18 December 2018

Gods of Egypt

Too Many Glaring Marks Hamper Gods of Egypt (not just the White Washing)
by Kristin Battestella

Thief Bek (Brenton Thwaites) helps the exiled god Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) reclaim his Eye from the the evil God of the Desert Set (Gerard Butler) in order to save his girlfriend Zaya (Courtney Eaton) from the underworld. Along the way, both mortals and gods face several fantastical obstacles and adventures as they seek the help of Ra (Geoffrey Rush). Unfortunately, thanks to an abundance of poor pacing and inferior special effects that can't compensate for the muddled storytelling, pondering mythology, and misguided point of view; the white washing controversy from director Alex Proyas' (The Crow) 2016 Gods of Egypt is just one of many problems.

An opening prologue and panoramic special effects are nothing but empty show when Gods of Egypt needed to start its story with either the gods themselves or the mortal quest. Instead, the omnipresent narration from our thief knows more about the gods then they do, leaving the tale padded with messy embellishments, unreliability excuses, superfluous scenes, and epic fakery. Assassination coups in front of the gasping crowd seem more like a play the gods put on for mere mortals – CGI gold birds and black jackals parkour in a reason-less fight because Gods of Egypt didn't begin at the right point in the story and then compounds the timeline further by restarting a year later. Transparent graphics and always on the move cameras call attention to themselves – every scene is panning and sweeping with people coming or going but the visual distractions don't disguise the muddled storytelling or the jarring, unrealistic, embarrassing, and noticeably pale casting. Poor writing from Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (of Dracula Untold and The Last Witch Hunter infamy) likewise dumbs down the mythical and over-relies on effects rather than explaining its world or developing any characters – leaving Gods of Egypt a loosely strung together montage of random cool scenes featuring a magic carpet ride spaceship, underworld deserts, serpents chases, temple gauntlets, and talking rock monsters. It takes an hour for the mortal to round up the gods for some risky mission...because they couldn't unite and do it themselves? What should be a straightforward quest treads tires thanks to a lot of walking here or there with no idea where the inept heroes are going or why. Viewers can't take the fantastic risks seriously amid the quips, cliches, and convenient in the nick of time actions leaving no weight or consequences. Serious deaths are short or quickly forgotten unless there's a need for underworld special effects, which kind of copy Lord of the Rings. Are they trying to get back Horus' Eye? Are they trying to save the gal who's actually doing alright in the underworld? Are they trying to stop Set from being bad ass? Whatever the messy crusade, a literal deus ex machina from Ra leaves no point to it any of it. 


Apparently personal vengeance isn't enough motivation for Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's Horus. After he's usurped, he drinks over it until our thief comes along to inspire him to make jokes while running away from CGI serpents. There's no room to breath life into the character, and despite this apparent star vehicle, there's more for Nikolaj fans on Game of Thrones. Gerard Butler (300) has a great introduction as Set, but when he opens his mouth that lovely Scottish lilt becomes laughably out of place. His scenes seem like they are from a different movie, and Set only interacts with everyone else in a few scenes. For supposedly being the villain who rules over all in fear, most of Set's speeches are sarcastic quips on said badassery, and he doesn't actually do a whole lot beyond changing what he wants and why from scene to scene. Brenton Thwaites (Oculus) is a thief but also a lover – a blasé cool cat who thinks he's better than the gods. Bek's narrative frame and speaking out loud when he's alone is purely to hit the audience on the head, and it's the wrong perspective on the story for us to follow him. Bek's stealing the Eye of Horus for his dead babe is a more important story than the vengeful gods? Really? This entire storyline could have been red penciled to strengthen the core, for rather than any god realizing his humanity redemption arc, the story unbelievably bends to suit Bek's good at everything Mary Sue. Sadly, Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) as Thoth – the God of Wisdom who's more camp like Vanity Smurf rather than clever – appears once an hour in Gods of Egypt to kneel to the white people and joke about liking big butts and he cannot lie. Yes, seriously. Horus' lover Hathor is played by Elodie Young (Daredevil), and she looks too young indeed as she easily passes between the gods to help or hinder when convenient. Courtney Eaton (Mad Max: Fury Road) likewise wears inaccurate but skin bearing costumes as the sacrificial girlfriend used for man pain, and Bek isn't even that broken up over her because he can talk to her in the underworld and really just wants to trick the gods into bringing her back. Rufus Sewell (Tristan and Isolde) is here too as Set's creeper architect, and Geoffrey Rush's (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) Ra is some kind of Lear meets Gandalf because the all seeing, all knowing ruler of all Egypt above and below is an old, bald, white guy. Gods of Egypt has a large and big name ensemble that deserved more but unfortunately, everyone here is hopelessly out of place.

Gods of Egypt has epic music, fiery motifs, giant gods, and traditional Egyptian iconography. The picture is bright and colorful with golden palaces and steamy reds. Unfortunately, all the sweeping comes in wide pans and distance shots. The chariot escapes, fatal arrows, fake jungles, and slow motion is down right laughable, and Gods of Egypt will look very, very bad within five years thanks to the poor graphics. It's obvious these visuals, regal dangers, and any sexiness are toned down for mainstream appeal, but the overdone CGI close ups make it seem as if all the people were filmed at different times and then inserted into the frame together. Slowed panoramas show one good action move, but then the rest of the fight choreography is a whole lot of nothing leaps or parry embellishments. People fly through the air or slam against the walls as the camera follows their swoops up, down, or sideways, and it all makes Gods of Egypt look too fake and fantastic – doubly so when again considering how the point of view unevenly or conveniently goes back and forth between mortals experiencing the fantastic and gods coming down from high. The eponymous folks die pretty darn easy and the Mary Sue nobodies achieve some really unbelievable feats! If every slow motion moment spectacle was cut from Gods of Egypt, you'd save fifteen minutes, no lie, as the continued over-reliance on special effects borders on a partially animated feature culminating in big battles and more slow motion falling without the people or gods having learned a thing. I want to skip over all the weak incidental CGI transitions, which can't build a world better than the simplicity of courtly strife nor compensate for the poor storytelling.

