22 April 2016

Julius Caesar (1970) vs Antony and Cleopatra (1972)

Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra A Curious but Entertaining Double Bill
by Kristin Battestella

Friends, Romans, countrymen....” Count 'em once, twice – Charlton Heston plays Marc Antony in the 1970 adaptation of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as well as the 1972 follow up Antony and Cleopatra. While neither picture is perfect, together these films make for an elusive but pleasant duo providing full embellishment on two lesser filmed Bard works.

AIP's Julius Caesar lets slip the dogs of war with leftover armor and barren skeletons on the desolate battlefield while the opening narration informs viewers on the previous war with Spain. Despite trumpets and parades, the largely faithful two hours is slow to start with no subtitles on the bare bones DVD and unfortunately undynamic characters cramping this history's innate momentum and otherwise fine performances. This version just isn't as intense as it should be – the locations and design are beyond a merely videotaped play staging yet it's lacking some cinematic flair. Director Stuart Barge (also of the infamous 1965 Othello) doesn't have command of the picture's weight, and the pace sputters in going through the motions from act to act. Lengthy two man conversations may seem like a lot of iambic pentameter chit chat for only a few simple actions, but the testing the waters dialogue layers the treasonous whispers to tease this inevitable outcome. Who's on whose side? From the Ides of March to “Et tu, Brute?” famous quotes anchor this hotbed, perilous time and secreted assassination planning. A moody dream sequence montage with screams and bloody statues invokes more booming prophecy, and the simmering approach to the public stabbing scene ups the ante. Quick intercut editing mirrors each slice, peppering the murder with a chaotic, bloody, almost ritual horror eerie. More familiar speeches and shrewd revenge move fast in the second hour as ghostly fires and comeuppance arguments bring Julius Caesar round right for the falling on swords finale. I love this era of history and this play – Julius Caesar is among my top three Shakespeare works. This is Roman history as told by Elizabethans adapted in the seventies yet the intriguing aristocratic parallels linger today. Ever are there a small few who claim they are doing right for the majority by creating war and strife, amirite? 

With effortless presence and a classy command of the text, John Gielgud's (A Bafta winner for the 1953 Julius Caesar film as Cassius) Julius Caesar almost seems cramped by the close camera with little room to let his charisma fully blossom. The slightly fragile Caesar swoons as others dote upon his hem, yet he remains revered in his refusals to rule. His charm is disarming – this is a likable, nice guy with battlefield glory, so why are people out to get him? We keep hearing of his military might before the play and current whispers of potential power to come, and Gieglund's would be Vader of the piece anchors the audience. We're looking for a reason to go along with the conspirators, and Caesar's stubbornness soon makes its interference known as he ignores repeated warnings to mind his fate and put his ear to ground for what might be afoot. Caesar's arrogance subtly increases – he gets ahead of himself with his North Star assurance and is genuinely shocked at his favorites joining the plot against him. Did he deserve to be stabbed? Maybe not, but Caesar was wrong in not heeding such prophecies and the political climate. Of course, the character is killed in the opening of the third act, and the viewer's morale compass switches to Caesar's avenger Marc Antony. Now, Charlton Heston is not the spring chicken he was in the 1950 Julius Caesar production. I'm not sure about that zany red comb over hair nor the skimpy wrap tunic and that wearing his mama's curtains dress – Chuck looks like an overgrown cherub! Fortunately, his familiar, strong voice and firm delivery earn Marc Antony's worth once the backstabbing unfolds. We agree with him against these crazy plotters thanks to an emotional, shocking plea. Marc Antony's weeps for all the SPQR to see, rousing and endearing the common people more that both Caesar's late missteps and those knife wielding traitors. It's a twitter war at its finest, and Marc Antony's shrewd politics assures the public feels in the right. He goes for the visceral by showing the corpse as evidence and pointing out the limp reasoning and stupid execution of a plot the public didn't ask to have done in its name. Wow, Julius Caesar just becomes more and more contemporary, doesn't it?

Ironically, it's even easier to be on Marc Antony's side because Jason Robards (All the President's Men) as Brutus is surprisingly flat, dry, and mid century sword and sandal dull. This is not what this conflicted, at times cowardly, and always potentially juicy character deserves. Poor Robards feels like he is doing his dialogue phonetically, and poor direction certainly plays a part. Didn't anybody check the dailies? This Brutus isn't morally upset or pained, but slow to draw his own conclusion and too wishy washy one way or the other. Richard Johnson's (The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders) far better command of the plot and performance at hand makes one wonder why Cassius is trying to recruit him at all, and gasp, this Julius Caesar could have excised Brutus and been better for it. Cassius' strong arm arguments are so smooth you don't know you are being so pressed, and his true color revelations put an exclamation – er sword point on Julius Caesar. Diana Rigg (The Avengers) as Portia also adds a moment a tender uplift to Brutus with wisdom, grace, and strength behind the man. Can the rest of her Shakespeare cred become available on video please? The trouble with Julius Caesar is that there are several critical but quite small roles that can't be combined or eliminated – especially when you can cast a great name for the clout or much needed financing. While Robards struggles, Robert Vaughn's (The Magnificent Seven) slick Casca proves it's not an American issue with Billy in Julius Caesar, and the late great Christopher Lee has some hefty proclamations, if only for a mad moment. Why couldn't he have been Brutus? Richard Chamberlain (The Thorn Birds) is also almost an irrelevant afterthought as Octavius, though the character obviously plays a more substantial part in Antony and Cleopatra.

