Monday, May 31, 2010

Doctor Who: Series Three (BBC Wales, 2006-2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I retired into our room and I broke open the boxed set of the third season of the new Doctor Who series and ran one of the episodes, “The Runaway Bride,” about a bride who is literally beamed up, Star Trek-style, out of her wedding and into the TARDIS, where she’s confronted with the Doctor (he was never designated “Doctor Who” in either the original TV show or this one, but he was in the two 1960’s films starring Peter Cushing) in the surprisingly young and cute form of actor David Tennant, a far cry from the middle-aged British stage veterans who hammed their way through the role on the old series.

It turns out the woman, a rather shallow creature named Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), met her fiancé Lance Bennett (Don Gilet), a Black (would we have to call him “African-British”?) man who worked as the IT director for a firm at which Donna was temping, and Lance was an agent for a half-woman, half-spider called the Empress of Rachnos (her human half is played by Sarah Parish and it apparently took four hours a day in the makeup room to turn her from a normal woman to the spider-queen she plays here) who fed her coffee spiked with huons, subatomic particles (my only prior association with the word “Huon” was as the name of the male lead in Weber’s opera Oberon) that supposedly hadn’t existed since the dawn of the universe, when they were abolished because they were too inherently dangerous. The idea is that Donna has been saturated with huons so she can be pitched down a 4,000-mile long hole in the middle of the Earth, where she will impact with a batch of fellow Rachnoids who were buried there when the earth was still forming itself out of the giant dust cloud that generated the entire solar system, which will bring the Rachnoids back to life so they can colonize the earth’s surface and use humans as their principal food supply.

The show was written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Euros Lyn (I inevitably joked that his original name was “Pounds Lyn” but he changed it in the interest of European currency unification), and though the special effects are vastly improved from the really chintzy ones of the TV series (where it was all too obvious that, for example, the Daleks’ fearsome antennae were toilet plungers), the writing retains the cheeky campiness of the original show even though the action is genuinely exciting. According to, this was the show’s annual Christmas episode (on the schedule it was actually designated as “Episode 0”), though the only example of “Christmasicity” I noticed was the fact that the Empress’s robot minions were disguised in Santa Claus costumes. My favorite moment was the one in which Lance, explaining that the only reason he ever courted Donna in the first place was that she would be a suitable “key” to impregnate (asexually) with the huon particles, and that to do that he had to endure six months of boredom hearing her talk about Brad and Angelina, Posh Spice and her baby, and other bits of celebrity gossip that interested him not one whit. Lance also proclaimed his devotion to the Empress and his desire to be her lover — apparently no one bothered to tell him what female spiders generally do to their mates: have sex once and then eat them! — 3/5/09


Charles and I had a nice evening together and we ended up watching another item from the Doctor Who third-season box, “Music and Monsters,” which was put on the same disc as “The Runaway Bride” and turned out not to be a show episode at all, but a BBC documentary on a Doctor Who concert being given in Cardiff, Wales as a benefit for a fund for disabled children. The format was what’s become the standard one for concerts featuring film music — the stars of the project (including David Tennant as the Doctor) and some of the costumed villains appeared (one of the Daleks even conducted — and I noted with bemusement that while the 1960’s versions of the Daleks were undoubtedly shells with little people inside working them, the current Daleks are actually remote-controlled robots, with the voice artist working off-stage and speaking his lines into a microphone that feeds into a mixing board that filters the sound to re-create the supposedly computer-generated Dalek voice: “Exterminate!”), and a giant screen was set up in the concert hall so that clips from the show could be shown while the orchestra and (non-Dalek) conductor played the original soundtrack music “live.”

The concert took place before “The Runaway Bride” had aired on TV and therefore that sequence was new to the audience — and, quite frankly, I still haven’t decided whether I like the idea of the TARDIS being capable of flight. Oh, sure it can move backward and forward in time and teleport itself from one location to another via a different dimension, but in “The Runaway Bride” it actually lifted itself off from Earth and took off in chase to find the abducted heroine and capture her back. That looked weird! The show was interesting, notably in charting the various incarnations of Ron Grainer’s classic Doctor Who theme (though the commentator gave Delia Derbyshire as much, if not more, credit for her arrangement of the best-known version of the theme than he did Grainer for composing it) from some crude electronic keyboards to the synthesizer Derbyshire used on her version to the full-orchestra rendition used now — and some of the second-season episodes, notably the one in which the Doctor and company are transported to Versailles on the eve of the French Revolution and the villains are a band of “clockwork droids” (one interesting element of Doctor Who is that the villains always seem to be multiple — the Daleks, the Cyber-Men, the Clockwork Droids, the puppets in “The Runaway Bride” — even if a single super-villain is directing the rest of them), seem very much worth watching. — 3/6/09


I ran us the next episode in the Doctor Who 2.0 series three boxed set (this is the new Doctor Who, revived in 2005, and the box features David Tennant in his second of three seasons as The Doctor — he’s much younger than the middle-aged theatre veterans who played him in the first 1962-1985 iteration of the show, and in the current fifth season, already airing in the U.K. though we won’t get it until 2010, he’s been replaced by someone even younger!) because it would be suitably short it wouldn’t keep us awake too long. This episode was called “Smith and Jones” because it introduced the Doctor in hiding in a hospital under the name “John Smith” and also gave us a whole family of Black — what else would you call them, African-British? — people named Jones, one of whom, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), is a doctor-in-training at the Royal Hope Hospital when it is suddenly beamed up to the surface of the moon by the Judoon, an interplanetary race of freelance police officers who look like rhinoceroses except they walk upright.

The Judoon are looking for a non-human who is hiding out in the hospital, and though the Doctor is non-human the one they’re actually looking for is in the guise of a charming middle-aged lady, Florence Finnegan (Anne Reid), who’s really a “plasmavore” — i.e., a vampire. (“I’ve even brought a straw!” is her line to her victims just before she, shall we say, puts the bite on them.) Florence has her own set of minions, a race of robots whose bodies are made almost entirely of leather (“that’s quite a fetish,” says the Doctor — this isn’t just a kids’ show anymore!), and the show manages over its 45-minute running time to marry state-of-the-art special effects (no more upturned barrels with toilet plungers stuck on them to represent the minions of implacable evil!) with the spirit of campiness that made the original show so entertaining and developed its cult audience. This was a real charmer with a well thought-out backstory about the Joneses (her dad has left her mom for a white-trash bimbo, he’s throwing an extravagant birthday party for his son even though the son doesn’t want one, and Martha also has a quarrelsome older sister who believes she’s wasting her time trying to become a doctor) and a lot of fun, appealing action that doesn’t take itself too seriously — a rare virtue these days now that the American studios are cranking out superhero movies that drown under the weight of their own pretension! — 3/17/09


Afterwards I dashed home and waited for Charles — he was off by 8 but we’d arranged that he’d wait for me at his place and I’d call when I got in — and also for a DVD disc change at 10:15 (in the middle of a Peter Lorre marathon on TCM) — and when Charles finally arrived I had ice cream with him and then we ran something considerably less imposing but quite fun: a Doctor Who episode from the 2007-2008 season called “The Shakespeare Code,” a title obviously inspired by The Da Vinci Code attached to an engaging story by Gareth Roberts in which The Doctor (David Tennant) and his new female companion, nurse Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) travel to 1599 (in some ways evoking the original agenda behind Doctor Who — it was originally conceived as an educational program in which the Doctor would time-travel back through human history and thereby get kids to watch dramatizations of real historical events; the idea of making it a science-fiction action series in which the Doctor would foil various alien plots to take over Earth came later) and meet William Shakespeare (Dean Lennox Kelly, considerably hotter and hunkier than the impression we have of Shakespeare’s appearance from the contemporary portraits), sit in at a production of Love’s Labours Lost at the Globe Theatre and — naturally — get enmeshed in a plot hatched by three aliens, disguised as witches, to open a portal that will let their race travel to Earth and colonize it.

First they put the architect of the Globe under a spell so he would design the theatre in the way needed to create the portal, and after driving him crazy (Our Heroes actually visit him in Bedlam and obtain a key clue before the witches dispatch him once and for all) the witches then put Shakespeare himself under a spell so that in writing Love’s Labours Won, a sequel to Love’s Labours Lost (a title that actually appears on contemporary lists of Shakespeare’s writings but has never actually turned up — though given how foreign the whole concept of “intellectual property” would have been to copyright-free Elizabethan England, it’s possible Love’s Labours Won, if it existed at all, was someone else’s sequel to Shakespeare’s play), Shakespeare inserts into the closing scene the formula needed to open the witches’ portal. We already get a glimpse of this when the actors rehearse the ending, and of course Our Heroes just barely foil the plot — there’s a charming scene at the end in which the three witches are trapped inside their own crystal ball — and Roberts’ script also had some nice gags in which the Doctor quotes lines from Shakespeare’s plays that Shakespeare himself can’t place because they’re from plays he hasn’t written yet — the Doctor says, “To be or not to be,” and Shakespeare says, “That sounds good. Mind if I use that?” — 5/5/09


When Charles and I got home we had ice cream for dessert and I ran something else, since he said he was still up for a movie: the next in the sequence of episodes from the Doctor Who third-season boxed set, “Gridlock.” After the previous ones in the run had been generally on the light, fluffy, campy side, this one was very dark; it takes place in the future city of “New New York” on the planet of “New Earth,” and the environment is so seedy it makes the dystopias of Blade Runner and The Matrix look like health spas by comparison. The entire population of New New York seems to be either a handful of junkies and their semi-legal pushers, who work out of lunch counter-style businesses and sell skin patches labeled with the emotion they’re supposed to induce: “Happy,” “Forget,” “Bliss.”

