31 July 2009

Somewhere In Time

Beautiful and Bittersweet Somewhere in Time

By Kristin Battestella

I hate romance movies. They’re so clichéd and sappy and overly girlie, and it’s all just too much. How then can I explain my praise of the 1981 love story Somewhere in Time? Jane Seymour, Christopher Reeve, tragic time travel, great costumes, and a tugging score can make romance look so good.

Eight years after a mysterious old woman gives him a pocket watch and says ‘Come back to me’; Chicago playwright Richard Collier (Reeve) can’t finish his latest play. On a whim, he ends up at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island and becomes quickly obsessed with the portrait of actress Elise McKenna (Seymour), who stayed at the hotel briefly in 1912. Richard contacts a local professor who wrote a book on time travel and prepares to travel back in time to be with Elise. Unfortunately, once Richard makes it to the past, Elise’s ruthless manager W. F. Robinson (Christopher Plummer) stands between them.

Perhaps now an oft used and familiar premise, Somewhere in Time’s story is based on the Richard Matheson’s novel Bid Time Return. The longtime Twilight Zone writer adapted his work for the screen-retaining his knack for intelligent, somehow realistic, but no less complicated tales. Naturally, we are dealing with one huge paradox-actually several ‘chicken or the egg’ dilemmas -but that’s the nature of most time travel stories. The ideology by Matheson is established enough for our belief to be suspended, yet there’s enough room for intelligent questions. Was Richard from the past and somehow moved forward? He’s a playwright and takes a class taught by a man who writes about time travel before he meets the elderly Elise and becomes obsessed with her portrait. How many times has he traveled to the past? I don’t wonder if we’re seeing the second time Richard has gone back. Robinson suspects him as the man who will ruin Elise, and even her first words to Richard are a cryptic, “Is it you?”

It’s bittersweet to see the late Christopher Reeve as a young, vital, and obsessive leading man, yes; but there’s also something about the magic of movies at work: Somewhere in Time has forever captured Reeve in the prime of his life. Richard is educated and talented, yet we believe Reeve’s obsession as Richard becomes maniacal about going into the past. We know him, we like him, and deep down, we don’t blame Richard for going to the lengths he does for love. Reeve sells Richard’s awkwardness in the past and the present-he’s of both, but belongs to neither. Much as we like Christopher Reeve, Christopher Plummer (The Thorn Birds, Counterstrike, Star Trek VI) is uptight and almost despicable as Elise’s ruthless and stern manager William Fawcett Robinson. He’s supposed to handle her career, but his old school man style thinks that applies to every facet of her life. He’s kept her sheltered until now-we don’t doubt he’s good at what he does-but his power is interfering with our couple. Plummer is tall and over bearing compared to Seymour, too. Reeve is also a big man next to his leading lady, but he convinces us of their perfect match. He’s traveled through time for it!

I’ve always liked Jane Seymour (Live and Let Die, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman) and her exceptional Elise McKenna is probably why. Her clipped English delivery and style go along way in bringing the romance in Somewhere in Time to life. In the first half of the picture, she’s so built up through her lovely portrait. When we finally meet Elise forty minutes into the film, it’s such a charming introduction-a whirlwind of music and magic and beauty. At last, we get to see her in the flesh-just like Richard. She’s innocent, yet a dynamo; the fabrics are sheer and effortless, yet there are hats, gloves, and etiquette. How can we not long for such youth, beauty, and grace?

Seymour can’t have any period piece charm, of course, without such breezy costumes and a heart wrenching score. The Grand Hotel has the perfect turn of the century charm, and the award winning dresses are a fine mix of Edwardian and Victorian styles. Somewhere in Time isn’t Titanic, but it isn’t flapper yet either. The 1912 timeframe is a beautiful and eclectic mix of that transitional time. McKenna is a stage actress, and the importance of the old-fashioned theater in its twilight before silent films is enchanting. Likewise, the Golden Globe nominated classical score by John Barry (Dances with Wolves, Out of Africa, The Lion in Winter) haunts the entire picture. Even when we’re in the eighties present, the trinkets, music, and Grand Hotel take us back.

