26 January 2016

A John Wayne Trio

A John Wayne Trio
by Kristin Battestella

Well actually this a very specific niche trio of John Wayne adventure films from the forties – a few non-western or war pictures despite the war time, if you will. Ironically, these rip roaring tales were surprisingly tough to find streaming or from Netflix snail mail compared to Wayne's other larger than life pictures – so settle in and enjoy, pilgrim!

Reap the Wild Wind – Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend), John Wayne, and Paulette Goddard (The Great Dictator) mix shipwrecks, swindlers, and love triangles in this colorful1942 Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments) mid 19th century high seas adventure. Although sailor slang and nautical terms will be tough for some audiences without subtitles, schooner photography, whooshing winds, and thrashing waves invoke the perilous sea and forgive any obvious matte screens, rear projections, and soft focusing on the ladies. The underwater scenes and ye olde diving gear aren't bad, either, but my word that poor calamari! Cute monkeys and doggies add to the sweet period frocks, and the two hour plus run time moves fast between the rugged Key West inquests, stylish Charleston balls, and Victorian steam ship prizes. The young Wayne should have been a romantic lead more often, but here he's an angry seaman descending into illegal trade and reckless diving, shaping some intriguing turnabouts and character dimensions. Milland starts as a pompous jerk, yet there's a begrudging respect between the men. Though a progressive, pants-wearing businesswoman, Goddard's Loxi isn't always likable thanks to a laid on thick moxie and her playing both boys for her own gain. Several slaves are portrayed as stereotypically sassy, happy, and ready to gossip, too, while selling off enemy thugs to a whaling ship is wrongfully played as humorous. And Susan Hayward (also of the ill fated The Conqueror with Wayne) is meant to be from Cuba? DeMille tried his darnedest for an epic, coastal Gone with the Wind complete with a society shocking Scarlet loving the rogue and making aunts faint. However, this remains a fun melodramatic tale for the cast and seafaring spectacle.

Tycoon – South America, railroads, and romance lead to explosions, mountain tunnels, bridge perils, and an against the clock quest in this 1947 Technicolor saga. While matte paintings and facades are cardboard obvious and the sound is very uneven; sweet cars, lovely cathedral interiors, brightly dressed sophisticated ladies, and suave men's suits add proper flavor alongside rail carts, dynamite tools, and mining disasters. Likewise, John Wayne is an honest foreman who knows his job – when he's not being misbehaving and getting his contractor bosses in trouble with railroad financier Cedric Hardwicke (The Ten Commandments) that is. Wayne seems a little older than the role requires compared to leading lady Laraine Day (Dr. Kildare), too. However, The Duke knows what he's doing, and the audience immediately likes his getting the job done right and standing up to pressuring stockholders or rival engineer Anthony Quinn (Zorba the Greek). Unfortunately, the love and adventure mix feels like two separate movies – and building a dangerous railroad crossing without any fatalities on the job seems just a bit more important than a runaway date that ends up out of gas near some Inca ruins at sunset, because of course. Out all night with a girl and nothing happened but the Hayes Code is going to marry you! The pace drags thanks to coming and going soap opera styled conflicts, and Judith Anderson (Rebecca) has nothing to do. Melodramatic music swells when a woman dares talk back, telling her man she is wrong and will conform to his lifestyle. WTF? There are cliché Latino kids, but precious little espanol – eggs for breakfast? They're huevos! Although no one is trying on a fake bad accent, the locale doesn't feel as authentic as it should. The titular battle of wills hoped for something epic with an overlong two hour plus time, but the tale should have been woven tighter. Fortunately, this ditty proves Wayne could be a leading man with varied character depths, and a dangerous flash flood raging river finale goes out on top.

Wake of the Red Witch – Don't worry, I confuse the mid 19th century high seas adventure of this 1948 John Wayne and Gail Russell vehicle with Reap the Wild Wind, too. Here, The Duke's a crusty captain imposing the law on his ship but withholding coordinates and an impressive gold bullion cargo. He's commanding as always, capable on shore and off, but his rugged violence crosses the line – and gasp, Duke don't cross the line, eva! It's some fine dimension on our heroic image and the erroneous notion that Wayne only made westerns. Although, this feels like a sea faring western: two respected men fighting over the local water rights while a dame's on the line. Ships, girls – they're both called 'she' for a reason. Of course, the young romance is a bit meh, and the age difference between 40-year-old Wayne and his not yet bittersweet but no less angelic Angel and the Badman co-star Russell at 24 is apparent. The unneeded narration is a trite exposition technique slowing the action, and the story that we should have seen in the first place is mostly all told in two flashbacks. The soft volume can make the who's stealing from whom rivalry confusing, but the pretty hoop skirts are always nice to see. There is some reused footage, but the woodwork, waves, frigates, and sails set the mood in spite of the black and white limitation, adding scope and danger to the tense below decks and double crossings. It's not Hornblower, and the film constructs are too apparent in the storytelling, however, sharks, cannons, shipwrecks, early diving suspense, octopus duels (yes again), giant pearls, and even bigger man eating seashells complete the adventure. If you like classic movie melodrama, fun swashbucklers, and John Wayne, this will be a pleasant little viewing escapade.

