18 March 2017

Quality Fantasy Tales

Quality Fantasy Tales
by Kristin Battestella

I confess it was a little tough to find the kind of fanciful viewing I was yearning to watch. Fortunately, in such fantasy pursuits I ended up with this fun and eclectic potluck of fairy tales, viking mayhem, sprite possibilities, and extra special little folk.

Beauty and the Beast – Not that one! Nor that one either! This 2014 French take starring Lea Seydoux (Spectre) and Vincent Cassel (Eastern Promises) opens with tale within a tale wishes and high seas adventures. The Old World pleasantries turn to country ruins and a colorful autumn patina while fanciful creatures and candlelit feasts pepper the overgrown interiors and natural landscapes. Yellow tavern glows and blue snowscapes match the shady villains or frozen mishaps as beautiful moonlit designs, garden realms, and hidden castles hit home the turning book pages transitions and magical, immersive narration. The pre-Tolkien style fantasy invites the healing enchantments beyond the hedge to enter our world with flashbacks of grandeur and truth revealing mirrors as the familial loss and personal blame add realistic dimension to several bittersweet animals, injuries, and upsetting hunting sequences. The score is both ominous or awe-inspiring and whimsical to match, however, at times the CGI is too obvious. Snotty sisters and a country Belle feel Cinderella derivative, and a vine covered bedroom seem Briar Rose Sleeping Beauty. The Beast's billowing cloaks while scaling castle walls also feel a little Dracula, and though PG-13, the leads' twenty year age difference unfortunately adds to the Stockholm Syndrome innuendo and underlying saucy a la The Company of Wolves. This cruel, scary jailer offers steep life or death threats and unromantic dinner demands. Fearful reflections and rough paws slowly reveal his terrible veneer – a well designed, provocative Beast. In the bonus features, Cassel says he would not have taken the role were it a masked performance and suggests actors should leave ego behind as motion capture realization of an on set performance is making prosthetic designs obsolete. The Beast's camera perspectives brim with up close shots of red lips, stockings, raised hems, and intimate dancing requests. We know what it means when he asks if she could love him, vowing she will be his whether he can fulfill her desires or not. A forceful kiss leads to penetrating ice rescues followed by roses, a more forgiving Beast, and a changed Belle wearing red asking if he will give her a ring now. Despite great costuming, Belle doesn't have much to do beyond running to or from the Beast, and her love grows as the plot says – not because the Beast redeems his brutish ways against nature's magic. The increasingly darker themes are welcome, but man's villainous nature, sacrificial penance undercurrents, and one messianic 'father forgive them for they know not what they do' scene fall prey to nonsensical fighting in the third act, leaving a generic action finale in place of the good-heartedness against cruelty, spiritual waters, and undeserved grace for a Beast who hasn't earned forgiveness. Late unraveling aside, overall this is an entertaining mix of mature fantastics and exceptional production values with no song escapades needed. The subtitles, audio options, and English dubbing by the stars keep this continental tale accessible to fanciful American audiences. Ironically, it's the long-awaited, ridiculously delayed, even buried stateside release that makes this version an elusive fantasy.

