31 August 2009

Harry Potter: Films 1 thru 5

A Harry Potter Analysis
By Kristin Battestella

I must say straight off that this critique will be brief in comparison to experts and hardcore fans. I confess: I am a muggle. After recently viewing the first five films in the popular Boy Wizard franchise based J.K. Rowling’s best selling series; I wanted to express my thoughts in a quick, layman’s guide.

Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone – For starters, I don’t know why they go through all this trouble to change the Philosopher’s title. Oh, a wizard, not Socrates-we get it. This first film has a lot to pack in and director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Adventures in Babysitting) never quite strikes the right balance between introducing Harry’s magical world and the stone chase at hand. I know it’s meant for kids, but I would rather forgo the CGI of Quidditch for a more complete story on the Philocerer’s stone. The titular task is tacked on in the latter part of the show. Despite these complaints, writer Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys) has adapted the essence of Rowling’s literary world. Though light-hearted at this point and I’d prefer more on the issues with magic rather than the awe; this debut is fun for kids. The cast-from the young stars to the elder veterans- has plenty to work with. Introductory and a little too open ended, but delightfully leading you towards the next film.

Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets – Columbus returns for a second installment that has many of the same troubles as its predecessor. Again, we don’t get to the meat of this tale until late and it’s resolved a little too easy. Secrets is a little more grown up, but it’s dark in some of the wrong places-it’s tough to appreciate the fine castle locales when everything is so dim. Story and talent are again on form, but the late entering culprit is a little obvious, too. What is with the Defense Against Dark Arts department? We know that’s where all the hang-ups are going to be, and it’s given sometimes undoes Snape’s fine ambiguity. Again, we end with a little bit of an Empire Strikes Back feeling: Are these films about the adventure at hand- or are they meant to be compilations of all the neat things in Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s given year? Part of me understands why some readers don’t like these quick adaptations. The rushed and stay tuned endings do give me a feeling that to know it all, you must read the books. More of the same, yes, but still entertaining enough to keep audiences going.

Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban- Three years after the second picture, we finally get to some maturity and unhappiness. New director Alfonso Cuaron (Y tu Mama Tambien) focuses on confusing magic, truths, identities-and all this at an age where real life is confusing as it is. The nighttime filming is bright enough to see-even if we do figure out all the foreshadowing ahead of time. Some of the comedic touches are a bit off, trading serious, murky characters for fun. Although I did laugh at Malfoy’s ‘bloody chicken!’ cries. I do prefer the late Richard Harris’ raspy Dumbledore to Michael Gambon’s more witty debut, but the rotation of adult actors like David Thewlis and Gary Oldman is a little annoying, too. Who will be the new addition next? Will they return in the series, nudge nudge, wink wink? I like Azkaban the best so far, but a lot of it is revelations and explanations-what’s really done here beyond tiding us over until the next picture?

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – In Year Five, we’re getting to some of the heavy teenager stuff at last-dancing and asking girls out, oh my! And good Lord someone give these kids a haircut! Director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and A Funeral) mixes the growing up with the deadly Triwizard Tournament and loses a little bit of both. Maybe kids might shy away from the budding romances, but again that Defense Against The Dark Arts department makes things way too obvious. Normally, I don’t like the effects laden magical battles, but we don’t get to see all the competitors at the Tournament as we should. And yes, I couldn’t help myself from calling Cedric Edward Cullen. The two top dreamboat boys together, oh boy! Fine adult additions like Ralph Fiennes and Miranda Richardson are again squeezed for kinky stuff like Harry in the bath with Moaning Myrtle. Every adult actor in Britain seems to make an appearance in this series, but his or her roles are never as meaty as I hope.

Harry Potter and the Order of the PhoenixNew director David Yates (helmsman of Half Blood Prince and the final duo Deathly Hallows films) and screenwriter Michael Goldberg (Contact) somehow managed to make the shortest film from the longest book. Is Fire an uneven film trying to pack in too much-or is it a fallen adaptation to begin with? I noticed straightaway that we at last don’t waste any time on Quidditch, but on the dime Phoenix drops all the joyous wonders of Hogwarts for secret battle action. So many characters-old and new- magically show up, too. How many days do you think David Thewlis, Gary Oldman, Ralph Fiennes, Maggie Smith, Jason Isaacs, and Helena Bonham Carter worked on this film? (Did Emma Thompson and Bonham Carter cross paths to chat about their ex and previous Dark Arts Prof Kenneth Branagh?) We have such talent amid the old Order of the Phoenix- as well as the Death Eaters-yet we never get to the titular meat of these organizations. Again, there’s too much of ‘well the book explains it better, and so will the next movie’. When does this series stop leading up to something?

As it stands…
For all its carrot taunting the horse, to me the Harry Potter film series as is doesn’t stand out from any other juvenile fantasy. And let’s face it, the popularity of Rowling’s franchise has brought a lot of children’s fantasy books to the screen-including the dismissed The Golden Compass, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and the more successful but in production limbo Chronicles of Narnia- how could Disney drop such fine material for Fox to claim? The market is just a tad flooded for the forthcoming Percy Jackson films and the long awaited The Hobbit adaptations, isn’t it?
Of course, Harry Potter sets the bar with magical effects and action. The movies may be linear for the most part; but the story is involved, complex, and full of fine characters upon which the pictures merely graze. The bulk of depth and joy lost for the big screen makes me wonder why Harry Potter was never considered as a television series. Yes, its popularity warrants big screen treatment, but a progressively heavy seven-year journey ala Buffy The Vampire Slayer might have served the material far better. Twenty hours a year instead of two plus every two years or so, that’s something I could really have gotten obsessed with.