18 January 2016

The Veil with Boris Karloff

Boris Karloff's The Veil a Pleasant Paranormal Discovery
by Kristin Battestella

Behind the scenes troubles and production turmoil put an abrupt halt to the 1958 supernatural anthology series The Veil, leaving host Boris Karloff and twelve in the can episodes of surprisingly quality unaired and on the shelf – until recently that is. Who knew?

Eerie music and Gothic castle arches lead to a grand fireplace complete with Mr. Karloff introducing these tales of supposedly true but unexplainable stories, and “Vision of Crime” provides a shipbound moment of clairvoyance and murder between brothers. The hackneyed old ladies fall a little flat, however Karloff and a pre-Avengers Patrick Macnee have some fun with the incompetent constabulary. In addition to hosting, Karloff acts in all but one episode of The Veil, and deduction on derringers, opportunity, and motive with a whiff of the fantastic help solve the case. “Girl on the Road” may seem then-contemporary slow to start with fifties innocence and a dame having car trouble in need of a man to fix all. Thankfully, roadside drinks, suspicious phone calls, and looking over her shoulder fears hook the audience into waiting for Karloff's mysterious arrival and the paranormal plot turn. While the trail leads to where we already suspected, the simmering mood keeps The Veil entertaining. Likewise, ship captain Boris serves up some deadly seafaring adventures with a side of poisonous snakes to his wife in “Food on the Table.” The disposal is for a pretty barmaid recently come into wealth – and of course, supernatural consequences follow. Again, the story may be familiar but the characters and performances see the viewer through the twenty odd minutes. An Italian setting adds flair in “The Doctor” alongside aging physician Karloff and his prodigal son. Stubborn superstitions versus new medical treatments leave a sick child's life in the balance, and I actually didn't see this twist coming. 

Ironically, the French accents are iffy rather than flavorful in “Crystal Ball,” but hey, when your upward mobile lady friend-zones you for your boss at least you get the eponymous gift, right? The foretelling effects are really quite nice with smoky swirls, upside down visuals, and distorted reflections. Moulin Rouge meetin' Uncle Boris adds to the saucy scandals, and naturally, our two timing mademoiselle gets what she deserves. Rival brothers, contesting wills, lawyer Karloff, family violence, and ghostly biblical warnings anchor “Genesis,” however “Destination Nightmare” has a different opening and introduction before its dreams and mysterious pilot sightings. Crashes, parachute errors, and propeller sputters add to the fears, fine flying effects, and wild toppers while rising temperatures and New York bustle make for some murderous window views in “Summer Heat.” The crime may not be what it seems, yet silence during the observations add to the helpless feelings. It's nice to see such fifties coppers confronted with the unexplained in their investigation, too. Despite the unique India 1928 setting and Eastern philosophies, “Return of Madame Vernoy” feels western fake thanks to bad casting. I mean, sure he likes to tan, but George Hamilton?! Fortunately, remembering past lives and reincarnations remain an interesting concept. Do you go back to the living the life before and contact family from the past? Can you move forward knowing what was or is there some other purpose for such memories?

"Jack the Ripper” is the lone episode of The Veil with Karloff featuring in the bookends only, and the production differences are apparent. However, Victorian spiritualism and professional clairvoyants make for an interesting spin on the Whitechapel theme with brief flashbacks accentuating the predictions and dreamy, eerie quality. The violence is unseen, but reading the scandalous newspaper reports on the crimes create reaction and believability. While the viewing order of the episodes is irrelevant, random VHS or video releases and an elusive two disc DVD version billed as Tales of the Unexplained can make watching The Veil in its entirety a tough, frustrating hunt. Fortunately, it's also fun to discover new old television thanks to today's technology, and The Veil is available on Amazon Prime – complete with subtitles! The transposed episodes and mislabeled descriptions, however, are confusing without a third party list, and Amazon is also missing two more episodes of The Veil which can be found on Youtube. The Veil's original pilot “The Vestris” aired as an episode from another anthology series Telephone Time, and wow, that show has some fifties hallmarks complete with a housewife dreaming of dancing to her new dial tone! Thankfully, sailor songs, fog, phantom coordinates, and ominous quarter bells give “The Vestris” a proper shipbound atmosphere. A lady on board bodes of misfortune, and Karloff's appearance doesn't disappoint. “Whatever Happened to Peggy” has familiar people, places, and young lady not who she seems to be. Her memory difficulties and escalating coincidence make for a creepy and unexpected cap on The Veil. 

The mid-century cars and fashions look sweet, and The Veil uses period settings and Victorian panache to fit the time as needed. Somehow, big skirts, bowler hats, and cravats always add to the spooky mood along with candles, gas lamps, and tea sets. Well done music accents the supernatural sophistication, strong characters, and sly drama. The Veil would seem to use its morality before the twist plotting to set itself apart from other anthologies of the era, however Karloff's unseen series predates One Step Beyond, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits – only the earlier Tales of Tomorrow or Alfred Hitchcock Presents provided competition. Each half hour moves fast, knowing how to be eerie enough to fill the time but not over stay its welcome once we know the twist. Although the introductions could be worded better and Karloff gives a postscript telling what happens next rather than showing it, The Veil admits up front that there will be no explanations. If not for a somewhat limited availability, this much shorter six hours is certainly easier to marathon than Karloff's own later Thriller series. Where Thriller struggles to fill its sixty minute time with crime or suspense plots and never quite goes full on horror as it could, The Veil uses murder and scandal for a paranormal punchline just like it promises.

