Monday, December 29, 2014

Poirot: “Curtain: Poirot”s Last Case” (ITV/PBS-TV, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched another of KPBS’s telecasts of the British TV series Poirot, this one based on Agatha Christie’s book Curtain — which I had been under the impression she actually wrote during the 1950’s but kept from publication until after her death. She wrote this book, in which Poirot would die — and another, Sleeping Murder, that killed off her other big series character, Miss Marple — with instructions that they be published after her own death to supply definitive endings to both series and prevent her publisher from hiring other writers to continue producing books with those characters. It wasn’t a great story but it was worlds better than the last Poirot episode PBS showed, “The Labors of Hercules,” mainly because it had fewer and more interesting characters and some actually sort-of developed relationships between them. Poirot shows up in a wheelchair kvetching about the heart condition that has disabled him — in that regard, watching this was a busman’s holiday for me! — in the company of his friend Captain Hastings (Hugh Fraser), who’s essentially Watson to Poirot’s Holmes (though Holmes never insulted Watson’s intelligence the way Poirot does to Hastings throughout this story). The action takes place at Styles Manor, famously the setting of Christie’s first Poirot story (and the book whose blockbuster success established her reputation), The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and it involves Hastings’ concern that his daughter Judith (Alice Orr-Ewing) is having an affair with a scapegrace officer, Major Allerton (Matthew McNulty). Only she’s really dating a married medical researcher, Dr. Franklin (Shaun Dingwall), with whom she hopes to go to Africa. Naturally both she and Franklin are suspected when Franklin’s wife Barbara (Anna Madeley) turns up dead from poison. (The PBS biography of Christie I saw on their series Extraordinary Women mentions that she had served in World War I as an Army nurse, and traced her interest in poison as a murder method to the knowledge of pharmacology she gained in that job.)

Later a hanger-on, birdwatcher Stephen Norton (Aidan McArdle), approaches Poirot and said he saw something relevant to the murder — only before he can tell anyone he’s found dead in his room from a gunshot wound to the forehead. Poirot himself dies two-thirds of the way through the episode, but he hangs around long enough to explain the crime after his own death via a letter he wrote Hastings giving the solution (and giving writer Kevin Elyot and director Hettie MacDonald the chance to show the actor playing Poirot, David Suchet, in flashbacks): Norton was really responsible for the crimes since, under the lash of a domineering and emotionally frigid mother, he’d developed an addiction for setting up scenes in which he would goad other people to commit murder (including Hastings, whom he nearly convinced to murder Allerton because of the supposed affair he was having with Hastings’ daughter) and get a vicarious thrill when the murders happened. It also turns out that Barbara Franklin was involved in a murder plot of her own; she wanted to dispatch her husband so she could marry the wealthy William Boyd Carrington (Philip Glenister), and to that end she spiked his coffee with poison, only Hastings accidentally reversed the table the cups were on so she got the poisoned one. Poirot deduced Norton’s role in the whole affair, and having faked his disability (though his life-threatening heart disease was real), he killed Norton himself and faked it to look like suicide — a self-plagiarism from Christie’s And Then There Were None (in which a judge, frustrated throughout his career by the people who committed murder in ways the laws could not touch, assembled 10 people on an otherwise deserted island and knocked them off one by one — Christie even cribbed the detail of the forehead wound, “the mark of Cain,” from her previous book). “Curtain” is more interesting than the general run of Poirot stories, mainly because Norton proves to be an unusually compelling character for a Christie villain — she had a real gift for writing psychos and I find myself wishing she’d have written more psychological thrillers (including “Philomel Cottage,” filmed hauntingly in 1937 as Love from a Stranger with Basil Rathbone as a serial killer we know is guilty almost from the get-go and the suspense, as in a Hitchcock movie, is over what’s going to happen when the other characters figure it out) and fewer dreary whodunits.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Divergent (Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate, Red Wagon, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Divergent, a 2014 release from Summit Entertainment (identified with its own logo but also as “A Lionsgate Company”) and Red Wagon Entertainment based on the 2011 novel by Veronica Roth. It’s not surprising that Summit was interested in this story property because they’d already had mega-successes with the sequences of films based on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games cycle, and Divergent promised more of the same: like The Hunger Games, it’s a cycle of three books set in a dystopian future. The story opens 100 years after a series of devastating wars laid waste to the U.S., and in order to prevent future conflicts, the rulers of the unnamed society (which is centered around what is now Chicago — Roth is a Chicago resident and filled the book with familiar geography, though she was ambiguous about just how far beyond Chicago’s current boundaries her society extends) divided its population into five Factions. The idea is that there were five different ideas about what had caused the conflicts and each of the Factions was formed to control the particular bad side of human nature its founders believed was at fault. As Roth explains it herself in a speech on page 42 of the novel, given by Marcus (the society’s overall leader), “Those who blamed aggression formed Amity. … Those who blamed ignorance became the Erudite. … Those who blamed duplicity created Candor. … Those who blamed selfishness made Abnegation. … And those who blamed cowardice were the Dauntless.” (When we read the book, both Charles and I were mildly annoyed that Roth didn’t make the names of the Factions all the same part of speech; instead we have three abstract nouns and two adjectives.) I’m not sure whether Roth intended this (the book comes with a long series of afterwords including an “interview” with Roth — I suspect she wrote both the questions and the answers — along with quotations from previous works of literature that inspired her and an aptitude test that is part of the book’s reality in terms of how people are assigned to the various Factions) but the Factions seem inspired a great deal by the traditional caste system of India — though theoretically the Factions are equal and it’s only the so-called “Factionless,” the people who fail the initiation rituals of the various Factions and thereby wash out of the system, that are the society’s underclass, very much like the Indian dalits (“untouchables”).

The entire idea that a society could willfully salami-slice the human personality so its members are allowed to express one and only one aspect of it is pretty preposterous, so it’s not surprising that the book’s heroine, Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley), turns out to be a so-called “Divergent,” a person who has qualities of more than one faction and therefore resists being made to fit into just one. Beatrice is the daughter of Andrew (Tony Goldwyn) and Natalie (Ashley Judd); Andrew is a member of the Council that runs the whole place and which is chaired by Marcus (Ray Stevenson), all of whom are members of the Abnegation faction because the founders decided that the only people who could be trusted to govern were the selfless whose whole mission in life was relentlessly to put the interests of others ahead of their own. Nonetheless, both Beatrice and her older brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) pick other factions when they have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to do so: at the Choosing Ceremony, which is both an initiation into adulthood and an opportunity for the young people either to sign on to their parents’ Faction (as 95 percent of them do) or transfer to something else. What makes it difficult is not only that they have to make a once-in-a-lifetime choice about their entire destiny when they’re just teenagers, but they’re not allowed to know the requirements of a different faction before they join, they’re not allowed to reconsider their choice and if they wash out of their Faction training, they’re going to end up Factionless, shut out of society and forced to scrounge whatever sort of living they can on the streets. (In Roth’s book the Factionless were allowed to do odd jobs; in the script by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor they seem to do nothing but wander around in scruffy black clothes and survive on whatever food they can pick up off the streets or what’s delivered to them by a charity run by Abnegation — though we never actually see the charity in action and the question of whether or not it even exists is a major plot point as the story develops.) Both Caleb and Beatrice quit Abnegation; Caleb goes with Erudite and Beatrice, as our spirited and plucky heroine in the Bella Swan/Katniss Everdeen mold, naturally picks Dauntless, the warrior class. (When I read the book, cognizant that it had been filmed and that when Roth was writing it she had probably been aiming for a movie sale because that’s where the big money in pop-fiction writing is these days, I thought, “Of course she picks Dauntless! That’s the only Faction whose training is going to be at all interesting cinematically!”)

