17 May 2020

Pandemic Horror Pros and Cons

Pandemic Horror Pros and Cons
by Kristin Battestella

Being at home during the Coronavirus outbreak has led to new viewing opportunities and plenty of time to watch them. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that these recent famous monsters, demon films, supernatural tales, and ghostly terrors are going to be all quality.

These were Good...

Frankenstein – Jonny Lee Miller (Elementary) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) alternate as the Doctor and His Monster for director Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave) in these two, two hour performances presented by National Theatre Live. Tolling bells, heartbeats, billowing backdrops, red lighting, and shadows invoke membranes and tissue for the monstrous birth while circular staging, mechanical floor changes, and electricity crackle with smoke and sound effects. Sweeping camerawork and overhead views add a surreal, looking down on high symbolism as locomotives, goggles, and top hats create an industrial, steampunk mood. Well done scarring, stitching, and bald, pasty looks match the pulsing nerves and body contortions which, though melodramatic for the back row to some, are realistic discoveries. This performance requires a certain agility and flexibility – Cumberbatch shows range in the ugly, yet his portrayal is more childlike or simpleton compared to Miller's guttural cries and visceral physicality. Our Creature begins helpless, unable to control his limbs amid confusion, laughter, and pain. With no dialogue in the first ten minutes, the audience is expected to be familiar with the story, leaving the doctor's abandonment, sing song rowdy, and horrified crowds to speak for themselves alongside young innocence and an emotional score. Some viewers may find the interpretive almost performance art bemusing at first, however the beatings on the street lead to a humble homestead and a blind man unafraid of kindness, and the drama gets better as it goes on with lessons on God, sin, tenderness, and paradise. Men are hungry, thirsty for food and knowledge – asking big questions on existence, friendship, and philosophy while conflict and tragedy mount. Dreams of a female creature come to life are an unexpected but welcome ballet before fire, screams, fear, and revenge. Fiancee Naomi Harris (Skyfall) is sublime in modern regency looks, but her grace and compassion aren't what Victor wants thanks to fatal lakeside encounters and vengeful confrontations. He despises his Creation but is proud of him because The Monster proves Victor could, and superb intellectual debates on who's the hardened murderer or justified and wronged lonely are really about conquering death rather than scientific experimentation. Reasoning like men falls prey to grave robbing and aggression, and though appalled at a second, surely wicked creation, Victor delights in the female challenge. Cumberbatch is more in his element reveling in the mad science as nightmares and ghosts create a sounding board in lieu of showing laboratory wonders. This perfect woman, however, needs a man not a monster, and the conflict doesn't shy away from the marital bed. Our impotent, stitching perfection together doctor won't procreate with his wife, but the females here are objects of desire solely for the violence of men, never appreciated for their goodness and unnecessarily assaulted as father doctor and creation son each learn to lie and best each other for their own gain. Although unnecessary extras and a slow, uneven start may feel off putting or overlong to some, the action and dramatic pace increase in the second half. I personally preferred the Miller as the Creature version, but thanks to National Theatre At Home Options, this dual told story remains entertaining with some great one on one segments for an interactive classroom reading and viewing comparison.

The Heretics Kidnappings, ritual symbols, altars, torches, and cults lead to freaky masks, chanting, demons, and sacrifices in this 2017 Canadian indie. The nightmares continue five years later despite group therapy, volunteer work, and an overprotective mother who won't let her daughter walk home alone. Assaulted and abused women are meek and apologetic, comforted by time heals all wounds hopeful, but others don't want to be touched, refusing to be victims and tired of lies that don't make it better. Would they go back and change their experience or seek revenge? Our female couple supports each other with realistic conversations and maturity – not horror's typical angry lez be friends titillation solely for the viewer gaze. Unfortunately, creepy campers, chains, and a scarred abductor ruin necklaces and birthday plans, leading to skull entrance markers, an isolated cabin, and flashbacks of the original attack with hooded dead, white robes, and flowery dresses marred in blood. Sunrise deadlines, whispers of angels, fitting Gloria names, and religious subtext balance faith, doubts, God, biblical aversions, and horns. What's a delusion and who's delusional? Who's right or wrong about what they believe? The multi-layered us versus them, who's really involved in what sinister, and what is truth or lies aren't clear amid threats, stabbings, whips, and history repeating itself. Men versus women innuendo and who needs saving attempts add to the less than forthcoming police, lack of answers, and obsessive searches. Who is trying to protect whom? Violence begets violence thanks to fanatical beliefs in the ritual and long awaited ceremonies. This demon is deceptive, growing stronger and more tantalizing despite a gross, uncomfortable sex scene. Occasionally the boo monster in your face jumps are forced, but the fine body horror, creaking wings breaking out the back, squishing sounds, and black sinews make up the differences. Fevers, convulsions, hairy clumps, and visions increase along with the realizations of what is happening before candles, pentagrams, burns, and one more final sacrifice. Viewers know where it all has to go, yet this remains entertaining getting there via escalating horror invasive, ritual complications, and one ready and waiting demon.

But Jinkies These were Stinky

Annabelle Comes Home – A middle of nowhere cemetery, foggy crossroads, engine trouble, and ghosts in the backseat open this 2019 entry in The Conjuring universe with creepy atmosphere and familiar faces as Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) bless and encase the titular doll in their demonic collection. Despite warnings on possession, crosses, and phantoms knocking at the door, the nowhere left to go timeline is backed into a confusing corner – we're after the prologue but before the main events of the First Film in an unseen in between home alone with The Warrens' daughter and her babysitter. Newspaper articles about The Warrens allow for mean jokes, bullies, and nasty neighbors, however it's tough to feel anything ominous when pesky folks deliberately go into the spooky vault and get what they deserve. Sixties music cues, record players, and period patterns are just window dressing as the teen sitter and her sassy BFF look too young and modern, and our charge also seems too old to be so childish. Thanks to contrived psychic encounters, terrible serenades, convenience, and more boy trouble, they all make stupid decisions just because the plot says so. Messing with the cursed items is merely an excuse for a variety of evil games, pointless evil wolf apparitions, and pianos playing by themselves. The random ghosts unnoticed in the background as if they are always among us are chilling and the rocking chair creaking by itself accents evil brides and decent individual scare vignettes. Unfortunately, the deflated Halloween horror feels tacked on in a bad coming of age movie sleepover complete with the cliché inhaler, and we never care about the people because viewers know nothing of consequence is going to happen to upset the canon. It turns out exploring The Warrens house while they are away for most of the film is derivative and boring, and this is more like a Conjuring for kids who shouldn't be watching the R rated flagship films. I zoned out after the first hour, only to be alerted by all the obnoxious phones ringing and incessant door bells – for the most frightening thing here is trite jump scare noise.

