26 March 2010

The Mother (2003)

Performances Keep The Mother True and Juicy
By Kristin Battestella

Yes, I’ve been making good on my promise to watch more Daniel Craig movies. After reading the details for 2003’s The Mother, well I just had to check this one out!

After visiting with their son Bobby (Steven Mackintosh) and daughter Paula (Cathryn Bradshaw), May’s (Anne Reid) husband Toots (Peter Vaughn) has a heart attack and dies. Not willing to go home and waste away like so many other widows, May stays in the city, unsure of how to move on with her life. Unfortunately, her daughter-in-law Helen (Anna Wilson-Jones) doesn’t want her in the house anymore than Bobby does. When May moves in with Paula, she puts a cramp in her lifestyle, too-for Paula is having an affair with married carpenter Darren (Craig). With nothing to do during the day, May visits with Darren as he works on building Bobby’s conservatory. They talk, have lunch, tour London, and eventually begin a sexual relationship that could destroy the entire family.

In some ways, the less you know about director Roger Michell’s (Persuasion, Notting Hill) and writer Hanif Kureishi’s (London Kills Me) little film, the better. Yes, maybe the kinky speculation gets you in the door, but The Mother is far more than some older woman’s fantasy. Though thoroughly British in locales, styles, and tone; there is a universal family feeling to The Mother. Maybe the sexual turns the film takes are fantastical, but the revealing family dynamics here paint a grim and accurate picture of how we treat- or don’t treat- the elderly. Bobby and Paula don’t bat an eye when their father passes away, the grandkids don’t recognize May and Toots when they see them, and despite everything that happens, they expect May to go away as quick as she came so their seemingly cushy but obviously imperfect London lives can go on as usual. Well, hardy har har!

The MotherVeteran actress Anne Reid (Coronation Street, Peak Practice, Bleak House) is a breath of fresh as May in The Mother. I don’t often like remakes, but I dare say The Mother deserves a tour de force American version that will get noticed by audiences. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a graceful, older American actress who would take such a role, much less do it any better than Reid’s BAFTA nominated performance. May is selfish, imperfect, flawed and wrecking her own family with her whims. She is free of her nursemaid obligations to her husband, and her family would much prefer that she just went away and did her own thing. We don’t like to admit it, but perhaps we know a pesky relative like May that is not just a burden, but a serious annoyance. We should hate her, yet she’s the most likeable person in the piece. The audience feels sorry for May. Her relationship needs, regrets, and guilty conscious are understandable. We don’t fault her one bit for trying to move on after spending her entire life in the old-fashioned, subservient shadow of her husband. Reid exceptional balances the elderly, confused, and tired aspects of May along with the fun, vital, and sexually frank scenes- in some ways, Reid is perfectly matched onscreen with Daniel Craig. May fuels the dynamics on display, and as much as we may want to look away, she won’t let us.

By contrast, us young people can absolutely relate to son Steven Mackintosh (Underworld: Evolution), his wife Anna Wilson-Jones (Hotel Babylon, Hex) and daughter Cathryn Bradshaw (Red Riding). Bobby is a rich yuppie who can’t control his own finances thanks to living beyond their means wife Helen. Paula pretends she is a talented teacher and artist, but she’s really a divorced, clingy nobody putting demands on her lover that can never be met. We have a piece of them in all of us, and perhaps that is what makes this wannabe generation even more unlikable. It’s not only that they don’t reach out to May because of their own whiny problems, but they also blame her for interfering with their lives just because she’s there. Bradshaw is particularly wonderfully unlikable as Paula. She blames her mother for all her psychological troubles, but we hardly seen hers and Bobby’s children in the film, either. Both are making the same mistakes as May might have done, but they are clearly giving her the ‘don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out’. These bitter relationships are the heart of The Mother.

At first glance, female fans of Daniel Craig would think The Mother is thee film for a post-menopausal ladies’ movie night, but this is not necessarily the case. Handyman Darren is far from the perfect James Bond hottie fans expect. Despite the revealing sex scenes, much of Craig’s look and behavior here is actually unattractive. He’s married with an autistic son, but having an affair with both Paula and her sixty-plus mother. He has no money, drinks and does drugs, and never finishes his carpentry projects. He’s no stud by any means, but Darren is the only person who shows any kind of sympathy or affection for May. Craig balances Reid with charm, frankness, and honesty about his fears of growing old and wasting away. In some ways, I’d rather their relationship continued on this mature, almost maternal and intimate level, rather than turning sexual, but therein is the question that The Mother is asking. Why should May not be sexually interested in a younger man? Why wouldn’t Darren find her attractive all around? What does her kids say have to do with it? We don’t want to be told we’re too old for this or that, but we push our elderly out the door and use them as they use us. Craig’s role as the man in the middle of these ideologies is not an easy part, but it might be the best work I’ve seen from him yet. Is it an Oscar worthy performance? Not quite, but again, The Mother proves Craig is capable of much more. Someone please put him and Sean Bean together again already!

Naturally, the subject matter here is not for young audiences or traditionalists and prudes. Not only may some find watching old people have sex makes them uncomfortable, but some of the sexual scenes are hot and heavy, too. American viewers not familiar with the slower British styles and London locales might also find The Mother ill paced and tough to understand. The now out of print DVD was somewhat bare, except for a short behind the scenes featurette and a director’s commentary, but there are subtitles for the English speaking folks who have a problem with, well, English English. Though not for all, The Mother is an intriguing look at the way we treat older relatives and how maturing sexuality can disturb and upset us. I was yelling at the television and gasping the entire time, but also intelligently pleased and satisfied with The Mother. For every shocking sexual turn, I was also struck by the ‘ain’t it the truth’ family behavior. A tough film to watch, yes- I don’t recommend one watch The Mother with his or her mother- but it’s worth the viewing. Fans of the cast and mature, avant-garde audiences should spend some time with The Mother tonight.