Had Gods of Egypt been firm in its own myth and magic and took a stance on whether this was going to be about gods or men, it might have been really cool. Instead the picture is presented from the wrong perspective at the wrong point in the story and doesn't put on the right point of view thanks to graphics being more important than the personal quest making it impossible to suspend viewer belief. Gods of Egypt's two hours plus never develops the world into one deserving of that time and remains ridiculously overlong for a thrill ride action adventure. Embarrassingly white, modern, and out of place people contribute to the glaring storytelling problems. Rather than any rewrite clarification on its mythology or a more multi ethnic cast, Gods of Egypt underestimates our knowledge of omnipresent Egyptian lore with its superficial spectacle bang for its blockbuster buck, expecting viewers to go along with the poor slight of hand when 300 (which Hollywood is apparently still trying to recreate) and Stargate did it better. Unfortunately, Gods of Egypt is painfully unaware that the audience won't sit still for frustratingly bad visuals, jarring whitewashing, noticeable movie machinations, and no clear story.

15 December 2018

Kenny and Dolly's Once upon a Christmas

Festive Kenny and Dolly's Once upon a Christmas Remains Meaningful, too
by Kristin Battestella

A year after Eyes That See in the Dark and their “Islands in the Stream” duet success, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton re-teamed for the multi-platinum 1984 Once upon a Christmas, a short session nonetheless brimming with country cozy pop and spiritual touches.

County guitar rifts open I Believe in Santa Claus as Kenny and Dolly alternate on the lighthearted magic, hearth, and honesty. Initially, this doesn't seem like a December tune, however, the down home spirit stirs as religious lyrics and children's choirs join the seasonal fun keeping Once upon a Christmas catchy even if you don't like country. Dolly is likewise pleasant and countryside comforting in bringing the casual snowy mountain feeling to Winter Wonderland/Sleigh Ride. Extra beats and Tennessee twang add to the combination arrangement before the ad libs go out with some eighties groovy that could have been both songs in full rather than a quick three and a half minutes. The upbeat tempo of Christmas Without You belies the sophisticated lyrics as Kenny and Dolly create a mood of snug sweaters and fireside romance. This melancholy mixed with merriment has adult maturity as well as casual, able to sing along hooks. It's pop, it's easy on the ear, and it was a hit single, naturally.

The synthesizer notes feel slightly unnecessary for Kenny's first slower ballad The Christmas Song, but fortunately, his soft gruff builds as the verses escalate to the big long held notes. Once upon a Christmas is a short thirty-five minutes with only ten tracks of mostly new holiday songs, which is unusual since there are plenty of fun and familiar holiday tunes that would have fit in with the jovial, breezy A Christmas to Remember. Edgy jazz beats accent Kenny and Dolly's rhymes of fireside memories and Tahoe skiing. This is a fun snowball fight wrapped up in the adult simmer after – an easy listening single very of its time. However the maturity also feels quite contemporary for today's holiday radio play before the fast paced, get thee to the holiday hoe down of With Bells On. The toe tapping jingle mixed with Kenny and Dolly's duet style adds to the sing a long mood of Once upon a Christmas. Us listeners are welcome to join in as our stars have room to break out and harmonize, creating a good time Christmas feeling.

Next, Kenny adds some Spirit of the Season balladry with Silent Night. Surprisingly, the music seems louder than Kenny when it shouldn't be, but this is an older CD that may not be well mixed compared to digital sound. Fortunately, Kenny's raspy melody fits perfectly with the humble notes before one more big reverent refrain. Again, Once upon a Christmas may have benefited by having more of these tender, country carols. The subdued seasonal imagery continues with The Greatest Gift All. Kenny and Dolly mix candlelight romance and snowy love with church bells, peace on earth, and gospel accents for a shrewd single combining the suave pop and spiritual tender. Dolly also has the chance to take it slow with White Christmas, providing the session with some penultimate holiday nostalgia before the eponymous finale Once upon a Christmas. A spoken account of baby Jesus opens Kenny and Dolly's longest track before somber notes retell the story of the manger, gifts from three wise men, and the king come at last. Rather than being out of place compared to the holiday happy golly gee dominating Once upon a Christmas, this topper brings the spiritual sprinkled throughout the session to the forefront, reminding one and all of the reason behind the snowy country happiness.

A more reverent session can be found in Kenny Rogers' The Gift, and Dolly Parton takes on more classic carols in 1990's Home for Christmas. With so many original compositions on Once upon a Christmas, it helps to look up the lyrics, as many of the songs sound alike. This session plays like one long concert – which of course worked back then with Kenny and Dolly's accompanying television special. Fortunately, Once upon a Christmas takes multiple listens to pick up all the holiday happy and country catchy. Though slightly dated in its early eighties country crossover pop sound with nothing stand out or what one would call timeless, Once upon a Christmas remains a perennial feelgood listen all the same – a quick, lighthearted, and cozy festive for sentimental adults who remember Christmas then. 


10 December 2018

Christmas Nuggets!

Quick Christmas Nuggets
by Kristin Battestella

These comforting holiday favorites are easy, fast, and friendly for one and all fireside, trimming the tree, or at the festive party.

Enya Christmas Secrets – There are only four songs on this 2006 EP from everyone's perennial New Age Irish fave. “Adeste Fideles” opens with the ancient voice and instruments expected, however the echoing production elevates the simplicity with a modern but no less reverent lofty. Immediately there's a feeling of nighttime, earth at this dark and frosty but wondrous time thanks to the fairies and angels coming out to play in “The Magic of the Night.” Likewise “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” provides a pleasant pace as the overlays build with each verse and merriment, contrasting the melancholy sentiments of “Christmas Secrets” – bittersweet with chilly, lonely lyrics of trains, winter, moonlight, and blues. Of course, there's also a Target edition called Sounds of the Season with Enya that includes the wintry mystical of “Amid the Falling Snow” and a foreign, ethereal yet timelessly familiar “Oíche Chiúin Silent Night.” On its own, the short fifteen minutes here would get tedious over and over at the office, for sure. Fortunately, this hypnotic holiday sway mingles perfectly in an effortless December playlist, and the yuletide non-religious originals can be repeated all winter long.

