30 June 2018

How Streaming Has Changed my Viewing Habits

How Streaming has Changed My Viewing – and Reviewing! – Habits
by Kristin Battestella

In these instant glory days – or is that days of instant glory? – it's becoming tougher to be both a viewing consumer and a reviewing content creator. Is there enough time to both watch all I want and maintain consist professional output? Below, I've broken down how the multitude of streaming availability has affected the focus of my writing, viewing, and reviewing.

Do I Watch More and Review Less or Vice Versa?

At times, I want to zone out and look for show to watch casually – movies or series that I don't intend to review with any critical eye. However, there are a lot of shows I end up not watching because I am saving them for a review focus. This dilemma leads me to viewing extremes, as sometimes I watch a lot purely for my enjoyment, resulting in a drop in my writing output. Then, I feel guilty if I'm not reviewing everything I watch. I used to have a policy when purchasing DVDs that all I watched would be critiqued, so if I comfort binge that's followed by an obsessive marathon viewing to get my analysis back on track. There should be a better balance between work and entertainment, but....

I Can't Keep Up!

Currently, between diginets, cinema, DVR, DVDs, Netflix discs and Instant Watch, Hulu, HBO, Amazon Prime, Starz, and Britbox – as well as free streaming channels such as The Roku Channel, TubiTV, Pub d Hub, and more – there is just too much to watch. Rather than reviewing what I want when I want, I'll rush to watch something before it expires, rotate between one program on each platform, or seasonally add or drop yet more services including Shudder, Filmstruck, and Showtime. It isn't a question of cord cutting, price per month, or yearly subscriptions anymore but rather wanting to watch something and signing up for whichever service has it – whether you already have too many things in the pile, queue, and watchlist or not because...

You Watch Something because It's There, don't Lie.

On one hand, for those of us who grew up with a wonky antenna and a dozen fuzzy channels on the dial, streaming services and all the latest technological devices provide tremendous freedom of choice. When you have Roku TVs, set top Rokus, Fire Sticks, Chromecasts, PS4, and even a VCR/DVD combo, there's no need to tune in “Same Bat Time, same Bat Channel!” However, this what you want, when you want whatever mood strikes you free reign, is deceiving, for I watch something because it is available, not because I was really looking for it. When recently drafting a horror viewing list of retro films about witches in the bayou, I browsed all the horror movies on all the streaming platforms for something that fit the bill. Rather than watching a bunch of horror movies that interested me and then finding something common between them to make a recommended list, I saw several similar movies in different places and made my review around them.

So, Streaming Begets Laziness, too.

For ages, I've felt like watching Only Lovers Left Alive again. So, am I supposed to get up and put on the blu-ray because it isn't streaming anywhere? No, because it isn't streaming anywhere, I just don't watch Only Lovers Left Alive again, no matter how much I'm hankering for it. Personally, I try not to watch something on a streaming platform if I already own it on video. What's the point of having a hard copy then, right? Unfortunately, that again means I either break an outdated rule for a spur of the moment white noise viewing, or I don't watch anything. After all....

Read the TV Guide, you don't need a TV.”

As Grandpa in The Lost Boys said, sometimes I just end up browsing, and browsing, and browsing some more. It's like when you are in the kitchen and open the refrigerator three times in a row hoping something different will be there when you know there won't be. Sometimes I enjoy the scrolling, it's fun to add items to my already full watchlist. When passing a good show or memorable movie, it' makes me smile to remember it even if I don't queue it, much less press play. Occasionally, I'll add something to the queue just to know it is there – you don't want to lose it and that click in itself is comfort viewing without actually watching anything. Occasionally, something expires and it isn't a big deal, you can let it go because, like a rerun you expect it to reappear on another streaming channel since so many have a lot of the same thing padding their catalogs. That said, there is inevitably that time you go through every single $^(&!&@ streaming option only to proclaim there is absolutely nothing to watch! Of course, once you look at the clock and see all the time that was wasted just looking...by that point, I'm kicking myself for not watching something I could have been reviewing. 

Sometimes Not Everything is Worth Watching – or Reviewing, Let's be Honest.

Recently, I'm more likely to review entire television seasons in long form and do more viewing lists of feature films instead of reviewing a motion picture in one full length essay. Sometimes, a film that's two hours or less just isn't worth the two days time to write one article about it – especially if it is a stinker. Other times, again especially with horror, I marathon too many films in a row and don't have time to write a full length piece even if one lost in the viewing shuffle is deserving of more praise. Shorter televisions shows that only have a few episodes per season or brief overall runs, however, still receive a long form eye because there is still much to discuss. Occasionally, I'll compile viewing lists of shorter shows that I deliberately chose to watch with a lighter critical focus – a low episode count or a cancellation notice means I don't have to give it as much thought, right? Of course, I'm more likely to give up on a show after only a few episodes if it doesn't immediately grab my interest. Remember, I just have so much more to watch. 

Does Streaming Impatience impact My Reviewing Viewpoint?

