30 November 2012

Ella Fitzgerald's Christmas

Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas A Quick, Good Little Time.
By Kristin Battestella

It’s tough to introduce this 1967 traditional Christmas album because surely it should carry a few words of introduction for its songstress Ella Fitzgerald, too. However, how does one go about introducing Ella Fitzgerald- doesn’t everyone already know who she is? They dang well should, and the uninitiated can most definitely receive his or her education with this swift December disc.

O Holy Night opens Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas on a nice and easy note indicative of the album’s overall tone.  Ella keeps this often too lofty for the rest of us carol soft and calm for a pleasant candlelit night. The track, however, is just too short. Unfortunately, the entire album also comes in too fast at under a half an hour.  It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is the longest tune here and yet it isn’t enough. I want to hear Ella’s nice and innocent brand on this less and less often heard carol for all the verses! Thankfully, Hark the Herald Angels Sing continues the casual reverence and able to sing a long feeling of Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas. This is not a flippant album or a set rushed in the respectfulness, oh no. By contrast, it’s quite time-honored and old-fashioned proper, and yet Ella keeps the notes family friendly rather than formal.

Away in a Manger slows the session down and allows time for Ella’s perfect range.  The sound is big and yet still childlike and full of seasonal sentiment while Joy to the World mixes Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas up a bit by adding a choir and a fresh arrangement. It’s already a happy, catchy carol and you can’t help but echo in with Ella!  It’s surprising; however, that The First Noel is kept so down low when it could have been a lot bigger for a songstress such as Ella.  Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas is quiet and peaceful, perfect for a holiday dinner party, yes. But nonetheless, this album is really only an introductory hint of the octaves Ella Fitzgerald is capable of singing. These shorter tracks may allow for seemingly more songs- 13 in total- but it isn’t enough. I want more! More! 1:40? That’s only a sample!

Thankfully, we almost hear all of Ella for Silent Night. This longer session is slow and delicate as this Christmas Eve carol requires, and yet, Ella somehow jazzes it up a bit by accentuating all the special notes with a spiritual quiver. This tune is perhaps the best track on Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas in terms of showing Ella’s vocal abilities. My favorite carol O Come All Ye Faithful also receives a few big notes from Ella along with church bells and a going caroling family mood.  Although I haven’t heard Sleep, My Little Jesus before Ella, there’s great sway in this soft lullaby. She lingers on each note in a wonderful musical whisper and takes a moment of pause to go deeper into the Reason for the Season.

After all the soft and sweet, Angels We Have Heard on High kicks Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas up an octave. Her longwinded notes and big sounds are like a one-woman choir.  All Ella’s might and yet, it’s all still so gentle on the ears- as if we’re not supposed to wake the baby in the manger!  Oh Little Town of Bethlehem also plays soft and good, almost like a ballad from a musical. The way Ella accentuates the verses resonates with the power of Broadway but still feels delicate enough for the country church. It sounds disrespectful in describing it, but Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas is all-good in a good way!

After all of the family friendly somber, We Three Kings gets unexpectedly hip. Instead of the usual, brooding medieval arrangement, there’s a swanky reverence, almost a rock out twist.  You want to shake your hips, get up, and come along with the wise men as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen continues the catchy trend. There’s a perfectly Ella rat a tat tat spin, and even though this was a largely quiet and mellow album, Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas ends on a snappy high note.

Obviously, there’s not a secular tune in sight for Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas despite the laid back, soft and sophisticated neutral pleasure here. Families looking for a more casual holiday should enjoy the 1960 Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas title instead for more seasonally big notes.  Family audiences new and old, longtime Ella fans, or scat newcomers can enjoy the traditional Christmas collection here thanks to the mellow reverence for complete audience balance and appreciation.  Ella Fitzgerald’s Christmas is deliberate and old school classy but refined enough for today’s playlist- with the proof found in multiple download editions and an out of stock wait on Amazon. Now if only it wasn’t so short!

28 November 2012

Deep Space Nine Season 7

Season 7 Imperfect, but A Fine Deep Space Nine Finale
By Kristin Battestella

At last, we have come to the concluding 7th Season of Deep Space Nine. Despite a few character changes, questions left unanswered, and some uneasy answers given, this exit will please long time fans of this second Star Trek spin-off.

Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) mourns the loss of Jadzia Dax on Earth with his son Jake (Cirroc Lofton) and questions his very personal relationship with the Bajoran Prophets. Commander Worf (Michael Dorn) also cannot accept his wife’s death and develops a difficult friendship with the Dax symbiont’s new Trill host Ezri (Nicole de Bauer). Ezri, however, is growing closer to Doctor Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig). Colonel Kira (Nana Visitor) and the Changeling Constable Odo (Rene Auberjonois) struggle with their own romance amid the Dominion War and the shifting loyalties of the Breen, Romulans, and Cardassians as Dukat (Marc Alaimo) makes an ominous pact with the Pah-wraiths.

 “Imagine in the Sand” and “Shadows and Symbols” open this final year nicely with a continuation of the storylines from Season 6 and a touch towards the more mystical and faith-based leading up to the glorious ten-hour outgoing story arc- “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges” thru “What You Leave Behind.” I’m actually not so sure Gene Roddenberry would have been pleased with the very religious tone in this dénouement- though the references to ministers and gods and good and evil all combine to see Bajor, Cardassia, the Alpha Quadrant and Gamma relations unite in peace and the return to the paradise of Trek as we knew it. The spiritual aspects are not so overt to put off a non-interested viewer, but for those looking for such deepness, Deep Space Nine certainly provides it. “The Siege of AR 558” is also wonderful in summation of DS9’s dark Star Trek brand and what the Dominion War has done.  There’s just enough un-Trek amid what we expect, people losing limbs and dying for what is a supposedly strategic cause, which of course, doesn’t mean very much at all.  It’s a beautiful sentiment accented with lovely touches of James Darren as Vic Fontaine in “Badda Bing, Badda-Bang”- this idea of a not so swanky past’s reflection of hope in this bleak future, as opposed to our Trek, which is often the other way around.  “Covenant” also brings Dukat full circle and turns the ideologies of the Prophets and Pah-Wraiths on their ear. Religion can indeed be done in Star Trek when it’s handled properly. Who knew?