The Borrowers – There are certainly more recent updates of the Mary Norton novel, but this 1973 eighty minute TV movie adaption starring Eddie Albert (Green Acres) and Judith Anderson (Rebecca) remains charming. Granted, the videos available are low quality VHS transfers, and the seventies music sing a long moments are dated. Some of the juvenile acting is poor, the adults are occasionally over the top, and the soft volume old fashioned dialogue is tough to hear. Fortunately, the back then pastiche adds to the Victorian phonographs, doilies, and fancy woodwork – this English country manor is full of clutter with nooks and crannies a plenty where lost bits, bobs, and tiny people might hide. This is why one can never find a safety pin, lost pencil, or button. The tiny Clock Family's stove is truly all nuts and bolts and stamp artwork adorns their walls, but everyone takes tea at the same time, big or small. The miniature effects are actually not bad at all, and the under the floorboards whimsy contrasts the stuffy stiff upper lip above with adorable uses for spools, thimbles, or keys. Matches are candles to these crafty little folks, but their scavenging adventures have dangerous shortcuts. Cover your ears when traveling through the grandfather clock! Unfortunately, an eight year old boy moving in is worse than a house with cats and dogs – ugly human boys are clever, hunting and threatening to the titular trio. Does a daughter dare join her father on his borrowing trips with such peril upstairs? The below know how to be careful and not to be seen unless its time to sit and chat with the tipsy old lady of the house before disappearing some china plates from the doll house. Certainly such a big fine house is room enough to share. Why should The Clock Family be forced to live in the cold wilds like their distant relatives? Why must they flee from a suspicious housekeeper when certainly such a big fine house has room enough to share? When these inch sized parents warn their daughter about going outside and getting eaten by monsters, they mean it! Parables on whether outside curiosities or risky adventures are good, bad, or necessary ground the differences. Regardless of their size or initial fears, the children bond with inquisitive exchanges and competitiveness on who's people are more plentiful. Big humans fight and kill each other, and it makes sense that them and all their large stuff would be too much for the planet to hold. Though a fanciful tale, this is a straightforward moral reminding viewers young and old that maybe we should indeed be better custodians for any smaller things in this world that need our help. Acts of kindness and supplies gifted from the dollhouse help alleviate cross culture fears – but not before a dreaded ferret is on the chase!

Northmen: A Viking Saga – This 2014 adventure opens with stranded warriors and superb scenery – long ships, waterfalls, crisp country, brisk cliffs, misty caves, and standing stones. The sweeping vistas and archery zooms feel Lord of the Rings homage and the blues are over-saturated into a faux gritty, but these accents match the quick skirmishes, brief fireside interiors, and fast moving on foot versus horseback pursuits. Though the swords do look slightly plastic, clanging battle sounds and bloody gurgling add to the brutal slices or impalements. When these wet, bearded, angry warriors get dirty, they stay leathered and grimy, too – no pretty coifs and clean nails here. Our lady in red symbolically and visually stands out as well without being a sexy warrior maiden or a damsel in distress. She uses a crossbow and helps save the boys but can't always reload the bolt in time. However, there are also convenient psychic fantasy visions, and the storyline is too modern with no wounded left behind, ransoms on the prisoner princess set for an arranged marriage, and obviously violent dressed in black mercenaries calling themselves a “wolf pack” being obvious with their smudged eyeliner. The acting is wooden, raspy muffled voices make subtitles a must, and there's too much contemporary dialogue – women are birds, our behind enemy lines exiled vikings are outlaws, we shouldn't believe the rumors but “Vikings show no mercy!” and remember, “I'm a warrior, not a climber.” Using more native languages could have helped, but there's drinking game potential for all the Valhalla quotes. Despite cliché characters such as the would be hero son, his soft spoken BFF, the old man warrior, a rival frienemy, and a holy man good for weapons and reflection, it can be tough to tell who is who because they all sort of look like Thor. Early slow motion shouts over melodramatic deaths are too anonymous to care, but the chest pumping viking macho gets better as it goes on, balancing the action pace with campfire pauses on Christian versus pagan trusts and talk of peace that comes with a sword. Feasting songs, mead, and a few chuckles pepper the Pict legends and full moon, high tide deadlines as the quest to escape to a Viking settlement in the south is paved with perilous rope bridges, jumping off cliffs, battlefield sacrifice, and funeral pyres we can appreciate. It's a lot like Centurion actually, with enough twists and epicness that don't take the drama too seriously. This isn't a poor Asylum knock off, but there's nothing wrong with being a B style yarn not looking to franchise, origin explain, or do anything but have a good adventure – I wish more movies would take that hint. Despite its flaws, this remains a well done, entertaining European production with a fun finish.

