30 June 2010

Star Trek: First Contact

Star Trek: First Contact Superior Next Generation Film
By Kristin Battestella

After an ill-received feature film outing in Star Trek Generations, it seemed the crew of Gene Roddenberry’s second series Star Trek: The Next Generation was not destined to make a successful leap to full length features.  Thankfully, 1996’s Star Trek: First Contact took a page from the original Star Trek, brought a memorable villain front and center, and thus gave TNG its best film outing.

Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes, also First Contact’s director), and android Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner) must again face the Borg-a collective cybernetic enemy that wants to assimilate the human race. The new Enterprise E follow a small Borg sphere back in time to stop the Borg Queen (Alice Krige) from assimilating earth and preventing humanity’s first warp flight. Unfortunately, the crew finds the past is a dismal post apocalyptic time for Earth. Riker, engineer Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton) and Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) must convince warp drive pioneer Zephram Cochrane (James Cromwell) to continue with his historic flight so humanity will make First Contact as planned.  Picard, however, was once assimilated by the Borg and has troubles all his own in coming face to face with the Borg Queen.

Star Trek - First Contact (Two-Disc Special Collector's Edition)Long time Star Trek fans and newcomers to the Next Generation spin can enjoy First Contact’s tightly woven and multilayered storylines from longtime Trek  penners Rick Berman, Brannon Braga (24, FlashForward), and Ronald D. Moore (Roswell, Battlestar Galatica, Caprica).  When my husband agreed to a viewing without having seen the Emmy winning Next Generation two-part episode ‘The Best of Both Worlds’-which details Picard’s assimilation into the borg Locutus- I did have to explain a few things.  However, the wonderful, personal crew touches highlight any back-story needed, and the swift pacing from director Jonathan Frakes (Clockstoppers, Leverage) gets us into the situation onboard the starship Enterprise.  Using the big budget cinematic time and scope, First Contact is able to delve and deliver even more than the finest points of the TNG series.  Just like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, First Contact excels in taking its television roots to the next level.  In The Borg, TNG’s created a new staple for the franchise, a terrifying- nay rapacious villain that sought to take away our identity and individuality and substitute collective brainwashing and technological terrors.  Knowing the weight of the onscreen enemy as well as his co-stars’ characters and needs, Frakes strikes a balance between several dramatic arcs, action sequences, and dispersed humor while still leaving room for the guest stars and mission at hand to develop and shine. 

Over seven seasons as Captain Picard, Patrick Stewart (X-Men, Robin Hood Men in Tights ) endeared us to the French diplomat with high standards and Shakespearean charm.  In First Contact, Steward adds more dimension to Picard, crafting a captain with a past and a dark side bent on forceful vengeance blinding him to the needs of ship and crew.  Picard is angry, taking matters into his own hands and spearheading the drama of First Contact.  All this and Stewart still gives us some fine wit and tender moments with several crewmembers, too.  Likewise, Brent Spiner (Independence Day, Threshold) gives new dimension to Data.  Spiner wonderfully handles the irony that an android seeking to be more human can find his ambition via a collective of cybernetic drones.  Data’s ability to turn off his emotions chip is also dealt with in delightful scenes, returning us to the personal heart of science fiction-the humanity.  Alice Krige (Sharpe, Sleepwalkers, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) perfectly matches the big boys with a bizarre mix of class, power, disturbia, and sex appeal.  We’re not supposed to like the Borg Queen, yet Krige captivates us with her allure and uses the basic truths of the collective to her juicy advantage. 

Further guest stars add to First Contact’s multi-dimensional explorations.  Emmy winner Alfre Woodard (The Practice, Miss Evers’ Boys, Hill Street Blues) is exceptional as Lily, a 21st century human caught in between Picard and his battle with the Borg.  This is not the stereotypical hot girl enjoying the fish out of water spaceship fun.  Woodard keeps Lily pissy, strong, and no less lovely with stature and intelligence.  Of several great scenes in First Contact, Lily and Picard’s Moby Dick debate may be the finest in the film.  It is simplistic to equate a ship captain’s revenge to the famed Ahab, yes; but the allusion connects the past and future humans together in a touching, universal theme.  The irony that the space faring and advanced Picard has read the book-since his society does not define human value purely by the accumulation of wealth- and Lily in her desolate, post-war life has not adds to the importance of humanity’s art and individualism in this dangerous mission against the Borg.  Of course, James Cromwell (Babe, L.A. Confidential, The Queen) shines as conflicted engineer Zepfram Cochrane.  Trek history regards the legend with the highest honors, statues, and status, yet the Enterprise crew meets the man here.  And Cochrane is indeed simply a man who drinks, likes girls, and listens to rock and roll.  Cromwell is excellent as the cynical drunkard who is suddenly confronted with the mantle of greatness he has not yet achieved.  The relatable mix of anger, fear of failure, and humor keep Cochrane endearing.  It’s man versus himself at its finest.    

The rest of the Next Generation cast has precious little time to strut their stuff, but the gang is A okay nonetheless.  Each crewmember has a personal moment to shine, with lovely exchanges between Michael Dorn (borrowed from his subsequent move to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) as Worf and Gates McFadden (Mad About You) as Doctor Beverly Crusher.  Frakes (North and South, Falcon Crest) and LeVar Burton (Reading Rainbow, Roots) have their witty moments humoring Cochrane, and Dwight Schultz (The A-Team) even has a spot as bumbling Lieutenant Reginald Barclay.  Marina Sirtis (Crash, Gargoyles) has a bizarre, comedic drinking scene, too, before getting serious for the big finish. We should know better since he’s a red-shirted Lieutenant, but Neal McDonough (Desperate Housewives, Boomtown) is also a lot of fun as new helmsman Hawk.  

