27 July 2015

Return to Snowy River

Return to Snowy River is Subpar but still Horsey and Pretty.
by Kristin Battestella

Billed as Return to Snowy River stateside and known elsewhere around the globe as The Man from Snowy River II, this 1988 sequel is lacking a lot of the charm and storytelling done so well in The Man from Snowy River. Fortunately, all the equine visuals and Down Under scenery of its 1982 predecessor remain for an entertaining family adventure.

After proving his worth and becoming the famed Man from Snowy River, Jim Craig (Tom Burlinson) has continued working on his own keep and gathering the wild brumby horse herds to train, sell, and eventually breed on his own mountain station. Jim also hopes to reunite with his love Jessica Harrison (Sigrid Thorton) despite her father's (Brian Dennehy) misgivings over what he feels is too low a match. The elder Harrison is more interested in winning horse races and doing business with influential, strong arm local bankers trying to push out the resident mountain men. Horse thefts and accusations escalate, and Jim must risk taming the Stallion leading the brumby mob, once again taking matters into his own hands to win the day.

No, Return to Snowy River is not as beloved as the 1982 release, and the Disney take over tone may be the culprit. Only a few sentences of catching up elude to the first film with an unsure amount of time having passed between them. Extraneous, ho hum, would be humorous townsfolk and cardboard villains bloat a short 99 minutes that's slow to start and perhaps confusing to those who haven't seen the original. From where did all these barons holding finances over the previously top of the mark Harrison come? The to and fro double talk doesn't explain much, and pedestrian girl riding in a horse race side plots lead nowhere along with a shoehorned in love triangle failing at its attempt to create conflict. Social plots on gentry versus mountain people are too muddled for the family friendly scale of Return to Snowy River, and overall, it feels like Disney's vision for the picture was that of a clich├ęd remake rather than a true what happens next sequel. Fortunately, returning producer and director Geoff Burrowes rectifies the villain comeuppance with emotional horse scenes, trademark equine action, and the character moments the audience came to see.

This time around, Tom Burlinson's Jim Craig is a little older, more confident, and self assured in his horse mastery. The audience knows these unlikable snobs with ulterior motives vying for Jessica's affection are no match for the genuine romance even while some of the uneven story hurts the character. Jim's owning half of Spur's gold mine is retconned and despite becoming a hero in The Man from Snowy River, he has to prove himself again to inferior jerks. Thankfully, Jim hasn't changed, and its morally pleasing to see a man working hard, earning his keep, bidding his time, and remaining true even as the world moves on and not necessarily for the better. Return to Snowy River takes an hour before we get to the heaviest emotion and character development, but the understanding looks and bittersweet moments between Jim and his horses are the loveliest – if no less upsetting – scenes in the picture. Though beautiful as ever, Sigrid Thorton is styled a bit too eighties anachronistic for Return to Snowy River with curly hair, contemporary dialogue, and now being informally called Jess. It's distracting when extras behind her are more appropriately period while she stands in the forefront without the expected hats or capes depending on how ladylike she is supposed to be from scene to scene. Instead of having a strong, progressive female character, the problematic plot makes Jessica's allegiance to her father or Jim too wishy washy. She's upset that it took so long for Jim to return but she argues in his favor against her father, spreading discord or blossoming romance more to advance the run time or convince the viewer when the charming one on one scenes between the young couple are dandy without all the round and round.

It's an unusual change to replace Kirk Douglas with Brian Dennehy (Cocoon) as Harrison, and Dennehy never has the opportunity to use his elder gravitas and fully make the character his own in Return to Snowy River thanks to rinse repeat daughter riding horses protests, his insistence she learn the ranch business, and more all over the place motivations. Amid the dress up to attract a suitor demands, muddled financial exposition, and gruff exterior lies conflicting tender affections and hidden warmth – not to mention mistakes in his own The Man from Snowy River history. Now Harrison's money comes from a gold mine rather than a horse racing gamble, yet Jim's stocks and wealth still aren't good enough for Harrison. Wedding clarifications are inexplicably excised from this stateside Disney edition, and offscreen reconciliations further cheapen the character, leaving the feeling that most of Dennehy's strength was left on the cutting room floor.

Fortunately, the divine sunsets, stallion silhouettes, and majestic equine photography in Return to Snowy River are tough to beat. Bright outdoor filming and intercut stallion editing have surprising personality while dune landscapes, mountain vistas, and forested rides add to the parasols, top hats, and Victorian feelings even if the lace and turn of the century balloon sleeves are overdone with that shiny satin and eighties cheating. The interior designs, however, appear dark with soft focused camera shots, and despite Disney influences, the film looks older than it is and feels more low budget than it was. Unlike the allegedly superior Australian releases, the bare bones Region 1 DVD has mismatched subtitles and an odd, jumping print that plays with its pan and scan, compromising some sequences that already don't live up to the original. The familiar, classic theme also feels underused, but new epic scoring anchors the heroic mood and surely difficult to film horsework. Naturally, opening gunshots, animal injuries, and spoiler warning horse deaths will be difficult for super young viewers. Hell, that scene still gets me every time, and it's ironic how films made to celebrate horsemanship remain clouded with production rumors of real on set accidents and fatalities.

Viewers don't have to see The Man from Snowy River in order to watch this Return – in fact, back to back marathoning may illume the sequel's flaws further, and audiences expecting the ingenuity or grit of its predecessor may be disappointed in the confusing reset tone and overall inferiority of Return to Snowy River. However, Return to Snowy River can still be enjoyed if you know the characters' history. Separating this outing's recreated ridings, horse pursuits, and thrilling family adventure and not comparing it to the original is the best way to savor Return to Snowy River.

22 July 2015

Mummies, Vampires, & Torture, Oh My!

Mummies, Vampires, and Torture, Oh My!
By Kristin Battestella

Don't get to close for these foreign and domestic monsters, toothy dames, or rack masters!

Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb – Based upon Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars novel, this 1971 Hammer outing gets right to the saucy, sexy mummies, colorful jewels, tombs, and classic Egyptian designs not through spectacle of production but via subdued lighting, firelight, soft music, foreboding curses, and a silent, dreamy start. The intriguing father and daughter dynamic between Valerie Leon (The Spy Who Loved Me) and Andrew Kier (Quartermass and the Pit) is both endearing and suspicious – straight jackets, psychics, ominous constellations, cluttered museums, and sinister relics likewise contribute to the visual mixing of old, Egyptology styles and early seventies designs. Pleasing hysterical fears, snake scares, uneasy reunions, and power struggles unravel the reincarnation tale nicely. It is tough, however, to see some of the night sky transitions, and the simmering 94 minutes may be too quiet or dry for today’s speedy audiences. Subtitles would help with the exposition as well – especially for the fun homage character names like Tod Browning that may be missed otherwise. Brief nudity, one by one deaths, the collecting of killer artifacts, and a resurrection countdown also feel somewhat rudimentary at times, predictable before snappy and missing some Hammer panache in cast or direction. Considering the on set death of director Seth Holt (Taste of Fear) and the departure of Peter Cushing – both briefly discussed in the DVD’s features – the film’s flaws are certainly understandable. Besides, this is still most definitely watchable with an enjoyably moody atmosphere and fun, subjective finish.

Conspiracy of Torture – Oft giallo director Lucio Fulci’s (Zombi 2) 1969 Beatrice Cenci is not actually a horror movie but rather a historical drama chronicling terrible twists, torment, and disturbing, cutthroat family. The similar names, confusing politics, voiceover expositions, and edgy situation aren’t immediately clear and those unfamiliar with Italian names and history may have a tough time with the non-linear work here. Some action scenes are also too up close, hectic, or dark at times, but fortunately the medieval velvets, frilly collars, and chanting prayers have the Inquisition-like feeling and dangerous atmosphere needed for eponymous daughter Adrienne Larussa’s (Days of Our Lives) vengeful violence and subsequent persecution. Yes, the dubbed romantic dialogue and the over the top sentiments are a little hokey, but corrupt, sinister papa Georges Wilson (The Long Absence) balances anything you might find tender. Not to mention the executions, dog attacks, racks, medieval limb crackings, and other fancy devices adding to the ruthlessness. Considering the subject matter, perhaps the script should have upped the unscrupulous and refined its timeline – thanks to the misleading title change, horror audiences expecting something uber nude and scandalous like other exploitive films of the time may also be disappointed at the seriousness. However, there’s enough bloody action to go with the cruelty, anti-church earnest, and nasty suggestions. This style and topic won’t be for everyone, but fans of Old World productions or those studying their 16th century history can view, compare, and delight.

The Nude Vampire – Hooded rituals in science labs make for some unique disrobings, blood vials, and colorful beakers to start this 1970 French saucy from writer and director Jean Rollin (Fascination). Although I could do without some of the now tame but up close, lingering nipple shots and overlong gyrating and dancing – continental seventies staples though they are – the black and white noir mood is well lit with candles and torchlight alongside striking red, purple, orange, and pretty people treating the eye. The interracial nudity is also surprising for the time, and the seemingly suave, exclusive clubs veil more kinky, sinister, creepy animal masks, and dangerous gun play. There isn't a lot of gore or blood, however, a simmering string score, evening streetlights, and cobblestone streets invoke an Old World mood to anchor the rare blood disorders, cult rites, and disturbing deaths. Unfortunately, the production is somewhat small scale and not as lavish as viewers might expect with minimal locales and poor editing. This picture is quiet, slow at times, even boring when precious minutes are wasted on meaningless walking here and there or out there plot exposition that feels tossed in after the fact. Thankfully, there are some great stairs, columns, and marble to up the decadent atmosphere, and the overall sense of bizarre helps the under cooked statements regarding immortality, blood possibilities, man's stupidity, and the superstition versus science comeuppance. The story could have been better, but this is a fun viewing and we're not really meant to notice the thin plot over all the titular shapely now are we? 

Requiem for a Vampire – Clown costumes, shootouts, daring car chases, and dangerous roads lead this 1971 Jean Rollin juicy before two chicks on a motorcycle roam the countryside leaving dead bodies and torched cars in their wake. The spoken English track and Anglo subtitles don't match, however there is hardly any dialogue until the latter half of the picture when we finally find out what's afoot. Some may dislike this silent style, but grave diggers and thunder create an intriguing, off-kilter spooky atmosphere. Scares, screaming ladies – we don't know the details but we're on their side as rituals and titular bloodlines escalate. Of course, colorful castles and seemingly hospitable cults providing purple furs on the bed for some lesbian touchy feelys add to the bushy babes and bemusing euro shtick. Granted, the first half hour could be tighter, and the bare bones plot should have gotten to the naughty sooner rather than all that running here and there. The sexual statements are iffy as well, even erroneous, for one wants to be a vampire/lesbian while the other doesn't want to be and gets a man instead – having sex with a woman still means you are a virgin and can still claim to a man that you haven't made real love yet! Some saucy scenes are also more graphic than others are, with uncomfortable to watch slaves in chains and more violence against women. I'm not sure about the oral sex bat (um, yeah) but the good old toothy bites mixing supernatural pain and pleasure are nicer than the rough stuff. Bright outdoor photography, pleasant landscapes, sad but eerie abandoned buildings, silhouettes, and well lit candlelight patina with gruesome green and creepy crimsons accent the dark graveyards and frightening dungeon traps, too. Once you get passed some pacing flaws and the uneven smexy, this is a fine looking and bizarrely entertaining vampire ode.

21 July 2015

Thriller: Season 2

Though Flawed, Thriller's Second Season Remains Frightful
By Kristin Battestella

In 1961, Boris Karloff returned as host for Year Two of the spooky and suspenseful anthology series Thriller. With 30 episodes a season, the mixed focus on scares and scandal runs thin at times. However, several thrilling and frightful gems –with a few from Big K himself – keep this season entertaining.

Disc One of Thriller's Second Year opens with an ill wife, an easy to suspect a husband, and pretty younger sister in “What Beckoning Ghost?” Directed by Ida Lupino (The Hitch-Hiker), the suspense, coffins, premonitions, wills, and funerary wreaths escalate the gaslighting versus supernatural possibilities. Smart shadow placement and quality editing on the toppers combine for a nice mix of both scary and crime – a positive blend in the identity crisis that will continually hampered Thriller. Also directed by Lupino and adapted by Charles Beaumont (The Twilight Zone), “Guillotine” sets the French flavor with slicing practice, dark prisons, and jingling shackles. The delicious intro from Karloff, crimes of passion, simmering pace, and seduction anchor the sinister poisons versus ticking clock executions. Although the plot boils down to a straightforward crime, the unique period piece tone and final twists make up the difference, and “The Premature Burial” ups Thriller in full on, macabre Poe fashion. Boris himself is involved with this dreary Victorian tale, its elaborate tombs, questionable deaths, and catalepsy – and this episode aired before the release of the 1962 Roger Corman film adaptation. The larger than usual cast, great costumes, and fancy sets add to the deceit, unfaithfulness, and obsession while the black and white accents the morbid fail safes, bells, turnabouts, and demented performances. More statues and fortune tellers highlight “The Weird Tailor,” written by Robert Bloch (Psycho) and also later adapted in the 1972 Amicus anthology film Asylum. The deadly sorcery mistakes here can't be amended, but the special eponymous request leads to marital dysfunction, one unusual sewing dummy, and fine social drama amid the occult intensity.

Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched), Tom Poston (Newhart), and John Carradine (Bluebeard) start off Disc Two with the lighthearted, perfect for Halloween farce “Masquerade.” From a writer on a honeymoon and a stormy night breakdown to ominous music, the Psycho house setting the scene, and rumors of vampires afoot – even Karloff's introduction is unabashedly in on the spooky winks, tongue in cheek tone, and self aware repartee. Maybe the vampire cliches are too hammy for some viewers expecting true scares, but fortunately, the haunted house kooky and maze like bizarre contribute to a delightful kicker! “The Last of the Sommervilles” – again directed and also written by that oft Thriller gal Ida Lupino – has hastily buried bodies as garden fertilizer as well as Karloff once again making a slick appearance alongside Martita Hunt (Anastasia). This greedy family has plenty of crazy aunts and hidden relations with inheritance double crosses and Victorian irony. The actual murder how tos are a little loose, but sinister bathtub suggestions and fine interplay raise the suspense. Intense silhouettes, a bemusing score, card game puns, and old ladies with binoculars make the crimes in “A Third for Pinochle” all seem so quaint in this quid pro quo social etiquette meets hatchets tale. The belittling frumpy wives and unassuming killer neighbors ala The 'Burbs is perhaps too similar to Season One's “A Good Imagination” also starring Edward Andrews (Sixteen Candles), however, there's enough whimsy to accent the hi-jinks while thunderstorms, slamming windows, a spooky castle, dungeon cobwebs, and great costumes up the scares in “The Closed Cabinet.” The medieval riddles sound like nonsensical hyperbole, but the 1880 flair, disbelieving lineage, and a superb black and white mood add to the ghostly beckoning, gothic dressings, and ye olde medieval harmonies.

For Disc Three of this Second Season, Thriller finally caught on with the need for more in on the game Karloff and serves up two tales both featuring Boris in different roles for “Dialogues with Death.” Morgue slabs, afterlife questions, skeptical reporters mocking the idea of asking the departed who killed them – and that's the first half before more American Gothic swamps, flooded mausoleums, and catalepsy. Thriller can seems redundant or as if its running out of content with too many family scares in a row, especially so if every episode had been this kind of multi-plot variety, but writer Richard Matheson (The Twilight Zone) picks up the slack with a crazy uncle and his unusual internment requests in “The Return of Andrew Bentley.” The shrill sounds effects are terrible, indeed, however, familiars, necromancy, and occult warnings on tampering with the perimeters of death add to the moody marital discord. Wow, Jo Van Fleet (Wild River) looks so beautiful and evil alongside pup Bruce Dern (The 'Burbs) and the again suspicious John Carradine in “The Remarkable Mrs. Hawk.” The quaint farm, cute piglets, weird whimsy, and county fair gentility belies the ruthless thieves and deadly rural. This toes the too goofy line, but there are some fun chess battles had here. More creepy voices, shadows, nightmares, and a noose start “An Attractive Family” before Leo G. Carroll (Spellbound) and Robert Long (The Big Valley) duel over crafty but thwarted spousal accidents that keep the audience guessing to the end.

