29 July 2010

MI-5: Season 7

MI-5 Packs A Lot for Season 7
By Kristin Battestella

Wow.  It’s taken me almost a year to catch up with MI-5 Season 7!  I had to wait a long time to rent all the DVDs from Netflix; and now that the gang from Thames House is back in my life, I don’t know how I survived so long without them!

Sir Harry Pierce (Peter Firth) struggles to keep Section D afloat after the sudden death of Senior Officer Adam Carter (Rupert Penry-Jones).  Despite the return of Ros Meyers (Hermione Norris) and junior officer Jo Portman (Miranda Raison) after particularly heady missions, life at Thames House is testy thanks to complex Russian relations inside and out.  Former Section Chief Lucas North (Richard Armitage) has been released from a Russian prisoner after eight years; and his relationships with Harry, tech officer Malcolm Wynn-Jones (Hugh Simon), and analyst Connie James (Gemma Jones) are ambiguous at best.  When Operation Sugarhorse is compromised amid the turmoil within, who trusts who becomes the ultimate question.

Despite being shortened to only eight episodes instead of ten for 2008’s Season 7, creator David Wolstencraft packs a lot onscreen here.  The writing and development of the personal is still tight, but the storylines and overarching plots are not as complex due to the episode constraints.  Some scenarios seem slow or more glossed over than previous seasons; but the Russian intrigue, mole hunts, and double agent hysteria keep MI-5 on form.  Recent global events like the energy crisis and recession woes share some of the spotlight, but Wolstencraft was smart to spend the bulk of the shortened time on the ins and outs at Thames House.  Perhaps MI-5 isn’t as personal as it used to be, ie ‘people who happen to spies’, but the internal politics, trust issues, and double crosses of the spy game hurt the members of Section D day in and day out nonetheless.

Well, after all the angst we put up with from Adam Carter, Rupert Penry-Jones’ departure from the series is almost too brief an exit.  Why did we spend all those cliffhangers with him when it could have been this simple? I knew his exit was forthcoming, but that didn’t make watching any easier.  And of course, it’s also fascinating to see how everyone else at MI-5 deals-or doesn’t deal-with the loss. So then, what is one to make of new leading man Richard Armitage as Lucas North?  I’m not really sure just yet.  We like him, sure- the man has just spent eight years in a Russian prison, how can we not feel for the guy? Armitage (Robin Hood, North and South) wonderfully balances the cool exterior against the prison and release trauma.  Paloma Baeza (The Way We Live Now) as his informant and former wife Elisaveta matches perfectly with her mix of past longing and a new future to protect. Lucas’ introduction takes several episodes to completely develop, and it is initially more personal like the earlier seasons of MI-5. There’s some screwed up people in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and it makes for dang fine television! 

Cool as cucumber Hermione Norris is once again on form as new Section D Leader Ros Meyers. Her return to the series after a maternity leave has all the angst one could take-and things only get heavier for Ros.  Episode 5 adds some scary places for her and Miranda Raison’s Junior Officer Jo Portman, but it’s lovely to see the ladies share a special bond over the particular trials they face as the female spies at Thames House.  Jo is understandably wacky this season after the cliffhanger ending of Series 6, but such serious drama is mostly erroneously held in the background against the big missions of the episodes at hand.  Perhaps if we had those other two precious episodes, we could have had more of Jo’s tragedy. It’s not that we want her to be in pain, or that it’s really good for us to see it, but such heavy subjects are usually handled better on MI-5.  

There aren’t usually a lot of mistakes on MI-5, but Alex Lanipekun’s  junior officer Ben Kaplan is wasted for Series 7.  Once again, the young and hip token black guy really only factors into two critical episodes.  In some ways, I’d rather Ben have stayed a journalistic ally and appeared sporadically as needed. We still don’t know that much about him, and his departure from the series only serves to strengthen the drama of Section D.  Of course as always, there doesn’t seem to be enough of Hugh Simon and his witty tech guru Malcolm. Simon makes the most of all he’s given again, but I do hope we get to the root of this lovely old soul next season.  Richard Johnson (The Robinsons) is also juicy as ambiguous guest spy Bernard Qualtrough.

Somehow, amid the current politics and global intensity, we still have time for Sir Harry to dive into an old school KGB spy subplot.  Peter Firth is excellent as the boss who can’t tell everything to his staff, either privately or professionally.  What’s classified or compromised?  What isn’t?  Whom can he trust from the past or present, both at home and abroad? Firth is excellent and award worthy here. In this era of everyone being botoxed, thin, young, and beautiful, it’s simply delightful-but no less nail biting- to see the elder statesmen of the cast have their day.  I love Gemma Jones, but I don’t like Connie James-does that make sense?  Jones is equally on form as the seemingly maternal member of Section D with a penchant for blaming everything on the Russians.  At some point after a lengthy scene between Jones and Firth, I realized we had an entire sequence with two senior actors- and it was heavy stuff!  In America, we just don’t get this type of veteran respect and material to wallop an audience! 

MI-5, Vol. 7Things do seem a little rushed this season due to episode crunch.  I feel rushed in my viewing and reviewing- I couldn’t believe how close to the finale things really were at the end of Episode 6! However, great London locations, Moscow escapades, fast paced filming, and urban action add to the split screen intensity.  Smart use of media clips and askew newsreels not only look visually cool; but the way Section D, the British government, and the onscreen enemies play on public relations is also a statement about the abuses of media politicking, too.  We spend a lot of the speed in Season 7 on the missions of the hour or the ongoing storylines before the personal lives and immediacy of Thames House, but the multi-layered drama and intelligent complexities are all still part of MI-5.  Someone has to save Britain from the daily brink of destruction, and it’s a thinking viewer’s delight to watch. With the short order and fresh start of Lucas North, this season can actually be a late introductory spot for new audiences to MI-5. I suppose that is what the producers had in mind, after all.  So what are you waiting for?

Unfortunately, there still isn’t enough behind the scenes treats on the MI-5, Vol. 7 Region 1 sets, but after waiting so long to see Season 7, I can’t really complain.  Sadly, I can also only speculate what the concluded eighth series and currently-in-production ninth year will bring, but I must do something while I wait for more MI-5.  I miss it again already!

