21 April 2011

Merlin Season 3

Merlin Season 3 Finally Gets on the Magical Ball
By Kristin Battestella

After two entertaining but somewhat youthful and meandering seasons, Merlin Year 3 grows up, gets dark, and takes major strides towards the Camelot we’ve been expecting all along.

Prince Arthur (Bradley James) and his loyal but secretly magically inclined servant Merlin (Colin Morgan) have spent the last year searching for King Uther’s (Anthony Head) ward Morgana (Katie McGrath).  When Morgana suddenly returns, she is changed for the worse- thanks to the evil magic tutelage of her half sister Morgause (Emilia Fox).  Morgause and Uther’s enemy King Cenred (Tom Ellis) have united and with Morgana’s help, hope to overthrow Uther.  Court Physician Gaius (Richard Wilson), Morgana’s maid Guinevere (Angel Colby), and would be knight Gwaine (Eoin Macken) join Arthur and Merlin in saving Camelot against the brewing darkness.

The Arthurian angst picks up with the serious steps taken in the two-part season opener “The Tears of Uther Pendragon.” Episode 5 “The Crystal Cave” also leans Merlin towards establishing its own magical mythos instead of relying on creature features, special effects, or other seemingly fantastic knock-offs.  Episode 8 “The Eye of the Phoenix” has room for seriousness, nice guest stars, and a lovely quest, too. Wonderful coming of age events, emotional issues, and consequences that can’t be retconned add much needed maturity, depth, and growth.  Again, when Merlin gets heavy, it feels right, as if it should have been this way all along. This darker material harbingers intense, over arching, multi-part tales- we can have maturity and guilt without the super duper kids stuff.  Our regular players, more recurring stock, and fine guest stars all mix wonderfully, allowing the core cast to finally grow beyond their stereotypical magical conundrums.  Year 3 even has ‘Previouslies’ to update viewers on the ongoing plots, and the continuing storylines progress realistically towards the expected legends and Arthurian magic. Director Alice Troughton does some fine episodes including “Love in the Time of Dragons.”  “Queen of Hearts” writer Howard Overman often has solid episodes as well.  At last, we have some traditional Grail hints along with Merlin’s great humor, camaraderie, and banter all around; there’s even more fun thanks to the budding Round Table additions of Gwaine, Lancelot, Percival, and Elyan. Let me also assure the traditionalists looking for how Excalibur plays its part- it is worth the wait.  Yes, Merlin can seem a little too noble and preachy at times, but Arthurian tales should perhaps be so.  If we’re going to have some brooding court angst at Camelot, it is still nice to have the wholesome goodness balancing out the heavy.  

Thankfully, the use of the Dragon in “The Sorcerer’s Shadow” is also much better this season- he’s actually critical to the plot and has a reason for being there instead of just coming off as a neat effect.  Merlin is best when it’s about its own people and establishment, not creatures and borrowed magic mythos. So why then, does it always take half a season to get to the really good stuff? Shows like “Goblin’s Gold” and “The Changeling” always resort to evil magic, CGI monsters of the week, or a humorous romantic enchantment. Merlin always seems uneven thanks to the relapses toward fart jokes, unending marriage ploys, and constant hollow threats against Camelot. Do we need creatures and flatulence week after week when there’s such dark goodness to be had? How many tournaments can there be? Even magic rings too!  It’s as if the writers sometimes don’t know all they have to use and have spent the last two years with random Arthurian trial and error. Though it turned out to have serious flaws when critical players departed, I don’t wonder why creators Julian Jones and Jake Michie don’t do linear seasons and concurrent storylines as they did with Hex.  I’ve been asking for ongoing heavy for two years here! Instead, we end up waiting until the two-part finale “The Coming of Arthur” for Merlin to become truly great television. 

I must say, it is amusing when Arthur accuses Merlin of not being able to keep secrets!  We wouldn’t like this show if we didn’t enjoy Colin Morgan, and he is solid throughout the season, particularly in the finale.  Although he still uses some magical cop-outs when Arthur is conveniently unconscious and no one ever sees anything when he openly risks using magic in public; Merlin actually uses real spells this season, takes true magical dangers, and gets his wizardry to the level it should be.  Guest Harry Melling (Harry Potter) as Gilli makes a fine antithesis to Merlin in “The Sorcerer’s Shadow,” too. While it’s been nice seeing Merlin grow to this point-especially for younger and family audiences- again why not do all this to start? Sometimes it’s as if Merlin simply began too soon, showing us the juvenile prologue and now we are finally at Chapter One. Of course, teen lady fans will enjoy all the shirtless action, and there is still some innocent fun when Merlin gets to ride the Dragon.  That would indeed be cool. Not to be outdone, Arthur has some room to grow up against Uther this season as well, taking stands on critical issues and persons.  The power hungry versus those who cede power are realistically debated, and Bradley James really does seem like he might not be a bad King Arthur after all.

