DRACULA (1931)

When it comes to vampires, everyone knows Bela Lugosi's accent (and most of us have imitated it at least once) -- and that's because 1931's Dracula was and is the gold standard for vampires in film.

The film begins in eastern Europe, where Renfield (Dwight Frye) has been summoned to the massive, decrepit castle of Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) to arrange passage to England, for Dracula and his wives.  Renfield falls under Dracula's powerful stare, and at the end of the sea voyage the crew of the vessel are all dead -- and Renfield is completely insane.

In England, Refield is under the care of Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston), who runs a sanitarium.  His daughter Mina (Helen Chandler) is engaged to John Harker (David Manners) -- but she's also attracted the attention of Dracula, who had drained the blood and killed several people in London.   Dracula seems intent on seducing Mina and turning her into the undead, just like him.

But there's hope in Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), a doctor who embraces rather than dismisses the superstitious tales of the vampires.  He suspects and soon knows what Dracula is -- and he has the means to defeat the vampire and save Mina.  That is, if Dracula doesn't destroy them all first...

Dracula is a beautiful work of horror.  Even with the limited special effects of the time, the audience will believe vampires can transform into bats or wolves, or drain someone's blood with their dark embrace.  The acting is excellent (especially Lugosi and the seductive,foreign count, Frye as the lunatic, and Van Sloan as the blend of the scientific and superstitious) and the atmosphere of danger, dread, and repressed sexuality creates a truly memorable film.

There have been nigh-innumerable adaptions of the Dracula story and its legacy, but the original Dracula remains the best.

Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch



It's nice to see that live-action superhero shows, possibly taking their cue from the successful superhero movies, are being more serious and more fun than their horrible predecessors from the 1960s-1980s.  Supergirl is the latest superhero to be featured on the small screen -- and it works very well as action,with a nice dose of comedy.

The story stars with the destruction of Krpyton -- only after Kal-El is launched to Earth in a ship, the young girl Kara is sent after to him, to watch over and protect him on Earth.  But due to a space event, Kara's ship lands on Earth years after Kal-El's -- and by that time Kal-El has grown up and become Superman.  Kara is adopted the Danvers (a nod to earlier comic adaptions: The parents are played by Dean Cain and Helen Slater, who played Superman in The New Adventures of Lois and Clark and Supergirl in the movie Supergirl) and gets a stepsister Alex.

Jump ahead, and Kara (Melissa Benoist) is 24, has decided not to use her powers and live a normal, uneventful life in National City.  She works as an executive assistant at Catco Media, a newspaper and online news site run by Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart), an unstoppable and self-serving executive who doesn't seem to listen to anyone or remember their names.  Kara is friends with Winn Schott Jr. (Jeremy Jordan), who has an unrequited crush on Kara.  She also has an instant crush on James Olsen (Mechad Brooks), the paper's art director and photographer.

In a fortituous turn of events, Cat is going to fire a lot of people because the paper isn't selling well due to a lack of a Superman-type hero to sell papers.  About the same time, a plane is going down over National City -- and Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh) is on board.  Kara saves the plane, gets photographed, and becomes the unknown hero of the town.  After telling Winn her secret (he amusingly assumes her big secret is that she's a lesbian) and a quick superhero costume montage, Supergirl is ready to protect the city!

But there's a lot more going on.  A secret organization, led by Hank Henshaw (David Harewood), is focused on tracking and defeating alien menaces; and Alex is a member of this organization.  In addition, some Kryptonian prisoners survived the destruction of Krypton and have come to Earth with a sinister plan.  And these Kryptonians are commanded by Astra (Laura Benati) -- Kara's aunt.  And Kara has to deal with dangers and challenges that her powers can't always handle.

I've only seen the first episode, but Supergirl is extremely promising.  Melissa Benoist does very well in the title role: nervous trying to fit in, thrilled to really cut loose with her powers, scared that others are stronger than her, and resolved to be a hero.  The rest of the cast is quite good, especially Calista Flockhart as an executive whose arrogance seems matched with her skills and success.  The show blends action and humor very well together, and the special effects make this world of super-powered beings very plausible.  (You'll believe a girl can fly!  Ahem...)  The show lays the seeds for a few possible romances and also gives a reason why so many super-powered beings are showing up in National City.  Supergirl is, simply, super.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch



The legacy of Steve Jobs is hard to calculate, given all he accomplished and his very human flaws.  Movies have taken a second stab at with Steve Jobs.  Unlike Jobs, however, this recent take on the man's life focuses on him, and the people around him, before three of his biggest presentations.

