Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Rogue One Is A Classic "Star Wars Story"

The Star Wars franchise was successfully re-launched in 2015 with The Force Awakens, a sequel whose events took place after 1983’s Return of the Jedi. The latest entry in the saga, Rogue One, focuses on a daring group of rebels who are trying to steal the plans for the Empire’s new battle station, the Death Star. Sound familiar? This is the same set of plans that Princess Leia hid inside R2D2 at the beginning of the original Star Wars, released in 1977. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a prequel that can stand on its own, but adds to the unique tapestry of the universe created by George Lucas. You could argue that this just may be the best overall Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.  Please note this review will be largely spoiler free, so you can enjoy the the fantastic Rogue One if you haven't seen it yet.

The movie follows the story of Jyn Urso, who’s the daughter of one of the scientists working on the Death Star project. Jyn's father, Galen, has sent out a secret message to the rebels. He wants to stop the Empire, and has information that can help destroy the Death Star. The rebels want Jyn’s help in locating him. So she and a ragtag band of heroes try to find a way to rescue Galen and gather this important intel regarding the Empire’s ultimate weapon before it’s too late. Along the way, we’re treated to an exciting, action-packed tale that features some intriguing new characters, as well as appearances by some long-time favorites in the series, both heroes & villains. There are also some visual nods & musical references to past entries in the saga. Kudos here to Michael Giacchino’s music, which quotes John Williams' classic themes throughout the movie, but is also an evocative & original score in its own right.

Director Gareth Edwards (who also helmed the well-done 2014 Godzilla reboot) clearly loves playing in George Lucas’ sandbox; the film is visually dazzling, and features several memorable & kinetic action sequences. It not only looks like, but also feels like a Star Wars film, and has that same sense of wonder & excitement that personified the original trilogy. The performances are strong, especially Felicity Jones as Jyn, Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe, a kick ass warrior who helps Jyn in her quest, and Alan Tudyk as the voice of K-2S0, a somewhat cranky but extremely helpful droid. Mads Mikkelsen is also very good as Galen. The relationship between father & daughter is one of the threads that holds Rogue One’s story together, much as themes regarding parents & their children permeate some other films in the series. It's also nice to see another intelligent, strong & resourceful female character take center stage in the saga, following in the tradition of Princess Leia from the original trilogy, and Rey from The Force Awakens.

Rogue One is a thrilling adventure that will resonate most strongly to Star Wars fans, but can also be enjoyed as a standalone science-fiction film. The story has a slightly darker tone than The Force Awakens, but there are some welcome moments of humor amid the action & excitement. It’s kind of a Dirty Dozen (or The Guns of Navarone, if you prefer) style "secret mission" story set in the Star Wars universe. Director Edwards and his cast & crew have done a remarkable job capturing the essence of Star Wars, but also creating their own spin on the "Lucas-verse." I’m not going to detail the cameos & references featured in the film, as I promised to be spoiler-free, but I will say this; Rogue One ends where classic Star Wars begins. I will note that there is some use of CGI to recreate a couple of characters that some viewers & critics have found a bit off-putting, but it does not hurt the film’s overall effectiveness. Rogue One is now in theaters; here’s a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frdj1zb9sMY

I can't close this week's post without noting the recent passing of Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in the Star Wars films, among her many other roles. RIP, Carrie. Thanks for being one of the toughest, sassiest & smartest heroines in the universe. This is also the final Eclectic Avenue entry for 2016. Wishing all my readers & their families & friends a Happy New Year! Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Retro TV Christmas

Many TV series have aired "special" holiday episodes over the years, but here at Eclectic Avenue, I'd like to focus on a trio of entries that would make a fine evening of viewing and truly warm the hearts of classic TV fans during the holiday season. Let's take a look at these entertaining stories:

Art Carney in "Night of the Meek"
The Twilight Zone - "Night of the Meek" - This story originally aired on December 23rd, 1960, during Season 2 of Rod Serling's classic anthology series. It was one of six episodes that were shot on videotape for budgetary reasons. This moving tale concerns a down on his luck department store Santa named Henry Corwin, who's fired on Christmas Eve for showing up late & being drunk on the job. Corwin is something of a dreamer (like so many Serling characters) and he wishes he had a way to make the residents of his tenement neighborhood (especially the children) happy on Christmas. Through that ethereal magic that seems to permeate the world of The Twilight Zone (and the help of a very special bag of gifts) he's able to do just that, and more. This is a moving & sentimental episode with an outstanding performance by Art Carney as Corwin and fine support by well known character actor John Fielder as his boss. While the more cynical minded among you might find this a bit too schmaltzy, it's always been one of my favorite Christmas stories, and I try to watch it every year. It's very well written by Serling (featuring some of his trademark poetic dialogue, nicely delivered by Carney) & well directed by Jack Smight, who helmed several other episodes of the series. "Night of the Meek" is available for online viewing on Netflix & and you can also purchase it as part of the various DVD & Blu-ray releases of the series, from sites such as Amazon.

Angela Cartwright & Bill Mumy in "Return From Outer Space"
Lost In Space - "Return From Outer Space" - Producer Irwin Allen's outer space saga details the adventures of the Robinson family, who become well, lost in space, during a mission to Alpha Centauri. This episode originally aired on December 29th, 1965 during the series first season. In this entry, young Will Robinson, played by Billy Mumy, finds himself teleported back to Earth by an alien machine, and ends up in a small town in Vermont. Will tries to convince the locals that he's part of the Robinson expedition, but no one believes him. They think he's perhaps a runaway, an orphan, or a little bit crazy. While some of the townspeople try to find him a new home, he just wants to help his family, and make his way back to them. The Christmas holiday, and the wintertime setting, is used as a backdrop for the episode, and it adds nicely to the atmosphere of the story, written by Peter Packer.  Mumy is very effective as Will here, and gives a strong performance, under the direction of Nathan Juran. Reportedly, it's one of his favorite episodes of the series. Guest star Reta Shaw (who'll be very recognizable to classic TV fans from her appearances in shows such as Bewitched & The Ghost & Mrs Muir) does a wonderful job as the kindly Clara Simms, who wants Will to stay put and live with her & her nephew. Oddly enough, despite the fact that it's supposed to be the then future time of the 1990s, it looks like Will's landed in a version of Andy Griffith's Mayberry! Still, this sentimental outing is a strong episode in the series initial season, and is worth viewing. You can see it online on Hulu, and purchase it as part of the series Blu-ray or DVD releases.

Richard Basehart, Michel Petit & Carroll O'Connor
in "Long Live The King"
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea - "Long Live The King," is a first season episode of this series (also produced by Irwin Allen) detailing the exploits of the crew of the amazing nuclear submarine Seaview. This story, which originally aired on December 21, 1964, finds the Seaview delaying the crew's Christmas leave to pick up the young prince of a small (un-named in the episode) country. The prince's father, the king, has been assassinated. The Seaview must transport Prince Ang home to help stop a revolt. But there's a traitor on board; will he kill the young ruler before they get him back to his kingdom? Who is the mysterious castaway named John that the sub rescues? As Admiral Nelson (Richard Basehart), Captain Crane (David Hedison) & the crew dodge an enemy sub & try to discover the traitor's identity, John & the prince (who's initially kind of a brat) form a strong friendship. Will the prince get home in time....and will he grow up a little before Crane tosses him in the brig? Will the crew get to celebrate Christmas? This is an enjoyable tale; it's a bit more light-hearted in tone than some of the show's espionage themed early episodes, and features a strong guest star turn by Carroll O'Connor as John. Written by Raphael Hayes & directed by Laslo Benedek, the episode is available for online viewing on Hulu, and can be purchased as part of the DVD set of the series first season. So warm up some cocoa, light the fire & cozy up with some Yuletide TV from Rod Serling & Irwin Allen! I'd like to wish all my readers & their families and friends a Merry Christmas & Happy Hanukah!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Solving the Mystery of an "Arrival"

Arrival is like a breath of fresh air for science-fiction cinema. In this era of comic book franchises, YA series adaptations & endless big budget action movies, it’s nice to see a more cerebral genre film. I’m not disparaging popcorn movies, mind you; it’s just that we don’t get to see a movie like this one very often. The film is a fascinating & mind-expanding tale of first contact. The movie begins as many “alien invasion” stories do: large spacecraft appear at various locations throughout the world, and the intent of the alien visitors is unknown. Amy Adams stars as Louise Banks, a linguist who is brought in by the military to decipher the aliens’ language. A physicist named Ian Donnelly, portrayed by Jeremy Renner, joins her on the mission. Together they try to figure out what these beings want, and how to communicate with them.

