Monday, January 14, 2019

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (Universal, Amblin Entertainment, Legendary Entertainment, Perfect World Pictures, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a recent blockbuster mega-movie that turned out to be surprisingly good: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. I’d just bought the Blu-Ray edition but hadn’t had that much hope for it since Charles and I had seen its immediate predecessor in the Jurassic Park/Jurassic World cycle, Jurassic World (2015) a sort of combination reboot and sequel to the first three Jurassic Park movies from 1993, 1997 and 2001 — the first two directed by Steven Spielberg (and the original Jurassic Park being the big commercial blockbuster he had to give Universal to get permission to film Schindler’s List immediately afterwards). Jurassic Park began as a novel by Michael Crichton, who’d made it onto best-seller lists in the late 1960’s with a book (also filmed by Universal) called The Andromeda Strain, about a pathogen from outer space that comes to earth aboard a returning spacecraft and has to be contained in a super-lab shaped like a hexagon. The soundtrack album from The Andromeda Strain was a piece of vinyl shaped like a hexagon and packaged in a cover with six cardboard petals that opened to reveal the LP, which since it wasn’t round probably destroyed the styli of a number of record buyers who tried to play it as if were a conventional LP. Crichton specialized in stories about experiments that went horribly wrong, though in later years he turned Right-wing and wrote a novel called Disclosure in which a male employee is sexually harassed by a female boss, and another in which the entire climate-change movement was revealed as a deliberate fake conjured up by radical environmentalists aiming to reverse the Industrial Revolution and revert humanity to a primitive state. Crichton’s first work written directly for the screen was the script to the 1971 film Westworld, about a super-amusement park in which animatronic figures would enact, and let you participate in, your wildest cultural fantasies, only things went horribly wrong and one figure in particular — a Wild West gunslinger played by Yul Brynner — started going around slaughtering the paying customers for no discernible reason. Westworld spawned an almost immediate sequel called Futureworld (though for that one Crichton descended the studio food chain from MGM to American International!) and eventually a streaming-channel TV series that is still going on. 

In 1991 Crichton published Jurassic Park, in which a mad multimillionaire named John Hammond bankrolled a project to genetically re-engineer dinosaurs from bits of their blood literally frozen in amber along with the mosquitoes which had consumed it. His objective was not only to bring to life the giant reptiles[1] that once ruled the earth but to populate them on a (fictional) island off the coast of Costa Rica, Isla Nublar, and turn the island into a giant amusement park where people would pay hefty admission and hospitality fees to spend their vacations among revivified dinosaurs. Only, this being a Michael Crichton story, things went horribly wrong and the dinosaurs went wild and started rampaging across the island and eating the paying guests as well as some of the human staff that were supposed to control them. Universal bought the movie rights and made the first film in the cycle, Jurassic Park, in 1993, with Spielberg directing from a script co-written by Crichton himself and David Koepp and Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum as his stars. The real stars, though, were the dinosaurs; originally Spielberg and his effects technician, Stan Winston, had planned to use some computer-generated imagery while doing some effects with stop-motion animation — the classic way dinosaurs had been put on film since The Lost World in 1925 and King Kong in 1933 — but the CGI turned out to be so lifelike that, aside from a few scenes with full-sized puppets (like a dying Triceratops which obviously had a bellows inside so the animal could appear to breathe), Spielberg and Winston went with it throughout. They inspired a new generation of filmmakers to explore computer effects and thus render stories filmable that couldn’t have been made before. Universal did two sequelae to Jurassic Park, of which the first one, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) was based on a Crichton novel that ripped off the title Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had used for his pioneering dino-novel which Harry Hoyt and special-effects genius Willis O’Brien had filmed in 1925. (When Charles and I watched the movie on VHS and got to the interminable credit roll, Charles joked — referencing the joke title at the end of Airplane! — “Author of A Tale of Two Cities: Charles Dickens.” I said, “No, ‘Author of A Tale of Two Cities: Michael Crichton.’ He’s going to rip off that title, too!”) The Lost World — the Spielberg-Crichton version — at least got us off the island and ended with a dinosaur rampaging through the streets of San Diego, which at least gave it a home-town appeal. We missed the third film in the cycle, Jurassic Park III, and only recently caught up with the semi-sequel, semi-reboot, Jurassic World

Made in 2015 by director Colin Trevorrow from a script he wrote with the usual committee — Rick Jaffe, Amanda Silver and Derek Connolly — Jurassic World opens with a new corporate owner having managed to tame Jurassic Park, renamed Jurassic World and turned into a relatively safe worldwide attraction. Only ticket sales are falling, and in order to juice them up the corporate baddies decided to engineer a whole new dinosaur, Indomitus Rex, not based on any ever actually-existing dino-species but genetically engineered for ferocity and fright. Alas, once again things go terribly wrong and the human heroes, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), barely escape with their lives as Indomitus Rex rampages through the park, causing death and destruction willy-nilly until a sort of deus ex oceania, a seagoing dinosaur called Masosaurus, eats it at the end. Both made and set three years later than Jurassic World, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom posits that after the disaster of Jurassic World humans abandoned Isla Nublar and left it to the dinosaurs — only a long-extinct volcano on the island has suddenly become active again and threatens to destroy it. This leads Congress to hold hearings after rival lobbying organizations start a political debate over whether to let the genetically engineered dinosaurs die a natural death when the volcano erupts and destroys the island (a plot twist obviously copied from Son of Kong, the 1933 sequel to the original King Kong) or try to evacuate them somewhere. Already we’re in more profound territory than we usually get from a big-budget mass-audience blockbuster as the debate centers around whether the dinosaurs are just monsters or they are part of the animal kingdom and we should try to save them as we would any other animals who were facing a mass extinction event. An old, grizzled Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, reprising his part from the first two films in the cycle and playing an older version of the character as he has naturally aged) tells the congressional committee investigating the Isla Nublar situation that the right thing to do is let the dinosaurs die — their creation, he argues, was an anti-natural mistake and nature is about to correct the error and make the dinosaurs extinct again — but, swayed by animal-rights activists who insist that the dinosaurs remain alive and the government try to find a home for them, Congress decides to allow their evacuation. 

Owen Grady and Claire Dearing (Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard repeating their roles from Jurassic World) get recruited to lead the evacuation effort, and the old, crippled and largely bedridden Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell, whose best-known film was a quite different sort of animal movie, Babe — after Babe was filmed Cromwell became a vegetarian in real life and when he was asked why, he said, “What? You think I should eat my co-star?”), business partner of John Hammond (played in the 1993 film by Richard Attenborough). Lockwood lives in an old Gothic mansion that looks like a set from a 1930’s Universal horror film — it’s really a castle they rented in England, but director J. A. Bayona, a Spanish filmmaker whose previous credits are all low-budget horror films, said the resemblance is deliberate — and his only companions are his granddaughter (at least we’re told she’s his granddaughter) Maisie (Isabella Sermon) and her governess Iris (Geraldine Chaplin). Lockwood has assigned the director of his family’s nonprofit foundation, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), to be in charge of the evacuation operation, and Mills has shown Lockwood a model of the sanctuary, ringed by mountains, to which the Isla Nublar dinosaurs will be located. Only, as he warned us in his opening scene when he tells Owen and Claire that he took the job of running the Lockwood Foundation when he was “young and idealistic — and now I’m neither,” Eli is up to no good: instead he intends to sell the dinosaurs at auction to the highest bidder. His partner in this enterprise is a crooked entrepreneur named Gunnar Eversoll (Toby Jones, who in one of the 788 “trivia” posts on this film — about seven times as many as I’ve ever seen for any other movie — is quoted as saying he picked the ill-fitting blond wig he wears to make himself look like Donald Trump). 

