16 May 2016

Spectre



Spectre was Just Kind of Okay.
by Kristin Battestella



I was excited for Bond again after Skyfall, I really was. Unfortunately, the phoned in nature of Bond's 2015 twenty-fourth outing Spectre feels like a derivative, middle of the road, shadow of itself, indeed.

After going on a personnel vendetta for an old friend, 007 James Bond (Daniel Craig) earns a stand down from MI6 chief M (Ralph Fiennes). M has enough to worry about as C (Andrew Scott) would see the seemingly obsolete 00 program eliminated in favor of his new private streamlining of the intelligence sector. Bond has no choice but to go rogue – with the help of Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris). Along with Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) – the daughter of former foe Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) – 007 follows the trail of the mysterious Spectre organization led by the shadowy Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), who is much closer to Bond and the River House than anyone suspects.


From the parade and the hotel room to helicopter peril, and you know, explosions, the extended tracking shot trickery and thirteen minute pre-credits sequence to start Spectre bode well for returning director Sam Mendes. Touches from Skyfall immediately address the changing of the guard plot points, for British intelligence is consolidating while Spectre is growing, and the parallel dossiers and secret organization meetings warmly recall the SPECTRE of old for longtime franchise fans. Underground lairs, secret passages, hiding veneers, and nothing being what it seems layer potential statements on surveillance intruding closer than we would like to believe. Are the smoke and mirrors of government and crime organizations readily interchangeable? In whom do we place our trust? Unfortunately, Spectre follows a very obvious textbook Bond pattern – the team meeting, a woman with a tip, the first villainous encounter. There's a former foe with info, a visit from Q, a helping Bond Girl, and a henchman fight or two before casual villain infiltration. Torture, escape, repeat, chases ensue. Mexico City to Tangier window dressings and thin clues from writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan, and Jez Butterworth proceed from A to B just because they should, and dangerous ski lifts, airplanes, and more transportation perils can't compensate for the awkward attempt to both connect Spectre to Quantum of Solace yet retcon such ties. Clearly, they did not have this interconnected plan all along, and viewers may feel angry at such wool being pulled over our eyes. There is no reason to backtrack toward the stagnant, unsure, real world gritty compared to the fun floodgates opened after Skyfall. While Spectre is entertaining in individual scenes with some fine subplots and characters, this ill-paced predictability and overlong longest Bond movie ever gets redundant fast. Why cryptically beat around the bush for an extra ninety minutes? Unnecessary girls, superfluous action pieces, corruption plots, doubly weak villains – everything here seems cutting room floor fair game, even 007. Spectre's ironic half hour finale serves as a self-fulling prophecy on the 00 irrelevancy in question. Why was Bond globe trotting around for two hours if the MI6 team could take care of business at home without him?

Fortunately, James Bond still has slick banter for the MI6 staff, and that “Bond. James Bond.” introduction comes with a well done seductive wink. However, Bond's Kevlar attitude is about to change in Spectre. Though his apartment looks just moved in empty, this 007 barren but for a few choice mementos reveals more about the man behind the illusion. He can get the facts with suave easy, but that doesn't mean he won't mess up or let his emotions crack the surface. Reflective mirrors and hidden themes pepper all Bond's scenes, layering his duality as both the good and bad, for his country and rogue from it. 007 is an assassin just like the bad guys, why should anyone trust his word? Bond can't even get his martini shaken not stirred, and Craig has some wry quips this go around, telling a security guard he just hit to stay down rather than hit him again. He's still up to snuff and not phoning it in, but the going through the motions pace in Spectre doesn't strive for stellar performances, either. Whether the film is up to his par or not – and at times, it isn't – Craig knows the role by now and plays it as he should. I've warmed up to him as Bond since Skyfall, yet that feeling of wanted more of Craig in another role lingers, and I am more than ready for him to do something else. Not only does 007 not go back to the girl in the hotel room when he says he would – gasp Roger Moore would never! – but Bond actually did answer my wish and tossed his Dia de Muertos top hat onto the bed. Unfortunately, I had to rewind it to be sure, as this tiny piece of franchise fun was just kind of empty with no emphasis on what could have been a real winking fan moment. I'm not even sure they meant the action as a true 007 hat toss, so like most of Spectre, I'm left wondering if it really even counts. Boo.


The unevenness littering Spectre also hampers what could have been a meaty new rival for Bond. Christoph Waltz's (Inglourious Basterds) shadowed, ominous introduction as Blofeld is Voldemort heavy with fear – anyone out of line is going to get it in the eyes, ouch! Unfortunately, from the friendly tour of his ho-hum desert lair to the final forty-five minutes where Blofeld conveniently tells all his secrets, it is tough to believe this evil plan has been orchestrated through these latest, sometimes longest Bond movies. And all this Spectre puppetry has to be resolved in half a picture now, too? I dare say that Eon finally settled the Thunderball copyright case and felt obligated to use these trademark names, and this rush has reduced what was once a fun love to hate character into an Austin Powers “Daddy Wasn't There” parody. I kid you not, Spectre really goes there! At least Blofeld does earn that Dr. Evil scar, and there is a brief but cute cat. Poor pussy! Also in banal imitation of From Russia with Love, Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) as Mr. Hinx is a silent thug henchman who survives every chase, crash, and explosion to inexplicably keep following Bond. If not for some cool action scenes, this character is another unnecessary element, and Spectre is already crowded with two bigger villains vying for worst finale in a confusing Blofield versus MI6 takedown. Andrew Scott (Sherlock) may have been miscast as the obvious behind the desk, power hungry River House enemy C. His mirrored building, the Big Brother hub – are we not supposed to see through this guy like a two-way mirror? The at home SIS plots add a parallel who watches the watcher battle to Spectre, and although such twists prove why espionage series with tight ensembles like The Night Manager garner critical acclaim, the weak villainous subterfuge compromises what's trying to be done here. And hell, if your going to make your 007 movie kind of sort of not about Bond versus Blofeld, then give us a M, Q, and Moneypenny Netflix series between Bond films.

Thankfully, the returning Ralph Fiennes as M is fittingly cranky and angry at Bond. In Spectre, he toes the line with changes to Her Majesty's Service while trying to save his program against government and bureaucratic intrusion. He's right that technology and instant information can't replace a human on the line making the espionage call. This is a fine storyline with Fiennes entertaining as always, and it is fun to see M do things himself without Bond. However, that doesn't make this element of Spectre any less uneven and ultimately contrary to 007's supposed main plot. Rory Kinnear also has a lot of exposition as Chief of Staff Bill Tanner – but he chauffeurs Bond around and then disappears until late in the game when we are reminded that he is indeed there. Hell, I hoped and almost half expected for Colin Salmon to join in the heroics as Deputy Charles Robinson, too! Ironic and quippy as ever, Ben Whishaw's Q wisely doesn't trust his branch's new intelligence measures either, and he has a cool waterside underground technology lair complete with creepy nanochips injected into Bond's bloodstream as a biological tracking device – a gadget plot point that perhaps rightfully exits the narrative. Like Q, Naomie Harris as M's new assistant Eve Moneypenny is caught in the middle of the MI6 power struggle. Initially, she is stuck merely opening doors in the office and chasing after Bond as he leaves. Though seemingly demeaning after her strong role in Skyfall, this Moneypenny isn't stuck in the office behind a desk and helps 007 on the sly. She meets Bond at his apartment, and hers is complete with a man in her bed to make Bond jealous. While this at home, Bond movie without Bond storyline both overuses and under cooks the charming ensemble, Spectre does have a surprise moment from departed M Judi Dench and a fun to hear but don't see him disappointing mention of CIA pal Felix Leiter. But my gosh, can we meet 009 already, please? Come on and let's see him – or her!


