31 March 2012

More Classic Spring Horror

More Old School Horror Mayhem!
By Kristin Battestella

Let the Spring roar in as we travel back in time and celebrate with more scares, monsters, and freaky of yesteryear!

Circus of Fear – The production values for this 1966 AIP thriller do look old, with a lot of darkness, very poor video quality, and weird sound that can certainly lead to some onscreen action confusion.  The near silent opening heist is also slow to get things underway for a 90-minute movie. Once the crimes begin, however, John Moxey’s (City of the Dead) little tale is not bad at all.  Some of the dudes are a bit of the same old hepcats, but it’s great to hear Christopher Lee (Have you not been to my blog before to learn the greatness that is Sir Christopher?) before we truly see him.  Of course, it’s easy to think he’s the killer thanks to his booming, lion taming statured self, but…  Leo Genn (Quo Vadis) is a slick investigator, too. The smart build from the seemingly standard action to the titular delights crisscrosses with fun circus and animal footage.  Unseen throwing knives, quick visuals, and first person perspective murders heighten this pleasant backdoor build of suspense.  Sure, it’s not really horror, but if you aren’t expecting all out scares, this becomes a surprising, intelligent, worth a look mystery.

The Revenge of Frankenstein – Finally, finally I’ve got my hands on this 1958 Hammer sequel!  Now called ‘Victor Stein of the Switzerland branch’, Peter Cushing (I see your lack of Sir Christopher and raise you a Grand Moff Tarkin!) is once again delightfully ruthless in his delivery and actions- and looking fine while at it, too. A 19th century doctor with ladies packing into his waiting room, hmm… He seems so reformed to start, helping the poor and suffering patients- but we should know better! Cushing’s wicked suave villainy trumps all the inconsistencies in this series.  Despite director Terence Fisher’s (helmer of all except Evil of Frankenstein) best efforts, at this point, I don’t even think it matters what order you watch Hammer’s Frankenstein films. Fortunately, the stylized gore and expected Victorian flavor make up for any errors- even if the tone is more English than Continental.  The laboratory is sweet, and the bodily transformation for the hunchbacked Karl (Oscar Quintak and Michael Gwynn) tells a lovely story. Frankenstein’s just misguided, isn’t he? This new body is a good thing, right? Unfortunately, the extremes for science are just too murderous for the brain to handle, and the scares, shocks, and freaky deformities are perfection.

Sisters (1973) – Margot Kidder (Superman) is very convincing as twins in this AIP parallel act from director Brian DePalma (Carrie).  Though one wonders about Kidder’s French accent and forced Quebec angles, the New York time capsule is a treat. Ferry rides, a very young World Trade Center, and a great Bernard Hermann (Psycho) score accent the nostalgic styles and black and white uses. Old TV game show sounds, show within a show productions, and newsroom footage create space for voyeuristic ideologies, within within perceptions, and mind’s eye theories.  Intercutting and split screens build tension towards jump in your seat moments, and there’s cool fake seventies blood.  It’s not chick horror per se, but imperfect ladies duking it out conflicts the audience. Do we favor Kidder or Jennifer Salt’s (Soap) nosy but on to something reporter? Honestly, it’s just neat to see some hoofing it research instead of an internet montage! Barnard Hughes (The Lost Boys) and Charles Durning (Tootsie) are fun support, as is Salt’s real life mom Mary Davenport as her pesky onscreen mother who doesn’t understand this working woman thing.  There are dated and stereotypical racial tensions in the plot that I don’t want to spoil, too. Lisle Wilson (That’s My Mama) is actually identified by the other characters as ‘the colored guy’ after he wins a game show prize for ‘dinner at The African Room’.  Yeah, even wrapped in a fun, sexy opening and brief nudity, it still feels iffy for today.  The twin sciences might also be wrong now or just inappropriate, along with the crazy people scares, wacky nut house doctors, and brainwashing fears of the mentally ill.  I figured out the twists early, but this is still a treat in getting there.

