Thursday, December 28, 2017

Two Series Seek Out "Star Trek's" Legacy

This week, please take a look at one of my recent pieces for Culture Sonar, the awesome arts and entertainment website where I also regularly share my thoughts on music and movies. This article is about two current science-fiction TV series that owe a great debt to the original Star Trek and its spinoffs; click on the link below the photo to access the article. You can also find my other work for the site by going to the main page (http://www.culturesonar.com) and using the search function. Thanks for reading, both here at Eclectic Avenue and over at Culture Sonar


The OrvilleDiscovery and the Spirit of Roddenberry
http://www.culturesonar.com/the-orville-star-trek-discovery/

Wishing my wonderful, loyal readers all the best for 2018!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Remembering the Talented Pat DiNizio

DiNizio (center) performing with The Smithereens in 2016
Since Pat DiNizio of The Smithereens passed away on December 12, songs like "Only A Memory" and "Top of The Pops" have been playing in heavy rotation on my iTunes, in my head, and most definitely in my heart. While we’ve suffered the loss of a number of musical icons over the last few years, this one caught me by surprise, and truly felt like a gut punch. DiNizio and the rest of The Smithereens are masters of that special type of power pop fueled rock and roll that could only be created by disciples of The Beatles, The Who and The Beach Boys, among other 1960s bands that influenced the style of DiNizio and his fellow New Jersey based rockers. A true rock/pop craftsman, DiNizio was equally adept at writing excellent rockers such as “A Girl Like You” and mournful tales of love and loss like “In A Lonely Place” which actually quoted dialogue from the Humphrey Bogart noir film whose title it borrowed. And those are only two examples of the amazing songs penned by DiNizio.

While The Smithereens had some mainstream success in the mid to late 1980s with hits like “Blood & Roses” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” the sound of grunge gradually took over MTV and the radio airwaves, and classic guitar based rock temporarily took a back seat to flannel shirted bands (though, ironically, Kurt Cobain was reportedly a huge fan of the band’s debut album, Especially For You). That didn’t deter DiNizio and his band mates from continuing to release excellent records like 11 and A Date With The Smithereens, which showcased DiNizios songwriting gifts and the band’s masterful musical chops. Their rocking sound was honed by years of playing in local bars and working as an opening for other touring bands. The Smithereens’s raucous live shows were always worth seeing, and the band retained a loyal following in the tri-state area. I count myself among those true fans. Not only did I see The Smithereens a number of times throughout the years, but I was lucky enough to meet them and tell them how much I enjoyed their work.

DiNizio also released several wonderful solo albums, starting with 1997’s Songs & Sounds, and did audaciously fun (and amazing) things like “The Living Room Tour” where he would actually perform at your house for you and your friends, hosted songwriting workshops and even tried out for a minor league baseball team. Through it all, he kept his sense of humor, his love of rock and roll and his dedication to his music, his band and their fans. The Smithereens continued to perform live, and released tribute albums to The Beatles and The Who, as well as their most recent disc of original material, 2011, which was one of their best. The band’s music never lost that straight-ahead garage rock sound, and like all great rock and roll, continues to sound fantastic as time goes on. It’s one thing pay tribute to your idols in your music, its quite another to create equally memorable songs of your own. Pat DiNizio and his bandmates managed to do just that for 30 plus years. Rest in peace, Pat. You will most definitely be missed. To paraphrase one of your lyrics, “we’re in a lonely place without you.”

Sunday, December 10, 2017

"Stoker" is Mysterious and Intriguing

Nicole Kidman & Matthew Goode in Stoker
The title family in the movie Stoker (2013) brings new depth to the term dysfunctional. When her beloved father dies in an accident on her 18th birthday, India Stoker is distraught. Tensions grow between India and her emotionally distant mother, Evelyn. Both women are surprised when her Uncle Charlie (who India has never met) comes to pay his respects. Charlie is handsome, good-looking and intelligent. But India is suspicious of him and the true reasons behind his visit. Charlie stays around after the funeral, and sets his sights on Evelyn. When India sees Charlie arguing with their housekeeper, who later disappears, it’s only the beginning of a mysterious and twisted series of events.

As Charlie and Evelyn grow closer, India becomes interested in Whip, a student at her school. Another relative visits, and attempts to warn the women about Charlie, with tragic results. Things aren’t what they seem for any of these characters. Charlie’s motives are far more devious than they appear on the surface, and the complex India may have some secrets of her own. The jumping off point for this intriguing film is the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Shadow of A Doubt (1943). In that tale, Joseph Cotten starred as another Uncle Charlie, who also visited his family, and whose easygoing demeanor hid a darker truth. In fact, this story’s Charlie is named in homage to Cotten’s character in that Hitchcock film. There’s also more than a touch of the movie The Bad Seed (1956) on display in the story here as well.