Waxworks” leads Disc Four with uncomfortably realistic designs and what you think you see tricks setting the mood for another Robert Bloch tale. The cops are trite, however French flavor adds to the Old World atmosphere, double take scares, unexpected violence, and noir style – making for another pleasing combination of the crime and paranormal parents on Thriller. Ursula Andress (Dr. No) looks divine for “La Strega,” making the viewer care for the peasantry even if the Italian setting is slightly stereotypical and somewhat Spanish thanks to Ramon Novarro (Mata Hari) and Alejandro Rey (The Flying Nun). Once again director Ida Lupino builds an Old Country and foreign horror feeling with witches, familiars, and a dangerous mix of beauty, curses, and superstitions. Operatic orchestration accents the romantic tragedy and inevitable pursuits that can't be outrun while creepy crones ascend toward the camera with their dread uninterrupted. More screams, black cats, and solitary perils elevate the standard premise, understandable fears, and expected suspicions in “The Storm.” Pesky cabbies and unheeded warnings escalate toward frightful power outages, deadly downpours, animal knee jerks, natural scares, and a fine topper. “A Wig for Miss Devore” begins with past executions and fatal beauties before film within a film aging starlets and movie magic deceptions featuring John Fiedler (The Bob Newhart Show). It's interesting to have seemingly contemporary talk of parts for 25 year old fresh red heads only and a 38 year old has been who was finished at 32 – a swift social commentary on desperate charms and Hollywood extremes. Thriller is on point when the crimes are supernatural, period set, or elevated with more cultural dimension as in “The Hollow Watcher.” Backwoods murder and Irish mail order brides lead nosy but fearful townsfolk, local legends, and phantom vengeance with scandalous touches and schemes compensating for anything that may appear comical now. Besides, scarecrows are already disturbing enough, right? The series peaks here with what may be the single best disc in the complete Thriller collection.

Karloff's final in character appearance in “The Incredible Doktor Markesan” leads Disc Five with excellent slow, stilted moves and a sunken, deathly veneer. Suspicious medical university secrets, a kitchen with food so old its turned to dust, and inquisitive nephew Dick York (Bewitched) accent the no trespassing signs, old newspapers, and eerie meetings. Terrifically terrifying makeup and music ala The Gentleman from Buffy highlight this mix of murder and science, going for the scares as Thriller should have done all along. “Flowers of Evil” brings yet more ghoulishness with skeletal props and Victorian flavor. How does one come into the business of procuring bad luck bones to sell, anyway? coughmurdercough. Though overlong in some spots, budding forensics, cadavers, and dissection keep the gruesome mood afloat. Robert Bloch pens the western set “Til Death Do Us Part” with a fortune hunting undertaker in a town where the dead body business isn't what it's cracked up to be. The comedic music is overdone, but the unique setting, murderous intentions, and eloping in a horse drawn Hearst are much more fun when played for the macabre bigamy gone bad. “The Bride Who Died Twice” has torture, creepy Mexican generals, and unwilling marital alliances with a wonderfully different setting, epic music, and lovely costumes accenting the star crossed lovers and corruption from director Ida Lupino. Despite the horrors of revolution, fine cinematic flair, and all around period delightful, ironically this strictly dramatic hour doesn't seem like it belongs on Thriller. Fortunately, Mary Tyler Moore sings Cole Porter in “Man of Mystery,” setting a swanky, urbane feeling for this whodunit full of playboys, money, secrets, and escalating obsessions, and Ida Lupino bows out her Thriller directing on Disc Six with sulfuric acid, animal trophies, timid librarians, iron fisted new bosses, and play within a play winks for the dual femmes in “The Lethal Ladies.”

Since it took so long for Thriller to get its full on horror, it's tempting to give several pedestrian episodes a free pass. As the spelling suggests, “God Grante that She Lye Stille” serves up ye olde burning at the stake declarations before more familiar moonlight curses almost pull off all the horror stops. Unfortunately, the odd, interchangeable combination of witches and vampires doesn't quite fire on all cylinders. The room to room opening and closing doors in “Letter to a Lover” feel like an old Scooby Doo montage, complete with repetitive, nondescript country manor suspicions, subservient minorities, subterfuge, and murder. Someone even nearly says, “And I would have gotten away with it if it weren't for you kids!” “Portrait without a Face” has a neat premise, but John Newland (One Step Beyond) starts with a hammy Vincent Price imitation before one annoying, cackling old lady and a slow double talk investigation that can't fill up the 50 minute runtime. “Cousin Tundifer” repeats the Edward Andrews humor and comical music, missing the teleportation and topsy turvy time irony and opportunity on laughter and yet another nephew trying to get rich while “Kill My Love” also rinse repeats murder, adultery, and gas leaks. Young George Kennedy (Dallas) can't save the obvious and disposable Burke and Hare plots of “The Innocent Bystanders,” and as to the crooks and cops of “The Specialists”...yawn. For such a short run, Thriller over relies on too many of the same witches, suspicious couples, amoral families, murderers, and profiteers, and in retrospect, the series seems reluctant to fully embrace its built in horror mantle. I suppose mystery and adultery of the week were simply cheaper to film than weekly macabre. That doesn't mean that the suspense and crime episodes aren't entertaining – Thriller provides a little something for everyone across the spectrum from witty to scary and everything in between. Through today's lense, however, Thriller appears to play it safe more often than it should.

Thankfully, mid century furs, pearls, old technology, fedoras, cool cars, and classy interiors add charm alongside somewhat simplistic but atmospheric and fitting ghost effects – which were probably pretty elaborate for a time when $3, a cup of coffee, or 20 cents a mile paid the cab driver and real operators connected the phone line. Thunder, lightning, fire, mirrors, and black and white ambiance accent the 17th century through Victorian times. Again, it probably wasn't cost prohibitive to always be period set, but more mood and effort seems to grace the historical pieces, and those well dressed interiors and gothic feelings carry Thriller regardless of the time period onscreen. The series may not be as immediately recognizable as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, however, Thriller does have a universally spooky atmosphere. Part of that may be Karloff's lure, but he's still having a good time doing the introductions, even occasionally getting into it with more spunk on the weaker episodes – popping in amid the sets more like Serling this season and quoting Shakespeare in the cemetery! Although the soft voices and sometimes bombastic sounds on this Complete Thriller series set are still obnoxious, more fine Jerry Goldsmith scores add ambiance and can be isolated on select episodes alongside commentaries and other treats.

This second season lags across the middle discs, and a shorter season with more Karloff would have been so sweet, but I'm happy Thriller righted itself this year with a more scary focus. I'd love to see the earlier Karloff series The Veil for comparison, but unfortunately, those sets appear incomplete, elusive, and unavailable on Netflix. Today, a show like Thriller would have been continuously tweaked into its short ruin with all half horror horrors reaching for stunt casting guests and anything and everything shocking in a desperate grab for ratings. Overall, Thriller's attempt at a suspenseful and scary middle ground is uneven and divisive, leaving audiences to skip around the scary or pick and choose the scandal. However, I'm glad the series didn't cater to the lowest audience with cheap horror, and thus, Thriller remains sophisticated fun be it murder or macabre.

16 July 2015

The Hollow Crown

The Hollow Crown a Delightful Shakespeare Presentation
by Kristin Battestella

In 2012, the BBC Two and later PBS presented this ambitious four part television adaptation of William Shakespeare's histories Richard II, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, and Henry V collectively called The Hollow Crown. Though seemingly overwhelming, these telemovies help make The Bard more accessible and relatable to the masses with fine characters, charming performances, and classic storytelling. 