Thus, my ever lengthening queue makes me more overly critical than I used to be, even more negative. I'm not willing to wait for a show to get good or finish a movie that's dumb. Instead of coming from a viewpoint of why a program is worthwhile, today I'm more likely to question what a program must do to keep me watching. There's no real love lost if something is bad when I've not purchased that individual movie ticket or blu-ray set, yet even when a movie or series blows my mind both in entertainment and analysis, there's still a fear of what you are missing or what else you should be watching and if it was all worth the time. When you can see something in such so good, so fast consumption, there's a hesitant search for what to watch next, and inevitably, I'm going to compare what I watch after as most likely inferior no matter how different the content. I'm almost to the point where it is easier to pick something at random – press play, make some notes, and not worry about if it was worthwhile or stinks. Then, I can be pleasantly surprised when the whim succeeds, giving birth to a rare zone out viewing that become a happy review. Who knew?

What are your thoughts on how streaming has changed your viewing habits?

29 June 2018

Bramwell Seasons 1 and 2

Bramwell Series 1 and 2 Worth a Look
by Kristin Battestella

Young, stubborn Doctor Eleanor Bramwell (Jemma Regrave) struggles to fit in with the male dominated Victorian hospitals and instead opens a Thrift Street Infirmary in the downtrodden East End – establishing 1995's Bramwell in a worthy seven episode debut.

The London 1895 operating theater opening “The World of Man” is full of men with scalpels giving instructions on removing ovaries to cure a woman's hysteria. Bloody bandages and dirty rags visualize the risky surgical statistics as our eponymous woman doctor suggests the opposite – would we cut off the testicles of an unhappy man? Sass and piano music contrast the amputation shockers as the upper glass gents barely tolerate this annoying female. After all, it is a woman's fault if she can't have a baby because her aristocrat husband gave her syphilis! Female tears and men's dirty secrets make it difficult for a doctor to find the truth, and Bramwell goes for the heavy topics early. Rather than have medicine bow to social graces, our lady finds new causes via her Thrift Street Infirmary. However, the clinic gets off to a rocky start with chloroform but no masks, delicate bowel surgeries, and jerky patients high and low wanting morphine or champagne amid vaudeville songs, bawdy humor, and a little romance with Shirley Anne Field (Lady Chatterley) in “The Threat of Reprise.” Our doctors promise not to talk about blood and gore when meeting the bishop for a donation, but they will poor tea and discuss urine tests and gutting patients. Drunken men just don't want a woman operating on them, and Bramwell layers The Thrift cases, personal dramas, and underlying themes per episode as mistakes are made and lessons are learned in this still relatively barbaric time in medicine. Sadly, a laundry woman in labor and her husband Idris Elba (Prometheus) fear they'll be found out in “The Outcast's Baby” as of the time whispers about not having delivered any black babies add to the “But she's English!” racist reactions. Fine performances make up for anything on the nose as heathen jokes and thieving suspicions add to the primitive attitudes before a premature breach birth, blood loss, and antiquated equipment lead to gruesome conflicts at the all important society dinner party. Wet nurses must be bribed, everyone argues if the child belongs with its black father or in a white orphanage, and Bramwell's dilemmas don't always have an easy answer.

However, Bramwell's Second eight episode 1996 Season struggles with an uneven start before a strong mid-season thanks to the cholera outbreak of “The New Formula.” Vomiting and boiling water escalate to quarantines and radical new medicines – The Thrift is ill equipped for such contagious crowds and blood everywhere. Doctors disagree on the source, disinfecting the ward, and how to treat foreign patients. The more ambitious physicians accept the treatment risks, jeopardizing one to save another with desperate and ambiguous but necessary decisions resulting in shocking miscalculations and upsetting fatalities. “The International Connection” begins with stereotypical Native American views and judging intelligence on the size of the so-called sub race skull as imperial rich white attitudes decide it's better for a poor child to be adopted abroad. This suave would be savior claims he's helping the children even as he calls them dumb, dirty urchins prone to steal and shouts at his fainting and bruising young wife Kelly Reilly (Eden Lake). Barbaric positions on battered women, self harm, and the measure of human intelligence being the deciding factor on how you treat a person are rightfully called ridiculous while those who stand up because the needs of the child are more important are berated as sentimental and spineless. This is a surprisingly timely and strong episode layering several issues. Alas, the street fair, fun house mirrors, and bemusing mermaids of “The Carnival Attraction” lead to monstrous stigmas and dangerous surgeries to correct a girl's facial deformity. Is she better off in the freak show or risking an operation for a chance at a normal life? The procedure goes forth despite disagreements on the course of action, employer interference, and the possibility of brain damage. Once again, The Thrift oversteps its bounds of care amid abuse, abandonment, and blame before a post-carriage accident exam reveals a lady patient is really male prostitute Hans Matheson (The Tudors) in “The Identity Loss.” Our female doctor understands the role reversal despite others' homophobia and sodomite pointing fingers hypocrisy. They cut his long hair over his preference for a feminine appearance, and when he's attacked by other patients, the police don't exactly care. No one's willing to donate blood for a jury rigged transfusion, and although he's conflicted at his so-called wickedness, he asks what he did wrong. While this is a very topical episode today, in the mid-nineties such themes were not often discussed, yet sophomore Bramwell does so a year before Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman does in its fifth season.