Despite its years and the subsequent better visually designed Trek material, First Contact looks dang good.  The Enterprise E’s design and graphics look like the natural progression between The Next Generation and later series and films.  The glowing, claustrophobic, dark, and even spooky and suspenseful Borg also look wonderfully deadly and dangerous.  You can’t let them touch and assimilate you, yet one can walk among the creepy, zombie like drones until perceived as a threat.   Earth’s post World War III shabby and shanty bleakness is fittingly drab against the Enterprise’s stylized Dixon Hill holodeck glamour, and of course, the upside down spacewalk sequence still looks great.  Yes, everybody’s older and perhaps some things are better looking or too far changed from the style of the series- but advances in film production are understandable.  The fine action and effects of First Contact accent and complete the characters at hand.  The late Oscar winner Jerry Goldsmith’s (The Omen, Mulan) traditional Star Trek music themes also keep things familiar and relatable by swelling at all the right moments-be they personal or spectacle.

Star Trek audiences surely know and love First Contact.  Completists will also take to the sub par follow-ups Insurrection and Nemesis, but The Next Generation is best left on the big screen here. Newer fans from the 2009 reboot should also give this stylized leap a chance- as should non-Trek science fiction viewers.  Understandably, audiences who don’t like the TNG cast will have a tough time here, or maybe the humor and quick pace is out of place for some.  Thankfully, the overall development and far-reaching science fiction themes go beyond the mythos of Star Trek.  Even non-sf fans can find the depths and drama they’re looking for in First Contact.  With only a few moments of innuendo, genre family audiences can certainly spend the night here, too.  Trek lovers can enjoy the Special Collectors Edition DVD for plenty of behind the scenes, commentaries, trailers, and more or upgrade to the new blu-ray release.  For families looking for a quick fix, rental and streaming options are available as well. Introduce yourself to The Next Generation or love it all over again with  Star Trek - First Contact.

25 June 2010

Some Like It Hot

Some Like it Hot Simply A Delight
By Kristin Battestella

There are so many reasons to love the 1959 comedy caper Some Like It Hot. Lemmon, Curtis, Monroe, music, slapstick, and merriment- fifty years on and director Billy Wilder’s gem shows no signs of slowing down.

Poor musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) are on the run after witnessing Chicago gangsters in action. The boys flee on a Florida bound train and end up taking a gig as disguised members of an all-girl band. Josephine and Daphne, as they are now known, soon run into more trouble- both fall head over heels for singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe).  Joe puts on another façade as an oil tycoon in an attempt to win Sugar’s affections, but real millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) pursues Daphne-er Jerry.  When mob man Spats Colombo (George Raft) also arrives in Florida, romances, disguises, lives and all become hopelessly and humorously entangled.

It seems contradictory to say Some Like It Hot is innocent and full of innuendo at the same time, but Best Director nominee Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, Stalag 17) and co-writing nominee I.A.L. Diamond (Monkey Business, The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie) take Michael Logan and Robert Thoeren’s source story and develop a well-rounded tale mixing songs, wit, and charm.  The dialogue is subtle yet multi-layered, memorable, and famously quotable. The switcheroo, fish out of water, and battle of the sexes hijinks are chock full of subtext both hetero and homosexual.  Some Like It Hot is largely open to interpretation, but it’s all played for innocent laughs and misunderstandings in this era of Beaver Cleaver.  Of course, the black and white silver screen had to happen to cover up the heavy, ill-colored makeup on the boys, but it’s also fitting to see a colorless and thus ‘old’ film dealing with such wonderfully taboo topics.

Even if we expect the drag, the first shrill dialogue from the boys and the quintessential pan up of those seamed stockings and wiggling backsides is a still wonderful introduction.  Both our guys look a little fake with their musical instruments; but honestly, the Jazz era hats, bobs, and furs help the boys look like old school dames.  Maybe it’s because we’re used to their iconic drag images by now or other seemingly old and ugly photos of the time, but yes, Curtis and Lemmon actually look all right!  Best Actor nominee and Golden Globe winner Jack Lemmon (Mister Roberts, Days of Wine and Roses, Grumpy Old Men) is perfectly comedic and still believable as a manly man’s jazz musician, yet he skillfully blends effeminate mannerisms and nudge nudge wink wink at the same time.  Only Lemmon could complain about high heels, subsequently compliment Marilyn Monroe as ‘jello on strings’, and then imitate her wiggle.  Jerry and Daphne begin as distinct characters, but somewhere along the line, Lemmon expertly merges his two halves into some lovely comedy ambiguity. And he has such rhythm with those maracas!

Likewise Tony Curtis (The Defiant Ones, Sweet Smell of Success, Spartacus) is delightful between his switches as Josephine and the fake millionaire Junior.  Perhaps his half of our duo has been overlooked or unloved in comparison to Lemmon’s yarn, but Curtis is up to the task as the straight man-or woman-against the outright hijinks. Yes, he needed a little dubbing help with the high-pitched voice, but Curtis’ little send up of patterning Junior after Cary Grant is another cool layer on the subtext. It’s ingenious really, as it plays on our perceptions of the traditionally macho and suave Grant-who was also rumored to be bisexual. It’s wonderful writing and performance skill- and Some Like It Hot gets away with it.

