26 January 2015

The Phantom of the Opera (1989)

Freddy’s Phantom of the Opera a Mixed Bag
By Kristin Battestella

The 1989 version of The Phantom of the Opera adds a whole lot of gory to update the oft-adapted novel. Unfortunately, the convoluted changes to the source sully what could be a fine macabre rendition, leaving more crossed signals than scares.

New York singer Christine Day (Jill Schoelen) finds herself upon the stage of a past London opera house after discovering a lost Don Juan Triumphant manuscript by alleged murderer and composer Erik Destler (Robert Englund). Erik has paid a disfiguring Faustian price to have his music heard – the devil has scarred his face and now the Opera Ghost must use the flesh of his victims to mask his horrendous wounds. When he hears Christine sing, however, The Phantom seeks to dispose of diva La Carlotta (Stephanie Lawrence) and replace her with his muse. Will Christine come to love her musical benefactor or discover his murderous hobbies?

Director Dwight H. Little (Rapid Fire) starts this Leroux adaptation from writers Gerry O’Hara (Ten Little Indians) and Duke Sandefur (Dark Justice) with a satanic warning, ominous music, a creepy bookshop, bloody manuscripts, and then contemporary New York opera auditions before a Victorian London transition. Unfortunately, the framing added to The Phantom of the Opera is more than confusing. Is it reincarnation, time travel, or immortality? Are we watching a flashback induced by some demonic spell when Erik’s music is played? Memories from The Phantom’s point of view recalling his devilish pact further muddle this twist. Though Faust elements from the novel and scenes or characters not often included in onscreen adaptations are represented, purists will wonder why these frustrating bookends and superfluous changes were shoehorned in here. Thankfully, the murderous opera mishaps and quick pace move for the 93-minute duration – the tale remains familiar enough and there’s no time to fully question the additions or the unnecessary endings that just keep on going forever. Evil elements, plenty of brutality, and some supernatural hocus-pocus make for a decidedly horror mood. We’ve know doubt that this angle will be sinister, not romantic, and many Phantom fans will enjoy the outright villainous tone even if the execution of the inserted spooky is laden with plot holes and flaws. Ironically, despite its gory strides and fiendish aspects, The Phantom of the Opera is clearly trying to ride the coattails of the musical productions and includes a disclaimer declaring that this version is unaffiliated with Webber and company. Go figure.

Fortunately, the gruesome Phantom skin and make up designs for star Robert Englund work devilishly good. He stitches up his icky face, harvests fresh flesh from his victims, and remains strong and skilled with weapons as he slices and dices. For all its misguided vision, this Phantom of the Opera is not afraid to bloody it up and out rightly mention sexual context – be it accusing peeping tom stagehands, some nighttime prostitution, or would-be rapacious action. Erik has his needs! Through his Faust pact and filleting folks, The Phantom maneuvers diva Carlotta’s exit early before going out to the local pub or spa for some more kills. His interest in Christine, however, feels secondary, lame, and tacked on to the demonic upkeep as if elevating the full on, killer creeper is meant to make us forget the obsessive love plot. Compared to what usually is the source of Erik’s motivation, this Opera Ghost doesn’t have much reason to hang around the house when he could be getting his lust and hellish tendencies elsewhere. Broadway shade, crammed in horror – the lengthy skin peel reveals help The Phantom of the Opera doubly cash in on Englund’s Nightmare on Elm Street heights as well as the musicals. This Erik is obviously not a sympathetic soul, but he’s not a multi dimensional villain either. He’s The Phantom and he’s bad this time around, oooo. The would-be menacing spectacle doesn’t do Englund justice or give him the layers and depths he is more than capable of delivering.

Poor Billy Nighy (Underworld) is also totally wasted in The Phantom of the Opera as an angry, would-be manipulative but largely ineffective opera owner. He doesn’t have much to do except bitch, and late stage star Stephanie Lawrence as Carlotta likewise feels blink and you miss her rather than any sort of antagonist. So-called inspectors and other nondescript secondary players are forgettable, as-needed plot devices or set dressings. Without much beyond the Raoul name change for Alex Hyde-White (Reed Richards in the infamous 1994 Fantastic Four film) as Christine’s barely there paramour Richard, it’s tough to follow his supposed heroics in the hectic underground finale much less root for his success. Sadly, all of these players could be excised – no name police could have been called to the opera house for the shoot ‘em up showdown and The Phantom of the Opera would have been no different. Critical in the role as Christine Day, Jill Schoelen (There Goes My Baby) also misses the mark if you are looking for a strong period piece blossom. While she makes a capable eighties scream queen, Schoelen is a fish out of water at the opera. Christine should do more than go round and round with Erik in one slow motion battle after another, right? But say hey, its SNL alum Molly Shannon!

There is a new blu-ray edition of The Phantom of the Opera, which is nice since the bare bones DVD has subtitles but tough to see alleyways and dark fight scenes. Again, the head rolling gore is well done, but some of the violence also feels unnecessary compared to the atmospheric blue lighting, red reflections, and flaming effects. Askew angles, the tilted hat, and shadowed, one eye close ups of The Phantom also up the brooding. There is little of the actual stage spectacle here, but the Victorian interiors and layers of Old World feel intimate. As horror, this production design is more than serviceable even if it’s not all it could have been. The subdued palette, generic costumes, and low budget mistakes, however, won’t be as grandiose as some Phantom of the Opera fans may expect – Erik’s lair looks like a standard, commonplace cave set with some candles. Perhaps that’s realistic to what the underground living would be, but there isn’t enough to it for a film. Fortunately, the scoring provides the right gothic mood and melody. Sure, it’s not quite sweeping and will seem knock off inferior to the more famous Phantom musics, but it is the one part of this conflicted Phantom of the Opera that does what it is supposed to do. And oh my, shout out for the floppy discs and giant computer monitors!

