15 January 2008

The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride A Family Classic

By Kristin Battestella

Any eighties baby needs no introduction for Rob Reiner’s 1987 fantasy classic The Princess Bride. The jokes, the true love, the corn was quirky then-but Buttercup, Westley, and the R.O.U.S.s (that’s Rodents of Unusual Sizes) are great fun for today’s families.

Farm boy Westley (Cary Elwes) and Buttercup (Robin Wright) are in love, but five years after Westley was supposedly killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, Buttercup has been chosen to marry Prince Humperdinck of Florin (Chris Sarandon). Trying to start a war with nearby Guilder, the witty Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) kidnaps Princess Buttercup with the help of swordmaster Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and strongman Fezzik (Andre the Giant). A mystery man in black bests her captors, and after Buttercup is rescued, Inigo and Fezzik join with Westley. Along with avenging Inigo’s father’s death at the hands of the six fingered Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), the trio must save Buttercup from marrying Humperdinck.

Well, I couldn’t give everything away. Every child should sit down and see The Princess Bride with an unspoiled mind. Girls will love the fantasy and I dare say romance, but certainly there’s action and swords and fights for the boys. Based on the book by William Goldman The Princess Bride opens with a contemporary Grandpa (Peter Falk, of Columbo fame) visiting his sick Grandson, played by Wonder Years alum Fred Savage. Grandpa reads The Princess Bride aloud, and thus the story begins.

The ensemble cast fits perfectly with the unusual yet enchanting The Princess Bride. In the nineties, Cary Elwes often found himself typecast in the jerk type roles, as in Hot Shots! and the more serious The Crush. The role of Westley, however, has remained his most recognizable-with the exception of the similar spoof Robin Hood: Men in Tights. On my recent viewing (I got the DVD for Christmas!) I was surprised by how much Elwes looks like Errol Flynn here. Young fans won’t know who that is, but older fans will enjoy the nod to the swashbuckling days of old. So many modern actors can’t pull off period looking parts. Robin Wright (Forrest Gump, Message in a Bottle) looks the princess. Chris Sarandon (Fright Night, Bordello of Blood ) looks the sleeze. Both have tried other roles, but again, The Princess Bride is perhaps their most iconic part.

The presence of script, talent, and direction come together here. Other movies have tried the funny fantasy tale and not worked. Reiner’s charm is evident here, and his Hollywood pull allowed for the cameos by Peter Cook as the nasal Priest, Billy Crystal as Miracle Max, and Carole Kane as his crone wife Valerie. Again, today this could be a toe towards stunt casting, but not in The Princess Bride. It’s perfectly acceptable that such quirky peoples would populate the world onscreen. Had Goldman not done the screenplay, this probably wouldn’t have worked. Thankfully, all the characters make a fine blend of fanciful stereotypes-but with a twist.

The weakest point of the cast acting-wise is of course Andre the Giant. His dialogue is tough to understand without subtitles. It was kind of odd to watch The Princess Bride on DVD for the first time. At last I know what Fezzik is saying! Andre’s low voice and mumbles may be tough for some, but it takes nothing away from Fezzik’s charm. He is as Andre the Giant was- big yet fun and lovable. Some of his lines, in fact are delivered with great wit and tongue and cheek fun. Sure, the big names here had nothing to lose by appearing in a family film, but the newcomers had everything to loose. Yet all carry the same level of fun and sincerity to the movie.

Of course, the cast of The Princess Bride had a lot of humor with which to work. The all around silliness, the on time one-liners, and the anachronistic punch lines give everyone onscreen and off something to chuckle at. The R.O.U.S.s, the six fingered man, the eels. Say “Inconceivable!” to any movie buff and they know it’s The Princess Bride. Reiner and Goldman strike the perfect blend of out right comedy-both subtle and slapstick-romance and kisses, homage to old time fantasy stories, and the ability to laugh at itself. At key times in the story, we switch back to the Grandson contesting the events his Grandpa is reading him. They argue over action and kisses-just like we would MST3K a bad or old movie.

