30 March 2009

She-Devil

She-Devil Is Still A Classic

By Kristin Battestella


I couldn’t help myself recently and tuned in for my umpteenth viewing of the 1989 Roseanne Barr comedy She-Devil. My VHS copy is very worn out, for the wit and humor here never get old. In fact, She-Devil has grown better with age.

Chubby and bored housewife Ruth (Barr) reads romance novels and dreams of making herself beautiful. Unfortunately, she is not the thin, talented, blonde, enchanting author Mary Fisher (Meryl Streep). When Ruth and her husband, accountant Bob Patchett (Ed Begley, Jr.), meet Fisher at a dinner party, Ruth’s home life quickly goes from bad to worse. Bob and Mary have an affair; and after a disastrous dinner with Bob’s parents, Ruth takes matters into her own hands. She vows to destroy Bob’s home, family, career, and freedom.

Oscar phenom Meryl Streep (Sophia’s Choice, The Hours, Doubt) is top billed for She-Devil, but her screen time is less than Roseanne’s is. She does, however, make the most of the role and looks to be having a good time with the script. In spite of her dramatic success, Streep is equally talented at comedy- as we would later see in 1992’s Death Becomes Her. Her socialite Mary Fisher is the straight man against Roseanne’s jokes, but as her life falls apart, Streep brings forth Mary’s slapstick degrade. Her delivery also subtly changes. Whether she’s smooth taking marshmallows with her publisher or yelling and cursing out the kids, we know Mary means business. It makes for some great quotes: ‘You may not know this, Bob, but I’m an artist!’ and ‘Computers don’t have Swiss Bank Accounts, Bob!’

Unlike her crude but heartwarming mom on her hit show Roseanne, in She-Devil, Barr plays Ruth as anything but likeable. Though we may not think of her as statuesque, it appears that Roseanne was made up to be very ugly here. She starts out in horrible eighties patterns and muumuus, with bad hair and big moles. As Ruth grows confident in her vengeance and schemes, her style sharpens and proper makeup brings Barr’s charm forth. We’re not supposed to like Ruth in comparison with the divine Mary Fisher, but her sad home life and subsequent revenge is probably the reality of many a housewife. Every time I use the mircrowave, I think of Ruth putting aerosol cans in it to blow up her house. It’s extreme yes, but its understandable rage to a used and abused housewife. We delight in Ruth’s plan as she becomes nurse Vesta Rose, and some of her wit and humor should be loved and laughed at (but not her putting the iron in the washer!) When I began my career in activities at a senior center, my sister said, ‘Do you have the old people play soccer like Roseanne did in She-Devil?’



Ed Begley Jr. (St. Elsewhere, 7th Heaven, Living with Ed) is perfect as the sleezy husband and even sleezier accountant who gets what he deserves. Even though he is the catalyst to both Ruth and Mary’s transformations, Begley’s Bob is secondary to the women onscreen. When he begins a second affair with Vesta Rose cohort Olivia Honey (Maria Pitillo, Providence), his creepness is cemented. Now he’s ruined not one woman, but three. Likewise, Sylvia Miles (Midnight Cowboy) as Mary Fisher’s Mother is the perfectly cranky but loveable old lady further putting a wrench in Mary’s life. A Martinez (Santa Barbara) has little to do as Mary’s pretty boy butler Garcia, but he has several great quips, as does Linda Hunt (Dune, Carnivale, The Practice) as Ruth’s business partner Cooper. Only Ruth and Bob’s two kids are a bit out of place. They have great gags and set-ups with the family pets, but it’s tough to discern what age they actually are, and truly, I’ve never seen them in anything thing else.

A fine cast at the height of its eighties stardom is one thing, but they need a great script from which to work. Thankfully, director Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan, Sex and the City) and writers Barry Strugatz and Mark R. Burns (Married to the Mob) provide a witty and multilayered story from Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of A She-Devil. The dialogue says more than its words, and the speech is balanced in time with physical comedy and looks from the actors. A lot of the script depends on delivery, but the cast is on form in giving a line-whether it is deadpan or all out. When asked by Bob where she is going, Ruth replies calmly, ‘I don’t know, Bob. Into my future, I guess.’ It’s almost so stupid, it’s funny, but She-Devil is much more intelligent than that.

Of course, a few sparse effects and clothing styles from She-Devil have not stood the test of time. Even when Ruth and Mary are done up, its eighties sheek. Younger folks might be put off by this look, but the funnies win against art and set design. In fact, Mary’s over the top Dynasty style works now more so then it did in 1989. We know this woman is a bit out of touch with the little people-who really wears all pink and has hats and gloves to match everything? In tune audiophiles will notice the quirky score from Lord of the Rings genius Howard Shore.


