Monday, October 19, 2020

Bly Manor: A Ghost Story & A Love Story

Mike Flanagan has established himself as one of the top writer-directors currently working in the horror genre, thanks to such well-received films as Before I Wake, Oculus, and a pair of Stephen King adaptations, Gerald's Game and Doctor Sleep. He's perhaps best known to fright fans for his 2018 Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, a brilliant re-interpretation of Shirley Jackson's novel, which took that classic ghost story into some new and surprising directions, while remaining true to the spirit of the original. His newest project, The Haunting of Bly Manor, is an update of the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, which has been adapted for the big and small screen many times before, most notably as the 1961 thriller The Innocents, starring Deborah Kerr and Peter Wyngarde. It was also featured on the big screen earlier this year in a version called The Turning, directed by Floria Sigismondi, which starred Mackenzie Davis.  

Flanagan's version takes place primarily in 1987, when Dani Clayton, an American living in London, is hired as the new governess for two orphaned children, Miles and Flora Wingrave, who live at a house called Bly Manor. It turns out there are eerie things happening at the manor, and the children seem to know more about what's going on than the adults. Dani brings the ghosts of her own past with her to the house, and the rest of the staff, including Mrs. Gose, the housekeeper, and the Owen, the cook, have their own secrets to contend with as well. But the most intense and powerful supernatural entities at the manor seem focused on the children. What is the secret of Bly Manor? Why are the children so intensely involved with what's going on? One thing is certain; Dani will have to face her own demons before she can help the children with theirs.

The Haunting of Bly Manor is a terrific thriller, and expands on its source material much in the same unique ways as Flanagan's earlier series. The story takes some twists and turns you may not expect, and while there aren't quite as many out and out terrifying "jump out of your seat" moments as there were in The Haunting of Hill House, this series slowly builds up the tension to some truly unsettling moments of dread. The show takes the time to slowly unfold its story, and there are a couple of episodes (especially the excellent one focusing on Mrs. Gose) that on the surface may seem to be diverting attention from the main story, but actually fit seamlessly into the narrative. There are, as usual with Flanagan's work, small details and visual cues tucked into scenes through the series that give the viewer clues as to what may be really be going on at Bly Manor. Dani's last name, Clayton, is actually a nod to Jack Clayton, director of The Innocents.

The cast is superb, with several veterans of Flanagan's previous series and films appearing in the show, including Victoria Pedretti, Henry Thomas, Carla Gugino and Kate Siegel. T'Nia Miller as Mrs. Gose, and Rahul Koli as Owen are excellent in their roles, especially in the amazing fifth episode of the series; no spoilers here, but the Hannah Gose centered story may be the series' best entry, and that's saying a lot as the show is consistently well-acted, well-written and well-directed. The Haunting of Bly Manor is a deeply emotional, powerful tale that is as heart-rending as it is chilling. The hauntings in this story are as internal as they are external. One character remarks that this isn't a "ghost story, it's a love story." I disagree, this fantastic series is a ghost story and a love story, and it succeeds admirably on both counts. If you're a fan of supernatural tales with a healthy does of heart and emotion, head over to Netflix and seek out The Haunting of Bly Manor. Highly recommended for viewing during Halloween season, or any season of the year. Here's a link to the trailer for the series : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2y0qSYf578.                         

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Retro Movie : The Parallax View

The 1970s were the decade in which the conspiracy thriller movie came into its own. In the wake of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the optimism of the 1960s gave way to feelings of distrust and paranoid thoughts. Theses negative thoughts escalated further when the United States was propelled into the aftermath of events such as the Manson murders and the Watergate scandal. Films like Executive ActionThe Conversation, Night MovesThree Days of the Condor, All The President's Men, Winter Kills and Capricorn One focused on conspiracies, real or imagined, that exposed the dark underside of the American dream. No movie illustrates these ideas and concepts in a more chilling and effective manner than The Parallax View, director Alan J. Pakula's 1974 classic starring Warren Beatty.

Beatty plays Joe Frady, a somewhat down on his luck (albeit talented and resourceful) reporter who, as the film opens, is nearby when a popular presidential candidate is assassinated. An investigative committee formed by the government finds that the murder was the act of a disturbed individual who acted alone. Lee Carter, a newswoman who witnessed the murder firsthand, visits Frady several years after the killing. She tells him that she believes something odd is going on, as a number of witnesses to the shooting have died, seemingly under normal or accidental circumstances. Carter, a former flame of Frady's, is herself found dead of a drug overdose shortly after her visit to his home, and Frady decides to look into her claims.

