26 March 2013

I Confess

I Confess a Lovely Little Murder Mystery Thriller
By Kristin Battestella

I’m not sure why the 1953 Alfred Hitchcock noir treat I Confess seems so unloved. Bias alert! I love Montgomery Clift, I love Alfred Hitchcock, and despite their trouble behind the scenes, this Catholic infused and French flavored thriller feels like a match made in heaven.

Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift) is alone in his Quebec City rectory one night and finds handyman Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) distressed. Father Logan hears Otto’s confession, and it is indeed a confession – to murder. Soon enough, Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) is investigating the crime, and each clue leads him to suspect Father Logan –who is increasingly wracked with guilt over this truth he cannot reveal as Keller pressures him and further implicates Father Logan to the police.  The distraught priest turns to his pre-war flame Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), but their friendship is more a hindrance than a help for Father Logan. Not only is he a priest, but Ruth is married to a high profile politician. To keep her past romance with Father Logan from becoming public scandal she was being blackmailed – by Keller’s victim.


I Confess has a very interesting premise and plot from writers George Tabori (Thunder in the East) and William Archibald’s (The Innocents) adaptation of Paul Anthelme’s original play. The crime preys upon our religious securities and sanctities at a time when the church was absolute- further heavies were excised from the first draft due to the studio’s fifties sensibilities. This is sacred stuff- even a murder heard in confession – and the dark filming, lighting tricks and shadow works, and claustrophobic designs add to the atmospheric dilemma. Director Hitchcock (no reference needed) films in cramped confessional booths with extreme angles and lighting thru gratings and objects. Backs are turned in the frame, faces are hidden, and strategic shadows overwhelm the background. Camera shots on the conflicted Clift are up close, tight, and intense like his inner turmoil or wide extremes of the tiny robed man in the big city or crowd, overwhelmed by the situation. By contrast, Law offices and court proceedings are traditionally shot bright and revealing sequences – each visual is used to reflect the mood at hand perfectly. Flashbacks are used to tell the crime itself or past happiness, and the recountings work because these memories and viewpoints are shaded, distorted, and unreliable testimonials. The audience knows who the killer is, yet the pace, story, and cast deliver the suspense, scandal, blackmail, and twists.  

Considering his Old Hollywood movie star looks, it seems odd to say Montgomery Clift (From Here to Eternity, A Place in the Sun) looks the part of a priest, but his method works are simply on form.  Father Logan is humble in his robes, delicate about setting the alter, and unassuming of all else. Any other day, he seems like he would be a likeable, dutiful, good, believing, and God-fearing man. Clift quickly ingrains this history before the titular confession, pursuit, and lost romance slowly unravels both the man and the priest.  Everything Father Logan is withholding is to help others at the expense of himself; it’s a willingly martyrdom because it is the right, by the rules thing to do, yet Father Logan has been given too much to handle and unwilling carries this secret. He could walk away, make it easy for himself – but he doesn’t. Father Logan’s conviction is both admirable and undoing him. So, let’s add what looks to be an affair on top of that turmoil! Despite my Monty love, I can see how his obsessive not breaking character routine – especially for a character that’s so priestly calm on the outside and boiling inside – would drive Hitchcock insane. However, I must say the behind the scenes antagonism probably added to Clift and his character in knots portrayal. It’s a pity star and director didn’t get along, as I would have liked to see this push and pull collaboration again. I Confess gets more intense as it goes on, and this is one of those films where you find yourself getting closer to the TV and shouting.  Halfway thru I’m always yelling, “Just tell them! Tell! God will forgive you just this one time if you tell!”

Where classic film aficionados may argue for and against Clift and Hitchcock, I think it is universally agreed that Anne Baxter is the weakest point of I Confess. Certainly that old time censorship was already touchy over relations between a married woman and a priest, but Baxter (All About Eve, The Ten Commandments) is too clingy and over the top compared to Clift’s decidedly subdued style. They don’t have a lot of chemistry; in fact, they seem rather awkward – especially when Ruth is adorned with pigtails in the romancey flashback.  Normally I love Baxter in her feisty, sassy, tough roles, but Ruth is too fearful and jittery for someone who is supposed to be an upscale politician’s wife.  She’s made up to look so golden and wholesome, yet Ruth is also portrayed as a scandalous, illicit housewife. Perhaps one woman could be both, but that balance isn’t happening in this love story offshoot.  Of course, if Ruth appeared less, it wouldn’t be so bad, but her narration of said romancey flashback drags down the interrogation in the middle of the film and forces an unnecessary female element into I Confess. The man alone inside/out priest conflicts, O.E. Hasse (Betrayed) and his crazy desperation wild eyes, and Dolly Haas (Broken Blossoms) as Keller’s haggard, fraught wife are far more interesting than any decades old love lost.