This epic exit is DS9 as it should have always been. Everyone has a lovely final moment amid the great battle action, but there’s still room for humor thanks to “Take Me Out to the Holosuite.” Ferengi resolutions and mirror twists have their hour in “The Emperor’s New Cloak” as well- although the Kira and Ezri kiss teases and Chase Masterson as Leeta innuendo are a bit dumb amid the serious alternate universe conclusions.  Colonel Kira’s new duds and ‘do may take some getting used to, as does seeing Kira and Odo together, but both are on form throughout “Chimera” and “Tacking into the Wind.”  “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges” also has more Section 31 iffy getting in the way, but it’s too late in the day for that tangent to matter, and ultimately, the unchanged Bashir hampers its overall impact anyway.  Sisko may also be wrapped up too quick and easy amid all the other lingering goodbyes, and of course, the absence of Terry Farrell as Jadzia Dax in flashback scenes and memory montages is apparent. Weird parallels and old references reused from early years also come back in confusing ways in the Inception –esque “Extreme Measures.”  Fortunately, “It’s Only a Paper Moon” does far more in its wonderful moment for Aron Eisenberg as Nog.  Beautiful period atmosphere and family elements with Max Grodenchik reflect against the seemingly so gung ho Kirk idea of Starfleet and the reality of war. Individual episodes such as “Treachery, Faith, and the Great River” no longer feel like filler or tossed away scripts, and “Once More Unto the Breach” ties up all the Klingon loose ends thanks to J.G Hertzler as Martok and John Colicos as Kor. The complete ensemble is represented with well-balanced plots and storylines. Deep Space Nine isn’t fighting to find its footing amid multiple arcs and a full episode order here, and now it’s frickin’ time to go! 

Now then, about ‘The Sisko’! Though it is completely fitting for Avery Brooks’ character, I’m not so sure if I want Sisko to have shades of the divine. The brief Benny Russell visions and speculations in “Shadows and Symbols,” however, have wonderful possibilities. Benny, writing on the wall in a fifties cell despite the objections of the Pah-Wraiths on Bajor. It sounds confusing I know, but those familiar with the behind the scenes of Deep Space Nine have perhaps heard of the writers’ thoughts on using the Benny plots and “Far Beyond the Stars” to conclude the series. I, for one, kind of wish they had. I realize some extreme Star Trek fans may have objected to this type of St. Elsewhere Tommy Westphall finale, but the idea that an oppressed minority has created the fantastical society of hope and peace that we know and love to me is totally in the spirit of Star Trek. Is this not what the very genre of science fiction is about? Folks in our technologically obsessed society say we live in such a high tech age that there is nothing left to event. Is this not Star Trek’s goal, to teach us to continue to use our mind, body, and soul in the quest for the highest aspirations? I could go on in great detail, but I don’t want to give too many spoilers! Suffice to say, this timeless, cultural crossing, and racial barrier breaking SF notion indirectly implied by Deep Space Nine is what stands out the most for me in the series.  Well, that and these dang displeasing, barely there, almost background appearances of Jake Sisko. What gives with his whole mishandling? Seriously, there are some situations where he should be much more significant and is absent. So, needless to say, the return to his and Penny Johnson as Kasidy Yates’ familial focus in “What You Leave Behind” seems a little hollow to me in comparison to the over-reaching Benny possibilities.  

Lastly, let me share a few thoughts on the big Dax cast change. Ironically, Jadzia’s death in Year 6 has actually made some character developments better in Deep Space Nine’s final season. Her absence has lingered over the cast and strengthened other characters and relationships. Had the powers that be had an inkling about Ezri Dax sooner, I would have killed Jadzia off a long time ago.  It’s weird how all the men loved Jadzia as if there was no other female interests available, but Ezri is cute and flawed. “Afterimage” and “Prodigal Daughter” are nice in showing a Trill who isn’t happy and has problems with the Symbiont situation. This confusion and us getting to know Ezri as she gets to know herself is refreshing, for we learn more about Ezri than we ever knew about Jadzia.  How can Ezri counsel someone when she is the one in need? Is this a second chance for one couple or a bad romance for the wrong one? Such interesting questions were never brought up by the Jadzia ho hum, but unfortunately, this promise is in a somewhat blasé contrast to all the finality and wrapping up of Year 7. There’s simply too much focus and featuring of Ezri in different relationship dynamics and opportunities in the first half of the season- stunted developments between her and Jake, for example.  I like Ezri lots, but we are winding down with a cast that, in some ways thanks to the uneven early seasons, we hardly knew. So if this cast change couldn’t have happened sooner, it shouldn’t have happened at all. Like the way I have this paragraph at the end of my review, Ezri just seems tacked on at DS9’s last minute. Did we really need her for Deep Space Nine’s ten-part epic conclusion? The sad answer is, no.

Long time fans of Deep Space Nine probably feel this Season 7 is the height of Trekdom, and in many ways, it is. The meaning of Star Trek has been torn apart this series only to build it back up again mightier than before. While there are still a few character inconsistencies and unrealized developments that put a dent in the overall vision, this is most definitely the series’ finest hour.  Unfortunately for newer Star Trek fans or casual science fiction audiences, this Year 7 cannot be taken in by itself. There have been times I wanted to pull my hair out over this show’s uneven handling and often poor approach, and it’s tough to tell audiences you must watch a lot of crap to get to its goods. Can’t they just release DVD sets of only the quality episodes of Deep Space Nine?  And yet, is it worth putting up with some of the filler and annoyances of Seasons 4, 5, and 6 to get to this splendor of Deep Space Nine’s finale? Yes. Yes it %^&# is!