The Phantom of the Opera suffers from its identity crisis as a horror film and a book adaptation just as it much as it proves a scary update of Leroux is possible. Had it abandoned the contemporary twists and devilish ties and simply played it straight while upping the sinister and gore, The Phantom of the Opera might have stood out from the crowd as more than a cliché Freddy or Webber cash in like those try hard, faux rip offs we get today. At times, this rendition feels like a bad edit, the audience test viewing that’s missing all its final bells and whistles. Are we still awaiting the real director’s cut with all the polish, clarification, and panache? The Phantom of the Opera is not the definitive adaptation of the novel, and ultimately, nor is it the best macabre rendition – I’m not sure anyone will ever surpass the Silent version in that regard. Mixed bag though it is, if spooky audiences, Phantom students, and Englund fans accept this late night tale for what it is, The Phantom of the Opera can be a fun, serviceable, gruesome good time – complete with the heads of divas in the punch bowl.

11 January 2015


Maleficent Flawed but Still Entertaining.
By Kristin Battestella

Wonder gal Angelina Jolie returned to cinema screens for the 2014 Disney hit Maleficent. Though marred in its mix of youth marketing and bleak fantasy, the tale here remains a charming good time.

Once a happy fairy protector of The Moors, the angry Maleficent (Jolie) threatens the nearby kingdom of former friend King Stefan (Sharlto Copley) and curses his newborn daughter to eternal sleep by pricking her finger on a spinning wheel on her sixteenth birthday. Raised in seclusion by the bumbling fairies Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple), and Flittle (Lesley Manville), the Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) grows curious about The Moors and soon strikes up an unusual friendship with Maleficent – who Aurora views as her fairy godmother. Does Maleficent want to revoke her curse upon the princess? Can she or will the battle with King Stefan destroy his kingdom and The Moors?

Though most of the previews spent their time showing Maleficent’s live action recreation of Disney’s 1959 cartoon classic, the first half hour here is new back story with a pleasing mythos of fairies living in The Moors beside the real world, iron’s fairy burning properties, and star crossed romance between humans and magical folk. As expected, Maleficent starts out juvenile with the introduction of the titular young fairy but grows up quickly thanks to some scary tree monsters. Several elements here are really not for kids – especially a very upsetting and symbolic wing cutting that will be tough for some young ones to comprehend. The absent narrator does create a pleasant story telling aspect, but seemingly critical drama concerning the ambitious King Stefan is merely told in this shoehorned 90 minutes. Debut director Robert Stromberg (designer for Avatar and Oz the Great and Powerful) is obviously a visualist and not quite a storyteller, for the expected curse comes too soon in a film that’s supposed to be about Maleficent and not Aurora – she knows were the baby is all along, but goes back and forth in her vengeance in haphazard, rewritten, and excised plot from longtime Disney writer Linda Woolverton (The Lion King).

Purely whimsical fairy fan service moments trump the potential for serious character development, and Maleficent never decides if it’s the grim story behind Sleeping Beauty or an excuse for a live action spectacle. Maleficent laughs and plays tricks one moment before waging fiery, thorny war the next, unevenly mashing the two themes while speedy soap opera rapid aging syndrome scenes gloss over how a lot of elements don’t make much sense. Who and where traversings are unclear as the narration comes and goes and fresh motifs or any and all of Maleficent’s cool powers are forgotten or contrived as needed. Maybe kids can enjoy the pointless mystical special effects stringing Maleficent together, but this seemingly abridged retelling should have chosen to be all youth merriment or total sentimental sophistication. There are some fine visuals and charming characters here, but Disney settled for mass delight instead of a truly complete fairy tale. With this kind of pedigree, performance, and talent, it’s not unreasonable for mature audiences to expect a story well told. 

Fortunately, Maleficent is an alluring Vader that we love to hate, hate to love, and love to see come round good again, and Oscar winner Angelina Jolie’s (Girl, Interrupted) fun performance anchors the picture and forgives any faulty foundations. Although we never get an explanation of how her name could still be Maleficent even when she was a good and happy fairy child, a jilting and betrayal makes this revised fairy protector immediately sympathetic rather than villainous. The off screen clipping of her wings is certainly traumatizing and symbolic in many ways with well done strength and weakness from Jolie. The simple but touching creation of her staff and her isolated, destroyed abode provide menace whilst hiding her pain. Though bemusing, the superb transformation of Sam Riley (Brighton Rock) as her crow Diaval also provides companionship and an emotional sounding board. Maleficent has always been my favorite Disney villain, for she neither sings nor plays at humor and stupidity. Maybe she overreacts to not getting an invitation in the cartoon edition, but in Maleficent, we know the horrible reason why. It’s simply gleeful to see Jolie recite the same lines from the original with live action perfection and chew on the conflicting possibilities– her entrances, dark costuming, and chiseled design are simply delish. Yes, the uneven writing and direction hampers what should have been a steady hour and a half of character journey. Some developments were clearly not so well though out beyond the Disney textbook happy. The back and forth change of heart from scene to scene cuts the enraged layers off at the knees and at times makes Maleficent feel like a cliché woman scorned. Why does this skilled trickster needlessly bide her time and wage war while being charmed by a child? Maleficent isn’t all bad or totally pure yet most of the frightful, grey complexity feels left on the cutting room floor. Thankfully, Jolie captures both her previously macabre style and good-hearted maternal ways as Maleficent. If she truly is exiting her acting career, Maleficent sends her out on a show stopping high note.  