Not for un-period piece fans, Somewhere in Time is sappy and melodramatic at times I must admit. All this time travel and intense romance actually happens in only a few days’ time; and all the upper crust emotion and romance is a little too mature for kids. Youthful viewers are better turned to Reeves’ wondrous Superman series. The seventies and eighties clothes and styles are a bit much for some today, too. I think we were more innocent back in the day, and I wore out my VHS copy of Somewhere in Time long ago. In fact, right after I made my mother a new tape, I found the DVD used at a very affordable $3! The behind the scenes feature on the Collector’s Edition disc is over an hour, with conversations from Matheson, director Jeannot Szwaerc (Jaws 2), and the entire cast and crew. There’s also a commentary option with Szwaerc, in addition to photos and a few other treats.

Audiences who enjoy old school styled films should try Somewhere in Time. If you watch one romance, this should be it. After all, it’s really about time travel, isn’t it?

17 July 2009

Dead Calm

Dead Calm Old, But Still Kind of Creepy
By Kristin Battestella

My Mother gets the wiggins every time she watches the 1989 thriller Dead Calm. A very young Nicole Kidman and then popular Billy Zane date this drama on the high seas, but there’s enough chills to keep you on the edge of your seat.

After the death of their son, John Ingram (Sam Neill) and his young wife Rae (Kidman) take time to grieve and bond anew as they sail back to Australia. After a month at sea, they encounter an unresponsive ship, then its lone survivor Hughie Warriner (Zane) on a dinghy. Neill leaves his wife to care for Hughie on their ship while he tries to save Warriner’s damaged vessel. Unfortunately, once Hughie has Rae alone, his true nature is revealed.

Dead CalmNatural suspense goes a long way for Dead Calm. There’s plenty of violence and disaster to get into on a lonely boat on the high seas. Director Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Bone Collector) does well with the vast dangers of the sea as well as the tight, claustrophobic, and confined interiors. Who doesn’t love all that bottomless water along with all the wood and mechanics to use, abuse, and on which to get hurt? Even the dog aboard ship is used intelligently. The fine story by Terry Hayes (The Road Warrior, Payback) - based on the 1963 novel by Charles Williams- is also complete and well done in the under two hour time frame. There’s a ticking clock of rescue and seafaring desperation in Dead Calm that appeals to all our fears. Today the powers that be would make a huge action disaster picture full of computer-generated squalls and people in bikinis. While not lacking on action or congested fight scenes, Dead Calm focuses on what would happen when we add the worst of human nature to the sea.

Sam Neil (Jurassic Park, The Tudors) is a little old for his wife, and this strain-along with the death of their child goes a long way in Dead Calm. Neil’s authentic as a former Navy man who knows the ocean. We trust him, like him and his instincts. If John feel’s something fishy, we worry with him. We don’t doubt he loves his young and saucy wife, but John’s rigid style might not keep Rae for long.

But of course Dead Calm uses all it can of the young and pretty Kidman (The Hours, Moulin Rogue, To Die For) in her first big picture stateside. Her accent, style, and mannerisms are not the elegant lady we know today-in fact, her delivery might be difficult to understand for some. At first, it doesn’t seem there’s a lot to Rae beyond the clichéd young and grieving wife and mother. However, Kidman shows her future talent with charm and chemistry with both her leading men. As Dead Calm progresses, Rae wisens up and uses her short, beachy outfits to her advantage. Naturally, a certain sexuality comes into play-and it’s all good and ambiguous. We don’t doubt Rae’s grief and devotion to her husband, but she is younger and all alone with a hot and scary guy.

Billy Zane does bad guys best: Titanic, yes, The Phantom, not so much. Built and bizarre, you don’t blame the Ingrams for being suspicious when they meet Hughie. Sure, the tale he tells of violence and marooning on the high seas might make anyone a little flaky; but Zane sells every piece of Hugie’s psychotic bend. His paranoia, quick obsession with Rae, explosives speeches, and creepy dancing seep into everyone one of our fears-we’d be afraid to be alone with Hughie at all, let alone sailing away into the worst that we can imagine. Then again, I’m sure there is an audience that will find Zane’s portrayal sexy as hell. Despite his mental instability, Hughie is vital and in control, and yes, it is rough and kinky.