Richard II – BAFTA winner Ben Whishaw (Skyfall), Patrick Stewart (X-Men), Rory Kinnear (Penny Dreadful), David Morrissey (The Walking Dead), David Suchet (Poirot), James Purefoy (The Following) and more impressive players anchor this first telefilm alongside colorful draped fabrics, regal armor, and medieval chorales setting the 14th century mood. Despite great historical locations, coastal scenery, horses, and jousts, the design still feels somewhat stage-like or fittingly small scale – our ensemble sits ready to speak in open stone halls rightfully situated not for royal splendor but rather what's being said. Fortunately, the delivery here is smooth and dramatic without hefty, preachy dictation. This court tension just happens to be in old speaketh, and we're not merely watching a play being read aloud the way so many stateside high schoolers erroneously experience Shakespeare. Of course, it does help to know the history at work – Gloucester, Bolingbroke, Plantagenets, ambiguous effemininity. Subtitles are necessary, and scholars may enjoy having a hand held copy handy to compare text. At two and a half hours, there are perhaps some unnecessary to and fro scenes where folks only move to go and talk somewhere different. Arty, overly fancy transition shots; incredibly dark, difficult to see scenes; and distorted, up close camerawork symbolizing the askew mentalities at work make for some tough visuals on top of already difficult and often confusing Shakespearean dialogue. Ironically, thanks to the sophisticated accents and pretty pentameter, this treasonous spearhead is quite pleasant just listening to it! Richard is petty, unlikable, pretentious, out of touch, juvenile, and, well, Kardashian. Understandably the audience expects his downfall yet we can't look away as he questions his kingship, grows conflicted by his actions, and realizes mistakes made in a messianic fall from grace. This is not an easy part to play, but Whishaw embodies the misunderstood boy and undiagnosed but somehow poetic madness. We don't want to choose sides in this comeuppance even as we look for the neutral historical end – after all, both Richard and the future Henry IV do some despicable stuff. There's sympathy, humanity, and a perfectly bittersweet glory in this usurp. 


Henry IV Part I – Jeremy Irons (Reversal of Fortune), Simon Russell Beale (Penny Dreadful), Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers), Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey), Julie Walters (Billy Elliot), and Maxine Peake (Silk) get Episode 2 of The Hollow Crown off to a bustling, ye olde start with medieval markets, lively music, crowded pubs, and drunken good times. Though candlelit charming with wooden sets and a rustic mood, the interiors can be somewhat dark to see. Fortunately, those impoverished designs fittingly contrast the cold, bleak, echoing, stone court full of depressing somber and arguments – a higher up but not as fun place. Again it helps to know the history in the interim from Richard II – Hotspur, Northumberland, Scottish rifts – and the intercut but separate storylines may seem confusing or uneven if one is unfamiliar with the mix of serious court intrigue and cheeky Boar's Head Inn. It takes half the two hour time for the plots to come together, however its dynamite when they do. While Joe Armstrong's (Robin Hood) Percy revolts and Harry Lloyd's (Game of Thrones) pretentiousness aren't as exciting as they should be, Dockery keeps their dilemma interesting. Ironically, although everything is set in motion because of him, we don't see Irons as the titular king very much. He mumbles somewhat as well but his voice carries the proper weight on the king's shoulders low gravitas– uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and all that. Hiddleston's longer blonde hair isn't my favorite look, either, but he is distractingly pretty as the red leather bound, rakish about town Prince Hal. This is an indulgent viewing for fans just as much as scholars can delight in his rolling off the tongue delivery. He's relishing the role and why not? We so often treat Shakespeare with dread, but these are happy drunken antics well balanced with bawdy fun, serious voiceover soliloquies, and proving one's worth. Hiddleston also does a great impression of Irons, and BAFTA winner Beale is a wonderful Falstaff – a fool not quite ready to leave his selfish ways but lovable even when crude or up to no good. With so many multi-layered characters arcs and performances to follow into Part II, this definitely takes more than one viewing. As fine as we expect Bill's words to be, the between the lines are delightful alongside the small scale but cinematic filming and action-centric Shrewsbury finale.