Demonic – Maria Bello (The Dark) and Frank Grillo (The Gates) lead this 2015 ghost hunters picture within a picture from producer James Wan (Insidious). Though brief, the opening credits are typical news reports and hyperbolic headlines of satanic rituals and brutal murders. Cell phone calls fill in exposition on the crime house, the sheriff's interrupted love life, and country town first name basis. Creepy dolls, fresh blood, and new bodies are at the scene of the original crime, but then we go back to the sunny one week earlier as our paranormal, passive aggressive yuppies have ominous chats about visions, dead mothers, and pregnancy giveaways in a weak connection to the past horrors. Via interrogations and corrupted cameras, the current investigation and the precipitating paranormal house attack unfold side by side. We just saw these people's dead bodies in the house, so it's not so much confusing as it is pointless and irritating to go back and forth. Viewers aren't seeing anything in the proper time solely to delay and distort the narrative with amateur intercuts and handy cams. For seemingly sophisticated equipment, all the innate herky jerky is cheap with off camera screams and attacks unseen not because that's scary, but because it was easier not to show what matters. We don't get to follow the police discovery trying to piece together the footage from their view because we're being subjected to in your face found footage fake outs that toy with what's in camera and out of the point of view. People are missing but apparently finding them isn't as important as perusing the lame footage complete with driving to the horror, useless store stops, trite introductions, and exposition not conversations. The present adults and whiny coeds going where they shouldn't are terribly disjointed, padding the two movies in one feeling with interrogation voiceovers such as “Let me get this straight....” Critical information is deliberately withheld until contrived car chases, convenient confrontations, easily deduced laptop clues, and occult research reiterate the absolutely not surprising possessions. Cliché ghosts, black ooze, and hackneyed open mouth roars can't disguise the jumbled mess, and it all insults the wise horror viewer – treating us as if we're as stupid as the people in the movie.

Malevolent – Scamming medium Florence Pugh (The Falling) sees real ghosts in this 2018 British/Netflix original set in 1986 as indicated with old televisions, large equipment, tape decks, and microfilm. The neon discotheques, however, are unnecessary, and the trench coats, high ponytails, and stacked bangles look more like costumes than clothes. If one misses the onscreen date, you might not even notice this is meant to be a period piece especially thanks to modern dialogue and today's terribly young looking twenty-somethings who don't seem old enough to drive much less orchestrate eighties supernatural con jobs. Grandpa James Cosmo (Game of Thrones) provides classy poise, but he's embarrassingly only used in one scene loaded with family history before spooky phone calls and bizarre self help tape voiceovers. Maybe the smoking, drug references, and warped positivity are meant to be character layers – we can understand the stress her big brother has in taking on all the family responsibilities – but his shady dealings make him a real jerk and he bullies his sister and girlfriend into the haunt hoax before blaming them for thinking the scheme's gone too far when he's at fault. Schoolgirls were murdered at the eerie manor in their latest investigation, but the maze like rooms and falling through the floor injuries feel hollow because our jerk demands they continue the faux exorcising despite the risks so he can get paid. Nosebleeds to indicate when one really has a ghostly encounter become trite when they happen every time. Once is enough, but the audience is beat over the head with this minute detail rather than seeing more about the old lady who calls their showmanship bluff. There's no sense of scale or consequences when something we already know is revealed to a character just to move the plot elsewhere. Viewers are over the footage within footage camerawork, as if we don't look at devices enough and need any type of screen to look through rather than just see for ourselves. Sideways video from a dropped camera, creepy dolls, and sing song music are getting old, too when following a silent ghost is all we need. It's tough to appreciate sinister villains cutting people's tongues out when we don't care about the victim by time we get to the haunted house meets contemporary chop shop torture in the final act. Whether it's by human or supernatural means, there's never any doubt where the cliches are going.

23 April 2020

Nostalgic Musical Merriments

Nostalgic Musical Merriments!
by Kristin Battestella

These sentimental and comforting but no less fun and informative musicals, movies, and documentaries provide nostalgic feeling and most importantly, some great tunes.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years – This hour and forty-five minute 2016 documentary from director Ron Howard (Apollo 13) traces the band's early formation and their epic tours from 1962 to 1966 with new interviews from Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr alongside archive film with George Harrison and John Lennon audio. Vintage photos accent concert footage of “She Loves You,” “Twist and Shout,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Can't Buy Me Love,” “Help,” “Nowhere Man,” “Don't Let Me Down,” and more classic tracks. Cues from the likes of “Please Please Me,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “I'll Cry Instead,” “A Hard Day's Night,” “I Feel Fine,” and of course “Eight Days a Week” set off onscreen timelines and locations – a linear narrative from Liverpool innocence and the risk of failure in America to initial newsreel interviews getting their names wrong and The Fab Four's humor over the baffling Beatlemania. More clips and radio reports capture the era as the relatable group transcended cultures thanks to welcoming, colorless music and freedom of expression. Their compassion was more important than the hysteria, and the Four historically refused to perform segregated concerts while writing fast on the road and sharing their experiences through songwriting. After their simplistic love songs made to appeal to the masses quickly caught on, they laughed at the thought of their music's lasting impact on western culture. However with the A Hard Day's Night movie spurring the out of control teen movement, John, Paul, George, and Ringo began to realize how big they really were. 30,000 seat tours and everybody wants a piece of them over the sheer logistics and money to be made even if the amplifiers couldn't carry the sound at Shea Stadium. They turn to the recording studio to express themselves deeper despite the rapid singles pace and album release pressure – uniting against touring as drug use escalates. New interests in art, Indian music, and life not lame photo sessions lead to album growth while controversies, negative interviews, and persona non grata threats begat apologies and increased security. The circus was no longer about the music, and the Sgt. Pepper sessions provided a chance to freely experiment with mature, innovative sounds rather than catering to the masses on the road. No longer mop top boys, our long haired sophisticated men go their own way before final, rare footage of the 1969 Savile Row rooftop concert. Although this may be nothing new to longtime, hardcore fans, this behind the scenes focus is a great starting point for new, younger listeners.