A Little Documentary Fun

Gateways to Faerie – This ninety minute documentary invites audiences to “Discover a Hidden Realm of Mystery, Magic, and Wonder” by recounting one couple's whimsical connections to all things faerie. Granted, this is presented on Amazon Prize via UFO TV, and the narration is immediately storyteller rather than factual regarding the potential for mystical cohabitation between humans and fey and why people forgot magic and gave in to this veil between the races. Some montages, graphics, and fantasy overlays are silly. Often the subject matter is hokey or New Age in the worst way – i.e. when people negatively peg something as 'new agey' – and the overlong duration is at times a self-indulgent biography of its presenters. This chat is metaphysical, debating the essence of energy that we manifest as anthropomorphic sprites alongside similarities between natural elements and quantum physics or unexplained science phenomena. It would have been nice to have an in tune scientific expert agreeing on this wavelength (hee, puns). However, the once upon a time start makes no pretense about facts or accuracy. This lighthearted presentation has fun with its interviewees, invoking a sense of childhood wonder with which we have lost touch and should revisit in that Victorian sense of fantasy where something creative or magical and closer to another realm may be just around the next bend. Instructional how-tos on building mini faerie houses with natural materials and infusing one's model with unique art and ritualistic design add a tangible can do to the whimsy while pleasant music, lovely landscapes, and rustic scenery make this a soothing background piece for a relaxing evening – whether you fully embrace the more out there beliefs and extra om presented or giggle at the poetic peacefulness. Either way, it's a chance to not be so cynical – I don't think this is meant to be taken so seriously yet reminds us have a sense of humor and not be so flippant about respecting nature. If you believe you can see something with no preconceived expectations, anything you can imagine is possible, so go ahead and craft it, write it down, and inspire. Is this kooky and hippie high? Yes. Ridiculous at times? For sure. Scholars will hate that there is no discussion on faerie history, evidence of past cultures' beliefs, or pagan legends and information, but earth friendly folk and viewers looking for some trippy fun will delight in this whimsical lark. After all, those little store bought fairy garden decorations are certainly popular these days!

03 March 2017

Top Ten: James Bond!

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

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

Our Top Ten James Bond Movies!

Please see our Action labels and James Bond Tags or our Bond Overview page for even more!

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

01 March 2017

Quality Science Fiction Tales

Quality Science Fiction Tales
By Kristin Battestella

These recent and retro science fiction tales provide genre statements, epic adventures, and intergalactic visuals for some speculative but quality escapades. 


Narcopolis – Crime thrills and neo noir science fiction mix in this 2015 crowd sourced bender as CEO drug lords, corrupt officials, and noble but bottom dwelling cops vie for control in a futuristic world of legalized drugs and time travel. Pharmaceutical suppression, work cutbacks, and allotted utilities keep the public down in the city and looking for any kind of fix, and citizens are statistics, designated or unregistered people with unlicensed drugs deemed unworthy to have their victimizing investigated. Cop Elliot Cowan (Lost in Austen) begins as a typically angry lone wolf with a rap sheet and his own muddled history, but he's trying his best to protect his family – even if that means being late in giving his son a book for his birthday and distancing his wife from his work. The bleak concrete and desolate highway duty feel more grim reaper than cop as he catalogs dead junkies in a sort of mea culpa penance. We get the seedy mood without the unnecessary nudity, in your face music, nightclub strobe, and slo mo flashbacks of a rock bottom disaster. Fortunately, the cool effects are mostly reserved for future actions as people who haven't been born yet wearing watches that aren't yet invented pop through time thanks to freaky drugs injected through the eye. The how and why fantastics tie the suspect evidence and shady company dealings together, keeping the drug dystopia, contemporary crime, and paradox twists intriguing. However, the plot does drag, playing it safe or not going far enough as if this short premise is stretched too thin for a feature. 2044 to 2024 also seems too recent a time frame, with dated mobiles and skyping medical examiners also using convoluted, hi-tech DNA scans – and come on, today's millions of paperbacks are going to be scarce oddities seven years from now? The half-baked megalomaniac corporate villain should have remained unseen, and Jonathan Pryce (Tomorrow Never Dies) accents the touching generational aspects alongside Harry Lloyd (Game of Thrones) – who should have been used more. Why is he in so many movies for five minutes cameos? Tender moments in the final act raise the future risks, making wrongs right, and second chance escapes. Of course, the audience figures out the on the nose references to The Time Machine immediately, and the try hard gritty doesn't fully address the cult like power of this drug stranglehold – a suit at the top hiring the street peddlers to offer candy and magic to kids door to door is still the same drug trade in a new corporate uniform. However, the going through the motions numbness and corruption aggravating the situation for its own gain feels nineties throwback amid the sequestering control and corporate parallels certainly familiar today – a little twenty year reversal in itself. Although this isn't anything serious SF fans haven't seen before, the futuristic framing and genre statements make this an interesting little indie.

