Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Young Victoria (GK Films/Sony Pictures, 2009)

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

Our “feature” last night was The Young Victoria, a sumptuously produced 2009 historical spectacle from a British outfit called GK Films, released through Sony Pictures, which I’d stumbled upon in the DVD backlog and wanted to see mainly to compare it with the first three episodes of the more recent British ITV miniseries Victoria, which depicted pretty much the same set of historical events. Both are about the early days of Princess Victoria (incidentally she’s called Victoria in this one even before she assumes the British throne, where the ITV show explained that her original name was Alexandrina and she picked the name Victoria to rule under when she became Queen) and her struggle to establish her royal authority even though she was only 18 when her uncle, William IV, died and she succeeded to the throne. Her adversaries include her own mother (Miranda Richardson) and the head of her mom’s household, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong). Her allies include the prime minister, Lord Melbourne (Paul Bettany) of the Whig Party, and her royal courtier (and cousin) and later husband, Prince Albert (played by Rupert Friend as an icon of devastating sexiness and charm). The Young Victoria has its faults — it’s directed in a rather slow-paced fashion by Jean-Marc Vallée (Charles saw enough French-sounding names in the cast and crew lists, especially the latter, that he wondered if this was a British-French co-production), it’s thoroughly drenched in the past-is-brown look (though in the 19th century even the most sumptuous upper-class homes were still lit by candlelight and therefore it’s entirely possible everything in those big interiors did look a dingy brown at all times) and the action is depicted effectively but lacks the crackling immediacy of the more recent ITV production.

But Emily Blunt is excellent as the young Victoria (though Jenna Coleman in the ITV series is just as good) and the film is compelling, depicting Victoria as ferociously strong-willed in resisting the attempts of her mom and Conroy to impose a regent on her (a regent is someone who rules in a monarch’s place when he or she is too young for the throne — when her predecessor died Victoria had just turned 18 but even before there had been fierce pressure on her to sign away her right to rule unaided until she turned 25) and looking for a way to navigate the palace politics and assert her authority. The key line occurs while Victoria and Albert are playing chess with each other and she complains about all the political games that are being played around her, and he says, “That’s why you need to learn to play them, and play them better.” There are interesting differences between the way Julian Fellowes’ script for The Young Victoria portrays the history and the way it was done in the ITV Victoria series — in this version Victoria does not have an unrequited crush on Lord Melbourne (indeed, Fellowes takes it the other way and suggests that Melbourne is deliberately flattering her and acting like a would-be lover to get the Queen to do what he wants) — but it contains some of the same incidents, including the really peculiar gimmick of Tory prime-minister designate Robert Peel (Michael Maloney) insisting that Victoria fire at least two of her ladies-in-waiting and replace them with wives of Tory politicians, and Victoria’s angry refusal to do so on the (entirely reasonable, it seems to me) ground that she shouldn’t have to change the members of her personal household just because the Whigs lost a vote of confidence in Parliament and according to Britain’s Constitutional traditions that meant she was supposed to ask the Tory leader Peel to form the next government. At the same time, the politeness with which the political feuds of Victoria’s time and place were carried out, at least for public consumption, is odd to watch in the middle of the first days of the Trumpocracy and the U.S.’s rule by a megalomaniac dictator whose attitude to anyone who challenges him, from government bureaucrats to newspapers (Trump openly called on someone to buy the New York Times and either “run it right” or close it down!), is get with the program or get out.

One historical error in this film a number of imdb.com “Goofs” contributors pointed out is that it depicts an 1840 assassination attempt on Victoria and Prince Albert heroically putting his own body between hers and the assassin’s, thereby taking the bullet meant for her and ending up with a wounded arm. Apparently, though there were a number of real-life assassination attempts on Victoria and/or Albert, many of them linked to the Chartist movement of activists challenging the malapportionment of districts in the House of Commons and calling for secret ballots, pay for Members of Parliament (so that the non-rich could afford to run) and other reforms to make Britain more democratic (the Chartists were shown and identified by name in the ITV miniseries but not here), none of the assassins got close enough to inflict any actual injuries on the Queen or her husband. Fellowes’ script also depicts Victoria and Albert as sexually attracted to each other and very hot in bed — though the joke “close your eyes and think of England” regarding a woman’s obligation to submit to the dreary routine of sex dates from the Victorian era, this Queen (or at least Fellowes’ version thereof) genuinely enjoys sex with her husband and we get the impression they had nine kids together because they thoroughly appreciated each other’s bedtime company and weren’t procreating just out of a sense of royal obligation. The closing credits claim that Victoria “remains the longest-reigning British sovereign to date,” which was true in 2009 when the film was released, but in 2015 the current Queen Elizabeth II (who apparently is having a royal snit right now because Prime Minister Theresa May invited Donald Trump for a state visit to Britain and the Queen really doesn’t want to have to receive that boor) broke her record.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Doctor Blake Mysteries: “Against All Odds” (Australian ITV/BBC/PBS, 2016)

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

I watched the PBS telecast of “Against the Odds,” an episode of the Australian ITV production The Doctor Blake Mysteries that was actually quite good — a jockey dies of an apparent accident the day after he won a big race that, we find out later, he was supposed to throw — even though the show had a recurring flaw of British Commonwealth mysteries: the characterizations are so deep and well-rounded that by the time writer Stuart Page gets around to telling us who the murderer was (Blake deduces early on that the rider — and his horse — were killed by someone stringing a rope across the track so they would fall, though originally the killer intended the jockey to die but the horse to live) we really don’t care that much. The establishing story of Dr. Lucien Blake was he had served in the British military as a medic in Singapore, and had been so traumatized by that experience that after his discharge he returned to the small town of Ballarat, Australia where he’d grown up. This episode explained why he hadn’t married his partner Jean Beazley even though they were living together in small-town Australia in the 1950’s and as far as anyone knew they were husband and wife.

It turns out he already had a wife, Mei Lin Blake (Ling Cooper Tang), a part-Chinese, part-British woman he’d met in China before the war and who’d been living with him in Singapore when the war broke out, the British fortress in Singapore fell, she was captured and held against her will for several years in Japanese-occupied China during World War II until she managed to escape and find her way back to Ballarat. She comes to live with her husband and her husband’s current girlfriend until she realizes she’ll be a fish out of water — and he sensibly lets her go, allowing her to move into a local hotel. By the time this plot line resolves itself we hardly care anymore who killed the jockey — or later set up the jockey’s principal rival to get killed when he was trampled by a horse while fleeing — and there’s a nice performance by Damien Richardson as local bookie Terrence Noonan, who when he isn’t fixing local races is getting worried because the Australian government is about to institute legal off-track betting and that will, of course, kill his business. Noonan also has his hooks into the local police sergeant, Bill Hobart (David Whiteley), who owes him 350 pounds and tells Noonan he intends to pay off his debt even if he also has to arrest Noonan for murder — only it turns out the real killer is the horse’s trainer, Agnes Clasby (Helen Morse), who had bet against her own horse as part of Noonan’s scheme (as had the jockey riding him, though eventually, like John Garfield at the end of Body and Soul, he recovered enough of his self-respect that he won a contest even though he would have been better off financially if he’d lost) — and there’s also the fascinating character of her stable hand Rose Anderson (Anna McGahan), who makes no particular secret that she likes horses considerably better than people and actually fires a gun in the general direction of Dr. Blake and the principals at the end, which briefly makes her a red herring before Agnes is revealed to be the killer.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

American Experience: Rachel Carson (WGBH/PBS, 2017)