Right now, there’s not enough intrigue for me to embark on the reading opus required. The last time I did that, it took me four months to read The Lord of The Rings. It was one of the best times of my life, but not all of us adults can afford to drop everything for such literary obsessions-even one so book minded as I. It’s a bit of a sad statement on American society, unfortunately. We would prefer eating fast food while working through a stressful lunch in front of a pc before spending a relaxing bath with a fine book. Though some have complained about Potteresque influences on young minds, the series is keeping long-winded books in the instantaneous and desensitized minds of the next generation.
There are charming moments of magic, fun, and great characters in J.K. Rowling’s world; but after these viewings, I’m not obsessively in love with Harry Potter. Will I watch the forthcoming pictures? Sure, I like Harry and his world enough to see how all these hours end. I don’t deny the possibility that there’s enough in this series to make an exceptional film- or enough enchantment for me to carve out a summer with my niece’s Harry Potter books. As to The Half Blood Prince, you might be asking? Well, my husband saw it in the cinema and has been in a Potter kick since, along with my niece’s countdown to the IMAX Theater. Now you know why I had to watch these!

ETA: Please see our critique of the Half Blood Prince in our Defense of Blu-ray article, here.

18 August 2009

King Creole

King Creole One of Elvis’ Finest
By Kristin Battestella

I’m biased I’ll admit it. King Creole is my favorite Elvis picture. Yes, the story of a New Orleans bad boy turned singer is full of excuses for The King of Rock and Roll to sing. Nevertheless, the teen angst, all around acting talent, and yes some dang fine tunes keep this 1958 classic, well, classic.

Danny Fisher (Presley) has flunked out of school. He’s got a chip on his shoulder, and working before and after classes didn’t help. After his wife’s death, Danny’s Father (Dean Jagger) lost his pharmacy and sunk into cowardly despair. Refusing to crawl like his Old Man, Danny sings at the King Creole under the tutelage of owner Charlie LeGrand (Paul Stewart, Citizen Kane, Deadline USA). The Creole is the only club in town not owned by Maxi Fields (Walter Matthau); and Danny feels the pinch from Maxi, his alcoholic girl Ronnie (Carolyn Jones), a thug named Shark (Vic Morrow, Roots, Combat!), and his true love interest Nellie (Dolores Har). Will he rise above the beat down world of New Orleans?

Writers Herbet Baker (The Flip Wilson Show, The Girl Can’t Help It) and Michael Gazzo (better known as Frankie Pentangeli in The Godfather, Part II) shake up Harold Robbins’ 1952 novel A Stone for Danny Fisher by turning the literary Jewish boxer into a onscreen bayou singer. Changes for Elvis, yes, but the result is a complex and well rounded picture-unlike all those jingle and jiggle fluff pictures for which Presley later became so infamous. Give Elvis some worth to say and put fine people around him and look what happens! There’s no sand and surf in sight here, but there’s plenty of New Orleans and its flavor in King Creole. From all the talk of Bourbon street, the jazz, the crawfish, lyrics about the bayou-perhaps it’s stereotypical, but it’s a great mood. Sure, he was from Mississippi, but it’s also a nice touch to have a genuine Southern boy as our lead.

Well then, let’s talk about the man and the music, shall we? It is after all, what draws most people to watch King Creole. Not only does the King look good and sing great hits, but he can also act. The unsettled working class home, troubles with his struggling father, and the inability to get the girl and do what he wants to do give Elvis plenty to get emotional about. He’s believable as a humble kid who just happens to sing pretty darn good. Maybe there are similar touches in Presley’s Jailhouse Rock the year before, but there’s less fun and more angst here for Elvis to milk. I’m not a swooning fan or one of those who doesn’t believe Elvis is dead, but one cannot doubt that he made some great films after viewing King Creole. And maybe, just maybe, Presley’s films were successful because he did have some acting skill. Okay, certainly hits like ‘Hard Headed Woman’, ‘Trouble’ and the titular track have something to do with Elvis’ charm here. We wouldn’t want our boy with the voice to make it if we didn’t like his music. The softer songs like ‘Don’t Ask Me Why’ and ‘As Long As I Have You’ will make the ladies swoon, but my favorite has to be ‘Crawfish’. Its eponymous word is just so dang catchy!

I’ve seen King Creole probably a dozen times, and until recently, I didn’t realize that Carolyn Jones-Morticia Addams on the original Addams Family- plays used and abused dame Ronnie. For shame on my classic film buff laurels, yes, but it’s also a great outing from Jones. Her hair is short, her look is sexy-she would be a real classy lady if it weren’t for Walter Matthau’s Maxie. Loved by modern audiences for his delightful Grumpy Old Men pictures and The Odd Couple pairings with Jack Lemmon; the late Matthau is young, lean, mean-and he’s lynching off Danny’s chance to make it big. We’re so used to seeing him in humorous parts, but Matthau has the stature and ruthlessness here to keep Elvis on his toes. Rounding out the cast with solid performances are Jan Shepard (The Virginian) as sister Mimi, good girl love interest Nellie (Dolores Hart, Loving You), and a wonderfully broken and redeemed Dean Jagger (an Oscar winner for Twelve O’Clock High) as Mr. Fisher. Everyone seems so cookie cutter on the surface; but as our tale unravels, we see how murky and troublesome life is for all involved.

My nieces are Elvis fans and don’t mind black and white films, but ye olde silver screen might turn some off today. It’s a shame that some would refuse to watch so many wonderful pictures due to the absence of color, but it’s a sad fact. We’d like to have some fantastic, early Technicolor shows from Elvis, sure, but the gray and dark cinematography helps the moody club scenery. The lack of flair visually shows the fine line between the good life and the dark New Orleans underworld. Without big colorful, outlandish music productions, King Creole has to stand on all its other filmmaking merits.

King CreoleDespite these acting and musical wonders, King Creole’s end is a little depressing. After plenty of fine music, Oscar winning director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce, White Christmas, We’re No Angels, The Adventures of Robin Hood, okay I’ll stop!) let’s things get really, rough, serious, and heavy in the latter third of the picture. It’s good for drama, certainly, but some may prefer all those contrived, easy Elvis films to come instead of the bleak picture presented in King Creole. I don’t care; I’ll take this one over G.I. Blues, Kissing Cousins, or Blue Hawaii any day. Even Viva Las Vegas has all the romantic comedy pomp and circumstance of Elvis’ paring with Ann Margaret-and the feathers it may have ruffled off screen. There’s nothing wrong with King Creole’s fifties melodrama, and it deserves to be ranked among Elvis’ better, more complete pictures like Jailhouse Rock and Flaming Star. With such classic early pictures, it’s a wonder why Elvis’ entourage turned him from gritty acting towards all that fluff.

