19 February 2015

Recent Horror Positives!

Recent Horror Positives
by Kristin Battestella

Though not shining examples of perfection and not always truly scary, this quartet of paranormal thrills and chills adds a few recent feathers to the horror genre's cap.

The Deaths of Ian StoneSay hey, British people do play ice hockey you know – but the brief hockey filming here is totally fake, made to look cool and in your face when hockey needs no extra flash editing. Fin rant. Is it coincidence or bad luck when the clocks don't work, the game is lost, and nothing goes your way? The eponymous Groundhog's Day circumstances establish the sense of foul afoot quickly with dangerous railroad tracks and rainy mishaps. Though the cast looks a little too young to have serious financial corporate jobs, the weird, seemingly similar but differing realities hook the audience without resorting to a juvenile tone. Realizations, clues, and memories come to light as things just don't add up, and it's neat to hear repeated dialogue in different contexts with each death reset. Strange voices, shady demons, and eerie faces increase – who is killing Ian and forcing him to relive a variety of deaths and why? There is a certain Final Destination-esque design but the simmering ominous proves different as each vignette escalates to its inevitable end. The lengths vary on each life as well, some situations last longer than others while the circumstances get worse. Of course, mobile service conveniently cuts out (but hey, there were phone booths not so long ago!) and the black shadowy effects look too Harry Potter Dementors at times, but the demons are tolerable because the focus isn't on them or any unnecessary sweeping reveals and torture gruesome. Darkness and lighting schemes, scary hospital equipment, snarling, and sharp, knife like appendages do more in creating peril. While some of the exposition and explanations lose steam in the end, turning convoluted between love and light or life and death, the lure and conflict remains interesting. On which side does Ian belong? The sinister frame creates enough entertainment for this personal man versus his nature spooky.

HoneymoonThe wedding video to start this 2014 newlywed tale featuring Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones) and Harry Treadaway (Penny Dreadful) feels cheesy and contrived – today's unnecessary, pedestrian exposition even if it is the shrewd, cheap way to avoid filming a big wedding scene. The pretty lakeside and isolated cabin with no cell phone reception, however, makes things difficult for the seemingly insufferable couple. It turns out the hot and heavy young lovers don't know the big things they should know about each other before the nuptials, such as their thoughts on children, not to mention cooking abilities, surprising outdoor skills, sleepwalking, and you know, if one of them has ever killed anything. Fortunately, the conversations are honest with genuine dialogue creating parallels on how marriage, the prospect of family, or two becoming one can be difficult adjustments for some to make. It is tough to discern where this takes place – French quips and hockey references hint of a Canadian bizarre – but the intimate setting and small ensemble work well with no need for major effects or crazy film making to build the suspicious atmosphere. There's a touch of equal opportunity nudity, too, but that lack of history, jealousy, and alpha male comparisons crack the idyllic as the strange lights, electrical buzzing, mysterious skin marks, and missing persons increase. This does take a half hour to get interesting, people stupidly go off into the dark woods unprepared, the twist is somewhat obvious, and a convenient security camera serves as a research montage moment, but thankfully, the characters remain interesting as the sex and marital discord turns into paranoia. It's not perfect but the mood and performances do a lot with minimal set pieces, and the time here is enjoyable and worth seeing through as the crazy and bloody escalates. 


Horns – Sunshiny, sometimes saucy flashbacks and seemingly good childhood fun quickly turns into a bleak pad, dorky Gremlin car, angry protests, and heaps of judgment for Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe in this two hour paranormal mystery. His Seattle DJ Ig – complete with some kind of strange accent – is accused of murdering his girlfriend, and mysterious fires, missing evidence, legal technicalities, and local lynch mob mentalities contribute to the persecution. Although the flashbacks smartly come during surgical sleep, hallucinations, or mystical and drugged stupors, the intermittent narration may not help much and the subtitles don't match the dialogue. Religious questions, turning away from God debates, and the inability of faith to save one from murder aren't explored in full depth and more Biblical references feel reduced by perhaps unnecessary comedic scenes regarding the titular growths. Some of the mythos and explanations are sloppy, questionable plot points could have been tighter, and perhaps there isn't a lot of rewatchability once the case is solved. The uneven mix of spiritual and comedy should have been decided one way or the other as well, smoothing the bumpy spots and creating a deeper and more nuanced drama. Fortunately, the devilish pain and angelic retribution over love and suffering are felt nonetheless as the nonchalant horn reactions reveal surprising truths regarding affairs, sexual proclivities, drug use, and your garden variety evil tendencies. The bizarre and supernatural investigation doesn't shy away from humorous, frank, and twisted parental truths, and the horns themselves and more snake and pitchfork devilish attributions grow as the the mystery unfolds. Ig's use of his truth revealing power doesn't always work to his advantage in this freaky form of justice, but one and all face their demons in this entertaining little piece. 