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

I watched the American Experience special on biologist and nature writer Rachel Carson, who trained as a marine biologist, worked for years at the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife and stumbled into national consciousness in 1951 with the publication of her book The Sea Around Us. Carson was born May 27, 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania, the third of three daughters of the formidable Marie Carson, who taught her to appreciate nature and study it scientifically. Carson eventually fastened on marine biology as her specialty — though according to the show she only dived once, and that was for just eight minutes — and her rise in the scientific profession (she got a masters’ degree but for financial reasons had to drop her pursuit of a Ph.D.) was hampered not only by being a woman but by having to care for much of her family, including her mom (who depended on Rachel for financial support after Rachel’s dad died in 1935), her sisters and their kids. So Rachel Carson had the responsibility of caring for a family without having acquired one through a normal relationship — indeed it seems likely that Carson never had a sexual relationship of any kind. Carson’s skill at popularizing biological concepts and explaining them in prose of often breathtaking beauty became apparent when she worked on Fish and Wildlife brochures and — a part of her career unmentioned in the PBS documentary — the scripts for a weekly radio show called Romance Under the Waters. She wrote her first book, Under the Sea-Winds, in 1941, but had the misfortune to release it just before the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the U.S. into World War II. Meanwhile — and the PBS Carson documentary does an excellent job dramatizing this with quite a lot of footage from industry and government promotional films of the period — the insect-killing properties of a chemical called DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), which was used extensively in both the European and Pacific theatres. There are shots of people in Naples enthusiastically lining up to be sprayed with DDT to avoid getting lice, and also notes on how the stuff was used in the Pacific to stop the spread of the Anopheles mosquito that spreads malaria. After the war DDT was released for civilian use and heavily promoted as a chemical that would be lethal to insects but harmless to people, and at the same time the development of atomic weapons and particularly the hydrogen bomb made people aware for the first time that chemicals in the atmosphere that were barely visible could nonetheless kill. (The Carson documentary tells the story of the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon V, whose crew was doused with fallout from America’s first H-bomb test, leading to the death of everyone on board from radiation sickness — though the show did not mention that it was this incident that inspired the original 1954 Japanese version of Godzilla.) Carson had become concerned with DDT’s potential long-term implications — particularly its effect on birds and its gradual accumulation in higher and higher concentrations as it moved up the food chain — as early as 1945, when based on Fish and Wildlife researches she wrote an article about it and submitted it to Reader’s Digest, which turned it down. Carson’s 1951 book The Sea Around Us became a surprise bestseller; instead of relying on her own research as she had with Under the Sea-Winds, she synthesized the work of other scientists and added a piquant, quasi-poetic prose style that delighted readers.

The Sea Around Us was such a hit that it inspired the reissue of Under the Sea-Winds, Carson sold the movie rights (though she hated the Lewis Allen documentary film that got released — her contract had given her the right to “review” the film’s script but not to insist on changes — and, like J. D. Salinger, she hated the experience of having her work filmed so much she never again sold movie rights to any of her books), and she got a contract for a third book on the sea, The Edge of the Sea, based on other scientists’ research and also on her own explorations of the coastline. Carson used the money to buy a summer house in Maine and befriended a couple named Stanley and Dorothy Freeman — and, though they only spent about two months in each other’s physical presence over a 10-year friendship, Carson and Dorothy Freeman wrote powerful, emotionally intense letters to each other that were basically a throwback to a 19th century model of friendship in which people addressed each other in ways that in the late 20th century would be considered appropriate only for people who were, or wanted to be, sexually involved with each other. In the 1950’s she briefly considered writing a book about evolution and also one about the environment called Remembrance of the Earth, as the preliminary studies being done on DDT and other long-lasting pesticides convinced her that the continued indiscriminate use of such substances threatened life on earth. She began what became the book Silent Spring in 1958 but was slowed up by the cancer that eventually killed her. When Silent Spring was first released in 1962 — her friend William Shawn published three extended excerpts in The New Yorker months before the book as a whole was available — it caused a sensation and pretty much set the terms for environmental debate (on both sides!) that have obtained since. Though the PBS documentary (narrated movingly by actress Mary-Louise Parker, who plays Carson in readings from her works and her letters, mostly to Dorothy Freeman) doesn’t stress the point, one gets the distinct impression that opposition to Carson’s work was motivated as much by sexism as by corporate and individual self-interest. Male scientists and corporate leaders were used to being acclaimed as heroes who were changing the face of the earth to make it better and more habitable for humans, and here was this woman who’d previously been known for nice, harmless books about the sea challenging all that and portraying the captains of industry and what former President Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell address (right after he warned about the “military-industrial complex”) called “the scentific-technological elite” and which he regarded as similarly dangerous, as the potential destroyers of life on earth. Silent Spring also was one of the first books to advance the concept later known as “ecology,” the idea that all life forms on earth are interconnected and therefore wiping out one seemingly inconvenient form of life could have dire consequences for other species that humans considered desirable.

The book so closely set the tone for debate on environmental issues in general and pesticides in particular that when I did an article on the history of pesticides for the Holistic Living News in the early 1980’s among the books I consulted, along with Silent Spring itself, were tomes called Before Silent Spring and Since Silent Spring — as well as That They May Live, a 1964 response book financed by the pesticide industry and written under contract to them by Congressmember Jamie L. Whitten (D-Mississippi), who was also a strong racist whose Congressional seat was protected when Mississippi lost a seat following the 1960 census by simply jamming his district together with racial moderate Frank E. Smith’s, thereby ensuring Smith’s defeat in the next election. (Smith tells this story in his book Congressman from Mississippi, and in 1964 the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to these sorts of shenanigans in their “one person, one vote” decision.) It was ironic, to say the least, that PBS aired this show the day President Donald Trump signed executive orders green-lighting the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, using the same sorts of arguments made by Rachel Carson’s opponents 55 years ago — that potential long-term damage to the environment is utterly unimportant; what matters is the U.S. economy and jobs here and now — confirming the anti-environmentalist message of his campaign and also, I suspect, reinforcing his whole macho concept of leadership. It’s long struck me that there’s a sexist component in the anti-environmentalist movement, a sense that real men get their energy by drilling for oil or digging for coal, and it’s only women and feminized “men” who advocate for solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy sources. Likewise real men use pestcides and herbicides when they farm, and it’s only women and feminized “men” who concern themselves with long-term environmental consequences — though, ironically, at least part of the anti-environmentalism that’s so much a part of the American Right (less so the Right in other countries) comes from the arrogant dismissal of it in female author Ayn Rand’s novels and her belief that any environmental problems created by untrammeled capitalism could be solved by it as well (like Atlas Shrugged protagonist John Galt’s physics-defying motor that runs on air).

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (Warner Bros., Woodley Productions, 1952)

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

Last night’s “feature” was the next Abbott and Costello movie in the sequence, Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd, which was their second and last film for Warner Bros. (through an “independent” production company called Woodley Productions). Sources differ on just how these two films, Jack and the Beanstalk (a sort-of adaptation of the classic fairy tale which began and ended in black-and-white but the fantasy part was in color à la The Wizard of Oz) and Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd, got made and why. One source on imdb.com says it was because Abbott and Costello wanted to make films in color and Universal wouldn’t give them the budget (in the early 1950’s it still cost about twice as much to make a film in color as in black-and-white); another said that it was a way of creating nest eggs for both Abbott and Costello, since each of the films would be owned by one of the star — Jack and the Beanstalk was to be Costello’s and Captain Kidd was Abbott’s — though as things turned out Jack and the Beanstalk slipped into the public domain and Captain Kidd didn’t. Producer Alex Gottlieb (who had made Abbott and Costello’s star-making films for Universal in the early 1940’s) wisely hired Charles Laughton to play Captain Kidd, since Laughton had already played him in a 1945 film directed by Rowland V. Lee from a script by his brother Robert, and while having little to do with the life of the real Captain Kidd it was a quite entertaining film, well balanced between serious action drama and camp, despite some major overacting from the cast (even a normally restrained performer like Randolph Scott, playing the good-guy romantic lead, got some teeth marks on the scenery). Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd contains six songs by Bob Russell and Lester Lee — when the first one came on, a choral number in which Captain Kidd’s crew sings his praises, Charles joked, “Ah! Abbott and Costello in The Pirates of Penzance!” He wasn’t far wrong; though Russell and Lee are hardly in Gilbert and Sullivan’s league as a songwriting team, they came up with some fun songs (considerably better than the lame ones they wrote for Jack and the Beanstalk), and Alex Gottlieb’s casting people came up with two nice-voiced singers to play the romantic leads: Irish tenor Bill Shirley as Bruce Martingale and big-band singer Fran Warren, billed as making her movie debut, as his love interest, Lady Jane. (Warren had sung with the Claude Thornhill band a decade earlier and been the vocalist on their biggest hit, “A Sunday Kind of Love.”)

