IN THE SHADOWS: LIONEL ATWILL

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Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) confronts Wolf Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), arguably Atwill's finest role.

Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) prepares to tell Wolf Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) how the Monster tore his arm off when he was a child, in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939), arguably Atwill’s finest role.

In The Shadows: LIONEL ATWILL

By Michael Arruda

Today In The Shadows, the column where we honor character actors from the movies, especially horror movies, we look at the career of Lionel Atwill, who divided his career between playing scary people and police inspectors in the Universal monster movies from the 1930s and 1940s.

He began his career as a leading man, appearing in the lead role in such films as MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1932), MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933) and THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933) before being relegated to smaller roles in the Universal monster movies, usually as a police inspector.

He became typecast as a police inspector because of his terrific performance in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) where he played Inspector Krogh, and it’s one of his all-time best performances. Interestingly enough it wasn’t the first time he played a police inspector in a horror movie, as he played Inspector Neumann in MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935).

His performance as Inspector Krogh in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is my favorite Lionel Atwill performance. Krogh suspects Baron Wolf Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) has secretly brought his father’s creation, the Monster (Boris Karloff) back to life, putting both his family and the entire village in danger. Krogh spends the entire movie trying to prove this while protecting those under his watch in the process.

And Krogh has extra motivation, since as a young boy, he had his arm torn from his body by the Monster. Yes, he’s the one-armed Inspector, famously spoofed by Kenneth Mars in Mel Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974). But there are no laughs here, as Atwill is as serious and focused as a Police Inspector can be. It’s a solid powerful performance, most likely Atwill’s best.

Atwill’s career was derailed by a sex scandal in which he was accused of hosting an orgy at his home, and there was a rape charge as well. His career never recovered, and he was shunned by the major film studios afterwards. He died in 1946 at the age of 61.

Here is a partial list of Lionel Atwill’s 75 movie credits, concentrating mostly on his appearances in horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s:

DOCTOR X (1932) – The lead baddie, the demented Doctor Jerry Xavier.

THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933) – Dr. Otto von Niemann – again an evil doctor, this time experimenting with vampire bats.

MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) – Ivan Igor – terrorizes Fay Wray in a role made famous twenty years later when Vincent Price starred in the 3D remake HOUSE OF WAX (1953).

MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933) – Eric Gorman – another evil scientist, this time mixed up with deadly zoo animals.

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935) – Inspector Neumann – plays a police inspector opposite Bela Lugosi’s vampire, Count Mora, in this atmospheric remake of Lon Chaney’s silent classic LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927), both versions, incidentally, directed by DRACULA director Tod Browning.

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) – Inspector Krogh- Atwill’s signature role, the relentless incorruptible Inspector Krogh, who matches wits with Baron Wolf Frankenstein and eventually tangles with the Monster (Boris Karloff).

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1939) – Dr. James Mortimer – Doctor who hires Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes to take on the Baskerville case.

MAN MADE MONSTER (1941) – Dr. Paul Rigas. Back in the mad scientist seat, this time zapping Lon Chaney Jr. with electricity and turning him into a monster.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) – Rawitch – Part of the ensemble cast in this classic Ernst Lubitsch comedy starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard.

THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942) – Doctor Theodore Bohmer – Atwill’s second of five appearances in the Universal Frankenstein series. Here he plays Dr. Bohmer, a mad scientist who transplants Ygor’s (Bela Lugosi) brain into the body of the Monster (Lon Chaney, Jr.)

PARDON MY SARONG (1942) – Dr. Varnoff – messing around with Abbott and Costello.

NIGHT MONSTER (1942) – Dr. King – another disreputable doctor, in this murder mystery/horror movie co-starring Bela Lugosi.

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON (1942) – Professor Moriarty – matching wits with Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes.

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943) – Mayor – received a promotion in this one, as rather than playing a police inspector, Atwill is Mayor of Vasaria.

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) – Inspector Arnz – back to being a police inspector again.

HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) – Inspector Holtz – yet another police inspector in a Universal monster movie. Atwill would die before the next film in the series, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948).

And there you have it. A brief look at some of Lionel Atwill’s memorable film performances.