First, it's 1984 and Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is about to unveil the Macintosh to the public.  His two biggest concerns are starting on time, and that the Macintosh's voice interface won't say "hello."  Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen, doing very well in non-comic role) wants Steve to thank the people behind the Apple 2, which Steve doesn't want to do because he wants to focus on the future, not the past.  Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) is the tech Steve threatens to fix the voice issue in time for the presentation.  Christine Brennan (Katherine Waterson) wants more money for her and her child Lisa, while Steve insists he's not her father.  John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the CEO of Apple, is there to give Steve support.  And Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) is Steve's employee and friend who's trying to give him good publicity while figuring out what he's doing.
Next we jump ahead to 1988.  Steve has been forced out of Apple by John Scully, and Steve is about to launch his new computer, the NeXT Box.   Steve and Steve Wozniak fight about comments the latter made in the press, and Steve continues to fight with Christina about money and Lisa.  And while there are concerns about whether the NeXT Box will even work or sell, Steve seems most concerned with making sure its box is a near-perfect cube.
Finally we jump to 1994, when Steve is back at Apple and about to unveil the iMac.  Joanna is still struggling to help and understand Steve.  Wozniak, Hertzfeld, and Scully all show up.  And Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine) is a now a teenager having a big fight with her father.

Steve Jobs could easily be a play, divided into three acts.  What distinguishes this movie from the previous one is the writing by Aaron Sorkin.  The dialogue flies by quickly and furiously, bouncing from business to personal with lightning speed.  Michael Fassbender is excellent in the title role (even if they don't make him to look like Steve Jobs until the final third of the movie), showing his genius, volatile nature, and indifference to some things and anger at others.  The movie shows how he grows from stage to stage of his life -- and, sometimes worse, how he stays the same.  The supporting cast is also excellent, though it's up to Fassbender to finally carry the movie.

Steve Jobs isn't a standard biopic, but it's an entertaining and engrossing trip through some of the biggest parts of one of the twentieth century's most important people.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch



The haunted house is back, in time for Halloween, with the new movie Crimson Peak.  This film, directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, is a 19th century horror-thriller-mystery film that's almost painfully Gothic.

As a little girl Edith Cushing was visited by the skeletal ghost of her mother, who warned Edith to beware of Crimson Peak.  Jump ahead 14 years, and Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is a writer, often telling people that her story isn't a ghost story but "a story with a ghost in it."  She's not interested in romance or society, so naturally she catches the eye of two prominent gentlemen in society.  Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnan) has been interested in her for a while, but she considers him just a friend.

Then there's Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a struggling aristocrat from England.  Thomas has come to America to earn capital from Edith's father Carter (Jim Beaver) to build a machine to mine the rare red clay from his family land.  Edith is entranced by Thomas, even while Carter is suspicious of the man.  Thomas' strange piano-playing sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) is also there.
Jump ahead, and Edith has joined Thomas and Lucille at Allerdale Hall, the family mansion of the Sharpe family.  The mansion is decaying, with rotting or missing boards, creaking at all hours, and the sound of rushing wind; even the red clay results in red oozing from the floors and making the tap water run red.  Thomas warns Edith not to descent beneath the main level, while Lucille keeps certain rooms locked from Edith.  The mansion is far from town, with Edith's only friend being a small dog the Sharpes thought would have perished.  And Edith investigates the mystery surrounding the Sharpes, as she gets sicker and sees more skeletal ghosts in the house...