Julius Caesar remains a bit obscure perhaps because up until recently, there hasn't really been a quality video release. Though shrewd in avoiding a big entry spectacle and taking care of the opening titles at the same time, the widescreen credits look cropped or zoomed in and blurry. We can, however, still spot some apparently under dressed slave boob shots, FYI. Unfortunately, the rest of the picture remains a flat, cut and scan fullscreen, leaving a congested feeling despite relatively few up close shots. Move the camera back please and show more of the colorful togas, statues, and crowded plazas. The ancient wares and graffiti add much needed Roman spirit while columns and stonework anchor the slightly small scale sets and seemingly simple Shakespearean stage dressings. Our villainous stabbers all seem to be dark, bearded, or greasy haired – perhaps not the best visual but the distinctions help the audience recognize these crazed assassins. Storms and lightning create mood to match the waxing on fate and stars, and although this Julius Caesar is lacking in panache, it's pleasing to see such focus on the flawed people and empire-shaping twists instead of some dated seventies spectacle. The sweeping music by Michael J. Lewis (Theater of Blood) is reserved for choice soliloquy crescendos, and the green outdoors, golden helmets, and horse action accent the partings well made. Like Julius Caesar, the 1972 Antony and Cleopatra was filmed in Spain complete with bonus Egyptian gold and orange motifs alongside crisp blue waters, ancient pirate ships, and red centurion capes. Be it the Roman villa or the Nile, viewers immediately recognize where a scene takes place, making Antony and Cleopatra feel more colorful, lavish, and cinematic compared to Julius Caesar's congested interiors and forum drab. A making of half hour on the DVD featuring Fraser Clarke Heston provides more behind the scenes details, and hey, subtitles! Save for a full Egyptian finale, Cleopatra and her entourage are also dressed in more Greco-Roman fashions – a historically debatable or artistic choice perhaps. However, the sea battle footage reused from Ben-Hur is too obvious despite the montage overlays and film trickery. The seaside establishing shots are enough alongside the close quarters barge battles. Smoke, fire, sword slices, and hacked, bloody limbs do far better than this cheesy whiff of1959 re-glory.

Then again, I was the obnoxious sophomore who couldn't understand why we weren't reading Antony and Cleopatra after just studying Julius Caesar. They go together, people! Several years later the best friend and lover of the deceased go to battle with his heir and die for love – today Hollywood can't make up this kind of epic franchising fast enough. Heston not only stars in this picking up where Octavius left off but also directed and adapted the smooth Elizabethan delivery and wouldn't know it was Shakespeare casual old speaketh, which in itself says something about the much more effortless performances under this actor's director compared to Julius Caesar. Roman rivals, pirates sweeping the Mediterranean, lovers chillaxing – Antony and Cleopatra sets the busy scene with Egypt versus Rome parallels as Marc Antony's dawdling with Cleopatra leaves the triumvirate ruling Rome perilously imbalanced. Some coming and going scenes or to and fro messengers, however, feel redundant, sagging the lengthy two and a half hour runtime. We've just seen what is being told, and such transitions could have been trimmed in favor of combining or lengthening the titular tug and pull. Antony and Cleopatra is structured as if the separate locations could be staged side by side, darkening or illumining each empire as needed. Unfortunately, that back and forth is uneven in the first half of the film when our duo spends more time apart – Antony and Cleopatra are actually separated for more time onscreen then they are together. Marc Antony hearing Cleopatra's quotes in his head while he's in Rome or listening to the asides of others do better in invoking the spirit of the stage. Likewise, the Soothsayer almost mystically appears in both places, linking the isolated fates in an almost self-aware breaking the fourth wall before some surreal penance and the epic action finale. The final forty minutes of battles betrayed and cavalry action raise the stakes as these would be titans of Egypt and Rome realize their fall with fine, if fatal soliloquies. Antony and Cleopatra is a little messy, but that is the nature of their reality show trainwreck relationship. This battle of the sexes, love/hate war, and who is using whom scandal can shakedown any number of ways, and this Antony and Cleopatra throws in some gladiator practice for good measure, complete with a thumbs up from Octavius, because, of course.

Well then, Chuck's Marc Antony looks a little older with whitish blonde hair for Antony and Cleopatra – but he's still going around in some kind of nude thong thing. Heston looks much better in armor atop his horse in full Shakespearean command, but Marc Antony is angry that strife in Rome interferes with his new, alluring roost with Cleopatra. He doesn't care about his late wife's campaign against Octavius, but reluctantly returns to Rome to claim his family's wars were not his own. So much for partying in Egypt when marrying another gal adds to your troubles! The drunken scenes are a little off, and although Heston knows where the direction of Julius Caesar went wrong, perhaps he's not so good at directing himself when playing this kind of blinded by lust character. However, I do wish he would have directed more, albeit without himself as star or with another collaborator on the script. This cast does well thanks to his performance first expertise, and Marc Antony's conflicts, soliloquies, and final scenes give Heston room to just act. Although Cleopatra may have a quick, lying under Marc Antony introduction, Hildegarde Neil (A Touch of Class) has a firm voice to convey Cleopatra's anger as well as a solid hold on The Bard's dialogue. Initially, more time is spent on Cleopatra's la di da handmaidens and gay in both senses of the word henchmen while the queen's passionate pleas echo over Marc Antony's angst. Some of this humor is too lighthearted hippie and misses the mark, but it also parallels the fluid sex and cross dressing of the Elizabethan stage. Cleopatra is a tough figure to portray, and Neil superbly makes the character and debated historical figure a person – a young, naive, smitten and insecure ruler in love. Cleopatra is not just some kind of exotic habit everyone insists Marc Antony quit, for the viewer sees her plain before the mirror jealousy as well as her full pharaonic regalia. She's violent and at times equal in a role reversed sexual power play with Marc Antony as each tries to gain the upper hand whether it is good for either's country or not. Neil doesn't look super young next to Heston, either, and in the final twenty minutes she holds her own alone with strength in mourning and grace in defeat.