The Nutcracker – You know you know the one I mean. To those of us of a certain age, this 1977 CBS television presentation of the American Ballet Theatre's production starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland is the definitive Tchaikovsky viewing – an annual seventy-eight minute spectacle that seems longer than it really is thanks to all those PBS telethon airings. Granted the innate videotape production, seventies period-esque meets ballet costumes, over the top silly boys, stick horses, cardboard sets, fake Christmas presents, and laughable mouse king masks look dated now. Ironically, this was Emmy nominated in its day thanks to that growing giant Christmas tree, careful spotlighting schemes, and not so special overlay effects captured by multiple camera angles wide or up close amid deliberate staging, complex ballet choreography, and dramatic action. It's all really still epic in its own way, for it's amazing they can fit as many dancers, magical backdrops, and sword fights on the stage as they do – strategically making the area small for a lone ballerina and candle or cleared for the sweeping leaps, battements, and jetés from the company. It's always a treat to see real dancers who are actually en pointe! A lighthearted narration fills in the story as that wonderful Tchaikovsky music brings familiar notes of the season in a strong, multi-layered yet effortlessly airy accompaniment to the performances of course including The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, The Waltz of the Flowers, Spanish Chocolate, Chinese Tea, and The Dance of the Clowns. This is a magical audio/visual tale where its easy to root for the heroes and their sense of awe. Perhaps there are some slightly ominous notes or even a few scary moments for super young audiences – the broken nutcracker doll alone! – but any Drosselmeyer apprehension is quickly alleviated with fairyland charm, toys come to life, snowflakes, sweets, and dreamy adventures. Despite the excised Arabian Dance and overly dramatic facial expressions necessary for the stage but over the top for television, the pleasant waltzes and wintry magic make for a captivating and essential delight for young and old.

Perry Como Greatest Christmas Songs – This 1999 twenty-one track session is totally different from Christmas with Perry Como, Perry Como Sings Merry Christmas Music, and The Perry Como Christmas Album. However, it does repeat the perennial essentials “Home for the Holidays,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer,” “The Christmas Song,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and “White Christmas” from Season's Greetings from Perry Como. Whew! Fortunately, background singers, festive bells, and whimsical arrangements accent yet more nonchalant secular favorites such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” and “There's No Christmas Like a Home Christmas.” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Love is a Christmas Rose,” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” provide more nostalgic silliness while the tender reminder “Christmas Bells,” adoring “Christ is Born” and mellow “Some Children See Him” provide slightly obscure reverence. Familiar carols are here, too, with “Do You Hear What I Hear,” “O Holy Night,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” and a superb “Ave Maria” finale. Mr. C fans can certainly stream their favorites here thanks to over an hour of instant holiday coziness.

09 December 2018

Religious Viewing Round Up

A Religious Viewing Round Up
by Kristin Battestella

These movies, documentaries, series, and biographies tackle numerous famous names, spiritual places, and religious histories for some uplift or education near and far and for one and all.

David and Bathsheba –A written prologue sets the scene for this 1951 tale sourced from the Second Book of Samuel starring Gregory Peck (To Kill a Mockingbird) and Susan Hayward (I Want to Live!) as the Israel shaking titular couple. Yes, the cast is unfortunately white washed with stars of the day. The script also fails Peck by being too preachy, as if he has to repeat all of the Hebrew history onscreen to make the casting authentic after the fact. This waxing philosophical, however, and the wishy washy infatuations that come with it make for slow, non-interactive scenes – there's a lot of talking and not a lot of doing in what supposed to be such a passionate story. The scandalous for the time peaking at Susan Hayward bathing also isn’t much taboo today, and her somewhat flat delivery leads to more back talk then chemistry. What do you want? No, what do you want? Obligatory Ark of the Covenant appearances, tribal dancing for the court, stonings, Psalm 23 recitings, and Star of David emblems likewise lend more Hollywood stereotypical rather than historical accuracy. Though mid-century colorful, the small-scale designs can’t be compared to other Biblical epics like Samson and Delilah before or The Ten Commandments after thanks to modern hairstyles and obvious matte backgrounds. Fortunately, it’s nearly impossible to dislike Peck’s soft spoken and wise king in love. Although, audiences may find it difficult to believe such a traditional good guy would be so unscrupulous and shady. 3,000 year old spoiler alert – David sends his lover Bathsheba’s husband to the front lines so he'll die in battle. Intriguing thoughts on whether David is a fraud not living up to his predecessor Saul only provides background for a few scenes before Peck grows a beard and gets his crisis of faith burdens on in a final half hour of repentance accented by a lovely Oscar nominated score from Alfred Newman (The King and I). While this romance is again not on the same scope as other Old Testament yarns, fans of the cast can enjoy the performances here, and this fits in nicely for a religious marathon or classroom comparison and accuracy discussion.