Mia Wasikowska (who played the title role Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, and was also featured in Guillermo Del Toro's Crimson Peak) is very good as India, finding just the right balance between innocence and sensuality. Matthew Goode is excellent as the smooth talking, devious Charlie. And Nicole Kidman is outstanding as Evelyn, who is initially drawn in by Charlie’s charming ways, but later terrified upon learning his true nature. The film is visually striking, with some startling images of beauty and horror, thanks to the fine work of cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon. The evocative score is by Clint Mansell, and there’s a great choice of songs used in the background of a couple of key scenes. The screenplay is by actor Wentworth Miller, who's best known for appearing in the TV series Prison BreakThe Flash and DC's Legends of Tomorrow. The film marked the American debut of Korean director Park Chan-wook, best known for The Vengeance Trilogy.

To say much more about this film would give away too many of its twists and turns. This is a fascinating and mysterious psychological thriller. If there’s any problem with the the movie, it’s that you may find it a little hard to sympathize with any of the characters. But that’s a minor quibble with this eerie, unusual tale. If you’re a fan of the TV series Bates Motel, American Horror Story or Twin Peaks, you’ll probably enjoy this offbeat film. The movie is well worth a look if you've run out of options on your Netflix, Hulu or DVR queues. Stoker is available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXaanQkzrXU.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

What Really Lurks Inside Room 237?

Have you ever been deeply enthusiastic about a movie, album or book? Maybe you’ve discussed it over and over with friends or fellow fans? Perhaps you've kept thinking about the true meanings of the images, words or music and endlessly considered its real meanings? Well, you’ve got nothing on the people featured in the film Room 237 (2012). This documentary features a group of Über-fans discussing their theories on the subtext of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 version of Stephen King’s novel The Shining. While the movie wasn’t a huge success on its original release (and King wasn't very happy with Kubrick's version of his novel) the film has gone on to achieve classic status. It's now considered one of the best of it's genre by many fans and critics. But the Kubrick devotees featured in Room 237 think there’s a lot more lurking behind the doors of The Overlook Hotel than Jack Nicholson, ghostly bartenders, corridors of blood and creepy twin girls.

The movie features clips from The Shining and other Kubrick films. It's narrated by these "superfans" and admirers of the director, who remain off camera. They discuss their views and opinions on what they feel are the true themes of the movie. The Kubrick aficionados include Bill Blakemore, Juli Kearns and John Fell Ryan, among others. The theories they put forth about what Kubrick is really discussing beneath the surface include the massacre of Native Americans by the white man, the Holocaust and the possible faking of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Few filmmakers inspire as much intense debate and offbeat interpretations among their fans as Kubrick does, and this group is no exception. It’s fascinating to see what some viewers feel is the true message of this unsettling horror tale. 

To paraphrase one of the Kubrick admirers featured, “Even if my view isn’t what he intended to say with the film, does that make it any less valid?” We all bring our own histories, interests and feelings with us when we watch a movie, see a play, read a book, or listen to an album. My take on a piece of art may be very different from yours, but that doesn’t make it incorrect. While some of these ideas regarding the subtext of The Shining are pretty far out, one thing is for sure: these people are truly passionate about this movie, and Kubrick’s work as a whole. The film’s one drawback is that the same clips are used multiple times to illustrate the theories being discussed.

We’re all fans of something, be it the films of a celebrated director, the performances of an award-winning actor, the work of a beloved author, a specific TV show or film genre, or the music of our favorite bands. Most people don’t espouse theories quite as far out as the ones featured in Room 237, but on some level, we’ve all been deeply affected by our own personal favorites This film celebrates movie fans, movie analysis and movie love, and that’s a good thing. Room 237 was produced by Tim Kirk and directed by Rodney Ascher. It’s currently available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download & viewing. One final note that may be of interest to fans: In the original novel, the room number used by King was 217; Kubrick changed it to 237 for the film version. Here are links to the film’s trailers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOxukprEwjg & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHE5YUNkssQ.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Noir Alley: TCM Explores the Dark Side

This time out at Eclectic Avenue, I'd like to showcase another piece I wrote for the the excellent arts and entertainment website, Culture Sonar. I've been a member of their staff since February, and it's been a wonderful experience. The site has a truly talented collection of writers who cover all kinds of subjects across the pop culture spectrum. The site is located at http://www.culturesonar.com. Click on the link below to view my story about Noir Alley, the Sunday morning film series on Turner Classic Movies, hosted by Eddie Muller. You can take a look at the other articles I've written for the site by using the search function on the main page, and please do look around and check out some of the fantastic work by my fellow writers! Thanks for reading, and feel free to share!


http://www.culturesonar.com/noir-alley/


Sunday, November 19, 2017

Otis Redding's Unforgettable Soul

This week at Eclectic Avenue, I'd like to showcase another place you can check out my musings on movies, music and television; the excellent arts and entertainment website, Culture Sonar. I've been a member of their staff since February of this year, and it's been a fantastic experience. The site has a very talented collection of writers who cover all kinds of subjects in the pop culture spectrum. Please check out the site at http://www.culturesonar.com. Click on the link below to view one of my stories for the site, a look at the classic Otis Redding album, Otis Blue. Thanks for reading, and look for my other articles, as well as those of my wonderful fellow writers at Culture Sonar. Feel free to share!

