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Crime, Passion, Ambition, Stupidity: Darkly Twisted Comedies

No Spoilers

Christian Slater & Patricia Arquette, True Romance ©

There are lots of different types of comedies in film these days, from slapstick, to teen-flicks, to culture-clash explorations. Most of those don’t appeal to me very much, and even if I see one of them, I rarely watch it more than once. I prefer the “comedies” that are dark and twisted. These dark comedies usually have very big name stars, terrific writing, and very unusual stories. They’re usually more sophisticated and intellectually complex. Sometimes they win big awards; sometimes they don’t.  But what they virtually always have in common are mistakes, loyalty, crime, passion, ambition, romance, and a healthy dose of stupidity on many of the characters’ parts. (Presented in no particular order: I love them all, and have seen each multiple times.)

Suicide Kings
(1997)

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Avery (Henry Thomas), Max (Sean Patrick Flanery) and two friends (Jay Mohr, Jeremy Sisto) — all spoiled, über-wealthy boys — concoct a desperate & convoluted plan to save Avery’s kidnapped sister. They kidnap former Mafia boss Carlo “Charlie” Bartolucci (Christopher Walken), planning to use the ransom they get for Charlie to pay the $2M ransom being demanded for Avery’s sister.

Christopher Walken, Suicide Kings ©

Though they think they’ve planned for every contingency, their plan bungles grotesquely, even before fellow pal Ira (Johnny Galecki) comes to his father’s vacation house for a “game of poker,” and discovers, instead, his childhood friends and the kidnapped mobster.

Suicide Kings ©

Toss in a healthy dose of Charlie’s “street-smart” psychological manipulation, and the boys soon begin to jump at their own shadows as they suspect that one or more of them was “an inside player” in the kidnapping of Avery’s sister.

Many of the scenes between Ira (Galecki) and Charlie (Walken) in Suicide Kings were ad-libbed, and the film has a surprise twist that will stun you. Available for rent ($3.99) from Amazon, YouTube, and GooglePlay.

Pulp Fiction
(1994)

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A montage of ultimately connected — though seemingly disparate — stories, Pulp Fiction was a critical and box-office success, due in part to the stunning performances of its mega-star cast. Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson) are hit-men whose philosophical discussions involve even their victims.

John Travolta & Samuel L Jackson, Pulp Fiction ©

Their boss, Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) and his wife, Mia (Uma Thurman) get tangled up with the hit-men, as does a struggling boxer Butch (Bruce Willis), mob-crime “cleaner” Winston “The Wolfe” (Harvey Keitel), drug-dealer Lance (Eric Stoltz) and his wife Jody (Rosanna Arquette).

Uma Thurman, Pulp Fiction ©

Now throw in a pair of supremely romantic but amateur armed robbers, “Pumpkin” (Tim Roth) and “Honey Bunny” (Amanda Plummer), at the beginning and the end of the film, and you’re in for a treat.

Director Quentin Tarantino’ s Pulp Fiction is an ingenious and glorious romp on the dark side. Available for rent ($3.99) from Amazon, YouTube, and iTunes.

Lars and the Real Girl
(2007)

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In one of the most bizarre premises for a film ever, the extremely shy & painfully introverted Lars (Ryan Gosling) finds it impossible to make friends, socialize, or even get himself a girlfriend. When he tells his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and hugely-pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer) that he is bringing home a girl he met on the Internet, they are overjoyed.

Paul Schneider, Emily Mortimer, Ryan Gosling, and “Bianca”, Lars and the Real Girl ©

Until they meet Bianca — a life-size plastic sex-doll. On the advice of the town doctor Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), however, his family and the rest of the community agree to go along with Lars’ delusion that Bianca is a real girl, rather than to oppose him, in an attempt to understand why Lars needs a plastic fiancée.

Patricia Clarkson and “Bianca”, Lars and the Real Girl ©

An exploration of an emotionally abandoned young man’s lonely life as well as of the love of his family and community that begins to envelop him, Lars and the Real Girl will bring tears to your eyes — and not just from laughter — especially in the ultimate scene between Lars and Bianca.

Available for rent ($3.99) from Amazon, YouTube, and iTunes.