Dirty Dancing My sister the dancer and I watched this 1987 hip grinding fest starring Jennifer Grey (Ferris Bueller's Day Off), Jerry Orbach (Law & Order), and Patrick Swayze (I prefer North and South myself) a lot. I mean a lot. At least the dance scenes anyway. I think she went along with us getting a pool just so we could do that lift in the water, too. Though specifically set in the summer Catskills with mid century cars, frocks, pearls, and budding sixties flair; there are also heaps of eighties hairstyles, sneakers, hip dialogue, and thirty year olds playing teenagers to match the original Swayze tune “She's Like the Wind,” “Hungry Eyes,” and the massive “I've Had the Time of My Life” hit. Whether ticklish traditional routines or forbidden steamy – that “Cry to Me” scene, come on – the dance moves remain energetic. The characters are cliché thanks to the fifties elite mentality and the poor boy from across the tracks social barriers, yet everyone's likable thanks to subtle humor and quirky charm. For what on the surface seems to be nothing more than a dance movie, there are some progressive abortion and pre-marital sex debates. Here women are supposed to go from daddy's little girl to the wholesome wife of a doctor with no other options– dating the bad boy or having career dreams were unacceptable. While some of the life imitating art coming of age is heavy handed and melodramatic, the female focus retains surprising depth. When recently catching this on television late at night, I thought the sweet, sweet oldies like “Be My Baby,” “Do You Love Me,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and more would just be great background noise. However, the comforting storytelling and sexy dancing put a smile on my face. After all, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner!”

Hello, Dolly! Gene Kelly (Singin' in the Rain) directs this 1969 musical adaptation starring Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl), Walter Matthau (King Creole), and Michael Crawford (Phantom of the Opera) – an overlong two and a half hours with excessively orchestrated, meandering set pieces and dull, unnecessary songs that all feels ten years too late. At times the battle of the sexes banter, zingers, and personality shine better without the music. There are too many misunderstood couples creating more confusion than comedy, and it's easy to zone out or skip around once viewers stop caring about whether this is supposed to be about the matches or the matchmaker. The fast talking backtalk stalls the momentum rather than moving the chemistry along, and the exaggerated, tip toe, butt in the air dance steps are so awkward it borders on parody. This over the top performing for the back row never actually breaks the fourth wall to let the audience in on any meta wink, and sometimes it's all just an hour and a half exercise in making it to the titular show stopping Louis Armstrong (High Society) number. Having said all that, the specific attention to turn of the century New York detail is superb nonetheless thanks to on location pretty, period storefronts, lovely trains, trolleys, and carriages. Feathers, lace, parasols, spats, hats, waistcoats, buttons, bows, and baubles add flair to the wonderful costumes. The bumbling couples are both so flamboyant with their fawning over each other yet completely repressed in their pesky Victorian high collars. Despite the fifties whoopee safe tunes, these corseted women are about to explode and the cross legged men are so grateful to be near enough to a lady to dance. The it's complicated and for love or money hi jinks may be cheeky – the one on one battle of wills where performances are allowed room to maneuver are best – but there's a nostalgic comfort and innocence to the slightly out of touch simplicity. This musical denouement in changing times provides enough whirlwind charm and visual splendor to keep the golly gee giving for young and old.

Stevie Nicks: In Your Dreams – With weepy fan voiceovers, airplane arrival montages, shaky cam introductions, and made to look retro footage, this 2013 documentary chronicling Stevie Nicks' In Your Dreams album collaboration with the Eurythmics' David Stewart is very slow to start. Fortunately, rainy California scenery sets the ethereal mood and we're all here for Stevie's recorded messages and interview sit downs on her pen and paper approach to writing or music production and inspirations. Poetic genesis, military impetus, literary references, and more background on each of the songs from the titular 2011 album pack these 100 minutes with “Everybody Loves You”, “You May Be the One,” “Wide Sargasso Sea,” “Secret Love,” “New Orleans,” “Annabel Lee,” “Italian Summer,” and more. At times, it's difficult to know which tune samples you're hearing because Stevie's lyrics and titles don't always immediately reveal themselves. However, onscreen notes, music video snips, and raw, home recording studio sessions balance the sometimes heated discussions about which tracks sound best – it takes hours, sometimes days for just a few minutes of music. This fly on the wall viewer perspective provides an inside peak at the stress, difficulty, nuances, and all the little things that go into such pretty, sweeping orchestration. Chats with Mick Fleetwood, fun moments with crew, childhood audio clips, early photographs, and home movies create a personal touch. Though occasionally pretentious over waxing on life, love, and music being one and the same with heavy spiritual and emotional thoughts, humorous moments and sarcastic quips keep the time lighthearted. Our rock stars don't forget to rock, and by sampling enough songs and sharing the touching inspirations behind them, this documentary does what it is supposed to do – make you want to buy the album. Why wouldn't you anyway?

