24 February 2009

Beowulf (1999)

Sci Fi Beowulf Misses the Mark as Well
By Kristin Battestella

I had already seen the 1999 Science fiction update of Beowulf when I weighed the pros and cons of Beowulf and Grendel (2005) and 2007’s motion captured Beowulf. Like its compatriots, this Christopher Lambert vehicle has promise, but fails to achieve a proper dramatization of the longstanding epic poem. It is however, tough for me to not like a Christopher Lambert movie, so when the DVD became available on netflix, I gave Beowulf a second chance.

BeowulfHrothgar’s (Oliver Cotton) far flung outpost is being plagued by evil and deathly attacks from the monster Grendel (Vincent Hammond). He fears for his widowed daughter Kyra (Rhona Mitra) and the faithful Roland (Gotz Otto) as more men and women die. When the mysterious and equally deadly Beowulf (Christopher Lambert) passes through, he’s determined to defeat Grendel to stave off his own dark tendencies. His wounding of Grendel, however, incurs his mother’s (Layla Roberts) wrath.

This is probably the one time where I can’t say, ‘You know the story, yadda, yadda.’ For better or worse, those familiar with Beowulf and its numerous incarnations haven’t seen anything like this Beowulf before. Who was the genius that decided to make an alternative science fiction Beowulf? It’s not like the styles go hand in hand. If this were just any old warrior post apocalyptic B flick, Beowulf actually wouldn’t be bad. Who, who decided this far fetched plot was akin to the Old English tale? If writers Mark Leahy (Dungeons and Dragons) and the late David Chappe changed the names from Beowulf, Grendel, and Hrothgar; the viewer wouldn’t go, ‘Hmm….this is just like Beowulf!’ Remember ‘Shane! Come back, Shane!’ and Pale Rider’s infamous ‘Preacher! Come back, Preacher!’? Nope, no déjà vu here.

Director Graham Baker (Alien Nation, Leaving Lily) did succeed in making Beowulf a bit of a mystical persona, rather than a clean cut heroic figure, and it is neat that we meet Hrothgar’s court only to watch them picked off by Grendel one by one. Though great, the source poem is a bit boring with its nondescript nightly visits, so here it was actually the right decision to give Grendel a serial killer and predator type vibe. It’s a little slasher flick, yes, but this adds a fine touch of fun and suspense.

Of course, we’ve got those kinky bits here in Beowulf. Once again, Hrothgar put it where he shouldn’t have. It gives us some hot and sexy surreal scenes with Grendel’s mother, but I’m really tired of the weird monster sex bits that have been affixed to every film adaptation. Maybe Grendel doesn’t kill Hrothgar because he is an intelligent being, and wants a once gluttonous ruler to suffer through the deaths of all his people. A mourning hot and vengeful Mommy ends up learning the hard way, too. How about that people?

Outside of Druid, Day of the Wrath, and his foreign films; I have seen nearly every Christopher Lambert movie. Geek that I am, I own quite a few, too. He has the looks and talent I suppose, but Lambert is also the master of B flicks. His unique accent never changes no matter who he plays. If you don’t know who he is or don’t care for him, his voice and delivery are probably annoying. To me though, Lambert delivers insightful characters and fine action, along with a touch of humor. He’s easy to like and feel for. His Beowulf here is older, wiser, tormented with his own darkness. I suppose it has shades of Highlander, in fact; Beowulf thinks it his duty to fight evil and wander alone, loveless. I’ve seen Lambert stretch himself beyond this type in gritty pictures like Resurrection and Fortress, but the short, platinum hair here was not the way to differentiate.

Count ‘em folks we’ve got not one, but two token black characters! Charles Robinson (Home Improvement) as The Weapons Master is wasted with some very bad hip middle aged black guy with glasses dialogue. His nephew Will (Brent Lowe, Picket Fences ) is of course, the expositionary Weapons Assistant Black Guy who just happens to be afraid of Beowulf’s high tech gear. I’d like to applaud the effort in adding ethnic characters to such a heady Saxon story, but it’s not much of an effort. Why can we not have a an ensemble team with Beowulf, each from a different walk of life with a particular fighting expertise? Clearly Beowulf is supposed to be a mentor to Will, but his words of wisdom and one liners just fall flat. Bad quips and French accents don’t really help. No hip black kid would worship a platinum haired old French white guy. Really, people.

Gotz Ott (Tomorrow Never Dies) as Roland is also a complete joke as the jealous and unnecessary warrior competition. His bad costume doesn’t help, either. Breakout chica Rhona Mitra (Party of Five, The Practice, Boston Legal) looks alright as sassy and warrior daughter Kyra-and her costumes are functional as well as hot-but her delivery feels too high brow and RADA for such a low bar picture. Oliver Cotton’s (Sharpe’s Battle) Hrothgar could be a fine bit of casting, but surprisingly he’s barely there. His minimal role and the virtual exclusion of Wealthow is another nail in the ‘This isn’t really Beowulf’ coffin.

