Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Ice Follies of 1939 (MGM, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles the movie Ice Follies of 1939. It’s historically interesting as one of Joan Crawford’s three appearances in color sequences of otherwise black-and-white movies (the other two were in Hollywood Revue of 1929 and The Women, the film she made immediately after Ice Follies in 1939 — and in which there’s a major sense of disappointment when her bright red dress turns back to black when the film reverts to black-and-white) years before she made her first all-color film, Torch Song, in 1953; and it also offers two chunks of the actual Ice Follies troupe of the time in their spectacular, though also incredibly banal and campy, performances. They look considerably more entertaining in color than they do in black-and-white earlier in the film, and the highlights of their performance are a duet between the company founders, Messrs. Shipstad and Johnson, in which one of them is in drag; and a spectacular skater dressed in a red-and-white striped costume in which he spins around and turns himself into a human barber pole. Otherwise it’s a terrible movie, an uneasy mixture of tear-jerking romantic melodrama with the Ice Follies sequences in which James Stewart and Lew Ayres play a skating team (though we never actually see them — or even doubles for them — on the ice) who break up when Stewart marries Crawford (his long-suffering girlfriend whom he added to the act, only to unbalance it and get them all fired as a result) and she talks her way into a film contract with a (fictitious) major studio. (In the script, Crawford declaims about how marriage and family are more important than any movie contract; in real life her MGM contract lasted 19 years — considerably longer than any of her marriages.) She becomes a star faster than you can say “Lucille LeSueur” and Stewart is reduced to playing Norman Maine Lite — without the ex-stardom or the alcoholism but with the same self-consciousness about having his wife support him (it was at about this time that I commented that in 1939, when Stewart got loaned out to other studios, he got classic films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Destry Rides Again; when he worked at his home studio, MGM, he got Ice Follies of 1939.) Eventually (aided by an impecunious producer played by the marvelous Lionel Stander) Stewart gets his Ice Follies together, and in the final sequences, now that he and Crawford have become independently successful, they are reunited when her producer (Lewis Stone, taking a brief break from giving Mickey Rooney lectures about sex) offers him a job on the lot, and he produces a sorry extravaganza called A Song for Cinderella which, like the film we’re actually watching, is redeemed only by the participation of the Ice Follies troupe. As I pointed out to Charles, casting three major stars like Crawford, Stewart and Ayres in a film like this stands as a dictionary definition of the term “overqualified” — and the writing and direction are so dreary they really don’t belong in what should have been a nice, happy, fun, uplifting movie about the Ice Follies. Still, the final color sequence saves it somewhat. — 2/22/99


Charles and I ended up watching a movie, The Ice Follies of 1939, we’d screened once before in our early days together but had little memory of — and it’s no wonder because it’s not a particularly good movie but it is a really strange one. Someone at MGM took notice of two entertainment phenomena of the late 1930’s — the huge popularity of Olympic ice skater Sonja Henie’s movies at 20th Century-Fox and the major audiences being drawn to the rather schlocky Shipstad and Johnson Ice Follies live shows (I remember growing up in the 1960’s and still seeing newspaper ads for the Ice Follies and its knockoff competitor, Ice Capades) — and decided to cut a deal with Shipstad and Johnson (two guys who do a boy-and-girl routine, one of them in drag, in the movie) to bring the Ice Follies to the screen. Oddly, they decided to fill in their Ice Follies movie with an all-star cast in the non-skating roles: Joan Crawford, James Stewart and Lew Ayres, all of whom practically define “overqualified.” What’s more, they hired a trio of major writers — Leonard Praskins, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf — and gave the direction to an arty German filmmaker, Reinhold Schünzel (though they billed him without his umlaut). What they came up with was an oddly schizoid movie that co-stars Crawford, Stewart and Ayres (no one gets billed above the title; the second card says “Joan Crawford with James Stewart,” and Ayres and Lewis Stone head the next cast card — yet more evidence, if Crawford needed any, that she was on her way out at MGM) as a skating team who get fired in the opening scene because they’re just there to perform during halftime at a hockey game and the audience couldn’t be less interested in them. (None of the leading actors could skate, so the script was structured so we never see the principals skate either — they didn’t use doubles.)

The first half shows Larry Hall (Stewart) and Mary McKay (Crawford) suddenly decide to get married — the big stars get hitched early on so the writers didn’t have to trot out the hoary old romantic-triangle schtick (though at times Lew Ayres seems so queeny one thinks he’s jealous of Crawford for taking Stewart away from him!) — instead the writers trot out the tired old schtick of having a poor husband feel “unmanned” by the sudden success of his wife, who wins a movie contract from Monarch Studios head Douglas Tolliver, Jr. (Lewis Stone), gets her name changed to Sandra Lee (familiar territory to the former Lucille Le Sueur, who got the name “Joan Crawford” from a name-the-starlet contest MGM ran nationwide in 1925!), and makes a ton of money which she hopes to use to back Larry’s idea of a big skating revue that will “tell stories on ice — do things no one’s ever done on ice before!” Instead Larry bitterly turns down the idea of his wife investing in his show — “There’s a name for a man who lives off a woman, and it’s not a pretty one,” says Stewart with the intensity with which he complained about being stuck to the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan in It’s a Wonderful Life (indeed, one of the odder parts of this movie is how much emotional commitment Stewart brings to a nothing role in a movie that doesn’t deserve it — he made this silly film the same year he made a masterpiece, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, that proved how well he could act) — and instead he high-tails it to New York, where he gets producer Mort Hodges (Lionel Stander) interested in backing the Ice Follies even though it turns out Hodges doesn’t have any money, either. Nonetheless, Hodges still has enough rich friends he’s able to round up the investors, because the next thing we see is a potted version of the Ice Follies revue of the period, including one skater doing spectacular jumps over barrels and through hoops of fire, a Russian number, a Native American number (which in some ways is the most charming item in the mini-show), and a few other heavily costumed ice specialties that, if nothing else, at least document for future generations (assuming they’re interested) what an Ice Follies performance was like. Once he’s a success in his own right, Larry assumes he’ll be able to get back with his wife — only she’s on a personal appearance tour and her schedule meshes so badly with his it looks like the only time they’ll have together is a half-hour to neck in Central Park. (MGM’s screenwriters created so many sequences set in Central Park that the studio eventually built a replica of it on the backlot — and it became a favorite place for amorous studio employees to neck for real.)

No matter: kind, fatherly, gracious studio head Douglas Tolliver, Jr. gives Larry a contract to produce a film called Cinderella on Ice with Sandra Lee as star — though all Joan Crawford gets to do in the number is sit on a huge throne, wearing a bright blue dress with the longest train seen on screen since John Murray Anderson’s “My Bridal Veil” number in King of Jazz, and warble a few lines in the middle of a huge production number featuring some overhead shots à la Busby Berkeley. The sequence representing Cinderella on Ice is filmed in full-out three-strip Technicolor even though the rest of the movie is in black-and-white — making this one of three films in which Joan Crawford is seen in color sequences in otherwise black-and-white films decades before she made her first all-color film, Torch Song (1953). (The other two are Hollywood Revue of 1929 and The Women.) It’s a pretty lumbering spectacle but it’s still more entertaining than the bulk of the film, which is essentially Ice Follies performances grafted onto a pretty standard plot that’s acted by the three principals with far more intensity and commitment than it deserves — Crawford goes through virtually the entire movie with a gritty look of disdain and she’s photographed by Schünzel and his cinematographer, Joseph Ruttenberg (he shot the black-and-white sequences and Oliver Marsh shot the color finale), in neo-Gothic shadows that would have been more appropriate for the films noir she started making at Warner Bros. after she switched studios in 1944 and did Mildred Pierce in 1945. The Ice Follies of 1939 (most references to this film omit the article at the start of the title, but it’s there in the opening credit) is a pretty strange film, reasonably entertaining despite the weirdness of the concept and the decision of MGM to throw major star power at a simple exploitation subject just about any other studio would have used as a way to build up their unknowns. — 12/28/16

Scientology and Its Aftermath, episodes 4 and 5 (A&E, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After The Ice Follies of 1939 I watched the two latest episodes of Leah Remini’s “unscripted” Arts & Entertainment series Scientology and Its Aftermath, including one I’d missed the week before so I could watch the second half of the Tony Bennett 90th Birthday special on NBC. One was about the current head of Scientology, David Miscavige, who in these pages before I’ve described as the Stalin to L. Ron Hubbard’s Lenin. What’s more, Miscavige took over Scientology after Hubbard, its founder, “dropped the body” (Scientology-speak for “died”) in 1986 — given that one of Scientology’s principal claims is that it can make people immortal, Hubbard’s death became a P.R. problem for the Church which Miscavige handled by saying that Hubbard’s body was no longer an aid to his researches but had become an impediment to them —much the same way that Stalin had taken over from Lenin, first by controlling access to the Founder during his final illnesses and then, once the Founder had actually croaked, ruthlessly outmaneuvering his rivals (including Marty Rathbun, who’s only briefly mentioned in these programs — and then only by his first name — but who was essentially Scientology’s Trotsky). What’s more, Miscavige turned out — at least in the accounts of many who’ve quit the church since he took over, including the three Remini interviewed for her show (Miscavige’s father Ron, Jeff Hawkins and Tom De Vocht) — to be a psychopath, literally assaulting people who get in his way, despite (or maybe because of) his diminutive stature: it’s odd indeed to see a two-shot of him with Tom Cruise in which Cruise, for once, is taller than the other person in the photo.

