30 August 2013

Now for More 80s Horror!

And Now More 80s Horror!
By Kristin Battestella

From Lovecraft, monsters, and mad science to slashers, ghosts, and the undead, those glorious eighties had a horrorific good time!

Blood Tide – James Earl Jones (The Great White Hope), Jose Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac), Martin Cove (Karate Kid), Lila Kedrova (Zorba the Greek) and plenty of pretty thanks to Deborah Shelton (Dallas), Lydia Cornell (Too Close for Comfort), and Mary Louise Weller (Animal House) keep this 1982 hour and twenty full of Lovecraftian low budget foreign flair, Greek superstitions, and island terror interesting. The opening prologue lays out the virgin sacrifice, nudity, beastly symbolism, and whiff of kinky to come, but the video print is subpar, drab, and too dark to see what’s happening – making for some viewer confusion along with the steady plot holes. Some characters and motivations also simply go unexplained, and Jones’ random Shakespearean dialogue is tough to understand in some scenes. Although there are interesting dialogue references to actor Paul Robeson and Othello, ironic considering the bitter history between Robeson and Ferrer. Unfortunately, iffy, dated music and too many muddled conversations establish nothing and keep the pace here too slow – get moving on the ancient tribal sacrifice, religion, and beasts!  Once the deaths hit the water, things proceed quickly for the finale, but the monster is hokey and you really need to like bad, sleepy horror to get thru this one. Actually, if you ixnay the potential teens and spring break island sex romp standard of today, I’d like to see a stylized remake of this with another worthy, Oscar alum cast. 

Creepshow 2 – The lengthy animated opening and frame story for this 1987 anthology sequel feels somewhat out of place and dampens the suspense of George Romero’s writing polish on these Stephen King tales, yet the beginning fifties-esque pleasantries of the “Old Chief Wood’nhead” first tale make for a fine down on its luck, eerie western. George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke) and Dorothy Lamour (Road to Bali) add a delightful charm to this tense blend of Navajo mysticism, hooligans, and quality revenge. While the ending feels a little rushed and the dated backwoods styles might be amusing or annoying to some, the mannequin effects are surprisingly well done.  Story Two “The Raft” also offers plenty of dated eighties pot and college motifs with a hint of nudity and stupidity for good measure. People in horror movies never get away when they have the chance! Despite the unexplained killer oil slick and weak globular effects, there’s plenty of suspense here. The final tale “The Hitchhiker” starts with some saucy but leads to crazy, never say die, car chases and pursuits with a touch of humor and an ironic end. Again, the stories and the framing plot don’t exactly tie together, but there’s enough eerie entertainment here to marathon with the original Creepshow.

Dominique is Dead – An intriguing cast – including Jean Simmons (Guys and Dolls), Cliff Robertson (Charly), Jenny Agutter (Logan’s Run), and Simon Ward (The Tudors) – raises this 1980 ghost tale above its somewhat slow, quiet, uneven, and unpolished parts. Yes, there are too many shades of Gaslight and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, but the in media res ghost talk happens quickly, creating an off kilter feeling. Is this supernatural, tawdry, crazy, or something else?  The classical scoring, old-fashioned décor and style, and a certain classy candlelight and mood lighting carry a layer of spooky amid the dinner parties, too. Surreal red and blue photography, disappearing and reappearing objects, and creepy creaking noises and sounds add to the excellent, eerie mystery – not to mention that great house and garden scenery. The superb jump moments and scares are well done with people and built up tensions rather than relying on zany effects – we hardly have this kind of simple spooky tale these days. Of course, the seemingly unloved public domain print here is too dark at times, the voices are soft, the editing itself needed a do over, and the plot holes could sure use some clarifications. There are also one too many confusing reveals for the finale, but overall, this is a nice little atmospheric and gothic good time. 

Re-Animator – This 1985 cult favorite and mad science meets undead mash up blessedly does not look mid eighties dated. Granted there may be some primitive cat designs – which aren’t for faint feline fans – but there isn’t any so obviously of the time music, cars, fashions, or gear. The camerawork and filming is also well edited and fast paced without too many major visual effects, again helping the action to hold up today. The physical gore, nudity, bloody people, and meaty props rise to the occasion – allowing Jeffrey Combs (Deep Space Nine), Bruce Abbott (Dark Justice), Barbara Crampton (Castle Freak), and David Gale (Guyver) to focus on the Lovecraft source. The solid, creepy players are as endearing as they are freaky, and there’s a pleasant, realistic layering of villainy, reluctance, genius, rights, and wrongs as the science gone awry plot progresses. Though there are some brain versus will power leaps of faith and unrealistic, unexplained medicines, the hints of black comedy campy or dark humor parody make the talking heads and telepathic control somehow believable in the established plot. The scientific dialogue is also not the expected high tech jargon, which helps the viewer enjoy the re-animated amusements. The multiple film editions – R, Unrated, and combinations of the two – however, may annoy contemporary audiences. Fortunately, the pace moves swiftly thanks to increasingly slick and nasty perversions, and everything is brought to a head for the finale. It’s twisted, both subtle and yet over the top, and humorously so wrong in some moments, but somehow, this is still so dang fun to watch.

