16 January 2017

British Girl Power!

Girl Power: British Edition!
by Kristin Battestella

Be it Edwardian dames duking out the right to vote, post-war Liverpool ladies looking for love in all the wrong places, or wig wearing twenty-first century women barristers seeking justice in a man's world, these gals from across the pond make heaps of girl power in this trio of short-lived serials. 


Lilies– There are some stumbling blocks to start this lone 8 hour 2007 season – one being a reaching title when these three sisters with a shell shocked brother and deadbeat dad feels more like Shameless: Liverpool 1920. The attention on each daughter is uneven and crowded with fast moving Olympic swimming trials, courtships, and weddings resolved in one episode. Suicide attempts and talk of their late mother are also dropped or recalled as needed, and early jazz style music is too lighthearted to play over the serious scenes, breaking the drama with whimsical moments desperate to needlessly tie every story to the family pianola. The comical tunes even play over a sequence where a woman is drugged and stripped by a photographer! The pace may have been better with both parents deceased, as there's not enough time for the kitchen dilemmas, saucy servants romancing the boss, feisty corset selling, and wartime wounds to be as shocking as they should be. Fortunately, religious rifts and townsfolk help or hindrance balance the interwoven plots better by Episode Three, with cowardly white feathers, women at work, xenophobia, illegitimacy, and convents tugging and pulling the family in different directions. The typically ill fated homosexual plotline may be slightly mishandled, but the forbidden romance, stigmas, and war fallout are dealt with more honestly and refreshingly than the usual same sex shock values. Modern topics such as postpardum depression and the priesthood are addressed in drama and scandals without being melodramatic and scandalous. This is a unique setting, and the impact of the time and place on the tales is steeped with charm and atmosphere, holding the audience further alongside the decent storytelling that at least deserved another season. By the penultimate hour, love and spiritual conflicts, new relationships, and paternal growth contrast the colliding violence and family rows as old ideals and new attitudes clash. The eponymous girls must face serious quandaries on their own – they don't make do without difficulty, but we want to see them come through it all. Secondary love interests leave enough hopeful potential while the finale drops the musical extras to spend serious time with the core characters in a pleasing little conclusion.

Silk – Maxine Peake (Shameless) is on form as a not so put together but likable gung ho in the courtroom barrister seeking her titular QC alongside the mixing business with pleasure Rupert Penry-Jones (MI-5), and wheeling and dealing chambers clerk Neil Stuke (Game On). Trading solicitor business over breakfast drinks, shady funds, and backdoor favors make for dirty good drama, and with his stable of directors in two episode blocks, series writer Peter Moffat (North Square) tackles juicy topics such as office dalliances, hierarchy subterfuge, and chambers rivalries amid taboo cases on elder abuse, teacher/student relations, racism, sexism, women's rights, religion, child prostitution, assisted suicide, harassment, and terrorism. Of course, unaware Americans will be very confused at the English legalese thanks to different solicitor roles or lawyer responsibilities and least of all, the robes and wigs. Who knew cruising in the bathroom was really cottaging in the urinal? Though perhaps derivative of other UK courtroom dramas, nothing stateside comparable comes to mind. The pregnancy storyline may be trite, but backroom meetings, corruptions, and conflicts of interest tip the scales on any protocol or formalities. Literal and figurative getting in bed with the right or wrong people make or break careers, and familiar UK TV faces pepper the ensemble with tug and pull gravitas including Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones), Miranda Raison (Spotless), Nina Sosanya (Marcella), Alex Jennings (The Crown), Phil Davis (Whitechapel), Indira Varma (Luther), and Frances Barber (Doctor Who). It's also wonderful to see female directors, casting on par between men and women, and edgy adult conflicts rather than the same young, pretty people focus. Overstepping boundaries schemes and power hungry underhandedness also take a humble as personal issues and heath discomforts change dynamics. While at times heavy handed – every speech every person makes carries a serious, slow zoom with big sighs and deep emotions – casual humor alleviates the drama. Inconsistent threads and dropped characters also come and go in the first two seasons, and Series Three strays with more character tangents, rival clerks, and head of chambers contests. It's all fine drama, just odd to expand while building toward a round about two-part finale. These downfalling characters have been spiraling out of control for some time, leaving an unusual but fitting changing of the guard exit that continues the viewer conversation long after the show ends. The heavy hitting may be lessened on a re-watch, but these eighteen episodes remains short, easy to binge quality over quantity. Now if only “clerking” wasn't pronounced “clarking” I'd be okay.