True Romance
(1993)

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Another entry from Quentin Tarantino, True Romance has big-name stars, a quirky story, and bang-up dialogue. When comic-book nerd and Elvis fanatic Clarence (Christian Slater) meets the “love of his life” — a call-girl of three days — Alabama (Patricia Arquette), and attempts to save her from her pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman), a mistakenly grabbed suitcase leads to a wild plan for a “happily ever after life” for the two lovers.

Christian Slater & Patricia Arquette, True Romance ©

Unfortunately, the suitcase belongs to the mob, and they send very bad men to recover their property. From the brilliantly and hysterically savage (improv) “Sicilian” scene between Clarence’s dad (Dennis Hopper) and mafioso attorney Don Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken), to the violently “affectionate” encounter between Alabama and one of the hit-men (James Gandolfini), to the final Mexican stand-off (one of Tarantino’s signature set-pieces) in the luxury hotel suite, True Romance rocks everyone’s world as each tries to maintain loyalty in the face of treachery and violence.

Available for viewing via Yidio.

Scotland PA
(2001)

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An extremely dark and comedic retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, this story is set in the early ’70s in rural Scotland, PA. Here, fast food “King” Duncan (James Rebhorn) — formerly of Doughnut restaurant fame — employs the McBeths, “Mac” (James LeGros) and Pat (Maura Tierney), who feel under-appreciated and resentful in their dead-end jobs at Duncan’s not-so-successful burger joint.

Maura Tierney, James LeGros, Scotland PA ©

When Duncan reveals his plan for an innovation that will revolutionize the restaurant world — a plan which three stoned “hippie” witches (Andy Dick, Amy Smart, and Timothy Levitch) have previously foretold in cryptic fashion to Mac — and when Duncan reveals as well his intention to leave the restaurant to his son Malcolm (Tom Guiry), the murder plot is hatched.

Christopher Walken, Scotland PA ©

Lieutenant McDuff (Christopher Walken) is on the case as early as Duncan’s funeral, and the McBeths must elude discovery while attaining success with their newly acquired restaurant.

A rare comedic take on one of the most famous tragedies every written, the dark violence and brilliant characterizations in Scotland PA are a tribute to and an innovation on the original source material. Available for viewing via Netflix and Yidio.

In Bruges
(2008)

51l1m++CXvLAfter neophyte hit-man Ray (Colin Farrell) makes a dreadful mistake on his first job, he and partner Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are forced by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes), to head to the medieval city of Bruges, Belgium to hide out until the situation gets straightened out.

Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, In Bruges ©

Ray hates the city and is a whiny “tourist,” but Ken finds it enchanting and fascinating. At least, until Ken discovers why he and Ray have been sent to Bruges in the first place, and what Harry now wants to happen. Both Gleeson and Farrell were nominated for awards for their brilliant performances — simultaneously comic and tragic — but Fiennes also shows his rare ability to be similarly comedic and threatening.

Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges ©

In his play No Exit, Sartre wrote that “Hell is other people,” but to bumbling hit-man Ray, Hell is being In Bruges.

Available for rent ($3.99) from Amazon (free with Starz 7-day trial), YouTube, and iTunes.

Very Bad Things
(1998)

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Before Kyle  (Jon Favreau) marries his beautiful but extremely emotionally needy fiancée (Cameron Diaz), leaving his single life behind forever, Kyle and four of his friends (Jeremy Piven, Christian Slater, Daniel Stern, and Leland Orser) head to Las Vegas for a supreme bachelor party.

Cameron Diaz and Jon Favreau, Very Bad Things ©

There, after drugs, alcohol, and philosophical discussions among long-time friends, things go terribly wrong. Innocent fun quickly deteriorates into accidental violence, and then into intentional, escalating crime to cover the initial accident. This film’s characters become ultimately so very “bad” that you find yourself feeling rather guilty for laughing out loud at their circumstances, which are certainly no laughing matter. Then, just when you think you’ve reached the end of your ability to laugh, Very Bad Things hits you with its very stunning and morally appropriate ending.

Available for rent ($3.99) from Amazon, YouTube, and iTunes.

