07 December 2017

A Literary Extravaganza!

It's a Literary Extravaganza!
By Kristin Battestella

Stateside or British, these Victorian, turn of the last century, and post war dramatizations, documentaries, and biographies have heaps of period decorum, famous names, and family friendly bookishness thanks to Agatha, Emily, Louisa, and Sherlock.

Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women – This American Masters ninety minute documentary separates the fact from fiction with first hand accounts, re-enactments, and historical scenery. To the camera recitations add realism while narrations and scholarly interviews create a balanced point/counterpoint detailing Louisa's wild girl childhood and radical upbringing – The Alcotts believed in abolition, women's rights, transcendentalism, and equal education to bloom a child's mind rather than break young spirits. Such religious and racial taboos outcast the family onto tough times and their nineteenth century hippies on a commune Utopian intellectualism leads to starvation, humiliation, small pox, slums, and poverty as the cost of their reform. Louisa wrote of her overworked mother before Concord happiness and hobnobbing with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau – experiences high and low inspiring her determination. Early short stories and attempts at the stage come amid her sister Beth's terrible death, and this depressing time and subsequent gruesome, traumatizing Civil War nursing and suicidal thoughts are reflected in her later fiction. Alcott declined marriage proposals to keep her independence, and therapeutic writings led to literary success in new magazines and paying newspapers looking for her anonymous, fast turn around, serialized thrillers. Louisa herself preferred the vicariously lurid on the page to her mercenary children's literature – women weren't supposed to write that sort of thing and most of this adult material went undiscovered until after her death with evidence of yet more lost works. Trips to Europe and potential flings in Paris become inspirations for some of her famed characters while questions of possible bipolar disorders, manic depression, or undiagnosed lupus linger thanks to her extreme periods of creativity between months of physical inability. The surprise success of Little Women allowed her to enjoy later laurels, but opium, morphine, and other alternative medicinal cures did little to curb the nonetheless prolific Alcott's declining health at thirty-eight. This in depth documentary makes the semi-autobiographical tag of Little Women seem like a small, saccharin sampling, as there is far more to the author indeed.

Mr. Holmes – Ian McKellan's (Lord of the Rings) ninety-three year old detective pursues the case that got away in this 2015 tale opening with superb locomotives, vintage automobiles, quaint cottages, and country mood. The eponymous crusty old passenger is a relic, with bleak music matching the weary toll after a long trip to Japan. There's a hunch to his back, a cane, and a grovel to his voice – feeble friends have gone to live with family but Mr. Holmes is still sharp. He notices a decrease in his bee population and evidence on the stair steps, digging into vintage photographs and cursive notes as he writes down memories he is forgetting and tries to recall one particular client. Holmes is writing the story we see in flashbacks to thirty years prior – but these snippets represent the confused mind, a blurring of fact and fiction as the film also goes back to the recent Japanese quest. Is Holmes forgetting the details or not telling what he knows as he dispels myths about his famous cap and pipe? One must identify the problem and solve it, and if he can't, then is it time to move to a care home? The past shows us a younger, distinguished detective charming his way into a room, smoothing both clients and witnesses and remaining swift even as people doubt the real man because he doesn't match the detective on the page. Despite a terrible accent, housekeeper Laura Linney (The Big C) doesn't want her son too attached to Holmes – an increasingly difficult old man with liver spots once so suave in a top hat but now idle in striped pajamas and clinging to dignity by writing forgotten names on his inner left cuff. The hard facts of a case don't explain a client's behavior or feelings, and upsetting moments help Holmes learn how his acerbic thoroughness isn't always what a person needs. This regret of old and final growth before one's inevitable completion is not an introductory piece. Viewers should be familiar with the character, and the timeline back and forth may be confusing to audiences who can't tell the post war settings apart. The unreliable narrator fictionalizing a past account with other point of views within may also be a frame too many, and some of the storylines are uneven in a busy patchwork of illicit meetings, poisons, false drawer bottoms, and hidden gloves. The art imitating life vice versa works better with Holmes reading Watson's dreadful prose and going to see stereotypical Sherlock Holmes adaptations on the silver screen – putting him face to face with his mortality as he weeps at his inability to recall the truth. Palm readings and the scandalous touching a lady's bare hand are vividly shot as the bittersweet detective looks directly at the screen to say he can't remember it. Such old Father Christmas passing the torch to the New Year babe mature is meant for adult viewers who can understand the frailty, child loss, old habits dying hard, and last piece of unfinished business. Though somewhat flawed in its constructs, the period touches and layered nuance from McKellan keep this little drama charming.