Torture Garden – Director Freddie Francis (The Evil of Frankenstein, hehe) and writer Robert Bloch (Psycho) team up for this 1967 Amicus anthology of forewarning evils.  Even though these 92 minutes are small scale with very dated, on the cheap décor; it’s still dang spooky, with a solid, demented carnival vibe. You wish your Halloween set ups were quality enough to attract a wonderfully insistent, Penguin on acid Burgess Meredith!  Though the dialogue is tough to hear, the unusual filmmaking angles and real English locations are great.  The sinister music and black cats in the Twilight Zone-esque First Tale ‘Enoch’ are sweet, too. These tales are solid, involved stories, and Tale 2 ‘Terror over Hollywood’ is sexy without the flash and nasty of today.  ‘Mr. Steinway’ adds Barbara Ewing (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave) and a disturbingly good classical score for Story 3- although twisted similarities to Psycho run throughout the show. Freaky Clytie Jessop (The Innocents) also moves between each tale, but the framing story is somewhat weak, with disproportionate story lengths and a rushed, even confusing conclusion.  Oscar winner Jack Palance’s (City Slickers, Shane) mustache is perfectly sinister, but strange to say, his part here seems like a would be poor man’s Christopher Lee.  Thankfully, always-classy pimp Peter Cushing is excellently creepy for the ‘The Man Who Collected Poe’ Tale 4 finale.   


28 March 2012

Age of Heroes

Age of Heroes An Entertaining War Espionage
By Kristin Battestella

You may have noticed I haven’t been able to see a lot of the latest Sean Bean movies here in the states, but finally the World War II Ian Fleming spy thriller Age of Heroes has arrived- and this is a good one!

Major Jones (Bean!) puts the training intensity to Corporal Rains (Danny Dyer) as his new 30 Assault Commando Unit under Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming (James D’Arcy) readies for their next mission. The objective of this dangerous incursion into snowy, occupied Norway: make contact with the mysterious ally codenamed Beowulf (Izabella Miko), steal the Nazis’ latest radar and RDF technology, and get out of there safe and sound.  But of course, this secret winter stroll isn’t as easy as Intelligence thought it would be. Extraction to Sweden or death is the only way out- capture is not an option.

Writer and Director Adrian Vitoria (The Crew) jumps right into 1940 France before Dunkirk with a grainy, realistic palette and frenetic camera work. The opening battles and 1942 Operation Grendel finale aren’t in your face jagged filming as per the usual today, but rather finely paced photography and action. Though a serious, heavy picture, Age of Heroes may seem simple to modern audiences.  After all, it’s just a story about dibs on the use of radar early in the war, right?  Yes, the plot looses some steam as the training montages and right stuff attitudes take over.  When the groundwork of the mission is laid out, however, things get damn intense- with RDF secrets, air raids, and men trapped behind frozen enemy lines.  This entire setting is great, too. Despite all our World War II attention, Age of Heroes offers a fairly unexplored angle, and the touches of Ian Fleming, the future Secret Services, and his 007 as we know it add an extra interest.  This swift, modern story telling balances the war secrets, though sometimes the contemporary accents are a bit obvious- would they really use the word ‘terrorist’ back then? At only 93 minutes, Age of Heroes also moves a bit too quickly over material that would really make for a fine mini series. The confusing conclusion could have been better as well. Everything ends a bit too abruptly- hampering an otherwise decent little picture.

Though the World War II military designs, period gear and weapons look good, the gore here is not gruesome for the slasher sake.  The war action and bloody cruelty set the danger perfectly, and crisp snowy locations accent the disruptive violence.  I love the classic cars and sweet uniforms styles, however a certain knowledge of forties British military terms is helpful for the viewer. There’s language, too, but the accents aren’t bad at all. Any quibbles one might have there are easily forgiven thanks to great aviation scenes and a befittingly robust and heroic score. Touches of black and white film work and old-fashioned clicking film reels also set off the period mood.  Some night footage is a little dark and, granted, big special effects aren’t as big as they could be. However, I must say there is something bemusing about evil white clad schnapps drinking SS Nazis on skis!

Top billed Sean Bean (Sharpe, Game of Thrones) enters Age of Heroes ten minutes in, and I must say, he looks sweet in a forties uniform!  He’s a little tan and drawn, with a scar or cut on his nose that rather bugs me, but I like the period short, slightly darker hair and old RP delivery.  Major Jones is a loyal higher up, a decent officer who knows his shit and isn’t afraid to be wicked and discipline his men if it will help them be superior soldiers.  Damn, after all these years of seeing Bean in assorted soldiering and war pictures, you’d never know he wasn’t actually in the military!  Unfortunately, his casting in Age of Heroes does create obvious parallels to 1999’s Bravo 2 Zero- SAS trapped behind enemy lines and such.  Even so, the style here is higher end and complex, even pretty in its cinematography where Bravo 2 Zero was meant to be a dirty little capture film.  There’s perhaps less Bean in Age of Heroes, but he’d damn the man and yeah, you’d want him on your side when the Nazis open fire!  Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the uncredited most recent ex-Mrs. Bean Georgina Sutcliffe (The Song of Lunch) as Major Jones’ wife.  It’s ironic. The former couple argues so well on camera in her only scene, and yet this little farewell is also incredibly similar to the family adieu in Bravo 2 Zero.  

