24 December 2011

More Elvis Christmas Music!

Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas and His Christmas Album, Again!
By Kristin Battestella

Originally released in 1957, Elvis’ Christmas Album was so good; they just had to keep reissuing it!  I’ve chatted about the original proper previously, but as we can’t ever really get enough of Elvis at Christmas; here are a few thoughts on the 1971 LP Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas and those pesky Elvis’ Christmas Album reissues, too.

O Come All Ye Faithful and The First Noel open Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas in unique but reverent fashion. Though Elvis seems to be struggling just a bit, both deliveries are soul felt. Faithful’s unusual rock opera type arrangement and the country church tone for Noel are a touch of seventies, but also old school good.  After such a heavy religious aspect on his previous Christmas album, I must say it is a bit odd that these are the only two carols here.  I wonder why? On a Snowy Christmas Night allows more time for Elvis to take it easy and still have a seasonal spiritual message. The flow here is much more suited to his style, and thus this track sounds a lot less dated even though it carries the same power and choir of the opening two sessions.

 Winter Wonderland also gets to have some fun with a little hillbilly rock guitar jazzing up this staple along with Elvis’ bluesy voice. The titular The Wonderful World of Christmas has the most traditional sounding style here, recalling more old school winters of yore. Ironically, it’s not how the rest of the album sounds at all. It Won’t Seem Like Christmas carries more of a Kentucky Rain light feeling with lots of mellow soul and Christmas romance.  It is a ballad that seems solely meant just for Elvis in many ways. Though not all original compositions, most of the tracks here aren’t very well known or at the very least, feel Elvis exclusive and that is not a bad thing.

Side B continues with the similarly titled I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day and If I Get Home on Christmas Day. You would think they would have placed them further apart in the listing, but I digress. I’ll Be Home on Christmas Day puts the back up singers aside and let’s Elvis get singer/songwriter seventies country gospel as only he can.  It’s only fault is it doesn’t sound that much like a Christmas song and some of the lyrics are tough to understand. Oh, this is a love lost and coming home tale that just happens to be on 12/25? If I Get Home On Christmas Day is a little easier, breezy, and able to understand or sing along to, but it also doesn’t feel as timeless as the essentials from Elvis’ Christmas Album. Both are certainly likeable listens for Elvis fans, but they are too of the moment in seventies soul arrangement. Holly Leaves and Christmas Trees suffers much of the same.  Elvis sound good and mentions the titular seasonal obligations, but it’s more of that same Kentucky Rain power. 

Thankfully, Merry Christmas Baby rocks it up a bit.  Elvis gets down and naughty here in true guitar bluesy fashion. Though it is odd, I must say, for one who often kept his hip jiving rock and gospel music separate, to have this combination of sexy Yule, but it works. This is the Elvis we expect, and Merry Christmas Baby stands out wonderfully unlike the rest of Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas’ same same. Silver Bells slows the seasonal down for the finale, and Elvis has room to hold the notes above the choir for a solid traditional finish.  Perhaps because I didn’t grow up with this record as much as Elvis’ Christmas Album, it isn’t as classic to me.  Outside of a few staples, one might not even notice this was a Christmas album- which is perfect for more causal fans who don’t want his earlier gospel Christmas sound. Actually, if you pick and choose your favorite individual downloads, fans can listen to the essence of Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas anytime of year. Yes, some may find this slightly tired Elvis pseudo Christmas sound a bad thing- and if it were anyone else, I’d agree. Fortunately, these tunes are still soft seasonal sweetness for a rotating holiday dinner playlist.  Elvis die-hards, fans of his later sound, seventies soul lovers, and those in need of secular delights can take up Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas again and again.  Those who like their carols traditional should stick with the 1957 album, but at least Elvis offers the best of both worlds!

Of course, unlike the entirely unique Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas, the 1958 reissue of Elvis’ Christmas Album is just that, a re-release with an identical line up to the original record.  This RCA issue is the one with the snowy blue cover sleeve, which is probably more iconic for some than the original red presents edition that subsequently returned for the brief CD release. I have a picture of my parents from the Christmas before they were married, and you can clearly see this album in the background, no lie!  The 1970 Pickwick redo record, however, shakes things up a bit- and not just with its jazzy red ribbons on the album cover.  While Blue Christmas, Silent Night, and White Christmas are retained among others from the original 1957 Elvis’ Christmas Album, they sound somewhat different here.  There’s no information of a rerecording or use of alternate takes- understandable on an obscure record, but not for Elvis- so maybe it’s just me being used to the CD versions.  That and this record might just be really flat!  After all, one shouldn’t actually play Elvis records anymore- just display them.  

Unfortunately, the four B-side gospel tracks are gone from this 10 tune, paired down Pickwick set, having been replaced with If Everyday Was Just Like Christmas and Mama Liked the Roses.  While If Everyday Was Just Like Christmas pays for the affordable price of admission on the reissue with its heartfelt sentimentality, Mama Liked the Roses is an odd selection for a Christmas album.  It’s a nice memorial ditty indeed, but it’s just a bit out of place.  Then again, I suppose some might have found the gospel inclusions on Elvis’ Christmas Album in 1957 unusual, but are they not quintessential holiday listens now? 

Collectors of the record editions can find Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas or the Pickwick do over if you search long enough, but fortunately, you don’t have to keep on such valuable vinyl Yule after Yule. The Christmas Peace and Elvis Christmas CDs combine all Elvis’ holiday music in one convenient place, and digital options and MP3 downloads make it much easier to keep your seasonal Presley favorites handy.  Though dated with some unique sounds and track choices, Elvis Sings the Wonderful World of Christmas is perfect for fans of a soulful secular season, and seriously, there is no reason to not have any version of Elvis’ Christmas Album handy every December


18 December 2011

Jane Eyre (2011) Blu- Ray Review

The New Jane Eyre is Better on Blu-Ray
By Kristin Battestella

Instead of a Dickensian Christmas- that Victorian treat is being saved for Dickens’ bicentennial in a few months- I’m taking time out to revisit the new 2011 Jane Eyre on blu-ray.  After all, it is the Fassbender Festivus, don’t forget.

Governess Jane Eyre (Mia Wasikowska) abandons Thornfield Hall and the manor’s mysterious master Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender) - with whom she has fallen in love.  While recuperating at the home of minister St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell), Jane remembers her unscrupulous Aunt Reed (Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky) and the ruthless Lowood School before coming to meet housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) and her charge at Thornfield, Adele (Romy Settbon Moore).  Will Jane be able to escape society’s confines and Thornfield’s secrets and be true to herself?

Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 tale is a familiar one indeed. Thankfully, director Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) and screenwriter Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe) play with an untraditional timeline- and the changes are great.  This flashback storytelling creates more suspense and mystery- especially if one didn’t know the Jane Eyre story. The Lowood scenes are also dynamic, with just enough twistedness. I do, however, wish there was more of Freya Parks (Creation) as sickly little Helen and newcomer Romy Settbon Moore as Adele.  Those unfamiliar with the novel might not quite understand her relationship to Rochester here.  Fortunately, the literary dialogue shines in lovely fireside scenes. Though everyone is held in check by the Victorian customs, there is plenty of heat and tension amid the firelight or nighttime blue conversations. The superb natural camerawork, light and shadow plan, and period photography all do wonders- but I do wish there were more of the missing cuts and deleted scenes instead of a few slower transitions. This Jane Eyre is not slow paced by any means- the suspense telling is quite the contrast from other period films in fact. However, we shouldn’t pause for pretty reflection and romantic montages when there is so much more from the book to tell.  Likewise, despite those great darker storytelling strides, the presentation could have been a lot spookier. I always find it a disappointment as to what was really going on in the depths of Thornfield Hall, but romance fans and period drama lovers will eat this Jane Eyre up. All the societal barriers, conflict, and love triangles are here without being uber sappy and overwhelming for non-fans. Again, the retained language from the book is just great; you want to be able to quote this stuff in regular conversation! I actually prefer this Jane Eyre here on blu-ray more than having seen it in the cinema. At home, you can see everything, hear everything, and read the words onscreen.  Sigh. 
 Though a delightful encapsulation and presentation all around, I do have a few quibbles. The deleted scenes- snips only available previously in the Jane Eyre trailer- are not restored in the film proper. Most of these scenes are longer set up bits and transition extras and probably excised for good reason, yes. However, there is no reason to not put these 16 minutes back into the picture for the video release, as several of these pieces give much needed exposition about Rochester’s relationship to Adele. Their absence takes a lot away if you consider the fact that this Jane Eyre film is trying to do in 2 hours what the 2006 miniseries did in 6.  The loss of extra scenes with Helen’s ghost and a very creepy Bertha also makes this Jane seem somewhat lightweight- even as it prides itself on its would be horror tone.  What’s worse is some bits still appear to be missing from the trailer.  Awards acclaim is happening for Jane Eyre, but not as much as there could be, in part perhaps because it is as if the production didn’t go all the way or at least take their Jane Eyre vision as far as they could have.  The blu-ray release is indicative of this fault.  Take the time you need, tell your tale to the fullest, sell your ‘for your consideration’ on video where there are abso-toot-ly no restrictions.

Fortunately, Mia Wasikowska (The Kids are All Right) gives everything to her embodiment of the eponymous governess, measure for measure indeed.  Mia makes no pretentions as Jane nor trumps up any airs or graces, and yet there is such a poise and old world class to her performance.  Despite being a truly good girl, Jane just can’t help but put her intelligence and self-respect above her station- which was a big Victorian no-no.  We instantly like Jane and enjoy her transformation from sickly and pale to radiant and confident. Jane’s unusual relationship with Rochester opens them both up, and Bronte’s dialogue is delivered in perfect banter and timing. Jane sounds so good, strong, and natural.  It really makes you wonder why we don’t speak like this anymore or carry ourselves with such properness or value.  But of course, these societal barriers must be broken down for Jane, and this silent battle and forgetting oneself is addictive! Despite being bound by their respective conventions, Jane and Rochester recognize their kindred souls. Mia and Fassbender are great together, and that’s all the more props and ‘Go Jane!’ for not giving into Rochester! I wish more women today stuck to their convictions as Jane does. And don’t say we do, just take a look at all the talentless people selling their souls on reality television! Charlotte and Jane are quite progressive for their day, with great Dickensian circumstance before Dickensian turnabout was so decidedly Dickensian!

And what of That Fass? Oh, if there was ever a greater literary introduction than Rochester’s- and Fassbender works it!  Rochester’s angry debut was my favorite part of reading the book as a kid. I found it so scary, as if the Master of Thornfield is just an apparition, a dreamed up phantom. Who is this nasty guy wanting such respect and service and yet being such a pesky ass himself? All this brood is established in the character, but Fassy’s Rochester is also dang cool. You want to slap him for his initial snarky and attempts at jealous with the shallow Ms. Ingram.  But Rochester is also socially unobtainable to Jane, and thus all the more attractive. Fassbender layers in a great spin to his voice, a deeper, harsh, received Victorian, and that fireside conversation with Jane is simply excellent. Fassbender keeps Rochester menacing, but sexy, tongue in cheek, and intelligent.  Not many actors today can pull off such balance, much less look so perfect about it. Fassbender hides Rochester’s loneliness with begrudging attitude. He wants a friend and trusts no one but Jane, this spitfire who doesn’t quite know it yet has just stirred him so! When Rochester does get frank and opens himself up, it is no less intimidating even if there is quite the sigh worthy and backwardly flirtatious wink wink. The audience gets swept up along with Jane, as Fassbender again completely disappears into his performance.  He looks totally dang different in every frickin film he’s in this year, and hardware is rolling in for Fassy’s work in Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method, and Shame.

The fan girls may make Jane Eyre just another episode in The Michael Fassbender Show, but I wish more attention was paid to Jamie Bell (The Adventures of Tin Tin, Billy Elliot) as St. John Rivers. He is warmhearted yet stilted by his position. John is not willing to break his society’s standards regardless of how he really feels.  We like him, but feel sorry for him at the same time. There also isn’t much time spent on Imogen Poots (Centurion) and Tazmin Merchant (The Tudors), though there is an intriguing examination in their opposite representations- snotty Blanche deserving none of her privilege and poor but entitled to more Mary Rivers. Amelia Clarkson (The Sarah Jane Adventures) is also wonderful as the young Jane. You could have spent the entire two hours just on her at Lowood! I don’t have much to say about Dame Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) except that she is simply awesome and time traveled to research this role, I swear!

I am quite pleased to see Jane Eyre getting some- a few but not all- technical awards and recognition.  The costumes- upscale, humble, men, women, horses!- are just divine.  I love everyone’s frilly nightgowns and heavy frocks- I love the word ‘frocks’ almost as much as this wardrobe! There is no reason to not award the clothes or décor in this picture.  This Jane Eyre has the looks of today with modern filmmaking in mind, yet it also seems to be old, as if it were made then. The music and score are also wonderfully authentic, with emotional strings and piano from Oscar winner Dario Marianelli (Atonement).  Even the horrid Lowood school looks wonderful along with all the locations and decorations high and low Oh, Thornfield!  There is such a bright and happy castle charm, but also a cold, foreboding, mysterious slight. The Hall does seem like Jane’s salvation, but it is a delicate balance between that happiness and the spooky and brooding.  Jane Eyre’s foggy, stormy scenery allows for illusions and phantoms on the wind while the lovely English gardens visually layer the happiness, ornamentation, or upscale torment as needed. Major props also for the perfect use of that period lighting. The flickering casts change to highlight characters- Lowood is overshadowed and bleak but Helen’s scenes have a halo aspect to them. It’s all natural lighting, and yet there’s just a hint of supernatural glaze. The candles and firelight work two fold in creating old-fashioned warmth and ambiance and more darkness and shadows. This dark and light looks just perfect on blu-ray; you can see everything clearly amid the lovely glow.