Fortunately, Karl Malden (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Streets of San Francisco) as Inspector Larrue proves a worthy chest player for Clift’s Father Logan. Their interrogation scenes are great – what begins as supposedly casual and open, helpful conversations repeatedly wear and rise into angry, difficult, intrusive trial drama.  The viewer dislikes Larrue because he is wrongly pursuing Father Logan.  Yet as fellow puzzle piecing players, we like his rough, go to techniques and want to see him find the truth and catch the real killer. Despite their fundamental impasse, both men do want the same thing.  What first time viewers won’t know is how far Larrue is going to take his incrimination of Father Logan. Technically both sides have every rule abiding reason to take their respective courses of action – but only one can be the victor and justice must be done.

The Quebec City scenery itself also lends unique support to I Confess.  The outdoor filming and lovely church iconography add a distinctly foreign and ecclesiastic flavor, and these elements standout among Hitchcock’s repertoire. Likewise, multiple Hitch composer and Oscar winner Dimitri Tiomkin’s (High Noon) score accents the highs and lows perfectly as the intensity of I Confess escalates. Granted, some of the mid century Canadian legal practices might be confusing to those accustomed to today’s typical and oft seen American law dramas. However, the courtroom elements and any French references don’t hinder the plot at hand. Subtitles are essential to hear some of the soft voices, and the Turner Classic Movies Hitchcock Thrillers Collection DVD set offers a behind the scenes short and vintage newsreel treats.  Of course, I own this set I Confess shares with Suspicion, Strangers on a Train, and The Wrong Man, and yet I can’t help but watch every time it comes on television.  You think you know it by heart and can just casually have it on in the background, but no.  I Confess draws you into its secrets. 

Longtime Hitchcock fans have probably already dissected I Confess, but budding Sir Alfred fans, lovers of mysteries and suspense, fans of the cast, and classic film connoisseurs should definitely give this little conflicted church gem their undivided attention.


24 March 2013

Voyager Season 6

Voyager Season 6 is a Bit All Over the Place
By Kristin Battestella

Despite building some steady work in Seasons 3, 4, and 5, Star Trek: Voyager’s Sixth Season overly relies on the Borg even further. Individual, one off quality episodes become overshadowed by Borg connections and create a confused, uneven vision for the season.

After facing her Starfleet demons, stranded in the Delta Quadrant Captain Katherine Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and her ship Voyager struggle against the Borg as the separated from the Collective Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) battles her own Borg troubles inside and out with good and bad results thanks to the ship’s holographic Doctor (Robert Picardo). Fortunately, the Federation hasn’t given up on Voyager, and technological advances make it possible for the ship’s growing family to communicate with earth – and just maybe help bring them home.

The “Equinox” two-parter concluding Year 5 and beginning Season 6 should have happened a lot sooner for Voyager, simply put.  Janeway is on the edge and confronted with Starfleet reaffirmations, role reversals, and moral conflicts with another desperate ship.  Voyager being not so nice and bright creates a lot of good to start the season, but this kind of in your face question of faith is happening far too late in the series. There are less than two seasons left and now we get the first good antagonist use of Robert Beltran as Commander Chakotay in a long while.  Why did they ever toss out the Maqui angst if the crew’s rough patches are the best part? Longtime viewers also wonder why Tim Russ’ Vulcan Tactical Officer Tuvok doesn’t speak up in these critical situations.  The special effects and ship designs still look good now a decade on, and Trek audiences will see touches of Ronald Moore’s sensibilities, too. However, if we didn’t get this conflict sooner, than dang it should have lasted longer and left some lingering effects. Like any potential romance between the Doctor and Seven, all the angst from “Equinox” is dropped by the next episode. By time we get to more Janeway spotlights in “Good Shepherd,” the lower decks folks and their contrived shuttle mission just aren’t that interesting.  “Dragon’s Teeth” does some fine work in showing Voyager’s interference in the Delta Quadrant, but Janeway and company start a war and then move on their merry way. These no consequences storylines become increasingly iffy and obvious, and when there is quality on Voyager, it’s as if no one saw the series at this point. Memory Alpha barely has any background info on these later seasons of Voyager. This is an overall poor and simply un-received era of Trekdom, and it’s a shame when classic Trek shows like “Blink of an Eye” tackle fundamental planetary differences and Voyager’s influence on an entire society goes unseen.

Interesting Borg angles make their presence known early in “Survival Instinct,” but this Seven focus is intriguing compared to Voyager’s forthcoming Borg overkill.  “One Small Step” is a nice nod to the Alpha Quadrant past with some real growth for Seven, too, but the ball is dropped regarding Chakotay yet again. Likewise, “The Voyager Conspiracy” is a fun way to wonder about the possibilities of the show – it might have been damn interesting if these nefarious accusations on how Voyager got to the Delta Quadrant were true. Unfortunately, at this point, it’s too weird to suspect folks just because Seven has another malfunction, and spoilers, it’s all resolved by Janeway doing a Kirk talk down of her Borg anyway.  At this point in the series, the production really has nothing to loose, yet episodes often end with the safest answer possible.  And oh yeah, these ten year-saving jumps the ship makes from time to time on its way home? They are often afterthoughts in the Captain’s log. It’s a pity if you think about all Voyager’s lost potential, but thankfully, Robert Picardo is always delightful. From the fun and lighthearted “Tinker Tenor Doctor Spy” and the human emotion versus science and mathematics of “Virtuoso” to the touch too much The Next Generation feelings of “Memorial” and “Life Line” with guest Marina Sirtis, Picardo delivers on any and all ask of him. Unfortunately, “Tsunkatse” is one of those needless Seven in the arena with The Rock ‘televised fight to the death’ episodes that every series seems to pull out of its butt at some point.  Why, why why?

