Monday, August 25, 2014

FIVE WAYS HBO'S TRUE BLOOD SHOWED SOME REAL TEETH DURING ITS SEVEN SEASONS ON TV


TRUE BLOOD finished its run on HBO yesterday, August 25, and if its finale was a letdown, well, so was the entire last season. Arguably, the once stellar horror series hadn’t had the same bite the last couple of years. There were too many characters, too much silliness, and not enough scares. Still, it was a show that made horror both a critical and ratings success on television. And it paved the way for THE WALKING DEAD and AMERICAN HORROR STORY to follow. In fact, TRUE BLOOD did five extraordinary things that should be remembered in the series’ final analysis. (They're certainly appreciated by me, the Chicago Horror Movie Examiner http://exm.nr/VOzMlz.)


Vampires were dimensionalized as never before

The vampires shown on TRUE BLOOD weren’t villains. They were multi-dimensional characters. Some were good, some bad. Some old, others were young’uns. These vamps proved that those with fangs could be straight, campy, city slicker or bumpkin. And they had rich, lengthy backstories and depth, which made them seem more human than ever before.

On TRUE BLOOD, vampires were people, not monsters, not too different from you and me. And they were never mere antagonists, even when they were being bad. Both lead male vamps, Bill and Eric for example, were incredibly complicated men. Sometimes selfish, more often generous, and played with nuance by Stephen Moyer and Alexander Skarsgard, respectively. Overall, the show did a marvelous job of turning the too often one-dimensional archetype into something truly multifaceted and fascinating.


The South did rise again…from the dead

Few shows tread south of the Mason Dixon, but TRUE BLOOD did. And it did it wholeheartedly.  Show creator Alan Ball adapted Charlaine Harris’ “Southern Vampire Mysteries” and gave it more southern flavor than a rural church picnic. TRUE BLOOD embraced its Louisiana setting and all of the region’s language, customs and quirkiness. Even its Emmy-nominated credit sequence was chock full of dried possum skins, river baptisms, and juke joint trysting. TRUE BLOOD was always true blue to its red state culture.


The horror truly pushed the envelope of violence

You expect horror to have violence, but TRUE BLOOD let the river run red with blood. Shows like GAME OF THRONES and THE WALKING DEAD couldn’t be as gory as they are now if “True Blood” hadn’t set such a stage for it. Never before had so many deaths occurred on a weekly basis. Necks were cut to ribbons. Bodies blew apart. And everyone got soaked in crimson.  The show was never one for the squeamish, but here, even vampire tears were filled with plasma. Sometimes all that violence was so over-the-top it became hilarious. But more often than not, it was disturbing as hell. Just like good horror should be.


The show had a ton of strong female characters

Few of the edgier dramas on TV, even premium channels like HBO and Showtime, were as dominated by strong female characters. And they weren’t lawyers, doctors or businesswomen who are usually shown wielding such power on TV. Here, the strongest character was Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a hash-house waitress. Vampire Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten) was an equal to Eric, and she quickly became one of the show’s most important players and a fan favorite. And the show had vivid, strong supporting characters in Tara (Rutina Wesley), Arlene (Carrie Preston), and ingénue Jessica (the invaluable Deborah Ann Woll).

Even the key villains during the first three of the seven seasons were women – Michelle Forbes, Anna Camp and Fiona Shaw. In fact, the only real bimbo on the show was a ‘himbo’ – Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten). The show’s only real dumb blond was that hunk, and he was a hilarious riff on all the sex object stereotypes that went before him.


The show was a metaphor for civil rights

Horror films are often metaphors for all kind of social issues. Everything from the threat of communism (THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS in 1956) to the rampant spread of sexually transmitted disease (RABID in 1977) has been portrayed in the genre. And TRUE BLOOD was all that and more. It unabashedly made the case for civil rights at every turn. The governing idea of the show was always the struggle of vampires acclimating into normal human society. The advent of a synthetic blood (‘the Tru Blood’) rendered their need to feast on humans obsolete, but that didn’t put the kibosh on fear, resentment or trepidation on either side. The vampire struggle was a metaphor writ large about fighting discrimination based upon race, sex and sexual orientation. Ultimately, the show was a ringing endorsement of tolerance for every soul from every walk of life. Even the, ahem, undead.