The only other sign of life is inside what’s called “The Motorway,” a giant freeway system in which there’s so much traffic (the cars of this era look like Volkswagen buses without wheels; they have magnetic pads on their undersides that are supposed to move them about, though the transportation system is so gridlocked that people only get to move a few feet per year) and such an impossible state of gridlock that unless they can get clearance from the central computer that runs everything to get into the “fast lane” — which is only open to people who are carrying three or more adult passengers — they are stuck in traffic for years. In case you’re wondering how they eat and breathe (and other science facts), their cars have air filters that keep out most of the exhaust that otherwise would kill them (get out of your car and you will be killed by the toxicity of the fumes in about 20 minutes) and the cars also contain restrooms that recycle human waste back into edible food. The reaction of the Doctor’s traveling companion, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), when she realizes the thing she’s eating (which looks like a slightly overbaked matzoh cracker) is probably recycled shit is subtle and priceless.

The Doctor gets involved in all this when Martha is kidnapped by a young(ish) couple who see her as the invaluable third person that can get them into the fast lane — only it turns out that there’s nobody who can grant anybody admission into the fast lane because everybody in the so-called “overcity,” which was supposed to be the ruling class, died from a virus that contaminated the “Bliss” drug — the virus ultimately killed itself when it ran out of potential hosts (viruses do that, actually; it’s what really happened to the notorious Spanish flu of 1918-1919), but it left the entire motorway system essentially self-governing, complete with endless-loop TV traffic reports broadcast to the monitor screens in people’s cars. What’s more, a race of beings (which, like a good deal of the rest of the elements of this Doctor Who episode, had been dramatized on the show before) that look like terrestrial crabs eat the cars — and their occupants — whenever they get too close, and the car carrying Martha and the people who kidnapped her is in severe danger of that fate.

The Doctor finds another entity from his past — the Face of Boe (Struan Rodger), a former wise man who’s been reduced to a giant head artificially kept alive in a huge bell jar — and from this entity and his caretaker he learns that he’s the last surviving Time Lord and everyone else on his home planet perished at the hands of the Daleks (you remember them). Though it has at least a mezzo-lieto fine, this episode is generally one of the darkest Doctor Whos I’ve seen — it’s not without humor (one of the things I like about the revival of Doctor Who is that they’ve upgraded the effects work to state-of-the-art but kept the campy, cheeky atmosphere of the original series intact) but it’s a grim, clenched-teeth sort of humor that keeps the tale engaging even though it’s otherwise a dark, dystopian vision of at least one set of Earth possibilities — and a quite well done dystopia at that! — 5/7/09


One of the items we watched was the second half of a two-part episode from the third-season boxed set of the current Doctor Who, “Daleks in Manhattan” and “Evolution of the Daleks,” of which we’d watched the first half Wednesday night but which I hadn’t commented on in yesterday’s journal because I wanted to get the entry done in a hurry before we left for Outrage. The story (by Helen Raynor, with properly moody, atmospheric direction by James Strong and Terry Nation being given screen credit for creating the Daleks in the first place) is a wild tale set in New York in 1930, in the middle of the Great Depression. Its major locales are the Empire State Building and a Hooverville set up in Central Park within eyeshot of the under-construction skyscraper, and the dramatis personae include Solomon (Hugh Quarshie), the African-American who runs the Hooverville and maintains discipline and order by sheer charisma and force of will; Frank (Andrew Garfield), his young associate; Tallulah (Miranda Raison), a blonde showgirl with the proverbial heart of gold; Laszlo (Ryan Carnes), a stagehand at the theatre where she works and also her boyfriend; and Mr. Diagoras (Eric Loren), the construction supervisor at the Empire State Building, who’s facing a deadline from his investors to get the building (including its famous spire) finished in an insanely short period of time.

One of the Hooverville residents wonders who on earth has the money to build such a huge, lavish building in the middle of the Depression, and it turns out it isn’t anybody on earth; it’s a cadre of four Daleks (from, to use the nomenclature common these days among Native Americans, the Skaro Tribe of the Dalek Nation), the only members of the race that have survived (just as Our Hero is supposed to be the last of his race, the Time Lords — the writers of this iteration of Doctor Who seem considerably more apocalyptic than their predecessors in the 1960’s and 1970’s!). The entire building is an energy collector designed to take advantage of a massive solar flare to entrap gamma radiation and thereby power a transformation process that will turn deceased humans — the Daleks have kidnapped them, killed them but left their bodies intact, emptied their brains and now plan to splice Dalek DNA into them — into Daleks in human form.

What’s more, the leader of the tribe, Dalek Sec, plans to turn himself into a human-Dalek hybrid, with tentacles sticking out of his extended scalp instead of hair and an ill-fitting mask designed to raise his forehead and make him look suitably “alien.” To do this, he needs a human body, so he requisitions Mr. Diagoras’s, thinking that the guy is already heartless and mean enough to be a suitable living host for a Dalek — only the combined organism starts getting those dangerous human tendencies towards compassion and a heart, and the other Daleks ultimately get rid of him. Solomon gets zapped by the Daleks in the second episode, Laszlo gets turned into one of the Daleks’ “pig slaves” (guys with pig faces, albeit in Laszlo’s case the transformation is not quite complete) and ultimately dies because part of that transformation is it speeds up your metabolism and you age far more quickly than normal, and the show ends with the Doctor’s frantic attempt to disarm the spire on the Empire State Building so it won’t conduct the gamma energy the Daleks need — only he drops his laser screwdriver and doesn’t get one of the three collector panels off in time, so the Dalek transformation goes ahead on schedule, only it turns out that since the energy was filtered through the Doctor’s body some of his Time Lord DNA also ends up in the mix, so the Dalek/human hybrids turn on their makers and kill two of the three remaining Daleks, while the one left over beams off earth to heaven knows where. In this episode the innards of the Daleks — what they really look like inside their metal suits — is a sort of land-based jellyfish instead of the mutant mini-humans (played by little people) in the original series — but the whole thing was fun, genuinely frightening but also appealingly campy. — 5/15/09


Charles and I eventually ran a couple of movies last night, a TV episode from the third season of the new Dr. Who and a feature film. The Dr. Who episode was an engaging one called “The Lazarus Experiment,” in which The Doctor (David Tennant) gets involved when he delivers his traveling companion, African-British nurse Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) inside her apartment via the TARDIS and thinks he’s going to leave her behind and never see her again. Then a message from Martha’s mother Francine (Adjoa Andoh) comes in announcing that Martha’s sister Tish (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is about to be on TV — and the Doctor switches on the set and sees that Tish is working as the assistant to an elderly scientist called Dr. Lazarus (Mark Gatiss) who claims to have come up with a discovery “that will change what it means to be human.” The Doctor disappears in the TARDIS and then moments later reappears, pops out of the device and says, “Did he said it would change what it means to be human?”

The Doctor scores invitations for himself and Martha to the black-tie event at which Lazarus is going to reveal his secret invention, which is a giant blue cage mounted on electronic devices that will beam ultrasonic rays to the person inside and rework their DNA to make them younger immediately. Lazarus steps into his machine and it threatens to go out of control — the Doctor, who as a scientifically advanced alien is the only person there besides Lazarus with any idea of how the thing works, pulls the plug on it and then announces that if he’d let it alone it would have blown up the building — and then Lazarus emerges from the machine, blond and looking about 35 years old instead of his former decrepitude (artificially created, according to, from a life casting of Vincent Price!). The Doctor is sure that there’s something Lazarus has neglected in his experiment, and sure enough there is; thanks to an uncontrolled variable Lazarus’s newly remodeled DNA goes through periodic transformations that occasionally turn him into a giant spider-like monster with the compulsion to kill people, then abruptly change him back to a human.

There’s also the elderly Lady Thaw (Thelma Barlow), who bankrolled the Lazarus experiment in hopes that he’d turn her young, too, so they could be together — instead he jilts her and makes a pass at Tish. The derivation of this story out of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is almost too obvious (though a new wrinkle Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t think of is the profit motive — Lazarus himself and his financiers are all convinced they’re going to become super-rich selling scientific rejuvenation to the other super-rich, and it’s typical of a British writer that scripter Stephen Greenhorn actually seems bothered by the idea of a future in which the rich can live virtually forever while the poor die quickly; an American writer wouldn’t be bothered by that at all!), but it’s still a fun, entertaining episode — and as I’ve pointed out before, what’s best about the new Dr. Who series is they’re doing state-of-the-art special effects but have kept the engagingly campy tone of the original show. — 6/14/09


I ran him the next episode in sequence from the third-season boxed set of the new Doctor Who. This one was called “42” (one commentator suggested this was a play on the hit U.S. series 24) and features the Doctor (David Tennant) and his African-British girlfriend Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) beaming the TARDIS into the middle of a spaceship that’s being sucked into the sun of the planet it was supposed to be visiting and has 42 minutes remaining before they get burned to a crisp. I joked, “Hey, it’s a Star Trek episode disguised as a Doctor Who episode!”