The first half of the movie takes place on Isla Nublar just before its volcanic destruction, as Owen, Claire and the two obligatory comic-relief characters, Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) and Zia Rodriguez (Danielle Pineda), attempt to round up the dinosaurs and fend off the efforts of a military commander and his private security force to get them out of the way so they don’t interfere with the real plan he, Eli and Eversoll have in mind. Fortunately our not-so-fantastic four manage to escape both the private troops and the killer dinosaurs and smuggle themselves onto the ship taking the dinosaurs onto the Lockwood estate. Eli clubs Lockwood to death in his bed — the first time, according to the contributors, that one human has murdered another in the Jurassic Park/World franchise — so he won’t interfere, and in a film the director and his writers (Trevorrow and Connolly again — Trevorrow was supposed to direct but turned down the project to make the ninth and, presumably, last film in the basic Star Wars cycle, only he got fired from it over creative differences with producer J. J. Abrams, who took over the last Star Wars film himself; he’s slated to return to the Jurassic Park/World franchise to direct episode three in the current cycle) have acknowledged influenced them, they restage the house party held by the corrupt 1-percenters in the old 1994 Schwarzenegger vehicle True Lies. In the film’s most chilling scene, the dinosaurs are shown being auctioned off to the highest bidders from amongst a group of representatives of military dictators, arms merchants and safari organizers who want to give their clients something especially exotic to kill, and the creatures are fetching eight-figure sums — but the biggest bids go to a creature who isn’t supposed to be for sale, only the creeps bidding at the auction (which is staged as a cross between a Dad Mecum collectors’ car auction and a sale of slaves) immediately demand the right to bid on the prototype. 

The prototype is something called an Indoraptor, produced by Lockwood’s house geneticist, Henry Wu (the openly Gay Chinese-American actor B. D. Wong, reprising his role from Jurassic World) as a cross between the Velociraptor — a super-intelligent hunting dinosaur, introduced in the first Jurassic Park story and portrayed as an animal intelligent enough to figure out how to open a door — and the Indomitus Rex monster from the first Jurassic World film. Wu is hoping to breed future Indoraptors to bond with humans and follow their commands, but to do that he needs “Blue,” the pet raptor Owen figured out how to tame in the previous Jurassic World film (a video of him doing this figures prominently in Fallen Kingdom), to serve as a mother figure for the young Indoraptors and teach them how to behave around humans. Along the way it’s revealed that Maisie Lockwood is not the elder Lockwood’s granddaughter, but his daughter — or, rather, a clone of his daughter, who apparently died before she reached puberty and therefore never had kids of her own; but that didn’t stop him from having Dr. Wu and his assistants whip up a clone of her in the same basement lab that generated the dinosaurs. There’s a big fight between a runaway T. Rex — supposedly the one from the very first Jurassic Park movie — and the wild prototype of the Indoraptor, which dies when it falls through the glass roof of the Lockwood castle and gets impaled on the horn of one of the authentic dinosaur fossils on display in his study. The film has a surprising number of parallels to the old Universal horror classics of the 1930’s in general and Frankenstein in particular — director Bayona has said he saw the Indoraptor as a sort of modern-day Frankenstein’s monster, since the monster was spliced together from different parts of human bodies and Indoraptor has been gene-spliced from different species, and he quotes quite a few of James Whale’s shots from the original Frankenstein movie, including one of Maisie menaced by the killer dinosaur. 

At the end of the film the surviving dinosaurs are trapped inside airtight cages on the Lockwood estate, thanks to damaged circuits in their life-support system the cages are filling with hydrogen cyanide gas, and the dinosaurs are about to die. The only thing that can save them is if someone pushes a red button that will activate the emergency release, open all the cages and loose the dinosaurs out into the world — and both Owen and Claire are tempted to push the red button but think better of it and decide not to. Then Maisie rushes over to the button and pushes it — an interesting inversion of the final scene of The Bride of Frankenstein, in which the monster sends Frankenstein and his wife out of the lab just before pulling its self-destruct button and blowing up himself, his would-be bride and the mad scientist who created them, exiting with the line, “We … belong … dead!” — loosing the dinosaurs on the world and permanently changing the ecological balance, forcing humans to learn to coexist with dinosaurs as part of their normal everyday environment. (This is dramatized by a post-credits shot of a flock of Pteranodons buzzing the skyline of New York City.) The point is made by a quite moving speech by Jeff Goldblum’s character, who doesn’t appear in the rest of the movie but whose words of wisdom bookend the film — Bayona, Trevorrow and Connolly saw him as a sort of Al Gore character, grizzled with age and frustrated at humanity’s doggedly ignoring his warnings of impending doom — “How many times do you have to see the evidence? How many times must the point be made? We’re causing our own extinction. Too many red lines have been crossed. And our home has, in fundamental ways, been polluted by avarice and political megalomania. Genetic power has now been unleashed and of course, that’s going to be catastrophic. This change was inevitable from the moment we brought the first dinosaur back from extinction. We convince ourselves that sudden change is something that happens outside the normal order of things, like a car crash, or that it’s beyond our control, like a fatal illness. We don’t conceive of sudden, radical, irrational change as woven into the very fabric of existence. Yet, I can assure you, it most assuredly is. And it’s happening now. Humans and dinosaurs are now gonna be forced to coexist. These creatures were here before us. And if we’re not careful, they’re gonna be here after. We’re gonna have to adjust to new threat that we can’t imagine. We’ve entered a new era. Welcome to Jurassic World.” 

 Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is actually one of the best big-budget franchise films I’ve seen lately, surpassed only by Black Panther; it offers audiences the thrills and terror they expect from the franchise and its basic premise, but at the same time it deals with real dramatic and political issues, particularly the privileges of the 1 percent, their ability to wreck not only the economy but the environment the rest of us have to live in, and the whole issue of whether or not humans should be messing around with the gene pool of themselves or other life forms. There’s no doubt about where I stand on this — quite frankly, I think nuclear power and genetic modification are the two technologies I regard as, in the old catch line from the Universal horror classics, “meddling in things man was meant to leave alone” (and I’m horrified by so-called “environmentalists” who have embraced nuclear power as a supposedly “clean” alternative to fossil fuels, whereas nuclear power is so dangerous and costs so much energy over the entire fuel cycle that adopting it to stop human-caused climate change would really be leaping from the frying pan into the fire). When we start mucking around with the germ lines of various life forms we don’t know what we’re doing, and since life, once created, reproduces itself, cross-breeds and mutates in ways we can’t even predict, much less control, who knows what genetic horrors we may be loosing on the world when companies like Monsanto re-engineer soybeans to take higher doses of carcinogenic pesticides? If Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom has a moral, that’s it: we tamper with the genetic code at our own peril and we know not what we’re going to do to the biosphere when we attempt to rewrite the history of evolution nature has bequeathed us from the last few billion years.