It’s a shame that last night’s final episode opted for such a hasty conclusion to its Yakuza storyline. Bill’s long goodbye with Sookie was too talky and corny. And the big marriage of Jessica and Hoyt felt far too traditional for a show that so often played as a hedonistic fever dream. Sadly, the entire last season felt like one long cast reunion as well, and it’s unfortunate that the show went out with such brazen sentimentality. This show was never better than when it fought all those traditional kinds of story points. It was best when it skewered such clichés.


Nonetheless, TRUE BLOOD was once a revolutionary show, as well as appointment television on a Sunday night. It was a shocking, outrageous and hugely entertaining dramedy during its first five seasons. The show did amazing things for the horror genre, HBO’s roster, and the way we think and talk about sex, race and politics. It wanted to do ‘bad things with you’ as its theme song went. And for the most part, it did. And it felt ridiculously good.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

EVA GREEN: AN ACTRESS TO KILL FOR

Original caricature by Jeff York of Eva Green in SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR. (copyright 2014)
SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR may have come up short at the box office this past weekend with only $6.48 million, but that’s not Eva Green’s fault. Blame the sequel arriving nine long years after the original. Green, on the other hand, got rave reviews for her performance as the title character. Now, she just needs to find a big screen vehicle that matches her incredible talents.

That may be harder than you’d think, as she is quite an actress. In fact, she imbued her femme fatale character with something that I’m not sure Frank Miller put on his original pages about Ava Lord – genuine sympathy. There was something a little sad in her eyes, even though they’re impossibly large and were tinted animalistic green in Robert Rodriguez’ stylish film noir. (Or was it just a visual play on the actress’ name?) It made the inevitable conclusion of her character's story arc a bit unpredictable, which is a credit to Green and her ability to keep us involved beyond the simplistic narrative.

Green’s Ava Lord is a man-eater, most assuredly, but she invested the stares and pauses of her character with a backstory that suggests her bad girl might have become that way because of a bad man. When she tells a detective lies about her old boyfriend Dwight (Josh Brolin) strangling her and knocking her to the ground, it’s not the truth of the moment. But it may have been at some point in this woman’s past, as Green’s trembling voice makes it clear how painful it is for her character to even utter such words.


The 34 year-old British actress is having quite a golden year with starring turns on film (this sequel as well as that of 300) and television (the Showtime series PENNY DREADFUL). American audiences become familiar with her after turns in THE DREAMERS (2003) and CASINO ROYALE (2006). The clip above introduces us to Green's Vesper character and she quickly was hailed as the best Bond girl in three decades. Her first line in the movie? "I'm the money." Damn right about that. And worth every penny. 

And she’s certainly been the best thing in most everything she’s done since. There wasn’t much to recommend Tim Burton’s ill-conceived spoof on DARK SHADOWS in 2012, but Green seemed to be the only one in it who brought even a modicum of fright to the comic frightener. She spins a lot of gold out of so much straw.

And in 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE, as the villainess, she even managed to out-steel the intrepid Lena Headey. In fact, Green has quickly become one of those actresses you cannot take your eyes off of when she’s on screen. Even when she’s acting with huge talents such as Johnny Depp and Michael Sheen, she manages to burn up the place with her smoldering sensuality or her indomitable will.

Her best role to date is in the frightening PENNY DREADFUL that premiered this past winter. That freshman show had its fits and starts during the eight-episode launch, but once Green’s Vanessa Ives channeled a demon at the séance in the second episode, it became her show. She thrashed about, spoke in tongues, and conjured up so much terror that surely afterwards, show creator John Logan realized that no vampire, wolfman or Frankenstein’s monster could possibly hope to be as scary or as compelling as she was. He seemed to start shaping the rest of the season around her.
Vanessa possessed in PENNY DREADFUL.
Green is a fearless actress, as she was in that seance scene, as she is in so many scenes, unafraid to really put it all on the line. She’s utterly daring, challenging the audience to watch her, to understand her even when she is hideous or abominable. For such a beauty, she’s truly a sight to see when her eyes bug out in madness, and her petite frame writhes with abandon.

And in an age when nudity has turned half of Hollywood's actresses into prudes, and the other half into paparazzi playthings, Green has managed to make appearing nude meaningful. It helps of course, that she’s got a gorgeous figure. But more importantly, Green uses her body to tell us about her characters, be it positive or negative.