The Great Works of Sacred Music – Everything from chanting and where we get the “amen” to Handel's Messiah and Christmas music is meticulously detailed in this 2015 sixteen episode series from the Great Courses Signature Collection. Professor of Musicology at Oberlin College Conservatory Charles Edward McGuire focuses on western Christian music from the Middle Ages to 1901, defining how originally sacred music used solely for worship has now become a mixture of concert and entertainment. Does it make the Latin chorales and canon hymns any less reverent if they are now heard in the concert hall? Ritual origins, strophic formats, melodies, and texts cross denominations or change to suit new religious needs, and our Professor sings with onscreen music measures while comparing and contrasting the syllabic, melismatic, and neumatic notes. Familiar tunes and memorable names such as William Henry Monk, Charles Wesley, and St. Augustine anchor debates on hymn structure, whether a trained choir or congregation is meant to sing, and what makes “hallelujah” such a special word. Twelfth and Thirteenth century chanting begets monophonic versus polyphonic mass music, Latin prayers sung, and innovative oratorios before Renaissance aesthetics pass into artifacts no longer heard in their original worship purpose. Despite a wealth of surviving medieval music, much of it is actually lost and unknown. What instruments were used? How many people sung this? How did this sound then? Differences between who could chant, such as those ordained or not, and Gregorian naming disputes fade as the Protestant Reformation brings new styles to the public and opera competes with sacred music for sponsors and patrons – forcing composers the likes of Monteverdi and Vivaldi to combine the minstrel with reverence at the turn of the seventeenth century. Mendelssohn details and Mozart Requiem samples highlight new accompaniments and arrangements alongside the increasing use of musical instruments, organs, and strings. Two episodes here are dedicated to Bach's Cantatas, moving his Mass in B minor pinnacle from sacred to concert repertoire complete with translations of Lutheran texts, Haydn's The Creation, and personal meets pious Christus am Olberge versus Missa solemnis Beethoven explorations. The nineteenth century somewhat anti-establishment music of Brahms and Verdi, however, gives way to a Victorian resurgence of longstanding carols – from the Latin origins of O Come All Ye Faithful and the Coventry Carol to the German Silent Night and surprisingly recent O Come, O Come Emmanuel – where anyone can lift up their voices. This is a very detailed breakdown of lyrics, notes, history, and composition not intended for a non-musical layman – this series is more for those already with a music background rather than an introduction piece. At forty-five minutes per episode, the sessions are somewhat long, padded with caveats explaining about what they are going to explain or even over-explain thanks to redundant melodies and repeated talk of one note differences that are indistinguishable to the common ear. One can easily zone out as the analysis goes deeper and deeper, however the pleasant music samples, familiar cues, and famous names call one back for more. These segments are superb for independent musical scholars or for a picking and choosing study honing in on specific composers. 

John Wesley: The Faith that Sparked the Methodist Movement – On location English tours, period maps, and religious artwork accent this documentary on the eighteenth century founder as scholars detail Wesley's early life and family background as the son of an Epworth rector alongside his younger brother Charles – two of ten surviving from a whopping nineteen! Onscreen writings and voiceover quotes recount his mother's methodical routine, theology, and home tutoring, which helped shape Wesley's early education before surviving a childhood fire left him seeking out his special purpose in life. Sports at Christchurch College in Oxford are traded for pious prayer meetings with brother Charles – mocked by other students as “The Holy Club” despite the group's mission to help the poor, support families with loans, and establish schools. By 1735, however, Wesley's inexperience and lack of faith lead to failure in America before Moravian associates strengthen his personal religious commitment. Wesley's new heartfelt ministry anchored in methodical beliefs, unfortunately, wasn't welcome by the Anglican church. Though he himself was initially appalled at open air meetings, Wesley's teachings from the outdoor pulpit allowed common people who couldn't afford to attend bigger cathedrals or religious schools to hear and embrace his ideology on salvation and grace through spiritual discipline. Wesley promotes the then shocking notion that people of multiple classes and stations can worship together by organizing small groups and societies where the faithful can uplift each other thanks to the non-ordained or women ministers. Such preaching seemingly against the Church of England led to mob threats and physical attacks on the Wesleys – who nonetheless remained Anglican. Wesley continued to write sermons and publications challenging authority – standing at a desk even though he was only 5'3 – and welcomed the illiterate to attend his services, for they could sing what they could not read. When his hometown scoffed at the open air churches, Wesley took to Bristol to build the first Methodist church in 1739. This “New Room” became a school, shelter, and chapel featuring Charles Wesley's hymns, and although Wesley never intended to set up a new denomination, the Methodist numbers grew into the thousands as missionaries and followers sailed to America. This presentation is a little older and slightly juvenile thanks to dramatizations from a film with bad effects and a terrible wig called Wesley: A Heart Transformed that unnecessarily stray into abstracts when facts from the experts and notes from the man himself are more interesting. Many may know the subject by name but not much of the details, and this hour is good for a Sunday School accompaniment or jumping off point for further biographical study.

Dated Split Decision

Enigma of the Dead Sea Scrolls – This 2009 hour chronicling the 2,000 year old documents opens with Jerusalem celebrations and brief recaps on the coming together of the Christian Bible before the eponymous 1947 Qumran caves happenstance. Unfortunately, rather than letting the facts speak for themselves or expanding on a peek inside the museum basement where only a select few can see the unpublished texts firsthand; the flowery, anecdotal narration bounces back and forth. The rough VHS looking presentation also remains terribly dated thanks to constant complaints regarding the secretive releasing of the documents, creating controversy and spending more time on people who refused to talk on camera. Then contemporary footage fill ins and second hand accounts invoke a tabloid, unauthentic feeling that points fingers about the texts before tossing in wartime history instead of discussing the actual scrolls. This briefly mentions the content of the parchments themselves, who wrote them and why with details on early Jewish and Christian sects before again downplaying the academic excitement with war time delays and unscrupulous dealers trying to profit from the discovery. The uneven, confusing narrative compromising interesting nuggets on copper scrolls, carbon dating confirmations, and questions on why the documents were hidden. The purpose here seems more angry at the wrongs rather than having excitement for the historic and religious value of the scrolls – as if conspiracies to suppress the materials are more important than potential Essenes origins, Masada connections, surviving pottery, and new restorations using high resolution photography. Although the Dead Sea Scrolls Wikipedia page has a much more detailed, organized timeline, there is a certain historical value in seeing the older footage here and how digital access for all has changed some of the cloak and dagger secrecy from decades prior. Some segments are also useful for the classroom, however the old fashioned tone and lacking of current facts creates a frustrating shortsightedness, leaving one in search of a deeper independent study.

