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.

Friday, October 14, 2016

"Shin Godzilla" vs. Japanese Politicians

What if Godzilla arrived in Japan in 2016, and the Japanese government had to find a way to defeat him, but the process became mired in political infighting & second-guessing? Shin Godzilla (aka Godzilla: Resurgence) is the 29th film in the long running series produced by Toho Studios. It’s already been a huge success in Japan, and is being shown in U.S. theaters from October 11-18. The version being screened here is in Japanese with English subtitles. Not only are there subtitles for the dialogue, but the title & position of each character flashes on the screen as well. It's a lot of information to read, but it gets a bit easier to take in as the film moves forward. There's a bit of dialogue in English as well. This film is as much a study of the Japanese political structure (with some pointedly satirical elements) as a giant monster or kaiju movie. For most of the movie, we see the gatherings of various groups within the government trying to figure out the best way to deal with Godzilla, whose appearance on the scene is treated like any other natural disaster.

This is not the friendly, heroic "Big G" of the late 60s & early-mid 70s Toho entries. Much like the original Godzilla from Gojira/Godzilla, King of the Monsters, this creature is an elemental force of nature, and causes a great deal of mayhem & destruction. The issue of the nuclear contamination the monster leaves in its wake and the long-term effects it could cause are on everyone’s minds. When the U.S. proposes a nuclear weapons strike to eliminate Godzilla, it’s up to a team of Japanese scientists (with some help from other sources) to find a solution that's not as aggressive, and less devastating to the population. You can also sense some definite allusions to two real-life events that occurred in Japan during 2011: the nuclear disaster at Fukushimi Daiichi & the earthquake & tsunami in Tohuku. Those events inform the film as much as the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki were a clear & present subtext in the 1954 version. 

There are definitely moments of satire & humor in the movie, with parts of that directed at the U.S. political structure as well as Japan’s. Since it takes up a good amount of the movie's running time, some viewers may find this a bit off-putting. I thought it worked pretty well. But as the saying goes, your mileage may vary. The film was co-directed by Hideaki Anno (who also wrote the screenplay) & Shinji Higuchi, who are both anime veterans. The design of this iteration of Godzilla starts out a bit more on the comical side, which I think hurts his effectiveness early in the film. But as the creature evolves, it becomes a bit more frightening, culminating in a scene with the monster walking upright and firing radioactive blasts from its back as well as its mouth, in an impressive battle sequence that’s the highlight of the movie. And it was a treat for this long-time fan to hear some of composer Akira Ifukube's iconic original music from the earlier films throughout the movie.

Several reviewers have noted that there’s not much Godzilla action in the film, but there’s a bit more of it here than in Gareth Edwards’ successful & well-regarded 2014 American reboot of the franchise. The Godzilla scenes are very well done, and deliver the goods for kaiju fans. This film is considered a separate entity from the U.S. series (whose next entry is due in 2018) and is a re-launch of the Toho series, which has been dormant since Godzilla: Final Wars was released in 2004. Shin Godzilla is now the highest grossing entry in the Toho series in Japan, and one of their biggest box office successes of the year. It’s a safe bet to assume we’ll see more Godzilla from Toho in the future. The film is in limited release in U.S. theaters until October 18, and a home video release (it's rumored that it will include a dubbed version) is planned for the near future. Here’s a link to the trailer for Shin Godzilla: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgyq6YKeIms.

Update: The theatrical run of the film has been extended until 10/22, with a few theaters offering screenings through October 27. Details can be found on the following site: http://www.funimationfilms.com/movie/shingodzilla/.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Fab Faux's "Glorious Hodgepodge"

The Fab Faux - photo by John V
On Saturday, October 1st, The Fab Faux performed an amazing show at College Street Music Hall in New Haven, Connecticut.
If you’re a Beatles fan, this is one tribute band you simply must experience, though that description actually does the group a disservice. Led by Will Lee, former bassist for The Late Show with David Letterman, this is not just a “cover” band, but a group of extremely talented musicians who get together to perform the music of The Beatles, and share their love of these classic songs with audiences. The group often tackles themed sets, where they play an entire album, or music from a specific period of the Beatles career. But for this evening it was the “Glorious Hodgepodge of Beatles Music” show, featuring music from throughout the Fab Four’s catalog.

The songs ranged from crowd-pleasing renditions of well-known early tunes like “I Should Have Known Better” and “A Hard Day’s Night” to later period tracks such as “Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds” and “Old Brown Shoe,” as well as a couple of my favorites "And Your Bird Can Sing" and "You Can't Do That." It’s a great experience to see many of these well-loved songs performed by the group, as The Beatles stopped touring in 1966, and never played them live. The Fab Faux is dedicated to performing these tunes in the style they feel the Beatles would have played them. The band, which also includes keyboardist Jack Petruzzelli and guitar wizard Jimmy Vivino, are an extremely focused & tight unit. Everyone had multiple opportunities to shine during the show. Petruzzelli did an outstanding “blow the roof off” lead vocal on “Oh! Darling” and Vivino contributed strong vocals & a blistering solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Clint de Ganon filled in for Rich Pagano on drums, and did a great job. (Get well soon, Rich; we missed you!)

The Fab Faux - photo by John V

College Street Music Hall was a perfect venue for the band, and the audience was lively & enthusiastic during every minute of this top notch show. The entire group is fantastic, and they’re led by the boundless energy of Will Lee, who leaps around the stage like a whirling dervish, enjoying every minute of playing with his musical compatriots. This simply is the next best thing to seeing The Beatles in their heyday. The Fab Faux is a wonderful band, keeping alive the memory of some of the best rock & roll music ever recorded. These songs are part of the fabric of our lives, and you simply won’t see this music performed any better than by this stellar group. If you get the chance to see them, grab some tickets and get to the show. Here’s a link to their website: http://www.thefabfaux.com.
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