Friday, July 31, 2015

Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton Productions/Warner Bros., 1996)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Tim Burton’s 1996 science-fiction epic Mars Attacks!, which began life as one of the weirdest story sources imaginable for a major-studio, big-budget, major-star film: a series of bubble-gum cards. In 1962, for some reason, the Topps bubble-gum company decided to take a breather from their usual business of sticking athletes’ pictures in with packages of their bubble gum and instead plot out a 54-panel serial called Mars Attacks!, which would tell a continuous story of a Martian invasion of Earth. The series became a brief fad among some of my fellow grade-schoolers in the day and then was virtually forgotten by just about everyone, including the executives at the Topps company (who gave up on the serial-story concept and went back to baseball and football players), except film director Tim Burton, who’d already had some unlikely successes (including Beetlejuice — his clever inversion of the Ghostbusters formula in which it was ghosts trying to get rid of humans instead of the other way around — and the first two films in the modern Batman cycle at a time when superhero movies were actually considered a risk instead of a staple of the big summer blockbuster market) and so he got the green light from Warner Bros. to make a movie out of 54 bubble-gum cards. The original series writers, uncredited on the film itself, were Len Brown, Woody Gelman, Wally Wood, Bob Powell and Norm Saunders; Burton tabbed a writer with the intriguing name Jonathan Gems to turn the basic concept into a script. I have only dim memories of the card series so I don’t know how faithful, overall, the movie is to it, but I do remember that the 54th card in the series was headlined “Mars Destroyed!” and featured the Red Planet blowing up as the result of a successful Earth counter-attack — alas, the movie did not end that way!

The film has at least three separate plot lines in three widely separated locales — Washington, D.C., Las Vegas and a tiny town in Kansas whose only discernible business is a doughnut shop identified with a giant replica doughnut with the letters “DONUT” emblazoned on it, just in case any of the few passers-by didn’t get the point. The people who run it, and apparently everybody else in town, lives in trailers — though there’s a nursing home nearby which features prominently in the plot — and the main characters in this part of the movie are the Norrises: grandma Florence Norris (Sylvia Sidney, still playing quiet and dignified even at that age), mother Sue Ann (O-Lan Jones), a father who isn’t given a first name (Joe Don Baker) and their two kids, older brother Billy Glenn (Jack Black) — a military enlistee of whom his folks are proud — and younger brother Richie (Lukas Haas; it’s nice to be reminded of how cute this guy once was, and he plays the sort of withdrawn character that a decade later would have gone to Paul Dano), whom the family detests because he’s grown his hair long, he isn’t interested in joining the military and he’d rather hang out with his grandma at the nursing home than be with the rest of the clan. The Washington, D.C. scenes are dominated by U.S. President James Dale (Jack Nicholson), his wife Marsha (Glenn Close), White House press secretary Jerry Ross (Martin Short), rival generals Decker (Rod Steiger) and Casey (Paul Winfield), as well as a scientist, Donald Kessler (Pierce Brosnan), brought in to advise the government on what to do about the Martian threat. (When Pierce Brosnan entered after having starred in some of the James Bond series entries, I couldn’t help but joke that he’d introduce himself as “Kessler … Donald Kessler.”) He ends up becoming a severed head inside one of the Martian spaceships, along with Nathalie Lake (Sarah Jessica Parker), the TV host who was interviewing him for the Today show and flirting with him — much to the disgust of her husband, the show’s director — and there’s a good scene at the end in which they try to make love with each other even though they’re only disembodied heads. (Earlier Lake’s head ended up on the body of her Chihuahua dog, and vice versa.)

The Vegas scenes center around Art Land (Jack Nicholson — he played two parts but could do so easily since the two characters never meet), who’s about to open a new casino/resort/hotel called the Galaxy and has summoned investors (though it already seems to be completed and one wonders why he needs additional money) and his stereotypically dumb wife Barbara (Annette Bening, once again cast in a part for which she was way overqualified). The hotel is sufficiently finished that there’s already a show going on in its showroom featuring singer Tom Jones, cast as himself — when the camera panned to his three backup singers I couldn’t help but joke, “Ah, 40 Feet from a Mediocre Has-Been.” There’s also another major character in the Vegas scenes, burned-out ex-boxer Byron Williams (played by burned-out ex-football player Jim Brown), who works as a bouncer at an Egyptian-themed casino (and has to wear full King Tut drag) and also doubles as some sort of entertainer putting on athletic exhibitions, though we never see him do this. He’s anxious to get back to Washington, D.C. to ride out the crisis with his estranged wife Louise (Pam Grier) and their rambunctious, uncontrollable sons Cedric (Ray J) and Neville (Brandon Hammond). In a scene that relates to absolutely nothing else in the film but is one of the best things in it, Louise, who works as a bus driver, spots her sons in a video arcade (playing, what else, a shoot-’em-up game in which their fictional adversary is a Martian) instead of school, announces to the passengers that they’re going to make an unscheduled stop, and then stops the bus, invades the arcade, pulls her kids out of it and chews them out to the cheers of the bus’s passengers. (Pam Grier, still kickin’ ass!)

The Martians themselves are a cross between the “little green men” of classic sci-fi pulp art and the Talosians from the pilot of the original Star Trek: scrawny beings with oversized crania and green jelly instead of blood. They attack with ray guns against which, of course, Earth’s weapons offer no defense, and when they shoot a person the victim’s entire skin and muscles vaporize immediately and all that’s left is a skeleton — both Charles and I wondered if someone like Tim Burton, who so loves the worst 1950’s schlock sci-fi he actually made a biopic of Edward D. Wood, Jr., had copied this effect from Tom Graeff’s Teenagers from Outer Space, though Burton’s effects budget was several orders of magnitude bigger than Graeff’s and his version of the effect is both more convincing and more gross. The main plot point of Mars Attacks! is an interesting inversion of 1950’s sci-fi movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (from which Burton pretty obviously copied the flying-saucer “look” of the Martian spacecraft) in which everyone in the government, from the President on down — except for General Decker — insists that the Martians’ intentions in visiting Earth are peaceful. Even when they shoot their ray guns at the dove of peace released at the point of first contact by a young man in Las Vegas, and then shoot the people there to meet them (under a big sign reading “WELCOME TO EARTH”), President Dale and his advisors insist that these are merely “misunderstandings” and they’re going to keep trying to talk to the Martians instead of attack them.

Mars Attacks! is the sort of weird movie that doesn’t quite come off — the effective fusion of camp and action Burton achieved in his two Batman movies eludes him here, and in trying to make his action scenes both exciting and cartoony he all too frequently achieves neither. It nominally takes place in the year 2000 — obviously picked for its symbolic millennial significance — but there are some deliberate throwbacks to the early 1960’s, when the basic story source originated, notably the universal translator that’s supposed to render the Martians’ duck-like language into English (and which keeps saying the Martians are saying, “We come in peace,” and “We are your friends,” even while they’re vaporizing every human in sight with those damned ray guns which look like plastic toys on screen), whose memory seems to consist of four little spools of magnetic tape. (Missing the parodistic intent, Charles wondered, “Who still uses tape as a storage medium?”) Inevitably, Mars Attacks! is a film of moments rather than a coherent whole, and equally inevitably it’s filled with references to other movies — including a sequence at the White House war room that can’t help but evoke Dr. Strangelove even though its propagandistic purpose is quite the opposite: the general who’s advocating an all-out nuclear attack on the Martians is clearly being presented as the sensible one, while the President himself and the advisors (including Winfield’s General Casey, who’s quite obviously drawn as a parody of Colin Powell) keep trying to “negotiate” with extraterrestrial beings clearly bent on nothing but our total destruction — though there’s a worm-turning sequence later in which General Ripper, oops, I mean Decker wins approval to nuke the Martian ship — only the Martians have an anti-missile defense system, a giant red balloon that swallows the nuclear-armed missile, digests it and lets what’s left of its energy out with a burp as it returns to its home craft.