Now similar anthology tales of premonitions, ghosts, astral projection, or psychic phenomena will make The Veil obvious for wise speculative viewers – the unfortunate result of it's previously unviewed shelf life. The small number of episodes leaves The Veil feeling too brief to be of real substance, and its quick run through may leave one lacking or wanting more. Fortunately, the possibilities were here alongside Karloff's macabre charm, fun mini twists, and surprising paranormal guesses. The Veil may not look like much, but its black and white mood, well told stories, and fantastic toppers are more than enough for a spooky, rainy afternoon marathon anytime of year.

14 January 2016

The Bob Newhart Show: Season 1

The Bob Newhart Show Season 1 Remains Delightful
by Kristin Battestella

Despite debuting over forty years ago, the 1972 First Season of The Bob Newhart Show remains packed full of twenty four humorous half hour episodes still fresh, strong, and sly.

Fly the Unfriendly Skies” starts off the DVD edition of The Bob Newhart Show with Newhart's famed phone shtick and gets right to introducing the series' core neighbors and coworkers – psychologist Robert Hartley (Bob Newhart), his school teacher wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette), their aviator neighbor Howard Borden (Bill Daily), secretary Carol Kester (Marcia Wallace), and orthodontist Jerry Robinson (Peter Bonerz). The set design and a few little kinks may need straightening out – those airplane fears might seem like old hat humor to contemporary viewers, too. However, witty interplay and sharp dialogue make the audience pay attention as the titular flying frights layer the irony. It's neat to see such situations handled then compared to now, and some superb toppers alleviate the tension as good comedy should. “Tracy Grammar School, I'll Lick You Yet” pokes fun at psychology itself – making The Bob Newhart Show feel not like a sitcom where the situation is the source of the humor, but rather a premise springboard where the joy is in seeing our characters handle Career Day. Telling third graders what a psychologist is sums up the entire show in many ways while small sight gags such as a newspaper blowing away or an empty tissue box accent the punchline. The audience seeks these silent puns amid the clever retorts, but wisdom given here isn't always followed and advice doesn't always work. This series sets its stride early thanks to a lighthearted but progressive touch on sensitive topics and addressing the changing decade without underestimating viewers. The Bob Newhart Show develops its nucleus and balances the home and workplace fun by expressly not treating its audience as simple the way prior television shows stayed inexplicably naive, innocent, and tidy.

A well rounded variety of character spotlights, group scenes, two-hander acts, and solo phone gags also keep The Bob Newhart Show engaging alongside plenty of dialogue and commentary. We don't see the other cast members without Bob and Emily alone until late in the season, however work and home collide in “Bob & Emily & Howard & Carol & Jerry” – and in a tiny bathroom no less! Again unlike today's easily resolved half hour nuggets, “I Want to be Alone” and “Let's Get Away from it Almost” allow our titular star to be unhappy and cranky over an escalating combination of everyday problems, attempted road trip planning, and the hilarious results. Sure, some of the then topical references or quips may be missed today, but needing peace of mind and quiet time is still a relatable message – and hey, if people wanted solitude then, what does that say about our increasing technological interconnectivity now? Patients and Christmas coming together on Disc Two for “His Busiest Season” may seem too soon in tackling such bitter and now cliché holiday hi jinks, but The Bob Newhart Show pulls off the carols turned therapy session and seasonal depression delightfully – proving how out the gate ready the series was. $3, $7, or $10 baskets of fruit for Christmas? I'll take them all for that price! It's also amazing to hear folks complaining about crowded stores and late gift problems forty years ago! Likewise, “The Man with the Golden Wrist” tackles birthday gifts when an expensive watch is simply too much for Bob to wear. We don't wear such $1300 in 1972 dollars on our arm these days, but we have no problem carrying devices just as costly – adding new irony to Bob's discomfort over treating something of value as everyday or common. Famous athletes as patients malign Bob further in “You Can't Win 'em All.” However, helping others is more important than winning, right?

Poor Bob. Our straight man psychologist balances kooks, work, his wife, and some zany friends on the clock and off whether he wants to or not. Adding hobby reversals, male inferiority, and seventies good looking sportsmen create fun antagonism in “Tennis, Emily?” but the ability to laugh at such insecurities is shrewdly tackled alongside passive aggressive mothering in “Mom, I L-L-Love You.” Newhart (also appearing in Elf and The Big Bang Theory) does his practiced phone deadpan to punchline perfection with a one-sided stammer and zinger timing. The Bob Newhart Show has an upscale, successful protagonist with highbrow subtly and wit, yet Dr. Hartley remains an everyman frankly approaching life with a healthy dose of irony. Not to mention pushing the envelope with a couple not in separate beds and a three years young marriage that crosses old girlfriends in “Goodnight, Nancy.” Often frustrated, Bob nonetheless helps people with their problems – sometimes that's just by listening, other times it is daring to voice what his friends or patients or wife don't want to hear. That kind of contrast doesn't work without great chemistry, and Dr. Hartley certainly has that with his Emily. Be it insults, surviving transference and jealousy in “The Two Loves of Dr. Hartley,” or the pressure and house hunting disagreements in “A Home is Not Necessarily a House,” the pair remains able to bicker, get angry, cry, hug, or laugh. 