But of course, for all the glory that is the visuals on blu-ray, the BD live features and meaningless previews are a real pain! These long winded opening delays and annoying pop ups aren’t trailers like the cinema- they are commercials.  Don’t kid us!  I also had a panic when I couldn’t immediately find the subtitles option. Not only were they somewhat cumbersomely placed, but a soft spoken period picture with great English English of olde such as this requires them.  The  director’s commentary is nice, but the behind the scenes features are too brief.  Separate shorts on music and lighting are better, but the total is not nearly enough for today.  More insightful interviews and featurettes can be found online. Again, Jane Eyre’s release on video seems like it was a bit rushed or even an afterthought when it could have been much, much more.  Where are the costuming features? Full cast interviews and video diaries? A conversation with screenwriter Moira Buffini and a book to film discussion would have been awesome!

Fans of the Charlotte Bronte classic should definitely see this Jane Eyre. Even in even this short adaptation, there is so much to dissect, divulge, and study.  While some definitive enthusiasts might find the reduced time or structure changes here too altered, this quick Bronte fix is perfect for classroom analysis, fans of the cast, and period piece aficionados. Fortunately, the blu-ray price has come down in recent months, too, so there’s more opportunity to rent or buy. Indulge your Victorian sensibilities and spend the night at Thornfield with Jane Eyre.  

17 December 2011

Christmas in Connecticut

Christmas in Connecticut Losing Its Luster
By Kristin Battestella

I’ve always been a little unfond of the 1945 essential Christmas in Connecticut, but this year’s viewing has all but confirmed it. The dated presentation- focused on misunderstood romantic comedy instead of holiday spirit- is waning and does not hold up against other Christmas classics of yesteryear.

Smitten nurse Mary Lee (Joyce Compton, They Drive by Night) writes to Alexander Yardley’s (Sidney Greenstreet) home magazine in hopes her patient and potential fiancé, recovering sailor Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan), can have a restorative house visit with columnist Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck).  Unfortunately, Liz and her editor Dudley (Robert Shayne, Adventures of Superman) have been making up the literary down on the farm inspirations unbeknownst to Yardley.  When Yardley approves Jones’ visit and wants to come along for Christmas Eve, Liz agrees to marry architect John Sloan (Reginald Gardiner) and set up on his Connecticut farm to feign her column and save her job. When Jefferson arrives, however, Liz finds her feelings about love and marriage irrevocably changed.

Director Peter Godfrey (The Two Mrs. Carrolls) keeps Christmas in Connecticut dry to start, with the secondary players slow to get the titular events from writers Lionel Houser (Sabotage), Adele Comandini (Three Smart Girls), and Aileen Hamilton (Slightly Dangerous) going. It’s all charming enough for classic romantic comedy audiences, but the real amusement doesn’t begin until we leave the city for the country troubles.  Though there is no outright slapstick, the outlandish lies and convoluted cover-ups build to confusing twists and misunderstandings like a supersized Three’s Company holiday episode. Sometimes it’s just a little tough to care, and the tone is not as full on Christmassy as one might expect. This is not It’s a Wonderful Life where Christmas becomes the heart and soul and is dressed to the seasonal hilt.  The holiday here is just a backdrop to set the romance in motion. The would-be heartfelt wartime inspirations, unfortunately, are also somewhat ignorant.  How nice it would have been for those overseas to think of home with Christmas in Connecticut- but Liz has faked this country life and makes a mockery of what is so precious to so many.  It comes across as pretentious to say the least. All this trouble to chase a sailor when you’re pretending to be married?  If the tale had toned down the sass and snark in favor of more homespun wartime sentimentality and holiday meaning, perhaps it wouldn’t come across as so pompous today.  In the end, it feels like Christmas in Connecticut is about an hour and a half too long.

As you can probably guess, I’m not much of a Barbara Stanwyck fan- though her Liz is quite progressive here. She lives alone, wears pants, doesn’t want folks to tell her what to do, and does what she has to do on her sly way to the top. Liz doesn’t want to marry or live the farm life she hypocritically plugs, and it’s all supposed to be an amusing situation. Unfortunately, Stanwyck comes off as kind of bitchy and unlikeable- we want Liz to be knocked down a notch thanks to that lovin’.  Although the viewer also has to wonder why all these men surround her, there are a few amusing moments when Liz has to stammer and think on her feet in her convoluted tale.  But there isn’t enough of that charm to carry Christmas in Connecticut, I’m sorry to say.  Despite her numerous films and a variety of roles, I always end up feeling as though Stanwyck plays the same similar but different spitfire over and over in films like The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe,  and Ball of Fire.  Christmas in Connecticut is much the same, unlike her lovely noir Oscar nomination in Double Indemnity.

Dennis Morgan (Kitty Foyle, The Hard Way) is also a little too much like every other forties contract leading man, but at least the runaround romance and stumbling sparring is on par with Stanwyck even if there is simply no chemistry. Liz is so anti-love, but bland Jones stirs her heart love at first sight- despite Reginald Gardiner’s (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation) equally unappealing sham marriage? I’m not buying it.  What we see of the servants is also too stereotypical and even insulting. African Americans being so jolly in their subservience and bumbling rotund little men like S.Z. Sakall (Casablanca).  Forget him being the warmhearted Uncle Felix- I can barely understand him!  And Una O’Connor (Bride of Frankenstein) makes another flaky and fluttery old lady maid appearance! Only Sidney Greenstreet (The Maltese Falcon) remains fun, lighthearted, classy, and always cool.  Seriously, the baby switcheroos at the fulcrum of Christmas in Connecticut are really weird- simply not amusing at all.

Though crisp and pretty, the black and white photography puts a damper on the Christmas feelings, too.  With a title such as this, the audience expects something bright and colorful.  The opening seafaring action is also a little hokey, and the Christmas party scene is used as an excuse for romance before holiday dressings. Thankfully, the swinging tunes are great, with some traditional holiday music laced in the score and carols played on the piano.  Oh, that big old tree with tinsel up to wazoo! Actually, that is really the only indication that this tale plays out on Christmas Eve! The snows and sleighs look awesome as well- even if it is totally fake winter weather. That trickery, however, adds to the fun.   There are cool cars, and that typewriter! The furs, frocks, long dresses, uniforms- all of it is swanky perfect with a side of sweet décor and nostalgia.

Of course, there are longtime audiences that adore Christmas in Connecticut and watch Yule after Yule, and fans of forties comedies and romantic films and those who grew up with these seasonal viewings can continue to enjoy, indeed. However, the uneven style, put on romance, and lack of Christmas in Christmas in Connecticut is a lot to ask of today’s audiences.   Fans of the cast or families looking for an old time secular or neutral holiday film can tune in, but viewers looking for the big Christmas classics should look elsewhere.

14 December 2011

Christmas Vinyl Round 3

Tres Christmas Vinyl!
By Kristin Battestella

I’m digging deeper into ye olde records of yuletide bliss for even more odd vinyl and holiday magic!