In Dauntless Beatrice — or “Tris,” as she re-christened herself because her given name is way too Abnegatory for her new comrades — is subjected to the familiar rituals of military boot camp plus a few new ones out of Veronica Roth’s imagination, notably a series of drills done out of what looks like a dentist’s chair that involve the plebes being injected with a serum that gives them hallucinations that force them to confront their deepest fears. At first Beatrice is at the bottom of her class, mainly because as an Abnegation kid (a “Stiff,” as the others in Dauntless refer to her and Abnegation people in general) she’s never actually hit another person in anger and she’s immediately plunged into no-rules hand-to-hand fighting with her classmates, but her resourcefulness and willingness to work herself hard pushes her up the ranking. So does her Divergent status, which though she’s been carefully instructed not to reveal it to anyone because being Divergent is practically a capital crime gives her the ability to control the simulated fear scenarios and thus make it through the exercise faster than anyone else in her class. The story is basically the account of her training — governed by two people, a sadistic psycho named Eric (Jai Courtney) and a sympathetic character called “Four” (Theo James) to whom she’s drawn romantically, with a subplot involving Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews, who’s working on a plot to get rid of the Abnegation faction and install Erudites as the society’s leaders because she, like Plato, believes that the intellectuals should rule. To accomplish this she puts out propaganda that Abnegation’s leaders aren’t anywhere near as selfless as advertised, and the money they’re supposedly collecting to help the Factionless is actually lining the Abnegation leaders’ own pockets and giving them more consumer goods than everyone else. (In the book she actually puts out newspaper articles to this effect, but the film eschews any such retro technology as words on paper!) She also works out a special serum — here is where these comments are going to get into “spoiler” territory — by which she’s going to hijack the Dauntless troops to wage a genocidal war on the Abnegation Faction, thereby wiping out the existing leadership class so she and her fellow Erudites can replace them. In the end Tris and Four — who turns out not only to be Divergent himself but also a former Abnegation and, indeed, Tobias, son of overall leader Marcus (who denounced him as a scapegrace in the opening pages of the book) — manage to foil the plot by finding and destroying the computer program that’s running the simulation and making the Dauntless believe they’re merely fighting a simulation instead of waging an actual war, and a genocidal one at that.

As an allegory Divergent is hardly a patch on The Hunger Games, which though farther removed from the world in which we live is closer in terms of its social arrangements; the dystopia of The Hunger Games, in which a handful of elite people at the top extract surplus value from everyone else and exploit the masses relentlessly, is a logical extension of the increasing levels of economic and social inequality we see throughout the world today (and the ultimate ending of the cycle — the old order falls but the new one is just as vicious and oppressive, and Katniss and her partner Peeta end up literally growing their garden together, isolated from both their unwelcome celebrity as Hunger Games contestants and the roles they were impressed into both by the rebels and the authorities they were rebelling against — is a profound expression of the modern Zeitgeist among young people, if they think about politics at all, that the system sucks but any attempt to change it is futile at best and counterproductive at worst). As Charles pointed out, aside from mentioning that the Amity are the farmers (why?), Roth never explains how work gets done or whatever industrial production there is in her city-state happens; there are functioning cars, buses and trains but no explanation of how they are powered, and the trains seem to exist only so the Dauntless can show their pluck and courage by jumping on and off them while they are moving — we don’t see any signs of train stations or ordinary people moving either themselves or freight on them. Though the story is supposed to be set at least a century from now, the buildings and vehicles are those of our time; the cars are a bit dowdier and the skyscraper buildings are either in ruins or have been abandoned, but the Erudite have an elaborate computer network (which they’ve shared with the Dauntless but not, apparently, with the Abnegation even though the Abnegation are supposed to be running everything) and an incredible variety of mind-altering chemicals used in the Dauntless training and the final Erudite attempt to wipe out the entire Abnegation. At the same time there’s a parallel to The Hunger Games in that Divergent, too, is about an attempt to improve humanity that goes terribly awry — though in Divergent that’s happened in the backstory instead of during the cycle — and creates a new regime more oppressive than the one it replaced. Divergent the novel is compelling entertainment, and there’s a Rorshach-like aspect to the whole idea of the Factions — I don’t think anyone could read the novel without asking themselves which Faction they would be in if they lived in its universe (and Roth’s inclusion of a written questionnaire like those used by her characters to determine where everyone belongs just encourages her readers, or at the least the ones that get that far, to do precisely that!) — but it’s nowhere near as interesting as The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth is a talented writer but hardly at Suzanne Collins’ level in both dramatizing the conflicts in her world and creating thrilling action scenes.

Surprise — Divergent the movie, though working from inherently weaker material, struck me as a better piece of filmmaking than the two Hunger Games movies I’ve seen, despite a few annoying deviations from the novel (in the book there’s a formal Visiting Day in which Tris’s parents are allowed to visit her; in the film her mom has to sneak into Dauntless, and the film leaves out the key instruction Tris gets from her mom to ask her Erudite brother Caleb about the serum; also the film leaves out the romance between Will and Christine, two of Tris’s fellow Dauntless plebes, and therefore reduces the poignancy when Tris has to kill the mind-controlled Will in the final fight; also the scene in which Peter, one of the psycho plebes, stabs another one named Edward in the eyes, blinds him and sends him out of Dauntless because he was worried Edward was doing better in the training than he was, was shot but had to be removed from the film because that would have pushed it beyond PG-13 rating territory and stuck it with an R, cutting off a lot of its intended audience), mainly because director Neil Burger is simply a more talented filmmaker than the hacks who’ve done the Hunger Games movies (Gary Ross the first one, and Francis Lawrence the next two, Catching Fire and Mockingjay — Part 1). Throughout the film he shows off a flair for suspense evoking Hitchcock comparisons (literally in the scene in which, as part of one of her fear simulations, Tris is menaced by a flock of crows and Burger almost inevitably shoots the attack the way Hitchcock shot The Birds) and manages to juice up Roth’s story by making the action genuinely exciting. It also helps that, even though Roth wasn’t involved in scripting the movie (as Suzanne Collins has been in the Hunger Games films), it tracks the novel quite closely (the few arbitrary changes mentioned above notwithstanding) and has a satisfying enough ending it works as a self-contained movie whether Lionsgate and Red Wagon choose to produce the sequelae or not. According to the box-office numbers on, Divergent cost an estimated $85 million to make, had a gross of $54,607,747 on the all-important opening weekend in March 2014, and a total gross as of July 4 of $150,832,203. Given the rule of thumb that a film has to earn twice its production cost before it turns a profit (the extra is the cost of advertising, promotion and distribution), these numbers suggest Divergent did well enough for Lionsgate but was not so sensationally successful as to merit continuing the cycle — though lists the second film, Insurgent, as being in post-production and two films based on the third book, Allegiant (the business of splitting the last book in one of these cycles into two films began with the last Harry Potter novel and has continued with the final Hunger Games book, Mockingjay) have been “announced.”

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Ender’s Game (Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate, OddLot Entertainment, Chartoff Productions, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles wanted us to watch a movie together last night — something we hadn’t done in a week! — and I picked out Ender’s Game, a 2013 film of Orson Scott Card’s militaristic sci-fi novel from 1985. The novel had been kicked around various studios with several more or less serious attempts to pull it together as a project, including one Card himself tried to produce in 1996, but it ended up at Summit Entertainment around the time Summit was absorbed by Lionsgate. (Originally they called the company “Lions Gate” — two words but with no apostrophe either before or after the “s” in “Lions,” which irritated me — but now they’re pretty much just using the one-word spelling and seem to have abandoned their once-cool logo showing a gate with lions on both doors being pulled into place with Metropolis-esque machinery.) One could see why that company would be attracted to this material — they’re already knocking on the door of major studio status with the immense profits from the Twilight and Hunger Games cycles, and the Ender sequence (Card has written five novels in this universe, including one called Ender’s Shadow that covers the same events as Ender’s Game from different points of view and was supposedly tapped for the screenplay of this film since Card felt Ender’s Game was unfilmable come scritto since it all took place in Ender’s head) offers some of the same elements: a science-fiction or fantasy setting, a young-adult protagonist (the actor playing him, Asa Butterfield, was 15 when the film was shot) and enough material from the original author that they would be able to make sequelae if the first film was a hit. It wasn’t, however — according to the estimated budget was $110 million and the total gross was $61,656,849 as of January 3, 2014 — and it’s easy enough to understand why: the protagonist is a young man instead of a young woman, there are no sexual or romantic relationships in the story at all (lead character Ender Wiggins’ best friend and closest ally during the training is a woman, Petra Arkanian, played by Hailee Steinfeld, but there’s no hint of either an actual or potential romantic or sexual interest between them the way there is between Tris and her commander, Four, in Veronica Roth’s Divergent, a story whose author has acknowledged her debt to Ender’s Game), and the whole mind-set is very male-oriented even though Card, to his credit, posits a future in which men and women serve in the armed forces on an equal basis (though, curiously, of the cadets the young Ender trains with only a few are female, and all but one of the women wash out early on and are never seen nor heard from again).