Unfortunately, Bramwell does have several less than stellar outings including “The Doctor's Committal” when the Thrift staff go looking for tuberculous and find a foul mouthed man refusing to admit he's in ill health. The gentleman doctors at the club have wealthy patients throwing their money away on new, unproven electric therapy, but our doctors won't walk away from those who don't want to be saved – and intrude right into their family affairs with elite no divorce attitudes and institutionalizing a man who'd rather live in uncouth happy squalor over upper class fronting. When doctors are causing trouble rather than helping, it makes for an unlikable hour. Bramwell has an early series arc establishing the clinic, but most episodes are individual crusades of the week with heavy social commentaries and no lighthearted breaks, simple Victorian cases, or explorations on the supporting cast. The overall drama is fine, but early in Year Two, A/B style plotlines tackle too much. Newfangled elevators, rail cars, and train delays lead to a well done disaster with sideways cameras, screaming zooms, and darkness in “The Rule of Thuggery.” Rescuing those trapped, leg injuries, broken arms, and dangerous debris provide fine shocks in this Series Two premiere as in the field amputations without morphine escalate into lingering trauma and gangrene. Sadly, this disaster plot degrades into thugs coercing patients because a crook wants to launder his dirty money through the infirmary. The gangster charity cum East End intimidation is hammy when neighborhood strong arming could have been an ongoing issue instead of shoehorning such themes into another story. St. Jude's Hospital is looking for a clinic assistant in “The Strain of Conscience,” and the stuffy committee that won't hire women makes Eleanor prove herself yet again by taking a test when there's a pregnant teen prostitute at The Thrift asking for an abortion so her pimp won't beat and starve her. Our lady doctor will probably always have to prove herself, but social vindication should not be what's the more important plot here.

Jemma Redgrave (Holby City and yes of those Redgraves) as Doctor Eleanor Bramwell chooses to be a surgeon in East End, eighteen inch waists and fainting spells be damned! She's not afraid to stand between an angry man and his quarry if medicine and compassion warrant, for her goal is to preserve the healthy and to work where she's needed, treating people regardless of what kind of person they are – an admirable but not always practical quest. Eleanor crudely sews a skirt into wide leg trousers to ride her bicycle and gets loud with unruly patients at The Thrift. She's both educated and determined but inexperienced as a doctor and often in over her head. Eleanor will crusade for the poor even when terrible people don't deserve such care yet she gets snotty with her frumpy society patients and looks down on a dance hall maven. Her judgment is clouded, and Bramwell allows its lead to be imperfect. Although sometimes the pursed lips and scene chewing is obvious, Eleanor can also be stubborn and fresh to those who help her, and she's too busy taking on every battle to notice when others exhaust themselves for her cause. Despite child welfare and labor injuries, “The Thrift of the Hunter” is the first time anything other than doctoring gets her attention – and it's the titular too good to be true neurologist who's curious about this radical lady surgeon. Scandals, marriages of convenience, and deceptions make for a more personal, humanizing episode as Eleanor cries at her bureau over men making her look the fool. The Series One finale “The Ideal Suitor” also has men arguing over how strong willed women need strong willed men, and Eleanor is taken down a peg over the barefisted boxing, army uniforms, and knockout injuries. She insists she's not a schoolgirl, but the awkward courting leads to a choice between marriage or medicine, for in this era, a woman can't do both. Blind patients and brain surgery are also tense enough without Bramwell resorting to sexual violence threats as proof of why she needs a man to protect her, but Series Two has her neglecting her clinic for a charming Irish rogue. It's surprising to see her crusade so easily dropped since the entire show is about her being emphatically against the malaise of high end medicine, but by “The Final Days” Season Two finale, Eleanor is off on a secret weekend vacation with her best gowns and hair down, forgetting any medical disagreements with Doctor O'Neill when they are mistaken for Mr. and Mrs. Bramwell. Maybe she's always meant to be unlucky in love, however it's frustrating that she can be so naive and emotionally attached to a man who does not give or earn her professional respect.

David Calder (Widows) as Eleanor's father Robert is often caught in the middle between the man's man doctoring and when his daughter is in the right. He wants her to tend the ladies in his private practice, but warns high horse Eleanor when she meddles with patient emotions or vulnerability without any social discretion or considering their own family reputation. Robert wishes her late mother had been there to soften their daughter rather than let the hard world harden her, but he has a medicinal whiskey with Eleanor each night whether she heeds his regimental surgeon expertise or not. Kind Dad gives up his train seat to a little girl, goes on house calls despite his own broken arm, and tries to set up his uninterested daughter with a former soldier friend when not objecting to her new style low cut gown. He still wants to pick the man to look after Eleanor, failing to realize she doesn't need looking after by anyone. Robert's often angry over the risks at The Thrift and the surgical dangers at such improper facilities but in his own practice he'd rather not cheat a patient or tell them what they want to hear – making an enemy of important colleagues who provide high society placebos. However, certain cases also bring back painful wartime memories, and Robert questions his daughter's ambition when her patients are caught in the crossfire. When she lies about her relationships with men, Robert's shocked by her behavior yet relents on her romance because he is a good father who loves her regardless. In “The Return of the Betrayer” the elder Bramwell begrudgingly allows his penniless sister to return home amid the upscale dinner parties, sing a longs, and well earned fellowships threatened by her arrival. It's twenty years too late for forgiving her debts or scandalous living in sin with a married man, and this hour is one of the stronger episodes from Year Two in balancing both the at home and the hospital. Eleanor suggests her aunt take on The Thrift administrator role, and it might have been interesting to have a charming, outspoken society dame as a recurring character. Unfortunately, this spicy sister can't quite get respectable thanks to a young doctor Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead).

