Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Review "Curse of Chalion"

I am very much a fan of Lois McMaster Bujold, who is probably most famous for her Vorkosigan Saga -- which as become a kind of "Lord Peter Whimsy" in outer space (if Lord Peter were a deformed son of a Great Man in a militaristic culture). But a few years ago, she stopped writing about Miles Vorkosigan. As I understand it, the next big event in Miles' life would be the death of his father and she didn't want to face that.

So instead she wrote The Curse of Chalion, a fantasy novel I adore.

You may notice I'd rather write a rave than a scathing critique. There are times when this blog will contain the latter, but frankly there's so much more pleasure in the former the ratio makes plenty of sense from this side of things.

What to say about Chalion? To start with, it is refreshing not to see a medieval background based on Southern Europe rather than the North. The Ibran Peninsula, as has been pointed out by others, is pretty much Spain pointed in the other direction. More accurately, it resembles the independent kingdoms that made up Spain in the Middle Ages, such as Castille, Aragon and Leon. Two versions of the same Faith divide the lands, not unlike Christianity and Islam. Both revere the same four Gods -- the Father of Winter, the Daughter of Spring, the Mother of Summer and the Son of Autumn. Yet Chalion and other kingdoms also worship a fifth god, the Bastard, patron of all things "out of season." He answers the prayers of illegitimate children and homosexuals. One of his animals is the rat.

Much is made of religion in this novel and its two sequels (which do not, however, form one story--this isn't really a trilogy). Even more is made of the idea that the Gods cannot thwart free will, not even a little bit. Through great effort, they can influence this world, but their real wonders work (at least in terms of individual lives) through people who have given their lives to the service of the Gods. In the second book, Paladin of Souls, the Bastard even speaks in a dream to a grieving mother, of whom he asks a boon. "A hundred men were sent to save your son," He tells her, "and all turned aside ... will you now also turn aside as they did?" (Talk about twisting the knife -- he's a Bastard alright.)

But I digress. The Curse of Chalion tells a different, but related tale. Its hero is not a member of any royal family, although he will in the end endanger his soul to save such. Neither is Cazaril some orphan or peasant chosen by a wizard to go on a quest. He is a knight, an impoverished minor noble of great character. Because of this, and because he saw a vastly powerful man's weakness, Cazaril was betrayed. We meet him after he's been freed from slavery on a galley. He is penniless, returning to a castle where he spent his boyhood in hopes of finding employment. Although not at all old even by the standards of a pre-industrial society, he feels himself ancient. Turning the pages, we learn why. He has been stripped bare, emptied by trauma and fear and pain, until at last all pretense and all distractions have poured away. Cazaril is now only and purely himself. Which is a good thing, for Cazaril purified is what Chalion and its royal family will so desperately need.

He is willing to be a scullion or a groom. But the Lady of the castle, a Dowager of great will, sees in him a possible tutor for the teenage girls under her roof. One is the Dowager's granddaughter, half-sister to the reigning King. The other is her best friend. He is not initially pleased at this prospect. "Wouldn't it be easier to give me a razor to cut my throat now?" That earns a laugh, but when he says he'd much rather defend a besieged fortress, he gets a hint of what is to come. "She will be soon," warns the Dowager.

And she's right.

For the King is without an heir, a strangely weak man whose only joy in life seems to be an exotic menagerie of animals. His courtiers run Chalion for him, and do a poor job. The princess is needed, and her tutor accompanies her to the capital -- a place of treachery and hope, of momentous events, complex plots, and even a few miracles. Literal miracles. Without quite meaning to, all of Chalion's history comes to rest on the scarred shoulders of Cazaril. For it is he discovers the terrible curse laid upon the royal bloodline that twists and corrupts all their efforts to rule well. We, like him, learn the history of that curse -- how it came to be, what its consequences have been, the heart-shredding efforts to lift it before now. And the terrifying words, spoken by a Goddess, of what is needed to end the curse once and for all.

I half-figured out what her words meant before Cazaril did. One can understand why, since he was on the "inside" as it were. And he's distracted by...well, so very much.

Honestly, reviews that spoil the endings or major plot twists of books seem a cheat to me, so this one won't do that. Suffice to say, the characters are real and interesting. The background feels genuine, including all the hints of what has happened/is going on "off stage." Meanwhile, the plot itself grips and teases and tantalizes, then moves one to tears. It does me, anyway. But then, I'm a softie. And I'm pleased this novel avoids a lot of fantasy cliches in favor of a realistic flavor. No berobed wizards issuing cryptic lore (a Saint or two, bewildered and sharing what little they know). No nation of horse-lords (but a kingdom by the sea that does have a marine "feel" to it). A surprisingly tolerant social structure in some ways, but justified and not taken to the point where it no longer seems like a feudal world. No guilds of amazonian warriors, for example, or secret society of thieves. No elves or anything like them. Magic, but nothing easy or without limit.

And at its heart, a hero. Not a great warrior (although he seems to have been an excellent officer) nor heir to a throne. He does not fulfill an ancient prophecy about defeating a Dark Lord. The Dark Lord he struggles against is simply a greedy and clever nobleman, a symptom of a greater problem. He does not save the day by skill, but by his courage and his will. At one point, faced with the prospect of being Chosen By The Gods, our hero Cazaril asks a Saint what he should do. The Saint's answer--do your job as you would anyway--proves the key. Rather like Harry Potter in that way. What defeats evil and makes way for healing is courage, compassion, a minimum of greed coupled with a loyalty of pure steel.

Like our own world, when you really think about it.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ten Worst Vampire Films

Okay, this was hard. Because the competition is pretty damn stiff! But here is my list of the very worst vampire films whose sheer lack of any quality to which I can personally bear witness (that was probably too convoluted, but grammatically correct).