The Mystery of Agatha ChristiePoirot star David Suchet hosts this 2014 documentary hour taking a deeper look at the woman behind the best selling author via lovely on location scenery, tours of the Christie Archive, and sit down interviews with family, historians, and biographers. Private photographs, childhood poems, handwritten notes, and original typed short stories add to the inside nostalgia alongside home movie screenings, memoir readings, and quotes from Christie's writings defining the recluse versus the crime queen. Sit down chats with Suchet and experts waxing on Christie's nightmares and love of swimming are grounded with rare video interviews, audio clips, and drives to the Devon beaches in vintage cars as period newspapers and slides follow the time line from her unusual upbringing at Ashfield and financial difficulties after her father's death to coming out parties, marriage, and wartime nursing in Torquay. Dartmoor inspirations, learning to surf, and the birth of her daughter Rosalind become defining experiences amid the first Poirot publications and future mystery staples such as poison breaking the rules of the detective genre. Christie's global travel is well documented, however the dark emotional crisis stemming from the Nancy Neil affair and the death of her mother remains unexplained in Christie's autobiography, and Suchet and Co. debate her Mary Westmacott novels and the infamous ten day disappearance before Christie's rebirth in Istanbul and subsequent literary heights. The Miss Marple stories and mixing of exotic tales with English comfort helped heal the nation during World War II, followed by renewed paperback masses and more recent manuscript discoveries. One and all describe Christie with warmth, kindness, and gratitude – yet she remains an enigma. The segments here don't go chapter by chapter and book by book, but focus on the insights into the person rather than the literature. Although this may not be anything new for Agatha enthusiasts, this pleasing compliment to the author provides an intimate, personal touch in spite of its shorter, classroom perfect run time. For more fun, also see David Suchet on the Orient Express.

An Unfortunate Skip

A Quiet Passion – Colorful interiors, lovely firelight, charming costumes, and early photography set off Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) as Emily Dickinson in this 2016 biopic from writer and director Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea). Unfortunately, the trying to be ye olde dialogue is immediately wooden and pretentious. Reading Victorian text isn't the same as speaking it, and every pursed lips conversation is unintentionally humorous with one heavy handed religious browbeating after another dragging the pace. The first twenty minutes of redundant precociousness could have been cut as the so called ungrateful Emily is continually chastised into the adult transition scenes. The unnecessary sassy sounding board BFF says they are trying to be ironic, but the tone is thick with oppression, obnoxious women, and fussiness. The audience feels the bitter we read from Dickinson, however nothing happens to intrigue the viewer – no scandalous publication nor shocking lesbianism. Some pains and health issues are mentioned, but the inconsequential in her own life Emily merely watches time go by amid awkward family marriages or falling flat war drama. Subtly defiant moments are far better, such as Emily asking her father to stay up at night to write in the quiet or smashing his dirty plate because it can't be soiled if it is broken. Voiceover rejections of her too common womanly rhyme lead to feverish writing with one acceptance and an anonymous publication, yet the poetry is apparently not the point of this piece? Should be funny tea with the water only minister's wife and witty arguments about Longfellow or The Brontes are too few and far between, disservicing Nixon by never fully letting the bittersweet come across. Emily's unloved stoicism and ugly feelings because no one wants her poetry anchor the final forty minutes as the eccentricities come to the forefront, and the poetry narrations answer as others question why she thinks her life is so bad, complains about them leaving, doesn't go anywhere, and pushes people away. The dream sequence/veiled masturbation interlude is a bit much, and time transitions leave large life gaps – unless we are to believe that her brother's affair is the most important thing to ever happen to Emily Dickinson. Viewers can't come into this expecting answers, and simply put, reading about Dickinson and her work does far more.

05 December 2017

Top Ten: Religious Shows and Books!

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

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

Our Top Ten Religious Movies, Documentaries, and Books!

Please see our Christian tag or Christmas label for more spiritual reviews. 

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

01 December 2017

The Bob Newhart Show: Season 5

The Bob Newhart Show Season Five Dips but Remains Charming
By Kristin Battestella

Dr. Robert Hartley (Bob Newhart), his wife Emily (Susan Pleshette), their neighbor Howard Borden (Bill Daily), orthodontist Jerry Robinson (Peter Bonerz), and receptionist Carol Kester (Marcia Wallace) are feeling a little deja vu with some stagnant retreads for this 1976-77 Fifth Season of The Bob Newhart Show. Fortunately, the series still has several landmark episodes, Peepers, and zany psychology.