Kevin McMonagle's (Your Cheatin' Heart) Scottish Doctor Joe Marsham is also right when he says Eleanor brings everything on herself. He's comes to Thrift Street as a part time anesthetist before becoming a full time surgeon not afraid to tell it like it is to patients or either Bramwell. Marsham plays the soundboard for both father and daughter, toeing the line on their high ideals as needed because loyalty to the patient is the more important than lining his pockets. Though married and forced to do a dangerous operation on his own daughter, Marsham's jealous of Eleanor's suitors, saying she has more understanding that his wife and her strength is often what keeps him going. She likewise relies on his peacekeeping, but Marsham deflects on his true feelings to keep their friendship undamaged. He takes his doctoring seriously and wants everybody to pretend like they are in a proper infirmary without all their emotional turmoil. Andrew Connolly's (Fair City) introduction as St. Jude's doctor Finn O'Neill, however, is much more upfront. He doesn't want a woman doctor at his hospital but any antagonism with Eleanor is forgotten in half an episode – he wants her to lecture and loves her unusual personality! Of course, she uses his research opportunity to shock all her male colleagues with her latest infirmary case, and using a patient to prove a point impresses him. Finn also tosses out an ill woman running into his hospital screaming for help, and he's a two faced, unlikable example of what's wrong with medicine then and now. Eleanor calls him out over his using her infirmary when it suits him, but Bramwell rushes their relationship with his soulmates talk, making her look the other way when people die amid his trial and error medical science. He claims he's dedicated to saving lives and will do whatever it takes to treat the sick, glowing things Eleanor falls for while her father rightfully calls him a seducer and scheming opportunist. He confesses his love and asks for her hand in marriage a little late – after everyone is supposedly overreacting over his scandalous history.

Former patient and amputee Bentley becomes porter at The Thrift, using his crutch against unruly ruffians a time or two. Although as the series progresses, he goes sans support and Bramwell goes out of its way to never show Cliff Parisi's (EastEnders) from the knees down, leaving the audience to forget his missing foot rather than address any struggle. In Series Two, Ben Brazier (Layer Cake) as Bentley's equally sarcastic son Sidney helps at the infirmary, and both have a cantankerously endearing relationship with Ruth Sheen's (Another Year) Nurse Ethel Carr. Initially there as required, Nurse Carr makes an interesting counterpoint to the doctors with her affectionate bedside manner. She rightly prescribes that sometimes all a young patient needs is love and stands by Eleanor even when struck by attackers. Bentley calls her the pearl in his oyster who's a pain in his ass and “soft as shit,” but Nurse Carr enjoys giving Sidney some tough love. She confronts Eleanor too, thinking the doctor is often her own worst enemy for picking the wrong battles over the wrong clientele. Keeley Gainey (No Bananas) as Kate the Bramwell's long time maid is also solid as maids go, remaining supportive and praying for patients, but Bramwell could have done much more with its ensemble, focusing on their plights or dilemmas rather than tackling so many big issues. Michele Dotrice (Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em) as the ward's widowed benefactor Lady Cora Peters is initially shocked and fainting, but she wants to be where her wealth will do good. She handles the clinic's administration while charming more dough from other elites. Despite growing frail herself, Lady Cora wears a brave face and questions why Eleanor always criticizes or creates problems where there are none. It could have been fun to see her become more medically hands compared to Robert Hardy's (All Creatures Great and Small) mean, arrogant Doctor Herbert Hamilton. He'd rather do a hysterectomy on a healthy woman to cover for her noble husband, and Eleanor rightly calls him a greedy, past it charlatan placing politics above medicine when he tells her women were only made to be wives. He presents himself as doing no wrong in “The Trust of Kings,” but even his young medical students question his practice. Hamilton refuses to take The Thrift seriously, denying their use of a new x-ray machine and doing a patient more harm by ignoring overexposure warnings. He prescribes laudanum for the rich and misdiagnoses a woman as emotional when it is really a then fatal appendix. Typical!

Such maids, tea time, and English decorum add to Bramwell's late Victorian feathers, top hats, long skirts, fitted jackets, puffy sleeves, silk frocks, pocket watches, and white gloves. Those giant sleeves seem just a little impractical amid the blood splattered surgery aprons, medical bags, and nurses caps! How does all that fabric get into the tighter fitting coats? Despite candlelight dinners, gas lamps, ink blotters, crystal, pianos, and carriages; the downtrodden cobblestone and industrial mood remain gritty and dirty thanks to leeches, gross autopsies, intestines, bone saws, and onscreen amputations. Bramwell is a more realistic drama compared to the romantic, bright, western style of the earlier set but released two years prior Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman. The subdued palette and older, flat picture isn't very colorful, however, that adds to that East End bitter, primitive Victorian medical equipment, retro needles, vintage tourniquets, and bad teeth. Bicycles, boat races, and park strolls provide some whimsy amid cluttered period interiors relying on window light schemes – early microscopes, flash powder cameras, tea cups, and walking sticks carry an old fashioned charm. I chuckle also at every episode title needing an unnecessary “the,” and you could have a drinking game for every time they say “anesthetist” with their decidedly British pronunciation. Brief crass language and slang are also nothing too offensive or overly Cockney amid each largely dialogue driven fifty minutes. Ten episodes from Series One and Two were written by Lucy Gannon (Peak Practice) with director David Tucker (A Very Peculiar Practice) helming eleven hours of Bramwell, creating a cohesive but sensitive journey for our lady doctor.

