31 March 2015

Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive is a Must See Vampire Spin
By Kristin Battestella

Though hampered in finding audiences by a limited box office season, writer, director, and independent film stalwart Jim Jarmusch's (Broken Flowers, Night on Earth, Mystery Train) 2013 vampire tale Only Lovers Left Alive remains a witty, impressive, thought provoking commentary long after the viewing ends.

Vampire and depressed musician Adam (Tom Hiddleston) has had it with humanity and our so-called zombie apathy and finds it increasingly difficult to make music in the once glorious but now downtrodden Detroit. His perpetual lady love Eve (Tilda Swinton), however, adores Tangier and enjoys her blood procuring visits with the long thought dead Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) – the true author of Shakespeare's works. Eve makes the long trip to see Adam, but their rekindled romance is threatened when Eve's disruptive sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives from “zombie central” Los Angeles. The young and reckless Ava takes a liking to Adam's lone human friend Ian (Anton Yelchin) and soon endangers their O Negative supply line from local Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright). Will the lovers survive?

Not Your Mama's Vamps

Last fall, I wrote a mini capsule review of Only Lovers Left Alive for one of my annual vampire film lists. At the time, my primary concern was that this was a refreshingly unconventional film and that it would not be for everyone expecting more mainstream designs. Next, I feared the picture wasn't as good as I thought it was when I first saw it – would such offbeat hold up upon repeat viewings? However, I've found myself near addicted to Only Lovers Left Alive in the months since. Instead of predicating my praise with a 'not for everyone' label, my vantage has grown to the notion that everyone should give this picture a chance. Forget Twilight. I am so sick of any vampire film, book, and television material being compared to it when, despite its millions,Twilight is only one very small, divisive, largely inaccurate reflection of the genre and its longtime audiences. Only Lovers Left Alive, by contrast, is the 21st century bar by which vampire pictures should be measured. This is everything I have ever wanted in a vampire movie yet it is unlike any other vampy film before it. The intercut beginning – who is who, what’s happening, why they live apart – will confuse some audiences accustomed to straightforward, spoon-fed explanations. Fortunately, these parallels reflect the similar but different existence of our detached but no less connected lovers and infers their own Einstein discussions. Ironically, the leads don't talk to each other until half hour into the picture when their vampiric nature is revealed with a ritualistic, sex scene-esque, ecstatic, blood drinking high. Some accept or revel in this shoot up tea time necessity while others begrudge and seem ashamed of it. The euphoria is over so fast – they can schedule it or travel a few nights without blood, but this required fix takes on dangerous withdrawals when one is on the run and down to a precious last drop.

Though perhaps obvious, the addiction subtext in Only Lovers Left Alive is one of many genre layers amid the witty, sardonic script and quotable ensemble banter. Certainly there are spooky, atmospheric, noir moments, yet the subtle, chuckle inducing black comedy accents toy with the social statements, bleak palette, and melancholy analysis in the truest sense of the phrase. Yes, what date of birth do you give when scheduling that night flight? Numerous names, languages, references, history, and literary allusions will take more than one viewing to register, and you can learn something new every time you watch Only Lovers Left Alive. Granted, that may not be the intention of the contemporary, multitasking, desensitized viewer, but this impressive depth and mental stimulation deserves your undivided attention. These vampires were probably there to give plants and animals their Latin names and scoff at how the antiquated grid technology hasn't caught up to the new millennium. What else did they have to do for so many centuries but read up on Tesla or quantum theory? They influence art, advance science, and accumulate knowledge while humanity ignores our spark and degrades into the mundane – understandably, it must suck to pin all that worth on the mad dash to find uncontaminated blood! Despite their seeming superiority, our couple will always be in hiding, on the lamb, under the radar, and avoiding the police. Sooner or later their predatory nature must surface and they will find a way to survive.

The Lovers

At first, the always ethereal Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton) seems more like a Tolkien elf than a vampire thanks to her striking white hair, light clothing, and Old World happiness as she takes a solo evening stroll through Tangier. Clearly strong, Eve seems effortless, curious, intuitive, and almost childlike ala the hissing swan inspiration from The Bride of Frankenstein yet also aged and advanced in her sense of wonder. How many of the great literary scandals has she witnessed first hand! She touches books delicately, imprinting their tales with a tactile osmosis and vampiric speed reading before wearing gloves to protect this intimate touch during her journey. Eve is a progressive vampire with plenty of credit cards, passports, and a smartphone, yet waits in her lover's foyer as if the removal of said gloves is an old fashioned, sensuous calling card. Traveling is such a drag, but they talk long distance on schedule and Eve's handled Adam's periodic brooding previously. She comes to him without outrightly being asked, dances to the music he makes, and remains in tune yin to yang despite their separation. This couple would seem mismatched – her bright contentment to his bleak depressing – yet these primal, protective mates for life are wonderfully kinetic be it a continent or inches between them. Dark garments and red accents do intrude on Eve's white as Only Lovers Left Alive gets heavy, however. She wears his robe, feels at ease within his dreary sheets, but as the desperation mounts the sophisticated layers peel away, reverting to an older, fierce instinct. Eve says she is a survivor, and we believe it when she drinks the O Negative first, keeps the flask in her pocket, puts the blood on a stick in the fridge, or wins at chess. She says, “Give me all your money baby,” and Adam gives it!

I confess, I’m behind on the Tom Hiddleston hysteria but became a fan because of Only Lovers Left Alive. Initially, I could see the originally cast as Adam Michael Fassbender in the early lone rocker scenes, but if Fassbender did The Counselor instead of Only Lovers Left Alive, he made a rare mistake. Now, I don’t think anyone but Hiddleston could have played Adam, and it's a pity so many may only know him as Loki in Thor and The Avengers. From naming his male guitar after “just some old 17th century English guy” and seeing long dead star Eddie Cochran “yeah, on Youtube” to his modified electric car, antique stethoscope, a perpetually out of order bathroom, and the need for an elusive wooden bullet – there's more to Adam than meets the eye. His clutter and technological work indicate they have been apart for some time, and Adam seems to be an ongoing, moody, musical study in contradictions with an old boob tube and giant cordless antenna phone hooked up to his laptop and sophisticated music equipment. His music is brooding art with a beat, a melancholy but still ticking reflection laced with Byronic references. He dresses up as “Dr. Faust” to obtain his blood supply and balances his pouty with a surprisingly sardonic wit and chuckle-inducing deadpan irony. Adam claims mutual jeopardy makes him feel safer, that he doesn't have spare time to waste, and above all insists he doesn't have heroes – despite an entire wall adorned with such luminaries (I see that Hank Williams on the right coughISawtheLightcough). Sadly, he is right about our zombie monotony and people fearing our genius bringing us to ruin. These vampires have nothing to do with their lives but read, invent, and watch us piss away the gifts we are given. I’d be depressed, too! Adam was emo before emo was emo. If Eve thinks he is wasting his long life on self obsession, by comparison imagine how much time we are wasting in our compressed lifespan.

Friends and Foes

Adding to Only Lovers Left Alive's nostalgic charm is John Hurt (Alien) as Christopher Marlowe – yes, that Christopher Marlowe. His Shakespeare possibilities create just enough past interest while his unknown aspects provide words of warning to Adam and Eve. Some audiences, however, may be upset by his unexplained health issues or find the Marlowe as Shakespeare suggestion unnecessary. Was Kit already too old when he became a vampire, presumably after he faked his historical death pre-Shakespeare? Has he already lived so long that his immortality is now a slowly degenerative condition? Who or what is Silmane Dazi's (This Path Ahead) Bilal to Marlowe? He knows both Eve and Adam and their secrets, but by all indications Adam has not been in Tangier for some time and Bilal doesn't appear to be a vampire himself. Is he merely a literary protege to Marlowe or something more, and how often do these kinds of short lived companions come and go? Of course, we'll never know Kit's whole story, and that's the point. Thankfully, his symbolic bad batch for the drug dealer twists create more angst in Only Lovers Left Alive, as does the perfectly juvenile and obnoxious Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre) as Ava. Just when the picture may seem too slow, Eve's so-called sister enters half way through the two hour time – clearly uninvited as a reckless vampire who lives in the moment regardless of any delicate needs or peril. Adam says he never sees other vampires, yet they each dream of Ava before she arrives and resent her bratty jokes and childish vamp cliches. They can't forget whatever it was she did in Paris 87 years ago, (Oh if this were Highlander: The Series and we could have seen that!) and Ava comes between these would be parents, overstaying her welcome and causing precious blood to be spilled – literally and figuratively.

Though Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) as Ian isn't a bad kid for being in the music industry and seems grateful to genuinely help Adam, Ava uses Ian and makes an already fragile situation regarding Adam's music more suspicious. Why are teens showing up at Adam's house? He has released music anonymously, but how have Adam's tunes made it to the underground club scene and come back to him? Did Ian sell the material, defying his confidentiality agreement, or was it Ava somehow causing the musical stir? Ian wants to know more about Adam, tries to get him out of his reclusive ways, and unknowing emulates their vampire style – but he will never fully grasp the centuries in play and is easily lead and influenced by the next shiny lure. Again, perhaps the point is in not knowing how it all goes down, for Adam and Eve have previously given their achievements to others, left a place before they've stay too long, or fled from something worse. Despite her lack of discipline, Ava is right that a lone vampire has a much tougher existence. Are Adam and Eve really condescending snobs, vampires so far removed from what they are that they don't know how to get rid of a body? They think they are so above that 15th century barbarism and must obey that stop sign when a cop is driving by, but their gloves must come off eventually if they intend to live up to being the Only Lovers Left Alive. Fortunately, Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale) adds a fun sense of spooky as the blood procuring Dr. Watson. His hospital lab is bright and high tech compared to the Detroit drab, and his Strangelove or Caligari banter suggests he may suspect what's really going on in this lucrative arrangement. Honestly, I wish Only Lovers Left Alive were a series so we could see more of this reluctant, looking over his shoulder but no less sardonic doctor and his speculations, “Cat's gotta be from Cleveland.”

Sophisticated Designs

Compared to a more expected in your face horror or heavy action spectacle, not much happens in Only Lovers Left Alive. However, there are numerous visual treats and symmetrical designs layering all that isn't said. The moody nighttime sky, slowly descending camera angles, and spinning records create a hypnotic start, and the dizzying round and round parallels the intoxicating romance and blood highs. The photography and camera framing feels intimate and humorous, contrasting the decaying humanity and quiet players. Secretive, melancholy blue tones and soft, exotic yellow hues distinguish locales or feelings while suggestive hints of red pop onscreen and fade to black slides imply something bad happening. Bright, white hospitals or airplanes mean the sunglasses wearing vamps are out of their comfort zone and in our tempting world. Though the coloring may seem too saturated or overly processed and the brief CGI super speed actions are too noticeable, the scheme feels deliberately dream like or off kilter in the distorted motions – they move too fast for us but time goes so slow for them. Piles of décor create a cool, aged feeling and psychedelic atmosphere along with great character unto themselves Detroit and Tangier locations, sweet records, excellent tunes, turntables, and carefree dancing. Thanks to some inventive yak hair wigs, these vampires aren’t pretty per se, but they look unusually beautiful and as ancient and worn as their collections of books, instruments, and accumulating pack rat lifestyles. Guitar enthusiasts will delight in the mix of classic and modern technology, as will Tesla fans and alternative energy theorists. Vampire inventors, who knew?

The unique vampire mythos in Only Lovers Left Alive will also alternatively delight and aggravate fans of the genre, as again, most of their vampire technicalities go unclarified and leave room for debate. How could they get their photo taken if they have no reflection? Eve says they looked so young in an 1868 third wedding picture, so do they age or don't they? Are their experiences and long lived souls reflected in their eyes, noticeable only to them? Are Eve's predictions on our fighting over water and the rise of new regions actually prophetic or is it merely thousands of years of seeing it all before? Why does Adam keep books in the refrigerator – space issues or are those rare volumes in need of climate control? Just imagine if more people kept books in the refrigerator instead of junk food. Sustenance for the mind, right? The mushrooms, what the heck is it about the mushrooms? I hate mushrooms! The blu-ray edition of Only Lovers Left Alive adds more deleted scenes and comedic moments with sunlight and mirrors, and these extra minutes could have remained in the film. Only Lovers Left Alive already makes its own rules and pace, and a hour length behind the scenes feature goes into more detail on the film's long gestation and attention to its narrative. Renovation admirers can also see before and after photos of Adam's Detroit abode online, now sold and restored to its former glory. Somehow, that just seems fitting.

An Audience Awaits

Somewhere I read a one sentence review that said the worst part of Only Lovers Left Alive is that it ended. Though appropriately Sopranos style, that finale may also upset some audiences. I myself had to rewind it two or three times upon my first viewing – just like my favorite part, the dance scene. Vampires are people, too, and Eve has come to make Adam live again. Are there plot holes and pretentious writing in the unexplained aspects at work here? Perhaps, but there is nothing so glaring to deter viewers – and plenty more enticing and intelligently structured designs make it easy to roll with Only Lovers Left Alive. I want to discuss this tale further, for I know I am forgetting to mention even more little treats – the music alone, hello! Instead of a mind numbing movie, Only Lovers Left Alive feels like a book continually giving a new puzzle piece with every viewing. Yes, the silent montages, heady atmosphere, and seemingly aimless, desolate Detroit style won’t be for everyone. It is correct to say nothing really occurs in Only Lovers Left Alive, and that will mean a big no thank you for much of today's audiences. I didn't get to see Only Lovers Left Alive in theaters thanks to its extremely limited run and distant festival appearances, and it saddens me that something like the Marvel pictures make billions while films like this go unseen with a blink and you miss it million dollar box office. Can't everyone have a piece of the cinema pie?

When I finally picked up the blu-ray edition of Only Lovers Left Alive and convinced my husband to sit down and watch, we ended up discussing it for weeks. In fact, we're still talking about the unanswered questions and intriguing possibilities of Only Lovers Left Alive long after it has ended. I was excited to see Poe, Twain, Keats, and Dickinson on Adam’s wall, and I want to know who all his other heroes are, too. I originally started writing vampire stories because I had to write what I wanted to read. Outside of the biggies like Anne Rice or Bram Stoker, there was little serious vampire fiction around forty years ago. Had Only Lovers Left Alive been there in my youth, perhaps I wouldn't have had to make up my own vampire tales. Maybe that isn't saying very much, but as a long time fan of the fanged genre, it is perhaps the highest compliment I can give. Only Lovers Left Alive stays with you that deeply. Fans of the cast, vamp pictures, indie films, and well honed cinema should educate themselves with Only Lovers Left Alive ASAP.

26 March 2015

Contemporary Low Budget Horrors

Contemporary Low Budget Horror
by Kristin Battestella

Cheap thrills and by necessity cut corner fears don't have to be so bad, right? Here are two positive low budget horrors from the post Y2K era – and a few pay for what you get bad scares.

Absentia – This 2011 Kickstarter funded thriller from writer/director/editor Mike Flanagan (Oculus) starts with a missing husband, death declarations, and a pregnant wife seven years after said disappearance. Simple credits get right to the sadness – a cold start with an unknown cast providing natural performances despite the awkward situations and guilty paperwork. There are no stick built, plastic surgery laden, naked hot bodies so often found in today's scares here! No one wants to talk about past drug use or the unexplained pregnancy, but honest dialogue and sisterly conversations reveal a lot. Do we tell scary stories to explain what we cannot or do we think positive to delude and comfort? Quick flash montages speculate on the possibilities – amnesia, secret agents, alien abduction, drug trips, just running away from it all. How does one keep it together or move forward without knowing for sure? Creepy dreams, eerie tunnels, and bizarre homeless men negate the understated outdoor photography, realistic apartments, and simple setting while would be sunshine, religious recovery, mediation hopes, and police dynamics give way to the underlying sinister. The spooky seems innocuous initially, even misleading, however the intercutting between the lady leads builds as apparitions, objects moving back and forth, burglaries, and bugs intensify the real world traumas, anger, and off screen upsetting. The by necessity minimal visuals and unseen terrors are well done in tandem with genuine reactions, suggestive subtext, grief, sound effects, and lingering evidence. The simmer and supernatural twists do falter somewhat in the final half hour – the paranormal may feel unevenly tacked on after the mostly realistic tone but viewers expecting more full on horror will also be disappointed. Fortunately, the paired down personal amid the torment remains strong, and this quiet thriller does what it sets out to do with just the right amount of dread.

Housebound – This 2014 New Zealand import isn't as financially strapped as our other terrors, but this horror comedy does have plenty of old fashioned basement trappings, ominous neighbors, potential paranormal activity, unexplained voices, and one eerie abode with a bad history. Accents and place names might be tough for some and viewers have seen this type of isolated or laid up and monitored scary previously. Fortunately, the titular punishment leads to some new crazy versus supernatural spins along with lovely outdoor photography, old time radios, dated computers, dial up modems, tape recorders, Polaroids, and gasp corded phones. Shrewd exposition – calling into a paranormal radio show to tell an encounter – compliments the quick newspaper research, and a well designed lighting scheme with noir smoke, darkness, solitary lamps, and an aged, golden patina adds atmosphere. Is this merely clutter, leftover antiques, attic access, creaking doors, or something sinister? Clueless parents may seem annoying to start, but we come around to our bad girl with a 'tude emo lead as the activity escalates. Though there are a few jump scares, this is not akin to today's paranormal reality series or shock and awe shenanigans. The comedy is not gross out, laugh out loud either, but rather a generational quirky, kooky household objects, and battling bemusements – old toys are both creepy yet humorous. Disbelieving authorities, surprising movements, and other unexpected interference keep the eponymous limits from becoming stagnant as more pieces are added to the mystery. This puzzle is not in your face horror, but the majorly upticked final half hour puts everything perfectly on its ear and will have the audience holding its breath. And let me reiterate, there is no, repeat, no reason for a forthcoming stateside remake!

Two to Avoid

The Dead of Night – Slow, time wasting opening credits don't bode well for this overlong 84 minutes, nor do the too old looking 2004 teens, very poor acting, shit dialogue and too bright, low budget lighting. There's no attempt to create any kind of atmosphere – I hate today's digital, over saturated visual schemes, sure, but this home movie style and bad music has to go! Excessive herky-jerky camerawork, unnecessary zooms, up close strobe, and editing from Mom and Dad's studio in the basement aren't arty designs, just messy. The would be nice suspense of an asylum breakout looses steam when everything inexplicably restarts with fake high school bully drama. From crazies and zombie cemeteries to monsters and The Faculty takeovers, the random plots – yes plural, as in there are so many thrown at the screen – are certainly rip offs, but of course room is made for cheap nudity, supposed clique social statements, and pointless to and fro scenes while the purpose of the piece remains absent. The night time cemetery filming is okay, but the raw high school football game footage is the best thing here compared to some seriously pathetic monster make up, nonsensical running around, and ridiculous twists leaving nothing tied together. Are the geeks getting zombie revenge? It's convenient then that unexplained monsters arrive to kill the gang instead. What does either have to do with the hospital escape? Whatever the heck was happening, I stopped caring pretty fast. Yes, viewers can't expect much value from this kind of dollar bin horror. However, poor production value and pinching pennies film making doesn't mean you crap all over your story – I mean, in the end, it's the only thing you have.

The Greenskeeper – Well, cliché music and trying to be cool poolside golf resort credits introduce folks waving at the camera eighties style and tell us we're in for some 2002 hokey! Bikinis and brief, bad sex can't overcome the bitchy acting here, and all the comedic delivery falls flat thanks to ignorant gay jokes, redundant F bombs, and obnoxious drug use. The homophobic punchlines, overcompensation on manhood stereotypes, idiotic adults, and assy yuppies are not funny – nor is the embarrassingly cliché limp wristed cop. The sunscreen on the nose at night lifeguard and the jerky headband and ponytail pro...just no. But hey, despite playmate connections, at least the majority of the people here aren't uber thin hotties. The plot should have stayed with the traumatized lead and his fears over the eponymous urban legend instead of wasting time on forced camera strobes, inserted scary flashes, and too many do nothing montages – mowing the golf course montage, naughty at the pool montage, even a party line talking on the phone montage. Have a drinking game for every time someone walks passed the club sign! The deaths would be unique golf accessories and yard tool fun, but they are most often filmed as comedic with our killer zooming away in a golf cart. The murders are also too few and far between until the latter half when the straight horror finally kicks in – but not before the Scooby Doo ending. Horror and Comedy are already difficult to mesh right, and with no budget to spare, the odds are not in favor of the all over the place here. Instead of doing something straightforward, too many tropes, social statements, and self referential parody are being played at once – and the writing, direction, and performers are not up to the task. Maybe this goofy premise deserves a proper treatment. However, it looks like this movie was made 25 years too late, and it doesn't have any of that retro so bad its good.

