Friday, March 17, 2017

The Fall: An Enchanting Adventure

In today's world of big budget special effects extravaganzas & superhero franchises, there aren't many movies that can truly be called unique. Here at Eclectic Avenue, I often try to call attention to noteworthy films that have flown under the radar for some viewers. This week, I'm recommending the The Fall (2006), a spellbinding story directed by Tarsem Singh. Set during the silent film era at a hospital in Los Angeles, the film stars Lee Pace (from TV's Pushing Daisies and Halt & Catch Fire) as Roy Walker, a movie stuntman. Roy is hurt performing a stunt, and while recovering from his injuries, he meets a young girl named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), who has suffered a broken arm. To pass the time, he tells her a fantastic story of high adventure about a heroic masked bandit & his stalwart allies (including Charles Darwin?!) and their efforts to rescue a beautiful princess from a vile villain named Odius. 

Roy continues to recount the story, and the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur. The friendship between the two deepens. Alexandria becomes involved in the telling of the tale, interjecting her own ideas into the story. But Roy may have an ulterior motive for befriending the girl, and all is not as it seems. What will happen in both stories, the real life one & the imaginary tale? How will it affect Roy and Alexandria's relationship? The answers are both enthralling & surprising. To say much more about the story and its twists and turns would spoil this beguiling, original film for 1st time viewers. Suffice it to say that this is truly a journey worth taking.

Catinca Untaru & Lee Pace
The movie was filmed in stunning locations all over the world (including Italy, France, Spain & India) over a period of four years. Director Tarsem Singh financed much of the production with his own money. The Fall was a deeply personal project & true labor of love for him. The absorbing screenplay is by Singh, Dan Gilroy & Nico Soultanakis. It's a fascinating look at storytellers, who can alter and shape the direction of a tale, and how the telling of a story can affect the storyteller as well. You may notice some parallels to The Princess BrideThe Wizard of Oz, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in the film, though this tale takes a decidedly darker, but still compelling, turn as the story moves forward. 

Singh brings a remarkable visual palette to the film. There are some spectacular & breathtaking sequences during the fairy tale portions of the story; it really is an amazing & extraordinary film. Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru have great chemistry, and work very well together. Untaru's performance feels very real & unforced. Much of the dialogue between the two co-stars was improvised, to allow their relationship to feel more natural. The film is available on DVD and Blu-ray. If you're in the mood for something a little different on your next movie night, take a look at The Fall. I think you'll really enjoy visiting Tarsem's marvelous and imaginative world. Here's a link to the film's trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwsYyRc9j4g.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Journey Back to the Planet of the Apes

The Planet of the Apes franchise has experienced something of a rebirth in recent years. The film series was successfully rebooted beginning with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, followed by 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and continues with War for the Planet of the Apes, which is scheduled for release this summer. There have also been several new graphic novels & comic book series based on the films, including a crossover with the classic Star Trek crew. Now editors Rich Handley & Jim Beard bring us Planet of the Apes: Tales From The Forbidden Zone, an anthology featuring sixteen fascinating short stories set in the classic Apes universe. The backdrop for the stories spans the era of the five original films to the worlds of the 1970s live action & animated television series. The authors include such well-regarded science-fiction, fantasy & comics scribes as Nancy Collins, Will Murray, John Jackson Miller & Paul Kupperberg.

Standouts include Dayton Ward’s “Message In a Bottle” which acts as a coda to the live-action TV series; Bob Meyer’s “The Pacing Place” a "what if" style alternate ending (or is that a new beginning?) to the original 1968 movie, and “Milo’s Tale” by Ty Templeton, a story about the simian scientist who was featured in the 1973 film Escape from the Planet of the Apes. You’ll also find tales populated by such familiar faces as Cornelius, Zira, and Nova, as well as characters from the live action television show, and the Saturday morning animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes. Both editors contribute engrossing stories to the collection; Beard's "Silenced," moves across several settings & time periods from the Apes mythology and Handley's absorbing "The King is Dead - Long Live The King" takes place after the events of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the final film in the original cycle.