How do we understand beings whose language & world we have no frame of reference for? How can they, in turn, relate to us? As the team tries to have a meaningful conversation with these visitors and exchange ideas, tensions escalate around the world. Some countries don’t wish to wait to until we can speak with the aliens. They want to attack them before they can attack us. But there’s more going on here than mastering the nearly impossible task of finding common ground with these travelers from another world. As the story unfolds, an additional mystery presents itself; Louise is having flashes of memory regarding her late daughter, and her life before the visitors arrived. Are these memories being triggered by the presence of the aliens? What does it all mean for Louise, and for us? What do the aliens really want?

Arrival is at once a race against time thriller, and a compelling tale about communication & understanding. As a possible conflict with the aliens draws near, Louise & Ian must learn how to see things from a unique perspective, and also teach the otherworldly visitors to understand the world we know. Is the ultimate solution tied to the visions Louise is having? This is a movie that challenges the viewer as it moves toward its conclusion. There are no easy answers to the central questions, and it’s the journey’s end (or is it a beginning?) that really is the most intriguing part of the story. It’s an uplifting, mysterious & powerful film, that will resonate most deeply with fans of thoughtful & humanistic science-fiction films such as Contact, Close Encounters, Starman & the original The Day The Earth Stood StillThe well-written screenplay is by Eric Heisserer, based on the novella “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang.

The acting is excellent. Amy Adams gives a rich, well-rounded performance; she’s luminous, and imbues Louise with a great deal of strength, heart & emotion. Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg offer solid support in their roles. Director Denis Villeneuve and his team give the film a unique look; not the bright lights & flashy visuals of films like Independence Day, but a truly eerie, otherworldly feel that suits the movie. The unique score by Johann Johannsson adds immeasurably to the film's success. Arrival is currently finishing up it’s run in theatres, and a home video release should be announced soon. If, like me, your mind was captivated & thrilled as much by Close Encounters of the Third Kind as it was by Star Wars back in 1977, then seek out Arrival. This is one of the very best movies I’ve seen this year; highly recommended. Here’s a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFMo3UJ4B4g.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Pete Yorn Enthralls at The Outer Space

Pete Yorn - photo by John V
Singer-songwriter Pete Yorn has been delighting his loyal cadre of avid fans (myself included) with his tuneful blend of rock, pop & folk since his debut album musicforthemorningafter was released in 2001. On Friday, December 2, he played to a packed house at The Outer Space in Hamden. Yorn is touring in support of his latest release, ArrangingTime. It was a terrific performance, featuring a generous helping of songs from the new disc, including the propulsive show opener, the catchy “Screaming at the Setting Sun,” the alternative rock sounding “She Was Weird” and the beautiful, 1960s baroque pop flavored  “Summer Was A Day.”

Of course there were also the fan favorites, like the signature hit  “Strange Condition,” the ballad “Just Another” and “Murray,” which inspired one of the most ebullient audience sing-alongs of the evening. He even threw in one of my favorites “Paradise Cove,” from his under-appreciated 2009 release, Back & Fourth. Yorn was in fine voice, notably on the lovely ArrangingTime track “Halifax” and a plaintive cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” as well as an impressive "Life On A Chain." His guitar playing was strong & assured, and the top-notch band provided strong support throughout the show. The group featured Scott Seiver on drums, John Spiker on bass & Joe Kennedy on guitar, keyboards & harmonica. They were all fantastic, and it was obvious from their interaction that they enjoyed playing together. These masterful musicians helped enhance the soundscapes of the music, adding extra energy & dimension to the live versions of these excellent songs; and they rocked.

