15 July 2008

One Night Only

At Last I’ll Do One Night Only!
by Kristin Battestella

Ah, the show that started it all! When I first saw One Night Only on HBO in the summer of 1997, I hated The Bees Gees. You can see how that turned out! After I purchased Bee Gees Gold, I bought One Night Only on cassette. Eventually I upgraded to the DVD, and I shall refer to both here. Actually when I worked at Sears, I begged my way into getting One Night Only put on the display TVs. I think I converted a few customers, to say the least. (One coworker went out and bought The Record!) One Night Only might be the best concert by the Brothers Gibb.

You Should Be Dancing leads off the live set with a touch of old school. The boys have a chuckle or two in the opening highlights, then Barry gets right into it. His falsetto voice is on form, and outside of a few instrumental changes, Dancing sounds exactly the same. (Please see our original review on Children of the World.)

Alone is introduced on a smooth transition from You Should Be Dancing, and this live version of the Still Waters single changed my life. (I’ve written more on the Webmistress page here.) Incredible lyrics and perfect vocals by Barry and Robin. Exceptional harmony and ad-libs by Maurice, Alone is the Brothers’ best post Fever song.

Barry thanks the audience and introduces the old tunes. I’m sure I’ve said it before, but Massachusetts is my Dad’s favorite. Even though he totally loves Robin’s delivery, this video is where my father coined Robin as ‘The Frog’. Robin takes over most of the song, with slight echoes from Baz on the second verse. The blue glasses clad Robin even smiles, and a fan gives him flowers!

In my opinion To Love Somebody sounds best on the original record, but this live version comes in a close second. The keyboard notes are instantly recognizable, and Barry’s lyrics might be clearer than the original. Robin’s belts and the harmony ending are tops. The audience claps, naturally.

When the CD of One Night Only first came out, there was a special package of six deleted songs. Why I’ve Gotta Get A message to You was not on the general release is beyond me. Robin’s verses are solid, and the bass guitar sounds awesome. I love when the guys close their eyes and really feel what they sing. Barry’s lines are on form, and the open ending here is tough to beat.

When my nieces watch ONO, and they do regularly, Words is about the time they ask, “Where’s Robin?” Barry takes hold of the mike and makes the women swoon, while Robin paces back and forth in the background. It’s kind of funny when you see it. Rob only comes up to the mike to sing the chorus, and actually I like the harmony chorus better than the all Baz original. Of course, the crowd screams and won’t let Barry finish the song.

Robin says it’s Mo’s turn, and Barry gives a “global plug” for Still Waters and Closer Than Close. When I saw this for the first time, my Dad changed the channel after the opening, raunchy lyric. He flicked back, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear, really for the first time, Maurice’s lower, sultry voice. Even though half the song sounds like one big sexy sigh, Close live is a success!

The boys speed things up with Islands In The Stream. Of course I was surprised it was really their song, but the Gibby rendition here is so lively and catchy. You can’t help but sing along, especially when the boys themselves get into it. Perfect melody, rhythm, lyrics, harmony.

I kind of like The One Night Only: Sydney rendition of One better, but my nieces can’t get enough of this song. Why do you ask? Barry’s little Ghand salutes get them going every time! I prefer the change ups and interludes in One, as well as the sharp ending here. Awl, who gave Barry the flowers? Fess up!

Big brother Baz dedicates Our Love (Don’t Throw It All Away) (!) to Andy, and Robin quickly disappears again. Barry handles the opening well, then turns the lead over to a tape of Andy. Robin rejoins with his mike for the brothers’ echoes, and an Andy montage takes over the screen. Andy’s delivery is so sweet, and hearing all four brothers reunited via technology is a real treat.

Things speed up quickly with the Night Fever/More Than A Woman medley. Barry’s falsetto seems stronger with use during live shows, and the harmony sounds just like the original. After a Fever turnaround, Barry jumps into More Than A Woman. The transition and delivery is so smooth, and briefly I wonder why they didn’t do each song in its entirety. They could have.

As much as I love Still Waters, if I had to pick a miss on ONO this song would be it. The start is off and the heavy production of the finished version can’t quite be done on stage. Robin’s interlude isn’t as strong as the released version either. Still, it’s nice to know that it’s Maurice making all those ooooos and ahhhhhs. After so many repeat viewings, you really notice and enjoy Mo’s unparalleled contributions that the casual fan can’t appreciate.

Last time we watched ONO, my niece proclaimed that Lonely Days might be The Bee Gees best song. After experiencing this rendition, it is easy to agree. The slow opening is done perfectly between Barry, Robin, and Maurice, and the boys kick up is second to none. Although I think Maurice messes up on one note! Not that it matters, I can read music and am classically trained to play Mozart. Am I in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? No.

Barry tells the audience the boys are going to do some old dribs and drabs. Morning of My Life introduces the uninitiated to Barry, Robin, Maurice, and a microphone. You need nothing else. The boys sound exactly like the original Morning, thirty years before. Another of the six left off the main release, the lyrics of Morning are so wonderful. Imagine when they were kids penning this diddy. Do you think they knew? Morning is fascinating because it shows fans that for the brothers, some things haven’t changed.

Barry gives some back story about the Wala Wala Police Boys Club, then gives a moment to the power of Australia. Baz spotlights Olivia Newton-John, then the boys tackle New York Mining Disaster 1941. Another incredible story song with incredible delivery. The first time we watched this, my sister proclaimed that Robin sounded “So British!“ My father explained, “That’s because he is British.”

