22 June 2011

The Art of I Think, Therefore I Review!

Well, well, my little Thinkers!  THANK YOU for helping I Think, Therefore I Review reach 50,000 hits!  Small in the grand scheme of things, I know- but it’s the little things that count.  In celebration of your support on our mini achievement, we’re presenting The Art of the Review!

As part of the June Blog Workshop hosted by my FATE and FANGS: Tales from The Vampire Family publisher Muse It Up (plug, hee) I spent the day Friday June 17 sharing how any and all prospective writers, budding critics, those new to non fiction or the persuasive essay enthusiast can analyze films, books, music, and television.  Who knew?


Who wants to get schooled in critical essay and reviewing technique?!  In today's instant age of quips and quickie three sentence reviews on books, film, television, and music- writing a persuasive essay can seem so impersonal. The muck of thousands of blogs, journals, and social media sites that seem to merely concur, tweet, or link to someone else's critiques can seem so daunting, even overwhelming to the would be reviewer with something intelligent to say.  Will my voice be heard? Does my opinion count? YES! You- yes you!- CAN write a full length critique detailing the pros and cons of your subject in a concise, intelligent manner.  Don't think you have the time, even to write about a medium you love like books, movies, or music? Nonsense!  Afraid fiction and non-fiction work can't go together? Forgetaboutit! We're going to talk about using the basics of essay writing to analyze character, style, design, format, voice, and more.  Let's put the quick fun back into reviewing, write concise opinions, and have your critical voice heard!

The Art of the Review: Welcome

The Art of the Review: Introduce Personality

The Art of the Review: The Meat of It

The Art of the Review: Conclude Smartly

Do feel free to continue to comment and enjoy the tips and tricks being shared at the rest of the Muse It Up Blog Workshops.  Ask questions at the posts proper or drop a line here.  And again THANK YOU for taking part in the intellectual conversations and thought-provoking criticisms at I Think, Therefore I Review!

19 June 2011

Don Juan DeMarco

Don Juan DeMarco Charming and Witty Fun
By Kristin Battestella

Don Juan DeMarcoSeriously, I think Netflix only has one copy of certain films, and they seem to be all the ones in my queue.  Fittingly, I held onto the 1995 sappy Johnny Depp comedy Don Juan DeMarco for an entire week just to soften the blow of what felt like a two year wait.

Despite bedding thousands of women-1,503 to be exact- 21 year old Don Juan DeMarco (Depp) has been rejected by his one true love and wishes to end his life honorably.  He goes to the top of a New York building where psychiatrist Jack Mickler (Marlon Brando) talks Don Juan down.  Now that he is on a 10-day psychiatric hold, the debonair Don Juan must prove to Jack that he is not delusional over a masked centerfold and a reading of Lord Byron’s tale before the institution’s higher ups insist upon medicating him into monotony.  Even considering the absurd account of Don Juan’s tale, Jack warms to this last patient before retirement and is inspired to liven up his contented marriage.  Mrs. Mickler (Faye Dunaway), however, asks her husband one critical question- who is Don Juan really?

Humorous themes of unexpected dreams and romance aren’t the typical subject matter from producer Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather); but this wry comedy written and directed Jeremy Leven (The Notebook) has plenty of mature debates on age, love, state of mind, and well, whimsy. This is not an outright comedy like the slapstick or gross out we expect today, but it is not so overly romantic to drive away folks like me who usually can’t take a rom com. There’s enough depth here beyond the Zorro jokes and possible drool- but with material such as this, one can’t get too heavy a la Good Will Hunting, either. Don Juan DeMarco finds a smart balance by being able to laugh at itself with fun dialogue and a lighthearted internal self-reverence.  Multi-level parallel storylines between Don Juan and Jack reflect just how much Don Juan’s biased account touches his doctor.  Of course, it is all totally over the top and ridiculous but a charming reflection and exploration nonetheless.  

I confess I was swoony over Johnny Depp…once.  Cry Baby, anyone? The Pirates of the Caribbean star shows the same fun and flair here in another fine example of perfect casting. Depp swaggers with a believable Spanish accent and delightful cavalier style- his Don Juan is truly a character who inspires everyone he encounters for the better.  He is so full of it, totally, yet he is so good at what he does all the same.  Don Juan’s sexual wisdom and philosophies of women and love are absurd while also making perfect sense. Perhaps it is just that we don’t often speak of such truths- or that the wit comes with a contrastingly stupid Zorro like getup- but it all works.  It’s also amusing how Don Juan seems to charm both men and women- pleasing to see how all walks can be touched by such sentiments and good-natured love.  Audiences can read into these mask motifs as well in theorizing on who we are and how we love. Which is really the mask that Don Juan wears? If we do fool ourselves into believing something we are not and that helps other people or at the very least doesn’t harm anyone, who’s to say it is a delusion? Don Juan thinks looking at life for what it is just uncreative!  Obviously, his issues are revealed during the course of his tale, and we see more and more evidence of how unlikely his reality is.  Real life, however, is beside the point in Don Juan DeMarco.  

Though I like Depp well enough, outside of The Godfather, I often find myself unimpressed with Marlon Brando.  Seriously, he looks like hell here (though not as bad as The Island of Doctor Moreau, ugh) - yet for me, this is one of his most charming and lovely performances.  He bemusingly plays along with Don Juan’s delusions in fun, faux Don-ness.  Maybe it’s meant to be Spanish in flair, but we of course think a little Corleone when Jack puts on some mocking zest.  He’s a retiring psychiatrist who has seen better days indeed.  His wit, however, matches Don Juan’s fluff perfectly- interrupting DeMarco’s tale of how women should be  delicately touched to abruptly ask if Don Juan is Mexican, Spanish, or Italian.  Brando’s great in going from stuffy old man to living vicariously through Don Juan. Despite knowing the preposterousness of his patient, seeing through all Don Juan’s plot holes, and giving clinical diagnosis on the delusions, Jack is still no less touched, even increasing skeptical about what the truth really means.  Is it better to burn so brightly and passionately for a shorter time or wash up with mediocrity and retire to boredom?  Despite his askew view, Don Juan sees through the masks that Jack has spent his life wearing. Even with all the psychological mystery presented by Depp, Don Juan DeMarco is just as much about the revelations for Jack, too.

