Christopher Lee RIP

One of the most terrifying scenes I've ever witnessed.  Dracula gets the stake - and it doesn't kill him!

One of the most terrifying scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Dracula gets the stake – and it doesn’t kill him!  (Dracula has Risen from the Grave)

Whew!

I got the news this morning that screen icon Christopher Lee died at age 93.  Sir Christopher loomed large in my childhood, being the fan of “monster movies” that I was (and very much still am).

In fact, it was a Christopher Lee film, Dracula has Risen from the Grave (1968) that was my first horror movie experience at a theater (the Halstead Drive-In in beautiful Riverdale, IL to be exact).

Both my brother an I were utterly terrified – and we loved every minute of it!  (We would later go on to see the next film in the series, Taste the Blood of Dracula, two years later.)

I actually had the opportunity to meet Mr. Lee at a horror movie convention in Baltimore some years ago.  In fact, many of the cast of those venerable Hammer horrors were there.  (I also spoke with Freddy Francis who directed “Has Risen” – and who later won an Oscar as director of photography for Glory.)  Great stuff.

At the convention, we were treated to a lengthy interview with Lee, at which time he spoke of his friendship of fellow Hammer star Peter Cushing.  He also displayed his singing prowess by regaling us with his operatic baritone.  Great stuff!  (Ah, but I already said that…)

Our first ever edition of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.  One of the cover stories was "Dracula has Risen from the Grave" - which made both my brother and I life-long Christopher Lee fans.

Our first ever edition of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. One of the cover stories was “Dracula has Risen from the Grave” – which made both my brother and I life-long Christopher Lee fans.

It’s bittersweet to see one of your childhood icons die – bringing back a flood of shadowy memories and the larger-than-life experience of being so properly scared.

Of course, there was also a magic in it back then, likely due to the fact that I was only 7.

Ah, the likes of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine featuring Lee/Dracula (and also Barnabas Collins from Dark Shadows!).

Or Creature Features on WGN-TV at 10:30 every Saturday night.

Or countless other in-retrospect-little-things-that-seemed-huge-at-the-time.

All of it was…. GREAT STUFF!!!!

Thank you Sir Christopher, for all the great moments you gave us (from Dracula to Rochefort to Dooku to Saruman)!

God bless you and your memory, and may you rest in peace.

Advertisements

Tender Mercies

TenderMerciesIn sharp contrast to the utter drek I chatted about in my last blog, I think that Tender Mercies (1983) is an utter masterpiece.

Sadly for most of the viewing public, the movie didn’t do very well at the box office.  A shame – this is a film that deserves to be seen.  The sparse landscape, sparse performances, and sparse mood all add up to something majestic.  The very definition of “less is more”.

In the case of this film, it’s so much more

Robert Duvall (who, by the way, is a god) plays a once big country singer, Mac, who has boozed his way out of the limelight.  Duvall’s stoic performance just oozes the pain, regret, and often senselessness of Mac’s life out of every pore.  Yet he still manages to give Mac a dignity that makes us stay right there with him.

As he did in To Kill a Mockingbird (with a screenplay by the same writer, Horton Foote, as this film), Duvall says more with hit eyes than most actors can accomplish with even the best lines of dialogue.

And then newcomer, Tess Harper, is so completely believable as Rosa Lee – a country girl, sheltered from much of the world but not ignorant to it.  She has a quiet wisdom about her; a grace if you will, that mesmerizes.

I saw this movie when it opened and was nearly dumb-struck by it.  The effect – now 32 years later – has not worn off in the slightest.

I won’t go into the story at all here.  Better that you make it your mission to see it.  In that way, the tender mercies – found in this film in abundance – will be bestowed upon you as well.

Truly, as good as it gets

Hot Pursuit

Hot PursuitI saw Hot Pursuit based on a review in The Guardian.

Although I’ll still read the online version of this newspaper, I’m not likely to read their movie reviews anytime soon!

The review intrigued me in that while it stated the movie wasn’t very good, it raved about the on-screen chemistry between its two stars, Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara.

I didn’t see it.

Witherspoon is a fantastic actress whose work I’ve admired since she was a kid in the very touching The Man in the Moon (1991).  And Vergara steals the show in Modern Family – a modern-day Lucille Ball.

So when I read how these two worked so well together, I thought I’d give an admittedly dumb movie a chance in order to experience the on-screen magic.

I didn’t see it.