Yes, there should have been more of Monica Bellucci (Under Suspicion) as Lucia Sciarra in Spectre. She could have been a villainess in on the game, a henchwoman rather than a literal wham bam but still classy widow with damsel in distress flair. Ever lovely – did you see that corset? – it seems unfair to just pin Bellucci at 50 as the Oldest Bond Girl. However, it is pleasing to have someone match Craig's age. If Bond is going to be older, banged up, and rugged but not always wiser, then his women should rightfully compliment his potential maturity. Bellucci does just that – gracefully if briefly resisting Bond. Of course, if we keep to Bond formula as Spectre does, the first girl who gives anything up to 007 is always on borrowed time. Whether her exit is due to death or a bedroom finished depends not so much on the throwaway nature of the character herself, but the strength of the movie – and Spectre needed Lucia to stick around a lot longer. Fortunately, Lea Seyduox (Blue is the Warmest Colour) as psychologist Dr. Madeleine Swann pegs Bond with today's aware perspective and asks some very realistic questions regarding his extracurricular activity, alcohol consumption, traumatic past, and why he leaves his occupation blank on the medical form. She doesn't ask for his heroics and remains reluctant to have his protection because, as if she has seen all the other Bond movies, Madeleine knows 007 will lead the bads right to her. She sees through his tricks and vows she won't fall into his arms – but all that intelligent character potential feels more like a bluff, and Madeleine changes her tune on Spectre's whims. She wants nothing to do with her father, she wants to know what happened to her father, Bond is twenty years older than her and old enough to be her father. Superficial angst is what goes for female character development in this franchise, and the once smart enough to know when to leave Madeleine still ends up in need of rescue.

While there are subtitles on the Spectre rental blu-ray, the features have been removed, and the disc skipped – although I doubt I missed much in the jumped minutes. Fine balladry though it is with swift high notes, Sam Smith's “Writing's on the Wall” is too quiet, a swansong rather than full embodied memorable. It was a weak year and I'm surprised it won the Best Original Song Oscar. Truly, this weighed and found wanting as the scripture says is indicative of how Spectre feels. However, the flames and dames caressing Bond with kinky tentacles in the title sequence make use of the song's past lyrics with flashes of Skyfall and Casino Royale matching the hazy smoke and ice design. Unfortunately, the frenetic set piece scoring is uneven alongside underutilized Bond themes. 007 notes appear briefly before the title sequence then go unheard until the finale. What's the point of having theme music if you won't use it to punctuate something cool? Without these familiar cues even the well-actioned spectacles fall flat. Likewise annoying blue car lights contribute to an overly CGI, digitally graded, and omnipresent cyan scheme. Though suave, the skeleton disguises and Day of the Dead pomp feel too advantageous as well as New Orleans borrowing from Live and Let Die. Thankfully, the opening photography, building disasters, and dusty costumes add grit while sunset interiors and golden patinas make Spectre Old World colorful. Austrian Snowscapes and mountaintop clinics recall On Her Majesty's Secret Service while outdoor Thames boat rides and Londonscapes invoke the best of The World is Not Enough along with Italian, Spanish, and operatic flavors. The sweet DB10 tricked out for 009 instead of 007 provides for some dry jokes, and intense, nighttime chases on congested Roman roads yield fiery, wild exits. Train violence recalling From Russia with Love, countdowns and lairs ala Dr. No and Goldfinger – while not as copycat as Die Another Day, some Bond homages peppering Spectre aren't as subtle as they should be. Octopus motifs invoke the blasé of Octopussy, and the newspapers are dated right out of Tomorrow Never Dies. While less clunky and not as intrusive, the technology screens, phones, and laptops in Spectre will be dated soon, too. Besides, it is much cooler to see old equipment be useful. Imagine, a watch that almost does nothing but tell the time in hopes of making Our Man James punctual!


Is Spectre making winks on Craig's tenure? Certainly we would rather have him depart with a better picture, but Spectre both doesn't know when to end yet feels absolutely intended to wrap up this leg. Heck, they've tossed the grenade on what was left behind, blew up the River House, and burned every bridge upon leaving. Is the door now open for a race change for 007 with Idris Elba or Chiwetel Ejiofor? Maybe a retro abstract or sixties set Michael Fassbender? What of a lighthearted Moore-styled Tom Hiddleston? We shall see, for if nothing else Spectre spends all its gritty waiting for something else that never happens in a long, empty ciao. Spectre has action, but isn't an action movie. This is a thriller that isn't really thrilling, and an espionage picture without actual spy games thanks to broad storytelling, a troubled script, and transparent meta. Maybe the great individual character moments, action scenes, and Bond treats come together more in repeat viewings, but while I don't hate Spectre, I've no real desire to sit through this heavy handedness again. Bond fans can perhaps appreciate some aspects here and newer audiences may find merit, but there are better, less frustrating and disappointing films in the franchise. The gun barrel is back at the beginning, Bond takes his Aston Martin off the blocks, picks up his daughter – er girl, and rides off towards Big Ben. “Whoop dee do, Basil!”


13 May 2016

Gothic Ladies and Noir Thrillers!



Gothic Ladies and Noir Thrillers
by Kristin Battestella



Be it medieval, Victorian, then-contemporary, foreign or domestic, these black and white mid-century Gothic thrillers deliver all the deliciously delightful femme fatales, moody noir dangers, and suspenseful scares.



Fear – Hypnotic credits, eerie music, and spooky headlights give way to more classic cars and Ingrid Bergman dolled up in sophisticated business suits, brooches, and furs for this 1954 black and white noir. Although the opening narration explains the illicit with an expected melodrama and this tale can be confusing with its spoken Italian, English subtitles, and German setting; the voiceover feels unnecessary. We see Bergman's guilt via her ripping up love letters, escalating fears, and nasty arguments. Her superb tearful phone calls and the silent suspense scenes let the viewer enjoy the downward spiral – this once progressive wife who does the driving and runs their laboratory post-war just can't handle the scandalous. Mrs. Wagner says she has nothing to lose, but drop the scoundrel and she still has a career, family, and wealth – in the mid-fifties to boot! There are numerous shots of Bergman coming and going, up and down, or in and out, however these movements keep the audience with her while reflecting the internal hectic and hurried state of mind in the otherwise calm, still settings. Such symbolic action does better than the narration, and car filming both facing fast driving Bergman as she grips the wheel and the crazy twist and turns from her point of view show more angst. Contrasting white rooms and dark figures with stairs or windows breaking the film frame layer the visuals while fun science gizmos, sounds, experiments, and poisons create realistic foreshadowing. Missing toys and absent jewelry accelerate the patience wearing thin amid talks of denial, confessions, shame, love, and disappointment. Our dame can come clean but lies to cover her tracks and argues with both husband and lover instead. This is an interesting subject matter for the real life couple – a bit of life imitating art and at home neorealism from director Roberto Rossellini. Granted, this can feel Hitchcock derivative by recalling the more stylish Spellbound as well as Gaslight. There are some red herrings and an abrupt end to the otherwise swift eighty minutes, too. Fortunately, this remains an interesting psychological examination on external pushes versus internal apprehension while debating two opposite female perceptions. Be it the frazzled classy dame or the smooth dance hall girl, both are being used by high and low men, frequenting hotels, tossing money about, and fooling nobody. Twists and thrills in the final twenty minutes keep the audience hooked for this suspenseful little character study accented by a taboo topic or two.