27 July 2010

Tomorrow Never Dies

Tomorrow Never Dies is Not Dead Yet
By Kristin Battestella

It seems like I don’t get to see Pierce Brosnan’s second outing as James Bond as often as all the other 007 pictures-and it’s a dang shame. 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies is a fine blend of media speculation, seafaring suspense, and good old fashioned spy intrigue. 

MI 6 Chief M (Judi Dench) sends James Bond (Brosnan) to investigate the mysterious sinking of the HMS Devonshire.  It seems media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) is behind the sinking, pitting the Chinese against the British in order to secure broadcasting rights in communist China.  While investing, Bond rekindles his relationship with Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher), but Carver’s corrupt technology expert Henry Gupta (Ricky Jay) discovers the affair as deadly henchmen Mr. Stamper (Gotz Otto) and Dr. Kaufman (Vincent Schiavelli) pursue 007.  Bond escapes thanks to Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and his remote controlled BMW, eventually teaming with Colonel Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh).  Together they must infiltrate Carver’s stealth ship and prevent him from launching stolen British missiles against China

Tomorrow Never DiesNew Bond director Roger Spottiswoode (Air America, And the Band Played On, The Children of Huang Shi) and house writer Bruce Feirstein (GoldenEye, The World is Not Enough) deal with quite a bit in Tomorrow Never Dies’ two hour timeframe.  We have British and Chinese relations, faux Saigon scenery, naval action, mass media manipulation, and more.   Despite script doctoring and numerous changes, the mission at hand is multi-layered and complex, even intricate, but not convoluted or stereotypical.  Bond has been in Asia before, namely with some good and some absurdness in You Only Live Twice, but the land and sea action and Chinese players are handled with respect and authenticity.  We don’t have any hokey dubbing and a basketball team of women giving 007 Oriental massages here!  Though not actually dated onscreen by the equipment, styles or technology, Tomorrow Never Dies may seem dated to modern techo-philes thanks to its idea that newspaper headlines can control the world.  While the print media’s ‘believe what I tell you’ power may be waning, television media and the internet are certainly influencing our society.  Yes, today perhaps no one would notice if a publisher was printing fake news, but spread misinformation on Facebook and look what happens! The newspaper medium highlighted here serves as an example of how yellow tainted journalism influenced us then and how it still can today.  No, a publisher playing war games for broadcasting rights isn’t as big a dilemma as Bond has thwarted previously, but there is a lesson to be learned along with the rest of Tomorrow Never Dies’ goodness.

While the talk of computers, internet technologies, and the necessity of GPS in Tomorrow Never Dies are ahead of its time and even prophetic in our now overly commonplace reliance on these things, the picture unfortunately isn’t as personal as its predecessor GoldenEye.  Overall, we get more social statements than usually found in a Bond picture, but that commentary is at the expense of well-developed characters and back-story.   Tomorrow Never Dies has a great opening sequence giving us Bond in action as well as a deeper look into the active support of MI 6.  Unfortunately, at some point it’s as if the screenplay was unfinished and character development just stops.  It’s a tough trade off- ideally, we should have both tight, complex plot and non-stock players.  Tomorrow Never Dies keeps it together for the most part, but a little more of those personal touches would have served the cast better.

Pierce Brosnan is once again a-okay as Our Man James.  Even when parts of the script may fail him, Brosnan still delivers sweet quips and perfected mannerisms.  His style of romancing is a little more subtle than Roger Moore, and the modern innuendo is refreshing.  Brosnan adds layers to Bond by differentiating his charm with women.  The harsh but sweet banter with the always wonderful Judi Dench, his tongue in cheek romps with Danish Professor Inga Bergstrom (Cecilie Thomsen, 54) and the latent kink with the charming Samantha Bond as Moneypenny are great.  ‘You always were a cunning linguist, James.’ I love it!  We enjoy this of course, but there’s some previous angst with Paris Carver and budding sweetness with Wai Lin, too.  Brosnan keeps Bond well rounded here.  Instead of just spying and international intrigue, we see 007 doing contemporary and fairly serious military missions.  Woohoo we get to see Brosnan’s Bond in his naval uniform, too!  The interplay and debriefing with the disguised Desmond Llewelyn’s Q is a delightful surprise, and Bond is even allowed some fun time with others at the home office like Colin Salmon (Dinotopia) as Chief of Staff Charles Robinson and Joe Don Baker returning from GoldenEye as CIA pal Jack Wade. (I’m not really sure why they bothered with the latter, but it’s all in good fun.) Brosnan knows how to work Bond’s seriousness as well as the fun, both internally and with the ensemble.  Anything lacking in Tomorrow Never Dies is forgivable thanks to Brosnan and his dang likeable 007.

Unfortunately, not all the ladies fair as well in Tomorrow Never Dies.  Teri Hatcher (Lois and Clark, Desperate Housewives) is good, if perhaps a bit untrained.  Certainly she looks pretty damn near dynamite-not because she was younger, but because there’s some healthy meat on her bones!  Sadly, the character doesn’t do her much justice, and Paris Carver is little more than a misused would be femme who actually doesn’t have nearly as much screen time as her billing deserves.  The viewer would think her line, “I’ve made my bed, and you don’t sleep in it anymore” would be a lot more incriminating than “Tell me James, do you still sleep with a gun under your pillow?”   All of Paris’ dialogue is a give away towards her past, present, and future.  Instead of developing a complex former flame, we’re left with too much obvious and it all happens too quickly to care. 

Now then, Michelle Yeoh is where it’s at!  I don’t care if I ended the sentence with a preposition-Wai Lin is one of the best Bond ladies we’ve yet seen.  Yeoh (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Far North) crafts a witty and intelligent foreign agent with priorities more important than Bond.  Her martial arts skills are only used occasionally, rather than being the fulcrum of her wow factor, and this allows for more dimension than expected.  Wai Lin has plenty of spy tricks up her own sleeve-and the combination of this kick ass makes her no less lovely.  She’s not portrayed as rough, manly, or ugly.  Yeoh has real life sex appeal, not the usual trumped up Bond Girl’s skimpy clothes and big boobs.  She’s a spy who knows her stuff but just happens to be a woman.  Sure, we could have had some better dialogue or character development here. Despite some of the written feminine weakness in Tomorrow Never Dies, once again Michelle Yeoh proves she can act with big boys.  I simply don’t know why Hollywood doesn’t take more notice of her. 

