27 December 2010

Angel (2007)

Angel a Fun, Fanciful Take on Period Romance Yarns
By Kristin Battestella

I’m surprised it seems hardly anyone has seen the 2007 period drama Angel stateside- especially in light of the chick flick period piece abundance in recent years: Becoming Jane, Pride & Prejudice, and Atonement, anyone? Unlike brooding Austen-esque serious romances or stuffy period snooze fests, French director Fran├žois Ozon’s tongue in cheek look at British period pieces offers over the top wit, fun love, and a touch of Victorian heavy.

Angel Deverell (Romola Garai) dreams of becoming a famous writer and leaving her mother’s (Jacqueline Tong) grocery shop for the grand life at the nearby Paradise House estate.  When the young and precocious Angel submits her manuscript to publisher Theo Gilbright (Sam Neill), the whirlwind of fame and success soon follow, despite criticisms from Mrs. Hermione Gilbright (Charlotte Rampling) and Angel’s aunt Lottie (Janine Duvitski).  Dowdy and shy poet Nora Howe-Nevinson (Lucy Russell) admires Angel greatly and quickly ingratiates herself as Angel’s live-in secretary.  Angel, however, becomes smitten with Nora’s brother, the lothario painter Esme (Michael Fassbender), and soon rushes to marry him.  All seems right and beautiful to Angel at her Paradise House, but war and the coming Edwardian changes soon force her to see beyond her fiction- both on the page and in real life.

Based on the book by Elizabeth Taylor- no, not that Elizabeth Taylor- director Ozon (Swimming Pool) and co writer Martin Crimp (London South West) wonderfully blend the Victorian charm and stuffy sensibilities with an intentionally fanciful storybook styled humor and ability to laugh at one’s self. Angel begins with bemusing turn of the century settings and shocked old ladies- and the contrast keeping a modern, refreshing vibe throughout. The titular Angel enjoys her tawdry behavior and the funny reactions of the uptight around her, and even if this makes her a little unlikable to start, we are entertained nonetheless. It’s as if Little Women or Gone with the Wind has grown up for contemporary audiences.  With lots of old time montage stylings, laugh out loud dry Brit wit, and a somehow un-super sappy romance; this period piece drama is able to offer plenty of character success, pity, admiration, and love talk while keeping itself lighthearted, realistic, and sensible. Yes, all this lovely dovey stuff can be silly, and our characters rise and fall accordingly- but there’s a good story to be told, that’s all that matters. Naturally, Angel is an unabashedly sentimental film full of over the top bias- but despite heavier subject matter in the second half of the picture, Ozon doesn’t let these hedonistic characters take themselves too seriously.  Things do get a little kinky, as well, but the crisscrossing love triangles and speculations somehow remain innocent or left for the audience to bear in mind for the players at hand.  Everyone here keeps secrets, each uses everybody else, and though an overall blissful tale, Angel comes to its eventual tragedies wonderfully. It’s amazing how fortunes lost can be the best thing ever or how the fruition of our wildest dreams can come to ruin and such unceremonious end.  Angel balances the love, hope, and drama without all the heavy we expect in European melodrama.

AngelWell, it’s lovely to see a young writer in the hopes of greatness, but Angel is a little bitch isn’t she?  I’d love to smack her for being such a snob who tantrums until she gets her way and thinks she’s just perfect for never having read anything.  Angel also has a serious case of over-active imagination- today we’d call that being a delusional compulsive liar and medicate her up! Talk about someone who’s fresh, ungrateful, and completely full of it. You can be driven to an artistic goal without being a bitch, and Romola Garai (Atonement, As You Like It) does a fine job of balancing Angel’s humble motivations and fantastical lifestyle. Angel is so ashamed of where she comes from, and we can certainly understand her hopes and dreams.  We want to see her succeed, but Angel obviously gets swept up in the high life and fame a little too quickly- and it’s all her own making anyway. She gets everything she wants- but at what price? Marriage, motherhood, the very writing she loves so much? It’s wonderful to see Garai’s progression of character, not because Angel starts out as such a bitch, but because we want to see the reform and the takedown of the sell-out.  The audience needs Angel to learn how to not be such a fake-will she?  It’s enchanting to see Angel’s Victorian splendor and pop juicy books loose their luster as changing Edwardian fates find her in true Dickensian fashion. She uses her mother’s death for more authorly mystique and is blinded by her own image of Esme right to the end.  Angel gives false eulogies and lies about every circumstance and situation. Such a flake can’t really ever share of herself, can she? Despite being great artists, everyone in Angel wears masks and no one can fully express him or herself.  Angel has it all and it isn’t good enough, when will she be satisfied?  Part of Angel’s trouble is that we might not exactly like our titular protagonist, yet Garai is delightful in making her so distasteful and over the top.  Even so, we can certainly relate to Angel’s delights, as well as the err of her ways.

Well, Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Fish Tank) enters Angel a half hour into the film, and  hot diggity dog, Esme is meant to be an over the top, breathtaking rogue. The zing between the zealous writer and crappy painter is played with some old-fashioned fun to start. Here swoops in the checkered knight in shining armor, and Angel sees past all his ills for her own gains.  Esme seems as precocious as Angel, so serious about his paintings, as if his are the only artwork of note ever.  His idealized-in-Angel’s-eyes-charm forgives his promiscuous bohemian painter ways- because no one in Angel likes to face the music of the real world.  Esme’s touched by Angel’s attention- but isn’t afraid to use her on the rise to the top, either. It’s so giggly to see how each is trying to fast track the other, because both see the fake but can’t quite look in the mirror at themselves. For Angel, Fassbender is styled perfectly with some ginger light hair and a bit of a snotty RP accent. However, his eyes are lovely and again carry character and performance unsaid.  Was there really any doubt we were going to enjoy him in this movie?  Again, I’m surprised this was not the film that made Fassbender a star, the good looking but shitty and traumatized painter!  And he is definitely very Bond-ish in a wet tuxedo with a rainbow over his head- I’m just saying.  Seemingly just the hot Picasso, when World War I comes Fassbender captures Esme’s torment- the battlefront and deception on both sides of the marriage ruins all. Esme’s continued emasculation at Angel’s hands builds wonderfully to the film’s conclusion.  Perhaps considering his tragedies, personal demons, and premature death, it’s not a compliment to compare a modern actor to my old favorite Montgomery Clift.  However, the more of Fassbender’s work I see, the further impressed I become in his Clift-like ability to so passionately immerse himself with such body and soul into his character and yet be so subtle and on the mark about it.  You can go into a film certainly thinking it’s just a hot Fassy fest.  However, by the end of Angel you come away thinking, ‘Hot damn, he did it again!’ We don’t see Fassbender at all, just Esme facing his fate.  Yowza!