Sugar Kane!  It’s nearer the end of Marilyn Monroe’s (Gentleman Prefer Blondes, All About Eve) career, yet Some Like It Hot is one of her most beloved films.  We have some serious shimmying and jiggling, but the top-billed star and Golden Globe winner doesn’t have as many musical numbers and dancing tunes as we’ve seen previously. Thankfully, Monroe gets all her sex appeal and then some across in the ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ serenade.  Betty Boop has a run for her money! Not without skill beyond her leggy charm, Monroe’s ditsy and comedic timing works wonders with Curtis.  Despite her off screen ill romances, health and pregnancy issues, and difficulty onset; Monroe charms us into loving the innocent and oh so lovable Sugar.  Of course, the costumes go a long way in amping up the Sugary sweetness. Monroe’s tiny, see-through and studded sheer frocks reveal just enough whilst the comedy suggests plenty for our imaginations. In our modern obsession with thinness and youthful appearance, it’s delightful to see such a mature, curvaceous woman exuding such innocent sex appeal.  Again a seeming contradiction, but sometimes its as if Monroe doesn’t know what she does to the camera, and that makes us love Sugar all the more.   

Naturally, Some Like It Hot can’t be done without a few straight laced folks. Joan Shawlee’s (The Apartment) Sweet Sue is great fun as the oblivious manager who has no clue what’s really going on in her girl band. Likewise, Joe E. Brown (Show Boat, The Comedy of Terrors) is delightful as the ‘dirty old man’ pursuing the be-dragged Lemmon. Fielding isn’t portrayed as overtly gay, but the chemistry and charm of the mistaken (or is it?) relationship is wonderfully played.  George Raft isn’t given much more than a stereotypical mobster thug, but there’s a kinship to his earlier Scarface role adding extra peril to the pursuit.  The Prohibition and gangster angles are themselves little more than a simple frame story to set up the drag and disguise comedy at hand, but it’s also neat to see 1929 as portrayed by 1959. The Tommy guns and fedoras, frocks and bobs are somehow more believable with the black and white photography-even though there are a few fifties anachronisms for careful viewers to find. Despite production mistakes of the time, Some Like It Hot still looks dang good-worthy of its Art Direction and Cinematography Oscar nominations among numerous other accolades and awards.

I suspect you have to like jazz music and fifties scoring to enjoy the music in Some Like It Hot, but the tunes, mannerisms, and Oscar winning costumes by Orry Kelly (An American in Paris, Gypsy) are a lovely time capsule.  Not only are the hats, gloves, cigarettes, casual drinking and beachfront locales of the day delightful, but its also amazing to consider that such a clean cut, old fashioned looking film is dealing with such innuendo. Yes, there’s gay subtext and lesbian suggestion that any modern and mature person will see. All this naughty built-in subtext still works precisely because it was so risqué for the time.  Monroe in her itty bitty and very revealing little nightie,  climbing into Lemmon’s bunk and rubbing his legs to keep him warm- the subtle hijinks never get old and it’s all the more funny and shocking because they got away with it in 1959.  No wonder the infamous Production Code disapproved of this one!

Adults and folks looking for the kink can find it, but kids can enjoy the innocent funnies, too.  Young eyes can take the humor at its honest level while the kinky folks delight in the hidden mastery. Film scholars can enjoy the numerous awards, recognition, and honored place in movie history-you don’t have to take my word for it, but maybe the American Film Institute’s ranking of Some Like It Hot as Number One on its 100 Funniest Movies countdown makes a statement. Several DVD editions, including Marilyn Monroe and Billy Wilder collection sets are affordable for the laymen or extensive for the classic completist.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the blu-ray edition is out just yet.  I protest!
Classic film fans, comedy lovers, fans of the cast, gay film collectors, and family audiences can adore Some Like It Hot again and again.  All this drag hysteria might be too much for a prude or two out there, but you can’t please everybody. No film is perfect, but Some Like It Hot comes damn close to it.

21 June 2010

The Tudors Season 4

The Tudors Season 4 Wavers, but Concludes Wonderfully
By Kristin Battestella

The Tudors: The Final Season“You think you know a story, but you only know how it ends.” It seems like it’s been longer than four years and 38 episodes since Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ opening introduction to The Tudors.  At last, here we are at the final season of Michael Hirst’s sexy and heady but no less dramatic ode to medieval debauchery. Though not as juicy as previous seasons, this departing Season 4 leaves the not so merry England in style.

King Henry VIII (Meyers) marries his fifth wife, the young and carefree Katherine Howard (Tazmin Merchant).  Unfortunately, senior Lady in Waiting Jane Boleyn (Joanne King) uses Katherine’s attraction to chamberlain Thomas Culpepper (Torrance Combs) against her-and the exposé harbors deadly results for all involved.  The Princesses Mary (Sarah Bolger) and Elizabeth (Laoise Murray) return to court and are restored in Henry’s line of succession behind the young Edward (Eoin Murtagh), whose future power is already being manipulated by his uncle Edward Seymour (Max Brown) and his wife Anne (Emma Hamilton). Charles Brandon (Henry Cavill) has marital troubles of his own, and he butts heads with the returning Earl of Surrey, Henry Howard (David O’Hara).  Can wife number six Catherine Parr (Joely Richardson) restore order to Henry’s court before his madness destroys England?

