14 February 2020

Dickensian



Performances Make the Flawed Dickensian
by Kristin Battestella



Shades of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dombey and Son, and Little Dorrit pepper winks to David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby in the BBC's 2015 mash up Dickensian. This ten hours plus series from creator Tony Jordan (EastEnders) features murder mysteries from A Christmas Carol and prequel fallout for Bleak House and Great Expectations alongside twists from Olivier Twist and a potluck of Charles Dickens' characters from Our Mutual Friend, Martin Chuzzlewit, and more buying and selling at The Old Curiosity Shop. It's surprising no one attempted this novelty before, however the Marley meets Fagin gimmick wears thin thanks to uneven pacing, poorly focused storytelling, and a meandering intermix of too many characters. Fortunately, strong performances and superb source material keep the melodrama worthwhile.

Scowling townsfolk, death beds, and shocking will readings open Dickensian as wealthy made paupers, meager wages, unpaid debts, arguing businessmen, and creepy child dealings make for a melancholy Christmas Eve. It's moody and surreal to see famous characters populate the same cobblestone streets and ominous back alleys, congregating as we recognize the eponymous names and places before Christmas morning brings blows to the head, coroners, and inspectors on the murder case. Dickensian has a lot to do and moves fast – maybe too fast when viewers aren't sure yet who has an important part to play and which characters are merely window dressing, spying on the comings and goings over subdued holiday celebrations. Everyone's a suspect montages and redundant whodunit zooms for each person can also be too humorous a la the 'burbs despite humble gift givings, police questioning, and motives run amok. Mysterious journals, clues, and stolen wallets but other valuables left on the dead are plotted and edited as a modern thriller rather than a traditional period piece, yet the audience most familiar with these characters and the literary references is more likely the older Victorian fan than fast moving younger viewers. At times the great attention to Dickens details is too much – it would take more than one viewing of Dickensian to catch them all – yet we're also supposed to enjoy characters in separate storylines bumping into each other by mere happenstance or pick pocket in a scene transition disguised as a connection. Gossip about the murder spreads fictitious details of strewn innards as messages are burned and families argue. Pauper's graves and poor proposals begat modest weddings, but a codicil in the will leads to ruinous investor schemes. Smitten older aristocrats come courting with awkward tea visits as baubles are bought and pawned and desperate loans mount. Orchestrated jealousies and faked dog rescues escalate amid no alibis, arrests, and ruined nuptials. Debt collections are suspiciously erased whether they may have been collected or not, and despite Dickensian's back and forth nature, the best moments are when the action stays still and the players have time to really act. It's not quite clear which plot is the main focus here – Great Expectations meets Bleak House or A Christmas Carol meets Oliver Twist – and unrelated sidelines further upset the uneven balance as more new characters with familiar names, arranged suitors, and departed true loves come and go. Previous assault charges, witnesses, and drinking contests lead to rooftop dares and ingratiated villains, and Dickensian is again stronger when there are no cutaways from the murder questioning and action on the trail. Pleas to forgive arrears fall upon reluctant lawyers and merciless lenders as goods are seized and women high or low remain beholden to the nearest man – father, brother, lover, husband, or pimp. Constables gain sympathy and valuable testimony by feeding street urchins mutton pie, but a reward for the killer only makes for costly kisses, beatings, and debtor's prison.


Despite such potential, halfway through Dickensian, the episodes begin to feel the same. Threats are a long time coming, and it's sad to see the ladies love the wrong man even if the bitterness isn't surprising because we know how their novels end. Strong arming creditors, plotting couples looking for their come up, and soldiers who can't get a promotion go round and round amid for love or money break ups and off the book warehouses. Poor villagers are ironically happier in many ways compared to the losing wealthy and shady folk putting themselves out to gain or maintain. Surprise relatives, detectives tête-à-têtes, and unusual evidence pits suspects against each other before fainting spells, jails, and clever escape plans. After a sagging middle and humorous side stories that stall more important events, the dalliances, lies, and sabotage come together in the penultimate episodes as constables resort to brutal methods in gaining confessions. Something finally feels like it's happening on Dickensian thanks to bloody pregnancies and sisterly arguments where the uninterrupted drama is allowed to be the sole focus. Critical letters are burned, doctors don't arrive in time, and the Bleak House prequel angst again makes the case that Dickensian should have narrowed its concentration. These characters can coexist, sure, but don't force everything to happen at the same time so they undercut each other. Time is running out to find the killer, and revisiting the murder alley, its killer blows, and the personal motives are just as much about the deduction on the case as reminding the audience that we're supposed to be solving a crime. Apparently its been weeks onscreen – if not more if we think too much about the weather changes and early pregnancies – and in plain sight evidence should have been realized a long time ago. Was the malice planned or was it just an ordinary man in terrible circumstances? Flashbacks of the crime are well done with a surprising murder weapon, tearful revelations, and excellent performances as the ensemble carries the new twists on the familiar tales. Unfortunately, once the murder is resolved, the supersized finale returns to the same old back and forth. Forgotten characters are suddenly at the forefront wasting time while weak siblings quickly mature. Lawyers and strongmen come together as secrets are finally let out, but if it were all so simple, why did it take so long? The disastrous weddings and sour culminations leading to Great Expectations are superb enough thanks to more fine performances, yet Dickensian doesn't even need this entry if it's going to be cluttered with falling flat obtuse. In the end, the series is so busy setting up its gimmick with one and all at the pub for a sing a long that Dickensian forgets to embrace the dynamite characters Dickens left to explore.