But oh my word the music in Beowulf is bad, even as B flicks go. A cheap synthesizer rift popping up right before any battle or bed scene is a dead give away that this film was made on the cheap. It’s not cool, old world, or futuristic in anyway. Remove this score and the film improves tenfold. Likewise the mix of courtly chain mail with modern metal swords is a miss. The chainsaw like blades look so phony and ridiculous. Again, I see the attempt at implying these folks use what they have to fight, but production was not up to task. Swords have been with us a long time people; if it ain’t broke don’t fix it! Capes and tight bodices and modern lingerie also don’t go with medieval leather and breastplates. Oiy.

The central fortified castle set of Beowulf is, thankfully, a fine piece of set dressing. The mix of ancient castle with poorly updated modern fortifications works here. It’s dark, has lots of candles, torches, stone, tight tunnels, and medieval bedrooms. The Romanian locations also feel authentic, but are under utilized. Beowulf’s weapons are a tad unbelievable, but a bit of cool at the same time. Lots of blades and crossbows to stick people near or far. The lucid effects for Grendel are a little slimey and sloppy, but the standard arm chop is the finest battle sequence of Beowulf. I must also admit, I like the look of Grendel’s mother. There’s not much to her except crimped hair and sheer netting for clothes, but I like that she is played for the most part as simply a sexy witchy woman. Is Grendel merely the manifestation of evil flesh, old cruelty, and hot adultery rather than a natural procreation? It’s a little something to think about. It takes more thought, unfortunately, then the stupid cgi bug Mommy turns into when she’s angry.

The subtitles don’t always match the spoken words-normally something I can’t stand-but the transcription goes a long way in understanding who is who and what is what in Beowulf. Believe it or not, there are features here, too. It’s a bad trailer and a short behind the scenes, but someone cared enough to package this DVD properly. If only they had taken the time when making the movie!

Beowulf gets a lot wrong. A far flung story that really shouldn’t have had anything to do with Beowulf, bad music, and some poor production values hinder the film. However, if you can get past these and appreciate Christopher Lambert, the looks that work, and the plots done right; Beowulf is okay. Not great, but a good late night guilty pleasure. Is Beowulf my beloved and long awaited Lord of the Ringsafied adaptation? Heck no, but it has some worth beyond its attempted retelling.

Harsh then to say that I wouldn’t spend more than ten bucks buying Beowulf. B fans or Lambert aficionados should check your local bargain bin or renting options. I can’t say this Beowulf is any better or worse than Beowulf and Grendel or its mocap pal Beowulf. Just now I’ve got three Beowulf movies from which to take the good bits. King Arthur, anyone?

23 February 2009

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Still Damn Good SF
By Kristin Battestella

Call me what you will-geek, dork, Trekkie; but I liked the latest Star Trek series Enterprise. I’m not too keen on reboots as it is, so I have a forced interest in this new JJ Abrams young Kirk and Spock Academy Star Trek. If you want to introduce young fans to what makes this long standing science fiction franchise, one need not look further than the Original Series’ crew feature Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Captain Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is training a new crew for the USS Enterprise, including young Lieutenant Saavik (Kirstie Alley). When exiled enemy Khan (Ricardo Montalban) steals the USS Reliant and captures the secret Genesis Project, Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) must whip his unprepared crew into shape.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Genre fans know the story. After developing a following in syndication, Star Trek (1966-69) was to reboot with a new series that instead became Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). In hindsight, The Motion Picture was not the best move forward into feature films; due to its strained story, length, and production. Thankfully, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was ready to try again, and in 1982 The Wrath of Khan premiered to big box office bucks. Not only is TWOK a great culmination of Trek in film, but it’s a damn good science fiction film in its own right. It helps to know the series and character background, but the viewer need not adore the Original Series to appreciate The Wrath of Khan.

We…may…laugh at…the…way…William Shatner (Boston Legal) delivers his lines, but the Kirk actor has made quite a success for himself beyond Star Trek. Instead of hot blooded Captain Kirk, The Wrath of Khan presents an aging Admiral who’s embarrassed to wear his spectacles on the bridge. Likewise the late DeForest Kelley is a delight as the cranky ship’s doctor, Bones McCoy. His friendship with Kirk has aged like a vintage wine. And of course, Leonard Nimoy makes the movie as the iconic emotionless Vulcan Captain Spock. His eyebrow, the ears, that Vulcan salute; For an emotionless half alien, Spock certainly has a lot of love and devotion. I can admit The Wrath of Khan has some hokey parts, but the original crew all look alright in the uniforms here, unlike some of the later films where they are truly a tad too old to continue. Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura, George Takei’s Sulu, Walter Koenig’s Chechov, and the late James Doohan as Scotty all have their charm here.

Of course, the film doesn’t revolve all around the old crew. Bibi Besch and Merritt Butrick as Carol and David Marcus are fitting enough as our guest scientists, but no one has raised more good guy love or hate in Star Trek as Kirstie Alley’s (Cheers) Lieutenant Saavik. I like the uptight Vulcan Lieutenant and back in the day, I really liked Kirstie Alley. Saavik is the heir apparent to Spock, and learns a few tricks not in the book courtesy of Admiral Kirk. Alley, however, was not fond of science fiction or Trek fandom, and did not reprise the role for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock due to contract disputes. Script and cast changes and canonical questions may have hampered the full development of Saavik- nonetheless, its intriguing to watch and wander what could have been.

