15 February 2016

Recent Sci Fi Blockbusters!

Blockbuster 21st Century Science Fiction Adventures
by Kristin Battestella

Fantastic special effects and computer generated visuals make for some stunning films these days – of their whirlwind spectacles there is no doubt! However, this quartet of recent blockbusters both intergalactic and adventurous represents how some tent pole features and popcorn flix can provide more superb science fiction storytelling than others do. Because, as George Lucas used to say, “A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” Cough.

Interstellar – Director Christopher Nolan (Memento, people, Memento) assembled an all-star cast including Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Michael Caine (Hannah and Her Sisters), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Jessica Chastain (The Help), Matt Damon (The Martian) and more for this 2014 quest brimming with rural reflections, nostalgic farms, interplanetary travel, NASA secrets, and beyond. The generational clashing over old ways, new technology, bad harvests, and earthly starvation mixes well with dangerous decisions, avoiding black holes, perilous waterworlds, and ruthless ice planets. Society has changed priorities and not everyone can adapt. When do you stop struggling on earth and risk space to save humanity? Do you trust mysterious wormholes and distant, possibly habitable worlds? How does one choose between saving our species for the immediate or the long term? The close to home family reasons, global causes, and project revelations progress well – nothing is superfluous and less CGI reliance adds realism alongside well-edited tickling clock moments. An excellent score relates simmering peril, sweeping heartstrings, and the silent but catastrophic space drama. Though they may be tedious voiceovers for some, philosophical quotes, poetry, and biblical references bridge time and space transitions while robots with personality keep the personal in focus. These beautiful visuals aren't action for action's sake, which may disappoint millennial viewers who think science fiction is meant to be an hour and half of desensitizing preposterous. Conversely, some black hole theories or paradoxes and other inconsistencies or coincidences creating Inception outward feelings may also irk high brow audiences. However, it's easy to forgive any theoretical leaps or a slightly abrupt ending because we are so invested in the emotion core at the forefront here. SF is at its finest when using the fantastic – like the titular travel – for inner examination. Instead of numbing superficial stupidity, the thoughts here remain fixed on relatively or time's human impact and the disparity of each as children age at home while a father far away does not. Man versus Man, man versus nature, man versus himself – is our worst enemy not technology, space, or climate change, but the limitations we give ourselves? The tiny human elements and awe inspiring spectacles here provide multiple viewings as well as reflection for the mind and soul.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Let's get to the knocks against this 2015 aka Episode VII first. From the droid with vital information, the desert planet home of A New Hope orphan, and heroes “getting too old for this sort of thing” to hot shot pilots, rediscovered lightsabers, and a space battle over a super duper Death Star, it's obvious this is Star Wars all over again. Despite honoring the past via quips, casting, and vintage homages, this is nonetheless a soft reboot removing the bad taste of the prequels so audiences will follow Disney's plans for Star Wars henceforth. VII has no real ending – just a placeholder asking us to wait for critical characters and backstory revelations. Though likable, newcomer Daisy Ridley's Rey is conveniently good at everything. We hope that potential has a reason in future films, but there's no excuse for criminally underusing Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones) and Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave). In a time when Hollywood desperately needs diversity and superior women, both are unnecessarily hidden onscreen. Phasma could have worn an imperial suit instead of a helmet, and while charming, Maz Kanata needn't be another diminutive Yoda who inexplicably disappears anyway. More quick editing and script changes contribute to the phoned-in Adam Driver (Girls) villainy, and it's obvious someone will go ala a sacrificial Ben Kenobi. If true sequels where really intended, why not adapt Heir to the Empire and the now alienated Expanded Universe? And yet...I really liked this movie! Practical effects, time to introduce the new setting, and the promise of the younger, varied, and gender neutral cast work well with the nostalgia of the original stars. Audiences familiar with the franchise and wide eyed youths can immediately recognize the feel good space opera action and heroics. Heck, I was misty at seeing the opening crawl! Fans root for these scattered peoples, power struggles, and Jedi misinformation to be corrected. We hate this wannabe Empire because we witnessed the adventures this next generation is going to discover. While some franchise films can easily get this difficult position wrong (more on that below), this shrewd bridge picture succeeds in making sentimental viewers thirsty for more.