In the end only seven of the 22 credited principals are still alive, and the only thing that saves Earth from the Martian invaders is Burton’s and Gems’ weird analogue for the earth bacteria and viruses that destroyed the Martians in the obvious model for their story, H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. As he’s rescuing his grandma from the nursing home which is being attacked by the Martians, Richie accidentally pulls out the jack from grandma’s headphones — thereby playing the record she was listening to, an insane cover of the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy hit “Indian Love Call” by, of all people, Slim Whitman — and the sound of Whitman’s voice is precisely the vibration needed to blow up the Martians’ oversized heads and get the green jelly they have in place of blood to spurt out picturesquely. Accordingly Richie and his grandmother win the Medal of Honor (though one wonders just who awarded it to them since both the President and Congress were vaporized in earlier scenes) and the film draws to an end that’s about as quirky as the rest of it. Mars Attacks! is Tim Burton’s imagination running wild — it’s O.K. entertainment but he’s made many movies that worked better because he kept his rambunctious imagination more under control — but it has one rather odd saving grace: Jack Nicholson’s performance as the President. As the hotel promoter in Vegas he’s turning in typical Nicholson schtick and makes himself even more unwatchable than Burton intended, but as the President he clearly modeled his performance on Richard Nixon and turned in a good enough job that I came away convinced he would have been a better choice than Anthony Hopkins or Frank Langella in the two “serious” movies so far made about Nixon. I’ve never been a Nicholson fan — that shark’s-teeth grin and vulpine laugh always put me off — but he’s one actor Tim Burton seems to have got the best out of; his performance as the Joker in the first Burton Batman seems to me the best work he’s ever done — the mannerisms that put me off when Nicholson plays “serious” roles were just right as the comic villain (Cesar Romero in the TV show overemphasized the camp; the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight Returns made him too crazy; Nicholson got the balance just right) — and once again here he got finely honed acting out of a performer who usually just explodes — or throws up — on screen.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Bomb (Lone Wolf Documentary Group/PBS, 2015) & Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail (Gene Pool Productions/Australian TV, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

For the last two days PBS has been showing an interesting group of movies about nuclear weapons and the atomic age in general. On Tuesday they showed a two-hour special called The Bomb, which begins in 1938 with the famous letter physicist Leo Szilard drafted urging the U.S. in general and President Franklin Roosevelt in particular to get cracking on creating an atomic bomb before Germany got it first and the Nazis were able to win World War II and do far more damage than the formidable amount they actually did with what they had. Szilard realized that he didn’t have enough clout to get the U.S. president to read a letter from him, so he enlisted a physicist who did: Albert Einstein, then living on the East Coast and teaching and doing research at Princeton University and just as scared about the Nazis getting the atomic bomb as Szilard was. Roosevelt ordered the U.S. Army to start a research project on the feasibility of nuclear weapons, and he assigned it to the Manhattan Engineering District of the Army Corps of Engineers. Then, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the U.S. declared war on Japan a day later and Hitler declared war on the U.S. two days after that, Roosevelt ordered the “Manhattan Engineering District Project” to set up a full-scale effort to design and build a workable atomic weapon as soon as possible, and to do so in out-of-the-way secret locations: Oak Ridge, Tennessee to produce enough fissile uranium to fuel the bomb; Hanford, Washington to make plutonium in case the effort to enrich enough uranium for a bomb didn’t work; and, most importantly, Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the top scientists in the field were recruited to work under military direction on what was essentially an engineering problem.

The basic physics behind the bomb were known at the start and had been ever since 1938, when a German physicist named Lise Meitner published a paper in Nature establishing that by bombarding it with neutrons, she and her boss, Otto Hahn, had actually split a uranium atom into smaller fragments, thereby releasing great quantities of energy. If enough fissile uranium could be concentrated in what came to be called a “critical mass,” the fission would release more neutrons, which would strike more nuclei of fissile uranium, which would release more neutrons, start more fission, and so on and so on until the resulting energy created a nuclear explosion through which an entire city could be destroyed by a single bomb. (Interestingly, a number of the early atomic scientists had read a novel by H. G. Wells published in 1914 called The World Set Free, apparently the first work of fiction featuring atomic weapons, which he dedicated to Frederick Soddy — a little-known British physicist who worked as an assistant to Ernest Rutherford; the two were also instrumental in documenting the incredible energy of radioactive substances like uranium and the possible military uses of it — and at least some of the early scientists involved in building the bomb had first thought it might be practical because of Wells’ book.) The fact that the early work establishing the possibility of nuclear fission had been done in Germany scared the shit out of Szilard, Einstein and the many other physicists, quite a few of them Jewish, who had fled the Nazis and settled in the U.S. The story of the Manhattan Project has been told quite often — in books, in documentaries (including a 1970’s PBS production called The Day After Trinity which I remember as even better than The Bomb) and even a dramatic fiction film, Fat Man and Little Boy (named after the two sorts of bomb the Manhattan Project produced — the uranium-fueled “gun” bomb used on Hiroshima and the plutonium implosion bomb used on Nagasaki — and also evoking the relationship between the two people in charge of the project, Army general Leslie Groves, played by Paul Newman, and scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer) — and it’s often treated as a sort of real-life Götterdämmerung in which an old world dies and a new one waits to be born. (The famous lines from the Bhagavad-Gita Oppenheimer quoted after the Trinity test in July 1945 — “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” — do tend to reinforce that impression.)

But these programs — both The Bomb and a two-part program PBS aired after it called Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail — suggest that atomic energy in general and atomic weaponry in particular just fit neatly into humanity’s long and all too fruitful quest for newer, more efficient and more lethal ways to destroy large chunks of itself. Both of them suggested that the atomic bomb became a cultural icon relatively quickly in its history — Uranium even includes some of the 1950’s songs about or referencing the Bomb that were included in the marvelous 1983 documentary The Atomic Café, though they appeared to be re-recordings by modern artists rather than the originals used in The Atomic Café (and I’d still like a chance to hear again the beautiful country ballad “The Cold War Over You” by Floyd Tillman, which anticipates Elvis Costello’s early songs equating disputes between lovers in a relationship with tensions between entire countries, used by the makers of The Atomic Café over the closing credits of their film). PBS showed the first part of Uranium on Tuesday and the second part last night, Wednesday, after yet another nuclear-themed show — one about the horrendous disaster that destroyed two nuclear reactors in Japan during the earthquake and tsunami at Fukushima, and the increasingly desperate jury-rigging the reactor crew had to do to try to stop the reactor cores from melting down and/or the containment vessels from exploding under pressure from the hydrogen released as part of a meltdown (a problem nuclear engineers weren’t even aware of until it happened at Three Mile Island in 1979). The shows covered much of the same material but the presentations were dramatically different: The Bomb, written and directed by Rushmore DeNooyer, used an off-screen omniscient narrator, Jonathan Adams, who sounded to me too annoyingly chipper (PBS’s resident narrator, Will Lyman, would have been a better choice), while Uranium was written and directed by Wain Fimeri for Australian TV and hosted on-screen by a quite attractive young man — Charles called him a “physitwink” — named Derek Muller, who in the second half did the Michael Moore number and got into the so-called “exclusion zones” around Chernobyl and Fukushima (places where people were given emergency evacuations after the nuclear accidents and have not been allowed to return since, though the Fukushima survivors are at least allowed to return to their homes for occasional short visits to savor what they had to leave behind, which is probably an emotional wrench for some because all too many of the former Fukushimans are still living in the “temporary” emergency trailers they were put into while the accident was still happening).

Uranium tells a somewhat broader story than The Bomb, beginning with the discovery of uranium in a played-out gold mine in what is now the Czech Republic (the name for uranium ore, “pitchblende,” is apparently a play on the Czech word for “played out,” and conveyed the sentiment among the miners that when they started finding that stuff instead of gold, it was bad news because it meant there was no longer any recoverable gold in that mine and their jobs would soon end). Uranium was considered a useless metal until French professor Henri Becquerel made his famous experiments, exposing uranium to sunlight (though, contrary to Fimeri’s film, he actually did his experiments with compounds — so-called “uranium salts” — rather than pure metallic uranium because uranium salts could acquire fluorescent properties if exposed to sunlight) and seeing that there was an energy inside it that could “fog” a piece of photographic plate put under the uranium and wrapped in lightproof paper. One day Becquerel accidentally brought the uranium and his paper-wrapped plate into contact and found that, even without the intervention of sunlight, the uranium fogged the plate — indicating that whatever was exposing the film was an energy source from the uranium itself. Today we call this “radioactivity” and don’t think it’s that big a deal. Muller explained on-screen how uranium atoms transform themselves by shedding what are called alpha particles from their nuclei — these are combinations of two protons and two neutrons, and since the number of protons in an atomic nucleus is what determines what element it is, each time a uranium nucleus sheds an alpha particle it becomes a different element, which is itself radioactive until, after five transitions, it reaches down from atomic number 92, uranium, to 82, lead, which is not radioactive. (At least most lead isn’t; it wouldn’t surprise me if an atomic physicist somewhere hasn’t either discovered or created a radioactive isotope of lead.) Muller argued (as a lot of writers about this history have before him) that uranium fulfilled the dream of the ancient alchemists of “transmutation” of one element into another, and he even told a story of an argument between Rutherford and Soddy in which Soddy suggested using the term “transmutation” for this property of uranium and Rutherford saying, “Don’t dare call it that! We’ll be hanged if we do!”

