24 November 2019

Dead Ringer

Dead Ringer is a Juicy Twofer from the One Bette Davis
by Kristin Battestella

Bette Davis stars in the 1964 thriller Dead Ringer as twins one high and one low – leading to an intricate scheme of scandals, affairs, secrets, blackmail, and murder...

Based on an earlier Mexican picture, actor turned director Paul Henried (Casablanca) and writer Oscar Millard (Angel Face) open Dead Ringer with frenetic, mood setting credits, cemeteries, Latin, funerals, and veils. The servants are surprised to see the reunited sisters are twins, and the catching up dialogue is laden with history – heather to remember wartime trysts in Scotland, one man between two women, and a shotgun marriage twenty years ago. Large rooms allow for a stage-like two-hander space while the camera can cut away to different angles mirroring each sister's facade as the sordid shade and one on one conversations escalate. Looming portraits of the deceased man provide sadness over what could have been and our jilted twin can't let go – leading to angry phone calls, threats, and purse revolvers. A change of clothes and the right haircut make our disparate twins look quite alike until choice zooms and tense up close shots reveal the difference. In spite of some camp – Bette is getting rough with herself, after all, and we know it – viewers are already invested in Dead Ringer by time the checkbooks are slapped from one's hand and sisters are shoving each other into action. Both performances are so good, and ambient music from the bar below covers the back and forth shouting. Drum beats countdown as the note is shown while the gun is drawn, using shrewd editing to not show shocking shots and familial violence even though we are appalled all the same by the sibling twists. The desperate, eponymous ruse takes up the first half hour of the film with suicide notes and weapons wiped clean. Today's audience, however, will notice slip ups, smoking mistakes, and flaws in the not so thought through plan. Can she pull this off or will the family dog and awkward moments with the servants give away the difference? What's her usual drink or the combination to the safe? Violent revelations and hocking jewels lead to arsenic, heart attacks, and maulings. Who exactly did what and when, who will face justice or get away with it, and what was it all for anyway? Police questioning creates tense moments amid covering tracks, entertaining the elite, and estate papers needing signatures that may not match the handwriting documented on that all important passport.

Who's a better match for Bette Davis (All About Eve) than Bette Davis (Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte)? Wealthy Margaret DeLorca hates climbing her grand stairs and doesn't like the way she looks in black, but her late husband was rich and she offers her frumpy, chain smoking sister Edith Phillips her cast off couture – it will be out of style by time she's officially out of mourning. Margaret is sleek, getting massages while on the phone and unbothered by Mr. DeLorca's passing, which Edith resents since she loved him first, accusing her sister of never caring about him before refusing Margaret's proposed money and trips. Margaret claims to love her sister and insists the man between them was no big deal while Edith still regrets her snobby need to take whatever was hers and how Margaret ruined both their lives. She kept up with The DeLorcas over the decades via the social columns, but Margaret didn't know they lived in the same city until Edith arrived on a bus for the funeral. Their lavish life, however, wasn't all it seemed, and eventually Margaret tries to bribe Edith but she can't forgive her sister for any amount despite being behind on the rent and facing eviction from the meager one room apartment above her cocktail lounge. However, Edith likes the way she looks in her sister's stole and smiles at her own reflection more when she coifs her hair just like her sister's. Knowing how she was tricked out of the charmed life on top of losing what little she has now is apparently too much for Edith, and although she momentarily feels bad about switching tender mementos, she goes through with it anyway. Blunders at society receptions, apologizing, or forgetting the rosary can be dismissed as distraught – Edith didn't get to be the wife but finds a certain solace in living with the bittersweet memory of what she wanted. The audience almost feels sorry for her pathetic state. We want Edith to get away with it and worry over every slip up even as she gains confidence in the role, speaking frankly about marriage and all the things that made her unhappy. She's ready to forget who her sister was despite ironic codicils in her lost love's will. Sadly, the deaths and bodies exhumed get out of hand, and ultimately, Edith plays her part too well.

