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Prolific British Actor Christopher Lee Dies at Age 93

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LONDON, England — Christopher Lee, an actor who brought dramatic gravitas and aristocratic bearing to screen villains from Dracula to the wicked wizard Saruman in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, has died at age 93.

Lee appeared in more than 250 movies, taking on memorable roles such as the James Bond enemy Scaramanga and the evil Count Dooku in two “Star Wars” prequels.

But for many, he will forever be known as the vampire Count Dracula in a slew of gory, gothic British “Hammer Horror” thrillers churned out in the 1950s and 1960s that became hugely popular around the world.

He railed against the typecasting, however, and ultimately the sheer number and range of his roles — including Sherlock Holmes and the founder of Pakistan — secured his place in film history.

“I didn’t have dreams of being a romantic leading man,“ Lee told The Associated Press in 2002. “But I dreamed of being a character actor, which I am.“

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in London on Thursday issued a statement confirming that Lee died June 7. Lee’s agent said his family declined to comment or provide more details.

Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born in London on May 27, 1922. His father was a British army officer who had served in the Boer War and his mother was Contessa Estelle Marie Carandini di Sarzano. His parents separated when he was young, and his mother later remarried Harcourt Rose, the uncle of James Bond creator Ian Fleming.

Lee attended Wellington College, an elite boarding school, and joined the Royal Air Force during World War II. Poor eyesight prevented him from becoming a pilot, and he served as an intelligence officer in North Africa and Italy.

After the war, the 6-foot-4 (1.93-meter) Lee was signed to a contract with Britain’s Rank studio, and spent the next decade playing minor roles in a series of formulaic pictures. He also appeared briefly in Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” in 1948 along with his future Hammer co-star, Peter Cushing.

He launched his horror career in 1957, starring as the monster in Hammer’s “The Curse of Frankenstein.“ In 1958, Lee made his first appearance as the famous vampire in “Dracula,“ opposite Cushing’s Van Helsing.

Film critic Matthew Sweet said Lee brought a sensuality to the role that fit with the newly permissive times. While Bela Lugosi, the definitive 1930s Dracula, “postures and glides, Lee is rough and muscular,“ Sweet wrote in 2007.

“Lee’s performance convinced a generation of scholars that Dracula was a book about sex, and not about vampires,“ Sweet said.

Lee went on to play the Transylvanian vampire in sequels including “Dracula: Prince of Darkness,“ ‘'Dracula Has Risen From the Grave,“ ‘'Taste the Blood of Dracula,“ ‘'Scars of Dracula” and “Dracula A.D. 1972” — an ill-advised attempt to update the series to 1970s London.

Lee was wary of being typecast, and later said the studio practically blackmailed him into continuing to appear.

He held out for eight years after the first Dracula film before appearing in “Dracula: Prince of Darkness,“ in which he stars but has no lines.

In 2006, Lee told the BBC that his reaction to reading the script for the film was, “I’m not saying any of these lines. It’s impossible. They’re ridiculous.“

“That’s why I don’t speak in the film,“ he said.

During this period, Lee played non-vampiric roles in Hammer’s “The Devil Rides Out,“ ‘'The Mummy,“ ‘'Rasputin, the Mad Monk” and “The Hound of the Baskervilles,“ and starred as mustachioed master criminal Fu Manchu in a series of low-budget thrillers. His last film for Hammer was “To the Devil a Daughter” in 1976.

Starting in the 1970s, Lee tried to shake off the Hammer mantle. He played the villain in “The Man With the Golden Gun” and appeared in non-Hammer horror films. The most distinguished was 1973’s “The Wicker Man,“ a cult classic in which Lee played the lord of a Scottish pagan community troubled by the appearance of an inquisitive police officer.

Lee appeared in so many movies that he acknowledged he couldn’t remember them all.

“And certainly some of them you want to forget,“ he said in 2002.

An energetic man who listed his hobbies in “Who’s Who” as “travel, opera, golf, cricket,“ Lee never retired. His career flourished late in life, with roles in some of the best-loved of film franchises. He also branched out into music, and released a heavy metal album to mark his 92nd birthday just last year.