The family's East India Trading Company deals have gone belly up, but Sophie Rundle's (Peaky Blinders) Honoria Barbary doesn't know about the misfortune – unlike Alexandra Moen (Doctor Who) as her serious, spinster sister Frances. Honoria works in a dress shop and tarries with her poor soldier boyfriend, but her glowing, youthful countenance turns pale and sad as she is forced to choose between her family and happiness. Frances is almost gleeful in giving Honoria the bad news, turning cruel in setting up her sister in a loveless marriage with an older aristocrat rather than build her own life. Honoria takes on their circumstances and potential scandals, bearing the guilt, punishment, and consequences we later know in Bleak House. Stephen Rea's (The Company of Wolves) Inspector Bucket, however, is straight forward and methodical, putting people in their place with facts. His new detective unit must investigate, gather evidence, and find the perpetrator to prove its merits, and Bucket stays determined despite a bad back and preferring to be home with his wife. He takes no pleasure in punishing the decent for committing a necessary evil and takes an honest man at his word even if he doesn't believe the killer when he hears the surprising confession. Bucket's infuriated more with child trafficking not being against the law, and he struggles when justice isn't satisfied. Only Omid Djalili (His Dark Materials) as Mr. Venus speaks frankly with Bucket, for he is able to see the criminal scenarios objectively when Bucket becomes too close to the case. Tuppence Middleton's (Clean Skin) Amelia Havisham is likewise reluctant to take advice upon inheriting most of father's estate. She's shrewd in business, aware of costs and new safety designs, and doesn't want a man to solve her problems. Unfortunately, Amelia is so smart yet so foolish, wanting to be loved despite all the red fags. Her melancholy end toward Great Expectations is excellent – no thanks to Tom Weston-Jones' (Copper) Meriweather Compeyson. The con artist is supposed to reunited Amelia's money with his fellow plotter Joseph Quinn (Les Miserables) as her brother Arthur, but Compeyson bends all the shady angles for himself. His slick takes over the increasingly drunk and desperate Arthur like an abuser in a relationship, and Arthur soon regrets their association. John Heffernan's (Dracula) lawyer Jaggers is as close as Dickensian comes to having one person involved and aware of every situation thanks to will stipulations and financial matters. He treads carefully, warning clients not to trust so easily, yet nobody listens to him, and the character remains terribly underutilized.


Peter Firth's (MI-5) nasty Jacob Marley personally knocks on reluctant doors for his payments and gets his kicks with Fagin's clientele. His infamy precedes him as he threatens one and all, and it's said one would be very disappointed in trying to find anyone to shed a tear for him. Likewise Ned Dennehy (Peaky Blinders) as his partner Ebenezer Scrooge is only concerned with people if his money is in their pockets, calling in his loans regardless of illness or holidays. He humbugs at Marley's dalliances when they interfere with business and wants the whole firm to himself. People can't pay him back at their convenience, he has terms and their collateral, and it's their lack of foresight if they speculate and lose money. Robert Wilfort's (Gavin & Stacey) Bob Cratchit dares to question why his thirteen shilling pay is being docked by Marley, struggling over a one pound loan before taking a Christmas Eve stroll when the shops are closed to steal leftovers in the trash. Family is sacred to him and Jennifer Hennessy (Death Comes to Pemberley) as Emily Cratchit. Their children – including engaged seamstress Martha, young apprentice Peter, and sickly Tiny Tim who's somehow the same age as in A Christmas Carol seven years later are their priority. Mrs. Cratchit brings Bob pies at work and despite their situation, the family is happy and festive, appreciative of the little things and protective of each other because they are all they have. Anton Lesser (The Hollow Crown) as creepy, shrewd taking Fagin, however, keeps his underlings in line with food, shelter, and threats. He claims to have their best interests at heart, insisting his charity is better than these youths being on the street, yet he'll blame them to save himself from the noose. Where Dickens could only imply the Victorian severity, Dickensian realistically addresses the city underbelly, and Fagin offers to sell Nancy to Bill Sykes for fifty pounds. It's odd then, that at times, Fagin is also portrayed sympathetically, sad as his minions leave him before they kiss and make up – dragging on when their tale seems ended in order to set up the titular Oliver for a second year that would never happen. Delicious meetings between Scrooge and Fagin also come too late when their crusty curmudgeonry could have been so juicy. Why should Bethany Muir's (The Little Drummer Girl) Nancy trust in the law when girls like her die all the time and nobody cares? She's told to make nice to all the rich men, but comes to trust the Inspector and love Bill. Nancy doesn't think love can feed you or keep you warm but Mark Stanley's (Game of Thrones) Bill is saving up his money so they can start a new life. Fagin says Nancy deserves better and mocks Bill, but he's tired of being Fagin's patsy – leading to bittersweet moments when we know their tender ultimately has a terrible outcome.

With so many characters on Dickensian – listed alphabetically in the opening credits – one almost needs a who's who and from which book chart. However, some players in this ensemble are just irrelevant clutter, including ruddy nosed and gin loving Mrs. Gamp, crusty one legged Mr. Wegg, and gossipy original character Mrs. Biggetywitch. Rather than jolly good Victorian charm, these superfluous busybodies are out of place amid the murder mystery and prequel drama, and the isolated, bickering Bumbles serve no purpose but to test the fast forward button itch. During the British airing of Dickensian as twenty half-hour episodes, it must have been very easy to tune out and not go back thanks to such a crowded screen and confusing internal chronology. The edgy strings and modern theme music also sound too generic when a voluminous period score would set off the colorful frocks, carriages, antiques, pocket watches, and top hats. We don't get to see the breweries and churches nor much of a house beyond its front door facade. The grass is obviously fake and the interiors feel tight with close quarters filming, yet Dickensian's snow, horses, and birds chirping are better than time wasting CGI sweeping across a fake ye olde Londontown cityscape. Balls, chandeliers, and grand interiors contrast the fiddles and candlelit accessories while tolling bells, parchments, quills, and lanterns create period mood. Back alleys add ominous underbellies and fog sets off the whodunit flashbacks. Dickensian looks great, but the series is twice as long as it should be and not as tightly woven as the master himself could have done. If Dickensian had been made ten years prior, perhaps it would have had more Masterpiece weight than Downton melodrama. It's not as good as it could be, paling in comparison to earlier BBC adaptations such as the 1998 Our Mutual Friend, the 2005 Bleak House, and the 2011 Great Expectations. The gimmick is often more important than the narrative, and Dickensian would have worked better as television movie events – mash ups between A Christmas Carol mystery and Oliver Twist downtrodden separate from the upscale bitter of Great Expectations and Bleak House prequels. Too many characters and a lacking focus make Dickensian too complicated to lure new viewers to Dickens and those failed hopes for a second season. Having said that, the rich source material keeps Dickensian likable for literary and period piece fans thanks to entertaining moments and worthwhile performances.


