Saturday, June 24, 2017

20/20: Otto Warmbier (ABC-TV, aired June 23, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

 
Otto Warmbier

The Yanggakdo International Hotel, Pyongyang: don’t go to the fifth floor!

At 10 p.m. last night I watched an unusually good episode of the ABC-TV news show 20/20, which is usually a pretty sensationalistic true-crime show but in this case acquired a rare degree of power, dignity and genuine tragedy from their choice of subject: Otto Warmbier, the young man who graduated from high school in the small town of Wyoming, Ohio who, as second in his class, was invited to speak at his high school graduation. He enrolled in the University of Virginia and spent most of the school breaks traveling, first as an exchange student at the London School of Economics and then to Israel (his mother was Jewish) and China. While in China he learned about a tour group called Young Pioneers that ran trips to North Korea. For some reason Warmbier thought it would be fun to ring in 2016 with a five-day New Year’s trip to the Hermit Kingdom, and he signed up. Like all official tours to North Korea, the trip was extensively chaperoned by government “minders” who made sure the tourists saw only what the North Korean government wanted them to see — well-stocked stores, happy children singing group songs whose melodies were of stupefying banality while the lyrics were specifically anti-American (apparently that bizarre opening sequence in the film The Interview, in which a bunch of North Korean kids sing a melodically trashy song whose lyrics go, “[We] wish … for the United States to explode in a ball of fiery hell. May they be forced to starve and beg, and be ravaged by disease. May they be helpless, poor and sad and cold! They are arrogant and fat. They are stupid and they’re evil. May they drown in their own blood and feces. Die America, die. Oh please won’t you die? It would fill my tiny little heart with joy,” isn’t that far off from the reality), ordinary North Koreans going about their business on the squeaky-clean streets of Pyongyang and the famous unison marches with people kicking, goose-stepping and waving things in unison. 

But the Young Pioneers also advertised their North Korea trips as an outlaw experience — “This is the trip your parents don’t want you to take!” they said, while insisting that the trips were perfectly safe for Americans despite the fact that North Korea and the U.S. are still technically in a state of war with each other (the cease-fire that ended the Korean War in 1953 was just that, not an official peace treaty) and the North Korean government had decided, just before Warmbier went on his trip, that from now on they were going to treat any Americans arrested in their country as prisoners of war, not as ordinary criminals — which meant denying them even the pathetic excuses for due process that ordinarily exist under the North Korean judicial system. The 20/20 episode vividly depicts not only North Korea’s isolation but also its backwardness, including showing the famous satellite photo of the region at night, in which North Korea exists as an inky blackness in between the vividly lit vistas of China and South Korea: there are virtually no electric lights on in North Korea in the wee hours. It also covers the history of the North Korean regime, from its founding after World War II by dictator Kim Il Sung (still enshrined in North Korea’s constitution as the “Eternal President,” as well as the “Great Leader,” even though he’s been dead since 1994), who was succeeded by his son, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il and then, after the second-generation Kim’s death, by his youngest son Kim Jong Un. The show discusses Kim Jong Un’s regime, including the accusation that he had his relatives murdered so they wouldn’t pose a threat to his succession or galvanize a revolution, and his paranoid (or maybe not so paranoid) insistence that the United States is planning to overthrow him by subsidizing North Korean expatriates to start a revolution à la the Arab Spring, the “color revolutions” in the former Soviet republics et al. (This morning’s Los Angeles Times has an interesting article arguing that the Russian government believes the U.S. is the one interfering in their internal affairs — and with the recent revelation from the Washington Post that U.S. intelligence has high-value sources well up in the Putin regime, they’re probably right.) Anyway, Warmbier probably didn’t realize what a hornet’s nest he was walking into when he signed up with Young Pioneer Tours for his five days in North Korea, during which he not only got the official guided tour but was able to make side trips to North Korean breweries and sample the local wares. (Who knew Pyongyang, so strait-laced about virtually everything else, has brew pubs?) 

Among the accusations made against Young Pioneer Tours on 20/20 was that not only the tourists were getting drunk on the local craft beers, so were the tour guides, and it’s quite likely they were getting so plastered they weren’t either willing or able to warn the members of their tour groups when they might be crossing the line and be about to do something that could get them into big trouble. Warmbier and the rest of his tour group stayed at an odd hostelry called the Yanggakdo International Hotel, on an island in the middle of a river running through Pyongyang. Every part of the hotel was open to tourists except the fifth floor, which was so far off limits there weren’t even buttons in the elevators you could push to stop at it — the elevator button sequence went directly from 4 to 6. Exactly what was so highly sensitive about the fifth floor, nobody quite knows — one member of another Young Pioneer tour group sneaked onto it and shot some cell-phone video, which showed little or nothing but empty space and a few bits of miscellaneous clutter, along with posters and slogans on the walls hailing the greatness of the Kim family and warning about death to Americans. (One cartoon the tourists would have seen showed a bomb marked “USA” headed straight for downtown Pyongyang.) Apparently Otto Warmbier decided to sneak onto the ultra-forbidden fifth floor and steal one of the posters hailing one of the Kims — according to the Wikipedia page on him, it contained a slogan reading, “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il’s patriotism!” — and he got caught at it, though he had no idea he’d been caught until January 2, 2016, the very last day of his tour, when at the airport about to board the plane back to China for the journey home, Warmbier was tapped on the shoulder by a North Korean police officer and taken into custody. 

Warmbier’s roommate on the tour, British tourist Danny Gratton, was quoted both by Wikipedia and ABC because he was apparently the only witness to Warmbier’s arrest. “No words were spoken,” Gratton recalled. “Two guards just came over and simply tapped Otto on the shoulder and led him away. I just said kind of quite nervously, ‘Well, that's the last we’ll see of you.’[1] There's a great irony in those words. That was it. That was the last physical time I saw Otto, ever. Otto didn’t resist. He didn’t look scared. He sort of half-smiled.” Warmbier next appeared on North Korean television giving a tearful “confession” — obviously sweated and/or tortured out of him in the classic manner of dictatorships everywhere, including the Stalinist gulag that was obviously North Korea’s model for their own prison system — saying that taking the poster was “the worst thing I have ever done.” If he was hoping by being as apologetic as possible that the North Korean government was going to treat him decently, declare him persona non grata and send him home, he had another think coming: he was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor in one of North Korea’s gulag camps — and from that point he simply disappeared. The 20/20 program interviewed another U.S. citizen (albeit one of Korean ancestry), Richard Kim, who got popped by the North Koreans and sentenced to 15 years, of which he served two, because he was a member of a Christian community in the U.S. and had brought copies of the Bible in Korean — and that, apparently, is one of the worst things you can do in the eyes of the North Korean state because they don’t cotton to a religion that worships any family other than the Kims: Kim the father, Kim the son and now Kim the grandson. 

Various envoys from the U.S., including former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, tried to negotiate Warmbier’s release, but to no avail. Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy, said the Obama administration was absolutely no help — they contacted Secretary of State John Kerry as well as the White House, and the staff members they talked to sounded sympathetic but refused to commit actually to do anything — and among other things the show seemed to be supportive of Donald Trump and the idea that once he got into the White House, his toughness and refusal to take shit from anyone would secure Warmbier’s release (much the way Republican mythology has analyzed the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981 as tough Ronald Reagan securing the release of the hostages after wimpy Jimmy Carter had been unable to get them out). Of course, exactly what happened to Otto Warmbier during his 17 months in custody remains a black box — we have literally no idea of what he went through except for the X-rays taken of his body after his death. Fred and Cindy Warmbier refused to permit an autopsy after their son died just one week after North Korea finally released him and sent him home on June 12, 2017, but X-rays taken at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where Warmbier spent the last week of his life in a futile attempt by the doctors there to revive him, indicate that he was not physically beaten. According to a woman neurologist from New York, who looked at the X-rays and gave 20/20 her professional opinion about what they showed, had Warmbier been beaten on either side of his head, there would have been evidence of swelling — so whatever was done to him to put him in a comatose condition, a) it happened relatively early in his incarceration and b) it did not involve at least the most obvious forms of physical violence. Among the possible causes for Warmbier’s condition that have been suggested by doctors are a blood clot, pneumonia, sepsis, kidney failure, sleeping pills or botulism (which the University of Cincinnati doctors who actually treated him during his last week said they saw no evidence of, but several neurologists said it can’t be ruled out because of how long it took between Warmbier’s incarceration and his release to the U.S.). 

What makes the story so interesting is the genuine compassion with which the people at 20/20 told it, a far cry from the shrieking melodrama with which they approach just about every story they cover. Otto Warmbier emerges as a likable, charming young man, intelligent in some aspects and almost appallingly naïve in others, doing a few of the dumb things you’re expected to do in your late teens and early 20’s and paying an appalling and way out of proportion price for them. His friends (including a quite beautiful young blond man) interviewed for the show remember him as brilliant but also funny, and they seem to be dealing with their grief largely by concentrating their reminiscences on his silly, partying, good-time-loving side — the one that, ironically, got him into so much trouble. At the same time the show is a cautionary tale about the sheer arbitrariness of dictatorial government — that, depending on what side of the bed the dictator got up that morning or whether he’s having a bad hair day (though judging by the photos we’ve seen of Kim Jong Un he seems to be having a bad hair life), a foreigner that steps on the wrong side of the country’s rules could be let off with a warning or dumped into the gulag for decades. A number of commentators have compared Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump as personality types, and certainly there seem to be similarities — the vainglory, the egomania, the status anxiety (Kim Jong Un is well aware that as the youngest in his generation of the Kim family he was not supposed to inherit the family fortune, and as I’ve noted before Donald Trump grew up with status anxiety because his dad had been able to make money as a developer in New York City’s outer boroughs but hadn’t been able, as Donald was, to crack the sacred precincts of Manhattan) and the cultivation of unpredictability for unpredictability’s own sake — so much so that various writers have wondered whether we might blunder into the world’s first nuclear war (at least the first in which both sides had nuclear weapons) simply because two nuclear powers are being ruled by freaking crazies!



