26 January 2018

A Shakespeare Trio, Frice!

A Shakespeare Trio, Frice!
By Kristin Battestella

Yes, apparently “frice” is the four that comes after thrice. Who knew save for us as we dive in to another potluck of Bard titans?! 


Chimes at Midnight – Orson Welles' (Othello) once obscure 1965 Falstaff opus adapts several Shakespeare plays – mostly Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 with Richard II, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor – as Ralph Richardson (The Heiress) narrates the Mortimer tense for John Gielgud's (Julius Caesar) king. Welles' larger than life Falstaff fills the screen, remaining the bright spot in focus at the center of the frame even when speaking over Keith Baxter's (Peeping Tom) shoulder as the foreground Prince Hal. Falstaff looks at the camera directly when looking toward Hal – if he isn't trailing behind him that is, rotund even as the stone castles, distorted angles, and grand interior arches keep the men beneath them small. The taverns, medieval wood works, capes, and period garb are amazing for as strapped as the production was, and the Criterion blu-ray is a restored black and white crisp. Strategic lighting schemes use sunlit rays to grace Henry IV while Prince Hal is near the light but not yet gilded and the challengers remain shadowed. Falstaff steals the show with his own court at Boar's Head, ever embellishing his stake and entertaining Hal with his booming humor. Unfortunately, Falstaff knows the joke will be on him once Hal grows up and takes on the big cross and great crown worn by his venerable father. He's like us, loyal yet cast aside, past his prime, and unable to change, fight, or compete with the king. The Shrewsbury charging horses, swords, maces, and violence are impressively modern, a lengthy battle severing the fun had beforehand with surreal fog, mud, superb music, and handheld pacing reflecting the brutal whirlwind. Hal must fight and kill but instead of robbing Hotspur of his youth, he's lost his own innocence – a loss from which Falstaff tried to protect him. Welles tightens the tender around Falstaff by clarifying his arc across the plays, however this compact focus also rushes everything else. Some editing is messy with quick, unnecessary cuts probably from the production struggles, and Welles' self indulgent portrayal is often over the top and hokey even as it is still relatable – we're meant to see through the windblown no matter how big the belly. Falstaff's a poor old fat guy making himself out to be something else while clinging to his young well connected friends. My gosh, it's just like facebook! If they were such best buds, why should Hal forget him once he becomes king? Was it all really just being used for kicks? We can understand why such a betrayal breaks the fool's heart. One needs to be familiar with these plays, as this is not an introductory piece for a young audience but rather a divisive film between purists not liking the changes and viewers familiar enough with Shakespeare to take a different look. Nonetheless, this is a captivating story of becoming a man and putting away childish things that can be returned to at several stages in life, and Welles' take should be seen at least once for this personal, bridesmaid perspective.

Henry V – A very baby faced Kenneth Branagh (Wallander) makes his much lauded directing debut in this 1989 adaptation alongside Ian Holm (Lord of the Rings), Judi Dench (Skyfall), Brian Blessed (I, Claudius), and a pint sized Christian Bale (Newsies, people!). Brief flashbacks highlighting key moments from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 also feature Robbie Coltrane (Harry Potter) as Falstaff while Derek Jacobi (Cadfael) is a modern dressed Chorus – an aware host introducing the stage, behind the camera magic, scenery changes, and onscreen map overlays. Firelight creates a realistic golden scheme matching the medieval robes as court sit downs and devil or angel courtiers sway the French claims. This H.V. is initially soft spoken but won't be mocked, and the woodwork set design aides the characterization as the austere fine patinas at court contrast the worn and shabby Boar's Head framing filled with fun. It is somewhat intrusive to insert Hal's banishment fireside at the tavern upon Falstaff's death when we're supposed to be on the way to Agincourt. However, this friendship lost later anchors the serious Pistol and Bardolph action amid internal revolts and blades at the throat. Henry's court is blue, young, and feisty while France is red and tired with a petulant dauphin compared to the bright sweetness of the French ladies' bemusing English lesson – even as Emma Thompson (Stranger Than Fiction) is obviously not French. These interiors are small, but vivid orange sieges, armored battles, and the horseback Harry rouses upon the breach with an exceptionally epic score from Patrick Doyle (Thor). Dirty, hands on threats and bittersweet executions escalate while the ill English army suffers, and the effortless iambic pace combines with gritty cinematic flair, emphasizing the rah rah despite hangings, tears, rain, and mud. This underdog tale knows when to take a stage action and run with the patriotism as well as when to stay quiet for a commoner versus king interchange. Soliloquies in the calm before the bloodshed are almost directly to the camera, drawing the audience within the moment to ponder the innocent consequences almost with a Jesus at Gethsemane humility against the over confident enemy. The gather round inspiration and on high cheers culminate with the St. Crispin fire and brimstone before superb sound design invokes the charging hoof beats as the camera stays on the fearful English faces standing their ground. Archers' volleys, clashing swords on horseback, bloody slow motion jabs, and slippery one on one combat create a lengthy, well choreographed battle. This story spends most of its time on the taking of France as so glorious – but all the death and youth sacrificed are for what really? The contemporary commentary stews in the quiet win as the dead are tallied, panning across the tired, sad victors and the bloodied children beside them. Stirring Latin laments swell while the camera humbly follows the living carrying the dead home. Granted the play's wooing finale seems odd after such onscreen epicness, but the official paperwork and marital ties seal the patriotic rebirth – which, ironically, we know is cut short. The Chorus gives us a fitting, 'but that is another story' close of the curtain, and although this is too long and bloody for the classroom, it remains a must see for Shakespeare fans and cinephiles alike.

