30 January 2010

Bell Book and Candle

Bell Book and Candle is still Great, Witchy Fun
By Kristin Battestella

We may think all the young adult fantasy books, Potter-esque films, and shows like Charmed have cornered the magic market onscreen, but classics like 1958’s Bell Book and Candle have kept the kooky comedy and witchy situations innocent and fun all along.

Over Christmas, good natured New York witch Gillian Holroyd (Kim Novak) grows a little tired of her witchy ways and Aunt Queenie’s (Elsa Lanchester) magical games. When Gil falls in love with publisher and upstairs neighbor Shep Henderson (James Stewart), she uses her cat Pyewacket to cast a spell. Shep must fall in love with Gil and thus not marry her former rival and college classmate Merle Kittridge (Janice Rule, 3 Women). While all the love blossoms, Gil’s warlock brother Nicky (Jack Lemmon) assists writer Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovacs) in his new book ‘Magic in Manhattan’. Will Shep’s publication of the book expose the Holroyds’ witchy ways and ruin Gil’s romance with Shep?

Based upon the play by John Van Druten (Gaslight, Cabaret), director Richard Quine (Sunny Side of the Street) and screenwriter Daniel Taradash (From Here to Eternity) craft a charming look at the power and hijinks of magic and love. We often allude to love being like a bewitching spell in lyrics and poetry. Even though a spell is cast in Bell Book and Candle, we’re never quite sure where the magic ends and the true love begins. The fanciful and fun take on possible love from socially at odds groups-humans and witches-is lighthearted and still enjoyable today. We can make all the modern and hefty allusions we want about mixed romances or stereotypes about practitioners of witchcraft, but it’s nice to just take in a sweet movie with none of those pretenses. There are a few lighting effects, camera tricks, and the proverbial smoke and mirrors, but more than anything Bell Book and Candle allows its players the time and space to show the magical fun.

Yes, Jimmy Stewart (Harvey, It’s A Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Rear Window, Anatomy of a Murder, need I go on?) is a little too old to be a leading man here against Kim Novak, but he’s still delightful as the straight man publisher caught in the magical mix of spells and romance. We believe a charming witch could get Shep all flustered, confused, and tongue-tied due to Stewart’s loveable slip-ups. His mix of enchantment and clueless nonsense when confronted with the world of witchcraft must have been great fun then-as it still is now to the modern viewer. Stewart’s old, and perhaps his performance is a bit Capra-esque old fashioned, but it’s a fun turn nonetheless. As wonderfully fooled as Shep is, Jack Lemmon’s Nicky is wickedly slick. His magic is all in good fun, too, but he can’t resist the spotlight. Nicky’s ill-attempted exposé writing collaborations mix the crazy ambition with the sardonic blend of wit and drama contemporary audiences expect from the late star of Grumpy Old Men and The Odd Couple. In a way, there is a touch of passing the torch between the graying Stewart and energetic Lemmon. Both men handled the romance, seriousness, and comedy of their roles before and after Bell Book and Candle with a style and class not often found in today’s young acting crowd.

Though not as famous as her male counterparts, its fun to see Kim Novak paired with Jimmy Stewart again after Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense filled Vertigo the same year. Novak’s good witch longing for love does take some getting used to after her deceptive dame in Vertigo, but her husky voice and dynamite eyes adhere to the femme and witchy vibe we expect. Her costumes are hip, with mostly spooky black or eye-catching reds- but what’s with the high, almost white hair? There’s not many close ups of Novak for some reason, but the ones we’re given are breathtaking. Fun effects and cat motifs add to Gil’s already enchanting ways, too. We believe her when she says she has the power to get things done, yet we feel for her wishes for normalcy. Likewise, Elsa Lanchester’s (The Private Life of Henry VIII, Bride of Frankenstein, Witness for the Prosecution) Aunt Queenie is great fun as the elder, kooky and mischievous sprite helping with some good natured interference and match making. Comedy maven Ernie Kovacs (Our Man in Havana, North to Alaska) is also a delight as author Sidney Redlitch – an ‘expert’ of modern witches among us who fails to see the warlocks right under his nose.

Part of Bell Book and Candle’s charm is its fun fifties color and style: the cigarettes, quirky music, Oscar nominated high-end fashion and nonchalant, cute effects. The high life of mid century New York is a delightful time capsule, and the pillow talk approach to witchcraft is in a way modern but no less sweet. However, part of this charm also irrevocably dates the portrayal. It’s 1958- the innocence of the post war years would soon be lost. Some of the whirlwind two-week romance is a little too innocent with no innuendo before the quick marriage talk, and even the colorful styles and titled fedoras would be on the fashion outs in a few years’ time. It’s as if the onscreen attitudes and styles are a final fifties hurrah before the turmoil and realizations of the sixties.

Now I’m sorry to say that I don’t know anything about current Wiccan and religious practices; but naturally modern pagans and witches looking for some seriousness and accuracy won’t find it in Bell Book and Candle. While not deliberately offensive, the clean cut fifties stylings goes for the traditional broomstick stereotypes. It’s great if you like films with some witchy fun, but there’s no realistic portrayal here. Classic film fans, however, can also enjoy the similar I Married A Witch (1942) starring Veronica Lake- both films are often attributed as the inspiration for the beloved television series Bewitched. Modern romantic fans tired of the same inane plots over and over will be charmed, too. Youthful audiences who still enjoy enchanting tales like Bewitched or Hocus Pocus can take in Bell Book and Candle at Halloween, Christmas, or any time of year.

