27 February 2011

Highlander: The Series Season 1

Highlander Season 1 Does Just Fine
By Kristin Battestella

Sometimes when I am up late at night writing, there tends to be nothing on television.  Thankfully, the SyFy Channel- whom I am generally most unpleased with thus far into the 21st Century- has been airing Highlander: The Series at 1 a.m. Even though I plan for it to be just background noise as I write, I always end up watching. One day I told my husband I don’t really know why I watch, for we have the complete series on DVD.  Well, low and behold, now I find myself in the throws with the Clan MacLeod for a fine Season 1.

400-year-old Scottish Immortal Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul) has spent the last twelve years living a quiet life with his mortal girlfriend, sculptor Tessa Noel (Alexandra Vandernoot).  Unfortunately, when young punk Richie Ryan (Stan Kirsh) breaks into their antiques store, he stumbles upon another uninvited guest- Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), also an immortal Highlander.  Connor insists Duncan return to The Gathering- an ongoing battle where immortals fight each other to the death by beheading their opponent to take their Quickening.  Friendly immortals like the Parisian monk Darius (Werner Stocker) have no interest in the violence and remain on Holy Ground to avoid the evil, corrupt, insane, angry, and power hungry immortals Duncan must face. All this, however, is in addition to Duncan’s daily hiding of his secrets from pesky cops and nosey reporters like Randi MacFarland (Amanda Wyss). 

I always find it tough to summarize the scenario that establishes the Highlander universe, even though it is a fairly simple fantasy once you get to know it.  Longtime franchise producers Peter Davis and Bill Panzer and creative consultant David Abramowitz don’t have to waste much time in setting up The Series’ introductory mythology like most shows do thanks to its parent 1986 film, but that does not mean this First Season isn’t without its flaws.  Highlander: The Series spends most of the 1992 debut here trying to adhere to the original film whilst also attempting to appeal to other compatriot shows of the time like Renegade.  Sometimes, Duncan is an immortal who also just happens to get kidnapped, Tessa just happens to witness an immortal murder, Richie just happens to get caught up in some immortal romance or crime.  Season 1 seems to meander between reopening its fantastical roots- which actually concluded at the end of the first film- and finding an audience with one off action plotlines and crazy guest star immortals. Toss in some ho-hum police investigations and one annoying journalist, and it feels like you have bits of every other nineties television program.  It also seems like the filmmakers were light on material early on, for a slew of slow and dated musical montages about absolutely nothing also have not stood the test of time. Strobing effects, distorted filming angles, and erratic zooms didn’t help, either. Baywatch in the Scottish Highlands? Almost!

I’ve complained, yes- but the irony is, Highlander as a series and its Season 1 still work damn fine. So they had to iron out a few special effects and immortal explanations. Maybe there is an uneven mix of normal real world crime storylines and charming, even glorious, period piece flashback sequences. Yes, they have to mimic the first movie while trying to establish episodic material.  Yet somehow, all this and more gets done in fun, entertaining, stylized television.  A few of the guest immortals do seem a bit interchangeable and even hokey in their maniacal ways, but that’s part of the bemusement.  The lovely counterbalance of the tragedies, consequences, and ill desires of living forever are well played along with the beauty and value of morality, artistry, and time for those who inevitably grow old and die. Highlander: The Series may have lured audiences in the door with promises of nineties cool and wicked swordfights, but its intelligent core of immortal drama, heart, and soul win out today.

Although Adrian Paul (Tracker, Relic Hunter) has some big sneakers to fill in following Christopher Lambert, he quickly makes Duncan MacLeod his own with the perfect mix of fearless fighter and moral convictions.  Yes, part of his fighting skills, suave ponytail, and immortal sexual buffness is meant to be dreamy for the ladies.  However, Mac’s kickass ruthlessness against those who do wrong-whether they be mortal or immortal- combined with his sensitive ways and 400 year old hang ups appeal to all.  Paul wonderfully expresses the love, loss, humor, and intelligence as well as the anger, vengeance, and violence each episode as needed.  There’s no doubt MacLeod is our hero- and yet he is usually the one handing out killing blows.  It’s a complicated mix with plenty of fine drama- and Alexandra Vandernoot (The Five Obstructions) is the perfect compliment to Adrian Paul.  Though she can seem kind of uppity and European pissy to start, once you come to know Tessa’s artistic heart and moral fulcrum you can’t help but enjoy her and Mac’s relationship.  The two have wonderful chemistry (which isn’t always easy with onscreen couples as it is), but then you throw in illicit immortal love with mortal women growing old and dying to that romantic design and it’s dynamite.  Such juicy and angst still has plenty of relatable, powerful stuff that never fades, wow, almost 20 years on.