The ship’s captain is a woman, Kath McDonnell (Michelle Collins), and her husband Hal Korwin (Matthew Chambers) is just adding to her troubles — he’s been possessed by a mysterious alien entity that has turned him into a murderous monster (though, fortunately, it hasn’t changed his human appearance — though he spends much of the episode going about in a helmet with a visor that enables him to focus the lethal rays from his eyes and burn people to a crisp, a trick he plays on two women in the crew while turning one of the males, vampire-style, into a creature like himself) — and also the ship is booby-trapped: all the doors needed to get them to their auxiliary power supply are locked and can only be opened by a series of passwords based on trivia questions: an even more dire rescension of the gimmick of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? than the one in the recent film Slumdog Millionaire. (Martha, using a cell phone the Doctor has modified so she can literally call anywhere in the universe, calls her mom for the answer to one of the questions — who had more pre-download number one hits, Elvis or the Beatles? — thereby parodying the show’s “Phone-a-Friend” gimmick.)

While I spent much of the episode wondering why in hell the Doctor didn’t just rescue all the crew members by ushering them into the TARDIS and taking it somewhere (or somewhen) else, this was a taut, suspenseful show, well written by Chris Chibnall (virtually all the Doctor Who episodes have only one writer, a refreshing change from the committees that write most American series TV!) and tautly directed by Graeme Harper — with an interesting tag scene back at the home of Martha’s mother in the earth of our own time, with three sinister-looking people (we presume they’re government agents) recalling the cell-phone call and attempting to trace it … — 6/16/09


When Charles and I were finally ready to watch something ourselves I had the idea of digging out the third-season boxed set of the new Doctor Who and running the next episode in sequence — which turned out to be disappointing. It was called “Human Nature” and offered itself as the first of a two-part story based on a Doctor Who novel published in 1996 (while the series was between its two iterations) in which, in order to avoid being caught by a malevolent team of interstellar bad guys called “The Family” (a.k.a. “The Family of Blood,” which is the title of the second part) who can take the form of humans (or presumably the life forms of any planet they happen to end up on), who in the opening scene are chasing the Doctor (David Tennant) and his African-British nurse companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) through interstellar space. Realizing that drastic measures are called for, the Doctor puts on a helmet and uses it to undergo a painful transformation that will change his entire genetic coding to that of a human being, so he can hide out on earth and the Family members won’t be able to sniff him out. So he ends up as a teacher at a British boys’ school in 1913, and Martha ends up as a servant at the place and has to watch helplessly while the Doctor, using the generic name “John Smith,” falls in love with the school nurse, Joan Redfern (Jessica Hynes), a widow since her husband was killed in the Boer War.

The best parts of the story are Martha’s increasing jealousy of Jones and her inability to do anything about it. Alas, the rest is pretty lame; in general the Doctor Who stories taking place in earth’s past are less interesting than the ones from the future, and the pattern holds true here even though writer Paul Cornell is adept at the quirks that consistently make this series interesting. When “The Family” finally arrive on earth — in a translucent green spaceship — they rather eccentrically pick the humans they’re going to take over: Father appropriately possesses a local landowner, Mr. Clark (Gerald Horan); Son takes over a Flashman-like student bully, Jeremy Baines (Harry Lloyd, a quite good actor and a name to watch for future stardom); Daughter seizes the corpus of a little girl, Lucy Cartwright (Lauren Wilson), carrying a balloon (I almost expected to hear Peter Lorre whistle “In the Hall of the Mountain King” as she got stalked!); and Mother takes over Jenny (Rebekah Staton), the maid who’s Martha’s co-worker at the school.

Meanwhile, a student named Tim Latimer (Thomas Sangster — any relation to Jimmy Sangster, Hammer’s principal screenwriter in the 1960’s?) who’s been bullied by Jeremy and criticized by Mr. Smith for not working up to his potential, steals the pocket watch that conceals all the information about himself Smith needs to turn back to the Doctor. The premise is full of possibilities but the execution rather creaks along, and maybe stretching this story out to two episodes was a mistake because it does seem padded. Oh, well — maybe I’ll like it better when we watch the rest … — 10/30/09


Charles and I eventually watched the second half of the Doctor Who episode whose first half, “Human Nature,” we’d screened the night before — partly because it was short and neither of us wanted to stay up too late, partly because we both wanted to see part two while our memories of part one were still fresh. The denouement made the whole conception seem even closer to that of “The City on the Edge of Forever,” the famous Star Trek episode in which Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock went back in time to get the universe back to what it was supposed to be after Dr. McCoy had done a previous time jump and changed some aspect of Earth history — and the principals ended up in San Francisco in 1930, where Kirk fell in love with pacifist activist Edith Keeler (a marvelously understated performance by the usually awful Joan Collins), only to find that the event in Earth history that had been reversed and needed to be changed back was Edith Keeler’s death, since if she lived she’d have started a nationwide pacifist movement that would have enabled the Nazis to win World War II.

It was clear from “Human Nature” and even more from the follow-up episode, “The Family of Blood,” that writer Paul Collins was ripping off Harlan Ellison’s script from “The City on the Edge of Forever” (well, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best!) — this show is also about a superhero from the future who travels back in time to Earth on the eve of one of the World Wars, falls in love (with the additional gimmick of not knowing who he is — he thinks he’s a normal human being from the time period he’s gone to) and then has to abandon his romance in order to save the world — even though Collins didn’t twist the knife in as much as Ellison did when he decreed that the girlfriend of the space traveler had not only to lose him but to die. This time around I got more of the pathos people who celebrated the episode on liked about it — even though the Family of Blood themselves are disposed of 12 minutes before the episode is over and the rest is wrapping up the human story, the attraction between the Doctor (David Tennant), his 1913 Earth girlfriend Joan Redfern (Jessica Hynes) and his previous traveling companion (the one he picked up from 2006-2007 Earth in the opening episodes of this season) Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), who’s clearly in love with the Doctor herself and is jealous of Joan — which doesn’t stop the Doctor from asking Joan to accompany him on the TARDIS when he departs (just how he’s going to handle both the women who love him in such close proximity is a mystery to just about everyone, including Paul Collins I suspect!).

The combined episode strikes me as better than it seemed when we’d just watched part one, but Doctor Who still seems a stronger show when it deals exclusively with menaces from the future than when it goes back into Earth’s past (even though the latter was the original intent; the series was actually intended as an educational program in which the Doctor would just be a plot device, sort of like Mr. Peabody and Sherman, to depict past eras for the edification and education of Britain’s schoolchildren — though, predictably, it turned out they would rather watch the Daleks and the other futuristic menaces for which this show became famous than slog through British history), and of the episodes of this season I think “Gridlock” was the best in its combination of imagination, education and social comment. — 10/31/09


Charles and I took it easy for the rest of the night but we eventually got it together long enough to watch the next 2007 Doctor Who episode in sequence: a marvelous horror tale called “Blink” that I think ranks along with “Gridlock” as the best item in the box so far. The Doctor (David Tennant) and his traveling companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) stay pretty much in the background in this one, which involves them projecting a message to a young woman named Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan) in 2007 via “Easter eggs” — unadvertised special features — on 17 DVD’s (coincidentally the only ones Sally owns). Sally starts getting the messages when she and her friend Kathy Nightingale (Lucy Gaskell) explore a haunted house and discover that the statues on the property are changing position and actually moving — but only when they’re not being looked at. Kathy eventually gets zapped back in time to 1920 and lives the rest of her life in that time frame — and a young Black police detective who cruises Sally also gets zapped backwards, this time to 1969; Sally actually visits him in hospital as a much older man, just before he dies.

What’s going on is that the “statues” are actually a life form, the Weeping Angels, who live by sucking off the present-day energy of the victims they’ve dispatched into the past — and once she gets the message and figures it all out (helped by the Doctor and the existence of a transcript that anticipates their entire conversation!), Sally and Kathy’s brother Larry (Finlay Robertson) confront the Weeping Angels under the Doctor’s solemn instruction to them to keep their eyes on the creatures (since they’re helpless when they’re being seen by someone else, even each other) and above all not to blink. (Even the people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers didn’t have to worry about not blinking — all they had to do is keep from nodding off or falling asleep.)

What made this show interesting was the quirky writing by Steven Moffat and especially the tight, suspenseful direction of Hettie Macdonald — whose quick cuts actually create a legitimately frightening illusion that the statues are indeed moving when the story says they are — and also the winsomeness of Carey Mulligan, who really carries this whole episode since the Doctor has merely an important bit role. The resolution involves the Doctor giving Sally and Larry instructions and a key so they can enter his TARDIS time machine and, with the Weeping Angels trying to break in or destroy it from outside, they finally get the thing started and beam themselves back in time to 1969, where the Doctor had got stranded — while the Weeping Angels who had circled the TARDIS, once it’s gone and they can see each other, suddenly turn into normal, utterly immobile statues. While the campy approach of Doctor Who is part of its charm (and there are camp elements in this one, including David Tennant actually having to utter the phrase “timey-wimey” as if he’s serious about it), for the most part “Blink” is a nice little piece of vest-pocket cinematic terror and well worth watching for the sheer thrills as well as the cleverness of the conceit. — 11/6/09


Over the last two nights Charles and I watched the three final episodes of the third season of Doctor Who 2.0 — the ones that originally aired in 2006-2007 and which I’d got him from Columbia House as a present ages ago. They were an interconnected story which began with an episode called “Utopia,” in which the Doctor (David Tennant) and his traveling companion for series three, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), end up taking his time-travel machine, the TARDIS (Time And Relativity Dimensions in Space), literally to the end of the universe: to a planet referred to in some sources on the show as “Malcassairo” but which comes off pretty much as Earth to us, with mutant humanoids with bared fangs going after the few surviving humans with either cannibalistic or vampiristic intent.

