16 March 2018

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Recent Magnificent Seven Entertaining but Safe
by Kristin Battestella

Director Antoine Fuqua's (Olympus Has Fallen) 2016 The Magnificent Seven has all the hallmarks of the original 1960 western with a motley 1879 crew of cowboys, gunslingers, outlaws, and gamblers defending the town of Rose Creek against a ruthless industrial baron. Although the shootouts and genre action are entertaining, unfortunately this endeavor lacks inspiration thanks to an uneven narrative that plays it safe.

Dynamite mining, strangleholds on crops, and meager offerings of $20 per station lead to town meetings amid fears of this new businessman and his hired guns terrorizing churches and burning buildings. How can these pioneers defend themselves against such violence and shootouts? Although a wicked scene in itself, the all for show opening of The Magnificent Seven is extreme and over the top compared to the otherwise safe tone of the picture. Why not meet the town and its charred church when our eponymous heroes do and let the audience imagine the horrors happening for themselves? The serious western start and subsequent lighthearted adventure are mixed window dressings with little depth – even town names onscreen as they ride on to shooting contests and recruit more heroes is a superficial way to create scope. A slow ride toward the saloon with a man's reputation preceding him provides The Magnificent Seven with more western spirit. Poker, ordering whiskey, asking the barkeep for information – the gun clicks, cigarette smoke billows, and shotgun below the bar are tense! Our charming and ornery enlistees face-off against gunslingers on the roof and dodge bullets as they vow to protect Rose Creek. Of course, so many shows have already rifted on this famous heroes teaching farmers with pitchforks to fight plot, and this almost willingly plays into that generic western familiarity rather than adding anything new. The middle of The Magnificent Seven feels like one big montage as defense preparation builds – they walk, they plan, they booby trap trenches and magically train ridiculously bad townsfolk unable to throw knives or aim at any targets. Granted, viewers wouldn't accept a simple cut to the final battle with everything easy peasy, but the pace is forced and disoriented. We meet people for an hour and practice for another half hour before the titular boys get drunk and have some laughs over naming their guns women's names. If we knew their personalities equally, the bonding humor would happen on its own. Instead, cheery scenes are out of place amid brooding characters who do have history, religion, and reasons for doing what they do. The sardonic moments are better once we're under siege with our team shoulder to shoulder for one more huzzah. People are seriously wounded with well done blood and fire while tolling bells and prayers accent the lengthy but sometimes chaotic or confusing finale that squeezes three acts into one – the surprise defense, bleak enemy firepower retaliation, and the last sacrificial inspiration. The Magnificent Seven has serious and touching moments in the end, but the heroics come as we always knew they would, deflating some of the fine one on one justice and cathartic catching the bad guy entertainment.

Well, the piano player stops when Denzel Washington (Best Actor for Training Day but should have won for Malcolm X) walks into the saloon, oh yes. Sam Chisolm is an authorized warrant officer and man of the peace who would rather not use his quick draw unless provoked. He claims he isn't for hire but hears the proposition to help Rose Creek and assists without taking the gold they offer. His simmering rage suggests there must be a reason why, but Chisolm's going to see this through because he says these people deserve their lives back. The Magnificent Seven provides Washington some great dialogue for his on point delivery, even if that's because Chisolm speaks the most and tells others what to do. It's disappointing that the side eyes he receives and the racism of the era aren't addressed more, and the final scene explaining his history deserved a better thematic build. However, The Magnificent Seven really only has time to show his story and mostly does it right alongside heroic leaps through windows, a cool rearing horse, and a great cowboy silhouette. It might have been interesting to see a prequel of Chisolm alone becoming licensed to vendetta, but unfortunately, I'm not feeling Chris Pratt's (Jurassic World) gambler Josh Faraday. His old fashioned dialogue doesn't sound natural, and jokes about Koreans, American Indians, and Mexicans are unnecessary. The card tricks and fast draws don't hide the fact that Pratt's just playing the same cool guy he always does, and The Magnificent Seven wastes time on him being the funny pretty white guy when other characters have more interesting tales to tell. It's tough to take Faraday seriously even when he shoots off an enemy's ear, as Pratt's casting purely for the appeal is apparent. I shudder to think about some of the in-development casting rumors: The Magnificent Seven featuring Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, and five other guys you don't need to worry about playing cowboys! In contrast, Shakespeare quoting sharpshooter and southern gentleman Ethan Hawke (Daybreakers) sits at the campfire with Chisolm, reflecting on their history while increasingly reluctant to fire a rifle thanks to his own infamous Confederate past. They've been through these kind of hurrahs before, and this personal PTSD arc deserved more than just being a few somber moments amid lighter banter and gunfire.