One of my favorite parts of I Love The 80s is when they giggle and debate over the buff fake chest Ricardo Montalban did not wear for his role as Kirk’s arch rival Khan. You are treated to enough of Khan’s history here; and the recently passed Montalban (Fantasy Island, The Colbys) wonderfully explores the madness, genius, and even affection of the crazed superman that we first saw in the Original Series episode ‘Space Seed.’ The witty lines and cat and mouse game between Khan and Kirk may be comical to some, but it is also a fine piece of drama and intelligent acting.

Although some of the eighties styles and effects creep into The Wrath of Khan, the film still has some great graphics and space battle sequences. The science behind the onscreen Genesis Project may not hold up to the super smart viewer, but the premise is very intriguing-as intriguing as that mind controlling slug in Chekov’s ear is creepy. I’m not a squeamish person, but those leeches slinking into everybody’s skulls gets me every time! Likewise, the score from James Horner (Braveheart, Titanic) adds all the charm and tension we need. This is one of those films where the score has become so familiar to me, that if I’m in another room and hear it on the television, I know exactly what scene is playing. From the epic battle scores, to the heart tugging finale music, The Wrath of Khan has space opera tunes akin to that other big onscreen sf franchise, Star Wars.

The Wrath of Khan hails a complex and swift story from Roddenberry, Harve Bennett (The Bionic Woman) and director Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country). We have nearly every science fiction cliché in the book, and yet there’s something for everyone. From the person battles and family issues between Kirk and Khan, to the camaraderie of the original crew, TWOK deals with human issues like life and death while raising some great sf ethical questions. Khan is part of the highbred eugenics program-super soldiers cloned long ago on earth. Early on in the film Doctor McCoy calls the terra forming and life growing Genesis Project ‘Armageddon’. In 1983 perhaps these were the likes of distant science fiction, but today these ideas are not very far from science fact. The Wrath of Khan reminds us that the technologies we create require serious responsibility. This is what fascinated me about the Original Series when I was a kid, and what still intrigues me about genre fiction and film. Science fiction can say things that we cannot say about ourselves. Its outlandish bugs in Starship Troopers and devoid pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers say more about the human condition in the past, present, and future than any plain old drama. Can science fiction predict science fact? Star Trek is a great example of the possibility.

I don’t want to give everything away, but of course, repeat viewers know that the conclusion to The Wrath of Khan is irrevocably tied to the follow up film, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Fans, of course, revel in the behind the scenes stories that brought all this about, but I do believe casual viewers can walk away from The Wrath of Khan completely satisfied. You need not see the slightly sub par The Search for Spock, but any viewer of TWOK should see the follow up at least once. My father is one of many fans who prefer Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. It is a fine and charming film that brings to light the plight of humpback whales and extinction. The contemporary 1986 stylings, however, puts The Voyage Home a step below TWOK. But I do have to admit that like The Voyage Home, The Wrath of Khan is highly quotable as far as quotes go. So many lines here have joined our lexicon, from ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold’ to ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.’ Can’t we all just ‘live long and prosper’?

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is an intelligent science fiction picture that grows beyond its television roots. Fans of the Original Series no doubt adore The Wrath of Khan, but Star Trek naysayers who are otherwise science fiction fans need to give this film a try. With only mild violence and little else risqué onscreen, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the perfect introduction to budding fans. So go ahead, take a geeky night in with the family.… KKKHHHHAAAAAANNNNNN!!!!!!

18 February 2009

Essex Boys

Essex Boys Is The English Goodfellas

By Kristin Battestella

I heard the Goodfellas comparison when I first discovered the 2000 British crime thriller Essex Boys. I didn’t think it possible. Nothing compares to Goodfellas, not even The Godfather III. With a fine cast, brutal violence, and a twisted story based on factual events, Essex Boys is indeed the height of English gangster flicks.

When Jason Locke (Sean Bean) is released from his five year prison term, he quickly returns to his criminal ways. Unfortunately, his drug dealing crew has moved up the crime and social ladders without him. His abused wife Lisa (Alex Kingston) in tow, Locke assembles a new dealing crew and product by threatening former prison compatriot John Dyke (Tom Wilkinson). Locke’s driver Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) ends up cleaning one mess after another, and soon neither he nor Jason can escape the vile twists and turns of crime in Essex.

Based on real life criminal events, Essex Boys serves up a complex story of drug dealing love, loyalty, and betrayal. Some of it is very English, and very Essex in particular. If you don’t have an ear for British accents, the subtitles are a must in catching all the subtle dialogue and details. I must admit though that Essex Boys is quite quotable, too. Director Terry Winsor (Hot Money) and co writer Jeff Pope (City Lights) equally present the players and keep us guessing as to who is double crossing and back-dooring whom. It’s refreshing to have a film where not all is revealed up front. We’re treated as an intelligent audience in for a crazy ride. Nothing is given away or dropped too soon, and the finale of Essex Boys may not be what you expect.

Now, as much as women go gaga over rough and tumble Sean Bean (Goldeneye, The Fellowship of the Ring), his performance as Jason Locke is not for everyone. He has the range and talent for a wide variety of roles, but we must admit that Bean does villains best. After spending years on television as Napoleonic hero Sharpe, Bean went to extremes here to revitalize his vile film persona. His acid loving, drug using, rapacious-wife beating-crook is so lush and detailed and spot on that it can really put off even the most Bean inclined viewer. Locke drinks and goes crazy, but has a mastery of weapons, women, and brutality. It’s a strong, heavy role that’s sick and sexy in its own way. Thoughts that Bean must have gone to a very dark acting place to achieve this grit are never far behind in Essex Boys. Most actors could not- or would not- say or do some of the things portrayed here. Even my Dad (who won’t watch Sharpe because he can’t picture Bean as a good guy) agrees that this is one of Bean’s hardest hitting performances among his plethora of villains.