The film drew opposition and the threat of a boycott from Queer community activists because of Card’s writings against homosexuality in general and same-sex marriage in particular (he’s a lifelong Mormon and a great-great-grandson of Brigham Young, though given how many wives Brigham Young had there are probably a lot of his great-great-grandchildren running around!), and when the Los Angeles Times ran a commentary denouncing the boycott threats I wrote a letter (unpublished) in response which said, “I won’t be joining a call to boycott Ender’s Game, but I won’t be paying money to see it either. Orson Scott Card’s anti-Gay prejudices don’t bother me as much as the Right-wing elements of his politics that are part of his story (I’ve read the book): the virtual worship of the military and the quasi-fascistic glorification of toughness and mercilessness as not only necessities but virtues. Card’s power as a writer in expressing his brutal world-view only makes Ender’s Game more obnoxious that it would be if a less talented storyteller had published it.” I also suspect Ender’s Game was a box-office flop because it was made about a decade too late for the Zeitgeist: the book’s central premise — that 50 years before it takes place the Earth was attacked and humanity nearly annihilated in a surprise attack by a species from another planet called the Formics, so called because they were basically giant sentient ants (formic acid is the chemical ants emit that was used so famously in the film Them!, also about an attack on humanity by giant ants, in which a young girl who survived one of the first ant attacks is given a vial of formic acid to sniff, and she recoils in panic and shrieks, “Them!”) who had overrun their home planet’s resources and were looking for a new world to conquer and occupy. According to the plot, Earth survived and drove off the Formics’ attack, but only barely and through the courage of a commander named Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), who sacrificed his own life in a suicide attack that destroyed the Formics’ mothership and caused them to retreat and bide their time waiting for another shot at Earth. The early dialogue depicting the Formics as an implacable enemy that needed to be defeated in a pre-emptive war on their home planet sounds very much like what President George W. Bush and his staffers were saying to justify their attack on Iraq (though with the significant difference that at least the people in the story, unlike the Bush administration, were targeting the actual enemy that had launched the attack they were responding to, not a country of people with similar ethnicity to the 9/11 attackers but otherwise nothing to do with them!).

In the half-century since the last Formic attack, the nations of the world have come together to create the International Fleet to organize a worldwide campaign to prepare for the next one and resist it with less loss of (human) life than the “millions of innocent people” we’re repeatedly told died in the last one. They’ve also decided to recruit children (at least they did in the book — in the movie the actors look more like young teenagers and the fact that the cast members are just hitting puberty makes the sexlessness of the original material harder to take on screen) because, as Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), the kid who will rise to leadership despite all the privations the leaders of the training camp can think of, expresses it in an opening voiceover, “The International Fleet decided that the world’s smartest children are the planet’s best hope. Raised on war games, their decisions are intuitive, decisive, fearless. I am one of those recruits.” Ender’s father and brother Peter (Jimmy “Jax” Pinchak) both washed out of the training but Ender is the great white hope of the two people currently in charge of it, Col. Graff (Harrison Ford, whose casting here only accentuates the already strong Star Wars parallels in the material) and his assistant, Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis, a strong actress believable in a multiplicity of roles who hasn’t become a major star only because it’s hard enough to cast middle-aged white women, let alone middle-aged Black ones!), who are spying on all the trainees as they go through their rituals looking for the One who can command the fleet successfully if and when the Formics attack. The training takes place in a giant room on board a space station which is supposed to be in zero gravity (according to an “Trivia” poster, the actors did their own stunt work and were trained by Cirque du Soleil performers to look convincing doing the wire work necessary for them to look weightless on screen), though the script (written by Gavin Hood, who also directed) pretty much ignores the hint it drops early on that in zero gravity there is no “up” or “down” — perhaps because on a movie screen there are very well defined ups and downs and director Hood and whoever helped him stage this action can’t help but follow them.

I had imagined Ender being 12 instead of 14 (at an age where that two-year difference matters) and I had imagined the room being far more circular and less full of objects, but the basics of the story are pretty much the same: Ender prevails throughout the training and survives not only the physical and mental hazards but also the deliberate traps set for him by Graff and Anderson (and the third authority figure, drill sergeant Dap [Nonso Anozie], who’s essentially a Black version of the R. Lee Ermey character from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket), who want him deliberately kept miserable and isolated from the rest of the trainees so he will be forced to stand out all the more by comparison. This involves turning the other trainees against him so he’ll be bullied and thereby show whether or not he has the “right stuff” to take it. Eventually Ender and his crew get to enter the last level of training, a series of increasingly elaborate computer-simulated war games to prepare them for an attack on the Formics’ home planet — only, in Card’s big surprise ending that just about anybody who’s read the book vividly remembers, these aren’t simulations: Ender and his crew, unbeknownst to them, are leading the International Fleet’s forces in a real pre-emptive attack on the Formics’ planet which ends in its annihilation and the deaths of virtually all the Formics in a genocidal bloodbath. On paper this is an unalloyed triumph for the human race which we’re clearly meant to take as a morally unambiguous victory for the good guys, but on screen this is followed by a 15-minute postlude in which Ender travels to another planet, finds a dying Formic watching over an egg that’s supposed to hatch another colony — including a queen (the gimmick is that, like terrestrial ants, individual Formics other than the queen have no free will at all and simply follow her direction — which was how Ender figured out how to destroy the Formics in the first place; kill the queens and the others will die because there will literally be no one telling them via telepathy how to function) — and his guilt feelings over presiding over the destruction of an entire planet and his population lead Ender to take the queen egg and ensure it hatches so the Formic race will be preserved and hopefully there can be a modus vivendi between it and us.

Also in the character mix is the winner of the last Formic War, Mazer Rackham — they weren’t going to get an actor of the prestige (and pay) of Ben Kingsley just to be a few grainy-looking flashback in footage supposedly representing old videos — who turns up heavily tattooed on his face (he’s supposed to be a Maori from New Zealand and this is his traditional appearance) and it’s explained that he merely faked his own death 50 years earlier. (In the book he is dead, but appears to Ender via Einsteinian tinkering with space and time.) Mazer is there basically because if you’re going to rip off Star Wars you need a Yoda — that’s also what Leonard Nimoy is doing in the current run of Star Trek movies, interacting on the same plane with his younger self played by Zachary Quinto — and Ender’s Game on film comes off as Star Wars meets Tom Brown’s School Days (the 19th century novel that became the prototype for all stories about kids at a new school who come in wearing their precociousness on their sleeves, and the existing bullies who try to knock it off) meets The Truman Show meets just about every quest legend from Moses to Arthur to Frodo Baggins to (dare I say it?) Luke Skywalker involving the young, naïve boy who gets caught up in a series of events that charge him with nothing less than saving his people from some dire human or natural (or both) calamity. Like the book, it’s great entertainment if you don’t think too deeply about what it’s about and what Card’s overall message is — which, though softened by that ending sequence (I’m sure a lot of Right-wing sci-fi fans who loved Ender’s Game for the same thing about it that bothered me when I read the book — the glorification of militarism and machismo not only as necessary elements of a response to an existential threat but as values in themselves, as the most true, beautiful and righteous way a person can live — watched the tacked-on ending of the film and thought, “Ah, Liberal Hollywood strikes again!”), is that the military virtues are timeless absolutes and need to be protected from piss-ant political leaders who want to question or squander them.