Starry Eyes Creepy menus, thumping music, and heavy breathing start this 2014 partially Kickstarter funded but no less impressive horror look at life imitating art Hollywood cult and cutthroat. From one overambitious waitress pulling her hair out after bad readings and frenemy actress competition to wannabe director pervs at parties and everyone with a script looking to get a girl on the casting couch, the disrobings for the camera and bright spotlights remain uncomfortable and untrustworthy before the nasty and scares. Suggestive evening meetings with an icky old man producer and encouragement in forgoing inhibitions to get ahead in the rat race of fame reflect on real life ambitions and creepy sex for roles as the ugly, primal desperation increases, bizarre extremes escalate, and sinister gruesome mounts. The naive, awe moments and slow motion pretty do get too far from the horror possibilities at times, and the acting commentary and movie making dreams sometimes feel pretentious or heavy handed. Some dialogue becomes too much interfering voice from co-writers and directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer (Identical Dead Sisters) where the brainwashing and ritualistic taking the place of actual sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll destruction already does plenty. The secondary male cast also seems weak and the girls feel too much of the unlikeable same, but fortunately, Alexandra Essoe (Tales of Halloween) is a fine, relatable anchor carrying the piece, be it hopeful or horrific. Very brief nudity, lingerie suggestions, and just enough gore keep from being excessive – no extreme music or in your face editing distracts from the slow, dirty, tough, and bloody death scenes. I'm rarely squeamish, but some of decomposing body horrors got me! Though the intercutting can be confusing, voiceovers are unnecessary, and there may be a few plot holes, this was surprisingly better then some wider releases and supposedly bigger horror outings.

15 February 2015

Thriller: Season 1

Boris Karloff’s Thriller Debuts with Spooky Quality
by Kristin Battestella

Oft bespectacled and mustachioed horror guru Boris Karloff came to the small screen in 1960 as host of Thriller, and though uneven to start, the black and white anthology series’ 37-episode Season One debut packs a wallop of suspense, drama, and scares.

Businessman with a stalker Leslie Nielson (The Naked Gun) is the first of many guest stars on Thriller in “The Twisted Image.” The implied vices, family secrets, violent subtext, and domineering dames may not be anything we haven't seen before, yet we know the suspicion, schemes, and opportunist desperation can’t end well. Then scandalous topics and saucy literary sources give Thriller a mature tone, and blackmail, wills, and murder keep the sly, vindictive players entertaining to watch. Without the effects of today, Thriller relies on the players and the plot to craft well paced episodes and escalating acts – “The Mark of the Hand” uses flashback recountings, distorted investigations, and non-speaking child witnesses for its suburban scandals and askew twists. Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon) may be a bit obvious in “Rose’s Last Summer,” but its fun to see how the fading stars, would be comebacks, and alcoholism will play out. Disc Two, however, provides the first whiff of the supernatural on Thriller with “The Purple Room.” Rip Torn (Men in Black) and Richard Anderson (The Six Million Dollar Man) spend the night in the house from Psycho and great atmosphere, isolation, hauntings, and hysteria follow in this deadly, scary tale. “The Prediction” continues the bizarre with Karloff himself doing double duty as host and performing as an aging psychic for play within a play theatrics, deadly intuitions, and crazy Cassandra circumstances. Even though it probably would have meant even less episodes for Thriller, I wish Karloff could have played a macabre part in every show.

Blink and you will miss a very young Mary Tyler Moore alongside Robert Lansing (Star Trek’s Gary Seven) for “The Fatal Impulse,” an intriguing look at mid century bomb plots, politicians, and murder threats complete with a ticking clock and unknown peril. Of course, “The Cheaters” may be Thriller’s most famous episode. From the period piece science and accursed spectacles to an antique mood and desperation, the vignettes here offer a disturbing perspective with props to match. What if one could see another’s true, cruel thoughts – or maybe even our own? It would certainly come in handy over poker! This hour makes for a wild precursor to the spooky antiques of Friday the 13th: The Series. The stars continue on Disc Four with more cobwebs, stormy cliff side locales, and creepy mirrors in “The Hungry Glass.” Kirk himself William Shatner and Gilligan’s Island Professor Russell Johnson add to the atmospheric reflections and what you may or may not see, and the proverbial smoke, mirrors, shadows, and lighting tricks set off this simmering spooky and period panache. Likewise, “The Posioner” is delightfully gothic and operatic thanks to a Jerry Goldsmith score, past waistcoats, paintings, pesky family fortunes, and that suspicious titular tea. The beach bum con artists and rich dames of “Choose a Victim” may be too gullible to be believable; however, kinky swindles and double crossings see it through to the end. Dated witchcraft perceptions may also hinder “Hay-Fork and Bill-Hook,” but eerie chases, Stonehenge accents, and pitchfork imagery keeps this one perfect for Halloween – and look its Batman’s butler Alan Napier! Goldsmith’s music again matches the sacrifice discussion and superstitious ways ala The Wicker Man, and these great supernatural outings just seem to be the better episodes on Thriller.