The Abbey Choir Little Drummer Boy – I thought this was some quirky obscure record, but amazingly the entire album is available for MP3 Download. The titular carol may be a little too choir shrill, but it’s always fun to sing along with tunes like the Twelve Days of Christmas and The Wassail Song.  There’s also lovely old-fashioned church sounding reverence with Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.  Lesser-heard holiday fair like Christians Awake, As with Gladness Men of Old, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks, and Angels from the Realms of Glory are nice to have, too. Not all of it is pleasing to the contemporary ear and it is all quite short. However, for many, this is what their childhood Christmas did sound like and should ring as today.  

Christmas with George Beverly Shea and George Beverly Shea Silent Night – I already commented on Bev’s Christmas Hymns and Hark the Herald Angels Sing records, but I picked up these two albums second hand and found more great, baritone reverence- sort of. These repeat tracks and varying listings were so confusing; I actually made a chart to figure it all out! In addition to adding six new religious tracks including Fairest Lord Jesus, Holy Holy Holy, Oh Men From the Fields, and Count Your Blessings; the 1972 Silent Night double album contains Go Tell It On the Mountain and all the songs from Christmas with George Beverly Shea. While most of these are the same tunes found on the Christmas Hymns LP, the Hark the Herald Angels Sing set is completely unique with no repeat tracks found here.  Whew! It is a shame there’s so little information about these records, and I could see completists driving themselves crazy! Even so, it is nice to have at least one of these albums with Shea’s down and spiritual, and the odd download of some but not all of these tunes are available for folks to pick and choose their favorites.  Families looking for an old-fashioned traditional sound can find either of these George Beverly Shea albums fairly easy enough, but I suppose beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to the vinyl.

Silent Night Christmas Carols and Holiday Strings – Now this album does seem to be obscure, but it is still one of my favorite holiday records.  Yes, it is getting a little crispy and warped by now, but I love the festive instrumentals, from the rousing and upbeat O Come All Ye Faithful and Joy to the World to the heart tugging The First Noel, O Holy Night, and the less and less heard We Three Kings of Orient Are.  Though perhaps too plain, religious, or generic for contemporary secular folks, there is however something timeless at work here.  Sans vocals trying to adhere to an of the moment style, the music and meaning are allowed room to accentuate that family dinner or night of trimming the tree. The dates, the hours just become, well, insignificant against the revelry. Happy Sigh.

The Star Carol Tennessee Ernie Ford Sings His Christmas Favorites– Ernie gets right to the holiday boasts with Joy To the World and Hark the Herald Angels Sing and keeps the Spirit of the Season heavy through the somber It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and Silent Night finale.  In between, rarities such as Some Children See Him, O Harken Ye, Sleep My Little Lord Jesus, and the eponymous track stand out along with a lovely and deep O Holy Night, Adeste Fideles, and We Three Kings.  The voice and the spirit are entrenched here most definitely, and will create a lump in your throat if you pause to have a quiet, snowy late night listen. Yes, the old-fashioned 1958 down gospel male singing won’t work for a swanky secular party today. For reminiscing folks seeking a little country gospel in their Christmas, however, downloads and digital Ernie picking and choosing is available. Perhaps that is proof we do still indeed yearn for the “honestly sung, deep religious feeling” as the record sleeve suggests. 

Sigh, so many records, so little time! 

12 December 2011

The Nativity (1978)

The Nativity a Decent but Dated Little Movie
By Kristin Battestella

I stumbled upon the 1978 television movie The Nativity on one of the religious channels late at night and though dated and flawed, this is a nice little Biblical tale.

Amid King Herod’s (Leo McKern) tyranny and deadly Roman occupation, the young Mary (Madeline Stowe) and her parents Anna and Joachim (Jane Wyatt and George Voskovec) await the coming of the Messiah to free the Israelites.  The carpenter Joseph (John Shea) becomes betrothed to Mary as Herod’s advisors Nestor (John Rhys Davies), Flavius (William Morgan Sheppard), and Diomedes (Freddie Jones) predict a celestial alignment that will bring forth the birth of the true King of the Jews.  Ordered by Herod, they search the land for newborns who pose a threat to the king.  When Mary has an angelic visitation and becomes with child, she visits her also surprisingly pregnant Aunt Elizabeth (Audrey Totter) and her doubting, mute husband Zechariah (Paul Stewart).  Soon, Joseph and the heavily pregnant Mary must go to Bethlehem for the tax census, where Jesus is born.

Director Bernard L. Kowalski (SSSSSSS) is a little uneven in handling the story from Morton Fine (I Spy) and Millard Kaufman (Raintree County). The alternating between Herod’s madness, the journey of the Magi, and the eponymous drama is not a problem, but Herod is dropped all together halfway through the film. I was also totally confused by the three wise men who aren’t actually the magi but encounter Eleazar and another set of real magi looking for the newborn king before becoming the three kings anyway.  The Nativity also takes awhile to get going despite a short odd hour and a half to do it. Some of the one on one scenes between Joseph and Mary are a little too seventies budding love, but as the major events get going, the pace improves greatly. The dreamy waterfall conception is a toe towards mystical, but the focus is smartly kept on Mary and Biblical dialogue rather than getting too weird.  Not all the names of the players are given onscreen, however, and sometimes it is tough to know who is supposed to be who outside of the obvious figures.  The Nativity’s biggest trouble is that it isn’t as moving as it could be or spends more time on the exposition and fluff. Fortunately, when it sticks to the tale at hand via Biblical conversations and faith, thing are a okay.  

Wow, Madeline Stowe looks so young!  The Last of the Mohicans star does seem a little untrained- even hokey and cross eyed in a few moments with Joseph! However, she is playing the teenaged future mother of Christ, so the innocence and youthful nervousness fits.  She’s pretty- probably a little too Hollywood looking compared to what Mary really looked like- but Stowe keeps things natural, lovely, and humble.  Likewise, John Shea (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) is shy as the poor carpenter and would be pursuer of Mary, but he speaks up and stands strong against the Roman abuses. Joseph doesn’t exactly have it easy, either.  We know so little about the guy except that he had to take a lot on faith! Shea handles the difficulty and trust well, though I do wonder if that beard is genuine. The two leads make a cute couple, and fit together as Mary and Joseph, but their early scenes are a little boring, or again played too Love Story with sappy, annoying, intrusive music overtaking their soft dialogue in an unnecessary attempt at more poignancy. 

Thankfully, Jane Wyatt (Father Knows Best) and George Voskovec (12 Angry Men) are lovely as the supportive parents who also have much to handle and do so with a lot of class. Of course, John Rhys Davies (Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones) is always a lot of fun as the feisty and disbelieving royal advisor Nestor, and  William Morgan Sheppard (Max Headroom) and Freddie Jones (Dune) have plenty of cranky debates as the trio comes to appreciate the True King. I really wish their part in The Nativity were better realized. Audrey Totter (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and Paul Stewart (Citizen Kane) are also lovely, but barely there as Elizabeth and Zachariah.