I appreciate a supernatural movie that offers intelligence and investigation rather than simple spooks and scares, but Crimson Peak was disappointing.  While the movie had an interesting color scare, it felt like it was cramming element of the Gothic tradition into the movie, without it adding up to much.  The acting was adequate but not more, the surprises and revelations were easy to predict, and the movie quickly gave up on being scary early on, without replacing it with suspense or consistency.  (The ending also left the audience with some unnecessarily unresolved elements.)  Crimson Peak is too focused on being Gothic to be really entertaining.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch



There was a time in Hollywood where romantic comedies went beyond "meet cute" situations into full-blown lunacy.  One of the best examples of this craziness is Bringing Up Baby, a 1938 comedy that combines two terrific leads and some absolute lunacy.

Paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant) is a dull, practical man concerned with two things: getting the last bone for a brontosaurus skeleton ("the intercostal clavicle"), and getting a million dollars in funding for his NYC museum.  He's also getting married the next day to Miss Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker), who considers their upcoming wedding an emotionless continuation of his work.

While David is golfing to secure the funding, he runs into Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn), a free spirit who first steals David's golf ball, then his car (wrecking it in the process of getting it out of a parking spot).  Soon Susan is appearing everywhere David is -- and causing a disaster at every moment.  He thinks she's nothing but a disaster; she -- after a brief talk with a psychiatrist -- thinks his hostility stems from "the love impulse" and she immediately falls for him.
 Then there's Baby, a three-year-old leopard that is shipped to Susan.  She ropes David into bringing it to her Aunt's home in Connecticut, in exchange for promising to help him get the funding for his museum from her Aunt Elizabeth (May Robson).  Along the way there are numerous stolen cars, Baby taking advantage of Susan's bad driving to dine on some chickens and ducks, and a wide range of misadventures. Susan's thrilled, while David just gets more and more stressed.
Things don't get any better at Aunt Elizabeth's house.  Aunt Elizabeth thinks David is a lunatic, and David makes Susan promise not to tell her his real name, resulting in her dubbing him "David Bone").  Susan also says David is a big game hunter, which has Major Applegate (Charles Ruggles) bringing up the topic with David.  Susan's dog George has taken the intercostal clavicle and buried it somewhere on the property.  And of course Baby gets loose... and a second leopard is roaming around Connecticut...

Bringing Up Baby is an absolutely delightful film.  Director Howard Hawks brings out the best in his two leads, balancing Cary Grant's fuddy-duddy stick in the mud with Katherine Hepburn's sometimes knowing, often accidental lunacy,  The humor is all over the place, whether inspired dialogue ("'He's three years old, gentle as a kitten, and likes dogs." I wonder whether Mark means that he eats dogs or is fond of them?"), Hepburn pretending to be a mob gal, Grant and Hepburn singing to Baby to calm her down, or pratfalls, torn clothing, or other physical comedy -- and it all works terrifically.  The movie has a relentless madcap energy and so, so many laughs.  Bringing Up Baby is absolutely wonderful.  (DVD extras are a brief feature, plus commentary by director Peter Bogdanovich.)

Overall grade: A+
Reviewed by James Lynch



Superheroes have been around for decades and have been dominating the movies in recent years -- but what's behind them?  What goes on behind the scenes with superheroes, and what goes through the minds of the would-be world conquerors?  Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman is a loving, amusing peek behind the curtain at some comic book tropes/cliches familiar to everyone.

Soon I Will Be Invincible alternates chapters between the new heroine Fatale and the older villain Doctor Impossible.  Fatate is a cyborg, a former NSA agent whose body was largely destroyed (along with a lot of her memory) in a car accident and was rebuilt by a mysterious organization.  She's recruited by the remnants of the Champions, the world's greatest superhero group: partly because their last tech expert, Galatea, died in space, and partly because CoreFire, their most powerful member, has gone missing.

Then there's Doctor Impossible, "the smartest man in the world."  A super-genius (diagnosed with Malign Hypercognition Disorder) with some super-strength and toughness.  He's completely ambitious ("I tried to conquer the world and almost succeeded, twelve times and counting"), starts the novel in prison, and soon escapes to embark on world domination attempt number thirteen.  His ex-girlfriend Lily is a reformed supervillain who joined the Champions.  Oh, and he's both the nemesis and creator of CoreFire.  He may not know what happened to the world's most popular superhero, but Doctor Impossible wishes more than anything to defeat the hero who's beaten him every time.