20 April 2020

14 April 2020

Whitechapel Seasons 3 and 4

Constant Changes Hurt the Goods in Whitechapel Seasons 3 and 4
by Kristin Battestella

After two three-part seasons, the spooky British procedural Whitechapel changes formats with its 2012 Third and subsequent Fourth Seasons – varying in success with six episodes of two-part cases each as obsessive compulsive Inspector Joe Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones), crusty Detective Sergeant Ray Miles (Phil Davies), and their constables face copycat killers and bizarre suspects alongside possibly evil and ultimately supernatural crimes that test their stiff upper lip mettle.

Whitechapel waxes on its Jack the Ripper past, copycat deduction, and historical cases setting precedents for new crimes even as it restarts as an X-Files creepy investigations wannabe with spooky altars, talk of the devil come to town, and weird neighbors fearing the night. Humbled witnesses, unhappy customers, and dead tailors interrupt wedding parties and family bemusements while forensics, CCTV evidence, and police questioning piece together limps and murder weapon clues. Why was a historical clothier obsessed with modern security technology? Our constables doubt their methodology, drinking and confiding their fears as they grow superstitious thanks to canvasing oddities, a goofy suspect afraid of bright light, and a killer who seemingly disappears into thin air. Cops aren't supposed to believe in magic or monsters, but bloody footprints go nowhere amid prisoner escapes and more deaths. This killer wants to teach a lesson in humility to the snobby survivors and hysterical crowds, but quirky profiling leads to hidden horrors and scary revelations to top off the case. Of course, cranky constables don't really know what to do with a baby much less a mangy fox and bloody appendages. Separated torsos, dismembered bodies dumped in the Thames, no heads – the bodily clues are there, but there's no crime scene and only a wild animal witness. DNA suggests poison – historically a women's weapon – so do they suspect a couple? Stakeouts allow for both humor and time to get to know our characters, after all, how many cops does it take to catch a fox? Smelly abandoned houses begat maze-like booby traps, newspaper pyres, and petrified corpses, but the hoarding and homemade elixirs reveal rare aphrodisiacs, imitation Spanish Fly, beetles, and anthropology evidence. Calligraphy clues, fetishes, unrequited love, and killer personalities come down to bar fights, indecent assaults, and chases, for our undercover team doesn't blend in very well at the edgy night club. By Episode Five, it's a full moon, creepy masks, killer point of view, and an escapee from a mental hospital returning to his former Whitechapel haunts – complete with his doctor Alistair Petrie (The Night Manager) insisting he's the most terrifying patient ever just like Halloween. This bogeyman – pronounced in the British way of course – scares witnesses, poses corpses, and leaves the cell phone in the body's mouth. Parking garage attacks provide chilling violence as the woman plays dead and hopes the killer leaves. It's one thing if a little girl says it's the bogeyman, but what about when an adult victim describes the same? Flashlights, vintage cameras, film reels, and visits to the original murder house lead to haunted whispers, phantom sounds, and spooked constables researching fairy tales and unexplained phenomena. Our therapist victim asks questions, too, helping our detectives see a different angle while the doctors speculate on how a person can die of fright. Great character dynamics and personal moments accent the creepy – they see the victims at night, can't forget them, and learn to live with the gory details. Slits throats, obsessions with silence, and Lon Chaney's London After Midnight drive our killer to slice and dice before standoffs, mouths sewn shut, fatal pantomime, and bloody graffiti – literally.

While Season One of Whitechapel had a fun Jack the Ripper plot, the Kray Twins were less exciting in Year Two, so Whitechapel had to change its format by focusing on local spooky cases. However, it's too contrived that there is always a similar historical case when such tenuous ties aren't necessary to raise the stakes and the series needs to move beyond copycat connections. Rather than using the characterizations and quirky strengths, each of these stories has a bizarre red herring in the first half. Sure police have dead ends and wrong turns, but Whitechapel showcases something eerie in lieu of the real case found in the second part. When the camera lingers too long on a seemingly innocuous person, it's easy to peg him as the killer, yet it's inevitably frustrating when there's always an unfulfilling technicality to catching the bad guy. After all the historical deducting and spooky false starts, the twists to end a case are often rushed with little resolution on what happens next. Despite unique aspects, the crimes are often hollow and formulaic, and none of these stories needed to be two-part shows. Is Whitechapel about solving the creepy cases or the offbeat detectives overcoming their personal and professional demons? It can be both, but the bemusing also negates the attempted scary and every case reboots this mixed focus. The subtle sinister seeds were always there, but outright jokes about the gates of hell being beneath Whitechapel open Season Four as ominous old ladies, pet rats, and torture begat crushed to death murders. Abandoned houses and back alley attacks escalate to an exploding briefcase and possible espionage thanks to carved symbols, mysterious files, and a poison umbrella. These cobblestone streets aren't safe amid old agent vendettas and bums worried about pixies, talismans, and turning coats inside out to avoid a bewitching. Sassy ladies in red and red tape technicalities hamper police interrogations alongside ransacked offices, delicate diplomacy, and hotel surveillance. So called witches are strung up in the snow with bonfires, stonings, slides on persecution history, and charred remains. The police don't believe in witchcraft or whispers of evil among them causing their notorious cases, but the killer does and some of our boys are spooked by the black cats, bodies dropped on cars, and salt water in the lungs to make the drownings slower. Notes found in the stomach during an autopsy, rituals, and abductions acerbate the paranoia. Maybe there's supposed to be a bigger spy picture, but Whitechapel again plays like a different show with two cases at once – wry humor versus frazzled fears and witches jarring with the facts. Rational explanations against demon in the building possibilities are ramped up too quickly rather than letting the paranormal bizarre deduction happen organically – like in the stinky apartment with the long dead body under the electric blanket keeping warm. Ewwww!