A lot happens in these final ten episodes-and at the same time, not much happens either. With two wives, wars with France and Scotland, and the infamous gluttony of Henry VIII in store, Season 4 should be tighter and better paced than it is.  We spend the first five episodes with Katherine Howard, and again it seems like too much time with nothing happening before we get a ridiculously rushed departure for the young Queen and her lover Culpepper.  Honestly, all we see is his head on a stick!  I dare say he is not in his death episode-how can that be? We spend so much more time on meaningless sex and intrigue to nowhere between the Seymours and uneven guilt with Charles Brandon.  Despite no plans to continue the series into Edward’s and later Mary Tudor’s reign, all this attention to the secondary players at court looks like a backdoor storyline for just such a format change.   Why not continue into something called The Seymours or Seymours versus Greys or such?  The early dallying makes it seem as if The Tudors is already dead and buried, yet budding action in France with three episodes left doesn’t seem like a show that’s concluding any time soon. New characters and events happen so fast, but shouldn’t this be time for some serious H8 brooding?   It’s a pity we must jump forward in time several years to correct these errors for the finale.  Children age up, critical deaths happen off screen, and new religious turmoil and beheadings all happen in the second to last episode.  Surrey’s downfall, Anne Askew, and a disastrous rack are introduced halfway through Episode 9-where was this conflict and drama when we were dawdling with Katherine Howard?

Although some have been displeased with the mostly pretty boy portrayal by Jonathan Rhys Meyers (From Paris with Love, Match Point, Elvis), his vocal changes, aged makeup, and physical transformation into the Henry VIII we’ve long expected is wonderfully despicable, sad and yet touching. Occasionally, his madness, cruelty, and crazy look are even too tough to see in comparison to The Tudors’ prior sexiness.  Again, sometimes it seems the King is almost a supporting player in his own show, but Meyers makes the most of every scene with a surprising range of skill and reflection.  Henry is blinded by Katherine Howard’s youth, yet establishes fine relationships with Anne of Cleeves and Catherine Parr.  There are moments of fatherly charm, and of course, the twisted madness we’ve been waiting for.  The beautiful final episode is all about him, and rightfully so. Though pleasantly surprised by the lengths Meyers has gone in appearance and performance, Henry Cavill’s resolution as Charles Brandon has been a disappointment.  I don’t think it is Cavill’s (Stardust, Immortals) fault, as again, he’s been barely there until the final three episodes, but more should have been given to the only other cast member who’s kept his head off the chopping block for all four seasons.  Cavill’s given the moments to shine in the end, but too much was instead made of the new hottie Torrance Combs (jPod) as Culpepper early on.  Why bother spending two episodes developing such a cruel and obsessive dude when you’re going to axe him two episodes later?  

Tazmin Merchant (Pride and Prejudice) does the best with what is given to her, but it’s not a completely developed character-despite what the uneven portrayal would have us believe.  The young Katherine wavers from being just an innocent girl wanting attention, to a possibly abused and unjustly disliked Queen, to a bitchy and horny gal who knows exactly what she wants.  Which angle are we meant to feel for or relate to-is it Merchant dropping the ball or the writing?  Thankfully, Joely Richardson (Lady Chatterley, Nip/Tuck) adds an element of class to the final episodes of The Tudors.  Catherine Parr is thrust into Henry’s court and does her wifely and royal duties despite some religious scares.  Richardson is a fine bookend in comparison with Maria Doyle Kennedy’s initial Queen Katherine.  Likewise, Sarah Bolger (The Spiderwick Chronicles) has given us a darling and insightful look at Princess Mary.  She struggles with court appearances, royal romances, and religious fervor. Despite the rough reign we know is to come, Bolger keeps Mary endearing, particularly in charming scenes with the wonderful Anthony Brophy (Snow White: A Tale of Terror) as Ambassador Eustace Chapuys.  He should have been a regular cast member all along!

Joanne King (Casualty) is wonderfully juicy as the scorned and conniving Lady Rochford-her plotting is what keeps the first few episodes entertaining.  It’s nice to see a character that began as relative filler has now developed into a full court player. It’s also frustrating then to know we’re not getting the same follow up intrigue with the equally dicey Max Brown (Grange Hill) and Emma Hamilton (Into the Storm).  The juice between them, Andrew McNair (Hollyoaks) as Thomas Seymour, and David O’Hara’s (The District, Harry Potter) Henry Howard is played at the forefront of the earlier episodes then inexplicably dropped for Henry’s war in France.  If this is where the intrigue is at, then the show should continue beyond Henry VIII.  With all this unfinished Seymour business happening, we also only briefly see singer Joss Stone returning as the charming Anne of Cleeves.  Again, was this final season to be about Henry’s errors finally catching up to him or the Seymour politics that follows his reign?  Could two more seasons been done without Jonathan Rhys Meyers? Though Sarah Bolger seems up to the task, newcomer Laoise Murray seems amiss as the young Princess Elizabeth.  If we’re going to have the budding Elizabeth, then by golly have her full force. 