Dead Calm’s styles-much like Billy Zane’s popularity, have however, waned. The clothing styles are very dated and Kidman’s bushy hair isn’t all it could be. The score by Graeme Revell (Sin City, Daredevil, The Crow) is too overbearing and obvious as well. There’s also not much rewatchability once you know all of Dead Calm’s twists and turns. Some of the naughty scenes, however, can be studied and re-interpreted time and again.

Fans of the trio will enjoy-although, this picture is not for any one who has water or boat phobias, I must say. There’s nudity of course for Kidman and Zane lovers, too. They’ve gone on to bigger and better things, but Dead Calm has all the makings of a scary, psychological thriller. Dated, perhaps, but sex and fear never get old. Look for this high seas adventures on DVD or blu-ray.

13 July 2009

Family Friendly Fantasy and Science Fiction

Family Friendly Fantasy and Science Fiction
By Kristin Battestella

Hello again with another quick list of recommendations for your rainy days and family fun nights. Here are a few genre keepers that can be enjoyed by the entire family-young and old, modern and classic.

­The Adventures of Robin Hood - This 1938 classic may seem hokey to some, but tales of Sherwood Forest don’t get much better than this. Juvenile audiences and old time memories still make Errol Flynn’s be greened Robin, Olivia de Havilland’s Maid Marion, and Basil Rathbone’s Sir Guy of Gisborne a delight.

Swiss Family Robinson- Forget Pirates of The Caribbean, this 1960 Disney classic has tree houses, wild animals, tropical locations, and pirates! How can you not love Dorothy MacGuire and the scrawny boy who’s obviously a girl? Everyone can still enjoy this one-and it looks great on DVD. Disney just doesn’t make ‘em like they used to.

Clash of the Titans- This sword and sandal fanfare looks so bad yet still looks so good. The All-Star cast, Harryhausen-laden visuals, and story filled with meddling gods and mythical creatures is a delight for young and old. Very young children might be scared by the darker imagery and there’s a touch of toddler nudity; but kids 10 and under can still delight in this 1981 charmer.

Ladyhawke- Yes the music’s bad and the ending is weak, but this fanciful and tragic love story is still beautiful and moving. Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer are bittersweet as two cursed lovers who can only see each other for a moment at dawn. Fine characters, witty humor, and nothing scandalous make this a family keeper.

Jurassic Park- This Steven Spielberg extravaganza isn’t exactly one of my favorites, but the sequels are down hill from this groundbreaking and visually stunning dinosaur ‘what if’. A fine cast and some awesome dinosaurs will always look good to the paleontologist at heart.

Stargate- The long running series and spin-offs have their fans, but the original 1994 Stargate is a commitment free fix for a night of archeology and action. Kurt Russell’s Colonel O’Neill has more edge, and who doesn’t love a little bit of aliens with their Ancient Egypt?

Batman Forever- Not as dark, serious, and thought provoking as the recent Batman installments, this 1995 edition from Joel Schumacher has comic book fun, color, Robin, and Bat Girl. Nicole Kidman, Jim Carrey, and Tommy Lee Jones add the supporting grit, humor, and charm. Kids can enjoy the lighthearted take on the Caped Crusader while parents critique Val Kilmer’s entry as Batman.

The Mummy- Another original film that reigns above its sequels and direct to DVD spin-offs. Here’s more Egyptology and fantasy to inspire the kids, along with charm and wit from Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. The mummy effects still look good to the mature, critical eye, and despite some humorous romance; there’s nothing skimpy and offensive.

X-Men- Perhaps not the best one in this mutant superhero trilogy, X-Men still packs in a lot of introductions and back-story, setting the scene for a fantastic look at discrimination. Teens who don’t already enjoy X-Men will love this tale of the gifted and misunderstood for its reflection of their own lives.