18 March 2015

Penny Dreadful: Season 1

Penny Dreadful Debuts with Scary Sophistication
by Kristin Battestella

The 2014 Showtime series Penny Dreadful has some hiccups in blending the stylish past and its literary based madcap of monsters and macabre. Fortunately, shrewd writing and a gothic, sophisticated approach keeps this eight episode debut a cut above the rest.

The alluring but mysterious Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) recruits Wild West show shooter Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) for a dangerous mission headed by explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton). No longer climbing mountains with his manservant Sembene (Danny Sapani), Sir Malcolm is searching for his daughter Mina (Olivia Llewellyn), who has been abducted by a vampire master while brutal, butchering violence shocks the post-Ripper London. Young Doctor Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) aides Sir Malcolm while Vanessa has several risky dalliances with the enticing Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney). Victor's monster Caliban (Rory Kinnear), however, pressures the doctor to do his wishes, and Dorian has encounters of his own with Ethan's immigrant girlfriend, the ill prostitute Brona Croft (Billie Piper). Will the supernatural secrets of this unusual group unite them or tear the team apart as they go head to head with vampires, demons, and monsters in hopes of saving Mina?

Not having all the trademarks to Dracula gave Penny Dreadful creator and Oscar nominated writer John Logan and fellow Skyfall and Spectre James Bond producer Sam Mendes an excellent dramatic license to combine the gothic tropes we know and love along with uniquely macabre off shoots. The expected upscale period splendor is here yet the cinematic film quality and realistic visual schemes add a dark and dirty as each episode narrows the character focus and clues the viewer in on these bizarre circumstances. It's downright fun to guess who is actually who, as not all of our similar but different literary inspirations are immediately named or their secrets revealed. My husband doesn't know what's up with Dorian Gray and I'm not going to tell him! The audience takes the paranormal leap along with the psychic connections and horrific elements thanks to the character concentration, great dialogue, and a writing first approach instead of the more recent lame brained gore over substance horror. The well written, likable players make literary allusions themselves and the sophisticated conversations don't insult the viewer – though that's not to say their isn't some shocking, then colorful language or scandalous words flavoring the ghastly polish. Racist, of the time terms are also unfortunately necessary, but honest conversations about American Indian history and past injustices make up for the occasional harsh term along with parallel circumstances and bitter, supernatural lessons not learned. Wild West side show parodies and horrible killings set this miserable Victorian mood in Episode One “Night Work” while Latin prayers, an opium house, Nosferatu underlings, monsters, and abductions add to the titular creepy along with a macabre mix of the well dressed, violent fighting, mysterious Arabic, and Egyptian Book of the Dead hints. How did this disparate crew get into this dark underbelly? The good versus evil and seemingly untarnished layers aren't as clear as we think. Do our players find themselves amid the spiritual realm between life and death or the new world of science – or are their transgressions across both?

"Seance" introduces more Penny Dreadful players to the dockside desolate with prostitution, tuberculosis, and Dr. Frankenstein joining the fold. Everyone has a secret – Victor, his creations, and the so pretty yet so naughty Dorian Gray. Are the crimes about London related to these concealed truths and Sir Malcolm's paranormal quest? The saucy is both demented and artistically done even if it is also slightly over the top, but the intriguing dialogue continues alongside the parlor fun and spiritualism winks. What can I say, it's simply great to hear people use big words, and the titular sequence is superb. Vanessa's unrevealed role to play goes wild, hooking the audience thanks to creepy voices, hidden history, and possession. Demonic language, sad revelations, and frightening powers – I'd leave that table! At only 48 minutes, Episode Three “Resurrection” is shorter than Penny Dreadful's usually true hour long airtime, but this segment focusing on Victor adds some flashback colorful before unpoetic death enters in and a bloody convulsing spurns Victor's goals as his mother is snatched from him. Do our violent births, first rejections, and brushes with death irrevocably shape our outlook on life? The Caliban framing narration slows the pace, but transferring the monster's plot to a theatre underground adds a Phantom of the Opera-esque gory onstage pulp. The zoo showdowns, wolfy scares, and captured informants, however, are more sinister, and details about finding Mina and the antagonism between our players are more interesting than Caliban's complaints.

Penny Dreadful could have been cheap and nasty in showing Dorian Gray's depravity in “Demimonde,” but I'm glad it doesn't go there despite his increasingly extreme desperation. His creepy mirrors, photography, and secret passages juxtaposed nicely against innocent questions, sad burials, and melancholy churches where one is not sure she is permitted entry. Bright outdoor scenes and delicate orchids belie dangerous nightshade and peril in beauty. Is there a method to nature's madness or these supernatural apparitions? The show within a show audiences and theatre behind the scenes add more dimension, and players previously unknown interact as Vanessa's revelations happen in Episode Five “Closer than Sisters.” Childhood beach side splendor, white lace and sunshine evoke the time before Penny Dreadful began, when evil temptations, sexual desires, and “little acts of wickedness” lead to much more. This past recounting is better than Caliban's bitterness because this is the root cause for Vanessa and the show's main quest – creepy taxidermy and tales of safari cannibals hint at macabre to come. Do we willfully choose this dark path over prayers unanswered as jealousy and hatred mount? Are evil possessions at work on a corrupted soul or is physical illness the cause of a sickly body? The hospital cruelty and institutional torment are just as dehumanizing as the demonic possibilities. Who is at fault for such suffering and sin when the devil is your friend? Penny Dreadful puts all its gothic sin, salvation, and transgressions together here, and “What Death Can Join Together” moves the action forward as our team learns to forgive themselves. Plague ship battles are congested, intimate, and messy with rats, vampires, and monsters. Dreadful prices, divine gifts, escalating desires, and internal, self referential ironies are not lost on this merry outfit as evil of all shapes and sizes ups the ante.

