24 August 2012

Music and Concert Magic

Music Mayhem and Discography Documentaries
By Kristin Battestella

Raise your hand if you remember the founding of MTV and the foretelling “Video Killed the Radio Star.”  Fortunately, with these great multi-genre concert videos and music documentaries, the timeless tunes and talent live on.

Marvin Gaye: Behind the Legend– Made in 2004, this hour plus tribute to the late soul singer of such exceptional hits as “Let’s Get It On,” “Sexual Healing,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and “Mercy Mercy Me” looks very dated and low budget.  There’s not much footage from his earlier career, and only snips of his Motown hits and duets with Tammi Terrell are heard. Ironically, his 1984 death is also quickly handled in the last few minutes. Despite its poor presentation, the treats here are in the intimate conversations with Gaye’s former wives Anna Gordy and Janis Hunter, his children, and close family and friends as they recount their memories and private stories through Gaye’s career highs, personal lows, and wonderful music.

Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On – By contrast, this 2006 retrospective subtitled The Live and Death of Marvin Gaye begins with Gaye’s youth and his estranged relationship with his now infamous father, Marvin Gay, Sr.  Archival footage of the man himself speaking on his faith, a strict religious upbringing, and ongoing family conflicts is anchored with great early videos and hit performances of “How Sweet It Is”, “Pride and Joy,” “What’s Going On,”  and more. Family and friends from the 2004 set also appear along with Gaye’s own interview reflections on the struggle of black musicians in the sixties, the Vietnam War, and how the times both personal and larger influenced his life, career, and ultimately his death. Fans and scholars really need both of these videos to get the whole picture of the man and his music.

Janis - For those like my mother who dislike the eponymous singer’s live shouting and concert screaming, this archival set is not for you.  Vintage video interviews and great concert material wonderfully capture the unique musical spark of the gone too soon star in this 1974 ninety-minute documentary. For fans and music historians, It’s great to see the fun, confident interviews of Janis Joplin being her honest, open rock self in contrast with the shy, awkward, and uncomfortable conversations of a woman trying to find herself. Pieces of her past and psyche can be explored thru the music in both today’s retrospective analysis and the then seventies contemporary lenses. An interesting study indeed.

Nine Hundred Nights - Early black and white conversations and rare intimate footage of Big Brother and The Holding Company anchor this 2001 hour long video highlighting the band often overshadowed by its brief and more famous member Janis Joplin. From the formation of the group to early Texas stories, surviving members and retro footage with Joplin tell a tale of rifts, egos, and substance abuse. Even the current Big Brother incarnation’s grievances and distaste over the aforementioned Janis documentary not mentioning them is heard. The Behind the Music format of a band being brought down is nothing new. Some might find the format here old, annoying, or even bitter. However, there is a not often told story here with an interesting dynamic in comparison to Joplin’s legend.  

Queen Rock Montreal – This 1981 concert starts a bit slow, with an unnecessarily fast “We Will Rock You” and few now lesser-known songs such as “Let Me Entertain You” and “I’m in Love with My Car.” We’re pre-Highlander after all, so those soundtrack tunes won’t be heard as well.  “Somebody to Love,” however, is glorious, as are “Love of My Life,” “Save Me,” and “Under Pressure.” While some might be put off by Mercury’s theatrics, you cannot deny his skill and star power. Guitarist Bryan May looks a little uncomfortable in the spotlight, but Mercury drinks beer during his songs and slowly strips down from white jeans to nothing more than tiny white eighties undies.  It’s bemusing to see some of the girls fawning towards the stage, too; but Mercury thrives on the attention, taking all the love and giving it back with music. By time we reach “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Another One Bites the Dust,” it’s as if the audience- and today’s video viewer- are on an intimate level with Mercury. His magnetism is forward and unforgiving, but also captivating, sweaty, and beautiful. Not to mention it’s all damn good music! Check out the new DVD release with more Live Aid footage for a special evening in the bedroom with Queen. 

