18 March 2017

Quality Fantasy Tales

Quality Fantasy Tales
by Kristin Battestella

I confess it was a little tough to find the kind of fanciful viewing I was yearning to watch. Fortunately, in such fantasy pursuits I ended up with this fun and eclectic potluck of fairy tales, viking mayhem, sprite possibilities, and extra special little folk.

Beauty and the Beast – Not that one! Nor that one either! This 2014 French take starring Lea Seydoux (Spectre) and Vincent Cassel (Eastern Promises) opens with tale within a tale wishes and high seas adventures. The Old World pleasantries turn to country ruins and a colorful autumn patina while fanciful creatures and candlelit feasts pepper the overgrown interiors and natural landscapes. Yellow tavern glows and blue snowscapes match the shady villains or frozen mishaps as beautiful moonlit designs, garden realms, and hidden castles hit home the turning book pages transitions and magical, immersive narration. The pre-Tolkien style fantasy invites the healing enchantments beyond the hedge to enter our world with flashbacks of grandeur and truth revealing mirrors as the familial loss and personal blame add realistic dimension to several bittersweet animals, injuries, and upsetting hunting sequences. The score is both ominous or awe-inspiring and whimsical to match, however, at times the CGI is too obvious. Snotty sisters and a country Belle feel Cinderella derivative, and a vine covered bedroom seem Briar Rose Sleeping Beauty. The Beast's billowing cloaks while scaling castle walls also feel a little Dracula, and though PG-13, the leads' twenty year age difference unfortunately adds to the Stockholm Syndrome innuendo and underlying saucy a la The Company of Wolves. This cruel, scary jailer offers steep life or death threats and unromantic dinner demands. Fearful reflections and rough paws slowly reveal his terrible veneer – a well designed, provocative Beast. In the bonus features, Cassel says he would not have taken the role were it a masked performance and suggests actors should leave ego behind as motion capture realization of an on set performance is making prosthetic designs obsolete. The Beast's camera perspectives brim with up close shots of red lips, stockings, raised hems, and intimate dancing requests. We know what it means when he asks if she could love him, vowing she will be his whether he can fulfill her desires or not. A forceful kiss leads to penetrating ice rescues followed by roses, a more forgiving Beast, and a changed Belle wearing red asking if he will give her a ring now. Despite great costuming, Belle doesn't have much to do beyond running to or from the Beast, and her love grows as the plot says – not because the Beast redeems his brutish ways against nature's magic. The increasingly darker themes are welcome, but man's villainous nature, sacrificial penance undercurrents, and one messianic 'father forgive them for they know not what they do' scene fall prey to nonsensical fighting in the third act, leaving a generic action finale in place of the good-heartedness against cruelty, spiritual waters, and undeserved grace for a Beast who hasn't earned forgiveness. Late unraveling aside, overall this is an entertaining mix of mature fantastics and exceptional production values with no song escapades needed. The subtitles, audio options, and English dubbing by the stars keep this continental tale accessible to fanciful American audiences. Ironically, it's the long-awaited, ridiculously delayed, even buried stateside release that makes this version an elusive fantasy.

The Borrowers – There are certainly more recent updates of the Mary Norton novel, but this 1973 eighty minute TV movie adaption starring Eddie Albert (Green Acres) and Judith Anderson (Rebecca) remains charming. Granted, the videos available are low quality VHS transfers, and the seventies music sing a long moments are dated. Some of the juvenile acting is poor, the adults are occasionally over the top, and the soft volume old fashioned dialogue is tough to hear. Fortunately, the back then pastiche adds to the Victorian phonographs, doilies, and fancy woodwork – this English country manor is full of clutter with nooks and crannies a plenty where lost bits, bobs, and tiny people might hide. This is why one can never find a safety pin, lost pencil, or button. The tiny Clock Family's stove is truly all nuts and bolts and stamp artwork adorns their walls, but everyone takes tea at the same time, big or small. The miniature effects are actually not bad at all, and the under the floorboards whimsy contrasts the stuffy stiff upper lip above with adorable uses for spools, thimbles, or keys. Matches are candles to these crafty little folks, but their scavenging adventures have dangerous shortcuts. Cover your ears when traveling through the grandfather clock! Unfortunately, an eight year old boy moving in is worse than a house with cats and dogs – ugly human boys are clever, hunting and threatening to the titular trio. Does a daughter dare join her father on his borrowing trips with such peril upstairs? The below know how to be careful and not to be seen unless its time to sit and chat with the tipsy old lady of the house before disappearing some china plates from the doll house. Certainly such a big fine house is room enough to share. Why should The Clock Family be forced to live in the cold wilds like their distant relatives? Why must they flee from a suspicious housekeeper when certainly such a big fine house has room enough to share? When these inch sized parents warn their daughter about going outside and getting eaten by monsters, they mean it! Parables on whether outside curiosities or risky adventures are good, bad, or necessary ground the differences. Regardless of their size or initial fears, the children bond with inquisitive exchanges and competitiveness on who's people are more plentiful. Big humans fight and kill each other, and it makes sense that them and all their large stuff would be too much for the planet to hold. Though a fanciful tale, this is a straightforward moral reminding viewers young and old that maybe we should indeed be better custodians for any smaller things in this world that need our help. Acts of kindness and supplies gifted from the dollhouse help alleviate cross culture fears – but not before a dreaded ferret is on the chase!