A Split Decision

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – I've been asking for more films to be set in the sixties, and director Guy Ritchie's (Sherlock Holmes) 2015 update of the original spy series should be the perfect excuse for a period set blockbuster caper. Unfortunately, the accents used by the underwhelming, miscast trio of Henry Cavill (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger), and Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) are too off to have any rhythm. The film itself is equally stilted and dry with poor pacing between music video styled montages, information dumping dialogue, and brief conversations not always in English before another montage, action sequence, or music moment. Despite on the move, coming and going scenes, the story confusingly meanders on who is who and what location is where – and the travels don't explain or make the plot any more interesting. It's very easy to zone out on such patchwork, which I confess I did do somewhere in the middle. Cartoonish villains don't help, for the tone never decides whether such ham is full comedy or just a bad Bondian fantasy. Though trying too hard at being retro cool and at times looking more like millennials playing dress up in their parents clothes, the classic tunes are a welcome soundtrack. There should be more of this kind of lovable panache and mod décor, but even enjoying the blu-ray visuals is a bumpy two hour ride. We couldn't wait for this to end – that's when you find out this picture is meant to be the titular beginning, an origin story with franchise hopes. Maybe this isn't all bad for audiences who like fly by night, don't worry about the plot hackneyed. However, this movie sums up the biggest problem facing all these big screen television remakes. Whether an update is set in the proper time period or not, the original series is readily available on over the air stations, streaming services, and video – and I would rather watch that than this. Robert Vaughn, yes!

Billions of Dollars yet dare I say Skip It!

Jurassic World – I feel like I'm the only person on the planet who didn't like this long gestating 2015 fourth installment in the otherwise entertaining dinosaur franchise. It's no fun seeing seemingly badass dinosaurs anew when superfluous characters and cliché family rifts add to one annoying pair of brothers – an angry for no reason teen and a hyper, uber smart younger son, because, of course. The boys stupidly go off a monitored path and explore where they aren't supposed to just so the disaster action can be set in motion. Today's audiences are expected to believe these kids know how to magically fix a jeep? And it's a vehicle that's sat rusting since the first 1993 movie, no less! Scientist Bryce Dallas Howard (The Village) – no, lookalike Jessica Chastain is not in this movie – also goes dumb and sheds her business style to convenience the plot as needed. However much we respect the girl power, poor thing never finds time to bag some sensible shoes and spends the entire picture running in high heels. Those legs have to impress rugged motorcyclist cum dinosaur whisperer Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy), amirite? When a picture is meant as a family friendly juvenile spectacle, this kind of opposites attract adult romance is unnecessary. Maybe we've lost the original awe and are too accustomed to such visuals, but this CGI isn't very good, either. Spin the wheel, close your eyes and throw the dart, for the trite plot turns and pedestrian technological designs here are already getting old fast. Most of the action is hectic running and disaster screaming with ridiculously bloated deaths peppering the confusion. Massive crowds in peril repeatedly remain in peril, and the nonsensical finale resorts to shocks and nostalgia before resolving nothing – deliberately leaving everything open for a new trilogy. Viewers know that franchising is what they are going for, but they didn't have to be so obvious in making this a two hour trailer for what's next. Ultimately, the original, timeless Jurassic Park still did it better, and if your belated sequel can't best the original, then what's the point? *drops the mic*

12 February 2016

Pip, pip! Royal Documentaries!

Pip, pip! A Royal Documentaries List.
by Kristin Battestella

There's bling, a palace or two, plenty of scandal, and a boatload of history running over in these documentaries fit for any and all British monarchy enthusiasts.

The Queen's Palaces – A whimsical title card introduces this three part series detailing the history, architecture, and artwork therein of three official royal residences: Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and Holyroodhouse. While the tone is generally casual and down to earth, the presentation is a bit awed and self important at times – but that's okay amid Buckingham Palace's pretty red velvets, chandeliers, and you know, thrones. Historians on the scene, royal experts, portraits of past figures, and access to areas not often seen by the public help shape the on location hosting, interior tours, and factual narratives. From Henry VIII and our old friend George III to Albert, Victoria, and The Blitz, the theatrical symbolism and architectural trendsetting continues with Windsor Castle's military history and secret passages. Recognizable names and places such as William the Conqueror and St. George's Chapel highlight the castle's unique Da Vinci collections and mementos – right down to Admiral Nelson's lethal bullet complete with fibers still attached! Queen Mary's Dollhouse and post-fire restorations maintain a link to past English lineage while appearances are everything splendors reflect 1,000 years of changing design. Stunning scenery, snowscapes, and natural panoramas set the scene for Episode Three's focus on the Stuart stirrings and Mary, Queen of Scots scandals peppering Holyrood – where tiny emblematic jewels, stunning ceiling art, hefty tapestries, and delicate Victorian preservation tell tales of Catholicism versus Protestants and Bonnie Prince Charlie. It's quite neat to see places so commonly associated with today's royals as told through their historical occupants pre-Lilibet warts and all. These three hours share quite a bit, indeed, however I wish there were more seasons covering the other two dozen or so current royal locales. Because, why not?

The Royal Jewels Delightful not often seen video footage from as early as 1902 featuring the late Queen Mother, Mary of Teck, Queen Alexandra, and even Victoria anchors this hour long, tip of the iceberg look into some British bling. Understandably, much time is spent on the Cullinan diamond – I'm learning how to RP pronounce all these words I've only read – before the Imperial State Crown, The Sovereign's Sceptre, and a retrospective back to more Victorian gems. Unfortunately, I hate to say it, but the tone becomes inauthentic once the late Diana, Princess of Wales is shoehorned into the otherwise linear narrative. There are enough treats in the vaults to not stray into speculation about which of The Queen's jewels Diana maybe would have worn, and talking head experts with basic jewel information do better. In fact, all the shiny in a slideshow with factoid text bubbles would have been enough alongside the raw royal footage, but the presentation strays further into irrelevant side stories, anecdotes, hearsay, and divorce. The DVD release suggestions 2011, however, the film itself is clearly older since it refers to The Queen Mother in the present tense. Perhaps some sentimentality over Lady Di clouded the viewpoint, as unnecessary music plays as ominous or romantic – catering to ladies and feeling overly feminine when the straightforward information from the actual Court Jeweller is much more authentic compared to the uneven elitist or fanciful voiceover. Rare Edwardian reels and Russian Revolution footage are wow enough jewel provenance, and lesser seen Kent and Gloucester branches add gems along with the late Princess Margaret and even the Duchess of Windsor. Between the Crown Jewels, personal property, and more noble glitter, it's a lot to cover in such a short time. Imagine a series with an hour each on just crowns, brooches, necklaces, or episodes by royal! This documentary is by no means exhaustive. Compared to such a firm title, this feels fast, cheap, and generic in its uneven approach. Fortunately, some lovely big guns and fun jewel surprises are featured, and this is a nice starter video to begin your own shiny research.

Secrets of Henry VIII's Palace – The 501 year old Hampton Court Palace gets a 2013 spotlight in this hour long PBS documentary chronicling all the Tudor scandals inside its lavish brick facade. Serious, foreboding medieval chorales accent lovely outdoor visuals and garden splendors as well as stunning historical architecture, lush interiors, and embellished battle paintings. From Cardinal Wolsey's construction to real tennis matches and the massive kitchen and travel preparations for the King's entourage, this palace had to adapt as the divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived came and went. Those poor craftsman who put all the wives' emblems in the woodwork, tapestries, and stained glass – only to keep updating their work over and over again! Lavish ladies fashions of the time – a hefty five layers for drafty castles and cold jousting tournaments – are also detailed by both seated experts and historians on site. Armor explanations and downstairs feasting how-tos help connect Henry VIII's increasing decadence and ever shortening temper while trials and the boat ride to the Tower of London didn't always lead to smooth executions or swift head choppings. Naturally, the 16th century drama fills most of the time here, and the narrator moves steadily from wife to wife before William and Mary's baroque resurgence, the regal power reflected in their restoration, and a still smelly velvet commode! Good thing Queen Caroline added bathing suites and locks on the doors. Victorian preparations helped open Hampton to public tours, and the visual nuggets and examples of court life here put the Tudor melodrama we know and love into tangible, real life terms in one timeless location.