Although “Alice” also reeks of obvious parallels to Christine, it’s nice to see any outing with Robert Duncan McNeill as Tom Paris since it feels like we haven’t seen him in awhile.  I’m not sure why each of the characters have a bizarre dream, mixed mental, or reality bending episode at some point, either, and “Barge of the Dead” is a little too implausible. It’s tough for a Trek audience to get in touch with our Klingon spirit after being away from it for so long, but it’s nice to see Roxann Dawson and B’Elanna Torres again in “Muse,” too. “Fury,” however, is an awkward way to bring former regular Jennifer Lien back as Kes. It simply doesn’t go far enough in revisiting her previous relationships with Tuvok and Ethan Phillips as Neelix, and more should have been done with this pair in “Riddles.” Despite fine moments with the players, there is no mention of their Tuvix dilemma, and it feels like obvious Vulcan questions or holodeck solutions are not presented. “Tsunkatse” could have been a serious spotlight for Tuvok – a dutiful pacifistic with Vulcan strength and martial arts training forced to fight to the death for the safety of others – but all development of his character has unfortunately ceased in favor of too many seemingly useless off the mission episodes like “Fair Haven” and “Live Fast and Prosper.”  We need holodeck excuse episodes for Janeway to get it on? These humorous and offshoot shows feel so incomplete with only neat idea beginnings and voiceover resolutions before everyone goes on their way for the week.  When episodes end with scenes other than exterior shots of Voyager traveling on her long way home, it feels like neither the journey nor the destination are the focus of the series.  Then what the heck is Voyager supposed to be about?

“Pathfinder” is a very smart way to get both the ship and show back in touch with the Alpha Quadrant, yes. It’s great to see Dwight Schultz as Reginald Barclay again – someone Trek fans know and love. Then again, this turn might be weird for any viewers who didn’t see The Next Generation. Isn’t it amazing that after six years, Voyager is still trying to ride TNG’s laurels? For longtime Star Trek viewers trying to hang on with Voyager, these retread TNG elements are unnecessarily shoehorned in – pleasing as it is to see that Starfleet is trying to get our titular ship home.  Likewise, there are both positives and negatives to the introduction of the Borg children.  Yes, barely alien juveniles rescued from the Collective ala Seven have nice episodes with “Collective” and “Child’s Play,” but it is simply too late in the game to introduce recurring players, much less kids and Borg individual retreads when we have underutilized regulars. The spooky of “The Haunting of Deck 12” is well placed before the finale, but these Borg problems should have happened together in Season 5. Seven’s pros and cons in contrast with the difficulty for the kids could have been interesting and kept the family aspects of Voyager going.  Perhaps then we could have moved Year 6 on from dang Borg instead of using them as the show’s crux.  Now, it just seems like every child cliché is being tossed into Voyager. I mean, there is even a Borg baby that just frigging disappears! Sticking these episodes with more of Garret Wang’s weak Harry Kim alien women issues in “Ashes to Ashes” and the been there, done that of “Spirit Folk” makes for a serious mix of left over concepts and random attempts – and it’s all at the expense of any promise Season 6 might have had. No wonder no one was watching Voyager and waiting around for the handful of decent shows.  If the production clearly didn’t care, why should the audience?

Seemingly pointless single character episodes create a meandering tone to begin this second to last season of Voyager, and after the half hearted attempts to finish the season, the “Unimatrix Zero” finale seems to comes out of nowhere with more Borg contrivances and one hefty cliffhanger.  It’s been tough to conclude these seasonal reviews when they end each year in such an interconnecting way, but the plots aren’t leaving much return value anyway. I wish that they had done one miniseries Borg season and gotten it all over with, but the lack of cohesion here puts the writing on the wall for Voyager.  Fans of Janeway, Seven, and the Doctor can delight by picking and choosing their preferred episode, and Trek fans can tune in for the 24th century familiarities, but Voyager is past the point of attracting general science fiction fans or new audiences with this all over the place penultimate season.

20 March 2013

Sharpe's Prey

Sharpe’s Prey Mostly an Entertaining Little Escapade
By Kristin Battestella

Bernard Cornwell filled in another gap of his Sharpe series’ chronology with the 2001 novel Sharpe’s Prey, and this time the titular raised from the ranks Lieutenant find himself on a secret mission in Denmark for more international intrigue between England and France in 1807.

Lieutenant Sharpe is stuck in England unhappy with the army and mourning the loss of his lover in childbirth when General Baird sends him on a mission to Denmark with enough gold to win the Danes’ alliance against France and ensure their impressive fleet remains out of Napoleon’s hands.  Sharpe, however, makes it his personal mission to pursue John Lavisser, a double agent looking to sell England’s spies to France.