Up the Women – Who says a period piece has to be drama based on a book? This thirty minute 2013 suffragette sitcom from writer/star Jessica Hynes (Spaced) co-starring Rebecca Front (Inspector Lewis) has all the button up fashions, big hats, and turn of the century accessories for the Edwardian decorum – and the self-aware at odds humor and simple stage setting have fun with the fast talking witty women and stammering men who can't screw in a newfangled light bulb. The laugh track isn't necessary, however the subtitles help with the numerous puns and one should appreciate British humor – complete with teeth jokes and cheese riffs– to enjoy the cheeky here. From a mother with fifteen kids and more on the way, the dirty old lady, an ugly spinster, the rebellious daughter, our progressive wannabe suffragette, and a snotty woman in charge more concerned with quorums, motions, and minutes at a sewing circle, each woman uses modern sensibilities to challenge a female stereotype without being anachronistic. What do women do when they get together? Complain about kids, joke on men, gossip, buy store bought and say it was homemade. What anarchy! The sassy, well written dialogue packs a lot of illusion and references amid the revolution hyperbole, and the historical uprising remains a timely comment today. While the period trappings keep the vagina euphemisms classy, men explain simple things to women as overly complicated and sight gags like disastrous oversize picket signs accent the protests at a closed post office, jam sales sold to each other, and the hunger strike that can't be done on an empty stomach. Rival movements, women in sports with equipment laughs, and men with feminine names illume the serious focus behind this satire written and directed by women – everyone speaks properly with polite, superfluous words while denying women the right to vote and they are congratulated for the ability to speak well enough to fool the listener on what's really being said. Why does a woman need to be painted and dressed up like a mannequin to not move or shock everyone by wearing her hair down instead of in a bun? Serious questions about the gloves on hierarchy, force of government, and women consenting to farcical leadership pepper the catty women versus sisterhood humor. These six episodes have enough room for interwoven stories and social plots but move fast and don't overstay their welcome. The pip pip cheerio may be over the top at times with a wordiness or flummoxed for the sake of it, however that matches the earnest intentions and spiked tea that never turn out quite right. This isn't laugh out loud commentary, but the chuckling wit is the perfect size for a weekend marathon and remains worth a look.

13 January 2017

Top Ten: Dracula!


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

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

Our Top Ten Dracula Appearances!


Enjoy our vampire label or Horror page for even more!

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


09 January 2017

Quirky Documentary Subjects

Quirky Documentary Subjects
by Kristin Battestella

From drive-ins, Star Wars, and Halloween to Steampunk and vampires – these unique documentaries offer an eclectic niche of fun, alternative insights.

Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie – This 2013 hour and a half recalls the 5,000 strong fifties peak of the drive-in experience with nostalgic cartoons, vintage advertising, and old newsreels alongside producer Roger Corman, cinema historians, and theater owners recalling the glory days of neon lights, giant outdoor screens, and twenty five cent admission – not that folks didn't cheat on tickets by hiding in the trunk! Suburban expansion and cheap land or available open spaces made the post-war culture ripe for this kind of family movie going with kids in pajamas piled in the back of the station wagon. The double feature experience included playgrounds and concessions while schlock B pictures for necking teens helped the emerging independent film scene – low budget second rate films to fill these second rate theater showings. From simple wood construction and concrete or metal screens to speaker boxes hanging on the window, the rush to change film reels, and flammable projectors, technology wasn't always the drive-in's friend. The sixties loss of innocence and new X ratings led to a decline in the family-oriented as sex and violence onscreen led to a seedy, urban, and downtrodden reputation in the seventies. Everything from now banned DDT insecticide, Daylight Savings Time, and tornado or hurricane damage jeopardized drive-ins, and color television competition, gas shortages, smaller cars without bucket seats, and VCR popularity led to closures in the eighties. Before and after photos show dilapidated signs and abandoned marquees while prime real estate locations became shopping malls, and its quite intriguing to see our cultural changes paralleled with the rise and fall of the drive-in movies. Although there are sad moments and small preservation efforts – the drive-in in my hometown is one of less than 400 existing today – this well paced chronological flow does what it says in recalling the history as well as making one wonder why this private evening out in the comfort of your own vehicle ever fell out of mainstream favor. New repurposes as flea market spaces and church revivals keep the memories in our collective consciousness, and this pleasant retrospective is perfect for sentimental baby boomers or instantly streaming kids who can't fully comprehend this kind of cinema experience.

Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys – As a former everything Star Wars enthusiast, this 2014 documentary is full of must see retro commercials, toy display tours, expert authors, long time collectors, and Kenner toy designers discussing the sentimental value, big business collecting, and industry changing staying power of Star Wars toys. The history of Kenner and the timing of the original Star Wars films combined for franchising that made room for imaginative play and interconnectivity in an era when you couldn't watch the movies on repeat but you could play with your toys. Such merchandising and licensing boons led to a hitherto unseen supply and demand of toy anticipation and specific timetables with their fair share of inevitable gaffs such as the infamous Boba Fett mail in offer, the Snaggletooth variant figures, unauthorized foreign releases, and empty box Early Bird Certificates. Difficulties with sounds, electronic parts, or unsafe moving pieces, however, inspired innovate thinking, and some goofy toy designs that didn't work are featured alongside rare prototypes, artwork, and detailed specifications from the film departments – not to mention the trouble in making lightsaber toys! While it's tough to fathom a time when merchandising wasn't part of a famous franchise, collect 'em all chase marketing and every tie-in imaginable kept pace with the blockbuster box office evolution, birthing today's Tickle Me Elmo fanaticism. Aging audiences and less Star Wars media after the Original Trilogy created a brief lull in merchandise and some revival misfires before the Special Editions, but the Prequels reinvigorated the vintage pursuit for parents and the next generation. Collecting Star Wars toys is both a nostalgic rekindling of childhood memories and an expensive collectible hobby made of pristine oddities and mint rarities, and this hour plus is a smorgasbord of unique treats and drippy humor recalling ye olde Star Wars playtime. I myself am guilty of building cheap versions of sets I didn't have, coordinating my play along with the Star Wars soundtrack cassettes, and not letting my nieces play with my AT-AT filled with loose storm troopers. Don't judge me. While this topic may be too nerdy and overly detailed to the layman or non-fan, it's interesting to see how one specific franchise gave rise to the now standard merchandising, marketing, and massive obsessions for, well, everything. Adults who were kids during Star Wars' infancy and parents who have fought over toys at Christmas will have a good time here. I want a room to display all my Star Wars stuff!