I liked the movie for what it was — ignore the broader issues of what it’s about and the quasi-fascistic world view Orson Scott Card clearly intended the reader/viewer to accept, and it’s a fun space-opera shoot-’em-up with an intriguing central character and surprisingly little on-screen violence. One problem with the film is the sheer weight of the computer-generated imagery; so much of it is CGI that the high-tech spaceships both sides are flying look an awful lot like each other and it’s hard even to tell who is who, much less whom to root for. Still, it’s well acted — Asa Butterfield is absolutely haunting and nails his transition from scared little kid to experienced battlefield commander to guilt-ridden recluse (just this afternoon I watched some of Lawrence of Arabia on TCM and mentally added that film to the many ones which have influenced Ender’s Game since it, too, was about a man who led a battle group that won a war against all odds and then was wracked by doubts as to whether he really did the right thing) and more than holds his own against old pros like Harrison Ford (no stranger to science fiction with the three original Star Wars movies and Blade Runner on his résumé!), Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis. It’s a good movie but, even with Gavin Hood’s “soft” ending (Orson Scott Card is listed as a producer but that was apparently just a “courtesy title” and he had little or nothing to do with the film other than creating the original novel and selling the rights to it), it’s still an ardently pro-military film which communicates a quasi-fascistic view of the world. It would probably have been a major hit if it had been made and released in the first year or two after 9/11, but the Zeitgeist has moved on and that — as well as the lack of a romance between Ender and Petra to appeal to the young-adult female audience that largely powered the success of the Twilight and Hunger Games cycles in print and on film — is probably why it flopped.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Poirot: “The Labors of Hercules” (ITV/PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the KPBS telecast of the episode “The Labors of Hercules” from the series Agatha Christie’s Poirot, a story I had quirky memories of because in the 1960’s my mother and I checked the book out of the library but never actually read it. The title would seem to be a pun on Hercule Poirot’s name and his “labors” in solving crimes, but it actually refers to a famous series of 12 paintings based on the mythical labors of Hercules (whose real name, by the way, was Herakles — he was the son of Hera, queen of the gods and wife of Zeus, who apparently got tired of Zeus cheating on her with just about every woman who would hold still for him, often turning himself into swans, showers of gold or whatnot, as well as having a Gay boy-toy servant named Ganymede whose name became “cover” for several generations of Gay men the way the phrase “friend of Dorothy” — a reference to The Wizard of Oz — did later, that she decided what was sauce for the gander was sauce for the goose and she’d cheat on him for a change). The paintings have been disappearing from the musea and private collections that housed them, courtesy of a mysterious art thief named Mariscal (at least I think that was the name — it got pronounced several different ways in a show that featured so many British actors doing bad Continental accents it was really tough to listen to). Poirot shows up at the Olympus (get the pun?) resort in Switzerland where Mariscal is supposedly hiding out, and everyone thinks he’s there to catch him, but he’s really been sent by a British cabdriver named Ted Williams [Tom Austen] (presumably Christie wrote this before the genuinely famous Ted Williams, the U.S. baseball player, emerged) who had an affair with Nina, maid to a famous ballerina named Lucinda Le Mesurier (Lorna Nickson Brown) whose character seems to have been copied from Garbo’s role in Grand Hotel, since she’s given up her career, become a recluse and is under the care of a sinister psychiatrist, Dr. Lutz (played by author and critic Simon Callow, of all people). Poirot is also there to resume his acquaintance with a former girlfriend, Countess Rossakoff (Orla Brady), and while he’s there he uncovers a sting operation being pulled by two sisters who pose as mother and daughter — when the older one isn’t posing as a man and luring young men into their trap by claiming to be the younger one’s abusive husband (I’m not making this up, you know!) — and discovers at the end that virtually everyone at the hotel is crooked in one way or another, and that Mariscal, who’s been described as a psychopathic killer as well as an art thief, is really the Countess’s daughter, Alice Cunningham (Eleanor Tomlinson). It also turns out that Dr. Lutz is in on the plot to steal not only the 12 “Labors of Hercules” paintings but some precious jewels as well — exactly how he’s involved remains a mystery but we do get a marvelous moment when he asks Poirot why he always refers to himself in the third person, and gets the preposterous answer, “It helps me keep myself separate from my genius.” (Huh?) Some of the other Poirot episodes have been acceptable and even engaging light entertainments, but not this one; it’s a bore from start to finish, suffering even more than usual from the general problem with Christie’s writing: too many characters and not enough development of any of them. It’s one of those stories I call, not a “whodunit” but a “whocareswhodunit.”

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Gojira, a.k.a. Godzilla (original version) (Toho, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran a movie last night, and for the second time in as many days we got to watch an obscure movie that turned out to be absolutely riveting entertainment and way better than its reputation: Gojira, the original 1954 Japanese version of Godzilla, King of the Monsters. I had heard Gojira was considerably better than its extensively re-edited U.S. release (with additional footage shot by ex-Warners “B” director Terry Morse, featuring Raymond Burr as reporter “Steve Martin” — I remember when the 1990’s U.S. Godzilla came out that they should have done an in-joke casting of Steve Martin and had him play a character named “Raymond Burr” — added to the Japanese original directed by Ishirô Honda) but I was not expecting how much better. Both Charles and I were blown away not only by the sophistication of the 1954 Gojira (according to, it was the most expensive movie ever made in Japan to that date, and it was nominated by the Japanese version of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Best Picture, only to lose to Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai — another “Trivia” note said that the burden of financing those two films at once nearly drove Toho Studios into bankruptcy, though no doubt the profits they got from them bailed them out!) but its depth and richness as a story.

Gojira was ostensibly inspired by an incident in which a Japanese fishing vessel called the Lucky Dragon strayed too close to a U.S. H-bomb test in the Pacific Ocean, resulting in the boat, its crew and its catch all being radioactively contaminated, but it was also clearly driven by the U.S. bombing attacks on Japan in 1944 and 1945, both the incendiary “conventional” bombs that had incinerated most of Japan’s major cities and the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the very end of the war. (One of the grim ironies is that the U.S. generals who launched the atomic-bomb raids had a problem finding virgin targets, since virtually every Japanese city of consequence had already been targeted by the incendiary raids and the generals and their civilian bosses wanted to demonstrate the power of the A-bomb by using it on cities that hadn’t been bombed before. The only city in Japan that wasn’t attacked either by incendiaries or nukes was Kyoto, which was spared because it’s Japan’s most revered cultural center and essentially the Vatican of the Shinto religion.) Anyone who thinks they know this movie from seeing the 1956 U.S. release with Raymond Burr doesn’t know jack about what it really is; the basic story is the same in both versions — U.S. H-bomb tests in the South Pacific blow a prehistoric monster out of its underground home beneath the Pacific and, needing food, it starts targeting Japanese fishing vessels and eventually comes ashore and starts destroying Japanese cities and eating people, and Japan’s scientists have to come up with a way of killing the beast — but the drama is way more intense in this version and the anti-nuclear commentary far more explicit. Not only does one woman riding on an elevated train that’s about to be attacked by Gojira specifically reference the U.S. A-bomb attacks on Japan — she laments that she survived the Nagasaki raid only to be threatened anew by this — the Japanese mind-set towards airborne disaster is vividly shown by the calm way with which the people flee from the monster’s advance. Instead of the wild, panicky flight one would have seen in an American monster film from 1954 (or since), they move away from danger in a chillingly ordinary, almost shell-shocked manner that seems to say, “We’ve been through this before and we know what we must do.”

The film is rich in detail that gives it a wrenching emotional quality, from the scenes of family members of sailors anxiously awaiting on shore for word of the missing ship their relatives were on — a scene that must happen a lot in a country like Japan, which is a bunch of islands whose major source of dietary protein is fish — to the political, social and emotional conflicts between the characters and the moral dilemmas faced by the two scientists in the dramatis personae. The central (human) characters are middle-aged paleontologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) — who, like Robert Cornthwaite’s character in the 1951 version of The Thing and Cecil Kellaway’s in the 1953 American film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (a film that influenced Gojira, largely in Honda’s decision to make the titular monster a dinosaur-like creature instead of a hybrid of a gorilla and a whale — the name “Gojira” is actually a mash-up of the Japanese “gorira,” meaning gorilla, and “kujira,” meaning whale), wants to keep the monster alive and study it; his daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kôchi); the man her dad has arranged for her to marry, Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihito Hirata), who goes around with an eye patch because he lost an eye as a pilot during World War II (another reference to the most traumatic event in Japan’s recent history when the film was made!); and the rather nebbishy but considerably more down-to-earth “normal” guy she’s actually in love with, Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada). But the soap-opera complications of the romantic triangle are drawn considerably more carefully and movingly than they would be in most American movies (one U.S. film that is comparable in this regard is the 1936 film The Invisible Ray, in which heroine Diana Rukh [Frances Drake] genuinely admires her husband, Dr. Janos Rukh [Boris Karloff], but is torn between her sexless awe of him and her genuine love for Ronald Drake [Frank Lawton], whom she marries in an outrageous bit of Code-bending thinking Dr. Rukh is dead, when he isn’t), and like Karloff’s character in The Invisible Ray Dr. Serizawa has on his shoulders the weight not only of his service in the war but also his invention of the so-called “Oxygen Destroyer,” which the subtitles explain turns oxygen atoms into “fluid” (I suspect the term writers Honda, Takeo Murata and Shigeru Kayama were thinking of was “plasma”) and thereby instantly destroys all life in the vicinity of its explosion.

After some famous set-pieces that are familiar because they were highlighted in the U.S. version as well — Gojira’s assault on the elevated train (obviously inspired by the similar scene in King Kong, from which the filmmakers also cribbed the idea of a native dance and the sacrifice of a young virgin to appease Gojira) and his destruction of electrical towers and powerlines with a breath that, at the monster’s choice, can blow either hot or cold — Dr. Serizawa yields to the others’ pressure and agrees to mount an underwater version of a kamikaze attack on Gojira, killing him with the Oxygen Destroyer and taking his own life with it after first having burned all his notes so no one can reconstruct his invention after he takes the only working prototype with him. Gojira is also a stunningly produced film from the technical point of view; Honda’s direction and Masao Tamai’s cinematography are dark, rich, Gothic, full of red-filtered daytime exteriors and night scenes in an almost noir-ish half-light, and though a few of the effects have the endearing tackiness that became a hallmark of later entries in the series (notably a fallen model helicopter that looks like effects technician Sadamasa Arikawa’s crew picked it up that morning at the Tokyo Woolworth’s), most are utterly convincing. Gojira’s believability is helped by the way Honda and his writers avoid showing too much of him; those who complained that the recent Godzilla reboot directed by Gareth Edwards had too little Godzilla in it (about 10 minutes’ worth of a two-hour film) will be surprised that there’s not much more of the monster in this one either. (In the 1956 U.S. re-edit, Terry Morse and company kept the big monster scenes but cut the human conflicts so much to the bone Charles found himself wondering if the U.S. version — which neither of us have seen in years — contained any of the original’s scenes not involving Gojira/Godzilla.) What is most remarkable about Gojira is the sense of pain that runs throughout it; one gets the impression Japan was a country that had experienced a sort of collective post-traumatic stress disorder over World War II and in particular how much of it was literally burned down before it finally surrendered (indeed, I suspect some of the sequences showing Tokyo burning down after Gojira’s attack were newsreel clips from the aftermath of the U.S. incendiary raids), and what gives this film its wracking emotional power is the way it’s haunted by Japan’s real-life fate at the hands of the U.S. just a few years earlier.

Even the epilogue — Dr. Yamane watching over the roiling waves that signal Gojira’s demise and warning, “I can’t believe that Gojira was the only surviving member of its species … But if we continue conducting nuclear tests, it’s possible that another Gojira might appear somewhere in the world again” — is neither a cheap out-line like the “Watch the skies, keep watching the skies!” finale of The Thing nor a blatant set-up for a sequel (I doubt if anyone from Toho was anticipating that this film would become first a national, then an international, institution and the character of Gojira/Godzilla would become a perpetual cash cow for them!), but an expression of the lingering pain of being the first (and so far, blessedly, the only) country actually on the receiving end of nuclear weapons and a concern that the arms race would result in Japan’s obliteration. (It’s worth noting that Dr. Yamane’s motive for wanting to keep Gojira alive for study wasn’t a Thing-like belief in the monster’s superiority but a wish to find out how it survived atomic radiation in hopes humans could learn to do the same.) Gojira is a surprisingly deep, rich movie in a disreputable genre — among giant-monster movies its only serious rival in the quality department is the original 1933 King Kong (which was also made by people with greater ambitions than just to scare — its creators, Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack and Ruth Rose, were explorers and documentarians, and they brought a real sense of what such people go through to their fantasy and indeed based the Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray characters, respectively, on themselves) — and while it seems odd to declare that a movie which in its revised form became a worldwide cultural institution and founded a myth that is still going strong today (new Godzilla movies keep coming out not only from Toho but also from Warner Bros., the U.S. studio to which they licensed the rights to the character) is unjustly neglected and deserves to be better known, the 1954 Gojira (which wasn’t released in the U.S. at all until Rialto Pictures put it out in 2004) is unjustly neglected and deserves to be better known.

Friday, December 19, 2014

You and Me (Paramount, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I finally had the chance to watch a movie together, and having just received my order from TCM Home Video of the boxed set Dark Crimes, volume 2 (oddly I was unable to find a listing on their Web site for Dark Crimes, volume 1) I opened it to extract one of the most elusive 1930’s movies of all time, one that’s almost never been shown since its 1938 release: Fritz Lang’s third U.S. film (and his third in a row starring Sylvia Sidney), You and Me. I’ve heard conflicting reports on the production; in his interview with Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg for the 1969 book The Celluloid Muse Lang made it sound like a personal project from the get-go, but some of the “Trivia” items on suggest it was first developed by Paramount as a vehicle for Carole Lombard and George Raft based on an original story by Norman Krasna (who’d already written the story for Lang’s first U.S. film, Fury). Only Krasna wanted to direct as well as write the film, and George Raft refused to work for a director who’d never directed a film before (an attitude that three years later would cost him the lead in the classic 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon). So Paramount reassigned the film to Richard Wallace as director and, when Lombard dropped out of the project, replaced her with Sidney — who immediately suggested Lang as director since they’d worked so well together in Fury and Lang’s second American film, You Only Live Once. Lang grabbed the project and decided to make it a Brechtian morality play — he and Brecht had been friends in Germany and Lang later worked with Brecht on the 1943 film Hangmen Also Die — with the moral that “crime does not pay” (“which is a lie, because crime pays very well,” Lang told Higham and Greenberg).

He hired Brecht’s musical collaborator from Germany, Kurt Weill, to write a full set of songs that would have turned You and Me into an all-out musical — but after writing just three songs Weill quit the project to return to Broadway and write the songs for the stage musical Knickerbocker Holiday. Phil Boutelje, whose only other credit of note is the 1922 song “China Boy” (which despite its offensively racist lyrics became a jazz standard, though traditional jazz bands usually play it as an instrumental; I have 24 versions of “China Boy” on my iTunes list but only one, Louis Prima’s, contains a vocal), finished one song Weill had left incomplete but neither he nor anyone else wrote any new ones. As a result You and Me is a movie that seems to go off in several different directions at once, particularly since Lang (who never made a full-length sound musical, though the cabaret sequences in his German silents Dr. Mabuse and the restored Metropolis indicate he’d have been more than qualified to do so) shoots the three numbers Weill did write (with Paramount regular Sam Coslow as his lyricist) — the opening “Song of the Cash Register” (even the title sounds Brechtian!), a paean to the glories of consumerism with the warning that they can be yours but only if you pay for them; a torch song called “The Right Guy for Me” (sung by Carol Paige as part of the floor show at a dance hall the Raft and Sidney characters go to on a date) that’s a pretty obvious Weill self-plagiarism from “Surabaya Johnny” in his 1929 German flop Happy End; and a rhythmical chant sung by a group of mobsters who’ve united to plan a new job while expressing their nostalgia for prison (“which is, of course, stupid,” Lang told Higham and Greenberg) for which Lang wanted “not music but only sound effects — people hitting the table, or one glass against another, etc.” It wasn’t exactly a new idea — Rouben Mamoulian had done the combination of voices with sound effects in his stage production of DuBose Heyward’s play Porgy (basis for George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess) in 1928 and his film Love Me Tonight in 1932 — but it still comes off surprisingly effectively.

The plot of You and Me concerns department-store owner Jerome Morris (Harry Carey), who has decided as a matter of social conscience to offer jobs in his store to ex-convicts on parole. Among the people he’s hired that way are sporting-goods salesman Joe Dennis (George Raft) and clerk Helen Roberts (Sylvia Sidney, top-billed) — there’s a humorous introduction of Raft’s character when he snarls in close-up, “This is the best racket I’ve ever had, and I’ve tried them all,” and then the camera pulls back to reveal what he’s talking about is a tennis racket he’s showing a customer (a woman who’s openly cruising him in a scene that seems more like one from 1932, before the strict enforcement of the Production Code began, than 1938). She knows he’s an ex-con but he doesn’t know that about her. They’ve fallen in love with each other (demonstrated by the jealous look she shoots that woman customer who wanted more from Raft than a tennis racket) but one of the rules of parole in those days was that you weren’t allowed to get married. Joe has completed his parole but Helen still has three months to go on hers, and as their relationship progresses into a whirlwind marriage at an all-night “Lightning” chapel, the suspense from our end is what will happen when Joe finds out that Helen is also an ex-con and what will be the legal repercussions, if any, that she’s violated her parole by marrying him. There’s also a sympathetic Jewish couple, the Levines (Egon Brecher and Vera Gordon), who own the boarding house where Helen lives (Joe moves in when they wed, then takes a separate room next door after the Levines throw out a deadbeat boarder we never see) and seem to have been Lang’s spit-in-the-eye response to the Nazis he had fled in the dead of night five years earlier. Helen gets the Levines —the only people besides her boss who know she’s an ex-con — to conceal her marriage if her “friend” J. Dayton (Willard Robertson), actually her parole officer, drops by unexpectedly.

Oddly, despite its experimentalism (including Lang’s music-video style filming of all three Weill songs, two of which have elaborate dramatic sequences similar to the way James Whale filmed “Ol’ Man River” in the 1936 Show Boat), You and Me works best when it’s at its simplest, a tale of the apparently happy but actually troubled relationship between the leads reminiscent of such so-called “pre-Code” films as Columbia’s Three Wise Girls and Virtue (both directed by hacks but written by Robert Riskin, later Frank Capra’s collaborator on most of his major films). Throughout the first half of this film Joe is constantly being approached by his former gangland associates, including the guy who set him up to take the fall for the armed robbery they did together that sent Joe to prison in the first place, who want him to be the “inside man” for a robbery of Morris’s store — indeed, virtually all the “crew” recruited for this job are Morris’s ex-con employees — and Joe refuses to go along until he finally finds out Helen is an ex-con. He’s so hurt that she lied to him he agrees to join the crime, and the plotting and the actual break-in are staged by Lang and cinematographer Charles Lang (presumably no relation) as all-out film noir reminiscent of the sinister studio-built cityscapes of Lang’s German masterpiece M. There are several surprise twists at the end — Helen catches on to the robbery, reports it to Morris but persuades him not to turn in the would-be robbers to the police; instead she gives them an explicit lecture, using the blackboard in the store’s toy department, that the $30,000 robbery would have netted them a little more than $100 each once all their costs were factored in and therefore crime really doesn’t pay, at least for the lower-level crooks. “The big shots aren’t little crooks like you. They’re politicians,” she explains, in a line Lang probably came up with himself (instead of Krasna and screenwriter Virginia Van Upp, who turned his story into a screenplay) since it’s awfully close to Brecht’s even more acid comment, “What’s robbing a bank compared to founding a bank?,” originally written for Happy End and then incorporated into later revisions of the big Brecht-Weill  hit The Threepenny Opera.

