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Archive for March, 2010

Bradley’s Hundred #31-40

Continuing the explication of my hundred favorite films, listed on the B100 page accessible above.

The Exorcist: William Friedkin’s followup to his masterpiece, The French Connection, was adapted by William Peter Blatty (who also produced) from his novel, with the underappreciated Max Von Sydow in the title role. Like Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in The Third Man, he’s not onscreen a whole lot, but his presence overshadows everything. Ellen Burstyn is the movie actress on location in Georgetown when her daughter (Linda Blair) is possessed by the demon Pazuzu; Jason Miller is the priest who tries to help while undergoing a crisis of faith; Lee J. Cobb is the deceptively distracted detective investigating an ensuing murder. The victim, Burke Dennings, was based on and supposed to be played by J. Lee Thompson, who had directed Blatty’s John Goldfarb, Please Come Home! (to say nothing of The Guns of Navarone), but got cold feet and was replaced by Jack MacGowran. The latter is perhaps best known for joining Roman Polanski in the title roles of the latter’s spoof The Fearless Vampire Killers (aka Dance of the Vampires). “Dimmy, why you did this to me?” The so-called “Version You’ve Never Seen” was re-edited and rereleased in 2000.

Fantastic Voyage: I make no claim for this as any sort of masterpiece, but by gum it’s fun, and was a boyhood favorite on The 4:30 Movie. A scientist is wounded while escaping from behind the Iron Curtain, and a medical team must remove a blood clot from his brain to save his life, but the only way to do that is from the inside. So security man Stephen Boyd, pilot William Redfield, medicos Arthur Kennedy, Raquel Welch, and Donald Pleasence, and the submarine Proteus are miniaturized and sent into his bloodstream to destroy the clot with a laser beam, while military men Edmond O’Brien and Arthur O’Connell exude concern outside. And well they might, for the mission is jeopardized not only by the dangers of their unusual environment (e.g., antibodies that understandably cling to Welch’s wetsuit), but also by the presence of an unidentified saboteur, who seems determined to kill the patient at the cost of his or her own life. Sure, the physics of the miniaturization spiel are ludicrous, but the filmmakers did go out of their way to make the interiors (as it were) realistic, and reportedly got high marks from the medical community. Relax and enjoy!

The Fellowship of the Ring: I loved all three parts of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but this one in particular stands out among my most memorable filmgoing experiences. Growing up, I was a little put off by my brother Stephen’s fanatical devotion to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, so I stuck with my Edgar Rice Burroughs and Raymond Chandler and whatnot. As I have yet to get around to reading the books, my daughter and I were both Middle-earth neophytes when I took her to see this, although she has become a devotee. At any rate, director/co-writer Peter Jackson’s magnificent evocation of Tolkien’s creation quite overwhelmed me. I found this tale of the disparate band united to locate and destroy a dangerous ring by turns exciting, amusing, and moving, with a uniformly excellent cast and outstanding music (by Howard Shore), cinematography, and special effects. Don’t miss it.

The Flight of the Phoenix: Probably the best adaptation of The GREAT Elleston Trevor’s work (see “The Other Titan, Part II”), although compared to The Quiller Memorandum, that ain’t saying much. Director Robert Aldrich had a knack for subverting or prefiguring particular genres; the latter talent is in effect here, anticipating the star-studded disaster films of the 1970s but with much more depth and substance. James Stewart is brilliantly cast against type as the burned-out pilot who crashes in the Sahara, represented here by the Arizona desert that Elleston first visited as the film’s technical director, and later made his home. Stewart and the rest of the all-male cast eventually construct a new, mini-plane from the wreck of the old one (hence the title) and fly to safety—a premise that Elleston, a flight engineer for the RAF in WW II, makes eminently plausible. Written by Aldrich’s frequent collaborator, Lukas Heller, this features Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Hardy Kruger, Ian Bannen, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, and Christian Marquand in the cast.

The Fog (1980): I know I’m in the minority (again) here, but I think this highly underrated film is John Carpenter’s best. It’s certainly more original than Halloween; filled with atmosphere and a terrific Carpenter score, it still scares me, plus it’s got Jamie Lee Curtis! On the anniversary of its founding, the California community of Antonio Bay is menaced by leprous ghosts who come under cover of a glowing fog that can move against the wind, and represent the sins of the town fathers come back literally to haunt them. Tom Atkins, Hal Holbrook, Janet Leigh (Jamie Lee’s lovely mother, courtesy of pater Tony Curtis), and Adrienne Barbeau (Carpenter’s then-spouse, memorably trapped in an isolated lighthouse radio station) are among those battling the boogeymen.