Vintages Tomorrows – This hour plus 2015 documentary details the fantasy, sub culture, and revisionist creativity of the anachronistic steampunk movement via interviews with authors, bloggers, craftsmen, and musicians. Convention panels and roundtable conversations help define this alternative Victorian history – a broad variety of retro futurism across art, fashion, literature, music, and all demographics. Discussions on the eighties steampunk emergence from cyberpunk, the anger of past underground styles, and the inclusiveness of counter culture movements are done without judgment. Maybe some are perceived as weird or extreme and live everyday life within their alternate personas or gadgetry, but the recent coming together of like minds at conventions and with social media encourages progressive ideals, new technology, and fresh reflections on the past rather than today's stagnant monotony. From early zines to current cosplay fashions and a mixing of retro pin up, Gothic, and Victorian flair; these hodgepodge ideas are broken down in chapters describing the steampunk aesthetics – spectacles, goggles, corsets – anchoring the notion of self expression through form and function. Introverts can express themselves in unique ways or a return to a previous modesty where making the clothes fit you rather than conforming to skimpy off the rack measures. At times the intercut talking heads editing can be too speedy or confusing, interfering with interesting people and whimsical visuals that can speak for themselves. This made by and for steampunk practitioners view may not be as objective on the pros and cons, either. However, several segments do discuss that steampunk is not a recreation of the past Victorian intolerance and oppression but a reclaiming of the positive without historic offenses – a chance to rectify past wrongs and embrace all communities. Catch-22 debates on top hats from Hot Topic fads overtaking the creative philosophies and reinvented craftsmanship are self aware alongside the irony of instant technology and social media bringing together a community that rebuffs virtual pretense in favor of do it yourself mastery and the hopeful ideology that science fiction can still become science fact instead of just post-apocalyptic gloom. For those embracing steampunk, it's an open minded rebellion in search of something better than contemporary convenience or complacency, so sit back and enjoy the unique whimsy here.

Tough Call

Halloween: Feast of the Dying Sun – This recent documentary hour intends to set the holiday straight with the Celtic origins of season, adding sunsets, cemeteries, Samhain bonfires, and end of the harvest celebrations to the spooky voiceover for heaps of atmosphere. From Scottish identity guessing games and the belief that the dead visit the living to trick or treating as beggars pleading door to door and souling for small cakes, tales of how our Halloween customs came together are detailed with banshees, hidden fairy lands, and ghost sightings. It's great to see Druid practices, pre-Tolkien fantasy ideals, and Victorian fairy beliefs rooted in daily culture rather than Halloween as we know it as October 31 and done. Brief reenactments add creepy alongside authoritative, folklorist interviews, but the campfire storytelling narrative is often too abstract, meandering from one spooky specter to another with only vague, basic minutes on Celtic arrivals in Britain, early sacrificial offerings, standing stones, and ancient sites. The facts jump from 4,000 year old yew trees to otherworldly portals and fairies capturing mortals for liberating dance rituals – crowding intriguing details on the special power of nine or magic number three and church absorption of pagan practices. The generic Celtic talk drifts away from Samhain specifically, as if today's generation needs hand holding explanations on witch hunts, the origins of bobbing for apples, and the medieval transition toward All Hallow's Eve and All Saints Day. The rough timeline tosses in New World changes, Victorian gothic literature, and horror cinema fodder as we both laud Halloween with parades and an American commercial revival yet continue to misconstrue witchcraft and occult hallmarks of the season. This can be spooky fun for folks who don't know a lot about the history of Halloween, however it will be too swift and superficial for expert viewers. It's easy to zone out thanks to the random storytelling style, and the intended pagan history would be better served with a longer or specific, multipart documentary. Except for some wanton fairy queen sexy talk, as is this is neat for a teen sleepover or party background where rather than attempted academic, the tall tales can be casual fun.

Skip It!