The other Scientology and Its Aftermath episode shown last night was the newest one, a joint interview with Marc and Claire Headley, one of the rare examples of a Scientology couple who actually got out together — though they still suffered “disconnection” from their other relatives, including Marc’s mom. “Disconnection” is the policy by which members of the Church of Scientology are required to cut off all ties with family members who’ve “escaped” the church — that’s the term the Scientologists literally use to describe anyone who leaves, and the pictures of their central compound outside Hemet, California (who would have thought Hemet, of all places, would end up as Scientology’s Vatican?), with its locked gates and barbed-wire fences topped with intimidating metal spikes pointing in both directions (indicating that their function is as much to keep people in as out) make it look like a prison for members of Scientology’s highest body, the Sea Organization (“Sea Org,” as it’s generally abbreviated). It’s called the Sea Organization not only because during World War II Hubbard had been a minor (very minor) officer in the U.S. Navy and adopted nautical terms for the ranks of his officials, but because during the 1960’s and occasionally thereafter he literally took the governing elite of Scientology to sea, buying old ships, having them refitted and sailing them in international waters (except when he had to put into a port somewhere for provisions) so no government in the world would have jurisdiction over him. Like a lot of the early Scientologists, Marc Headley drifted into it as part of a hippie-like spiritual search in the 1960’s; he was interested in audio-visual productions and got involved in Scientology’s media company, Golden Era Productions. As part of Golden Era he produced Scientology’s big annual events — clips of which are shown in this documentary — which made frankly absurd claims about all the good Scientology was doing in the world, all the hungry people in the Third World the Church had fed, the dramatic turnarounds they had made in people’s lives through their anti-drug Narconon program and their work as consultants to schools in Detroit and other dying American cities — where they claimed to be able to turn around failing students and get their grades up from F to A+ in a month or so.

One of the things these episodes dramatized is the extent to which Scientologists live in a media bubble in which they literally never get information from the outside world; especially if you’re in the Sea Org, you not only have to live in a dorm but all information is monitored, your letters are censored before they’re sent out (yet another similarity between the Sea Org and a prison!), your food is cooked for you (Marc Headley recalls the shock when he and his wife Claire escaped and she made him a dinner their first night together on the outside — he’d been married to her for 13 years but since they were both in the Sea Org he’d had no idea she could cook!), you’re not allowed outside the Scientology compound without a “minder” to keep you in line, and you’re not allowed access to the Internet except on heavily filtered computers that don’t allow you to access sites critical of Scientology. Ron Miscavige recalls that his disillusionment with the Church (which he had joined before David and his brother, Ron Jr., were born) began when the Church allowed him to receive an Amazon Kindle, not realizing that this device included an Internet connection. Full of pride at all the great things he’d been told Scientology was doing, he Googled “Scientology” on the Kindle — and came face-to-face with all the anti-Scientology sites, many of them written and posted by disillusioned former Scientologists. The thing the Headleys are bitterest about was that Claire Headley was forced by the church to have an abortion — if you’re a woman in the Sea Org, you’re not allowed to get pregnant and if you do get pregnant, you’re required to have an abortion — also you’re not allowed to have sex unless you’re married (and though the series so far hasn’t mentioned Scientology’s attitude towards Queers, it is well known from the “black” literature on L. Ron Hubbard that he drove his Gay son Quentin to suicide). I’m pro-choice enough to be as opposed to a church that tells its parishioners they must have abortions as I am to the churches that say abortion should be illegal for all women. The show also mentioned the so-called “Freeloader’s Debt” bills that individuals who successfully escape the Sea Org receive, often amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, for Scientology audits and trainings that are free to Sea Org members but are billed back to them at retail rack rates if they leave.

I’m still surprised that so far this series, which is half over, hasn’t mentioned one of the most intimidating aspects of Scientology — the fact that by “auditing” its members continually with a crude lie detector called an “E-Meter,” the Church routinely collects intimate personal information on its adherents which, since auditing is not protected by confidentiality requirements the way normal psychotherapy is, the church can use against them in any way they see fit. The Headleys did mention that their suit against the Church for what it did to them finally was defeated in court on First Amendment grounds that once you sign on to a religion, it has the right to do just about anything to you under the “free exercise” clause and if you don’t like it, your only recourse is to leave. I never had much use for Scientology but have always been fascinated by the sheer wackiness of it — not only is it a religion founded by a science-fiction writer but the books L. Ron Hubbard wrote and offered as the scriptures of Scientology bear a striking resemblance to the ones he wrote and sold as science-fiction in the ordinary commercial literary marketplace — though Remini’s program, like much of the critical literature that’s come out about Scientology in recent years, is making it seem like a much more diabolical and sinister cult than it seemed in Hubbard’s time. Indeed, there’s a division within the community of ex-Scientologists as to whether Scientology was any good — Remini’s own position is that Scientology is, was and always will be useless and the three decades she spent in it were wasted, while her principal source, Mike Rinder, still believes (according to his blog) that Hubbard’s original Scientology was valid and it was only when Hubbard died and Miscavige replaced him that Scientology really went off the rails. Also, Scientology and Its Aftermath is one more cultural artifact of the Obama years that comes off very differently now that Donald Trump is about to become President, if only because Miscavige and Trump seem very much brothers under the skin in their sensitivity to criticism and their take-no-prisoners attitude towards their enemies, which is not only to declare them wrong but to demonize them and at the same time proclaim their irrelevance to the greater glory of the Leader.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Lost in Alaska (Universal-International, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night our “feature” was the Abbott and Costello film Lost in Alaska, the next in sequence in the Universal boxed set of the 28 (out of their 36 films total) movies they made at their main studio. It’s an odd movie that’s got some good moments even though it’s not one of their best and one could tell that by this time the old formulae were getting pretty threadbare through overuse. The film starts in San Francisco in the 1890’s, where prospector Nugget Joe McDermott (a virtually unrecognizable Tom Ewell under a lot of scraggly facial hair in an attempt to make him look hard-bitten) is attempting to commit suicide because, even though he has discovered a mine worth $2 million, it means nothing to him without the love of his girlfriend Rosette (Mitzi Green, the spectacularly talented child star of the early 1930’s who appeared in such children’s classics as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Little Orphan Annie, was in the original 1932 film version of the Gershwin musical Girl Crazy, played herself as the girl who solves the mystery in the all-star 1931 short The Stolen Jools and did a great number parodying Erich von Stroheim and George Arliss in the 1934 musical Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round; after that film she went to Broadway and starred in the original production of the Rodgers and Hart musical Babes in Arms, after which she stayed on Broadway, married director Joseph Pevney, returned to Hollywood with him when he won a contract at Universal and got persuaded to make a comeback in this movie, her first on-screen role as an adult; alas, she did very little additional work and died tragically young in 1969 at the age of only 48). Nugget Joe disappears — he’s actually planning to take a ship back to the Klondike to try to reconcile with Rosette, who in the meantime has won a job singing at the saloon owned by Jake Stillman (Bruce Cabot, whose career should have got off to an auspicious start with his portrayal of Fay Wray’s human boyfriend in King Kong had RKO known what to do with them — his Kong role should have made him RKO’s Clark Gable but in two years they were giving him one stereotyped gangster role after another in a failed attempt to make him their James Cagney instead, and here he’s doing the same schtick) and the admiration of a number of Alaska prospectors with whom she plans to do a different sort of gold-digging. But when the San Francisco authorities learn of his disappearance, they decide he’s been murdered and blame volunteer firefighters George Bell (Lou Costello) and Tom Watson (Bud Abbott) — the origins of their names in Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Thomas Watson, generally recognized as the inventors of the telephone, is one of the wittiest parts of a script by Martin A. Ragaway and Leonard Stern (based on a story by Elwood Ullman) that doesn’t have very many of them. (The director is the Boy Named Jean Yarbrough in his last of five films with the comedy team.)

It’s yet another Abbott and Costello movie you remember more for its parts than its whole, including a scene in which the attorney Abbott and Costello — who escaped the San Francisco authorities by joining Nugget Joe on his return to Alaska — try to hire is literally lifted off the street by a rope with one end tied as a noose just when Our Heroes are trying to convince him the job they’re offering him is perfectly safe; another in which Costello wins a small fortune at the roulette table while he’s barking numbers to Stillman in an attempt to interrogate him, then loses it all and has no idea he was ever ahead in the game; and a scene in which, literally “lost in Alaska,” they’re trying to fish and end up hooking a seal (though if the seal had spoken to them à la the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope Klondike spoof Road to Utopia the gag would have been even funnier!). Mitzi Green’s two songs (I have been unable to find out any information about them online, though and the Wikipedia page on Lost in Alaska both list the young Henry Mancini as having worked, uncredited, on this film and I suspect these were his contributions), one of which, “I’m Just a Country Gal,” she sings in Stillman’s saloon in Skagway, Alaska; and one, “A Hot Time in the Igloo Tonight,” as part of a preposterous outdoor Native American festival in the middle of the Yukon (which also features a variant of the famous crossed-swords dance from the stage musical Brigadoon that was unfortunately left out of its film), are utterly delightful and add immeasurably to the entertainment value of this film. (She’s clearly making fun of the Western-chanteuse roles Marlene Dietrich and Mae West had played in previous Universal films, and even gets a bit of a parody of Dietrich’s “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have” from Destry Rides Again.) Alas, the movie just peters out with an odd scene in which, having loaded Nugget Joe’s whole fortune on a dogsled, they lose it — it sinks into a hole in the ice and ends up in the ocean — and the film ends surprisingly inconclusively and we miss the Last Laugh-style ending I was hoping for (also used in the very best comedy ever made about the Klondike, Chaplin’s 1925 The Gold Rush), in which Bud, Lou, Nugget Joe and Rosette (who turns out to be a good girl after all) would have returned to San Francisco in grand style, throwing their money around, with all suspicions of murder against Bud and Lou of course ended by the appearance of their “victim” alive after all and, what’s more, their good friend!