Wynonna Her Story: Scenes from a Lifetime – I thought this 2005 video was a sit down conversation focusing on the daughter half of The Judds.  But no, this two hour concert is an exclusive evening with the country crossover star belting tunes such as “Love is Alive,” “Love Can Build a Bridge,” and covers like “I Want to Know What Love Is,” “I’m the Only One,” and “I Can Only Imagine.”  Wynonna does share back-story both tender and fun between sets, and mom Naomi has a few moments in the audience, too. I must say, Wynonna makes some bemusing facial expressions when she sings, but you have to respect that when she’s reaching spiritual notes that would make the rest of us turn blue.  The country here isn’t for everyone, but there are also rock tunes and gospel inspiration worth the listen. Ironically, I got this DVD from Netflix the same week that Wynonna’s current husband Michael Moser lost his leg in a motorcycle accident, adding an extra spin to her talk of life and struggles healed through song.

22 August 2012

From Here to Eternity

From Here to Eternity as Awesome as Awesome Gets, Period.
By Kristin Battestella

Everyone has seen that snip of the waves crashing over Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in their steamy beach bound lip lock from this 1953 Hawaiian military epic. The shot’s famous, the film’s a bonafide classic, and yet there is so much more to From Here to Eternity.

After injuring a friend in the ring, bugler Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) won’t box for his new CO, Captain Holmes (Philip Ober) in the upcoming tournament.  Sergeant Warden (Lancaster) tries to get the stubborn Prewitt to see reason and even puts him on extra detail rather than see Prewitt punished by Holmes.  Unfortunately, Warden has his own hang ups- namely that affair with Holmes’ wife Karen (Kerr) - who pressures Warden to seek a commission.  Prewitt and his friend Maggio (Frank Sinatra) try to take the army life easy by visiting the New Congress Club for drinks and girls, and Prewitt makes plans with Lorene (Donna Reed).  Maggio, however, runs into trouble with the stockade sergeant, Fatso Judson (Ernest Borgnine). Jealously, vengeance, pride, and romance eventually collide as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor commences.

I feel like I’m going to ramble.  What can I say about From Here to Eternity that hasn’t already been said?  Then again, this isn’t nearly enough analysisizing over Best Director winner Fred Zinnermann’s (High Noon, A Man for All Seasons) adaptation of  James Jones’ then scandalous novel and Daniel Taradash’s (Don’t Bother to Knock) Best Adapted Screenplay, either.  Multiple viewings are indeed necessary to fully appreciate and properly study all the great dialogue, complex characters, Oscar winning cinematography, and star-studded performances. Maybe the melodrama will seem tame to some today, but From Here to Eternity still offers plenty of Pearl Harbor heavy.  I simply love this movie and have to tune in whenever it is on television. A viewer thinks he knows it line by line and can just leave it on the tele in the background. But no, the torment, romance, toughness, and intensity call you to the screen.  Is it over the top by today’s standards? Perhaps- but the fifties flair and form works for the archetype characters. For better or worse, these are these characters’ shining moments. From Here to Eternity’s journey is in seeing which player will burn out, fade away, win, or survive- and we’re not even talking about World War II yet!  Strategically placed couples and intimate photography match the suggestive relationships while balancing nicely with wider shots and the foreboding historical background. The focus here is on the little people and the Oscar winning editing mirrors the personal taboos of the time perfectly.  The camera sweeps down with Lancaster as he kneels to kiss Kerr and brings a long focus as Clift takes slow drags on a smoldering cigarette after going to the upstairs parlor with Lorene.  Audiences know what’s happening, and I actually find it pleasing that we can take the hint. Today’s films would be dominated by the raunchy base lifestyle and TnA brothel action. There’s an element of class amid the scandal here.  Life sucks, America’s not the best of the best can’t always deal- and yet From Here to Eternity shows it all in style.