Presley fans certainly know and love King Creole, as should classic buffs and any others fiendish for fine film. Modern audiences looking for serious, intelligent drama blending music and a fine ensemble can take an affordable chance on several DVD editions or Elvis sets. The disc covers push the guitar and the pretty girls, but there’s everything a viewer needs here. After all, how can you not love the King…Creole?

16 August 2009

Flashbacks of a Fool

Misrepresentation Hurts Flashbacks of a Fool
By Kristin Battestella

Flashbacks of a FoolFlashbacks of a Fool stars Daniel Craig, and the current James Bond actor is walking tall above his costars on the DVD’s cover. Craig is also the producer of this R rated film that assures strong sexual content. Unfortunately for Craig’s fans, he’s not the star here- as all the bold print marketing would have you believe.

After the death of his childhood friend Boots, actor Joe Scott (Daniel Craig) puts aside his promiscuous and washed up druggie ways and travels home to England. With the support of his wise maid Ophelia (Eve), mother Grace (Olivia Williams), and Aunt Peggy (Helen McCrory), Scott reminisces on his youth. Teenaged Joe (Harry Eden) and Boots (Max Deacon) fight for the attention of Ruth (Felicity Jones) during one quintessential summer. Joe also begins a deadly affair with neighbor Evelyn (Jodhi May), causing him to leave home for Hollywood glory. Will the adult Joe make amends with Ruth (Claire Forlani) and rectify his past?

I can understand why a lot of viewers and critics were disappointed and quickly dismissed this 2008 coming of age tale written and directed by Baillie Walsh (Mirror, Mirror). The promotions hyped all the Craig this and Craig that, but he’s actually not in the picture that much. The focus of Flashbacks of a Fool is Harry Eden as young Joe Scott. Girlies expecting hot Craig romps do get their share, but there’s no tour de force here. Had the picture been labeled for what it is-a charming English coming of age in the seventies tale-the perceptions towards Flashbacks of a Fool might have been different.

I’ve made a point to watch more Daniel Craig films, and yet I still can’t place my finger on him. Even in a picture such as Flashbacks of a Fool-even as Bond-Craig doesn’t seem to have much dialogue or screen time. It’s so strange to say of the new millennium’s Bond, but Craig has yet to have a serious, Oscar worthy, tour de force lead role. He’s emotional and realistic as the adult Joe Scott, but we don’t get the serious soul searching expected from a part like this. It’s not that Craig doesn’t provide it-or isn’t talented, even stellar enough to do so-he’s just not on screen enough in Flashbacks of a Fool. My main impression of Craig here? Well, he’s playing a drug addicted, washed up actor with two first names as his first and last name. Are we really supposed to come away thinking that this is how Daniel Craig would have ended up without Bond?

The supporting adults do just fine in Flashbacks of a Fool, too- but likewise we don’t see much of Claire Forlani (Meet Joe Black) or Keeley Hawes (MI-5) as Joe’s grown up sister Jesse. Jodhi May (The Other Boleyn Girl) is sexy as the naughty young thang next door, but her eye for teenage boys is statutory creepy, too. We know her performance will not end will. Miriam Karlin (A Clockwork Orange, The Rag Trade) is also a delight as the crabby, annoying, yet wise neighbor Mrs. Rogers; and rapper Eve (Barbershop and her titular Eve) is charming as the maid who’s too smart for all of Joe Scott’s crap. With such a mature and talented adult cast, there’s enough material for a separate picture. Why not simply have a washed up actor return home to reflect with his spinster aunt and the girl that got away? Walsh doesn’t use all the meat of his story or the talent onscreen.

Thankfully, Harry Eden (Oliver Twist, Bleak House) as the younger Joe and Felicity Jones (The Worst Witch, Brideshead Revisted) as the teenage Ruth make Flashbacks of a Fool. We spend the most time with them, after all. Again, this could have been the whole picture-a fine, tragic, coming of age film. Without Craig’s finances and star power, however, such a charming movie would never have seen the light of day. Eden has a touch of Craig’s stylings but adds his own emotional and angst to Joe Scott. Likewise, Jones is fun and carefree as the teen Ruth- before heartbreak, growing up, and death. As much as I’d like to see Craig have his penne ultimate role (Again, so odd to say about a man who’s landed Bond!), I hope to see these young actors succeed in fine film.

Yes, coming of age shows are nothing new, and youth in the seventies pictures are certainly out and about. However, Flashbacks of a Fool is unique for its English old style, glam soundtrack, and swift British beaches. Really filmed in South Africa, Walsh gives ups a particularly English tale thru clothes, David Bowie debates, and Brit wit. It’s all familiar, yet fresh and sassy. Flashbacks of a Fool looks the part. Although, I have to say, I don’t understand why we have a Craig’s hard-core sex scene over the opening credits. It’s as if Walsh doesn’t believe in his own film’s merit or ability to stand on its own. Star power is nice, but once we get passed the L.A. fluff, Flashbacks of a Fool is free to take us back to its heady, defining days.

Despite the overall briefity of the billed actors, fans of the cast will enjoy Flashbacks of a Fool. The youthful cast might also convert a few viewers, too. This one is not for minors or prudes of course- for there is plenty of nudity, sex, drinking, and drug use for audiences who like that sort of thing. The DVD is unfortunately weak, with only a five-minute bit of interviews. I can picture a lot of Craig’s obsessive lady fans snatching up the disc regardless. In the end, that’s probably what the powers that be had in mind. Flashbacks of a Fool was clearly a labor of love for those involved-if only the marketing campaign had been more faithful.

10 August 2009

Othello (1995)

Othello Risqué and Relevant
By Kristin Battestella

My sister is an English teacher. When she called me up with her annual teaching Shakespeare moan and groan- this year was Hamlet-I told her she should do Othello instead. As an introduction, I suggested this charming 1995 adaptation from Oliver Parker with lovely details and an exceptional cast.