Nightfall: 100 Years of Vampire Films – The dry, redundant, trying to be cool narration of this 2010 hour opens with Twilight mania and vampire parodies before going back to historical inspirations and Stoker's 1897 Dracula bar. The fast moving flair spends only a minute or two on each subject, and skips other literary vampire sources in favor of continually repeating the vampire hype without actually presenting any. Hokey splices with vampire re-enactors compromise fine stills, artwork, and film clips while only one or two unintroduced interviewees briefly appear. Silent staples, The Vampyre, and pre-Hayes Code seductions get pushed aside for some kind of contemporary trailer as if they were using this documentary purely to promote somebody's new vampire film, and sidetracking statistics on how there are so many vampire books and movies actually omit more content than they present. Nosferatu and Bela Lugosi leap to quick sixties sexual mentions before going back to the Universal sequels and straying into irrelevant science fiction. All this documentary had to do was tell the facts in order, but Mexican horror like El Vampiro, the advent of fangs onscreen, and Hammer color fall prey to a mocking tone with more time spent on cheesy titles like Dracula: The Dirty Old Man and Disco Dracula. Vampires in television are never given a glance, and major films of the sixties and seventies like Blacula, The Vampire Lovers, and most of the Hammer series are blatantly ignored, leaving an erroneous, glossed over representation more akin to a padded school report. It's almost angering that My Son, The Vampire is mentioned over Anne Rice – the eighties and nineties are completely absent as if there were no such thing as Near Dark, The Lost Boys, or even Once Bitten and My Best Friend is a Vampire. Wikipedia is cited as the first source in the credits, and the trying to be hip stance that vampire films were in the dirt until recent millennial popularity really feels like it should be the other way around. This is clearly meant for younger audiences new to the vampire genre, but the poor presentation is terribly frustrating for well versed vampire fans.

06 January 2017

Ho-hum Period Pieces

Ho-Hum Period Pieces
by Kristin Battestella

This trio of early, middle, and late 19th century literary sourced serials are tedious split decisions at best and sleep inducing examples of the genre at worse. Ho-hum, ho-hum.

Death Comes to Pemberley – I admit I am not a Jane Austen fan, but I was willing to give this 2013 three episode murder mystery based on the P.D. James sequel to Pride and Prejudice a go. While slow to start with twenty minutes that could have been dropped, the ethereal forest, idyllic greens, bustling manor, and Regency carriages turn to screams, ghost talk, gunshots, and hysterical guests crying murder on the night before a ball. Thunder, foggy roads, and torches add to local legends, spooky flashbacks, and a mysterious, hissing woman in red. Candlelight schemes provide atmosphere, however some scenes are too dark, contributing to the struggling conversations. Dry recountings of the past and numerous unnecessary people discussing which families don't approve of each other waste far too much time when there are wounded men, dead friends, and killer suspicions afoot. On with the murder mystery! Fluttering ladies with smelling salts and trying to be humorous wives just become obnoxious, further stalling the sputtering, so-called ominous ambience. Bludgeons to the head and pieces to the puzzle get lost in the dowdy protocol, and it's increasingly apparent that this going nowhere mystery is really just a drama about how a local murder and somebody else's pregnancy scandal causes a rift between The Darcys. Granted, I wonder if my lack of Austen love is clouding my viewing judgments, but is this supposedly sordid trial really saying this murder was set in motion by somebody not getting invited to the ball? Though the familiar cast is in proper period piece form as any quality British thespian would be, the devoid script leaves them going through the motions as clichéd saintly women or jerky husbands – and my word, why is everybody's hair such a mess? Courtship choices repeating Pride and Prejudice drag on at the expense of current actions, and the tale might have been better on its own if it weren't a thin Jane Austen wannabe gone eerie over relying on famed connections. Not only did this one all but put me to sleep, but it never delivers on the promised what happens next or its mystery thriller tag line.

Doctor Thorne – Billed as a 2016 Amazon Original, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes presents these four episodes based upon the novel by Anthony Trollope starring Tom Hollander (The Night Manager) as the calling it like it is doctor caring for his shunned niece and Ian McShane (Deadwood) as the drunkard lording over everyone's debts and loans. The series opens with a bleak 1836 fatality before the colorful greenery of 1850s Britain complete with snotty picnics debating for love or money marital choices. Pretty costumes, grand manors, and garden estates add atmosphere alongside cobblestones and period medical instruments while overhead shots build austere scale for the comings and goings up grand staircases. By contrast, Thorne's home is darker with low ceilings and fireside sit down conversations – cinematography mirroring the high and low attitude and privileged protocols blocking Mary Thorne and her shady parentage from marrying above her rank. Stuck up Rebecca Front (The Thick of It) arranges a wealthy American union for her son instead, but even those betrothed to the uppity appreciate love as more important than wealth. Frumpy but narcissistic parents complain about repugnant duties in marrying money, women's meddling rules the roost because they can't stop men from squandering their inheritance, and sacrificing loved ones to bitterness just to keep up a lavish legacy is the norm. Everyone above takes from below, those below still snob it to those beneath them, and such greedy people aren't very likable! Beyond the elder cast's confrontations, the ensemble is basic – four, forty plus minute parts is too little time to stray into village folk or town square speeches yet overlong when a two hour romance movie would do. Too many who is who, superfluous sisters, portly suitors, and other relations crowd the in media res plot – viewers are told of long lost love but we don't see it. Wills, injuries, and revelations move fast, but the apparent passage of time makes the disapproved lovers spend more time apart while others much ado about nothing over them. This slightly pompous, gloves on approach is ironically too Victorian in its closed off comeuppances, leaving the not so unexpected twists and potential drama undelivered for any audience who has already read or seen better. Eight episodes with the no nonsense Thorne anchoring more tales from the Barsetshire Chronicles books series would have been more interesting, and Fellowes also appears before and after each episode, taking precious minutes away from the story for a windblown, talking down to for American viewers that almost proves the case for Trollope being Dickens lite rather than showing his contemporaneous best. This fussy women trying to marry a bachelor to the highest bidder reverse on the usual lady's coming out party should appeal to Downton audiences as well as fans of Hollander and Trollope and budding period piece teens may find this wet behind the ears lark an easy way to spend an afternoon.