This also leads to the often misunderstood concept of “half-life” to mean just how radioactive a substance is; a half-life is simply the length of time it takes for half your original sample to decay from radioactive to non-radioactive. The Bomb, after a pretty in-depth depiction of the Manhattan Project and what they were up against in trying to create a bomb — which makes the interesting contention that the reason Joseph Stalin was so disinterested in the news when Harry Truman told him at Potsdam, Germany that the U.S. had invented an atomic weapon was he already knew about it. Though the alleged “atom spy ring” involving Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, her brother David Greenglass, Harry Gold and Morton Sobell was a joke, the Russians did have a real atom spy at Los Alamos, expatriate German physicist and Communist Dr. Klaus Fuchs, and The Bomb named another Russian spy among the scientists at Los Alamos of whom I’d never heard before; Fuchs was eventually caught but, since he was a British national — he’d fled there from Germany and naturalized as a British citizen before coming to the U.S. to work on the bomb — he was punished by the British court system and was thereby spared the McCarthyite hysteria that engulfed the Rosenbergs and got them executed. Still, it was a surprising (though not unbelievable) contention that the information the Russians were getting from Los Alamos had reached all the way to the top. The Bomb rather races through the aftermath of the story — the development of the hydrogen bomb, the firing of J. Robert Oppenheimer from any further role in U.S. atomic research for refusing to work on it (masterminded, according to these films, not by Dr. Edward Teller but by Lewis Strauss, Eisenhower’s appointee as the head of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission) and the high hopes for “atoms for peace” — for nuclear power as a cheap, inexhaustible source of electricity and other forms of energy — which a number of the scientists who had worked on the bomb hoped would absolve them from their responsibility for creating a weapon with the potential to destroy all humanity.

 Uranium ends with some bizarre scenes attempting to argue that nuclear energy isn’t all that dangerous — the show makes the claim that no one died from long-term exposure to the radiation at Chernobyl or Fukushima (though it does concede that the Russian firefighters sent into Chernobyl immediately after the disaster to put the fires out — and dressed, the archive footage shows, in ridiculously unprotective clothes that look like the sorts of things worn by the extras in Monty Python and the Holy Grail — died from short-term radiation sickness, and as Muller strolls through the room at Chernobyl where those clothes are still stored, his Geiger counter readings literally go off the chart) and even repeats the Big Lie from the modern-day nuclear industry that nuclear power is “clean” because it doesn’t emit carbon. This ignores not only the vivid dangers of nuclear power in the real world (I can’t imagine anyone could watch the NOVA episode on Fukushima sandwiched between these two shows and argue that nuclear power is a good thing; if nothing else, the margin of error for this unforgiving technology and the myriad ways in which both accidents and human mistakes can cascade into events threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of people argues for the abolition of nuclear power forever) but also the huge contributions to global warming, climate change and carbon production by the other elements in the nuclear fuel cycle, from the huge amounts of energy expended in mining pitchblende, extracting the uranium from it, running it through gas-diffusion centrifuges (which involves turning the uranium into a highly caustic gas, uranium hexafluoride, and spinning it so the uranium hexafluoride molecules containing the fissile U-235 isotope from the non-fissile and far more common U-238 separate and can be turned back into uranium metal with a high enough U-235 concentration: 3 to 5 percent for a power reactor, 20 percent for a research reactor or to produce nuclear medicines, 80 to 95 percent for a bomb) and forming it into fuel rods; also the enormous amount of heat nuclear power plants release into the ocean because that’s where the hot water is pumped after it has, in the form of steam, turned the turbines that power the generators that actually create electricity. To me, there is fundamentally no moral, ethical or practical difference between nuclear weapons and nuclear power: both are evil technologies and should be abolished (though I might make an exception and allow a few small reactors to remain for health purposes only — Uranium contains a heart-rending story about a radioactive medicine used in Australia to help diagnose cancers — which, of course, radiation can also cause). I argued in the pages of Zenger’s Newsmagazine that there were at least two technologies whose basic premises were so fundamentally evil in terms of the dangers they pose to life on earth that they should be banned: one was nuclear energy and the other was genetic engineering of living organisms, which seems to me to be “twisting the dragon’s tail” of evolution and potentially laying waste to the biosphere in ways that make even the greatest potential nuclear disasters look like nothing by comparison.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Lost Boy (LeGrand Productions, Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a Lifetime movie together, and it proved to be an unexpectedly good one: Lost Boy, a 2015 production directed by Tara Miele (whose superb atmospherics and the performances she gets from her actors score yet another point for women directors) from a script by Jennifer Maisel. The story premise has a family resemblance to another Lifetime movie from years ago, When Andrew Came Home (2000) in that both center around a grieving mother who suddenly comes face-to-face with her long-lost son who disappeared years before — only where the boy in Andrew definitely is her long-lost son and he’s still well within pre-pubescence (Andrew disappeared at 5 and returned at 10), the situation in Lost Boy is played more powerfully for ambiguity and the kid, Mitchell Harris (Matthew Fahey), disappeared at 6 and (presumably) reappeared at 17, about to be emancipated and in the full flush of sexual maturity. During the years her son has been gone, mom Laura Harris (Virginia Madsen from the cast of Sideways, top-billed) has become a major advocate for the parents of missing children, and she’s been able to help other parents handle the reunification of their families even while her own son still remains among the missing. Alas, her home life hasn’t been so happy; Mitchell’s fraternal twin sister Summer (Sosie Bacon — not Susie, Sosie!) is being raised by her dad as a single parent — the Harrises have divorced not only over the strain of having a missing kid but over Laura inevitably and unconsciously neglecting the children she still has, Summer and her younger brother Jonathan (Jacob Buster), in favor of her memories of Mitchell.

Dad Greg Harris (Mark Valley) wants mom to sell the house — which she, inevitably, has kept exactly the way it was when Mitchell disappeared, including preserving his room as a sort of shrine to him — and both of them to divorce and move on with their lives, especially since he has a new girlfriend, Amanda (Carly Pope), and has impregnated her and naturally wants the two of them to be able to marry and raise their upcoming daughter in a normal family environment. The first intimation that the supposed “Mitchell Harris” isn’t who he’s claiming to be comes when he insists on Greg bringing Jonathan along for the DNA test he’s agreed to go through to establish that he is Mitchell. He grabs the blood sample needle and extracts some of Jonathan’s blood while the two boys are alone together, then has to quickly change his plans and stick a swab in Jonathan’s mouth when he finds they’re going to run the test on saliva instead of blood. Whoever he is, Mitchell also turns out to have a dark side, taking Jonathan out into the woods and burning him, first with a candle and then with what appears to be a lit cigarette. Mitchell is drawn as psychotic, though unlike most Lifetime writers, who if anything overexplain their plots, Jennifer Maisel keeps his real motives and mental state as powerfully ambiguous as his identity. Matthew Fahey’s performance, vividly realized under Miele’s direction, avoids both the usual stereotypes of how to play a psycho on screen — the snarling one exemplified by Lawrence Tierney in late-1940’s and early-1950’s movies like Born to Kill and The Hoodlum and the low-keyed boy-next-door variety pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock’s direction of Anthony Perkins in Psycho. Instead Fahey conveys mental distress through twitchy movements and breathy, barely in-control vocal intonations surprisingly reminiscent of James Dean (indicating that Fahey might not be bad casting for a Dean biopic even though the two don’t look all that much alike aside from both being young, slender white men). He looks a lot more like the real-life crazy people I’ve known than the usual depiction of mental illness we get in the movies!