The Long Hair of Death – The streaming print of this 1964 Italian fifteenth century Karnstein tale starring Barbara Steele (Black Sunday) is a poor quality ninety-four minutes. The English dubbing and volumes are uneven with an innate, drab, unpolishedness and a tough to see dark, choppy bare. Fortunately, ominous music and flickering torches immediately set the Gothic, gray scale castle mood alongside hooded guardsmen, dungeons, secret passages, and witch executions. Chases, cliffside shockers, zooms, and sharp cuts accent the atmospheric winding stairs, shadows, candlelight, and medieval windows as daughters are forced to watch their mother burn at the stake in disturbing, fiery action. The audience is on the wronged women's side thanks to such trials and forced saucy, and generational fears, disobeying sons, and witchy legacies simmer amid plague hysteria, storms, requiem rituals, chanting, and deaths. We don't blame the ladies for their curses and vengeance, and Steele is a lovely anchor as ever with divine hair and costumes. Sadly, the story does drag and at times doesn't seem to know where it is going. Lecherous, manhandling violence against women – who are portrayed as feigning no or liking it rapacious – is unpleasant and plodding relations meander about the castle seeming to change sides as needed while viewers wait for the comeuppance. Crosses and sacrificial motifs, however, add an interesting commentary, as the hypocritical church here is ready to burn the condemned at the stake and bury the supposedly devout whether either is really right or wrong or not. This live-in priest rules the roost with a spiritual quip for everything whichever way the wind blows and uses the plaque superstitions to his own advantage. Grave scenery, creepy resurrections, wicked entries, and fatal switches help this curse come to fruition along with alluring deceptions, poisons, and wild Wicker Man effigies. It might be interesting to see this one updated or at least have this kind of Gothic period piece movie come back in full force, per favore, as some murderous toppers and suspenseful tomb twists keep this turnabout is fair play sweet. 

 

Seance on a Wet Afternoon – Oscar nominated medium Kim Stanley (The Right Stuff) and her husband Richard Attenborough (The Great Escape) star in this moody black and white 1964 British two hours based on the Mark McShane novel. Shadows, candles, weeping ladies in pearls, and whispering circles set the tone immediately alongside classy then contemporary touches such as driving goggles, sidecars, phonographs, and old fashioned, cluttered interiors – it's sixties, but with a faux Victorian mysticism. The lady of the house is domineering, claiming her plans have the blessing to do what needs to be done, yet she wishes she were normal instead of channeling sorrow and makes her weak, complacent husband do the dirty work. Is she crazy or is something paranormal at work? Talk of a mysterious, maybe ghostly, maybe imagined “Arthur,” peep holes, boarded up windows, school bells, and gaslighting actions make the audience take notice. There is a lot of talking set in the few rooms of a creepy, oppressive house, however the unreliable mindset hooks the audience without insulting us. Dangerous drives, escalating music, and camera zooms accent any slip up and or the chance for things go wrong while the editing of a ransom note is almost humorous in its casual word choices and disturbing calculations on this “borrowing” plan. Viewers both understand and like these perpetrators – they are at one strong enough to pull this off yet incredibly vulnerable and taking tremendous risks. However, we are also disgusted by their hospital ruses and psychic ploys even if we feel sorry for the villains, victims, and agree with a rightfully skeptical father and suspicious law enforcement. Tensions escalate along with the crimes – what was once such a perfect plan orchestrated by an unstable wife is now we, we, we intense and ready to snap with the heat showing as sweat on everyone's brow. Layered tours and intercut chases up the nail biting twists as one séance too many might unravel this chance to be famous by solving your own crime. Well acted intensity and warped grief make this taught little thriller perfect for a rainy day.



Uncle Silas – Jean Simmons (Guys and Dolls) is just lovely as an 1845 heiress in this 1947 black and white mystery based on the J. Sheridan Le Fanu novel. While the print looks old and the production itself seems British post-war strapped, there's a green tarnish or mood as if this were nineteenth century footage. Tea and countryside estates carry a grand innocence alongside bonnets, frills, and petticoats – this 16 year old with little girl curls, white gowns, and maids checking for dirty hands still needs a governess. It's a talkative start with a lot of history to address, but these dramatic comforts quickly turn to sullied relations, past scandals, and shocking faces at the window. The Gothic tone increases with rainstorms and stairwell motifs as abrasive teaching montages and harsh French recitations shape a noir-ish, dreamy atmosphere. Wild plumes and contrasting black garb draft a tempting, imposing adulthood with shady folks itching at the reading of the will and creepy singing in the cemetery. Spooky candles, shadowy lanterns, and foreground or background light and dark schemes make the households increasingly darker, and tight zooms fit the melodrama better than the sweeping old fashioned music. Dangerous carriage rides and travel trickery lead to more hazy twists and whirlwind montages not unlike future Bava suave. Cobwebs and locked rooms with crazy surprises sell this change in fortunes despite a predictable middle with a titular move reset, too many surplus characters, and a weaker cast surrounding Simmons. Fortunately, icky cousins, creepy uncles, and inheritance schemes suggesting saucy and abuses rougher than this Bronte veneer invite viewers to read such implications for more wickedness. With the one hour and forty five minute version now available on Amazon Prime, it's surprising this Gothic mystery drama with certainly frightful scenes and discomforting simmer isn't more popular with early horror viewers and Victorian literary fans.

08 May 2016

A Shakespeare Trio, Twice!



A Shakespeare Trio, Twice!
by Kristin Battestella



My To Watch List has a long line of Shakespearean shows, so let's steamroll on with more all things upon Avon pomp, circumstance, and powerhouse performances!



Macbeth – This 2010 Peabody Award winning television rendition retains the Shakespearean text but transposes its two and a half hour Scottish Play to a surreal regime with stock footage of explosions and bombs setting the scene before eerie hospital gurneys, flat lining monitors, and freaky witches disguised as nurses. Underground bunker planning adds to the purgatory paranormal, and despite the unseen battle action, we recognize the fascist peril and prophecy gone awry. The kingsly talk doesn't seem out of place with mid-century guns thanks to fine delivery all around, and Sir Patrick Stewart looks the rugged soldier – a passed over thane ready to take credence in a supernatural hope too good to be true. His mustache and dress uniform hit home the cutthroat regime coup, and this desire for power becoming reality is more frightening and contemporary than we care to admit. Stewart faces the camera directly for his soliloquies, getting angry and closer to the lense as his political exterior consumes his guilty interior. He's getting ahead of himself in doing away with everybody, and the violence snowballs out of control. Lady in white Kate Fleetwood should be a forties dame beauty, however her harsh jawline and sharp cheekbones invoke a grim reaper facade, pairing her ill intentions with a psychotic yet sexy, alluring look. She's had plenty of time to plan her ascent while detesting her domestic duties – Mrs. MacB seems loving at first, but her blood red lips foreshadow her killer finishes and belittling cruelty. By contrast, her excellent sleepwalking scene strips this devil in a red dress down to a slip, no make up, and her true skeletal hollow. The audience cannot escape her foreground mental breakdown just as she cannot wash the blood from her hands. There are no major effects here, however period dressing, swift editing, and colorful lighting transitions provide cinematic flavor. Green sickly hues reflect mounting jealousy, and omen sound effects such as tolling bells, owls, and ravens create an eerie atmosphere for the hellish elevator traversing the titular up and down fates. Television parades, dictator banners, fancy fur hats, and glamorous red designs escalate the selling the soul downward spiral – using the sophistication of the era with dinner parties, period music, and record players as well as chanting and firing squads for wartime horrors. Upsetting Macduff killings add Anne Frank symbolism while noir photography accents the empty, darkening sets and increasingly tighter camerawork. Some may dislike the surreal intrusions or slow motion gory, but the source play is amoral and spooky, lending itself to such fascist horrors. The fitting bunker siege finale against the Macbeths looks not Bard, but like an action history drama – shrewdly keeping the parallels fresh in spite of this period setting on 400 year old material. Here the human drama, great performances, and bloody aftermath are done superbly with story, location, mood, and no need for hyperbole.