07 February 2020

Best of the Decade: 2000-2010!



It's the Best of the Decade: 2000-2010!


No. That's not a typo.

Is the old decade actually over and are we really in the new one yet? We know the aughts are in the books, so to avoid all the recent Y2K20 is it or isn't, let's instead look back at some of I Think, Therefore I Review's favorite films from 2000 to 2010...

Or should that be 1999-2009? It was actually kind of tough to find a worthy list for this, as many of the movies initially included from memory did turn out to be from 1998 or 99 and 2011 or 12. As it happens, we also didn't review a lot of the big hits and many good films are certainly missing, but here's a rundown of our memorable horror and indie analysis nonetheless along with a few television hits and actor bonuses. Because why not?


Our 2000-2010 Favorites in Chronological Order include:




Television Favorites from the Decade include: Enterprise, Merlin, The Tudors, and Wallander

Actor who Started the Decade Well but has Faltered since: Gerard Butler
Actor who Ended the Decade Well but has since Faltered: Michael Fassbender
Actor who Started the Decade Great and is Going Strong despite Numerous Onscreen Deaths: Sean Bean

Best Most Favoritistist Movie of 2000 Not Yet Reviewed: Memento, people, Memento.




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 Best Of Lists will generally only include films, shows, books, or music previously reviewed at I Think, Therefore I Review.

30 January 2020

Dracula (2020)



Netflix's New Dracula is Downright Frustrating to Watch.
by Kristin Battestella



Initially I was excited for the BBC/Netlfix 2020 co-production of Dracula featuring Claes Bang (The Square) as the infamous Transylvania count terrorizing lawyer Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) before sailing to England on the subsequently cursed Demeter. Unorthodox nun Agatha Van Helsing (Dolly Wells) tests all the legendary vampire elements in a cat and mouse battle against Dracula. His survival into the twenty-first century spells doom for fun loving Lucy Westerna (Lydia West), and unfortunately, the poorly paced, uneven back and forth between the Bram Stoker source and intrusive contemporary changes make for some terribly torturous viewing.

"The Rules of the Beast" opens with annoying extras already calling attention to themselves as nuns surprisingly blunt about faith or the lack there of try to make sense of this Mr. Harker and his monstrous experience. Beginning with the convent rescued is an interesting place to recap the preceding horror, so there's no need for weird questions on whether Harker had sex with Dracula. Such sensationalism underestimates vampire fans familiar with the tale and lures new audiences with the wrong notes. After the opening credits, snowy Carpathian prayers, crosses, and howling wolves restart the story with the more recognizable coachmen creepy and ominous castle. The full moon, booming door knocker, and fluttering bats build toward famous introductory quotes as Carfax Abbey paperwork and tutoring in English etiquette force Harker to stay with Dracula. Sadly, the actors don't have much room thanks to the orchestrated frame – the convent interrogation intrudes on the castle tension while extra zooms or hisses over blood and broken mirrors point out the obvious. Rather than letting the audience enjoy the eerie for themselves, the harping voiceover undercuts any ominous with “So it struck you as strange? And so your search continued. Tell us.” minutia. The womanly phantoms and gothic explorations take a backseat as we're told how Dracula gets younger and Harker grows gruesome – ruining the sinister irony by giving away gory discoveries, bodily contortions, and spinning heads. Viewers anticipate the fun house horror shocks and laugh as the undead leap out at the screaming Harker before another monologue ruins the quiet reveal of Dracula's crypt. Spinning panoramas and intercut, fast talking plans over-edit Dracula in that British heist movie or clever case closed Sherlock tone. Dollies into the mouth of the biting vampire are special effects for the audience instead of painful for the victim, and everything stalls for “You were about to explain how you escaped from the castle.” redundancy. It takes ten minutes to explain how sunlight reflected from a cross burns the vampire as if it's some shocking revelation, but at least the nuns are ready with stakes when Dracula begs for entry at their gate with severed heads and convent slaughter tacked on in the final fifteen minutes.