Didn't Finish It

The Cathedral – State University of New York at Geneseo History Professor William R. Cook uses videos, animations, and photography to capture the architectural scale and magnificent awe of the eponymous but not necessarily all ecclesiastic buildings of Western Europe in this 2010 Great Courses twenty-four episode series. Explanations on the bishop's throne as a cathedra help define a cathedral at its simplest as a building with a cathedra in it before detailing how that role as a seat of the religious authority has changed since the earliest fourth century large scale worship constructions thanks to centuries of encroaching urban development and adaptations for contemporary use – not to mention the destruction or survival of many churches amid medieval upheavals, rebellions, or more recent wartime damage. High definition zooms highlight facade statuary, inner sanctum iconography, stain glass windows, and their past repairs or modern updates. The focus here is largely on French buildings with Romanesque styles and the evolution of the vaulted ceiling before Saint-Denis and the emergence of Gothic design, Notre Dame glory, and the peculiar cathedral at Laon. However, there are also spotlights on Chartres, English Norman meets Gothic developments, and Italian architecture. There is a lot of fast talking information here and at first I skipped around, as there are numerous tangents that leave you wondering what this has to do with the topic of the half hour at hand. Instead of being a fresh course made available thanks to new streaming technology, our Professor reminds me of a stuffy Ross Perot – some segments are forced to be at school dry or sermon heavy handed since he stands at a podium when other presenters in the Great Courses lectures are more relaxed. It's easy to zone out unless there is a picture, because I think most viewers would ultimately tune in here for the history of the featured buildings and seeing all the pretty architectural details. However, those purple ties and green shirts are kind of fun, and I might try Cook's 2014 follow up The World's Greatest Churches, as it seems to feature much more international variety from which to pick and choose.

29 November 2018

Bramwell Seasons 3 and 4

Sadly Bramwell Series 3 and 4 Go Downhill Fast
by Kristin Battestella

Doctor Eleanor Bramwell (Jemma Redgrave) continues to run the Thrift Street Infirmary with anesthetist Joseph Marsham (Kevin McMonagle) in the uneven 1997 ten episode Season Three of Bramwell. Despite personal tragedies and household upheavals, Doctor Robert Bramwell (David Calder) courts the wealthy Alice Costigan (Maureen Beattie), leaving Eleanor free for more romance as the series whimpers on with two faulty feature length episodes in Year Four. 
Already Bramwell is off on the wrong foot with “The Overnight Stay” as drunkards and burning accidents at the local brewery begat pain, shouting, hysterical mothers, and emergency hectic. If one didn't see the previous series, you wouldn't know what's happening, and all the screaming, poisoned patients, and alcoholism heavy handedness are forgotten once the romance returns for our eponymous lady doctor. The statements and forced melodrama remain uneven as the rekindled but over the top sappy drags on at the expense of everything else. Although it's immediately clear that ten hours is entirely too long a season, the second episode is much stronger and Bramwell improves greatly when focusing on the ensemble's personal and professional drama instead of this contrived, dead end love affair. Spending time without Eleanor in Episode Five ironically makes the show better, and it makes the audience wonder if she could have been written off or replaced as Year Three continues to fall apart with “The Beaten Wife.” Festive jubilee preparations contrast the downtrodden streets and shanty town house calls, however the severe split skulls and abusive bloody are cut short when the doctor once again ditches The Thrift for her boyfriend. Paralleling a truly terrible situation with her la dee da and the perceived problems of her subsequent break up is an embarrassing juxtaposition. Bramwell remembers it's medical premise with goiters, boils, infected abscesses, and dubious diagnosis in “The Faith Healer,” but patients are turning to religious healers and what the doctors call mumbo jumbo. Everyone is shouting, irrational, and angry at the perceived backward superstition against science. Sick patients who really need a doctor are walking out of the clinic, but Bramwell doesn't handle multiple medical issues per episode for most of this season, and the religious healing versus fatal fire and brimstone quackery never makes a stand either way in an aimless entry indicative of the season's unnecessary pains.

Jemma Redgrave's Doctor Eleanor Bramwell shouts at her staff and talks back to her father over her latest high horse cause, yet she's the one who isn't seeing to her patients because she's too busy getting some steamy. Our intelligent, hard working woman is once again ready to dump The Thrift for her marriage plans. Eleanor's angry at everyone else, but when she says another is strong in medicine but weak and foolish in the heart, we know she's talking about herself. The character shines much, much more as a woman and a doctor in a time ruled by men when only she is able to comfort an ill mother with a feminine gravitas. However, Bramwell spends most of its time with Eleanor moping, embarrassing herself in public, and threatening to close her clinic because a man didn't rescue her from being a spinster doctor. She runs away to stay with a friend for “The Mercenary Expecting,” but Eleanor isn't happy with any country idyllic or matchmaking and yells at the maid. Her friends are so, so tired of it, but she picks a fight with the local school and sick townsfolk, critical of lesser conditions and telling teachers how to handle ignorance and neglect. She accuses everyone high or low of being so smug, wrapping a situation that should be handled with forgiveness, food, and rest in a terribly uncomfortable attitude and over the top whining. Bramwell regresses its independent woman with nothing but mistakes, turning her into a bitter biddy who takes over The Thrift again only when it suits her – and when the clinic seemed to do better without her complaining. Eleanor calls her father selfish when he invests in his own practice rather than Thrift Street, and he counters that she needs to consider how other people have dreams and professional ambition beyond her little world. She also says it is for the best when things fall apart for him, which is totally rude, and it is obvious she's jealous of him getting remarried before she is wed. Bramwell becomes even more tone deaf when Eleanor says she's tired of reminding all the bleeding hearts around her of who they are and what they do, but she quickly realizes she is the one backed into a corner and dependent upon the nearest man. She even suggests she and Marsham marry because of how convenient it would be for her – out of her father's house and near East End with her own money – never considering his feelings for her when she steps out with yet another louse instead. Eleanor insists she is calm, able to deal, and not some silly girl, but we have seen every evidence to the contrary, and the character is completely unlikable by the end of the season. 
A newfound courting of a wealthy widow, however, has David Calder's Doctor Robert Bramwell recapturing his youthful adventurousness. Naturally, Eleanor's stubbornness and petty disapproval embarrasses him, and he rightfully tells her to catch some manners before giving her her mother's jewelry when she plots her ill-advised engagement. Robert still wants to be there and comfort her, but he's having his own awkwardness in “The Entrenched Rival” thanks to pompous competition and high society formalities when he's visiting his lady's country house. Robert doubts his walks in the moonlight will do, but he realizes it's worth vying for the lady. Ironically, dad does the courting right when his daughter falls for all the wrongs – it's almost as if he should be Bramwell's lead. Robert also does a risky surgery on an infant while Eleanor supports him, and he confesses how he lost his wife during an operation he performed on her. He takes new offices at a well to do address in “The Change of Life” and intends to ask Alice to marry him, but an infatuated young lady patient is making excuses with pains in delicate places. Robert remains professional, focusing on his charming proposal instead of the increasingly delusional hypochondriac. Who knew accusations, fanatical patients, and gunshots were exactly what Bramwell needed? Wedding announcements are in the newspaper by “The Short Chapter,” and Robert's laughing like he's twenty as The Thrift goes all out with a humble little party and sentimental gifts. Dad still worries about Eleanor in East End alone and wants her in the country with them, and Maureen Beattie as widowed brewery heiress Alice Costigan asks Eleanor to be her bridesmaid. She's a strong business woman supporting The Thrift, sticking to the rules without being cruel and helping her injured workers. Alice enjoys Robert's company and invites his simpler tastes into her world despite some haughty medical arguments – she is perhaps set in her ways and chooses the more eminent opinion instead of what's best for the patient. Alice gets knocked down from her social grandstanding, but admits when she is wrong, bringing Eleanor frocks and trying to suggest suitors or more help at the clinic. She's proud of Robert's work and happy to marry him but wishes he'd confide in her without worrying about money, status, or impressing anybody. She prefers mutual trust to doctor confidentiality and offers her finances to save his partnership in a tender, progressive equality again done better than her step-daughter's romances.