Honest policeman Karl Malden (I Confess) brings Edith a humble watch for her birthday, and Jim Hobbson is is ready to retire, buy a farm, and giver her the best. It could be a nice little relationship, but she's hung up on the past and he can tell something's wrong. Jim's angry at Edith's death and blames himself, intruding on “Margaret” with investigations and memories she's trying to forget. Unfortunately, Margaret's jealous playboy lover and would be golf pro Peter Lawford (Little Women) also throws a wrench into all Edith's plans. Upon returning from an island holiday, Tony Collins puts two and two together now that “Margaret” doesn't like his pillow talk – leading to some campy surprises, threats, and blackmail. Glamorous brooches, jewels, and pearls fill the void in his $700 a month love nest, and hey, $3,000 a month allowance in 1964 would be over $24,000 today! Vintage L.A. views and classic cars set the ritzy mood alongside furs, hats, gloves, and tea sets. The cocktail lounge is dark with low ceilings compared to the lavish estate with mirrors and giant bedrooms bigger than the poorer relation's entire apartment. Classy accents, nibs, and silver add sophistication even as Dead Ringer scandalously shows the ladies in their slips – stripping down the deceased and removing the stockings after the unseen shot to the temple is confirmed with two drops of blood. Crescendos punctuate tense scenes or sadness as needed while the black and white gray-scale creates shadows and ambiguity. Double stand ins and split screens are probably obvious to today's special effects savvy audiences, however, the dual conversations are well done. Rear view mirrors and camera angles also placing others in the ensemble in visual trickery likewise play up the duality as cigarette form and lingering smoke punctuate up close shots. On the 4K television Dead Ringer looks quite crisp, and the DVD includes a retrospective with Hollywood author Boze Hadleigh in addition to commentaries and vintage behind the scenes tours.

There are similar stories to Dead Ringer – including an Ann Jillian remake and the recent series Ringer – that may make the twin twists common for modern audiences. This isn't horror per se, either, yet there are certainly disturbing moments thanks to the sibling violence and dead doppelgangers. Despite a few plot holes, obvious crimes, and an unclear passage of time, the turnabout drama in Dead Ringer is juicy to the end. Every scene is packed with layers and discourse thanks to another tour de force Davis performance worth seeing at least twice, naturally.

21 November 2019

Serious Documentaries

Serious Documentaries and Topics
by Kristin Battestella

These sophisticated, philosophical, and historical series and documentaries aren't for younger audiences per se or casual viewing chill, yet they provide plenty of emotion, analysis, and food for thought for inquisitive viewers.

9/10:The Final Hours – Like millions of others near and far, I saw the terrible terrorist events live on September 11, 2001 and like many I'm sure, I have expressly avoided watching films, documentaries, anniversaries programs, and shows that have returned to that fateful footage. I know it's almost twenty years on, but for me it's still just too soon. Every day at least twice a day there is a chance I'll stop and think about that day again if I happen to see the clock strike a somber 9:11. So I surprised myself when up sick at two a.m. one night I found myself pressing play on this 2014 National Geographic two hour special. Deep down I know I did so for one reason: I don't remember what life was like before 9/11 anymore. Relatable, tender interviews with staff from the Window on the World restaurant once at the top of the World Trade Center, business associates from Canter Fitzgerald tenants, network news anchors, politicians, New York artists, and more eyewitnesses recreate the normalcy of life then before twenty-four hours news tickers when Chandra Levy was the big story. Still photographs and raw camera footage set off the onscreen text while the slow, measured pace counts down that innocuous but stormy and eerie Monday framing the business meetings, family dinners, and memories of living and working on top of the world before the subsequent sunny morning begat billows of smoke and fire. They cried, I cried, anyone who sees this will cry, and I'm sorry I didn't take many review notes but the narrative speaks for itself. Rather than being a sensationalized conspiracy account or an action packed fictional re-creation, this documentary remains a cathartic viewing experience in which audiences can share – whether you are old enough to recall when we did live in a different world all those years ago or not.

Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy – This twenty-four episode lecture from the Great Courses Series uses popular science fiction films, fiction, and shows for fresh perspectives on contemporary philosophy. From Inception defining music and art to The Matrix and knowledge versus free will, ignorance is bliss and the moral consequences of Philip K. Dick and The Adjustment Bureau debate fate and the appearance of choice. Carl Sagan's science and Plato's religion meet at predestination as the irrationality of conspiracy theories and UFOs are discussed honestly without mocking the viewer thanks to Star Wars and 2001. There are exceptions to every rule with time travel, Quantum Leap, wormholes, parallel universes, and Sliders. Memories and personal identity can be twisted like The Prestige, and self awareness, clones, and minds versus machines are debated alongside John Locke, artificial intelligence, and who or what has a soul in Westworld. Predictions of the future and Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics paved the way for today's A.I. as well as our fear of robots overlords a a la Skynet and Battlestar Galactica. Blade Runner and Black Mirror parallels question cyborgs, living in a computer simulation, George Orwell, and the social influence on the self. Why do we want to be perceived a certain way rather than as we really are when knowledge should outweigh the opinion of the masses at our fingertips? People voluntarily give up privacy by consenting to overshare – mirroring the slave and master morality of Nietzche, gaslighting, and Palpatine. Is the Rebellion really just scheming terrorists against a lawfully elected official, and yes, what about those innocent independent contractors working on The Death Star? Democracy and government are better than anarchy, war, violence, The Dark Side, and fascism, and the too close to home satire of Starship Troopers leads to gung-ho pro-militarism and actions causing what we sought to prevent. Despite the Prime Directive to not interfere, our superior Captain Kirk plays fast and loose on which savage societies need his godly intervention – and the unintended consequences. It may not be easy to watch all the referenced programs in between the episodes here, however the tent pole SF provides enough information alongside historical quotes and lesser known parallels. I confess, model props of the Liberator and commentary on rebellion versus politics with my absolute favorite show Blake's 7 makes Professor David Kyle Johnson of King's College my new BFF. While not political outright, this pop culture meets genre philosophy is extremely timely as a mirror to nature on why people are saying and behaving as they are in our current administration. Fortunately, viewers can pick and choose episodes or topics for the classroom or per interest, as the analysis here is fascinating and friendly without being over the top or pretentious.

