CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: TED 2 (2015)

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Here’s my Cinema Knife Fight review of TED 2, which appeared at cinemaknifefight.com this past weekend.

—Michael

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT:  TED 2 (2015)Ted 2 poster

Movie Review by Michael Arruda

(THE SCENE:  A Comic Con in some big city.  Amidst a crowd of enthusiastic fans dressed as their favorite superheroes, STAR TREK and STAR WARS characters, sits MICHAEL ARRUDA at a table next to the LOST IN SPACE Robot.)

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Welcome everyone to today’s Cinema Knife Fight column.  No, that’s not L.L. Soares dressed as the LOST IN SPACE Robot.  That’s the actual Robot!

ROBOT:  It is I.  The Robot!  Here as a guest on Cinema Knife Fight.

MA:  Happy to have you, and we’re here today because one of the scenes in today’s movie— TED 2— takes place at a Comic Con like this one, and my friend here, the LOST IN SPACE Robot, happens to be in that scene.  It might be my favorite part of this movie.

ROBOT:  Affirmative!  I am the life of this movie.

MA:  Well, I wish you were.  You don’t have any lines or anything, but I was still happy to see you.

ROBOT:  That’s right.  I didn’t have any lines.  What was my agent thinking?  There just aren’t any good roles for an aging robot, these days!

MA:  Well, even you couldn’t have saved this movie.

Yep, today on Cinema Knife Fight, I’m reviewing TED 2, and I’m flying solo this week because L.L. Soares had sense enough to skip this one.

I’m going to get right to the point: I hated TED 2.

ROBOT:  Hate?  Hate is a strong word.  I advise you to avoid using it, Will Robinson.

MA:  It’s okay.  This isn’t a LOST IN SPACE episode.  We can say hate here.  And I’m not Will Robinson.

ROBOT:  Of course you are not!  Did I say that you were?  Eh hem.

MA (to audience):  I think he’s having a senior robot moment.

ROBOT:  I heard that!

MA:  As I was saying, I did not like TED 2 at all.  It’s one of my least favorite movies of the year.  Why, you ask?  Well, read on!

TED 2 is the sequel to the hit movie TED (2012), the Seth MacFarlane comedy about a toy stuffed bear come to life.  I was not crazy about TED, but I enjoyed the foul-mouthed talking bear, as I found him quite funny, and I enjoyed the way he interacted with his best buddy John (Mark Wahlberg).  They were a hoot together.  What I didn’t like about it was its story which I found to be a bore, a tale of John trying to choose between Ted and his girlfriend.  Seriously?  But the bear was funny.

Now comes the sequel, TED 2.  Ted is now married, while John is divorced.  Ted’s marriage is not going that well, so he takes a co-worker’s advice and decides he and his wife should have a baby because having children will bring a troubled couple closer together.  Really?  Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.

Ted, of course, since he’s a toy bear, can’t have children, and so he and John concoct a plan to steal sperm from New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, in a scene that is flat out weird and way too creepy to be funny.  When their attempt fails, John agrees to donate his own sperm, but then Ted learns that his wife Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) cannot have children, so they decide to adopt.  They are turned down because in the eyes of the law, Ted is not a person and so he can’t adopt a child.

They decide to take Ted’s case to court, to have the legal system declare him a person, and so they hire a young attorney Samantha (Amanda Seyfried) to take on the case.  The rest of the movie follows their efforts to have Ted declared a person, and they have to overcome one obstacle after another, including the return of Donny (Giovanni Ribisi), the psycho from the first movie who was obsessed with Ted, and he’s back again, still trying to tear Ted away from John.

So, why isn’t TED 2 funny?

I don’t think I have time in one review to list all the reasons.

Let’s start with the humor.  It’s pretty much the lowest common denominator of humor.  Drug jokes, bathroom jokes, and sex jokes, and as for the rest, it is simply not creative enough to get laughs.  It’s almost as if Seth MacFarlane thinks his reputation at being a “bad boy in comedy” is enough.  If he’s vulgar and shocking enough, everything else will fall into place. Well, it’s not enough.  The jokes have to be funny, and in this movie, they are not.  And that’s the number one problem with TED 2.  It’s simply not funny.

There are jokes galore.  They’re nonstop, which makes the fact that the film didn’t make me laugh all the more amazing.

The film tries to be creative with its humor, and there’s plenty of star power here, but oddly none of it works.  There’s a cameo with Liam Neeson shopping at the supermarket discussing with Ted if it’s okay for him to eat Trix breakfast cereal since he’s not a kid.  Trix are for kids, get it?  Ha Ha.  Not.  I think I laughed when I first saw Neeson because of the potential this scene had, but then it went nowhere.

(LIAM NEESON walks by the table.)

NEESON:  I understand you didn’t like my cameo.

ROBOT (Points to MA):  He didn’t.  I liked it just fine.

MA:  No.  I didn’t like it.  I’m surprised you even did it.

NEESON:  I have bills to pay.

MA:  Don’t we all.

NEESON:  Maybe you would have liked it better if we used a different cereal.  Fruit Loops, maybe.

MA:  Follow your nose.

NEESON: Are you making fun of my nose?

MA:  No.  It’s the line from the Fruit Loops commercials with Toucan Sam.

NEESON: You might want to be careful with what you say.  I put the last guy who criticized me in the hospital.

ROBOT:  Danger!  Danger, Will Robinson!

NEESON:  Just sayin.  (Exits.)