24 March 2010

Mrs. Miniver

Mrs. Miniver Tugs Your Heart Strings with the Best of Them
By Kristin Battestella

My Dad swears by Greer Garson, and thus he adores the 1942 William Wyler gem Mrs. Miniver. Despite my bend to the classics, I had actually never seen Mrs. Miniver or anything with Greer Garson in it! After years of Dad bugging me about this error, I finally sat down for a night with the Mrs. Well, Shame on me for waiting so long!

Mrs. Kay Miniver (Garson) and her husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon) nonchalantly worry about the little extravagances-like an expensive hat or a new car. Eldest son Vin (Richard Ney) returns from college to romance Lady Beldon’s (May Whitty) granddaughter Carol (Teresa Wright). Little Toby (Christopher Severn) and Judy Miniver (Clare Sandars) are just peachy, too. Unfortunately, when the Vicar (Henry Wilcoxon) reads England’s declaration of war against Germany, the blissful lives of the Minivers are changed forever.

More and more, I’m having trouble with these summaries and revealing plot information in my reviews. Some films you just have to go into cold, and Mrs. Miniver is one of them. I knew next to nothing about the film when I settled in, and William Wyler’s (Ben-Hur, Best Years of Our Lives, Friendly Persuasion) touching wartime piece is better this way. Yes, columnist Jan Struther’s book of essays written as the fictional persona Mrs. Miniver was adapted to the screen for wartime propaganda more than anything else. Like Thomas Paine, however, the subtle example of the stalwart civilian at home never gets old and always puts even the toughest viewer in tears- or even helps President Roosevelt weigh in on America’s eventually joining the war. Mrs. Miniver begins somewhat snotty, with uber wealthy but charming British folks debating their indulgences and the aristocratic merits of the yearly flower show. By the end of the film, however, we learn the value of the kindhearted neighbor, the stalwart vicar, the weight of the civilian life at home, and the power of the flower show that must go on.

I’ve heard comparisons between Greer Garson (Madame Curie, Goodbye Mr. Chips) and fellow English redhead Deborah Kerr. Now, not only do I not like Deborah Kerr, but I can see Garson has it all over her! Despite the luxuries, we like the titular Mrs. Miniver from the start. Garson’s pairing with Walter Pidgeon (also Madame Curie and That Fortsyte Woman with Garson) is wonderfully real and intimate. Their kindness to the less fortunate and wit against the snotty nobility is great fun to watch. Though we don’t know what the Mrs. did or didn’t do before that war that she needs all kinds of help about the house, the change in the idyllic sentiments is immediately shown. As the war sets in, Garson expertly handles the agony of the waiting parent at home. She knows what enlistments, letters from the front, and the phone calls at 2 a.m. really mean- but no one wants to admit these fears to themselves or the family. Garson owns a simple but beautiful scene of listening for the sputtering engine signal from her son flying his plane overhead. Forget all the special effects, there’s nothing a human responds to more than seeing another human run the emotional gauntlet. If Greer Garson never made another film after Mrs. Miniver, her place in the classics still would have been sealed by her Oscar win here.

Mrs. MiniverNow then, you must allow me one complaint about Mrs. Miniver. Why in these old films are there always such weird ages for the kids? The older husband and pretty wife always have an older teen or college child, then a hip ten or twelve year old, followed by someone five or under. Is that eight years between pregnancies- it’s a little unrealistic, isn’t it? The interchangeable kids are a little annoying but also understandably innocent, asking the questions the adults can’t or won’t. The young and in love Richard Ney (Joan of Arc, The Fan) and Teresa Wright (Pride of the Yankees, Best Years of Our Lives) are in such a rush thanks to the war. However, the silent, quiet looks and tight, multi-layered Oscar winning script from James Hilton (Foreign Correspondent, Lost Horizon), Arthur Wimperis George Froeschel, and Claudine West (Random Harvest, The White Cliffs of Dover) do more than modern snogging-before-you-go ever could. Again, the age disparity between Ney and real life future wife Garson hinders him a bit, but the always wholesome and charming Wright is wonderful as Garson’s understudy and the second Mrs. Miniver. In some scenes, you even wonder which Mrs. is meant to be the titular lady. Wright’s Oscar winning warmth and melting of fellow Best Supporting Actress nominee Dame May Whitty (Night Must Fall, The Lady Vanishes, Suspicion) represents all the youthful hopes for the idealistic end to the war.

We don’t see as much of Walter Pidgeon as I might have liked, but his dutiful dad is delightful, as is Henry Travers’ (that’s Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life) elder innocence over his Mrs. Miniver rose. These seemingly trivial things come to represent how critical the civilian part at home is in Mrs. Miniver. The waiting agony all around is done quietly or in clipped dialogue. There’s actually little music here, no overdone orchestrations to build suspense. Mrs. Miniver capitalizes on fine silent interplay- as in Kay’s encounter with a crashed German soldier. Helmut Dantine’s (Casablanca, Northern Pursuit) enemy pilot is a little stereotypical; but his and Garson’s examination of fear, wanting to help the wounded, and foreign capture keeps your eyes glued to the screen.