The (apparent) good guy in all of this is a rather dotty old professor, Yana (Derek Jacobi), and his alien sidekick Chantho (Chipo Chung) — her face is green and covered not only with scales but at least two snake-like appendanges that writhe as part of her expressions — who have worked out a plan to save the few remaining non-mutated humans by building a spaceship and transporting them to an unnamed destination called “Utopia.” At first it seems like the dramatic issues are going to be whether the spaceship will launch in time and whether the people on board will be able to find and neutralize the mutant who’s somehow sneaked on board — but the script by Russell Davies takes a quick turn towards the end when it’s revealed that Yana is actually the principal villain of the piece: he steals the Doctor’s TARDIS and regenerates himself into a much younger person, a fellow Time Lord called “The Master,” a renegade, psychopathic Time Lord whom the Doctor encountered in several episodes towards the end of the original series but hadn’t yet had to deal with in this one yet.

The only good thing that happens is the Doctor meets up with an old friend, Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), who apparently is a “Time Master,” a secondary being from the Time Lords but one who shares at least a few of their powers, including wearing a wristband that, like the TARDIS, can transport its wearer (and anyone else who happens to be holding on to him) through time and space — though without an enclosure the trip is a good deal rougher than it is within the comforting confines of the TARDIS. Fortunately, before losing it the Doctor had locked the controls of the TARDIS so it could only go between two places — where it was several trillion years into the future, or where it had been on its last trip — which was early 21st century Earth.

In the second episode, “The Sound of Drums” (after an aural hallucination of drumming the Master has had to live with all his life), the Doctor, Martha and Jack use Jack’s wristband to go to 21st century London, where they find that the Master has arrived a year and a half before, constructed a false background and is passing himself off as Harold Saxon (John Simm), independent candidate for Prime Minister of Great Britain, who wins the election easily through platitudinous speeches and, more importantly, mass hypnosis through broadcasting the drumbeat he hears in his head subliminally to everyone in the country (in the world, in fact) through their cell phones — since he’s launched the Archangel cell-phone network of 15 satellites, all of which are broadcasting that rhythm and thereby subconsciously conditioning virtually everyone to believe in “Harold Saxon” and trust everything he does and says. He purges his cabinet at their first meeting — literally — by filling the meeting room with poison gas (he has a gas mask but nobody else does) and then announces that there is going to be a first contact between humans and aliens from outer space: he has made contact with an interstellar species called the “Toclafane” and will be greeting them and broadcasting their first contact with the human race.

U.S. President Walters (Colin Stinton) insists that under United Nations protocols he has the right to make first contact with an interstellar visitor, and he insists on relocating the contact to the deck of the ship Valiant — which turns out to be, not an ocean-going vessel at all, but a space station in earth orbit. The Toclafane turn out to be metal spheres with wicked built-in weaponry — “Saxon” came to earth in the first place with an advance guard of four of them and we’ve already seen them kill at least one person, a woman reporter who was threatening to expose “Saxon” — and in a war cry subtler than the legendary one of the Daleks, “Exterminate!,” but just as frightening, the four Toclafane in the Master’s advance guard surround President Walters, whine, “We don’t like you!,” and dispatch him to the great beyond. The Master then summons six billion Toclafane to colonize Earth and turn the indigenous inhabitants into slave laborers, commandeering land and resources to build spaceships with which to launch an interstellar war which will re-establish Gallifrey, the original home planet of the Time Lords, on Earth and put the whole universe under Time Lord dominion whether it wants to be or not.

The third episode, “Last of the Time Lords,” takes place a year later; Martha Jones got beamed back to Earth and has been traveling the world searching for resources with which to kill the Master and undo the transformation he put the Doctor through, artificially aging him several hundred years — in episode two he’s turned into an old man and in episode three he’s given yet another dose of artificial age which makes him a large, wrinkled head stuck on a gnarled, Gollum-like body whom the Master keeps in a giant bird cage (in episode two he’d had him in a doghouse). We’re led to believe that she’s been collecting four drugs and a special gun that are supposedly the only way to kill a Time Lord, but in the end it turns out that what she’s really been doing is organizing the survivors of Earth to believe in the Doctor (she comes off as a sort of sci-fi John the Baptist heralding the coming of the Jesus Doctor) and all to think about him at 3 p.m. on a particular day — and it works, eliminating the Master’s power and giving the Doctor back his youth and vigor.

Martha is about to shoot the Master (with a conventional gun? I thought Time Lords were harder to kill than that!) when she draws back — and Mrs. Saxon (Alexandra Moen), the ordinary earth woman the Master lured to his side with the promise of being able to rule the universe with him, shoots him instead. The Doctor pleads with the Master to regenerate himself — the power that gives the Time Lords immortality (and has allowed the producers of the series to recast the role of the Doctor many times, since the premise is that after the “regeneration” he has a different appearance and can therefore be played by a different actor) — but the Master decides he doesn’t want to become the Doctor’s pet, and therefore he wills himself not to regenerate but to die instead, thereby literally leaving the Doctor as “the last of the Time Lords.” Russell Davies’ script — directed by Graeme Harper (episode one and, uncredited, co-directing episode three) and Colin Teague — artfully combines elements from a lot of recent fantasy stories, including the Roland Emmerich apocalypses, The Lord of the Rings, They Live, V for Vendetta, Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slapstick and the Underworld films, while maintaining a cheekily campy attitude towards them that indicates he’s not really taking all this seriously; as I noted on some of the previous episodes in this boxed set, one of the most entertaining aspects of Doctor Who 2.0 is that while the producers are giving us state-of-the-art special effects instead of the incredibly tacky ones of the original series (like the toilet plungers which were the Daleks’ antennae and sense organs), they’ve retained the cheeky, campy approach of the original and so the pieces work as both action sci-fi and an hilarious send-up of the genre.

At the same time Davies is good at coming up with fantastic (in both senses) ideas to make his plot work; it turns out the Toclafane were actually the humans from that mysterious end-of-the-universe world depicted in episode one (when humans managed to bring down one of the spheres and open it, they find a wizened little human face inside directing it), and their trip to Earth to conquer it under the Master’s direction was the voyage to Utopia they were promised in episode one — and the Master had reworked the TARDIS into a “paradox machine” so the Toclafane could be in two places at the same time. The ending reunites Martha Jones with her family — and pairs her with a hot-looking white doctor she met in her journey — while the Doctor runs his time machine so that the last year and a half of Earth history is reversed, most of the Master’s victims come back to life and the planet continues with no one, aside from Martha and her relatives and boyfriend-to-be, aware of what happened. (There’s also a tag scene that sets up the premiere of the next season, in which the Doctor ends up on board the Titanic.) All told, the third-season Doctor Who was an entertaining program that went out with the proverbial “bang” — the televisual equivalent of the big burst of fireworks that ends a display — though I still think the chilling “Gridlock” and “Blink” were the best episodes. — 5/31/10

National Memorial Day Concert (PBS, 5/30/10)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

this morning I watched the National Memorial Day Concert aired last night on PBS. This was the 21st annual concert and the first that wasn’t conducted by Erich Kunzel, who died last year — so the show turned out to be a memorial to him as well as to the men and (increasingly) women who’ve died in America’s war. As usual, the show was a bizarre mixture of the genuinely moving and the banal — and interestingly, the openly patriotic moments seemed more emotionally powerful than the “normal” parts, though the unspeakably awful Lionel Richie came out to do one of his old hits, “On My Way,” in the first half and “America, the Beautiful” in the second half (and his performance of “America, the Beautiful” seemed even more pathetic when measured against memories of what Ray Charles did with this song) and managed to be equally terrible in patriotic and romantic modes. The show opened with Broadway star Kelli Smith doing a version of “God Bless America” whose arranger made the ill-advised decision to incorporate the much more banal patriotic song “This Is My Country” in the middle — but the combination of the simplicity of the song itself and Smith’s crystalline voice and eloquent phrasing moved and did a good job setting the stage for the rest.

Next up was Yolanda Adams singing the national anthem — and managing to tame this wide-ranging song quite successfully. Later on in the show she did Albert Hay Malotte’s setting of “The Lord’s Prayer,” a decent effort on a pretty boring piece of music (to my mind, Mahalia Jackson is just about the only singer who’s ever managed to sing Malotte’s banalities and actually make them sound as if they were truly worthy of the simple beauty of the words) and Kelli O’Hara returned with “A Wonderful Guy” from South Pacific (she’s currently playing Nellie Forbush in what’s, amazingly, the first on-Broadway revival of this musical — it seems odd that this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic hasn’t been performed on Broadway from the close of the original run until now) and then came the surprising high point of the show. A good chunk of every one of these concerts is taken up by actors reading from the memoirs of veterans, and a lot of times these are potentially moving stories told in the dullest and least moving ways.