Eva Juel Hammerich, a producer in Copenhagen, Denmark, who was expecting to film with Lee later this year, said she was shocked at the loss.

“Honestly we don’t know what to do,“ she said. “You can find another person to interpret a role but it will be done in a different way.“

The actor became Sir Christopher Lee when he was knighted in October 2009, receiving the honor from Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace.

Lee said at that time that “although I’ve played a lot of bad guys, there’s more scope than being the man in the white hat.“

Lee also appeared in several films by Tim Burton, including “Sleepy Hollow” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,“ and was proud of his turn as Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in “Jinnah.“

Lee felt his gift for comedy was under-appreciated. He was proud to have hosted the popular U.S. sketch show “Saturday Night Live” in 1978 and told the BBC that his greatest regret was turning down the part that went to Leslie Nielsen in the slapstick comedy “Airplane.“

“A lot of people, including the casting directors, have no idea that when I lived in America half of the films I did were comedies,“ he said in 2006. “They have no idea that I hosted ‘Saturday Night Live.‘ They don’t seem to be interested.“

Lee married Birgit Kroencke in 1961. Their daughter, Christina, was born in 1963.

Movie Review: ‘Results’

Indie writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s great talent is calling attention to the inherent ridiculousness of everyday life. In “Results,” which follows personal trainers at a boutique gym, each bouncy fitness class and cheesy affirmation adds gentle humor to a movie that’s a delight to watch, especially when it’s casually observing its characters going about their days.

Guy Pearce plays Trevor, the amiable, muscular owner of the Power 4 Life gym in Austin. Trevor has a sign tacked up on the wall of his office that reads “110%,” and he believes wholeheartedly in the power of positive thinking. He’s convinced that dreaming of a newer, bigger facility means the universe will turn his fantasy into the real thing. Otherwise, he seems pretty content. That is, except for one thorn in his side — his hotheaded employee, Kat (Cobie Smulders). She’s good at her job, but occasionally takes things too far, like when she stalks and berates a client for sneaking a cupcake.

Their tenuous peace is disrupted by the arrival of new client Danny (Kevin Corrigan, perfectly cast), a doughy stoner who has just inherited a huge pile of money and, after a divorce, arrives at the doorstep of Power 4 Life. Danny is eccentric to the max, often awkward and sometimes creepy. When Trevor asks the walk-in what his fitness goals are, Danny thinks for a moment before responding, “I want to be able to take a punch without falling down or puking.”

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Kat takes the job, but it turns out that Danny may be less interested in doing lunges than ogling her derrière while she demonstrates proper squat technique.

Until now, Bujalski has been a fringe filmmaker, who makes Sundance-ready mumblecore movies. His last feature was “Computer Chess,” a low-key black-and-white chronicle of a tournament where nerds try to outsmart machines. And just as he lovingly portrayed geeks and their humorous tics, Bujalski finds comedy in the gym rat world without ridiculing his ripped characters.

The movie, which is by far Bujalski’s most mainstream offering, turns somewhat unexpectedly into a romantic comedy. The love story that emerges is sweet, but also surprisingly less exciting than the everyday stuff: seeing Kat meet with a new client, watching Trevor film a cut-rate promotional video and witnessing him lead a pretty lonely after-hours existence that’s not unlike Danny’s.

The run-of-the-mill scenes are so entertaining thanks in large part to the expertly chosen cast, including a cameo from Anthony Michael Hall as Trevor’s Russian fitness idol. (Hall is starting to bear an uncanny resemblance to Dolph Lundgren, which works well for this particular role.) It’s nice to see Pearce, who is a powerful dramatic actor, doing lighter fare, and it’s even more exciting to see what Smulders can do now that she’s freed up from “How I Met Your Mother.”

“Results” is a smooth transition for Bujalski from the fringes to more commercial work. It’s heartening that he didn’t give up his calling-card observational humor to do it.