Ancient Civilizations of North America, Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed, and Lost Worlds of South America – These three twenty-four episode lecture series from the Great Course Signature Collection educate one and all on everything you ever wanted to know about the ancient Americas – from Olmecs, Pueblos, Inca, Maya, and Mississippi Mound builders to astronomy, mathematics, intercontinental trade routes, architecture, and archaeological evidence beyond the famous long count calendar. Professor Edwin Barnhart of the Maya Exploration Center explains complex mythologies, artwork, rituals, timelines, and maps without talking down to audience, breaking down each culture's agriculture, hierarchies, and sports with graphics, onscreen notations, photos, and even on location experiences. Doctor Barnhart doesn't shy away from what is known or unknown – sharing all sides of the questions, controversies, and his own theories when disagreeing with established archaeology. New discoveries change the accepted but not necessarily accurate dating methods, and it's important to ask why ancient civilizations did what they did and how do we know for sure? Tender and taboo subject matters such as slavery, war, disease, massacres, and tragedies are handled with honesty and respect alongside a pronounced effort to use proper Mesoamerican and First Nation terminology. The history and science here help dispel lingering myths from the Anasazi to Machu Picchu and banishes the notion that all these cultures are gone – because their descendants are still here with plenty of haplogroup proof. Trade routes and material evidence reveal a fascinating bigger picture with items from South America going to Mesoamerica before trading with the American South West in more cross continental contact then we thought was possible several thousand years ago. Even as an adult far removed from long term academia, I found these series captivating and informative thanks to the chronological format with room for spotlight lectures and provocative possibilities. Just because there's an absence of evidence doesn't mean it wasn't there. These lectures are great for a learned scholar digging deeper or the younger classroom looking for a supplemental focus. This is an informative and entertaining trilogy both easy to marathon because you want to learn more but also super pause worthy as you're inspired to look up the resources and read more.

A Lighthearted Alternative

All About Cats – This two hour documentary found under numerous titles seems to be a composite block consisting of Joanna Lumley's (Absolutely Fabulous) intimate Catwoman special tossed together with an older, more generic piece on feline science. Despite the inexplicable juxtaposition in tone, jumpy camerawork, uneven on location sound, and a meandering rather than chronological pace, the peculiar personality here is evident thanks to our beloved but revered and feared four legged friends. From past worship in Thebes and adoration in Ancient Mexico to black cat superstitions and burning festivals – feline goddesses, shape shifting mythology, and divisive cat attitudes are explored. Artifacts in Cairo, Great Pyramid tours, and Maya Temples tie human history into the cat narrative before jaguar legends and a night time jungle quest to see the elusive big cats. Whimsical music matches the modern cat shows, contemporary bling, and Chicago cat circus alongside detailed but no less fun anatomy, x-rays, and jumping analysis. Primarily used for hunting and pest control over the centuries, one often wonders why such solitary predators ever moved in to this relatively recent, unneeded partnership with people in the first place. Cats may do tricks, rings bells, or catch balls if the reward suits them, however, the spoiled rotten often choose not to do so. Fortunately amid our pet cams and fur salons, cats can be trained for programs with disabled children or as therapy animals. The comforting, purring, and soft predator sitting in your lap has been proven to lower blood pressure, and new technologies let us experience cat senses such as unique whisker sensitivity and vision that's six times more sensitive to light than humans. This isn't all fluff though – serious questions on the rights and wrongs of modern breeding, cat varieties, crossbred mutations, and declawing methods are also presented alongside the pros and cons of captivity, forest preserve tours, and a look inside Tippi Hedron's (The Birds) big cat refuge with lions, ligers, and leopards rescued from questionable black market trading, cat hoarding, and more human irresponsibility. Up close, hands on big cat conservation work with cheetahs in Namibia and playing with six week old kittens reiterate how similar but different wild versus domestic cats are – and how it is a privilege to associate with both. Unusual presentation hodgepodge aside, these documentaries are tender, respectful, informative, and friendly for the whole family.