Stan Kirsh (Invincible) is in the precarious hot young thing role as Richie Ryan, but he also proves himself more likeable then annoying here in Season 1.  Despite some of the stereotypically juvenile, young love, and crime storylines in which he finds himself, Richie’s fun place within Mac and Tessa’s lives does a lot of good.  He is in a way, their kid- always needing to be bailed out or protected in the ways of the world or waxing philosophical from his humorous spot in the backseat.  Even over the course of these 22 episodes, however, Richie also becomes a useful ally and sounding board for each of the leads when immortality or mortality gets in the way.  Sadly, the ill-used Amanda Wyss (A Nightmare on Elm Street), doesn’t fair so well.  Her brief and needlessly stuck in the opening credits reporter Randi is absolutely unrealistic as a journalist and completely annoying in her attempted antagonizing and snooping. Perhaps more could have been done with the character in time, but thankfully, the role was dropped in favor of some dandy policemen and detectives.  Wendell Wright’s (Benson) Sgt. Powell, Tim Reid’s (Sister, Sister) Bennett and Hugues Leforestier as Inspector LeBrun come and go too much in Season 1, but any one of them could have been fine continuing foil for MacLeod.  You do have to wonder how the authorities haven’t discovered all these beheaded bodies!

In addition to the lovely guest appearance by Lambert as Connor “same clan, different vintage” MacLeod in ‘The Gathering’, Season 1 offers an array of sweet guest stars.  Critical immortals such as Elizabeth Gracen’s (later of the spinoff Highlander: The Raven) Amanda and Fine Young Cannibals’ singer Roland Gift as Xavier St. Cloud appear in ‘The Lady and the Tiger’ and ‘For Tomorrow We Die’ respectively.  We don’t get to see the late Werner Stocker’s Darius as much as I would have liked, but he and Roger Daltry’s Hugh Fitzcairn are also wonderful pieces in Highlander: The Series’ repertoire, comparing the potential of pacifism for immortals to their apparent zest for women.  As much as I love Joan Jett, her appearance as the first female immortal we see in ‘Free Fall’ is one of the woefully dated examples this season.  Several other guest villains and street thugs of the week do seem a little the same- especially the maniacal and crazy, if no less understandable, immortals.  Again, it’s tough to not have an over the top bad guy when it is your hero befrickingheading someone per episode.  A few of the French supporting players also suffer; so many seemed poorly dubbed that you don’t wonder if it would have been better to just have some French dialogue. All in all however, the guests add debut credibility this season whilst laying the ground work for the series to establish itself beyond the films: the plots and players in the Season 1 finale ‘The Hunters’ directly lead to the events in Season 2 and beyond.

Although the actors do their part, the designs of Season 1 could have used some…tweaking. The Quickening effects are definitely touch and go to start.  Honestly, the lightning shows generally coming at the end of each episode waver from looking extremely painful and capable of powering a village to limp, sputtering light bulbs and quasi orgasmic shuddering.  Women seriously seem to get the short end of the stick regarding Quickenings, and the fashions of the time have not been kind.  Oh, the unflattering gaudy shoulder pads, pleated pants, and high-waisted jeans! Richie fairs no better, with some woefully colorful New Edition and Color Me Badd cast-offs.  At least most of the immortal men seem to have classic, swanky style- except some of Duncan’s sweaters, vests, and colorful blazers are a miss.  However, any men who can carry off such a variety of period fashion earn a plus in my book.  The Leather jackets, cozy turtlenecks, tuxedos, and fedoras here are as timeless as the kilts, cavalier coats, French uniforms, and kimonos.  

While the MacLeod and Noel Antiques store, loft, and workshop design look just as good as the period production, it also seems a little too high end and unrealistic today. I know he is immortal and she is a sculptor, but real people could not live in such a pricey and overly designed museum.  By contrast, Season 1’s opening Seacouver location seems obvious and bland- again looking like it’s a random warehouse back lot used by every other show made at the time. Thankfully, MacLeod’s barge on the Seine is just a little bit cooler.  These French locations add a touch of Old World European class to Highlander.  Even if I can’t quite figure the logistics of the barge, (How can one just park his boat on the Seine? What kind of codes and regulations are there for a refurbished ship? Where in the heck does Richie sleep if there’s one bed?!) it’s still a neat and unique set.  Yes, Highlander: The Series’ location splits and prominence for French casting is thanks to French financing and production, but it also gives Season 1 a chance to correct its early flaws- including adjusting the opening credits and spending more time in our immortals’ pasts.  Subtle connections to the original film are all that’s needed for Season 1 to find its footing- and those motifs largely come from the perfect use of Queen’s soundtrack.  You can’t not love the ‘Princes of the Universe’ theme.  Be honest, sometimes you just tune into Highlander just to hear the song!  The somber ballad ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’ also makes a few appearances- however; it’s the nonchalant use of the titular question by unknowing mere mortals that adds extra zing and panache.

Fans of the Highlander franchise surely already know and love these DVDs back to front, but 21st Century newcomers will be pleasantly surprised by the exhaustive amount of features for the Season 1 set.  The interface is cumbersome, I grant; but the Watcher Chronicles’ menus, additional scenes, bloopers, commentary options, full script CDs, and behind the scenes features are almost obsessive in shear amount, variety, and content.  Almost every episode contains some form of extras- and more is included as the season sets progress.  I can even forgive the lack of subtitles here, because someone obviously took his time in making Highlander: The Series as complete as possible on DVD.  New fans, however, should be forewarned, as there are often spoilers for the entire series within the features.  In fact, all the extras from the Complete Series DVDs are probably best left in a marathon viewing all their own. Uncommitted audiences can also view Highlander: The Series with several rental and streaming options, and Season 1 has also recently been released on blu-ray.