25 November 2012

Deep Space Nine Season 6

Deep Space Nine Season 6 is Almost All Glory!
By Kristin Battestella

After getting excited over some of Deep Space Nine’s greatness to only end up disappointed over its filler and meandering ways, loyal viewers of the Star Trek spin off are finally rewarded with all this goodness!

Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) is in the thick of the Dominion War along with Klingons, Cardassians, and even Romulans. Commander Worf (Michael Dorn), however, is planning to marry Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell). Doctor Julian Bashir (Alexander Sidding) uncovers the mysterious Section 31’s action during the war while Chief Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney) also takes on missions of a duplicitous nature. Security Constable Odo (Rene Auberjonois), Bajoran Major Kira (Nana Visitor), and Ferengi bartender Quark (Armin Shimerman) must make tough choices while under Dominion occupation, and the Prophets and Pah-Wraiths of Bajor contribute to the fatal decisions.

Every season, DS9 had gems where a viewer hoped it had hit its stride. Back and forth? Again? This is it! Nope. Back peddled here, but yes. Yes. This is good! Make no mistake; the glorious six-part opening of Year 6 is perhaps the best yet. A complete balance and ensemble of action and players each having their moments across the galaxy with fractured battle tales on the Defiant, the station, and on Klingon Birds of Prey.  All the cast and recurring dynamos rise to the occasion. If there had been half as many episodes of Deep Space Nine, but each season had been a mini series arc like this, I’d utterly adore this show!   Unfortunately, I do think the use of The Prophets in “Sacrifice of Angels” to conclude the arc is a bit of damper, literally a dues ex machina cop out.  The viewer should have expected a divine intervention- why wouldn’t The Prophets do something about the war after doing so much for Bajor? However, no one bothers to suggest their help or even acknowledges they should have a role in the Dominion War. Hey, let’s go talk to our alien gods and see what they can do to help! Tossing this out so late in the game is a bit of that DS9 back peddle again. It’s the bane of this series to never quite make up its mind. Amid this hitting of Deep Space’s Nine stride- almost when the series is over!- there are still some clunkers this season. “Resurrection” puts an unnecessary not-Vedik Bareil (Philip Anglim) hitch into the Mirror Universe, and though a lovely little bottle character vignette, “The Sound of her Voice” is too lightweight for a second to last episode of a wartime season.  The finale itself “Tears of the Prophets” also feels a little formulaic and anti-climatic. It’s a bit of a weak cliffhanger after all we’ve just been through. Thankfully, “Who Mourns for Morn?” is a much more delightful reaction episode with a touch of sentimentality.

With the glory that is Avery Brooks as Benjamin Sisko this season, one has to wonder why Deep Space Nine hasn’t been doing exceptional black family history dynamics and race relations science fiction parallels all along. “Far Beyond the Stars” is an exceptional episode, perhaps thee show of the series. To have today’s sci-fi looking back on the foundings of the genre itself in speculation of everything in such a wonderful mind bending way! I want to say more, but shan’t. Likewise, “In the Pale Moonlight” is Sisko showing up to play directly to the camera and facing the point of no return. Andrew Robinson’s Garak is equally up to the challenge as the would-be devil of the episode’s titular quote. Wow. “The Magnificent Ferengi,” by contrast, is a lovely little western stand-off send-up with Armin Shimerman as Quark along with all our favorite guest stars- Jeffrey Combs, Max Grodenchik, Aron Eisenberg, Chase Masterson, Cecily Adams, and even Iggy ^$#&* Pop!  This familiar relief should have followed the heavy opening arc, and the subsequent “Waltz” one-on-one madness with our favorite vile Cardassian, Marc Alaimo as Dukat, is just excellent. Dukat has justified his villainy to the point where it is perfectly reasonable to him.  After “Sons and Daughters,” “Favor the Bold,” and “Sacrifice of Angels,” I’m sorry to see Melanie Smith depart as Ziyal, but the exit of the character and its impact on others is perfect.  And it’s so nice to see Jake again in “Valiant.” It’s a fine chance for Cirroc Lofton to get in on the wartime action and ask critical questions about youth in battle. Perhaps it is a one-off show, but it ties into The Dominion plots and doesn’t provide any easy answers.

Strangely, Colm Meaney and his Chief O’Brien become a bit diminished in the slow undercover “Honor Among Thieves.” It’s a nice debate about subterfuge and sadness, but some of these quiet episodes just get lost amid the heavy glory. “Time’s Orphan” could have been a nice O’Brien family pain show, but it all ends up too easily resolved. Thankfully, “One Little Ship,” is a cute little show.  It’s dangerous and perilous, but a charming, vintage SF concept with a Trek spin. “My Way” is also a swinging good way to get Nana Visitor’s Major Kira and Rene Auberjonois as Odo together thanks to the lovely James Darren as the hip and wise Vic Fontaine hologram. Sure, some fans aren’t going to like the period style or the relationship, but it’s not as weird as the hokey Pah-Wraith effects and irritatingly perfect Louise Fletcher as that pesky Kai Winn in “The Reckoning.”  All our favorite Ferengi do more in “Profit and Lace” with a fun look at women’s rights and gender issues in Ferengi society. It isn’t too farcical or heavy-handed but makes a good little statement and science fiction amalgam. And who knew we’d finally see something of Julian Bashir in “Inquisition.”  Is this the first time we see his quarters? You can’t really know someone when we haven’t gone home with him. Unfortunately, I’m not entirely pleased about the advent of the shadowy Section 31. One may not prefer Vic Fontaine’s tunes or like Kira and Odo as a couple, but the creation of Section 31 is another deal breaker that will have viewers throw their arms in the air. One wouldn’t need to create the subterfuge and undermining of all the Starfleet that we know and love if you consistently create solid characters dealing with dilemmas within themselves as in “In the Pale Moonlight.” I’m surprised they continued to use the Section 31 angles over the much more refined Benny elements from “Far Beyond the Stars”- but there’s more of that in the seventh and final season.

