Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Cinema Sweetheart's Rating: 9 out of 10
Director: Charles Crichton
Starring: John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin
Rated: R
Genre: Crime, Comedy
Runtime: 108 minutes

Four jewel thieves set out to commit the perfect crime, then double cross each other in order to secure the loot for themselves.  At the heart of the treachery is Wanda Gershwitz (Curtis), a clever and cunning young woman, posing as the girlfriend of ringleader George (Tom Georgeson) while actually dating her supposed nutcase "brother" Otto (Kline).  Playing on the emotions that the men have for her, Wanda manages to outwit the group's stammering, animal-loving hit-man Ken (Palin), and seduce George's lawyer, Archie Leach (Cleese) in order to find out vital information about the location of the stolen diamonds, in a crazy laundry list of double-crossings, mixed alliances, and sexual liaisons.

This was quite simply a fun movie!  The plot was engaging, fast-paced, and comical, and the cast was stellar!  I loved these characters!

Jamie Lee Curtis was perfect for the title role.  Her Wanda was despicable enough for us to dislike her, but charming enough that you still secretly hoped she would get a happy ending.  It was perfectly obvious why four of the leading males (Otto, Archie, Ken, and George) were in love with her!  She's classy, sly, and very interesting.  I was never quite sure what Wanda would do next!

Otto was the one character I just loved to hate.  Kevin Kline did a wonderful job at shaping this twisted, nutty, and (don't call him stupid) character.  Despite the fact that he claims he doesn't get jealous, it's obvious that Otto isn't content with pretending to be Wanda's brother if she's seducing other men to further their get-rich-quick scheme.  He's bumbling, annoying, intrusive, in-your-face, and mean, but somehow, I don't think the film would be half as good without him!

Ken and Archie were my favorites, perhaps because they were played by Monty Python alumni Michael Palin and John Cleese respectively.  Perhaps, it was because they were both incredibly endearing, hopelessly in love, and both seemingly destined for failure. Ken, the stuttering, animal-loving hit-man can't bring himself to profess his love for his roommate's girlfriend, especially not with her unstable brother Otto sniffing around.  Archie believes that Wanda is in love with him, but doesn't realize that not only is she dating two different men (his client George being one of them), but that she's only showing interest in him to find the location of the stolen diamonds so that she can take all the profit for herself.  But, he's sweet and sad; his home life is crumbling, and he finally finds someone who makes him feel alive again.  During his scenes with Wanda, I couldn't decide if I wanted them to break up (to spare him worse heartbreak later) or stay together because it made him so happy!

All in all, this is a hilarious film!  I could not stop laughing.  Besides a wonderful plot, there is a stellar cast of unique and interesting characters.  (And might I mention that there is a cameo of sorts with a rather young Stephen Fry in the second half of the film? ;)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Dracula (1931)

Cinema Sweetheart's Rating: 8 out of 10
Director: Tod Browning
Starring: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan
Rated: Not Rated
Genre: Horror
Runtime: 75 minutes
Sequels: Dracula's Daughter (1936), Son of Dracula (1943), House of Dracula (1945), Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Other Versions: Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922), "Spanish" Dracula (1931), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

When the unsuspecting real estate salesman Mr. Renfield (Frye) travels to Transylvania to sell some London property to the Hungarian aristocrat Count Dracula (Lugosi), he has no idea the terror that will soon be inflicted on the people of England.  Dracula, a vampire, drives Renfield to madness and then seduces and kills Lucy (Frances Dade), the friend of Mina Seward (Chandler), whose father owns the lunatic asylum that houses Renfield.  Concerned about his daughter's failing health, Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston) enlists the help of his old friend Dr. Van Helsing (Van Sloan) who delivers the unbelievable truth: Count Dracula is a vampire, and together, Dr. Seward, Van Helsing, Mina's fiancĂ© Jonathan Harker (David Manners), and the reluctant madman Renfield, must find and destroy him.

I'm a huge fan of classic horror films as a whole, and because of that, Dracula did not disappoint.  It was creepy, powerful, and interesting all throughout.  I adore Bela Lugosi, and his Dracula is the one responsible for the classic image of the immortal Count: a dark, handsome aristocrat with a strong foreign accent and suave manners.  Most of the time, when someone mentions Count Dracula, the first image that comes to mind is NOT Max Schreck's Graf Orlock, but Lugosi’s immortal Count!

Even though the story of Dracula really is about the vampiric Count, I will admit that I've always had a soft spot for the deranged lunatic Renfield.  Dwight Frye is known for his portrayal of creepy characters, from Renfield in Dracula to Igor-like Fritz in Frankenstein.  This guy is simply creepy!  By far, Frye's performance was the best in the film.  While most actors play Renfield like he’s just plain nutty, Frye’s Renfield is sympathetic and pitiful; your heart goes out to him.  Even though he’s the weak-willed, insect-eating slave to the heartless Dracula, his love for Mina Seward is a strong redeeming feature.  At one point in the film, after he has escaped from his cell, he begs Dr. Seward to move him to another asylum so that he will not wake “Miss Mina” in the middle of the night with his screaming.  His role as a madman, however, is more than just munching on flies and screaming in the night.  Everything about Renfield seems “off”.  From the way he talks, to the way he moves, to the freakishly creepy laugh which almost makes him sound like he’s crying.

While Lugosi’s performance is wonderfully mysterious, this was not his best performance by far.  In fact, many film historians specializing in the Universal horror films actually find that Lugosi's Dracula role is perfected in the humorous sequel Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. 

