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High in production value, sadly it's also rather low on laughs, 20 May 2015

While I am not the biggest fan of the Herman and Katnip series, there are some very enjoyable entries(Herman the Catoonist and Of Mice and Magic being standouts) and they are at least watchable. Robin Rodenthood does deserve credit for trying to do something different, but it is really not one of the best of the series(though not among the worst either).

Where Robin Rodenthood excels is in the animation and especially the music. The animation is very beautifully drawn, with fluid, smooth movements, and is also lush and colourful. There were times around this period for Herman and Katnip and Famous Studios in general where low budget showed but it doesn't here. The music is what makes the cartoon, it is fantastic with plentiful energy, character and vibrant orchestration, it's not only so much fun to listen to but there is a real sense of foreboding, the theme song is very catchy too. And this is coming from a fan of Winston Sharples' work for the Herman and Katnip cartoons, even when the humour's not on par there's always so much life and soul in the music.

Robin Rodenthood deserves credit for its ambition and for its attempts to do something different with its satirical take on Robin Hood and giving Katnip more to say than usual, he even sings a song that sets up his characters very impressively as well. Structurally the story is formulaic and the action standard Herman and Katnip fare, but it is thankfully nowhere near as repetitive as other cartoons of theirs, with a lot of them reading of the same plot and dialogue over and over. Herman is amusing and Katnip has never been more menacing, their chemistry is also stronger than most of their other cartoons thanks to what is done with Katnip and Herman's defeating of Katnip is more convincing as a result of Katnip being a genuine threat rather than Herman defeating him for sport. The mice bring a poignancy to the story too, and the cartoon starts very strongly as a result of the mice's plight being affecting and Katnip's villainy. The voice work is very good.

On the other hand, what stops Robin Rodenthood from being better is that it is rather low on laughs. The dialogue, like most Herman and Katnip cartoons, is forgettable and the constant use of ye comes over as awkward. The humour is at best mildly amusing(Katnip being sliced in half being the most memorable) but it is never funny or hilarious, with the slow timing, predictability and that a lot of them are very cruel and mean-spirited for a Herman and Katnip cartoon hurt it quite badly. That the cartoon satirises the Robin Hood story is interesting and different, but it doesn't make the impact it should do because the satire just isn't sharp enough and neither is the pacing, which can be draggy.

In conclusion, Robin Rodenthood looks good and has fantastic music, as well as getting extra brownie points for trying to do something different, but it's let down by the lack of laughs and mean-spiritedness. 6/10 Bethany Cox

For a Private Snafu cartoon Three Brothers is pretty tame, but it's still very entertaining and its message comes across well, 20 May 2015

Three Brothers may not be one of the very best of the Private Snafu series like Spies and Booby Traps are, but it's in the better half and well worth tracking down. If a Private Snafu entertains while also getting its message across effectively it does its job well, Three Brothers does both well.

For Private Snafu, a series of cartoons that contained some material that was daring and ahead of its time (i.e. The Home Front for instance), it is pretty tame which some may feel on the bland side in comparison to others in the series. The pacing occasionally lacks crispness too and it's a touch routine story-wise.

However, the animation is very good indeed and holds up well. The characters move smoothly, the backgrounds show some meticulous detail without being simplistic or too complicated and the black and white is crisp. Carl Stalling was a remarkably consistent composer whose music always breathed life into any cartoon it appears in, the music in Three Brothers does nothing to change that. It's very vibrantly orchestrated and rhythmically it's very energetic and lively. A music score for a cartoon is even greater when it not only synchronises effectively with the action but also enhances that, the music does that brilliantly and in a way that only Stalling could do.

The cartoon is very funny and wittily written, no surprise seeing as Dr Seuss was at the writing helm, with sharp, playful dialogue that is enough to make one smile and well-timed visual gags. The story structurally is not the most exceptional, which is forgivable as the cartoon is very short even for a short film, but the charm and general energy is infectious, there is a great important message that is handled in a way that makes its point without feeling heavy-handed, and the characters carry Three Brothers beautifully. Snafu is still endearing regardless of how inept he is, his brothers Tarfu and Fubar are nice additions who are no less sweet and amusing, Technical Ferry-First Class is a blast and there's a delightful cameo from Bugs Bunny. Mel Blanc as always does a great job voicing the characters, very few voice actors could voice multiple characters in the same cartoon and give them each an individual personality, something that Blanc was pretty much an unparallelled master at.