Richard III – Annette Bening (American Beauty), Robert Downey Jr (Iron Man), Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient), Maggie Smith (Harry Potter), Jim Carter (Downton Abbey), and Dominic West (Centurion) join Ian McKellan (Mr. Holmes) for this 1995 fascist re-imagining of The Bard amid ticker tapes, radios, typewriters, telegraphs, tanks, and gas masks. Though recognizably thirties with swanky cars, cigarettes, jazz, and Art Deco glamour; there's an anachronistic surreal to the fedoras, furs, and noir silhouettes – as if the Imperial and aristocratic ways of footmen and tiaras continued into the jet set unchecked by The Great War or Abdication. This is still old speaketh, but the opening is silent before Richard takes over the microphone with his expected soliloquy – zooms on his mouth indicate double talk and duplicitous plots as he prims in the mirror before addressing the camera directly of his plans. Our disfigured Duke of Gloucester is suave with his thin mustache and decorated uniform but slightly unkempt, gassed, and mad when not putting on his crocodile tears. While the Nazi parallels are obvious, they are more Western gone SS The Man in the High Castle what ifs then actual German motifs. Richard's a Wolsey ear to the ground sowing seeds at Tower of London bunkers or with rooftop pigeons instead of on castle parapets, but the new dressage doesn't overtake the still stage-like one on one tension as each scene lays a piece of the brother against brother plot. Hired killers provide gangster style executions in the bloody bathtub and cracked spectacles in brown anonymous packages as proof of the deed done. The hangings grow darker alongside Richard's dictator glee despite opposing board room committees in their It Can't Happen Here disbelief. Dressing room preparations and laughter after the ruse works join public cheers over the boar's head laurel/fascist pigs logo – seeing the red gloved right hand but not knowing what the pocketed sinistre left is doing. Richard talks to us while he's watching the film reel of his coronation, seemingly letting the viewer in on the vanity. We don't like him but there's no getting off this armored train whether it goes too far or not. Tap to the king's tune and things are grand, but misstep and.... Fortunately, Richard also has to lie in the bed he made – with night sweats, regrets, and just do. Given our current administration and political climate, I'm probably looking at this differently then I would have two years ago. However, such reassessment proves how provocative Shakespeare still is even outfitted with machine guns, power stations, airplanes, and horses not there when you need them. Although the sound is uneven between soft voices and loud effects, this deserves several viewings for the visual symbolism and layered subtext – a complex parable within a tale of Billy quotes, the period piece commentary, and the pressure cooker of it all then and now. This weighted interpretation may be confusing for those new to the play, perhaps keeping the more medieval clear Olivier version as the introduction piece, but there's nothing wrong with this picture save a surprisingly elusive video release.

Hee, these are alphabetical, chronological, and in play order. Huzzah!

13 January 2018

Relocation Horrors, Oh My!

Campy Relocation Horrors, Oh My!
By Kristin Battestella

What does one do when one has recently moved? Watch a bunch of laughably bad and campy horror movies about those very same household fears and relocation frights!