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My Favorite Film & TV Villains

In the past, villains were bad guys, without any redeeming features, and heroes were good guys, with no bad qualities, except maybe a bad wardrobe or hairdo. Then came the era of anti-heroes: heroes who had some less than stellar qualities or who’d made some seriously bad decisions or life choices that prevented them from being perfect, like Lord Jim in Joseph Conrad’s novel of the same name (played to great effect by the late Peter O’Toole in the film, which is what made me read the novel in the first place, trying to understand Jim’s motivation).

Over the last couple decades, however, the villains have become sort of anti-villains, as books, movies, and television series show the villains as real human beings. No matter how bad, evil, or wicked the best villains are, they have some redeeming or interesting characteristics, whether it’s caring about women and children (limiting their violence to men, for example) or great senses of humor, or simply being absolutely faithful to their own moral codes, even if they’re criminal ones.

Here are my favorite film and television series villains, in no particular order. And it’s understood that, without the specific actors playing them in these roles, these fascinating and charismatic villains would simply not have been the same.

Hannibal Lecter
Silence of the Lambs

Boy, did Sir Anthony Hopkins deserve the Oscar he won for his chilling performance of serial killer Hannibal Lecter in the first film version featuring the character, Silence of the Lambs, from the Thomas Harris novels. Beginning with Lecter’s look — hairstyle and tightly fitted prison garb, which were Anthony Hopkins’ idea — to his voice, his facial expressions, and his threatening demeanor even when standing perfectly still, Hopkins’ Hannibal sent insomniac movie viewers into therapy because, though they were terrified by him, they were also fascinated. Ain’t that what makes a great villain these days? His very first scene, in the underground FBI prison cell, when Hannibal “The Cannibal” meets rookie agent Clarisse Starling (played by Jodi Foster) shows just a hint of how scary and charming Hopkins’ serial killer can be.

Warning: Language

Boyd Crowder
Justified

Walton Goggins, previously known for his role in “The Shield,” plays bad guy Boyd Crowder, the foil to and bane of US Marshal Raylan Givens’ (Timothy Olyphant) life. But the two grew up together, and their shared past, with divergent careers which are mutually exclusive, combined with the actors’ improvised lines in many of their scenes together, make Boyd a criminal whom audiences root for. In fact, Boyd was supposed to be killed at the end of the pilot for the show, but the initial screening audience chastised the studio so much for “killing” Boyd, that the pilot was rewritten. Despite “guest star” criminals each season, none has the fascinating personality or the chemistry with Olyphant’s Raylan Givens that Goggins’ Boyd Crowder has. This sequence shows his initial “Fire in the Hole” activity from the pilot (characters based on an initial story by that name and characters in subsequent stories by the late, great Elmore Leonard, who was an executive producer of the show till his death this year) as well as some other clips (interspersed by music that does not, unfortunately, come from the show, i.e., it’s not as good as the music in Justified). Still, the montage shows you some good examples of Boyd’s violent interactions as well as his humor and intelligence. Though nominated several times for an Emmy for this role, Goggins has never won: I hope they remedy that in 2015’s final season of the series.

Detective Norman Stansfield
The Professional

My first introduction to Gary Oldman’s formidable acting was in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where Oldman played the title character. But when I began to seek out his other films, I found this one, which is one of Oldman’s best. His corrupt Detective Norman Stansfield “directs” Beethoven before confronting a drug-dealer who has stolen from him. Stansfield displays a wicked sense of humor, both in what he says and does. “We said noon” is a great introduction to Oldman’s villainous Stansfield in a gripping film that also stars Natalie Portman, in her film debut, as the abused daughter of the man who stole from Detective Stansfield and whom Stansfield is seeking, and French actor Jean Reno as the professional hitman, Léon, “hired” by Portman’s Mathilda to protect her from Stansfield while teaching her to defend herself from him as well.

