Saturday, December 31, 2011

And Now the End Is Near: Best of 2011

Yes, friends, it's the annual year-end Top 25 Films Countdown. These lists are always fluid, always changing. When I look back at last year's Fifteen Honorable Mentions and the Ten Best, I find myself second-guessing the placements of The Runaways and The American (should be higher), Piranha 3D and The Kids Are All Right (should be lower), but I still feel confident that the titles themselves are right. Maybe I would now switch out For Colored Girls and Never Let Me Go for The Runaways and Get Low. But then I remember certain moments of each film and think, "Hm. Maybe not."

I've still got so much to see, so much that could still qualify for the Hollmann Awards (dare I limit it to movies I actually saw in 2011?). Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Win Win, Rango, Melancholia, Meek's Cutoff, Warrior, Pariah, Jane Eyre, Captain America, The Housemaid, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Margin Call, Coriolanus, A Better Life...these are the films I still need to see. It just didn't happen for me.

In all, I saw 82 films this year, a pretty good number I think, though nowhere near the hundred-plus that more energetic writers manage to pull off. If I waited until I saw the fourteen listed, of course, I would have 95, which is still close, but....

Ach. What of it? There are still only 25 slots, meaning that I had to cruelly, painfully cast off 57 other flicks. Ok, maybe only 51, since there are seven films that I found to be just terrible (Another Earth, Bride Flight, Cat Run, The Descendants, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Jack & Jill, In Time, The Robber). Suffice to say, I did have to whittle down, justify positioning, try to remember which ones I enjoyed, which ones fell short. I tried to keep movies I wouldn't watch again, movies I only liked but didn't love, movies that I barely remember, off the list entirely. I tried my best. I'm sure that by next year, I'll have decided that The Big Year really did deserve a mention in my Top Ten. Doubtful, even though I know I'll buy it, but perceptions and opinions change with time.

Enough of that bullshit. You want to see the list. Ladies and gentlemen, the ranked list of the fifteen semi-finalists; or, 25-11 of the Top 25.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

This Christmas...Will be the Best Christmas

It would be remiss of me to let this day pass without any mention from me. Christmas is, after all, my favorite holiday. I admit, however, that despite my constant playing of songs both traditional and not so (truly, Chicory Tip's "Merry Xmas Everybody" is a forgotten gem), I am not at my most Christmasy this year.

Christmas, more than most other holidays, is all about tradition. The songs, the decorations, even the movies, are all important aspects of the day not just because of their thematic relavence, but also because of the history and memories we associate with them. There's watching A Christmas Story for 24 hours with the family...hanging up each ornament on the tree with my sisters, from my Godfather Drosselmeyer purchased at a makeshift Christmas shop at the performing arts center to my older sister's "Baby's First Christmas" ornament from the late '70s....baking and decorating cookies with mom, using the same cookie cutters we've had for about twenty years....

And this year, I've broken with tradition. I'm in Los Angeles with my best friend, and in thirty minutes, I'll be on my way to work...til midnight. And one is apt to think, "Oh, poor me, Christmas is ruined, it's not Christmas at all, boo hoo...." And indeed, I've been like this for most of this week. Dreading Christmas because it would remind me of what I'm missing and what I have to do instead.

But then I started talking to my co-workers. To the married father of three who has to work the late shift on Christmas Eve. To the woman who has had to work the past three Christmases, wishing she could be with her family. To the guy who moved here to pursue his dream, leaving behind his friends, family and girlfriend, and now has to catch a few minutes on the phone in order to spend Christmas with them.

And you know something? I'm pretty lucky. Not only do I live with my best friend, who's also here for Christmas, but I made friends at work. I have a little community to call home in my apartment complex. The class I graduated with, some of the best friends I'll ever have...they're out here, too. I'm getting double my pay, too, which is certainly a plus. And I get to do for others what I've been having them do for me for years. I'm giving them a chance to spend Christmas with the real miracle workers.

In Hugo, Georges Melies says to a little boy who visits his film set, "If you ever wonder where your dreams come from, look around: this is where they're made." People need the movies, and I am proud to help provide that service. You've cooked, bought presents, put up with the fam...let me handle the popcorn, the hot dogs, the entertainment. Christmas, after all, is a time to spend with those you love. And I don't know about you, but I love Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Hoyte von Hoytema, Janusz Kaminski, Diablo get it.

So Merry Christmas everybody! Or as Burl Ives would say:

Have a holly jolly Christmas
It's the best time of the year
I don't know if there'll be snow
But have a cup o' cheer

Have a holly jolly Christmas
And as you walk down the street
Say "hello" to friends you know
And everyone you meet

Oh, ho, the mistletoe, hung where you can see
Somebody waits for you
Kiss her once for me

Have a holly jolly Christmas
And in case you didn't hear
Oh, by golly!
Have a holly jolly Christmas this year!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

On Her Majesty's Foreign Press Association

And once again, I stayed up to watch the announcement of the Golden Globes nominees. Maggie Smith is continuing to rake up the nominations for her performance in Gosford Park Downton Abbey, while Woody Harrelson cracks wise in the most charming of ways and we learn that Irma Bunt is the President of the HFPA.

But, most importantly, the Awards race got a little more exciting. Let's say it with music, shall we?