Too Much Heaven was also wrongly left off the main release, as it is in my opinion the best version of the song ever. No high pitched almost too shrill wails. Barry’s easy verse and the twins’ harmony make this tune more beautiful. These lyrics can’t be beat.

I Can’t See Nobody ends side 1 of my cassette. Robin’s style is slightly different from the original, but you can understand him this time. The words are here, and more harmony galore!

I love the live versions Run To Me. Every time Robin seems to cut Barry off when doing the chorus. In the original the chorus is already perhaps the best harmonizing ever, but live there is no great guitar work to detract from the trio of voices. Exceptional.

When I was brave enough to lend my cassette to my sister and her car, my niece’s favorite song became And The Sun Will Shine. She’s only 8 now, but she’s got good taste. Robin’s voice is stronger than the original, and his cryptic words almost make sense. He gets so into, and at one point looks absolutely-I don’t know how else to describe it-orgasmic.

Barry and Maurice must have caught onto this also. All through Nights on Broadway, there is some kind of in joke between the boys. They smile and laugh while hitting all the high notes. A too short, but solid rendition. Of course I must mention all the commotion following Broadway. Barry’s sweat will do that to people.

How Can You Mend a Broken Heart turns the show back to the music. The beat is a bit faster, and the harmony is in slightly different places because of it. Me likes this. It’s also nice to see just Barry and Robin sharing a microphone. As much as I love three part harmony, Barry and Robin make a very strong case for their dual leads here.

The Bee Gees are the only group I know that have a whole section of ‘things we wrote for other people’. Heartbreaker starts this group off. At the time, this song was less well known to me, but it got stuck in my head quickly. The heart tugging lyrics got me, as did the boys rhythms and chorus. The one bad part here is that it’s too short.

Guilty comes next, because Barry says Woman In Love wouldn’t look right. Baz’s lines are on form, and the three part harmony doesn’t just fill in for Barbra’s absence, it might just exceed her. The soft delivery by the brothers is no less powerful and oh so pleasing to the ear.

Immortality is introduced by Barry, and guest star Celine Dion enters the stage. On my first viewing, I wondered what she was doing with the disco king Bee Gees, and my dad wondered who the heck she was that she was worthy on being stage with The Brothers Gibb. Today my nieces crack up at Celine’s over the top antics when she sings. Celine’s voice and Gibb lyrics are tough to beat. Who needs that silly Titanic song she did? Immortality is on the same album! If anyone has a tough time understanding Celine or Barry’s demo on The Record, I highly suggest you read the lyrics online. Shear poetry!

After all that praise, I must highlight Robin’s near trip over Celine’s microphone cord!

Tragedy is another song that might be superior live-and not just because of the kick ass explosions involved. Barry’s high pitch isn’t on the toe toward annoying, and the music is upgraded from the 1979 synthesizer. And of course, the boys look like they are having some fun!

I’m not sure if it is good placement or a bad spot, but I Started A Joke is smushed between Tragedy and Grease. Another sends-shivers-up-your-spine track from Robin, but the lyrics are still enigmatic as ever. Barry turns to the band and gives the Robster his moment. Not only is it awesome, but I’m glad Robin doesn’t need to hold his hand up to ear anymore!

Grease gets the packed Grand grooving. After a few turns by Barry, a Frankie Valli recording takes over. The boys echo as only they can echo, while the camera spotlights some movie footage and Olivia again. The person that’s most into the tune? Brother Mo. Grease may be the word, but Barry makes sure to hold out his notes a little longer, so he gets the last word over Frankie!

Now I may not like the original Jive Talking, but a live version I can tolerate. My nieces get so lively over it, the energy created by the boys, the jumping crowd. It’s all quite catchy. When it’s just the boys with a beat and a clapping crowd, I remember that sometimes, bullshitting and laying it on thick can be good.

How Deep Is Your Love returns it to how I really like. Suave Barry taking it to the heart, baby! Clips of the gang’s wives and children fill the background while the boys sing one of their classics-classic even without any Fever association. I need to play this back to back with the original and see if I hear a difference. Who else can sing a song identical to the original twenty years later? Even Elvis ad-libbed.

Barry’s daughter Ali comes on stage, but gets run off by Staying Alive! The lyrics are easier to understand than the original, but then my sister starts to sing along and destroys the whole thing. Tee hee. I don’t like to listen to Staying Alive, but I love to watch Barry, Robin, and Maurice sing it. Where they get the oxygen to hold the notes the way only they can hold them is beyond me. Staying Alive was actually supposed to be the closing song, and the boys even go off stage while the band finishes. Naturally the crowd demands more, and the boys return.

Maurice thanks all and introduces Ben Stivers, Matt Bonelli, Steve Rucker, Alan Kendall, Stephen Gibb, and John Merchant before the rock out of You Should Be Dancing. The lights strobe everywhere and Barry sounds better than the opening warm up. Everyone looks to be having fun, and the crowd really does dance. When the music badabings to a close, I always expect Alone to come on again. Boo and shucks, One Night Only is over!

If I had to pick one Gibb item for new fans, old fans, or those people who might not be fans at all, One Night Only is the disc. Better yet, spring for the One Night Only/This Is Where I Came In Biography combo. Gibb folk of old can reminisce, and fans unaware will be awed at the story and catalogue of The Brothers Gibb. This set is a must share with future generations.

Click Here for Ashli's Review of One Night Only!


Hornblower, Nelson, Trafalgar!
by Kristin Battestella

I shall take a break from my holiday record binge so I can bring you this review of Trafalgar! One of the dwindling record-only pieces of my Gibb collection, this 1971 release originally came in gold pressings and ambitious, artful lithograph covers. I have neither, boo.