The Paradise – Whimsical Victoriana credits set a gilded mood for this 2012-13 British/Masterpiece co-production inspired by Emile Zola. The titular 1875 department store anchors sixteen hour long episodes across two seasons with a city versus country, small shops versus big business rivalry, and uppity aristocrats can't get used to this all inclusive, off the rack shopping model. Despite decorum, sales formalities, and billing troubles, sassy northern accents and green manor houses add a pleasant, lighthearted glow. And The Paradise has room and board for its employees, too! Retail backstabbing and suave, self-made salesmanship behind the scenes are more interesting than uneven secrets, upper class meddling, and contrived spoiled rich girl, stage five clinger marriage proposals. Though the ownership ambition is earnest, one day shopping sales speeches are too preachy, and shop girl crushes on their widower boss are too awkward. Why are they all so smitten by his fatherly entrepreneur wisdom and unromantic raspy voice? While customer contests, a baby found in the store, ill employees, and surprise parties are somewhat trite, episodic themes peppered with conflicts, thefts, using and abusing, or humble integrity do well alongside talk of Paris fashions and Paradise puns or slogans. Women choosing to work rather than marry – gasp! Unfortunately, the local shopkeepers versus The Paradise plots are downplayed in favor of weaker romantic fluff, leaving pieces of episodes good and other scenes too tame while the focus meanders between a wholesome family series or shoehorned melodrama. New players in Series Two are not as likable, the most interesting characters are not the series leads, and episodic focus on other characters or mysterious deaths at the store go nowhere. Late traitors, closing threats, and conspiracies are compromised by the underwhelming sappy and tiresome, not so stolen glances, and nonsensical turns can't be disguised by the odd costumes and camera trickery hiding a pregnant actress. Rather than embracing the potential for promotion rivalries, French flair, and women unaccepted as business equals, nothing major happens and the same old love flutter remains, well, boring. This was very tough to continue, as it turns out there just isn't enough intrigue at a Victorian department store. Who knew?

03 January 2017

Give and Take 5 Year Old Horror

Give and Take Five Year Old Horror
by Kristin Battestella

How do we rate the horror movie potluck from half a decade ago or thereabouts? Give or take a year or two for this mix of scares post-noughties – ranging from a fine vintage and not bads to the downright frigid. 



Midnight Son – An aversion to sunlight, skin conditions, and the need for human blood make for a deadly quarter life crisis in this 2011 indie gem from Scott Leberecht (Life After Pi). There's not much dialogue early – and the DVD has deleted scenes, interviews, and commentaries but no subtitles – yet the visual storytelling doesn't need anything uber talkative. Interesting schemes denote the false night time light with yellow lamps, neon accents, string bulbs, blue kitchen designs, and choice reds as the doctor diagnoses anemia, jaundice, and malnourishment. Rare steak isn't doing the trick, but the sight of blood on a bandage at the ho hum night security job gets the heart racing for something tasty. Early Google research moments get out of the way in favor of painting memories of the sun, solitary vampire movie watching, checking for fangs, testing for a reaction to crosses, and having a laugh at the clichés. Loneliness, street peddlers, deadbeats, and debt – life's already down on its luck so what's a little vampirism? The vampire vis-a-vis for drug use and life sucks may be trite today, but this allegory has an older, working protagonist stopping in the corner butcher for some blood by the pint to hide in his coffee cup. Companionship and fantastic possibilities can be found in unlikely places, and it's neat to see just how many things a basement dwelling vampire can really do at night. Although I like his bed with the blackout curtains, this is a potential turned bleak world – the natural awkwardness is understandable and casually realistic. Jacob's smart, talented, and just hampered by his...health problems...and an ER opportunist is willing to trade blood for a price. Rather than shock horror exploitative, we have an intimate, invested view for the increasing slurps, bloody makeouts, and desperateness. Quick camera flashes leave room for suggestion as bodily changes, night vision, infections, and love bites interfere with potential relationships, murder investigations, gallery possibilities, and you know, trying to get somewhere in life. Can you be a good and normal vampire or is amoral violence the only answer? Though plain to some with nothing super unexpected, the simple constructs echo the mature progression, honest drama, and self-aware focus without the need for horror spectacle. This is a fine story with a small but well rounded, multi-ethnic cast, and it's one of the best same writer/director pictures I've seen in a very long while.