The Artist - Ludovico Bource
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Trent Reznor
Hugo - Howard Shore
War Horse - John Williams
W.E. - Abel Korzeniowski

Albert Nobbs - Lay Your Head Down
Gnomeo & Juliet - Hello, Hello
The Help - The Living Proof
Machine Gun Preacher - The Keeper
W.E. - Masterpiece

Madonna's earworm song from her hilariously camp W.E. would be my choice, if just for some love to go that film's way, were it not for the presence of the Elton John/Lady Gaga duet from Gnomeo & Juliet. In the unlikeliest of places, I have found one of the best songs of the year. It's always the weird ones, though, isn't it?: Jennifer's Body, Walk Hard, The Odessa File...

Remarkably, none of the songs from The Muppets got in. Actually, as we shall soon discover, The Muppets was ignored completely. I can kind of understand it, I guess - as much as I love the film, it works best as a nostalgia factory. Once one starts thinking about that ending...and the human characters...and since it's the humans that do most of the singing....Still, one would have thought that the spirited nature of the film would get it recognized in Musical/Comedy. Alas, there was no room among these nominees:

The Artist
Midnight in Paris
My Week with Marilyn

You know, I guess I would have trouble labeling My Week with Marilyn a drama. It's such a lighthearted romp, a fun film that only now and then addresses the tragedy of Marilyn Monroe. Not the most profound of films, but I did enjoy it. Hell, I enjoyed all of these films! Come to think of it, this is one of the strongest slates I've seen in this category. Nicely done!

Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Brendan Gleeson, The Guard
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 50/50
Ryan Gosling, Crazy Stupid Love
Owen Wilson, Midnight in Paris

The nods for Dujardin and Wilson were, I felt, inevitable, but I am pleasantly surprised by the presence of Gleeson! An unfairly overlooked performance, surely. Then again, he was also nominated for In Bruges, so I don't know why this caught me off guard (HA!) as much as it did. Cheers for Gordon-Levitt, while Gosling was nominated for doing great work in a film that ultimately failed to match its stars in quality. Actually, excitingly, Gosling is a double-nominee this year:

George Clooney, The Descendants
Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar
Michael Fassbender, Shame
Ryan Gosling, The Ides of March 
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Oh, wait, first: Fassbender getting recognition for Shame is always a good thing, and I once again must confess that I am both mildly pleased and agog to see DiCaprio continuing to get recognition for his performance. I like his performance, but it is a little uneven. And in a not-very-good movie.

But this was supposed to be about Gosling's double-header. True, I would have preferred to see him honored for Drive, but I'm totally down with a nominations for The Ides of March. Yeah, I've learned to be satisfied with just one...wait, what?

The Artist - Michel Hazanavicius
The Descendants - Alexander Payne, Jim Rasche, Nat Faxon
The Ides of March - George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Midnight in Paris - Woody Allen
Moneyball - Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin

Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
George Clooney, The Ides of March
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo

AHHHH! My beloved Ides of March is finally getting some traction this season! A subtle, sophisticated, brilliant reflection of the our political landscape (hope? change? they're all politicians, honey), it looked for a while that it might be slipping by the wayside. Certainly its shut-out at the SAG Nominations was cause for distress. Will the Globes' attention encourage more Academy members to check it out? I do hope so. Also, it should be noted: The Artist is doing rather well so far, and Spielberg was left out of director, a surprise considering the Globes' reputation for courting the famous. Even stranger considering the Drama slate:

The Descendants
The Help
The Ides of March
War Horse

But I guess the Globes are stricter on the five-wide for the Director category than in the Drama category. Somebody had to be left off. Still, the eyebrows raise slightly at Clooney getting in over The Beard. They also raise slightly at Hugo as a drama. I guess I see that. The kid's not exactly the happy-go-luckiest of children, is he? But there are a large number of lighter moments, plus, you know, family fare. I mean, if Alice in Wonderland was a comedy....

Okay, enough of the dilly-dallying. What else was there?

Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn
Albert Brooks, Drive
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method
Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Plummer and Branagh: all present and correct. Brooks here and not at the SAG. Advantage: Globes. Hill, surprisingly (to me at least) makes it into Globes AND SAGs! Delightfully, a nomination for the overlooked A Dangerous Method finally happens, and for its strongest aspect, too. Mortensen's Freud nearly steals the show, a hell of a feat considering the competition within the film. Globes, you are baller this year!

Berenice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help
Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

...And then you throw curveballs like this. Of all the groups that I expected to nominate Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids, I thought I could depend on the same group who nominated Tom Cruise for Tropic Thunder to deliver. It's always the ones you trust who surprise you.

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin

Just a few days ago, my roommate and I were discussing the Oscar race. He was predicting Tilda for a SAG nom, then an Oscar nom. "No, no," says I, "I don't see that happening. I think Tilda's doomed to be that one-time-only fling." "But they love her!" he insisted. "Only the once," I countered.

Now, perhaps this doesn't mean anything. The Globes did nominate Swinton before it was the cool thing to do (The Deep End). But when I see an actress nominated for a Golden Globe...and a SAG Award...and winning the NBR...well, I just gotta look at all the evidence and say, "Hot damn. There's a contender if ever I saw one."

Jodie Foster, Carnage
Charlize Theron, Young Adult 
Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids
Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
Kate Winslet, Carnage

Williams will easily win this, won't she?