Warning: Violence

The Archangel Gabriel
The Prophecy
(Trilogy)

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I think Christopher Walken is one of the greatest actors ever. Comedy, Drama, Films, Theatre, Singing, Dancing, Hero, Villain — the man can do it all, and he does it all with consummate skill and amazing range. One of my favorite roles (and Walken’s, as he’s stated in interviews) is as the villainous yet deadpan-funny Archangel Gabriel in The Prophecy (Trilogy), where, in the Second Angel War, Gabriel is trying to steal the blackest human soul ever — which angel Simon has taken from the corpse and hidden in someone else’s body — to use that evil human soul in Gabriel’s fight to keep humans out of heaven.  Gabriel uses some of the human characters, whom he calls “talking monkeys,”  to  get things he can’t obtain himself or to travel (he can’t drive). He uses humans who were either suicides or criticially ill & dying patients, “reviving them” (or as Walken’s Gabriel describes it to Adam Goldberg’s character in the first film, “letting them die slower”). This montage, showing clips from the first two films in the trilogy, show his menace and his deadpan-humor. His scenes with Adam Goldberg (not included here), Amanda Plummer, and the late Brittany Murphy are among some of the best moments in the films. Walken’s Gabriel combines his fearsome portrayal of villains with his comedic talent, to great effect.

Tony Soprano
The Sopranos

Though marred by some uneven writing in a few of its seasons, the ground-breaking HBO series The Sopranos introduced us to New Jersey mob-boss Tony Soprano, played by the late James Gandolfini. And, boy, did Gandolfini play him to perfection. Totally loyal to his own criminal code, Tony Soprano was nevertheless a lying, philandering (unfaithful to both wife and mistresses), murderous criminal. The very premise of the show — a mob boss entering therapy because he’s having panic attacks — was part of its charm. Tony Soprano’s crush on his therapist, played by Lorraine Bracco, as well as his anger at her refusal to be anything but his psychologist and her insistence that he examine his “feelings” were among the show’s highlights. Gandolfini’s Emmy win(s) as Tony Soprano were well deserved for his consummate acting in this role. This “If you lie” scene, when Tony is attempting to uncover the identity of an FBI informant, show’s Gandolfini’s Soprano as his most fierce and most vulnerable.

Warning: Language

Sheriff Little Bill Daggett
Unforgiven

Sheriff Little Bill doesn’t like guns or violence in his town of Big Whiskey, despite or because of his own past as a gunslinger and killer. Played to Oscar-winning perfection by Gene Hackman, Little Bill is cruel and ruthless, but is building his own house (though he ain’t no carpenter) — Hackman’s idea — and a born storyteller, especially if he’s discrediting an old arch-enemy like English Bob (one of Richard Harris’ best roles) in front of his biographer W. W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek). Repeatedly calling English Bob’s biography, titled The Duke of Death, the “Duck” of Death, and referring to English Bob as “The Duck”  — another of Hackman’s improvizations, which, according to director and co-star Clint Eastwood, caused the entire cast and crew to break out in uncontrollable laughter when Hackman first said it — Hackman’s Little Bill is wickedly funny without ever cracking a smile. At the same time, he’s deadly serious about the fact that he will be the only one doing any killing in his town. After he’s viciously beaten and kicked English Bob for carrying firearms within the town limits, then lying about it, Little Bill dares the biographer Beauchamp to try to shoot the sheriff (but not no deputy), then offers the gun to the imprisoned English Bob. The “First, You Got to Cock It” scene reveals Hackman’s Little Bill at his fiercest, bravest, psychologically cruelest, and most complex, and, ultimately, honest.

Al Swearengen
Deadwood

If you’ve never seen HBO’s Deadwood — with its multi-star cast, superb writing, outstanding storytelling, fascinating characters, and historical accuracy — then you don’t, as they say, know what you’re missing. Ian McShane’s portrayal of Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon/Brothel and one of the “founding fathers” of Deadwood SD while it was still a territory illegally on Native American land, makes him the classic villain for all time. Foul-mouthed, violent, sarcastic, murderous, and otherwise cruel to the point of sadism, McShane’s Swearengen is nevertheless also empathetic,  a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and abandonment, and frequently hurt by those whom he believes he can trust (though he usually reacts in anger to betrayal). Creator David Milch apparently created the role with Ian McShane in mind, and McShane’s performance as the vicious yet vulnerable Al make him one of the most memorable and oft-quoted villains in history. For the 10th anniversary marathon weekend showing of Deadwood, which is also playing serially weeknights on HBO Signature, numerous blogs imitated Al Swearengen’s voice — not that of any other character. No one scene could possibly show you McShane’s range as Al. Ian’s subtle facial expressions, voice intonations, and glances alone demonstrate more ability and talent in this role than some actors display in their entire careers. The fan-made montage “Al Talks the Talk & Walks the Walk” displays just some of Al’s villainy and McShane’s talent (one of the “murders” shown is actually a mercy-killing of a severely afflicted and dying character, which Al had to be persuaded to assist in, since no one else — not even the camp’s doctor — was willing to help end the character’s intense, progressive, and incurable suffering).