Human skin is also left on display during a creepy art exhibit – a hasty flayed while alive chop job lacking in surgical finesse. Russian tattoos, birthmarks, and cadavers as art unnerve the team amid phantom footsteps at the station and medical examiners trying to put the face back on the skull. There's still some trying too much forced spooky adding hot air, for the butcher shops, cleavers, and a victim mistakenly getting in to bed while the killer is already under the sheets is chilling enough. Demented classical music ironically accents the scissors – not the best tool for cutting skin – as the detectives push their desks aside to map out attacks on the precinct floor. Plastic sheeting, chainsaws, killer slicing, and bodies without faces coming ashore are even more disturbing when our clean obsessed constable is unable to wash. Snakes shedding skin, leathery masks, and recoiling dental attacks return to previous crimes haunting the victims alongside great character moments and costly missteps that threaten one of our own. There's no need for superfluous effects when the scares and suspense cut close to home thanks to factory machinery, chases, vats, and a warped sense of poetic justice. Then again, Whitechapel's finest fail at a zombie survival team building competition, but they have no problem with a half eaten body in the sewer, dangling entrails, and precision removal of the liver and pancreas. Here in its final case, Whitechapel finally gets the funny and macabre balance right thanks to killer souvenirs, cryptozoologists, and brains in jars making everyone jumpy. Disused underground tunnel maps lead to a house of horrors as the weird suspects get out of the way early in favor of wounds that won't heal – mentally or physically. Chases caught on video escalate toward more chilling attacks, frightening bathrooms, evil gangs, and bigger missing organs while crimes on Sunday near churches provide religious connotations. Upstanding charitable citizens are being murdered, perhaps sacrificed, and the ominous goings on have the constables on edge – literally. Some of Whitechapel's finest moments come with scared people in bouts of self reflection amid the hooded, shadowed figures and deliciously twisted tasties in the oven. So the suspect has tasted human flesh once! Meat hooks, seasonings, and society clubs mix with cults, ritual banquets, and devilish influences as the psychic messages, sabotage, and reasons for the spooky come full circle. Have all these cases been connected? Why did Whitechapel waste so much time with a back and forth lack of focus when it could have been like this all along?

Inspector Joe Chandler cleans his detectives' desks at night and loathes dripping faucets, but Rupert Penry-Jones' obsessive compulsive constable doesn't have much time for women – especially when her messy, slovenly place is too much to handle. He's particular and it's easier to live alone despite therapy and snapping a rubber band worn on his wrist to control his urges. When a baby throw ups over his shoulder, his team know he would be appalled and agree not to tell him. Chandler screams when there's no water in the bathroom to wash off blood and gets a basin in his office, drinking and repeatedly putting on new shirts after every grubby crime scene. He's reluctant to use mediums or charms even as evil hints mount thanks to the tragic reasons behind his compulsion, but his outside the box attention to detail also aides his deduction. The cleanliness may be an excuse to to go shirtless and each case now provides a potential love interest, but Whitechapel also resets Chandler as some sort of angelic avenger late in Year Four when we barely got any of the good versus evil stakes. Detective Sergeant Ray Miles wonders if he's past it, but Phil Davis' copper is as crusty as ever with his gruff methods and tough love caring about his constables. Impromptu therapy sessions help him express his fears over losing his bite as the sarge insists he still has a place in the chain of command. Miles, however, learns to keep an open mind – trying to set up Chandler and telling a downtrodden witness not to hide her talent. When it comes to a case, he'll take any luck, even contacting a psychic despite Chandler's calling such charlatans affront to real detective work. He hates hospitals because of the smell – and thinks Chandler must love the disinfectant – but his street smart hunches help pull the team's different strengths together. Miles calms his Inspector by viewing his OCD not as a disability but a useful gift, and when supernatural oddities overwhelm the station, Miles returns to his religious roots to confront the evil cause. Steve Pemberton as former Ripperologist Edward Buchan, on the other hand, is relegated to the dusty archive in the police basement as their official researcher. Fortunately, it's a treasure trove of history – until there is mildew near the boxes and Buchan must find the damp source. He's reluctant to use a computer and tells Ed Gein stories, but Whitechapel doesn't always know what to do with his studying the historical files help. He's grateful to Chandler for taking him on, but when he fails to see the details right in front of him, Buchan fees guilty, not sleeping and seeking therapy. It's tough for him to accept that people die in this line of work and he goes out on a limb researching solo for critical information that puts him at risk. Buchan is more traumatized by the experience then he admits, retreating further into his killer case histories until Miles of all people, defends him from the incident room teasing.

Sam Stockman's Emerson Kent, however, is always so jealous! His hero worship devotion to Chandler makes him suspicious of all the women who cross their path, and Kent deliberately interferes when his twin sister dates Mansell. He thinks he deserves getting punched in the subsequent dust up, but Chandler insists he ice the swelling, cover it up, and look professional. Kent gets upset if he lets the Inspector down, so he provides interesting perspectives on a case, canvases when no one else will, and becomes a better detective if only to be like Chandler. By contrast, D.C. Mansell is married one minute, cheating, and on his second divorce the next, and Ben Bishop's toughie drinks at the station and fights in the incident room. He cleans up somewhat when dating Kent's twin sister, but Mansell laughs over office crushes – meddling and sending emails but calling it matchmaking when told what a jerk he's being. Eventually even Chandler calls him out for his messy desk, not being on top of paperwork, and putting victims at risk with his laziness. At times, Mansell is somewhat useless, cracking a code after the case has been solved or left behind at the station. Even when he behaves, doesn't lie or step out, he doesn't feel good enough, and Mansell flips out over a break up – going to the rooftop and contemplating his worth in one of Whitechapel's finest character moments. Hannah Walter's (This is England) Constable Megan Riley joins Whitechapel for Series Three and Four, a lady friendly with the other cops' wives who's not afraid to tell Mansell when he's talking out his ass. Riley won't get her hand checked when it's cut up on the case though – the boys can't get soft or sentimental and neither will she even if the late hours away from her family are upsetting. She does her diligence, canvasing and questions witnesses and getting in on the chases. Riley chats with the boys when she's worried about them, insisting they all support each other – no one bears the blame for their case victims – but Buchan mistakes her comforts for something more. She gently tells him her husband, however, might object if she thought of him that way. Although Riley admits at times she feels safer behind her desk then on the case, Claire Rushbrook as Doctor Llewellyn remains the sensible voice of reason with forensic facts, a morbid wit, and an assistant she calls Igor. She notices when the detectives are being curt and pissy, claiming to spare them the gory details but still providing plenty of gross analysis. Llewellyn is pregnant again in Year Four – walking the long way around to get into the sewer for a body when she can't fit into the manhole. It's fun when we get to see her and Riley together, too, for the medical examiner says she forgets that the living flinch.