Richard III – Producer, director, and writer Laurence Olivier assembles an excellent, knights included, everybody who is Bard anybody ensemble featuring Ralph Richardson, Claire Bloom, Cedric Hardwicke, and John Gielgud for this hefty 1955 adaptation costing a mere 6 mil. The effortless repertory proves how pleasantly period the Shakespearean dialogue can be – even in this condensed yet two and a half hours plus edition with excised characters and outside source material. Although the complicated plots and ploys require some background knowledge, the opening scrolls provide medieval flair thanks to rousing music and monastic chanting while setting the War of the Roses backdrop with a who is Lancaster and who is York introduction. I wish all Shakespeare adaptations did this! Some Burger King crowns are ugly and cheap, granted, but colorful costumes, banners, and regalia dress the castle staging in a slightly fantastic look – and hennins, people, hennins. Our titular deformed brother looks smarmy with a glare to match, on the side but intrusive before addressing his famed soliloquy directly to the camera. This up to no good unreliable narrator is the jealous audience anchor – cheated by his half a man facade yet witty and gosh darn likable as he keeps us in the know on his plans. Larry's tour de force is despicable yet enjoyable, with creepy asides daring viewers to witness his crocodile tears, marital deception, and multifaceted but seemingly effortless orchestration of brother against brother. The well done camera work matches this fly on the wall tone with over the shoulder peering, following characters through opening doors, and tracking shots across the whispering court. Such interior filming may seem congested to some – horses on set can't hide the fake snow and obviously tiny ye olde stage streets, either. However, this intimate, no scale world matches the behind closed doors family squabble at work, and the court increasingly darkens while Richard is on the throne. This doesn't feel like mid-century happy go lucky bright thanks to eerie night before the battle dreams, yet the Technicolor and VistaVision looks remain fresh. How did Sir Laurence and company not win more awards? This history is in some ways ahead of its time with its attempt to air on television and be released in theaters simultaneously – something Hollywood is only recently starting to embrace with video on demand. The feature laden Criterion DVD is an enjoyable listen just to have on the television for some background or to get in that medieval mood. It's no tragedy when Richard gets his just do in this sweeping and ironically self-aware Bosworth topper. We know how he gets the crown – with almost an hour left over those poor Princes in the Tower – and we know how the kingdom for a horse ends – with new grave findings, too – yet this vile 15th century tale remains ruthless good fun. 


Shakespeare Uncovered – This 2015 six hour Second Series from PBS uses plenty of stars to discuss all things Bard, and Hugh Bonneville, Ralph Fiennes, and Julie Taymor fittingly begin with the magic, fantasy, and universally appealing imagination versus reality of “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” Shakespearean history and Elizabethan scandals help breakdown stage references, comedic play within a play awareness, and text both bawdy and innocent thanks to fairies and Greek motifs. Episode Two, however, goes dark and depressing with tempers, paternal angst, rivalries, and regrets as Christopher Plummer, Ian McKellan, and Simon Russell Beale discuss “King Lear.” Contradictory madness and fragility are debated alongside separating the man from the crown, arguable happy endings, James I influences, and the never to old to reform lessons. Morgan Freeman uses Old West parallels and Bill's humble birth, sly jokes, and play commentary on the emerging London theatre industry to chat “The Taming of The Shrew” with Julia Stiles, Brian Cox, Tracey Ullman, and Fiona Shaw. Early performance footage of Meryl Streep, Raul Julia, John Cleese, and Burton and Taylor clips shape the sexism controversies, sexual innuendo, and new jokes on old nag cliches with fresh spirit, heroic independence, and a proactive female character not having any of this man's world be silent – at a time when the men on stage played the women! The fourth hour “Othello” discusses race in Elizabethan times, travel and culture exchanges, overt historical racism, and the unfortunate blackface depictions of Anthony Hopkins and Laurence Olivier with David Harewood, Imogen Stubbs, and Patrick Stewart. Are there ones close to us that would thrive on our weakness or love just to stir the pot? You betcha, and such orchestrated hatred, jealously, and killer love is as relevant as ever. The final two episodes feel somewhat thin with more focus on the slightly pretentious on the scene presenters, however Kim Cattrall, Vanessa Redgrave, Janet Suzman, and Richard Johnson tackle the moody middle aged love versus politics, famed film perceptions, and empire shaping culture clashes of “Antony and Cleopatra” via obscure productions, intimate candlelit rehearsals, and Shakespeare's own Julius Caesar character roots. Joseph Fiennes, Orlando Bloom, Condola Rashad, and footage of Alan Rickman as a young Tybalt anchor the familiar “Romeo and Juliet” finale as the iconic relevance of these star crossed teenagers is explored with clips from Shakespeare in Love, West Side Story, the beloved Zeffirelli film, Baz Lurhmann's update, and Montagues and Capulets ballets. Rather than being stuck in a school desk and reading aloud – hated that – the historical Italian sources, comedic wit, and rival happy endings get interactive and out loud with school exercises and role reversals. This series is lighthearted but no less informative, and the conversational atmosphere is perfect for budding Bard fans to marathon straight through or for picking and choosing in comparing classroom discussions.


02 May 2016

The Munsters: Season 1



The Munsters Debut remains Macabre Good Fun
by Kristin Battestella



Meet the lovable and naive Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne) – a 150 year old green skinned Frankenstein's monster – and his vampire housewife Lily (Yvonne De Carlo) along with their Grandpa Count (Al Lewis), unfortunately normal niece Marilyn (Beverly Owen, Pat Priest), and young werewolf son Eddie (Butch Patrick) in the 1964-65 Season One debut of The Munsters. Though often derivative, gimmicky, and of its time, The Munsters jam packs these first thirty-eight episodes with gags, wit, and slapstick brimming with Halloween mood. 
  