Über-Warning: Language
(Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You)

If you’ve missed any of these brilliant actor’s performances as one of these top villains, you can rent them (or, even better, often view them for free, on HBO GO or with Amazon Prime), you’ll want to catch them when you’re in the mood for some fine acting, fantastic characters, and even some occasional dark, villainous humor.

And if your comments aren’t too villainous themselves, you can nominate your own top villains. If I’m not familiar with them, I’ll put them on my “To Be Watched” list.

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7 Wonders of the Horror Movie World

No Spoilers

Okay, so I was gonna go all classical on you by proving that I could name the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, but I couldn’t find any pictures of them because they’ve all been destroyed. Except for the Great Pyramids at Giza. So then I thought I’d do the 7 Wonders of the Modern World, but there are so many disagreements, it’d be like going to a family reunion and listening to great-aunts and uncles argue about what happened to you when you were three: You did not cross the Golden Gate Bridge; you went up the Empire State Building. I wanted to take you to see the Giant Statue of Jesus in Brazil, but your mother wanted you to see the Great Wall of China, while your father — God love him — wanted you to see the Panama Canal. (And, yes, those are some of the items actually considered to be Wonders of the Modern world.) Instead, I decided to do something I found a lot more interesting: the 7 Wonders of the Horror Movie World.

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Hammer Horror Film Stars, L to R: Christopher Lee, John Carradine, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price

I have always loved scary movies, I grew up on all the Hammer Studio classics with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, I loved anything with Vincent Price because it was usually based on something by Edgar Allan Poe, and I didn’t even care about the special effects. Who cared if you could see the shadow of the fishing pole holding the “bat” that was flying around the room, terrorizing the beautifully made-up and costumed tourists (all with really big hair!). I was in a darkened theatre with my siblings and lots of other kids whose parents had dropped them off to get them out of the house for a while, being scared out of our wits, and I loved it.

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Of course, I laugh at most of those movies now, though I appreciate what they were doing at the time. Now my horror movies have to have something different to scare me, something that could really happen, or some new twist on the paranormal. And I have to want to watch it over and over, even though I already know the story. That’s one of the reasons I love October so much: watching all the horror movies while waiting for Halloween. But I’ll watch a good horror movie any day.

And by “good,” I don’t mean a bunch of stupid teens in some isolated area screaming while running in high heels (girls) or bare feet (boys) while a killer with a dangerous implement (fill in the blank) chases them down till he finally catches them and hacks them into pieces.

Here then, from #7 to #1, are my picks for the Top 7 Wonders of the Horror Movie World.

#7
Psycho

And I’m talking Hitchcock’s original here, which was ground-breaking even if it was only because he killed off his leading lady, who  happened to be a big Hollywood star, less than halfway through the film. Then again, maybe it was that atmospheric music, if you could call it “music.” It didn’t have anything to do with the fact that my little sister and I watched it on the sofa-couch when we were 6 & 7, respectively, while “babysitting” our baby brother.

Yeah, we were scared. Long before we ever found out about Norman Bates’ mother, too. I still find it fantastically creepy. And that Shower Scene. Janet Leigh claims she could never take a shower afterward and feel quite safe enough. I hear you, Janet.

For my in-depth #NoSpoilers review, with links to viewing, see Slasher-Horror as Art Film: Psycho, the Classic

#6
The Shining

To tell you the truth, I don’t even know what “the shining” in the movie (or the novel of the same name) is. And I know fans complain that the Kubrick version is nothing like the Stephen King novel on which it was based. But there’s something terrifying about the entire concept: being stuck, without rescue, in an isolated place, with a husband who’s slowly and obviously going violently insane. Now that’s horror for me, if only because it could really happen.