Encore – An airplane arrival, fur coats, and a mod pad lead to one rickety elevator and some serious sickle slicing on the staircase in this 1978 thriller. Sure it's Made for TV cheap with poor video quality and dated easy listening recording sessions a la Engelbert Humperdinck, but one phone call fills us in on the divorcing American star moving to England for a new music retreat as intercut suspense and well edited attacks add chopped off hands and up close splatter. A saucy secretary, seemingly friendly agents, and a shady best friend create red herrings alongside an old lady housekeeper saving all our singer's press clippings, the gardener with all the sharp tools, and one giant tape recorder. The undiscovered body is used for scene transitions and a decomposing passage of time, invoking a sense of unease as the victim's voice and sobbing are heard between nightmares and foreboding noises the closed captioning calls “demonic cackling” and ghostly shrieking.” Our manager is angry at the precious years our star's interfering wife took away from the spotlight, and grandfather clocks, interior shadows, and a roaming camera add to the creepy house explorations and spooky atmosphere. Flashback clues, buzzing flies, beachside naughty, and corpses in wheelchairs build motive as swift violence, juicy implications, locked basements, and psychological twists potpourri the shady afoot. Revelations in the final half hour give information but raise more questions as the country manor maze and madness escalates. Maybe some parts are obvious or corny and derivative, but this is a fun little guessing game with choice horror moments and a spooky, entertaining atmosphere.

Stormswept – Grand columns, bayou scenery, candles, thunder, ghostly gusts, and possessions start this almost seventies feeling 1995 romp starring Kathleen Kinmont (Renegade) amid realtors avoiding a house of horrors disclosure and muddy accidents. The chandeliers and staircase grandeur can also seen in North and South, but there are spiders, covered furniture, and flashes of past boobs, blood, and some kind of skeleton dildo thingie. Saucy paintings abound, naughty books contain graphic ejaculation or cunnilingus art, and red four poster beds await. This is obviously low budget Skinemax style – so despite the eerie atmosphere, some scary filming, ominous silhouettes in rain slickers, and frightful reflections in the window, one can't tell if everyone is going to die or have sex, probably both. Four women and two men are Marilyn Chambers numbers! It takes too long for the crew to get stranded at the plantation, but the film within a film chases feature girls in white shirts and no bras while playing into girl on girl fantasies with let's get off your wet clothes talk and accidental towel drops. I laughed out loud at that, I really did! Although the dated midriffs, acid wash jeans, giant old portable phone, and faxed paperwork are bemusing, most of the sexual dialogue is uncomfortable. The men say once a guy has sex with another man he's a homosexual but it's okay for the women to experiment for them as it doesn't make them lesbians. Truth or dare demands the women kiss, word association games start with “pink” – it's disturbing the way actor turned luxury rehab guru Justin Carroll's director character has these women trapped, doing what he wants and not caring if anyone is upset by the sex chats. Whooshing storm effects live up to title and there's a torture history binding everyone to the house, but not much sense is made of this evil spirit driving one and all to sex and kill. The overlong wet dream confessions and lez be friends scenes embrace the step above soft core rather than exceed that lower rung with the horror. I almost wish this could be redone to be more quality. Hidden people in the basement, secret diaries, murders – but our actress has never had an orgasm and it's more important for the manipulative director to hypnotize her into touching herself in front of everyone like Showgirls thrashing in the pool. She recalls painful abuse and incest memories, but he tells her she need not be guilty over masturbating with her brother and can go ahead and have her ultimate sexual fantasy about Alex Trebek. O_o o_O I thought this was supposed to be a horror movie! While terribly laughable and base level entertaining, I just... insert Nathan Fillion confused gif here. Is there even a saucy ghost or is this what happens when you lock messy horny people in the house on a stormy night?

I Didn't Think it was *that* Bad

Cold Creek Manor – New York skylines, business flights, morning rushes, and scary accidents lead to a perilous country renovation for Dennis Quaid (Innerspace), Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct), Kristen Stewart (Twilight), Stephen Dorff (Blade), Juliette Lewis (Strange Days), and Christopher Plummer (Somewhere in Time) in this 2003 thriller from director Mike Figgis (Stormy Monday). The prologue, drive to the scares, and less than friendly redneck rest stops are just a few of the usual horror staples for our pretty rich white city folk. However, there is a high end style with a great brick manor, overgrown charm, and unusual slaughter tools amid the spiderwebs, children's clothes left behind, vintage family portraits, and saucy Polaroids. Older cell phones and flip cameras feel more rural than dated, and overhead camera angles, up close shots, in and out of focus usage, slow zooms, and pans in the stairwell add chills. Intercut conversations also build community tension with chats in a booth versus whispers at the bar revealing the small town connections as uncouth relatives insist there are no hard feelings over the foreclosure sale. The trailer park naughty, shirtless handyman steamy, and mano y mano contests, however, are weak try hards alongside several unnecessary characters compromising what should be taut isolation. Snakes – and I do mean snakes for those terrified of them – nursing home nasty old men, skull bashing and devil's throat dialogue, and tavern violence accent the backwoods car chases, animals in peril, and buried evidence as storms approach. Rather than in your face hectic loudness, the most frightening scenes here are the quiet chills, but of course nobody pays attention to the son who's holding all the information needed and being upfront about the real estate deal would have saved everyone a lot of trouble. The evasive camera and poor editing are used to distract from confusing logistics, and drinking or affairs contrivances are planted to deflect from the wealthy people claiming they have no resources to leave before the weak rooftop standoff. This tries to be sophisticated and had the pieces to be better but fails in putting together a steamy, fatal, cerebral thriller. Ironically this derivative is better than the recent trite scares shilled out, and if you go in expecting the standard house horrors, this can still be bemusing.