Likewise, Lee Byung-hun (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (From Dusk till Dawn: The Series) each have their own specialty as Billy Rocks and Vasquez. There's a whiff of Asians in the West stigmas and Spanish dislike, too. However, the colorblind castings feel superficial – roles not for the historically accurate representation or to detail the discrimination they face but still little more than token appearances. We need more films like Posse addressing minorities in the West, but neither knife wielding Korean nor Mexican vigilante talk much and hardly receive up close shots or any camera focus. The blade action is cool, and a sword wielding nod to the Seven Samurai origins may have been on the nose, but seriously, why couldn't any of the minorities in The Magnificent Seven have been Pratt's second lead? Unsurprisingly, the appropriate casting of Martin Sensmeier (Salem) as Comanche warrior Red Harvest is also delightful to see yet under portrayed, resorting the character to always being hungry, eating raw meat, and disliking beans alongside typical mysticism fears from the rest of the team. He only speaks Comanche – or so they think – and the use of the bow and arrow amid all the rifle love deserved more showcasing. There should have been more to his rivalry with the Comanche counterpart fighting on the bad side, too – a Snake Eyes versus Storm Shadow one on one rather than a late blink and you miss it confrontation. The almost unrecognizable Vincent D'Onofrio's (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) spiritual mountain man Jack Horne is old, a bittersweet remnant of past ways. He's happy to do what's right and fight alongside men he can respect, and once again, deserved more attention. Righteousness won't do barely there Matt Bomer (Magic Mike) any good, but his wife Haley Bennett (The Girl on the Train) is almost part of the seven. Although her red hair, rosy cheeks, low cut shirts, and boob illumining lanterns aren't striving for costuming accuracy, Emma can shoot without Faraday's trying that flirtatious gun lesson cliché. Maybe it would be typical to have her be a teacher or nurse, but she deserved something stronger a husbandly connection. Of course, it's not shocking to see Peter Sarsgaard (Flightplan) as the villainous Bartholomew Bogue. He looks coked out, a snotty little asshole who hides behind Gatling guns and isn't much of a man when it comes to fighting himself. Bogue makes scary examples of children in the name of his so called industrial progress, however, his brutally over the top ruthless is absent for over an hour. Between all the permeating sarcasm, what should be personal terror strays into caricature – Bogue's almost there just because we need somebody to hate, and we don't discover his history with Chisolm until their final scene.

Blue skies, colorful prairies, and green valleys in The Magnificent Seven also look too modern, a scheme digitally over saturated rather than the dirty and dusty western rugged audiences expect. Rustic buildings, wagons, stagecoaches, and horses better set the mood amid fitting hoof beats, dynamite explosions, and gunfire. There's not much indoor action, but the dark saloon adds tension while real outdoor filming with windswept riding, rocky outcroppings, and mountain echoes build Old West atmosphere. The enemy charge is well done with steady zooms, choice slow motion, and upward horseback angles alongside unique knife battles, ax work action, riding feats, and fancy precision shooting. However, some transition scenes and silent montage moments are useless, and the pacing tries to keep up with today's in your face yet falls back on old strategies and cinematic tricks – the rope across that unseats a rider, a hidden trench with a surprise, or decoy ammunition distractions. A ridiculous amount of camera work also focuses on our men and their gun belts, panning up to the holster as one spins his six shooter or sweeping down as he bends to pick up the shot gun. Whether its to show off the bad ass gear or the tight chaps, once was enough – it's not sexy, just more like over compensation or penis envy. o_O The music for this Magnificent Seven is also woefully uneven. If this is supposed to be a heroic adventure, let's hear the theme! The unfinished score from the late James Horner (The Wrath of Khan) borrows cues, remaining contemporary and standard rather than instantly recognizable and rousing. Not until the movie ends are viewers treated to the familiar upbeats and a fun credits design that should have set the tone at the beginning. After such basic plots, hearing the music coda made me want to watch previous incarnations of The Magnificent Seven more than anything else. Therein is the trouble with all these reboots, sequels, and remakes today. Why tune in to these when you can just enjoy the original nostalgia again and again? Of course, I love the 1960 film, enjoy the follow ups, and really liked the brief 1998-2000 television series. Heck, I taped them of television on chewed up VHS, and wow, I feel really old by admitting I signed up for one of those early internet campaigns to save the show!

Westerns are ripe for a comeback because this is a genre that can encapsulate all our current gritty cynicism or let the good guys win when we need it. Rather than inserting superficial diversity with little time to explore all the characters, it's surprising this project wasn't another Magnificent Seven serial with time to address the history, racism, and personality of each hero. Were they hoping to make a movie franchise with the latest cool guys varying the seven each time? Unfortunately, this Magnificent Seven wavers between lighthearted adventure and innate lawlessness in a try hard PG-13 attempt more concerned with safely appealing to all audiences rather than balancing the cast and the heroics versus grit tone. At two hours plus, The Magnificent Seven delays a story we know and have seen many times – this picture needed more polish or substance and isn't as good as it should be. It's worth seeing through for fans of the cast, but this doesn't have a lot of repeat value. The gun violence may not be for young viewers, however, The Magnificent Seven can be a fun yarn for a movie night if you expect nothing more than temporary popcorn entertainment.

12 March 2018

Family Frights and Perils 2!

Family Frights and Perils, Second Story!
By Kristin Battestella

It's time for another round of families under siege as these recent chillers use ghosts, zombies, technology, and suspicious real estate to terrorize one and all.

Hidden – Andrea Riseborough (W.E.) and Alexander Skarsgard (True Blood) star in this 2015 parable from The Duffer Brothers (Stranger Things) beginning with dialogue in the dark before a single flame reveals a stark bunker with metal beds and a green, fall out patina. A doll, one vintage board game, a deck of cards, and a handmade periscope with distorted mirror glances of their chained closed manhole and the debris outside placate the daughter inside amid whispers of what's above and the family rules – never open the door, don't talk loud, and they must not lose control. Candles, canned food, and carving the days into the wall for math lessons reflect the functioning but frazzled underground routine. How do you raise a child in a bomb shelter? It's a miracle they have survived together this long, but they are losing weight, rats are in the food, and water is precious. After fires inside and materials lost, can they risk going to the surface? Some of the bonding time with positive Dad is somewhat saccharin, but Mom doubts this can be a home and not a prison, creating tension as they both assure their daughter comes first no matter what the cost. Fade ins mirror the darkness and suggest the passage of time while past details come as memories triggered by the current smoke and surface rumblings – outbreak flashbacks giving enough information to accent forward momentum rather than lingering long or coming as in your face dream flashes. Footsteps echoing above, an inopportune talking doll, and glowing eyes peering in hit home the fear as the family tells themselves to hold fast amid banging sounds and screaming used to chilling effect. The desperation to surface increases with tense panoramas, hectic running, and close calls once exposed with dangerous escapes, injuries, and sacrifices. Where can they run? Dark highways and siege attacks lead to a taut revelation on what's really happening as the destruction comes full circle. While not slow or boring thanks to the sense of danger and the innate understanding of what parents won't do for their child, this is a confined play with the claustrophobia felt. The well woven narrative never keeps us too far away from the shelter for too long, remaining trapped by the environment be it inside, outside, or the truth – and lies – we tell ourselves for survival. Though there probably isn't a lot of re-watch value and today it is nearly impossible to go into a picture like this cold, this is a bleak and emotional surprise.

