26 November 2008

Little Women (1994)

Little Women Great Family Favorite

By Kristin Battestella

It’s not necessarily a Christmas story, but I always tend to think of Little Women during the holidays. The 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott has been adapted for the screen several times, as has its sequel, Little Men. As much as I love the 1933 version with Katherine Hepburn and the color 1949 film starring June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor, I tend to favor Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 release for a night of family entertainment.

During the Civil War, the March sisters Meg (Trini Alvarado, The Frighteners), Jo (Winona Ryder), Beth (Claire Daines, My So Called Life), and Amy (Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis) lean on their mother Marmee (Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking) for advice and support. Their wealthy neighbor Mr. Laurence (John Neville, The X-Files) and his grandson Laurie (Christian Bale) become attached to the girls as the March family struggles with poverty, illness, and growing up.

Growing up I didn’t like the book Little Women as most young ladies do. My sister and I would attempt to read the near 500 page book aloud, but we never got beyond the first few pages. (It’s a long story, and my sister would kill me if I told the rest of it!) Hence my association with the tale and Christmas from its opening line, “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents!” Only when I was older did I read and appreciate Alcott’s semi-autobiographical tale.

Meg is the oldest, but of course Jo is the heart and soul of Little Women. Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice, Remains of the Day, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) received an Oscar nomination for her work here as the writing tomboy. As strong as she is here, part of me also can’t let go of that ‘It’s Winona Ryder’ feeling. It would be nice to have an unknown play Jo sometime, instead of all these spunky chicks, but Ryder does have the weight needed for this period role. Some people just look so silly in such costumes. Trini Alvarado is perfect as elder sister Meg, as is Eric Stolz (Memphis Belle) as her husband John Brooke. Only Kirsten Dunst (Interview with a Vampire) and Samantha Mathis (Broken Arrow) seem misplaced as the younger and older Amy, respectively. The character is a bit of a snoot as it is, but Dunst comes off as a Hollywood brat and Mathis seems to have her nose turned up at the part.

Thankfully, we have lovely support stepping up in Little Women. Susan Sarandon plays the old and wise Marmee with complete appreciation for the character, wearing little make up and layers of drab costumes. Now everybody loves Christian Bale (Batman Begins, American Psycho), but his talent can be seen here as the rich boy next door who falls in love with poor Jo. John Neville and the late Mary Wickes (Sister Act) also add a touch of refinement to the cast. Claire Danes and Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects) give fine performances, but it seems like they are barely there. Considering how important they are to Jo, I expected more screen time for them.

While Gillian Armstrong (Oscar and Lucinda) is well known in her native Australia, her weak direction is the one problem with Little Women. Sometimes I’m in a Bale phase and can’t wait to get to his scenes, but other times it feels as if Armstrong doesn’t know where to take the story. It’s as if she tries to fit every thing from the book into the movie where the focus should be on Jo’s storyline most of the time. Liberties are also taken from the source material by writer and co producer Robin Swicord (The Jane Austen Book Club), changing the time line and lending a little bit of sappy to the tale. Thankfully the talented cast and the innate charm of the story outshine any misses taken behind the scenes.

Visually Little Women has all the Victorian and Dickensian lush we expect from a period piece, and large portions of the film center around Christmas, giving us lovely recreations of where a lot of our holiday traditions originate. I love hoop skirts as it is, but natural garland and bows and candles gives the story an extra attention to detail. The costumes are authentic as well- homely when the story dictates and silk and lavish during the high times. The Oscar nominated score by Thomas Newman (The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty) also adds a layer of heartstrings throughout the film. We have holiday tunes, orchestral echoes, and period songs adding the perfect level of audio spice.

After seeing the VHS and later the DVD, I finally picked up a used copy of the Collectors Edition at a very affordable price. There’s fun and educational slides, standard commentaries and behind the scenes, and a music only option. I would have liked more from the cast about what drew them to the project other than the brief making of feature, but the detailed costume design segment is a treat.

Naturally I can see that Little Women is not for everyone. Boys who need toys should stay away, but period piece fans will no doubt tune in. Tween girls who have read the source novel will enjoy this timeless tale, and maybe those who haven’t read the book will take a gander after their viewing. Women who love this story can watch Little Women again and again, and hey, Christian Bale, ladies! For a family friendly evening full of merit, worth, and touches of holiday spirit, gather round the television for Little Women at Christmas or anytime of the year.

25 November 2008

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah Still Enchanting
By Kristin Battestella

So I’m up all night with the flu and lo and behold what’s on Turner Classic Movies but one of my all time favorite films: Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 essential Samson and Delilah. This epic tale from the Book of Judges has lost none of its charm.

SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949) Imported for ALL Regions NTSCRespected and revered Danite strongman Samson (Victor Mature) falls in love with Philistine beauty Semadar (Angela Lansbury). They plan to marry, despite the objects of Gaza Captain Ahtur (Heny Wilcoxon). Samson is tricked by Ahrtur and Semadar’s scheming sister Delilah (Hedy Lemarr) and becomes an outlaw. After he defeats The Saran of Gaza (George Sanders) and his army ‘with the jawbone of an ass’, Delilah plots to destroy Samson and his legendary strength-by cutting off his long hair.

Alright, I’ll say it. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. I’m sure that phrase has been used to describe Delilah before. Hedy Lamarr had a relatively short film career, and today she’s probably more well known for later controversies and scientific work-if at all. There’s no mistake, however, that Samson and Delilah is Lamarr’s film. Although I sometimes wonder if her sultry delivery was dubbed, Lamarr’s vixen villainy and ruthless love give Delilah all the allure and power she needs. Heaven forbid we see her navel, of course, but the tight wraps and halter tops show plenty of cleavage and a lot of leg. What a delightful shock to post World War II America!