How Can You Mend A Broken Heart is one of five tracks written by Barry and Robin and is almost without a doubt the best track here. Broken Heart brought the brothers total US Chart success and returned them fully from their nasty split. Instead of butting heads, Robin and Barry put everything into the song, and all became right with the world. (We’ve also reviewed Heart on Best of Volume 2). The record is a bit scratchy here!

Israel and The Greatest Man In The World are both written by Baz, yet they each have a unique feel. I suppose Barry is trying to make some sort of war and peace statement with Israel, but I just like the way the boys sound wailing Israel over and over. Israel’s music is also fairly sweet and soft, a nice juxtaposition to the strong words. Great finish from soul Barry.

Greatest Man In The World is as equally heartfelt as Israel, but wispy Barry takes over for this one. I hate to say it, but we’ve heard songs like this before. Still, Greatest has its moments. It is a very beautiful and sweet song. Barry’s lullaby like tone is tops.

It’s Just The Way is the first Moby track presented. Even though a lot of the work here is still solo and individualized, the songs sound the same, well too similar to say the least. It’s Just The Way has some nice guitar work and a smooth delivery from Maurice. Although different and slightly upbeat, Way continues the melancholy tone of the album. Mo’s gritty yet easy vocal fits perfectly, but I think this song is too short.

And of course we have a Robin outing with Remembering. Of the three Robin lead songs here, Remembering is probably the best. The vocals are tighter, and the chorus flows nicer. Robin’s opening, depressing croaking lyrics would drive my mother crazy! The harmony on the bittersweet chorus makes the song. And while Robin was in this orchestral pop vein, Remembering has a touch of Barry and Maurice’s country vibe.

Barry and Mo team up next for Somebody Stop the Music. The lyrics are a bit garbled and make no sense, but the chorus is strong and even sing-a-long- able. At first Music sounds way too much like a Creedence rip off, but the ad lib at the end is great, and it may very well be the fastest music presented.

I think I prefer Side A, but Trafalgar leads off side two and is the second track written by Maurice. When was the last time that happened? Trafalgar is not about the famous battle but instead Trafalgar Square, a place somewhere in England. I apologize but I haven’t been there. Road Trip! Mo’s heady lyrics are weird, but a nice listen. One part of this song always get stuck in my head, the delivery of the title word by Maurice is tops. Considering My Thing on Cucumber Castle, Lay it On Me from 2 Years On, and You Know It’s For You on To Whom It May Concern, Trafalgar might best showcase Mo’s work of the period.

Don’t Wanna Live Inside Myself is another Barry solo outing that also appeared on Best of Volume 2. It is incredibly beautiful-lovely music and vocals, but I’ll be dang it’s depressing. Barry’s wispy yet gritty delivery and solemn lyrics are excellent, yet not meant for the sing along. Well, you can sing along, if you like ’walking through a graveyard where darkness is my friend’. The best tear jerker on an album of tear jerkers.

Robin answers Barry with the ballads When Do I and Dearest. Both written by the competitors themselves, these songs are too similar to be back to back and neither can be fully appreciated. When Do I opens with more creaky Robin, and actually, the chorus repeats and sounds like a broken record. (No pun intended, and knock on wood!) Too much of the same weeny whiny lyrics overtake the smooth music underneath.

Dearest’s lyrics are also less that spectacular. I don’t know if these would have been better as one song or not. The brothers wrote a lot of material before, during, and after the split. Not all of it bad, just too much of the same. Robin’s delivery is exactly the same as When Do I. I know he could change it if he wants to. Robin has a few nice belts, and Barry’s chorus is soft perfection, but it sounds like another lullaby.

Distant drums start Lion In Winter off coolly. The music here is arranged perfectly, but Barry and Robin’s weak lyrics are about James Brown? Huh? The chorus isn’t much beside the title lyric, but finally Robin has broken out of this depressing stretch. Yes, scratchy and husky reverbs! We don’t get nearly enough soul Robin, ever. But I shouldn’t complain, we got two Maurice tracks.

Walking Back to Waterloo is the only song credited to all three boys and closes the album in an ominous opus. Waterloo has a solid chorus and an easy to sing along beat, but at first thought, I can’t recall anything else about it! More cooky lyrics, but a unique tongue twister chorus. It sounds like a march or chant, but my Dad heard it and said “Boy, that record’s warped!” Waterloo also has the most complex music here, with an Odessa feel, but a simple fade out ends the song poorly. I want more ominous and opus!

On a side note, Country Woman and On Time were odd singles and B sides from the Trafalgar releases. Both written and led by Maurice, Woman and Time have a country road house style to them. Country Woman has an upbeat and lively feel, even if Mo is talking about those same old woman troubles.

On Time showcases some Gibb brashness. It’s a simple diddy with Mo and a guitar, yet its raunch is refreshing. Their feel may not have fit the epic try of the album, but Maurice’s singles are at least equal to if not better in quality than some of what’s on the set. Even though there is a huge amount of known and unknown Maurice material from this era, the only time you can guarantee hearing him is on his leads. Boo.

Despite all the booms and music that come and go on Trafalgar, taking it all in one shebang can put even the most die hard fan to sleep. Small does are preferred in order to appreciate each song. Too many of the same ballads isn’t such a bad thing when you are in a rut and need an album to cry to, but Trafalgar is best served is small portions-unless you have a lot of Kleenex.