What he discovers is that a mysterious organization called The Parallax Corporation is recruiting people who are on the fringe of society, and don't fit the accepted behavioral norm. These antisocial outsiders are given training, and new jobs, but are ultimately used as assassins, taking out politicians that don't fit the shadowy group's world view. The oddball loners are then framed for the crimes, and take the fall for the killings as a "lone gunman." Frady convinces his editor that he should go undercover in the organization, allow them to recruit him, and expose their activities to the world. It's a choice that could ultimately prove to be Frady's undoing. The power of the Parallax organization, and their connections, run far deeper than he ever imagined.

In The Parallax View, nothing is quite what it seems. There are multiple layers of secrets, lies and misdirection at the center of this shadowy organization. As he digs deeper, Frady becomes caught in the middle of a deadly conspiracy. Just how far do the tendrils of Parallax reach? The sense of unease and impending doom is palpable in this dark and cynical thriller. The moody cinematography by Gordon Willis is superb, as is Pakula's tense direction. There's always something happening just outside the frame, and you're often unsure of exactly what's going on right before your eyes. The X-Files may have popularized the term "Trust No One" but in The Parallax View, there's a deep feeling of dread throughout the story. You really can't trust anyone.

The cast is superb. Beatty delivers a solid, low key performance as Frady. The fine supporting cast includes Paula Prentiss, Hume Cronyn, William Daniels, Kenneth Mars, Walter McGinn and Anthony Zerbe. The intelligent, layered script was written by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (with an uncredited asset by Robert Towne) and is based on the book by Loren Singer. Michael Small provides an excellent score, which helps add to the sense of unease throughout the film. Along with Klute and All The President's Men, which were also directed by Alan J. Pakula, this film is often referred to as part of his unofficial "paranoia" trilogy. The Parallax View seems even more relevant in our current environment, and is definitely worth a look. Here's a link to the trailer for the film, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzQRp0Fjpjg, which is now streaming on Amazon.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Retro Movie: Mr. Holland's "Fright Night"

When people talk about their favorite vampire films of the 1980s, The Lost Boys tends to be the first one that pops up in a lot of discussions. I really enjoy director Joel Schumacher’s MTV-styled horror opus, but for my money, the best vampire tale of the 1980s is Fright Night. The film tells the story of Charlie Brewster, a teenager whose favorite TV show is the horror movie showcase, Fright Night, hosted by actor Peter Vincent. When Charlie discovers that his new next-door neighbor is a bona fide vampire, no one believes him, and he turns to Peter for help. Peter is initially reluctant to help Charlie, and thinks he’s crazy. The actor eventually realizes Charlie is telling the truth, and helps him battle the evil nosferatu, who has kidnapped Charlie’s girlfriend Amy, and plans to turn her into his vampire companion. Can our heroes defeat this powerful creature of the night and save Amy?

Roddy McDowall and William Ragsdale
Writer-director Tom Holland initially came up with the idea for the movie while working on the screenplay for 1984’s Cloak & Dagger. He conceived it as a variation on the “boy who cried wolf” concept, but couldn’t figure out how to make the central idea work, until he came up with the Peter Vincent character, someone a teenaged horror fan would logically go to with his wild tale of the vampire next door. Holland lobbied to direct the project, and thanks to his success as a screenwriter on films like Class of 1984 and Psycho II, the studio gave him the chance to take the reins for the movie. Fright Night is an enjoyable combination of thrills, chills and humor, thanks to Holland’s excellent direction, some marvelous special effects work, and a terrific cast.

William Ragsdale (who later starred in the TV series Herman’s Head) is quite good as Charlie, the  young horror film fan thrown into a world where the terrifying things he watches on screen are very real. Amanda Bearse (soon to be featured on Married…With Children as Marcy, the Bundys' neighbor) is equally effective as Amy, and Stephen Geoffreys is a standout as “Evil” Ed, a nerdy kid who gets more than he bargained for when he comes up against the supernatural. There’s also solid work from Jonathan Stark, Art J. Evans and Dorothy Fielding in supporting roles. But Fright Night truly belongs to Roddy McDowall as washed up actor Peter Vincent (a character named in honor of Peter Cushing and Vincent Price) and Chris Sarandon as the coolly evil Jerry Dandrige. McDowall’s wonderful performance, and his natural chemistry with Ragsdale and the other young actors in the cast, is a standout, as is Sarandon’s top-notch work as the handsome, seductive, yet never less than frightening vampire.