Amid all this testosterone and speculation on the 1,503 conquests, Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde, Mommie Dearest) is breathtaking as the would-be old and washed up Marilyn Mickler.  She’s beautiful and endearing to all but Jack and herself- routine settled into their house a long time ago and early on in Don Juan DeMarco, it shows.  It’s great to see Marilyn blossom and be touched by Don Juan’s influence on Jack, and Dunaway is the perfect onscreen match to Brando.  She’s coming into a vibrancy and vitality as a sexy and confident middle-aged woman. Today a film like this would be made with a 35-year-old questioning love and age and it would beat everyone over the head with exactly what it is trying to say. Only that over and obvious hand would be given to the viewer- with no room for growth and inspiration.  Indeed, as Don Juan says, how boring and uncreative would that be? Rachel Ticotin (Total Recall) is also lovely as Don Juan’s mother Dona Inez- the perfectly ideal senorita as expected, and Talisa Soto (License to Kill, Mortal Kombat) is beautiful of course as lady love Dona Julia. Look also for a quick appearance by the late pop star Selena as well.

Don Juan DeMarco : Original Motion Picture SoundtrackDon Juan DeMarco may be hampered by some iffy mid nineties style in the women’s fashions and set decor, but the made to look Mexico locales and great beach scenery fit the bill. Perhaps the Spanish uses and flavors might be a bit stereotypical, but this is an ideal flashback with unreliable narration from Don Juan- it’s all wistful and in good fun.  The goofy sultan’s harem scenes look the proper whimsy as well.  There is some brief nudity as expected in such a seemingly steamy show. However, the clean cut sex scenes are tame compared to stuff today. That being set, the photography is no less intimate and personal and yet funny thanks to appropriately placed music cues.  Yes, we were all sick of Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do (I Do It for You)” theme from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves that was everywhere back in the day. Thankfully, the scoring here and Don Juan DeMarco’s lovely string based “Have You Every Really Loved a Woman?” signature song still rings true with elements of timelessness and beauty.  Actually, I have the Don Juan DeMarco soundtrack- I found it second hand cheap and listen to it quite often. Come on, you know you love that guitar rift! Sing it with me! The music is classical when needed, pop when required, carries a touch of Latin flavor, and yet is decidedly cross-cultural.  It’s also lovely to hear some of the lyrics in both English and Spanish, with different arrangements and instrumental versions of the tune underlying the film.  Seeing the Bryan Adams music video included on the Don Juan DeMarco DVD as one of the few features was nice, too- although Adams in the Zorro mask has most definitely not stood the test of time!  

Though charming, Don Juan DeMarco may be a little too mature for younger Depp fans thanks to the swoon elements and satisfaction of a woman motifs- a woman is like a musical instrument to be coaxed and all that. I’m not really sure why this movie seems somewhat unloved. Someone at Netflix is clearly watching anyway!  There is more class, wit, and delight here than in the modern repetitive romantic comedies for sure  Lady Depp fans can absolutely delight here, and those looking for more whimsy and complexity can find it in the elder stars as well.  Suspend your disbelief, let go, and enrich yourself with Don Juan DeMarco.

10 June 2011

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class Educates and Then Some
By Kristin Battestella

I have been waiting for X-Men: First Class for sometime indeed.  After the likes of the less than stellar Fantastic Four update and the dismal SyFy Channel attempt at The Phantom (A teen on a purple motorcycle is the best you can come up with for that franchise, really?), my expectations were exceeded by director Matthew Vaughn’s refreshingly simple concept to, as Artie Shaw would say, ‘Begin the Beguine’.

The Story

In 1944, Erik Lehnsherr (Bill Milner) witnesses Nazi scientist Klaus Schmidt’s (Kevin Bacon) torture firsthand thanks to his unique ability to manipulate metal. Young and privileged Charles Xavier (Laurence Belcher, later James McAvoy), however, takes in the scaled and blue mutant Raven (Morgan Lily, then Jennifer Lawrence) and by 1962, grows up to become a prominent scholar on mutations.  Erik (now Michael Fassbender) travels the globe in search of those who destroyed his family, ruthlessly cutting a swath towards Schmidt- who now goes by the name Sebastian Shaw.  Shaw and his fellow mutants Emma Frost (January Jones) and Azazel (Jason Flemyng) play both American plots and Russian plans against each other in hopes of starting nuclear war- and CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) needs Xavier’s help to catch them.  Xavier and mutant genius Hank McCoy (Nicholas Holt) use Cerebro to locate other mutants including Alex Summers (Lucas Till) and Sean Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones). Charles also convinces Erik to join the team, although the latter is only interested in his personal vengeance quest.  During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the CIA turns to Xavier and his mutants to defeat Shaw, but Erik is convinced the innate fear of mankind against mutants will be their undoing.

X-Men: First ClassWhy do we have this thick, self-centered, and ever repeating notion of taking fifty years of comic books- or any literary or media franchise for that matter- and changing them to make it supposedly more relevant to our fleetingly contemporary minds and styles?  Producer Bryan Singer (director of X-Men and X-2: X-Men United) and director Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) smartly go back to the times and places where the X-Men comics began and create a unique, vibrant, and no less relatable tale. Writers Jane Goldman (of Stardust and Kick Ass also with Vaughn), Zach Stentz and Ashley Edward Miller (Andromeda, Thor), and Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air) craft a timeless story of friendship, belonging, and fracture wrapped with retro design and would be behind the scenes history.  Action and modern witticisms are not at the forefront here, characters and the plot at hand are.  This switcharoo away from what we are accustomed is all the more refreshing because it works so well. Overall, the dialogue is properly rooted in the sixties with fine, intelligent debates.  Some may be surprised at the slower and quieter moments here thanks to this focus on the personal, but the pace of X-Men: First Class is just right, a natural progression and build up of players and events.  What needs to happen happens, leading up to everything viewers of the first films and readers of the comics already know.  Even with such built in awareness, there is still room for surprises, tension, suspense, and suspension of disbelief. Hello, even knowing how the Cuban Missile Crisis plays out, I was still holding my breath at First Class’ outcome.  That’s impressive!