One strike against Mrs. Miniver is unfortunately the black and white photography. The music knows when to be still, yes, but the civilian sea action at Dunkirk is tough to see-and perhaps for those who don’t know the history, tough to grasp the scope of the evacuation. Thankfully, the Starlings house puts things in perspective for the viewer. At first, we might not notice the fancy pieces of the Miniver home. As the film progresses, however, we see subtle changes about the house-it’s less stylized, not as fancily dressed, understandably war torn as time goes on. By time we get to the Miniver’s bomb shelter, the war at home mood is definitely secured. Likewise, the snotty nobility is whittled down from their posh church boxes into do their wartime parts and sacrifices. Though not super-thoroughly British, Mrs. Miniver sets the tone for war-time London with talk of the Thames, aristocracy, and hints of accents. We have a stereotypically hysterical and chubby hackneyed cook Ada (Marie De Becker, Random Harvest) and a typical thin and mousy, aloof maid Gladys (Brenda Forbes, The White Cliffs of Dover); but I enjoyed the time capsule of forties filmmaking and lifestyles. Our devoted couples all have separate beds, the milkman makes his morning house call, gentleman stand when a lady enters and exits, and shocker of shockers it’s polite to offer a cigarette to someone! There’s something enchanting about these old-fashioned manners, perhaps simply because they are old and even a little out of touch with how supposedly lower class but realistic people behave. Who still wears hats and stakes their yearly comeuppance on a rose competition, really? By contrast, the onscreen simplicity of Mrs. Miniver is dynamite compared to today’s oversaturated pictures. There’s a lot less over acting here than typical of the day, and the shrill pitch of falling bombs and exploding shells are all the music that’s needed. The relatable fears of light during a black out and air raids are always relevant. The audiences today who know their World War II theater are perhaps doubly moved knowing the final devastation this war brought. The Minivers reliance on radio for news of the outside world also makes today’s viewers feel even more helpless, for we wouldn’t know what to do without our lit up electronics!

Mrs. Miniver had a serious political impact in its day, but I’m afraid this picture doesn’t get its due respect today. I read comparisons to The Best Years of Our Lives online, but I think the two are companion pieces-one dealing with the war at home during, the other the post-war difficulties after. Either way, the sentiments here never grow old. If Mrs. Miniver were made today, I have no doubt those fans of the big action war pictures would love it. However, I don’t know that casual audiences or non-classic fans can fully appreciate this film. Can a book or movie such as Mrs. Miniver do today what it did then-can any book or movie have the power to change the world in this day and age? Was it merely the humongous stakes and necessities of World War II that brought about such influential film and literature, or do we have no great cause or too many little causes in today’s generation and too much media distractions for a powerful story to take the world by storm? Mrs. Miniver is successful in its quietest, simplest moments. Four people sequestered into a tiny bomb shelter, the cat sleeping under the makeshift beds while Kay knits and Clem smokes a pipe. How accustom to raid living they’ve become; yet the adults still flinch, even reading Alice in Wonderland to each other. By time we’re down to the concluding sequences with the two trapped Mrs. Minivers, well all I can say is Wow!

Yes, I’m late in realizing it, but Mrs. Miniver deserves its place among the classics and great war films. Super young audiences might be scared by all the bombing sounds and seriously tense scenes, but older students and teachers can enjoy a classroom viewing. War buff families can also take in a viewing with the DVD. Begin your classic viewing experience tonight with the Mrs.

17 March 2010

Casino Royale Revisited!

Casino Royale, Revisited.

By Kristin Battestella

Since I was practically given a used copy of the 2 disc widescreen version of Casino Royale, I thought I might make my screen capture viewing practical and take another look at this 2006 Bond Reboot. My main comments can be found in my initial review, of course-so these are just a few more observations and analysis both pro and con. I like it. I don’t like it. I can’t decide!

To catch up, read my first review first here.

Ready? Onto the nitty gritty!

The black and white opening detailing how Bond got his 00 status is good, I might even have liked to see more time in this dark, brooding vein. The theme song is likewise edgy-although I’ve never heard of Chris Cornell, there is a little similarity in ‘You Know My Name’ to the Bond theme proper. The casino and card suit motifs in the main titles are also Bondoriffic, but where the ^&*(#% are all the saucy ladies? If something’s broke, don’t fix it! Do you know what just occurred to me the other day? All the hullabaloo about Craig’s casting was that he was a blonde. But he had dyed his hair dark for other roles, why couldn’t he just have done so for Bond? Its things like this that keep me up at night!

The African locales are a change of pace from our usually glitzy and glamorous scenery-they seem accurate enough and dangerous looking, if a bit stereotypical. I do however wish there was some Bond music in the Madagscar chase sequence and embassy fiasco. Yes, Bond is supposed to be learning the ropes-if he falls or messes up its okay. But my gosh is Stebastien Foucan superhuman? Freerunning my foot, hello Nightcrawler! The over the top circus leaps and bounds of his catch makes Bond look like an undisciplined bulldog in his pursuit. I do think Daniel Craig over bulked up to play his action influxed Bond. His clothes are too tight and too casual for him and instead of lightening Bond up, it only makes him look like a preppy tightwad. I also wonder if all these new details were supposed to pick up in addition to the big opening chase aren’t all too much. It’s so early and we’re desensitized all at once.