Fittingly, “Munster Masquerade” begins The Munsters with young romance and cross culture social clashes. These high society dames are worried about misspelling “Munster as Monster,” but the titular kin think an uppity masquerade party complete with King Arthur and Little Bo Peep costumes is horrifying! The Munsters establishes its series tone and now familiar tricks early, however, such gags and reverse quips – we weren't dug up last night, put the color back in your cheeks, not letting the lack of rain spoil the evening – are part of the spooky, for the laughs charm. One might not expect much in these short twenty-five minutes or less run times, but the horror tropes, sci-fi humor, and lighthearted morals are surprisingly well balanced. The Munsters may not realize what they are, yet they make a point of being kind because they know what creeps regular folks may be. As a redo of the previous two test pilots, “My Fair Munster” is almost a bottle episode of mean neighbors despite that Munster friendliness alongside rectifying Marilyn's old maid status with Grandpa's mistaken love potion. “Rock-A-Bye Munster” adds self-awareness with a trick television and mini Frankenstein's monster toys, leading to a witty case of mistaken pregnancy and the birth of the Munster Koach. The robot is hokey and the clash with truant officers remains unrealistic, yet “Tin Can Man” provides great funeral jokes and fatal quips before Herman falls asleep in the backseat as their car is stolen for a bank heist getaway in “The Midnight Ride of Herman Munster.” His innocence ups the zany plot twists, as he is surprised they want to go to the bank at dawn – it's too early to be open – and he won't speed in a 25 miles per hour zone when they leave. Likewise “The Sleeping Cutie” piles on the hypnosis humor, a pill that turns water into gasoline, sleeping potions, and a suitor named “prince.” What could possibly go wrong? Instead of a night picnic in the cemetery, the family braves the fresh air so Eddie can camp like the other boys in “Grandpa's Call of the Wild.” Naturally, the trip spells disaster for Grandpa – who brings his electric chair outdoors and almost ends up in the zoo. The clan teamwork continues in “All-Star Munster” when Herman is mistaken for a basketball star by redneck visitors misunderstanding the comparably well to do Munsters, and “Bats of a Feather” fully introduces the family pets – Kitty with its lion's roar, Spot the dragon under the stairs, and that “spoiled bat” Igor. Hey, why isn't their temperamental raven in the cuckoo clock considered for the pet fair? I protest.


Herman's detective school moonlighting and fun disguises raise Lily's jealous suspicions in “Follow That Munster,” and the lighthearted marital discord carries over in “Love Locked Out” when Herman is sleeping on the couch until both separately go to a marriage counselor for inadvertently competing advice. Eddie finally has a friend over in “Come Back, Little Googie” but he's an insulting, nasty boy trying to trick everybody, providing for The Munsters special brand of cruel versus kind lessons. Relocating to Buffalo for Herman's promotion in “Munsters on the Move” wouldn't be a problem if they didn't scare away potential home buyers – literally! Unfortunately, life insurance crooks are trying to kill Herman with on set accidents in “Movie Star Munster,” but such stunts don't hurt him, forcing them to up their risks. Granted, there are scams like this practically every other episode on The Munsters – Herman always signs some kind of terrible contract in a quest for fame and fortune. However, the escalating trappings here are mad fun, and although diva Herman may be dumb enough not to read the fine print, but I'll be darn he isn't doing a scene if he doesn't feel the character's motivation! Fashion shows faux pas, a disastrous golf course, and snooty club members give everyone their moment in “Country Club Munsters” – complete with hatred and veiled statements reminding The Munsters how such bigoted people aren't up to their kindly standards. “Love Comes to Mockingbird Heights” sees the family working both for and against a cad banker making moves on Marilyn just for the Munster gold, and say hey, Uncle Creature from the Black Lagoon pays a visit before a hilarious museum excursion leaves Herman locked in a sarcophagus for “Mummy Munster.” Women in the workplace jealousy anchors “Lily Munster, Girl Model,” and ridiculously fun Nutcracker spins and pirouettes have the whole family in on the magic act for “Munster the Magnificent.” Herman making friends and helping a little boy in “Yes, Galen, There Is a Herman” accents The Munsters with slightly serious Frankenstein movie parallels, and the eponymous boy's disbelieving family takes him to a psychiatrist. Sure, today it is creepy the way Uncle Herman picks up a boy on the street and takes him back to his dungeon to watch Grandpa's home movies, but the wink within a wink embracing fantasy versus destructive reality makes for a fine little finale on The Munsters debut.

Of course with so many episodes, The Munsters certainly has a few clunkers including the bickering couple using The Munsters for their own gain in “Pike's Pique” and the shocking townsfolk reactions and presumed to be celebrating Halloween excuses in “Family Portrait.” The harp and phonograph of “Far Out Munsters” are fun, as is the irony of The Munsters liking The Beatles despite being initially too old fashioned for rock n roll – “You know, they're almost as good as Kate Smith!” However, although the Beatniks invading Mockingbird Heights accept The Munsters as all right, the capitalizing Fab Four covers miss the mark along with the ham radio and mistaken aliens of “If a Martian Answers, Hang Up.” Too many stunt episodes in a row like “Herman the Rookie” complete with Dodgers guest stars and get rich quick schemes like the desolate timeshare of “Herman's Happy Valley” feel like we've seen this same old already. You don't have to watch The Munsters in order, but when one tunes in for every episode, you know what you're going to get. With so many one trick ponies, it's somewhat amazing The Munsters lasted as long as it did, and the series also has numerous inconsistencies. The make up stylings are redesigned in the earlier episodes, and even the credits change halfway through this first season with Fred Gwynne moving from his last “and” billing to first. The juvenile crank speed running away in horror exits get old fast, and bungling cop jokes suggest more than a hint of Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis' prior series Car 54, Where are You? The vampires on The Munsters adhere to no traditional undead rules, and how do a vampy wife and a monster man end up with a werewolf son, anyway? Throwaway dates, locations, and relations change from episode to episode with no clear show bible logistics. It's no fun seeing so called regular folks trying to swindle the family, yet The Munsters relies on too many of these scam sitcom scripts when that contrast isn't necessary compared to the titular topsy turvy perspective. Fifty years on, some jokes and pop culture references may not be understood by today's audiences, and it is unfortunately very surprising to hear terms like wetback and gyp or Romani jokes alongside woeful Asian stereotypes in what is such a beloved and otherwise family friendly show. Honestly, I'm surprised these rare but jarring moments weren't edited out for the video release.


Sure he works at a funeral parlor, however Herman Munster is a normal guy who wants his idyllic mid century family to be safe. So what if he's a dunce at his might and stomps his foot when he doesn't get his way. “Fiddlesticks!” is Herman's go to exclaim, especially when he's late for the carpool that picks him up in the back of the parlor's Hearst – and he's ticklish, too. Herman may crack the mirror – literally – but he's more worried about his bills than being mistaken for the misspelled monster in the headlines crook of “A Walk on the Mild Side.” Always concerned about money, Herman tries a disastrous laundromat job in “Herman's Raise” as well as wrestling on the weekends for extra cash in “Herman the Great.” However, he's simply too sweet to be ruthless against the cheating competition. Herman won't disobey a “Don't Walk” sign but blows up the signal when he presses the button! Gwynne excels in solo physical humor scenes with few words as in “Dance With Me, Herman,” and he plays a suave lookalike in “Knock Wood, Here Comes Charlie” complete with a British accent and monocle. Fearful, finger pointing mobs may be played for laughs on The Munsters, but Herman makes sure his kin isn't involved with the nasty folks in town, and more looking through the window Mary Shelley motifs are made humorous when Herman tries dieting at Thanksgiving in “Low-Cal Munster.” Herman and his wife Lily sit on the couch together and read, rock on the porch together during a storm, have a beach date on a rainy day, and – gasp – sleep in the same bed! Lily's pussycat is more handsome than that unfortunate Cary Grant in her eyes. Although the family fears her wrath and she does get annoyed at his bungling when Herman and Grandpa are mistaken for burglars in Halloween masks in “Don't Bank on Herman,” Lily easily forgives. She's a good mom, too – sewing Eddie's doll and raising Marilyn despite her niece's “flaws.” Lily cleans nine rooms and a dungeon, vacuums with a vacuum set to exhaust the dust, and cooks oatmeal, pancakes, and Herman's favorite cream of vulture soup. She plays the harp, sleeps with her namesake flower, and in “Herman's Rival,” the 137 years young nee Dracula does palm readings at the local tea room. Although her white hair streaks and make up design varies at times, Yvonne De Carlo (The Ten Commandments) is always delightful thanks to bat necklaces, a werewolf stole, tiaras, iconic gowns, sparkling taffeta coffin capes, and “Chanel No. 13.”