Now Voyager

Now, Voyager!
by Kristin Battestella

Yay my Jason for getting me the record and CD of Now Voyager! He traveled the world through Ebay to get me this rare 1984 Barry project. As with the later Barry solo project Hawks, Voyager is supposed to have some companion videos. Again, has anyone actually seen it?

I Am Your Driver leads off the set and is the first of five tracks penned by Barry, Maurice, and musician friend George Blitzer. Some typical eighties effects open Driver. Barry’s vocal also sounds mechanically tweaked, obviously so in the chorus. I wish I knew what he was saying without consulting the jacket’s lyrics. A fitting opening then, but not today.

Fine Line is the first track written by Barry and George Blitzer and is the longest tack presented at over Five minutes. Barry’s opening breathy rap and strong chorus seem against each other, as is the too fast beat. Three strikes, ouch! The details are also confusing. Roger Daltry is supposed to be singing here?! And KC from KC and The Sunshine Band?! I don’t hear or feel this one.

Face To Face, another by the new BMB trio, introduces Olivia Newton-John to the album. Thank you! Actually credited in very fine print for Fine Line, John’s opening verse makes the album, and it is so pleasing to hear, understand, and like the words being sung. Barry’s breathy echoes work perfectly with this slow style. The trade offs and ad-libbed ending are top notch. But I must say, this duet sounds almost exactly like Andy Gibb and Olivia Newton-John! The best of the album.

Barry takes a totally solo gander with Shatterproof. The chorus isn’t bad, even if it is way too eighties now. The dirrrty Barry on the verses might be hot if it wasn’t mixed with the easy Barry chorus. Already it seems the production and ‘trying something new’ went overboard. Especially in 1984, Barry didn’t need to stray from the Guilty or Heartbreaker formula.

Shine Shine was the single from Barry, Maurice, and George. Quickly you notice a much lighter feel. Barry’s commercial and mambo feel is so nice to here in comparison with this imitation Miami Vice thing earlier. The lyrics don’t try for anything serious. Dancing, laughter, and a little lovin’. Perfect.

BMB present Lesson In Love next. The opening beats crescendo, I want to hear more, and then....more Miami Vice. Love might be the most similar track here to what The Bee Gees did during the Staying Alive era. Not perfect but not bad either. Nice rhythm and storyline.

One Night (For Lovers) (Away parenthesis, away!) gives us more of that tropical feel from Barry. Complete with sweet lyrics, vocals, and that sway ability vibe, One Night in one of the keepers here. Not only do I not like the overkill eighties sound, but Now Voyager also presents three or four laid back tunes that give the album a bi-polar feel. I would rather have an album with others like One Night (For Lovers) (Parenthesis included!)

Stay Alone continues the ballad feeling. Barry’s easy tone showcases his voice and the story in the song. It’s nice to be able to hear the story in the song. Great echoes here. It almost sounds like The Bee Gees. I wonder what would have happened if Side A Fine Line and Side B Stay Alone would have been flipped? Barry might have had a chart denter with Stay Alone, had anyone heard it.

BMB strike again with Temptation. I didn’t like Duran Duran then, so I don’t want to hear Hungry Like The Wolf again. Some Gibb nay sayers think Barry’s falsetto pitches are too much like screaming. On Temptation, Barry sounds like he’s winded and can’t keep up with his melody.

She Says tries to combine Barry’s soft sounds with his newfound love of the synthesizer. Surprisingly, It doesn’t fail. Baz’s voice is solid, and the lyrics make sense. The ominous five o’clock shadow sound fits the melancholy words. No inner struggles here, eureka.

I was surprised to see The Hunter credited to Barry, Maurice, George Blizter and Robin. The boys’ serious story starts off harsh but warms into a pleasant little tune. The title vocal and rift is over the top, but the verses and easy delivery in between makes The Hunter tolerable. For the first time since Face to Face, Barry actually belts something out. Of ten songs presented, I’ll keep 6 and leave 4. I won’t say which are which, so as not to feel like a total basher. Blimey!

Now Voyager is a must for Barry collectors, even if the contemporary style of the album has come and gone. If you’re looking for Gibb traditional, you’ll find it elsewhere. Barry’s best work is in his voice, lyrics, and artistry. That can’t be replicated or synthesized or produced. The experiments on Now Voyager need a tuned ear, but who knows? The eighties sound could come back! 80)

10 July 2008

The Dark

The Dark Good, But Nothing New

By Kristin Battestella

In recent years, this new chick flick styled horror has sprung up. The Grudge, The Ring, Darkness, and The Dark. This 2005 British production adds a few new twists to the genre, but doesn’t take the next step in standing out amid such similar films.

After separating from her artist husband James (Sean Bean), Adelle (Maria Bello) travels to Wales with daughter Sarah (Sophie Stuckey) for a visit. Things have been tough between the ladies, but the Welsh countryside seems good for the reuniting family. The area is full of mysterious buildings, cult legends, and lovely beaches and cliffs. Unfortunately, Sarah vanishes on the beach. While James and local handyman Dafydd (Maurice Roeves) lead a massive search, Adelle discovers a strange girl named Ebril (Abigail Stone) now living in their home.

Okay, so the chick flick horror genre really began with Jamie Lee Curtis and Halloween, but this recent trend of chick horror always has the same key pieces: An American woman in a foreign country with a child somehow involved in said horror. The Dark brings a nice twist with its Welsh mythology, but there isn’t much time invested in this notion. Two scenes of the staple ‘talking to the old person who was there’ and the standard ‘lost journal/internet/microfilm’ montage set the intrigue but doesn’t take what makes The Dark unique far enough.