It's a Bicentennial Fourth of July party costumes and all in “Caged Fury,” but Bob and Emily get locked in the storage closet when looking for the punch bowl. They reminisce over their wedding album and debate fooling around in the sleeping bags amid the exercise equipment both claim they don't need, and this majority two-hander puts the core of the series in focus. She's calm, he's convinced they're going to die – who's hungry, and who has to go to the bathroom? The Bob Newhart Show provides great laughs and honest relationship talk wrapped in arguing, bad jokes, and S.O.S 'Jingle Bells' played on the pipes. Bob, Jerry, and Howard also have the wrong supplies when taking several orphans into the wild for “Send This Boy to Camp.” Their inflatable boat is in an elevator, Bob doesn't need Emily's tips or 'gadgets' like a Swiss Army knife, and when he forgets to reserve a campground site, they end up roughing it in the building garage. The Bob Newhart Show is best when its main characters converge – too many episodes this season have A and B plots shoehorning in an ultimately irrelevant guest star. It's tough to tell which story is primary, creating misleading titles and too few scenes without full time for the hilarity. Multi part storylines are more interesting, with Mrs. Hartley Martha Scott separating from her husband mid season and going rogue by painting her kitchen 'off white' in “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.” Bob's flummoxed at her offscreen cooking and cleaning, and can't get her to socialize at the church social – until she makes a new gentlemanly friend, that is. Bob thinks it is a good idea to invite both his parents for Christmas in “Making Up Is the Thing to Do,” but they are unfettered as the pie pieces get smaller and smaller. One by one the holiday crowd is knocking on The Hartleys' door, and the insults ultimately will out. Likewise, “The Ironwood Experience” sends shy Bob to a naked conference for a sex workshop lecture. Carol inserts 'yahoos' and 'whoopees' where he has left blanks in his write up, but Bob doesn't think 'such and such' is anything to snicker about when Jerry wants to come along and Howard jumps to the wrong conclusion. Bob's a fifties, Ike kind of guy, but can he relax enough on the seventies taboos to learn how nudists don't stick to leather chairs? Forgetful Bob also only has three days to do his taxes in “Taxation Without Celebration.” Unfortunately, tax day falls on their seventh anniversary, and Emily has a surprise planned – turning the bad perfume gifts, paperwork on the trip, and Bob's cranky deadline excuses into delightful banter. The Bob Newhart Show has had other trapped stories, however, the old written deposit, chit chat in the weaving rope line, and vintage banking comedy raise “Desperate Sessions.” When a bank robber holds him hostage, Bob thinks his army skills are enough to save the day – but he's too lightheaded without his lunch. Perpetual patient Mr. Carlin insists on having his session, too, bringing KFC for the stakeout in Jerry's office with a Crusty Dragnet detective looking for just the facts. Will Bob's patented phone skit save the day? “You're Having My Hartley” actually remains fitting as a would be series finale, matching the original not having kids pilot with this pregnancy dream episode. The men are getting mushy over the thought of babies, but Bob's overwhelmed with talk of moving to the suburbs. Drunken sing songs express the parental nervousness while waxing on baby names, and the social statements mix with the outlandish and a horse in the living room, literally.

Of course, glee club Bob is said to fear horses and prefer golf. He admits Howard is a nuisance, but likes that he has his own personality as he himself erstwhile stumbles over deadpan quips and witticisms. Bob tells his patients there's always a silver lining or quotes songs, but they already love him as the audience does. Many episodes aren't really about him per se, but there's a comfort in seeing whether Bob is going to stand up and fix a situation or complain about being caught in the middle. After all, he's said to have enough courage, but an even bigger grammar problem. In “The Great Rent Strike” Bob organizes the titular petition as heating, window, and drain troubles increase – refusing to back down against an unresponsive landlord until Mr. Carlin buys the building in a role reversal battle of wills between doctor and patient. Bob's too busy trying to record Emily snoring with his newfangled $420 Japanese three speed giant tape recorder with lifetime batteries and a huge corded mic in “A Crime Most Foul,” and the psychologist wants to record his group, too. Unfortunately, they fear their stories falling into the wrong hands – and everyone is suspect when the machine does go missing. On edge Bob points fingers and claims everyone doth protest too much, and the petty of the city also gets to him in “Halls of Hartley.” It's another leaving Chicago or changing jobs half hour, and The Bob Newhart Show can be tiring when every character makes repeated attempts to go away or make some kind of life change, but ultimately doesn't. Howard's opinion on The Hartleys' move, however, must be considered, and Bob's just as cranky about the isolated Iowa campus he visits for a bemusing, tongue tied interview. An observing student apparently has a crush on Bob in “The Heartbreak Kidd,” but she's hip and in some ways, more on the psychology ball than he is. Fortunately, Bob can admit he doesn't know it all – and misreads her signals before objecting to being praised as fatherly, mature, and aging gracefully. Likewise, Emily's sleek pants, tunic tops, and matching suits remain sophisticated alongside dresses and wraps from the First Season – go girl! Her changing hair also reflects her maturity, as the pixie of a free thinking teacher is now the longer bob of a serious school administrator. She's strong, confident, and recognizes when Bob feels left out because of all the times she's been left of out the male hi jinks. Emily tells her husband when he looks stupid in a bad tux and is ready to sleep naked when it is too hot even if uptight Bob won't. She stands by his principles yet also defends Carol when she wants more pay, becoming the series' go to support. At times, The Bob Newhart Show feels as if there should be an 'and Susan Pleshette as Emily Hartley' credit, for she is the one who laughs at all Bob's deadpans and serves him the best punchline. This season Emily seems most often stuck at home having Who's on First misunderstandings with Howard, but Bob compliments her brains and beauty, keeping their core of the series solid. Then again, Emily's matchmaking or meddling doesn't always pan out, either, as the working woman must also make time to sew for little Howie and take notes on Julia Child's chicken.