The Merriweather File” opens Disc Five with dangerous gas, a deceased child, and dead bodies in the trunk as touchy feely, supposedly friendly lawyers bring subtext and tawdry secrets to light. “The Fingers of Fear” implies more than just child murder to match the quite creepy abductions, sociopathy, and pursuit twists. It’s neat to see how town apprehension, suspicion, evidence, public opinion, and what’s in the newspaper influence the case – especially compared to today. The late Richard Keele (The Spy Who Loved Me) looms over the “Well of Doom” along with a booming score, roadside terror, and castle evils. Is this a scheme or the supernatural? The picture is too dark at times during the titular dungeon escapes, but the desperation and atmosphere work. Likewise, fun science equipment goes awry for Robert Vaughn (The Magnificent Seven) in “The Ordeal of Dr. Cordell.” Pleasing paranoia, spinning effects, unknown trauma, and dangerous triggers accent the escalating laboratory obsessions and frayed tensions. Oft-Thriller director Ida Lupino (The Hitch-Hiker) helms the anthology within an anthology episode “Trio for Terror” with 1905 English scenery and heaps of chilling mood. In what might have been a neat design for the series, claret sipping Karloff hosts these segments from inside a pub full of shady characters – telling tales of spooky train car companions, creepy wax artifacts, high stakes suspense, tricked out castles, and serial stranglers. Though disjointed, there’s a little bit of everything to fit one’s scary need, and the smaller literary based stories do well over the hour.

Ironic carnival scoring and a killer sideshow atmosphere lead Disc Six in “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.” While mid century suits debate the psychology of the killings and analyze ongoing 70-year patterns, scandalous burlesque dames, beatnik artists, bloody pacts, and a morbid shocker or two create a fun take on the Whitechapel theme. “The Devil’s Ticket” continues the sinister with shady pawn shop dealings and a high price on tokens usually not for barter – such as your soul or your painting talent perhaps. Great dialogue talks about the fantastic, “What the devil do you mean?” “Now, now, let’s not mention any names,” whilst also debating the internal struggle of objective and subjective truths, the games we play, and the prices we pay. These topics aren’t as cut and dry as we hope – especially when a love triangle adds to the devilish deadline. Likewise, surprising innuendo matches the captivity and titular derelict of “Parasite Mansion” along with some pre-Texas Chainsaw Massacre backwoods family shenanigans and one creepy cackling old lady. The moody score fits the tense attempts to flee amid cobwebs and maze like interiors while more twists await within the walls and beyond. Ironically, the crime and scandal with a little something sinister in this hour is a well done combination of the mixed suspense and supernatural vision looking for its footing on Thriller.

Child innocence and warm velvety interiors lead to squabbling relatives and a disembodied, ghostly voice to start the lovely “Mr. George.” Inheritance plots and turnabout on those deadly intentions build suspense thanks to swinging camera work and cleverly edited accidents. “The Terror in Teakwood” continues on Thriller's supernatural superior with Hazel Court (The Premature Burial), romantic rivals, Pandora's Box scares, musical desperation, and piano melodies. Similar to the later The Mephisto Waltz, demented pianist talents and deadly compositions get, well, out of hand, as it were. An opening Paris 1910 charm conceals more menacing tricks and hypnosis alongside Marion Ross (Happy Days) in “Prisoner in the Mirror.” Karloff pops in to update the time line changes, and forgotten burials, beautiful not so dead corpses, and internal plays on mirrors, reflections, and doppelgangers create some fine illusions here. Dark shadows and lighting schemes accent the atmosphere, twists, and through the looking glass spins beautifully. Ominous music immediately sets the tone of “Dark Legacy” as fates are decided with occult motifs and the blurred line between magic and sorcery is explored. The rites, rituals, and fake symbols are a little hokey, but smoke and thunder special effects do wonders in upping the misused incantation temptations. Romance becomes insignificance when black magic leads to stage success – or demonic corruption! Concluding Thriller's First Season on Disc Eight are “Pigeons from Hell” and “The Grim Reaper.” Great swamp fog, overgrown ruins, and avian danger amid the ghostly sounds and off camera screams in “Pigeons” make an excellent Southern Gothic mood for the deadly turnabouts, mistaken investigation, and paranormal afoot – and it's all done with one scary set and three players. “Reaper” brings Shatner to Thriller again, this time with Hearst driving Mrs. Howell Natalie Schafer of Gilligan's Island. Ghoulish paintings, kooky authors, trophy husbands, and cursed artwork do superbly for this blend of superstition and suspense. Great shadows, up close editing, and what you don't see scares hit home, and this final stretch of scary and supernatural sends Thriller's debut session out on a high note.

However, despite its title and horror pedigree, the first half of Thriller seems somewhat weak or unsure what direction the series shall take. Scary fans could even skip Disc One on the set altogether, for one expecting all weird or speculative horror will be disappointed in the straight drama and gun play of “Child's Play” or the stereotypical mobsters from “The Guilty Men.” “The Big Blackout,” “Knock Three-One-Two,” and “Man in the Middle” are also redundant in their similar blackmails and crimes against women. Though workable as an hour of dramatic crime and entertainment, Richard Chamberlain’s (The Thorn Birds) small town scandal in “The Watcher” and Cloris Leachman’s (Phyllis) “Girl with a Secret” heist are nothing new and the Moroccan flavors of “Man in the Cage” don’t sparkle as they should. The simmering score in “Late Date” can’t overcome the run of the mill, get rid of the body, beach side violence, and stereotypical Puerto Rico designs, voodoo scares, and non-believing authorities can’t help John Ireland’s (Red River) looking over his shoulder desperation in “Papa Benjamin.” The creative premeditation, literary inspiration, clever weaponry, and fun performances of “A Good Imagination” would have been a neat as the lone bookish murderer among a season of horrors, but since Thriller starts off the other way around, it's just another more of the same amid too many cheats, blackmails, and revenge.