But a Skip that Should have been Better

Havenhurst – Julie Benz (Buffy) and Danielle Harris (Halloween) battle the titular apartment building cliches in this 2016 eighty odd minutes with thunderstorms, bloody bathrooms, false jump scares, drags across the room, slow motion tosses in the air, and whooshes on the ceiling. Silly sex scenes, security cameras watching, shower scene scares, clueless men, and drunken dream flashbacks are also unnecessary – rehab meetings and a picture in the locket are child lost enough. These female roles are typical ladies in towels, and the editing is designed for the audience rather than building internal atmosphere or characters. Nothing is needed before our new tenant meets Fionnula Flanagan (Brotherhood) as the classy but suspicious building owner, the action should never leave the complex once we're there, and 666 Park Avenue is not a show this should copy. The locale has style, a fine patina, handsome woodwork, retro cameras, and undeveloped film. Photos within photos, scribbled maps hidden in picture frames, and ominous envelopes slipped under the door suggest more amid hints of red – a seal on the contract, ink for a signature, the eviction notice. Unfortunately, rattling walls, unseen frights, and screams in the next room are never as dark or scary as they should be because the secrets are given to the viewer early – and it's frustrating when the characters can't figure it out despite laughable strongmen behind trap doors, false walls, and weak horror set pieces. If the audience never sees anything or doesn't leave the protagonist's point of view, we can wonder if this is real, surreal, or all in her mind. Instead, the basement, tunnels, and guts feel hollow because there's no mystery when viewers see the secrets before the character. We know who's involved, and conveniently placed flashlights easily allowed one to find the dusty file room for a research montage that's just cool clips onscreen for the audience to read – not the character actually looking at the lame history herself. The nonsensical building logistics, physical impossibilities, and supernatural red herrings underestimate the viewer, removing any suspension of disbelief with too many preposterous happenings and no in-world anchor for the anemic house of horrors.

10 January 2018

Pip, Pip! More Royal Documentaries!

Pip, Pip! More Royal Documentaries
by Kristin Battestella

It's time for more bling, more princes, more princesses, and of course, more scandals with these royal documentaries from across the pond.

Inside Asprey: Luxury by Royal Appointment – Jim Carter (Downton Abbey) narrates this 2017 inside look at Asprey – royal jewelers from Victoria to today's exclusive clientele thanks to custom, handcrafted, and expensive merchandise. $10,000 is a cheap sale to a store that sells one of a kind yellow diamonds worth 2.4 million! Patrons include The Queen, Prince Charles, Elton John, The Beckhams, and Samuel L. Jackson, one of many stars who receive regular loans – or purchase one the firm's bemusing items, such as a solid silver gorilla safe for $55,000. Interviews with staff, tours of the workshop, going through the store routine, and features on the jewels detail the order, presentation, and history of the over two hundred year old business as jewelers go about their silversmith craft upstairs while the merchandising and PR work downstairs at this premium Bond Street location. The $33,000 crocodile and diamond encrusted handbags are sometimes tacky, but these are scarce items for those who can afford to buy twelve of them – such as a Middle Eastern princess who comes in after hours while the camera crew waits outside the private sales room. Remember, if you have to ask the price, then you know you can't afford it, yet the employees asked to put on $15,000 earrings so a client can see how they look are able to laugh at themselves being so casual over these outrageous prices. Of course, silversmithing isn't as in demand as it used to be, and workshop reductions have come over the decades alongside commissions lost, difficult building maintenance, and increased luxury competition. Museum pieces, royal warrants, show stopping sales campaigns, and charity events cater to the international rich but despite the extreme pressures of making such delicate gems, there's a certain pride once the craftsmen bring their finished platinum necklaces to the shop floor. Although this is surely some nice documentary advertising with a certain discretion for clientele who wish to buy fully functioning $7,000 salt and pepper shakers, it's also an interesting reveal of the luxury retail inner workings with marketing missteps and honesty on Asprey's salesmanship for those living the bling life.