You can find She-Devil on television from time to time, and though now out of print, the DVD can be found for a family fun night. I was however, surprised by the edited version I found On Demand. Four letter words and butt shots, I can understand those being cut; but the shaving of some untaundry sex scenes and not others confused me. Bastard was also replaced with Bum, but since it’s critical to the plot, there was no way to cut out Bob’s photocopies of Olivia’s lacey bosom. Compared to many films today, there’s nothing majorly inappropriate in She-Devil. I watch it with my nieces-sometimes they beg to pop She-Devil in the VCR. The uncut PG -13 is safe enough for family viewing. If you’re prudish enough to be upset by bastard and humorous butt shots, a filtered version of the film won’t change the adulterous and revengeful plot.

She-Devil was a chick flick before there was such a thing. Largely a story for women, I imagine some of things here might make male viewers uncomfortable. ‘Hell hath no fury…’ remember. Nonetheless, there’s humor enough for everyone-male, female, young, and old. Great gags, quotes, and a fine cast trump any naughtiness or eighties vibes. You and yours can enjoy She-Devil again and again.


28 March 2009

Tristan and Isolde

Tristan and Isolde A Pleasant Surprise
By Kristin Battestella

In my quest for quality fantasy films, I stumbled upon the 2006 tale Tristan and Isolde. Though some of the cast is a miss, honest drama and production make this a pleasant take on an ancient tale.

As Lord Marke (Rufus Sewell) tries to unite post Roman Britain against the Irish, his adopted son Tristan (James Franco) is believed dead in battle. His body is sent upon a funeral boat, where he washes ashore in Ireland. There Isolde (Sofia Myles) nurses Tristan. Before Isolde’s father King Donnchadh (David O’Hara) can kill him, Tristan sails back to Cornwall, only to be sent back to Ireland to complete in a tournament. Tristan unknowingly wins Isolde’s hand in marriage to Lord Marke, and after trying to end their romance, they continue their affair against growing British unrest and battle.

Tagged as the precursor to Romeo and Juliet; Tristan and Isolde has more shades of Lancelot, Guinevere, and forbidden Camelot love. I like British History and Arthurian legend, sure, but I am no means a scholar. I don’t know how historically accurate this is, but it isn’t glaringly wrong like the 2005 attempt King Arthur. Tristan and Isolde highlights the struggle to unify Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Picts against the Irish, but I am surprised that this film is rated R. We have a handful of young love sex scenes, but there’s no nudity or overt bumping and grinding. The battle action is also not that brutal compared to other medieval films around. In light of all these new young adult, romancey, paranormal, and fantastical books and shows, I’m surprised Tristan and Isolde has not found an audience.

Previously, I’ve been impressed with James Franco’s work, transforming from James Dean to Pineapple Express takes skill. Unfortunately, Franco’s Tristan is a miss here. His bad hair is in his face, the out of place accent, and poor battle scenes stick out as ‘hottie casting’. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, most modern young American actors cannot pull of a period piece. Though he has earned female fans on The Tudors, always second fiddle Henry Cavill also looks weak and unposh here.

I have to say, it’s very strange to see Rufus Sewell as a good guy. Can we believe the wretch from A Knight’s Tale and Bless The Child is the good natured King with both Tristan and Isolde’s and Britain’s best interests at heart? It’s a tough pill to swallow. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Mark Strong (Sharpe’s Mission, Henry VIII) as Wictred. He looks the part of a power hungry early Medieval bad ass, but he’s a little too over the top. It’s as if director Kevin Reynolds (The Count of Monte Cristo, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) is pumping up the badness to heighten the tragedy of the central romance. If he had more presence from James Franco, Tristan and Isolde wouldn’t feel so unevenly cast.

Although the men are only swoon worthy to their die-hard fans, Sophia Myles (Moonlight) is a pleasant Isolde. Her accent wavers and sometimes I can’t help but picture her as Erika in Underworld; but Myles brings strength, individually, and intelligence to what could be a very weak and bland character. Instead of accepting her fate as a pawn between Kings, Isolde stands up for herself and love. It’s sounds sappy, but the irony and circumstance of this ancient tragedy trumps the uneven melodrama.

Tristan and Isolde (Widescreen Edition)Despite my questions with the cast, Tristan and Isolde gets a lot right in story and production. The Irish coastlines look exceptional and authentic, and as I said, the history is believable enough. The costumes and armor also look accurate to what little we know about the Dark Ages. The film is a little dark in lighting, of course, but the firelight, castles, woodworks, and boats all have that medieval charm. It has pretty music and a nice interface, but I expected more from the DVD. There’s a gallery and a short behind the scenes, but I’d like to know more about Tristan and Isolde-both the movie and the old story. Online there’s little information about this movie as well. All through the featurette, director Reynolds kept talking about how low budget this film was-corners were cut everywhere, yada yada. Tristan and Isolde isn’t perfect, but it’s a pleasant little movie that doesn’t look have bad. With a little more love and attention, who knows how much better this story could have been.