The problem with this movie is that virtually nothing happens; the characters simply chase each other around sets both representing ships and shore, and though I nodded off during much of the movie Abbott and Costello seemed in the parts I did see more like comic-relief sidekicks in an operetta than stars. The script was credited to Howard Dimsdale and John Grant, but it doesn’t seem like Grant had that much to do with it because he was A&C’s go-to guy for “Who’s on First”-style wordplay and there’s virtually nothing of that sort of thing here. The director was Charles Lamont, who by then was making most of A&C’s films at Universal too, and like the rest of the movie he’s O.K. without being especially inspired. Oddly, it’s only at the end of the film that Dimsdale and Grant have Charles Laughton and Lou Costello impersonate each other — had they done it earlier and had Costello fearful both of Kidd killing him and of the authorities capturing and executing him as a pirate, they would have had the basis of a film both more entertaining and more funny than the one they made — though the close-up of Costello imitating Laughton’s pursed-lip scowl is still a lot of fun and worth having. The plot, in case it matters, casts Kidd and female pirate Anne Bonney (Hillary Brooke, as good as a villainess here as she was as Professor Moriarty’s partner in crime in the 1945 Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes film The Woman in Green) as sometime partners, sometime rivals (and Brooke’s relative restraint compares favorably to Laughton’s overacting, which not surprisingly is even worse here than it was in his more-or-less “serious” previous performance as Kidd) as Kidd and his crew search for buried treasure on “Skull Island” (one wonders where are the living dinosaurs and the 50-foot ape, since “Skull Island” was also the name of the locale of the original King Kong and its direct sequel, Son of Kong) and the two nice young kids playing the romantic leads finally get together.

Oddly, though one of the reasons this film exists is so Abbott and Costello could make films together in color, the process was SuperCinécolor (their budget wouldn’t stretch as far as three-strip Technicolor and Eastmancolor, the process that studios were allowed to name after themselves as “WarnerColor,” “Metrocolor,” etc., wasn’t generally available yet) and the color on the print we were watching (from Turner Classic Movies’ Abbott and Costello marathon at the end of 2012) was badly faded to the point where certain scenes looked awfully black-and-white to us. It seems strange that the current holders of the Warners catalog spent the money to do a vivid color restoration on Jack and the Beanstalk but have left this one, which isn’t in the public domain, to rot. This film is more evidence that the bloom was off the rose for Abbott and Costello big-time — one of the funniest gags is one in which Lou Costello looks out the porthole of Kidd’s ship and gets drenched with water (a nice variant on the “’Tain’t a fit night out for man nor beast” gag from Clyde Bruckman’s savagely funny 1933 short The Fatal Glass of Beer with W. C. Fields), but even there the writers couldn’t resist the old A&C chestnut of having Costello call Abbott, who opens the porthole … and nothing happens. The consensus of the critics in 1952 was that Charles Laughton was over the hill and through as an actor — and certainly he did nothing to change that perception the next year, when he turned up as King Herod in the Rita Hayworth Salomé (based on an alternate version of the story also used by Massenet in his opera Herodïade, in which Salomé does her dance to ransom John the Baptist in hopes of receiving him alive, and Herod double-crosses her and presents him to her dead instead) and overacted so relentlessly he was just about as funny in this presumably “serious” context as he is in Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd. Fortunately Laughton had at least two great performances in great movies in the last decade of his life — as attorney Sir Wilfred Robarts in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and U.S. Senator Seabright “Seab” Cooley in his last film, Advise and Consent (1962).

Monday, January 23, 2017

Victoria, episodes 1 through 3 (ITV/PBS, 2016)

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

I had a rather nervous evening and spent most of it watching TV, including the first three hours of the quite good British TV miniseries about the life and reign of Queen Victoria, called simply Victoria, made in 2016 not by the BBC but by Britain’s commercial television company, ITV — though certainly in the style we’ve come to know from the British drawing-room dramas, concentrating on the relationships between the human characters instead of the sheer spectacle of the monarchy and its court. Victoria became Queen of England in 1837 following the death of the previous king, William IV, who himself had acceded to the throne after the 10-year reign of his older brother George IV. All these people were members of the House of Hanover, which had been imported from Germany in the 18th century after the fall of the Stuarts to make sure the United Kingdom stayed safely Protestant — indeed, until Victoria’s grandfather George III became king in 1760 the Hanover monarchs spoke German exclusively and carried out the court’s business in that language. Some of this is reflected on the program in the character of Victoria’s mother, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield, who in the show is constantly lapsing into German when addressing her daughter, who has to keep correcting her and reminding her that as the rulers of Britain they should speak only English.

The show stars Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria, and its main dramatic point is that she took the throne at 18 and a lot of people both in the royal court and in Parliament, bitterly divided between the “Whig” (Liberal) and “Tory” (Conservative) parties, thought she was too young and immature for the job and wanted there to be a regency led by her surviving uncle. Victoria is shown as fiercely independent, anxious to succeed, chafing at the limitations on the royal role imposed by the British constitution — she’s shocked to learn that slavery is still in effect on the island of Jamaica and is upset that she can’t just issue a royal proclamation abolishing it — and also as incredibly moralistic. In the first episode, “Doll 123” (named after an actual doll in her collection which at age 11 she literally crowned when she realized that one day she would quite likely be queen), she suspects an affair between Lady Flora Hastings (Alice Orr-Ewing) and another courtier with whom she shared a carriage ride. She orders two doctors to conduct an “examination” of Lady Flora — it’s not clear, but at least the implication is there that the doctors are really performing an abortion on the illicitly pregnant Flora, only the operation goes horribly wrong and Lady Flora contracts an infection and dies — though the official story is that she only appeared to be pregnant and really suffered from a tumor. It’s an interesting plot point that fits given that the word “Victorian” has entered the language as meaning a period of particularly intense sexual repression and judgmental “morality” imposed by government fiat.

But the main thrust of the first three episodes (as often seems to happen in shows like this, in order to start with a spectacular opening show the PBS telecast jammed the first two episodes into one two-hour “event” presentation) is Victoria’s relationship with her prime minister, Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), whom she’s infatuated with even though he’s almost three times her age and he’s a widower. It’s previously established that he stayed loyal to his wife even when she ran off with Lord Byron (that Lord Byron?) and, though she’s long dead, in the film’s kinkiest scene he takes a lock of her hair from a keepsake box and practically makes love to it. (Ironically, according to historian Robert K. Massie, Victoria did something similar when her later husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha — who was also her first cousin — died; she had a cast made of his face and his hand and had them placed next to her bed so she could reach out, see his face and hold his hand just as she had when he was alive, and in Cabinet meetings she often asked aloud the WWAD question — “What would Albert do?”) The third episode, “Brocket Hall,” deals with Melbourne’s deteriorating political position — his Whig Party loses a vote of confidence in Parliament and the Tories select Robert Peel as the new prime minister; Victoria signals the only Tory she’s willing to accept as the head of government is the Duke of Wellington, who begs off on the ground that he’s too old; and eventually she forces a constitutional confrontation and insists that Melbourne stay on — and also the vexing question of just whom Victoria should marry: Prince Albert (pushed on her by yet another uncle, King Leopold of Belgium), the British Prince George (Nicholas Agnew), the Russian Grand Duke (Daniel Donskoy), or no one at all. (Victoria is shown casting several long gazes at the portrait of her illustrious predecessor, “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth. and wondering whether it would be best if she followed Elizabeth’s example.)

There are also sequences dealing with the Chartist rebellions that swept Britain in the 1840’s, whose platform, known as the People’s Charter, called for universal suffrage for all men 21 and over (and there were a few especially radical Chartists who advocated for votes for women as well), a secret ballot, elimination of the requirement that Members of Parliament be landowners, payment for M.P.’s so working-class people could afford to serve, redistricting to make legislative districts equal in population, and new elections every year. The Chartist movement was violently repressed by the authorities, and many of the movement’s leaders were deported to Australia (where some of them continued their activities) while others were put on trial for treason — though eventually, starting with the Second Reform Act of 1867 (sponsored by Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli under Victoria’s reign), some of the Chartists’ demands ultimately became law. There’s a spectacular scene of Victoria herself being confronted by Chartist demonstrators as she unveils a monument to her uncle the Earl of Kent — an interesting counterpoint to the fooforaw going on in Washington, D.C. right now as the Trump administration declares war on the media for daring to report that the crowds for his inauguration in 2017 were considerably smaller than for President Obama’s first inaugural in 2009.