The Bob Newhart Show doesn't have its couple lovey dovey and making out all the time, but allows them to be an honest, tender, and perfectly matched team with a healthy give and take relationship. With her unconventional style and up with the times household, Suzanne Pleshette (The Birds) is lovely as the pants wearing and jobbing Emily Hartley. Her trim pixie cut or growing out shag changes through the season, but the crop is unexpected, as is the Hartleys' not having kids, a seemingly essential sitcom staple. Sure, there are times where Emily wears prairie girl meets muumuu dresses like the same old happy housewife and pouts when the newfangled Monday Night Football interferes with a sit down dinner in “Don't Go to Bed Mad.” Guilt tripping and who lets whom do what repartee is cemented, too. The Hartleys watch baseball together and immediately establish their happiness despite what may have been anti-traditional ways and quick, rushed mornings lacking the mid century Cleaver family at the table. When aired as the ninth episode, the original “P-I-L-O-T,” and its apartment design are noticeably different compared to the rest of the season. However, The Bob Newhart Show swiftly addresses adoption, not wanting children, and how parenting isn't going to be a situational safety net here. Instead, the pressure to have kids and awkwardness in socializing with those that do and insist you must is approached with a refreshing frankness. Emily is educated and doesn't have to be at home all the time, balancing being there for Bob and being her own working woman. “Emily, I'm Home...Emily?” discusses when work schedules conflict with basketball, using television commentary to accent the simple struggle of opening a beer and finding a place to watch the game. As a courtesy, Emily asks Bob before taking a full time job, but she won't quit whether her husband is content with TV dinners or not – an unusual if not unheard of concept in sitcoms prior. The wife works and doesn't need kids for fulfillment? Flabbergasting!

We don't really see orthodontist Jerry Robinson work very much, but the comedy of his big tooth display or the mumblings of his doctor's chair ease our dental fears. Amusingly, people sit in Jerry's chair and pack into his tiny office for advice almost as much as they do Bob's. Although selfish at times, Jerry is good with kids and his being adopted is mentioned early – a plotline that would become important later on The Bob Newhart Show. He may think he's funny and suave with the ladies, however most of that is hot air, and Jerry becomes engaged quickly in “Anything Happen While I was Gone?”. While it may be too soon to have too many relationship troubles amid the supporting cast, Jerry's failed ladies man pattern comes to a head when he can't get over another girl and takes advantage of the Hartleys in the “Who's Been Sleeping on My Couch?” Season One finale. Women come between men and sports for shrewd humor and social commentary with Jerry seeking Bob's therapy in “I Owe it All to You – but Not that Much.” What's bills and doctoring among friends, right? Jerry and Carol's friendship and awkward potential for more comes late in the season, too, but hair-brained receptionist Carol Kester is into plants, astrology, and wears short skirts – adding a touch of lingering sixties to The Bob Newhart Show. She's not stick thin and is still loving the single life, making for some delightful quips in the drive by comings and goings at the front desk. Still a then saucy topic, Carol weighs the morals of moving in with her new boyfriend in “Come Live with Me” while “The Crash of 29 Years Old” is also ahead of its time in addressing the changing roles for women. This quarter life crisis has Carol questioning her place as a mere secretary and whether she is due for something better in the workplace – not to mention that her replacement secretary is a young man! By using the quirky support about its titular star, The Bob Newhart Show is able to objectively step back and observe the times without judgment as good humor does best.

Bill Daily (I Dream of Jeannie) is actually not so bumbling, goofy, and intrusive as neighbor Howard Borden in the first episode of The Bob Newhart Show, but the seemingly sophisticated navigator is delightfully aloof and lovable nonetheless. Howard does his own ironing and speaks Spanish but keeps mini bottles on the liquor cart and tries to keep his water bed and high flying visits with stewardesses on the down low. “Father Knows Worst,” however, tenderly introduces his ex-wife, son, and Howard's neurosis over paternal inferiority. Likewise, his over-protective nature regarding his free spirited sister in “Not with My Sister You Don't” has the right amount of sentiment meets quirky, and the audience enjoys when the Hartley's include Howard at their table. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Patricia Smith (Save the Tiger) as grouchy neighbor Margaret Hoover. We have hi jinks at home already and don't need her housewife sucks and motherhood complaints. Thankfully, Margaret is gone after the first thirteen episodes of The Bob Newhart Show, and Jack Riley (Rugrats) as patient Elliot Carlin is much more cranky and hostile fun in eight episodes including the show's original pilot. Fellow group therapy stalwarts Florida Friebus (The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis) as old lady Mrs. Bakerman, John Fiedler (Winnie the Pooh) as mousy Emile Peterson, Renee Lippin (Mariah) as self-conscious Michelle, and Noam Pitlik (Sanford and Son) as macho Mr. Gianelli immediately solidify their collective dynamics with recurring tug and pull as needed. All appear in the penultimate “Bum Voyage,” adding to the difficulty of saying goodbye and packing of as many people as possible into one tiny stateroom. Bob's onscreen mother Martha Scott – also mom to The Six Million Dollar Man, Who Shot Jr, and Moses! – appears alongside Larry Gelman (Maude) as urologist Dr. Tupperman, and other familiar guests on The Bob Newhart Show include Penny Marshall, Pat Morita, and Joyce Van Patten.