Eric Porter (The Forsyte Saga) as Marc Antony's consul Enobarbus also knows the right things to say and do as this peacemaker between such two big egos. He's weathering their lust, hoping they will just get this love/hate thing out of their system. Unfortunately, Enobarbus can't take the pull of Antony with Egypt against his own loyalty to Rome. The character may not seem super important between the eponymous rulers, however this is a relatable, tragic figure encapsulating how the common people and simple soldiers are the victims caught in the middle as the big wigs play their capture the flag war games. By contrast, John Castle's (I,Claudius) Octavius is a sassy little fellow, even a downright brat. His slick and selfish ways should make him a good politician, but Octavius is too much of a jerk. One can't help but look back and wonder if Rome was better off in Caesar's hands compared to him – but of course history would prove differently for the villainous victor here. Although Roger Delgado's (Doctor Who) Soothsayer may be more medieval in style than Roman for Antony and Cleopatra, that's okay. Audiences expect a whiff of the supernatural and some ironic author winks from Bill. Again, there are even more recognizable but perhaps superfluous secondary players in Antony and Cleopatra, with Julian Glover (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) as the go between messenger Proculeius filling the toga and Freddie Jones (Emmerdale) as Pompey putting on his best argh! for only a few somewhat unnecessary scenes. Some lines are already moved in the otherwise faithful adaptation, so why not go for broke with an extreme cinematic splice? This Antony and Cleopatra could have excised all the extra speaking parts that do nothing but delay the snowball toward the fatal confrontations viewers want to see. Gasp, this film could have gotten by with even half the cast, but heck, we'll keep the elemental Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Octavius, Enobarbus, and the mystical Soothsayer for good measure. Tee hee.

It's tough to find both Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Varying streaming options and Netflix rentals expire or very long wait, but the 1970 Julius Caesar feels a little forgotten compared to the 1953 Marlon Brando adaptation of Shakespeare's deadly Roman hotbed – which, call me crazy, is not a favorite of mine. Yes, there are design flaws and miscasting consequences here, but there's plenty of good with several scenes more palpable for the Roman or Shakespearean classroom. Such out of control egos and historical parallels are ripe for millennial audiences, too. The players in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra had the world at their grasp, and nobody knew what the heck they wanted – a lesson not learned in 44 B.C., 1623, or 2016. Although Julius Caesar is an oft read story capable of surviving any film wrongs and there have been a few Et tu adaptations, I'm still waiting for the definitive Julius Caesar Shakespeare film. Okay, putting the Iambic pentameter into Latin with English subtitles would be too much to ask. Betraying Bill by putting these two plays together and cutting the flak for an intense sword jabbing cinema escapade is probably wishful thinking, too – but hey, paging director Kenneth Branagh and star Tom Hiddleston! With Julius Caesar's open ending and such hefty history to follow, Antony and Cleopatra rightly completes our innate what happens next needs. One can't leave the fate of Rome up in the air like that, and The Bard gives us the tough, often unclassifiable, and bitter conclusion to match.

15 April 2016

The Strain: Season 1

The Strain Struggles Late in Its Debut
by Kristin Battestella

Guillermo Del Toro (Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak) executive produced the 2014 FX debut of The Strain – a thirteen episode vampire zombie plague thriller based upon Del Toro and Chuck Hogan's (Prince of Thieves) own novel trilogy. While the series starts strong with scientific updates on traditional horror lore, the pacing flounders in the latter half with muddled, drawn out storytelling.

CDC Canary Team members Ephraim Goodweather (Corey Stoll), Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro), and Jim Kent (Sean Astin) investigate the strange circumstances surrounding a plane landing in New York. Everyone on board is seemingly dead, and a mysterious box of earth lies in its cargo hold. Despite plague symptoms and infectious worm-like creatures, higher up authorities dismiss Eph's insistence for a quarantine thanks to the powerful but ill mogul Eldritch Palmer (Jonathan Hyde). Rodent inspector Vasiliy Fet (Kevin Durand), however, realizes larger vermin are afoot, and ex-con Augustin “Gus” Elizalde (Miguel Gomez) reluctantly takes jobs for the bizarre Thomas Eichhorst (Richard Sammel) – who has tormented the supposedly unassuming antiques dealer Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley) in the past. Fortunately, Setrakian wields a silver sword cane, and having seen this kind of vampire killer previously, uses his strigoi wisdom to help Eph stop this outbreak before it is too late.