Quintet – This bleak 1979 tale – a rare science fiction outing from Paul Newman – is an icy, desolate two hours with snowbound civilization, small humans braving the bluster, birds a rare sight, scarce seal hunting, and memories of trees. Echoes, broken glass, icicles, and dangerous crackling sounds accent the ruined photos, damaged crystal chandeliers, shaggy beards, and bundled clothes. The information center no longer transmits, ten or twelve years have passed but who can be sure, children and pregnancy are uncommon, and water is everywhere but precious alongside lost life affirming opportunities and somber river burials. Despite his chilled exterior, Newman's Essex isn't unfeeling, however he doesn't initially realize just how high stakes the titular game is until the coercion, explosions, Latin oaths, slit throats, and assumed identities. He has a list of names due revenge, but the killings must play out within the Quintet rules. While promotions at the film's release included how to play brochures, today us not knowing the specifics on the mysterious sixth man in a five player game adds an interesting confusion to the high brow competition, and viewers must pay attention to the one man SF chess. At times, the game concepts fall flat and the trying hard statements on the cult-like mentality of the tournament don't quite come across. Like the solitary plodding and stilted chill it depicts, this is slow to start and the runtime could have been trimmed, but this shouldn't be a globe trotting, fantastic fun filled pretty people adventure game the way a modern movie would be, either. Mentions of five million people struggling in color coded sectors also don't quite register thanks to the small scale production, but prowling dogs, frozen carcasses, and on location filming at the abandoned Montreal Expo create realism. Director Robert Altman's (The Long Goodbye) decision to film with a foggy, Vaseline framed camera lense, however, misfires. The idea of the audience peering through the blurred trim of a frosted glass adds style while hiding cut production corners – the edging even mirrors the titular pentagon shaped symbolism that dominates the futuristic furniture and decor. Unfortunately, the execution is too noticeable and perhaps should have been used for indoor scenes only. Here hope is an obsolete word, and the desperate, arbitrary deceptions hit home the insensitive nothing else left to do but kill pointlessness – you bleed to stay alive and help decrease the population a little faster. Bitter tenderness and some tense shocks accent the cerebral tone as the intriguing melancholy escalates in the final act, and this somber, life imitating art statement is eerily prophetic in the notion of games and movies becoming social reality obsessions.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – This 2016 offshoot set before the original Star Wars certainly has pleasant visuals, pretty planetary vistas, intergalactic cities, and epic island battles. However, the spectacle doesn't overtake the sad family separations, weapons coercion, labor camps, extremist leaders, and bleakness of life under the Empire. Such hopelessness remains the film's unifying thread amid ties lost and gained, near gone Jedi philosophies, competing rebellion tactics, doubts on whether a life like this is worth living, and where you take your stand when the line is drawn. Those seeking it can find modern political parallels in the cinematic tensions, but the personal attachments to the refreshing, multidimensional ensemble are more important. There's no romance between the leads, either, another fresh turn against the usually required movie matchmaking. Instead, these likable rogue heroes – including Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Diego Luna (Y tu mamá también), Riz Ahmed (The Night Of), Donnie Yen (Ip Man), and more – become their own reformed Han Solos. Even Alan Tudyk (Firefly) who's hidden behind the delightfully charming K-2SO droid remains memorable, and the audience wants these rebels from the Rebellion to succeed in their choice for hope regardless of the consequences, leaving their mark long after the picture assures the stolen Death Star plans make it to Star Wars as we know they would. Older stars such as Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal), Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline), and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland) anchor the nods to this galaxy far, far away alongside the returning Genevieve O'Reilly as Mon Mothma, Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa, and familiar hallmarks such as Yavin 4, X-Wings, and more surprises. There's even an “I have a bad feeling about this” quip – almost. Unfortunately, I'm hesitant about the digital revival of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. Absolutely positively, I love the deserved respect with such a critical role and careful attention to detail. The composite isn't out of place, yet, when you've watched enough of his movies, it just reminds you that this isn't really Peter Cushing. It's a great technical achievement, but being aware of the wizardry makes the moral implications of using a late actor's likeness on a body double a distraction. For all its impressiveness, a blurry hologram message or onscreen video communiques would have sufficed, and Star Wars footage is used to recreate the X-Wing squadrons. There's uneven, convoluted techno babble, too – with ridiculously simple flick the switch/press the button/insert the data tape, some poor dialogue, and confusing planet hopping. Rewrites, editing changes, missing scenes, and reshoots are apparent, however the realization that this is the Star Wars movie we didn't know we needed bests any technicalities. Between the Prequels and the now de-canonized Extended Universe, who knew there was room for an entire movie leading up to the hours before Star Wars? Where The Force Awakens understandably re-endears with similarities to A New Hope, I'm still surprised this mature and sophisticated catharsis is a Disney movie. The only real trouble with this Star Wars Story is where it goes in a viewing marathon. Always introduce with the Original and Empire, let Han Solo in carbonite stew and remind us why the Empire must be defeated with Sith and Rogue One before coming home with Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Let this be your bittersweet Jar Jar palette cleanser!