Tales from the Royal Bedchamber – This 2013 PBS hour acknowledges our obsession with the minutia of regal life and pulls out all the puns for this behind closed doors look. Beginning with Chaucer jokes, medieval clues, and 13th century artwork of Merlin being conceived by a demon (!) and continuing with historic separate beds, conjugal visits, and lavish fabrics, our host climbs the step stool to test those plump pillows. Though existing historical beds are tough to find and information is piecemeal, there are accounts of tremendous preparation for when the king traveled. They packed up the entire kit and caboodle – including the bed. One might gain power on the battlefield instead of in the bedroom, but either way, there were fleas. Over the centuries, regal consummation and marital witnessing strayed near voyeurism, and the intimate of the bedchamber became the political utmost for the Tudors with pregnancy, bed rest customs, and dynastic failures putting the church and country in peril. And what's this about an alleged baby swapping via an old fashioned bed warming pan? Favored courtiers all wanted to tuck the king in at night so they could whisper their ambitions in his ear. Monarchs in the 17th century couldn't exactly be alone in the bedroom, but Official Royal Mistress maker Charles II must have liked it that way. Little has changed for weavers crafting luxurious silk linens, and once upon a time, aristocrats footed the bill for such lavish beds in hopes of a royal visit – because you have to have that kind of theatrical bed canopy handy. Of course, those steeped in euphemisms Victorians were actually pretty randy, but their bedrooms were reserved for the personal or intimate rather than being the political hotbed. Be it decorative or for nighttime shenanigans, this hour has enough tongue in cheek fun with everything from bed construction, servant protocol, and the tawdry between the sheets without sacrificing on the informative.

08 February 2016

Contemporary British Horror Shows

Contemporary British Horrors
by Kristin Battestella

These short series, documentaries, and films hailing from across the pond were made recently, but carry a whiff of history and period piece air nonetheless. While some are quality, bizarre, or cheesy and some are frightfully bad and confusing – these bonus British flavors are at the moment all on Hulu Plus and Amazon Video for stateside anglophiles. Yippee!

The Secret of Crickley Hall – Eerie reverse negative titles and ominous music set the cold, isolated mood for this three hour 2006 miniseries based upon the titular novel, and past screams immediately disturb present dreams – contrasting previous trauma with contemporary family mornings, and sassy daughter Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones). Despite great locales and a lovely manor house mixing updated designs, old décor, creaking stairs, hiding nooks, and divine woodwork, we know moving to a spooky home won't overcome the playground abductions, guilt, and hysteria – even the family dog knows what's afoot. Fortunately, the modern setting is not intrusive, allowing for jump scares in the attic, basement warnings, and potential family psychic connections amid Blitz orphanage harshness, period fashions, stiff upper lip severe, and handyman David Warner (Titanic) linking the two eras. This parallel storytelling may be irksome to some, however the scenes are well matched and balanced evenly. Neither feels as if one time is intruding upon the other, and both plots are needed to tell the tale. The editing is also shrewdly concurrent, almost as if past and present coexist – eliminating the need for a research montage or catch all flashback now that we see the history in real time. Mass drownings, gravestones all with the same year, food is a reward not a right in this school, and the viewer not only believes these times are standing still enough to merge but we want the current residents to reveal all. Is mom Suranne Jones (Coronation Street) willing to risk her children at hand to find those lost? Does she hear what she wants to believe? Marital disagreements and ghostly interactions escalate as past papers are discovered, but the tone remains self aware with wise youths, reluctant mediums, and a parsonage looking the other way. While not super scary, the suspense and good drama let the audience speculate on past nasty and root for righteous schoolteacher Olivia Cooke (Bates Motel). Of course, as usual, the scientific man is unconvinced despite encounters and the wife with loss is a seemingly erroneous believer. Rival psychics help or hinder the past darkness and shadows – sometimes visually mirroring a near black and white patina. Suggestive water, phantom canings, surprising deaths, and evil old ladies bring everything together. Though some people and plot points are obvious, witnessing this past still very much in the present has far more impact, and some frightful retribution makes from a fine finish.

The Toy Box – Animated legends and Norfolk fairytales open this 2005 slasher with happy kids games and magical storytelling – until a pet ends up in the blender...yeah. Colorful interiors, a quirky house, and should be quaint locales set the scene for holiday family gatherings, but creepy artwork is being sent in the mail – er post – and unnecessary, shaky cam zooms interfere with the bizarre parents, crazy granny, too close siblings, and taut tension at the table. Choppy editing keeps restarting the story with little explanation on who is who, and numerous scenes fade out without really ending or serving any purpose. This film reeks of an incomplete fly by night production disguised as weird trying to be avante garde – enough with the ritual echos, unexplained nonsensical, and juvenile cartoons. Though shrewd, affordable, and in keeping with the child fantasy aspects; the animated recountings of local myths also feel like the cheapest way to show rather than tell. This animation and the disjointed childhood flashbacks delay the story at hand when websites, books, and intriguing characters telling tales about the fire is information enough. Along with distorted dreams and just the right amount of gore, mysterious amulets, candlelight dinners, smoky mirror reflections, snow, and meat hooks build mood over the eighty minutes. Yes, too many confusing things are happening and much of this will be too out there or just plain dumb for some audiences. It's tough to forgive the low budget mistakes and struggling production shortchange dominating over all the good potential, violence, and horrors, too. Fortunately, there are enough frights in the final act for viewers to hang in there for the twisted enjoyment of seeing folks get what they deserve.

