Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Frontline: “Terror in Little Saigon” (ProPublica, WGBH, PBS, first aired November 3, 2015)

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

Last night PBS re-ran a Frontline episode from November 3, 2015 called “Terror in Little Saigon,” which made it seem like gangs are roaming through the Viet Namese-American communities at will. The story was actually an investigative report, written and directed by Richard Rowley and narrated on screen by A. C. Thompson, about Dam Phong Ngyuen, a Viet Namese immigrant journalist who ran a Viet Namese-language newspaper called Tu Do in Houston, Texas in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and was murdered by a man who came to the door of his house on August 24, 1982, just seven years after the Viet Namese War finally ended. The Houston Police Department was never able to solve the case. Naturally Rowley and Thompson worked from the conclusion that Dam Phong was murdered over something he had published in Tu Do — which meant they had to do something the Houston police hadn’t bothered to do “in the day,” namely get a translator to render Tu Do’s articles into English so they could read them. Phong was big on exposing corruption within the Viet Namese-American community and had made some powerful enemies, but in the last issues of Tu Do he had come down particularly hard on a mysterious group called “The Front,” composed of Viet Namese-American immigrants, including many who’d served in the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN), the South Viet Namese army that were our supposed “allies” in the war. At first I thought where this was going was that “The Front” was a scam, collecting money from Viet Namese immigrants and promising them it would be used to stage a counter-revolution that would wrest control of Viet Nam from the Communists who’d won the war, and the people running it were raking in the bucks and didn’t want their meal ticket torn up by a meddling journalist who would expose their group as a con. Later, as the program wound on, it emerged that “The Front” was led by people who thought they could really stage a counter-revolution in Viet Nam, notably its leader, Hoang Co Minh, a Viet Namese refugee and former ARVN commander whose application for U.S. citizenship (which he submitted posing as a Japanese under the name “William Nakamura”) was sponsored by no less a personage than Richard Armitage, later Colin Powell’s assistant at the State Department during his unhappy tenure as Secretary of State during George W. Bush’s first term and leaker of Valerie Plame’s identity as an undercover CIA agent (you remember). Dam Phong reportedly traveled to Thailand, where Hoang Co Minh and a group of Front fighters had assembled to do guerrilla raids across the Viet Namese/Thai border. 

Rowley and Thompson learn that The Front not only had powerful friends in the U.S. government but also maintained a hit squad of “K9,” composed largely of soldiers from the ARVN’s SEAL team (trained, of course, by U.S. SEAL’s), whose job it was to eliminate any enemies that might threaten the Front’s operations, including U.S.-based journalists of Viet Namese heritage like Phong and Duong Trong Lam, who like Phong was a Viet Namese-American journalist who’d started his own Viet Namese-language newspaper and was getting too close to revealing the Front’s activities — though a communiqué sent out after Lam’s murder by a group calling itself VOECRN, “Viet Namese Organization to Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation,” claimed responsibility. The documentary included a photo of a VOECRN rally, held under the backdrop of a big banner reading, “COMMUNISM MUST GO.” According to Thompson’s commentary on the show, however, “The local police had Lam’s murder pegged as a personal dispute. They wrapped up their investigation in a few weeks, charging his friend with the murder. But the whole thing fell apart, and the judge threw it out of court before the trial even began.” The show doesn’t come to the sort of satisfying conclusion audiences expect from a mystery, real or fictional — Rowley and Thompson are clearly convinced The Front ordered hits on Lam and Phong and sent their K-9 death squad to do it, but they’re unable either to prove it themselves or to present convincing enough evidence to get a police department with jurisdiction to reopen the case. Thompson’s closing commentary states, “After all the new information I’ve uncovered, I want to talk to the FBI, but they won’t do an interview or answer my questions. Instead, they send a statement saying the cases were led by experienced FBI professionals who collected evidence and conducted numerous interviews. But they said despite those efforts, after 15 years of investigation, Department of Justice and FBI officials concluded that thus far, there is insufficient evidence to pursue prosecution.” 

It’s a weird footnote to the overall story of the Viet Nam War, especially for its suggestion that nearly a decade after the U.S. withdrew in 1973 there were still people in the U.S. government who were hoping for a way to get back in the game in Viet Nam and at least clandestinely supporting a fringe group of would-be guerrillas whom for some reason they thought could accomplish what 500,000 U.S. troops (at the high point of our commitment in 1968) hadn’t, mainly to keep South Viet Nam a nominally independent country (actually a U.S. dependency) and keep the North Viet Namese army and their allies, the Viet Cong guerrilla group, from uniting the whole country under Communist control. The fact that, just as the North won the U.S. Civil War on the battleground but the South “won the peace,” re-establishing African-Americans as a permanent servant class and taking away their political and social rights (as President Trump and the Republicans in Congress are seeking to do again, undoing the work of the Second Reconstruction in the 1960’s the way segregationist Democrats in the South and corporate Republicans in the North combined to undo the First Reconstruction after 1876), the U.S. lost the Viet Nam war on the battlefield but “won the peace” by turning Viet Nam into a giant sweatshop, a place to offshore manufacturing once Chinese workers got better pay, just adds a level of irony to this grim tale of politically well-connected revolutionary wanna-bes knocking off immigrant journalists and entrepreneurs in the good ol’ U.S.A.!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Seven Chances (Schenck-Keaton, Metro-Goldwyn, 1925)

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

Last night’s Silent Movie Night at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park featured Steven Ball, who both in his Sunday appearance the day before at the usual 2 p.m. organ concert and last night made a big to-do about how he regularly plays the world’s largest indoor organ — the one built in Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City between 1929 and 1933, which I knew about because PBS recently showed a documentary about the in-progress restoration of it (and which, with spectacular ill timing, was built just when theatre organs and the people who played them were reeling from the double whammy of talking pictures and the Depression). Ball is an excellent theatre organist and silent-film accompanist, and for his half-hour mini-recital in advance of the movie (since the people in charge at the Pavilion wait until darkness falls to run the film) he played William Stocking’s march to celebrate the opening of Boardwalk Hall (the place was built to be huge enough that a football game could be played on its floor, and the reason its organ had to be so big was so the sound could carry throughout the hall), a “Total Eclipse Quickstep” by 19th century composer E. Mack written to celebrate an 1869 total eclipse in Philadelphia (the day before he’d played three other eclipse-themed pieces, including the “Eclipse” section from the end of Pink Floyd’s album The Dark Side of the Moon, the “Eclipse Waltz” from G. Kunz’ Flowers of the Ball Room, and Charles W. Nathan’s “Eclipse Galop”), and a medley of songs from The Sound of Music which I liked better than the Wizard of Oz medley he’d performed the day before even though I generally like the score for The Wizard of Oz better than that for The Sound of Music