Northmen: A Viking Saga – This 2014 adventure opens with stranded warriors and superb scenery – long ships, waterfalls, crisp country, brisk cliffs, misty caves, and standing stones. The sweeping vistas and archery zooms feel Lord of the Rings homage and the blues are over-saturated into a faux gritty, but these accents match the quick skirmishes, brief fireside interiors, and fast moving on foot versus horseback pursuits. Though the swords do look slightly plastic, clanging battle sounds and bloody gurgling add to the brutal slices or impalements. When these wet, bearded, angry warriors get dirty, they stay leathered and grimy, too – no pretty coifs and clean nails here. Our lady in red symbolically and visually stands out as well without being a sexy warrior maiden or a damsel in distress. She uses a crossbow and helps save the boys but can't always reload the bolt in time. However, there are also convenient psychic fantasy visions, and the storyline is too modern with no wounded left behind, ransoms on the prisoner princess set for an arranged marriage, and obviously violent dressed in black mercenaries calling themselves a “wolf pack” being obvious with their smudged eyeliner. The acting is wooden, raspy muffled voices make subtitles a must, and there's too much contemporary dialogue – women are birds, our behind enemy lines exiled vikings are outlaws, we shouldn't believe the rumors but “Vikings show no mercy!” and remember, “I'm a warrior, not a climber.” Using more native languages could have helped, but there's drinking game potential for all the Valhalla quotes. Despite cliché characters such as the would be hero son, his soft spoken BFF, the old man warrior, a rival frienemy, and a holy man good for weapons and reflection, it can be tough to tell who is who because they all sort of look like Thor. Early slow motion shouts over melodramatic deaths are too anonymous to care, but the chest pumping viking macho gets better as it goes on, balancing the action pace with campfire pauses on Christian versus pagan trusts and talk of peace that comes with a sword. Feasting songs, mead, and a few chuckles pepper the Pict legends and full moon, high tide deadlines as the quest to escape to a Viking settlement in the south is paved with perilous rope bridges, jumping off cliffs, battlefield sacrifice, and funeral pyres we can appreciate. It's a lot like Centurion actually, with enough twists and epicness that don't take the drama too seriously. This isn't a poor Asylum knock off, but there's nothing wrong with being a B style yarn not looking to franchise, origin explain, or do anything but have a good adventure – I wish more movies would take that hint. Despite its flaws, this remains a well done, entertaining European production with a fun finish.

A Little Documentary Fun

Gateways to Faerie – This ninety minute documentary invites audiences to “Discover a Hidden Realm of Mystery, Magic, and Wonder” by recounting one couple's whimsical connections to all things faerie. Granted, this is presented on Amazon Prize via UFO TV, and the narration is immediately storyteller rather than factual regarding the potential for mystical cohabitation between humans and fey and why people forgot magic and gave in to this veil between the races. Some montages, graphics, and fantasy overlays are silly. Often the subject matter is hokey or New Age in the worst way – i.e. when people negatively peg something as 'new agey' – and the overlong duration is at times a self-indulgent biography of its presenters. This chat is metaphysical, debating the essence of energy that we manifest as anthropomorphic sprites alongside similarities between natural elements and quantum physics or unexplained science phenomena. It would have been nice to have an in tune scientific expert agreeing on this wavelength (hee, puns). However, the once upon a time start makes no pretense about facts or accuracy. This lighthearted presentation has fun with its interviewees, invoking a sense of childhood wonder with which we have lost touch and should revisit in that Victorian sense of fantasy where something creative or magical and closer to another realm may be just around the next bend. Instructional how-tos on building mini faerie houses with natural materials and infusing one's model with unique art and ritualistic design add a tangible can do to the whimsy while pleasant music, lovely landscapes, and rustic scenery make this a soothing background piece for a relaxing evening – whether you fully embrace the more out there beliefs and extra om presented or giggle at the poetic peacefulness. Either way, it's a chance to not be so cynical – I don't think this is meant to be taken so seriously yet reminds us have a sense of humor and not be so flippant about respecting nature. If you believe you can see something with no preconceived expectations, anything you can imagine is possible, so go ahead and craft it, write it down, and inspire. Is this kooky and hippie high? Yes. Ridiculous at times? For sure. Scholars will hate that there is no discussion on faerie history, evidence of past cultures' beliefs, or pagan legends and information, but earth friendly folk and viewers looking for some trippy fun will delight in this whimsical lark. After all, those little store bought fairy garden decorations are certainly popular these days!

03 March 2017

Top Ten: James Bond!

Welcome to our new Top Tens series in celebration of I Think, Therefore I Review's Tenth Anniversary! These monthly lists will highlight special themes and topics from our extensive archive of reviews.

This time I Think, Therefore I Review presents in chronological order...

Our Top Ten James Bond Movies!

Please see our Action labels and James Bond Tags or our Bond Overview page for even more!

I Think, Therefore I Review began as the blog home for previously published reviews and reprinted critiques by horror author Kristin Battestella. Naturally older articles linked here may be out of date and codes or formatting may be broken. Please excuse any errors and remember our Top Tens will generally only include films, shows, books, or music previously reviewed at I Think, Therefore I Review.

01 March 2017

Quality Science Fiction Tales

Quality Science Fiction Tales
By Kristin Battestella

These recent and retro science fiction tales provide genre statements, epic adventures, and intergalactic visuals for some speculative but quality escapades. 


Narcopolis – Crime thrills and neo noir science fiction mix in this 2015 crowd sourced bender as CEO drug lords, corrupt officials, and noble but bottom dwelling cops vie for control in a futuristic world of legalized drugs and time travel. Pharmaceutical suppression, work cutbacks, and allotted utilities keep the public down in the city and looking for any kind of fix, and citizens are statistics, designated or unregistered people with unlicensed drugs deemed unworthy to have their victimizing investigated. Cop Elliot Cowan (Lost in Austen) begins as a typically angry lone wolf with a rap sheet and his own muddled history, but he's trying his best to protect his family – even if that means being late in giving his son a book for his birthday and distancing his wife from his work. The bleak concrete and desolate highway duty feel more grim reaper than cop as he catalogs dead junkies in a sort of mea culpa penance. We get the seedy mood without the unnecessary nudity, in your face music, nightclub strobe, and slo mo flashbacks of a rock bottom disaster. Fortunately, the cool effects are mostly reserved for future actions as people who haven't been born yet wearing watches that aren't yet invented pop through time thanks to freaky drugs injected through the eye. The how and why fantastics tie the suspect evidence and shady company dealings together, keeping the drug dystopia, contemporary crime, and paradox twists intriguing. However, the plot does drag, playing it safe or not going far enough as if this short premise is stretched too thin for a feature. 2044 to 2024 also seems too recent a time frame, with dated mobiles and skyping medical examiners also using convoluted, hi-tech DNA scans – and come on, today's millions of paperbacks are going to be scarce oddities seven years from now? The half-baked megalomaniac corporate villain should have remained unseen, and Jonathan Pryce (Tomorrow Never Dies) accents the touching generational aspects alongside Harry Lloyd (Game of Thrones) – who should have been used more. Why is he in so many movies for five minutes cameos? Tender moments in the final act raise the future risks, making wrongs right, and second chance escapes. Of course, the audience figures out the on the nose references to The Time Machine immediately, and the try hard gritty doesn't fully address the cult like power of this drug stranglehold – a suit at the top hiring the street peddlers to offer candy and magic to kids door to door is still the same drug trade in a new corporate uniform. However, the going through the motions numbness and corruption aggravating the situation for its own gain feels nineties throwback amid the sequestering control and corporate parallels certainly familiar today – a little twenty year reversal in itself. Although this isn't anything serious SF fans haven't seen before, the futuristic framing and genre statements make this an interesting little indie.