Highlander: The Series is best when it is about the trials of immortality- not the contemporary messes into which an immortal could get himself.  Season 1 falters some when it tries for the latter, but there’s plenty of immortal angst and juicy action established here to enjoy.  Longtime fans can delight anytime, and audiences looking for action, adventure, fantasy, and romance can certainly find it here.  Some scenes and storylines might be too saucy or complicated for younger tween viewers, but a show that matures in its mythos and quality along with its audience while also staying young forever is tough to find.  Yes, just think, Highlander: The Series only gets better from here.  Start anew or travel back with Season 1 today.


23 February 2011

The Ultimate Bee Gees

A Very Pleasant Return to The Ultimate Bee Gees
By Kristin Battestella

They’re Back!  Sort of at least.  Now that the surviving Bee Gees Barry and Robin Gibb are returning to performing and appearances, a slew of revisited material has been released in approach of the group’s fifty years together.  The 2009 compilation The Ultimate Bee Gees collects 40 of our favorites from The Brothers Gibb, a few surprises, and one very delightful DVD.

Disc One gets the album rolling with all those big and famous and damn fine disco hits likes You Should Be Dancing, Night Fever, Tragedy, and If I Can’t Have You.  While it’s stereotypical of the white suits and the illusion that The Bee Gees were merely the be all end all of 1977, I suppose you can’t not have the likes of my dislikes Stayin’ Alive and Jive Talkin’.  However, it’s nice to see the less often included songs like Boogie Child, Spirits Having Flown, and Secret Love.  There’s definitely plenty to get your groove on with here.  The chronology is out of order, but seeing all these classic pop songs together only confirms my Gibb bias.  Put this disc on in a club today and everyone will be on the dance floor, no enigmas with stigmas in sight! 

Soft and sweet sounds mellow the dance tracks for Disc Two.  Again, no particular order seems to be followed, just essential staples like To Love Somebody, Words, Love So Right, and I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You.  A few of the older treats like World, First of May, and Words also sound like their original mono releases, too.  While this is a set about The Bee Gees themselves, tribute to their songwriting successes for other artists is paid with live renditions of Islands in the Stream, Guilty, and Heartbreaker.  Again, it would have been nicer to see something less well known from the Gibb brothers’ vast 1,000 song plus catalogue, but the aim of The Ultimate Bee Gees seems more for the mainstream fan.  It’s also unusual that there are no songs here in honor of the late Maurice and little brother Andy, as is Barry and Robin’s usual custom to include regardless of themes, space, or time.  Despite the premature loss of Mo, the great music here speaks for itself, which is perhaps the best tribute one can make.

Now then, the meat of The Ultimate Bee Gees set is the special DVD containing 18 Gibb videos, clips, and highlights from Spicks and Specks to Alone and plenty in between.  No, not all their music videos have been included, though honestly I don’t know why.  However, longtime fans that have been waiting for a video compilation will be pleased with this unique hour-long set. Some of the early videos are very silly and quite poor in quality-like my beloved I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You- and the shows aren’t even in total chronological order. The sound quality varies as well; understandably, there will be visual and audio imperfections in forty-year-old material!  I only hope young folks today won’t let the scary sixties patterns and seventies hairstyles interfere with their opinion of the seriously good tunes. Some of the segments are familiar to longtime fans, such as more recent scenes from Still Waters Run Deep or staples like Too Much Heaven.  However, others are less well known, like the song Tomorrow, Tomorrow and the videos for Run to Me- a very beautiful set- and Night Fever.  Pieces of the music are also live or alternate recordings not often heard as well.  It’s also good fun to see these pieces in their entirety, instead of snippets intercut together in previous documentaries as background shots.  Although I wish they would have included some of the obscure eighties videos before the uber famous Stayin’ Alive video, but c’est la vie.

The How Can You Mend a Broken Heart video was new to me, though it is a great performance nonetheless, and of course, you can’t go wrong with How Deep is Your Love no matter how many times you hear- or in this case- see it. Though it isn’t really that contemporary anymore, For Whom the Bell Tolls is still a nice, stylized video- except for Robin’s hair, that is!  Alone is also not what I was expecting, serving as a highlight montage video instead of the original space agey abstract one.  Still Waters Run Deep also seems like a different sound remix as well.  Again, this whetting of the Gibb video appetite only brings more to mind. Where is the juicy Bodyguard video? Surely, there were music videos in support of the High Civilization album? While it is a pity that The Ultimate Bee Gees isn’t a complete videography catalogue, there’s still plenty to enjoy here. The kick ass eighties weird of You Win Again’s video never gets old. What subliminal messaging is going on it that one?! I suppose in the end it doesn’t really matter which videos are missing now in this age where one can find anything on youtube. Besides, visually and musically it does seem the best shows were chosen, especially in keeping with the greatest hits style of the set. Though it’s not The Bee Gees’ final video, One is a fine place to conclude the DVD.

The slipcase and fold out design of The Ultimate Bee Gees is eco-friendly and not too cumbersome, although the included booklet is fairly general with only the basics for the layman fan.  Fortunately, the DVD offers play all or video selection options with a fun interface.  Naturally, the music selection here is not totally definitive or exhaustive- especially compared to the 2010 50th Anniversary Bee Gees Mythology four-disc set. However, this collection makes an excellent gift (that’s how I got mine!) for the longtime Gibbers thanks to the video treats or a great starting place for new fans and young folks in need of some proper music education.  Let your hair down tonight and return to The Ultimate Bee Gees.  