Series director Peter Bonerz is often only seen in the Rimpau Medical lobby for a jerky Jerry moment, even insulting patients to their face when not mocking the kids in his office or calling Carol a bimbo. He's upset when he isn't invited to a ball game or a Memorial Day party but refuses to host a Fourth of July shindig himself. Bob calls him an orthodontist with nothing to do who only comes around when he hears a checkbook open, and he's right. He also suspects Jerry embellishes his orphanage experience – where it turns out he was a complainer who wanted his steak medium rare. Jerry's down with a new digital watch but can't get into the locale yacht club in an off year where he makes $58,000 – that's over $230k in 2017 coin! – but he comes into real estate riches in “Jerry's Retirement.” This plot has been done before, and his coworkers momentarily admit they are sad to see his obnoxiousness go while Jerry calls their bemoaning sour grapes. Bob tries to set him set up with some savings, but Jerry is ready to blow it all at forty, lay back, and do nothing. It's odd that the Jerry-centric episodes are back to back, however this works as a two-parter when Jerry travels in search of his real parents in “Here's to You, Mrs. Robinson.” Although Raul Julia being his brother is forgotten for jokes on every girl Jerry's dated possibly being his sister, Emily's supports his quest while Bob thinks it will be a dead end disappointment. Of course, Jerry spends most of his money with ads in the paper and private detectives in this much needed humble in the days before easy DNA testing and Ancestory.com. Bob Daily's Howard Borden is also more naive and intrusive than ever, never doing anything but entering to ask what's for dinner and expecting Emily to water his plants even when he is home. He watches television in their apartment with the chain on the door, so it's nice to see The Hartleys walk in to his apartment unannounced for a change! Howard does try to break his habit of visiting only to eat – at one point, he literally almost takes a bite out of the sandwich in Bob's hand – so instead stops in to be sociable and brings an authentic Chinese dinner by calling for takeout. Good thing Howard's horseshoe phone has a long enough cord to go from his apartment, across the hall, and onto the Hartley's couch. In “Still Crazy After All These Years” Howard sees Bob's colleague for a new therapy technique to overcome his dependence, a change that probably should have happened sooner rather than letting his neighborly become so extreme. Fortunately, it is still humorous to see Howard not be himself and pretend to be like everyone else – even if he's back to his old self by the next episode, climbing into bed with Bob and Emily when there's no heat. Howard's just all thumbs when it comes to sewing, doorbells, and life, crying over a 'Dear Howard' letter when he inadvertently marries an island girl and putting a raincoat on his bass so he can take it to parties.

Now billed as Carol Kester Bondurant, Marcia Wallace's receptionist also spends most of this Fifth Year behind her odd circular desk for a scene or two of workplace retorts and exposition. She has to find alternate words when she types because the S key on her typewriter is broken, but she is down with digging the new lingo right on and knows how to bet wisely in the office sports pool. She quits again in “Et tu, Carol?”, which she seems to do every season rather than having any further growth now as a married lady. Today one woman could not do the booking for four doctors – much less their menial tasks and unreasonable demands – but Carol has to stand up for her work rights year after year as if her work environment is so terrible or the writers just don't know what else to do with her. Will Mackenzie as Carol's husband Larry appears in two episodes as dry dumb and dumber foil with Howard, organizing lame trips for one and all and having agency trouble in “The Mentor” before briefly appearing at Christmas when it's a little too late to do something with the character. Ironically, Shirley O'Hara as absent minded temp Debbie Flett has more personality, and I dare say we could have seen a lot more of her if anyone was willing to take Carol in a new direction away from the desk. Even Tom Poston's Peeper has some change to start the season in “Enter Mrs. Peeper.” Only Bob is enthused with the pie in the face and bucket over the door gags that go wrong for the eponymous gal, and he feels left out when everyone else enjoys The Peepers' mellow marriage. As much as we love Poston – future Mr. Pleshette so delightful on Newhart – the series perhaps uses this shtick one too many times. Although the singing moments are probably meant to be corny, the flat humor gets turned on the boys when The Peeper's hot college game tickets combine with mistaken hookers and a night in jail for “The Slammer.” They can't call their wives and must turn to the unreliable Howard before coming clean to the ladies – who take the boys in hot water as just another one of their lame pranks.