The Stars

I’m a little upset about the claims that there are no true stars and big names in X-Men: First Class. How is one to become a star but by stealing the show in a film like this? And who is it that has the viewers holding their breaths and unable to blink when he is onscreen? Why Michael Fassbender and his young Magneto, of course.  (All of you who thought I was nuts for praising his work at last understand what I mean- the lady behind me in the theater shouting ‘Dayumn!’ every time he did something sure caught on quick!) As the vengeful and reluctant dark horse on Xavier’s team, Fassbender (300, Hunger, Fish Tank, Inglorious Basterds, Jane Eyre) excels with a wildcard abandon for languages, action, anger, rage, tears, and vulnerability. Even knowing the villain he is to become, we can’t help but understand where Erik’s ideologies come from and see that his wary theories on human error aren’t that far from the truth.  Again, those are the best kinds of bad guys- the ones self justified in what they do.  We want Charles to, well, complete Erik- heal him and make his soul whole again.  When Erik is laughing along with the other mutants and sharing long untouched memories with Charles, we believe he could amount to great things for the common good. As much as I love Ian McKellen, your thoughts are not on the elder Man of Magnetism here. Fassbender is the Vader of X-Men: First Class. It’s downright beautiful when Xavier truly touches Erik mentally and they save each other’s lives in turn. It’s beautiful because confident, intelligent, sexy badass guys aren’t supposed to get touchy feely!  To reach such poignancy only to see Professor X and Magneto then fracture is so, so sweet.  As opposed to his avante garde independent films, Fassbender most definitely proves he can handle the lead in larger movies with X-Men: First Class. Ladies who didn’t love him before will want to take him home and wipes his tears while male comic book fans will shake his hand and fight along side him. 

Though some audiences were upset by the occasional accent changes or thought Fassbender’s accent dropped all together towards the end of the film; honestly, I only noticed a major Irish inflection once in two viewings.  Not that his voice didn’t waver, it certainly could have. However, when you are so into the movie and the dialogue being exchanged, at some point you just don’t notice that McAvoy is really Scottish and sounds nothing like Patrick Stewart, either.  It’s a half hour into the movie before Fassbender even speaks English anyway.  His French- normally assumed to be such a lovely and romantic language- is used wonderfully in a threatening interrogation. We already saw the charmingly tragic Bill Milner (Son of Rambow) speaking German as the young and traumatized Erik; but knowing this ruthless French is not Lehnsherr’s primary language only makes him all the more deadly, even scary in his scorn. American audiences only familiar with Fassbender’s undercover, German speaking English spy from Inglorious Basterds might even erroneously expect his natural accent to be British, but his German here is again flawless.  It’s edgy, angry, sarcastic, and he switches so smoothly from an effortless Spanish in that great Argentinean stand off.  Even if there were no subtitles, you understand Erik’s deadly inflections whatever language he speaks.  Add his budding 007 style complete with black turtlenecks, fedoras, and three-piece suits to that deadly magnetism and ruthlessness, and you know not to mess with this guy. So then, seeing Fassbender turn on the dime to laughter, tears, and mutant inspirations is just the biggest star making bonus- and it is about time American viewers got on the Fass’ bender. If vocal inflictions are all the fault you can find in his performance here… Touché Fassy. 

In some ways, I feel bad that Fassbender has stolen some of James McAvoy’s thunder, because there is nothing wrong with McAvoy (Wanted, Atonement, The Last King of Scotland) in this film.  He wonderfully embodies the youth and zest of our prequel Charles with such compassion, hope, and vigor.  McAvoy was, in fact, better than I expected him to be. Just Fassbender was better- and the two of them together, god sent!   Xavier begins First Class a little dense or arrogant in his superior thinking of mutant mind and alcohol.  McAvoy doesn’t have an easy task in making the do gooder rich boy likeable- Charles is spoiled and has it all compared to the juicy grey material and developmental arc for Magneto.  The juxtaposition of these two parallel but divergent friends is the core here.  Xavier learns some humility at a very big price- despite having big mutant dreams of saving the world and living peacefully with homo sapiens. Ironically, his enlightenment and awakening of Erik’s full power turns out to be his own undoing.  Hot damn! Frankenstonian aspects, Jekyll and Hyde amalgams, and Neanderthal comparisons add even more spin to this layered relationship and deep superhero movie.  How can two men who believe such drastically different things save each other? Are mutants to be the gracious superiors of humanity or should the advanced dominate before mankind lashes out in the extreme and fearful measures we are so clearly capable of? Is superiority defined by compassion or action? Which are you supposed to choose when neither choice is necessarily right nor wrong? Yes, you get these lofty concepts and more from First Class.

While internal conflict certainly goes a long way, Kevin Bacon (Mystic River, Apollo 13, Footloose, its Kevin Bacon, people!) as an awesome Bond-esque villain certainly helps up the ante.  Bacon is decrepitly delightful in his opening incarnation Klaus Schmidt- a scientist who thinks he knows where the Nazis have erred in their experimentations.  His suave Sebastian Shaw is equally juicy and selfish.  Bacon is not, hee, hamming it up, but he is enjoying himself with all the great sixties accessories, babes, and diabolical plans.  Shaw is vain, intelligent, and totally cruel.  What a guy!  Though it is probably highly unlikely thanks to an already jammed packed hardware season, I’d love to see Bacon with a Supporting Actor nomination.  He sets First Class in motion and sees his agenda through- for our mutants to defeat him is an insurmountable, uphill battle.  Does Shaw care that the planet is collateral damage? Nope.  By contrast, Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games) perfectly struggles to embrace her mutant identity as the blue skinned Mystique.  Where does she fit in between Charles’ vague attention and higher goals and Erik’s anti-human hell bent?  I’m shocked that anyone would think this woman is fat, and her gentle possibilities and dividing discussions with Nicholas Hoult’s (About a Boy, Skins) Beast moves naturally in reflection to the primary relationship and overall motifs here. The handheld, up close, personal filming of Hank’s transformation is also almost werewolf in tone.  He is ashamed and unable to control the, uh, beast within. Is that all being a mutant is- fear and secrecy- or can their gifts be embraced for good? The main players of X-Men: First Class offer plenty of good versus evil as expected in a superhero movie, but there’s star-making finer performance and thought, too.