First and foremost, we spend a solid amount of Sharpe’s Prey with the man himself. In these newer Sharpe novels, my main complain has consistently been the lack of Sharpe – his point of view journey as a man alone is often found on the short end of the dangerous battle or sociological stick. In Prey, however, there is a pleasant London background to begin the tale. Sharpe is brooding and angry and has returned to his haunts in England, and it’s great to see his reflections on past, present, and future. Later on, we’re treated to some exclusive time with Sharpe as a man alone captured, escaped, and in pursuit in circumstances as tiny as a chimney or as huge as the Battle of Koge.  Unfortunately, the relationship with the widowed Astrid is a bit obvious. Is there a novel where Sharpe doesn’t get the girl? We know it’s going to happen and sometimes the romance feels awkward or forced. We know Sharpe will get over the deceased Grace from the previous year’s Sharpe’s Trafalgar. The longtime reader also knows Sharpe is not going to runoff and play house in Copenhagen and that another chick will be along soon enough for the next novel in the timeline, Cornwell’s first prequel, 1988’s Sharpe’s Rifles.  Thankfully, there isn’t that much of the romance, and Sharpe’s silent mourning of Grace is well done, along with the friendly appearances of Captain Chase and his ship the Pucelle carrying over from Trafalgar. All these military troubles and it’s the thoughts on love lost that almost bring our deadly, often murderous hero to the breaking point. These inner monologues and one-man adventure concepts are Sharpe at its best.

We get a solid Sharpe – that’s who we’re here for, after all – so it almost doesn’t matter that the often absentee villain Lavisser is a limp fish in character and on the page. We don’t even find out his secret aspiration is to be King of Denmark until the final chapters of the book! Beyond clichés, where is his motivation and anger the rest of the time? In some of the recent Sharpe novels when there is both a barely there Sharpe and a cheap villain, it’s been some stinky tough reading. When the books have been both heavy with Sharpe dilemmas and had stunning, reappearing villains like Hakeswill or Major Ducos, however, it’s been some damn dynamite reading. Of course, overlong scenes without Sharpe have been the bane of the newer Sharpe novels.  Once again, we have numerous scenes with English and Danish generals leading abstract battle plans and soldier conversation. Little did he know, he would be disemboweled by the next  bomb – stuff like that. I confess, I tend to skim over these pages; they feel too long, unimportant, and they just don’t seem that interesting.  Does the reader care about the battle any more or less if we know the strategy from either side? Some of the ho hum minions of the villains do not warrant a point of view at all, much less a few pages per chapter of several nobodies. Like the pomp assy Lavisser, it’s no fun reading these jerky folks, and it shows in the writing. At least Lavisser as a diabolical Dane supporting France is plot point.  We need someone for Sharpe to pursue, don’t we?

Although it was a smart move to place the plot and action of Sharpe’s Prey in the new to Sharpe and relatively unexplored Danish angle of the Napoleonic wars, the change of pace might be off pointing to some.  It’s nice to meet Copenhagen, yes, but some longtime readers will find the location switch too much of a change, and it’s tough to do an un-heroic bombardment and be sympathetic on all sides. Not helping that difficult balance, Sharpe’s Prey ends, well, a little bit hokey. After a detailed build up, we’re left with the final few pages quickly wrapping up the Copenhagen destruction with rushed day after montages. Critical plot points hinging on daring orphanage rescues, cliché commanders, and hellish church deaths are almost laughable in a series so often grim and embittered like its eponymous character. This novel is better than some of the newer prequel placements in the series, but not quite on par with the original Sharpe books. Yes, Prey is a prequel after the fact, but Sharpe being without his woman, without his country, and away from his army leads nicely to his finding his place with the rifleman in the forthcoming Sharpe’s Rifles. So long as it sticks with Sharpe’s observations and his on the prowl, Prey remains entertaining reading.  

Where some of the new additions in the series faltered by straying too far from Sharpe, Prey is a good fit into the canon. It can be read out of turn thanks to its Danish set up, or in chronological order as Cornwell brings some of the previous India prequels and naval action back into a new area of Europe. Fans of the film series looking for new adventures can enjoy Sharpe’s Prey, and those who put down the newer, wayward, set elsewhere prequels can return to Sharpe here.

14 March 2013

Voyager Season 5

Uneven Cast and Concepts Hamper Voyager Season 5
By Kristin Battestella

After a stand up third season and fresh blood in Year 4, Star Trek: Voyager seems unsure of what to do with the rest of its cast after the infusion of Seven of Nine and Borg interests.  The result is an uneven domination of a few and leftovers for everyone else. What ever happened to “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one”?

Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and the lost in the Delta Quadrant starship Voyager must face unknown territory and familiar villains like the Borg as former Borg crewmember Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) adapts to her own humanity and life on Voyager with the help of the holographic Doctor (Robert Picardo). Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) and Harry Kim (Garrett Wang) also have trouble in the holodeck thanks to a new program while B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) explores her violent Klingon tendencies.