The Princess Bride showcases some lovely outdoor locales and more authentic looking costumes than most medieval fantasy. Of course, some of the ship sequences, rock facades, and other fantasy locales are unabashedly hokey. In an odd way, this keeps The Princess Bride timeless. Kids that would laugh at obviously Styrofoam rocks after seeing effects powerhouses like The Lord of the Rings-just tell them it was meant to look that way, and suddenly, anything hokey is acceptable. This leap of faith allows the movie to continue to its unbelievable and humorous end.

Modest swordfights and a few lip locks are nothing for parents to worry about when considering The Princess Bride for family night. Fans of old will laugh again and again, and the joy of spreading quality film to the next generation is always worth the fun and adventure. Of several DVD editions, The Special Edition is the superior set. Darling behind the scenes features, trailers, and photo galleries here are more inclusive than subsequent releases.

The Princess Bride is the perfect blend for young and old. Such quality family fantasy fun is tough to find in today’s movies. Affordable yet worth every penny, The Princess Bride is a must for any family who loves charm, adventure, and a good time.

08 January 2008

Homicide: Life on The Street, Season 4

Homicide Season 4 Still Great
By Kristin Battestella

Always a critical darling but never a ratings winner, Homicide: Life on the Street survived for seven seasons on NBC. After Emmy success and high profile guest stars in its shortened first three seasons, Homicide’s studio executives insisted on changes in an attempt to grab ratings. Even with studio interference, Season 4 of Homicide is still top notch.

Homicide’s iconic jump-cutting, gritty styles and great music continue in the Season 4’s two part opener, “Fire”. Storylines and issues presented here leave their touch throughout the entire season. New hot head Detective Mike Kellerman (Reed Diamond) joins the Homicide unit after butting heads with Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher)-who confides in his partner Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) that his wife is pregnant. Gone are Detectives Stan Bolander and Beau Felton (Ned Beatty, Daniel Baldwin). After off season shenanigans, both are conveniently suspended for the length of the season. Now partnerless, John Munch (Richard Belzer) and Kay Howard (Melissa Leo) compete in taking the Sergeant’s exam. Captain Megan Russert (Isabella Hofmann) is still dealing with the politics of her promotion, as is Shift Commander Gee (Yaphet Kotto).

It seems like a lot I know, and it’s tough to summarize Homicide’s complexities without giving everything away. Some purists dislike Kellerman’s introduction to the series and the poor handling of Megan Russert, but each have their it moments this season. Kellerman is presented as a studio induced pretty combination of Felton and Bolander. He’s divorced but still in love with his ex, sometimes juvenile-admitting he dreams of Bugs Bunny. Kellerman acts like he’s a frat boy on the outside, declaring “Fun is my God”, yet he can’t quit smoking and eventually shares some of his issues with new partner Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson). Lewis, of course, is still getting over Crosetti’s suicide.

One of Homicide’s strengths is it’s lack of one off stories or stand alone episodes. Crosetti, Russert’s affair with Felton, these issues from Season 3 aren’t forgotten. Season 4 does lose a touch of the show’s early ensemble feel. Instead we begin the focus of pairings and partnerships. Munch suffers the most from this. Without Bolander, his comedic wit and banter suffer, but this Munch is still superior than his touch and go appearances currently seen (or not seen) on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Of course, Homicide staples Pembleton and Bayliss have their share of stand out episodes and bonding experiences.

Of course, when any show takes the cast change plunge, it can make or break a series. Homicide could not maintain the edgy work it does without its exceptional cast. Braugher (Glory) is in Emmy form again, particularly in the special two part crossover with Law and Order. Although her role is slightly reduced on the show, Melissa Leo continues to bring new dimensions to the already unconventional Howard. Yaphet Kotto brings more light to oft passed over Lieutenant Giardello, and most surprising of all is perhaps Clark Johnson as Detective Lewis. His family life, potential problems with women as authority, and relationship with Kellerman becomes in some ways the heart of the series. As much as some early fans love the Lewis and Crosetti pairing, there simply wasn’t enough of it when compared to the amount of time and issues that spring from Meldrick and “Detective Mikey”.