Quintet – This bleak 1979 tale – a rare science fiction outing from Paul Newman – is an icy, desolate two hours with snowbound civilization, small humans braving the bluster, birds a rare sight, scarce seal hunting, and memories of trees. Echoes, broken glass, icicles, and dangerous crackling sounds accent the ruined photos, damaged crystal chandeliers, shaggy beards, and bundled clothes. The information center no longer transmits, ten or twelve years have passed but who can be sure, children and pregnancy are uncommon, and water is everywhere but precious alongside lost life affirming opportunities and somber river burials. Despite his chilled exterior, Newman's Essex isn't unfeeling, however he doesn't initially realize just how high stakes the titular game is until the coercion, explosions, Latin oaths, slit throats, and assumed identities. He has a list of names due revenge, but the killings must play out within the Quintet rules. While promotions at the film's release included how to play brochures, today us not knowing the specifics on the mysterious sixth man in a five player game adds an interesting confusion to the high brow competition, and viewers must pay attention to the one man SF chess. At times, the game concepts fall flat and the trying hard statements on the cult-like mentality of the tournament don't quite come across. Like the solitary plodding and stilted chill it depicts, this is slow to start and the runtime could have been trimmed, but this shouldn't be a globe trotting, fantastic fun filled pretty people adventure game the way a modern movie would be, either. Mentions of five million people struggling in color coded sectors also don't quite register thanks to the small scale production, but prowling dogs, frozen carcasses, and on location filming at the abandoned Montreal Expo create realism. Director Robert Altman's (The Long Goodbye) decision to film with a foggy, Vaseline framed camera lense, however, misfires. The idea of the audience peering through the blurred trim of a frosted glass adds style while hiding cut production corners – the edging even mirrors the titular pentagon shaped symbolism that dominates the futuristic furniture and decor. Unfortunately, the execution is too noticeable and perhaps should have been used for indoor scenes only. Here hope is an obsolete word, and the desperate, arbitrary deceptions hit home the insensitive nothing else left to do but kill pointlessness – you bleed to stay alive and help decrease the population a little faster. Bitter tenderness and some tense shocks accent the cerebral tone as the intriguing melancholy escalates in the final act, and this somber, life imitating art statement is eerily prophetic in the notion of games and movies becoming social reality obsessions.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – This 2016 offshoot set before the original Star Wars certainly has pleasant visuals, pretty planetary vistas, intergalactic cities, and epic island battles. However, the spectacle doesn't overtake the sad family separations, weapons coercion, labor camps, extremist leaders, and bleakness of life under the Empire. Such hopelessness remains the film's unifying thread amid ties lost and gained, near gone Jedi philosophies, competing rebellion tactics, doubts on whether a life like this is worth living, and where you take your stand when the line is drawn. Those seeking it can find modern political parallels in the cinematic tensions, but the personal attachments to the refreshing, multidimensional ensemble are more important. There's no romance between the leads, either, another fresh turn against the usually required movie matchmaking. Instead, these likable rogue heroes – including Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Diego Luna (Y tu mamá también), Riz Ahmed (The Night Of), Donnie Yen (Ip Man), and more – become their own reformed Han Solos. Even Alan Tudyk (Firefly) who's hidden behind the delightfully charming K-2SO droid remains memorable, and the audience wants these rebels from the Rebellion to succeed in their choice for hope regardless of the consequences, leaving their mark long after the picture assures the stolen Death Star plans make it to Star Wars as we know they would. Older stars such as Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal), Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline), and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) anchor the nods to this galaxy far, far away alongside the returning Genevieve O'Reilly as Mon Mothma, Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa, and familiar hallmarks such as Yavin 4, X-Wings, and more surprises. There's even an “I have a bad feeling about this” quip – almost. Unfortunately, I'm hesitant about the digital revival of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. Absolutely positively, I love the deserved respect with such a critical role and careful attention to detail. The composite isn't out of place, yet, when you've watched enough of his movies, it just reminds you that this isn't really Peter Cushing. It's a great technical achievement, but being aware of the wizardry makes the moral implications of using a late actor's likeness on a body double a distraction. For all its impressiveness, a blurry hologram message or onscreen video communiques would have sufficed, and Star Wars footage is used to recreate the X-Wing squadrons. There's uneven, convoluted techno babble, too – with ridiculously simple flick the switch/press the button/insert the data tape, some poor dialogue, and confusing planet hopping. Rewrites, editing changes, missing scenes, and reshoots are apparent, however the realization that this is the Star Wars movie we didn't know we needed bests any technicalities. Between the Prequels and the now de-canonized Extended Universe, who knew there was room for an entire movie leading up to the hours before Star Wars? Where The Force Awakens understandably re-endears with similarities to A New Hope, I'm still surprised this mature and sophisticated catharsis is a Disney movie. The only real trouble with this Star Wars Story is where it goes in a viewing marathon. Always introduce with the Original and Empire, let Han Solo in carbonite stew and remind us why the Empire must be defeated with Sith and Rogue One before coming home with Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Let this be your bittersweet Jar Jar palette cleanser!