Maybe Try...

Bedlam – Spooky visuals, text message warnings, and phantom GPS directions are just the beginning for this 2011 six episode debut brimming with old fashioned writing on the mirror and ghosts in the machine – all at the titular asylum cum luxury apartments, of course. The credits are creepy, however the in your face music and trying to be saucy indicates the soap opera oriented roommate make outs, emo meets yuppie players, and bad twentysomething chic styles. The who and why fors aren't immediately established – institution history, adoptions, and three hundred year old family secrets wait thanks to easy ghost of the week clichés. The adulterous Bitch, Black Best Friend, and Bi-curious labels also stereotypically define the characters by their relationships rather than the individuals they are, and Chiseled Cheekbone Psychic White Guy Theo James (Divergent) feels been there done that. His ghostly vision jolts are pretty humorous yet his hotness flusters all, and everyone must behave stupidly for the horrors to happen – like pulling on the locked doorknob to escape when the top half of the door is a window. If our star can see one's death by touch then why do we need person of the week coincidences? Some special effects are for the viewer's sake as well, erroneously calling attention to the medium instead of building atmospheric immersion when other minimal ghost visuals and distorted camerawork are enough. Dreams, dark car parks, eerie red lighting, and ghoulish green ghosts certainly make it difficult for Hugo Speer (The Full Monty) to keep his family building business in the black. Phenomena on the security cameras, vehicular horrors, creepy construction, research history, and period flashes are much more interesting than any hip drama, too. A crazy conspiracy lady, who knows what revelations, spiritual interventions for good or ill, and colonial bad karma are all much better shady alongside little girl ghosts, dangerous turrets, and dead bodies. It's tough to watch these forty plus minute episodes individually and a fast marathon is better, however the latter half is more focused on the spooky rather than sexy with hidden room horrors, tarot cards, and evidence burned leading to a multi level finale topper.

But Skip...

Bedlam Series 2 Although you kind of have to see what happens next, I wasn't going to continue this Second six episode season thanks to too many meh characters in Year One. Although the total cast revamp makes this seem like an entirely different show, unfortunately, the reset only makes things worse with more making out yuppie flatmates and the replacement of one scheming a-hole manager for another ruining the refreshingly diverse casting. Let's test prospective clients by fact checking them on trips to Thailand because we all hop, skip, jump, and vacay when we can't pay the rent, yeah! New EMT who sees the dead Lacey Turner (EastEnders) is in search of answers from last season, however her constant screaming and crying gets old very fast. Hugo Speer has good paranormal encounters but still looks the other way at deadly history – and rebounds by fetishing with his daughter's Asian BFF. Ominous construction, creepy pictures, and blurred imagery add to the phantom toys, and recurring ghosts, but the hip bar, pool, and gym don't make us care about the weekly resident drama. A dead bride covered with blood surely wants more than calling off a modern wedding – too many easy solutions or dismissals give no spiritual restitution. Heck, the series Wikipedia page has more detail than what's onscreen, and candelabras or abandoned chapels don't hide the padded run time. Despite dun dun dun familial twists – which brings out pathetic racist reactions from the all these jerks – and abortion bombshells, ten minutes of a possessed Autistic boy chanting in Latin is more interesting than all the ham-fisted here, which I barely finished watching.

You Make the Call...

Great British Ghosts – This 2011 documentary series isn't herky jerky, boo, what's that, paranormal investigators in your face – which audiences so, so tired of that faux reality trend will prefer. Unfortunately, I can't tell if this presentation is meant to be taken as serious or comical, and I am leaning more towards thinking these Brits are taking the piss, as they say, with viewers. The infrequent male narrator comes and goes willy nilly, but he says me, we, and I while the woman hosting the series goes to the places and does the actions he describes. Such an error wouldn't matter if the creepy was getting while the creepy's good, however, the paranormal stories themselves are poorly presented almost as an afterthought. Our omnipresent man and female guide go to an establishment and chat with someone marginally credible who awkwardly shares how one time they felt something. Maybe they didn't see anything, but they knew it was there! Once, another employee/guest/relative thought they heard something, got scared, won't come back, and Bob's your uncle this place is haunted. Rather than sharing specific histories of grizzly events that would lead to such eponymous activity, the entire show is all just a lot of hearsay. Again, some audiences may enjoy this kind of casual, hand-held, and rural experience rather than a windblown talking head historian, but the meandering segments feel overlong anyway at only twenty-two minutes. Honestly, I didn't finish all twenty episodes and just wanted to put it on mute. While some accents will be tougher than others are, it wasn't the all over the place dictation that was so bothersome – I just wanted to look at all the pretty places in peace. The superb locales, medieval architecture, and historic scenery we don't have stateside are the only things really working here. Had this presentation been styled as America's Castles with spooky voiceovers anchoring a video tour of ye olde haunted, well then, yes please!