Othello, the Moor of Venice (Laurence Fishburne) has secretly married Desdemona (Irene Jacob). Jealous of his master’s happiness, military success, and power, ensign Iago (Kenneth Branagh) plots to destroy Othello’s marriage. Using his own wife Emilia (Anna Patrick) and Desdemona’s former suitor Roderigo (Michael Maloney), Iago discredits Othello’s Lieutenant Cassio (Nathaniel Parker). Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair, thus setting about a deadly chain of events.

To say Othello is about a man who is jealous because a pretty white girl marries a successful black man is an understatement. It’s wonderful to see Shakespeare wrote of such scandals of race, culture, and religion four hundred years ago, but Othello is deeper than our modern conceptions of racism and corruption. Whether Othello is actually black or not, whether he is a moor in the service of Christianity or not-these are only part of the tale. It’s beautiful and yet somewhat frightening and sad that there were twisted people then as there are now. Othello is an examination of what power, jealousy, love, and deception can do. It’s analysis of envy, rumors, and backstabbing transcends time, religion, and race.

Iago is a piece of work, isn’t he? Like our unreliable narrator in Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, ‘why will you say that I am mad?’; Iago’s contention that he is not the villain of Othello says more about his jealous deeds than the actions themselves. Branagah’s onscreen asides break the fourth wall and draw the audience into his plots and schemes. We might wonder how one lowly man could ruin so many; but after Iago’s soliloquies to the viewer, we’ve no doubt he’s thought long and hard in his deception. The play may be called Othello, but Iago is the Vader who sets our tragedy in motion. Long associated with Shakespeare via his directorial opuses As You Like It (2006), Hamlet (1996), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and Henry V (1989), Branagh shines here, yes, as the villain. He’s so calm and just in his own mind, and Branagh almost convinces us that his malicious intentions are true.

OthelloAfter seeing Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix) as the titular Moor of Venice, it’s tough to imagine anyone else in the part. Fishburne has the talent, stature, and onscreen presence needed for the extremes of Othello’s nature. He’s big, badass, and black; but the Shakespeare talketh rolls off his tongue. Fishburne doesn’t look and sound as if he was a hip, up to date, stereotypical brother plucked from the hood, and it’s refreshing that no modern hang-ups have been used here. Fishburne makes us care for Othello. He’s not merely a wronged black man, he’s a jealous husband manipulated into his own downfall. We’re happy when he’s happily wed, we share in his military victory-but we nevertheless fear him when Othello turns his might to passionate, murderous rage. And, of course, we’re also kicking him for falling into Iago’s plot. Fishburne is wonderfully intelligent, but blind. When his Othello starts having maniacal asides with the audience, we know Othello will not end well.

French actress Irene Jacob is a delight as the charming, if minimal Desdemona. We don’t see much of her true self, instead naughty visions of Othello’s assumed deceitful wife. Nevertheless, Jacob adds subtle changes between the adoring wife and the imaginary vixen. We see a beautiful woman who only has eyes for Othello, and yet, there is a seed of doubt in her defense of Cassio. Likewise, Anna Patrick (Rome) wavers between Desdemona’s loyal maid and Iago’s deceptive wife. She’s not so bad, is she? She only wants her crooked husband to finally see her, right? Too late, Emilia sees the truth about her husband.

The exact year of Othello isn’t given here, but we can deduce it’s enchanting mid to late 16th century era through the costumes and Italian locations. History buffs surely understand the status of Moors, Venice, and the Turks, but uninitiated viewers can easily slip into Othello’s atmosphere. Everything looks so pretty-too pretty. We know the opening music and parties won’t last. Writer and director Oliver Parker (An Ideal Husband) also skillfully keeps his visuals uncluttered and stage-like. A fine location and two actors are all Othello needs to tell its tale. Fortunately, the men also look perfectly medieval with their swords, doublets, and cloaks. This is a most serious picture, and there are no puffy shorts or silly hats to make us laugh away from the story at hand.

Naturally, what’s so great for Othello also works against it: American audiences probably grown when they hear Kenneth Branagh’s name, feeling as though they are in my sister’s high school English class studying Shakespeare all over again. Though well played and a dang fine story, Othello is also so dang serious and extremely heavy. There’s no lighthearted break in sight. Beautifully written and full of charming Shakespeare talketh, yes; but, if you’re not in the mood for such superfluous, iambic pentameter speech you can’t watch Othello. All this heavy also makes this particular play incomparable with tweens and prudes. There’s some skin and bedroom scenes-which really aren’t that bad-but there’s also kinky medieval innuendo. Tweens and younger simply can’t appreciate Othello’s intricate themes of love, jealousy, rage, and betrayal. And about those prudes, if you don’t like talk of torrid affairs or fair little white girls lying with big bad ass black men, then Othello is certainly not for you.

I could spend more time talking about Othello. Scholars and Shakespeare fans will of course enjoy this adaptation, but period piece fans and fans of the cast should tune in as well. Even those not fond of Will and his speaketh can enjoy this tragic tale of love and deception. Othello isn’t your schoolbook Shakespeare-I really should warn my sister!

09 August 2009


GoldenEye One of the Best Bond Pictures

By Kristin Battestella

Even though I liked Timothy Dalton’s duo of Bond pictures in the late eighties, I had all but forgotten about 007 by time 1995’s GoldenEye came around. After a six-year delay, Pierce Brosnan finally debuted as our man James, resulting in one of the finest films in nearly fifty years of Bond onscreen.

Ten years after 007 James Bond (Brosnan) loses his friend and fellow MI6 agent 006 Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) during a mission in Russia, Bond once again finds himself in the former Soviet Union. The control keys to a powerful satellite codenamed GoldenEye have been stolen, and a reluctant M (Judi Dench) puts Bond on the case. 007 rescues Russian computer analyst Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco) and uses the kinky Soviet pilot Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) to find Janus-the crime syndicate secretly operated by the scarred Alec Trevelyan. Bond must stop his former comrade from using GoldenEye’s electromagnetic pulse to steal millions and decimate England’s infrastructure.

