Wednesday, April 25, 2012

IF "THE RAVEN" HAS YOU CROWING FOR MORE POE, LOOK NO FURTHER

THE RAVEN, starring Chicago’s very own John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe, opens this weekend, and I'm hoping for the best. And if you too are looking forward to seeing Poe on the big screen, might I refer you to some previous fare that may whet your appetite, or perhaps satiate your desire for the cold and vengeful dishes of Poe’s prose?
Original caricature by Jeff York of Vincent Price in "The Masque of the Red Death"
HOUSE OF USHER (1960)
During the 60’s, Roger Corman brought a number of works by Poe to the big screen, with mixed results. Some were sublime, and some were utterly ridiculous. Corman started off the decade with a faithful adaptation of the disturbing tale of the twisted bond between the wealthy Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline. Roderick is a hypochondriac, expecting to be engulfed by disease, and Vincent Prince plays him with a jittery mix of sensitivity and ruthlessness. The story takes place in a doomed mansion, a brilliant metaphor for the equally crumbling interior of his main characters, and the art direction is quite something here. It helps make this moody character study truly disturbing putting the Gothic in gothic horror with every velvet curtain and sinister hallway.

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961)
With the success of ‘Usher’, Corman next brought Poe’s most horrifying tale to the screen, although it never came close to matching the author’s original potent prose. The story of a prisoner fighting the Spanish Inquisition in a torture chamber never seems more than utter cheese as John Kerr’s tepid performance doesn’t help matters at all. A dragging pace and some fleeting hamminess by returning star Price do not help either. The Pendulum does have its scary moments however, mostly due to the fact that Corman took out every other frame of it in post to add to its appearance of being swift and brutal. Unfortunately the rest of this mish-mash doesn’t cut nearly close enough to the bone.

THE RAVEN (1963)
An utter embarrassment. Price returns yet again, this time to compete in the contest for most-over-the-top performance against tired and bloated veteran performers Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre. Corman reduced these three great horror legends to Virginia hams, allowing them to vamp their way through this shameful adaptation of Poe’s most famous and haunting poem. Price always said he regretted this one, as well he should have.

THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964)
For my money, this is Corman’s greatest work, and easily the best Poe adaptation filmed for the big screen. Yet again Price returns, but this time he gives a marvelous performance as Prince Prospero, the vain European prince hedonistically ruling over the land with an insatiable appetite for wine, women and song. Price cameos as the Masque himself towards the end of the film, and is shown in my original caricature that accompanies this article. THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH here is a timeless dissertation on the ruling class and their oppression of the masses, an indictment of the 1% almost fifty years before the occupy movement took hold of our economically ravaged world.

THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964)
This one is barely remembered and that’s an utter shame as Corman’s last Poe tribute is a gnawing piece of psychological horror. Once again, Corman favorite Price is the lead, this time taking the role of Verden Fell, a newly married man who just can’t let go of the memories of his dead first wife Ligeia. He becomes obsessed with her visage, insisting that somehow she’s still alive. It drives Fell and everyone around him mad, leading to madness, seclusion and a grotesque exhumation. Any similarity to Poe’s real life, what with his stultifying inability to get past his wife’s death, was purely intentional by the author, and faithfully rendered here.

In fact, it’s that promise of capturing Poe’s obsessions that has me excited to see THE RAVEN this weekend. Sure, it’s about Poe helping a detective trap a killer aping Poe’s death scenes, but what I really hope it’s about is Poe himself, and all his peccadilloes that informed his work and most of Corman’s fitting tributes. We shall see.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

IF THE MAYANS ARE RIGHT...


…and the world is going to end in 2012, then let’s hope this last year of movies will bring the following…

I hope THE AVENGERS will be another IRON MAN or THOR and not another GREEN LANTERN. (My eyes still haven’t gotten over Peter Sarsgaard’s gigantic head or Ryan Reynold’s painted on suit. What was that? A spread from the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue?)

And I hope that THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN is more Nolan than Schumacher.

I hope SKYFALL is another GOLDFINGER or CASINO ROYALE and not another DIE ANOTHER DAY or A VIEW TO A KILL. (And can we please have another good James Bond theme before our planet says goodbye? Anything to wash the taste of A-Ha’s version of “The Living Daylights” out of my mouth!)