It’s nice to see a “Royal porn” show that actually acknowledges the working-class movements of the time — indeed, in 1842 a Chartist named John Francis actually took a shot at Queen Victoria, and she rode along the same route the next day in hopes of provoking him into a second attempt so the authorities could arrest him. It’s also fascinating that Victoria goes into a hissy-fit when she’s told that she has to replace her ladies-in-waiting that were married to Whig politicians and install Tories’ wives instead — she thinks, not unreasonably, that just because one party lost an election that shouldn’t determine who gets to serve in her royal household. Victoria, judging from the first three (of eight) episodes, is a quite good bit of political TV, drenched in past-is-brown orthodoxies (explainable by the fact that when it occurred the palaces were still lit by candles; Victoria tries to have gas put in but one of the palace staff burns her hand trying to light the gas jet and Victoria’s mom peremptorily orders the conversion stopped, especially since the gas installation also disturbed the palace’s rats and they started migrating to the living quarters) but vividly acted in that marvelously understated way British actors have of vivifying their country’s history.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Destination Inner Space (Harold Goldman Associates, Television Enterprises Corporation, United Pictures, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The two “Vintage Sci-Fi” films shown last night in Golden Hill were Destination Inner Space and the original 1966 Fantastic Voyage. Destination Inner Space was a bizarre 1966 production credited to a bizarre assortment of companies — Harold Goldman Associates, Television Enterprises Corporation, United Pictures (not United Artists Pictures, just United Pictures!) — and was so cheesy the DVD being shown was a 2011 reissue coming from a company called Cheezy Flicks Entertainment (http://cheezyflicks.com), though their total list includes some older films that may not be deathless masterpieces but aren’t really “cheesy” either, including Rowland V. Lee’s 1945 Captain Kidd with Charles Laughton and Randolph Scott, and the estimable 1962 British horror-sci-fi film The Day of the Triffids. Destination Inner Space is one of those bad films with the makings of — well, maybe not a great film but at least an entertaining one; the premise is that a spaceship from another planet lands under water near the Sea Lab, an experimental underwater laboratory where the usual assorted motley crew of humans live and work together researching underseas life. Among the people playing human beings are at least two actors with connections to considerably more illustrious people: Gary Merrill, fourth (and last) husband of Bette Davis and co-star with her in three films, including All About Eve; and Sheree North, who in 1955 got to make a film with Betty Grable called How to Be Very, Very Popular after the originally set co-star, Marilyn Monroe, walked out at the last minute. (Marjorie Rosen in her book Popcorn Venus couldn’t resist the pun that the film was “very, very unpopular” and took Sheree North’s career with it; 20th Century-Fox pretty much abandoned her and made Jayne Mansfield their “next Marilyn” instead.)

The star — or at least the top-billed actor — of Destination Inner Space is Scott Brady, who plays Commander Wayne (if he has a first name, we never learn it), a hot-shot diver who on a previous mission alienated Dr. LaSatier (Gary Merrill) and some of the other personnel as well. Wayne and his diving partner, Dr. Renee Peron (Sheree North), whom he works with despite the usual sexist “digs” about the bad luck involved in having a woman living in a confined space with so many men and doing the sort of work men were meant to do. In fact, they sail together under the sea in a preposterous open-cockpit runabout instead of the enclosed bathysphere we were expecting, and one wonders how they deal with the water pressure at the depths they’re exploring. (When I looked this film on imdb.com the review that came up was from the current owner of this prop, though he didn’t say whether it was a model or built full-sized.) The humans invade the cockpit of the whatsit and find what at first looks like some sort of metal shell or bomb, which turns out actually to be the egg of a giant sea creature (listed in the credits only as “The Thing” and played by Ron Burke), which almost instantly hatches, assumes what we presume is its full adult size and is one of the most ridiculous screen monsters of all time. The film’s director, Francis D. Lyon, working from a screenplay by Arthur C. Pierce (a name I couldn’t help ridiculing as the credits roll — “Written by Arthur C. — oh, Pierce”), shows that he’d never seen a Val Lewton movie in his life, nor even The Creature from the Black Lagoon (not that great a movie, but its director, Jack Arnold, at least knew enough to “tease” us by showing the monster in bits and pieces before giving us a full-frontal on it.

Also, while the monster in the film’s poster art is a pretty uniform green (making his design even more evocative, shall we say, of the Creature from the Black Lagoon than it is in the film), the one we see in the movie is a glorious riot of neon-bright colors that makes it look like the work of a piñata maker with a particularly demented imagination (and makes one wonder why, instead of harpooning the creature, the staff of the Sea Lab don’t put blindfolds on, whack it with sticks and wait for it to break and the candy to come out). The film’s imdb.com page credits Richard Cassarino as “amphibian creator,” but it looks like he just copied Paul Blaisdell’s design for the generic American International monster and added a few fins and other protuberances to suggest “oceanicity.” I couldn’t help but laugh every time this gloriously colored animated piñata came out even though its appearance was clearly supposed to scare me silly — well, at least the “silly” part is accurate. About all that happens in Destination Inner Space is a series of chase scenes between the monster and the humans around the Sea Lab — occasionally the monster gets to go back in the water and swim around for a bit, only to re-emerge inside the Sea Lab — and the people keep harpooning the monster, which keeps surviving the assaults until sheer exhaustion and the end of the film’s 85-minute running time intervene and the great piñata finally dies, much to the displeasure of Dr. LaSatier, who in the best flaring tones Gary Merrill no doubt learned from his ex says they should have kept the creature alive for study instead of knocking it off, an embarrassing tic of movie scientists in monster films ever since Robert Cornthwaite’s looney-tunes scientist in the 1951 film The Thing. Done with some sort of flair for genuine fright, Destination Inner Space might have been at least a passably good monster film — and though the original posters ballyhooed that it was in color, it might have actually been scarier in black-and-white — but as it stands it’s not quite stupid enough to be camp but not well done enough to be entertaining on its own merits, either — and one wonders why the color of that deep-sea exploration craft keeps changing from mustard yellow to orange to red (the guy who owns the prop says it’s red in real life).

Fantastic Voyage (20th Century-Fox, 1966)

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

The next film on the program was the 1966 Fantastic Voyage, a film with a provocative premise that I remember seeing when it first came out. The setting is pure Cold War propaganda: both the U.S. and our Cold War adversaries (carefully unnamed in the committee-written script — Otto Klement and Jay Lewis Bixby get credit for the story, David Duncan for “adaptation” and Harry Kleiner for the actual script, which strongly supports my general field theory of cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers — with Richard Fleischer, whose last name is also the German word for “butcher,” as director) have figured out a way to miniaturize people and other matter to the size of microbes so entire armies can be packed in a suitcase, smuggled wherever they need to go and then reassembled at full size without the bothersome necessity of shipping troops and equipment to a country you wish to invade. The problem is that the process only works for exactly one hour, after which the miniaturized people and equipment automatically revert to normal size. (Interestingly, this was also the premise of Henry Kuttner’s original story “Dr. Cyclops” — a German scientist, Dr. Thorkeld, has set up a lab in Argentina to work on shrinking people and military hardware so der Führer can smuggle armies into the New World and invade — but when his story was filmed in 1940 that was abandoned and Dr. Thorkeld, played by Albert Dekker, became just a generic mad scientist instead.)

There is a way to make the miniaturization last longer than than an hour, but the only person on earth who knows how to do it is Dr. Jan Benes (Jean Du Val), escapee from the Iron Curtain, and when he’s on his way to the secret lab of the Combined Miniature Deterrent Forces (CMDF) (actually “played” by the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, though burnished to a beautiful, shiny gloss without the detritus of tobacco, alcohol, junk food, vomit and urine that usually afflicts real sports arenas) — as one imdb.com contributor noted, instead of sneaking him in the dead of night in an unmarked car the CMDF people have organized a full motorcade with police escort that’s ridiculously easy for the other side to spot and attack — an enemy car deliberately crashes into his and the great scientist is left with a nasty clot in his brain that’s going to kill him. The clot is unreachable by conventional brain surgery, but if a submarine vessel and crew can be miniaturized and injected into Benes, they can travel up his arteries to the clot, burn it out with a laser beam, save Benes and escape through the venous system … The crew consists of Grant (Stephen Boyd, best known as the villain Messala in the 1959 Ben-Hur but good-looking and square-jawed enough to be a movie hero seven years later), the commander; Dr. Michaels (Donald Pleasance) and Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy), who are supposed to provide the medical expertise; Dr. Duval’s assistant, Cora Peterson (Raquel Welch), whom he insists has necessary expertise to help him but of course is really there only to provide the teenage straight guys in the audience something to ogle (this was her first major film role and she spends most of the movie looking straight ahead at the camera with a blank expression, but then Welch didn’t become a star because of her face); and captains Donald Reid (Arthur O’Connell) and Bill Owens (William Redfield).