Those twitchy, forever annoying, strobe scene transitions, however, serve no purpose and Whitechapel is noticeably better when the flashy interludes are reduced. Rather than paralleling the sensational crimes, the montage overlays stray into re-enactment parody with skulls and horrors that have nothing to do with the morose at hand. Mirrors and reverse angles add better suspense, and choice editing splices accent the obsessive compulsive detail, organized objects, and controlled symmetry. Although the flickering electric, absence of support personnel, and paranormal oozing at times lay on too much notice me ominous, the subtle shadow and lighting schemes suggest a sinister touch. Gory crime scenes and old school splatter contrast bright outdoor filming, police tents, and forensics gear. Photography flashes and zooms are not aesthetics for the audience but part of the investigation while file folders, whiteboards, and projectors invoke the procedural. Whitechapel's weird shaky cam credits change with every story, lacking cohesion and giving license to the show's constantly in flux format. If viewers can look past the uneven historical crime realism versus supernatural explanation mixed vision, Whitechapel provides fine characterizations, intriguing details, quirky humor, and spooky atmosphere for fans of the cast and audiences looking for a different kind of police drama.

03 April 2020

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

What went Wrong with The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
by Kristin Battestella

Director Rob Cohen (Dragonheart) takes up the mantle from producer Stephen Sommers, director of The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, for the 2008 sequel The Mummy:Tomb of the Dragon Emperor as Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Evelyn (Maria Bello) come to the rescue when their son Alex (Luke Ford) discovers the entombed Dragon Emperor (Jet Li). Once unleashed, however, the only person who can stop the resurrected Emperor is Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh) – the sorceress who cursed him.

Ancient Chinese mounds, swords, armor, and dynastic motifs accent the assassination plots, stabbings, raids, and conquest in the opening prologue. The enslaved building of The Great Wall, life after death texts, and forbidden romance betrayals, unfortunately, are a lot like the opening of the First Film, right down to the same Mummy music cues. Then again, the elemental powers, ancient libraries, tormented generals, and immolating curses nonetheless make for a great tale – one viewers forget isn't it's own adventure once Tomb of the Dragon Emperor restarts with our previous heroes now unhappy with post-war quiet and in a rut despite luxury living. Their son's discoveries of Chinese monoliths and the Emperor's tomb come easy and don't feel super epic thanks to the back and forth editing between the bored O'Connells and grave robber skeletons. There's little time to awe at the 2,000 year old frozen in time clay army when the more interesting plot elements are glossed over for set pieces treated as more important than the wonder. We can't enjoy the dragon crossbows, booby traps, or tomb chases because The O'Connells were apparently doing secret espionage work in the interim that we didn't get to see, either. Instead, some Lara Croft:Tomb Raider – Cradle of Life Eye of Shangra-La gem points the way to eternal life, with Tomb of the Dragon Emperor both embracing the Asian history yet feeling xenophobic with evil uniforms, double crossing enemies, and contrived western interference repeating the prior films' M.O. Chases through the streets with fireworks and New Year run amok are fun, but long, hollow fight sequences that do nothing to advance the plot make Tomb of the Dragon Emperor feel longer than it is. There's no sense of the scope or magical powers despite Himalayan treks, avalanches, mystical healings, and a revived Emperor who himself is asking what this is all for anyway. After the first hour, it's not quite clear what's happening with everything including a three headed dragon thrown at the screen in the last half hour. With a hop, skip, and jump, we're at a Great Wall spectacle raising rival dead armies in a Lord of the Rings easy meets CGI versus CGI a la The Phantom Menace that rapidly loses its touch.

Fly fishing in the English countryside is not quite Rick O'Connell's thing, and Brendan Fraser's once proactive, rugged adventurer is now an out of touch, corny old man with outdated weapons and unheeded advice. It's weird to see our favorite couple now arguing about their parenting and contemplating mistakes made – and not just because Maria Bello (The Dark) replaces Rachel Weisz as Evelyn in Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. After writing two successful novels about their mummy adventures, she's hung up with writer's block on the promised third book, but Evie doesn't have much to say or do once the characters are forgotten in the nonsensical action. Bello looks great in the period frocks and initially the camera accents that forties tone with coy smiles and under the hat brim poise, but this Evie does indeed seem like a different person. It would have been interesting if Bello had instead been a second wife and resented step mom competing with Evie's memory. Although the kid in peril was one of the problematic parts of The Mummy Returns, Luke Ford (Hercules) is now the grown up Alex rebelling against his parents yet conveniently following in their archaeology footsteps. Unfortunately, immortal hang ups and young love opposites attract can't save the character from falling completely flat, and Uncle Jonathan John Hannah is a nightclub owner who spends most of his barely there comic relief with a yak while pilot Liam Cunningham (Hunger) is merely convenient transportation. It's a pity we only really see Jet Li's (Romeo Must Die) warlord at the beginning and the end of Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. For most of the picture, the eponymous bad guy – who doesn't get any other name despite the historical possibilities – is just a resurrected, stilted, CGI thing more like an automaton robot rather than the feared man in charge. His powers over the elements are small scale or convenient, manipulating snow or fire and shape shifting as needed without any real countdown or ascension of power as anchored by Arnold Vosloo's Imhotep in the First Film. For the finale we get Li's fine action skills as expected, but he never really has the chance to be the true villain of the piece. Likewise, Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies) is relegated to glossed over bookends. Her immortal Zi Yuan witch lives in Shangri-La, and 2,000 years of magical pools are quickly explained away before a great but too brief one on one battle between our ancient foes – which is all we really want to see in Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.