All I saw was a pathetically idiotic film that didn’t need to be made.  Now I can put up with dumb comedies as long as they’re funny (Mortdecai being a prime example).  Alas, watching this film, I barely even cracked a smile once – which means that all I saw was a really dumb movie.

Don’t see it!

Lonesome

LonesomeThe mostly-silent-but-somewhat-of-a-talkie, Lonesome (1928) really grabbed me.  At just over an hour, this little masterpiece packs a wallop.

The film follows two very ordinary people, Mary and Jim, throughout the course of a single day – from the time they each, separately, awaken until the day is done.

But what a difference a day makes…

As it follows the routine of its two main characters, Lonesome provides a bit of a twist on the boy-meets-girl theme.

And it does so brilliantly.

Like so many silent (or almost silent) films, emotions run high – often much more so than in their fully talking counterparts.

And the loneliness that these two souls feel in their daily routine is something I could almost taste.

Director Pál Fejös makes spectacular use of dissolves, a touch of fantasy, and (albeit crude) color in just the right spots to make things magical.

With longing, desperation, elation – all dished out in abundance – this film is a special look into the lives of two good people.  Do these lonely souls ultimately find true happiness?  Well… you’ll just have to see for yourself!

* * *

Just an interesting note…  The “Carl Laemmle” you see in the movie poster is the same executive at Universal Studios who, just three years after this film, would bring the world some of the “classic monsters” such as Dracula and Frankenstein – and make icons of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments Movie Poster - Internet Movie Poster Awards Gallery 2015-04-04 23-28-00The Ten Commandments (1956) has (or at least had) become somewhat of an Easter/Passover tradition on network television when I was growing up.

I can recall that for many years, this epic film would be broadcast – with plenty of commercials – during Easter/Passover week.  Of course, I also recall that The Wizard of Oz (1939) got a lot of play during this season as well.  (Kudos to The Music Box theater for showing it this evening…)

At any rate, I never really liked the film very much.

That, of course, was until I saw it several years ago – uninterrupted – at my brother’s place.  And, having just seen it again exquisitely restored on Blu-ray at The V Theater (my brother’s newer place with the home theater in the basement), I find it worthy of a blog post.

Interestingly, this is the type of film you really have to see in a theater setting in order to appreciate it.  Cecil B. DeMille creates his own little (or should I say huge?) world that includes some incredibly hokey dialogue, awkwardly posed actors, and over-the-top dramatics.

And if you give it about half an hour to cast its spell on you, it works astonishingly well!

As Chuck/Moses Heston delivers the line, “Are you a Master Builder or a master butcher?” to Baka [Vincent Price] I actually gave the I’m-not-worthy bow to the screen.  At several other stand-out moments, I was doing the rock-concert-fist-shake in the air.

And having an AMAZING time!!!

On top of that, the special effects depicting the plagues – even all these years later (I could have given a number but didn’t want to do the math) – are just flat-out COOL.

In fact, the whole experience is cool, which I think is amazing because (as I implied earlier) when I saw it only in segments on television, I though it was slightly idiotic.  Again, it gets back to watching the film as it was intended to be seen and giving it an opportunity to pull you into its world.

The Blu-ray restoration is breathtaking – and I highly recommend you give this epic film a chance to work its magic on you

In fact, I command you to see it!!!

* * *

As I write this, the clock is telling me that it’s less than half an hour away from Easter Sunday.  So to all you of the Christian faith, I wish you a very happy Easter.  And to all of you of the Jewish faith, I wish you a happy Passover.  And to my brother Keith, who for the first time in 53 years finds his birthday actually falling on Easter … HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!

 

 

Cinderella

cinderella_ver2I’ve seen several movies since I last posted here; however, I didn’t think any were truly blog-worthy (for the good or the bad). That changed when I saw Disney’s remake of Cinderella (2015)!

Charming…

Yup, totally charming!  This went waaaaaaaay beyond anything I could have expected.  While he clearly shows respect to Disney’s original, animated, effort, directory Kenneth Branagh provides an interpretation that nicely fits with the 21st century.

It works.  (Maybe it was all that Shakespeare he’s done?)

Lily James is about perfect as Cinderella (or do you say “Cinderelly”???) – a true, classic fairy-tale princess type who fits in very well in today’s world.  She’s nothing short of luminous.  For that matter, Richard Madden does a fine job as the Prince without turning the role into a simple caricature.  And one of my perennial favorites, Cate Blanchett, is given the opportunity to have some real motivation for why she behaves as she does; she’s not just mean for the sake of being so.