An Unfortunate Skip

Outcasts – Although this 2011 eight episode limited series opens with intergalactic intrigue, the promising science fiction falls prey to standard television trappings. This refuge from Earth isn't what the New Haven colony had hoped – while some are grateful to be alive, others see this bleak time for humanity as an opportunity for power. Older adults and younger characters alike have touching recollections of how Earth used to be, and the title fits for both those willfully exiled and those cast beyond the colony's walls. Unfortunately, the survival science versus planetary pursuits are slow, few, and far between – feeling like thinly disguised The Next Generation meets Earth 2 threads when not taking a backseat to teen angst or bar fights. Archaeological evidence and alien frequencies remain B plots behind killer husbands and Lost delays with little purpose or explanation, and their technology is embarrassingly all over the place – space travel and memory revisiting machines but no way to tell if a hurricane’s a coming? Unlikable personal twists undercut already superfluous characters who run around each week or play cards when they are supposed to be exploring the exiled clones, diamond oceans, and non-corporeal beings. Obvious religious charlatan/smirking narcissists and political coups underestimate the audience with glossed over critical points and unnecessary on the nose tensions. Despite fine special effects, planetary vistas, and a neo noir feeling with dark corridors and cramped spaceships re-purposed as pioneer housing, there’s not a lot of actual SF and the odd timeframe embraces no genre wonder. Show us the settlement start with viruses, explorations, and excised soldiers or move to another five years on with a firm outpost thrust with surplus arrivals and strife. Instead, two cops do most of the work amid one nurse and a murdering botanist, relegating the lack of pregnancy and reproduction issues as secondary to guest of the week Gilligan's Island fodder. Veteran performances from unstable and talking to ghostly aliens in disguise Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones) and the steely but surprisingly stiff and washed out Hermione Norris (MI-5) can't detract from this disappointing lack of focus, and when they say their planet is named Carpathia after the Titanic's rescue ship, well I just think of Vigo from Ghostbusters II.

17 February 2017

Top Ten: Science Fiction and Fantasy!

Welcome to our new Top Tens series in celebration of I Think, Therefore I Review's Tenth Anniversary! These monthly lists will highlight special themes and topics from our extensive archive of reviews.

This time I Think, Therefore I Review presents in chronological order...

 Our Top Ten Science Fiction and Fantasy!

Don't forget to visit our Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Kid Friendly labels for still more genre entertainment!

I Think, Therefore I Review began as the blog home for previously published reviews and reprinted critiques by horror author Kristin Battestella. Naturally older articles linked here may be out of date and codes or formatting may be broken. Please excuse any errors and remember our Top Tens will generally only include films, shows, books, or music previously reviewed at I Think, Therefore I Review

15 February 2017

Shows I Didn't Finish

Shows I Didn't Finish!
by Kristin Battestella

Be they action adventures, historical fantasies, science fiction thrillers or not, these flat-lining serials can’t stay afloat long enough to gain viewer interest – even mine!

The Bastard Executioner FX's 2015 ten hour saga opens with a ninety minute pilot setting the Longshanks versus Wales strife with bloody battles, heady 300 action, and unexplained fantasy imagery. Such TV-MA flash over substance, nudity, and ridiculously intrusive modern music are unnecessary – not to mention nasty talk of barren holes, swollen meat, and inadvertently humorous “savage noble” and “noble coward” exclaims. The messianic pierced side wound, miraculous battle survival, and second chance idyllic country life do fine with humble thatch villages contrasting stone castle finery. Old age or dirty makeup with rotten teeth, however, call attention to themselves – and there's an entire scene with a baron taking a shit while someone else wipes his arse. o_O Without the who or why, ridiculous graphic torture splices become anonymous flayings with no thematic weight, and momentary on the move conversations don't build endearment. Pointless black and white blinks add to the camera's distracting focus on the frivolous – there's no in scene tension thanks to hasty, unimaginative up closes and standard television blocking provides no sense of scale while covering for inferior sets and the weaker cast. Drama is made simple to match crass homophobic hypocrisy, and one regular character is known for porking his sheep. The desperate grab for viewers puts the messy, unnecessarily super sized pilot off on the wrong foot with overtaxed Robin Hood peasants, pagan and Christian changes, and an unhappy baroness vying for attention alongside a stereotypical but underutilized ensemble that's better than the leads. Women and children are once again used for manpain, and at home horrors better left unseen become brutal gore shocking viewers out of the medieval immersion. Can you really put a dagger through the top of a person’s skull like that? Skipping to Episode Three does improve with in media res identity intrigue, righteous executioner conflicts, and marital ruses, but all this backstory should have been a revealing twist later. Torture devices and knight turned executioner uncertainly at what they do can be better than the numbing nasty, but the unique rebel leaders, Moors, sword wielding monks, and discussions on faith or ignorance take a backseat to the derivative violence. There's no chance to stew in the depravity of Stephen Moyer's (True Blood) power hungry chamberlain or Alec Newman's (Dune) ambiguous soldier secrets, and newcomer Lee Jones has too much brawn and not enough charisma to carry the weekly visions of late wives and incomprehensible mysticism. I just want to skip over all the superfluous torture – Ed Sheeran for a casual eye gouging! – but plot of the week executions, tournaments, and need to be cool shoehorning go nowhere. Who thought that opening song was a good idea? Who?!