Not to be outdone by the young leads, Sam Neill (The Tudors, Jurassic Park) is perfectly period charming as Angel’s publisher.  His lovely father figure ways, lingering devotion, and putting up with Angel’s worst add weight and realism. Gilbright sees her potential and the good of her work and Charlotte Rampling (The Swimming Pool, The Verdict) adds equal class as his critical but respectful wife.  Jacqueline Tong (Upstairs, Downstairs) is also delightful as Angel’s mother, walking the fine line between support, spoiling, and humility.  By contrast, Janine Duvitski (One Foot in the Grave) is a lot of fun as Angel’s doubting old aunt. The viewer needs an onscreen representative of realism and skepticism. Despite the melodramatic angles, the supporting ensemble does this and grounds Angel wonderfully. Last but by far not least, Lucy Russell (Tristan + Isolde) is perfection as the closeted and nerdy Nora. The complete opposite of sassy and decadent Angel, Nora is desperate to live vicariously through her.  There’s plenty of latent implications here as well.  Does Nora want Angel’s physical love or does she really want to embody her writing spirit like a Single White Female muse? It’s fascinating to see Angel use Nora and enjoy playing the Howe-Nevinson siblings against each other.  

Oh, Angel offers some sweet costumes, too- from the early humble of the disenfranchised underbelly to all the late Victorian opulence and debutante styles. It’s also nice to see the contrast of pre-War decadence juxtaposed with the loose and comfortable twenties flapper styles and how these differences reflect great character faults and strides. Instead of longwinded hyperbole laced with modern wartime and political statements, the silent Victorian splendor shows how out of touch it really is after the Great War.  Seriousness and whimsy are instead smartly handled by the musical arrangements.  We have both famous compositions and original scoring by Philippe Rombi (The Girl from Paris) to anchor the somber and serious or the sweeping and seemingly epic fun.  The lovely estates, locations, and witty photography are also charming, complete with the mix of horse drawn carriages, cool early cars, quills and clickety typewriters!

I mentioned Gone with the Wind earlier, but Angel also seems like a modern My Fair Lady jolly old Gigi musical or the female take on The Magnificent Ambersons as well.  Some period romance fans may be put off by the seemingly mocking and dreamlike tone- after all, why not just make a straight period romance? The play of genres is also a little uneven- I feel split in some ways in my analysis here. It’s a romance, but not sappy; period but fantasy, lighthearted yet still heavy.  I suppose either you accept Ozon’s vision for Angel or you don’t. However, for those of us who don’t like our period dramas so overtly romantic, Angel fills the void with artistic analysis and flights of fancy.  Though not for super young ones, reading and writing teens or mature families should be able to handle the brief nudity, subtext, and suggestion.  Angel may even be fun for a comparative college course discussion on book to film adaptations and contemporary film romance debates.  The newly released Region 1 DVD offers a nice fifteen-minute interview segment with the cast and Ozon, but otherwise it’s just trailers and plenty of previews on the rental edition.  I suppose a commentary might have been tough for Ozon to do in English, but c’est la vie.

Uncommitted viewers can find their preferred rental and streaming options or catch Angel on the Sundance Channel.  (Actually, I just call it ‘The Fassbender Network’ because the channel shows Angel, Hunger, and Fish Tank quite often.)  Fans of the cast will definitely delight, and writers or fans of authors on film can appreciate this one.  Indulge in the grandiose period fun with Angel tonight.

24 December 2010

More Christmas Vinyl

More Christmas Vinyl
By Kristin Battestella

It’s that time of year again! Time to dust off those warped Christmas vinyl delights and enjoy the snap, crackle, and pop of records in lieu of a real toasty fireplace- after awhile, they sound the same anyway.  Here are a few timeless hits to enjoy again on the phonograph or bring into the digital play list. 

Christmas AlbumBarbra Streisand A Christmas Album – Reissued in several CD sets, this 1967 Christmas debut has remained popular thanks to big and fine Broadway-esque renditions of classics like The Christmas Song and Ave Maria, with new arrangements of My Favorite Things and The Lord’s Prayer.  I could, however, do without Babs’ iffy take on Jingle Bells- her super speedy arrangement makes you want to check if you have the right RPM speed.  Otherwise, this short half hour set is perfect for a mature evening of holiday martinis, mimosas, and memories. 

A George Beverly Shea ChristmasChristmas Hymns George Beverly Shea – The longtime Billy Graham Crusade vocalist lends his deep sound to not often heard classics like Put the Christ Back into Christmas, I Wonder as I Wander, and O Men from the Fields along with traditional carols such as Go Tell It on the Mountain and Sleep Precious Babe.  Obviously recorded with plenty of reverence in mind, this lovely set is perfect for a Christmas Eve candlelight dinner or a somber late night wrapping presents. Although it looks like this record is part and parcel with the CD A George Beverly Shea Christmas and contemporary listeners might not be accustomed to such old-time baritone arrangements; today’s spiritual families would be hard pressed to find a more focused Christian Christmas album.

Holiday Sing Along With Mitch (Exp)Holiday Sing Along with Mitch – Well, I can’t think of a more annoying album than this kitschy set from Mitch Miller- and it’s complete with song sheets, too.  However, no holiday household full of kids is complete without this fifties best seller.  Honestly, Must be Santa and the Twelve Days of Christmas on one record? With Frosty and Rudolph, too? Oh me oh my, the kids can go to town with this one, and adults will definitely be singing along with these easy arrangements- by choice or torture.  Thankfully, mellow renditions of I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, The Christmas Song, and Silver Bells balance the fun for all.