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Hollow Crown: “Richard III” (BBC-TV, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was a really bizarre choice for a Christmas telecast: PBS’s broadcast (under the Great Performances rubric) of a BBC version of Shakespeare’s Richard III, originally shot as part of a seven-episode miniseries called The Hollow Crown that started in 2012 with productions of the first four plays in Shakespeare’s cycle about the Wars of the Roses and the tumult they caused in 15th century British royal history. The BBC had originally done this in 1960 as a 15-part miniseries called An Age of Kings, not only a touchstone in the history of Shakespeare on film but an important career boost for the young Scottish actor Sean Connery, who played Hotspur in Henry IV, Part 1 and became an international star and icon of “cool” playing James Bond in the first Bond theatrical film, Dr. No, in 1962. Part of the problem with the eight-play cycle is that Shakespeare wrote the first four plays (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) after he wrote the second four (the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III), and it’s clear he’d dramatically improved as a playwright — indeed, there’s legitimate question (as opposed to the illegitimate conspiracy-mongering that “Shakespeare” was really the Earl of Oxford or Christopher Marlowe or Queen Elizabeth or whoever) as to how much of the Henry VI plays are actually Shakespeare’s work. Henry VI, Part 1 exists in printed versions before Shakespeare’s emergence as a theatre manager and playwright in 1580’s London, and when I read it I concluded that only one scene — the one in which the rival claimants of the throne from the houses of Lancaster and York are in a garden and pick red and white roses, respectively, as their symbols — is Shakespeare’s work. (Not only does it not appear in pre-Shakespeare versions of the play, but the writing is far better than anything else in the script and has the quiet dignity and strength that are Shakespeare’s hallmark.)

Apparently the BBC conflated the three Henry VI plays into two episodes and then did Richard III as an episode of its own — but PBS went straight into Richard III and ignored the Henry VI material even though there’s a “Previously, on … ” segment at the beginning of Richard III showing bits of the two previous episodes. I had problems with some of the earlier episodes of The Hollow Crown — particularly an overly stiff mode of presentation (the sort of thing that treats Shakespeare as High Literature and thereby gives him a bad name) and some tastelessly gory visuals — but the gory visuals aren’t so much of a problem here — Richard III is about a psychopathic killer, after all — and the line delivery by most of the cast is naturalistic and credible. Basically it’s a tour de force for the two best-known actors in the cast, Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role (he’s now played two roles associated with Basil Rathbone, Sherlock Holmes and Richard III) and Judi Dench as Cecily, widow of Richard, Duke of York and mother of Richard III, his predecessor Edward IV (Geoffrey Streatfield) and the hapless George, Duke of Clarence (Sam Troughton, whose grandfather Patrick Troughton played murderer James Tyrrell in Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film of Richard III). Dench played Princess Catherine of France, wife of Henry V, in An Age of Kings and is therefore the only actor I know of, of either gender, who appeared in both these BBC miniseries based on Shakespeare’s history plays. Cumberbatch is introduced by director Dominic Cooke in a chilling scene in which we see him naked from the waist up as he delivers the famous opening soliloquy (“Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York) and we get to see his hunchback (CGI, I suspect, since an appliance would have been too obvious without clothes to cover it up). Cumberbatch is everything you’d want in an actor playing Richard III: oily, smarmy, able to keep up (for the most part) the appearance of sanity and sagacity but really seething with homicidal rage inside and all too eager to order the killing of anyone who crosses him, including former allies like the Duke of Buckingham (Ben Daniels), who helps mastermind Richard’s rise to the throne and helps get Edward IV’s children and the presumed royal heirs, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, declared illegitimate so Richard can leapfrog over them and become king — but balks at killing the kids and is therefore executed himself on Richard’s order.

Cooke gives the play an excellent Gothic atmosphere and Ben Power delivers a quite good script — though for some odd reason he suggests that the nighttime visitations Richard has before the climactic Battle of Bosworth Field, in which the ghosts of all the people he killed reappear before him in his dream and tell him to “despair and die,” were actually illusions engineered by Margaret of Anjou (Sophie Okonedo), widow of Lancastrian King Henry VI, with a little hand mirror that seems to freak out Richard every time he sees it. What’s more, while he depicts Henry Tudor, second Earl of Richmond and eventually Richard’s killer and successor as King Henry VII, as the unambiguous hero Shakespeare wrote (while Henry VII’s granddaughter Elizabeth was on the throne), Power denies him the speech in which he says the ghosts of Richard’s victims visited him on the eve of the battle and wished him a speedy victory. (One major inaccuracy in Shakespeare’s script has Henry declaring a general amnesty after he defeats Richard and wins the crown at Bosworth Field; instead he back-dated his reign to begin the day before the battle so he could hold anyone who had fought for Richard to have been a traitor — which in practice meant they had to appeal to him on a case-by-case basis and beg for forgiveness.) Power’s script emphasizes the role of the avenging women — Cecily, Margaret and Edward IV’s widow Elizabeth Woodville (Keeley Hawes) — not only in organizing the resistance to Richard but going out of their way to confront him and freak him out. Charles said that after the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election Richard III played quite differently than it would have before the election (or if Hillary Clinton had won); though no one (at least as far as I know) has claimed that Donald Trump had any of his political or business opponents murdered, he’s certainly an unscrupulous opportunist with a questionable claim on sanity and he’s surrounded himself with people whose main qualification seems to be blind loyalty rather than talent. The last time Charles and I watched Richard III (as the last two episodes of An Age of Kings, with Paul Daneman as a superb Richard) I wrote, “[W]hat makes Richard III as Shakespeare wrote it a fitting end to the eight-play cycle is, once again, Shakespeare’s greatest strength as a dramatist: not his genius as a poet nor his talent for dramatic structure, but his understanding of human nature and his ability to depict common human ‘types’ that have hardly changed from his day to ours; though both the real Richard III’s life and Shakespeare’s depiction of it came long before Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler or Saddam Hussein lived, there were parts of this play that reminded me of all of them!”

Christmas Classics on Early TV: “Miracle on 34th Street” (1955) and "A Christmas Carol” (1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles asked if we could screen the 1955 20th Century-Fox Hour TV version of The Miracle on 34th Street, and as luck would have it I had a DVD I’d burned from our downloads not only of that show but also the 1949 version of A Christmas Carol (written and directed by Arthur Pierson, who also did the 1951 film Home Town Story — which begins like it’s going to turn out to be a liberal screed against greedy businesspeople, except Pierson goes all Ayn Rand on us and has the businessman turn out to be the hero in the final reels — and that peculiar TV-movie Hill Number One, which Charles once described as “an infomercial for rosary beads,” a tale of the time between Good Friday and Easter and notable only for James Dean’s film debut as the Apostle John). We’d watched both these before ( so I’ll only make minimal comments on them here: the 1955 Miracle on 34th Street, though only half as long as the original movie, holds up surprisingly well, and at least one performance — Hans Conried as the harried Macy’s store manager Mr. Shellhammer — was better than its opposite number in the 1947 film (a little-known actor named Philip Tonge). It was also daring of the new writer, John Monks, Jr. (adapting a screenplay by the original film’s director, George Seaton, based on a story by Valentine Davies), to make the heroine, Alice Walker (Teresa Wright), a divorcée (in the original film she was a war widow, and they could have made her one again just by moving up the war from World War II to Korea), and to have motivated her initial distrust of male lead Fred Gaily (MacDonald Carey) by her bad experience with husband number one. Of course the main thrust of the story is the charming old man, Kris Kringle (Thomas Mitchell), who thinks (or knows) he is Santa Claus and who is ultimately adjudged sane when Alice lobbies workers at the U.S. Post Office to deliver letters addressed to Santa Claus to Kringle at the New York courthouse — thereby allowing attorney Gaily to prove that since a U.S. government agency acknowledges Kringle as Santa Claus, the court should, too. Mitchell, perhaps because he was used to playing alcoholics in most of his roles and thereby slurring his words, leaves out the “t” sound in “often” that Edmund Gwenn pronounced in the original movie, but other than that his performance is reasonably similar and quite charming in its own right. The 1949 Christmas Carol was hosted by Vincent Price — he sat in an armchair reading from a large-size edition of the Charles Dickens story — and it’s a pity he wasn’t cast as Scrooge since he would have played him considerably better than Taylor Holmes. But this version, though only 26 minutes long, managed to get the high points of the story in (indeed it contains almost as much of the original as the twice-as-long CBS version from 1955 we’d just watched with Fredric March as Scrooge and Basil Rathbone as Marley’s ghost, mainly because that one was padded with so many songs that really didn’t advance the story, though they did have a certain charm), and I still love the special effect by which Marley’s ghost (Earl Lee) bursts through Scrooge’s door (the set was made of paper) to confront him, even though the ghastly moan Marley emits when Scrooge challenges him was electronically generated instead of coming from Lee’s mouth and vocal cords.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Chirstmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s schedule on KPBS was a Christmas-themed special featuring the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (an annual event, though this year’s had a special “wrinkle” I hadn’t recalled seeing before —more on that later) and a lumbering Mexican music special called El Gran Concieto de Gala del Mariachi, though in between them they ran an episode of the sporadically interesting Australian detective show Doctor Blake Mysteries. The 2016 edition of Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir definitely deserves points for an unusual musical program — about the only familiar song was “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” and though it’s fairly well known it’s hardly as (over)played a holiday standard as “White Christmas” or “Silent Night.” The show opened with a hymn called “Come All You and Rejoice,” followed by a lovely song called “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” which was mainly a feature for four soloists, each in the normal vocal ranges (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), taking turns delivering its lovely lyric. After that they did “Do You Hear What I Hear?” with a Tony Award-nominated guest star named Lana Osnos (I’m guessing at the spelling because they chyroned the song but not her name!) — a bit of a comedown from previous Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas shows in which they’d had starrier guest stars (like opera diva Kiri te Kanawa) — and then a piece called “Over the River and Through the Wood” before they returned to familiar territory for a “Christmas Bell Medley” consisting of “Caroling, Caroling Through the Snow,” “Silver Bells,” “Carol of the Bells,” “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” and “Jingle Bells” (you get it: all songs with titles or key lyrics containing the word “bells”!) and a song called “Fum! Fum! Fum!” (I give credit to all those good little Mormon boys and girls for keeping their faces straight through a song called “Fum! Fum! Fum!”) Then they did the first of two surprises on the program: the “Farandole” from Bizet’s incidental music to the play L’Arlesienne, outfitted with a set of lyrics about the Three Wise Men and featuring a dance in which characters played the Wise Men (though at least one of them looked like a Wise Woman in drag).

