Dracula: My sister has always loved vampires and other monsters, so we’ve watched this 1931 version of Dracula ever since I was little. Watching it now, it’s frustratingly inconsistent, alternately corny and effective. They’ve changed up the original plotline from the Bram Stoker novel, but no matter. In this movie, Count Dracula comes to England with a realtor, Renfield, whom Dracula has driven insane. The Count takes residence in an abbey near the sanitarium Renfield is placed in. Dracula begins to terrorize the women who are staying with the head physician at the sanitarium, Lucy and Mina. When one of the girls dies and displays the same symptoms as other deaths in the area, a certain Dr. Van Helsing is called in to figure out what the cause is.
All of this is presented by largely wooden actors in some flat scenes. It’s kind of a static movie- director Tod Browning gives us a much more dynamic movie in Freaks, which everyone should check out for a creepy, creepy experience. There are some great scenes between Dracula and Renfield and also between Dracula and Van Helsing. Bela Lugosi in particular gives a classic performance that has been imitated and spoofed to no end. Sometimes his acting is over-the-top, but I see that as more a product of the times than bad acting. His Dracula has some awesome lines (“Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make!” “I never drink…wine.” “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”) and Lugosi delivers them with dignity and passion. The other standout actor is Dwight Frye as Renfield. He’s really the most exciting part of the movie, after Lugosi of course. His insane face is unforgettable, and he adds some spice into a movie that could use a little more.
Good movie- falls short of greatness because of some static writing and directing decisions. The ending, frankly, sucks. However, even if you don’t like old movies, this one’s worth checking out for some great bat effects. Truly state of the art, don’t miss them.
Gods and Monsters: A masterfully constructed and beautifully acted movie. Gods and Monsters, directed by Bill Condon (Kinsey, Dreamgirls), tells the story of James Whale, an openly gay man who directed Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein in Hollywood’s heyday. The movie takes place in the latter years of his life. He’s had a stroke, and his mind is going, but the movie follows the new, enlivening friendship that he strikes up with his gardener, Clay.
In a more conventional movie, Clay would be totally accepting of Whale’s homosexuality, their friendship would blossom, and they would both learn something new about life. Whale would then die happy. Or maybe Clay would be gay, and it would become a love story of liberation for this old man. It’s not that kind of movie, though. Clay is straight, and Whale is passed liberation. This is the kind of movie that is about Whale’s struggle to find joy in the midst of loneliness and a declining mind, and it’s about Clay’s struggle to understand manhood.
Ian McKellen (of Magneto fame) plays Whale, and it’s the best performance I’ve seen him give. He’s funny and devastatingly real, often in the same scene. Whale is dying, and McKellen gives him dignity in that process, but also an amount of desperation to hold on to the good things he finds pleasure in. Brendan Fraser (you know, from The Mummy) gives his best performance ever. He’s wonderfully more natural than you’d expect, and he communicates Clay’s conflict as this man’s man befriends Whale, drawn to the man for who he is as a person, though disgusted and confused by his sexuality. Ultimately, his affection for Whale wins out over his opinions on homosexuality- people who have trouble loving gay people should watch this movie! Lynn Redgrave steals several scenes as Whale’s disgruntled servant who thinks Whale is going to hell for being a “bugger” and is worried that Whale is “buggering” Clay.
Great movie- above all a great story told with professional lyricism by both the filmmakers and the actors. There’s a whole wealth of plot and beauty in this movie that I haven’t even touched on.
Albums I Liked:
Beggars Banquet by The Rolling Stones: I’m trying to listen to all of The Rolling Stones’ albums. I’ve been unimpressed by the ones I’ve heard so far; none of them really live up to the awesome quality on the only later record I’ve heard, Exile on Main St. But Beggars Banquet is their first record I’ve heard that is great as a whole album with shades of the blues on Exile. The Stones I know are made of blues- and country-tinged songwriting channeled into rebellious rock music, and I’m finally hearing that on this album. Beggars Banquet is the first example of the Stones’ greatness. Favorite songs: “Sympathy for the Devil” “Street Fighting Man” “Factory Girl”
Clear to Venus by Andrew Peterson: Peterson’s brand of folk music peaked in 2010 with his beautiful album Counting Stars, but my tour through his catalog is showing me that his introspective lyrics and country guitar have been high quality from the beginning. Clear to Venus is no exception; Peterson sings about the trials of faith and the scope of God’s creation with an honesty befitting the folk genre. Favorite songs: “Why Walk When You Can Fly” “Let Me Sing” “Venus”
Leaving Eden by Carolina Chocolate Drops: Remember O Brother, Where Art Thou? and that amazing soundtrack? Would you mind another album just like it? I thought you wouldn’t. Here it is- the best old-timey folk since the Soggy Bottom Boys with added substance to boot. You can’t get away with making music this old-school unless you make it incredibly well, and Carolina Chocolate Drops know what they’re doing. Their main attraction is their instrumental prowess, but some of their songs are more than just showcases for their banjos and fiddles, such as the title track, which uses biblical imagery to chronicle a family displacing themselves due to hard times, or “Read ‘Em John,” which is basically a call-and-response celebration of a man’s ability to read. Favorite songs: “Pretty Bird” “Leaving Eden” “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?”