For a Few Dollars More (Per Qualche Dollari in Piu): Spaghetti-Western godfather Sergio Leone really hit his stride with this bounty-hunter epic, the second and possibly best in the “Dollars” trilogy that began with A Fistful of Dollars (Per un Pugno di Dollari) and ended with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo). It features the unbeatable team of Clint Eastwood as The Man With No Name and Lee Van Cleef (who seemed to bring out the best in Clint) as vengeful colleague Colonel Mortimer, with an unforgettable Ennio Morricone score and a gloriously protracted final shootout.

For Whom the Bell Tolls: Those who know me well will tell you I’m not the biggest fan of Ernest Hemingway. Novels and films like A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises annoyed the hell out of me with their whiny, self-pitying, self-destructive characters. But this—ah, now this is something different: noble, self-sacrificing partisans trying to blow a vital bridge during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. With Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman (“Where do the noses go?”) at her loveliest, both reportedly hand-picked by Hemingway himself, as Robert Jordan and Maria; Katina Paxinou and Akim Tamiroff (reteamed twelve years later in Orson Welles’s Confidential Report [aka Mr. Arkadin]) as Pilar (“much woman”) and the treacherous Pablo; Sam Wood (the director, oddly enough, of A Night at the Opera) in charge; and one of the most powerful endings I can remember.

The French Connection: Swept the major Oscars, and rightly so. Gene Hackman is unforgettable as abrasive but tenacious New York cop “Popeye” Doyle, with Roy Scheider as his partner and their real-life counterparts, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, in supporting roles; Fernando Rey plays “Frog One,” the man behind the huge heroin deal they hope to bust. This is one of the few movies I will watch at the drop of a hat: the performances, dialogue (officially adapted by Shaft creator Ernest Tidyman from the nonfiction bestseller by Robin Moore, author of The Green Berets, although I believe a fair amount of it was ad-libbed), and music (by Don Ellis) are uniformly excellent. Director William Friedkin really captures New York’s gritty atmosphere, and Popeye’s frantic automotive chase of an elevated train carrying a sniper has yet to be equaled. John Frankenheimer’s sequel, in which Hackman follows his quarry to France, is outstanding.

Gandhi: Ben Kingsley’s outstanding performance and uncanny resemblance to his subject, Richard Attenborough’s direction, and John Briley’s script—all justified Oscar winners—make this a Best Picture worthy of the name. I’ve seen this many times, and on each viewing I’m impressed all over again by what a high-quality film it is. Gandhi’s story is, of course, inspiring and tragic, and the cast is equally impressive, e.g., Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Martin Sheen, Ian Charleson, and playwright Athol Fugard. “I know a Christian. She drinks blood!”

Ghostbusters: That rare comedy I enjoy watching repeatedly. Bill Murray (“Important safety tip—thanks, Egon.”) is at his most likable, co-stars Dan Aykroyd (“Get her!”) and Harold Ramis (“Print is dead.”) turned in a superb script, Ivan Reitman’s direction is solid, the special effects and Ray Parker, Jr.’s, theme song are great, and it even has Sigourney Weaver (“You are so odd.”)! What more can you ask for? Murray et al. hire Ernie Hudson (“Tell him about the Twinkie.”) to help them cope with an infestation of spooks that seems to be centered on Weaver’s New York City apartment. Rick Moranis (“Yes, have some.”), Annie Potts (“We got one!”), and William Atherton (as the nasty EPA guy who reportedly has no, uh, let’s skip it…) are among those along for the ride.

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I’m sure plenty of people wonder why I’m so obsessed with Richard Matheson. Well, here’s a perfect example: word has reached me of a Saturday Night Live sketch this past weekend in which Jude Law spoofed William Shatner’s role of the guy who sees a gremlin on the wing of an airplane in Matheson’s classic short story and Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” I’m sure plenty of viewers, if they’ve seen or are aware of the original, assume that like so many others, it was written by the show’s creator and host, Rod Serling, but we know better.

Mind you, this is a television episode that is almost as old as I am (it first aired on October 11, 1963), yet it is still being parodied after almost fifty years. That follows prior spoofs in episodes of The Bernie Mac Show, The Cosby Show, Futurama, The Simpsons (which has used Matheson material in several of its “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween specials), and 3rd Rock from the Sun, among other shows. It was also lampooned in a Looney Tunes comic book, remade in Twilight Zone—The Movie, and immortalized with a collectible figure of the gremlin. Now, that’s what I call staying power…and that’s the imagination of Richard Matheson at work.