Jackie Gleason White ChristmasJackie Gleason White Christmas ­– Though one can debate how much Gleason actually took part in his musical endeavors, slow and moody treats like the titular staple, Blue Christmas, I’ll Be Home for Christmas, and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas are most excellent secular instrumentals for a lonely winter’s night or a private, mellow evening for two.  Even normally upbeat hits like Let it Snow and Jingle Bells are slowed down to waltzing pace with your turtledove here. Talk about fifty cents well spent! Such brass, such velvet…hot damn.

Merry Mancini ChristmasA Merry Mancini Christmas – This swanky 1966 LP from the Oscar winning composing maestro begins with a fine Little Drummer Boy and continues with smooth medleys of secular essentials like Winter Wonderland and Silver Bells- as well as the classic carols We Three Kings, O Come All Ye Faithful, and Joy to the World.  Some modern listeners may not be used to the choral styled vocals, but the blended sound is soft and easy for all to enjoy.  I don’t know about the happenin’ Rudolph rendition here, but kids always love that one. The record also adheres to the old format of secular tunes on one side, religious compositions on the other, assuring something for everyone, indeed.

Season's GreetingsSeason’s Greetings from Perry Como – I happened to find this 1959 record hidden within another set and was pleasantly surprised to find all the traditional greats like Home for the Holidays and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer in one collection.  Como’s good old jolly mid-century style adds winter charm to Here we Come A Caroling, Winter Wonderland, and even the traditionally somber God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. He doesn’t have the range for O Holy Night, but it’s also nice to here this lofty tale down on the easy notch.  A Christmas Story melody of words and songs adds a little family reverence for all to enjoy as well. Como perfectly combines the best of the secular season with the true meaning of Christmas.

I’ve linked to the CD versions of these albums on Amazon, although a few are out of print or not available for download.  However, it also occurs to me that one might not have a record player anymore these days- although the current ease of USB plug-in and conversion processes have brought several copying entertainment systems back on the market in common department stores like Target and K-Mart.  My current record player- a Crosley stand-alone unit now discontinued- was an early Christmas gift from my mother in 2003.  I had spent the previous year without a player after the needle on my automatic player broke, so $60 at Value City was a stereophonic steal as far as I’m concerned. 

Even with the ease of digital music, the affordability of transferring equipment and the nostalgia of records at second hand shops have returned- and it’s just perfect for the Christmas season!  

20 December 2010

A Dickensian Overview

A Dickens of A Time!
By Kristin Battestella

My sister the English Teacher and I are always discussing classic books and their various film adaptations and their use in the classroom.  I may love Charles Dickens, but she does not.  So then, for all those forced to read or teach the Victorian master, here’s a quick list of favorable, family friendly adaptations.

A Christmas CarolA Christmas Carol – Of course, I’d have to include at least one version of this timeless holiday classic, so why not all?  That would be a fun marathon to occupy the endless week between Christmas and New Year’s Day indeed! Modern youths may not appreciate the 1951 Alastair Sim version, nor perhaps the recent 2004 Kesley Grammar A Christmas Carol: The Musical is not for everyone.  So, unless you’re about to show Mickey’s Christmas Carol to the pups or the new Barbie in a Christmas Carol (There’s a scholarly study for ya!), that leaves the fine 1984 television tale starring George C. Scott- now on blu-ray- or the worthy 1999 Patrick Stewart TNT edition. Then again, you could always just read the book. 

Great Expectations (Masterpiece Theatre, 1999)Great Expectations – This Masterpiece Theatre presentation starring Ioan Gruffudd (Horatio Hornblower) and Bernard Hill (The Lord of the Rings) captures the spirit of what I must say is my favorite Dickens book.  Hill is menacing as Magwitch, but has his care for Pip.  Likewise, Charlotte Rampling (The Verdict, Swimming Pool) as Miss Havisham is delightfully demented and Justine Waddell (Wives and Daughters) is the wonderfully cruel girl of Pip’s affection, Estelle. Director Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane, Brideshead Revisited) handles the progression from the bitter childhood circumstances to mature romance swiftly, and Gruffudd looks the Victorian part in this delightfully dressed production.  Perhaps this is a story that can’t be made wrong, but this installment is dang fine film, too.

Martin ChuzzlewitMartin Chuzzlewit – So much attention is given to his more famous material, but this 1994 BBC serial pulls off another Dickensian tale of Victorian finances, scruples, and hypocrisy. The late Paul Scofield (A Man for All Seasons, Quiz Show), Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty, Michael Clayton), Pete Postlethwaite (Sharpe, The Usual Suspects) and Julia Sawahla (Absolutely Fabulous) are a wonderfully period troop of rich and poor on both sides of the pond trying to connect the dots on who is closest to wealthy old Chuzzlewit’s prosperity.  Who doesn’t have money-grubbing relatives like this? (If you had to stop and think about it and decided that you don’t have any money grubbing relatives, then it’s you!) It’s a little slow to start the tale, and the American angles are ho-hum and stereotypical; but in some ways, it’s amazing how little our perception of class and money has changed since Dickens’ time.  Once again, Boz strikes gold with some perfectly named Pecksniff and Pinch characters- if only we were so aptly or ironically named in this currently growing gap of excess and belt tightening. That would be very interesting!

Nicholas NicklebyNicholas Nickleby – This 2002 adaptation from writer/director Douglas McGrath (Emma, Bullets Over Broadway) hails an all-star cast along with all the charm of Dickens’ source material.  The music, wonderful locations, and lovely performances from Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music), Nathan Lane (The Birdcage), Juliet Stevenson (Mona Lisa Smile), and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) combine with this timeless story of fortunes, family, and loss in a delightfully authentic English atmosphere.  The idealistic Dickensian style, however, does not let us forget the semi-autobiographical analysis of the poor and disenfranchised lost in the corrupt system.  Indeed, in light of recent economic downturns, Nicholas Nickleby might again be too relevant for comfort.  Read the book again or spend the evening with this bittersweet fair.  Thankfully, the proper DVD set includes a wealth of behind the scenes features for the Dickensian fan or the scholarly classroom.  Although its length is condensed by necessity, I’m surprised this movie didn’t find more acclaim upon its release.