The Spanish locations, however, look surprisingly ancient and Middle Eastern.  Though the opening Roman battle scenes are a little weak, they do establish the fear and oppression atmosphere just fine and don’t take up too much of the plot. Leo McKern (A Man for All Seasons) as Herod and his palace are somewhat low budget seventies television over the top, but again, this makes it easier for us to dislike the evil king and his bad girl daughter Salome (Kate O’Mara, Dynasty).   The creche cave and Star finale look authentic as well, being historically realistic yet allowing room for belief in miracles. The costumes are kind of fifties bright and colorful, but set that Biblical robes and dressings mood we expect. I don’t really know if they had such shiny gold plated menorahs back in the day, but dang I’d like to have a big sweet one like that!

Yes, we already have a lovely retelling in The Nativity Story, and I would love to see an unofficial sequel on the life of Christ to create a loose trilogy with The Passion.  However, the screenplay here highlighting the nutty Herod along with Mary and Joseph, feels due for an update. In the end, the datedness, low budget production, and uneven presentation hinders what should be a beautiful and essential tale.  However, The Nativity is still great for a classroom or study group comparison or a December family viewing- but it isn’t available on DVD. Typical!  Imperfect yes, but you can’t really go wrong with The Nativity.

Sharpe's Rifles (1988)

Sharpe’s Rifles a Nice Introduction Book
By Kristin Battestella

No, no, I haven’t forgotten Sharpe!  Though a lot of busy did take me away from reading Bernard Cornwell’s 1988 prequel Sharpe’s Rifles from time to time, I wanted to write a few literary notes in comparison to the telefilm. Usually, I post my book commentaries with the film they align to, but this one was too long for the comments section! I guess I had more Sharpe thoughts than I thought!

So do please also see our complete analysis on the 1993 television adaptation of Sharpe's Rifles here

Cut off from his battalion in the Spanish winter of 1809, raised from the ranks Lieutenant Richard Sharpe must unite a small group of rifleman after the death of his Captain.  He buts heads with the big Irish rifleman Patrick Harper and reluctantly unites with Don Blas Vivar as he and his Spanish volunteers seek to deliver the Banner of St. James to Santiago de Compostela and unite Spain against French Colonel de L’Eclin and Vivar’s brother Count Mouromorto, a French sympathizer. To make things worse, Sharpe must protect The Parkers, stuffy Methodist missionaries, and their lovely niece, Louisa.

Naturally, character additions, changes, and small-scale productions create a few differences from book to film. Besides the insertion of Teresa for the debut Sharpe show, the book Sharpe’s Rifles concludes with a heavy cavalry battle and butchery fest, rather than a smaller cathedral stand.  Rifleman Hagman is somewhat prominent on the page, but remember, the other rifles were television creations.  The Parkers storyline is changed as well, tying into the bank draft plot of the film rather than creating a love interest for Sharpe as Louisa does here.  Though Teresa’s premature introduction creates a few inconsistencies for the subsequent Sharpe’s Eagle episode, her lady is a superior onscreen move. The written Louis is just a little too wishy washy- only there to create an obligatory love interest where none is really needed.  There’s enough going on with Sharpe’s struggle to lead the Rifles along with the back and forth with Vivar.  We don’t need a little girl to occupy space or distract Sharpe, especially since nothing good comes of it anyway.

The written Vivar, however, is given more dimension.  Instead of being a wise almost fatherly support, he’s slightly more harsh and desperate in his rescue of Spain.  Vivar’s kind, even bemusing on occasion and develops a great relationship with Harper, but there’s also a great element of competition with Sharpe. The tug of war over Louisa near the end of Sharpe’s Rifles spells it out, but the devil’s advocate conversations and battle strategy discussions do far more in showing Sharpe’s style and embittered English tone versus Vivar’s intelligence and Spanish pride.  Sharpe’s Rifles does unfortunately suffer from some weak villainy.  Colonel de L’Eclin feels broad like every other insurmountable French officer that we somehow know will get bested by Sharpe, and the visual character design of the Count of Mouromorto is far more creepy than the faux mysterious written version.  Vivar is actually more deadly and action forward than his turncoat brother.  

Sharpe and Harper are great as always, but again I feel there wasn’t enough of them. The quiet character scenes are far more interesting than the historical battle details, even though those are sweet too.  Sharpe’s Rifles does fall prey to the big omnipresent battle for the finale.  Sometimes it is almost as if Sharpe is only a supporting player, a host and the battle is the focus of the tale.  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  The French tricks and twists for the Santiago de Compostela siege are also totally obvious, and after an entire novel of building character, intelligence, and character intelligence, everyone is made to look kind of stupid. The reader is repeatedly told the right versus left and inside versus outside clues that we don’t need at the expense of the players.  The conclusion feels really rushed- three pages to wrap up three hundred page’s worth of story with Captain Hogan being introduced on the last page!- and sometimes, I get kind of tired of Sharpe for the big battle endings.  Yeah, there is a battle, Sharpe gets the bad guy, and he marches on.  They kind of all feel the same now.  But of course, when you like Sharpe and Harper you want to see them kick ass and bag the bad guys.

Sharpe’s Rifles was an elusive book for me to find a few years ago, and the edition I finally got is a red TV tie -in reissue with Sean Bean on the cover, hehe! Though slightly uneven among players and battles, and again a step down from the original core of Sharpe books, Sharpe’s Rifles is the perfect example of a true prequel.  How did our Sharpe and Harper meet? Overall, that question is answered, and for those looking to jump into the written Sharpe, Rifles is a good spot to dive in. 

11 December 2011

MI-5: Season 9

MI-5 Season 9 Begins to Wane
By Kristin Battestella

Alas, here again I’ve finally caught up with Season 9 of the British spy series MI-5.  Unfortunately, for the first time since I began following the folks at Thames House, I was a little disappointed with this shorted year.

After recruiting new junior case offices Beth Bailey (Sophia Myles) and Dimitri Levendis (Max Brown), promoted Section D Chief Lucas North (Richard Armitage) is confronted by a mysterious figure from his past, Vaughn Edwards (Ian Glen).  The connection leads Lucas to rekindle his old romance with Maya Lahan (Laila Rouass), but Sir Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) and Intelligence Officer Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker) are continually torn between their own would-be romance and life at Thames House.

New writers Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent (Hotel Babylon) spend too much of this fall 2010 season’s reduced eight episodes on daily terrorism and saving the UK’s day.  Yes, we still have MI-5’s great intricate plots, intelligence, and relevant debates with oil talk, recession topics, and other global events. It’s refreshing to breakaway from standard terror plots to have Chinese and Russian relations, indeed. Unfortunately, all that intrigue is a lot less intriguing without the personal elements from our resident spies- the very piece that made MI-5 so delightful.  Without these private reflections or focus on what goes on beyond the Grid, this season’s episodes seem to end too soon or feel shorter despite being the same solid 50 plus minutes.  The viewer just doesn’t care as much about the same old misunderstood gunman or unknown bomber week after week- especially when we know so little about our regular players.  Season 9 feels like a shadow of MI-5’s former self, and even I’m ready for it to wrap up after Series 10.  The ‘people who happen to be spies’ angle has been chopped and lost in favor of the big shocker. Okay, the shockers are still damn good, but without the personal, it all just seems so hollow.  

