Thursday, October 17, 2019

Dracula Adaptations | Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

Who's in it?: Klaus Kinski (For a Few Dollars More, Doctor Zhivago, the 1970 Jesús Franco Dracula adaptation) and Isabelle Adjani (this is all I know her from, but she played Emily Brontë in the French film Les Soeurs Brontë that I'm all interested in now).

What's it about?: Werner Herzog remakes the 1922 silent classic, but with sound, color, and the original names of Stoker's characters (mostly).

How is it?: As much as I love Murnau's version, I was all about seeing an update. I don't know that I've ever actually seen a Herzog-directed film, but he's a legend and I do love it when he appears as an actor in various things, like Jack Reacher or that episode of Parks and Recreation. I also thought it was cool that he cast Kinski as Dracula after Kinski played Renfield in Franco's adaptation. So I was quite looking forward to this.

It was great going for a while. It moves slowly, but it's a rewarding quietness with lots of lingering shots of landscapes and beautiful, atmospheric music. It's a gorgeous film. And Kinski makes a surprisingly sympathetic Dracula even under all that horrifying makeup. He also has a temper and of course a very nasty thirst for blood, so I was never on his side, but there's an ironic humanity to him that I liked a lot.

Adjani is the film's standout though as the extremely sensitive and heroic Lucy. Like in Murnau's version, she's susceptible to premonitions and would be sort of maddeningly paranoid if she weren't so unbelievably sweet and of course right. As much as I love her and her heart though, I have a couple of big issues with the character.

First of all, the script insists on calling her Lucy for some dumb, nonsensical reason. She's clearly the Mina character from the novel. But that's the lesser of my problems. I'd heard that Herzog changed the ending from the silent version and even thought it sounded interesting, but when I actually watched it, I hated it. Like in Murnau's film, Mina (I still think of her that way) sacrifices herself to defeat Dracula and hopefully save her town. But Herzog robs the action of power by having it be effectively meaningless. Her act of courage is invalidated and I was left wondering what the point was.

Rating: Three out of five Minas

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Dracula Adaptations | Count Dracula (1977)

Who's in it?: Louis Jourdan (Anne of the Indies, Octopussy), Frank Finlay (the George C Scott A Christmas Carol), and Judi Bowker (the 1981 Clash of the Titans)

What's it about?: The BBC makes a faithful mini-series.

How is it?: Seriously, it's the most faithful adaptation of Stoker's novel. Cinemassacre agrees. (Thanks, Erik, for sharing that with me.) It only makes two major changes and they're both fairly benign. Mina and Lucy are sisters rather than just good friends, and Arthur Holmwood has been combined with Quincey Morris to become Quincey Holmwood, an American diplomat from Texas. That last one's an especially weird change, but all it does is let Morris out of the story (he's a cool character in Stoker, but superfluous) while still paying homage to him. Otherwise, the adaptation is so faithful that it even shoots on location in Whitby for the parts of the story that take place there.

Jourdan is an impressively suave and smart Dracula. He feels dangerous not just because he's a superpowered monster, but also because he really seems to know what he's doing. He has a plan, as of course, Stoker's version does.

Finlay may be my favorite Van Helsing yet. It's hard to beat Peter Cushing's awesome, dangerous vampire hunter, but that's not really Stoker's character. Finlay plays the literary version with competence, but also humor and a fantastic bedside manner.

Bowker's Mina is pretty great, too. She's the one version I've seen that portrays both the character's gentle naivety and her intense intelligence. She never crosses into buttkicking hero territory, but she's brave and figures out what's going on ahead of most of the dudes around her.

My one complaint about this version has to do with the look of it due to its being shot on video tape and the limits of its special effects. I appreciate that it uses video effects to try to convey some things that were missing from earlier versions, but some of them look silly to today's eyes.

Rating: Four out of five Minas

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Hellbent for Letterbox | Seraphim Falls (2006)

Pax and I watch Liam Neeson hunt Pierce Brosnan in David Von Ancken's thriller (and probably parable) co-starring Michael Wincott and featuring cameos by Anjelica Huston, Wes Studi, Jimmi Simpson, and Xander Berkeley.

Also: a podcast recommendation, Wild West magazine, a couple of silent Jesse James films with James' real-life son playing the legendary outlaw, and this excellent primer on Hong Kong cinema.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Dracula Adaptations | Dracula (1974)

Who's in it?: Jack Palance (Shane, Young Guns, Batman, City Slickers), Nigel Davenport (The Island of Dr Moreau, the 1984 A Christmas Carol), and Penelope Horner.

What's it about?: Dark Shadows' Dan Curtis teams up with horror writer Richard Matheson for an extra gothic TV adaptation.

How is it?: Jack Palance sounded like an odd choice to play Dracula until I watched him and realized that his intimidating physicality is perfect for the role. He doesn't quite nail the accent, but it's not a problem. He's super dangerous in the tradition of Christopher Lee in the Hammer films.

