27 June 2012

Deep Space Nine Season 1

Deep Space Nine Season 1 is a Bit of a Hot Mess
By Kristin Battestella

Yes, many elite fans find the second Star Trek spinoff series Deep Space Nine to be superior Trek TV.  However, when the show first began in 1993, I found myself disinterested and never went back.  Now, we’ve decided to try this debut season again, and thus far, DS9 still has a lot- perhaps too many- growing pains.

Cardassia has finally withdrawn from its half-century occupation of the planet Bajor, and the Federation sends widowed Commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) along with his son Jake (Cirroc Lofton) to the newly rechristened space station Deep Space Nine to ease the transition for former resistance fighter Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) as Bajor rebuilds towards Federation membership.  Also along on the Federation’s frontier are newly reassigned from the Enterprise Chief Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney) and a fresh out of the academy doctor, Lieutenant Julian Bashir (Siddig El Fadil).  Sisko’s old friend, a Trill named Dax (Terry Farrell), joins him as they discover the first known stable wormhole- a passage to the Gamma Quadrant created by aliens worshipped as prophets on Bajor.  Interstellar trade, tension, and exploration to the newly contacted region are only the beginning.

Whew! It all sounds magical and promising, I know. Unfortunately, the writing and storylines from longtime Trek producers Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Ira Stephen Behr, and their team are awfully slow and dry. There’s a feeling of busy space station happenings off screen- but the viewer gets to see a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation filler instead.  At worst, it’s too much of TNG’s leftovers; at best, there are too many TNG déjà vu similarities.  It’s as if the direction and initial planning for Deep Space Nine is torn at the foundation. Yes, we want DS9 to attract Next Generation fans- the akin science fiction ideals and explorations are there of course. Out the gate, however, DS9 simply doesn’t have the allure.  Core characters here are too broadly written, with little more than their bland show profile information given.  Though interesting, the titular “Dax” feels like an inferior “Measure of a Man” trial, and “Q-Less” completely screws the fun out of prior Q appearances.  Likewise, Deep Space Nine’s built-in Bajoran and Cardassian nucleus feels barely touched upon except for the solid “Past Prologue”, “Duet”, and “In the Hands of the Prophets.”   Looking back, even the Trek crew admits the inferiority of this debut season, but it doesn’t take much to see it. Useless episodes like “Move Along Home”, “If Wishes were Horses”, and “Dramatis Persona” are dream/games/crew possessed and acting weird shows that do nothing to advance narratives or characters.  Of course, this format is nothing new in genre television and especially Trek. In fact, such unusual or diversionary bottle shows are often welcomed- but later in a series, when one can deviate from the firmly established source.  In this first season, how many people going wonky on a space station bottle shows can one have before the audience realizes we know nothing about the players? What’s going on on this space station and why should we care?  Perhaps “Babel” is the exception here, as it comes early enough in the season to show viewers how our players react in a crisis. Otherwise, the episodes themselves are uneven, imbalanced, or poorly planned depending upon which characters are leading the A and B storylines.  Some parts and players in some shows are better than others, creating a serious inconsistency.  In today’s desperate and changing television model, these 19 episodes would not have survived in syndication or on cable, much less prime time. DS9 stands up best when it sticks to its own budding Bajoran/Cardassian mythos, creates interesting characters on its station, and explores the unique SF concepts within those dynamics. It is quite ingenious that we’re supposed to see more politics, religion, spiritualism, disagreements, and confrontation on DS9 instead of the longstanding ideal Trekdom. So why is this first season deviating from its plans with funny filler knock offs every other episode?

Naturally, the cast is hampered by all this indecision.  Avery Brooks (Spencer for Hire) is the man, and yet Benjamin Sisko- a mere commander despite DS9’s increasing strategic importance- is meh. It’s surprising because we know Brooks can be so glorious, but Sisko is too dry, made too everyman and uninteresting somehow. Despite a lovely father and son dynamic, Cirroc Lofton as Jake Sisko is inexplicably barely there, too. Why are we not seeing this unique relationship if the show is about life on a space station? It is mostly juvenile adventure when we do see Jake, yes. Fortunately, he and Aron Eisenberg as the young Ferengi Nog are a lot of fun together. It’s not the annoyance of Wesley Crusher on TNG at all, and it’s as if the writers don’t know what to do with their players. Sure, Trek audiences already know and love Chief O’Brien, but Colm Meaney really only excels in “Captive Pursuit.” Otherwise, he’s the same old lovable Chief with lots of techno babble to do, and again, it is a little weird that a would-be lowly NCO has a barely there team for his pseudo chief engineer role on a space station. Likewise, one would presume his wife Keiko would be a major character on the show. But alas, Rosalind Chao is only a guest star, leaving Keiko more often than not just an on-camera dialogue reference. You would think there would be a lot of use for a botanist from the Enterprise to grow plants on a space station, but apparent not so on Deep Space Nine.