Crawling hands, ship-bound nightmares, and onscreen notations introduce the captain, crew, and passengers of the Demeter in “Blood Vessel” alongside ominous cargo boxes, buried alive scratches, and dead deckhands. However onscreen chess parallels unfortunately fall prey to typical attractions between Dracula and our female Van Helsing. Characters wax on how books must immediately engage the audience and today's horror loves a frame narrative, yet editors would ditch the prologues, bookends, and flashbacks. Once again, the episode restarts with one and all coming aboard – including Dracula and a Goodfellas freeze frame to point everything out for the audience. Despite the Demeter disturbia, the back and forth setting is ambiguous, and flashbacks again disrupt the point of view. Humorous questions about going to the dining room when one doesn't eat food fall flat, and intriguing passenger opportunities go unexplored in favor of baiting homosexual mixed signals. Dracula roughly attacks men from behind before wiping the blood from his mouth with the closeted newlywed's napkin. Bram Stoker already wrote of the bite as sex metaphor, so treating the vampire suckling, flirtatious nods, and knee squeezes as a disease to demonize gay men comes off wrong. If this Dracula was going to address more sexual topics, it should have done so properly instead of toying with both characters and viewers. The turbulent ship is a superb locale, yet there's no sense of space. Is Dracula attacking people and oozing blood in the crowded dining room or leaving bodies above deck in front of everybody? The disjointed editing doesn't disguise the muddled scene, for key pieces of action that should be shown in real time are withheld for later spooky flashes. Lackadaisical live tweeting style voiceovers with a lot of “I don't understand” and “but I assumed” interfere with the locked cabins, unseen travelers, and tantalizing murder mystery. Searching the ship, suspect evidence, and pointing fingers on who can't be trusted are delayed for mind games and let downs from the first episode nonsensically tossed in here. Dracula toys with the crimes so he can solve the case with winks on what a great detective he is, detracting from Van Helsing's book quotes and passenger tensions. At first, it seems so cool to see Dracula up to no good aboard the Demeter, but once the episode backs itself into a corner, one almost wishes we had just seen the passengers on the vampire deduction themselves.

Contrived answers as to how Dracula got out of his watery grave in “The Dark Compass” aren't shrewd, just gimmicky – pulling the rug out from under viewers with chopped up, non-linear storytelling. After Dracula labors for over two hours on adapting the beginning of the novel – albeit with new intrusions – the series up and decides to move into the present, restarting again with trailer park terrors and in world inexplicable. The vignette style disarray encourages audiences to half pay attention to fast moving scares with no time to ask questions as the beach raid serious gives way to Dracula laughing at technology and playing with cameras. Underwater preservation, diving teams, accidental fresh blood revivals, and science briefings studying Dracula are treated as less important than his being down with the lingo or telling doctors his blood connections are like downloading memories. Dracula has a grotesque reflection showing his age, police bulldoze a house so he won't have a roof over his head during the day, and seeing inside the bite reveals a unique abstract limbo. Poisoned blood makes him vomit and this vampire research foundation was founded by Mina Murray in Jonathan Harker's name, but any intriguing background or choice horror gets dropped for deadpans like Dracula wondering why his jailers gave him a toilet and “Who gave him the wi-fi password?!” Phones, photos, and raves introduce viewers to a whole new set of characters, and where Dracula painfully dragged out earlier episodes, now the cemeteries, supernatural, and undead move at lightning speed. Problematic cancerous blood, suspect scientific organizations, and ill characters drinking the vampire samples stall thanks to sassy emails from Dracula read as a voiceover – avoiding one one one confrontations for glossed over montages skipping to three months later where there's no longer any pretense at this being a gothic novel adaptation. Existential wordy wordy on flavor, being in love with death, and suggestions that Dracula has lived so long simply because he is a coward afraid to die are thrown at the screen in the final fifteen minutes alongside Hammer knock offs and a stake through the heart dusting ripped right from Buffy. The “Children of the night...” quote finally comes in a fascinating sequence about hearing the still conscious dead knocking in their tombs, but the lack of paranormal follow through, forgotten up to no good foundation, and barely there medical crisis are infuriating when this science meets occult agency versus new to the millennium Dracula could have been a series in itself.


It's a lot to ask for the audience to like an unlikable protagonist with no redeeming qualities thanks to glowing eyes, gross nails, and tasty babies in bags. Claes Bang's Count is white haired before being re-invigorated as a well spoken Englishman – he has the gravitas in serious moments inspired from the novel, but the jolly good clever retorts replace any menace. Dracula need not explain anything, yet our mustache twisting, almost camp villain wastes time mansplaining into the new century even as sad crescendos suggest we should be sympathetic to his crocodile tears. His powers are more cinematic convenience than supernatural, and the glib gets old fast as Dracula complains about exercise while he swipes left for his latest food delivery hook-up. Bang deserved to have a faithful adaptation to sink his teeth into, but the script has the character patting himself on the back before giving up just because the page says so. It's also obvious Dolly Wells (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) is our Van Helsing when we see her. Using the Stoker text as she explains the undead and waxes on having plans not faith when dealing with those denied salvation are strong enough characterizations, yet Dracula sacrifices her action with too much reflective talking. Agatha doesn't believe in God but stays in their loveless marriage for the roof over her head, but her serious study is hampered by super sassy bordering on ridiculous. She stands face to face goading Dracula over his invitation status when she isn't sure of the no vampire entry rules, and their debates are played for temptation. Agatha admires and encourages Dracula, but her lack of undead information leads to deadly consequences. How can she be both bungling sardonic and grandstanding with not today Satan speeches? It's not seeing the actors acting per se, but the scene chewing intrusions are too apparent as Agatha tells Dracula's to suckle boy before her great great grand niece Zoe swaps hemoglobin with him for some cryptic ancestral conversations – which could have been awesome if they weren't tacked on in the last twenty minutes. Despite spending the first episode with John Heffernan's (Dickensian) pasty, deformed, and desperate Jonathan Harker in an unnecessarily drawn out account, we never really know the character because so much of his development is given to others. His outcome is also significantly different than in the novel, and Morfydd Clark (The Man Who Invented Christmas) is surprisingly almost non-existent as his fiancee Mina Murray. Glittery Lucy Westerna loves selfies and making the boys jealous, but I wish we saw Lydia Wells (Years and Years) in Victorian frocks instead of modern cool and cliché party girl garb. Viewers are tossed into her pretty snobbery before skipping to her down low Dracula feedings, and the pointless cremation screams versus skin deep beauty wears thin fast. Writer and producer Mark Gatiss (Coriolanus) as Dracula's lawyer Frank Renfield Skypes with the Count over his human rights being violated. This awkward self-insert calls attention to itself with fast talking legalese tut tuts. Renfield asks questions the viewer has, but the answers should be in the story, not told by the writer onscreen.