Likewise, the ball is still dropped regarding Michael Dorn’s relocated Worf and his new wife, the departing Terry Farrell as Jadzia Dax.  “You Are Cordially Invited” is Klingon fun, but the treatment of Marc Worden as Alexander is iffy. I don’t know why the writers felt the need to essentially write out familial relationships for Worf and O’Brien- even Jake and Sisko are reduced along with Penny Johnson as Kasidy Yates family-wise.  Of course, Jadzia is also still a waste, complaining that she actually has some sort of cryptic deciphering Science Officer stuff to do right up to the end. Why create the Worf as parent possibility when you are writing out his son on top of Jadzia’s imminent departure? The baby bonding with Worf is laid on too bittersweet. You can’t appreciate the dearly departed sentiment on the first viewing. It has to grow on you; otherwise, the characters just feel so ho-hum. These developments make no sense, and the opportunity for Sisko and O’Brien to have fatherly bonding time is relegated to brief B storyline moments. Both a lot of big things and too many little things happen in the “Tears of the Prophets” finale-  the invasion of Cardassia, and spoilers to no one, the death of Jadzia.  It’s all depressing, with the rest of the episode feeling more like time filler. You shouldn’t conclude such an awesome season on many little points when you have big exclamation points in the balance.  Is it over? Is that all? Invasions and death- shouldn’t this be heavier? Deep Space Nine may have ended right here, and after all of Season 6’s glory, no one would have noticed. Once again, the series’ nagging built-in pitfalls hamper an otherwise fine year.

It’s ironic. Again, the full length of the season creates this very need for filler and a stretching of the goodness too thin. Having no money for meaty episodes requires individual and bottle shows that detract and take away from the heavy, dark, and battle driven ensemble.  Had there been less shows, the production could have ponied up for the action and stars the story needed to be its complete seamless tapestry. Goodness, six seasons of Deep Space Nine and I still feel like this leg of Trek is only half good thanks to such unevenness.  Were DS9 on television today and one randomly tuned in to a crappy episode, it would be very easy to pass on the entire show. As opposed to The Next Generation before it, where from late in Season 2 straight thru Season 6 almost every episode is a solid, memorable adventure that can be viewed time and again.  Audiences can’t judge all of Highlander: The Series by its weaker first season or woeful last season- Years 3, 4, and 5 are day in and day out dynamite. With Deep Space Nine, however, you have the First and Second Season stinkers, the developmental debut feeling in Year 3, then the same half greatness in Seasons 4 and 5 before this shared glory in Year 6.  Where are we to define this series’ overall flawed presentation? With one year remaining, it feels like DS9 never lives up to its potential. How can one claim this is the best Star Trek incarnation when its very persona feels based upon uneven fluff logistics and time wasters?   Cut the seasons in half, give us fully developed arching greatness, and we can talk about the exceptional merits of Deep Space Nine. Season 6 proves it can be done, so ignore the quibbles and go for the glory this year while it lasts.

23 November 2012

Deep Space Nine Season 5

Deep Space Nine Further Ups the Ante for Season 5
By Kristin Battestella

I feel like I’m always saying finally with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Finally characters have been developed for better or worse. Finally it has gotten itself on track in this fifth season. Finally, at last DS9 is mostly all goodness!

Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) and his Security Chief Odo (Rene Auberjonois) must uncover the Changelings’ plans to infiltrate the Klingon High Council in order to broker a new peace with the Empire. Worf (Michael Dorn), meanwhile, begins a relationship with Trill Science Officer Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell), and Major Kira (Nana Visitor) must carry the O’Briens’ (Colm Meaney and Rosalind Chao) baby to term while facing her own past. Jake Sisko (Cirroc Lofton) becomes a war correspondent as the Federation fights the Klingons, Maquis, Cardassians, and The Dominion, and the battle intrigue provides major revelations for Doctor Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig).

Some of the personal and family station-side on Deep Space Nine is substituted for wrapping up the Klingon leftovers from Year 4, and those heavies do take until mid-year here to completely resolve amid the forthcoming Dominion angst in “Call to Arms.” In the premiere “Apocalypse Rising” and battle episodes like “Soldiers of the Empire,” these criss-crossing plots are effective. Unfortunately, we spend so much time with the build up of Changeling infiltration and blood testing suspense- particularly in the two-part “In Purgatory’s Shadow” and “By Inferno’s Light”- before these twists are subjectively utilized or simply dropped all together by the end of the season and The Dominion War. I feel as though we’ve spent three years waiting for the dang Dominion already! Thankfully, “For the Uniform” and “Blaze of Glory” resolve the Maquis drama in fine form, and “Empok Nor” is an interesting little horror-esque askew look at how DS9 might have been. “Children of Time” also adds Deep Space Nine’s touch of sacrificing darkness to its sweet Trek form, and of course, “Trials and Tribble-ations” is also exceptional just for the novelty alone. When you see how simply glorious The Original Series can look intercut with the 24th century, one wonders why we ever left Kirk’s era. Even if you are a non Deep Space Nine Star Trek fan and might miss a few internal references, this episode is simply a must see.