Medieval fans should take a chance on Tristan and Isolde. Although I don’t normally go for sappy material, I do feel this is more a girls’ film. Boys looking for hard-core effects and action won’t find it here. And although Tristan and Isolde is by no means The Lord of the Rings, mature teens might also enjoy turning to the ancient source literature and subsequent Arthurian legends. Instead of glorifying Romeo and Juliet over and over, this timeless tale deserves an appreciation. With affordable DVDs and rental options available, you can give Tristan and Isolde an guilt free try.

18 March 2009

Quantum Leap: Seasons 4 and 5

Seasons 4 and 5 Branch Out, Almost Undo Quantum Leap
By Kristin Battestella

Yes, after all my Quantum Leap praise, I do realize that the spiritual turn taken in Seasons 4 and 5 of the moral science fiction show is probably what turned off viewers and led to the series’ cancellation in 1993. That being said, Donald P. Bellasario’s award winning series still provides great statements and thinking man’s television in its final two seasons.

Quantum Leap - The Complete Fourth SeasonSeason 4 of Quantum Leap opens with a little something we all wanted to see. ‘The Leap Back’ returns Sam to his own time, where we discover the wife he has forgotten amid his travels. Equally challenging is the finale ‘A Leap for Lisa’ where Sam leaps into a young Al on trial. Unfortunately, much of season 4 in between feels like filler we’ve seen before- like ‘Justice’, dealing with the Civil Rights movement and the Klu Klux Klan; and ‘Raped’- where Sam leaps into an assaulted teenager. Only the exceptional ‘Running For Honor’ stands out-an episode where Sam leaps into a gay Naval cadet. Maybe gay issues on television are commonplace now, but it was unheard of then.

Season 5 continues some of the lackluster trend, with stunt episodes focusing on Lee Harvey Oswald, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe. Unique to this season, however, are the Trilogy episodes-where Sam leaps into subsequent generations of one Southern family and the two part ‘Evil Leaper’ episodes. Sam also leaps beyond his lifetime into a Civil War ancestor for ‘The Leap Between The States’. Some of these twists stray too far beyond the series’ own believability, yet others are intriguing additions to the Leap premise. Had the series continued into a sixth season, we have the possibility of more Leapers- both good and bad-and explanations behind the science and religion of time travel.

Even though Quantum Leap is science fiction for folks who don’t like science fiction, the lovely spiritual statements introduced in these two seasons are generally considered to be the final nail in the show’s coffin after 5 years of great television. The cast and crew continued to make strong, episodes with moral conviction; but after so much sentimentality, it’s not Quantum Leap’s fault that an increasingly amoral, grunge listening, conspiracy theory loving audience tuned out. With the exception of some stunt casting and the blatantly big name storylines, Quantum Leap perhaps brings its strongest statement with its Evil Leaper and Godly notions. Who is moving Sam through his leaps? If he is sent to do good, surely there is a balancing force seeking evil at work. Perhaps in 1993, these ideas were too close to home for audiences; but such notions only grow better with age when applied in our own lives. Who moves us from one day to the next? Why do things happen as they do? Is there no such thing as coincidences? Are there people placed on this earth purely for evil? Am I the one placed here to do some good in this world?

Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell shine again in both the stellar and the not so stellar episodes here. Stockwell takes Al through the emotional ringer, even leaping himself a time or two while facing his own past. Bakula brings all the range needed as well-from singing as Elvis to talking sex as Dr. Ruth. Though it is somewhat of a stunt, having our boys switch places shows the award winning talent between Bakula and Stockwell. Sam and Al have entered our cultural lexicon; and from the first day Bakula appeared as Captain Archer on Star Trek: Enterprise, talk of reuniting with Stockwell brewed. Quantum Leap fans got their wish in Enterprise’s Season 1 episode Detained.

Quantum Leap - The Complete Fifth SeasonOf course, I cannot praise Quantum Leap without commenting on the series’ finale ‘Mirror Image’. I love it, but I also hate it. The conclusion is fitting to the series, but also leaves several critical questions up for grabs. After seeing the end to Quantum Leap, you either crave more and have to watch the series all over again; or you insist on giving the show ten years to stew and mull on before you can rewatch. Either way, Quantum Leap stays will you long after your latest viewing.

Again the dvd sets for Season 4 and 5 have been unloved with music changes, too brief extras, and unusual packaging and disc layering; but technical mistakes should not deter viewers from seeing this show for the first time or falling in love with Quantum Leap again. I’d like to think Universal will come to their senses and release a complete series set with proper extras and restoration, but I won’t hold my breath. Affordable pricing, online viewing, and rental options keep their pockets lined a plenty.

Quantum Leap is the type of show that they don’t make anymore. It says something beyond its science fiction premise and stretches far beyond its time traveling mission. Its effects and social commentaries may seem dated to some in this fast-paced day and age; but Quantum Leap leaves the candle burning on the big and small issues of the 20th century. Young and old can appreciate this series for years to come.

