Friday, May 23, 2014

TV Review: 'The Normal Heart'

Matt Bomer, Mark Ruffalo and Jim Parsons. Photo: Jojo Whilden/HBO.
Originally produced off-Broadway in 1985, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart arrived onstage as a howl of anger: against the mysterious disease that struck the gay community without warning; against the blasé government that sat idly by for years as the disease took its toll; and against the medical professionals who refused to treat the sick and dying for fear of becoming ill themselves.

In the intervening years, important films have been made on the subject, with 1991’s Longtime Companion and HBO’s own 2003 adaptation of Angels in America standing out. Nevertheless, a record of this landmark deserves to be made, and Ryan Murphy has done a fine job on the film version (with a screenplay by Kramer) making its broadcast debut this coming Sunday. And the casting of some of today’s hottest stars assures it will actually be seen, hopefully reaching a young adult audience whose knowledge of the history of AIDS and governmental denial might be rather slim — if they’re aware at all.

Star Mark Ruffalo delivers an abrasive portrayal of Ned Weeks, the gay activist (and Kramer avatar) who organized his brethren and railed against the system as the scourge began to take its toll. Taylor Kitsch plays against type as Bruce, a more conservative activist who bristles at Ned’s righteous anger. Jim Parsons brings an appealing warmth to the fatalistic Tommy in the role he also played on Broadway. And the always welcome Alfred Molina provides excellent support as Ned’s aloof attorney brother, whose change of heart about his younger sibling’s “lifestyle” almost comes too late.

Matt Bomer
Julia Roberts is a revelation as Emma Bruckner, the polio-crippled doctor who is just as furious as Ned, aligning with him to force the establishment to recognize the crisis. And Matt Bomer is heartbreaking as Felix, the love of Ned’s life, who succumbs to the disease. Bomer lost 40 pounds during production to depict his character’s final days, and his appearance is shocking.

Murphy’s direction propels the story forward with the same relentless urgency that Ned is feeling. Even at 132 minutes, it never wavers in its determination. And Murphy depicts the ravages of the disease and complacency of the system in blunt, shocking scenes entirely appropriate for conveying Kramer’s rage.

Since the timeline in the film extends only to 1984, it makes for a rather bleak story — no revelations or happy endings here. But Murphy and Kramer have accomplished something more important — memorializing this dark era in American history to make sure that no one will ever forget it.

The Normal Heart premieres Sunday, May 25, at 9 p.m. on HBO.

This article originally appeared on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Gordon Willis: Master Cinematographer

Some of the most memorable films of the 1970s and '80s have a dramatic, distinctive look, giving them an immediacy that resonates for viewers even today. And when you think of that look, you’re probably visualizing the films shot by cinematographer Gordon Willis, who sadly died last Sunday at age 82, marking the end of an era. He worked with some of the top directors of the past five decades, creating visual styles for their films that propelled them to iconic status.

Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971), which won an Academy Award for Jane Fonda, was Willis’ first foray into the low-light moodiness that would characterize his most notable achievements. But on Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), he really let the risky creativity flow. He worked with a high-contrast, yellow color palette, which enhanced the film’s queasy intensity, and he also shrouded star Marlon Brando’s eyes in darkness, a controversial but smart decision that made Don Corleone an inscrutable enigma — and a legendary character.

1974’s Godfather II was the one of the last major American films to have release prints struck in Technicolor’s three-strip IB, or “dye transfer” process, until the end of the century. This process provided the film a lush saturation and gave the sepia flashback scenes a preternatural glow.

Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) was also well-served by the Willis touch. In telling the story of Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) investigating the Watergate scandal, he uses the stark contrast of  the brightly-lit, workaday Post newsroom against the dark, secretive corridors of Washington locales where covers-ups and conspiracies are allowed to grow like mold.

Willis became a frequent collaborator with filmmaker Woody Allen, beginning with 1977’s Academy Award-winning Annie Hall. His work on 1979’s Manhattan remains one of the most spectacular pieces of black and white filmmaking since nitrate lent its silver sheen to the silent classics. The opening montage of the city, with its booming Gershwin score and widescreen shots of the magical skyline, is just spectacular. Equally good are the more intimate scenes of the town’s inhabitants and their dwellings. The monochrome photography of the bars, restaurants and museums provides intimacy and evokes a yearning for the Manhattan of a bygone era, even though it was set in the present-day.

1983’s Zelig starred Allen as a chameleonic character with the ability to adapt to his surroundings. For this newsreel-style mockumentary, Willis utilized different stocks, lenses and antique film cameras to reproduce the looks of various eras, even crinkling and scratching the negatives to achieve the desired effect. It's just as much a study in film history as it is a comedy.