★ ★ ★

R. Contains strong language, sexual situations and drug use. 105 minutes.

Movie Review: ‘Salad Days’

Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye, in his de facto role as the gray eminence of the District’s music scene, appears throughout “Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-1990),” providing blunt and unvarnished context for this lively documentary history of the city’s most famous musical moment.

MacKaye admits that a critique often leveled against Dischord Records, the DIY music label he co-founded in 1980 with musician and graphic designer Jeff Nelson, was that its founders were provincial, “documenting their little music scene,” as he puts it, in the manner of a vanity label.

There’s a bit of that navel-gazing quality to the film as well. Yet “Salad Days” features interviews with local-boys-made-good Henry Rollins and Dave Grohl, along with Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and actor Fred Armisen, just to prove that when the punk pebble was thrown into D.C.’s little pond, it really did make a big splash.

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Although the target audience for “Salad Days” is the generation of those who lived through the 1980s in Washington, the film holds a fair amount of interest beyond that thin slice of the demographic pie. While the movie is best viewed as an examination of a specific place and time, it also can be seen as a celebration of a larger, more generic cultural phenomenon that one might call creative foment.

The period of intense, nose-thumbing, system-bucking energy that gave rise to the punk movement in D.C. is something that can exist anywhere, and in any time — including now. This point is articulated by Mark Andersen, the founder of the punk-for-social-change group Positive Force. Andersen, himself the subject of another recent documentary on D.C.’s punk rock scene, echoes the film’s title — taken from a Minor Threat song featured in the closing credits — when he notes that “the salad days are now, they are always now.”

“Salad Days” explores many fascinating threads: misogyny and violence in punk; the parallel rise of go-go; and the lingering reputation of Washington’s so-called “straight edge” scene, which reputedly promoted a puritanical abstinence from all corrupting substances and pernicious moral influences.

Singer John Stabb of Government Issue, now middle-aged and bespectacled, explodes that myth, entertainingly reminding us that punk, like most pop movements, was born of teenage hormones. “If it was true that everyone in the D.C. punk scene in the 1980s didn’t drink, smoke or f—-, we would not be punk rock,” he says. “We’d be monk rock.”

★ ★ ★

Unrated. Contains crude language and drug references. 90 minutes.

Book Review: DELICIOUS FOODS

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I barely caught my breath from reading T. Geronimo Johnson’s “Welcome to Braggsville” before I plunged into James Hannaham’s “Delicious Foods,” another sensational new novel about the tenacity of racism and its bizarre permutations. These two African American men — both in their mid-40s, both on their second novel — bounce off the page with the sharpest, wittiest, most unsettling cultural criticism I’ve read in years.

Johnson, whose novel I reviewed last month, is the master ironist, with an acrobatic style that will give you vertigo. But Hannaham, a former editor at Salon, is an even more propulsive storyteller. In the opening lines of “Delicious Foods,” you hear an author determined to make you put down your iPhone, shut up and listen:

“After escaping from the farm, Eddie drove through the night. Sometimes he thought he could feel his phantom fingers brushing against his thighs, but above the wrists he now had nothing. Dark stains covered the terry cloth wrapped around the ends of his wrists.”

Shocking, macabre and surely not possible, right? — the whole story speeds through the dark like this. Hannaham repeatedly thrusts us into ghastly situations, only to circle back later with explanations when we’re agitated into a fit of curiosity. We won’t put our hands on what happened to Eddie for hundreds of pages, but the tale leading up to his bloody night on the road never takes its foot off the gas.

This is, for all its weirdness, an archetypal tale of American struggle. Hannaham immediately draws us back to the story of Eddie’s parents, Nat and Darlene, bright, ambitious folks trying to grow their lives in the toxic soil of Louisiana. His father starts a grocery store “in the wrongest part of a town made of wrong parts.” In his spare time, he speaks out against David Duke and his shadow Klansmen, and he works hard to register discouraged neighbors to vote. He feels as though he’s helping people take “the first step toward shedding their perpetual despair,” but he fails to realize that he’s in a “chess game he could never win, considering how many moves ahead his opponents were already thinking.”