But of course, the unimaginative decisions made by the writers of Merlin hamper the ladies onscreen again. Morgana goes too obviously evil too soon.  Again, she should have been bad all along or the foundations for this naughty turn should have been built over the first two seasons far better.  McGrath, however, is good at being a potentially evil queen- but won’t someone notice all her evil smirks? The overabundance of Smirking Morgana early on in turn weakens the barely there Gwen.  Animosity between the girls and Morgana’s meddling in Arthur and Gwen’s forbidden romance again should have been ongoing since day one.  I know I’ve said ‘again’ and ‘all along’ a lot, but it bears repeating. We spend so much time with Morgana and then leapfrog over her storyline for guest humor, creating a most unrealistic and uneven internal villain. Fortunately, Gwen is strengthened a bit by some more back-story, including references to her late father and the introduction of Adetomiwa Edun as her brother Elyan. Just knowing that neither Guinevere nor Uther have forgotten what has come before adds a little more dimension as Gwen takes strides towards being the future queen.   

Speaking of Uther, Anthony Head still has plenty of arrogance and parental issues, and likewise Richard Wilson as Gaius stretches his hidden wizardry roots. Wilson is great fun in “Goblin’s Gold,” and it’s nice to see that some romances in Camelot aren’t forgotten and have long lasting rifts and conflicts. Despite some disliking Merlin for its family fantasy bend, there’s still plenty of room for the elder stars to shine without always resorting to humor.  Sometimes we don’t see as much of the adults as I might like thanks to all the kid shenanigans and special effects; but good, mature story, parental bonding, and family approvals will always trump graphics.  Michael Cronin as Geoffrey of Monmouth also supports wonderfully, and it’s great to see him and more players like Emilia Fox as Morgause.  Tom Ellis (Eastenders) also adds good villainy as Cenred.  Together he and Morgause make serious and credible threats against Camelot, and the recurring knights like Sir Leon (Rupert Young) are needed now more than ever.  Of course, Santiago Cabrera has yet to really have his moment as Lancelot, but Eoin Macken is quite cool as Gwaine.  His bar fights and ongoing appearances are wonderful and do so much more than those silly melees after tournaments after jousts.  At last, significant support players are winning out against the kiddie grasp at ratings.  Percival, people, Percival!

While we shouldn’t expect Oscar worthy cinematics on a small show like this, the battle and massive effects are a little less quality compared to the bigger, modern epics we are used to today. Fortunately, Merlin is stepping up to the plate and growing up nicely in all other areas at last.  Although it isn’t quite fair to properly compare three episodes worth of one to three seasons worth of the other, I’d be remiss if I didn’t counter Merlin and the new Starz adaptation Camelot.  As of now, I much prefer the fantastical lessons and youth of Merlin to the historical sex of Camelot. While I may end up watching all of Camelot eventually, Merlin has the better angle on how it wants to use magic in its telling, and the men here are much more likeable.  Jamie Campbell Bower and Joseph Fiennes are just too bland and completely insipid.  However, Camelot has much more epic music, realistically 5th century locations and sets, and better handled ladies in Eva Green and Claire Forlani. I’ve been waiting for so long for the juvenile Merlin to get real and grow up, but Camelot is a little too far off the deep and dark nudity end.   It’s so strange now that there is a wealth of medieval material in film and television on both sides of the pond, and yet there still isn’t an Arthurian tale with which I am 100% happy. Merlin is a fantasy, Camelot is historical, but where is the ‘historical fantasy’ Lord of the Rings medium? Maybe somebody else will come along next year with something heavier than Merlin- but hey Camelot, lighten up.

Then again, HBO’s Game of Thrones looks to be firing on all cylinders straight out of the gate.  Somehow, this new fantasy series led by Sean Bean and Mark Addy can handle not your mama’s fantasy dark whilst still being traditionally gripping.  Thrones looks good, mixing designs that are realistically old with some exotic fantasy colors, and again the cast is both likeable and naughty all around.  Is it just because these A Song of Ice and Fire books have been adapted carefully with author George R.R. Martin that sets Thrones off and running on the right style, tone, and production?  It’s taken Merlin a long time to find where it needs to be, and Camelot is already sputtering. Kinky and nudity isn’t used to replace good storytelling in Game of Thrones, and fantasy oriented families may very well be able to handle both Merlin for the pups and Thrones once the babes are put to bed.

Unfortunately, American audiences may have to wait quite some time for Season 4 of Merlin, as there is some sort of potential scheduling hullabaloo in the UK between Merlin and Doctor Who.  After making such great efforts and character turns in Year 3 that can’t be taken back, schmikey it would be a shame for audiences to forget Merlin thanks to airing technicalities.  If you’ve already turned away from Merlin thanks to its prior youth and silliness, give Season 3 a fresh chance- it’s grown up look and charm this year may just surprise you. 


11 April 2011

Highlander: The Series Season 6

Highlander Season 6 Disappoints
By Kristin Battestella

Well, as my husband said, “It’s all downhill from here.”  After continued improvement, top notch syndicated television, and impressive immortal capabilities in its first five seasons, Highlander: The Series limps through its 97-98 shortened final season for a very unfortunately discolored conclusion.

After the murder of his friend and fellow immortal Richie Ryan, Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul) retreats to a Southeast Asian monastery for a year and mentally prepares for his battle against the demon Ahriman.  Ahriman taunts MacLeod by appearing in the guises of the Highlander’s late enemies: the rogue watcher James Horton (Peter Hudson) and the leader of the four horsemen, Kronos (Valentine Pelka).  The friendships between Duncan, ancient immortal Methos (Peter Wingfield), and watcher Joe Dawson (Jim Byrnes) also become strained as MacLeod retreats to his Parisian barge, aides several female immortals from his past, and tries to find himself again.