[1] — At least that’s the traditional explanation of what dinosaurs were, though some modern paleontologists believe they were more like modern-day birds than modern-day reptiles, and Crichton incorporated that into his story.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

My Mother’s Split Personalities (Reel One Entertainment, Thrilling Films, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched two Lifetime TV-movies in a row, both of them advertised as “premieres” even though the second one in the sequence, The Wrong Friend, must have been shown before in some context because it had 11 reviews on (most of them saying how wretched the acting was) and was dated 2018 whereas the first film in the sequence, My Mother’s Split Personalities, was dated 2019 and therefore really did seem to be a “premiere.” My Mother’s Split Personalities was originally intended as part of the “_____ at 17” series since it was shot under the working title (the one lists for it) as Terrified at 17, and it dealt with the once-fashionable diagnosis of multiple personality disorder that generated films like The Three Faces of Eve and Sybil, both based on best-selling books about (allegedly) real cases. There’s a revisionist literature suggesting that multiple personalities don’t really exist and that Sybil — or Shirley Ann Mason, to use her real name — was really a garden-variety schizophrenic misdiagnosed by an unscrupulous psychiatrist who exploited her for years. The film opens with an (at first) incomprehensible sequence in which two men who look strikingly similar (both dark-haired but otherwise the tall, lanky type Lifetime generally likes in its sympathetic males) in which they’re in the home of one of them, Jeffrey Price (Paul Popowich). He’s drinking with a (supposed) friend of his, Warren Stacey (Jefferson Brown), when Warren slips a drug into his drink, killing him in a way that makes it look like he had a heart attack and died naturally. It turns out that Jeffrey Price was fabulously rich — well, $55 million dollars’ worth of rich, anyway — but to maintain that status he was also very busy taking a lot of business trips (and we’re clearly intended by writer Stephen Romano to believe they were just business trips and not pretexts for him having an affair).

Instead, out of loneliness and frustration his wife Gail (Lindsay Hartley) started her own affair with Warren, not knowing that Warren was a con artist and already married to Toni Conrad (Jordana Lajoie), the bartender who introduced him to Gail as part of an elaborate plot to get the Price family’s fortune by killing Jeffrey, seducing and marrying Gail, getting her to transfer the inheritance to him, then taking her to South America, killing her there and then sending for his true love, Toni, to join him there. While all this is going on Gail starts showing the indicia of what used to be called multiple personality disorder and is now known as dissociative identity disorder (DID). She keeps talking about “staying in the light” as if she’s doing New Age/New Thought exercises, but it turns out that in this version of DID “staying in the light” is the code term for whichever one of Gail’s alternate personalities is inhabiting her body: Gail, the normal upper-class suburban housewife; Madeleine, the slut; Amy, the six-year-old girl who fastens on Gail’s real-life daughter Julie (Kayla Wallace) and identifies herself as the daughter and Julie as her mom; and Sadie, the psycho killer. The central intrigue in this one is whether Julie and her quasi-boyfriend Mike Jared (Benjamin Eli — curious that both the character and the actor playing him have two first names), depicted as a tousled-haired nerd who’s cute but not drop-dead gorgeous (and who’s clearly in unrequited love with Julie — in another sort of Lifetime movie that would make him the villain but we’re obviously supposed to think of him as a nice guy on the side of good in this one) — can prove their suspicions that Warren is a rotter after Julie’s mom’s money before he succeeds in marrying her, getting his hands on her fortune and offing her in a remote country with which the U.S. doesn’t have an extradition treaty. Given that the first thing we saw was Warren offing Gail’s husband with a drug that simulates a heart attack (I’ve read that in the 1960’s the CIA actually developed such a drug), I had assumed through most of the film that Gail wasn’t really a multiple personality victim but Warren was slipping her something on their various dinner dates that made her think she was — but eventually writer Romano and director Curtis James Crawford (a frequent collaborator with Christine Conradt, whose ability even within the Lifetime formulae to create genuinely rich, multidimensional characters is sorely missed here) make it clear that we’re supposed to think Gail is the real DID McCoy.

In one scene — ironically, just after Mike has jokingly called Julie “Lois Lane” — Gail transitions to Madeleine, goes out to a bar called Épicure (which seems like an awfully sleazy place for such a pretentious yuppie-ish name) and gets picked up by a man with a striking resemblance to Lex Luthor, only as soon as he takes her out of the bar to wherever he thinks he’s going to get to fuck her, she transitions again and Sadie attacks him. She escapes arrest only because Julie, who’s been following her mom hoping she was going out with Warren and Julie could get the goods on Warren as a no-good seducer and con artist, showed up and agreed with the cops that she could take her mom home and no charges would be pressed. The situation is complicated by the fact that Julie is an intellectual prodigy who left home at 16 to take advantage of a fantastic college fellowship that’s only awarded to three people every five years, and mom didn’t want to let her go — and this seems to have been the event that triggered mom’s descent into multiple-personalitydom. Julie finds (absurdly easily) an old journal that contains an account of Gail’s own childhood — the hellish maelstrom of parental abuse that seems to be the origin story of all movie multiple personalities — and when she reports her discoveries to the police they don’t believe her. Fortunately, Toni Conrad (ya remember Toni Conrad?) was concerned enough about her own well-being and the possibility that Warren might turn on her and knock her off that she recorded all their discussions of the murder plot against Gail, and in exchange for lenient treatment she leads the cops to this evidence and they set out to arrest Warren just as he’s taking Gail out of the country on a private plane. Gail insists that before they leave she wants to speak to her daughter one last time, and when Warren gets angry Gail manages to get him to stop the car, whereupon she goes into a restaurant and borrows someone else’s cell phone to call Julie — who’s with the cops trying to figure out where Warren and Gail are. In the climax, Warren corners Julie and is about to kill her when Gail saves her daughter’s life by stabbing Warren to death — and in the end Julie is safe and Gail ends up in a mental institution for the criminally insane, where she reports to her visiting daughter that she’s “doing better.”

My Mother’s Split Personalities has a few interesting twists in their formulae — for one thing, I can’t recall them doing multiple personality in a fiction film (though they did do a remake of the supposedly “true” story of Sybil); also the know-it-all character who finds out who the villain is and what he’s up to but is killed before they can tell anyone else isn’t an African-American woman, as usual, but a white man: Jeffrey’s brother John (Richard Nash), who has connections because he’s the special assistant to the mayor of the town where all this is taking place (unidentified in Romano’s script, though judging from the license plates it appears to be in Washington state), whom Warren, whose favorite modi operandi of murder is making his crimes look like natural or accidental death, kills by pitching him down a flight of stairs in John’s own home (which he’s broken into ridiculously easily — apparently, though these are all affluent people, none of them have a home security system). My Mother’s Split Personalities benefits from engagingly Gothic direction by Crawford and a florid, all-out performance by Lindsay Hartley as the multi-mom, elements which put this at least a bit above the common run of Lifetime movies, but it’s still pretty much a chip off the old cliché block. And I also should give a shout-out to actress Sarah Kryszak as Jane Banner, the psychology professor Julie and Mike go to for background information on dissociative identity disorder, who in order to express the character’s erudition pronounces the “t” in “often.”