After another beautiful performance of an unusual song, “The Wexford Carol,” the show went into the main event of the evening, which was announced as a performance of the chorus “For Unto Us” from Handel’s The Messiah with guest star Martin Jarvis, a British actor. What actually happened was about a 30-minute potted version of Messiah in which Jarvis’s role was to deliver a narration about how Messiah came to be written in the first place: Handel had just gone broke presenting Italian-language operas in London (the Mormon Tabernacle’s script diplomatically omitted mention that the main reason both Handel’s company and his principal commercial rival collapsed at the same time was the growing revulsion of the London public towards the whole idea of castrati, who were essential to performing opera seria at the time — indeed the use of castrati is the major stumbling block when these works are revived now and conductors debate whether it’s more authentic to have the castrato roles played by countertenors or women in drag) and he decided to turn to oratorio, which would have the benefit of performance in English and the basis on familiar religious themes. Handel wrote The Messiah in 1741 and tried to get it performed in London. No one would bite, but in 1742 he got an offer to present it in Dublin (yay! We Irish bailed him out after the Brits turned their back on him!) as a benefit for people in debtors’ prisons — the idea was that the organizers would pick out 100 or so prisoners and use the concert proceeds to pay off their debts so they could be freed. The Messiah got great reviews in Dublin — and no doubt the 100-plus prisoners who were set free from its proceeds were grateful, too — but when it was performed in London it flopped. So Handel eventually organized another charity performance, this time for the Foundling Hospital, an institution that the script for this show explained had been formed to take care of the children of women servants who had been forced to have sex with their masters, had got “with child” and been shunned for having had premarital sex. (Let’s not get too snooty about how rape victims who get pregnant are treated in places like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan; we used to pull the same stuff ourselves.) The idea was that women who got pregnant this way were simply abandoning their kids, so the Foundling Hospital was formed essentially as an orphanage to take them in and raise them so they could ultimately become good and decent members of society.

What was amazing about this presentation of the history of The Messiah was how progressive it was politically; as conservative as they are in their involvements in outside politics, the Mormons run such an extensive social-service network for their members they’ve been called the most successful socialist group in American history, and that tradition of helping people truly in need informed how they presented Messiah even though, if anything, the Zeitgeist of the U.S. is going the other way, towards the Libertarian belief that everyone is on his or her own and if bad things happen to them that’s their fault and not the responsibility of anyone, especially the government, to help them out (though some real-life Libertarians square the circle and say they have no objection to private churches or charities helping the needy, but draw the line at having the government do it on the ground that if you tax the well-off to help the not-so-well-off, you are essentially stealing from the well-off and denying them the full gain from their talents). The Messiah, presented in this odd blend of musical performance (in the early 1960’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir recorded Messiah complete under unusual circumstances; the orchestral parts of the score were made first, by Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic; then the choir was dubbed in separately, as were the solo singers; Eileen Farrell was the soprano and she joked in an interview, “That’s what sells that recording, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir! It sure ain’t the singers, honey!”), narration and dramatization (including an actor playing Handel scratching away at music paper with a quill pen), took up about half the hour-long running time of this show and definitely offered something different from what previous editions of Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had led me to expect.

Doctor Blake Mysteries: “By the Southern Cross” (December Media, Australian Broadcasting Company, ITV, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After that KPBS showed a rerun of a Doctor Blake Mysteries episode from March 5, 2015 called “By the Southern Cross,” a quirky but not especially interesting show (some of the Doctor Blake episodes have actually been quite good, but not this one) in which the local police in the Australian outback town of Ballarat, where the show takes place (in 1959, by the way — the cars are old and ugly and the fashions are dowdy, though people watching the show have guessed everything from early 1950’s to early 1960’s) shut down a political protest at the Eureka Stockade site where an important battle in Australia’s fight for freedom against Britain occurred in the 19th century. The protest was led by a local branch of the Australian Communist Party, and later the branch’s leader, Des Somerville (Hayden Hawkins), is found dead at the Eureka Stockade site. The show features a lot of predictable tensions between the local police and Dr. Lucien Blake (Craig McLachlan), who grew up in Ballarat, left to study medicine, fought in World War II but returned with what would then have been called “shell-shock” and is now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), went back to Ballarat, took over his late father’s local practice and took a job as the coroner for the local police — who are always upbraiding him for “trying to be a cop” and who want him to let them alone and just give them medical reports on how their murder victims died. What’s most surprising about this show is how little it uses the protest theme — a show set in the 1960’s would no doubt have a lot more tension over the protests — and the script turns into what I’ve called in the past “less a whodunit than a whocareswhodunit” as the finger of suspicion turns on Joe Beville (Carter Doyle). It seems that his real name is Bevilacqua and he was Italian, but didn’t want any of his “comrades” in the ACP to know that because his dad was a big-time supporter of Mussolini. He’s the obvious suspect the police arrest but Dr. Blake proves innocent, ultimately establishing that the real killer is the son of a prominent and wealthy landowner in the area — for some reason the son became a Communist (well, it happens; the late Fidel Castro came from a well-off family — though they weren’t part of Cuba’s 1 percent — and, like the character here, he learned about Communism while attending college and decided he was one) — who got into a fight with the victim and killed him accidentally, then borrowed a wheelbarrow and pushed his body from the grounds where the murder took place to the front of the stockade where it was ultimately found. I’ve generally liked the Doctor Blake episodes I’ve seen, but this one was pretty much a dud.

El Gran Concierto de Gala del Mariachi (PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Later KPBS presented a show that, with the typically oppressive “pledge breaks” padding out its running time, ran well past two hours: El Gran Concierto de Gala del Mariachi, the brainchild of two men, one Anglo (Edward March) and one Mexican, or at least Mexican-American (José Armando Ronstadt, who I’m assuming is a relative of singer Linda Ronstadt and her brother, former Tucson police chief Peter Ronstadt — “Ronstadt” is a German name and I doubt there are that many other part-Latino families with that moniker), who built it around the Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. That’s a group originally founded in 1897 by Gaspar Vargas, and it seems to have kept going in spite of the mortality of its members the same way the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has: by recruiting their descendants. (At one point in the show they joined a living performance by Carlos Martinez with a film clip from two years earlier of his father Pedro in his last-ever appearance.) They were hailed throughout the show as the greatest mariachi band of all, even though March let slip during one of his pledge-break interview that the main people keeping the mariachi tradition alive are Mexican-Americans — hinting big-time that mariachi music is fading out in Mexico. The idea for El Gran Concierto came about when March was attending a performance of Mariachi Vargas and found himself wondering, “Where’s the production?”

So he and Ronstadt hooked up and decided to give it to them, including the Bi-National Symphony Orchestra to back them, a conductor named José Guadalupe Flores (a dumpy-looking senior citizen with long white hair who was done no favors by the heavily distorting fish-eye lens used for his close-ups at the podium), a full company of folklórico dancers (the main trademark of this style is that the women wear voluminous dresses and hold the ends of them with their hands as they move) and so many singers — identically dressed in white ruffled shirts, black vests and black slacks — it was hard to keep track of them all. They also invited Ruben Fuentes, whom they introduced as “Mexico’s greatest composer” (not Carlos Chávez or Silvestre Revueltas?) and whose songs took up at least half the program. What they didn’t do was subtitle it, so non-Spanish speaking viewers like me were left at sea regarding either Ronstadt’s announcements or the contents of the songs themselves — one of them made a comment during one of the pledge breaks that the lyrics were as important as the music and were beautiful poetry in their own right, but unless you know enough Spanish to understand what they’re singing (which can be a problem; I know people who have learned to speak Spanish but can’t understand it when it’s sung) you’re going to be clueless as to what these songs are about. C’mon, PBS, if you can subtitle opera performances you could have subtitled this! It also didn’t help that the music was unfamiliar — except for a few songs — “Bésame Mucho” (from the treatment it got here you’d never guess this was a song the Beatles recorded), “La Bamba” (heard as part of a “Veracruz Medley” and with different verses from the ones we’re used to, though the chorus was familiar), “Sin Tí” (a lovely ballad I know from a pair of 78’s my father brought home from the souvenir shop at San Juan Capistrano one year) and “Cielito Lindo” — and it all sounded pretty much the same, with medium-fast or fast tempi and similar arrangements and vocal stylings.