[1] — That seems like a last exchange which for sheer macabre irony rivals Waylon Jennings, on Buddy Holly’s last tour as his bass player, telling Holly as he got on the plane out of Clear Lake, Iowa, “I hope your old plane crashes” — just minutes before Holly’s plane did crash, killing him and the other three people on board.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Panic on the Air (Columbia, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s movie was taken from a January 2016 Turner Classic Movies tribute to Lew Ayres, Panic on the Air, a 55-minute Columbia “B” from 1936 (a bit late in the day for the charmingly cheesy, cartoonish version of the Columbia logo that appeared on this print) directed by D. Ross Lederman (I used to make fun of him, joking that one should never trust the work of a director whose name looks like it should have the letters “D.D.S.” after it, but then I saw the one truly great film he made: End of the Trail, the remarkable pro-Native American Western made by Tim McCoy at Columbia in 1932) from a script by Harold Shumate based on a short story called “Five Spot” by Theodore A. Tinsley. Charles wondered if the word “Air” in the title referred to aircraft or radio, but the diagonal shot of a radio transmission tower gave that away, while the montage of various sporting events seen under the opening credits indicate that Lew Ayres was going to be playing a sportscaster. Actually his character, Jerry Franklin, has two jobs at the fictitious “Continental Broadcasting Service”; in addition to sportscasting he’s also a late-night news reporter doing a show called “You Heard It First” sponsored by Gordon’s Garters (it’s a measure of how dated this movie is that Gordon’s company could stay in business making nothing but garters), whose slogan is “Gordon’s Garters Never Let You Down.” Gordon is threatening to pull his sponsorship of Jerry Franklin’s show because the newspapers are beating him to too many spectacular scoops. Jerry sees his chance to break a big story and get back in the good graces of his sponsor when he and his sidekick Andy (Benny Baker, a Stuart Erwin imitator who manages to be even more obnoxious than the original) come across a $5 bill with what looks like a moustache drawn across President Lincoln’s upper lip. On closer examination, they realize it’s actually a string of numbers — 15-6-10-15 — only when they take it to a cryptographer Jerry knows, Major Bliss (Wyrley Birch), he tells them that the numbers aren’t part of any code he’s aware of and there aren’t enough of them for him to be able to break it. Bliss tells them the meaning is probably arbitrary, something that the sender and the intended recipient of the message would be aware of but no one else would. Then Jerry and Andy, along with their Asian houseboy who in a neat bit of humor on the part of the writers is named “McNulty” (Eddie Lee), receive an anonymous note from a woman telling them that their lives are in danger unless they rendezvous with her at a particular time and place — the place being the lobby of the Cateret Hotel (which was probably an odd name for a hostelry even in 1936) and the time being 6 p.m. that day.

They expect a hard-bitten woman and one duly materializes — and Andy cruises her, only to find that she’s married and both her husband and her family have violent tempers and know how to use their fists. The real woman who sent them the note is Mary Connor (Florence Rice, who like Lew Ayres later decamped from Columbia to MGM — at MGM she played simpering ingénues like Kenny Baker’s love interest in the Marx Brothers’ film At the Circus, but here she’s surprisingly good, not at the level of Joan Blondell but portraying a similar combination of surface toughness and inner vulnerability), and when our intrepid radio reporters trace her to her apartment, there’s a dead body inside. They realize the cops are going to suspect Mary but Jerry, noting how much the victim’s blood has congealed and deducing from that that the murder occurred while he and Andy were still with Mary, deduces that she didn’t do it. The murder victim turns out to be the wife of a notorious criminal who kidnapped a rich man and extracted a $250,000 ransom from his family, then got caught but only had $50,000 on him when he was captured. The bill has been traced all over town by Martin Danker (Murray Alper), member of the gang of Lefty Dugan (Gene Morgan), and when Jerry and Mary finally catch up with each other they go to Major Bliss’s home to see if their guess that the numbers are code for an address where the missing $200,000 is being stashed is correct. Only Bliss slips them a note that the gangsters got to him first — before that I was wondering if Bliss himself was going to turn out to be the mastermind behind the crime and that’s why he was so unforthcoming when Jerry and Andy first visited him for help, but Tinsley and Shumate blessedly didn’t take us down that set of clichés. Instead they have the gangsters figure out the location of the money, and Jerry has to phone his radio station and get himself broadcast over the phone line so he can alert police captain Fitzgerald (Charles Wilson) to the address so the cops can catch the crooks and recover the money. Once all the parties arrive there there’s a surprisingly violent, especially for a 1936 “post-Code” movie, shootout between cops and crooks; the cops win, though Lefty attempts to escape with the money and gets taken alive even though the other three members of the gang get killed, and of course at the end Jerry not only gets his contract renewed, he gets Mary.

Panic on the Air is actually a quite well-done thriller; though one might have expected a better movie to result from the collaboration of the star of All Quiet on the Western Front and the director of End of the Trail, what we have here is quite stylish, fast-moving (it’s only 55 minutes long, unusually short even for a “B” — a lot of “B” Westerns in the 1930’s were that brief but a “B” with a contemporary setting usually hit at least the 65-minute mark), well acted by the leads (though you do want to strangle Bobby Baker — all too few of the so-called “comic relief” characters in these films were actually funny) and moved at a quite smart and engaging pace by director Lederman, who’s quick enough we don’t spot the plot holes until we start thinking about this movie well after it’s over. It’s this kind of nice, reliable, comfortable entertainment that you really don’t get anymore — not in features (a modern movie based on the plot of Panic on the Air would probably be at least twice as long and would drag in sinister crime bosses and international intrigue — as a motivator for criminal scheming, $200,000 just doesn’t go as far as it used to!) and not on TV either (one could imagine Dick Wolf’s writers generating a plot similar to this bout it would be a lot more violent and grim).

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Marie Antoinette (Columbia, American Zoetrope, Pricel, Tohokushinsha, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a peculiar movie from the DVD backlog: Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola’s 2006 adaptation of Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey, which attempted to refute a lot of the allegations made about Marie Antoinette from her own time to the present, and in particular the line she’s supposed to have said, when told that the people of France were starving for bread, “No bread? Well, then, let them eat cake!” (This was actually an urban legend about clueless royals that first appeared in print about 100 years before Marie Antoinette’s time.) The film was both written and directed by Sofia Coppola, and it’s a frustrating movie because she did so many things right and so many things wrong. The biggest thing she did wrong was deciding to score the film not with the music of the period (though Marie Antoinette was a big opera fan, and we know as a matter of historical fact who her favorite composer was: Christoph Willibald Gluck, a German who’d first achieved fame in Italy, then won the appointment as court composer to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Vienna; the reason we know Gluck was Marie Antoinette’s favorite composer was that when she left Austria to become first Dauphine and then Queen of France, she spent a lot of the French court’s money to hire Gluck away from Vienna and bring him to France — and Gluck was so renowned in his own time that when he left the Austrian court hired Mozart to replace him but only paid Mozart half of what they’d paid Gluck) but with modern-day rock songs, specifically from the so-called “New Romantic” sub-genre popular in the early 1980’s.

The soundtrack list includes “Natural’s Not In It” by Gang of Four (heard under the opening credits, and a jumbled set of lyrics which may have something to do with the extreme inequality of wealth and income typical of both 18th century France and the 21st century world, but the only word I made out clearly was “fornication”), “Jynweythek Ylow” and “Avril 14” by Aphex Twin, “I Don’t Like It Like This,” “Pulling Our Weight” and “Keen On Boys” by The Radio Dept., “I Want Candy,” “Aphrodisiac” and a lame cover of the Johnny Mercer-Rube Bloom standard “Fools Rush In” by Bow Wow Wow, “Plainsong” and “All Cats Are Grey” by The Cure, “Ceremony” by New Order, “What Ever Happened” by The Strokes, and “Ou Boivent Les Loups” by Phoenix, who got into the movie because their lead singer, Thomas Mars, is Sofia Coppola’s boyfriend. (This movie reached pretty big heights of nepotism: Sofia’s cousin Jason Schwartzman was cast as Louis XVI, her brother Roman Coppola was the second-unit director, her famous dad Francis Ford Coppola lurked around the shoot as an éminence grise, and her mom Eleanor directed the “Making Of” featurette on the DVD.) Just about every time Sofia Coppola and her staff, including cinematographer Lance Acord, art directors Pierre do Bousberranger and Anne Seibel, set decorator Véronique Melery and costume designer Milena Canonero, managed to create a convincing illusion that we were really in the late 18th Century at Versailles and Trianon, France, she trotted in one of those damned rock songs to blow the illusion and turn Marie Antoinette into a sumptuous music video. The one time one of the rock songs actually worked the way Sofia clearly intended it to was the use of Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” over a montage of the preposterous cakes, pastries, candies, aspics and other lavish desserts that were a regular feature of Marie Antoinette’s dining table — indeed, there are so many lovingly shot and lit close-ups of insanely luxurious comestibles Charles joked that the middle third of the movie was “food porn.” (My own joke was that maybe they were going to debunk the legend that Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake,” but they were sure going to surround her with an awful lot of cakes.)