Sure, Bob's route home in the opening credits of The Bob Newhart Show doesn't make a lot of directional sense but the big brass start and swanky mellow end of the “Home to Emily” theme remains sweet. Some scene changes or cues are similar to incidental The Mary Tyler Moore Show music, however that's an understandable production similarity considering co-creaters Lorenzo Music and David Davis also wrote for Mary, alongside producer Martin Cohan and frequent directors Jay Sandrich and Alan Rifkin. The layout of the Hartley's living room changes – and wow, that big ole boob tube television is on cart to move from room to room – but from that ugly kitchen wallpaper to couches, carpet, ties, sport coats, and high-waisted plaid pants, my word there are patterns, patterns everywhere! I like most of the ladies fashions, ruffled trims, and empire waistlines, but Emily does get her head stuck in a tight turtleneck and woof some of these seventies sweaters. Yellow, orange, green, brown – it's all so garish yet anyone of a certain age will feel nostalgic at the clashing colors and chuckle at the big phones, giant stereos, and vacation slides. There's an entire plot dedicated to how the office acquires a newfangled coffee machine! Unfortunately, Carol's circular desk with her back to the elevators annoys the heck out of me. Why not an L shaped design to the left of the screen so she can see the arrivals and the audience? The sometimes loud music and uneven soft voices on The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Series Season One DVDS is likewise irksome. There are no subtitles either, but the handy play all option makes it easy to marathon the eight episodes per three discs over the weekend.

The Bob Newhart Show is immediately family friendly and safe for all audiences while remaining subtle, high brow humor for adults. When I was younger I preferred the wackiness of the subsequent Newhart, however now I feel much more sentimental about the past charm and witty entertainment of this eponymous series. The fine comedy ensemble of The Bob Newhart Show need not resort to gross gags or saucy behaviors like today's common denominator crass. It's harmless good fun to come home and unwind with the Hartleys, and be it the shrewd comedy or the nostalgic pastiche, Season One of The Bob Newhart Show puts a smile on your face.

11 January 2016

King Arthur and More Fantasy!

An Arthurian and Fanciful Trio!
By Kristin Battestella

Yes, I'm still waiting for a definitive Camelot film. Fortunately, be it Arthurian high notes or medieval fantasy and more magical swashbucklers, there's fanciful fun for one and all with this trio of enchanting, classic tales.

Camelot – Richard Harris (The Field), Vanessa Redgrave (Mary Queen of Scots), and Franco Nero (Django) star in this 1967 adaptation of the Lerner and Lowe stage musical complete with rousing overtures, smokey battle soliloquies, a de-aging backwards Merlin, and charming fairytale adventure. Sure, the cardboard looking trees and plastic snow are dated, but the award winning design, sixties hairstyles, and hippie-esque costumes somehow remain fittingly ye olde. Horses, castles, and medieval interiors add flair amid dancing spectaculars and a small but bemusing cast. They are having a good time, and why not? The sing song talking, full blown chorales, and uneven vocals make everything seem a lot more fun than the actual 5th century England really was, but that over the top lightheartedness and self aware humor matches the fanciful. The “C'est Moi” introduction ridiculously captures Lancelot's full of himself righteousness, and nostalgic adults can catch the innuendo of “The Lusty Month of May” while young audiences enjoy the innocent fun – an aria for the concept of a round table! Three hours can occupy kids for sure, but the singing exposition and disjointed storytelling can irritate older viewers without a childhood affinity for this tale both serious and Robin Hood: Men in Tights in its overlong indulgence, unbalanced direction, and weak ending. This sweeping storybook stage style doesn't always play well onscreen and the musical entrapment is ultimately unnecessary, leaving the dramatic moments as the best here. Though the jovial is more important than interweaving a complete Arthurian recounting, the once sunny and snow white symbolism turns visually darker as the politics escalate inevitably. Despite the musical imperfections, young and old can enjoy the highlights here with sword in the stone fondness, knights of the round table drama, and meddling Mordred conflicts.

Crossed Swords – This two hour 1978 swashbuckler based on Mark Twain 16th century switcharoo boasts an all-star cast including Charlton Heston, Raquel Welsh, Oliver Reed, George C. Scott, Ernest Borgnine, Sybil Danning, and Rex Harrison. Stirring Maurice Jarr scoring accents the chases, sword fights, fun faire peasantry, and quaint village while the colorful court and sweet ladies frocks add period fancy. Despite historical names like Edward, Henry VIII, and Norfolk, the coming and going cameos anchor the youth-centric lookalike fantasy, over the top whimsical, and sardonic flavor befitting of the novel's social lessons. Brief split screen effects blend seamlessly, carrying the uneven design, which looks elaborate in some scenes and cheap in others. Mark Lester's acting isn't perfect, either – he's stuck still playing a child's role and comes off as a simpleton whether he is the prince or the pauper. Shouldn't one or the other be shrewd or charismatic? Ironically, that lacking in grace fits both the street urchin with no upbringing and the coddled royal. Had Lester done this ten years prior following Oliver! his performance would have been perfect. Yes, liberties are taken here and the pace between its subjects drags. However, it is surprising this did poorly when today every intellectual property is unabashedly twisted into a big money American teen absurdity. Producer Ilya Salkind is clearly capitalizing on his Musketeer success with this literary adventure for kids complete with the same adult stars. Modern parents may find the overlong time tough to take seriously despite mature moments and a wild finish – but this isn't meant to be a sophisticated drama. This is The Parent Trap for boys wrapped up in a medieval ball of fun. I mean, the jester is in red and green harlequin with bells, go with it. 


