In Memory of Abe Vigoda: “It was only business. I always liked him.”


abevigoda4

Mark Twain famously said, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Actor Abe Vigoda could have said the same thing. One reason why Abe Vigoda was such a popular figure was because he had a sense of humor about being so frequently mistaken for dead.  Twice, in 1982 and 1987, his death was incorrectly announced.  For many people, Abe Vigoda will always be best known for appearing on David Letterman and Conan O’Brien to let people know that he was not dead.  There was even a website and a twitter account devoted to keeping people updated on whether Abe Vigoda was alive or dead.  When it was announced, earlier today, that Vigoda had died at the age of 94, many media outlets pointed out that the story was for real this time.

Before he become an internet meme, Abe Vigoda was a great actor who stole scenes in both the best film and one of the best sitcoms of the 1970s.  Before Abe Vigoda was a late night television guest, he was Detective Phil Fish on Barney Miller.  Before he was Fish, he was Tessio in The Godfather.  And before he was Tessio, he was Ezra Braithwraite on the original Dark Shadows.

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Abe Vigoda as Ezra Braithwraite

For me, Vigoda will always be the quietly intimidating Sal Tessio.  Who can forget his final scene in The Godfather, in which he asks Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagan if he can get him off the hook “for old times sake.”  Watch the scene below.  This is great acting.

Rest in peace, Abe Vigoda.  Thank you for the memories.

Christopher Lee, R.I.P.


Jinnah

The picture above is Christopher Lee in the 1998 film Jinnah.  In this epic biopic, Lee played Muhammad Ali Jinniah, the founder of modern Pakistan.  Up until yesterday, I had never heard of Jinnah but, after news of Lee’s death broke, Jinnah was frequently cited as being Lee’s personal favorite of his many roles and films.

Consider that.  Christopher Lee began his film career in the 1940s and he worked steadily up until his death.  He played Dracula.  He played The Man with the Golden Gun.  Christopher Lee appeared, with his future best friend Peter Cushing, in Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-winning Hamlet.  He played Seurat in John Huston’s Moulin Rouge.  He appeared in both The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit trilogies.  He appeared in several films for Tim Burton.  He even had a small role in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.  He appeared in two Star Wars prequels.  He appeared in the original Wicker Man (and reportedly considered it to be his favorite of his many horror films).  He appeared in Oscar winners and box office hits.  And, out of all that, Christopher Lee’s personal favorite was Jinnah, a film that most people have never heard about.

Unless, of course, you live in Pakistan.  When I did a google search on Christopher Lee, I came across several Pakistani news sources that announced: “Christopher Lee, star of Jinnah, has died.”

And really, that somehow seems appropriate.  Christopher Lee was the epitome of an international film star.  He worked for Hammer in the UK.  He worked with Jess Franco in Spain and Mario Bava in Italy.  He appeared in several movies in the United States.  And, in Pakistan, he played Jinnah.  And I haven’t seen Jinnah but I imagine he was probably as great in that role as he was in every other role that I saw him play.  Over the course of his long career, Christopher Lee appeared in many good films but he also appeared in his share of bad ones.  But Christopher Lee was always great.

It really is hard to know where to begin with Christopher Lee.  Though his death was announced on Thursday, I haven’t gotten around to writing this tribute until Friday.  Admittedly, when I first heard that Lee had passed away, I was on a romantic mini-vacation and had promised myself that I would avoid, as much as possible, getting online for two days.  But, even more than for those personal reasons, I hesitated because I just did not know where to start when it came to talking about Christopher Lee.  He was one of those figures who overwhelmed by his very existence.

We all know that Christopher Lee was a great and iconic actor.  And I imagine that a lot of our readers know that Lee had a wonderfully idiosyncratic musical career, releasing his first heavy metal album when he was in his 80s.  Did you know that Lee also served heroically during World War II and, after the war ended, helped to track down fleeing Nazi war criminals?  Did you know that it has been speculated that Lee may have served as one of the role models for James Bond?  (Ian Fleming was a cousin of Lee’s and even tried to convince Lee to play Dr. No in the first Bond film.)  Christopher Lee lived an amazing life, both on and off the screen.

But, whenever one reads about Christopher Lee and his career or watches an interview with the man, the thing that always comes across is that, for someone who played so many evil characters, Christopher Lee appeared to be one the nicest men that you could ever hope to meet.  Somehow, it was never a shock to learn that his best friend was his frequent screen nemesis, Peter Cushing.

Christopher Lee is one of those great actors who we assumed would always be here.  The world of cinema will be a sadder world without him.

Legends together

Legends together

Here is a list of Christopher Lee films that we’ve reviewed here on the Shattered Lens.  Admittedly, not all of these reviews focus on Lee but they do provide a hint of the man’s versatility:

  1. Airport ’77
  2. Dark Shadows
  3. Dracula A.D. 1972
  4. Dracula Has Risen From The Grave
  5. Dracula, Prince of Darkness
  6. Hercules in the Haunted World
  7. The Hobbit
  8. The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies
  9. Horror Express
  10. The Horror of Dracula
  11. Hugo
  12. Jocks
  13. The Man With The Golden Gun
  14. The Satanic Rites of Dracula
  15. Scars of Dracula
  16. Scream and Scream Again
  17. Season of the Witch
  18. Starship Invasions
  19. Taste The Blood of Dracula
  20. The Wicker Tree

Sir Christopher Lee was 93 years old and he lived those 9 decades in the best way possible.  As long as there are film lovers, he will never be forgotten.