I’ve seen plenty of Victor Mature films (My Darling Clementine, Chief Crazy Horse, The Robe) but he’s not one of my favorite classic leading men. He’s a little too dramatic and droopy eyed for my tastes. However, as big and angry strongman Samson, these qualities work. In fine epic support is the young and beautiful Murder She Wrote star Angela Lansbury. As many times as I’ve seen Samson and Delilah, it’s still a novelty to see Lansbury beyond her spunky detective old lady. George Sanders (Rebecca, All About Eve) is his usual vile self, and DeMille staple Henry Wilcoxon (The Ten Commandments, Mrs. Miniver) always fits in historical garb. I must also note a fine Olive Deering as Miriam, a role she would reprise-sort of- in The Ten Commandments.

After spending my childhood watching Samson and Delilah almost daily (I had to make time for The Ten Commandments, too), I hadn’t seen the film in years. I’ll admit some folks don’t like old school classics because they think older films look hokey and people act over the top. Samson and Delilah, however, is as perfect today as it was in 1949. It’s a shame that later sprawling DeMille epics and sandal flicks seems to overshadow this fine film. Maybe they aren’t historically authentic, but the costumes are metallic, colorful, still gorgeous. The landscapes and ancient tents are lush as ever, and the action still looks cool. I was expecting Samson’s fight with the lion to look silly and the destruction of the temple cheesy. The beauty onscreen and the powerful story, however, forgive any jump cuts remaining.

There are old school tricks to be had in Samson and Delilah, of course, but this was a DeMille epic-top of the line stuff, none of that B production shoestring stuff. So we know it isn’t Victor Mature battling the lion, yep. Our titular couple is supposed to be so passionate, yet they only kiss a handful of times-and remember that three second kiss rule! I also love the color of these old bible sword and sandal epics. It’s so bright and rich. It’s literally like you can’t look away for all the flash catching your eye.

If the sights don’t get you, the sound certainly will. 22 time Oscar nominee Victor Young’s (Around The World In Eighty Days) score was nominated for an Academy Award. It’s instantly recognizable, and all the booms and strings come and go in the right places. I also love DeMille’s touch of onscreen music in Samson and Delilah. Lyres and harps and ancient feasts allow for more enchanting tunes for Delilah to bat her eyes to.

Last but certainly but not least, Samson and Delilah has a dang good story beneath all its Hollywood spectacle. Love and revenge, Israel versus the Philistines, Prayer, betrayal, Monotheism. It’s all there. The Bible doesn’t give writers Jesse Lasky Jr. (Salome, The Ten Commandments) and Fredric M. Frank (The Greatest Show On Earth) much to go on, but the essence of this tale speaks for itself. The dialogue is crisp and memorable. Despite its familiarity, the tale isn’t predictable and stale. On the contrary, Samson and Delilah has aged in reverence like a fine wine.

In this era or remakes and reboots, its refreshing to see only one major attempt has been made to recapture the story of the strongman and his vengeful woman. TNT’s miniseries Samson and Delilah received mixed reviews for length and content, further proving some classics are classic for a reason. Part of me wants to say that I would love a big screen lush and lavish biblical interpretation, but with the story such as it is, an update could quickly turn into a sex and spectacle fest. I find it amusing that we need silly role reversal films like Enchanted to empower women, but this classic Delilah is getting no respect.

I am very disappointed to see the limited availability of Samson and Delilah on DVD. Several editions have been previously released, but now these appear out of print. How dare Turner Classic Movies spoil me with a restored and perfect showing then make me return to my jumping and faded taped from TV VHS. It should be required that every film on the National Registry be preserved on DVD before Disney can make another direct to video release. Whatever version of Samson and Delilah you have, love it, cherish it, and share this wonderful morality tale with future generations.

23 November 2008

10,000 BC

I Liked 10,000 BC.
By Kristin Battestella

I wasn’t expecting much from the 2008 adventure epic 10,000 BC. Roland Emmerich’s prehistoric tale was quickly dismissed as an effects laden, visual extravaganza with little substance. By and large, that may be the case, but I actually enjoyed this film.

10,000 B.C. When the blue eyed orphan Evolet (Camilla Belle) is rescued by the Yagahl tribe, the wise Old Mother (Mona Hammond) foretells of a prophecy that will save their starving people. Young hunter D’Leh (Steven Strait) strives to win Evolet’s hand in the Last Hunt, but the Yagahl are raided by the Four Legged Demons-a neighboring tribe on horseback who captures Evolet. Together D’Leh and his mentor Tic Tic (Cliff Curtis) travel beyond their snowy mountainous realm in pursuit. Along the way D’Leh encounters other tribes eager to rise up against the raiders-who take their captured to ‘The Mountain of God’. The journey is not easy for D’Leh. Harsh climates and sand storms are made worse by man eating birds, saber tooth tigers, and wooly mammoths.

Yes, I said man eating birds, saber tooth tigers, and wooly mammoths. I didn’t expect 10,000 BC to be any more believable or historically accurate than 300 was. If you take the film as fantasy from the start, it’s really not that bad. With its prophecies, ferocious beasts, Atlantis connections, and Egyptian pyramids, how could it be anything else? No one thinks The Beastmaster or Conan The Barbarian are bad because they aren’t historically accurate. (They may be considered bad for other reasons, but I like those, too.)