The craft they’re supposed to take their “fantastic voyage” in is called the Proteus (a name that takes one of the crew members by surprise until he’s told, “That’s the name of this vessel; sounds better than calling it the U91O35”), and in a series of annoying stages they’re successively miniaturized and injected into Benes. A number of people at the screening wondered what might have happened if someone had walked through the staging area and put his or her foot down in the wrong place at the wrong time … oops. Once the Proteus and its crew get inside Benes they have to deal with all sorts of cool phenomena; the script posits that blood is actually clear in color — it only looks red because of the presence of red blood cells, which float by like the bubbles in a lava lamp (though it occurred to me that the historical sequence might have gone the other way around — maybe the makers of lava lamps figured out how to do it from the way the effects were done in this movie) —and the blood cells floating in the cool plasma are either red (arterial cells carrying oxygen), blue (venous cells waiting for oxygen molecules to be attached to them so they can be sent out the arteries again and deliver the oxygen to the rest of the body that needs it), or white (infection-fighting cells). The crew members are also warned about antibodies, which we are told will “read” the Proteus and its crew as infectious microbes and clump onto them to kill the enemy invader — and in the big scene everyone remembers Cora Peterson is the victim of an antibody attack as she and the other crew members take one of their extended trips outside the Proteus (in this case to get the seaweed-like tendrils, which are supposed to be lymphatic cells, out of the ship’s vents so it doesn’t overheat) and the males have to pull crystallized antibodies off Raquel Welch’s body and her skin-tight white jumpsuit. One woman at the screening wondered why, with at least three other possible candidates, the antibodies picked on her and left the males alone — to which I replied, “That’s a 1960’s movie for you. Even the antibodies are sexist.”

Of course, the writing committee couldn’t resist yet another one of the clichés of the commando crew in a remote location sub-genre of the war movie (which, let’s face it, is basically what this is): they have one of the crew members be a traitor, deliberately sabotaging the mission, and while it’s supposed to be a big secret it’s not hard to figure out that the traitor is Dr. Michaels. He’s got a shaved head like Erich von Stroheim, he’s being played by Donald Pleasance with the smarmiest version of a British accent the actor could come up with, and he’s openly mocking when Dr. Duval, Grant and the other crew members quote inspirational poetry to the effect that their “fantastic voyage” through a person’s blood system is bringing them closer to God. (It was Charles who noted that part of the film’s Cold War politics was to have the religious believers be the good guys and the skeptic be the bad guy — remember in the Cold War our enemy was officially defined as not just Communism, but “Godless Communism,” and that’s when “In God We Trust” was put on our money and the original Pledge of Allegiance was defiled with the words “under God,” telling me and other non-believers that we can not be real Americans.) Dr. Michaels finally gets his when he and the Proteus are devoured by a white corpuscle, and the other four escape by sneaking out of the corner of Benes’ eye, where they’re transferred to a microscope slide and then returned to the staging area (an assembly of hexagons that in at least some of Fleischer’s shots look like Michael Jackson and a batch of chorus boys are going to emerge and do a dance on it), where they resume full size.

Fantastic Voyage isn’t quite as tacky as Destination Inner Space — after all, it was the production of a major studio (20th Century-Fox) and had actors you’ve heard of, as well as some awesomely beautiful special effects (alternating with some pretty tacky ones) — but it’s not a great movie either. The acting honors are taken by Edmond O’Brien, who plays the general in charge of the whole secret project and delivers a performance of power and authority that shames everyone locked inside that little tin can of a sub (which frankly looks more like a particularly ornate coat button than anything else). Raquel Welch does what she was put in the movie to do — there’s an especially hot scene in which she changes out of a form-fitting overall into a form-fitting white thing under it that at least shows off her cleavage — and there’s a reason why the antibody attack on her is the big scene in this movie that everyone who’s seen it remembers. An imdb.com “Trivia” poster has this tale about that scene: “When filming the scene where the other crew members remove attacking antibodies from Ms. Peterson for the first time, director Richard Fleischer allowed the actors to grab what they pleased. Gentlemen all, they specifically avoided removing them from Raquel Welch‘s breasts, with an end result that the director described as a ‘Las Vegas showgirl’ effect. Fleischer pointed this out to the cast members — and on the second try, the actors all reached for her breasts. Finally the director realized that he would have to choreograph who removed what from where, and the result is seen in the final cut.”

The imdb.com contributors also noted the plot holes and inconsistencies involved in the story, particularly the interchanges between miniaturized and non-miniaturized matter, which were resolved when a science-fiction writer with considerably more of a reputation than any who worked on the actual script, Isaac Asimov, was hired to do the novelization of the film. Asimov accepted the job if he’d be given the right to fix the plot holes and get the story into a form that made sense, and because of delays caused by the time it took to get the effects right his novel came out six months before the movie did — which begs the question why the film’s writers didn’t use the delays to edit their script to incorporate Asimov’s changes. It’s also why a lot of science-fiction and film historians got the wrong impression that Fantastic Voyage was based on an Asimov novel. Fantastic Voyage is a fun film, ridiculously uneven — there are remarkable sequences of almost unearthly beauty alternating with ludicrous and risible ones — but it still packs something of the original punch even though the plot premise virtually defines “far-fetched.” Incidentally, the basic premise was used for an animated cartoon shown on Saturday mornings for kids; it ran for 17 episodes in 1968-69 and changed the meaning of CMDF from Combined Miniaturization Deterrent Forces to Combined Miniature Defense Force, changed the name of the craft they sailed in from Proteus to Voyager, and also extended the time limit on the miniaturization from one hour to 12.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Accountant (Warner Bros., Electric City Entertainment, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, 2016)

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

Our “feature” movie last night was The Accountant, one of the two Blu-Ray discs I bought at my last Vons run along with Deepwater Horizon — and as much a pleasant surprise as Deepwater Horizon had been a deep (pardon the pun) disappointment. The blurb on the box made it seem like a knockoff of John Grisham’s The Firm, only with accountants instead of lawyers as the members of a secretly Mob-controlled service firm — but it turned out to be considerably richer and deeper than that, and an appropriate choice for the first movie we’ve watched under TrumpAmerica. Indeed, The Accountant actually has a direct connection to the Trump administration; Steven Mnuchin, who went from working for Goldman Sachs to running a hedge fund that, among other things, funded several movies, is Trump’s appointee for Secretary of the Treasury. That’s a surprise given the very jaundiced view of capitalism presented in this film! Directed by Gavin O’Connor from a script by Bill Dubuque (itself a good sign, given my general field theory of cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers), The Accountant begins with a shot of a troubled kid (Seth Lee) and his relatively more normal brother (Jake Presley) in the office of a neurologist (Jason Davis) who says he doesn’t want to assign labels, though the child we see is definitely autistic. This scene takes place in 1989 and the gist is that the neurologist wants the boy to live at his center, but the parents don’t want that because dad is in the Army and gets moved around a lot, and they want to keep both their sons with them wherever they happen to be. Then the film flashes forward to the present, with Internal Revenue Service agent Ray King (J. K. Simmons, who reminded me a lot of Dann Florek’s performance as Captain Donald Craigin in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) summoning one of his analysts, Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), to his office to ask why she’s never sought a promotion to agent herself. He already knows the reason why: she was involved in the drug scene in her teens and committed attempted murder at 17, then served her time, then cleaned up her act and applied for the IRS — but she put on her application that she had no criminal record, and that itself is a felony.