Lionel Atwill: March 1, 1885 – April 22, 1946

Thanks for reading everybody!

—Michael

PICTURE OF THE DAY: KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962)

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King Kong prepares to hug---er, battle Godzilla in KING KONG vs. GODZILLA (1962)

King Kong prepares to hug—er, battle Godzilla in KING KONG vs. GODZILLA (1962)

PICTURE OF THE DAY: KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962)

Like most other horror/monster movie fans, I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the new GODZILLA reboot, scheduled to hit theaters on Friday, May 16. I can’t wait. So, in the meantime, I’ve got Godzilla on my mind.

As a kid, I loved the Toho Godzilla movies, and the first one, GODZILLA-KING OF THE MONSTERS! (1956) even gave me nightmares. Godzilla in that first flick was oh-so-scary! The thunderous sound of his footsteps alone terrified me.

But my favorite Godzilla movie from the 1960s was KING KONG vs. GODZILLA (1962) because it included my other favorite giant monster, King Kong.

KING KONG vs. GODZILLA is a silly movie, anyway you slice it. It features the worst looking King Kong in the history of the movies. Kong here is so bad that even the gorilla suit used in the old Three Stooges shorts looked better. The awful Kong looks like a ragged beat-up stuffed toy, something the family dog plays with. He looks like King Louie from Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967) on steroids with a hangover.

The dialogue is goofy, and most of the Kong scenes are played for laughs until the end when he finally meets Godzilla. However, the Godzilla scenes in this one are actually pretty good, with memorable scenes of Godzilla battling the army, attacking a train, and just looking menacing and plenty scary. And of course, the best part of the movie is the climactic battle between King Kong and Godzilla, pictured here, a bout that does not disappoint. It’s among the best Toho monster battle scenes in the entire series. I love it.

In fact, I love the whole movie, in spite of how silly it is, for a number of reasons. Number one is the pure nostalgia of the film, as it brings back memories from my childhood, but also this movie and Godzilla films in general are simply fun to watch, in a mindless sort of way. It’s just a hoot to watch an hour of bad dialogue followed by colorful scenes of Godzilla beating up on the military and then on other giant monsters. In this case, he meets his match with King Kong, which shouldn’t be the case since Godzilla is 400 feet tall and the original Kong was around 40 feet tall. Did I mention this movie was silly?

That being said, I have to admit that I’ve only seen the American version, and to my knowledge, for some bizarre reason, the Japanese version still has not been released here in the United States. Let’s get with the program, people! Release the damn movie, already!

And you can’t talk about KING KONG VS. GODZILLA without mentioning the urban legend which has been around for as long as the movie, that the film was shot with two different endings, with Kong winning in the American version, and Godzilla winning in the Japanese version. Supposedly, this just isn’t true, as Kong wins in both versions, or so they tell me, since I still haven’t seen the Japanese version which still hasn’t been released here in the States!

In today’s picture of the day, we see King Kong about to do battle with Godzilla as helicopters fly about in the background, and Kong even clutches one in his hand. I believe this is a publicity shot because I don’t remember this scene actually appearing in the movie. Sure, they do battle, but I don’t remember Kong smashing a helicopter.

Kong actually looks like he’s about to hug his old friend, Godzilla. Godzilla, dude, long time no see!

Gotta love that Kong suit!

So, there you have it, today’s picture of the day, a publicity shot from my favorite Godzilla movie from the 1960s, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

Of course, there are other Godzilla movies that I like better than this one, from other decades, but that’s a story for another day.

Until then, enjoy the picture, and let’s all hope than on May 16 we’re treated to a worthy reboot which would make Godzilla proud, and Kong too, for that matter, when GODZILLA (2014) hits theaters.

Here’s hoping Godzilla stomps his way back to the top!

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

THE HORROR JAR: UNIVERSAL FRANKENSTEIN Series

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Boris Karloff in the role that made him famous, the Frankenstein Monster.

Boris Karloff in the role that made him famous, the Frankenstein Monster.

THE HORROR JAR: UNIVERSAL FRANKENSTEIN Series

By Michael Arruda

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, your home for lists of odds and ends about horror movies.

