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Saturday, 24 June 2017

300 Words on "Henry V" (1989)


This review comes as the first in an informal look back on the work of Sir Kenneth Branagh in preparation for the release of his Murder on the Orient Express. That’s not until November, but what’s the harm in starting early?

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Kenneth Branagh is one of my favorite directors. While he may not inhabit the inner-circle of greats, he is surely standing outside easily holding court with the likes of David Fincher, Oliver Stone, and even the much-loved Stanley Kubrick. Each of Branagh’s productions harkens back to a day of by-gone epic cinema, and while some may argue that his films are examples of style over substance, one need only look at brilliant acting in both Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations and mainstream films to refute that statement.

And, it all started with Henry V, an adaptation of one of The Bard’s most popular historical plays. Done by that other master of Shakespearean film, Sir Laurence Olivier, in 1944, Branagh’s version of the story came four decades later, and put a darker, bleaker, and more modern sensibility to Shakespeare’s words. Even the moments in Shakespeare’s play which would have been traditionally played for laughs are somber and sincere under Branagh’s hand. Branagh, who made his directorial debut with the film, utilized the filmmaking techniques which had been perfected by other directors in their presentation of war films to give his Henry V a harder edge and, indeed, the climactic Battle of Agincourt pulls few punches and presents the violence and bloodshed with the utmost sincerity emphasizing the tragedy and grimness of war.

As is standard with a Kenneth Branagh film, the cast is filled with notable faces. Special mention must be made of Branagh’s frequent collaborator Sir Derek Jacobi, here who is simply mesmerizing as the Chorus, who acts as our guide and leads the viewer through the historical intricacies. Ian Holm, Robert Stephens, Judi Dench, Emma Thompson, and a plethora of others round out the ensemble.

Henry V may lack the opulence of Branagh’s other beloved Shakespeare adaptations, but its true-to-life presentation and fine performances make the film just as lofty as his others: each presenting the works of history’s greatest writer as they were intended to be seen.

Monday, 19 June 2017

300 Words on "Bullitt" (1968)


Some movies are so linked to one particular scene or set-piece that it’s nearly impossible to separate the two. For Pulp Fiction, it’s the dance scene. In The Empire Strikes Back, it’s Luke learning that Darth Vader is his father. And for Bullitt, it’s the car chase.

Oftentimes lauded as the finest car chase ever put to film, the one in Bullitt is impressive, to say the very least. Filmed in a kinetic, frantic style, the camera oftentimes very nearly approximates Steve McQueen’s view from behind the wheel making the viewer feel as if he or she is in the driver’s seat bouncing along the streets of San Francisco. The car chase in Bullitt is exciting and tense. Everything that a good car chase should be.  

Due no doubt to the chase’s sheer brilliance, the remainder of the film has a lot of work to do to live up to a high standard. It does this with mixed results. Performances are good from McQueen, Robert Vaughan, Jacqueline Bisset, and others, and the entire movie is steeped in a realistic, grim and gritty tone which lends weight to the by-the-book police procedurals on display. Despite these positives, the film is rather slow and – unfortunately – at times, lacking in tension; an always necessary component of a good action film.

Those criticisms aside, however, Bullitt still manages to be an engaging film; a motion picture certainly ahead of its time. Its single set piece would give rise to entire films structured around brilliant car chases, but few have pulled them off with the conviction and forthrightness that Bullitt does. While the sum of its parts may not equal a total breathless, heart-pounding success, when those components are looked at individually, then there is much good to be found in Bullitt.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

300 Words on "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962)


What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is a strange, strange film. Its storyline is at times meandering and repetitive. The characters – even the normal ones – seem just a bit off. Its camera setups can be peculiar, and its musical score is frenzied, hurtling between scary melodious. It’s a film where the opening credits don’t start until the twelve-minute mark and the stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, don’t show up for another eight.

However, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane is a fascinating film to watch. Davis and Crawford, who were real-life rivals, give performances filled with so much latent hate that it’s almost palpable. In fact, Davis’ Oscar-nominated performance as Jane is nothing short of brilliant. Once seen her song-and-dance performance as she tries to recapture her youth is haunting. Crawford, as the invalided Blanche may have less to do but she is nevertheless excellent as the sympathetic sister.

Much like the old house in which the two sisters reside, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane feels dirty and old. It’s the kind of movie where its unrelentingly grim atmosphere gets under your skin and is liable to make the viewer feel uncomfortable. It’s a film which was ahead of its time, and you’re left wondering if all of those strange choices enumerated above might have been deliberate; an effort to make the movie feel even more otherworldly and intangible. Though classified today as a horror film, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane might not elicit the kind of shocks that its contemporary horror films did, but it is a evocative, creepy picture nevertheless.

Today, one may recoil at the out-and-out over-acting from both Davis and Crawford, and the sheer weirdness of character actor Victor Buono is a curiosity in itself, but What Ever Happened to Baby Jane succeeds wonderfully in the end. It’s a film that – despite its downbeat nature – you end up enjoying.

And that may be the strangest part of all. 

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Slightly More Than 300 Words on "Wonder Woman" (2017)


(Possible, Mild Spoilers)

I think my biggest complaint with superhero movies today is despite the fact that they are marketed as action-adventure movies, superhero films give us not exciting, gritty set-pieces (the like that you’d find in your standard Bond film or Die Hard), but elect instead to present a CGI extravaganza robbing the film of any inherent reality. It’s become the norm for the genre today, so I found myself much surprised when, following just such a computer-generated battle early on in Wonder Woman, the film slow itself down, took itself a little more seriously, and presented an interesting story instead of one fake-looking scene one after the other.

What surprised me even further was that Wonder Woman – though the latest installment in DC’s extended universe franchise – is for all intents and purposes a superhero film; the movie is, at its core, a World War I spy thriller. Its narrative, which played out like one part All Quiet on the Western Front and one part 1940s serial, was really interesting and, at times, quite poignant. The film’s characters were unique and relatable, and the film’s period setting made Wonder Woman’s fish-out-of-water story feel understandable, and further justified the typical presentation of Edwardian British men’s flabbergasted reactions towards liberated women.