More Great Courses programs I and my family have watched but was too caught up in enjoying the subject and researching alongside the viewing to take proper review notes yet indubitably recommend include:

Big History of Civilizations
The Celtic World
Cities of the Ancient World
Introduction to Botany
Medical School for Everyone
Remarkable Science of Ancient Astronomy

19 November 2019

An Ella Fitzgerald Quartet

An Ella Fitzgerarld Quartet
by Kristin Battestella

These four albums of standards and essentials combine to be the perfect primer for new jazz fans and longtime Lady Ella lovers.

The Best of Ella Fitzgerald – This 2016 twenty-four track version doesn't appear to be available as an Amazon download any longer, and it's a pity to delay the instant gratification of this seventy plus minute set of mostly early Ella hits opening with swinging pleas of “Baby Won't You Please Come Home” and the happy go lucky, literally bubble gum good times in “Chew Chew Chew” before the toe tapping torch of “Crying My Heart Out Over You” that's somehow as catchy as it is lonely. “Five O'clock Whistle” is a bemusing diddy alongside the breezy groove of “Holiday in Harlem,” which has some seemingly cheeky lyrics to match the diamond in the rough subject of “I Got a Guy.” “I Got It Bad (and that Ain't Good)” is hot damn and yes please alongside the wistful “If Dreams Come True” and surprisingly lighthearted “I'll Chase away the Blues” and the pleasing simplicity and harmonies of “It's Only a Paper Moon.” The charming piano and pace of “Little White Lies” belies the melancholy lyrics – fittingly disguising the serious with happiness before the mature but no less jazzy and juicy winks in “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” “My Last Affair” offers swanky confessions and brass rhythms in addition to the nightclub and cigarettes slinky mood of “My Man.” “Organ Grinder's Swing” returns to the more fun cheek to cheek dance worthy scat before a different kind of wink in “Rock It for Me.” Sweet instrumentals open “Shine” although today's audiences may be confused by the inappropriate lyrics of the era, and “Sing Song Swing” likewise has some racist iffy. The lazy love of “Stairway to the Stars” is much better alongside the tasty “Sugar Blues.” “Three Little Words” is another toe tapping catchy before the mellow, melancholy doubts of “Time Alone Will Tell.” “A Tisket A Tasket” is a famed, Ella penned nostalgic delight and “Undecided” provides upbeat back and forth swing to tie everything in an effortless bow. I'm not sure if the tracks here are really alphabetical or if the media player ordered the double numbers that way, but this session's so good I don't even care.

Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Jerome Kern Song Book – Newer listeners don't need to understand the mid century songbook trend or even be a die hard Kern, Hammerstein, and show tunes fan to delight in these twelve tracks fittingly opening with the swanky newfound romance of “Let's Begin.” The toe tapping footsie continues for “A Fine Romance” as slightly comical comparison lyrics add saucy foods to the effortless whoopee. “All the Things You Are” provides brass and big notes despite a more mellow mood, and “I'll Be Hard to Handle” starts off smooth before escalating into a big, breezy ode. The charming catchy in “You Couldn't Be Cuter” has that pre-war innocence before the back and forth juicy, pre-code winks of “She Didn't Say 'Yes'.” “I'm Old Fashioned” oozes more cheek to cheek coy as the tender strings of “Remind Me” stay somber and sweet. The relatively chronological session goes award worthy big in the latter half with a simply too die for “The Way You Look Tonight” that apologetically takes its gosh darn time. “Yesterdays” continues the swift musical suave, and Show Boat makes its long, blue notes known in “Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man.” “Why Was I Born?” may seem like an odd exit after the bigger tunes, but the mellow encore puts the session to bed perfectly with a lights out and good night mood. Although a few more well known tunes in the Kern catalog are absent – I'm off to Google Ella singing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” because yes please – this 1963 Nelson Riddle produced forty-two minutes remains quick and sublime for dinner or dancing.