The other big thing Sofia Coppola did wrong was set virtually the entire movie in Versailles and Trianon, showing us Marie Antoinette’s world with no intimation of what was going on in the rest of France. I can see why she made this decision — she wanted to show just how hermetically sealed the French royal court was from the rest of the country and how clueless they really were about what their insanely extravagant lifestyle and foreign adventurism (including striking a blow against the rival European superpower of the time, Britain, by aiding the revolutionaries in America) was doing to the economy of France and the welfare of its people — but as we get scene after scene of insane splendor, with the characters wearing sumptuous clothes, ridiculous hairdos (there’s a scene of Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette resting in her prop bathtub — remember that this was a time when taking a hot bath was itself a luxury item since the water had to be heated by fire and carried in by minions with buckets — and getting sprayed with modern hair spray to get her hair to stand up in an historically accurate fashion, which made me wonder how they did it in the pre-aerosol 18th century) and powdered wigs (in Fraser’s book she mentioned that the French used so much talcum powder at court it provoked a worldwide shortage of the stuff), living in rooms of absurd size, grandeur and opulence and gorging themselves on sweets, the sheer weight of the spectacle gets oppressive. Indeed, as the movie was drawing to a close I was beginning to think, “Will the French people please hurry up and start the Revolution already?” I said that when the movie had only about 15 minutes left to run, just before the courtiers at Versailles received word that a mob had just stormed the Bastille, following which they got word that another mob was on its way to Versailles itself to loot the palace and hopefully capture the king and queen — and, oddly, Sofia Coppola decided to end her movie with the monarchs fleeing Versailles for the countryside, a trip arranged by Marie Antoinette’s friend and lover, Swedish ambassador Count Axel Fersen (Jamie Dornan, who doesn’t have the almost unearthly beauty of Tyrone Power, who played the part in the 1938 MGM Marie Antoinette, but he’s hot enough he’ll do), without mentioning that they were caught shortly thereafter and spent their last days in prison in Paris before the revolutionaries got around to executing first him and then her — events Antonia Fraser described in her book.

Now for the good things about Marie Antoinette. First, the physical production is incredible; Sofia Coppola got permission to shoot in the actual historical locations, even though Versailles was in the middle of a big restoration at the time so there were only parts of it she could use[1] — and, as was explained in the making-of featurette, they could use the rooms themselves and show the art but they could not use the historical furnishings or drapes: they had to make their own replicas and bring them in. Second, instead of copying the past-is-brown look her dad did so much to establish as movie orthodoxy in The Godfather, Sofia Coppola and her cinematographer and art directors designed the movie in pastel tones, copying the look of French paintings of the period — especially those set outdoors, which often featured pastel-dressed members of the French 1 percent cavorting in similarly pastel natural settings. (The real Marie Antoinette was fond of playing at being a shepherdess, and she even staged amateur theatrical productions in which she could play a peasant, one of which is shown in the film.) In the making-of feature, she and her staff said they went out of their way to avoid showing bright colors — except for the vivid red dress worn by Asia Argento as Madame Du Barry, marking her as a “scarlet woman” both literally and figuratively — and the look is absolutely stunning. Also, Sofia Coppola deserves credit for casting the movie quite creatively; I’ve been a fan of Kirsten Dunst since the played the little-girl vampire in Interview with the Vampire (in which she and Antonio Banderas totally stole the movie out from under the nominal stars, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt) and I marked her as being headed for a major adult career; maybe she hasn’t been the superstar I thought she’d become, but she has had a good career and she and Sofia Coppola have worked together since (notably in the recently released film The Beguiled, a quirky choice for a remake since the 1971 original, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood as a Civil War soldier who ends up in a house full of women who are so intent on keeping him there one of them does an unnecessary amputation of his leg, was a major box-office flop; fortunately Eastwood and Siegel immediately followed it up with Dirty Harry and rehabilitated both their careers). I would have liked a bit more temperament from Dunst in the role but she plays Sofia’s cool reading of the character brilliantly and is totally believable in the part — certainly more so than Norma Shearer in the 1938 MGM Marie Antoinette (based on a biography by Stefan Zweig called Marie Antoinette: Portrait of an Average Woman, which apparently had a much more negative portrayal of her than Fraser’s book or this film), who kept falling back on the Hollywood clichés of the time whenever she had to have a big emotional moment.

Her Louis XVI is Jason Schwartzman, Sofia Coppola’s cousin (his mom, Talia Shire, is Francis Ford Coppola’s sister), who’s good at conveying the rather befuddled nature of the character (though Robert Morley in the MGM version was even better; as Charles pointed out, Morley’s overacting was more effective than Schwartzman’s underacting, and judging from the surviving paintings, the real Louis XVI looked a good deal more like Morley than Schwartzman), a guy who just wants to be left alone to hunt and play with locks and couldn’t care less about running the country. He also has an ultra-low sex drive — though they eventually had four children, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were sexless for the first 7 ½ years of their marriage, and one gets the impression from this film that neither of them even knew very much about sex. One thing Sofia’s script does is reproduce Fraser’s depiction of the acute interest the rest of the court took in whether Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were getting it on because it was a major political concern that there be an heir to the French throne — a male heir because France, unlike Britain, did not allow women to rule (when their first child is born and it’s a daughter, whom Marie Antoinette names Maria Theresa, after her mother, the sense of disappointment from just about everyone around her is palpable). Their bed is in a preposterous room in which virtually the entire court got to watch as they made preparations to go to sleep, and the only concession to privacy was that the bed was ringed by a curtain (sort of like a modern-day hospital room) which they could draw once it was time for lights-out. Marie Antoinette keeps getting anxious letters from her mom saying that the entire alliance between France and Austria depends on her getting her husband interested in having sex with her so they can produce an heir to the French throne, and given that Marie Antoinette was just 14 when she was shipped off from Austria to France (and handed over in a humiliating ceremony in which she had to be stripped naked to cross the border so she would not carry anything Austrian with her — she was re-dressed in French clothes once she crossed the line and wasn’t even allowed to bring her pet dog with her; instead she was told, “You can have all the French dogs you want” — later she learned that at the French court she was not allowed to dress herself; there was a separate servant assigned to each article of her clothing and they all had to be put on in the proper sequence, and if one of the servants was late for work that day she just had to wait, half-dressed, until the servant arrived and the proper sequence could resume; both of these situations were vividly described in Fraser’s book and, of course, Sofia Coppola could hardly resist putting Kirsten Dunst through these scenes!), she didn’t have the slightest idea of how to get a man interested in her physically. (Fraser’s book quotes a document of the period in which a doctor who’d examined Louis XVI wrote a detailed analysis of his attempts to have sex and what was going wrong with them.)

Getting back to casting, some of Sofia’s choices were absolutely brilliant, including Marianne Faithfull as Maria Theresa (it turns out Marianne Faithfull was actually part of a long-standing aristocratic family herself; she’s a distant relative of the Baron Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of the book Venus in Furs, whose taste for sexual humiliation was the source of the word “masochism”) and Rip Torn as Louis XV, and there’s a marvelous scene in which Sofia cuts between him randily pounding away at Madame Du Barry and the latest pathetic attempt of his son and his daughter-in-law to get it on. In a lot of ways Marie Antoinette is a great movie, but it could have been much better — if it had given us more of a sense of what was going on in the rest of the country as Marie Antoinette lived this utterly ridiculous caricature of a court lifestyle at Versailles; if Sofia Coppola had got rid of the rock songs and stuck to music of the period (all we hear of the music of Marie Antoinette’s time are two opera sequences with music by Jean-Philippe Rameau, who was actually active about a century before Marie Antoinette’s time; she deleted a sequence of mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in drag, singing the aria “Che faró senza Euridice” from Orfeo ed Eurydice by Gluck, Marie Antoinette’s favorite composer, but even if she’d included it the scene would have been anachronistic because the version Marie Antoinette would have heard performed would have been Gluck’s French rewrite, Orphée, in which the aria would have been called “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” and would have been sung by a tenor, replacing the soprano castrato who had sung the part in the original Vienna version) and, most importantly, if she had carried the story through to its end and given Kirsten Dunst a chance to face the guillotine bravely and finally achieve in death some of the dignity that had eluded this preposterous character in life.