While Fatale (and her new team) deal with internal issues while searching for CoreFire and Doctor Impossible, Doctor Impossible roams the criminal underworld in his latest world-ruling quest.  Naturally, these two paths wind up meeting, with cliches and unexpected results.

Soon I Will Be Invincible is somewhere between the fun-loving cliches of Astro City and darker behind-the-masks grittiness of Watchmen.  Grossman made an excellent choice with his new and experienced protagonists, giving us not just the good and evil sides but also the novice member seeing the world and the old pro knowing what to expect again.  The characters are homages to famous superheroes (Blackwolf, the rich man with no powers but a near-perfect fighter; Elfin, the mystical warrior from a faraway land; heck, CoreFire has not only Superman's powers and fame, but a writer-love interest named Erica who he's always rescuing) and chapter titles embrace superhero and supervillain cliches: "Earth's Mightiest Heroes," "Maybe We Are Not So Different, You and I," "And Now for Those Meddling Children."

Soon I Will Be Invincible isn't a deconstruction of the superhero genre as a fun treatment of it.  This book is funny ("The ability to stretch your limbs or secrete acid can wreak havoc on the human metabolism.  There's a fine line between a superpower and a chronic medical condition."), exciting, thoughtful, and thoroughly entertaining.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch



"What I've learned is so vital/more than just survival/this is my revival/this is a revival" sings Selena Gomez in the opening song of her newest album Revival (Target Exclusive).  She may be a bit ambitious in imagining that this represents a revival or re-imagining of herself and her music.

Revival is, like Selena's previous albums, primarily about being in love and out of love.  The new element could be that many songs here have a far greater element of sexuality, in songs like "Good for You," "Body Heat," and "Cologne."  (She also curses on this album, which is new but hardly denotes maturity.)  There are the bad boyfriend/break-up songs "Same Old Love," "Sober" and "Nobody."  There are songs about dancing and having a good time ("Me and The Rhythm," "Me & My Girls") and the self-empowering, uplifting tracks ("Revival," Rise").
There's a certain mellowness to Revival that keeps it from being a really fun pop album.  While certain weak lyrics can be forgiven (the shameless sappiness of "Kill Em with Kindness," lines like "Cuz all of downs and the uppers/keep making love to each other"), most of the would-be dance tracks don't really cut loose, either musically or vocally.  There are some good songs scattered throughout the album: the sultry wishfulness of "Good for You," the surprisingly strong "Sober" (about a boyfriend who'd only romantic when drunk), the simple-but-effective "Same Old Love," and the bonus track "Outta My Hands (Loco)."  But much as I applaud Selena Gomez for embracing her sexuality more with this album, Revival isn't that different from her previous albums, including their unevenness.
(The Deluxe Edition of Revival has three bonus songs, and the Target Exclusive version (disclaimer: I work for Target -- even though I'm out on medical leave right now) has two more songs as well.  The bonus songs are pretty good -- somewhat better than much of the regular album, in fact!)

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch



Haunted houses are  a staple of horror movies -- but what if, instead of a gothic mansion or home in the middle of the woods, it's a place in a nice neighborhood?  And what if one of the people wants it to be haunted?  We Are Still Here mixes several elements of horror, with a slightly more thoughtful element.

In 1979, middle-aged couple Anne and Paul Sacchetti (Barbara Crampton and Andrew Sensenig) are still dealing with the death of their teenage son Bobby.  To try and heal, they've moved from the city to a two-story house in the snowy country.  The move seems to be going fine -- except for problems with the furnace in the basement -- but Anne becomes convinced that the various incidents around the house, like doors slamming shut or pictures falling over, are proof that Bobby is there with them.

Of course, the house has a history.  Anne and Paul knew the house used to be a funeral parlor.  But neighbors Dave McCabe (Monte Markham) and his quiet wife Maddie (Susan Gibney) tell them more: The house belonged to Lassander Dagmar, who stole and sold corpses until they were run out of town by the townspeople.  And when leaving, Maddie slips the couple a note saying the house wants a family -- get out!
Not knowing what's going on, the Sacchettis invite their friends Jacob and Mary Lewis (Larry Fessender and Lisa Marie) to the house.  They're both new age folks, and Mary is a self-proclaimed psychic, and Anne wants them to make contact with Bobby's spirit.  In the meantime, the townsfolk seem to take an excessive interest in the Dagmar house's new inhabitants.  And charred and smoking figures seem to appear and attack people in the basement...

