25 June 2013

Merlin Season 5

Merlin Season 5 Just Too Iffy
By Kristin Battestella

It doesn’t seem like the British fantasy series Merlin has been on that long or gotten that old, yet here we are in the Fifth and final season with our youthful cast supposedly mature and unfortunately, disappointing.  

Servant and secret possessor of magic Merlin (Colin Morgan) has protected Camelot, King Arthur (Bradley James), and his queen Guinevere (Angel Colby) for three years against the dark magic plots of Arthur’s half sister Morgana (Katie McGrath). When the druid Mordred (Alexander Vlahos) – foretold to kill Arthur – becomes a knight of Camelot, however, Merlin and court physician Gaius (Richard Wilson) must stop him as more of Morgana’s evil allies threaten to destroy Arthur and Albion’s future.

The two part “Arthur’s Bane” is nice to start Year 5, but it also feels as though it’s made up of knockoffs or plot borrowing that interferes and detracts from Merlin’s own mythos. There’s snowy action and wolves ala Game of Thrones and underground mining ala Lord of the Rings – but the boys are shirtless! I guess that’s all that matters now. Thankfully, there are still fine Round Table motifs, Emrys iconographies, and touches of the Great Dragon. Merlin isn’t afraid of death and there’s some solid foreshadowing of Le Morte de Arthur, but again Camelot conclusions and depth are pushed aside for more copying as Samwise Merlin cooks rabbits and gets caught in a net just like Return of the Jedi. Some poor CGI Ancient Aliens heal Gwaine, too, and the ridiculous slow motion battles and leaps reek of Spartacus. Honestly, I’m amazed the nighttime photography, dark CGI, lightning, flying thru the air knockdowns, and supposedly epic final battles are so poor. Writer Howard Overman does provide good scares, suspense, and dark themes for episode 3, “The Death Song of Uther Pendragon,” and the humor works here because it alleviates tension instead of hamming it up. Sadly, this final season is bereft of direction otherwise, as the creators, producers, and writers have run themselves into the ground with the simplest storytelling, action iffys, and plot holes ad nauseum. I thought the truncated falling apart of Julian Jones, Jake Michie, Johnny Capps, and Julian Murphy’s previous series Hex was do to other factors, but now I’m not so sure. How do these guys just keep doing the same thing over and over?

Recurring Camelot friends and enemies return for this season, but this odd tying up of loose ends somehow leaves more players and Arthurian plots hanging. The first halves of Merlin’s seasons have always been kind of ho hum, and show 7 “A Lesson in Vengeance” predictably relies on clichés already used in Merlin despite some suspenseful possibilities from director Alice Troughton. Likewise, Troughton adds tension to “The Hollow Queen” and “With All My Heart,” but again, the Gwen storyline is unbelievable thanks to the same old rehashings. Who’s under a spell, someone is knocked unconscious, and how is magic going to save the day this time? Where’s anything that makes Merlin Arthurian? Show 10 “The Kindness of Strangers” is good thematically, but nothing happens to advance anything, and Merlin does not have time to waste on all these gosh darn sorcery retreads. We finally get an Arthurian plot for the “The Diamond of the Day” two part series finale, but the less said about it, the better. All these years, I’ve been waiting for Merlin to take it to the next level, but in retrospect, it’s amazing this show didn’t go to total pot even sooner. It’s a pity; I barely finished watching this season and won’t tune in for another series from these show runners again.

Merlin moves its internal timeline up several years, but Arthur is still a little too mean to Merlin. Their bemusing banter is still one of the highlights of the show, but shouldn’t the characters have, like, you know, grown up by now? Amid the heavy and wise, there is time for a wisecracking moment or two, but Merlin’s done nothing all this time but play the fool in front of the queen? When is he going to become Arthur’s respected, trusted advisor? The repeat gags near farce and threaten to overtake all the on form groundwork by Colin Morgan. He deals with the magical and prophetic heavies wonderfully – even if Merlin is made to Deathly Hallows wannabe in the end. The way he tries to tell Arthur how he has skills unseen and has saved him many times is heartbreaking, and getting to his core of the series should have happened far, far sooner. Bradley James as Arthur also has moments of boldness and power, but shows a sympathetic and honest side for some strong speeches and sincerity in the end. Arthur has some wise words and beliefs when allowed to show them, but the Merlin writers do him so, so, so wrong! I really don’t understand why this pair is always resorted to jokes when the series’ strength has always been the seriousness and ready to play of its ensemble. Merlin and Arthur’s final scenes are where Merlin should have always been. It’s very touching, but by the end, it’s just not enough. Thankfully, there is some stepped up ominous with the too little utilized Mordred storyline. Sinister music accents Alexander Vlahos (Doctors) onscreen, but he doesn’t have to do much. We know what to expect from Mordred but his suspicious idles in obvious plots – as in the weird romance tacked on with three episodes left. Us versus them magic persecution talks between Mordred and Merlin are too few and far between, further wasting the subterfuge possibilities. Likewise, Old Merlin comes into his own, but Merlin as a drag sorceress? Seriously?  