He's fearful of barley and snails, but Jack Riley's Mr. Carlin goes to a costume party as a 'revolutionary spy' before really being afraid that his secretary likes him in “Love Is the Blindest.” Bob encourages a night out, but Mr. Carlin insists his doctor and only friend double date before fibbing his entire biography – from inventing stuffed mushrooms to trying out for the Green Bay Packers and Bob being his insurance salesman. Though The Bob Newhart Show is once again redundant after Carlin's earlier dating fails, the funny line between what he sees as little white lies and what Bob calls 'science fiction' makes for some humorous platitudes. Things fare no better when Emily joins Bob's male group members for some positive female influence on their misogynistic attitudes in “Of Mice and Men.” The role reversals, arguments, and food metaphors make for some wild interplay as the session goes wrong, and the group is extra cranky in “Shrinking Violence,” taking out their frustrations on each other – knitting needles, revenge lists, auto repair disasters, and all for Oliver Clark as Mr. Herd, John Fiedler as Mr. Peterson, Renee Lippon as Michelle, and Florida Friebus as Mrs. Bakerman.. Bob tells everyone to place their anger where it is warranted, but no one succeeds in expressing themselves, with more fears in “Death Be My Destiny” as Mr. Herd tries to get in touch with his wild side. Of course, Bob ends up with nightmares, elevator mishaps, and an increasing fear of death as Mr. Herd has the time of his life breaking his leg while skiing. Although it seems like we see less of all the patients this season and there is an odd side plot about an old tuxedo, a little black book, and a glee club reunion that could have been its own song and dance episode, The Bob Newhart Show skillfully tackles another taboo in “Some of My Best Friends Are...”. When the group thinks they need 'fresh anguish' and invite fellow patient Howard Hessman as Mr. Plager to join them, he comes out. The men are all a little homophobic – even Bob – but the reactions both harsh and innocent are handled honestly as everyone wonders who might be a gay person and if it really matters because the world needs more gaiety anyway. This is a brilliant and progressive episode for the era that remains an interesting eye opener. Bob won't let his patient be an outcast alone, apologizing for the sissy comments and admitting that it is time for Dark Age attitudes to change. Huzzah, Dr. Hartley!

Frequent series director Michael Zinberg is back this season along with The Bob Newhart Show's regular writing teams doing several episodes each. The seventies steeped funk credits also remain – sometimes with longer titles or a shorter commute, depending on time or syndication episodes included in The Complete Series DVD set, where the sound is once again uneven for the Season Five discs. But hey, typewriter ribbon! The ties are terribly ugly, the scarves are hideous, and the plaid pants and plaid jackets worn together are two different plaids. There are pale blue leisure suits, too, and denim on denim. They don't think twice about the rotary wall mounted phones, but at least Jerry admits the round receptionist desk is 'funny.' The price of stamps also went up this season on The Bob Newhart Show – from ten cents to thirteen! Bob also says cashiers won't be replaced by computers because a computer can't say hello or have a nice day. Give it forty years, Bob! Studying this Fifth Season with a critical eye has a lot of writing on the wall with repeating plots, pulled back characters, and slapstick gags per episode placed over personality. However, The Bob Newhart Show still has a lot to love, and Season Five provides enough charm and sophistication for a marathon of lighthearted pastiche.

21 November 2017

Top Ten: Family Shows!

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

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


Our Top Ten Family Friendly Shows!

Please see our Kid Friendly and Fantasy tags for more or browse our Television page further analysis! 

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

20 November 2017

British "War" Miniseries

British “War” Miniseries
by Kristin Battestella

These relatively recent but limited edition British originals, revivals, and adaptations provide succinct yet no less heavy contemporary gang wars, World War II legacies, and interwar turmoils.

Archangel – Professor 007 Daniel Craig is tracing lost Stalin documents in this three part 2005 adaptation opening with 1953 deathbeds, period patinas, and choice reds before modern day Moscow presentations and protests. The culture contrasts are immediately apparent with western intellectual hobnobbing, conversations in both English and Russian, and elder comrades living in the past with their communist nostalgia while the young don't need lectures on their own history. The past, however, feels very present with card catalogs, records, big computers, and buried tool boxes that may hold million dollar evidence – sending our scholar digging where perhaps he shouldn't. This looks its age yet seems older, fittingly behind the times of a society at a crossroads. Increasing snow, desolate highways, and hidden tunnels add to the pursuits on the street, tailing cars, mobs at the payphone, tangles with the police, and bodies in the bathtub. Shadowy KGB remnants and FSB intelligence join the pesky reporter and cutthroat academics while the sad, regular folks ruined by the old regime just want the past to stay dead as outsiders throw the monsters back at them for a scoop. Touches of humor and charm alleviate the official Soviet seals, more behind closed doors flashbacks, and titular travels amid talk of radiation check ins and nuclear leaks as the race leads to a brisk wilderness and secret forest compounds. Of course, no one really bundles up for the weather and brief scenes away from Craig are less interesting, for his academia comes in handy at dusty libraries and his preachy British point of view creates relevant sociopolitical debates as he himself changes from seeking glory to protecting information. Was the past pride better than the so called free market organized crime and rich oligarchy today? Is this an elaborate set up with hopes of a return to Soviet form? Stubborn old believers still send in their party donations – leading to messianic pride, urban chases, and snowy shootouts. A desperate people will believe what they want to hear, but tender moments, animal traps, and cold river escapes from the embodiment of the old regime keep the plot personal amid an international what if. While there are too many comings and goings up and down staircases, there's also a Hitchcockian thriller tone with trains, a happenstance everyman. And a tough dame caught up in all the intrigue. However, the ending here is unfortunately very rushed – the building of the case is longer than the resolution and the abrupt finale doesn't resolve what happens next either personally or globally. Fortunately, the shocking conclusion sparks plenty of debate, and this is an interesting series to revisit amid our current political climate.