All in all, funny, well-made and makes its point just fine. It is pretty tame and not one of the very best of the series, but that certainly does not stop it from being well worth tracking down. 8/10 Bethany Cox

With the exception of Callow, the production values and the leads, this was a confection lacking in flavour, 19 May 2015

What saves Love's Kitchen from being an unsalvageable mess is Simon Callow. He positively relishes his role and is just delightful to watch. The film's also competently photographed and has charming locations. Dougray Scott and Claire Forlani perform earnestly, and are a warm, cute couple with some real genial spark.

The rest of the cast do not come over very naturally, with emotions both overcooked and underplayed. This is especially true with the cameo of Gordon Ramsay, a cameo that felt like a forced gimmick above all else that takes one completely out of the film. It's not completely the cast's fault though, because of the characters only Callow's has any real juice(a large part as to why he was the one that registered most strongly, as well as that he's a talented actor) and there are too many secondary roles that have so little depth to them. The script is pretty disastrous, much of the dialogue is stilted and hollow with some very awkward tone changes, and of the romance, comedy and drama elements it only does just okay with the romantic elements, which are quite cute. The comedy however is very forced, with again only Callow being properly at ease, and the drama is caked in maudlin sentiment that it'll make one nauseous.

Another major problem with Love's Kitchen is the story. A lot of romantic comedies get criticised for being predictable, but very few romantic comedies are this predictable, one where it's clear how the entire film was going to end even before it started. There is absolutely nothing fresh here and the material is treated with very little flavour or substance, everything feeling bland and shallow instead. The soundtrack is fitting but with not much memorable about it, the pacing was constantly askew being often on the dull side and Jack Hacking's direction is all over the place, pace-wise and especially tonally, only showing competence technically.

In conclusion, one flavourless confection salvageable only by three performances and the production values. 3/10 Bethany Cox

"If you want to dine with the devil, you need a looong spoon!", 19 May 2015

Not quite as bad as the rating suggests and has enough to make it watchable, but at the end of the day it just felt like a waste of potential. I forgive that it has little in common with the original Cyborg, the cheesiness and (sort of) the low budget, but not so much that it didn't do enough with its intriguing concept or let its talented cast properly shine.

The best asset for me about Cyborg 2 was the performance of Jack Palance, most of his screen time is voice only but that does not once stop Palance from still being a blast as Mercy, one of the few in the cast who actually sounded like he was having fun. Who can't help love his lines either, on the most part the script was not that great at all but the outrageous surrealism of Palance's dialogue and the way he delivered it(literally just going for it no matter how little sense it made) made for enormous entertainment. Billy Drago is a sneeringly over-the-top but also chilling villain and Allen Garfield brings a little wit to his role.

Cyborg 2 starts off promisingly, showing some imaginative visuals and some intriguing story set-up. Some of the futuristic special effects are nicely done too, there is a good attempt at a dystopian futuristic atmosphere that can come over effectively and the photography succeeds in being both dream-like and nightmarish.

However, with the exception of Mercy's lines the script is rather weak, a lot of it reminiscent of gibberish that was in serious need of a proof-read or two. Some of it only succeeds in confusing the story even further and the characters are literally less-than-one-dimensional stereotypes, Mercy was the only character that actually seemed like the writers cared about halfway developing and even he was severely underdeveloped. The story concept-wise is intriguing, but while effort was made into giving the film atmosphere not as much attention was paid giving it momentum and such. Cyborg 2 drags a lot and changes tone shifts and plot points so frequently the story felt tonally weird and structurally choppy, which just didn't feel right. The action scenes are uneven, some have verve and fun but too many others are sloppily choreographed and lazily performed.