House Hunting – A low priced, seventy acre foreclosure is too good to be true for two families in this 2013 mind bender starring Marc Singer (The Beastmaster). Rather than a scenic credits montage, the obligatory drive to the horrors is a claustrophobic car conversation between a young wife and the unheard step-daughter. Shrewd editing places the divided family each in their own frame, and our second trio also argues over a teen son on crutches and a grumpy dad rightfully asking what the catch is on this dream property with automated sales pitches in every room. Surprise accidents, hidden guns, tongues cut out, crazy people on the road, and disappearing figures in the woods pack seven different characters into the SUV, but all the country drives lead back to this house. What choice do they have but to stay inside by the ready fireplace? Flashlights, hooded shadows in the corners, just enough canned food for all – the families stick together in one room but cigarette smoking, hooting owls outside, and chills in the air add tense while a bloody ax and a straight razor foreshadow worse. The men take watches but one women wants to get to work on Monday while the other is almost happy to be there and clean the house. Can they wait for help to arrive? Instead of any transition, the screen simply moves to “One Month Later” with piled cans, smelly clothes, and nobody sleeping. Household papers reveal those responsible for the foreclosure are closer than they think, but they're trapped in this routine, strained by violent visions and hazy apparitions. Is it really ghosts or cabin fever? If one family stays, will the house let the others leave? Finger pointing, blame, and distrust mount amid suicides and new assaults. Of course, the metaphors on being trapped by one's own consequences and reliving past mistakes aren't super deep and the atmosphere falls apart in real world logic. Why does no one do what the real estate recordings say? Have they no pen or paper to recount events? Why don't they hunt for more food? This is a little weird with some trite points, unexplained red herrings, and an unclear frame – problems from a lone writer/director with no secondary eye to see the personal family connections through without changing the rules for the finale. Fortunately, the supernatural elements aren't flashy, in your face shocks, and the plain fade ins mirror the monotony, freeing the eerie to develop with meta jigsaw puzzles, doppelgangers, us versus them threats, injuries, and standoffs. Are they getting what they deserve? Will the house let them apologize and escape? The clues are there, but selfish bitterness and vengeance prevent one and all from seeing the answers. While slow for those expecting a formulaic slasher, this festival find remains unusual and thought provoking.


I.T. – Stock reports, public trading, jet setting apps, tech jargon, and mod homes spell doom for Pierce Brosnan (Goldeneye) and his modern family in this 2016 thriller. Mom Anna Friel (Timeline) wants everyone to have breakfast, their daughter in a stars and stripes bikini wants faster wi-fi, and self-made dad can't work the coffee machine, but the open, glass designs give buildings both personal and professional a Matrix style interface amid graphics or text messages onscreen and tricked out cars. We are accustomed to this technology, however, with screens on the wall and motion lights more relatable compared to expensive closets, high rise corporate meetings, big investors, and private aviation plans. Dad wants to move into the future but likes his privacy, and interesting conversations on technology, privacy, and opinion or what we must give or give away to obtain each are too brief. In the nineties when computer technology was emerging en masse, this kind of cyber thriller was common, and the green lightning, New Wave pop, and nightclub den contrasts the bright, streamline high society tech – mirroring the have and have not divide. Of course, the cliché hipster tech guy says all the right things, stalking and worming his way into this family unaware he is not included but just there to fix the internet. His crying over this misinterpreted social cue is a hammy excuse to tap into their cameras, and the parents of a seventeen year old girl are right to set boundaries on a creepy twenty-eight year old man – but how do you draw the line when one can infiltrate your home? Unfortunately, between the emo weak and solo rave fist pumping, the crazy enemy plotting is totally unnecessary. It would be much more frightening if the elite man had to sweat over his family, home, and business without knowing where this tech threat originates. Sprinklers on in the night, music blaring, and lights flashing come amid doctored paperwork, trade investigations, hefty aircraft hacks, and compromised medical records. It's impossible today to stop using computers or cell phones, and the played police disbelieve our family because the evidence is their own devices. Old school calling the cleaners, reducing physical footprints, and stealing thumb drives become an undercover race to erase, but the going off the grid response ultimately runs out of steam. This premise should be disturbingly timely, however contrived conveniences have authorities never looking at the jump drive evidence or following up at the family home – not to mention that saucy teen shower video filmed and distributed without the minor's consent is completely forgotten. The stormy, slow motion final standoff resorts to a hokey mano y mano physical confrontation rather than a shrewd tech answer, playing its hand early and falling apart instead of providing the audience with any real fear of subversive technology.

Skip the Basement!

The Open House – My husband watched this 2018 Netflix Original one morning without me and spent the rest of the day complaining about it. Who was the guy? Was he in the house the whole time? Why did the trailer play at something supernatural? What was the point of the crazy lady? What a stinky ending! Suffice to say he summed it all as thus: “I want my hour and a half back.” ¯\_()_/¯ 

09 March 2018

Science Fiction and Action Thrillers!