Yeah, that is kind of a sucky summary of Highlander: The Series’ 13 episode final season.  Unfortunately, this season itself is kind of sucky and should most definitely not be used as judgment for the series as a whole.  Year 6 begins a little hokey with the two-part Ahriman opener “Avatar” and “Armageddon,” then concludes with an It’s A Wonderful Life cop out in “To Be” and “Not to Be.” Yes, it’s too abstract, David Lynch-esque, and mystical, but the Ahriman storyline- carried over from the finale of Season 5- both takes too long to get over with and yet seems to be too easily wrapped up and tidy.  While a fan of the series can see the importance of MacLeod going this route, questioning the meaning of his immortal life, and despairing over the death his longevity causes; this critical turn is only explored in half the episodes this season.  Highlander: The Series just gets too weird here, departing from all that made it so great in favor of bad immortal crime and female revenge crap.  This tiresome stretch of chicks all seem the same and drive this season into the ground. We’ve never seen any of these women before- at the very least why should we care about them when the immortals we know and love have so much more to tell?  If anything, Season 6 has me feeling a little bit of resentment for these guesting women who do nothing but waste the precious time being taken away from our real players.  Though a lovely piece in of itself, only MacLeod ends up with some small resolution in the series finale- which seems more like a mid-season two-parter by magically presenting the alternate possibilities of the rest of our company.  Yes, the show is supposed to be about The Highlander.  However, over the previous 5 seasons, we saw just how much MacLeod both rose and fell based on the mortal and immortal support about him.  To simply have the others smile as the sun sets is a little unfair for all the characters- and certainly unkind to the audience.  But again, it is still a lovely final episode, complete with a tear-jerking Highlander: The Series goodbye montage.  Sniff.

Fortunately, there are a few goods to be had this season.  “Diplomatic Immunity” and “Black Tower” are worthy MacLeod centric episodes.  “Unusual Suspects” with Roger Daltry returning as Hugh Fitzcairn is also great in another fun, all in the past delight that again proves more could have been done historically instead of resorting to these immortal women follies. And let’s talk about all these guesting female immortals.  Isn’t it amazing that in 13 episodes, it seems like we’ve had more lady immortals than in all the previous seasons combined? Hmm, why is that? Some of these gals are, unfortunately, seriously bad.  Dara Tomanovich (Bio-Dome) as Alex Raven in “Sins of the Father” is kind of cool, perhaps the first female immortal who can actually fight and likes it.  Her plot and motorcycle style, are however, a bit Renegade; and again, I wonder why Highlander: The Series would choose to retread this route.  Highlander I have on DVD, Renegade I do not.  No one is rerunning Renegade anywhere, Highlander is being remade, and Lorenzo Lamas can’t even keep a reality show about his crazy family on E!.  Even more tragic is Alice Evans (Her claim to fame is the way she ruined the career of her husband, Hornblower’s Ioan Gruffudd) in “Patient Number 7.”  While it’s not a bad premise, the episode is just very badly done, and Evans most definitely cannot carry one show, let alone an entire spin off. Likewise, “Justice” and “Deadly Exposure” just stink.  Claudia Christian (Babylon 5) is lovely, but her backdoor pilot “Two of Hearts” is just…no. Not only does it have none of the regular players, but also the subsequent episode “Indiscretions” exclusively features Dawson and Methos and thus proves just how unnecessary all this Star Search for the next female immortal really was. You want another gal in the cast? It might have been nice to see more of Joe’s daughter Amy (Louise Taylor, Eyes Wide Shut) as a player in Highlander: The Watcher Adventures.  Anything would have been better than how Season 6 actually turned out, I’m just saying.  

Of course, the MacLeod specific episodes are still the best, but remember, Duncan is, well, barely there in Year 6.  Of course, we’re sorry to see him go, but in many ways, one can understand star Adrian Paul’s readiness to depart towards bigger and better things. He even cuts his hair, people!  Seriously, what else was left for Mac? Why did they need to reduce the character to a shadow of his former self this season anyway? Did they really have so little faith in the rest of the cast without him?  Why couldn’t Duncan have stayed monking it out in his temple while Joe, Methos, Amanda, and a new watcher or young immortal or two had adventures searching the globe for the elusive Highlander? Although it’s kind of silly, I want to say Season 6 is a little underhanded in the way MacLeod is treated. After 5 years, he can go through whatever serious stuff he wants this season- so long as he gets over it in 3 episodes? It’s almost cruel to end Highlander: The Series this way.  As I wrote in my Season 5 essay, I would watch “The Modern Prometheus,” skip the Year 5 finale “Archangel,” and the Ahriman plot, then pick up “Unusual Suspects” and “Indiscretions” here before the series conclusion.   Everything else is kind of a slap in the face for longtime viewers. 