Likewise, Al Lewis is all in good fun as that charming 400 year old widower Grandpa. The Count – known to turn into a wolf himself – has a werewolf son named Lester and still loves him some ladies despite having had over one hundred wives and falling for a mail order bride scam in “Autumn Croakus.” Occasionally, Lewis breaks the fourth wall, and these talking to himself asides or sight gags add self-aware wit. Grandpa hangs upside down in the living room, takes his eggs night side up, and roots against the Angels. Yes, there are a lot of hammy Dracula cliches on The Munsters – Grandpa's cape and widow's peak alone – but there is always a lovable quip or two to match his cool basement laboratory, potions, wacky inventions, and the latest money making scheme up his sleeve. Grandpa watches television and soap operas are his favorite comedy, but he has a naughty streak, too – tempting Herman with trick pens or food when he can't eat. Unfortunately, their bemusing bromance does suffer in “Grandpa Leaves Home” when the feeling unloved Count runs off to perform in an ill-received magic club act. Grandpa's tricks aren't as good as they used to be, and such endeavors always have hair-brained results on The Munsters. Child star Butch Patrick's Eddie hangs with his Grandpa the most, helping him in the dungeon when he's not howling at the moon or playing in the fireplace, that is. Wolf look and all, “Edward Wolfgang Munster” is a gosh darn cute little boy with his little short pants, knee socks, pointed ears, and Woof Woof doll. He's so tiny beside the seven foot Herman and no bigger than the golf bag when he caddies for his dad! Fortunately, his small stature means Eddie can hide in the cabinet or other fun places, and he has a pet door where one can deliver his bedtime glass of milk. Although he plays baseball with the other kids, they often don't believe his stories about the Munster household – which unfortunately seem to happen mostly without Eddie. I'm glad The Munsters isn't Eddie-focused in a Beaver Cleaver gone Halloween fashion, and the series was in fact envisioned as a parody on Leave it to Beaver by producers Joe Donnelly and Bob Mosher. However, Patrick often only has one scene even when the episode's premise starts with him, and he's most often seen with his back to the camera at the family table. “Eddie's Nickname” is his only centric episode, but we do get to see his room in detail alongside nice father and son time and some moral lessons. Besides, today he would have a far worse nickname then “Shorty.”


She's supposed to be Lily's sister's daughter, yet Marilyn's mother is never mentioned by Lily or Grandpa, and her last name is still somehow Munster. Yeah. It's somewhat sad that The Munsters' normal blonde niece is so underdeveloped that the Beverly Owens to Pat Priest casting change in Episode 14 is almost completely unnoticeable. The Munsters does at least make good use of Marilyn's repeatedly scaring away dates right from the start, and each unsuitable suitor gone is for the better as far as her Aunt Lily and Uncle Herman are concerned. The family pities her for being so “ugly” or “hopeless” and think she looks better with the bags under her eyes when she can't sleep. They insist she stay in school and get an education because she's only going to get a boy to like her for her brain! Marilyn does get a kiss in “Love Comes to Mockingbird Heights” – where we see her girly bedroom inside the left gable of the Munster Mansion complete with floral wallpaper, a canopy bed, and dainty furniture which Herman finds “distasteful.” Though never shown having plots or hobbies of her own and mentioned as being off studying when not included, Marilyn is briefly seen playing the organ and being Herman's talent show magician's assistant. She doesn't desperately fall for every wolf on the make, either, and can tell when someone is suspicious. Most of Marilyn's scenes, however, are with Lily, and it's apparent the character really only exists as a soundboard for the wife at home. Like Eddie, Marilyn has one scene and few lines per episode. On the rare occasion they are alone onscreen, the cousins are still talking about others rather than having stories of their own. Marilyn has one shtick and one shtick alone, but it is a fun one, and the would-be con artists who knock on The Munsters' door deserve to find this innocent and demure decoy. For sure, The Munsters has its fair share of famous and recognizable guests including postman John Fielder (The Bob Newhart Show) and Bewitched's Paul Lynde in several episodes as Dr. Dudley. Batman's Commissioner Gordon Neil Hamilton is here, too, with Bill Mummy (Lost in Space), Pat Buttram (Green Acres), Barbara Babcock (Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman), Harvey Korman (The Carol Burnett Show), Don Rickles, and more. I must say, I would have certainly watched a spinoff featuring John Carradine as Herman's undertaker boss Mr. Gateman!

Although the drag racing creation of the Dragula roadster in “Hot Rod Herman” will conflict with the later Munster, Go Home movie plots and a regular car driven by an unseen ghost is seen only once early on, the aforementioned Munster Koach is always good fun. Likewise, the cowabunga theme music remains as memorable as the always recognizable Munster Mansion – a great television house that has appeared in other films and television shows such as The 'Burbs and Desperate Housewives yet continues to inspire builders who want to live at 1313 Mockingbird Lane. Sure, the kitchen is kind of drab. The décor is too derelict trashy and hellllooo dust mites rather than fancy Gothic sophistication – at Halloween one always strives for the latter and ends up with the former! However, that candlestick phone in the indoor coffin phone booth is yes please, and let's throw in some nostalgic bells and whistles such as that $2 with a 50 cent tip taxi cab fee for good measure. Secret passages, creaking doors, and cobwebs spook up The Munsters as do phonographs, candelabras, cool spell books, and creepy potion ingredients. I wish the series had been in color – if The Munsters had lasted for a third year on CBS in the 1966-67 season, it could not have remained black and white. Thankfully, the smoke, fog, bubbling cauldrons, poofs of dust, and objects moving by themselves benefit from the eerie grayscale palette while setting the spooky Halloween funhouse atmosphere. Although the uneven sound is perhaps understandable, the laugh track and cutesy music effects feel like an intrusive insecurity today. The Munsters is a funny show, and the audience gets the puns a minute without the canned response – and we prefer our own spontaneous chuckles to being told we are too dumb to know good comedy when we see it. The pet jokes are much more fun on The Munsters thanks to some surprisingly not bad special effects. Not only are those opening stairs cool, but Spot's flames and pyrotechnic gags, Kitty's lion roar, wolf or animal filming, and bemusing bat work accent the horror humor. As to that grouchy cuckoo clock raven voiced by Mel Blanc...want!


All the mid-century so-called fantasy sitcoms have their gimmicks, and The Munsters is at once of its time with simplistic plots, stock character tropes, and lighthearted happy family motifs in costumed dressings. Too many episodes in a row can be tiring or annoying when every half hour seems the same. Fortunately, the very affordable Complete Series DVDs add to the fun with actor spotlights, behind the scenes features, unaired pilots and color versions – treats not available on current retro channel airings or streaming options. The Munsters uses every trick at its disposal to crank out its weekly humorous horror wheelhouse, and ironically, any derivative hang ups also make this debut easy to marathon for a weekend. Viewers can pay attention or casually tune in for the best gags or leave Herman, Lily, and the gang on to occupy the kids. Let the delightful family frights of The Munsters Season One play for a harmless party or Halloween mood any time of year.