Not this time: the reminiscences were of Don Dingee (Gary Sinise) and Chuck Johnson (Dennis Haysbert), who had known each other and been best buds in high school — daring an interracial friendship (Dingee was white, Johnson African-American) at a time when that was definitely not cool — and then finding themselves serving together in the same platoon in the Korean War when they were assigned to defend a hill against a Chinese force that outnumbered them 30 to 1. Dingee killed as many of the Chinese as he could and then a hand grenade was thrown at him, landing at his feet. He tried to kick it away but didn’t do so in time, and he ended up paralyzed from the waist down and Johnson stanched his bleeding, make a tourniquet for the stump where his leg had been, and saved his life — and then Dingee watched as Johnson was killed himself attempting to tend to other wounded servicemembers while they were still under fire. The real Dingee and another servicemember Johnson rescued were in the audience, as were members of Johnson’s family, and the whole narration was a tribute not only to the heroism of the two people involved but to the simple, eloquent power of the writing and the acting that so successfully re-created it — and it was nice to hear Dingee’s comment that at first the white servicemembers were uncertain about having Blacks in the lines next to them (the Korean War was the U.S.’s first after President Truman’s courageous order to integrate the armed forces in 1948).

Alas, the other tribute was about widows from the Viet Nam and Iraq wars meeting each other on the Internet and joining each other for mutual comfort and support — an important and valuable lesson that didn’t get taught at all well in this presentation; it seemed all too much like a promotion for the Web site (there’s a button on it where you can log on with your own experiences of having lost someone in combat — either a comrade you were fighting with or a family member who didn’t come back — and though I hadn’t realized it before, that’s the source the concert’s organizers cull to get these stories they put on the program), though at least I can hope that someone out there logs on and finds the help and support they need to get through one of the hardest things that ever happens to anyone. (I can relate somewhat because I lost a partner myself — albeit to disease, not war.) Country star Brad Paisley (whom I quite like) came on and did a couple of songs, “Welcome to the Future” and “I Thought I Loved You Then” (which, despite the impression you might get from the title, isn’t a tears-in-my-beer breakup song but actually a celebration of a very long relationship — the gist is I thought I loved you when we first got together but I love you even more now, which was quite nice!).

The war widows’ episode at least generated one of the most powerful musical performances on the show — Andrea Bocelli’s hit “Let This Be Our Prayer” sung by Katherine Jenkins, who totally blew him away with the simplicity and eloquence of her phrasing compared to Bocelli’s tasteless heaving and sighing (recently the American Record Guide reviewed a collection of Mario Lanza’s recordings and the critic write, “Bocelli fans should hear this man!” — a reference to the fact that Lanza may have been a pop tenor who sang a lot of ghastly music instead of the opera which he was born to sing, but at least he had a voice!) and then the show petered out into its usual closers: a medley of the armed forces songs, a speech by the current head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Admiral Michael Mullen) and a closing medley of marches. With Erich Kunzel’s departure to that big podium in the sky, the National Symphony Orchestra and Chorus were led by someone named John Everly (any relation to Phil and Don?), and on one guest number they were joined by the Army, Navy and Air Force choruses on a song called “The Mansions of the Lord” that, like a lot of the material on the program, was actually quite good: communicating a subtle patriotic and/or religious message without hitting one over the head with it (a common failing of these productions in previous years). The Memorial Day concerts have run the gamut from powerful to banal — often both in the same show — but I’d say this was one of the better ones even though they could have used a better singer than Lionel Richie for the Black-pop slot (I can still remember the joy of seeing B. B. King on one of these a decade ago).

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Battleground (MGM, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s movie was the 1949 MGM war epic Battleground, written by Robert Pirosh about the 101st Airborne division in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and shown by TCM as part of their annual festival of war movies for the Memorial Day weekend. The property was developed by Dore Schary during his troubled year as head of production at RKO (he triumphed with the film Crossfire but was forced to read the industry’s statement of capitulation to the Hollywood blacklist and ended up losing his job when Howard Hughes bought the studio) and acquired by him from RKO as part of the negotiations with Hughes to settle his contract. He was hired as vice-president in charge of production at MGM (basically re-creating Irving Thalberg’s old job) and brought Battleground with him as his first personal MGM production in his new job — and the film was a solid hit and got some Academy Award nominations after MGM hadn’t had any major ones for 1947 or 1948 (a major comedown for a studio that was accustomed to dominating the Oscar competition).

Schary went outside the usual MGM personnel for his director and most of his cast: the director was William A. Wellman, whose film Wings (also a war movie) had won the first Academy Award for Best Production in 1927 and who was often referred to as the “Hollywood Maverick” because of his clashes with the studios and penchant for tough-minded movies that pushed both commercial and Production Code envelopes. The cast included only one established MGM star, Van Johnson, who plays Sgt. Holley, who’s left in charge of an isolated unit trapped in Bastogne, Belgium and kept from any relief by a fog that makes it impossible for planes to fly by either to drop them supplies or to fire on the Germans who are besieging them. The rest of the actors were either minor contract players or free-lancers, and the film helped boost the careers of several of them — including future stars James Whitmore, Ricardo Montalban (who transcends the Latino stereotyping of his character and delivers one of the film’s most powerful performances until he’s killed off) and James Arness.

Battleground is a bit slow getting under way — the two-hour film is 45 minutes old before the unit takes any enemy fire and almost half over by the time there’s the first actual battle between the two sides — and the opening reels seem almost a compendium of the silly clichés inserted into a lot of war movies to “humanize” the characters. According to an “trivia” commentator, “Screenwriter Robert Pirosh based this story on his experiences as an infantryman during the Battle of the Bulge. Pirosh did not serve with the 101st Airborne and wanted to create a script that was faithful to their experiences. He used his first-hand knowledge of the battle to write the script. This was done with the blessing of General McAuliffe, who was commanding the 101st during Bastogne. Consequently many of the incidents in the film — such as Pvt. Kippton’s habit of always losing his false teeth, or the Mexican soldier from Los Angeles who had never seen snow until he got to Belgium — that have always been derided as ‘typical Hollywood phony baloney’ actually happened.” But they still come off as “typical Hollywood phony baloney” on screen — especially the minor character played by George Murphy (who’d been through the treadmill at both MGM and RKO and was decidedly on the way down) who has just been promised a “dependency discharge” because his wife back home is herself too disabled to raise their kids any longer when he and the entire unit get ordered into battle just when they’ve been looking forward to a leave in Paris and the girls they can date there. (One soldier rattles off a French street address where one particularly available femme resides — and it’s clear that since the days of John Ford’s Born Reckless, in which a Frenchwoman thought the World War I doughboys were propositioning her when they pantomimed the shape of a wine bottle because none of them knew the word vin.)

The first half of Battleground is slow going, but — as with many war movies — the film achieves power and intensity once the battle itself begins. Battleground depicts war as not that different from police work — long stretches of tedium mixed with moments of life-threatening danger and abject fear — and though the soldiers tend to lose their individuality as the battle progresses, the stark performances Wellman gets out of his cast and the deliberate dreariness of the visual setting — the battle took place in December when almost everything was snowed in — powerfully puts forward the dire predicament the unit finds itself in, cut off from relief or supplies and surrounded by enemy they can’t even see. Wellman made one decision that added both to the verisimilitude of his film and to its dramatic punch: though Lennie Hayton is credited with an original music score, it’s heard only at the beginning and the end of the film: the long battle scenes are shown with no music at all, forcing us to supply our own emotional responses to the dreariness and the imminent peril rather than having them guyed for us by a powerful Steineresque score the way they would have been if, say, Warner Bros. had made this film.

Battleground was part of the resurgence of war movies after they had been considered old hat and no longer of interest to audiences once the war ended; the year before MGM had made Command Decision (based on a hit play but a box-office disappointment as a movie even though Clark Gable was cast in the lead) and Republic had made Sands of Iwo Jima (a smash hit and another key step forward in the transformation of John Wayne from star to legend). Louis B. Mayer tried to talk Schary out of making Battleground for the same reasons he’d tried to talk Irving Thalberg out of The Big Parade a quarter-century earlier — the idea that years after the end of a major war there was no longer an audience for movies about it — but Schary made Battleground and, though it’s hardly as great a movie as The Big Parade either from an artistic or commercial standpoint, Battleground was a solid hit (if not the mega-blockbuster The Big Parade had been) and established Schary as a power at MGM (whose president, Nicholas Schenck, actually fired Louis B. Mayer a year later and installed Schary in his place).

As a movie, it’s flawed by its adherence to some of the typical Hollywood formulae — including the insistence on having at least one female in the dramatis personae (Denise, played by Denise Darcel — “whose principal talent was her cup size,” Gary Carey sardonically noted in his book on MGM — a Bastogne farm girl who’s raising two children whose parents were both killed in an air raid) but it’s still a pretty powerful depiction of war and a particularly grinding sort of horror relieved only at the very end of the movie, in which the sun finally comes out, the fog disperses and the planes Our Heroes have been waiting for can fly in supplies at last. (One mistake is the use of a stock clip of paratroopers coming out of a plane — leading one to believe momentarily that the army is sending in not only more ammunition and food but extra soldiers as well.) There’s some pretty silly, almost musical drilling going on early in the movie — the “Sound Off!” routine comes close to becoming a song and one wonders whether the soldiers were taught that drilling routine by Busby Berkeley based on his experiences in the First World War — but it “plants” a moving effect at the end in which the solders start to chant as they pull out of Bastogne, first tremulously and uncertainly but then with snap and vigor as they regain their morale.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Break of Hearts (RKO, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the 1935 movie Break of Hearts, an RKO soap opera vehicle for Katharine Hepburn set in the world of classical music. Constance Dane (Hepburn) is an aspiring pianist and composer whose music teacher, awkwardly named Professor Thalma (Jean Hersholt), introduces her to world-renowned conductor Franz Roberti (Charles Boyer), who’s just wrapping up his current season with the “Cosmopolitan Symphony Orchestra” prior to a European tour. (The orchestra plays on a stage — actually shot, according to, at the Wilshire Ebell Theater in midtown L.A. — that will be familiar to hardened RKO movie-watchers as the stage from which Kong breaks loose in King Kong.) Roberti is an arrogant man both as a musician as a person; he has a whole series of girlfriends and brushes aside Our Heroine when Professor Thalma begs him to look at her latest composition.