A super-sized seventy-two minute “Night Zero” written and directed by Del Toro starts The Strain with waxing on hunger, unquenchable thirst, and love – the forces that make us human. Airplane tedium, radio chatter, familiar travel fears, and ornery passengers create realism, grounding the ominous scares in the cargo hold with jurisdiction, stupidity, press, and red tape. Family troubles versus work priorities layer values, packing in smart dialogue and character backgrounds without being rushed or in your face. Spiritual character names and “Holy Jesus!” exclaims over creepy jar specimens and biohazard suits invoke a whiff of religion alongside doctors talking of 210 souls on board this modern Dementer ala Horror Express. Well shot horror movie accents set the scene amid numerous locations, disaster response action, quarantine technicalities, and paranormal simmer. The Strain uses horror to mirror politics and acknowledges public panic, PR responses, famous survivors, and disaster containment while building suspense and updating traditional vampire lore with contemporary science and plague cliffhangers. Television reports and leaked documents are not to be trusted – nor is the titular coffin decorated with Faust demonography in “The Box.” It's tough to get everyone's name on The Strain, however, the not all white, not all speaking English characters are real people dealing with prejudice to match rather than stock Hollywood pretties. Supposed criminals go to mass and respect their families while the villains at the top are more concerned with looking in control as they cover their asses. Shrewd commentary on the press making a scoundrel for the public to detest sets off terse conversations and hatred coming full circle as the empty body bags, zombies at the morgue, and bath tub body horror mounts. Selfish bureaucrats look the other way to tentacles and bone cracking transformations – orchestrating suffering to belie the facade in “Gone Smooth.”

The Strain may start slow for some viewers, but we are now invested in the players even before the horror escalates. Be it cravings for blood, liver transplants, custody battles, or sobriety, everyone is trapped by their own needs – not to mention the intrusive media and corrupt disease officials. The Strain tells its scary story with authentic hopes, wills, and weakness rather than expected television gimmicks, and frightful moments of invasive violence create scientifically based monsters for 21st century audiences in “It's Not for Everyone.” Basement autopsies and pets beware disrupt rosaries and prayers yet gruesome new appendages and genital mutations become increasingly intriguing. Blood on snow, husbands and wives that can't do what needs to be done, dishonest team members – if you love someone, how far are you willing to go? Hackers and lying politicians are just as dangerous as biological agents, and the ye olde Van Helsing and front line doctors lock horns over how to proceed in “Runaways.” This strigoi vampire history is tough for men of science to accept! Instead of listening to rat catchers, Spanish traditions, or our elders when they say to stay away from monsters, today these horrors demand documentation, cell phone video, and proof splashed upon the unreliable internet – idle inaction as this tiered metamorphosis grows from plague to vampires to zombies in “Occultation.” Apocalyptic gloom, biblical pestilence, and contemporary virus talk refresh the vampire genre while leaving the comforts of sunlight to save the day. Unless there's a gosh darn lunar eclipse imminent that is! External planetary zooms further show how small humans are once we're the tasty victims chained in a padded room, and The Strain reminds us this outbreak will get worse before it gets better. Can we protect loved ones when families won't have it? A plague that isn't on the news means it isn't really happening, right? Nail gun action matches slowing or rapid heart rates as the untrustworthy phones, backward security systems, and interrogations help things fall apart in “For Services Rendered.” Sirens, bridges shutting down, cabbies with a gun and silver bullets...oh yeah.

SARS masks in the crowded subway station keep the fears immediate for “Creatures of the Night” while vampires and virus debates reveal similar preferences for lying dormant in dark, damp areas. Looting is small in comparison to what's at stake once zombie movie aspects pick up the outbreak action. Our everyday heroes are besieged – fighting off the approaching, growling prowlers with rudimentary weapons. With teamwork, they can get the job done, and it's great to see characters who have been apart on The Strain finally meet. Will they work together or is it everyone for themselves? What do you do when one of your own is infected? Do you treat a victim or save one's soul? Fortunately, a convenience store is a good place to hold up, and UV light is your friend against a smart monster mob. Back room surgery, however, is to no avail. Everyone on The Strain is fair game, and people must be smart with Macguyver tricks and proactive measures against the increasing enemy and disturbing child attacks. Once noble citizens must sneak into corporate offices, investigate underground tunnels for vampires, and experiment with science and weapons – breaking the rules they once felt paramount to save all they hold dear. Hefty decision making comes in “The Third Rail” with plans to attack and big, matricide choices thanks to not the fantastic but regular human sickness. Do we leave family behind or commit a worse sin? World Trade Center ties give The Strain a firm reality while containers packed with strigoi are apparently being bought and shipped in a quite creepy, but gosh darnnit not surprisingly corporate turn. Science versus bible quotes accent the tiptoeing into the lair as everyone gets on the same page for some great confrontations. Evil so easily tricks the well-intentioned does it not? An almost Hammer-esque sixties flashback sets off “Last Rites” as personal parallels are strongly felt past and present. This battle has been going on longer than we think, and there's no time for current stubbornness and disrespect amid such bittersweet loss.