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Goodbye, Mr. Phelps

An apparent heart attack has claimed Peter Graves just shy of his 84th birthday. One’s point of reference for the late Mr. Graves is probably a generational thing. Those from Gen X and beyond probably knew him best either as the host of A&E’s Biography or for spoofing his usual heroic roles in Airplane! (1980) and the delightfully titled Airplane II: The Sequel (1982). But for those of us who grew up on Mission: Impossible, wherein he starred from 1967 to 1973, he will always be Jim Phelps, the leader of the Impossible Missions Force (IMF), who got his orders from soon-to-self-destruct tapes that began, “Good morning, Mr. Phelps.”

I haven’t seen the show for decades, but I have fond memories of the Swiss-watch-like precision of its plotting, in which seemingly random seeds planted toward the beginning of the episode came to flower at the climax with those little “Eureka” moments; of the great Lalo Schifrin’s pulse-raising theme song; of the appearance in early seasons of Martin Landau as “master of disguise” Rollin Hand, teamed with then-wife Barbara Bain as Cinnamon Carter; and, naturlich, of Graves’s authoritative leadership as Phelps. One of my biggest beefs with the 1996 feature-film version was that they made Phelps a turncoat played by Jon Voight, which was too revisionist for a stodgy guy like me. (I have yet to see the third film, but my response to the first two was concomitant to my respective loathing for Brian De Palma and love for John Woo.)

I don’t claim any expertise regarding Graves’s career, so I’ll restrict myself to several personal points of interest. He was, of course, the younger brother of James Arness of Gunsmoke fame, known to us genre types for the title role of The Thing (1951) and the lead in Them! (1954); they bore a decided physical resemblance, but even more striking to me was the similarity of their voices. And, as mentioned in “The Wilder Bunch, Part II,” Graves also paid his genre dues playing scientists in Red Planet Mars (1952), W. Lee Wilder’s Killers from Space (1954), Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World (1956), and Bert I. Gordon’s Beginning of the End (1957).

Luckily for Graves, these seminal schlock films—often spoofed on Mystery Science Theater 3000—alternated with supporting roles in legitimate classics. He was the traitorous POW in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), giving him the distinction of working with both Wilder brothers, and Robert Mitchum’s condemned cellmate in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955). In between Paul Newman’s big-screen appearances as Lew Harper in Harper (1966) and The Drowning Pool (1975), Graves played the private eye under his original name, Lew Archer, in a 1974 TV-movie based on Ross Macdonald’s The Underground Man. And in 1979 he returned to his SF roots with the forgettable Parts: The Clonus Horror and a guest-star turn on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

Like so many in Hollywood, Graves had a first-degree Matheson connection, starring in Dan Curtis’s Scream of the Wolf (1974), which unfortunately was one of the lesser Matheson/Curtis collaborations. (There’s a section devoted to that telefilm in Richard Matheson on Screen.) At the opposite end of the spectrum, he also worked with Curtis on his acclaimed 1980s miniseries based on Herman Wouk’s novels The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, and he was the only original cast member to return as a regular when Mission: Impossible was revived in 1988.

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The Other Titan, Part III

Continuing our reflections on the late, great Elleston Trevor.

Twenty years ago, I was working as a full-time book publicist at Viking Penguin, while bringing in a little extra money in my “spare” time (among the precious few upsides of a four-hour daily commute) by freelancing press releases for other publishers. One of my biggest clients was William Morrow, and one day I received their catalog of upcoming titles…including Quiller Barracuda by Adam Hall (aka Elleston Trevor). My eyes practically bugged out of my head: not only was Quiller finally making a comeback in hardcover, but if I played my cards right, maybe I could get involved.

Please, please, please, I begged them, could I write the release for that one? I did, and was eventually able to get Elleston’s address from them, and that, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. After receiving my first fawning letter, Elleston telephoned and ended up talking to me (at work, yet!) for twenty minutes. That was all too typical of a man who, if you’ll pardon the cliché, was as gracious as he was talented, the most courtly, cultured, well-spoken and elegant gentleman imaginable.

Okay, time out for something truly bizarre: I’ve just discovered that somebody—not me—posted my release online (http://www.quiller.net/novels/barracudapress.html). I’m not sure if this Quiller website is still being updated (no response when I offered to let them post my Trevor interview), but either way, it’s full of wonderful stuff. And there, staring right back at me, is something I wrote twenty years ago. Talk about twisting your melon.