Maria Bello (A History of Violence, ER) is finely cast as the not so perfect mother on a quest to find her missing daughter. She’s the right style; a bit edgy, off her rocker, yet hip, blonde rocker chick. Bello does fine, and it’s a strong role for what is odd to say an ‘older maternal’ part as compared to a teeny sexy chick part. The Dark, however, is not going to make Maria Bello a movie star anytime soon. Nothing ill against her, but everyone does the foreign low budget horror flick at some point. The Dark isn’t bad, just meh. Naomi Watts, Sarah Michelle Gellar, aren’t they all the same?

Likewise I am curious why Sean Bean (The Lord of the Rings) took two so similar parts within a year. Silent Hill and The Dark are very much the same vein, and Bean plays the searching, protective father in both. Odd that he has come down to independent horror features after such success with The Fellowship of the Ring. However, after seeing him in so many villainous roles, it is nice to see the softer side of Bean. (My husband kept suspecting he was someone involved in the evil!) Still, I can’t help but chuckle during his scenes with Sophie Stuckey and Abigail Stone. Do these little girls know who he is? Were they afraid of him? Don’t they say to never work with kids or dogs?

There is no question, however, about the lovely locations in The Dark. The stunningly beautiful yet violent and creepy cliffs and oceans onscreen add to the parental fear of the leads. My goodness how do British people really live so close to these cliffs without fearing their kids are going to plummet? This realistic filming adds to the creepiness of the abattoir. Based upon the novel Sheep by Simon Maginn, the animals are also a bit freaky; Herds of sheep surrounding folks, looking at people and baa-ing. The Dark shows promise with these foreign and weird touches, but it’s not enough.

I suppose the biggest question is this: Is The Dark scary? First viewing; maybe. Bean and Bello fans will tune in for sure, but those made to jump moments are now so commonplace that the spooks don’t work. Television Director John Fawcett’s (Xena, Queer as Folk, Taken) jagged abattoir flashbacks, cliff plummets, and otherworldly Annwn hell-like filming make great strides and look very cool, but don’t top what’s already been done onscreen.

Outside of a few f-bombs, I don’t see why The Dark is rated R. The child torture scenes are mild compared to other films, and the blood and gore isn’t heavy. Maybe European audiences prefer the parental struggles and life versus death debates, but us Americans want Blood! Gore! Sex! And we want it Now!

The Dark does nothing wrong, in fact its foreign and mature takes add to the film, not detract. The Dark is good. I’ve watched it several times, I’d watch it again, and I recommended The Dark to my horror loving husband. Too many similar films and not enough umph unfortunately give The Dark a feeling of déjà vu and familiarity instead of nail biting horror.

Although the dvd only offers one extra-an alternate ending that isn’t too shocking-if you’re looking for a bit of weird and creepy, The Dark is an affordable show without too much commitment.

09 July 2008

Harsh Times

Harsh Times Not Harsh Enough

By Kristin Battestella

David Ayer’s Harsh Times is a tale of bitter realities in South Central Los Angeles. Although star Christian Bale received praise all around, the 2005 action flick found mixed reviews from critics. Despite gritty performances and authenticity, Harsh Times doesn’t go far enough.

New media darling Christian Bale (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) stars as Jim Davis, an army ranger recently returned from Afghanistan. After his refused admittance into the LAPD, Jim returns to his previous life of smoking pot, joy riding, petty theft, and selling guns. Jim’s best friend Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodriguez, Six Feet Under) joins in on this downward spiral, despite warnings from his girlfriend Sylvia (Eva Longoria, Desperate Housewives). Jim could leave this life of crime behind him and return to the peace of Mexico with his love Marta (Tammy Trull, Invasion), but a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder interferes with Jim inside and out.

Now, I must say Harsh Times is not the type of film I normally watch. Independent features exposing the dark underbelly of other countries or situations new to me, those I like. Growing up near Philadelphia and Camden, however, makes me a little immune to the plights of South Central Los Angeles. Drugs! Crime! Sex! The errant and destructive youth! Go down the street to my local city park’s basketball courts after dark and you’ve got the same thing. The subject matter of Harsh Times is harsh, yes, but no longer all that shocking. Nothing against the folks really caught in the non glitz and glamour in the City of the Angels, but Ayer (Training Day) doesn’t take his story deep enough or far enough. Where there should be heartfelt reflective meaning, Harsh Times serves up superficial dudes doing stupid stuff while high. There are twisted puppies out there who will treat Harsh Times like a gospel to follow rather than a deterrence against the readily available crime traps waiting for the down trodden.

Thankfully, Christian Bale takes over Harsh Times. After downs like Newsies, Velvet Goldmine, and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Bale has finally received due acclaim in Hollywood. Sure, hits like Batman Begins pay the bills, but Bale has done fine independent work in American Psycho, Equilibrium, The Machinist, and now Harsh Times. Action or tormented, period piece or science fiction, Bale puts his entire essence into each varied part. Proud and loving Jim turns into a psycho criminal- there’s no doubt he will. We know this scenario can’t possibly end well, but Bale’s asinine degradation is fascinating to watch, yet absolutely off putting at the same time. Some ladies may still find the unrecognizable Englishman’s hard ass American styled and Spanish speaking performance hot and sexy; but were you to see Jim on the street, you’d cross to the other side. What’s so creepy is that we all know a Jim. The crooked loose cannon who wants to join the police department so he can have a license to get the all access criminal pass. It’s a sad reflection on American society created perfectly by Bale.