Sadly, The Strain degenerates somewhat when too many disposable characters and dead end tangents behave in dumb horror movie fashion and disrupt the interesting but unanswered vampire hive hierarchy designs, creature differences, and mystery SWAT teams. The solid Holocaust flashback scenes should also not be intercut with the modern narrative as if they were just any standard B plot. I don't like Holocaust material as it is, and splicing it with horror plots compromises the real world impact – this provenance should have been told in its entirety in one episode. The Strain falls into an alternating pattern with the same character plots together – which forces important developments to wait while others catch up – and the storylines become increasingly busy and repetitive. Redundant scares aren't surprising the fourth time around in “The Disappeared,” and The Strain sags when boosting annoying child questions and plots. The audience doesn't need any rabies for people explanations, and more inconsistencies creep into the debates, grief, and jailbreak infections. Some victims are infected by a little nick while others unafflicted fight hand to hand versus the tentacles, and these later episodes becoming increasingly padded with either extreme as needed. Maybe there are biological time differences for a strigoi turning, but a serious amount of artistic license plays a part as “Loved Ones” further sidetracks The Strain with convenient laptop uses, secondary A/B plot holes, and unrealistic turns. Isn't anybody getting out of dodge to warn somebody about this huge happening in New York City? Where is the military? Secretary of Health quarantines and National Guard calls comes too late – as does an attempt to broadcast information. Shouldn't a way to call for help have been the first course of action, not last? Surely, these intelligent vampires could have looked up everyone's addresses and come knocking on some doors much sooner, too. Although the miniseries styled international ensemble represents all walks of life and the characters themselves are well done, the show would have been a lot shorter – and maybe should have been only ten episodes – had several plots and players been woven tighter. Half the survivors are completely superfluous with stray shock stories wasting time The Strain doesn't have to spare. “The Master” finale does tie up some loose ends by pulling together speakeasy secret passages and survivor connections, but such obvious information and smart uses of sunlight feel unnecessarily delayed just to entice for the second season. You can get away with that on the page, but on television the string along action becomes too chaotic, ending The Strain with poorly choreographed fights and a vampire turf war voiceover.

Ephraim Goodweather is a fittingly ironic name for Corey Stoll's (House of Cards) relatable CDC doctor reluctant to choose between his falling apart family and work commitments. Eph is frank with the press on the job yet has to be the bigger man and leave his family happy without him. Drinking questions are thrown in his face, and Eph can't convince the FBI to just consider the possibility of an outbreak – making viewers glad when he gets to say I told you so. The family angles do become too cliché as the season goes on, unfortunately slowing the main story down while The Strain decides whether these side characters are important or not. Such uneveness compromises Eph at times, like when he sleeps with a woman one moment but professes to love his wife in the next. Fortunately, this scientist is thrust out of his element with swords and medieval monsters thanks to David Bradley's (Harry Potter) tough pawn shop owner Abraham Setrakian. Our Armenian Jew Holocaust survivor has seen these strigoi before as a young craftsman learning how to stay alive, and his old fashioned ways are a pleasant marker amid the contemporary battles. After all Setrakian's witnessed, we don't blame him for his chopping heads with a sword first and the heck with CDC rules after crusty attitude. He vomits at the gore but Sean Astin (Lord of the Rings) as Jim Kent plays the fence when it comes to doing the right thing thanks to an understandably sick wife behind his reasons. What do you expect him to do but what any one of us would have done? Jim is the audience layman and sums up the scares quite plainly, inducing dry chuckles to alleviate the tension. We hope Samwise will make amends, but will it be too late? Likewise Mia Maestro (Frida) as Nora Martinez cracks and can't always handle The Strain's gruesome or deaths. They are supposed to be doctors helping people, right? Nora cares deeply, but doesn't need a man to tell her what to do. She researchers her own information and shares her input with Eph against superiors and red tape. Though reluctant to believe what's happening – much less fire a gun or kill – Nora must protect her mother while on the run and accepts the necessary defiance of their 'do no harm' creed.

Kevin Durand's (Lost) Vasiliy Fet has a thankless job as a city exterminator aka rat catcher. However, he's quite well educated and has a sense of humor about his work. Fet can be both harsh to the uppity deserving it and kind to others in need – he knows what's happening below is a sign of worse to come and to hell with those who disagree with him. He does what he has to do without help from others, but comes to respect Setrakian's knowledge and ingenuity in this fight. Miguel Gomez' (Southpaw) Gus Elizalde is also doing the best he can to get legit and help his family now that he's out of juvenile prison. He quickly grows suspicious of Eichhorst and wants out of his dirty work, but, like most of us, he just plum needs the cash. When his friend is infected and the prisoners are chained together, the cops see rap sheets rather than what's really happening, naturally. Yes, how do you stop a plague from running rampant in a jailhouse? I know there is a reason for it, however, I wish Gus wasn't separate from the other main storylines. His literally bumping into another main cast member on the street is not enough. Thankfully, Richard Sammel (Inglourious Basterds) as the not quite breathing Thomas Eichhorst is wonderfully creepy unto himself with a Nazi to the core defense of the Reich and a suave, godless collaborator veneer. He counters every argument with a justifiable defense and is frighteningly not wrong when he says people accept the choice to suffer and comply rather than die. Eichhorst's strong arm and menace increases as The Strain goes on, and Jonathan Hyde's (Jumanji) terminal magnate Eldritch Palmer wishes he were as ruthless. He believes in a higher power and thinks The Master will reward him with immortality, but faith in evil or one's own wealth and power may not get you very far in the end. We should have seen more of Roger Cross (24) as Palmer's loyal but suspicious aide Fitzwilliam, and Ruta Gedmintas (The Tudors) as regretful hacker Dutch Velders is a strong character with superb chemistry who's story is dealt with too late. Jack Kesy (Baywatch) as the goth musician Gabriel Bolivar and Regina King (American Crime) as his manager Ruby are also underutilized – The Strain glaringly derails by conveniently forgetting to check up on his storyline much, much sooner.