Crossbones – This 2014 nine episode season opens with British Navy glory versus that monster of the seas – piracy! Frigate broadsides, spyglass viewpoints, and cinematic flair accent the realistic seas and below decks amputations. It's period fine design with eye catching island scenery and musket action, but initially the viewer has no idea who is who. The meandering premise packs a lot but remains too busy with MacGuffin chronometers, cipher decoding, poisons, and undercover plots. Even with multiple unique pirate opportunities, the women are too modern Boho, remaining love interest tropes or undeveloped with stereotypical lesbian moments. The scene chewing dialogue tries hard with debates on God, the devil, religion, or freedom – attempting drama heavy, steamy edgy, and adventure spectacle all at once. Everyone converses with knives at their throats and a melee or torture scene is required every three minutes between the hollow threats. Screeching, ghostly visions litter the well-spoken honorable pirate cult leader with new ideals and illness conflicts – today's unimaginative way to show trauma rather than using the innate camera and actor at television's disposal. Despite their eighties SF glory, these days it seems NBC just can't do period pieces or adventure series coughCrusoecough. More use should have been made of the Jamaica and Puerto Rico settings with more French or Spanish flair instead of odd accents and acupuncture that looks like Pinhead. While John Malkovich (Places in the Heart) is enjoying himself, the too serious ensemble is unable to meet his chess game. Richard Coyle (Coupling) plays a poor man's John Simm, and I love Julian Sands (Warlock) but he's out of place even when playing with a victim's eyeball. The unneeded previouslies reiterate the poorly paced season arc – Jacobite history and the origins of Teach's team are more interesting than weekly Gilligan's Island visits. For a supposedly secret pirate utopia, trade and travel happen too easy, and this should have begun with shipbound mutiny, traitors, or sickness instead. After all, when one thinks of pirates, we think of high seas – not a cabin boy collecting sponges for the local brothel. Malkovich's Blackbeard isn't seen enough, leaving the personality lacking with basic intercut plots and embarrassing sex scenes. Shootouts and orgasms! This is not meant to be an accurate Blackbeard account, but that uniqueness is wasted as an excuse for trying to be Game of Thrones and Black Sails. When dealing with alternate happenings, one should be far more specific on what is fact, what is fiction, and where the line is placed between them. Ultimately, seven different writers and six different directors make for a rocky foundation that doesn't know its audience – this isn't enough fun for Jack Sparrow millennials nor high drama for older historical viewers. I began wanting to like this but kept wondering when it would get better before just not caring how it ends.

Paradox – This 2009 five episode mini series rushes to set the scene with mysterious images from space, northern lights, foreboding digital countdowns, solar flares, and ominous downloads but has no sense of who anybody is or where any of it is going. Just get right to the detective ordered to investigate the call from a reclusive scientist and put the audience in on the personal with the facts: disaster images dated for today ten hours from now and how. Instead, unrealistic protocols and technicalities hamper the suspension of disbelief – there's no reason to be on anybody's side as they jump to easy conclusions, steering cases only they can solve with no uniforms or agency help. Defense ministries visit to assure secrecy rather than assembling top intelligentsia assistance, and debates on whether the goal is to find the image source or solve the crimes depicted feel hollow when there should be resources enough to do both. They can't even take overnight shifts to monitor this future hook up signal. U.S. peeps be confiscating that satellite for review! Interesting questions on predestination, aliens, miracles, divine messages, or electromagnetic interference never garner proper focus, and intriguing concepts on multiverses, alternate futures, and wormhole parallels are lost in the episodic framework. Rather than one long Contact mission, the weekly puzzles lack sophistication – is this global SF fantastic or a regular Manchester crime thriller? No one ever leaks information to the internet or press, and the mysteries lack tension or personality enough to keep viewers looking passed typical brawn versus brains triangles and rape plots. Why even go there with your strong female lead? Random people of the week take away from any religious possibilities – names such as Prometheus, Christian, King, Rebecca, Simon, and Benjamin become red herrings while redundant countdown flashes and repeated in your face images underestimate the audience. Show viewers the case images once at the beginning of the episode instead of dumbing things down with poor dialogue: “You know nothing of time. If I kiss you now would you arrest me for assault? You are as stupid as the rest of your profession.” Emun Elliot (The Paradise) is too similar to non-fave Joseph Fiennes, with a dry as unbuttered toast awareness of his ominous delivery to match the treading water contrivances. Everything the team needs to solve the crimes is all in the mystery photos, but nobody ever bothers to sit down and study them in full zoom, finite detail. Narrow thinking and frivolous pursuits waste time with faux angst – busying each hour with basic science talk and big action rescues but never getting any closer to an overall resolution or higher purpose. This should be a straightforward serial, but it never finds its footing. Not only do I not care, but I want to zip through on half speed just so I can get to the end instead of waiting for an answer that never happens. Perhaps this notion would make a fine book, however the attempted edgy doesn't fire on enough cylinders. I mean, satellite to the future and it's all about solving petty crime in Manchester? Explain yourself!

11 February 2017

Dark Shadows: Collection 16

Dark Shadows Collection 16 Steamrolls Forward
by Kristin Battestella

The macabre soap opera Dark Shadows continues its DVD Collection 16 deep into the 1897 storyline with another forty episodes of cliffhangers, time travel, possessions, prophecies, and vendettas.

Time traveling vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) is re-entombed in his coffin by the warlock Count Petofi (Thayer David), who is intent on escaping Madga Rakosi's (Grayson Hall) gypsy vengeance in 1897 by traveling to the future with werewolf Quentin Collins (David Selby) – the concerned uncle of young Jamison (David Henesy), who is possessed by 1969's David Collins. Unfortunately, the witch Angelique (Lara Parker) has other marital plans for Quentin, leaving the possessed Charity Trask (Nancy Barrett), jealous maid Beth Chavez (Terry Crawford), and painter Charles Delaware Tate's (Roger Davis) perfect women come to life Amanda Harris (Donna McKechnie) with broken-hearted, violent, and trigger happy threats to the Collins Family future.