As I noted above, the lyrics were untranslated so it was difficult to figure out what the songs were about (aside from the words you get in just about every Spanish-language pop song — “amor,” “corazón,” “noche,” “luna”), and the singers also sounded pretty much the same. There was a leaden quality to the music that I blamed on the whole idea of arranging it for a symphony orchestra — in some ways this was like one of those rock concerts where they get the brilliant idea to back a rock band with a symphony orchestra, and the symphonic instruments (especially the strings) just get in the way — and in the end I felt more beaten down by this program than actually entertained. If they’d just featured the Mariachi Vargas with a few well-chosen guest stars, subtitled the song lyrics and offered more different tempi and musical moods, this could have been a wonderful program. If the arrangements had been more creative — as they were in the beginnings of “Que Bonita Es Muy Tierra” (“How Beautiful Is My Land”) and “De Repente” (“Suddenly”), which were written with sophisticated dissonances for the instrumentalists and sounded something like mid-1950’s Stan Kenton — that might have helped, too (though when the singers entered on both those numbers they dragged us back to earth by the same stereotyped singing they did on all the other songs). Indeed, part of the arrangement for “Que Bonita Es Muy Tierra” sounded so much like Aaron Copland I found myself joking, “What is this — Fanfare for the Common Mexican?” It also doesn’t help that, at least as it’s presented here, mariachi is strictly a male preserve — though Mexico has some excellent women pop singers, they don’t do mariachi (and a woman’s voice or two would have helped by making the program more varied, if nothing else!) — and I was annoyed that Julio Martinez got a special credit for his solo on a miniature harp on “La Bamba” but the woman marimba player who performed so beautifully on the opening of “Que Bonita Es Muy Tierra” went unnamed. And Charles was amused that the title of their encore piece, “La Negra,” was listed in the chyron’s English translation as “Ebony Girl” — obviously they wouldn’t have dared “The Negress”! Overall, El Gran Concierto de Gala del Mariachi was one of those productions that took a perfectly fine folk art and drowned it in production values, and it’s one case in which simpler would definitely have been better!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Live at the Belly Up: Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real (KPBS, c. 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a KPBS presentation on their series Live at the Belly Up — after the legendary live-music venue, the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, which has been operating since 1974 but to which I’ve never gone (nor am I likely to) because of its location and the sheer arduousness of getting there and (worse) getting back at the usual time live-music venues close for the night — featuring a rock band with the rather clunky name “Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real.” The official promo for the show on KPBS’s Web site called them “a torch-bearing band of guitar-barring American rock. Based out of California and Hawaii, this band's music is a diverse collection of sounds and styles with multi-genre influences such as Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, B. B. King and Pearl Jam.” Lukas Nelson himself was interviewed in a few segments that were cut in between his first few songs, and he named Stevie Ray Vaughan as another musician that influenced him (along with such de rigueur rock names as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones) — and he certainly knows his way around a guitar even though he’s hardly at either Hendrix’ or Vaughan’s level as a virtuoso. (One can at least hopes he outlasts those two musicians, who’ve become almost as legendary for their early demises as for their playing!)

After the band’s third song another interview cut-in, not with Nelson but with the talent booker for the Belly Up, who mentioned that Lukas Nelson is the son of country music legend Willie Nelson. Not surprisingly, having that piece of information sprung on me dramatically changed the way I heard him; instead of evaluating him as a reasonably cute rock musician with a good set of guitar chops and a serviceable if not deathlessly great voice, I was listening for similarities to his famous dad — and also looking for them. Lukas Nelson looks believable as Willie Nelson’s son — especially if you’ve seen some of Willie Nelson’s early album covers (on the Hello, Walls album — Willie Nelson’s first solo album from 1960, capitalizing on the success of Faron Young’s recording of the title song — the photo is of a baby-faced, smooth-cheeked, clean-shaven young man who’s barely recognizable as the long-haired, long-bearded, grizzled-faced Willie Nelson we know today) — and one can hear similar vocal inflections, especially on slower songs. Live at the Belly Up helpfully gives chyrons telling the titles of the songs the band is playing — a practice I wish Austin City Limits and other pop-music shows on TV would emulate — though I missed one of them. The show began with a song called “Peaceful Solution,” which I couldn’t help but wonder if the band had written it in response to the last Presidential election: “There’s a peaceful solution/A peace revolution/Let’s take back America.” In fact, according to the band’s Wikipedia page, it was written by Willie Nelson and Lukas’s sister Amy Niccore and was on the group’s first full-length album, Promise of the Real, in 2010.

Given Lukas’s illustrious parentage, it’s not surprising his group actually got a few major breaks usually not accorded to struggling rock bands, including a 2008 mini-tour opening for (you guessed it) Willie Nelson and subsequent tours opening for B. B. King and Neil Young — indeed, unknowingly I’d already heard Promise of the Real since they backed Neil Young on his album The Monsanto Years and the tour Young did in support of it (which produced a live album called Earth). The band’s Belly Up show featured some intriguing covers, including Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” (Lukas Nelson — whose dad gave him the interesting middle name “Autry,” after another country-music legend — sounded especially like Willie on the song’s slow introduction, less so when it sped up) and Roy Orbison’s “Dream Baby,” which segued into a quite good song (I’m assuming an original) called either “I Get Antsy” or “Forever Is a Four-Letter Word,” about the singer’s disinclination to get married, settle down and do any of that commitment stuff. The band’s other songs were “Living It Up,” “Find Yourself,” “L’il Girl,” “Don’t Lose Your Mind” (a ballad during which Lukas sounded especially like his dad), “Bloody Mary Morning” (one of Willie Nelson’s biggest hits in the 1970’s and another one in which the family resemblance between their voices was unmistakable) and a finale called “Start to Go” in which Lukas Nelson pulled one of Hendrix’ most famous stage tricks: he raised his guitar to his mouth and started picking the strings with his teeth. The man who originated that gimmick was blues guitar great Aaron “T-Bone” Walker, who also started the trick Hendrix copied of playing the guitar behind his back — Hendrix toured the chit’lin’ circuit with bands that opened for Walker, studied him and learned to do those things.

Heard without a knowledge of Lukas’s origins, Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real (as opposed to — the pun is just irresistible — Donald Trump and the Promise of the Unreal) is a reasonably good rock band, not especially original but blessed with genuinely talented musicians (the Wikipedia page names Corey McCormack as the bass player, Anthony Logerfo as the drummer and Tato Melgar as the percussionist, but I suspect the percussionist — mostly playing congas and tambourine — on the show was different, a grizzled old guy who would look more in place in Willie’s than Lukas’s band) that get a good, infectious sound together. Heard knowing that Lukas Nelson is Willie Nelson’s son, the Promise of the Real has obviously got breaks struggling rock bands usually don’t — like opening and/or playing backup for Neil Young, B. B. King and John Fogerty as well as Lukas’s dad — but also faces the burden of the inevitable comparisons that have sunk a lot of previous entertainers who were hoping to score on the basis of their famous dads (like Frank Sinatra, Jr., Gary Lewis, Jakob Dylan and Harper Simon). One thing I didn’t realize is that Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real actually got their start at the Belly Up in 2008 — before they released a full-length studio album they put out an EP of live performances — though I missed the copyright date on this show and therefore I can’t be sure, but this is probably a more recent (like 2015) return to a venue that helped launch them. I’d like to hear more from Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real but I wasn’t so knocked out by them I’d like to rush to a record store (or a Web site) and buy their CD’s.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Holiday Inn (Paramount, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s movie was the 1942 musical Holiday Inn — which I screened at our friend Garry Hobbs’ request so he could see the often-cut blackface number “Abraham,” a tribute to Lincoln’s Birthday in this holiday-themed movie, which was based on an idea Irving Berlin had had for nine years: a musical show dealing entirely with holiday-themed numbers. He had got the idea in 1933, when he was working on a Broadway revue (a plotless musical) called As Thousands Cheer, in which each of the songs referred to a section of a newspaper. As part of that show he took an old song of his called “Smile and Show Your Dimple,” got rid of that silly lyric and wrote a new one, which became “Easter Parade.” The way that song related to the newspaper theme of As Thousands Cheer was through the line, “You’ll find that you’re in the rotogravure” — “rotogravure” being an expensive process of printing color photos on slick paper and inserting such a section in a newspaper at a time when ordinary printing technology could do only black-and-white photos. The song became one of Berlin’s standards and gave him the idea of writing an entire musical of songs about holidays. In 1942 he sold Paramount film director Mark Sandrich — who had made five of the nine RKO musicals featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers — on the idea and wrote an original story to link the holiday songs (plus a few others, like “I’ll Capture Your Heart Singing” and “You’re Easy to Dance With,” that didn’t have holiday connections but were there to advance the plot) which Claude Binyon, Elmer Rice and four uncredited others (Ben Holmes, Bert Lawrence, Zion Myers — a man, and cousin of director Sandrich — and Francis Swann) worked into a script. Holiday Inn is generally considered one of the great musicals, and it is when Bing Crosby is singing and Fred Astaire is singing and dancing to fabulous songs by Irving Berlin — who wrote “White Christmas” for this film and saw it become literally the most popular song of all time.