Though largely pleasant in her innocence as Aurora, Elle Fanning (We Bought a Zoo) is also slightly annoying in her bright and bushy excitement over her so-called fairy godmother Maleficent. Due to the piecemeal dialogue, magical narration, and time jumps snippets, we don’t get a chance to fully know Aurora, and no real motivations seems to dictate her hanging with Maleficent and the whole fairy gang. The audience can’t appreciate her parental revelation or cursly betrayals because the haste to the spinning wheel never gives us time to digest her side of the tale. Granted, Maleficent is about Maleficent, but the pricking of the finger was more suspenseful and dramatic in the 1959 animation and Aurora has very little weight as a catalyst supporting part. The writers feel stuck with the character and she isn’t treated as anything that special – even to Maleficent half of the time. Is she the daughter that Maleficent should have had with King Stefan? Groundbreaking potential here is either vaguely tacked on or missed completely – again thanks to the over reliance on slow motion pans, zooms, and battles over conversation.  

Wonderfully absentminded fairies turned clueless old ladies Imelda Staunton (Harry Potter), Juno Temple (Atonement), and Lesley Manville (Another Year) should have been the only amusing, whimsical, comedy relief in Maleficent. Unfortunately, it feels like Knotgrass, Thistlewit, and Flittle are barely there, shoehorned in to be upset about Aurora eventually leaving or unhappy at their sacrificing in a forested hovel as needed. Outside of a few brief scenes, we never really see either displeasure – Maleficent seems to cut away almost as if fanciful song and dance numbers have been excised after the fact. A film named after the misunderstood anti-hero should not feel like it is about to burst into song. Likewise, further dimension from Sharlto Copley (District 9) as King Stefan seems diminished in the editing room – another opportunity for a superior character reversal wasted in Maleficent. Stefan grows deservedly crazy over his cruel ambitions, and without Disney at the helm, this corrupt king could have been shaped into a superb villain equal to Maleficent in full on, historical creepy fashion ala Snow White: A Tale of Terror. Adding to the male inferiority is Brenton Thwaites (Gods of Egypt) as a rather dorky and I dare say unnecessary Prince Philip. Sam Riley’s Diaval ingenius should have been fully realized instead, but most of the support seems to be written as if serviceable would suffice. Maleficent is without a doubt Jolie’s vehicle to carry, but with the right polish, the ready and waiting ensemble could have done much more to define the film.

Maleficent is of course overly steeped in computer imagery. It’s supposed to look awe inspiring – and some of the world is unique to the Sleeping Beauty designs – but the majority of the visual effects look like every other standard CGI treatment we now all but continuously see in most blockbusters. Magic trees defending against anonymous knight armies make for tough to see blurry action and a lot of in your face messy. Thankfully, picturesque flying scenery, mystical smoke, magic thorns, and flame effects accent the naturally designed Moors and medieval castle works. It’s a little frustrating that even would be plain scenes of nothing more than people talking have an obvious fantasy patina and airbrushed saturation to them, but princessy costumes and hennins make for more tangible, recognizable storybook aspects alongside golden cottages and winterscapes. The green glow of Maleficent’s powers also illume Jolie’s face in several scenes and create a beautiful and intimidating harkening to the cartoon vintage. If nothing else, Maleficent is a colorful picture that still has a cool dragon and a superb update of “Once Upon a Dream” from Lana Del Rey. However, I do wish the movie had used the new rendition’s sense of stalker brood as a Tchaikovsky anchor or humming familiarity to unify the picture instead of just sticking the single over the end credits.

Naturally, the rental blu-ray of Maleficent is ridiculously laden with Disney in your face complete with internationally designed menus for mass distribution and abundant previews of every Disney property imaginable. What the heck will Disney call their releases once Diamond and Platinum are insufficient? Fortunately, the features seem to be intact with almost a half hour of behind the scenes and a handful of deleted scenes that should have remained within Maleficent to clarify character circumstances. Today, however, this small sampling of add ons doesn’t feel like enough, and ironically, Maleficent appears to have clipped its own wings in telling a fully realized tale from the villainous side  in favor of the tried and true Disney quest for maximum money making mainstream safety. Did it succeed in rolling in global dough? Of course. Maleficent didn’t have to be super dark and scary, but it should have been more defined in what it wanted to do – haters may be scratching their heads over some of the direct to video caliber prequel haphazards here. I may be biased as it is my favorite and Maleficent is fun and fanciful with laughing moments for the kids and adult tolerability – but ultimately, the 1959 classic feels like a more satisfying tale. Will there be a two hour Director’s Cut of Maleficent any time soon?

There are some scares and violence in Maleficent that might upset little ones, but I don’t think it is worthy of the “dark fantasy” label it has received. Intriguing character strides and mythos changes remain too sunshiny, but fans of the cast, fantasy audiences, and fanciful ladies of all ages can overlook the uneven writing and directing flaws thanks to good to be bad twists and delightful performances.

03 January 2015

Frank (2014)

Frank is a Quirky Little Delight.
By Kristin Battestella

By chance, struggling songwriter Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) meets Soronprfbs, a band as unusual as its unpronounceable name thanks to Theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), silent drummer Nana (Carla Azar), French bassist Baraque (Francois Civil), and lead singer Frank (Michael Fassbender) – who just happens to wear a giant papier-mâché head at all times. Jon quickly becomes the band’s keyboard player as they set out to record their new album, but oddball manager Don (Scoot McNairy) warns Jon that it is difficult to match Frank’s unique genius. Not considering the special dynamics of the group, Jon chronicles their musical retreat on social media – but surprising internet notoriety and its subsequent festival invitation bring the band fame and a drastic upheaval.

Without subtitles, director Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did) and writers Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare at Goats) and Peter Straughan’s (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) unusual singing internal monologue must be confusing to start. However, the relatable ho hum of an aspiring songwriter stuck in small town job and still living at his parents’ house quickly takes over, and Frank firmly establishes the context of its world with just enough onscreen twitter graphics, internal self-referential social media marketing, and ironic hashtags. Clearly, our unreliable narrator chronicling this unpronounceable band’s efforts via YouTube is not “#livingthedream” before or after his ridiculous beard is grown and food is rationed in this quest for song. Achieving a big break at the unfortunate circumstances of others, instant memoir capturing, and insensitive media jokes about the eponymous singer are accurate to today’s real life absurdities and lead to some tender, serious moments in Frank – which are in turn realistically cut short via slamming doors or contemporary awkwardness. The witty, natural scripting anchors Frank’s social commentary, and though goofy one-liners may seem out of context, the audience can roll with a safe word like “chinchilla!”