Disc 1 begins where Collection 15 left off with disruptions to the time traveling answers and Collins children past and present at risk. Numerous players know what's happening – the vampires, paradoxes, and possessions are no longer secret – raising the battle of wills with all manner of supernatural then and now. Who in Collinsport doesn't have a paranormal problem? Visions part truth and part deceptions create an entertaining yet eerie mix of who is who, past or present, and living or dead blending together. Characters learning of their own suicides from their future ghosts is wild stuff, but the fantastic is handled with sincerity, earnest, and sophistication. A lot is happening at once, but vampires can't help from the coffin and the werewolf can't be called upon for heroics during the full moon. Vicious murders push the daytime television envelope while hooded executioners provide well done suspense. Most of the cast is involved in multiple stories, and the supernatural tangents intersect with new connections and surprises. Is it convoluted at times? Yes. Preposterous? Absolutely! However, Dark Shadows sticks with its own mechanics, allowing for unreliable I Ching attempts and garbled future messages while the mystical paintings, gypsy angst, and possession puzzles maintain an impressive complexity. Action scenes and paranormal visuals balance the traditional two shot soap opera conversations, and mini cliffhangers keep the extensive 1897 tales moving. Dark Shadows doesn't toil over one event – something critical happens every half hour thanks to interesting tricks, unique spells, and a spooky variety not seen elsewhere. It's tough to summarize all the fake talismans, man created women, and ghostly abductions, but references to the 1969 present recall the time travel goals and lay the 1897 exit groundwork. The cast has a good time with some of the crazy dialogue – even as they try not to laugh at the infamous flubs and teleprompter glances. It's dynamite when characters who haven't met do so, and emotional anchors swell as the fantastics go for broke. The alternating plots are interwoven well, and the opening narrations provide the essentials when the heavy finales don't repeat the more outrageous turmoil, poisons, or you know, sword wielding suspense. 

Dark Shadows puts its own paranormal spin on the usual soap opera greed, and cutaway kisses or cameras framed by the brass bed suggest more saucy. Everyone is at each other's throats, and the tense atmosphere builds as coming and going characters go over the cliff – literally. Gunpoint confrontations and murder confessions escalate as witches counter warlocks, and the vampire's tricks don't always work, either. More gypsy vendettas and skeletons from the future add to the rolling paranormal problems – possessions are solved but there's a real time full moon amid prophetic harbingers and death dates. Enemies sit together and have a brandy, waiting for who will blink first, and the villainous malice or dangers to the timeline are felt with magical gifts given and taken away. The audience isn't always sure how The Collins Family is going to get out of the latest enemy's enemy is my friend ruthlessness, creating great viewer immersion. Watch one episode of Dark Shadows and you're hooked by the countdowns and deadly engagements. The self-aware characters wonder what kind of newspapers headlines they would make, and the bright red blood remains soap opera shocking alongside a witch hypnotizing a man to write a suicide note and put the pistol to his temple. Twisted! Astral projections go awry, and one wouldn't think there is anywhere left to go so deep into these 1897 plots. However, letters written in 1897 are read in 1969 just in the nick of time, and Dark Shadows spends several episodes in its present, bringing the ominous facts full circle with ghosts, bloody flashbacks, and jealous women. Certainly, there are inconsistencies with dates and alternate or negated timelines – after all, the fly by night production never expected to be seen again much less with today's finite detail. Fortunately, the interference, rejections, redemption, and big supernatural toppers on Collection 16 make it easy to overlook any trivialities. The fatal prophecies come together as new players knock on Collinwood's door on Disc 3, and intense zooms accent the suspense, dark romanticism, and dying for love morose. I get so caught up in it all, at times I forget to take review notes!

Deadlines approach, and the old grandfather clock sounds the hour as the guns are fired, creating great television timing on top of the scorned women angst. Mystical bargains and curses bought or sold with Oscar Wilde flair trap the afflicted and layer the intense deliveries as we are preternaturally parallel and watching both 1969 times and 1897 stories at once. Episode 839 would seem to resolve the ghosts and fatal pasts with all is well second chances and onscreen questions asked and satisfactorily answered. However, more werewolf troubles and bodily possessions then and now remain. On Dark Shadows, most people accept rather than balk at the supernatural, so nobody ever goes to the authorities over some cyanide or disembodied bodies. Train tickets and packed suitcases don't mean anyone can escape out of Dodge, either. Stolen portraits, late messages, and all aboard whistles add suspense in Episode 850 alongside Dark Shadows' hallmark dream sequences. Series star Jonathan Frid is absent on Disc 2 before being withheld again on Disc 4 of Collection 16, and there are also several episodes with no pre-Barnabas cast members – proving Dark Shadows has enough ensemble merit and storytelling integrity without relying on its established laurels. This is a huge cast, and it's not uncommon for even significant players to be excused with legitimate if zany reasons. The assorted threats behind each door of the I Ching gone wrong may seem repetitive like the earlier Dream Curse refrains, but these deadly Rube Goldbergs and bloody surprises aren't boring or laughable frights. The Kitty Soames reincarnation identity crisis, however, is redundant. If she isn't helping or hindering the Petofi plot, then she is an unnecessary disservice to the I Ching exit potential. 1897 didn't have to take this upcoming 1796 detour on Collection 17, and Dark Shadows should have returned directly to the 1969 werewolf story to begin the dreaded Leviathan tale on a better foot. Though slightly obvious, the switcharoos over the final three episodes on Collection 16 use magic rings and a diabolical touch for a wild finish. The 1897 tangent isn't over yet, as unknown prices must be paid. 

Too many people know his vampire secrets, and Jonathan Frid's poor Barnabas Collins is trying to keep the present family alive by jeopardizing those in his current past. He bluffs at gunpoint, but Barnabas can't argue with the sunrise. He's trapped in his coffin and stripped of his powers, lamenting how his condition impedes him, however the good guy vampire also misuses his talents when necessary. Fortunately, Barnabas is chuffed when future communiques assure all is well, and more daytime cures from Julia can help him finish his mission while romancing Kitty Soames. Of course, Lara Parker's “perennial bad penny” Angelique will have none of that, although she is unflustered to hear her 1968 Cassandra Collins nom de plum – admitting she was there, or rather, will be. Some of her fiery prayers and amulets repeat the Laura Collins Phoenix feelings, however her voodoo effigies remain campy fun. Angelique uses her powers to aide the family, but wants to marry Quentin for some good Collins standing. While he detests her and she only likes him, Angelique suggests he learn to love her as his jailer. She enjoys telling Beth about the impending nuptials, and Julia is reluctant to accept her help. Although Angelique is right that loving Barnabas leads to nothing but misery – not like that's her fault or anything! Early on Collection 16, Grayson Hall's Madga Rakosi is left out to pasture by Count Petofi with undead gypsies and big soap opera slaps. An entire episode dedicated to her running around in circles and hiding in the fake woods is bemusingly over the top, but Madga's outspoken sassy can't work if she's bewitched into being unable to say Petofi's name. It's a pity to retire Madga, but Hall's beloved 1969 Doctor Julia Hoffman returns to Dark Shadows half way through Collection 16. She makes big decisions when Barnabas is in trouble and risks returning to the haunted Collinwood for answers before tripping into 1897 herself. No, those sixties fashions won't stand out, not at all! Despite wishing to return to the future with Barnabas, Julia gets the period substitutes for his transfusions. Unfortunately, Petofi coerces and tests her apparently impervious abilities before threatening Kathryn Leigh Scott's Kitty Soames. Unlike Scott's earlier 1897 do-gooder Rachel Drummond – who was also said to resemble Josette yet there's no mention of Kitty resembling Rachel – Kitty is a gold digger with upscale Victorian mourning style and her sights set on Edward Collins' money. Until she meets Barnabas, that is.