It all comes to a head at the lake where the real Mitchell Harris disappeared in the first place, where he’s kidnapped Jonathan (he’s taken one of the Harris family cars, since it’s already been established that he knows how to drive) and Laura has to go in the water, even though she never learned to swim (though the thrashing about she does in the lake is at least vaguely effective in getting her where she needs to be), to rescue her real son from the psycho impostor. Afterwards, instead of a big scene in which Mitchell either definitively dies or gets his legal comeuppance, Laura agrees that the police can stop dragging the lake for his corpse — and there’s a final tag scene in which Mitchell (or whoever he is), dressed as he was at the beginning — scruffy jeans and a hoodie — is hitchhiking along the side of a road, evidently planning to insinuate himself into another family that has lost a son and work his scheme again. What makes Lost Boy unusual for a Lifetime movie is the overall ambiguity; we’re never told who “Mitchell” really is, what his motive for impersonating the real Mitchell — in fact, it’s never definitively established that he isn’t the real Mitchell, though the presumption we’re supposed to come to after his elaborate monkeying around with the DNA testing process is he isn’t and wants Jonathan’s blood and saliva in the tests so it will come back saying they’re blood relatives is that he’s faking it — and whereas another Lifetime writer, including Christine Conradt, would probably have inserted an elaborate subplot establishing who “Mitchell” really is and written in a subsidiary character masterminding the whole scheme for some untoward purpose, Maisel leaves it all unstated, hinting in that final scene that he’s pulled this before and will most likely pull it again for motives that are only to be guessed at. Was “Mitchell” really kidnapped and abused sexually? Is he looking for a family with whom he can connect? Is he psychologically compelled to repeat the abuse scenarios to which he was subjected? Or all of the above? We don’t know, and Miele and Maisel aren’t about to tell us — which itself (along with the sheer power and realism of Fahey’s performance) sets Lost Boy apart from most of the Lifetime fare and indicates that they’re both worthy of bigger and better assignments.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Great Performances: Dudamel Conducts John Williams (PBS-TV, aired July 24, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

PBS’s Great Performances series did a concert special with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a 90-minute tribute to the music of … John Williams. Yes, that John Williams, who after a period in the 1950’s when he lived in New York (where he was born: Flushing, Queens — where did they get those names?) and went to the Juilliard School by day and hung out on the jazz scene by night, becoming an O.K. if nothing special jazz pianist, moved to Hollywood and ended up working as an assistant and orchestrator for Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann (in which capacity he met Alfred Hitchcock — the show’s biographical segment included a photo of Williams with Hitchcock and Herrmann) and other major film composers, which gave him a chance to learn the trade from the masters and ultimately become probably the most successful film composer of all time. Oddly, the movie that (at least according to this show) first established him on the “A”-list was the 1972 adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, based on the Broadway musical with Jerry Bock as composer and Sheldon Harnick as lyricist — but Williams got a “Music Arranged and Conducted By” credit and he made the rather preposterous statement that he had to compose a seven-minute stretch of music, based on Bock’s themes but with a lot of original development required, to cover the opening credits. “Broadway musicals don’t have long instrumental introductions like that,” Williams said on camera — actually they do; they’re called “overtures.” At one point Dudamel referred on-camera to Williams as a “genius,” which is preposterous — Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner were geniuses; John Williams is a capable craftsman who writes serviceable and sometimes stirring music for films, but he pales by comparison not only to the giants of the 18th and 19th century but to the great film composers of Hollywood’s classical era (including Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose grandeur in films like The Adventures of Robin Hood Williams seems to try to emulate every time he has a subject that requires him to portray heroism).

There was a brief sequence with Williams and Steven Spielberg looking at a Moviola and Williams explaining that he doesn’t like to think about what he’s going to compose for a film until he can see at least a director’s rough cut — which has always surprised me; I would have assumed a film composer would want to start work as soon as the film was in final script form before it actually went before the cameras, but in some cases composers like Max Steiner would come in at an even later stage than Williams and refuse to compose anything until the film was in final cut. Williams also recalled that for the final scene of E.T. he was unable to conduct his orchestra in the strict tempo needed to fit Spielberg’s visuals — so Spielberg made him one of the most unusual offers a director has ever given a composer. He told Williams to stop looking at the screen and just conduct the music as he felt it, and Spielberg would adjust his editing so the film would fit the music instead of the other way around. Alas, that sequence from E.T. was not among the works featured in the concert portions of the program: instead we got an appealing mix of the familiar, the quasi-familiar and the totally unfamiliar. The familiar included the Olympic Fanfare (played by the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets) and accompanying theme, the theme from Schindler’s List (with Itzhak Perlman, who played on the original soundtrack, saying that’s the one piece of music he’s played he gets requests for all around the world, no matter where he appears), the seven-minute arrangement of Jerry Bock’s Fiddler on the Roof music mentioned earlier, an orchestral medley from Star Wars (along with a march of the storm troopers for which Williams took the baton from Dudamel and conducted himself; it also featured actors marching across the stage in storm trooper costumes, including one dressed as Darth Vader, and both Charles and I expected the “Darth Vader” to push Williams off the podium and finish the conducting himself with his prop light saber), the infamous tuba solo from Jaws, and — ironically — the theme for the Great Performances series itself, which — previously unbeknownst to me, Williams wrote.

The not-so-familiar and decidedly unfamiliar included two more selections from Schindler’s List, “Remembrances” and “Jewish Town: Krakow Ghetto, 1941” (also featuring Perlman); and three selections from the 2002 film Catch Me if You Can (about real-life con artist Frank Abagnale, Jr., played by Leonardo di Caprio, and the FBI agent assigned to catch him, Carl Hanratty, played by Tom Hanks), for which Williams reached back to his jazz days for inspiration (the film took place in the 1960’s and director Spielberg wanted a score that would sound like it belonged in that period; he also hired Saul Bass to do the credits sequence and Bass came through with a series of geometric animations much like the credits sequences he’d done for Hitchcock, Preminger and other major directors back then). He said he wrote an alto sax solo part with Charlie Parker’s sound in mind, though the player we actually heard, Don Higgins, had a lighter tone, more like Paul Desmond or Lee Konitz — not bad models — than Parker. The three selections from Catch Me if You Can — “Closing In,” “Reflections” and “Joy Ride” — were among the most appealing parts of the program, not only because of their relative unfamiliarity but also because they showed Williams to be capable of sounds other than the big-orchestra “classic” style of most of his film scores. Indeed, the most interesting piece on the program was Soundings, not written for a movie but composed as an occasional piece for the dedication of Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A., where the concert took place. Soundings is a self-consciously “modern” piece, and though nothing in it would sound unfamiliar to devotees of Debussy, Ravel or Bartók, it was a welcome breath of fresh air in its musical complexity and made me wish Williams would bring some of that relative sophistication to his film scores. Alas, in an atrocious bit of production the filmmakers actually cut to an interview segment between Williams and Dudamel in the middle of Soundings — the kind of sin committed all too often in TV programs about music.

Probably the lowest point of the program occurred during a piece of music from, ironically, one of the best films included: a piece for children’s choir and orchestra from Amistad called “Dry Your Tears, Africa” (spelled “Dry Your Tears, Afrika” on the film’s page), with the Los Angeles Children’s Master Chorale obliged to keep straight faces while making their way through an interminably sappy piece of writing from a poem by one Bernard Dadié, and Williams attempting a musical depiction of the burden of slavery by ripping off the opening of the “Work Song” from Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (yet another example, like the imitation Wagner of the Star Wars movies — the makers of the Star Wars parody Hardware Wars scored brilliantly by accompanying their interstellar battles with real Wagner, the “Ride of the Valkyries” in particular — of Williams stealing from someone who really was a genius). Like Andrew Lloyd Webber, John Williams is a “comfort composer,” one who can be counted on to deliver the goods for a mass-market movie (in Lloyd Webber’s case, a mass-market musical) without producing anything too threatening or too ear-bending for a large audience; I’ve liked some of his music, gritted my teeth at the banality of some of his scores, but I certainly don’t confuse him with the true giants of music (or even the true giants of film music, including the now-departed ones he used to work for) and calling him a “genius” quite frankly does him no favors. He’s a competent craftsman, and sometimes an inspired one, and his sensibility is sufficiently middle-brow it’s obvious why mass-market filmmakers like Spielberg and George Lucas use him again and again.