Some of the blandness or lack of personal interest viewers find in Tomorrow Never Dies is largely due to the fairly weak villains.  Though not stupid-in fact this is a very intricate caper with global implications-media mogul Elliot Carver just isn’t creepy or megalomaniacal enough to really enjoy.   It’s not the wonderful Jonathan Pryce’s (Carrington, Pirates of the Caribbean) fault; but Carver’s supposedly crooked, ruthless, and power hungry ways are revealed too early.  We don’t spend enough time with Carver, yet we get it all too fast and too soon.  Likewise, Gotz Otto (The Pillars of the Earth, Schindler’s List) as platinum haired henchman Stamper isn’t given much more than you’re usual bad boy with an accent.  He plays with some ancient pain knives-I guess that is supposed to be his steel brimmed hat or metal teeth ala Odd Job or Jaws.  Our main men are just a little too bland against other, more memorable Bond villains.  Hello, we just had 006 in the last movie for goodness sake, and Christopher Walken already did the platinum thing better in A View to a Kill.  Ricky Jay’s (State and Main, Magnolia, Boogie Nights) Gupta, however, is a neat and modern villainous spin.  He’s a beatnik tubby and slobby techno guru with no qualms about selling his devices and knowledge to the highest bidder.  He’s unassuming, yet a little too realistic in this day and age of rapid gadgetry.  The late Vincent Schiavelli (Ghost) is also perfection in his scene as the ruthless yet gentlemanly Dr. Kaufman. Whew!  On a lighter note, astute female fans will also spot Gerard Butler (300) in a one-line appearance early on aboard the HMS Devonshire.

Some of the characters may be poorly written, but Tomorrow Never Dies has some great Bond action.  The remote controlled car chases are claustrophobic, dangerous, and fun, even if the notion is a bit silly.  Likewise, it’s preposterous to be handcuffed to a chick that’s on your lap during a rooftop motorcycle chase- but the urban damage mixed with a deadly helicopter in pursuit keeps the suspense and pacing on form.  The locations are all wonderful as expected, and Bangkok fits the bill in substituting for Saigon.  The underwater action and naval bombardments look modern and realistic as well.  A good bit of time in Tomorrow Never Dies is spent away from Bond with full-scale marine sequences.  We have the fearful and vast ocean depths to disappear in, the dangerous equipment and claustrophobia of ships, and the tragedy of those lost at sea.  The pre-title shootout and fighter jet chase are realistic and well done, too. 

Despite the talk of satellites and the technology of tomorrow’s news today, there’s actually not a lot of gadgets in Tomorrow Never Dies.  Beyond the unbelievable of the remote control car, we stick with realistic and modern missiles and fighter planes.  This outing isn’t as fantastical as other Bond pictures, but rather a balance between Bond motifs and the heavy and serious of Craig’s current tenure. Maybe a few things are the traditional product placement coughbmwcough, but each device presented has an intelligent place in the plot.  This is very refreshing after the ridiculousness of Die Another Day and the Truman Show-like commercial pauses on Daniel Craig’s titanium phone. Tomorrow Never Dies may be imperfect, but it isn’t as pretentious as Bond is now.

The Bond theme has been reworked a little for Tomorrow Never Dies as well, but pieces of 007’s music make their presence known whenever Bond is badass, be it if the action’s hot, or when the wit is on form.  I also have to say, it’s a very nice touch to hear a swanky version of ‘It Had to Be You’ at Carver’s reception.  There should be more of this subtle hint of back-story between Bond and Paris Carver, and it sounds wonderful. I don’t normally care for her, but Sheryl Crowe’s title song isn’t bad.  There’s some evoking of the Goldfinger theme adding to Crowe’s husky range, and it keeps the song catchy. The opening titles are also in true Bond form.  The women covered in circuitry, infrared coloring, x-rayed guns, shattering glass, and zipping bullets tell us exactly what Bond is about: gadgets, guns, and girls.  Its statements are about technology while looking cool and being kinky.  Hot damn!

Yes, a lot of the younger audiences grew up with Brosnan and consider him their Bond-yet at the same time, we can admit the latter half of his tenure is drivel.  Somehow, I feel Tomorrow Never Dies is a little unloved, and I don’t know why.  I know Titanic was big that year, but the two pictures don’t exactly have the same audience after all.  If the toned down gadgetry, great Bondisms, social statements, and realistic gals of Tomorrow Never Dies can be combined with the depth and complexity of Craig’s films, we could have a seriously great 007 film on our hands.  Of course, it’s not as if that can happen anytime soon thanks to all the behind the scenes troubled waters the franchise is trudging through yet again.  The DVD set for Tomorrow Never Dies is just fine, with the expected treats and good looks.  Unfortunately, there’s no blu-ray release forthcoming anytime soon thanks to the turmoil.  I protest!

Though thin on some characters and personal touches, Tomorrow Never Dies has a bleak and realistic commentary that’s still relevant today.  Brosnan and Bond lovers can delight here, but casual fans or mainstream action lovers can enjoy this entry, too.  There’s a bit more risqué material here garnering a PG-13 rating; but compared to today’s sex, drugs, and violence, Tomorrow Never Dies is safe enough for a father and son Bond night.  Spend some time with Brosnan’s Bond again and revive Tomorrow Never Dies.

20 July 2010


Avatar is Visually Good, but Certainly not Without Its Faults
By Kristin Battestella

After seeing the 2009 science fiction epic Avatar, my husband promptly made me dinner and insisted I watch it with him that night.  Although visually stunning, Avatar suffers from thin plotting, obvious twists, and too much politics.

Paralyzed ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) reluctantly agrees to take the place of his deceased twin brother on the distant moon of Pandora.  Jake will be able to mentally link with his brother’s avatar- one of several hybrid bodies Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and her science team use to integrate with Pandora’s local population, the Na’vi, for educational and diplomatic purposes. Unfortunately, the RDA mining operation lead by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) wants the valuable deposits of unobtainium under the Omaticaya Na’vi’s  Hometree.  Jake becomes part of the Omaticaya, training to be a warrior with Chief Eytukan (Wes Studi) and Mo’at’s (CCH Pounder) daughter Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).  Jake soon sides with the Na’vi and will defend his newfound people against General Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and the destructive plans for Pandora.