Curtis and Matheson are a dream team of Dracula adapters and this film lives up to my expectations. In many ways, it's a remake of Hammer's adaptation with some cool stuff from the novel added back in. Like the Hammer version, it cuts out Renfield and all of Lucy's suitors except Arthur Holmwood, focusing on the team-up of Holmwood and a deadly, competent Van Helsing (Davenport) as they avenge Lucy's death and try to prevent Mina's. But unlike the Hammer version, this one gets the relationships right, with Holmwood connected to Lucy, and Mina as Lucy's dear friend (and fiancee to Jonathan Harker).

It also includes some elements from the novel that have been left out of the adaptations to date: for example, Dracula's using a wolf from the zoo to break into a house, or his forcing Mina to drink blood from his chest. Penelope Horner isn't especially memorable as Mina, which keeps me from loving it more, but generally speaking it's one of my favorites.

Rating: Four out of five Minas.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Fairy Tale Friday | Fables, Part 5: Storybook Love

It's called "Storybook Love," but the next arc in the Fables series isn't exactly a romance. Instead, it continues the intrigue of recent events spilling out of the "Animal Farm" and heist stories. Goldilocks, whose revolution was defeated in "Animal Farm" turns up again, hiding out with Bluebeard, whose treacherous nature was revealed in the heist story. When a Lilliputian agent and his mouse steed discover Goldilocks and Bluebeard's alliance, it sets off a chain of events that includes Bluebeard's having to push forward his time table for taking over the Fables community.

To get Snow White and Bigby Wolf out of the way, Bluebeard arranges to have a spell cast on them so that they think they're in love with each other. He also arranges a romantic getaway for them to a remote forest where Goldilocks tracks them in order to murder them.

It's a great story with lots of intrigue in Fabletown as well as the excitement of Snow and Bigby being hunted in the woods by a ruthless killer. Bigby even gets to revert to his impressive wolf form and show off some of the huffing and puffing he's so famous for.

And even though the love spell eventually wears off, the situation sparks some conversations between Snow and Bigby that reveal how they actually feel about each other. It's no romantic comedy, but it does have me starting to 'ship the couple even as a surprising turn of events drives a huge wedge between them.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Dracula Adaptations | Count Dracula (1970)

Who's in it?: Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave), Herbert Lom (Mysterious Island, A Shot in the Dark), Klaus Kinski (For a Few Dollars More, Nosferatu the Vampyre), Maria Rohm (The Blood of Fu Manchu, Ten Little Indians), and Soledad Miranda (100 Rifles, Vampyros Lesbos)

What's it about?: Spanish exploitation director Jesús Franco tries to create the most faithful adaptation of Stoker's novel to date.

How is it?: It was advertised to me as "the most faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel ever filmed" and the tagline on one poster was "Finally! The Original Version!" Neither of those statements is true.

It's cool that Franco brought in Christopher Lee to play Dracula. Lee was in Hammer's 1958 adaptation of course, and had made a couple of sequels by the time Franco hired him. And since he went on to make several more sequels for Hammer after this, he's one of the most iconic Draculas ever. So it's cool to see him in this non-Hammer version. (It's also cool that Renfield is played by Klaus Kinski, who's not just a great actor in general, but also went on to play Dracula in Werner Herzog's version at the end of the decade.)

One of the elements in this that's very faithful to Stoker is Lee's makeup. He begins the story as an elderly, mustached count who gets younger as the story progresses. I've never been able to imagine a mustached Dracula that seemed cool to me, but Lee pulls it off. Of course he does.

The opening scenes at Dracula's castle are pretty faithful to the novel, too, but it all falls apart when the story shifts to England. Rather than waking up in a Transylvanian convent after his ordeal, Harker regains consciousness in an English asylum run by Van Helsing (Lom), with Dr Seward merely an assistant there who never plays an important role in the story.

Harker is soon visited by his fiancée Mina (Rohm) and her close friend Lucy (Miranda), so their relationships are all the same as in Stoker. And as in the novel, the asylum is next door to the ruined abbey that Dracula has purchased, which is how the count discovers and begins persecuting the women: first Lucy; then Mina. But while Lucy is engaged to a British lord, his name is weirdly Quincey Morris (Lucy's American suitor in the novel); not Arthur Holmwood. There's a lot that's true to the book, but already the film makes some weird changes.

The biggest flaw though is how the script abridges the story in a way that makes Van Helsing seem like a fool. He ignores or disbelieves crucial information for dramatic reasons that are very unlike the literary professor. For example, he doesn't buy Harker's story of what happened at Dracula's castle, even though Harker has bite marks to prove it. And later, when it's more convenient to the abridgment, Van Helsing claims to recognize the marks as Dracula's work. So there's a lot of his being clueless and then later saying, "Ah! Just as I suspected!" Sure you did, Doc.

Maria Rohm is beautiful, but generally forgettable and disappointing as Mina. She's as much a helpless victim as Lucy; merely a second chance for the heroes to defeat the villain rather than being an asset or even really a full character. Like a lot else with the film, I appreciate the effort, but Franco's version is ultimately unsatisfying.

Rating: Three out of five Minas.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Dracula Adaptations | Horror of Dracula (1958)

Who's in it?: Christopher Lee (The Curse of Frankenstein, The Devil Rides Out, The Man with the Golden Gun, Sleepy Hollow, The Lord of the Rings, Attack of the Clones), Peter Cushing (The Curse of Frankenstein, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dr. Who and the Daleks, Star Wars), Melissa Stribling, and Michael Gough (Konga, Batman, Sleepy Hollow)

What's it about?: Hammer makes a lurid, action-packed adaptation.