Two for New Anglophiles

Princes of the Palace – Royal experts and biographers chronicle the British princes by generation in this 2016 ninety minute special, beginning with no nonsense Philip's titled but humble origins and Royal Navy stature before sweeping the young Princess Elizabeth off her feet with World war II valiantry. The royal wedding boosted austere post war England, and despite taking a backseat always two steps behind his wife the queen, it's been a solid sixty-five year marriage. This cantankerous old sod who says exactly what's on his mind provides some brevity in a highlight reel of questionable Philip anecdotes, but there was difficulty between the rigid Philip and his sensitive boy Charles. Raised by nannies with distant parents, the introspective Charles was closer to the Queen Mother, hating boarding school and the toughen up style but wanting to please his father – as seen in bittersweet video of little sad and looking miserable Charles before later interviews show him developing into a cheeky bachelor. Whoa that seventies dance footage, Chuck! The interviewees speculate on the royal lack of emotion hampering his inability to relate to Diana's problems, but Charles' carefully orchestrated marriage to Diana brought positive PR with a wife supporting the regal heir and a problematic behind closed doors from her outshining him. Scandals, adultery, and blame go around before later Camilla forgiveness, however, it's more interesting to hear of Charles' progressive pushing the envelope in his bridesmaid role as the waiting Prince of Wales. The future kingly hopes on Prince William are revisited with his baby clips and Diana's hands on rearing allowing him to experience the normal side of life rather than The Firm's old fashioned coldness. Between the saucy secrets making headlines and putting on a brave face amid the grief, much time is spent on Diana here – rolling Charles and William together with her rather than mentioning Andrew or Edward at all. You wouldn't know there are more princes in the House of Windsor thanks to the glowing Wills heartthrob moments before talk of that impish wild child Harry turning some of his infamous faux pas into military service and charity work. It's disappointing that this is mostly all information viewers already know wrapped in a supersized time together, but fortunately, there are enough rare clips and highlights serving as a quick introduction for younger audiences.

The Royals – This 2013 series opens its six themed episodes with Wedding allure from the then recent Cambridge nuptials before black and white footage, newsreels, portraits, radio clips, and on location scenery accent talk of Victoria's once radical bridal press coverage and war rationed wedding success for Elizabeth and Philip. Voiceovers, historians, and journalists wax on American versus British perspectives on the monarchy with expected British pomp and tongue in cheek on the opulent gowns, Charles needing a virgin bride, and the mismatch of his fairy tale wedding to Diana as seen by 750 million television audiences worldwide. Episode topics overlap with Edward VIII's abdication and Wallis Simpson's marriage crisis and the love/hate Charles and Camilla PR turnaround, and a chronological focus rather than jumping back and forth could have made room for all the marriages not mentioned. Episode Two's Funerary focus continues the pageantry with the mixed emotions of the king is dead long live the king, but perhaps understandably spends over half the forty-five minute time on Diana's death and the global mourning that followed. The interviewees get personal while addressing the monarchy's missteps in the public versus private grief and need for a televised response. However, the usual paparazzi and conspiracies are still fairly recent and seem redundant compared to interesting details on the royal flag, security code names, and funerary protocol changes in such unprecedented circumstances. Serious documentary supposition is also awkwardly tossed in with Elizabeth I's death ending the English Tudor dynasty for the Stuart British era before the life long mourning etiquette and morbid Victorian era, George VI's funeral, and the Queen Mother's longevity. Of course, the Third Episode “Teens” big shocker is all poor William and rah rah Harry. Brief time on royals once trained as military leaders, Philip's stoic upbringing versus Diana's hand on approach, and psychological analysis on a royal's media responsibility contrasting the often emotionally distant castle rearing are pushed aside for nothing new on The Heir and The Spare. Fan blogs are interviewed, OMG Zara Phillips has her tongue pierced, and this is an unnecessary episode with time that could have been better spent elsewhere. The Scandals of Episode Four likewise do a disservice by spending more time on Edward VIII's Nazi leanings and Margaret's marital troubles before all the Charles and Diana divorce, rival interviews, books, tampons, and tabloids we already know. It's also baffling that somehow, neither The Yorks nor Princess Anne are never mentioned the entire series! The first television footage of the Royal Family at home is pleasing, but the George focus of Episode Five “Babies” runs thin with more talk of growing up royal like we just had a few shows ago. Perhaps these should have been half hour episodes going by decade, for how long can they talk about Pets in Episode Six? Ironically, the corgis, horses, Tudor pet portraits, swans, Tower of London menagerie, Raven masters, heroic pigeons, and polo highlights actually provide unique information – treating this whimsical topic with more facts then the whole rest of the program. If you're looking for balanced details on the entire House of Windsor or major British Royal history, one won't find it here. The superficial and repetitive aspects, too recent skew, and unorderly fashion will irritate more knowledgeable royal enthusiasts. However, this can be a fun starter for younger viewers new to following Lillibet and Co.