Only there’s more; Joe is determined to walk out on Helen and leave for another state where he won’t be known as an ex-con (which he was actually on his way to do at the start when he agreed to stay and marry Helen himself — he takes a Greyhound bus to California, a surprise given that real brand names were almost never used in 1938 movies, but gets off almost immediately once Helen agrees to marry him) when he finds out from Mrs. Levine that Helen is pregnant (given all we’ve seen them doing, when would they have had the time — or the opportunity — to have sex?), and he enlists all eight of the would-be robbers on Morris’s staff to find her. When they locate the hospital where she’s about to give birth, there’s another comedy scene (You and Me has a surprising number of laughs, especially given that Lang was never known for his sense of humor) in which all of them are in the waiting room going through the nervous reactions one anticipates from expectant fathers in that predicament. You and Me is a marvelous movie (though Lang wasn’t proud of it in later years; he told Higham and Greenberg, “It was — I think deservedly — my first real flop”), one of those quirky entries in major directors’ canons (like Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett — a film that’s grown on me the more I’ve seen it — Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn and Marnie, Welles’ The Trial and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate) that doesn’t quite “work” as a whole but still ventures so much farther than ordinary movies it’s worth classic status. And You and Me also passes — with flying colors — one of my tests of a classic-era movie: can you imagine it being remade today? Yes, I can, especially if the protagonists were Black and you could tweak the script to incorporate the perpetual fear African-American men who aren’t in prison live under in this society that at any time, for any reason, a white cop could blow them away and not even be put on trial, much less convicted!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

High School Possession (Hybrid/Production Media Group, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was High School Possession, a real weirdie Lifetime originally aired on October 25 and ballyhooed as usual as a “world premiere,” which turned out to be dementedly silly even though the trailer was quite a “cheat” — more on that later. It’s basically the story of a typical angst-ridden youth rebel, Chloe Mitchell (played by Jennifer Stone, whose animate-kewpie doll appearance is actually quite good for the role), whose life has gone off the rails since her mom Bonnie (the still quite hot Iona Skye) divorced her dad. Over the course of the movie, written by Hans Wasserburger and directed by Peter Sullivan (both of them with their tongues no doubt firmly jammed against their cheeks at the sheer silliness of it all), Chloe goes through not only the usual signs of movie-teen alienation — she snaps at people, claims they’re out to get her, does drugs and alcohol, self-mutilates, cuts class and listens to loud, obnoxious music (I’ve written in these pages how the device on which your standard-issue alienated movie teen plays their loud, obnoxious music has changed, reflecting how youth’s preferred music storage media have changed: in the old days it was an LP player, then a CD player, then a personal computer on which she’s downloaded songs, and now it’s an iPod-like player she’s listening to through ear buds — no doubt the next time Lifetime addresses this theme she’ll be blasting out music on her smartphone!) — and a few others of her own, including carrying out three-way conversations with herself (the old schtick of having her “good” and “evil” sides audibly arguing with her and each other over what she should do next) and seeing weird little special-effects projections flying past her. Her best friend, Lauren Brady (Janel Parrish), is an investigative reporter for their high-school paper and is also the girlfriend of its editor, Mase Adkins (Chris Brochu). She decides to join a campus Christian group, “The Chosen,” ostensibly to research an article about them but really to find out if Chloe is demonically possessed and, with secular psychiatry apparently unable to help her (her mom, played by Kelly Hu with one of the worst hairdos ever draped across the scalp of a basically attractive woman, has taken her to three psychiatrists, none of them have been able to help solve her problems, and the last one freaks both mom and daughter out when he recommends placing her in a mental hospital), maybe what she really needs is an exorcism.

They attend the local church and talk to the minister, Reverend Young (William McNamara), about setting up an exorcism — Young, a surprisingly sexy guy whom we see only in street clothes (and his denomination is carefully unspecified even though my understanding is exorcism is specifically a Roman Catholic schtick), says he’s performed exorcisms before but he has a tough admissions process, including a 50-question questionnaire, to make sure the would-be exorcee is genuinely possessed and not simply suffering from a secular mental illness. This is the part of the story which the trailer “cheats” on — the trailer shows Father Young approving the exorcism of Chloe but in the movie itself, he decides she’s developing a pretty ordinary case of paranoid schizophrenia and isn’t demonically possessed at all. So Olivia Marks (Shanley Caswell), the student leader of “The Chosen,” decides to break into the church and do a D.I.Y. exorcism on Chloe, and just before the evening they’ve chosen she ominously asks Lauren, “Are you in or out?” Lauren assures Olivia she’s in, only she gets horrified once Olivia and her “Chosen” buddies — including Olivia’s boyfriend Brad (Spencer Neville) — tie Chloe to the altar, put a towel over her face, pour a pitcher of water over her and do that again. Lauren protests that she didn’t sign on to waterboard Chloe, and so the other “Chosen” people there overpower her, lock her in a church closet and continue with the ceremony, at the climax of which Olivia takes a ceremonial dagger and is about to stab Chloe through the heart with it. It seems that Olivia went off the rails herself during an earlier scene at a drunken party when she saw Chloe emerge from a bedroom with Brad, hurriedly putting on his clothes again after he and Chloe had had sex — no doubt Olivia was doing the true-love-waits number while Brad’s love, or at least his gonads, weren’t willing to wait any longer, and with Chloe’s madness expressing itself as sexual rambunctiousness he was ready and eager to get seduced. Only Olivia has decided that by coming between her and Brad, Chloe has forfeited her right to live and her soul needs to be dispatched either to heaven or hell considerably ahead of schedule. Lauren breaks out of that closet long enough to stop the proceedings before Olivia can off Chloe, and though the church is locked from the outside the two barely manage to escape … and there’s a final tag scene, identified in a typical Lifetime credit as “Six Months Later,” which takes place at their high-school graduation. It’s explained that Chloe did a stint in a mental hospital and she got better enough not only to graduate from high school but to win admittance to USC on a soccer scholarship (does USC have a scholarship program for women soccer players?), while in a final scene Olivia herself is being released from a similar institution after leaving behind a notebook in which she’s written the name “Chloe Mitchell” over and over and over again, warning us that Chloe is still in mortal danger from this literal Jesus freak.

High School Possession is basically a drearily ordinary teen-alienation movie with a 15-minute gimmick climax uneasily grafted on, competently but decently directed and competently but decently acted as well — the roles of Chloe and Lauren have a lot more potential meat on their bones than Jennifer Stone and Janet Parrish find (though at least Jennifer Stone seems to have done her own voice when she was supposed to be demonically possessed — she didn’t rely on an old-time actress to dub them for her the way Linda Blair was dubbed by Mercedes McCambridge in The Exorcist — McCambridge had been in a mental institution herself recovering from alcoholism and remembered the anguished screams and guttural moans from her fellow patients in creating the “possessed” voice for that film) — though it was nice to see some genuinely attractive young men among the actors playing high-school students, especially Chris Brochu as Mase and Spencer Neville as Brad (their pages don’t list their actual ages but I suspect they’re a few years older than high school — more to the good, I say; I’m not into “robbing the cradle” not only for the legal risk but because actual teenage boys do very little for me; I keep imagining myself saying to them, “Come back when you’re a few years older … ”) as well as the surprisingly sexy William McNamara as Reverend Young. There aren’t any “daddy” figures in this movie — unless you count the priest and Chloe’s soccer coach (Michael C. Mahon) — because both Chloe’s and Lauren’s actual fathers aren’t in the picture; Chloe’s mom is a divorcée and Lauren’s is a widow (though a rather grungy-looking guy turns up at the end of Chloe’s graduation ceremony and I suppose we’re meant to think that’s Chloe’s dad). Overall it’s a decently made movie that can’t overcome the fundamental silliness of the concept, with competent thriller direction but almost no sense of the Gothic (and what’s a possession story — even an alleged one — without a sense of the Gothic?).