Angel Colby certainly looks queenly as Guinevere and husband and wife terms are tossed about, but there’s nothing marital about Arthur and Gwen. Gwen is respected at the round table or plays the worrywart as needed, but her rule is hit and miss thanks to spotty plot points. Despite her father’s execution, she sentences someone to death for magic conspiracy before going on a family quest in episode 6, “The Dark Tower.” Attempted evil twists in “The Hollow Queen” don’t help this all over the place character motivation. Turncoat maids also come and go this season before disappearing unresolved. Merlin never did have a proper focus on its female characters, but this season’s ill-paced changes and out of character complications are ridiculous. Katie McGrath fairs no better as Morgana. All these years have supposedly past and yet Morgana is still just a stupid evil sorcery plot of the week? So much more could have been done here. References to her being held prisoner for 2 years aren’t explained until it’s too late to care, and the Aithusa dragon element is never used to its full potential either. Morgana’s evil is all over the place – spread to thin only to be laid on thick in the end. Sigh. 

 Unfortunately, it seems Richard Wilson is also largely absent in this final season. His Gaius is a wonderful ear for Merlin and even does some magic when it’s needed, but no one really listens to his information or sees what he’s doing. Wilson adds great contrast and humor as required but he and John Hurt as the voice of the Great Dragon are not used consistently enough. How dare they just pfft and whim on Kilgharrah and his bittersweet final moments! The adult players on Merlin have always made for great support and raised the intensity onscreen, but guest stars such as Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones) and King Uther star Anthony Head are sadly mishandled. Knights Eion Macken as Gwaine, Tom Hopper as Percival, Rupert Young as Leon, and Adetomiwa Edun as Elyan are equally used and abused. Gwaine has become a self-centered sarcastic ass, but apparently, he and Percival are only important as new homoerotic fodder. All the knights appear more than Morgana, but they are not elevated to main cast members – is that because they are each injured every week? All the explorations of the court at hand and possible off shoot Arthurian tales fall to the wayside this season for, well, nothing.  

I feel terrible in writing so harsh a review, but this show never really knew what to do with its potential. Even after making dark, complex strides in Years 3 and 4, Merlin continued to rely on flawed writing, underdeveloped support, tiresome creatures, and bad CGI for a safe, juvenile, and immature approach. Merlin capitalized on the young adult fantasy and family friendly niche and rode the recent ideology of making everything new and youthful fast, but I sincerely don’t understand why this show didn’t allow itself to grow up like Buffy. The perpetual YA made the series a hit in its first two seasons, but it also stunted the show in its tracks before this rushed, shoehorned in Arthurian pinnacle finale. While Game of Thrones is going heavy, nasty, sexy, in your face overboard, Merlin has not aged with its audience and now feels left behind. Yes, Merlin never promised it would be anything other than an Arthurian Smallville – but ultimately, it wasn’t even that. Though the likeability of its players, quality fantasy, and fun adventure save this show, as an adult long waiting for a definitive Arthurian telling, this Fifth season has been a tremendous disappointment. Instead of the ‘Camelot, Teen Years’ focus blossoming into total television glory for this dénouement, we received a limp, bitter ending with no repeat value.

Arthurian audiences looking for something slightly more serious may need to look elsewhere, but fanciful teens or magic, youthful viewers growing out of The Sword and the Stone can have a new Camelot nutshell with Merlin. Video and streaming options of all 5 series are available on both sides of the pond for family audiences to pick and choose their favorites, but longtime Merlin fans are better off skipping Season 5 and imagining their own end.

21 June 2013

Coriolanus (2011)

Coriolanus a Fine Shakespeare Twist
By Kristin Battestella

Like most of the viewing public, I didn’t pay much attention to Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s least performed play Coriolanus as it made the festival and limited theater rounds. Despite its quality cast and interesting looks, some audiences may have also been put off by yet another modern retelling of the Bard. Forget your hesitations, for Coriolanus is indeed a fine presentation of Shakespearean statements and modern political intrigue.

Caius Martius (Fiennes) rebuffs the starving Roman people and fights his long time enemy Aufidius (Gerard Butler), the leader of the Volscian army, before capturing the city of Corioles. Martius returns home honored by Senator Menenius (Brian Cox) as Coriolanus, and his mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) convinces him to run for consul. Jealous tribune Sicinius (James Nesbitt), however, seeks to undo Martius’ glory, pushing Coriolanus into an alliance that will threaten all of Rome…

Shakespeare, a Modern Muckraker?