Oliver!Oliver! This is the award laden 1968 musical that brought ‘Please sure, I’d like some more.’ to the masses.  Even if you consider today that the retrospective stage musical style and design isn’t what it used to be or if you remember how frustrating it was to stay awake while watching this in your Music Appreciation class in high school; this sing-a-long-able fair is still fun for the musical loving family.  Stars Ron Moody (A Kid in King Arthur’s Court), Mark Lester (Melody), Jack Wild (Pufnstuf), and Oliver Reed (The Three Musketeers) look the Dickensian part and sing and dance with plenty of joy, sadness, tenderness, and timeless charm.  Despite the somewhat depressing and socially heavy-handed source material, director Carol Reed (The Third Man) and writers Lionel Bart (From Russia with Love) and Vernon Harris (Three Men in a Boat) latently keep the sentiment and lessons in the simplest, youthful, innocent manner.  Skip the cartoons and introduce the little ones to Dickens here. 

Our Mutual FriendOur Mutual Friend ­– This lengthy 1998 BBC adaptation of Boz’s final novel is not for the Dickensian layman.  Director Julian Farino’s (Entourage) complex, ensemble piece starring Keeley Hawes (MI-5), Paul McGann (Hornblower), Steven Mackintosh (Underworld: Evolution), and Anna Friel (Pushing Daisies) deals deeply with wealth, poverty, and the fact that who you know means everything in getting anywhere.  The English high society is colorful and lofty, shiny and satin; but the impoverished lows look the proper down and dirty underbelly.  Who wouldn’t disown their family and sell their marital status for money and prestige after such crippling workhouses and despair?  Unfortunately, there are no subtitles on this set, which would have been a great help just to see everyone’s names.  The ensemble is quite large, but everyone has his or her purpose and all concludes in perfect Dickensian coincidence, justice, and irony.  Amen.

Sometimes in our modern world of texting and internet slang, I’m afraid the English language will further divide- scarily to the point where Dickens won’t just be a bother to some students, but truly unreadable!  We can’t allow the wealth of literary thesis and education from Dickens to fade away.  So long as we aren’t forced to grow up on the dreadfully obvious and trying too hard Hard Times (ugh!), I’m all for Dickens remaining in the classroom through great books and fine film.

19 December 2010

A Bear Named Winnie

A Bear Named Winnie Too Cute for Words
By Kristin Battestella

Shut up, it has Michael Fassbender and teddy bears, how can the 2004 Canadian TV movie A Bear Named Winnie not be adorable?

After rescuing a black bear cub before she’s killed by a hunter, Lieutenant Harry Colebourn (Fassbender) and his fellow Canadian Army Veterinary Core tent mate Ian Macray (Jonathon Young) take in the bear as their unit’s mascot and name her Winnipeg after Harry’s hometown.  Called Winnie for short, the bear warms the hearts of the men, all except for stern Colonel John Barret (Gil Bellows).  Barret repeatedly tells Harry that Winnie cannot continue with the expeditionary force overseas and to the Great War battlefront in France, so Harry reluctantly leaves Winnie at the London Zoo.  While in the care of zookeeper Protheroe (Stephen Fry), Winnie delights young children and inspires author A. A. Milne to write his famed Winnie the Pooh tales.

I didn’t want to like this movie. I thought it was going to be stupid and juvenile and purely a pretty boy indulgence fest for girlie girls who have stuffed animals lining their car dashboards and ‘Babe In Total Control of Herself’ bumper stickers. I am not one of those girls, and A Bear Named Winnie is quite the contrary- you just can’t help but enjoy it.  Naturally, some of the animal photography is a bit hectic and choppy, but those types of cinematics are forgivable when working with excited bears or horses.  I’m also not sure why director John Kent Harrison (Helen of Troy) chose to have a few bear perspective shots in some scenes, as they are a little confusing and imperfect as well.   Thankfully, there’s plenty of family friendly humor, bear hijinks, and charm in this slightly more original story than familiar tales like Black Beauty and The Incredible Journey.  Of course, you’ll never hear the actual phrase ‘Winnie the Pooh’ here thanks to the Disney monopoly, but this seemingly simple story of a soldier and his bear is well paced, moving along nicely with enough antagonistic drama mixed in with the heart warming bear bonding. World War I angles and mild battle action don’t fully enter the picture until very late and co writers John Goldsmith (Victoria and Albert) and Simon Vaughan (Grange Hill) smartly fade out the scariest war stuff.  This is a family show, remember, but the subtle debate about the softness of new men versus old school war tactics and the coming of modern warfare machinery is dealt with wonderfully.  Yes, it’s all so dang sentimental, but so what? You would think there isn’t enough story here to fill a 90-minute movie, but there’s more heart and soul in this little ditty then some supposedly big and magical but short and crappy recent American films, coughjonahhexcough.

Well, if his acting accolades weren’t enough to make you like Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Fish Tank, Inglorious Basterds), A Bear Name Winnie certainly ups his adorable ante tenfold. Not only is the chameleon-like actor’s Canadian accent on form, but my goodness there is a reason he keeps making assorted wartime films: he looks so dang good in uniform.  Not everybody can pull of the WWI look and not just seem like a becostumed actor in those goofy wingy pants on some sputtering antique motorcycle.  Lady fans will eat up all the teary eyed close up shots, and one delicious horse whispering scene would certainly get you- if it weren’t followed by the delightful rescue of the titular Winnie.  And my gosh one quote I read online in response to this cuddly bear licking Fassy’s face and snuggling up beside him with a baby bottle between its paws sums up the eye candy perfectly, ‘I never wanted to be a bear so much in my life.’

Well, now that the melt worthy indulgence is out of the way, it would seem like Fassbender doesn’t have an easy job in A Bear Named Winnie. He is after all, talking to a dang bear, and that isn’t exactly heavy hitting dialogue.  The bear kind of drops a deuce in his lap, too (hee).  All this stand-up teddy bear fun does indeed make Harry all the more charming, but the transition from all the cuteness to implied wartime trauma is handled well by The Fass.  Harry realizes the lessons and growing up to be learned in the war, most definitely- but, there are still a lot of happy tears and golly gee shucks to go around.  One might think A Bear Name Winnie was just a struggling actor’s paycheck without a lot of room to really stretch the acting muscles. However, Fassbender’s genuine emotion, tears, and sentiment comes through in both the affectionate gazes and glossed over wartime eyes.  This is how you know the guy is a true actor, he could get by with modest, even blockbuster success just by being a pretty boy like this in any given film- yet he chooses to starve himself to make films like Hunger or goes without a script to play a latent pedophile in Fish Tank.  This is why Fassbender in such demand now- from cutting his acting chops on films like this.