[1] — It’s quite possible Sofia Coppola got permission to shoot in Versailles because, though the Coppola family is Italian in origin, they’ve had a long-standing connection with France: Francis Ford Coppola’s grandfather, Piero Coppola, was a major symphony and opera conductor in Paris in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Girlfriend Killer (Concord Films, Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I switched to the Lifetime channel and stayed there for four hours watching a couple of movies, both dated 2017 even though neither was billed as a “premiere.” The first one was Girlfriend Killer, which was written by Christine Conradt but a disappointment coming from her because she utterly failed to bring any sort of multidimensionality to her villain (the usual aspect that raises Conradt’s scripts above the Lifetime norm). The real auteur of this one is neither Conradt nor the traffic cop — oops, I mean director — Alyn Darnay, but Barbie Castro, who not only starred as the usual Lifetime damsel in distress but co-produced the film with Eric R. Castro (presumably her husband) and cast her daughter Taylor Castro as her character’s daughter in the movie (well, that’s one way to avoid the bugbear of having two people in a movie who don’t look at all alike passed off as genetic relatives: cast a real mother and daughter as the mother and daughter in the film) and also hired one Rhys Castro as the propmaker — there are more Castros in this movie than there ever were in the Cuban government! Barbie Castro has done at least three “_____ Killer” series films for Lifetime before, Assumed Killer, Patient Killer and Boyfriend Killer, though Boyfriend Killer is the only one I can recall seeing before. It was also written by Christine Conradt and directed by Alyn Darnay, but I said of it that “this time [Conradt] seems merely to be following her formulae instead of legitimately extending them the way she did in The Bride He Bought Online,” and the same could be said of Girlfriend Killer as well. Girlfriend Killer does have its points, including the off-beat profession Conradt thought up for her heroine, the Barbie Castro role. She’s a divorcée named Carmen Ruiz (I got the last name off imdb.com and don’t recall hearing it mentioned in the film) with a teenage daughter named Ayla (Taylor Castro) and a boyfriend named Ryan Gerner (Brian Gross — not exactly a hunk to die for but a nice-looking piece of man-meat with great pecs). 

Carmen has created a business for herself that is a combination consultant and videographer for men seeking to make marriage proposals to their significant others (and not just women: one of the most delightful scenes in the film is one in which Carmen stages the proposal of a Gay man to his partner! I guess it’s progress of a sort that we at last exist on Lifetime). She stages the date on which the guy will pop the question and uses a hidden camera and either a shotgun mike or mikes concealed in flowerpots and bushes (just like in the early days of sound film in the late 1920’s!) to record the proposals, then presents the lucky man with an Internet link to download the video and collects her fee, while Ryan helps her as an editor and a grip. Only one of her customers, Emerson Banes (Jason Cook, who for once is not the hottest guy in the movie even though he’s the villain — both Ryan and Carmen’s ex Nick, played by Khotan Fernandez, are sexier!), isn’t as lucky as the service advertises: he makes his proposal in Carmen’s elaborate staging, but his girlfriend Marissa Stefans (Elisabetta Fantone) turns him down, saying that she’s been seeing someone else for four months, he’s someone Emerson doesn’t know that she met at a “trade show,” and they hit it off better than she and Emerson ever have. Emerson is your typical spoiled Lifetime 1-percenter; he drives a red Maserati sports car that practically becomes a character itself and his response to Marissa’s turn-down is to knock her off. Before Marissa mysteriously disappears — she’s missing for several days before her body is found — Ryan gets an odd phone call which he tells Carmen is from his brother Jason but is really from a woman, which made me think for a bit that Christine Conradt was going to have Ryan be the man Marissa was seeing behind both Emerson’s and Carmen’s backs. But that little pink herring (it really isn’t well-developed enough to be considered red) gets dropped in a hurry and the rest of it is a typical tale of Obsessed Psycho 101 stalking Carmen — she tried to console him after his proposal got turned down and he instead concluded that it was Carmen who was meant to be a soulmate. 

It turns out he not only broke into Carmen’s home and stole all her video footage, including his own failed proposal, which he runs over and over again in his private projection rom, he even has plastered a whole wall of his house with photos of her — how 20th century; today the obsessed man would instead have a computer file of photos of his crush object and relentlessly scroll through them instead of posting them on his wall — and he’s determined to get her by any means necessary, including running down Ryan with that hot red car (Ryan emerges relatively unscathed but for a while Emerson thinks he’s killed him). Meanwhile Carmen’s daughter Ayla has been on a camping trip in the woods with her dad Nick, whom she likes, and Nick’s fiancée Zoe Kent (Vivi Pineda), whom Ayla can’t stand — only she runs away from camp and makes it back to Carmen’s home, where Emerson kidnaps her (as I’ve noted in these pages before, it’s virtually obligatory for a Lifetime movie in which the heroine in distress has a child for said child to be kidnapped as a set-up for the final sequence) and holds her, telling Carmen to charter him a boat and allow him to escape to the Bahamas, otherwise he’ll kill Ayla. At first Carmen doesn’t want to involve the police for fear Emerson will kill Ayla if she does, but Ryan talks her into it and the “boat” she offers Emerson is a set-up — its crew members are undercover police officers — and of course the film ends with Ayla recovered safely and Emerson arrested (though it is something of a variation on the usual Lifetime formula to have the principal villain captured alive instead of killed). Girlfriend Killer is a pretty typical Lifetime movie, neither especially good nor especially bad, decently done and with some nice-looking male cast members who for once aren’t playing villains, but a bit of a disappointment from Christine Conradt because one thinks that, given her head instead of locked inside a Castro family vanity production, she could have made Emerson a genuinely interesting and multidimensional villain character instead of just a “stick” psycho.

The Good Nanny (MarVista Entertainment, Fast Archer Films, Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Actually, Girlfriend Killer looked like a masterpiece compared to the truly weird movie Lifetime showed immediately after it, The Good Nanny, which seemed like a deliberate attempt by writer-director Jake Helgren to reverse the formula originated by Christine Conradt in her first Lifetime script, The Perfect Nanny (2000). Whereas that one, the first in Conradt’s long line of “Perfect _____” scripts, had given us a basically decent suburban family set upon by a seemingly perfect but actually psycho woman they hire as a nanny, Helgren’s script gave us a woman who isn’t even a professional nanny — she’s an interior designer, Summer Pratt (Lifetime veteran Briana Evigan), who’s been hired to decorate the home of Travis and Lily Walsh (Peter Porte and Ellen Hollman) and ends up agreeing to look after their rather squirrelly daughter Sophie (Sophie Gurst). Summer is at liberty to do this because her own fiancé, Hefner (David Tillman), is out of town because he’s just been hired to do lobbying for the company Travis and Lily Walsh own — and though they Skype each other regularly she’s getting restive as his absence gets longer and longer. Summer’s other big problem is that she has a medical condition that makes it difficult to conceive, and since she wants children more than just about anything else in the world that bothers her probably more than it should. (I’ve known many straight people of both sexes who would have loved to be able to have sex with each other without having to bother with either the risk of pregnancy or the affirmative steps needed to avoid it.) When she starts filling in as Travis’s and Lily’s nanny, Summer has a hard time getting through to Sophie because she literally doesn’t speak — our first intimation that she even can speak is when Summer hears Sophie talking to an apparently imaginary friend named “Sasha,” and though both the voices are Sophie’s they carry out an audible conversation in which Summer can hear both Sophie and “Sasha” exchanging misgivings about how the new nanny doesn’t like them any better than the last one did. Helgren shows a certain flair for the Gothic, though his effects with low-keyed lighting, offbeat camera angles and doomy music seem to be playing against his relatively straightforward story and he takes his own sweet time explaining to us just what’s wrong with this picture — why Sophie seems so alienated from her parents, why they seem to regard her as a burden and Travis in particular makes it pretty clear he doesn’t want her around at all.

Eventually, with the help of her friend, African-American pediatrician Dr. Monica Thorne (Tatyana Ali, the only cast member here I can remember seeing, or even hearing of, ouside the corridors of Lifetime) — the usual Lifetime Black person whose plot function is to serve as the voice of reason and try to steer the white characters away from all the stupid things they have to do for this, or any other Lifetime movie, to have a plot at all — Summer finally catches on that “Sasha” and Sophie are actually the same person. Her real name is Sasha Carter and she’s the daughter, not of Lily, but of her scapegrace sister Tara (a nicely slatternly bad-girl performance by Kym Jackson), who’s been a fugitive from justice ever since she stabbed her abusive husband (the father of Sophie a.k.a. Sasha) to death. Unfortunately Summer’s efforts to trace Tara succeed all too well; after risking her job in a restaurant kitchen by taking Summer’s call at work, Tara determines to crash Travis’s and Lily’s lavish Southern California home and steal back her daughter. Lily, it seems, took Sasha in the first place because she visited her sister and found the girl being neglected, but her interest in parenting beyond just providing food, clothing and shelter was virtually nil — and when Tara shows up to retrieve her daughter she’s carrying a gun. She uses a kitchen knife to stab Travis to death, intending that Lily will be blamed for this and Tara won’t be suspected, and all this leads to a final big confrontation on a beach (this is southern California, after all) in which Tara kidnaps Sasha, Summer and Lily get Sasha a.k.a. Sophie away from her, Tara shoots down her sister Lily and then demands that Summer give Sasha back to her, and Summer approaches Tara, seemingly about to return her daughter, only she has a knife on her and uses it to stab Tara and save the girl from her mom’s clutches. The Good Nanny is an annoying movie — the ending is powerful, if unusually melodramatic even for Lifetime (and where, oh where, is official law enforcement? In Lifetime’s earlier days it was actually fairly frequent for their movies to end in a free-lance bloodbath, but more recently there’s generally been some police involvement in the denouement even though it remains more common for Lifetime’s villains to be killed than to be arrested at the end), but it’s been a long, hard slog to get there.