Fortunately, fine cinematography and cinematic editing anchor The Strain's usual forty five minute episodes. Viewer discretion is advised alongside brief title credits with bloody smears on white tiles and a fitting sense of medical gone wrong. Onscreen locations and time stamp countdowns with the occasional pop up text messages are nicer than having to read tiny print on a dated phone screen, and the realistic mix of languages, Spanish lyrics, and cultural accents match the city locales. The antique store base provides a sense of old patina hidden in the borough, contrasting the bright yellow warning tape, flashlights, bio gear, and technology screens, laptops, and communications. Simple buzzing sounds, ringing noises, “Did you hear that?” calls, and recoils over ammonia smells invoke more senses than obnoxious jump scare sounds while slimy tentacles, oozing worms, slushy squirts, and gurgling slurps add to the monstrous. Autopsy saws and dissections increase the body horror as Neil Diamond tunes, pop music cues, and nursery rhymes create irony. Colorful orange and green hues pop during night scenery, drafting a super sized count on acid, comic book style, however dark tunnels and UV lighting can be tough to see at times. There's also a subtle 'Spot the Cross' thread in The Strain thanks to necklaces, crucifixes, altars, and other veiled spiritual reminders seemingly hidden in every scene – good visually counteracting evil. Several common directors and writers doing multiple episodes each including Keith Gordon (Dexter), Peter Weller (Sons of Anarchy), David Weddle and Bradley Thompson (Battlestar Galactica), David Semel (American Dreams), Regina Corrado (Deadwood), and Gennifer Hutchinson (Breaking Bad) help maintain The Strain's overall cohesive feel and well done horror design. I must also say, I actually don't mind the commercials when watching The Strain on Hulu, for these fast moving ads get back to the show – unlike the seven minutes or more on television when you forget what you were watching!

The Strain starts with plenty of layered horror parallels and intriguing monsters versus science enthusiasm and well developed characters. However, poor pacing and struggling storylines in the second half of this debut kind of make me want to read the books instead of watch Season Two. Some harsh language and brief nudity are nothing major for horror tweens today, but it is best for sophisticated scary fans to go into The Strain cold for a maximum on the surprises, plague versus horror politics, historical commentaries, and religious context. Despite a piecemeal, trickling along exit, The Strain is a unique combination of mad science, vampires, and zombies with a little something to appease all horror audiences.

10 April 2016

A Shakespeare Trio

A Shakespeare Trio!
by Kristin Battestella

Let's celebrate The Bard with these three elusive and somewhat unusual adaptations brimming with big names, bizzarro, and beaches. Huzzah!

Macbeth – Pre-007 Sean Connery leads this black and white 1961 Canadian television production – which looks like some seriously low budget mid century television indeed thanks to poor, VHS caliber video and up close camera work that is so tight, its missing its own blocking and practically cutting off the picture. The costumes are almost non-existent, the swords look like toys, and the empty stone sets are more bad sci-fi than Billy. There's a lot of standing around doing nothing, too, but fortunately the foreground silhouettes, gray shadows, and ballet-esque witches invoke a surreal feeling alongside ominous smoke, thunder, and trumpets. The old speakeths are well spoken, delivered firmly as the brisk eighty minutes gets right to the prophecies, treasonous plots, murderous frenzy, and guilty consequences. Although jealous voiceovers and ambitious internal monologues initially belie Macbeth's calm exterior, it's a pity there are precious few action moments and no zesty, angry asides to match Connery's gruff. Ironically, the abstract space accents Lady Macbeth's warped soliloquies, and stage dame Zoe Caldwell looks her conniving, condescending part – Mrs. MacB's twisted, timeless words are enough to carry her easily manipulated husband to crime and trump the old production values. Sleepwalking, revenge, turn about fair play – this packs in a lot despite most of the action happening offscreen. Zooms and music do escalate the shocks for the Macduff killings, and the sword fight finale is well played, however, one must be familiar with the play before this viewing. I do wish Connery had a proper film chance at The Scottish Play, and while the shoddy video makes this classroom tough, comparing specific scenes could be a fun study. It's not quite a filmed play, however, with such little attention to the film design, nothing remains but dialogue and performance to tell the story – and I kind of like it that way.

Othello – It's black and white and only an hour and a half, but writer, director, producer, and star Orson Welles puts his all into this 1952 opus. The ominous opening reveals the play's fatal ending with haunting funerary, chanting, silhouettes, and medieval hoods in a march of the damned complete with sacrificial Cross motifs. Venice feelings and international locales add mood for this fast moving, simplified adaptation, too. However, no one is introduced and the dialogue is difficult without subtitles – making this edition very confusing for one unfamiliar with the always fine tragedy at hand. Although the narration, head hopping, and messy structuring is understandable due to the long gestating, embattled production, the intercut up close shots have a spliced together tone. Distant outdoor filming, big battle action, and artistic scene setters also try too hard and detract from the plot. This Iago is a mustache twisting villain – his opportunistic orchestration lost amid the busy scenes or existing only to dupe a kindly, messianic Moor whose one weakness is a woman in white. Of course, if Welles could have done this as a one man show, he probably would have, and his egotistical photography creates more unevenness. Othello's scenes are the best because Welles makes them so with slower shots and stewing confrontations. From misunderstood to ogre with crazy in between, this is a performance booming in stature. However, a white star playing the traditionally black Moor is certainly taboo for viewers today – and Welles does so in odd, sweaty, swarthy makeup. Such full of itself blinders overshadows an intriguing vision caught behind the noir forties yet ahead of the avante garde sixties. Fortunately, the pace steamrolls thanks to a no good handkerchief, and considering all the behind the scenes troubles, it's amazing this is such watchable, powerful stuff. No, this isn't perfect, and the changes may bother Shakespeare purists, but this heavy little picture is worth a look. 