Yes, I am probably the only person on the planet who didn’t come away from Avatar thinking it was the best thing since the invention of the wheel.  Without a doubt, the effects and visual advancements are indeed the next step in the evolution of filmmaking-and I think this is why the box office records keep falling in Avatar’s wake.  The treasured demographics repeatedly returned to see Avatar in all its 3D and IMAX glory, and most likely saw it again and again purely for those graphics.  Despite his repeated mastery of the science fiction, action, and disaster blockbuster, James Cameron should not write his own films. Honestly, I felt the same way about Titanic.  The romance is obvious and sappy, the villains are stock players, and the movie doesn’t get dang good until the iceberg hits. 

Avatar (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo) [Blu-ray]Avatar follows the same pattern of stereotypical caricatures and obvious plot turns mixed with some silly and confusing stuff.  I know the research is online and companion books and such are following Avatar, but I swear I never heard that Pandora was a moon of Alpha Centauri in the film proper.  And even if it is a real scientific term, ‘unobtainium’ might just be the dumbest name for a metal that is, well...unobtainable.  Whatever statements Cameron is trying to make about war, civilization, imperialism, race, destruction, Bob’s Uncle or anything dang else-it’s all so obvious its almost insulting.  Why are all the Na’vi actors black or Native American?  Should we applaud the casting of the brilliant Cherokee actor Wes Studi in apology for Manifest Destiny?  I find it a little offensive that Studi (who was already in Dances with Wolves-déjà vu, anyone?) was digitally drawn over in a film that’s supposed to be about the destructive ills of industry and colonization.   And to think, onscreen in Avatar there are a select few white folks who know the error of our ways.  Cameron is being a little too high and mighty by pointing the finger instead of looking at the issues within his own film.  It’s like an abuser who says he’ll never lay a hand on you again-and instead uses a baseball bat the next time.

I’m afraid to ask where we can go next thanks to Avatar.  In some ways, I’d rather the picture have been a straight tale without big blue cat people who ride sea horse horses.  We didn’t need the first uneven hour and a half of awe and alien spectacles if social injustice was meant to be at Avatar’s center.  Why not really have Roman legions slaughtering Picts and Iceni?  How about the British tramping over India or Cortez setting his sights on South America?  Do we really need such a fantastical representation of an all too earthly experience?  Again, is Cameron shedding the light on our ways whilst sweeping them under the carpet at the same time?  What are the African American descendants of slaves or the almost completely homogenized American Indian generations supposed to make of Avatar? No, conquered and captured people won’t see what’s coming in the last hour of this film, no not at all.  Way to tell it like it is, without really telling it like it is. 

It’s not as if Avatar isn’t like anything we’ve ever seen before.  Visually, sure, but the idea of people living alternative lives while ‘jacked in’ and preferring the ‘dream’ to the real world is a little Matrix, don’t you think?  And the bonding with your extra special bird lizard mount to save the day, climbing perilous cliffs to reach him-well that’s right out of Dinotopia.  Some of the vehicles, the amplified mobility suit, and the casting of the wonderful Sigourney Weaver also reminded me a little too much of Aliens.  I kept thinking pilot turned Na’vi supporter Trudy’s (an under utilized and unable to branch out Michelle Rodriguez, Resident Evil) plane was just a drop ship from the Nostromo, and I half expected ‘Get away from her you Bitch!’ to make an appearance whenever the AMP lit up.  Maybe I watch Aliens too much and picked up on James Horner’s reuse of its score in Patriot Games, too- for his music was again reminiscent of his first collaboration with Cameron. 

On a lighter note, I just had to laugh at the idea of an energy field created by all living things that surround us, penetrates us, binds the galaxy together-oh wait, wrong movie! Cuddly natives and their arrows taking down the evil imperial machine- in hindsight, this wasn’t the best way to go for Return of the Jedi, either. Even the idea of a unified and living planet capable of interconnecting with its life forms and fighting to defend itself is nothing new.  Gaia, anyone?  We should be so lucky to live in such harmony on a glorious planet as Pandora-oh wait, we do. Again, it would have been more meaningful if this were an earthbound tale.  Avatar makes little mention of the chewed up and spit out earth that’s been left behind by RDA Mining Chief Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi).  (Whose name isn’t an indication of where his ego’s at, no not at all).  How many planets do we need to destroy already?  Isn’t that a scary enough question-right up there with when BP is going to get its due for effing up the Gulf?  Whose eyes is Avatar supposed to open?  Good God, if we don’t already know the err of the lessons Avatar is seeking to learn, then we deserve to loose our planet.

Now that I’ve gotten a little high and mighty with my doom and gloom, there are some good things about Avatar. The aforementioned Sigourney Weaver (Working Girl, Gorillas in the Mist) and Wes Studi (The Last of the Mohicans, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee) are delightful inside and out, regardless of the blue cat people visuals.  Despite some obviously ruthless dialogue and corruption, Giovanni Ribisi (Saving Private Ryan, Boiler Room) and Stephen Lang (Gods and Generals, Tombstone) also give all of themselves thematically.  Sadly, CCH Pounder (The Shield, ER) isn’t given as much time as she deserves, and Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana (Star Trek, Drumline) did little to impress.  Since we couldn’t actually see Saldana’s charm, her Neytiri merely becomes like every other hot chief’s daughter who loves our hero but is a perfectly capable and independent woman, too, thankyouverymuch! Likewise, Worthington (Clash of the Titans, Terminator Salvation) has literally come out of nowhere to rival the equally wooden abilities of Channing Tatum and any other pretty boy from this new blonde surfer crop.  His story arc as a paraplegic who finds he’d rather live in a beautiful alien world where he has a babe and working legs doesn’t give him much room to maneuver, I grant you.  Unfortunately, I dare say Neytiri and Sully’s avatars could have been drawn as digital cartoons without any actor doing motion capture and no one would have noticed the difference.