Steeple silhouettes and gray skies open Dracula with gothic flavor, but sweeping CGI panoramas and bugs squashing against the fourth wall are irritating when we're here for the the flickering torches, winding staircase, stone corridors, and heavy drapes of Dracula's castle. Echoes and shadows accent the candles, lanterns, portraits, creaking doors, and scratching at the window as boxes of dirt, rats, and undead add grossness. Hidden laboratories and crosses would suggest medieval hints, but the snarling at the camera is lame and the should be disturbing vampire baby is as laughable as that delicious lizard puppet from the original V. Raw, furry black wolf transformations are much better thanks to birthing contortions, blood, moist oozing, and nudity. Likewise, the congested, ship bound Demeter scenery is superb with all the proper maritime mood, moonlit seas, foggy isolation, and claustrophobic horror tension before fiery explosions and underwater spooky. The present, however, is extremely colorful – purple night life, teal laboratories, dreamy red visions, and jarring pink filters. Enchanting abbey ruins contrast the high tech prison rotating toward sunlight to keep the vampire in his place, and the organization's Victorian roots could imply a steampunk mix with the modern technology, but any older aesthetic is sadly dropped for rapid shutter clicks, strobe headaches, and onscreen text speak. YOLO! For once I'm somewhat timely on reviewing a new series – rushed to beat spoilers because social media compatriots were already talking about not finishing the First Episode here. Unlike Sharpe and Wallander, the three ninety minute television movie style episode season does not work for Dracula. Maybe this format is good for a Netflix binge where we just let the whole smorgasbord play, but if Gatiss and co-creator Steven Moffat (Doctor Who) had designed Dracula as six forty-five minute episodes instead of lumping everything together, it would have helped heaps in organizing the story between adapting segments from the page and adding new material or time jumps. Rumors suggest Netflix tracks viewing duration rather than series completion, so maybe bowing out after the initial ninety minutes goes further in their algorithms than if audiences had tuned out after a forty-five minute start? The bang for instant viewing buck shows in the mess onscreen, and the only thing that could have made this worse was if it had actually been named Dracula 2020.


Narrative interference and deviations from the novel make this Dracula terribly frustrating to watch. This is the first time I've felt reviewing was an obligated chore, and at times, I had to take a pause because I was so aggravated. The Transylvania start and Demeter ride imply a novel retelling, but the convent shenanigans and Van Helsing ladies past or present suggest new adventures. Attempting both in a back and forth, short attention span frame only insults audiences looking for new vampire spins, experienced horror viewers, and teachers who can tell when the student has only read the first few chapters of the assigned book and just makes up the rest. Dracula isn't scary – the Netflix and chill model is designed to make us awe at something creepy now and again, but the try hard gore is dang common with little sense of dread. There's so much potential for a faithful book interpretation as well as new vampire direction, but this transparent seemingly cool ultimately ends up being the same old horror same old and Dracula wastes most of its time on nonsensical absurdities.

I feel so scathing but I started with fourteen pages of complaints and made it down to six so I guess that's an improvement? ¯\_()_/¯ 


26 January 2020

Shows I Didn't Watch yet Recommend




Shows I Didn't Watch but Recommend
by Kristin Battestella



Back in my day, if you were home from school during the afternoon, there was nothing to watch but soap operas. There was a maximum two televisions per household, and if someone else was watching something, then you were out of luck. Ryan's Hope, Santa Barbara, Loving, One Life to Live, All My Children, General Hospital, Sunset Beach – of course, some of those were better than others, but now both the quality and quantity of programming permeates in every part of the house.

Today's abundance of networks and streaming platforms means televisions and video devices are always playing something – whether I'm the one watching them or not. So unlike “being the remote” or the national anthem, color bars, and static; only contemporary viewers can understand how I can not have actively paid attention to an entire show yet was able to see enough of it to recommend it as fine programming. It's multitasking like trying to adjust the rabbit ears and see the fuzzy screen at the same time!

Without further nostalgic discourse, here's a list of series categorized by streaming service or network that were pleasant background television, surprisingly good dramas, and probably worthy of proper critical review viewing – which I will most likely never get around to doing because of all the shows I am already trying to really watch.




Amazon Prime
Bosch
The Expanse
Good Omens
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Orphan Black


HBO
Chernobyl
In Treatment
True Detective (just the first season, though)
Veep
Westworld


Netflix
Arrested Development
Black Mirror
BoJack Horseman
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
The Crown
Dark
Disenchanted
Good Girls
Living with Yourself
The Movies That Made Us
Norsemen
Ozark
Paradise PD
Santa Clarita Diet
Stranger Things
The Toys That Made Us
Travelers

Networks, AMC, or Hulu
Better Call Saul
Breaking Bad
Brooklyn 99
Future Man
New Girl
The Office
Parks & Recreation
Rick and Morty
Supergirl

Showtime
Californication
Dexter (except for the end)
Homeland (just the first few seasons though)
Nurse Jackie
Ray Donovan



Naturally, I'm certainly forgetting some and just didn't catch enough of others. There are a lot of other shows that somebody started and thought was total crap and quit it, too, but that's another list.