The Tempest – Helen Mirren (The Queen) leads writer and director Julie Taymor's (Titus) 2010 role reversal alongside Alan Cumming (X2), Chris Cooper (American Beauty), David Strathairn (Goodnight, and Good Luck), Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator), and Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything). Sorcery and supernatural storms invoke an in limbo, fantasy tone – making the hefty exposition easier old speaketh fanciful – while brief flashbacks to Milan have a dreamy, otherworldly quality to match. Small people live large in orchestrating flawed plans to entertain themselves amid an almost steampunk styled island lair and bleak, barren settings. Silent film German Expressionism photography captures the isolated, moody Hawaii beaches and airy forests as ships in peril, crashing waves, and seaside winds accent the surreal. However, the Ariel special effects montages can feel cheesy or redundant – Ben Whishaw (Skyfall) need not be separated from the rest of the cast with post production spectacle in this otherwise outdoor play presentation. Fortunately, the blu-ray release has an hour long behind the scenes documentary, commentary with the cast and crew, and rehearsal footage explaining how and why they made such choices. Subtle reflections, nymph music, and the earthy, androgynous Ariel design are better, and the harpy scene provides some wild turnabout action. Although young audiences may like the near slapstick silly and drunken moments, even as a jester Russell Brand (Despicable Me) feels out of place with an obnoxious missing the mark sidetracking the first hour. The innate Shakespeare parallels can also feel uneven when straying from the stronger cast and self aware confrontations. The youthful romance, however, is more appealing to modern viewers thanks to players waxing on if they are dreaming or awake in a play within a play purgatory. Likewise, the Prospera switch adds mother/daughter intrigue to strengthen the sympathetic sorceress with a bad wrap theme. Maybe we don't see Mirren much and it is obvious this is such a strong female character because the role is really written for a man, but our Dame commands the masculine ruthless and fiery action well. Everyone here plots for their own gain, yet each finds his guilt, pity, or comeuppance in a fine finale that trades power for compassion. One may not always agree with Taymor's storytelling decisions, however, I wish she directed more simply because this industry needs visionary women. Several scenes here are ripe for classroom comparisons and discussions, and in this era where most films look the same, Shakespearean fans seeking something different need look no further.

04 April 2016

Witches of East End: Season 2

Mistakes not Rectified in Witches of East End Season 2
by Kristin Battestella

Netflix just kept insisting I continue watching the 2014 second year of Lifetime's Witches of East End. Against my better judgment, I tuned in for the thirteen episode season – which unfortunately doesn't rectify the errors of the series' tepid debut.

Witches of East End opens with a memory loss reset from the end of the first season in “A Moveable Beast” and a jarring trying to be sexy whilst also trying to be dark and dangerous tone. Good or bad histories are dropped to introduce a long lost Beauchamp family member in “The Son Also Rises,” making it tough to take the Asgard war yada yada yada seriously in “The Old Man and the Key.” There are already too many plots at once with fast editing and faster, talking on top of each other conversations, and Witches of East End throws everything at the screen – including twincest – while poor torture scenes and sociopath Asgard enemies in “The Brothers Grimoire” waste time. Pieces of plots can be good, but the quality is mixed with so many hate worthy, hammy teen moments ruining potential developments. While the women look the same in “Boogie Knights,” the men look ridiculous, and this disco flashback is an obvious excuse for Jenna Dewan Tatum to dance. The intercut weekly plots and interwoven season arcs are poorly combined, disregarding what is happening in another time or in someone's head as if all the action were linear acts. Neat magic that would be fun to see is talked about rather than shown in favor of would be scandalous or juicy attempts, but it's tough to care about romance when everyone's allegiances seem to change from week to week just because soap opera styled plots say they should. Repetitive dialogue is often found in the same scene, where more time is spent arguing than doing something, and flak continues to divert the increasingly high stakes or imminent death crises in “When a Mandragora Loves a Woman.” I'm not against romance, but forced steamy retcons from episode to episode as needed illume the hollow threats and empty fodder. Uneven A, B, C structured storylines on Witches of East End counteract each other's trying to be heavy impact. Significant or not, characters disappear in “Art of Darkness” while others said to have been around suddenly appear, and the saucy language and partial nudity of “Sex, Lies, and Birthday Cake” is yawn worthy when once again, more interesting character developments take a backseat to round and round romance.