http://www.culturesonar.com/otis-blue-album/

Sunday, November 12, 2017

This "Monster" is Delightful and Engaging

Ever have one of those days? Monster Dionysus works for the "cryptobiological containment department" of animal control. He captures mythological and magical creatures along with his partner, Chester, a paper gnome, who’s actually from another dimension. Monster’s bad day starts when he gets a call about a Yeti who’s wreaking havoc in a supermarket - actually the big furry guy is sitting there eating ice cream. Monster rescues Judy, an employee at the store, from the ravenous snow giant, and assumes his job is done. But in A. Lee Martinez’s comic novel, Monster, that's just the beginning of the story. Suddenly, a host of magical creatures are following Judy everywhere. They wreak havoc not only with her life, but with Monster’s as well.

Most humans in Monster’s world forget their encounters with the fantastic as soon as they occur. They have to be reminded about what happened to them; apparently, our little brains can’t handle the idea that magic is real. So Monster has to keep telling Judy about all the supernatural events that surround her. As more and more creatures appear, he has to figure out why Judy seems to be the epicenter of all these fantastic events. Monster also has to deal with the mysterious Lotus, who is going around turning people into cats! It looks like Lotus knows what's really going on, but she isn't telling. And let’s not forget Monster’s girlfriend from hell – who really is from hell. She's pretty angry most of the time, which also complicates matters for our hero.

Monster combines clever dialogue and fantastical situations along with some elements of action and adventure, which makes for an enjoyable, fast-paced read. Martinez' style is reminiscent of Christopher Moore and Douglas Adams. If you're a fan of those authors, I think you'll dig this particular Monster. Martinez maintains a light tone throughout this engaging, well-paced book, and creates some memorable, engaging characters. If you enjoy your fantasy or science-fiction on the lighter side, then Monster is highly recommended. Martinez has written several other excellent books, including a comic horror story entitled Gil’s All Fright Diner, another delightful fantasy titled Divine Misfortune and a sci-fi/hardboiled detective pastiche called The Automatic Detective. You can learn more about his other works here: http://www.aleemartinez.com.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Sherman Brothers: A Musical Legacy

Richard and Robert Sherman created some of the most memorable movie music of the last 50 years, writing songs for films such as Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, The Parent TrapChitty Chitty Bang Bang and Snoopy, Come Home. Their story is told in the illuminating 2009 documentary, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story. It's a unique portrait of two talented, but very different, individuals. The film covers their remarkable journey from their humble beginnings as young songwriters, to their Academy Award winning success with Mary Poppins, and beyond.  Interviews with those who worked with them, including Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, and Hayley Mills are interspersed with reminisces by their family and friends.

However, that's not the whole story. This fascinating film is also an in-depth examination of the relationship between the two brothers. Like many great songwriting partnerships, it’s the differences in their personalities and styles that helped make their collaboration so successful. But it’s those same qualities that caused friction between the siblings. Outside of their days working in the studio, the Shermans didn't really spend much time together, despite the fact that their families lived about six blocks from each other. The film (produced and directed by the duo’s sons, Gregory B. Sherman and Jeff Sherman) tries to get to the heart of this complicated relationship, and provide some answers, as well as some closure, regarding the brothers’ personal history.

This is also a story about the incredible songs created by this this amazing duo. There are clips from many of the movies and stage productions that the Shermans worked on, along with commentary by contemporary artists, actors and directors, including Ben Stiller, singer-songwriter Randy Newman, and Pixar’s John Lasseter, who discuss the lasting impact of their unforgettable music. A significant portion of the film also covers their close relationship with Walt Disney, and their years working at that studio on various projects. This allows us a peek inside that magical place where so many iconic films were created. If you’re a fan of the movies mentioned above, or are interested in a thoughtful examination of the creative process, and how it informs and affects the relationship of the artists doing the work, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story is highly recommended. The film is available on DVD, and also for digital viewing on Amazon. Here's a link to the trailer for the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ny9bcJijkzU.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Kiss of the Damned: Art House Horror

Kiss of the Damned (2012) is an offbeat vampire movie from Writer-Director Xan Cassavettes. It recalls previous stylish  horror films like Blood & Roses (1960) and The Hunger (1983). It’s the story of Djuna, a vampiress who lives a lonely existence. In this offbeat tale, vampires are part of society, but live in secret and drink synthesized blood substitutes. They no longer hunt humans. Djuna falls in love with Paolo, a screenwriter, after initially spurning his advances. She soon turns him into one of the undead, so they can be together forever. They move through the night-time world of their fellow vampires, who now moonlight as actresses, writers and other normal members of society. They're determined to live their lives among humans without raising suspicions about themselves, or revealing their existence.