I’ve also found a marvelous quote from that period in my aforementioned correspondence file. In a letter to a former colleague from St. Martin’s Press, who was then working at Morrow’s sister imprint, Avon (which would be publishing Barracuda in softcover), I wrote, “You may remember that at St. Martin’s, when I used to get a call from Berkley that they had reissued another of his books in paperback, I would start to foam at the mouth, drop everything, and literally run uptown to Madison Avenue to lay hands on it immediately. Like, this guy is a religion for me.” Not much of an exaggeration there.

In 1991, in a rare quixotic moment, I also managed to lose William Morrow as a client. When I had asked earlier to work on Quiller Bamboo, I learned that they were cutting back and would not even be issuing a measly press release for the book. Came their next entry, Quiller Solitaire, and Yours Truly offered out of friendship to write some press materials for free as a kind of “shadow publicist.” (A play on Quiller’s position of “shadow executive,” this led to the nickname “Shadopub” in my correspondence with Elleston.)

As I later wrote to Elleston’s agent, Eleanor Wood, Morrow’s then-director of publicity responded to the letter in which I made that offer “with a vituperative phone call claiming that I had embarrassed him, that they had publicity on Elleston completely covered, that he was shocked at my suggesting that he ‘hire a publicist from another house’ to work on Elleston’s book (which I wasn’t), that he couldn’t believe Morrow was using publicists from other houses to write press releases (which they had been doing since before he joined the company), and that he didn’t think they would be using me again for freelance work (which they haven’t).”  All attempts to explain my position or make amends were met with stony silence, and I was blackballed therafter.  No good deed goes unpunished.  Well, at least I went down swinging, and in a good cause.

My proselytizing for Quiller knew no bounds. Years before co-editing The Richard Matheson Companion, I unsuccessfully pitched a Quiller companion to Otto Penzler, who published the first U.S. edition of Quiller Balalaika after its original publisher—which shall remain nameless—had the temerity to reject the manuscript that Elleston had practically kept himself alive to finish, three days before his death. (Think that still rankles after fifteen years? Bet your ass.) I talked him up to the buyers and booksellers with whom I had contact through my day job, and even approached strangers I saw reading espionage fiction on the train to ask if they’d ever tried Quiller. It’s amazing to recall my youthful chutzpah now.

Next: Face to face…at last!

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Stanley Wiater, with whom Paul Stuve and I edited The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson, has shared the wonderful news that it has been nominated for one of the 8th Annual Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards as “Best Book of 2009.” Although Matheson hates to be pigeonholed as a horror writer (or any other kind), I know he’d be thrilled to have this revised and updated version receive some of the recognition denied the original limited edition, The Richard Matheson Companion.

I see we’re up against some stiff competition, including Michael Mallory’s Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror, which I’ve favorably reviewed here (see “Universal Exports”). And, as a contributor to Benjamin Szumskyj’s The Man Who Collected Psychos: Critical Essays on Robert Bloch, I’m in the bizarre position of competing against myself. But without taking anything away from any of the other books, ours was such a labor of love, on such a hitherto neglected subject, and—if I may say so—such a monumental piece of scholarship that I think, as a guy named Miller once said, “Attention must be paid.”

According to organizer David Colton, “The Rondo Awards are a fan-based program designed to honor the best in classic horror research, creativity and film preservation. Sponsored by the Classic Horror Film Board, the awards focus on classic horror and science fiction and especially the writers, researchers, archivists and just plain fans who try to keep those traditions alive. Winners are determined by e-mailed votes, and we routinely have 2,500-3,000 fans fill out the insanely detailed ballots. It’s become quite a genre tradition, and the Rondo Hatton busts are highly prized. Voting continues through April 3, 2010, and…this is purely a fan-based effort with no commercial affiliations.”

Anyone can vote (only once, alas—ha ha), and everything you need to know about casting your ballot is in the link below. Best of luck to ALL of the nominees…but wouldn’t it be great if McFarland could promote Richard Matheson on Screen as being “by the Rondo Award-winning co-editor of The Twilight and Other Zones”? If you see fit to vote for our book or, for that matter, Stanley’s DVD documentary series Dark Dreamers, our thanks in advance.

http://www.rondoaward.com/rondo/rondos.html

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Nigel Kneale

Fourth in a series of six previously unpublished profiles.

Best known for his legendary BBC-TV serials featuring Professor Bernard Quatermass, Nigel Kneale (1922-2006) was consistently one of the most imaginative and intelligent screenwriters to specialize in SF. Born on the Isle of Man, he tried his hand at writing radio scripts and acting, and published an award-winning book of stories, Tomato Cain, before he joined the BBC.