Let’s get some of the negatives out of the way first. Part of Coriolanus’ problem is right there in its title. Honestly, if people can’t pronounce it or even say it without a chuckle, they aren’t going to go see it, and it takes a half hour for the eponymous character to earn his name. Debut director and star Fiennes (The English Patient, Harry Potter, Schindler’s List) and screenwriter John Logan (Any Given Sunday, Skyfall) place Shakespeare’s politics on the modern battlefield, but keep his original syntax, and at first, the dialogue might not seem all that Shakespearean. It’s just some soldiers giving lots of lofty speeches and declarations, right? Once the “A place called Rome” title card and the obviously Latin names pop up, however, audiences unaware – or misled by the trailer – might be quite confused. I knew nothing of the play before my viewing, and accustomed, spoon fed audiences may be further bewildered by the quality gray of Coriolanus. For whom do we root? The players and happenings aren’t clear-cut, and hectic editing and fast street violence will be tough to follow. The bright outdoor photography and smart uses of news footage are very pleasant in highlighting the war torn and graffiti ridden locations, but I wish the camera had pulled back a little for the opening battles. With smoother camera work, the early action swift and quality soliloquies wouldn’t feel so uneven. The contrasting, too dark interiors also create what appears to be a mix of genres that shouldn’t be together. Did I also mention how the dialogue is so soft compared to all the violence? These two hours may seem dry to start, granted. Perhaps it takes too long to get to the meat of the tale – half the film, in fact. Once the twists and tables turn, however, Coriolanus makes for dang interesting stuff. 

Coriolanus seems off to a somewhat rocky start, but the aforementioned media uses and modern heavies beautifully bring Shakespeare’s politics into the 21st century. Everyone here knows what’s happening by watching the news – the aptly tongue in cheek Fidelis TV network – and crowds record the action with their cell phones. Coriolanus must go on a talk show for his campaign, which is replete with compromising, ass kissing, and chewing one up and spitting one out. It’s also totally bemusing to see the political pundits arguing in ye olde English, and the way the officials supposedly speaking for the public manipulate the fickle people for their own advantage is downright eerie for a post 9/11 world. Personality and spin win it for the politicians instead of those more capable of doing the job, muckrakers raise up one who may be rough around the edges only to vilify and betray him later, and everyone wants something for nothing – these are ridiculously relevant topics from Fiennes. Martius hates the people because they are so fooled and can take down the whole system with their sway, but his harsh honesty could have been good for Rome. Instead, Coriolanus is filled with subtext and tragedy all around. Who’s the victim here – the fooled people, the sold out senate, or Coriolanus? The ending is a little abrupt and the people we want to see get their dues don’t, but this plotting is all very fitting.  I’m surprised Coriolanus has never been filmed before, and after knowing nothing of the play going into my viewing, I really enjoyed the turn of events here.

The Worthy Thespians

Coriolanus would suffer immensely if its lead weren’t on form, but Fiennes delivers the expected top notch as both a modern action badass and Bard talking artiste. We may not think of him primarily as a physical star, but his intense, hand-to-hand, claustrophobic combat feels authentic. The ruthless Martius aims his gun at common folk and sprouts arrogant witticisms before going to battle – his mano y mano knife fight with Aufidius is heavy, dirty, almost intimate in their hatred. We believe Martius is loyal and honorable thanks to his action prowess and service to Rome, but there is an underlying disturbia to his having too much power thanks to his proud, unflinching attitude. As Coriolanus, he doesn’t want the glory, politics, and cameras in his face where those closest to him would compromise his beliefs, shut his mouth, and manipulate him for their own gain in hopes of riding his coat tails to the top. Is Coriolanus an uncouth, elitist bigot? Yes. Does he deserve how the tables turn upon him? Perhaps not.  Thanks to Fiennes’ contorted, in your face performance and transformations in appearance, one almost feel bad for Martius as he is humbled and risen again. Of course, there are many reasons to dislike Martius, flawed and opinionated as he is, but Fiennes delivers on all the action and arguments. I’m surprised more awards didn’t happen for Coriolanus and its performers.

Now, why is it we only hear about 300 star Gerard Butler when he is doing some crappy comedy or Hollywood party infamy if he’s making quality pictures like this? His Aufidius doesn’t say much and perhaps Butler is a little too soft spoken or seemingly uncomfortable with the Shakespeare script, but his natural accent does wonders for an angry Bard delivery.  Strong secondary leading parts like this are perfect for Butler. Aufidius has serious weight, substance, and guerilla leader badassery. When he proclaims, “He’s mine or I am his,” we believe Aufidius’ Shakespeare style and battlefield desperation. The Volscian leader must silently watch as glory follows Martius, but he has the love of his people and the eventual change a roo for these two is wonderful. Aufidius should be pleased to see Martuis’ comeuppance, yet he welcomes him to his cause in a timeless statement on how enemy soldiers have more in common with each other than those for whom they fight and serve. He worries about Martius’ superiority, yes, but isn’t so big headed himself to take a backseat or use any opportunity for his cause. Unfortunately, when Coriolanus doesn’t lead Aufidius to victory and Roman glory…. Of course, Butler doesn’t have nearly as much screen time as Fiennes, making their ongoing battle somewhat one sided. It’s strange to think of him as under utilized in what is a very strong performance, but that’s due to his stinky films, not the juicy here. I wish Aufidius would have been developed further, but Butler looks dynamite and holds up in action and performance to Fiennes.