Alex Kingston is not a traditional beauty to me, and that serves her well here. There aren’t many strong roles for older women in the US, but Kingston makes the most out of the unglamorous role of Locke’s down low wife Lisa. She’s strong, intelligent, and loyal; yet weak, stupid, and desperate at the same time. Her coyness keeps you guessing the entire film. You feel for Lisa and you hate her at the same time. In some scenes, I dare say she’s even annoying and you almost think she deserves what Jason gives to her. I don’t think Kingston had to take such an ambitious, unflattering part at the height of her ER career; but you can also see why she chose to take such a heavy and gritty role. Alex Kingston almost makes the movie, and there’s plenty of naughty bits showcased for her male fans.

I’ve seen Tom Wilkinson in a variety of roles, from The Full Monty to The Patriot. He continually surprises me with his talent and mix of humor and drama. Wilkinson has plenty of films to his credit, but I wish he did more stateside. It’s great to see him and Sean Bean onscreen together, even if it’s a violent, uneasy alliance between the two. There is a bit of dark humor in Essex Boys, but its so sardonic and even disturbing that it would actually not be funny if it weren’t for Wilkinson’s charm.

Amid all this crime and betrayal, Charlie Creed-Miles’ (The Power and the Passion of Charles II) Billy is the perfect everyman. He’s just trying to make some money and keep his girl, but he quickly sinks into an inescapable life once he meets Jason Locke. The audience can relate to Billy, yet we can see how he changes through the course of the film. He’s a little stupid or at least naïve to start, but by the end of the film, Billy knows all the criminal ins and outs. Holly Davidson (Causality-but more famously known as Sadie Frost’s sister) also does well in a relatively small but critical role as the object of Jason Locke’s bizarre affections. The cast is quite well rounded; and although we’re lead to believe Sean Bean is the star, nothing in Essex Boys is truly what it seems.

While Essex Boys has fine action sequences, shoot outs, and chases to supplement its intricate plot and storyline, the look of the film, is, well, less than stellar. Terry Winsor keeps his film dark, with a mostly dull palette but for some very bad clothes and set dressings. In some ways, the UK sets the bar for our American trends; but Essex Boys looks low, behind the times, stuck in this bipolar crime underworld. Flashy nightclubs, heady music, and dated styles also dampen the film’s look and feel, but this production also creates a realistic looking time capsule. We can believe that these things did indeed happen not so long ago. The low end dress and style of these folks shows us there is a reason for them to make some money and get the heck out of Dodge. Thankfully, there’s plenty of eye candy on all fronts to appease male and female viewers.

Essex Boys is certainly not for everyone. Tweens under fifteen should stay far away, and folks who don’t like British accents will most likely hate such thick dialects and regional speech. I must stress, however, that one should not let the ‘Englishness’ of Essex Boys deter one from this great movie. My bare bones DVD doesn’t have much, but it does have subtitles! Fans looking for grit and action and sex will find it all in Essex Boys. If you love any of the cast or love crime thrillers, Essex Boys is an affordable must for your collection.

10 February 2009

Dark Shadows: The Revival

Dark Shadows Revival Not That Bad.

By Kristin Battestella

I grew up watching reruns of the classic goth soap opera Dark Shadows. Oft syndicated and poorly imitated, in 1991 Dan Curtis re-launched his beloved spooky series in the aptly named, but unfortunately short lived Dark Shadows: The Revival.

Victoria Winters (Joanna Going) arrives in the sleepy Maine town of Collinsport to become the governess to young and troubled David Collins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). At the creepy and massive mansion Collinwood, matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Jean Simmons) is kind to Victoria, but David’s father Roger (Roy Thinnes) is harsh to Victoria and handyman Willie Loomis (Jim Fyre). Searching for the family jewels so he can leave Collinsport, Willie breaks into the secret room in the family mausoleum, inadvertently releasing the 200 year old vampire Barnabas Collins (Ben Cross) from his chained coffin. Barnabas claims to be a cousin from England and insinuates himself at the estate’s Old House. Unfortunately, Collinswood is soon gripped with blood, sorcery, and terror.

Focusing on one spooky storyline at a time, The Revival begins where the original series first took its gothic turn: the tragic story of brooding vampire Barnabas Collins. What takes hundreds of episodes and months of viewing from the original series is tidied up here in thirteen shows. Each episode builds naturally to the finale, which unfortunately ends rather abruptly due to the revived series’ cancellation. From Willy’s freeing Barnabas of his coffin to Victoria’s witchcraft trial in 1790, The Revival plays like a condensed miniseries homage to the original series. The series premiered to rave ratings and reviews, but a wishy washy schedule from NBC doomed Dark Shadows: The Revival.