Final thought: This spells ever more disaster for the Tinker Tailor camp. We are not amused.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

All Baggy and SAGgy

I can't believe so many of us get up before sunrise for ten minutes' worth of talking, only caring about the last three, fully aware that we can see a nice, typed press release within the next fifteen minutes on the computer. Yet there we were, watching the SAG Award Nominations live on TNT.TV, tweeting about it, reading Julian Stark's live-blogging, (I, too, have been sucked into Charmed while awaiting the announcement...though that was last year), chatting with the other awards-obsessed. It's the first mass of many this season, what with the Golden Globes announcing tomorrow and the Oscar noms in January, and the Hollmann noms before that....hopefully, even the 1957 ones (gulp!).

How did it all go down, you may ask? Well, let's take a look-see. First off, I did some predictions in the brief time I had beforehand. They were:

The Artist
The Descendants
The Help
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

George Clooney, The Descendants
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt, Moneyball
Michael Shannon, Take Shelter

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Olivia Colman, Tyrannosaur
Viola Davis, The Help
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn

Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn
Albert Brooks, Drive
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Berenice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Octavia Spencer, The Help
Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

And how did I fare in my predictions? Read on, for you are about to witness the pleasant surprises and faint discouragement of the SAG Awards....

Monday, December 5, 2011

Casting Coup Tuesdays: The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey

Let's start out small, intimate, with but two characters to cast.

It had to have been many years ago -- before middle school, certainly --  my mother read us a picture book called The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. It's very short, probably only a couple dozen pages, including illustrations, but it never fails to knock me out. Susan Wojciechowski and illustrator PJ Lynch pack so much subtlety, beauty, hurt and hope on every page, he who comes out dry-eyed is missing a piece of their heart. Truly.

So, the story! It's about a carpenter who does not deal with people, shuts himself away from the world, unhappy and alone, hating Christmas. One day, a widow and her son arrive with a proposition: to recreate a beloved Nativity set. Toomey reluctantly acquiesces, little realizing that the widow's son is keeping a watchful eye, with vocal opinions on how to make the perfect Nativity display. Of course, there's more to Toomey than meets the eye; secrets are uncovered, connections are made, and the reader is left weeping with joy and the spirit of Christmas.

I actually once wrote and appeared in an adaptation for my church's Christmas service, playing the role of the son. We used the Nativity set from home as a prop, since the resin figurines were modeled and painted to look like woodcuts. Even better, Lynch's illustrations in the book are an exact match for our family set. We've had that set forever, long before the book came out in 1995, a great coincidence that tied me closer to the story. 

Some of you may have heard of the film version, a straight-to-DVD release that came out in 2007. Tom Berenger starred with Joely Richardson, and it features an appearance by one Miss Saoirse Ronan. I have yet to see the film, partly because I haven't been able to find out, and partly because I have my own idea of what Jonathan Toomey and the Widow MacDowell look like. Let me share it:

Who is She: The widow who hires Toomey to recreate her Nativity set. A sweet woman, a good mother and Christian, her kindness helps to warm Toomey's heart.

My Choice: BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actress (No Country for Old Men), Indie Spirit Nominee for Best Actress (Two Family House), SAG Award Winner for Best Ensemble (Gosford Park, No Country for Old Men)
Kelly Macdonald (Finding Neverland, "Boardwalk Empire")
The widow is a young woman, I think, with warmth and kindness overflowing. Macdonald, who I've been a fan of since 2001's Gosford Park exudes that quiet, gentle beauty needed for the role.

Who is He: A gruff carpenter who tries to ignore the Christmas season. At first put off by the widow and her son, he grows closer to them as the set nears completion. Of course, he also keeps a mysterious photograph in his desk...

My Choice: Academy Award/Golden Globe/SAG Award Winner/BAFTA Award/Hollmann Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (The Fighter)
Christian Bale (Pocahontas, Flowers of War)
Besides his ability to sport a masterful beard, Bale is a strong performer able to tell everything about a character with his eyes and physicality alone, a great skill for a role like Jonathan Toomey. I would compare it to his quiet, noble turn in 3:10 to Yuma, really.

Any of you read the book? Anyone convinced to? It's quite lovely, and available for purchase on Amazon.

As for music, how about a John Denver tune? I really think it could apply to Toomey's backstory, carving of the figurines, growing closeness with the boy. It's also a helluva beautiful song:

The season is upon us now
A time for gifts and giving
And as the year draws to its close
I think about my living

The Christmastime when I was young
The magic and the wonder
But colors dull and candles dim
And dark my standing under

Oh little angel, shining light
You've set my soul to dreaming
You've given back my joy in life
You' ve filled me with new meaning

A savior king was born that day
A baby just like you
And as the Magi came with gifts
I've come with my gift too

That peace on earth fills up your time
That brotherhood surrounds you
That you may know the warmth of love
And wrap it all around you

It's just a wish, a dream I'm told
From days when I was young
Merry Christmas little Zachary
Merry Christmas ev'ryone

Hollmann Holiday Extravaganza: IT BEGINS

You're still here, are you?

Yes, it's been an unusually long absence -- my last post was a full month and ten days ago -- but oh! The things I have been doing! Working long hours (even Thanksgiving) at my current place of employment, catching up with all the films out in theaters (or on DVD), keeping abreast of the awards season, watching the films of 1957 for my next Oscar Series (even that was delayed as Tammy and the Bachelor sat unwatched for a week and a half). It's been a month of blood, sweat and tears, but December is here and I am ready to embrace the Holiday Season.

Yes, I'm a few days late, but I've always tried to keep the tradition of Hollmann Holiday Extravaganza alive! This year, join me celebrating my favorite time of year with some stories, music and (oh, of course) MOVIES.