There are some lovely moments in Avatar, but they are buried so far beneath the visuals that they are almost a none factor.  My father was in the hospital recently, and he swears that the power of prayer from friends and family is what pulled him through.  His words reminded me of Avatar, when all the Na’vi unite and chant together to bring life and knowledge to each other. It is a touching scene showing the power of the many can be a glorious thing indeed.  So where is this moving and inspiration plot point underutilized in the film? Twice, actually, but very predictably in the final act.  When I saw it, I didn’t think these scenes were touching at all.  I was much more curious as to what Massive CGI software was used.  Did I miss the point or did Avatar?  

Avatar is an entertaining movie thanks to its stunning graphics, but I can see why the film didn’t come away with Best Picture and Director Oscars.  For the older science fiction fan that has read the old pulp books and seen The Twilight Zone episodes that debate these very same issues with subtly and no effects, Avatar is an old hat, heavy handed, and obvious pill to swallow.  Younger tween fans can be inspired, sure, but super young folks will probably miss the thickly themed forest for the blue cat people trees.  I will say that Avatar must be seen on blu-ray and blu-ray alone-unless you plan on seeing it in the theater again.  Though our rented disc was a little touchy and skipped, DVD cannot contain all that is Avatar.  I’d like to think Avatar has not totally replaced its precursor in changing the face of film-The Lord of the Rings trilogy-but merely stands next to Rings as a companion piece.  Take your pick if you prefer science fiction or fantasy!  If you want in depth storytelling, pick Rings.  For visuals masking themselves as story that’s really just conflicting politics and generalities, go for Avatar.   

Science fiction should be an artsy allegorical mirror to our faults-just not so obviously played for the box office bottom dollar. Take the good of Avatar for what its worth-as if you can escape how it’s made cartoon alien sf for the masses the way Twilight has unfortunately made vampires cuddly to little girls. There’s no denying the re-releases, merchandising, and sequels in Avatar’s wake.  I only hope a true writer is able to step in for Cameron’s ego-er screenplay with a red pencil for round two.  Enjoy Avatar for a family night of friendly film-but perhaps take some time, too, for a real historical lesson or current events session.  Teachers can also use the ups and downs here for a great classroom discussion. Enjoy the hullabaloo while it lasts, for beyond the visual spectacles, Avatar misses the mark.

15 July 2010

The Witches (1990)

The Witches a Creepy and Darling Family Caper
By Kristin Battestella

Honestly, I think it was three months before The Witches was finally off wait in my Netflix queue.  When the DVD finally did arrive, I was once again able to enjoy this fine 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s spooky, fun, and family friendly take on our titular dames.

The WitchesAfter his parents’ sudden death, young Luke Evishim (Jasen Fisher) and his grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) move to England.  To help with Helga’s health, the pair takes a seaside vacation in Cornwall.  Helga warns Luke to be weary of witches-who are in fact not the stuff of pointy hats and broomsticks.  These cruel witches are led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston), are thoroughly organized throughout the world-and they seek to rid the world of smelly little children.  Unfortunately for the Evishims, the witches in disguise are holding a conference at their hotel, and the Grand High Witch plots to turn all children into rats thanks to her new potion ‘Formula 86’.  After overhearing the witches’ plans, Luke and another boy at the hotel Bruno (Charlie Potter) are indeed turned into mice.  With Helga’s help, however, they devise a plan to stop the Grand High Witch and save all the children in England from her wrath.

Director Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth) and his oft screenwriter Allan Scott (The Spiral Staircase) keep all the charm, comedy, and scares of Dahl’s story.  Despite being beloved by children and adults alike, Dahl’s books are, you must admit, a little weird.  However, the built-in creepiness and lessons learned in The Witches adds to the onscreen entertainment.  Part of the film is indeed frightening; especially in our witches’ ruthless pursuits of kids, for the real life disturbs of such child predators need no creepy gloss-over. Audiences may actually speculate whether The Witches is actually a kids’ film, as there’s some darker imagery that adults will certainly find disturbingly entertaining.   Nevertheless, the grotesque comedy moments, suspenseful action, and dangerous chase scenes do a wonderful job of keeping fantasy fun in The Witches.  

Despite the ugly evilness of these bald, square footed witches; Anjelica Huston (The Addams Family, Prizzi’s Honor, The Grifters) is excellent and even devilishly likeable as the Grand High Witch Miss Eva Ernst.  She’s sexy, exotic, foreign, and strangely threatening and appealing all at the same time.  Despite being under heavy makeup and prosthetics when in her true witch’s form, Huston’s physical touches and subtle movements heighten her cold-hearted, witchy ruthlessness.  We fear for The Grand High Witch’s intentions but no less respect her horrible thought and skill at the same time.  Huston is just that slick. Jane Horrocks (Absolutely Fabulous) is wonderfully uppity as Eva’s secretary witch Miss Irvine, too. Then again, controversial aristocrat and Warhol compatriot Ann Lambton (Soul Man, Love is the Devil) is utterly disturbing when trying to lure young Luke from his tree house. We are slightly aware of the witches’ identities thanks to the hints in style- though fashionable, something is always slightly off, askew, or disturbing in their wigs, accents, and gloves. Even so, we are joyfully shocked and dismayed at seeing the true colors of The Witches all the sameIt’s all in good fun whilst so full of cinematic chills.  I Love it! The fact that the witchy extras are actually grossly made up men makes the creepy even better!

Mr. Bean fans will also enjoy a funny and grumbling performance by Rowan Atkinson as the flaky hotel manager Mr. Stringer.  Sukie Smith (Peak Practice) is also a lot of fun as Marlene, a pretty hotel maid and Stringer’s lady foil.  The wit of the unbeknowing hotel support against the horrid witches and likeable families works well.  Jasen Fisher (Parenthood, Hook) is totally cute as little Luke Eveshim, and his voice work for the mouse puppets is so dang adorable that you can’t help but almost see his little face in the mouse!  Likewise, Charlie Potter (who seems so familiar from repeat viewings here but hasn’t appeared in anything else!) is great fun as his pudgy pal Bruno Jenkins.  I just love the way he says ‘chocolates’ with his little kid British accent! Brenda Blethyn (A River Runs Through It) and Bill Paterson (Law and Order: UK) are also fun as Bruno’s clueless parents.  Mai Zetterling (My Wife and I) is delightfully hippie-eqsue, loving, and wise as Grandma Helga.  She’s on the boys’ side always and knows how to keep away from witches.  However, I’m always left with a funny feeling about her, too- like the old ‘say no the Grandpa Joe’ from Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory’s film height.  Luke wouldn’t be in all this trouble if Helga hadn’t gone poking around witches and telling scary stories of kids trapped in paintings. It’s so sad that The Witches was Zetterling’s second to last film, but what a charmer by which to remember her!