For much its runtime, Wonder Woman presented itself as a very well-made action-adventure film. While the film was compared to The Dark Knight (2008) in early reviews as DC’s finest movie, I don’t think I would go so far as to say that. The film’s final act sadly brought the whole down; introducing a neatly-executed but unnecessary twist which made the final half hour feel as generic and standard as every other superhero film out there.

But, Wonder Woman is nevertheless a very important film. It proves what so many people already knew: that a female-centric superhero film can be a great success. While far from flawless, Wonder Woman should hopefully herald in an entirely new breed of superhero flicks to add new life to male-dominated and – by now – tired genre. 

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Universal's "Dark Universe" - A Future for Classic Monsters?


If there is one thing which I have come to learn about the film industry as an interested observer, it’s that movies are constantly – constantly – looking at what’s popular and trying to capitalize off of that. Movies are a reflection of culture, and the period in which they were made. Take, for example, the James Bond franchise which has probably changed its tone more than any other franchise in film. The series started out as taut, spy thrillers; series entries like From Russia From Love and the criminally underrated Thunderball owing something to slick spy thrillers like North By Northwest and Charade. By the ‘70s, the series was trying to find new footing and drew upon the Blaxploitation movement for Live and Let Die, and kung-fu films for The Man With the Golden Gun. Later in the decade, after the success of Star Wars, Bond went to space in Moonraker.

That is not to say that the Bond films should be faulted for this – each one has a special place in my heart – and they all managed to be entertaining and exciting on their own. But, the trend has certainly continued today. Movie executives are continuing to follow the money towards box office success and, what has cornered the market today? Superhero films.

Well, to be more precise, Marvel superhero films.


I should say upfront that I am not a big fan of the Marvel franchise. I have seen only a handful of them, to be honest – Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Guardians of the Galaxy (Volumes 1 and 2), and Doctor Strange, to be exact – and while each stands on their own as decent (and sometimes above average) films, I have never felt myself compelled to seek out the missing links which forge the epic chain that makes up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Today those two words “Cinematic Universe” seem to loom like a great 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith in the public consciousness; films which inhabit the same shared space with characters who can easily meet and interact with each other across movies. It is an interesting and profitable idea, which every major studio in Hollywood is now attempting to cash-in on.  

Curiously, the idea of a shared universe of films is not a new concept. Director Quentin Tarantino has asserted for years that his films exist in two worlds of interconnected characters and histories. But, before him, Universal Studios, producing horror films in the Golden Age of Hollywood, more-or-less created the cinematic universe. Their monsters – Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf Man, and assorted others – all, it transpired, lived in the same world and, as the studio continued to churn out monster sequel after monster sequel, it became inevitable that their paths would cross. Now, with word that Universal is officially rebooting their monster series to contend with Marvel and DC, I am forced to ask myself two questions: 1) How do I feel about this, and 2) Can this work?

Following an admittedly pretty epic-looking launch trailer (see below), I decided to take to Microsoft Word in an effort to ruminate on those two questions and work some things out for myself. It’ll prove to be a journey for sure, but a fascinating one as we prepare to enter a new world of gods and monsters.


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Part 1: How Do I Feel About This?

When two movies buffs are in a room together, the topic of conversation is inevitable. Some time ago, I found myself discussing movies with a friend of mine and the question was posed to me, “What is your favorite film genre?” I cheated and responded, “Thrillers.” But the more I thought about it, and the more that we discussed film together, I discovered that I am the foremost champion of horror films I know. I suppose, in retrospect, this is not a surprising fact. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, at the age of six I was taken to see the 1931 Dracula and that got me interested in not only Universal Monster Movies, but eventually classic film, which broadened my horizons to the medium on a whole. While I am perfectly content to discuss the merits of a drama, a comedy, or (once in a blue moon) a romance, I will find myself in my proper atmosphere when it comes to films which deal with all things that go bump in the night.


So, I have a deep-seeded love for horror films – the Universal movies, especially. Though, today, I am more inclined to revisit and sing the praises of Hammer Studio’s run of horror classics from the ‘50s through the mid-‘70s, the Universal films will also be something very special to me. I can still think back on the thrill which ran through me when I first borrowed House of Frankenstein from the local library on VHS, the excitement which came with watching Son of Dracula for the first time after years of only hearing about the sequel, and how I felt like I had gotten away with something by watching The Black Cat (1934) during a road trip; the plot summary on the box of the VHS told of its climax featuring a black mass and how Boris Karloff had chosen Jaqueline Wells to be the Devil’s bride and my Mother wisely refused to allow me to borrow that one.

When word came that Universal was going to reboot their monster franchise, I think to call my reaction a hesitant one would be most apt. Surely, I thought, this is simply a cash-grab in an effort to copy every other Hollywood studio that are pushing for cinematic universes in the style of Marvel Studios (now owned by media juggernaut Disney). And, following the release of the initial trailer for The Mummy (2017) – which opens on June 9 and will be the first installment in the franchise – I found myself suppressing an audible groan. The trailer had fallen into the mire which seems to be consuming nearly every movie trailer these days: giving away too much of your plot and/or giving away your film’s biggest set-piece, and I was left unimpressed.

But, then something weird happened. The second Mummy trailer was released and, because I have too much of a vested interest in the old Monster movies to not watch, I pulled it up on IMDb and watched as an augmented version of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” began to play over sepia-toned images of an archaeological excavation. And, I actually got excited. Legitimately excited. By the time that I went with my friends to go see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in theaters and saw that same Mummy trailer play before the film, I actually leaned over to one of them and said, “This looks pretty good.”


Maybe, I figured, I too had fallen under the ancient pharaoh’s curse. More likely, the marketing campaign managed to do its job and win over this stubborn fan. (The inclusion of classic rock in any film trailer cannot hurt my chances of going to see a movie; the first trailer for Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok also played before Guardians and its use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” got me very excited.) But, now, at the time of this writing a little more than two weeks out from The Mummy’s opening, I’m actually looking forward to it.