Harsh Times keeps it real in the supporting cast and locations. The mix of Hispanics struggling in LA contrasted with Black gangs and idyllic farm life in Mexico works for Ayer. There’s enough of each piece to get the feel, and each segment is honest and accurate, not offensive. There’s beauty and destruction all around. Again, I would have liked to see more depth on these social commentaries from first time director Ayer, rather than tour de force Bale, but we must take the advocate as well. This isn’t an art house picture, and Ayer keeps the action and language for the young edgy demographic.

Is Harsh Times a bad movie? No. There is a young audience out there for it, and Harsh Times is a movie of which Bale should definitely be proud. But with such heavy subject matter, there is more to be had than action yarns and respectable film. With a meatier script, who knows where Harsh Times could have gone.

Ayer’s commentary track is a nice feature, and the deleted scenes give some more weight. If you’re an action fan or a Christian aficionado, Harsh Times is an affordable dvd worth the food for thought.

08 July 2008

Don't Say A Word

Don’t Say A Word Speaks Too Little

By Kristin Battestella

Maybe you’ve seen 2001’s Don’t Say A Word. Perhaps you don’t like thrillers or find Michael Douglas past his Fatal Attraction prime. You do, however, know one thing about director Gary Fleder’s tale: “I’ll never tell.”

I’m sure you know someone who imitates Brittany Murphy’s haunting chirp; perhaps you do a good one yourself. Don’t Say A Word is much more than a Murphy romp, but its not as much as it could be.

Michael Douglas (Wall Street) leads a fine cast as Dr. Nathan Conrad, a psychiatrist with a flare for helping troubled young folk. His wife Aggie (Famke Janssen, X-Men) is laid up at the Conrad’s posh townhouse with a broken leg and daughter Jessie (Skye McCole Bartusiak, 24). All seems just peachy until Dr. Conrad receives an emergency call on Thanksgiving Eve. Dr. Louis Sachs (Oliver Platt, The West Wing) needs Nathan’s insights on a new patient, Elisabeth Burrows (Brittany Murphy, Sin City). After his initial visit with Elisabeth, the holiday morning seems grand-until the Conrads discover Jessie has been abducted during the night. Jewel thief turned kidnapper Patrick Koster (Sean Bean, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) calls Dr. Conrad with his demands; Get the number locked inside Elisabeth’s troubled mind or Jessie is dead.

Based on the novel by Andrew Klavan with a screenplay from Anthony Peckham and Patrick Smith Kelly (A Perfect Murder), Don’t Say A Word certainly has an intriguing premise. The opening robbery scene and subsequent patient and family sets establish who everyone is and what is happening. The suspense and food for thought comes in the unanswered why. How did Koster come to Nathan? What is the number? The direction from Fleder (Kiss the Girls) and the performances onscreen are realistic and well played. It’s tough to have an action opening followed by seemingly random looks into a New York family’s life, but it works here. We are invested in these people’s dilemmas. We want answers and resolution.

Michael Douglas is on form as the sympathetic yet intelligent Dr. Conrad. At first we might find him uppity and smug-Nathan has left the down trodden psychiatric hospital for uptown and lucrative psychiatry. Oddly enough, you are rooting more for the opening heist. You want the double cross on Koster to succeed. Seeing how Dr. Conrad and his family get caught in Koster’s revenge scheme instantly makes the determined father likeable. Douglas often plays the Fonda-type innocent and wronged man with roles like The Game and more recently the elderly comedy The In-Laws; a remake co starring dad Kirk Douglas. We know he’ll do what needs to be done, and we believe his motivation.

Perhaps more intriguing is Famke Janssen as Aggie, the bed bound wife. When Koster is spying on her and carrying on glib phone conversations, you feel every bit for Aggie’s pain, helplessness, and fear for herself and her abducted daughter. It’s bemusing to see Janssen and Sean Bean on opposite sides since they were so delicious as the evil duo in Goldeneye. The turnabout makes Koster seem even more dubious, and you really want Aggie to do something about it. But what can she do? Not just a pretty face, Janssen sells what could be very claustrophobic and still scenes with real tears, intense stares, angry fidgets, and subtle movements. Untraditional camera angles also work in Aggie’s storyline. She may not move, but the camera does. Likewise the cuts to Sean Bean as Koster on the phone expand Aggie’s space.

Often typecast as the villain courtesy of his vile roles in Patriot Games and Essex Boys, Bean is creepy as ever in Don’t Say A Word. We’ve seen his villainy before, but American audiences may not be as familiar with Bean’s voice, unlike his popular narration, commercial, and voice over work in the UK. His delivery for Koster is perfectly vile and suave. Every time Koster calls Dr. Conrad, you know who’s in control.

Strangely, Brittany Murphy doesn’t have much to do beyond the ticks and chants of the stereotypical crazy person on film. Bartusiak’s Jessie is cute enough, but the strength of these characters is raised by the three leads. The Conrads want their daughter, Nathan reaches out to Elisabeth like a father to a daughter, and both the younger girls are very important to Koster and his schemes.

I would like to have seen more of the authorities’ storyline. Jennifer Esposito’s Detective Cassidy is always one step behind. It’s a shame her scenes aren’t given more weight to parallel the main focuses. Yes, another thread to conclude may not always be a good thing, but somewhere halfway through Don’t Say A Word, things get a little obvious. The intelligent layers peel down to other stereotypical themes. It turns out Elisabeth isn’t all that troubled after all, everyone has their rah rah moment and then it’s time to move onto Thanksgiving Dinner. For all the fine performances and mature set up in Don’t Say A Word, the end wraps up almost too nicely. I liked Don’t Say A Word and am still recommending it to intelligent audiences, but intrigued viewers must look to the DVD features for more in depth scenes and analysis. Cast and director commentaries, storyboards, and deleted scenes give some fulfillment.