Minimal but dangerous levitation and flying objects are smartly used in Episode Seven “Possession,” and Penny Dreadful's motley family huddles in support of the titular victim – not that they always keep it together as they face their inner demons, however. Insects and manifestations mount as hidden truths will out, and things get ugly as people lose control, fight loved ones, and try to reach the lost souls. Foul language, demonic speaking, and symbolic snow add to the great performances all around as the science versus spirit debate rages. Does demonic possession belong in the realm of the religious or will standard doctoring do? These divides unite our players, strengthening their trust in each other against evil without the usual smoke and mirror exorcism spectacles. Penny Dreadful remains personal with excellent agonizing screams, weary witnesses, and sickly pallors as faith, friendships, and romances are tested. In a lengthy 24 episode season, this episode would be a bottle show thanks to its contained nature. However, some lofty material goes down with Penny Dreadful's five core players without them even leaving the house. Hot damn. “Grand Guignol” puts all the outside factors and interior influences together for the finale's multilevel theatrical showdown. Stage ropes and trap doors add to the vampire peril as characters come to new truths and surprising bonds are made. Can redemption yet be found? Has everyone done their part in this play? Of course, there are subtle implications left for Season Two, possible future plots culminate, and Penny Dreadful certainly tells us that death isn't quite so definitive.

I feel like I'm glowing with praise, but Penny Dreadful is not without its fair share of debut problems. While there are no excessive, panorama, look at the monster so cool camera works; cliche, bad ass walking transitions, dark meetings on street corners, and lengthy establishing shots meander when a cut to already being where we need to be would do. There aren't that many flashy for flashy's sake moments, but modern shock editing, zooms, and dark vampy battle scenes are iffy at times, and the closed captioning is also sometimes more amusing then atmospheric with its “screams reverb and flow into the night” or how every door simply must “creak” open. Quibbles, yes, but the story lines on Penny Dreadful themselves are unevenly paced and not equally interwoven – something that should be easy to do across only eight episodes. Unnecessary support takes up time from the relatively straight forward, supposedly primary vampire abduction quest, and the ongoing carnivorous murders about town are poorly handled, sprinkled throughout the season along with Egyptian themes. Both are trumped as being of critical importance then disappear before the previouslies introducing the episode or obvious flashbacks and foreshadowing shoehorn them in again. It's superb to see bisexuality on Penny Dreadful, however, same sex material is bizarrely montaged over – and isn't as equal opportunity nude or graphic as the other heterosexual kinky scenes, either. Evil and sexual acts or on the nose light and dark symbolism are also linked together, but perhaps these naughty ties are in commentary on hypocritical Victorian ways. Penny Dreadful is a great show upon the first watch, but picking through it with too many fine toothed comb viewings can crack its veneer.

Fortunately, Eva Green (Casino Royale) looks dynamite in period regalia as Vanessa Ives. Lace frocks, wild up dos, and red lips add allure, but Green remains can't look away stunning when stripped bare, down and dirty, or possessed and spouting wicked incantations. Vanessa shows strength in weakness yet shakes down the men around her, recognizing their similar complications even though the audience hasn't figured out what's behind her poise. Over the course of Penny Dreadful, Vanessa goes from a pious and humble beauty to hospital horrors, creepy crawlies, and back again as she struggles between religious beliefs and increasingly nasty evils. Miss Ives is at times the lady, a child, or evil with slightly scandalous hints to her latent naughty – no gloves at a posh Victorian party and such a saucy kinship to Dorian Gray. What is she to Sir Malcolm? What is the source behind her psychic and possessive powers? Green is simply great in “Seance” and “Closer than Sisters” – award worthy in fact. Vanessa is a strong woman facing death daily whilst hiding a hidden internal battle yet remains put together as best she can. Her convalescence is anything but when she must live with the violence and death she has caused. This is a wonderful original character anchoring Penny Dreadful, and Vanessa Ives fits right in with the familiar literary boys.

Then again, when Timothy Dalton's (The Living Daylight) Sir Malcolm Murray says don't be amazed by what you see and don't hesitate, we don't! The classy waistcoat, top hats, and cane add prominence while the gray in his beard adds gruff to his elder gentleman appeal. This African adventurer has been aged by his shady experiences; he's a pissed off dad and has the means to do something about getting his daughter back but he hasn't been a perfect parent by any means. Sir Malcolm's tug and pull with Vanessa is scene chewing excellence – they've both gained a bizarre new family with this dreadful team. Sir Malcolm navigates the Gentleman's club bright and fancy as swiftly as he handles the down low and dirty. His power and wealth have a long reach, and Sir Malcolm is able to follow inside the police investigations whilst also keeping his own family secrets behind closed doors. Be it arrogance, negligence, or dark forces, he's running out of people close to him to lose, and this increasingly high price is taking its toll. Fatherly love clouds Sir Malcolm's judgment, he sees some of his son in the young Victor, and tries to be better man to this motley band than he was to his own family. However, he's also uses or protects them as necessary in this quest to save his daughter. Sir Malcolm thinks he is above the darkness about him and believes he will do what has to be done. Unfortunately, he is sorely mistaken and must learn to face his regrets, familial mistakes, and grief.

He's pretentious about his research and the possibility of a greater science, but Harry Treadaway (Honeymoon) has some wild disciplines and bloody medicine to contribute as Victor Frankenstein. He rebuffs the notion that he is just a man with a knife and isn't afraid to call these shocking circumstances as he sees them despite his glassy stare and small stature compared to paternal steady hand Sir Malcolm or would be big brother Ethan Chandler. Treadaway delivers some wonderfully intelligent wit and ambitious dialogue – Victor wins his battles with a dance of words but also knows when to be silent or in awe of his creations. His work is a mix of genius and barbaric butchery, yet there is a poetic, touching, and human sensitivity amid Frankenstein's snap, crackle, and pop laboratory. Victor remains gentle in his power of giving life and death – but he isn't exactly able to control such corrupting opportunities or his so-called children. Indeed his maternal aspects are stunted and cut short, for Victor is so desperately interested in trying to cheat death that he's missing out on life. The doctor lives through literature, he's sickly and bloodshot, and unprepared when his creation becomes painfully superior. Naturally, “Dr. F.” looses whatever innocence he may have had along the way, leaving reluctance for complete compliance and monstrous orchestration.

Penny Dreadful unfortunately missteps again in the handling of Josh Harnett's gun for hire Ethan Chandler. His secret is pretty apparent to start and obvious to the audience in “Resurrection” and “Demimonde” yet his plot is played as though it were some major surprise kicker for the finale. Instead of underestimating the audience, the focus should have been upfront so the viewers could be further inside his may or may not know pain. Thankfully, there's a built in American reason for Chandler's kinky, cowboy veneer, and without the need for the usual trite Yank going faux Brit, Hartnett becomes surprisingly impressive for the somber and serious moments. Granted, there is a part of you that can't stop thinking of the woe that was Pearl Harbor or “It's hottie of the 90s Josh Hartnett all grown up!” However, Ethan knows his weapons and fearlessly goes after the vampy monsters. He has a would be sibling rivalry with Victor yet provides a wise sounding board to Sir Malcolm when needed and holds fast to a tender sentiment with the ladies. Chandler is running from a lot more than an oppressive father back home, and the bluffing banter with Vanessa on his shadowed possibilities is more interesting than the inevitable love with Brona. Much of Ethan's relationship with Brona feels unpolished or shoehorned in as set up for the tug and pull plots in Season Two – which would have been a real pity had there been no next year. Fortunately, Hartnett's “and” billing is fitting, for Ethan adds a relatable American tell it like it is wit and dark humor matching Penny Dreadful's twisted cynicism.