A Dated Skip

Princesses of the World – Naturally the ranks and succession for several of these princesses turned queens and single gals now taken has changed since this 2009 recounting of the not always fairy tale lives of royal ladies. Black and white wedding clips introduce Hollywood star turned Grace of Monaco, our first celebrity princess before eventual tragedy and the rare bling, marital strife, and star power of Soraya of Iran. These quick moments lead to an odd time on Princess Margaret where it's just Charles talking about his aunt – and people can follow her melodrama on The Crown now anyway. The romance tallies of fellow bad girl Stephanie of Monaco follow with her sister Caroline of Hanover before the requisite Diana spotlight moves in a somewhat chronological order grouped by status or rebelry. However, a lot of ladies are skipped in this fast paced anecdotal style with unnecessary upbeat music and a narration trying to sound sophisticated by pronouncing words in an extra unusual way. Somehow, we're fast forwarding to the Australian advertising executive cum Crown Princess Mary of Denmark – a perhaps under the radar princess who doesn't have a sad ending who's therefore superficially treated with fashion talk as if that's the most important thing about her and Letizia now Queen of Spain. Nude scandals and eating disorders segue into the odd inclusion of the then child Aiko of Japan, again ignoring older princesses and the rest of the Japanese Imperial ladies in this fast sixty seconds. Current Queen Maxima is also only mentioned for her pre-Netherlands family controversies, and the interesting leadership preparations and military training interviews with Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden are incredibly rushed in favor of backtracking to Beatrice and Eugenie with a side of Fergie. This erroneous focus on minor British Royals doesn't even include Anne or Alexandra, and despite their photographs flashing in the awkward transition montages, Madeleine of Sweden and Queen of the Belgians Mathilde are never featured. Several other countries such as Norway are forgotten entirely with no rhyme or reason as to who living, deceased, non-reigning, heir or spare is included or not – even already ascended queens. A more factual by country grouping with family tree graphics might have set off an entire half hour biography series devoted to royal women, allowing time for more than just the pretty or bittersweet love lives defining the lady by her man. While a quick recap for those who don't know much about royals, the glaring omissions simply don't do what it says on the tin.

But I must ask, where are all the documentaries not about the British Royal Family?

07 January 2018

Good, Bad, & Ugly Period Pieces

Recent Good, Bad, and Ugly Period Pieces
by Kristin Battestella

Some of these contemporary Victorian movies and period series are impressive with literary oomph and costumed flair. However others are unfortunately disappointing, polarizing, or unwatchable humbug.

Black Field – Lanterns, rifles, and two pioneer sisters doing what they have to do make for an upsetting opening to this 2010 eighty minute Canadian parable from writer and director Danishka Esterhazy. Bleak music, isolated vistas, and empty savannahs befitting the title set off the bare home, primitive details, and Grace said over such a paltry meal. This is a desperate, bitter existence with little dialogue beyond sad lullabies as these two girls fend for themselves. The accents, immigrants, and distant French towns mix – but the nearest farm is eighteen miles away and a handsome stranger wants to earn his keep at our isolated, all female station. Backstories are shared at the table, where this shirtless charmer admits he needs the Lord's mercy and forgiveness often and there's a certain attractive scandal at holding hands for prayer. The audience creates more saucy as several scenes imply each girl orchestrates a solo encounter with their would be protector – the camera doesn't reveal if something happened, however the household balance tips with jealousy and suspicion. Are these girls in over their heads with their farm and in need of a man to help? One has been forced to mother, but the younger is infatuated and ready to rebel despite wearing almost medieval clothes perhaps fashioned from her lone book of juvenile fairy tales. There are no “decent” jobs for women in town, and sans horse, this man is their only ticket to freedom. When one sister inevitably leaves, is it willingly or an abduction? The journey on foot is bleak with storms and an all natural palette mirroring their colorless lives, and the conflict increases without the unnecessary gory dream flashes and brief viewpoint breaks. Unable to help distant neighbors have too much work and too many mouths to feed, and nearby Mounties are in pursuit of a murderer as prejudice, injuries, and wilderness dangers build fear. The chess games moves to an even smaller, meager cabin with nothing but a sheet between rooms as the tables turn. Which sister do we believe as the division makes once good girls do bad things? Although some of the acting is slightly modern, the rivalry is similar to Far North and overall this first feature is well done. Did each girl get what she wanted and will they move on from this – or will the rift change them forever? While certain elements may be obvious, all the audience suspects is revealed in good time with well paced drama and a few unexpected twists. 