Fortunately, Thriller provides layers of historical and then-contemporary nostalgia. I’ll take a bottle of your best champagne for fifteen bucks! Sweet cars, swanky music, mid century fashions, and period accents create mood or accessories as needed – although one could lose an eye with these bullet bras! There are unfortunate, of the time subservient minorities but thankfully, past prejudices are few across Thriller’s eight discs for Season One. The DVD designs for the Complete Series set are also a lot of spooky fun with spider webs and skull cursors. While there are no subtitles and the sound is often uneven between soft voices and loud effects, numerous episodes across the discs have commentaries, promos, or isolated scores by Jerry Goldsmith along with trailers, photo galleries, and production stills. This video collection is a bit elusive, but Thriller can be found on retro over the air stations like Me-TV and with other streaming options.

Unlike The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or even One Step Beyond, Thriller’s first season is not totally paranormal or speculative in nature and can’t really be compared to such anthologies. The show’s division between straight mystery and macabre may split viewers, but overall, Karloff’s outing is more akin to the suspense of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour thanks to these mostly dramatic fifty minute tales. Big Boris himself is of course always suave as host with a fun style and props to his introductions – even if his greetings often read as double talk shoehorning in a titular pun. It’s not the sardonic of Serling or the humor of Hitchcock, but Karloff’s own charming stature is reason enough for some horror fans to tune in for Thriller, so long as you avoid the purely dramatic episodes. Regardless of scary expectations and a rocky start, there are still numerous hours of entertainment, guest stars, and ghastly for mid century television lovers or creepy enthusiasts to enjoy this First Year of Thriller.

09 February 2015

Slashers and Screamers!

Slashers and Screams Galore!
By Kristin Battestella

From old school cult thrillers and screaming college coeds to some slicing and dicing thespians and killer hobbits, this quirky quartet provides plenty of gore and girls for fans of the slasher genre. 


The Flesh and Blood Show – An old time, put on your glasses 3D warning opens this 1972 British saucy before naked chicks– err “flat mates” get out of bed, answering the door in the middle of the night whilst still unclothed. Fun film within film plays on the title follow along with a cool abandoned theatre, waterfront pier dangers, creepy props, and off camera screams. Yes, many scare gags obviously hinge on these people not knowing they are in a horror movie – sardonic and hip to the times as they may be. The cave girl outfits and black leotards may seem exploitative, too, but hey, the ladies help each other out of their costumes while the lads watch! Who needs subtitles, right? Great congested camerawork ups the scares as the slowly realizing and pairing off players argue with disbelieving authorities and fishy locals. The lines between stage and screen blur further, and despite an assault scene that may be tough to watch for some, most of the violence escalates without much blood or gore. Red herrings, twists, suspects, a whiff of Shakespeare, and a mysterious stage producer send home the low budget but pleasurable shadows and deaths with a smooth black and white finish. After all, as they so bluntly put it here, “If it wasn’t so bloody tragic and horrible it could almost make a movie script…”

Maniac Caroline Munro (The Spy Who Loved Me) joins writer and star Joe Spinell (The Godfather) for beachy kills, prostitution, hot pants, and plenty of dirty nostalgia in this 1980 low budget slasher. The New York shady setting, hints of Christmas, disturbing dolls, misused mannequins, and sexualized violence add to the sweaty, gross mood – not to mention the vomit, scalping, blood, and brains. Big old newspapers and dark room development make for more period piece fun, but the late seventies fashions and edgy eighties photo shoot contribute to the drive by cheap production values. Though the very brief nudity and little harsh language belie the explotation tone or may feel tame today, the conflicted perversions, talking to oneself over the killings, and a childlike stunted warp accent the gruesome shot gun blasts and not for the squeamish murders. The editing and pace, however, do feel uneven – going back and forth between stylized murder scenes and quiet, demented psychosis. Thankfully, this focus on the killer's perspective and the icky source of his depravity is unique for this genre built on the hero being the victor. The variety of deaths is also quality, with a mix of premeditated preparation, somewhat random victims, and a choice of weaponry. Hiding in a subway bathroom to avoid being killed? No, that's not the best course of action! The thin script doesn't do much with its vapid victims and the finale is a tad confusing, but fortunately, the inner killer point of view makes for an interesting character study.