So, in an attempt to answer the question above: I’ve come to terms with the idea of a “Dark Universe.” It, at least, gives the Universal Monsters a future again; something I daresay that they haven’t really had since the late 1930s. And, the star caliber behind the series so far – Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe, and Javier Bardem – is nothing to sneeze at either. However, the real question is: can the monsters still survive today?

Stakes and sunlight haven’t vanquished Dracula yet and fire, sulfur, floods, and quicksand have yet to destroy the Frankenstein Monster, but can audience’s tastes finally lay the monsters to rest for good?

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Part 2: Can This Work?

What differentiates the Marvel Cinematics Universe and the burgeoning DC Cinematic Universe from Universal’s “Dark Universe” is its very subject matter. For all of their tonal differences, both Marvel and DC are making superhero films. While a film like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is worlds away from Guardians of the Galaxy, both films are – at their heart – action-adventure films featuring powerful, heroic characters. The keyword here, I think, is the word heroic. It’s easy to rally beyond the central characters of these cinematic universes because we inherently want to see good triumph over evil when it comes to the kind of popcorn entertainment that these movies are.

By contrast, the Universal Monsters are not heroic. They have taken on the sort of status that heroic characters tend to get and are beloved by fans of all ages, but we cannot forget that the Monsters are, well, Monsters. Dracula drains the blood of his victims to extend his eternal life. Frankenstein’s Monster corners his creator atop a rickety windmill to exact his revenge. The Wolf Man tears out the throats of the unsuspecting townspeople. Luckily, from what we can judge from The Mummy trailers, the Mummy does not appear to be a heroic figure. If anything, she seems like the gold, old-fashioned, bloodthirsty piece-of-work that makes for the best kind of blockbuster movie villains.

The new faces of your nightmares?

This isn’t really a point of concern for me as a Monster movie fan, but it will be something to keep in mind as Universal progresses with this franchise. If horror movie sequels are anything to base a supposition on, then there is nothing to fear for audiences seem to like seeing the same monster/killer/thing return again and again to off as new cast of characters.

What is a point of concern is the tone that these films will adopt. Back when the rumors began to circulate that Universal had intentions of rebooting their Monster franchise, it was said from the get-go that the films would be more “action-adventure based than horror.” It is true: the Universal Monster movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s no-longer have the ability to scare audiences today, but reimagining them as adventure stories seems a little wrong. Universal has already seen what an action-adventure take on their films can emerge as: Van Helsing, directed by Stephen Sommers, may have been a nice homage in places to the old Monsters, but its presentation seemed to please no-one (aside from maybe myself: I liked it as a kid and it’s still kind of a guilty pleasure film for me). Van Helsing (2004) currently holds a 23% on Rotten Tomatoes and features such glowing praise as: “There isn’t a single nourishing, non-synthetic sequence in the entire movie. Not a scene. Not a line. Not a look,” “This moronic abomination is not a movie,” and “This is one of the dopiest movies of the year.”

But, maybe Universal has learned from their past mistakes. Dracula Untold (2014) was originally conceived as the jumping-off point for the franchise, but its critical and box office failure scrapped those plans. Perhaps, Universal saw what their first attempt at an action-adventure film based around one of their most famous properties produced and have altered course accordingly. However, even if that is the case, there is one thing which is troublesome about the franchise: forward-thinking.

Usually, I am all for preplanning (when it comes to anything, really), but as it stands, Universal has officially announced five further films to follow 2017’s Mummy movie. The next is a reimaging of Bride of Frankenstein (starring Javier Bardem as the Monster) to be released in 2019 followed by a Creature from the Black Lagoon film, an Invisible Man film (starring Johnny Depp), a Van Helsing film (possibly starring Tom Cruise again), and then a Wolf Man film. While I don’t want to doom the franchise, I feel as if this is a textbook case of putting the wagon in front of the horse.

Part of what made the Marvel universe work was the time it took in crafting each film before culminating in each thread of their superhero tapestry being woven together in The Avengers (2012). When DC tried to copy the Marvel formula for success, they skipped that time ingredient and jumped straight into Batman v. Superman which tried to set up the culminating story all too quickly. They only shot themselves in the foot with Suicide Squad (2016), and I believe have done themselves no favors by slating their Justice League film for November of 2017. I have spent more time than I’d probably care to admit in the past year discussing how DC could have handled their cinematic universe or how they should handle it in the future. (DC people, if you’re reading this, drop me a line and I’d be happy to pass along a few ideas.)


While Universal doesn’t seem intent on trying to get to that culminating film yet – back in the ‘40s they were the “Monster Rally” films of Frankenstein meets The Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, and House of Dracula, all of which saw one or more of the studio’s monsters battling it out come the final reel – but the forward planning seems a bit presumptuous. Giving them the benefit of the doubt like I suggested above and thinking that Universal has been fixing their mistakes from the past, the tight schedule which they have given themselves with these releases doesn’t really give them the time to do that sort of thing anymore. For all of the flack I may give Marvel, they do have some sense of story in mind, and they’re not simply rushing ahead churning out movie after movie with little idea where they intend to go.

I’m not afraid to cheer on team Universal though. As I said, I am genuinely looking forward to The Mummy and Bride of Frankenstein – oftentimes considered to be the studio’s best Monster movie – seems to be in good hands; director Bill Condon helmed the 1998 biopic Gods and Monsters about Frankenstein director, James Whale (Condon was also that film’s screenwriter and won an Oscar) which suggests that he’s an obvious fan of the material, and his work on other films, particularly Mr. Holmes (2015) is evocative, striking, and moving.

I am left to wonder, though, if these new “Dark Universe” films will have the staying power of their originals. Will some young fan many years down the line be borrowing them from the local library and reveling in them the way I did with the originals so many moons ago?