When the press about GoldenEye began in 1994, I wasn’t very interested. After License to Kill, I was hoping for another Dalton picture. Sure, I like Pierce Brosnan, but I knew and loved him in the television show Remington Steele and in some ways still prefer his role there to his Bond. After GoldenEye, Brosnan’s tenure slowly moves downhill. By time we get to his fourth picture Die Another Day, Brosnan is a smirky, quipping parody. Here, however, Brosnan adds another dimension to Bond. He’s almost the perfect blend between his predecessors. Brosnan has the dark edge of Dalton, the humor of Moore, and the strength and suave of Connery. GoldenEye isn’t a pure action and gadget vehicle thanks to Brosnan. His 007 has history and issues-grudges from the past and a current world that has no need for old time spies. Through his swagger, smarts, and style, we believe Brosnan’s Bond can endure the past, present, and future. Of course, this James isn’t all dark and dreary. Brosnan’s mannerisms and vocal delivery add just the right touch of humor and wit. It’s really a shame that half of his reign is cheap. These young folks that grew up on Brosnan’s Jimmy have the best bits of the franchise- and yet some of the worst. Still, after another viewing of GoldenEye, I can forgive Brosnan The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day. His debut is that good.

Not only do we have a fine 007, but GoldenEye also has the extra bonus of Sean Bean (Patriot Games, Sharpe) as former MI6 Agent 006 Alec Trevelyan. In the film’s opening sequence, we meet this pair of agents infiltrating a hidden Russian base. It may seem silly, but this duo is one of the franchise’s best notions. As a kid, I didn’t care about plot references to 002 or 009; I thought James Bond was THE one and only big man in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The fact that there are really badass agents like 006 out there brings new cool to GoldenEye. So, MI6 has skeletons in the closet, eh? Things aren’t always as cut and dry as previous Bonds would have us think, are they? Bean begins the picture as a cool and tragic agent too close to the edge and becomes the bane of Bond’s existence. Sometimes we like a Bond picture purely for the villain, and Bean delivers one of the series’ slickest and most memorable bad guys.

006 has all the charm, suave, gadgets, and babes as 007-what’s not to love? The fact that he is blonde and bad against dark haired, good guy Bond is also a subtle visual trick against our ‘black hat’ bad cowboy motifs. Once upon a time, we can believe Trevelyan was a good guy. 006 has some great lines in GoldenEye; he tends to get the last word on Bond, and his punch lines are dry and memorable. I’m sure there are other instances in the franchise, but his ‘Bond. Only Bond’ is as close to 007’s famous introduction as one can get. It’s not just the cheeky script, but Bean’s slick delivery that make 006 so bad it’s good. We believe Sean Bean could have been Bond, and as he says, ‘I was always better!’ We’re supposed to root for Bond, but Bean doesn’t make it easy. I wish it were possible for him to return to the franchise in someway, but his perfection here is tough to beat. Imagine current Blonde Bond Craig versus Bean as Lago in an updated remake of Thunderball... I can dream, can’t I?

Although we couldn’t have a blonde Bond when Bean auditioned, we can have a woman as the head of MI6. Dame Judi Dench’s (Shakespeare in Love, Notes on A Scandal) debut as M is wonderfully cranky and hard-assed like Bernard Lee and Robert Brown before her. The Berlin Wall is gone, the Soviet Union dissolved-M’s sizing up of Bond as a misogynistic relic of the Cold War is completely accurate. Dench’s delivery and style are akin to the skeptical audience. Why should we still care about Bond? What is he going to do in GoldenEye to warm our hearts again? Against the definitely not Bond Girl M, Samantha Bond’s (Emma, Distant Shores) Miss Moneypenny is charming as the flirtatious secretary with a jest for James. Her talent, look, and age are on par with Brosnan, and her wit has shades of former Penny Lois Maxwell.

Stalwart Desmond Llewelyn continues as Bond’s gadget wizard Q, and the banter with Brosnan is on form. There’s just enough tongue in cheek and dry Brit wit to keep things funny, not stupid. The gadget debriefing scene packs in a lot of quips and bits- and all of it works. As opposed to some older Bond pictures where everyone is dubbed, unnamed, or well, weak; GoldenEye has a healthy supporting cast. From The Living Daylights veteran Joe Don Baker returning to the series as CIA ally Jack Wade to Alan Cumming (X-2: X-Men United) as quirky Janus henchman Boris Grishenko, each has a moment of charm. Robbie Coltrane (Harry Potter), Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting), and Tchéky Karyo (The Patriot) shine as well.

GoldenEye of course continues the Bond tradition of hot international babes. Now very well known, Dutch model and actress Famke Janssen (X-Men, Don’t Say A Word) steals almost all of her scenes here. Her Xenia Onatopp not only has a name worthy of her vile henchwomen predecessors, but she gets off on killing-literally. It’s so twisted it’s cool. Again, you would think a woman who can kill people by crushing them between her legs would laugh folks right out of the theater; but this kitschy Bond Babe works. Janssen doesn’t speak very much, but she holds her own against the Brosnan and Bean big boys. Equally feisty is Polish-Swedish actress Izabella Scorupco (Reign of Fire) as sassy computer tech Natalya Simonova. Scorupco is a little too pretty to be a simple computer programmer, but she’s intelligent and spunky. Moreover, in a series infamous for its dubbing, her Russian accent is a-okay. Not only does Natalya get some Bond loving, but she’s got some fun dialogue. Rather than being a woman merely there for looks, she figures into the plot to disarm the GoldenEye weapon. It’s serious and realistic, too- not like flaky, buxom scientists before and after.