The Jazz Biography – This 2009 compilation hour consists of twenty tracks starting with every oldster's catchy, rhyming Ella favorite “A Tisket A Tasket” before repeating “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” “Undecided,” “Little White Lies,” “I Got it Bad (and that Ain't Good),” and “My Man.” Fortunately, “Air Mail Special” provides the quintessential definition of scatting while “Angel Eyes” offers a different master class in mood, mellow, and brood. Different sources for the recordings here are apparent in the sound, but I don't care if it means I can hear Ella sing the definitive “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon” alongside the weary lovelorn “Black Coffee” blues. “Dream a Little Dream” is simply sublime thanks to a bonus appearance by Louis Armstrong, and the sunset and brass likewise combine for “In the Evening When the Sun Comes Down” before the jolly promises of “I Want to Be Happy” provide a dancing interlude. The tender “Saving Myself for You” lets Ella's effortless vocals shine while “Preview” delivers more scat goodness and “Gotta A Pebble in My Shoe” recalls more lighthearted innocence on top of the all scat high notes of “Rough Ridin'.” “Strictly from Dixie” adds southern charm with magnolia talk and julep drinks, but the organ, vocals, and clapping of “Smooth Sailing” take on a carefree gospel remixed feeling as “Gulf Coast Blues” sends this unforgettable mix of essential Ella and bringing down the house standards out on a ritzy high note.

The Very Best of the Cole Porter Songbook This 2007 CD reissue is not the same as the much lauded Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book – which is a superb 1956 double LP until itself – but rather a condensed forty-three minute set list that whets the appetite with the ritzy innuendo of “Just One of Those Things” before getting its Anything Goes on with the questionable lyrics and beside the piano casual sway of “I Get a Kick Out of You.” “Night and Day” is unique but comfortably familiar thanks to likewise Sinatra swanky, but “(You'd Be So) Easy to Love” is a bittersweet candlelight plea compared to the lovelorn lyrics yet upbeat and jazzy “What is this Thing Called Love.” “In the Still of the Night” is not the doo wop essential of the same name but a breezy ode nonetheless with a touch of exotic drums to match the forbidden winks. Unlike Frank or Frankie Valli's versions, “I've Got You Under My Skin” remains an effortless, sing a long catchy without any further embellishments needed to contrast the soft and sweet torch of “I Concentrate on You.” One wants to get up and cut a rug thanks to the sway in “Begin the Beguine,” but the slightly seedy, moody, and juicy lyrics for “Love for Sale” create a shut up and take my money burlesque listen. The tempting two-timing of “It's All Right with Me” is a jolly reversal, and in spite of Porter's somewhat silly lyrical pairs, Ella's “Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)” is a maturely paced and sophisticated night cap invitation with after hours pillow talk. Truly, the only downside of this must have session is that it leaves your ears wanting more – like the rest of the original record.

For more, revisit our Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas and Ella Fitzgerald's Christmas holiday reviews.

15 November 2019

Shows I Didn't Finish. Again.

More Shows I Couldn't Finish, Again.
by Kristin Battestella

Once more I've found myself in a rut trying to find new and recent genre shows to watch – resulting in my being terribly disappointed at the tune out worthy trio here.

The Last Ship – Producer Michael Bay (The Rock or go home) wastes no time with snowmobile action and helicopter shootouts to open this 2014 TNT debut. Point of view missile fire and snow splashing the camera ramp up the pace, and it already seems like the first episode goes through an entire season's worth of possibilities thanks to ship introductions, scientists versus soldiers, arctic mysteries, pandemic discoveries, and Russian enemies. Couples hook up, governments collapse, secrets are revealed, and nuclear consequences all happen at lightning speed as our eponymous ship loses communications than receives late orders to refuel in France, port in North Carolina, redirect to Florida, and travel to Guantanamo Bay. They raid an Italian cruise ship for supplies, too, and a black guy we just met gets exposed and dies while doctors work on a vaccine – and yes, all of this is in the first forty-three minute episode! Despite sad pre-recorded messages from home and crew arguments about staying onboard or taking chances on land, there's no drama because everything must hurry, hurry, hurry. It's too ironic when the saboteur tells the sleepless doctor this is a marathon not a sprint as the burials at sea, prayer vigils, mutated strains, and whispers of artificial engineering are steamrolled through in favor of painfully slow, procedural, and generic supply stops. However, I almost don't mind the detailed canvasing when the chance to have conversations provides better disagreements, tension, and situations. The series may have been better off starting in media res if the initial disaster, bitter blood, and isolated ship survival was going to be dismissed so quickly – then going back to the crisis would have had more weight. Unfortunately, the editing remains abrupt with disjointed fade ins and explosions. Maybe the hectic is meant to mirror the action intensity, but together it's dizzying. Viewers aren't there in the action because we can't see anything so it's just overwhelming and numbing when the camera never stays still. Random action zooms and shaky cam in crowded quarters don't define characters. Series leads Eric Dane (Grey's Anatomy) and Adam Baldwin (Oh my gosh does anybody else remember The Cape? I loved that show!) are too much alike to endear the audience in rooting for their back and forth, and the antagonism towards scientist Rhona Mitra (Underworld: Rise of the Lycans) gets old fast before the medical aspect is dropped anyway. It is also tough to know who the doctors, white couple, Asian engineer, lesbian officer, chaplain, and the black guy who I think is the chief petty officer are beyond their stereotype, rank, or position because they aren't named amid the shouting communications and military slang – which will be confusing enough for audiences unfamiliar with naval terms. Half the story is blown by the second episode as more people come aboard, scientists depart, and naval officers end up promoted to land based duties glossing over the original catastrophic action for coastal power struggles. Fine emotional moments and bonding scenes are too few and far between rushed missions, pit stop shoot outs, and drug lords in the jungle like it's a reverse Gilligan's Island with all the off the ship guests of the week. Easily ready vaccines are apparently not as important as hostages, moles revealed, enemy face offs, captures, and land lubber action as the exceptional premise burns out so gosh darn fast with no time to breath amid the weekly network typical. We only stay on the ship for a little while rather than all the time? Well that just seems...misleading.