Ball ignored “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” and the songs Richard Rodgers added to the original Sound of Music score for the film version, “Confidence in Me” and “Something Good” (the original librettist, Oscar Hammerstein II, had died before the film was made — indeed, The Sound of Music was the last project he ever worked on — so Rodgers wrote both words and music for the new songs). But the pieces he did play — “The Sound of Music,” “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “The Lonely Goatherd,” “So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye,” “Edelweiss,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and a reprise of “The Sound of Music” to close — at least provided a representative picture of the score. The featured movie was Seven Chances, a 1925 production by Joseph M. Schenck directed by and starring Buster Keaton, who according to an “Trivia” poster was unhappy with the project because Schenck had bought the rights to a hit play by Roi Cooper Megrue about a young broker named Jimmie Shannon (Buster Keaton) who’s the junior partner in a financial firm that’s about to go under because they took on a corrupt client. (This is an interesting premise for a movie made four years before the Depression and suggests that a lot of people — including the authors of the song “Buckle Up Your Overcoat,” in which among the dangers the singer warns his lover against is “stocks and bonds” because “you’ll get a pain and ruin your bankroll” — were skeptical of the late-1920’s stock bubble, enough so that their doubts filtered into popular culture.) An outside attorney (Snitz Edwards) shows up with a will from Jimmie’s uncle, who’s just died and left him $7 million (in 1925 dollars!) provided he’s married by his 27th birthday. Of course, Jimmie’s 27th birthday is that very day. I’m not sure how Megrue’s play, originally produced by David Belasco (who had such a major reputation then his name is in bigger letters on the credits than Megrue’s!) “played” on stage, and the early parts of the movie may be quite close to it, but for the second half of this film Keaton turned its story into a framework for his typical slapstick antics, including elaborate “trajectory” gags and … well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  

Seven Chances begins with a short prologue in two-strip Technicolor (though, alas, the footage is badly faded and no attempt has been made to restore it) in which Jimmie Shannon visits the home of his lady love, Mary Jones (Ruth Dwyer, who doesn’t have enough screen time to make the surprisingly spunky screen presence of Keaton’s best silent-era leading ladies, Kathryn McGuire, Marion Mack and Marceline Day), but can’t muster up the nerve to tell her he loves her. In the opening scene he has a puppy on a leash and with each new season (the sequences are spread at three-month intervals and reflect the changes of season) the dog is larger. So when Jimmie gets the word that he has to marry that day to collect his inheritance, Mary is the first person he proposes to — only he blows it by saying he has to marry someone that day to get his inheritance, and the more he tries to explain, the more she thinks she’s being used and turns him down. (Keaton’s acting is a finely honed fiesta of comic embarrassment and one could well imagine the young Cary Grant playing this scene if Seven Chances had been remade in the early 1930’s.) Jimmie’s friend and business partner, Billy Meekin (T. Roy Barnes), has a list of seven potential brides for him — hence the title — only Keaton strikes out with all of them as well as his own receptionist (played by the young Jean Arthur in the Louise Brooks helmet-like bob) and a similarly bobbed hat-check girl. Then the film, which up until now has been a quite amusing romantic comedy, really becomes special: Billy and the Snitz Edwards character hit on the idea of getting the evening newspaper to run a story about Jimmie’s plight, announcing that he’s in line for $7 million and “all he needs is a bride.” After an exhausting search for someone — anyone — to marry him (including a famous sequence in which Jimmie sees a poster of a beautiful woman outside a theatre, then a crate blocking part of the poster is removed and we see the “woman” is really the well-known female impersonator Julian Eltinge, who was famous enough in 1925 the original audiences got the joke immediately: it would have been like doing the same gag in the 1990’s with RuPaul), Jimmie makes it to the church where he’s been told that if he shows up by 5 p.m. there will be a bride waiting for him — and promptly falls asleep in the front pew. When he wakes up the church is filled with a small army of women in bridal dress, all carrying bouquets and all grimly determined to be the lucky one. The minister shows up and tells the women they’ve been the victims of a nasty practical joke, and rather than simply slink away in disappointment they form a sort of unofficial posse, determined to catch Jimmie and have their nasty revenge on him. 

The film originally ended with a grimly funny chase scene through the streets of 1925 Los Angeles (like a lot of other comedy filmmakers, Keaton shot on real locations) with Keaton chased by that army of hatchet-faced women much the way he was by the small army of police officers who were after him in his 1922 short masterpiece Cops while he tries to make it back to the church so he can marry Mary, who in the meantime has thought it over, decides she really loves Jimmie after all and isn’t going to let her peeve over his unorthodox proposal put her off. For some reason, though, this sequence laid an egg when Keaton previewed it; his audience sat stone-faced during the entire chase and laughed only when he accidentally tripped over three rocks. (Our source for this story is Keaton himself, in an interview he gave to biographer Rudi Blesh in the last year of his life.) With a potential bomb on his hands, Keaton realized that his movie needed radical surgery to be releasable, so he figured, “If they laughed at me tripping over three rocks, they’ll laugh harder if I do a chase scene with hundreds of rocks.” Accordingly he had a set of prop boulders made in giant size — he tried making them out of papier-maché but that was too light to look convincing on screen, so he settled on plaster; they still look lighter than real rocks but not so light they aren’t believable — and though some members of our audience were wondering why the town in which the movie takes place is surrounded by hilly desert country, the final chase is a brilliantly inventive sequence in which Jimmie seems to be in as much mortal danger from the disappointed brides as he is from the avalanche, and it’s only in the nick of time that he finally gets to Mary’s house where Mary, the minister and Billy are waiting. Only according to Jimmie’s watch, the time is 7:02 p.m. — two minutes over the deadline — and though Mary is still willing to marry him, he doesn’t want to subject her to a life of penury and disgrace. (Keaton is sometimes criticized in comparison to Charlie Chaplin for not doing pathos, but his acting here is as bittersweet and moving as anything in Chaplin’s work despite his typical “Great Stone Face” understatement.) Then, in an ending Megrue and/or Keaton’s writers (Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez and Joseph Mitchell) may have ripped off from Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, Jimmie goes outside and sees the clock in the church steeple, which reads two minutes before seven — so Jimmie gets both his bride and his money, and in the end he and Mary are kissing in front of her house when they’re overwhelmed by his dog, now at Great Dane size. 