With that hanging over her head, he’s able to order her to take on the high-risk assignment of locating “The Accountant,” a mystery man who travels all over the world giving accounting services to the Mafia, drug cartels and the like. As King explains, “Say you’re the head of the Sinaloa Cartel. Now the cartels count their money in eighteen-wheelers. But one sunny Mexican day, your in-house money scrubber comes to you and says you’re $30 million light. Who can you trust to do the forensic accounting to track your stolen cash? Deloitte & Touche? H & R Block?” The mystery accountant uses the name “Christian Wolff” — one of a series of aliases he’s taken from the names of famous mathematicians (including Lewis Carroll, for whom math was his day job even though today he’s most famous for writing Alice in Wonderland) — and of course he’s a) played by the film’s star, Ben Affleck, and b) he’s the grown-up version of the autistic kid we saw in the prologue, and in case we forget that O’Connor and Dubuque give us a few flashbacks to remind us. While all this is going on, another mystery man is holding up people in finance and ordering them at gunpoint not to make certain sorts of stock trades — in one sequence he sticks up someone in his car in his parking lot and tells him he’ll be back to kill him unless he stops trading certain stocks short — “and I regularly read the [Wall Street] Journal, so I’ll know!,” is his parting line. At the suggestion of his handler, whom we don’t see and only hear as a British-accented phone voice, Christian decides to take a quasi-legitimate job for a change with a company called Living Robotics. A junior accountant at this firm, Dana Cummings (played by Anna Kendrick, who’s been criticized but I though she was wonderful!), has spotted missing funds in the company’s accounts and the company hires Christian to trace the shortages — only it turns out Christian has done his job too well: he traces them to the chief financial officer as well as the CEO, who are looting the company in preparation for its IPO. The Accountant has its flaws; Christian is portrayed not only as a high-functioning autistic accountant but also as an action hero on the level of James Bond or Jason Bourne — at one point he massacred nine members of the Gambino crime family out of a personal vendetta, and at the end he takes on the corrupt CEO of Living Robotics and manages to wipe out the guy’s entire security detail even though there are about nine of them and they’re as well armed as he is. The only one he spares is the head of the guy’s security, Brax (Jon Bernthal), who [spoiler alert!] turns out to be Christian’s long-lost younger brother.

Along the way Christian and Dana, who’s pretty clearly also a high-functioning autistic, drift into an affair and he lets Dana into his sanctum sanctorum, a trailer in which he keeps his most precious possessions, including original paintings by Renoir and Pollock and a first issue of Action Comics which he’s received as in-kind payments from members of his criminal clientele. The Accountant is a slow-moving thriller, more coherent than the 1997 Conspiracy Theory with Mel Gibson (who was also the first star considered for this film too) but somewhat reminiscent of it, but it’s a good deal better as a film; it maintains audience interest and is a great showcase role for Affleck, who has one of the most wretched list of credits of anyone with a major-star reputation (whatever possessed him to agree to play Jack Dupree in the atrocious 2007 “comedy” Smokin’ Aces, or Batman?) but every so often takes a role that convinces us he’s really a great actor. He did it under Allan Coulter’s direction in the 2006 film Hollywoodland (in which he superbly portrayed George Reeves, the actor who played Superman in the 1950’s TV series — one imdb.com “trivia” contributor argues that this makes Affleck the only actor who’s played both Superman and Batman, but that really seems like stretching a point to me) and he’s done it again here under O’Connor’s direction. (According to imdb.com O’Connor is scheduled to direct the next film Affleck and his filmmaking partner Matt Damon co-star in, Father-Daughter Time.) Christian is one of the most multidimensional characters ever put on screen, working for criminals but also donating generous chunks of his ill-gotten gains to the research center where he was diagnosed back in 1989 (and the final scene shows the clinic admitting a new boy and we learn that the dispatcher who gave Christian his orders is actually a long-term adult patient there), and he’s likable enough we root for him and Dana to stay together (even though they don’t — the last we see of Christian is him hooking up his trailer to a truck and driving off for parts unknown) — and Affleck plays him brilliantly, treading the thin edge of audience sympathy without making him so likable we can’t believe he’d do what the script tells us he’s done.

Though I think writer Dubuque went a bit too far in making Christian a super-action hero in addition to all his other aspects, otherwise The Accountant is that rarity: a modern movie that has the best aspects of the classics while still taking advantage of the greater freedom and honesty with which certain aspects of life, especially sexual ones, can be treated on the modern screen. (Having said that, I still give brownie points to O’Connor and Dubuque for allowing us to take the sexual relationship between Christian and Dana at face value and not showing Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick slobbering over each other.) The Accountant is a compelling thriller with a surprisingly cynical attitude towards capitalism, especially given that it was not only produced at the dawn of the Trump era but actually was co-produced by one of his Cabinet appointees, and I especially liked the scene in which Living Robotics’ corrupt CEO Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow, marvelous as usual) goes all Ayn Rand on us and tries to convince Christian he should be let alone because he’s a capitalist superman who’s creating so much value and worth in the world. “I’m fond of Dana. But I restore lives, not Dana! Me! Men, women, children, I give them hope, make them whole. Do you even know what that’s like?” Blackburn says — and both to eliminate him and to shut him up, Christian calmly drills a shot to his chest, killing him instantly. Take that, Howard Roark, Hank Rearden and John Galt!!!

Friday, January 20, 2017

Deepwater Horizon (Summit Entertainment, Participant Media, di Bonaventura Pictures, Lionsgate, 2016)

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

Our “feature” last night was actually a surprisingly disappointing movie: Deepwater Horizon, directed by Peter Berg from a story by Matthew Sand and a script by him and Matthew Michael Carnahan based on a New York Times news article by David Rohde and Stephanie Saul in turn based on the infamous blowout of the exploratory oil well Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast on April 20, 2010. The central characters of the film are technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) and his immediate supervisor on the rig, Jimmy Harrell (a surprisingly grizzled Kurt Russell), along with a woman driller named Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) and a couple of bad guys from the companies sponsoring the drilling, British Petroleum and TransOcean (the company that actually owned the drilling rig), Kaluza (Brad Leland) and Vidrine (John Malkovich), who refuse to let Harrell and Williams do the tests on the cement that’s supposed to be the last line of protection against a blowout because they don’t want to spend either the money or the time on this last precaution to make sure the well is safe. The movie I would have liked to see about the Deepwater Horizon is about what happened after the well blew out, 11 people died and BP and TransOcean spent the next 87 days trying to figure out how to put out the fire that was consuming the rig and stop the release of billions of barrels of oil from the failed well.

Instead the film they actually made focused on the operation of the Deepwater Horizon and the first day of the incident, and the main focus was the personal heroism of Harrell and Williams in putting their own lives at risk to evacuate the Deepwater Horizon safely before any more people died. Deepwater Horizon (the movie) contains some awesomely beautiful shots of the actual undersea drilling (the rig was designed to be “semi-submersible” and was essentially a barge — it was built in South Korea and moved across the Pacific to Freeport, Texas and thereafter into the Gulf of Mexico for use — and it was designed to drill 3 ½ miles under the ocean’s surface, the deepest oil well ever dug) and the fire that consumed the rig, but they’re stuck in to the middle of some of the sorriest scenes of human activity ever filmed. Aside from the principals, the people in the movie blur into an indistinguishable mass of macho guys, all talking at once in the most incomprehensible sound mix ever released on a major film since the first version of Heaven’s Gate and spouting so much oil-drillers’ jargon the film needs a lot of explanatory titles just to give the non-oil driller audience some clue about what’s supposed to be going on and what in fact is going wrong with what’s going on. This film’s script is more elaborately “planted” than just about anything made since the 1940’s, and while I generally like the way writers in the classic Hollywood era set up clues for how the plot was going to turn, this movie overdid it — especially in the early scene in which Mike Williams and his wife (Kate Hudson) watch as their daughter prepares a school project about “My Dad’s Job,” and to illustrate it she upends a Coca-Cola can, stabs it open with a small pipe, then pours honey down the pipe (the honey represents the “drilling mud” poured down an oil well to put pressure on the oil and get it to come out) and seals it with a pencil to show how a well is capped — only the combined pressure of the soda and the honey in the Coke can causes a burst that prefigures the real-life well blowout to come.