26 January 2010


Dragonwyck A Spooky and Charming Little Old Film
By Kristin Battestella

I was a bit surprised when I stumbled upon this 1946 title starring Gene Tierney and Vincent Price, for I had never heard of it before. Based upon 1944 novel by Anya Seton, Dragonwyck is a creepy little gothic tale of frightful mansions and murderous tendencies.

Miranda Wells (Tierney) dreams of bigger things than her family’s Connecticut farm, much to the chagrin of her devout parents Ephraim (Walter Houston) and Abigail (Anne Revere). When a letter arrives from Abigail’s distant and wealthy cousin Nicholas Van Ryan (Price), Miranda takes the offered opportunity to serve as companion to Nicholas’ daughter Katrine (Connie Marshall, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House) at the Van Ryan’s legendary Hudson Valley estate Dragonwyck. Once at the mansion, however, tales of hauntings, local unrest, and the uneven relationship between Nicholas and his wife Johanna (Vivienne Osborne) can’t deter Miranda from falling in love with Nicholas. But of course, he is married, and spends far too many nights in his secret tower room…

Though not a horror movie or thriller per se, Dragonwyck has many fearful moments and suspense-filled sequences, largely due to the simplest suggestions of intrigue. The black and white cinematography, creepy angles, spooky lighting, and haunting score by the famed Alfred Newman (How the West Was Won, The King and I, Camelot) give just the right amount of suggestion that not all is well at Dragonwyck. Screenwriter and first time director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, Cleopatra) makes great strides in giving us the basis of the novel’s complex time and place, but some sequences in Dragonwyck do seem ill edited. Quick references to a change of time and place aren’t enough to indicate the move-sometimes it seems like you’re watching a film ‘edited for content and cut to run in the time allotted.’ Thankfully, performance and story win out with the help of great costumes and gothic sets.

I don’t know much about Prince Aly Khan, except that he seemed to mentally ruin not one, but two Hollywood ladies- Rita Hayworth and Gene Tierney. Perhaps more well known today for her many romances, Tierney (Laura, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Leave Her To Heaven) was pretty and she could act. Maybe her beauty draws the viewer in, but Tierney’s expressions of innocence, naiveté, and love keep us interested in Miranda. We want her to find joy and happiness-even if the high society life at Dragonwyck clearly spells doom. Likewise, parents Walter Huston (Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Treasure of The Sierra Madre) and Anne Revere (National Velvet, The Song of Bernadette) are stern and respectable parents with only the best interests at heart. Observant viewers will also see a young Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy) as Peggy, the crippled Irish maid with a good heart.

It’s pretty plain to see that the ‘low’ farming folk have more values and morals than the ‘high’ Hudson folk, but Vivienne Osborne (Tomorrow at Seven) earns a piece of sympathy as Nicholas’ wife Johanna. She seems chubby and more interested in food than her daughter, but we feel that in some ways, this snotty style is not her fault. Her callous upbringing and lack of attention from her deceitful husband help blur the lines between this detailed look at the early Victorian lifestyle and Hudson society. But of course, Vincent Price (The Ten Commandments, The Pit and the Pendulum) plays a man who is not always what he seems. He’s thinner and more subdued than what we expect from the maniacal old horror maven to come in later films. Price’s Nicholas looks the waistcoat and top hat society man, we believe he can be respectable and a good love for Miranda-and yet we should know better. Price shows his range through Nicholas’ love, flagrant callousness, addictions, and other… nefarious… tendencies.

Dragonwyck (1946)Dragonwyck is not a perfect film, and it is a little dated in some respects. Mankiewicz’ inexperience as a debut director also hampers some scenes. Nevertheless, gothic lovers and fans of classic suspense can enjoy Dragonwyck. Younger audiences may not understand some of the historical back-story about patroon landowners keeping tenant farmers in feudal like arrangements, but the spooky air is just right for a youthful scare or two. But of course, the DVD edition of Dragonwyck is now out of print. Thankfully, fans of Vincent Price can pick up a copy in several horror sets. It’s a strange placement, but fans of the cast and viewers who love a little bit of Bronte suspense will enjoy getting their hands on Dragonwyck. I’m tempted to find the book now, too!

25 January 2010

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937)

The Prisoner of Zenda Dated, but Charming Nonetheless.
By Kristin Battestella

Everyone’s probably heard of The Prisoner of Zenda and refers to the 1894 novel by Anthony Hope as a basis for adventure film, video games, and ‘Ruritanian romance’- but have modern audiences even seen any of the film adaptations of The Prisoner of Zenda? I took in an afternoon with the 1937 version to see this gem for myself.

While on vacation in Ruritania, Rudolf Rassendyll (Ronald Colman) meets his distant royal relative, the soon to be King Rudolph V (also Colman). The cousins look exactly alike; and when the wine loving Rudolph is drugged by his vile illegitimate half brother Duke Michael (Raymond Massey, Abe Lincoln in Illinois), Rudolph’s aides Colonel Zapt (C. Aubrey Smith) and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim (David Niven) convince Rassendyll to take the would-be king’s place. Matters are further complicated, of course, when Rudolph is taken prisoner at his castle in Zenda. Rassendyll must go on as king, and he quickly falls in love with the beautiful Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll).

This tale of romance and mistaken identity needs no additional support, but the subtle talk of abdication and modern political intrigue creep into The Prisoner of Zenda, thanks to producer David O. Selznick’s push for this film in light of the abdication and scandal of Edward VIII and Wallace Simpson. Director John Cromwell (Of Human Bondage, Since You Went Away) saves the big action sequences for the finish, and the talk-heavy script may seem slow and dated compared to today’s films. It’s tough to see all the lavishness of the costumes and set in the tone on tone silver screen, but the ornate chairs and adorned uniforms get the look across just fine. The supposedly big scenes seem a little small scale, too; but it’s the tale at heart that wins out in The Prisoner of Zenda. Could you so easily assume a hostile rule? Could you walk away from such power and love?