By contrast, I was surprised by how out of place Jessica Chastain (The Help, Zero Dark Thirty) seems as Martius’ safe at home but worrying wife Virgilia. I haven’t seen all of her work, but her modern glam and buzz pretty do not come across right in Coriolanus. Her poor handling of the yesterday’s dialogue seems young and American inexperienced amid a cast of British heavyweights. Is it just a thinly drawn character, a simple wife meant to be weak? One wonders how she can deliver these lines with a straight face, and her few scenes with Fiennes are too awkward. Fortunately, Vanessa Redgrave (Julia, Atonement) is ever classy at Martius’ scene stealing mother Volumnia. Her delivery is smooth, casual, and upscale despite what turns out to be a very ugly role. Redgrave keeps Volumnia graceful yet so ready to explode under the surface. Coriolanus is what we would call a mama’s boy thanks to Volumnia’s heavy-handed power wielding thru him.  He knows it, but can’t escape her long political arm. I was shouting at the television and holding my breath for their final scene! Again, I’m surprised no awards followed, although audiences almost expect this type of meaty performance from Redgrave. Likewise, Brian Cox (Troy, X2) is effortlessly Shakespearean as Senator Menenius. Seriously, you imagine he speaks this way at home! Menenius is slick and suavely tries to work the political middle ground– but that’s fall on your sword territory if there ever was any. James Nesbitt (Murphy’s Law, The Hobbit) is always fun to see as well. His plotting Sicinius lays it on so thick that the public doesn’t even realize he is telling them what they want to hear purely for his own gain. That sounds so familiar!

Not Your Daddy’s Bard

Despite its modern setting – or perhaps even because of it – Coriolanus does well in its straight Shakespeare telling, although I would have liked a bit more depth or fleshing out in some of the player motivations. Where’s the spin or expanded character development? Shakespeare seems a little too weak or straightforward here, and the support is too broadly drawn. When one is adapting something a touch inferior, often some form of Hollywood twist happens instead of a beat for beat interpretation. I was expecting some matricide or adulterous scandal to cap it all off! Thankfully, Coriolanus’ modern warfare bleak looks good. It may seem like such a simple thing, but you can really see who is who amid the bright, on form fighting, weapons, and uniforms. Like some of that crazy camerawork, there is a fair amount of blood and death in your face, but the gritty violence doesn’t overtake the subtly fascist looking fashions, parades, and pomp. The real world Serbia locales add to the fighting as well. There’s no need to spend millions for historical Roman battles when you can say more by putting your ensemble in contemporary, bittersweet reality. Again, the subtitles are necessary indeed, and the blu-ray quality is a must. I waited to receive Coriolanus on blu-ray rather than indulge my Netflix Instant Watch, but I was disappointed in the rental copy’s abundance of previews and blink and you miss it Making Of featurette. The commentary is great, but I expected more of the proverbial book to screen analysis and extensive behind the scenes documentation.

Truly, Coriolanus is a successful, ambitious adaptation, but it doesn’t seem as blockbuster grandiose Kenneth Branagh Shakespeare to the masses opus as it could be. There’s nothing wrong with a smaller, subtle commentary on the Bard and the world today – I wish we had more mid sized, intimate films like this. However, Coriolanus’ ultimate problem is that it isn’t sure who its audience is. Modern action viewers will like the battlefield scenery and rousing military Shakespeare, but they may not appreciate all the high end, confusing dialogue in between.  Likewise, die-hard Shakespeare enthusiasts may be disappointed that this biggest adaptation yet of this little done title is not in its original setting. Further still, the only people who will get a film like this are those who can understand the Shakespeare as modern political propaganda or parallel intelligentsia audiences. The cultured film fan who seeks out Coriolanus will adore it, but this picture isn’t a feel good general public movie meant for the CGI obsessed, popcorned, and brainwashed masses. Anymore today it feels as though that’s why most pictures are made!  Coriolanus will take multiple study viewings, but Shakespearean classrooms can also enjoy an assessment. Although it was quite enjoyable to go into Coriolanus relatively cold and unfamiliar with its source, this adaptation does what it should do – get people to read the dang play!

Disjointed, early unevenness notwithstanding, Coriolanus gets better as it goes on. As the star and the film’s director, Ralph Fiennes demands your attention. He proves that Shakespeare is still very relevant and can be transposed to today with all plot, power, and politics intact. Older, more thought provoking audiences looking for sophisticated action, performances, and statements should see Coriolanus ASAP.  