Yorn spoke briefly in between numbers about the genesis of (or influences on) some of his songs, and how his thinking had changed about some of the tunes he wrote back in his 20s now that he's a bit older. The intimate nature of The Outer Space lent itself well to his melodic, atmospheric music. After an almost two hour performance, Yorn & the band tore through a fantastic version of “For Nancy, (Cos It Already Is) ” to close the concert and left us all wanting more. It was a spectacular show, and I definitely suggest catching Pete Yorn live in the future if you possibly can. He may not be a household name to some music fans, but he is a talented artist who has a great sound and an array of excellent songs in his catalog. I’d also highly recommend ArrangingTime, which is a wonderful album. Here are links to acoustic versions of “Halifax” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcKoh3jcCC8 and “Summer Was A Day” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fsOsYx7uGsQ.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Caped Crusaders "Return" Again

There have been many different versions of Batman since his 1939 debut in the pages of Detective Comics #27, but there’s one that still resonates strongly in the memories of the baby boomer generation: the campy 1966-68 Batman TV series that starred Adam West and Burt Ward. While some “serious” fans dislike the series, many others, like writer-director Kevin Smith, are advocates for and devotees of the show. The colorful series has experienced a renaissance and re-appreciation in recent years. In 2014, the entire series was released on Blu-ray and DVD in a beautifully re-mastered edition. DC Comics (who had distanced themselves from the series in the past) has been publishing stories set in the show’s continuity, in a wonderfully retro digital and print series entitled Batman ’66. Now, they've released a fantastic new animated movie, Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders.

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders features the voices of Adam West as Batman, Burt Ward as Robin and Julie Newmar as Catwoman, reprising their iconic roles from the show. As the movie opens, we learn that The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin and Catwoman have once again escaped prison. They’ve teamed up to wreak havoc on Gotham City, and take over the world. Who are the only ones that stand in their way? Why our stalwart heroes, Batman & Robin, of course! But what happens when Batman is given a dose of a strange drug by his arch enemies, and turns into a very different sort of Dark Knight? The story that follows is a loving valentine to the TV series and its unique style, with campy dialogue, cool Bat-gadgets, narrow escapes from deadly death traps, and battles with vile villains. I won’t spoil the fun by giving away any more of the plot, but if you’re a fan of the show, this will be like catnip (pun most definitely intended) for you.

James Tucker & Michael Jelenic’s screenplay hits all the right notes. You’ll definitely feel like you’re watching a lost episode of the original 1960s series. West, Ward and Newmar all have great fun returning to their characters. The supporting voice actors are well cast, managing to give their own spin to The Joker, The Penguin and The Riddler, whose original portrayers (Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith and Frank Gorshin, respectively) have sadly, passed away over the years. There are plenty of visual treats and Easter eggs for fans, and the animation nicely captures the essence of the show’s pop art look. This is a delightful film that pays tribute not only to the classic TV show, but the entire history of the Batman character. Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download. Here’s a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGeQKu8RXDc. By the way, a sequel (Holy follow-up, Batman!) has already been announced, with William Shatner joining the fun to portray Two Face, a member of Batman’s Rogue’s Gallery who never got to appear in the TV series. So, in a sense, we can look forward to Batman vs. Captain Kirk in the near future!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Newton Theatre hosts "The Genesis Show"

Genesis fans all have their favorite period of the bands long history. Some enjoy the progressive rock sound and elaborate costumes & theatricality of the Peter Gabriel era. Others favor the middle period, when Phil Collins took over the lead singer role. That’s when the group moved away from the costumes, but retained the elaborate lyrics & progressive rock style, while adding a hint of jazz into their music. And there are many fans of the band’s third version, as the group re-invented itself yet again and achieved its greatest mainstream success as a trio, with Collins, Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford adding pop & R&B sensibilities to their sound. Whatever time period is your favorite (and many fans, like myself, enjoy the band’s entire ouvre) you can find multiple tribute bands out there on the road who play the music of Genesis.

The Genesis Show - photo by John V
One of the best is The Genesis Show, who performed a show at The Newton Theatre in New Jersey on Saturday night, November 19. This band narrows its focus to the 1976-82 period of Genesis' musical output. For this concert, the group recreated music from the “Wind & Wuthering Tour,” which was featured on the 1977 live album, Seconds Out. This was the last recording by Genesis to feature original guitarist Steve Hackett.  The Genesis Show, led by Jeff Giulanni on lead vocals and drums, did a masterful job recreating the elaborate live arrangements & sound of songs like “Eleventh Earl of Mar” and “Supper’s Ready.”  The appreciative audience of diehard fans clearly enjoyed the show, as the group moved its way through classics like “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” and “The Carpet Crawlers,” and a beautiful rendition of “Your Own Special Way,” highlighted by Giulanni’s passionate singing.