I have to admit the dual scenes with Coleman (A Tale of Two Cities, A Double Life) as both Rassendyll and the titular prisoner look dang good, without any of the obvious split screen tricks and such. He’s not bad at hamming it us as the drunk regent to be, either. Colman has the proper blend of hesitancy about kingship, romance with the ladies, and action in protecting his duty. Likewise, the loyal C. Aubrey Smith (The Four Feathers, Rebecca, Little Women) and David Niven (The Bishop’s Wife, Around the World in Eighty Days) look and act the proper aristocrats. As a lover of old school film, it’s a shame to think many of the players here lost most of their prime years to decorated service in World War II. It’s sadder still that the gems we do have- like The Prisoner of Zenda- are growing under appreciated seventy years on.

Although he made many fine pictures including Gunga Din and Little Caesar, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. might be less well known to the classic film layman than his famous father. Nevertheless, Young Fairbanks’ Rupert is so bad it’s good. He’s slick, a snake waiting to strike. If anything is more alluring than the royal look-a-like switch, it’s the swarthy villain who’s seeking to subvert all to his advantage-including the noble women. The ladies in The Prisoner of Zenda are delightful as well. Madeleine Carroll (The 39 Steps, The General Died at Dawn) is I think a little forgotten today, but she is a beautiful woman and fine actress-not nearly as done up and over the top as the women of the day could be. Her lovely air makes us believe in princesses and royal intrigue. Likewise Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon, Meet Me in St. Louis) is wonderful as the bad but good girl Antoinette de Mauban. As wonderful as the bait and switch and political villainy are, the ladies at stake make The Prisoner of Zenda all worthwhile.

The Prisoner of Zenda (1937 and 1952 Versions)Yes, it might be too old-fashioned for younger, graphic obsessed audiences, but fans of classic films and swashbuckling adventure tales can love The Prisoner of Zenda. There’s nothing offensive here-even the political aspects of the story are fairly innocent. If you’re child is a fan of adventure, try a viewing or offer up the titular novel. It’s such a shame for good fiction and great films to be pushed aside simply because they’re a little old. Fortunately, a dual DVD edition is available, including this film and the sub par 1952 version. That Technicolor version may add spectacle and lavishness to its frame-by-frame update, but the cast isn’t as charming. Actually, in this day of remakes and updates, I’m surprised a proper, lavish, modern interpretation of this timeless tale hasn’t happened yet. Till then, love and cherish this The Prisoner of Zenda.

24 January 2010

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

No Substance Whatsoever in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
By Kristin Battestella

Halfway through seeing the 2009 live action G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, I wished I hadn’t bothered. Generally, I try not to be negative in my reviews, but I can’t find any substance or redemption in this bad CGI and effects laden picture that destroys the joy of the original cartoon series.

Nato soldiers Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) are transporting dangerous warheads with nanotechnology developed by MARS leader James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston)- but their convoy is attacked by Duke’s ex-flame the Baroness (Sienna Miller). Duke and Ripcord are rescued by a team of G.I. Joes and subsequently join General Hawk’s (Dennis Quad) Alpha team in retrieving the warheads. While Ripcord romances Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), Duke confronts the Baroness and the deformed Doctor of the Cobra Organization (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Joe ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park, The Phantom Menace) also renews his longstanding conflict with Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee, Hero) as master of disguise Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) helps Cobra infiltrate the heights of global power.

It’s taken literally years, dozens of writers, and numerous rewrites, drafts, scripts, and screenplays to bring G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra to the big screen. If this is the best they could do then director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy, Van Helsing) and credited writers Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean), David Elliot and Paul Lovett (Four Brothers), and Michael Gordon (To Live and Drive in L.A.) shouldn’t have bothered. Yes, you can’t have a rose colored view like the eighties Joe cartoon with America being perfect and the best or the bad guys parachuting out at the last minute- a positive moral for kids can’t really be applied to an action war picture, even if ‘knowing is half the battle.’ Perhaps a big screen adaptation had to involve global cities and locales and highlight an international Joe team. However, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra didn’t have to be nothing but two hours of useless effects. Sommers (who should really retire, retrograde after The Mummy) said he didn’t want an old school white boys Vietnam-esque tale, but I would much rather have seen a modern, realistic look at a bunch of harden Joes who’ve been around the block and know what secretive ops sacrifices really cost. When Bond got to this low point with Die Another Day, it got rebooted to the opposite gritty extreme. Who was G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra’s intended audience? I can’t imagine old school, pre Sergeant Slaughter folks who adored the toys and the cartoons can enjoy this- and do modern teens and younger read the comic books? Do they have the DVDs in all their glory? Heck, do little boys still play with 3 ¾-inch action figures?

Flashbacks and built up back-stories that conflict with the established canon also hamper G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. The Baroness is with Duke, Scarlett with Ripcord-Huh? Arnold Vosloo (The Mummy) is barely there-for his Zartan obviously disappears halfway through the film to assume the identity of the President. Even if we weren’t scratching our heads as to why anyone would cast perpetually twelve Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock from the Sun, Stop-Loss) as Cobra Commander, again it’s ridiculously obvious that this dead brother Rex and The Doctor are one and the same. And frankly, for a film subtitled Rise of Cobra, we end for the inevitable sequel with the newly crowned Cobra Commander in prison. Yeah, he rose really far, didn’t he? And why oh why does he have a milk carton on his face? Keep the damn blue hood! So what if it looks like the Klu Kux Klan. Let’s remind folks that a villain with an idea, the means, and the power is bad, not comical.