The Wrong Friend (Hybrid/Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

So is The Wrong Friend — another in a Lifetime series of movies with the title “The Wrong _____” (my favorite so far is The Wrong Car, about a rapist and killer who meets his victims by picking them up as an Uber driver … though of course they called it something else!) and a pretty typical Lifetime tale about the new student in a prestigious but still public high school, Chris Andrews (the strikingly handsome Jared Scott), whose well-heeled family (at first we think his dad is a computer tycoon but later it’s revealed he’s a high-powered super-attorney) has been buying him out of one scrape after another. They’ve just had to pull him out of the ultra-exclusive St. Joseph’s private school — one of those places where the children of the 1 percent are trained to assume their hereditary mantle of getting to run the country and everyone and everything in it (The Wrong Friend is surprisingly class-conscious for a Lifetime movies, though others, including the marvelous Restless Virgins, have done this even better!) — and they get him into Kennedy, a better-than-average but still public school (one wonders whether writer Adam Rockoff thought of it as a charter school) whose principal, Atkins (Vivica A. Fox, a Black woman similar in appearance and “type” to S. Epatha Merkerson on the original Law and Order, and one with enough of a following some of the reviewers complained about the brevity of her part), agrees to admit Chris Andrews as a student in exchange for the Andrews parents making a major donation to the school’s information technology department. Chris immediately zeroes in on Riley Cramer (Li Eubanks), a student of ambiguous ethnicity — she looks African-American but her mom Jaclyn (Galyn Görg) looks like a Mediterranean type (though’s bio of Görg lists her as the product of a German father and a Native American, African-American and Irish mother) and one wonders whether she’s the product of an interracial marriage and the father who walked out on the family in the backstory was full-blooded African-American (to the extent that anyone actually is full-blooded African-American given how much coerced interracial fucking was going on between women slaves and their male masters in the ante-bellum days).

Jaclyn is a nurse who’s worked multiple shifts and stayed away a lot to make enough money to raise Riley as a single parent, and Chris is not only from a filthy-rich family he’s home alone a lot because his folks are jet-setting to one exotic vacation locale or another quite often. During one of these jaunts Chris decides to host a party and thereby ingratiate himself to his new classmates by letting them swim in his family’s pool and help themselves to his parents’ stash of alcoholic beverages, and he slips a drug into Riley’s drink, then takes her to his bedroom and not only has his wicked way with her while she’s powerless to resist but photographs the whole thing and sends the pics first to Riley’s estranged boyfriend Matt (Cole Reinhardt), a typical dumb jock who’s more butch than Chris but considerably less sexy (at least to me), then to Riley herself. Riley and her mom complain to the police but are told by Lt. Forni (Michael Paré, a name that meant nothing to me but Charles recognized him in the credits as a young action figure in movies like Streets of Fire and Eddie and the Cruisers in the 1980’s; Charles said Paré’s looks have fallen even farther than the norm for such young pretty-boys when they hit middle age) flat-out that the Andrewses have way too much money and clout to be prosecuted for Chris’s crimes, and if Matt’s parents try to win justice for their son’s girlfriend, the Andrewses will tie them up in court and bankrupt them. So of course Riley, Matt and Riley’s best female friend, Kim (Sophia Katarina Kraak), hatch a plot to get the goods on Chris themselves. The plan is that Kim will vamp Chris and get the information out of him by pretending to be interested in him sexually (though as it turns out she doesn’t actually have to go to bed with him — a disappointment for me because I was hoping we’d get to see a soft-core porn sequence involving hot Jared Scott, who probably had a lot of straight women and Gay men in the audience, including me, thinking, “Stalk me, honey!”), and though they have to deal with the usual complications beloved of Lifetime writers, including people coming home unexpectedly when they weren’t expected and Chris suddenly getting suspicious of Kim’s real motives in cruising him even though he’s also drawn as the sort of egomaniac who thinks no (straight) woman can resist him, eventually they get the goods on him and figure out why he’s so interested in destroying Riley.

It seems that way back when he was still at St. Joseph’s he did to a classmate named Lori Nelson the same thing he did to Riley — he drugged her, raped her, took pictures of them having sex and splashed them all over social media — with the result that Lori was ostracized at school, denounced as a slut (and worse things), and ultimately she committed suicide. Chris didn’t suffer any legal consequences but was quietly told to leave St. Joseph’s, and though he got into a school considered almost as prestigious it was still a public school and Chris freaked out that having a public school on his résumé would hurt his 1-percent cred and might keep him out of the very best colleges to which he felt entitled. So he freaked out and determined to get his revenge on the person he blamed for his predicament — Riley’s mother Jaclyn (ya remember Riley’s mother Jaclyn?), who had given Lori Nelson the rape exam the night Chris drugged and assaulted her, who had reported this to the police and thereby, in Chris’s egomaniac view, ruined his life. Riley, Matt and Kim learned all this from a police file on the case they obtained from Lori Nelson’s mother (played with an indelibly ineffable sense of overwhelmed sadness by an actress herself named Tracy Nelson!), and in the final scene Riley goes to her mom’s house — alone, having (like a typical Lifetime idiot heroine) refused Matt’s offer to accompany and help protect her — and Chris shows up intent on murdering both of them. Only, just as Chris is about to slash Jaclyn’s throat with a straight razor (an oddly outré choice of weapon for a film both made and set in 2018), Riley pulls out a gun that’s been previously established as being in the house and drills Chris with five perfectly spaced shots to the chest — maybe we were supposed to assume she was on the target-shooting team at Kennedy and that’s how she learned to be so good with a gun. At the end the other sympathetic characters assure Riley that she did the right thing because Chris was a monster and if he had been allowed to live he would have just kept doing this over and over — and I couldn’t help but joke, “And 50 years from now he could have been elected President!”

The Wrong Friend is typical Lifetime, but it’s decently acted by the principals and well staged for suspense and thrills by director David DeCoteau. A number of the reviewers have come down hard on Jared Scott in the bad-boy lead — one even wrote, “The kid playing the psycho could not act to save his life” — but what others read as incompetence I saw as powerful understatement. Charming and a little bit gawky, Scott makes Chris credible as a character, showing both the superficial appeal and the underlying spoiled-brat evil, and while writer Rockoff (almost as appropriate a name for a Lifetime scribe as Kirby Dick and Barbara Kymlicka!) could have made more of the class-conflict notions in his story (particularly Chris’s ability to screw over other people with impunity because he’s confident that his parents, with their social position as well as their limitless funds, will be able to bail him out of whatever trouble he might get into), Scott does project the spoiled 1-percenter aspect of his character. The only problem is that ever since Alfred Hitchcock cast Anthony Perkins, who’d previously been an innocent boy-next-door type, as the crazy killer in Psycho, the calm, understated type of movie psycho performance has become almost as much a cliché as the older type in which actors played psychos by rolling their eyes and bellowing their lines at such intense volume you wondered why they felt they needed to shout. We’ve seen an awful lot of them on Lifetime — and many of them have been women psychos who added perkiness to the mix — and it doesn’t help that Jared Scott has clearly learned how to play an alienated teenager from the same source the last three generations of young actors have: from watching James Dean’s movies. I quite liked The Wrong Friend even though I’ll admit it didn’t have either Christine Conradt’s humanism or the stark portrayal of class conflict and wealthy privilege of Restless Virgins!