How is it?: Originally titled just Dracula in the UK, but renamed Horror of Dracula for US release, Hammer's version takes a lot of liberties with the novel, but it's so good. Christopher Lee perfectly captures both the menace and the sensuality of the Count. Peter Cushing is excellent as the super-competent Van Helsing who always knows what to do and just needs to find Dracula so he can do it. And even though it's a huge departure from the book, I love that Jonathan Harker is Van Helsing's agent sent to Dracula's castle not as a lawyer, but as an assassin to destroy the vampires.

It simplifies the supporting characters by having Mina (Stribling) be married to Arthur Holmwood (Gough) with Lucy (Carol Marsh) as his sister. When Lucy is killed by Dracula (as in the novel), Arthur and Mina assist Van Helsing in taking down the Count. There's a Dr Seward, but he's just the local physician and doesn't play a real role in the plot. There's no Renfield and frankly I don't miss him. There's certainly no Quincey Morris, whom I do miss, but he's been cut out of every adaptation so far and I understand why. From a plot standpoint, he's superfluous.

Mina has been young and innocent in every adaptation so far, but Stribling's version is an aristocratic matron with confidence and power. Her concern for Lucy feels like the duty of an older sibling, not the love of a dear friend. I like that she's so capable, but one of the things I love most about the literary Mina is the combination of her great intelligence with the flaw of self-doubt. That's missing in this version.

Rating: Four out of five Minas

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Fourth Chair Army Invasion | The Expendables of Horror

For the spoooky 13th episode of the Fourth Chair Army Invasion, Chad Young, Evan Hanson, and Rob Graham join me to assemble a super team of iconic horror movie actors. Who stars in this all-star screamfest? Who appears in cameos? What characters are they playing, what are they doing, and who directs this amazing piece of cinema history? Tune in and find out… if you DARE!

Monday, October 07, 2019

Dracula Adaptations | Drácula (1931)

Who's in it?: Carlos Villarías and Lupita Tovar.

What's it about?: At the same time Tod Browning filmed his iconic adaptation with Bela Lugosi, Universal also produced this Spanish-language version from the same script and using the same sets, but with different actors and directors.

How is it?: For obvious reasons, it makes the same changes to the novel that Browning's version does, but I like it better in a lot of ways.

It doesn't have Bela Lugosi or Dwight Frye, which is a drawback, but Carlos Villarías makes his own, successful choices as Dracula and Pablo Álvarez Rubio is a perfectly good Renfield. Best of all, Lupita Tovar is a far superior, livelier Mina (renamed Eva) to Helen Chandler's stiff version and since that's always the character I'm most interested in, it lifts the whole production up for me.

There are also extended versions of some of the familiar scenes from the Browning version and even the scenes it has in common are often interpreted slightly differently. This is way more than just a curiosity for completists. It holds up on its own as well as provides a different lens to look at Browning's version through.

Rating: Four out of five Minas

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Dracula Adaptations | Dracula (1931)

Who's in it?: Bela Lugosi (The Black Cat, Mark of the Vampire, Son of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Corpse Vanishes), Helen Chandler (pretty much just this), Edward Van Sloan (Frankenstein, The Mummy), Dwight Frye (Frankenstein), and David Manners (The Mummy, The Black Cat).

What's it about?: The classic and most iconic version of Dracula, though not super faithful to Stoker.

How is it?: Based on a play rather than Stoker's novel, Tod Browning's Dracula is sort of a copy of a copy. It keeps a lot of the book's plot, but shuffles around the characters. For instance, it's not Harker (Manners) who goes to Transylvania to meet Dracula (Lugosi), but Renfield (Frye). That means that he doesn't escape Dracula's castle, but accompanies the count back to England and becomes hospitalized because Dracula has driven him insane.

Like in the book, Renfield's case is overseen by Doctor Seward. But the doctor isn't in love with Lucy as in Stoker's novel. Instead, he's an older widower and the father of Mina (Chandler). There is a Lucy who succumbs to Dracula's menace and becomes a vampiric woman in white, but she's not really connected to any of the other characters except that she's Mina's friend. She has no Arthur Holmwood to avenge her, so that job falls to Van Helsing (Van Sloan) and Mina's fiancé, Harker. But they're not so much vindicating Lucy as just protecting Mina by that point. Dr Seward completely falls out of the story by the end, but that's just one of many problems with how the story wraps up in its hurry to finish.

It's tough not to compare it to Murnau's Nosferatu from nine years earlier. The ability to add sound to movies was a great reason to do a new version of Stoker's story (with all the proper rights, instead of sneakily changing the characters' names) and Browning's style is distinct and creepy and brings some beautiful atmosphere. But Murnau's version is actually scary and Browning's never is. Murnau's Count Orlok is a true monster, from his very appearance to the strange powers that Murnau so cleverly gives him through special effects. Browning's version - the character at least is truer to Stoker's novel - is meant to be creepily charming. You don't realize he's a threat until it's too late. Which is cool, but Browning uses so little effects that even when Dracula is supposed to be frightening, it's mostly suggested by the way other characters react to him.