Though Keaton reportedly hated this film and didn’t want his friend Raymond Rohauer to restore it along with Keaton’s other features, Seven Chances emerges as a comedy classic, a brilliantly funny and subversive movie which runs roughshod over quite a few conventions, including some surprisingly Gay scenes (not only the Eltinge gag but also a sequence in which Billy, thinking he needs to give Jimmie a lesson in how to propose, gets on his knee and offers marriage to Snitz Edwards) and nervy racial gags (one woman Jimmie proposes to doesn’t know a word of English because she’s Jewish, which we realize when we see her reading a Yiddish-language newspaper in Hebrew script; another turns out to be Black — and there’s also a Black woman among the army in the church, surprising since in 1925 no U.S. state allowed a Black and white couple to marry) as well as some of Keaton’s spectacular acrobatic “trajectories.” Later, when sound came in, his marriage collapsed, he lost his berth at Joseph Schenck’s independent studio and thus artistic control over his career, and he responded to all this by drinking a lot (with his typical lack of sentimentality, in a late-in-life interview Keaton responded to a question about his alcoholism by saying, “No, I wasn’t an alcoholic — I was a drunk!”), Keaton started using stunt doubles, but in 1925 he did all his own stunts — including a life-threatening fall from a construction crane (one of the nastier women has impaled him on the end of it and is swinging him around on it) as well as some spectacular slides down hillsides during the chase scene with the rocks. (Indeed, Keaton would sometimes dress up as characters in other movies and, unbeknownst to those films’ stars and directors, do stunts for them: director Allan Dwan recalled that in his 1929 film Tide of Empire he saw someone he thought was just an extra do a spectacular pratfall out of a Western saloon, and after he called “Cut!” he realized that the man was Keaton.) I was also intrigued by the large man who briefly gets in Snitz Edwards’ way early on as he’s chasing Jimmie with the news of his inheritance, who looked enough like Keaton’s filmmaking mentor, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, I wondered if it was indeed he — if Keaton was helping out Arbuckle by giving him a day’s work in a barely recognizable bit part three years after Arbuckle’s star career had been destroyed by scandal.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Endeavour: “Game” (British TV/PBS, 2017)

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

I looked for something I could watch on TV since the Lifetime movies were reruns of things I’d already seen before, The Psycho She Met Online and Sleepwalking in Suburbia, and the networks were all offering so-called “reality” garbage, and I managed to find something to watch amidst the Vaster Wasteland (“vaster” because TV is so much worse these days than it was when Newton Minow coined the term “vast wasteland” in 1961 — and to make it even more frustrating, most of the good shows on today’s TV are confined to premium cable channels or streaming services and therefore you have to pay through the nose to watch them): a recently released episode of the British TV series Endeavour, the 1960’s-set mystery show about the younger days of Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans), whom British mystery fans knew from Colin Dexter’s original novels and the previous TV show based on them as an aging, dyspeptic, recovering alcoholic inspector who nonetheless continues to work as a police officer and solve crimes because it and listening to opera are the only two joys he has left.

I think it was Russell Lewis who had the idea of doing a TV series on Morse’s younger days, when he was the hotshot young sidekick to a dyspeptic older commander, Inspector Fred Thursday (Roger Allam), and it’s definite that Lewis wrote the script for this episode, “Game,” which combined an early attempt to build a chess-playing computer at Oxford University in 1966 (the computer played a Russian grandmaster, Yuri Gradenko — played by Robert Lackey — imported for the occasion, and Morse was assigned to guard Gradenko because he was the only one on Thursday’s force who knew any Russian) and a series of bizarre murders in which the victims are all killed by drowning. The other cops are convinced they’re the work of a crazy serial killer targeting victims at random, but Morse of course deduces that they’re all the work of an intelligent person planning revenge against identifiable people who did him wrong. Among the dramatis personae are a wheelchair-bound professor in charge of the artificial intelligence project at Oxford, George Amory (James Laurenson); his daughter, also an Oxford professor, Pat Amory (Gillian Saker); local reporter Tessa Knight (Ruby Thomas), who “breaks” the story of the multi-victim killer by filching Morse’s notebook while they’re on a date and hopes it will be her ticket to a big-time journalism job in London until she becomes one of the victims; and a couple of assistants in Dr. George Amory’s lab, Clifford Gibbs (Abram Rooney) and Broderick Castle (Chris Fulton). There’s also a hot young man named Mick Mitchell (Daniel Atwell) whom we get to see a fair amount of in a white shirt and very tight light blue shorts — he was the sexiest guy in the cast and I’d have liked to see even more of him, but his character is pretty peripheral: he and his wife own the public baths at which two of the victims were drowned.

From the appearance of Chris Fulton playing the stereotypical nerd, complete with glasses, in the Oxford lab scenes I should have been able to guess he’d be the murderer, and indeed he was: he was actually from a family in an out-of-the-way town near Oxford, whom Morse is able to trace with the help of the computer (which sorts out all the addresses in that area that match the partial name he has for the people he’s looking for), and his father was a plastic surgeon who operated on George Amory after his plane was shot down in the Battle of Britain — he could fix the burn damage to his face but, of course, neither he nor anybody else was able to get his legs to work (though some part of his lower anatomy must have still worked because he was able to father a child after the war) — the middle-aged woman he killed in the baths was a woman who had had an affair with his dad; he also killed one of the professors and the journalist as well as a young man with a criminal record who was doing a sort of  unofficial community service to help what would now be called “at-risk youths”, and he picked the pseudonym “Castle” because it’s also a name for the chess piece “rook.” “Game” was an example of the British mystery at its best: no on-screen violence or bloodshed, reasonably polite people who kill each other, when they do, for comprehensible reasons, and a climax that manages to be exciting without going over the top in the manner of most American crime stories and especially most Lifetime movies. It’s also yet more evidence that the British produce the greatest actors in the world, nice, competent people who don’t heave, strain or show off, don’t make a big to-do about the Method or “what’s my motivation?,” but who just say their lines, hit their marks and by quiet matter-of-fact understatement manage to convince us they’re the people they’re supposed to be playing.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Incredible Shrinking Man (Universal-International, 1957)

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

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi film screening ( consisted of two movies from the 1950’s in which people are either shrunken or enlarged and have to cope with the fate of their new sizes: The Incredible Shrinking Man and Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. I won’t comment on Attack of the 50-Foot Woman again since Charles and I had seen it relatively recently and it’s on the moviemagg blog at, but The Incredible Shrinking Man — which I hadn’t seen since the 1970’s — is a great film, a deserved classic from Universal-International. (Charles groaned when he saw the Universal-International logo, mainly because he associates it with such infamous Mystery Science Theatre 3000 targets as Tarantula, The Deadly Mantis and the awesomely awful The Leech Woman, but they also made great films with major directors like Douglas Sirk, Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick and, in the last year they were still using the “International” suffix, they released To Kill a Mockingbird.) It was produced by Albert Zugsmith (whose career after he left Universal-International descended into horrible schlock, most of it starring Mamie Van Doren, but while he was at U-I he was responsible for great movies like Sirk’s Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels and Welles’ Touch of Evil), directed by Jack Arnold (who had established himself as a major director in the sci-fi/horror genre with The Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came from Outer Space, and who’s in superb form here) and written by Richard Matheson, who got the job of adapting his own novel published in 1956, just a year before the movie was made. (They moved a lot faster in those days.) 