22 April 2016

Julius Caesar (1970) vs Antony and Cleopatra (1972)



Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra A Curious but Entertaining Double Bill
by Kristin Battestella



Friends, Romans, countrymen....” Count 'em once, twice – Charlton Heston plays Marc Antony in the 1970 adaptation of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as well as the 1972 follow up Antony and Cleopatra. While neither picture is perfect, together these films make for an elusive but pleasant duo providing full embellishment on two lesser filmed Bard works.

AIP's Julius Caesar lets slip the dogs of war with leftover armor and barren skeletons on the desolate battlefield while the opening narration informs viewers on the previous war with Spain. Despite trumpets and parades, the largely faithful two hours is slow to start with no subtitles on the bare bones DVD and unfortunately undynamic characters cramping this history's innate momentum and otherwise fine performances. This version just isn't as intense as it should be – the locations and design are beyond a merely videotaped play staging yet it's lacking some cinematic flair. Director Stuart Barge (also of the infamous 1965 Othello) doesn't have command of the picture's weight, and the pace sputters in going through the motions from act to act. Lengthy two man conversations may seem like a lot of iambic pentameter chit chat for only a few simple actions, but the testing the waters dialogue layers the treasonous whispers to tease this inevitable outcome. Who's on whose side? From the Ides of March to “Et tu, Brute?” famous quotes anchor this hotbed, perilous time and secreted assassination planning. A moody dream sequence montage with screams and bloody statues invokes more booming prophecy, and the simmering approach to the public stabbing scene ups the ante. Quick intercut editing mirrors each slice, peppering the murder with a chaotic, bloody, almost ritual horror eerie. More familiar speeches and shrewd revenge move fast in the second hour as ghostly fires and comeuppance arguments bring Julius Caesar round right for the falling on swords finale. I love this era of history and this play – Julius Caesar is among my top three Shakespeare works. This is Roman history as told by Elizabethans adapted in the seventies yet the intriguing aristocratic parallels linger today. Ever are there a small few who claim they are doing right for the majority by creating war and strife, amirite? 
 

With effortless presence and a classy command of the text, John Gielgud's (A Bafta winner for the 1953 Julius Caesar film as Cassius) Julius Caesar almost seems cramped by the close camera with little room to let his charisma fully blossom. The slightly fragile Caesar swoons as others dote upon his hem, yet he remains revered in his refusals to rule. His charm is disarming – this is a likable, nice guy with battlefield glory, so why are people out to get him? We keep hearing of his military might before the play and current whispers of potential power to come, and Gieglund's would be Vader of the piece anchors the audience. We're looking for a reason to go along with the conspirators, and Caesar's stubbornness soon makes its interference known as he ignores repeated warnings to mind his fate and put his ear to ground for what might be afoot. Caesar's arrogance subtly increases – he gets ahead of himself with his North Star assurance and is genuinely shocked at his favorites joining the plot against him. Did he deserve to be stabbed? Maybe not, but Caesar was wrong in not heeding such prophecies and the political climate. Of course, the character is killed in the opening of the third act, and the viewer's morale compass switches to Caesar's avenger Marc Antony. Now, Charlton Heston is not the spring chicken he was in the 1950 Julius Caesar production. I'm not sure about that zany red comb over hair nor the skimpy wrap tunic and that wearing his mama's curtains dress – Chuck looks like an overgrown cherub! Fortunately, his familiar, strong voice and firm delivery earn Marc Antony's worth once the backstabbing unfolds. We agree with him against these crazy plotters thanks to an emotional, shocking plea. Marc Antony's weeps for all the SPQR to see, rousing and endearing the common people more that both Caesar's late missteps and those knife wielding traitors. It's a twitter war at its finest, and Marc Antony's shrewd politics assures the public feels in the right. He goes for the visceral by showing the corpse as evidence and pointing out the limp reasoning and stupid execution of a plot the public didn't ask to have done in its name. Wow, Julius Caesar just becomes more and more contemporary, doesn't it?

Ironically, it's even easier to be on Marc Antony's side because Jason Robards (All the President's Men) as Brutus is surprisingly flat, dry, and mid century sword and sandal dull. This is not what this conflicted, at times cowardly, and always potentially juicy character deserves. Poor Robards feels like he is doing his dialogue phonetically, and poor direction certainly plays a part. Didn't anybody check the dailies? This Brutus isn't morally upset or pained, but slow to draw his own conclusion and too wishy washy one way or the other. Richard Johnson's (The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders) far better command of the plot and performance at hand makes one wonder why Cassius is trying to recruit him at all, and gasp, this Julius Caesar could have excised Brutus and been better for it. Cassius' strong arm arguments are so smooth you don't know you are being so pressed, and his true color revelations put an exclamation – er sword point on Julius Caesar. Diana Rigg (The Avengers) as Portia also adds a moment a tender uplift to Brutus with wisdom, grace, and strength behind the man. Can the rest of her Shakespeare cred become available on video please? The trouble with Julius Caesar is that there are several critical but quite small roles that can't be combined or eliminated – especially when you can cast a great name for the clout or much needed financing. While Robards struggles, Robert Vaughn's (The Magnificent Seven) slick Casca proves it's not an American issue with Billy in Julius Caesar, and the late great Christopher Lee has some hefty proclamations, if only for a mad moment. Why couldn't he have been Brutus? Richard Chamberlain (The Thorn Birds) is also almost an irrelevant afterthought as Octavius, though the character obviously plays a more substantial part in Antony and Cleopatra.


Julius Caesar remains a bit obscure perhaps because up until recently, there hasn't really been a quality video release. Though shrewd in avoiding a big entry spectacle and taking care of the opening titles at the same time, the widescreen credits look cropped or zoomed in and blurry. We can, however, still spot some apparently under dressed slave boob shots, FYI. Unfortunately, the rest of the picture remains a flat, cut and scan fullscreen, leaving a congested feeling despite relatively few up close shots. Move the camera back please and show more of the colorful togas, statues, and crowded plazas. The ancient wares and graffiti add much needed Roman spirit while columns and stonework anchor the slightly small scale sets and seemingly simple Shakespearean stage dressings. Our villainous stabbers all seem to be dark, bearded, or greasy haired – perhaps not the best visual but the distinctions help the audience recognize these crazed assassins. Storms and lightning create mood to match the waxing on fate and stars, and although this Julius Caesar is lacking in panache, it's pleasing to see such focus on the flawed people and empire-shaping twists instead of some dated seventies spectacle. The sweeping music by Michael J. Lewis (Theater of Blood) is reserved for choice soliloquy crescendos, and the green outdoors, golden helmets, and horse action accent the partings well made. Like Julius Caesar, the 1972 Antony and Cleopatra was filmed in Spain complete with bonus Egyptian gold and orange motifs alongside crisp blue waters, ancient pirate ships, and red centurion capes. Be it the Roman villa or the Nile, viewers immediately recognize where a scene takes place, making Antony and Cleopatra feel more colorful, lavish, and cinematic compared to Julius Caesar's congested interiors and forum drab. A making of half hour on the DVD featuring Fraser Clarke Heston provides more behind the scenes details, and hey, subtitles! Save for a full Egyptian finale, Cleopatra and her entourage are also dressed in more Greco-Roman fashions – a historically debatable or artistic choice perhaps. However, the sea battle footage reused from Ben-Hur is too obvious despite the montage overlays and film trickery. The seaside establishing shots are enough alongside the close quarters barge battles. Smoke, fire, sword slices, and hacked, bloody limbs do far better than this cheesy whiff of1959 re-glory.