Science Fiction and Action Thrillers!
by Kristin Battestella

These new and old, film or long form science fiction and action spectacles with memorable stars are a hodgepodge of space ships, disasters, aliens, robots, and more. Something for everyone!

Earthquake – Despite the older phones, analog equipment, suave seventies corduroy, tacky wallpaper, and patterns everywhere; we can see the genre influence of this star packed 1974 disaster yarn written by Mario Puzo (The Godfather) on films like Independence Day. The titular rumblings begin early for engineer Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes), his cranky wife Ava Gardner (Mogambo), and an Afro sporting Victoria Principal (Dallas) as terse conversations introduce the drama. Higher up cops chew out George Kennedy (also of that other disaster flick Airport '77), and no one believes the scientist who thinks the big quake is imminent even amid fleeing animals, reservoir perils, and landslide action. Yes, the actress reading flirtatious script lines meta falls flat. The age difference between rough Chuck and ingenue Genevieve Bujold (Anne of a Thousand Days) is ridiculous – almost as bad as his father-in-law cum boss Lorne Greene (Battlestar Galactica) looking as old as his onscreen daughter Ava. However, there are enough seismic sciences, probability curves, and scale debates alongside a whiff of social commentary regarding ignored Mexican victims, so-called religious freaks, negative treatment of soldiers, homophobic slurs, and racist insults. Red tape at the top contributes to the situation with officials worried over public panic and implausible evacuations, but certain action is laughable, too – be it the trailer full of cows going off the overpass or crumbling models of famous buildings and hello faux splatter in that disturbing elevator mishap. Green screens and matte backgrounds are at times obvious, yet most of the effects actually aren't bad, with green smoke and orange fire creating eerie glows. Of course, these two hours will be slow for those expecting the disaster quickly, and the story does stall with inadvertently over the top seriousness and too many characters that should have been combined cluttering what's important before the tolling bells, trembling bridges, falling bricks, smashed cars, and buckling highways. It's interesting how these crisis scenes are also done sans dialogue – there's no news coverage, authorities are non-existent, and some of our disparate people never even meet. This starts with detail but becomes haphazard, bouncing from scene to scene with dam releases, sparking wires, and seemingly significant players disappearing in the chaos. Ironically, today such movies are one visual sensation after another desensitizing spectacle for the entire ninety minutes! Aftershocks damage supposedly safe buildings where the rescued gather, crowds remain in peril, the military is portrayed as crazy, and one anonymous kid with a transistor radio tells us this disaster is the worst ever. Sadly, we've seen far worse than this fiction, and shootout injuries, looting assaults, dangling scaffolding, and claustrophobic tunnels may be upsetting for some younger audiences. The big watery consequence should probably have happened earlier, gas and fire damage are unrealistically minor, and this is both of its time in lacking a narrative resolution yet progressive with some seventies cynicism and a few dramatic surprises. We love it when our stars rescue puppies, and only Charlton Heston can save the day – because he must rescue not one, but two babes. After all, an earthquake is the perfect time to break up, and most importantly in a crisis, that megaphone is announcing where the hot coffee is available.

Didn't Think It Was *That* Bad

Saturn 3 – Underground Titan bases, a twenty-two day eclipse, cut off communication, and evil robots spell doom for Kirk Douglas (The Man from Snowy River), Farrah Fawcett (Charlie's Angels), and Harvey Keitel (Bugsy) in this 1980 British tale with not terrible but obviously influenced by Star Wars celestial illustrations and space graphics. That futuristic faux serious marching, foreboding mission preparation, and emergency radio chatter opening, however, is all unnecessary hype. Rather than showing a murderer switching places with the real pilot over a failed psych test, just begin with the supply run landing at this sheltered assignment and leave the ulterior intentions unknown. The duo here has chosen this cool but behind schedule hydroponics lab with its artificially blue tinted water and green lit plants, and of course the talk of never having been to earth or how nice it would be to go outside and breathe real air happens in the shower! Such sheer robes, nudity, sex, and drug experimentation stir the tense dynamic between this older gent, younger woman, and new younger man amid ominous device sounds and spying on the monitors by all parties. Weird scene transitions and epic music at the wrong times under estimate the mature audience and don't need to try so hard when our newcomer is unmistakably blunt about his desire; jacking in interfaces, blasting hoses, and sliding the giant head in and out of the robot cavity make for better symbolism. He's building this demigod robot with brain tissue and advanced connections to replace half the couple – who overhear this obsolete talk and fear the end of their idyllic. Can they toss their problems out the airlock or will kindness be their undoing? Scary injuries, creepy surgeries, and dogs in peril are well-filmed tense when the cast is allowed to stew, argue over who has the more violent tendencies, or foolishly think one of them can control such intelligent machinery. Again, knowing the new guy and his toy are trigger happy takes away some of the fun when playing chess with the machine leads to something more sinister, but our sassy robot with the laughably tiny little head and giant oversize body takes charge with a creepy machine re-assembly. References to Hector, Troy, and the original fight over a woman accent the man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself conflicts while a touch of blood and gore add danger. Did we need the robot terror on top of the chilling human story? The narrative unevenly wastes time with the commonplace machine chase instead of dealing with the personal elements, meandering with random running down the hallways and under the deck grate attacks that ironically give Aliens inspiration. Editing or behind the scenes troubles are apparent and an expected twist that should have come much sooner pads the final twenty minutes with spectacle when the taut science fiction triangle is interplay enough. Although its flaws prevent this from being a totally well told SF parable, the juicy defeat of man at his own science remains late night entertainment.