05 February 2016

Bodies, Graves, and Coffins Oh My!

Bodies, Graves, and Coffins, Oh My!
By Kristin Battestella

The death rituals, wooden boxes, burials gone awry, and perverse morgue practices in this trio of twisted films old and new are not for the claustrophobic or faint of heart, I assure you.

The Coffin – It's a little tough to find information about this 2008 commonly titled picture. Fortunately, woodwork, nails, and bones set the mood for this Thai custom of cheating death by lying in a coffin in complete pseudo funerary. X-rays, visions of hospital beds, death as seduction artwork, and the passing along of bad karma thanks to used coffins add to the in limbo atmosphere, ill luck reversals, and fantastical news reports. Toddlers cry beside this mock ritual, not understanding why – surely this bizarre practice mocks fate rather than cleanses its practitioners. Unfortunately, the digital gradient here is ridiculously blue tinted. Outside of some scary fire action, seriously everything is blue. While phones and texting are slightly annoying as well, interior darkness and precious phone lights accentuate the claustrophobic, up close viewpoints inside the limited titular space – capturing the paranoia and confinement fears we all secretly harbor. Heart stopping scares, reviving emergencies, and bloody bodies add to the eighty minutes of unease as do some surprisingly good jump scares and hauntings. Is it all just sensory deprivations and coffin crazed hallucinations? Although the premise is intriguing, our players aren't really introduced, and confusing visions and disjointed flashbacks never give the audience firm footing. Is this ghosts, dreams, a coma, purgatory, all in somebody's head? It's not an enjoyable mystery when you are deliberately being obtuse with try hard plot holes and that oh so blue sophistication. Has anything real actually happened amid this plodding, intertwined editing? The slow pace and head scratching inexplicable can be frustrating here. Thankfully, the unique locale, variety of languages, Eastern customs, and refreshing non-whitewashed casting add enough bonuses to witness this kind of fresh horror tale. But seriously, enough already with the blue! 

Dead and Buried – The idyllic New England coast and brisk, seaside beauty complete with saucy photoshoots and old fashioned, sentimental camera shutter clicks belie the carefully orchestrated violence to come in this 1981 shocker. More flashbulbs, phone operators, and sweet big band music add to the earlier mid century quaint – this morgue has a twisted sense of class, respect, and demented beauty in death but too much murder per capita. No mom, dad, and little boy lost on the way to vacation, stay away! These escalating, suspenseful, and creative kills are a community activity; it's the town pleasure to lure visitors to abandoned, isolated areas for these ninety odd minutes of atmosphere and hysteria. All of Potter's Bluff seems in on the well laid trap – except for new big city educated sheriff James Farentino (Dynasty) returning to his old home town in a man alone verses a warped The Wicker Man cult society. How long has this been happening? These crimes, dead bodies, and townsfolk aren't what they seem, and talk of witchcraft books and zombie voodoo folklore don't provide answers. The mystery reveals itself as the bizarre increases, and the period piece style is also slightly prophetic – mass mobs photograph the macabre as we rubber neck at a car accident and replay the morbid with social media. Yes, some of the effects here are poor. However other designs are very good, and the superb looking blu-ray also provides featurettes on the Stan Winston (Terminator 2) effects alongside interviews with young Fred Kreuger Robert Englund and writer Dan O'Bannon (Alien). Though perhaps tame by today's standards regarding gore, there is more than enough blood, hearts, body parts, and snuff film leading to a wild, entertaining finish.