To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters – This Masterpiece television movie shines the light on sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne as they escape into fiction away from the tolling bells, muddy streets, and embarrassing affairs ruining the family reputation. The ladies must keep up the mid-nineteenth century appearances with capes, bonnets, and frumpy frocks alongside the crestfallen parsonage, Yorkshire cold, and drafty period poor of the on location prairies and authentic settings. In an era when they are trapped by their womanhood and dependent on their hopeless male kin's hypocrisy, these sisters prefer dogs to people – tiptoeing over fears of publishing their poems and hidden creative passions burning fast and bright. Fiery readings of their explosive text contrast their plain, crappy circumstances, but the plot erroneously deviates in favor of the sniveling and tormented at being mediocre brother Branwell, meandering from the more interesting sisters destined for glory. The ladies want to publish and express themselves freely rather than bow their heads, not make eye contact, and sell themselves as mere governesses. However they argue over whether their writings are a private pursuit or something extraordinary worthy of publication – for men write and what they pen is judged, but a woman writing is herself judged. The sisters toil under pen names with panoramic seasonal transitions as they wait for acceptance, but childhood fantasy scenes and drunken dreams are unnecessary. On the go recountings of stories within stories walking faster with speed talking to match also become nonsensical, trying to create tension on top of the stilted brotherly angst when there is enough human interest in the literary struggle. The awkwardness of snatching a letter addressed to Currer Bell is fine drama – especially when it is an acceptance for two of the girls' works, but not the third and unscrupulous publication deals follow. At times the sisters can be cliché, with bossy Charlotte, fiery Emily, and a just sort of there Anne; but the personal insights deepen with rejection letters, buying more paper, old fashioned manuscript packages, first writings of their famous novels, and sitting by the fire for silent sustained writing time. Yes please! A proud father learning of his daughters' achievements make for delightful moments, and this is downright excellent when the ladies must stand up for their publication rights by revealing their identities – after being judged for their accents, stature, and gender. Of course the finale is bittersweet, but this is a charming companion piece to reading the Brontes or for inspiring budding young writers.

An Unfortunate Skip

The Invisible Woman – Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus) directs and stars in this 2013 Charles Dickens biopic from Bafta winning writer Abi Morgan (Shame) focusing on the forty-five year old married author's affair with Felicity Jones' (Rogue One) eighteen year old actress Nelly Ternan. English coasts, Victorian silhouettes, lanterns, and carriages create a grand atmosphere with period decorum for the fine acting, but one needs to be familiar with the people or the Claire Tomalin source book to understand this slow two hours with an unnecessary flashback frame and more relationship awkwardness. When our lovers first meet, she is smiling at his son and he is socializing with her mother amid busy theater preparations and silly rehearsals restarts signaled with overly serious crescendos. The marital rifts, groupies catching his eye, well delivered dialogue, sense of Victorian protocol, and certain British properness can't completely build thanks to all the back and forth interruptions. While the filming nicely reflects the mood as she looks up to Dickens, he stares at her neck, and they turn away at their conflicted feelings; the unfortunately accurate twenty year age difference between the actors is too weird with unromantic fireside close ups and girly giggles too young to be sensuous. It is neat to see some early mass hysteria over a feisty, charismatic author commanding the crowds, even though this biopic may be trying too much with talk of debtor's prison, voiceover quotes on poverty and charity, and Dickens the social reformer intermixed with his side piece counting the donations. If he doesn't love his uncreative wife, what does he see in a talentless girl playing actress? There's no reason to love the troubled melodrama when the objective camera shows the creepy – she's hunched at the door as he is at her shoulder whispering to be let inside for a silent first touch. The eerily done up Fiennes is a fire and brimstone minister over his tempting flock, but the conflict between literary master and dirty old man is too disjointed with some chaste patty cake in the final fifteen minutes before an abrupt ending and a Victorian sense of shame confusing modern audiences. Tom Hollander (The Night Manager) as fellow libertine Wilkie Collins and concerned mother Kristin Scott Thomas (An English Patient reunion, hello!) are also totally underused, and more time may have been better spent on the terribly mistreated wife Joanna Scanlan (Getting On) – who seems like the real hidden lady. It's tough to look at this difficult subject matter objectively, and this unfocused, close to vest structure where not much happens doesn't help. Is this the tormented Dickens, Nelly's present reflecting on him, his wife's pain? Though interesting for biographers and sociology viewers or Fiennes fans and period propriety, this is simply frustratingly plain to watch.