That can be effective sometimes, especially in the case of Renfield, who's easily the most chilling character of the film. Edward Van Sloan also adds to Dracula's menace as Van Helsing. The Van Helsing analog is a giant weakness of Nosferatu, but I always have a lot of fun watching Van Sloan work in Dracula, trying to first figure out who the vampire is (and initially suspecting Renfield), then playing a game of wills against Bela Lugosi.

I wish that Helen Chandler was a better Mina, though. If I haven't said it already, Mina is the heart of any version of Dracula and it's important to get her right. Nosferatu gives her a tragically heroic role, but in Browning's movie, she's just the MacGuffin that the other characters are all fighting over. She's not written very well, but she's played even worse by Chandler who never eases into the character. She always reminds me that she's an actress playing a role.

The movie is also dreadfully slow, but in spite of that and my misgivings about Chandler, I always enjoy revisiting it for its mood and cultural impact and especially for Lugosi, Frye, and Van Sloan. I should also shout out to David Manners' John Harker, who's mostly nondescript, but has a great moment when he throws down his newspaper in disgust and leaves the room because of Van Helsing's crackpot ideas about shape-changing, immortal blood-suckers.

Rating: Four out of five Minas.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Dracula Adaptations | Nosferatu (1922)

Who's in it?: Max Schreck (Batman Returns), Greta Schröder (Der Golem)

What's it about?: This unauthorized German adaptation changes the names of the characters, the setting (England has become just another town in Eastern Europe), the ending, and even the metaphors.

How is it? (SPOILERS): I rarely judge film adaptations anymore on how faithful they are to their source material. And Nosferatu is a perfect example of why that is. It is very much not Bram Stoker's novel, but it's the most legitimately chilling, scary version of the story I've seen. It doesn't bother me that the monster is now an allegory for the plague instead of a metaphor for sexual seduction. And I don't even really mind the story problems created by messing around with some of the characters.

For example, Harker's boss from the novel is combined with Renfield to become a madman named Knock. In this version, Harker is named Hutter and his boss has not only been in contact with Orlok (Dracula), but apparently knows that he's sending Hutter to his doom when he goes to Transylvania. In the novel, Dracula doesn't begin to affect Renfield until Dracula arrives in England, but in Nosferatu, Orlok controls Knock from afar. The film never explains how this happens.

And then there's Professor Bulwer, the Van Helsing character, who has no purpose in the movie. Really, Van Helsing and Dr Seward almost don't exist in this version. Oddly, they're two separate characters (Van Helsing becomes Bulwer; Seward becomes a Professor Sievers), but they're generic, interchangeable characters with only minor lip service paid to Bulwer's having any experience in the supernatural. Bulwer certainly doesn't contribute to Orlok's defeat. That's 100% Ellen (the Mina character, played by Greta Schröder), who sends Hutter to find Bulwer just to get Hutter out of the house so that Ellen can do what she needs to do. Bulwer doesn't even directly interact with any other characters until that last scene and even then it's only to observe.

Some other changes are less of a problem. Hutter is mostly the same as Harker and his wife Ellen is an excellent version of Mina. Arthur Holmwood has become Harding, a wealthy ship owner who's a friend of Hutter/Harker. Hutter sends Ellen to Harding's to live while Hutter goes to Transylvania. Standing in for Lucy is Harding's sister (not his fiancée as in Stoker), Ruth.

Ruth/Lucy doesn't play as big a role in the movie as she does in the novel. Ellen/Mina is the main focus of Orlok's obsession. There's a hint that Ruth could be experiencing some weirdness, but Orlock is defeated before anything comes of that.

Like the novel, Ellen/Mina is the one who best figures out what's going on and understands how to defeat Orlok/Dracula. But in the film, Ellen learns that the only way to do this is to sacrifice herself, willingly letting the count feed on her until daybreak so that he's trapped and destroyed by the sun. It's a horrible, but emotional fate for her and I'm always moved by it no matter how many times I've seen the film. Ellen is such an interesting character: extremely sensitive and seemingly irrationally paranoid, but her fears are proved prophetic 100% of the time. She more than makes up for any issues I have with Knock and Bulwer.

And when I consider just how strong the visual style of Nosferatu is, I can't even see flaws anymore. Orlok is so utterly horrifying (thanks both to Max Schreck's performance and the way director FW Murnau shot him), that nothing else matters.

Rating: Five out of five Minas

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Countdown to Halloween 2019: Dracula Adaptations

I sat out last year's Countdown to Halloween. At least here. I was all about Halloween on my Tumblr and will be (and already am) again this year as well, but I missed having a bunch of horror stuff here.

I'm still not at the place where I'm comfortable doing a big theme that requires a lot of research, but I've been watching a lot of adaptations of Bram Stoker's Dracula lately. Enough to write about one of them every couple of days and get us to Halloween. So, H'bleh, everyone.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Hellbent for Letterbox | Blazing Saddles (1974)

Pax and I are once again joined by Evan Hanson, this time to discuss Mel Brooks' Western satire starring Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Fairy Tale Friday | Fables, Part 4: A Two-Part Caper

Picking up the Fairy Tale Characters in Other Genres format again, Fables #12-13 contained what it called "a two-part caper." The arc itself didn't have a name, but the individual issues were titled "A Sharp Operation" and "Dirty Business."