17 March 2009

Quantum Leap: Season 3

Season 3 is Quantum Leap at its Best
By Kristin Battestella

Just when you thought Donald P. Bellisario’s Quantum Leap couldn’t make anymore social statements or sentimental commentaries, season three of the time traveling series brings Quantum Leap to its finest hour.

Dr. Sam Beckett continues to leap into the down trodden as he time travels within his own lifetime. Now, however, Sam and his holographic guide Al begin to learn the consequences of ‘putting right what once went wrong’ both personally and historically. Nearly every episode of Season Three is a memorable one. Each one can make its case for best episode ever, and certainly each is someone’s favorite.

Quantum Leap - The Complete Third SeasonFrom the stellar two part opener ‘The Leap Home’-where Sam leaps into his younger self to stop his brother’s death in Vietnam-to the finale ‘Shock Theater’ where his leap into a mental patient blurs the line between who Sam and his leaps really are. ‘Shock Theater’ is my mom’s favorite, and then there’s ‘Private Dancer’, my sister’s favorite. I think my dad would refuse to choose. Perhaps my favorite is ‘The Leap Home’. These standouts make the cases for and against the theory of time travel. We see why it’s necessary for one to rectify his past, but we also witness the consequences of changing history with scientific meddling.

Scott Bakula is at the top of his game in the season’s opening and closing episodes. He has childlike enthusiasm at cleansing himself and others, but the physical and mental wear and tear of such serious time travels ways upon Sam as well. Dean Stockwell is again a delight as Al. Not merely a sidekick, Stockwell is given room this season to show friendship, fatherly advice, and even a bit of spookiness. Both actors would receive several Emmy nominations and Golden Globe wins for Quantum Leap, along with numerous other awards and accolades for the production and the series itself.

Here in Season Three, Quantum Leap continues to push the envelope on topics that are, in some ways, still taboo. Vietnam is given frank conversation and recreation not often seen in television then or now (and only showcased in a handful of exceptional eighties films for that matter). Spotlights on AIDS, teen pregnancy, and mental health also bring controversial topics to the forefront. In one ambiguous Halloween episode, we see the first shades of good versus evil and religious values that come to prominence in future seasons. We have some stunt casting, sentimentality, and those quirky famous event snips, but season three of Quantum Leap is very personal and individually focused on the everyman amid these extraordinary conditions. This kind of intelligent intimacy isn’t old now, nearly twenty years on, and it likely never will be.

Again, there are a few trouble spots with the bare bones DVD sets, but the discs are affordable enough in comparison with the time and joy their viewing can bring. Reruns, online viewing, and rental options are also available. Quantum Leap reminds us that in these cynical, difficult times; we are capable of creating quality, thoughtful, moving, entertainment for the whole family. Here in Season Three, that quality is exceptional.

Spring Sees and Skips

What to See and What to Skip this Spring

By Kristin Battestella

In this age of little time and money, I hope to save both you and me from wasting a lot of what we don’t have on bad films! So, here’s a quick glance at a list of shows that are definitely skip-able.


Avoid

Shutter- Great premise about photographing ghosts, but all is too obvious too soon in this another poor Asian horror imitation. And Joshua Jackson is in it-no, that doesn’t give anything away.

Boogeyman- Another second string television star-Barry Watson from Seventh Heaven- making a crappy horror movie in which he is the evil monster with a Tardis for a closet, um yeah.

American Ganster- Overlong and complex Ridley Scott crime vehicle not the best for Denzel Washington, since he plays a backseat to Aussie Russell Crowe as a New York Narcotics cop in seventies Manhattan.

Enchanted- Reverse fantasy mixing live action and animation still has over the top clich├ęs of damsels in distress and chick flicks. I’d stick with Sleeping Beauty.

Hulk- Eric Bana’s weak Bruce Banner and the way too green cgi Hulk make this 2003 comic yarn a rare Ang Lee skipper.

Storm of the Century­- Just because this miniseries gets a lot of airplay on the Sci Fi Channel doesn’t mean its any good. Adapted from the Stephen King novel; this could have been cut in half and still be a slow, aimless unscary waste.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe- I want to like this second film from the sf series, but it plays more like a sappy and romantic television drama. Gillian Anderson looks lovely, but David Duchovny looks sick and old and out of place.


Enjoy

And in the spirit of hopefulness, here’s a few shows that are worth a pleasant Spring evening. Someday I may write critically on them as well.

Stepbrothers- A little bit stupid and not always funny, but its great fun to watch the train wreck that is Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly making like they are fifteen.

Talladega Nights- You probably have to really like Nascar to appreciate how much Will Ferrell is making fun of rednecks and the pseudo sport, but a touch of serious life lessons and fine cast make this one worthwhile.