Understandably, Reeve Carney (The Tempest) as Dorian Gray is played up to be depraved and assy, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. It's tough to enjoy the extremes Dorian takes, and for the most part, it's all too pretentious to care. His chemistry with Vanessa is also too smarmy and not on par with the other characters– Carney feels inferior to Green and she carries their scenes. Dorian is styled as a modern pretty boy – his bathroom is absurdly decadent, the one excessive, intruding set piece here – and he seems hammy and out of place. Dorian sorely miscalculates Vanessa, uses Ethan, and ultimately, his superfluous, slutty twists don't do much for the main plot. Likewise, it's obvious who Billie Piper (Doctor Who) will be in Season Two as the original but dead end Brona Croft. Her entire plot is not as sympathetic as it should be thanks to a pitiful accent and redundant support driving Ethan to places he was already headed. I like Piper, but she feels wrong for the part, and Brona's inevitable should have been paired down to its late season essentials. Rory Kinnear (Othello) as the creature Caliban is also slightly over the top and obnoxious with a pissy entry that the audience won't like. He can't get over his sad start, and Caliban goes overboard in complaining about the perceived sins of his father when it's his own crimes and monstrous actions making him just as villainous. With his smarts and superior attitude he should know better. Caliban learns of hatred and mercy but chooses the former – his own adolescent, emo behavior and violence mars the would be theatre kindness he receives. He isn't fun to watch, and a late introduction taking up most of the third episode takes away from the other more interesting players we have already met.

Indeed, the alphabetical credits belie the importance of the aforementioned trio – they don't appear in all the episodes and provide uneven aggravation or fodder for the main stars, again all in future storytelling hopes not needed in the tale at hand. I'd much rather have had the wasted David Warner (Titanic) as Van Helsing, an all too brief but charming hematologist with wise words and a steady, grandfatherly presence beyond the occult matters. Recurring guest stars such as Alex Price (Father Brown) as Proteus also do much more for Penny Dreadful. His nudity, subtext, and a childlike but sensuous, emotional exploration add a far better bittersweet sense of wonder to the Frankenstein plots. Does the new man composed of previous men belong to those past recollections or new human development? The answers are both touching and upsetting. Likewise, we're immediately curious about Danny Sapani (Trance) and his mysterious manservant Sembene. He's a soft spoken cool cat, a butler who is the keeper of far more secrets and skills than we realize – which comes in pretty handy to Sir Malcolm. Sembene claims he has no story to tell, but there's certainly some excellent sophistication and compassion in how smoothly he can do what Sir Malcolm cannot when it comes to the new, if uneven, twists for Olivia Llewellyn (The Lizzie Borden Chronicles) as Mina Harker. I hope we have more intrigue from Sembene in Year Two, for the subtle seeds have been placed for him alongside the perfectly flamboyant Egyptologist Simon Russell Beale (The Hollow Crown) and the wild Madame Kali Helen McCrory (Peaky Blinders).

Speaking of items I'd love to see, can these Victorian fashions please come back in full force? Penny Dreadful has the period look as it should but the clothes also have an air of modern streamline – no fru fru frilly is getting in the way of the appropriately bloody bodies, gruesome human parts, or harbored ships with their shady below decks and monster works. Cringe worthy institutions show the old errors juxtaposed against photography, emerging technologies, and more rarities of the time, but the unpleasant, red eyed Nosferatu vamps keep Penny Dreadful old school ugly. The seemingly nondescript courtyard and townhouse hide a dramatic staircase, a dungeon below, the possessed upstairs, and a sweet parlor where all the heavy conversations happen. How did wallpaper then look so good when ours can be so tacky? Cartography, old time explorations, antiques, and fine woodwork add realism while seances, tarot cards, and luscious red interiors shape that 19th century mysticism. Gas lamps, candles, and fire add a period patina as London fog and lamplighters create a near black and white noir scheme; storms, winds, and rain add to the bleak when all is stripped bare. Sound effects or simple tricks of flashing darkness, moving in camera with a character, or cut away shocks do heaps more in building spooky than the more recent in your face horror designs. Small doses of other languages, fancy phrases, and of the time speakeths add to the panache while play within a play under the stage theatre spectacles layer the observations. The angry, frenetic violin theme music establishes the blue, macabre symbolism during the opening credits, and the viewer is more than ready to settle in with the snakes, spiders, bloody tea cups, and all that is afoot on Penny Dreadful.

Currently, Penny Dreadful can be seen via Showtime streaming options, Amazon, DVD and blu-ray releases, or in on air marathons as Season Two looms. Unfortunately, the on Demand and Xfinity interface can be quite cumbersome and nineties laden with sound issues and playback trouble. Episodes also expire or have varying dates, and it doesn't make much sense to have Year One unavailable to subscribers when the Second series is imminent. These viewing technicalities, however, are but a quibble when considering how Penny Dreadful proves what can be done when a network gives a paranormal drama the care and attention the production needs to match its literary weight and saucy opportunity. I loved NBC's Dracula, but the Big Three American network didn't have the inclination or know how to support the series. Universal probably also misfired with its Dracula Untold, leaving its new monster mash up franchise off to a shaky start, but this, this, this is how Tim Burton's Dark Shadows movie should have been done. Penny Dreadful is pulpy but witty, and any bemusements or camp don't interfere with the frightful mood and macabre atmosphere. Their are First Year growing pains, but the series goes where it wants to go and shows all its saucy or gory without dumbing the style, players, or plot down to the bottom denominator. Instead of lowering the bar, Penny Dreadful raises the measure for gothic horror adaptations with lavish looks, intriguing characters, and sophisticated storytelling.

15 March 2015

Mirrors and Mindbending Horror

Mirrors and Mindbenders!
By Kristin Battestella

What do we see when we watch horror? Take a bizarre look into the deceptive reflections, dopplegangers, demetia, and through the looking glass scares with this quartet of old time crazies and more recent optical thrillers. 