Previously, I’ve also mentioned my continued chagrin over the irregular cast credits and character appearances in Highlander: The Series.  Now that Elizabeth Gracen and Peter Wingfield are at last included in the main credits, they don’t %^&*# appear!  And their opening clips are some crappy shots, too. There were so many great scenes to choose from and this is what they get? Ironically, Roger Daltry as Fitzcairn- guest star of 3 episodes- appears more than Amanda and Methos! Jim Byrnes appears in count ‘em 5 measly shows this year, and I just find that unacceptable!  Why couldn’t he be the one helping some of these unnecessarily troubled chick immortals, huh?  Did they only have the new Le Blues Bar set for a few days or something and wrote Joe out along with it? Why make the big stink of him transferring to Paris to watch MacLeod if we are hardly ever going to see him?  I can imagine someone tuning into Season 6 on television and seeing some of these regular-less episodes and simply saying, ‘What the hell?’

Much as I love Amanda, the format taken for her brief spin off Highlander: The Raven again inexplicably returns to all the cop and crime pitfalls that hampered the first two seasons here.  Why why why?  Excuse my French, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Honestly, I really don’t understand why Amanda, Methos, Joe, and perhaps a new immortal or a returning cool like Carl Robinson couldn’t continue Highlander: The Series as it was without MacLeod.  Sure, it is supposed to be about the titular Scot, but Season 6 and perhaps even another year could have been great immortal fun in a search for Duncan or even film Highlander Connor (who gets no mention in the finale whatsoever) ala Blake’s 7. Heck, give us another new immortal MacLeod to carry on- incorporate Quentin from The Animated Series.  Why not return Kristin Minter as Mac’s kissing cousin Rachel MacLeod if you want a woman so badly? My goodness, even Joe sitting at his desk browsing the Watcher Database and introducing us to a flashback could have been fun- especially if it was something unseen from Methos’ few thousand years. Then perhaps we could have had an investigator coming onto the Game and the Watchers and let that segue into a separate Amanda show.  They could have continued in a series of 90-minute movies with some of our favorite immortals from the past, too. You have 5,000 years of Methos and instead you make a spin off with contemporary cop plots? Wow, that isn’t like every other show on television, no, not at all. Hell, I’m not buying that, and The Raven was cancelled because no one else bought it, either. I know I’ve spent more time complaining than properly reviewing, but there were so many other possibilities for Highlander: The Series to take before choosing to just whimper away with a half season of mistakes and a spin off that was flawed at the start. It’s just so effing sad to end like this!

Fortunately, we spend this shortened season exclusively in Paris, and the European locations and period flashbacks are great as always.  We see a lot of pre-MacLeod times and places in a good portion of the flashbacks- thanks to our rotating door of 1,000 year old immortal gals (Didn’t we already have a 1200 year old immortal gal? coughamandacough) Still, it’s nice to see that the historical style holds up without the eponymous man himself.  Unfortunately, the action suffers this season thanks to all those guest ladies who can’t hold a sword to save their lives.  They all also seem to wear the exact same pair of black jeans with a zippered up black leather motorcycle bomber, too.  And again, chick Quickenings are a Hell No. Even Duncan’s sweet Barge suffers- losing all its wonderful art and d├ęcor so Mac can have a more Zen like environment.  What did they do, sell all the stuff to pay for this clunky half a season? 

 (Black Leather can actually save you money!)

While season 6 may leave a bitter taste even in the Highlander completist’s mouth, it’s more important to look at the gem of the series overall.  Most shows have crappy first and last seasons.  In today’s instant ratings obsession, we wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to get past the first half of Season 1.  Though sometimes it might have made financing and production difficult, it’s wonderful that syndication and foreign formats allowed this show much more room to breath, explore, and be true to itself for full 48 minutes episodes for as long as it did.  Personally, I’d have to say I like Seasons 3 and 4 the best, followed by Year 5 and a step down to 2, and then Season 1.  We’ll give this 6th Year an ‘iffy’ at best. 

Of course, the extras, interviews, audition tapes, bloopers, extended episodes, retrospectives, timelines, behind the scenes, scripts, and more on the DVD sets can’t be faulted for any lack of goodness.  Die-hard fans or new fans tempted to turn away from this season can always go back and enjoy all the wealth of supplemental material included with this series.  Perhaps that’s why the errors in Season 6 feel so strange, the Highlander: The Series powers that be showed so much love and appreciation previously with all these features and delightful treats.  Oh well, I suppose having this abbreviated disappointment should have been expected.  With 119 episodes, we were bound to have a few clunkers.  It’s just a pity all of Highlander: The Series’ badness came all at once. 

Damn, I can’t end these critiques on what is largely such a wonderful television series on a down note!  Whether familiar with Highlander or not, fantasy and adventure fans young and old who are looking for quality entertainment beyond special effects or bland visuals can definitely find the humor, romance, action, drama, emotion, and complexity they are looking for with Highlander: The Series.  I miss it again already!

04 April 2011

Highlander: The Series Season 5

Highlander Peaks for Season 5
By Kristin Battestella

The immortal suave and sword fighting style of Highlander: The Series continues for Season 5 - from BC to the nineties and then some.   

Immortal Highlander Duncan MacLeod (Adrian Paul) struggles with who he is and who is friends are- thanks to prophecies of good and evil and secrets withheld by the 5,000 year old Methos (Peter Wingfield).  Watcher Joe Dawson (Jim Byrnes) also wrestles with his immortal friendships and the mortality they so often harbinger.  Unfortunately, Amanda (Elizabeth Gracen) and Richie (Stan Kirsh) must also face immortal fame, infamy, and religion.  Can’t all these immortals just get along?