Kevin McMonagle's Doctor Joe Marsham remains the voice of reason on Bramwell despite saying he is rarely sober. He never seems to leave the clinic yet talks of taking a promotion with a real salary elsewhere. His wife, unfortunately, becomes ill in “The Diagnosis” and uses a fake name to see Eleanor by appointment. She has had miscarriages and they lost a child, but now there is swelling in her breast and she can't tell her husband. Marsham is angry his wife doesn't confide in him personally or professionally over such a serious illness, and the story balances the husband being unable to handle the severity and the timid woman in pain seen more as a specimen by an elitist specialist. Their choices for healthcare are impeded by his Scottish accent and cheap suit, and the entire Marsham family moves in with the Bramwells during the grim diagnosis for one of the series' finer episodes as the emotional ensemble shines amid grief, time wasted, and loneliness. Andrew Connolly, however, returns as Doctor Finn O'Neill in the Series Three premiere, still wooing Eleanor between lecture stops – dropping by to ruin her rep and she falls for it every time! Though ambitious, he wants assurance of her love before sounding like an abuser with excuses on why it is Eleanor's fault he returns from America with another bride. Everyone sees Finn coming – how can we believe he really loves Eleanor when all he's ever done is wrong her? It's a chore to watch “The Vaccination Experiment” late in the season when these same old moon eyes embarrass the Bramwells amidst would be provocative medical committees debating influenza and vaccinations. Eleanor justifies his work, too – dismissing his wife's ill health, letting the girl faint, and mistreating her out of romantic spite. Finn insists Eleanor knows he wouldn't experiment on people...but that's how they met!

She's terribly embarrassed by suggestive drunken ravings but Ruth Sheen's Nurse Carr sticks up for Eleanor against Finn's crap and isn't afraid to tell off a patient's abusive husband. Although a wonderful dancer tiring out all the men, she can still be found working in The Thrift at three in the morning and comes when the Bramwells call at home. She remains forgiving despite her priggish gruff, but when she tells the doctors she can't be in two places at once, they yell. Everyone's entitled to a bad day except her! Sadly Ethel's mother has begun wandering and stealing in “The Medical Hopeful” and both stubborn ladies refuse help even if Nurse Carr can't take care of her mother alone and won't think of putting her in an asylum. She steals opium from the clinic, spooning it to her mother to keep her calm before escalating to more upsetting elder abuse. The difficulties here are nobody's fault and that's the saddest part, but it's frustrating that the supporting tenderness is torn with severe personal troubles while the titular star has a sappy romance. Ben Brazier as young porter Sidney Bentley is barely there but for a quip or wisdom from the adults. He stands up for Nurse Carr when she teaches him to dance and says he's sorry for the way Finn treats Eleanor and he'd propose if he could. Keeley Gainey's maid Kate is also used for passing along exposition, an absent-minded girl sneaking out for stolen kisses and trying to use a typewriter. Thankfully, she stands up for herself against the jerks and accepts that she has no secretarial skills – humming, reciting poetry, and off to jubilee parties while remaining much needed kindly support.

Bramwell has plenty of turn of the century Victorian bustle with all the balloon sleeves, bonnets, feathers, and frocks needed for proper British formality. Bicycles, carriages, fancy manors, and period clutter set off the candles, crystal, cameos, pearls, and newfangled electric lights while medical gruesome, surgery knives, and blood provide gritty. Our faithful must make their jubilee flags themselves, but they play instruments, sing, and dance to make their own music, too. Be it funeral decorum or church wedding, the Gibson Girl hats and big plumes are ready – leaving the gowns and shining gems reserved for the evening parties amid marble ballrooms, fine china, and English gardens. Rain and blue lighting accent scandalous rendezvous, and overhead shots or point of view editing mirror emergencies with vintage microscopes, period medical equipment, big needles, and huge IV tubes. Bramwell shows the bloody burns and sores upon the breast in bitter contrast to the often quaint atmosphere. However, every time there is a hysterical shock, foul insult, or any kind of upset, ever – someone always inevitably suggests they have a cup of tea! Of course, stateside we would have called Bramwell canceled after Season Three and named the two 100 minute episodes following it television movie specials rather than a Series Four. New credits, military drums, black and white archive footage, absent characters – you would have no idea “The Brave Boys” is supposed to be about a lady doctor if you started here with redcoats and muckrakers shouting in the streets. The always delightful but barely there Jenny Agutter (Logan's Run) is shoehorned in amid busy back and forth editing trying to set the wartime scene, hectic camerawork, and poor outdoor cinematography. It's Eleanor Takes on the Army as sergeants object to her being a recruit doctor. Marsham says he isn't being paid by Her Majesty's Service, so he just lets his future wife do the grab and cough on all these ready and waiting bare butt soldiers instead? There is no sign of romantic affection between the colleagues, and if Robert Bramwell objected to his daughter being called a cunt by patients on Thrift Street, I wonder what he thinks of her military cajoling? Useless scenes and annoying music add to the confusion for anyone unfamiliar with the Boer Wars and Dutch prejudice, leaving characters to take surprisingly racist turns. Nobody's on the same side, and instead of tying up the loose ends from Year Three, this episode throws enemy patients and friendly barracks into the messy mix. Once again, Eleanor drops everything for a Major she doesn't even really like who gets her hot and bothered, because as independent as she claims to be, all the men are still telling her what to do. Apparently there's some kind of marriage and pregnancy scandal in the second feature “The Loose Women,” but I just can't go on anymore.