Should Have Been Better

The Kettering Incident – Lovely forestry, mysterious lights, hooting owls, mountain fog, and past abductions open this 2016 eight episode Australian series starring Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager) before London blackouts, nosebleeds, and creepy phone messages. Journal entries record the hours missing, but security footage captures actions unknown amid strobe sounds, distorted camerawork, and unaware travels to eerie Tasmania. Aurora Australis, frozen birds, and UFO snowglobes in the general store add to the awkward homecoming, bizarre happenings, threatening letters, and small town who is who as local pubs versus bonfire raves reflect generational clashes and radical environmentalists protest the logging industry. Older homes, dusty case files, big computers, and the often down internet create a backwater mood as newspaper clippings, retro tunes, and decades old unsolved crimes lead to more abductions, hidden drugs, crooked cops, and under the table deals. Thunderstorms, reflections, ruins on the ridge, hazy dreams, and surreal colors askew nature while affairs, police egos, power outages, strange science, and cancer diagnoses divide the community. Cover ups, stonewalled investigations, phantom blood samples, and tense family relations interfere as mysterious rashes spread and moss grows indoors. Dogs turn on their owners, rare plants bloom, and high radiation counts contaminate fish, but ghostly static on the radio, chainsaw mishaps, night vision goggles, and geophysicist readings uncover catatonics and whispers of who knows what. Desperate men – accustomed to ruling over disposable daughters and drinking mothers or bar maids useful only for hitting, cooking, or sex – take matters into their own hands despite electromagnetic fears, screams in the woods, poison bogs, altered blood types, and multiple moons. From the ill but edgy cops and doctors to missing girls and suspicious sleepy inlets, unfortunately, this has a lot of cliches often seen in commonwealth television. Lacking procedures, tainted crimes scenes, and cryptic doctors bend for plot conveniences, and our lead isn't piecing the case together but preposterously meddling as dramatic effect requires. While it's pleasing to see strung out and realistic looking people; no one asks how everything is interconnected nor shares information. If they worked together, the mystery would be solved in six episodes. Instead, Lost style montages, red herrings, and tangents pad the weird occurrences, delaying important clues and stretching disbelief as smart police and scientists are made stupid with unaccounted for people sans alibis, fingerprint clues, and stolen evidence ignored. This isn't billed as science fiction, so the straying focus and point of view changes become window dressing as Antarctic connections and Dyatlov Pass similarities are tossed in with unnecessary sex scenes. Apparently, people won't share information unless they have sex, the hermit in the woods is never questioned, and established information is literally forgotten until the final hour. Dramatic asylum cliffhangers are easily resolved, and never held suspects unravel the intriguing underground evidence, craters, stolen weapons, and bio tech company bribes. Voiceovers resolve actions and revelations that were obvious all along – telling events rather than having the lead discover anything for herself. Maybe the lack of communication is part of the moral here, but the unlikable dumbing down and bait and switch genres take on too much flab. Empty shocks meant to sustain weekly viewing are better to binge marathon, for this doesn't know who its audience is and therefore underestimates not one, but two potential viewing groups in anticipation of a second season to explain everything. Those expecting a crime thriller will find the science fiction outcome annoying, and today's sci-fi audiences will be irritated at the slow potboiler pace not putting the fantastic at the forefront.

A Disappointing Skip

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – The themes, pacing, and characters for this 2017 Episode IX from writer and director Rian Johnson (Looper) are very disjointed. John Boyega, newcomer Kelly Marie Tran, and Benico del Toro (The Wolfman) are lost in an irrelevant subplot of intergalactic casino races, contrived theft, and star destroyer stealth attacks made useless by The Resistance's slow crawl through space. Domhnall Gleeson's cranky General Hux doesn't so much pick off the fleet as they merely sacrifice themselves one by one with dumb counter attacks while purple haired Laura Dern (Jurassic Park) is wasted and Oscar Isaac does little but redundantly repeat the elder ladies' jejune wisdoms. There were several moments to fittingly send off the late Carrie Fisher, but instead, The Force goes even further beyond what we ever thought its mystical capabilities were. Daisy Ridley's Rey and the utterly lame Kylo Ren play telepathic footsie for most of the movie – I really hope they aren't related – while poor Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker is sort of there...maybe. Too many characters old and new enter or exit without deserving time. For all the female fronting, the cardboard women tropes are obviously written by a man and don't seem like characters in their own right. Each is defined by what the men around them need – sacrificing, motherly, crushes, babes blowing on dice, or alien maids. Even Leia is repeatedly stressed as Luke's sister being her most important value. Gwendoline Christie's tough Captain Phasma is easily defeated in one scene, and CGI covered Lupita Nyong'o is reduced to a hologram call. More silly animated animals, easily dismissed villains, and lengthy purely for the spectacle sequences litter the screen while a major female character's narrow escape from an exploding ship on a stolen shuttle is told by another male character rather than shown. Although rebel numbers dwindle constantly, there are somehow plenty of people to keep fighting while the overlong two and a half hours plus battles over whether the space action or Jedi plot is more important. Despite so many should be enjoyable people and dazzling designs, this is incredibly busy for being so boring. It's also disappointing, even angering, to hear there is no overall trilogy sequel plan and that each director can do his own thing – leaving these films to meander as long as it pleases Disney to manipulate Star Wars fans. In low budget horror, problems arise when one writer/director has no second checks or balances, and this makes for expensive, glaring issues here amid lifted elements of Empire and Return of the Jedi as Last tries to be a personal middle a la The Two Towers but grasps for air rather than giving us anything to hold. I'm still nicknaming VI as just Jedi and shortening this to Last – as in the last Star Wars movie I'll see at the box office for the foreseeable future. The rehashed but recognizably fun Episode VIII launched something new and Rogue One came full circle where we never knew possible. I'm still thinking of this one, but for all the wrong reasons, and I wish we just had The Thrawn trilogy as films instead.