An Unfortunate Skip

Outcasts – Although this 2011 eight episode limited series opens with intergalactic intrigue, the promising science fiction falls prey to standard television trappings. This refuge from Earth isn't what the New Haven colony had hoped – while some are grateful to be alive, others see this bleak time for humanity as an opportunity for power. Older adults and younger characters alike have touching recollections of how Earth used to be, and the title fits for both those willfully exiled and those cast beyond the colony's walls. Unfortunately, the survival science versus planetary pursuits are slow, few, and far between – feeling like thinly disguised The Next Generation meets Earth 2 threads when not taking a backseat to teen angst or bar fights. Archaeological evidence and alien frequencies remain B plots behind killer husbands and Lost delays with little purpose or explanation, and their technology is embarrassingly all over the place – space travel and memory revisiting machines but no way to tell if a hurricane’s a coming? Unlikable personal twists undercut already superfluous characters who run around each week or play cards when they are supposed to be exploring the exiled clones, diamond oceans, and non-corporeal beings. Obvious religious charlatan/smirking narcissists and political coups underestimate the audience with glossed over critical points and unnecessary on the nose tensions. Despite fine special effects, planetary vistas, and a neo noir feeling with dark corridors and cramped spaceships re-purposed as pioneer housing, there’s not a lot of actual SF and the odd timeframe embraces no genre wonder. Show us the settlement start with viruses, explorations, and excised soldiers or move to another five years on with a firm outpost thrust with surplus arrivals and strife. Instead, two cops do most of the work amid one nurse and a murdering botanist, relegating the lack of pregnancy and reproduction issues as secondary to guest of the week Gilligan's Island fodder. Veteran performances from unstable and talking to ghostly aliens in disguise Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones) and the steely but surprisingly stiff and washed out Hermione Norris (MI-5) can't detract from this disappointing lack of focus, and when they say their planet is named Carpathia after the Titanic's rescue ship, well I just think of Vigo from Ghostbusters II.