If From Here to Eternity has a fault, it is that both its Best Actor nominees cancelled each other out in favor of William Holden in Stalag 17.  Holden is good, very good; perhaps it is indeed his best. Sixty years later, however, our boys look decidedly robbed. Future Oscar winner Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry) is just wonderful as the stiff all business sergeant who keeps the men in line while his jerky captain seeks glory. Lancaster looks good as Warden- acrobat fit, natural in uniform, and shirtless for his fans. He looks tough and cold hearted yet has a soft spot for his company- not to mention a brimming passion for his CO’s wife. Warden knows how to handle the hard, worn, and broken of the army, and we like him for it.  Somehow, we like him even more when he loosens up his prison alluding name and button up attitude to go after the wrong woman. He’s the last man we’d expect to get caught up with another man’s wife- the seemingly used and denied pencil pusher who cleans up his captain’s messes because he wants the company to remain a well oiled machine. Yet Warden’s a hunk of sergeant so overdue some leeway loving and getting drunk- which Lancaster and Clift really did, by the way!  What’s proper? What’s respectable? Since we know Pearl Harbor looms, these people don’t have time to worry about morality, do they? From Here to Eternity gives us wonderfully flawed and multi dimensional characters.

Rather than an acting rivalry, Warden and Private Prewitt have an unusual rapport, even a friendship as far as enlisted men and NCOs can have. In this, Montgomery Clift (Red River, A Place in the Sun) is equally awesome to Lancaster and just as beautiful.  Clift embodies Prewitt like no one’s business- complete with a slender uniform and a chip on his shoulder.  Any man who wants to know how to act should watch Clift here. Prew is a military man through and through- he just refuses to simply do and die and not reason why. He loves his bugle but won’t to back down to pressure to join the boxing team- even if it means continued hazing and difficulty on the base.  Principles onscreen and off are such a lost art! Clift exudes the straight back uniform style, the contrasting slouched and ruined hunch of an AWOL tropical shirt, and all the range of emotion and torment in between.  So what if the boxing scenes are hokey.  The idea of not wanting to box after blinding a friend may seem cliché to contemporary audiences, but Clift sells the pain perfectly, as if it is an integral part of who Prewitt is. The punishments he receives may just seem merely asinine, yes- today’s films would frontload this kind of plot point with unwatchable brutality before despicable character focus. Nonetheless, Clift plays the anger as fundamental, with no separation between himself and Prewitt.  Sure, he had his off screen troubles, but the viewer never thinks Clift is angry or playing himself, no.  Prewitt’s turmoil is simply so seamless- the music, the boxing, the love and loss. This is a completely three dimensional character thanks to Clift.

Perhaps I gloat over Clift, but I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I don’t like Deborah Kerr.  Fortunately, The Innocents, The King and I, and From Here to Eternity create a trio of her best.  Kerr doesn’t look the expected English pretty in tight sweaters and short shorts, and all those wet dialogue references up the innuendo.  Karen has been around the block- and a base or two- for all the wrong reasons, and yet we don’t blame her.  She’s a fast woman carrying plenty of pent up issues, but she struts her stuff and knows how to shake those hips. We see her coming and yet the audience can sympathize with this wasted and wronged captain’s wife. This affair can’t end well- the would be scandal, Pearl Harbor is imminent, Warden doesn’t want to be an officer and Karen won’t marry an enlisted man.  It isn’t good and yet these people need some happiness, dreams, and all the misery that comes along with love. Although she went home with the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, I’m still not so sure Donna Reed was the right choice for the prostitute Lorene.  She’s great and has the acting chops to turn our It’s a Wonderful Life and Donna Reed Show expectations, yes. However, you can’t quite forget this “It’s Donna Reed! As a prostitute!” feeling. Fortunately, Reed does match Clift’s charm, and together they develop a tender but broken kind of chemistry and bitterness.  Do they love each other? Without a doubt. Will the military action behind the scenes and on the battle lines eat them alive? Definitely. 