Alone in the Dark – A cult cast featuring veteran Jack Palance (City Slickers), minister Martin Landau (Mission: Impossible), unusual doctor Donald Pleasence (Halloween), and his new protege Dwight Schultz (The A-Team) adds class to this 1982 slasher full of topsy turvy patients. The solemn mental hospital locale is pretty but cluttered with knickknacks, loons, and converted with buzzed entries, faulty electrical systems, and bizarre treatments. Medical textbooks don't apply in this ward! This perilous crowding contrasts the new, open, family farmhouse potential, which soon finds itself in a fearful switcharoo. Who's a patient or employee? Who's harmless or dangerous? Some crazy rambling is confusing to start, but shadowed dorm rooms with spooky, whispered plotting create a paranoid atmosphere – especially when such heavyweight gents are doing the evil planning. A touch of hot pink sideways pony tails and punk bands remind us of the early eighties hip, but any datedness is quickly forgotten as violence, escapes, and riots escalate during the titular blackout. The crazy inside spreads outside quickly with one flick of the switch, and flashlights, lanterns, candles, and fire sell the precarious mood. Daylight doesn't alleviate the killer tendencies or child peril, and except for a fittingly sardonic little girl, the frightful is played seriously. While some jump scares and teen sex may seem commonplace now, these early genre staples are well paced and plenty of surprises, siege horror, creative weapons, and simmering kills make up any difference. Not only is there no cheap nudity or excess like today, but progressive talk about the pitfalls of wind power and nuclear energy add to the social commentaries at work. The fragile balance of polite society cracks pretty quickly once the kill or be killed terror flourishes here.

Mirror Mirror – Ironic country music and frightful orchestration accent the bloody period introduction of this 1990 teen creeper. Yes, that’s a generic title complete with a barebones DVD and no subtitles, but the spooky mix of antiques, hats, and shoulder pads make for a gothic mid century meets eighties style. Like dentistry, the innately eerie mirror aspects pack on the macabre along with blue lighting, distorted demonic voices, gruesome dreams, and bugs laying on the atmosphere. The 30-year-old looking teens in too much denim are mostly tolerable thanks to relatable new kid in town outsider feelings and feminine spins. Rainbow Harvest (Old Enough) is perhaps too wannabe Lydia from Beetlejuice and there is no sign of authority or investigation whatsoever, but the dark tone, a bemusing Yvonne De Carlo (The Munsters) handling the research, and the neurotic Karen Black (Burnt Offerings) make up any difference. This is a solid R, but the blood, nudity, water frights, and dog harm are done smartly without being excessive. The familiar Carrie, Teen Witch, and The Craft designs will be obvious to horror viewers, but it’s a fun 90 minutes of out of touch parents and teachers, high school cliques, and escalating creepy crimes. The titular evil from the other side takes hold for a wild finish – but never, ever put your hand down that garbage disposal, ever!

Oculus – Family scares, guns, and glowing eyes creepy get right to it as siblings are trying to both remember and forget their past tragedy in this 2013 mindbender full of askew dreams, unreliable memories, statues covered in sheets, and one cursed antique mirror. I would have preferred leads older than their early twenties – clearly appealing to the young it crowd – and despite an understandable awkward or instability, Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Brenton Thwaites (Gods of Egypt) are too wooden at times. Fortunately, the more mature Katee Sackoff (Battlestar Galatica) and Rory Cochrane (Empire Records) and child support Annalise Basso (The Red Road) and Garrett Ryan (Dark House) do better. The non-linear past and present retelling, however, is confusing – the parallel plots aren't quite clear until the paranormal investigation brings everything together in one location with elaborate equipment, carefully orchestrated timers, and fail safes for a night of ghostly activity. The video documentation makes for smart exposition at the expense of a larger cast or showing the accursed historical events – replacing the tried and true research montage for today's audiences without resorting to the found footage gimmick. There are no in your face camera effects or zooms with booming music when the frightful appears, and the viewer is allowed to speculate on the seen or unseen reflections, there or maybe not whispering, and distorted blink and you miss them doppelgangers. Is there a psychological explanation or is this all supernatural? Although the recollections or flashbacks of the crisscrossing events should have been more polished – are we watching two, four, or six people as this battle replays itself? – the paranoia builds in both time frames with canine trauma and alternating suspense. Yes, there are Insidious similarities, the product placement and brand name dropping feels unnecessary, and the uneven plot merge cheats in its reflection on the warped or evil influences at work. The finale falters slightly as well, however, there is a quality discussion about the titular manipulation, and the time here remains entertaining as household horrors intensify. WWE Studios, who knew?

The Psychic There are numerous titles – but no subtitles – for this 1977 Lucio Fulci (Zombi 2) giallo tale along with a typical driving montage, dated seventies euro pop, and the expected dubbing, accents, and vocal iffy. Fortunately, the graphic opening suicide, great looking cars, classic planes, country estates, hats, furs, and eponymous witnessing more than make up for any audio technicalities. Then upscale technology, radio, tape recorders, and answering machines add to the sophisticated style and Italian flair while a simmering, eerie score sets off the paranormal visions. Swift editing intercutting between the fearful Jennifer O'Neill (Summer of '42) and the fragmented imagery is layered with red, blood, violence, and screams, but her husband, doctors, and police remain skeptical even as evidence is found. Are these episodes stress, dreams, coincidence, obsession, or intuition? Our young wife plans on redoing an abandoned villa, but finds more secrets about the victims and the living amid the cobwebs, covered furniture, and mirrors. Has something occurred here or will it? Who is suspect? The Italian names may be tough for some, and the slightly obvious, tame for today story plays loose with terms like physic, clairvoyant, premonition, and what these powers actually are. There are convenient, self fulfilling prophecy plot points, too – secretaries who happen to know the facts, others do the legwork research, taxi driver connections are easily found. However, it's interesting to see that images and memories can be distorted, foretold objects misconstrued, or that the facts don't always come together as we thought. Although the heavy opening implies the 90 minutes plus will be full on horror house gore, the time is largely spent on the mystery investigation before punching it up with some shock moments in a superb action finale. Not everything here is as the audience may expect, and plenty of clues and surprises make for a nice little paranormal pursuit.

13 March 2015

Modern Period Pieces

Modern Period Pieces Go Forth!
By Kristin Battestella

Let’s look back to the previous centuries with these period films and old fashioned serials from the turn of this technological century. Shall we?


Albert Nobbs – Glenn Close (Fatal Attraction), Janet McTeer (Tumbleweeds), Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre), Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass), Maria Doyle Kennedy and Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors) tackle social and gender taboos in this 2011 Irish drama. Oil lamps, pocket watches, and lacy frocks set the 19th century mood alongside hotel maids and formal dinner settings, and we recognize Close despite the nom de plume, gruff voice, and masculine wrappings. Why has this woman assumed such a humble ruse? Nobbs has been counting her meager tuppence tips for decades, however, this is not a con but rather a tender, relatable situation – especially compared to arrogant, wealthy patrons. Mr. Nobbs is clearly capable on the job, so what does it matter if he is a she? Although costume parties, other disguised roles, and hidden subtext add to the discussion, the line between serious or funny and personal or social commentary is uneven. It's played too comical that one would find kindred souls conveniently underfoot, yet fearing discovery, one can't to thine own self be true. Back story exposition implying man hate, sexual trauma, and “turning” women toward this masculine switch also feels mishandled. While this tone may be intentionally hypocritical – same sex relationships are frowned upon unless you can pay to keep it quiet but older men having affairs with younger women or heterosexual but abusive, pimp circumstances are okay – these side plots loose steam for the finale. Work equality, cross dressing, lesbianism or asexuality, marital deception, and reversed gender roles add heaps onto a conversation that works better with just the intimacy and self realizations from Close and McTeer. This was a passion project for Close and there should be more strong lead roles for women, masculine or not, and I applaud the effort in bringing not so new issues to light. Prudish, traditional period piece fans may not like the unique dialogue, but social historians and audiences seeking gender topics will enjoy the whimsy and performances here.