Fright Night is a masterful blend of horror and comedy. Holland’s script neatly balances the horror and humor aspects of the story. The story sticks with some of the conventions of previous vampire tales, while giving others a new spin. The movie is never quite a full-on comedy, though there are some funny moments along the way. The vampire elements of Fright Night are treated with deadly seriousness, and the film succeeds at being an outstanding straight ahead horror tale. The first-rate special effects are by Richard Edlund, who also worked on the original Ghostbusters. There’s also some superlative cinematography by Jan Kiesser. The only thing that dates the movie a bit are the clothes and some decidedly 1980s style tunes on the soundtrack. 

Fright Night was followed by a sequel, Fright Night, Part 2, though only William Ragsdale and Roddy McDowall returned for the follow-up. Holland and Sarandon were working on the original Child’s Play (1988), at the time and Bearse and Geoffreys were also busy with other projects. The movie was directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, and featured Julie Carmen as Jerry Dandrige’s sister, who seeks revenge on Charlie for her brother’s demise. A remake of Fright Night, starring Anton Yelchin, David Tennant and Colin Farrell as the vampire, was produced in 2011, and featured a cameo by Chris Sarandon. That film spawned a direct to video sequel, 2013’s Fright Night 2: New Blood. A planned third film in the original series has been rumored over the years by Holland, but has never materialized. If you’re looking for a solid vampire flick for your creature feature movie night, the original Fright Night is an excellent choice. Here’s a link to a trailer for a video release of the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfuIcuezkUw.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Calling The World: Powerful Poetic Voices

Few literary genres can touch the heart, energize the soul and challenge the mind like poetry. If you’re looking to hear some truly moving and inspiring words from some talented writers, there’s an extraordinary new way to discover the work of nine celebrated poets. Calling The World is a collaboration between The Poetry Society of America and Saint Flashlight, two wonderful organizations dedicated to sharing the words and experiences of poets in new and exciting ways. This exhilarating project is an audio anthology of poems that includes works by Pablo Neruda, Mónica de la Torre and Kwame Dawes, among others. The poems are read by a wonderful group of performers, including Jane Hirshfield and Billy Collins. 

Calling The World: Illustration by Monica Ramos
Calling The World was initiated in part as a response to the feelings of loneliness and isolation caused by the coronavirus outbreak. The experiences and emotions people have felt as a response to the pandemic are wide-ranging and unprecedented. Now, more than ever, people need to feel a sense of community and togetherness. The array of voices and life experiences heard in this moving anthology feature a wide range of perspectives from all around the world, including locations such as Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. 

The unique visions of these gifted poets help us realize that we all have things in common, and that our cultural differences shouldn’t separate us, but bring us closer together. Poetry Society of America Executive Director Matt Brogan, and Molly Gross and Drew Pisarra of Saint Flashlight are the guiding lights behind Calling The World. They’re dedicated to making poetry more accessible to all, allowing readers and listeners to experience poetry in new and exciting formats. Both organizations have been involved with previous projects that bring art and poetry to everyday spaces, including the Poetry Society of America's Poetry in Motion program, presented with MTA Arts & Design, which placed poems on New York City public transportation vehicles, and Saint Flashlight’s Movie Marquee Poems project, which repurposed unused cinema marquees in Brooklyn's Park Slope area by adding original haiku by contemporary poets to them.

I encourage you to listen to the work of the gifted poets featured in the Calling The World audio anthology by calling (212) 202-5606. You might have heard of the band They Might Be Giants and their "Dial-A-Song" line that was popular in the 1990s, but in this case you can "Dial-A-Poem." Your day, and your spirit, will definitely benefit from hearing the passionate voices of these amazing artists. It's a unique and powerful experience. For more information on the Poetry Society of America, please visit https://poetrysociety.org/, and to check out Saint Flashlight, go to http://saintflashlight.com/.