Of course, if you are an observant or repeat viewer, you’ll most definitely notice all the dang Sony product placement. Yes, Bond has had the latest realistic and fantastical gadgets before, but in today’s rapid age, you can’t so heavily showcase current technology. The equipment presented in Casino Royale is already out of date. That’s a little scary in its own right, sure, but I don’t suspect casual audiences are tuning in for one long commercial from the sponsor-a sponsor who’s dumping MGM right now and currently dicking the next movie. Just thought I’d mention that. As I mentioned in my Quantum of Solace analysis, I’m ready for these kinks to be ironed out all ready in the next one!

At least The Bahamas here certainly look more delightful than the cardboard Florida locales in Goldfinger, and the winning of the Aston Martin and babe Solange (Caterina Murino) is all sweet and good. Even though we’ve yet to be formally introduced, she gets to call him James, doesn’t she? The entire airport sequence is great, too, even though I do wonder if we want Bond to be so realistic that he’s battling airport terrorists. In this day and age, how does James Bond get through airport security, anyway? Q would have to be on his toes for that, wouldn’t he? Speaking of Q, now I really don’t see any reason why we couldn’t have had him in the Nassau debriefing and tracking device scene. Wow, it would have been a great place for even a Moneypenny suggestion. You can have a lady assistant beside M or a gadget man and not name them just yet. Make us speculate on how this new Bond and all the players in it are going to be, well, Bond. Even a Penelope Smallbone quip or Molly Warmflash doctor would have been fun.

Now I’ll even been nice right now, for the train ride dinner and introduction of Vesper Lynd is probably my favorite part of Casino Royale. Has anyone ever pegged Bond so right before? To me this conversation gets to the roots of Bond better than all the Bournification. Yes, you can’t spell out Bond’s account password in the amount of buttons he pushed, but the Montenegro card game, and the fight scenes and suspense within are really great. It’s Texas Hold ‘Em, of course, but the subsequent car accident is sweet, too. Unfortunately, Casino Royale takes all that promise and goes downhill from here. Again, that stupid, almost comical torture scene just seems so useless, and then the deus ex machina way out of it just stinks. Le Chiffre can’t play cards without getting hot and bothered but we’re supposed to believe he can castrate Bond without reaching for a tissue or his inhaler. I’m not buying it.

As much as I love Venice, the final half hour of Casino Royale feels bland, tacked on, and yet all to obvious. Anyone who had seen anything Bond previously will know what to expect. And frankly, I don’t care if he’s a 00 wet behind the years, Bond should know better, too. You know what might perhaps stink the most about Casino Royale? The first time I saw it, I thought, ‘Thank God! Okay, he said it, there’s the theme, now we can get on with the series again!’ I never expected the worst, least Bondtastic aspects here to follow in a whole ‘nother movie!

Lastly, for those interested I’ll mention the features on this 2-disc widescreen edition, because I’m sure the blu-ray editions and all that have treats, too. The Becoming Bond short is a half hour devoted to how this all happened, and Bond for Real showcases how all the fancy stunts were done. It doesn’t appear like there are any film commentaries here, but I’m glad the Bond Girls Are Forever television special was included here. Oh, and there’s a music video, too. It’s a little bare, with trailers for other Sony films instead of a package of Casino Royale’s promos. Yeah. Do however, check the sidebar here for my screen capture album. I did it, may as well share it!

Eh, I do recommend Casino Royale as one of the better Bond pictures to franchise fans and casual audiences alike. I enjoy it, it’s an entertaining movie, sure-but it’s still too far from what makes Bond Bond to be perfect. I don’t envy the film’s position of having to save the best of forty years of films while also chasing the modern, short-attention generation by updating a 1953 novel. Today’s audiences are too fickle to appease, so stick with what you know for Bond 23 already, please :0)

14 March 2010

Cinderella (1965)

Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella Never Gets Old
By Kristin Battestella

I’m not a girly girl by any means, but I do have a few purely indulgent, guilty pleasure pictures, and the 1965 Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella is one of them. There’s really no reason for an adult to see this television production now and fall in love; but for those of us who grew up with such charming songs and costumes, this Cinderella can still get us singing along.

After a year of adventure rescuing princesses and slaying dragons, the Prince (Stuart Damon) returns home to seek his bride. Along the road, the Prince and his entourage stop at a cottage for a drink of water. The servant girl there, Cinderella (Leslie Ann Warren), is home alone, but overcomes her fears with kindness for the guests. Later, Cinderella’s cruel Stepmother (Jo Van Fleet) and two Step Sisters Prunella (Pat Carroll) and Esmeralda (Barbara Ruick) make ready for the Prince’s homecoming ball, where the King (Walter Pidgeon) and Queen (Ginger Rogers) hope their son will find a bride. Cinderella wishes she herself could attend the ball and marry the Prince, and shortly her Fairy Godmother (Celeste Holm) appears to show her nothing is impossible!

Rodgers & Hammerstein's CinderellaSome classic audiences might remember Rogers and Hammerstein’s first 1957 television production starring the wonderful Julie Andrews, but I suspect most viewers think of this musical version before all others-except for the Disney animated tale of course. Some of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics are a little anachronistic for the fantasy medieval setting, but who cares? Long time television director Charles S. Dublin (Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, MASH, Matlock) swiftly handles the silent, dramatic scenes and balances the fun and light-hearted romance with Richard Rogers’ songs. Though not entirely for a juvenile audience, the composers of such classics as South Pacific, Oklahoma!, and The King and I touch your inner childhood with enchanting music of love, charm, and adventure. Maybe ‘In My Own Little Corner’ is a little silly, just like the ‘Impossible! It’s Possible!’ medley. ‘Ten Minutes Ago’ and ‘Do I Love Because Your Beautiful’ are indeed sappy. However, who just started singing along as you read those song titles? Cinderella is charming, catchy, fun, and even a little inspiring for the young and young at heart.