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The original 1932 The Mummy features a striking scene in which Boris Karloff’s Imhotep leads Zita Johann’s Helen to a reflecting pool which swirls with white vapor. Peering into the pool, Imhotep is able to reverse the sands of time and show Helen her past, proving she is the reincarnation of his lost love, Ankh-es-en-Amon.

Oh, how I wish I had a pool such as his now, only one which worked in the opposite direction. One which, when peering through the swirling white vapor shows visions of the future. Though I would want to check out a few other things about my immediate future, if there was time, I’d like to see just how well the “Dark Universe” franchise fares. I wish it only the best.

Hopefully, it will introduce a new audience to not only a new world of gods and monsters, the original one as well. 

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Best Dracula of Them All?

I submit this piece as an early celebration of International Dracula Day “celebrated” by all those with a predilection for the creepy on May 26 – the publication date of Bram Stoker’s immortal original classic.

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I met Dracula when I was six years old.

According to Hollywood lore, before shooting began each day for Universal’s Dracula (1931), Bela Lugosi, who was playing the Count, would stand in front of a full-length mirror (for a vampire uncharacteristically casting a reflection), throw his cape over his shoulder, and bellow at the mirror: “I AM Dracula” in an effort to hypnotize himself into delivering the perfect performance as the vampire. While co-star David Manners attests to this, the story may very well be apocryphal, though mention of it is made in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Whether it’s true or not, Lugosi’s performance as Dracula is one for the ages. Today, it’s impossible not to imagine a tall, dark, Hungarian man in evening wear when one thinks of Dracula. Or simply vampires for that matter.

And, even if Lugosi did not succeed in casting a spell over himself, then certainly on his audiences. Purportedly when the star took the stage in the late 1920s playing the Count for the first time, women swooned and fainted. Nurses were on call armed with smelling salts to attend to those audience members with nervous dispositions, and in doing so; Dracula became a fixture of Broadway in the early days of the Great Depression. A film version was inevitable. Universal Studios – who had made a profit hand-over-fist in the 1920s with their adaptations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera – bought the rights to both Bram Stoker’s novel and the successful play with the intent of casting “The Man of a Thousand Faces” himself, Lon Chaney, as the eponymous vampire. Chaney died before production could begin and Bela Lugosi stepped in front of the film camera to extend his spell over a whole new audience…




…Myself included. At the age of six, my Mother and I went to a screening of the 1931 classic at the local library as the Halloween season swiftly came upon us. Though I cannot remember every detail of that evening, I’m told many years later that I was enraptured by the film. Dracula (1931) may not hold up today as one of the greatest horror films of all time, but its influence cannot be overestimated. Without it – it is easy to argue – the modern horror film would not exist. Dracula proved to Universal that horror films were truly profitable and soon the Count gave way to Frankenstein’s Monster (and his Bride), the Mummy, the Wolf Man, and a myriad of others.

Today, 120 years since the initial publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula continues to have a hold on popular culture. In the wake of Bela Lugosi, countless other Draculas have graced the screen both big and small: Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Louis Jourdan, Gary Oldman, and George Hamilton to name just a few. However, I believe that the finest Dracula film is the oftentimes overlooked 1979 Universal remake starring Frank Langella as Dracula. It is a film version which I believe does not receive the praise it truly deserves, as it may well be the Count’s finest hour on film. I suggest that we take a closer look.

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Like Lugosi before him, Frank Langella began the role of Dracula on the stage. The production was a revival of the play from the ‘20s which had been penned by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. Deane’s original, which had opened in England, had enough cheese to fill a French fromagerie - complete with thunder and lightning cues and bats dangling on the ends of fishing poles - but its success was enough to make it cross the pond and, after being polished up by writer and former journalist Balderston, proved to be just as commercially successful in the states.


Langella's Dracula surrounded by Gothic sets designed by
illustrator Edward Gorey

Langella’s performance in the revival was lauded widely at the time. His performance was nominated for a Tony and writer Gregory William Mank writes on his website reflecting on the experience of seeing Langella on Broadway in 1978: “It was amazing to watch Langella’s Count, capering before the Edward Gorey sets, skillfully playing Act I for comedy (to bait the audience), Act II as a mix of comedy and drama (to keep the audience guessing), and Act III as raw, red meat melodrama (which had the audience in near-hysteria).”

The success of the Dracula revival was surely enough to spawn a remake – or, perhaps, a reimagining – of the 1931 classic. I use the word reimagining as the 1979 film has little in common with the Bela Lugosi original or the Deane/Balderston play. True, there are scenes which are lifted from both sources (the confrontation between Dracula and Laurence Olivier’s Van Helsing being the most obvious example and one of the film’s genuine highlights), but for much its run, 1979’s Dracula feels very much like its own entity. Its plot feels original and unpredictable, partially down to the reshuffling of the cast of characters. Lucy is the central figure of this drama. As most ardent Dracula fans now, it was Lucy in the novel and most adaptations who is victimized by Dracula first and turned into a vampire. However, herein it is Mina who befalls that fate. And, to top it all off, Mina is now the daughter of Professor Van Helsing which adds extra gravitas to the vampire hunter’s hunt for the vampire.

To a Dracula purist, one may balk at all these changes. Furthermore, knowing that the plot never sets foot outside of England (Dracula was originally a sweeping novel beginning and ending in continental Europe), is set nearly a decade into the twentieth century, and knowing that the film features a sub-title proclaiming it to be a love story may very well put fans of the Count off of this film. However, for all its cosmetic changes to the plot and characters of the original, Dracula remains a fascinating film to watch. The very nature of its reorganized cast of characters and storyline lends the film an air of unpredictability which even some of the other finest Dracula films cannot avoid. Hammer’s 1958 Dracula starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee may have dispensed with its source material almost from the word go, but throughout the film one never doubts the idea that good will triumph over evil and Dracula will be vanquished. Dracula ’79 casts doubt upon the very essence of the story; something which cannot be said for many adaptations of the generations-old tale.