Not to be outdone, the standout episodes of Homicide this season still belong to Pembleton and Bayliss. Although guest star Marcia Gay Harden is the focus of the fourth episode “A Doll’s Eyes”, Homicide’s signature detectives are caught in a family’s difficult decision of what to do when their son is shot and left brain dead. Although he lost his faith in season 3, Pembleton’s religious conflicts are still very much at the forefront. Braugher and the Homicide writing team know when to give the perfect dialogue -“God wasn’t returning calls that day” (in the “For God and Country” L&O crossover) or just let the image speak for itself-like when Pembleton sneaks into a back room to watch the Pope visit Baltimore. Tim Bayliss is also never without issue. Kyle Secor walks a tough line between being over dramatic and just right for the sensitive detective. He revisits his unsolved first case in “Requiem for Adena” and debates his homophobic issues in “Hate Crimes”.

Homicide never seems like a special sweeps episode even though each hour tackles real life issues and touchy subjects. The pop score and musical montages never seem out of place in such a rugged, yet sensitive show. It’s 1995 and Homicide is talking about gay bashing and immigration problems, work politics, and race relations. Homicide is ingenious in its play on ‘it’s not an issue, but it is.’ Pembleton’s declaration in “Hate Crimes” is that ‘We learn how to hate.’ It’s very true, nearly a fact, actually. Everyone knows it, but nobody actually says it. Some much dialogue on Homicide is like a revelation. Writer David Simon and producer James Yoshimura’s work is fascinating in contrast with tales of studio memos telling them there are too many black actors onscreen at once.

Unfortunately, Homicide: Life on the Street DVDs are nearly devoid of special features. The case file interface is cool, but audio commentaries and behind the scenes shorts are few and far between. The extras are no less insightful-I just wish there were more. Another hardship is the lack of subtitles as well. Such crisp dialogue should be there for all to see. It’s so refreshing to hear such tight and life like yet makes-you-think writing on a television show.

I know I’ve probably meandered more than a review should here, but it is impossible to capture everything about a season of Homicide in so little. Even in reviewing episodes one at a time, I doubt a viewer could keep track of all the references, subtext, comparisons and characterizations. I can barely keep track of Kellerman’s bad ties and his penchant for eating in every single episode. It’s quirky things like this that fascinate me. Even bottle type episodes leave their mark on Homicide. You really learn to know and love everyone on the show, the squad room, Baltimore itself. One of the things that initially attracted me to the show was its real city look. I’ve been to Baltimore many times. I live near crime ridden and downtrodden cities like Camden and Philadelphia. It surprises me to know Homicide reruns are popular in Europe. Maybe they don’t understand the absurdity of deliberately overturning a truck on North 95, but the people and emotions presented ring true for any culture.

Although I don’t think kids can understand all of its subtleness, Homicide is an intelligent option for tween viewing. The show helped break a lot of television barriers, and unfortunately controversies like mild language, drug use, and violence are now nothing new to younger demographics. After finding a lot of Homicide fans online, I learned many of them are educators or students who use episodes in their lectures and thesis-although its tough to pick just one episode out of so many great ones.

The education and experience of watching Homicide: Life on the Street cannot be found on television today. A cop show about the cops. Eureka! If you’re a fan of The Shield, SVU, The Wire, or any other cop show, Homicide has to be witnessed. The complete mega set and later seasons can be pricey, but look for sales or used editions of the first Season 1 and 2 set. Against network odds and pressures then and now, season four of Homicide: Life on the Street is still better than anything on television today. Strike or no strike. 

High Civilization

I'm Not Ready for This High Civilization, Me Thinks!
by Kristin Battestella

1991’s High Civilization is a complex, multi-faceted album. Please don’t let my title deceive you. Although it takes some getting used to, I like High Civilization. It’s just not an easy album to ‘get’-mentally or literally. If this is a concept album somebody please let me know!