Directed by Rudolph Cartier, The Quatermass Experiment (1953), Quatermass II (1955), and Quatermass and the Pit (1958) became Britain’s “must-see TV” of the day. All three scripts were published by Penguin Books, and the year after the first serial’s success, Kneale and Cartier embarked upon a television adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In a star-making lead performance, Peter Cushing played Winston Smith, threatened with a mask that will expose his face to hungry rats in one controversial scene. He appeared in other BBC productions co-written by Kneale, including Number Three (1953), about nuclear scientists concerned with the possible military applications of their work, and The Moment of Truth (1955).

Too numerous to detail here, Kneale’s television plays and serials were often broadcast live, rarely seen in the U.S. before the advent of DVD, and in some cases have been lost forever. As a result, many of today’s viewers—especially in America—know his work primarily through the feature films he has scripted, many of which were big-screen adaptations of earlier teleplays.

Before reviving Gothic horror onscreen with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Britain’s Hammer Films routinely made feature-film versions of properties that had proven successful on television and radio. These included the original Quatermass serials, as well as another BBC collaboration with Cartier, The Creature (1955), Kneale’s play about the Abominable Snowman.

The first effort was sometimes billed as The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), to emphasize the British X rating for horror films. Kneale was reportedly unhappy with the script by Richard Landau and director Val Guest, and with the lead casting of hard-drinking American actor Brian Donlevy to add box-office appeal in the U.S., where it was released as The Creeping Unknown.

Quatermass’s experimental rocket returns with two of its astronauts missing and the third, Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth), absorbing various life-forms as he is mutated by an alien organism. Wordsworth’s performance as the tortured man-monster is effective, and supposedly helped inspire Hammer to make The Curse of Frankenstein, which solidified Cushing’s stardom.

Donlevy returned to foil an interstellar infiltration in Quatermass II (aka Enemy from Space, 1957), with humans either controlled by, or unwittingly producing synthetic food for, the aliens, but this time Kneale shared script credit with Guest. It should be noted that the title is the name of Quatermass’s second rocket, rather than a precursor to today’s Roman-numeral sequels.

Guest again directed Hammer’s version of The Creature, aptly entitled The Abominable Snowman [of the Himalayas] (1957), with Kneale adapting his teleplay. Seeking the Yeti with differing agendas, Cushing wishes to study them and Forrest Tucker to exploit them; Tucker dies in an avalanche, but Cushing is spared, denying their existence to protect this wise, ancient race.

After Quatermass and the Pit, which Hammer did not film for almost a decade, Kneale worked with director Tony Richardson on screen versions of John Osborne’s plays Look Back in Anger (1959) and The Entertainer (1960). He also scripted a cracking good British naval yarn, HMS Defiant (aka Damn the Defiant!, 1962), from the future James Bond director Lewis Gilbert.

Directed by Nathan Juran, with stop-motion animation by Ray Harryhausen, First Men in the Moon (1964) was adapted from the H.G. Wells novel by Kneale and Jan Read. A U.N. team finds a flag on the moon, left there in 1899 by Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd) and Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), as well as evidence that Cavor’s cold germs wiped out the Selenite civilization.

Kneale, who often posited scientific explanations for the supernatural in his work, took a more traditional route in Hammer’s The Witches (aka The Devil’s Own, 1966), directed by Cyril Frankel and based on a novel by Peter Curtis. Headmistress Joan Fontaine encounters witchcraft at her school, and impurifies an intended sacrificial victim by spilling non-virgin blood over her.

Finally, Hammer embarked on Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth, 1967), with Roy Ward Baker directing Kneale’s adaptation of his serial. Investigating an ancient spaceship found buried beneath London, Quatermass (Andrew Keir) learns that Martians were responsible for not only our evolution, but also the image of horned demons in our race memory.

Back at the BBC, The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) depicted a future in which sexual appetite is sated by televised porn to avoid overpopulation; presciently, the public then becomes preoccupied with a Survivor–style reality show. In The Stone Tape (1972), a research team seeks a new recording medium, and discovers that a ghost was “recorded” in the walls of an old house.

Kneale’s relationship with the BBC soured, partly over abortive attempts to film a fourth Quatermass serial, and he eventually took the project to the competition, ITV. In the title role of Quatermass (aka The Quatermass Conclusion, 1979), John Mills learns that young people who gather in places like Stonehenge are being harvested by aliens, not transported to a better world.