The cast of 10,000 BC is nothing to write home about, and this is actually a blessing. I’m glad Roland Emmerich (Stargate, Independence Day) didn’t pad this over the top epic with stars. Sometimes it’s tough to tell who is who in their dreadlocked and dirty selves, but not having a big name allows for an element of anonymity and a touch of realism. These people could have lived back then. The only standout, however, is Cliff Curtis (Whale Rider, The Fountain) as Tic Tic. His mentoring character adds a touch of refinement to the otherwise young and fit cast.
I’m also glad 10,000 BC is PG-13. At first I thought, bummer, we aren’t getting any sex and nudity and rape and pillage that I’m sure was standard for primitive peoples, but having all that goodness would have quickly degenerated 10,000 BC to further stupidity. Yes, Wooly Mammoths didn’t co exist with the pyramids-whether they were built by Atlanteans or aliens or not- saber tooth tigers would not have befriended people, and said people would certainly not speak English. But so what? I liked that one film put all these cool things together, and yes the computer generated effects do look good.

Two things I didn’t like about 10,000 BC, however, are the convoluted traveling schedule and the portrayal of the tribes. We have the snowy, mountain saavy Yagahl people living oh so close to fertile tropical landscapes? Why do they stay in the mountains and starve, then? There’s no visual hints that D’Leh’s journey takes anymore than a few days’ time, yet he goes from big mountains to rainforests to the desert and the Nile delta in a week? Honestly. And of course, the people he encounters are dark skinned, understandable, but they are made to be less primitive than the Yagahl. Even though they grow food and the Yagahl do not, the Naku and the other African tribes who join D’Leh’s quest don’t speak English and have simple wicker shields and spears-compared to the inaccurate stone and metal tools of the Yagahl.

It surprises me that 10,000 BC is considered so bad. Is not 10 Million Years BC bad? Aren’t most popular modern films merely effects laden, plotless tales that stretch viewer believability? From the wooly mammoths to almost dinosaur like birds to big red sailed corsair ships and pyramids- 10,000 BC is preposterous, but yet so dang cool. I could do without some or Emmerich and co writer Harald Kloser’s (The Day After Tomorrow) prophecy double talk, and maybe the film takes itself a bit too seriously. However, I liked 10,000 BC better than The Scorpion King, a film that gives us the same effects and stretch of history mixed with big names and humor. Many find it ridiculous that they speak English, but would you really have remained tuned in if it was all grunts and jibberish?

I would have liked more of the saber tooth tiger design, but the wooly mammoths and pyramid recreations in 10,000 BC are stunning. It’s even a little scary how realistic all this looks, even in comparison to Emmerich’s own fine looking Stargate. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how Omar Sharif’s narration feels. We need a bit of narration to explain things, but could we have had sharper dialogue instead? That could have been worse, perhaps. Then again, the narration does add a feel that this is a fantasy, a legend that has been passed down through the ages into myth and lore.

The DVD of 10,000 BC has little features beyond an alternate ending and deleted scenes. I was hoping for some extensive cg behind the scenes documentaries, but a two disc limited edition DVD seems to have disappeared from existence. Maybe it is not affordable enough yet to take a chance on, but give 10,000 BC a rental try. Is it perfect? Heavens no. However, if you keep an open mind, 10,000 BC has plenty of action; pretty locales and visuals; and fun fanciful theory to keep you and the kids entertained. Who did build the pyramids, anyway?

20 November 2008

White Christmas

Bing’s White Christmas A Holiday Must
By Kristin Battestella

I still remember the first dozen CDs I got. They were so newfangled compared to cassettes and 45s! Certain essentials, however, immediately found their way to the new format. For me, no Christmas since the advent of the compact disc is complete with out Bing Crosby’s 1949 Staple White Christmas. We’re talking 78s now, folks!

Silent Night begins the album in proper caroling fashion. Although you would think this a better closing tune, Bing sets the tone for this set with his spiritual, crooning notes. It’s a little slow, but too short at the same time.

continues the carols with Adeste Fideles. The first verse is the Latin treat, then the second turn around is the traditional English O Come A Ye Faithful. Outside of the big voices, you don’t often hear this carol from today’s singers. It’s simple lyrics are full of religious reverence, and this is one of my favorite renditions. Very easy to understand and sing along to.
White Christmas
We know its Oscar winning debut in Holiday Inn and its titular film White Christmas, and until Elton John’s Princess Diana tribute Candle In The Wind gave it a run for its money, White Christmas was alone with its 50 million copies sold self. Everyone knows it, and Bing Crosby’s soft delivery says everything we love about a good old fashioned Christmas. This album itself has gone through dozens of prints and reissues and track changes, and Bing would in fact rerecord White Christmas after the initial print wore out. I can imagine there are folks out there who are sick and tired of this song-and perhaps better voices have taken the Irving Berlin classic to new levels-but love it or hate it, the spirit of White Christmas cannot be denied.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman is another one of my favorites, a very old tune that Bing again adds a bit of pop and singability to. Such somber but powerful words. Those who feel downtrodden during the holiday season should take the time to listen to the lyrics instead of the depressing beats- Gentleman is full of Christmas meaning.

Not necessarily a holiday hymn, Faith of Our Fathers is a surprising choice by Crosby. Nevertheless, this ode says more about where America was at the time-a paternal society going from the Great Depression and into World War II-then Dad’s role on Christmas morning. For the spiritual minded, this is a welcome reminder, even if we only hear it once a year.

I’ll Be Home For Christmas actually sounds more melancholy here than usual. Bing almost seems on the verge of cracking once or twice and the simple guitar opening lends a touch of pauper. It’s not depressing, but bittersweet and tugging at your holiday heart strings. Although one of the longer tracks here at three minutes, this entire album is short by today’s standards. A whopping thirty five minutes!