Where is the line between bad art and musical greatness? If you are exploring yourself and not hurting anyone with your artistic expression, does it matter?  What’s mental? What’s creativity? Frank addresses both the humor and difficulty in the creative process with comedic circumstances and heavy dramatic turns beyond the music. Do we unwittingly manipulate and stifle others, hindering what they desire for our own selfish dreams? Considering the at times solemn subject matter, some of Frank’s scenes are perhaps funnier then they are meant to be, but the self-aware design here makes it okay to laugh – after all, “I thought it was supposed to be hilarious?” Sometimes that’s the kind of the question we ask ourselves in life, and Frank raises an interesting discussion about mental illness and if a rightly inspired catalyst can nonetheless turn out wrong. If it takes wearing a mask in order to be heard in our musical collective or share your individuality with a select few, why is that so unusual? How is expressing oneself from under a mask any different from those phony hashtags and the art or illusion we so adeptly present to ourselves?

Frank smartly gives the audience our window through Domhnall Gleeson (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), and we understand his pretense and relative normalcy before meeting the crazy of Soronprfbs. Maybe his life is mundane, but he thinks this bizarre band is his golden ticket and we appreciate his excitement at this adventure. Jon asks the questions on our collective mind: Does Frank have a beard under his fake head? How does he brush his teeth? Is he disfigured? He’s from Kansas? How indeed does one explain the abandonment of his job and the use of his nest egg to fund this odd band’s odyssey? The bizarre isolation of making an album becomes a therapy session for Jon. He wants Frank to open up to him but Jon is so into his own exploration that he doesn’t realize how far out of their comfort zone he has pushed the other more valuable members of Soronprfbs. Sure, he puts his body on the line and grows concerned over a keyboard player jinx, but is it worth it to shake these unstable band mates passed their limit? Jon is in many ways a fame seeking, tell all groupie wanting to be the star. He doesn’t mean to interfere but that’s exactly what his not seeing the forest for the trees fake tweets and YouTube spotlight does. Jon insinuates himself into the group and comes to believe they can’t be a success without him – but he never considers the creative expression of playing in a band is not only enough but just what Soronprfbs needs.

Understandably, the audience isn’t inside the Frank Sidebottom inspired head with Michael Fassbender (Shame, X-Men: Days of Future Past), yet his bizarre introduction makes perfect sense in this askew Frank world. Once we see Frank still wearing his head in the band’s van and realize that it is not just part of his on stage ensemble, we’re hooked. One might initially think Frank and his “has a certificate” head is something for him to hide behind, but to him, making music is a revival, a religious experience with field work, recording outdoors, and screeching like bird. His mask helps him to express himself and see through other people’s issues even though he may not accept his own broken genius. Frank has some good points about the awkwardness of people’s looks and how we are perceived, and we don’t blame him for wearing the head. Perhaps it would be annoying or too amusing, but yes, life just might be easier if we clarified our facial expressions or creativity with sincerity and without judgment. Fassbender doesn’t sing poorly at all, but the quirky lyrics and batty, unconventional music perfectly convey the offbeat genius behind the mask. It’s also ironic yet somehow fitting that we don’t know what Fassbender is really doing under the head – being method or hamming it up. The head in itself is a neat concept, but why was such a big deal made of Fassbender’s wearing it? Have not good-looking, talented thespians been hidden under masks and prosthetic make up for nearly a century of film? Fassbender has done prosthetic work previously and proven he does his all with extreme character embodiments and physicality. Technical acoustics aside, his voice is also different inside the head, adding yet another tool to make Fassbender seamlessly disappear as Frank. Maybe more stars should try performing with a bag on their head and see if they sink or swim based on body and merit instead of chisel. Fassbender’s performance is excellent as usual, yet the focus on the actor inside the giant head detracts from Frank’s themes of why we hide within our own masks whilst needlessly interfering with the content, artistic fragility of others.

And what of the delicate band that is of Soronprfbs? Maggie Gyllenhaal (Secretary, Donnie Darko) is wonderfully bitchy looking as she breaks instruments, walks of stage, and pretends she doesn’t care. Clara’s attitude is oh so modern but she is styled as a classic vamp – corsets, bras, silky lingerie, cropped black hair, and a perfect cigarette. She hates Jon, saying he is merely there to press the keys on the keyboard and nothing more. Is that his true, meager role in the band or does her fierce loyalty to Frank coddle the singer? Clara is a tough love maternal figure who contests Jon’s notion that their music must be likeable. She knows Soronprfbs doesn’t need to be famous – but they do need music to heal. It’s both sad and humorous how Clara’s physical threats and proactive defensive of Frank aren’t enough to deter Jon, and it’s an interesting role for Gyllenhaal. Crazy cool and aloof but likable, independent and strong yet inseparable from her band mates – Clara could be the cliché, detestable Yoko element of Frank, but Gyllenhaal creates a sensitive and bizarrely nurturing anchor to Soronprfbs. Scoot McNairy (Argo, also in 12 Years a Slave with Fassbender) as manager “I used to fuck mannequins” Don is also a bittersweet analysis providing comedy and catalyst for Frank. He freely admits he is weird and inferior to Frank, yet Don desperately emulates him in a tantalizing but bitter encapsulation – you have creative genius or you don’t. While some people can accept that fate, such realization can be disastrous for others. Real life rocker Carla Azar as drummer Nana doesn’t have much to do on the surface of Frank. She doesn’t speak but no less keeps the rhythm for the band, beating on regardless of the drama unfolding. When she does voice her opinion, however, Nana provides a critical fulcrum and band perspective. Bass player Baraque as played by Francois Civil (As Above, So Below) also technically doesn’t do much, but the tongue in cheek forgotten bassist of the band provides a very subtle humor. He seems to only speak French yet everyone apparently understands him with no difficulty – another hidden dynamic of Soronprfbs that an outsider just won’t figure. These members of Frank’s ensemble each have their own little eccentricities, and whether a loud voice or a small one, their parables come together beautifully and really sing.