Dissatisfied with changes to his work, Kneale removed his name from the screenplay of Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983), credited to director Tommy Lee Wallace. Not a part of the Michael Myers saga, it concerns a mad toymaker (Dan O’Herlihy) who is using deadly masks, impregnated with tiny fragments of Stonehenge, to return Halloween to its Druidic roots.

Kneale adapted the ghost story The Woman in Black (1989) from the book by Susan Hill, and in 2005 he served as story consultant when the BBC mounted a live remake of The Quatermass Experiment. Directed by Sam Miller, and adapted from Kneale’s script by its executive producer, Richard Fell, it starred Jason Flemyng as the latest Quatermass.

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Tim the Enchanter

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland has just opened, and although we’re still looking for an opportunity to see it, that (plus our visit to the fascinating but poorly presented Burton exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art) has made me reflect on his unusual place in my personal pantheon. If you asked me to create a list of my top ten favorite directors—which could be the subject of a whole new post, or series thereof—he almost certainly wouldn’t be on it, unless I was restricted to living people…in which case it might be tough to come up with ten.

Paradoxically, however, his batting average is significantly higher than that of, say, Alfred Hitchcock (my all-time favorite), John Frankenheimer, or Mario Bava (of whom Burton is also an acknowledged fan). In fact, I have loved all but one of his previous features, and the sole exception, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), was through no fault of his own, but simply because I cannot abide the character of Pee-wee. So let’s take a quick spin through the rest of the Burton filmography…

Beetlejuice (1988): Watching Michael Keaton cavorting as the eponymous bio-exorcist makes it easy to see why people (myself included) were a mite dubious about his casting as Burton’s Batman the following year. Not because he didn’t give a great performance, but because the character seemed about as far as could be from the Caped Crusader. But hey, I guess that’s why they call it “acting.” Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are at their most charming as a couple who don’t initially realize they’re dead, and seek Beetlejuice’s help with decidedly mixed results; Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, and proto-Goth chick Winona Ryder are the family they’re trying to drive out of their (now former) home. The off-the-wall sensibility and imaginative visuals demonstrate that the Burton style is fully in evidence already.

Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992): I would rank these with Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), the first two Spider-Man and X-Men movies, and Batman Begins (2005) among the best comic-book movies I’ve seen. I’d also put Batman Returns among the best sequels, even if it did popularize the two-villain routine that has hampered so many comic-book films. Keaton was a pleasant surprise, effectively embodying the Dark (in every sense) Knight and a conflicted Bruce Wayne, while the Joker (Jack Nicolson), the Penguin (Danny DeVito), and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) were outstanding villains.

Edward Scissorhands (1990): The chameleonic Johnny Depp began his seven-film (to date) association with Burton on this dark fable, and as I’ve often said, anybody doubting his range as an actor need only see him in the antithetical titles roles of this film and Ed Wood to be convinced. In one of his last films, Vincent Price (who also narrated Burton’s 1982 short Vincent) plays the inventor who creates this leather-clad misfit, and Ryder is the girl who falls for him as he tries to adapt to the ways of a pastel-colored suburbia.

Ed Wood (1994): See “Bradley’s Hundred #21-30.”

Mars Attacks! (1996): Delirious fun inspired by the notorious trading-card series of the early 1960s. The big-brained aliens come to conquer us, and very few of the all-star cast (Nicholson [in a dual role], Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan, DeVito, Martin Short, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Burton’s then-fiancee Lisa Marie [hilarious as Vampira in Ed Wood], Lukas Haas, the up-and-coming Natalie Portman, Paul Winfield, and Sylvia Sidney in her last movie) survives before a rather unusual method is discovered to stop them. Originally irate at the decision to film the Martians with CGI rather than stop-motion animation, I have since recanted because the movie is so damn good.

Sleepy Hollow (1999): I was initially put off by the somewhat jokey tone of this version of the story of the Headless Horseman (played by Christopher Walken), which I felt was at odds with its status as a reputed homage to Hammer horror. On subsequent viewings, however, I came to feel that Burton had indeed properly integrated the humorous and horrifying aspects of the story. As usual, the cast is excellent, headed by Depp as Ichabod Crane, and featuring Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Burton regular Jeffrey Jones, genre veteran Michael Gough (previously Alfred in Burton’s Batman films), and—last but far from least—Hammer mainstay Christopher Lee, undoubtedly our greatest surviving horror superstar.