And, to address that point about the film being a love story, it’s hardly true. Though it’s obvious that Kate Nelligan’s Lucy is slowly falling for Langella’s Dracula, it is hard to sympathize with the Count. He never becomes a pathetic, sad figure in a way which robs him of his inherent scariness and evil. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) for all its amazing in-camera special effects, costumes, and occasional bits of inspired acting, is guilty of this for sure; Dracula is supposed to be scary and by turning him into a romantic figure, he is robbed of what makes him so terrifying. Langella’s Dracula is quietly evil and, to be frank, his performance is liable to send a shiver or two up and down your spine.
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Laurence Olivier as Prof. Van Helsing

The supporting cast helps to round out the film in no small measure and support Langella all the way through. Of special note is Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing. Though I am biased by my admiration for all things even tangentially-related to Peter Cushing, I assert it as a fact that Cushing’s Van Helsing is the finest ever committed to screen. But, Olivier puts his own fascinating spin on the character. His sensitive, sad nature is at times quite brilliant, and the scene in which he is confronted by his vampirized daughter is both heartbreaking and scary all-at-once.

To provide some comic relief is Donald Pleasance as a sweets-chewing Dr. Seward, but Pleasance – the brilliant actor that he is – never allows his comic bits of business to overwhelm his character. As mentioned above, Kate Nelligan shines as Lucy. Her close-up in the film’s final shot is chilling in its ambiguity. (Oh, and eagle-eyed Doctor Who fans will spot Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy as the asylum attendant, Walter.)

The cast on a whole does a brilliant job of elevating the story from what – at its heart, like the original Deane play, is a rather cheesy story – to being something with some depth and intrigue. As mentioned above, the scene of the vampire Mina is genuinely frightening even today, and the film’s finale is shocking in both its bold plot decisions, but for the open-ended nature of the conclusion. I would be doing anyone who has not seen the film a disservice by speaking about it more.

And, like any film which is scored by John Williams, the film’s score is fantastic. Its central theme is surely one of Williams’ most underrated compositions.

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Even today, opinion is still divided on 1979’s Dracula. Roger Ebert spoke to the film’s elegance and how it “restores the character to the purity of its first film appearances,” but many have written the film off for some of its more dated aspects (and it is true – though it objectively looks good, there is little use in defending the “vampire wedding” scene as designed by James Bond title-sequence guru, Maurice Binder), and for Langella’s subtle Dracula.

While I think that the film on a whole is perhaps not the classical milestone of the Hammer Dracula film, or perhaps even Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it is an underrated gem to be sure. It’s a Dracula film which is interested in more than just fangs, stakes, and garlic wreaths. It’s a Dracula film with a brain and a heart.

It’s a film which proves that Dracula shall continue to be able to cast a spell over me. 

Thursday, 18 May 2017

300 Words on "The Player" (1992)


There have been many movies which have satirized the oftentimes corrupt and corporate nature of Hollywood. Yet, few have done so with the same pitch-black, bone-dry comedy as 1992’s The Player; part The Big Sleep, part Sunset Boulevard, the result is a film which is fascinating to watch. The Player, though advertised as a comedy, is not a laugh-out-loud movie experience. Its comedy is subtle and not always broadly spelled out. The film’s funniest moments come in the scenes where outrageously bad movie pitches are being sold to executives with the straightest of faces by movie writers. These vignettes are truly the heart of The Player and, curiously, I found myself more interested in the film’s depiction of the studio-system movie-making machine than I was in the movie’s central mystery.

The Player is able to pull this off by being so extremely self-aware. Its final minutes border on the meta and, throughout, it feels as though everyone involved had their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks. The movie opens, too, with one of the most beautifully-executed long-takes I have ever seen; complete with references to Rope (1948) and Orson Welles’ similar long take in Touch of Evil. The Player, at once, paints a picture of nearly everything that is great about movies, and nearly everything that is bad about movies.

Today, it seems that the message of The Player is more relevant than ever before, and the moment in which Tim Robbin’s movie exec off-handedly proposes remaking the Italian arthouse film, The Bicycle Thief, feels so incredibly real, it hurts. The Player is a cautionary tale about the nature of artistic integrity and inspiration; a movie which is not afraid to both pay homage to and poke fun at the institution of film. It’s a strange little movie, but it got me thinking, which surely separates The Player from the type of film which it fantastically parodies. 

Monday, 15 May 2017

300 Words on "Panic Room" (2002)


If there is one type of movie which I really enjoy it’s the “claustrophobic thriller.” From Hitchcock’s Rope to Wait Until Dark to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, each film is wildly different, but are similarly marked by their small casts and confined settings. Each film sucks me into the tension and palpable suspense and make for edge-of-your-seat viewing. David Fincher’s 2002 Panic Room is a film of this distinctive sub-genre and surely ranks as one of the best.

Panic Room takes the idea of this kind of thriller and beautifully executes it in a stylish, thoroughly modern way. The cinematography is, at times, simply breathtaking; panning through the walls and floorboards of the New York City brownstone which serves as the film’s main setting. This kind of opulence makes Panic Room feel rich and different; a film which uses the technology at its disposal to only heighten the tension and suspense and, for that, the movie should be applauded.

If it were only for its ingenious use of the camera, Panic Room could be put down as a triumph of style over substance, but its cast – headed by Jodi Foster, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Kristen Stewart (showing more emotion on screen than ever)  - add to the film in no small measure. It’s the engaging performances from Foster and Stewart which help us to identify with their characters and make clear just what a truly terrifying situation they are in and help make Panic Room’s arguably over-the-top final act a bit easier to swallow.

While, to me, Wait Until Dark will forever be the finest example of this type of thriller, Panic Room comes close in achieving the same sense of claustrophobia and sheer terror which the 1967 film reached, and there were times when it felt as if Panic Room was deliberately paying homage to its predecessor. For edge-of-your-seat entertainment, Panic Room is surely a fine example. 

