27 September 2015

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 6

Buffy Season 6 Slips
By Kristin Battestella

On my last Buffy: The Vampire Slayer rewatch, I was sidetracked and stopped midway through Season 6. That, however, is no excuse – especially since now that I'm neck deep in another Buffy marathon, I can admit it's the disinterested sagging of Year 6 that bottoms out the vampy viewings.

Sunnydale without The Slayer just won't do, so witches Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) work a spell with Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Anya (Emma Caufield) to bring Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) back from the dead. Her watcher Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) is leaving for England, but vampire Spike (James Marsters) has remained loyal to Buffy and helps care for her sister Dawn (Michele Trachtenberg). Unfortunately, Buffy isn't glad to be back, Willow becomes addicted to using magic, and relationship cracks show as Xander and Anya's wedding approaches. Life is bad enough, but the nerdy, self-proclaimed villains known as The Trio (Adam Busch, Danny Strong, Tom Lenk) interfere with the Scooby gang, causing a spiral of deadly divisions and end of the world rage.

Now on the UPN network after departing The WB, Buffy is darker this season and not as fun, understandably, perhaps, thanks to the hefty resurrection in “Bargaining Parts 1 and 2.” It's an excellent start with action heavy and questionable Scooby leadership – these bittersweet departures and deadly transitions are nearly insurmountable for most television series, but Buffy pulls it off in “Afterlife.” Distorted, in your face, camera whirlwinds reflect the jarring as well as the intimate moments, tender returns, and demonic consequences. Sure, your friends meant well! These early bottle shows are strong in Year 6, for there's no need to divert with weekly villains when you have so much raising from the dead angst. The gang isn't exactly up to fighting demons, and their internal problems make for a more interesting pain than any supernatural catalysts. A more horror styled filming is indicative of this bleak Buffy can't handle – such as the bills and broken pipes in “Flooded,” and more risque language and saucy details reflect this mature tone. “Life Serial” is fun as a one off episode with bemusing trials in the more expected Buffy humor. However, the episode has the unenviable task of fleshing out The Trio as mini bads for the season – rather than say, leaving them as an obnoxious recurrence or two amid all the other break ups, allegory, and torment.

Of course, “Once More with Feeling” has everything Buffy needs for the bitter developments in Season 6, and this longer musical hour works as both a unique takeaway and a deeply involved game changer. I hum these tunes or refer to the lyrics more often than I should admit, and while you can't watch it with your parents thanks to the naughty gay sex innuendo in 'Under Your Spell,' that suggestive wink has held up well. 'Bunnies' is a fitting little rock moment, and 'Rest in Peace' sums up Spike's romantic edge – even if he doesn't sing with his British accent. Whoops! 'I’ll Never Tell' is a fine throwback that foreshadows relationship troubles to come, and each song's tone is smartly tailored to match the characters regardless of genre or revelation. The actors who aren't really singers still have catchy moments – Sarah Michelle Gellar's flat notes appropriately match Buffy's off-key state of mind – and the tongue in cheek whimsy makes for self aware set changes and breaking the fourth wall moments. Rather than the shorter syndicated edition, viewers must see the full length episode with its lyrical subtitles to appreciate how the smiling mid century musical direction perfectly belies the unhappy truths. Slow motion training montages are intermixed with serious reprises, progressing the hour from lighthearted to explosive. Indeed, the 'Where Do We Go from Here' finale wonderfully surmises all of Buffy's metaphors, leaving the house of cards fallen and our players facing rocky, unknown futures. All their secrets are made known – maybe life will be okay, maybe it won't. Going out on a high note jokes aside, I must say, this episode could have been a superb series finale.

Whew! Though not as big a production, “Tabula Rosa” is an excellent coda. Their souls have been sung, so now let's wipe everyone's memory and see if anything is happier. The switcharoos are humorous yet serious, and it is important for our wayward Scoobies to rediscover themselves. The pairs with the strongest ties remain, and whelp, that's that for the rest. Michelle Branch's appearance with 'Goodbye to You' is also the best use of a concert montage on Buffy, ever. The early episodes this season are largely solid, even spectacular. Unfortunately, the magic is the drug elements in “Smashed” and “Wrecked” are too much together. Our beloved ladies are going to the dark side, nobody's friends, no one gets along, and it's all too unlikable and tough to watch. Dumb decisions are made and “Gone” uses invisible gags to lessen the sour, but half the episodes in Year 6 could have been axed. “Doublemeat Palace” uses the stinky of normalcy in its conspiracies with askew camerawork to match while “Dead Things” goes too far with Spuffy sex and disgusting Trio behavior. Important character developments may happen and pieces of these shows are memorable, but the framework is too depressing or forgettable. “Older and Far Away” is the one where they can't leave the house, right? “As You Were” is the one where Riley Finn comes back, really? And we care because?

Fortunately, “Normal Again” is a much nicer dark alternative with its superhero delusion and mental institution possibility. Which tale do we tell ourselves to keep us miserable or happy? This illusion versus reality twist is a much more tantalizing theme compared to the over the top bitter this season, as is the seemingly innocuous credit addition in “Seeing Red.” Again, rather than an expected monster, a real world drive by cuts the rug out from under the audience – we should know Buffy well enough by now to see too much good was in need of some ruin. Sadly, this critical episode is also uneven with Trio filler and an unnecessary, crossing the line motivation for Spike. His love isn't cause enough for his quest? Why even show his motorcycle flight – just let him leave and give us that surprise next year instead of intercutting the life versus death symmetry in “Villains.” Who can or can't be brought back from the dead and what happens when you choose to take a life instead? All the ills come full circle with a surprising spiritual touch in “Grave,” and a good laugh over a simple, embarrassing recap of the season's icky events breaks the gloomy. Unfortunately, Buffy doesn't quite come round right, and it's just a sigh of relief that this season is finally over


Well, well, Buffy wanted a regular life beyond being The Slayer, but a feeling meaningless resurrection, fast food job, and paying the bills isn't so fluffy, is it? Our super gal is flawed, disturbed, and unhinged – and getting drastic ala that rogue slayer Faith. Slaying used to be what made Buffy Buffy, but now she must find her place in this cruel world without her responsible routine. She can't go back to college and has to put up happy pretenses or tell everyone what they want to hear rather than hurt her friends' feelings. She raises Dawn and does the right thing while everyone else is too busy with their own lives to help her – even though Buffy is unwillingly back from the dead because of them. The bringing down the house metaphors are a bit obvious, but her discomfort over using someone she loathes such as Spike is an important experience. It's abusive, unlikable behavior when she takes out her self hatred on him. Buffy is an inherently good person doing what she perceives as wrong – and unlike Faith, it tears her up. Sadly, it takes horrible human interactions for Buffy to get back to sticking to her guns after this year's drab, but by the end Buffy is ready to live and intends to see justice served, whether her friends are right or wrong.

Spike's relationship with Buffy, however, is a little weird. Such kinky, uncomfortable, and unhealthy physicality is a bit too much for younger viewers yet Spike has grown in emotion and loyalty. He has a chip in his head but not his soul, and that restrained, misplaced prowess helps him relate to Buffy the way the rest of the Scoobies cannot. He works alongside them but remains at arms length, an outsider just like she is. Spike enjoys making Buffy feel both pleasure and pain, and “Smashed” shows the inseparable nature of those seemingly opposite feelings. Is Spike a man in love or a monster playing poker for kittens? This ongoing struggle provides some wonderful character movement even whilst Spike dresses sexier, goes in the buff, and is treated like a drug for Buffy's fix. He's a powerful influence that threatens to harm her but the violence feels too extreme. Can Spike yet be redeemed? We'll see. Likewise, Dawn is understandably trying to find her way now that the Key elements served their purpose in Season 5. Unfortunately, Dawn is also an inverse Wesley Crusher with nothing to do but steal, get rescued, or be really shrill, and we've been through all this erstwhile youth before on Buffy. Slowly, she joins the research or alleviates the tension with jokes, but Dawn-centric retreads like “All the Way” remain cliché and uninteresting. The audience has been rolling our eyes over her all along, so when the rest of the cast doesn't notice her petty crime and actually forgets about Dawn after the bullets fly...ouch. Losing the character completely admits to a Dallas dream season mistake, but this year Dawn may have worked better in a reduced recurring capacity as the sisters' mother had been. Ultimately, Dawn is truly a supporting character more for how the familial tug and pull affects Buffy rather than her own developments.

The hints were there, but it's pretty stinky nonetheless to watch Willow go off the magic junkie deep end with too many unlikable me me me threats against her friends. Giles is right when he says she has some in over her head amateur to resolve. Does Willow work? What is her major at school? She's a selfish bully who raises the dead or kills when it suits her but she can't poof away a bill for Buffy? Willow does the resurrection spell because she wants to prove she can, not because she should, and there's no need for the redundant magic ala drugs antithesis because Buffy's making her own mistakes already. Where magic was a positive empowering lesbian metaphor in Year 5, now Willow is a very bad girlfriend becoming the abusive boyfriend. She misuses magic and turns into some kind of stereotypical evil angry lesbian filleting men. The fury and pain are emotional moments the first time you see Buffy, however on repeat, you just want to skip these mixed magic metaphors all together. As Xander once said way back in “Something Blue,” 'So, so tired of it.' Buffy feels run out of ideas with these head beating allegories, and when Dark Willow's personal rage turns into wanting to emo end the world's pain, it's just ridiculous. I would be more angry that it is the lesbian relationship being treated so problematic in Season 6, except all the pairings go to hell this year. Fortunately, Tara remains a positive moral perspective and solid center for the gang, and Buffy confides in her away from the group. She looks out for the Scoobies from a good place, something the rest of the gang learns the hard way. Maybe the character doesn't change, but her reliability as an independent woman not moping over Willow is important to see alongside their more intimate and naturally progressing romantic moments. They do live together after all, and props to Buffy for not having the gay couple be chaste while other partners make whoopie.

Before their doubts about Buffy returning and their delayed engagement announcement, Xander and Anya were already a complicated pair. Rather than strengthening the character, Anya's blunt and impolite sass is regressed this season to downright rudeness and a no longer cute obsession with capitalism and money. While Xander is the Regular Joe anchor for Willow from beginning to end, he is also 'So, so tired of it' with Anya, and she only seems to care about what's really going on once she finds out Dawn has stolen from her. She tries to make Willow use magic and we feel for her being jilted in “Hell's Bells,” but Anya's mixed empathy also makes us realize how little we actually know her. “Entropy” tries to be humorous perhaps but the admittedly interesting possibility of Anya and Spike is used for hatred – another harshness thrown on top of the Year 6 heap. Xander does some stupid and cruel bull headed things too on Buffy, but the non superhero sidekick finale is meant to fix all that, I think. And no, Giles, you never should have left and picked the worst possible time to take flight.

There's more new school bizarre in Year 7, but Kali Rocha as vengeance demon/guidance counselor Halfrek and James C. Leary as fleshy but friendly Clem are fun guest additions amid the dreary. Elizabeth Anne Allen is a fine bad influence as rat no more Amy, but her taunting Willow with selfish magic antagonism is inexplicably dropped. Although The Trio is funny within themselves and it is nice to already know their history, they are dumb, unlikable, try hard villains that go round and round too long. We're disappointed in Jonathan – who hasn't learned his lesson and finds his moral conscious too late – and weak Andrew's latent crush on Warren is mistakenly played for humor. The Trio's fan service pop culture quips become too obnoxious to enjoy the geekdom, and surely this plot would be done differently today now that nerdism reigns. Simply put, Warren is an asshole and gets everything he deserves. Of course, in order to do that, you have to become more evil than he is, and Buffy is right that it is better to leave The Trio to the authorities rather than loose yourself in such rage.

Hokey ghost effects, repeated monster designs, visually darker schemes, dated 2001 laptops and payphones – this season of Buffy feels older than it is thanks to all this depression. Despite the regular Buffy writers and production team being here to run the show into the dark ground, was it creator Joss Whedon's larger than usual absence that let this season slide into common life addictions, character separation, internal evils, and one too many cliches? Perhaps. I'm tired of saying unlikable metaphor I know that. While casual fans may simply give up on Buffy halfway through here, completists will need to see Season 6 at least once to appreciate the player progressions – as well as their regressions and transgressions. Those familiar with Buffy can pick and choose their favorites, but the writing is on the wall for Buffy: The Vampire Slayer Season 6.

19 September 2015

Recent Horror Pros and Cons 2

Recent Horror Pros and Cons Round Two!
by Kristin Battestella

Well, say hey! Here's another debate on the mostly good, kind of bad, and disappointingly ugly thanks to this quartet of modern horror movies. 

Altar – Olivia Williams (Dollhouse) and Matthew Modine (Memphis Belle) renovate a spooky, desolate estate on the English Moors in this 2014 Kickstarter scary full of fog, muted black and white style, and crisp, chilly moods. This family isn't feeling the “no signal” under construction living for the sake of mom's work, and Modine looks appropriately Vincent Price-esque as her increasingly tense, creepy, and obsessive American artist husband. Williams' Mrs. is in over her head before the scares begin, and though she explores, uncovers hidden doors, and takes pictures, Meg isn't seen doing much actual renovation and this design premise feels unnecessary along with a son who only appears as required by the plot. She also disbelieves their daughter by trying to be down with the hip lingo, deflecting by watching a movie on the iPad, and not wanting tweets about ghosts or dissing of her work reputation online despite her own suspicions. Rather than being a strong, proactive wife and mother, Meg takes a lot of crap from her husband and ends up in need of rescue because she ignores the obligatory superstitious handyman, her own internet research, and the local ghost whisperer. Distorted camera work and spinning panoramas are unnecessary as well, interfering with the innate, ghostly fears and appropriately askew one on one strangers. Seemingly innocent cuts, drops of blood, eerie apparitions, bones cracking, disembodied phones ringing, bugs, and coming alive walls do enough atmosphere building over the 95 minutes, and a one sentence history makes things bemusingly self aware: this bad happened, that bad happened, place should be torn down, fin. Granted, this isn't anything new and not a whole lot actually happens, but the seventies haunted house movie feeling and overall creepy tone provide a well paced burn to counter the usual horror contrivances like separated family members, lookalike ghosts, and going back into the house because you forgot your car keys – although the asthmatic teen has her cell phone but not her inhaler, talk about priorities! The repeating past events and titular rituals will be expected by wise horror audiences, and some of those haunting details should have been clarified, faults I again suspect are due to having a one in the same writer and director. I feel like I've said a lot of negatives yet this one was better than I expected thanks to its not reaching with sex and gore or a trying to be something its not pretentiousness. There's some same old, same old, but the time remains a pleasing escalation of ghostly possessions.

Dark House – Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator) and Diane Salinger (Carnivale) anchor this laughable but creepy 85 minutes from 2010. Of course, the opening bloody stuffed animal titles and the long ass end credits pad what is actually a shorter runtime full of some bad acting and yuppie drama class millennial cliches – the ex-jock, a slut, the goth, and a token black guy. Shouting numerous curses is annoying not telling, the tech talk is already dated, and system critical virus visuals and CGI graphics are stinky, not to mention convenient when literal ghosts enter the machine. This a dimly lit, congested picture peppered with pointless jokes about unwanted lesbian advances, and the whoosh sounds accompanying flashback snippets are equally unnecessary. In your face gags are too Halloween attraction boo while the bad screamers aimlessly bumble from one trick to the next, splitting up for the attic or the basement, so wise. Just say no to that $300 a day horror movie actors within a horror movie haunt! Fortunately, Combs adds some much needed flair, and the eerie makeup, bemusing gore, and hammy zooms match his over the top haunted house holograms and fantastic mechanisms. Little girls, dead orphans, and a traumatizing garbage disposal add to the nightmares, therapy, pill taking, and facing fears, too. Apparently, the computerized research montage has now progressed to clicking through picture slideshows and watching news videos, because we all Google our past horror traumas to prepare for reliving that scary, sure. Although too many characters are needed to up the body count, the fun fakery sets up the humorous ease before the ghost scares increase, and our protagonists move along without knowing which deaths are real or part of the haunt design. Unchecked writer and director Darin Scott (Tales from the Hood) does unimaginatively play into every slasher movie expectation, including a tacked on finale switcharoo, and sophisticated horror fans expecting more will tune out long before a seriously goofy last image. However, if you can go with the fun and have a good laugh at it, this one isn't so bad.

Split Decision

Creep – I stumbled upon this 2014 thriller on Netflix before knowing it was found footage horror, which is admittedly not my favorite sub genre. The premise here is also weak – a cameraman who doesn't know he is in a horror movie answers a mysterious job offer to film for $1,000 a day at an isolated mountain cabin, why not. The trite drive up is videoed just so we can see our protagonist and herky jerky to and fro camera walking wastes precious time with transitions and travel. Too many scenes exists purely to build up annoying jump scares, and constantly changing locations undo the lone stalker atmosphere. First we are in the cabin, then hiking unprepared into the woods, then back in suburbia where the police laugh at the crimes because you've failed to show them all your ^%$#$# video evidence. Pick one entrapment and let it simmer rather than the pedestrian mobility of the camera. The obviously faux cancer video documentation scenes go on too long, becoming more awkward than endearing with bathtubs and wolf mask weirdness. That innate discomfort and titular feeling may be the point, however the creepy moments are left hanging and never built upon while the foreshadowing gives away everything. It's tough to focus on the obsessive sociopathy because the male on male stalker fears have a whiff too much latent homophobia. Attempts at humor or satire and self aware sympathy fall flat, missing the mark by fulfilling all the cliches. It takes 15 minutes for the barely there action to happen – trying to be dramatic confessions drag, gaining no traction as those aforementioned locations reset the scares. This should have stayed a taut short instead of a by the seat of the pants 77 minutes. Interestingly, the camera goes dark for audio revelations or silent for visual elevation, but the unique filming is undone by obvious editing and uneven pacing. Spooky phone calls add more confusion than suspicion, and nasty sexuality is just uncomfortable rather than risque. This attempted avante garde is too disjointed on top of stupid people being predictable, and the finale would be ironic except this kind of cynicism is commonplace today. A third perspective separate from collaborators Mark Duplass (The League) and Patrick Brice (The Overnight) or perhaps just traditional film making would have reined in the anchorless writing, trimmed the superfluous, and hit home the ominous potential here.

One to Skip

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death Blitz fears, raid sirens, and traumatized bombers open this 2014 Hammer sequel as teachers and orphans flee to the dilapidated, isolated Eel Marsh House – setting of the fine Victorian gothic of the first film. Oddly, the CGI London destruction lacks oomph, and the over saturated coloring is too dang dark. The mists and marsh fog can't build atmosphere if we can't see anything! The sounds here are also so quiet, the audience wouldn't know anything ghostly was afoot if not for the informative closed captioning. The supernatural setting alongside real wartime horrible is interesting enough, and Helen McCrory (Penny Dreadful) is appropriately kind but stern in her war at home refusal to break. The ladies look the period part, however Phoebe Fox (Switch) needs seasoning and unnecessary pilot Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) is too chiseled and modern pretty. More throwaway stock characters, youth cliches, sepia tone strobe visions, eerie basements, contemporary jump scare editing, and shoddy reiterations of what we saw in first movie all make for too many modern horror tropes hindering what's supposed to be a simmering period piece. Handwritten notes would add old fashioned flavor, but the camera never stays still on the dang paper long enough to read anything – not to mention today's non-cursive versed viewers can't read it anyway even if we weren't already blinking and missing the hectic visuals. Double talk ghost semantics never let the audience get personally invested despite creepy dolls, dusty antiques, and flickering lanterns creating macabre mood. It's tough to compare thanks to the changed setting and while I enjoy the notion of the franchise moving the titular vengeance through unique times, this should have either been an unrelated release or placed closer to the prior film – perhaps World War I or the Influenza epidemic. You can't strive for a sunny London finale when you are still in 19fricking42! Calling this a sequel both puts off viewers thinking they need to see the first – you don't – and belies audiences seeking a continuation of its predecessor. I'm probably being nicer than I should be because I like the setting and the idea, but unfortunately, the un-scary cop out ending and opportunity turned run of the mill undoes any good here.

13 September 2015

Spooky, Suspenseful, Short Lived Shows

Spooky and Suspenseful but Short Lived TV Shows!
by Kristin Battestella

Say that title three times fast and you might miss these brief contemporary serials filled with paranormal fun, suspenseful mystery, and sometimes, understandably canceled problems.

The Gates – Rhona Mitra (who always seems to be in short lived shows) joins new police chief with a questionable past Frank Grillo (Kingdom) for these 13 43 minute episodes aired on ABC in Summer 2010. The pilot gets right to the exclusive, too good to be true community, its bloody reveals, and cheating vampire couples – the carpooling drove her to it! Sadly, ridiculously brief opening credits make it tough to identify the main characters, onscreen introductions are uneven, people who should interact never do, and more players are added or forgotten weekly. The cast is at once diverse yet too Hollywood basic; minorities are both upscale professionals but still treated as secondary with no development. We like Grillo (an Italian actor playing a cop with the Celtic name of Monohan!) but he blindly overreacts to everything. Fortunately, things get intriguing once the high tech security technology and monster revelations turn the tables. The more interesting adult core and sinister guessing should have remained paramount, but the forced family scenes and high school love triangles sag immediately with thinly veiled werewolf latency and succubus birth control. While hammy in her try hard scorn, witch Chandra West (NYPD Blue), apothecary Victoria Platt (Guiding Light), vampire sunscreen jokes, and hypnotic teas are more fun than the badly lit wolfy, unnecessary hip music, dated flip phone texts, and soap opera slow zooms. Though filmed in Louisiana, an onscreen location or new American Gothic flavor is never addressed, and too many writers in so few episodes never allow for a cohesive vision. Redundant revenge and blackmail detract from the supernatural as slo mo vamp fu or dumb ghosts push aside budding monster does not make the man character drama. Every plot of the week filler is tossed at the screen in fast hopes of paranormal capitalizing when all that wasn't working should have been red penciled. Thankfully, Dallas style vamps versus wolfy secrets and bemusing, self aware, Stepford pretenses build enough atmosphere – yes, how do you arrest a vampire? The second half improves even if the final two episodes have the unenviable job of tying up too many loose threads. Ultimately, this series never decides if it is a spooky Melrose Place or a harder horror crime drama. It deserved another ten episodes to get things right, but this messy fun is perfect for a ghouly girls and potato chips binge weekend.

Top of the Lake – This beautifully photographed 2013 New Zealand thriller is broken into seven episodes stateside, but the marathon moves fast thanks to investigation twists, intersecting, desperate characters, and more peripheral crimes. There are red herrings, of course, with suspicious family, shady cops, and local criminals amid the uncomfortable young pregnancy, past abuses, sexual conflicts, self harm, and drug use. It's heavy! Who knows more than they are saying? Everyone knows everybody in this backwater small town, and if the women don't take the gruff from all the drunk, abusive men, then they are shamed, ostracized, and deemed lesbians. The nudity, saucy, and disturbing material, however, is not styled as sensationalized film making, leaving enough intelligent suggestion and implication to invest the audience in the mystery at hand. Unfortunately, there are a few questionable elements – women are always alone in the dark woods without cellphones or protection and too many interesting characters disappear after only a few scenes that seem to suggest they are significant and should appear again. There is no police procedure or back up, evidence is left hanging alongside several loose ends, and naive actions with poor follow through will aggravate long time detective viewers. The timeline also crunches several months worth of hefty events before providing a quicker, rushed, somewhat obvious resolution. Thankfully, this case is about bringing these motley people together and resolving their hidden issues just as much as it is solving the crime, and there are a few shockers, escalations, and taboos not often seen on American television as a result. Golden Globe winner Elizabeth Moss (Mad Men) is wonderful as her detective Robin Griffin deals with close to home sexual violence, past conflicts, and romantic weakness. She makes cop mistakes but rises above the backwoods masculine arrogance from the on form David Wenham – pretty as this show looks, there is no Lord of the Rings here and Faramir this is not! This year resolves itself nicely, so I'm not sure where they are going to go with the forthcoming second series even with the Nicole Kidman joining rumors. However, even when the audience thinks we have the despicable all pegged and the likable players at heart, there's plenty of excellent performances, intrigue, and social examinations here to keep us guessing and shouting at the TV.

Skip It!

Persons Unknown I barely made it through this 13 episode mystery thriller originally aired on NBC in Summer 2010 thanks to distorted flashbacks, jagged editing, shrill sounds, whoosh sliding effects, and booming music. Such erratic filming detracts from the anonymous surveillance fears, big brother abductions, and whiff of SF experimentation – which is unfortunately predictable ala “5 Characters in Search of an Exit.” The mostly unfamiliar cast and stock roles – mom, politician's daughter, soldier, mental patient, bully, etc. – are unevenly explored amid repeated team problem solving, leadership divisions, and stupid actions where the consequences are never considered. The wavering pace both shortchanges the narrative by skipping essential research, exploring, and deduction yet simultaneously pads the time by dragging out the tedious for unneeded dramatic effect and wannabe Lost toppers. Lesbian suggestions, Islam, and fallen priest plots are used when convenient or inexplicably dropped, and this lack of character depth pulls the rug out from under the already deflated emotional core. The why of a mid century hotel, empty main street, old payphones, and typewriters are mystery enough yet half the series is wasted on spinning tires escape attempts or stalling because the mole is too obvious and all of the numerous characters are too unlikable. Breaking the shady atmosphere possibilities for external, irrelevant investigative tabloid reporters is a mistake, and throwing love triangles and double talking government reprogramming on top of the heap doesn't hide the careless inconsistencies and tame but trying to be radical contrivances. Italian locales and Spanish flavors don't make up for the lack of answers, and this series proves exactly why episodic, weekly, network television needs to catch up with this decade's streaming, all at once storytelling. It looks like they had no idea how to end this overlong miniseries, which is maddening when viewers are only watching for the mystery to be %$#@^ solved.

09 September 2015

Any Day (2015)

First Draft Feeling Hampers Fine Performances in Any Day
by Kristin Battestella

Former boxer Vian (Sean Bean) is released from prison after serving twelve years for killing a man in bar fight. His sister Bethley (Kate Walsh) takes Vian in so long as he doesn't drink, but no one will hire an ex-con and Vian's former gym does not welcome him back to the training circuit. Soon, Vian meets Jolene (Eva Longoria) and gets a humble job at a pizza parlor run by the likewise down on his luck Roland (Tom Arnold). Things are looking up – until another tragedy strikes the family and tests their faith.

By setting the scene with a bar room brawl and cutting to the time served exit without all the in between red tape, writer and director Rustam Brannaman (The Culling) doesn't waste time in this modest slice of life struggle. Ironically, Any Day will be slow for those expecting the oft-seen scandalous drama or heavy hitting biopics, and nothing cinematic major happens amid the predictable accidents and shoehorned in mystical convenience here. Though self aware in having its convict out of touch with modern slang or in desperate need for a date, Any Day meanders with first draft flaws, initially implying Vian's goal is to train and box again before weak antagonism and finally focusing on getting his life back together. Trite twists in the second act almost undo the intriguing, realistic questions not often asked in mainstream cinema. What does it take to be someone and make it in life? What happens when things don't work out the way you plan? What do you do when life gets worse before it gets better? We're figuring out what to do with our baggage and living paycheck to paycheck, too, and that similarity might be too close to home to enjoy onscreen without any extra dramatic oomph. Two old guys working in a pizza joint and getting insulted by tween customers isn't exactly a life dream – but it could be if the place was fixed up, made respectable, treated as an investment rather than an embarrassment. The awkward but brief dance scene symbolizes how these rhythmless adults are just looking for a nice time where they can find it. Any Day is a mature movie yet it isn't violent with a lot of foul language, sex, or nudity and placating to any audience denominator. There are patchy spots and the redemption seems thinner than it should, but Any Day allows for some lovely moments of faith, prayer, and trust at its core. Maybe the curve balls in life are not coincidence and the good things happening aren't just luck after all.

Boxer Bean is perhaps beginning to show his wear after Sharpe, Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones, but we believe his fittingly washed up athlete and prison rugged in Any Day. Besides, Our Man Sean has been known to enjoy a brew or two and get in a bar fight himself. Old friends and family are dead, former gyms can't associate with convicts – Vian's rehabilitated and hasn't had a drink while inside but that isn't good enough for the slim pickings post-recession jobs today. He got drunk and accidentally killed a man, but Vian isn't really a bad guy, right? He walks or takes the bus, and asks to borrow the car while striking out with the ladies and training from home. Vian insists no job is too small – washing cars, sweeping floors, folding pizza boxes – this brought low has made him a teenager all over again. He faces kid bullies, mockery, and icky customers but remains humble and ready to work, thus earning new respect. Vian says he doesn't believe in a higher power, won't take any literary hints, and doesn't listen to family until its too late. However, it's refreshing to have a movie that is simply about a man finding his way, learning to build fresh trust, and resisting alcohol temptations, and Bean does fine work with both Vian's breaking point and life's little pleasures. Despite hampering plot contrivances, we want to see him make amends and turn round right.