Memento- Fans of Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise will appreciate his backwards, intelligent, and complex psychological thriller. Guy Pearce’s mind-boggling performance only gets better with repeat viewings.

The Incredible Hulk­- This 2008 redo with Edward Norton and Liv Tyler gets this beloved comic right for the big screen.

The Mist- Thomas Jane, Andre Braugher, and Marcia Gay Harden give a serious and scary psychological debate amid proper Stephen King spooks. Some of its obvious, but food for thought science fiction always goes a long way.

V for Vendetta- I’m a little tired of dystopian flicks where only the UK survives, but this fine story unites past, present, and future ills and hopes across the board. More comic book food for thought. So what if Natalie Portman’s accent is bad?

Stay- Complex and unique 2005 thinking thriller from Ewan McGregor that blurs the line between dreams, reality, life, and death. Who knew?

10 March 2009

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves Okay
By Kristin Battestella

As big as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was back in 1991, my recent rental is the first time I’ve seen it in a long time. In fact, I can’t recall having seen it from beginning to end all in one space before. With fine production values and a not often seen full look at the legend of Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood still looks good. Dated casting, however, makes for a serious stretch of believability.

After fighting the Third Crusade with King Richard the Lionheart (an uncredited appearance by Sean Connery), Robin of Locksley (Kevin Costner) breaks out of prison with the Moor Azeem (Morgan Freeman). They return to England, but find Robin’s father murdered and the local people oppressed by the vile Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman). With the vile witch Mortianna (Geraldine McEwan) and his cousin Guy of Gisborne (Michael Wincott), Nottingham hopes to steal the throne-securing his legitimacy by marrying Richard’s cousin Marian (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Unfortunately, Robin and his band of outlaws led by Little John (Nick Brimble), have something to say about it.

Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves (Two-Disc Special Extended Edition)The legend of Robin Hood is an old one, but writers Pen Densham and John Watson (The Magnificent Seven) add a modern spin with talk of freedom and crusades. Interesting amid the backdrop of the original George Bush that we have talk of rescuing Jerusalem from infidels and poor folk rising to fight and die as free men a la Braveheart. I applaud director Kevin Reynolds’ (The Count of Monte Cristo, Tristan + Isolde) attempted opening and history with the Crusade, but it’s out of place with the rest of the film and Reynolds has to begin his movie twice. In addition, as much as I adore Morgan Freeman’s wise Moor Azeem, his introduction to the tale here is too obviously an effort to diversify this Anglo Saxon story.

Though Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves isn’t as bright or colorful or innocent as its counterparts of old-1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood or Disney’s animated Robin Hood- its production does feel more natural and authentic. The weapons look good, along with the merry lifestyle of Forest living. The castles and locales are lovely, and the costumes look appropriate from the poorest child to the fancy Sheriff of Nottingham. Only the early nineties speech and pseudo twelfth century mullets look stupid.

Now, perhaps there are ladies out there who are still dreaming of Kevin Costner (Waterworld, Field of Dreams) but I have never been one of them. His clunky delivery and everyman look does not fit here as the young English noble returning to help his save his country. Not only is Costner’s alleged American appeal in your face, he doesn’t look athletic enough or down and dirty and scarred enough to rouse the oppressed people of Nottingham. And you needlessly see his scrawny pale ass! Miscast does not begin to describe his Robin Hood. I must also say this is not Alan Rickman’s (Die Hard, Harry Potter) best villainous turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham. His back-story comes too late, and he spends most the movie being maniacal and power hungry purely for dramatic effect. Michael Wincott’s (The Three Musketeers, The Crow) Guy of Gisborne is far more slick and subtle, but underused.

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (The Color of Money, The Abyss) is quite capable as Maid Marian, but again what had the chance to be a lovely performance is cut down to screams and quips for or about Robin. Even if we tend to think of Maid Marian as the ultimate damsel in distress; such a natural, mature, and modern film almost demands a meatier Maid Marian. And dear Lord, who decided to cast Christian Slater (Pump Up The Volume, Kuffs) as Will Scarlett? This stupidity reeks of competition with Bram Stoker’s Dracula and its casting of Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker. If you are on the cover of any teen magazine, it should automatically withdrawal you from ever being in contention for a costume flick or period piece.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ saving grace is the aforementioned gamble on Morgan Freeman as the indebted Moor Azeem. The script would have him be merely the Chewbacca to Robin Hood’s Solo, but Oscar winner Freeman (Million Dollar Baby) brings much needed class. We have quiet touches of Islam and racism along with beautiful intelligence and devotion. No doubt in 1991 Freeman had his choice of roles, but his onscreen performance shows he thought the role something special. In some ways, I wish they had not done a Robin Hood Kevin Costner vehicle. I would have liked to see a film strictly about Azeem and the trials he would face in Medieval England.