 Thankfully, Armin Shimerman (Buffy) as Ferengi bartender Quark and Rene Auberjonois (MASH) as the shape shifting head of security Odo know their characters’ unique complexity and bemusing antagonism.  Ferengi centric episodes like “The Nagus,” with Wallace Shawn (Clueless) as Zek, enlighten us with wit and otherwise new and unseen Ferengi intricacy and charm.  Though also fringing on a ‘Data esque’ feeling, “The Vortex” and “The Forsaken” are great Odo shows. He’s special, he’s crabby, he’s alone, and the seed is there for years of fine development. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Terry Farrell (Becker) as Trill Jadzia Dax and Siddig El Fadil (24) as Doctor Bashir.  We can forgive the changes to the Trill design, sure, but Dax isn’t very interesting beyond her spots. Seriously, she does almost nothing but sit in the same place and press buttons.  And Bashir, I must say, seems like a real jerk, even a quack.  He almost always doesn’t know what he’s doing, and nearly every case is something he has never dealt with before.  Really, how can a junior grade lieutenant be your only doctor anyway? Part of the stagnancy in DS9’s first season is simply that the undercooked players aren’t developed or even that likeable. Wild card Nana Visitor (Wildfire) as Major Kira is both annoying on her Bajoran high horse and layered with sympathy, anger, and pain.  Beyond “Progress” and “Duet,” however, too little time is spent with Kira’s history and wartime complexity. We know we’re supposed to like Bajor and hate Cardassia, but recurring guests Marc Alaimo (Hill Street Blues) as Gul Dukat and Andrew Robinson (Dirty Harry) as the supposedly simple tailor Garak add much more dimension.  Honestly, the audience wonders why they just aren’t regular characters.

Looking back on these early 1993 models and computer effects, any flaws are forgivable. The visuals are, in fact, just fine most of the time.  Unfortunately, the set design and costumes are woefully futuristic nineties dated.  I know it is meant to be a clunky Cardassian space station, but Deep Space Nine doesn’t look well.  The Promenade is supposed to be a bustling interstellar hub, but it’s kind of bland and underdone. Instead, Operations has a lot of cluttered and useless Cardassian design for the sake of it junk, and Quark’s Bar looks like a dated discothèque. Now that I think of it, we don’t really see that much of the eponymous station at all, much less Bajor or the Gamma Quadrant. Despite those uptight, unnecessarily belted and big shoulder pad Bajoran uniforms and all these new opportunities, what we see still looks decidedly Trek.  There’s not much stylistically to set Deep Space Nine apart, and I’m sorry, I have to say it, these credits are slooowwww. 

 Certainly, that lingering Trek feeling and TNG kinship is perfect for longtime fans and Trek enthusiasts tuning in for DS9’s debut. Die hard fans can begin anew and casual audiences can start with the galactic possibilities and Trek spirit. There are new hints of explorations to come, yes- though the presentation is uneven with directionless ill footing.  Except for its flaws, nothing much stands out this season for Deep Space Nine.  Were it on television now, it would be very easy to give up on this spinoff and change the channel. Truly, it isn’t rerunning on numerous cable channels like its two predecessors. However, now affordable DVD sets and Netflix streaming options combined with the shorter episode order here make it easy for a general SF fan or a new to Trek layman to give DS9 a whirl.  It gets messy before it gets good, but why not begin the beguine with Deep Space Nine.

18 June 2012

Let's Make Love

Let’s Make Love Still Iffy
By Kristin Battestella

This slightly notorious 1960 Marilyn Monroe musical has plenty of big name star power onscreen and off- not to mention Monroe’s undeniable charisma.  Unfortunately, Let’s Make Love is indeed infamous for all the wrong reasons.