22 February 2011

Love Nest

Love Nest Fun, but Showing Its Age
By Kristin Battestella

Though it’s early in her career, the promise of Love Nest’s Marilyn Monroe hijinks mixed with misunderstandings of the writer’s life was too intriguing not to take a gander.  Datedness and misdirection, however, hamper much of the fun.

World War II Veteran Jim Scott (William Lundigan) is happy to return home to his wife Connie (June Haver).  Even though they have to make do living in the basement of their townhouse while they rent the apartments above, the income gives Jim a chance to write that Great American Novel he has been dreaming of in the trenches.  Quirky tenants like the widow Eadie Gaynor (Leatrice Joy, The Blue Danube) and perpetually leaky sink Mrs. Quigg (Marie Blake, The Addams Family) are a handful, as is charming philanderer and conman Charley Patterson (Frank Fay).  However, when former army driver Bobbie- err Roberta Stevens (Monroe) moves into the Scotts’ nest egg, things get a little more interesting.

Director Joseph Newman (This Island Earth) and screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond (Some Like it Hot, The Apartment) have a tough job in balancing the silly romance shenanigans with melodramatic money and household troubles.   While they struggle with those two opposite ends, the fun fifties innuendo does mix well with the obligatory Leave it to Beaver innocence.  There are all kinds of implied kinky pillow talk of getting reacquainted post war- and yet the Scotts have separate beds!  Love Nest is also a little slow to start, taking its time in getting to the critical events in the last half hour.  Honestly, some of the financial talk is also a little depressing.   Good God, $300 in the bank is a lot to these folks, and $4,000 is the full mortgage?  Wow!  I was also a little disappointed in the onscreen writerly aspects, which was one of my initial draws to the movie.  Jim sits at his typewriter from time to time and it’s this phantom writing that ends up saving the day ninety minutes later, big whoop. Love Nest is sadly stuck between not being as funny as it should be or as seriously old school angsty as it could be.  Either be slapstick or have saucy drama- you can’t be somewhere in between.

Thankfully, William Lundigan (Dodge City, The Sea Hawk) and June Haver (The Dolly Sisters, Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! – another very early, very briefly Monroe picture.) make a nice couple as Jim and Connie, even if they are a little too much like every other fifties couple ever onscreen. Unfortunately, again its the script fails them. So, they have landlord repairs and money trouble like everyone else? Big deal.  Why should we care if they fight over it? Why should Jim have to sleep outside in a hammock if they have separate beds?! Despite my complaints, they are likeable and entertaining simply because their relationship is so down right wholesome and dare I say wishful thinking to today’s often cynical view on relationships. Jack Paar (The Jack Paar Tonight Show) as Jim’s cheeky lawyer and ladies man Ed Forbes also deserved a lot more to do- again as either the wicked lothario or the slapstick pal, not just the guy who brings over the champagne as needed.  Fortunately, Frank Fay (Bright Lights, The Matrimonial Bed) picks up the slack with his lovely turn as crook with a heart Charley. He’s the man with an angle, all the worldly charms, and he’s always ready with the right sweet remark.  A good bit of that taboo innuendo is also snuck into his speech, both kinky for the ladies and even a little subtext on the handsome men.  Despite the subject matter the title suggests, Fay is as juicy as Love Nest gets, and his true designs are largely played as off screen mystery.

Love NestBut of course, the real reason one takes any interest in Love Nest today and can so readily find the film is my sister’s favorite icon, Marilyn Monroe.  Here, pre-How to Marry a Millionaire and Some Like It Hot, Monroe doesn’t have a whole lot to do beyond being the would be femme antagonist.  Her voice is a little untrained, and it is somewhat tough to picture her as a WAC- that’s Women’s Army Corps for you really young pups!  However, the mistaken set up of the very buxom Bobbie moving in upstairs and causing a bit of jealously is right up Monroe’s alley.  Even this early on, someone had the good sense to put Monroe in a then scandalous two-piece bathing suit and sent her outside tanning. Next, she’s donning nothing but a towel when getting out of the shower!  Monroe isn’t actually in the picture all that much.  Pity as that is, it’s also great to see her in the forties styled fitted dress suits instead of flashy colorful fifties satins to come. Although she wasn’t a star yet, Love Nest again faults because its focus is not the juicy of Monroe or the fun con of Patterson.  Jim and Connie’s house troubles are a little boring compared to the fun possibilities that come into the film with Monroe a little too late.

Naturally, fans of fifties stylings can find what they are looking for here. Despite being black and white, the old-fashioned patterns and curtains are neat to see. The period cars, netted hats, calling cards, and sweet typewriters are all a sight of antique and fashion aficionados.  Women needing to wear gloves and pillbox hats to go shopping? In a grocery store? And my goodness, there’s a boat load of irony in these post war folks thinking letter writing is a lost art!  While the hindrances of what could be said and done onscreen condemned Love Nest to its uneven story and pacing, a mid century connoisseur can find plenty of charm. Yes, these same things seriously show the film’s imperfect points and show its age.  However, fans of the cast and wholesome fifties capers can still enjoy the good-hearted sentiment here. 