Salem – 1685 stocks, brandings, church bells, and cries for mercy open this 2014 thirteen episode debut before pregnancies, torches, forest rituals, hooting owls, and promises of power. By 1692 Salem is swept with witch fever as bodies hang and rhetoric warns the devil is in town. Screaming girls are tied down over claims that a hag is terrorizing them – and there is indeed an unseen succubus leaping upon the helpless. Preachers insist they must save their promised land from this insidious invisible hell as sermons and town hall meetings become one and the same. Suspect midwives, old witnesses, and secrets intensify the witch hunt debates as families recall the original English hysteria and proud witchfinder ancestry. Although arguments about a girl not being possessed just touched in the head and in need of a doctor seem recent, it's nice to see the reverse of typical exorcism stories where confounded doctors come before prayer interventions. Chants, contortions, and taxidermy lead to full moon dancing rituals, animal head masks, fiery circles, baby skull offerings, sacrifices, effigies, and entrails. Unfortunately, nobody notices witches talking openly in the town square nor minds a woman taking charge when she has no rights but through her husband. Ladies speaking out over their exploitation is far too contemporary – along with out of place comeback quips and jarring modern sarcasm. Instead of real tribe names, talk of savages and conflated French and Indian War references pepper speeches about saving the country when we weren't even one yet. Killing innocents goals and grand rites achievements are reduced to the coven wanting to get rid of the Puritans so Salem can be theirs even though they are already in power behind the scenes and getting on their forest sabbaths. The witches versus ministry conflict with some pretending to be the other is drama enough without Shane West's (Dracula 2000) millennial grandstanding compromising Janet Montgomery's (Merlin) Mary Sibley. Is this about the falsely accused, misunderstood, and lovelorn or the naked, ethereal witches taking the devil's power for their spellbound husbands and familiar frogs? Revealing the supernatural at work creates an uneven back and forth that goes directly against the witches' motivations. Stay in their point of view or play it straight on the devil or innocent and let the audience decide which side we're on – attempting both evil and romance is far too busy and binds in name only historical figures and potentially juicy characters with weak, pedestrian male trappings. Hypocrite ministers terrorize the congregation when not cowering at torturing witches or having sex at the Puritan brothel like this is Game of Thrones. After bamboozling Enterprise, I was already leery of creator Brannon Braga, and an old hat, run of the mill tone hampers the writing team. In addition to rotating directors, there are only a few women behind the scenes, and weird Marilyn Manson music provides a trying to be hip that's more CW than BBC. Wealthy lace and tavern drab visually divide our neighbors amid period woodwork, forges, and rustic chimneys while gothic arches and heavy beams add colonial mood. Churches and cemeteries contrast dark woods, glimpses of horned and hoofed figures, skeleton keys, and spooky lanterns however the blue gradient is too obviously modern. Pretty windows and lattice work are too polished, and clean streets give away the Louisiana set town rather than on location imbued. Superficial costuming is noticeably inaccurate, and once I saw a Victorian filigree necklace I got at Hot Topic, well, that was pretty much it for this show.