Then again, I was the obnoxious sophomore who couldn't understand why we weren't reading Antony and Cleopatra after just studying Julius Caesar. They go together, people! Several years later the best friend and lover of the deceased go to battle with his heir and die for love – today Hollywood can't make up this kind of epic franchising fast enough. Heston not only stars in this picking up where Octavius left off but also directed and adapted the smooth Elizabethan delivery and wouldn't know it was Shakespeare casual old speaketh, which in itself says something about the much more effortless performances under this actor's director compared to Julius Caesar. Roman rivals, pirates sweeping the Mediterranean, lovers chillaxing – Antony and Cleopatra sets the busy scene with Egypt versus Rome parallels as Marc Antony's dawdling with Cleopatra leaves the triumvirate ruling Rome perilously imbalanced. Some coming and going scenes or to and fro messengers, however, feel redundant, sagging the lengthy two and a half hour runtime. We've just seen what is being told, and such transitions could have been trimmed in favor of combining or lengthening the titular tug and pull. Antony and Cleopatra is structured as if the separate locations could be staged side by side, darkening or illumining each empire as needed. Unfortunately, that back and forth is uneven in the first half of the film when our duo spends more time apart – Antony and Cleopatra are actually separated for more time onscreen then they are together. Marc Antony hearing Cleopatra's quotes in his head while he's in Rome or listening to the asides of others do better in invoking the spirit of the stage. Likewise, the Soothsayer almost mystically appears in both places, linking the isolated fates in an almost self-aware breaking the fourth wall before some surreal penance and the epic action finale. The final forty minutes of battles betrayed and cavalry action raise the stakes as these would be titans of Egypt and Rome realize their fall with fine, if fatal soliloquies. Antony and Cleopatra is a little messy, but that is the nature of their reality show trainwreck relationship. This battle of the sexes, love/hate war, and who is using whom scandal can shakedown any number of ways, and this Antony and Cleopatra throws in some gladiator practice for good measure, complete with a thumbs up from Octavius, because, of course.


Well then, Chuck's Marc Antony looks a little older with whitish blonde hair for Antony and Cleopatra – but he's still going around in some kind of nude thong thing. Heston looks much better in armor atop his horse in full Shakespearean command, but Marc Antony is angry that strife in Rome interferes with his new, alluring roost with Cleopatra. He doesn't care about his late wife's campaign against Octavius, but reluctantly returns to Rome to claim his family's wars were not his own. So much for partying in Egypt when marrying another gal adds to your troubles! The drunken scenes are a little off, and although Heston knows where the direction of Julius Caesar went wrong, perhaps he's not so good at directing himself when playing this kind of blinded by lust character. However, I do wish he would have directed more, albeit without himself as star or with another collaborator on the script. This cast does well thanks to his performance first expertise, and Marc Antony's conflicts, soliloquies, and final scenes give Heston room to just act. Although Cleopatra may have a quick, lying under Marc Antony introduction, Hildegarde Neil (A Touch of Class) has a firm voice to convey Cleopatra's anger as well as a solid hold on The Bard's dialogue. Initially, more time is spent on Cleopatra's la di da handmaidens and gay in both senses of the word henchmen while the queen's passionate pleas echo over Marc Antony's angst. Some of this humor is too lighthearted hippie and misses the mark, but it also parallels the fluid sex and cross dressing of the Elizabethan stage. Cleopatra is a tough figure to portray, and Neil superbly makes the character and debated historical figure a person – a young, naive, smitten and insecure ruler in love. Cleopatra is not just some kind of exotic habit everyone insists Marc Antony quit, for the viewer sees her plain before the mirror jealousy as well as her full pharaonic regalia. She's violent and at times equal in a role reversed sexual power play with Marc Antony as each tries to gain the upper hand whether it is good for either's country or not. Neil doesn't look super young next to Heston, either, and in the final twenty minutes she holds her own alone with strength in mourning and grace in defeat.

Eric Porter (The Forsyte Saga) as Marc Antony's consul Enobarbus also knows the right things to say and do as this peacemaker between such two big egos. He's weathering their lust, hoping they will just get this love/hate thing out of their system. Unfortunately, Enobarbus can't take the pull of Antony with Egypt against his own loyalty to Rome. The character may not seem super important between the eponymous rulers, however this is a relatable, tragic figure encapsulating how the common people and simple soldiers are the victims caught in the middle as the big wigs play their capture the flag war games. By contrast, John Castle's (I,Claudius) Octavius is a sassy little fellow, even a downright brat. His slick and selfish ways should make him a good politician, but Octavius is too much of a jerk. One can't help but look back and wonder if Rome was better off in Caesar's hands compared to him – but of course history would prove differently for the villainous victor here. Although Roger Delgado's (Doctor Who) Soothsayer may be more medieval in style than Roman for Antony and Cleopatra, that's okay. Audiences expect a whiff of the supernatural and some ironic author winks from Bill. Again, there are even more recognizable but perhaps superfluous secondary players in Antony and Cleopatra, with Julian Glover (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) as the go between messenger Proculeius filling the toga and Freddie Jones (Emmerdale) as Pompey putting on his best argh! for only a few somewhat unnecessary scenes. Some lines are already moved in the otherwise faithful adaptation, so why not go for broke with an extreme cinematic splice? This Antony and Cleopatra could have excised all the extra speaking parts that do nothing but delay the snowball toward the fatal confrontations viewers want to see. Gasp, this film could have gotten by with even half the cast, but heck, we'll keep the elemental Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Octavius, Enobarbus, and the mystical Soothsayer for good measure. Tee hee.


It's tough to find both Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Varying streaming options and Netflix rentals expire or very long wait, but the 1970 Julius Caesar feels a little forgotten compared to the 1953 Marlon Brando adaptation of Shakespeare's deadly Roman hotbed – which, call me crazy, is not a favorite of mine. Yes, there are design flaws and miscasting consequences here, but there's plenty of good with several scenes more palpable for the Roman or Shakespearean classroom. Such out of control egos and historical parallels are ripe for millennial audiences, too. The players in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra had the world at their grasp, and nobody knew what the heck they wanted – a lesson not learned in 44 B.C., 1623, or 2016. Although Julius Caesar is an oft read story capable of surviving any film wrongs and there have been a few Et tu adaptations, I'm still waiting for the definitive Julius Caesar Shakespeare film. Okay, putting the Iambic pentameter into Latin with English subtitles would be too much to ask. Betraying Bill by putting these two plays together and cutting the flak for an intense sword jabbing cinema escapade is probably wishful thinking, too – but hey, paging director Kenneth Branagh and star Tom Hiddleston! With Julius Caesar's open ending and such hefty history to follow, Antony and Cleopatra rightly completes our innate what happens next needs. One can't leave the fate of Rome up in the air like that, and The Bard gives us the tough, often unclassifiable, and bitter conclusion to match.