Just Imagine (Fox Film, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Just Imagine, a 1930 science-fiction musical — yes, you read that right (though long-term readers of this blog will recall an even weirder mash-up from five years later: Mascot/Republic’s The Phantom Empire, a 15-chapter serial that was a science-fiction musical Western starring Gene Autry in his star-making performance!) produced at Fox pre-20th Century merger (and therefore, like virtually all the pre-merger Fox films, woefully ignored by the people Rupert Murdoch has in charge of their home-video department — important or just plain interesting movies like Allan Dwan’s 1931 Wicked, Rowland V. Lee’s 1933 Zoo in Budapest, Henry King’s 1934 Marie Galante, Erich von Stroheim’s 1933 Hello, Sister! — his last film as a director, and like virtually all his extant directorial efforts only a pale shadow of what he intended, but fascinating anyway — and perhaps the prize of the bunch, William K. Howard’s 1933 The Power and the Glory, with a script by Preston Sturges that anticipates Citizen Kane and the finest performance Spencer Tracy gave in his years at Fox, remain frustratingly unavailable) and put out on a DVD of uncertain provenance that, though I bought it through, has about the quality level of a better-than-usual download from Just Imagine came about, I suspect, because its creators — the writing-songwriting-producing team of Buddy de Sylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson — had just released Sunnyside Up, one of the biggest musical hits of the early sound era and a film that was a blockbuster success, generated three hit songs (“Keep Your Sunny Side Up,” “If I Had a Talking Picture of You,” and “I’m a Dreamer, Aren’t We All?”) and also offered one of the most exciting, spectacular and visually inventive production numbers of the pre-Berkeley era, “Turn On the Heat” (filmed in Howard Hughes’ short-lived Multicolor process but, alas, extant only in black-and-white).

Sunnyside Up had been such a great success that the people running the Fox studio (basically a consortium of finance-company executives after its founder, William Fox, had run aground financially due to the Depression and his ill-advised overextension of his resources, including a nearly successful attempt at an unfriendly takeover of MGM) gave de Sylva, Brown and Henderson carte blanche to do whatever they wanted to do for their next project. What they wanted to do was a bizarre science-fiction fantasy at least loosely inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis — they avoided the muddled class-struggle politics of Lang’s and Thea von Harbou’s script but art directors Stephen Goosson and Ralph Hammeras copied the look of Metropolis so closely stills from Just Imagine have appeared in film reference books attributed to the Lang/von Harbou film! It starts out with a comic prologue set in 1880, when vehicles were still pulled by horses, saloons still existed and life was quieter and slower-paced. Then it moves to a sequence set in the present — 1930 — in which a Pete Smith-style narrator gives us a blow-by-blow account of a pedestrian trying to jaywalk across a New York street, and he seems to have dodged all the cars until one hits him right when he’s almost across. After that we get a title saying that if we think there’ve been dramatic changes between 1880 and 1930, “Just imagine — 1980!” (The title comes from a beautiful ballad de Sylva, Brown and Henderson had written for their 1927 hit stage show Good News, which was enough of a hit at the time it got several recordings, though the most lovely version is Judy Garland’s incandescent one for her 1955 album Judy, arranged — beautifully — by Nelson Riddle; but MGM had already bought the movie rights to Good News and the song “Just Imagine” doesn’t appear in the film Just Imagine.) In 1980 people have numbers — actually alphanumeric combinations — instead of names, all applications for marriage licenses have to be approved by a government bureau which says yea or nay on the basis of how “important” the prospective groom is, airplanes and hovercraft autogiros have replaced cars as the standard means of transport — there’s an incredible early scene in which the traffic is being directed by a cop who’s delivering signals from a pod hanging in mid-air — and if a couple wants a baby, they just put some money into a vending machine and order one.

The film’s star is El Brendel, the Swedish dialect comedian who’s cast as a man who in 1930 was put under suspended animation when he was struck by a lightning flash while playing golf. His body has been recovered by a famous doctor who intends to bring it back to life with some unsurprisingly Frankenstein-esque high-tech gizmos (though Just Imagine was actually released November 23, 1930, almost a year before Frankenstein came out on November 21, 1931); when he does so Brendel is a Rip Van Winkle-esque character who has trouble adjusting to his new world. He also needs a new alphanumeric name to replace his old one, and he settles on “Single-0” (which, according to one “Trivia” poster, is also the name for a carnival act featuring just one person). One of the odder conceits of the de Sylva-Brown-Henderson script (they’re credited with music, lyrics and dialogue, while the film’s director, David Butler, is given credit for “continuity”) is that Prohibition is still very much in force; when the male lead, J-21 (John Garrick, whose stentorian voice, pleasant personality and lack of much in the way of acting chops mark him as a sort of beta version of Nelson Eddy), tells Single-0 that soon they might get around to legalizing light wines and beer, Single-0 says, “They’ve been saying that for 50 years!” Instead of eating the way we do now, people in this version of 1980 take all their nourishment via pills — though they still get the sensation of old-fashioned meals — and the bootleggers offer their wares through highly potent pills (one of the weirder ways in which the predictions of Just Imagine have come true; one of today’s worst substance abuse problems is the illegal distribution of prescription pills). Another good call: after you wash your hands in 1980, you dry them with a hot-air dryer (though then you do something that didn’t happen: you press a button to make the sink fold back in the wall once it’s no longer needed.) One of the film’s funniest moments — though you have to be familiar with the background to appreciate it — is that all the manufacturers of airplanes, both airliners and private ones, have Jewish names: Rosenblatt, Pinkus, Goldfarb. “It looks like someone got even with Henry Ford!” Single-0 comments — a joke that had Charles laughing uproariously even though you’d only get it if you knew that Henry Ford was a notorious anti-Semite (he bought a small weekly called the Dearborn Independent to turn into a vehicle for his articles attacking Jews, and then compiled the articles into a book called The International Jew that Adolf Hitler cited as a source — which made it grimly ironic that the first commercial TV showing of Steven Spielberg’s anti-Holocaust film Schindler’s List was sponsored by the Ford Motor Company).

Anyway, the plot of Just Imagine concerns the frustrated love of J-21 for his girlfriend LN-18 (Maureen O’Sullivan), frustrated not by her — she’s as in love with him as he is with her — but by her father, who encouraged another man, MT-3 (Kenneth Thomson), to apply for her hand instead of J-21. Since MT-3 is more “important” by whatever criteria the marriage tribunal uses (we’re never quite clear on that, though there’s a funny bit in which J-21 is railing at a woman census taker who comes to his home about how unfair the marriage law is, and she replies, “It, like the Volstead Act, is a noble experiment!,” a reference to then-President Herbert Hoover’s defense of Prohibition as “an experiment noble in purpose”), they rule that LN-18 must marry him instead of J-21, the man she really loves. There’s also a subsidiary romantic intrigue between J-21’s roommate, RT-42 (Frank Albertson) — a name which can’t help but recall the robot R2-D2 in a far more famous Fox movie, Star Wars, 47 years later — and his inamorata, D-6 (Marjorie White, playing a typical dumb-blonde character, though at least she and Albertson do some hot dance duets together and she’s cute and charming instead of oppressive), though since there aren’t any rival claimants for her hand their relationship runs along without discernible complications. J-21 makes a dangerous Romeo-style attempt to visit LN-18 by climbing up the high-tech split-level walls on the outside of her apartment building, but he’s caught when Single-0 comes in and “outs” him while he’s trying to hide from her dad and MT-3. Despondent, J-21 goes for a walk around the city and stops at a bridge — where he’s accosted by B-36 (Mischa Auer, dressed oddly in a Dracula-style cape that makes one wonder if this future contains vampires that have reached a modus vivendi with the normal people à la Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series), who asks him if he’s planning to commit suicide. “No, but that wouldn’t be a bad idea,” J-21 says. It turns out that B-36 is the assistant to the legendary scientist Z-4 (Hobart Bosworth), who’s building a spaceship to travel to Mars. It’s powered by an anti-gravity substance he’s invented, and he needs someone to fly it — and J-21, who’s an airline pilot in his work life (though he’s never shown actually doing that), is the perfect choice. J-21 begs off at first until Z-4 convinces him that if he really flies to Mars and back, he will be the most “important” person on earth and therefore the court hearing his appeal of the marriage case will have to let him marry LN-18. If the spaceship looks incredibly familiar, it should; Universal later bought the full-size exterior and interior sets of it, as well as the models, and used them in the Flash Gordon serials.