Do Skip

Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning – This 1985 sequel starts promisingly by following John Shepherd (Thunder Run) as the grown up but traumatized Tommy Jarvis. Unfortunately, the half way house he’s in has less nutty people then the redneck crazy town nearby or the aptly named “Trailer Park” trailer park. Largely absent people create too many red herring tangents while others are introduced only to be killed or worse, unfulfillingly killed off screen. If this is Tommy’s story and we’re supposed to care about him, why is missing for most of the time? Law enforcement disappears, an inexplicably tricked out barn magically appears, and wow, there are too many endings – from the barn battle and hospital add ons to obligatory dream scares and a gotcha fade to black. The wise horror viewer can predict everything, and will shout at the television over all the unutilized vehicles, weapons, and means of escape. I do give props for the internal use of A Place in the Sun, nice boobs, and the murder mystery identity guessing game, but the dated fashions, music and bad singing, backwoods near fifties designs, and formulaic stereotypes are laughable. The Robot meets Stray Cats! Some of its crazy funny but overall, the annoying humor fuels the weak, uncreative, anonymous deaths as they come too easy and go for too many resets or cheap thrills and jump clichés. The attempt to offshoot the franchise or pass the hockey mask mantle and recapture the murder mystery of the original is an interesting concept, but by the end, you don’t blame the killer for doing what he does. Whoops. The R isn’t that hard today, and the poor mix of new killer, comedy, and slasher scares only works in a precious few memorable scenes.

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives – New town name, camp reopened for business, same old date for this 1986 reset. Jason Voorhees is back thanks to a magical dose of lightning, but the recasting of Tommy Jarvis with actor Thom Matthews (Return of the Living Dead) confuses the Bobby in the Shower approach regarding Part V even more. Did the last film not happen? Did any of Jason’s history matter? Tommy was to be the new killer, but now he’s suddenly a mistaken good guy with an occult book? Writer and Director Tom McLoughlin’s (Sometimes They Come Back) sardonic and self-referential camp counselors fall flat, and the resurrected, undead, put him back in the water Jason takes one too many leaps of faith for the audience. Quick deaths are made of the fashion victim teenagers, along with more no name murders stringing a plot together, and too little use is made of the annoying kids in peril actually at the dang camp. There’s also a strange clumsy humor and music for some deaths – Jason’s traditional ki ki ki theme feel like it’s in the wrong places – and more bad eighties tunes don’t help. There’s only one crappy sex scene and no nudity, but the attempts at something spiritual amid the supernatural aren’t followed thru either. Wild RV accidents, camaro chases, and more substantial law enforcement plots are very nice, however, and this outing is indeed better than the previous sequels. If you like ho hum slashers, this is certainly watchable, but it still falls short of the original.

27 August 2013


Skyfall Back in Bond Form!
By Kristin Battestella

I’m more than happy to eat my words about the first two installments in Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond – because this third 2012 outing Skyfall gets it right. %^&#$)* finally!

After being wounded during a mission by new field agent Eve (Naomie Harris), 007 James Bond (Craig) is presumed dead while he recuperates with wine and women. Cyber threats against MI-6 chief M (Judi Dench), however, and physical attacks on the Intelligence Service itself bring Bond back to London.  Unfortunately, whether he is fit for duty must be proven to new Intelligence Chairmen Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), and the Quartermaster (Ben Whishaw) outfits the ready or not Bond with a gun and a radio. 007 sets out across the globe in pursuit of former agent turned cyber terrorist Raoul Silvia (Javier Bardem) and ultimately faces his orphaned roots in Scotland.

Yes, I have a love hate relationship with Casino Royale. It’s a good spy movie, but too removed from a traditional Bond film for me. Although I think we can all agree that Quantum of Solace is meh at best, Skyfall fortunately gets the long running franchise back on track. Humor, sexuality, and returning characters add a much needed brevity; Skyfall has that aforementioned gun and a radio simplicity instead of 21st century statements, politics, and heavy. The action is sound, memorable, and yes, bombastic at times, but it doesn’t compromise the unfolding character dramas and isn’t so ridiculously over the top like the Die Another Day infamy. In fact, the fast-paced excitement accentuates the meaty topics with the expected Bond wit and swiftness. Certainly, the plot is a predictable spin on the theme – 007 begrudgingly on a mission with several girls and/or henchman encounters in foreign locales or casinos soon lead him to an initial impressive chat with villain where each tries to outsmart the other. There were times in Skyfall, however, where I was unsure how Bond was going to save the day thanks to intense voiceovers, one-step behind arrivals, and potential agent on the inside twists. Bureaucratic interference and the direct targeting of M are also not often seen Bond elements – or haven’t worked previously as in The World Is Not Enough – and Skyfall is topped off with an even more unusual for Bond homemade siege. One might think this is a far too easy, overlong, out of place or even ridiculous turn for a 007 picture. However, the mix of high tech meets gloriously simple works wonderfully in itself as Bond revisits his roots in explosive fashion and literally wipes the slate clean. I sincerely hope director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) does indeed return for the next installment along with long time Bond writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade and new writing blood John Logan (Gladiator, Coriolanus). This do-over makes one wonder why the franchise ever went the gritty, angry reboot way it did with Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.  