The delightful support and fun antagonists in A Bear Name Winnie also add lovely family treats.  Gil Bellows (Ally McBeal) balances the stern Colonel Barret wonderfully with kooky David Suchet (Poirot) as General Hallholland.  One might not think there’s room for a layered storyline here, but the two commanders- one going down and seeking lost glory while the other is ready to meet 20th century warfare head on- add the global scope and transitional ideals of the time.  Neither is wrong, just both let their own personal ways get in the way- just like the way they claim our boys’ attachment to Winnie will make them soft.  Some of the nerdy soldiers are a little interchangeable, and it might be tough to tell who is who and catch all their names and ranks, but everyone is all in good fun here.  Jonathon Young (Sanctuary) and Aaron Ashmore (Smallville) must have enjoyed themselves, and the charm shows. Stephen Fry (Wilde, Blackadder) doesn’t have a large role as the reluctant zookeeper who comes round to Winnie yet hates kids and calls them ‘vermin’; but his clout bookends A Bear Name Winnie nicely.   

Bear Named WinnieAlthough it’s just a little Canadian television original, A Bear Named Winnie looks the period piece part.  The costumes perfectly mix the old Victorian pre-war styles with later twenties hip looks.  The uniforms, tall leather boots, and pageboy hats look dynamite, too.  It’s really a shame we don’t dress with this kind of class anymore.  While there is plenty of Fassbender and soldier boy company at which to gawk, there is something to top all that:  the bears are effing adorable indeed. I know I said it before, but it bears repeating.  (Ha, no pun intended!) These little performing black bears can warm the coldest heart- I laughed, and I even cried; and I’m not a giggly and gaga kind of girl at all. But these little f*ckers are too damn cute.  I shouldn’t curse when talking about such a family oriented program, but it’s like when you must squeeze a fat baby’s chubby little cheek- you just can’t help yourself.  The fact that this lovely story also looms along with the neat- if often unseen- aspects of Canadian WWI action is all the better.  We hardly see American Great War action anymore in film as it is, and here the viewer is treated to veterinary corps entrusted with cavalry upkeep- definitely something out of the past to us 21st century folks. Likewise, the fun vehicles, quirky sidecars, period accessories, wonderfully idyllic scenery, and cute ragtime musical charm tie A Bear Named Winnie together with a very pretty bow on top.  

Naturally, some big bear bits, hunting threats, horse injuries, the prospect of animal deaths, separation and loss, and implied battle deaths might be scary for super young ones. Otherwise, the 10 and up set can’t not enjoy this silly little movie. A nice little coda explains the happy fates and further Winnie the Pooh inspirations, softening any scary blows, too.  A short making of featurette on the DVD is also a lot of fun.  Animal lovers and Fassinators will enjoy seeing him and the bears playing with the trainers off screen.  Netflix options and streaming opportunities also make it easy to find A Bear Named Winnie, but alas, there are no subtitles.  I suppose no film is perfect! 

Although one could simply take A Bear Named Winnie for the 90 minutes worth of young and pretty Michael Fassbender snuggling cute little bears, there’s much more here than that. Gather the girls for an indulgent night or tune in for a family funfest and learn the history of ‘Pooh’. 

17 December 2010

The Gift (2002)

Song and Spirit Makes The Gift Worthwhile
By Kristin Battestella

GiftI’m not a country music fan by any means.  However, I have enjoyed a Kenny Rogers song or two over the years, especially his collaborations with The Bee Gees- namely the 1983 album Eyes That See in the Dark and its best selling duet with Dolly Parton, Islands in the Stream. When my mother gave me the 2002 CD re-issue of The Gift, I was really only interested in one song, Rogers’ duet version of Mary, Did You Know? with Wynnona Judd- also one of the few country singers who can belt it and rock out with the best of them.  Although I would have preferred a more traditional set of carols with Rogers’ easy style and raspy voice, The Gift is a fine Christian Christmas album for youth and young families or an easy listening and reverent holiday party. 

Oft covered in recent years, the Mark Lowry contemporary hit Mary, Did You Know? is given a wonderful spin here thanks to Kenny and guest vocalist Wynnona Judd’s powerful rendition. Though not envisioned as duet as we often think of sappy alternating love songs, the duel arrangement works beautifully and captures both the somber softness and big ideals addressed in these lovely lyrics.  The heavy implications and powerful melody are both sing along and inspiring, and I suspect this double whammy combination of wonderful words and hard hitting vocals is what’s keeping this tune in increasing popularity.  After all, we can’t all sing Ave Maria the way it should be sung.  This version of Mary, Did You Know? also headlines the 2007 country Christmas compilation Mary Did You Know?: 17 Inspirational Christmas Songs From Today's Top Country Artists.

Though dating back to 1996 when The Gift was first released, A Soldier’s King takes on new meaning now as we spend another holiday season with servicemen and women overseas.  This original and touching story of a soldier’s religious revelation is a little country and casual, yes, but its simplicity is timeless and most definitely relatable.  By contrast, Pretty Little Baby Child adds a tropical feel to The Gift.  Its island, un-Christmas like sway does seem a little out place, but the cute sing-ability and innocent lyrics here are a lot of fun for the kids.  Rogers reminds us we are at a birthday party for a babe, who can dislike that?

What A Wonderful Beginning further experiments with the musical sounds while delivering the Christmas message.  The choir backgrounds add weight to Kenny’s easy speaking range.  Perhaps others can sing a lot better than he can, but instead of being lost in a high and held note that might overtake the lyrical meaning, we are in a way forced to listen to a little holiday sermon, Gambler style. Though these are new and largely unfamiliar tunes, the reverence and Old Time Religion still strike a cord.  The gospel-esque It’s The Messiah continues the spiritual trend. Again even if the different stylings make The Gift seem a little uneven, the message comes through loud and clear. When you hear material like this, you wonder how one could possibly celebrate a secular Christmas with no belief structure behind it. 