The production team is obviously trying not to offend anyone whilst simultaneously making ready for the sequel. Good Lord I hope Storm Shadow isn’t really dead. We could have had an entire development film for Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow ala Batman Begins. Don’t flashback in a useless first mission movie. Start at the frigging beginning of how each recruit came to be Joes. Let’s see the 12 year old Scarlett graduating then kicking her brothers’ butts, show Ripcord flying that crop duster, open with our young ninjas instead of Medieval France- um, yeah that’s what I said. Give us people that we know and like, then the mission doesn’t matter. Oh no, that would mean the effects wouldn’t matter, and oh by gosh by golly we can’t have that!

Part of the original toys and media fun was that there were too many dang Joes to keep track off; but here, there aren’t enough of them and yet everyone feels the dang same. Where are Flint, Lady Jaye, Shipwreck, Blowtorch, Spirit-hell Junkyard! More emotion could have been had with some cute or heroic dog in danger scenes before an unrealistically hokey Paris attack and underwater battle. Although I think the first X-Men film suffers from being an introductory piece, it gave fans all the things they were looking for-nods to the suits, montages of powers and characters hinted. In Rise of Cobra, there’s one scene of a woman kicking butt while testing an invisible suit. I’d like to think its Lady Jaye, but I don’t think Karolina Kurkova’s Cover Girl was even introduced! The displacement of beloved characters for poor CGI is unforgivable.

Though some of the name cast is able to stand out amid this weak, mismashed script, sometimes it’s understandable that certain people are placed beneath effects. My friends were bemused because I thought the guy from Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Star Trek, and G.I. Joe were one and the same. Channing Tatum (Stop-Loss, Public Enemies) is another blondie cookie cutter chiseled pseudo bad-ass that we don’t need. Marlon Wayans’ (White Chicks, Scary Movie, In Living Color) Ripcord easily outshines the miscast Duke. I wish more development was given to Rachel Nichols (who for the life I me I can’t remember being in Star Trek) as Scarlett. At least Dennis Quaid (Any Given Sunday, The Rookie, The Day After Tomorrow) and Brendan Fraser (School Ties, The Mummy, again. Did Sommers cast all his buddies?) are having fun with their parts. Nothing they’ve done yet has really interested me, but Christopher Eccleston’s (Doctor Who, Heroes) Scottish accent and Sienna Miller’s (Factory Girl, Layer Cake) conflicted Baroness are over done at the expensive of proper introductory Joeness. Make us like the Joes first, then give us the dark and villainous Act II. Imagine if The Empire Strikes Back had come first: no Alec Guiness to introduce us to the Force, no reason for Vader to seek Luke, and why should we care if Han and Leia kiss?

G.I. Joe has the material and potential to be a serious franchise again. In this day and age of constant unoriginal remakes and updates, I’d be seriously happy if this series was chewed up, spit out, and rebooted over this drivel. Rise of Cobra was ill conceived to begin with, and should never have made it to the general public with this many amateur faults. I am strongly opposed to another viewing of this, and the blu-ray set only intensified the bad effects. Why on earth would you need six effects companies for one movie’s CGI? How do you expect six different graphic teams to mesh together and look good? True fans should stick with the classic cartoon and all its idealistic and charmingly drawn imperfectness. Even fan fiction is better that G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.

22 January 2010

Patriot Games

Patriot Games Better Today

By Kristin Battestella

Although I have the DVD, I can’t help but tune in every time Patriot Games comes on cable. The 1992 action thriller from Tom Clancy’s book is just as awesome today as it was then.

After averting a radical IRA terrorist faction’s attack on royal cousin and Northern Ireland Secretary Lord Holmes (James Fox, A Passage to India), former CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) returns to Maryland with his pregnant wife Kathy (Anne Archer) and daughter Sally (Thora Birch). Unfortunately, vengeful Ulster terrorist Sean Miller (Sean Bean) escapes from prison and plots the destruction of the Ryan Family. Jack returns to the CIA, helping Admiral Greer (James Earl Jones) find Miller and his compatriots Kevin O’Donnell (Patrick Bergen) and Annette (Polly Walker). When his family is gravely threatened again, Ryan must take matters into his own hands and stop Miller once and for all.

I do have a few issues with Patriot Games, so I’ll just get them out of the way first. Sometimes 1992 doesn’t seem so long ago to me-but when you see the almost eighties looking styles here, we do remember this really was almost twenty years ago. Kathy Ryan’s clothes and style might have been posh at the time, but now…not so much. Some of the action sequences are also a little dated in choreography. It’s not that Patriot Games is small scale or ill paced by any means. We’ve just been treated to a lot more effects laden and much more complex and violent films in recent years. This is an action film, but there’s a lot of thought, character, and emotion behind it. Strange to say, but sometimes that seriousness isn’t what a viewer wants if they’re looking for mindless, desensitizing action.

Director Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm, The Bone Collector) and screenwriters W. Peter Iliff (Point Break, Varsity Blues) and Donald Stewart (The Hunt for Red October, Clear and Present Danger) keep the best of Clancy and craft a fine blend of suspense and family drama. There aren’t many great one liners here, but the script is memorable and believable. Despite the extreme and sometimes improbable circumstances in Patriot Games, we believe that not only could this happen to the Ryans, but to any one of us. Even in the big action numbers, the camera is tight on the people involved. We feel the emotion whether things are rough and tumble or sad and somber.