Son of Dracula (with Ringo Starr)
almost sounds like it could be fun. Imagine that "Abbott and Costello" horror movie but with 1960s sensibilities. Get Peter Sellars as Van Helsing, some sex kittens like Ursula Andress or Yvonne Craig to play victims or vampiresses, sounds like some potential coolness in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. But, no. This was a wretched mishmash of cheese (and not good cheese), pretentious fantasy, wooden acting and pseudo-hip philosophy on top of plot hole big enough to sail a cruise-ship through.

Old Dracula
wasn't originally called that. The title was supposed to be "Vampira" but then Mel Brooks had that big hit with Gene Wilder, and the rest is history. David Niven as the Count in modern day Transylvania, renting out his castle to tourists (in this case a Playboy shoot) and testing everyone's blood for the right type to bring his beloved Countess back to life. But when he finds the right one, he gives her a transfusion that includes blood from a black model and the Countess wakes up as Theresa Graves. Believe me, this is even worse than it sounds.

Saturday the 14th
is yet another cautionary tale about mixing horror with comedy. It can be done. It has been done. But even a good cast cannot compensate for piss-poor script and really terrible direction. Generally, comedy about horror probably only works best if you go all zany a la Monty Python, or if you treat it as you would any good comedy -- by bringing out the humor of a situation and/or set of characters, not stapling lame jokes everywhere there seems room.

Lesbian Vampire Killers
deserves this much credit. It is very beautifully photographed. Really. The cinematographers deserve kudos. Pretty much everyone else involved should be borderline ashamed. No greater sin a comedy can commit that to fail to deliver laughs, or at least smiles. I would also point out an inherent problem in the whole idea -- namely, that some slobs going around killing beautiful lesbian vampires is a difficult thing to make funny to anyone not already at least a little drunk. A movie about some lesbians who by profession or circumstance have to go fight the undead just seems like an inherently funnier (or more interesting) idea. Hence the hazards of a certain titles.

Dracula 3000
may be not only the single worst film on this list, but one of the very worst movies ever made. It seems to yearn for the creative input of Ed Wood or Uwe Boel. Yeah, that bad. Yet the premise is actually kinda cool. An abandoned space ship named the Demeter is found in the far future, carrying a strange cargo of boxes. The crew has vanished. And those who find the seemingly empty vessel include people named Van Helsing, Mina, Lucy, Seward, etc. But -- it is all in the execution. And between the terrible acting, the wooden dialogue, incoherent plot, wet cardboard characters (more flimsy than the usual cardboard character), and a totally pathetic vision of the King Vampire himself -- what you get is drek.

Van Helsing makes me want to apologize to my brother, who quite liked it. To be fair, what he liked about this film is actually fun -- the harpy-like re-imagining of Dracula's brides. And the cast is excellent by any standard. Yet like all Steven Sommers films (or at least all I've seen) the thing hinges on an idiot plot. Quite simply, the only reason this story works is if you assume that every single person in it, on screen or off, has an IQ of around 45. Every single thing is a setup for a lame joke or not-terribly-coherent action sequence. Potentially a good movie, but I'm convinced it only sold as many tickets as it did was because Kate Beckinsale and Hugh Jackman are both very talented and very personally attractive.

A Polish Vampire in Burbank
seems unfair to add to the list, simply because with a title like that what could one possibly expect? Well, something better than this steaming pile of celluloid waste. Even among films that look like their budget was below five figures, this achieved new lows. Bathroom humor was the least of it. Again, the idea of a nerdish vampire trying to find his place and/or true love has potential. But this thing is like seeing a truly disastrous and stupid train wreck in slow motion, so lacking is it in anything resembling quality. All it needs is some bad musical numbers and just a tiny bit more racism to be among the worst motion pictures ever made.

Guess What Happened to Count Dracula
is a movie you can really only get as part of a double feature with another piece of schlock called "Dracula The Dirty Old Man" from Something Weird Video. That is something of a clue right there. Like many a Dracula riff before now, it has the Lord of the Vampires stalking a sweet young thing to make her his bride. Okay. So far, so good. But Dracula looks like the worst kind of Halloween costume (really, he looks like a Scooby Doo villain come to life) coupled with an atrocious Bela Lugosi impression. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the highlight of the flick. It only gets worse from there. No, I'm not kidding.

Vampire Hookers
is painful to watch. Not only because it is so pathetically formulaic, terrible, badly-acting, cheesy, racist, sexist, stoopid (note the spelling, it conveys a nuance) and gross. It is all those things, but when you see a fine actor like John Carradine sinking to these depths it makes one sad. This is such total junk, about a pair of US sailors lured inot the clutches of some undead bimbos and their farty Philipino manservant. Ick, on so many levels. It is actually worse than it sounds.

Mamma Dracula
is about a pair of twins who are vampires and fall in love with the same girl, and are kinda/sorta dominated by their mother. Or grandmother. I think. It is kinda hard to tell. The whole thing is pretty incoherent, in a particularly European way. Anyway, if I were going to play a member of the Dracula family and base my characterization on a famous character from American cinema -- as the twin male leads of this film seem to be doing -- methinks Harpo Marx would be pretty low on list of choices. One of my many disagreements with the makers of this film, along with what constitutes "funny" or "interesting" or even "touching."

Friday, September 25, 2009

Dream Cast: "Dark Shadows"

For those of you who don't know, Dark Shadows was a gothic soap opera in the late 1960s. It was heady if overblown stuff, centered around the ghosts and vampires and werewolves and such in Collinsport, Maine. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are supposed to be making a big screen version of the tale, which I regard as excellent news.

But the cast list is actually so large, and the story so convoluted I find myself wishing for a television adaptation. Being just a tiny bit of a perv, my preference would be for a cable series -- all that lovely sex and violence up front and out there for us to see.

And because I'm the sort to do this, here is my breakdown of who should play who...

To start with, Jonathan Rhys Myers (most recently of The Tudors) as the reluctant vampire Barnabas Collins. He is a fine actor, with plenty of dark charisma as well as sex appeal. One can pretty easily imagine him as a predator of beautiful women and trying to talk himself into justifying each act. Likewise, isn't it easy to imagine him in one of Barnabas' self-destructive rages, all stubborn and fatalistic?