Consider this an overture:

Christmastime is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all, what children call their favorite time of year

Snowflakes in the air
Carols everywhere
Olden times and ancient rhymes of love and dreams to share

Sleighbells in the air
Beauty everywhere
Yuletide by the fireside and joyful memories there

Christmastime is here
Families drawing near
Oh that we could always see such spirit through the year

Oh that we could always see such spirit through the year.....

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Casting Coup Tuesdays: Rosemary's Baby

I asked, you voted, and last Tuesday, I did it: I watched Rosemary's Baby for the very first time.

La la la laaaa la la la la la....
There really was no telling which way I would go. I've always read that it's a classic, but I knew a lot of people that either couldn't finish it (too dull) or just plain didn't like it (too dull). Still, I'm in love with the horror genre, it's a part of cinema history, and I follow Mia Farrow on Twitter. Besides, you lovely people (out the dark....) kindly asked it of me.

Let me start at the end, for Rosemary's Baby's is perfect. I love it because I hate it so much, because I should have seen it coming (that Polanski!), because a part of me did see it coming but hoped for the best, because I fell in love with Rosemary.

Wouldn't you?

Certainly if there's a film that puts you completely in the headspace of its protagonist, Rosemary's Baby is it. Farrow is in every scene; I believe the only shots without her are from her P.O.V. We, too, doubt what is real and what is a nightmare; we, too, delude ourselves into thinking that she's going to have it under control. And so that ending, inevitable though it may be, causes the floor to just drop out from under you. I swear I felt my heart sink. It's not just that she's impossibly beautiful, or that hurts to see innocence like that lost, to see a good Catholic girl put through all that. No, it's that Farrow makes Rosemary such a lively, relatable person -- not a character, but a human being. It's probably the best thing I've ever seen from Farrow, and I was already a fan.

Then there's Ruth Gordon, who won the Oscar for her portrayal of loud, nosy, elderly Minnie Castevets, Rosemary's neighbor. I'm reminded of when Goldie Hawn told Taraji P. Henson that a great supporting actress is one that, every time she re-appears, we realize we've missed. That's Gordon here. Every time she appeared on screen, I got excited, and I have to say it's mostly due the wonderful characterization she brings. I lived near and worked in Boca Raton, Florida, for 22 years -- do you know how many Minnies, how many elderly, shrieking, kindly-yet-badgering, nosy, heavily-made-up, New Yarrrrk biddies I've known? ALL OF THEM. While the makeup and costumes certainly help, Gordon's whole physicality is perfect. My absolute favorite shot of the film has Guy bringing the Castevets over to congratulate Rosemary on her pregnancy:

"Naaaaaaaoooooowwwww, that'th what I kawl gud nyooooth!!!"

Minnie enters first, raising her fists triumphantly before moving in for the embrace, all in one smooth glide. It's a very typical reaction that becomes unsettling when put into full context. It's this same familiar approach throughout the film that makes Minnie such an intriguing character.

Let me not solely credit Farrow and Gordon for this, though. Polanski's kept everything grounded in reality. The cinematography isn't distractingly Spooky, the decor and costumes are not overly-stylized to emphasize Good and Evil, the actors aren't playing wizened or sinister. While the score is the only indication of any eerie-ness, it bookends the film with a tender lullaby. Polanski comforts us with the familiar before invading our space with his witches and demons. It makes the horror more palpable, and worse -- more possible. It can happen here!

Because that's what horror is, isn't it? The familiar becoming strange? John Carpenter's The Thing isn't just horrifying for the effects, but for the idea that the people you're surrounded by twenty-four hours a day are not who you think they are. The Elm Street movies are popular because you can no longer escape in your dreams. The original Black Christmas posits that even at home under police surveillance, you are not safe.

And ahead of the pack is the film that made us believe that it's not the weird neighbors we need to worry about. Spooky, kinky, haunting: Rosemary's Baby is a masterpiece. Five out of five black cats.

And ten out of ten Castevet Curls
 Now for the main event: The Casting Coup!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Casting Coup Tuesdays: Dracula

Let's flashback all the way to my childhood -- say, third grade, probably second. I had FINALLY discovered cinema proper, thanks to my local library and the Universal Studios MONSTERS Classic Collection. (Remember those ads? "Classic monster titles...with a haunting new a price...TO DIE FOR!") I put this movie on...and a sense of deja vu came over me. I seemed to have a vague memory of posters at my grandmother's house...a book with parents watching a movie in the middle of the night.... Although I hadn't realized it when I first got the film, the 1931 Dracula was as permanent a part of my life as my surname. Yes, Nana did have reversible posters of the Universal Monsters. And yes, our only copy of the novel was illustrated with photos from the film (including deleted scenes!). I still know that it was Aunt Barbara who bought me the VHS for my 10th birthday. I have memories of being Bela Lugosi for Halloween when I was eight -- not Dracula, but Lugosi. There's even a copy of the shooting script at my house!

Suffice to say, Dracula impacted me in a significant way. It was the first film I really fell in love with, making it pretty much responsible for my film degree, blog, and L.A. residence. I've never read the novel -- I find it difficult to get into those journal entries. Curiously, too, I haven't seen a great many other Dracula films. Not Coppola's, not Hammer's, not Warhol's. It's a curious blind spot, though perhaps I just have trouble picturing anyone but Lugosi in the role.