And speaking of the 23rd James Bond movie, I hope that Javier Bardem’s villain is as memorable as Blofeld or Goldfinger. (Or his titular villain Anton Chigurh in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.)

I hope that SNOW WHITE & THE HUNTSMAN is better than MIRROR, MIRROR. (And that Kristen Stewart acts more alive in it than she did in the TWILIGHT series. Even before Bella was bitten and officially dead!)

I hope that Julia Roberts will continue to be funny on screen. She was quite good as the villain in MIRROR, MIRROR even if the material wasn’t so stellar.
I hope that Jean Dujardin will appear onscreen as something other than an oily Euro-trash villain. (I hope his French comedy LES INFIDELES opens here too. Love that poster.)

I hope that now that J-Lo is everywhere, from IDOL to Venus shaver ads, that she’ll consider making tough, smart movies like OUT OF SIGHT again. (She could have been another Barbara Stanwyck or Ava Gardner, but somewhere along the way she wanted to be another Paula Abdul. Go figure.)

I hope that the aliens in Hasbro’s BATTLESHIP will be different from the aliens in the Hasbro-produced TRANSFORMERS. (Or a hundred other alien movies out there, for that matter.)

I hope that Hollywood stops remaking, rebooting, re-imagining and re-jiggering previously done movies and TV shows. Some more originality, please?

I hope that Woody Allen’s new movie TO ROME WITH LOVE is as good as MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. (And that it makes me want to visit that city as much as the City of Lights.)
 I hope that Jennifer Hudson finds some good roles.

I hope that Octavia Spencer does too.

I hope that they all don’t go to Tyler Perry.

I hope that THE RAVEN is a fitting tribute to Edgar Allan Poe and not an embarrassing one like some of the Roger Corman clunkers from the 60’s. (THE PIT & THE PENDULUM, anyone?)

I hope that MEN IN BLACK 3 doesn’t exist solely for the reason that someone in Hollywood thought Josh Brolin kind of looked like a young Tommy Lee Jones.

I hope PROMETHEUS is another ALIEN and not another LEVIATHAN.

I hope that Disney continues to find lots of money for Pixar.

I hope that the first Pixar female lead is a smash in BRAVE.

I hope that crazy, red hair makes a comeback because of BRAVE. (Enough with everyone being blonde, from Julia Roberts to Rhianna. No more peroxide. Puhhhleaze.)

I hope that Whitney Houston's final movie SPARKLE returns some of the luster to her memory.

I hope that movie comedies can be as funny as TV comedies are these days. (Hard to compete with MODERN FAMILY, 30 ROCK, THE MIDDLE, SOUTH PARK, ARCHER and even the new DON'T TRUST THE B IN APT. 23. They're truly hilarious.)

I hope that Hollywood finds some money for Mike Mills to make more movies. (I loved his BEGINNERS. Quite frankly, Hollywood needs to make 20 of those a year. And not 20 superhero flicks.)

I hope Hollywood finds some great projects for Kimberly Pierce, Curtis Hanson, Stephen Daldry and Morgan Spurlock too.


Speaking of Spurlock, I hope you get a chance to see his fun and touching documentary about fan boys and comic fans called  COMIC CON EPISODE IV: A FAN'S HOPE. 

And finally, if the Mayans are truly correct, then I hope that the world stops before I have to sit through that last TWILIGHT movie. (I would take earthquakes, exploding volcanoes, even another Pauly Shore movie, before having to subject myself to sit through one more Team Edward outing. Talk about life killing.)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

TOO MANY LIVES FOR CATWOMAN?

It’s funny. I really, really, really wanted to write something positive about Hollywood this week. I’d written a number of exceptionally critical pieces in the last months and was looking for a positive theme. I was actually going to write about ‘What’s great in Hollywood’ despite a tepid year so far at the Cineplex. There are a number of things worthy of praise in Tinseltown these days. Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts are doing the movie version of OSAGE COUNTY. Jean Dujardin won the Oscar and may very well be the next Marcello Mastroianni. And Jennifer Westfeldt’s FRIENDS WITH KIDS is a four-star movie with an Oscar nomination worthy male lead performance by Adam Scott.
But then I saw the cover of this week’s Entertainment Weekly and my heart sank. And once again, I felt compelled to be exceptionally critical of Hollywood another week.