10 June 2013

Fun SF and F Treats!

More SF and F Possibilities
By Kristin Battestella

Release your inner geek and sit back for this quick list of retro fantasies, science fiction wonders, and fanciful television! 

Nemesis – Kickboxer and all around Marital arts badass of the 1992 moment Olivier Gruner (Interceptor Force, Code Name: Eternity) leads a quirky SF cast – including Tim Thomerson (Trancers), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Showdown in Little Tokyo), Thomas Jane (Hung), Brion James (Blade Runner), and Deborah Shelton (Dallas) – for this intriguing cyborg romp.  It’s totally dated of course – with messy effects, nineties fashions gone wrong, weird accents, poor dialogue, and iffy imitation 2027 technology. The prophetic narration is a bit much, and the attempted romantic conflicts too trite. However, the humor – both intentional and not – and some witty helps the convoluted and tech talk laden story.  The quieter, questioning moments amid the lengthy shootouts, sauce, and nudity also keep the pace interesting. Do synthetics not have lives of their own? Can an android’s soul – her desire to do something with her life – be captured on a chip with the rest of her data? Gruner’s delivery may be tough at times, but he’s pretty decent as a B anti-hero LA cop with cybernetic repair questions and divided loyalties.  We like him, root for him, and he kicks injustice’s ass in return. This isn’t anything new, yet the quality SF notions have held up, and perhaps even improved over the decades.  For the full effect, however, one should avoid the occasional TV airing as it is often woefully cut up. Hopefully, director Albert Pyun (The Sword and the Sorcerer) will provide a restored video release soon. 

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad – I loved this 1958 Ray Harryhausen spectacle as a kid, and it still has it all!  From the wonderful music by Bernard Herrmann (Psycho) to those imaginative – nay – quintessential visuals and bright Technicolor, the ancient high seas adventures, charlatan magic, and innocent romance remain classic and charming for young and old. There’s even a miniature princess!  Sure, some may find the acting over the top now, but that fits the fantasy mood and drama. Those spoiled with CGI effects might find the creature animation stilted, but you’d be wrong.  Those who grew up watching Harryhausen Dynamation effects will be overjoyed to see the Cyclops, dragon, and skeleton all looking dynamite on blu-ray. Today’s overly digital fantasy films should take note, as blu-ray continues to re-invigorated classics like this with a made to look old modern glamour and retro facelift. The 50th anniversary blu-ray also has great menus and a fun interface design to boot.  Not only is the set packed with commentaries and retrospective interviews from contemporary directors and filmmakers but also there’s over two hours of features on effects, music, the late Harryhausen, and more.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger – Ray Harryhausen not only did the special effects for this third 1977 Sinbad picture, but he also wrote the story with Beverley Cross (Clash of the Titans) and served as producer.  Although some matte shots look poor and the baboon and other monsters feel hokey, the stop motion wonders and fun miniatures still look great. The seventies zooms and quick intercutting feels uneven against some of the slower talking to animals scenes, and some night time or high seas photography is tough to see. Thankfully, the colorful sets, flashy and fleshy costumes, and expected Arabian jewels, flair, and designs match the cool Petra locations. Yes, star Patrick Wayne’s (McLintock!, The People That Time Forgot) delivery is a bit too California, but he looks the chiseled part. Patrick Troughton (Doctor Who) makes for a fun little wizard with a conveniently beautiful daughter Taryn Power (The Count of Monte Cristo), and Jane Seymour (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) looks delightful – except for those dreadlock-esque braids, shudder. Though the dialogue is bit muddled and the fanciful plot too nonsensical, the nutty witchcraft from Margaret Whiting (Jury) tops it all off. Perhaps this installment is a step down from the magical fifties charm of The 7th Voyage, but it’s still an entertaining adventure for one and all.

Sword of Lancelot – Liberties are taken to keep this lengthy 1963 tale Lancelot centric, but dang if you can find this elusive, ill framed, and butchered DVD!  So our titular man has a bad French accent, the no name sub par cast has a lot of juvenile mid century scripting and dialogue. There are goofy Shakespearean asides and talking to oneself amid all the wooden small talk, too. The women swoon, look a little too Halloween costume medieval, and it all has a coarse community theatre feeling.  And yet, solid atmosphere and love triangles help what’s actually a decent little story get better as the betrayals unfold. The high fantasy knights, chivalry, and Camelot court style inaccurately mix with 5th century peasant looks, yes. It’s tough to tell who is who, and the joust is small scale hokey. Nevertheless, a good bit of action, fast paced and entertaining battles, colorful medieval banners, flashy tunics, period flair, and all the expected Arthurian characters are here. Perhaps then it was scandalous – blood and heavies amid a poolside bathing with this newfangled soap! – but today’s fanciful youths can enjoy this flawed, but fun little yarn.  