MA:  Don’t sweat it, Robot.  He’ll get over it.

Anyway, then there’s the conclusion at Comic Con.  This sequence should have been hilarious.  It includes a slapstick fight in which fans dressed as comic book and science fiction characters duke it out, and so we see the Lost in Space Robot tangle with a Dalek from Dr. Who, superheroes and Star Trek characters going at it, and even Godzilla gets in on the act.  It’s a geek’s dream!  But it’s not funny.

Patrick Warburton returns from the first movie, once again playing Guy, and in this film Michael Dorn (Worf from STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION) plays his gay lover.  There’s a gag in the Comic Con sequence where Warburton dresses as The Tick (the title character he played in the short-lived TV series in the early 2000s) and Dorn dresses as Worf, and they go around the convention tripping people and pouring drinks on them all the while insulting them.  This is supposed to be humorous.  It’s not.  It’s painfully unfunny!

(WORF approaches.) WORF:  It is not honorable for a Klingon to poke fun at himself!

MA:  So, you saw TED 2?

WORF:  TED 2?  What is that?

ROBOT:  TED 2 is an American comedy written and directed by Seth MacFarlane.  It stars Mark Wahlberg and—.

WORF:  Enough!  I do not care about such trivial matters as motion pictures!

MA:  So, what were you talking about when you said Klingon’s shouldn’t poke fun at themselves?

WORF:  I was talking about him!  (Points to a Klingon performing Karaoke in front of an audience).  He is a disgrace!

MA:  Yup.  He can’t hold a tune to save his life, but he’s not really a Klingon.  He’s a fan dressed as a Klingon.

WORF:  Klingons do not have fans!  We have adversaries and enemies!  (Exits.)

ROBOT:  He suffers from a maladjusted disposition.  In short, he’s a grump!

MA:  I’m going to continue now with the review.

In the first film, Mark Wahlberg and Ted were funny together.  They’re not here.  All the jokes seem rehashed.  I like Mark Wahlberg a lot.  It was painful to watch him play this role.

Likewise, I’m a big Amanda Seyfried fan, and again, it was excruciating to see her play this awful role.  In one scene for example she’s reduced to smoking pot from a bong shaped like a penis.  Speaking of penises, there’s a running gag about them in this film which has to do with internet searches and what pops up whenever you do a search on the internet.  All I kept thinking is this is the best a guy like Seth MacFarlane could come up with?

It gets worse.

We have to see lots of scenes where Ted argues with his wife Tami-Lynn, and she throws things at him and swears at him nonstop with her South Boston accent.  She’s reduced to a bad stereotype, and these scenes are also painful to watch.

Sam Jones, Flash Gordon himself is back from the first movie, only this time his scenes are as funny as Ming the Merciless.  Also back from the first movie is Bill Smitrovich as Ted’s boss Frank.  In the first film, Smitrovich’s scenes were a highlight and were laugh-out loud funny.  He’s reduced to one scene in the sequel, and it’s a straight scene, no comedy or jokes involved.  Really?

Giovanni Ribisi is back again as psycho Donny.  A lot of people liked Donny in the first film.  I thought his subplot was the worst part of the first movie.  In TED 2 Donny is still out to get Ted, and I still don’t care.

Even Morgan Freeman shows up.  What are all these people doing in this movie?  Does Seth MacFarlane have compromising photographs of these folks?

Freeman delivers a dramatic courtroom monologue about why Ted should be considered a person.  Now we get to one of the most insulting parts of TED 2, the parallels that this movie makes between Ted’s plight and the civil rights movement.

Are we supposed to take this story about Ted seriously?  Absolutely not, which to me, makes the references in this movie to the plight of those fighting for equal rights throughout history, offensive.  Well, maybe offensive is too strong a word, but it just rubbed me the wrong way. TED 2 as a vehicle for social commentary is like having Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels as the poster boys for special education.  No.

Only John Slattery from TV’s MAD MEN comes out okay.  Slattery plays a smooth talking winner-take-all district attorney, and he plays the role straight.  He has his one scene and pretty much makes sense as he makes his case convincingly as to why Ted is not a person.  Slattery might be the only person in this movie who doesn’t embarrass himself.

And regarding the “star” of this one, Ted the Bear, the CGI creation performed by Seth MacFarlane, he was my favorite part of the first movie, but sadly, he’s nowhere near as funny the second time around.  In fact, I found him flat out annoying in this sequel.

I did something during TED 2 I hardly ever do in a movie.  I found myself looking at my watch, and I was shocked to see that only one hour had gone by.  It felt like two.  Worse, TED 2 is a two hour movie, and so there was still yet another agonizing hour to go.

TED 2 was written and directed by Seth MacFarlane, and Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild also contributed to the screenplay.  It gives me no pleasure to write negatively about other people’s work, but there’s not much positive I can say about this one.   It all comes down to laughter.  And I simply didn’t laugh during this movie.

One thing I did like about this movie is a large chunk of it takes place in Boston, and the shots of Boston look good.  But I can drive to Boston on my own and don’t need a movie to show me how good it looks.

Want to watch a funny movie that mixes humor with vulgarity and off color jokes?  Watch an old Mel Brooks movie instead.

I give it half a knife.

And it gets half a knife because I like both Mark Wahlberg and Amanda Seyfried, and also because I can’t give a movie which features an appearance by the LOST IN SPACE Robot 0 knives, no matter how bad it is.

And at half a knife, that makes TED 2 the worst movie I’ve seen this year.