Still, that doesn't mean I'm unwilling to try. Indeed, Dracula is also the movie I most wanted to remake when I was younger, because admired so much the original. This is a reason I've never had a problem with remakes: I understand that it's not always an attempt to make a better movie, but to be a part of your favorite movie. It doesn't always succeed, but God love whoever tries.

In other words, God love me. Let's give it a whirl:

Who is He: A cockney attendant of the sanatorium. Frequently loses track of both Renfield and common sense.

Originally played by:
Charles Gerrard (Journey's End, A Political Party)

My Choice:
Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz, Attack the Block)

Who is She: A friend of Mina's, she finds herself beguiled by the Count when she meets him at the opera. She later dies mysteriously, only to be seen throughout the city luring away children.

Originally played by:
Frances Dade (The Constant Nymph, Daughter of the Dragon)

My Choice: Academy Award/Golden Globe/SAG Award/Hollmann Award Nominee/BAFTA Award Winner for Best Actress [Drama], SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (An Education)
Carey Mulligan (Never Let Me Go, Drive)
Yes, Mulligan, if only to get her back to that engaging flirtiness she brought to Pride & Prejudice. Besides, you wouldn't expect someone like Mulligan to buy it so early on, would you?

Who is Head: Runs Seward Sanatorium, property that neighbors Carfax Abbey. Becomes concerned when his daughter Mina starts exhibiting the same symptoms as Lucy. Eventually, he calls upon his old friend and colleague Van Helsing.

Originally played by:
Herbert Bunston (The Lady of Scandal, The Richest Girl in the World)

My Choice:
Ciaran Hinds (The Rite, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

Who is He: A real estate agent who visits Transylvania to close the Carfax Abbey deal with Dracula. And then he is turned into a crazed, bug-eating servant of the count. He winds up in Seward Sanatorium, where he tries to warn the others of the evil powers of the vampire.

Originally played by:
Dwight Frye (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein)

My Choice: BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (The Queen), SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (Frost/Nixon)
Michael Sheen (The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Midnight in Paris)
Sheen's amazing versatility fits here, where he can play both straight-laced and utter bonkers.

Who is He: Fiance of Mina. Doesn't believe in all this vampire hokum, just thinks everyone's acting weirder than usual.

Originally played by:
David Manners (The Mummy, The Black Cat)

My Choice:
Ben Whishaw (I'm Not There, Bright Star)

Who is She: Seward's beautiful daughter, engaged to Harker. After Lucy's death, Mina, too, starts to fall under the spell of Dracula. Her nightmares and trances begin to worry her, though, and she soon entrusts herself to the care of Van Helsing.

Originally played by:
Helen Chandler (The Last Flight, Christopher Strong)

My Choice:
Emma Watson (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, My Week with Marilyn)
She's getting better with each film. Like Mina, she has a lovely innocence about her...but surely that snog in the penultimate Harry Potter film shows she possesses an untapped carnality, as well. Perhaps she can go there when Mina's under the spell...

Who is He: Austrian colleague of Seward's who believes in vampires. The hero of the story, Dracula's only real equal in mental strength.

Originally played by:
Edward Van Sloan (Frankenstein, The Mummy)

My Choice: Academy Award Nominee for Best Documentary (Encounters at the End of the World)
Werner Herzog (The Grand, Cave of Forgotten Dreams)

Who is He: The King of the Vampires!

Originally played by:
Bela Lugosi (Son of Frankenstein, Plan 9 from Outer Space)

My Choice:
Alexander Skarsgard (Straw Dogs, Melancholia)
With that foreign accent and those ivory good looks, doesn't he look like an undead count already? Not to pigeonhole him with the whole "True Blood" thing, but there's a reason. There is a reason.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Casting Coup Tuesdays: The Exorcist

I remember seeing The Exorcist in the middle of the afternoon with my family in high school. All I could think about afterward was that face and the line, "Fuck me Jesus." My parents weren't strict, but there were certain films we were not allowed to see at certain ages, so imagine my surprise when such a scene was considered appropriate viewing for my fourteen-year-old self. (Then again, Mom and Dad were always willing to break their own rules if they felt it was a quality film -- thus Ed Wood in elementary school and Rocky Horror in middle school). There was much of the movie I forgot over the years, but those graphic images of Regan masturbating with the cross never left. It was weird. It was scary. It was horrifying. So, of course, it had to be one of the greatest horror flicks of all time.

As it turns out, it's considered more than just one of the greatest horror flicks, but one of the greatest films all around. Winner of two of its ten nominations at the Academy Awards, number two at the box office, considered for placement among AFI's 100 Greatest Films (both the original and the anniversary), and still rated in the Top 250 by IMDb Users, the film's got legs. Almost forty years later, it still has the potential to shock and amaze. How did they do that? one wonders, usually followed by a Oh my God oh my God what's happening aaaaaccccckkkk!!!!

Last year, The Exorcist returned to select screens for a one night engagement. My best friend/roommate and I were only two of the twelve people in the theater. It was even better this time around. I finally appreciated the sound design, the cinematography, the writing, the performances. Jason Miller in particular startled me as Father Damien Karras, the priest-psychologist dealing with the death of his mother, his loss of faith, and a possessed 12-year-old -- it just hurts so much to watch him. Meanwhile, we brought a friend with us who had never seen it before. Needless to say, she was clutching the armrests, covering her eyes, and I think I heard her praying. That's fine: so was I.

The film is lightning in a bottle, often imitated, never duplicated. Yet here we are, doing a Casting Coup for a film that is already pretty perfect. Why?

Because we can!!!