27 February 2018

Female Frights Trio!

A Trio of Female Frights
by Kristin Battestella

This trio of lady horrors past and present provides plenty of paranormal revenge, quirky fatalities, and bizarre terrors for these women young or old. 


Dark Touch – Barking dogs, crying babies, thunderstorms, and young girls fleeing into the rain open this 2013 international co-production written and directed Marina de Van (Don't Look Back). Tongue injuries and unexplained bruises further belie the pretty Irish landscapes, and this contemporary, harsh, monochromatic house doesn't match the countryside. Yuppie doctors and reassuring adults calmly explain away why their daughter is traumatized in this home despite ringing in the ears and muffled screams inside the window. Flickering lights, footsteps, shadows, and locked doors build an ominous mood as children are told not to be afraid before they cry in bed over the subtle but no less nasty suggestions. Although nighttime blue lighting is a little too dark, clever editing makes the banging objects, moving furniture, chandelier frights, and crafty kills more terrible amid police discovery, tip toeing social workers, and acting out at the hospital. It will take time to adjust, but ongoing whispers, fear of belts, and back to school structure don't help heal this trauma. People are trying to help and see to our survivor's needs, but the awkward disconnection persists alongside secret photo albums, missing medical records, locking oneself in the bathroom, and refusing to bathe except fully clothed. Are the buzzing lights, breaking dishes, and garage mishaps something paranormal or uncontrolled telekinesis reacting to abuse? Other children are brutally honest in some refreshing exposition, and creepy sing songs lead to nearby abusers and gory retributions as a yellow patina shapes this surreal atmosphere where the fantastic allows hurt children to take matters into their own hands rather than suffer what goes on behind closed doors in this close knit, superstitious community. Adults insist it isn't this girl's fault that bad things happen, but they suspect worse as she recoils from any compassion and child's play becomes harmed dolls and fiery birthday parties. Trances and school barricades come full circle, but the well intended adults only question what they didn't know about the people closest to them when it's too late. At times, the slow pace and frequent screaming drag, and the supernatural aspects are also misleading. The artsy finale will be confusing as well, but the mix of nightmares real and horror make for interesting metaphors and conversations on the frightening truth and who really has the titular mark.

Office Killer – Carol Kane (Taxi), Molly Ringwald (The Breakfast Club), and Jeanne Tripplehorn (Basic Instinct) star in photographer turned director Cindy Sherman's 1997 dark satire of magazine deadlines, office downsizing, and meek but murderous co-workers. Phone gossip, bossy dames, cigarettes, big computers, and older fashions invoke a quirky noir feeling amid the mundane ticking clock and a greasy higher up man who's giving all the ladies his cold. The copier ink explodes on hard working Dorine with the crookedly drawn eyebrows, everyone forgets her name, and she's stuck at home making tea for her crabby old mother amid laptop upgrades and learn or get left behind memos. Late night tech support, power outages, red lighting, and orange glows make the office a little scary before creepy convulsions, thunderstorms, poison in the inhaler, and crossed wires frying associates. Morbid winks layer scenes amid well-filmed bungling crimes, messy mail room slices, and a homeless man catching one hauling out the deceased, but Dorine gains confidence in talking back to that mean corpse while the cat plays with the bodies piling up in the basement. Bloody flashbacks with sixties wagons suggest our mousy employee already had some sociopathy in her, but the trickle down office blame mixes the real world stinky of the ignored worker who sees all with horror, distorted camerawork, kaleidoscope effects, and twisted perspectives. Would she have killed if she had been treated nicely? Mom yearns for the days when a man ruled the house, and mean girls, jealousy, frienemies, and calls to the bitchy wife of the deceased from the girl he was smooching in the office create multi-faceted women's interplay. Sure let's go to lunch – so I can knock you out with a crowbar! Our little lady is pretty crafty when she wants, using primitive emails to get back at stealing accountants or cleaning decomposing bodies with Windex and making unique décor with body parts. Dorine trades tightly wound buns for better make up – letting her hair down as she receives the workplace respect she deserves. Is one hateful co-worker right to not take her sob story at face value and accuse her of playing on everyone's sympathy? It's one woman's word versus another, but the macabre, likable moments ultimately reveal how disturbed the seemingly mild-mannered Dorine truly is. The satire may be uneven, too on nose for some and not outright horror enough with bemusing violence and cut away splatter. However, the innocent, unassuming start results in flies buzzing, smelly discoveries, and a sinister character parable with shrewd commentary on women's relationships, workplace environments, childhood dynamics, social shapings of psychoses, and more.