The screenwriters, Lester Cohen (story) and Victor Heerman, his wife Sarah Y. Mason (who had previously adapted Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women for one of Hepburn’s finest early films and biggest hits) and Anthony Veiller (script), seemed to have based Roberti on real-life conducting superstars Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini; they gave him Stokowski’s penchant for rearranging the music of other composers (when he visits Thalma he wants advice on his rearrangement of Tristan und Isolde, and Thalma tells him what a lot of people told Stokowski: “Who are you to rewrite Wagner?”) and Toscanini’s notorious practice of hurling vicious insults at the musicians of his orchestra during rehearsals. On his way downstairs from Thalma’s apartment Roberti hears Constance playing her piece, enters her room and says the piece is good — “very modern,” he adds, which seems odd given that what we’re actually hearing is a nocturne by an uncredited Max Steiner (uncredited as composer, anyway; he did get credit as conductor) that sounds like warmed-over Chopin and hardly “modern” at all in the age of Stravinsky and Schönberg. He asks if she knows any music other than her own, and she responds by playing “Träumerei” from Schumann’s Kinderszenen — which, by an interesting coincidence, Hepburn also played in her other role as a classical musician, Song of Love, 12 years later (a biopic in which she played Clara Schumann).

Eventually the two fall in love and marry, and they enjoy a thrilling honeymoon that takes them on a grand tour of every famous European city and country RKO had stock footage of for a montage sequence — only when they get back and his tenure with the “Cosmopolitan Symphony” resumes, they drift apart. He ends up seeing one of his exes, Rita Wilson (Inez Courtney), and she starts dating Johnny Lawrence (John Beal), a wise-cracking down-to-earth guy whose idea of great music is Paul Whiteman. Constance finds out about Roberti’s affair with Rita and goes to Reno to divorce him; he sinks into an alcoholic haze after the strain of it all leads him to collapse during a concert (in which he was playing Stokowski’s orchestral transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ); and ultimately she learns about this, finds him in a dive bar, and having decided she’s no more than a mediocre musician anyway, gives up her own life to care for him and nurse him back to health — none of which is actually shown in the movie: the film cuts from her pledging loyalty to him in that bar to him back on the stage of the Wilshire Ebell conducting the Cosmopolitan Symphony in the prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger (not the finale to Brahms’ First Symphony, which is what lists as the music in the final scene).

Break of Hearts had a troubled production history; the director was Philip Moeller, a prominent stage director who had come to RKO the year before to shoot an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. This was his second (and, it turned out, last) film, and he decided to reunite Hepburn with the star of her first film, John Barrymore — who would have been superb casting if he had been able to pull it off, though the scenes in which he (temporarily) loses his career to alcoholism would probably have been too much of a life-imitates-art scene for him to be comfortable in the role. (Maybe not; after all, in Dinner at Eight two years earlier he’d brilliantly played a wasted alcoholic stage star — and he’d convincingly play an alcoholic again four years later in The Great Man Votes, also at RKO.) Then RKO studio head Pandro S. Berman decided that coping with Barrymore’s drinking and memory losses would mean too long a production schedule to make the film profitable, so he hired actor Francis Lederer instead.

Sources differ on how long Lederer was involved — Charles Higham’s Hepburn biography said he spent three weeks on the film but both the American Film Institute Catalog and say he only shot one scene before he pulled a diva stunt and protested that he’d been shot from the “wrong” side. Berman heard that from RKO production manager Edward Killy and forthwith fired Lederer, replacing him with Charles Boyer — who’s O.K. in the romantic scenes but just not edgy enough as either the temperamental artist or the dissipated sot whom Constance rescues. Hepburn and Boyer became friends and remained in touch until his death, and often talked about making another, hopefully better, movie together — but they never did. Interestingly, Break of Hearts is at its best when the characters are shown actually making music; the film reaches an interesting level of intensity at those nightmarish rehearsals and the diffidence with which Constance offers her own music to the Great Artist is absolutely convincing. (So is Hepburn’s on-screen piano playing; a recent biography said that she had never played until she learned how to finger a piano for Song of Love, but it’s clear from this film that she knew enough about how to play the piano to synchronize on-screen with the pre-recorded music and director Moeller didn’t have to resort to one of those shots in which the bulk of the piano conceals the actress’s hands from the audience.)

Offstage, though, Break of Hearts is just another RKO soap opera that ill-uses the fiery Hepburn — who’d done a similar story far better two years earlier in Christopher Strong, under a much better director (Dorothy Arzner) and a much edgier actor (Colin Clive, who is probably who they should have got once they decided against John Barrymore), just as Boyer would play a similar story much better in the 1939 film Love Affair (which borrows from Break of Hearts the gimmick of having a radio announcer give exposition about Boyer’s character). Saddled with an incomprehensible title that offered no clue as to what the film was about (the working title was The Music Man, which today instantly brings up Meredith Willson’s sprightly musical about a con artist touring the country and allegedly setting up boys’ bands, but would at least have given 1935 audiences a clue as to this film’s story), Break of Hearts was one of Hepburn’s many 1930’s box-office duds; fortunately for her career, she would follow it up immediately with one of her biggest hits, Alice Adams, released three months later.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Inspector Morse: “The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn” (Central Independent Television, 1987)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles a 1987 Inspector Morse story KPBS had recently rerun. The show was called “The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn” and the reason for the title is that Nicholas Quinn (Phil Nice), the junior professor at Oxford University around whom the story centers, is deaf. The show opens with the most creatively staged scene in it: a party at which Quinn is in attendance, desperately fingering the controls of a malfunctioning hearing aid so he can hear the conversations around him — and the soundtrack gives us a point-of-hearing perspective on the jumble of indistinct noises, occasionally recognizable English words and feedback from the hearing aid that make up Quinn’s not-so-silent-but-still-pretty-miserable world. Alas, Quinn is quickly found dead — originally he’s believed to have killed himself (a smell of cyanide is found in a drinking glass in his room) but Inspector Morse (John Thaw) and his sidekick (Watson to his Holmes, as it were), Detective Sergeant Lewis (Kevin Whately), soon establish that it was murder. (By coincidence, the only Inspector Morse episode to precede this one, “The Dead of Jericho,” also used the murder-faked-to-look-like-suicide gimmick.)

I can readily see what has given Inspector Morse the character, created by novelist Colin Dexter (who has a cameo appearance in the opening scene as a man having a drink in the “syndicate,” one of the governing boards of Oxford’s various colleges and also the location where they meet — and the members of the “syndicate” are called “syndics,” a word that hasn’t survived in the language — or at least the American version of English — even though “syndicate” has), his cult following (so much so that when the finale to the series was filmed about 20 years later people were literally in mourning over Morse’s death in the final story). But to me, despite Morse’s famous mania for classical music in general and Wagner in particular (during this story he’s shown listening to the prelude to Die Meistersinger as well as the overture to Der Freischütz by one of Wagner’s role models, Carl Maria von Weber), the story as a whole just seemed like one of these overly respectable British mysteries, woefully lacking in the high-intensity action I expect from Law and Order and similar American shows. At the end they finally revealed the murderer — or rather the murderers, plural, since Quinn was killed by Philip Ogleby (Michael Gough), who was himself then killed by Don Martin (Roger Lloyd Pack).

There were side issues in the plot, including an adulterous relationship at the college and a scheme to steal the answers to tests so well-connected students like the family of the Sheik of Al-Jamara (Saul Reichlin) — the party at the beginning of the story was being thrown in the sheik’s honor — can have the satisfaction and prestige of an Oxford degree without having earned it — but none of them were especially compelling, and though the murderers were revealed at the end their motives were kept pretty hazy — at least I can’t recall them with much clarity. It’s not that I don’t like British mysteries — Josephine Tey and Ruth Rendell are among my all-time favorite writers, and though I’m not a big Agatha Christie fan I’ve liked And Then There Were None as well as Billy Wilder’s marvelous film of her play Witness for the Prosecution. But this one just didn’t have enough action, enough “oomph,” to appeal to my jaded American sensibilities — though I did like the running gag that throughout the story the movie theatre in the area has been playing Last Tango in Paris, only by the time Inspector Morse has solved his case and wants to see the film, the program has changed … to 101 Dalmatians.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Wake (Bull Market Entertainment, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I went to the library movie, which we’d been a bit dubious about going to, but it turned out to be a pure delight: Wake, a 2009 indie from a company called “Bull Market Entertainment” (these days shouldn’t it be called “Bear Market Entertainment”?) about a woman with the unusual name of Carys Reitman (Bijou Phillips) whom we first see laid out on a mortuary slab, being made up by mortician Shane (Danny Masterson). No, she’s not dead — but the death of her sister years before has turned her into a funeral groupie, not only dating a mortician and getting off on having sex in the mortuary room (while he’s scared shitless of being caught and losing his job) and crashing other people’s funerals just for the experience. (I kept being reminded of the odd little clip of ZaSu Pitts describing crashing someone else’s funeral in Erich von Stroheim’s last directorial effort, Hello, Sister! — while much of the movie, especially Pitts’s role in it, was reshot with other directors after Stroheim was fired from the project, this clip was definitely his work and it stands out as such.)