And I love Jack Nicholson, even before he gets to the iconic — and ad-libbed — “Here’s Johnny” scene. The typewriter tantrum is just a taste of the scary to come.

#5
Sleepy Hollow

Tim Burton makes some weird movies, I admit, but he also makes some fine ones. This is one of my favorites. It has big stars — Michael Gambon, Miranda Richardson, Christina Ricci, Johnny Depp, and Christopher Walken. It has atmosphere. It has good special effects, especially since Burton doesn’t overdo it on the gadgetry stuff he likes. Depp’s performance as the fainting-under-stress detective Ichabod Crane investigating the murders in upstate New York is a funny but seriously interesting take on the original Washington Irving story. But Walken as the Headless Horseman can not be beat. Even when he has no head.

In interviews, Walken claimed the director instructed propmen to hold lights under his chin, shining them upward, to “make him look scarier.” Walken told him, “Get those d***d lights out of my face. I can make myself look scary without any help from them.” And he proved true to his word. He’s at some of his scariest in the Death of the Hessian scene.

#4
Orphan

We found this film totally by accident one night, and within a few minutes we were hooked. I could only find the trailer since the film is only a few years old, but I doubt I could show you any scenes that wouldn’t give away the frightening premise and revelation at the finale. You know the main idea: parents longing for another child and also to do good in the world — no, not Angelina and Brad — adopt an older, unwanted orphan from another country — in this case, Russia — and bring her home to the good life in America. Where, of course, things start to go wrong. But not in any way you’d ever guess.

Though the earnings at the box-office were mixed, Orphan was a prize-winner in several Independent Film Festivals, and Isabelle Fuhrman as the orphan Esther was universally acclaimed.

For my in-depth #NoSpoilers review and links to viewing, see When Children Scare You to Death: Orphan, the Film

#3
Let Me In

A great twist on the age-old vampire story, a prize-winning entry in Independent Film Festivals, based on the Swedish version of the film and directed by the same person. I can’t even tell you anything about it without doing the Spoiler Alert thing. Suffice it to say that it starts out with two lonely and outcast kids who begin a tentative friendship while scary, gruesome murders are being committed in their neighborhood.

Some viewers like the Swedish version — Let the Right One In — better, some the American. I don’t usually like to read my films, so I’m guessing I’d prefer this one. The performances by the child-actors are great, and the ending of Let Me In is completely unexpected.

For my in-depth #NoSpoilers review and links to viewing, see Coming-of-Age with a Vampire, Let Me In, the Film

#2
The Others

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Okay, so the lit-tra-chure purists complain that this isn’t really like Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, on which it’s based, where two young children in a governess’ care claim to see ghosts. Or the governess claims that the children told her they see ghosts and that she has to protect her wards from the supernatural beings, depending on your interpretation of the governess’ reliability. Some film buffs prefer the 1956 Deborah Kerr version of The Innocents, if only because they say it’s closer to the James’ book. For my money, give me Nicole Kidman and the stunning child actors in this version. You have to watch it a second time to see all the clues you missed the first time. And you’ll probably be willing to do it right away, it’s that good.

Set in a brooding old estate right after World War II, where wife (Nicole) and children are patiently and worriedly waiting for Daddy to come home from the War, while being looked after by a trio of servants who “come with the place.” The Others is so close to #1, I had to flip a coin (not really… well, okay, only a couple times).

For my in-depth #NoSpoilers review and links to viewing, see The World of the Living and The World of the Dead: The Others, the Film

#1
Bram Stoker’s Dracula

There is no doubt that this is one of the greatest film versions of the classic vampire story. Surrounded by a short set-story explaining Dracula’s and Mina’s psychic and emotional “connection”, the rest of the film is pretty loyal to the novel, even showing the characters writing their letters, receiving telegrams, and typing their diaries/journals, which is how the book is presented. Great performances by all, including Sir Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Cary Elwes, etc.