Excalibur – Although I still need a Lord of the Rings caliber Arthur, this 1981 epic swelling with the Lady of the Lake, the Sword in the Stone, and the Holy Grail came out of a failed Tolkien adaptation. Go figure. Fiery orange and hellish battles accent the divine forests, waterfalls, and Irish locations. However the dark and looking low budget design is of its time with confusing action and corny jousting. Glowing reflections on the shiny armor, red lighting, and a green sheen upon the swords feel lightsaber influenced, but the medieval costumes, mystical fog, and colorful interiors lift the mature yet fanciful. While extended nudity and Arthur's birth may add that extra twenty on the two hour and twenty minute length, the often skipped Uther and Igrayne trickery is frankly addressed – even if it is director John Boorman's (Deliverance) daughter Katrine playing Igrayne. Awkward! Rousing and familiar classical music anchors the magical moments, but the otherwise limp scoring contributes to a clunky middle. This isn't as timeless or fantastic as it should be despite a generally complete script combining Mallory and other Arthurian sources for a linear birth, life, and death retelling. Lots of now big names are here, too – including Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Stewart, and Liam Neeson – however Nigel Terry's (Caravaggio) clipped delivery and over the top stage style is an odd choice for Arthur. Mumbling dialogue and fancy names make subtitles a must, but Nicol Williamson (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) is a fun sage as Merlin while Helen Mirren as Morgana is an alluring villainess. Ironically, her antagonism is better than the core love triangle and a meh Nicholas Clay (Lady Chatterley's Lover) as Lancelot. This is firmly a fantasy not going for historical accuracy, yet the gritty and adult tone paints a not so pretty picture of mysticism versus religion, self versus duty, and messianic reflections upon mistakes befitting of the legend. It takes several watches and one has to be in the right mood for the duration, but the not always magical and mature drama captures the moral of the tale.

07 January 2016

Scary Dolls, Board Games, and Party Horrors!

Dolls, Board Games, and Party Horrors!
by Kristin Battestella

Be they good, ho hum, or worse, these films are brimming with the creepy bumps in the night that make us all shudder. You know, toys, dolls, games, and parties gags gone bad!

Annabelle – The aptly named Annabelle Wallis (The Tudors) stars with Alfre Woodard (Desperate Housewives) in this 2014 prequel picking up where The Conjuring began with pregnancy perils, babies in danger, and that innately creepy titular doll. A lovely church, sewing at home, and classic cars create a mid century safety before news of cults on the big old flickering television, home invasions in a time of unlocked doors, and a rocking chair creaking on its own add chill up your spine nostalgia. It's pleasing to see period news reports and the actual past horrors rather than have a modern teen re-discovery or sepia flashbacks. I never knew a zooming sewing machine had the right rhythm for intercut editing and escalating perils, either! The marital and parental fears are honest, and moving to a new town or apartment can't out run the scares and records that play by themselves. However, the of the time cliché husband leaves his pregnant wife home alone after an attack and blames the supernatural on postpartum depression – as does a dismissive detective unwilling to consider the paranormal when the church will. Priestly words of warning go unheeded, and though lovely, Woodard is worth so, so much more than the magical negro best friend stereotype. Bookstore research and going down to the dark building basement at night are likewise trite, and some of the doll antics are too bemusing to be scary. Shadowed claws and brief horns work well for the demon, but the full reveal becomes slightly ridiculous in the same old same old third act. If a demon can do all this terrorizing with ancillary ghosts and a doll that doesn't really do very much on its own, then why does it want an infant that can do nothing? The ending is obviously left open for franchising opportunities, and babies, dolls, and moms have been done too many times in horror already. The 100 minute duration builds enough suspense, however it is tough to believe this is Rated R and the feeling that Chucky was better lingers more than it should. While there are easy jump scares, trick elevators, spooky flickering lights, and a few unique frights keep the time entertaining.