Saturday, January 12, 2019

King of Jazz (Universal, 1930; restored by the Criterion Collection, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on a movie Charles and I had seen together more than once before, but not in this format: the much-ballyhooed restoration of the 1930 Universal mega-musical King of Jazz, featuring Paul Whiteman and his orchestra along with what passed for an all-star cast at Universal then: John Boles, Jeanette Loff (a quite interesting actress and singer I’ve only seen in one other movie, a 1934 Mae West knockoff called St. Louis Woman), Laura La Plante, Glenn Tryon (father of writer Tom Tryon) and a number of comic-relief character actors, including Slim Summerville and the young Walter Brennan. I’ve written about this film extensively before at and so I’ll just give a recap: Paul Whiteman was by far the most successful bandleader of the 1920’s. His first record, “Whispering” b/w “Japanese Sandman,” was a super-hit in 1920. In 1922 his publicist, Mary Margaret McBride, staged a ceremony where Whiteman was literally crowned “King of Jazz” (an event satirized in the opening of this film via a cartoon by Woody Woodpecker creator Walter Lantz) for his having taken the raw early jazz of groups like the (white) Original Dixieland Jazz Band and turned it into a sophisticated form of syncopated music played from written scores and essentially made safe for mass consumption. Whiteman’s career today is inevitably seen through the prism of the reverse-racist legend that has become the mainstream view of jazz history, the idea that jazz is exclusively an African-American creation and whites have simply copied Blacks and offered no real innovations of their own. This is nonsense: jazz was already a fusion of African and European traditions (through most of its history jazz has been played almost exclusively on European, not African, instruments and its basic harmonies and musical structures are mostly European, with modifications like the so-called “blue notes” — the African influence on jazz came through mainly in its freer, more flexible and more insistent rhythms compared to the Western music that preceded it) and I once assembled a partial list of white jazz musicians who had offered creative innovations of their own and hadn’t just copied Black models: Bix Beiderbecke (who played in Whiteman’s band for nearly two years and should have been in King of Jazz, but he’d drunk his way out of that job before the film was finally made), Django Reinhardt, Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton, Gerry Mulligan, Dave Brubeck (and his superb saxophonist, Paul Desmond), and Lennie Tristano. 

King of Jazz contains a feature showing the Whiteman band playing George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” (about half of it, anyway), a piece Whiteman had commissioned and led the premiere with Gershwin himself playing piano (though in the film the piano soloist is one of Whiteman’s two regular pianists, Roy Bargy — oddly, even though he’s clearly identified on the credit introducing the sequence, a New York Times reviewer when the film first came out said Gershwin was the soloist and that mistake has been repeated for decades in the literature on this film), which introduces the piece with a visually magnificent sequence of dancer Jacques Cartier wearing what appears to be a lamé body suit to which the announcer, Charles Irwin, says that it proves jazz was invented “to the beat of the voodoo drum.” That’s about all the acknowledgment we get of jazz’s African-American origins; later there’s a stunning 12-minute production number called “The Melting Pot of Music” which closes the film and offers us an account of all the different sorts of music that allegedly found their way into “this exciting new rhythm — Jazz!” These include British march tunes, Italian serenades, Latin themes, Italian songs, Viennese waltzes and just about every other conceivable form of white European pop music. This rather skewed version of jazz’s origins has been a talking point about this movie ever since King of Jazz, long thought lost, was rediscovered in the 1980’s in a badly faded copy of the reissue print from 1933, which added three surprisingly racy comic sketches that hadn’t made the final cut in 1930 (one in which an anxious man asks his girlfriend’s father for permission to marry her, and when the father asks if they aren’t worried that they’ll have children before he’s financially well off enough to support him, the young man says, “Oh, we’ve been lucky so far,” and another in which a young couple receive word that their marriage was not legal. “That makes me a bachelor!” says the young man. “That makes me a spinster!” says the woman. “What are you complaining about? Look what that makes me,” says their baby, played by an adult in an oversized prop cradle) and are included in the version we watched last night (a new Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection) as “deleted scenes” and reduced the film from its original 105-minute running time to 90 minutes mostly by trimming the long on-screen intros to some of the numbers. 

Whteman took his band from New York to Hollywood to make the movie in January 1929 and the film didn’t get made until March 1930 because, to Whiteman’s astonishment, when he got there the writers at Universal hadn’t completed a script for the film. The band hung out there for several months doing nothing but making elaborate sound tests at Universal for the recording directors who had become the virtual dictators of Hollywood in the early days of the talkies — they made recording seem like an obscure, arcane art to which only they had the keys, and actors, directors and producers who’d never been involved with recorded sound before bought their we-know-it-all act. Whiteman, who’d been one of Americas best record sellers for nine years, didn’t, but he put up with the regime and probably rationalized, “At least we’re getting paid for this.” But when the pre-production and pre-pre-production processes on King of Jazz had lasted for months and the band members had got into trouble (Bing Crosby took a girl on a date one night, crashed his car, she was killed, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and, though he only served a one-month sentence, he was essentially work-furloughed, allowed to leave jail under guard to do his work on the film but then taken back into custody), Whiteman got a job offer from a New York nightclub. Worried that the band was getting stale from not having played before an audience for so long, he took the job and served notice to Universal that he wasn’t coming back until they had a finished script for him to shoot. During that time the plans for King of Jazz morphed from the original concept — a biopic of Whiteman with Ruth Etting playing his girlfriend (which Whiteman turned down because he knew his talents well enough to realize that acting — even playing himself — didn’t fall within them) — to a revue, a plotless musical that simply alternated songs, dances, production numbers and comedy sketches.

Alas, by the time King of Jazz was finished and ready for release, audiences were tired of musicals in general and revues in particular. MGM canceled a revue they were in the middle of shooting, The March of Time (though bits of it surfaced as clips in other features and stand-alone shorts like The Devil’s Cabaret), and King of Jazz — conceived in the free-wheeling economic boom times of 1929 and released at the start of the Great Depression, which couldn’t have helped it at the box office (in 1930 the highest-grossing movie released by any U.S. studio was Warner Bros.’ hard-edged gangster drama Little Caesar, a film about as different from King of Jazz as could be imagined) — was a huge flop and nearly bankrupted Universal. (What saved them was the enormous grosses they earned on two 1931 releases, the horror classics Dracula and Frankenstein.) King of Jazz was an unusually expensive movie because the entire film was made in the two-strip Technicolor process, at a time when shooting in color doubled the production cost of a film. I’ve long been a fan of two-strip — though it had severe limitations (notably, it could not photograph blue because blue has the shortest wave length of any color and the films used then weren’t sensitive enough to pick it up), at its best it had a harmonious, painterly elegance the more accurate but also more garish three-strip process that replaced it often did not (especially with Technicolor “consultants” riding herd on the filmmakers and demanding that the hues be as bright as possible). The colors two-strip Technicolor did best were salmon and turquoise, and those are the dominant colors in King of Jazz — though in that “Melting Pot of Music” finale the British soldiers are in bright red uniforms and the Irish tenor who sings “Killarney” is wearing the bright emerald-green jacket we would expect given the Pavlovian conditioning of Hollywood costumers and set designers that “Ireland = green.” The color scheme in this beautifully restored version of the film is beautiful, harmonious, painterly but also a bit monotonous, especially since the entire movie was filmed inside soundstages, the skies are clearly painted backdrops, and one wishes they could have gone outdoors for at least one sequence. 