Maniac Lord of the Rings star Elijah Wood anchors this 2012 remake with intriguing, murderous perspectives and heavy breathing to sell the stalking, predatory mood. We only see our protagonist via the rear view mirror or other reflections, and it's almost as if he himself is filming what we see. Camera pans up and down and up close zooms on the ladies show his attraction and blurry, frenetic frames harken panic attacks or resisting the urge to kill. White knuckles on the steering wheel and a dirty windshield add to the depressed intimacy, and the unique camera design remains a personal analysis on the psychosis rather than something akin to the found footage gimmick. The underlying social commentary of this unreliable, warped viewpoint is also interesting – what's art? What's a little too weird? Does the photo lens show the truth or how we perceive life as colored with our own issues? Maybe it really is the seemingly sweet quiet ones that are the unnoticed but disturbed among us. How many seemingly strong, independent, modern women walk the streets unaware they are being stalked? Ava Maria music hints at the twisted root along with some uncomfortable flashbacks, and though it might not be meant as humorous, I had to laugh at the bug spray. It's tough to keep scalps fresh these days! Some of the otherwise fine but graphic blood, knives, and poor man's scalpings are borderline CGI obvious or excessive at times, and onscreen dating sites – though fitting for today's creepy pick ups – will be dated soon. Thankfully, refreshingly un-cookie cutter women, nudity, and a frank showing of sex and penetrating violence add to the unique film making and stay just this side of unnecessary gross.

Silent Scream – A slow motion police raid starts this 1980 slasher along with atmospheric music, askew angles, and quality blood splatterings. Late seventies college cool and an isolated old house – also seen in Spider Baby – further set the scene with deceiving nostalgia, a creepy walk up attic, dusty antiques, World War II motifs, and Victorian maze like sinister. Imagine turning the knob on that big boob tube! For sure, some of the plot is cliché – there are unaccounted for occupants, a chunky best friend, seaside perils, the spooky laundry room in the basement, and free love possibilities. Fake jump scares, bad date fears, and unseen killer stabbings, however, make for then-new genre staples. Great intercutting and editing accent the murders, yet there isn’t an excess of gore overtaking the smart slices or violence. An excellent Barbara Steele (Black Sunday) introduction, the spooky old lady perfection from Yvonne De Carlo (The Munsters), and the likeable Rebecca Balding (Soap) add to the heavy as the 90 minutes mount and family secrets come to light. The police investigation is touch and go, and today this isn’t that scary, but a commentary and over an hour of retrospective interviews discussing a unique behind the scenes situation adds some slasher conversation. Maybe this isn’t perfect by contemporary standards, but this little number does everything it is supposed to with entertaining twists and a crazy finish.

04 February 2015

Wallander: Series 2

Wallander Season 2 Continues the Quality
By Kristin Battestella

After a fine first season for Wallander, this second trio of British episodes from 2010 continues to adapt the Swedish Henning Mankell novels into gritty detective drama.

Year Two kicks off with “Faceless Killers” and the dual murder of a rural elderly couple, eerie heavy breathing, bleak isolation at the crime scene, dim lighting, and dim chances of survival. Why this couple? The age of the victim makes a senseless crime even more difficult to accept – not to mention the possibilities of prejudice or racism as motivation for the attack. The sad, symbolic white horse is a familiar trope, but it creates an extra layer of lonely, bittersweet, and free against the secrets, revelations, finances, and mistresses unraveled in this investigation. Translation troubles, press leaks, and phone threats interfere with the case and up the ante for Wallander. Whether it is a life taken by wrong means, natural causes, or erroneous retaliations, this is an intriguing look at ageism and new family dynamics – touchy, timely topics still relevant despite the five year date on these episodes. Wallander has a bit more action here as well, with some truck chases and shootouts, yet the one on one intimate and personal reflection remain as the 90 minutes mount. Does one project his own anxieties onto the investigation, jump the trigger, misinterpret the case, and influence secondary crimes? When mistakes are made as the violence escalates, who’s to blame, the cops or the criminals? Wallander provides no easy answers, but offers plenty of a self-doubt and drama.

Next, Wallander tackles spiritual elements and a sense of reflection in “The Man Who Smiled.” Opening prayers, rosaries, and crosses on the wall lead to personal loss for our titular copper after a friend asks him to investigate a seemingly simple car accident. Time moves quickly here, but consequences from the previous episode create a jaded mood – the electric is turned off, mail is piling up at home, and quiet, dark, pensive scenes let the brooding simmer. On the job trauma and the awkwardness in returning to the squad room bring change to the inter office dynamics as investigators argue amongst themselves. Things seemed to be a-okay without Wallander and his unstable inability to cope, imagine that! Wallander skips some of the unnecessary details or by the book steps –Kurt never says when he is officially back to work and there are probably technicalities about taking up arms again. The crimes may not be as severe this outing as well and big topics such as white savior African causes, corrupt foundations, and black market trade have varying heavy moments here. However, the hesitancy of wearing a side arm and the questioning of when a case isn’t personal add excellent humanity. What does the gun have to do with the mental solving of a case? Must police be totally on form and always at the ready? Is there still room for internal inspection and examination when a case doesn’t get to you or when the crime doesn’t touch your soul? Red tape and technicalities become pretty irrelevant when criminals are choosing who lives and dies and measuring the scale of right and wrong by the body count.