Friday, 12 May 2017

300 Words on "Halloween: H2O" (1998)


As I have made clear elsewhere, Halloween is, I believe, one of the finest – if not the best – horror films ever made. Its string of sequels started out as complimentary to the original, but soon found themselves muddled with plotless plot threads which did nothing but distance themselves from the original masterpiece. Twenty years after the release of the franchise’s first installment, Halloween: H2O did much to bring the series back to what made it so fundamentally good.

To call Halloween H2O a film which is on par with the original is a wild overstatement, but the movie should be lauded for the obvious care and attention which went into both paying homage to and building upon the original Halloween. Jamie Lee Curtis is back in the central role of Laurie Strode and her performance is excellent. In fact, a large percentage of the film is devoted to her alone as she copes with the trauma which she has been living with for so many years.

The callbacks to the first Halloween also help enliven the film too. To my mind, however, the film’s best self-aware bit is the cameo by Janet Leigh as Norma, Laurie’s secretary, in a scene which pays homage to Psycho as much as it does John Carpenter’s slasher. But, beyond simply putting a new spin on elements of the first movie, Halloween H2O feels more like the original; the suspense and tension are palpable and some of the set-pieces are able to conjure up the same terror which the first movie generated effortlessly.

Halloween H2O is no masterpiece of horror cinema; it is still a flawed film, to be sure, but the obvious attention to detail and love for the source material which went into making the movie should most certainly be applauded. In the legacy of Halloween films, Halloween H2O is the definitive final chapter. 

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Why I Love "The Sandlot"


The ability to rate films on IMDb is liable to showcase the most diverse interests of any filmgoer. To use myself, as an example, I think my phone is the only place that you could find titles as diverse as Amadeus next to Die Hard 2 or Taxi Driver in between Clue and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was as I scrolled through my ratings one afternoon that I came across another curious line-up and suddenly felt compelled to put fingers to keys and hammer out a few thoughts about another film. You see, in my IMDb ratings, sandwiched in between Oliver Stone’s The Doors (a controversial and trippy biopic of the seminal psychedelic rock band starring Val Kilmer as the perfect Jim Morrison) and The House of the Long Shadows (an homage to the old-dark-house thrillers of the ‘30s made in 1984 and starring the triumvirate of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing) there is The Sandlot. These three films have nothing in common with each other (except each one I liked enough to give a decent rating), but my eye was drawn to the poster of The Sandlot and I suddenly felt like saying something.

I’m not really a sports person and I have never really been drawn to sports movies as the result. To make a confession: I have never even seen Rocky all the way through. Yet, I make an exception for The Sandlot: the story of a group of boys who play baseball and “get into the biggest pickle any of them had ever seen.” Normally, as far as pitches go (no pun intended), that wouldn’t really sell me on the movie. The Sandlot won me over though and, to this day, the film holds a special place in my heart. Why? It is a question that I endeavor to answer today.

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I watched The Sandlot for the first time on an old VHS copy which, if memory serves, we fished out of the attic for movie night. The memories of that first viewing are not engrained in my mind as well as other first-time movie experiences, but I do remember liking it from the get-go. There was something so fun, light, and entertaining about this story that you couldn’t help but have a good time watching it. The Sandlot became a staple for me on road-trips; a portable VHS-playing TV situated in the backseat would keep me occupied for the trips’ long hours and soon, the film became a reliable standard for me. I recall when I upgraded to a DVD copy on my birthday and, ironically, it was then that the movie began to be played a little bit less often in our house. Granted, this was around the time that I really started to get into movies as a genuine art-form and, though The Sandlot is A LOT of fun, I don’t think I can possibly categorize it alongside something like Citizen Kane (just to go for the obvious/stereotypical example). But, that should not undermine the enjoyment which the film brought me and still does. There are still times that the mood will overtake me and I’ll be inclined to pop it in and enjoy.

And, one must assume, that this same amount of enjoyment has been bought to countless others. The freckled face of Hamilton “Ham” Porter can still be found on countless t-shirts as text proclaims “You’re killing me Smalls” or - the insult of all insults – “You play ball like a girl!” Both phrases have entered our lexicon; a testament to the film’s longevity and its ability to entertain a myriad of viewers.




So, if I am not the only one who has been won over by this film, then what is it doing so right?

I think the answer lies in the film’s simplicity. As I mentioned at the top of this piece, The Sandlot can be summed up concisely in one short phrase. It is not a complex movie which is trying to deconstruct the idyllic 1950’s, nor is it a story whose main plot is propelled by its baseball angle. The Sandlot truly is a coming-of-age story. If I had to pick a movie which I felt acted as The Sandlot’s ultimate complement it would be Rob Reiner’s 1986 Stand by Me, adapted from a short story by Stephen King. Yet, there is an underlying darkness to Stand by Me which is lacking in The Sandlot and, while that darkness may make Stand by Me for many the more real and resonating film, The Sandlot’s sense of fun, I think, will also make it more welcoming to people. 

Nonetheless, both films do an amazing job in building a world around its characters of young people. To put it another way, the films take a look at what really matters in the life of a 12-year-old; be that an in-depth debate about who might win in a fight between Mighty Mouse and Superman or the chance to play baseball at night on the Fourth of July, the one night of the year when the sky was lit up enough and one might feel like a genuine ballplayer.



To young people, watching a film which so accurately gets what it’s like to be them is something indeed. And, no matter when you might watch The Sandlot, its subject-matter is unaffected by the passage of time. Just because the film is set in the ‘50s doesn’t mean that its themes cannot resonate: building friendships, perceiving yourself as a bigshot, teamwork, and facing the unknown (and the seemingly terrifying things which dwell in the unknown). All of them are just as applicable today as they were in both the ‘50s and in the ‘90s when the film was released.