Things start to go wrong when at one such funeral Carys strokes the hand of the corpse — a young woman named Ruth Williams — and the elaborate engagement ring Ruth was supposed to be buried with comes off, and she takes it. She starts getting threatening contacts from the dead woman’s sister, Marissa (Sprague Grayden), and at one point Ruth’s fiancé Tyler (Ian Somerhalder), a veterinarian, comes over — only Carys and Tyler actually find themselves attracted to each other and start dating, albeit with a lot of pressure on Carys that she’s dating a man who will probably hate her when he finds out that, no matter how inadvertently, she did steal the ring he gave to his last girlfriend. As if that weren’t all quirky enough, Tyler soon finds himself the target of a police investigation — largely being driven by Marissa’s complaints — by two detectives who come to believe that he murdered Ruth, and Carys gets caught up in this when the police decide that she and Tyler were dating before Ruth’s death and Tyler offed Ruth to get her out of the way so he could be with Carys. There’s also a mysterious person named Varrnez (Bruno Campos), who Carys notices following her and Tyler around, and when she Googles them both she finds that Tyler’s record is clean (that’s how she finds out he’s a vet, and in a charming scene she goes to see him at his clinic and comes across him wrapping up an operation on a dog) but Varrnez has a criminal record.

Things come to a head at a weekend during which Tyler takes Carys to Santa Barbara for what’s supposed to be a glorious three days of beautiful countryside and hot sex, but which ends up with them both arrested — him for Ruth’s murder and she for stealing the ring, which she blurts out having done — along with never actually having known Anna despite the tale she spun at the funeral that they were old college acquaintances. There’s also a comic-relief character in Lila (Marguerite Moreau), Carys’s diet-obsessed roommate, whose big moment comes after Carys and Tyler have smashed her full-length mirror in the throes of their first sexual coupling on the floor of Carys’s apartment. They go out shopping and find a replacement, but it’s not what Lila wanted: the moment she looks at herself in it for the first time she starts screaming, “Where’s my slimming mirror?” (Later we see her fall off the Jenny Craig wagon big-time when the camera discovers her in her bed eating a large container of ice cream.) Directed by former casting director Ellie Kanner from a wise and witty script by Lennox Wiseley, Wake is a truly charming combination of dark comedy, love story and murder mystery, and its ending [spoiler alert!] is a bit out of left field but is perfectly logical given what we’ve seen so far: instead of the mysterious Varrnez turning out to have killed Ruth and framed Tyler for it (which is where I thought it was going), we learn that Tyler actually did kill Anna, but only because she wanted him to: she was suffering from terminal cancer and she asked him to euthanize her with drugs that were easy for him to obtain since they’re the ones that are used to put down terminally ill dogs — but after she was dead he put her behind the wheel of her car and ran it off a cliff to make it seem like she’d had an accident, especially since at Ruth’s request Tyler had carefully kept it from anyone in her family that she had cancer.

Especially for an independent movie with a young cast (Jane Seymour, as Carys’s mother, was the only person in it I’d heard of before) and not much of a reputation, Wake turned out to be an infectious delight, and though it could have worked out with Carys returning to Shane at the end, the ending has her and Tyler patch up their differences while Carys throws out her old journals from the days when her sister was dying (and she was blaming it, with some justice, on the doctors treating her), indicating that she’s got over her death obsession and is ready to embrace life along with her hot, charming, well-off boyfriend.

Destination Murder (Prominent/RKO, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched another movie after we got home, an oldie I’d recorded off TCM, but it wasn’t anywhere near as good as Wake. The film was Destination Murder, a 1950 “B” noir from RKO (actually one they bought for distribution from an outfit called Prominent Pictures, headed by Maurie Suess and Edward L. Cahn, the latter of whom also directed from a script by Don Martin) that had a nice, exciting opening that promised better things than the rest of the movie delivered. Jackie Wales (Stanley Clements) is attending a movie with his girlfriend — the theatre was a real one, the Marcal at the so-called “wrong” end of Hollywood Boulevard, and they showed revivals (the marquee bills the current attractions as the 1942 Columbia “B” Flight Lieutenant and the 1943 PRC “B” Corregidor — one contributor thought the film had been shot in December 1949 and the theatre was commemorating the eighth anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack — and outside the theatre there are posters for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the 1947 Roberto Rossellini import Germany: Year Zero) — when a large Cadillac pulls up outside the theatre during a five-minute intermission (Jackie has told his date he’s going out for a smoke and will return with some popcorn by the time the next movie starts) and its occupants, Armitage (Albert Dekker) and Stanley Clements (Hurd Hatfield), pick Jackie up, tell him to get into a Blue Streak messenger’s uniform and pose as a messenger at the home of Arthur Mansfield (Franklyn Farmer), whom he is to shoot to death.

He does so and is then whisked in the Cadillac back to the theatre, where he buys the popcorn and joins his girlfriend as if nothing untoward had happened in the meantime. Alas, the rest of the film gets very talky as Mansfield’s daughter Laura (Joyce MacKenzie, top-billed) witnesses the murder and gets a view of the killer, though only with his back to her. That’s enough for her to come down to the police station and view a lineup of Blue Streak messengers — why the cops are so sure the killer was a bona fide Blue Streak messenger and not simply a hit man who got hold of a Blue Streak uniform as a disguise is never made clear, but apparently we’re supposed to believe the killer really does work for Blue Streak since he’s there in the lineup, although Laura is unable to recognize him. Instead he starts courting her and she actually dates him (so this was the second movie we watched last night in which an innocent young woman was dating a murder suspect!), including him taking her around to the nightclub which Armitage and Clements are using as a front for their gangster activities.

Despite a couple more murders — both of them committed on the premises, with Armitage’s player piano (he seems to have only one roll for it, the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata) being used to cover up the fatal shots — most of Destination Murder is pretty dull and talky, and Martin’s script makes no effort to create a climate of suspicion that will undo Laura Mansfield’s relationship with the man who (unbeknownst to her) killed her father — instead she goes right ahead either believing in him or pretending to (Martin’s script is not sure which) until the very end, when in a pretty wild reversal [spoiler alert!] it turns out that, despite his proletarian job, it’s really Jackie who’s the boss of the crime ring and Armitage and Clements who are reporting to him. (The gimmick of the secret crime boss who’s working a lower-class job as a cover was done a good deal better in the 1940 film Johnny Eager, with Robert Taylor as a newly paroled gang boss who works the job the parole authorities have helped set up for him — as a cabdriver — to cover up his continued domination of the enterprises he had run before his conviction; and it was done even better in Fritz Lang’s 1928 German film Spies, in which the crime boss Haghi was also a legitimate banker and a successful vaudeville entertainer.)

Destination Murder had real potential but was muffed at almost every turn — Cahn’s direction and Jackson J. Rose’s cinematography utterly lacked the atmospherics needed for good noir; Joyce MacKenzie was virtually bovine as the over-the-hill woman at the center of the plot; and the movie was easily stolen by Myrna Dell as Armitage’s girlfriend in a characterization obviously stolen from Marilyn Monroe’s performance in The Asphalt Jungle — though Dekker and Hatfield were decadent as usual and Hatfield, whose career started at the top with MGM’s 1945 production of The Picture of Dorian Gray and went downhill quickly after that, seemed out of place as a gangster in a modern-dress movie. By far the best aspect of our evening watching this movie was Charles’ joke before it began, in which he adopted the persona of someone working the ticket booth at a train station: “Larceny — aggravated assault — vehicular manslaughter — Destination: Murder!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Beauty Shop (MGM, 2005)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Beauty Shop, a 2005 MGM production that was a follow-up to the two previous hits Barbershop (2002) and Barbershop 2 (2004). It starred Queen Latifah as Gina, a carry-over character from Barbershop 2, who has moved from Chicago to Atlanta to get her daughter Vanessa (Paige Hurd, who, praise be, looks enough like Queen Latifah we can actually believe they are mother and daughter) into a prestigious music school so she can study classical piano (which couldn’t help but make me think of Cecil Tayor’s acid comment to biographer A. B. Spellman that you could get a grant to teach a Black person to play Beethoven but not to play jazz — though that was then and this is now and there are actually grants available to learn jazz).