 One might think Highlander: The Series would retread a topic or two after such a solid syndicated tenure- but no.  Faith and hope in immortal pacifism are tempted in “Little Tin God” and “The Messenger”; the uses and wastes of immortality are  examined in “Haunted” and “The Modern Prometheus”; “The End of Innocence” questions the immortal mentor and student relationships.  Yes, the season opener “Prophecy” and the finale “Archangel” do stray into a little mythical and magic fantasy much- but hey, what do you expect in a show about folks who live forever? Fortunately, there’s plenty of fun, too, especially in the period piece treats “Money is No Object” and “The Stone of Scone.”  Despite its reduction to 18 episodes, Year 5 nicely balances one-off immortal explorations with ongoing storylines and multiple part shows. Instead of growing old and withered, Season 5 is the culmination of Highlander: The Series.  The audience knows the mythos and the players well enough by now, so there’s no need for filler or fluff or straying beyond the exploration of our Immortal repertoire. 

While some of the Depression era hijinks are oft played, at least Duncan MacLeod has some fun in the past, from time to time, occasionally- just so long as he doesn’t get too fun and crazy in the present!  MacLeod seems increasingly tired, weary, burned out beautifully by the likes of “The Valkyrie,” “Forgive Us Our Trespasses” and “Duende.”  Perhaps part of that was indeed the growing stress of Adrian Paul- naturally so much rides upon him.  However, it’s understandable that Mac gets tired of being the good guy after 400 years- in the same way he remains haunted by when he wasn’t always the good guy and made costly, nay deadly mistakes.  Duncan clings to his friendships in an attempt to deal with all this routine death- the cost for his long life- but even his support system carries tragic consequences.

 One thing that has always bugged me about the Watchers- you know the secret organization watching Immortals that isn’t really so secret and that isn’t supposed to interfere but always does- is that they’ve blindly keep their presence hidden from immortals. I’m so glad Joe Dawson at last gets his friendship with Mac out in the open.  Why can’t the Watchers share on a case-by-case basis with immortals?  Hey, he’s a good guy, I can ask him some questions about The Bronze Age and get the facts right!  “Glory Days” again gives us a beautiful peak into Joe’s life thanks to Duncan and likewise, Joe provides wonderful reflection in, well, every episode he appears!  By contrast, Amanda allows for more sexy fun and tongue in cheek cool with “Dramatic License.”  Not without their immortal drama, it’s also great to see her and Mac wonder what their relationship really is under all the laughter and if their difficulties could not only survive mortal conventions, but immortal lifetimes. Then let’s toss in some competition from Nicholas Lea (The X-Files) as Cory Raines in “Money for Nothing” just to keep the romance on its toes.  Of course, seeing Amanda and Roger Daltry’s Hugh Fitzcairn go head to head in “The Stone of Scone” is so, so sweet, too! 

I know I’ve mentioned some of the same episodes more than once- hey, they bear repeating- but most viewers probably remember ‘the horsemen ones’ most from Season 5, if not the entire series.  Peter Wingfield guests in count ‘em seven episodes this year, and “Comes A Horseman” and “Revelation 6:8” finally give us a piece of the Methos mythos (hee). Not that “The Messenger” and “The Modern Prometheus” don’t, but seeing the wild side of Methos is an exceptional antithesis to do-gooder MacLeod.  Toss in the lady scorned Tracy Scoggins (Babylon 5, The Colbys, and I always remember Watchers II for some reason) for 3 shows as immortal witch Cassandra, and oh me oh my! These storylines add to MacLeod’s own legend and the ancient presence of immortals without having to disastrously explain where they all come from- as in the various versions of Highlander 2. They are, they f*ck up, they move on.  Highlander: The Series needs nothing else, indeed. Although I must say, I always thought I liked Fitz more than Methos, but now I’m not so sure.  The Methos possibilities are just too interesting- be he good or evil, selfless and righteous for the greater good, or downright arrogant and self centered.  And does any one else think Colin Morgan on the new Merlin looks like he could be Wingfield’s son?  

 (This picture just cracks me up for some reason!)

Unfortunately, Richie always gets the short end of the sword and never quite gets a head above the rest.  “The End of Innocence” tries to backpedal on Richie’s off screen whereabouts from last season- but if the audience is supposed to find all this so important, why weren’t we seeing snips of these adventures then? How ironic he’s a regular character who also appears in only 7 episodes. Sadly, in this rewatch, I think I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really like Richie.  He isn’t treated as any more significant than the guest immortals, he’s kind of a jerk who always screws up or never really learns anything, or if so, the changes never stick as he comes and goes.  All that being said, when Richie gets a spotlight show like “Haunted,” Highlander: The Series still can’t go wrong. Here’s a lovely episode again exploring what exactly a Quickening may be- is it the spirit or the soul? Does it live on in the immortal who takes the victor’s head; do they obtain the quirks and characteristics of their beheaded comrades?  If that is the case, immortals must fight to the death in order to pass on all their greatness in one culmination towards The Prize.  In a way, it’s almost as if the Quickening is a unique form of…procreation towards one glorious being. Such Intriguing thoughts like this, however, are given a backseat so Richie can have another one off romance and then disappear. Snark.  The visiting Bruce A. Young’s (The Sentinel) Carl Robinson in “Manhunt” is far more interesting as the slave turned ball player with political hopes who can’t quite get past his own immortal racism. I would have loved to see Young return as a recurring player had the series gone on properly- but we won’t talk about those bads until Season 6.