The Cabin in the Woods – Bradley Whitford (The West Wing), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), and more recognizable faces anchor this 2012 horror satire written and produced by Joss Whedon. Droll corporations and mysterious technological surveillance parallels the intentionally cliché coeds off to a lakeside weekend – the blonde, a jock, a virgin, the fifth wheel jester filled with zany pot wisdoms. Naturally, the GPS goes haywire amid retro Rving, backwoods confrontations, throwback tropes, and nods to old school slashers. The hokey isn't meant to be taken seriously, but eerie mountain tunnels and hidden systemworks add suspicion. Though at times cryptic for cryptic's sake, it's pleasing to have the experiment aspects up front – trick paintings, double mirrors, camera observations, and a cabin that's bigger on the inside than outside. Useless scenes, comedic quips, and windblown characters that delay rather than inform are annoying, and the attempted Buffy for the big screen tone is apparent with social commentary and upending the genre expectations. Ironically, these Initiative knockoffs never feel urgent or dramatic. Some viewers may wish this was either straight horror or totally from the scientific parody perspective. The global fright-creating branches are often more interesting than the typical teens disregarding warnings to not read Latin aloud amid zombies, free for all monsters, fun house mayhem, and meta on meta horror that plays into stereotypical scares just as much as it lampoons them. Fortunately, a self aware attitude adds intrigue – despite being up to something sinister, the technicians cast bemusing bets and celebrate their wins over predictable spooky cellars, creepy antiques, fanatical pasts, and ominous diaries. Occult prayers, bloody rituals, and creative set piece kills accent the inevitable price to be paid. While slow to start for longtime horror viewers, often silly or derivative, and uneven in its multi-layered execution, the familiar ensemble has a good time with this spooky puzzle. Youthful audiences tired of the same old scary movie banal or casual, horror lite fans can enjoy the uniqueness here. 


You're Next – This 2011 slasher opens with an awkward sex scene and unnecessary nudity followed by not one, but two obligatory driving to the horror scenes. Loud boo shocks, false jumps, and jarring eighties crescendos detract from the subtle scares, creaky doors, and awkward family ominous. Likewise, the slow motion calls attention to itself amid shaky camerawork and hectic interference that needlessly deters from the increasing horrors and budding family drama. Screaming, shouts, and too many lookalike people add to the confusion, and the silent stalking, animal masked attackers, and mournful stillness is much more terrifying. Despite passé cameras, flip phones with no signal, and wow a multi-disc CD changer, the isolated Tudor home makes for a wonderfully uncomfortable setting for this trapped reunion of older protagonists and quirky characters arguing about who's the stupider shit amid major blood, chopping machetes, flying arrows, shattered windows, and slit throats. Good thing one girlfriend grew up in a survivalist commune! Most of the sardonic humor works – a guy spends half the movie with an arrow stuck in his back, no big – but a few quips deflate the scares at the wrong time. While hysterics in crisis are understandable, stupid horror movie mistakes, separations, and not checking everything or everyone weigh down the already predictable greed, bored millennial games, and talkative reveals that remove some of the hard fought menace. In addition to the busy camera and unpolished script, at times this masked assailants leaving messages for a kick ass heroine slasher siege plot feels uneven and déjá vu derivative. Fortunately, the one by one suspense, creepy masks, assorted imaginative kills, and gruesome kitchen tool uses create quality gore moments. Throwback touches accent the self-aware, satirical undercurrent, and a coming clean finale wraps up the wild aftermath and befitting horror irony.


Frozen – Not that one! Before there was Frozen, there was this 2010 ski resort escapade – which my husband said I probably wouldn't like. Indeed there's a lot going against this with obnoxious music, jerky attitudes, ski lift scams, a boyfriend proud to make his girl flirt to their advantage, and his jealous third wheel BFF. Playing in the snow, can't ski montages, and kiddie mountain safety contribute to the trio's awkwardness and lame arguing over skis or snowboards and cigarettes versus pot. The terrible slice of life dialogue and hollow conversation on the worst ways to die includes favorite cereals, Jaws, and Star Wars, because of course. Naturally, nobody goes skiing with their expensive phones, and nightfall and weather warnings are ignored so these yuppies can sneak passed quitting operators for one more huzzah. The mechanical creepy and equipment problems are ominous enough thanks to beautiful mountain snowscapes, bleak aerial photography, and up close overhead shots of dangerous gears, blades, and wires. Goggles, hats, and hoods invoke the brisk practical designs and chilly Utah locales while the lights out, howling winds, sleet, and thundersnow spell peril. Unfortunately, immature finger pointing and a going through the motions tone hamper the intriguing premise of being stuck on a ski lift for a week. Decoy snow truck rescues come too soon amid OMG boys admitting they are scared and people peeing themselves. The idea of jumping down is interesting, and frostbite, frozen appendages, critical gloves, and dropped gear are eventually addressed. However, the irony of breaking off an icicle to drink is never mentioned, nobody's butt ever gets numb, and the danger is not as intense as it should be due to increasingly unrealistic turns. Though quality, painful screams and injury gore can't overcome improbable wolf suspense and the stupidity of jumping legs first into an iced nighttime snowbank. You can't use a snowboard to set a broken leg? Why didn't they initially use their gear to zipline back down the lift instead of waiting to go by hand after its frozen? A big deal is made of smoking and matches to start but no one considers starting a signal fire? Can they still sue if they bribed the operator and were never really supposed to be there in the first place? Several intense moments can't save this not very well thought out script – another pair of eyes to point out the unbelievable errors or a stronger cast could have made the chill zing. I would rather have had the bleak silence and the realism of not seeing the actors' faces if it meant they actually zipped their hoods up all the way. Ultimately, the audience is given no reason to care and what should be a thrilling horror drama is more like a parable on how not to be a hipster skiing ass.