The Lesser Mutants

Adding to some of that superhero fun are the naughty and villainous mutant henchmen. Or henchwoman, as is the case with January Jones as Emma Frost.  Jones (Mad Men) does her icy duty and serves her purpose in the first half of film, but is largely absent for the finale.  Her uneven treatment and bitchy exterior are slightly mishandled, yes. However, if First Class is meant to be like a Bond movie in tone, this pattern should be expected.  The pursuit of a subordinate always leads to the revealed major plan and pursuit of the main villain.  The women may all seem mistreated, but again, a sixties era show wouldn’t have equal representation. I know that is an easy copout answer, but Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids, Damages) is undercover in a garter belt (hehe that isn’t much coverage!) for goodness sake, go with it. Claims that women shouldn’t  be in the CIA are rectified behind closed doors with the admittances of how important the women along side the battle actually are, but that praise is fittingly never said to their faces.  The women in First Class- whether human, good mutant, bad mutant- are all misunderstood for a reason. I’m more upset that Spanish actor Alex Gonzalez as Riptide had no lines and Vaughn favorite Jason Flemyng (Clash of the Titans, Primeval) as Azazel had so little to do.  Though both cool, neither is given much to contribute beyond the big battles and flashy badness. Does this detract from the film? Strangely, no.  These are villainous henchman who are supposed to be badass and seemingly unstoppable for our heroes. Both men get that juice across just fine and make the most of the little they are given.   

Unfortunately, the rest of the ‘X-kids’ as I call them are lightweight and merely okay at best. Edi Gathegi (Twilight) as Darwin is completely misused, even insultingly mishandled.  Not much time is really spent on the second tier’s particular abilities or any pouts about their mutations- just enough for it to not get super juvenile.  Instead, the smart newsreels, split screen, and splicing effects during the training montage helps make what could be a typical teen eighties collage with badass music remain sixties cool. We notice how neat the effect from the time is almost as much as the supposedly important kids harnessing their powers to get the job done. The youthful players are only at their best in scenes with Xavier or Erik and are otherwise the underdeveloped detriment of First Class.  In some ways, it might have been better to have had two films- one to know Xavier and Magneto and the second for the recruitment of young mutants.  I feel harsh in saying it, but Zoe Kravitz’ (Californication) Angel does nothing to advance the film.  Lucas Till (Hannah Montana: The Movie) as Havok seems to be too 21st century flippant and mutant cool as well, putting both in direct opposition to the pain, angst, compassion and ruthlessness from the primary players.  Caleb Landry Jones (Friday Night Lights) as Banshee is more tolerable thanks to some of his humor, but really were he and Angel only included in the film ahead of so many other mutants just for cool dogfight flying above Cuba? Did any of these younger mutants really need to be there? Honestly, the answer is no. First Class’ bread and butter is in its main players, and every time the story cuts away from them, you can’t wait to get back.

However, I seem to be alone in my dislike of the beloved surprise cameo in X-Men: First Class. This no big shocker appearance doesn’t really do anything to advance the story at hand, thus my red pencil editing brain is screaming it shouldn’t be there.  Not that the scene in of itself doesn’t work or isn’t funny, just perhaps such shoehorn stunt casting is better served as an Easter egg or extended video footage. First Class stands up just fine without you know who, bub. Why not have someone who may be Gambit throwing our boys out of a poker game with some flaming cards? Why not have a girl named Kitty scream at their approach and run through a wall? For what this appearance cost, I would much rather have had some more time spent on developing the younger mutants already in the film.  By contrast, the second, more unexpected cameo serves a purpose here, working beautifully with Jennifer Lawrence’s development of Mystique and her relationship with Magneto. I am still thinking about this scene!  Oliver Platt (Huff, The Bronx is Burning) as the unnamed CIA Man in Black is also a lot of fun at inviting the mutants in and giving them their gadgetry, and the aforementioned Rose Byrne does just fine in what she’s given.  I’d like to see more of her MacTaggert and Professor X in a sequel, hint hint. Lastly, I must mention the fine ‘hey that guy!’ everybody and their grandma appearances rounding out the cast- including Ray Wise (the dad from Twin Peaks), Glenn Morshower (24), Matt Craven (Crimson Tide), James Remar (Dexter), Don Creech (Ned’s Declassified), and Michael Ironside (he’s effing Ironside, people!)

Bond. Design Bond.

Now then, do allow me a paragraph for more on the sweet, sweet Bondian aspects of X-Men: First Class- because frankly, they are undeniable to even a 007 layman. Michael Fassbender looks so friggin’ Bond, it is unreal.  In some ways, this film is more Bond than Quantum of Solace, and there is nothing wrong with that!  When Erik wears that fedora, goodness me, I thought he was going to toss it on a hat rack!  We didn’t get an opening gun barrel scene in that last Bond film, but Vaughn made damn sure to give his audience a pseudo gun barrel turn. And wow, how about those Bond title sequence styled end credits?  Even an early rogue underwater attack on Shaw’s yacht- complete with a detachable submarine- had me thinking some of my favorite Dalton from License to Kill.  Though the director and his star leaned more toward Dr. No and Sean Connery, I seriously can see Fassbender as a cross between Dalton and current Bond Daniel Craig.  And though he has already shown his chops for the role in previous films (I told you so!), Fassbender’s emotional Bond kinship and Vaughn’s intimate directing ways further proves X-Men: First Class is about people who just happen to be mutants- as opposed to contemporary banal action flicks about car chases and shootouts and little else.  