The problem is the plot, which is a farrago of nasty incidents between Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) and Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire), who are constantly playing dirty tricks on each other to ace each other out of the latest woman in their lives: first Ted’s dancing partner Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale), who at different times is engaged to both of them before leaving them both to marry a Texas millionaire, only to return when it turns out, as Jim explains, there was a “slight mistake there. He didn’t own millions, he owed them.” (He was probably a failed oil wildcatter.) Then they fight over the film’s female lead, Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds, cast for the part after Mary Martin got pregnant and had to give it up — at one point Sandrich wanted Ginger Rogers and Rita Hayworth for the two big women’s roles but Paramount executives pointed out that they were already paying Crosby and Astaire so much money they couldn’t hire a major female star or two without totally blowing the budget, so Sandrich ended up with a woman who just three years earlier had been playing a nosy reporter in Boris Karloff’s Mr. Wong movies at Monogram — though Reynolds is just fine in the film; she’s a good enough dancer to keep up with Astaire on the floor even though she doesn’t inspire him the way Rogers, Hayworth and Cyd Charisse did, and Martha Mears supplies an acceptable singing voice that, unlike a lot of voice doubles, is a good match for Reynolds’ speaking voice). The level of nastiness in the plot — something we’d already seen Crosby pull with Bob Hope in the first two Road movies and Astaire ditto in his 1936 film Follow the Fleet — makes Holiday Inn a bit of a trial between the great numbers, though as I’ve pointed out in these pages before it does make one wonder whether Astaire could have made the transition from musicals to films noir the way the other great male star of 1930’s musicals, Dick Powell, did. I remember having that thought the first time I read Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon, when it occurred to me that of all the actors in Hollywood in 1941 Astaire came closest than anyone else to Hammett’s physical description of Sam Spade, and while the 1941 Maltese Falcon remains one of the greatest movies of all time and the definitive film of a Hammett novel, I still can’t help but wish there’s a parallel universe out there in which the 1941 Maltese Falcon got made with Astaire as Spade, Barbara Stanwyck as Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Edward Arnold as Casper Gutman.

Anyway, back to Holiday Inn: there are plenty of interesting bits of trivia about this movie, including the fact that neither Mark Sandrich nor Irving Berlin expected “White Christmas” to “hit” the way it did. The great song is virtually thrown away in the movie — Bing Crosby sings it privately to Marjorie Reynolds in the living room of his farmhouse in Connecticut, and she (or Martha Mears) sings it later in a reprise that supposedly represents a film being made of the Holiday Inn concept (a nightclub out in rural Connecticut — apparently none of the writers had ever heard of zoning laws — that’s open only on holidays, and features specially themed shows for each holiday on which it’s open) in which she and Astaire have starred and appear altar-bound until Crosby leaves his pipe on the piano on the Holiday Inn set and she suddenly realizes he’s there and goes back to him at the end (while Virginia Dale reappears to provide Astaire a sort of romantic consolation prize). The song they were expecting to be the hit was the Valentine’s Day number, “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” — we even see the sheet music for it as Crosby has allegedly just finished writing it and is presenting it as a love gift to Marjorie Reynolds — which gets a big production in which Crosby sings it and Astaire and Reynolds do a spectacular Astaire-and-Rogersish dance that ends with them bursting through a large paper backdrop of a heart at the back of the Holiday Inn stage. “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” did make it into the standards repertory — Carmen McRae recorded it on her 1958 album Book of Ballads, and there are also recordings by Eydie Gormé and a Latin-themed one from Machito (it was part of a concept album he did of Latin-styled arrangements of Berlin songs, including — inevitably — “I’ll See You in C-U-B-A”) — but it was hardly a success on the level of “White Christmas.”

Holiday Inn started filming in late 1941, before the U.S. entered World War II, though the film got extensively remodeled afterwards — particularly the Fourth of July number, which is actually two songs mashed together called “Song of Freedom” and “Let’s Say It with Firecrackers.” Bing sings “Song of Freedom” (with its lyrical allusions to Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms — “Free to speak and free to hear/Free from want and free from fear” — an index of how much the Zeitgeist has changed now that the country is run by Libertarian Republicans who think ensuring that people are “free from want and free from fear” is no damned business of the government) and Sandrich supplies a spectacular montage sequence of war newsreels, ending in giant screen-filling close-ups of General Douglas MacArthur (who inexplicably became a war hero even though, in the only major battle he’d led to that time, he got his ass kicked by the Japanese in the Philippines) and President Roosevelt. Then, forced at the last minute to do a solo number because Crosby’s machinations have led to Reynolds not being there at the big performance where two talent scouts from Hollywood are there to look at the Inn’s entertainers, Astaire improvises (at least that’s what the script tells us: of course, the number was not only painstakingly worked out in advance but, true to form, Astaire demanded 38 takes of it before he was satisfied — Astaire’s passionate perfectionism and grueling rehearsal schedules explain why Ginger Rogers, interviewed by a reporter during a break from filming Follow the Fleet, said, “After this I’d like to take a vacation — digging mines!”) a number with a bunch of firecrackers that were apparently so explosive for real that the crew members filming it had to wear goggles. (Both Crosby’s and Astaire’s Fourth of July sequences were major elements in the original trailer — actually a reissue one — included on the DVD as a bonus item.)

Another unusually creative part of the movie is the way Berlin’s song “Lazy” is staged — Crosby originally bought the Connecticut farmhouse to retire from show business and lead a laid-back lifestyle, but the film uses a montage as an ironic contrast between what he was expecting rural life to be (“With a great big valise full of books to read/While I’m spending time being la-a-a-azy!”) and the hard work actually involved in running a farm. But for the most part it’s just two superficially charming guys playing nasty tricks not only on each other but also on the women they supposedly “love.” The sexism of Holiday Inn gets to me more than its alleged racism, even though for years the blackface “Abraham” number was cut from this film because it was considered offensive to Blacks (and it’s apparently still missing from the version of this film shown on American Movie Classics). The women in this film are portrayed as almost totally inert love (or lust) objects for the male lead. Indeed, somewhat making up for the problematic racial politics of the blackface “Abraham” (I’m not one of these “politically correct” types who gets into a tizzy over blackface numbers and their roots in the minstrel show — I love the “Going to Heaven on a Mule” number that ends Al Jolson’s 1934 Wonder Bar even though it’s a good deal more racially stereotyped than “Abraham” here — but just listen to the soul Jolson puts into the song! Oddly, Jolson was a better singer in blackface than he was in whiteface — his vibrato was slower, he sang from the chest instead of the head, and he approached the eloquence of the best African-American performers of the day — whereas most movie stars who did blackface, including Crosby here, sang in exactly the same way they did in whiteface), the one female in Holiday Inn who actually shows any agency and independence of spirit is Louise Beavers as Crosby’s typical “mammy” Black maid!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet to Come (NBC-TV, aired December 20, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night NBC-TV presented a much-hyped program called Tony Bennett Celebrates 90: The Best Is Yet to Come, a rather strange title (does anyone really think even someone as seemingly ageless as Tony Bennett is going to make it to 180?) for an unusually good program in what’s become the modern-day mold for these sorts of tributes: a widely assorted batch of artists does songs written by or identified with the honoree, and the honoree gets to come out at the end for a few songs of his (or her) own. This was a better show than usual for the genre in that, with one exception, there were no singers who were outrageously unsuited for their material; though generationally they ran the gamut from the 1960’s to the 2010’s, they all had a basic understanding of Tony Bennett’s sort of music and an ability to sing it idiomatically while still projecting their own individuality. The show was interspersed with interviews with Bennett himself (mostly recent ones — Charles, who arrived home from work 15 minutes before the show was over but in time to catch Bennett’s own contributions, said that when he speaks Tony Bennett sounds like a man of 90 but when he sings he sounds about 60) and a few film clips of him at his absolute peak (notably a quite jazzy version of “I Got Rhythm” from a 1960’s TV show).

The show opened with Lady Gaga singing “The Lady Is a Tramp,” a song on which she duetted with Bennett on one of his Duets albums (Bennett, appalled by the way the Frank Sinatra duets albums had been done — with Sinatra recording his parts first and the other singers adding theirs later — insisted that his duets albums be recorded with his partners actually in the same room with him at the same time) and surprised me with her idiomatic command of the standards genre. Given that her fame was as a dance-music artist I hadn’t thought she could handle the looser, freer rhythms of a standard — but she did, though on the two songs she sang on this program (“The Lady Is a Tramp” and “La Vie en Rose,” which she sang first in the original French and then a final half-chorus in the English translation) she built to an intense climax that really didn’t feel like it belonged to the rest of the song — a bad habit she might be falling into on standards without Bennett’s presence to discipline her. After “The Lady Is a Tramp” Michael Bublé did “The Good Life” (and sang better than he had on most of his own show which preceded the Bennett tribute). Then came one of the most pointless parts of the program: Andrea Bocelli and the Voices of Haiti Choir (a children’s group) doing the Schubert “Ave Maria,” and doing it well by Bocelli’s standards even though he remains just another pretty voice with almost no emotional involvement at all. Then came Kevin Spacey — who revealed his vocal chops when he did his own singing for his biopic of Bobby Darin, Beyond the Sea — doing Ray Noble’s 1938 ballad “The Very Thought of You” and doing it almost as well as Bublé had done on his previous special. After that Diana Krall came on and did a jazz voice-and-piano version of “I’ve Got the World on a String,” and then there was a film clip from a Madison Square Garden concert given by Billy Joel, during which Bennett came on stage and joined Joel for a duet on Joel’s song “New York State of Mind.”