But, all of this is fairly deep and, I don’t think that The Sandlot was ever truly intended to be viewed as a testament to the universal struggles of the adolescent. It cannot be overlooked – as I said already – just how fun The Sandlot really is. Its set-pieces are still able to provide laughs years later. The swimming pool sequence as “Squints” Palledorous pretends to drown in order to kiss the lifeguard – the impossibly named Wendy Peffercorn – is still hilarious. (I have always found Weeks’ matter-of-fact assertion that “Squints” “looks like a dead fish” to be absurdly funny. And the narrator’s proclamation that “He’d kissed a woman. And he’d kissed her long and good” is so amusing too.) Of course, any discussion of The Sandlot is incomplete without referencing the infamous carnival scene. It’s disgusting and hilarious and makes me cringe every time

I also blame it for having The Champs’ “Tequila” stuck in my head, on loop, ever since. But, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose.



I could go on, but I see little point in simply rattling off descriptions of every one of The Sandlot’s great moments. For two reasons: 1) It’s redundant. This really is a movie which so many people have seen that reading about it becomes rather unnecessary. And, 2) The Sandlot works best as a whole. It’s manner of story-telling – linking together these great scenes – means that each one works wonderfully on their own, but they come alive into a cohesive whole when strung together. I speak so much to these great scenes because, I think, they are the heart of the film. The Sandlot may be, on the surface, a sports movie, but it manages to be so much more than that. Unlike, another genre classic of a similar variety, The Bad News Bears (1976), baseball isn’t necessarily the main point of the story. 

Now, I do have to give credit where credit is most certainly due and say that The Bad News Bears is an enduring film. I give it major credit for Walter Matthau’s stellar, deadpan performance, and its use of Bizet’s Carmen as its principle score. However, when I went back and revisited the film some years ago on Netflix, it simply didn’t hold us quite as well. Chalk it up to the inevitable shifting culture tide for one, but I think The Bad News Bears is far more about baseball and, as a result, feels more like a sports film.

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I was in the seventh grade and, with some downtime towards the end of the year when just about everyone was ready for summer, my teacher put on The Sandlot to fill some time. It was a collective moment for our “team” – the smallest one in the grade with little more than fifty people – as we all came together, opening the partition which divided our two classrooms, to watch the movie. I had by now seen The Sandlot more times than could remember and was quoting it in time to the film, but there were some who had never seen it before. Come the end credits, everyone in that room was feeling the same sense of joy which came with watching such an entertaining, fun film.

The Sandlot has a way of speaking to everyone. Its story, though centered on the all-American game of baseball, doesn’t prevent its themes from expressing bigger ideas. It’s the perfect way to spend a breezy two hours and, in doing so, has become something of a legend.

And, of course, legends never die. 


Monday, 10 April 2017

Ranking the Films of Quentin Tarantino


The road to liking a thing is not always a straightforward one. There are twists, turns, unexpected roadblocks where you question which way you should be going, a malfunctioning GPS which makes you question everything all the more and you begin to wonder if you’re genuinely missing the point of the entire road trip altogether.

This metaphor is a fairly decent retelling of the way that I first approached Quentin Tarantino, a director whose work, at first, confused me more than anything else. How, I wondered, was I supposed to feel after watching Reservoir Dogs or Django Unchained? Why, for heaven’s sake, did I feel like laughing at the all-out carnage which was unleashed in Inglourious Basterds, and what on earth did that mean about me?

And then, it was as if that road opened up before me and became one long freeway. My GPS stopped recalculating and I finally understood. I still stand by the assertion that the night some of my friends and I went to see a screening of the 70mm roadshow version of The Hateful Eight upon its initial release was some of the most fun I have ever had a movie. Come that film’s much-needed intermission, the deep breathes which the entire audience let out were almost palpable. I understood that everyone had been holding their breath just as I was. I’d gotten swept up into the story and we were all having…just…so…much…fun. I began to understand the subtle nuances and the sometimes outright brilliant technique which Tarantino used to bring his stories to life and I instantly began to appreciate his filmography so much more.

He is today one of my all-time favorite directors.

While I enjoy Quentin Tarantino’s entire body-of-work, some of it is just more appealing to me than others. So, today I have decided to rank his films from my least favorite to my favorite (just to keep you in suspense). Three minor disclaimers before we begin: 1) I am counting Kill Bill as one complete film and not as the two separate films it was released as. 2) I am only counting the films which Tarantino wrote and directed. Therefore, From Dusk ‘Til Dawn is not on this list nor is True Romance and others. I have also excluded Four Rooms. Lastly, 3) at the time of this writing, I have not seen Death Proof and therefore will not include it on this list. When I do watch it (which is, hopefully, soon) I will revise this list and add it in. Now, with all that out of the way, let us begin.

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7. Kill Bill (2003, 2004) – To some, Kill Bill is their favorite Tarantino film, and it’s understandable. It is a fun, absolutely crazy thrill-ride which, all together, lasts four hours. But, I think of all Tarantino’s films, this is just the one which does not gel with me the most. My main complaint with it is its scattered nature. I’m never entirely sure what kind of movie Kill Bill is trying to be. A thriller? An action film? A martial-arts showcase? For once, I felt that there were loose ends to tone and style which Tarantino did not tie up neatly (it’s animated sequence, for example, comes out of nowhere and feels, in the grand scheme of things to be pointless).

Kill Bill, I think, really is Tarantino at his most self-indulgent. And, I don’t have a problem in the slightest with self-indulgence as a director. While not a bad film by any means, it feels the most lacking in what make Tarantino films so good and still, I believe, stands out as quite an oddity in his filmography. 


6. Jackie Brown (1997) – Of all the films in his repertoire, I think Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino’s most underrated. Released on the heels of Pulp Fiction, I think audiences expected something more like its predecessor and, instead, we get a fairly slow-paced, understated film about a simple heist. But, the hallmarks of classic Tarantino are still stamped all over the film: great dialogue, an ensemble of fine actors (Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro), and some technical marvels. The heist scene itself – presented from all of the main characters’ points-of-view – is incredible work and is some of the most engrossing cinema I think I have ever watched.

So, if I feel so strongly about Jackie Brown why is it so low on this list? By necessity, really. I think it’s a testament to Tarantino that even one of his (personally) lowest-rated films has so much merit. I say that if you’ve been putting off watching Jackie Brown or haven’t watched it in some time, give it another chance. You’ll be surprised. 