Bramwell shoots itself in the foot with squandered time on round and round romantic melodrama. Despite stronger stories yet to be told with other characters, plenty of period toils, and more medical possibilities, the series looses its way amid both too many episodes and bizarre format changes. There is still some fine Victorian drama from the tormented ensemble, but unfortunately Bramwell is best left after the Second Season thanks to an increasing unlikability untrue to its original premise.

17 November 2018

The Frankenstein Chronicles Season 1

The Frankenstein Chronicles Debut is a Hidden Gem
by Kristin Battestella

The 2015 British series The Frankenstein Chronicles follows Thames Inspector John Marlott (Sean Bean) and his runner Joseph Nightingale (Richie Campbell) as a floater composed of other body parts leads the police to body snatchers, abducted children, street pimps, and even author Mary Shelley (Anna Maxwell Martin). Someone may be copying her novel Frankenstein, and the home secretary wants the case solved before pesky newspaper reporters like Boz (Ryan Sampson) print the sensational tale.

Capsizing dangers, muddy chases, vomiting police, and a stitched together body reassembled from at least seven children set the 1827 London dreary for “A World Without God.” Rumors of grave robbing abound and selling the dead to medical institutions is not a crime – this is a seller's market doing good business despite still superstitious folk fearing science, medicine, and what happens to body after death. Our inspector goes through several protocols and technicalities to research whether this butchery was done by a man of science or some layman out to prevent the new anatomy laws, invoking a mix of morose period noir with British lone detective angst. He's canvasing the dirty streets for a meat market kidnapper while parliament spins grandiose hot air on rights to autopsy versus personal penance. Cholera, prayers, shady men at the docks with carts full of stolen bodies – is someone murdering to procure fresh dead to sell? The hands of the deceased seem to move when touched in “Seeing Things,” and William Blake quotes, death bed whispers, and sing song visions wax on the beast with the face of a man. University hospital demonstrations on bio electricity show how to reanimate the nervous system, however those medical seminars and the subsequent Sunday sermons are not so different from each other. Higher up officials don't want to hear about god fearing motives and scientific suspicion coming together as unauthorized doctors run unapproved clinics with their own ideologies. Investigation leads cut too close to home, and a fireside reading with narrations from the Shelley text invoke a self-awareness meta. An open copy of Frankenstein laying on the desk steers our course as the linear tale expands into a more episodic style with incoming regular cast high and low aiding our inspector or rousing his suspicion. Ghostly winds, flickering candles, and blurry visions create eerie, a supernatural clarity that helps connect clues while books such as An Investigation into the Galvanic Response of Dead Tissue in “All the Lost Children” provide hand written sketches with blood in the margins. Religion versus science abominations, laws of God versus tyranny and oppression, and defiance of deities to defeat death layer dialogue from the author herself along with pregnant teens, abortion debates, and gory late stage patients who may as well be monsters with their deformities. Past baptisms, dead families, and uncanny nightmares escalate the inner turmoil while hymns, market chases, and back alley fights add to the well balanced mystery, life and death themes, precious innocence, and making amends.

Underground tunnels and unscrupulous business transactions in “The Fortunes of War” would have young girls sold at thirty five guineas for 'company,' and the disturbing abuses create frightening silhouettes and threatening villains even as the uncaring uppity argue over chapter and verse regarding bastards and police refuse extra men on a sting gone awry. Screams, gaseous brick houses, and skeletons lead to arrests that unfortunately don't solve the initial case butchery – only will out one small piece of a larger twisted picture. The aristocracy is shocked at the Frankenstein life imitating art scandal as fact and fiction strike the press, politics, police, and the author herself for “The Frankenstein Murders.” Drunken mad science, candlelit pacts, and monstrous machines bring the eponymous inspirations full circle as blackmail and the triumphant anatomy act provide a free supply of corpses for those who will now do whatever they wish. Threats, revelations, and suspicions swept under the rug keep the underbelly dark while disastrous scientific pursuits go awry. Blue currents and electricity experiments try to conquer death as the noose tightens. Red herrings and key pieces of the mystery come together as the audience completes the puzzle along with our constables thanks to erotic clues, nasty denials, ill pleasures, and warped dissections. The detectives must use one crook to catch another with cons, betrayals, and confessions that seemingly resolve the brothel raids, set ups, and scandals. Prophetic calendars, apparent suicides, and emergency parliament sessions make room for plenty of dreadful hyperbole – grotesque body snatchers have used murder to procure and defile corpses and the dubious press thinks it's all thanks to popular fiction! This public medicine reform may banish the body trade, but lingering questions remain in “Lost and Found.” Constables need proof that the deceased aren't staying dead and buried, and someone has known it all along. Conflict among friends and lies will out reveal the hitherto unseen beastly in plain sight as underground discoveries, powder misfires, and final entrapments lead to tearful trials. No one's left to believe the truth thanks to corruption and condemnation blurring the fine line between genius and blasphemy. Last rights go unadministered when one is guilty of much but denies the crime at hand, and The Frankenstein Chronicles escalates to full on horror with frightfully successful dark science abominations.