Even though I like swing and big band music, Jingle Bells is just too jazzy and annoying for me. The bells in the background, Crosby’s speedy delivery, and those jiving Andrews Sisters (who I normally like) put this one over the top for me. If you need a Jingle Bells, this version will certainly do, but its better if you alter it with the ‘Batman Smells’ adlib.

White Christmas’
need for something upbeat is also misplaced with Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. For kids and fun, sure this standard can’t be beat. Some of the tongue twister lyrics are fun to sing, but The Andrews Sisters just sound so annoying behind Bing. The music and style is very dated, and really if you don’t have children under 10 in the house, this one’s a skipper.

Silver Bells, thankfully returns us to Crosby’s suave seasonal charm. We can sing along, and for busy parents stuck in the shopping humdrum, Silver Bells allows a moment to pause and reflect on the beauty of the holidays.

Likewise It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas reminds us of all the signs of the season. I’m not a big fan of the commercialized Christmas, but these songs are such a big part of our tradition. Besides, the heartwarming notions of red, green, toys, and decor come through in Crosby’s voice.

Christmas In Killarney is the second song on White Christmas I could take or leave, behind Santa Claus is Coming to Town. There’s something about Bing’s rhymes, rhythm, weird beats, and music that just feel off kilter to me. Only after I researched the titular Irish town was I able to appreciate Bing’s brisk delivery. And I like Celtic music, go figure.

If I feel pressed to name an utterly American Christmas song, Mele Kalikimaka is the first one I think of. I live nowhere near Hawaii, but its light luau sounds and lyrics of sunshiny winter fests represent everything good about the cultural melting pot in the US. Sure we didn’t acquire our fiftieth state under the best circumstances, but who doesn’t love Hawaii? And as much as we dream of sleighs and snow, there’s something about Bing’s tale of beaches and Christmas sunshine that warms even the cold heart of this February baby.

Even if you don’t like the swinging music of old, Bing Crosby’s stalwart White Christmas has been the soundtrack of the season for over sixty years. The CD is short and affordable enough for a spot on your Christmas music rotation. Enjoy this undeniable Christmas charmer this December.

17 November 2008

O Holy Night!

Sandi Patty Shines in O Holy Night
By Kristin Battestella

Those that listen to Christian music certainly know who Sandi Patty is. The booming soprano was the beloved of the Contemporary Christian music for most of the eighties, until personal scandals disappointed many fans and almost brought an end to her career. For those that turned away or audiences not interested in Christian music, I urge you to reconsider with Patty’s 1996 Christmas release O Holy Night!

Angels We Have Heard On High starts the album off in big fashion. Sandi Patty, however, doesn’t blow out the beautiful orchestra or choir behind her. Sure she doesn’t need anything else but her opera trained voice to carry an excellent tune, but the coming together of vocals and music adds heavenly reverence worthy of this hymn’s title.

Not many can properly handle Carol Of The Bells. It can be a very dark song and too chant like if done wrong. Thankfully, you can actually understand Patty’s lyrics without sacrificing the tough range this tune requires. The orchestra takes on the proper booms and crescendos, giving the feel of a real Carnegie performance.

Next is a Home For The Holidays / I’ll Be Home For Christmas medley, followed by another combo of White Christmas and Winter Wonderland. These secular staples are lovely among themselves, but Home for the Holidays is too slow. Why restrict one of our generation’s great voices when there are plenty of holiday tunes most folks can’t sing? I’ll Be Home For Christmas is also slowed down so Patty can hold a note or two, but it should really be on its own.

White Christmas is too marshmallow for my taste. It has unnecessary fluffy echoes and ooos and aahhs. Let Irving Berlin’s lyrics speak for themselves. Thankfully, the medley moves quickly to Winter Wonderland. Here we have the proper tempo and a chance to be a bit louder and have some fun.
O Holy Night
If you need only one reason to purchase this album O Holy Night is it. On this title track Sandi Patty finds herself in the high company of Kate Smith and Luciano Pavarotti. Not many people can make the range that this beautiful carol asks. Patty’s rendition has all the highs and lows and over the top backing in perfect companionship. If this song doesn’t stir your Christmas spirit nothing will. I wish it was longer, and it should be the big finale, not lost in the middle.

After such a show stopper, Patty slows again with I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day. I expected this to be the childlike refrain from ‘I Saw Three Ships’ but instead it’s the 19th century lyrics from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem. Very powerful both musically and lyrically, but Patty is tough to understand here. Look up the words online and read the history after your listen for complete holiday reverence.

Fortunately, we do get a bit of fun with My Favorite Things. Again Patty proves her worth by equaling-if not surpassing- Julie Andrews. The mix of Nutcracker music from the orchestra is a lovely holiday touch, too.

Silver Bells is again a bit uneven in tempo, and Patty takes some liberty with the arrangement to make room for her voice. Normally you can sing along to this one, but here you can only listen. But it’s a really great listen!

I have the Nat King Cole Christmas record, so anyone else’s rendition of The Christmas Song seems wrong to me. No matter how lovely Patty is, it’s not Nat! Also, after such a show stopper with O Holy Night, why are we doing such lightweight songs? Naturally it’s not easy to work the vocals Patty can reach, but you keep waiting for her to breakout. I shouldn’t complain. It’s still an absolutely wonderful rendition, with the simplest music to compliment these essential lyrics.

Child Of Peace was an original song from Patty for this album. The choir is perfect behind her, and the lyrics are packed with religious reverence. More people should get to know this song. Simple yet lovely.