And to be honest, I'm sad enough to have given this whole idea too much thought. In my Dark Shadows, Barnabas is already out of his chained prison, having escaped a generation earlier (with evidence of same found recently -- as in the broken coffin in the secret room and the mummified remains of Willie Loomis, his throat shredded) and now having returned to Collinwood...

Likewise my choice for Victoria Winters, the governess with the mysterious past, is Amber Benson (best known as Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Frankly, I think she should write for the show too -- she very multi-talented. In this scenario, the child who needs a private teacher is Daphne, Roger Collins' daughter with borderline autism and a tendency to "know" things others do not. Miss Winters is not the lookalike of Josette (which has become a cliche) and frankly probably has a dark side. Why not give her a juvie record? Yeah, and probably some disreputable friends who may eventually show up. It is she and Daphne who discover the Secret Room...

Roger Collins would be played by James Spader, late of Boston Legal but always in my mind the star of The Secretary. Borrowing a bit from the later seasons of the original series, let us put him in a wheelchair, still recovering from the terrible car accident that killed his wife Laura. He is the ne're do well of the Collins family, looking for some way to "make his mark" amidst the fact his sister really runs things. His motives are not simply vanity, but to personally insure the future of his daughter. Also, he is the one who chose Victoria Winters, and the reason why is one of many mysteries to explore.

Frankly one of the reasons for changing Roger's child from the budding sociopath David to the mildly autistic Daphne is to both justify a governess in this day and age, as well as making us more sympathetic. Plus that way she serves the plot more interestingly, and perhaps will remind Barnabas more obviously of his sister, Sarah. A resemblance there is more believable, given their relations, and frankly makes for a more interesting dynamic. As Daphne I would cast Ellen Page.

Elizabeth Collins Stoddard is a major character, the true head of the Collins family. In the original series, she's a rather broken recluse. But isn't it more interesting if she has had to become the head of the family and become only-too-good at it? Enough to cause resentment, which has cost her emotionally? And maybe as our story begins, she's just beginning to come out of her shell following the desertion by her husband. Marcia Cross of Desperate Housewives is my casting choice for Liz. I would also have her, rather than Carolyn, ultimately become the devoted victim/servant of Barnabas.

Rachael Bella is who I would cast as Carolyn Stoddard. She's probably best known for a small but important part in the American remake of The Ring, as well as being Edward Furlong's ex-wife. Quite frankly, I'd like to see Carolyn as something other than a typical rebellious teen. Let us say that she was good friends with Roger's late wife, that she is someone deeply interested in unusual areas of knowledge. In other words, if there is anyone most likely to figure out something is very, very odd about Collinwood, it would be Carolyn.

I'd also frankly include Burke Devlin, played by Julian McMahon former of Charmed. He's a fine actor and would frankly make a fine foil for others, a businessman with a past interest in Collinsport and more than a passing interest in the Collins clan. I always liked the idea that he was a former suitor for Laura, and think it'd be cool if he felt protective of Daphne -- as well as intensely curious about the accident that claimed her mother's life. Besides, he could easily be a romantic interest for Vickoria, for Liz or for Carolyn.

Clearly, I'd like to see Dark Shadows re-imagined much as was Battlestar Galactica. And why not?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review: "Equus"

Years ago, when I was in high school deep enough inside the Bible belt the buckle sometimes seemed like it was bumping my head, there were rumors of a play, titled Equus. It was said to be very shocking, with hints of bestiality. Naturally, the play dealt with no such thing. Later, I heard the album when working at a radio station -- Richard Burton's amazing voice intercut with music. Frankly, the monologues mesmerized me. Eventually, I read the play, saw the (not really successful) movie. It was brilliant. And of course as probably most of the known world knows by now, Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame made his West End, then Broadway debut in the play, which required of him full frontal nudity.

I've decided to make Equus my entry in the AW Book Review Blog chain, a beloved work that moved me deeply. Sadly, I've never yet seen it performed on stage. Interestingly, the two major Broadway runs have focused on different leads.

The play, according to the author, was inspired by a half-remembered tale related by a friend of a terrible crime. Did it in fact happen? We don't know. Well, I don't know. But at its heart the work centers around Dr. Dysart, an overworked psychiatrist, and Alan Strang, a "weird" boy who has committed a terrible act -- and who pretty clearly is a kind of paranoid schizophrenic. Potentially, this might at least be as riveting as Sybil. Actually, it is more. Far more.

What we see is not simply the dissection of a boy with a serious mental illness, but a crisis of faith by Dr. Dysart -- as he puts it, a priest for the god of "Normal." The normal is healthy smile in a child's eyes says one character, but Dysart points out it is also the dead stare in a million adults. Dysart would hope to heal the children in his care, to make of them whole and passionate human beings. What he creates instead are ghosts. Fragments of people, bereft of soul and heart. Yet Alan, who has somehow forged a series of images and ideas and events into a weird religion wherein God is enslaved in the flesh of horses "for the sins of the world", Alan clearly wishes to be helped, desires to be something other than the tortured youngster he has become. Dysart is more skeptical. This is territory he knows too well.

One of the most powerful monologues in the work has a counterpoint with one of the most incredible visual images. Alan recounts to the doctor his most sacred ritual -- taking Equus the Slavegod out at night, riding him with a bit in each of their mouths. It is a moment of mad ecstasy like something from The Bacchae. It shakes Dysart deeply, a man with what he sees as a safe (i.e. impotent) fascination with ancient Greece and her legends. He draws the parallel between the two of them. One sits safe at him, gazing at excellent photographs of ancient potter depicting centaurs. The other, sucking the sweat from the hairy cheek of his God, trying to turn into one. Which of the two is more alive? Which has tasted greater passion?