I’m not much of a Danny Dyer (Outlaw also with Bean) fan either, but he’s half-decent as Age of Heroes’ relatable Corporal hoping he’s up to snuff.  Rains is like every other soldier then and now. He’s just trying to get home alive without all the bureaucratic bull of war or snotty officers making him a dead man walking. Still, Dyer does have his usual angry asshole moments. He says ‘and all that’ at least three times-again seeping Age of Heroes into modern trappings. It’s also somewhat weird to see such a supposedly off screen badass learning to actually be badass.  Fortunately, Rains does learn a thing or two, even if some of his back-story is a bit of a side step before the mission proper in Age of Heroes. Likewise, Izabella Miko (Coyote Ugly) is slightly obvious as the Norwegian contact with a twist, but there had to be some ladies, I suppose. Fortunately, secretary Rosie Fellner’s (Boogie Woogie) scenes with James D’Arcy (W.E.) as Ian Fleming are fun and nostalgic, if a bit ‘Bond visiting M and Moneypenny for the scoop.’  The other men, including William Houston (Casualty 1909) as Sergeant Mac and John Dagleish (Beaver Falls) as nerdy technician needing protection Rollright are a bit typical, too, but enjoyable.  If only we had more time to know them.  Again, Age of Heroes could have been a nice little short series- suave Lieutenant Commander Fleming briefing his rag tag special recruits for another dangerous mission! 

Yes, you would think Age of Heroes’ intriguing historical premise would make for a wealth of DVD features, but alas, more effort was spent on strategically placed war and Nazi trailers. I didn’t realize somebody was making so many horror movies about Hitler! Fortunately, there is about 22 minutes of behind the scenes conversations, documentaries, and interviews. The 6 minutes of deleted scenes do much for character development- including a few more minutes with the faux pregnant Georgina Sutcliffe.  She and D’Arcy have some fun flubs on the blooper reel, too. It’s all nice stuff, but there could have been more- Fleming biographies or history reflections perhaps. While the video presentation may seem lacking, at least Age of Heroes looks top of the line for a stateside direct release. It does not look low budget Brit print- its paltry few million-dollar budget appears high class and more than its sum. Compared to some of the expensive derivative drivel that does make it into American cinemas, Age of Heroes is a refreshing little tale.

It’s probably a guy’s film, but Age of Heroes is very good at its wartime action and suspense for any fan of World War II programs, military intelligence, and period espionage thrillers. Perhaps a more fleshed out treatment or longer focus on some of the deeper character aspects could have been explored, but I don’t think that was this film’s intention- and potential plans for sequels with more proto spy action are supposedly in the works.  Audiences looking for complex Hollywood well knowns or massive American spectacles like Saving Private Ryan won’t find that scale or weight here, but nonetheless, Age of Heroes is an entertaining war ride for fans of the period and the cast.

18 March 2012

Downton Abbey: Season 1, 2, and The Christmas Special

Downton Abbey Series 1, Series 2, and the Christmas Special
(Because I’ve had That Kind of Marathon!)
By Kristin Battestella

Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) are distraught to hear their cousin and heir presumptive to the family title has died in the sinking of the Titanic.  Eldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) was engaged to the late Patrick to ensure the fortune and Downton Abbey estate remained within the family, but now middle class solicitor Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens)- a third cousin once removed- stands to inherit all.  Matthew comes to Downton with his mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) -who butts heads with Robert’s mother Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith).  Middle daughter Edith (Laura Carmichael) schemes to displace Mary in the social circles while looking for romance of her own, and youngest daughter Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) spends more time downstairs with the servants as World War I shortly and irrevocably changes Downton Abbey.  Embroiled in their own personal highs and lows, valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), butler Carson (Jim Carter), housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), and maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) must also deal with embittered lady’s maid O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and conniving footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier) as the Great War leaves marriages, positions, and social classes in turmoil. After becoming a soldier’s convalescence home during the war, Downton Abbey faces more change and upheavals as 1920 dawns.