In 1933 — after the huge popularity of Warners’ 42nd Street had reawakened public interest in musicals — the father and son team of Carl Laemmle, Sr. and Jr., who ran Universal reissued it with a new beginning title and a few tweaks to the comedy scenes as well as trims in the on-screen introductions to various numbers, thereby bringing the running time down to 90 minutes — and the film did better than it had in 1930 but still wasn’t a big enough hit to salvage the film career of its remarkable director, John Murray Anderson. Anderson had been hugely successful on the Broadway stage, mostly as director of the Ziegfeld Follies and other big revues (“The Melting Pot of Music” and some of the other King of Jazz numbers are based on concepts Anderson originally developed for his stage shows), and King of Jazz is full of sweepingly innovative production numbers including the sorts of overhead shots and tracking shots usually associated with Busby Berkeley (who was making his first film, Whoopee — also in two-strip Technicolor — while Anderson was filming King of Jazz, and who ripped off Anderson’s visual ideas for numbers in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933), staged on dazzling sets by Herman Rosse, an associate of Anderson’s from his stage work who won an Academy Award for his designs for King of Jazz. (I once mentioned that to Charles and he said Rosse was almost certainly the first person to win an Academy Award for a film that was entirely in color.) King of Jazz has some of the lacunae often associated with extensively “restored” films (including a few places where the soundtrack survived but black-and-white stills had to fill in for missing footage), though at least the people doing the restoration kept to the original two-strip color scheme instead of tweaking the colors to be more natural but less authentic for the process, but on the whole this is a great movie and the Criterion release does full justice to it.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Raton Pass (Warner Bros., 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night's “feature” was called Raton Pass — “Ratón,” with an accent and pronounced “Rah-TONE,” being the Spanish word for “rat” and a location both in the California gold country (Charles remembered visiting that Ratón) and a place in New Mexico where this film was set (though the location work was done in the town of Gallup, one of the locales made famous in the song “Route 66”). Raton Pass deals with a huge ranch owned by the Challon family, which at the moment consists of father Pierre (Basil Ruysdael, whose presence puts the whole rest of the cast one degree of separation from the Marx Brothers) and son Marc (Dennis Morgan, top-billed) — I guess from the spellings of their first names that the Challon family are supposed to be French-Americans. The action of this film kicks off when outlaw Cy Van Cleave (Steve Cochran) arrives in town on a stagecoach with a woman named Ann (Patricia Neal, who did this piece of cheese the same year she made The Day the Earth Stood Still) and asks her to lunch. She declines and takes the lunch invitation with Marc Challon instead, and within a reel or so Marc and Ann are engaged and, as a wedding present, Pierre deeds them the huge Challon Ranch.

There are basically three parties fighting over the future of this huge property (one suspects the creators of Bonanza may have been thinking of this story when they created the Ponderosa and put the Cartwrights in charge of it, with Lorne Greene playing the sort of all-powerful paterfamilias Basil Ruysdael is portraying here): the Challons, a local gang of cattle punchers headed by Jim Pozner (Louis Jean Heydt — more grizzled and stouter than he was in his prime; in his prime he was actually gorgeous and had charisma to burn, and why he was never able to grasp the brass ring of stardom has long puzzled me), and outlaw Van Cleave (whose name, perhaps unconsciously referencing a later real-life star of spaghetti Westerns, I kept hearing as “Van Cleef”). The Pozners and Van Cleave both see their chance when Marc Challon invites Prentice (Scott Forbes), a representative of a bank in Kansas City, to the ranch to negotiate a loan on it that will enable him to build an irrigation dam on the property. Instead Prentice seduces Ann — we’re still only three reels into this marvelously economical 84-minute movie (writers Thomas Blackburn, adapting his own novel, and James R. Webb certainly sensed the clock ticking on their allotted running time and moved the movie along accordingly) — and the two plot to take the ranch away from Marc.

Marc agrees to sell them the ranch (at least the half of it Ann doesn’t already own from the terms of daddy’s transfer) for a $100,000 down payment because he’s got a plot up his sleeve: the ranch’s cattle are on the other side of a stretch of lava rock to which he still owns the passage rights, so Ann’s and Prentice’s ranch is worthless without the cattle stuck on the other side of the passage Marc controls. Only Marc’s scheme is dependent on the continued allegiance of the ranch’s hands, and Pozner gets them to come on his side in an attempt to bankrupt both sides and take over the ranch himself. Needing more hands, Ann invites Van Cleave to supply them — only Van Cleave has his own ideas: his plot is to drive the cattle away in a stampede, blame Marc for this (thanks to false testimony he elicits from Pozner by threatening to beat up Pozner’s Mexican wife), get Marc hung, drive Prentice from the area and get both Ann and the ranch for himself. He kills Pozner and shoots Marc — who looks like he’s at death’s door until Lena Casamajor (why is she named “main house”?”), the Mexican girlfriend Marc jilted to marry Ann, takes charge, pulls the bullet out of Marc and enables him to recover. In the end Prentice flees, Ann and Van Cleave both get shot, and Marc regains the ranch with Lena as the new woman in his life.

Though it’s little more than a standard-issue “B” (or at least “A-minus”) Western, and the roles of Marc and Ann cry out for Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck and get Dennis Morgan and Patricia Neal, Raton Pass is actually a pretty good movie. It’s directed by Edwin L. Marin (best known for his films based on British literary classics with Reginald Owen, as Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet and Scrooge in A Christmas Carol) with a nervy intensity — though it doesn’t really qualify as a Western noir the way Robert Wise’s Blood on the Moon or Anthony Mann’s Winchester .73 do, it has some of the same elements, notably the way Patricia Neal’s character morphs from seemingly harmless gold-digger to cold-hearted villainess — and it’s especially noteworthy in the characters of the villains. As Charles noted afterwards, Neal’s character has an unusual combination of unscrupulousness, intelligence and ultimate weakness, and Cochran turns in one of his usual intense performances that offers far more impact than a film like this deserves or generally gets. Raton Pass turned out to be an unexpectedly good movie that’s been lurking in the backlog of my collection, a studio product directed and acted with more intensity than the rather clichéd story really needed. It also has a musical score by Max Steiner — one of his last credits as a Warner Bros. contractee — even though it’s unusually low-keyed by his usual standards (something already signaled by the opening credits, where for once he does not underscore his own credit with a thunderous chord that says, “Music by Max Steiner — as if you couldn’t tell!”) and he had a lot of help from others, particularly Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” and Sebastian Yradier’s “La Paloma.”