The book also features “Of Monsters & Men,” Kevin J. Anderson and Sam Knight’s look at a young Dr. Zaius, and Greg Cox’s “Endangered Species” an intriguing tale set many years before the time period of the original 1968 film. There's even a story focusing on the mutants from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Dan Abnett's "Unfired." This project is a labor of love for these fine writers, who are obviously fans of the Apes saga and its colorful characters. They've clearly taken the project seriously & therefore have provided us with some well-written, thought-provoking and entertaining genre fiction. Planet of the Apes: Tales From The Forbidden Zone is an enjoyable anthology of original tales set throughout the history of that frightening future world where intelligent apes rule, and man is subservient. As a longtime fan of the Apes epic, I had a great time reading this book, and I think you will, too. Planet of the Apes: Tales From The Forbidden Zone is now available online at sites such as Amazon and also at brick and mortar stores like Barnes & Noble.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Surreal "Night" From Charles Laughton

There are some movies whose characters, images or themes leave an indelible impression on you. And each time you revisit them, you may see something new that enriches the viewing experience. For me, The Night of the Hunter (1955) is one of those films. As the movie begins, Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is awaiting execution for his part in a robbery that led to the deaths of two men. The money from the heist hasn’t been recovered. Ben shares a cell with an odd preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who tries to find out where he’s hidden the money. After Ben's death, the now released Harry uses his guile and charm to worm his way into the life of the thief’s wife & children. He also dazzles the residents of their town, who are taken in by his faux spirituality. Ben’s son John suspects there’s more to him than meets the eye, and sees a hint of the evil under the surface. The preacher's dark side begins to emerge. Eventually, the children must run for their lives as the maniacal, black clad preacher pursues them in his quest to discover the location of the cash.

The Night of the Hunter is the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, best known for his roles in films like Witness For The Prosecution and The Private Life of Henry VIII. Laughton & writer James Agee collaborated on the screenplay, based on Davis Grubb’s novel. It’s an excellent production, with an expressionistic look, courtesy of the moody cinematography by the talented Stanley Cortez, who also worked on Orson Welles' The Magnifcent Ambersons. The stylized, almost theatrical sets, offbeat camera angles and unique use of shadows & light add an ethereal quality to the film. Some sequences have an almost fairy tale feel to them, including a dream-like journey down the river by the children, as they try to escape from the madman on their trail. They eventually find shelter with a kind old woman (played by silent film star Lillian Gish) who has a group of other displaced children living with her.

Robert Mitchum & Shelley Winters
The performances are superb; Mitchum excels as the deadly Powell, who hides behind a mask of civility and smooth talk. His charming, hymn-singing preacher can turn from kind & caring to a lying, violent fiend in seconds flat. He’s the personification of evil, becoming a relentless force of nature during the final third of the movie. Gish is wonderful as the angelic earth mother who stands up to Mitchum's devil, the light shining against his darkness. Shelley Winters is very good in a supporting role as the children’s mother, who eventually falls prey to Harry’s manipulations. Billy Chapin & Sally Jane Harper are quite effective as the children, John & Pearl. The Night of the Hunter was not successful during it’s initial run, but the movie has grown in stature over the years, becoming a cult classic. Directors such as Martin Scorsese, Terence Malick, The Coen Brothers and Spike Lee have all cited it as a favorite and a major influence on their work. In 1992, the movie was selected for addition to the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress, who preserve culturally or historically significant films.

If you do decide to watch The Night of the Hunter, try to rent or purchase the excellent Criterion Collection edition, which was released in 2010 on Blu-ray & DVD. In addition to a great looking transfer of the movie, it features some fantastic extras, including a new documentary on the film's legacy, and archival interviews with some of the stars. The most amazing extra is a two and a half hour film called Charles Laughton Directs Night of the Hunter, which is taken from home movies filmed on the set. It covers the entire scope of the production, giving a complete picture of the making of this captivating film. Sadly, due to the film's poor initial reception, Laughton never directed another movie. The Night of the Hunter is one of my favorites. It's truly a one of a kind film. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have; it’s a movie that truly stays with you after watching it. And you'll never hear the classic hymn "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms" the same way again. Highly recommended. Here's a link to the The Criterion Collection's "Three Reasons" trailer for the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LuSu5ZWmyg.

Monday, February 20, 2017

You Can Still Be "Afraid of the Dark"

The following post is part of The Movie of the Week Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Film & TV Café. Thanks to Rick at that site for including me in the lineup! You can find info on & get links to the rest of the entries in the Blogathon here: http://www.classicfilmtvcafe.com/2017/01/the-movie-of-week-blogathon.html. Enjoy reading these posts about some classic made for TV movies!