Whew! I must admit, I was a little reluctant to catch on with the recent Downton Abbey hype.  After all, those of us who’ve been in the British period piece know all along shouldn’t be surprised that Oscar winning creator Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) has a hit on both sides of the pond.  The good folks and evil characters here are not necessarily synonymous with either high or low stations, and this fine balance amid the personal drama is Downton Abbey’s glue. Yes, snots exist above and below, but the higher ups are quite kind and respectable enough to consider far-flung family as well as those on the wrong side of the class divide.  Somehow I suspect Americans must have thought these aristocrats would be cruel and nasty the likes of HBO juice.  However, the fact that all the servants and nobles are essentially one big family at Downton Abbey makes the budding soap drama easier to accept for viewers who wouldn’t normally tune in for the expected stuffy English tale. Honestly, all this acclaim and success for a show that is essentially about a chick trying to find a husband!  One could boil Downton Abbey down to that simplicity, yes; but the period heavy and personal angst upstairs and down (wink) becomes so much more.  Of course, with such a large cast, it is tough to tell who is who at the start, and a revolving door of guests might even make it difficult to tell who’s actually a regular player!  Fortunately, Fellowes and his writing team smartly focus on those characters instead of relying on saucy elements. Again, I think stateside audiences expected debauchery like The Tudors and are surprisingly pleased by the proper period strata and changing societal storytelling at the forefront of Downton Abbey.  Okay, there is one critical and scandalous indiscretion, but if Downton Abbey did fall into those sex, drugs, and rock and roll trappings, it wouldn’t be any good.  This show goes its own way, and the opposites attract approach is a refreshing treat.

 It’s ironic, however, because there are some unlikable people and scenarios that keep Downton Abbey’s word turning.  At first, I disliked Michelle Dockery’s (Red Riding) Mary- her love life indecision is damn nerve racking! Then again, she and Laura Carmichael’s (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) meddling Edith grow, or at the very least, ebb and flow with the audience’s attachment.  There’s an early sympathy for Edith, but she becomes increasing cruel and mishandled by time we get to the Christmas Special.  Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay, Albatross) also doesn’t have much to do at the start, and her involvement with chauffer Branson (Allen Leech, Rome) is also somewhat uneven, ranging from endearing to possessive. Fortunately, the veteran players Hugh Bonneville (Iris) and Elizabeth McGovern (Once Upon a Time in America) are great; a loving yet proper couple who understand the formal but know how to be warm to all in their household. Of course, Maggie Smith (you must kidding if you need a Dame Maggie reference!) is playing, well, somewhat of the same character she always plays- but Dowager Violet is a hoot.  Its great fun to see her and Penelope Wilton’s (Doctor Who) upper middle class Isobel go toe to toe. However, I must say I do find Dan Stevens (Vamps) as heir and romantic foil presumptive a bit dry.  The back and forth romancing, crushes, proposals, and possibilities just gets laid on too thick at times and it can be kind of obvious to say the least. Even so, the entail structure and class situations keep the Crawley family intriguing throughout the First Series. The family loves and hates as needed, with the performances well done all around.

But let’s not stop there! The downstairs of Downton Abbey might just outdo their ‘proper’ counterparts.  While we can get tired of aristocratic technicalities now and again as they go round and round, seeing good servants rise above while ne’er do well ones get their do is always quality television. I can’t wait to see Siobhan Finneran’s (Benidorm) O’Brien and Rob James-Collier’s (Coronation Street) Thomas get theirs!  Their plotting, moments of regret and humanity, and continuing scams are love to hate fun.  With them causing trouble, the servants become a dysfunctional family themselves. Jim Carter (Shakespeare in Love) is delightful as the dutiful butler trying to keep Downton Abbey a smooth machine along with Phyllis Logan (Lovejoy) as strict but sensitive housekeeper Mrs. Hughes. It’s a beautiful irony the way these dang fine people have rather tame pasts that they consider a black mark- when in fact all the dirt and blackmail is upstairs.  Though they’re obviously on the relationship merry go round, too, Brendan Coyle (True Dare Kiss) and Joanne Froggatt (Robin Hood) as Bates and Anna are charming. Really, servants are expected to live like monks and nuns with only Downton Abbey in their souls? I think not. Junior maid Gwen (Rose Leslie, Game of Thrones) and cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe) are also somewhat stock or less developed early on, and likewise Sophie McShera’s (Waterloo Road) kitchen maid Daisy and Thomas Howe (United) as happy footman William are typically annoying but shy and sweet. Fortunately, the dreams, contentment, and taking pride in what one does even if you are supposed to be ‘low’ add a lovely charm and wit. Everyone does indeed have a part to play at Downton Abbey, just as World War I comes along for Season 2.