The Buccaneers – Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite), Carla Gugino (Spy Kids), Cherie Lunghi (Casualty 1900s), Jenny Agutter (Logan’s Run), and more mix the New American money with the Old English nobility for this four hour 1995 adaptation of the incomplete Edith Wharton novel. Divine costumes match the romantic notions, cross continental décor, fine locales, hefty manors, and pretty countrysides, and we at the 21st century bottom love such visual splendor. With these past social pressures and up turned, judgmental noses, however, being at the heights isn’t enough – it’s the right society trends and getting invited to the best parties in complete Dickensian who you know wrapped in for love or money sponsorship. This ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ excess, training, planning, and trapping is obviously an unsustainable pretense. Wharton herself came from the very estate that inspired the Joneses phrase, which is now a ruinous reflection of this gilded but embarrassing and bitter era, and it’s interesting now to think we are so different with our seemingly glamorous but gold digging, money for nothing celebrity indulgences. Some of the titular ladies’ plots and storylines do interweave unevenly while the frumpy ladies decide their fates over tea, and most of the men are written as limp, pedestrian louses. Despite being potentially dry and melodramatic, time here moves quickly with blink and you miss it traveling or pregnancies, and seriously, new fans of Downton Abbey haven’t been paying attention to all the previous British period dramas! In addition to literary scholars or historians having a comparative study and viewing analysis, there are enough pleasing characters, scandals, and twists to keep this quartet entertaining.

The Duchess – Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, is the star of this 2008 18th century tale featuring the eponymous Keira Knightly (Atonement), her duke Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient), the always classy Charlotte Rampling (Swimming Pool), and friendly rival Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter). Paired down historical liberties are certainly taken alongside the too young arranged marriage, but all seems happy to start – until an awkward wedding night, producing an heir pressures, and marital expectations aren't as Her Grace had hoped. Knightly, however, is well poised, and gasp, the popular, outspoken duchess expresses herself and gets involved with Whig politics! Tumultuous affairs and love triangles add twists and turns, but this doesn't go for saucy sex and cheap skin despite its scandalous source. Sons are more important than daughters, women are blackmailed with their rightly or wrongly begotten children, and men are allowed to get away with anything while women have to take their abuses. The progressive talk might be lost on today's audience thanks to big, old speaketh words, but modern viewers can hate past ways and still understand the things that haven't changed. The likeable cast doesn't hit us over the head, either – which isn't an easy task when Fiennes is playing a stunted, tough talking, of his time aristocrat more interested in his dogs. Beautiful pets though they are, matching the glorious estates, candles, delightful frocks, harpsichords, and divine interiors. The big hair and absurdly tall feathers, however, do look heavy and take getting used to – and one has to chuckle when one of those giant things catches fire! The recognizable Spencer connections and mismarketing may have hurt the film's reception, but comparing the history onscreen and off is quite interesting. This is a subdued, pretty well put together and surprising modern costume drama. But really, no wonder the tawdry always got out, they just talk about their juiciest scandals right in front of all the staff, maids, and footmen! Tsk tsk.

Great Expectations – Magwitch Ralph Fiennes (Voldemort), Miss Havisham Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix), and Mr. Jaggers Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) go Dickens 2012 with Jeremy Irvine (War Horse), Holliday Grainger (The Borgias), Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky), and Jason Flemyng (X-Men: First Class). The old time fog, bleak, and cold are felt here with threatening, dirty, up-close convict dangers and poor cruelty at home, creating a jarring juxtaposition against the potential for Christmas kindness and holding fast to doing what is right despite difficult times. Will we be rewarded at some time unknown or is there always one ready to deceive and take advantage of the goodhearted? People treat one differently when society raises him and we pretend to be something we are not. Would be lovely greenery and estates marred with decrepit cobwebs and decay accent the harsh nature and bitter nurture at play – although the chemistry between the young leads falls flat with repetitive dialogue and a Dickens-lite, Young Adult tone. Perhaps Bonham Carter seems too quirky as Miss Havisham thanks to her Burton associations, but her madcap, warped pain would be fitting if it wasn't presented as unevenly gothic and comical – the fire scene, I hate to say it, is laughable. Big, junky jewelry and ugly hairstyles are iffy, too. Brief CGI cityscapes and modern digital saturation are unnecessary compared to appropriately crowded London streets and cramped period interiors, the score is too generic, and flashbacks on Miss Havisham's marital cause and the Magwich back-story feel too...music video. The pace drags in time away from the elder cast, but these 2 hours move fast over the well known plot. There are better, fully envisioned adaptations – perhaps this release was simply too blink and you miss it soon after the 2011 television version – but the paired down style, elder ensemble performances, and the tough to beat story lend their appeal to contemporary eyes and a classroom discussion.

North and South – Not to be confused with the John Jakes Civil War epic, this four hour 2004 British adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel stars Richard Armitage (The Hobbit), Brendan Coyle (Downton Abbey), and Daniela Denby-Ashe (EastEnders) as the headstrong Margaret Hall. She certainly puts her foot in her mouth a time or two, bangs up all the social protocols, and cluelessly meddles in strike business! It helps to know a bit about the titular backgrounds to understand this mix of snotty upscale and misplaced airs, but lovely mid nineteenth century costumes, candlelight, and green country balance the crowded bleak, gray, and shabby industrialism. The scale and ensemble may be small compared to more recent period spectacles, but the Dickensian highs, lows, and social divides are mirrored in the harsh wonder of machinery and unforgiving factory potential – there is no in between or reward for principles here. Armitage and his husky voice do well in toeing that line between tender business sense and hardworking experience, and his dilemmas over cotton fortunes won or lost, striking workers, and starving families feel more interesting than the sometimes melodramatic, dry, and superficial etiquette or proposal troubles for Margaret. I’m not an Austen lover nor an Armitage drooler and sometimes I wanted to slap Margaret when things here got too sappy! The will they or won’t they love hate romance feels somewhat misplaced against the soft Dickens labor plotlines – deaths, crime, and twists seem broad or not as deep and heavy as they should be. However, the pace moves quickly and there is plenty here for fans of the novel or cast to enjoy in social study or literary rediscovery.