The Fear – Although the older smartphones and technology uses are a little dated, vendetta damaged hotels covered in ghostly construction plastic and burned out art galleries match The Who ringtones as illness sours patriarch Peter Mullan's (Top of the Lake) criminal enterprise in this 2012 quartet. The seaside rides, Brighton Pier restoration plans, and windswept surf should be fun, but the bleak nighttime waves, empty boardwalks, and gang controlled clubs create a shady mood. Sons, drug deals, foreign hookers, drinking, and blackouts interfere with the lavish, almost respectable lifestyle, and unexplained injuries lead to burning bodies on the beach and wondering what the rotary club would think if they knew. This is Richie's town – such a proud man, strong father, and tough crime lord cannot show weakness. Unfortunately, new enemies won't wait on big business mergers, and one reckless son ditching family for the perks of European connections escalates to gory payback. When pitiful slip ups force the old man to tell the cops he doesn't know or has no memory of an assault, he's not lying and truly can't recall. He hesitates with cover up responses, talking himself up and reminding his sons he doesn't answer to them. A brief narration sounds meta crazy – waxing on dementia versus normality, knowing you're losing it yet not admitting it. Distorted bookends and visual disconnects reflect the couple on opposite sides of the upscale foyer with up close camera frames and out of focus tracking shots. Former friends now doctors make for disagreeable trips down memory lane, but the gang competition is going poorly and so is golfing with the mayor. The local authorities aren't exactly thrilled with this turf war! Sensible son Harry Lloyd (Game of Thrones) tries to clean up the mess and act as the go between for his strained parents, realizing his dad has had his day. Sadly, he can't talk his way out of this battle and pays dearly, letting the trauma fester without saying anything. I can't stop thinking about that nasty humiliation scene, and though he pops up in a lot of smaller roles, Lloyd really should be a leading man more. Anastasia Hille (The Missing) is also impressive in the difficult position as Richie's wife, the only person who can help her ill husband but has been through too much already. Who isn't handling the bads or doesn't have a mental problem denials create helpless moments of compassion. How can one make real estate negotiations when he can't remember what's past or present? Memories and reality blur together as guilt contributes to the mental deterioration. Losing one's grip on reality is bad enough without an idiot son thinking he can rent guns and return them after the crime's done, and oi, don't put the severed head on the counter top it goes in the freezer next to the bag of peas! Pieces of agreements are being done without others, but you can't deal with drug lords when you have a doctor's appointment. Who's going to roll over into this deeper and deeper hole next? Shootouts spiral out of control, and police are afoot thanks to uncovered graves and get out of Dodge warnings. Rival fathers and sons each pay for their sins in an unspoken religious vein and abstract what ifs. Who's incompetent fault is this and if Richie wasn't ill would he be able to assure his legacy? Some may find the crook's downfall themes tame, but this performance driven rather than shock of the week parable isn't meant for the in your face action eighteen to thirty-four audience. If you're expecting wham bam you won't find it in this mature reflection. This is uncomfortable to watch and not for everyone because it is so realistically depressing. There may not be a lot of repeat value as the story is at times thin, and nasty though they are, the Eastern European villains are nondescript thugs with slurs to match. Despite several nominations, this deserved more awards and audience recognition – how did this take five years to garner stateside streaming? Fortunately, Mullan is delightful as this gruff but bittersweet crime lord losing his mind, and the superb family drama peaks with a lovely finale.

A Tough Call

Upstairs Downstairs – This 2010 revival created by Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife) starts promisingly as a new family at 165 Eaton Place brushes shoulders with royalty and fascism in its First three part series. Our house goes from shuttered and abandoned to colorful and hiring new staff with Jean Marsh as returning housekeeper Rose Buck. Initially time moves fast, with mirror glances of a growing pregnancy indicating months passed and announcements on the death of one king and the abdication of another perfectly encapsulating everything in between. Empirical wrongs, loyal secretaries, and upper class eccentricities are acknowledged alongside budding Nazism, local protests, a fleeing Jewish maid, and a mute orphan – scandals the warmhearted and charming but slightly inefficient household can't always handle but braves nonetheless. Who’s in charge anyway? Is it wife Keeley Hawes (MI-5), her diplomat husband Ed Stoppard (Home Fires), or his dowager mother Dame Eileen Atkins (Cranford)? Above and below both gather around the radio or trim the Christmas tree together, aiding in problems big or small. So what if it's sir and madam or mister and miss; the biggest secret one can reveal is sharing one's given Christian name! Audiences don't need to know the Original seventies series inside out to marathon this Initial leg. However, the six hour 2012 Second season handles cast departures while introducing rogue aunt Alex Kingston (Doctor Who) amid 1938 broadcasts, gas masks, air raid drills, and sandbags on the door step. The bleak preparations recall the hefty prices already paid in The Great War, with opinions past and present dividing the house top to bottom. Characters below grow and change, doing their part in the face of war with well done period lesbian affairs and scandalous novels upstairs. Diplomacy both foreign and domestic is failing as famous jazz, flavorful nightclubs, servant balls, picture shows, and glamorous frocks have their last hurrah. We’ve had conflicts and live in hotbed times, but today's generation perhaps can't fully comprehend how those reluctantly bracing for II were not so far removed from I. Sadly, unnecessary abortion subplots and young JFK mingling hamper the intriguing high and low family versus employer loyalty. Duke of Kent Blake Ritson (Da Vinci's Demons) and Stoppard's Hallam look and behave too Talented Mr. Ripley latent, and the palace hobnobbing wastes time as the upheavals progress toward war. Superfluous bad sister Claire Foy's (The Crown) torrid is especially uneven amid more important conscription and war training, and the series is best when focusing on rescuing Jewish children, visa technicalities, and whether Britain will isolate itself from the refugees and turmoil in Europe – topics unfortunately relevant again. Who has time to worry about what society thinks of lame affairs and forced marital rifts in times like this? Classism snobbery runs the increasingly undermined leads into the ground, as our man of the house diplomat is so stiff upper lip worried about their reputation – yet its his ineffectual politics and can't keep it together at home embarrassing his address most. He's going to have to man up and answer his own door, O.M.G! Year Two should have been another three episode war imminent arc, for the soap opera shoehorning backs the quality drama into a contrived corner with nowhere left to go. Pity.