But no one, and I most emphatically repeat, no one can out-do Gary Oldman’s spooky, eerie, sexy (yes!), scary, totally believable turn as Count Dracula, or as he’s known to Mina, Prince Vlad. And I ain’t talking about the special effects here because director Francis Ford Coppola went old-school and refused to use computer graphics anywhere in the film (and added the author’s name to the title of the film so it wouldn’t be confused with any other Hollywood version).

I’m not talking the brilliant costumes, hairdressing, wigs, and makeup on Oldman either. I’m not talking about his accents — he claims to have used a different accent or dialect for every film he’s made, and that none has ever been his own natural dialect — which change, consistently, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula whenever he needs them to. He even learned an old dialect of Transylvanian for the set-story which begins the film and appears before the credits.

I’m talking about Gary Oldman, in what should have been an Oscar-winning performance. He rocks as Dracula (sorry, Christoper Lee: you know I loved you when I was a kid.) Oldman is so good, that I’ll even watch this one with commercials, though of course, they leave some of the coolest stuff out.

The best horror movie of all time, and included high (usually in the top 10) in the lists of most “Best Horror Movie” compilations: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Somebody who knows me already asked why I didn’t include The Prophecy (1, 2, and 3), with Christopher Walken as a kick-ass Archangel Gabriel come down to steal someone’s soul to help with the War in Heaven. I love that movie. Seen it dozens of times. But there’s so much humor, especially with the scenes including Amanda Plummer, Adam Goldberg, and Walken, that I don’t even know if it, technically, classifies as horror. So, I left it out.

What say you, my Lovelies? Any of your favorite horror films that should have made it on this list? Let me know, in spooky comments.

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How We Know the Dancer from the Dance

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

William Butler Yeats
“Among School Children”

Martha Graham by Max Waldman 1976 ©

Those two beautiful lines at the start of this post conclude William Butler Yeats’ intense recollection of his own childhood and life as he walks “Among School Children,” and when I first read the poem in school and asked, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” the less than illustrious professor said, almost snarling at my apparent stupidity, “We can’t. Why do you think he wrote that?”

I wondered at the professor’s lack of insight, thinking that, once again, I would be left to my own devices to discover why the poet had written that line as a question, not as a statement.

Since I was used to having my interpretations of literature mocked by classmates and teachers alike, or to having the teachers simply stare at me in bewildered dismay when I asked questions or gave my thoughts on the art, I wasn’t too upset by the professor’s attitude.

Disappointed, but not too surprised or upset. I’d thought college was to be a great place of learning and independent thinking: instead, it seemed to be very much like high school, which bored me unimaginably.

Mikhail Baryshnikov by Max Waldman 1976 ©

So, away I went, ceaselessly pondering how one does, indeed, know the dancer from the dance. It didn’t take me too long to figure it out. Being a great lover of the ballet, and fan of both Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, I already had two dancers and their dances to consider. The answer soon came to me: We know the dancer from the dance only when both dancers perform the same dance: then we can determine the dancer’s skill, interpretation, and talent from the steps of the dance itself.

Rudolph Nureyev by Richard Avedon 1962 ©

Then something else struck me. Every day, virtually all of us compare dancers and their dance. Not Nureyev and Baryshnikov necessarily, but the “dancers” that we see in our everyday lives.

When the starting quarterback is injured and the backup quarterback comes in to finish the game, his playing skills are immediately and punishingly compared to the “original”: sometimes the backup quarterback dances the dance so well, he achieves his own fame. Usually, there’s a reason he’s the backup quarterback, and even if he performs well for a few games, his dance usually falters eventually.

The same thing happened in the 2012 NFL football season with the professional referees, who were on strike and were replaced by amateurs. Everyone, from the players to the fans to the announcers, bemoaned the dreadful incompetence of the substitute referees. They were simply unable to dance the complex professional dance, and all cheered the return of the real dancers.

Natalia Makarova, by Max Waldman 1976 ©

Each time a remake of a film is made, we analyze how the latest actor did the role when placed beside those who came before him. How many times has Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice been made, and how many times has each actor’s performance been analyzed in terms of previous ones?

In addition to her dance as Lizzie in Pride & Prejudice, Keira Knightley danced in the remake of Anna Karenina (at least 18 film versions have been made, starring everyone from Greta Garbo to Vivien Leigh, and seven television adaptations), and many viewers compare each new Anna Karenina’s dance to those that came before, as this montage shows.