Then Djuna's unstable sister Mimi (who’s also a vampire, but doesn't play by the rules) shows up, and things go awry. The sexy, headstrong and reckless Mimi starts feeding on humans and causing strife between Djuna and Paolo. She becomes a threat not only to her sister and Paolo, but the well-ordered hierarchy of the undead. Djuna appeals to the vampire elite, but no one sees the depth of the problem posed by the violent, manipulative Mimi, who has some dark plans of her own. But is there a little streak of Mimi’s wildness and chaos in Djuna? What happened to Paolo’s agent, who disappears after his visit to their home? Before the story's over, the main characters learns a little bit about the dark side that lurks just beneath the surface of us all. Whether you're human or a supernatural being, if you live on the dark side long enough, it can consume you. After all, we all have the ability to become monsters, don't we?

Kiss of the Damned is really more of a mood piece than a straight ahead horror film. It has a very European flavor. The movie is well directed by Cassavettes, the daughter of actor-director John Cassavettes and actress Gena Rowlands, and the sister of director Nick Cassavettes. This compelling “art-house” vampire film has a great visual style, with excellent cinematography by Tobias Datum and an evocative score by Steven Hufsteter. Milo Ventimiglia is very good as Paolo, who gets caught up in the battle of wills between the two sisters. Ventimiglia also appeared in the sci-fi series Heroes and the film Rocky Balboa, and is now best known for his role in the current television series This Is Us. Joséphine de La Baume as Djuna and especially Roxanne Mesquida as Mimi offer fine support in their roles. The slow pace of the story may turn off some viewers, but it’s worth watching if you’re a fan of slightly different takes on vampire tales such as the films mentioned above, or other entries like A Girl Walks Home At Night (2014) or Let The Right One In (2008). Please note this is an R-rated film, not fit for family viewing. Kiss of The Damned is available on Blu-ray and DVD, and also for digital viewing and download on Amazon. Here’s a link to the trailer for the movie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5koqxkYQTpw.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Retro Movie: The Return of Dracula

Dracula has turned up in a variety of locations over the years, but what about a small town in California? It happened in The Return of Dracula, an entertaining low budget film released in 1958. In order to elude a group of vampire hunters in Europe, the legendary fiend kills an artist named Bellac Gordal, and assumes his identity. Escaping to the United States, he insinuates himself with Bellac’s family, who live in Carleton, California, and were expecting a visit by him. The family consists of Bellac’s cousin, Cora, a widow who hasn’t seen him since they were younger, and her two children; Rachel, a teenager who wants to be an artist/designer, and her younger brother, Mickey. Rachel is particularly charmed and dazzled by Bellac's tales of his life in Europe, much to the consternation of her boyfriend, Tim, who's pretty sure there is something odd about their visitor.

Francis Lederer lurks as Norma Eberhardt sleeps
Bellac seems to have some strange habits, too; he sleeps all day, keeps his room locked, and only comes out at night. In reality, he’s got a coffin stashed in an abandoned mine shaft outside of town, and that’s where he’s spending the daylight hours. Of course, any self-respecting vampire needs his sustenance, so Bellac/Dracula slakes his thirst with the family cat, then hunts for bigger game. He feeds on Jenny, a young blind girl who lives at the parish house, which is run by the kindly Reverend Whitfield. Rachel volunteers there, and is distressed to see her friend’s health failing. No one can explain her strange condition. She tells Rachel she’s having eerie dreams and dark visions of her death. Jenny is transformed into a vampire by Bellac.

Rachel (Norma Eberhardt) and her family continue to be intrigued by Bellac, despite his eccentric behavior. That's not good, because he decides to make Rachel's his bride. He wants her to spend eternity with him. Meanwhile, the vampire hunters, posing as immigration agents, have tracked Dracula to Carleton, and try to locate his hiding place. Bellac discovers their presence, and dispatches Jenny to take care of them. Will Bellac’s true nature be revealed? Will Jenny be freed from her vampiric curse, and find eternal peace? Can Tim keep Rachel from becoming Bellac’s next victim? The Return of Dracula is an enjoyable B-movie that is a slightly different spin on the story of the world’s most famous vampire. While the movie is most definitely a low budget affair, it does have some interesting moments. In fact, Rachel’s fascination with her cousin is a neat parallel to a similar situation in the Hitchcock classic Shadow of a Doubt, where another young woman's charming uncle is later revealed to be a notorious killer.