Rogers changes things up some with I Trust You, focusing on soul searching instead of the meaning of Christmas.  Again, this doesn’t necessarily sound like a Yule song, just a wholesome Christian diddy.  Sweet Little Jesus Boy also slows things down with a cappella reflection and more gospel-esque notes.  Perhaps Kenny isn’t going for a particular musical theme or style here, but in some ways, it doesn’t really matter.  Regardless of the arrangement of each track, the songs here were clearly selected for their sentiment over pop chart ideologies and aesthetics.  The irony is that because The Gift came from the heart, the album has been a seasonal success.

Next Kenny Rogers touches upon the classic carols with this lengthy fifteen minute The Chosen One Montage.  This meat of The Gift includes The Chosen One, Away in the Manger, O Holy Night, Silent Night, The First Noel, We Three Kings, and Joy to the World interlaced with spoken dialogue of the Christmas Story.  Perhaps some of the kids singing and speaking is a little hokey, but again, what’s wrong with kids talking about babies, lambs, and Christmas? Isn’t that what it’s all about?  Naturally, these carols vary in style and tone, so the set does as well.  However, it is nice to hear the traditional December treats we know and love.  Go ahead, you know the words, just close your eyes and sing.

Til the Season Comes Round Again concludes The Gift in fitting sentimental fashion.  Though not a heavily orchestrated track, you get the feeling Kenny means what he says as he sings this little ode to you and yours.  It is true that some folks only see each other once a year, and amid all the traffic, gifts, and hustle and bustle, we might forget how important we and our beliefs are to each other.  The Gift reminds us to take time this year and the seasons to come.

It’s not full of super country twang, but The Gift keeps the contemporary reverence and simple spiritually at the forefront of its slightly short 45 minutes without being heavy handed.  While the opening duet of the album is without a doubt the star here, Kenny Rogers fans and others looking for a soft country Christmas album can enjoy The Gift in more ways than one.  Readily available in stores or for download online at very reasonable prices, there’s no reason not to share in The Gift this Christmas.  Despite its country packaging, this is a polite, simple little album reminding us of the true meaning of Christmas.  The Gift indeed and amen!

13 December 2010

A Manly Christmas Viewing List

A Manly Xmas List
By Leigh Wood

Well, while the ladies celebrate their Fassbender Festivus (You know who you are, biznitches!) what are the gentleman of the season to do?  Here’s a list of flicks for the dudes to gather around the tele and toast their egg nogs.  Cheers!

Half Baked – Dave Chappelle and Jim Breuer (Saturday Night Live) have some ‘weed for a good cause’ fun, i.e. raising enough money to save Harland Williams’ (Employee of the Month) virgin ass and get  him out of prison.  Some of the gags are crude and stale, but director Tamra Davis (Billy Madison) and Chappelle’s witty writing with Neal Brennan (Chappelle’s Show) keep the amusing and lighthearted sequences coming.  A few great pothead cameos and unexpected guest stars also keep a mellow viewer on his toes.  I don’t think this is a bad movie, but obviously, it has a very limited audience demographic, doesn’t it?

The Hangover – Oh, the absurd things that can go wrong in Vegas and how effing funny they can be!  This 2009 comedy starring Bradley Cooper (Alias, Wedding Crashers), Ed Helms (The Office), and Zach Galifianakis (Due Date) has just the right amount of gags and stupidity to be a modern classic.  In addition to the similar but far superior reverse memory storyline like Dude, Where’s My Car?, director Todd Phillips (Old School) makes room for honest male bonding and even some fun sentiment.  But, let’s not get too crazy now, because this is a dude’s list.  The Hangover is strangely touching, hysterical, and some how both preposterous and realistic at the same time. I’m really looking forward to The Hangover Part II.

Inglourious Basterds – Okay, so this is actually a Michael Fassbender (Hunger) movie, too, but this is one the guys can enjoy. (If you’re gal is one of the Fassinator obsessed, you’ll be pleased by his fate here- or, you might even think he’s pretty cool, “There’s a special rung in hell reserved for people who waste good scotch” and all that.) Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 alternative World War II romp looks the period perfection and has plenty of fine irony about how film can save the world.  However, I’ve seen this one a couple of times and I still can’t decide if I like it or not.  Some sequences are a little too clever and full of themselves, and though he’s supposed to be an over the top send up, sometimes I just hate Brad Pitt’s (He’s Brad %^&*# Pitt I don’t need to refer to another movie!) stupid accent here.  Thankfully, Best Supporting Actor winner Christoph Waltz (The Three Musketeers) adds serious charm and weight.  Even if you’re not a Tarantino fan, this one deserves at least one viewing, and obsessive fans can eat this one up with plenty of multiple watches.  

 (I respect all holidays: Christmas, Hanukkah, and even the %^&$#% Fassbender Festivus!)

The Men Who Stare At Goats – I really don’t like George Clooney.  In fact, I generally hate George Clooney (Michael Clayton, Syriana). However, the delightful Ewan McGregor (Revenge of the Sith, Moulin Rouge!) and wonderful Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart) make up the slack in this 2009 adaptation of author Jon Ronson’s book from director Grant Heslov (Good Night, and Good Luck- I guess he really likes Clooney then).  The tongue and cheek brilliance of casting an actor who has played a Jedi in a comedy about a New Age and Jedi-esque military project gone humorously awry is worth at least one helping of ironic viewing.  The fact that McGregor is so believable as the straight man for most of the picture makes this stupidity all the more fun.  Bridges is a little too much like The Big Lebowski sometimes, but seeing The Dude put the army on its LSD ear is also a great trip.  Again, perhaps you either get this one or you don’t, but with some spiked cider and a group of friends, one can certainly have some fun here.

Zombieland – I don’t know that I would call this 2009 zombie road trip movie truly horror, as the primary bits are not about how gory and badass said zombies could be. Thankfully, the coming of age humor amid those meddling undead makes for great fun and gags.  Director Ruben Fleischer (Fantasy Factory) and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (The Joe Schmo Show) have some apocalyptic seriousness, but the onscreen zombie survival rules are sweet. Woody Harrelson (The People Versus Larry Flint) and Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) seem like a seriously unlikely pair, but both have a lot of fun here and give it their all.  Naturally, I’m not a Jewish guy, so some of Eisenberg’s too similar to Michael Cera charm gets lost on me, but Bill Murray (again, no reference needed) is just gold.  I really hope the formula isn’t screwed for the sequel, but as Rule #32 reminds us, “Enjoy the little things.”