Surprising, the one who exceeds expectations in From Here to Eternity is revitalized crooner Frank Sinatra (The Manchurian Candidate and my personal favorite Robin and the 7 Hoods) as the loyal friend who cracks under the ruthlessness of the late Ernest Borgnine’s Fatso. The ill-fated best friend is the very definition of a supporting character, and Maggio is simply classic for that final scene alone.  He lifts, inspires, and sets Prewitt’s actions into motion for the final third of the film. Today’s speculation about Mafia involvement in his casting and debate about his Oscar win unfortunately seem to overshadow his actual performance, but Sinatra is worth another look here. Perhaps also a stereotypically styled villain, Borgnine (Marty, McHale’s Navy) is nevertheless an imposing, multi dimensional figure both in stature and in performance. He’s gritty, wicked, and we immediately hate that people like him get ahead while honest soldiers like Maggio are chewed up and spit out.  But oiy, it must have been tough for him with all that wop talk! Philip Ober (North by Northwest) is despicably love to hate worthy as Dynamite Holmes, too.

Despite winning awards for its black and white cinematography, I can’t help but wonder what From Here to Eternity would look like in full fifties color and splendor.  The onscreen forties styles and accessories, those swanky parlors, lovely palm trees, and handsome starch uniforms in all their glory! Not that I condone colorization by any means, and besides, this film is not about dazzling visuals and little else like the 2001 Michael Bay stinking spectacle Pearl Harbor.  The battle finale here is sweet though; and the real military locations and authentic drilling, equipment, and protocols give us the wartime vibe needed.  Bittersweet bugle tributes, fun piano music, period swing and aloha sounds also do wonders- along with “Re-enlistment Blues.”  Even the cigarettes in From Here to Eternity shine. The way our players hold them and their shot glasses or brush their hair- most young stars and ‘celebrities’ today simply cannot ‘act’ like this.  They can’t embody the tense mood, atmosphere, pressure, and grace tying From Here to Eternity in a pretty bow.

Simply put (a thousand words too late!) this film is a must see. Maybe you don’t like Best Picture hardware laden classics or any of the cast. Perhaps you don’t like wartime films or have no interested in seeing a film of acting, direction, and cinematic perfection.  Too bad. You can’t be a fan of dramatic cinema and movies themselves without having seen From Here to Eternity. So why wait?

17 August 2012

Summer Horror '12

Summer Horror 2012!
By Kristin Battestella

It’s too hot outside, isn’t it? Well, that’s just another reason to stay inside and scare yourself silly!

Medium Raw- John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings) is good to start this 2010 wolf meets asylum romp. The maniacs and asylum hang-ups are indeed better than the usual haunted madhouse types, but the wolf designs are unfortunately kind of dumb.  Writer/director/hero Andrew Cymek (Dark Rising) is a bit too new and weak as well, but the scary ideas and effective killing concepts are played pretty straight. Okay, so the title is totally stupid, the subtitle Night of the Wolf is even worse, the twist is a bit obvious, and there’s nothing superior here. However, the getting there is good with a few better than expected jump moments.  Great claustrophobic sets allow room for dark fears to play (even if that dang title doesn’t give the film much of a chance!) and uses of red lighting, cannibalism, kitchens, and more warped fetishes add to the creepy. Modern jagged camera attempts and silly, unnecessary dream/ghost hinges over do it just a bit, but the Red Riding Hood motifs are just enough. Refreshingly not used for sexy boobs and nudity distractions, Brigitte Kingsley (W/D/H’s wife) and a surprisingly fun Mercedes McNab (Buffy) keep it all together along with X-Files alum William B. Davis.  I do however, wonder why new horror movies waste time on intercutting cool credits? No one else does anymore.