Francis Lederer does a good job in the role of Bellac/Dracula, radiating old world charm, touched up with an undercurrent of quiet menace. It’s not as showy or florid as the performances of actors like Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee or Frank Langella, but it perfectly suits the film’s understated style. Lederer actually reprised the role in an episode of Night Gallery in 1971. The rest of the cast is solid; you may recognize character actor Gage Clark, who plays Reverend Whitfield. Clark also appeared in films such as The Bad Seed and The Absent Minded Professor, as well as TV series like Maverick and The Twilight Zone. The effective cinematography by Jack McKenzie belies the black and white film’s low budget origins, and includes the use of a brief (and surprising) splash of color during a key sequence near the climax. While the film isn’t quite up to the standards of classics like the 1931 Lugosi version or Lee’s 1958 Horror of Dracula, The Return of Dracula is worth a look for B-movie fans, and those with a particular taste for vampire tales. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ULuL07ptuY.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Blade Runner 2049: Revisit A Dark Future

Sometimes it takes a while for a groundbreaking movie to be truly appreciated. When Blade Runner arrived in theaters in 1982, it was not a huge success. The film starred Harrison Ford, who was following up his iconic roles in the first two Star Wars films and Raiders of the Lost Ark. When Blade Runner was released, the marketing campaign, and the fact that the film featured Ford, led audiences to expect a futuristic action film with a sense of humor. Instead they got a noir-tinged thriller about a man hunting down rogue androids (known as replicants) and questioning his own humanity in the process. That summer, movies like ET – The Extraterrestrial and Rocky III were dominating the box office. Blade Runner, an adaptation of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was a darker-themed, thoughtful examination of what it means to be human in the face of an increasingly cold and dehumanized world.

One of the amazing vistas of Blade Runner 2049
The film, directed by Ridley Scott, was one of the most striking, beautifully realized and realistic depictions of a future world ever put on film, but audiences stayed away. Then a funny thing happened; Blade Runner became a cult movie. Stories of its legendarily difficult production began to circulate, and multiple cuts and versions of the film were screened in theaters and released on home video. A loyal fan base began to emerge, and fanzines and Internet sites devoted to the film were produced, citing it as a movie that was ahead of its time. Many filmmakers lauded the movie, and cited it as an influence, which can be seen in films, TV series, music videos, and even video games. The film’s reputation grew in stature; it’s now regarded as a classic. Fans (and even the cast and crew) still debate some of the themes and central questions of the film.

Rumors of a sequel circulated for years. Finally, Denis Villeneuve (who helmed 2016’s excellent first contact tale, Arrival) was tapped to direct, with Ridley Scott acting as an executive producer, and Hampton Fancher, one of the writers of the original, also on board. Harrison Ford agreed to reprise his role as “blade runner” Rick Deckard. The new film, titled Blade Runner 2049, recently opened in theaters and it’s a visually stunning, carefully crafted tale that deserves to be seen. (Mild spoilers will follow, so skip ahead a paragraph or two if you don’t want to know any plot details) Thirty years after the end of Blade Runner, a new breed of replicants (artificial humans) designed to obey and not rebel against their masters, have been integrated into society. But there are still few older models around, and a blade runner named K (played by Ryan Gosling) has been assigned to hunt them down and “retire” (kill) them. The twist here is that K is a replicant, which is established early on, in a neat spin on the long-running "Is Deckard a replicant?" debate regarding Ford's character.

Ryan Gosling in Blade Runner 2049
K’s mission becomes more difficult when he discovers the remains of a replicant named Rachael, who may have died while giving birth to a child. This startling revelation leads him on a path to seek the truth about his own past. The investigation leads him to seek out Deckard, a former blade runner who disappeared years ago, and may have known Rachael. Meanwhile, Niander Wallace, the designer of the current breed of replicants, wants to locate the child, as does an underground group of rebel replicants. K’s boss, Lt. Joshi, warns him not to pursue this inquiry, or push things too far, but K won’t be deterred; the answers to his questions may change the world forever. Will K find Deckard, learn the child’s identity, and the truth about his own origins?

Blade Runner 2049 is a magnificently executed extension of the world created by Ridley Scott and his crew in the original film. It’s just as intricately detailed and thoughtfully designed. Villeneuve and his collaborators have done a remarkable job with the look of the film; you will truly become immersed in this unique world. The plot examines and expands upon some of the same questions and themes that were brought to light in Blade Runner, but it never feels like a retread. The cast is excellent, with Gosling, Robin Wright (as Joshi) and Jared Leto (as Wallace) all turning in effective performances. Ford is wonderful as the world-weary Deckard, who’s had to make some tremendous sacrifices to keep the people he cares about safe. There are also a couple of cameos by other cast members from the first film, and some visual and musical nods to it as well. I've tried not to give too much away so you can experience it for yourself on your first viewing. The film should definitely be experienced on the big screen at least once.