X-Men: First Class naturally wouldn’t be any good if it were the garish sixties look or Austin Powers camp we might expect.  However, the hairstyles, fashions for the men and women, and the set décor do indicate just enough of that aforementioned swinging Bond style.  Goodness, I’ve also been watching Dark Shadows again recently, and First Class has none of that bad blue and green paisley! Classy lamps, fun artwork, short skirts and tall boots, lots of leather, and some sweet turtlenecks keep it all just right.  Though by definition a period piece, this is not so period to put off anyone. The over the top is reserved for mutant gadgetry or fun villainy, and truly, after awhile, I forgot about the 1962 setting until the great use of JFK archival snippets and newsreel split screens reminded me. Yes, Charles says groovy twice, but it is a drunken pick up line and works perfectly in context. The brief period music fits into the club scenes when used- and it isn’t blaring or overwhelming the show.  Actually, X-Men: First Class did not give me a headache, and there weren’t many scenes expressly used for action’s sake, coughmichaelbaycough. Some of the concluding battle does look ill choreographed, but what do you expect from new mutants duking it out? Besides, the period fleets and aircraft are too damn sweet.  This attention to detail makes First Class genuinely look like a sixties movie, as opposed to some of those modern films ‘made to look old’. 

The Experience

X-Men: First Class (+Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]While I’ve had mostly praise outside of a few questionable mutants, I was expecting more flaws in X-Men: First Class.  I spoiled myself on all the trailers, clips, and mistaken artwork and viral campaign- but most of that is largely out of context here. There is plenty more in the film that has yet to be seen online or in TV spots.  Unfortunately, it seems there were also longer bits or alternate takes used in some of the spots that are not here, and First Class does have a Fellowship of the Ring feeling, as if, well, we’ve only just begun.  Hopefully, anything excised will be on the video releases to come. Though justifiably long at 2 hours and 12 minutes, it does seem like there could have more to tell- the conclusion here definitely leaves you yearning for what happens next.  Is this a bromance? Is it too gay? Are their both pleasing consistencies and irritating inconsistencies with the original films?  Is it too politics of 2011? Well yes and no and absolutely are the answers to all those questions, and First Class still works wonderfully. I am, however, surprised by all the doom and gloom hyperbole saying First Class is a failure for only earning $56 million its opening weekend.  In the midst of a recession, First Class has thus far held its own with its primary predecessor- and that is with a very iffy marketing campaign, no fancy higher 3D return, and absolutely no merchandising strategy.  The critical reception for First Class has also been mostly praiseworthy, as compared to its most recent precursor X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  Is it not better to have both modest success and acclaim?  If the team behind First Class had been looking for a fantastical wad with no substance, they would have pursued 3D.  The fact that they didn’t shows they are more interested in making a quality film, and amen to that!

For my Friday 11:30 a.m. First Class cinema going experience, about 25 people attended and 5 folks were on cell phones. What then, is the ratio of time and people spent on the phone for a 2-hour movie? There were only a few women and one family with children, mostly it seemed like a bunch of guys cutting school and talking on the phone.  For those interested in the trailers, Mr. Popper’s Penguins is the required Jim Carrey family plug, but The Green Lantern’s trailer overflows with bad CGI. I could care less about Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon- it garnered a mere shrug from my Dad and a ‘looks messy’- though The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo looked good from what you could see.  Unfortunately, the teaser was so dang loud and rapid fire in your face that it made itself somewhat unappealing.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes looked like a cross between the aforementioned Transformers and Congo, with angry growling apes attacking cars on a bridge, yeah.  I do like The Three Musketeers- but in 3D, seriously? Lastly, Immortals looks exactly like 300- replete with fantastical slow motion phalanx and Fassbender’s flying Stelios. I kid you not.  Suffice to say, I don’t think there’s anything there I will see in the theater. But I would see First Class again. I did. Twice.

Do you need to be a fan of X-Men to enjoy First Class? Though calling the film ‘outstanding,’ my Father insisted this is not the kind of prequel you can see ahead of the original films. I, however, do think new audiences unaware can be floored all the same.  Longtime fans might find a few contradictions, but the stylized charm and performance forgive the question marks here. Those who would normally not consider a cheesy comic book show can also enjoy X-Men: First Class, as it is at least on par with other recently acclaimed and more serious superhero films like The Dark Knight and Spiderman 2.  I myself feel its kinship to the lovely heart and soul and nostalgia of the 1978 Superman. With only one f-bomb and some implied sexuality, this PG-13 is also safe for the family and has enough faux history, real emotion, and fine intelligence for the grown ups.  Save up and see X-Men: First Class ASAP.

05 June 2011

Dark Shadows: Collection 11

Dark Shadows Collection 11 Brings It On!
By Kristin Battestella

 No, that’s not a typo.  Thanks to my favoritism of family werewolf Quentin Collins, I’ve begun upgrading my VHS collection of the sixties gothic soap opera Dark Shadows almost smack in the middle of the DVD releases.  Collection 11 puts away weaker borrowed storylines, retires washed up characters, and begins scary hints of lycanthropy and disturbing hauntings at Collingwood. Glory!

While Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) struggles under the control of the vampire Angelique (Lara Parker) and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) and handyman Willie Loomis (John Karlen) try to help him; family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett) builds an elaborate mausoleum for fear of being buried alive.  Meanwhile, her brother Roger (Louis Edmunds) tries to dissuade governess Victoria Winters (Alexandra Moltke) from marrying Jeff Clark (Roger Davis) - for Clark is also being pursued by the unnaturally reincarnated creation, Eve (Marie Wallace).  Despising the mate Adam (Roger Rodan) for which she was created, Eve sides with warlock Nicholas Blair (Humbert Allen Astredo) as he plots to make Maggie Evans (Katherine Leigh Scott) his hellish bride.  Chris Jennings, a werewolf, (Don Briscoe) returns to Collinsport seeking answers on the death of his twin brother Tom, a vampire- but awkwardly romances Carolyn Stoddard (Nancy Barrett) instead.  Unfortunately, his sister Amy (Denise Nickerson) and young David Collins (David Henesy) unwittingly unleash the vengeful, possessive, and destructive spirit of Quentin Collins (David Selby) upon Collinwood. 