“The Fifth Woman” begins with a somewhat mundane murder, but Wallander excels at having such routine death, gruesome crows, abuses, and torture as the catalyst for an assessment of the living. More family heavy throws a loop as a seemingly simplistic case escalates towards more tragedy. When does the body of a person become a corpse? For some numbed by dealing with death daily, a dead body is always just a body – but what of those who grieve too much or never mourn at all? Some scenes here are so still they look almost like freeze frames portraits. The detectives tell the bereaved that they understand the difficulty of one’s loss, but they can’t quite accept their own cynical inability to cope. Rifts and familial relationships help Wallander in discovering oneself, but often the realizations come too late. The show’s taut design belies the falling apart nature of its eponymous detective and the seemingly random series of events – serial killers and international shenanigans galore yet Wallander is taking justice into his own hands. It’s okay to kill those who deserve to die, right? Honestly, I was shouting at the television during this finale!

Now that he’s diabetic and has had a vacation between Series 1 and 2, Wallander is a little more sensitive with witnesses – but not by much! Kurt had a pleasant family trip last hurrah, but dealing with his father’s illness is anything but healing for him. He’s still wearing his wedding ring yet allows the racial aspects of a case to influence his personal views about his daughter’s new relationship. However, when Wallander says he’s interested in the truth, not what’s the proper or politically correct thing to do, we believe him. Of course, that doesn’t mean he can handle his family, do what is medically necessary, or accept help during an investigation much less give up on a case if he is personally targeted or in over his head.  At times, the viewer has to wonder how Wallander is still a detective! Aged friends and acquaintances in worse circumstances remember him in younger and happier times, and everyone except him knows he can’t sustain this burning it at both ends lifestyle. Kurt doesn’t notice how death shadows him unless he’s on a case – to him a piece is missing if there is no crusade. Whether he has a badge or not, Wallander admits mistakes are made, but may absolution yet be found? Kenneth Branagh again exemplifies this frazzled state of mind with stuttering and a drunken, ill look. The physical tolls of the job are made visual as the tears and breakdowns mount. But hey, Kurt finally takes a shower this season!  

Well, well, Tom Hiddleston’s sophomore inspector Magnus Martinsson hasn’t grown up much since we last saw Wallander either. He jumps to an easy conclusion and blunders the case yet again in what feels like a character reset after some positive strides to end Season 1. Magnus is wearing more button down shirts and sport coats – he looks like a detective instead of tech support and gets himself together away from Kurt. However, if he hasn’t advanced in the squad room by now, he’ll probably always be the ho hum cop answering phones, doing paperwork, and playing secretary. Fortunately, Magnus again provides much needed moments of humor, rolling his eyes at Wallander’s personal crap and sentimental interference. He may complain at some of his menial investigative chores or grow frustrated when others succeed over him, but Magnus doesn’t let a case get to him, which is something Kurt should learn. Wallander does admit that he trusts Magnus, which ultimately says a lot – whether or not they make mistakes, the two are a lot alike and work well together. Hiddleston looks great thanks to the leftover bulk up from his Thor auditions with Branagh, but I swear, not only must he have kept some of Magnus’ clothes, but I also think he might still wear them. And my goodness that hair enters the room before he does! Richard McCabe (The Duchess) as Sven Nyberg likewise knows how to bounce with Wallander, providing important analysis or ballistics information. Though Nyberg is solid crime scene support for Wallander when we do see him, he unfortunately seems to be off screen and referred to more than he’s seen and sometimes feels like a composite wunderkind catch all – he handles medical examinations and forensics, too!

Sarah Smart as Anne-Britt Hoglund is also on form, unafraid to go searching for the information needed on Wallander. She’s strong in the office but sensitive to life beyond the case, and has even had the rest of the Ystad crew over for dinner. Anne-Britt continues to prove a balance between work and life is possible – she gets home on time and puts her kids to bed. Sadie Shimmin toes the line, too, reining in Wallander as boss Lisa Holgersson. She wants more people on the case and chews Kurt out for his behavior but often gives his tenacity the benefit of the doubt. These ladies look and act realistically – they are dressed in appropriate work attire and don’t wear badass tight leather or sassy badges on their hips. Again, Wallander is obviously not about the secondary cast, but it might have been nice to go home with the rest of the squad in comparison to Kurt’s topsy-turvy. His daughter Jeany Spark is grown up with a new man in her life. It’s not easy for Wallander to accept and his opinion is not the one she wants to hear. Guest star Vincent Regan (300, Troy) also creates an antagonistic yet bittersweet ex-cop equivalent for Wallander, but dad David Warner again delivers a wonderfully tender performance. He’s pitifully ill, clinging to his art and dignity while losing his sanity. It’s upsetting for a son to see the source so broken, but the realistic, difficult pleas and loss of faculties don’t stop him from seeing life more clearly than Kurt can.