While Cyborg 2 is not a amateurish looking film, there are instances where low budget is obvious, the sets are dreary and generally unimaginative, some editing lacks polish and the film is frequently lit far too darkly. The synthesised music score just felt at odds with the film, it sounded cheap and like it would belong more at home in a film from the late 70s-early 80s, plus to me it lacked energy. While it's true that Cyborg 2 has little to do with the first Cyborg it does incorporate a few flashbacks to tie them together, the trouble was they were rather brief and at the end there was not much need for them to be there. It was completely understandable why they did it and it was laudable, but with the way the story was written here their inclusion didn't add very much. Palance, Drago and to a lesser extent Garfield were fun, but Angelina Jolie's(in her lead role debut) acting inexperience shows no matter the effort in as sparely written a role she could have possibly gotten and Elias Koteas is even blander than his very underwritten hero character, while the rest of the cast were average or below.

Overall, watchable but mediocre. Notable for it being Jolie's lead actress debut and those fond of Palance and Drago will find pleasure. But at the end of the day, with not enough done with the story and the cast not having enough to shine, it felt like a waste of potential. 5/10 Bethany Cox

Semele (1999) (TV)
Entertaining, charming, musically superb and simply put...a pleasure, 16 May 2015

Semele may not be my favourite of Handel's operas, that's Giulio Cesare, but it entertains and warms the heart on every hearing/viewing and the music(Where'er You Walk and Endless Pleasure being the highlights) is wonderful. Directed by Robert Carsen, this was a delight and on par with the Cecilia Bartoli(Zurich?) performance.

For modern dress, the production looks lavish and very tasteful in the costumes, Joshua and Connolly's costumes are particularly well done. The production is always dynamically lit, with even the darkly lit scenes not feeling too dark and instead having somewhat of a luminous look and the sets are not too bare or complicated. The picture quality is clear and the video directing is appropriately stylish and unobtrusive. Robert Carsen's directing style is one that appeals to some and not to others, his directing in this production to me is some of the best he's done, the bawdy parts are sensual, the funny parts are genuinely funny, hilarious even with Iris, and it's emotionally investing, Semele in Act 3 is heart-breaking.

Do not have any kind of personal bias against concept or modern dress productions, but it depends on the execution. If the production is entertaining, makes the characters interesting, the story clear and allows an emotional connection then it in my eyes is a good production; however if static, muddled and adds touches that add absolutely nothing to the storytelling and perhaps even distorts, then it's a failure. This Semele is a strong example of the former, doing a splendid job in bringing his own inventive style while still keeping true to the story and the characters and their motivations, with the only reservation being some of Iris' stage direction in Juno's Iris Hence Away coming over as a touch overdone.

Musically, the production is just superb, with stylistically and dramatically alert orchestral playing, that are also alive to depth and nuance, a chorus that is well-balanced and involved and conducting from Harry Bicket that's authoritative and accommodating. The sound quality has remarkable clarity, and doesn't favour the orchestra over the singers or vice versa at all. The performances are consistently good, with Rosemary Joshua giving one of the best performances of hers I've seen her give. She looks beautiful, her singing is pure, warm and simply put radiant with no signs of shrillness and she's an affecting actress. John Mark Ainsley's tenderness during Where'er You Walk is heart-melting(the slow tempo here for the aria works), his silvery tone showing no signs of being strained or pushed even in colouratura and he is no slouch as an actor either, only his not-quite-so-crystalline diction is not quite so good.

Sarah Connolly is a rich-voiced and sincere Ino, faring far better than Liliana Nikiteanu, who was quite good but not up to her usual standard when she did the role opposite Bartoli. Susan Bickley is authority personified as Juno both in voice and acting(she has great comic timing too, her acting in the cadenza Iris Hence Away was a real crack-up). Janis Kelly is hilarious as Iris while also giving the role a lot of charm and a definite scene stealer, some very imaginative stage acting and directing here especially at the start of Act 2. Stephen Wallace, Graeme Danby and Clive Bayley acquit themselves just fine as well, Danby as Somnus has a particularly striking voice.

All in all, a real pleasure. 9/10 Bethany Cox

All at sea with Herman and Katnip, 16 May 2015

While a mostly hit and miss series of cartoons, with generally the early cartoons faring better than the later ones, the Herman and Katnip are at least watchable. While not among the very best of the series(Herman the Catoonist is my personal favourite), Ship a Hooey is enjoyable enough and one of their better cartoons from the period where Famous Studios were going into decline.