Then things went back to tribute-show normal with Rufus Wainwright doing “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” (I love Wainwright’s artistic courage but I’m not that enamored either of his voice or the ways he uses it) before a clip of Bennett and k. d. lang doing “Moonglow” together and lang, who’s become heavier-set than she was in her prime (she looks a bit like Elvis Costello in drag) doing yet another song originally introduced by Louis Armstrong (she and Bennett did a duet album together that was an Armstrong tribute), “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” Then came a contribution by Stevie Wonder (who, as I’ve joked in these pages before, shares Andrea Bocelli’s blindness but not his blandness!), who instead of doing the song I would have expected — “For Once in My Life,” which was a hit for Bennett well before it was a hit for Wonder — did “I’m Here Because I Love You,” which was really “I Just Called to Say I Love You” with a special lyric for the occasion, which segued into “Vision in My Mind” from his Innervisions album for a montage that showed Bennett’s association with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. Wonder also did his great song “Sir Duke,” a piece I fell in love with even before I realized it was a tribute to jazz greats like Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald “and the king of all, Sir Duke” Ellington. Then Lady Gaga did “La Vie en Rose” and after that the show — mostly held in New York City at Radio City Music Hall — cut to Las Vegas for Elton John singing his Academy Award-winning song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” Its relevance to a Tony Bennett tribute was a bit dubious but it’s still a great song and Elton John, even though his voice is only a wreck of what it was at his peak, sang it with the intense eloquence it needs. Then, after a film clip of Tony Bennett doing “Sing, You Sinners” from an early episode of the Ed Sullivan Show, Leslie Odom, Jr. from the cast of the Broadway musical sensation Hamilton did a quite good version of “Autumn Leaves” (a song Bennett undoubtedly recorded but one whose first English-language recording — it was originally a French piece whose title literally translates as “the leaves of death” — was by Nat “King” Cole as the theme song for the 1956 movie directed by Robert Aldrich and starring Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson).

Alas, after that came the one instance all night of a singer and a song totally mismatched for each other. They decided to include one of Bennett’s least-known records, “Once Upon a Time” (the original B-side to “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” — though actually “Once Upon a Time” was originally the A-side, but a D.J. somewhere decided to flip the record, his station got calls from listeners asking to hear it again, and it eventually became a huge hit while “Once Upon a Time” got lost in the shuffle), but the person they chose to sing it was … Bob Dylan. If they had to have Dylan on the show I would have assumed they’d have him do Hank Williams, Sr.’s “Cold, Cold Heart,” which Bennett covered in 1952 — the show quoted Williams’ call to Bennett when he heard the record, “What are you doing, ruining my song?” (the narration here treated that as a joke but it really wasn’t — Williams hated Bennett’s version of “Cold, Cold Heart” until he started getting big songwriter-royalty checks from it, whereupon he decided it wasn’t so bad after all) — and which would have been in Dylan’s normal style. Alas, in recent years Dylan has decided that what’s left of his voice is suitable for standards — he’s recorded two albums of them — and so this time around they gave him “Once Upon a Time,” and while Dylan is a conscientious enough musician he tried to phrase it, his refractory non-voice defeated him. (I happen to think Dylan is a great singer — his voice, though not pretty in a conventional sense, is just right to put over his own material — but he’s lost a lot of the sheer power he had in the 1960’s and it’s just not a voice that belongs with this type of repertoire.) Fortunately, Bennett’s own contributions came up next and helped clear the bad taste left behind by Dylan’s; after a singularly unfunny comedy routine with Alec Baldwin (who came made up to look like Tony Bennett but was obviously less inspired than he was playing Donald Trump on the debate parodies on Saturday Night Live) and Bennett himself, he sang “The Best Is Yet to Come,” “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” (he had to do that one!) and an astonishing version of “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” in which Bennett rose to the occasion at the end and delivered an impassioned coda, nailing the high notes at the end instead of ducking them the way one might expect from a 90-year-old singer and showing that he’s still got a formidable set of vocal chops. Then came a version of the traditional “Happy Birthday” with Stevie Wonder taking over and segueing into the “Happy Birthday” song he wrote in the 1980’s to promote making Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, taking the show out in an unusual and decidedly untraditional direction.

Bennett has had an interesting and unusual career; after scoring early hits on Columbia in the 1950’s with Mitch Miller as producer and arranger, he had the biggest hit of his career in 1962 with “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” but then quickly ran into the rock revolution. Bennett’s career in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s hit a rather odd set of doldrums: he could still pack them in at Las Vegas nightclubs and similar venues elsewhere, but his record sales plunged. He ran afoul of Clive Davis, then president of Columbia Records, who thought that the way to boost Tony Bennett’s record sales was to have him record rock material. Bennett agreed to do one album, Something, of contemporary songs but then retreated to the standards with which he felt more comfortable, and when his record sales continued to plummet he left Columbia and signed with MGM Records (then run by Mike Curb, who was moving the label back to the middle of the road and away from rock acts). Throughout the 1970’s Bennett recorded for MGM, Concord Jazz (where he made a nice series of albums with jazz pianist Bill Evans) and a label of his own called Improv — until in the 1980’s his son Danny Bennett took over the management of his career. Danny got his dad back on Columbia and had him record albums with titles like The Pursuit of Excellence and Astoria: Portrait of the Artist, essentially marketing Tony Bennett as an artist who high-mindedly refused to compromise his art and insisted on recording quality songs of lasting value instead of going for the hit-record market by following current trends. Amazingly, it worked; Bennett got on MTV (and did an Unplugged special during which he joked, “I’m always unplugged!”) and won young audiences not only to himself but to his sort of music.

Michael Bublé Sings and Swings (BBC/NBC, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Before the much-hyped main attraction on NBC last night — a celebration of the 90th birthday of singer Tony Bennett — they offered a show with Canadian crooner Michael Bublé, who as I’ve written in these pages before isn’t a great singer but is a sufficiently appealing one that it’s nice to know there will still be singers around who can handle the Great American Songbook after Bennett finally croaks. I had expecting Bublé’s show to be another Christmas-themed special, but it wasn’t; it was a BBC-TV production called Michael Bublé Sings and Swings and it was apparently promotion for his latest album of that title. The show was a mixed bag that proved that Bublé is a good performer but also one with a narrow range — and I don’t mean the actual compass of his voice, but the sorts of styles he should be doing and the kinds of songs he should sing. He opened with a surprisingly dissident orchestral intro (incidentally I was impressed by the sheer size of his orchestra — he was using the same number of musicians as Frank Sinatra did at his peak, and I wondered what the budget for musicians was like on this program) that led into his first song, a quite good cover of Julie London’s 1956 hit “Cry Me a River” that ably suited his voice (even though I like London’s sparse version — she was backed just by Barney Kessel playing beautiful jazz guitar, and a rhythm section — and Ella Fitzgerald’s cover from 1961 better). Alas, Bublé strayed from the traditional pop songs that show him off best into more contemporary material; his next song was a modern-day power ballad called “I Just Haven’t Met You Yet” (an odd choice for a performer who paraded the happiness of his family arrangements with his wife and kids during his between-songs patter) that required a more openly soulful sort of singing than Bublé could provide.

The yin and yang between stuff Bublé can do effectively and the sort of songs that put him at sea went on throughout the entire program, and sometimes even within the same song; after “I Just Haven’t Met You Yet” he sang two songs that perfectly suited him, Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You” and Walter Donaldson’s “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” Donaldson wrote the latter for Eddie Cantor’s 1930 film Whoopee (the movie was based on a stage show that Donaldson had written for Cantor, but producer Sam Goldwyn commissioned new songs and wisely chose Donaldson to write them), but Bublé said he’d learned the song from Nina Simone’s recording on her first album, Little Girl Blue. One could tell from the melodic variations and the tricky countermelodies his pianist had taken from Simone’s version (of course Simone, an accomplished pianist, had played the countermelodies herself!), but it really worked. Alas, the show then went off the rails again for a modern pop-ballad called “Nobody but Me” that’s supposedly the first single from Bublé’s new album, and then into a cover of Willie Nelson’s “You Were Always on My Mind” that showcased Bublé the wanna-be soul singer. Bad move: it’s not that great a song in the first place (Nelson was great writing songs about dysfunctional relationships but nowhere near as good doing a straightforward love song) and Bublé’s “take” on it didn’t help.