Some of the narrations leading into the flashbacks this season are, however, a little unusual.  Show don’t tell, after all. Some exotic locations like Peru or unexplored times and places like Andersonville, the 1970s, and Spain add more zest and fun to the always lovely and upscale period design.  Again, perhaps Depression era crime and Nazi motifs are over played- and the dojo really looks ready to retire.  How can a members only gym be open all the time yet be so empty?  How can it close down and get wrecked all the time and expect to keep such bare clientele? Then again, episodes like “The Stone of Scone” make one wonder why Highlander: The Series didn’t do an entirely period episode at least once a season- or continue on with stand alone totally in the past television movies or multipart miniseries.  Of course, some of these answers are probably in the immense special features within these sets.  I confess I’ve yet to get through them all.  Thanks to the shorter episode order here, enthusiasts are treated to two entire discs devoted to interviews, convention footage, alternative episodes and deleted scenes, bloopers, character features, commentaries- plus a CD-Rom with scripts, trivia, and more. Yowza!

 Those who know and love the Highlander franchise will absolutely adore Season 5.  However, knowing how this year ends and considering the inferior Sixth Season, the lackluster spin off Highlander: The Raven, the split decision feature Highlander: Endgame, and the woeful direct to video Highlander: The Source; some fans may actually want to leave the franchise before the “Archangel” finale.  For myself I usually let it go at “The Modern Prometheus” and then pick up with the series finale. For once they start bringing in famous figures as immortals; you know the writing is on the wall.  It’s like when Quantum Leap had Marilyn Monroe and Elvis plotlines. Highlander: The Series need not go that way, and new viewers can’t come into the immortal universe this late, either.  Where have you been? Fantasy adventure fans young and old can live forever with Highlander.


01 April 2011

Jane Eyre (2011)

Latest Jane Eyre Lovely and Damn Tempting!
By Leigh Wood

I had to wait a little bit to see this latest umpteenth adaptation of Jane Eyre from director Cary Fukunaga thanks to its limited release schedule; but hot damn, now I am glad it isn’t at my nearest theater, for then I’d be there every day watching this unabashedly sappy, spooky, and brooding Bronte!

Unless you’re not of this planet, you probably know the story: Young Jane Eyre (Amelia Clarkson, The Sarah Jane Adventures) is treated cruelly by her Aunt Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins) and is subsequently sent to the even more horrible Lowood School, where she befriends the sickly Helen (Freya Parks, Creation). Years later, Jane (Mia Wasikowska) takes an appointment as governess to Adele (Romy Settbon Moore), the young French ward of the mysterious master of Thornfield Hall, Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) warns Jane of the drafty and scary ways of the house- and to be careful of her budding relationship with Rochester. Thanks to familial secrets and social boundaries, Rochester instead courts socialite Blanche Ingram (Imogen Poots). When marital disaster strikes, Jane eventually flees to the home of St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell). Of course, I’m sure you know how it ends, so I I’ll stop there.

I deliberately stayed away from the numerous onscreen adaptations again or a re-reading of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel in my anticipation of seeing Fukunaga’s (Sin Nombre) supposedly fresh, 21st century, dark interpretation. At first, I was also a little leery of the way the marketing and all was spinning things- it’s been done over 20 times, I suppose there’s only so many ways you can twist and lure in your campaign. Thankfully, the flashback presentation from screenwriter Moira Buffini (The Enlightenment, Byzantium) does work as they said it would, and actually akins this version closer to the framing of my slightly more preferred Wuthering Heights. (The whole implication with Heathcliff and Catherine’s dead body; you know there was something twisted and kinky going on there!) Online venues and magazine reviews of course have already mentioned some of the prior Jane Eyre takes- I suppose I like the 1983 Timothy Dalton version or William Hurt’s 1996 take the best. One always knows their favored JE by the Rochester, does she not? However, the first words out of my Dad’s mouth when I told him I saw this one, “Who’s playing Jane Eyre?” Of course, everyone inevitably mentions the 1944 Orson Welles version, but for my money, the recently late Elizabeth Taylor was the best thing about that one. Oh her little Helen! Maybe it has the time to get deeper into the book, but I’m not a Toby Stephens fan, so the 2006 miniseries was a tough for me. Younger audiences new to the literature can definitely enjoy this version at hand indeed. Despite its flashback angles, it’s straightforward- unlike some of the Masterpiece Theatre fluff we so often expect- but no less intense in its players or tale. Though it may only scratch the surface of the novel, it damn near has me getting my copy from the bookshelf. Teachers and scholars can have a relatable classroom showing when this Jane Eyre comes to DVD, oh yes. 