Bruce Almighty­- Though humorous and a little fresh in some places, Jim Carrey proves here that he can handle drama and mature story telling. Morgan Freeman is charming as God, and Carrey’s everyman struggles to do the right thing when given such enormous opportunity. Family friendly or even acceptable for youth group-beat that!

06 July 2009

MI-5: Season 4

MI-5 Season 4 Still Going Strong
By Kristin Battestella

After being addicted to the British television spy series MI-5 for the past few weeks, other things came up so I took a break from Season 4. In the back of my mind, I speculated that maybe this season just had too many cast changes and wasn’t as tight as previous series. Upon returning to the show, however, I was again surprised by just how much MI-5 can shock your brain.

Amid the ups and downs of daily life, married MI-5 agents Adam (Rupert Penry-Jones) and Fiona Carter (Olga Sosnovska) struggle with the demanding nature of their secretive day job. Relationships come no easier for Intelligence agent Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker) or their boss Harry Pearce (Peter Firth). Newer agents Zafar Younis (Raza Jaffrey) and Jo Portman (Miranda Raison) are learning the ropes at Thames House, but National Security Coordinator Juliet Shaw (Anna Chancellor) walks a fine line amid British red tape and international intrigue.

Season 4 branches out a bit with more international heavy storylines, foreign locales, and global suspense. From internal terrorism to ex KGB cohorts, Syria, Iran, and Turkish tension- creator David Wolstencroft keeps MI-5 relevant. It’s only been four years since this season originally aired, but in our fast-paced world, the politics of MI-5 are still pushing the limit of what American audiences are used to. I will say, however, that this show is better when it keeps the personal in the intrigue. We care about all the treachery because we like the people who deal with all these dangers on a daily basis. From tensions with our dearest friends to conspiracy theories about Princess Diana; as an American, I like seeing the homegrown UK trials and tribulations. That simple, ‘they’re people, too!’ works for some mighty fine television.

MI-5, Volume 4Since losing MI-5’s original lead trio, Peter Firth’s boss Harry Pearce has stepped up to the plate. We’re seeing more of Harry’s personal dilemmas in and out of Thames House. He’s cool and collected for his team, but we’re beginning to see things aren’t so clear-cut for him. Government politics and backdoor deals take their toll as well. We also get so see more of Nicola Walker and her Ruth Evershed in and out of the office. She has personal friendships but total professionalism with Harry and the team. Once shy, Ruth becomes a strong voice of information and support for the younger and newer members of the team. I hope to see more of her and Harry next season. The final two episodes here give these characters their due, and I’m aching to move on to next season after Episode 10’s cliffhanger. I’m waiting for the Season 5 DVDs to arrive, and oh, the agony!

It may seem strange to say, but Adam Carter’s role at MI-5 isn’t as clearly defined as his predecessor Tom Quinn. If he’s the Section Leader, how can he be the boss of his own wife Fiona? Outside of this quirk, I like the mix of their familial relationship with their highly unusual workplace. Penry-Jones’ Adam has all that leftover clout from MI-6, but he’s beginning to let all this spy baggage hinder his stride. He’s still played as cool and badass and at the highest level of his game, but tough choices and crazy decisions midway through the season dent Adam’s armor and somehow make him more likeable. Of course, we have another cast departure due to Olga Sosnovksa’s pregnancy. Fiona Carter’s exit seems quicker then last season’s played out departures, but hers seems more realistic. She’s a darn good spy, a great wife who surely has to let a lot go in this business, and a loving mother who keeps her son as unaware of her double life as possible. Sure, it’s fun to spot all the pregnancy cover up tricks, but we like and subsequently miss Fiona.