So hug your bro briefly and not too closely, have a shot, and get those Fassy girls away from the TV and under the mistletoe ASAP. 

10 December 2010

Jonah Hex

Jonah Hex a Mish Mash of What Could Have Been
By Kristin Battestella

I had to wait to see the 2010 comic book western Jonah Hex until it came up in my husband’s Netflix queue.  Sadly, we were both disappointed in this hodgepodged and chopped up adaptation of what could have been a fine, brooding western with modern sensibilities.

After Confederate veteran Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) disobeys an order from his commander Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich) and ends up killing his friend and Turnbull’s son Jeb (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Turnbull seeks revenge by killing Hex’s family and branding his face.  After recuperating with Native Americans, Hex is able to toe the line of death and can temporarily resurrect and speak to the dead.  He seeks vengeance on Turnbull and his Irish henchman Burke (Michael Fassbender), but the prostitute Lilah (Megan Fox) wishes to runaway with Hex.  President Grant (Aidan Quinn) sends his Lieutenant (Will Arnett) to find Hex, for he is the only man who can prevent Turnbull from completing and using a powerful superweapon to destroy Washington D.C. on America’s Centennial.

Um, yeah. Well, Red Dead Redemption is a better western than Jonah Hex turned out to be. The narration explains a lot of what should have been shown, and it’s really odd that director Jimmy Hayward (Horton Hears a Who!) put a comic animation into the film rather than actually showing more of Hex’s quasi mystical Indian recovery.  I know this is based on a DC Comic, but someone-probably a lot of coming and going someones-dropped the ball in this poorly edited, under 80 minute adaptation.  Writers Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Gamer, Crank) and William Farmer (Bullethead) should have either played the straight western or kicked up the fantastical and deathly angles. Instead, we end up with a ho-hum mix of both thanks to the uneven story, editing, and direction.  This could have been a seriously intelligent yarn with plenty of R action, but brooding questions between Hex and Turnbull asking who is the worse monster or more damned soul are never fully explored.  Every scene in Jonah Hex is simply too short.  Was this entire production really cornered into appealing to the instantaneous PG teenage demographic?  

Everything happens too fast here. Slow down the entire picture, please! It is okay to stop for detailed character observation, and there was so much more to explore in Jonah Hex.  Why was Turnbull targeting hospitals during the war to begin with? Hex is pro confederacy but anti slavery, why?  His wife was an American Indian- what were his ties to the Native tribes before his mystical experience? How did Hex meet Lilah anyway?  How many times have we seen films marking the 100th anniversary of the US- this plot point could have been much more involved indeed.  Your main character’s life is in a flashback for goodness sake!  Another half hour straightening all of this out could have gone a long way.  In addition to the historical and mystical unevenness (make up your $%^&*# mind!) the choppy editing leaves plenty of plot holes.  How did Burke know where to find Lilah-or that she was even involved with Hex?  Even if some of these nitpicks are explained, blink and you miss it.  I’ve heard of movies faulted for being to slow-especially for American mentalities- but this pacing is ridiculous.  Was there a point to Hex and Turnbull’s purgatory-esque desert battlings? Whose brilliant idea was it to cut between two fights on two different planes but with the same men? You’d think we’d want Hex to end this film ASAP, but if this was all supposed to be so dang angry and personal, how do you conclude with an open, happy ending?

Actually, I feel bad for Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men).  Although it’s understandably ugly looking and unrealistic at the same time, the face makeup design is cool. Brolin makes the good bounty hunting cowboy- a lot of American actors today really don’t have that kind of onscreen weight. And while I think he could have added an even darker voice and angry presence to Hex, the script fails Brolin more than anything else.  Is he a cool bad ass or all about the vengeance? Again, his narration doesn’t help in establishing much of anything.  I don’t doubt Brolin could have done more- it’s amazing he’s in demand again all these years after The Goonies- but even his best delivered lines don’t make up for some seriously weak dialogue.  His performance can’t have been easy with the facial prosthetics; and hey, the cute dog angles were a lot of fun, but it just seems like we don’t spend enough time getting to know the titular man himself.  We never actually meet Hex’s family, so how can we care about his revenge? Was it a good marriage? Did he know Lilah during his marital life? Now that would have been interesting!  

At first, I thought it was just me on my Fassy Festivus Bender bender, but it seems anyone who saw this film thought Michael Fassbender’s (Hunger, 300, Inglourious Basterds) over the top and  bizarre Riddler-esque Burke was the best part of Jonah Hex. 10 years from now, I suspect everyone is going to look back at this film and ask how did we not know this man was a star.  It’s like Brad Pitt in Thelma and Louise. (Chick kills guy, chick bags Brad Pitt, chicks go over cliff, fin.)  Am I gushing? I’m trying not to, really I am.  Besides, what are the odds of an actor starring in two titles with the word ‘hex’ in them?  Perhaps Fassbender doesn’t have a lot of screen time here or his scenes may seem infrequent, but there simply isn’t a lot of onscreen for anyone in a 70-minute plus credits movie. Burke’s great joy at violence tides us over from scene to scene, but his sequences are too dang brief- go to the kitchen and you miss an awful lot in this movie!  Fassbender completely transforms himself again with wonderfully bad yet jubilant eyes and a musical, almost operatic way of killing.  I must say, I laughed for days over his first line a half hour into the film. Who the heck else can get away with a line like “pretty orange balls”?  Burke’s Irish accent is thick, put on, exaggerated, even crazy at times when he sings his little ditties, and I would love to see Fassbender and Brolin head to head again for sure.