There are some neat touches to The Good Nanny, including one in which Travis is getting out of his swimming pool (and yes, the sight of Peter Porte’s great bod clad only in swim trunks is an aesthetic delight!), sees Summer and invites her to join him — “I’m sure Lily has an extra bikini … if you feel you really need one,” he says — and later Summer tells Lily about her concerns about Sophie and the way she’s growing up, mentions her encounter with Travis as an aside, and all Lily cares about is, “You mean Travis came on to you?” There’s also a preposterous ending in which, with just about every other adult in her life dead, Sophie a.k.a. Sasha ends up with, you guessed it, Summer and her boyfriend, who’ve given themselves the challenge of raising her and trying to get her to be a normal kid after all she’s gone through. But Helgren also supplies one of the most blatant “cheat” sequences in Lifetime history — as often in Lifetime movies, we first get an opening “teaser” scene and then a flashback to the main body of the film, but in this one the “teaser” turns out merely to be one of Summer’s dreams which express her anguish at not being able to have a child of her own. If there’s a worthwhile element in The Good Nanny, it’s the fascinating performance of Ellen Hollman as Lily; she begins the story as a virtual Stepford wife, amazingly and almost annoyingly chipper, but as the story progresses and we see how sick all the adults in it are except for Summer and Dr. Thorne, Hollman’s acting rises to the challenge of the character and we realize that she and Tara are nowhere nearly as different as we thought when Tara first came onto the action (though by a glitch in the casting Kym Jackson looks more like Briana Evigan than like Ellen Hollman, and so we’d more likely believe that Tara and Summer were sisters than Tara and Lily!). Other than that, though, The Good Nanny is a pretty dreary and draining Lifetime non-epic whose attempts to “spin” fresh variations on the basic Lifetime formulae only come off as desperate and draggy.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

“Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”: Four Episodes (20th Century-Fox TV, 1964-1965)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’d been a bit dubious about whether Charles and I should go to last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi movie screening in Golden Hill (http://sdvsf.org/), since the program on offer — four episodes from the first season of the 1964-1968 TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (which kinda-sorta counts as science fiction because the script for the last episode shown last night, “Doomsday,” specifies the setting as 1973 even though it was filmed in 1965). I hadn’t seen the series when it was new (or since) and I was not looking forward to the experience because I had seen the movie the series was based on, a ridiculous Irwin Allen production from 1961 which cast Walter Pidgeon as the commander of the high-tech research sub Seaview (there seems to be some uncertainty as to whether the sub’s name is one word or two, but when we see it printed in these shows it’s just one word) which is designed to look like a giant shark and has big picture windows on its front, not that such would be needed because it also is ringed with TV cameras so the crew on board the Seaview can get a visual image of where they are, where they’re going and where they’ve been on the monitors any time they want. The 1961 movie started to go wrong from the opening credits — and the romantic ballad by Frankie Avalon (who’s also in the movie as a Seaview crew member!) heard during them — and it had a bizarre cast list (including Joan Fontaine, Peter Lorre, Henry Daniell and Barbara Eden before she was bottled) and a stupid plot. Surprise! These four episodes of the TV version proved to be much better than the movie, mainly because, though Irwin Allen was once again in charge, he eschewed the camp elements that had made the 1961 movie and most of his other productions (including Lost in Space and The Time Tunnel, as well as 1970’s features like The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and The Swarm) virtually unwatchable. Indeed, if the TV scripts for Voyage had a flaw, it was that they were too unrelievedly tense and grim — one imagined Allen telling his writers, “More tension! More grimness!” — and a few lighter moments à la the charming character bits in the original Star Trek (a show that actually owed a lot to Voyage) would have helped. 

The four episodes shown last night were “The Fear-Makers” (originally aired September 28, 1964), “The Sky Is Falling” (October 19, 1964), “Submarine Sunk Here” (November 16, 1964) and “Doomsday” (January 18, 1965). “The Fear-Makers” was quirky but the least interesting of the four, and its most appealing element was the amusing anti-type casting of former ventriloquist Edgar Bergen as Dr. Kenner, a psychiatrist who’s assigned to the Seaview because its commander, Admiral Harriman Nelson (Richard Basehart, playing the part Walter Pidgeon played in the movie and for my money playing it considerably better; he’s far more believable as a spit-and-polish naval officer and his presence puts Irwin Allen one degree of separation from Fellini!), is having an argument with Navy brass over whether people can actually survive both physically and mentally at depths of over 4,000 feet. A previous sub, the Polidor (now why would the U.S. Navy have a sub named after a German record company?), crashed below the surface with all hands lost, ostensibly because the crew freaked out at the depths they were at but really, it turns out, because of a “fear gas” Dr. Kenner invented and which his assistant, Dr. Davis (Lloyd Bochner), somehow smuggled onto the Polidor in the form of a gas bomb that detonated when they reached the fearsome depth so the U.S. would conclude people can’t survive undersea too far below sea level and the mysterious country that was paying Davis to do this would have the depths of the ocean all too itself. (As usual in scripts of this vintage, the mystery country is not named but it’s not hard to figure out, especially when we see Davis put in a phone call to his secret boss, a mystery man who is driven around in a black right-hand-drive Rolls-Royce, smokes cigarettes out of a long holder and speaks in an accent seemingly blended from equal parts Erich von Stroheim and Boris Badenov.) Davis smuggles the “fear gas” on board the Seaview concealed inside a reel-to-reel tape recorder (actually quite a few reel-to-reel tape recorders feature in this show, from little portables like the one Davis has to big capstan-driven ones with which Naval Command records the transmissions from its subs; there are also quite a lot of slide rules — this is a great show if you’re into watching retro technology in action), only he loses control and he is the one who freaks out before he’s finally subdued, the Seaview’s mission continues and it’s established that humans can survive and maintain their sanity at the depths the sub is designed to reach. Given that Edgar Bergen’s assistant is the bad guy, of course I couldn’t help but joke that he’d have been better off taking Charlie McCarthy instead! 

Fortunately, the next three episodes on the program were better than “The Fear-Makers.” “The Sky Is Falling” is a quite engaging tale, written by Don Brinkley and tensely directed by Leonard Horn, in which a UFO flies over the entire west coast of North America, freaking people out as it goes all the way down from Seattle to San Diego, after which it ditches itself and crashes into the sea. The overall UFO disgorges a miniature version that has the capability of docking itself onto the Seaview, but that’s a capability that only becomes a plot device after the episode’s guest star, Rear Admiral Tobin (played as his usual coarse villain by Charles McGraw), insists that the Seaview fire its nuclear-armed missiles at the spacecraft because it’s obviously hostile. Of course, Admiral Nelson (Richard Basehart) and his second-in-command, Captain Crane (David Hedison, who’d been “Al Hedison” when he played in 20th Century-Fox’s 1958 horror-sci-fi classic The Fly), are resisting this because they see the possibility that the craft’s incursion onto Earth was just an accident — as indeed it turns out to be: the spaceship (whose fly-by of Earth was represented by stock footage from previous sci-fi films, including the 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still) simply got lost in space, drifted out of wherever it was supposed to be going and ended up on Earth simply by mistake. Only its captain — whose natural appearance would be so repulsive to Earthlings (we do get a glimpse of him au naturel, and it looks like his face has been plastered not only with cottage cheese but also spaghetti with white sauce) he assumes the appearance of whichever Earthling he’s talking to, which means that Richard Basehart plays him in one scene and David Hedison does in another — can’t leave because their drifting off course has used up too much of the craft’s radioactive fuel. 

Over the opposition of both Rear Admiral Tobin and the gung-ho generals running the war on land, both of whom want the Seaview to fire nuclear missiles at the craft and destroy it, Nelson offers the spaceship’s captain some of the Seaview’s spare supply of strontium-90 atomic fuel, which isn’t what the spaceship usually runs on but can be converted to work. (The strontium-90 comes in plain cardboard boxes stenciled “DANGER-RADIOACTIVE FUEL!” but without the usual three-triangle logo for a radioactivity warning and without any hint that the packaging in any way shields the people handling it from the radioactive effects.) The spaceship captain makes it clear that if the U.S. military destroys his craft, the people back on his home planet will regard this as an act of war and will retaliate in force, and since they have higher-tech weapons than we do this will result in the total destruction of Earth and everything alive on it. Eventually the U.S. fires on the ship but our weapons don’t hurt it any, but the ship retaliates by firing an “ion ray” that turns off the ship’s power (only temporarily, but Nelson and the Seaview crew don’t know that!) and thereby shuts down all its systems, including the life-support filtration system that keeps the ship’s air breathable and without which the crew will suffocate. Nelson and the Seaview crew are able to forestall a second attack and give the space people — who have used the remaining power on their own craft to raise the Seaview to 100 feet below sea level, where the Seaview’s mechanical snorkel system can be raised to provide the crew air — their strontium so they, like E.T., can just go home: a surprisingly anti-war script for 1964. 