My mother disowned this series because of her love for original Barnabas actor Jonathan Frid, but I think the cast of The Revival is A okay. Jean Simmons (Elmer Gantry, The Big Country) gives a classic element as matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard. She has the spirit of original series star Joan Bennett, but we don’t see enough of her. Barbara Blackburn (Ryan’s Hope) is just the right touch of hoochie as Carolyn Stoddard; she seems to enjoy the vampire make outs at least. It’s unusual to see Ely Pouget’s (ER) psychic Maggie Evans having an affair with Roy Thinnes’(Falcon Crest) jerky Roger Collins, and both characters are somewhat wasted by the briefness of the series. We’ve got that young and sexy, sure, but The Revival is a little older and more old fashioned then say the more recent Buffy or Underworld. The supporting Dr. Woodward/Joshua Collins (Stefan Gierasch), Mrs. Johnson/Abigail Collins (Julianna McCarthy), and Sheriff Patterson/Andre Du Pres (Michael Cavanaugh) give The Revival that good old spooky movie feeling. Their turns in the past-along with Roy Thinnes’ divinely creepy Reverend Trask- add talent and appeal for mature fans.

I must confess I’m not sure what to make of Barbara Steele (War and Remembrance, The Winds of War) as Julia Hoffman. Her voice looks dubbed, and her harsh style seems to try too hard. At the same time, however, this fits her scientific nature and strong support in curing Barnabas. But oh my those huge glasses have to go! Ben Cross (Chariots of Fire, First Knight, Star Trek) may also be a toe over dramatic as Barnabas, but its as if we are supposed to enjoy his torment and acts for the rest of the Collins family. Joanna Going (Inventing The Abbotts) has that old fashioned look and beauty, and her romantic air is the perfect compliment to Cross’ brooding Barnabas.

Michael T. Weiss, later of Pretender fame, is unfortunately very clunky as Joe Haskell and Peter Bradford. Guest star Adrian Paul, later of Highlander: The Series, is far more worthy as Jeremiah Collins. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock From The Sun, Stop-Loss) is a real brat as David Collins, but Veronica Lauren (Days of Our Lives) is cute as the ghostly Sara Collins. The cast shifts to their past selves just as the original series did and we conclude The Revival largely in the past. Lysette Anthony (Dracula: Dead and Loving It, The Bill) is vile and sexy as Angelique, but she comes into the series rather late. Again a character who could have been something greater had the series continued.

Original series creator Dan Curtis wears many hats for this production. In addition to producing, the late Curtis wrote and directed the two hour pilot and the following three episodes. The sweeping zooms and overhead camera angles are a bit much, as are the way too close close ups. Establishing shots of people just walking around take too long, and the Collingswood sets seem somehow too full of obstacles. Its layout, surrounding gardens, support buildings, and the Old House all look the same. It’s also amusing that we always seem to see Barnabas snooping about at 4 a.m., where there’s a lot of fog and too much daylight for the vampire. Although the subtle changes in Cross’ appearance as a vampire are a fine touch; the eyes, teeth, and pale makeup look just different enough from his aristocratic cousin from England self. Big hair and satin nightgowns-the still eighties looking hair and clothes do give The Revival a sub par Dynasty feeling. Although in Dynasty you would never see deputies carrying silver crosses and staking vampires.

While the opening credits remain true to the original series with its shots of Collingswood and crashing coastal waves, they are at the same time absolutely hokey. The moving pictures of the actors should have just been simple stills. Some of the cast’s inclusion in the opening credits compared to his or her little screen time also seems amiss. Thankfully, the classic musical themes we know so well are all here. (I have the Quentin’s Theme 45, that’s all I’m saying!) Sometimes they seemed corny on the original show, but here, the music from Bob Cobert adds an extra gothic flare. Josette’s Theme has its fair share once we switch to 1790; and the past’s production, locations, and costumes are superior to the original Dark Shadows.

The Dark Shadows: The Revival DVD set contains all thirteen hours over three discs. The menus aren’t anything fancy, but they are easy to navigate. Not all the episodes have a voiceover introduction from Victoria Winters, so I don’t know if this is part of each particular episode or a technical mistake. Allegedly there are also cropping errors and missing scenes from the original airings and VHS releases. There are no subtitles or features, but I’m just pleased this series has even seen the DVD light of day. After waiting for the price to come down, I found a used set for a very affordable price. Though not as complex or lengthy as the original series, Dark Shadows: The Revival has better production values. For younger folks who can’t appreciate the cheese of the original, The Revival is a fine substitution. For gothic aficionados who don’t have the time for the original or horror fans uninitiated with the classic series, The Revival is a great place to begin. For vampire fans who like a little sex appeal and brooding mixed with a good bit of darkness and fear, you can enjoy Dark Shadows: The Revival without having to skip around some of the weaker storylines from the original series. (The Dream Curse, The Leviathans, and that stupid shadow that chased Christopher Pennock!)

Dark Shadows: The Revival is short, affordable, and risk free for any fan of the original series to chance. Horror fans young and old will enjoy its timeless tale.

05 February 2009

Mists of Avalon (2001)

Mists of Avalon Film A Fine Adaptation
Guest Review By Leigh Wood

I really enjoyed TNT’s television adaptation of Mists of Avalon when it premiered in 2001. After reading the sub par novel, I can however, still enjoy the miniseries’ mature approach, fanciful production, and lovely locales.