15 November 2017

Gothic Ladies and Ghostly Thrillers

Gothic Ladies and Ghostly Chillers
by Kristin Battestella

Though some are better than others are, these retro monsters, avante garde witches, and not so nice ghosts provide for some unusual humor, bleak atmosphere, and gothic allure – all with a decidedly feminine touch. 

The Love Witch – Artist, witch, and murderess Samantha Robinson's (Doomsday Device) romantic spells go awry in this 2016 comedy written and directed by costumer/producer/Jill of all trades Anna Biller (Viva). Rear projection drives and teal eye shadow establish the tongue in cheek aesthetics while cigarette smoke, colorful lighting schemes, purple capes, and nude rituals accent flashbacks and sardonic narrations. Magic has cured our dame Elaine's nervous breakdown after her husband's death, and she's starting fresh in a quirky tarot themed apartment inside a sweet California Victorian complete with a bemusing chemistry set for making potions with used tampons. Kaleidoscopes, rainbow liners inside dark retro clothing, blurred lenses, and spinning cameras reflect the “vodka and hallucinogenic herbs” as magic bottles, local apothecaries, and pentagram rugs set off the pink hat and tea room pastiche. Our ladies are so cordial when not plotting to steal the other's husband! Her dad was cruel, her husband had an attitude, and her magic guru is in it for the sex, but she's spent her life doing everything to please men in a quest for her own fairy tale love. When is Elaine going to get what she wants? She's tired of letting the childlike men think they are in control, but she puts on the fantasy each man wants nonetheless, impressing a literary professor with her libertine references as the to the camera elocution and intentionally over the top Valley acting mirrors the courting facade. Psychedelic stripteases tantalize the boys onscreen, but the actresses are not exploited, winking at the customary for male titillation while instead providing the viewer with a sinister, if witty nature and classic horror visuals. Different female roles as defined by their patriarchal connections are addressed as ugly old eager dudes tell matching blonde twins that stripping or a rapacious sex ritual will be empowering – because a woman can't be content in herself or embrace sexuality on her own terms unless there is a man to ogle her – while our man eater must break a guy down to the emotional baby he really is for her gain. It isn't Elaine's fault if men can't handle her love! A man not in love can be objective while one wanting sex will excuse anything, and the shrew wife or female black subordinate are put out to pasture for an alluring white woman – layering the women in the workplace and racial commentaries as similar looking ladies must switch roles to keep their man. Tense evidence creates somber moments amid police inquiries, toxicology reports, and occult research – so long as the casework doesn't interfere with their lunch order, that is. Is this woman really a witch or just a bewitching killer in both senses of the word? Is it batting her eyelashes lightheartedness or is she really an abused, delusional girl masking her trauma as a blessed be? The serious topics with deceptive undercurrents and feminist statements will be preachy and heavy handed for most male audiences with uneven pacing and confusing intercuts. However the fake blood in the bathtub, renaissance faire ruses, and melodramatic humor combine for a modern Buffy trippy satire dressed as a retro gothic That Girl homage that takes more than one viewing to fully appreciate.