Some fans believe the lead track High Civilization is about the Rapture. I can see a bit of that in the lyrics, but the music here often overtakes the voices. Each song here has its moments, but they seem to drag on a bit too long. Oddly enough, Secret Love is the shortest song. The album’s single returns to the brothers’ Motown revival style. The voices and tune are the catchiest (most catchy?) of the album.

When He’s Gone blends the styles of the first to tracks together well. Most of the leads here are split between Barry and Robin, or Robin and Barry, depending on your point of view. ;0) Happy Ever After is one of the better tracks here, with harmony! No big wig effects or instruments, harmony and sweet lyrics! Yes! Gone and Happy Ever After were both released as singles, but as usual, The United States is not on the same planet as the rest of the countries that actually like The Bee Gees. It’s a shame, there is quality stuff here that fits in musically with what was going on at the time. ARGH! Stupid Warner executives!

I hate to insult songs, I really do, but Party With No Name represents everything that’s wrong with this album. I’d still take it over Staying Alive and Jive Talkin’ though. 80) All you hear is the drums and the title line is the only words that are recognizable. It’s a very big ‘Huh?’ There is no harmony on this album, nor strong individual vocal performances. It’s very experimental, or conceptual, I’m not sure which.

Honestly the only thing I remember about Ghost Train is Robin wailing ‘Ride on my ghost train!’ which I find there is something kinky cool about that. Actually there are a lot of cool subtle effects on this track that only come up only on headphones. Dimensions is the Maurice song of the album. As usual per Maurice songs, Dimensions feels slightly different then the rest of the tracks. It’s a bit darker than Ghost Train. The music doesn’t overtake Mo’s vocals, which as a result, are much easier on the ears then the rest of the album. Now if only I could make heads or tails of what he’s saying!

Finally! The Only Love! Perhaps the one recognizable Bee Gees song on the album. This power ballad is superb. Unfortunately, this lone slow song seems out of place here. I’m also surprised this wasn’t listed as a single. Bah humbug it should have been.

Human Sacrifice has one cool part, but it’s kind of creepy. Who wants to hear a song about human sacrifices? True Confessions also has its moments, but it sounds like left overs from Happy Ever After. Barry’s shrill voice seems at odds with the heavy drums.

Ahem. Evolution...Robin wrote this for his wife Dwina although Barry sings the erotic double talk lyrics about his sister-in-law’s ‘alternate lifestyle’. The first time I heard this song I couldn’t believe that they were singing about what I thought they were singing about. You really need to read the lyrics to understand this one. This closing track bookends well with High Civilization. I can see how there may be a concept at work here. The album has come full circle, for if you could look passed the sexual stereotypes in Evolution, maybe you would be ready for the High Civilization to come. I think that is what they mean. Yeah, maybe.

On a totally unrelated side note! About this time the brothers also penned Let Me Wake Up In Your Arms for Maurice’s first wife Lulu. Barry sings back up and Lulu’s voice is still top notch on this edgy ballad. To me it’s right up there with If I Can’t Have You. It’s one of those songs, even though it’s sung by a woman there is something distinctly Bee Gees about it, ironically unlike most of High Civilization!

Together High Civilization is a technical blur. Setting your player on random and having one of these songs come up is a much better way to appreciate the nuances of each song individually. It’s kind of like Staying Alive. An album of just that song, well, after a bit its just noise.

Eyes That See In The Dark

Would Having Eyes That See In The Dark Be Cool?!
by Kristin Battestella

I should listen to the real Kenny Rogers album before I proceed but eh. I got the record at a thrift shop and the best thing about it is the lyrics inside the sleeve. Being just a bit Gibb biased, I listen to the Barry demo sessions instead. Where Walls Have Eyes seems more like a Bee Gees album that has Robin doing all the leads, the 1982/83 Eyes Demo Sessions is like a Bee Gees album sung totally by Barry. Pretty cool, huh?!

This Woman is one of two tracks penned by Barry and Albhy Galuten. It has a catchy vibe and some cool lyrics. Although he did all that Gambler stuff, the duet version of the song seems a bit too rough for Kenny. You and I, however, is the complete opposite of Woman. It’s just an incredible soft Barry ballad written by all three brothers. Even the duet version isn’t that bad. I don’t think they are actually duets between Barry and Kenny, just tapes mixed together, but Rogers here has a soft tone right on keel with Barry’s. Proof you can’t go wrong with a good Gibb song!