30 December 2016

Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet Remains Superb
by Kristin Battestella

Before there was YA, there was this 1968 British-Italian adaptation of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet. Their family feud and forbidden love at first sight leads to a whirlwind of love and death, and this version from director Franco Zeffirelli remains a superb potboiler of medieval splendor and ill-fated romance. 

Zeffirelli (The Taming of the Shrew) wastes no time to start Romeo and Juliet as the chorus fills the audience in on the rival houses, tense times, and new generation of old enemies. Accusations, sword fights, and marketplace quarrels put the action up front while overhead shots and group scenes provide scale. Interior conversations introduce the players – investing the viewer in the paired down old speaketh, rowdy tales of fairy dreams, and Capulet party crashing – and intimate up close shots become asides for the audience, pausing upon the fourth wall but not breaking it. Bawdy jokes, boys' fantasy, and the masked ball titillation invoke an effortless Bard alongside beautiful music, shy glances across the room, and in love, spinning until one is dizzy innocence. Though colorful, there's an of the past, firelight patina, and Romeo and Juliet moves quickly as minstrel's lyrics and villainous threats sow the seeds of this love story made all the better because it is so tragic. The familiar but pretty laments and undeniable prose arrive with the balcony scene forty minutes in, and I wish the publishing industry and category romance wasn't intentionally designed for formulaic happy ever after and instead made room for dark romances like Romeo and Juliet to come back on the bookshelves. The fun medieval festiveness gets out of the way early, and Romeo and Juliet becomes increasingly serious as our eponymous couple risks life for love. Their marriage comes by the intermission, the family fallout dominates the last half hour, and the whole whirlwind upheaval actually only takes a few days. Rival parents turn up their noses at home while hectic street fights and the too many heads in the mob lead to a rumble that irrevocably interferes with this young love – a relationship that can both simultaneously end this family feud peaceably or fuel it to a bitter finale. We root for a wedded escape to Mantua, but epic turns rise in the last act with deception and misunderstandings. Despite knowing of the preventable daggers and poisonous mistakes, Romeo and Juliet grips its audience from start to finish fifty years hence as boys choir vocals and maidens tossing flowers lead to torch-lit crypts of youth lost and #trueloveisdead crescendos.


Both my mother and sister refer to this Romeo and Juliet as “the one with Olivia Hussey,” and indeed her beautiful innocence and natural performance stand out here. I love her hair, too! At fourteen, Juliet isn't ready for her parents to marry her off – she's reluctant to dance and shy, peering over the shoulders of the adults at the concert. Upon seeing Romeo, however, she quickly learns the tease. It's not wrong to touch her hand, but lips are for prayers; this is a sweet sin they've discovered, yet he can't expect satisfaction on the first night! Love has already blossomed, and Juliet is distraught to learn this boy is extra forbidden. Naturally, they plan to marry, and it's easy to be swept up in their happiness and idyllic hopes that love will cure all. Unfortunately, Juliet is immediately torn between her husband and her family – as alas, they aren't one and the same. Maybe if her vain parents had been paying more attention to Juliet and not treated her like an extension of themselves to use in their feud, none of this would have happened! Instead, they prefer Romeo's head on a platter and their obedient daughter hiding in her nurse's skirts, but Hussey's (Black Christmas) Juliet finds her backbone and chooses Romeo at dire costs – leaving her parents to learn their lesson the hard way. Of course, Leonard Whiting's (Frankenstein: The True Story) Romeo begins the play a truly romantic figure in love with being in love. Initially, he is infatuated with Rosaline – a girl he cannot have – and replaces her with the more taboo choice in Juliet. He's a bit flaky, and the popular Romeo gets by on his good looks and bad poetry. Fortunately, Romeo's true love revelation matures him overnight. He grows bold at the dance and pleads his balcony case, now understanding the prize beyond the humor and idea of romance. Our teen lovers are prepubescents becoming adults – childhood as we know it is a relatively recent social concept unknown to them – and Romeo and Juliet discover themselves in each other. It's a powerful awakening, but Romeo remains blinded by their love, thinking the fighting will cease and that he can maintain his loyalty to his friends as Juliet's husband. Rather than the newlyweds leaving Verona when they have the chance, Romeo tries to befriend Tybalt as a relative. Sadly, like Juliet's parents, The Montagues are useless, only bothering to show up when it is time to point fingers, and this young love isn't enough to trump the hate, anger, and vengeance enveloping Romeo and Juliet.