His own ghost comes back to haunt David Selby's Quentin Collins, and it's excellent to see a character originally so terrifying to children become the tormented anti hero we're rooting for against Petofi's dire criss cross. Quentin cares for Beth, but pushes her away as he drowns his sorrows with brandy and gramophone music, writing a goodbye note rather than enduring another werewolf night. Fortunately, his mysterious portrait proves helpful against the lycanthrope curse in Episode 832, leaving him free for Petofi to use his loyalty to Barnabas against him. He refuses to believe predictions on his falling out with Jamison and doesn't always trust Julia's plans. Quentin may act like he doesn't care about his family, but he wants to do good and grows conflicted when playing both sides or setting up Barnabas. However, it is hysterical when he must wrangle the knife wielding Charity without spilling his drink! The Quentin we met at the start of 1897 would have enjoyed marrying Angelique – or at the very least, wouldn't mind conquering her. But now, he merely agrees to keep their arrangement reluctantly pleasant. Selby of course, spends some time delivering Petofi's clipped cruelty late on Collection 16, leaving him not as careful over his portrait as he should be – plots that will certainly affect Dark Shadows in the future. It's great fun to see Quentin and Amanda meet as well. One miracle night without stunt werewolf Alex Stevens and Quentin is back to being a wolf on the make. It must be the real sideburns! Thankfully, he's aware he deserves no time with girls who would be dead if they met his other, more hairy, fangful face. Quentin makes plans to run away with Amanda, telling her he now needs happy lyrics for Shadows in the Night to remind him of her. Oh smooth, Quentin, smooth. 

The Hand of Count Petofi is back in place on Thayer David's villain as the chess player blackmails and possesses. The bug glasses and harsh up close shots make viewers want to withdraw from his shady presence, but David keeps Petofi wonderfully camp and manipulative. He holds everyone's secrets and gives people a taste of his gifts, ever so suave as he tells them what they want to hear. Petofi uses that killer hand and gives frightful, mystical visions while sitting in his rocking chair. His social calls are an excuse to recount his list of evil deeds – he has one god and his name is Petofi – but there are limits to his skills and his magic isn't always as he intended. Petofi has his own powerful enemies – he's on borrowed time and resolute in escaping to the future. He spills drinks and puffs smoke when frazzled by his fear and hatred of gypsies but remains proud to have no ill dreams over the hundreds he's killed. Petofi wants everyone to act out their scene as he has planned, telling people when their part to play in the drama is over or to change as he chooses. He enjoys putting the triumph of his subjects just within reach as they threaten to kill him in their idle foolishness. Of course, Thayer David also appears the ghost of Sandor Rakosi in two episodes alongside double duty as that 1969 realist so in the dark about the Collins' secrets Professor Stokes. The multi-talented David juggles these personas wonderfully before finally, desperately trying to prove he is Quentin Collins in Count Petofi's body – but more on that in Collection 17.

Nancy Barrett's Charity Trask sees Quentin for what he is – she's scared and admits it, growing bold, gaining confidence, and speaking her mind until Petofi literally takes away her voice. It's a shocking scene when Dark Shadows essentially kills off Charity to permanently replace her with Pansy Faye's personality. It's a terrible, bleak violation making her song bittersweet with sad psychic manipulations and discussions on madness versus possession. However, Pansy remains blissfully ignorant in some ways, providing a lighthearted sassy and can can fun – now that is a hot pink boa! As Pansy, she stands up to Trask, hitting home the crazy, mad Alice style and performance within a performance by Barrett. The jealous, violent Pansy is easily triggered and her superimposed visions and voiceover prophecies are chilling. She moves out and gets a job at The Blue Whale, but Terry Crawford as former maid Beth Chavez is still hanging on at Collinwood. She wants to runaway – even packs her lovely green dresses – but can she escape her predestined ghostly fate? Beth fears death but she's tired of suicide talk, betrayals, and living in other people's lives with their wills held over her. Unfortunately, Beth says her own life is worth little and makes her anguish over Quentin worse by allying with Petofi. She snaps, too, going gun crazy with predicted revelations. Despite some differences from the original haunting storyline, it's wild to see history repeating itself, for the first time, again – something that only makes sense on Dark Shadows. Newcomer Donna McKechnie's Amanda Harris begins in cahoots with Tim Shaw's entrapment games, but the two years young perfect woman inadvertently created by Charles Delaware Tate's painting is soon disgusted by Trask and Shaw's abuses. Amanda's reveals come early on Collection 16, making room for her involvement in almost every plot. She wants money, safety, and man stability, but Amanda remains trapped by Shaw, a messenger to Petofi, pursued by Trask, and owned by Tate. Each wants her to belong to him, molding her for himself, and Amanda is indeed not quite her own person – until she falls in love with Quentin Collins perhaps. She wants to be somebody, a real person who's really loved not just an unnatural figment of someone else's imagination. It's an honest, relatable circumstance despite the fantastics, and Amanda's final fate later on Collection 18 is one of the things I always remember from first watching Dark Shadows reruns as a kid. 