Up today, a list of the UNIVERSAL FRANKENSTEIN movies, the Frankenstein films from Universal Studios that made Boris Karloff famous and created a cultural icon with its flat-headed bolts-in-the-neck Monster.

FRANKENSTEIN (1931)
The Monster: Boris Karloff
Henry Frankenstein: Colin Clive
Fritz: Dwight Frye
Directed by James Whale
Screenplay by Garrett Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh
Music by Bernhard Kaun (uncredited)
Running Time: 70 minutes

THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
The Monster: Boris Karloff
Henry Frankenstein: Colin Clive
The Bride: Elsa Lanchester
Dr. Pretorious: Ernest Thesiger
Directed by James Whale
Screenplay by William Hurlbut
Music by Franz Waxman
Running Time: 75 minutes

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939)
The Monster: Boris Karloff
Baron Wolf von Frankenstein: Basil Rathbone
Ygor: Bela Lugosi
Inspector Krogh: Lionel Atwill
Directed by Rowland V. Lee
Screenplay by Wyllis Cooper
Music by Frank Skinner
Running Time: 99 minutes

THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942)
The Monster: Lon Chaney Jr.
Ludwig Frankenstein: Sir Cedric Hardwicke
Ygor: Bela Lugosi
Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Screenplay by Scott Darling
Music by Hans J. Salter
Running Time: 67 minutes

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943)
The Monster: Bela Lugosi
Larry Talbot/ The Wolf Man: Lon Chaney Jr.
Baroness Elsa Frankenstein: Ilona Massey
Maleva: Maria Ouspenskaya
Directed by Roy William Neill
Screenplay by Curt Siodmark
Music by Hans J. Salter
Running Time: 74 minutes

HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944)
The Monster: Glenn Strange
Doctor Niemann: Boris Karloff
Larry Talbot/ The Wolf Man: Lon Chaney Jr.
Dracula: John Carradine
Daniel: J. Carrol Naish
Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Screenplay by Edward T. Lowe, Jr.
Music by Hans J. Salter
Running Time: 71 minutes

HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945)
The Monster: Glenn Strange
Doctor Edelmann: Onslow Stevens
Dracula: John Carradine
Larry Talbot/ The Wolf Man: Lon Chaney Jr.
Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Screenplay by Edward T. Lowe, Jr
Music by William Lava
Running Time: 67 minutes

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
The Monster: Glenn Strange
Chick: Bud Abbott
Wilbur: Lou Costello
Dracula: Bela Lugosi
Larry Talbot/ The Wolf Man: Lon Chaney Jr.
Directed by Charles Barton
Screenplay by Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, and John Grant
Music by Frank Skinner
Running Time: 83 minutes

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES: THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)

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Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak in THE NIGHT STALKER.

Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak in THE NIGHT STALKER.

MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES: THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)
By
Michael Arruda

Today we look at memorable quotes from one of my favorite horror movies from the 1970s, THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) starring Darren McGavin in the role that most of us consider to be his signature role, the inexorable reporter Carl Kolchak.
This movie is so good it’s easy to forget that it was a made-for-TV movie. In fact, it earned such high ratings when it premiered on television on January 11, 1972 that in a largely unprecedented move, it was released theatrically after it played on TV because the film was that popular. Amazing.

And it really is a superior horror movie, which is no surprise since it was produced by Dan Curtis, the man behind the Dark Shadows phenomenon. The other thing to remember is that this was a time, the early 1970s, when a plethora of quality made-for-TV horror movies were being released to the television-viewing public. THE NIGHT STALKER is probably the best of the lot.

It’s also an incredibly lean production, as it clocks in at just 74 minutes. There isn’t an ounce of fat on this baby.

Not only is this movie about a superhuman vampire on the loose in modern day Las Vegas terrifying, but it also introduced the character of Carl Kolchak to the world, a character Darren McGavin would reprise in a sequel THE NIGHT STRANGLER 1973) and then in the weekly TV series The Night Stalker which sadly only lasted one season.