Don’t Say A Word is an intelligent and well acted film when such movies are tough to find. Repeat watching may not be in the cards, but any thinking person audience should tune in.

Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure

Bill and Ted Still Excellent for All (Bogus Journey Not So Much)
By Kristin Battestella
Excellent! Party On, Dudes! Wyld Stallyons! Eighties Babies know these gems hail from 1989’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The time traveling teen comedy may seem dated to some, but the humor and iconic moments can still be enjoyed by viewers young and old.

Despite using words like heinous, Bill S Preston, esquire (Alex Winter) and Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan (Keanu Reeves) aren’t the brightest bulbs. They spend most of their time hanging out and jamming guitars, so the duo is about to fail history. (‘Who is Joan of Arc?’ asks the history teacher. Bill responds, ‘Noah’s wife?’) Ted’s dad (Hal Landon, Jr.) vows to send his son to military school in Alaska, but time traveler Rufus (the late George Carlin) comes back in time to help the band. Wyld Stallyons can’t unite the planet and save the future if the boys are split! Bill and Ted are given a time traveling phone booth to observe history for their report. When Napoleon (Terry Camilleri) accidentally jumps in the booth with them, Bill and Ted decide to collect other historically figures to speak at their school- including Billy the Kid, Genghis Kan, Sigmund Freud (‘Freud Dude’), Beethoven (‘Beeth-Oven’), Socrates (‘So-Crates’), Joan of Arc (‘Ms. Of Arc’), and Abraham Lincoln.
Bill & Ted's Most Excellent CollectionAlthough Alex Winter has faded into eighties obscurity, Keanu Reeves has gone on to much success and intelligent film, including Speed and of course The Matrix trilogy. For years after Bill and Ted, Reeves couldn’t break free of the dumb persona so popular here. Although the onscreen antics and premise are presumptuous, the wit from the actors and script were oft tried in the eighties. Most failed, but Bill and Ted succeeds with the spot on tweedle dee and tweedle dumb chemistry. The actors look the part, and sound as stupid as they look.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure swims on its quirky humor, wit, and smart script by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon (Men In Black). Director Stephen Herek (The Three Musketeers) balances silly looks and timed antics with sharp lines and absurdities at which you can’t help but laugh. The air guitar, bogus, ‘Missy-I mean Mom.’ so many of Bill and Ted’s little things have seeped into the cultural lexicon. I still my find myself saying excellent.
While the writers’ story is a bit hokey, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is one of the few movies where the story doesn’t matter. The basis of the movie merely serves as Bill and Ted’s jumping off point for time traveling goofs, mishaps, and eighties music montages. You can tune in at any point in the movie and see something you like. Of course now the clothes, simplistic eighties effects, and the very bad 89 vision of the future look ridiculous, but that has only added to the movie’s fun.
Do however skip the 1991 sequel Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. There are many humorous moments here from the returning cast, director Peter Hewitt (Garfield), and William Sadler is a lot of fun as the Grim Reaper. Unfortunately, the plot of Bill and Ted being killed by bads from the future, then being replaced by evil look a like robots while the real Bill and Ted play games with the Grim Reaper to win their way back to life, then getting help from a dwarf alien when they convert said Grim Reaper-whew! Bogus Journey has too many leaps of faith and not enough humor to combat the outlandish effort to keep up with the nineties. Bill and Ted’s charm is their eighties time capsule.

As stupid and gross out as comedies can often seem, they must carry a level of intelligence behind them. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure has that wit that keeps you coming back, unlike Bogus Journey which is just dumb in most places. It’s fun to have a mini marathon of both films-and there are people out there who prefer the dumbness of Bogus (like my husband)-but Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey tarnishes the excellent memory of the original film, as did most of the crazy merchandising that followed both films. Do I also recall an extremely brief TV series? Gosh I hope not!
The fallout from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is nothing new for audiences who have witnessed one too many franchises grow thin. The original film, however, deserves a comeback. If you haven’t seen Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, pick up the affordable DVD. If you’re a fan of old, dig out that VHS copy. The PG-13 rating has nothing majorly offensive for wiser kids today, just a few nods of sexual innuendo. Spend the night in with the family and laugh with Bill and Ted. Most excellent, Dude!

01 July 2008

North Country

North Country Could Have Been Stronger

By Kristin Battestella

After seeing North Country in the bargain bins at nearly every video store, I took the $4 plunge. I caught part of the 2005 film on television, and hey, Sean Bean is in it, so why not?

After leaving her abusive husband, Josey (Charlize Theron, Monster) takes a job at the Pearson Mines to support her two children, Sammy (Thomas Curtis) and Karen (Elle Peterson). Her father Hank (Richard Jenkins), also a miner, disapproves of Josey’s job, as do most of the male miners. Union representative Glory (Frances McDormand, Fargo) tries to keeps the hazing of the new female minors to a minimum. Unfortunately, Glory can’t keep her tough exterior while her health is failing. Her husband Kyle (Sean Bean)-previously injured at the mine-must care for Glory. Josey’s Mom Alice (Sissy Spacek) offers support where she can, but after one too many incidents at the mine, Josey turns to ex hockey star turned lawyer Bill (Woody Harrelson) and takes the first class action sexual harassment lawsuit to court.