22 January 2020

Ho-Hum Horror Shows



Ho-Hum Horror Shows
by Kristin Battestella


These short and seemingly short lived series go from could have been good and split decision seasons to just plain...stinky. Sorry!



Had Potential


The Covington Witches – These two 2019 episodes combine for over an hour and a half of funerals, candles, rituals, witches, and tarot in an African American infused Philadelphia ripe for a horror tale. Clearly this is a shoestring production with a forgivable low budget, uneven sound, okay lighting, and some amateur performances. However, the extremely tight camerawork not just cuts the proverbial corners but crops out half the picture – heads are cut off and viewers are left looking at a wall while people talk outside the frame. Unnecessary editing and location notations for every scene contribute to the cluttered feeling, and the barren design somehow feels crowded, interfering with the naturalistic conversations about wrangling in reluctant family members with magic warnings. Ominous music adds to the natural banter – which is nice when we can see both people in the uninterrupted frame properly as more relatives end up dead thanks to mysterious boxes, tea readings, and suspect fires. Mourners dressed in black, cemetery scenes, and wide outdoor shots create much needed scene setting breathers alongside intriguing homemade voodoo dolls, teaching spells, incense, and goddess prayers. Purification charms and chants escalate as nieces ask if they are dark witches or do magic for light but aren't afraid either way. The ladies are getting nasty with the evil spells, so why can't the elder family just tell the ones who don't know about all the witchcraft? Real estate runarounds and binding spells end up going too far with some penis removal magic, and that's certainly more interesting than the going to this house, then visiting that house, asking for coffee, and then leaving before the beverage is made. Why certain children don't know they are witches and why one distant niece comes into wealth and property isn't fully explained, and the pace is slow with redundant, roundabout scenes creating confusion. Are we missing an important piece of the puzzle or just left to wonder if a cryptic scene serves any purpose? Phone calls with nothing but “What does it all mean?” and “I don't know” waste time before men who don't know what they're in for meet an abrupt end and leave us wanting the rest of the story. This is based on a self published book series, and there isn't a lot of information about whether this show is intended as an in house web series, one supersized book trailer, or a pilot to shop for something bigger – which it had the potential to be.



A Split Decision

Slasher: Season 3 – This 2019 eight episode anthology subtitled Solstice breaks down into a real time murder mystery with neon raves, risque romps, and back alley stabbings. Unloving neighbors won't open the door to help but social media obsessed onlookers video the crime scene – desperate for a like, share, or viral fame a la a modern Rear Window. High schoolers and cafe hipsters mingle where they shouldn't while Muslims, lesbians, hidden homosexuals, and multi-ethnic families live side by side with bigots, racists, and abusers. Hate crimes, homophobia, and mob mentalities lead to lingering pain, personal drama, and love triangles. Who's listening to the banging against the wall or scrolling on for the next guy while in still in bed with the last one? Opportunists of all sexual connections, jerky husbands, and down low secrets aren't fair to anybody and escalate to viral bullying, hate mongering, and threats. Is it karma when those who warned to reap what you sow get what they deserve? Forensic details, mature conversations, and police theories counter everyone playing the victim while lifestyle bloggers claim blackmail recordings are today's journalism. Tacky green wallpaper, pink mood lighting, and dark red blood anchor the downtrodden apartment complex, but excessive angles, visual distortions, warped sounds, and shaky cams detract rather than add scares. Acid in the toilet drownings are better filmed with subtle blurry as the disturbing violence increases with personal dissections and no empathy. Although each episode focuses on one neighbor's perspective, there are a lot of people coming and going amid the red herrings and school pranksters, and it's tough to care about so many nasty, easily forgotten people. Why are only one pair of detectives on this if three people are dead, two are missing, and two more have been attacked all in the same complex connected to a previous murder? We meet people for them to die, which, while not unexpected, isn't fulfilling either. Great strides with asexual topics happen too late, taking a backseat to numbing snuff entertainment and desensitizing violent media. Bathtub suicide attempts and drilling into skulls are just gore, and disappointingly, the killer is called 'Druid' because of the solstice date – there are no cult or ritual aspects. I pegged the murderer by the third episode, as it's obvious the deaths and clean ups are too elaborate for the onscreen hours, and everything sags in the middle once the police are made dumb. Though better than the Terrible Year Two, this goes on too long with torture porn delays and dream fake outs when it should have been a four part limited event. People wonder if they are cursed because death and consequences follow them, but the character drama and introspective taut are dropped for excessive splatter, slow motion rage, and body parts in the boiler room. Killer close calls suddenly happen to create suspense, and neighbors come together too late thanks to contrivances as the unraveling second half runs out of steam.