Perhaps the mid nineties styles and computers are out of date now, but GoldenEye has an intelligent, scientific plot to go along with all the gadgets, action, and effects. Actually, there aren’t many obvious effects to speak of-satellite shots and some blue screen work-but nothing as ridiculous as the invisible car from Die Another Day. The action here is where it’s at. In some ways director Martin Campbell (The Mask of Zorro, Casino Royale) adheres to several Bond standards-the obligatory planes, chases, and fights, of course. However, GoldenEye’s post-Iron Curtain St. Petersburg setting allows for some cool twists on the action. Snow, communist relics, armored trains, and tanks through old world city streets give homage to the franchise and real life history while upping the ante onscreen. To go along with it all, we have an updated Bond Theme; an edgy title song from U2 and Tina Turner; and sweet opening titles with plenty of babes bashing the hammer and sickle.

I have to say, my husband is not a fan of GoldenEye. He finds it too slow. Perhaps some of technobabble talking scenes do drag in the first hour of the picture, but by the finale, writers Michael France (The Punisher), Bruce Ferstein (Tomorrow Never Dies) and Jeffrey Caine (The Chief) balance the intelligence and action nicely. GoldenEye isn’t just one of the best Bond pictures; it’s meaty enough for generic action and adventure audiences. You want chases and explosions-it’s there with all the smarts and excellent performances. I would however, caution a casual fan from taking in a television viewing of GoldenEye. Though tame in that Bond only bags two babes, networks edit for time and content in all the wrong places. I was so angry that BBC America cut most of Trevelyan’s scene with Natalya-even the ‘tastes like strawberries’ zinger. How dare they!

Several DVD editions of GoldenEye can be found at very affordable prices. Mine was under $7- a fairly risk free commitment for the hesitant Bond viewer. Collectors will of course own the special edition and package sets with extensive features, but it looks like we’re still waiting on GoldenEye’s blu-ray release. I’m trying to wait for all the Bond films to be released on blu-ray before I pick up any. What if they pull out another super special ultimate blu-ray pack of the entire series like they did with the DVDs? Nevertheless, I probably won’t be able to wait once this blu-ray set comes out. I can always pass along my DVD to my dad. I’ve made him watch this one so often, now he likes Brosnan’s Bond. Even if you aren’t a Bond fan, GoldenEye should be enough to convert you.

07 August 2009

MI-5: Season 5

Still on the Edge of My Seat for MI-5 Season 5
By Kristin Battestella

Now that I’ve survived the fifth series of the British spy show MI-5, I can report that all the action, romance, and intrigue is perhaps better than ever.

MI-5, Vol. 5 (5 Discs)Section D Leader Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones) still can’t get over his wife’s death, but his boss, MI-5 Chief Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), finally takes the romantic leap with Intelligence Officer Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker). Things on the Grid aren’t easy for Tech Agent Malcom Winn-Jones (Hugh Simon), and new MI-6 transfer Rosalind Myers (Hermione Norris) isn’t making friends at Thames House.

After a pretty heavy Season 4 filled with death and political intrigue, MI-5 opens its fifth year with plenty of the same. Although the cliffhanger from last season is dismissed a little two quickly, the opening two-parter is one of the most extreme plots we’ve seen yet. There’s less of a focus on American relations and more tales of terrorism and global consequences. All this talk of British infrastructure and the delicate planet, and yet MI-5 still has time for the spy life and the roller coaster it represents. We’ve still got family issues, mistakes, and loss on the job-and now there’s a little more steam and naughty to go along with it.

He’s the team leader and supposedly the best of the best in the spy business, but Adam Carter is-as we Americans would say- off his rocker. We didn’t dig deep into Fiona Carter’s death last season, and the delayed grief makes Adam annoying and yet still likeable at the same time. It’s nice to see a spy crack amid all the personal and political strain; yet it’s irritating to see his slow collapse. We don’t like to see our heroes falter, and it’s almost too realistic to enjoy at times. Nevertheless, Penry-Jones pulls Adam together, and even nuts, he is still a damn fine spy.

In additional to all these head games, writer David Wolstencroft adds a little more romance to MI-5 this season. Adam takes on a good at the time but dead-end fling with his son Wes’ (James Dicker) babysitter Jenny (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Doctor Who). Some of its certainly juicy, but the relationship is another step backwards from the perfect, happily married Adam we used to know. Likewise, a big personal shift takes place when Harry Pearce finally asks Ruth Evershed out on a date. It’s seems like such a simple step, but Peter Firth and Nicola Walker have wonderful chemistry. They sell every silent yearn and bumbling conversation. For two people so put together in the workplace, being alone together isn’t so easy. Unfortunately, we’ve come to expect serious cast movements on MI-5, and this year marks the departure of Nicola Walker. Sometimes I wish there wasn’t always some heavy tour de force exit for the characters, though each cast change has been perfectly drastic. Just for once, can’t somebody merely quit, retire, or leave of his or her own volition? Which is more realistic-someone simply walking away or being screwed by the corrupt system? Season 5 constantly reminds us that Thames House is always fighting a losing, uphill battle inside and out.

Sometimes overlooked as nothing more than a talented gadget man, Hugh Simon excels this season. He brings depth and charm to Malcolm in whatever time he is given. Whether it’s a serious technical part of a case or a subtle quip, Simon keeps Malcolm’s gear and wit essential. Colin Wells (Rory MacGregor) also makes the most of the audience’s emotion with his exit from the series. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for junior agents Jo Portman (Miranda Raison) and Zaf Younis (Raza Jaffrey). Instead of building on Jo’s intelligent and quirky debut last season, she’s been dumbed down to a desk agent with big, woeful eyes. I don’t understand why the writers seem to push her and Zaf together, for Jo’s best scenes are giggling and gossiping with Adam. Zaf also has next to nothing to do. He’s a secondary body to put at a two- fold scene. We don’t know much else about him, and it’s a dang shame. There’s so much potential for personal angst with Islam, xenophobia, and terrorism.

Now, what is one to make of the new girl on the block, Ros Myers? There’s no doubt she’s cold, slick, and a great spy, but she’s a little unlikable at the same time. Norris (Kingdom, Cold Feet) looks bleached, chiseled, and hard-and this Spartan style works. The only thing that seems to touch Ros is her family-particularly a corrupt Father featured in the opening two parter- but it’s obvious the love-hate relationship between her and Adam is where the juice is at. They don’t get along, but know how to charm each other and work in sync. Ros also has an intriguing relationship with Harry. Are they going to be each other’s surrogate family member? She’s rough around the edges now, but I’m looking forward to more.