Daniel Craig…yes! Bond says, “Bond, James Bond,” gets some girls, and looks suave doing it. They certainly have him shirtless enough, but the beard, excellent quips, and tuxedos allow for the anticipated 007 screen presence – Bond rocks it even in a sweat suit for goodness sake!  This charisma has been so desperately missing from the first two Craig editions, but in Skyfall, Bond has chemistry with everyone he meets. From the first nameless babe (yes, the character really is credited as “Bond’s Lover” only!) to the last diatribes with Silva and everyone in between, each conversation has charm and innuendo. This glib glee, sweet action, and subtle sexy is the reason why Craig was hired as Bond.  Its Layer Cake meets 007 at last, and now my only poo poo is that it took three films to get this delightful combination of slick but badass Connery and tongue in cheek but sexy Moore. Craig won’t be any younger for his next two contracted Bond films, and if Skyfall hadn’t been so glorious, I would have most likely been done with Craig as Bond.  Why were his first two outings increasingly dark, bleak, and dismal when we could have had this on form sophisticated allure all along? Bond gets his Walther PPK – updated with handprint recognition – a micro radio, and a car in Skyfall. That’s all we ever needed to see about how Bond became Bond. Though not as bad as the drawn out Star Wars prequels, in retrospect, I feel like too much of Craig’s tenure has now been wasted in the dated politics and origin tales trends of the turn of this century.

Well, well Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) is deliciously Lector-esque in Skyfall. His flamboyant Silva can feel homoerotic, sure, but any time things are sexual between a villain and his captive, it’s about power. He wants to ruffle Bond, get under his skin, find out what makes this new spy model superior to him, and use 007’s pros and cons to his own advantage against M.  Silva is crazy and has issues with M, but he’s not to be underestimated thanks to access to all sorts of technology and control – the tools he didn’t have when betrayed in the line of duty. Our first meeting with Silva is at his super villain island fortress in keeping with Bondian clichés, but it’s great to see the antagonist expertly placed into his real lair – MI-6. Though some plans and plot elements do happen too easily for Silva – where does he get this ready and waiting UK army? – it is simply radical to have a villain so deeply entrenched and face-to-face in Bond’s own home. Pieces of the damaged, megalomaniac nasties of old remain, but Silva’s scheme doesn’t feel based on a whim or something ridiculous. He has a deformity like all Bond villains of course, but it’s also special to see not just something physical, but a deep seeded mental warp. Gadgets are also a huge part of Silva’s plan, granted, but his coolness is more about using MI-6’s own framework against itself. Bardem’s international flavor brings a fine mix of personal and global, too, and Silva is a wonderfully intimate cut from the same cloth parallel for Bond.

Skyfall also provides a delightful swansong for Dame Judi Dench (Mrs. Brown) as M in the finest use of the character yet. There is a certain respect and mothering element from M for both Bond and Silva, yet Dench firmly keeps M a strong, chippy woman at work. She’s going to see her job thru to the end despite the fineto, too old, time to retire screw up scandal happening around her. It’s ironic that Dench as M was introduced by calling Pierce Brosnan’s Bond a dinosaur, for now the tables have turned. Is M washed up? Does Silva’s revenge merit her being put out to pasture? Though it was a bit confusing to carry over this M for the reboot – we never receive any clarifications on her name or timeline – it’s a pity to see Dench go. Her ups and downs with Craig as Bond have been the sweet bright spots amid the darkness, flaws, and un-Bondness of his debut duology.  Naturally, Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient) is likewise begrudgingly brought in to Skyfall to start. We hate him as the stuffy representative of bureaucracy, politics, and committee – Mallory even embodies red tape and punishment by his assigning Eve to a desk job. However, this former SAS lieutenant colonel should not underestimated either– as Dench’s M is being marred in Skyfall, so must Mallory get down and dirty. He assists Bond where needed in action and technicalities and proves his likeability. Yes, it’s obvious what future role Mallory will play in the franchise, but it’s great to have someone high up and crusty back as Bond’s boss. It’s a real treat to see that leather door, too! It always bothered me that the Casino Royale re-start was not a period reboot, yet I dare say Skyfall sets up the opportunity for an abstract time follow up. Minimize computer uses, continue simplistic gadgetry, and go with Mallory’s seemingly Bernard Lee sixties Mad Men style. It’s ironic – after going off the deep end to make Bond edgy and dark for a new disenchanted 21st century world, who knew it would eventually be popular again to begin the beguine with retro?