International millionaire and playboy Jean Marc Clement (Yves Montand) is displeased to hear from his public relations representative Coffman (Tony Randall) that an upcoming New York play will lampoon his hoity toity image along with other celebrities.  When he goes to the theatre in protest, however, Clement is mistaken for an actor auditioning- and gets the job of parodying himself.  To make matters worse, Clement is smitten with the show’s lead Amanda Dell (Monroe).  He uses Coffman and all his multimillionaire resources to save the struggling show while wooing Amanda- but she’s seeing the play’s male lead, Tony (Frankie Vaughn).  Will Clement embrace his loosened up image and win Amanda’s heart?

Well, director George Cukor (My Fair Lady, The Philadelphia Story, A Star is Born) has his hands full with screenwriters Arthur Miller (The Crucible), Norman Krasna (White Christmas), and Hal Kanter (The Rose Tattoo) throwing what seems like a lot of leftovers at the screen.  If the talent here came to play, this would be awesome.  Instead, we start with an old, stale, and unnecessary opening montage giving the history of the Clement men.  They’ve been rich, international playboys for a long time yadda yadda. The back-story could have come in many faster ways, and this off putting start doesn’t hold up for today’s audiences. Actually, the whole opening and battle of the sexes underlining comes off as a poor man’s The Seven Year Itch; the start and stop journey of the characters is akin to The Prince and the Showgirl.  Let’s Make Love begins with a fun twist, yes. Unfortunately, the impersonation story is too common, pretentious, and eventually even asinine in some spots.  The script and pace are too patchy, and the scenes without Monroe drag completely. It’s ironic that her then husband Miller wrote in more scenes for Monroe, for we don’t really see her that much.  The conversations, near slapstick, and misunderstanding circumstances between the stars is pleasing initially, but the over long two hours and increasing focus on Clement’s subterfuge lessens the quality.  Is Let’s Make Love meant to be about the struggling show or Clement softening up? Too many mixed signals and confusion muddle the mishmash. This isn’t flashy enough to be a show-stopping musical, but it’s too dry and wannabe melodramatic to be a comedy. If it’s a romance, then the love triangle is way out of whack.

Fortunately, Marilyn Monroe enters Let’s Make Love thirteen minutes in and lightens the air with “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” The breathless delivery and leggy routine sets her apart, both in spite of and perhaps because of that simple baggy sweater and black tights ensemble.  It’s flattering yet still cashmere alluring- unlike Ann-Margaret in Viva Las Vegas, which I swear looks like she forgot her pants! Less than two years before Monroe’s death, viewers might think her personal troubles would hurt her performance, but not in the numbers here.  Truly, she looks very pretty, kind, and approachable- not an unreachable, dumb goddess. This struggling actress and student just got out of bed un-styled look further helps Monroe make men go down like dominoes. And when she takes that sweater off!  What is that- a body stocking?  I don’t see the weight talk surrounding Let’s Make Love. She looks classy and most importantly, real. Of course, there is retreading towards Monroe’s usual dumb blonde singing types. However, Mandy is given a bit more intelligence and meaning on a few new topics and is even getting her diploma.  We’re treated to a knitting Marilyn Monroe, a genuinely innocent- not kitten- and unashamed of the poor acting life minister’s daughter. Naturally, we are going to like her more than Jean Marc Clement and his deceptions. Granted, Monroe does seem tired or unmotivated in some of the later scenes, and I’m not sure about that green bodysuit.  Considering this script though, who knows what’s going on? Mandy begins as a very smart, inspiring girl with talent, plans, and dreams- and then…nothing.