Fortunately, Peter Firth and Nicola Walker remain the glue of the series. Right off the bat, these two hardened spies pussyfoot around their feelings.  To hell with the young and beautiful blondes, Harry and Ruth’s one on one private conversations are so, so pretty. I am so glad creator David Wolstencroft stuck with Sir Harry all these years.  He makes the show personal, the familiar old spy sacrificing in this changing world, fighting the good fight against global politics and all that. Again, time with its players is MI-5 at its best.  Harry’s phone call to his daughter is particularly touching- no need for flashy crap and over the top plots here. Just a family phone call when doing your duty for Queen and Country. Amen. Ruth also creates the perfect emotional fulcrum on the Grid, the expertise of life inside versus the unfulfilled life outside.  It’s also a wonderful surprise to catch up with Hugh Simon as tech guru Malcolm Wynn-Jones- the lovely old spook we thought made it out of the system!  Colin Salmon has a great guest stint as well.  It would have been nice to have a tongue in cheek crossover to his MI-6 Bond compatriot Charles Robinson, last seen in Die Another Day, but alas, no.

But Lucas, Lucas, Lucas! How much more iffy intrigue can they create here? It was crazy enough going thru all this romance and trauma crap with Adam, and the changes for Richard Armitage’s new lead are tiresome and annoying.  This is of course by no means Armitage’s fault- he does great intense stuff like nobody’s business. Unfortunately, the equally good Ian Glen (Game of Thrones) enters MI-5 for what is largely a cop out retread of prior mystery and betrayal thorns.  Are we really expected to believe Lucas’ complete character destruction because of woman?  And this is all meant to be what really happened before his Russian prison drama and estranged wife? The timeline twists and goofy identity crisis come completely out of left field.  This was before Lucas was Section Chief for the first time before Tom? Even with this groundwork being laid throughout the season, the end result is completely rushed and feels like the audience is screwed with information that we should have already known. Besides, doesn’t this make one too many rogue section leaders now?   Of course, despite this totally unrealistic turn, it’s all still dang intense down the line thanks to Armitage’s coming to play when the writers obviously didn’t.  I find it kind of twisted, even cruel, that the new crew makes it so we steady viewers really don’t know Lucas at all.  They Bobbied in the shower just for the shocker of it!  He’s in The Hobbit, we know. It’s okay to have him just walk into the sunset, really.

New to MI-5 Sofia Myles (Underworld) fairs no better in character development. I like that her Beth is a bit chubby, simply because she’s not what we’d expect as a spy.  That’s an undercover asset, is it not? However, they just thrust Beth upon us and try so hard to make her complicated before dropping any attempt at personal establishment all together.  Beth might not have been bad if we got to know her, but we never do, and to put it simply, she’s just not as good as Ros Myers was.  Beth tries to be warm, then she’s bitchy- which is it? I feel they were going for a wannabe Kate Winslet vibe, and I’m disappointed there has never been a black female lead or any ethnic section chief on MI-5.  What’s with all the dang blondes, weak entrances, and bad exits? Badass ladies, smartly placed, or unexpected players were once the core of the show. Though it was utterly gut wrenching, scream at the tele worthy at the time, in hindsight, getting intimate with our spies only to lose them or distrust them was part of the fun.

Max Brown was also a miss for Series 9. His Dimitri is given a barebones background and remains completely obvious throughout the season. I suppose he would have been cool in due time, but Brown never develops the big presence of previous MI-5 males. I can’t possibly imagine this guy being in charge after Richard Armitage- Brown looks too young and too pretty to be taken seriously, not at all like his fine subterfuge on The Tudors.  I feel like we are seeing Danny learn the ropes all over again- minus the heart, agony, and ‘getting to know you’.   Shazad Latif is also a waste as computer boy Tariq. Sometimes, the character is even made useless with the gadgetry- unlike Malcolm, who had something imperative every episode and did it with geeky class and wit. We don’t know where the new players live, what they like, how they deal after leaving Thames House.  You don’t have to take my word for it, however, just look at their character Wiki pages. It’s a paragraph of empty! Vincent Regan’s (300) tossed in finale appearance and new Home Secretary Simon Russell Beale’s (My Week with Marilyn) intensity are too little too late for MI-5 this season.

More focus is spent this series on action and cool locales like Morocco, and fortunately, it does all still look good. These little niches and slices of London are always cool for little ole American me. However, sometimes there is a bit too much running around and high tech babble making things confusing. Who is where and doing what? It’s fast paced, for sure, with the usual split screens, unique photography, and interesting intercuts in the timeline.  Nevertheless, I keep thinking of that first season moment with Tom Quinn looking through the mail slot at the bomb in his home and how throat clutching it was.  Do we really need all this wham bam?  Season 9 is most definitely not an introduction point for MI-5, the over the top plotting and highbrow action make it look like everything else on television- and all that comes at the expense of the fine character development that previously set MI-5 apart.

Longtime fans of MI-5 on both sides of the pond will still tune in for Series 9. Despite this subpar outing, I can’t wait to get my hand on the six-episode Season 10 swansong.  Is MI-5 still better than anything on US television? Probably. Is the writing on the wall that it has run its course? Yes. Look to your preferred rental or streaming options and enjoy MI-5 while it lasts.

10 December 2011

Shame (2011)

Shame Is Worth Much, Much More than the NC-17 Stamp and Snide Penis Remarks
By Kristin Battestella

Upscale Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) seems to have it all- great job, swanky apartment, awesome New York nights on the town with a cool boss (James Badge Dale). Unfortunately, his perfect façade hides a depraved addiction to sex in all its forms at home, at work, and on the streets.  When Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to New York and crashes on his couch, Brandon’s convenient life of call girls and internet porn spirals out of control.  Can a normal relationship with coworker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) save Brandon from his inner turmoil and self-destructive behavior? Or will the escalating tensions and shared past with his sister unravel Brandon completely?

So, I head to the cinema way too early in some strange fear that Steve McQueen’s new and personally much anticipated sex drama Shame will be sold out. During my inevitable wait, I stopped in the Flyers Skatezone next door to see if any pro hockey players were there practicing, but alas no.  So, I called my Dad instead. (I bought him a Christmas present in the pro shop, but we’ll just skip that part!)
“I’m at the rink next to the movies,” I said.
“What are you going to see?”
Shame? What’s that about?”
“Um…addiction…kind of…” Really, how do you explain this film to your father?
“Why do you want to see that?”
“Well…because Michael Fassbender is being touted for an Oscar for it.”
“Oh. He was really good in that.  I like him. The guy can act, that’s for sure.  Okay. Enjoy your show.”