As usual, MI-5 has plenty of split screen action to go along with its intense missions. There’s more out of the office action and violence, too, with bigger situations and extreme scenarios. As much as I enjoyed the instantaneous viewing of Netflix’s Instant Watch, the DVDs are a lot of fun. The Grid styled interface looks good, and two episodes per disc is just enough to satisfy. There were only a few features spread across the discs; and the trailers, quick interviews, and commentaries on the finale don’t seem to be enough. I need more!

Season 5 is probably not the best place for a new viewer to start enjoying MI-5. Too much has taken place at this point for the uninitiated to catch up. Despite all the cast changes, the intense, international storylines are still going strong. Fifty solid episodes and there’s no shark in sight! Fall in love with the heavy, exceptional MI-5 today.

06 August 2009

Octopussy and For Your Eyes Only

Avoid Octopussy and See For Your Eyes Only
By Kristin Battestella

Some swear by Roger Moore’s tenure as Bond, others loathe him. 1981’s For Your Eyes Only gives us some of Moore’s finest. Unfortunately, 1983’s Octopussy gives us some of his weakest.
In Octopussy, MI-6 agent 007 James Bond (Roger Moore) takes over the wounded 009’s operation after the latter steals a fake Faberge egg. Bond tracks the real egg to an auction house, where Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) and his mistress Magda (Kristina Wayborn) bid on the egg. When infiltrating his palace, Bond discovers Khan and Russian General Orlov (Steven Berkoff) are in the business stealing Soviet antiquities and using the wealthy Octopussy (Maud Adams) and her all female island cult as a cover for their nuclear hijinks.

OctopussyI can’t really put my finger on what makes Octopussy a sub par Bond picture. It feels like a film of contradictions and almosts, but no gems or follow through. The opening song ‘All Time High’ by Rita Coolidge is lovely, but my goodness is that ice dancing along with our 007 motifs? Even the title tries for that cheeky innuendo, but the term and its use in the film are just silly. “That’s my little octopussy!” For such a scandalous title, Octopussy is actually a rather tame Bond picture, centering most of its plot on silly gags and flat humor. Octopussy, does however, have one thing going for it: India. Perhaps trying to capitalize on Indiana Jones and more adventure styled films, the Southeast flavor here gives a more exotic feeling than the previously merely classy spy pictures. The looks, speech, and dress of the henchman and extras are a touch stereotypical, but the Indian palaces are wonderful and enchanting.

Villain Kamal Khan might also be an asset to Octopussy, but the suave performance from Louis Jourdan (Gigi) is hindered by a convoluted script and scheme. What the heck is his plot to take over the world, anyway? After all the babes and circus shenanigans, the viewer could really careless about Khan and Russian nuclear plans. Also wasted is the titular Octopussy. Instead of revealing Maud Adams as an intelligent woman and international player at the start, Octopussy delays her reveal and plays up the later relationship with Bond. Although I love Adams and Moore’s scenes together-they are perhaps the best in the film-it takes us half the movie to get all that. Adams looks as lovely as she did in The Man with the Golden Gun, and once we spend some time with her onscreen, we forget about her previous turn. I’ve noticed most Bond pictures will favor a gadget or an action plot device before a character, but veteran Bond editor and director John Glen (For Your Eyes Only, A View to A Kill) should have recognized his leading talent and chemistry.

They still have one more film to go, but Roger Moore and Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny are beginning to show their age and disinterest. The simple gesture of Bond not tossing his hat is a small symbol of how much this series has changed. In Connery’s tenure, it was perfectly acceptable for him to have a hat about his suit. In 1983, the only time I saw even women wear hats was in church. The eighties styles on the ladies haven’t stood the test of time, either. I do, however, wonder what happened to Miss Moneypenny’s new assistant and presumed replacement Penelope Smallbone (Michaela Clavell, who never appeared to do anything else, either). She’s young and enamored with Bond, of course, and Smallbone certainly seems better than the bespectacled ninny Moneypenny during Dalton’s brief time as 007. Just another quirk in the franchise, I suppose.

Although Moore’s final appearance as Bond in 1985’s A View To A Kill is less than perfect and a guilty pleasure more than anything; I’m glad he did not end his tenure on the sour note here. Perhaps after such success with The Spy Who Loved Me, screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser (Red Sonja) and house writers Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson were trying to put a different spin on things with Octopussy’s original screenplay. But the elephants, the backgammon, the circus, the gorilla suits-come on. Though the Octopussy siege at the end is kind of cool, it seems a little preposterous that these cirque de sol women can take out the bad guys. At least it looks like good old Q gets the girls. Unfortunately, it’s all too little, too late for Octopussy.

For Your Eyes OnlyFortunate then, that Moore did give us a fine turn in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only- this quieter, darker blend has revenge, sports-oriented chases, and a realistic outing by the third official Bond. After a British ship and its Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator sink, Bond is sent to investigate the ship’s whereabouts and the murder of Timothy Havelock, a British archaeologist contracted to find the wreckage. In Spain, 007 meets Melina Havelock, the vengeful daughter of Timothy. Together with Greek smuggler Milos Columbo (Chaim Topol, Fiddler on the Roof) they tail dirty businessman Aris Kristatos. Will they find the ATAC before him and expose his nefarious dealings and KGB connections?

It seems no one liked For Your Eyes Only’s sf-ication predecessor Moonraker, and we begin this semi return to Bond’s roots with a nice opening reference to the late Mrs. Bond. Sure, we like 007 on the prowl, but mention of Tracy Bond is something we don’t see enough. It’s nice to know Bond has a few issues beyond being a detached spy who loves and leaves because of his job. Some kitschy kitties, allusions to Blofeld, and some hair-brained piloting also keep a touch of humor in the pre-titles sequence. However, it is strange to see singer Sheena Easton actually singing the theme song during the titles. Unique and it all looks good, but the song itself is sub par compared to ‘Nobody Does It Better’ before and ‘All Time High’ after.