The plot of The Incredible Shrinking Man is quite simple: Scott Carey (Grant Williams, a quite good-looking man who delivers a marvelously understated performance in a role that should have marked him for biggers and betters, but didn’t) is on a boat trip with his wife Louise (Randy Stuart — a woman named Randy?). He decides he wants a beer and, like a typical 1950’s movie male chauvinist, sends her below deck to get it for him — which turns out to be a good thing for her because, while he’s alone on top of the boat, a strange cloud of mist comes up off the water’s surface, envelops him and leaves him covered with shiny flakes that make him look like he’s about to become the world’s first glitter-rocker. Instead, as we learn later, the mist contains some sort of radioactive energy that interacts with some powerful insecticide Scott had been exposed to earlier to cause his entire body to get steadily smaller and smaller. At first he notices the difference when his clothes are suddenly too loose around his body, and his family doctor, Arthur Branson (William Schallert, unctuous as usual), is baffled by how he can be losing so much weight and even getting two inches shorter. Dr. Branson refers him to the researchers at a local medical institute, whose head, Dr. Thomas Silver (Raymond Bailey), figures out how he got smaller but it takes him a while to develop a serum to counteract it, and even then the serum will only arrest the incredible shrinking process — it won’t revert him to his normal size. In his three-foot state Scott visits a local carnival and is cruised by a lady little person, Clarice (April Kent), even though she’s already married to a fellow little-person carnival performer (played by the great little-person actor Billy Curtis, who made quite a lot of movies but very few as good as this one), and he asks how he can be happy in a world of “giants.” She answers, “I’ve lived with them all my life. Oh, Scott, for people like you and me the world can be a wonderful place. The sky is as blue as it is for the giants. The friends are as warm.” 

Alas, the serum stops working and Scott starts shrinking even further, to the point where he’s living in a doll house in the Careys’ home (though what they were doing with a doll house when they have no children is something of a mystery) and, in one of the film’s most famous terror scenes, he’s menaced by the family cat, who was loving towards him when he was normal-sized but now that he’s the size of a mouse is treating him as one. (The scene in which the cat’s-paw comes through the window of the doll house to grab Scott reminded me of the scenes in King Kong in which the giant ape put his hand through windows to grab normal-sized people — and I suspect Arnold intended the allusion.) Later Scott gets even smaller and ends up trapped in the Careys’ basement, having to use such common household items as matches and pins as weapons against a tarantula who’s going after him; Scott is searching for whatever crumbs of food he can get (in one great scene he figures out a way to trigger a mousetrap to get the cheese out of it, but the mousetrap catapults the cheese down a grating, well out of his reach) while the tarantula is obviously anxious to make Scott his dinner. “In my hunt for food I had become the hunted,” Scott explains in one of the bits of first-person narration that stud the film. “This time I survived, but I was no longer alone in my universe. I had an enemy, the most terrifying ever beheld by human eyes.” In Matheson’s original novel the spider that went after Scott was a black widow, but it was changed for the film, probably so Universal-International could recycle the stop-motion model of a tarantula they had built for the 1955 movie Tarantula, in which the humans were normal-sized and the tarantula menacing them had been artificially enlarged — the scenes with the tarantula appear to be the only shots in The Incredible Shrinking Man in which stop-motion was used: the earlier scene in which Scott is attacked by a cat look like they were shot with a real cat, with the images of the cat and Scott combined by Clifford Stine’s excellent process photography. (We’ve seen enough bad process work in films of this vintage — including Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, in which Allison Hayes’ appearance as the title character shows her with a black ring around her, telltale sign of a poorly matched process shot — to appreciate really good effects work.) 

As Scott shrinks smaller and smaller, his battle for sheer survival gets more and more difficult, to the point where by the end he’s almost literally reverted to prehistoric status — he’s got a full growth of beard (this is not one of those movies in which the character looks clean-shaven throughout even though he’s supposedly been on a voyage of thousands of miles of open ocean or had some other arduous fate that would prevent him from grooming himself normally) and his clothes have shrunk to something that looks vaguely like a Roman tunic. He’s almost literally devolved, having to live by his wits and his resourcefulness in a world where ordinary objects have suddenly turned terrifying and meeting the simple, basic needs like food has become incredibly arduous — I suspect it wasn’t until The Hunger Games that a movie was this good about plunging the central character(s) this far down the evolutionary ladder this fast and forcing them into thinking about nothing but sheer survival — until the ending, in which Carey gets a soliloquy aimed at giving the story power and meaning beyond a sensational horror tale. An “trivia” poster said Jack Arnold added this to the script even though one of the attendees at our screening brought a copy of Matheson’s book and read the final chapter to us after the movie — and the two are surprisingly good even though Matheson made one change that actually strengthened its impact: he had Carey narrate it in the first person instead of telling the story in third-person as he had in the novel. Carey tells us that he finally realizes what his experience meant in the broader scope of cosmic philosophy: “I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!” (In Matheson’s book the last line is, “To nature, there is no zero.” Obviously the change was made to placate the Jesuits who were still in charge of the Production Code Administration and the overall social religiosity of the 1950’s, the time in which our Cold War enemy was defined not merely as “Communism” but “Godless Communism,” the Pledge of Allegiance was defaced with the words “under God,” and “In God We Trust” was added to our money.)  