The group also managed to sneak in a surprise or two, including compelling takes on “Blood on the Rooftops” and “Unquiet Slumber for the Sleepers...In That Quiet Earth.” Other band members included the nimble fingers of Andre De Champlain on bass, the fluid guitar work of Stephen McQuaid, and the soaring sounds of Matt Thomas on keyboards. And let’s not forget the solid drumming of Vince Corda, who faithfully recreated the double drum sound originally provided by Chester Thompson and Collins, by banging the skins alongside Giulanni. Their skills were especially evident on an energetic version of "Dance on a Volcano" and "Los Endos." The evening also featured a solid light show (a staple of Genesis concerts throughout the years) and a number of slides & videos echoing the art & music of the “Wind & Wuthering” period were projected onto the walls near the stage during several songs.

The band members are very clearly fans of these songs, and their passion & love for Genesis was echoed in their excellent playing. It was a terrific and entertaining night of music, and the band left the crowd wanting more. After two excellent sets, and an encore, we were all clearly basking in the “Afterglow” (pun intended) of a fantastic concert. The Genesis Show is a South Jersey/Philadelphia based band, and many of their shows & appearances are centered in that area. If you’re a fan, and you get the chance to see them, it is truly worth the trip. Here’s a link to their website: http://www.thegenesisshow.com, and some video highlights of their live performances: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xfjh2HONWw.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Shaman's Powerful, Moving Odyssey

Have you ever felt the universe was pointing you in a certain direction? Perhaps you’ve thought of changing your life in significant ways and doing something different? In This Trip Will Change Your Life: A Shaman’s Story of Spirit Evolution, Jennifer Monahan tells a deeply personal story of a series of transformative events. It’s a moving & emotional account of a fateful time in her life that leads Jennifer towards her true destiny: becoming a shamanic healer. This mesmerizing book recounts the significant changes in Jennifer’s world as she transitions from living & working in the corporate arena, and shifts her focus to use her inner talents to help others. The results of this journey and how it changes her outlook on life, love & the universe are truly profound.

One of the best things about the book is that Jennifer takes the time to convey the spiritual aspects of what a shaman is, and how their inner light & energy allows them to focus on healing & guiding people. This odyssey of self-discovery takes Jennifer across the world, and unfolds in unique & intriguing ways. Her openness & willingness to share all the details of this amazing story is truly inspiring. It's obvious that this is only the first chapter of her adventure, and that the universe has a lot more in store for her in the future. This Trip Will Change Your Life will surprise you, delight you & move you. Readers just might find this wonderful book will inspire you to reflect on your own life choices, and be open to all the possibilities that are out there for you in the world.

Now, the more secular & rational minded among you may scoff at this sort of thing, but I invite you to keep an open mind and read this beautifully written, deeply felt book. It is a powerful story of love, light & the joy of accepting all the glorious things the world has to offer. Jennifer is an extraordinary person who's bravely recounted a significant and remarkable change in her life. It affected & inspired me, and I think will do the same for you. I heartily recommend This Trip Will Change Your Life: A Shaman’s Story of Spirit EvolutionThe book is now available for purchase on sites such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Here are links to Jennifer’s author bio on She Writes Press: http://shewritespress.com/portfolio/jennifer-b-monahan/ and her shamanic healing site at Spirit Evolution: https://spiritevolution.co.

Full disclosure: Jennifer & I are friends, and I read & commented on an early version of the book for her. I’m writing this post to help get the word out about this compelling story. I'm glad she shared it with all of us. It took a lot of courage, and I commend her for it.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Cheap Trick Rocks & Rolls In Ridgefield


Cheap Trick at The Ridgefield Playhouse - photo by John V

Cheap Trick strode onto the stage at The Ridgefield Playhouse on November 1, and proceeded to give the audience an hour & a half of full throttle rock & roll: it was an electrifying show. The band can always be counted on to provide fans with an excellent performance, and this evening was no exception. Lead singer Robin Zander was in fine voice, and guitarist Rick Nielsen was as exuberant as ever, running around the stage, and tossing off his solos with wild abandon. Tom Petersson contributed his usual superb playing on the 12-string bass, and even took a turn on lead vocals for a wonderful cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Waiting For The Man.” Since the departure of drummer &  founding member Bun E. Carlos in 2010, Nielsen’s son Daxx has been behind the kit for the group, and he provided solid & thundering support during the show.