But of course, who doesn’t love Harrison Ford? He is perhaps the best actor of this generation, and Ford shows his clout in Patriot Games. Instead of the bravado hero, we meet an older, worn family man. He’s a retired Dad-well off perhaps, but just like the rest of us in most ways. Jack Ryan is not a superhero. Ryan messes up; his family’s life is taken out of his control. Ford is able to deliver the sad eyes and tears when needed, but we know not to push a man to defend his castle. When Ford says, “I will fucking destroy you.” we believe the declaration as easy as we believe that the only thing in life that is “100% for certain” is his daughter’s love.

Before The Lord of the Rings, if Americans knew who Sean Bean was, they knew because of Patriot Games. His intense stare and quiet revenge boil over through villainous looks and actions-Bean only speaks about ten times in the picture. Even though that little dialogue is creepy, too, the silent intensity makes Miller’s vengeance-especially in comparison with Harrison Ford. Prior to Patriot Games, Ford (Do I really need to infer on Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Witness, Blade Runner and all that?) was the action hero with great toys and quick quips. He starts out the funny, elder family man; but as the film progress, Ford’s fear for his family forces him into equally brooding and silent defense. It’s perfectly acceptable for us to hate the silent killer Miller, but we root for family man Ryan to take matters into his own hands. What’s the difference between Miller’s revenge for his brother and Ryan’s defense of his family? Were the situation reversed, would we feel different? Although they aren’t onscreen together often, Bean and Ford make us love and love to hate their characters. You don’t find this character complexity and intelligence in just any action flick. This depth keeps Patriot Games great up against more recent, flashy action yarns.

This is why American’s who know who Sean Bean is actually really hate him. You can’t just shoot up Harrison Ford’s onscreen family and expect our love. However, Noyce smartly uses the evils of Miller to his advantage. We don’t see any of Miller’s kill shots-the camera is always tight and up close on Bean’s face, showing us the cold joy he shares in murder. Miller even smiles when his prey is imminent. This isn’t the frights of fictitious monsters. In the novel, there is no brotherly angle for Miller, he’s merely pissed Ryan bested him. Presumably, the family efforts were added to give reason or sympathy to Miller’s ruthlessness, but this also implants a frightening personal question to the audience: What would you do if it were your dead brother? How would I react if my family were in danger? The reality of these questions and answers keeps the villainy real and our hatred on par. It’s a fine performance by Bean-one so good that us Americans can’t separate the actor from the terrorist. After all, they are both named Sean, aren’t they?

Patriot Games may be simplified as a man versus man vehicle, but there’s actually quite an ensemble cast here. It’s another facet not often seen in big action pictures. A superstar, maybe one or two name support players, but then the talent pool drops. Here, however, we’re treated to Samuel L. Jackson and James Earl Jones (Star Wars, anyone?), Polly Walker (Rome), Patrick Bergen (Sleeping with the Enemy), a cute Thora Birch (American Beauty), and a charming Richard Harris (The Field, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). Each actor has their moment of significance, and small, quiet, development scenes are allowed to blossom. Only Anne Archer (Falcon Crest, Fatal Attraction) seems a little out of place. At the time, she was the mature, wifely actress of note-but today, her star’s fallen against the rest of the international cast. Her Kathy’s a little snotty and uppity, too- a surgeon with a Porsche and nothing else to do. Even so, she looks the right age and style to match Ford-unlike some of the action hotties we often see.

Naturally, Irish and English relations are very different then they were in 1992. If Patriot Games was exclusively about IRA relations, its politics would now be one of study and history. By keeping the story personal with family and patriotism at the forefront, the politics are able to fold and meld into our current issues, thoughts, and feelings. That’s all well and good for a heightened movie experience, but I must warn that lovers of all things Irish might be a little offended at the somewhat stereotypical portrayal of Ireland and the IRA. Red wigs, some forced accents-the Celtic music, however, makes for a beautiful score. Careful listeners will also notice pieces of James Horner’s tunes from, of all films, Aliens; and observant viewers can spot Bean’s different hairstyles during the re-shot finale, too. On a side note, it’s also fun to watch Bean’s next film Lady Chatterley for the stitches and subsequent scar he received in the big finish with Ford. A boat hook to the left eye, ouch!

The Special Collector’s Edition DVD of Patriot Games isn’t necessarily as special as we’ve come to expect magical special editions to be, unfortunately. There’s restored film and sound, yes; but only a short interview feature with some of the cast and some trailers, whoopdeefingdo. Widescreen is a must, and a blu-ray edition is available in addition to several Jack Ryan sets. Readers of Clancy’s novel will find significant changes in the plot itself, and some might find the troublesome ending too far changed or rushed. Nevertheless, Patriot Games may perhaps be the most loved of the Jack Ryan film series. Of course, it is not the first. Alec Baldwin helmed The Hunt for Red October in 1990 and Ford would continue in 1994’s Clear and Present Danger before Ben Affleck too over for a prequel attempt in The Sum of All Fears (2002). Each has their mistakes as well as their moments. You don’t have to see all to appreciate one, but Ford fans who adore Patriot Games should pursue Clear and Present Danger.

Action fans looking for an intelligent caper need look no further than Patriot Games. Younger audiences may not grasp all the intelligence and subtleties; but outside of the built in fright of the storyline, brief sexuality, and mild language; there’s isn’t much to deter a family viewing-especially a television edit. Fans of the cast will also delight again and again. Great drama, action, politics, and performances- how can you not love Patriot Games?

14 January 2010

How to Marry A Millionaire

How to Marry A Millionaire Charming, Sassy and Witty
By Kristin Battestella

Although everyone magically knows and loves Marilyn Monroe, her iconic beauty status, and her ability to sell lots of pretty things; I’m making a point to get to know her films again. Instead of spending too much money on that MM knickknack, spend the night with the real thing via 1953’s How to Marry A Millionaire.