Jane EyreYes, I’ve always been more partial to Wuthering Heights thanks to the gothic elements and, well, the tormented morbidity out weighing the traditional Austentonion romance. Yuck! Maybe I was younger and didn’t appreciate the relationship or just really like me some kinky implied horror, but when first reading Jane Eyre, I was scared out of my wits. The abuse at Lowood, the budding sinister, mystery, and isolation of Thornfield Hall- I was a little disappointed to find out the supernatural was just a red herring. Fortunately, Fukunaga does keep to his promises of a spookier telling here. The real romance actually comes a little late, and we further feel the love is too good to be true or cannot be thanks to meeting all the creepy night time shenanigans and dangerous moors first. Allowing a few jump in your seats moments both makes room for non period romance fans whilst also strengthening the relationships to come.

Forgive me the pun, but Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, The Kids Are All Right, In Treatment) is no plain Jane. She totally transforms into the bland and restricted but no less passionate and spirited Jane and looks completely different from her off-screen style thanks to the rigid corsets and lots of heavy and ugly fabrics. We like Jane from the start, and come to like her even more as she refuses to give Rochester the sob story we’ve seen as any excuse for whatever faults this society may find in her person. We want to see something good finally happen to her- nay we must see a happy ending as a reward for such good convictions. Despite the scares and pessimism and our modern cynicism, we need that damn happy ever after for this Jane! And I’m sorry but I have to let the fan girl deep down inside out and say hell yeah we want her to marry mother fucking Michael Fassbender, because you know damn well you’re upset that you can’t marry him either. You crazy stalkers, you! Fassy’s Rochester may be pretty or at the very least, more pretty than we are accustomed or expect in a brooding older scary Hall master, and thus he perhaps initially seems a little lightweight compared to some of the other renditions. However, this handsome style- goodness the charisma- and presumed levity makes this Rochester all the more intriguing. Why is this seemingly upscale and well-traveled man so interested in little school teacher Jane? Is it all amusing to him? Why does he seek such solace in her? He’s rich and educated and traveled-compared to Jane what does he have to be so dang glum about? Despite their odd pairing, the class divide, and all this Victorian rigidness, there’s actually a lot of intensity between the leads and characters onscreen. I even felt a little giggly in seeing Jane get as blushed as she was going to get- yeah, flustered in the 1840s, oh my! And come on, forget the Fireside Poets, you know you’d want to sit by the hearth all aglow with the Fass. Rochester’s sneaky way of spending time with Jane, egging her intellect forth and including her in the mysteries of the household while at the same time trying to make her jealous and actually keep his secrets, it’s all just great. I want to let out a big happy sigh. Even with society pushing these two iconic players up against the wall, you want to see the happy ever after. It’s all a little pre-Dickensian how wealth, tragedy, and circumstance come into play, but I’d rather have this justice, irony, people, and plot than special effects. Graphics are so meager in comparison!

My only major fear here is that the twitty text obsessed current generation will be scratching their heads at the old speaketh, not understand the subtly of what is being said, and thus think Jane Eyre a stuffy and crappy movie. Which, if that comes to be the case, then it is a mother fucking pity! Frankly, if we ever needed a reason to return to not ending sentences with prepositions (besides, you know, that it’s the grammatically correct way to speak) it may be this movie. Who knew proper English could sound as sweet and enchanting as this? While I’d love to be proven wrong, I’m also sad to say that I don’t see Oscar wins for Mia and Michael for this film. There’ll be nominations and other award wins for sure- I’d be pissed if there were no acknowledgments or hardware recognition! However, I fear competition will be tight and the dopey Academy may be tired of Jane Eyre adaptations in general, or consider the performances here only similar to or on par with the standard in this latest wave of beloved Austen-esque material. It’s an Oscar ‘Almost there, kids!’ rookie dismissal instead hoping that these leads will go on to bigger and better films they need not share with so many literary others. Mia has already had plenty of this youthful acclaim- if it were up to me, she should win Best Actress just for being the best Jane yet. And as far as I’m concerned Fassbender has already given three potentially Academy worthy performances in Hunger (Too IRA political for the Oscars? Hogwash! You can award Bale for his starvation and not Fass?), Fish Tank (We can’t acknowledge fine performance if there’s a hint of pedophilia but we can award Polanski?), and Inglourious Basterds (If Waltz wasn’t so good as Landa, Fassy would have at least deserved the Supporting nom, Hicox was da bomb!). He needs to be acknowledged by the American film establishment and soon! If Fassbender were to receive a Supporting nod here but go home with Best Actor for the upcoming A Dangerous Method or Shame, I would be as content as the Happy Little Clouds in a Bob Ross painting. If it were vice versa or both, I’d be orgasmic. Of course, no man has ever one the Supporting Actor and Best Actor in one year, but The Fass has The Power of Grayskull to do so, no lie. He’s also going to be Magneto in X-Men: First Class for goodness sake!