Deepwater Horizon is apparently the second of at least three movies in which Peter Berg has directed Mark Wahlberg in stories of survival based on real life — the first was Lone Survivor (2013), about a raid in Afghanistan against a Taliban leader, and the most recent is Patriots’ Day (2017), a story about the real-life bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013 — and though there are stray bits of anti-corporate commentary in Deepwater Horizon (which reminded Charles of the 1943 German film Titanic, which pitted a lone German-born ship’s officer against the captain and the head of the White Star Line, on whose pursuit of a world’s record Atlantic crossing the disaster is blamed), for the most part it’s just another war movie, albeit one in which the good guys are coming under fire from a force of nature they’ve inadvertently unleashed rather than a human enemy. Deepwater Horizon comes at a curious juncture in the Zeitgeist — there are a lot of ironies in this, of all films, being the last one Charles and I watched together in the pre-Trump era — given that like the rest of the Republican Party, Donald Trump seems not only opposed to but actually revolted by the whole concept of renewable energy. If there’s one thing Deepwater Horizon does right, it’s how well it dramatizes the whole association between oil drilling and the macho concepts of manliness and virtue, a concept that’s at the heart of the American Right’s idea of energy policy. Real men, the mentality holds, get their energy by doing vivid, intense, life-threatening things like drilling for oil or digging for coals; it’s only feminized wimps that hang solar panels or put up windmills — and given how determined the Trump administration is to focus America’s energy future almost exclusively on fossil fuels, it’s likely its policies will (to paraphrase Che Guevara’s famous line) create two, three, a thousand Deepwater Horizon incidents.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

American Experience: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (WGBH Educational Foundation/PBS, 2009)

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

I watched a PBS American Experience broadcast on “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln” which was actually filmed in 2009 (do they rerun this every time there’s a Presidential transition?) and written, produced and directed by Barak (no “c”) Goodman. I was worried that they’d try to remodel the history of the Lincoln assassination and pass John Wilkes Booth off as one lone nut, when in fact Lincoln was killed as part of a conspiracy by Confederate diehards hoping to achieve by decapitating the U.S. government what they had failed to win on the battlefields of the Civil War. Goodman’s program noted that in mid-August 1864 Lincoln was convinced he was going to lose his re-election campaign to Democratic nominee George McClellan, the bizarrely incompetent general who’d done his best (inadvertently) to lose the Civil War on the battlefield and was now running as a peace candidate — until the big campaigns of Generals Grant and Sherman in the south, and particularly Sherman’s capture of Atlanta on August 31, 1864, convinced Northern voters that the war was just about won and they should stay the course.

The conspiracy included three actual assassins: Booth, who was picked to kill Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre because as an actor who had frequently performed there his presence there would not attract suspicion (anyone seeing him around the theatre would presumably think he was just rehearsing for a future production); John Powell, who assaulted Secretary of State William Seward with a knife and literally severed his cheek from his face, but Seward survived (and not surprisingly the original newspaper accounts of Lincoln’s assassination directly made the connection between it and the attack on Seward), though with a bad facial scar he had for the rest of his life; and George Atzerodt, who was supposed to kill Vice-President Andrew Johnson but lost his nerve and got drunk instead. (As I noted in my comments on the movie The Conspirator — about the trial of boarding-house owner Mary Surratt for allegedly being part of the conspiracy, though the only evidence they had against her was a number of the conspirators were living at her boarding house and her son John was involved — one of the many ironies of the assassination plot was that Johnson, a notorious alcoholic who got his Presidency off to a bad start when he delivered his first speech after Lincoln’s death clearly “under the influence,” escaped the plot because his would-be assassin was also fond of the bottle.)

One point Goodman made was that Booth identified himself with the historical Brutus, the lead assassin of Julius Caesar; Booth’s father had been named Junius Brutus Booth (and he too had been an actor, as were Booth’s brothers Edwin and Junius, Jr. — indeed Goodman points out that the Booth family was one of those in which brothers took opposing sides in the Civil War: Edwin played most of his engagements in the North and supported the Union, while John Wilkes played in the South and endorsed the Confederate cause). Goodman depicts the Booths as an acting dynasty, like such later families as the Barrymores, the Powers and the Fondas, though he does not mention that Edwin Booth was considerably more popular — indeed, at the time a lot of people thought John Wilkes Booth had killed Lincoln just to do something that would make him more famous than his brother. (The 1955 film Prince of Players, a biopic of Edwin Booth with Richard Burton playing him, is largely about the career fallout and blacklisting Edwin suffered after his brother killed Lincoln and he was blamed.) Indeed, The Conspirator included a bonus DVD that had one of the most bizarre historical artifacts ever: a postcard advertising a production of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar with all three Booth brothers appearing. No fiction writer would dare make up a tale of one of the most notorious political assassins of all time acting in a play about another of the most notorious political assassinations of all time!

The show was generally well done, though it made the conspiracy seem less extensive than it really was and it ducked the question posed by the film The Conspirator, which was largely about the decision of U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to try the alleged conspirators not in a regular court but in what amounted to a military tribunal. It also covered the enormous outpouring of grief that accompanied the special train that took the coffins of Lincoln and his son Willie (who’d died in 1862) from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois — though it also mentioned that the Union victory in the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination did not heal the political polarization that had brought on the war in the first place and still hung on when Andrew Johnson (picked by Lincoln as his running mate as a gesture of unity to the South, since he was a Senator from the secessionist state of Tennessee but had refused to leave the U.S. Senate when his state seceded) pursued such a “soft” Reconstruction policy, including signing on to the Southern states’ “Black Codes” aimed at returning African-Americans to near-slave status, that Northern Republicans accused him of Confederate sympathies and ultimately impeached him when he fired Edwin Stanton (whose honest management of the War Department was credited by a lot of Northerners with having made the Union victory possible) from his Cabinet.

Scientology and Its Aftermath, episode 8 (Arts & Entertainment, 2017)

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

I put on Arts & Entertainment for the last episode of Scientology and the Aftermath, the eight-part “reality” series hosted by apostate Scientologist Leah Remini and this time featuring, instead of ex-Scientologists (aside from Mike Rinder, who had once been Scientology’s principal “enforcer” until he got thrown out of the church), reporters who had covered Scientology and been victims of its take-no-prisoners attitude towards its critics. (The longer this show has aired, the more it’s shown how Scientology head David Miscavige and President-elect Donald Trump are really alike in their thin-skinned natures and the viciousness with which they respond to all criticism. At least two letter-writers in this morning’s Los Angeles Times have commented that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus hasn’t really closed — it’s just moved to Washington, D.C., only now the ringmaster is one of the clowns.) One of the three people featured in this episode was Lawrence Wright, journalist who first wrote against Scientology in The New Yorker and then expanded his articles into a book called Going Clear that was largely about the disillusionment of writer-director Paul Haggis (Crash) and ultimate departure from Scientology, and who noted that “most religions don’t have secrets” (as another anti-Scientology writer once commented, the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t charge you $100,000 before they let you read the Book of Genesis; in Scientology you’re told that you have to reach “Operating Thetan Level III” before you’re psychologically well-developed enough to handle the tale of mad scientist Xenu and the origin of all human problems in his dastardly experiments on the planet Teegeeack, now known as Earth) and “Scientology is a religion that locks you in from the inside.”

Another was Ray Jeffrey, an attorney who took the case of Debbie Cook and her husband, Wayne Baumgarten, when they were sued by the Church of Scientology; Cook, Jeffrey explained, was “a victim of her own success” as head of the Flag Land Base, the pinnacle of the Sea Organization (Scientology’s governing clergy, reporting to David Miscavige, who runs the church as chair of the Religious Technology Corporation, which holds the copyrights to all the writings of church founder L. Ron Hubbard); she was summoned to the Scientology Vatican in Hemet, California (though the city government of Hemet tweeted the program producers to stress that the Scientology base camp is not in Hemet but in an unincorporated stretch of Riverside County just northeast of it) and got to experience Miscavige’s management-by-assault style up close and personal. A third interviewee was perhaps the quirkiest: ex-Moonie turned cult deprogrammer Steve Hoxsan, who recalled doing a tour with an apostate ex-Scientologist and comparing notes on how similar the cult indoctrinations were in both groups, including controlling every waking moment of the cult members’ lives (and keeping them awake as long as possible because sleep deprivation itself is a powerful form of mind control), giving them enormous amounts of esoteric material to read and regurgitate on command (while cramming them so full of this sort of information that they never have time to read anything else or to think critically about it), keeping them from any other sources of information and telling them essentially that the rest of the world is lying 24/7 and only the cult leaders and his or her authorities are to be trusted. It occurred to me that this sort of indoctrination goes far beyond cults; as I’ve written in these pages before, medical schools do the same sort of thing to their students, and even beyond that there have been entire countries, including Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union (especially under Stalin) and Communist China (especially under Mao), that have been run as cults, with the added evil that no one chose to be in the cult: they were just inducted into it and subjected to its power by being born and living in the wrong country at the wrong time. Mixed in with the interviews were a number of questions Remini and Rinder had received on Reddit, most of them pretty obvious, including one about Scientology’s attitude towards homosexuality — which, according to Remini and Rinder, is publicly O.K. but privately, or not so privately, condemns it as one of the lower elements on L. Ron Hubbard’s “Tone Scale” of human behavior — though they did not mention that Hubbard drove his Gay son Quentin to suicide.