The only wrinkle is that Z-4 makes J-21 and his roommate RT-42 keep the destination of their flight secret until they actually take off — only J-21 writes LN-18 a letter and solemnly instructs her not to open it until 4 the next morning, when the ship will take off. Of course, she pushes the clock hands forward and opens it anyway, freaks out when she realizes what her man wants to do, and races to the field where the takeoff is supposed to be (Maureen O’Sullivan’s performance when she reads the letter and freaks out over its contents is oddly overacted for this normally restrained player, though the rest of her acting is quite good and shows why, out of all the Just Imagine cast members, she’s the one you’re most likely to have heard of today, even though it does seem a bit odd to see her carrying a torch for a normally-dressed near-future human instead of a hot guy in a loincloth in the jungle). Fortunately, she misses the takeoff — the ship flies and she’s knocked down by the exhaust (luckily she’s not harmed by it) — and J-21 and RT-42 get to Mars. Alas, they find out they have a stowaway on board; like the ones in Aelita before him and Lost in Space afterwards, Single-0 got on the ship and hid out in a storage box. When they get to Mars the Red Planet is full of exotically costumed creatures (all but two of whom seem to be female) who spend their days staging big production numbers in front of elaborate sets (the giant idol in front of which they dance looked oddly familiar and it also may have turned up in Flash Gordon), including Queen Loo Loo (Joyzelle Joyner, who according to was one of only two cast members of Just Imagine who lived long enough to see the real 1980; Maureen O’Sullivan was the other) and her consort, Loko (Ivan Linow), who’s so nellie that even someone as resolutely un-butch as El Brendel can’t help but comment, “She’s not the queen — he is!” Indeed, he does seem to take a shine to Single-0’s dubious charms, and despite the language barrier (de Sylva, Brown, Henderson and Butler did not bother to invent a universal translator, telepathy or some other gimcrack that would have allowed the Earthlings and the Martians to communicate with each other) he bonds with Single-0.

Alas, it turns out that every Martian is a twin — one good, one evil — and Our Heroes fall into the clutches of the bad queen Boo Boo and her bad consort BoKo (also Joyzelle Joyner and Ivan Linow), until the good Loko rescues them through a professionally constructed tunnel that appears to have lain under their cell the whole time (“Who do they think they are — Mexican drug lords?” joked Charles) and they fly back to Earth. J-21 arrives just in time for his marriage appeal to be heard by judge X-10 (Wilfred Lucas, whom I’m sure I’ve see play judges in contemporarily set films). He announces that he’s just been to Mars and back, and naturally MT-3 challenges him and says, “Prove it.” Luckily he can, because unbeknownst to the three Earthling astronauts, Loko the good Martian giant had such a crush on Single-0 he stowed away in the ship on its way back, and he emerges in the courtroom, J-21 wins his marriage case, he and LN-18 end up together and there’s a funny tag scene in which an ancient man with a full white beard comes up to El Brendel and introduces himself as his long-lost son. Along the way we get at least six de Sylva-Brown-Henderson songs, none of them particularly distinguished — though at least one is a romantic ballad, listed on as “(I Am the Words) You Are the Melody,” though I’ve seen it elsewhere called “Song of Love” (“I am only the words, you are the melody/But it takes the two to make a song of love”), which became at least a minor hit in 1930. The film also includes a drinking song — remember that the “drinks” are not great steins of beer but little vials of pills — a hot dance duo for Albertson and White, and a truly odd song called “Never Swat a Fly” that was obviously, shall we say, inspired by Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” but gets taken in an unusual direction as we actually get an extreme close-up of two flies, who seem to be doing little more than coexisting adjacently on a table but are supposedly making love (which according to the song is why you should never swat a fly — because you might be interrupting its love affair with another fly; who knew de Sylva, Brown and Henderson were unwittingly writing a hymn for Jainists?).

It also features absolutely stunning and utterly convincing special effects, as well as an overall insouciance that’s quite appealing if you can accept this film’s total weirdness, its mishmash of standard clichés and odd future speculations. Remember that at the time this film was made “science fiction” basically meant Jules Verne and H. G. Wells — the great outpouring of writers into the pioneering sci-fi pulps of the 1930’s and 1940’s hadn’t happened yet — and so there wasn’t that much of a cliché bank for wanna-be sci-fi writers to tap into. Just Imagine is an historical curio in more ways than one, and I doubt if it actually made money ( lists its budget of over $1 million but doesn’t say whether it earned it back); as it stands it’s a good film, but as I watched it this time (I’d seen it many years before, in the early 1970’s) I couldn’t help but indulge my tendency to recast classic (or not-so-classic) films with other actors around when it was made. What, I kept asking myself, if Fox had borrowed Buster Keaton from MGM and cast him as Single-0? Keaton’s monotone voice (which has been criticized but I’ve always thought a perfect analogue to his “great stone face” impassivity) would have played the comic dialogue at least as well as El Brendel’s Swedish accent, and in terms of the physical comedy, there’d have been no contest. I couldn’t help but think Keaton would have eaten up the challenge of creating and performing comic business with and around those spectacular futuristic Goosson-Hammeras sets — this is the man who made The Electric House, after all — and with Keaton in the comic lead Just Imagine might have turned into a masterpiece instead of a curio. According to the “Trivia” posters, Just Imagine was the first science-fiction talkie ever made, as well as the first science-fiction musical, and the only big-budget science-fiction film from a major studio until The Day the Earth Stood Still 21 years later. The last seems a bit hard to believe (though I’ve racked my brain for a contradictory example and so far haven’t come up with one), but it’s certainly a film that deserves an audience if for no other reason than its sheer unusualness!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Love You to Death (Anchor Bay Films, Dolphin Entertainment, Aircraft Pictures, Corkscrew Media, Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The “feature” I ran last night was a Lifetime movie, Love You to Death, which for some reason I’ve been unable to find on — director Rick Bota (whose name conjured up the inevitable joke — “Ah, it was directed by a leather pouch used in Spain to carry wine!”) and star Lindsey Shaw (who was born in 1985 and therefore presumably played one of the high-school student protagonists’ parents) are credited with another TV movie from 2015, Secret Summer, but it had different writers and a different story (and Love You to Death takes place during the school year, not in summer) that lists as “filming,” and Bota also directed Damaged, a 2014 Lifetime movie shown a couple of weeks ago. There doesn’t seem to be an page for this Love You to Death, but after the surprising power of The Bride He Bought Online, Love You to Death was a return to the slovenliness of most of Lifetime’s output. (No fewer than four production companies — Anchor Bay Films, Dolphin Entertainment, Aircraft Pictures, Corkscrew Media — are credited with this slice of cheese, as are one “producer,” Anthony Leo; two “supervising producers,” Sarah Soboleski and Sue Bristow; four “associate producers,” Megan Ellstrom, Aaron Champion, Javier Riera, and Jennifer Pun; and four “executive producers,” Scott Henuset, Andrew Rosen, Kevin Kasha, and Bill O’Dowd.)

The film opens with a powerful sequence in which a young blonde woman is being chased on a lonely country road by a sinister figure driving a large black car. “I won’t get in,” she says as the driver pulls up alongside her, but needless to say he won’t take no for an answer. She tries to flee, but eventually … well, we presume he catches up with her and kills her because we see a close-up of her screaming, and the next scene is a jump-cut to a poster on a tree announcing that she’s missing. It also says her name is Melissa Kennedy, and the main part of the movie consists of a student at Hampton Preparatory School, Sylvia, who’s attracted to a mysterious young man named Lucas who seems to have all the money and material objects he needs (he’s the child of super-rich parents who, like Natalie Wood’s father in Rebel Without a Cause, leave the country a lot and leave him alone in their big house). He drives around in a hot, low-slung sports car that practically becomes a character in itself, especially the way he drives it, loudly and obnoxiously, and he bonds with Sylvia mainly due to their shared interests in comic books (Sylvia is an aspiring comics artist who’s done a book of her own called Love Me) and silent films (Sylvia works at the local silent-movie theatre — this town doesn’t look big enough to have a current movie theatre, let alone a recherché revival house showing things like Broken Blossoms and Nosferatu, clips from both of which appear here, but there it is) as well as LP records (though the song Sylvia and Lucas listen to on vinyl on his state-of-the-art turntable sounds pretty much like every other song in the film). But their relationship is hampered by the way police are sniffing around Lucas because they suspect him of Melissa’s murder, and in particular by the harassment of Sylvia’s ex-boyfriend Harry, who works at the local comic book store and, like Sylvia, has ambitions to make his living as a comic-book artist.