Meryl Streep, originally trained as an operatic singer, out-danced the original singers in ABBA when she performed “The Winner Takes it All” (in one take) for Mama Mia, stunning the writers of the song with her dance.

Each actor who dances the role of Batman is compared to all those before him; Heath Ledger’s dance of Joker from the Batman franchise is considered the epitome of that particular dance.

Each performer who dances the role of James Bond is compared to Sean Connery’s signature dance. Dickens’ Christmas Carol has been danced countless times, on stage, for television, and for film, and each dancer’s dance is unique. For Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula, Gary Oldman wins my vote for his dance of this role, and not for the special effects. For Herman Melville’s famous Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick, Gregory Peck, though a fine dancer, was simply too young when he danced that role, so Patrick Stewart’s interpretation of that dance is incomparably better.

Each history/biography of Custer and his Battle at the Little BigHorn is analyzed not so much for its own value as for how well the dancer interprets this dance compared to all the Custer histories and biographies that are already available. The same is true for those who dance the histories of Marie Antoinette, Julius Caesar, Spartacus, Napoleon, King Henry VIII or any of his six wives.

In short, in all sorts of “theaters,” we compare the dancers and the dance in order to determine who performs a particular dance best.

Mikhail Baryshnikov

Surprisingly, almost 40 years after that first professor said, “you can’t tell the dancer from the dance,” a song brought me around to this speculation again: Goyte’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” one of the best “break-up” songs ever written.

Originally written and performed by Goyte, a Belgian-Australian musician/singer/songwriter named Wouter De Backer (Goyte, pronounced “Go-tee-ay,” is derived from the French “Gauthier,” the French equivalent of “Walter” or “Wouter”). Goyte’s song “Somebody That I Used to Know,” featuring Kimbra, has not only been awarded “Single of the Year” (ARIA Awards 2011) but has been danced, seriously and in parody, by many others.

I first became aware of Goyte’s song from Walk off the Earth’s cover of “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Their dance, revolving around all five of them playing the same instrument at the same time while singing the song, has received almost 140 million hits and won them an appearance (performance) on “Ellen.”

(The female singer of Walk off the Earth said it took them 26 takes to get this dance right for the Tube’s video, since any time any one of them made a faux pas, they had to start over from the beginning: they performed it live on “Ellen” flawlessly.)

Then came The Waffle Stompers’  dance of Walk off the Earth’s cover dance of Goyte’s original dance, this time involving a ukelele and a guy doing the girl’s part. Yes, a dance of a dance of a dance. Convoluted, amusing, or fascinating? You decide.

Other amateur dancers quickly arose, filling the Tube with their dances of “Somebody That I used to Know.” Some are mildly entertaining, some rather dull, some simply uninspired, some quite clever. Matthias Harris does it a capella. Even old-fashioned computers joined this dance (I first saw this version on Guy Bergstrom’s Red Pen of Doom). Incredible talent went into this version of the dance but, while it left me intellectually impressed, it didn’t move me emotionally.

Red Pen of Doom also introduced me to the Star Wars parody of the song, which is a bit different because the dancer does the same steps as Goyte in his original video, and merely changes the words which accompany the dance. Though entertaining if you’re a Star Wars or George Lucas fan, and can get all the allusions, I found the dance itself is uninspiring.

But between the time I first posted this blog (2012) and when I updated it (2017), a Minions version of Goyte’s song had appeared.

Of course, one parody leads to another, as one cover does to another, as each dancer tries to out-dance the original dancer, Goyte. So, we not only compare each dancer who does the same dance in order to “know the dancer from the dance”, but many of us try the dance ourselves.

I know which version of Goyte’s dance I prefer, and which dancer I believe dances “Somebody that I used to Know” best. But SadieDoggie and our Gang of Seven Rescue Cats wouldn’t let me finish this blog until I included their favorite version of the dance: (Dogtye, featuring Katra).

What say you, my Lovelies? Any dances that you prefer be performed by a particular dancer? Let me know in comments.

updated Aug 2017

 

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