Coming off particularly strongly here were most of the animation and especially the music. The character designs do lack the smoothness of the cartoons, which can be put down to lower budgets and the print. However the background art is meticulously detailed and looks quite beautiful, and the colours are very charming. Winston Sharples' music is even more mellow than his earlier Herman and Katnip scores but certainly no less rousing or characterful. The orchestration is lush without being schmaltzy, the rhythms are energetic and character-driven and the scoring generally synchronises so well with the action. The theme tune is unforgettably catchy too.

The gags in some Herman and Katnip cartoons could sometimes be on the cruel side(a notable example being the final gag of Mice Meeting You), but not to the point of being overly sadistic like the Gene Deitch Tom and Jerry cartoons were. While violent, the gags here are not that cruel or disturbing and are pretty amusing and timed quite well, the most inspired being the ones with Katnip's peg leg(the exchanging of the peg leg for the stick of dynamite was very memorable). Ship a Hooey is not really hilarious, some timing is slow especially at the start and anybody who has seen any of the previous Herman and Katnip cartoons will not be surprised by what happens here as it is relatively standard stuff for a cartoon, but it is certainly not as repetitive as the series can be prone to be(some of their cartoons have the exact same story and dialogue in different settings but not so much here).

Herman is resourceful, cunning and amusing, his outsmarting of Katnip is not much new but it doesn't irritate or bore. It was also a relief to actually not see him take so much pride or pleasure in his treatment of Katnip, this happened in the previous cartoon of Mice and Menace and for me it was a turn-off. Katnip is a great adversary, that's funny and menacing, and Ship a Hooey actually has to be one of the stronger examples in a Herman and Katnip cartoon of Herman having a good reason to outwit Katnip, rather than just provoke him for sport like he did in Of Mice and Menace. It is easy to feel sorry for Katnip when he's provoked, but when he is a 'villain' from a start like here and Northwest Mousie it makes the conflict between him and Herman far more convincing. The mice wisely don't feature much and are cute and poignant. The voice work is very good.

Overall, nothing mind-blowing and is never going to be a favourite of mine but still an enjoyable enough cartoon. 7/10 Bethany Cox

Possibly Sylvester and Tweety's weakest cartoon, 10 May 2015

It is a shame, because to me their cartoons generally were very enjoyable(though of course with some better than others) and I've never minded Tweety.

The Jet Cage is certainly not all bad. Milt Franklyn scored half of the cartoon before his sudden death and his contribution while nowhere near his best work, his music has been livelier rhythmically before, is lovely, his scoring is beautifully and vibrantly orchestrated and meshes well with the action. The gag with Tweety tricking Sylvester into letting go of the flaps is well-timed and quite funny, and there are two good lines, that of the crow and Sylvester's final line. June Foray also does a great job as Granny, despite not having very much. And The Jet Cage does try to do something different conceptually, the basic story itself is rather tired and formulaic but the idea is unlike anything else we've seen with Sylvester and Tweety before and it does boast some imagination.

Bill Lava's music contribution, which can be heard for the last two and a half minutes, is a real disappointment. Whereas Franklyn's music was melodious and quirky Lava's is rather lifeless and discordant and these two completely different styles of composition have a really jarring and quite ugly effect. The animation is also not particularly great, some colours are nice but others look a little flat and the drawing looks rough and really lacking in smoothness, like with Granny's character design here. Although the concept was great and occasionally imaginative, it wasn't enough to stop the cartoon from feeling rather tired and predictable(both story and pacing), while outside of two lines and the letting-go-of-the-flaps gag the humour wasn't all that memorable or funny and would have benefited from some sharper timing. The characters have also been much better written, Sylvester has been funnier and more interesting but he does at least try to inject some energy while Tweety is just a plot device with no standout material and Granny is wasted. Even Mel Blanc, one of the greatest voice artists of all time, sounded off, not sounding as if his heart was properly in it(he actually sounded really disengaged as Tweety) and his voice sounded oddly deeper, which was odd considering how consistently he voiced Sylvester and Tweety for 15 years up to that point.