TV Guide Looks at Science Fiction – William Shatner hosts this 1997 hour long TV Guide special chronicling the history of genre efforts in the medium from the television’s first Flash Gordon era serials to Space: 1999, Battlestar: Galatica, The Bionic Woman, Time Tunnel, and more.  Humorous and slightly juvenile fair such as My Favorite Martian and Mork and Mindy are also contrasted against more recent mature series, including Quantum Leap, The X-Files, and Babylon 5. Lesser-known series like Space Patrol and Small Wonder are also discussed amid popular programs like Lost in Space, Star Trek, and The Twilight Zone. I could have done without the silly robot jokes, and in such a quick hour, some more obscure series like Blake’s 7 are bound to be missing. Fortunately, these lovely clips, vintage footage, and nostalgic interviews are perfect for a media history or social classroom study, and fans looking for rare tapes and informative insights can delight here.

09 June 2013

Monkey Business (1952)

Monkey Business Loads of Fun
By Kristin Battestella

Thanks to its star studded cast and award winning talent both in front and behind camera, the 1952 comedy Monkey Business doesn’t screw up its screwball wit.

Chemist Barnaby Fulton (Cary Grant) and his wife Edwina (Ginger Rogers) are hopeful for his next scientific breakthrough at Oxley Chemical. Barnaby thinks he may have the right youthful formula at last, which excites boss Oliver Oxley (Charles Coburn) and his secretary Lois Laurel (Marilyn Monroe). However, after one of the lab monkeys mixes up a brew of her own and it gets in the office water cooler, this true fountain of youth elixir effects Barnaby – and his wife – in ways never expected.

Director Howard Hawks (Red River, Sergeant York) and writers Harry Segall (Here Comes Mr. Jordan), Ben Hecht (Notorious), I. A. L. Diamond (The Apartment), and Charles Lederer (Ocean’s Eleven) begin with some self referential charm, adorably dry jokes, friendly jabs, and even cooking insults before building the fifties fun and witty science. The dialogue and deadpan reactions are on form and keep what is quite a preposterous premise relatively smart. Subtle, silent slapstick scenes force the viewer to pay attention to the players at hand and their experimental elixir changes. Those unaccustomed to classic film comedy beats and rhythms may find the characters both too slow going and too talkative, but this style fits the plot perfectly. Yes, Monkey Business is similar in slapstick to Bringing Up Baby, and several scenes are too rowdy, fifties familiar, and overly stereotypical, granted. The whole predicament is also fairly obvious today – he drinks, she drinks, then they drink together!  Fortunately, the hair-brained trouble each step causes is nonetheless charming, and even the monkeys are cute. Okay, so the primate elements may be cliché too, but at least real monkeys were used. That’s more than I can say for all those old man in a gorilla suit horror pictures!

Well, well the be-spectacled and socially dim witted but sophisticated scientist Cary Grant looks great, surprise, surprise. Whether it’s merely an undone tie around his neck, cruising in his new car, or taking a swim, Grant (star of 5 pictures helmed by Hawks) is certainly having a good time in Monkey Business. Is it ridiculous to have the king of suave jumping out the window, acting like a kid, and scalping his rival? Of course. Does the mayhem work? Absolutely. His scientific dialogue and innuendo alliteration isn’t easy either, but Grant’s delivery is spot on – although I can’t say the same for his singing! Though known more for her dancing with onscreen partner Fred Astaire than her first picture with Grant, Once Upon a Honeymoon, Ginger Rogers is equal to the task as Barnaby’s sassy, bossy wife Edwina. The part could have easily become annoying or trite, but Rogers is so classy and charming whether she’s a supposedly simple housewife with a smile on her face or a juvenile victim of the formula. Her trickster ways and finger wagging jealousy may seem a bit too childish for modern viewers, but then again, that’s the point of Monkey Business. Rogers does have a few chances to get her dance on, too, and her baby scenes in the final act are far more amusing than the Indian scalping play-acting. The proverbial letting their hair down and matching of wits between Grant and Rogers makes for lovely dynamics and a fun, coupled adventure, and their tandem work is delightful. They just don’t make comedies like they used to – or have the right pairs of stars to go in them! 

Today Monkey Business may be billed as one of her big pictures, but Marilyn Monroe (also of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Hawks) is not the star here and she doesn’t have much screen time. Nevertheless, her cluelessly loveable and steamy, but harmless secretary Lois Laurel is the perfect fodder for our fountain of youth experiencing duo.  The innuendo and misunderstandings she causes are just as amusing as her stupidity. From not being late because of bad punctuation and needing someone to type for her to enjoying her acetates – err stockings – the delivery from Monroe is smooth, even innocent. Monroe isn’t over the top and deliberately putting on the sexy, and thus Grant can match her as the straight man with no laugh track, rim shots, or hammering the viewer’s head with the nudge nudge wink wink required.  Yes, Monroe’s bullet bra enters the room before she does and her fans will enjoy what time she has onscreen, but her performance is really wise, well done comedy. Charles Coburn (The More the Merrier) is also a hoot as the monocle wearing and definitely noticing Oliver Oxely – after all, “Anyone can type.” Perhaps the subtext is tame today, but intelligent hints and charming performances never go out of style. In addition to these big stars of Monkey Business going kid, it’s also an ironic twist to add the deep voiced little George Winslow (My Pal Gus and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) as a child voice of reason on the whole wacky matter.