The same audiences who grew up on Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella are also probably the same audiences who watched the long running and now slowly dying network daytime soap operas. Those viewers will of course recognize Stuart Damon at the Prince, for the long time General Hospital patriarch proves he’s more than a one trick pony with some fine vocal talent. He’s a little mellow and lovey dovey, of course, but having a good time-just like his onscreen parents Ginger Rogers (Top Hat, Kitty Foyle, Monkey Business) and Walter Pidgeon (Mrs. Miniver, Madame Curie, How Green Was My Valley). Despite all the musical flare, it’s nice to see Rogers in a non-dance spectacular role, and she looks medievalriffic as the Queen. Likewise, Pigeon has fun with the revered but good-natured King with his son’s best interests at heart.

Lesley Ann Warren’s (Clue, Victor Victoria, In Plain Sight) debut here as Cinderella is a little imperfect, but delightful nonetheless. Her voice isn’t bad, but a little too raw or untrained. Warren’s capable ballet skills are also oddly displayed in a weird, somewhat out of place solo interlude- but when you’re looking at the fourth wall, pointing to mice that aren’t on your Astroturf lawn, it’s all okay. Warren is all smiles, loveable to young and old, and clearly enjoying herself with this magical introduction. Also bewitching us is Celeste Holm (All About Eve, Gentleman’s Agreement) as the Fairy Godmother. Her tongue-twisting tune isn’t easy to deliver, but Holm carries herself with the necessary grace and charm. It’s such fun to see these classic elder actors being able to perform, give back, and have a good time-unlike today where visuals and effects can overtake performance and style. Wicked Stepmother Jo Van Fleet (East of Eden, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral) and Pat Carroll (Too Close for Comfort, The Little Mermaid) and Barbara Ruick (Carousel) as her less than desirable daughters are like three kitschy blind mice. You love to hate them, but look forward to all their witty scenes. Their songs are understandably a little off key and for the humor, but the bad girl fun is just as juicy as all the fairy tale love: ‘Why would anyone want a girl like her-a girl who’s merely lovely!’

Although the music, story, and performances in Cinderella have stood the test of time, the cardboard sets and stage like production can hinder modern audiences. On one hand, yes by gosh they are absolutely hokey looking and completely fake and pathetic. Honesty, is there a green Styrofoam topiary tree in Cinderella’s garden? However, Cinderella’s châteaux also has a fun fireplace and a great set of stairs upon which to pretend. Likewise, the chandeliers and palace interiors set the mood for the big ball. Fans of musical theater won’t have a problem letting the minimal set design spark the mood, but I worry that contemporary, CGI obsessed effects mavens can’t appreciate the idea of pointing a camera at a dressed stage and letting people work. Cinderella has lovely waltzes, great songs, even horses on set! This was the height of television production heights back in the day!

The costumes are also not quite accurate to a particular time period, going rather for a mix of fantasy looks and styles from any and all medieval varieties. Nevertheless, they are delightful and everyone in the production is surely in the mood with such great outfits! Costume enthusiasts will spot the use of bright and shiny modern fabrics and way too many truncated henins–that’s the big pointy princess hat every little girl simply must have growing up that actually was as historically brief as the also appearing beehive. But come on now, ‘unicorn oil’ is also named as the remedy for Prunella’s creaking knee! Though there’s not much that can be done to fix innate blips in the onscreen values, the Cinderella DVD does have some fine sound and even a few features. The Retrospective is short, but it’s nice to see Lesley Ann Warren, Stuart Damon, and Celeste Holm recall Rogers and Hammerstein, their favorite songs, and the ambitious production.

Naturally, modern audiences have probably moved on from the dated look here to the 1997 Disney update with Brandy and Whitney Houston leading a multi-talented, lavish, culturally ambiguous version- but the young at heart who grew up with Cinderella can watch again and again and sing along just as though nearly fifty years haven’t gone by. Younger folks like me who were fortunate enough to get some viewings in as a child can also still enjoy. Very young viewers might still be charmed, as will musical and medieval fans, but tweens and up are probably better served by the 1997 redo. Pick up the DVD of the 1965 version today or dig out your video copy and sing along late at night in your own little corner in your own little chair with Cinderella.

12 March 2010

A Tale of Two Sweeney Todds

A Tale of Two Sweeney Todds
By Kristin Battestella

Despite liking musicals new and old as well as films with a touch of the macabre, I wasn’t too interested in Johnny Depp and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street amid it’s theatrical hype. However, when I discovered there was also a lesser known, purely dramatic version of our favorite homicidal barber starring Ray Winstone, well then I had to take a peak at both!

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [Blu-ray]Returning to England after being wrongfully imprisoned by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), Benjamin Barker becomes Sweeney Todd (Depp) and resumes his barbering business with the help of Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who’s meat pie shop is struggling below the cuttery. Todd plots to save his daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) from Turpin’s lustful household with the help of her admirer Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower)- but his vengeance begins with slitting the throats of his customers and then disposing of the bodies in Mrs. Lovett’s now tasty pies.