Monday, January 7, 2019

76th Annual Golden Globe Awards (Hollywood Foreign Press Association, NBC-TV, aired January 6, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night when it was 5 p.m. I was ready to watch the blessedly live telecast of the Golden Globe Awards. (Thank goodness for the Internet and the rise of social media, which has led at least some awards shows to reject the way we viewers on the West Coast for decades were palmed off with a three-hours-later rebroadcast instead of getting to see the shows in real time.) Last night’s 76th annual Golden Globe Awards were a relatively low-keyed show — the hosts, Andy Samberg and Sandra Oh, took a self-deprecating line and avoided the slashing insults of previous Globe hosts (can you say “Ricky Gervais”?), making fun mostly of themselves. One of their best bits was when they announced they were going to show emotional highlights from previous Globe shows — but then the only clips they showed were of awards they themselves had won. (Later Oh won another one and had to make a quick and odd transition from host to recipient.) Their best joke, when they weren’t making fun of themselves, came when Samberg announced that the film Vice, about Dick Cheney (Christian “Batman” Bale — who astonished me in his acceptance speech when he spoke with a thick British accent he has totally eradicated when playing Americans) and his role in the administration of George W. Bush (Sam “Moon” Rockwell), was a drama but was nominated in the best comedy or musical film category because “it invaded the wrong category based on faulty intelligence.” (Meanwhile, the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, which was obviously a musical, was nominated for — and actually won — Best Motion Picture, Drama.)

It’s hard to judge an awards show when you haven’t seen most of the products being nominated — virtually all the TV series the Globes nominate these days air on streaming channels so I couldn’t watch them even if I wanted to (I have stuck with a cable connection rather than deal with the world of “streaming” services and the elaborate interfaces between TV’s, computers, smartphones and whatnot needed to watch them, at least partly because I suspect signing up for Amazon Prime and Netflix and Hulu and CBS All Access and all the other ones out there would add up to considerably more money per month than a cable bill and would cut me off from a lot of news and other channels I do watch regularly), and since Charles and I almost never go to movie theatres anymore but wait for things to emerge on DVD (and a lot of the films the “streaming” services produce don’t ever make it to DVD because the companies want subscribing to their services to be the only way you can watch their programs, which just gives me an even sourer view of the “streaming” world than I had before) we haven’t seen most of the movies, either. Charles did get to see the film Green Book when he last visited his family in the San Francisco Bay Area, and it won last night for Best Picture (Comedy or Musical) even though from the subject matter (the great jazz pianist Don Shirley — presented in the film as a frustrated would-be classical piano virtuoso forced to play jazz for a living because he’s Black (that wasn’t my impression of the real Don Shirley at all; I played my poor-quality dub of his first album on Cadence, Don Shirley Trio, for Charles and asked him if what was heard in the movie had any resemblance to Shirley’s actual music, and he said no) — and the film’s focus, his white “minder” who had to drive him on a tour of the Deep South in 1962. Green Book  also won an award for Mahershala Ali (Oakland-born despite his African-sounding name), who played Shirley; and for the writing team of Nick Vallelonga, Peter Farrelly (who also directed) and Brian Hayes Currie — and what I didn’t know before (though Charles did) is that Nick Vallelonga is the real-life son of the white lead Viggo Mortenson (redeeming his career after it suffered from his casting in Gus Van Sant’s insane remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho) played in the film. I guess you’re already two steps ahead of the game when you can base your film on a true story that happened to your dad!

In an era in which “inclusion” has become a fetish word for at least half of America, there weren’t any direct attacks on President Trump the way Meryl Streep did two years ago (and got named in a Trump tweet as “overrated” even though she’s won more Academy Award nominations than any other actor, living or dead, male or female) but there were a lot of veiled references to walls (bad) and bridges (good) and how art is a force that brings people together. Alfonso Cuarón turned his acceptance speech for Roma, a Mexican production that won for Best Foreign-Language Film, into a plea for inclusion as well as a defense of his native country against all the attacks certain people in public power have been making against it and its people. I have no idea what Roma is about — the title suggests either a film about European Gypsies or about the Italian capital (like Fellini’s marvelous 1972 film of the same title) but’s brief synopsis says it “chronicles a year in the life of a middle-class family's maid in Mexico City in the early 1970’s.” (I remember seeing the film Seven Women, One Homosexual and Carlos a while back and being amazed that there was a movie out there acknowledging that Mexico has a middle class and isn’t just a handful of padrones and a lot of peons living in dire poverty and aching for the chance to become undocumented immigrants to the U.S.) Like other awards shows, even a relatively apolitical one like this year’s Golden Globes gives me the impression that in this heavily (and, at least according to the closeness of the 2018 midterm election results, just about evenly) divided country, artists generally are part of the group that values inclusion over exclusion and acknowledges the equality of women, people of color and Queers (though Hollywood often talks a better game on that than they actually play — one routine during the show said that when producers are hiring a director they first consider a man, and if no man is available they look for two men, and if no two men are available they look for a group of men, and if they aren’t available they just might consider a woman — and this was delivered in a growling voice that suggested John Wayne as Godzilla and made the point even funnier and more incisive).

It was indicative of how inclusive the entertainment industry has become — this slice of it, at least — that there were an awful lot of African-descended faces accepting awards and three of the films nominated for Best Motion Picture — Drama, Black Panther, BlackkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk, had largely Black casts (though the winner, Bohemian Rhapsody, was one of the two, along with the fourth version of A Star Is Born — fifth if you count the 1932 What Price Hollywood, which had essentially the same plot but split the Norman Maine character into two people — that didn’t, though I guess Bohemian Rhapsody counted as at least half a film about a person of color because Freddie Mercury was part-British and part-Turkish). During the show I posted a couple of tweets (aimed, I’ll admit, largely at Charles) praising the two winners who pronounced the “t” in “often” during their acceptance speeches (one of them a woman who made the demand that all employers, not just in the entertainment industry, commit to making 50 percent of their workforces female — it’s indicative of how far we have to go on women’s equality in the workplace that the newly sworn-in 116th Congress is being taken as a model of inclusivity because over 100 members of the House of Representatives are women, but that’s less than a quarter of the House in a country where women are slightly more than 50 percent of the population). Awards shows are lumbering beasts generally, and this one was no exception — it ran 22 minutes over its scheduled three hours, and so I didn’t watch the Lifetime movie I’d planned to turn to after it was over and looked for other stuff on the “tube” instead.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Michael Bublé: Tour Stop 148 (Warner-Reprise Records, PBS-TV, aired January 5, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I chose as last night’s TV “feature” a PBS pledge-break program called Michael Bublé: Tour Stop 148. Michael Bublé, like Andrew Lloyd Webber, seems to be one of those people you either love or hate — either you think he’s the ultimate destruction of pop music forever or you think he’s a little god — and I recently shocked a friend by telling him I liked Bublé. “Well,” I said somewhat defensively, “I don’t think he’s a great singer, but it’s nice to know there’s someone out there who’ll still be able to sing the Great American Songbook after Tony Bennett croaks.” Alas, Michael Bublé has become one of those modern-day artists who doesn’t trust just himself, his voice and his music to win an audience. Like Beyoncé — a great soul singer in the tradition of Dinah Washington and Diana Ross who is currently burying her true talent in overproduced recordings so full of “samples” you can barely hear her and even more overproduced videos that look like they were directed by the love-child of Busby Berkeley and Leni Riefenstahl — Buble has filled his current touring show full of “production,” including projected images of sky, sunsets, clouds, fires and whatnot behind him, the use of his projection screens to show multiple images of him so he looks like he’s about to do a solo re-enactment of the last scene of The Lady from Shanghai, and an oversized band that contains rock players, jazz players, string players and everything else he can think of he might need for whatever he wants to sing.