The set list featured songs stretching across the group’s long career, from crowd-pleasing classics such as “She’s Tight” and “Baby Loves To Rock” to the “hits” like “I Want You To Want Me” and the ubiquitous power ballad “The Flame.” The band also treated us to a couple of tunes from their most recent album, Bang, Zoom, Crazy, Hello, which was released in April. Nielsen featured his usual assortment of custom guitars throughout the show, and tossed scores of picks into the audience at regular intervals. The Illinois-based band also kept the audience updated on the score of the World Series game being televised that night, as the (now World Champion) Chicago Cubs were playing during the evening. Of course, almost all of the fans in the near sellout crowd were on their feet for the entire concert, singing along & having a great time. You don’t sit down at a Cheap Trick show.

After being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, and releasing their latest album, the band shows no signs of slowing down after 33 years. I’ve seen them numerous times, and they sound as good now as they did back in the 70s & 80s. They rocked The Ridgefield Playhouse (a fantastic venue to see a show, by the way) and left us wanting more! They're true road warriors and rock & roll icons. If you haven’t seen Cheap Trick before, get out there and attend a show. If you have seen the band, but haven't gone to one of the group's concerts in a while, it’s time to go see this awesome band again. Cheap Trick continues to perform regularly, and they’re currently scheduled to be on tour through June of 2017. Here’s a link to their official site: https://www.cheaptrick.com.

Set list:
Hello There
Elo Kiddies
California Man (The Move cover)
On Top of the World
In The Street (Big Star cover: That 70s Show theme)
If You Want My Love
Baby Loves to Rock
Ain't That a Shame (Fats Domino cover)
She's Tight
When I Wake Up Tomorrow
No Direction Home
Waitin' for the Man (Velvet Underground cover: Lead Vocals by Tom)
The Flame
I Want You to Want Me
Dream Police
Encore:
Never Had A Lot to Lose
Surrender
Goodnight

Sunday, October 30, 2016

October Scares TV Series: Penny Dreadful

Have you heard of or watched Penny Dreadful? Game of Thrones & The Walking Dead garner much love from critics and fans, and rightly so; both are excellent series that have redefined the rules for genre TV. Creator John (Gladiator) Logan’s Victorian era horror saga, which ended its run last season on Showtime after three years, is a show that flew under the radar for most viewers, despite praise from critics. It's one of the best genre series to air in recent years. The series is a feast for horror fans, giving us a meta-fiction style gathering of characters from classic novels such as Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde & The Picture of Dorian Gray. But the centerpiece of the story is Vanessa Ives, a tormented medium magnificently played by Eva Green (Casino Royale), a character created for the series by Logan, who also penned The Last Samurai.

Green fully inhabits the role of Ives, who’s first introduced as a friend of Mina Murray, one of Dracula’s victims in Bram Stoker's original novel. She has a complicated relationship with Mina’s father, Sir Malcolm, who’s portrayed by former James Bond Timothy Dalton. The first season follows the hunt for the missing Mina, who’s been taken captive by Dracula. Throughout the show's run, Vanessa & Sir Malcolm find themselves interacting with Victor Frankenstein & his monstrous creation, Dorian Gray, Dr. Jekyll, and a mysterious American gunfighter named Ethan Chandler, who's hiding a dark secret that should be very familiar to Universal horror fans when they see it revealed late in the first season. There are also some additional original characters created by Logan, including some memorable female villains in the second season.

As the series moves forward, themes that are introduced in the earlier episodes are expanded, including the nature of good & evil, and how no one person can be all good or all bad, but is really just a small step away from moving into the darkness. It’s a literate, well-written & expertly directed show. Fans of the original stories, and classic terror sagas such as Hammer’s horror films of the 1960s will find much to delight them in the series; you'll be treated to some truly creepy moments and spine-chilling sequences. The look of the show is visually arresting, with lush production values that really make you feel like you’re in the 1890s. The imaginative plots cleverly intertwine themes and familiar figures from the original Victorian terror tales with new stories & ideas. As always with a show like this, there are Easter eggs and nods to the tales that inspired it scattered throughout the series' three seasons. 