Yes, The Witches is old to youngin’ CGI obsessive standards, but the effects still look a-okay.  The make up styles and fashions perhaps are too eighties, yes; but the witch prosthetics and animatronics overseen by the Jim Henson Production Company all look great.  The decoration and graphics make the fantasy believable, but performance and subtly promote the story more.  The simple and eerie purple eyes of the witches are just downright freaky. Thankfully, the mice work is adorable as well. There’s plenty of the real thing for those squeamish folks, but it’s cute all the same. Cramped camera angles from the mouse’s perspective, scary zooms on the witches, and askew, angled points of view from the creepy gals also get the simple tricks of the trade right. Likewise, the music from Stanley Myers (The Deer Hunter) is innocent when need be and dangerous at times, too.  I also have to say, the tunnels and toys, mice mazes, and tiny playthings are also a lot of fun, and the seaside locations at the Headland Hotel are wonderful. 

Children's Fantasy: 4 Film Favorites (The Secret Garden / 5 Children & It / The Witches / The Neverending Story)Of course, the DVD of The Witches is at best very tough to find and at worst downright elusive.  It’s merely a bare bones full screen set with no subtitles anyway.  Various editions and Region sets have been about, but a proper restoration of The Witches is long overdue.  Truly, a proper video release should come before any of this new sacrilegious remake drivel.  Today, a film like The Witches can’t –or simply wouldn’t be made with the basics of effects and focus of charm and performance.  We simply must have blue screen witches and teenage hotties in peril. I protest!  It’s amazing to think of something made in 1990 as old, but compared to the likes of Harry Potter, The Witches is perhaps out of fashion for some viewers. Having said that, family audiences can enjoy The Witches again and again.  Some of the witchy imagery and youthful scares may indeed be too frightening for super young viewers, but the happy ending and magical joy here overcomes any scares.  Instead of fantastical graphics and modern fantasy fodder, remember The Witches and have some fun, spooky, family food for thought enjoyment as soon as you can get your greedy little hands on this one! 

04 July 2010

Merlin Season 2

Merlin Season 2 Still Full of Potential
By Kristin Battestella

I had to reread my commentary on Season 1 of the magical BBC hit Merlin so I wouldn’t repeat myself.  Like its predecessor, Season 2 has a few steps back at the start.  Thankfully, the lovely performances and potential in this series continues to impress.

Young warlock and manservant Merlin (Colin Morgan) continues to hide his magical talents from his would be friend but master Prince Arthur (Bradley James).  Camelot court physician Gaius (Richard Wilson) supports Merlin’s dual lifestyle while also trying to help the ruthless King Uther Pendragon’s (Anthony Head) ward Morgana (Katie McGrath). Thanks to the mysterious appearance of sorceress Morgause (Emilia Fox), Morgana is discovering her own dark and uncontrollable magic powers.  Her maid Guinevere (Angel Colby), however, has other things on her mind-namely the adventurous and dashing Lancelot (Santiago Cabrera) and the noble, but untouchable Arthur. 

Merlin - Series 2 Vol.1 (BBC Series) [NON-USA Format / Import / Region 2 / PAL]I enjoy Merlin very much, but creators Julian Jones (The Bill), Julian Murphy (Sugar Rush), Jake Michie (Hex), and Johnny Capps (Demons) have yet to give the series its proper stride.  The writing is there, the performances are ready-each episode is on the cusp of something great.  At 13, 45-minute episodes, it seems there simply isn’t enough time for Merlin to get deep and dark where it’s at its best.  Every episode seems like it could be at least a two-piece tale, and some single episode plots would be fascinating if their drama ran all season long.  Merlin’s first two-part episode ‘Beauty and the Beast’ could have been a serious, dark storyline- imagine if guest star Sarah Parish (Peak Practice, Cutting It) and her evil troll Queen Catrina was battling magics with Merlin all season long while he was hiding his first love Freya (Laura Donnelly, Hex) from Episode 9 ‘The Lady of the Lake’.  Now then, let’s throw the long awaited action with the Great Dragon (voiced by John Hurt) into all that along with the wonderful concluding mystery of the ‘The Last Dragonlord’ John Lynch (Black Death).  Let the Arthur, Gwen, and Lancelot love triangle be around more than just once a season, and then show Morgana’s dark temptations in every outing.  Whew, that’s some heavy stuff brooding in Camelot!  Unfortunately, these gems were each touched upon for one measly episode!

Yes, Merlin is for a youthful audience, but it can have its lovely wit, relationships, and humor while still giving Camelot the fantastical court angst and drama it needs for these characters to grow and mature.  With concurrent issues running all season long, Merlin would grow past this ‘just like Smallville!’ American plug and finally get deep like Buffy. Instead, the producers felt the need to reboot some of the characters’ growth established in the fine end of Season 1.  Why do they think they need to force humor and relationships in a vain effort to grab audiences when they should just tell the tale they wish to tell?  This hurts the earlier episodes in Season 2 and actually detracts audiences from sticking around for the on form second half of the series. The concluding concurrent storylines and overarching plots make Merlin grow; we should have more people with more issues, both good and bad, all the time. 