Once upon a time, the score by Michael Kamen (X-Men, Band of Brothers) was a beautiful composition with rousing booms and opus glory! Today, however, it’s merely eh. It’s too obviously placed in the film, and likewise we are all still sick of Bryan Adam’s love theme ‘Everything I Do (I Do It for You)’. Again, the first time you heard it, it wasn’t too bad; but over and over and then the music video was played over and over. I actually heard the song just last week, thinking ten years had been time enough to hear it again. Nope. I still prefer Adams and Kamen’s less fanatical ‘All for Love’ from The Three Musketeers and ‘Have You Every Really Loved a Woman’ from Don Juan Demarco. Although I must admit, it was a dang good music video; no Americanized Robin talketh or two and a half hour plus bloated run time. Of course, this massive popularity also brought us plenty of spoofs and knockoffs; including the very funny Robin Hood: Men in Tights (‘Unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English Accent.’) and the not so good pre Pirates Keira Knightly yarn Princess of Thieves. Oiy.

Now, it’s a peeve of mine when subtitles don’t exactly match the spoken dialogue. Nevertheless, the written words are essential in telling who in Robin’s merry outfit is who. The sound, however, is a bit annoying as well. Loud music and action booms contrast against some very soft voices, making volume control a must. The DVD menus are also a little hokey, but the two-disc edition of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves hails the usual commentaries, behind the scenes, galleries, and trailers.

Fans of Robin Hood tales can take the good from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and modern audiences of swashbuckler flicks and adventure romps will enjoy as well. Purists and critical Locksley scholars might object to the liberties taken, but there aren’t many other Robin Hood films to applaud. Although there are a few implied sexual scenes and occasional coarse language, there’s nothing here that the whole family can’t gather round. Fans of the cast should indulge themselves as well. Robin Hood: Princes of Thieves is by no means perfect. It is however, more stylized and mature than its few and far between counterparts, so take a night in with England’s favorite outlaw while you wait for a proper Robin Hood and King Arthur and Beowulf.

03 March 2009

Caravaggio

Caravaggio Weird, but Good

By Kristin Battestella

Like most Italians, I’ve always known of Caravaggio and his paintings. Like most Sean Bean fans, I was very happy when the 1986 film Caravaggio came out on DVD last year. It’s weird, hot and bothered, full of layers inside and out. It may not be for everyone, but Caravaggio is an art house lover’s dream.

Young painter with promise Caravaggio (Dexter Fletcher, Nigel Terry) mixes business with pleasure as he sells himself and his art on the street. Eventually he’s taken in by the church and paints religious masterpieces, all the while living a very heady and underground lifestyle. The beautiful Lena (Tilda Swinton) and street fighter Ranuccio (Sean Bean) model for some of Caravaggio’s paintings, but their twisted love triangle cannot last.

When I think of Caravaggio, firstly I think of the incredible canvases onscreen. Director Derek Jarman (War Requiem, Jubilee) has recreated Caravaggio’s paintings in painstaking detail. The highlights of the film are the sequences showing Caravaggio painting his masterpieces from posing models. These scenes are lit perfectly and saturated with vivid colors. It’s as if the art itself was on the screen. American audiences may not take to this quiet, still life look and feel, but you can’t deny the breathtaking living art in Caravaggio.

On the other had, this is one very weird and out there movie! The loud and maniacal sequences are too dizzying and border on the senseless at worst and seem out of place amid the film’s silently beautiful scenes at best. Viewers can take their pick on production values-either considering them extremely poor and low budget or intentionally sporadic and sparse. Why couldn’t Jarman make a straight, period piece costume drama detailing the life of Caravaggio? Regardless of the film’s finances, Jarman chose to make Caravaggio the way he did. Yes, a lot of it is incredibly weird and too over the top, but parts of the movie are also a lot of fun. The intentional anachronisms in Caravaggio add much needed humor and a light air to the film. Typewriters, motorcycles, and calculators add some fun class to this abstract time and place. These pieces also add commentary and statements without words, much as a painting would. Obsessive muckrakers clicking away on typewriters and priests chachinging on their silver calculators-these subtlies say more than exposition ever could.

Despite its lovely look and bizarre feel, the cast of Caravaggio is what makes the movie. Nigel Terry (Excalibur) is fittingly weird and heady as the adult Caravaggio. He is perfect as the X factor and catalyst between Lena and Ranuccio. Its no surprise that this trio worked with Jarman again in 1989’s War Requiem. Although neither is the star and I wish both were onscreen even more than they are, the film debuts of Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton, The Chronicles of Narnia) and Sean Bean (Sharpe, The Lord of the Rings) put the icing on Caravaggio’s cake. Swinton is both ugly and gorgeous as the jealous and power obsessed Lena. She starts out dirty, ugly, and boyish, but ends up lush, gorgeous, and tragic. Swinton doesn’t say much here, but her onscreen presence is undeniable. Her chemistry with the very young and beautiful Sean Bean is also exquisite.