Who is She: Chris's assistant. Keeps the MacNeils' life in order and cares for Regan while Chris is on set. Understandably upset when things take a turn for the demonic, she nevertheless remains.

Originally played by:
Kitty Winn (The Panic in Needle Park, The Exorcist II: The Heretic)

My Choice:
Stella Maeve (Transamerica, The Runaways)
Oddly magnetic presence in The Runaways, with a natural, modest performance that sometimes stole the show away from some the more mannered co-stars. Not on purpose, she just seems so natural and chill. I appreciate comfort like that, especially in assistants and babysitters.

Who is He: A Georgetown priest, he counsels Karras after the death of his mother. He remains good friends with Karras, and quite an entertainer besides: he plays piano at one of Chris's parties, as he's helping out on the set of her film.

Originally played by:
Father William O'Malley (real priest, but he also wrote the song "Twinkle Twinkle Little Me", one of the great Christmas songs; great actor, too)

My Choice:
Bryan Cranston (Little Miss Sunshine, Drive)
Truly would not have thought of this if it hadn't been for my two viewings of Drive, but damn Cranston is impressive. So why such a small role? Because it's an important one, and Cranston is a phenomenal character actor. Also, I don't know any real priests off the top of my head.

Who is He: Chris's director and friend, an eccentric little Englishman who likes to loosen up with a drink. Things take a turn for the weird when, while staying at the MacNeils' to look after Regan, his body is found at the bottom of the steps outside her window. Almost like he was hurled out of her room...

Originally played by:
Jack MacGowran (Cul-de-sac, Age of Consent)

My Choice:
Eddie Izzard (The Cat's Meow, Valkyrie)

Who is He: Aging policeman investigating Burke's death. Understands that there's a connection between a weird girl, a dead director, and a desecrated church. Kindly and wise.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (On the Waterfront, The Brothers Karamazov), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (12 Angry Men, Come Blow Your Horn)
Lee J. Cobb (Exodus, How the West Was Won)

My Choice: Academy Award Winner for Best Actor (Scent of a Woman), BAFTA Award Winner for Best Actor (Dog Day Afternoon/The Godfather: Part II), DGA Award Winner for Best Director - Documentary (Looking for Richard), Golden Globe Winner for Best Actor - Drama (Serpico, Scent of a Woman)
Al Pacino (The Godfather, Cruising)
Pacino still gets to play lawmen, so I figure this might be a good way to retire that. It's an interesting role that would give him a chance to underplay. He's so great at that.

Who is She: Chris's daughter, a nice twelve-year-old girl who becomes possessed by a demon named Pazuzu.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee/Golden Globe Winner for Best Supporting Actress (The Exorcist)
Linda Blair (Hell Night, Repossessed)

My Choice:
Kiernan Shipka (Carriers, "Mad Men")
Well, she's already dealt with some very adult themes on "Mad Men". Just add a cross! Ok, tasteless joke aside, she really does have a natural presence, and she looks like she could have come from my Chris MacNeil. Speaking of...

Who is She: Regan's mother, a divorced actress living in the Georgetown area so she can shoot a new picture. While not a religious woman, Chris has no fucking clue what else to do, especially since the doctors and medicos have no idea what's up with Regan.

Originally played by: Academy Award/BAFTA Award Winner for Best Actress (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), Golden Globe Winner for Best Actress - Musical/Comedy (Same Time, Next Year), Indie Spirit Winner for Best Actress (Requiem for a Dream), SAG Award Nominee for Best Actress (Requiem for a Dream) and Best Ensemble (How to Make an American Quilt), Hollmann Award Nominee for Best Actress (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore)
Ellen Burstyn (Resurrection, Lovely, Still)

My Choice: Academy Award/Golden Globe/Indie Spirit/SAG Award Winner for Best Actress [Drama] (Monster), BAFTA Award Nominee for Best Actress (Monster, North Country), Indie Spirit Winner for Best First Feature (Monster)
Charlize Theron (The Astronaut's Wife, Young Adult)
Never thought of anyone else for this role. Actually thought while watching The Exorcist: "Damn. Charlize would be great in this."

Who is He: Priest, archeologist, exorcist. He's dealt with the demon Pazuzu before, most notably while in Iraq, and so is fully aware of the dangerous power he's facing. Merrin charges forward, even with a mouthful of green vomit. Merrin is so awesome.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Actor (Pelle the Conqueror), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actor - Drama (Hawaii) and Best Supporting Actor (The Exorcist)
Max Von Sydow (Minority Report, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)

My Choice: Academy Award Nominee for Best Actor (The Great White Hope), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actor - Drama and Musical/Comedy (The Great White Hope, Claudine), Indie Spirit Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Matewan), SAG Award Nominee for Best Actor (Cry, the Beloved Country)
James Earl Jones (Star Wars, The Lion King)
I wound up with a copy of the original screenplay, and while reading it, I kept picturing just Max Von Sydow, now old enough to take on the role without makeup. But that would be silly, I thought. Is there another elderly actor who I would believe as a scholar, a savior, an exorcist with a voice that could cast out the Devil? Of course, the answer is yes.

Who is He: The real protagonist of the film. Having just lost his mother, who he feels he neglected, Father Karras begins to doubt his vocation and his faith. How can he be the psychiatrist of the congregation if he himself is plagued with such doubts? Well, he winds up meeting Chris, and assists Father Merrin in the exorcism of Regan MacNeil.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Supporting [?] Actor (The Exorcist)
Jason Miller (The Ninth Configuration, Finding Home)

My Choice: Academy Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Revolutionary Road), Hollmann Award Winner for Best Supporting Actor (The Runaways)
Michael Shannon (Bug, My Son My Son What Have Ye Done?)
Shannon is actually just as magnificent when he dials down the crazy, as in Take Shelter (for the most part, anyway).  Like Charlize, his was an automatic no-brainer. If anyone was to take the reins from the magnificent Mr. Miller, it has to Shannon.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Cry, Little Sister: Shocktoberfest, Week Un

So, what have I been up to with the Shocktoberfestivities? If you follow my Twitter (and really, why wouldn't you?), then you've been seeing my little capsules. Now, that isn't exactly fair for the rest of my readership out there, so let's catch up, shall we?


From that first shot sweeping into the carnival to an eerie carousel theme, I knew I was in for something fun; I knew I would probably fall in love with the credit "and Dianne Wiest" came up.

I don't think I'm alone in believing that horror movies hit a kind of stride during the 70s and 80s. The bad hair, kooky clothes, and love of synth add an extra element of eerie- and otherness, a world where the young heroes are as odd-looking as the punk vampires, a world where watching sweaty men rock the saxophone is what passes for young nightlife. It was a weird decade, is what I'm saying.

Though their women were impeccable
 Schumacher, so often derided for his insistence on going big, is a perfect fit here. When your finale features exploding heads, a stereo inferno, and blood bursting out of all the plumbing, subtle is so not the way to go. And yet! -- he also gets layered, hypnotic performances out of hunky hero Jason Patric, deliciously evil Kiefer Sutherland and ethereal beauty Jami Gertz (the Coreys, in their first film together, are of course tops, along with under-appreciated Jamison Newlander and Queen Dianne herself, but it's really about those other three). Also give him props for that scary/beautiful moment where the vampires are hanging from the train tracks with Patric in the fog...genuinely unsettling.

In the end, I would give it 5/5 black cats.


Our follow-up was not as successful. Hell Night apparently wants to go for the moody and the spooky, with long sequences in which our heroes walk around a candlelit mansion to investigate the bumps in the night. Instead, the pacing and poor lighting make it an exercise in curing insomnia.

I can get behind the set-up -- four pledges are challenged to stay the night in a "haunted" mansion, where a disfigured killer is on the loose. Yes, killer-in-an-abandoned-estate movies are a dime a dozen, but horror has always been more about the execution (and executions!) than the story. For example, last year we screened The Burning, in which a disfigured killer targets summer campers and their counselors. Been there, done that, but the execution -- a large ensemble, creative deaths, mass murder, actual funny humor, and a largely unsympathetic Final Boy -- set it apart from the rest, and it's among only three Shocktoberfest films that I even remember from last year (the others are Suspiria and The Devil Rides Out). Then there's the man-inherits-haunted-house thriller House, with a typical setup but a disturbing, thought-provoking, atypical execution. Screened on a whim our inaugural year, it's become a standard, and we watch it every year with the equally-awesome House II: The Second Story.

Which is all a long way to say that it's not the cliches that bugged me about Hell Night. Actually, Hell Night tries as hard as it can not to fall into cliches, as it develops its two leads, takes a slow pace, and allows its Final Girl to drink alcohol and bang boys. There are even some genuinely spooky moments! But I'm afraid it's all left me cold. When all but two characters are dead and there are still twenty minutes left, that slow pace starts to feel less a creative choice than a necessity to get the film to feature-length. And while it develops its two leads, the rest of the cast is colorless and annoying, underlit bodies waiting to become swathed-in-darkness corpses. I'm as happy to see Linda Blair as the next guy, but couldn't we get her in a better movie?

Still, its heart is in the right place, and the first twenty minutes are fine, so I would have to give it 2/5 black cats.


Elvira answers the age-old question, "How many jokes can you make about one person's bust?" The answer: about 96 minutes' worth. No, that's not fair, there is a plot: Elvira inherits her dead great-aunt's decrepit home and spellbook in a small New England town that has its own Morality Committee; naturally, they don't take to her, nor she to them, but there's bigger fish to fry when dead auntie's evil brother comes looking for that spellbook. The movie never pretends to want to be more than just great fun...and it is! There are some eye-rolling moments, be they in the form of jokes, effects, or that wooden romantic interest, but if you can't embrace camp and kitsch, you probably shouldn't be watching Elvira.

Besides, Edie McClurg plays a character named Chastity Pariah. Give it 3.5/5 black cats.


And if one is going to be pleasantly surprised, Shocktoberfest is the time to do it. What was I epecting from The Craft? Some 90s wackiness? Melodramatics from forgotten stars? Attempts at "cool" moments that played awfully cheesy fifteen years later? Oh, The Craft, you failed to bring me any of this, and instead brought me a legitimately cool, sexy thriller with fully-developed characters, eerie moments, great visual effects...I loved it!

Ok, so the film follows impossibly beautiful new girl Robin Tunney as she arrives in LA and attends a Catholic school. Mind, Tunney isn't just your run-of-the-mill gorgeous heroine; she's got some..."abilities", shall we say?...that make a trio of social outcasts take notice. Neve Campbell has burns all along her back that she covers up in layers of clothing; Fairuza Balk is of easy virtue, from a broke and abusive home; Rachel True is black. Together, they are "the Bitches of Eastwick", and they bring Tunney into their teenage coven to complete the circle. Then things get scary/awesome/eerie/unsettling/BAAAHH, because this isn't a group of girls skimming books on Wicca and wearing black nail polish. These bitches are witches.