Some audiences may not actually like the music Soronprfbs makes, but the quirky, charming scoring balances the avant-garde chords of this bemusing Frank journey. The locations are also both small and relatable or big and traumatizing as needed – from the bleak British start and exploratory Irish wilds to the rush of a faux SXSW festival performance, bitter motel rooms, deserts, and ordinary Middle America. These adventures can both maximize one’s potential or drive one crazy, and Frank portrays the tightrope possibility between genius and madness across these intimate travels. The nostalgic mix of cassettes and old-fashioned recording methods meeting computerized music technology and social media is also a jarring but parallel juxtaposition. Maybe the equipment fits and does what it needs to do, but other times the musical experimentation Soronprfbs does get scrapped for something more emotional or to the core. Streaming options are available for Frank; however, the blu-ray rental is fittingly and ironically cumbersome with abundant previews and an appropriately peculiar interface. Thankfully, a more awesome ten minutes of deleted scenes, over 40 minutes of assorted behind the scenes, cast and director interviews, and commentary tracks add heaps of discussion and continuing Frank conversation. (Oh, the puns!)

Young modern audiences may dig the offbeat musical explorations, contemporary media design, and unusual performances in Frank, yet those atypical elements may deter some viewers expecting traditional musical style, a completely hardened look at mental illness, or a more factual biopic of the late Frank Sidebottom source. Awkwardness, difficult self-discovery, and curious tunes are a major part of Frank; however, the dramatic presentation remains solid over 90 minutes. The commanding ensemble handles a difficult subject with humor and sensitivity, making for an excellent character study that explores the quirky whilst being no less poignant. Audiences shouldn’t be surprised when Frank takes a bleak thematic turn for the finale, but the conclusion here is must see and more than worthy of any perceived oddities – no matter how you pronounce Soronprfbs.  

26 December 2014

Marilyn Monroe Premiere Collection

More Marilyn Delights!
By Kristin Battestella

Thanks to my lucking out on finding the Marilyn Monroe Premiere Collection box set on sale at Target, I am back into all things Marilyn, including several previously unreviewed gems and early Monroe appearances.

All About Eve – Monroe of course has a small role in this much-lauded 1950 classic headlined by Bette Davis (Jezebel), Anne Baxter (The Ten Commandments), Supporting Actor winner George Sanders (Rebecca), Celeste Holm (Gentleman’s Agreement), and Thelma Ritter (Pillow Talk). Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (A Letter to Three Wives) accents the tongue in cheek winks and play within a play look at the stage versus Hollywood, its stars, scandals, and the interconnected, Dickensian favor or demise with fun name drops, freeze frame narrations, and Shakespearean asides. Contemporary audiences may not like all the telling, yelling, multiple narrators, or flashback frames, but the stories, characters, archetypes, and interplay unfold spectacularly – and the furs, fashions, cigarettes, score, and theatre dressings look so sweet. The filming here looks like a stage presentation yet its story telling constructs heighten the drama and feel quite modern. The then cutthroat ambition, catty attitudes, latent symbolism, us versus them curtain divides, and aging starlets really haven’t changed all that much have they? Ageism, sexism – there will always be a younger actress waiting in the wings. Where does the stage stop and reality begin and who do you trust or stab in the back to go on with the show? For her part as a would be aspiring actress, Monroe only has a few scenes forty-five minutes in, but she holds her own with the heavyweights thanks to a great script, witty lines, and fine delivery from the entire company. This is the Black Swan of its day, so why aren’t there more pictures like this now?

As Young As You Feel – Thelma Ritter joins Monty Woolley (The Bishop’s Wife) and David Wayne (Adam’s Rib) for this 1951 switch-a-roo comedy, a neat 77 minute time capsule of social and financial issues then and now. Forced retirement, struggling whilst on social security, men working to support a wife before marriage, a woman expected to leave a job upon marrying – people back then waited and worked one job their entire lives yet still found difficulty because someone else said otherwise regardless of age, money, or romance. The plot is a little slow to get rolling thanks to exposition or to and fro transition scenes, but the older ensemble provides the comedic music, dancing, and tomfoolery amid the straightforward conversation and mature relationships. Marilyn, of course, is a secretary to die for complete with a great white dress that pops onscreen. Despite the sexy, she’s actually a capable assistant and keeps up with these cantankerous older men! Acting old is what makes you old, indeed – there are some serious and cranky truths here. Once the bemusing games are afoot, however, this remains an entertaining little piece of fun and study.

O. Henry’s Full House – The John Steinbeck narrating frame for this 1952 anthology showcasing the eponymous author’s works is a treat in itself – add Charles Laughton (The Private Life of Henry the VIII) as a charming bum with refined tastes alongside David Wayne for the first tale “The Cop and the Anthem” and the touching scene with Monroe sets off the irony and spiritual accents. Madcap crook Richard Widmark (Don’t Bother to Knock) then steals the morality in “The Clarion Call,” an interesting little look at both sides of the law and how men can’t quite escape their criminal pasts. Story tres “The Last Leaf” is a snowy period piece featuring an ill Anne Baxter. The illicit suggestion and bleak countdown perfectly capture the bittersweet of art and life cut short before really having started – but at under 2 hours, this anthology packs a lot into its vignettes. Each story is a separate, well paced, quality drama thanks to the often ironic literary source. Next, Howard Hawks (Red River) directs the humorous backwoods kidnapping in “The Ransom of Red Chief.” The backfiring getaway vehicle and blasé, whatever parents may seem out of place amid the character dramas, but the lighthearted Fred Allen radio star sass goes a long way before the Victorian holiday finale “The Gift of the Magi,” starring Jeanne Crain (State Fair) and Farley Granger (Strangers on a Train). The sad newlywed faces gaping in store windows as others buy exorbitant gifts while they scrimp on food and count hidden pennies is still quite relevant. They give of themselves and sell their most treasured things, but are they really worth it? Not only will fans of the author delight, but the commentary, literary extras, and restoration notes make for a quite pleasing finish here.  