Love Nest can be found for rent or affordably in several Marilyn Monroe editions. The subtitles are magical in studying the colloquialisms of the time, but the only other features are a commentary and the obligatory Monroe previews and trailers.  Though flawed, the right audience or classics fan can find plenty of fun with Love Nest.

16 February 2011

Inspirational Films and Documentaries

An Inspirational Viewing List
By Kristin Battestella

There’s no time like the gloomy winter present or the forthcoming Lenten season to hunt and peck for the elusive quality Christian film or documentary! Here’s a quick list of inspirational movies and heartfelt documentaries to catch anytime of year.

AgoraAgora – This seemingly obscure 2009 Spanish film starring Oscar winner Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardner) wonderfully deals with the early strife between paganism, slavery, philosophy, science, Judaism, and Christianity in Alexandria towards the fall of the Roman Empire.  Though tough subjects to deal with independently, let alone together, director Alejandro Amenabar (The Others, Open Your Eyes) also fits in a convincing romantic angle and women’s issues as well.  The fine dialogue is just right- the film itself represents an honest dialogue taking place in the Library of Alexandria.  Despite some historical liberties, more light is shed for good than ill with a well-dressed, non-digital, authentic looking design and period music.  Why don’t we see this time and place onscreen like this more often?  So many sword and sandal or Romanesque pictures are hit or miss, going for adventure and political statements over the tale at hand.  If they can all blend such intelligent topics with this kind action, performance, and design, then by golly why aren’t we making more movies like Agora?  

Crusade - The Life of Billy GrahamCrusade: The Life of Billy Graham – It took me awhile to watch this 1993 PBS documentary about ‘the most famous and influential preacher of the 20th century.’  Well, this show sets itself up with some big shoes to fill, doesn’t it? The straight narration is slow to start with a lot of educational background and history; and in all fairness, they do have a lot to cover! However, the ninety-minute biography picks up with one on one interviews and insights from family and friends including longtime singer George Beverly Shea. Fans of the evangelist will also enjoy hearing casual and personal stories from the man himself, as well as frank discussion about presidents and politics.  The chats and reflections are a little deep, yes, and the length and long-winded style here is probably a bit much for a younger classroom viewing.  Thankfully, adults who have grown up with Graham’s warm yet zestful style will enjoy the spiritual reminiscing, archival footage, and uplifting nostalgia whether personally or in a group or study discussion. I’ve been watching Billy Graham all my life and I still can’t get used to seeing footage of him looking so young!

LutherLuther – Overall, I was pleased with this 2003 biography by director Eric Till (Fraggle Rock) as a basic introduction to the father of the Protestant Reformation.  Although I still am not a fan of Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) and his uneven performance wavers between Luther’s crazy doubts and murmuring, bland rhetoric; the classy supporting cast including Alfred Molina (An Education, Magnolia) and Peter Ustinov (Spartacus, Quo Vadis) is delightful, if too brief. Not only is it difficult to dramatize Martin Luther favorably for all, but this is also not an easy time period to replicate without it looking a little silly in our eyes- what’s with those hollow bowl haircuts?  However, the beautiful churches, somber music, lovely locations, and both high and low styled costumes bring 16th century Germany to life along with the well-crafted story of Godly revelation. While the English captions go a long way with the soft-spoken dialogue, I’d like to see a serious examination of Luther and all his flaws again in a big and proper production with a better lead actor.  Christian classrooms, however, might enjoy a viewing and discussion, perhaps along with the Empires: Martin Luther PBS documentary.

One Night with the KingOne Night with the King Though not as well told as The Nativity Story, this 2006 biblical tale from director Michael O. Sajbel (The Ultimate Gift) is a fine family tale for Christian and Jewish families alike.  Though the narration from John Rhys Davies (Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones) is a bit much, Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia, Troy) only has one scene as Samuel, and a little too much fantasy and lovey dovey hampers the story; Tiffany Dupont (Greek) is charming and inspirational for young and old.  The music is period enough, and the production also stays on the authentic side, but subtitles are a must for the mixed modern and thou sayeth speak.  Parents or teachers might also want to prepare with a reading and discussion pre or post- especially if the youngins ask, “What’s a eunuch?”

The RideThe Ride – Michael Biehn (Aliens, The Terminator) departs from his usual action and SF yarns for this lovely 1997 spiritual western funded by the Billy Graham association.  Yes, some of the youth acting leaves something to be desired, and the rodeo scenes in this a movie about downtrodden cowboys and bull riding dreams aren’t that good or even the primary focus really.  However, the inspirational turnaround and wonderfully heartfelt performance from Biehn can touch even the coldest viewer.  Again, some of the direction and writing from Michael O. Sajbel is a little obvious and borderline heavy handed on the sentiment.  However, if we could all watch a movie like this when we are our utmost despair, one might find one’s outlook seriously changed for the better.  That’s what quality inspirational film is supposed to do!