Although the black and white photography may hide some of the sweet costumes from oft Monroe designer Travilla, all the mid century touches are here – the jazz, her pearls, those gloves, that kitchen!  I have to say, I love the obviously fake driving scenery and crazy stunt work.  It’s such a fifties staple!  The laboratories are fun, and the monkey filming is well done, too.  Naturally, one can’t go looking for serious science or the moral and ethical consequences of youthful experimentation with Monkey Business. While parts here are predictable, dated, and definitely of their time, one can’t pull off this kind of witty magic and comedic delivery today without resorting to gross out, college sex romp humor. Yes, it may be tough for younger audiences who didn’t grow up seeing this type of fast-paced screwball fun to appreciate. However, the deadpan zingers here can still make one crack up and smile. Fans of the cast and classic comedies certainly know and love Monkey Business, but older audiences or viewers looking for smart, sophisticated fun need look no further than the delightful shenanigans here.

08 June 2013

Our Christopher Lee Reviews!

Our Christopher Lee Review Collection
By Kristin Battestella
It seems like 40 reviews is a paltry assessment for a man with over two hundred film and television credits to his name, but alas, there’s a lot of Christopher Lee at I Think, Therefore I Review. Here’s a list of our articles featuring Sir Christopher, because with so many similarly titled productions and international name changes, even we couldn’t keep track anymore!


07 June 2013

More Hammer, Lee, and Cushing!

More Hammer, Lee, and Cushing Trinity!
By Kristin Battestella

Why not spend the summer delighting in another batch of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Hammer Horror treats both vintage and anew?

The Bloody Judge – The battle scenes are awesome in this twisted 1970 historical from the late writer and director Jess Franco (The Awful Dr. Orloff). The music is sweet; the colorful design looks the part and doesn’t feel cheap at all. One can even forgive the bad English dubbing, mixed languages, and sudden subtitles amid the otherwise fine script, dialogue, and native Anglo delivery. The persecution plots and political intrigue are nice, too – even if it has been done better and feels too Witchfinder General knock off.  Unfortunately, the fake blood is obvious, and the nudity presented is just too bizarre. The skin scenes are actually almost too subdued to start – one expects more in early seventies euro horror. However, the flesh gets awkward quickly with an out of place full frontal sex scene and lots more much too much shocking and fleshy torture. It’s initially effective to see the cruel rack and sadistic pain thanks to its great juxtaposition – these wicked, supposedly in the right officials against the nature loving, harmless witchcraft accused.  Sadly, the exploitative sex and violence goes overboard as the hour and forty-plus minutes goes on. It’s just too dang nasty – talk about torture porn! Ultimately, this uneven attempt at horror and sexploitation detracts from what could have been a seriously fine, macabre historical lesson. It’s a pity, as it’s certainly fun to see Birthday Boy Lee rocking that judicial wig! He’s just right as the creepy lawman checking out the bodices, bosoms, and wenches on trial but doesn’t have much else to do. Although Big C is great when he does get some demented ups and downs and crime and punishment and fans will enjoy his scenes, the entire picture would have been better served by doing a complete history on the titular mayhem.

From Beyond the Grave – Peter Cushing sports a hint of accent for this final 1974 anthology from Hammer rival Amicus Productions, and the creepy antiques and curiosity shop themes are an interesting precursor to Friday the 13th: The Series. Demented music, great sounds, and smoke and mirrors effects add to the fun seventies styles, colors, askew camera angles, and shadow techniques. Séances and possessed mirrors take over in the first story, “The Gatecrasher,” and David Warner (The Omen) is delightfully tormented into murder for this largely one-man tale. “An Act of Kindness” continues the weirdness thanks to street peddler Donald Pleasence (Halloween), his kind of kinky daughter Angela (Symptoms), and some deadly voodoo for good measure. Some dark humor sets off the psychic warnings, demonic touches, and poltergeist effects in “The Elemental,” and lastly, Ian Ogilvy (Witchfinder General) and Lesley-Anne Down (North and South) discover centuries-old occult disaster behind “The Door.” The character developments may seem slow to start or the writing somewhat soft or tame today, but there’s enough blood and action to carry the macabre mood. This one makes we want to marathon all the Amicus anthologies for one massive, eerie late night! We don’t see Cushing too much, but we shouldn’t be fooled by his seemingly so cute and innocent proprietor. Don’t these people know not to cross Big P?!