 Though the fandom online isn’t super huge for Merlin yet, it is already divided between several distinct groups-namely the girlies drooling over Bradley James and Colin Morgan and those who adore the series for its gay subtext and homoerotic innuendo.  Yes, you can find some kitschy if you’re looking for it, but the brotherly relationship between the leads and the paternal devotions for both are at the heart of the series.  We don’t need a creature feature every week when we can have these lovely performances.  Colin Morgan (Doctor Who, Island) is wonderful as the loyal, yet conflicted Merlin.  He puts his life on the line by doing his forbidden magic to save Camelot countless times, but his reverie over saving the day is often short-lived.  As delightful as Morgan is with the fun and fantastic, his strength is in his subdued sadness and internal conflicts as a young man who must deny who he really is.  Similar but different and yet equally up to the task is Bradley James (Portobello 196) as Arthur.  His arrogance and often hysterical but ill treatment of Merlin is part of the show’s charm.  However, it’s even more delightful when James shows us the strong and compassionate side that will make Arthur the great king he is supposed to be. 

Once again, the onscreen adults also add a touch of class in support of the young stars.  Anthony Head (Buffy) is love to hate worthy as the unyielding King Uther.  He’s cruel, yes, but we also get some funny from him this season.  We learn a little more about Uther in Series 2, and he gets a bit of comeuppance, too. Yet through it all, we don’t doubt that he is trying to do what’s best for his son and ward.  Episode 8 ‘Sins of the Father’ sets up plenty of family angst that hopefully will be at the forefront of season three. Likewise, Richard Wilson (One Foot in the Grave) lends a wonderful father figure devotion to Gaius and his relationship with Merlin.  The two don’t always get along in how to best use or not use sorcery to save the day, but the consequences and lessons learned make for fine drama and character growth. 

Merlin’s strength is its well-developed characters and solid performances.  Katie McGrath’s (The Tudors) Morgana is a delight as the soon to be Arthurian bad girl of lore-but her reduction this season is a miss.  After wonderful, dark strides in the third episode ‘The Nightmare Begins’, we don’t return to the meat of Morgana’s storyline until the excellent third and second to last episodes, ‘The Witch’s Quickening’ and ‘The Fires of Idirsholas’. We don’t need less recurring characters- we need more.  Again, guest stars like Charles Dance (Bleak House, Trinity) as the corrupt Witchfinder and Asa Butterfield (The Wolfman) as the youthful but deadly Mordred should appear more for and against Morgana. Santiago Cabrera’s (Heroes) Lancelot should have been around much longer to strengthen Guinevere, and Rupert Young (Dirty Filthy Love) as levelheaded knight Sir Leon should remain in Camelot’s court as well.  Emilia Fox (Silent Witness, Henry VIII) has been utterly juicy as Morgause, and I sincerely hope we get to the most of her bads next season.

Some fans online were not pleased at the pushed promotion of Angel Colby (As If) as Guinevere, but Arthur’s future queen had to get the spotlight sometime.  Stereotypically, it seems as if the male writers don’t know how to write women and have mishandled the ladies on Merlin.  Did you have to reduce Morgana’s screen time and storyline to establish the Gwen romance?  It doesn’t look right when you’ve almost chosen one lady over the other for the audience.  There’s enough juiciness at Camelot for both girls to have their share.  Likewise, John Hurt’s (Harry Potter, The Elephant Man) delightful vocalization of The Great Dragon was used both too much and not enough-just like Season 1.  The wise and ambiguous nature of the Dragon was used far too many times for the novelty, and the exceptional final episode ‘The Last Dragonlord’ finally shows him in all his glory.  It only makes me want more.  More!  I wish Merlin could open or close each season with an additional two-part or at least ninety-minute movie episode.  It’s not as if I’m asking for an upgrade to 16 episode seasons-though that would be heavenly!

Now, I do have a few nitpicks about the SyFy Channel’s (I hate that name change) presentation of Merlin.  Not only is the series dubbed The Adventures of Merlin- something that’s really no big deal; but SyFy is also calling the British born show an ‘Original Series’.  Yeah right!  Merlin is a quick 45 minutes, but it seems like SyFy shaves time off the commercial entrance and exits.  Normally the show has a sword slice effect that definitively ends a scene, but SyFy merely fades out on a rather flat note.  The channel’s timing also seems to be off, so a DVR setting on the hour tends to cut off the first or last minute of the show.  The channel’s website in support of the show is also riddled with errors and misinformation-real professional, folks! While I am glad that Merlin has found an American home where it can reach its most likely audience-unlike Season 1’s summer NBC death slot- I’m still looking forward to the Season 2 Region 1 DVD sets chock full of the extras and no American tampering.  Netflix and other online options like Hulu are available as well.

Merlin: The Complete Second Season is a delightful family friendly program complete with magic, fun for the kiddies, and serious drama for older folks.  Though Season 2 has yet to reach the full potential that this series has to offer, fans of the cast and fantasy film can enjoy the intelligent writing, lovely guest stars, and fine performances all around.  Arthurian experts may not like some of the liberties Merlin takes in revitalizing the Camelot mythos, but it’s also great to see the promise Merlin’s premise has to offer.  Now kick it up a notch next season already!

03 July 2010

Kate & Leopold

Hugh Jackman Saves Kate & Leopold
Guest Review by Leigh Wood

I don’t do the sappy romantic comedy thang, but I was intrigue enough by the time travel premise of 2001’s Kate & Leopold to take a chance that this was not the same old, same oldWhile it certainly has its leaps and faults, a great leading man goes a long way in keeping Kate & Leopold watchable.

In 1876 New York, Leopold Mountbatten, Duke of Albany (Hugh Jackman) would rather focus on inventing the elevator than dealing with the family’s pressure to marry rich and upkeep the aristocratic name.  After catching scientist Stuart Besser (Liev Schreiber) taking photographs of his designs, Leopold pursues Stuart off the incomplete Brooklyn Bridge and accidentally follows him to modern New York City.  Stuart explains his time traveling methods to Leopold and hopes to collaborate scientifically until the next portal opens in a week.  Unfortunately, Stuart falls down an elevator shaft and is hospitalized, leaving the stranded Leo in the watch of downstairs neighbors- the career minded Kate (Meg Ryan), also Stuart’s ex-girlfriend, and her brother Charles (Breckin Meyer), an out of work actor.  Despite no one believing his extraordinary tale, Leo befriends Charles, helps Kate with a commercial, and begins to fall in love with her.