More Obvious Spoilers! Naomie Harris’ (Pirates of the Caribbean) Eve is sassy, modern, sexy, cute and most importantly, believable as both a rocky field agent and the eventual high-level assistant under Mallory. It was easy to predict she would be Miss Moneypenny and not just another sexy bad Die Another Day Jinx clone. Why go there again when Skyfall needed this kind of freshness? Eve gets pretty damn intimate with Bond, too, and it’s an excellent touch to restart Bond and Moneypenny with these sensuous close calls and a checkered history. I personally think they slept together as well. Maybe the steamy isn’t shown, but the camera cuts to fireworks – if that isn’t classic 007 innuendo then I don’t know what is. Although I was quite pleased with the casting and outcome of Moneypenny, I was initially hesitant to see Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas) as a young, nerdy Q. Fortunately, the portrayal is not cliché at all but works wonderfully thanks to Q’s cranky, reverse generational banter of old with Bond. Several great dialogue references also nod to the beloved past Q – exploding pen quips and all that. Likewise, Rory Kinnear (Broken) as Chief of Staff Bill Tanner provides solid MI-6 support, and Ola Rapace (Wallander) matches as Bond’s slick and scary henchman foil Patrice.  Stunning French actress Berenice Marlohe is also not just sexy and lovely as an obligatory Bond Girl should be, but   her mistress Severine is useful and contributes to critical plot points. Granted, Severine does fit the anticipated Bond pattern and Albert Finney (Erin Brockovich) may seem tacked on and out of place for the finale as an old school gamekeeper. However, his fatherly, crusty jabs with Bond are also an unexpected treat.  

Skyfall also showcases new locales and designs along with pleasant homages to previous Bond films. There’s a rogue agent ala Goldeneye, and the Shangai light shows and reflections recall the mirror sequence in The Man with the Golden Gun. The Bond family motifs, his unmarried status, and the cemetery symbolism also carry a whiff of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and the beginning of For Your Eyes Only. The multiple foot chases, car races, and train pursuits in the Istanbul prologue not only have the audience catching its breath, but the man down uncertainties recall the opening fake out in You Only Live Twice. It’s a wonderful acknowledgement of the man and the franchise when Bond claims that his hobby is “resurrection,” and these subtle nods to the past work perfectly as a smooth 50th anniversary statement – unlike Die Another Day’s rehashed, obvious sampling and knock offs for the 40th celebrations. Modern London locales make for great crowded subway scenes and intense tunnel action. Computer intricacies keep the technology contemporary and relevant, yet the gadgets aren’t so steeped in the fantastic or product placements as to detract from the picture. No, I don’t even care about the Heineken appearances so long as it remains believable and serves the plot points as needed. The Aston Martin, however – oh my god, my heart skipped a beat!  

I’m surprised some viewers feel these past winks and re-introductions are forced. Did you not expect a 50th anniversary film to pay homage? Where you not interested in seeing original franchise characters appear? The main titles are morbid but very cool and foreshadow the plot with smoke, water, and death. Those who find Skyfall’s standoff finale out of place or tacked on should note the graveyard and knife motifs right there in the returning Daniel Kleinman’s title design. I can forgive that we see a martini shaken and not stirred rather than Bond expressly saying it, and I’ll even let go of my wish for a Bond in uniform with a revived hat toss thanks to the smart appearance of his rank onscreen and a coat rack in M’s new tricked out office. Adele’s excellent, Oscar winning music also returns Skyfall to classic Bond themes whilst remaining edgy and modern along side the 007 scoring and cues. We have the music! We know when Bond is doing something cool! I think Skyfall could have won more awards, although I’m surprised it won the Sound Editing Academy Award, as this is another one of those action film offenders where the bombastic is so effing loud and the voices so damnably low. Fortunately, Skyfall feels more sexy, violent, juicy, and dangerous than the PG-13 rating actually allows thanks to revealing babes, smoking, and nail biting deaths. The audience isn’t underestimated – people curse, blood is shed, critical folks are wounded, making this picture a refreshing in between buck against the youthful and watered down trends.

Outside of the rental blu-ray having no features, what’s not to like here? Perhaps Skyfall doesn’t have a lot of repeat value, but this retro return to form is where Bond should be, not chasing bleak, dark diasporas. Skyfall isn’t a complete turn around back to what makes Bond Bond, but it’s a charming, spirited step in the right direction for the franchise. Rein in all that brooding and take all the good of Skyfall to the next level for the 24th outing. Those who liked the edgy realism of Craig’s last two might find this an unusual, lighthearted backtrack thanks to the straightforward revenge and siege plot. However, Skyfall’s reset is a better continuation point with more room to maneuver – unlike the gloomy corner into which Quantum of Solace backed itself. Heck, the Quantum organization can now return in as serious or camp a villainy as need be. With Q and Moneypenny now in place, next I’d actually like to see a revisit of the Tracy Bond storyline. Independently, Skyfall might end up as a middle of the pack Bond picture, yet it’s spit and polish on the current tenure opens the door for some simply awesome possibilities. Bond returns from the grave, trains, drinks, and faces his roots for this reboot of the reboot. I held my breath, laughed, almost wept, and happy sighed. Skyfall is how the 21st century Bond should be.

16 August 2013

More Blu-Ray Evidence!!

More Blu-Ray Evidence! 
By Kristin Battestella

Be it period and medieval drama, science fiction and intergalactic battles, or epic fantasy, the blu-ray format has once again renewed the panache of these titles both young and old.