Planet of the Apes (2001): Once again, I’m in the minority here, but I was blown away by this film, right from the riveting main-title sequence composed by Burton’s regular collaborator (except on Ed Wood), Danny Elfman. I felt it was one of the best remakes I’d seen, managing the delicate balancing act of being sufficiently like the original that it didn’t feel like one of those in-name-only, why-bother remakes, and sufficiently different that it didn’t feel like one of those been-there, done-that rehashes. As revolutionary as the ape makeup was in the 1968 original, this is naturally far more advanced, and better able to differentiate the ape characters from one another. With Mark Wahlberg in the Charlton Heston role and the usual impressive supporting cast: Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter (who became Burton’s current fiancée and frequent star), Michael Clarke Duncan, Paul Giamatti, David Warner, Kris Kristofferson, Burton regular Glenn Shadix, and even Heston himself.

Big Fish (2003): As yet, I’ve seen this and Burton’s subsequent films only once each, so I’m less familiar with them, but my daughter—a huge fan of both Burton and star Ewan McGregor—swears by it. Ewan is the younger version of Albert Finney’s character, a dying man whose estranged son (Billy Crudup) believes him to be nothing but a teller of tall tales, and is now trying to reconcile himself with his father while reconstructing the truth of his life. It displays less of Burton’s style than usual, but that’s understandable, because he’s adapting a novel by Daniel Wallace, and presumably did not want to betray his source material by putting too much of his own stamp on it. Features Bonham Carter, DeVito, Jessica Lange, Steve Buscemi, and the up-and-coming Marion Cotillard.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005): As a huge fan of Roald Dahl’s novel, I always thought the Gene Wilder version, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), did a pretty credible job of bringing the book to the screen. Once again, however, Burton has done an excellent remake, including some aspects of the novel that were omitted from the original. Depp stars as the eccentric confectioner who offers several (mostly ill-natured and -fated) children a tour of his top-secret factory, with an eye toward finding a successor; Bonham Carter and Lee are among the supporting cast.

Corpse Bride (2005): Truly out of the mainstream here, I found this stop-motion feature more engaging than the cult classic The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), which Henry Selick—who also directed the 1996 adaptation of Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach—made under Burton’s aegis. Depp is the hapless hero who gets inadvertently hitched to a corpse; the voice cast also includes Emily Watson, Tracey Ullman, Joanna Lumley, and usual suspects Bonham Carter, Finney, Lee, Gough, Deep Roy (who, via CGI, played all of the Oompa-Loompas in Charlie), and even Elfman.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007): Excellent version of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, with Depp displaying a surprisingly good singing voice as the tonsorial title character, driven by a lust for vengeance to slit the throats of his customers. Bonham Carter is his partner, Mrs. Lovett, who turns the results into meat pies; Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and Sacha Baron Cohen are among the villains and victims. My only regret is the omission of the moody “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” from the score.

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There follows, verbatim, an item kindly shared with me by the redoubtable Simon Drax (check out the latest installment of his awesome weekly online serial novel Doomtroopers at http://doomtroopers.wordpress.com/). Not sure if my magnum opus, Richard Matheson on Screen, will be out from McFarland in time for this Seattle event, but in any case, no writer is more deserving…even if Richard dislikes being pigeonholed in any genre!

http://www.empsfm.org/exhibitions/index.asp?categoryID=203

Science Fiction Hall of Fame

EMP|SFM is proud to announce the 2010 Hall of Fame inductees: Octavia E. Butler, Richard Matheson, Douglas Trumbull and Roger Zelazny.

The induction ceremony will be held Saturday, June 26, 2010 at EMP|SFM as part of the Science Fiction Awards Weekend, June 25-27, 2010, in conjunction with the Locus Awards and NW Media Arts writing workshops with Connie Willis and Gregory Frost. Further information and tickets to the Science Fiction Awards Weekend are available on the Locus website.

About the Science Fiction Hall of Fame

The Hall of Fame honors the lives, works, and ongoing legacies of science fiction’s greatest creators.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame was founded in 1996 by the Kansas City Science Fiction and Fantasy Society (KCSFFS) in conjunction with the J. Wayne and Elsie M. Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. Created in 1971, the KCSFFS fosters interest in the literary forms known as science fiction and fantasy, and is one of the oldest science fiction clubs in mid-America.

Each year since 1996, the Hall of Fame has inducted four individuals on the basis of their continued excellence and long-time contribution to the science fiction field. The Science Fiction Museum is honored to now be the permanent physical home of the Hall of Fame, and will continue its mission through annual inductions of individuals who have made outstanding and significant contributions to Science Fiction.