Buried Treasure is the first true country-esque song of the album. Again one of five songs done by Barry, Robin, and Maurice. I’m not sure what extent Robin and Maurice participated in the recordings but sometimes the tracks sound so professionally arranged you keep expecting them to come in somewhere. Most of these demos are indeed in quality condition. I traded How Old Are You for them. Thanks Wendy!

Ah yes, Islands In The Stream. Anyway you cut it this is just a superb song. When I was a kid I liked country music, my favorites being The Stone Canyon Band, The Judds, and Dolly Parton. I loved this song and had no clue it was really those dreaded Bee Gees! Several different mixes of this song are floating around. Barry, Barry and Kenny, Kenny and Dolly, or all three. All work superbly. Living With You sounds a little less country and a little more rock like the songs from Staying Alive. Again it sounds a little too harsh for Kenny but fits fine with Barry. Go fig.

Evening Star is the first of three tracks written by just Barry and Maurice. It’s the perfection of country, and is it me or is Maurice singing on this one, too? Where Star would be the Maurice song if this were a Bee Gees Album, the next track Hold Me is definitely the Robin song. Barry’s breathy delivery here is on form, but the lyrics and sound have Robin written all over it! It’s fun to listen and guess which brother would have been what, even if the demos hold their own twenty years later!

Midsummer Nights continues this trend. This ‘Barry song’ is the second penned with Albhy Galuten. Nights has that tropical easy feel that most of the Barry solo tunes have. This whole album is just an easy listening pleasure. Midsummer Nights has a cheerful tune, where I Will Always Love You is the broken hearted ballad of the album. Barry for the most part sings these demos in just his normal easy voice. Parts of I Will Always Love You sound like he’s straining to stay in that vain or trying not to break into falsetto. The result sound dang cool, almost epic, which fits the song perfectly.

I also found an odd demo called Saying Goodbye which is supposed to be from this session. It’s written by Barry and Maurice, yet it has the same woe as me vibe as Hold Me. It’s not bad, but it’s tough to have two such tracks on one album, and with Kenny Rogers in mind, I can see why they went without it.

Speaking of Kenny, remember these demos were supposed to be all about him. 80) Eyes That See in the Dark can be found in a Barry version and a duet version. The duet blends from Barry to Kenny effortlessly. Again written with Maurice, Eyes has that easy country feel the brothers were looking for. It represents the album well and is fittingly the title track.

Eyes That See In The Dark is an interesting set to say the least. It’s tough to believe such quality stuff was only demos for another artist. Not that it’s going to stop us from listening anytime soon!

To Whom It May Concern

I am concerned for the lack of concern for To Whom It May Concern! by Kristin Battestella

1973’s To Whom It May Concern is a complex album. It is, in my opinion, The Bee Gees Sergeant Pepper. I shall try and back that up, I promise! Run To Me leads off the album in traditional and modest Gibby success. This one is a staple that can’t be talked about or listened to enough. Arguably their best chorus ever! After the first track, however, the album takes a positive, but unexpected turn.