Well, the macabre is certainly an integral part of Sweeney Todd. While Stephen Sondheim’s (Dick Tracy, West Side Story) 1979 musical production stems from Christopher Bond’s 1973 play, the musical bend must indeed work best on the stage, for director Burton’s (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas) mishmash of song and blood does not work cinematically. Sweeney Todd has no choreography or complex dance numbers as we would expect in a musical-no matter what the subject matter. Although I have to say dancing would have been even worse, nevertheless we expect more than fast zooming CGI of London to accompany the big musical crescendos. That’s your action, CGI? Why make the effort to have realistic music and lyrics if it’s going to be a so obviously fake landscape? All the musical big booms happen when people are standing still, and the notes they’re holding aren’t so big anyway. What’s to catch and awe the audience?

I’m in the minority for disliking Sweeney Todd, I know, and it’s a shame for the drama is quite fine. The period and despair harkens to a Dickensian feel. Fate and story collide with coincidence and irony. It’s the uneven distribution of song and seriousness that hampers the true dramatic development-as proven by the nearly song free final half hour. Sweeney Todd’s conclusion is its finest hour, but you have to get through all the bad singing to get to it! The cockney accents don’t seem fit for the singing, and truthfully, the leads don’t sing that well.

The split personality of Sweeney Todd also hurts the performances. I get the feeling this film is meant to be a black comedy. However, as bizarre, weird, and macabre as the visuals and lyrics are; the musical styles and singing montages are still too happy for the twisted story. What are we supposed to feel while Todd is singing the ballad for his lost daughter Joanna whilst he’s killing innocent customers at his barbery? It’s just too weird for a truly dramatic, emotional connection. Thankfully, Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean, From Hell, The Ninth Gate) is worthy outside of the singing and bizarrity. His skill, depth, and range of emotion from the maniacal murderer to the tragic husband and father are all there. Nevertheless, the arrangement of Sweeney Todd never lets us forget that ‘OMG! It’s Jack Sparrow Singing! in a Freaky dark musical directed by Tim Burton!’

Despite my complaints, the sadistic murders and seriously kinky drama here is wonderful. If you’re looking for the seriousness of Sweeney Todd, the long spaces without music about the middle of the picture are delightful. But of course, the bipolar style rears its ugly head again, making the quiet scenes seem at odds with the musically laden opening. When Alan Rickman (Harry Potter) gets his tune, you suddenly realize how ridiculous it is for this horror movie to be a musical. Alan fricking Snape badass Rickman singing while laid back in a barber’s chair with a deadly blade to his throat. It’s not Jailhouse Rock I’ll tell you that!

The talented support also only has few and far between moments. Thankfully, Timothy Spall (Harry Potter, Auf Wiedersehen Pet) and a little too over the top Sasha Baron Cohen (Borat) make the most of their time. Of course, I haven’t forgotten Helena Bonham Carter (A Room with a View, The Wings of the Dove) as Mrs. Lovett. The oft-nominated star and quirky companion of Burton is exceptional dramatically-but she’s annoying as hell vocally and visually. Again, the feeling that she only got the part because she and her husband are kind of freaky and macabre is intensified by her weak singing and goofy look. Sadly, this trumps her performance. If her Bellatrix in Harry Potter got this kind of screen time in that franchise, however, I would be quite happy.

Sweeney Todd - The Director's CutFortunately, I have more praise for the BBC’s 2006 production of Sweeney Todd. This purely dramatic edition directed by Dave Moore (Merlin, The Forsyte Saga, Peak Practice) didn’t get nearly as much press as its flashy successor, and honestly I don’t know why. After serving twenty years in prison due to the crimes of his father, Sweeney Todd (Winstone) curbs his quiet, good-natured barbering and surgeoning whilst slitting the throats of the wicked jailers and street urchins who enter his barbery. After befriending and attempting to romance the widowed Mrs. Lovett (Essie Davis), Todd helps her set up a new meat pie business beneath his shop. From above, he is able to observe her suitors, dispense of them quickly, and donate fresh meat towards her juicy pies.

Ray Winstone (Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Departed, King Arthur, Beowulf) may not be as well known or beloved in America as Johnny Depp is, and it’s a damn shame. His subtle, yet sinister and kindhearted Todd is a lovely and somber performance. He dispenses justice by killing those who harm women and pain children whilst also healing kind hearted youths and performing- oxymoron as it is- kindly and comforting abortions. The examination of the sinister mixed with the faithful doctoring is slower than the spectacle of Burton’s presentation. The viewer has to pay attention to the silent ruthlessness of a man who kills because of the cynical hell on earth he witnesses, yet also seeks to make people happy where he can. Winstone is much quieter, but no less charming in his portrayal-and he does it with pure acting, not stressful singing. He’s not considered a hottie or such to the American girlie girl teens like Depp, but it’s impossible to take your eyes off Winstone in his Sweeney Todd. His barber kills Mrs. Lovett’s lovers and then presents their meat to her for cooking in her steak pies! It’s not a quirky sing a long duet here, just all disturbed Sweeney. In one twisted moment, he allows his adorable apprentice Tobias (Ben Walker, The Golden Compass) to eat one of the nefarious pies before sending him away with five guineas towards a better life. This Sweeney is much more complex than Depp’s strained appeal trying to charm the masses.