Wisecracking model Schatze (Lauren Bacall) rents an upscale New York apartment with her dimwitted friend Pola (Monroe) and funny gal Loco (Betty Grable). All three ladies have one thing in mind: bag a millionaire husband before the end of the summer. Unfortunately, finding Mr. Rich-er Right isn’t as easy as the girls planned. Lowly Tom Brookman (Cameron Mitchell) is after Schatze; Pola can’t wear her glasses, for ‘Men aren't attentive to girls who wear glasses’; and Loco, well she gets a case of the Measles!

Yes, it’s a silly premise-fairly standard and nothing new, in fact. Director Jean Negulesco (The Best of Everything, Three Coins in the Fountain) and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (Grapes of Wrath, The Three Faces of Eve) take from The Greeks Had a Word for It by Zoe Akins (Camille) and Loco by Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert (Leave it to Beaver) and spin a hip fifties charmer. Our gals are able to laugh at their prospects, both in slapstick and witty sarcasm. Maybe some of the comedy is too highbrow and subtle in some parts for modern audiences-some viewers might not even get any older references. Nevertheless, the nostalgic feeling in How to Marry A Millionaire adds to the charm. Today, we tend to see or think of some slutty groupie bitches aka gold diggers who marry, fester, ruin, destroy, and then move on. It’s not really a subject of amusement, is it? Negulesco sticks too the fifties innocence onscreen, keeping the ironic misunderstandings and the ladies’ futilities bemusing.

How to Marry a MillionaireOf course, Ms. Monroe (Niagara, The Seven Year Itch) gets us in the picture’s door with her statuesque charm and grace, but she’s made to be the stupid, semi ugly blonde here with her horrible horn rimmed glasses. For starters, you’re going to need a lot more than ‘specs’ to make her ugly! In fact, the emphasis makes Pola even more endearing. Today we’d call it stunt casting if the pretty girl was put in the movie to play blind without her glasses and bump into walls, but Monroe’s critical comedic timing and strategic clumsiness nails every cue. Her goofy lines and dumb questions have just enough marshmallow in the delivery. You wouldn’t expect a starlet to willingly play dumb, actually trip, or really bump into doors. In real life, we’d hate that annoying, dorky girl chasing the most eligible men. Marilyn, however, has the talent and charm-not just good looks- to win our hearts.

We may place Monroe above her now, but How to Marry A Millionaire is largely Lauren Bacall’s film. She’s a wise dame on her match making game after being burned by gas jockeys previously. We see her intelligence, charm, and beauty, and enjoy her millionaire conundrum. Scatshze’s not so flashy in her ploy, but streetwise like the rest of us. In many ways, Bacall (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep) has the timing, wit and onscreen comedic style of her off screen love Humphrey Bogart. Her being able to laugh at the relationship onscreen also adds a tongue in cheek nod, “Look at that old fella what's his name in The African Queen!” Did I mention Bacall also looks dynamite in Technicolor?

Unfortunately, in the teaming of such a trio of dynamite ladies, you inevitably end up with the leader Bacall, the pretty one Monroe, and then the other funny one Betty Grable. Once the pin up girl of World War II thanks to those famous legs, Grable (Tin Pan Alley, Down Argentine Way) doesn’t really get a chance to pass the torch onscreen to the it girl Monroe in How To Marry A Millionaire. She seems pushed to the side, with an isolated storyline and more off camera hijinks that don’t let Loco fully shine. Grable’s deadpan reference to her famous husband Harry James also doesn’t hit home for modern audiences who most likely don’t know who he is, sad as that may seem to us in the know. Likewise, the largely caricature men Cameron Mitchell (Carousel), Rory Calhoun (Capitol), and David Wayne (Ellery Queen) take a backseat to the main ladies. Each has their moments, but none of them looks quite right with the ladies. Only William Powell (The Thin Man, My Man Godfrey) stands out as the classy gentleman who sees right through the girls’ game.

Perhaps because it’s lacking some big, famous, iconic song and dance numbers like Gentleman Prefer Blondes, How to Marry A Millionaire seems a little unloved. This just shouldn’t be. Technical lovers can enjoy the visual and sound innovations here. Fashionistas will notice the Oscar nominated classic styles-from muffs and pillbox hats with netting to the gloves, fur, and those pointy bra shapes. Monroe isn’t as sexed up naturally, but she’s still dressed younger and with more skin than either Grable or Bacall’s much more modest skirts and gowns. The colors, however, are dynamite-as is the CinameScope picture. It’s so great to see so many habits of old, too- the slang, the cigarettes and drinks. The music and score by oft-celebrated Alfred Newman (The King and I) also captures the humor and bright lights and big city heyday of New York. Sadly, in many ways, it’s a New York that no longer exists. How to Marry A Millionaire is a little bittersweet in retrospect. This is Grable’s swansong, Bogie and Bacall’s height before his 1957 death. Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio were everywhere amid America’s good ole days-but we know how that turned out. This is the delight of classic movies, to capture these joys on film forever young and untouched by real life turmoil.

Fans of Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, or Betty Grable can pick up How to Marry A Millionaire affordably enough, namely is several Monroe sets and collections. Comedy understudies and classic film lovers can also enjoy this nostalgic tale again and again. There’s nothing offense here beyond scandalous fifties innuendo, so young folks interested in old school fashion and fun can enjoy with the whole family, too. Get some tips from How to Marry a Millionaire today.