Gina is making ends meet by working in the hair salon owned by egomaniac queen Jorge (an almost unrecognizable Kevin Bacon), but when they have an argument (he’s upset that she’s Scotch-taped a photo of her family — herself, Vanessa and her late husband, Vanessa’s dad — to her mirror) she walks out and decides to start a shop of her own. She finds a location in the middle of the African-American part of town, talks her way into a $30,000 bank loan by giving the woman in charge of the desk an impromptu hair makeover in the bank’s restroom, and has to deal with various problems including the existing staff at the salon (two of whom walk out because they won’t work under Gina’s rules), the horrible décor and general decrepitude of the building (when she walks into it she and her white friend and co-worker Lynn — played by Alicia Silverstone before she diva’d her way out of a potentially major career and Reese Witherspoon became the go-to girl for that “type” — say, “It looks like someone ate up the 1970’s and threw them up all over here,” the funniest line in the film) and a concerted effort by a state board inspector to put them out of business. When this starts happening we know Jorge is behind it in some way — and later, many reels later, the suspicion is confirmed when Willie (L’il JJ), a pre-pubescent aspiring rapper with a crush on Vanessa, films Jorge and the state board inspector meeting. (Frankly, I was hoping it would develop that Jorge was having an affair with the inspector and that’s how he got him to target Gina’s salon, but no-o-o-o-o: the lure was just financial, not sexual.)

Gina also has to deal with the egos of both her staff and her customers — among the latter are two of her carry-overs from Jorge’s, Terri (Andie MacDowell), who falls in love with the catfish being sold from a cart by hanger-on Rita (Sheryl Underwood); and Joanne (Mena Suvari), a white woman who gets breast implants and is kidded about them by one of Gina’s stylists. The gimmick is that Joanne has set up a meeting with the Cover Girl company to discuss licensing Gina’s own formula for conditioner (“hair crack,” the other beauty shop women call it) — but when Joanne feels insulted and Gina refuses to fire the stylist who insulted her, Joanne calls the deal off and it looks like its accumulated bills and the efforts of Jorge and the state board are going to succeed in putting Gina out of business until a series of predictable last-minute reversals saves the day. The writers (Elizabeth Hunter, story; Kate Lanier and Norman Vance, Jr., screenplay) were clearly following what in the 1930’s was called the “two-yard-line” rule of script construction — that if you were writing about a football game, the most effective way to do so was to have the team the audience was rooting for pushed back to their own two-yard-line so they could mount one spectacular play at the end in which they went 98 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown. The writers accordingly lard all the setbacks they can think of on Gina and the other sympathetic characters so they can stage their story’s equivalent of that 98-yard play.

There are also a few males in the film (besides Jorge and the inspector), including drop-dead-gorgeous Djimon Hounsou as Joe, an electrician and aspiring piano player who lives above the beauty shop and who, from the moment his tall, dark and incredibly handsome body appears (shirtless) in the film, is clearly destined to be Gina’s love interest — only she doesn’t realize that until the movie is nearly over — and in addition coaches Vanessa on piano and teaches her jazz songs like John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” leading her ultimately to break off the classical piece she’d planned as her audition for that prestigious school and play a jazz medley instead. There’s also James (Bryce Wilson, not as hot-looking as Hounsou but still a treat to look at), whose success at braiding his own hair leads Gina to hire him and whose sexual orientation is a source of speculation among the women at the shop until he establishes his hetero credentials by falling cross-racially in love with Lynn.

Beauty Shop could have been a good deal funnier than it was — when Jorge, back at his old shop trying to hold on to the customers who haven’t yet deserted him for Gina, has to shampoo someone personally, he loses control of the hose and sprays it in his own face, a rare slapstick moment in a film that could have used some more gags like that — but the writers and director Bille Woodruff were clearly going for nice, amusing gab-fest with most of the laughs coming from salty dialogue (though not too salty: the DVD included a “gag reel” that featured a lot more swearing than was in the film proper — I suspect they censored their tongues to preserve a PG-13 rating, which they got on appeal) rather than visual gags, and that they achieved quite nicely. I still want to see Queen Latifah star in a biopic of Bessie Smith — she’s proven in the film Chicago that she can look believable in a 1920’s setting, and she’s absolutely the right type, physically and vocally — but though Beauty Shop is hardly a stretch for her talents it is a nice, amusing little film — and it offers a few interesting cameos, including one short but very sweet one by veteran singer/actress Della Reese as one of the first customers in Gina’s shop.

Hot Shots! Part Deux (20th Century-Fox, 1993)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Hot Shots! Part Deux, the 1993 sequel to the original Hot Shots from two years earlier, but whereas the first film was mostly a spoof of Top Gun this one went after Rambo, with Charlie Sheen — repeating his character from the first film, “Topper” Harley — made up and coiffed to look quite like Sylvester Stallone in Rambo — according to Sheen even worked out for his role eight hours a day so he’d look suitably buff for the part “as he decided that he would have felt embarrassed at the film’s premiere if he had to sit amongst people laughing while looking at him on screen in a singlet.” The film was made in the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, a fact mostly reflected in the closing credits, which insert the word “Rodham” as the middle name of every female character: a parody of Hillary Clinton’s insistence on going by her maiden name as well as her married one, billing herself in the White House personnel roster as “Hillary Rodham Clinton” and having herself alphabetized under “R” rather than “C.”

The plot gimmick is that Saddam Hussein — not referred to by name but obviously intended by the makeup of actor Jerry Haleva, the tasteless garishness of his presidential palace and his fabled bloodthirstiness (the film shows us his to-do list and about every other item involves supervising an execution) — is holding some American prisoners as hostages left over from the (first) Gulf War. A team that was sent in to rescue the hostages were themselves taken hostage, and as the film starts we see a third team sent in to rescue the two previous batches of hostages themselves taken prisoner and turned into hostages. “Topper” Harley has retired to a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, where Col. Denton Walters (Richard Crenna, basically reprising his role in Rambo) and CIA executive Michelle Huddleston (Brenda Bakke) go to entreat him to lead the next mission to free the hostages — and Michelle is so drop-dead gorgeous she gets all the Thai monks to drop their vows of celibacy and throw themselves at her in a series of pathetic courtship rituals that are among the looniest gags in the film. Of course “Topper” has also been keeping his hand in the martial arts, kick-boxing against Thai opponents for pocket money and at one point grabbing his adversary and squeezing his neck until his eyes bulge out of their sockets like a cartoon character’s.

The film was directed and co-written by Jim Abrahams (one of the three men behind the Airplane! movies), and it shows in the kind of sheer lunacy pursued for laughs — along with a surprisingly rich series of movie allusions, including a lost-love plot involving “Topper” and his ex-girlfriend, Ramada Hayman (Valeria Golino), that rips off not only the basic situation but quite a lot of dialogue from Casablanca. At the same time her husband, Dexter Hayman (Rowan Atkinson), turns out to be not a romantic Resistance fighter but a pathetic little nerd whose exit — well, unlike the Casablanca writers Abrahams and his collaborator, Pat Proft, had to get the two leads together — comes straight out of Auntie Mame. There’s also a subplot involving the U.S. President, Thomas “Tug” Benson (Lloyd Bridges), who turns out to be virtually bionic (he keeps mentioning various parts of his body that have been replaced with artificial ones) as well as a neurotic ditz who’s about to lose his re-election bid unless he can get the hostages out of that mysterious pink country that is shown on a map … well, it’s supposed to be between Iraq and Iran but instead of Iran being called Iran, it’s called “A Hard Place” so it’s between Iraq and A Hard Place.

Bridges decides to lead a commando raid himself and gets to replay the underwater glory days of his late-1950’s TV series Sea Hunt — complete with voiceover narration and quotes in Basil Poledouris’s score of the original Sea Hunt theme — and ultimately he and the dictator who shall remain nameless stage an exciting Prisoner of Zenda-style sword fight before the dictator melts down, then reforms as blobs of mercury and comes back, albeit blended together with his dog (don’t ask!) in what’s an obvious Terminator 2 reference before the dictator is finally taken out by a falling piano — and his feet shrivel up under the thing that’s crushed him like the dead Wicked Witch’s in the famous scene from The Wizard of Oz.

Hot Shots! Part Deux was everything we’d been hoping for in Beauty Shop and had been somewhat disappointed: a laugh-out-loud comedy that dared almost anything, and while there were a couple of those annoying gags common in movie “comedies” these days where we’re supposed to regard farting and other involuntary bodily functions as funny, for the most part Hot Shots! Part Deux is just a screamingly hilarious festival of loony jokes — including an elaborate seduction scene with “Topper” and Michelle (her apartment is a genders-reversed version of the elaborate seduction aids Jack Lemmon built into his residences in early-1960’s films like Under the Yum-Yum Tree and How to Murder Your Wife, and before that the mansion Ruth Chatterton built for her prospective boyfriends in the truly weird 1933 Code-bender Female) highlighted by a voyeuristic Black cab driver attempting to see, photograph and film it.

Other nice gags include the running total of the number of people killed in the film’s climactic battle — the subtitles at the bottom of the screen boast when the movie exceeds the body count of RoboCop and Total Recall — and a nice sequence between Charlie Sheen and Valeria Golino that makes fun of the whole idea of the movie sequel and its inherent exploitation of audience expectations. (At one point the working title of this film was Hot Shots, Part Deux! The Exploitation. Takin’ it to the Bank.) There are a few scenes in the movie that have been turned creepy by more recent events — like the shots of Iraqis torturing Americans in Abu Ghraib when we’ve since seen it going the other way around (one such scene involves an Iraqi plugging an American into electrodes that now can’t help but call to mind the famous Abu Ghraib photo of the man on the box with wires connected to his extremities) — but for the most part this is still a very, very funny film that, like Airplane!, holds up as a testament to how good the Abrahams mind-set could be and how many laughs it could generate.