Trilogy of Terror – Karen Black (Burnt Offerings) leads this 1975 made for television anthology from director Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows) and writer Richard Matheson (Somewhere in Time) beginning with the campus bells, bell bottoms, and coeds of “Julie.” One stud student wonders how hot this frumpy teacher would be with hazy fantasy intercuts and steamy suggestions as he spies on her undressing. Classroom talk on Faulkner rape and Fitzgerald violence lead to a spicy French vampire movie and a dollar for two large root beers at the drive in – spiked of course. It's surprising they got away with such disturbing date rape on mid-seventies television, as a check-in at the hotel as “Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Harker” leads to dark room photography and threatening notes forcing a woman to “meet” some of his friends before good old fashioned “I have the negatives” blackmail. Who is controlling whom? Newspaper scrapbooks and surprising revelations lead to the black and white reels and button up repression of Segment Two “Millicent and Therese.” Voiceover journaling recounts the family innuendo, cunning sister, fatal accidents, and satanism books on the shelf, but our prudish sibling won't let these perversions continue. All the lewd, sordid mentions are just talk done in one room confrontations – leaving enough saucy to the imagination in this near one woman show as a little voodoo puts the sibling rivalry into her own hands. Sure, it's obvious what's happening by time we see this tawdry sister in hot pants and platform shoes listening on the phone extension. However, it's taut fun, and I wish there were more star of the week, one actress in small set piece presentations today. “Amelia” adds one ugly little but cute in its own twisted way Zuni fetish tribal statue with a miniature spear, sharp teeth, and instructions on not removing its gold chain or the spirit inside will be released. .Awkward chats on the phone with mom provide comforting exposition while building drama – she wants to move on with her wild seventies kitchen, seriously floral wallpaper, shiny orange appliances, and bright teal carpet. Our tiny guy disappears under the couch, and initially, the talking to oneself is bemusing until bloody ankles, low camera angles, and tracking zooms across the floor create fear. Our young woman is home alone with scary sounds, hissing, and blood on her white robe. Yes, it is just a puppet, but the frenetic editing creates scares as this little sucker climbs up the bedskirt and sticks a stolen knife under the door. How does one explain this emergency when calling the police for help? Wrapping him in a towel or holding him under the water won't do the trick, but trapping him in a suitcase just might! Though hysterical as much as it is scary, this little battle makes for a memorable and wildly entertaining finish.

21 February 2018

My Ten Favorite TV Shows!

My Favorite TV Shows!
by Kristin Battestella

I hope you’ve all enjoyed our Anniversary Countdowns!

When drafting all I Think, Therefore I Review’s Tenth Anniversary Top Ten Lists, however, I realized that some of my favorite shows are actually programs I’ve never reviewed. To rectify the lack of favoritism, here’s a bonus countdown of My Favorite Television Shows!
Ironically, you can click through to read full length and by season reviews of these Honorable Mentions, which have been reviewed at I Think, Therefore I Review:

Now then, here they are – I think. Lists such as these are always subject to change! I mean, there are still Are You Being Served?, The Sopranos, Rome, Frasier, Dallas, V, and Seinfeld but I digress. 


My Ten Favorite Television Shows!

10. Hornblower – C.S. Forester’s novels are also some of my favorite books, eva! This 1998 – 2003 series of television movie productions from A&E were not always perfect adaptations, for the later two fold Lieutenant Hornblower with inserted characters cheating on the literary mysteries were not as close to the written source as the original Midshipman film quartet was. Seriously, fight me on the “Who pushed Captain Sawyer” debate. That said, the seafaring revolution, continental action, naval battles, dynamic storytelling, and spirited lead Ioan Gruffudd (Fantastic Four) combined for some damn fine award winning period drama that remains timeless entertainment. In today's era of franchise everything, the only real trouble with this series is that A&E went to crap and never finished bringing the entire novel canon to the screen. I protest!

9. The Twilight Zone – I used to stay up late at night and watch Rod Serling's 1959-64 classic on my giant little thirteen inch television set back in the days when we only had five channels and PBS would play the National Anthem before shutting off at 2 a.m. Maybe it is easy to say a child would be surely shocked by all the speculative twists and moral ironies from the boob tube's infancy. I thought this was such heavy stuff that didn't deserve to be on in the wee hours when no one would see it. Granted, there is a certain nostalgia that comes with the dated technological aspects and early television production – the word 'robot' was mispronounced and airplanes were afraid of stop motion dinosaurs. However, thanks to advanced storytelling and innovative television techniques, the perennial episodes herein remain provocative science fiction for a reason. My favorite has always been “The Invaders,” but recently, I've been leaning towards “The Howling Man,” and “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” is as timely as ever. 

8. Buffy The Vampire Slayer – I have actually reviewed this 1997-2003 series in lengthy detail, albeit stopping and starting on a marathon or two during the show's weaker plots and dated flaws when not raving over “The Body” and “Once More, with Feeling.” However, through all the good and bad, proms, high school, college, vampire boyfriends, dark magic, death, and kid sisters, this remains an empowering paranormal package with groundbreaking television moments today's audiences might take for granted because they live in a post-Buffy, girl power world. 


7. The Mary Tyler Moore Show – Indeed this award winning 1970-77 series is a show that never fails to put a smile on my face. If I go a week or two without catching a television airing, I get an itch for a witty, nostalgic Mary fix. While it is easy to cite “Chuckles Bites the Dust” or “The Last Show” as must see favorites – and with very good reason – I find myself often quoting charming moments per episode, like when Sue Ann forces everyone to sing Christmas carols for her premature holiday feast in “Not a Christmas Story” or when cranky boss Lou Grant takes half the veal prince orloff and has to put it back in “The Dinner Party.” When Mary's mother says “Don't forget to take your pill” in Season Three's “You've Got a Friend,” both Mr. Richards and Mary both answer, “I won't!” Hehehe. It's that kind of pushing the envelope wink that keeps on giving. Ironically, I didn't like this series as a kid. However as I've gotten older, the groundbreaking sophisticated comedy and progressive characterizations have only gotten better thanks to the well balanced sentimental, then toeing the line statements, and forever laugh out loud hysterics. 

6. The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross – I’ve been watching this cathartic PBS and art instructional essential for thirty years – but I could not paint if my life depended on it no matter how effortless, gentle, and heartwarming our gnarly, tree hugging, animal loving teacher. Today's audiences have made Bob Ross a mellow pop culture icon, perhaps for the implied, grass-esque, counter culture undertones or the humorous “beat the devil out of it” two-inch brush cleaning. Every episode has a pretty picture wrapped in charming witticisms to get you through your day – unless, of course, Bob goes through all the trouble of making a beautiful, unusually shaped print in an oval and then sticks a giant tree out of the frame! If you haven't seen The Joy of Painting, no one can really explain it to you, because it isn't about the landscapes, wet on wet technique, and the artistically controversial use of oils with acrylic gesso so much as the “happy little clouds,” Pea Pod the Pocket Squirrel, and being blessed by a friend and told to have a good day before being reminded that we need darkness in order to see the light – both on and off the canvas. 