Naturally, there is a lot to cover here!  40 episodes over 4 discs begin with an attempted strangulation at the Old House and steadily build up all the vampirism, werwolves, witches, Frankenstonian monsters, crazy dreams, time travel, and skeletons a Dark Shadows fan could ask for. (I don’t care if I ended the sentence with a preposition!) The opening narrations catch the viewer up on the themes of each episode- the uninitiated can get the gist of what went on before Collection 11 quickly enough.  Even if one is still slightly confused regarding the resolution of the Adam and Eve storyline; that is a heck of a lot better than that on and on Dream Curse that came before, oiy! Although one can’t really fault Robert Rodan for being too wooden- he is after all, playing the1968 be-turtlenecked Frankenstein’s Monster Adam. Marie Wallace, however, has a lot of fun with her vavavavoomed Eve. The return to 1795 resolving Peter Bradford/Jeff Clark and his marriage to Victoria Winters are unfortunately, a bit slow, even boring.  I’ve never been a fan of Roger Davis and his constant over the top cases of mistaken identity, and Joel Crothers’ Joe Haskell will soon depart the series in hysterical fashion as well. Betsy Durkin and later Carolyn Groves briefly replace the pregnant and exiting Alexandra Motlke as Vicki and send the character to a very annoying end that can’t get over fast enough. Honestly, I used to fast forward through some of these repeated scenes of folks just talking about everything that has already happened, as soaps naturally so often do. Thankfully, Clarice Blackburn is a riot as the ever fanatical housekeeper Mrs. Johnson!

Fortunately- nay wonderfully- the heartfelt, theatre like one on one interactions, well planned scripts, and well played storylines make for great conversations and action filled with heavy supernatural angst or juicy look fair and feel foul mastery. Despite such a large ensemble cast and wealth of interwoven storylines, remember budget restrictions mean generally only 6 or less players appear per episode. Naturally, some players garner more attention than others do, with star Jonathan Frid being one of them. Early on, Barnabas does his usual sneaking out at dusk and that beloved vampire torment.  However, now its great fun to see Dark Shadows’ famed vampire as the hypnotized victim of the lovely but deadly Lara Parker as Angelique.  Frid handles the ironic reversal and his demented attachment to Angelique beautifully.  Likewise, Parker is still alluring, deadly, and disturbingly devoted.   And oh, the delightful Grayson Hall as our resident blood doctor and queen of the sedative Dr. Julia Hoffman!  No matter how crazy things get or how many times somebody says, “I don’t understand!” we like Julia and her equally unrequited loyalty to Barnabas.  Thayer David is also ever charming in all his incarnations as Stokes, and John Karlen is Willie Loomis, simply put.

Well, Humbert Allen Astredo makes quite the juicy villain to open Collection 11- foiling Barnabas, plotting with Angelique and Adam whilst also dealing with Diablos himself! Kathryn Leigh Scott’s Maggie Evans seems an odd match for Nicholas Blair, but her future position as governess at Collinwood increases her significance again dramatically.  Where her young naïveté looks amiss with Blair, Scott shines as the torment, terrorizing and hauntings continue in Collection 12. Unfortunately, Nancy Barrett doesn’t appear as Carolyn Stoddard until Disc 3 and doesn’t have much to do but not understand her werewolf romance.  And dear, sweet, classy and caring but supernaturally clueless star Joan Bennett always wants to help everybody and put up the entire town at crazy Collinwood! Strangely, I’ve always found her built in absentee mausoleum storyline quite fun. Louis Edmunds also doesn’t appear much this set, unless it is to be the unbelieving fodder for all the supernatural, as usual.

The older storylines and players are wrapped up somewhat quickly or simply left upon the wayside for the werewolf and ghost storylines, but better to loose all that fluff in favor of the beginning of one of the more popular sequences from Dark Shadows. Of course, Don Briscoe gets a lot of fun reactions as the never mentioned as twins but obviously looking exactly alike Tom and Chris Jennings.  And he certainly appears to be having fun with vampy Tom in contrast to his agonizing werewolf Chris.   Briscoe also has a tender rapport with his young co-star, Denise Nickerson (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). Though Amy is a little annoying to start, and David Henesy can also get irritating  when the children become possessed;  we feel for these kids in peril more than the crazy over the top sixties direction.   The kids actually do a better job then most juvenile players forced to act with thin air, and compared to later ladies too old for the part, Nickerson is probably the best young girl to appear on Dark Shadows.  On a shallow note, I love the innocent way Amy calls for Quentin, and hey, I used to pretend with my old candlestick telephone, too, I’m just saying.  Actually, these are the parts of the show that might not be best for impressionable children.  Sure, there are scary black masses and demonic summonings before and there will most definitely be crazier Leviathans and The Head of Judah Zachary to come.  However, the kids in Collection 11 do some iffy séances, possessive invocations, and near deadly deceptive tricks on the adults thanks to the ghostly influences ala The Innocents.