 Sure, the warfare is somewhat subdued and small scale despite Downton Abbey’s enormous budget, but the trench conversations and no man’s land action is still damn well done stuff for television today. Survivor and reality shows my arse- we simply don’t see enough Great War material that often anymore. It’s much more interesting than the heir and love speculation of Series 1, but the uneven presentation this season is a tough balance indeed.  We had to see the highlife drama before the war in order appreciate the changes, and it is indeed great how the high, low, good, and bad has all gone topsy turvy.  Unfortunately, the war years are dang rushed- the entire show could have simply taken place from 1914 to 1918 with more than enough material.  There’s no need to create storylines that don’t ring true for Year 2. I must say, all these soldiers going off to battle and heavy hospital changes do get me choked up, but it is much too hasty!  With the passing of last WWI veteran, an entire generation is now gone. It’s a past that is no longer garnering respect, and it saddens me that this will happen to World War II veterans- perhaps in my lifetime. Already, we look on the latter war with far-gone period piece nostalgia, rather than seeing the heroes of the 20th century as the living elders with which we grew up.  It’s a shame that The Great War didn’t receive true focus and finite looks for Downton Abbey’s sophomore year.  More effort was spent on the aspects of change itself.  The hats are smaller, the hems are a bit higher, the lines of class are blurring, but it’s still treated as a romantic, radical time.  Fortunately, 100 years later, we do certainly understand the idea of war and the home front emotion it brings- even if we don’t have footmen at dinner anymore either.

Perhaps my sympathy over the War is a sore spot because it was displaced by a few less than stellar new characters. Too many would be at home scandals are just not that interesting- Amy Nuttall (Emmerdale) as new maid Ethel is just a real stick in the mud that I could really care less about, and my gosh Clare Calbraith’s (Heartbeat) maid Jane is just too weird. I mean-spoilers!- one kiss in a few episodes when it took years for everyone else? This isn’t anything we haven’t seen before either, coughjaneeyrecough.  Wasting time on a quick war resolution and affairs while others are ill with the Spanish Flu was indeed a misstep. I’m sure favoritism and higher up favors went on, but the Earl pulls a few strings every episode it seems.  While it is great that they still care about all at Downton regardless of station- it’s quite touching actually- but Matthew’s extended leaves, English tours, and back and forth war travel feels too convenient. Ian Glen (Game of Thrones) as crusty newspaper man Sir Richard Carlisle is intriguing foil for Mary, but the love triangle between them, Matthew, and his kindly but dull fiancée Lavinia (Zoe Boyle, Sons of Anarchy) is also all over the place.  Why go round and round with them when we have under used sassy sister Samantha Bond (GoldenEye) and Maria Doyle Kennedy (The Tudors) as Bates’ scheming and love to hate worthy wife Vera? 

Even with World War I aside, it seems the two-hour finale of tacked on Spanish Flu is just an unnecessary twist. Yep, Downton Abbey zips right through that too, boiling the epidemic down to a Mary and Matthew convenience! Unfortunately, while others are praising the feature length Series 2 Christmas Special follow up, I must say I was a little disappointed.  This special was no more seasonal nor any more of a return to glam heights of the First Season.  The pace again seemed haphazard, with a Servant’s Ball that was just so important yet we never saw it before the war.  And said dance was squashed amid the much more critical Bates on trial drama- along with an odd Aunt Rosamund storyline and more dalliances with the maid.  Weren’t we just here? I love Samantha Bond as Lady Painswick and would much rather have more of her than this rotating maid door.  But tragically, all of this is also sharing screen time with a kidnapped dog plot. Huh? The Christmas Special seemed like an awful lot of filler, a strategically timed delay on the end of the Second Series. Did we really need an extra episode just to get some resolutions finally about ^$%#$&* time! for a few characters? I think even Downton Abbey’s most ardent audiences can agree Series 2 seemed a little by the seat of its pants, and viewers who liked the show when things were fine, dandy, and pretty to look at with not much was going on probably don’t prefer these fast paced war heavies and upheavals. 