In some ways, I’d rather more historical liberties been taken on The Tudors this season.  Have eight episodes done right with Katherine Howard and the war in France, and then give us another season with Catherine Parr and post Henry succession drama.  Can you imagine what a shock it would have been if Henry’s death and aftermath came over four middle episodes instead of one final hour? Other period dramas and historical fantasies are forthcoming to fill the void, but I’m a bit sad to leave Tudor England.  This season has waned, yes, but it doesn’t seem like The Tudors should be over just yet.  Naturally, the production, interiors, and costumes look great; and by its end, The Tudors turns itself round right. In summation of not just this season but also the entire series, writer Michael Hirst spends a solid sixty-minute Episode 10 returning to the core players.  A lovely, otherworldly and ethereal quality takes over at The Tudors’ end. Foretelling from the not-so-dearly-departed, deathbed visions, and built-in retrospectives bring about a bittersweet, tearful, and very satisfying conclusion.  It’s not infamous like The Sopranos cop out, but rather as the King himself says, “It is well done.”

Though faulty in the uneven storytelling and revolving door at Henry’s court, The Tudors is incomplete without this final season of death and madness.  Fans of the series will eat up this conclusion and begin again with the earlier seasons, DVDs, Showtime streamings and repeats.  Despite the liberties taken and sometimes off-mix of drama and sex in Season 4, The Tudors is still one of the finest productions of medieval England yet filmed.  For better or worse its success has ushered in a new, mature pop wave of historical shows.  Now that The Tudors is complete, historians and fans of the cast can study it to their hearts content, compare with long-standing Tudor material, and delight without the wait.  Lose your head one more time with The Tudors Season 4.

16 June 2010

Tom & Thomas

Tom & Thomas A Darling Little Film
By Kristin Battestella

This 2002 family drama from Dutch director Esme Lammers was actually recommended to me a few years ago.  Now that the DVD is available stateside, I was finally able to take a peak at Tom & Thomas- and it’s a charming and thoughtful little caper.

Tom & ThomasThomas (Aaron Johnson) and his adoptive father Paul (Sean Bean) are doing all right, despite the passing of Paul’s wife Laura and the usual trouble of bills and keeping the flat tidy.  Thomas, however, still dreams of his imaginary friend Tom (also Johnson), who is stuck in a cruel orphanage where he is whipped by handyman Finch (Bill Stewart).  Thomas begins having trouble at school himself, with falling grades and bullying thanks to strange sensations and pains when something bad happens to Tom.  For unbeknownst to Thomas, Tom is a real boy who escapes his institution for the streets of London.  When the two boys meet at the Space Museum, the usual brotherly bonding and twin hijinks ensue.  Unfortunately, Finch and Head Master Bancroft (Derek de Lint) want their quarry back- and they erroneously kidnap Thomas instead.

Naturally, Tom & Thomas begins with a little confusion as to which boy is which and which is even real.  However, Esme Lammers (Amazones) and scriptwriter Jim Davies (Casualty) establish the latent but intimate connections between the twins, and the happy circumstance of one boy versus the unfortunate situation of the other quickly ingratiates the audience.  The swift editing clarifies which child is which, leaving just enough ambiguity and speculation about what’s really going on.  Lammers carefully moves us through these concurrent but separate stories, keeping us vested in each as we move to their inevitable convergence. The story is on one hand, predictable and what we expect in a separated at birth country mouse and city mouse style.  However, scary real world turns keep Tom & Thomas intense-perhaps even a little too menacing or more visually sinister than the 10 and under target audience usually sees.  Thankfully, the charming, heartwarming, and relatable tale keeps up the interest and suspense from beginning to end.

In all the Sean Bean films I’ve seen, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him portray such a lovable father and wholesome family gent.  Paul’s a poor painter thanks to his hang up of only painting his late wife; but he’s doing right by Thomas, and the role change towards this kindhearted widower is wonderfully welcome after so many action oriented and villainous parts.  Bean’s only other father figure roles from the horror flicks The Dark and Silent Hill and the class action lawsuit vehicle North Country followed several years later.  Unfortunately, in those three films total Bean doesn’t even get the screen time- much less any development of his character- as he does in Tom & Thomas. The man is a father and family man himself, so we should expect he can portray such onscreen, but his Samba Bus driving sensible dad is a pleasant surprise nonetheless.  They say one should never work with kids or dogs, but Bean’s charm with his young co-stars and determination onscreen will steal the show for his die-hard lady fans.

Inday Ba (Casualty) is also delightful as Celia Scofield, Thomas and Paul’s new downstairs neighbor.  Nothing is made of any racial issues in her budding romance with Paul, and any romantic strides come after she has befriended Thomas over their mutual love of piloting and spaceflight.  Celia and Thomas’ relationship comes first, keeping the storylines charming and innocent. Right off the bat, we know there is nothing creepy in their friendship-unlike the nasty adults at Tom’s school. This was simply a wonderful piece of casting and performance-an ethnic, mature, professional Celia can be intelligent, a sassy pilot, and an independent woman whilst still taking time to play video games with a nine year old.  Upon my research, I’m sorry to find that Ba has passed away too young and too soon.  Her adult and mature example of being true to oneself and following one’s dreams is portrayed as inspiration, and rightfully so.