Essie Davis’ (Australia, The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions) turn as Mrs. Lovett is equal to Winstone in her somewhat more honest portrayal than Helena Bonham Carter’s crushing and happy to kill performance. Here, Lovett is beaten by her husband and is mostly uninvolved in Todd’s debauchery, yet she’s a bit kinky and loose- trouble that comes back to haunt her and change her baking business. It’s quite a pair to observe here. Todd loves Mrs. Lovett from afar and cares for her with as equal devotion as his deadly barbery. It’s more twisted than Bonnie and Clyde but no less enjoyable to watch. David Bradley (Hot Fuzz, another one of the Potter folk) is also delightfully dirty and creepy as the lecherous and blackmailing Father who abandoned Todd to prison. David Warner (Doctor Who, Hornblower, Titanic) and Tom Hardy (RocknRolla, Layer Cake) are also period piece fine as the investigator and his idealistic lieutenant closing in on Todd.

More focus is spent on the messy, Old World mix of barber skills and medical surgery in our 2006 version. Where Depp and Burton’s interpretation can be for the macabre youthful viewer, this one is not for kiddies or the faint of heart. The medical gore is more pronounced, and a few questionable sex scenes put more fuel on Sweeney Todd’s fire. A Todd who has horrid prison stories and some subsequent impotence and jealousy is far more interesting to watch as a killer than an attempt at a heartwarming but deadly family man barber. The nudity and deaths are not darkly comical by any means. However, the candlelit and natural daylight colors in this smaller television production are in some ways more pleasing to the eye than all the black, garish CGI in the musical edition. The wardrobe is perfectly colonial, too, not steampunk. I adore this straightly dramatic, thrilling, and artful production more compared to the finely decrepit costumes and art decoration from Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The musical’s positive values are simply too tainted by the over use of CGI. Perhaps Burton’s version was so popular not for its goth look and dramatic performances, but simply because it was achieved. You can have highbrow actors in a not all warm and fuzzy musical, who knew? Well, anyone who’s been following musicals knew. Sweeney Todd seems almost like a capitalistic gimmick; a who you know outside Hollywood but Hollywood approved combination of Moulin Rouge and Saw! The fine story, emotion, and drama need not such sensationalism. The 2006 edition is proof of this.

I used to like Burton’s subtle and creepy early work, and a long time ago, I did have a Depp phase- 21 Jump Street and Cry Baby, anyone? More and more, however, I feel this working pair is far too similar to Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe-too full of themselves and the extremes of what they are doing to the point of parodying themselves and banking on a niche audience always going to see anything with their names attached. I had high hopes for the Burton and Depp collaboration for a big screen adaptation of Dark Shadows. They own the rights to the series now and are of the macabre bend to do such a gothic classic. However, on the one hand, they are too busy with every other project to take the time in getting to Dark Shadows; and secondly, if this is how they are going to do, no thanks.

Well! While we wait for all that, there’s plenty here for both Burton and Depp fans-and Winstone lovers- to enjoy. Goth fans and lovers of quirky off beat film can enjoy Depp’s musical, and appreciators of suspense and Brit thrillers can keep hold of the dramatic 2006 Sweeney Todd. Both can be found for purchase affordably or through renting means. I must say, however, that my rented blu-ray of the 2007 musical froze like hell, but I suppose all the fast paced visuals are better served on blu-ray. The 2006 DVD is billed as a Director’s Cut, but there are no subtitles or any thing else with this bare bones edition- of course, there were plenty of treats with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The Todd enthusiast will delight in all that, but I fear mainstream audiences are a little left in the cold and thus missing out on a finely twisted tale. Non-musical fan won’t bother with Depp’s take nor would non-fans of British period piece flicks bother with Winstone’s show. Ideally, the best take would be the happy medium-no songs and more approachability; but if I must choose, I choose Winstone!

View, compare, or choose your close shave tonight-and be thankful to the makers of Gillette and Lady Bic!

07 March 2010

Clarissa (1991)

Clarissa Delightfully Juicy and Disturbing
By Kristin Battestella

Despite being a Sean Bean fan and a classic literature aficionado, I’ve always avoided watching the 1991 television adaptation Clarissa for one critical reason: I don’t want to end up reading Samuel Richardson’s one million word book! If The Lord of the Rings took me four months, I can’t imagine what birth I’d have to set aside for this early classic of morality and torment. Thankfully, the BBC has given us a condensed, delightful, and tragic helping here.

Clarissa Harlow (Saskia Wickham) is a chaste and devout daughter. Upon her grandfather’s death, she inherits most of his estate-much to the chagrin of her brother James (Jonathan Phillips). The ruthless but handsome rogue Robert Lovelace (Bean), meanwhile, is charming Clarissa’s sister Bella (Lynsey Baxter). However, once Lovelace meets the fair and innocent Clarissa, his attentions quickly turn to her sexual conquest, much to his and friend Jack Belford’s (Sean Pertwee) sport. Clarissa’s father (Jeffrey Wickham) and Uncle (Ralph Riach) plot for her to marry the decrepit Mr. Soames (Julian Firth), and pleas to her mother (Frances Vener) fall on deaf ears. Virtually a prisoner in her chambers, Clarissa corresponds with Lovelace and her friend Anna (Hermione Norris) with pleas of assistance. Despite the long line of broken ladies in Lovelace’s past, Clarissa flees from her family with him. Unfortunately, he soon confirms her suspicions of his true nature, and Clarissa realizes her situation may have gone from bad to worse.