“Submarine Sunk Here” was hardly as political but it was an interesting meditation on individual responsibility and the ways crew members do or don’t work together, and the trouble a craft like the Seaview can get into when its crew let their feelings as human beings take over from their responsibilities to the craft and its mission (which appears to have been a running theme on this show). It opens with one of the crew members so anxious to get off the sub for its scheduled shore leave — his wife is about to have a baby and he wants to see the kid as soon as possible — he takes a poke at another, and a third crew member gets up from the sonar system he’s supposed to be monitoring in order to break them up. Because of his inattention, the sub drifts into a field of derelict mines and starts setting some of them off, resulting in it being frozen in place on the bottom of the sea (for once the sub in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea actually got there!), and the rest of the show is a race against time between a crew on land attempting to fix the diving bell (owned by Nelson’s own underwater research company — in the 1961 movie the Seaview was a privately funded oceanographic research sub but in the TV series its status was considerably more ambiguous, and in most of the shows we saw last night it was pretty firmly a part of the U.S. Navy and thereby under naval command) and bring oxygen to the Seaview before the crew suffocates to death — with the added complication that if the Seaview is at too steep an angle underwater (its “list”), the diving bell can’t attach itself to the sub. Eventually the Seaview tilts at more than the 30° “list” at which the diving bell, bringing oxygen tanks (one viewer at our screening wondered what would have happened if the diving bell, full of oxygen tanks, had hit one of the mines) to give the men a fighting chance to breathe, can latch on — and the only way to get the sub righted again so the bell can attach is for one of the crew members to flood one of its water-tight compartments so the ship’s internal balance will change and reduce the “list.” Of course, the person writer William Tunberg chooses to have volunteer to do that is the one whose screw-up at the sonar screen caused the accident in the first place. This show included the closest Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea came in its first year to having a comic-relief character, Curley Jones (Henry Kulky), whose stout stature, shaved head and whiny voice couldn’t help but recall his namesake Curly Howard from the original Three Stooges — he’s an obnoxious character but fortunately he’s not on-screen enough to detract from the surprisingly grim high-tension nature of the show. 

The fourth episode, “Doomsday,” was in some ways the best, though one gets the impression that when producer Allen commissioned this script from writer William Reed Woodfield he was thinking of the sensation caused the year before by the films Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe, both of which were about the dangers caused by how easily it would be for a nuclear war to start, quickly get out of control and ultimately annihilate the human race. In this one the Seaview receives word that the U.S. and that sinister power that dared not speak its name on U.S. television were already involved in a war, and Admiral Nelson and Captain Crane get orders that they’re supposed to get ready to fire all four of the nuclear missiles with which it’s equipped — only the person in charge of turning the key on one of the missiles so it can be fired, Corbett (the quite good-looking Donald Harron), refuses the order because he doesn’t want to be party to an all-out nuclear war and the resulting destruction of all life on earth. Nelson grabs the key and arms the missile himself, chewing out Corbett for his insubordination. Eventually it turns out that the sinister unnamed power didn’t mean to start a nuclear war, and did not in fact do so — they simply launched 25 rockets carrying weather satellites, only they launched them all at once and didn’t give the U.S. a heads-up that they were doing this, so it looked like a nuclear attack. In the meantime, however, one of the missiles has been jammed inside the Seaview, and it will detonate and incinerate the sub if the sub surfaces — which will lead the representatives of the Sinister Unnamed Power (can we just call them SIP — or, for that matter, USSR?) — so what’s a poor peace-loving sub commander to do? He could fire the missile from 4,500 feet below the surface so it will detonate 1,000 feet below and not hurt anything, but to do that he literally needs permission from the President of the United States (Ford Rainey), who, showing a gravitas and an awareness of the seriousness of his responsibilities notably absent from the current occupant of the Oval Office, is very nervous about giving Nelson even a five-minute time window because that would allow anyone in the U.S. military to fire a nuclear missile during that time period. In any event, the Seaview’s crew can’t get the missile launched in the narrow window of both time and distance from the surface, and as the sub rises their next idea is to drain some of the fuel from the missile so they can launch it higher up in the water and it still won’t explode on the surface — only Corbett screws things up again, though his second act of insubordination buys them enough time to disarm the missile without firing it at all. Nelson is left with the Captain Vere-like dilemma of having to recommend a court-martial against someone whose actions turned out to be right. 

Overall, these Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea episodes are profoundly dated — there are no women in the dramatis personae (though given how silly the women’s roles were in the 1961 Voyage movie, that’s probably just as well) and no people of color either — at the end of “Submarine Sunk Here” we see two women walking by as extras on a hospital set, obviously meant to be nurses — and though the show’s cinematographer, Winton Hoch, had previously worked for John Ford on some of Ford’s classic Westerns, the photography is pretty bland, dull and grey. But overall the show is quite impressive and surprisingly dour and serious for the work of Irwin Allen!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Princess of Mars (The Asylum, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “Mars Movie Screening” featured a double bill of what are so far the only two feature-length movies based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 11-book series of stories set on the planet Mars (the first one, published in serial form in pulp magazines as Under the Moons of Mars and then put out as a book as A Princess of Mars), the much-ballyhooed 2012 Walt Disney Studios production John Carter (originally shot under the title John Carter of Mars but with the M-word deleted from the final release because Disney had just released two other movies with the word “Mars” in the title, including a “comedy” called Mars Needs Moms whose very title was virtually guaranteed to put off potential ticket buyers, with the result that they just alienated science-fiction fans who would have loved to see a film based on the Burroughs Mars books at long last while not bringing in anyone else to replace them) and a cheap-jack independent production called Princess of Mars (though the screening’s publicity included the indefinite article that had been in Burroughs’ title) made by a company called “The Asylum” in 2009. The final credits of Princess of Mars give the company’s Web address as “www.theasylum.cc/,” and while I have no idea which country in the world owns the domain “.cc,” the site is still alive, the company is still in business and they produced the recent better-than-average Lifetime TV movie Break-Up Nightmare. Their usual modus operandi of ripping off major-studio productions and trying to get cheaper exploitation versions of the same premise out into theatres (or at least onto DVD’s) first is revealed by other items on their Web site, including The Fast and the Fierce and Ghosthunters. Princess of Mars was intended not only as a knock-off of Disney’s then-upcoming John Carter but of Avatar as well — apparently some prints were released under the alternate title Avatar of Mars — and not having read any of the Burroughs Mars books I can’t vouch for the fidelity (or lack of same) to the source, but according to Charles (who has read some of the Burroughs Mars series) this film’s writer-director, Mark Atkins, made the same mistake as the creators of John Carter did: instead of shooting a straight adaptation of one of the Burroughs Mars books he mashed up plot elements from several of them.  

Princess of Mars opens in modern-day Afghanistan, where John Carter (Antonio Sabato, Jr. — considerably, shall we say, “beefier” than he was in his prime but still a nice enough hunk of man-meat even though the star of John Carter, Taylor Kitsch, is sexier) is some sort of rogue Special Forces fighter tangling with Afghan warlords and drug dealers. One of his battles leaves him near death, but the sinister doctors treating him have a plan: they will download his entire genetic information (which, according to Atkins’ script, fits on a 16-gigabyte hard drive, which the more scientifically literate members of our audience thought was absolutely hilarious) and use it to clone him, so though the original John Carter will die there’ll be a new one who’s not only genotypically identical to the first one but also has all his memories and knowledge. They also send him through some kind of interstellar vortex to Mars — not the Mars in our solar system but “Mars-216,” a planet in another solar system which, like our Mars, is the fourth planet from its sun and whose terrain is red in color (courtesy of the Vasquez Rocks, a Southern California location that’s a go-to site for a lot of movies supposedly set on Mars). Carter first meets up with the Tharks, a race of bipedal creatures with hideous mask-like heads with tusks; they’re a warrior class who fight duels to the death to determine who shall run the tribe and who shall die trying. The leader of the Tharks is Tars Tarkas (Matt Lasky), and when Carter asks for a drink of water Tars wrings out one of his shirts and hands Carter a cup filled with his wringed-out sweat. 

The Tharkian cuisine gets even worse when Tars offers Carter a worm to eat — “I told you we shouldn’t have used Indiana Jones’ caterer!” I couldn’t help but joke (Princess of Mars is the sort of movie that seems to invite Mystery Science Theatre 3000-type commentary) — and it turns out that the worm enables Carter and the Tharks to understand each other’s languages, so that from that point on Atkins has the Tharks speak in comprehensible English instead of the gargling noises that are apparently the Tharks’ own tongue. Meanwhile, there’s an intrigue around the power station that purifies and filters out the impurities in Mars’s atmosphere — if this station isn’t kept in continuous operation Mars will lose its breathable air and everyone and everything on it will die — the power station runs automatically (and one of its junction boxes clearly has a “Craftsman” logo on it) but there need to be two people (or whatever the Martians call the species on their planet that looks like us) in charge to intervene and run the backup unit in case the main one fails. They are Kantos and Saroh Kan (Matt Lagan and Kimberly Ables Jindra), and they’re supposed to be a married couple, but Lagan plays Kantos as such a screaming queen that’s hard to believe. Also the job requires its occupants to live inside the power station for up to 300 years, which most people (or Martians) would probably find a deal-breaker. The central intrigue is that the Kans get killed and the Tharks kidnap the Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris (Traci Lords); she and John Carter instantly fall in love (or at least lust) with each other, but the Tharks are keeping her in a cage to which only Tars Tarkas has the key — and he wears it around his neck so Carter can’t get it without defeating Tars in a fight. Actually the cage is an incredibly flimsy construction made of bamboo stalks tied together with twine, and it would seem easy for anyone with Antonio Sabato, Jr.’s musculature just to rip the damned thing apart and free her that way — but that never seems to occur to him (or to Mark Atkins). 