Beckett – One has to be in the mood for this lengthy two and a half hours of 1964 epic medieval history and bromance starring Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia), Richard Burton (Anne of A Thousand Days), and the brief but charming John Gielgud (Arthur) thanks to lots of soliloquies and a decidedly Shakespearean vibe. From clashing Normans and Saxons and swashbuckling humor to saucy affairs and swordfights, the mix of stage presence and grandiose film scope works. While audiences today may focus on the homosexual subtext, there are excellent one on one debates on women, religion, and even food from the three Oscar nominees here. King Peter is wonderfully snotty and tormented while Burton is surprisingly subtle as the chancellor who knows how to rein in his prince – until he gets a case of religion, that is. The colorful photography, great costumes, beautiful horses, sweeping architectures, and scenic landscapes all look made to look old delightful on the restored blu-ray, and Latin chorales, wonderful orchestrations, and big crescendos rise or disappear as needed. Though a Best Adapted Screenplay winner, contemporary viewers may find some of the inaccurate plotting and old speaketh a little dry. Subtitles are essential, but the scrollwork blu-ray interface is cool.  After being out of the home video market for so long, period piece lovers, fans of the cast, and history buffs should indulge here – with O’Toole’s reprisal as Henry II in The Lion in Winter for good measure.

Elizabeth – Granted, this 1998 biography from writer Michael Hirst (The Tudors) is not super accurate historically, but dang if this isn’t as fine a period film as they come. The orchestral music is perfectly fitting, and the stunning costumes, medieval sets, and colorful photography all look brand spanking new on blu-ray.  Yes, liberties were taken; some of the stylized scenes are pretty for the sake of it and don’t always advance the plot. It’s often tough to tell who is who and Joseph Fiennes (Camelot) is insipid as always. However, Cate Blanchett (Lord of the Rings) was 110% robbed of the Best Actress Oscar – we knew it then. The sharp editing, solid pace, assassination dangers, and regal plotting still make this a better picture than that other Elizabethan movie that unjustly ruled the Academy that year coughshakespeareinlovecough. It’s also delightful to see the excellent supporting cast, from stalwarts like Richard Attenborough (The Sand Pebbles) and Geoffrey Rush (Pirates of the Caribbean) to charmers like Vincent Cassel (Eastern Promises) and James Frain (True Blood) and then-unknowns like current Bond Daniel Craig and ex-Doctor Christopher Eccleston. For scholars, Tudor lovers, fans of the cast, period connoisseurs, indie film audiences, and Oscar should-have-won trivia fans, there’s no reason not to like this one.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age – We wrote on this 2007 sequel at length previously, but after seeing this again on the dual blu-ray set with its predecessor, it’s time for a digital glory update. Once again, Cate Blanchett rules the hour, simply put. Yes, this follow up is slightly weaker thanks to some cartoonish King Philip (Jordi Molla, Colombiana) scenes and an uncharismatic Clive Owen (Closer) as Sir Walter Raleigh in love. Though there are panoramic, sweeping paces and this sequel also plays with historical facts, it isn’t as artsy as Elizabeth was and feels more toned down and mainstream in its construction. Quibbles aside, the naval battle with the Spanish armada is worth the wait. Rightfully so, one doesn’t want the whole film to be about the battle. However, the depiction is just the right amount of epic – and the gore, fire, and stylized strengths are simply smashing on blu- ray. And the Oscar winning costumes? Wow. Fans of the first film, period audiences, and Elizabethian students will simply have to see this pair together for complete scope and Regina reflection, and it would be awesome if we yet saw a third film to finish this set.

The Last Starfighter – Nothing can be done about the old gaming graphics and arcade plots in this 1984 SF adventure, but the space battles, reptilian aliens, and galactic clichés are colorful and bigger than ever on this 25th Anniversary blu–ray edition. 80s retro chic trailer park fashion is always fun to see, too, and the heroic, sincere tale is actually quite entertaining and memorable. Yes, it’s preposterous that a video game would unite a poor town – and that’s before the over the top megalomaniac aliens and need to save the galaxy enter the scene! Fortunately, the primitive computer animations, imaginative space equipment, and dated futuristic technology have the flavor needed, although well-schooled old school fans might see a lot of references or rip-offs from other science fiction films. Director Nick Castle (The Boy Who Could Fly), however, makes sure the 80s names and recognizable faces such as Lance Guest (Halloween II), Catherine Mary Stewart (Night of the Comet), and Robert Preston (The Music Man) are able to laugh at the absurdity of it all – from doppelgangers and playboy snooping little brothers to fake intergalactic speaketh and DeLoreans.  The epic, lively music by Craig Safan (Cheers) ties all the rousing fun together, too. Though the blu-ray interface is a tad annoying, the making of feature, commentary, and other behind the scenes treats complete this renewed, nostalgic trip – it’s perfect for the whole family.