The Incredible Shrinking Man is a great movie, hitting on conventional science-fiction and horror tropes but transcending them, including marvelous touches like having Scott pledge that he will remain faithful to his wife “as long as that wedding ring remains on my finger” — whereupon it immediately falls off because his finger has shrunk to the point where the ring is now too big for it. The Incredible Shrinking Man was remade in the 1970’s as The Incredible Shrinking Woman, starring Lily Tomlin and directed and written by her partner Jane Wagner, and it got terrible reviews when it came out but I remember it as quite good (and I’d love to see the two back-to-back sometime) — in her version what shrunk her was a toxic fume formed by the cross-reactions of all the chemicals she used as a housewife to clean her home. There may have been a straight remake since but I haven’t been able to find it, and neither was anyone else at our screening — there was Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, a Disney comedy from 1990 or thereabouts in which Rick Moranis was the star and the film copied the man-vs.-arthropod battle from this one (though with ants instead of a spider), but it’s probably just as well no other recent filmmakers have gone near this premise and come up with a bloated version that would compare to this one about the way the bloated remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers compared to Don Siegel’s near-perfect 1956 original.

The Wizard of Mars, a.k.a. Horrors of the Red Planet (American General Pictures, David L. Hewitt and Associates, Karston-Hewitt Organization, National Telefilm Associates, 1964)

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

Two nights ago, the Mars movie screening in San Diego’s Golden Hill neighborhood ( consisted of two low-budget films, Devil Girl from Mars (a British production from 1954 about an implacable woman who arrives on a spaceship from Mars that looks like a giant bathtub stopper looking for men because the Martian males have become so emasculated through years of battle-of-the-sexes civil wars with the Martian females they can no longer impregnate them and make little Martians) and The Wizard of Mars, a truly weird American production from 1964 (though gives the date as 1965, it’s 1964 that’s listed on the credits as the copyright date — actually it’s MCMLXIV, but you get the idea) that’s advertised as “starring John Carradine,” though given their ultra-limited production budget ($33,000 according to, $40,000 according to the proprietor of the screening) they could only afford him for one day. By chance they signed Carradine just as his (third) wife, Doris Rich, was playing Mrs. Santa Claus in an even worse movie than this one, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (whose only distinctions are that Pia Zadora had a child role in it and it features the same stock clip of U.S. Air Force bombers doing air-to-air refueling that was seen in Dr. Strangelove — so that clip ended up in one of the worst movies ever made and one of the best!). The Wizard of Mars was at least to some extent intended by its creators, writers David L. Hewitt (who also directed) and Armando Busick, as a conscious parallel to The Wizard of Oz, but about the only real similarities are they’re both about four people, including a woman named Dorothy (Eve Bernhardt), exploring a strange world, finding a “Golden Road” and encountering a super-powerful being who appears to them as a giant disembodied head. The setting is New Year’s Day 1975 and the crew of the first manned spacecraft to explore Mars — Dorothy (who’s depicted not as the surprisingly resourceful and plucky junior heroine L. Frank Baum envisioned in The Wizard of Oz but yet another dull spaceship crew member, sort of like Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek, who’s there just for window dressing and so the filmmakers can feel oh so ahead of their time in actually putting a woman on a spaceship as part of the crew!), ship’s commander Steve (Roger Gentry), Doc (Vic McGee) and the incredibly annoying comic relief character Charlie (Jerry Rannow, who seems to be spending the whole movie trying to channel Jerry Lewis’s whiny delivery of dialogue even though he hasn’t a clue how to do physical comedy — may the real Jerry Lewis rest in peace and not have to fear from horrible imitators like this anymore!) — were originally supposed only to orbit the Red Planet. 

Instead they find themselves pulled in by some sort of force beyond their control and end up landing on it. They had already jettisoned the main stage of their rocket in the process of orbiting Mars, but we’re told in the Hewitt-Busick dialogue that if they can only find it again, they can use it to blast off the Martian surface and get home. Instead they get stuck in an endless series of caves ( lists the location as Lehman Caves in the Great Basin National Park in Nevada) which are actually the most appealing element of the film: though the vistas get dull after a while, by 1964 color film was cheap enough that even ultra-low-budget productions like this could use it, and the spectacular sights of the walls in Lehman Caves are considerably more entertaining than the dreary antics of the humans walking around them. (They also probably blew a big chunk of the budget renting the extensive array of lights and porting in all that equipment they would have needed to film inside caves.) Eventually, after narrowly avoiding falling into the lava from a seemingly active volcano (that was obviously stock footage), they finally make their way out of the cave only to stumble on a few golden paving stones suddenly revealed when a sandstorm blows off the sand that had previously covered them as part of the Martian desert. Following the golden brick road, Our Non-Heroes find themselves inside a sort of mausoleum featuring a number of glass tubes, each of them containing a sort of papier-maché body that looks like the sort of thing you used to see inside a fun house. (Remember fun houses? I’m probably part of the last generation that got to experience them in our childhoods.) In any event, the travelers encounter one of these creepy statues that talks to them, first in double-talk and then, as the whatsit figures out their language, in English that sounds like the voice of John Carradine — indeed, the figure looks like Carradine in elaborate trick-or-treater makeup, and I suspect the filmmakers created this preposterous contraption so they could have a mechanical Carradine to use for longer than the one day they had the real one under contract. 

Ultimately the real Carradine appears as a disembodied head in front of a black screen and launches into a preposterous explanation of his and the other indigenous Martians’ current plight that makes it seem like Hewitt and Busick were ripping off not only The Wizard of Oz but Forbidden Planet as well: it seems that the “Martians” are actually a super-powerful race that wandered around the galaxy with no fixed abode in any one solar system. They developed their technological knowledge so extensively that they were able to break any connection with space and appear anywhere they wanted to as pure mental energy — but that wasn’t enough for them: they also decided to break any connection with time, with the result that the entire race congealed into the disembodied head of John Carradine and became immortal, which they find so boring they plead with the astronauts to head into a ridiculous-looking gizmo that appears as a Mr. Sun-type solar face with a pendulum attached. Once they follow Carradine’s instructions and restart this device’s pendulum, time will start again and all the entities appearing as Carradine’s head will be able to die at long last — and once they do that, in a ripoff of the silly ending MGM’s screenwriters put on the Wizard of Oz movie even though it wasn’t in L. Frank Baum’s book, the astronauts come to aboard their spacecraft, still orbiting Mars, and only two minutes have elapsed since their experiences started — that’s right, folks, It Was All a Dream! If Devil Girl from Mars was an example of the frustrating sort of bad movie that isn’t good enough to be entertaining on its own merits and isn’t bad enough to be camp, The Wizard of Mars (which also exists, according to, in a seven-minutes-longer version under the title Horrors of the Red Planet) is an example of that even more frustrating sort of bad movie: one that seems to have a good movie trapped inside it, struggling to get out.