07 January 2010

Tomb of Ligeia and An Evening with Edgar Allen Poe

Tomb of Ligeia and An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe Surprisingly Good
By Kristin Battestella

The Tomb of Ligeia / An Evening of Edgar Allan PoeSeveral months ago, I saw an interview with Cassandra Peterson-aka Elvira-discussing Tomb of Ligeia, one of her favorites in the American Pictures International’s Poe series by director Roger Corman. Unfortunately, for the life of me I couldn’t recall having seen this final adaptation starring Vincent Price. When the 1969 film came on out on a double billed DVD with An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe, I gave the set my full attention. Perhaps it’s not a total shocker since I like the rest of Corman’s Poe series, but Tomb of Ligeia and An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe are surprisingly good.

Verden Fell (Price) vows that his late wife Ligeia (Elizabeth Shepherd) will defy death. He becomes reclusive and keeps away from sunlight with his dark colored glasses-until the beautiful Rowena (also Shepherd) erroneously comes to his ruined abbey. The couple falls in love, despite Rowena’s previous attachment to Verden’s friend Christopher (John Westbrook). They marry, but Rowena is ill at ease in Ligeia’s former home. Ligeia’s Egyptian antiques are everywhere; her spirit seems to linger over Verden during the night, and there’s a nasty black cat about that makes her displeasure known.

Director Roger Corman (House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum) takes a few departures from his earlier Poe films by brightening up Tomb of Ligeia with natural locations and a little more romance than usual. Adapted by Robert Towne (Shampoo, Chinatown, Tequila Sunrise) from Poe’s short story, the analysis of mind and will power over death itself weaves the film together with ancient Egyptian allusions and plenty of ambiguity towards black cats. Each plot resolves satisfactory, but Poe’s twists and Corman’s interpretations leave the viewing thinking longer than prior pure shock conclusions.

Even though this is the last of the Poe pictures, Vincent Price looks younger here. His Verden is a little more sympathetic than his earlier, often evil roles. Not only is Price not as over the top as we love, but he’s actually sad sometimes, even pathetic with his dependence on his little glasses. But of course, Tomb of Ligeia does have the bizarrity we’d expect, including some ambiguity about necrophilia. Ew! Thankfully, Price looks good with Elizabeth Shepherd (Bleak House, Side Effects, Damien: Omen II). Any age difference doesn’t seem to factor in; they match well, and have nice, genuine chemistry. The more romantic tone between Verden and Rowena isn’t so tough to believe amid the scares. Nice as it is to have the sweet emotion amid the creeps; Shepherd is freaky in the duel bits as Ligeia. It’s obvious it is she, of course, but the showdown with Ligeia and the dream sequence with the ladies are well done. John Westbrook’s (The First Churchills) Christopher is in the odd middleman position in this love triangle, but his outside, sane perspective helps the audience balance out some of the horrors.

While not as stylized as its Poe predecessor The Masque of the Red Death, Tomb of Ligeia has some beautiful natural locals and production. There’s a hefty amount of daylight scenes here-and they all work in the spooky, gothic, Early Victorian setting. There are some great ruined abbeys, the English countryside, and even a romantic stroll through Stonehenge. You might think these pieces don’t go together, but the morbid set interiors match the abbey in gothic look and spooky tone. The Victorian costumes are also early in style, alluding to a bit of the Bronte Sisters, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre. And of course, there’s a very disturbing classic Corman dream sequence that scares better than some of the stranger, more bizarre visual dream trickery previously done.

Side B of our set offers more Vincent Price in a one-man show called An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe. Price showcases four tales from Poe in various stage settings, beginning with ‘The Tell Tale Heart’. I imagine you’re familiar with the tale, and Price is delightfully over the top here. His crazed style suits the story. The production here looks a little low and bare, but theatre fans can certainly enjoy this spirited Poe dramatization. ‘The Sphinx’ is actually a Poe story that’s new to me. Price changes his looks and time period for each tale, strengthening his suave approach to the audience. He is clearly enjoying the punch line here, and this tale is better dressed than ‘The Tell Tale Heart’. Some might think a one-man production is stale and boring, but swift camera movement keeps things fresh. Not the crazy angles and dizzying modern zooms, but there’s just enough cuts and close ups to create the illusions needed.

So, that’s how ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is pronounced! I was never quite sure. The older Price is made up even older here for this unusual interpretation. You’d expect to see this one played out, not in effect told as perhaps ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ can only be. Price, however, does the voices of both men involved, playing on the amusement of the story and the unreliable status of the narrator. The camera again moves with him, cutting from several sides and using duel tricks almost like Gollum and Smeagol in The Two Towers. It’s a simple maneuver, but it works with the very handsomely dressed dining room stage.

It’s strange that director Kenneth Johnson (V, Alien Nation) would do ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ here in 1972 when Roger Corman did the feature length film ten years earlier. Nevertheless, Price looks the old and crazy part. Each tale has progressed his age, the time period, and the story’s deceit. This short here is more abstract and dream like than Corman’s back story filled movie. The fire and brimstone effects in this Pit go for more frights rather than a Twilight Zone twist ending. You would think Vincent Price effectively reading books line for line onscreen would be boring, but no. The stories dramatized in these readings are all told in the past tense with Poe’s great unreliable narrator telling his askew interpretation to the audience. Even though it may look old or too theatre to modern audiences, An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe is perfect for Vincent Price fans, film students, or literature teachers looking for a short and sweet visual accompaniment for the classroom.