The Resident – I didn’t like the last Hillary Swank horror attempt The Reaping – actually I dislike any time she goes off her Oscar winning type coughP.S. I Love Youcough. Thankfully, she’s solid as a strong but socially awkward and somewhat man needy doctor in an ominous apartment for this 2011 nuHammer thriller. Likewise, Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Grey’s Anatomy) is effective, even if it’s obvious he’s the too good to be true handyman in a horror movie. At the standard 90 minutes, precious time is wasted with cool opening credits – not usually a good sign for a recent horror film – and the story is slow to get going and ultimately quite predictable. The cheating boyfriend explanation for her moving comes a little too late and the color gradient looks over processed, but the hospital blood and gore are well done. Of course, Christopher Lee has a great introduction. He looks like a perfectly respectable grandfather, yet there’s something just a bit creepy old man about him, and I love it! Although the casting and plot could have easily gone the college bimbo route and it sets up some naughty, eerie hi jinks, the brief Swank nudity and up close lingerie shots are surprising. Fortunately, smart shadows, lighting, reflections, and some unique camera angles add to the suspense. The frenetic flashback answers a lot of questions and ups the stalker vibe, too. Yes, it turns this film from a seemingly haunted house bump in the night horror tale to a nasty if somewhat typical real world thriller, and there isn’t a lot of mood, atmosphere, or truly spooky feelings as a result. Though pleasant, the New York contemporary city vibes and final reliance on plot holes, tools, hardware horror, and chases hamper the “it could happen to you” fears. It’s a bit misguided and could have been more, but the cast is likeable and some quality character twists win out.

Wake Wood – Perhaps this type of child death and parental grief horror is too familiar – it’s been done before, certainly. Fortunately, there is enough relate-ability, disturbia, and morbid in this frightening 2011 nuHammer ‘be careful what you wish for’ lesson. Despite the seemingly happy family introduction, things will obviously go bad for Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones) and Eva Birthistle (Ae Fond Kiss) thanks to the creepy Timothy Spall (Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) and his abacus of life and death calculations! The dramatic, intercut opening scenes don’t feel like a horror film. However, the subsequent despair, blood, gruesome effects, animal terrors, creepy townsfolk, and nasty rituals make for some very upsetting visuals. Some of the swift editing and quick camerawork is a bit too flashy, and those rituals do become overlong and too complex, yes. The voices are also tough to hear compared to the violence, and the accents will be tough for some stateside. Thankfully, the Irish locations and country scenery are very colorful and bright, making for a pleasant contrast and ‘what lies beneath’ the quaint eerie.  More unique filming angles and photography accentuate the desperation and delightfully build the slow, sinister reveals. I don’t want to give everything away, but this one stands out among the standard crop of recent horror clunkers. There’s enough macabre for the expectant horror fan to enjoy, and a level of dramatic maturity with serious consequences and a few twists.  

The Woman in BlackHarry Potter star Danielle Radcliffe does well in this 2012 nuHammer creepy haunted house ghost story adapted by Jane Goldman (Stardust, X-Men: First Class) from Susan Hill’s source novel. There’s a very nice gothic spirit at work thanks to the moody history, ghostly atmosphere, and mostly silent, one-man scares. Suspicious townsfolk and freaky kid deaths add to the sudden effects and camera tricks, and candlelight and darkness up the sinister for an overall, quite effective spooky.  Though the period settings are perfectly decrepit in addition to the smart, darker photography, there is just a little too much drab unnecessarily weighing down the film’s look. Perhaps there was an intentional kinship to something black and white or a depressing palette meant to mirror Radcliffe’s widower Arthur Kipps and his desperate state of mind. However, this devoid, colorless, overly digital, saturated dreary feels amiss –we have the spooky and disturbing elsewhere in set decorations, story, and character.  There’s no need to add this layer of off putting heavy – in fact, some rich late Victorian color and flair would have gone a long way in the household fears, local smarmy, and child scary simply because the viewer would have found something pleasing, if creepy, for the eye.  This doesn’t look fun to watch, and some horror audiences expecting more action or panache may be disappointed by this style. There’s also a few plot holes and missed opportunities or speculation with Ciaran Hinds (There Will Be Blood) as the upstanding, decidedly not superstitious Sam Daily. Were there townsfolk involved in the ghost causing history? Did Kipps really bring the titular vengeance as the bereaved claim or was something else at work? What the F happened to the dog? There’s room for some debate in the tale as it isn’t all explained in one big reveal, but a few clarifications would have been nice – especially since this budding sequel talk sounds kind of crappy. Despite a few questions and visual flaws, the 90-plus minutes here keep things ominous – the shocks and suspense happen without resorting to the crassness, gore, or nudity we so often find today. Bravo!

I was worried the nuHammer films would, well, stink, but two have been good, one’s decent with star power, and I’m looking forward to more!