Morgaine (Julianna Margulies), daughter of Igraine (Caroline Goodall) and Gorlois (Clive Russell), adores her half brother Arthur (Edward Atterton), son of Igraine and Uther Pendragon (Mark Lewis Jones). The children are separated when Arthur is sent to train with The Merlin (Michael Byrne), and Morgaine leaves for the hidden island of Avalon to study with her Aunt Viviane (Angelica Huston), The Lady of the Lake. Morgaine falls in love with her cousin Lancelot (Michael Vartan), but he falls in love with Gwenwyfar (Samantha Mathis), betrothed of Arthur. Their turbulent relationships and the vile influence of Viviane’s sister Morgause (Joan Allen) can not bode well for Camelot, Avalon, or the future of Britain-herself torn by invading Saxons and growing discontent between Pagans and Christians.

The opening scenes and narration set up the story well enough. Unfortunately, my favorite Arthurian tale about how Uther could disguise himself and charm Igraine is seemingly tacked onto the beginning of the film as an afterthought back story for Morgaine, not for its tale itself. At least Marion Zimmer Bradley dedicated the entire first part of her 1982 source novel to Igraine. I like her story the best from the novel, but the first half hour telling of Gorlois, Igraine, and Uther Pendragon feels like an extended prologue here. With Morgaine’s sporadic narration of the onscreen events along with her brief spots as a child, it doesn’t feel like we’ve begun to tell the real tale yet. It would be nice to have each segment of the Arthurian story detailed properly ala Lord of the Rings. With its three hour run time, you would think Mists of Avalon has enough time to tell all, but the novel is ill paced, and the screenplay by Gavin Scott (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Earthsea) suffers the same. Once Morgaine gets to Avalon and goes into priestess training, we again get the set up or prologue feeling. Mists of Avalon is not meant to be a tale of child kings and fantasy little girls. Quite the contrary, despite being a television production with relatively tame material for today’s standards, the subject matter is not for kids.

The Mists of Avalon Although Mists of Avalon is largely a Julianna Margulies vehicle, Joan Allen (The Crucible, Nixon, Pleasantville) steals the show as the vile Morgause. She looks sexy and evil, and Morgause has a plan, a twisted goal to claim power for herself and uses her skills for it. It’s nice to have someone know what they want with no regrets among all these indecisive and conflicted people. Her cruelty onscreen keeps Mists interesting. Caroline Goodall (Schindler’s List) doesn’t have enough to do as Igraine, unfortunately. She has the weakest costumes and doesn’t look pretty enough to be picked over Morgause to bear the great Arthur. Some of the extras are dressed better, not so layered or poorly done up. Angelica Huston’s (Prizzi’s Honor, The Addams Family, The Witches) age also shows in her earth mother Lady of the Lake style. She does well as the wise Viviane, but her politics, double talk, and selfish plots in the name of Avalon make the character flawed, and truly a bit unlikable. It’s Huston’s great voice and presence that keep Viviane bearable. The supporting priestesses’ gowns look better than Vivaine’s robes, but the baldness and dreadlocks are a bit unattractive. The wild flowing hair and loose braids of Morgause and Morgaine look far better.

Juliana Margulies (ER) has the beauty and the dramatic looks and talent to be the star of Mists of Avalon, I only wish she had a better character to play. We like her, so we like Morgaine, but some of Bradley’s story and director Uli Edel’s (Rasputin, Homicide: Life On The Street) set up for Morgaine is a bit much. So many relationships and scenarios are ill conceived for these characters. You know it can’t turn out well. All these people meddle. Let things go as they may already! These meddlers cause the exact things they are trying to prevent. Morgaine is so quick to hate her incestuous bastard child but for years she pines after her cousin before carrying on an affair with her husband’s son. Sometimes Morgaine’s narration of all this is a little annoying. How does she know what is happening everywhere all the time? Tamsin Egerton (Octavia) plays the child Morgaine well enough. I would have liked to see her more, but the boy Arthur played by Freddie Highmore (Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) just looks goofy. Its tough to believe the bond between the kids because we know of the inadvertent incest to come. In fact, it’s a little nasty.

Michael Vartan, before his it moment on Alias, is totally limp as Lancelot. The gear looks so ill fitting on him, and its tough to find him such a charmer for all these women-and most of his admirers are family! Creepy. I know this is supposed to be a female friendly Arthurian tale, but Mists of Avalon hurts its production with weak male leads, poor male style, and bad aging make up on the boys. Atterton’s (Children of Dune) Arthur is portrayed as wishy washy and indecisive about everything from Christianity to Paganism and if he prefers girls (namely his sister) or boys. I don’t mind Arthur or Lancelot being portrayed as flawed or homosexual, but I object to two of the strongest heroic characters in English literature being dumbed down to stereotypical limp wristed and whipped boys. And lastly, Samantha Mathis (Little Women, Broken Arrow) has yet to impress me. Her clothes are great here, but her hair looks ill suited for her face. Once pulled back and crowned, she looks better, but her high and mighty ways as Gwenwyfar make the character unlikable. Foolish and hypocritical, Gwenwyfar points the finger at everyone herself. Courses, smourses. PMS anyone?