And a Split Decision Wait and See…

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – I confess, I’m not sure how I feel about this 2012 first installment in Peter Jackson’s prequel trilogy to Lord of the Rings. This is a great story, yes. This is a fine cast, true. However, it doesn’t feel as if all the players or the heart of the tale get their due time because the audience is too busy trying to keep up with the 48 frames per second fast rate and the in your face 3D battle scenes – which honestly don’t look good on blu-ray.  While it’s lovely to return to Middle Earth and see this dwarf attention, there’s simply too much other prequel stuff and extra Tolkien ephemera such as the necromancer and white council clouding the story. It’s nice to see these nods and winks bridging the gap to the Lord of the Rings films, but it’s tough to do both a children’s book adaptation and darker mature fantasy material justice with all this off kilter CGI thrown in to boot. I mean, is Frodo seriously there just to pick up Bilbo’s mail? It’s wonderful that the Gollum riddles scene remains rightfully uncut, but the intercut goblin town battle and completely cliché Azog creation look and feel like a real mess. The dwarves don’t really look like dwarves, either. Well, the ones who don’t have any speaking lines do, and the accents here are all over the place, too. Most of the time, it’s tough to remember Richard Armitage (MI-5) is not playing a man about Middle Earth. Do you think John Rhys Davies – who had allergic difficulties to the facial prosthetics as dwarf Gimil in Lord of the Rings – was upset that these dwarves just get big axes, floppy hats, and beards to accent their pretty faces? The script here also adds unnecessary difficulty to itself – flashbacks with more flashbacks within them are what make The Lord of the Rings such a frustrating modern read. When the viewer can tell what’s going on, the pattern here feels like a slower, sillier retread of The Fellowship of the Ring. Ultimately, this first installment can’t decide if it is a prequel to the Lord of the Rings films, a faithful adaptation of the titular children’s book from the thirties, or a new fantasy film trying to keep up with all the other blockbusters via high frame rates, in your face 3D, and too much CGI.  I personally also found The Fellowship of the Ring slow to start and muddled with too many characters and only came back to the Lord of the Rings trilogy after it was completed. I’d like to hold out hope that the story and heartfelt adventure will dominate the next two Hobbit films. However, it seriously looks like a faithful, youthful Hobbit adaptation could have been done in one film.

14 August 2013

Seventies Horror...Again!

Seventies Horror…Again!
By Kristin Battestella

We’re dwelling in the bowels of seventies horror again – because there are that many creepy, brooding, psychological scares, monsters, and period panache to be had in this quivering quartet alone. 

The Asyphx – The red colors, tinted camerawork, and film effects hold up well for this lavish looking British paranormal tale from 1973. Sunny landscapes, bright interiors, period costumes, early gadgets, deathly photography, and Victorian flair set the macabre mood, but the volume is soft and there doesn’t seem to be as much creepy scoring as there could be. The cast is also a little uber British and much too dry, and the interesting premise feels flat as a result – like an overlong anthology episode. The investigation is slow for the first half, and the tone becomes more like watching a science experiment rather than something scary or ominous. Granted, a lot of the plot holes and inferior acting make much of this simply laughable. This isn’t as good as one might expect, and the steampunk Ghostbusters jokes are apparent. Thankfully, the spiritualism, deadly Greek harbingers, and primitive paranormal deduction intensify for the latter 45 minutes and spearhead toward mad scientist desperation, tombs, and immortality. I’d like to have seen this yarn with the horror spectacle and Hammer star power it deserves, but it’s played serious with enough twisted entertainment and a fittingly ghoulish ending.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death   This hour and a half from 1971 doesn’t feel PG-13 thanks to askew camera angles, bent up-close shots, bizarre suggestion, tension, and innuendo. The simple tunes and steady beats make for a quiet, eerie orchestration – toss in a Hearst, fall leaves, grave rubbings, female apparitions, empty rocking chairs on abandoned porches, hippie vagrants, and séances and the mood is set! The narration, however, is a little dry. The immediate unreliability and suspect nature is fine – she was “away” veiled mental institution talk and all that – but the inner monologue feels redundant thanks to the sleepy inlet setting and already established atmosphere. Early 70s stylings and more historical decor and accessories accentuate the fear and isolation far better, even if the brief yuppie sing-along is dated. Zohra Lampert (Splendor in the Grass) is a little annoying and flaky as our titular would be victim to start, but her fears become a worthwhile anchor as the proverbial plot thickens and the jump scares increase thanks to freaky townsfolk, evil history, and morbid antiques. No one wants to say things like crazy, supernatural, ghosts, or vampire, which makes for some confusion or deduction that today’s spoon fed audiences might not be used to doing. Granted, the title is also misleading; the scares here may seem like all the obvious, cliché staples, too. Thankfully, the lack of nudity, little blood, and disturbing water scares make for a very effective, well-paced, thinking person’s serious horror picture.

Moon of the Wolf – Bayou townsfolk David Janssen (The Fugitive), Barbara Rush (Peyton Place), Bradford Dillman, and Geoffrey Lewis (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot) have a case of lycanthropic crimes on their hands in this 1972 TV movie based upon the book by Les Whitten. Though the picture is dang dark and tough to see and the dialogue often soft, the Louisiana swamp scenery and period isolation and fears add to the mystery – only one person in town has a phone!  There’s no gore, poor wolfy designs, and the old country dialogue may annoy some. However, the good old-fashioned Southern Gothic murder mystery mood balances the slower rocking chair on the front porch pace, and the south meets paranormal investigation, scandals, and quirky players remain realistic even when the hairy hits. Despite a few nice zooms and killer perspective camerawork, this 75 minutes is played for the quality monster suspense and French twists before scares. While I generally prefer Pub D Hub where available, the Instant Watch streaming quality here was far better, with a brighter picture, subtitles, and no buffering.