Trash Film Guru Vs. The Summer Blockbusters – “Dark Shadows”


First off, a qualification : if you’re a lifelong (or thereabouts) fan of Dan Curtis’ classic Dark Shadows TV series, I can understand why you would hate Tim Burton’s new film of the same name. It’s many things, but old-school Dark Shadows isn’t one of them. Feel free, with my full blessing (whatever that’s worth), to absolutely despise this flick right down to a molecular level if you fit into this category of viewer. But if you don’t —

— then seriously, where is all this vitriol coming from? I’m not saying it’s a tremendous or important movie by any means, but it’s brainless, entertaining, heavy-on-the-camp fun that’s pretty solidly constructed Burton-by-the-numbers.

And maybe that’s the problem. Tim Burton’s work has, indeed, become almost relentlessly formulaic by this point : de-fang horror/gothic/50s-era sci-fi concepts to make them palatable to mainstream family audiences, concentrate heavily on the visuals, strenuously avoid even the hint of any political subtext, add in a dash of blatantly-obvious-but-ultimately-respectful-to-its-source self-satire, have your admittedly talented cast skew their performances toward the knowingly pantomime, and voila! You’ve got yourself morbidity for the masses.

Apparently this is now some sort of crime. Granted, Dark Shadows is no Ed Wood or Big Fish, but it doesn’t wallow in Burtonian excess the way that the more successful (as far as the box office goes) Charlie And The Chocolate Factory or the mega-successful Alice In Wonderland did. But judging by the reaction out there on Twitter and other “social media” sites, you’d think this was somehow the nadir or Burton’s career (how quickly we seem to forget Mars Attacks!) — in fact, it seems to be generating as much overly-malignant hatred as The Avengers is generating overly-effusive praise. But hell, at least this movie is recognizably the work of a singular creative vision (albeit not one operating at its peak) rather than pure CGI assembly-line product that could have been directed by any of dozens of different self-styled “action auteurs” (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — if The Avengers had been helmed by Jon Favreau, it would essentially be no different) who are ultimately as interchangeable as the material they produce.

The cast is the usual mix of Burton way-more-than-regulars (Johnny Depp in the title role of Barnabas Collins, Helena Bonham Carter as family doctor/lush Julia Hoffman, Christopher Lee in a terrific cameo — as opposed to his pointless quick turn in The Wicker Tree — as an “old man of the sea”-type), talented, well-cast veterans (Michelle Pfeiffer as tired family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Jackie Earle Haley as the hapless Willie Loomis) and up-and-coming talents (Eva Green as Barnabas’ principal object of love/hate, Angelique Bouchard, Bella Heathcote as his principal object of love only, Victoria Winters, Jonny Lee Miller as weak-willed family weasel  Roger Collins, Chloe Grace Moretz  doing her teen-with-a-‘tude thing as Carolyn Soddard), and while none are giving what could in any way be called inspired turns, all are solid and dependable.

As is the story, an uncomplicated affair about Barnabas emerging from the grave, vamped to the hilt, in the early 70s to help his fallen-on-hard-times clan rebuild their fishing and canning empire in the face of rival competition that’s equally supernatural in origin, with a little bit of reincarnation-themed romance thrown in for good measure. It’s hardly demanding stuff, of course, but it’s perfectly suited to function as precisely what it is — a distracted afternoon’s or evening’s summer lightweight entertainment. Joss Whedon does this with a team of super-heroes and we call him a genius. Tim Burton does it with harmless comic vampires and we say he’s jumped the shark. Go figure.

All of which goes to show nothing so much as the herd mentality so prevalent amongst today’s film-buff “community.” In truth, both Dark Shadows and The Avengers are cut from remarkably similar cloth — throwaway big-budget diversionary fare that demands nothing of its audience and gives you pretty much exactly what you figure to be in for when you buy your ticket. One is being praised for it because, hey, other people immediately started talking about how good it is, and one is reviled because, hey, other people immediately started talking about how stupid it was. But you know what? At least Dark Shadows has no pretense of being anything other than precisely what it is, and no army of zombies (or vampires) doing its studios’ dirty work for it and publicizing it like mad for free.

I freely admit that might be a big reason why I actually enjoyed this a little more than Marvel’s billion-dollar-bonanza, and I also freely admit that actions taking place off-screen should , by all rights, play absolutely no part in how I react to what’s taking place on-screen. But it’s not a perfect world. And Dark Shadows is far from a perfect film. But I ended up liking it it a lot more than I was honestly expecting to — and if you go into it with an open mind, who knows? Maybe you will, too.

 

Poll: Which Films Are You Most Looking Forward To Seeing In May?


For last month’s poll results, click here.

Below, you’ll find the poll for May.  As always, you can vote for up to four films and write-in votes are accepted and welcomed.  Vote once, vote often!