5. Reservoir Dogs (1992) – Some have made the argument that Tarantino has never topped his first film. I don’t think I can say that, but as first films go, Reservoir Dogs is the gold-standard. It is a triumph of production on next-to-nothing and shows us – perhaps for the first time – that a truly good film can be driven by little more than dialogue. That is not to undermine any of the action which takes place in Reservoir Dogs, but its conversations, turns-of-phrase, and characters are at its heart. It is, for much of its runtime, an understated, simple story; its nonlinear presentation does not complicate the plot in the same way as Pulp Fiction, nor do we even see the heist which the entire film’s plot centers around.

If there is one thing which I can hold against Reservoir Dogs, however, it is that whenever I hear Stealers Wheel “Stuck in the Middle with You,” my mind instantly goes to this film and a chill or two is liable to run up and down my spine. 


4. Django Unchained (2012) – Two words: Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio has delivered some excellent performances – Catch Me If You Can, The Departed, The Revenant – but, I do believe that some of his finest work on screen is as the villainous Calvin Candie in Tarantino’s spaghetti western. DiCaprio is a truly nasty piece of work (surely one of Tarantino’s finest-written villains), but his cold ruthlessness is off-set by an at-times gentlemanly demeanor and you cannot help but like this despicable guy. Now, don’t get me wrong, before DiCaprio shows up in Django Unchained, it is a good movie; but his entrance elevates the film in no small measure and propels the story in a whole new direction.

But, let’s focus on the film before Leonardo DiCaprio’s entrance. Christoph Waltz is so incredibly watchable as the bounty hunter, Dr. Schultz, and Jamie Foxx presents us with a multifaceted, likable title character who manages to subvert so many of the genre conventions of the traditional western. And, to be entirely honest, the scene featuring the horseback-riding proto-KKK is surely one of the funniest that Tarantino has committed to film.

Not unlike its villain, Django Unchained is a nasty, at-times grim piece-of-work, but its underlying sense of fun and likability is infectious. 


3. The Hateful Eight (2015) – The work of Quentin Tarantino has, effectively, been broken into two distinct periods: his early crime thrillers and his later historical films. The Hateful Eight bridges the gap between those two periods seamlessly. At once harkening back to the days of Reservoir Dogs, wonderfully paying tribute to John Carpenter’s The Thing, and presenting a no-holds-barred thriller, The Hateful Eight is Tarantino at his most skilled revisiting the work of a talented amateur. Though it received mixed reviews upon its initial release, I think audiences missed the point of this taut, claustrophobic thriller, expecting instead a film akin to Django Unchained or Inglourious Basterds in its presentation of an epic story. But, like his first film, Reservoir Dogs, The Hateful Eight cuts back on all the distractions and presents us with nearly three-hours of rich, Tarantino dialogue...

...And an unfathomable amount of blood. It’s pretty shocking, honestly.

As I noted at the top of this post, The Hateful Eight was the film which really put me on the road to appreciating Tarantino. I was drawn into its deceptively simple story and its characters all of whom are – as the title might suggest – hateful in the extreme, but watching their journey from the beginning to end of this nearly three-hour film was an experience. Not one for the faint-of-heart, I’d say, but few of Tarantino’s films are so uniquely depictive of its director as The Hateful Eight


2. Inglourious Basterds (2009) – I think that it is safe to say that Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino at his most epic. The scale of the story and its interconnected pieces really does make the whole two and a half hours feel like the product of Hollywood’s Golden Age when the epic truly was in fashion. What also sets the film apart is its sheer boldness in presenting so much of the dialogue through subtitles. Never do you feel as though reading those subtitles becomes a burden, however; just another testament to Tarantino’s skill crafting fine dialogue.

But, for all its pomp, circumstance, and sheer overt theatricality, Inglourious Basterds still manages to remain focused on its characters, brought to life by a truly distinguished ensemble and some brilliant scenes. Christoph Waltz has been rightfully praised for his performance as SS Colonel Hans Landa, but special attention ought to be given to Mèlanie Laurent who effectively steals the whole show and Diane Kruger and Michael Fassbender who are central to the film’s crowning scene. Much is made of the film’s excellent prologue, but the protracted scene at the bar (running for 25 pages in the screenplay) is a master-class in building suspense.

Oh, and then there’s Brad Pitt obviously having a ball. And, can you blame him?


1. Pulp Fiction (1994) – What is there to say beyond the fact that this truly is Tarantino’s masterpiece? Everything about it comes together so well into a beautiful, cohesive whole. The acting is fantastic; John Travolta, for one, injects his role with an extra level of dry humor which makes this movie impossible to get through without grinning. Samuel L. Jackson, who simply dominated in The Hateful Eight, is so beautifully nuanced here and I think his role as Jules is among some of his all-time best work. Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, and Harvey Keitel round out the amazing ensemble and, truthfully, it’s hard to discuss this film’s acting because the cast is just so talented.

But, at the heart of Pulp Fiction – like all of Tarantino’s films – is its dialogue and I don’t think it has ever been matched. From its opening minutes as Tim Roth’s “Pumpkin” details why it’s easier to rob a restaurant than it is a convenience store, to its closing moments in that same dinner as Jules compliments whether “Mr. 9mm” is his only source of protection in a world “beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men,” Pulp Fiction features some of Tarantino’s finest dialogue ever. I recommend the film’s opening conversation about a royale with cheese and its subsequent use as a threat to anyone who wants to see what truly clever writing looks – or rather sounds – like.

I think it is fair to say that Pulp Fiction is one of my all-time favorite movies and holds an exalted place in my mind as a truly brilliant film.

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So, that is that, everybody. I hope, above all, that this post conveyed what appreciation I have for Quentin Tarantino as a director. His movies may be an acquired taste, for sure, but to my palette, his work can be enjoyed again and again. But, what about you? Agree with this ranking? If not, what’s your favorite Tarantino extravaganza? Feel free to leave a comment below and stop back soon for new reviews and content.