The next piece was another undistinguished modern song called “I Want to Go Home,” but what followed that was the best song of the night even though it didn’t come from the 1930’s, 1940’s or 1950’s. It came from the 1960’s: Brian Wilson’s wrenching ballad “God Only Knows,” taken much slower than Wilson’s original recording with the Beach Boys on the Pet Sounds album, but while I wouldn’t say Bublé’s version is better than the original, it brought out the sheer aching beauty of the melody at least as effectively and was a quite valid cover, offering a different “take” on the material instead of just slavishly copying the original. (I still have bitter memories of the awful version Olivia Newton-John did in the 1970’s — ouch!) The final song on Bublé’s program was the Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse ballad “Feeling Good,” which has been very lucky in its artists — Carmen McRae, Nina Simone and John Coltrane. Alas, this was another song Bublé learned from Simone’s version, which was fine as far as she was concerned but, like a lot of other recordings from singers on Mercury or its affiliated labels in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, afflicted with an awful arrangement by Hal Mooney — and Bublé and his musical director copied Mooney’s arrangement all too well, so a song that Bublé started in the same soft, slow, moving fashion in which he’d sung “God Only Knows” ended up as more of a battle between him and his band, much the way Pentatonix’ version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” from an NBC-TV special aired last week suffered when they sped up the tempo and started doing those damned drum-machine effects that drive me crazy. Overall, Michael Bublé is a talented performer but one who needs to be a lot more careful in how he chooses his material and how the people around him arrange it for him!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Bourne Uitimatum (Universal, Motion Picture BETA Produktion Gesellschaft, Kennedy/Marshall Company, Ludlum Entertainment, Bourne Again, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our feature film last night was The Bourne Ultimatum, third and last in the original cycle of films from the 2000’s based (more or less) on Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne novels — at least the three he wrote personally before he died and his estate and his publishers hired another writer named Eric von Lustbader to write at least eight more books about the character. (This is the modern age in which they don’t let popular characters die just because their creators have; I was particularly incensed when I heard of the publication of a new Hercule Poirot book because Agatha Christie had been very insistent that the characters die with her; in the 1950’s she wrote Curtain and Sleeping Murder, in which she killed off her two most popular sleuth characters — Poirot and Miss Marple, respectively — and arranged that these books would not be published until after her own death and they would mark the ends of both characters.) Jason Bourne has had an odd cinematic history; in 1988 the first book in the cycle, The Bourne Identity, was filmed as a TV-movie with Richard Chamberlain as Bourne and Jaclyn Smith from Charlie’s Angels as the female lead — an economics professor who hooks up with Bourne and ends up in love with him — in a version that apparently came closer to its source novel than any of the films with Matt Damon in the role. In the early 2000’s director Doug Liman contacted Ludlum and arranged for the rights to remake The Bourne Identity, and he set up the film at Universal and cast Damon in the lead and a quite good German actress named Franka Potente as his girlfriend, who in this version wasn’t an economics professor but a “gypsy” touring Europe as a sort of neo-hippie — only Liman had a lot of battles with Universal during the shoot and ended up being removed from the sequelae and replaced by Paul Greengrass.

The second film in the sequence, The Bourne Supremacy, came out in 2004, two years after the Liman/Damon version of The Bourne Identity, and instead of the real-life terrorist “Carlos the Jackal” whom Ludlum had used as his principal villain (but whom the filmmakers couldn’t use because he’d been captured in real life between the publication of Ludlum’s novels and the films), Bourne’s main adversaries in the movies are within the CIA, for which he nominally worked. It seems that Bourne — or, to use his birth name, David Webb — was recruited for an off-the-books CIA program called “Treadstone” which would train people to become free-lance assassins, basically killing on command anyone the CIA bigwigs in charge of the program wanted out of the way for any reason at all. By the end of the second film, The Bourne Supremacy, the CIA has formally abolished “Treadstone” but in fact has merely replaced it with “Blackbriar,” which does the same thing only it works in association with the National Security Agency (NSA), whose unparalleled capability for putting the entire world under surveillance allows it to identify the targets which the CIA will then use the Blackbriar nèe Treadstone assassins to eliminate. At one point the CIA official in charge of Blackbriar, Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), explains to his subordinate, Pam Landy (Joan Allen, whose authoritative performance in The Bourne Supremacy stood out and is even better here, mainly because this time around the character is drawn more multidimensionally and given a crisis of conscience) that Blackbriar is “the umbrella program for all our black-ops. Full envelope intrusion, rendition, experimental interrogation — it is all run out of this office.” (The use of the term “rendition” — meaning kidnapping people and taking them to countries where they can legally be tortured — suggested an interesting possibility for a Bourne storyline: he’s “rendered” to Saudi Arabia or Pakistan and has to figure out how to escape and outwit his torturers before they either break him or kill him.) I liked The Bourne Ultimatum best of the three movies in the “Bourne Trilogy” boxed set because it was the most uncompromising politically; instead of a rogue operation being conducted by a few agents without the knowledge of the CIA’s upper echelons, this film depicts the CIA’s director, Tom Cronin (Tom Gallup), as fully aware and on board with Blackbriar and its mission, which is to eliminate anyone the CIA feels is a threat to itself or its mission without any of that messy “due process” stuff about arresting and trying people in civilian or military courts.

What’s most chilling about the first half-hour of The Bourne Ultimatum is not only the sheer off-handedness with which the CIA officials in charge of Blackbriar pronounce death sentences on anyone who gets in their way — including Simon Ross (Paddy Considine, who for my money is hotter than Matt Damon!), a reporter for the Guardian who’s writing stories about Treadstone and has a secret source within the CIA, Neal Daniels (Colin Stinton), who gets shot and killed by Blackbriar assassin Paz (Edgar Ramirez) in the middle of Waterloo Station when he breaks Bourne’s carefully given instructions on how to stay alive — but the huge amount of surveillance infrastructure that has been created by public and private players alike, and the ability of the NSA to find and trace anyone, virtually anywhere in the world, with this technology. Though made six years before Edward Snowden’s revelations (which were published for the first time in the Guardian), the plot of The Bourne Ultimatum — worked out by Tony Gilroy, though at least two other writers (Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi) were brought in later, presumably to smooth out Gilroy’s tangled plot line and cut the number of reversals down to a tolerable level — eerily anticipates them. Another aspect of the script for The Bourne Ultimatum that anticipates later events is the off-handedness with which Blackbriar targets U.S. citizens, as well as foreigners, for extrajudicial assassination; ever since President Obama put U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki on a “hit list” in May 2010 and he was killed in a drone strike in Yemen on September 30, 2011, the U.S. government has proclaimed that merely being an American citizen does not immunize you from being “taken out” anywhere in the world if America’s secret government decides you’re an active participant on the other side of the “War on Terror.” (Two weeks after al-Awlaki’s death, his son was killed in another U.S. drone strike, leading to speculation that the U.S. government was out to wipe out not only al-Awlaki himself but his entire family.) In The Bourne Ultimatum we’re given so many shots of ordinary surveillance cameras in public places that we realize with a start how used to them we’ve become and how we’ve come to think of them as benign, little realizing that Big Brother is indeed watching us 24/7 and these systems can be taken over at an instant and used by an unscrupulous government literally to target people.

Of course The Bourne Ultimatum is also an action movie, full of car chases shot in Paul Greengrass’s trademark Jerkicam style (he shot the action in both The Bourne Supremacy and this film mostly with hand-held cameras so it looks like they’re literally happening before our eyes and the camerapeople themselves look as perplexed at what’s going on as we do, not like what they are — people recording a carefully contrived version of “reality” from the filmmakers’ imaginations) and plot twists that defy the laws of physics (Bourne pulling a bullet out of himself, and for the climax Bourne taking a 10-story header out of a New York building, landing in the Hudson River below and surviving) as well as inept plot holes. For one thing, the film suddenly shifts locales and Bourne seems to be able to turn up in Moscow, Berlin, Paris, London or wherever a jump-cut from Greengrass and his editor, Christopher Rouse, can take him. Apparently, despite all the precautions he has to take on land to make sure Blackbriar’s assassin de jour doesn’t pick him off, Bourne can just breeze his way onto a plane in any airport in the world and fly to any other airport in the world without so much as a peep from airport security! Charles also noted that the supposedly super-secret headquarters of Blackbriar is in a New York City office building with a window that doesn’t even have mirrored one-way glass — so Bourne can (and does) spy into the office from outside and everything going on in there is in his full view. Though movie chase scenes used special effects to defy the laws of physics well before the invention of computer-generated imagery (CGI), the advent of CGI seems not only to have made this sort of thing easier but encouraged it and led to movies like this in which you just have to set aside your knowledge of the laws of physics for two hours and let yourself be entertained by these physically impossible scenes.

There are other problems with this movie, including Matt Damon’s limited acting skills — frankly, the more Jason Bourne (t/n David Webb) finds out about who he is, what he does and why he became an automaton-like killer for the CIA (revealed in a climactic scene with his trainer, played in an old-pro performance by Albert Finney that reminded me a great deal of the Julia Roberts-Mel Gibson Conspiracy Theory, also about a man destroyed by his training as a black-ops assassin), the harder it is for Damon’s talents, such as they are, to keep pace with the character — and the virtual disappearance of female lead Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), who is Pam’s immediate subordinate at the CIA but helps Bourne either as a protest against the way he’s being targeted, out of a romantic and/or sexual interest in him, or both, who looks like she’s going to be an important character in the first half of the film but virtually disappears in the second. Charles said he probably would have liked The Bourne Ultimatum better if we hadn’t watched it so soon after The Bourne Supremacy — the car chases, on-foot pursuits and shots of Bourne and anyone trying to help him literally in the cross-hairs of killers like Paz (Edgar Ramirez) — naming this character after the Spanish word for “peace” is a cheap attempt at irony — and Desh (Joey Ansah) do get repetitive, especially if you screen the movies in sequence without much of a break between them — but for creating a popular entertainment that shows the national security establishment at its absolute worst while still creating enough thrills for a mass audience, I give the makers of The Bourne Ultimatum a lot of credit. Incidentally, there have been at least two movies in the “Bourne Universe” made since this one: a film not only co-written but directed by Tony Gilroy called The Bourne Legacy (2012) which is described on as “an expansion of the universe from Robert Ludlum’s novels, centered on a new hero whose stakes have been triggered by the events of the previous three films” said hero being “Aaron Cross” and played by Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker, and a new film from this year called simply Jason Bourne in which Matt Damon resumed the role.