Bramwell is a fine period drama not only less saccharin than the more well known Dr. Quinn, but easier to marathon thanks to its shorter seasons. Topical issues and the breaking of Victorian taboos are well presented in a likable feminine frame, making Bramwell a fine little piece that shouldn't be overlooked.

12 June 2018

Contemporary Chillers versus Cold Ducks

Two Contemporary Chillers versus Two Cold Ducks
by Kristin Battestella

While some of these recent releases can leave audiences cold, other contemporary pieces provide just the right amount of seafaring suspense and psychological chills.

The Reef – Sunrises and sunsets, stunning blue water panoramas, and lovely reef life create coastal bliss for this 2010 Australian fright loosely based on a true story. Shark teeth foreshadowing, statistics about the likelihood of shark attacks, and an inexperienced crewman aboard invoke the ominous to come alongside natural water fears, racing to beat the tide, trouble raising the anchor, and leaky rafts. Capsizing thuds, flooding, and underwater hectic don't need any herky jerky action cam as the innate water movement makes the audience feel like we are there amid the missing keel, sinking hull, no supplies, and outdated distress beacon. It's frightening when viewers can just make out the shark silhouette beneath the surface for themselves, but headless turtle shocks and false suspense moments go for cheap thrills. Instead of keeping us on edge with every chop in the water, over the top music tells the audience when something bad is happening. Unlikable characters inspire little conflict amid a lot of childhood friends and lookalike blonde cliches – they are completely unprepared for any aquatic disaster and there's no sense of ocean vast, the slow passage of time on the water, sunstroke, or thirst. These helpless followers holidaying on this deliver the yacht job are also over reliant on their macho, supposedly world water traveling leader who messes up tide times, can't find north, and thinks they can maybe swim to an island perhaps twelve miles away. Wishy washy, don't know they are in a horror movie stupidity compounds the uneven pacing as the strong girl suddenly in tears stays behind while others risk this uncertain swim before she changes her mind thirty seconds later so they wait in the possibly shark infested seas. The women rightfully call out the guy who orchestrated the trip under false pretenses before apologizing that its not his fault but yes it is. Weak men say they are tired and laugh over sex stories, breaking the swimming scenes to stop and stand on reef rocks rather than shape any kind of epic endurance risk. Fortunately, seeing the nonchalant great white cruising past the hysterical people as they flounder and panic both justifies the yell at the television aspects and makes the viewer recoil. Mirage visions of land and thought they saw something paranoia frays the group as one by one they must leave the dead behind in the ocean. The fatal attacks are well done, and eventually – disturbingly – those remaining can see land but can't get to it. Despite loose characterizations and an uneven narrative in need of taut focus – again all the negatives in low budget horror appear due to one writer/director wearing too many hats – overall this is well filmed with several quality sequences featuring fine scenery and practical shark work perfect for a late night scarefest.

Split – Suspicious rear view mirrors and distorted camera angles turn pity party invites into parking lot abductions for this 2016 multi personality thriller from director M. Night Shyamalan starring James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class) and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch). Subtle dolly zooms and sideways panning emphasize the bolted doors, dark basement, and huddled girls amid their captor's sinister calculations and ominous childhood flashbacks. Can three girls defend themselves against one violent man? Two gang up on the third, pressuring her to take action as scary switches from one personality to the next are subtle and well done amid local CBS Philly news reports, King of Prussia Mall insults, and distinct city skylines. However it's a mistake to cut away from the dungeon suspense so soon – especially for a foolish psychologist falling for the abductor personality's pretending to be his calm fashion designer persona. Product placement Skype conferences debate multiple personality disorders as a trauma in need versus a new brain chemistry gift, interfering with the tense internal layers we're already seeing. Rather than the Hooters eating Security Guard M. Night's exposition, the reveal should be with the audience as the girls peer through the keyhole and hear both male and female voices. Styling, accent changes, and stuttering show the killer versus child personalities, and the captives speculate on what is crazy or ruse though details from each persona. Location hints, hidden ducts, and underground tunnels lead to possible escapes as the victims are separated thanks to foolhardy attacks and mean girls still being selfish – expanding the cat and mouse between the abductees and a captor who is a prisoner himself. Once the warped situation is established, then the audience can appreciate when he departs for a psychologist session stroking the current dominant, gloating personality's vanity. He deflects on the history of abuse and the cause for this latest psychotic break, resenting his weak host as the kinder personalities blur our sympathies. The female personality of our male abductor, disturbingly enough, may be the most unstable, yet these rogue personas insist another “Beast” alter is coming. One persona needs glasses, another is diabetic – can multiple personalities create mind over matter physiological traits? Videos of all the personalities become an inner monologue paralleling the eerie train station wait for this new evil to manifest its super human abilities and sub human behaviors. Past and present revelations double the uncomfortably frightening suggestion that purity breaking pain awakens the strength and instinct needed to achieve greatness, and certain disturbing subject matter will be tough for some audiences. Though mostly realistic horror and psychological drama, there's a reason things progress into the fantastic with an overlong, somewhat flat ending. Such surprise Shyamalan connections both need viewers to go in cold and appreciate the payoff being held back for sequel winks, perhaps leaving this with reduced repeat value unless you marathon it with Unbreakable. Fortunately, the nuanced performances and no twist just twisted horror meets fantastic does make for some entertaining psychoanalysis.