Yes, the villains are a little stereotypical, but Bill Stewart (A Touch of Frost, Richard II) and Derek de Lint (China Beach, Poltergeist the Legacy) are no less menacing thanks to the nefarious trafficking at hand.  The late Stewart’s Finch (What is it about the creepy handymen at kid’s schools being named Finch, Mr. Potter?) is dirty and frightening while de Lint is the oh-so-slick front man.  Sean Harris (Outlaw) as kid-poacher Kevin is also a genuinely scary sidekick thanks to his high-energy craziness and a very nasty pet rottweiler. The dogs in Tom & Thomas are simplistically made out to be either heroic or villainous, but there’s also an even suggestion that how the owner trains the dog has a lot to do with that- in kin also to how the boys are different thanks to heredity versus environment.  It’s not such a bad thing, however, to have the bad guys be bad and the good folks wear the proverbial white hats. The real world ruthlessness on screen is scary enough-we don’t have to get fancy with effects and melodrama for these villains and fears to be understood by young or old.  

Aaron Johnson (Nearly Famous, Kick Ass) and stand in Ryan Nelson (White Teeth) do wonders as the titular boys.  For being so young and inexperienced at the time, Johnson subtly crafts different styles and mannerisms for Tom and Thomas.  At first, it’s easy to differentiate the boys by location and clothing, but once they dress the same, we still know who is who thanks to smartly placed vocalization and personality.  Not only does Johnson give each boy different charm with Bean, but you can’t help but love both boys’ social quirks.  Yes, it’s the same actor, but we do think of Tom and Thomas as two different boys, each with youthful wishes and dreams that deserve to be fulfilled. I should rant about the US’ recent cancellation of our space program as crushing such wonderful astronomy dreams, but I digress! The space exploration angle may be too standard, but you can’t go wrong with disenchanted boys reaching for this height of heights.  For his part, Nelson does wonderfully in the technical aspects on screen.  You know he is there, along with the usual split screens and such, but the Haley Mills’ smoke and mirrors look dang good- especially in the ingenious house of mirrors scene.  What better place to have long lost twins meet?

Of course, Americans might not like the assorted British accents or the London locales, but the Britness certainly won’t deter any Anglophiles.  The visual style of Tom & Thomas is a little simplistic but understandably innate to a young viewer- a neat, colorful, creative loft of course wins against a drab, snowy, spooky, and ominous orphanage.  Quirky music sets the tone for the humorous twin switcheroos, or likewise scares or tugs our heartstrings with melancholy notes as needed.  Though not solely a Christmas film, the holiday’s charm adds to the joy of birthdays, parties, trees, and presents onscreen.  Perhaps there is a latent commentary here about the hidden yet ongoing and illegal buying and selling of children worldwide.  There’s also some non-threatening role reversal between Celia and Paul-but as adult viewers we see these things. Tom & Thomas isn’t about the social issues.  First and foremost, it’s an honest, personal tale of twins finding each other through their share of hardship. Who can’t appreciate that?

Yes, this DVD has until recently been very elusive.  Fortunately, Tom & Thomas’ bare bones set is available online for purchase or rent from Netflix.  The English subtitles probably go a long way for children not used to the accents; but other than a few onscreen dangers and suspense, there’s nothing here to deter a family viewing.  Tom & Thomas has all the cuteness, charm, and simplicity for young and old to enjoy. 

12 June 2010

Summer Comedy Round Up

Sixteen Candles (High School Reunion Collection)Summer Comedy Round Up
By Kristin Battestella

Tans are bad for you, so take a day in with the gang and have a belly of laughs with these classic comedies and recent capers. Yee-haw! 

Fanboys – This 2009 ode to the Star Wars fandom isn’t actually as geeky or obsessive as it could be-going for a more mainstream Star Wars versus Star Trek angle before some finite EU mystique.  Thankfully, there are some finely preposterous and witty gags here.  The tragic drama and coming-of-age angles also don’t go far enough, but all in all not a bad little movie-especially since it takes place during the 1998 anticipation of The Phantom Menace.  We all know how that turned out!

The Front Page (1974) – Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau lead an all-star cast in this Depression era tale of newspaper capers and Chicago wit.  Yes, Billy Wilder’s update is a step down from Howard Hawks and Cary Grant’s charming His Girl Friday, and I don’t know about Susan Sarandon’s pre Rocky Horror singing or the misuse of the wonderful Carol Burnett.  Nevertheless, the period style and fun from the leads keep this one watchable. Can you honestly picture any other pair as such crabby newspapermen?

The Invention of Lying – Ricky Gervais’ 2009 charmer has some greatly funny and blunt scenes thanks to its built in premise about no one ever lying and always saying exactly what he means- but such a notion has its problems, too.  It’s a little iffy to say religion is just something some guy made up, the higher concept ideologies don’t always pan out, and the onscreen relationship with Jennifer Gardner is a little devoid. However, the seriously touching and absolutely endearing debates on appearances, loneliness, and well, lying win out.  

The Out-of-TownersThe Out of Towners – Modern viewers can enjoy some of the fun from the 1999 remake with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, but the original 1970 kitschy whine fest starring Jack Lemmon is full of sardonic nostalgia and then some.  Sandy Dennis matches Lemmon wit for wit as one bad New York turn after another follows the yuppie Ohio couple.  Though not a laugh out loud comedy per se, the simple absurdity mixed with true to life ridiculousness can make the audience laugh aloud all the same.  Don’t we all have the annoying woman and disastrous vacation sometime?