Let’s get some of the iffy out of the way first. Fans of serious science fiction time travel romance won’t find it here.  The mechanics of Kate & Leopold’s time travel are not fully explored beyond a few illustrations and convoluted gibberish conversations.  This critical element is instead treated as the dues ex machina that put things into place.  Sure, we don’t need a lot of serious scientific jargon or lots of unnecessary primo effects, but this lack of development on a truly promising premise adds to some of the dramatic plot holes from director James Mangold (Walk the Line, Girl Interrupted) and co-writer Steven Rogers (Hope Floats, P.S. I Love You).  All this then in turn hinders some of the fine cast and character arcs.  Thankfully, there’s not a lot of slapstick or performance comedy in Kate & Leopold- which is refreshing compared to other younger, supposedly hip romantic comedies that hinge on several mistaken hysteria scenes.  I’m glad Mangold stuck to something cynical, older, and more mature than the recent trend of twenty something gals looking for love, but all this is evidence that perhaps Kate & Leopold would have been better off as a purely dramatic piece.

Kate & LeopoldI don’t think I hate Meg Ryan, but her performance here is a tough pill to swallow.  It’s not because Kate’s kind of a bitchy career woman- no, we’ve just seen this exact same role in all Ryan’s other romantic comedies.   I know she has made a few other dramatic or action films, but my goodness Meg Ryan latched onto the rom com with When Harry Met Sally and hasn’t let go.  Sleepless in Seattle, anyone? And even dramatically, how sappy is City of Angels, honestly? I can tolerate You’ve Got Mail because it has a bit of a unique book angle and spin, but isn’t there another lovely mature actress in Hollywood or beyond ready to take the mantle?  Again, I don’t mean those sassy twenty somethings, but someone a little more realistic.  How many times can Meg Ryan be in NYC looking for love? Not only is there nothing new here from Ryan, but it’s almost parody thanks to so many romantic appearances.  Kate is cute, sure, even lovely in some scenes.  Unfortunately, her drab, manly style and choppy haircut make her too boyish; and the big botox lips of the moment are just unattractive.  I feel bad in thinking it, but why would Leopold even like her? The Breakfast at Tiffany’s references are also too stereotypical and why do we need to go there, anyway? Sadly, on my second viewing of Kate & Leopold I realized the best parts of the film have the least of Meg Ryan.  Ouch!

By contrast, I’m not a super drool fan of Golden Globe nominee Hugh Jackman by any means.  However, he’s proven his skill and range with X-Men, Swordfish, The Fountain, even Viva Laughlin, and for some reason I like the guilty pleasure Someone Like You (up until the last half hour that is, ugh).  Leopold’s old-fashioned, stoic, and stiff upper lip aristocrat isn’t afraid to carry on his ways or tell it like it is, yet he’s the most likeable person in the film.  Despite the fish out of water button-up style, he is the most realistic and intelligent person presented.  We feel for his circumstance and like the honest and fresh faced perspective he brings to modern New York.  Jackman looks the part in the period costume and is able to share his disillusionment with the old aristocracy as much as the joy found in modern conveniences.  It’s a big leap for Leo to fit in so quickly and have cool clothes and all the city celebrity, but Jackman’s accent and style are on form. He’s innocent, mannerly, and behaves the true gentleman-yet these qualities also make Leopold strong, attractive, and threatening to lesser men.  It’s as if Jackman is Leopold, taking the drama and performance more seriously than anyone else does here.  Ladies who love him will eat up Kate & Leopold.

Liev Schreiber, unfortunately, gets the short end of the stick in Kate & Leopold.  I always think he looks somewhat creepy or has a penchant for playing villains or cads, but Schreiber (Scream, A Walk on the Moon, X-Men Origins: Wolverine with Jackman) is dandy as the quirky scientist who sets all the Fate in motion.  There’s just not enough time with Stuart to really care. He falls down the elevator shaft, is laid up in the hospital, and ends up committed to an institution for talking about time travel- but everyone is too busy playing the romantic comedy to even visit!  Likewise underused is the charming Breckin Meyer (Clueless, Road Trip, Robot Chicken) as Kate’s goofy younger brother Charles.  Despite being considered still in the younger, silly and stupid comedy arena, Meyer proves he can handle himself with the bigger names here.  They’re both wonderful, but Kate’s slimey boss Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) and Natasha Lyonne (American Pie) as mousy secretary Darci also don’t get enough time to shine.  Again, a straight drama would have better served this fine ensemble.  In that case, only one of these characters could be highlight with lighthearted comedy- either the injured and nutty time traveler, a wayward brother trying to go straight, the sleazy skirt-chasing bigwig, or a batty eyed and sappy secretary.  With that chance at refined dedication, any of the talented cast here could have done something great.

Fortunately, Kate & Leopold looks cool.  Not just an afterthought of production, the opening and closing period piece segments look just fine.  The New York apartments are also sweet looking-although I don’t know how rich you have to be to have such swanky and special spaces in the city.  And who leaves a walk out window open at night in this day and age, really? The additional layer of the period style mixed with modern looks stands out as out of place, but also seems strangely fitting.  Leopold being about town in his old time frock coat isn’t as goofy as one might think in these quirky times!   The blend of old 19th century buildings being adapted to new city uses also adds realistic charm.   Though Leopold is supposed to have invented the elevator, it’s kind of a miss on how all the elevators in the city stop when Leo moves forward in time.  If this bit of useless information is so important, it should have been treated as more than a plot contrivance when necessary. Fortunately, a few fine chases on foot and horseback look fun and fast paced.  There are no major effects to speak of for the time travel bits, but the swift pacing and suspenseful jumps set the mood and atmosphere accordingly.

Although I wasn’t expecting something as special as say Somewhere in Time, I had higher hopes for Kate & Leopold.  While Jackman delivers a fine and entertaining performance, the too loose time travel angles and ill casting of the same old Meg Ryan can undo the picture.  Deleted scenes and extras on the DVD help fix some of the internal errors, but mainstream audiences looking for serious drama or science fiction fans looking for some hefty Time analysis won’t find it here. Casual viewers can find a cable sampling, netflix options, or affordable DVD editions.  Packaged sets with other similar romance films are also out there for die-hard fans. Despite its hang-ups, lovers of Hugh Jackman and fans of the quirky New York rom com genre will enjoy  Kate & Leopold nonetheless.