Mimesis – Our appropriately named players Judith, Duane, and Russell are dressed as their Night of the Living Dead characters for this 2011 role playing party – their television is up on two chairs and playing the movie, too. Several shots match the original film and the scares proceed along the same plot, however the game goes horribly awry thanks to social disturbia and fantasy versus reality fandom extremes. At once, this is trying to be Scream in knowing its horror ancestry, yet it's an interesting premise that I'm surprised no one did sooner since the first Dead is in the public domain. Who's in on the ruse? Are they being watched? Can they proceed differently from the original movie? The make up and fakery of the smiling and using tools zombies are obvious too the viewer – but not to those unaware they are within a game in a horror movie – and the story both gains ground and loses rhythm when breaking away from the titular copy. We have to laugh when one zombie yells at another for not doing what a Romero zombie would do! The horror convention opening credits restart several times, and most of it is unneeded. Instead, our unwilling nerdy and skeptical gamers could have woken in media res, filling in the con lifestyle, mysterious party invites, and given commentary on how scary games and movies are blamed for all our violence while strengthening the dialogue. While not as revitalizing as New Nightmare, the satire within moments do make one wonder about all these zombie crawls and flash mobs looking to top each rush. The zombies here jumped the shark four years ago yet this picture's message went unnoticed in the hype since. Unfortunately, the music video strobe filming and stilted camerawork make it tough to appreciate the shocks and critical moments when blurry, slow motion iota floods the picture minute to minute. The shaky cam intrudes on both the tricked out fun house and the psychological scares when straightforward filming would satisfy the largely self aware tension, trapped arguments, and plot divisions. There are a few good scary moments here, and the audience wants to see how closely the game's reveal plays to Night of the Living Dead's cynical finale. It's tough to combine zombies, slashers, dramatic horror, homage, and social commentary, however this one has some intriguing twists.

Split Decision

Ouija – Yes, I have a glow in a dark version but no matter how you pronounce it, this 2014 spooky is toppling with teen cliches and pat jump scares – pretty blondes dabble where they shouldn't and hello paranormal consequences! Too many teens pad the body count, and re-shoots make for choppy, confusing editing. The acting is iffy, boy toys are weak, and this latent BFF is way too invested. Do these girls seriously think this is a rare game or secret divination known only to them? While the survivor's guilt and death retrospection had some promise, one can't really expect anything groundbreaking in a Michael Bay produced Platinum Dunes horror movie. Robyn Lively (Teen Witch) and Lin Shaye (Insidious) could have been fine support, but the adults conveniently leave these traumatized kids alone and presenting the concrete corpus delicti evidence to the police is never considered. Phone videos and laptop uses, thankfully, are brief – I'm so glad this wasn't found footage styled – and no smancy opening credits waste time, either. Sadly, despite fine ghostly movements, creepy messages, flickering lamps, blue lighting schemes, and interesting camera angles, the lazy characterizations rely on tough girls turning scared tropes and stupidly presuming this toy is contacting the right person. Viewers are supposed to believe a millennial teen doesn't know how to Google some local history? Plot holes and dumbed down changes make the open for a sequel conclusion obvious – I hope there is a damn authoritative adult asking how all these kids died in Deux. There is a good story and fun to be had here, but pointless meandering makes these ninety minutes seem for naught, cutting the wind out of Ouija's sails for wise horror audiences.

And speaking of Ouija....

Grim – Whooshing opening credits don't illume much in this never ending 85 minutes from 1995 nor do the homemade Ouija board, smoking rocks, and the monster released by such nonsensical Ouija usage. Good thing this beastie has those human sized cages handy! This monster moves through the walls amid new housing construction, cracks in the infrastructure, abandoned mine history, and vanishing neighbors, but the British are once again trying too hard at being American when the switch is unnecessary. There's too much bad acting going around the numerous pissy dudes and screaming chicks – I think they're looking for the people abducted by our said monster. However, the rituals, drums, and rhythmic body chopping look like they're from a different movie. We should never see the cave monster at all, as the red visuals for its perspective are enough alongside the pretty spelunking scenes. This had potential with the natural dangers, bats, deaths, monster battles, and even a few twists. Leave the metaphysical out of it and build the innate fear instead of cockeyed round and round. So all that and you just leave the chained chick there? Harsh.

05 January 2016

Recent House Horrors and Family Scares

Contemporary House and Family Horrors
by Kristin Battestella

Do you avoid your shady neighbor? Get suspicious in quaint little towns and fear being broken down in the backwoods? Well then these twisted tales of rural horror, family scares, small town freaky, and creepy homes are for you!

The Guest – Recent, understandable war grief and the surprising comfort of a deceased son's friend visiting could have been a good thing for this home – some heartwarming, healing news. Unfortunately, ex-solider Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) is not who he appears to be in this 2014 indie family thriller. Halloween timing and an increasing insinuation as the otherwise absentee mom's helper and drinking dad's pal soon turns violent. Don't leave this guy in the kitchen with knives and carving pumpkins! Of course, a shirtless out of the shower pose complete with a halo of steam creates tension with daughter Maika Monroe (It Follows), but the cat ear headbands, bad hair always in the face, and intrusive tunes are already dated. Unnecessary up close zooms also lay the ominous on thick when his sinister characteristics – never sleeping or getting drunk or high and barely eating– are enough. What kind of man comes to school inquiring where the bullys are? Again, he could have been a positive big brother influence and does use his shrewd likability to help. However, he injures the bad kids without a second thought and buys drugs, alcohol, and guns – clearly these opportunistic behaviors and deathly orchestrations must come to a head amid twists, family divides, and siege action in the final half hour. Besides, who knew you could call up the military and get them to do your research montage! It is odd and seemingly out of place to break the family moments and lone wolf point of view – the government could have already been in pursuit with a soon to intersect storyline. There's a whiff of social commentary about post traumatic stress and how we condition these kinds of killers, but it feels expected alongside all the usual action movie notes and the predicable Halloween maze dangers. Fortunately, the ambiguous nature and one on one resolutions carry enough fun shockers, and this is a fast moving, effective watch. And you know what? That little “thanks for watching” message at the end of the credits was actually kind of nice. 