Despite some fine departures this season and last; we get no onscreen explanation for the absence of desk agent Sam Buxton (Shauna Macdonald). She was all right, but I like the introduction this season of Miranda Raison (Match Point) and her junior agent Jo Portman. The character comes into the system quickly with only an investigative journalism background, but she has instincts and spunk. It’s annoying sometimes when as the rookie Jo makes a mistake, but I like the way Adam takes her under his wing. Maybe there might be some romantic chemistry there or at least an early crush on Jo’s part; but it also seems like the writers are pushing Jo towards a character strengthening relationship with fellow young agent Zaf. Unfortunately, like the obligatory minority before him, Raza Jaffrey’s (Mistresses, Sharpe’s Peril) Zaf hasn’t had much to do beyond being the young hip guy. Adam was the young hip guy last season, and now that’s he’s matured, I suppose we need another hip young guy? I hope Zaf grows up some for next season. We’ve yet to dig deep with him like MI-5 is capable of doing.

We know some agents better than others-and I think the staggering of the comings and goings of our personnel is a good thing-but this season has finally presented a character of which I’m not fond. National Security Chief Juliet Shaw (Anna Chancellor, Suburban Shootout) is perhaps meant to be a bitchy high up political woman on Harry’s side, but her seeming incompetence at the actual spy game undoes any political help she may bring. It’s realistic that maybe she got the job because she’s a woman, and her horrendous mistakes at MI-5 are also true to the real life workplace. Unfortunately, all this makes Juliet her very unlikable. If she did have a past romantic relationship with Harry as we’re led to believe, it doesn’t warm her up any.

I’ve noticed that the bulk of my MI-5 reviews have focused on character analysis, and frankly, that’s because if you don’t care about the people at Thames House, you won’t like the show. There’s a lot of spy in jokes regarding MI-5’s sibling MI-6 and Her Majesty’s most famous spy, James Bond. Though it’s a smaller scale as a 10-episode television season, I have to say MI-5 has a lot going for it against the current incarnation of Bond. It’s much more realistic and statement making than Craig’s attempts, as well as more intelligent. Where we like an element of fantasy in Bond’s lifestyle, we expect MI-5 to be edgy and heavy. In that regard, the show is much more akin to the Bourne series than what some call the ‘Bournification’ of Bond. Nevertheless, we stick with Bond and MI-5 not for all the action, gadgets, and effects- but for how these people react in the extreme situations of their dangerous and deadly day job. If you think you have it bad, spend the night with MI-5.

Strangely, this season doesn’t bother to swap the British name Spooks for MI-5 in the opening credits. I suppose if you’re this far into the series, you understand the term and thus the makers aren’t worried about potential American offenses. Unfortunately as I mentioned earlier, this is also the last season offered on Netflix Instant Watch streaming, so it’s back to my DVD queue proper until I can purchase the upcoming seasons. The sets are affordable enough, just tough to find in brick and mortar stores. Still, with rental and streaming options and PBS airings stateside, there’s no reason not to take a chance on MI-5. Intelligent, mature audiences will enjoy the grit, emotion, and intrigue.

02 July 2009

The Seven Year Itch

The Seven Year Itch Still Charming
By Kristin Battestella

Despite my sister’s avid collecting of Marilyn Monroe memorabilia, she’s not a big fan of 1955’s The Seven Year Itch. Some may find all that iconic white blowing dress and neighborly temptation played, but audiences unfamiliar with Monroe can still enjoy this witty and complete comedy.

Dime Publisher Richard Sherman (Tom Ewell) keeps himself in check around the ladies while his wife is vacationing with their son for the summer. He does well: eats right, no drinking, and no smoking-until ‘The Girl’ (Monroe) enters his life. She’s renting the apartment upstairs for the hot New York summer, and Richard- married for seven years-sees no harm in being neighborly. The Girl and Richard play chopsticks and take in the air conditioning, but is it too much for this loyal husband? Richard tries to calm himself by reading a potential manuscript, but unfortunately, it’s a psychology book about man and his understandable ‘seven year itch’.