It’s probably not that big a surprise — or a spoiler — to say that about two-thirds of the way through the movie, after throwing us a red herring in the form of an unrelated character who’s a male former friend of Lucas and/or Sylvia, writer Kat Candler and director Bota throw us a reversal that Harry, not Lucas, is the real killer of Melissa — apparently they were dating, she threw him over for hot, rich and darkly mysterious Lucas, and Harry never forgave her for jilting him for the rich guy. He got back at her by chasing her through the field and killing her — only in the meantime the police, still investigating the case, have found her body and initially linked her to Lucas via his DNA. Eventually, though, the cops realize the truth after Harry’s violent confrontation with Lucas, in which he wounds him in the face, and ultimately Harry is arrested and there’s a brief period in which the traumas of the case put Lucas and Sylvia on the outs, but they reconcile — or at least start the process — when he shows up at the silent-movie theatre while she’s putting up the marquee letters for a showing of Nosferatu. (Come to think of it, Sunrise might have been a more appropriate choice since it’s a film about an estranged couple who reconcile, but it’s probably still under copyright whereas the films they did use are in the public domain.) Love You to Death is an O.K. movie, but the talent gap between Christine Conradt as both writer and director of The Bride He Bought Online and the work of Candler and Bota here is pretty big; Bota is utterly unable to bring to his work the kind of atmospherics Conradt supplied for Bride (as I noted in yesterday’s comments, Conradt as director mastered the suspense editing and Gothic flavor needed to make a script by Conradt the writer work), and the overall story seems flat and ordinary without Conradt’s flair to make it come alive.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Bride He Bought Online (Pender Street Pictures, Reel Entertainment, Shadowland, Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a Lifetime movie I recorded last weekend that turned out to be surprisingly good: The Bride He Bought Online. Judging from the title I assumed that Christine Conradt was involved, and it turned out she not only wrote the script (solo this time, though on some of her previous Lifetime scripts she’s had collaborators) but directed (her debut in that role) — and turned in a mighty fine job as director, bringing to the film all the tight suspense editing and neo-Gothic atmosphere needed for a Christine Conradt script to work on screen. Judging from the title and the previews I had expected a story something like the 1949 film Caught — naïve young woman with dreams of marrying into money meets a super-rich guy online and ends up in a miserable marriage, then realizes her only option if she wants to save her sanity (or her life) is to flee — but I guess the powers that be at Lifetime decided they’ve done this trope to death lately (without the marriage, it’s the basic plot of Fifty Shades of Grey and all the ripoffs of that mega-hit Lifetime has been doing lately, including Sugar Daddies) and so instead Conradt’s story centers around three high-school seniors, Kaley (Annalisa Cochrane), Avery (Anne Winters) and Mandy (Lauren Gaw), who have started a supposedly secret blog (though with over 3,000 followers how secret can it possibly be?) on which they post smartphone video footage of pranks they’ve played on the unsuspecting.

While surfing the Web they stumble on a dating site for men seeking women from outside the U.S. to marry — the sort of thing that caters to the hard-core sexists out there who have decided American women are too pushy and mouthy and want more submissive females from other cultures where women are still being raised to be subservient to men. (There’ll probably be mass heart attacks among these creatures if Hillary Clinton gets elected President.) As a gag for their blog, they decide to create a fake profile and post it to this site, grabbing a photo of a model from the Philippines named Diwata (who, unbeknownst to them, is actually dead, though since a still photo of her is shown Conradt and her producers, Pierre David and Tom Berry, needed an actress, Kaitlyn Fae, to “play” her for the photo) and writing up the sort of profile they think would attract a suitable pigeon they can humiliate on the Web. Said pigeon is John (Travis Hammer), an ace computer programmer who, like virtually all movie characters who work with computers, is drawn as a nerd (though Travis Hammer is tall, thin, reasonably well built and with a nice face — apparently they thought that by giving him a bad haircut and a scraggly three-day shadow on his cheeks they could make him look homelier than he is), and who’s sufficiently attractive that he blows off an attempt by co-worker Quincy (T. J. Alvarado) to set him up with a woman and also fends off the advances of his neighbor Wanda (Kesia Elwyn), a marvelously ambiguous character who seems to be involved in some vague but obviously illegal enterprise that turns out to be human trafficking. Anyway, the girls invite John to meet “Diwata” at the airport and then stand him up (though for a while I was thinking they’d actually have Mandy, whose last name is Kim, whose parents are Korean and who’s therefore the only one of the trio who could pass herself off as Filipina, meet John and impersonate the fictitious “Diwata”) and post the video of him pacing the airport, staying there for hours and finally realizing that “Diwata” wasn’t going to show onto their blog — from which it “goes viral” and twists the knife into John’s humiliation.

John hatches an elaborate revenge plot which involves him hiring a male prostitute named Nick (Randy Blekitas, by far the cutest guy in the movie, far out-foxing Avery’s wimpy, nerdy boyfriend Trevor, played by Chase Austin). Nick shows up, collects his usual $200 fee, then starts to take off his pants and is startled when John explains he doesn’t want to have sex with Nick — “I’m not Gay,” he says, and Nick reacts with an “I’ve heard that one before” shrug before John explains what he does want to hire Nick to do: to cruise Kaley and Mandy at the skateboard arena where they hang out and get himself invited to a “party” so John can kidnap the girls, hold them in a deserted old building (some sort of industrial construction with a lot of corridors so that, even if they free themselves from the straps he’s tied them up with, they’ll have no idea how to get out) and terrorize them with what sort of fate he has in mind for them. Eventually it develops that his revenge for the girls having tormented him and put him in so much emotional pain will be to sell them to human traffickers, and he actually turns Kaley over to a tall, intimidating-looking guy — only the guy reneges on paying John, so he takes the other two girls back to his hideout. The one true good guy in all this is the detective the police put in charge of finding the kidnapped girls, Kathy Schumaker (a marvelously hard-edged performance by Alexandra Paul), who is able to trace Nick and get him to rat out John. Though Nick has no idea where John is holding the girls, Avery manages to make a call on a cell phone she concealed on her person and the police are able to use that signal to trace where they are and rescue them — though not before John becomes a true figure of pathos as he makes a speech about how sorry he is that his desire for love and companionship led to all this, and then shoots himself.

What’s especially fascinating about The Bride He Met Online is the moral complexity and dramatic ambiguity that sets Conradt’s work (as melodramatic and silly as it gets sometime) apart from that of other Lifetime writers: John isn’t an altogether bad guy — a basically decent man who stakes so much on his mail-order girlfriend that when he’s set up, and especially when he’s publicly humiliated on the Internet, he’s pushed into a mean and twisted form of revenge (in some ways he’s a male version of Madame Butterfly), and Kaley is shown as a selfish little creep whose only concern is building a popular blog that she can sell for a fortune no matter how many people get hurt in the process. We want to see her get her “comeuppance” even though we’re also horrified by what happens to her at the end and think being forced into prostitution and turned into a sex slave is far more dire a fate than she deserves. I was amused to read the posts about this film on the message boards, and in particular how many people were bothered by the fact that Conradt created both John and Kaley as multi-dimensional characters, neither all good nor all bad, and wanted this film to have more clearly defined heroes and villains than the anti-hero and anti-villain Conradt gave them. I was also amused that at least two of the message board contributors wondered if Conradt was setting up a sequel — which in this case might not be a bad idea: a The Bride He Bought Online, Part 2: Kaley’s Revenge might actually be quite a good movie. The Bride He Bought Online is quite an impressive directorial debut for Christine Conradt and makes me wish she can do more movies as a director — indeed, she’s good enough to break out of the Lifetime ghetto and make films for theatrical release.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Aelita: Queen of Mars (Mezhrabpom-Rus, 1924)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Aelita: Queen of Mars, a legendary Soviet Russian film from 1924 — one of those oddball movies that everybody who’s into the history of film, and especially the history of science fiction on film, has heard of but few people have actually seen. I got this on on a DVD of uncertain provenance — the box attributes the source to the Blackhawk Films collection (Blackhawk Films was a company in the 1960’s that sold 8 and 16 mm copies of classic silent — and some sound — films to home collectors in the age before VCR’s, DVD’s and cable movie channels, and they made a lot of cool stuff available, including virtually all of Chaplin’s pre-1918 output and most of the Laurel and Hardy shorts) but there’s a “Kino International Presents” title at the beginning which makes me think the makers of this DVD just copied it off a Kino videotape. (Aelita is not listed in Kino Lorber’s current DVD catalogue.) Aelita: Queen of Mars was a quite elaborate film, set mostly in the then-contemporary Soviet Union (though the titles carefully establish the date as 1921 instead of 1924, I suspect to indicate that economic conditions had improved since Lenin, in his New Economic Policy of 1921, had actually moved the Soviet Union away from pure socialism and towards a mixed economy, and therefore the horrible privations the people in the movie are going through were supposed to belong in the past) and only incidentally on Mars — though the stills everyone who’s read about this film has seen take place in the Martian fantasy sequences and feature Yulita Solntseva in the title role, with her hair cut severely short in the helmet-like bob later identified with Louise Brooks and with such a slim figure there are close-ups, especially in profile, where she looks like a boy. Her elaborate costume is a sort of cross between a sheath dress and a jumpsuit and she’s got bamboo stakes sticking out of her hair, and the actress playing her maid Ihoshka (Aleksandra Peregonets) is dressed even more weirdly, in a black outfit whose bamboo stakes are angular, fastened at the waist and the ankles and bulging out at the knees. (What purpose this preposterous accessory was supposed to serve remains a mystery, but it sure looks cool.)