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Ruggles of Red Gap (Paramount, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was the 1935 Ruggles of Red Gap, one of those acknowledged classics from Hollywood’s height as the world’s movie capital that somehow I’d never got around to watching before. It was based on a novel by Harry Leon Wilson which was turned by Humphrey Pearson into a stage play first produced in 1915, and the first movie of it was made by Essanay Studios in 1918. When Essanay went out of business Paramount bought the rights and did a late silent in 1923 with the young Edward Everett Horton as Ruggles, a British über-butler whose master loses him in a card game to an obnoxious American Westerner who trots him back with him to Red Gap in Washington state. This version got made in 1935 as a vehicle for Charles Laughton, whom Paramount teamed with an all-star cast of their contract favorites: established comedy team Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland as Egbert Floud (a rather awkward name) the man who wins Ruggles’ services in a game of draw poker and his wife Effie, who’s all in favor of her husband acquiring a British butler in the hope it will give him “class”; ZaSu Pitts as Prunella Judson, the cook for another family in Red Gap (and as usual she’s funny in that peculiar dry-wit sort of way she had in which she was able to get laughs as the put-upon victim, but it’s still infuriating that in 1922 she had filmed the female lead in Erich von Stroheim’s Greed and turned in one of the greatest dramatic performances ever captured on film — a role that should have broken her out of comedies forever the way Sybil and Norma Rae did with Sally Field half a century later — but because of MGM’s evisceration of Greed and utter disinterest in promoting it, she got stuck back in comedies until her career ended with her death in 1963; Roland Young as George, Earl of Burnstead, the man who lost Ruggles in that poker game; and Leila Hyams (in her last film, even though she was still personable and attractive and got to sing a couple of songs of the period in a nice voice) as local “party girl” Nell Kenner, who throws beer busts on her lawn and pulls Egbert away from Effie’s “gentrification” project on him. The film gets off to a bad start in that though it opens in Paris, the site of the poker game in which Burnstead loses Ruggles to Egbert, we don’t actually get to see the game — and we should have; one aches for the droll expressions Laughton could have given us as he realizes to his horror that he is the stakes in his master’s game and his master just might lose him to this uncouth American who’s going to take him to the West. (There is a nice bit in which Ruggles imagines what the West is like — and director Leo McCarey gives us a series of stock clips of ferocious Indian attacks from previous Paramount Westerns.)

The film is pretty obviously divided into three acts (you could probably tell this had started out on stage even if you didn’t know that ahead of time), the first in Paris — in which Effie has their French maid Lisette (Alyce Ardell) burn all Egbert’s loud Western clothes (to Lisette’s astonishment, Effie tells her she wants the clothes “taken out and burned. and then burn the ashes”) and Egbert hangs out at a bar playing hooky from Effie’s cultural-education assignments — she wants him to go to Paris’s great musea and write her reports on what he’s seen, he couldn’t care less, so he buys art books and regurgitates their contents in his reports, and Ruggles helps him on this — and with his equally uncouth friends Jeff Tuttle (James Burke) and Sam (Dell Henderson), Egbert takes Ruggles out for a night on the town and gets him drunk for the first time in his life, missing an elaborate dinner party Effie planned to show off that they had a real-life, honest-to-goodness British butler. The action then moves to Red Gap, where Effie wants to impress the “best people” — it’s not really a big enough town to have best people, but to the extent it does they’re more or less led socially by “Ma” Pettingell (Maude Eburne), whose self-made fortune attracted male-golddigger Charles Belknap-Johnson (Lucien Littlefield) to marry “Ma”’s daughter (Leota Lorraine) and spend “Ma”’s money on social pretensions. Thanks to some misunderstandings, word gets around town that Ruggles is actually a British colonel (he’s really never ever served in the military) and the Flouds’ social standing zooms up while the Belknap-Johnsons’ plummets. Belknap-Johnson retaliates by getting Effie to fire Ruggles, only his livelihood is saved by Prunella, whom he’s more or less been dating. The two of them get the idea to open a restaurant, and Belknap-Johnson comes on opening night, acts obnoxious and gets thrown out by Ruggles. He threatens to retaliate by demanding all the “best people” leave and boycott the place, but Ruggles gets them to stay and looks like he’s on his way to a promising new career when [surprise!] George, Earl of Burnstead, shows up in Red Gap ready and eager to rehire Ruggles, and Ruggles is torn by conscience over whether to resume his destiny to remain a butler forever and the new possibilities America has offered him as a self-made businessperson.

It’s not that bad an idea for a comedy — though quite frankly I had thought the plot would revolve around Egbert’s transformation at Ruggles’ hands instead of the other way around — but it seems to have been directed under water. Leo McCarey takes a lackadaisical pace, which was a gimmick he’d worked out with Laurel and Hardy to reflect that they were playing stupid characters (charmingly and hilariously funny stupid characters, but still stupid) but sits oddly here with a film about people who are supposed to be of at least normal intelligence. At the time this film was made Charles Laughton was known primarily for playing crazy authority figures — Nero in The Sign of the Cross, Henry VIII in The Private Life of Henry VIII, and Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (which apparently started shooting just as this film finished), and in order to distinguish Ruggles from these people of power, the usually hammy Laughton underacted so much that through much of the film he hardly seems even to be there. By far the most moving moment in Laughton’s performance is the scene in which, aghast that no one else in the town’s Silver Dollar saloon (whose existence is heralded on the soundtrack by Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”) remembers what President Lincoln said at Gettysburg, recites the entire Gettysburg Address in a quiet, infinitively moving voice that renders the rest of the film virtually unwatchable by comparison; it was a pretty typical Laughton tour de force (in a later film he read a good chunk of the Bible on screen — and the producer, worried that Laughton’s reading would outshine the rest of the movie, had it cut out). Edward Dmytryk, who worked as editor on this film before becoming a director himself, recalled that Laughton was so worked up about doing this scene that it took a day and a half to shoot it, and that it aroused unwanted laughter when it was previewed — so instead of keeping the camera front-and-center on Laughton during the entire speech, McCarey reshot the scene with the camera largely over Laughton’s shoulder photographing the reactions of the bar crowd as he recited the speech. Laughton later said that doing the Gettysburg Address in this film was “one of the most moving things that ever happened to me,” and an “trivia” item suggests that that was because at the time he was considering becoming a U.S. citizen (though I don’t believe he ever actually did). The Nazis banned this film in Germany because it contained the Gettysburg Address!

Other “trivia” items indicate that Laughton personally chose Leo McCarey to make this movie after having seen the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, which particularly impressed him (though the relentlessly zany, fast-moving Marx film is about as far removed from the sort of comedy in Ruggles of Red Gap as one could imagine) — though if Laughton was impressed by Duck Soup he was almost the only one in the business who was, since the film was a horrible flop, critics said things like “Practically everybody agrees that in this picture the Four Marx Brothers are not so amusing,” and the film really didn’t find its audience until the 1960’s, when radical counter-culturists who’d watched the U.S. lie its way into the Viet Nam War with arguments as absurd and ego-driven as the ones Groucho Marx as the dictator of Freedonia makes in the movie took it to their hearts and flocked to see it in revivals. (One wonders what McCarey, who lived until 1969, thought of that; he’d been a hard-core Right-winger and a key organizer of the blacklist-supporting Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, as well as a devout Roman Catholic for whom Bing Crosby’s two priest pictures, Going My Way and its sequel The Bells of St. Mary’s, were deeply personal projects.) Apparently Laughton also hired his own (uncredited) writer, Arthur MacRae, to work with screenwriters Walter DeLeon and Harlan Thompson to make sure the movie stayed sufficiently “British” it wouldn’t be laughed off the screen (for the wrong reasons) in the U.K. Oddly, after thinking about the movie for a while it occurred to me that it might have been a better film if Laughton and Ruggles had switched roles — Ruggles would have been more believable as the befuddled butler and Laughton might have been screamingly funny posing as the uncouth American Westerner (he’d play a similar role to Egbert Floud seven years later in They Knew What They Wanted) — as it is, Mary Boland practically steals the film, expertly conveying her exasperation with her husband and determination to “make a gentleman” out of him even if it kills both of them!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Jackie Robinson Story (Jewel/Eagle-Lion, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I walked into Suncoast Video and bought a $5 tape of The Jackie Robinson Story, a 1950 “B” movie starring Robinson as himself in an annoyingly fictionalized but broadly accurate version of how he made the Brooklyn Dodgers and became the first African-American player in major league baseball. (During the 10 seasons he played with the Dodgers, they won the pennant six times and the World Series once, and he was instrumental in their success, especially during his earlier years.) A young Ruby Dee played his wife, Louise Beavers was his mother and an actor named Minor Watson bore a near-perfect resemblance, physically and emotionally, to Branch Rickey — he came closest to stealing the show, though Robinson himself was an interesting screen presence. (I couldn’t help but wonder how he felt about acting scenes in which he had to play versions of the events in his life that were not at all like the way they really happened.) Badly written, and directed by-the-numbers by Alfred E. Green (just four years after he did The Jolson Story!), The Jackie Robinson Story was saved (even in this wretched video print, whose poor photographic quality made the movie look abut 40 years older than it was) by the novelty of the concept, the solidly professional quality of the acting and the essentially moving quality of the story, even told in so piss-poor a fashion (I found myself crying when Branch Rickey confronted the racist teammates who circulated the petition to keep Robinson off the team). — 9/29/94