The plot is that a newspaper reporter has been watching the Fables community and thinks he's figured out their secret. He threatens to expose them, but when he presents his evidence to Bigby Wolf (hoping to get more details in an interview), it's clear that he's on the wrong track. He knows the community is immortal and has some kind of supernatural abilities. He assumes they're vampires.

Either way, Bigby isn't taking chances on a story getting out that will bring unwanted attention to the community. So he assembles a heist team to steal the reporter's evidence and make sure he has nothing to write about.

The team consists mostly of characters we've already met: Prince Charming, Jack, Bluebeard, Little Boy Blue, and Flycatcher (the Frog Prince). But in addition to them, Bigby adds Briar Rose, aka Sleeping Beauty, for a particular gift she possesses. I won't spoil how it goes, but it's a fun caper and raises tension by having Bluebeard strongly disagree with Bigby's methods. There's an intense confrontation; I'll just leave it at that. Repercussions are foreshadowed.

Sadly, Snow sits this one out as she's still recuperating from the events at the end of the "Animal Farm" arc.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Filthy Horrors | Dracularity

Darla, Jess, and I get Dracula-ed out discussing Bram Stoker's novel and the many movies, TV shows, comics, novels, and board games it's inspired.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Fairy Tale Friday | Fables, Part 3: Bag O' Bones

Fables #11 was a departure from the multi-issue story arc format as well as from the genre-hopping nature of the series. Rather than put fairy tale characters in a non-traditional genre like a murder mystery, the single-issue tale goes back in time to retell a couple of trickster stories from the Civil War. Fables has mashed them together and cast them with Jack as the "hero," but it's still straight up folklore.

Not that that's necessarily a problem. If you're familiar with these kinds of stories, Jack's 19th century adventures feel authentic if also not exactly original (because they aren't). The issue's an entertaining diversion with its personifications of the devil and death and Jack trying to outwit both, but I remember being eager to get back to present-day New York for more with Snow White, Bigby Wolf, and their neighbors.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Hellbent for Letterbox | A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

Guest Evan Hanson returns to help Pax and I survey Seth MacFarlane's Western comedy. I skipped this in the theater because it didn't look funny to me, but my more recent love for The Orville made me want to go back and give it a try.

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | Fables, Part 2: Animal Farm

The second story in Fables takes a hard turn away from the murder mystery of the first story. Having established the human community in New York City, the series moves upstate to visit the remote farm where all the talking animals and other non-human fairy tale characters live. And since it's literally an Animal Farm, what better genre to explore than a political allegory a la George Orwell?

The story has Snow White going to check on the farm, because its human overseer hasn't reported in a while. And since the events of the previous story revealed a catastrophic rift in Snow's relationship with her sister Rose Red, Snow takes Rose along with her so that they can talk. Upon arriving at the farm though, they quickly learn that all is not well and that the farm's inhabitants are extremely dissatisfied with the human government of the fables community. Like, full-on revolution dissatisfied.

As much as I enjoy the mystery of the first story, the talking animals in this one are even more my bag. The Three Pigs, Three Bears and Goldilocks, Reynard the Fox, and the Jungle Book characters are all major players in the drama. This was the story that completely hooked me on the series back in the day.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Fourth Chair Army Invasion | Rambo

Talk to me, Johnny! Adam from SequelQuest and William Bruce West join me to rap about Lt. John J Rambo’s adventures in Washington, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and maybe even a little with the Force of Freedom. What are the high and low points of the series? Does it deserve the attention it’s received? And what expectations does it create for the upcoming Rambo: Last Blood?

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Filthy Horrors | But You Know It's Still Grimm

Darla, Jess, and I embrace the dark side of some of our favorite fairy tales: "Sleeping Beauty," "Little Red Riding Hood," and "The White Snake." And if you're not familiar with "The White Snake," don't worry. We'll read it to you!

Also up for discussion:
Alien: Covenant (2017)
Would You Rather (2012)
Jaws (1975)
Crawl (2019)
What the Folklore podcast
Mythos podcast

And things we're looking forward to:
It Chapter Two and Ready or Not

Monday, August 26, 2019

Mystery Movie Night | One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), Grease (1978), and Johnny Dangerously (1984)

Dave, David, Evan, and I are joined by Christian Nielsen (The Atomic GeeksPop Culture Retrofit) to talk about gangsters, greasers, and group therapy.

If you haven't seen one or more of the movies we discuss and prefer not to listen to that review (we do talk freely about spoilers), please use the time stamps below to jump to the part of the discussion that interests you.