And the bitter truth? Each longs to trade places with the other. Or at least to become what they believe the other might be. No easy answers in this play, just soul-wrenching questions to which each of us must find our own replies.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Celluloid Hopes (Part One)

As you can probably tell, to some extent this blog is about ideas that bubble up in my mind. My last post was about Celluloid Anticipations, i.e. movies I'm looking forward to and which are in fact on their way. This is about movies I wish were being made...

First up, The Green Arrow. One of the most established of all DC superheroes. Initially, he was little more than an archery version of Batman. The millionaire with a hidden identity, a cave, a special car, a side kick, etc. It got to the point where Batman himself pointed it out! But when you look at how the character has evolved, what one finds is a vivid and interesting person in his own right. For one thing, this is a guy without any trauma he's trying to live down. His parents weren't murdered in front of him. Rather, he discovered almost by accident that fighting crime gave him purpose. That reflects as well in his overt, and definitely left-of-center politics. Green Arrow (or Oliver Queen) also has an interesting past behind him, as a world traveler who has loved many women (a lot of them dangerous, like the Yakuza archer/assassin Shado). His most famous and intense love affair is with another superhero, Black Canary -- a beautiful young woman at least ten years his junior who's a mistress of martial arts. Consider -- here is a guy who successfully becomes a scourge of the underworld without dressing up like a vampire and spooking everyone. Crooks are terrified of him first and foremost because of his skill. He really is Robin Hood, but aimed at professional criminals while more-than-willing to take on corruption more-or-less directly. Thus he is really more Zorro than Batman, more V for Vendetta in some ways than The Dark Knight. Actually, he'd also make a great t.v. series.

Carmilla by Sheridan LeFanu has actually been filmed several times. The most famous versions are Hammer's The Vampire Lovers, Vadim's Blood and Roses and probably the Nightmare Classics version with Meg Tilly. The name "Carmilla" ends up used far more often, from video games to really schlocky horror movies. But I'd like to see an adaptation faithful to the novella, set in mid-1800s Styria capturing the atmosphere and characters of the original. What I don't want to see is the narrator getting a conveniently young and male love interest, of the loss of ambiguity surrounding the title character herself. Unlike the vast majority of vampire tales these days, Carmilla hints at all kinds of mythic images and ideas, often with little or no explanation. Who are her "companions" for example? And does the fact that Laura, the narrator, seems to be related to her have anything to do with events? Hardly any version includes the wonderfully weird detail of Laura having dreamt of her future predator/friend/lover when she was a child. Myself, I long to see a film with the kind of "feel" that combines Picnic at Hanging Rock with Henry and June with maybe just a dash or two of Lets Scare Jessica To Death.

Cry to Heaven is my favorite novel by Anne Rice. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with vampires, at least nothing overt. 'Tis a tale set amid the castrati, the male sopranos created surgically when women were forbidden the opera stage. Like the gladiators of ancient Rome and rock stars of today, the famous and successful castrati became objects of near-worship and intense desire by both sexes. Within this world a story of revenge, of love and personal discovery weaves it way. Frankly, that probably is part of what makes it such a difficult book to get made into a film. Not simply the gay (and straight) sex, of which there is copious amounts. There's also the edginess, such as Tonio's (the main character) affair with a Cardinal, and the hints at semi-incest at one point. Technically, recreating a castrato's voice is no easy thing, as well. Yet this could be a fantastical film, equal parts lush and funny and heart-touching as well as dramatic as any could desire. And really, if somebody made Perfume: The Story of a Murderer into a movie, why not Cry To Heaven?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Celluloid Anticipation (Part One)

Some movies I'm really looking forward to, inspired by a comment on my posting about Jane Eyre...

Dorian Gray, based on the novel by Oscar Wilde. Starring Ben Barns (who was the title character in Prince Caspian last year), Colin Firth (most famous as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice but also of Love Actually --one of my favorite films--as well as Bridget Jones' Diary) and the lovely Rachel Hurd Wood. She was Wendy in the life action Peter Pan a few years back, followed up by An American Haunting and the strange but fascinating Perfume. The trailer gives an indication that they're making the story probably more elaborate, with some cool special effects. If I'm correct, this probably has to do with exactly what happened once Dorian actually went to see his portrait with a dagger in hand. We'll see if I'm right.

The Wolf Man is a remake of the 1940 classic, starring four actors I admire immensely: Benecio del Toro, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt and of course Hugo Weaving. Interesting how the remakes of the classic Universal monster movies have been coming out now for about twenty years -- Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, The Mummy, etc. What saddens me is that only the very worst of them has seen any sequels! Maybe that will be different this time. From what I understand, del Toro is a huge fan of the original film, even collects memorabilia about it.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One is due November, 2010. I've enjoyed all the films to some extent or other, and will almost certainly like this one. Some, at least. Honestly, HBP was a bit of a disappointment in some ways, almost as much as GOF. But seeing Cieran Hinds as Dumbledore's brother will be worth it, as well as Jaime Campbell Brower as Grindelwald and Bill Nighy as the new Minister of Magic. Here is my prediction about where the "break" will come between the two parts of DH -- I think it will happen after Ron rejoins them and destroys the Horcrux. We'll see...

Friday, September 18, 2009

My Favorite Characters (Regular TV)

Some more of my favorite fictional characters, this time from "normal" (whatever that means) television...

Toby Ziegler from The West Wing. One of the things about this show was that it showed a presidential administration that was just barely possible, and was probably as good as one could conceivably ask for. Among the most interesting (and there were many) characters was the White House Communications Director. Why was he my fave? Partially because I felt a kinship. Like him, I've got this big IQ and am frankly unused to the company of those with one in the same range. He has a lot of failure behind him, but keeps on going anyway and doesn't give up his principles. One incident that showed this man's soul was when the police asked him about a dead homeless man who had Toby's card in his pocket (turned out the guy had a coat Toby denoted to Goodwill). Toby took it upon himself to arrange for this man's funeral with full military honors (he was a veteran), wielding his clout as a member of the Oval Office. When the president asked him "What if every homeless veteran started showing up and asking for help from the White House?" his answer showed every single quality I adored about him: "We can only hope."