I screened the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story for Charles — a movie I’d previously seen on VHS (pack rat that I am, I still have that tape!) and an odd sort of exploitation movie in that Jackie Robinson portrayed himself on screen, with Ruby Dee as his wife (very young, hauntingly attractive and showing the Billie Holiday-ish looks that would have made her ideal casting for the acting side of the role in Lady Sings the Blues, with Billie’s own records on the soundtrack when the character sang — I recently realized that where I’d got that idea was hearing a late-1960’s radio broadcast on KPFA in which Dee read excerpts from Billie’s autobiography interspersed with Billie’s records) and old-line character actor Minor Watson surprisingly effective as Branch Rickey. I had been interested in re-seeing this movie since Charles and I watched 42, last year’s properly mounted, sumptuous (as sumptuous as the story it told allowed it to be) major-studio biopic with Chadwick Boseman as Robinson, Nicole Beharie as his wife and Harrison Ford in a surprisingly effective old-salt turn as Rickey. What struck both Charles and I most about the comparison was how closely the script of 42 tracked that of The Jackie Robinson Story (directed by Alfred E. Green from a script by Arthur Mann, Lawrence Taylor and an uncredited Lewis Pollack), to the point where the new film is practically a remake of the old and not just a separate movie inspired by the same history. Jackie Robinson’s story is striking because it was at once a baseball tale, a civil-rights parable and a fable of a man triumphing over adversity and winning acceptance from his peers by virtue of his skills and performance. Unlike 42, The Jackie Robinson Story goes easy on his (and his wife Rachel’s) resistance to racism before he signed on with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but that’s really the only major difference: both films begin with Robinson as a boy dreaming of playing baseball — not necessarily professionally, but at least having fun with the white kids (though the opening scenes of The Jackie Robinson Story show him as so much younger than the white boys on the team he’s trying to crash, they’d have had a legitimate, non-racist reason for rejecting him: he was simply too young and too small) — and working his way through college at UCLA, majoring in four sports (baseball, football, basketball and track and field — his older brother Mac Robinson had set a world’s high-jump record until Jackie topped it) but wondering whether it’s worth finishing school when after getting a degree Mac ended up as a street cleaner.

Like 42, The Jackie Robinson Story avoids the obvious racial soapbox and treats the racism Robinson faced mostly as a subtle, ongoing presence that only occasionally flared into out-and-out assaults or goading (in the film’s most intriguing sequence, a racist at a ballgame tries to scare Robinson by leading a black cat in front of him during a game — and Robinson, though initially afraid picks up the cat and pets it). When he takes a bus there’s a sign on the inside stating that colored passengers were supposed to ride only in the back, and later when he tours with an all-Black baseball team called “The Black Panthers” (the real Negro League team Robinson played for before he signed with the Dodgers was the Kansas City Monarchs, who so dominated African-American baseball in the 1940’s they were nicknamed “the Black Yankees,” but the writers of The Jackie Robinson Story gave their fictitious “Black Panthers” not only a name that would be resonant in the 1960’s when radical Black civil-rights groups first in Alabama and then in California adopted it, but a logo on their uniforms strikingly similar to the crouching black panther the later militant group used) he’s instructed to go to a white diner and ask if the team can eat there (no), if they can get sandwiches to go (the waiter says no but the cook, no doubt thinking of the money they’ll make from selling 16 sandwiches, says yes) and if they can use the restroom (definitely no). The most controversial aspect of Robinson’s career is that he yielded to Rickey’s demand that he keep quiet about racism and not fight back no matter how much he was taunted or bullied either by fans or other players (on the Dodgers or other teams). Both films feature the famous exchange in which Robinson asks Rickey if he wants a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back when he’s attacked, and Rickey replies, “No, I want someone with the guts not to fight back.”

According to trivia notes on The Jackie Robinson Story on, Rickey’s ban on Robinson making public comments against racism was only for two years, and once they were up Robinson did get more public about civil rights and the prejudices Black people dealt with every day (to the point where he was denounced as “mouthy”), and by 1949 Robinson was named the most valuable player in baseball and the argument over whether Blacks could play big-league baseball at the same level as whites had been definitively settled. This film has Rickey saying, “A box score is really democratic, Jackie. It doesn’t say how big you are or how your father voted in the last election or what church you attend. It just tells you what kind of a ballplayer you were that day.” As I pointed out in my comments about 42, the Dodgers’ signing Robinson achieved the on-field results Rickey was hoping for — before he joined the team in 1947, the Dodgers had played in the World Series only once; during the 10 years he played for them (1947 to 1956) they made the World Series six times and won it once (in 1955). It also accomplished another of Rickey’s goals: other teams also started recruiting Black players, looking for a similar competitive advantage. No doubt because Robinson was playing himself, The Jackie Robinson Story was more accurate than 42 in depicting what sort of player he was — one who actually in some ways anticipated the “Moneyball” philosophy in that he wasn’t a big home-run hitter: his strengths were fielding and base running, and he was so fast on the bags he could beat out what for most players would be a single into a double or even a triple. As far as the acting is concerned, Jackie Robinson himself is a surprisingly effective screen presence; Charles was surprised at how high his voice was, but I thought it added to the overall sense of him as an almost Gandhi-like figure (in one exchange, asked by Rickey what he’ll do if another player belts him in the cheek, Robinson says, “I have two cheeks, sir”), as grimly determined not to react to the racist taunts and not to give white people any excuses to hate him as he is to do well on the diamond.

It’s certainly a much better movie than Spirit of Youth, the bizarre 1937 biopic with Black boxer Joe Louis playing himself (wretchedly) and Mantan Moreland, in a superb star turn as Louis’s manager, showing up the inadequacies of the rest of the cast. Here the rest of the cast — aside from Watson as Rickey and whoever played the Dodger player who insisted on being traded rather than play with a Black man on his team — is only O.K.; Louise Beavers appears as Robinson’s mother but is on screen too little to make much of an impression, and Ruby Dee is attractive and personable in another thankless role that calls on her to do little else than gaze at Robinson in wordless admiration and furrow her brow with concern over their well-being when three members of a racist organization (its name is carefully unspecified but it’s pretty obviously the Ku Klux Klan) approach him the night after a practice game in Sarasota, Florida and threaten him with bodily harm if he plays again the next day. Robinson himself is a fascinating screen presence, looking like the genuine athlete he was but also almost unbelievably self-effacing —one gets the impression from the script that this Jackie Robinson didn’t have to make those promises with Branch Rickey not to fight back against any racist assaults because it’s not in his nature to be confrontational and he’d rather just go out there and win his civil-rights victories on the ballfield. Robinson never again acted (though he appeared on TV doing sports commentaries and commercials), but if he’d pursued it as a second career he could probably have made at least a decent success — as things turned out, when Black athletes started pursuing acting careers in the 1960’s they were mostly football rather than baseball players (Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, Rosie Grier) and they specialized mostly in ultra-butch action roles that would have been totally wrong for Robinson’s placid temperament.

Still, The Jackie Robinson Story is a surprisingly good movie, especially considering its auspices (made by Eagle-Lion studios, the company J. Arthur Rank formed when he bought the ultra-cheap PRC studio to have an American outlet through which to release his big British productions without having to pay U.S. companies distribution fees; it scored big the first year of its existence with The Red Shoes, but the ex-PRC’ers were still under contract and a number of them, including David Chudnow and Joseph Mullendore from PRC’s music department, are on the credit list for this), and an ironic credit for director Alfred E. Green. Four years after making The Jolson Story, about the legendary blackface performer whose act has become a badly dated artifact and been linked with racism (unfairly, in Jolson’s case; I think he was following in a theatrical tradition but also paying some sort of tribute to the genuine Black performers whom the minstrels were copying), here he is at a much lower budgetary level making a movie about an accomplished African-American athlete whose success advanced the cause of civil rights. And one poster couldn’t escape the irony that at the very end of the movie, Jackie Robinson is invited to Washington, D.C. to make a speech about racial progress and boast that any Black person can now aspire to play professional baseball or even be President — the irony being that a Black man would indeed become President, but not until 58 years after this movie was released (and 36 years after Jackie Robinson’s death in 1972). — 12/13/14