Two to Skip

A Cure for Wellness – A corner office climber must retrieve his unstable boss from a spa in Switzerland so the company crimes can be pinned on him in this overlong two and a half hour 2017 twister starring Jason Isaacs (Awake) and Harry Groener (Buffy). The bitter work obsessed opening, haunting skyscrapers, and ominous hand written letter describing the darkness of superiority and sickness of men with wealthy people and their wealthy problems are ruined early by tiring product placement and laughable horror clichés. Our unlikable lead is also a wannabe edgy, Shutter Island DiCaprio interfering with the on location castles, mountain vistas, and ruthless baron history complete with blasphemy, incest, and townsfolk with torches. Distorted angles, askew pans, assorted reflections, and upside down inside out views add to the unnatural greenery of this apparent oasis in the middle of a dark cloud. White robes, bright rooms, aqua aerobics, and happy rich people throwing their money at the latest health fad contrast the dark tunnels, taxidermy, and well filmed car accidents despite momentarily confusing flashes amid the forward moving violence. Incidental old folks nudity at the spa increases the discomfort of the eerie steam, maze like hallways, and hazy series of doors, creating ambiguous atmosphere that may be surreal mind, warped structure, or Hotel California influence. Creepy girls by the fountain, bathhouse altars, and whispers of special case patients build to specimens in jars, skin graphs, and creepy urine samples. Body shocks, elevators, dehydrated corpses, and hydraulic assembly lines stir viewer suspense while shadows of what else may be in the tank loom and the smiling staff enjoy a little suspect saucy. Exam chairs, buzzing dental drills, vintage file folders, period lockets, relics of the baron's obsession to cure his sickly family – there are a lot of cool spooky things happening here. Unfortunately, unnecessary flashbacks, Robocop dolls, ridiculous animal gore, and the repeated insistence that something's in the water like it's all just a bad joke take the audience out of the dark atmosphere. Giant eels in the toilet frights are lost in scenes that serve no purpose, and the so-called mystery being given away all along contributes to the increasingly downhill lag. German speakers having cryptic conversations – in English for the underestimated, uninvested viewer's benefit – break the protagonist's point of view as more tunnels, hidden chambers, and early medical equipment expedite the watching fatigue well before the two hour mark or the coincidental timing in the final act. Public declarations, shoving the breakables off the desk, research montage reveals, menstruation and red lipstick a la Little Red Riding Hood, shovels to the face, fiery knockouts, nonsensical villain tell alls, and a Phantom of the Opera-esque lair borrow much too much before yet more tacked on candle light cults and child bride nasty. I hung on for this? o_O

Red Lights – This 2012 tale stars Cillian Murphy (Peaky Blinders), Sigourney Weaver (Aliens), Robert De Niro (Goodfellas), Toby Jones (Berberian Sound Studio), Joely Richardson (Lady Chatterley), and Elizabeth Olsen (I Saw the Light). However, the drive to the horrors, rattling séance, family in fear screams, and early jump shocks are just a lengthy opening before longer credits, jet setting introductions, and debunking seminar restarts. These physicists don't think all paranormal cases are frauds, but they haven't witnessed any miraculous proof against logical controls. Cute coeds, slight of hand platitudes, Occam's Razor – each scene repeats who they are and what they do without saying what university they represent or why authorities call them to expose these supernatural frauds. Editing creates suspense rather than letting the viewer catch the hidden earpiece or audience plant as news reports recount the fire and brimstone psychic selling comeback tour tickets and newspaper clippings on the laptop become the research montage. Weaver's doctor is brash, admonishing a telepathy card test due to the reflections in a doctor's glasses, but we never see her confront a real psychic challenge. The talk show debate better explains the parapsychology fails, seminar versus performance, and religion versus science while the behind the scenes meta television filming makes nicer statements than the shaky cams or booming music. Weaver and De Niro's rivals have personal history – he used the limbo of her vegetative son, adding doubt and emotional pain to her debunking crusade against his dramatic on stage healings. Unfortunately, this intriguing one on one of facts against faith and catching those who think they can get away with it is not the point of this picture, and the focus veers to Murphy's amateur exposé attempts and angry manpain complete with bizarre visions, unexplained electrical explosions, and characters who even say conversations with him are a waste of time. Although academic trials trying to set controls while testing paranormal phenomena, university video reels showing the experiments, and no scientific explanation for the bending spoons provide study for the viewer, there's no chill up the spine scary or awe inspiring wonder at the unexplained because the story completely changes what it started out as. Obnoxious final speeches waxing on man versus monsters, lines of salt, magnetism, and levitation are all over the place. Any commentary on the media, spectator sales, and money made off people who want to believe is lost thanks to the in the in your face protagonist, uneven plot focus, and the movie's failure to heed its own advice with falling flat deflections. If the simplest answer is the correct one, then why does it take an hour and a half to ask why the blind guy wears a watch?