On a musical note, I was surprised and very happy to hear a reprise of the lovely folksong “Lavender Blue” (sung by Burl Ives in an early Disney film.)  Ah, the cherry on top

This film is just as good as it gets.  As I already mentioned, it’s utterly charming – and also sweet, engaging, never saccharine, and in short, not only perfect family fare but a perfect modern-day retelling of a classic fairy-tale.

 

 

Oscar Picks

Oscar0

Oscar1Oscar3

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well as indicated above, it’s Oscar time again – and this year I thought I’d share my picks with you.   Now this year, and for the past 87 years (or is it 88 years? – either one is odd since I’m only 54) I’ve been attending an Oscar party with a great group of friends and family – and part of the festivities is that we all make our Oscar picks.  The winner gets to hold an Oscar-like statuette until the next year’s Oscar party.

In all these years, I’ve won once (thank you Pan’s Labyrinth).

This, of course, lets you know what my picks are really worth; however, they’re my picks so I like ’em!  And so, without further gibberish, here are my 2015 Oscar picks.

Gawd, this is exciting…

Best Picture 
  • “Birdman” – A work of art that I found strange but ultimately mesmerizing.
Best Actor
  • Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything” – His performance totally won me over.
Best Actress
  • Felicity Jones, “The Theory of Everything” – She also totally won me over.
Best Supporting Actor 
  •  Robert Duvall, “The Judge” – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Robert Duval is a god.
Best Supporting Actress
  • Laura Dern, “Wild” – She utterly lit up the screen, the theater, and the hearts of everyone who saw her (especially mine).
Best Animated Feature Film
  • “Song of the Sea” – As of this writing I haven’t yet seen it (it opens here in Chicago on Friday the 20th); however, the previews looked great and the other films I have seen ranged from decent to horrible.  So I’ve got high hopes for this one…
Best Cinematography
  • Emmanuel Lubezki, “Birdman” – This film had a very unique look to it which I liked.
Best Director
  • Wes Anderson, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” – I saw this film three (yes, three) times last year; Wes Anderson’s fingerprints were all over this one, and thank goodness for it!
Best Music – Original Score
  • Johann Johannsson, “The Theory of Everything” – The themes in this score were downright lovely.
Best Visual Effects 
  • “Interstellar” – Actually, I thought this was a flat-out great film; however, it didn’t get the Best Picture nomination so I’d like to see it win for its amazing visuals.
Best Writing – Adapted Screenplay
  • Paul Thomas Anderson, “Inherent Vice” – Interestingly, I didn’t much like the movie; however, I really liked the writing.  Hmm…
Best Writing – Original Screenplay
  • Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” – A tough one with “Birdman” and “Nightcrawler” in the running; however, the dialogue was about as spot-on (and expertly delivered) as it gets.

All the other awards

  • All the rest of the picks are ones I’d just guess at – so there’s nothing to be gained by posting ’em!

Well, those are my picks.  I hope you all have a fun time watching the Oscars!

###
Well I’ve just had the pleasure of seeing Whiplash.  It didn’t cause me to change my Best Picture pick – but man, did it ever cause me to consider it!  (It’s a close second.)  A great film that I was glad to find still playing (thank you, York Theater!) by me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of EverythingI never expected this to be such a sweet little film – yet that’s exactly what The Theory of Everything (2014) was!

Truly, I was expecting more of a facts-and-figures biopic; however, this film (a biography of physicist extraordinaire Stephen Hawking) is anything but.

Instead we see Hawking (played brilliantly by Eddie Redmayne) grow from a somewhat awkward college student into a somewhat awkward genius – never seeming to lose his silly, crooked smile.

That smile gets even bigger (and perhaps sillier?) when fellow college student, Jayne, (played perhaps even more brilliantly by Felicity Jones) enters his life.  She’s drawn to Stephen, despite his awkwardness, and their relationship develops into a genuine, mutually supportive love.

(I realize as I write this that it all sounds kinda sappy…)

However, despite my less-than-ideal description, I can’t stress enough the genuine, gentle charm of this film.  Both performances are Oscar-worthy – as is this film (I’m glad to see they’re all nominated!).

Happily, Stephen’s gradual physical decline isn’t portrayed so much as a tragedy as it is simply another challenge to figure out and overcome; there’s never any self-pity or melodramatics here.  And that, for me, made the challenges this couple overcame all the more heroic and admirable.