Okay, Robot, we’re done here.  I think I’ll take a stroll and browse around.

ROBOT: A good idea.  May I browse around with you?

MA:  Sure.  Come along.  It’ll be fun.

ROBOT:  We are going to browse around.

MA:  Come on, Robot.  I see some cool LOST IN SPACE merchandise over there.  Let’s check it out.

ROBOT:  This is going to be surreal.

—END—

YOUR MOVIE LISTS: THE TERMINATOR MOVIES

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YOUR MOVIE LISTS:  THE TERMINATOR Movies TheTerminator

By Michael Arruda

With the upcoming release of TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015), the latest installment in the TERMINATOR series opening on June 30, 2015, here’s a look back at the TERMINATOR movies:

 

THE TERMINATOR (1984)

Directed by James Cameron

Screenplay by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd, with additional dialogue by William Wisher, Jr.

Terminator:  Arnold Schwarzenegger

Sarah Connor:  Linda Hamilton

Kyle Reese:  Michael Biehn

Lieutenant Ed Traxler:  Paul Winfield

Detective Hal Vukovich:  Lance Henriksen

Music by Brad Fiedel

Running Time:  107 minutes

The film that pretty much made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star.  His role as the brutal unstoppable robot Terminator is one of his best.

This early James Cameron film is tighter and less elaborate than his subsequent efforts and is better for it.  It’s a gripping thriller filled with edge-of-your-seat moments, a nonstop thrill ride that satisfies from beginning to end.

Linda Hamilton also stands out as Sarah Connor, the unknowing young woman who suddenly finds herself a target of the Terminator, sent back in time to kill her because in the future her son will lead the resistance against the machines which eventually try to take over the human race.

Notable also as the only film in the series where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is the villain.  In future installments he becomes the hero, a switch that worked to some degree, but the fact of the matter is he was so good as the villainous Terminator that his evil take on the character is definitely lacking in future installments.

For my money, this first TERMINATOR movie is the best of the series.

 

 

TERMINATOR 2:  JUDGMENT DAY (1991)

Directed by James Cameron

Screenplay by James Cameron and William Wisher

The Terminator:  Arnold Schwarzenegger

Sarah Connor:  Linda Hamilton

John Connor:  Edward Furlong

T-1000:  Robert Patrick

Music by Brad Fiedel

Running Time: 137 minutes

This TERMINATOR sequel gets the full James Cameron treatment, as everything is bigger and more elaborate.  As a result, this one showcases superior special effects, and many consider this sequel to be the best in the series, although I give a slight edge to the original.

It would have been an even darker movie than the first one except that Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is now “good” and a hero, and the villain here is Robert Patrick’s T-1000.  Patrick isn’t bad, and the special effects which create his liquid transformation abilities are phenomenal, but he’s no Schwarzenegger, and the film suffers for it.  The Schwarzenegger baddie is definitely missed here.

Still, it’s another exciting thrill ride, a worthy successor to the original.

 

 

TERMINATOR 3:  RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003)

Directed by Jonathan Mostow

Screenplay by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris

Terminator:  Arnold Schwarzenegger

John Connor:  Nick Stahl

Kate Brewster:  Claire Danes

T-X:  Kristanna Loken

Music by Marco Beltrami

Running Time:  109 minutes

Third film in the series is the weakest, although it has grown on me over the years.  This tale of another Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent back in time to protect a now adult John Connor (Nick Stahl) from a more advanced and much more dangerous Terminator, the T-X (Kristanna Loken) suffers heavily from  the  “been there, done that” syndrome.  Notable for the first ever female terminator, the T-X, and Kristanna Loken does a nice job in the role, although still, she’s not as memorable or effective as Schwarzenegger was in the original film.

James Cameron’s talents are definitely missed in this third installment.

 

 

TERMINATOR:  SALVATION (2009)

Directed by McG

Screenplay by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris

John Connor:  Christian Bale

Marcus Wright:  Sam Worthington

Blair Williams:  Moon Bloodgood

Dr. Serena Kogan:  Helena Bonham Carter

Kyle Reese:  Anton Yelchin

Kate Connor:  Bryce Dallas Howard

Music by Danny Elfman

Running Time:  115 minutes

First TERMINATOR movie without Arnold Schwarzenegger is an attempt to reinvent the series.  A lot of fans did not like this movie, but I found it interesting and fun.  Sam Worthington plays new character Marcus Wright whose mysterious past drives this story along.  Christian Bale is decent as John Connor, although the story revolves more around Wright than it does Connor.

Not bad, and certainly helped by a strong cast. Good job by all involved.

 

 

TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015)

Directed by Alan Taylor

Screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier

Terminator:  Arnold Schwarzenegger

Sarah Connor:  Emilia Clarke

Kyle Reese:  Jai Courtney

Detective O’Brien:  J.K.Simmons

John Connor:  Jason Clarke

T-1000:  Byung-hun Lee

T-800: Aaron V. Williamson

Music by Lorne Balfe

Running Time:  125 minutes

Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to the series in a story that features an alternate timeline, as Kyle Reese is once again sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor, only this time things are completely different because the timeline has been changed.

Opens on June 30, 2015.

 

 

There was also the TV series TERMINATOR:  THE SARAH CHRONICLES which ran for two seasons (2008-2009) and followed Sarah Connor and her son John after the events of TERMINATOR 2:  JUDGMENT DAY.