05 June 2018

A Tudor Potluck

A Tudor Potluck
by Kristin Battestella

These miniseries, movies, and documentaries both modern and classic shine the light on Good Queen Bess and company – juicy details, scandals, beheadings, and all.

Elizabeth I – Helen Mirren (The Tempest), Jeremy Irons (High Rise), Toby Jones (Berberian Sound Studio), and Hugh Dancy (Hannibal) star in this acclaimed 2005 two-part HBO co-production. It's 1579 and the unmarried Bess is still without an heir despite the vulnerability of succession, religious strife, and courtiers disliking the overly familiar Earl of Leicester. A symbolic dressing down removes the bejeweled gowns and gilded facade in favor of stays and medical exams saying she's still capable of bearing children – because marriage is for heirs only according to her chancellors. Affectionate bedside chats let the viewer in with the woman behind the throne as she remains outwardly bemused and unfettered by the marital talk but inwardly bored with her council questioning when she is allowed to think or feel anything for herself. Chamberlains are aware of the coming and goings between the bedroom back stairs, and the men look the right mature with swords, capes, and plumes. Despite assassination attempts, dungeons, the rack, and slightly small sets; the golds, rich reds, detailed woodwork, candles, lovely window light, and bright courtyards create an intimate warmth. The camera flows with the movements from room to room – crossing the fine line between private woman and public chambers. Jealous Bess can't marry the earl she wants, courtiers go behind her back, and there are few people to trust amid awkward French courtships, boat rides, and disguises. Of course certain elements are familiar to the well versed Tudor audience, yet the made under Mirren shines with Elizabeth's impressive personality, dancing charm, and lovable infectiousness. It's ironic, however, that everyone says she is so beautiful in obvious flattery, and The Queen is rightfully annoyed when one and all push against her happiness – doubling her heartbreak after falling through proposals. Leicester thinks too highly of his position, yet she will not suffer fools no matter how disappointed. Elizabeth chops off the hand of a writer for his protesting pamphlet, and her chancellors prefer that made of stone rule who does what they tell her, caring not whether she wants a child or to be loved. Surprise meetings with Mary of Scots provide great woman to woman conversation, for only these two ladies can completely understand such an impasse before Dutch aide, conspiracy letters, and executions. After all, women can't be the gentle sex because they know more cruelty. Brutal flayings, quartering alive, and Latin prayers create intensity, however this drama relies less on the lavishness of other melodramatic productions and more on the politics of words and intrigue in the interplay. The first hour alone is dense, award worthy television taking the crown deeper with humility, personal frank, and religious war often spoken in same breath. There's a delicate balance between letting privy men influence her and showing them who's anointed queen. Bess honors the army for their love and sacrifice rather than courage as a king would, but she rises to the armada occasion with famous speeches as the off camera battle sharpens the personal poignant. By 1589, Elizabeth has a slightly pathetic crush on the Earl of Essex, and her elder pure white make up contrasts the womanly undressing that started Part 1. Mirrors are banished and jousts are more about courtiers and spectators whispering on who's in The Queen's favor. Bess watches the men spar, dresses a leg wound, and has some symbolic ankle saucy – she knows its foolish to be desired when she can't show her love. The Queen won't stay in the bedroom but goes to her council where she can whip the men into shape with her leadership. She's not afraid to lash out and show her anger but does threaten the witnesses to her outrage with death. Can one enjoy her royal company or is it all using each other for more influence? Rumors of poison, finger pointing accusations, and false evidence help the not so suave Essex move above his station. New love triangles, deaths, and secret meetings with James VI accelerate Irish discord, divided opinions, and would be rebellions – but it's nothing an arrest or graphic beheading can't fix. While this series doesn't feature all her favorites or serve as a total later reign biography, the focus on such two related loves shows how Bess may have bent from time to time but never totally yields. The Queen goes from romantic tears to Royal We, placing public devotion over self with surreal color and camerawork combining for a graceful denouement.

Henry VII: The Winter King – Author Thomas Penn hosts this 2013 documentary hour chronicling the somewhat obscure – compared to the Richard III infamy before and head rolling Henry VIII after – but no less ruthless, paranoid, dark, and oppressive reign of Henry VII. From the 1485 Millford Haven landing to gaining support for an unlikely victory at Bosworth Field, onscreen text dates and places the previous Wars of the Roses with the Earl of Richmond's precarious claim to the throne through illegitimate Beauforts and a strategic marriage to Elizabeth of York. On location Bosworth prayers, Westminster Abbey art, Hampton Court comparisons, and Parliament archives detail the coronation and dynastic struggles through medieval scrolls, period paintings, music texts, and genealogical rolls. Henry feared he'd loose the crown the way he got it, but shrewd legislation and assuring his lineage help quell any rebellions and eliminate rivals to the throne. Visits to the Medieval Coin Collection at the British Museum present vintage gold pieces stamped with the Tudor rose – despite extensive architecture projects and increasing wealth, Henry used spies to root out corrupt chamberlains and previous allies bankrolling York revivals. The king himself was vigilant with his own financial books and privy accounts, and surviving documents reveal standard payments for falcons from Hungary as well as rewards from some undercover espionage. By the turn of the century, there was little resistance to his tight, underhanded grip thanks to new engagements with Spain, however fatal family illnesses and Elizabeth's death in childbirth cause the distrustful Henry to retreat before cracking down with more building splendor, ruling with fear rather than love thanks to extortion fines and financial ruin making it too costly for anyone to usurp him. Henry's controversial Council Learned in the Law covertly circumvents any legalese with prison sentences, rigged juries, and intimated judges, but threats from Suffolk and dangerous jousts take a toll on his health. Period depictions show Henry VII's deathbed transition – which was kept secret for two days while courtiers cleaned up the regime's loose ends with trumped up executions of unlikable chancellors, allowing young seventeen year old Henry VIII to issue kinder reform. Henry VII's reign was a rocky but necessary road assuring a new English dynasty; his architectural achievements still stand, and this tour fittingly concludes at his grand mausoleum silently beside his tomb. Although the booming music and night time scenery plays at something sinister, the moody here remains scholarly before flashy, keeping this friendly for the classroom or the more learned Tudor audience.