Sure, I like Sean Bean, but you can’t often call his villainous performances or rough heroes beautiful. In Caravaggio, however, Bean’s Ranuccio is hot, aggressive, statuesque- but severely flawed at the same time. It is no wonder Caravaggio falls prey and preys upon these two misguided young lovers. The cast and the silent symbolism of power and wealth make the film-particularly during one lovely modeling scene between Bean and Terry and the subsequent hammock scene between Swinton and Bean. Yowza!


Naturally, it is easy to see the parallels between director Derek Jarman and his onscreen Caravaggio here. Yes, there’s a lot of subtext and statements both veiled and exposed, but there’s so much more to this film than speculation about Jarman’s controversial life and style. I myself am not a big fan of directors or writers knocking on audiences’ heads with obvious statements and commentary. Thankfully, Caravaggio can be enjoyed for its weird and beautiful style onscreen without any heavy handedness from Jarman. If you’re looking for it, you’ll find it, but you don’t have to adore Jarman to appreciate the vision here. Some of that vision is, in a way, coming from the titular sixteenth century Italian painter himself. His paintings and style dominate the screen- adding to his art and genius and his bittersweet life.

The DVD presentation mirrors the portrait-esque style of Caravaggio with interactive, moving menus. The subtitles are essential in picking up the film’s soft dialogue. There are plenty of interviews and commentary, conceptual art, storyboards, trailers, and galleries to immerse the viewer with Jarman and Caravaggio himself. My DVD also came with a lovely write about the film.

I think it goes without saying that not every is going to like Caravaggio. Although there is nothing extremely overt, prudes or anti art house folks should avoid anything by Derek Jarman. If you have a problem with homoeroticism or anti Catholicism on film, you should also skip Caravaggio. That being said, fans of the titular painter and Jarman’s work probably already adore this film. Bean and Swinton fans should tune in as well. Some of its bad, some of its good-and some of it you may not fully get the first time around, but Caravaggio is a beautiful film with a talented cast. Take a chance on this gem today.


Henry VIII

Henry VIII Fine Television Production
By Kristin Battestella
Henry VIII

I’ve always had an interest in history and British monarchy, even before this recent resurgence with The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl. I like the former greatly and heartily dislike the ladder. So I took a chance on the 2003 British television production Henry VIII. The Verdict? Praise.

When Henry VIII (Ray Winstone) becomes the King of England, he quickly becomes obsessed with securing a male heir. Bastard sons and daughter Princess Mary will not do, despite the continued prayers from her mother, Queen Katherine of Aragon (Assumpta Serna). When Anne Boleyn (Helena Bonham Carter) comes to court, Henry is quickly smitten. He goes against the Pope and seeks to divorce his wife, forever dividing England and the Catholic Church.

 
Henry VIII is more historically accurate than the recent youthful, sexy Tudor adaptations. Its focus on Henry leaves some history and persons by the wayside, but this tight style allows for more soul searching on the monarch’s part. The limited hours, however, speed the storyline up greatly. The treasonous Duke of Buckingham is dealt with very quickly, and in brutal action sequences rather than political talks and trials. Likewise, the jousts are brief, but loud and vicious. The costumes, sets, looks and locales are all authentic and charming. Expenses onscreen were not spared, thankfully, though the candlelight and colors seem old world and saturated somehow- not as vibrant as those other shows. However, this fits the castle sets and historical locations.

It is unfortunately tough to tell who is who at court, and the names and titles of all the dukes and graces are not always given in Henry VIII. The Reformation is also thrust to the viewer very suddenly with secret meetings and more people that you’re not sure who is who. I appreciate the respect the audience is given; assuming we are all educated enough to know the back story of Mary Boleyn, The Reformation, and Queen Katherine of Aragon’s marriage to Henry’s ill brother Arthur. I do fear that this also makes Henry VIII too highbrow for the casual, young viewer.

Normally I adore Helena Bonham Carter (The Wings of the Dove, Harry Potter, Howard’s End, Sweeney Todd), but it seems I’m alone in feeling she is miscast here as Anne Boleyn. She doesn’t seem naturally pretty enough to charm the king and is far too fresh and even bitchy towards Henry. She also turns from hating him to infatuation to love far too quickly, and then we’re supposed to feel happy for her when she becomes Queen. It is then, somehow pleasing, to see her dramatic trial and subsequent dicey disposal.

Ray Winstone (Beowulf, King Arthur) is not a heartthrob like those other King Henrys we’ve recently seen, but his hefty look and booming voice are more in keeping with the historical Henry we dramatize so much. His early devotion to Queen Katherine is beautiful and well played, unlike his obsessed letters and shout outs over Anne Boleyn. He doesn’t feel as charming when chasing after Anne, and after this queenly switcheroo, I don’t feel sorry for Henry when Elizabeth is born-instead of the son he so eagerly desires. I like the older King who wants a son to secure his lineage, not the lovesick horny guy chasing a woman whose sister he has already gotten pregnant.