Swanky, swanky, Yves Montand (Wages of Fear) has the chic. He looks good in a real suit, holds a cigarette in that oh so suave way, and generally carries himself with a European grace, pimpity, and class that can’t be matched by today’s surfer boy ‘actors’. Unfortunately, it will be tough for some contemporary audiences to see past his French accent, and he’s simply all wrong for Let’s Make Love.  He looks too old and mismatched for Monroe- but she seemed to like that sort of thing, indeed.  Even when making a joke or attempting to be casual, Clement feels too pompous and out of touch. It doesn’t feel amusing within the film and to Americans today, this dude still has a lot of loosening up to do! His initial mistaken identity at the theater is funny, but it changes to asinine once Clement claims to be a simple man who happens to be named Alexandre Dumas.  His deception is not one of necessity or endearing ala Tootsie- he’s just trying to protect his reputation and manipulate an entire cast of people in his favor.  Mandy’s “I’m a louse” mocking of Clement is spot on. Is it the writing or Montand?  Clement’s meant to be wooden, but one wonders if the originally planned dashing Mr. Gregory Peck learning the err of his ways wouldn’t have been better. Clement objects to being called a liar, but he clearly is one who literally brings in guest stars Milton Berle, Bing Crosby, and Gene Kelly to help him shape up! It doesn’t create any sympathy when Clement tries to come clean.  In fact, the viewer just wants to fast forward to the big numbers. Otherwise, Let’s Make Love is supposed to be two hours of a guy manipulating, deceiving, and cruelly revealing his scheme for a woman? WTF?  Frankie Vaughn (The Lady is a Square) fairs little better, with his “Hey You with the Crazy Eyes” Tony Denton spotlight feeling more like a poor, poor man’s Dean Martin.  His hanging all over Monroe also ruins “Specialization.”  Tony Randall (The Odd Couple, Pillow Talk) as Clement’s everyman press man Coffman is very bemusing and could have been a great sardonic sidekick where we know he is very capable. Unfortunately, he steadily disappears for the supposed revelations of Clement and the purported heart of Let’s Make Love.
Thankfully, the early sixties New York penthouses, fun global décor, richy rich art, and high life visuals looks smashing! The posh music and ironic jazz scoring is nice as well, with cabaret styled choreography to match the spiffy stage coloring and lighting designs.  Let’s Make Love is traditionally styled as a musical, yes, yet there are wonderful hints of something more hep cat than showboat.  There’s lyrical wit and a kinky touch to it all, and the possibilities are again scarified for, well, I don’t know what.  The dance routines lag by the middle of the picture, and the premise of the play spoofing Elvis and the like isn’t actually that good when we see the show within a show design and cumbersome moving sets.  Some of Monroe’s costumes also seem unusual choices. Though barely there and lovely, her silver dress doesn’t seem to fit, nor the inexplicable corset. Fortunately, the pink and white breezy sheer number and the fantasy montage for the catchy titular rendition are perfect.  At last some charm and tune from both stars, but she’s going to poke his eye out with that dress!  

The DVD subtitles will be a must for some in understanding Montand, but onscreen dialogue won’t help solve the many mixed signals in Let’s Make Love. This is good for fans of the cast or classic film audiences who like mid century bed pillows type films.  Otherwise, there’s not much reason to look any deeper into this potentially special musical comedy that ended up not well done, without a lot of musical, not that much funny, and too much seriousness.

04 June 2012

Terminal Station/Indiscretion of an American Wife

Conflicted by Indiscretion of an American Wife- or was that Terminal Station?
By Kristin Battestella

All right, I confess it. Not all of Montgomery Clift’s films are award-winning classics of American cinema.  Whether it goes by Terminal Station or Indiscretion of an American Wife, this one has its share of faults, indeed. Try not to get too confused.

American housewife Mary (Jennifer Jones) is leaving Rome and her month long romance with Giovanni (Clift). Though her home life was not perfect, she can’t imagine leaving her young daughter behind to grow up without her.  Will this ill-conceived affair create a scandal at home? Despite their whirlwind and turbulent indiscretion, can Giovanni let Mary go?

Although both versions of director Vittorio De Sica’s  (Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief) 1953 tale feel too short, the just over an hour American Release entitled Indiscretion of an American Wife is an edited mess. This is in my mind a better title, but there’s no time to be truly vested in Truman Capote’s (hello) purported adaptation from frequent De Sica writer Cesare Zavattini’s story. The action is smartly confined in and around the titular train station, and the turbulent love fairs somewhat better in the ninety-minute international edition, yes. Unfortunately, the supporting family scenes and side characters are unnecessary in such a short time, and the mish-mashed interference from Jennifer Jones pimp/producer David O’Selznick feels like a cruel joke on what could have been a fine, if bent romance.  Yes, Terminal Station is longer and better, but it still falls prey to Jones’ miscasting and the jaded thoughts of the botched Indiscretion cut up. Indeed, I love Monty and loathe Jones, and I freely admit my bias and disdain here. However, it’s as if the two leads have been spliced together after the fact from two different films. Hehe, one in Terminal Station and the other in Indiscretion of an American Wife, perhaps? Clift creates a destructive modern relationship with a fun to watch but disturbed and conflicted male. In poor contrast, Jones is trapped in a sappy fifties romance and comes off as an unsatisfied bitch. Which is it supposed to be? Thus is Terminal Station’s conundrum, and neither version fully provides an answer. Selznick attempts to create some cheesecake with a heart of gold for his new lady, but the ruined focus on Jones in Indiscretion of an American Wife is simply inferior to the full length, rough, and almost too depressing Terminal Station.  I think Indiscretion of an American Wife is meant to be eye popping and scandalous instead. The irony is that with all fifties cuts and convictions, we don’t even get to see the actual indiscretion! How can the audience know or care when the incident is so edited that it ends up more confusing than saucy?   