The bleak palette, bitter landscapes, windy desolate, and an ominous nighttime carnival give Wallander some edge to match the crimes and pathos, and a crisp mood accented with animals and the outdoors creates a natural feeling amid these fine cinematic values. Older cars, dated phones, non-digital finger printing, and a general lack of technology or technology not being critical to the case is also very pleasing to see and leaves the resolution up to one man’s deduction instead of gadgetry. Granted, there are some unrealistic investigational aspects in Wallander – paperwork, legal process, and consequences for police shootings go unresolved unless it is convenient to the plot at hand. Some audiences may also be bothered by the anglicized update of the Scandinavian trimmings, but I like when we can still see the Swedish writing and sources onscreen. Besides, we’ve been doing The Three Musketeers in RP since the thirties, so British retention in the spirit of the original is nothing new. I’ve quibbled previously about Wallander not being a more traditionally shaped regular serial, but the telemovie format allows room and depth no longer found on American channels such as A&E, where reality programming has pushed aside award winning cinematic tellings like Hornblower. I also don’t understand why the British programming I want to see is also never found on BBC America, but that’s another essay!

Wallander’s cop work may seem typical, straightforward, or may be too simple for viewers expecting finite forensic analysis or twisting and turning police thrillers. However, great character analysis and performances continue to shine in this second series. In fact, the psychological depth here may even be too highbrow for some audiences used to more action-oriented fare. Fans of the cast or intelligent drama should raise the personal stakes and dig down deep for Round Two of Wallander ASAP.

02 February 2015

Wallander: Series 1

Wallander Series 1 Surprisingly Quality
By Kristin Battestella

Shakespearean thespian Kenneth Branagh produces and stars in the 2008 British television debut of Wallander, based upon the Swedish novels of the same name from author Henning Mankell. Now, Swedish is truly Greek to me, but despite a solid literary pedigree and prior Swedish television adaptations, this trio of 90-minute episodes packs some contemporary suspense and delightfully bitter detective examinations for English speaking audiences.

The disturbing, fiery suicide to start Episode 1 “Sidetracked” quickly introduces audiences to a melancholy, downtrodden police existence, and Wallander provides a universal realism with bizarre deaths and relatable, depressed, strung out investigators piecing together the serial killer crimes. Although the Swedish setting is not immediately apparent thanks to the British forefront, names and places, blue and yellow flags, and newspaper hints do subtlety suggest Wallander’s Scandinavian roots. Pleasing investigative touches, media interference, and corrupt politicians go hand in hand with squad room dynamics, layers of mystery, and an ever-deepening scandal. Sure, there are the usual cop show tropes or common lines of questioning – “Does he have any enemies?” – however, the flawed, in over their heads detectives tie the abuses, dirty details, and cover ups together in a well done examination accented by artistic elements and fathers and sons analysis. The personal touches and focus on the people and not necessarily the case balance the twisted criminals and well edited, suspenseful killings – we almost don’t blame this killer of killers for taking out the trash thanks to all the gray complexities. Terrified witnesses, surprising clues, and the highest corruption all come together for an intense finale.

Now that we know Wallander’s bleak style, Episode 2 “Firewall” gets right to the bloody crimes, seemingly random stabbings, and young delinquents with attitudes that say something more. Contrasts between the killer mentality, disturbing violence, and innocent pink bedrooms reflect the personal amid the crimes and witnesses, and it seems divorcées and grieving families are no better or worse than our titular copper. Naturally, with a title like “Firewall” one can deduce the technological terrors amid the personal here. Online technology, power outages, security failures, and computer troubles are both a help and hindrance in life or investigation – our reliance on machines assists in the criminal activity or tosses a wrench in the case. Such contemporary technological statements may not be as thematically disturbing as the abuses and violence of the first episode, but the topics are handled better than American detective dramas where a team of heroes has everything resolved in an hour. While it sometimes seems very impractical – how do these people never have backup?! – Wallander’s handful of cops must deal with everything in their jurisdiction. They are under the gun, cases crisscross, and my goodness, bodies mysteriously leave the morgue!  More family parallels and heavy backstory unfold, but Wallander tells the intersecting oddities of life and investigation in an ironic, linear fashion, smartly allowing the catastrophic clockwork to simmer and sneak up upon the viewers.

“One Step Behind” opens with a deadly costume party, and some are handling the situation better than others are. Family may move on but some take the ultimate way out in this third episode and the squad room deals with internal heavies as the cases go on. Cops must trust each other with their lives, but do they really know one another? Wallander takes more personal time here to reflect on the job and state of not so well being with therapy sessions and an investigation of self. Less music, innate silence, and diegetic sounds add emphasis to the emotional parallels, ill health, and regretfully missed clues hidden in plain sight. What if one person thought you were his best friend and you never even noticed because the case was always more important? Seemingly random moments or supposedly separate plots interweave well on Wallander, and no fluff camerawork is needed when mistakes are made and the tale is told like it is. Where stateside shows are 40 minutes with precious little time to mount a case – much less a pause or go over the breaking point – this serious, pensive 90-minute finale does much more than a big shoot ‘em up blowout spectacle. There isn’t a reset button or a chance to do better next time when kids and cops are dying, and the crimes come home in a fitting gunpoint conclusion.