A Stuart Bonus!

Mary Queen of Scots: The Red Queen – Scottish castles, ruinous abbeys, and highland scenery anchor this 2014 documentary on that other devout catholic Mary thorn in protestant Elizabeth's side. The narration admits the similar names are confusing, but the voiceover meanders with unnecessary time on Mary's parents James V and his french wife Mary of Guise amid Henry VIII marital turmoil, perilous successions, and religious switches. Opera arias interfere further as we stray into Mary Mary quite contrary rhymes, earlier Robert the Bruce connections, Tudor rivalries, French alliances, and the possible poisoning of infant Stuart sons before finally getting to Mary being crowned at nine months old in defiance of male inheritance laws. Rough Wooing tensions and early betrothal plans with Edward VI lead to isolation at Stirling Castle before a pleasant childhood at the French court, but a princess education and marriage to the Dauphin in 1558 ultimately send the young widow back to Scotland as regent in 1561. Catholic unrest always leaves Mary on unfriendly terms with Bess alongside John Knox reformations at home, misogynist rhetoric, and a nasty marriage to her first cousin Henry Stuart. The need for an heir, murdered lovers, adulterous pregnancies, revenge – loyal nobles take sides as the Catholic baptism of the future James VI divides public opinion. Men with syphilis, suspicious gunpowder accidents, marital traps, and final meetings with her year old son begat possible kidnappings, a new marriage to the Earl of Bothwell, revolts, imprisonment at Loch Leven, abdication, and rumors of stillborn twins with unknown fathers. It might have been interesting to see scholars contrasting bad girl Mary with her marriages and male interference versus Elizabeth The Virgin Queen rather than the all over the place narrative. Bess holds Mary captive in various English castles for eighteen years until religious coups, forged letters, an absentee trial, and the final treasonous Babington Plot. Mary goes out in style with symbolic red despite her botched beheading, with an ironic final resting place at Westminster Abbey beside Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I. This rambling hour confuses itself and repeats anecdotes in what should have been a tighter, more informative focus. However, such superficial storyteller basics can actually be a good classroom compliment with additional materials.

But A Surprising Skip

Young Bess – Charles Laughton (reprising his role from The Private life of Henry VIII), Deborah Kerr (From Here to Eternity), and Stewart Granger (Caesar and Cleopatra) join the eponymous Jean Simmons (Guys and Dolls) for this romanticized 1953 tale featuring pomp scoring, medieval title cards, fine castle interiors, Tudor hoods, colorful frocks, royal feasts, and bitter beheadings. Unfortunately, annoying, over the top support recounts the already familiar Anne Boleyn exit and repeated new wife introductions in an out of place Mother Goose style narration. The bemusing, petulant little girl whimsy is at odds with the serious chopping block drama, and the defiant teen Bess rolls over once Thomas Seymour sweeps in to subdue her. Now, not only was the older Granger married to the supple Simmons, but he also had an affair with Kerr – who plays his wife onscreen. History would also describe Thomas Seymour's relationship with the young Elizabeth as not exactly healthy to say the least, and it's uncomfortably odd to see such a great, shrewd queen reduced to a stubborn, moon-eyed princess. Can you imagine the uproar today if a historic abusive relationship was depicted as a romance orchestrated by the victim? o_O Bess makes her stepfather jealous of her Danish marriage proposals by kissing Barnaby the whipping boy before getting slapped by her Admiral Uncle Dad Tom, which she loves! Soft glow cameras on the ladies are likewise so fuzzy that the picture looks blurry to HD accustomed eyes. The sets are small, outdoor scenes and matte shots are obvious fakery, brief naval scenes and hokey armor are almost humorous, and the villainous Lord Protector is apparent thanks to his greasy mustache. Henry's larger than life whims and death bed sincere make up for the slow start and the bright, colorful dance scene is the best part of the film – yet for something supposedly about Bess, the focus strays with arguing councilors and ambitious relations. An entire segment is narrated by the typically mid century little brother King Edward, transitioning from his intended as humorous wish that his uncle would “D-Y-E” to inquests and solemn betrayals. Meandering character motivations add to the inaccuracies, the behind the scenes relationships muddle with what's onscreen, and the of its time artistic license feels embarrassing to the well versed Tudor viewer. Simmons gives a lovely performance, and audiences who love classic melodrama can enjoy this. However, it's tough to suspense belief with this kind of blind fiction.