Sixteen Candles – Eighties teen comedy fans unite!  Director John Hughes and star Molly Ringwald were funny, fresh, and delightful in 1984 and this very quotable flick still has its moments today.  Sure maybe we haven’t all been the geek sealed inside a glass coffee table or paid to see girl’s panties for a case of floppy disks-remember those? However, we’ve all had a crappy birthday, and those bad eighties memories still put a smile on our faces-and quotes in our mouths.  “What’s happenin’, Hot Stuff?”  Actually, anyone interested in classic comedy should just get a print out of Hughes’ filmography, rent them all, and make a lot of popcorn.

The Terminal – Yes, this 2004 Stephen Spielberg vehicle starring Tom Hanks is more appropriately a drama or dramadey.  Hanks and leading lady Catherine Zeta-Jones have plenty of despair, seriousness, and sadness here-but the wit and comical personas are all well and good, too.  Hanks is delightfully charming in his innocence and simplicity, and the quirky crew of the terminal in which he’s bound is given room to make us laugh and put a bittersweet smile on our faces.  John Williams’ witty score also gives us the appropriate cues when its time to laugh or cry. I don’t know why this film gets such a bad wrap.

Who's Harry Crumb?Who’s Harry Crumb – Dated, yes; predictable, of course.  Side splitting laugh fest with wonderful quips, sarcasm, and physical comedy? Always! The late John Candy once again uses every ounce of his wit, stature, and charm to best an on form supporting cast- including Annie Potts, Jeffrey Jones, Tim Thomerson and Shawnee Smith.  So what if the mystery isn’t super deep or more than a glorified Macguffin- the delightful hijinks in solving the crime keep this one watchable twenty years on.  Goodness me, has it been that long?

Lastly, here’s a note on a few to keep out of your DVD corral.

Land of the Lost – Will Ferrell’s 2009 spoof of the classic series hits all the wrong notes and them some. It’s not really a nostalgic homage, but has too many themes towards adults, like the usual unfunny sex and stoner puns. Then again, the storyline and characterizations are just too juvenile.  The science is silly and the Cha-Ka jokes are too dang dumb.  Stick with The Brady Bunch movie parodies instead.

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard – Another miss vaguely associated with this growing old fast Frat Pack, starring Jeremy Piven and a useless cameo from Will Ferrell.  All the car clichés, relationship runarounds, rock dreams, and sex stupids are here-and every single thing falls flat.  The cast is unlikable and it’s a very long hour and a half.  Save yourself the absurdity. 

11 June 2010

Merlin (1998)

Merlin Miniseries Satisfying to All
By Kristin Battestella

Despite new tales of Merlin and Camelot on the horizon, in my quest for all things Arthurian I often return to the 1998 Merlin miniseries.  Though straying from traditional legends just a bit, Sam Neill leads an all-star cast in this delightful adaptation of magic, romance, and charm.

In the wake of new religion and Saxon invasions, Queen Mab (Miranda Richardson) refuses to accept the passing of the old ways like her sister the Lady of the Lake (also Richardson).  Mab creates the half-mortal, half-wizard Merlin (Sam Neill) to save Britain from its current path and restore the pagan ways.  Raised by the reformed witch Ambrosia (Billie Whitelaw), Merlin doesn’t care for Mab’s magical plans. He grows up alone in the forest until King Vortigen (Rutger Hauer) summons him for his gifts of prophecy and wisdom.  Merlin rescues the lovely Nimue (Isabella Rossellini) and sides with Vortigen’s enemy Uther Pendragon (Mark Jax, Jupiter Moon).  He uses Uther and the Lady Igraine (Rachel Colover, Bodywork) to create a protégé of his own to save Britain- the future king, Arthur (Paul Curran).  Unfortunately, Arthur, his wife Guinevere (Lena Heady), his half-sister Morgan Le Fay (Helena Bonham Carter), and the favored knight Lancelot (Jeremy Sheffield) brew trouble all their own in Camelot.

Merlin (Special Edition)Whew! It wasn’t so easy to get Merlin into such a nutshell. With three hours to fill, stand out music video director Steve Barron (Coneheads) can indulge writers David Stevens (The Sum of Us, Alex Haley’s Queen), Peter Barnes (Enchanted April, Alice in Wonderland), and Edward Khmara (Ladyhawke, Enemy Mine) in the complete mapping out of what is naturally a complex tale.  Though it’s understandable that a long lasting and nearly omnipotent character such as Merlin can narrate his life from beginning to end, sometimes the voice over seems too modern or out of place.  Time passes-we get it.  From Merlin’s conception to the fall of Camelot and Galahad’s quest for the Holy Grail, Merlin is allowed its lovely spin on Arthurian essentials, ironies, tragedies, twists and turns.  Some of the effects may not be up to snuff for today’s spoiled audiences, but the exceptional cast brings this well done wonder to fruition.