But of course I must mention the more risqué material in Mists of Avalon. The three way scene between Arthur, Gwenwyfar, and Lancelot isn’t as awkward as the incestuous Beltain Rites, but both seem out of place. Sure we might want some fantasy sex and kink, but it’s a bit much and made too big a deal. Lancelot and Gwenwyfar act so conflicted, but you know dang well they want it more than Gollum wants the ring. Mists of Avalon is not all about the naughty bits, thankfully. Truly it isn’t even that kinky, but rather discreetly edited. So for all the supposedly deviant behavior, onscreen we don’t see much more than kissing.

Mists of Avalon is a complex tale to tell. Thank goodness for subtitles. The narration is redundant in some places, and some things could have been said onscreen instead, but other cryptic parts and complicated timeline changes make the voiceover essential. Although the zoom and spin effects of the telepathy and magics look too fast and silly and obviously cgi; and the men’s costumes and armor look on the cheap; the establishing shots for Mists are incredible. Finely dressed sets, natural scenery, and subtle cgi artwork give Mists of Avalon the perfect medieval fantasy feel. Some things do look dark or small scale, and the interior sets don’t always appear to match their facades, but these slights are understandable for a television production. The music is too obvious at times, but it has the perfect Celtic and fantasy medieval vibe with vocal overtones and sweeping strings and pipes. The essential parting of the mists effect makes the show. In one swift motion we get all the set up we need. Now we’re getting to what Mists of Avalon is all about. Lothian, Cornwell, and Glastonbury are real places, and with a bit of movie magic we can believe in Camelot and Avalon, the hidden world doomed by the diminishing belief in its fantasy.

All my harshness, and yet I like Mists of Avalon. Its so refreshing to see a mature and well produce fantasy tale with talent, unlike some of those horrible Sci Fi Channel Originals out there. It is not perfect, but superior to the novel. All the written side tangents, excessiveness, and too similarly named folks are condensed and tightened neatly here. The Mists of Avalon film takes all that is good in the novel and gives us a lovely and mystical presentation. But I must say the ending could have been stronger. We can surmise how this Arthurian story ends, but the angry rush getting there is too brief. As Igraine was tacked on to open, the rise of Mordred seems too quick to close.

There’s no behind the scenes features on the Mists of Avalon DVD, only nice write ups about the cast, photos, and deleted scenes. These additional scenes add more background, but were cut for the best I think. Fans of all things King Arthur will enjoy Mists of Avalon as should most fantasy aficionados. Male viewers may not like the feminist touches, and prudes should avoid for all the kinky bits. There’s not nearly as much potentially offensive material here as in the novel. If you’re curious about Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon material and don’t know where to begin, the telefilm Mists of Avalon might be the risk free way to go. Fine fantasy values keeps Mists of Avalon worthy of repeat viewings.

03 February 2009

Quantum Leap: Season 2

Quantum Leap Ups the Ante for Season 2
By Kristin Battestella

Once you get on a Quantum Leap kick, it’s tough to stop. You fall in love with a particular episode, then remember another episode you love, and you must watch that one, too, and so on and on and on. To this day my sister will tell you, “I love that episode about that deaf dancer.” Truly!

Season Two of Quantum Leap ups the ante onscreen and off. Not only does the series explore more of the Quantum Leap project and Sam’s past, but we’ve got a full twenty two episodes to do it. As Sam remembers more about himself, his missions aren’t as clear. Conflicts from Sam and Al’s past highlight the season, making Quantum Leap more than just a latent science fiction show with issues.

Scott Bakula is again on form as the leaping scientist Dr. Sam Beckett. His knowledge and degrees come in handy during his leaps, but Sam’s heart often rules his head. His memories about his family and childhood are painful, as is seeing phantoms of his past unrelated to the task at hand. Bakula excels at Sam’s Boy Scout ways while reminding us Sam is a lonely, emotional, wandering man with nothing to cling to but memories. Bakula shines in performances that could easily turn comical. He’s a woman twice, blind in one episode, and mentally challenged in another.

Dean Stockwell is also stellar as Al. We get to see more of him beyond his hologram assistance and humor. Stockwell gives us the charm and wit, most definitely, but we’re also treated to the sentimental and emotional side of Al in the past, present, and future. The acting duo is perfect together, with both balancing the straight man or the voice of reason; yet each can be the clown or the lover. As much as we like them together, it’s also great to see these strong personalities at odds.

Some of the show’s sentimentally might make each episode seem like any other show’s obligatory very special episode, but Quantum Leap keeps the issues and perspectives serious. Back in the day, we did have more wholesome shows than now it seems, but few of them touched upon the taboo topics as deep as Quantum Leap has. ‘The Americanization of Machiko’ deals with Japanese American relations, and ‘What Price, Gloria?’ gives us Sam’s first leap into a sexual harassed woman- a topic usually relegated to weak television movies. After ‘Thou Shall Not’ and ‘Jimmy’ deal with Judaism and mental illness, respectively, you’d think Quantum Leap would have no earth shattering stories left to tell. On the contrary, the revelations spread over the season and the season finale ‘MIA’ tests the personal relationships of Sam and Al. We get our first hints of how Vietnam upsets both men, a topic given serious attention in Season Three.