It’s great to see the crew in the dark for the unusual season opener “Night.” They are literally and figuratively facing the unknown difficulties of their journey, finally!  Janeway has doubts; scary, dark fears manifest on the ship inside and out – there are social statements and even some humor thanks to the Captain Proton holonovel. This is fine stuff, and “In the Flesh” works well in revisiting Earth without actually going to Earth. Species 8472 earns some depth beyond the badness even if the expected dry from the perennially underdone second in command Chakotay (Robert Beltran) hampers the fun.  Likewise, “Timeless” has an alternative future back to earth premise that grows dull thanks to Chakotay and still Ensign Harry Kim.  An episode like this is touching when the audience knows the cast and already likes Voyager, but this is a tough episode to appreciate casually. Besides, this series already relies far too much on time travel contrivances.  “Warhead,” however, is the best Kim adventure in a long while, accented by Robert Picardo as the Doctor in a classic SF TOS vein. The contemporary cold war speeches are a little obvious, but this type of Kim in charge conflict should have happened much sooner. “Relativity” is also a serious and unusual time travel adventure, but it’s placement before the heavies of the “Equinox Part 1” cliffhanger finale goes well.

Of course, “Relativity” is also the perfect example of how Voyager has quickly become The Janeway and 7 Show. Seriously, no one else is capable of being used in a straight up sci-fi episode such as this? The other players merely man their stations with no say in anything – ironically, it’s a little like the original Star Trek. I feel this Seven over-focus seems to happen when Voyager co-creator and executive producer Jeri Taylor retires. Is this the moment the series finds its rhythm or is this the downhill beginning of Trek on TV? Despite the solid cinematics and well-played dynamics between Kate Mulgrew, Jeri Ryan, and guest star Susanna Thompson (Kings) as the Borg Queen, I’m somewhat conflicted over the supersized “Dark Frontier” episodes. There isn’t anything wrong with it in and of itself, but the darker filming, edgy Janeway, and feminine undercurrents created a fundamental change on Voyager. Why is the Captain risking everything to go back to a Borg unimatrix? Some of the plot and tone feels too come hither obvious for ratings. Seasons 3, 4, and now 5 have been quite quality, and I don’t think Voyager needed to try as hard as it does for the latter half of this season.  Though again apparent in its betrayal, “Counterpoint” is fortunately a nice xenophobia dilemma for Janeway, and “Nothing Human” has the complete ensemble debating all too modern ethics with 24th century veils. When cute personal bottle shows are done right like “11:59,” one wonders why Voyager puts itself off the deep end with sexed up and rehashed gimmicks.

Thankfully, “Drone” is a wonderful show with the Doctor and Seven having a special Borg SF message. Though “Once Upon a Time” is a little juvenile and it’s worrisome when kids become the center of a show, serious plots balance the well-done lightheartedness. “Infinite Regress” also gives Seven multiple angles and heavy issues along with some childlike bonding time. She is in a human child development stage in many ways, and it’s nice to see Seven explore her growth and responsibly in “Bliss” rather than just being a skintight sex symbol. I’m sure some enjoyed her being tied down, but I sincerely hope that sex sells is not the entire reason for a character with this kind of potential. There are good stories to be told with Seven, yes. I like the Doctor and Seven paired together as human outsiders asking heavy questions and having some bemusing relationship aspects along with quality material in “Latent Image” and “Someone to Watch over Me.” Focused principals, actions, and consequences for Voyager in the Delta Quadrant- this ship and crew are rightly or wrongly not above authority no matter how far from home they may be.  However, the first half of the season really feels like Borg overkill at the expensive of the family ensemble and development of the rest of the show.  Is this trade off worth it for Voyager?

Granted, the concept in “The Disease” is ruined by another Harry Kim error, and likewise “The Flight” is nothing more than dry Chakotay confusion. “Course: Oblivion” is a nice oddball, one-off episode, and the novelty of “Think Tank” is guest star Jason Alexander.  It would seem Voyager has nothing going for it beyond the Seven love fest thanks to these filler shows, but that is absolutely not the case.  “Extreme Risk” may be a bit of a letdown after “Drone,” but it’s good to see some B’Elanna Torres time and Delta Flyer action.  Tom Paris also has serious moments in “Thirty Days,” and there’s good Captain Proton fun for the entire crew in “Bride of Chaotica!”  Tim Russ’ Tuvok finally gets some high concept attention in “Gravity,” but Torres and Ethan Phillips as Neelix get less focus in “Juggernaught” than the aliens of the week. Whenever an episode starts with the guests or phenomena of the hour, we know they will be the vehicle of the week. The viewer knows this time won’t focus on Voyager, and it further distances the audience from the increasingly generic cast – which is actually up to snuff for much more. The regulars do indeed deliver fine work when it is given to them, but the order of episodes being front loaded with Seven angst makes the latter half of Year 5 look like weak, forced filler before the finale.  Some of these thin scripts feel like the throwing of a bone to the overlooked regulars thanks to all the quality hours going to Seven, Janeway, and The Doctor.