We’re Not Married – Fred Allen and David Wayne are here again beside Ginger Rogers (Top Hat), Mitzi Gaynor (There’s No Business Like Show Business), Zsa Zsa Gabor (Moulin Rouge), and more for this 1952 humorous romance. Miss Mississippi Monroe is a young beauty queen more interested in pageant success then her bitter househusband or baby, and it is intriguing to see this mid century time capsule of marital mood and relationship mores – they are certainly different from today’s casual couplings! Some transition scenes are slow as we bounce from one couple’s story to the next – our players never crisscross but rather serve as separate not so wedded bliss vignettes. This halting approach must restart with each segment, making the comedy and drama uneven as these unhappy duos react to their marriage dilemma with varying degrees of heavy or comical. The tone would have been more balanced and witty if our couples had interacted and thus perhaps reacted differently to their situation. Illegitimacy, military legalities, and the serious latter half make the time here a bit overlong at 85 minutes. Some pairs are more likeable than others are, and the script isn’t as funny as it thinks it is. Fortunately, the then scandalous unwed notions, bumbling judges, licensing technicalities, and holiday accents make for some lightheartedness and social interest along with pleasant fashions, fifties décor, and behind the scenes radio show drama. And dang, young Zsa Zsa, wow!

A Split Decision!

Let’s Make It Legal – I’m not a fan of Claudette Colbert (It Happened One Night), but she and Robert Wagner (Hart to Hart) look so young in this 1951 comedy! The separate beds and set dressings feel somewhat mid century standard, but Colbert shockingly shows off her legs and signs those divorce papers. She’s a little too feisty to be a grandmother and the way these men – who are actually younger than she is – fight for her affection feels awkward. The misogynistic dialogue is also too of the time casual, with men discussing the legalities of beating a woman while gambling on horses instead of paying their alimony. This script is perhaps meant to be witty as the battle of the sexes complaints go round and round, but the dry, back and forth meddling gets tiresome fast. Fortunately, young model Monroe adds a much needed spark with a great bathing suit, fun delivery, and a brief, but juicy zing. At 77 minutes, the attractions and rivals feel under cooked and on the nose – the score is largely silent and this kind of romantic charmer has been developed better with a more likeable cast elsewhere. Fans of the stars and fifties comedies, however, may yet enjoy the fun along with Wagner’s commentary and the bemusing period newsreel featurettes.

About the Premiere Collection set

Certainly it’s understandable that not every Marilyn Monroe film has been included here – namely less quality fair such as Hometown Story or Clash by Night or even well done, but minimal Marilyn fair such as The Asphalt Jungle. However, it is very surprising that River of No Return and The Prince and the Showgirl are absent from the Premiere Collection. Granted there may be an MGM or Warner, non-Fox Studios technicality in place, but other non-Fox films are included and it is ironic that films where Monroe has one or two scenes are here over such starring roles. Fortunately, the features on the individual discs are retained – subtitles, commentaries, trailers, photo galleries, newsreels, restoration comparisons, and more. The streamlined box also has a pleasant design with three separate volumes folding out to create fun Marilyn centerfolds. I was apprehensive in purchasing the Premiere Collection online after hearing this somewhat cardboard packaging caused damaged discs, but the $30 I lucked upon at Target was cheaper than Amazon and there have been no set problems. Despite any perceived selection or box set flaws, Monroe completists will delight in this convenient edition, and my Marilyn collecting sister probably knows what her next gift is going to be! 


23 December 2014

Sandi Patty The Gift Goes On

Sandi Patty’s The Gift Goes On a Rousing Good Time
By Kristin Battestella

1983’s The Gift Goes On was the first of nearly a dozen holiday albums and compilations from the contemporary Christian singer then known as Sandi Patti, and it’s a reverent, rousing session for the season, indeed.

Worship the King opens The Gift Goes On in sweeping fashion yet carries an easy eighties beat, pleasant melody, inspiring choir, catchy rhythms, and spiritual lyrics that sound both carol-esque and viable for year round praise. The big notes continue for the Worship the Gift Medley of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear/Away in a Manger/What Child is This and Little Town of Bethlehem but the mix stays soft and lullaby tender thanks to breezy and effortless transitions across the carols as the somber orchestration builds. Patty has certainly given these tunes full-length treatments elsewhere – many which appear on the Yuletide Joy compilation – but there’s enough of each familiar refrain in this warm and graceful sing a long session.

The titular The Gift Goes On is arranged in a fun calypso style with a slightly dated eighties panache, but there’s also a swanky maturity to balance the youthful backing choir. For such an operatically capable singer, Patty also knows when to keep her vocals and music casual in an intimate, gentle mode – as in the short Christmas Was Meant for Children track. This quiet, nostalgic two and a half minutes of reflection adds a personal family time to The Gift Goes On before the Old World flavoring of Jesu Bambino/O Holy Night. A touch of O Come All Ye Faithful refrains accent these less heard and triumphantly delivered carols. Although not as big a showstopper as found on her O Holy Night release, the rousing choir and varied arrangement lead to some excellent crescendos, and Sandi takes the house down as only few people can.