Let us Prey – The Scottish setting and British accents of this 2014 creepy starring Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones) may be tough for some. The voices are softer than the big sounds, and the dark, saturated picture is tough to see at times. Fortunately, that's about all the quibbles here thanks to ominous waves, bleak crows, and an abandoned, end of the earth isolation. Despite the dark design, several critical scenes are well lit with either halo brightness, orange purgatory hues, a sickly green patina, or red for violent flashbacks. Female clichés are upended amid this interesting cast of characters – and there is plenty of gray behind the bars and the badge making for some mysterious hit and runs, visions, antagonism, and a twisted parable mood. Suspicious doctoring, eerie fingerprints, ticking clock night shift hours, and talk of Biblical retribution but not necessarily salvation add to the bizarre, in limbo happenings. Snippets of past vices quickly reveal what the audience already suspects of our players, and whether Cunningham's little black book is full of vengeance for good or ill, we don't blame him either way. Nice tricks, match strikes, radio call ins, limited technology, and small intimate locales go a long way amid rhythmic editing. There's action, blood, and violence, but this isn't bloated with cool of it all visuals or torture porn. Although the script may be nothing new and we know what's going to happen, the layered references, sardonic irony, and one by one karma is well played and doesn't underestimate the audience. I almost wish this was a limited series with the not so divine collector Cunningham kicking ass and taking names with each cigarette puff, however this is a fine film as is with no need to cheapen the tale with more. Who's the right sacred just in all of this? Who's really a crazy predator? When you think you are one and not the other, does it make a difference? This is a refreshingly adult, R-rated, well thought out and surreal but on point commentary.

We Are What We Are – A bleak outdoors, dangerous rains, and thunderstorms open this 2013 cannibal family remake amid missing posters, meat grinders, early deaths, and yearly fasting rituals. Clearly something icky is afoot. Despite somewhat recent vehicles and cell phones, old fashioned clothes on the line outside, radio weather reports, and a tape recorder dictation for an autopsy make the rural separation and backwoods upstate onscreen seem older. Candlelight and shadowed buildings are well shot, with wild looking and harsh father Bill Page (American Psycho) singing hymns and saying his children shouldn't be scared. Up close shots of spoons to the mouth and a variety of foods add to the coy hints – coughing up blood, a dog finding bones, repeated “no flesh, no fruit, no grain” talk. Others must eat regular food before it spoils due to storm outages, yet the title hearkens an 'we are what we eat' witticism. A zoomed in focus on the flipping pages of a medical book turning with the camera cuts until the all stop on our C word makes for a quaint but fresh take on the research montage, too. Compared to some expecting big scares, the well paced, simmering dread may seem slow. However, we must see this escalating sinister through because clearly it can't go on as is – again playing on the title's 'it is what it is' perpetuation as this legacy fights against morality, desperation, grief, and rebellion. Wise doctor Michael Parks (Kill Bill) and friendly neighbor Kelly McGillis (Top Gun) provide sophisticated antagonism alongside superb moments of colonial history and extreme Donner inheritance. How far will this monstrous family need go? More pre and post films are planned, and hopefully, they are just as good and don't become diluted into trite teen angst. Enough blood and gore accents the do what they must violence, bonus twists, and brief ritual nudity complete with rattling chains before superb at the table confrontations and a tasty finish. Ironically, I must admit this movie made me hungry and appreciative of proper cooking! Now, why the flip wasn't this in cinemas? 17 screens does not count as a proper release.

One to Skip

Don't Blink – A typical sunny, green drive complete with John Denver music and an “Are we there yet?” start doesn't bode well for this 2014 resort gone wrong hour and a half starring Brian Austin Green (Beverly Hills 90210) and Mena Suvari (American Pie). Too many jerks, idiot couples, and unlikable character clichés such as the bookish girl, blonde bimbo, crass jokes guy, and know it all dude flood the viewer with who is who and why we don't care. Eerie searches with left behind items, empty shoes, or a drawn bath don't create as much atmosphere as they should thanks to easy jump scares and convenient out of gas troubles. Of course, there is no cell phone service but GPS or other technology and looking up this mysterious mountain retreat before you got there is never addressed – our ensemble stands about and argues or does nothing for the first half the movie, missing clues and going round and round. If this is meant to be paranoia and a sophisticated commentary, then why waste time with obvious scary teases and have such a large cast expected to die in slasher fashion? The mysterious climate changes are never explained, and for all the seemingly simple, linear design, there is a pretentious, heavy handed feeling and over the top amateur tone. Again, I suspect this is due to writer and director and editor Travis Oates wearing too many hats without an objective second opinion. Once we are down to a few people waiting for three hours until help arrives, the tension is much better – each must keep the other in sight despite blackouts and unreliable candles. Unfortunately, by then the movie's over. Though thin in plot, the lofty try hard concept is meant for a thinking person's audience, leaving it up to the viewer to deduce the social statements, out of sight out of mind fears, government conspiracies, or multiverse possibilities. Sadly, that non committal, didn't actually say anything of the picture inadvertently insults the audience's intelligence, and this kind of isolation thriller and psychological analysis has been done better elsewhere.