Shallow Grave – Zipping cars and a dizzying spiral staircase add to the head spinning roommate interviews and cruel, arrogant personalities of a young Ewan McGregor (Star Wars) and floppy haired Christopher Eccelston (Doctor Who) in director Danny Boyle's (Trainspotting) 1994 satirical dead body thriller. The them dorky versus us cool intercut editing establishes a demented sense of humor, and the bright, colorful yuppie kind of garish turns darker once their mysterious new roommate enters with a suitcase full of money only to die naked in his bed a few days later. We don't know the full extent of this tenant arrangement, but the sexual tension with Kerry Fox (Intimacy) is apparent even if the trust between this trio is growing thin after chopping off heads, sawing off some hands, knocking out a few teeth, and burying a body or two. Although already amoral enough, no one wants to get their sophisticated hands dirty – but oh how chopping up a body for the money reveals one's sadistic nature! Great quips soon lead to sardonic, amateur body bungling mixed with real crime and violence professionals. A bleak booby trapped attic, divisive secrets, and calculating behaviors escalate as police and newspapers loom. Who's plotting what and uniting to point the finger against whom? Red photography, footsteps, and The Wicker Man on their television charge the atmosphere as the increasing cover ups lead to more death, creepy behaviors, and suspicions. The subtitles will be necessary for those who have a tough time with thick accents, but the interviews and commentary on the Criterion blu-ray edition add some bemusing insights. Superb shocks and greedy, ironic twists keep this genre-bender intense for the full ninety minutes. 


03 February 2016

Whitechapel Season 2

Whitechapel Season 2 Slips Slightly
by Kristin Battestella

Rupert Penry-Jones returns as Detective Inspector Joe Chandler for the second, three part series of Whitechapel. This time, Chandler, Detective Sergeant Ray Miles (Phil Davis), and the East End team must unravel several violent crimes mirroring the actions of the infamous Kray Twins. Soon, the detectives find themselves targeted by a new pair of Kray descendants orchestrating a complex web of law-breaking and corruption.

Cold credits with period cityscapes, sixties gangsters, and mid century boxing establish this Part One won't be a Jack the Ripper copycat case continued. DI Chandler is bored with routine, simplistic cases, and the snickers from the rest of the establishment won't let him forget the letdown of the Ripper results. Fortunately, new blood and violence intercut with the banal of detective dinners jars the empty idle of the quiet squad room. They shouldn't be excited when the phone rings, but floaters and precious few clues break the tedium of nothing to do but clean and re-clear desks. Whitechapel balances both the research of the crime – right down to a handmade shoe – and the extremes of the job well. Is there an insider on the case? Who has the skill and authority to pursue policemen at home? Escaped prisoners are found dead while past shades of Kray connections and mysterious informants add more than a whiff of organized crime and higher corruption. Anonymous tips, gang related parallels, and heavy costs within the department send constables walking away from the case. Perhaps the Krays' infamy may not be as well known stateside – certainly their tale isn't as popular for Ripperologists. However, Whitechapel weaves a complex case of thugs, violence, and an up the ladder trail. At times, there are too many names, who is who, dismissed suspects, and scared witnesses, but by Part Two, arrests are made despite a not always helpful Organized Crime Division.

Escalating interconnected crimes erupt over street cred and criminal celebrity while mistaken identities, suspicious damages, and squad room construction directly interfere with the case. All are looking over their shoulders and ties at home assure no one ever truly gets out of East End. With such threats and abductions, this case isn't going to be solved by doing things proper and by the book. Paranoia is getting to the boys on Whitechapel, and the squad remains behind the ball thanks to tense consequences, old retributions, and a reluctance to talk from those in the know. An old fashioned bar room shootout sets up Part Three, leaving fatalities and disbelief in Whitechapel's wake. Everyone is on edge, suspecting resolutions in the wrong places and clouding the case with personal viewpoints. Whitechapel assures we are just as interested in our constables cracking as we are about the cracking of the case, and the learning to do their deductions the hard way makes for some superb trauma at times. Granted, the previous Jack the Ripper aspects can be oft done. However, this organized crime meets regular cop corruption same old can be found anywhere, and these unmemorable by comparison plots feel both stretched too thin and a little much for only a three part season. This should have been a taught, one off, ninety minute telemovie. Instead, Whitechapel sets its crime war stakes high – almost too high for our boys to win, rushing the changing of the tide with good cops versus bad gangsters symmetry turning into a slightly silly boxing ring ultimatum. Fortunately, despite a ridiculously simple and downright obvious answer, actual investigating pieces together the clues held all along, thus putting Whitechapel back on track for the finale.