While some of the fiery terracotta effects don't look so great on bu-ray, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor does well with tangible sand, statues, tents, and archaeology tools. The grand English estates match the vintage cars, antiques, typewriters, gloves, fedoras, and stoles. Temples in the mountains, Asian architecture, and snowy panoramas create a sense of adventure while chariots and molten horses coming to life invoke danger. Unfortunately, the shootouts, attacks, and explosions are super loud and cliché music cues are noticeably out of place. To start, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor feels very forties styled in a Universal homage, but then the action becomes hectic and modern messy with stereotypical seventies zooms when it comes to the kung fu. The camera, the people, and the fantastics are all moving at the same time and it's tough for the audience to see anything, and those contrived yetis – yes, yetis – are embarrassingly bad. Today, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor could have been a direct to streaming off shoot adventure – after all they're still making those direct to video Scorpion King movies. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor breaks from the more familiar theme with a bait and switch title caught between two masters. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor seeks to take the series in a new direction whilst also keeping its ties to the previous films. If this had no connection to The Mummy and embraced its own dynastic legends and lore, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor could have been a fun action adventure. Perhaps it can still be entertaining for youth able to separate it from the legacy of the First Film. Otherwise, the flawed, thin story, and try hard of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is just window dressing reaching for an adventurous charm that isn't there.

24 March 2020

The Strain Seasons 2 and 3

Real World Trauma Acerbates the flaws in The Strain Seasons Two and Three
by Kristin Battestella

After an unraveling end to the First Season of The Strain, it took me a long, long while to return to the thirteen episode 2015 Second Season. Childhood flashbacks recounting fairy tales of nobles with gigantism and quests for the curing blood of a gray wolf start the year off well. Horrific blood exchanges lead to village children vanishing in the shadow of the creepy castle before we return to the present for secret deals with The Master, alliances with the Ancient Ones, and blind telepathic feeler vampires canvasing the city. Scientists Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll) and Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro) contemplate vampire vaccines while former antique dealer Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley) pursues a rare strigoi text and rat catcher Fet (Kevin Durand) prepares their explosive defensive. Government officials like Justine Feraldo (Samantha Mathis) fight back against the zombie like masses despite shootouts in infested laboratories, double crosses, and sentient, disguised as human foot soldiers. Old fashioned black and white Mexican horror reels add personality and history to our reluctant heroes while more superb action and flashbacks standout late in the season with “The Assassin” and “Dead End.” Unfortunately, early on in Year Two, my main dilemma with the First Season of The Strain returnedyou can read all of this, but it is much too much onscreen. Unnecessary timestamps and location notations clutter reintroduced characters, new problems, old problems, and unintroduced newcomers. There are too many separated characters with unbalanced screen time who must repeatedly explain who they are. Enemy's enemy is my friend mixed motivations create confusion – multiple people hunting The Master individually making promises to his fellow ancient vampires with little background on who these chained monsters chilling beneath Brooklyn are. Cryptic double talk and real estate transactions may be filler or meandering developments, but it's a toss up on which one will drag on or disappear. The past stories are often more tantalizing because our team isn't much of a team. It took so long in the First Year to get everyone together, yet each is still toiling over what to do in this vampire zombie apocalypse. After previous fears over any tiny contagion, one and all shoot, blast, slice, and splatter at will. They hand out fliers with the monster details and warn the community, yet unaware police are shocked to find vampires in a dark alley.

Maybe The Strain is meant to mirror how no one is on the same page in a crisis – we are now witnessing that chaotic misinformation mistake first hand indeed – but the plot is all over the place, too. It's been a few weeks onscreen since The Strain began, however life is upside down for some while others seems totally unbothered. Again, this is a foreboding parallel to our real life pandemic with the poor working man much more deeply impacted than the wealthy ease of access, but here there's no sense of the storytelling scope despite opportunistic orchestrations and tough women securing the five boroughs. Slick villains talk of great visions and master plans, but tangents diverge into a dozen different threads and multiple dead ends. Is The Strain about a doctor experimenting on the infected to test scientific theories or weird do nothing telepathic vampires and slow strigoi chases? Are we to enjoy the precious moments between our little people struggling on the ground or awe at the zombie outbreak turned vampire mythology? New people and places are constantly on the move, jumbled by an aimless, plodding pace as too little too late politicians talk about quarantines when The Strain is past containment. Confusing, pointless storylines take away from important intrigues and significant elements tread tires amid random threats and dropped crises. The conflicts on cruel science for the greater good grow hollow thanks to constant interruptions and changed emotions. Provocative diluted worm extracts taken for illness or ailments are used as control by the strigoi or when necessary for our heroes, but the scientific analysis of such a tonic or hybrid cases is never considered. Infecting the infected experiments and vampire free island security only take a few episodes, yet viewers today who can't pay the rent are expected to believe it takes weeks for a market free fall and runs on banks? “The Born” starts off great, but often there's no going back to what happens next regarding cures and Roman history as contrived messy or blasé action pads episodes. Rather than driving away in a cop car, dumbed down characters run into a church for a lagging, maze-like battle that kills an interesting minority character. When the community comes together for “The Battle for Red Hook,” unnecessary family pursuits ruin the sense of immediacy while the hop, skip, and jump to Washington D.C. for two episodes of scientific effort gets ditched for glossed over vampire factions and historic relics. Both the lore and science are interesting, but these mashed together entities compete for time as if we're changing the channels and watching two shows at once. Instead of the rich detail we crave, The Strain continually returns to its weakest plot with shit actions and stupid players causing absurd consequences.