I feel bad that Burke seems to steal Hex’s thunder, but he’s made a much more interesting character. We only know what we see from Burke’s psychotic ways and crazy attitude, but otherwise he’s a mystery.  Why is such a bowler wearing thoroughly Irish guy with Maori tattoos whistling Johnny Reb tunes and taking a backseat to Turnbull? Fassbender’s badass shouldn’t be second fiddle to John Malkovich - which isn’t an easy thing for me to say (even during the said Fassbender Festivus) because most people can’t help themselves at being inferior to John Malkovich.  Fassbender has the best lines in Jonah Hex, and he rhythmically delivers almost flirtatious insults about Hex’s “pretty” face.  Clearly, he’s absolutely having fun in his scene with Megan Fox, although there should have been a lot more sedition and juiciness in that scene.  A man like Burke pulls a Bowie knife like that on a woman and he’s going to use it!  Honestly, if we’re going to have a mini microfilm, just splice Brolin and Fassy’s scenes together, you need nothing else from Jonah Hex.  I don’t think the production knew what they had when the film was cut, but once they realized how Burke overshadows everyone, Fassbender was brought along in the promotion and marketing campaign. Frankly, I’d rather they just put out a damn Director’s Cut DVD with the other half hour of the frickin’ movie!  I’ve been waiting for the Blockbuster near me to close so I can get one of the 50 Jonah Hex copies for $1-or $3 tops.  Even for Fassbender, I’m not paying anymore for this movie than I absolutely have to.  Now, if there was a re-cut 2 hour plus blu- ray director’s edition with a no holds barred complete Burke and Lilah scene, I’d pay full price and put an amen to it.

Well then, let’s talk about Megan Fox, shall we?  I’m sorry but the Transformers hottie does not look right in a period piece.  Her style and design here is simply too modern with steam punk-like costumes amid all the other Victorian proper ladies. Yes, Lilah is a prostitute, but the other styles are authentic, why isn’t hers?  Good Lord, Fox has a tiny-ass becorseted waist here, and boys, she is very pretty indeed.  If Fox’s placement here was purely for the drool, then why are the sex scenes faded to black anyway?  Why does she even like Hex? Where is the explanation for why she is such a kickass lover and fighter?  Lilah’s action scenes are styled like Underworld, again steam punk against the straight up fight scenes between the boys.  Why?  Although I confess I’ve not see any of her other work, I’ll even go out on a limb and say perhaps she does have talent, somewhere.  Sadly, even in a film as bad as Jonah Hex, she is out of her class.  For some reason, Fox also seems soft focused or ill lit. I didn’t think they still did that- wasn’t that sort of filming reserved for when Marilyn Monroe was drunk or when Ingrid Bergman could only be filmed from her preferred side? If Jonah Hex is any indication, Fox is not in the same group as those ladies, that’s for dang sure.    

Wow, John Malkovich (Places in the Heart, Dangerous Liaisons, In the Line of Fire, and of course Being John Malkovich) looks old and completely mis-styled as an angry and powerful Southern gentleman hell bent on the South rising again. I have to wonder, how many days did he work on this film? Such a thespian deserves far better material to sink his teeth into, and the seemingly disinterested Turnbull just mumbles through his fleeting scenes. His scenes here make me want to watch his classy self in The Man in the Iron Mask.  And poor Aidan Quinn (Legends of the Fall, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee) deserves far more than exposition and little more then a cameo in what might have been a seriously fine performance as Ulysses Grant. He can have a movie as Grant at the centennial all on his own.  There’s so many name people in Jonah Hex, both well cast and miscast, who aren’t even introduced or have only one brief scene.  Tom Wopat- Luke Duke, really? And where has Wes Bentley (American Beauty) been all these years? 

Now, there are a few favorable things in Jonah Hex, believe it or not. The costume design, sweet New Orleans locations, and brief Civil War action look authentic enough- so much so one might wonder why the story just didn’t start closer to battle action that spurred this supposedly so critical hatred in motion. Linger on the Civil War and personal issues where you can’t go wrong, lengthen the dang movie some, and that actually even leaves a chance for sequels.  Although the western look is on form with a naturally rugged and dirty palette, the frigging horse cannon is simply preposterous!  What horse is going to stay still for that? And what’s the point of the cowboy snake man cage match thing? Excuse me, not that I know that much about explosives, but a damn dynamite gun couldn’t work if the sticks sweat, right? Kaboom. (Where’s the kaboom? There was supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom!) Just like every other action picture, the big bangs are too loud and the voices are all too darn soft.  Everything in Jonah Hex seems one step forward, two steps back. The train heist sequence is very sweet; the music is a fitting blend of period-esque and some hard modern stylings; and the mostly real locations go a long way against the ease of today’s CGI backgrounds. I simply love the old school twang added to opening Warner Brothers logo, too. Sadly, so many things are too dark to see, and that extreme gunnery and orange ball exposition is just not flying.  A ‘Nation Killer’ weapon- is that a WMD reference or just dumb?   

Of course, there’s also all kinds of other crap filling up the blu-ray rental edition of Jonah Hex, all of it unrelated to the show of course. There are no features on the rental edition or even scene select options, either, but at least we have subtitles. Goodness gracious me there are just too many credits and useless fluff.  I seriously wish this would simply be redone, like the Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist or Edward Norton’s quick The Incredible Hulk reboot of Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk.  Although I’ve not read the comic series, I’m a sucker for a good western.  We haven’t had many in recent years, and this story deserves to be done properly.  Maybe the material would have been better served as a television series? We are overdue for another hard-hitting episodic western as well. Instead of being a short, gimmicky, juvenile mix of badass and comic book, Jonah Hex should have been long, dark, brooding, and heavy.  Even if you don’t like brooding westerns, this juvenile yarn attempt clearly failed, didn’t it? No doubt, there are actually audiences out there who can love this silly little flawed film.  Completist fans of the cast will certainly add Jonah Hex to their collections as well. However, if you’re looking for a mature western or faithful adaptation, move along cowboy. 

(As you can see by the screen captures, I did pick up Jonah Hex on DVD for $2.  Perhaps since I saw it on blu-ray first or maybe the digital grading on the film was poor; but this was a very tough film to capture.  Most of the images came out too dark, distorted, and pixelated.  I tried to brighten the Megan Fox pictures, but hopefully you can still see the day-glow effect in the shots. However, while going frame by frame trying to capture Michael Fassbender's good smack on her, I think I caught a boob flash for the boys!)