, a number of retrospectives in rep theatres across the country have resurrected her classic movies. We had a chance to revisit Key Largo, John Huston's 1948 drama (and Bacall's fourth and final film with co-star/husband Humphrey Bogart) and were delighted with how well it holds up, and how engrossing it remains.

Bogart is Frank McCloud, a former Army officer who heads to Key Largo to visit a hotel run by the family of a close friend killed during WWII. But McCloud finds himself right in the middle of a powderkeg, as gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his gang are the sole guests of the place, awaiting a crucial rendez-vous. And there's a powerful storm coming in, sending tensions to fever pitch even as Frank finds himself curiously attracted to Nora, his dead comrade's widow.

Liberally adapting Maxwell Anderson's play, Huston mines powerful suspense in the story's single setting, and the dialogue builds tension effectively as the storm escalates outside the hotel. The cast is uniformly strong; Claire Trevor, as an alcoholic moll who can't seem to escape Rocco's clutches, earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role. But the Bogart-Bacall chemistry lingers in the mind. Though their characters' attraction isn't a straight-up romance, the tension of their attraction is conveyed without a word. Watching Nora and Frank wordlessly tie off a boat in a nearby harbor there's much that isn't spoken - the weirdness of Frank literally taking his dead friend's place on the boat, the wrongness of the attraction that Frank and Nora feel even as they're feeling it. It's a deftly navigated love scene, all the more powerful for letting its emotions be felt, rather than explained.

In this and so many other ways it may be the kind of movie they simply don't make anymore, but happily you can still watch it. You should.

Friday, October 10, 2014

End of Week Wrapup, Oct 10

This was originally titled "If you're gonna share the universe, SHARE the universe." We've been a bit busy on this end with a number of things (including a startlingly difficult-to-put-together newsletter which is finally on its way out, this week spotlighting the original sci-fi classic The Fly), so we're blanking a bit on what our thesis for this piece might have been.

It was likely seeded by a nifty (and reasonably argued) Slashfilm piece called 9 Current Movie Trends That I Hate. First among these is the new tendency of mainstream tentpole releases to all fold into a shared universe (like the Marvel movies) that seems to be creeping into a number of mainstream franchises. Universal's new monster movie Dracula Untolds will kick off a reboot that, if all goes according to plan, will have all of Universal's monster properties revived and folded into the same storytelling world. Wearying though the notion of All Movies Sharing A Universe may seem, we're waiting to see how it all shakes out before condemning it as a bad idea on Universal's part. Besides, this wouldn't be the first time they did it.


Slashfilm seems irked that Dan Aykroyd wants to see not just a new Ghostbusters movie, but a whole universe of them. The news that Paul Feig has, in fact, committed to his long-promised all-females Ghostbusters reboot hit large this week, and provoked some consternation. Less for its all-female cast (though the Melissa McCarthy backlash apparently continues unabated) than for its position as a complete reboot, set in its own self-contained world in which the original Ghostbusters never happened.

We're not of a mind that Ivan Reitman's film (wonderful and funny as it was) is any kind of sacred text to which heed must be paid. And yet Aykroyd's idea of a world of Ghostbusters movies kind of delights us. Maybe mindful of the increasing presence of Chinese co-production funds in Hollywood (number 5 on Slashfilm's hitlist), we'd kind of love to see a China/HK Ghostbusters movie, if only to see Aykroyd play an extended cameo in a sequel helmed by Johnnie To.

Beyond that we really don't have much of a stake in a new Ghostbusters, though that didn't stop us from responding to a Twitter query from the brave souls at Dark Corners soliciting casting suggestions for Feig's movies; much as we doubt that Asia Argento, Maggie Cheung, Amy Ryan, and CCH Pounder will be cast in the title roles (or Diamanda Galas as the Lich-Queen), it's still a movie we'd see.

We're mainly excited that Halloween is back upon us, and are sorry that we haven't seen quite as many horror movies as we'd like - the Twitter traffic on the hashtag #31DaysofHorror has us awestruck but delighted by the variety of movies being seen. Expect some actual, in-depth horror recommendations here next week!