Forget the jokes and Police Awards receptions, Detective Inspector Joe Chandler is more than happy to pick up the phone for a “We got one!” whodunit. Unfortunately, his eagerness to be on the street doesn't prepare him to be out of his element with rough crowds or tossed from private pubs. He marches about like he can handle himself, talking to whomever he wants as if his badge means something special. While he shouldn't be underestimated, he is off on the wrong foot with this case, playing into the criminals' hands, and getting caught – literally in the boot of the car as they say. He's warned to back off the case and should be looking over his shoulder more, but Chandler won't give up even after several mistakes. The suspects themselves tell him he is the wrong sort of policeman for this investigation, but Chandler attests that he doesn't care what people think of him whether he is in line or not. Of course, he's threatened to “take a holiday” and given one by force – not to mention his car is stolen and a donkey is left waiting in his parking space. He wanted a case to solve, however, the gangster games accentuate Chandler's OCD, and Joe's counting thumbtacks and sorting them by color to keep steady. Self-medicated drinking may curb these obsessive compulsions, but such interference doesn't help Chandler or the case. Our detective truly breaks once blood is on his hands – forcing him to realize he isn't the best cop and that's okay.

Crusty as ever but no less heartwarming in his own way, Phil Davis has no airs or graces as Detective Sergeant Ray Miles. He's right to call out the department politics and upward moving brown nosers for making Chandler the laugh of the force when Chandler's putting his team's safety before solving the case saved Miles' life. Unfortunately, Miles is having a tougher time getting back to the job than he likes to admit. Going his own way is one thing, but panic attacks and more pent up anger than usual mean Miles isn't always forthcoming with his previous ties and Kray family connections. Surprisingly, it's Steve Pemberton returning as Ripperologist Edward Buchan who helps Miles in a begrudging information exchange. Buchan knows a thing or two about the Krays and his amateur detective work comes in handy for the team. Again, I'd like to see more of Claire Rushbrook as forensic pathologist Caroline Llewellyn, but it is tough to have her involved beyond morgue moments. Although the ensemble is a bit too crowded this season, we like the detectives and root for them even when the writing is too thin or convenient on Whitechapel. At times the secondary police are too obvious, interchangeable, or unevenly used. Ben Bishop (Hunderby) as new transfer Finlay Mansell doesn't do much while Sam Stockman's young DC Emerson Kent idolizes Chandler – and pays for it dearly. George Rossi as family man and burly jokester John McCormack struggles greatly with the Kray situation, but Christopher Fulford as the demoted Constable Fitzgerald is still about the squad room, too. While Craig Parkinson (Misfits) is fun in his villainous dual role, Peter Serafinowicz (Shaun of the Dead) as looks are everything, highly decorated Detective Chief Inspector Cazenove is worried about department embarrassments when this broadly written character is embarrassingly obvious on Whitechapel. If it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck...

Now then, camera work should be used to accent the scene and build atmosphere, not call attention to itself with flash flash flashy as Whitechapel seems to think it must do to stand out compared to other police procedurals. Although not as bad as the debut season, this distorted photography or artsy scene changes aren't necessary when better straightforward filming is interspersed with brief narrations on the past crimes. Sepia slices via period crime photos and a montage mix would be okay – except slow motion is tossed on top for excessive hitting it over the head emphasis. It should be one or the other, and Whitechapel tries to look super sophisticated when the intrusive glossy dumbs down everything. Brief forensics scenes, surgical masks, and at the crime scene inspection do much better in adding that touch of macabre and violence. Shadows, alleyways, and darkness add a fitting sense of danger for our team while traditional editing builds the stalking scenes and ominous faces in the window. Now that these episodes are five years old, the use of technology is also minimal compared to the increasing instant crutch in more recent shows. Our detectives have cell phones – ahem mo-biles – and computers, but fortunately those devices are not an essential part of the crime solving.

After what feels like years of waiting, I was finally able to see this second series of Whitechapel on Hulu Plus. The DVDs never seem to be available here across the pond, so a few ninety second ads aren't a bother. The subtitles can be irksome at times, but it's easy to marathon these three episodes – which you almost have to do to keep all the details fresh. Yes, wise Whitechapel viewers will see the answer in the first ten minutes of the first episode. This isn't eerie anymore, and the tonal shift toward standard police drama is drastic enough to put off audiences who tuned in solely for the debut season's Ripper update. However despite the uneven writing flaws, viewers watching Whitechapel for the characters and the conspiracy possibilities can enjoy the yelling at the tele drama here.