Of course, we do have some of those over the top history coincidences, like Sam helping Chubby Checker with The Twist and almost crossing paths with The Beatles, but Quantum Leap also acknowledges its preposterous time travel premise. We’ve always seen books and films that warn of us changing history and creating paradoxes, yet Sam insists that he must change individuals’ lives for the better. The very nature of his project and how Sam’s actions change the future is highlighted in the season’s charming opener, ‘Honeymoon Express’. A few episodes are a bit obvious or seem to retread, but writer and creator Donald P. Bellisario gives us more leaping food for thought than bad-and we’ve got three seasons left in the tank.

Quantum Leap - The Complete Second SeasonThe DVD set for Season Two acknowledges the two man show with Al’s first appearance on the collection’s cover, but it is unfortunately devoid of features. Some effects may look hokey, and the DVD sets seem a bit behind the times themselves, but such quality television is tough to come by. Young and old can enjoy Quantum Leap together anytime.

01 February 2009

Stormy Monday

Stormy Monday A Smooth, Moody Film Noir
By Kristin Battestella

I’ve had other actor obsessions before my current Sharpe and Sean Bean tangent-just so you know. Sometimes I like an actor for his looks, but he’s got to have charm, talent, and charisma, too. That is why I also love Tommy Lee Jones. When I discovered the 1988 neo noir Stormy Monday boasted both Jones and Bean, well, you can guess how long it took me to make that purchasing decision.

Call girl Kate (Melanie Griffith) is trying to get out from under the thumb of corrupt businessman Cosmo (Tommy Lee Jones). Kate’s been waiting tables, hoping to leave New Castle, England and return home to Minnesota. Unfortunately Cosmo arrives for ‘America Week’, hoping to buy out club owner Finney (Sting) along with other strategic business and political maneuvers. Finney’s everyman Brendan (Sean Bean) meets Kate accidentally and the two become romantically involved, unaware of the plot brewing around them until it’s too late.

I have to say right away that my dad hated Stormy Monday. He claims it’s the weakest film in which he’s seen any of the four leads. If you don’t like atmospheric neo noir films, Michael Figgis’ 1986 moody Monday is not for you. Nowadays I think audiences favor fast paced mystery-suspense thrillers; unlike sixty years ago, where quiet, deliberate noirs slowly built to twists a la Laura or The Maltese Falcon. While its brewing story and blues music have an audience, I can see how not everyone would like Stormy Monday. Dare I say its style is too European for us me me me Americans? Perhaps.

Thankfully we do indeed have a fine cast in Stormy Monday. In only his second major film, the very young, very blonde, sans tattoos, and be-earringed Sean Bean holds his own against some serious performers. Purely on an indulgent scale, that must have been some choice to make back in the day between Sean Bean and the equally young and pretty pouting Sting. We meet Brendan as a down and out baby faced musician, but he’s quickly drawn into this crooked New Castle underground along with Kate. Melanie Griffith also starts out bright eyed and busy tailed, or at least hopeful, but her despair over her inescapable fate takes over despite her romance. Griffith’s part is also a bit depressing. I can see her need to vary material, but after the light hearted Working Girl, folks might be turned off by Griffith’s dark turn here. The timing of the two films, however, was critical in boosting the cast and crew to new fame. Bean and Griffith make a cute on screen couple, but also an odd one. Some of their scenes are fine and steamy, but in others, Griffith looks far too old for Bean. He’s yet to become his rugged and villainous self, remember.

Of course, Tommy Lee Jones is his wicked self ala Under Siege. We don’t get as much of him as I might have liked, but Jones’ presence alone raises the level of every scene he’s in. We know the situation is dangerous because Tommy Lee Jones says so. We know Cosmo can do whatever he wants and always has his way. This of course, can’t bode well for Sting’s Finney. Maybe Sting has never fully made it on screen as an actor’s actor, but even today his one named star power is a given. Instead of trying to stretch his actor chops like Dune or The Bride, Sting plays the owner of a jazz club who has babes and occasionally plays bass. But of course, it will be Finney who gets his way, right? Jones and Sting play a fine cat and mouse game while Bean and Griffith inadvertently interfere. Who has the upper hand? Who is really the star of the film? You aren’t always sure.

Stormy Monday involves a secondary, largely musical and humorous plot involving the real life Krakow Jazz Ensemble. Some of their music is good, some of it is so bad it’s funny, and some of it is just plain bad. It’s not all meant to be easily listening, but you must like blues or jazz to enjoy Stormy Monday. The on location production looks very eighties and very poor, but the music, mood, and ambiance are very rich. It’s strange that some of America’s trends and pop culture comes from the UK, but the country’s film production seems so low budget and ill defined compared to Hollywood. The film’s ‘America Week’ theme has eighties connotations and relations on screen and off.

Thankfully, the music touches everybody the same way. All the music onscreen has a source, whether its being played in clubs, through the juke box, or because everybody is listening to the same radio station. Director and writer Figgis ingeniously unifies the entire film through song. Naturally those that like Stormy Monday can see it as the precursor to future fine work from Michael Figgis. Leaving Las Vegas, anyone?

My DVD was very affordable at under $10, but it has little features beyond trailers and weak menus. The story by Figgis is perhaps a routine one, but the atmosphere and music, along with fine lead performances and chemistry, make Stormy Monday a must for any fan of the cast. A small indulgence for you this Valentine’s Day.