The performances are all excellent, with Green taking the acting honors in a multi-layered turn as Vanessa that’s equal parts dark, sensual, eerie and captivating; Dalton is very effective as Sir Malcolm, and the rest of the fine cast includes Josh Hartnett as Ethan, Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray, Billie (Dr. Who) Piper as Brona, the amazing Patti Lupone, who shows up in two inter-connected & important roles in Seasons Two & Three, and Rory Kinnear, who's a standout as Frankenstein’s monster. Kinnear really hits it out of the park in a third year episode entitled “A Blade of Grass,” which is a superb two-character acting duet between him & Ms. Green’s Vanessa that should have snared them both Emmys. There are strong moments for the entire cast during the series.

The show builds its story slowly, and less patient viewers may balk at the pace, but if you stick with it, this is a rewarding experience. There are haunting and chilling scenes throughout, and some truly powerful episodes, culminating in a third season showdown with Count Dracula himself. The show finished its run after three seasons and 27 episodes, reportedly at creator Logan’s request. It had started to gain in the ratings and build a following, but Showtime executives contend it was indeed Logan’s choice to end the show. While I feel that some of the threads carefully introduced throughout the series are not fully dealt with by its conclusion, the main story, the journey of Vanessa Ives, is completed by the end of the run. There are so many fantastic performances and compelling storylines, that the show is truly worth watching for fans. Highly recommended. Penny Dreadful is available on Blu-ray and DVD, and the entire series is currently streaming on Netflix. Here’s a link to a trailer for the show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOM0rziqEY4.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

October Scares Movie: The Witch

It’s a difficult task in today’s cinema to create a truly unique horror film, but that’s just what writer-director Robert Eggers has accomplished with 2015’s The Witch: A New England Folktale. This eerie tale concerns a Puritan family who is banished from their colony because of their too strict religious beliefs. The family sets up a farm, which is located not far from a wooded area. William, the father, works hard to make their crops bear fruit, but they are failing. Strange things begin to occur. The family’s youngest child disappears while being watched by the oldest daughter, Thomasin. Was it a wolf that spirited the infant away, or something more sinister? The mother, Katherine, is inconsolable at the loss of her infant child, believing supernatural forces may be responsible. Her sanity begins to fray at the edges, and she focuses her ire (and the blame) on Thomasin, who claims she's innocent.

Caleb, the oldest son, goes hunting with his father, and confides that he is struggling with his faith. Young twins Mercy & Jonas claim the family’s goat, which they call Black Philip, speaks to them, and they sing songs to him. Caleb disappears one night, only to return feverish & in a coma, after a terrifying ordeal. Paranoia begins to set in, and everyone starts to distrust one another. A witch appears to be the cause of all their woes, but is this evil being among them? Katherine believes it to be Thomasin, since most of the strange events seem to center upon her. Things go from bad to worse, and ultimately the true face of the evil that haunts the family is revealed.  I don’t want to spoil the film, so I won’t say more about the plot. This is a story where the terror builds at a slow burn, and reaches a crescendo by the film’s climax.

The family’s religious beliefs are very real to them, and this threat tears those beliefs, and their bonds, asunder. The Witch: A New England Folktale is as much a story about the unraveling of the family unit & a challenge to its core values, as it is a supernatural thriller. Anya Taylor-Joy gives an assured & layered performance as Thomasin, whose gentleness, curiosity & humor seems at odds with the more stern, restrictive nature of her parents. The excellent cast also includes Ralph (Game of Thrones) Ineson who is solid & effective as William, Kate Dickie, who delicately portrays Katherine’s spiraling descent into madness, and Harvey Scrimshaw as the loyal Caleb, who powerfully conveys the boy’s questions & conflicted emotions regarding the severity of their spiritual beliefs, and the nature of sin.

Writer-director Eggers and his crew have done an excellent job with this carefully crafted, exquisitely produced film. The accurate period details, costumes and sets really make you feel as if you’re living with this family in the 17th century. The kind of terror this family faces wasn’t just the stuff of bedtime stories; the demons of their religion & folklore were very real to them. The Witch: A New England Folktale is a creepy, unsettling film that does not go for “jump scares” or cheap shocks, but uses atmosphere, sound effects & lighting to convey a sense of unease & dread. If you like intelligent, well-crafted tales of spine-chilling terror, The Witch: A New England Folktale is truly one of the best recent films in the genre. The movie is now available for streaming & on Blu-ray and DVD. The disc versions include some fascinating interviews and a Q&A with the filmmakers. Here’s a link to the trailer for the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQXmlf3Sefg.