00:01:30 - Review of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
00:16:22 - Review of Grease (1978)
00:41:54 - Review of Johnny Dangerously (1984)
00:57:12 - Guessing the Connection

Monday, August 19, 2019

Hellbent for Letterbox | Winchester '73 (1950)

Pax and I discuss the first collaboration between director Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart, also starring Shelley Winters and Dan Duryea.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | The Ice Storm (1997)

Who's in it?: Kevin Kline (Silverado, A Fish Called Wanda, Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Joan Allen (the Bourne movies), Sigourney Weaver (Alien, Ghostbusters, Working Girl, Snow White: A Tale of Terror, Galaxy Quest, The Village), Christina Ricci (The Addams Family, Casper, Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleepy Hollow, Speed Racer), Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings), Tobey Maguire (The Cider House Rules, Spider-Man, Seabiscuit, Satan’s Alley), David Krumholtz (Addams Family Values, 10 Things I Hate About You), Katie Holmes (Batman Begins), Henry Czerny (Clear and Present Danger, Mission: Impossible), and Allison Janney (Miracle on 34th Street, 10 Things I Hate About You, Spy)

What's it about?: Two families in the 1970s struggle with the effects of the sexual revolution over the course of a Thanksgiving weekend.

How is it?: This popped onto my radar because of the fairy tale project I'm working on and a connection the film has to the story of "Little Red Riding Hood." It's not a fun or easy movie to watch, but it's good and thought-provoking. I like it, but it's not something I'll rewatch often.

By coincidence, I watched it closely after seeing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the first time. That was a cool juxtaposition of themes. Cuckoo’s Nest is a '70s film that documents society's questioning the rules and boundaries of the '50s and early '60s. Jack Nicholson plays a convict who's placed in a psychiatric ward for observation to see if he's actually mentally ill or just acting out. While he's there, he clashes with the head nurse on the ward, a no-nonsense, authoritarian woman who holds tight control over her patients and resents the element of chaos that Nicholson brings to her life. She represents the establishment, Nicholson represents American culture's push back against it, and the film presents both the uplifting and heart-breaking consequences of that conflict.

The Ice Storm, on the other hand, is a '90s film that looks back at the '70s and questions the wisdom of jettisoning all those rules and boundaries without replacing them with something else. The film is primarily interested in attitudes around sex, so the two families at the center of the story all struggle with that in various ways. Some of the adults are questioning the value of fidelity in marriage just as their teenage children are beginning to experiment with each other's bodies. But rather than feeling liberated by their new sexual freedom, the various characters are as trapped and unhappy as anyone in a '50s suburban melodrama.

The film gave me a lot to think about and it's presented extremely well with great acting and Ang Lee's typically excellent direction. I especially love the metaphors. For starters there's the symbolism of the ice storm itself that moves in over the weekend and makes everyone's life more dangerous. It suggests that navigating sex without rules is like walking or driving on ice. It feels exhilarating, but it's also an easy way to get hurt.

But more appropriate to my fairy tale project is that one of the families is named Hood and a couple of the teenage characters (Christina Ricci and Elijah Wood) wear red hoods throughout the film. Of course that calls Little Red Riding Hood to mind with the implication being that '70s America has naively wandered off the path and found itself in deep trouble.

One of my favorite relationships in the film is between Ricci's character Wendy and her dad, Ben, played by Kevin Kline. Ben is having an affair with their next door neighbor (Sigourney Weaver), but is very upset about catching Wendy fooling around with the neighbor's son (Elijah Wood). This strains their relationship and Ben has a hard time figuring out the appropriate way to feel about it. Wendy seems very grown-up and rational and Ben is the emotional one, so how can he parent her under those conditions? Especially when he has no moral high ground to stand on? So late in the movie after a big argument, they're walking home and Wendy intentionally steps in a big puddle just to show that she doesn't care and can do whatever she wants. They argue a bit more and the conversation goes nowhere until Ben asks her if she's cold and wants him to carry her. It's my favorite part of the movie when she agrees and climbs into his arms.

I don't love it because the parent has triumphed over the child. Ben doesn't even think of it as a victory. It's just a sweet, quiet moment where they both pull back from the freedom they've been so eager to explore and allow themselves the comfort of a structured relationship. That can't last forever and they both know it, but it's beautiful in the moment. 

Rating: Three out of five modern Red Riding Hoods

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Fourth Chair Army Invasion | Walt Disney World

As Summer winds down, I'm joined by Walt Disney World superfans Corey Chapman, Lizzie Twachtman, and Mike Westfall to talk about our favorite parks, rides, resorts, and food at The Most Magical Place on Earth. We also create some attractions, lands, and even a movie or two that we'd love to see.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Thanks, Jack!

Jack Tyler is a writer of cool steampunk stories as well as just a cool, enthusiastic and encouraging fellow himself. On his website lately, he's been blogging about other writers he's enjoying and he gave a very lovely shout out to me:
Michael’s blog posts and podcasts are more discussions than recommendations. They go heavily into depth, and they talk about virtually every aspect of the culture we’re surrounded by every waking moment.
Thank you so much, Jack. I have a great time doing this and it means a lot when folks let me know that they appreciate it.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Hellbent for Letterbox | Lonesome Dove (1989)

In this Texas-sized episode, Pax and I cover the classic mini-series starring Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, and a supporting cast as big as the story itself. Also: Pax reads Larry McMurtry's Buffalo Girls while I do something Westerny for Fathers Day and read a Mickey Mouse Weird West comic.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | Fables, Part 1: Legends in Exile

Writer Bill Willingham wasn't the first to mash various fairy tale characters together into a single story: The 10th Kingdom and Shrek being two notable, earlier examples and from just a year or two before. But he was the first to do it as an exercise that took the original stories seriously and tried to imagine what it might actually be like for these characters to interact in a shared world. Like in The 10th Kingdom, Willingham uproots the characters from their traditional homelands and replants them in modern New York City, but that's where the similarities end.