Phoebe Buffay from Friends. One of the best sitcoms ever. And Phoebe just might be the strangest character ever to grace a t.v. screen. It made perfect sense to me that some borderline schizo homeless woman called her "Strange Girl." Mind you, she is pretty odd by any standard. Her idea of music is too bizarre for words, she has ambitions like flying a plane (as in simply grabbing one from the airport), etc. But what really makes her so "out there" is probably the fact she is comfortable with herself, having lost along the way any neurotic need for consistency, while at the same time retaining a hard core of (pretty neat) values. And when you think that might be simply the result of (very unusual) upbringing, consider the person her twin sister turned out to be (who started making porn movies under Phoebe's name).

Dexter from Dexter. Okay, anyone not expecting to see this guy on this list doesn't know me very well. Can we say "Paradox"? Dexter Morgan is a serial killer, a man who feels the need to kill other human beings. But--and here's the crux--he wishes he didn't feel that need. Adopted as a child by a cop who eventually recognized what his beloved son was, Dexter spent his childhood with a man who indoctrinated him with a code. First and foremost: Only kill murderers. And he recognizes this about himself, even telling one of his victims "I know I'm a monster" and calling them "What I would have been without my father's code." Dexter is a psychopath who dreams of being something else, a unique serial killer who doesn't feel very much and is startled by what he does. One of my favorite moments was when he had a serial rapist/murderer ready to die, and the guy tried to talk his way out of it, in the process saying something about Dexter's girlfriend. Dexter instantly drove a knife into his heart with the words "Don't talk that way about my girlfriend." Then, the totally puzzled look on his face, contemplating his own actions... Wow.

Dr. Lisa Cutty on House. I can never quite decide if Cutty is supposed to be Inspector Lestrade or Irene Adler on this show. Don't get me wrong, I really love the entire cast, but Cutty is one that always gets under my skin most. Maybe because she's got what amounts to the toughest job imaginable -- riding shotgun on the obnoxious, ruthless genius who is the title character. And no, it isn't simply because Lisa Edelstein is drop-dead gorgeous. She is, but that is beside the point. The world is full of beautiful women, especially TV-land. But her courage and strength are extraordinary, and by that I mean the specific way she has to handle this godawful situation. That she actually cares about House as a person frankly is more impressive, and probably makes her job even harder in some ways. After all, isn't it true that those about whom you care have the most power to wound?

Shane on The L Word. Plenty and legitimate are the complaints about this show, and I agree with a solid chunk of them. But I bow to few if anyone in my admiration of the central characters. My favorite (barely--Alice, Bette and Jenny almost edged her out) is Shane, the womanizing hair stylist who practically drips noir sensibility and edgy charm. By all accounts, this person should be a bitch. Look at the details of her life, the way messes things up and hurts many of those about whom she most cares! And yet--rarely does she act out of spite. Her heart is not only gold but platinum. Maybe moon rock. Much of her behavior is clearly a reaction to the habit of being in pain, and yet despite herself she keeps allowing herself to be vulnerable. And when things are really important, she does her damnest to be kind and to help. The person she is trying to become is the one we all should strive for. In the first season, when she showed compassion for the girl was stalking her--that is what hooked me on Shane.

As per usual, I'm limiting myself to five and not worrying about whether these are the ultimate five. They'll do. They're my faves for right now, and among my faves forever.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jane Eyre Dream Cast?

My favorite version (of those I've seen) of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is the 1997 version with Cieran Hinds and Samantha Morton. Unfortunately, it is one of the shorter versions. But, on the other hand, the absolute heart of that story is the love between the characters of Jane and Rochester. Those two actors made me believe. Watching it, I fully expected that were I somehow transported into the world of this film, and had I walked in between these two characters that my hair would stand on end. Such electricity hummed between them.

Mind you, count me as a huge fan of both actors anyway.

The first Jane Eyre I can recall seeing was with Susannah York and George C. Scott. Others have included actors such as Orson Wells, Tobey Stephens, Timothy Dalton, etc. One of the reasons I like the '97 version is because I tend to think of it in terms of both Rochester and Jane. The latter is a part that lends itself to cheese, frankly, and insipid cheese at that. Not because the role is poor or the character weak -- but she's trickier to capture and there are traps all too eagerly waiting the actor, writer and director.

Harker in Dracula has a similar problem. So does "Boss" Mangan in Shaw's Heartbreak House. Roxanne in Cyrano de Bergerac is another of those diabolically tricky roles.

Any cursory bit of research will reveal lots of adaptations of Bronte's famous novel, and there's no reason to believe more won't be forthcoming. So, for fun's sake, here is my "dream cast" for a version of the tale...

Begin with the lead. I am an intense fan of actor Emily Blunt, soon to be seen in the remake of The Wolf Man and previously star of such films as The Jane Austen Book Club. Apart from her talent, there is the smoldering but quiet intensity she can bring to a role as well as dignity even amidst passion. The biggest difficulty may be that she is actually a very lovely woman, but sans makeup and with a severe 'do methinks she can pull the necessary plainness (or really, lack of glamor) off.

Rochester is more of a problem, because frankly some of the first names that spring to mind are really too old. Blunt is in her twenties, so Rochester cannot really be much older than his forties (or at least cannot look any older). Ten, twenty years ago methinks Gary Oldman would have been perfect. Since this is 2009, I fixed on Christian Bale who at the time of this writing is pushing forty. Among other considerations, you need an actor of Blunt's stature in terms of power and range. Most folks know him from Batman Begins and The Dark Knight but he has an impressive resume even without a cape.

Part of the dynamic of the story requires some thought into a few other casting choices. Most of all, to offset Emily Blunt's attractiveness, we probably need a spectacular beauty for her rival, Blanche Ingram. I would cast Scarlett Johanson in the role.