I’ll acknowledge that the massive amounts of negative information about Scientology that have surfaced over the last decade have changed my point of view about it from regarding it as a silly phenomenon but one that mainly harmed people by taking their money, to a sinister cult comparable to the Moonies, Children of God etc. Indeed, the Church of Scientology is literally worth billions of dollars, largely because Hubbard made the conscious decision that instead of recruiting members from the down-and-out (as the original Christians and many other more recent cults had done), he would seek members from the upper socioeconomic strata to make sure they would have the ability to pay the Church large amounts of money for its “services.” He also consciously recruited celebrities to serve both as financial supports for the Church and as walking, talking advertisements — Remini remembered that when she was on the TV series The King of Queens she was under intense pressure from the Church of Scientology to recruit her co-star, Kevin James, only he already had a religion that suited him and he was quite happy with, and he wasn’t about to abandon it for anything else. One point Scientology has pushed in its recruitment is that it doesn’t regard itself as an exclusive faith — it tells people they can stay a Christian, Jew, Muslim or whatever they are and also be a Scientologists — even though its internal documents say that Scientologists are expected to embrace it “to the exclusion of other faiths” — which hasn’t stopped Louis Farrakhan, of all people, from publicly embracing the technology of Dianetics and Scientology as a way Nation of Islam members can make themselves better Muslims (there’s a bizarre clip of him saying just that in this final program!). Though this series was supposed to stop at the first eight episodes, Remini dropped a big hint at the end of this one that she may continue it — and if she does I hope she goes into the biggest point she failed to mention this time around: the enormous dossiers the Church of Scientology has on all of its members through their E-meter “auditing” sessions, which the Church can use in any way it likes because Scientological auditing, unlike the conventional psychotherapy it resembles, is not protected by confidentiality restrictions.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Open Marriage (MarVista Entertainment/Lifetime, 2017)

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

Last night Lifetime offered a “world premiere” of something called Open Marriage, a TV-movie from our old friends at MarVista Entertainment, directed by Sam Irvin from a script by Jason Byers and apparently shot under the working title To Have and to Kill. I’d been determined to watch this movie ever since I saw the promos, mainly because — unusually for a Lifetime movie — it features two devastatingly hot guys, Tilky Jones and Jason Tobias — and of course I spent the whole movie hoping that they’d dump their female spouses and hook up with each other! The plot: Becca (Nikki Leigh) is a doctor with a killer work schedule who wants a child and is getting worried because her husband Ron (Tilky Jones) doesn’t seem capable of giving her one — not that they’ve had sex in quite a while. Ron is a struggling builder trying to put a contracting business together but he needs a big job to do that — which he hopes he has when the city they’re in decides to build a community center and he thinks he has a good chance at landing that contract. Becca has a friend from her college days, Mindy (Kelly Dowdle), who’s married to a 1-percenter (though we’re never told just where his money comes from or what he’s doing career-wise now) named Max (Jason Tobias), who’s pretty much the same physical type as Ron — only Max has frizzier hair and Ron has an elaborate tattoo covering most of his left arm, which is the main way you can tell them apart. The film shows us a lot of Ron and Max in bathing suits and nothing else (way to go!) for the straight women and Gay men in the audience, while any straight men watching this get enough glimpses of Becca and Mindy similarly attired in swimwear to get their sort of charge. During one evening when the two couples are having an outdoor get-together Max and Mindy announce that they’ve “opened” their marriage to sexual experiences with other couples. Ron and Becca are reluctant at first, but the mere thought of a four-way with their good buddies turns them on enough they get it on for the first time in months.

Dylan (Zach Cramblit), a queeny Gay man who works as a nurse or paramedic or something for Becca at the hospital where she’s a doctor, tells her that he and his husband have an open relationship themselves, though he also warns her that it’s a bit easier when they’re both men (either because they don’t have to worry about getting pregnant or on the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus idea that men are more able than women to detach sex from emotion and have it just for the sheer physical pleasure involved). Ron, Becca, Max and Mindy have their first “open” encounter at Max’s home and set ground rules — they won’t do anything unless all four are involved and they’ll use “protection” against both pregnancy and STD’s. Their second open encounter occurs at a private sex club called Caligula (which made me wonder if they specifically catered to people who want to have sex with their siblings, the way the real Caligula did), which you get invitations to through text messages on your smartphone that tell you what the password is for that night. (No, it’s not “Swordfish.”) The two couples are greeted at the door by an apparition who’s apparently the dungeon mistress of Caligula, Vulnavia (Debra Wilson), a woman of ambiguous ethnicity who’s dressed in a skin-tight leather outfit and looks more at home in the sexual underground than anyone else in the film. The couples’ second encounter with each other’s partners at Caligula is as hot as the first, but midway through the proceedings Max and Becca slip away from one of the dungeon’s private rooms to another, breaking the two couples’ ground rules because they found the furniture in the first room uncomfortable. The seeds of jealousy start to sprout as Ron, left alone one evening when Becca works a late shift (she covered for her Gay friend Dylan so he and his husband could go to a Lady Gaga concert) and Ron runs out of football games to watch, instead going to Caligula alone, where he’s accosted by a woman named Angelique (Cassi Colvin) who comes on to him; they kiss, but nothing more. We also see a mysterious person in a white feathered mask who’s being attended to by two men, one on either side of — well, we assume it’s a she, though there are hints of both Gay and Lesbian goings-on at this mostly hetero club. Still later it’s Becca who breaks the ground rules and goes to Caligula on her own, and had screenwriter Byers stopped there he might have had a very interesting movie about people who think they can handle the sexual underground, find they really can’t, and suffer picturesquely along the way before reverting to monogamy at the end.

One particularly interesting twist is that Ron isn’t entirely infertile but he’s told by one of the doctors at Becca’s hospital that he has only one-one hundredth of the chance of impregnating his wife as a normal man. That leads to the tantalizing possibility that the entire “open marriage” business was stage-managed by Becca as a way of having a child; since her husband couldn’t give her one, she decided to go after Max and see if he could do the job (which could have led to an intriguing sequel 20 years later, as the kid, now grown, learns that his biological father is fabulously wealthy and goes after his money). Instead Open Marriage takes a turn into typical Lifetime melodramatics that significantly weaken it; the two couples find themselves victimized by a no-good rotter who sends texts with photos of them at Caligula. This costs Ron the city contract he was so desperate to get and leaves both couples floundering in a sea of mutual jealousy and recrimination, and it turns out the culprit is … Mindy, who it seems always had the hots for Ron (and maybe a Lesbian itch for Becca as well), and who ends up literally holding a gun on Ron to force him into one last orgy and, when Becca is unwilling to go along, she fires the gun and Becca reaches for an odd antique clock with its own pedestal and clubs Mindy over the head with it, killing her. The cops accept Becca’s self-defense claim and a tag scene indicates that the child she’s carrying is Ron’s after all — he made it in the 1/100th window. Open Marriage offered plenty of titillation (or dickillation) for this Gay viewer — even though the script didn’t give them much to work with in the way of acting, when I can watch a movie with two people as gorgeous as Tilky Jones (despite that silly name) and Jason Tobias and see them mostly wearing nothing but the bare legal minimum, I’m going to enjoy it on aesthetic grounds alone — but it could have been a titillating joyride and a moral tale instead of writing the “villain” character (Mindy was the woman in the feathered mask at Caligula taking the damning photos she later sexted far and wide, costing Ron his job) in and turning the resolution flat and ordinary.