What’s most interesting about the movie is that after a weak opening weekend, it’s being called a “box-office failure” by the entertainment press. I believe they made the same mistake in advertising this film as they did with the original. While there weren’t many spoilers upfront, it was sold as a big budget action film, or at least that was the general perception. In this age of “event” trailer releases, tweets, and online spoilers, that was probably a bad move. This is the sequel to a beloved, much discussed and debated about film that is still a cult movie at heart. Neither film was created to compete with the large-scale action fare that general audiences love. The filmmakers did set themselves an almost impossible task; following up an acknowledged classic with a film that is sure to be pored over and examined by an almost obsessive group of fans. But they have succeeded admirably. Blade Runner 2049 is a thoughtful science-fiction film that asks some big questions, and doesn’t tie everything up in a neat little bow. It’s worth checking out. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCcx85zbxz4.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Welcome to the "House of Dracula"

John Carradine & Martha O'Driscoll
Fans always enjoy seeing fictional characters interact, whether it’s in graphic novels like Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, blockbuster films like the recent Marvel and DC superhero franchises, or TV series like John Logan’s Victorian era horror saga Penny Dreadful. In 1943, Universal Pictures began combining their successful horror characters in Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, with Bela Lugosi as the Frankenstein Monster, and Lon Chaney, Jr. in his signature role as The Wolf Man. Even though the two “titans of terror” seemingly perished at the end of the movie, they returned in 1944’s monster mash-up House of Frankenstein. That film also featured a mad scientist, played by none other than Boris Karloff and Dracula, portrayed by John Carradine. Once again, in the story’s finale, it looked like most of these characters had met their end. But you can’t really keep a good monster down, can you?

House of Dracula (1945) brings together Dracula, The Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster, as they all end up at the castle of Dr. Franz Edelmann, who’s researching a plant called clavaria formosa, which he hopes can be used to cure a variety of medical issues and illnesses. He has two assistants, Miliza (Martha O’Driscoll, in a role tailor made for Evelyn Ankers) and the hunchbacked Nina. Edelmann hopes to treat Nina’s condition following the completion of his research. But two visitors to the castle will change all that; a distinguished looking man named Baron Latos, who claims to be a vampire, and Lawrence Talbot, a troubled soul who insists that, during each full moon, he turns into a werewolf and kills people. Latos is of course, Count Dracula and Talbot is The Wolf Man. Both men want Dr. Edelmann’s help in ridding them of their conditions; for Latos/Dracula it’s his vampirism, and for Talbot, it’s the curse of the werewolf. Edelmann examines and diagnoses them, and concludes that they can be scientifically treated, and possibly even cured!

Onslow Stevens, Glenn Strange & Lon Chaney, Jr.
But the best-laid plans of men (even well-intentioned ones) often go awry. After rescuing a distraught Talbot from a suicide attempt, the two men discover the still living Frankenstein Monster beneath the castle, and Edelmann has the creature brought to his lab. He’s tempted to fully revive the monster, but is warned not to by Talbot. Edelmann applies his cure to Talbot, who anxiously awaits the results. Meanwhile, Dracula has set his sights on the lovely Miliza, and his darker impulses cloud his desire for a cure. When Dracula reverses the flow of a blood transfusion from Edelmann, the doctor becomes infected with the vampire’s blood, and temporarily transforms into a creepy Mr. Hyde like fiend, who then murders one of the castle’s workers. He also revives Frankenstein’s creation. The template is set for death and destruction, as angry villagers seeking revenge for the murder storm the castle, and the local police inspector heads there to find the killer. Of course, it all ends in a fiery finale, in true Universal fashion.

House of Dracula has several elements that make it worth watching. The film is fast-paced and briskly directed by Erle C. Kenton, which helps viewers overlook some of the inconsistencies with earlier entries in the series. Carradine is an effective Dracula, combining charm and a subtle sense of menace. He makes the most of his screen time here, after having what amounted to an extended cameo in House of Frankenstein. The rest of the cast is also strong; aside from Carradine and Chaney (who’s very good in the film) there’s Onslow Stevens as Edelmann, Jane Adams as Nina and the one and only Lionel Atwill as Inspector Holtz. What’s also interesting about House of Dracula is the concept that the monsters (specifically Dracula and The Wolf Man) have afflictions that can be medically diagnosed, treated and cured. The story mingles the classic origins of these characters with science (even psychology), and suggests there is another way to look at the cause of their “curses.” It was (and is) an intriguing idea. In fact, while Larry Talbot seemed to be cured by the end of the story, he’d be back to his lycanthropic ways in 1948’s classic comedy/horror hybrid, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, which is the last time the classic monster line-up appeared together.

While no one will likely place House of Dracula among the best of the Universal series, it’s a fun film that will reward Universal horror fans with a great deal of enjoyment. How can you go wrong with a movie that features Lon Chaney, Jr., John Carradine, Lionel Atwill and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s Monster? The old adage “they don’t make them like this anymore” certainly applies here. The film is available on DVD and Blu-ray in several configurations and collections, so check out your online retailers for details. It’s also being shown on Turner Classic Movies on October 8, 2017 at 9:30pm EST. TCM will be showing classic horror films throughout the month as part of their Halloween themed programming, so check their online schedule for details, at http://www.tcm.com/schedule/monthly.html. Here’s a link to the trailer for House of Dracula: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KLf-PjcxQg.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Just Who Is "That Guy Dick Miller?"