In the 300 sequel, she uses her sensual maneuvers as another weapon in her arsenal to try to conquer the susceptible war commander played by Sullivan Stapleton. In PENNY DREADFUL, her nakedness demonstrated just how far the devil had gone in his seduction of her. First he inhabited her body, mind and soul; then he turned her into a bruised toy.
Green and Sullivan Stapleton in 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE.
She’s completely unclothed twice in the SIN CITY sequel, and both times it’s intended to take the breath away of both Dwight and the audience at large. First, she waits for him in bed, no sheets demurely covering her up, and the visage promises a tryst with a goddess. And in the last five minutes of her story, she emerges from the pool as naked as a Jaybird and you wonder for a moment or two if her old lover will kill her or take her back. 
Green rises from the pool in SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR.
Despite her feminine wiles, Green rarely acts girlish, purrs or talks soft in any of her roles. She’s always strong, often strident, and speaks with a clipped diction even when demons course through her blood. Green might not yet have the career of Jennifer Lawrence or Amy Adams, but she’s one big film away from being the most formidable and exciting actress in the business. 

Lucky her. Lucky us.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

THE COMPLEXITIES OF ROBIN WILLIAMS

Original caricature of Robin Williams by Jeff York (copyright 2014)

Why have so many been hit so hard by the death of Robin Williams?

It’s been four days since the reports of his suicide, and many of us are still reeling. Social media is obsessing over it. There have been so many articles, tributes, lists and eulogies - it’s become overwhelming. The man clearly made an incredible impact on the world, and paying tribute to him has become manifest this week.

It’s one of the reasons I’ve waited a few days before I wrote about him. I wanted a better perspective, as well as some time to grieve. It really affected me. I was a big fan and I admired both his amazing talent and his generosity of spirit in all that he did.

I wish that more people had waited a while to opine. Those Twitter trolls who went after his daughter are despicable. And I abhor the pseudo-psychological diagnosis’ that so many online and on TV have made of this complex man and his battle with depression. Most of their cavalier take is utter rubbish.

Depression is a disease. And there are no easy explanations for the havoc it raised in Williams’ life. Only those closest to him have any real idea of what Williams was going through. And shame on those who have been so quick to judge about what drove him to suicide.



I’ve heard and read too many ‘dime store psychologists’ offer up trite phrases like “his inner demons” or “he was a clown crying on the inside”. Facebook has been especially egregious in the word vomit. The depression that Williams was fighting turned so horrifying that suicide became the only feasible way out for him. That’s not easily understood despite what Facebook followers or TV pundits would have us believe.

Nor is Williams’ career and talent easily explained either. Many have tried to distinguish what made him so special, but his work is not that easily categorized. It’s incredibly varied, with more nuances and subtlety to it than most are giving him credit for. Suffice it to say, I believe he was the most talented performer of his generation, perhaps the last three. He could do comedy, drama, sing and dance. He was amazing in character and an entrancing character as himself. He was a one of a kind that will not be matched.

As a stand-up comic, Williams was an improvisational wizard of unparalleled conjuring. His ability to make up shtick out of anything in his path was a marvel to behold. He could pick up a scarf from someone in the audience during a taping of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and do five minutes of mind-bending hilarity. He could walk out onto the stage of “The Dick Cavett Show” and pull novels out of the set’s bookcase and do routines off of each random title selected. How do you explain a mind like that? You can’t really. It’s too complex to be indisputably assessed.

Williams winning his Oscar for GOOD WILL HUNTING.
Williams, above all else, was an actor of stunning complexity. He was equally adept at playing drama as he was at comedy. How many actors excel so in both realms? He could wring laughs with stunning power, but he also could extract tears from young and old. Look at how people are talking about his teacher role in DEAD POETS SOCIETY. That role clearly packed an emotional wallop. His riffing genie in ALADDIN or extemporaneous DJ in GOOD MORNING, VIET NAM might have been characters closer to his wheelhouse, but obviously his dramatic turns were just as strong, if not more indelible in certain respects. O Captain, my Captain, indeed.