Chakotay and Kim should have been beefed up or dropped a long time ago, I think everyone knows that. Unfortunately, by the end of season 5, it feels like the once promising Torres and Tuvok have been unnecessarily pushed to being barely there background players.  After finally catching its stride and finding its course, Voyager feels uneven again thanks to this cast division.  You tune in for a solid Seven episode and all is well, but if you catch a crappy Chakotay number, it is channel surfing time.  This split personality works for Voyager and Trek if you like Seven, of course the babe added to the ratings. However, it also turned what could have been a fine, multi layered and statement making show into a one trick pony.  Fans of the Borg and Seven of Nine will delight in Season 5, but casual audiences and regular science fiction fans may find it tough to enjoy the increasingly one note style on Voyager.  The dark and heavy make for some quality, but it would be better if Voyager used all its players to their full variety and potential. 

08 March 2013

Recent Horror Hits and Misses

Somewhat Recent Horror Possibilities
By Kristin Battestella

It seems for every gem found in the current horror filmmaking ways; there is more than a fair share of stinkers! Since I’m always in pursuit of honest to goodness 21st Century macabre, here’s a quick list of scares from the last decade or two. While a few deliver, unfortunately others don’t. 


The Insatiable –Sean Patrick Flanery (Young Indiana Jones) and Michael Biehn (The Terminator) are both very cool guys who, after some seriously great stuff, have made their share of clunkers. With that in mind, one wonders if this unconventional 2007 vampire comedy romance can pull off what is so often an uneasy mixing of genres. The mood certainly doesn’t start as horror, and these Average Joe life sucks montages get old fast. Actual time punch cards, full size desktops, pop up aol email, and typing in all caps replete with old lingo such as “shit is wack” and “word”? The funny and sexy in that anti hip sardonic way also tries a little too hard, and the black comedy is uneven between the horror research and dark action. Some jokes work – ordering blood on the web, needing a coupon for a big bag of lime – Biehn is bemusing as a wheelchair bound vampire-hunting badass, too. However, some of the dream-esque flashes are off, and the bare minimum blood and gore and standard sweaty chick in a tank top hardly warrant an R rating. Charlotte Ayanna isn’t necessarily weak, but the character is too cute, hip, and poorly drawn to be sexy, evil, and dangerous.  Miss Teen USA a vampire does not make. The end is a bit obvious, yes, and the pace never quite balances the humor and dark or seriousness. This should have been a straight horror comedy instead of some depressing moody thing – and yet this nothing stellar, direct to video fair is good for a fun late night viewing.                 

Shadow of the Vampire – Art Deco designs, sepia tones, and tricks with color and black and white photography accent this film within a film creepy from 2000. Okay, some of the old time camera techniques, varying film speeds, inter titles, and put on accents may seem artsy fartsy for the sake of it to the contemporary CGI obsessed audience expecting action and excess. However, the post-war period costumes and décor make for a wonderfully unique European panache.  The make up and wardrobe for Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe (Platoon) works seamlessly with the vintage Nosferatu footage, and his performance is simply uncanny excellence. John Malkovich (Places in the Heart) is also delightfully eccentric as F.W. Murnau, and Udo Kier (Flesh for Frankenstein), Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride), and Eddie Izzard (The Riches) add charming support in bringing to life this apparent retelling of what really happened behind the scenes in filming Nosferatu. The lines of fiction and reality are further blurred thanks to unique editing, eerie music crescendos, a freaky mood, and a foreboding atmosphere.  Not only are we hooked on the “What if” vampire possibilities, but the intensity and ambiguity make for a few skin crawling scenes.  Director E. Elias Merhige (Begotten) and writer Steven Katz (Wind Chill) could have easily gone the corny campy route, but the two fold historical macabre has just enough bemusement and novelty to keep the parallels going for the finale.  Film students or horror obsessed will have a good time watching and comparing this one with its silent source- and hey, it was produced by Nicolas Cage, who knew?

Split Decisions

Doppelganger – The opening Drew Barrymore suckling scene feels a little too carried over from Poison Ivy, but the follow up blood and screams with mom Jaid Barrymore add to the 1993 kitschy. The very dated style, light LA grunge feeling, and passé cast are way over the top, and vampire lovers are removed from an onscreen script rather than a shoehorned in plot necessity like today. Thankfully, Sally Kellerman (M*A*S*H) is bemusing and so is the “Hey, it’s Danny Trejo!” moment, but seriously, George Newbern (actually the Adventures in Babysitting guy) isn’t Paul Rudd? Sadly, the slow motion soft core wanna-be shots don’t work until more blood and creepy aspects enter in- symbolic windows bursting open and yes, growling winds just make things laughable. It’s all too quick to get to the sex and titillation- casual lesbian on the dance floor motifs and forced use of the word ‘twat’ feel more awkward than cool.  The scares are obvious, and poor music choices, sound mixing, and bad dialogue re-dubs don’t help as Barrymore comes off more like a PMS queen or mental bitch rather than an innocent girl with a slutty, killer lookalike. Though the plot itself is too thin, things becomes more interesting when the murder investigation raises a few questions. Unfortunately, even the FBI agent (Dan Shor aka Billy the Kid from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) lays the smack on really thick! Barrymore doesn’t have a full command on the dry dialogue scenes, either. However, despite the baby doll dresses and old lady headscarf, teen Drew is looking flawless. I’m sure there’s a male audience that can have fun with that, the unintentional camp, and the cheap entertainment value here- except for the finale. Good Lord, what happened there?! 