Overall, rather lacklustre and possibly Sylvester and Tweety at their weakest(before seeing this least favourite was Tom Tom Tomcat). 4/10 Bethany Cox

Désiré Landru (2005) (TV)
Very, very well done and a superior version of Landru's life and crimes than that of Claude Chabrol, 10 May 2015

Chabrol's 1963 film is still very interesting and entertaining, it looks great, has some deliciously sardonic dialogue, a real sense of evocative atmosphere and Charles Denner's ideal performance as Landru. But for me, this film from 2005 was superior, it has more depth, treats the subject and the man more sympathetically and is more controlled.

Like Chabrol's film, Desire Landru(2005) could have been a little better, a couple of subplots were not as developed as they could have been and didn't add an awful lot and while more interesting and much less tedious than how it was depicted in Chabrol's film the trial is too rushed, more could have been done with how Landru defended himself in court. However, the film does look great, the landscapes and scenery are very elegant, the period detail so effective in how evocative it is it is like early 20th century France come to life(if not quite as much as with Chabrol) and it's skilfully photographed. There is a better music score here too, on its own it is beautiful and has moments of great tension and even better is how well it fits with the film, being remarkably subtle.

While I did enjoy how Chabrol's film was written, more so than most anyway, I still prefer the writing and the way the story is told here. The two versions took two very different approaches, Chabrol's was more sly, more cynical and more sardonic whereas the writing here was more controlled and dealt with the subject more seriously and matter-of-factly. There are instances where the dialogue is still very witty and playful in the early parts but generally is more composed and thoughtful at the same time without ever dissolving into melodrama, which it could easily have done considering the subject. Like Chabrol's film, Desire Landru(2005) deals with Landru's life and crimes very closely and presents it in a way that's interesting despite having a more serious and measured approach than the earlier version. The scenes with Landru and the women are charming with a foreboding undercurrent when you know what's going to happen and the crimes and methods are chilling and suspenseful. This version apart from the rushed trial is much more consistently paced, Chabrol's pacing is mostly fine but the trial in his version doesn't have anywhere near the level of detail seen in the rest of the film and the pace slackened as a result. Here, the pacing is very controlled and assured throughout, but not once does it get dull.

The direction is deft, and like Chabrol(though Chabrol handles it a little stronger, so evocatively done it was in his version that you could literally smell, feel and hear it), does a good job evoking the cultures, atmosphere and environment of early 20th century France. The characters are given more depth and dealt with more sympathetically, even Landru. The urbane-charm-on-the-surface and chillingly irredeemable monster traits are more than present and not once trivialised, even when a dose of humanity is injected, quite a feat considering that Landru was one of the most infamous serial killers of all time. Patrick Timsit's performance as Landru is even more brilliant than that of Charles Denner's for Chabrol, it is a softer and more subtle interpretation and with even more of the urbane charm, cynical wit and menace. The women are all touchingly played.

All in all, very, very well done version and while Chabrol's film has a lot to recommend it in a lot of ways I found this to be the more superior version of Landru's life and crimes. 8/10 Bethany Cox

Easily the best of the Universal Kharis films, 10 May 2015

The other three Universal Kharis films succeeding were pretty uninspired and uneven, though not without their good parts, however The Mummy's Hand while less than perfect and not exactly great is actually rather decent. Universal are nowhere near at their best here and The Mummy with Boris Karloff also from Universal from eight years earlier is the better film, but of the four Universal Kharis films The Mummy's Hand is easily the best of the four and the only one to come close to a good film.

It does start off rather sluggishly and takes too long to get going, it's all relevant but one does wish that the film got to the point quicker than it did. Two performances didn't come over so good, Wallace Ford's bumbling gets irritating after a while and Eduardo Ciannelli is for my tastes rather stiff. And I do have to agree about some of the comedy, some of it is witty and amusing but too much of it was intrusive and unnecessary so it felt more annoying than funny.