Of course, Quentin’s ghost is scary before we even seen him thanks to all those naughty influences and creepy sound effects.  Fun and shocking objects moving by themselves, phantom writing sends the ladies screaming. The poltergeist suspense builds beautifully thanks to nothing but player performance and smoke and mirrors.  Nothing neither flashy nor modern gore nor nudity is needed here- just great, unseen scary. When we do finally see the silent and bemutton chopped David Selby (Falcon Crest) as Quentin Collins, yowza!  The creepy stare, the sinister games, possessing children, all that innuendo and secrecy….  Guest star Cavada Humphrey is also a trip as foiled psychic Madame Findley, and Terry Crawford balances out the scary with her mysterious, tragic, and tearful appearances as lady ghost Beth Chavez.  There’s just something about a crying phantom woman all in white that does the trick on Dark Shadows

Wait for it; wait for it- Is that ‘Quentin’s Theme’ I hear?  I have the ‘Shadows of the Night’ 45, too, just saying.  Robert Cobert’s quintessential score is great as always. The music and scary soundtrack is innocent when needed, shocking and scary and right on cue- most of the time.  Speaking of fun production values, wow, check out those itty bitty pinprick vampire bites!  The vamp designs, werewolf makeup, and sixties hairstyles are indeed of the quick and easy values of the time.  Maggie’s fashions especially look a little too young and juvenile for her age- sailor outfits and bows in her hair. Likewise, Vicki seems frumpy and ill styled.   Fortunately, Joan Bennett still looks fashionable thanks to her own classy styles and some of Julia’s fashions and Angelique’s wispy vampy dresses still seem in vogue, too. The men’s styles and jackets are suave as well- unlike some of those disastrous seventies orange and garish stripes to come.  The brief return to the 1795- or 1796 depending on who is flubbing up the lines or the time- also looks the part, and the Victorian hints here will come to the style hilt for Collection 12 and Collection 13.

Naturally, the fun, cardboard sets on Dark Shadows look so badly dated, bland and on the cheap yet are so indicative of all that stylish, gothic, old school, and spooky magic. Ah, those blue candles and green sheets!  That ring! The time traveling afghan! Wobbly plastic trees and crumbling Styrofoam headstones! Stock photography, repeated establishing shots, and rudimentary onscreen effects get pretty bad indeed, but again it all does the trick in keeping everything good and gothic.  Yes, we may laugh at all the mistakes and hokeyness- and let’s not forget those cameo appearances from crewmembers, their shadows, and that extra special guest star, the boom mike. However, in many ways, Dark Shadows’ dated flaws and now vintage looks have strengthened the appeal of the series.  Downtrodden sixties looks like this can’t be recreated today. There’s something special about how simplistically they can rearrange a few pieces of furniture to go along with the time periods, big candelabras, and hefty velvet curtains.  Good luck making all your laptops and flatscreens spooky and hidden in today’s shows or removing that contemporary technology all together for good old fashioned isolation and terror.

Though dated a bit itself, Collection 11 has a neat vault animation for its DVD menu.  It’s amusing that there is a written warning on the set explaining all the understandable mistakes and technological errors in the episodes, too. You’d think folks would know it’s the 1968 soap opera jumping and not their DVD players!  (Although the lines and streaks did make this a tough one to screencapture.) There are no subtitles of course, but it is so much fun waiting for one of those famous flub ups or a blatant looks at the cue cards. The volume here is a little uneven, too; the remote control is a must for the sudden music and big screams.  Viewers can also choose a selected episode or play all options.  With episodes 614- 655 each at 22 minutes or less, it’s actually easy to marathon as desired for a night alone or as a backdrop to a demented party.  I always think there needs to be a lot of time invested to watch Dark Shadows, but going Collection by Collection isn’t as viewing insurmountable as it may seem.  4 or 5 episodes for a few hours a night every few days and I was finished Collection 11 in a few weeks.  Interviews per disc with Marie Wallace, Alexandra Moltke, Dan Curtis, and Nancy Barrett also add a few extra minutes of fun tidbits and nostalgia.

Yes, Dark Shadows has a lot of material, but with the included booklet for Collection 11 or online episode guide handy, one can skip or pinpoint exactly where he or she wants to watch- or which Collections they choose.   There’s no need for returning fans or invited newcomers to plod through the ridiculous storylines or early, non-supernatural stories if those aren’t desired.  Some very young, under 10 perhaps, might be scared by Dark Shadows, but today’s tweens growing out of modern glitter vamps or leaning towards a retro bend can certainly enjoy along with original audiences and second generation viewers like myself.  Werewolf fans and lovers of all things spooky can jump right in with Dark Shadows: Collection 11.

03 June 2011

Black Death

Black Death Catchy and Good
By Kristin Battestella

It took me awhile to watch the 2010 historical horror thriller Black Death after it finally arrived from Netflix.  Well, golly gee, I shouldn’t have waited!

Black Death + Digital Copy [Blu-ray]English monk Osmond (Eddie Redmayne) watches the Plague come to his monastery’s doorstep and wonders if he can serve God just as well on the outside with his ladylove Averill (Kimberley Nixon).  When zealous knight Ulric (Sean Bean) comes to the monastery on a quest from the Bishop, Osmond takes the opportunity as a sign from God and leaves the Abbott (David Warner). Osmond volunteers to lead Ulric and his men on their mission to a village beyond the marsh.  The village, lead by Langiva (Carice van Houten) and Hob (Tim McInnerny) is strangely untouched by the Black Death.  Though Ulric insists something foul or unnatural must be at work, young Osmond is not so sure and comes to question his faith, life, death, and God.