The Most Dangerous Game – Based on the oft cited Richard Connell story, this hour plus 1932 short starring Joel McCrea (Foreign Correspondent, Sullivan’s Travels), Leslie Banks (The Man Who Knew Too Much), and Fay Wray (King Kong) is fast, action packed, well shot, and actually, a bit scary. So some of the early toy boat effects are shoddy, and the production borrows from King Kong. There’s over the top acting with errors of the time, granted. However, it’s all still dang entertaining- hints of pre-code scandal, cool island fortress sets, creepy taxidermy to match, isolated people on the run from a deranged and diabolical looking Banks.  Candles, music, ominous mood, deadly pace – there’s even a crazy, intense, dirty chase. Though not billed as horror, longstanding staples of the genre are here, with damsels trapped in remote spooky houses and complex killers pursuing their victims in such stylish ways. Oh, and the hunting of people? Why, that’s just “outdoor chess”! Thanks to its quick length, this one is also an easy airing for schools studying one of the source story’s umpteenth publications.

The Tell Tale Heart This black and white 1941 twenty minute short from director Jules Dassin (The Naked City) stars Oscar winner Joseph Schildkraut (The Life of Emile Zola) as the unstable murderer from Poe’s 1843 source.  Establishing specifics and some back-story occupy the first few minutes, but the plot is generally faithful with a solid use of shadows and foreboding music. Off camera action, however, isn’t as intense as it could be, and it all seems a bit too short to fully build all the hatred and insanity from Poe’s succinct writing. Thankfully, the increasing intensity of the titular sounds cap off the conclusion.  I confess, The Tell Tale Heart is my favorite Poe piece, and teachers or other Poe studies and enthusiasts can fit this quick drama in the classroom perfectly.  As to why the short ended up as a side feature on The Thin Man DVD collection? Beats me.

Triangle Black Death director Christopher Smith creates a great mind bending and smartly head-scratching ride in this watery 2009 Bermuda triangle thriller.  There are a few scares, but the within within storytelling and multi level camera work develop more of a thinking viewer’s Twilight Zone heavy before full on gore or modern slasher horror.  A decrepit and sinister ship, carefully placed mirrors, dual appearances and deceptions, and altered audience perceptions layer the plotting and paths for desperate mother Melissa George (Turistas). Though it boy Liam Hemsworth (The Hunger Games) is iffy, his role is relatively small. Hefty concepts, time twists, and intelligent debate outshine any small scale productions here, too.  I’d like to say more, but I don’t want to spoil anything!

And Avoid

The Tomb – I tried to give this 2009 update a chance just because it was supposed to be a new and fresh take on the Edgar Allan Poe ‘Ligeia’ story.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t take it a half hour in-the convoluted set up, crappy location, and lame sexy were just a complete mess. I eventually fell asleep, and was so put off by what I did see that I couldn’t bring myself to rewatch.  Sorry!

15 August 2012

MI-5: Season 10

I’m Still Undecided on MI-5 Season 10
By Kristin Battestella

I confess. I was reluctant to watch last year’s final six-episode Tenth Season of the British spy series MI-5, and I’m still unsure what to make of it.  Although Series 9 was less than stellar, this finale has some fine inclusive work worthy of the franchise- a largely wonderful program I highly recommend overall.  But do these departing high notes fulfill on entire series?  Not quite.

Sir Harry Pierce (Peter Firth), new Section D chief Erin Watts (Lara Pulver), and Intelligence Officer Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker) have their hands full of turmoil at Thames House after explosive evidence of Harry’s decades old relationship with Elena Gavrik (Alice Krige) threatens to derail new Russian negotiations. Elena is the wife of Harry’s rival and top Russian negotiator Ilya Gavrik (Jonathan Hyde), and Home Secretary Towers (Simon Russell Beale) can only defend Harry’s tactics for so long as pressure from CIA liaison Jim Coaver (William Hope) mounts.

With only six episodes in this MI-5 swansong, the audience might expect one long plot- a connecting vein and a tying up of loose ends to all that has gone before. However, traditional A and B action plotting and Americanized storylines take over, pushing both new and long brewing personal stories to the side.  Why did they ever turn away from character development in an erroneous quest for bomb of the week ho-hum?  Over these ten series, we’ve now seen enough terror plots, global peril, and down to the wire mayhem to last a lifetime. If these 6 episodes never left Thames House- or by contrast never even showed The Grid- there would have at least been some form of differentiation or reflection. Instead, it doesn’t feel like MI-5 is wrapping up at all. Some outlandish scenarios are a blatant clinging to big ratings thrills.  We’re not perfect either, but too much time is also spent on making American bad guys and anti-USA plots. All this effort to go out on a big scandalous bang is not only misplaced in the face of franchise resolutions, but the action isn’t as interesting as the real, individual stories that could be at hand-if those personal and intimate moments were ever given their proper attention that is.