Yes, international acclaim and all, yet Downton Abbey is not entirely perfect.  Again, despite the stylized favor, those of us who already watched British period dramas will feel a sense of déjà vu, with generic Titanic references, tame Lady Chatterley put ons, and repeat locations that akin Downton Abbey with feelings of Poirot, Englefield House, and even Hex and X-Men: First Class.  The Series 1, Episode 5 flower show plot is more than just a tribute to Mrs. Miniver; it immediately recalls the classic Greer Garson picture for anyone who’s ever seen it.  Sometimes, it’s as if Fellowes has run out of little events to pin each episode on - and underutilizes the big events- so the critical character storylines get down played for these seemingly random and standard soap opera plots.  Watching all of Downton Abbey together is nice, but viewing everything so closely when the episodes themselves span over 8 years is also unusual for the audience.  To us, all these dramatic life-changing things just happened, so how could they so easily forget? Oh yes, it’s been a few years for them hasn’t it? The uneven skipping- accentuating little plots while missing half of World War I- makes things move too awkwardly- slow on the relationships but fast on the history. It definitely looks like the ball’s been dropped by the writers, and if you don’t have some idea of the history, one can get even more confused.  Series 2’s expanded length further exposes these faults. You can’t have all the war mayhem and glory and shoehorn in the regular society at home, too.  The aforementioned maid meanderings are here one episode, gone the next, and are truly needless in the grand scheme of Downton Abbey.  Though a plus, the editing and pace of what’s good suffers when you have to cut away to the drivel.  Enough is already happening, and these random soap opera entrappings didn’t need to be part of Downton Abbey.

 Thankfully, that style, suave, and Edwardian glamour makes it easy to forget the soap pacing or story issues.  Everyone top to bottom looks dang smashing!  From Lord Gratham’s adorned military get up to Daisy’s little pink frock, Cora’s black netted gowns to Thomas’ footman livery.  The supposedly lower class people are just so proper and well mannered, too.  It’s not that they are British- the dialogue and accents are easy on all ears, classy and old school.  I wish I could speak like this without being looked at as though I have two foreign talking heads!  While I would have preferred more Christmas décor and celebration, I can’t say any more about the costumes than what’s been said by every single person watching Downton Abbey!  Oh, the fashion nostalgia! The period scoring and music are lovely, along with Highclere Castle and the surrounding English towns and countrysides.   The use of early technology changes is divine, too.  You know 21st century kids simply cannot comprehend what it takes to get used to electricity, telephones, cars, typewriters, or gramophones. Hello, if they wanted to hear music they actually had to sing it or play the instruments themselves!  O…M…G!

 Despite some storytelling kinks and growing pains pacing, Downton Abbey is wonderful television on either side of the pond.  I liked it a lot actually, and am looking forward to more in Series 3! With a short seven episode debut and Year Two also available on PBS, streaming, and video outlets; it’s fairly easy to jump back with the Crawley gang for a marathon or a quick few weeks of yesteryear. I actually sort of forced myself into my marathon because I had all the glorious looking HD episodes hogging up my DVR!  It can get that addictive, oh yes. Period piece fans, anglophile audiences, and young or old viewers of soap drama can and should definitely get down with Downton Abbey.


01 March 2012

Classic Men's Nostalgia

Classic Nostalgia for Men
By Kristin Battestella

The teakettle is whistling, meatloaf is in the oven, a fresh apple pie is on the windowsill, and the records are playing! What’s a working man to do but light his cigar, pour his scotch on the rocks, and sit down in front of the boob tube to enjoy these masculine classics?