Clearly meant as a vehicle for Charlize Theron, the Oscar winner gives a fine performance here along with other such female Oscar heavy weights as Spacek and McDormand. The faults with North Country are not with the cast. In their brief scenes, Woody Harrelson and Sean Bean support the ladies very well, but it is as if they don’t have enough to do. The leading women also don’t seem to be as moving as they could be. The talent was definitely there for North Country, but director Niki Caro and writer Michael Seitzman seem to have missed the emotional mark.

Based upon the book by Clara Bingham, this true story about women fighting back against sexual harassment should be more moving then it turned out onscreen. After years of courtroom reruns on television, the legal scenes in North Country seem stilted and on the cheap. Woody Harrelson is capable of the courtroom charisma needed, as seen in The People vs Larry Flint, but it seems as if the history making legal precedence is set aside for chick flick moments.

The North Country DVD does have a brief deleted scene reel, and for once, these pieces should have been left in the film. Several key conversations between each main cast member were left on the cutting room floor. Some have dialogue, and some are just lengthy moments between the leads, but these scenes add some of the depth needed. At exactly two hours, North Country seems a bit short nowadays. All the pieces to the puzzle are there, but North Country doesn’t quite deliver.

Men probably won’t like this attempted gun-ho women’s picture, but younger folks may not either, largely due to the eighties look of the film. North Country’s setting is cold Minnesota, 1989-and the hair, costumes, and production look it. I must, however, say the ice hockey presented actually looks authentic-not an easy thing to find! Unfortunately, the DVD contains only the deleted scenes, the standard subtitles, and a brief behind the scenes with the real women of the class action lawsuit.

Instead of directing audiences to ‘stand up’ for themselves and other against abuse by going to a website, here was another missed chance to get seriously exhaustive about the issue of filming what is still a touchy subject. How did Theron prepare? Was it rewarding or difficult for the real victims to see their tale onscreen? What does the real mining company have to say about all this? Sadly we just don’t know.

Although North Country didn’t quite hit the nail on the head, the film is just right for a certain audience niche. Women and victims of abuse will find the film worthy, and students learning about such lawsuits might help themselves with a viewing. No one here has a glamorous role, but fans of the cast will no doubt tune in as well. North Country brought to light a very important subject, but the next step was there for the taking.

Sharpe's Justice

Sharpe’s Justice Uneven Back Story

By Kristin Battestella

After his Revenge and before Waterloo producers of the BBC’s Sharpe series tried one more time for an original episode. Taking pieces of Sharpe’s history from the Cornwell novels, writer Patrick Harbinson and director Tom Clegg present an uneven mix of Sharpe’s past, present, and future with Sharpe’s Justice.

Now that Napoleon is in exile in Elba, Major Sharpe (Sean Bean) is posted to his old Yorkshire haunts in support of mill owner Parfitt (Tony Haygarth) and his punky yeoman Wickham (Douglas Henshall). Fellow Yorkshire man Matt Truman (Philip Glenister), however, has inspired the factory workers and other poor townsfolk to rise up against the rich. Even homeless rifleman Daniel Hagman(John Tams) joins this cause. Sharpe is soon torn between friends from his past and the high society pressing him, including Lady Anne Camoynes (Caroline Langrishe) and his wayward wife Jane (Abigail Cruttenden).

It’s a lot to cover in one show; Sharpe’s family, the state of the war at home, Jane’s attempt to climb the social ladder. Despite its effort to show us where Sharpe came from, Sharpe’s Justice is not an introductory episode. Nor is it necessarily all about how Sharpe became Sharpe. We’ve watched twelve previous shows to witness that. Justice is also trying to tie up lose ends in what was then the second to last episode of the series. Hagman and ever present Sergeant Patrick Harper have their moments, and Richard finally confronts Jane about her leaving him and robbing him blind. Is Justice looking towards the old or setting up for the new? You make the call.

At last I have praise for Abigail Cruttenden as Jane. The high society she craved is not exactly what it seems, and in retrospect, life with Sharpe was a lot more passionate. Cruttenden is perfect now that Jane is put in her place and pouting at Sharpe. Bean also continues to shine through the internal conflicts of Richard Sharpe. He is uncomfortable with his past, more likely ashamed. As proud as Sharpe should be of all his accomplishments, he is also once again a man with out a place, a jilted soldier with no one but the wrong people to fight. I would have liked more from Glenister as the Matt Truman. He’s little more than a pot faced, toothless, cranky English guy. Karen Meagher as Sally Bunting is also the typical mousy type. They are cute and relate-able, but there could be deep moving characters here. Is this too much to expect from an original Sharpe movie? Maybe- but not from the novels.

After so many episodes of war in Spain and Portugal, it is however a pleasant treat to see Regency England again. The down trodden villages are perhaps small scale, but the dirty and dark looks contrast perfectly with the lush and pomp of the rich mansions and estates. The candlelight in Justice is done perfectly. It’s dark in the low pubs, the only source of light and heat; yet it is also elegant and bright amid party parlors and chandeliers. I must also say that Sharpe and Harper look smashing on horseback. The beautiful animals and wooded locales give Justice a fine touch. We do see a bit of what Sharpe has been fighting for all these years-yes the pomp of England, but also the lovely country itself and a people in need of hope.

Sharpe’s Justice doesn’t get super deep or serious, but since when does that stop one’s enjoyment of this show? There’s plenty of action, romance, and period drama, even if Justice never decides what direction it’s really taking. It’s as if Revenge, Justice, and Waterloo are meant as one film in three parts. Each gets us one step closer to the end while honoring this crazy Napoleonic ride we’ve been on. The DVDs are available in box set or as part of the complete collection. Justice is not the place to introduce a new viewer to Sharpe, but it’s a must for any Sharpe enthusiast.