Skip It

Age of the Living Dead – This obscure six part 2018 UK/Prime series has a great premise with West Coast humans and East Coast vampires battling it out in a quarantined America. News bulletins and emergency notifications introduce the violence, but abandoned, post-apocalyptic buildings – not to mention the title – immediately suggest zombies rather than vampires. Beyond families fleeing flashbacks used for man pain introductions, we don't see how this division came to be when it would be fascinating to see America struggle in the wake of disaster for ten years without foreign goods or assistance. People train to fight vampires in New Mexico, a lady president has a cool L.A. compound, and pretentious New York vampires wax on mediocrity as they explain how they're tired of policing themselves in exchange for human blood donations. Stilted dialogue compounds the vampire sex or bathing in blood as bright human scenes and purple night time tints make sure we know who is the vampire daughter and rebel human son. It's obvious the writers are unfamiliar with U.S. geography as staff meetings debate nuking everything east of the Mississippi and vampires bemoan the Tupperware blood in favor of taking over the globe. For ten years they had an agreement, so why is all this talk happening now? Why didn't the vampire virus spread? How did the rest of the world contain the nation? Instead of telling us how the premise came to be, laughable performances, hollow music montages, and trite romance contribute to the cliché vampires named Victor. Bad editing can't compensate for the jarring onscreen pace – hectic in your face people and painfully slow vampires – and obnoxious evil glares do little amid leukemia angst and unnecessary traitors. Union Jack flags and Big Ben signify London is calling as the British claim one thing and do another, tossing another wrench at the screen when a U.K. not U.S. setting would have eliminated the awkward locations and bad accents. Angry generals make redundant end of the world claims, but even after skipping the middle episodes, it's still just hot air. These vampires have kids, develop a synthetic blood substitute, and say they've been waiting to be out in the open for centuries yet shootouts, grandstanding speeches, and overhead shots of every locale are more important. The British meddling stateside doesn't get far – although the wife thought dead now turned into a vampire makes our star crossed lovers...undead step siblings? There isn't much horror nor all that much science fiction as vampire councils have board meetings and debating people finally take action over melodramatic villains and vampire boy loves human girl switch-a-roos. Mentions of six hundred years of vampire history fall to the wayside for a “Who's on First?” cure, and ultimately it's all a waste of time. If humans are donating blood to vampires, why not put the cure in the food supply? ¯\_()_/¯



16 January 2020

Brooding Victorians and Moody Costume Dramas



Brooding Victorians and Moody Costume Dramas
by Kristin Battestella


Well, the title pretty much says it all. If you're looking for angst, frocks, pathos, or British accents, settle in for these windswept period pieces and literary flavorings.


Jane Eyre – Lace, candles, bonnets, frills, and waist coasts open this eleven episode 1983 adaptation starring Zelah Clarke (Dombey & Son) and Timothy Dalton (The Living Daylights). The print is flat now and the production values hampered, however the attention to detail accents the gloomy manor house and its cruel family, abusive isolation, and rare comfort in books. Supposed problem child Jane is passed along to a terrible school where the punishment only increases because of her defiance in the face of starvation, illness, fatal friends, and instruments of correction. Often excised scenes are here word for word, and the very British glum and decorum may be boring for some before the warmth and comfort found in the governess position at Thornfield Hall. Kindly housekeepers and friendly chats let Jane express herself, but locked rooms, ghostly echoes, and whispers of the peculiar master build ominous before an enigmatic roadside encounter with a handsome stranger. Aren't all Jane Eyres identified by their Rochesters? Dalton's brooding suave is very much what we think of in a Rochester – smoldering and easily flustered by Jane in debates over tea where dialogue and performance are primary. He's used to having his way but this lowly governess won't buckle despite the unresolved sexual tension before there was even UST. Jane isn't exceptional but won't yield on her convictions, earning a begrudging respect from the melancholy Rochester, who can confide in her about reluctant gentry matches and superiority versus equality. He admires Jane's purity and would seek to reform through her, wearing his heart on his sleeve even as his secrets would corrupt her. Sinister violence and mysterious accidents make happiness too good to be true alongside beds set on fire, fascinating dualities on character and wickedness, and wild versus saintly symbolism. Jealous resentments dampen pleasant outdoor scenes, turning charming one on one banter into angry, looming, and yearning repression. Rochester is not the silent type, and the scene chewing in many ways has to speak for both characters and draw out do gooder Jane. In spite of the deathbed confessions, age differences, be on your guard warnings, and symbolic white veils torn in two – talk about red flags, girl – we're here for it hook, line, and sinker, swept up in the impediments at the altar, scary attic scenes, bitter revelations, and fleeing into the moors to forgo love and be true to oneself. Seriously though, what is St. John's problem anyway? While this is a wonderful story, the finale does rely on sudden relatives and coincidental fortunes, and I for one was always disappointing something more spooky wasn't afoot. Late episodes away from Thornfield drag thanks to odd scenes without first person narrator Jane and this is a little too long to marathon all at once, but this unabashedly takes its time to assure a complete adaptation. I love the 2011 version for its compact, more gothic spirit; however this is delightful for fans of the cast, period piece audiences, classroom comparisons, and Bronte lovers.



The Man Who Invented Christmas – Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) stars as Charles Dickens alongside Christopher Plummer (Somewhere in Time) and Jonathan Pryce (Hysteria) in this whimsical 2017 account on what really happened during the 1843 writing of A Christmas Carol. Our successful author has toured America to much fanfare, but Dickens is ready to get back to work despite unforthcoming publishers thanks to the poor sales of Barnaby Rudge, negative Martin Chuzzlewit reviews, and gasp – writer's block. It's expensive being a London gentleman when the wife is redecorating, bills are mounting, and everyone wants a donation from the exhausted Dickens, who has no creativity and a deadline to meet. Fancy garb, carriages, quills, candles, and humorous crescendos create charm alongside entertaining children with fairy tales and holiday mentions of veils being lifted as spirits roam between worlds. Grim alleys, dark cemeteries, bitter mourners, snobby friends wishing the poor would die, and humbug revelations inspire Dickens to write about a vile money maker learning the err of his ways thanks to sprites and spiritual intervention. Unfortunately, there wasn't a market for Christmas books back then and no profit in such a minor holiday. Going it alone, Dickens bounces about his bower mimicking voices – because if your find the character's name, he will appear. Similar to Miss Potter, Dickens transcribes Carol quotes from bemusing encounters with the famous characters entering his chamber. Scenes we know and love are acted out before him until an abrupt “That's as far as I've gotten” halt while the players add their opinions on the tale whether he wants them to or not. After starting well, begging for money and mooching relatives slow the spirited possibilities, and we shouldn't leave Dickens' breakthrough once the wonderful frenzy happens. There are hints of darker Dickens aspects, but his debtors fears and realistic problems feel shoehorned in once the fanciful comes to life. It's tough to have the author mirror Scrooge with contrived overnight changes and revelations about Dickens' terrible childhood when we know his life story and anything truly heavy is off limits. Problems are created just for a third act resolution, and one on one confrontations with his father regarding Dickens' lingering shame and brokenness are more powerful. The source here is a non-fiction book, but the film is obviously fiction, and viewers know Dickens had success before and will again. Maybe the real world Victorian issues are meant to parallel the Carol constructs, however the narrative can be uneven, interrupting arguments about killing off characters while they wait about his room or repeating his struggle over what of himself to put on the page before wondering what the point of a story is if there is no hope. After all the forgiveness discourse, a quick postscript with newfangled Christmas trees says everything turned out just fine – although writers today seeing Dickens' need to self publish and inability to get a $300 loan know circumstances haven't really changed amirite? This isn't necessarily a Christmas movie, and the family friendly fantasy may be too much for those seeking a hardcore Dickens biography. Some audiences may be sly to the author within his own story gimmick, too. Fortunately, there's enough charm in the wholesome nuggets and inventive twists on the familiar tale, and I'd also here for Plummer playing Scrooge en masse yes please.