In swift, startling scenes, Hannaham makes visible the ornate prison of racism that constricts the spirits of ordinary people and crushes the spirits of extraordinary ones. “In Louisiana,” he writes, “a Negro could find a igloo faster than justice.” There are violent goons in these pages, of course, but the larger challenge, so strikingly depicted, is the climate of justified fear and a legal system that shows little interest in crimes against blacks. One of those crimes finally overwhelms Darlene’s determined positive thinking and prods her, then shoves her, into addiction and prostitution.

Compelling as this tragedy is, the novel warps into something more surreal when Eddie’s mother gets lured into working as a fruit and vegetable picker at a farm called Delicious Foods. If not for a few stray references to cars, phones and computers, this hellhole would seem rooted in the antebellum South. These farmworkers — inmates, essentially — don’t know what county or even what state they’re in. They’re boarded in a windowless room filled with chickens and rats. They’re threatened and beaten into submission, futilely trying to earn more than they’re being charged each day for food and crack. Workers who suffer broken bones use sticks as splints. Workers who run away — or misbehave — get eaten by alligators. This can’t be slavery, they keep telling each other as they sink further into debt, because slaves didn’t get paid.

The strangeness of this sadistic place, its sense of being out of time and out of all moral order, is reminiscent of Edward P. Jones’s “The Known World.” The owners of Delicious Foods, a grotesque and sickly white couple up at the big house, hover like a pair of ghosts from the mid-19th century. But Hannaham is writing about labor crimes that persist, that make possible the luscious heaps of glowing peaches at our neighborhood grocery store, where we proudly recycle a bag to save the environment. “Sometime Darlene took off one of her gloves and put her fingers up on the sticky watermelon skins,” Hannaham writes in the rich dialect that he shifts in and out of. “She deliberately leaving fingerprints, hoping somebody gonna dust that damn melon for evidence and let her son know where she at.”

But, of course, that’s absurd: We couldn’t care less who picks our fruit. “Folks from America and Canada and even farther be dropping them Sugar Babies and Golden Crowns on they Italian marble counters; blond children be biting down on that juicy red flesh, letting the sweetness ooze and dribble over they tongue and out the corner of they mouth.”

And yet this isn’t “The Jungle” for modern agricultural workers; there’s nothing polemic about “Delicious Foods” and its sly peek at a backwater farm without unions or labor laws. Hannaham is interested, instead, in the pathology of despair that festers in a racist culture. Darlene doesn’t blame white thugs for their violence because that’s simply what white thugs do, the same way lions hunt gazelles. Infected with the delirium of positive thinking, she can’t free herself from the misimpression that she’s to blame for her own precipitous descent — a fallacy reinforced by America’s mythology of self-reliance.

I’ve held off on the best part, though, because I’m nervous it’ll strike you as gimmicky or repellently experimental. But the narcotic high from this novel comes from alternating chapters narrated in the disembodied voice of crack cocaine itself. In this fantastically creative performance, it’s tempting to see the influence of Hannaham’s work with the experimental theater group Elevator Repair Service, which he co-founded in New York. Sassy and funny, infinitely patient and tenacious, Scotty — as crack refers to itself — is Darlene’s potty-mouth best friend. “Not to be egotistical or nothing,” Scotty vamps, “but I am irresistible.”

Crack loyally stands by Darlene and comforts her when no one else will. “Judging folks ain’t my bag,” Scotty says magnanimously. Hannaham has captured the saucy attitude of a cheap, seductive drug that encourages even as it enervates, always winding its victims up for another hit, insisting they’ll never be free, don’t even want to be free.

There is freedom, though, hovering at the conclusion of this insightful and ultimately tender novel. It’s not easily won or guaranteed to stick around, but Hannaham allows that it’s possible, despite the grueling ordeal he draws these characters — and us — through. “Delicious Foods” may be the most sarcastic title of the year, but you will devour this book.

~~  Ron Charles ~~

DELICIOUS FOODS

By James Hannaham

Little, Brown. 367 pp. $26

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