Witches who hate sea life, apparently
 Then the movie just sort of follows them as they perform their magic. First it seems all they want is for their lives to get better, or for the bully to feel their pain, and that's cool. That's teenage stuff. Then some dark powers are inevitably released and Fairuza Balk's leader goes straight to Crazy Town (and I'm not talking being someones butterfly, sugar, baby). Evil is embraced, and Tunney must stop it!

And so far all I've done is summarize, but oh my God! this movie is so awesome! I love that the film sometimes leaves the main character so it can develop the other girls in the circle, refusing to settle for ciphers or stereotypes. I love that there are genuinely disturbing things happening, like beached sharks en masse or snake fingers or MURDER. I love Tunney's line readings, with all the confidence of a great actress and all the awkwardness of a real teenager. I love the lack of judgment on this alternative spirituality, that we even get some real education from the mystical Lirio (Assumpta Serna).

Most of all, I love Fairuza Balk's absolutely cray-cray performance as unhappy evil mega-bitch super-witch Nancy. Nancy, you and your movie get 5/5 black cats.


On the one hand, I love Jamie Lee Curtis in this film. Laurie Strode is now living under an assumed name, the headmistress of a private school, with a 17-year-old son played by Josh Hartnett in his film debut. Still haunted by Michael Meyers, her worst nightmares are realized when he comes KILL! Curtis is phenomenal in the role, cementing her status as the Scream Queen. Whether a worried mother, sexy lover, frightened escapee or exhausted avenger, Curtis plays every beat magnificently. The famous scene where she actually looks at Michael from the other side of a door is dynamite -- that is a fear that you feel, deep in your bones.

Like this!
 On the other hand, the movie is much too short. At under 90 minutes, the film hastily dispatches its characters with little regard to pacing or atmosphere. It's especially surprising given the slow burn pre-titles sequence. It's doubly especially surprising given how much time is devoted to developing Laurie and her son, how fixated it becomes on the sexy shenanigans being setup by the four teens at its center. But we barely get to know who any of these people are before they are quickly, albeit awesomely, knifed out of the story. I wish I'd gotten to know everyone so I could at least feel something. I don't need backstories for everyone, but it would have been nice to get to know everyone a little more. Hell, we barely got any time with third-billed Michelle Williams!

Still, it is Jamie Lee's show, and in that respect it's damn respectable. 3.5/5 black cats for you.


Can I just mention the best part of this screening? While watching the end credits of this early 80s-stylized flick, my friend notices the special thanks to eBay. "Wait, eBay was around in the 80s?" he asks. So perfect was the execution, he thought we were watching a genuine shocker from thirty years ago. Writer-director Ti West and his entire production team can take a bow.

Actually, take a bow for the film as a whole. This slow burn is leagues away from the doldrums of Hell Night. Made for under a million dollars, House of the Devil has everything I could ever want from a horror flick. It's all very simple, following a college sophomore desperate for money who takes a mysterious babysitting job out in the middle of nowhere during a total lunar eclipse. Oh, and it's all preceded by a title card explaining the Satanism scare of the 1980s. Methinks this does not bode well. Man, all we see for the majority of the film is the girl in the house, watching TV, ordering pizza, listening to music, hearing mysterious noises, being watched from the window, unable to get anyone on the phone...

House of the Devil had all the potential to be a boring, pretentious mess of a film, and it just refuses to give in to that. We get to spend some time with Samantha before she even accepts the job -- turning in her paper, hanging with her best friend, trying not to "walk in on" her roommate. That is to say, Ti West and leading lady Jocelin Donahue allow us to identify with Samantha as an actual person, sans exposition, before abandoning her in that remote spookhouse. It makes the tension all the greater, because we -- take note, horror filmmakers -- have sympathy for the character!

And speaking of tension, good God! All those windows looking out in pitch blackness is unsettling, constantly gearing you up for some outdoor horror-show or shock! Eliot Rockett's cinematography makes eerie, wonderful use of long shadows and limited lighting.

 We become so petrified of what we think is about to happen that the wide shots are the most claustrophobic! Jeff Grace's score is period-perfect, fitting well into the quietly disturbing milieu. And Tom Noonan's off-kilter kindness as the man who hires Samantha makes your skin crawl. Look no further, friends: when it comes to heart-racing, throat-closing, claustrophobia-inducing tension, The House of the Devil has it in spades.

Which makes the finale all the more disappointing. Stylistically and tonally, it doesn't fit with the rest of the film. Suddenly we're getting quick cuts, a cliched chase sequence, and an ending that is both obvious and illogical. If only that last scene hadn't happened at all! I'd have had the same caveats regarding editing and the chase sequence, but at least we would have gotten a shocking, unforgettable ending. Alas, such is not the case.

SPOILER ALERT The problem, of course, begins as soon as she escaped the Satanic altar. The scene is still slow and eerie, but once she starts fighting for her life, we are left with the typical movie villains who either attack one at a time or ignore their captor. We also see too much of the demon performing the ritual. Such choices after a methodically-executed 90 minutes are bizarre, too say the least. END SPOILERS

I cannot deny the overwhelming love I have for The House of the Devil as a whole, though. It showcases two promising talents -- the filmmaker and his star -- and while the ending is disappointing, it's not completely botched. 4.5/5 black cats to you.