Kills, family history, and magic discovery are set aside in increasingly poorly shot and directed plots – Witches of East End moves fast to cover the weak acting of the younger cast when even three intercut sex scenes don't help. More absurd sex rituals and unsexy bondage compromise the escalating spells and counter magic in “Smells Like King Spirit.” Action and rivalry fall prey to convenient deaths and a love spell that results in absent anger, grief, and compassion. One or two overall story arcs would have sufficed yet there is little emotion in the thin cliffhangers of “The Fall of the House of Beauchamp.” We know resets and easy fixes are coming thanks to past life excuses and little consequences with music montages undermining what should be heavy moments and voodoo sidetracking unrelated to the Asgard plots. Witches of East End is very poorly paced and tosses an ambiguous FBI agent into this late mix because each episode must outdo itself every week. Fortunately, the 1840 brothel snooping flashback in “Poe Way Out” is good fun. There's still too much exposition and instant happenings amid not just A, B, and C but even D plots – far too much for a forty minute runtime – and another flashback is told within the past time rather than shown on its own. Witches of East End could have had Asgardians hiding in period with agents chasing them through the timelines all season long! I'm glad almost all of the subsequent “Box to the Future” continues the past Poe possibilities, against the clock races, possessions, and lets the spooky séance mood run with the period melodrama. One overall story should have been done all along, and while I admit much of the try hard paranormal romance light isn't my cup of tea, the rampant structural flaws on Witches of East End can't be ignored. Quality elements are squeezed in too late, and obnoxious people, plans, or objects change for good or ill from scene to scene – interrupting any compelling tricks and forward momentum in “For Whom the Spell Tolls.” Off-camera torture, pregnancy bombs, and convenient magic resolve nothing in this Witches of East End finale where there was apparently no consideration of cancellation. Easy resolution, Romeo and Juliet cheats, body swaps, and underworld surprises prove nothing was learned from the first season's ups and downs. Witches of East End backpedaled when its time was running out only to peak with an unresolved ending. Shit. 

In this era where there aren't many roles for strong, older women, Witches of East End could have been a great, empowering series for its stars. Unfortunately, the flip flopping script is quite unfair to Julia Ormond as family matriarch Joanna Beauchamp. I totally forgot she was an art teacher, and we don't get to see Joanna do any real magic until near the end of the season – because she must now do the very thing she has been trying to prevent all season and we're supposed to just go with it. Apparently, Joanna was also a wild seventies witch who dabbled in interracial lady love, but rather than being treated as something mature, the lesbian leanings come off as trying to shock alongside character growths that reset each episode. Joanna was an opium hooker and had a femme romance yet all we ever see her do is spout some Latin? Pity. In and of herself, Mädchen Amick as feline sister Wendy is really the only character on Witches of East End about whom I have no complaints. However, Wendy is continually screwed in the romance department, as if her only role in the series is to have one fatal affair after another to prove how much a good woman can withstand man crap. Likewise, Rachel Boston as good librarian turned bad girl daughter Ingrid is continually defined by her male relationships – be it flirting with some otherworldly bestiality, warlocks, or an unplanned pregnancy. She keeps telling everyone she is an expert on witchcraft but is perhaps the most messy of all the ladies with the most magic misuses. Adding to this back and forth wishy washy is the newly through the Asgardian portal brother Christian Cooke (Where the Heart Is) as Frederick Beauchamp. Whether it is a miscasting or bad writing or both I don't care, but Witches of East End never should have added another family member to its already crowded storytelling.

Jenna Dewan Tatum's moon eyed Freya and Daniel Di Tomasso as fighting women off left and right Killian also go one round too many at the romance circus. Grief sex in the back of the bar when the bodies of so-called loved ones aren't even cold? Had they both disappeared in the pointless Santo Domingo storyline, Witches of East End might have been better for it. I never though I would be against so many shirtless guys, but the lack of substance hiding behind the man candy is insulting. There is some potential to Eric Winter's Dash being caught between the euphoria of doing bad magic and its healing power, but the magic versus his doctoring and science falls prey to dumb blackmail schemes and sibling rivalry. Fortunately, James Marsters (Buffy) adds much needed suave as the seemingly nonchalant businessman and evil Asgardian henchman Tarkoff. He's been in pursuit through history and is down with some torture love! Instead of pining for Joanna, Witches of East End could have paired down its characters and plots by having Tarkoff be Wendy's ex, saving time and money while strengthening what is available in house. Rather than ruining another interracial romance and derailing with voodoo stereotypes, fellow Buffy alum Bianca Lawson could have been Tarkoff's fellow antagonist instead of the Fredrick and company drivel. But alas, Marsters is stuck doing same thing every episode with no resolution, and the cliché, sacrificial gay best friend exit given to Tom Lenk is inexcusable. Witches of East End is downright embarrassing when all the gay or ethnic characters are simply there to die! Fine guests such as Ignacio Serricchio (Bones) and Steven Berkoff (Octopussy) go underutilized while a serious love triangle between Joel Gretsch as Joanna's husband Victor and Michelle Hurd (Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) as her past witch love Alex is a story that somehow was deemed unworthy compared to the other derivative, forced, ad nauseam steamy.

In addition to the rushed storytelling, Witches of East End sacrifices any bewitching mood with very poor scene setting CGI, CGI cats, CGI smoke, kinky tentacles, and one forest set for everything. Brief flashbacks to mystical portals and unseen Asgard wars dress our players in hokey Roman goddess Halloween costumes with toy centurion armor for the boys, shining the spotlight on obvious budget cuts. Witches of East End should not have been expanded to thirteen episodes, and padded action scenes try too hard amid dated fashions consisting of nothing but hoochie looks and slutty bra tops assuring the huge boobs show. Although for some that's not the worst of the show's problems, granted, and the magic effects and witchy whooshes do get better by the series' end. Perhaps viewers angry at what could have been will have a tough time appreciating the camp value here, for Lifetime feels just a little too late on the horror light bandwagon. Rather than being a show by and for women, Witches of East End plays into too many chick needing a man same old with standard weekly television flaws and phoned in copycat paranormal. There are other more fun, less marred spooky shows available, and while completists or fans of the cast can marathon Witches of East End, it's lacking in fillin the so-called hot, supposedly next big thing witch niche.