Well, Kenneth Branagh’s (Hamlet, Henry V, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing…) eponymous detective is certainly unkempt and crabby –and he’s only made more unstable by his caseload. This isn’t the robust or lighthearted we have known from Sir Ken but rather a five-o-clock shadow and defeated, ongoing weary. Kurt Wallander has a lot of pain and tears yet he remains lovable and relatable because he’s just trying to keep it together as the ghoulish deaths increase daily. He refuses to realize that it’s okay to be off duty and let your own life take priority. Wallander’s a signature away from divorce but still wears his wedding band, he doesn’t always get along with his daughter or father, and usually spends his free time silently zoning out in his chair. He pesters, nay, berates the bereaved, gets slapped a few times, admits to feeling old, and most likely resents the young spitfires about him. Why wake up when this job is your life? Though it consumes him, Kurt needs a creepy heavy case to solve – it keeps him from his own issues and seemingly preferred torment whilst covering up his mistakes and bang up interrogations. Wallander has tough, desperate choices to make. He won’t open himself up and can’t see anything positive after so much pathos. There’s no time to pussyfoot in the quest for so called justice, but Kurt’s gruff charm and endearing awkwardness with family and peers keep Wallander must see.

Balancing Wallander’s glum is a fine ensemble including Tom Hiddleston (Thor, The Avengers) as the young wannabe hot shot cop Magnus Martinsson. Although he actually spends most of his time as a complaining messenger boy or taking crap from Kurt, Magnus provides some sardonic humor amid the tedious paperwork and easy desk duties. He comes in handy at times but botches his supposed computer expertise and wastes time on useless or ultimately irrelevant tangents. Such elements would seem superfluous, but Magnus makes an interesting secondary father and son parallel for Wallander. He learns the hard way that the cases outside are very different from the safety of his desk. Perhaps the seeming importance or ready for more eagerness is part of the character, but the pre-Marvel Hiddleston also seems underutilized or limited by the role. As Magnus he is literally and figuratively ready and waiting to kick the door down, but bemusing quips and the subtly of his facial expressions accent Wallander well. I must however confess that I don’t care for the crazy curly blonde hair. He looks like a nineties kid playing at cops and robbers, but again, that fits the character, too. Tom Beard (Whitechapel) as Kalle Svedberg likewise provides detective exposition. However, he looks more like a cop and is capable of being at the crime scene reflecting the ebb and pull behind Wallander’s often extreme tactics. A dorky, stereotypical profiler, drunk, broken journalists, and cliché teen hackers also provide Wallander with the straightforward, plot advancing details on a case-by-case basis. Stateside, we perhaps expect longwinded spotlights and episodic focus on such trite cop show elements, but here the medical examiners get in and out of Dodge, no fuss.

Sarah Smart’s (At Home with the Braithwaites) Anne-Britt Hoglund is as close to a partner as Kurt has, but she also keeps it together despite being well aware how deep the investigative rabbit hole goes. Anne-Britt is sensitive and does the quiet things during a case –which may seem the little woman tender formula. However, she also laments how her work adversely affects her home and marriage, doing a lot with only a few scenes or dialogue and providing honestly and a grounding element to Wallander. Of course, Sadie Shimmin (Mr. Selfridge) as squad boss Lisa Holgersson doesn’t want to hear Kurt’s drama yet remains smooth and unflustered whilst also giving him a wide berth and reminding him that there are indeed rules to follow. Daughter Jeany Spark (Da Vinci’s Demons), unfortunately, doesn’t have it easy balancing life and single dad Wallander. In fact, all her troubles in life stem from him, but she remains a pleasing example of the positive Kurt could have at home if he just took a gosh darn moment to pay attention. Likewise, David Warner (Titanic) is simply excellent as Wallander’s aged, ill, and bittersweet artist father. In some ways, I do wish Wallander was a regular, hour long, six or eight episode series that gave more time to this lovely support and the coming and going guest players – say hey it’s Nicholas Hoult (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and shout out to Blake’s 7’s Steven Pacey! And I confess, I did fall for a few character red herrings!

Wallander has seascapes, outdoor filming, and sunshine, but the pretty scenery contrasts the bleak plot and gruesome crime scenes. It’s nice to see a relatively obscure to us Scandinavian location, too, keeping the dynamics fresh instead of the same old bad ass, New York, suave cops winning the day. The cinematic flair, boats, cars, and people on the move add to this rugged sense of chill and northern dreary. The design is non-static but not a busy, herky jerky in your face shock editing dulling the senses. The score adds a bit much to the harsh landscape – it’s heavy and intrusive at times – but this matches Wallander’s melancholy tone. The phones, err “mobiles” as they say, however, are already dated by a decade, along with big computers and now millennial retro fashion and makeup on the ladies. These cops can’t have a warrant instantly emailed to their smart phone, gasp! This is a police department with one crappy guy on a computer instead of an entire IT unit, no wonder our eponymous inspector is so darn frazzled.

I like British detective shows and watch my fair share of them, but Wallander may be for a niche audience here across the pond, filling the void for viewers seeking a well done, entertaining crime drama. Again, I have no Swedish frame of reference with the books or prior Scandinavian television productions, but this Wallander is A-okay stuff thanks to a gritty focus on character, performances, and the toll of the crime – not the action and gore. Viewers searching for an intelligent, sophisticated investigation need look no further than this Wallander debut.

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.