In the long ago & far away days of the 1970s, before reality shows and NCIS & Law & Order spinoffs took over prime time, there was a little thing called the “Movie of the Week” on ABC. Actually, all three networks regularly produced original movies during the 1970s, but for me, it feels like ABC telecast a number of the most memorable suspense, horror & fantasy films, including Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971), Dan Curtis’ Trilogy of Terror (1975), the original The Night Stalker (1972), and a terrifying little tale called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which aired in October 1973. If, like me, you saw this movie in your younger days (I was 10 years old at the time) it probably left an indelible impression on you. It's still one of my favorites from the era.

Kim Darby in "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark"
The story concerns Sally Farnham (Kim Darby) and her husband Alex. They move into a house inherited from her late grandmother. Sally discovers a bricked up fireplace in the basement, and asks the local handyman about it. He’s a little evasive, but tells her that her grandmother had it bricked up following the death of her grandfather. He advises her to leave it alone. But a curious Sally uses some tools to pry open a small side door that leads to a sub-basement. When she leaves the room, strange voices are heard from below. Mysterious things start to happen, and Sally is almost sure she hears those same weird voices calling her name, over & over.

One night, while she’s alone, she feels something grab her leg and hears the words, “We want you.” When her husband returns, he doubts her story, but makes sure the fireplace door is bolted shut. The next night, Alex & Sally host a dinner party for some of his work colleagues, and Sally sees a strange creature under the dinner table, which scurries away. No one else sees or hears anything. Later that evening, while she’s taking a shower, several of the little monsters turn out the lights and attack her with a razor. When she flicks the lights back on, they scurry away. Once again, only Sally sees them.

Alex begins to doubt his wife’s mental stability, and urges her to spend time with a friend while he’s away on business. The creatures attack Sally again, and tell her they want her spirit. She becomes even more frantic as the creatures continually terrorize her. Sally’s doctor prescribes some sedatives for her, and her friend Joan stays over with her. Alex returns from his trip, and goes to visit the handyman in order to discover the true history of the house. The creatures trap Joan outside, and drug Sally’s coffee. Will Alex return in time to save her? The film’s terrifying final moments (which I won’t spoil for you here) are what stayed with me after I first saw the film. I’m sure the creepy ending freaked out a lot of kids from my generation, who were peeking out from behind their favorite couch pillow during the movie’s conclusion.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was one of those films we all talked about at school after it aired, like many fondly remembered made for TV terror tales, such as the titles mentioned earlier, or others like Gargoyles (1972) and Satan’s School For Girls (1973). Solidly directed by John Newland (the host of the late 1950s anthology series One Step Beyond) and starring Kim Darby and Jim Hutton, the film is quite atmospheric with some truly chilling sequences. Darby is best known for starring alongside John Wayne in True Grit (1969) and as “Miri” on an episode of the original Star Trek series. She gives an excellent performance as the beleaguered Sally, and Hutton (TV’s Ellery Queen) is quite good as Alex. There are a couple of bonuses for classic TV fans: William Demarest (Uncle Charlie from My Three Sons) plays the handyman, and Barbara Anderson, of Ironside & Mission: Impossible fame, co-stars as Joan. The spine-chilling score is by the veteran TV & film composer Billy Goldenberg.

The film was written by Nigel McKeand, who also penned scripts for the The Waltons & Family. Those TV series were obviously in quite a different genre than this horror classic. The movie may seem kind of tame by today’s standards, but you won’t soon forget those spooky creatures and their eerie voices. In 2011, writer-director Guillermo Del Toro, an acknowledged fan of the movie, produced a new version of the film, also titled Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which has some interesting moments. But that big screen film is really more of a re-imagining of the story than a remake. The original TV chiller is available on DVD, and a trailer can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fz3dB0z08vs. And remember “Free...free…..she set us free….”

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Lake Street Dive's Night of Cool Grooves

Lake Street Dive - photo by John V
Lake Street Dive, the pop/jazz/soul ensemble led by magnetic front-woman Rachael Price, took the stage Saturday night at New Haven's College Street Music Hall for a sold out concert, and made the place their own. Kicking off their set with the title track from their 2014 album Bad Self Portraits, the band treated us to a spectacular show. Price’s voice is simply astonishing. It’s an instrument unto itself: sensual, soulful, and powerful. From the blues-ier sounds of “I Don’t Care About You” to the dance pop stylings of “Call Off Your Dogs” the strength & power of her vocals soared across the venue. Rounding out the band are the incredible Bridget Kearney on standup bass & vocals, the fluid and multi-talented Mike Olson on guitar, trumpet & vocals and the solid & commanding drum work & vocals from Mike Calabrese. Everyone contributes immeasurably to the eclectic sound & overall success of this amazing group.