Thursday, September 3, 2020

Batman's Alfred "Pennyworth" Begins

One of the longest running characters in the Batman mythos is Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne's loyal and resourceful butler. Debuting in Batman #16 in 1943, the character was actually killed off by DC Comics in Detective Comics #328 in 1964. He was later resurrected and has been re-imagined several times since the “Dark Knight” comics era of the 1970s and 80s. Alfred has been played by Alan Napier (on the classic 1960s TV series) and by Michael Gough, Michael Caine and Jeremy Irons in various big screen films. Now, Bruno Heller tells the story of Alfred’s younger years and early adventures in Pennyworth, an EPIX network series. Executive Producers Heller and Danny Cannon also worked on Gotham, a Fox television series that served as an origin story for James Gordon. That show also featured a young Bruce Wayne, as well as some unique interpretations of several classic Batman villains. On that series, Alfred was played by actor Sean Pertwee.

Jack Bannon & Ben Aldridge
Pennyworth is set in an alternate history version of Britain in the 1960s, where zeppelins take to the skies, and televised executions are the norm. While the Queen still rules, there are two factions vying for control of the government, the fascist-leaning Raven Society, and the mysterious No Name League. Alfred Pennyworth is an SAS veteran haunted by his wartime experiences. He and his friends (and fellow veterans) Deon and Wallace plan to start a private security company. Alfred crosses paths with Thomas Wayne, an American agent, and Martha Kane, a photographer. Thomas and Martha are working for the No Name League, and trying to prevent a coup by the Raven Society. Alfred is caught in the middle as these groups battle with each other, and ends up suffering some personal losses as a result. He'll need to use all of his wits and strength in order to survive.

The series is stylishly filmed, and the show is a fast-moving combination of 1960s spy films and old-fashioned conspiracy thrillers, with a bit of the Batman mythology and real life figures such as Aleister Crowley thrown into the mix. The cast is first-rate. with marvelous performances from Jack Bannon as Alfred, Ben Aldridge as Thomas Wayne, Jason Flemyng as Lord Harwood, the leader of the Raven Society, and Emma Paetz as Martha Kane. Singer Paloma Faith is impressive as the villainous Bet Sykes, and Danny Webb makes a strong impression in a supporting role as a local crime lord. Most of the series' ten episodes are written by the show's creator Heller, who in addition to Gotham, also brought The Mentalist to television.

The great thing about the series is that while it involves a character that's central to Batman's story, it’s not really beholden to the larger Dark Knight mythos, and charts its own course. In a way, it's sort of an "Alfred Begins." Pennyworth is a colorful, entertaining and enjoyable series. How can you not love a show that names its episodes after famous British actresses and singers like Marianne Faithfull and Shirley Bassey? If you're a Batman fan, you'll enjoy this look at Alfred's early years. If you're not a Dark Knight devotee, don't let the Batman tag steer you away from this enjoyable and action-filled series that’s pays homage to Bond flicks, Hammer films, and military thrillers in equal measure. The first season of Pennyworth is now available on demand and a second season is due in 2021. Here's a link to the trailer for the series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYc3LXqEyhg.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Exploring Nimue's Arthurian Origins

Katherine Langford in Cursed
There have been myriad retellings of the story of King Arthur throughout the years, on the big and small screen, as well as the printed page. From the visually stunning, brilliantly over the top theatrics of John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur (a personal favorite of mine) to gritty tales like Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur (2004) and more light-hearted television series such as the BBC produced Merlin, fans never tire of seeing adventures that are set in Arthurian times. There’s even been a graphic novel entitled Camelot 3000, which merged the legend of Arthur with a futuristic science-fiction tale. One of the more recent re-imaginings of  the story is the 2019 novel Cursed, written by Thomas Wheeler, with illustrations by comics legend Frank Miller. The story focuses on Nimue (known as the Lady of the Lake in many versions of the tale) and her quest to free her race, the Fey (fairy folk) from persecution by the Church, while discovering the secret behind the mystical powers she possesses, which seem tied to the mystical Sword of Power, aka Excalibur. The book is a female-empowered tale very much in the vein of The Hunger Games and the Divergent series. Thanks to its success with readers, it was inevitable the novel would be turned into a film or television show, and Netflix recently premiered a series based on the book.

The show is an enjoyable riff on the oft-told tale. Cursed takes the familiar trappings of the legend and re-configures the story into the origin of Nimue, who interacts with many of the familiar faces from Arthurian lore, including Arthur, Merlin, Morgana, Percival and Uther Pendragon. Many of these characters are portrayed quite differently than the ones we’re used to from previous iterations of the tale. For example, Arthur is a young mercenary, Gawain is one of the Fey, and Uther (who’s not Arthur’s father in this series) is a petty, self-important, power-hungry monarch. Even Merlin is not quite the powerful sorcerer we’re used to seeing in previous versions of the story. He’s an anguished, haunted soul, who’s wracked with guilt over his past actions, but still trying to manipulate events to influence the future of mankind.