Visually however The Mummy's Hand is a solidly made film, the best-looking of the four Universal Kharis films most certainly, everything's professionally shot, moodily(appropriately) lit and crisply edited, the sets are suitably atmospheric and it's clear what the time and place is meant to be. The score fits well and is haunting, again the best score of the four films, being very stock in the other three. The story while not much new is interesting and doesn't try to do anything too simple or complicated, while it has more than one type of film genre it didn't feel muddled or have the feeling of not-knowing-what-it-was-trying-to-be and once it gets going it is quick moving and is pretty exciting and atmospherically spooky. The direction is decent and while none of the performances are award-worthy the performances are solid enough, George Zucco's excellent(brimming with sinister authority) performance standing out. Cecil Kellaway is very likable and Tom Tyler is surprisingly good as Kharis, he's actually genuinely unnerving(particularly the eyes). Dick Foran is amiable and Peggy Moran brings charm and spunk to her role.

Overall, a decent if not great film and easily the best of the Universal Kharis films. 6.5/10 Bethany Cox

Il Trovatore (2014) (TV)
Il Trovatore goes to the museum, 9 May 2015

Il Trovatore's story may be convoluted and sometimes ridiculous and some of the emotions over-the-top, but the characters are still interesting- Azucena especially- and the music is magnificent, one of Verdi's richest scores melodically with some of his most beautiful ever music. This Salzburg production is a long way from irredeemable and the cast on paper and the museum concept were intriguing but on the whole it just doesn't work.

The sets and costumes are far more appealing than the sets and costumes of the Berlin performance also starring Anna Netrebko and Placido Domingo, maybe it is a little too much of one colour but they are sumptuously designed and the predominant crimson red colour is really striking. The orchestra play with plenty of power and nuance, giving a rousing rendition of the Anvil Chorus and providing a sensitive accompaniment in D'Amor Sull'Alli Rosee, and the crisp sound quality helps give Verdi's music its power. The chorus bring a very vibrant sound and good balance and precision. The performances were inconsistent, with Anna Netrebko coming out on top. She sounds absolutely wonderful, her dark, rich and creamy sound still remains, she phrases and shapes her music beautifully and intelligently and the role sits well in her voice. While not quite as good as in the Berlin performance, her D'Amor Sull'Alli Rosee is very heartfelt and radiantly sung and her singing in the Miserere was thrilling which is more than the most lifeless account of the scene I've ever heard deserved. In the acting stakes she is by far and large the most believable, bringing some much needed emotion and passion to Leonora.

Riccardo Zanellato is an authoritative Ferrando and sings suitably ominously, the scene was rather sluggishly paced musically but Zanellato still brings enough command to make one still want to listen to the dark tale the character tells. Diana Haller successfully makes Ines a touching confidante.

Placido Domingo however is really disappointing as DiLuna. I am a big fan of Domingo, especially as Cavaradossi and Otello, but he seemed to be struggling here(he was a mixed bag in the Berlin performance). His voice frequently sounds underpowered and out of breath and his normally excellent musicality does not come through, the singing lacks nuance and legato is choppy. Usually he is an outstanding actor with the ability to really connect with the role and embody it, this didn't come through either in the production where he goes through the motions and plays the grumpiest DiLuna imaginable. Francesco Meli does have a lovely sweet-toned voice and copes very well with the lyric elements of the role but in the heavier moments his tone becomes less easy and strained, and that is including Di Quella Pira. His acting is indifferent, and his chemistry with Netrebko completely lacks spark. Marie-Nicole Lemieux comes over as too soft for a vengeful gypsy and she is not in her best voice either, often sounding unsteady and shrill at the top and tired at the lower middle and bottom.

Daniele Gatti's conducting is really leaden and almost too syrupy here, it may work for Richard Strauss but it sounds completely wrong in Verdi, with the Anvil Chorus and D'Amor Sull'Alli Rosee being the only tempos I didn't question. As aforementioned, if there is a more lifeless account of the Miserere it has yet to be heard by me. Where the production most fails is in the staging, which throughout is very static with a vast majority of it lacking tension(particularly in the scenes between Leonora and DiLuna) and chemistry. The museum concept was interesting but nothing is done with it, existing as setting only. Likewise nothing is done making the characters interesting, the story engaging or clear or making the drama emotionally investable, most emotions being forced. The chorus have so little to do dramatically it is almost as if the stage director forgot about it.

Overall, very disappointing production that even the cast cannot save. 4/10 Bethany Cox

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