Producer Sean Bean's former soldier turned inspector John Marlott doesn't like crooked police and his lack of fear is said to aide his quality undercover work. His gruff silhouette contrasts the posh officials, for they dislike his methods, deduction, and research on tides or time of death – questioning where others do not think to look makes him a somewhat progressive investigator even if he doesn't care for books, poetry, or famous names of the day. Marlott has no problem with instructions, but feigns stupidity and says his conscious is his own, playing into people's sympathy or religion as needed despite privately lighting candles to his deceased family and carrying sentimental lockets. The Frankenstein Chronicles is up front on Marlott's past, telling us how his syphilis caused his wife and baby's deaths – he knows what it is to grieve and the prescribed mercury tonics add disturbing visions to his prayers. He's uncomfortable at white glove luncheons as well as church services and cries over his past, perpetually tormented by his late loved ones while this barbaric case puts more burdens on his shoulders. He crosses himself at seeing these ghastly sights, recoiling from the morbid even as his own sores worsen. Marlott's reluctant to use a dead boy's body as bait to catch grave robbers and gets rough in the alley brawls when he must, acting tough on the outside and going off the book with his investigation after he steps on powerful figures who would manipulate him for their own political gain. Despite his own fatal mistakes, Marlott is a moral man in his own way, dejected that making the city safer tomorrow doesn't help the children already dead. Now certainly, I love me some Sharpe, and in the back of my mind I chuckled on how The Frankenstein Chronicles could be what really happened to Sharpe post-retirement. So, when Marlott says he was in the 95th rifles and fought Bonaparte at Waterloo, wears the same boots, and dons the damn rifle green uniform in a flashback funeral, I squeed! Marlott's not afraid of death and ready to meet his family, not stopping even when the case is officially closed – ultimately breaking out that old Sharpe sword when it really comes to it!

Reprimanded and insulted by superiors, Richie Campbell's (Liar) Joseph Nightingale is assigned to Marlott because they don't really care about him or the investigation. The character is initially just a sounding board, however Marlott confides in him, laying out the procedural methods in lieu of today's police evidence montages. Nightingale does leg work for the proof needed, following a tip and getting roughed up when tailing a body snatcher. He argues with Marlott, too, countering his witness protection strategy before earning Marlott's apology and his blessing to marry. Sadly, both share different angers when plans go wrong and people get hurt. The Frankenstein Chronicles offers a fine ensemble of familiar names and faces also including Anna Maxwell Martin (Bleak House) as Mary Shelley – a sassy, outspoken writer who says outwardly genteel appearances can be deceiving. She tells Marlott her book came from a nightmare, however she knows more than she admits. Shelley is well-informed at a time when women weren't permitted to be as cosmopolitan as their male peers, and great one on one scenes make her an interesting antithesis to Marlott. Ryan Sampson's (Plebs) hyper young Boz is likewise a persistent little reporter who won't give up his own sources but wants the police scoop. He circumvents Marlott, working all the angles and exposing the bodies found. Boz belittles him for not knowing Frankenstein was all the rage but he is on Marlott's side in bringing the truth to light – so long as it's a fantastic story. By contrast, Charlie Creed Miles (Essex Boys) and his mutton chops match the Burke and Hare-esque thuggery. This body snatching businessman keeps track of his livelihood, for it's just honest supply and demand. Pritty's reluctant to snitch, but Marlott's blackmail forces him into helping, becoming a useful, if crooked character. Vanessa Kirby's (The Crown) initially snotty Lady Hervey comes to find Marlott is surprisingly honorable, confiding in him about her family's title but little wealth even as she wonders if he is playing her for a fool. Jemima grows closer to him yet remains committed to a loveless marriage for money if it helps her brother's charity hospital. Unfortunately, Lady Hervey is a woman of god who is sorely mistaken when she puts her trust in all these men of science. Ed Stoppard (Upstairs, Downstairs) as Daniel Hervey speaks out against early medical laws and technicalities with disturbingly contemporary theories when not performing abortions behind his sister's back. Being a starving, homeless prostitute burdened with a child is not life, he reasons, only more suffering. He scoffs at charlatan surgeons and the home secretary's grandstanding but offers Marlott a new medicinal spore for his syphilis instead of the harmful mercury, doing what he can for those less fortunate whether the Anatomy Act would ruin him or not.

Rain, thunder, fog, river boats, marshes, and bogs set the chilly, bleak tone for The Frankenstein Chronicles amid period lantern light, overcoats, and muskets. Eerie artwork and beastly designs in the opening credits parallel the gory sights with separated body parts, arms and legs upon the table, bowls of entrails, and stuck pigs contrasting the organ music, ladies frocks, bonnets, and courtly wigs. It's bowler hats, simple crates, and bare rooms with peeling wall plaster for lower men but parasols, pocket watches, top hats, carriages, luggage, and grand estates for the upper echelon. Stonework and authentic buildings accent the blustery outdoor scenery, cobblestone streets, and humble cemeteries. Sunlight and bright visions are few and far between amid the candlelit patinas and small pocket portraits – the only available likeness of the deceased – however reflections, deformed glances in the mirror, and filming through the window panes accent the man versus monster themes. Wooden coffins, baby sized caskets, plain burial shrouds, simple crosses, body bags, and tanks containing deformed fetuses create more monsters and morose amid sophisticated libraries, early medical gear, handwritten letters, signets, and wax seals. Bones, blood, electricity, ruined abbeys, and hazy, dreamlike overlays combine with late Bach cues for final horrors, but it is bemusing to see the same title page on that open copy of Frankenstein over and over again – as if we could forget our eponymous literary source! Although many scenes happen on the move, enough information is given with time for dialogue in reasonable length conversations, balancing the visual pace and investigation exposition rather than resorting to in your face editing and transitions. All six, forty-eight minute episodes in Series One are directed by Benjamin Ross (Poppy Shakespeare), teaming with writer Barry Langford (Guilty Hearts) for one cohesive tone on this ITV hidden gem now of course branded as a Netflix Original.

While some elements may be obvious, my theory on the new spins in The Frankenstein Chronicles was totally wrong, and I again wish there were more gothic, sophisticated series like this and Penny Dreadful. The Frankenstein Chronicles isn't outright horror – the macabre drama, dreary case, and disturbing mystery are not designed as a scare to frighten even as choice gore keeps the ghastly at hand for this easy to marathon harbinger. Instead the British gravitas meets mad science combines for a Poe-esque caper with literary fantastics peppering the intertwined crimes and Frankenstein what ifs.