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Just a reminder that Turner Classic Movies kicks off its centennial celebration of legendary Japanese writer-director Akira Kurosawa tonight at 8:00 with a superb cross-section of better- and lesser-known films that display his diversity: Ikiru (1952), with the great Takashi Shimura unforgettable as a dying civil servant; Throne of Blood (1957), with Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa’s version of Macbeth; The Hidden Fortress (1958), a major inspiration for Star Wars (1977); the little-seen The Idiot (1951), based on the novel by Fyodor Dosotyevsky; and The Lower Depths (1957), based on the play by Maxim Gorky. They’ll have more starting in prime time next Tuesday, and then on the 23rd, the actual 100th anniversary of his birth, they’ll pull out all the stops with a 24-hour marathon. So fire up your VCR or DVR or Tivo or just barricade yourself in front of the set, but don’t miss this chance to wallow in the work of one of the cinema’s greatest.

Speaking of TCM retrospectives, not to mention Japan, I’ve just started watching Tokyo Joe (1949), an early example of what I think of as Humphrey Bogart’s “sourpuss period.” In fact, it’s funny how neatly Bogie’s career breaks down by decade. During the 1930s, he was honing his craft and paying his dues in a series of largely similar and/or unrewarding roles, with a few standouts, e.g., The Petrified Forest (1936), Dead End (1937). The 1940s saw the full flower of his Warner Brothers years, including most of my favorites: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946). These culminated in 1948 with his Oscar-worthy The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for which he was inexplicably not even nominated, and his fourth and final film with fourth and final wife Lauren Bacall, Key Largo.

Afterward, right through the ’50s to his death in 1957, he obviously tried to vary his output, especially with the films (like Tokyo Joe) made by his own production company, Santana, but the results were mixed indeed. Again, there was the occasional standout such as The African Queen (1951), for which he finally won an Oscar, and The Caine Mutiny (1954), which featured another of his best performances. For the most part, however, those later films were lackluster affairs in which one could see his hard-drinking and -smoking lifestyle catching up with him. He didn’t look any too happy to be in some of them, a sentiment I sadly shared all too often.

Anyway, I know it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Tokyo Joe, which is why I’m watching it now, even though I don’t much care for it. But it must have been longer than I thought, because I don’t remember ever seeing it with the awareness that its leading lady is Florence Marly, who (as Florence Marley) played the title role in Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood (1966). I mean, how can I take her seriously in this film when all I can see is her in green makeup draining Dennis Hopper’s blood? Well, at least it co-stars Alexander Knox, so memorable as George Smiley’s ailing boss, Control, in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979), and Sessue Hayakawa, Oscar-nominated for his supporting role as the camp commandant in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), so there should be some compensations.

One final, and truly bizarre, small-world note. As many of you know (although I didn’t mention it in my morning-after post), a woman named Elinor Burkett interrupted the Oscar acceptance speech of Roger Ross Williams, whose film Music by Prudence won for Best Documentary Short Subject. I didn’t place the name until I saw the news reports on the kerfuffle yesterday, and realized that I had once been her publicist when she and her husband, Frank Bruni, published A Gospel of Shame: Children, Sexual Abuse, and the Catholic Church in 1993. Although I wish I had some amusing anecdote about the time we worked together, I honestly recall only an amiable relationship with her and Frank. I’m not defending her actions, and have no idea what she’s been up to in the meantime, but no “Kanye West moment” alters the fact that we were doing our best to get the word out on a subject about which I felt (and feel) strongly, at a time when far fewer people were doing so than today.

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Those of you who missed seeing my daughter as Rowena, the hooker who relieves Eugene Morris Jerome of his virginity in Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues (and I think that takes in most of you), can get yourself back in BOF’s good graces by making a pilgrimage this weekend to Ithaca, New York, to see her production of David Auburn’s Proof at Cornell’s Risley Theatre. Here are the details, straight from the horse’s—er, director’s—mouth:

“The play centers around [sic] the younger daughter of a mathematical genius whose mind has slowly deteriorated from illness. As she has to come to terms with his death after years of taking care of him, she must also face the people around her concerned about her own health and well-being, and prove to them that she is much more capable than they think she is…

Director: Alexandra Bradley

Producer: John Simpson

Performances:

March 12 and 13 at 7:30 pm (doors open at 7:00)

March 14 at 2:00 pm (doors open at 1:30)

Risley Theatre, Ithaca, NY

Tickets: $5

To reserve tickets in advance, e-mail prooftix@gmail.com with your preferred performance date, number of people attending, and name and e-mail of person picking up the tickets at the box office.”

And yes, we will once again be there on Sunday cheering her on. Come and join us—but be sure to reset your clocks, or you’ll miss the show!

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