We Lost The Road is okay I guess. It continues the depressing vibe from Trafalgar. The b side cut My World should have been on the album instead. (We’ve reviewed My World and Run To Me on our Best Of Volume 2 rant here) Still We Lost the Road has some interesting read between the lines quality. Are they warning you they’ve gone off their rocker for this album? Maybe.
Woe is me Robin makes his first appearance on Never Been Alone. It sounds a lot like Robin’s solo material. Him and music that’s it. The lyrics are quite powerful. So raw and vulnerable yet with a sarcastic “Yeah I’m fine. Really! Totally!" hint that fits Robin perfectly.
Paper Mache, Cabbages, and Kings. Paper Mache, Cabbages, and Kings! In discussing with other Gibb-ologists, this song is often mentioned, but with little details. I often wondered what was so special about a song titled Paper Mache, Cabbages, and Kings. It is never even mentioned in the song! Well now I know, but I can’t tell...Okay you forced me into it! The song begins with some sort of circus music and talk of elephants. That glorious wtf? thought comes to mind! Then the tune changes into pure harmony that sounds like its straight out of Pepper. The interlude is the most incredible turnaround I think I’ve ever heard in a song. Barry is pouting about his heart being broken like paper mache. At first I thought that was the dumbest line I’ve ever heard. You would think they could come up with something a little less child-like! But then, Robin repeats the same line and it is so gut wrenching and tear jerking. You know that feeling after you’ve argued with someone and you back against a wall, then sink to the floor and just sit there crying? Picture that vocalized! Suddenly the title makes sense. Your heart’s paper mache, you’re the cabbage, and the person that broke it is king. Do I get a prize? >80)
I Can Bring Love is the Barry ballad of the album. I’m not sure of the details on the singles for this album, but I Can Bring Love could have been an ‘acceptable’ Gibb single. The traditional simplicity of Barry and a guitar, damn. The voice and songwriting is here, and it’s smarty placed in between the two wackiest songs on the album. With the success of How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, Whom feels like the brothers are stretching their creative muscles here. Sure we can do Heart, and Run To Me, and I Can Bring Love, but can you handle the rest of us?!

Whom is a tough album to review, because everyone takes every song differently. I Held A Party, every time I hear it I myself think something different. You might have to be on something to understand it. This man in the song Berkworth...Do they just drink together? Get it on? Willingly? Unwillingly?! Is he an imaginary friend?! I just don’t know!! But it sounds dang cool. Very Tommy-ish.
I have one complaint about Please Don’t Turn Out The Lights. It’s too damn short. It really only has one verse followed by perhaps the most impeccable harmonizing I’ve ever heard. Making it more than two minutes might have ruined it, but when repeated three times in a row the song still sounds fine to me!
Sea Of Smiling Faces is surprisingly an upbeat song in what so far has seemed like a bit of a dark album. It has a swayablitiy and a catchy vibe about it. Barry and Robin trade off the leads on most of the album, but Maurice can be heard just as much in the harmony. There are three distinct voices on this album: Barry’s, Robin’s, and The Harmony. Of course Maurice is what makes the harmony. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you people! ;0)
The record just wouldn’t be complete if there wasn’t a rock out song! Bad, Bad Dreams fills that role to perfection and still manages to have those ‘exactly how I feel!’ lyrics. As loud and rocking as Dreams is, You Know It’s For You does the exact same thing with just Maurice and a few instruments. His voice is so easy and again very Beatle-esque here. It’s so simple and sing along. I’m mean Duh! What else is there? You Know It’s For You!

Previously we praised Alive in our Best of Volume 2 review. It’s track placement here is perfect. It’s calling out the listener as if to say, ‘Do You like what we’ve done?’ However, it’s not the end of the album. How could the last two songs possibly top this figurative finger to the genre?

Road To Alaska is definitely the more recognizable Bee Gees song of the last two tracks. It’s a little bit country with a cool sound effect in the middle. One of 3 fast songs led by Robin prior to 1980! This was the flip side of Run To Me, and in a way deceives the audience into thinking this was all the album was about.
As happy as Road To Alaska is, Sweet Song Of Summer no one in a million years would ever have pegged as a Bee Gees song. It’s main instrument is a moog synthesizer, need I say more? It’s a bit creepy at first, but after you listen to it enough, you can almost hear how the instrument sounds just like the brother’s voices. Or maybe they sound like it? It’s so out there it’s friggin cool.
Fans of the early story song Gibb music may not like To Whom It May Concern. The tightly woven ingredients are all here, but it might have been too out there for the easy listening fans of How Can You Mend a Broken Heart. I can see how fans may have tuned out and eventually forced the brothers to change their sound back to a more listener and dance friendly sound. I don’t know if the creative concepts of To Whom It May Concern were intentional by the boys or not, but the album is definitely a unique look into the mind’s of these musical geniuses.