 

 

That’s it for now.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 (2015) Moves Series Further Into Mediocrity

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Insdious-Chapter-3-posterMOVIE REVIEW:  INSIDIOUS:  CHAPTER 3 (2015)

By Michael Arruda

 

In the INSIDIOUS movies, the demon world where much of the action takes place is known as “the Further.”  This name is apropos, because with INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 now in theaters, if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that the series has moved further towards mediocrity.

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 is a prequel to the first two INSIDIOUS movies, and as such, it basically tells two stories.  The story INSIDIOUS fans are most interested in is the background/origin story of an integral character from the first two movies, clairvoyant and demon hunter Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), a character who actually died at the end of the first

movie.  She appeared in the second movie moving about inside the Further.  In INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3, we learn more about how she first started fighting demons.

Sort of.

The second story told in INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 is the tale of young Quinn (Stefanie Scott) who runs afoul a demon when she tries to contact her deceased mother.  It’s this case that brings Elise into contact with the Further and the evil demons that reside there.

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 opens as Quinn visits Elise seeking out her help in order to communicate with her deceased mother.  Elise at first declines, saying she doesn’t do that kind of work anymore, but she gives in and attempts to reach Elise’s mother.  Instead, Elise hears from a demon, a mysterious woman demon who’s been haunting Elise for some time, telling Elise that she is going to kill her.

So, this isn’t the first time that Elise has dealt with demons or the Further, and so the events here aren’t really an “origin” story because Elise has already encountered the demon world.

Against Elise’s advice, Quinn continues to try to contact her mother, and as a result, she attracts the attention of another demon— who knew demons were so active? — known as “The Man Who Can’t Breathe”— who suddenly makes it his mission to haunt and terrorize Quinn and her family.

Eventually, things get so bad that Elise can’t say no any longer, and she takes on the case, setting up the big battle between humans and demons.  Hmm.  Been there.  Done that.  And with much more satisfying results in the first INSIDOUS movie.

The first INSIDIOUS (2010) movie is one of my favorite horror movies of the past decade.  INSIDIOUS:  CHAPTER 2 (2013) wasn’t as good, but it was still mildly entertaining, and it managed to get pretty creative as characters in the sequel went back into events from the first movie giving these scenes added meaning.  It was all pretty neat.

Now comes INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3, a prequel that for me, never quite hit its stride.  I’m not a big fan of prequels anyway, but that being said, I had an open mind about this one.  It just never won me over.

For starters, I thought the new demon story featuring Quinn and her family, mostly her caring dad Sean (Dermot Mulroney) was pretty lame.  Quinn has lost her mom recently to cancer, and her dad is struggling to raise her and her younger brother Alex.  These scenes offered nothing new, and I was hard pressed to feel for this family when nothing about them was insightful or refreshing.

And while there are some scares here and there, they are nothing like the scares generated in the original INSIDIOUS.  That film had its the audience screaming out loud.  In INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3, the audience barely made a sound.  The scariest scene doesn’t involve a demon at all but an unexpected car accident that provides a quick jolt.

That being said, I do like the way the INSIDIOUS films handle demons and the Further.  The world created inside these INSIDIOUS movies is a creative one, and it’s always creepy and eerie.  A lot of imagination goes into the demons in these movies, and I appreciate this.  I just wish as much imagination went into the human characters in this third installment.  Also, the demons have become progressively less frightening with each episode.

As much as I enjoyed the character of Elise Rainier in the first two movies, one of the reasons I enjoyed her so much was that she was a small part of a bigger picture.  The main characters in the first two movies were the members of Lambert family.  Elise is less effective as a main character.  Plus we already know her fate, as she dies at the end of the first movie.

And when Elise finally goes up against the demons, she defeats them too easily.  These are demons for crying out loud!  To get rid of them, one should have to do more than just give them a good shove and shout “Go away!”

As she was in the first two movies, Lin Shaye is very good as Elise Rainer, the woman who can’t seem to stop tangling with demons.  But is Elise a strong enough character to carry a whole movie on her own?  I’m not so sure about that.

Stefanie Scott is okay as Quinn Brenner, but I was less impressed with Dermot Mulroney’s performance as Quinn’s dad Sean.  I found him whiny and unlikable, and there was something very grating about his performance.

Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell return as amateur ghost hunters Tucker and Specs, and they once more provide the film’s comic relief.  Yet with each successive movie their shtick grows thinner and less funny.

Whannell wrote all three INSIDIOUS movies, and he’s at the helm here for the first time as the director of INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3.  I can’t fault his scripts all that much, because to be honest, I like the demon world he has created in this series.  But in terms of the whole package, the story told in this third segment was much more mediocre than the ones told in the first two movies.

And I realize the movie is entitled INSIDIOUS:  CHAPTER 3, but do we really want movies to play like chapters in a novel?  This approach works with a television series, but not with a movie.

With a TV show, you only have to wait a week for the next episode, or in today’s streaming market, there’s no wait at all.  With a movie, you have to wait a much longer time, usually more than a year.  So, if you’re stuck watching a mediocre “chapter,” with a television show, it’s on to the next episode and it’s no big deal.  You can’t do that with a movie.

Plus, movie tickets cost a decent chunk of change!  Do I really want to shell out $11.00 for a ticket and then settle for an average 90 minutes?  No way!  When I pay for a ticket, I want to see the filmmaker’s best effort.  Always.  Episodic filmmaking is the wrong way to go.  Movies should stand alone, even if they’re part of a series.