THE NIGHT STALKER boasts a fantastic script, and you would expect no less since it was written by Richard Matheson, based on an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice. The legendary Matheson wrote a ton of movies and so it would be difficult to call THE NIGHT STALKER his best screenplay, but I will say that for me, it’s probably my favorite screenplay that Matheson wrote.

As you would expect, then, this movie is chock-full of memorable quotes. Let’s get right to them, a look at some notable dialogue from THE NIGHT STALKER, screenplay by Richard Matheson:

Some of the best dialogue in the movie comes from scenes where reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) argues with his editor boss Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), as Kolchak is constantly trying to print stories that a vampire is on the loose in Las Vegas, while Vincenzo, under pressure from the local authorities, is doing his best to quash them.

Let’s listen:

KOLCHAK: Did I say it was a vampire?

VINCENZO: What does your suggested headline say?

KOLCHAK: The story makes it clear.

VINCENZO (reading): “Vampire killer in Las Vegas, question mark.” Do I misread?

KOLCHAK: The story makes it clear!

VINCENZO: Did I misread or did you use the word “vampire”?

KOLCHAK: Some screwball who imagines he’s a vampire is loose in Las Vegas, and the people ought to be told.

VINCENZO: If there’s a screwball running around loose in Las Vegas, his last name begins with a K!

And later:

KOLCHAK: What do you want, Vincenzo? A testimonial from Count Dracula?

VINCENZO: Out! Get out!

KOLCHAK: What is this out, out, get out game we play? This nut thinks he’s a vampire! He’s killed four, maybe five women! He has drained every drop of blood from every one of them! Now that is news, Vincezo. News! And we are a newspaper! We’re supposed to print news, not suppress it!

THE NIGHT STALKER also does an amazing job early on building up a sense of unease and eeriness before the brutal vampire actually makes his appearance, as in this scene where the police find another dead body. The body is lying in a sandy pit, far away from where the struggle seems to have taken place, and there are no footprints leading towards the body other than those belonging to the police. Of course, Kolchak is right alongside the police here.

POLICE OFFICER: This girl lost a lot of blood, Sheriff, but she didn’t lose it here.

SHERIFF BUTCHER: (calling to other officers): Anything?

OFFICER #2 (in the distance): We found a purse! There’s signs of a struggle up here!

SHERIFF BUTCHER: But nothing in between. Only our footprints.

KOLCHAK: What’d he do? Throw her?

There are also several neat exchanges between Kolchak and the authorities, such as in this scene where the coroner makes his report to the police and district attorney, and to the press:

CORONER: We found the death in each case was extremely swift, coming in something like less than a minute. After the initial wounds were inflicted, the blood was drained very quickly, some kind of suction device being used. Now this would explain why no blood was found anywhere in the victims or in the areas where they were discovered.

KOLCHAK: Doctor— Kolchak, Daily News. Do you have any idea what could have made these wounds?

CORONER: They’re not unlike the bite of a medium-sized dog.

SHERIFF: What do you mean, dog?

DISTRICT ATTORNEY: What? Dog, dog! What are you telling us? A dog did these murders?

CORONER: I didn’t mean to indicate that the wounds were actually inflicted by a dog, only that they’re similar to those which might be caused by a dog. A rather interesting point is we found another substance mixed in with the traces of blood in the throat wounds, namely saliva.

SHERIFF: What do you mean, saliva?

CORONER: I mean saliva, Sheriff Butcher. Human saliva.

DISTRICT ATTORNEY: What do you mean “human”? Are you suggesting that each of these women were bitten in the throat by a man?

CORONER: At present, the evidence points that way. However I couldn’t and wouldn’t hazard a guess as to motivation. I could only be sure they each died from shock, induced by massive loss of blood.

KOLCHAK: Is it possible that he killed these women by biting them in the throat for the express purpose of drinking their blood?

SHERIFF: Kolchak, now you’re here by the mutual suffrage of us all!

KOLCHAK: It’s sufferance.

SHERIFF: What?

KOLCHAK: It’s sufferance, sheriff.

SHERIFF: Whatever it is! Just shut up!

And later:

KOLCHAK: Now, I was at the hospital yesterday, and a lot of things were happening that you just simply cannot explain away. Sheriff, your own men shot at him, some at point blank range. How come it didn’t even slow him down? How come a man over 70 years old can outrun a police car? How come this same man when slugged in the head doesn’t even bleed?

How come, indeed! If you haven’t seen THE NIGHT STALKER, you’re missing one of the best horror movies of all time. Check it out!

Don’t believe me? Well, don’t take my word for it. Listen to Kolchak himself as he speaks into his cassette recorder, telling the story of THE NIGHT STALKER:

KOLCHAK: Judge for yourself its believability and then try to tell yourself, wherever you may be, it couldn’t happen here.

Thanks for reading!
—Michael

 

 

BAD WORDS (2014) Is Simply BAD

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Bad Words PosterHere’s my review of BAD WORDS (2014), originally published last week at cinemaknifefight.com.

MOVIE REVIEW: BAD WORDS (2014)
By Michael Arruda

BAD WORDS (2014), a new comedy directed by and starring Jason Bateman, is— well, bad. It’s more than bad. It’s awful. What attracted Bateman to this project is a mystery to me.

BAD WORDS is about a bitter forty year-old man Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) who enters a middle school spelling bee with every intention of winning it and then moving on to win at the national level. Even though school officials and parents try to prevent Trilby from participating, they are powerless to do so because Trilby has read the rules, and he fits within the parameters. For example, the rules state that a participant must not have advanced beyond the eighth grade, and Trilby never went to high school. The rules also state that participants must be sponsored by a national media outlet, and Trilby is sponsored by an online publication, whose lead reporter Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) follows Trilby around trying to learn his “fascinating” story as to why at age forty he wants to win a spelling bee.

Trilby wins the spelling bee and moves on to the national competition. The coordinator of the national spelling bee, Dr. Bernice Deagan (Allison Janney) assures parents not to worry, that there is no way Trilby will win the event, especially since he hasn’t gone beyond an eighth grade education. However, what Deagan doesn’t know is that Trilby happens to be a genius with a photographic memory. He’s not about to lose.

This doesn’t stop Deagan from trying to make things as difficult as possible for Trilby. For example, she arranges for the hotel to only offer him a storage closet for a room, with just a bed. It doesn’t even have a bathroom, but Trilby is undeterred. Just why is he so determined to win this spelling bee? That’s the question everyone wants to know.

A young boy, Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) with no friends decides that Trilby is the best guy ever and tries to be his best buddy. Trilby, being the acrimonious man that he is, does his best to tell the cute kid to screw off, but the boy is persistent, and before you know it, the two are buddies. However, Trilby learns that Chai isn’t as innocent as he seems, setting the stage for a competition in the finals between Trilby and the boy. Seriously?

If this sounds exciting to you, you might like BAD WORDS. I for one found it to be one of the oddest and most unlikable movies I’ve seen in a long time.

For starters, the main character Guy Trilby is an extremely unpleasant character. His mouth is a sewer, and he uses words as weapons, ambushing people left and right, which in the right circumstances— if the targets are deserving of these put downs, for example— could be really funny. But this isn’t the case in this movie, as Trilby vents his angry language at young children and their parents. He’s really not a nice guy. In fact, he’s downright merciless. Now, I wouldn’t have a problem with any of this if in fact he and this film were funny, but the sad truth is, the film takes on a dark tone rather than a comedic one, and never generates the types of laughs needed to make this a successful comedy.

And that’s because the driving force of this movie is the question, why is Trilby so intent on winning this spelling bee? What in his past has made him this bitter? That’s what Jenny the reporter spends nearly the whole movie trying to find out. And once we find out, it’s just not that compelling a reason, and it certainly doesn’t justify Trilby’s behavior. He’s not the first person to experience this particular problem.

Trilby comes off as such an obnoxious character, he’s nearly impossible to like, and I certainly didn’t care what happened to him, nor did I feel any sympathy for him because of his unpleasant past.

Strangely, BAD WORDS plays more like a drama than a comedy. We have this bitter man intent on winning a spelling bee, and he’s not above sabotaging the efforts of both the other children and their parents. Handled in an over-the-top way, this movie could have been amusing, but the film plays it straight. The “comedy” supposedly comes from Trilby’s foul-mouthed tirades, but the problem is they’re not comical. Instead, his words come off as mean and hurtful, and there’s just not much that’s funny about that.

Then there’s the relationship between Trilby and the young boy Chai. Their buddy antics are supposed to be humorous, but again, they are anything but. Trilby’s behavior with the boy should have gotten him arrested. Let’s see, he brings the boy to a bar and buys him alcohol, takes him to see a stripper, teaches him to steal, encourages him to play mean practical jokes on people, and takes him on a high speed chase in a car. Yeah. Nice role model. Now, I would be ready to forgive all this if in fact the story was funny. But the bottom line is BAD WORDS is not funny.

The screenplay by Andrew Dodge is exceedingly odd. Let’s start with the premise. The idea of a grown man entering a middle school spelling bee is a strange one. I’ll admit. I was somewhat curious about it, but within the first five minutes of the film my curiosity was replaced with repugnance. Guy Trilby is such a despicable person, I couldn’t believe I was going to have to sit through a 90 minute movie about this guy. And since he’s the main character in this comedy, he’s the main reason the comedy doesn’t work.

Let’s watch Guy sabotage his fellow student participants. Let’s watch him pour ketchup on a chair and convince a young girl that she’s having her first period, humiliating her to the point where she can’t take the stage. Let’s watch him verbally attack and assault a young boy’s mother. Let’s watch him get a young boy drunk. You get the idea.

I may have laughed once during this movie.

Why Jason Bateman chose to direct this movie I have no idea. As Guy Trilby, Bateman is okay, but it’s such a weird character. He’s too vicious to be funny, and his background story just isn’t dark enough to justify his behavior.

Then there’s the cute kid, Chai, played with sweet enthusiasm by Rohan Chand, who seems to be in this movie for the sole purpose of being corrupted by Guy Trilby.

Kathryn Hahn is okay as reporter Jenny Widgeon, and Allison Janney does what she can in a dull role as Dr. Bernice Deagan. Janney is a very good actress who deserves better film roles than this.

However you slice it or spell it, BAD WORDS is pretty bad. In Spelling Bee speak, it’s simply flagitious.

I give it one knife.

—END—

 

 

YOUR MOVIE LISTS: BRUCE DERN

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Bruce Dern hijacks the Goodyear Blimp in BLACK SUNDAY (1977)

Bruce Dern hijacks the Goodyear Blimp in BLACK SUNDAY (1977)

YOUR MOVIE LISTS: Bruce Dern

By Michael Arruda

To go along with my recent review of NEBRASKA (2013), which starred Bruce Dern in an Oscar-nominated performance, here is a partial list of movies featuring Bruce Dern, excluding his many TV credits:

MARNIE (1964) – The first film in which I saw Bruce Dern. His brief appearance in a key flashback in this Alfred Hitchcock thriller starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery is one of the movie’s highlights. In his one scene, Dern is oh-so-creepy, especially in his white wife-beater T-shirt.

HUSH— HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964) – Hanging out with Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland in a southern mansion in this disturbing thriller.

HANG ‘EM HIGH (1968) – Up to no good in this early Clint Eastwood western.

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF! (1969) – One of the villainous Danby family in this comedy western starring James Garner.

THE INCREDIBLE 2-HEADED TRANSPLANT (1971) – One of my favorite low-budget horror movies from the 1970s. Dern plays a scientist who for some reason thinks it’s a good idea to attach the head of a murderer/rapist to his slow-witted and immensely powerful gardener. Duh!

THE COWBOYS (1972) – Dern plays the villain in this John Wayne western, giving the Duke and his group of teenage cowboys all they can handle, and then some!

SILENT RUNNING (1972) – With robots Huey & Dewey in this 1970s science fiction classic directed by Douglas Trumbull.

THE GREAT GATSBY (1974) – Even though he’s miscast as Tom Buchanan, Dern makes the role his own, and the result is a somewhat fresh interpretation of the character.