Eventually Tars agrees to let the princess out of her cage and the principals all end up at the power station, where the villain Sab Than (Chacko Vadaketh) turns out to be, not a native-born Martian but another Earthling, Sarka, one of the bad guys Carter had fought back home in Afghanistan (ya remember Afghanistan?). Rejected by Princess Thoris, who only has eyes for Carter, Sarka decides to get his revenge by — you guessed it — pulling the plug on the power station, thereby condemning every living thing on Mars (including himself) to death by suffocation, and he and Carter have a grand sword fight up and down the power station (suggesting that Atkins had seen the Errol Flynn-Basil Rathbone epics from the 1930’s) until Carter wins, Princess Thoris brings the power station back on line by waving her hands over it like one of those computer screens on NCIS, and Mars is saved for humanity, Tharkdom and everything else that abides there. There’s also an earlier scene in which the Princess, still locked in that bamboo cage, is beset by a flock of weird and malevolent flying creatures in a scene that suggests Atkins was ripping off Hitchcock’s The Birds. Princess of Mars is one of those frustrating movies that’s too bad to work as genuine entertainment and not bad enough to work as camp, either; Sabato basically lets his pecs do his acting for him and Lords goes through the entire movie with a fixed look of boredom on her face — I found myself wishing someone would have stuck his cock in her face so we could at least see her doing what made her famous originally. Lords apparently admitted in an interview that she was embarrassed by making this movie and had done it only for the money; she’s held on to her looks but seems either to have lost whatever acting skills she ever had or never bothered to acquire any. (The only other Lords film I can recall seeing is John Waters’ Cry-Baby, an experience she remembered fondly in her autobiography — she said Waters treated her kindly and respectfully but the film’s star, Johnny Depp, was so heavily cocooned by his entourage she literally never spoke to him except when they had a scene together — but I don’t remember her making an impression on me, good or bad; it’s a fun movie but Lords seemed to be in it more as one of Waters’ fabled casting stunts than for any intrinsic talent.)  

Princess of Mars is a pretty useless movie; it cost $300,000 to make (though only $70,000 of that went towards principal photography; most of the rest was spent in post-production on the special effects, which look pretty good for the budget but hardly compare to the elaborate state-of-the-art ones in Avatar or John Carter, and when Sabato does his great leaping jumps, made possible by Mars’ lower gravity, it’s obvious it’s being done with wire work) and the lack of money shows, though a more imaginative director than Mark Atkins probably could have done more with the money they did have. It’s just 93 minutes of professionally acceptable but uninspiring film, and it doesn’t help that a couple of times you hear the word “Barsoom” on the soundtrack — “Barsoom” was the Martians’ own name for Mars (and they called Earth “Jasoom”) but you wouldn’t know that from this film, and at least one audience member gave the audible version of a wince when he heard Traci Lords call Mars “Mars.” The screening was preceded by a number of student films with Martian themes, including a 1981 production called A Picnic on Mars which was largely done with stop-motion animation — the actual models used were on exhibit — and deals with two hot-looking young Martians, a man and a woman, dressed in the bare minimum (and frankly they were more fun to look at than the leads in Princess of Mars!), whose attempt to have the titular picnic on Mars is beset by various monsters, many of them borrowed from Burroughs’ descriptions of the lower orders of Martian life. While I ruefully thought of what the film’s two leads would look like now (especially comparing what I looked like in 1981 with what I look like now!), and much of the dialogue was so badly recorded it was virtually incomprehensible (fortunately either the recording quality got better as this eight-minute film unrolled or I just got used to it), A Picnic on Mars was genuinely charming and quite good for a student film of its vintage — which was old enough that “film” actually meant film and not “computer” or “smartphone.”

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

President John F. Kennedy Inaugural Gala, January 19, 1961 (NBC, 1961; PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a PBS special that was potentially one of the most promising and compelling programs on television, only it got turned into a hideous mishmash that almost totally wrecked the historical value of the material. It was shown on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of President John F. Kennedy, and the main focus was the recently rediscovered footage of the fabled inaugural gala hosted by Frank Sinatra at the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C. January 19, 1961, the day before Kennedy’s inauguration as President. Sinatra had been a key part in Kennedy’s campaign and had rounded up an impressive list of celebrities not only to come out for him publicly but, after he was elected, to participate in the gala: Ella Fitzgerald, Milton Berle, Alan King, Joey Bishop, Ethel Merman (who came out to participate in the Kennedy gala and to wish him well even though she was a lifelong Republican — today our country is so polarized it’s virtually impossible to imagine a performer crossing party lines to honor a new President with different politics from their own!), Nat “King” Cole, Gene Kelly, Harry Belafonte, Jimmy Durante and opera star Helen Traubel. Sinatra was particularly proud that he had got Fitzgerald, Belafonte and Cole on the program because he was hoping that the presence of African-Americans on the talent list at the gala would not only publicly dramatize Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights but would “push” the administration to be more active on race issues than Kennedy had promised in the campaign. (The fact that Kennedy put in a call to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s wife Coretta while King was famously languishing in that Birmingham jail, while his opponent, Richard Nixon, thought doing that would be showboating and ignored it, was a highly symbolic gesture that helped signal the historic switch in the two major parties’ positions on civil rights through the rest of the 1960’s; the Democrats, historically the party of slavery, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, became the party of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, while the “Party of Lincoln” became, thanks to the deal Richard Nixon cut with South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond to institute the “Southern Strategy” to neutralize the third-party threat of George Wallace in 1968, the party of racism and white supremacy.) 

Apparently the entire inaugural gala was filmed by NBC for an all-star TV special, but for some reason it never aired; the commentary on this program said this was because Washington, D.C. was gripped by one of the worst snowstorms in its history, though even in 1961 that shouldn’t have prevented a broadcast — even if they couldn’t do it live, they could still have shown the film later. The footage was rediscovered, and of course the obvious way to present it would have been to shoot a short documentary prologue about the 1960 Kennedy campaign and the involvement of Sinatra and his celebrity friends in it, use that to preface the gala footage and show the extant footage of the gala, start to finish. Did they do that? No-o-o-o-o-o! Instead they decided to use the gala footage simply as raw material, dragging in talking heads like historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and actress Phylicia Rashad (who seems to have been dragged in just because she’s Black and she could give props to Kennedy and Sinatra for having so many Black performers on the show), sometimes having them talk over the performances, and so frequently cutting away from the actual gala to show video footage or still photos of the Kennedys that after a while it started to seem like they were just using the soundtrack of the gala as basis of a series of music videos of Kennedy, his family and his Presidency. The gala, what you could see of it, looked quite impressive despite the horrible circumstances under which it was being performed: a hall way too big for the kind of intimate entertainment being provided (though decades later Sinatra would perform in similarly huge venues to accommodate the thousands of people who wanted to see him live before he croaked), a snowstorm that literally stranded Ethel Merman inside the Armory (she had shown up to rehearse, intending to go back to her hotel, pick up her stage costume and wear it during the actual performance; instead she couldn’t leave, so she sang in the plain plaid overcoat she’d worn to the rehearsal), and a “ceremonial” audience that nonetheless seemed to appreciate what they were being given. 

The gala — or at least the bits and pieces we got of it during the PBS show — opened with Sinatra singing “You Make Me Feel So Young” in the beautiful arrangement Nelson Riddle had given him for the Songs for Swinging Lovers LP in 1956 (and the recording quality was surprisingly good for a concert film in 1961; the charming background parts Riddle wrote for a flute section were quite audible), a song that seemed on that occasion to conjure up the youthful effervescence that had attracted millions of voters to pick the young, glamorous Kennedy over the more experienced but also more dour Nixon. Ella Fitzgerald was up next, doing a version of “Give Me the Simple Life” that continued the exuberant mood — I’ve long thought Ella was at her best singing in slow or medium tempi and using her magnificent musicianship and phrasing to put a song over, and this one was a little too bouncy to show her at her best, but she was still great and the song fit the upbeat mood of the overall show. Then there was a series of comedy routines involving Milton Berle, Joey Bishop (the only Rat Packer besides Sinatra himself who was part of the gala), Alan King and Bill Dana (doing his stereotypically racist but still screamingly funny “Astronaut José Jimenez” routine), after which Ethel Merman came on in her rehearsal coat and belted out her big hit “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from the musical Gypsy. I’ve never been a fan of La Merman — I can tell those loud, belted high notes must have had a visceral effect on her audiences but I don’t like the way they only rarely approached pitch (I remember when I got the CD compilation From Gershwin’s Time on Columbia in 1997, celebrating Gershwin’s centennial, and Merman’s star-making song, “I Got Rhythm,” was performed on that set by Kate Smith, whose voice was just as big as Merman’s and whose musicianship, especially her intonation, was far superior) — but on this occasion Merman was better behaved musically than usual and the whole theme of the song, with its notes of indomitability and ultimate triumph, couldn’t have been more appropriate for the inauguration of a new young President. After that the PBS producers plugged in an earlier recording from the 1960 campaign singing “High Hopes,” the song James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn had written for Sinatra’s 1959 musical A Hole in the Head and which Cahn rewrote as a JFK campaign theme song (“Back Jack/Jack is on the right track”). 