Assumpta Serna (Sharpe) is a delight as Katherine of Aragon. She’s a bit too humble and overly devout, but her Spanish authenticity is wonderful. I think she is also made up to look older and uglier than she is, but we see too little of her nonetheless. Cardinal Wosley (David Suchet, Poirot), Thomas Cromwell (Danny Webb, Doctor Who), and the Duke of Norfolk (Mark Strong, Sharpe) also seem wasted in this first part. Jane Seymour (Emilia Fox, Silent Witness) concludes the wives showcased in part 1 of Henry VIII, but again her plainness doesn’t seem worthy of the king.

Director Pete Travis (Endgame) and scriptwriter Peter Morgan (The Other Boleyn Girl, The Queen, Frost/Nixon) blend tight, old fashioned dialogue with swift action, and the music from veteran composer Robert Lane (Merlin) compliments the screen with period authenticity and classic score. While I’m glad this series is available on DVD, there are no features and subtitles on disc 1. Despite the talented (but misused) cast, the rushed time and limited length hinder Henry VIII. Fine production values and a strong performance from Winstone, however, make the show. I am to say the least, eager for Part 2.


Now that second wife Anne Boleyn (Helena Bonham Carter) has been beheaded, King Henry VIII (Ray Winstone) has found brief happiness-and a son- with Jane Seymour (Emilia Fox). Unfortunately Catholic revolts led by soldier Robert Aske (Sean Bean) cause trouble for the King, as does the marital meddling of Thomas Cromwell (Danny Webb) and the Duke of Norfolk (Mark Strong).

Ray Winstone is still on form as the King torn between love, the church, wives, and betrayal for part 2 of Henry VIII. We have brief moments of a mournful, reflective Henry, but we’re also treated to an equally deceptive, ambitious, and gluttoness ruler. It’s not uneven acting on Winstone’s part; Henry VIII was just that messed up. In fact, Winstone’s soft, gentile style mixed with his boisterous body and voice bring life into that famous portrait we spend so much time dramatizing.

All right, I can’t help myself, so I may as well get to it. I adored Sean Bean’s appearance as Yorkshire revolt leader Robert Aske. Though the departed Helena Bonham carter is still billed second for this latter half and Bean is given ‘and Sean Bean’; the Sharpe actor rivals the power and onscreen weight of Ray Winstone like no pretty female actress can. His scenes are brief; but the medieval leather clad, horse-riding Bean is a delight to route for. We ended Part 1 largely with Anne Boleyn- seeing Henry last as an angry and vengeful husband. Opening Henry VIII here with the brutal destruction of Catholic monasteries and valiant words from Bean’s Aske instantly sets us up for the wicked and self-indulgent King that is to come. I wish there had been more of Winstone and Bean together. Do you hear me casting directors? Hear ye, hear ye!

Unfortunately, Jane Seymour (Emilia Fox) comes and goes too quickly in Henry VIII. Understandable in the scope of history, but Henry’s infatuation with her is definitely rushed in comparison with all the romance given to Anne Boleyn. Likewise Anne of Cleeves (Pia Girard) comes and goes in only a handful of minutes, and it is again tough to tell who is who as Henry’s court changes with his wives. Thankfully, there’s a bit more time spent on Catherine Howard (Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada). Ray Winstone is considerably made up and aged for the film, so it is bizarre to see the bearded and hefty King with the beautiful teenager Catherine. We know this odd pair will not end well. And of course, we conclude with Catherine Parr (Clare Holman, Blood Diamond)-the lucky one in the school phrase ‘Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.’

The final fifteen minutes of Henry VIII gives us a wonderful deathbed sequence from Winstone, and of course, the obligatory fates of his children Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth. Of all the Tudoresque productions out there, they do have one common theme. Henry VIII may have brought a lot of political and personal turmoil to his country, but through Elizabeth, he also brought about one of the greatest empires on earth.

Despite its lack of subtitles, disc 2 of Henry VIII fortunately has a thirty minute behind the scenes feature with reflections on history and drama from Ray Winstone, Helena Bonham Carter, Assumpta Serna, and Sean Bean. Henry VIII does pack a lot in its two parts-maybe too much- but it is historically accurate for the most part. There’s a bit of blood and violence amid all the old speaketh, but nothing too disturbing for today’s audiences. Where The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl are not for the young as well as old, teachers might enjoy a classroom showing of Henry VIII. Without all the sex and R rated romance, Henry VIII is also just right for parents wishing to give young folks some education. It has no doubt already been studied and dissected by Tudor aficionados. Fans of the cast will also enjoy. Buy or rent Henry VIII for a night of family history for you and yours. Off with her head!