And Williams was so talented that he could turn his back on parts of his oeuvre that many would have made a living off. His amazing impressions were as good as any Vegas impressionist but he didn’t make a career out of it. Still, it’s astounding to see how he captured the complexities of celebrity in his spoofs of them. Only someone who spent time with Jack Nicholson, up close and very personal, could channel that actor’s self-satisfied tawdriness so vividly. Only someone who understood the buffoonery of machismo could render a George W. Bush as such a grinning and clueless man-child.

When talking of his standout comedic performances, most seem to be listing or writing about his ‘hurricane Robin’ roles. Those are the ones where he blows in and completely dominates the action like he did in MRS. DOUBTFIRE. But I’m surprised more aren’t talking about the complexity of his performance in THE BIRDCAGE. To me, it’s not only his best screen work, but it illustrated the complexity of an actor who didn’t always need to play the aggressor.
Robin Williams (with Dan Futterman) in THE BIRDCAGE. 
Take a look at how subtlety he played the character of Armand Goldman in that film. As the homosexual owner of a gay nightclub, his is a mostly reactive role. He responds to the more overt and larger-than-life characters around him in almost every scene; the type of larger-than-life characters that Williams usually played. But in THE BIRDCAGE, Williams doesn’t have the ‘big role’. Nathan Lane does. Albert, Armand’s male lover who is a famous drag queen, is the star part. It’s the role that wins actors Tony’s. Instead here, Williams plays the ‘straight man’ (Ironic yes, considering.) And that was quite a departure. But Williams was phenomenal in the role.

And in almost every scene in that movie, he is reacting to the chaos around him. Most deliciously, his Armand is horrified at the continuing idiocy of houseboy Agador (Hank Azaria). Agador’s broken English, infantile swagger, and astoundingly awful cooking gave Williams the opportunity to do a slow boil like he’d never done before.

Watch the embedded scene where his Armand tries to prevent the conservative Senator Keely and his wife (Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest) from realizing the dinnerware has a gay theme of playfully illustrated Greeks in flagrante delicto. Armand goes into a suppressed rage as he frenetically attempts to ladle soup into the bowls before the prudes catch on.

Williams may have been pitted against big scene-stealers like Lane and Azaria, but he's the one who really gives the standout performance in the film. He didn’t need to bounce off the walls to be the funniest man in the room this time. And it is a testament to his incredible talent that he did so much with less.

It’s that sort of surprise and variety that made Williams even more special. He couldn’t be easily pegged. His talent allowed him to play as dark as coal and as light as a feather, and everything in between. It’s not Daniel Day-Lewis playing everything from MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON to THE FISHER KING to ONE-HOUR PHOTO. It’s Williams. The Julliard graduate was one of the best actors we’ve ever seen, on TV, film, stage, and in comedy clubs. Williams had more range than any actor working, didn’t he? He could convince us he was a hero (HOOK), a villain (INSOMNIA), a teen (THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP), and even an old man (JACK).

On the theatrical stage he did everything from Shakespeare to Beckett. He played tigers and fools equally well. On a talk show, he allowed the host to take a break and just be an audience member, laughing as hard at his antics and anecdotes as everyone else. And in charitable events, he could be a serious emcee as well as the headliner everyone wanted to see perform.

Williams’ tragic end should beseech us to work harder to understand the complexities of mental illness. And the complexities of his talent should compel us to study him and his work for decades. He was as singular a sensation as there has ever been in the world of entertainment. His joy of performing, in all capacities, touched everyone immeasurably who watched him.


And he left us far, far too soon. There has never been anyone like him before, and we will never see anyone like Robin Williams again. He’s an icon. And that’s why Time magazine put him on their cover this week to honor his passing, just as they did when Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra died. That’s why we’re so distraught. He was truly an original. The very definition of talent, range, and a shining star.


And he burned out too quickly. It’s devastating.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

THE NEXT AFI LIFE ACHIEVEMENT RECIPIENT SHOULD BE COMPOSER JOHN WILLIAMS

The American Film Institute gives out a Life Achievement Award every year as they have since 1973. They’ve honored greats from John Ford that first year to Jane Fonda this past year. And in their 42 years of honoring the greatest legends of cinema, they’ve never given it to one single artist who was “below the line”. That’s right, no one who wasn’t a director, actor or producer has ever been given this prestigious award. That needs to change. This year, the AFI should honor composer John Williams.