The ReptileMysterious notes and silent pursuits open this 1966 Hammer tale amid thunderstorms, turn of the century antiques, Oakley Court locales, and villagers not surprised to find another hastily dumped dead body. Scaly attacks and foaming at the mouth fatalities lead to last rites, meager funerals, and tolling bells, but the deceased's brother doubts heart failure as the cause of death on a fit and healthy man. Of course, these townsfolk are not hospitable to strangers, and the inherited cottage is ransacked before the local barkeep suggests the inquisitive newlywed relatives of the departed sell it and move on from these moors instead of poking into unexplained deaths. Carriages, hats, capes, and trains accent the suspicious gothic staples, monstrous secrets, and charming pip pip Englishness as a creepy neighborhood doctor snoops and the amphibious twists escalate. There's a mystique to his daughter Jacqueline Pearce (Blake's 7) and questions on what the titular monster afoot actually is as prowlers lurk, shocked hermits beg for whiskey after an encounter, and horses fear to cross its path. Frothing at the window, leathery skins, greenish hues, and swollen tongues add to the fang bites on the bodies, exhumed corpses, and wild bug eyes when we do glimpse the monster – but it's all excused as epilepsy from the doctor of theology who admits to knowing nothing of medicine. Eerie hear tells of exotic India pasts and cult vengeance create unique Eastern motifs alongside saris, sitars, and mute Indian manservants while harmful flowers, pets in cages, cats in peril, and slicing the bite wounds to drain venom invoke natural dangers. The awkward culprits just want to be left alone, but they can't escape the consequences of the flaky skin, shedding husks, swampy moors, and moist, bubbling nests under the manor. Though similar to The Gorgon, there's a sadness to the ladies and bittersweet explanations justifying the case. The suspense, sword work, fires, and one on one battles are also well done. This may proceed on the gothic formula expected from Hammer, but the unusual mysticism makes up for a lack of bigger Hammer names. My only real complaint is that we don't see Jacqueline Pearce enough. I mean, she's Servalan, people, Servalan.

You Make the Call

A Dark Song – Psalm warnings, beautiful skyscapes, and an old house with no heating paid for up front set this 2016 Irish tale amid the train station arrivals and others backing out on this specific plan with west facing rooms, twenty-two week diets, and purified participants having no alcohol or sex. More fasting, dusk to dawn timetables, serious interviews on why, and reluctant rules of the procedure build the cryptic atmosphere as the price for this dangerous ritual rises – speaking to a dead child isn't some silly astral projection, angel psychobabble bollocks, basic Kabbalah, or easy Gnosticism you can find on the internet. The isolated manor with salt circles and invocations feels seventies cult horror throwback, however the metaphysical talk and extreme meditation bring modern realism as tense arguing, religious doubts, and questions on right or wrong match the bitterness toward the outside world. Hallucinations, sleep deprivation, and vomiting increase while physical cleansings and elemental phases require more candles and blood sacrifices. Some of the slow establishing and ritual minutia could have been trimmed in favor of more on the spooky half truths, suspect motives, need to be pure, and distorted state of mind. Black birds hitting the windows and missing mementos don't seem to get the waiting for angels and forgiveness rituals very far for the amount of time that has passed, and heavy handed music warns us when something is going on even as more should be happening. A third character also seeking something he cannot find may have added another dynamic rather than two extremists getting nowhere, and short attention span audiences won't wait for something to appear in those first uneven forty minutes. After all, with these symbols painted on the body and awkward sex rituals, wouldn't one suspect this is just some kind of scam? Untold information, vengeance, backwards baptisms, near death extremes, and knife injuries meander on the consuming guilt and mystical visions before demons in disguise make for an obvious finale treading tires when the true angels, spirits, and goodness revelations were there all along. Maybe more seasoned hands were needed at the helm or a second eye to fix the pacing and genre flaws, for the quality pieces suffer amid the bleakness. This really shouldn't be labeled as a horror movie, but it doesn't capitalize on its potential as a psychological examination and surreal stages of grief metaphor either.

And if you like Horribly Bad Horrors...

Carnage – Writer and director Andy Milligan (The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here!) has his creepy gothic setting for this 1984 haunt with chandeliers, stained glass, old fashioned candles, and wedding music on the record as the bridal veils and white lace lead to revolvers, blood, and tolling bells. A new carrying across the threshold couple moving in adds lighthearted if amateur dialogue, but the sound is poor and the presentation seems even older than the early eighties – that's either a delayed release or really low budget! The out of service phone rings, dishware is moved, music plays by itself, and unexplained gas stove dangers increase amid barking dogs, knife play, and tool mishaps. While some objects moving by themselves and ghostly appearances are spooky, most attempted frights are laughable – complete with a hysterical maid and convenient burglars to pad the body count as the blood goes from weak trickles to absurd splatter. This story is nothing new, and the plot or ghostly actions don't make much sense. Why go after the housekeeper fast and cruel with strangulation and straight razors when the new owners are getting off comparatively easy with phantom paper and pencil movement? Why kill yourselves if you don't want anyone else to live in your house, then kill people who trespass before inviting others to stay? Most scenes are slow with idle transitions, and comical cutaways to cranky relatives are unnecessary domestic spats with no purpose but to waste time. This production is content to be cheap rather than trying for any horror potential, and after all the poltergeist related deaths, they still hold a housewarming party without telling the guests about the fatal happenings. Attempted comedic bathroom perils misfire because what's meant to be scary has already been funny. This isn't so bad it's unwatchable, but it gets worse as it goes on and viewers can't expect something polished or scary. We never spend enough time with any of the couples or the house itself to understand any of this induced til death allure, and I honestly think the constant barking dog soundtrack was just a production inconvenience. ¯\_()_/¯