Star of Bethlehem is meant to be the big finale, but for all its original lyrical beauty, it just sounds like another contemporary Christian tune from Patty. Where are the rest of the big carols? It’s also the longest individual song presented, and a bit obvious in its politics. Horrible to say, but Sandi Patty doesn’t need to make a statement with lyrics. She could sing the phone book and make it sound good. The big notes are here, but going out with a Christmas staple would have been a better conclusion to the album.
I don’t like much contemporary Christian music myself, and regardless of what you think of Sandi Patty personally (she got divorced, big deal!), her voice cannot be denied. I had several Sandi Patti records and tapes growing up, including this cassette. I was fortunate enough to find a used copy of the CD reissue right after my tape got chewed. The original release and a reissue appear out of print, but if you can find a copy, Sandi Patti’s O Holy Night! is a powerful addition to your Christmas music collection.

Big Band Christmas

Big Band Christmas An Instrumental Delight
By Kristin Battestella

Perhaps most folks my age don’t like big band and swing music, but during the holiday season, there’s nothing like great brass instrumentals playing in the background as you bake cookies and wrap presents. Thankfully, the Chris McDonald Orchestra’s 1996 release Big Band Christmas fits the bill.

The set opens with a hip version of Sleigh Ride. It’s not quite the same as the traditional Boston Pops rendition but a little jazzier. This tune can be the easy music behind candlelit dinner conversation or a great dance number at the office party. White Christmas also keeps the night swinging with its hip self. Big Band Christmas’ take isn’t the slow Crosby crooner style of old, but gets you swaying to the tune nonetheless.

Unfortunately, Blue Christmas is the first misstep. It’s too upbeat. Sure, it’s great for dancing, but for casual listening, this version misses the mark. Isn’t Blue Christmas supposed to be a bit of a melancholy tune? You almost don’t recognize the song. I’d rather have a slow moment with a holiday tear or two.

Thankfully, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas is the epitome of melancholy. Big Band Christmas wins here on its bluesy mood, slow notes, and lonely feeling. The notes almost sound like the lyrics. Whether your with family and friends or away from loved ones, this is the song to reminisce to.

As suave as the secular tunes are, Big Band Christmas misses its beats with the Little Drummer Boy and It Came Upon A Midnight Clear. McDonald’s upbeat take again makes the tunes great for dancing, but unrecognizable as the staple carols we know. Little Drummer Boy sounds more like Sing Sing Sing, believe it or not. Clear is also too fast, losing all its religious reverence.

I’ll Be Home For Christmas, however, gains more holiday reverence here. Like the closing song at the dance hall, it’s suave notes and promising tune bring back all the holiday memories. Along with Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, a standout.

Let It Snow is another over the top tune that’s a bit too far from the easy tune we know and love. In an album of brass, it’s also a bit out of place to hear a clarinet led tune. I love my Benny Goodman, but it’s not the feel of this album. Silent Night isn’t your standard take either, but this time it works for Big Band Christmas. All the big notes are in the right places, giving this normally soft and subtle tune some extra Christmas oomph.

Big Band Christmas
A special medley of Hark The Herald Angels Sing and Angels We Have Heard On High is meant to close Big Band Christmas in spectacular fashion, but again, straying too far from the traditional carol style ends the album on an off note. Is that a hint of merengue I hear? Where did that come from? Not necessarily in the spirit of the season, but certainly danceable.
Trackwise Big Band Christmas is a bit of a split decision, but the memorable tunes here outweigh the missteps. Even the out of place tunes are great for dancing, soft office music, or rotation in your computer’s Christmas playlist. Although this disc is currently out of print, an online search turned up numerous used copies and mp3 downloads available. Pick and choose your favorite Big Band Christmas music today for a dinner at home or a swinging holiday party.

16 November 2008


Foolhardy Fox Missed The Boat on Faceless

By Kristin Battestella

It’s kind of pointless to review an unaired pilot that can only be seen on youtube, but I can’t tear myself away from this thirty seven minute lost episode simply called Faceless.

John Robson (Brett Cullen, The West Wing, The Young Riders) is a Federal Prosecutor about to break his complex case against Los Angeles’ crime syndicate. Unfortunately, he is shot and brutally beaten right before his wife and children are killed. Robson survives this ordeal and spends the next year working out and making himself disappear. He has become Eddie Prey (Sean Bean, The Fellowship of the Ring, Sharpe), a no holds barred criminal working his way up the underground food chain. Believing her friend to be dead, assistant prosecutor Diana Palos (Stana Katic, Quantum of Solace) continues Robson’s case with Special Agent Vincent Ambrose (Reed Diamond, Memphis Belle). Diana’s love lost for Robson, however, makes her oblivious to Ambrose’s affection. Eddie, meanwhile, has joined the crime ranks with Lucas Reynosa (Kevin Alejandro, Shark, Ugly Betty), a low end launderer, and has himself found attraction with Reynosa’s respectable sister Mary (Yara Martinez, The Unit). Fortunately, Mary doesn’t exactly know the violent brutality Prey is capable of in his vengeance against L.A.’s corrupt.

Yes, that is the same Sean Bean who’s name is nearing the top of my review label tags and his involvement in the project is how Faceless came to my attention. In all his villainy seen and unseen in the US; his period piece heroics abroad; and of course those rough and tumble full frontal nudity loverboys-Sean Bean is perhaps his most complete here. He’s doing bad for the right reasons- for justice, love and family-but Prey is a ruthless ass; His vendetta is brutal even for this Italian. Instead of a dozen films where Bean is little more than a glorified extra, we’re treated with this gritty, hard hitting tour de force action lead performance from an English 45 year old answering a casting call for an American ‘early 30s animal’. Sean Bean did in fact, make it to American prime time this fall in NBC’s Crusoe. Bean has appeared in less than five minutes over three episodes of the down spiraling series, not even speaking in two airings. I don’t get it, do you?