Didn't Finish 'em!

Downton Abbey: Seasons 4 and 5Year Three of this Masterpiece series jumped the shark, and I quit watching then. The 2013 Fourth Season, however, is not a good place to join the show, as names and references from prior seasons are dropped or forgotten as needed, interesting personal developments below are pushed aside for the same above toil, and regardless of the Interwar happenings and historical opportunities, everything always come back to who Michelle Dockery's Mary will marry. Numerous maids, nannies, footmen, relatives, suitors, and royals come and go – wasting time before a typical and totally unnecessary rape as plot device trapping The Bateses (Joanne Froggatt and Brendan Coyle) with murder again. Each hour also has Allen Leech's Branson asking if he is truly upstairs or down, treading tires as said to be a writer who's never seen actually writing anything Edith (Laura Carmichael) literally has her romance disappear while she's kidnapping her baby from not one, but two adoptions. Past dalliances and present companionships for Granny Violet Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton's Isobel, and Doctor David Robb are more interesting. All the supposedly progressive plots with Lily James' superfluous Rose meant to introduce the changing times, and it is the elder cast's reflections that better capture the aristocratic upheavals. More loud mouth recurring characters take up screen time in Series Five, which frustratingly repeats itself despite it being 1924. Are people who call this the Greatest British Drama Ever watching the same show I am? I bailed with a few episodes left as reading the summaries to see how Season Six ends was easier than the poorly paced and uneven storylines onscreen. Most scenes only last a minute or two, and intercut whimsical moments disrupt serious conversations – plots on homosexuality are cut short in favor of suspected gardeners stealing letter openers and secret heists over absconded royal love letters. The location, costuming, and period looks are the best part of the show, and such frocks, jewelry, tiaras, and dressing for dinner decorum wrapped in posh accents is what appeals to international audiences most. This era has an embarrassment of riches – I still believe they should have never left World War I – but everything here is really just like every other soap opera. ¯\_()_/¯

War and Peace – 1805 St. Petersburg locales, Moscow estates, and lavish aristocratic balls set the scene for this 2016 adaptation anchored by the likes of Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), Stephen Rea (The Crying Game), Rebecca Front (Up the Women), and many, many more. There are numerous introductions, comings and goings from place to place, and explanations of who is who and how they are all related while arguing at the count's deathbed over his will. Similar names and a dash of foreign words will be confusing – viewers need to know the book and the history amid the marrying cousins, matchmaking, creepy siblings, and two faced nobility. The Regency costumes may not always be accurate, the younger ladies look like little girls playing dress up, the military uniforms are too big on the modern boys, and their tricorns look downright silly. Though the tiaras, furs, and feather fascinators are fun, they don't distract audiences from all the British accents overtaking this decidedly Russian epic. Weren't there any continental actors available? Despite the small television scale, ominous music, fog, canons, horses, and gunfire lift the battle action amid a fine religious undercurrent with church blessings and everyone crossing themselves. Unfortunately, it's tough to care about all these lookalike solider boys when they are so gung ho about the revolution yet can't see how they are being played. They run their mouths off and drum up their cowardly wounds – Sharpe was much more soldier-esque in comparison, and Brian Cox seems like he's in a different battle theater than the overly millennial princes, tsars, and REMFs looking for glory. The heady, flashy dreams, drunken saucy, shadowed nudity, whispered seduction, and male butts are unnecessary Tudors knockoffs as the bitchy little girls at home plot for love or money, and the back and forth editing between war action and at home intrigue creates uneven weight – maybe a more linear plot per episode would have helped balance the younger, weaker cast. I feel like I should like this more, but the atmosphere doesn't have that extra period timelessness. I got half way through, but there's no attachment to the numerous characters bottlenecking for the spotlight between all the try hard narrations. One might find it easier to just tackle the Tolstoy direct instead.