The Worship the King Reprise Medley of Celebrate the Gift: Rejoice/ For Unto Us A Child is Born is a bit of a mouthful of a track listing I know, but this combination takes the catchy of the first tune and adds a little Handel’s Messiah – just in case we weren’t already trying to sing along like we are all so spectacular. Underlining choruses from Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Joy to the World choir refrains add layers of concert and performance to The Gift Goes On. One couldn’t possibly do all this calypso to classical all in one night so here’s the quick show version in snappy, holding that high note glory. I Wonder as I Wander, by contrast, adds a somber melody and slows down the lingering breaths with seemingly medieval accents before O Magnify the Lord provides more reverence. The shortest track on The Gift Goes On, these 2 minutes seem more palpable pop in fashion compared to the older carols and classical sources. However, it may also be too similar to Worship the King, almost to the point that it sounds like the next verse. Fortunately, this is still another catchy, hand clapping gospel session that can play on regardless of season.

The set’s two longest tracks conclude The Gift Goes On, and due to some low volume, old CD mono, or poor mixing, it’s tough to understand Bethlehem Morning at first. Thankfully, the soft notes and high octaves come together with big lyrics rising and lifting up the first Christmas story in parallel to His delivered fulfillment. At five minutes, this one may seem redundant because we already had some exceptional, stirring numbers on The Gift Goes On, but this remains touching and heart tugging even if some listeners may find the notes too bombastic. Also five minutes, the bittersweet Merry Christmas with Love/Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas finale is perhaps an odd choice to finish The Gift Goes On with an expected December melancholy pop. The album is after all an unabashedly Christian and uplifting half hour otherwise. However, this is a pleasant, hushed end and a fittingly warm fare thee well.
The Gift Goes On is certainly not for solely secular Christmas celebrants or general seasonal audiences considering its mix of short and unfamiliar religious steep or long and long-winded carols. (I also realize not everyone was as addicted to Patty’s 1983 More Than Wonderful record – yes record – as I was.) It’s unusual as well that with such a capable voice, many big difficult carols are absent from this surprisingly short 35 minute session. Nonetheless, this is a fine holiday debut from Sandi – and we’ve had plenty more Christmas music from her since to complete this spiritual family friendly playlist perfect for a night of baking or tree trimming.

18 December 2014

Barbra Streisand Christmas Memories

Barbra Streisand’s Christmas Memories a Sophisticated, Somber Listen
By Kristin Battestella

Where Christmas today is mostly kid-centric, Barbra Streisand’s platinum 2001Christmas Memories release proves that not only is there nothing wrong with a mature, somber holiday album, but that such pensive sophistication may be exactly what December needs.

The expected long-winded notes are no less soft, tender, and gentle to start I’ll Be Home for Christmas and smooth background orchestration helps bend the melody, letting the vocals linger while retaining the familiar bittersweet. Christmas Memories’ swanky but melancholy tone continues with the combined Broadway style and dinner for two sway of A Christmas Love Song. Although it is tough to understand the lyrics at times or find the romantic December wording, there’s so pleasing a dance here that it doesn’t even matter. This excellent elegance rolls on with What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve. Considering all the sweet singers who’ve recorded it, I’ve never realized how much this song seems meant for Barbra. It’s jazzy, velvet, mature yet a hopeful inquiry. There’s no need for big arrangements – just intimate music and a stunning plea. How can one refuse? 

I Remember continues the downhearted merriment on Christmas Memories with a quiet nostalgia and storytelling verse. Maybe it’s generic in its Yule recollections or a bit rambling, granted. However, something here will tug your heartstrings whilst listening alone in the wee hours before the tree. This is a bit of a sad song indeed made more so considering its post 9/11 release. Fortunately, Snowbound is more romantic and traditionally fireside. I would say kinky, but this tune is too mature for that, so classy the juicy need not be said. The more familiar It Must Have Been the Mistletoe is perhaps as pop as Christmas Memories gets – there is a bit more orchestration and a breezy, effortless delivery creating plenty of winter love and Christmas charm.

Though it may seem as if Christmas Lullaby is meant to affectionately put the kids to bed come Christmas Eve, the poignant lyrics of hope, joy, and peace resonate with deeper feelings amid the tear jerking Broadway moments. Naturally, the titular Christmas Mem’ries encapsulates the wistful, evocative mood of the session perfectly with its somber, swaying delivery. The childhood talk of baking cookies and waking Christmas morning gives an aged, holiday patina, allowing the season to be vintage like a fine wine rather than remaining perpetually juvenile. Christmas Memories might sound like a lot of the same at times, but the pleasant delivery and sentimental lyrics keep the 45 minutes plus moving over your candlelit dinner. Grown Up Christmas List continues the tender – it’s tear inducing at best and downright upsetting at worst. Considering the album’s late 2001 date, these heartwarming notes, crescendos, and lyrical peace and harmony for which an adult would ask Santa take on a more profound meaning.

A shorter version of Ave Maria appeared on Barbra’s 1967 A Christmas Album, but Christmas Memories provides almost five minutes of down and good medieval Latin and reverence. This is perhaps the most Catholic infused and Christ centric of a Christmas ode one can get, yet the uplifting, ascending voices here transcend language with a solemn, therapeutic universal indeed. Closer continues the melancholy with a perfectly understandable, tearful rendition. In a season where many are separated or depressed, why are so many Christmas albums so dang jolly? It’s an ironically pleasing change to have a lonely December vocal. The poignant, show-stopping finale One God has choir accents to match its sweeping, united message – which again takes on more meaning in the wake of its release. Instead of homogenizing the holiday quarter into one moneymaking mishmash without belief, why not just accept our common spring to the season?

Understandably, some listeners may find Christmas Memories too depressing or over the top in it’s hugging, holding hands, Kumbaya feeling. This session captures the bleakness of a Christmas after September 11th and may be dated in that regard. But why not have an album not meant for a youthful, festive, kitschy and ridiculously happy audience? Where Barbra’s A Christmas Album was traditionally split between religious and secular sides, the new or less familiar material on Christmas Memories fills the void for solitary singles or older couples who may perennially experience the sadness of the season – and that’s actually pretty darn nice.  