The AFI is currently mulling over candidates for this year’s honoree, to be formally announced the first week in October, and no doubt some of the names being bandied about include the likes of Robert Redford, Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, David Lynch, Gene Hackman, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. All are worthy of the award, and hopefully most of that list will be called in coming years, but this year it needs to be Williams.

For starters, he is the only film composer in the history of cinema who is a household name to at least three or four generations. He is a film artist as big as most stars in many respects, and a name that has been known far and wide for over 40 years. Ever since his game-changing scores for JAWS, STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS in the 1970’s, he has been revered by his peers and by everyday movie fans from all corners of the globe. Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann, the Sherman Brothers, Ennio Morricone and Jerry Goldsmith were all great film scorers too, but none of them was ever as famous or as beloved by so many as Williams. He’s the one true rock star of film composers.


In addition, Williams has been a key member of such seminal films as not only the three listed above, but also of all five blockbuster STAR WARS sequels and these ginormous hits - the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK films, JURASSIC PARK, SUPERMAN, E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, the HOME ALONE franchise, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE TOWERING INFERNO, EARTHQUAKE and the HARRY POTTER films. These achievements alone should be enough to warrant him the AFI prize.

Williams not only creates themes that practically every movie fan can hum, he also writes multiple themes for almost every film score he’s penned. STAR WARS not only has the famous main title theme we all know by heart, but also the famous ‘Cantina” piece and the Darth Vader theme. If you think his JAWS score is only that two-note theme accompanying the shark attacks, listen to it again. There are at least three other fully realized themes that add to this rich and nuanced score. 

And then there is SUPERMAN, perhaps his greatest score of all time. Williams not only wrote the triumphant fanfare that is the main title tune, but also its beautiful and touching love theme, the song “Can You Read My Mind”, the "Waltz of the Villains" for Lex Luthor, et al., and the Americana pastiche that accompanied all of Clark Kent’s childhood. It’s an amazing five scores in one!


And despite his expertise as Hollywood’s official blockbuster score king, he’s also done a variety of other types of scores that were just as crucial to the success of their films. His score for SCHINDLER’S LIST is as haunting as any image in that brilliant masterwork by Steven Spielberg. His sneaky, comical jazz score for CATCH ME IF YOU CAN perfectly set the mood for the cat & mouse shenanigans between Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks that followed after the opening credits. And his percussively driven score for JFK has been imitated by dozens of other films and TV shows since its debut in 1992.

He’s been such a colossal figure in scoring films that people forget his impact on the small screen. He played the opening riff as a studio pianist for Henry Mancini’s famous theme for PETER GUNN. He composed the themes for GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, LAND OF THE GIANTS, and LOST IN SPACE. Known as Johnny Williams in those days, he actually wrote two themes for LOST IN SPACE. His first year effort was deemed too dark and aggressive by CBS TV executives. Thus, he was asked to rewrite the show’s theme for its second season. His sophomore effort sounded more adventurous and family friendly, and worked quite well, though to most purists his original is still the best.

Despite Williams’ five Academy Awards, four Golden Globes, 21 Grammy Awards, and countless other honors too numerous to list here, he has yet to place the AFI Life Achievement Star on his mantle piece. And it’s outrageous that he hasn’t been awarded it already. It’s also outrageous that the AFI has not deemed a single screenwriter, editor, cinematographer or costume designer worthy of their Life Achievement Award. A ‘below the line’ artist needs to be recognized at long last.

This sort of oversight is particularly egregious in regards to Williams as so many of those awarded already started their film careers a generation or two after he did. Williams earned his first Oscar for adapting the score of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF in 1970. 2004 recipient Meryl Streep didn’t star in a movie until almost a decade later. 2011 honoree Morgan Freeman didn’t star in a movie until the mid-1980’s. They were worthy of the AFI career honor, but Williams started his run decades earlier.


John Williams is now 82, and remarkably, he is still composing. He’s working on the new STARS WARS movie because well, it wouldn’t be STAR WARS without him. Isn’t that enough to have him take his rightful place in the pantheon of the American Film Institute’s highest honorees? And for all the reasons I’ve listed above, and because of his age, the AFI should know that they aren’t going to have that many more years to single him out. John Williams demands to be the 43rd recipient of their Life Achievement Award.