Strangely, it seems as though we don’t have much Sisko-centric material beyond the Emissary touch in “Rapture.” Remove his individual episodes and you’re left with just more room for Battle Sisko Badassery from “Apocalypse Rising” thru the “Call to Arms” finale. Although it is weird how both Cirroc Lofton and Melanie Smith as Ziyal have no goodbye scenes with their parents during the premiere or before any of the year’s critical scenarios.  Jake has some good cowardice questions in “Nor the Battle to the Strong” and there is family friendly teen fun with Aron Eisenberg as Nog for “In the Cards.”  After such lovely father/son relationship pieces in prior seasons, however, the Sisko family moments are too minuscule to enjoy here. Thankfully, Rene Auberjonois keeps the intimate and personal going with Odo’s history and prior Terok Nor dilemmas in “Things Past” and “The Begotten.”  Some of the shapeshifter now a solid romance in “A Simple Investigation” is iffy, but the Odo and Armin Shimerman as Quark buddy material is once again great in “The Ascent.” “Ferengi Love Songs” and “Looking for par’Mach in All the Wrong Places” create some solid lightheartedness with a fun, unexpected Klingon and Ferengi mix. Though not everyone may like the Ferengi humor, Quark’s moral twists in “Business as Usual” are definitely a delight.

Sad spoilers ahead! Perhaps the weirdest changes Deep Space Nine presents for Season 5 are the revelations regarding Julian Bashir in “In Purgatory’s Shadow” and “Doctor Bashir, I Presume.” So, over the last four and a half years your regular show doctor has been made so nondescript that you can make him an alien and no one notices? Yes, this fundamental change was written after the fact and thus Alexander Siddig wasn’t even told to play the character differently. However, it is a little ridiculous that there was a bland enough regular- one that we’ve supposedly known and cared about all along- to which the writers can even do this.  Alien switcharoos notwithstanding, it turns out Bashir is also genetically enhanced ala Kahn infamy! Now, instead of letting the character languish in O’Brien’s coattails all this time, why wasn’t this secret Bashir’s bane there all along, creating a pleasing, dark development much more in DS9’s vein? We can look back now and presume Bashir’s deliberate mess ups and bad choices had meaning, but knowing this was all a change on the fly isn’t nearly as fulfilling as having had the audience in on the character’s difficulty from the beginning.  It’s a bit of a defining moment for Deep Space Nine. Either one sees this as the shedding of the child’s play from early seasons or this is the fed up and led astray viewer quitting over one too many cop out and sharked jumped ploys.  

Though the romance between Nana Visitor’s Major Kira and guest Duncan Rhegar as Minister Shakaar is also just too awkward, there is chemistry in the pregnant Visitor’s storyline with Colm Meaney as Chief O’Brien. After all, Kira is carrying his onscreen baby! The action risks for Kira in “The Darkness and the Light” might seem questionable due to the pregnancy plot, but the Bajoran debates are great. Likewise, Marc Alaimo is again perfection regarding the Kira/Dukat angst in “Ties of Blood and Water.”  Unfortunately, Rosalind Chao’s weird Pah–wraith takeover in “The Assignment” doesn’t help Keiko’s development any. The entire birth and her role in the family seems amiss, and the one-sidedness also creates a missing O’Brien feeling as well. He has some spooky fun in “Empok Nor” and pieces of B storylines dealing with babysitting, and ironically, it’s Jadzia Dax who gets the much needed dimension. Dax does more in “Soldiers of the Empire” than in 4 years of reporting the dockings at DS9! The episode itself is styled as what should be an inferior marauders or bandits type cliché; however it is so Klingon battle detailed awesome that all the players benefit from its success. Even Worf has some exceptional moments here, now that he finally has something major to do on Deep Space Nine. Of course, it doesn’t really last thanks to some serious WTF Risa politics in “Let He Who is Without Sin.” Once again, guest regulars like Andrew Robinson as Garak, Robert O’Reilly as Gowron, Kenneth Marshall as Eddington, and Jeffrey Combs as Weyoun are superior.  

Ironically, now that the larger Dominion plots and cast statements have seemingly what-took-you-so-damn-long put Deep Space Nine on the right track, it is too late for newcomers or casual fans to tune in for the complex, internal, multi-part glory.  In order to appreciate the gung ho moving forward of Season 5, viewers must be familiar with at least the two previous seasons.  Yes, it is a frustrating way to go- one must take the questionable shows and filler episodes of multiple meandering seasons to understand and enjoy when DS9 is good.  Even die-hard fans can’t dive in or pick and choose what hours to watch at will. However, it isn’t the arc storytelling itself that hurt- and perhaps still hurts- the show’s popularity.  It’s that it was apparently done so haphazardly in order to lock viewers into watching crappy stuff along with the gems. At this point in the series, if you’re in for an ounce, you must take the entire pound. Deep Space Nine has taken its sweet ass time in getting itself together, but finally, Star Trek fans who enjoy the heavy can at last praise the acceleration in Year 5.

20 November 2012

More Bela Lugosi Loquaciousness!

Still More Lugosi!
By Kristin Battestella

Forever typecast thanks to his unforgettable turn in Dracula, Bela Lugosi actually appeared in over one hundred films.  Fortunately for horror fans, most of his appearances lend themselves to the mystery, macabre, ghoulish, and ghastly. So here’s another batch of juicy and demented from Mr. Lugosi!

The Death Kiss - This 1932 murder mystery reteams Lugosi with David Manners and Edward Van Sloan from Dracula the year before and adds some glorious fashions, fur, feathers, sparkle, and top hats. Oh, did I forget to mention the superb Art Deco designs and backdrops? The early onscreen filmmaking and behind the scenes plots make for some interesting angles in the case, and great set deaths, smart editing, and trick photography keep up the suspense. The video, unfortunately, seems poor, with runtime and/or speed issues during the 70 plus minutes. Certain scenes have an odd stilted pace and it makes some of the darker action scenes tough. There’s also not a lot of Our Man Lugosi, either. Though his delivery is fine- no explanation is given for his name or accent- and Bela looks sharp in executive suits, it seems his Dracula better-scary-subterfuge-seen and not heard is the reason for his presence. Thankfully, the scandal, reporters, cops, and hysteria are a lot of fun- no one is upset at the victim’s demise and everyone’s pointing a finger. There’s a feeling of a Roxie Hart cashing-in, too, for the scorned women in the deceased thespian’s wake are immediately suspected. It’s a touch of taboo- lady murderers and divorce to match the witty dialogue and supporting crew ensemble.  Folks who enjoy analyzing early film ways or those interested in deduction’s birth onscreen can delight here.