The Shannara Chronicles – Granted, it's been decades since I attempted the admittedly Lord of the Rings inspired but post-apocalyptic Terry Brooks books upon which this 2016 ten episode season is based. However, I don't remember them being so modern and kind of, well, stupid. Sweeping pans, poor CGI, and weird lighting set the pointy ears and dangerous gauntlets seeking the chosen one off on the wrong foot alongside firm abs and Hunger Games mood. Let's blindfold people running through the woods and be surprised when they slam into the trees! The ancient tale of demons versus elves seemingly gets the John Rhys-Davies exposition stamp of approval, but our elf princess dresses so skimpy compared to others fully clothed and at times everyone's just wearing jeans or crop tops and hanging around leftover machines as if these things would still survive thousands of years into the future. Mystical speak, phantom voice help, and subtitled gibberish languages become convenient any time something magic needs to happen as too many separate stories meander thanks to weak performances, bad death scenes, pretty teens, man pain, and confusing flash forwards. A fantasy in itself is enough without all the cynical distractions, sardonic frat boys, or hot heads trying to prove something, so the try hard hip for the MTV generation that no longer watches MTV is laughably ironic. The best scenes are adults discussing earlier wars and magical consequences, but those are interrupted for rock music, bathtub saucy, and naked waterfall spying like it's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Visions of wraiths, frozen dudes brought back to life, swords reforged, disbelief in evil returning – it looks like DeviantArt and feels like a derivative Skyrim video game with half elves leaving the shire to collect stones, avoid trolls, and train in magic arts. This is a distorted fax of a fax rifting on Thor: The Dark World's Lord of the Rings prologue via some watered down Game of Thrones glory and the seemingly awe inspiring panoramas are been there, done that. For that I can just watch Lord of the Rings or Life After People. ¯\_()_/¯

07 November 2019

Larger than Life Comfort Shows

Larger than Life Viewing Comforts
by Kristin Battestella

In times of trouble, let's turn to opulent decades of our twentieth century past for glamour, bikinis, and a cup of comforting soup. 


BaywatchI'll be ready...You know half the time you tuned in to this 1989-2001 beachfest just to watch the opening sequence, and you can tell exactly what season it is thanks to the red bathing suit clad stars, jet skis, surfing, and slow motion running. With an inexplicable 242 episodes, one can skip the First NBC season's killer sharks, ditch the terrible Hawaii makeovers, and forget the superfluous Nights spin off as well as forgo the more preposterous vacation disasters, jewel thieves, hostage situations, and repeated heavies. Thanks to riptides, earthquakes, mutant alligators, and sea monsters, however, we hang tight to the syndicated, buoyant Playmates saving the day against UFOs, an octopus, and evil eels. Garner's horse Kojak may poop on the beach, but the Gilligan's Island homage isn't actually as bad as it sounds. Giant tape recorders, cameras, mobile phones, and switchboards join product placements, AOL (lol), The Beach Boys, Geraldo, and more famous cameos as everybody who was anybody jogged on David Hasselhoff's shore – even The President. Although I dread the nineties music video style montages – seemingly as unnecessary as the belts on the thong leotards – they are time capsules of strobe film making and pristine American glory, the peak of our late twentieth century indulgence just like The Matrix said. It might have been easier to believe the earnest drama had this been a half hour show ditching the music moments for real talk on the abusive boyfriends, bulimia, and trailer park dreams, yet it's quite shrewd to use flashbacks and visuals as narrative, thus reducing conversational scenes for the weakest, sun kissed actors. A, B, and C plots are often disjointed with romance and assaults intercut together before coastal la di da jarring with off shore drilling and saving the day in as little clothing as possible. If you've seen one episode, you've seen them all – so it's more entertaining when there are no hip interludes, mermaids, or monster jellyfish in completely dramatic, tearful episodes and intense disaster two-parters. Underwater filming, boating perils, and turbulent rescues balance the sunsets, silhouettes, and windswept tendrils. It's not all pretty people, however, as gang youths have little options save for gun violence, departmental cutbacks bind first responders' hands, and going to the beach becomes one of the few vacations families having tough times can afford. Self-referential quips and Rescue Bay spoof within a spoof winks in the Middle Seasons peak before cut corners, repetitive action, increasingly bloated casting, and a believing one's own sexy hype in later years. Parental stories and family bonding tales wouldn't be so bad for young and old to enjoy watching together if it weren't for the spot the implants opportunities. Then again, the life guarding dangers and rescue action aren't meant to be taken too seriously thanks to eye candy, crop tops, and ever present nipples. Don't forget, you've got to reach out when you caught in the current of love...