As I studied the cover I was overtaken with a feeling of déjà vu. Hadn’t I seen this picture, this story, and this movie already? It’s not that it’s just the third outing with Christian Bale as Batman but it is yet another version with Catwoman. Yawn.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am a Catwoman fan and have always been a big Batman fan. And there is part of me that hopes that Anne Hathaway’s take on the role is as good as Heath Ledger’s game-changing Joker was in THE DARK KNIGHT in 2008. But we’ve had Catwoman prowling the big screen four times now, first with Lee Meriwether in BATMAN (1966), Michelle Pfeiffer in BATMAN RETURNS (1992), Halle Berry in CATWOMAN (2004) and now the Hathaway version in the upcoming THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. And the character continues to be a big presence in all of the animated versions that Warner Bros. does of Batman. But still even they’ve done at least four different iterations of the character there in the last 20 years too. How much Catwoman does a fan boy need? Honestly?

Now, Catwoman is a great character, true. And she has been done superbly.  Julie Newmar created a seminal take on the character in the ABC TV series in the Sixties. And the first animated series did a complex and sympathetic version (voiced by Adrienne Barbeau) in the early 90’s. But that terrific turn by Pfeiffer seems to have put Catwoman in a leather & vinyl straightjacket. Her version portrayed Selina Kyle (Catwoman’s true identity) as an embittered woman who became a vigilante donning leather that could out-macho the Caped Crusader. And she’s been portrayed virtually the same way since, even in the animated TV iterations. It’s all a little too redundant for my tastes. This version of the cat doesn’t have just nine lives, it feels more like 17! 


And the pictures coming out from the new movie give me even more flashbacks. Take a look at this still from writer/director Christopher Nolan’s new movie and tell me that it doesn't seem awfully close to so much of the Pfeiffer version. Homage or redundancy? You know my vote.
Anne Hathaway & Christian Bale echo Michelle Pfeiffer & Michael Keaton, no?
The real issue is why do they keep doing Catwoman over and over and over again? Especially when there are other great female characters from the Batman oeuvre yet to be tapped. Talia, the daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul, is a strong and complicated female character from the Batman comics who has yet to show up in any live action version of the story. She’s not only the conflicted daughter of the immortal crime lord, but she’s in love with Batman, and at various times in the Batman comics he’s been very much in love with her. He even fathered her child in one series. Now there’s a new twist for the Batman tale on the big screen.
Talia, the daughter of Ra's Al Ghul, as portrayed in the DC comics


Another standout female character yet to be given any time on the big screen is fan favorite Harley Quinn, the wisecracking moll of Joker. I'd love to see a Kristen Bell or Kristen Chenoweth rip into that over-the-top villainess.  Granted, it may be quite some time before Harley gets her due. Not only has the Joker had many iterations on the big screen but Heath Ledger is no longer with us to reprise his Oscar-winning role. What a shame.
Harley Quinn, a villain character created for the animated series in the early 90's.

There are other female foils and villains that Warner Bros. could easily bring to life as well. Why not the likes of Madame Zodiac, Sister Crystal, or best of all, Zatanna the magician? She’s an expert at illusions and mind control. Now, wouldn’t that be fresher than yet another version of the kitten with a whip?
Zatanna the magician as portrayed in the comic books
Nolan has done wondrous things with the series. His serious grounding of the property reinvented the franchise on film after the misguided Joel Schumacher almost ruined the whole show with his god-awful takes BATMAN FOREVER (1995) and BATMAN & ROBIN (1997). Nolan added a much-needed gravitas to the franchise that gave it real heft. I just wish he hadn’t brought back Catwoman yet again. 


Perhaps I will be proven wrong and soon shall be singing the praises of Nolan and Miss Hathaway. But right now, it just feels all too damn familiar. And in a movie season that will bring more and more regurgitation of the overly familiar, from Spider-man to the Stooges, it would have been nice to see a fresh female villain battling with Batman. Maybe when the franchise is rebooted yet again (Nolan says he's done but we'll see...) we'll get the chance to see the series stretch a bit more. If you're a fan boy of Batman like me, that would be most welcome. In fact, it would be purrfect.