The Devil Bat – Good Doctor Bela experiments with bats, cosmetics, and the latest SF machinery in this 1940 hour. A sweet laboratory with secret passages, cobwebs, great lighting, and buzzing sound effects counteract the goofy killer bat flying scenery and deadly prop shots- it’s all laughable and yet so charming.  There isn’t a lot of dialogue to start, but Bela’s quick to create his evil aftershave and bat with horns bait and switch, oh yes.  His little lab goggles and hair brained scheme- it’s so preposterous and yet so good!  Some of the intentional comedy falls a little flat in a few scenes, but those accustomed to this type of swift talking badumpbumpbump will be bemused. The rest of the cast is typical reporters and bumbling folks on the investigation with a pretty dame there just for the sake of it. Several poor quality prints also hamper a viewing, but thankfully, there are some new video releases and even an updated colorization. This was a poverty rock bottom production at the time, and it’s amazing how Lugosi can film the more ridiculous material here with such glee and character zest. Despite the fun, I find it a bit sad to see this desperate work and waste of his talent- but at least we get to see him drive a car!  Sigh, there’s just something about Bela Lugosi in a fedora, cruising along behind the wheel, smiling, and up to no good!

Invisible Ghost –Joseph H. Lewis (The Rifleman) directs Our Man Bela in the steady moving 65 minutes here. The 1941 sets and décor are simply excellent, with lush candle works, fireplaces, and gothic looks to accent the pre-war setting. Lugosi is wonderfully off kilter to start, too. He talks to a wife who isn’t there and insists her plate be served, for “After dinner, we’re taking a long walk!” He’s kooky and yet a seemingly loveable father. It’s delightful to see him kind and warm hearted- but come on, its Bela Lugosi!  We should know better, shouldn’t we? The supporting cast is decent as well, even if the investigations are somewhat of the time typical.  However, nothing is what it seems thanks to the murderous twists, deceiving staff, extra-marital affairs, hypnosis, courtroom escapades, vengeful twins, and more. Both thrilling sounds and ironic music cues underline a scare or two, and it’s all makes for a very entertaining little piece. I’d like to say more, but I don’t want to spoil anything!


One Body Too Many – Humor and crime cross again in this 1944 inheritance twister. It’s a little hackneyed to start and tough to hear in some spots, yes. I’m not so sure the fish out of water insurance salesman plot was needed, either. Though familiar, the suspense pace and spooky plot of folks forced to live together in a perilous mansion in accordance of a mysterious will feels demented enough for these 75 minutes.  And what makes a locked down house even creepier? When Bela Lugosi’s the butler! His scenes are brief but Big B has a few great subtle and classic zingers: “There are too many rats in this house, they should be done away with…I assure you, this coffee will not keep you awake!”  This ongoing gag would have been enough wit, and the astrology and mysticisms are made bemusing, too. The more obvious comedy isn’t bad- some of the jokes really work. However, the style is too dated and when combined with the low budget production, this mixed humor might be off putting to some. The music is also a bit more whimsical than scary, but fortunately, the old décor and shadowed photography work nicely with the critical burial tricks and wonderfully worthwhile deceptions.

Revolt of the Zombies – So I’m cheating a bit by listing this 1936 supposed sequel to White Zombie in our Bela spotlight, as he technically does not star in this hour-long focus on French Zombies and World War I. Yes, you read all that right. Stock footage of Lugosi’s hypnotic eyes is used here as part of the undead brainwashing- or rather on the “robot soldiers” as they are called. The sound is poor, but any innate flaws can be forgiven thanks to this very unique interwar look and Cambodian setting. Who would have thought someone would make a movie about the fictitious horrors of one war whilst on the brink of the next? The black and white shots of Angkor are also glorious and worth the viewing alone for scholars. Granted the men are wooden, the women stereotypical, and there’s some kind of love triangle if you can tell which guy is which. Ironically, there aren’t even that many scares or zombies to speak of, either. Thankfully, this one has enough novelty going for it to earn an audience. Who knew?

Scared to Death – What can I say; it’s Bela Lugosi in color! George Zucco (Dead Men Walk) and Molly Lamont (The Awful Truth) join The Man of the Hour for this 1947 flashback crime caper. Although the continuous transitions back and forth become somewhat comical- it really should have gone back once instead of shifting every few moments for just one dead sentence- a fun battle of wits unfolds amid the creepy autopsy talk and final moments of death debates. There are even hints of war intrigue in this quick 65 minutes, too. Some plot points, however, can be confusing- Lamont gets hysterical and afraid, but vows fearlessness and won’t leave nor grant a divorce. How would she know all the things that happened when she was locked in her room anyway? This wishy washy is probably the worst aspect of the film, along with its unavoidable faded color and poor print quality.  There’s also an inappropriate use of a little person as a silent prop complete with funny music announcing his presence, but the rest of the supporting cast is quite decent. A crazy maid, dumb cop, and annoying reporter combine for plenty of droll and make this one funnier than the supposed horror comedies of the day. It’s all so seriously deadpan, and in living color Lugosi is quite the charlatan!  Fans young and old who enjoy escapades such as Dracula: Dead and Loving It or Clue can have a romp here.


19 November 2012

Recent Horror Questionables

Recent Horror Split Decisions
By Kristin Battestella

When watching horror across the decades, one thing always seems to stand out: most recent macabre movies are kind of iffy.  Whether it’s a case of miscasting, poor effects, or weak scripts, here’s a quick look at a few 21st century films full of undecided ho-hum or what could have been.