13 December 2014

In the Christmas Mood I and II

In the Christmas Mood Volumes a Happening Time, Indeed!
By Kristin Battestella

The Glenn Miller Orchestra carries on the brassy mood of its namesake (“He’s not dead, he’s missing!”) and turns the swinging merriment into holiday spirit with not one, but two nineties volumes of In the Christmas Mood. Though uneven at times thanks to modern missteps and mid century interpretations, these two albums remain jolly fun for a December dance party. 

In the Christmas Mood begins the festive session with a spirited Sleigh Ride, still in the Pops feel yet offering a new breezy spin amid the recognizable rhythms. This is not a set of all secular grooves, however, and soothing time is taken for the spiritual with the Yuletide Medley of O Holy Night/Joy to the World/Little Town of Bethlehem and Deck the Halls. Delightful horns linger deep on the reverence with mellow, lullaby notes, swaying nicely for an evening dinner before going peppy on the joy and concluding with the ritzy trimmings. With such positive orchestral opportunity, it’s surprising to hear vocalists enter In the Christmas Mood for Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. We know the tune well enough to sing along without a chorus, and these merely serviceable sound-a-likes dampen the Christmas charm with a generic, amateur, no name feeling – ironic, of course, considering the Glenn Miller branding. The instrumental designs on In the Christmas Mood are far more appealing, but the band is unfortunately toned down in favor of these weaker singers.

These interrupting singers hamper the sweet, snowy sounds on Silver Bells as well before the jiving Jingle Bells puts In the Christmas Mood back on track. Granted, some listeners may not like these faux Miller arrangements jamming off the melody – at times they are unrecognizable as themselves and have too many Pennsylvania 6500 familiarities. If you’re having a full tilt holiday party, however, this seasonal merriment with classic flavoring is okay. Frosty the Snowman continues the upbeat, dancing good time but before the rock outs stray too much, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas slows In the Christmas Mood down with solo, sentimental bittersweet – and it’s made all the more bittersweet thanks to those grating vocals!

I wish In the Christmas Mood had separated the instrumental and vocal tracks or had done the carols in full without singers, for another Yuletide Medley of O Christmas Tree/It Came Upon a Midnight Clear/We Three Kings and What Child is This is perfectly upbeat as needed or somber, sweet, and reverent in its brassy blend of carols and tradition. The twists here go peppy when we might expect melancholy and simmering when we normally hear festive. These melodies feel like a concert, a special holiday evening on the town sprinkling in a few notes of everything – unlike the forgettable gal ruining I'll Be Home for Christmas. The amateur vocals erroneously turn this lonely tale into a speedy toe tapper, and again, the big instruments away from the singers carry the swanky sway much better. A beautifully simple and slow Silent Night would bid the night adieu in tender fashion, but unfortunately, the unnecessary In the Christmas Mood is a much too on the nose finale. Let’s sing about us singing about the holidays, yeah! No. This faux forties choir deters the titular tone, and the inability to skip over the vocals victimizes half the fine music here, giving In the Christmas Mood an inaccurate ho hum feeling.

Fortunately, In the Christmas Mood II starts on the right track with a fine We Wish You A Merry Christmas. There are slow salutations and suave but no less danceable rhythms continuing that sophisticated merrymaking mood. Likewise, White Christmas remains slow, brooding, and cheek-to-cheek with its sentimental chic. The big brass notes really make the arrangement pop here – before those flat singers again compromise another classic. The Yuletide Medley of Away in the Manger/Ave Maria and The First Noel does far better with the lullaby reverence, creating striking, almost weeping instrumental notes for each classy carol. Often annoying due to its repetition, The Twelve Days of Christmas delivers the familiar refrains before jazzing up the traditional and giving each measure of the countdown a distinctive good time. Winter Wonderland would stroll along with more breezy beats but for those pedestrian vocals yet again sacrificing the pleasant music.

The fireside grooves continue with The Christmas Song, keeping In the Christmas Mood II in smooth sentimental fashion along with the surprisingly perky but no less respectful or sing alongable Yuletide Medley of Hark the Herald Angels Sing/Angels We Have Heard on High/God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and O Come All Ye Faithful. Of course, (There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays would continue the perfect peppy and toe tapping rhythms if it weren’t for the inferior singers. This eighties meets forties off key style just doesn’t work. Not only is it not very good in itself, but we already have the real perennial mid century classics remaining timeless and fresh in our collective Christmas mind.

Thankfully, Good King Wenceslas does much better for In the Christmas Mood II by adding new swinging notes to this Stephen ode. Santa Claus is Coming to Town remains spry and playful but its upbeat is pleasantly adult instead of juvenile. It does stray too close to In the Mood at times in its jamming interlude and that’s okay, as is the upscale, swanky winking suggestion of Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Serve up the cocktails and toast In the Christmas Mood II before the fitting Auld Lang Syne exit. In the Christmas Mood II smartly reduces the appearance of its stock singers for most of its tracks, and these departing big brass tempos vary the rhythms, making room for time to kiss under the mistletoe or jive the December away. 

There are no true standout tracks on this In the Christmas Mood double session, and the zing of the original bandleader is obviously absent. When up against classic Christmas albums and vintage holiday renditions from the period itself, the try hard, revival swing design here sadly dates itself as inferior – especially those unspectacular singers! The instrumental sounds, however, successfully pull off the mid century nostalgia well. At 45 minutes each, there’s enough pleasantly swinging material here to accompany a festive dance party of any age and scale. The sophistication of either In the Christmas Mood is secular enough to jazz up the office yet recognizably spiritual and spirited notes are in the mix. While some traditional audiences may not like such a big band intrusion or additional rhythms upon the carols, overall, this is a sentimental, toe tapping good time for your playlist.