Willingham is interested in exploring these characters through a variety of genres, starting with a good, old-fashioned murder mystery. As the comic book series Fables opens, the classic fairy tale characters have been driven out of their traditional homelands by a mysterious and nameless Adversary. Some have been able to hold onto their wealth, but many haven't. Those who can pass for human live together in a Manhattan neighborhood called Fabletown. Those who can't (talking animals, gingerbread men, etc.) have to live somewhere else. Willingham gets to that later. The first story, "Legends in Exile," focuses on the human fables and an apparent murder that takes place among them.

The mayor of Fabletown is Old King Cole, but it's actually Snow White who runs the day-to-day operations. And the Big Bad Wolf (changed to human form through magic and nicknamed "Bigby") is the community's sheriff. The plot kicks off when Jack (of Beanstalk and Giant-Killing fame) comes to Bigby with the report that his girlfriend Rose Red has gone missing and there's blood all over her apartment. The story follows Bigby's investigation and it's pretty great as he knowingly hits all the beats of a classic detective story and calls attention to them in a meta way as he does. He doesn't get many opportunities to play this role and he's having as much fun investigating as Willingham clearly is writing it.

But the coolest thing about the series is Willingham's decision to conserve the number of characters by consolidating them when possible. So Bigby was not only the being who tried to seduce and murder Red Riding Hood, he was also the one who terrorized the Three Little Pigs. Any fairy story with a Jack as a main character (and there are a lot): those were the same person. In fairy tales, Snow White of the Seven Dwarfs is a different person from the one in "Snow White and Rose Red," but not in Fables. And you know how Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty all got married to a Prince Charming? Same guy. He may be charming, but he's also super unfaithful.

"Legends in Exile" introduces a ton of characters. Too many to mention them all, but some of my favorites are Beauty and the Beast, the Frog Prince (who works as a janitor at the Fabletown offices), Little Boy Blue (Snow White's assistant), and Bluebeard (the infamous wife-murderer who's still a terrifyingly threatening presence). Former villains like Bluebeard and Bigby are protected by a unity-encouraging amnesty that prevents them from being punished for any crimes they committed before the Exile.

There's a lot here, but it's just a hint at an even deeper world and mysteries that Willingham and his collaborating artists (Lan Medina in this first story) will eventually reveal. I read up to a certain point as the comics originally came out, but I'm looking forward to finally finishing the story as part of this fairy tale project I'm working on.

Monday, July 29, 2019

'Casting Off | Jaws (1975)

Just in time for Shark Week, David and I invite Jaws fan extraordinaire Dan Taylor into the shark cage for a deep dive into the film that launched a few legendary careers and started the summer blockbuster phenomenon.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Mystery Movie Night | Jaws (1975), The Star Chamber (1983), and The Three Musketeers (2011)

Ron Ankeny joins me, Dave, David, and Evan to discuss sharks of the marine, legal, and double-crossing varieties. Which would be a cool connection, come to think of it, but there's another one, too.

00:02:28 - Review of Jaws (1975)
00:15:44 - Review of The Star Chamber (1983)
00:32:25 - Review of The Three Musketeers (2011)
00:52:00 - Guessing the Connection

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Nerd Lunch | Kung Fu Theater: 5 Fingers of Death

The Nerd Lunch fellas asked if I would join them for a discussion of Five Fingers of Death (1972), the film that launched the '70s kung-fu craze in the US and directly inspired the creation of Marvel's Iron Fist character and a lot of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. I don't know a lot about kung fu cinema, but that didn't stop me from watching and talking about it.

It was a fun conversation and made me want to dig deeper not only into the martial arts genre, but other Asian cinema as well. In fact, with the help of some friends on Letterboxd, I created a long list of Asian Cinema To Dos for me to work through.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Hellbent for Letterbox | One Eyed Jacks (1961)

Pax and I muse about Marlon Brando's only directing credit, a complicated film in terms of both production and the depth of its characters and their relationships.

Also, I watch The Wind (2018) and Pax catches up on his Bat Lash reading.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | Keeping Fairy Tales Fluid

I've started reading The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar, and something jumped out at me in her Introduction. It has to do with the advantages of oral storytelling and the dangers of canonizing specific versions in an archive.

It's great that people like Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers recorded versions of fairy tales for posterity, but we lose something when we sit down alone to read a story that way. Hans Christian Andersen was famous for crafting his own fairy tales, but he also loved to read existing fairy tales to children and he was quite animated about it. He put his own personality into the telling and kids loved to listen to him.

Tatar writes, "Reading these stories (in the way Andersen did) is a way of reclaiming them, turning them into our cultural stories by inflecting them in new ways and in some cases rescripting what happened." She goes on to say, "The fairy tales in (The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales) did not require editorial intervention in an earlier age, precisely because they were brought up to date by their tellers and tailored to the cultural context in which they were told."