Dick Miller is one of the most recognizable character actors of the last 50 years. Even if you don’t recall his name, you definitely know his face. He played the curmudgeonly Mr. Futterman in Gremlins and the gun shop clerk in The Terminator, among a host of other scene-stealing supporting roles. If you’re a fan of 1950s and 60s sci-fi and horror films, I’m sure you remember his many appearances in the movies of writer-director Roger Corman, including It Conquered The WorldNot Of This Earth and the original Little Shop of Horrors. The 2014 documentary That Guy Dick Miller is an enjoyable look at the career of this talented performer. The film features interviews with Miller, his wife Lainie and a host of fans, friends and collaborators, including Corman, film critic Leonard Maltin, actors Robert Forster, Jonathan Haze, Belinda Belaski, Mary Woronov, and directors Fred Dekker, Allan Arkush and Joe Dante.

Dick Miller in The Howling
It’s an engaging story, which charts Miller's journey from his days as a working actor (and a member of Corman’s stock company) to finding fame as one of the most in demand character actors of the 70s and 80s. The portion of the film that recalls his early work is fascinating. It’s an affectionate look at how a loyal cadre of casts and crews quickly and efficiently completed low budget movies back in the 1950s and 60s. No one thought these "B" films and genre pictures would be remembered and celebrated by fans decades later. A generation of filmmakers was influenced by these sci-fi, fantasy and horror movies, including Dante, Arkush, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. All of these artists worked for Corman in their younger days. Many of them later cast Miller in their films; in fact, Joe Dante has featured Miller in all of his movies, and is one of his most ardent fans.

Lainie acted as a producer on the film, which was written and directed by Elijah Drenner. This is a marvelous look at the career of a wonderful actor who’s given us a lot of memorable performances over the years. Whether the film he's acting in is good, bad or mediocre, Miller is always excellent. I think you’ll really enjoy this well produced, loving tribute to this iconic actor. If you don't know who Dick Miller is now, you certainly will after watching this entertaining documentary. It might even inspire you to watch (or re-visit) one of the many films he's brightened up with his presence, like the Boris Karloff thriller The Terror, which also featured a young Jack Nicholson. That Guy Dick Miller is available for online viewing at Amazon, and the movie can also be purchased at the film's website: http://www.thatguydickmiller.com. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSKTIe-HRG8.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Fab Faux Sgt. Pepper-ize New Haven

The Fab Faux - photo by Colleen Ellis
The Beatles are part of a select group of artists whose music can truly be called timeless. Their songs continue to resonate across multiple generations. A perfect example of this was found in the audience for The Fab Faux’s show at New Haven’s College Street Music Hall on September 22. Fans of all ages were in attendance, ranging from parents and grandparents well versed in the music, to children getting their first taste of Beatles tunes in a live setting, and of course, just plain old loyal fans. If you want to see the music of The Beatles performed live, nobody does it better than The Fab Faux. The group regularly tackles music from a specific period of The Beatles career, or plays an entire album from beginning to end.  For this show, the first part of the night was a mix of Beatles favorites, followed by a second set featuring Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band performed in its entirety. It was a magnificent night, filled with extraordianry musical performances that electrified and enraptured the audience.

Things kicked off with a rock steady version of “Back in the USSR.” The rest of the initial set ranged from expert renditions of  “Ticket To Ride” to audience sing-alongs on classics such as “Yellow Submarine” and “I Saw Her Standing There.” In fact, the audience was singing and dancing along on every song. How many current groups can say that about their music? As always, the band was at the top of their form, with the marvelous Will Lee on bass, the fantastic Jimmy Vivino on guitar, the sensational Jack Petruzzelli on keyboards and guitar, the wonderful Frank Agnello on guitar and the incredible Rich Pagano on drums. Of course, the whole band takes turns on lead vocals (and plays other instruments) depending on the needs of the song. One of the highlights in a set loaded with them was the spirited percussion duet between Lee and Pagano, which finished out the band’s astonishing version of  “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Will Lee of The Fab Faux - photo by John V
After a short break, it was on to the second set, during which The Hogshead Horns and The Creme Tangerine Strings joined the group for an amazing performance of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That iconic album is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year. It’s not an easy record to play live, with it’s challenging sounds and intricate arrangements, but The Fab Faux knocked this one out of the park, and then some. It was a masterful set, featuring excellent versions of every track, including “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” and one of my favorites, “Lovely Rita.” It all climaxed with a stunning rendition of “A Day In The Life.” But things didn’t end there, as the band returned for an encore featuring the Rubber Soul cut “Wait,” followed by a bring everyone to their feet finale of the ever-popular “Twist & Shout.” A splendid time was most definitely had by all.