The DVD set of Tomb of Ligeia and An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe is relatively simplistic, with only a commentary of Roger Corman and Elizabeth Shepherd. It’s a little slow in pacing, but fun and informative for the die-hard fan. The subtitles for Ligeia are great, too. Fans of the previous Poe pictures or sixties horror films can enjoy Tomb of Ligeia, but period piece and gothic fans should tune in, too. However, hardcore viewers looking for a blood fest and straight horror should skip these stylized tales. Likewise, I also don’t know about cat lovers enjoying Tomb of Ligeia. Feline folks will delight in the pesky cat scenarios, but cat enthusiasts won’t like some of the black cat bashing, either. Ah, it’s the beauty of Poe, something for everyone!

06 January 2010

Lady Chatterley's Lover (1981)

Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Again.
By Leigh Wood

So, I’m up late at night with no satisfying porn-er film- to be had-until the 1981 version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover comes on. Shorter and a little more uninvolved than Ken Russell’s 1993 adaptation, this version suffers from weak casting and bad styling more than anything else.

After Sir Clifford Chatterley (Shane Briant) is injured in the war and returns home paralyzed, his young marriage to Connie (Sylvia Kristel) strains. Though Clifford gives Connie permission to seek an upper-class lover, she herself becomes sick with the burdens of the household and her husband’s illness. When Mrs. Bolton (Ann Mitchell) comes to the estate to nurse the Baronet, she also suggests ‘fresh air and healthy activity’ for Connie. It’s a prescription that leads Lady Chatterley towards her husband’s strong and brutish gamekeeper Mellors (Nicholas Clay).

This quick version directed by Just Jaeckin (The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak) shapes the scandalous but celebrate novel by D.H. Lawrence to its bare bones-eliminating excessive lovers, friends, places, and events. The relatively important roles of Connie’s Father and sister Hilda are largely absent-with the latter not even appearing until the final ten minutes. Some back-story is added to the front of the picture at least, showing us a briefly happy Chatterley home and Clifford’s injuring battle action. Most of Jaeckin, Marc Behm (Help!), and Christopher Wicking’s (The Oblong Box) screenplay is faithful to the novel, but not many of the book’s lines survive in the dialogue. Pity, for some of the heartfelt dialogue could have gone a long way in double duty for the short time.

Lady Chatterley's Lover (1981) ( L' Amant de lady Chatterley ) ( Lady Chatterley's Liebhaber ) [ NON-USA FORMAT, PAL, Reg.2 Import - Netherlands ]Sylvia Kristel (Emmanuelle, Mata Hari) carries the talent and presence of the educated and aristocratic Connie Chatterley, but her performance suffers from a bad hairstyle and bland, almost modern costumes. There is a decided lack of passion and chemistry among the leads, but I don’t feel its Kristel’s fault. She is like Connie, trying to break out, free herself from the constraints of time, script, and bad sex. Nevertheless, we get the feeling that this is just a sexual relationship with no consequences. Unlike the book, we never feel that this is the love of Lady Chatterley’s life that’s worth risking love and title over. Thankfully, Briant’s (The Children of Huang Shi) Sir Clifford and Ann Mitchell (Widows) as Mrs. Bolton are delightfully creepy, crusty, and pasty. Somehow, the style and makeup on Briant make him look the stereotypical pot faced and bad teethed Englishman despite his title. Likewise, his kinky intimacy with the gray haired and much older Mrs. B strays the fine line of medicine and something gross. In a way, however, this is the more interesting relationship in this Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I’d rather keep my watch on Wragby and see how naughty these two get it on.

Mock my love of Sean Bean if you must, but Nicholas Clay (Excalibur) and his Mellors can’t hold a candle to Bean’s 1993…performance. Clay’s Indiana Jones-esque Mellors hardly talks and looks completely out of character with his trench coat, fedora, and little Hitler mustache amid the English countryside. Outside of some quick and wet full frontal male nudity, the sex scenes are also weak. The best kinky scene might be a quick masturbation montage; I don’t know from where the television warning of rape and strong sexual content stems. So what if there’s full frontal male inches for five seconds. Big deal! The female nudity is tame, too. Most of the sex is actually clothed-and apparently, it’s winter. We spend more time taking of the wool hats, scarves, coats, and gloves before we get to anything remotely steamy!

Lady Chatterley’s Lover suffers not only from a lack of chemistry among the cast, but some bad costumes and set design. If it wasn’t for the lack of cars and television, one might thing this took place in the seventies. Connie’s dresses, bob, cute caps and flowing fur capes are entirely too eighties and look as Edwardian as Love Story. Likewise, Mellors looks like an American cowboy ready to crack the whip at some cattle. More amusing, however, is that the same grand English house, Wrotham Park, serves as Wragby Hall here and in the 1993 Ken Russell miniseries. It’s the same house, yes, but it looks very different- too eighties antique, cluttered and overdressed. With so much junk lining the halls, how in the heck could Clifford even move about in his wheelchair?

It’s understandable due to its ninety-minute restrictions, but Jaeckin gives us a very rushed ending. Though closer to the book than some happier Hollywood endings, the thin treatment in getting there taints Lady Chatterley’s Lover. So, Connie leaves her husband. Well that’s a big duh, isn’t it? For all the supposedly passionate, lovey dovey scenes it doesn’t seem like there is enough time and wanton hedonism here for this to be anyone’s great, spectacular love affair. The quick action and obvious ending make this special novel seem merely common, boring, and no big deal.

I dare say that overall Lady Chatterley’s Lover is actually tame enough for the mature and literary college classroom. Perhaps a quick edit or censor of the nudity would be warranted if you must. Shocking as this may seem, I’ve seen far more scandalous sex and nudity in contemporary American film. Perhaps it’s not as dynamic as other adaptations, but fans of D.H. Lawrence and the books can take the good here and compare-for scholarly purposes or just kinky viewing. Otherwise, this Lady Chatterley’s Lover is too anti-climatic for me.