In some ways the trickiest part of the whole story is the beginning, because that is before the "meat" of the love story. Towards fixing that, I'd choose one of the greatest scene-stealers in cinema today, Bill Nighy, as the villainous Mr. Brockelhurst.

And I do feel that many versions of the novel make a mistake in casting St. John Rivers as a dry ascetic. Much better, at least IMHO, to go with someone we can totally see Jane falling for. Someone handsome and charming as well as kind and good. Hence...James MacAvoy.

At this point I've spent something like twelve million dollars on casting alone. Ah well.

Thus ends this flight of fancy...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tales of Persuasion

I came late to Jane Austen fandom. Not too surprisingly, although her more famous works such as Sense and Sensibility as well as Pride and Prejudice deserve plenty of applause, it is two other works that grabbed my heart. Oddly, or not, my faves are the lady's first and last novels.

Northanger Abbey was her very first novel, and dealt with a the young Catherine Moreland venturing into the real world with little same her own tiny experiences coupled with what she'd gleaned from novels.

Persuasion, her last, tells of Anne Elliot -- a much older (but still young) lady, one who has seemingly missed her chance at love and as a result happiness. Years before the story's beginning, Anne was in love with a Captain Wentworth, a then-penniless officer of bright prospects in the Royal Navy. Her late mother's friend, Lady Russell, persuaded her to reject the Captain's offer of marriage. Now, she is hardest-working and least-appreciated daughter of a spendthrift baronet forced to rent his estate to make ends meet -- and the admiral to whom he rents the place is wed to the same Captain Wentworth's sister! More, in the interim, he has made his fortune with prize money while Anne is now viewed as a spinster.

What follows is a seemingly gentle, but subtly tempestuous tale of these two somewhat-older persons finding each other once again. Austen rarely takes an obvious or easy way to the climax of her novels. This shows itself no exception. For example, we learn that Anne need not have been a spinster at all. She had another offer of marriage, and looks to be perhaps gaining another two -- one from a like-minded widower, another from a charming and intelligent cousin. This is important because in Austen women are in some real way always the equals of men. Equal in foolishness or venality, maybe -- or equal in passion and strength. In this case, the point is that Anne need not have pined for Wentworth yet she did. And being the eminently sensible, utterly reliable, demonstrably self-possessed person that she is -- why should that be? For the same reason Wentworth, a very handsome and wealthy man considered pleasing by virtually every girl he meets, does little more than flirt while hovering around Anne's life, often glaring at her or avoiding her yet never roaming far. Why? Because these two love each other with a depth quite beyond their petty errors or misjudgments.

This is, IMHO, one of the world's great love stories.

And recently I've watched two different adaptations of it, both made for television. Both are also excellent. Interestingly, both are also very different from one another, yet faithful to the source material. Bravo on both counts (or all three -- depending upon how one looks at it).

The 1995 version stars Amanda Root and Cieran Hinds as the once and future lovers. While Hinds is an actor I admire greatly (he'll be in the next two Harry Potter flicks incidentally), this was the first time I was aware of Ms. Root. She frankly deserves more acclaim than I think she has received, but then that might be a false impression. Evidently she works long and often in Britain.

The 2007 version stars Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones as the leads, and they likewise make a wonderful set of lovers. I'll admit to playing some favorites in both cases. For the one, I prefer Hinds' Captain Wentworth while for the other my choice would be Hawkins' Anne Elliot. Not to put down either one of their partners, who are very good and admirably suit their roles.

What is interesting is how the two productions approached their material. Here is a simple one -- the naval officers in the earlier version wear their uniforms, whereas the latter do not. This reflects the more naturalistic appearance of the '95 production. Clothes look more worn, candlelight is noticeably dimmer, and the action correspondingly more subtle (this is helped by the fact that Mr. Hinds is one of those actors who can do with a glance what many others might need a soliloquy to accomplish -- Ms. Hawkins is another one). Yet the action of the later version is more telling, often more exciting. The visit to the shore ( such an important event) takes place in bad weather, unlike the relative calm and sunny day of the first version (well, second--but I haven't seen the still earlier one). The long and weary journey to tell news of an accident is shown rather than skipped over, while Anne's sense of having actually gone through these trips is stronger. Likewise, the climax of the tale involves Anne actually racing to find Wentworth in the wake of receiving his letter -- she is literally breathless as she says her lines, and you can see how she trembles between her own self control and the passion of that moment.

In the '07 version the story veers between the POV of Anne and of Captain Wentworth himself. As a result, he is much less a cypher and we follow his own personal journey. Unfortunately, this costs some set up of essential exposition regarding the intentions of Anne's cousin. Such is handled much better in the '95 adaptation. Likewise there is a certain "sameness" to many of the male cast in the later one, in terms of general look and dress especially. Not so the earlier one, when it is easy to tell all characters apart at a glance -- not only in terms of looks but in dress.

At the same time, it is difficult not to see how some characters are made more overtly sinister in the '95 film, probably against the actual text. Lady Russell, for example, comes across as rather a villain in the earlier production -- a self-satisfied snob playing with Anne's life according to rules that have precious little to do with Anne's happiness. The later version is someone much more benign, who feels some guilt over the consequences of her persuasion. She has an agenda, to be sure, and one at odds with our own hopes but we also get the feeling that she would probably end up very pleased with how Anne's life ended up.

Likewise Anne's father, an arrogant fool as in the book, is interestingly different in the two versions. One has him as something of a ridiculous fop, pathetic in his own way and surrounded (by preference) with women as silly and petty as himself. Another dimension seemed to exist for the second (or third) version, albeit a subtle one. He appears to be treating his favorite (and most snobbish, like himself) daughter as a surrogate wife -- not in terms of sexuality but in terms of a partnership. He frankly comes across as a darker individual, and Anne a more impressive person having resisted his ways.