The Seven Year ItchMarilyn Monroe. No one can help but notice that her torpedo boobs enter before she does. Indeed, Monroe (How to Marry A Millionaire, Gentleman Prefer Blondes) was actually quite curvy and full figured-not like today’s obsession with sickly thin. Naturally, director Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, Some Like It Hot, The Lost Weekend) uses every camera angle and movie making trick in the book to show Monroe in all her glory. The Girl keeps her panties in the fridge when it’s hot…and that’s all it takes for Richard to break out a cigarette. Her costumes are perfection, and Monroe’s wispy and husky delivery works for comedic timing. Even if she is a little over the top, who cares? Most fifties films are a bit obvious anyway, and she’s cute and charming enough to forgive. The Girl’s a little dumb and blissfully unaware of why men like her, but nevertheless likeable. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with Marilyn while eating potato chips and drinking champagne? Although her off screen antics were not fun- lateness, numerous takes, flubbed lines, and a divorce from Joe DiMaggio made The Seven Year Itch a little infamous. It was probably a difficult performance for Wilder to capture, but Monroe was well worth it.

Not nearly as famous as his leading lady, Tom Ewell (State Fair, Baretta) does a fine job as the beguiled everyman struggling with temptation on all fronts. It’s a shame he’s upstaged by Monroe, for Ewell reprises his Tony winning stage role just fine. Modern audiences might find Richard’s near soliloquies awkward or slow, but these meandering talks are critical to his character. Richard’s opinion that his sex appeal attracts women like a moth to flame is, well, shall we say askew. It’s all a little contrived, of course, that Richard has air conditioning and The Girl doesn’t- but the allusions between sex and heat are tough for him to handle. Besides, we never tire of such subjects! We like Richard even if he’s skirting a fine line. Ewell’s practiced mannerisms sell the angst and tension. Instead of a serious commentary on adultery, Ewell’s cigarette puffs, bumbling stature, and fanciful visions keep The Seven Year Itch lighthearted. In actuality, it’s not the notion of the sexpot that’s unique here. It’s Richard’s witty daydreams that keep The Seven Year Itch fresh.

Though charming, The Seven Year Itch is the dated fifties in all their glory. The opening Manhattan Indians montage is woefully stereotypical, as is the omnipotent voiceover telling us about five hundred years of man’s wondering eye. There are, however, comedy references to scandalous wit-quick lines about nudist camps and the boys upstairs who are interior decorators ‘or something’. A naughty dream sequence where Richard imagines his secretary seducing him over his desk-as well as a nurse too involved with bedside manner- are funny, sure, but they also represent the ideal fantasy for a man: the woman is either the dowdy homemaker or the unachievable sexual ideal. Ironically, Richard’s wife Helen (Evelyn Keyes, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Gone with the Wind) might be looking, too-but it’s implied that she’s merely being charmed by the sly, bad writer Tom MacKenzie (Sonny Tufts, The Virginian). George Axelrod (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) tamed down his Broadway play for the screen, so The Seven Year Itch still has that dated style of the old-fashioned ‘honey I’m home!’ big man. Not many of the old school pillow talk films are viewable fifty years later, but The Seven Year Itch does have something that never gets old. It’s the anti Fatal Attraction look at men and women and fidelity.

The sentiments my have been different, but The Seven Year Itch also keeps what’s good about the fifties alive. The sets are perfect time capsules from 1955; and the costumes, props, books, and colors are as quintessential as Ms. Monroe and that delicious subway breeze. (Such ten seconds of scandal!) It’s amazing that with such visible legs and quick kisses, this friendship can seem so innocent then and now. Richard and The Girl go to see The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and argue if women find Gregory Peck hot. If you’re not a classic film buff, you probably can’t appreciate all the subtle charm of The Seven Year Itch. When Richard is asked what blonde is in his kitchen, he plainly says off the cuff, “Maybe it’s Marilyn Monroe!”

Fans of Monroe should enjoy The Seven Year Itch, as should any fan of old school film. Despite its kinky topics, all the Hollywood codes are in place. There’s nothing overtly visual to deter a family fun night-although adults can certainly study The Seven Year Itch for all its almosts. Available in several DVD editions and Marilyn Monroe collections, The Seven Year Itch is apparently not available on blu ray as of yet. Thankfully, online options and affordable prices are keeping the nostalgia alive. “Isn’t it delicious?”