We Are Still Here is a fine horror movie.  Changing the haunted house tropes from teens in an isolated wood to a grieving family in a regular town works well, making the situation more believable.  There are several twists and turns in the story, and while the movie explodes in a cacophony of violence and gore at the end, the film manages a smooth transition to all that violence.  The actors are good -- feeling like regular people, not movie stars -- and the effects are sometimes cheesy, but even that feels like a good old B horror movie.  We Are Still Here is a good, creepy, scary movie -- and a great movie for Halloween.  (The DVD extras are mainly a making-of feature.)
Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



One of the most primal human instincts is survival, even in the face of impossible odds.  The Martian celebrates and explores this, on a literally alien terrain.

The movie opens on Mars, as a six-person NASA team headed by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) is collecting rock and soil and samples.  A terrible storm forces the team to board the rocket and leave -- but debris hits Mark Watney (Matt Damon), separating him from the others and apparently killing him.  The rest of the team makes it back to the orbiting spacecraft and begins the long trip back to Earth.
 However, Mark survived the storm and made it back to one of the structures -- but that's just the beginning of his problems.  Even if the structure doesn't have any problems (which could kill him instantly), the next mission to Mars is years away -- and the food left for the team won't last nearly that long.  He also needs to communicate with Earth, to figure out how to get to the landing site of the next Mars mission, and to stay alive and sane (the latter through recorded video messages).
Back on Earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) has reported that Mark has dies a hero's death --  but engineers Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) learn fro satellite images of Mars that Mark has survived.  Pretty soon everyone in NASA -- and several other places -- is working on a way to get supplies up to Mark, to find a way to bring him home, and to let him know that they're doing all of that to help him survive and return.

It's hard for a science fiction film to work as a procedural, but The Martian does a very good job of portraying a potentially realistic future scenario about a planet no human has yet set foot on.  The supporting cast is very good, but the film rests on Matt Damon's shoulders -- and he delivers.  Damon manages to make Mark hopeful, desperate, smart, creative, and even funny ("I'm going to have to science the shit out of this").  Mars becomes both beautiful and desolate, and the events -- from the nation rallying around the missing astronaut to the hope from success and despair from setbacks -- feels very genuine.  The Martian is an exciting, intelligent, and very human trip off-planet.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch



What happens when you want to protect your family, but you may need to protect them from yourself?  Take Shelter is a slow, deliberate examination of one man's fears for his family.

Curtis (Michael Shannon) has a good life.  He has a steady job on a drilling crew, where he works with friends.  He loves his wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and his young daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is deaf.  They have their own home, enough savings to go on vacation, and even the possibility that surgery could restore Hannah's hearing.

Then the visions and nightmares start.  During the day, Curtis imagines seeing massive storms on the horizon, muddy brown rain, birds flying in unusual patterns, and attacks from faceless people.  At night, he has nightmares of storms and attacks that impact his behavior.  (For example, after dreaming that his dog bites his arm, Curtis keeps the dog outside the house.)
 Curtis is aware enough that this is abnormal that he speaks with a counselor (LisaGay Hamilton), as well as visiting his mother (Kathy Baker) who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.  But he also becomes obsessed with the oncoming storm, as he takes out a loan, borrows work equipment and recruits a friend to help him build a tornado shelter in his backyard.  It's not long before his behavior becomes an obsession, impacting his marriage, his daughter, his friends and his job.

Take Shelter is thoughtful, which is both a strength and weakness of the movie.  The film shows the gradual effect of one man's visions and struggle to decide whether he's protecting or harming his family by trying to shelter them from an apocalyptic storm no one else seems aware of.  There are times this struggle makes the movie slow and boring, but it's also more realistic -- and leads to a believable breakdown.  Michael Shannon is very good as the regular man becoming worried about what he sees, and Jessica Chastain is good as his loving but suffering wife.  Take Shelter isn't perfect (I wasn't thrilled with the end) but it's a thoughtful and (mostly) believable drama.

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch