30 November 2015

Motown and Soul Gift Goodness!

Motown, Soul, and Sweetness!
By Kristin Battestella

What's not to love about these great gentleman – and some of their special lady compatriots – when there are such sweet compilations like this to gift, enjoy, and sing along again and again? That's what I thought!

The Best of The Temptations Millennium Collection Volume 1: The 60s – The title is a mouthful and this decade leg is not nearly as exhaustive as my beloved Temptations Anthology LP set, but the big Motown tunes such as “My Girl,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” and “Get Ready” are here. However, I won't lie, my sole purpose in picking up this CD was for the Diana Ross and the Supremes powerhouse duet “I'm Gonna Make You Love Me.” Hot Diggity! The staples are generally in chronological order from “Beauty is Only Skin Deep,” “Ain't Too Proud to Beg,” and “You're My Everything” to “I Wish It Would Rain,” “(I Know) I'm Losing You,” and “Can't Get Next to You.” Regardless of who's singing lead, if you like one tune, you like 'em all! I can't believe I had almost forgotten some of the songs I hadn't heard in a long time, but then it's all the nicer when you hear them again without any vinyl hiss. It's sad that this half hour session goes by quick, as there is certainly enough material and disc space to have something longer. The track list here isn't totally comparable to the group's first 1966 Greatest compilation, either, so why skimp customers into a Volume 2 and leave an early hits set incomplete without “The Girl's Alright with Me” and “Since I Lost My Baby”? Although “Cloud Nine” feels slightly psychedelic soul tacked on, I can accept the fact that my favorite “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” doesn't meet the inclusion criteria – for the title does indeed do what it says in capturing the classic Smokey Robinson produced era of the group. This is an affordable download or easy gift for the nostalgic audience to revisit some excellent music.

The Greatest Hits of Jackie Wilson – Can you imagine the media frenzy that would follow him if Jackie Wilson had lived today? There are indeed numerous compilations featuring the late star, but this 1998 CD is quite complete with 16 songs including everything from the catchy brass of “Reet Petite” and simply dreamy “To Be Loved” to us all trying to sing along with “Lonely Teardrops” and of course, “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” The foot tapping doesn't let up with “That's Why (I Love You So),” “I'll Be Satisfied,” and “Talk That Talk,” and the sweeping romance blossoms with “Night,” “Doggin' Around,” and “A Woman, a Lover, a Friend.” That's already all the magic for most albums, but “Am I the Man” and “Baby Workout” add more grooving while “Danny Boy” provides mellow high notes. Later career hits “Whispers (Getting Louder),” “I Get the Sweetest Feeling,” and “You Got Me Walking” conclude this quick moving session, and with most all tracks under three minutes, a lot is packed in to this 43 minute set. A similar song listing is on the earlier 1994 The Very Best of Jackie Wilson, however neither has a companion download edition compared to the more recent two disc Ultimate Jackie Wilson release. Smooth sounds at the office or accenting dinner for two – this is a great starter gift for newfound fans as well as an essential for any classic soul lover.

Marvin Gaye 15 Greatest Hits – Talk about some more turbulence in which TMZ would revel! This 1990 hour starts with “How Sweet It Is to be Loved by You,” ends with the twelve minute “Got to Give It Up,” and has quite a bit of pleasure and commentary in between with “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby,” “Let's Get It On,” “What's Going On,” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).” While hits such as “I Heard it through the Grapevine” and the “Your Precious Love” and “You're All I Need to Get By” duets with Tammi Terrell are here, “Ain't Nothing like the Real Thing” and “Ain't No Mountain High Enough” also with Terrell are unfortunately absent, as is “Sexual Healing.” Thankfully, the Diana Ross duet “My Mistake (Was to Love You)” is included, and there are several other duets-alone compilations to be had. There's such a goldmine of Marvin both with and without his girls, I guess there had to be a cut off somewhere, and some of the tracks here are the shorter, single edits rather than the full album versions. “Ain't That Peculiar,” “That's the Way Love Is,” “Trouble Man,” and “I Want You” provide more swanky, smooth, and grooving hits while “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” continues the social statements. Again, some of the glaring absences leave a slightly incomplete feeling. However, I don't want to call this a 'budget' CD edition simply because this is still a lengthy session brimming with such sweet sounds – making for a delightful fix for mind and body.

These be skippers!

The Drifters 20 Greatest Hits (1993) and The Drifters Greatest Hits (1991) – I have to say, it is a right major pain in the fricking arse being a fan of The Drifters – a group that has had no less than fifty band members in its revolving door line up. Seriously, go have a look at the who's who chart on their wikipedia page! New or returning incarnations either attempt to differentiate as 'so and so with The Drifters' or 'The Drifters featuring who' billings while other same name line ups feel like they are trying to trick you with their inferior remakes, deceptive covers, and sound alike re-recordings of the classic Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, and Rudy Lewis fronted tunes. Often, it feels like unless you have the original LPs or 45s, you don't know what you're going to get on a CD or download, and like other classic rock and roll listeners, it is those R&B paragon originals that I want to hear. So, I've attempted to discern the tunes here to save us some trouble. Unfortunately, outside of poorly remastered, seemingly spliced up combinations, or live cover versions of “Ruby Baby,” Money Honey,” “When My Little Girl Is Smiling,” “Saturday Night at the Movies,” “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “Another Saturday Night” “My Girl,” “I'll Take You Home,” and “Honey Love,” the remaining 11 of the tracks on 20 are copycat editions. On the 1991 compilation, gasp only my favorite “There Goes My Baby” and “Sweets for My Sweet” are the 'original recordings by the original artist.' I dearly love the mid-century heyday of this group and consider them one of my most beloved essentials in early rock studies, but my word the studio controlled or management owned rights battles and rocky rivalries make it nearly impossible for today's new listeners – and resentful classic fans – to appreciate The Drifters' impeccable catalog thanks to mash ups like the two here.

29 November 2015

Coriolanus (2014)

National Theatre Live's Coriolanus a Rip Roaring Performance
by Kristin Battestella

After having seen the 2011 film version of Coriolanus starring director Ralph Fiennes, I was quite keen to watch this 2013 stage production of Coriolanus presented by the Donmar Warehouse and broadcast internationally through the National Theatre Live program in 2014. Unfortunately, it would seem I live in the uncultured sticks, as during its initial live capture run, Coriolanus never came to a cinema near me – until this fall's encore season that is!

Roman general Caius Martius (Tom Hiddleston) single handedly captures the town of Corioli from his Volsican enemy Aufidius (Hadley Frasier). Now coined Coriolanus, Martius returns to Rome where his mother Volumnia (Deborah Findlay) and long time friend Senator Menenius (Mark Gatiss) urge him to become consul. Tribunes Brutus (Elliot Levey) and Sicinia (Helen Schlesinger), however, use Martius' crass exterior and poor opinions of the common people against him, resulting in his banishment from Rome. Will Coriolanus ally with Aufidius and march on his former homeland or do his familial ties to Rome hold a fatal influence?

Film versus Stage Design

Where Fiennes used his adaptation as a modern, war-torn, political commentary, director Josie Rourke presents her Shakespeare in a slightly abstract morale space, creating a classical feeling like Clash of the Titans where the gods place the players in the arena as though they were mere chess pieces. While the costume design may be generic and modern, precious few props leave nothing but the intimate sword fighting, arguments, escalation, and turnabout drama to tell the tale. Brief, slightly loud music covers the simple set and scene changes, but Coriolanus uses the small Donmar Warehouse staging to its advantage with shadow and lighting schemes – color lights differentiate locales, smoke fills the battles, and spotlights or darkness are used for surprise character entrances and exits. Graffiti painted on the wall and sparse background projections or graphics accentuate dialogue points while the central stage ladder is both used in battle scenes and stands symbolic of the social highs and lows. Boxes are painted on the floor to define where action takes place – or where one may stand inside to be judged – and the showering onstage multitasks by shrewdly saving time and washing the set clean as it reveals the painful bloodshed. Superb pops of red on the wall, floor, and the actors themselves create visual emphasis alongside flares, falling flower petals, and scarlet ballot papers littering Coriolanus with more representative details. The cast moves about the stage, adding more treats for the eye to follow, and the National Theatre Live presentation is well edited for the cinema. We see the cameras around the stage at times, but the machines doing the magic don't feel intrusive thanks to the varying up close shots, zooms, and camera angles they provide. Coriolanus is not one unmoving videotape, nor do we need that type of pulled back, full view of the Donmar. Rather than frame the scope of the production, the lense here slowly closes in on the only thing that matters: the people upon the stage.

Granted, Fiennes' Coriolanus film has more star power name recognition, and it is a treat to see such players in real life warzones chewing on meaty political commentary and modern media statements. Here, however, the taut ensemble is ready to race – this Coriolanus is a contest and the audience is waiting to see whose ruthless will be the victor. Sure, most viewers may already know who the eponymous loser is, but that doesn't deflate the packed drama. Even understandably condensed and paired down with altered scenes, a lot happens on this Donmar stage, and Coriolanus is a well paced, fast moving three hours. It's amazing how much can be said in one scene, let alone how much heavy can happen from one minute to the next. The public is so fickle amirite, and this squeeze happens quickly. Martius, his family, the Volsci, the Roman Senate, tribunes that rise or fall on the people's whim – nobody really wins in Coriolanus. Without the contemporary spoon-fed simplicity to which the audience is accustomed, all that remains is the emotion and corruption spearheading the dramatis personae toward the inevitable. By second the half of play, we don't even need the sparse stage dressings to be steeped in what's happening. The lights themselves close in on our protagonist, dwindling the the stage space until there is one lone chair and nowhere else to go. Ultimately, it isn't quite fair to compare the movie and this play edition, as the former relies on multiple film takes over weeks at a time with crew to perfect an overall encapsulation. That's tough enough, but it's amazing how here Coriolanus was performed day in and day out for weeks in its entirety. On the spot, no mistakes – there's nothing on which to rely but the ensemble's words, once again proving that intensity can be found just by people observing other people in a dramatic situation, no bombastic and CGI needed for the bravo here.

The Man of the Hour

Well then! Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers, Crimson Peak) is hefty, muscular, and unrestrained as Caius Martius Coriolanus. He bangs on a feeble pedestal to plead his case, spits when he shouts – I swear I could hear his leather gloves flex as he squeezed his fists. There are no over the top theatrics, and Hiddleston remains commanding with an unblinking, award winning, ticking clock fervor. He throws chairs, climbs ladders, is dosed in water and blood – the stage is his and he uses every element of it to craft this imposing, unlikable figure. Hiddleston is loud and intense but also whispers, becoming incredibly emotional and moved to manly tears whether he is on the dark stage near alone in brief soliloquy or surrounded by the ensemble in mock battle. Martius is svelte and war fit but a brute in his speech and mannerisms, unaware that the Senate is not the right time or place for his gruff attitude and hatred of lesser people breathing his air. Like Gretzky or Jordan, he could not base himself to lesser athletes' levels even if he were so inclined. He does not comprehend why he would try to be anything other than the soldier he is or play a political game to appease others and instead mocks public customs. Ironically, it's almost heroic how he keeps to his warped convictions – Martius is not without kindness when it comes to his men and an enemy that helped him. He appreciates battlefield respect, and although the audience sees the pain of his wounds and showering cleanse, he is correct in saying that we mere civilians can't understand what goes on in war. Unfortunately, any such truisms won't stop those more shrewd from manipulating this warrior and his weaknesses as an inept politician with no people skills.

From Loki to Henry V, several of Hiddleston's previous characters have had “daddy issues,” but our titular, one man, city destroying machine is a whipped and easily swayed mama's boy who does what he is told. “Theirs not to reason why...” and when Coriolanus does play beyond his political means, indeed it's “do or die” as Tennyson says. Hiddleston spends nearly half the play with one arm in a sling, wonderfully symbolic of how his lack of a political silver tongue ties one hand behind his back. They all twist his arm – the unlucky left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. Wrong in his arrogance as he is, once Martius is used for everyone else's gain and kicked to the curb for sticking to his guns, his brought low and made humble flaws become relatable, even humorous in this ironic turn from famous and strong to ignoble nobody. His body itself parallels the stage's graffiti and visual design– his wounds written upon him in battle again and again. Hiddleston stands back against this wall out of the spotlight until needed for Martius to be hosed down and made clean only to be bloodied again. This Coriolanus gives precious few character asides to tell us Martius' inner feelings, but thanks to this dynamite, nuanced performance from Hiddleston, we see Caius break. The audience doesn't blame him for embracing his emotional realizations and finally having a heart – even if this vulnerability is his final detriment. Whether he deserves his fate or not, in the end, does it really matter? Everyone wants a piece of Martius, and the wounds these dishonest wordsmiths give him are more fatal than his hard earned battle scars. In both senses of the word, he is a tool used and abused at the whim of others for bloodshed – be it enemy blood or his own. Whew. Hiddleston delivers an almost religious and Shakespeare made flesh overture in Coriolanus, but my goodness those fruit in the face zingers must have stung!


The Women in his Life

While Hiddleston may be the most famous player in Coriolanus and certainly makes his case for a captivating, blood-and-guts, one man show, Deborah Findlay (Cranford) comes close to stealing the play as Martius' vicariously living through him mother Volumnia. This self styled Madonna feels Rome's power via her son – a tall order that may be over the top for some viewers unaccustomed to theatre exaggerations. However, Volumnia's spectacle fits and spells are also intentionally emphasized to force her mighty son to kneel, cower, and tremble in her wake. Volumnia takes over every situation and assures her will be done, often shrewdly by planting the seed and letting her opposition feel they hold the decision. A husband, Cauis' father, or other customary Roman male relation is never mentioned, implying a lone woman suffering as she bore this son, rising him up to battle glory as an extension of herself and her name. Volumnia would be Martius' everything as he is hers – a heavy maternal hand and one of Shakespeare's stronger written women because she in many ways rules with a masculine fist over her son. Martius bleeds for Rome, but she has already bled for him and never misses an opportunity to recall her womanly superiority and womb trump card.

Volumnia is revered as having saved Rome and receives all the recognition she desired, but its bemusing that there's been some historical confusion over the similar names of Coriolanus' wife and mother – almost as if they were one woman, not two. Volumnia keeps her son's marriage stunted, almost as if she is in the bed between them. She uses Virgilia to soften Martius as needed, grooming them both and controlling her daughter-in-law like an approved surrogate. Volumnia schools her grandson, and as written, Vrigilia doesn't have much to do but speak when spoken to, assure Martius' lineage, and sew. Fortunately, Rourke uses the silent staging to her advantage, placing Birgitte Hjort Sorensen (Borgen) outside the painted square but in view during Volumnia's plots. She's listening from the shadows, showing how Virgilia isn't always content that Volumnia is first and she is second in Cauis' life. Her tenderness and soft, household balance shouldn't be an afterthought or deemed as inferior to her mother-in-law's marital intrusion. Sorensen matches the cast with her look and poise, and again the astute play movements often have Findlay in the background of the frame – the third figure between Caius and Virgilia. Unfortunately, these ladies have opposite interests for Martius, and only one will have her way.

Our Ensemble

Elder statesmen Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) as Senator Menenius and Peter de Jersey (Broadchurch) as the Roman commander Cominius likewise add brevity and staunch countermeasures in Coriolanus. Each father figure has his turn to levy on Martius' shoulder, with Menenius playing politician as a devilishly dressed whimsical gentleman and Cominius the loyal battlefield angel. Unfortunately, Martius heeds neither of them and pays a hefty price thanks to Hadley Frasier (Phantom of the Opera) as the Volscian leader Aufidius. Frasier doesn't have as much to do as the rest of the ensemble and is smaller in stature than Hiddleston but he is no less dangerous in his words or blows. There's a different energy to the Volsci scenes, and Aufidius looks ready to pounce on Coriolanus as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Martius took his sword in battle, emasculates him, and Aufidius bides his time until their rematch, toying with his prey like the lion in the arena. Aufidius is both a political and military leader who knows how to succeed – unlike Martius, who mocks commoners so easily yet fails to see when someone else is messing with him. When Martius makes Aufidius look bad, lets his guard down, and asks his enemy to advise him on what to do...Whelp! It's interesting how we look back to Shakespeare or the likes of The Tudors for our scandal and drama, yet The Bard himself looked back into earlier history to find the political parallels of his tragic “Roman Plays.” Five hundred years or fifteen hundred and have we learned our lesson yet? Nope.

Love to hate muckrakers – er tribunes Elliot Levey (Da Vinci's Demons) as Brutus and Helen Schlesinger (The Way We Live Now) as Sicinia are a lot like Volumnia in many ways. Both the powerful opposing women wear purple, however the tribunes' calculating is not with one man, but a dangerous game with the people of Rome. Their ploy manipulates the public into betraying Coriolanus, and their politicking happens not on the battlefield but inside the increasingly smaller senate space. Martius is literally boxed in upon their stage with nothing but speeches in this match, and he is not up to par compared to these deceptive wordsmiths. Their orchestrate from the back underhanded has little backbone compared to commanders who lead the charge, and the tribunes can't just press the reset button when Martius' turnabout goes wrong for Rome. Coriolanus is already a political play, and recent global events in the weeks before this encore only add more dimension to Shakespeare's perennial examination on the state of affairs. At times, the multiple roles played by Jacqueline Boatswain (Hollyoaks), Mark Stanley (Game of Thrones), Roschenda Sandall, and Dwane Walcott can be confusing due to subtle costume changes or a dialogue delay in whether they are Roman or Volsican. Fortunately, this small ensemble necessity also works in the play's favor, for indeed the highs and lows on both sides of conflicts are ultimately one and the same. Although Alfred Enoch (Harry Potter) appears as Lartius largely in the first half of Coriolanus before disappearing, it might have been neat to see him play both this Roman and the Volsican lieutenant to hit that common soldier point home. Lastly, I must also applaud Coriolanus for the colorblind and gender-blind casting of this production. It's sad and I'm sorry to say, but simply put, we don't see that type of equality in the mainstream industry stateside.

A Theatre Experience

For this encore showing I attended, there was a group of girls in the back of the cinema who kept laughing at the wrong time. Whether that was due to a Hiddleston effect, lack of Shakespearean comprehension, or perhaps both, I don't know. There was also a loud pretentious young couple who announced that they were going to carry on their conversation in Italian – presumably just because they could and wanted everyone to know it? Though at a small independent venue, the showing was filled to near capacity with a slightly older, mature, educated audience who did chuckle at the right Shakespeare puns, and it is nicer to be amid an intellectual audience for a change instead of the increasingly popcorn bombastic. The downloadable audio commentary featuring some of the cast and crew is also an interesting addition to Coriolanus, and it's neat that new exclusive content could still be added to make the encore screenings even more special. I completely understand the National Theatre Live's goals in wanting to bring people to a regular movie “theater” to expand interest in “theatre” and it is a catch-22 to release Coriolanus on DVD and risk losing this unique combination cinema experience. However, I do believe that interest in National Theatre Live's programs would be maximized with some sort of free video content or streaming subscriptions and official online availability. Instead of wasting time with trailers, a short behind the scenes for Coriolanus and a history of the Donmar Warehouse lead into the play and there is an intermission half way through for audiences to break without interfering with the show. What's this time to cater to a moviegoer's mind and body? Pfft big blockbusters packing in the most screenings possible don't have time for that!

I don't often review theatre programs like Coriolanus because most special presentations such as this don't come to my area and traveling far isn't always an option. Must I spend two days in New York City every time I want to see a three hour play? I'd love to see the National Theatre Live's Frankenstein presentation, and I wish I could see another production directed by Rourke or more from the Donmar Warehouse. This is a lot to take in live, granted, and Coriolanus should probably be seen more than once if possible – thrice with the commentary. Coriolanus asks an audience usually dulled by their entertainment to instead infuse our time with history and tragedy. In an era where billion dollar record breakers rule the box office each year, Coriolanus proves there is still room for quality alternative cinema and innovated outside the box drama. Amen!

23 November 2015

Witches of East End: Season 1

Witches of East End's Season 1 is Too Muddled
by Kristin Battestella

Based upon the novels by Melissa de la Cruz, the late Lifetime series Witches of East End had plenty of magical potential. Unfortunately, this ten episode debut falters in balancing its bewitching tales and romantic plotlines, resulting in perhaps too many growing pains.

Artist Joanna Beauchamp (Julia Ormond) is surprised to see her wildcat sister Wendy (Madchen Amick) after a century apart – for unbeknownst to Joanna's daughters Ingrid (Rachel Boston) and Freya (Jenna Dewan Tatum), they are a family of exiled and cursed witches. The immortal Joanna is doomed to see her daughters continuously born, grow up, and die, and this time she has steered the bookish Ingrid and romantic Freya away from their dangerous magical abilities in hopes of giving them a fuller, longer life. An old enemy, however, is after Joanna, taking on her lookalike form or shifting into other guises as needed to threaten the Beauchamps and interfere with Freya's impending wedding to Dr. Dash Gardiner (Eric Winter). While her future mother-in-law Penelope (Virginia Madsen) is slowly warming to Freya, Dash's wayward brother Killian (Daniel Di Tomasso) makes for a much more steamy adversary to the nuptials.

Glitz, glamour, saucy dreams, and ominous rituals in the garden open Witches of East End, and the “Pilot” moves quickly with fast talking folks and one blink and you miss it spooky incident after another. There's a lot of house history and paranormal exposition shoehorned in the first ten minutes alone – making it tough to appreciate the morphing red flowers, poofing photographs, doppelgangers, pentagrams, and murder afoot. Did I mention the trite love triangle also being introduced? Witches of East End has much to digest, and although based upon its own book series, comparisons between Witches of Eastwick, Charmed, and Practical Magic are understandably apparent due to this initial patchwork and too similar feeling. Fortunately, Victorian flashbacks and glimpses into the twenties anchor past pain and fate coming to catch the titular ladies – unique tales that might have set Witches of East End further apart from those aforementioned comparables had it been set as a period piece. While it's nice to have all age appropriate adults and realistic looking dark haired ladies instead of cliché teen bimbos, the enemy evil is told about more than it is actually seen, strong women are always being attacked by icky men, and attempts to be self aware about such cliches end up playing into that very same old. Witches of East End takes too long to get rolling, superficial threats are too easily resolved, and hello look at that shoddy police work. Thankfully, the intercut spell editing and smaller threats in “Marilyn Fenwick, R.I.P.” tie into the intriguing premise's overall revenge and magical consequences. The sardonic comedy and rules of being a witch remain fun while serious conversations on whether magic is a gift or nothing but problems add drama. Rather than speedy shockers, time is taken with magic training and spell practice in “Today I am a Witch.” More sepia flashbacks and a long list of enemies shape the storylines while magical mistakes, face to face confrontations, and debate on whether these potions and powers should be used for protection and defense or the offensive help Witches of East End get a foot on the right moonlit path.

Fun guest stars, more sinister, and villainous history further up the conflict, surprises, and retribution in “A Few Good Talismen,” and the rules of the realm are established in “Electric Avenue” thanks to ghosts, legal tricks, and courtroom encounters. Witches of East End over relies on fast talking delivery and conveniently mentioned witchcraft information after the fact – we are told about more spells being done that we don't get to see. However, when action actually happens, it is entertaining and weighted with supernatural arguments. Is the witchcraft right and justified in one scenario and wrong in another? Unfortunately, the pretty people making moon eyes in the pool in “Potentia Noctis” detract from the historical nuggets, turn of the century saucy, and spell casting magical brownies. The period apothecary, rival magics, multilevel spells, and mansion tunnels are top notch, again making one wonder why Witches of East End didn't just dance the dance and begin with all this quality past beguine. The zombie resurrections and good girls gone bad consequences in “Unburied” are also hampered by the intercut romantic scenes. Yes, the magical hair pulling torture is kind of hokey, but the deadly high stakes is just a bit more important than love la dee da. New character dynamics and more evil shapeshifter meaty end up uneven or stretched thin because this need for dreamy keeps undercutting the magical ruses, occult research, fantastical dangers, and titular charms in “Snake Eyes.”

Whoa, whoa, spoiler alert! Forget the love triangle soapy, the Beauchamps come from Asgard, can never go home, and more family has been left behind – and all this news is dropped with a mere two episodes left in the First Season. Say what? Knowing this information makes Witches of East End a lot more interesting, even as we again wonder why the series didn't shoot out the gate with this enchanting who, why, and how it effects the present family. Any and all fantastical dalliances could have come through the town portal for our learning to be witches to wrangle each week and we got sweet nothings at the local pub instead? It's great to see the sisters going head to head and banging up the house, too – even if the animated laundry is laughable. “A Parching Imbued” has the supernatural feeling Witches of East End needs with the eponymous gals in white robes on the beach casting spells while the evil shifter interferes directly with counter magic. Doppelgangers walk down the street, powers are lost, and conflicts arise over surprise character twists. Granted again the evil torture chamber looks more like an industrial art museum display, but deaths, harbingers of doom, and threats both mortal and magical disrupt the wedding preparations in the “Oh, What a World!” finale. Why ruin all the Asgard answers, bad omens, and major dramatic developments with too many sappy montages and pop songs? I'm ready for the verbal bitch slaps and magic battles! Although the easy, rushed resolution leaves Witches of East End on a cliffhanger and the San Francisco flashback shows the audience the tavern with magic cocktails we already know, the connection to present truths create some much needed character changes to up the ante for Season Two.

Thanks to the lovely at any age and foxy but poised Julia Ormond (Legends of the Fall), the viewer immediately likes immortal witch and mother Joanna Beauchamp. She's trying to keep her daughters safe due to a horrible curse and that live forever quality doesn't mean that enemies aren't out to test her immortality. Ormond's accent is an odd mix of toned down British and put on American, which may bother some, but it can also be excused thanks to her long lived times – there's certainly some fun Latin and doppelganger mayhem to chew on, too. Despite her continuously telling lies and withholding information, we don't blame Joanna for hiding the witchy ways in order to save this generation. Everything she does is to protect her daughters, to give them normal lives, and help them realize being a witch isn't their be all end all. Witches of East End's uneven focus between the ensemble love and Joanna's ongoing enemy plot wavers too much – sometimes we don't see our star very much from episode to episode. However, the backstory and family revelations late in the season add new spins. Joanna has her own moments of happiness amid the dangerous, and her second love interest should have been recurring all along gosh darn it. It's amazing to see a strong, mature, and classy lady working to keep her family together. Joanna admits she can't deal with her history and magic on her own, and her coming round to magic uses, accepting her past, and embracing her power gives Witches of East End a positive anchor.

It's unfortunate that Rachel Boston's (American Dreams) Ingrid is always siding with Wendy while Freya is most often with Joanna, as these limited pairings inhibit plot variety and keep critical information from all the players – who often behave more like four women in separate events rather than a core family. Unless you read some of the series' apocrypha, the audience doesn't get all the details, such as Ingrid being the older sister. Her level headed skepticism and slightly awkward but honest chemistry is a welcome change of pace early on Witches of East End, however her uber shrew detesting of Meg Ryan and Katherine Heigl movies is too textbook on the nose and used more to differentiate her from her dreamy lovestruck sister than develop her own personality. Ingrid is a realistic student of history and witchcraft that suddenly jumps the gun and writes spells because she's really powerful with a saucy evil past and not just a shy librarian after all. From episode to episode Ingrid is either awed, wide eyed, whoopsie surprised, and scared of her magical mantle or being selfish and stupid with serious life and death spells. It's great to see when her magic gets out of hand with erroneous consequences, but the character is made smart and stupid at the same time and too often caught in over her head whilst we are also repeatedly being told she is the good one. Which is it?

Likewise, Jenna Dewan Tatum's (Step Up) wishy washy romantically confused shtick gets old fast, and I wish I could skip over her 'he's oh so dreamy' scenes. We don't know anything about Freya except how she is torn between two men. Even when she finds out she is a witch, she turns princess and doesn't want to get her hands dirty with spells – only to be angry later when her powers don't work. Why couldn't the love triangle plot be developed later once Freya knows who she is and has accepted her powers? Instead she always needs to be saved by one of her men. Meh. This same old melodrama wastes time Witches of East End doesn't have to spare, and honestly, I would rather have seen only one daughter in a learning to be a witch plot with more focus on the elder sisters. Isn't Freya too old to be this juvenile? She learns of her magic history but would rather talk about boys, and she's a bartender who's good at potions, ba dum tish! I'm not opposed to Gothic love triangles done right in paranormal fantasies. However, I do expect to know something more about an allegedly strong woman – an immortal witch from Asgard no less – before knowing who she's boinking as though the boinking is the most important thing about her. As if!

Thankfully, Madchen Amick (Twin Peaks), is a feline delight for Witches of East End as Joanna's wild sister Wendy. She has nine lives to live and now in her slightly mature age uses her experience to protect her family. Wendy is self aware, sarcastic, and educates her nieces on good magic just as much as she imparts don't be like her reckless wisdom. Of course, that's not to say she doesn't get up to wrong doing spells and danger, but Wendy remains a positive sounding board. Some of her plots do move too fast – they use up her lives quickly and swoop in a love interest, too. However, some of the speedy exposition works when Wendy is dropping witty asides and one line adventures about being widowed, married, divorced again, or eaten by a crocodile. Her knowing how to fix or undo a spell is also a convenient dues ex machina used too many times on Witches of East End, but the sisterly pros and cons are well done with both Wendy or Joanna each being short sighted at times in their magical knowledge or uses. Where Joanna seeks to motherly protect, Wendy would rather empower her nieces. Is one way better than the other or can both styles strengthen the family? Amick is a fun counter balance whose personality doesn't change from week to week – unlike the under utilized Virginia Madsen (Candyman) as Freya's snotty future mother-in-law Penelope. It takes half the season for what we already suspect of Penelope to come to light, making for another missed opportunity that Witches of East End should have indulged from day one.

Dimension also comes too late for Eric Winter (The Ugly Truth) as Freya's fiance Dash. Why couldn't he have been a doctor first and foremost instead of one half of a limp couple? Scenes with science investigation to counter magic end up going nowhere, and time focusing solely on the brotherly rivalry is so slow compared to the rapid witch pacing. We can see man pain anywhere, and Witches of East End could have at least completed the trifecta and had Canadian Italian model Donald Di Tomasso play hockey instead of serving up the same old dark, mysterious, music, and motorcycle Killian brooding. The series continually falls back on this teen wannabe bedroom ho hum, and such glaring plots don't belong on what's supposed to be a sophisticated, women-oriented supernatural show. Fortunately, familiar guests including Matt Frewer (Max Headroom), Joel Gretsch (The 4400), Jason George (Grey's Anatomy), and Freddie Prinze, Jr. (Scooby Doo) add mature, supporting sensibilities to Witches of East End. It is, however, disappointing to see the charming Tom Lenk (Buffy) and Kellee Stewart (My Boys) typically typecast as the gay and black best friends, respectively. Tiya Sircar (The Internship) as Amy also starts with medical intelligence and character strengths, but is ultimately made stupid with Witches of East End once again wasting better, progressive plot opportunities and giving both its interracial and mixed couples ill fates. Tsk tsk. All these independent, confident chicks and ensemble support possibilities, yet it appears the only purpose of Witches of East End's unfocused storytelling is to toss every woman a man. Bechdel test my foot – when we do get all the lady librarians, doctors, immortals, and witches together they still end up talking about men!

Witches of East End has a fitting mood with black cats, bewitching eyes, skeleton keys, Latin curses, and a pink Victorian house that belies the spooky within its quaint. Books, photographs, ominous lighting, small period piece doses, and freaky bathtubs should be used even more for a slow burn atmosphere, yet once again I come back to the faulty execution at work. Witches of East End could have been styled as several television movies or at least had a feature length pilot episode, however the ridiculous playing at double speed opening title card is a lighting bolt blink and bam indicative of how by the pants these 42 minutes or less episodes were steered. The witch effects and magical movements are cheap and quick, as if making them one second longer would cost too much. Trite 'if this were a movie, this would be the part where happens!' dialogue doesn't excuse borrowed ideas – like the trapped in the painting plot lifted from The Witches. Cell phones and modern lingo are intrusive, and unlike The Witches of Eastwick, everything in Witches of East End feels lighthearted, too soft with little edge or dark style. Cursing and some near nudity amid brief 1906 orgies are fine, but such saucy is also an obvious, late in the hour desperate move – and something turn of the century should not be montaged with contemporary pop music! Witches of East End never fully establishes its titular setting, and we know almost nothing about the town's size, how many shops there are, or what the main street layout may be. Are there no nosy neighbors to spy on these backyard spells? Is the Beauchamp name beloved or notorious in the community? Viewers don't find out the town is shrouded on a map and secretly famed for its occult history or hiding a gosh darn gateway to Asgard until it is too late. Good job, everyone!

If you are familiar with other magical material, Witches of East End will be very derivative. Some audiences may like that whimsical comfort, readers of the series especially I imagine, but that unfulfilled basic may be disappointing for others. Undivided viewing attention is needed for this incredibly fast moving design, and a marathon session is a must to both keep up with the fast moving plots or exposition dumping and breeze over the spinning tires romance. The steamy attempts may cater to the Lifetime audience but such trite strays too far into soap opera over the top at the expense of the unique core potential. All that should have happened to start Witches of East End comes in the second half of the season, with numerous writers and directors falling flat over a backward execution – which is surprising since there is a literary source. Though Witches of East End is certainly watchable for paranormal light fans looking for a streaming weekend or ladies growing out of Charmed, the weekly witchy, immortal trials, and magical tribulations feel like they should be bigger somehow – leaving this debut with more than its fair share of flaws muddling the magic.

16 November 2015

Recent Horror Positives Deux!

Recent Horror Positives Deux
by Kristin Battestella

This contemporary quartet of movies and anthologies big and small provides plenty of quality murder, mayhem, paranoia, gore, and more. Your welcome.

Bug – Retro telephone rings, an isolated and rundown motel, and blue neon lighting establish the would be rock bottom for beat up, lonely, straggly haired waitress Ashley Judd (Double Jeopardy) in this 2006 psychological scare directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist). Unfortunately the solitary drinking, drug use, and one sided phone conversations become much worse thanks to the enigmatic and awkward Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) and his forthright perceptions on crickets and conspiracies. The smoke detector, a pizza delivery – even the disappearance of Agnes' son years prior is newly suspect. Violent, intrusive ex-husband Harry Connick Jr. (Copycat) is equally solid thanks to meaty one-on-one dialogues, masculine tensions, and terse back and forth exchanges. There's exposition, sure, but these conversations realistically rely more on past emotions and mistakes the characters already know. This is a messed up, small, and sad little world with more pronounced accents for the Oklahoma setting and a one room design that looks ten years older anchoring the dramatic first hour as the creepy crawlies, military history, and medical paranoia increase. Just because one can't see the infestations that doesn't mean they aren't there, right? People flipping out over bugs invisible to the audience can be unintentionally humorous, granted. However, the well edited camera cuts and movements within the tiny stage space ala the Tracy Letts (Killer Joe) source play accentuate the increasingly crazy theories and jumping to conclusions extremes – which are in turn ridiculous and unbelievable. Even if there is a grain of truth impetus and misplaced maternal instincts realized too late, sparse uses of bite marks, blood, plastics, tin foil, and bug lights – as in dozens of bug lights and wall to wall tin foil shiny – isolate our lead pair within their conspiracy together. The zapper glow adds a surreal, padded room reflection where homemade madness trades one type of abuse and insanity for another. Let's pull out our own teeth because the government put bugs in our fillings! Okay! This is not scare a minute slasher dicing horror as some viewers would expect but rather a freaky thinking person's examination of mind and body fears and inside and out delusions all done without CGI and $250 million hyperbole. As to the slightly confusing post credit clips, I suspect the first is where Agnes' mental breakdown began and the second is when her delusion passes the point of no return. Of course, I could be wrong, as it probably wasn't the smartest idea to watch this particular movie while I had a hives breakout!

Darknet – This 2013 Canadian anthology series jumps right into the First of Six half hour episodes with an internal website design, ominous subway obliviousness, and mysterious keys in a terminal locker leading to more clues. Our young and hip protagonists are often alone, in over their heads, and unaware they are horror subjects, and the seemingly random, intercut mini tales make it tough to grow attached whether our anonymous victims are in the played videos or surfing the visuals in real time. These aren't characters, just people being scared from scene to scene. Surveillance camera black and white accents the suspense and ironic toppers in each vignette, but the non-linear excuses only provide short term effectiveness. Through the keyhole views, police investigations, voyeurs, and saucy witnesses help rebuild tension in Episode Two, and bickering couples, incessant buzzing, faulty electricity, and erotic treasure maps don't lead to a happy ending. Whether the stories are creatively connected or not, the disjointed twists aren't necessarily crafty when the audience is duped into a confusing short attention span structure. Episode Three serves up eerie escorts, homeopathic pills, perilous jaywalking, and worse telephone repairmen – those tasers do come in handy! Despite the lack of logic needed to keep the shockers afloat, the storylines are quite quality along with the desperate prescriptions, kitchen hallucinations, and surgery fears of Show Four. Yes, be suspicious of house call doctors, cryptic contests, and fishy hotline calls! The isolation, blurred camerawork, and disembodied voices go well with the medical horrors, proving the plots here don't always have to be solely murderous. Cubicle ho hum and new town paranoia also do excellently in the full length story for Episode 5, using the alarming videos within an escalating tale for what ifs instead of the previous plot hole shockers. Ironically, the Finale goes back to hacker games and cheap sex thrills, weakening the killer tapping on the window simmer and turnabout is fair play surprises for a limp finish. A Season Two is in the works, and this kind of instant shock value fits its online Vimeo platform – where the over reliance on technology, messaging, social screens, and scrolling matches the current horror trends. Worse sex and violence can be found on the internet, however, and in five years, that technological steep will compromise all watch-ability. That's not to say the series isn't without promise, but its fleeting by design choices over brewing scares is only a fright fix memorable in small doses. Hopefully,the next batch will correct the kinks and notch up the fear. 

It Follows – A scantily clad girl running away in red high heels makes for a spooky start amid the rural, seemingly innocent Halloween leaves, sidewalks, and backyard pool safety here. The audience automatically suspects sexual violence – childhood fun and teen movie harmless quickly change to lipstick, pink lingerie, gruesome beach findings, and chloroform. Dating and sexual awakenings aren't so blissful, eh? Fortunately, the bathing suits and backseat panting aren't filmed for titillation. Outside of a few slow pans up a girl's bare legs to reflect what's on a guy's mind, the nudity here is for scares – the disheveled naked woman silently approaching and banging on the door allows the viewer to fill in our own saucy worst fears amid the middle America dated and downtrodden Michigan bleak. Old televisions, retro porn mags, and big station wagons with kids at the wheel add a nostalgia lost alongside the slightly eighties after school special music and Amityville lakeside scenery. Ice cream parlors, school halls, swing sets – this supernatural STD and sexual predator is everywhere with absentee parents, hospital visits, and assault evidence feeling bad but not really doing much about it, mirroring how our society both allows for the heartbreak whilst also saying she gets what she deserves for having sex. Oh, you consented, it will haunt you, but just get rid of it by passing it along. Sorry! We perpetuate a Little Red Riding Hood pursuit and sexualized too soon and then shame the victim with the Pilate need for water and a cleansing rain. Long hallways, locked doors, and Freudian disguises represent an abusive, festering trauma that all too often happens silent and unseen in these suburban locales where we least expect it. Of course, those friend zoned boys are willing to risk catching this crazy shit just for a chance at some vag! After all, it's for her own good, right? Do you prostitute yourself just to stave off the inevitable and allow the supernatural abuse and systematic robbing of our blissful youth? The horrifying answers are wisely left open to one's own interpretation, however the aquatic finale falters greatly. Again, perhaps having another eye for writer and director David Robert Mitchell might have strengthened some of the teen stupidity and invisible humorous – these kids fight before considering how to make it visible to attack. One character is completely useless – she is shot and no one cares – and although the clam shell meets birth control case design is smartly symbolic, this e-reader compact holding all the literary references is too on the nose, distracting from the otherwise fun old time horror allusions and general lack of modern technology. The absence of a research montage is also odd and no one looks into paranormal or religious cures, but shrewd pans and camera shots where the audience sees the titular approach when no one else does make for some scary moments. Like The Babadook, the real world horrors we aren't supposed to discuss are addressed without being preachy, and the social commentary amid the fears keeps the viewer doubly on edge.

The Theatre Bizarre – Udo Kier (Shadow of the Vampire) is discomforting in his puppet makeup and makes for a bizarre animatronic host indeed for the “Theatre Guignol” frame story linking this 2011 anthology. Our First tale “The Mother of Toads” is self aware with Lovecraft references, croaking old ladies, reptilian rituals, and disturbing nudity – but the vacationing couple clichés may bore horror viewers expecting oomph. Tale Two “I Love You” escalates from a dramatic break up and bad sex to a painful look at two timing revelations and honest cruelties. Again, the violent reactions are predictable, but the distorted editing is a pleasing accent on the unabashedly R skin and splatter. The Third segment “Wet Dreams” offers a weird therapist, torture devices, and several creative varieties on every man's fear of uh... dismemberment. Dream analysis blurs the line between conscious moments or imagination, but that abstract also muddles some of the sympathy involved. “The Accident,” however, has pretty scenery, a little girl asking hefty questions, intercut motorcycle fatalities, and upsetting animal scenes. Why do we lie to comfort our children? While such somber may seem out of place here, this vignette isn't trying to scare but instead relay what is scary to us. Next, rapid life flashing before your eyes editing, back alley stupor, drug fixes, and eerie needles anchor the premise of “Vision Stains.” What if memory collection was within the eye itself? Should it be stolen in a dark violent high disguised as some sort of vigilante justice? The solitary narration makes the structure difficult, but that askew perception is also necessary to the storytelling. Gluttonous decadence, sex meets food sustenance, and avante garde orgies make for some fun fetish extremes for the finale “Sweets,” and director commentaries and lengthy interview features provide more insights. The overall tone, however, does seem sexist on both sides – male directors telling tales about bitches but those gals are apparently justified over such creep dudes. The balance isn't quite right, and if viewers are going to pick and choose their favorite segments individually, the concepts might have been nice to see in a new Tales from the Crypt style series instead. A lot here is too weird, derivative, and uneven thanks to the unique design, but there is still some choice horror entertainment, too.

10 November 2015

Warped Wombs and Creepy Kids

Warped Wombs and Creepy Children
by Kristin Battestella

This quartet of seventies scares is full of evil kids, demented moms, and twisted science. Because we can never have enough of such macabre reproduction horrors...not!

The Brood – Mind and body horrors run rampant in this 1979 David Cronenberg (Shivers) allegory starring an on form Oliver Reed (Burnt Offerings), sympathetic dad Art Hindle (Black Christmas), and a crazy “Mummies never hurt their children” Samantha Eggar (The Collector). Harsh one on one psychological exercises, intense therapy, heavy confrontations, and upsetting family actions shape the believable anger and discomforting dialogue, layering the icky delusions and abuse suspicious before the violent attacks, blunt trauma, and blood spilled in what should be a safe visit to grandma's ye olde kitchen. The cutaway editing and low angle filming smartly disguises the unseen culprits while hissing, gurgling, and screaming create a look away repulsion to delay the creature reveal. Those are strong little suckers! Polaroids, old toys, a natural look, and rustic colors counter the strung out feelings, skeptical on edge, and simmering Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings) music while the repressed character drama balances the metaphysical and fantastic conversations. What if we could manifest all our ills on our body? This cultish “psychoplasmics” takes the psychosomatic fears too far – the opposite extreme of looking the other way alcoholism, perpetuating abuse, and festering pains. Purple visuals set apart autopsies, mutant examinations, and radical science, upping the would be laughable of those frumpy seventies snowsuits with disturbing witnessing and child helplessness. Although the source of titular critters becomes obvious during the 92 minute uncut duration, the monstrous possibilities and mental spiral remain a frightening what if with plenty of gruesome projections for a twisted little horror finale.

Crimes of the FutureThis early 70 minute short film is featured on The Brood's Criterion blu-ray edition alongside another 85 minutes worth of cast and crew retrospectives, archive footage with Oliver Reed, and Cronenberg interviews. Understandably, the bizarre silence, slow comings and goings, weird stillness, and sporadic voiceover all on a 1970 nil budget is not for everyone. Fortunately, the 1997 bleak concrete and fallen industrialized affluence match the empty dystopian isolation. A “rouge” cosmetics plaque has killed all the women, and our androgynous, cleric clad in black unreliable narrator gives a detached lab report on the increasing gender changes. Red nail polish adorns men's sinistre left hand only and one with painted toes is mugged and beaten – but it's okay to consume the “chocolate” secreted by these special men so long as there are no women. Such venereal disease references, biological differences, and veiled statements on institutionalizing homosexuals for “therapy” are quite ahead of their time, and it would be intriguing to see Cronenberg do a fully scripted version today. The sorting socks and underwear scenes reflect a perverted ritual collection, but the near boring repetition detracts from a disturbing barefoot and white gloved secret pedophile meeting. Distorted sound schemes and the in limbo atmosphere create a lull before the chaos, as these repressed, feminine men escalate toward wicked violence, child trafficking, and disturbing sexual deviance for their supposedly justified and clinical cure. It's an ironic title, as it doesn't take a gender skewing apocalypse for this kind of horror to happen. Yes, this is an out there picture with poor pacing, structural flaws, and an upsetting real world horror finale – making this worth a look for sociological studies and film historians.

Devil Times Five – Teen idol Leif Garrett and his sister Dawn Lyn make for some creepy youngins in this 1974 picture also known as Peopletoys – and a dozen other titles for good measure. Eerie seventies lullaby notes ironically accent the snowy vacation spot, yuppie couples, and old fogies as perilous, icy, winding roads lead to vehicular disasters. Nuns and kids should be a sign of safety, however, real snow filming, old fashioned cars, and past technological isolation up the apprehensive mood. Although the teen voiceovers and their jive lingo are dated and the characters are initially stock stereotypes, the acting both from the adults and the children isn't bad. Slow motion and still zooms are unnecessary now, granted, but the black and white scenes showcase the shocking child violence, blunt objects, and group attacks – an extra oomph on how these miniature sociopaths get hungry and sleepy after a good bludgeoning. A belittling sex proposition of a slow adult is awkward, but cat fights, lingerie, and boobs about the bedroom scenes create a saucy upscale before our unaware adults come to realize they can't handle these escaped, killer charges – who have a wicked motivation and intellect far beyond their years. Guns go missing, knives disappear, wood needs to be chopped, and it's fun to see who or what is going to set off another crafty murder. Sure, this isn't scary by today's standards. However, the bathtub terrors and snow siege build well over the 88 minute time for some bemusing – if twisted – entertainment. 


Embryo – Barbara Carrera (Dallas) co-stars in this 1976 Shelley twist wildly proclaiming how the science fiction presented is closer to medical possibility than we think. Weird fetal pictures, stormy roads, and sensitive puppy moments have the audience believing the freaky, too. Dogs in horror movies – gosh darn it why?! Widower Rock Hudson (Giant) narrates these procedures upon returning to his nice, in house, rural laboratory, complete with sister-in-law Diane Ladd (Wild at Heart) and warm cup of coffee comforts to hide the sinister science. Giant old tape decks, ancient computers designs, and period hospital imagery add a dated, fantastic mood alongside an ambulance (really just a van with lights and an orange stripe!) rung up to drop off a fetus. This old fashioned easy is inadvertently bemusing at times, sure, however the 104 minutes condenses too much of the accelerated timeline and sped up growth hormones via the dry voiceover. The experiments proceed with typical education montages, questioning individuals, and rehearsed introductions – rushing over what could be intriguing developments before some fun oohs and ahhs over a chess match at the center of a party. So chess is only a man's game, really Roddy McDowell?! It's interesting to hear “God is a liberated female and she is on my side” said as a joke when such concepts feel more recent, and controversial conversations on extending the titular viability outside the womb remain intriguing. Our well intended doctor discusses social prejudices and Biblical morals but gets some inappropriate saucy on despite regretting his uncontrollable creation. Of course your super intelligent protege is going to one up the ruthlessness when her survival is in jeopardy! The public domain print's quality is poor, often too dark with low volume, and overall, this needs more polish. Fortunately, tense near discovery moments, scary barking, violent tendencies, medical complications, murderous jealousy, and even some sympathy and surprises overcome the convenient presentation.