Piranha – Speaking of Bradford Dillman, he returns for more backwoods infestation scares along with Barbara Steele (Black Sunday) and Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) in this 1978 Roger Corman (House of Usher) produced and Joe Dante (Gremlins) directed aquatic horror parody. This one is packed with cheeky nudity, awkward seventies kids in peril, government experiments, military clichés, Vietnam fallout, pollution, idiot law enforcement, bad video game graphics, dated teen power lingo, car crazies, boat action, and lots of inner tubes springing a leak, whew! Fortunately, subtle horror references and a sardonic, self-referential banter make the campy and dated creature effects forgivable. Halloween haunters can also delight in this hour and half of icky tanks, jars full of creepy crawlies, ominous waterworks, and resorts gone horror. The predatory piranha plot is of course preposterous, but the desperation and watery foundation can still scare anyone with fears of what lies beneath. The tainted isolation and run amok atmosphere ups the blood and gore; the scoring keeps things period innocent, dangerous, or ironic as need be. Nice kill scenes with up close drownings and bloody bubbles provide a whiff of sinister as a parade of people fall victim – not just outrageous teens with a lot of sex, drugs, and rock n roll like today. Sure, it’s hokey and one must be able to laugh here, yet there’s some well-edited suspense pacing and can’t look away action at the same time. This humor before horror may be a little uneven in deciding what’s played for serious or spoof, but the blend of wit and scares certainly provides a scary good time.

10 August 2013

Our Marilyn Monroe Reviews!

Our Marilyn Monroe Analysis
By Kristin Battestella

Amid some of the more masculine oriented reviews like Sharpe and Bond, some of you may have noticed that we’ve critiqued quite a few Marilyn Monroe films amid all our classics studies at I Think, Therefore I Review. To keep it easy and posh, here’s our complete list of Monroe reviews all in one place!

06 August 2013

There's No Business Like Show Business

There’s No Business Like Show Business a Fun, Fifties Musical
By Kristin Battestella

It’s all fluff, loosely strung together songs, and missed character opportunities, and yet the 1954 musical There’s No Business Like Show Business has a lot of entertaining predictability and catchy tunes.

From Vaudeville to Broadway, the Donahue family – mom Molly (Ethel Merman),  dad Terry (Dan Daily), sons Steve (Johnnie Ray) and Tim (Donald O’Connor) and daughter Katy (Mitzi Gaynor) – struggle with raising the kids, buying a house, performing during The Depression, and having a normal life thru all the ups and downs on the show business road. As times change, Steve gets religion, Tim meets fellow singer Vicky (Marilyn Monroe), and more growing pains threaten to tear the family apart. Can the Donahues go on with the show?

Director Walter Lang (The King and I) and writers Phoebe and Henry Ephron (Take Her She’s Mine) and Lamar Trotti (The Ox-Bow Incident) provide a great 2 hour excuse to hear some Irving Berlin tunes, and that catchy titular tune has seeped into the biz lexicon. The opening family catch up and sporadic reflective narration is a bit slow to start, and yet There’s No Business Like Show Business is awfully rushed and overly condensed. The entire picture could have been about the performing struggles during the Depression alone. The straight drama is short and uneven compared to the dance numbers; ironically, the real behind the scenes difficulties of this movie seems to have more scandal and turmoil than the safe, easy onscreen turns. Some of the brassy dialogue and fast talking over each other script rhythms will also take getting used to for today’s audiences. More time should have been spent on character development, granted, and contemporary viewers probably want There’s No Business Like Show Business to be more complex than it actually is. However, taking this picture seriously or wishing what it could have been is somewhat missing the point of There’s No Business Like Show Business. Great comedy, wit, and honesty keep the fast moving fun memorable. Even if it’s all mid century straightforward and innocent, there’s plenty to enjoy here.  

Most of that delight in There’s No Business Like Show Business is thanks to the musical pomp, songs, and dances. The film feels like a two for one special movie and a Broadway show with nearly one song after another – from ethic spins on early ragtime numbers like the lengthy “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and period swing and jazz crooners to spiritual sounds and full on displays like the title tune. It’s also nice to see some of the early, simpler stage shows, merely two folks singing and tapping their toes instead of today’s huge, loud, sometimes nonsensical spectacles. These productions were state of the art then, and the depth of stage is also fully utilized. People move up and down or front to back on the stages, creating vision and movements without the need for in your face camera tricks, editing, and zooms. The camera is pointed at the boards while the stars do their thang, and it’s refreshing to see it all. Some of the dialogue between the singing sounds uneven or at a lower volume, but the story is filled in thru the tunes anyway. We are seeing a showbiz family ply their trade – that’s the story, and it’s the perfect definition of a musical. Our players are stage performers, and there’s a reason for the majority of the songs. Folks aren’t just breaking out into song for the heck of it as we see so often in musical movies.