The cinematographer’s final credit was 1997’s The Devil’s Own, directed — fittingly — by Pakula. Willis retired because, as he put it, he got “tired of trying to get actors out of trailers, and standing in the rain.” Unbelievably, he was only nominated twice for an Academy Award and was finally presented an honorary Oscar in 2009.

Today’s digital cinematography, with its impossibly fast lenses and a myriad of effects, can achieve an almost limitless variety of looks, but Willis did it all the master’s way — marrying light and celluloid to create a visual language that permanently transformed the industry.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Universal Horror Classics: Comfort Food for the Senses Part 2


The British horror ban of 1936 not only cost Universal a lucrative market but Uncle Carl Laemmle his job as well. The new owners decided to try to emulate MGM with lush musicals and comedies, but on a shoestring budget — and it showed. Singer Deanna Durbin kept the studio afloat from 1937 to the end of the decade, while the monsters waited in the wings, anxiously drumming their claws.

Theaters began running double features of the original Dracula and Frankenstein in 1938, whetting the appetites of horror hounds and making lots of cash. Universal, always angling to exploit an asset, brought out its A-team — Karloff and Lugosi — to star in Rowland V. Lee's 1939 Son of Frankenstein. Unhappy to be cast again as the monster, Boris was given little more to do than grunt and murder. But Lugosi had the opportunity to portray a really grotesque character and steal the show in the process. His vengeful Ygor, neck and spine twisted as the result of an unsuccessful hanging attempt, resurrects the creature to exact his revenge on the jurors who falsely found him guilty of body-snatching (hence the hanging).

Son is, of course, the film upon which Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein was based. Basil Rathbone plays the titular son, driven by the perverse Ygor to get the monster back into fighting shape, even donating his own brain to give it human intellect.

Universal was considering making the film in color (this was 1939, after all — the year of Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind) but Karloff's makeup was deemed too cartoony.

More sequels followed, but Boris, who suffered permanent, debilitating back pain as a result of the heavy suits the monster was required to wear, declined to don the stitches and bolts. His career in Universal horror was certainly not over, however.

Creighton Chaney, son of Universal's silent superstar Lon Chaney, christened himself Lon Chaney Jr. and started a film career of his own. He spent years in the periphery of Hollywood, playing secondary roles in cowboy movies, serials and studio comedies. His big break came when he played Lennie in Lewis Milestone's 1939 Of Mice and Men, and he arrived at Universal ready to take up the Chaney mantle some ten years after his father's passing.

The studio was delighted to cast the son of "the man of a thousand faces" as The Wolf Man in 1941, and the result was solid gold. This film is also where Universal's uniquely mittel-European vision began. The leads are clad in contemporary 1940s garb while secondary and background players are dressed in various unrelated period costumes.

As the tortured Larry Talbot, Lon gives a nice performance, but Claude Rains, the Invisible Man himself, playing the father who is forced to kill the monster his son has become, is truly the emotional center of the film. Still, another major cult figure emerged here — Maria Ouspenskaya, a Russian actress and teacher who fit into the mix-and-match Universal milieu just perfectly. As Maleva, the gypsy woman who knows about Larry's hairy problem, she wants to help him get comfortable with his condition. And her recitation of "Only a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night..." is legendary.

As Universal's new horror star, Chaney got a film series (Inner Sanctum) and was assigned the unlikely role of Count Alucard in Son of Dracula in 1943. Chaney was too big and lumbering to portray the (literal) lady-killer, so it all was rather comical. However, this was the first film to showcase special effect artist John P. Fulton's nifty bat-to-man transformation, so there was that.

Also in 1943, Frankenstein met the wolf man, which started everyone on the bad habit of referring to the monster as "Frankenstein," which is not correct. Chaney returned as Larry Talbot, and Lugosi, who refused to play the creature in 1931, stepped into Karloff's shoes for this one. It was weird — Lugosi just looked like Lugosi in Frankenstein monster drag!

The studio's new owners must've decided that all the films should have some sort of musical entertainment, for here the villagers gather together for an impromptu musical number, Faro La Faro Li, in celebration of the new wine.

That same year, the studio remade Phantom of the Opera, this time in color and featuring singing stars Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster. Claude Rains played the phantom, but all he did was wander around the opera house while the two leads sang endlessly. What a bore.

Speaking of Phantom, when I worked at the studio, I liked to walk around the backlot during lunch. I never got tired of seeing the town square where all the classic creatures skulked or stepping into the original Phantom stage, which is still intact.

Encouraged by the box office results for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Universal decided that if two monsters were good, three were better, and the "monster rally" was born. 1945's House of Frankenstein brought together the monster (Glenn Strange), the wolf man (Chaney) and Dracula (John Carradine), with Boris Karloff playing the mad scientist for good measure.