Thankfully, Peter Firth as Harry Pierce and Nicola Walker as Ruth Evershed are simply awesome.  Though some might find her accent for MI-5 tough, Alice Krige- she’s the Borg Queen for goodness sake- can generally do no acting wrong. Together, the trio creates a smart, unusual love triangle with enough espionage to anchor the focus of these exiting six.  After all these years of pretty men, badass ladies, and international intensity, Harry and Ruth have shined brightest in their ups and downs and love lost amid Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bringing in a high-class recurring name like Krige as the conflicted wedge between them is practically gold. And yet, there is some bizarre need to place these meaty relationships, past regrets, and unrealized futures behind Russian assassination attempts and terror troubles in Trafalgar Square.  Simply put, this recent loss of priorities has put MI-5 in the grave.  If the show adhered to its original personal ‘people are spies, too’ dynamic and internal focus, why couldn’t MI-5 continue for another ten years like Law and Order? Unfortunately as it stands, we don’t even get to spend any time with Lara Pulver’s (Robin Hood, Sherlock) new section chief Erin Watts. Adding a boss who’s a single mother on top of the issues at Thames House is a nice touch, but we know precious little else. 

Fairing no better, Simon Russell Beale doesn’t get to do very much except play the expected politician, and Jonathan Hyde’s (Titanic) Gavrik is too broadly written as the stereotypical Russian villain of old- as is William Hope (Aliens) as CIA thorn Jim Coaver.  The veterans, however, are superior to the useless introduction of inept tech boy Calum Reed (Geoffrey Streatfeild, The Other Boleyn Girl), and Max Brown still hasn’t captured the contemporary cool weight of the previous male leads as Dimitri Levendis.  He’s young and pretty, but perhaps too much so, with an empty clean slate of nothing in comparison to all the crap we’ve previously put up with from prior cast. Shazad Latif’s departure as Tariq is also absolutely useless. Why bother to dismiss someone so poorly this late in the game?  MI-5 has always made a marked point that anyone can come and go at anytime, but why introduce new people on the grid this season at all?  Where are the flashbacks and recognition? The tacked on mention of all that we’ve loved and lost before is not nearly enough.  Have we no pictures, voices, or videos of the dead? Where are the people who got away from The Grid? If viewers unknowingly tuned into Series 10 of MI-5, I’m not so sure they would know it was a finale!

Though the show still looks good, the technology and tablets are a little much. Compared to the original state of the art gizmos from the first season, this stuff is just ridiculously high tech, even futuristic.  I don’t recall a lot of split screens or lighting imagination, either, but these six episodes all seem to go by too quick without MI-5’s prior attention to detail. Was this conclusion merely an obligation to fill an episode order? Not only will the damn it to hell ending upset long time fans, the tiny tributes fall flat.  Loose ends with American and Russian relations also mar the conclusion here- although that might be a piece of ob la di, ob la da spy merry go round.  Apparently, you don’t escape it unless you die! Year 10 does end on a personal emotional moment with one wonderful cameo, but it’s lost in the shuffle amid the increasing focus towards action.  I expected more from a franchise that stood apart for the better part of eight seasons.

New audiences can’t jump into MI-5 with this final Series 10.  That should go without saying, but they were clearly reaching for edgy, contemporary vibes before appreciating longtime viewers of the franchise. Vintage audiences will still watch, of course. More than anything, however, this year makes me want to start MI-5 right over again from the beginning. Perhaps that was the point?  Now that the franchise is complete, pick and choose and relive the spy glory on DVD with MI-5.