Call me crazy but I have always preferred Michael York (Logan's Run) as Tybalt in this Romeo and Juliet. Whether the Capulet cousin is despicable or not, he sticks to his jerkery and never claims to be anything other than spoiled. From Tybalt's point of view, Romeo and Juliet is a tinderbox ready to make or break either family. We should recognize his to the side ticking time bomb for what it is, and York makes his presence known in each of his scenes. Tybalt refuses Romeo's offer of friendship, escalating the street revenge and relishing the swordplay right to the end. By contrast, John McEnery's (The Land that Time Forgot) Mercutio is a jealous BFF who loses Romeo to Juliet. He must know where Romeo is at all times and insists Romeo partake in his attention seeking games. He's an annoying loudmouth, and as the Bard says, Mercutio may protest too much with his macho fronting. While its easy to claim homosexual innuendo, the relationship between Romeo and Mercutio goes deeper – Mercutio represents the time to put away childish things and the pulling girls' pigtails that Romeo must leave behind. This acclaimed ensemble takes turns as the devils or angels on the shoulders, and in some ways, the Nurse character in Romeo and Juliet can be as important as the leads. I saw a live play once where the Nurse wailed so far beyond comic relief that it became off putting farce! Thankfully, Pat Heywood's (Girly) Nurse is a fine companion to Juliet who alleviates the rigid parental demure with a touch of bawdy. She's happy to share secrets on love's behalf and be the couple's go between, and The Nurse is eager to make the rendezvousing couple marriage official alongside Milo O'Shea (Barbarella) as Friar Lawrence. These characters become the male and female allies for each half of the couple, supporting them where their parents do not with healthy hearth and church sanctity that inadvertently undoes just as much as it helps. The Friar dislikes Romeo dropping the safer choice in Rosaline, but he also hopes a proper union will mend the family fences – anchoring Romeo and Juliet with a godly undercurrent. Juliet wears a prominent cross (want it!), the lovers cross themselves or pray for each other, and secret meetings are held in the church or disguised as going to confession. Who are these Montagues and Capulets that would put asunder a love and faith that God has blessed with sanctuary and hope? Even after unfortunate crimes are committed, we still believe these kids didn't do anything wrong – save trying to overcome earthly grudges at a terrible price. Although he is only heard at the beginning and in the fatal finale, Laurence Olivier's behind the scenes assistance on Romeo and Juliet also offers a Shakespearean seal of approval for the ill-fated lovers here.

If ever there was proof that more movies should be filmed on authentic locations it is this Romeo and Juliet. The Italian scenery is totally superb – cobblestone courtyards, colorful marketplaces, and medieval churches immediately establish the Verona time and place. Tolling bells, velvet doublets, giant hats, and sword fights feel bona fide out of the past, and the ornate ribbons and beaded attention to detail sparkles on the divine women's robes. My mother's wedding gown was this so-called Juliet style, and I want this empire silhouette to come back. Though applauded for its age appropriate casting, the striped tights and in your face codpieces certainly add fuel to the bemusing juvenile fire. I liked Romeo and Juliet a lot, until I got to school and had to sit at my desk while we read the play aloud with horny little boys laughing at the “draw thy sword” puns. This began my early love/hate relationship with Shakespeare – I enjoyed the plays and numerous adaptations but hated how we were taught to treat dramas as mere textbooks. Fortunately, I never tired of Romeo and Juliet's soundtrack. The LP with its risque nude cover and matching booklet full of pictures from the film was one of my favorite records as a kid, and the score remains Greensleeves melancholy to match the visual cat and mouse and “What is a Youth” lyrics. Though innocent enough now, it all seemed so scandalous then. Who really opens the bed curtains hanging out in full view and stands naked in front of the window? The brief nudity can be skipped for the classroom, however, it's important for this couple to have a moment of unashamed bliss – the ironic orgasm and little death of the marital bed to be followed so soon by dying over a kiss and dagger sheaths. Romeo and Juliet trades hopeful dances for dark altars, veils, night weddings and day funerals that become one and the same.

Though this award winning version pairs down much, it can still be overlong at two hours plus with subtitles from the bare bones DVD necessary. There doesn't seem to be a tricked out Region 1 blu-ray edition either, yet this Romeo and Juliet remains a great place for Neo-Elizabethan or fanciful youths to meet Shakespeare. Were these titular kids just being stupid? Give it another few days and they would have gotten over themselves! Were meddling family, miscommunicating assistance, happenstance, or love really to blame? Despite its youth centric melancholy, Romeo and Juliet remains open for discussion with a bittersweet fate and timeless edge made better by the superb sixties meets medieval loss of innocence here.