Faceless is owned by Bean there is no doubt, but the supporting players are ethnic and real. They aren’t all pretty, but all of them can act. These character players even have similar series among them, including The Unit, 24, CSI, Sons of Anarchy, and Sleeper Cell. I still love Reed Diamond from his Homicide: Life on the Street days. The poor guy was also on the prematurely lost Journeyman, and for Faceless, he wasn’t playing another cop. Diamond’s Agent Ambrose is one of the team because of his interest in Katic’s pretty and intelligent Diana Palos, but there’s also that hint of FBI ambiguity. Who is the phantom on the phone with all the inside information, anyway?

Every player in Faceless is more than meets the eye. Starsky and Hutch alum Paul Michael Glaser is creepy and suave as crooked porn maven Bailey Hughes, and passé teen heartthrob Brian Bloom is also a pleasant surprise as, of all things, a hit man. Who’s genius was it to put all these seemingly has beens into one all around ensemble? Director Joe Cranahan, helmer of Narc and Smokin’ Aces? Posse writer Dario Scardapane? What of the production backing from Tony Krantz, who’s had such success with oh, Sports Night, Felicity, and Fox’s darling 24? I personally don’t care for it, but I recall the last time a radical writer risked his pet project on character talent and has beens: Pulp Fiction, anyone?

No, there’s not a blonde bimbo insight in Faceless. Unlike edgy films like Harsh Times that wallow in stereotypes, Faceless gives us a successful Latina women in contrast with her junkie brother-and she’s a potential love interest for the show’s older white star. Spanish is used authentically, and the lowly bad boys aren’t black. It’s so refreshing to see such a unique and yet accurate ensemble. Again I feel shades of Homicide, a program that continually fought low ratings and network censorship over too close for comfort storylines and casting.

You’ll notice I’ve listed Faceless in some very high company, mainly because it doesn’t look like a television pilot. It’s dark and congested, giving an underground realism; rock is its built in soundtrack. Slick production values and tight camera work, however, also add movie stylings to Faceless. Prey has a great ride and lots of leather, but its cold against the high life and glitzy bling of the corrupt. I imagine these high end values were another nail in this series’ coffin.

Alas, you must be wondering what the hell is wrong with Faceless. I say its so great, but what did it do that was so glaring, so unforgivable that Fox did not pick it up? Well, nothing actually. Faceless gets everything right. Shall I claim it was even too good? Allegedly Fox did take its option with Faceless, but with conditions. There was to be no nudity, drinking, drugs, smoking, and the violence was to be significantly clipped. Preferring artistic integrity and realism over the pressures of political correctness, the production team and star Sean Bean agreed to simply walk away from Faceless.

It’s a frigging shame. Even in these lost thirty seven minutes, so much is laid in place. Perhaps the show would indeed have burned itself out over the course of a season with such heavy stuff, but it would have been damn good television to witness. Would Prey become involved with Mary? Would Lucas’ drug use undo their plans? Would Diana discover Prey was John Robson? Exactly how far would Eddie go? What is the worst he’s capable of? Whom would he sacrifice to find his crime lords? Unfortunately, we’ll never know, and the pilot ends on the creepiest of notes, too.

We’re nearing three years since Faceless was produced, but I still hold the faintest of hopes. With raunchy programs like The Shield and Nip/Tuck on Fox’s own FX network and such similar edgy work from this small world cast and crew, I find it preposterous that someone somewhere in Hollywood cannot finance and produce Faceless with the gritty integrity it deserves. Showtime? HBO? Even Starz has ventured into the original series front with Crash, and AMC has the shameless and award winning Mad Men. With The Sopranos gone, The Shield ending, and Prison Break dying a slow and painful death, the small screen crime drama demographic is certainly lacking. Shame on Fox for not taking the proper risk and follow the success that would have followed an unobstructed Faceless.

I cannot legally or ethically condone the obtaining of video through nefarious means, of course. However, If you can catch Faceless online, you will not be disappointed-but you will think Fox more stupid.

Here’s some links to follow Faceless’ virtual paper trail:






11 November 2008

27 Dresses

Predictable and Uninteresting 27 Dresses
By Kristin Battestella
I don’t like romantic comedies and all that Sex and the City like. Strange then, that I found myself up at 2 a.m. watching this 2008 romance from ‘The producers of The Devil Wears Prada’. It’s already a bad sign for 27 Dresses if the powers that be need to plug their other movie ahead of it. Perhaps it was the adorability of James Marsden or the hope that maybe, just maybe this would be the one romantic comedy that would be different. I was wrong.
Katherine Heigl (Grey’s Anatomy) stars as Jane, a mild mannered and bridesmaid obsessed woman in love with her unnoticing boss George (Edward Burns). Jane and her loose pal Casey (Judy Greer) are noticed by commitments writer Kevin (Marsden). Kevin is supposed to be covering the wedding of George to Jane’s hot younger sister Tess (Malin Akerman), but instead he writes a piece on perpetual bridesmaid Jane.
27 Dresses (Widescreen Edition)Yadda, yadda, yadda. Writers are tough enough to find onscreen, and they are usually pegged as drunk or otherwise addicted or obsessive and neurotic or up to no good for their stories. Haven’t we seen the undercover writer who regrets his work once he’s found love before? Isn’t that Runaway Bride? I can’t fault the cast, although I still think of My Father, The Hero before I think of Katherine Heigl’s new, popular work. She’s cute and talented enough I suppose, as is quirky character player Judy Greer (Arrested Development). But I feel like I already saw this movie from the last time I tried to watch a romantic comedy, See Jane Date.
I did have a James Marsden (X-Men, Superman Returns) phase many years ago, but I’ve yet to see if he has anything beyond the singing hunk with a touch of sensitivity or attitude as needed. Likewise Edward Burns (who actually hasn’t done much since Saving Private Ryan) is the typical rugged sexy successful guy. TV veteran Brian Kerwin also has too little to do here as Jane and Tessa’s hardworking dad. We don’t get to see the men in the ladies’ live enough because writer Aline Brosh McKenna spent so much of the story on the stupid twenty seven dresses. Now that I know she’s writing the new Fame movie, I don’t know I want to see that one.