The most interesting name on the credits of The Wizard of Mars is the film editor, Tom Graeff, who seven years earlier had made a surprisingly compelling film called Teenagers from Outer Space. Despite its terrible title (the idea of Warner Bros.’ marketing department after Graeff sold the film to them because they needed a double-bill partner for Gigantis, the Fire Monster, actually the first sequel to Godzilla) and some tacky production values, Teenagers was a surprisingly well-written and well-acted film, one of the better knockoffs of The Day the Earth Stood Still with some quite original aspects in its own right, including a quirky sense of spirituality — and bits and pieces of that same sensibility appear in The Wizard of Mars, suggesting that in addition to editing the film Graeff may have had a hand in writing it as well. (Eventually Graeff went so far overboard with his quirky spirituality that he became convinced he was the second coming of Jesus Christ, started an independent church where he was worshiped as such, and even filed a petition with the Los Angeles County courts to have his name legally changed to “Jesus Christ II” — which was unsuccessful.) The Wizard of Mars is hardly the worst movie John Carradine was ever in — The Unearthly and the unspeakably awful The Astro-Zombies (which looks like it was shot on Super 8 and sounds like it was recorded on cassettes) are definitely below this one on the quality scale — but it’s an indication of how horrible Carradine’s career trajectory was, from achieving notice in his marvelous supporting role in John Ford’s underrated The Prisoner of Shark Island, his repeated appearances as part of the “Ford Stock Company” in films like The Grapes of Wrath and Stagecoach, his marvelous starring role in Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1944 Bluebeard (a film of real quality, and recognized as such at the time it was released), before his career trailed off into ever tackier appearances in crap like this, from which he collected the money so he could keep his semi-professional Shakespeare company in L.A. going. (One wonders what its productions were like.) At least Boris Karloff managed to maintain his dignity and pride no matter how crappy the films he got cast in were; Carradine, like Bela Lugosi, seemed to be subsumed in them and one gets the impression he can’t wait to get off the set, sign for his money and go back to his friends and play Shakespeare!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Devil Girl from Mars (The Danzigers, Spartan Productions, 1954)

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

Last night’s Mars movie screening in Golden Hill,, billwas a double bill of a 1954 British “B” called Devil Girl from Mars and a 1964 (though lists the date as 1965) American cheapie alternately called The Wizard of Mars and The Horrors of the Red Planet. Devil Girl from Mars was one of those weirdies in which a femme fatale from another planet descends on earth because millions of years of war between the sexes has essentially emasculated the indigenous male population to the point where the only way the Martian women are going to be able to make little Martians is if they can import breeding stock from some other planet … and of course they’ve chosen Earth because at just 33 million miles away at their closest point, we’re practically their next-door neighbors. The gimmick on this one is that the Martian spaceship, which looks less like a flying saucer than a flying bathtub stopper (or maybe a flying merry-go-round, since it’s circled by a band of flashing lights that rotates when the ship is in motion but grinds to a halt after it lands), is flown by just one crew member, a hot-looking woman called Nyah — it’s pronounced to rhyme with “Maya” but in cold print in the closing credits it looks like a line from a Three Stooges script — played by Patricia Laffan and dressed in an amazing form-fitting black polyvinyl chloride costume, with an accompanying cape, that looks so spectacular Ronald Cobb got a special credit for designing it. Alas, it also meant Laffan could neither eat nor drink on set because the difficulty of getting her in — and, even more importantly, out — of the costume meant they couldn’t risk losing valuable shooting time by letting her use the restroom. (Some of the actors on the original Star Trek had this same problem: since Gene Roddenberry had decided that 25th century clothes would have invisible fasteners that didn’t exist in the 1960’s, many of the Star Trek actors literally had their costumes sewn on around them.) 

Alas, the rest of Devil Girl from Mars is pretty dull: it’s set in a pub called the Bonnie Charlie in a remote part of Scotland, and it’s based on a stage play by John C. Mather and James Eastwood (presumably no relation), which Eastwood adapted into the film’s script and David MacDonald directed. It’s all too obvious that this movie started out as a play since it almost never leaves the first-floor room of that combination inn and pub; occasionally we get a cut-away shot to one of the rooms or something from outside, but for the most part we’re stuck in that room and things get awfully claustrophobic. The human principals are scientist Arnold Hennessey (Joseph Tomelty, who looks like some odd attempt to cross-breed Sydney Greenstreet and Robert Morley) and his traveling companion, reporter Michael Carter (Hugh McDermott), who drive out to Scotland to investigate a meteor that’s just fallen to Earth but end up seven miles from where it fell. Carter shows up at the inn and immediately falls in love with former model Ellen Prestwick (Hazel Court), who previously had been in a relationship with the designer she was modeling for but broke it off when she found out he was already married (to which I couldn’t help but think, “A dress designer — married — to another woman?”), then fled to Scotland because he wasn’t about to take no for an answer from her and she needed to hide out in as remote a location as possible to keep him from finding her. There’s another star-crossed couple at the bar: Doris (Adrienne Corri, whose most famous credit is as the rape victim Mrs. Alexander in A Clockwork Orange), a barmaid who’s in love with escaped convict Robert Justin (Peter Reynolds), who’s using the name “Albert Simpson” at the pub until reporter Carter recognizes him and figures out who he really is. It seems that Justin was in prison in the first place for murdering his wife, and Doris has forgiven him for that but not for leaving her to marry the wife he killed in the first place. There are also the Jamiesons (John Laurie and Sophie Stewart, the latter in a marvelous busybody performance that proves they didn’t break the mold after they made Una O’Connor), the owners of the Bonnie Charlie; and Tommy (Anthony Richmond), your typically obnoxious and insufferable movie kid. 

The action, such as it is, occurs when Nyah demands that one of the males in this unlikely assemblage accompany her back to Mars and be her stud service — originally she was supposed to arrive in London but she miscalculated her landing trajectory and ended up stuck in the Scottish Highlands instead — and she’s also got an enforcer robot named Chani. The film’s special effects are otherwise quite good, but it loses all credibility when Chani enters and he’s basically just a big box with a head, arms and legs sticking out in the appropriate places, the box being mostly featureless except for four dials stretched across his chest and a few other bits and pieces of holes and protuberances apparently meant to represent controls. Nyah puts a force field around the pub to prevent anybody from communicating with the world outside, and at one point, when Michael volunteers to be her stud but then grabs her ray gun with which she controls the robot, she manages to get it back from him and tells the group at the pub that out of revenge for Michael’s attempted deception, she’s going to kill all of them except for the one who agrees to go with her. Dr. Hennessey gets inside the spacecraft and realizes its power source is a spherical nuclear core, and if someone can get inside the ship and make the core go super-critical, it will blow up the ship and the Devil Girl from Mars as well, though it will also be a suicide mission for whichever Earthling tries it. Eventually Robert Justin agrees to go inside the spaceship because as a convicted murder and escapee from prison, he knows his life is forfeit anyway and he ultimately redeems himself by blowing up the spaceship — represented by a cool little fireball effect that consumes whatever model the production crew was using. 

