Sunday, November 19, 2017

Otis Redding's Unforgettable Soul

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

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

Sunday, November 12, 2017

This "Monster" is Delightful and Engaging

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

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

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

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Sherman Brothers: A Musical Legacy

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

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

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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Kiss of the Damned: Art House Horror

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

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

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

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Retro Movie: The Return of Dracula

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Blade Runner 2049: Revisit A Dark Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 6, 2017

Welcome to the "House of Dracula"

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

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

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

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

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