In keeping with the bizarre requirement for musical entertainment, Elena Verdugo plays a gypsy girl who does a really hilarious dance number prior to becoming the apple of the wolf man's eye. If contrived, the film was certainly brisk, clocking in at 71 minutes.

Even shorter was the same year's House of Dracula, running 69 minutes. Strange, Chaney and Carradine were all back, none the worse for wear. And, of course, the hunchback nurse with the implant error that I referred to in Part One of this post, is in this one. Surprisingly, there was no musical number. A wasted opportunity — Strange could've sung "If I Only Had a Brain."

Sadly, these two films represented the final high water marks for Universal classic monsters. She-Wolf of London (1946), starring June Lockhart, was a total cheat, a boring murder mystery with no wolves. And actor Rondo Hatton, who suffered from acromegaly, a disease that enlarges and distorts facial features, starred in House of Horrors (also 1946), intended to be the first in a series of films about "the Creeper."

But the second Creeper film, The Brute Man, was sold to mega-low-budget Producers Releasing Company after the death of its star, Universal worrying that it would just be too tasteless. And it was. When I saw the film being myst-ied by Mike and the Bots on Mystery Science Theater 3000, it looked like it could have been made by PRC as well. And poor Bela, whose career was hitting the skids, ended up at PRC for The Devil Bat before wrapping up his career — and his life — with Ed Wood.

The comedy team of Abbott and Costello was making tons of money for the studio, so they began to "meet" the creatures in 1948, including Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, the mummy, the invisible man and "the Killer" (Boris Karloff). A&C Meet Frankenstein is considered a classic of the genre, but those particular comedians are an acquired taste I'm afraid I was never able to acquire.

The 1950s brought with them the cold war, and the studio started turning to mutants and alien invasions. Some of these films are certainly classics, but they ain't the classic monsters. It was left to England's Hammer Films to resurrect the creatures in bloody full color. But that's a story for another dark and stormy night.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Universal Horror Classics: Comfort Food for the Senses


I've got a history of my own with Universal. I wrote and researched for Universal Television for a number of years. I worked in the publicity department, and one of the pleasures of the job was going into the archives and looking through the original 8x10 glossies and press kits of the classic horror films. To hold an original glossy from one of the studio's horror classics was such a thrill.

Implant error
Now that Svengoolie is showing them on Saturday nights, it's rekindling happy memories of my youth, when I stayed up late to see Creature Feature on WSJV-TV in South Bend, Indiana.

Speaking of Svengoolie, when he showed House of Dracula recently, he noticed that the hunchbacked nurse's hunch was rather strange looking, and cracked "Hey, here's a tip. When you get implants, make sure they install them on the correct side." I laughed for hours about that, because I remember even as a kid wondering why her hunch was so pointy.

Super 8mm packaging
It's like seeing old friends after years of separation. Not that we've spent much apart, though — I have Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon (in 3D!), It Came from Outer Space (also in 3D) and Doom of Dracula on super 8mm film.

"What's Doom of Dracula?" you may ask. Well, these films are all "condensations" — seven-to-17-minute excerpts of the features themselves, and Doom is the title of an excerpt which focuses on the Dracula segment in House of Frankenstein.

If you think these films would merely be a jumpy assortment of unrelated clips, you'd be sadly mistaken. Universal 8 (and its predecessor, Castle Films) put together really nice reels that stand on their own as entertainment. Sometimes they just focus on one segment (as in Doom), but others telescope the entire film into a comprehensible short subject, with all the famous scenes included. The quality was usually terrific, with the prints having better contrast than the later releases on videotape!

The Cat and the Canary
Universal actually had not one but two golden ages of horror. The first was in the early-to-mid-1930s, when German filmmakers, fleeing the Nazis, were hired by the studio and  brought along their Expressionist talents.

Even before the onset of sound, Paul Leni, one of the founders of the movement, directed two striking motion pictures: The Cat and the Canary (1927), an "old dark house" prototype; and The Man Who Laughs (1928), more of a period piece with nasty detail than a pure horror. This chiaroscuro look became the house style and made for some really beautiful filmmaking.

Other studios made horror films around this time, but they all seemed to be trying to jump on the Universal bandwagon. Paramount contributed a strong pre-Code Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Fredric March, and its Island of Lost Souls (1932), starring Lugosi, is as close to a Universal film as it can be. Meanwhile, MGM nabbed Universal director Tod Browning for Freaks. With its sordid story and use of real circus "freaks," it was rejected by the studio and doomed to travel the exploitation roadshow circuit until it was rediscovered in the 1960s.

Only Warner Bros., which represented the fast-talking, urban milieu of Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, injected its own house style into its horror output, and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933, Michael Curtiz) uses contemporary New York locales to full advantage. Shot in the primitive two-strip Technicolor process, it is also the first film with a modern setting.