Choreopgrapher Anne Fletcher (Hairspray) gives us nothing new for the cast or the movie. We have an obligatory photo montage and a bar singing sequence after the two leads are stranded together during a thunderstorm on a dark lonely road. The breaking point between sisters Jane and Tessa is obviously followed by a public humiliation, then the discovery of who Jane is really in love with! 27 Dresses ends with the public declaration of love and of course, a wedding. Hepburn and Tracy this is not. When are we going to see a romantic comedy about quirky, messed up people that is so realistic it makes us weep? No one in real life behaves like they do in 27 Dresses.

I’m not really sure who 27 Dresses is for. Even romance addicts must get tired of the same story over and over. Fans of the cast will of course tune in, but I’ve seen them in better. And although I may claim to hate romantic comedies, I’ll take The Ghost and Mrs. Muir any day. For your sanity and mine, skip 27 Dresses.

10 November 2008

Virtual Sexuality

Delighted by Virtual Sexuality!
By Kristin Battestella
By jove that is the worst title I think I’ve ever heard, but upon discovering this 1999 hidden gem, I must admit, Virtual Sexuality is a witty, delightful take on geeks, sex, and teens.
Displeased with her lack of a sex life at the ripe old age of seventeen, virginal Justine (Laura Fraser) trails her geeky friend Chas (Luke de Lacey) to a computer convention. While there, Justine creates the perfect man Jake (Rupert Penry-Jones) in an experimental virtual reality machine. A nearby explosion damages the convention, and unbeknownst to Justine, Jake has popped out of the machine-alive and well. Unfortunately, Jake thinks he is Justine; a woman trapped in a beefcake’s bod.
Virtual SexualityIt’s an absurd premise of course, and although technology has made many fast leaps and bounds in the last ten years, we’ve not come far enough to print out people. Nevertheless, I found myself interested in the characters and situations in Virtual Sexuality. The title means little to the story, but I imagine director Nick Hurran (Little Black Book) and writer Nick Fisher (Hustle) were stuck with the title from Chloe Rayban’s source novel Virtual Sexual Reality. At least it sounds sexy and controversial enough. Folks looking for some bad porn will quickly tune out, but comedy fans will be pleasantly surprised if they dare to pick up such a title!
I like Laura Fraser and her quirky portrayal of Justine. Previously I’ve seen her stateside in Titus and A Knight’s Tale, but both parts are small for an actress who seems to have all the makings of the next Brit It Girl. Why doesn’t she work more, or why is her work not seen in the US? Rupert Penry-Jones (Spooks, Match Point) as Jake is pretty enough, but I enjoyed his complex and humorous experiences more than his chiseled self. We’ve seen men in women’s bodies and vice versa, but Jake’s sexual explorations and girlie mannerisms are funny without resorting to gay (or gay or simply British?) jokes. Likewise de Lacey’s lovelorn Chas is more than the usual geek. Most of the film is more about his buddy relationship with Jake. The viewpoints from each character offer surprising insights and twists and turns, and the Britishness of the cast and locales adds to the quirky fun flavor.

Usually found in separate movies, Virtual Sexuality combines the teen sex comedy and coming of age buddy movie without resorting to sentimentality or gross out humor. This multi layered storyline has its stupid moments, of course, but the questions raised weren’t obvious, and I was unsure what final road the film would take. I was interested in what happened to these quirky British teens, and refreshingly, the outcome was not what I expected.
Fans of British films will enjoy Virtual Sexuality, but folks who normally can’t take the accents will enjoy the subdued language. It’s nice for goofy American teens to know that hey, Brit kids have the same troubles, too. Virtual Sexuality is tame by today’s standards, but it still has a few racy things that surprise us Americans, including some full frontal male innuendo. I wouldn’t recommend the film to kids under 15, and hey, those young folks might laugh too much at that early VR equipment, anyway.
If you’re looking for a fun and intelligent sex comedy without all the predictable romance and traditional ending, Virtual Sexuality is the unusual alternative. It’s tough to find, but worth the hunt.

07 November 2008

Beowulf (s)

A Tale of Two Beowulfs
By Kristin Battestella

 Who hasn’t tried his hand at an adaptation of the epic ode Beowulf?  From Star Trek: Voyager’s ‘Heroes and Demons’ to 1999’s out there sci-fi Beowulf starring Christopher Lambert, this ancient tale is never far from our consciousness.  Such was the case when I viewed both Gerard Butler’s 2005 Beowulf & Grendel and the 2007 motion capture feat Beowulf.