The Divide – Michael Biehn (Aliens), Rosanna Arquette (Desperately Seeking Susan), and Courtney B. Vance (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) star in this freaky and dirty dystopian tale with a conflicted identity. It takes several starts to get going- a disaster, credits, black outs, frenetic camera work, strobe lighting, and action that’s so fast the audience can’t tell what’s happening. Somber music notes capture the desolation as people go nuts early in this crappy, dusty basement; but these depressing montages conflict with the in your face photography. Everyone freaks out as expected, but one critical twist happens too early and is subsequently never touched upon again. Is this SF action or social serious? The Unrated Version may polish the character development, but it is frustrating to the viewer when the plot can go either way and there are two cuts of the film.  The two full hours here are both not enough thanks to the confusion and too long over the slow motion breakdown onscreen. I understand the attempt at substance, but the editing is poor and the plot unbalanced. It’s tough to tell who is who, and all the titular division, paranoia, and desperation can’t exactly be highly stylized with such dirty subject matter. The breakdown of an already fractured group of people is nicer than the herky jerky action start, but the story still degrades into mindless shock value and becomes forced as weak and crazy men create the need for an action woman and veiled political statements. The make up and plausible collapse of health and social systems may be good, but who wants to watch a disaster movie where the assholes end up in charge? This could have been a fine film, but even if a final explanation was given or the ball not dropped on such a significant twist, this one simply can’t end well. What’s an audience to do?

Evil Eyes – The writer-within-a-film-frame aspects of this 2004 thriller intrigued me, but considering it’s a video direct from that pesky low budget embarrassing genre grist mill The Asylum, one can’t expect glory. Already dated thanks to old cameras, phones, laptops, and headphones, the VHS and newspaper clippings in the plot further detract from this contemporary-set film and make it seem even more low budget old. Weird colors and dream photography, jagged angles, unflattering up shots, and music cues are a little too on the nose.  Several breakings of the fourth wall are also too obvious. Sure, the premise is a bit familiar, but it’s sound and doesn’t need all these over the top misses. Simple shots of a blank screen with a blinking cursor in the corner are chilling enough. Udo Kier (Shadow of the Vampire) is a perfectly slick and shady Hollywood executive, but Adam Baldwin (Firefly) is tough to believe as a down on his luck screenwriter to start. Somehow, we expect him to be bad or crazy not the everyman, and the character improves as the twisted action, suspicion, and madness intensify. Is it coincidence that he writes and bad things happen or is it fate? Unfortunately, there isn’t enough mood or atmosphere despite some good gore.  Except for overboard plugs for Dreamworks, the tone here is all about the on the cheap and it just doesn’t go far enough.  It’s not all bad, but everything turns out a little too trite with a dumb ending.

Jennifer’s Shadow – Also called Chronicles of the Raven stateside, this 2004 spooky has a lot going for it. Faye Dunaway (Mommie Dearest) looks classy as always and has fun with all the freaky birds and macabre. The music is moody, adding to the disturbing atmosphere and scary night terrors. Although a full on gothic feeling might have been better served had this been a complete period piece, silent, demented action and chase scenes build the sinister intensity.  The language beats, however, feel weird. There’s a stilted English and Spanish mix that should have been one or the other, not a “No habla espanol bien” bumbling. We never get a real Argentine flavor, either. The dark photography and muted palette are also tough to see at times, and the audience can figure out the curse exposition and obvious twists before their fairly late appearances.  Nonetheless, all that could have been forgiven except for one major pitfall: Gina Philips (Jeepers Creepers) is a completely unfeeling and unlikable ‘pretty American girl in a foreign country’ waste on two legs. Not only is there an additional lookalike cliché tacked on, but thru either bad acting or poor scripting, the audience can’t like such a bitchy and selfish protagonist.  It’s tough to enjoy a film when you want something bad to happen to the lead! There are great surroundings here to chew on, and one really wants to like this little thriller. However, the ridiculous characterization does not make it easy.

The Wicker Tree – A chaste Christian couple from Texas (Brittania Nicol and Henry Garrett) is thrust into the naughty Scottish countryside for this 2011 revisit of The Wickerman. Our young leads lay it on thick with some annoyingly bad acting, and though creepy, Jacqueline Leonard (EastEnders) and Graham McTavish (The Hobbit) simply aren’t as juicy as Christopher Lee was in the original. Sub par cast notwithstanding, the very premise from writer and director Robin Hardy (also of the original) feels off. The young missionaries are written as brainwashed by their religion, too naive to live, and almost deserving of the mocking of their beliefs. Then the preachy pendulum beats the viewer over the head with evidence of how most Christian elements grew from pagan roots, making this not-a-sequel potentially offensive to audiences on either side of the fence. Both cultures are portrayed as oppressive or negative throughout the film, and the mix of country sassy turned gospel turned Celtic music also won’t be for everyone. The ridiculous subtitles during a sex scene and weak TnA here barely earn an R rating, too.  Lee’s brief appearance does add a touch of class; his voice carries a wonderful alluring question- but it isn’t enough. Likewise, the scares and sinister in the final act here can’t redeem all simply because we know what’s going to happen. Rightly or wrongly, this one makes more statements than modern run of the mill slashers, and perhaps it isn’t that bad in and of itself. Unfortunately, it’s just not the original.

And Do Avoid

Bride of Chucky – I thought this 1998 sequel was more recent that it actually is, and the dated music and fashion really shows. While Brad Dourif (Lord of the Rings) as the voice of Chucky is always fun, the line up of Jennifer Tilly (Bound), the late John Ritter (Three’s Company), and a very young Katherine Heigl (Grey’s Anatomy) is also too of the nineties, and the entire horror comedy plot turn comes off as a little impractical to say the least. It’s a little weird that we’re watching two dolls arguing- or worse, having sex! Tilly keeps it bemusing, but if you want true scares instead of puns, this tone just doesn’t work. Perhaps Bride isn’t a bad film on its own, and at the time, it was a good way to revitalize the Child’s Play franchise with a gimmick towards the follow up Seed of Chucky. However, the series has nonetheless ended up in direct to video and reboot territory, having traded in its original childhood fears for self-referential stupidity.