The Raw

This will be either a really short review, or a really long one.  Right now, I don’t know which, as I would totally love to talk in the finite about Shame but don’t want to spoil so limited a release. Actually, I kind of don’t want to talk about it as well. Artist and Hunger director Steve McQueen wonderfully uses unusual mixes of dialogue and filmmaking, with long silences or musical interludes and alternating intercuts. The seemingly unbalanced editing is a visual reflection of Brandon’s excessive lows, and the distorted timeline builds both a conventional plot and nontraditional storytelling. There are no special effects or flashy herky jerky in your face camera jobs, but Shame is up close and personal for the audience nonetheless thanks to the tight photography and great single conversation scenes. The viewer is, like in A Christmas Carol, at the character’s onscreen elbow. Brandon is our unwilling avatar as Shame rises surprisingly to its inevitable head. (I should also warn you now, that everything I write sounds like a dang penis pun, which I am not intentionally trying to do, so out of the gutter!)  I think some of the negative criticism against Shame is that it’s generic or lightweight on the scripting or not that unexpected.  Yes, Shame is not super shocking as I think some thought thanks to the NC-17 rating- I’ve seen far more graphic content in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road and Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. Like Hunger before it, there’s no shock and awe for the sake of it or beating the audience over the head with heavy-handed explanations and metaphors. 

The dialogue isn’t porn nasty smutty, either. Again, I’ve heard far worse in violent action films, men, their guns, and their ‘Fuck you, you pussy!’ Shame’s script is actually verbally tame now that I think of it, allowing the actions and expressions of the cast to say much, much more.  It is a quiet film, despite having its players cry out in so many ways.  I didn’t find Shame that explicit, just somewhat uncomfortable to watch.  We know something isn’t right with Brandon, but we can’t quite put our finger on it.  We like him, feel for him, there’s no reason to dislike him, but he is creepy and sad nonetheless.  Good old New York looks the same way, would be beautiful, but bittersweet.  How does that old adage go? You’re in a city surrounded by people and yet never feel so alone. Not to contradict McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), but Shame doesn’t seem about sex addiction as much as it does intimacy. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m a little miffed at all the interviewers and Shame press that made all the ‘balls out’, ‘exposed’, and ‘stripped down’ jokes, as this film strikes at the heart of why we are becoming more and more interconnected yet driving each other further and further apart. 

The Fass

Brandon, however, seems stuck in some sort of childhood trauma with cartoons and juvenile behavior. While the soundtrack for Shame is very sweet and I do love the looks of Brandon’s record collection, one has to wonder why he likes the music he does. His apartment is bare except for that wall of records, what year does he really live in? Brandon is trapped in a very dark place, and Michael Fassbender goes there with him, indeed.  Fassbender’s style, mannerisms, and idiosyncrasies define Brandon’s carefully orchestrated façade.  He wears the same combination of gray pants and jacket and blue shirt and scarf for most of the picture.   As Brandon sinks to further sexual escapades- despite tossing out mounds of porn which surely goes back years, maybe even decades- we spiral along in the destruction. When he tries to behave normally, Brandon can’t, and continues the cycle with more. I absolutely love Fassbender’s near crying during the three-way sex scene- his best parts in the film may be when he doesn’t say anything verbal at all.  This is rough, hot, orgasmic sex- people would pay huge amounts of money to see or participate in a Cathouse event like this! Yet this desperate accumulation in search of some sort of unattainable climax is literally making Brandon die inside. He gets off, eventually, sure, but in actuality feels nothing- or worse pain- for what is our most treasured intimacy. 

When he should feel something, caring, compassion, or love for others, Brandon can’t or won’t.  I love Fassbender’s implication that Brandon doesn’t eat, only drinks, drugs, or caffeines as needed to keep his sex drive going. Fassy wonderfully portrays this bottomless vessel, a haunting beauty that sex should fill or wash clean, but sinks down deeper and deeper.  I don’t mean to get philosophical or abstract, but Brandon is a sex vampire, draining himself of his own soul.  The viewer feels pity for Brandon and can’t turn away no matter how difficult it becomes to watch.  This is man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself at its finest, and it is all encapsulated in Michael fucking Fassbender. 300, Hunger, Fish Tank, Inglourious Basterds, Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method- if you don’t like Michael Fassbender by now, then I have nothing more to say to you. And now after having finally seen Shame, I feel kind of dirty, dazed, confused.  People really live like this?

I suspect that if Shame had been about a female sex addict, its wicked NC-17 reception would have been handled quite differently.  We used to use the word nymphomaniac in terms of how it was a hot hot hottie woman who needed to be satisfied at any length for more more more!  Brandon, though by definition a nymphomaniac or beyond satryism, is the complete opposite of our sex addiction perceptions.  Most people think its Charlie Sheen being tiger blood badass cool, we lift up the sex, drugs, and rock n roll lifestyle.  Were it Sissy who was the sex addict in Shame, I don’t think it would have received an NC-17 rating.  A woman tackling such a serious topic would be lauded and acclaimed and still be considered powerful and sexy even in the ugliness of the topic.  There would be no question of hardware for a female sexual twist, look at Boys Don’t Cry or Monster. Though Fassbender has received his deserved share of hardware for Shame- his second BIFA after Hunger and the Coppa Volpi at the Venice Film Festival among them- everyone and their grandma who’s speculating on his Oscar chances has to add all the Hollywood politics and avante garde caveats to the possibility of his nomination or win.  Why is there a male double standard at play here? Is not stellar performance stellar performance regardless of discomfort or taboos?

The Support

All this attention of course is being paid to Fassbender, but Carey Mulligan (An Education) is far from fluff.  Sissy is simply awesome, full of needy and heart wrenching expression- particularly in her already acclaimed  ‘New York, New York’ rendition.  Even with the Fassy glory, one of stern constitution and psychology could study Shame exclusively from Sissy’s angle.  She has twisted issues all her own- she clearly needs help that Brandon cannot give, nor does he even notice the medical bracelet on her arm or hear her desperate phone calls unless they are annoying him.  Sissy is the definition of utterly emotional, wearing her need for affection for any man who will take it. For being so similarly tormented by their past, these siblings are also perfectly against each other.  Again, this question of intimacy is at the forefront with Sissy and Brandon.  Why is she so ready to be intimate with anyone, even him on some latent level? Why is he so in-intimate that he is almost inanimate? What shared and scarring intimacy already possesses them?  The near violent and pseudo sexual scenes between them are awesome. You almost wonder if Brandon is going to sexually assault Sissy just as you suspect she might slash him, too. There are so many little hints about their relationship, from the way neither sibling tries to cover themselves around each other to why Brandon cries during her song. What did he come to New York to escape from? In a way, these two are meant for each other, they should be able to heal their shared brokenness together, and yes, I know that sounds too Lannister nasty! However, what could have been a disturbing incestuous angle for the sake of the scandal is wonderfully dealt with in frank, raw honesty.  I love how in one lengthy two shot argument; you can see the mark Fassbender leaves on Mulligan’s face.  Seriously, why isn’t she getting more awards talk?  Shame requires a female lead to match Fassbender’s tour de force blow by blow, and Mulligan delivers 110%.