Devil Girl from Mars is that frustrating sort of movie that’s not good enough to be entertaining on its own merits but not bad enough to work as camp, either; it’s got the usual impeccable acting from the all-British cast (what is it with British actors? Is there some strain in the British DNA that keeps churning out all these beautiful, well-spoken, reliable and always convincing actors?) and a degree of understatement that’s refreshing, especially given the melodramatic overwroughtness with which American filmmakers usually handled plots like this. But it’s also dull, dull, dull, especially when Nyah isn’t on screen showing off that ultra-cool costume designer Cobb made for her — the screening organizer wondered why more recent “cosplayers” at fan conventions haven’t taken up her dress: probably because of the sheer difficulty of taking it on and off and the need to put various excretory functions “on hold” while wearing it.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Cradle Swapping (Feifer Worldwide, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2017)

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

My “feature” last night was a Lifetime movie from Feifer Worldwide Productions, written, directed and produced by Michael Feifer (given the ubiquitousness of his name on his credits, I once joked that he’d have a son whom he’d put to work as an associate and his credit would read, “Assistant Producer, Michael Feifer, Jr., A Michael Feifer Production”), called Cradle Swapping, which from the title and the basic premise — two babies are switched in a hospital room right after they’re born — I had assumed would be Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore without the laughs or the great tunes. It actually turned out to be better than that, though (as typical of Feifer’s work) with some egregious plot holes that made it hard to believe and sapped audience credibility. It starts out with two couples, one affluent and married, one lumpen and not. The lumpen couple are the ones we meet first: they are Tony (Tyler Johnson, who as usual for a Lifetime villain is the sexiest guy in the film!), drug dealer, thief, con artist, petty crook and, when he isn’t pursuing those avocations, worker in an auto body shop; and his girlfriend Michelle (Laura Slade Wiggins), whom he’s impregnated purely for mercenary reasons. He’s heard of a sub rosa adoption agency in New York that will pay him $50,000 for a healthy baby they can then sell to a 1-percent childless couple for twice that. So he forces her to get pregnant and patiently waits the usual nine months for his payday, insisting that she have the baby at home without medical (or any other) help because hospital or doctor bills will just eat into his profits — but she starts giving birth on their living-room floor and finally convinces him she’s going to need professional care or she’s going to lose the baby and he’s going to lose his meal ticket. So they check in at the emergency room under assumed names (she calls herself “Mary,” which in the classic Hollywood era was the all-purpose name used to denote female innocence) and she has her child — only when the kid is born Tony realizes that she’s desperately ill because Michelle, unbeknownst to him (and the “unbeknownst to him” part is where this film starts to stretch audience disbelief to the breaking point), has been shooting heroin all through the pregnancy and the child will suffer from NAS, which is short for “Narcotic Abstinence Syndrome” — med-speak for the way a fetus exposed to addictive drugs in the womb will be born already addicted and will go through classic withdrawal symptoms once he or she is no longer getting mom’s drug-infested nutrients.

No problem: Tony just hangs out sinisterly in the area where the various newborns have been placed after delivery and before they’re returned to their moms, and switches ID bracelets so he can present the adoption agency with a healthy baby girl instead of the drug-addicted one Michelle just gave birth to. The baby Tony switches so he can sell the agency a healthy child is Hannah, newborn daughter of Ray and Alicia Thompson (Brandon Barash, who’s hardly in Tyler Johnson’s league as a male sex god but is considerably hotter than the common run of Lifetime’s sympathetic leading men, and top-billed Amanda Clayton), only they notice things oddly wrong with “their” baby from the get-go, like she cries all the time, she doesn’t seem to be “bonding” with mom like all the experts say she should, and Alicia’s mother Joan (Patrika Darbo) — the voice of reason in this entire movie — notes that “their” child doesn’t look like either Alicia or Ray. They take the baby to their pediatrician, Dr. Billing (Pamela Roylance), who diagnoses her with NAS and wonders how on earth this nice well-to-do suburban couple could have given birth to a baby exposed to dangerous drugs while in utero. Alicia confesses that she became addicted to prescription opiates after originally taking them for pain following an accident, but insists that she broke the habit and became “clean” a year before she and Ray conceived their child. (Once again, as with Michelle’s continuous heroin use being a surprise to Tony. Michael Feifer asks us to believe that both Alicia’s addiction and her recovery are total surprises to her husband Ray.) Eventually both the Thompsons and Dr. Billing take sufficiently seriously the possibility that Hannah isn’t the Thompsons’ biological child that Dr. Billing compares the footprint taken of Hannah after her birth to a new one taken now, and though she can’t make a definitive comparison they look different enough that Dr. Billing orders a DNA test which proves that the baby the Thompsons are raising isn’t their biological offspring.

The police show up in the person of a tall, avuncular African-American detective named Warren (John Eric Bentley), but for some reason his manner, and in particular his calls for patience, tick the Thompsons off. So they decide to investigate themselves, and after Ray gets the key clue by remembering the name of the business on Tony’s uniform when he went to the hospital to snatch their baby, Maru’s Auto Body, he and Alicia go there, get Tony’s address, drive out there (this is supposed to be Walnut Creek, California but the desert locations look like the Southwest and there are some heart-stoppingly beautiful landscapes that look like Georgia O’Keeffe would have painted them) and talk to Michelle, who gives them the whole story and hands them her copy of the contract Tony signed with the adoption agency. Then Tony shows up, and from the dire music and also the fact that Feifer and his director of photography, Jordi Ruiz Masó, are making him look sexier than he has before, complete with an enviable basket flashing at us through his grey jeans, we can tell that he’s going there to murder Hannah in order to shut her up — though he doesn’t notice that her copy of the incriminating adoption contract is missing. With the contract documents giving them the name and address of the agency, run by a slimy dude named Mr. Valentini (Nicholas Guilak, who gives a nicely controlled performance of seedy but superficially charming villainy), the Thompsons fly to New York City and pose as potential customers. Somehow Ray manages to rip off the access code to the building from the receptionist and has no trouble hacking into the agency’s computer to find out whom they placed their girl with — and with that information Alicia is able to trace the red-headed woman who adopted their child. The final act depicts the confrontation between the two women over the baby, which takes place in Central Park, and how the adoptive mother at first wonders who this crazy woman is who wants “her” child, then realizes Alicia is telling the truth about being the birth mother from the way the girl bonds with  her in a way she hasn’t with the adoptive mother, and after a bit of the best anguish Michael Feifer could write (which isn’t very anguished), finally agrees to give the girl up, seek prosecution that will put Mr. Valentini and his slimeball operation out of business, and continue to seek a baby to adopt, hopefully through more reputable channels this time.