18 November 2012

More Silent Horror and Early Macabre

Early Horror Part Deux
By Kristin Battestella

Silent or talkie, the stars not only came out during the Great Depression to make some dang fine horror films and suspense thrillers but churned out a smorgasbord of scary classics!

The Bat – The 1959 Vincent Price remake of this 1926 once lost silent is a fine little caper, but this moody little mystery is a treat all its own. The perfectly atmospheric music accents the interesting stage like perspectives and design.  These painted backgrounds will certainly look old and cheap to modern effects laden eyes, but there’s also something fun and distinctive about the look. Great bat costumes, shadows, and silhouettes also work wonderfully with the spooky mansion interiors.  The opening establishing shots and long transitional action scenes do seem slow at times, however. When sequences are too long without intercard breaks, it is tough to tell who is who, where they are, or what’s going on. It’s almost tempting to watch at 1.5 speed, and for those unaccustomed to silent films, 80 minutes will seem overlong.  Unfortunately, there’s also some early Asian racism and a stereotypically hysterical maid, but the touches of humor and bemusing title card beats do wonders.  I’m not sure why infamous director Roland West felt the need to remake his own work here again in 1930, either. The cast interplay is solid, and the mystery intensifies perfectly.  Besides, who doesn’t love a lost film found?

Condemned to Live – Sympathetic vampires take an early forefront in this 1935 hour. Familial angles create emotion and relationships in contrast to the would-be sinister and village paranoia, and the lovelorn twists and internal conflicts make for a likeable dilemma. The gothic music, old school vampire bats, tolling bells, and period dialogue may seem simple at times, and the vampire mechanics come a little too easy, sure. Thankfully, the ambiance of it all adds to the love triangle, and there is some thematic smartness, “Fear of the monster?” “No, fear for the monster.” The tone feels more like a drama or a tragedy that happens to have horrific elements rather than a shock and scare in your face pace. Plot reveals and exposition are presented with honesty, feeling, and concern, and the sincerity forgives any early hunchbacks and angry mob clichés.  But who doesn’t love a good angry mob anyway?  

The Devil Doll –Tod Browing (Dracula) directs Lionel Barrymore (It’s a Wonderful Life) and Maureen O’Sullivan (Tarzan and His Mate) in this demented 1936 tale based upon the book Burn Witch Burn. It’s all somewhat preposterous, of course- shrunken people being passed off as dolls in order to exact their master’s revenge! Fortunately, the fun if primitive effects and tiny treats don’t look too bad and actually add to the neat laboratory and science abominations.  Yes, all these Parisian folks have American accents, some of the miniature scenes are comical before scary vengeance, and there is a brief scene that won’t be for dog lovers. Thankfully, quality mistaken crimes, good old-fashioned payback, and an entertaining chase montage keep up the pace. More intriguing, however, is the unique cross dressing disguise toeing the Hayes Code here. Barrymore works it wonderfully; we never get the feeling the fashion or tone is hammy. By contrast, there is an element of sophistication and superior thought. It may seem odd to have such wacky science alongside these early taboos, mature suspense, and crime thriller designs, but the stars keep the humanity fun, relatable, endearing, and certainly worth a look.

Fall of the House of Usher – This very early 1928 silent adaptation of Poe’s macabre tale is only 13 minutes. There are no inter cards to read, nor what we would call dialogue. The fashions are decidedly Roaring instead of Victorian, too.  The visuals are so out there-even nonsensical-that it’s almost tough to see Edgar in any of it.  Nonetheless, this moody piece is perfectly disturbed with great, haunting organ music and eerie, distorted photography.  It’s trippy, unexpected, and a little scary. This is another one of those old films that makes for a great demented projection during a spooky party or ghoulish gallery presentation. Though not for everyone, anyone who is a fan of early film experimentation or audiences who just like weird shows should definitely check this out.

Maniac –Shades of Poe strike again in this quick 1934 study of fear and unnatural science from director Dwain Esper (Marihuana).  How does the brain work? Are the mania stages mental disease or intelligent design? Taboo topics such as suicide and some hidden kinky are unfortunately hampered by the over the top identity crisis acting and confusing plot holes- not to mention a very poor video print. Perhaps the weird medical jargon filled intertitles are meant to explain or bemuse, but they interrupt the twisted action and building insanity. Creepy cat violence, code side-stepping lingerie, nudity, and catfights of a different kind add to the nonsensical presentation here. The realization and premise here certainly could be better- this one is really pretty bad overall. Yet, I must say, there’s an audience for this kind of avante garde tongue in cheek raunchy and hair brained macabre.

The Vampire Bat – Fay Wray (King Kong), Dwight Frye (Dracula), Melyvn Douglas (Hud), and Lionel Atwill (Captain Blood) get right to the bloodsucking crimes, superstitions, and disbelievin’ for this 1933 scary.  Though the picture quality is poor for the hour and there are several versions available, fun dialogue, intelligent debates, and modern science versus medieval fears drama make up for any innate production flaws.  Classic sets, bemusing laboratories, and an on-form stellar cast accent the spooky mystery mood. There are a few jump moments, twists, chases, and good old-fashioned screams, too.  It’s actually somewhat pleasing to not see any of the would-be supernatural, but follow the early paranormal investigation and village paranoia instead.  Are these murders fantastic or criminal medicine? The audience is slowly let in on the secrets, and the pace builds perfectly for a perilously fun and entertaining finish.