I really shouldn’t be a total grinch, but I do have a skipper:

Man of FaithMan of Faith – You want the religious sentiment and inspiration to come forth in this 2005 televangelist biopic from director, writer, and star Damian Chapa (Street Fighter, Brando Unauthorized), but the reverence never really happens.  Or perhaps it does, but you get really tired of waiting for it amid the zealous narration and bad but holier than thou Southern dialogue.  There’s little information about this film online, but I wonder how big names like Robert Wagner, Faye Dunaway, Jill St. John, and Brad Dourif came to be involved. Not only is the photography and camera work low budget, but the sound is bad on top of the overall poor acting and presentation.  And actually, I find the violent and threatening, gibberish styled Speaking in Tongues kind of insulting. Eh, stick with Elmer Gantry and The Apostle instead.

11 February 2011

300: The Stelios Edition

300: The Stelios Edition
By Kristin Battestella

(Just a little Valentine treat for the ladies at the Michael Fassbender Online website!)

Yes, after two previous analysis of the 2007 Greek yarn 300, I’ve decided to take another look at this fantastical tale of graphic and gory action, historical honor, and battle rousing inspiration for one be-speedo-ed Spartan: the long haired, high flying, in search of a beautiful death Stelioooooos!  I’ve been sick for two weeks and am so looped up on cough medicine that it’s not funny- perhaps that can explain this delusion.

So try to contain yourselves as the IQ seeps from the room and trickles deep, deep down into the gutter- or refer to my initial intelligent critiques via our 300 label instead. You have been warned, Persian.  

After seeing his tour de force acting capabilities in films like Hunger and Fish Tank, I admitted I was remiss in not appreciating Michael Fassbender’s crazy Spartan sooner.  I was actually in a David Wenham streak as an offshoot of my Lord of the Rings obsessions when I first saw 300 in the theater, but I was more interested in the ground breaking effects, filming design, and Battle of Thermopylae interpretation from director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, Watchman) than you know, hot guys in leather hot pants.  Certainly if there was ever a film that was so purely designed for the sake of eye candy, beefcake, and every desert in between, 300 would have to be it.  However, the entire reason I decided to see 300 in the theater was because the trailers looked so dang cool.  If I were just interested in some juicy LOTR excess, I would have waited for the DVD or just watched Wenham’s Better Than Sex again.  (Trust me on that one!)  Outside of 2007’s pop campaign slogan, “This is Sparta!” or “Tonight, we dine in Hell!” I kept wondering where Gerard Butler was in the previews.  Who the hell was this flying Spartan fightin’ so dirtily in the shade and leaping with his bellowing red cape flowing behind him?  Not that I knew or cared, but such sweet promos made 300 must see for a lot of people, didn’t it?

When Stelios first appears 20 minutes into the film, his introduction is strangely accentuated compared to the other 299 personal bodyguards going on a stroll.  Why in the hell is this longhaired angry dude the one declaring his loyalty in such quotable fervor?  “We are with you, sire! For Sparta, for freedom, to the death!”  We got that part already, thanks.  And when does he have time to do his hair, anyway?  First, it’s all blonde and blowing in the sun kissed Grecian wind, then its half and half by time Stelios woo woos his Spartan profession.  It’s as if Stelios is being expressly singled out as the young, wild, pimpin’ badass, and I don’t like that.  I have a habit of expressly avoiding going for the designated hottie in a film.  Where’s the fun in liking the one that everyone else is going to like, too?  Nonconform, people.  Then, we’re expected to believe this guy also has a poetic soft side in addition to abs of steel and shampoo commercial hair?  It is Stelios who inquires on the people in the village and declares, “Have the gods no mercy?”  Well then, I’m certainly not going to like this guy- he’s just too good to be true…

And then he gets wet and airborne on us!  

When I first wrote my original review of 300 24 hours after I saw it in the theater, some viewers were actually angry with me and sent me messages complaining I spoiled the ending by talking about the Spartans’ sacrificial and latently messianic deaths to save Greece.  Um, yeah.  If Michael Fassbender was in your high school history classroom dressed like this and reciting Herodotus, maybe we might have paid more attention!  I confess I didn’t hear a word he said in the theater- something about ancestors, blood, and mortar.  If we were supposed to pay attention, we never would have been given that crotch shot with the sword whip out.  Devo, anyone?  I was with my future husband in the theater, and it was a good thing the lights were dark.  I thought, ‘Geez, will this naked guy put his cape back on already!’ Yes, he is still wearing those very Brazilian undies, but the action of whipping out his faux sword seriously implies he has it all hanging out.  We are forced into not taking our eyes off of this damn guy- and it fucking works.  People still talk about this “fight in the shade” scene as being the most memorable part of the movie nearly five years later.  Michael Fassbender made people like frigging history with his ancient factual dialogue, and The History Channel is still showing its ‘Last Stand of the 300’ documentary because of it.

Maybe Stelios wasn’t my favorite Spartan, but you can’t deny his impact in the film.  I confess, for the longest time, I even had a little moving avatar of Mr. Slim and Shady from his pimptastic single-handed takedown of those pesky Persian mystics.  His tuck tail and subsequent delight at his own fireworks was just that cool, even to me.  While I’m on the subject, did any other character in 300 have a youtube mini parody named in his honor?  No.  Stalking Stelios is awesome- and not just because Michael Fassbender graciously makes an appearance in it.  All humor aside, my favorite Stelios moment has always been his beautiful death soliloquy.  Truly, I thought the hair in his face look was seriously annoying, but when giving his insane yet inspiring speech about seeking glory in death, the psycho hair works.  The scene is somewhat dark, and with the hair in his face, we only clearly see the shiny whites of Stelios’ teeth and eyes.  When he laughs in the face of death, nay runs towards his end with open arms and such a joyous grin and glint in his eye, you can’t help but believe that Sparta means business.