Mister Roberts – This totally classy World War II naval comedy-drama boasts the eponymous always trying for a transfer Henry Fonda, a wonderfully cranky captain James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy) and his palm tree, and the Oscar winning ne’er do well Jack Lemmon (Some Like It Hot) as morale officer Ensign Pulver.  But let’s not stop there, director John Ford (How Green Was My Valley) -with much needed help from Mervyn LeRoy (Gypsy) and writer Joshua Logan (Bus Stop) - also enlists William Powell (The Thin Man) in his final movie, Ward Bond (It’s A Wonderful Life), Phil Carey (One Life to Live), Ken Curtis (Gunsmoke), Harry Carey, Jr. (Red River), and Patrick Wayne (The Searchers). Whew! The endearing wartime highs and lows, witty characters, shore leave humor, and perfect irony excel beautifully. Though largely stage-like in its ship bound locale, the interiors are bright and colorful, and the oceanic exterior photography and Polynesian flavors top it all off.  This is my favorite Fonda film, and for my money, his best work- and I know that is saying something of the Best Actor winner for On Golden Pond who lost for the likes of The Grapes of Wrath and 12 Angry Men.  A must see, indeed.

Prince of Foxes - I confess, I think I was expecting Bette Davis and Little Foxes instead of this 1949 black and white swashbuckler from director Henry King (The Song of Bernadette) - though my husband recognized the renaissance players in the description thanks to Assassin’s Creed.  Except for The Mark of Zorro and The Long Gray Line, I’ve never been a fan Tyrone Power. He always comes across as too flaky or droopy eyed for me, trying for pretty rather than actually acting. His romancey scenes slow down the entire picture, and the lacking leading lady Wanda Hendrix (ex of Audie Murphy) just isn’t as magical as other ladies of the day or onscreen pairings like Flynn and de Havilland. Fortunately, Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) - though an un-ethnic cast choice- has the Borgia weight needed to keep the espionage entertaining.  The real Italian locations are also so, so sweet; the great rousing score, fun DVD features, and awesome costuming are a delight as well. Of course, Technicolor would have been divine, but this is worth the look for fans of the cast and classic or historical Italian film buffs.

Sergeant Rutledge – John Ford (Every classic film male really must know who he is.) directs the simply excellent actor and athlete Woody Strode (Spartacus) in this unique 1960 courtroom drama/western. Despite being the second male lead and true star here, Strode received fourth billing as the titular Buffalo Soldier on trial for the rape and murder of a white girl. His defending lieutenant Jeffrey Hunter (The Searchers) is a little too good guy to be ruthless, but his defense presentation and cavalry action are solid nonetheless.  The case wonderfully unfolds in flashbacks, adding layers of building evidence and western action alternating with suspenseful crime and mystery.  Some of the nighttime Arizona wilds and isolations scenes are even a little scary.  Unfortunately, the racial drama is both groundbreaking and yet of its time and the period portrayed. Prosecutor Carleton Young (From Here to Eternity) makes numerous backhanded color comments, and nearly everyone mentions the ‘novelty’ of colored regiments.  The court spectators are supposed to be so proper, highbred, and perfectly mannered; yet they must warn the eventual victim to stay away from shirtless, scandalous Rutledge and mock the Buffalo Soldiers’ lack of knowledge and presumed incompetence.  The shocking court charges can’t be read aloud in front of decent folk, and the symbolically white gloved fingers are always pointing at Rutledge. Some of the dialogue for the Buffalo Soldiers is also too stereotypical, but thankfully, the John Ford Stock Company casting is delightful. Sure, those stuffy women are a bit hysterical, but such brevity is needed amid the hefty subjects. Though the sets themselves are a little bare, the Spartan style adds to the dark transitions and stage like telling of the testimonies, and the Monument Valley locations are lovely, too. This is a beautiful and powerful film for western fans, law studies, and racial historians.

The Three Musketeers – Gene Kelly (Singing in the Rain), Lana Turner (Imitation of Life), Vincent Price (House of Usher), June Allyson (The Glenn Miller Story), Van Helfin (Shane), and Angela Lansbury (Murder She Wrote) bring this 1948 Dumas adaptation to life with style, lively action, fun sets, and solid battles. Yes, the costumes and décor are uniquely mid century- not exactly period but strangely fitting and good looking despite some garish color.  The obviously timed music is also of its day- both annoying and endearing just like Gene Kelly’s goofy humor.  The attempts at accents and true French panache are off, too.  However, this D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Armis were the spectacle of their day, with no insane or ridiculously unrealistic stunts or CGI needed.  Younger spoiled audiences may very well prefer the new 3D (ugh) adaptation or the fun 1993 Disney version, and adults who didn’t grow up watching this witty Kelly or juicy Price may have grown out of the joy here indeed.  For those who fondly remember this swashbuckler of their youth, however, the nostalgia and family faire is still delightful.