Young Man in America by Anais Mitchell: So I like folk music. Young Man is an enjoyable folk album filled with songs that are almost otherworldly in nature. Mitchell reminds me of Bjork, or at least Bjork’s less freaky songs. There are Christian undertones to Mitchell’s lyrics, encouraging her friend in the song “You Are Forgiven,” questioning those who question God in “Dyin’ Day,” and crying for mercy on “Annmarie.” She sounds like a broken spirit fighting to remain whole. Favorite songs: “Young Man in America” “Ships” “Dyin Day”
Songs I Loved:
“Pretty Bird” by Carolina Chocolate Drops: The bulk of Leaving Eden is finger-pickin’ and string-playing accompanied by beautiful and strong vocals, but “Pretty Bird” leaves the instruments behind and just lets singer Rhiannon Giddens belt out an ode to freedom and love. Her accompaniment- the sounds of nature, crickets chirping, frogs chirruping. Giddens’s voice is soulful, transcending any sort of time period.
“Ships” by Anais Mitchell: A sad goodbye to someone she loves whose ship has just come in. This song made me think of “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” (another moving farewell song, this one by U2) when Mitchell asks “Who’s gonna lay in a bed so wide? Who’s gonna lay in your lonely bed?” reminding her love that she’ll be here, waiting for him, that no one would be as good for him as her. Beautiful and devastating.
“Street Fighting Man” by The Rolling Stones: Did you ever realize this song isn’t actually about a guy who street fights? Me either! Mick Jagger actually wrote this in response to all the violence in American and Europe due to protesting at the time. The lyrics to the chorus: “What can a poor boy do / Except sing for a rock-and-roll band / Cause in sleepy London town / There’s no place for a street fighting man” Whether Jagger was saying we shouldn’t protest or decrying most of London for not taking any action at all or making fun of the pointlessness of being a rock star, his lyrics are biting, and I don’t know about anyone else, but the song sure gets me excited.
“Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones: I had heard this song before, but I’m going to take advantage of this week to write about it. “Sympathy” is probably in my top 5 Rolling Stones songs, up there with “Gimme Shelter,” “Satisfaction,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and “Tumbling Dice.” From the simply evil guitar solo to the chiming “woo-woo”s and the cleverest, most direct lyrics Mick Jagger ever wrote, “Sympathy for the Devil” is one of the coolest songs ever. It was obviously just meant for fun, so don’t get caught up in lyrics that sound like they’re celebrating Satan- even Keith Richards and Mick Jagger don’t sink that low.
“Why Walk When You Can Fly” by Andrew Peterson: He begins the song with plaintive harmonies, singing a Mary Chapin Carpenter cover about the limits we put on ourselves instead of acting on our desires. It’s Peterson’s best song on this album, because it best communicates the kind of hope that Peterson is in the business of spreading. The implication is that you can fly, even in this harsh world, when you have Christ. Stay tuned for the equally hopeful and insightful hidden track around the 3:40 mark about the kinds of people who are truly grateful for God’s creation.
“Young Man in America” by Anais Mitchell: It’s a little disconcerting at first to hear Mitchell sing about being a young man in america, let alone to hear her sing about her mother birthing her (or him, I suppose). But Mitchell is singing from a man’s perspective, expressing what it means to be a man in this world, a man conflicted by sin and expectations. She has her man “waiting on the kingdom to meet [him] in [his] sin, waiting to be born again,” effectively distilling the experience of growing up in a broken world into a 6-minute epic.