Whannell does a decent job at the helm, although I think director James Wan did a better job generating scares in the first two movies.

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 benefits from being part of the INSIDIOUS universe.  I like the demons and the world they live in, and I like main character Elise Rainer and watching her take on these evil entities, even if I don’t think she’s a strong enough character to carry a movie.  But the other story of teen Quinn Brenner and how she runs afoul of a demon and eventually needs Elise’s help, never won me over, mostly because it was a retread of things that have happened before.  It’s also not even close to being as scary or as intense as the original film in the series.

INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 isn’t a bad movie, but it is a mediocre one.  The demons in the Further deserve better.

—END—

CHRISTOPHER LEE – AN APPRECIATION

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CHRISTOPHER LEE – An Appreciation

Christopher Lee as Dracula in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).

Christopher Lee as Dracula in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).

By Michael Arruda

Christopher Lee has died.

Lee, the last of the iconic classic horror movie actors, passed away on Sunday June 7, 2015.  He was 93.

Lee belonged to a class of actors that simply doesn’t exist anymore:  the horror movie icon.  Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, and Christopher Lee all made their living acting primarily in horror movies, and they endeared themselves to horror fans their entire careers.  You just don’t see that anymore.

Sadly, with Lee’s passing, these horror giants have all left us.

Lee enjoyed a long and prolific career.  He has an astounding 278 acting credits listed on IMDB, which is much more than Karloff’s 206, Price’s 197, Chaney’s 195, Cushing’s 132, and Lugosi’s 115.

In spite of his iconic horror star status, Lee did his best to distance himself from horror movies in the 1970s, as he starred as the villain Scaramanga in the James Bond movie THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974) and appeared in other non-genre films like Richard Lester’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973) and AIRPORT ’77 (1977).  Later in his career, at an age where most other actors slow down, Lee sped up, appearing in not one but two blockbuster series in the 2000s, starring as Count Dooku in the second STAR WARS trilogy, and as the villainous Saruman in Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, as a result creating a new generation of fans.

Lee’s horror movie career began with his performance as the Frankenstein monster, or as he was called in the film, the “Creature,” in the first Hammer blockbuster THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957).  This was the movie that put Hammer Films on the map and also served to revitalize the classic horror movie industry.  It was England’s biggest money maker of the year.

The film’s main star was Peter Cushing, who played Victor Frankenstein.  Cushing had spent the early part of the 1950s becoming a household name on British television.  Signing him to play Victor Frankenstein was a major coup on Hammer’s part.  As expected, Cushing dominates throughout THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and his masterful performance as Victor Frankenstein is one of the main reasons the film became an international success.

But another reason for the film’s success was the performance of an unknown actor named Christopher Lee who played the Creature.  It is largely believed and acknowledged by Lee that the only reason he got the part was because of his 6’5” height.

Early on, Lee was not recognized by critics for his performance as the Creature, which was viewed as inferior to Karloff’s iconic performance in the Universal Frankenstein movies of the 1930s.  But there’s much more to Lee’s performance than initially meets the eye.

It’s easy to look past Lee’s work in this film.  After all, the movie is largely dominated by Peter Cushing and his new villainous take on the role of Baron Victor Frankenstein.

Also, Lee had no dialogue as the Creature, and thirdly and most importantly, the Creature was not the main focus of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.  Unlike the Universal Frankenstein movies of the 1930s where the focus was on the monster, here in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN it was on Cushing’s doctor.

christopher lee - creature in woods- curse of frankenstein

Christopher Lee as the Creature in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957).

All this being said, Lee’s take on the Creature is actually very impressive.  With no lines of dialogue, he used his pantomime skills to a large extent in the role, especially in one of the film’s best scenes, where Cushing tries to show off his Creature’s intelligence, but the Creation looks more like a frightened obedient pet than a newly born genius.

Lee is terribly scary in the role.  Underneath Phil Leakey’s hideous make-up, Lee’s expressions are viciously frightening.  Lee also captures both sides of this Creature brilliantly.  While Lee’s Creature is less sympathetic than Karloff’s Monster, as Lee’s Creature is a psychotic murderer who kills without remorse for most of the movie, at times, as in the scene with the blind man, he acts like someone newly born and frightened.  Considering his minimal screen time, it really is an extraordinary performance.

There’s a funny story from the set of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.  Lee was upset that he didn’t have any lines of dialogue, until co-star Peter Cushing told him “You shouldn’t be.  You see, I’ve read the script!”  The two became lifelong friends and would go on to star in twenty-two movies together.

It would take one more movie for Lee to become a household name, and that film was HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).  Lee became an instant sensation as Dracula, the role for which he would become most famous, starring opposite Peter Cushing once again, as this time Cushing played Dr. Van Helsing.

HORROR OF DRACULA is widely considered to be Hammer’s best shocker.

horror-of-dracula-lee in coffin

Lee as Dracula reacting to the staking of his vampire bride in HORROR OF DRACULA (1958).

It’s another amazing performance by Lee.  Cushing again dominates this movie, but Lee matches his co-star’s intensity, which is even more remarkable when you consider that as Dracula he only has 13 lines of dialogue and is onscreen for something like 12 minutes.  Lee is so good as Dracula he remains in your head even when he’s not in the movie.

Though he resisted for many years, Lee finally agreed to play Dracula again in the Hammer sequel DRACULA – PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).  He would appear as Dracula in seven Hammer Dracula films.  The third film in the series, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968) remains Hammer Film’s biggest moneymaker of all time.

My personal favorite Lee roles and movies are THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HORROR OF DRACULA, DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, THE WICKER MAN (1973), THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974), CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958), and THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959).

Lee as Scaramanga in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974).

Lee as Scaramanga in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974).

I was fortunate enough to have met Christopher Lee once, at a horror movie convention in Baltimore in the late 1990s.  It was a wonderful convention, as not only did I meet Lee that weekend, but also Forrest Ackerman, Michael Ripper, Ingrid Pitt, and Veronica Carlson.

I bought Lee’s autobiography that weekend and stood in a long line to have it signed by him.  I looked forward with great anticipation at finally meeting him.  What happened when I eventually reached him was the worst case of being star struck that I ever suffered.

I had thought of all the things I wanted to say.

“Mr. Lee,” I wanted to say.  “I’m a great fan of yours.  I’ve seen all your movies and I want to write about your work one day.  The movies you made with Peter Cushing influenced my life.”

What did I really say?

Probably something like “Um— hello— er— um—.”  It was truly the most tongue-tied moment of my life.  However, I’m pretty sure I managed to say “thank you.”

But the better story came later.  Of all the celebrities there that weekend, Lee was the least accessible.  While other stars were around mingling, Lee never seemed to be separate from his entourage.  I never saw him outside his scheduled appearances, until—.

I had to use the rest room.  After washing my hands, I headed for the exit when the door burst open and several gentlemen the size of football linebackers rushed inside.  They scoped out the rest room, and deeming me not a threat, they called out “all clear!” and the next thing I knew two men, one on each arm, whisked Christopher Lee into the men’s room.

It was like a moment from a SEINFELD episode.  With my back to the wall, I watched as my movie hero Christopher Lee was led past me to the urinal.  Lee said something as he passed by, something to the effect of “I can take care of things from here,” and the men let go of him.

They may not have seen me as a threat, but they also didn’t want me sticking around, as their intense gazes communicated to me.  As I left the restroom, I found my uncle, his son, and my brother waiting for me. They had seen Lee enter the restroom.

My uncle laughed.

“What?”  I said.

“Now you can always say you peed with Christopher Lee,” he said.

That might be my claim to fame.

Of course the big news that weekend was that Lee announced he would be appearing in not one, but two major blockbuster productions.  He wasn’t at liberty to tell us the names of these movies, but the news still generated enormous cheers from the audience.  Of course, he was talking about the second STAR WARS trilogy and the LORD OF THE RINGS movies.

Lee as Count Dooku.

Lee as Count Dooku.

Christopher Lee has been an integral part of my entire life.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve been watching movies starring Christopher Lee.  In fact, he’s been part of my life even before I was born.  Huh?  See, my mother saw HORROR OF DRACULA at the movies upon its initial release in 1958 when she was a teenager, and so growing up, I heard all about that movie as being the scariest film she had ever seen.

I’ve seen so many movie images of Christopher Lee, I truly believe his likeness is forever etched in my subconscious.  I close my eyes and there is Lee.

The world has lost a major star with the passing of Christopher Lee.  For those of us who love horror, we have to wonder, will the world see his likeness again?  Will Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Price, Cushing and Lee ever be replaced?  Who working today may step into that role?

I don’t know.

Sure, for me, Peter Cushing has always been my favorite actor.  But Lee is right up there, and he and Cushing complemented each other so well because of their contrasting styles.  Cushing was an active actor, constantly moving around, often using props.  Watch enough Cushing movies and you realize he can’t seem to stay still in his scenes.

Lee is the opposite.  He believed less was more.  He didn’t want to call attention to himself in a scene.  His strength was that he did more with less, which is why he was so effective as Frankenstein’s Creature and as Dracula.  He’d appear in just a handful of scenes, and yet he’d knock your socks off and scare the living daylights out of you.

I will miss Lee tremendously.  Through the magic of movies, we can continue to enjoy Lee’s performances throughout the years.  But I am still saddened to know that he no longer is with us.

A legend has passed.  But like the undead king of the vampires he played so well, his memory and his work are eternal.

CHRISTOPHER LEE – May 27, 1922 – June 7, 2015

Thanks for reading.

—Michael

 

 

 

BREAKING NEWS: CHRISTOPHER LEE HAS DIED

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Christopher LeeCHRISTOPHER LEE – May 27, 1922 – June 7, 2015

By Michael Arruda

 

BREAKING NEWS:  Christopher Lee has died.

Lee, the last of the classic horror movie icons, passed away on Sunday June 7, 2015.  He was 93.

I will be posting an appreciation on Lee’s remarkable career shortly.

As for right now, RIP Christopher Lee.  You will be missed.

Look for the appreciation to be posted at this site very soon.

Thank you.

—Michael

SAN ANDREAS (2015) Weak Entry in Disaster Movie Canon

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san_andreas_movie_poster_1MOVIE REVIEW:  SAN ANDREAS (2015)

By Michael Arruda

 

SAN ANDREAS has more faults than— well, you know.

Yep, SAN ANDREAS is a new disaster film about a powerful earthquake that erupts along the San Andreas Fault— get that opening joke now?— and rocks California, specifically San Francisco.  It has more in common with recent disaster movies like THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004) and 2012 (2009) than with the disaster pics from the 1970s, like EARTHQUAKE (1974).  Of course, the truth is most of these movies were not very good, as the scripts were often pretty bad, as was the case with EARTHQUAKE.  To that end, SAN ANDREAS fits right in.

In SAN ANDREAS, Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) is a scientist who has discovered a way to predict earthquakes.  Unfortunately for him, the largest earthquake ever recorded decides to occur on the same day he makes this discovery, and so while he scrambles to get the word out, it’s not exactly, “hey, there’s going to be an earthquake next week.”  It’s more like “There’s going to be an earthquake in the next 60 seconds. RUN!!!!!!”

Meanwhile, Ray (Dwayne Johnson) is a firefighter/rescue worker/helicopter pilot in Los Angeles who leads a crack team of rescuers who perform amazing feats of bravery.  The film opens with one of these feats, as Ray and his team rescue a young woman whose car zipped off the road and is hanging precariously from a cliff.  Of course, this young woman is seen texting while driving and paying no attention whatsoever to the road, and so I was actually hoping that Ray’s rescue would fail.  But alas, it’s Dwayne Johnson, he’s the hero, and he saves the girl.  What a surprise.

While Ray’s career is thriving, his home life is not.  His wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is divorcing him, leaving him for an ultra-rich new boyfriend Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffud).  Ray does enjoy a good relationship with his twenty-something daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario), but his scars run deep as his other daughter drowned years earlier, and Ray was unable to save her, a fact that has haunted him since and strained his marriage to Emma.

Once the earthquake hits, Blake finds herself amidst the rubble in San Francisco, and Ray decides to fly his chopper from L.A. to San Francisco to rescue his daughter, and of course, his estranged wife Emma joins him as well.  The rest of the film follows their efforts to save Blake.  So, if you’re interested in what happens to the rest of the folks in San Francisco, you’ve come to the wrong movie, since SAN ANDREAS isn’t interested in anyone else but Ray and his family.  It’s as if they’re the only victims of the earthquake.

That’s my first problem with SAN ANDREAS.  By focusing only on Ray and his family, the film loses any grand scope it may have had, and it simply doesn’t work as a disaster movie.  It’s about a massive earthquake, the biggest ever recorded, and yet we never see the results of this destruction.  Oh, thanks to the CGI special effects, we do see buildings collapsing, a humongous Tsunami crashing through San Francisco, and the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge, but we don’t feel the extent of the destruction because there’s one key element missing: the human element.  We don’t have any other characters to follow in this movie.  It’s about Ray and his family and that’s pretty much it.

For this kind of story to work, these main characters need to be compelling and interesting in order to hold our attention throughout the movie, but they are neither.  Instead, they are dull and boring.

The film does give us a few scenes with Paul Giamatti’s character, but he’s away from the action, and he’s even more boring than Ray’s family.

In the opening sequence, we meet Ray and his rescue team.  I thought perhaps this film would be about this team doing their thing to rescue folks during the earthquake.  Not so.  Once the earthquake happens, and Ray learns that his daughter is in danger, he basically highjacks the helicopter and decides on his own without checking with anyone in authority that he’s flying to San Francisco.  Nice going, buddy.  What about the people in Los Angeles who need rescuing?

 

The characters here are cliché and dull.  I like Dwayne Johnson a lot, but this role is about as cliché as you can get.  Ray is a good guy, don’t get me wrong, a guy who doesn’t deserve to have his wife leave him, and in this movie, because he’s such a nice guy, his wife won’t leave him.  Instead, she joins him in the helicopter and together they set out to rescue their daughter in yet another unrealistic story where the estranged couple realizes they shouldn’t have separated, and everything’s better if they stick together.  Ugh.  I enjoyed Johnson much, much more in last year’s HERCULES (2014).

Carla Gugino is OK as Ray’s wife Emma, even though I found the character terribly annoying.  Alexandra Daddario is also just okay as their daughter Blake.  Neither character was all that interesting.

Blake is befriended and rescued by a young British man Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his little brother Ollie (Art Parkinson), two characters and performances that are also average.

Paul Giamatti’s scientist character is hopelessly boring, and Giamatti overacts to compensate, and Ioan Gruffod’s rich boyfriend Daniel is probably the most clichéd of all the characters.  The wealthy “other man” who conveniently turns out to be a wimp and a weasel, making it oh-so-easy for wifey Emma to go back to her hero hubby Ray.  Gag.

The worst culprit though in what makes SAN ANDREAS a bad movie is the screenplay by Carlton Cuse, a man with some decent writing credits, as he’s written episodes for the TV series LOST and BATES MOTEL.  Here, the story is way too limited, focusing only on Ray and his family.  Without other characters, and more importantly, other casualties, the earthquake never seems as deadly as it’s supposed to be.

The dialogue is flat out awful and so sappy you’ll cringe.  When Ray speaks to Blake on the phone and tells her he’s on his way to rescue her, and she hears her mother’s voice in the background, she asks, “Dad?  How is it that you and mom are together?”  Which of course prompts Ray and Emma to gaze warmly into each other’s eyes.

While the film is slick and polished, and there are special effects galore, director Brad Peyton doesn’t really craft any scenes that are dramatically chilling or awe inspiring.  The closest he comes to pulling this off is the tsunami scene, where the great wave crashes down on San Francisco, but even this could have been more frightening and spectacular.

The whole film just lacks that sense of awe-inspiring dread. Part of the problem is I thought the special effects looked rather cartoonish.  Now, I admit, I saw this film in 2D, and it is available in 3D and IMAX prints.  Perhaps those look better.  It was all rather average looking in 2D.

SAN ANDREAS is a weak entry in the disaster movie canon.  It lacks scope and vision, its earthquake isn’t depicted as anything earth shattering (heh heh), and its characters are cliché and dull.  What could have been a rousing film adventure, a story about humanity trying to survive a horrible disaster, is reduced to a predictable plot, a tale of one family’s will to stay together, amidst a powerful earthquake.

How the rest of the west coast fares is anyone’s guess.

—END—

IN THE SHADOWS: MARIA OUSPENSKAYA

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Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva in THE WOLF MAN (1941).

Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva in THE WOLF MAN (1941).

In The Shadows:  MARIA OUSPENSKAYA

 

By Michael Arruda

Welcome to another edition of IN THE SHADOWS, that column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.  Today we look at the career of Maria Ouspenskaya, the actress most famous among horror fans for her portrayal of the gypsy woman Maleva in the Lon Chaney werewolf films THE WOLF MAN (1941) and FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943).

As Maleva, Ouspenskaya endeared herself to horror fans as the sympathetic gypsy woman who befriends Lon Chaney Jr.’s cursed Larry Talbot.  In THE WOLF MAN, it was Maleva’s werewolf son (played by Bela Lugosi!) who bit Larry Talbot and turned him into a werewolf.  Later, it’s Maleva who helps Talbot understand his new condition.

In the sequel FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, it’s Maleva again who comes to Larry’s aid, this time leading him to Castle Frankenstein in search of Dr. Frankenstein, hoping that he can help cure Larry. Unfortunately for them, Dr. Frankenstein is dead, and they find the Monster (Bela Lugosi) instead.

Ouspenskaya shines as Maleva in both these movies, and she’s one of the highlights of both films.

Ouspenskaya taught acting in the 1920s, and she opened her own acting school, the Maria Ouspenskaya School of Dramatic Arts in 1929.  Some of her students included John Garfield, Stella Adler, and Lee Strasberg.  Strasberg honed his famous Method Acting techniques under Ouspenskaya’s guidance, and Adler went on to teach among others Marlon Brando.

Ouspenskaya enjoyed a successful movie career, mostly in non-genre films.  It was a brief one, as she didn’t start acting in movies until late in her career, and it was cut short due to an untimely tragic death.

Here’s a look at some of these movies:

DODSWORTH (1936) – Baroness Von Obersdorf-  Ouspenskaya’s film career gets off to a rousing start as she’s nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in her movie debut at age 60 in this Academy Award winning film by director William Wyler which won an Oscar for Best Art Direction.

LOVE AFFAIR (1939) – Grandmother – nominated for an Oscar again for Best Supporting Actress.  This film was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture but won none.

DR. EHRLICH’S MAGIC BULLET (1940) – Franziska Speyer – Bio pic written by John Huston about Dr. Paul Ehrlich (Edward G. Robinson) who developed the first synthetic antimicrobial drug, which he called a “magic bullet.”

WATERLOO BRIDGE (1940) – Madame Olga Kirowa- Oscar-nominated World War I romance starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor.

THE MORTAL STORM (1940) – Mrs. Breitner – World War II drama (contemporary for its time) about a family in Germany divided by the Nazis’ rise to power.  Stars James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, and Robert Young.

DANCE, GIRL, DANCE (1940) – Madame Lydia Basilova – Musical about ballerinas in a dance troupe starring Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball.  Also stars Ralph Bellamy who would co-star again with Ouspenskaya in THE WOLF MAN.

THE WOLF MAN (1941) – Maleva – one of the greatest horror movies ever made, with a superior cast that includes Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Evelyn Ankers, Patric Knowles, Warren William, Bela Lugosi, and Maria Ouspenskaya in the role which would make her famous among horror fans.

KINGS ROW (1942) – Madame von Eln – Mystery romance starring Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, and Ronald Reagan.  Also features Ouspenskaya’s WOLF MAN co-star Claude Rains.

MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET (1942) – Mme. Cecile Roget – Mystery based on an Edgar Allan Poe tale stars Ouspenskaya’s WOLF MAN co-star Patric Knowles as Poe detective Paul Dupin trying to solve the mystery behind the death of an actress.  Also stars KING KONG’s Frank Reicher.

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943) – Maleva – reprises her role as Maleva the Gypsy Woman, in this sequel to THE WOLF MAN which brings the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) together with the Frankenstein Monster (Bela Lugosi).  WOLF MAN actor Patric Knowles plays Dr. Mannering, a different role from the one he played in THE WOLF MAN.

TARZAN AND THE AMAZONS (1945) – Amazon Queen – Ouspenskaya is Queen of the Amazon in this Tarzan adventure starring Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan.

A KISS IN THE DARK (1949) – Mme. Karina – Ouspenskaya’s final role in this comedy starring David Niven.

Maria Ouspenskaya died tragically in December 1949 when she fell asleep while smoking in bed.  She suffered severe burns and died shortly thereafter.

Maria Ouspenskaya –   July 29, 1876 – December 3, 1949.  Age – 73.

For those of us who love horror movies, Maria Ouspenskaya will always be remembered for her endearing portrayal of Maleva, the strong-willed gypsy woman who was always there for Larry Talbot in THE WOLF MAN and FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN.  She delivers a masterful performance in both movies.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of IN THE SHADOWS, and I’ll see you again next time when we look at another character actor from the horror movies.

Thanks for reading everybody!

—Michael