POSSE (1975) – One of my favorite Bruce Dern roles, as an outlaw on the run from sheriff Kirk Douglas in this lively western.

FAMILY PLOT (1976) – Dern returns to work with Hitchcock twelve years after MARNIE in Hitchcock’s final film, a comedy thriller about murder and psychics.

BLACK SUNDAY (1977) – Hands down, my favorite Bruce Dern role. He plays a disturbed Vietnam veteran manipulated by a terrorist group into pulling off a terrorist attack at the Super Bowl. Exciting thriller by director John Frankenheimer. Also features knock-out performances by Robert Shaw and Marthe Keller. Memorable, intense conclusion in the skies above the Super Bowl as Dern and friends hijack the Goodyear Blimp and attempt to obliterate the stadium, while Israeli agent Shaw and American agents try to stop them. Dern’s never been more psychotic.

COMING HOME (1978) – Dern received his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in this Vietnam veteran drama.

THE DRIVER (1978) – Dern is cast against type as a police detective chasing Ryan O’Neal’s getaway driver in this stylish thriller by director Walter Hill.

THE HAUNTING (1999) – Dern’s brief appearance does little to lift this awful remake starring Liam Neeson.

TWIXT (2011) – Stylish low-budget thriller written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Dern enjoys a substantial role as Sheriff Bobby LaGrange in this one.

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) – Small role in Quentin Tarrantino’s instant western classic.

NEBRASKA (2013) – Dern’s performance as aging alcoholic Woody Grant earned him an Oscar Nomination for Best Actor in this quirky slice-of-life drama by director Alexander Payne.

And there you have it, some highlights from the film career of Bruce Dern.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

NEBRASKA (2013) Showcases A Father’s and Son’s Journey

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Nebraska posterBlu-Ray Review: NEBRASKA (2013)
By
Michael Arruda

I missed NEBRASKA when it came out in theaters, but I was eager to see it on Blu-ray because as a longtime fan of Bruce Dern, I wanted to see his Oscar-nominated performance.

It was well worth the wait.

In NEBRASKA, Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a man clearly in the final stages of life, who may or may not be slipping into Alzheimer’s. He lives in Montana with his nagging wife Kate (June Squibb), and his present existence is lost and directionless. The film opens with him wandering along the highway where he’s picked up by the police.

At the police station, Woody tells his son David (Will Forte) that he was walking to Nebraska to collect the million dollars he had won. Woody shows David what he believes to be the notice proving that he’s won a million dollars. In reality, it’s a publishing clearing house letter, and David tries without success to tell his dad that this doesn’t mean he’s won a million dollars, to which Woody responds that it must be true since it says so in the letter.

Woody’s other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) along with Kate wants to put Woody in a home, but David feels bad for his dad and in a spur of the moment decision, in part because he’s in a rut with his own life and could use the time away, decides to drive his dad to Nebraska to collect his winnings. David understands that the money isn’t the real issue for Woody. The real issue is his dad sees his life as worthless, and he needs a purpose to get out and do something, in this case to take a road trip to collect his million dollars.

So father and son head off to Nebraska and end up in the town Woody grew up in, where they reunite with Woody’s extended family, his brothers and their adult children, David’s cousins, as well as Woody’s former friends and acquaintances. Of course, when people learn that Woody has “won a million dollars” he becomes somewhat of a local celebrity, even being asked to do a newspaper interview. Soon things take a darker turn as family and friends alike begin to ask Woody for some of his winnings, and one former friend Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), even makes threats against him.

NEBRASKA is a slow-paced slice-of-life movie about life in mid-western America which reflects the sadness and poor economy of the past decade. It certainly paints a less than flattering picture of rural America.

As advertised, Bruce Dern is excellent as Woody Grant, an aging alcoholic whose life has seemingly passed him by. With his mental faculties in a deteriorating state, he’s a sad lonely figure who seems to have made the realization that his life wasn’t much to begin with. In one of the movie’s most poignant moments, near the end, Woody tells his son David why the money means so much to him, as he wants to be able to leave something to his children after he’s gone, and he wants to do this because he realizes that without this money, he has nothing to give.