Fortunately, any fan of Montgomery Clift can find at least some saving grace here. Clift made sixteen films in a 20-year span and was nominated for an Academy Award four times in that period- The Search, A Place in the Sun, From Here to Eternity, and Judgment at Nuremberg. Although he never won a major award, that averages to an Oscar nominated performance every four films. Who has that kind of steady, quality consistent output today? Not the contemporary folks churning out five or six studio bankrupting comedies for 10 or 15 million dollar salaries! With such a classic track record, I suppose we can forgive Monty for the mess that is Indiscretion of an American Wife.  Even with a performance created in the editing room, a convoluted script, and no time or support to help him, Clift’s not that bad.  In fact, he’s just dandy.  Sure, Italian quips and a name like Giovanni Diora don’t make us think Clift. However, his pent up, confused, and no less passionate lead is intriguing to watch nonetheless.  Oh, a man all tied up and conflicted over a woman!  It could be a painful, clichéd, and dry performance, but Indiscretion of an American Wife can be redeemed so long as the camera stays on Clift.  When Giovanni says he’s learned what wanting is, we damn well believe him.  He speaks sternly enough, with strong, direct statements. Clift doesn’t need to shout, yet remains just above a whisper.  It’s a tormented and awkward relationship, yet for better or worse, Giovanni isn’t afraid to show his love in that angry man way.  It’s mental, alluring, asinine, and sympathetic all rolled into one- and it’s all delivered smashingly by Clift.

  And then, there’s Jennifer Jones.  She turns her back on her family and her lover. Which does she want? Who knows? Who cares? Right from her opening frantic running away, Mary jars the audience. She’s supposed to be an endearing, classy fifties woman buying dresses for her daughter, yet we’re also meant to believe this sweet, wonderful woman is responsible for the whole eponymous drama!  She’s running from Giovanni and has screwed up at home, and the portrayal is beyond a wishy-washy woman who can’t make up her mind. Mary gets her thrills and hates herself.  Is the audience supposed to root for her escape or loathe her scandalous ways?  Our time is short as it is, and the character’s motivations are muddled at best.  Jones does nothing to make us care about Mary’s morals or ambiguity either way. Could a better actress have done more? Perhaps.  Did the on-set drama, personal turmoil, and post production busy help? Nope. Mary’s such a saint and good woman, but can we believe a good woman would be involved in such an unseen torrid love affair? Terminal Station is trying to build conflict, but Indiscretion of an American Wife attempts some sort of pale Scarlett O’Hara charm.  I’m just a housewife who’s an emancipated American woman!  I’m not that imaginative and would rather be home with my husband who’s like a small boy!  Huh?  At some point, the viewer wonders why any man would be with this train wreck lady. This female character imbalance ruins what could have been a fine and twisted vignette. Let us see the dang depression of it all, Selznick! Otherwise, what’s the point?

Thankfully, the Oscar nominated Christian Dior early fifties fashions, furs, hats, and sharp suits are the perfect mid European time capsule.  There are a few bullet bras, too. Though black and white, the Rome locations and Italian signage are lovely. The foreign dialogue, however, might make Station Termini tough for some audiences. The sweeping romantic crescendos and melodramatic zooms are on the fifties over the top bad side, too.  Stereotypical Italian male portrayals can be irritating as well. These men are always beating their wives, and on some viewings, I find it rather offensive. Although there are times when I’d like to backhand Jones, too- but then I sound just as bad as Indiscretion of an American Wife. I feel like I’ve been hateful and all over the place in this essay- tackling two very different versions of one peculiar film. Unfortunately, there seems to be too many poor, confusing, and extreme choices surrounding Terminal Station and/or Indiscretion of an American Wife. Whatever you call it or whichever version you see, the could have been pictures, performances, and polarizing cast make this one largely for Clift completists and Jones lovers. Though film students and classic scholars can enjoy the Criterion video edition with both versions in comparison, this one is not an introduction piece.  Can Terminal Station still be enjoyed for Clift despite the bitter taste left by Jones and the Indiscretion of an American Wife cut up?  I believe so.  But you have to really, really like him.