Part of that future involves Nimue, who will learn that she has a greater destiny than she ever imagined. When her village is attacked by the Red Paladins, military-style forces sent out by the Church to purge the land of the Fey and other magical beings, Nimue leads the survivors on a journey to find sanctuary. She will learn (some of) the secrets of her past, and find that her destiny, and that of the Sword of Power, are inexorably linked. She’ll also discover that Merlin, Uther, The Church, Uther, and other interested parties (including a warrior named Cumber the Ice King) are all vying to possess the sword for their own reasons. There are political and religious manipulations, fierce battles and magical confrontations throughout the series, which is well-directed and visually striking. As for the cast, Katherine Langford (of 13 Reasons Why) is very good as Nimue, Gistaf Skarsgard is impressive as Merlin, and Peter Mullan (who played Jacob Snell on Ozark) is excellent as Father Carden, the leader of the Church’s vicious Red Paladin forces. There are also solid performances from Daniel Sharman and Bella Dayne in supporting roles that may figure prominently in future seasons of the series.

Cursed is an effective, female-centric version of the legend of King Arthur. The series may evoke memories of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s iconic novel The Mists of Avalon, which was itself adapted for television as a miniseries in 2001. But Cursed stands on its own as a diverting, entertaining, and clever re-invention and re-interpretation of a classic tale. There are more entries in the book series planned, so it’s a fairly safe bet that Netflix will continue the television show as well. If you’re a fan of Arthurian tales, the show is worth a look. Here’s a link to the trailer for the series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLTdy6PfotA.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Pollack & Mitchum Meet "The Yakuza"

Can you imagine a story about the Japanese mob directed by Sydney Pollack, who helmed such classic films as The Way We WereJeremiah JohnsonTootsie, Absence of Malice and Out of Africa? It happened in 1975, when Warner Brothers released Pollack's The Yakuza. This intriguing, moody thriller stars Robert Mitchum, Brian Keith and Ken Takakura. Mitchum plays Harry Kilmer, who had been stationed in Tokyo during the occupation following WWII. An old friend of his, George Tanner (played by Keith) asks Kilmer to help him rescue his daughter from Tono, a yakuza boss who has kidnapped her. It turns out that Tanner has been selling guns to Tono, and something has gone wrong. Kilmer heads to Japan to meet with the yakuza boss. Once there, he reunites with an old flame, Eiko, and her brother Ken. Since the post war days, Ken has resented Kilmer, although he doesn’t know why. Kilmer will eventually discover the truth behind Ken's hatred.

Ken Takakura & Robert Mitchum
Kilmer needs Ken’s help in contacting and dealing with the yakuza, as Ken used to work for them. But everything is not what it seems. Tanner is keeping secrets from Kilmer about his true dealings with Tono. Ken’s brother, a yakuza advisor, tries to help our heroes, but things escalate even further. Tanner's daughter is rescued, but that's not the end of the story. As Kilmer and Ken get closer to the truth, a chain of events put in motion by Tanner’s actions affects all of their fates. Kilmer finally finds out why Ken has always disliked him, a secret which dates back to when Kilmer had helped Eiko survive in the days after WWII. Mitchum is very good in the lead role, and the fine supporting cast features familiar character actors Richard Jordan, James Shigeta and Herb Edelman. Brian Keith is quite effective as Tanner, an atypical role for him.

The Yakuza is a stylish, well made film that feels somewhat leisurely paced by today’s action film standards, but is well worth a look. The story is a meditation on honor, keeping the promises you make, and dealing with the fallout from the secrets you keep. It’s much more than a shoot ‘em up movie, though there is quite a bit of gun and swordplay in the film. The screenplay is by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne, from a story by Leonard Schrader (Paul’s brother). The wonderful score is by jazz great Dave Grusin. It's one of director Pollack’s more unusual films, but I think it’s one of his best. Interestingly enough, he made this movie right around the same time he helmed the classic espionage thriller Three Days of The Condor, with Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. The Yakuza is available on disc and for online viewing on some sites, such as Amazon.