Dern’s performance reminded me of Frank Langella’s similar performance in ROBOT AND FRANK (2012), a film where Langella played an aging father and former jewel thief dealing with a failing memory due to Alzheimer’s, the difference being Langella’s character had more spunk and was still up for the battle. Dern’s Woody is on his last leg. He’s tired, worn out, and aimless, with nothing seemingly to live for other than collecting his million dollars. To Woody, there hasn’t been much in his life worth getting exciting about other than booze. He’s not a character you want to look up to or emulate.

Yet, there’s more to Woody than meets the eye. On their journey together, David learns some things about his father that he never knew before, things that help explain his father’s behavior over the years. David learns that Woody was shot down over Korea, and that when he returned home, he was never the same. David also meets a woman running the local newspaper who tells him that years ago she almost married his dad, but lost out to David’s mother. David seems shocked to learn that another woman would even have feelings towards his dad, let alone be head over heels in love with him.

As David, Will Forte is almost as good as Dern, playing the son who loves his dad and is trying to do right by him, in spite of what he sees as his dad’s efforts to make things as difficult as possible. But unlike the rest of his family, he understands his dad and is always ready to cut him some slack and do what he can to help him.

June Squibb turns in a potent and hilarious performance in her Oscar-nominated role as Woody’s wife Kate. She’s a take-charge no-nonsense woman who’s constantly berating and talking down to her husband. Still, she gets the most laugh-out-loud moments in the movie.

Bob Odenkirk, who played the unscrupulous lawyer Saul Goodman on TV’s BREAKING BAD (“better call Saul”) is also memorable here as Woody’s oldest son Ross, who sides more with his mom Kate than Woody. And Stacy Keach is sufficiently cold and villainous as the who-needs-a-friend-like-this Ed Pegram, who makes it clear to David that his dad owes him money, and if he doesn’t pay up, there’s going to be trouble.

The entire cast is very good, but the film belongs to Dern, who does a nice job creating the character of Woody Grant, a man in the deep twilight of his years, sad, lost, and barely cognizant of what’s going on in his life, yet he remains sensitive enough to know that the million dollars gives him the opportunity to leave something to his adult sons, which obviously is a value that is important to him. Woody is not a loser. He’s an alcoholic.

Dern also gives Woody a quirkiness that is quite funny. One of his best scenes is when David asks Woody about his relationship with his mom, and Woody admits that he was never really in love with her. He married her because she asked him, and he figured, why the hell not? David is shocked to learn that his parents didn’t even talk about having kids, that the extent of their planning was that Woody “liked to screw.” The scenes with Woody’s brothers and extended family are priceless.

Director Alexander Payne has made another deliberate paced slice-of-life quirky drama that captures American life in a way that is not always flattering, yet always seems heartfelt and sincere, and so does not come across so much as a critique as it does a sad rendering.

While I enjoyed his previous films THE DESCENDANTS (2011) and SIDEWAYS (2004) better than NEBRASKA, in that both these films possessed more energy, I did prefer this one more than his earlier effort ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002). All of these films have been about journeys, as the main characters in these stories take a trip and learn about themselves. The journey in NEBRASKA may be the saddest of all of these, as Dern’s Woody might be the most desperate of all the characters yet in a Payne movie. Yet, the film is not a downer, and the ending to this particular story is certainly satisfying and uplifting.

The screenplay by Bob Nelson tells a memorable story about a man who at first glance seems like a poor candidate to build a story upon, but there’s more to Woody than meets the eye, and it’s these revelations that give both the character and his story some depth. Nelson’s story also has something to say about life in rural America, families, and what it means to be a man. Woody often seems to be fighting not only for his legacy but also for his manhood. He even admits that he drinks because he has to live with David’s mother. In fact, in scenes with Woody’s extended family, all the men sit silently in front of the television, while the women speak actively and aggressively in the next room, as they are clearly the ones pulling all the strings.

NEBRASKA is more than just a story about life in rural America. It’s also a portrait of how families interact, how people age, and how elderly parents and their adult children treat each other. It tells the tale of one man who seems ill-equipped to deal with these things, yet somehow, in the single act of wanting to leave something for his children, he does.

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