We can recommend checking out Graveyard Shift Sisters, a fine blog exploring the presence of women of color in horror culture, on screen and off. Yesterday was GSS's first anniversary, and we look forward to many more years of their fine scholarship and enthusiasm. They have our highest recommendation, esp. if you get the joke in the image below.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rohan at odds over The Equalizer

(Right at the end of the month our friend Rohan Morbey returns, and so much did he NOT like Antoine Fuqua's The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington, that he's letting us cross-post his review, which appears over at his site Closing Credits - do follow him on the Twitters!)

There’s a scene towards the end of The Equalizer where the stakes should be at their highest. The villain is about to kill an innocent man and, right on cue, in walks our hero, Denzel Washington. Water pours down from the sprinkler system overhead, he has a nail gun raised and poised to pull the trigger. The entire scene takes place in slow motion, the thunderous and obnoxious score blasts out, and I believe the idea from director Antoine Fuqua is for the audience to be thrilled, or even surprised that Washington is here to save the day. I laughed out loud for The Equalizer had gone into full blown parody of an action thriller. It might not
be so sad if it weren’t played with such a straight face.

If The Equalizer has one thing going for it, it’s that it’s the most unintentionally hilarious film of the year and will serve a generation of film makers as a template of how not to create tension, shoot an action scene, or give the audience a single reason to care. Since making Training Day in 2001 Antoine Fuqua seems to be doing his damnedest to erase memories of the quality of his breakout movie and is going out of his way to prove he’s a hack. I might not be so critical of the man if his other efforts weren’t King Arthur and Brooklyn’s Finest, but alas that’s the standard of cinema he has chosen to make.

Fuqua's idea of how to tell a story and what looks ‘cool’ is rooted deeply in the past decade, when everyone was overusing super slow motion and a booming metal/rap/techno score to make the films edgy. At one point Washington even walks away from a clearly digital explosion, where every footstep takes ten seconds to complete. Andy Samberg mocked this trend five years ago, yet Fuqua merely serves up footage that over uses slow motion to mask a lack of creative vision.

Slow motion is one thing, but when the entire film seems like it’s been playing for an eternity you have to blame the director again. The final act is so long and without any tension whatsoever one cannot understand how all involved didn’t see the problems. You cast Denzel Washington because he has a particular charisma, but this film gives him nothing to work with and turns his character into a bloodthirsty psychopath out of a slasher movie rather than a hero we can root for. The villain is similarly brutal and beats people up because there is nothing else written for him to do and this fills the time until the inevitable and stretched out conclusion.

And what of Denzel Washington as the titular character? He isn't mysterious enough to be intrigued by, nor are his actions any different to any other vigilante we’ve seen in movies before. The screenwriter throws in a few lines about ‘being who you’ve got to be’ and ‘getting peace’ from the killings, but nothing here convinces us that this isn’t just another sub-par revenge thriller. Nothing he does is any different to the usual low rent action picture; fast moves, guns, knives, bone crunching are all ticked off but it’s all in service for nothing.

The biggest let down of all is that I actually quite enjoyed the first fifteen minutes and believed the film was going to be far more like Washington’s own Man On Fire or a modern Death Wish than the trash it ended up becoming. The film starts off well as we get a sense of characterization through small scenes and a decent relationship between two people who walk the streets at night, but for very different reasons; Washington’s character obviously has a past he wants to forget and I liked the fact that he is a good man, well educated, doesn’t curse, wants to help people even if the girl he befriends (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a cliché right out of the book of movie clichés; a hooker who wants to get out but can’t. Their relationship is established before the film begins, so when bad things happen to her we believe he is angry and hurt. All this good work unravels with every scene which follows as soon as the vigilante aspect begins; we don’t even see Mortez again until the very end, all ties to the relationship cut in favor of one-note villains, corrupt cops, and uninteresting subplots which only pad out the running time.

I’d hate to see Washington turn into another Liam Neeson, churning out subpar action films every year, but with this, 2 Guns, Safe House, and The Book Of Eli all coming in the last four years, he’s heading down the wrong path and sadly Tony Scott is no longer with us to lend a much needed helping hand.

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