Perfect Creature – Saffron Burrows (Deep Blue Sea) and Dougray Scott (Ever After) are quite fine in this international vampire thriller from 2007. The quiet, ethical moments and the investigation plot at hand are interesting, and the blood, gore, and set design are well done, too. In fact, there’s a lot of good going for writer and director Glenn Standring (The Truth About Demons) here. Unfortunately, perhaps too much is happening in this science fiction gone awry, mutations mayhem, and warped history steampunkish alternate New Zealand filled with politics, corruption, and revolution. I can forgive the obvious male/female dynamics, the near good boy/bad boy love triangle, and random lookalike cop chicks plot contrivances.  Action slow motion zooms and in your face dark, even ridiculous photography and saturation I could tolerate, too – along with the excessive, nonsensical, and unnecessary helter skelter dream flashes. However, you can’t have both chaotic imagery and every trying too hard plot coolness thrown at the screen. When telling its own story and not playing at faux futuristic Sherlock Holmes, there is some very intriguing material here – vampire protectors, a delicate human co-existence, and hidden genetic history.  Onscreen when and where titles might have organized this content, but this world would have been much more ideal as a limited television series. Add some color; keep it set in the past, and give time for all these ambitious plots to grown on their own. Sadly, instead of this well developed something for everyone, we’re left with an unfocused, confusing, all over the place 90 minutes with a hectic, unresolved action finale.  How we get from the tantalizing outlawed medieval science and only male born Victorian vampires to influenza epidemics, a post-WWII steampunk future, and a modern, pants-wearing lady detective is never fully explained and left aside at the expense of forced action. This is not scary and not even really horror, but more that anything, its dang frustrating for what it could have been.


Psychosis – I must say, recent horror movies that start with long, cool credits montages are always a bit iffy, and this 2010 Charisma Carpenter (Buffy and Angel) creepy goes downhill from there. I’ll give it a plus for decent gore, but grungy folks with a killer in the middle of a snowy nowhere- it feels like every new horror film start out this way, replete with a driving montage to boot. We wise horror viewers know what’s going to happen, even if the script is confusing and not forthcoming behind the typical rich American woman crime writer with mental history in a foreign country with a creepy old house whiff. The Brit slang and styles are goofy, too, and the entire design is very dated with old technology and no cell phones. Three lame make outs, sex scenes, a boyfriend faux scare, and exploring scenes in the first half hour don’t help the plot and premise and only lead to stupid scary movie cliché character mistakes. This isn’t slow, foreboding mystery, just poor development and a seriously erroneous husband element. Carpenter’s fans can enjoy her wow youthful 40 here, but the nudity won’t be whom they want to see. Actually, the cheap tease nature here feels almost PG-13. It takes awhile to find out what in the hell is happening with all this mess, about an hour and twenty minutes. Unfortunately, it’s a 90-minute movie.

05 March 2013


Gwendoline Quite a Romp!
By Leigh Wood

Gwendoline. The Perils of Gwendoline. The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of Yik Yak. Whatever you call this 1985 naughty adaptation from director Just Jaeckin (Emmanuelle), it certainly is a memorable picture!

Ingénue Gwendoline (Tawny Kitaen) is trying to find her professor father, who has gone missing while in search of a rare butterfly. Along with her maid Beth (Zabou) and muscle for hire Willard (Brent Huff), instead they find the lost land of Yik Yak – an all female society with one thing on its mind: male stock.

I don’t remember if I saw this French import in all its saucy glory or just chopped up on television, but as a youth, I recall loving this demented and kinky faire – along with Kathy Ireland’s Alien from L.A. for some reason.  (I suppose this might explain a lot about my eventual occupation as a camp genre erotica author!) Perhaps then, I didn’t quite get all the sexual scenes and innuendo, but the stupidity of Gwendoline is unforgettable. Of course, this Unrated Director’s Cut starts off extremely slow thanks to Asian stereotypes, and Three Stooges-Fu fakery. It’s immediately camp and totally off on the wrong beat, but at least the audience knows we aren’t supposed to take the danger or poorly choreographed fighting with whimsical music too seriously.  I can’t decide if Gwendoline is taking itself seriously or is fully aware of its spoof the genre either. The totally nonsensical plot tries to explain their perilous route and the butterfly rarity, but having a guy who’s getting a bj explain about butterflies and human sacrifice doesn’t make it sound any better. The nudity does begin early, however, complete with lots of heavy petting and chauvinism to go along with the voyeuristic hints and girl power innuendo. Really, I suspect Gwendoline just might be better on mute. It may even make more sense by allowing room for some sort of viewer thought or drinking game.