A fantastic movie that tackles with finesse, wit, charm, and intelligence the one concept in the universe even bigger than the big-bang theory … love.

 

 

American Sniper

American SniperThis week I had originally intended on writing about The Theory of Everything; however, a recent controversy prompted me to write about American Sniper (2014) instead.  (I’ll get to the other film soon…)

The controversy, much publicized on Fox News, centers around tweets made by both Michael Moore and Seth Logan.  Moore tweeted that his uncle had been killed by a sniper in World War II, which left his family with the opinion that snipers were, among other things, cowards.  Logan, on the other hand, tweeted that the film reminded him of the Nazi propaganda “movie” that was shown in the third act of Inglorious Basterds.

To me, it’s much ado about nothing (they’re just a couple of tweets by people whose opinions I don’t actually care about – although to be fair, I doubt they care any more about my opinions!); however, it does bring up an interesting point: The difference between a hero and a villain is often one of perspective.

For example, consider the following perspectives and see if they make sense from the viewpoint of each person involved:

  • A sniper is a “guardian angel” and a “hero” if he has killed people from a half mile away to save your son/brother/husband from being killed by the enemy.  A sniper is a “coward” and a “villain” if he has killed your son/brother/husband from a half mile away to save the lives of the enemy.
  • Likewise, a “freedom fighter” is someone who, at great personal risk or even sacrifice, will attack a stronger enemy by attacking that enemy’s civilian population in order to achieve victory for you and your people.  A “terrorist”, by contrast, attacks your civilian population in the same manner in order to achieve victory for his people.

There are other viewpoints, I’m sure, as well – but you get the idea…  (For the record, I viewed the sniper portrayed in this film, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, as a guardian angel for the marines he was sent to protect, and I view people who kill our civilians as terrorists.)

But what about the film itself?

I thought it was good, but not great.  To me, director Clint Eastwood kept us too distant from his subject.  We never really get inside Kyle’s head, never really feel what he’s feeling.  I thought the same about how the film portrays Kyle’s wife, Taya.  She came off as the stereotypical nagging wife who doesn’t understand what her husband does for a living and doesn’t appreciate the important work he’s doing.  I very much doubt that such was the case in real-life; however, I thought it would have given us a much better appreciation of what she was going through if we’d been given a deeper look into her life back at home.

While all of this likely sounds pretty negative for a good film, I find it difficult to accept “good” from a film that could have – should have – been “great”.  In this film, we have a fascinating subject – and Bradley Cooper gives yet another spot-on performance.  I just wish the movie would have plumed the depths that I believe this subject truly deserves.

* * *

Since originally posting this review, I’ve seen more controversial topics in the news regarding this film (albeit on a much more “grown-up” level than arguing over someone’s tweets).  One of the first thoughts that comes to mind is that this is a movie – and as such, it is likely to take certain liberties with fact to present its story; therefore, we shouldn’t view it as history, but rather, as entertainment.  Second, if this movie inspires people to discuss the events portrayed therein (hopefully, in a rational, non-cable-news manner), then it has served a useful – if unintended – purpose.

Calvary

CalvaryThe Tivoli Theater in downtown Downers Grove, IL, has a twice-monthly film presentation by the After Hours Film Society. Their first showing of the new year was Calvary (2014).

A nice way to start the year!

The film centers around life in a small parish in Ireland, in which the local priest, Father James [Brendan Gleeson], plays an important role.  At the beginning of the film, we see Father James in the confessional, hearing not so much a confession as a mini-manifesto from one of the local townspeople.

In his “manifesto-ette”, he tells Father James that he intends to take the priest’s life a week from the forthcoming Sunday.

Now, how does one react upon hearing such a statement?  Is it just an idle threat, or is it serious?  Does one leave town on the next bus, or see things to their conclusion?

I won’t spoil if for you…

I will tell you, though, that the performances and mood of the film were all first-rate.  Brendan Gleeson’s portrayal felt real (I spent 12 years in Catholic school), and the townspeople he encounters – to advise, chastise, help – are a collection of entertaining, sad, hilarious, and weird folks.

One wouldn’t there’d be a lot of humor (or should I say “humour”?) in a film like this, but there was.  A pretty wide range of emotions, too, – all played low-keyed-but-convincingly enough to hit home without hitting the audience over the head.

I like that!  I like this film, too – go see it!