With some magical artistry courtesy of Count Petofi, Roger Davis' Charles Delaware Tate paints Quentin's Dorian Gray portrait. Tate's conflicted about his gifts – worrying over the how and why rather than being grateful – but I am still not a fan of Davis' cranky, sarcastic delivery and over the top manhandling with his props. The stalling, Shatner-esque flubs may match the reluctant artist attitude, but his touchy feely lack of chemistry with Amanda is unlikable and his selfish need to tell her everything about her existence is plain cruel. Tate holds her past over her, entering Collinwood or people's private rooms demanding ownership of his creation, and he's eager to marry Amanda just to test if she knows how to love. Gross! Disc 3 sags when his plot is at the forefront, and I don't miss his fifth wheel when the character is absent. Fortunately, Tate learns his lesson, taking several seats thanks to Petofi and a set trashing row with Quentin, breakaway glass and all. Likewise, Don Briscoe's greedy and power hungry Tim Shaw uses Amanda as revenge on Trask with verbal insults and more implied. Shaw intends to use Tate's abilities for himself, shoehorning his way into plots we've already seen after having served his purpose. His reach is long, but that magically indestructible confession is rightfully coming back to haunt Jerry Lacy's ruthless Reverend Trask. He is more than ready to sit in the courting chair with his hand on Amanda's shoulder while discussing the firmness of his faith, and the camera zooms in on his glee as he waxes on resisting one's weaknesses. He claims the paranormal is merely demons and uses his godly prayers to justify his personal nasty. Despite his insistence that the devil is everywhere in his house, Trask worries about everyone's brandy habits before facing the vampires and werewolves under his nose – and he doesn't have much time to help his possessed daughter Charity. Ironically, Trask proves weak willed and easily hypnotized by Angelique, but he gains the upper hand after walking in on the chained up Quentin: “I won't ask why...you've manacled yourself...”

Not only is Humbert Allen Astredo's black magic lawyer Evan Handley unseen on Collection 16, but Dark Shadows matriarch Joan Bennett is also absent as the committed Judith Collins Trask. Although Paul Michael's King Johnny Romano is brief, his vengeful presence, imposing interrogations, underhanded taunts, and wicked knife play haunt Count Petofi throughout Collection 16 – unlike Michael Stroka as Petofi's “dear boy” Aristede. He says he's not afraid but Aristede shouts for “His Excellency” and views Beth as the competition. He grows upset at Julia suggesting Petofi isn't as great as he thinks he is and gets slapped around for failing the Count. Fortunately, Aristede enjoys roughing up Petofi when theit situation is reversed late on Collection 16, and he comes in handy for stabbing gypsies in the back. Petofi says Aristede has no love of culture but he keeps him on for his torturous, violent revelry. Hmm.... Young Denise Nickerson only appears briefly on Collection 16 as both Amy Jennings – critical in discovering a secret letter in 1969 – and Nora Collins – a messenger from Quentin caught by Trask. However, David Henesy's Jamison is used as a channel to his 1969 counterpart David Collins. He recalls how Quentin's ghost tormented David and returns to normal in Episode 836 with terrible snippets of his Petofi possessions. All the paranormal on Dark Shadows, yet it is the simple innocence and betrayal of a child that anchors the first half of Collection 16. Louis Edmunds appears quickly as Roger Collins before resuming his 1897 mantle as the bewitched into being a butler Edward Collins. Once cured of his subservient mentality, Edward immediately returns to his angry pursuit of Barnabas in an unlikely alliance with Petofi. He argues with Trask over the family bills and remains a non-believer even when all the spectacular on Dark Shadows is spelled out for him. Edward interferes with crucial I Ching trances, calling such hocus pocus the reason for the family's suffering, but ultimately he admits that in his zeal to stop their pains, he hasn't really been the best at being his brothers' keeper. Now that's an understatement! 

Despite fake greenery and AstroTurf underfoot, phantom winds, storms, smoke, and real fire keep the atmosphere well in hand – forgiving the primitive designs with tense, lights out spooky. The stone mill facades are wobbly yet remain tricked out with fine settees, four poster beds, blue candles, and gas or early electric lamps. While there are gowns with fine period silhouettes and colorful if stereotypical Romani designs, other costumes are garish pink and green with tacky embellishments and the 1969 orange striped ties are terrible. The Hand of Count Petofi also remains crusty even when reattached, however that gruesome matches the sickly green spotlights, ghoulish faces, and bloody red fangs. While the superimposed ghosts and disembodied effects are blue screen obvious literally rough around the edges, such shocks are doubly effective as both an audience surprise and a character fright. Creaking coffins, slamming doors, banging windows, wolf howls, and ominous voiceovers are on point with Bob Cobert's music – even if the sounds miss their cue. It's simply hysterical when angry men try to break a brandy glass in their bare hand but can't – and the crackling sound effect happens anyway! It wouldn't be Dark Shadows without innate tape hiccups, bloopers, onscreen crew members, equipment gaffes, or bulky cameras unable to get out of the frame fast enough. The teleporting afghan guest stars along with that intrusive Collinsport Fly while chained coffins are easily locked or speedily broken as needed. It takes one scene cutaway to dig a grave, drop the body, and refill the fake dirt just by removing one's jacket, and speedy Beth can run the miles from Petofi's Mill to Collinwood by seamlessly exiting one door and entering the next. Although Pansy's song can be tiring, the anachronistic dressings amid quick 1969 and 1897 furniture turnarounds are bemusing. Despite its production flaws, Dark Shadows also has well done artistic shots with intercut filming, mirror asides, strategic zooms, and psychedelic spins accenting that quintessential time travel trippy. 

After re-watching through other Dark Shadows sets, it was surprisingly easy to return for a Collection 16 marathon. I started with two episodes at a time before devouring a disc a night! Though opening at a good introductory moment, the multiple stories here so comparatively close to the timeline's end make Collection 16 not exactly the best place to jump into 1897. Delightful supernatural twists with paranormal hindrances spearhead each episode, and a crazy cliffhanger leads directly to next set. Like one potato chip, there's just no stopping after Dark Shadows DVD Collection 16.