5. Star Trek: The Next Generation – I had to seriously consider if I like this 1987-1994 follow up more than the Original Star Trek. This first sequel series in the long running franchise takes everything that made the Original's serious science fiction for adults and runs with it thanks to Sir Patrick Stewart's diplomatic Captain Picard and in depth storytelling developments regarding the Klingons, Q, and The Borg. One never has the sense that we are watching a very special episode wrapped in science fiction allegory, but every hour provides a memorable nugget – which is difficult to do in a weekly series without seasonal arcs or ongoing storylines and underdeveloped female characters. Thankfully, timeless episodes such as “The Measure of a Man,” “Sarek,” “Yesterday's Enterprise,” and “The Inner Light” raise the emotional genre stakes while early dated episodes and now technological errors don't interfere with an always at the ready marathon. Whenever this is on television, I have to stop and see what episode it is – even with commercials because, “There are four lights!” 


4. The Golden Girls – With different family members, inconsistent plot points, and a house floor plan that never makes sense, the continuity of this amazing eighties staples is bemusingly nerve-racking. Did a misprint make Angela Angelo? How could Miles be a professor all those years but really be in the Witness Protection Program? How did they exit their kitchen in the back to get to the garage in the front? Nonetheless, there are a select few people with whom I can carry on entire conversations in Golden Girls references. The comedy writing for Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia remains top notch, and each episode has a quote for any situation, be it “From the pit of my stomach to the porcelain of the bowl...” and “The moon is hanging awful low in the sky tonight, isn't it, Busty?” or the now ironic “Who do you think you are, Donald Trump? You don't own this casino!” I never get tired of watching the progressive topics of “Sick and Tired,” “Adult Education,” or “Isn't It Romantic?” and the taut humor is largely handled by the four leads by letting the chemistry and wit play without resorting to any gimmicks. Well, except for the murder mystery in “The Case of the Libertine Bell,” but “Look fluffhead, why should I deny being in denial? I never said I was in denial. You are the one who said I was in denial, and don't you deny it.” 

3. Dark Shadows – As if there was any doubt of my love for this gothic soap opera complete with bad sets, flubbed dialogue, borrowed plots, and hokey special effects! Chuckle all you want, but this fly by night sixties production remains spooky thanks to paranormal storytelling, complex time travel, an entire company of supernatural characters, and a morose atmosphere that's been oft imitated but never equaled. At over 1200 episodes, this is a massive viewing undertaking, but you can click through to some of my in depth critiques on vampire Barnabas, werewolf Quentin, governess Victoria Winters, and pesky witch Angelique. 

2. Homicide: Life on the Street – “Ho, ho, Homicide. Our day begins when yours ends.” This 1993-99 critically acclaimed but should have won more awards series loosely tied to the Law & Order franchise is unlike any other cop show before and maybe since thanks to intimate camera angles, jump editing, a decidedly Baltimore feeling, and the simple notion that solving the case is both the biggest and least important thing for these quirky, struggling people in blue. The shootouts, corruption, violence, racism, sexism, abuse, religion, and social commentaries are tackled with season arcs, multi part episodes, and state traversing crossovers as well as with one kill, shows that never leave the squad room, or hours with just three men in an interrogation booth alone. On a whim I reviewed Season Four and have notes for other years, but to every person who inquires about the often forgotten yet increasingly timely and sometimes disturbingly prophetic Homicide, I merely implore them to watch the first thirteen episodes. If “Night of the Dead Living,” “Black and Blue,” and “Three Men and Adena” don't captivate you, nothing will. And that's before “Crosetti,” “Hate Crimes,” “Sniper,” “Justice,” “For God and Country,” “Narcissus,” and “Subway,” but I'll stop. After all, “You go when you're supposed to go, and everything else is homicide.” 

1. Blake’s 7 – Avon, Servalan, Orac. The Liberator. In speaking of my favorite television shows, anybody who knows me probably would have immediately mentioned this somewhat obscure 1978-81 British science fiction serial, because once seen, this is a series you will never forget. Granted, that's partly due to the bad seventies costumes, hair curlers for weapons, upside down special effects, and not one but three characters that are really just flashing lights. I kid you not. Likewise memorable in these fifty-two hours, however, are the SF with a capital SF allegory, loyal versus amoral characterization and interplay, commentaries on drugs, technology, or totalitarian regimes, and downright Shakespearean designs on what is at it simplest just meant to be Robin Hood in space. The score and opening title sequence are also sweet! I grew up taping this series with my dad off PBS late at night, and those videos are pretty worn out now. Yeah, they had British accents, but I was more awestruck that people didn't speak with this kind of sophistication anywhere else on television. “They murdered my past and gave me tranquilized dreams!” “Avon, for what it is worth, I have always trusted you from the very beginning.” Sniff! Ironically, series star Gareth Thomas found the plots increasingly hokey, but I can't think of any other series that so effortlessly handles how inaccurate its title became as an integral part of the series thanks to stunning teleplays such as “The Way Back,” “Star One,” “Rumors of Death,” “Sarcophagus,” “Terminal,” “Orbit,” and of course, “Blake.” As cryptic as that sounds, anyone who has watched this series knows exactly what I mean. Honestly, the only thing lacking in this excellence is a proper North American release.