This went into one of the most bizarre parts of the gala, in which Sinatra, Berle, Kelly, Fitzgerald and Cole teamed up for a medley of songs with special lyrics telling the story of the 1960 campaign. It began with a rehash of the famous “Gallagher and Shean” vaudeville routine, after which Alan King sang, and Gene Kelly danced to, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” Then Nat “King” Cole warbled a bit of his 1951 hit “Too Young” to make fun of the frequent criticism during the campaign that Kennedy was too young to be President (though Nixon was only five years older!). After that Berle went into a number, based on Gay New Orleans pianist Tony Jackson’s turn-of-the-last-century classic “Pretty Baby,” which purported to explain the Electoral College. (In 1960 we were still in the middle of that long and remarkable run of 26 Presidential elections in 104 years, from 1892 to 1996, in which the winner of the popular vote for President also won the Electoral College, and hence the Presidency. Since 2000 that’s happened only three times out of five!) After that Harry Belafonte came out to sing the 1920’s song “My Buddy” with a rewritten lyric, “My Bobby,” paying tribute to the new President’s brother Robert and the importance of their political relationship. Then there was an ensemble version of the old college fight song “On Wisconsin,” about the importance of the Wisconsin primary to Kennedy’s eventual win of the Democratic nomination, followed by Sinatra doing a campaign rewrite of the song “That Old Black Magic” as “That Old Jack Magic.” Ella Fitzgerald then came on for the song “Too Close for Comfort” — a reference to the razor-thin margin by which Kennedy won the 1960 election — and the medley closed with the ensemble singing yet another rewritten lyric to “High Hopes,” “Moving Forward.” After that things reverted to more traditional showbiz as Nat “King” Cole came out and did his jazzy version of the song “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” from Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Oklahoma!, and Gene Kelly came on for an elaborate dance routine which began with a bit of “Singin’ in the Rain,” segued into an Irish jig commemorating the shared Irish-American ancestry of both Kelly and Kennedy, and ended with a batch of patriotic songs during whose final entry, John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” Kelly ended up break-dancing. 

Then Belafonte sang “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and after that came the high point of the evening: Frank Sinatra singing Earl Robinson’s anthem to patriotism and tolerance, “The House I Live In.” Frank Sinatra had introduced this song in a 1945 short film, also called The House I Live In, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and written by future Hollywood 10 blacklistee Albert Maltz, in which he’s taking a break from a recording session, he runs into a group of kids who are targeting one of their number for a beating because “he’s a different religion.” Sinatra delivers a lecture on racial and religious tolerance in the weird combination of profundity and corn that was the stock in trade of Leftist writers during the Popular Front era, and then he sings the title song — only in neither his rendition in the film nor the record he made at the time for Columbia did he sing the song with anything like the sheer emotion and soul he brought to it at the Kennedy gala, flush with the hope that the President he had just helped to elect might, not only as a liberal Northern Democrat but an Irish Catholic whose forebears had suffered discrimination themselves, actually do something to bring about equality. (Sinatra would keep “The House I Live In” in his live act for decades, but as his politics lurched Rightward and he ended up supporting Ronald Reagan the song would sound more like an empty gesture, just one more of his old hits he had to slog through to keep his audiences happy.) After “The House I Live In” — which the producers of this PBS presentation at least allowed us to see and hear most of straight through — Nat “King” Cole did his hit version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” though the PBS producers defaced it with stock footage of Kennedy-era rocket launches and a sound clip of JFK’s voice saying we were going to the moon and addressing the nation’s other challenges “not because they are easy, but because they are hard” — obviously somebody at PBS thought “Stardust” should be presented as a metaphor for the space program. 

Then Kennedy himself emerged to deliver the sort of short greeting the honoree at these sorts of events usually contributes, after which the program closed with Jimmy Durante, of all people, singing the Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson “September Song” (an odd bit of nostalgia — the singer is supposed to be an old man reminiscing about his love life and hoping he can have one last fling with a member of the opposite sex before he croaks — for a gala honoring the inauguration of the second-youngest President in American history), and a closing with Helen Traubel belting out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Despite the wretched hash PBS made of it in their presentation — may we dare hope for a straightforward presentation of the gala, start to finish, on DVD or Blu-Ray? — the gala is fascinating not only musically but politically. Musically the biggest surprise to a modern-day audience is that there’s no rock ’n’ roll — in 2017 it seems like an odd omission for a tribute to a President that exuded youth and had won at least in part to the youth vote, but Frank Sinatra personally couldn’t stand rock and people of his (and Kennedy’s) generation wouldn’t have regarded it as a legitimate feature of something so serious and Important as honoring a newly elected President. Politically what’s most surprising about this is that at a time like today when we’re constantly being told what government can’t do — including providing health care to all its citizens — and when the current President is not only the oldest person to be elected to that office (as Kennedy was the youngest — though Theodore Roosevelt was even younger when he assumed the presidency following the assassination of William McKinley) but his entire approach is to warn the country of dire dangers that he alone can fix, it’s wrenching to be taken back to a time when a young, exciting, dynamic, handsome President told us what we could do and beckoned us to join him on a “New Frontier.” (The cultural gap between John F. Kennedy and Donald J. Trump is weirdly symbolized by the difference between the alacrity with which the stars of 1961 accepted the invitation to be part of his inaugural gala and the difficulty Trump’s people had getting anybody to perform at his in 2017.) 

Kennedy’s legacy has become one of the oddest in American politics, not only because he died way too soon but because he achieved relatively little, and yet that little allowed people who came after him to claim his legacy for their own and say, “If only … ” More sober-minded historians could argue that ironically it was Kennedy’s assassination that allowed for the passage of the Civil Rights Act and much of what he had proposed — if only because Kennedy proved wretchedly incompetent at getting Congress to approve all those things, while the man Kennedy’s death elevated to the Presidency, Lyndon Johnson, was a master at dealing with Congress — but Kennedy basically became a palimpsest on which just about everyone in the Democratic Party could write their own desires, their own priorities, their own positions (and Kennedy’s brother Robert became even more of a palimpsest when he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet 4 ½ years later in the midst of a run for the Presidency that was probably doomed to failure, though that hasn’t stopped generations of liberals and progressives since from thinking, “If only RFK had lived … ”). The production with which PBS surrounded the footage of the Kennedy inaugural gala essentially reflects the “white” Kennedy legend — quite a lot of which was built on lies: the seemingly vigorous young man who was in fact chronically ill; the guy with the glamorous wife who behind the scenes couldn’t keep from sticking his dick into anything as long as it was alive, human and female; the politician who promised heroic achievements and delivered almost nothing. And yet the Kennedy ideal has so hypnotized America, and especially liberal and progressive America, that just about every Democrat who’s run for President since, most notably Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, has had at least to try to claim some part of it for themselves (which is one reason why it was such a horrendous, stupid mistake for the Democrats to nominate Hillary Clinton in 2016 — though Trump mobilized his base through resentment and fear, not hope and positive change, at least he was the breath of fresh air, while Clinton presented herself as the voice of “experience” and attacked her opponent as “not ready,” basically making the same losing argument against Trump that Nixon had against JFK in 1960) — which led comedian Mort Sahl, a personal friend of JFK, to say that Democratic voters were like people who got married and then tried to fall in love. 

The commentators on the PBS presentation of the Kennedy gala made the obvious point that JFK’s administration “ended badly,” and it wasn’t just the murder of its central figure that qualified as an unhappy ending: after working his ass off to elect John Kennedy President, Frank Sinatra had a hissy-fit when the Kennedys abruptly dumped him in 1962. Kennedy had been planning a vacation in Palm Springs and Sinatra offered to put him up, setting up quarters on his estate for the Secret Service agents who would be providing security and building a helipad on his property for JFK’s helicopter to land. Then Kennedy, warned off by his brother Robert — who at the time was using his powers as U.S. Attorney General to bring down the Mafia and was all too aware of Sinatra’s Mob ties — abruptly canceled his plans to stay with Sinatra and spent his California vacation at the home of lifelong Republican Bing Crosby instead. Sinatra never forgave Robert Kennedy for that one, and it was that which led Sinatra to endorse Hubert Humphrey for President in 1968 and thereafter switch parties and support Nixon and Reagan. One sees the great entertainers on these film clips and realizes with a start that Harry Belafonte is the only one who’s still alive — just as, of all the speakers at the 1963 March on Washington, Congressmember John Lewis (D-Georgia) is the only one who’s still alive (though quite a few of the musical guests on the program, notably Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, are not only alive but still active) — which gives one a sense not only of the inevitable march of time but also that the idealistic torch which JFK in his inaugural said had been passed to a new generation of Americans has since been dropped, and not very many people in this country — certainly not the ones leading it today! — seem all that interested in picking it up again.