Ahem, there is all this lead steamy somehow taut amid the rigid and stuffy Victorian ways, but let’s admit there is something near enchanting about such style, formality, and class. Not their ridiculous obsession with social status, but you know, a sense of grace and carriage about themselves where one would not use a phrase like ‘you know’. Of course, Dame Judi Dench (how can you be a filmgoer today and need a Dame Judi reference?) always has such a classic element about her person and her good-natured Mrs. Fairfax adds just the right amount of humor and levity or honest concern when needed. This is not in the stereotypically fluttering English housekeeper oi oi oh me oh my fan and faint played up for the laughs either, thank goodness. Likewise, Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, Nicholas Nickleby, The Eagle- do you think him and Fass compared with Centurion?) is very impressive as the passive and buttoned up minister St. John Rivers who nonetheless carries a reserved silent strength and latent admiration for Jane. While his feeling is probably no less in emotion or care, Bell perfectly captures the restraint of the time via St. John. Had he lived today, I’ve no doubt he’d run off to India with an unattached Jane for charity and adventure, conventions be damned- there’s that much good and wonder in his soul, really there must be- he just can’t show it! Ah, those lovely 19th century formalities come with a very restrictive downside, don’t they? Dench and Bell, I do believe stand a better chance to walk away next year with some Supporting hardware from Jane Eyre. Unfortunately, we don’t see as much of Sally Hawkins (Persuasion), Imogen Poots (Centurion- in a movie with Fassbender twice! That, at least partially, makes up for her unique but someone unfortunate name), Tazmin Merchant (The Tudors) or other characters as finite fans of the novel may have expected. However, everyone is on form nonetheless and fits the look in period fine fashions, unlike most of the new Hollywood crowd who would be preposterously unbelievable in Princess Leia buns or mutton chops. Fass may very well bring them back- after all, they worked for Isaac Asimov! 

Unfortunately, though it adds a wonderfully realistic ambiance and timeless, spooky look, not all may enjoy the dark candlelit cinematography in Jane Eyre. Even in the almost all-dark theater, a few scenes are just a little too dim for our modern eyes. We are just too accustomed to glowing monitors, screens, day glow phones, and lit buttons to appreciate how critical candles were to these people- or how much darkness and suggestion could so easily scare them. But of course, the costumes and set design are definitely awards top notch. Likewise, these are great locations; you can imagine in our idealized Bronte mind that this is how England really used to look, or may even still look in the furthest misty and isolated Midlands. We all need those great shawls and hefty velvet bed curtains while we snuggle up beside a hearth that’s big enough to fit you and all those petticoats! The fashions are both enticing in their lace, form, and classic beauty- no one can really look ugly in such style- while being old fashioned, over the top and cumbersome at the same time. It’s amazing how the wardrobe advances the attraction as well. These people are so prim and proper and even their nightgowns are so lacy and ruffled- and yet there is something so friggin’ juicy when they do glimpse each other in those flirty white and barely there gowns and caps! And Fassbender! My God, those silk and satin frock coats, waist jackets, tight pants and high boots. I swear, I wish men still dressed like this! Everyone is talking about the mutton chops, but by time you are well into Jane Eyre, the looks and styles come naturally. Later in the evening after seeing the film, I found myself turning to the television expecting to return to the Midlands; only to remember, oh yeah, that was this afternoon at the movies. I just have this urge to dig up the old Civil War re-enactors gear, tighten up my corset, and perch on the edge of my wing backed chair with Little Women! Ah, this is the power of cinema!

I’ve meandered in my favorable comments and let my fan girl get the better of me, but this Jane Eyre isn’t totally perfect. Again, I hope to see numerous awards and acclaim coming, including serious Oscar attention. (If I say it enough, they may hear me.) However, there are a few strikes against the film. While it’s all an intriguing spin, there may be too much missing from the screenplay for purists to consider an Adapted Screenplay nomination. Likewise, though the direction is lovely, American audiences may find it too slow or feel something is too broad or understated in the silent scenes. Some things are understandably missing do to Jane Eyre’s 2 hours runtime, so hopefully any and all extra material will be included on the eventual video release. At a quick glance, it seems like at least ten shots in the much loved trailer are absent, and I’m really not sure why these are lost. If they powers that be have only planned a limited theatrical run, there is no need to excise necessary scenes to squeeze as many showings into the day as possible. It’s a shame really, because some of those lost scenes fester this somewhat incomplete feeling for Jane Eyre enthusiasts and probably hurt this film’s Best Picture chances. We’re not talking about Return of the King and its dozen endings adding character moments and explanations for the Extended Edition here. Perhaps with these spread out releases and international designs forthcoming, maybe more will be put back into this Jane Eyre in an awards season push. Then again, maybe they just think us Americans won’t get it so they gave us the quick and easy Cliff Notes version. 

Thankfully, even in limited box office, stateside audiences are getting this dose of Jane Eyre. It was mostly women in the theater when we went, and it was not quite half full for this the second noon showing. Though I don’t wish to be a stereotypical girl and condone the occasionally negative implications on JE as super romance and for the feminine only- heck my Dad loves this book!- there were only two or three men in the theater. They were coupled with old ladies who probably dragged them to the cinema and could hardly even hear-sometimes the ladies had to whisper some of the softer dialogue to them! Longtime fans of the novel and previous adaptations can, will, and should definitely take in this Jane Eyre and delight. New audiences, fans of the cast, and younger viewers can also enjoy casually for the first time or fall in love with Charlotte Bronte, Jane, Mia, Rochester, Fassy, or Jamie Bell. You should damn well already love Judi Dench. If you haven’t read the book, clear your literary schedule or plan to spend a lot of time at the movies with Jane Eyre’s Victorian visuals this spring.