The Mummy
But back to the Big U. Cinematographer Karl Freund, who worked on Lang's Metropolis and Wegener's Der Golem in Germany, helped to make films like Dracula (1931) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) look so impressive. The shot of Lugosi as Dracula descending the staircase with the massive spiderweb behind it is unforgettable, even though the film itself is pretty creaky.

Its lack of a musical score (a snippet of "Swan Lake" is heard over the opening titles and that's it) makes one realize how important a role music plays in genre pictures. George Melford directed a simultaneous Spanish-language version with different actors, a common practice at the time, and it's considered to be more lively and sexy than the Lugosi film.

Freund directed a few movies himself, including The Mummy (1932), which certainly drips with atmosphere but I find boring. Sure, the make-up is good, but you only see it in the first few minutes. After that, it's just Karloff in a fez trying to reunite with his long-lost Egyptian lover (Zita Johann). There is one great scene, though, and of course it's at the beginning. When Egyptologist Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) is interrupted by the mummy coming to life and taking the ancient scroll he'd been translating, he reacts by bursting into hysterical laughter and exclaiming, "He went for a little walk!"

The Black Cat
Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat, from 1934, starred the studio's two top horror stars of the time — Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi — and really pushed the envelope (even though the Hays Code had been in force for four years). It featured devil worship, woman entombed in glass cases and Bela skinning Boris alive. He must have enjoyed that.

The sets are a trip and still feel avant-garde today. It had nothing to do with the Edgar Allen Poe story, of course. It's one of many, many films that have Poe titles but nothing else content-wise.

The epoch-making Frankenstein (1932) and its tongue-in-cheek sequel, 1935's Bride of Frankenstein, established the mittel-European look that would carry through the 1940s with the monster rallies. It's hard to believe that these two films were made by the same director. The first is grim and serious, while its sequel is one of the gayest horror films ever made.

The director, James Whale, was out and proud when such a thing was still considered an aberration. Dr. Pretorius was played by the effete, skinny and bizarre (and flamboyantly homosexual) Ernest Thesiger. Karloff's bride, Elsa Lanchester, was married to another flamboyantly gay actor, Charles Laughton. And it's said that Henry Frankenstein himself, Colin Clive, was closeted and tormented by his sexuality, resulting in his descent into alcoholism and a tragic death at age 37.

Keeping all this in mind while watching Bride makes it even more amusing. As the maid, the hysterical, birdlike Una O'Connor (also in Whale's magnificent The Invisible Man) reluctantly admits Pretorius into the Frankenstein home, she looks him up and down suspiciously and you can just hear her saying, "What's up with this old queen?"

Uhhh...what's going on here?
And when the monster goes to the cabin of the blind hermit (O.P. Heggie), there's an outrageous double entendré that Whale must have intended. Karloff is supine on a bed and Heggie is kneeling next to him, thanking God for sending him a friend. But his head is lowered, and when Karloff gently strokes his shoulder, it looks for all the world like he's being serviced!

Film scholars consider Frankenstein and Pretorius to be a couple, with Henry drawn to the older man in a Greek love sort of way. And who did the Bride's styling? As Arthur Dignam, the actor playing Thesiger said in Bill Condon's wonderful Whale biopic, Gods and Monsters (1998), "I gather we not only did her hair but dressed her. What a couple of queens we are, Colin!" Even the monster's happiest relationship is with the hermit, whom he is willing to set up house with before the trouble starts.

The Werewolf of London
When people think of the werewolf, their minds are automatically transported to Lon Chaney, Jr.'s tormented Larry Talbot in 1941's The Wolf Man, but lycanthropy was explored in an earlier Universal film — 1935's Werewolf of London starring Henry Hull. I actually prefer the latter one. The modern urban setting and Jack Pierce's more subtle (but still effective) make-up was just more interesting to me than the fairytale world of the Chaney version, charming as it may be.

And this is such a civilized werewolf! He puts on his hat, coat and scarf before he goes out for the evening. Unfortunately, the lack of star power (it was originally intended for Karloff and Lugosi) and similarity to the earlier Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde caused it to flop at the box office, but it has quietly generated a cult following over the years. And actress Valerie Hobson played two important brides that year — the werewolf's and Henry Frankenstein's.

Dracula's Daughter
1936 saw the release of Dracula's Daughter starring Gloria Holden and Edward Van Sloan (playing Van Helsing again). It's noted for its lesbian undertones, and Holden certainly conveys sapphic intention, particularly when seducing young Lili (Nan Grey), but it's pretty slow-going. That same year, horror took a hit. Universal was bought by Standard Capital and its founder, Carl Laemmle, was ousted, along with his son. The new owners, dubbing the company "the new Universal" placed far less emphasis on the horror output and it took a back seat for the remainder of the decade.



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