Both versions come up with endings not really in the novel. In '95 they made much of Captains having their wives aboard, and we see at the end Anne Wentworth beside her husband at sea. It was a lovely image of freedom from their pasts. The filmmakers twelve years later ended with the Captain giving his bride a special wedding gift -- the house where she'd grown up and which she clearly loved dearly. It felt more like a fairy tale ending, as well as a testament not only to Wentworth's esteem of his Anne, but his understanding of her.

In short, I recommend both, having appreciated both and remain grateful to those who created both versions.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Shakespeare "Controversy"

As perhaps might be obvious from the use of quotation marks above, I believe the author of William Shakespeare's plays and poems was in fact...William Shakespeare. Obvious? Hardly worthy of the word "controversy"? Rather startlingly, among some this remains a point of real contention.

Being something of a collector of conspiracy theories--and feeling qualified to opine at length about this one--herein you'll find my twin pennies on the subject...

For many years, a variety of individuals (some of them quite prominent persons, with considerable accomplishment) have doubted that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Some simply look at the scarcity of hard data we have about the matter and express doubt. All well and good. None can deny the lives of Elizabethan playwrights are mostly matters of mystery, with many records that no doubt existed having gone the way of all things in the ensuing centuries. We're not even sure about his birthdate, birth certificates being pretty much unheard-of at the time. Others, however, take a further tack and insist that from what we do know of Shakespeare he could not have been the author. More, they usually have specific candidates in mind.

Much of the argument against Shakespeare, let us be frank, remains extremely subjective. How, some dissidents argue, could the son of an illiterate glove-maker from a provincial town like Stratford-Upon-Avon possibly written the greatest poetry in English literature? A man who didn't even attend University! They point to the plays and how various people in (for example) politics or the law or the church insist those words show an "insider's" knowledge and feel. But at its heart, this argument rests on snobbery. I for one would find zero difficulty believing a great writer might not be noble, or that they might never have gone to a major university. For the one, I reject there is something inherently superior in those lucky enough to have had successful ancestors. And for the other, does the premise not suggest that no great literary artist could have arisen prior to the invention of the university? Well, what about Euripedes, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Aristophanes and the like? More, I would posit that genius has its own power. Stephen Crane many times in his life was approached by those insisting he must have actually seen combat in the Civil War because no one who had not could possibly have written The Red Badge of Courage. Of course, Crane was born five years after that war ended! Likewise there've been accusations that a "nobody" like J.K.Rowling could not have written such a vastly popular work as Harry Potter, that instead a secret committee must have done it and the publishers hired Ms.Rowling to masquerade as the books' author. I've not heard anyone make a similar claim about Stephanie Meyer but that is probably just a matter of time.

Mind you, there's a bigger problem that this matter of opinion regarding the Author's knowledge. Quite simply, the Author of the plays (whoever it might have been) showed a less-than-perfect knowledge of certain subjects, such as an understanding of what was genuinely believed to be the nature of the heavens. More subtly, careful scholarship reveals that the Author's sources for much of his material (regarding the history plays, for example) are few in number. Indeed, the impression of a broad but not extremely deep knowledge is created--at least that was my impression (which is as valid as any Anti-Stratfordian, surely).

They are on somewhat stronger ground when pointing to the sheer vocabulary shown in the plays, gigantic by any measure and exceeding that of the King James Bible! But again, surely the Author was a genius and is that not something one might expect of genius? Still stronger evidence is that of William Shakespeare's last will and testament, or at least at first glance. That document--which does survive--makes no mention of books or shares in the acting company of which Shakespeare was part owner. By any measure this seems odd. But then, consider what else is omitted. Famously, Shakespeare left his "second best bed" to his widow. Nowhere is a "best bed" mentioned. Neither is any kind of manuscript or document mentioned. Is it likely the man had no papers at all? Or--and this is offered as a theory, nothing more--are we applying our own expectations to a document rather than the desires and circumstances of the man who actually wrote it?

In fact, there are quite a lot of mysteries surrounding Shakespeare's life, whether he wrote those plays or not. But lack of knowledge is not the same as proof. In fact, the two are very nearly opposites. And the mysteries of Shakeaspeare's life are few and far between compared to those surrounding virtually any other playwright of his country and age.

Now, look at who the Anti-Stratfordians (i.e. those who insist Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare) posit as being the true Author. The current favorite is Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. They insist he's noble and University educated, with the wit and poetic ability to have composed those plays. But their theory falls apart on several key points. First--why keep it a secret? Oxford was a rebel, the English Renaissance version of a hippie or rogue. Why not proclaim his authorship and get the glory (since it is acknowledged that the plays were very popular)? Second--he died in 1604 and evidence indicates that the plays continued to be produced for years afterwards. What "Oxfordians" usually claim is that such evidence is inconclusive. But they don't apply the same criteria to their own ideas.

More tellingly, at least IMHO, is the lengths to which supporters of Christopher Marlowe as the Author go. He died in 1593, the victim of a fight in a tavern with a dagger through his eye. Rather than claim the plays were not produced following 1593 (which would be ridiculous), these adherents claim Marlowe only faked his death as part of some intelligence scheme hatched by Queen Elizabeth's spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham (who, however, died three years previously). Of course, unlike Oxford, Marlowe's works are already acknowledged as works of great literary merit. But they are also agreed to be of a radically different style than that of Shakespeare's.

To give a concrete example--Marlowe's works show an increased use of rhyming couplets, wherein subsequent lines do rhyme with one another ("For never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo" from Romeo and Juliet). Yet Shakespeare showed the exact opposite pattern, reducing the number of rhyming couplets in favor of "hidden" rhyme and variations in meter.

And then we have some other facts that Anti-Stratfordians really have trouble defeating--such as contemporary comments about Shakespeare and his plays, including published references to Shakespeare as the author. One or two or even three may be dismissed, but there are far more than three. In the end, doesn't Occam's Razor indicate that the simplest explanation is probably the mainstream one--that a genius of a slightly distinctive family (his father was the equivalent of mayor at one point), with the typical education of a boy of his class of the time, went on to have a successful career in Elizabethan theatre, writing these wonderful works? No need for elaborate conspiracies about faked deaths or secret identities or reworking chronologies. Just genius, which we already know is part of the truth of this story.