In other words, the reason that so many earlier versions existed is because oral storytellers kept changing them based on the needs and interests of a) them as storytellers and b) their audiences. That's a "no duh" kind of statement, but the implication of it hit me in a new way. If I only know one version of "Little Red Riding Hood" from a specific book and I only tell my child that one version of the story, then I'm limiting the kind of experience he can have. Knowing other variations helps parents adapt the stories for - and more importantly, with - their kids. For instance, the fates of Cinderella's stepsisters and Little Red Riding Hood are very different from version to version, even just from Perrault to Grimm. Which is the "correct" or "true" version is up to the teller, but also the hearer.

Different hearers focus on different things from the same story. According to Tatar, Angela Carter heard "Little Red Riding Hood" and giggled when her grandmother pretended to gobble her up while telling it. Luciano Pavarotti connected to the horror of it, saying, "I identified with Little Red Riding Hood. I had the same fears as she. I didn't want her to die." Charles Dickens wrote that Red was his "first love" and that "I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding Hood, I should have known perfect bliss." Is "Little Red Riding Hood" a thrilling adventure, a horror story, or a romance? It can be all three and more, especially if the teller is observant enough to know what the listener wants to take away from it and is willing to modify it accordingly.

When I think about this as a writer, I get a little uncomfortable with it, because it gets very close to the attitude of fan entitlement. But collaboration between teller and hearer in an oral story is different from a reader (or viewer) demanding specific details in a piece of finished art. For one thing, the collaboration in oral fairy tales is traditionally between an adult and a child. And the adult did not create the story from whole cloth to begin with. There's no sense of ownership by the teller, so when they give the story to the child, the act is all about giving the child what she wants to receive. It's a selfless act, as is so much of good parenting. It's a very different thing when a storyteller presents her story to an adult audience as a finished piece of art and the audience childishly demands something other than what they've been given. The teller/hearer agreement is not the same in both situations.

Back to fairy tales, the very act of writing them down changes the teller/hearer relationship. With a written version, the teller is no longer the parent, but the person who wrote it down. The hearer is still the hearer, but there's no way to literally change the story as it's being told. That kind of action is done internally by the hearer as she develops her own head canon. Which is the same kind of thing we do with Star Wars and Game of Thrones. It's a valid activity (within limits), but it's not the same as interacting directly with the storyteller as the story is being told.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Fourth Chair Army Invasion | Magnum PI, Season 1

Evan Hanson, Rob Graham, and I are joined by Nerd Lunch's Jeeg to talk about the original Thomas Magnum, TC, Rick, and of course Higgie Baby. We noodle over noir influences, gab about guest stars, and figure out favorite episodes. Does the show hold up? How does it compare to the new reboot? Finding out won't even cost you your tennis court privileges.

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

The Fairy Tale Project | Snow White: The Fairest of Them All (2001)

Who's in it?: Miranda Richardson (Sleepy Hollow, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air, The Conjuring, Bates Motel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters), Kristin Kreuk (Smallville), Clancy Brown (Highlander, Shoot to Kill, Carnivàle), Vincent Schiavelli (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Better Off Dead...), Michael J Anderson (Twin Peaks, Carnivàle), Warwick Davis (Return of the Jedi, Willow), and Martin Klebba (Corky Romano, Pirates of the Caribbean, Scrubs, Mirror Mirror).

What's it about?: An Everything But the Kitchen Sink version of the fairy tale.

How is it?: I almost gave up a couple of times, but finished the film out of sheer stubbornness. Miranda Richardson is pretty great as the Queen and so is Vera Farmiga as one of her disguises, but Kristin Kreuk, while heart-breakingly beautiful, is also heart-breakingly empty as Snow White. She gives nothing to the performance and there's no way for me to connect to the character.

And even though she's fun, I don't connect to the Queen either, because unlike other versions and the original fairy tale, she's not trying to hold onto what her culture values about women. There's no social commentary, she's just evil and greedy. She doesn't actually care about what the King thinks of her; she's just trying to take over the kingdom. Boring.

I guess someone could argue that that's a more feminist take, but I'd argue back that it's not, because it doesn't actually address feminist issues. And that's not even considering that the power the Queen uses in her attempted coup comes from her older brother (Clancy Brown) who I guess is a genie or something?

The genie is indicative of my biggest problem with the film, which is that it just keeps layering on random elements for no reason. Like how the prince gets turned into a bear and then shrunk and put into a snow globe. Or how the dwarfs are named after days of the week, given the corresponding personalities from the "Monday's Child" song, then color-coded so that together they make a rainbow, but then they can actually turn into a rainbow and use it to travel long distances. Any one of these things could be interesting if there was a point to it, but it's all just thrown on top of the story without any consideration for what the story becomes.

I disliked the movie, but I'd have hated it more if not for Richardson and Farmiga's clearly having fun as their versions of the Queen. And the dwarf casting was pretty great, too. In an instance where a random, unexpected detail actually worked, Vincent Schiavelli is thrown in as one of the dwarfs alongside favorites Martin Klebba, Warwick Davis, and Michael J Anderson.

Rating: Two out of five Evil Farmigas.


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