What’s more, the sheer elaborateness of his production means he has to do the same show every time and can’t vary his repertoire according to the mood of an audience the way the great cabaret singers of the past could do. Though PBS’s announcers were proudly proclaiming Bublé as one of their own because his first U.S. TV appearance was on the public network, the shows I’ve seen him on before were on NBC and overlapped some of the same repertoire as he did last night as well as some of the same lack of focus. Bublé is, quite frankly, at his best when he’s singing songs of the 1930’s and 1940’s; when he tries to do more contemporary material — or, even worse, when he tries to write more contemporary material himself — he seems to wander off cue and spoil the simplicity of his act. Last night he opened with “Cry Me a River,” the 1953 song by Arthur Hamilton that was a huge hit for Julie London in 1955 with a simple backing by jazz guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Bob Leatherwood (no other instruments!). (Wikipedia lists at least two more recent songs called “Cry Me a River,” by a band called Pride and Glory in 1994 and Justin Timberlake in 2002.) Wikipedia’s page on “Cry Me a River” says that the song was originally written for Ella Fitzgerald to sing in the 1955 film Pete Kelly’s Blues but was dropped from the final cut — though Ella recorded a superb version in 1961 on her album Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! Bublé drowned his version in an overwrought orchestral arrangement — in fact that was my complaint about much of this show, that he was doing big-orchestra versions of songs that had worked far better for other singers with smaller bands.

Then he did a version of Little Willie John’s “Fever” that successfully combined John’s R&B original and the superb jazz cover by Peggy Lee (again, with just two musicians behind her — bassist Joe Mondragon and drummer Shelly Manne); Lee dropped one of John’s lyrics and added some of her own that turned the mood of the song from fervent and pleading to detached and cool, and Bublé sang both the verse Lee had dropped and at least some of the ones she’d added, to good effect. Then, alas, Bublé departed the older material he does best and did one of his own songs, “I Just Haven’t Met You Yet,” which was an O.K. modern-day romantic ballad but hardly at the level of the older songs on the program, and he followed it up with another recent song, “It’s a Beautiful Day.” Then there came the first of the pledge breaks with which KPBS studded these programs — and whereas previous PBS pledge-break musical specials have already aggravated us with the repeated (ad nauseam) statement that what you’re seeing is only a fraction of the full program, which you can get for a three-figure contribution to your public TV station, this one threw fragments of Bublé’s performances into the pledge breaks themselves, hinting that you’d get complete versions of these songs later — which you didn’t. On the first pledge break there was a hint that we’d get a version of the song “I’ve Got the World on a String” and a mention of Frank Sinatra, who recorded it in 1953 on his first session with the great arranger Nelson Riddle, though there’s a just as beautiful version 20 years earlier by Louis Armstrong — and Bublé’s version, at least from the fragments we got to hear, wasn’t as good as Armstrong’s or Sinatra’s but still communicated the song effectively and showcased him in the material he does best. Then we got two fragments of Bublé’s version of “Try a Little Tenderness,” one in rehearsal (there were a lot of shots of people setting up or tearing down his sets and interviews with members of his behind-the-scenes crew, in an attempt to distinguish this from every other PBS concert special with a major star) and one in performance, which indicated that once again, as with “Fever,” Bublé had tried to combine the two best-known versions of this song — by Frank Sinatra in the 1940’s (quiet and prayerful) and Otis Redding in the 1960’s (loud and soulful) — whether or not they were compatible.

After that Bublé did the Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse ballad “Feelin’ Good,” which has received a lot of great performances over the years, including a superb, unbeatable one by Carmen McRae on her 1964 live album Woman Talk and a great instrumental version by John Coltrane in 1965. There are also editions by Nina Simone (a great performance as far as she is concerned, but saddled with an overblown, tasteless arrangement by Hal Mooney) and Jennifer Hudson (who tried to copy Simone’s but, alas, copied Mooney’s arrangement as well), and Bublé too worked from the Simone-Mooney version rather than Carmen’s superbly understated one (and I missed Carmen’s marvelous vocal ornamentation, particularly her change of the leap in the melody on the line “it’s a new day, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new life for me” into a scale). Then Bublé did “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me” in the style of the great Sinatra-Riddle version from the 1950’s — and did it quite well. After that, however, it was back to contemporary material — “I Wonder Who’s Loving You” and a pledge-break excerpt of “Kiss and Hold Her Tight” (interrupted with another pledge-break excerpt, “Save the Last Dance for Me,” the Drifters’ 1959 hit and one that, judging from what little we got to hear of it, would have been right up Bublé’s alley) before his next full song, “Home,” a Bublé original which he decided to use as an excuse to fire confetti at the audience and do bits of other songs with the word “love” in their titles, the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” and Elvis Presley’s “Burning Love” (Elvis’s last #1 hit — in 1972, five years before he died — and though I’m hardly a big Elvis fan he did sing this song with far more throbbing emotion and soul than Bublé could muster) and a fragment of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” that’s been manhandled by all too many singers — Russell’s own version is quite good but to me this is another song “owned” by Carmen McRae, who staked her claim to it on her 1972 live album The Great American Songbook and who sang the hell out of it with a level of passion and emotion that totally eluded Bublé.

After that we heard Bublé’s orchestra playing the outro to his concert and Bublé himself taking his bows, saying goodbye to the audience and the final credits flashing preceding … another pledge break. You might have turned off the TV set (or changed the channel) at this moment, but if you had, you’d have missed the simplest, the most beautiful and the best Bublé performance of the night: his encore, in which he sat alone at a piano and sang and played “Smile,” the beautiful song Charlie Chaplin wrote as the theme for what I think is his greatest movie, Modern Times (1936). Though, according to the Wikipedia page on the song, Chaplin had nothing to do with the lyrics — they were added by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons in 1954 — their theme of surviving through adversity and holding to hope and happiness in the middle of despair is very Chaplinesque, and Bublé responded to the song’s simple, affirmative mood with low-keyed singing that made far more of an emotional effect than the heaving and straining he’d been doing, especially on modern material, though much of the evening. Michael Bublé is unquestionably a singer of talent, and the fact that he doesn’t always use his talent in the ways that showcase it at its best makes his work and his career even more frustrating than it might be if he had less vocal talent and less potential for real greatness.