Friday, September 11, 2009

"Varney The Vampire"

For years, fans of vampire fiction have heard the name. Sir Francis Varney. AKA "Varney The Vampyre." The central villain of a 'penny-dreadful' novel of the 1840s, all 220+ chapters (you read that right--chapters!). Long before Count Dracula, before Barnabas Collins or Louis the interviewee, Sir Francis Varney was the original reluctant vampire. Methinks a lot the reason for that is easy to understand. Like Dark Shadows over a century later, The Feast of Blood (as it was also known) come out as a serial. With a need to stretch out stories for as long as possible, the format pretty much forced authors to explore facets of their characters which otherwise might have been ignored. To engage their readers week after week, on some level the writers had to make their subjects compelling. A pure villain is boring. A mysterious one is interesting. A villain whom you find yourself rooting for in some sense is the kind of stuff publishers dream on.

Well, I recently got around to actually reading this huge tome. Much has been written at one time or another about how Bram Stoker must have read Sheridan LeFanu's "Carmilla" prior to composing his classic "Dracula." For the record, I pretty much agree--although there is absolutely no solid evidence Stoker ever read that novella. I am also inclined to think that LeFanu must have read Varney The Vampyre at some point. Among the tropes present are:

A portrait of the vampire from life.

A hypnotic power the vampire has over one's victims.

A reluctance on the part of the vampire to do more ill than absolutely necessary.

A strong hint that the vampire is in fact related to the target of his predations, i.e. an ancestor cursed with eternal life.

A genuine regret, akin to self-disgust, the vampire shows for his condition.

One is not only reminded of Carmilla, but also Barnabas Collins! Likewise there are some precursors to elements of Dracula here as well -- Varney's cat-and-mouse game with those who know what he is, his interest in real estate, his use of more-than-one hiding place, etc. This is also the first known (well, to me anyway) use of fangs in a vampire tale -- complete with those now tell-tale double punctures.

But all that is historical perspective. How does it measure up as a story?


It certainly begins with a bang. Arguably the most famous passage in the book is at the very start, with a young lady accosted in her bed chamber by a befanged creature of the night. Honestly, it never really gets better and rarely is as good from there onwards.

The young lady in question is Flora Bannerworth, one of three children and their mother living at Bannerworth Hall. Precious few clues exist as to the Hall's location, other than somewhere in the country not far from a cathedral. There is no reference to a port or river. Even more perplexing is the time period, which varies between the early XVIIIth century and the Napoleonic Wars. Flora is the kind of waif one expects in such a tale. Much is made of her extreme beauty, her shattered nerves after the assault on her person, and of her utter devotion to her fiance Charles. She has two brothers. Henry Bannerworth is a wishy-washy sort, while George doesn't seem to have a personality at all. In fact, George eventually vanishes altogether and no one ever mentions him again. There is also Mr. Marchdale, a middle-aged man who is a family friend, and of course Mrs. Bannerworth, who seems to have as much personality as some potted plants. She faints at one point. Well, nearly everyone does at some point in all this.

In essence, Flora's screams wake the family. They chase the ravisher of young Flora out of the house and he is shot. But no body is found, and there's a strong hint he (Varney) was resurrected by the beams of a full moon. Everyone insists that the assailant looks exactly like the portrait in Flora's room, one Marmaduke Bannerworth (an unfortunate name) from a century past said to have committed suicide. Unlike one might expect, folks immediately suspect a vampyre is responsible and check out the nearby Bannerworth tombs to learn if Marmaduke (really--Marmaduke? What were they thinking?) is still there. Sure enough, not only is his lead-lined coffin intact, it is also empty.

Now the Bannerworths are in financial trouble because the late Mr. Bannerworth tried to rebuilt the family fortunes at the gaming tables, resulting in near-total ruin. Given that Henry and Flora now look upon their ancestral home with horror, and are having trouble keeping any servants (because by now the unnamed village is rife with tales of the blood-sucking dead), they luck out that a local gentleman sends a letter offering to buy Bannerworth Hall outright and for a good price. This gentleman turns out to be none other than Sir Francis Varney, a dead (or undead) ringer for the aforementioned portrait.

Varney, it seems, is most desperate to gain Bannerworth Hall for himself. Precisely why is not made clear -- just as his actual history and identity are a confusing mess. Is he indeed a Bannerworth? Or a medieval knight? Or a Royalist from the reign of Charles I? But along the way, Charles (whose beloved Flora wants him to leave lest she become a vampire and start feasting upon him) challenges Varney to a duel, then vanishes amid a flurry of forged letters. In truth, he is kept imprisoned in the dungeons of the former (now ruined) Bannerworth Hall nearby. His stranger Uncle shows up and tries to help the family deal with the unearthly menage, while a Dr. Chillingham insists he won't believe in the supernatural even if he sees it with his own eyes -- and he in turn conjures up another origin for Varney as a hanged highwayman ressucitated via a medical experiment. One person in the household proves to be in league with Varney, while no less than three riots by locals result in the destruction first of Varney's home then of Bannerworth Hall itself.

At this point the story is perhaps twenty percent done! There are yet explosions, sea journeys, attempted suicides, the transformation of a young woman into a vampire, a weird account by Varney of his own origins, following his own suicide via volcano to come!

Still, there is a kind of charm and power to the book, sprawling and overblown as it is. It is surprisingly edgy, as some of the illustrations show. And there's something appealing about the whole set-up.

Honestly, what came to my mind was that this should be re-written, adapted by someone into a more readable (for modern viewers) form, maybe taking the metaphors a bit more graphically and inserting genuine S-E-X into the narrative. Maybe akin to The Darker Passions: Dracula but with less spanking.