Of course, Kate Walsh (Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice) is not happy to see brother Bean back in Any Day. Bethley's inherited their parents' house after a fatal car accident and is understandably worried about her ex-con brother's influence on her impressionable son. She is a church going single mom who hasn't had it easy and now taking care of her brother contributes to her problems. Vian's late with the car and isn't paying any bills, and Bethley can't take much more. It's a bit of a cliché mother and sister role with some hammy dialogue for Walsh, yet this is a nice part with character movement instead of the usual standing there just being a babe. Walsh wears glasses and doesn't look like a star as Bethley shops with coupons and has her faith tested in the worst way possible. It's not the customary lessons through sport plot, but Any Day does play the relationship between Vian and young Nolan Gross as his nephew Jimmy in typical fashion. Jimmy doesn't deserve the knocks he has in life, much less the expected bullying he receives, and he's a smart, philosophical kid who imparts Vian with as much wisdom as he receives from his uncle. The relationship should be inspirational, but it also comes off as somewhat mystical, compromising the third act in its attempt to elevate it. 

Love interest Eva Longoria (Desperate Housewives) represents a slightly more upscale prospect in Any Day – Jolene is a stylish mortgage broker but keeps kindness more important than money. While she and Vian have nice chemistry and conversations, unfortunately, the character is fairly insignificant with as minimal scenes as possible. It's no fault of Longoria, but the age difference between her and Bean is noticeable, and Jolene only serves the man of the movie just because a getting out of prison liaison should be addressed. Any Day does have a few scenes from her perspective, but this brief stalker antagonism goes nowhere. This is Vian's story and any scenes away from him distract from the redemption dynamic. Tom Arnold (True Lies), however, is a pleasant surprise as Vian's hyper, formerly shady, but frank pizza manager Roland. He hires Vian for his honesty, recognizing another man who is looking to rectify past mistakes. There's some nice dimension in their relationship when Roland becomes interested in Bethley as well – they've both been bad boys but Vian disapproves of the risky courtship. Rather than be a hackneyed movie pair or remain a stagnant friendship, Roland has his ups and downs as a parallel imperfect but a-okay hopeful force for Vian.

Although weepy, sentimental fiddle music sets the bittersweet tone for Any Day, a sappy, superfluous music montage comes a bit too soon in this hour and half. The credits, past introduction, and prison release establish the brought low situation just fine, so these extra music moments and slow motion hitting the punching bag scene transitions feel unnecessary. One training montage would have been enough, but again, Any Day isn't about Vian getting back into the ring as those workout snippets may have a viewer believe. Ridiculous foreshadowing bicycle scenes also allude to an obvious, easily deduced, and cliched plot turn, and such semi-deceiving, compromising pieces contribute to a direct to video cheapness or low budget amateur mood. Even the closing credits roll slowly to pad the runtime, again suggesting that when the writer and director are one and the same, there should be another eye assuring a polish and flow to the picture – you know, rather than making dumb mistakes like slow going porn credits. Fortunately, the lone sex scene in Any Day is tender rather than saucy, and there's no nudity taking things to excess. Families sharing older vehicles, fenced yards, and modest ranch homes with cramped interiors create an everyman, downtrodden locale to mirror our protagonist. While dimly lit rooms and night time photography seem dark and overly saturated, scenes filmed in a grocery store are both unusual onscreen yet delightfully commonplace. In Any Day, a simple errand can turn into something fun where anything can happen if you are looking for the sunny side of life.

Strangely, Any Day doesn't seem available on blu-ray, and the DVD rental is as bare bones as they come with information on the picture also tough to find. There's no wikipedia page, and neither Longoria's nor Walsh's pages list Any Day. If I wasn't a Bean fan, I probably wouldn't know about this movie at all. I didn't think a film could be so under the radar in 2015! Sure, Any Day is predictable and cliché with unnecessary scenes and a few odd film making choices. Audiences may not want to see a picture about normal living or find such difficulties too close to home. Some jaded viewers might confuse the internal spirituality and synchronicity for plot coincidence due to a thin script making the same mistake. This broad first draft tone almost leaves Any Day with a tacked on final act. Thankfully, fine performances showcasing realistic problems and daily struggles make up for the banal, and despite its flaws, Any Day is a nice little silver lining catharsis.