The Strain, however, does look good, and the ten episode Third Season provides coffins, gore, goo, and nasty bloodsucking appendages. The vampire makeup, creepy eyes, monster sinews, and icky skin are well done. Occasionally, creatures scaling the wall and speedy, en masse action is noticeable CGI, but the worms, tentacles, and splatter upset the body sacred. Sickly green lighting invokes the zombie plague mood while choice red add vampire touches alongside silver grenades, ultraviolet light, and ancient texts. Sadly, Season Three opens with an unrealistic announcement that it's only been twenty-three days since the outbreak started. The uneven pace makes such time impossible to believe, and tricked out infrared military are just now arriving three weeks into the disaster. Although, I spent February marathoning The Strain, and it is beyond depressing – nay downright infuriating – to see how our current administration did not heed epidemic warnings, responding terribly to the Coronavirus outbreak with red tape and lack of resources. Mass manufacture of The Strain's bio-weapon is also never mentioned again as the science is now nothing more than a home chemistry set. Instead, step by step time is taken to siphon gas in a dark, dangerous parking garage – which could be realistic except The Strain has never otherwise addressed food, supplies, precious toilet paper, or the magically unlimited amount of silver bullets. Once again, everyone who fought together goes on to separate allegiances on top of hear tell global spread, Nazi parallels, control centers, and messianic symbolism. It's all too clunky thanks to people made stupid and contradictions between the onscreen myths, technology, and abilities. Too many convenient infections, Master transformations, tacked on worms, and excuses happen at once – cheapening Shakespearean touches and monster worm bombs with redundant failures. Montages wax on human history while voiceovers tell audiences about government collapse, glossing over arguably the most interesting part of the catastrophe for drawn out experiments on microwaves. There's no narrative flow as the episodes run out but suddenly everyone is sober enough to use the ancient guidebook to their advantage. After such insistence over sunlight and ultraviolet, those safeguards are inexplicably absent when needed. No one maximizes resources and opportunities in “Battle for Central Park,” and people only come together because they accidentally bump into each other. In “The Fall,” a carefully orchestrated trap and prison plan is finally put into action against The Master, but ridiculous contrivances stall the operation before easy outs and one little effing asshole moron ruining it all. Again.

The cast is not at fault for the uneven developments on The Strain, but if Ephraim Goodweather is only there to be a drunken bad parent failing at every turn, he should have been written off the show. If we're sticking with Eph and his angst before science, then his pointless strigoi wife and terrible son Zach should have been tossed instead of hogging the screen. Cranky, obnoxious, budding sociopath Zach's “Why? No! Don't!” lack of comprehension is unrealistic for his age, and everything has to be dumbed downed to appease him. Maybe quarantined parents can now can relate to this scenario, but onscreen The Strain is continually talking down to viewers like we are five and it gets old very fast. Previously compassionate characters are reset as cold marksmen, and Eph claims he no longer cares about the cause when he was once at its epicenter. He complains he has nothing to do, bemoaning the lack of a feasible vaccine before gaining government support in creating a strigoi bio-weapon only to ditch it for microwaves and vampire telepathy. Zach ruins each plan anyway, and by the end of Season Two, I was fast forwarding over the Goodweather family plots. Nora Martinez is also nonexistent as a doctor unless convenient, relegated instead to babysitting, and Samantha Mathis' (Little Women) Justine Feraldo likewise starts off brassy before unnecessarily overplaying her hand and failing bitterly because of others. Initially The Strain had such a diverse ensemble, but by the end of the Third Season, all the worst things have happened to the women and minorities. Ruta Gedmintas' Dutch wavers from the cause for a conflicted lesbian romance that disappears before she returns to the fold as Eph's tantalizing research assistant when she's not being captured and rescued. I won't lie, I only hung on watching The Strain as long as I did for Rupert Penry-Jones (MI-5) as the thousand year old hybrid Quinlan. He uses his conflicted history with The Master to help Setrakian and sees through Ephraim while developing a distrustful shoulder to shoulder with Fet. Unfortunately, his vampire super powers come in handy unless he's forgotten about when it's time for the action to sour or let failures happen, and nobody tells officials about this almost invincible half-strigoi who could be useful in a fight. Setrakian, Quinlan, and Fet make for an ornery, begrudging trio, living in a luxury hotel while pursuing Abraham's relics whether they agree with the plan or not – mostly because Fet accrues all manor of weapons and is happy to use them. Setrakian has some crusty wisdom for them, but his battle of wits with Jonathan Hyde as the at any price Palmer provides great one on one scene chewing. The double crosses and interchangeable threats feel empty, and Palmer also has an odd romantic side plot that wastes time, but Richard Sammel's Nazi vampire Eicchorst remains a deliciously twisted minion. “Dead End” and “Do or Die” reveal more personal history as the mature players provide intriguing questions on immortality, humanity, and barbarism. Miguel Gomez' Gus finally seems like he is going to join the team, but then he's inexplicably back on his own rescuing families and refusing to accept his mother's turn in more useless filler. He and Joaquin Cosio (Quantum of Solace) as the absolutely underutilized fifties superhero Angel are conscripted to fight vampires but once again, they remain wasted in isolated, contrived detours.

Streamlining Fet, Dutch, Quinlan, and Gus as vampire fighters testing methods from Setrakian's texts and Eph's science funded by Feraldo could have unified The Strain with straightforward heroes versus monsters action we can root for in an apocalypse. Watching on the eve of our own real world pandemic, was I in the right frame of mind to view The Strain unclouded? Thanks to creators Guillermo de Toro and Chuck Hogan and showrunner Carlton Cuse's foretelling social breakdowns between the haves and the have nots, maybe not. That said, The Strain terribly executes two seasons worth of source material. An embarrassment of riches with a scientific premise, mystical flashbacks, assorted zombie and vampire crossover monsters, and intriguing characters fall prey to uneven pacing, crowded focus, and no balance or self-awareness onscreen. The Strain may have been better served as television movies or six episode elemental seasons – science in year one, vampire history the second, relic pursuits, and a final battle. Disastrous characters and worthless stories compromise the meaty sacrifices, crusty old alliances, and silver standoffs – stretching the horror quality thin even in a shorter ten episode season. Rather than a fulfilling mirror to nature parable, The Strain Seasons Two and Three are an exercise in frustration, and even without the real world horrors, it's too disappointing to bother with the end of the world reset in Season Four.