The Fab Faux, like the rest of us, are clearly ardent fans of the music of The Beatles. Their sheer joy and passion in playing these memorable songs is contagious. Every member of the group is supremely talented, and performs in various other bands as well as doing session work with many top-level artists. But when they come together to pay tribute to the music of The Fab Four, it’s really something special. College Street Music Hall is a terrific venue for the band; an intimate space that allows you to really feel the music. Wherever you can get out to see this superb group, I urge you to do so.  I’ve seen them several times now, and each time has surpassed the last. This music is part of our collective memory now, and you simply won’t see it performed any better than by these brilliant musicians. If you can get out to see one of their concerts while they're on the road, I highly recommend it. Here’s a link to The Fab Faux’s website: http://www.thefabfaux.com.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Stephen King's IT: Facing Your Demons

The Losers Club searches for IT
I’ve been a Stephen King fan since I first started reading his work in my younger years. Novels like Salem's Lot and The Shining, and short story collections such as Night Shift, were some of the most frightening horror fiction I have ever read. But King’s stories have never been just about the things that go bump in the night. He has a knack for creating well-rounded and believable characters that you care about, ones who talk and act like everyday people, the kind you’ve known in your own life. That these strange and supernatural things were happening to these types of characters made his stories that much more believable, and much more horrifying. King's best stories are as much about dealing with your own inner demons as they are about dealing with the actual vampires, ghosts and monsters.

There have been many big-screen and television adaptations of King’s work over the years. Some have been successful, such as Carrie and The Dead Zone, and some less so, like The Mangler and Dreamcatcher. One of the most memorable for many fans was the 1990 mini-series version of IT, King’s 1986 novel about a group of kids terrorized by an evil being who often appears as a creepy clown named Pennywise. The epic novel (the book runs about 1,100 pages) is a favorite among long-time King readers. The TV version starred John Ritter, Richard Thomas and Annette O’Toole. The production was somewhat limited by budgetary constraints and the limitations of special effects technology at the time, but it still managed to be one of the scariest TV films ever made. The miniseries is most fondly recalled for Tim Curry’s chilling portrayal of Pennywise; he managed to steal the movie out from under the rest of the cast. That film's success led to a host of other TV versions of King's work, including The Tommyknockers, The Langoliers and The Stand.

Pennywise surfaces in IT
A new big-screen version of the story, entitled IT, has recently been released, directed by Andy Muschietti, the Argentine filmmaker who also helmed the 2013 horror film Mama. The movie is set in Derry, Maine, where Bill Denbrough sends his younger brother Georgie out to play with a new paper sailboat he’s made for him. A creature that looks like a clown startles Georgie, and pulls him down into the sewers. It’s the latest in a long series of disappearances and deaths that have occurred in the town, but no one seems to be doing much about these tragic occurrences. Bill never gives up on finding his brother, and recruits his friends Richie, Eddie and Stan to investigate what really happened. The group, nicknamed “The Losers Club,” gains several new members as the story continues, and our young heroes eventually discover the truth about the  evil that lurks in Derry. The seven friends unite to defeat this monstrous entity, but the task won’t be easy an easy one. This malevolent creature wants to destroy them first. IT knows exactly what scares each of them the most.

The cast of young performers is excellent; standouts include Jaden Lieberher as Will, Finn Wolfhard (from Stranger Things) as Richie and Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh, the lone female member of The Losers Club. These talented actors convince you of the strong bond that exists between these friends, as they stand together to face the horrifying entity they know as Pennywise. These talented actors generate some moments of real emotion and pathos amid all the scary moments. The group will need all of their strength, as Pennywise plans to use their own worst fears against them. Speaking of the creepy clown, let’s talk about the actor who plays him: Bill Skarsgard takes the horror to a whole new level, in a truly terrifying performance. Combining his sinuous body movements with off-kilter facial expressions, some very effective makeup and costuming, and capped off with an eerie voice, he is the embodiment of evil that King originally wrote about. You won’t soon forget him, or this frightening film, which has a truly eerie atmosphere thanks to the solid direction by Muschietti. It's one of the best King adaptations in recent years.

King stories like IT and The Body (the basis for the film Stand by Me) were certainly part of the inspiration for last year’s hit Netflix series Stranger Things, so its nice to see things come full circle with this excellent new version of one of his best novels. The movie is not quite the letter of the book (nor should it be, as novels and films are two separate entities) but it stands on its own as a solid adaptation, which captures the authentic feeling of King’s book. The novel’s first half was set in the 1950s, but the film moves the action forward to the late 1980s. A sequel, which will be set in the present day, covering the second half of the book, is already planned. It’ll be interesting to see who gets cast as the adult versions of the characters, and how they will fare when they unite once again to face the terror of IT. Here’s a link to the trailer for the current film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKJmEC5ieOk.

If you enjoyed this review of the film version of IT, I'm also writing about music and movies for the excellent arts and entertainment website Culture Sonar. The site can be found at www.culturesonar.com. I recently covered the John Logan created horror TV series Penny Dreadful. Here's a link to that piece: http://www.culturesonar.com/penny-dreadful/. You can also find my other articles by using the search function at the top right hand corner of the page. Thanks for reading!