Henry IV Part II – Unlike the cashing in of unnecessarily divided blockbusters, this historical second half was filmed by returning director Richard Eyre (Notes on a Scandal) back to back with its predecessor, utilizing the same locales and cast with choice additions such as Ian Glen (Game of Thrones). Unfortunately, other new and seemingly unimportant secondary characters aren't properly introduced alongside the thin and increasingly somber source material. The pace drags in the middle, growing boring or feeling overlong when the interesting journeys and people we care about are offscreen. The music still creates a quaint atmosphere, however congested arguing on top of the jigs can be frustrating to discern for the non Bard versed. Thankfully, the melancholy court, Latin prayers, and whispering political asides accent the medieval mood. This is a darker picture, with blue hues for castle ills and a tainted yellow patina for Eastcheap before uplifting music, pomp ceremony, and fresh reds and golds reset the tone for Henry V. Jeremy Irons looks increasingly sickly with bleak soliloquies and tender, wise dimension for his sons adding reflection amid his failing health. It's depressing how the separate storylines all sink low despite battle victory and would be elevations, but nonetheless, the intertwined and reversed fates beautifully reveal themselves. Though raised up, Falstaff sticks to his old tricks, using his chance for a clean start for more foolish thinking – like presuming he would be the right hand man for fun and games under King Hal. We can't hate Falstaff thanks to bittersweet ponderings and tender scenes with Maxine Peake as Doll Tearsheet, but he's both too old to right himself and too set in his crooked ways. Prince Hal's so called friends all tail him for their own best interests, but he has to make the big decision to grow up and put away his trouble making pals. We know the history and strife, yet it's still wonderful to see Hal pondering with Henry IV, realizing Falstaff for what he really is, and accepting the right path between his two flawed father figures. Hiddleston appears a half hour in to Part II as the shirtless and charming Hal, however, he seems to have less screen time until his confrontation with Falstaff halfway through – his red leather jacket appears briefly in Hal's only Boar's Head scene before gradual outfit changes suggest the regal velvets to come for the brilliant finale. This final act forgives any sagging with its fathers and sons, deathbed vigils, and tearful men becoming noble kings. There's no time to mourn when the torch is passed, nor is it any easier when the crown goes from one head to the next instead of being built on battlefield legacies. There's a nice behind the scenes feature on this disc discussing both Henry IV parts, and though uneven, this episode does what it sets out to do in making us eager to see what happens to its successor. 

Henry V – These final two hours plus of The Hollow Crown make some eponymous changes – from a subdued St. Crispin's Day moment and skipped battlefield carnage to omitted side plots and excised humor. While the music, costuming, Latin funerary, blue for France flair, and red for England palette are charming, the saturated screen is often too dark to see. Up close, congested, slow motion fighting also intentionally hides the small scale production, and at times oft theatre director Thea Sharrock seems to play it safe by not fully utilizing the camera or making any political or warfare statements as this material is ripe to do. The action is also slow to start, with almost twenty minutes of courtiers chirping the pros and cons in each king's ears about Edward the Black Prince and claims upon France before the build to Agincourt and a final romantic but short lived French alliance. The ensemble does well, but the new players aren't properly introduced, creating little endearment beyond the Harry we know and love. The now top billed Tom Hiddleston looks different as Henry V, aged with a goatee, darker hair, and in the field grit. Although he's not an over the top big battle commander, Hiddleston has a gravitas both with words and on horseback. Harry can be personal, soft spoken, and religious whilst also not backing down from leading from the front despite internal fears, lovely prayers, and serious soliloquies. This king is humble and in arms with his men, honest and full of grace but certainly capable of the bombastic and unmerciful. The private battle speeches fit this characterization and keep the focus on the individual before the spectacle as a good play should. Shakespeare perhaps glorified the past but this Henry is a man first and a hero second. This episode wisely stays with Henry most of the time, reducing Pistol, Nym, Bardolph and unnecessary humor. Lambert Wilson (Timeline) is comparatively somber as the King of France, and despite only a few scenes, Melanie Thierry (Babylon A.D.) is immediately enchanting in what could be an awkward courtship. The French lessons are not translated on screen, which may annoy some, however this softened, continental appeal adds to the stage-like mood where Sharrock directs best. I hate to say it as it would be inaccurate to not have the imaginative, descriptive Chorus as narrated by John Hurt (Alien), but if you can see the ships and scenery, you don't need the voiceover, and the characters could have just said the transitions themselves. Fortunately, the script is the thing here, with famous lines and history turned drama discussed in several behind the scenes bonus features. Granted there are production flaws and questionable direction at times. However, this is a great, easy to get behind story, and the condensed plots and reduce battle focus make for a classroom friendly viewing or scholarly discussion.