We know the story well enough.  Danish King Hrothgar, his wife Weaththeow, and his Heorot Mead Hall are plagued by repeated attacks from the monster Grendel.  Old friend from Geatland Beowulf arrives with his heroic reputation preceding him.  After defeating Grendel by cutting off his arm, Beowulf also kills Grendel’s vengeful mother and then a dragon. Eventually Beowulf also becomes a king himself.
Although not as horrendous as the Sci-Fi Channel 2007 original Grendel starring Ben Cross and Marina Sirtis, both Butler’s Icelandic production and Robert Zemeckis’ mocap piece leave much to be desired.  Director Sturla Gunnarsson filmed his Beowulf & Grendel on location in Iceland with an all star cast, including 300 star Gerard Butler as Beowulf and Stellan Skarsgard (Mamma Mia!) as Hrothgar.

 This international cast and beautiful locations add a touch of authenticity to Beowulf & Grendel.  The story from Andrew Rai Berzins is close enough to the original poem, minus bookends about Grendel’s father and child.  Here Grendel and his mother are merely creepy, deformed oafish sea people.  The film, unfortunately takes a turn for the worst when people speak.  F bombs mixed with modern speech and old speaketh like make for some ridiculous exposition.  The battle scenes, although small scale, are done well.  If only the costumes didn’t look like this year’s Halloween clearance swords and chain mail.  Everyone is so damn dirty and beyond the main cast you can’t tell who the heck is who.

For some reason, modern folks need to add sex and juiciness to perfectly good stories, and Beowulf & Grendel suffers greatly from this. I could forgive the bad script and poor costumes if it weren’t for the silly and laughable Grendel raping the needlessly there hot witch Selma (Sarah Polley, Road to Avonlea). As if this weren’t weird enough, when Selma tells all this to Beowulf, he mounts her, too.  This creepy yet somehow humorous sequence of events is still stuck in my head. 

 Giving me the giggles for similar reasons is the 2007 motion captured Beowulf, starring Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, and Angelina Jolie.  At first I must say the look of this film is stunning; an entire film made through motion capture computer technology.  Lovely actor performances and actions put into a computer then tweaked to our visual hearts’ delights.  It’s a technological feat and I imagine a bit scary for actors who could theoretically be replaced onscreen.  The DVD is full of behind the scenes features giving us the how-to treats. Unfortunately, director Robert Zemeckis (The Polar Express) and writers Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and Roger Avery (Pulp Fiction) put this stylized production above their cast and story. 

The music, dialogue, and all star talent give Beowulf a serious feel beyond its cartoonish look.  It’s nudity is funny, too. Yes, Beowulf’s nude fight with Grendel is more in keeping with the anonymous source material, but do we really need to see a computer generated man’s ass?  I viewed the director’s cut, which supposedly had a few more naughty lines, and I love that good ale tune the Geats sing, but once Grendel enters the picture, things go south. 

Beowulf makes the effort of giving Grendel and his mother’s dialogue an Old English flavor, but the sympathy and baby like treatment of Grendel takes away from the action and art of the character-and even then, the action is so over the top that we are again reminded this is computer animation.  No human can move so suave as Beowulf!  

 Speaking of suave, the previews and trailers for Beowulf focused heavily on Angelina Jolie’s saucy portrayal of Grendel’s mother.  One, this is very misleading considering the amount of time she is actually in the film, and two, Jolie herself went on record saying she disliked the way her performance was manipulated as such.  I could forgive all this if her role didn’t make this film more stupid than it already was.  Somehow the dragon Beowulf bags later is his son by the golden lizard-fish nymp Jolie? This great epic that has stood for twelve centuries ends packed with over the top father-son reflection and adulterous regret.  What’s with all the bestiality, anyway?

I also feel very bad for Ray Winstone (Henry VIII, King Arthur) and his literally wizard behind the curtain performance of Beowulf. Of his talent there is no doubt, but the mocap wizards took the real life hearty and hefty stature of Winstone and redrew him as a pretty, blonde, buff sculpture of hotness.  My Dad doesn’t like to know how movies are made, so when I turned the DVD over to him for a viewing (another person deceived by the previews), every time Beowulf appeared onscreen, my Dad asked, “Are you sure that isn’t Sean Bean?”

If only the best of both Beowulf & Grendel  and Beowulf  could be realized in one epic film.  Hey, keep all the great talent and give us the flair and color of Beowulf and place it in the authentic Iceland of Beowulf & Grendel. Cut the sex and monstrosity of the Grendel family and make our heroes look heroic instead of butcher their being there and I’m all set. 

  It’s strange to say, but all these Beowulf productions I’ve named dropped and yet I’d recommend none of them.  Each have their moments, but I don’t think anyone would rush out to buy the book after seeing either of these recent films. Even Antonio Banderas’ The 13th Warrior takes pieces of Beowulf, but this mishmash also can’t touch the spirit of the poem.  We’ve had all these Lord of the Rings imitations in recent years (In The Name of The King with such a similar title and the near identical DVD cover of Blood of Beasts) why can’t someone make a proper retelling of Beowulf? (And my beloved King Arthur while you’re at it.)  Anyone who’s been forced to read the poem in school knows how difficult it is to adapt the rather plain, nondescript but no less likeable story.  So what if we don’t know what kind of monster Grendel is or who his father was. Why can’t someone tell the story like it is and add some umph?  It doesn’t matter how long winded a rendition they make, someday I just want to see a damn good movie version of Beowulf.  Look what happened when both Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh gave their love to Hamlet.  

Aficionados of Beowulf, teachers, and scholars might enjoy a viewing of any or all and discussing, but neither Beowulf & Grendel nor the 2007 Beowulf lend any justice to this timeless story.  Hope, however, springs eternal.  

ETA:  As you may have noticed, I've added some screen captures of Beowulf & Grendel, as I picked it up at a Buy 3 Get One Free sale, hehe. 
(The Hound versus Leonidas - who would win?)