The band’s strong chemistry makes it all look easy; they’re so in sync and comfortable with each other on stage that they can trade riffs & vocals effortlessly, jumping from tunes like a jazzy cover of George Michael’s “Faith” to the rocking “Hell Yeah” without missing a beat. And they’re fun. Their obvious joy at playing together and strength of spirit as a band is infectious. From kinetic performances such as “Spectacular Failure” from their current release Side Pony, to more sultry numbers like “Seventeen,” and "Saving All My Sinning" the group essentially blew the roof off the place, and showed lesser bands how it’s done. I can’t say enough positive things about Lake Street Dive, or their out of this world performance & undeniable groove. I would very quickly run out of ways to praise them, and just keep telling you how awesome they truly are. Any band that busts out a rocking cover of the McCartney/Wings number “Let Me Roll It” (with Price helping out on guitar) and shortly thereafter can touch your heartstrings with their soulful love song (and audience favorite) "My Speed" deserves your rapt attention.

Lake Street Dive - photo by John V
This was one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time. The audience's enthusiasm level never abated during the entire concert. If you like Motown, The Beatles, dance pop, classic soul, or jazz, Lake Street Dive’s unique melting pot of sounds should appeal to you. The group first met at the New England Conservatory in Boston, and have been performing together since 2004. The band's popularity has been steadily on the rise recently; they're on the road for the next couple of months. If you get the chance, they are truly a must see; run, don't walk to your local venue and check them out. Joey Dosik, a talented singer-songwriter/keyboardist, opened the show at College Street, and his smooth soul & cool vibes were a perfect appetizer for Lake Street’s performance. Ironically, Dosik also covered a McCartney/Wings tune in his set, the Back to The Egg track, “Arrow Through Me.” You can find out more about Lake Street Dive at their website here: http://www.lakestreetdive.com. And here’s a link to Joey Dosik’s page: http://joeydosik.com. You can also read my review of Side Pony here: http://jveclectic.blogspot.com/2016/02/lake-street-dives-genre-hopping-party.html, and check out a live performance of "Call Off Your Dogs" here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFKG6bS01ns&spfreload=5.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

What If Dracula Had Ruled England?

Alternate histories have become a staple of the science-fiction and fantasy genres. Authors like Harry Turtledove, Eric Flint & Orson Scott Card have penned successful series based on “what if” versions of United States & European history. One of the more entertaining & unique examples of this type of fiction are Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula novels, originally published during the 1990s, and now back in print thanks to the folks at Titan Books. The first book in the series, Anno Dracula (1992), takes place after the conclusion of Bram Stoker’s original tale; in this version, Van Helsing fails to defeat Dracula; the Count marries the widowed Queen Victoria, and becomes Prince Consort of The British Empire. A large number of vampires infiltrate British society, and take over the government. England now belongs to the undead. In Newman's world, many humans willingly allow themselves to be “turned” and become vampires to attain wealth or elevated social status. 

A mysterious killer is targeting vampire prostitutes, and it’s up to Charles Beauregard (a human agent of the mysterious Diogenes Club) and the vampire Geneviéve Dieudonné, to track down the killer and stop him. As the murders continue, anti-vampire sentiment rises; riots and public confrontations cause emotions to run high throughout England. Our heroes have both allies & enemies, many of whom have their own secrets and hidden agendas. Can this killer, dubbed “Jack The Ripper” be discovered and captured? Will the repercussions of these murders cause Dracula to lose the control he’s gained over England. Is there a plot to destroy him, and end the vampire's control over England?

Part of the fun in reading Newman’s engaging, deftly written & well-researched stories is that, in addition to his own original creations, he populates his saga with characters from a host of other fictional universes. It’s a kind of “mega-crossover.” Fans of fantastic fiction will enjoy appearances by and references to heroes & villains from many other books, comics and films, including Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Professor Moriarty, and Dr. Moreau. There are also real life historical personages appearing in the series, such as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Billy the Kid and John Merrick, better known as The Elephant Man. You’ll find yourself going back over the pages to spot the famous or infamous characters you might have missed; was that The Lone Ranger who just wandered by? Did Newman just insert The Invisible Man, Fu Manchu & Sherlock Holmes into the story?