 With his contradictory heart of poet seeking death and fighting so damn hard prowess, I must confess, I also thought there was some seriously implied sexual undertones between Stelios and Tom Wisdom’s Astinos.  The way the elder Stelios with an implied wife and sons at home teases his Captain’s son, who is “too young to have felt a woman’s warmth” is tough to miss, particularly if you do manage to look past the exuding visuals and pay attention to their kinky banter.  The way Fassbender always tends to stand with his little hands on his sassy hips, calling Astinos a woman and claiming he needs his back covered in battle.  Astinos gives it, too, claiming Stelios was “more likely offering his backside to the Thespians.” Frankly, it is gay- in both the sense that it’s happy and all in good fun and sexual between men at the same time.  The best part?  Stelios is still a pimp.  You can’t not like that panoramic, slow motion, tag team fight sequence with the kicks, thrusts, sword slices, sword throwing, somersaults, and orgasmic jabs.  300 is in slow motion so you can see everything, and for the most part, you can tell which Spartans are who and where because of it.  Sure, sometimes when they have their helmets on or are all shielded up in the phalanx early on maybe you can’t tell who is who- Stelios isn’t even called by name until an hour into the film, just before the “There’s no reason we can’t be civil” apple zinger. However, by the final moments of Leonidas’ last stand, we damn well know who Stelios is when the king calls for him.  Not only would ‘Captaiiiiiiiiiin!’ not have been as cool, but when such death is imminent, we know only Stelios will lead the charge. In some ways, you have to admit his final flying leap and death cry is kind of funny looking.  Yet at the same time, it is fucking terrifying.  If I were a Persian, I’d want to run away from this nothing to loose maniac and his spear, too. Even here in 300, where the leather bikini bottom is everything, Fassbender still presented a damn fine character.  Who knew?

 Now then, if you need further proof of the power of the Fassinator, even director Zack Snyder is under his spell.  When watching 300 with his commentary, Snyder never mentions Stelios or Fassbender through the entire film- except for the end.  Now, again, I’m expecting to hear about the story, how Dillios’ narration is actually what is on the epitaph at the Hot Gates today, “Go tell the Spartans, passersby…” yadda yadda history and all that.  But no, instead of historical and powerful insights, Snyder takes this time out to point out Michael Fassbender, “that’s him just to the right”, because after the final take, everyone went outside in cold Montreal for a snowball fight.  The Mighty Fass apparently pegged Snyder with a wicked hit in the face and Snyder proclaimed that he has been trying to get him back ever since.  If this amusing but out of place behind the scenes snippet isn’t enough, Gerard Butler also served up a Fassinating bit of information in an interview.  This may or may not be TMI, depending on your point of view.  Apparently, all the boys went out for some celebratory the night before the final day’s shooting.  Hey, you have 300 plus guys running around getting hot and sweaty for a movie, they have to let off steam somehow, I can respect that. Gerard Butler doesn’t drink, but buffly skinny Fass apparently drinks enough for both of them.  In that absolutely lovely and tearful beautiful death scene that Stelios had been so longing for, Michael Fassbender was so off his rocker he couldn’t shut up long enough to play dead. 

Rant: Why is there no blooper reel on these DVDs?! End rant.

Now, when I was first touched by these moving final moments for Leonidas and his boys, I thought, ‘Boy, I bet this guy wears contacts and was actually crying.  His eyes are really glassy.’ Honestly, I didn’t even know Michael Fassbender’s name until six months ago! I saw the old screen captures I had made again a few weeks ago and still thought, ‘Man, his eyes are really bloodshot here, powerful stuff.’ Well, now we know why, don’t we?  Even if it really does completely cheapen the story of the film and the Battle of Thermopylae to purely look at said Hot Spartan Stelios, you either really love Michael Fassbender or kind of hate him with that story.  I mean, he’s an actor having a good time; nobody else can get away with showing up to work that hung over.  And yet, he still gave a beautiful and bittersweet exclamation to 300.   Is Fassbender just that good at his profession?

Yes. And he can fly. 

 I’ve corrected the error of my ways, and in 2011, American audiences who were in the same ignorant boat will have at least four opportunities to see Michael Fassbender again on the big screen.  Despite his knack for completely changing his appearance and absorbing himself 110% into his roles, some smart and aware folks in the theater during Jane Eyre, Haywire, X-Men: First Class, or A Dangerous Method may very well blurt out, ‘Stelioooos!’ in their worst Big Gerry imitation- and rightfully so.  Others will just be so smitten and rush to Google The Fass on their supposedly off smart phones, see his filmography, and giggle, ‘OMG! That’s the same guy!’ Either way, I think Michael Fassbender is going to sell a lot of X-Men merchandise this year.

Although a clone in street clothes with a shield and spear like in the 300 behind the scenes features might be a nice purchase, too.  Better than a guard dog, to say the least.

(We'll be back to our proper, critical, insightful analysis next week!)