Where Octopussy meanders and grows silly and confusing, For Your Eyes Only’s script and story is deep and complex- yet behind the scenes man and director John Glen keeps the mission easy to follow. There’s the usual red herrings and turncoats, but this Macguffin mystery seems more like a spy’s tale then other Bond pictures coughmoonrakercough. For Your Eyes Only is in many ways akin to Lazenby’s one off On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. We have solid literary sources from Ian Fleming, dark and complicated folks onscreen, and a Bond we are familiar with and like. Perhaps For Your Eyes Only is the perfect combination between book and onscreen Bond?

Who knew James Bond could have been on the British Olympic Team? Though mature in his fifth picture as 007, Roger More has the right blend of action, fun, and seriousness here. Some think Moore is too humorous at times, but his one-liners and comebacks are the perfect breath amid this sporty, global escapade. Perhaps the miscasting of his leading ladies makes him appear older, but in For Your Eyes Only, we don’t have a geriatric Bond just yet. He has the uppity style for some intense skiing, and he can handle the busy babes and hard liquors. What’s not to love?

For Your Eyes Only is also special for its somewhat abstract villains. For most of the picture, car bound henchman Emile Locque (Michael Gothard, Arthur of the Britons) doesn’t even speak. Instead of having a quipping, hung up, faulty and clichéd bad boy; we have a bespectacled weirdo pursuing Bond and a charming Julian Glover (The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade) as Greek big wig Aristotle Kristatos. We know he must be up to know good, but Glover doesn’t play his crooked hand too soon. Kristatos is sleek, international, suave. He’s as good at what he does as Bond, and the slow reveal of his KGB ends is a welcome change against all the villains who put Bond in an easily escapable situation and then tell him all their plans. John Wyman is also lean and mean as Kristatos’ steroid-esque KGB man Erich Kriegler. It’s not a new notion to this franchise, but seeing Bond take down a toughie is always a pleasure.

Let me get the bad about Award winning French actress Carole Bouquet out first. Her Greek heiress Melina Havelock is no doubt beautiful in that quintessential exotic seventies way, but she’s too young against Moore. Bond likes his women younger, but she’s the grown daughter of a murdered ally. It’s too weird, as is Bouquet’s thick accent and re-dubs. Pity all that, for she has plenty of presence, acting skill, and a nice vendetta storyline. The tragic revenge damsel has been used in these films before, but when done well, it works. Bizarre then that Lynn-Holly Johnson again shows her figure skating prowess (Ice Castles, anyone?) when Octopussy has the ice dancing motifs. Maybe she was the it girl of the moment, but Johnson’s aptly named Bibi Dahl is also too young and pouty for Moore’s elder suave. Still, she can do all the skating and skiing needed, that’s something.

By contrast, Countess Lisl von Schlaf seems too old against the young hotties. It seems bad to say of Cassandra Harris-the late first wife of future Bond Pierce Brosnan. She’s actually just the right age for Moore’s Bond-and we can’t have that! The Countess serves her Bond Girl purposes, and there’s plenty of women and skin about. This time out, however, Moore’s lover boy Bond isn’t as…productive…as he usually is. Unlike the awkwardness in Octopussy, it’s great to see Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny in For Your Eyes Only- and she’s putting on lipstick for Bond no less! Despite some heavy deaths before and a serious debriefing after, Moneypenny’s quips go a long way in keeping Bond lighthearted. Respectfully we have no M due to the death of Bernard Lee; but Desmond Llewelyn is his ever-lovable Q. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for those old computers, oiy!

Also trying to be hip and eighties latest is Bond in his Lotus Esprit. Give him a DeLorean why don’t you? It’s understandable that 007 needs to keep up with the times, but a classy ride is more in keeping with our Martini man, don’t you think? Thankfully, there’s plenty of female eye candy. The hair and bathing suits are also victims of the decade, but I doubt the boys are complaining. The new wave synthesizer music isn’t the best either, but like the car, it serves its purpose. The James Bond theme makes its presence known, thankfully, too. The sports oriented action in For Your Eyes Only is a little absurd, but it’s also fast paced and entertaining. A backwards car chase in a yellow clunker capped with a fairly late ‘Bond, James Bond’ again keeps the balance of Moore’s humor and house writers Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson’s tight adaptations of Fleming’s short stories. The ski chases are silly in a good way, too, with original moves and plenty of suspense. Yes, the music and some stylings in For Your Eyes Only are dated, but it doesn’t hinder the wit, complete story, and fine action. There’s ice hockey, I really can’t complain.

Although perhaps regionally close, For Your Eyes Only’s various European locations provide an assortment of beauty and danger. Greek Islands, biplanes and ships, shooting and skiing amid the Swiss Alps, congested Spanish cities, and stuffy London offices add to the chases and bikinis. Eyes also has some fine, well lit, fast-paced but no less claustrophobic below the surface action. Some of the sappy music and hand signaling because of Scuba gear is very silly, but Glen uses the natural dangers to build the audience’s underwater suspense. I’m sure Jaws had a lot to do with adding the sharks, but the deadly rock climbing looks good and quickens your pulse.
Though dated and not without its faults, For Your Eyes Only is a believable, entertaining, well rounded Bond picture-unlike the mishmash that is Octopussy. Clear-cut action and honest story will always last longer than a laughable and convoluted successor. Had Moore departed with Eyes and Timothy Dalton debuted in a streamlined Octopussy (Could we take the good parts of Never Say Never Again, too?), the overall opinion of Moore as Bond might be very different. A promising debut in Live and Let Die, a good villain saving The Man with the Golden Gun, a delightful The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only, and the abomination that is Moonraker-not bad if you think about it. Collectors will have to wait for Octopussy on blu-ray, but several DVD sets and blu-ray editions of For Your Eyes Only are available now. Save yourself from Bond mediocrity, skip Octopussy and enjoy the younger, witty, hip For Your Eyes Only.