Indeed, Gwendoline is tough going until you get to the underground industrial bondage chicks. After all, I suppose that’s the saucy reason for which most people are watching. The plot becomes more and more ridiculous, but somehow, it gets better thanks to such sexually preposterous twists and turns – coed wrestling, kinky sparring, love biting a.k.a cannibalism, bald women in futuristic torture devices. Gwendoline is so bad, raunchy, and stupid that it must be seen to be believed.  The bad English dubbing actually adds to the woefully over the top design and becomes a strength here. The evil lesbian implications and bad ballet combat sequences are also so wrong and yet somehow so entertaining. There’s not much point in trying to explain the onscreen gals’ history, but what we do get is a convoluted mess. Suffice to say that the women caught trying to leave get strung up naked by their toes while the rest of the dames get to fight for the man they want. Outside of the possibility of being torn alive or laid on a bed of spikes, what’s for the male audience not to like? I mean, women pulling chariots, boys – need I say more?

Wow, that bad eighties hair is also, well, bad. However, Tawny Kitaen (Those Whitesnake Videos) is otherwise so young and supple that not much else matters. She gets manhandled repeatedly, and I think the audience is meant to believe she actually enjoys the rough stuff – but our eponymous gal is also overly juvenile and infatuated. With the poor characterization, ingénue acting, and horrible writing, Gwendoline’s long winded soliloquies on love are just…no. I think she is turned on by seeing people killed, too.  All that lip service about rescuing her dad and finding the elusive butterfly is completely uneven and creates no real character motivation. Gwendoline is first mousy, then strong, and later deceptive. Perhaps it’s meant to be character growth, but her wants him then hates him emotions are all over the place, too. It’s not really Tawny’s fault – in fact, her pouty eighties appeal makes a lot of those flaws disappear. She looks far better with her hair pulled away from her face, and it’s refreshing to see a curvy style and un-dolled up, fresh face in this new century of stick and plastic women. Tawny’s topless and all wet in slow motion – ultimately, I don’t think what she’s saying matters that much! Those up close faux orgasms, however, are just laughable. I mean, there are the funny looks on people’s faces in hard-core poor and then there’s the weird, fully clothed, and wearing a helmet sex here. Unfortunately for die-hard kitten Kitaen fans, Gwendoline’s action is all topless and not full frontal. It keeps Gwendoline just titillating enough, doesn’t it? 

Of course, lady audiences also get the shaft thanks to the blink and you miss it penis ratio. Brent Huff (Girl’s Night) is also a totally unlikeable ass as our cheap imitation Indiana Jones Willard. Willard? Willard? Unlike Kitaen, his eighties then attractive just doesn’t work now. The onscreen relationship is also lame, with Willard presented as too grown up and badass to the overly naïve Gwennie. Again, folks who like the implied barely legal bondage can enjoy, but the attempt at making the overly manly man as parody falls flat. Their banter is all over the place, and it’s too unbelievable to be romantic even on a hammed up level. I suppose part of the film’s charm is in how preposterous it is, but it doesn’t get the over the top camp intentionally correct enough, and it can make your brain hurt if you think on it too much. He pokes her in the eye with a piece of straw and that is supposed to be making love? What? I’m glad Willard gets punished by being forced into a thong. Zabou (Beautiful Memories) is likewise wacky as Gwendoline’s nursemaid Beth. She’s supposed to protect our titular gal but ends up more helpless and afraid. We know she’s only there for double girl teases and latent passive aggressive innuendo. However, with all the other stupidity happening, her comic relief simply isn’t required.

So, if the script, acting, and plot of Gwendoline stinks, then surely the art direction is visually striking, top notch good stuff! Nope. The kinky bad BDSM leather costumes are too eighties shoulder pads-esque to be attractive, the butterfly graphics are way weird, and the avante garde eighties music adds to the Euro messy feeling. Fog, or dust and piles of junk onscreen are used to hide the ridiculously small stage Asian opening, but it just makes Gwendoline look more on the poor. There are some attempts at gruesome and dangerous action thanks to hooks, bloody slashes, and ears being sliced off, yeah, but the pitiable fight choreography boils such action down to the aforementioned stereotypical jungle tribes and Amazon women offensives. The Styrofoam temples also go from some sort of Allan Quartermain looking adventure to a different underground science fiction vibe, but hey, who’s paying attention to the plot or set decoration at this point?

Adults only should definitely go for broke with the under two hours Ultimate Director’s Cut edition of Gwendoline instead of the chopped up 88 minute American release for all the commentary crazies and interview fun.  The credits are in French and there are no subtitles, but big whoop. Of course, I swear Netflix only has two copies, for Gwendoline was on wait forever before finally arriving cracked.  The replacement skipped, too, but then, what is Gwendoline but so bad its good fast forward juicy?