Dynasty – The quintessential Bill Conti (North and South) opening score takes its splendorful time as do the whopping 220 episodes of this 1981-89 ABC benchmark. After a shorter, more straightforward dramatic and seventies breezy debut, the dead lovers and families on trial get juicy in Year Two with Joan Collins (The Devil within Her) joining John Forsythe (Bachelor Father) and Linda Evans (The Big Valley) for the luxury rides, giant phones, and ruffles galore. All the ladies wear lacy nightgowns and satin negligees showing ample decolletage – when not wearing those shoulder pads that make them look twice as wide. The hair, however, never moves. Strong statures and solid deliveries anchor the bitch slaps and scandals as not even plastic surgery recasts, car accidents, kidnappings, murder, and spin-offs can keep down these Denver tycoons. From quotes borrowed from “The Vote” in Big Business to cat fights in “The Threat” and the superbly shocking Moldavian Massacre, oil double crosses and women both catty and badass in the boardroom would soon define the eighties with excess and over the top opulence. Longer episodes have room for tense zooms and up close shots – letting the audience hold our breath in suspense instead of rushing to tweet after the fact. When binging now, however, it's tough to fathom the prime time breaks thanks to rapid soap opera timelines where one or two shows are months of pregnancy or weeks of temporary blindness. Somehow, it also never snows in this Colorado. While we can applaud the early gay plots, they are sadly terribly, terribly wrong. Outing homosexuals in the courtroom, literally straightening them out by marrying women, and instigating custody battles over gay love triangles never consider a guy could just be a fine bisexual parent. Here pregnant women marry their rapists alongside casual brushes with incest, toxic paint, and deathbed weddings. However it's the then talk of oil shortages, new energy technology, and politicians versus billionaires playing hardball for the future of our country that remain surprising. Onscreen they say it's naive to think the world is black and white, yet potential storylines, intriguing relationships, and villains made friendly are run into the ground while plots no one cares about linger. At times it's frustrating to rewatch while royalty and international intrigue amount to pedestrian aftermath. Seemingly important people unceremoniously disappear as characters are not allowed to be realistically multi faceted thanks to saccharin kids in peril and plots repeating themselves with the same couples, illegitimate questions, kidnapped babies, and evil congressmen. After peak storytelling in its early years, it's apparent the series goes on twice as long as it should have – left with a great ensemble and no idea what to do with them beyond terrible soap tropes. Fortunately, despite the increasingly annoying latter seasons, the final over the balcony railing cliffhanger fittingly completes the deliciously decadent nostalgia, and the best of the best catty remains infinitely scrumptious.

Seinfeld – From “These pretzels are making me thirsty.” to “No soup for you!” this quintessential, ahead of its time New York in the nineties time capsule has seeped into the cultural lexicon. Many have already praised this show about nothing that really says everything with its circumventing commentary on then taboo talk of sex, relationships, “The Sponge,” and homophobia, not that there's anything wrong with that. It's impossible to discuss every detail or little kick here – although some would agree that the stand up comedy book ends found in the early seasons are ironically flat. Our eponymous funny guy is the straight man who often can't keep a straight face thanks to puffy shirts, quirky neighbors, kissing hello, and more roundabout preposterous like wanting the dry cleaner to admit he made a mistake and wondering why Keith Hernandez didn't call. Extreme circumstances like the fake marine biologist saving a beached whale with a golf ball in its blow hole nonetheless leave room for Superman references, Bizarro World switches, old men in traction, latex selling Vandelay Industries, virgins, John John, and “The Contest.” Deserving comeuppance ruins “The Summer of George” but the simple genius of “The Chinese Restaurant” and “The Parking Garage” remain. While younger audiences may be tired of hearing about the timeless twists or find the quips old hat, every episode provides something relevant, balancing laugh at loud slapstick with winks, red dots, and The English Patient. In many ways, we've regressed from this between the lines analysis on prejudice and racism, but here the shrewd layers and character goofiness are intertwined in almost Dickensian happenstance thanks to everything from BBO and a fishy bed that smells like the East River to “The Pez Dispenser” on the knee at a piano recital and Festivus. Although many may argue the finale falters under the show's weight, the self-referential characters writing an internal show about nothing remains meta before meta was meta. Rather than getting full of itself, the neurotic scenarios are now nostalgic, long gone bemusements – video stores, waiting in line at the bank, the rolodex, who's first on the speed dial, answering machines, pay phones, difficulty in making copies, pocket organizers that won't stop beeping. Bleeped expletives are also ingeniously used, a bonus wink on censorship taken for granted amid today's ample crass opportunities. Now ironic Guiliani jokes and Neo Nazi rallies address who we really are but don't care to admit as our selfish and unable to handle the basics of living quartet are completely unaware of how snobbish and loathsome they really are. Mugging old ladies for the marble rye, skimping on a cheap wheelchair for a handicapped friend – it's not you, it's me, and yada, yada, yada. Like the healing power of “The Junior Mint,” there are numerous nuggets here to revisit and discover anew with every rewatch. 


For more soothing entertainment and viewing lists from decades of yore, revisit Comfort Food Shows and Comfort Shows – 60s Edition!