Party like its 1348! Director Christopher Smith (Creep, Severance, Triangle) and writer Dario Poloni (Wilderness) get right to it with a non-intrusive opening narration, fear of the plague, and bodies lining the street.  The audience remains knee deep in the Dark Ages via emotional characters, lofty concepts, and deadly circumstances.  Devout and superstitious ideologies of the time regarding if plaques and pestilences are punishment from God or demonic doings are firmly and intelligently established in what we too simply label as just a little horror film.  Although Black Death is indeed styled like a scary quest film; a road trip movie with a rag tag group of warriors traveling far, duking it out, and dying in creative ways just to destroy the bad guys.  There’s a bit of humor, too- blaming the plague on the French or going out with some anachronistic defiance and curses.  Actually, the camaraderie among our not so merry band reminds me of Neil Marshall’s Centurion. And of course, some of Black Death’s themes can seem like a repeat now thanks to the similar but much maligned Season of the Witch (It’s 6% Rotten, that’s all I’m saying about that Nicholas Cage drivel!) Yes, Ulric and his boys run around and swordfight a lot. However, there’s a dang good story with spiritual depth, fine action and cinematography, and a stylishly spooky setting. What’s not to like? Black Death has some sweet battle fare and some nice shocks and scares. The intriguing spin here is more than the usual burn at the stake fair, which we don’t see all that much anymore anyway. The dialogue is delivered rhythmically and seriously despite talk of demons and necromancers being responsible for the plague.  Performance and plot are not at the mercy of the gore, which is the easy norm and quick routine horror trend today. 
Well, Sean Bean looks a little Boromir here thanks to our imprinted image of him from Lord of the Rings, sure, and his new stateside success with Game of Thrones certainly contributes. But he’s so dang good at riding in to save the day!  Ulric has a job to do and believes God is on his side, and he will do anything to get it done.  He tells someone to move out of his way, he moves.  Ulric is a great, godly menace, righteous yet unflinching in his gruesome ways.  He doesn’t think twice about a mercy killing or ordering the deaths of the ill that jeopardize his mission. Ulric also doesn’t reveal the details of the task at hand until absolutely necessary.  Why does he automatically think everything is evil or at the very least, the worst, first? On Ulric’s suspicion alone we think foul things are afoot at the Circle K- and it effing works.  But then… well, I can’t give it all away.  Suffice to say, I was gasping at the television and covering my mouth, shocked, I tell you, shocked!

Despite Bean’s top billing and prominence on the artwork, Eddie Redmayne’s (The Pillars of the Earth, The Other Boleyn Girl) monk Osmond is the character with which the audience identifies most. His relationship with Kimberley Nixon (Cherrybomb) is believable, yet Osmond also wants to faithfully serve God in any way possible. Redmayne is a pleasant antithesis to Bean- in both stature and philosophy.  However, how different are Osmond and Ulric really? Can each be both warrior and priest?  Can Ulric be an action man of God laying down his sword for his beliefs? Can Osmond take up violence to save what he believes in?  After all, isn’t killing in the name of the Lord still just killing? Is Ulric- believing himself to be sent by God- more religious than Osmond- who started the journey for his own desires? Is it better to hide away in a church and pray or be in the cruel world slaying evil?  This is not a religious movie per se, but the questions raised by both men’s ways add an emotional and intelligent dimension to Black Death.  

It may take half the movie to meet the supposed necromancer Langiva, but the budding build and fine mystery set off Carice van Houten’s (Valkyrie, Repo Men) eerie performance.  Why yes, what is so wrong with a monk loving a woman?  Maybe God’s divine love isn’t enough for a man after all.  Maybe the plague is punishment from God, not an evil curse like the ruling Christians say. But that is just like the trickery of a witchy woman, isn’t it? Are not these temptations exactly what the too good to be true promises of the devil offer? Do we really merely need miracles or someone in which to believe? Who is on the right side in Black Death?  Houten encapsulates all this juiciness perfectly.  Likewise, Tim McInnerny (Blackadder) is creepy as Langriva’s would be partner in crime, Hob. John Lynch (In the Name of the Father) also stands out as Wolfstan, the voice of reason among Ulric’s troupe. However, Andy Nyman (Death at a Funeral) as Dalywag, Dutch thespian Tygo Gernandt as Ivo, and Johnny Harris (Whitechapel) as Mold are not only stuck with some really weird names; but they are cut from a little too much of the same cloth. It’s the polite way of saying they are all the same and serve the usual purposes of good swordplay or dramatic death.  Does it hamper the film? Not at all- although I would have liked more from David Warner (Doctor Who, Hornblower) as the cranky Abbott instead.

Fortunately, Black Death’s design is almost a player unto itself.  The scoring is on form- properly action, but also old school with Latin chants. The music and sound effects know when to be silent just as much as they put the exclamation on the big moments. Though the photography is a little dark in some spots, the video style works as if we the viewers are reporters riding along with the recording equipment.  Black Death has a dirty realism- this is not the good old Knights of the Round Table shiny and spectacle fifties flair.  The robes, chain mail, cool medieval kirtles and gowns, sweet churches and monastery design go a long way in creating both the lovely medieval we expect and the poor desperation of the time.  Langiva is also wonderfully styled in rich red in a picture with an otherwise natural and devoid palette. The German locations- from mountains and forestry to snowscapes- look stunning. Despite its deadly subject matter, Black Death is a beautiful film. It’s both aesthetically pleasing to modern audiences who expect stylized visuals and realistically accurate enough for historical fans. 

Of course, there are the obligatory and ridiculous previews on the blu-ray rental copy; but due to some of the darker photography and stunning locations, I can’t imagine seeing this on DVD.   Naturally, subtitles are needed for all the wacky names and soft religious debates, too.  There are also plenty of features on the blu-ray set, including deleted scenes, cast interviews, making of shorts, and behind the scenes treats. The cut scenes aren’t even the kind that are bad and deleted for a reason.  They lengthen the journey and provide more detail about the beliefs and actions of our crack medieval team. At less than 5 minutes, I don’t know why they were excised from the film.  It’s also nice to hear the film was shot chronologically to up the tension as they went along.  You would think more films would do this and not go out of order- folks acting on meeting each other after they’ve already died and all that- but I digress.

Naturally, this is not a film for kids thanks to the violence, torture, blood, and subject matter.  Actually, big surprise, Black Death is kind of a morbid movie, even a little depressing. Slice and dice heavy horror fans might not like the seriousness and debates hereHowever, old school audiences longing for more truth, realism, and intelligence in their scares can find what they are looking for with Black Death.  In some ways, I don’t even want to call this a horror film.  This is a thrilling drama with horrific events, yes, but it has equal amounts of both- enough to appease even none horror or historical and mildly gothic fans.  Please please please do not let any bitter tastes left from Season of the Witch put you off here.  Once again, American theatrical audiences were instead given that p.o.s. when we could have gotten a little Black Death instead.  Catch it ASAP.

(On a side note, I wonder what would happen if one watched Black Death and Centurion together with picture in picture? It would almost be like having Sean Bean and Michael Fassbender in one movie!  Good God.)