Of course, the characters do suffer from the musical focus in There’s No Business Like Show Business. Ethel Merman (Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Call Me Madam, Anything Goes) is an iconic woman who could hold a Broadway note like few today. Perhaps some contemporary pop listeners may not like her vocal style, but it fits perfectly with the setting here and in all honestly, Molly was her part to have. Merman, however, probably was too old for the role, but all of the family stars seem older than their characters’ ages. It’s a nice change of pace from everything made so young  and youth reigns this century, but Molly’s treatment of the kids like kids even when they are adults is very fifties date and even simpleton instead of funny. That safe sentimentality also doesn’t allow room for anybody to get deep. How does Molly really feel about being upstaged? We don’t know because any such hang-ups are either dealt with humorously or forgiven by the next number – and “A Sailor’s Not a Sailor” is just too cutesy to be believed. Though Dan Dailey (When My Baby Smiles at Me) fits the bill as the mid century dad, man of the house, breadwinning husband Terry, he’s still played as second fiddle to his wife in charge. There are lots of jabs between the couple, but its all friendly, fresh, and made light. He seems to have a wandering eye, and for sure this couple had to have some rough patches thru the years – but any whiff of that is played for the humor rather than something scandalous. Poor Terry’s most serious development happens in a minute long walking/memory lane montage! 

Donald O’Connor (Singin’ in the Rain) is also a great performer and his comedic timing is perfect, yet his Tim somehow feels like a downgrade for Marilyn Monroe as Vicky. How did this guy get that girl? Tim shows his stuff in the lone breakout in song fantasy of “A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him),” but the lovelorn drunkard throwing his talent away angle is too clichéd, typical, and not heavy at all. Brooding, saucy twists were happening in other fifties films, but There’s No Business Like Show Business uses Tim’s twist without actually spending enough time on it for there to be any significance. Naturally then, coat check girl with dreams Monroe (Some Like It Hot) makes a sexy marshmallow sounding joke right out of the gate. It’s also strange that there are even scenes with her alone sans The Donahues. Isn’t There’s No Business Like Show Business about them? Monroe looks dynamite, wearing plenty of sheers and barely there Travilla costumes for “After You Get What You Want You Don’t Want It” and “Heatwave.” Her husky, sultry delivery is fine, too. However, Monroe seems limited compared to the rest of the cast. It’s as if someone made her do more dancing than she was capable whilst also making her do the same old sexy thing with little room for depth. As a result, “Heatwave” is hot looking but also kind of a dumb routine. Despite the character flaws of There’s No Business Like Show Business, Monroe still has several catchy, unable to take your eyes off her, memorable moments.

Fun, Vegas style costumes with a lot of leg and wonderful dancing also can’t save Mitzi Gaynor (South Pacific) from being a bit upstaged by Monroe, especially in the awkward “Lazy” rehearsal. There’s No Business Like Show Business gives little attention to Katy beyond singing, dancing, and finding a man and again, the lone daughter becomes one of the many unrealized focal points in this piece. Likewise, singer Johnnie Ray’s Steve is supposed to be a big, talented showstopper, but not really so much. I don’t know how he could have been as popular as Elvis back in the day, and he seems more like a Sinatra imitator here. Although Steve’s show biz dissatisfaction and forthcoming change is obvious, there’s no real character reflection, soul searching, or hints to his becoming a priest. He exits stage right and comes back a few hours later intent on going off to seminary! Today we like to read between the lines or expect something in this suggestion about the different son who doesn’t want to be part of the family business and leaves for the priesthood – his dad rejects the idea outright while his mother begs, “Why this?” – but There’s No Business Like Show Business was not making any statements or complex allegory in the hurried characterizations here.  
Fortunately, the feathers and hats alone are a sight to behold! The costumes, designs, fashions, décor, and dressings – be it the nineteen teens or the then contemporary stylings- are wonderful. Not to mention There’s No Business Like Show Business has all that Deluxe color! Of course, you have to wonder how they could do those quick costume changes without the magic of film editing, and some sets are meant to look cardboard cut out or stage poor. However, that’s part of the show within a show pastiche; it’s neat to see the big numbers and the behind the scenes before, during, and after drama of it all. There’s No Business Like Show Business has plenty of looks and flair to enjoy, along with mid century amusements. $6.20 for a cab!  

Yes, it can be nerve wracking that There’s No Business Like Show Business is not the big, epic How the West Was Won of musicals that it could have been. Resolutions happen too easy, everything breezes along regardless of the potential tossed in its wake, and everybody comes full circle by the end. Though not made with the dramatic character focus in mind, one may wonder what the point of There’s No Business Like Show Business is if some of the characters don’t change or could have been dropped all together and gone unnoticed just the same. Actually, the idea of placing the songs, musical productions, and flair over the people is pretty akin to today’s bombastic all flash and no substance popcorn flicks, so I’m surprised to see some of the negatively this film receives. There’s No Business Like Show Business is full of great tunes, stage atmosphere, and is dang good fun at what it does right. Classic film audiences, song and dance lovers, and fans of the cast can still have a fluffy good time here.