The series continued in 1995 with The Bloody Red Baron, a very different spin on the exploits of the famed air ace. In that book, Dracula sides with the Kaiser during World War I, and tries to help Germany defeat England. The third entry in the series, Dracula Cha Cha Cha (1998) moves the action to Rome in the late 1950s, as a large cast of characters gather for the Count’s latest wedding. One of the guests is an undead secret agent named Bond, and you'll notice that Barnabas Collins, Tarzan and even Michael Corleone show up for the festivities. The fourth book in the saga, 2013’s Johnny Alucard, features Martin Sheen, Andy Warhol, Orson Welles and Francis Ford Coppola, who’s working on his epic film adaptation of Dracula, that's set to star Marlon Brando. There are also appearances by or allusions to pop culture icons like Jim Rockford, Columbo & Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

All of the titles in the series feature appendixes, additional material and notes from the author as “extras,” which detail the various books & films he’s referenced during these "metafiction" adventures. There will be a new entry in the series featured in Newman's upcoming short story collection, Anno Dracula 1899 & Other Stories. The prolific author has also written additional stories about The Diogenes Club, and a volume of tales about Professor Moriarty entitled The Hound of The D’Urbervilles. If you’re a fan of books like Philip Jose Farmer’s Newton-Wold stories, Alan Moore’s graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or TV series such as Penny Dreadful, the Anno Dracula series is recommended reading.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Dark Corners of the "House of Games"

When is a con not just a game?  When does curiosity cross the line into obsession? David Mamet’s intriguing thriller House of Games (1987) tries to answer these questions, and throws some additional puzzles into the mix. Lindsay Crouse plays Dr. Margaret Ford, a therapist who has just written a book on addiction. One of her patients is Billy, a gambling addict. He tells her that he owes a large sum of money to people who are going to kill him because he can't pay off his debt. She decides to intervene and heads to a gambling club called the House of Games, where the people Billy owe the money to hang out. There she meets an enigmatic con man named Mike (Joe Mantegna), who agrees to forgive Billy’s debt if she’ll pose as his girlfriend in a high stakes poker game, and watch for his opponents “tell.” After a surprise revelation at the end of the game, Margaret asks Mike to educate her on the art of the con. Her goal is to write a book about the world of con artists & criminals…but this is a request that the good Dr. Ford may come to regret.

What follows is an elaborate game of lies, misdirection & double-crosses, as Margaret gets drawn deeper into Mike’s world. She becomes obsessed with him, and gets addicted to the high she feels from getting away with a con. When a scheme to obtain a large sum of money goes wrong, she finds herself trapped in a web of deceit & murder. Just how deep is Margaret willing to go to understand the mind of a criminal? Can she extricate herself from the labyrinthine trap she's fallen into...and does she really want to? House of Games is an intriguing study of the contrasting personalities of the two lead characters. There's Crouse’s Margaret, a tightly wound professional who understands obsession because she's an obsessive herself; and Mantegna’s cynical yet magnetic con artist, who’s got a devil-may care attitude and is always one step ahead of the game …or is he?  To say too much more about the plot would spoil the fun; let’s just say you’ll enjoy this visit to the world of con men, grifters & their unlucky marks.

This film was playwright Mamet’s (Glengarry Glenn Ross) directorial debut, and he does a fine job bringing his twist-laden screenplay to life. Mamet has a true gift for wordplay, as he’s shown in so many of his stage plays & films. While some have criticized Mamet’s dialogue for being overly stylized, I think it’s perfect for this kind of story. The cast gets the cadences & feeling of the words just right. Much of the insight into these people comes from dramatic pauses, a look, or a line of dialogue that might have a double meaning, which is another Mamet trademark. The gritty cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia neatly captures the seedy look & shadowy corners of Mike’s world. The movie has a real film noir look & feel to it, which is well suited to the dark themes of the story. House of Games is a fascinating thriller, and it gets even better upon repeat viewings; it's a personal favorite of mine.

The performances are outstanding: Crouse (who was Mrs. Mamet at the time) gets a fantastic part to play; Mantegna shows us the star quality that led to so many other memorable roles after this film’s release. And there are some great supporting performances, including Ricky Jay, a young William H. Macy, and the late, great J.T. Walsh. The film is available from The Criterion Collection in an excellent DVD special edition. Extras include commentary from Mamet & Jay, a documentary on the making of the film, interviews with Mantegna & Crouse, and the film’s original trailer. If you’re looking for a smart thriller with an edge, House of Games is a safe bet. On another note: if you enjoy this movie, you might want to check out noir-ish thriller from Mamet, The Spanish Prisoner, which was released in 1997, and stars Campbell Scott & Steve Martin. Here’s a link to The Criterion Collection's site entry for their edition of House of Gameshttp://www.criterion.com/films/831-house-of-games.