The Turn of the Screw Downton Abbey alum Michelle Dockery joins Dan Stevens (again) and Nicola Walker (MI-5) in this ninety minute 2009 BBC adaptation of the Henry James askew moving the repressed ambiguity to 1921 institutions with post war doctors analyzing our governess' infatuation with her employer, the topsy turvy male shortage, and of kilter Bly Manor. Fashions, hats, sweet automobiles, fine woodwork, and hefty antiques sell the refreshing setting, however the nonsensical strobe flashes look amateur on top of the time wasting, disjointed doctoring add-ons and unnecessary narration. Visions of dalliances that initially upgrade the Victorian scandalous soon hit the viewer over the head one too many times as the governess imagines her master and his saucy approval. She insists she's not the nervous type, but the dark interiors, maze like staircases, and distorted camera angles add to the strange noises and creepy country manor unease. She's in charge, above housekeepers and maids, but there are too many flighty women doing all the work in this house. Parasols and summer white contrast eerie fog and trains as her boy charge is expelled from school without explanation. The cheeky children whisper about their previous, pretty governess – unbothered by screams, accidents, or dying maids. Melancholy piano music, graveyard echoes, dark figures amid the trees, and faces in the window build on the female isolation, yet all insist there are no ghosts – surely she's just hysterical, overwrought, and obsessed with men. Rumors of suicide and a woman ruined by her lover seem proved by hidden pictures of the master's up to no good valet, and tales of his violence among the unprotected women are better than seeing suspect flashbacks. The prim style degrades to loose hair and nightgowns as our governess jumps to dire conclusions and possessive delirium, but the shouting about it afterward with her doctor interruptions break the tainted picnics and frantic tension. We don't need his sounding board to deduce her fears, just let us see the abusive violence and water perils. Crazy laughter and disembodied voices escalate as the phantoms, repression, and projection possibilities culminate in a one on one battle for the truth. The deviations here are flawed, and while the horror lite is fine for gothic period piece fans, some viewers will expect more than the have it both ways attempt at the ghosts and crazy ambiguity. This isn't the best version but thanks to the cast and unique setting, it can be a good introduction for audiences who haven't seen The Innocents.




A Disappointment


Under Capricorn – Ingrid Bergman (Anastasia) and Joseph Cotten (Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte) star in this overlong 1949 mystery from director Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds) with an opening narration filling in the Colonial Australia history and past Ireland secrets before 1831 governors, stiff upper lip politicking, and wooden exposition. Who has money, who's related to whom, who's doing the land deals – it's all clunky and yawn worthy on top of a period setting perhaps obscure for American audiences then and now. Colorful waistcoats, cravats, and frocks alongside muddy frontier streets and carriages attempt an early Victorian meets Wild West tone, but the shrunken heads rolling at their feet is more awkward then shocking. Hitchcock attempts new techniques here in his second Technicolor film – long takes, zooms, and tracking cameras following the players in scene. Unfortunately, the direction is stilted, moving from men talking to other men talking about what the other men just said. The first fifteen minutes of convicts turned businessmen and conversations while bathing in a barrel could have been excised, opening instead with the newly arrived scoundrel eavesdropping on a suspect dinner at the creepy manor house. Iron-fisted housekeepers, beaten staff, and disobedient convicts add to the drinks, whispers, social shunnings, and an intriguingly absent wife – who has some history with the new man in town. So much time is spent talking about the past at the expense of the present, yet people readily drop all their secrets and explain their life stories to folks they've just met. A few sentimental winks and smiles bolster the love story elements, however it's awkward to see Bergman both lighting up the room as well as playing the drunken barefoot and wobbling sickly. Uncharismatic, strong chinned men, swelling crescendos, and fainting women combine for all the things audiences bemoan about period pieces, and the supposedly scandalous love triangles remain undynamic. A stable boy eloping with the master's daughter and killing her brother in the process while the maid secretly poisons the wife would make for an interesting tale, but most of that action is told after the fact rather than shown. The tiara ensemble and divine ball make for the one exceptional, uninterrupted sequence capturing all the guilt and performance lacking in the rest of the film. Despite horse chases, who really shot whom revelations, and deportation threats; the drama never seems to happen before the abrupt happy ending. One can see what Hitchcock is trying to attempt with characters bound to the visual frame as well as their inescapable history. Unfortunately, calling attention to the drama with the camera only shows how thin the story is. Even if viewers leave any Master of Suspense expectations aside and like romantic period yarns, this is really only for the Hitchcock and Bergman completists.