All in all, I think that Dracula is a wonderful film.  It has just enough suspense and atmosphere to sufficiently give you the chills, while avoiding sexual references and gore that are normally associated with vampires in today's films and books.  Lugosi is wonderful as the creepy archetypal Count Dracula, Dwight Frye the perfect, unhinged Renfield, and Edward Van Sloan is by far my favorite Van Helsing. 

Van Helsing is a very hard character to pull off.  The actor portraying him must have the proper balance of mystery and brains, as well as appearing a bit off, so that it's hard for the other characters to really believe him; at least at first.  Van Sloan, however, is perfect for the role.  Unlike performances like Anthony Hopkins’s role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Van Sloan’s Van Helsing is calm, collected, and always in control.  He comes across as a rather quiet, unassuming man, and his subtlety is a perfect match for Dracula’s own dark brand of subtlety. The tension is just right in the scenes where the two characters face off, because you never know who is going to come out on top.

If you enjoy the classic Universal horror films, or have seen Frankenstein or The Wolf Man and are looking for something new, then this should be the next on your list.  Also, if you’re seen some of the more recent vampire films, then you quite simply need to see this one as well!  This is by far one of the best vampire movies of all time, and an enduring classic.  It’s the perfect film for a dark, rainy night.

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)

Cinema Sweetheart's Rating: 5 out of 10
Director: Danny Leiner
Starring: John Cho, Kal Penn, Neil Patrick Harris
Rated: R
Genre: Adventure, Comedy
Runtime: 88 minutes
Sequel: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008)

When stoners Harold Lee (Cho) and Kumar Patel (Penn) get a sudden case of the munchies, the two totally high roommates decide to go and get White Castle burgers, no matter what it takes.  In the meantime, they are arrested, harassed, attacked by a rabid raccoon, a terrifying Jesus-freak truck driver, and a cheetah, and have their car stolen by a very stoned Neil Patrick Harris.  Rather amusing bits of humor and mixed in with raunchy jokes, sexual humor, and nudity.

I was not really a fan of this movie.  To be honest, the only redeeming aspects of the film were the humorous bits interspersed in the midst of the graphic, raunchy muck that made of this film.  This is not one of those films that you could say "had so much potential, but was a total flop because of too much sex, violence, etc."  Harold and Kumar go to White Castle simply could not be Harold and Kumar go to White Castle without the nudity, coarse language, and sexual references, and that's a shame.  Some parts were genuinely very funny, and I would have liked the film a lot more if it was more "clean".  Perhaps, I'm just a prude, but, I'm just being honest.  I think it might be more of a guy movie, and maybe, because I'm a girl, I don't "appreciate" the humor of the piece.  I will say, however, that I'm now dying for some White Castle burgers!

If you're bored and looking for something crude but funny to watch, then Harold and Kumar go to White Castle might be the film for you.  However, if you're looking for a funny movie about people getting high and doing stupid things I would highly suggest you check out The Hangover instead.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Wolf Man (1941)

Cinema Sweetheart's Rating: 10 out of 10
Director: George Waggner
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Maria Ouspenskaya
Rated: PG
Genre: Horror, Drama
Run Time: 70 minutes
Sequels: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Remake: The Wolf Man (2010)

After his brother's tragic death, Lawrence "Larry" Talbot (Chaney) returns from America to his family's estate in Wales.  While fixing his father's telescope, he catches sight of the beautiful Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) whose father owns the antique shop in town.  When he takes Gwen and her friend Jenny (Fay Helm) to see the Gypsy camp and get their fortunes told, Jenny gets attacked and killed a wolf who turns out to be Bela (Bela Lugosi) the Gypsy fortune teller who is cursed to become a werewolf.  When Larry goes to save Jenny, killing the wolf, and finding himself bitten in the struggle, Bela's mother Maleva (Ouspenskaya) warns him that now, he too will become a werewolf when the moon rises. 

I discovered the classic Universal Horror Films when I was either a sophomore or junior in high school.  I used to watch them with my dad (still do sometimes, although not much anymore, since I started college).  This was the first one we watched together and it has always been my favorite.  Larry is so human, so easy to connect and sympathise with.  I instantly fell in love with the character (it also helps that he's played by the incredibly handsome Lon Chaney Jr., but that's beside the point).  After watching this film, I threw myself into checking out all the other Universal Horror Films, and I've seen most of the standard cannon: Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Mummy (1932), and The Wolf Man.  I still need to see The Invisible Man (1933).

I love everything about this movie, but since I could rant on and on for ages, I'll be extra sure to keep it short.

I've always been squeamish about horror films because there was too much blood, or too much violence.  However, older films prove that you don't need blood and violence to be scary.  And even better, they don't need to rely on sex to hold the audience's attention.  In fact, the audience of The Wolf Man doesn't even get to see that much skin, not even Larry's.  When he opens his shirt to show Maleva his wound, he barely even unbuttons it.  One or two buttons are undone, and you don't even get to see anything.  Not saying that I think it was necessary, but I think it was nice that the director didn't need to focus on sex appeal like today's films do.

The Wolf Man is a wonderful springboard into the other Universal Horror films.  I've thoroughly enjoyed watching it again, and again, and again.  If you're interested in scary movies, but don't like sex and gore, then this is a good film to start with.  If you've enjoyed Bela Lugosi's Dracula and Boris Karloff's Frankenstein, then The Wolf Man might be a good film to watch next.  Interesting fact, Lon Chaney Jr. was one of the only Universal actors (if not the only one) to play all of the classic horror monsters: the Wolf Man (The Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, etc.), Frankenstein's Monster (Ghost of Frankenstein), Dracula (Son of Dracula), and Kharis the Mummy (The Mummy's Tomb, The Mummy's Curse, etc.).

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