What almost nobody who hasn’t actually seen Aelita knows is that those elaborate scenes on Mars are not part of the story reality; they’re simply the dreams (or Walter Mitty-esque daydreams — though this movie was made 15 years before James Thurber wrote “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) of the film’s male lead, Engineer Loss[1] (Nikolai Tsereteli). Loss is out of town a lot — he lives in Moscow with his wife Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi) but he’s frequently away for months on end fixing up power plants that had been destroyed or damaged during the four-year civil war that followed the 1917 Revolution. While he’s out of town — and actually even while he’s in town — Natasha is being cruised by Viktor Ehrlich (Pavel Pol), a former Tsarist official who got a position on the ration board set up by the Bolsheviks and is using that job to steal necessities like sugar and sell them on the black market. (It’s a fascinating irony that according to this film, made just seven years after the Revolution, Tsarist officials are shown worming their way into the Soviet bureaucracy and using their positions to profiteer. That also happened at the end of the Soviet Union, as the nomenklatura who had been running the state-owned enterprises often grabbed them for far less than they were worth when the post-Soviet Russian government privatized them, thereby becoming the super-rich, super-powerful “Oligarchs” who bedeviled both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin until Vladimir Putin finally started having them arrested and/or driven into exile.) There’s a Mrs. Ehrlich (N. Tretyakova), but we see very little of her and in any case Mr. Ehrlich is not about to let her existence get in the way of his attempts to seduce Natasha, which include plying her with gifts from his black-market connections and taking her to secret dances and parties where his 1-percent buddies hang out and enjoy such forbidden pleasures as caviar and wine — even though there’s a great scene where one of the guests at Ehrlich’s party spits out the wine and says, “This is just vinegar! Now in the old days … ” and director Yakov Protazanov dissolves to some shots of what it was like in the old days, with him and his cronies in a spectacular mansion, wearing fancy clothes and living it up while the proletarians and the peasants suffer.

What’s fascinating is that, even though there must have been some propagandistic intent behind Aelita, it doesn’t become obvious or preachy until the last reel; instead Protazanov and his writers (Aleksei Fajko and Fyodor Ozep, who later became a director himself, discovered Anna Sten and cast her in a German-language adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov which caught the eye of Sam Goldwyn and led him to sign her to a U.S. deal, adapting a novel by Aleksei Tolstoy, a distant relative of Leo Tolstoy who became a popular novelist in the Soviet Union) are quite unsparing in their depiction of the privations the central characters are going through and the bizarre bureaucracy that guides their lives. The descriptions of life in Soviet Russia in the early 1920’s tally with what I’ve read in novels as diverse as Ayn Rand’s We the Living and Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, and at least one scene — in which Loss is solemnly informed that he’ll have to give up the second room he has in the attic of his boarding house (which he’s been using for scientific experiments to perfect a rocket fuel that will overcome earth’s gravity and get him to Mars) because another tenant who doesn’t have a home at all needs it — couldn’t help but remind me of Mel Brooks’ marvelous sendup of the early Soviet bureaucracy in his little-known film The Twelve Chairs. It also reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984 and in particular his acid comment that the state of life in Oceania was like “a besieged city, where the possession of a lump of horseflesh makes the difference between wealth and poverty.” It’s fascinating that a film whose reputation is as an early science-fiction effort should be more interesting when it takes place on earth — and particularly Moscow — in its own time, but the science-fiction elements take place only in the mind of Loss, who to overcome his personal frustrations — especially his romantic ones — has invented this elaborate fantasy of Aelita; her father Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert), the king of Mars; and a heavy-duty class struggle in which the Martian workers are literally kept in suspended animation, frozen on ice in great refrigerators, so they don’t have to be paid when their services are not needed. The scenes of class oppression and struggle on Mars so closely parallel the ones on Earth in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, made three years later, it seems almost certain Lang and his scenarist (and then-wife) Thea von Harbou had seen Aelita and were deliberately ripping it off. At the same time the influence between Russian and German filmmakers probably went both ways because the stylized sets of Aelita can’t help but recall The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — a film which was just five years old when Aelita was made and was influencing filmmakers all over the world.

Two-thirds of the way through the movie Loss comes home from his latest assignment bringing a power plant in the sticks back on line and sees the shadows of Ehrlich and Natasha embracing and kissing. He goes berserk and shoots at his wife, then flees and assumes the identity of a friend of his named Spiridinov (though there are scenes where they both appear,’s credits list Nikolai Tsereteli as playing both Loss and Spiridinov, and it’s quite possible he was doing the Lon Chaney, Sr. thing and playing a dual role in which one of his characters would impersonate the other), who supposedly left the Soviet Union and exiled himself to the West, but — it turns out at the end — was really murdered by Ehrlich. Loss flees by getting into his spacecraft and, with his friend Gusev (Nikolai Bataloff) — a Red Army veteran who was in a military hospital being treated for what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and who fell in love with his nurse, Masha (Vera Orlova) — the two travel to Mars. Only there’s a third man on board, Kravtsov (Igor Ilynsky), a police officer wanna-be who thinks if he can solve Natasha’s murder he’ll be given a job as a detective. Kravtsov stows away on the Mars flight, and for the last 20 minutes we finally get an interplanetary action sequence: Aelita, who’s seen Loss through a series of prisms invented by a Martian scientist as a sort of telescope, has been in love with him even before he arrives, and when his ship is about to land she kills her father Tuskub because he wants the Martian military to exterminate the out-of-planeters while she, of course, wants Loss spared so she can have a torrid affair with him. Gusev manages to get the workers on Mars to rebel before one-third of them get refrigerated — in the film’s most heavy-handed propaganda scene, he even forges a sickle and combines it with the hammer he used to make it to form the Soviet symbol — and Aelita announces that she will lead the revolution herself to overthrow the Council of Elders. Even Loss doesn’t like the idea of a queen leading a revolution (I suspect the writers may have been thinking of French King Louis XVI’s short-lived attempt to co-opt the 1789 Revolution against him by proclaiming himself “the first revolutionary”), and in the end there’s a chaotic storming-the-Martian-palace scene until … Loss comes to, it turns out it was all a dream, and he’s not in legal jeopardy after all because he merely wounded Natasha, he didn’t kill her. Instead they reconcile and Kravtsov finally makes his bones as a detective by arresting Ehrlich for the murder of the real Spiridinov.

What makes Aelita unusual is that it’s not only a weird mix of science fiction, socialist realism and soap opera, but Protazanov (the only Russian filmmaker who did important work on both sides of the Revolution; he left during the Civil War and settled in France, but the Soviet film industry brought him back to make this movie and he continued to work in his native land until 1943, when he made his last film, Adventures in Bokhara; he died, ironically, on August 9, 1945, the same day as the explosion of the second U.S. atom bomb over Nagasaki, Japan) and his writers are clearly more interested in the terrestrial scenes than the science-fictional ones. At the same time, Aelita has the usual Russian predilection for romantic angst — I can’t think of another science-fiction film built so strongly about a dysfunctional relationship until another Russian production, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris (in which the hero — played, as here, by a rather homely but not unattractive actor — is stationed on a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, whose sentient ocean sends him a replica of his previously dead wife, but he makes the same mistakes with her he made back on Earth when she was still normally alive), nor one with this much emotional turmoil. If you want a science-fiction film from the silent era that deals with Mars travel in the way we’d expect, the 1918 Danish Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars) is far closer than Aelita — but Aelita remains fascinating not only in its own right but for the films it influenced, including Metropolis, the Flash Gordon serials and even (in the character of the comic-relief stowaway) the 1960’s TV show Lost in Space.

[1] — That’s how it’s spelled on the titles to this film, though and other sources spell the character’s last name “Los.” Blackhawk Films did some wonderful work preserving silent films and making them available, but they weren’t always that cautious when it came to their titles.