At first thought, perhaps Sam Neill (The Tudors, Jurassic Park) is not whom we expect as the titular, often hunched and white haired Merlin. His complex performance of magic mixed with humanity, regret, and meddling, however, is the pinnacle here.  We like Neill and believe he is a wizard with the best intentions. When things go against Merlin, half-fey or not we feel for him and sympathize for the ill fate that is to come.  He’s strong against the evil Mab, yet wise to his charges and all the while capable of loving, loosing, and making mistakes. It might have been nice to stay longer with Daniel Brocklebank (Shakespeare in Love) as the younger Merlin, but that is not where this Merlin intends to be. This isn’t a tale of youth discovering magic, but rather a fantastical and somehow delightfully entertaining tragedy.  Like her famous mother before her, Isabella Rossellini (Death Becomes Her, Blue Velvet) is blessed with beauty inside and out.  She seems old enough to match the big boys around her, but her youthful grace and charm is evident all the same in this mature take. Agnieszka Koson (Lithium) as young Nimue is finely matched in likeness to her elder counterpart, but it’s incredibly weird that she was dubbed with Rossellini’s voice. 

Though obviously more likeable as the white clad and righteous Lady of the Lake, Miranda Richardson (Sleepy Hollow, Harry Potter, The Crying Game) is a wicked treat as Queen Mab.  Her raspy, supposedly evil sounding voice is a little frustrating, but her scary look and ruthless persistence are wonderfully creepy. The effects for the Lady of the Lake, however, are also frustrating.  The duel scenes between the characters look sub par, and the wavy imagery and stilted, echoing speech are too distracting.  The simplicity of light and dark and the subtleties of Richardson’s performance don’t need the difficult vocals or flashy effects.  Martin Short (Saturday Night Live, Damages) as the gnome Fink, unfortunately, is a bizarre and unnecessary add in to the legend.  Despite what is a darling and Emmy nominated performance, the fine storytelling and good versus evil motifs are enough to appeal to younger audiences.  There’s no need for Short’s anachronistic humor, gag appearances, and visual tricks. Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner, Ladyhawke) is far more wicked and charming as King Vortigern.  He’s kinky and juicy with Mab even if his accent seems a little out of place. Likewise Billie Whitelaw (The Omen) adds weight as the kind-hearted but ill-fated Ambrosia.  It’s a shame that such a fine ensemble had to wait so long for such fanciful good stuff; but the mature, even dare I say middle-aged casting, gives Merlin stage-worthy clout whilst appealing to young and old.  Not all films work with pretty twenty-somethings, you know. 

Even before her current associations with kooky Tim Burton, Helena Bonham Carter (Howard’s End, Harry Potter, Sweeney Todd) had this knack for wicked and juicy parts.  Her ugly and later incestuously enchanting Morgan Le Fay almost steals the middle chapter of Merlin. Her bad girl intentions are slyly written all over her face, yet she’s beguiling all the same. Paul Curran (Hamlet) does his best as the seemingly bright eyed and wholesome but nevertheless corrupted Arthur, but the ladies best him. Lena Heady (300, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) is equally beguiling as the supposedly wholesome but no less faulty Guinevere, and Jeremy Sheffield’s (Holby City) Lancelot matches her accordingly.  The final wrench in the crooked Camelot system, Jason Done (Waterloo Road) as Mordred, is a little over the top; but the cast of Merlin concludes its tragic kingdom beautifully.

Thanks to such a wonderful cast and story, any of the visual errors in Merlin can be forgiven.  It seems strange to say a ten-year-old film is dated, but some of the graphics, onscreen magics, and supposedly big battle scenes are understandably on the low and small scale.  The costumes and make up are both high styled or drab as needed, and the music is a charming accent- even if it’s a little overbearing in some spots.  Fortunately, the sets and natural locals add authenticity and enchantment enough for the cast to perform and the audience to delight.  The refreshing conceptual design from Alan Lee (The Lord of the Rings) mixes Roman and early medieval accuracies- so for once we don’t have a fifth century English king in a fourteenth century French castle.  Accurate Arthurian representation can happen; and Merlin has the Art Direction, Costume Design, Make Up, and Visual Effects wins and more Emmys nominations to prove it.

It’s nice to view Merlin all in one film, most likely the way it was intended.  However, it would have been easier to have the DVD option to choose parts.  The Merlin (Special Edition) release also doesn’t have subtitles-which can go a long way in getting all the names of who is who in the soft-spoken scenes. Thankfully, we have a few features, including commentaries and a behind the scenes short. In many ways, I miss the late nineties resurgence of the miniseries. Hallmark and other networks and studios were able to take their time with classic material-unlike today’s dreadfully ill-conceived and often downright pathetic SyFy Channel movies of the week. Though these miniseries events were hampered by smaller budgets and the graphics of the time, attention to story telling and name casting made for some fine family entertainment- and most like Merlin, The Odyssey, Dinotopia, and The 10th Kingdom still hold up today.  These aren’t television series that pull out all the stunts and change their cast, characters, or stories in desperation for ratings or advertising dollars.  I fear these issues have hampered the current British Merlin series and will effect the cable juiciness of Starz’ forthcoming Camelot production. This Merlin tells the tale it establishes, and Bob’s your uncle that’s the secret to long-lasting wholesome charm and plenty of viewership. 

Arthurian scholars can study Merlin to their personal hearts’ content-or if time permits, a classroom debate is in order.  Youthful audiences can follow up with the lesser sequel Merlin’s Apprentice, the companion novels, or springboard to the numerous other Arthurian materials and adaptations. Occasional airings on the aforementioned SyFy Channel are surely edited for time and perhaps content; but despite Camelot’s built-in indiscretions, there’s nothing to deter a night of family viewing.  Merlin has enough magic and whimsy for tweens and younger while the elder, on form cast pleases mature audiences.  Clear your calendar and spend some timeless time with Merlin again soon.