Likewise, James Badge Dale (Rubicon) and Nicole Beharie (American Violet) provide great outside support.  Dale’s boss David is quite the opposite of Brandon. Where Brandon represents the mirror we don’t want to look into, David is the picture we tape to the glass to fool ourselves. He doesn’t have it together when they go out on the town to pick up women- but his family and top job success seem to be the ideal Brandon should be striving for instead of the porn symphony. Yet David is obviously not as cool as he thinks he is, and his adultery and misogynistic view of women isn’t necessarily that much healthier than Brandon’s addiction. Everybody in this film is messed up sexually when you think about it.  I hadn’t seen Beharie before, but she is all kinds of nice. Sassy, confident- and not making any graces about her station in life like David. Marianne has no problem with being open and honest like Sissy nor being sexually provocative like Brandon. She does however, seem to wear her raw better than the others. Even if some wonder about her sexual confidence being too confident- she ditches work and goes to an exhibitionist hotel to have sex with a relative stranger- the sex scene between Beharie and Fassbender is probably the best one of the film. It’s beautiful, even loving, and sexy as a sex scene in a film should be which is markedly different from every other sex scene in Shame. It’s natural, passionate, slightly wild in the desire- and yet, this scene also encompasses everything that is wrong with Brandon. Really, wonderful stuff by the cast all around, and props as well to all those other naughty people!

The NC-17

Now then, unless I am doing a group critique or a viewing list, I never start a review file early- as I was so tempted to do for Shame thanks to all these NC-17 issues. My gosh, you know, The Fassy Wang is actually barely there, flapping about as he walks back and forth in first 5 minutes, whoopiefuckingdo! Honestly, I suspect the NC-17 slap was more likely given for the gay club scene and the length of the three-way sex.  Maybe I spoiled myself or perhaps Shame is a little lightweight as some critics say, but I’ve seen worse needless blood, sex, nudity, drug use, and gore.  Not just in Hard R films, either, but in sexy PG-13 films and even on standard cable television- when I was a kid, this was a scandal the likes of sneaking out to watch Porky’s! Now a lot of this saucy sex and violence is expressly geared toward teens. If you are going to show pride and a reclaiming of the adult rating for Shame, then you better get your priorities straight on where the line between R and NC-17 lies.  Had Hunger been rated by the MPAA, I think it would also have been NC-17. There’s more penis and far worse brutality, but these extremes are also not for the desensitizing shock of it all. McQueen used all human tools available to create the aspects of prison torment, and only a very small percentage look at Hunger just to say Fassy Wang!  Why should Shame be any different?

Frankly, I thought the urinating was more bizarre, but I’m glad SMQ shows us the complete Spartan (hehe, no 300 pun intended!) sex life of Brandon before we meet Sissy- if only to get any giggles or inhibitions out at the door.  Fassy’s hung, yeah, he has lots of meaningless sex, and it is all okay until his sister arrives, let’s move on to the point of the tale, shall we? Some may also be displeased with the unexplained slice of life nature of Shame, but I like it.  We spend this utmost time with Brandon and it is intense.  The rating means certain audiences should shy away from the intensity, yet we also want everything shockingly there and explained and dumbed down to impressive visuals as in today’s horror.  I like that Shame closes with possibility. Is Brandon any better off at the end then he was at the start? Did this time mean anything to him? If not, what did we just spend the last hour and half doing?  I suppose some audiences might be angry if they think it was all a big waste, but like the ratings brouhaha, this is an outward statement mainstream Hollywood is not going to like.  How many times a week-even a day- do we waste hours with television, the internet, sex, drugs, rock n roll, and any other potential idolatries or vices? He has a dick, he leaves it hanging out a lot until his sister arrives and forces him to realize that having his dick out all the time is kind of weird.  That is the within within statement Shame is making.  We should be so shocked-we are if the NC-17 rating is true- yet we see far, far worse on a daily basis- and that is becoming more and more comfortable to us. That’s weird, too, isn’t it?

Brandon is like us, we are he. That is what is so uncomfortable, and frankly unsellable. Those looking for hard-core material thanks to the scarlet NC-17 may not find it and feel Shame is a let down.  This is not titillating, nor is it a brutal rape or victimizing violence. A Rated R film will make money. But a thesis on how constantly unfulfilling and painful orgasms make Brandon both unable to live without The Ring of Sex whilst hating his Gollum self for it- this is not going to be popular.  Is Brandon beyond redemption?  Despite the anonymous sex and self-hatred, he’s not a bad guy. It’s not his fault, it is? Fassbender gloriously shows tragedy, trauma, and corruption up close- which is where the camera is most of the time in the sex scenes- on Brandon’s face.  This is a depressing and unentertaining piece, and the NC-17 was Hollywood’s brush off attempt in protection of its bottom line.  Bravo to Shame then for beating Hollywood at its own game.

The Experience

For those interested in that positive reception and audience numbers, my theater was in the second tier of limited release for Shame. There were under 25 people, about a quarter full, for this first 11:30 a.m. Friday showing. I was surprised the audience was almost all older folks with only a handful of women and younger adults; though I don’t know if this is because of the senior programs at this particular theater or not. The NC-17 was blazed all over the marquee and signage in red lettering and warned that ID must be shown.  Since I look like I am 12 and still get lollipops when I go to the drive thru at the bank, I had my license ready. The older ticket lady just glanced at it briefly, I think because provisional licenses for drivers under 18 or 21 here look different from a regular ID.
“One for Shame, please,” I said.
Then I realized what kind of sentence that was, and said to the lady, “I bet you don’t hear that every day.” 

I could still here the lady laughing as snooped in the lobby. Posters were up for Fassbender’s other sex drama A Dangerous Method, due here in January, but naturally, there was no outside Shame advertising.  As to the trailers, The Artist looks good, as do the previously unknown to me but artsy heavy Miss Baja and Pariah. The Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy preview was kind of ambiguous, only focusing on Gary Oldman and not using the rest of the star power, but they can’t really give everything away there.  In a strange case of appropriate previews, I’ll probably see all of them eventually, just perhaps not at the cinema.  It felt weird leaving the theater and coming back into the daylight after seeing Shame- it is after all, a dark, uncomfortable ride Brandon takes us on! 

Shame is a great movie, even if it feels a bit inferior to Hunger.  Death and starvation were on McQueen and Fassbender’s side then, along with a nothing to loose obscure abandon. Though Fassy has now exploded and it is a little sad to loose an actor to the mainstream sex symbol status, the Academy simply cannot ignore him now without looking like the political prudes they really are.  Fans of the cast should see Shame at any available opportunity.  It won’t be the NC-17 that puts audiences off of the film, but Shame’s own uncompromising nature makes it tough to see more than once.  Witness your own raw, interactive frailty, and experience Shame’s film finery ASAP.

Whew, I guess it was long.  Shit!  The review! The review was long!  Dang friggin’ penis puns!