06 February 2011

Classic Swashbuckling and Adventures

Classic Swashbucklers, Knights, and More
By Kristin Battestella

Yes, I do love me some classic film.  Moreover, if said classic film has plenty of Arthurian lords and ladies, sword fighting pirates, not so chivalrous knights, or any other medieval rogues and wenches- it’s all the better. Here’s a quick list of old school fantasy and historical films for ye olde viewing pleasure.  Break out the mead and rum!

Captain BloodCaptain Blood – I said ‘swashbuckler’. That means we’re going to spend a lot of time with the Tasmanian ladies man himself, Errol Flynn.  In this 1935 stateside breakout full of feathers, frocks, and pirates; Flynn (The Adventures of Robin Hood) and his favorite onscreen leading lady Olivia de Havilland (Gone with the Wind, The Heiress) debate slavery, fight imperial injustice, and battle the wonderfully ruthless Basil Rathbone (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). Some of the music, reused seafaring footage, highbrow delivery, and over the top design might be a bit much for contemporary folks, I grant you.  However, the sweet sword fights, dashing story, and jolly good fun are a fan’s delight- and its all dang impressive for its time.  Take that, Pirates of the Caribbean!  Now, if only this were really in color, can you imagine?

Knights of the Round TableKnights of the Round Table – Medieval rogue Robert Taylor (Ivanhoe, Quentin Durward) is at it again with a seriously smokin’ Ava Gardner (Mogambo, The Barefoot Contessa) in all the Arthurian Cinemascope glory one classics fan could ask for. From the sword in the stone to all those somehow fitting but out of place 14th century French styles, director Richard Thorpe (Jailhouse Rock, The Prisoner of Zenda) keeps this colorful 1953 yarn quick and entertaining.  Yes, the dialogue is a little hokey now, but the fights and fancy, chivalry and ladies are all in good fun.  There’s even as much scandalous love as the Production Code will allow, complete with a saintly Elaine (Maureen Swanson, later even a real life countess!) and an appearance by the Holy Grail. What’s not to like?

The Lion in WinterThe Lion in Winter – This 1968 opus starring Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia) as Henry II and Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn (The African Queen, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) as Eleanor of Aquitaine is as epic as they come.  Sure, its long and slow by today’s standards, with too many angled zooming close ups and over the top arguments for the throne; but divine locations, authentic dressings, sweet costumes,  and lovely Oscar winning music from the late James Bond composer John Barry more than make up the difference.  Add Timothy Dalton (The Living Daylights) and Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs) in their film debuts, too, and we’ve a medieval tale well told.  Die hard audiences can also take in O’Toole’s prior appearance as Henry II in Becket or compare the 2003 television The Lion in Winter starring Patrick Stewart.

The Errol Flynn Signature Collection, Vol. 1 (Captain Blood / The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex / The Sea Hawk / They Died with Their Boots On / Dodge City / The Adventures of Errol Flynn)The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex – Only an exceptional few ladies could play Good Queen Bess twice, and Bette Davis (The Virgin Queen) makes a lovely royal debut here in 1939- along with our swashbuckling essential Errol Flynn as the titular Essex and a young, pre-horror maven Vincent Price as Sir Walter Raleigh.  Toss in the wonderful schemer Olivia de Havilland (again!), some sweet costumes by Orry Kelly (Some Like it Hot, Gypsy), lovely medieval decoration, and plenty of historical drama from Oscar winning director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Mildred Pierce) and you simply can’t go wrong.  And thanks to Cate Blanchett, too!

Robin and MarianRobin and Marian ­– Contrary to our modern versions keeping Robin Hood young, pretty, non-English (I’m talking to you, Mr. Costner and Mr. Crowe) or otherwise badass; this 1976 Sean Connery (The Untouchables, Dr. No) yarn  adds a touch of vintage class and mature romance to the outlaw’s tale.  While the golden age tone and veteran retrospective bend is not what we expect, the pace and editing is a little slow at times- especially early on.  It’s a little too dark in some spots, and some of the accents are kind of annoying, too; but hey, 12th Century England was no picnic. Thankfully, the look, style, and sword action are fun and authentic, along with the delightful cast including Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday, Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Richard Harris (Camelot, The Field), and Ian Holm (Alien, Lord of the Rings).  

The Sea Hawk (1940)The Sea Hawk – In Like- err Errol Flynn strikes again, this time with the none to shabby Flora Robson as Elizabeth I, another multi-talented lady reprising her turn as Her Majesty from Fire Over England (Take that Bette!). Toss in the ever wonderful Claude Raines (Casablanca, Notorious, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) as Spanish ambassador Don Alvarez, add an armada or two, and we’re okay to go.  Some of director Michael Curtiz’ (yes, him again, too) black and white photography is showing its 70 year wear, but that doesn’t mean we have to go and bastardize it with some faux color!  Besides, not a lot of contemporary actors can look so fitting and proper in those pointy conquistador helmets, either.  The frocks- partly nipped from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex- are also charming, even if the rest of the story is pretty historically inaccurate. Even with the dated fun and faults, we just don’t make strapping, family friendly, entertaining, and adventurous yarns like these anymore.  I protest!

Also, don’t forget to check out our extensive Classic Camelot and Medieval Fun list, compiling these and a slew more of ye olde films of Arthur, yore, and more!