Part One of this four hour miniseries feels like a quick fifty minutes where nothing really happens. Thankfully, Director Robert Bierman (Waking the Dead) kicks up Janet Barron and David Nokes’ (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) adaptation for Part Two. The audience feels for Clarissa, we have no reason to like her family and learn to like them even less as the tale moves along. However, we are also privy to Lovelace’s true colors from the start. Sometimes the pacing of the back and forth parlor drama is more annoying than it is dramatic early on, but as the complexity of the characters and situations are allowed to stew, Clarissa shifts from love or money Austen ideologies and debates to gothic, almost predatory horror. By the second half of the series, we are hooked in to seeing the degradation of the players, despite the increasing inevitability of an unhappy outcome.

Saskia Wickham (Peak Practice, Demons) treads a fine line as the titular woman in question. She is our emotional fulcrum, the one we are supposed to care about and root for. Sometimes, however, it’s tough to like Clarissa amid all the whining and back and forth highbrow discussions. We can almost understand why cruel sister Bella, Mrs. Sinclair and the working girls despise her. Clarissa is at times too good, too naive, and too dang annoying. How can she merely sit at her desk and write letters rather than see how things can play to her favor? Is she really so meek and useless? Fortunately, as Clarissa progresses, we do appreciate Wickham’s high and mighty attitudes. When she does get wise of Lovelace, it’s too late. Once stripped of her gilded cage, we can relate to Clarissa and feel for her-or at least we certainly don’t want to be her. She’s caught between two evils, and though we want to see her survive unscathed, it doesn’t seem likely.

ClarissaWe don’t have much of Sean Bean (Sharpe, Lord of the Rings, Patriot Games) and his Lovelace in Part One, but the cruel rogue turns up the fictitious charm as Clarissa develops. In some ways, he is the Vader of the piece-every use and situation is generated by Lovelace or orchestrated into his favor. Sometimes I found myself chuckling that any lady could fall for such an obvious lothario and snake-but Sean Bean plays Lovelace with such tongue in cheek delight. He is juicy, and he knows it. It is attractive, alluring, powerful, and scary all at the same time. We have no doubt that Lovelace will see his intentions upon Clarissa fulfilled. It’s a little too freaky and we don’t want to see him win, but we also know he will and must see his conquest to fruition. The viewer wants to know how far Lovelace will go, even if we regret going down the dark path with him. It’s a difficult part to play, a character within a character. Lovelace is slick and pretty-but the powdered wigs and makeup are a little garish and gaudy to us. But also, this is a very ugly role, a cruel and wicked wolf in sheep’s clothing that makes for an exceptional performance. Had Clarissa been a fancy HBO production, I’ve no doubt there would have been an Emmy nomination for Bean.

Naturally, some of the humongous book’s time and players have been whittled down, but the cruel support in Clarissa is on form. Saskia’s real life pop Jeffery Wickham (Sapphire & Steel, The Remains of The Day) is wonderfully conflicted as the stern father damning his daughter for choosing herself over her family duty, and Jonathan Phillips (Titanic, Vanity Fair) and Lynsey Baxter (Gormenghast) are equally creepy as the somewhat kinky and cruel siblings. I didn’t even recognize Hermione Norris (MI-5) as Clarissa’s good-hearted pen pal Anna, but she and Sean Pertwee (Cleopatra, Mutant Chronicles) as Jack Belford add an extra element to the series. Both are stuck on the sidelines between Clarissa and Lovelace and can’t do much to help. Belford’s realization of how far Lovelace is willing to go marks a fine turning point in Episode 3. It’s an element of hope for the audience, but we also see how far past the point of no return this situation is.

Shirley Henderson (Marie Antoinette, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) is also a naughty riot as the sassy maid Sally, and Cathryn Harrison (Soldier Soldier) as Mrs. Sinclair is delightfully cheeky and twisted as the leader of the disguised brothel effectively keeping Clarissa prisoner. We can see the prostitutes and all their deceptions for what they really are, but by time they resort to full on kidnapping, drugging, and violence with Lovelace, the writing is on the wall for Clarissa. The conclusion of Clarissa does leave a few questions and doesn’t clarify a few of the details, but a vindication of sorts and thus a satisfying conclusion is met. Now, I am tempted to find out which of Richardson’s nine volumes have all the juicy stuff and take a literary gander. Oh, darn!

Clarissa is of course, a period piece, and fans of powdered wigs and frock coats will delight. The ladies costumes are all wonderful-even the rakish styles and overdone looks look accurate-as do the houses and set dressings. For those of us who see George Washington on the US Dollar Bill daily, the men’s ponytails and curly Q bangs are quickly overcome, but others might find the male opulence somewhat humorous. Once your knee deep into Clarissa, however, the stylized world overcomes the pomp and ceremony. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles to help with accents and old world language, but the intelligent viewer will pick up on the old speaketh dialogue just fine. I was surprised to see there are a few features on the Clarissa set-including some outtakes and screen tests. The slides on author Samuel Richardson are also interesting reading, but it’s a shame there’s no behind the scenes interviews with scholars and such for the real scoop of the novel’s place in literary history.

Men who love to hate Sean Bean and the women who can’t get enough of him will love Clarissa. Fans of the rest of the cast, period piece lovers, costume connoisseurs, and literary scholars will also delight. Some of Clarissa second half is a little too heavy for youth or the classroom, but if you’re deep enough to even consider the book, then I think one is probably mature enough for the film. Clarissa is romantic and yet disturbing, charming as well as revolting. Fine performances, great visuals, and a fine story keep this adaptation of the two hundred and fifty year old tale relevant. Get to know and love Clarissa today.