There were a few directions Feifer could have taken this story that I was fully expecting him to use — like having Ray Thompson be suspected of Michelle’s murder, and a final confrontation between Alicia and the woman who unknowingly adopted her baby, leading to a court battle in which the judge (which, given how Lifetime producers usually cast these parts, would probably have been an African-American woman) would have made the almost obligatory King Solomon reference as she faced the impossible (or nearly impossible) task of deciding which woman deserved this baby more, and maybe even reached the Solomonic decision of regularly bouncing the baby across country so both women could have partial custody. Cradle Swapping was actually a better-than-average Lifetime movie — Feifer’s writing, as silly as it gets sometimes, is often quite powerful, especially when depicting the strains this whole impossible situation puts on the Thompsons’ marriage, and he maintains effective suspense in his direction and takes advantage of some stunning locations, both rural and urban; also Laura Slade Wiggins, despite having only a few scenes, turns in an indelible performance and brings real pathos to her role as essentially a piece of human flotsam, lured into cooperating with Tony’s scheme in the forlorn hope that his romantic and paternal instincts would kick in and he’d marry her and let her keep the child instead of demanding to turn it into cold, hard cash. Amanda Clayton and Brandon Barash as the “good” couple aren’t on the level of Laura Slade Wiggins and Tyler Johnson as the bad one, but, aided by a meatier script with more genuine emotional conflicts than Lifetime’s actors usually get to play. This could have been even better than it is if Feifer hadn’t thrown in so many unbelievable plot premises and copped out at key dramatic points, notably the ending — but even as it is, it’s a good story and better than just about anything I’ve seen from Feifer Worldwide aside from the even more chilling His Secret Family!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Unfinished Song, a.k.a. Song for Marion (Steel Mill Pictures, Coolmore Productions, Egoli Tossell Film, 2012)

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

Last night NBC showed an entire movie — a welcome throwback to the glory days of their Saturday Night at the Movies program in the 1960’s during which I saw some of the Hollywood classics that are still among my all-time favorite films, including Sunset Boulevard, Monkey Business (the sci-fi screwball comedy from 1952 with Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe — not the 1931 Marx Brothers film, which I encountered later), The Seven-Year Itch, The Solid Gold Cadillac and the 1960 version of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (which gave me a lifelong phobia about clocks — to this day I cannot sleep in a room with a ticking clock: all my bedroom clocks have to be electric and silent). Just what quirk of network scheduling led to this unexpected revival of an old television tradition is unknown to me, but it was a joy: the movie was a 2012 Weinstein Company release of a British-German co-production called Unfinished Song, though the original working title was Song for Marion. Written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams, Unfinished Song deals with an elderly long-term married couple in Britain, Arthur and Marion Harris (Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave), who deeply love each other but on the surface kvetch a lot. Arthur is introverted and mistrustful of people; Marion is outgoing and has been singing for several years with a local choir called the OAP’Z (and no, we’re never told why it has that name or what it stands for). After having seen the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College at Cambridge University at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, I suddenly felt I understood just how seriously the British take competitive choir singing, to the extent that that episode of the Father Brown series which depicted rival choir directors resorting to blackmail, espionage and even murder to win a local singing contest suddenly seemed more believable than it had when I’d watched it. Though the contest rivalries in this story aren’t quite so dire, it’s clear this chorus is not only intent on practicing to get good enough to win an audition to a major regional contest, they’re going all out to win it and their director, Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton, who learned to play piano for this film and played the parts herself, as Stamp, Redgrave and the other cast members playing the choir did their own singing), takes this ultra-seriously.

What sets this group aside from every other choir in the competition — or, one suspects, in the entire U.K. — is their repertoire: their featured numbers include the B-52’s “Love Shack,” Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex,” the Motown classic “Nowhere to Run” and the heavy-metal song “Crazy.” When the film opens Marion has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and is expected to have only weeks to live, but she’s still feisty enough that when she thinks Arthur has insulted her friends in the choir, she responds by literally refusing to speak to her husband or allowing him to speak with her. About two-fifths of the way through the movie, she finally dies just after having debuted the big solo she was expecting to sing at the competition — Cyndi Lauper’s hit “True Colors” (a wrench to me because it was also the song I heard the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus sing live while my late client Bettie Pulcrano was in the nursing home and I knew she was not long for this world, and I used it to kick off a mix CD because it summed up the way I felt about her and how I’d been able to look beyond her surface crankiness and temper to see her “true colors, because you’re beautiful like a rainbow”) — and through a series of unlikely encounters Arthur goes from hanging outside as the remaining members of the choir rehearse for their big day to coming into the building to joining in. What’s remarkable about this film is the quiet dignity and strength of both the writing and the acting, and also the complexity of the relationships between the characters: Arthur and Marion have an adult son, James (Christopher Eccleston), but there’s so much bitterness between father and son that at Marion’s funeral Arthur literally tells James he doesn’t want to speak to him again. Arthur also runs afoul of the school authorities when he stops by one afternoon and calls out to his granddaughter (James’s child) to say hello to her and give her a chocolate bar — and he’s chewed out by a nastily overprotective teacher who wonders just who this strange old man is who’s accosting one of the kids and doesn’t relent just because he says he’s the girl’s grandfather. There’s also a marvelous scene in which the expected relationship between Arthur and the choir director Elizabeth suddenly reverses and it’s he who is supporting her through the breakup of her latest romantic involvement instead of her supporting him through the grief over his wife’s death.

If Unfinished Song has a flaw, it’s that it’s too predictable: Paul Andrew Williams has obviously seen a million previous movies and he knows all the old devices. Every time Arthur gets cold feet and walks away from the choir, we know he’ll be back, he’ll sing a big solo at the competition and he’ll be happy with himself in a way that helps him get over the loss of his wife. Williams did stop short of some things he could have done with this story, and I’m glad he didn’t: he didn’t have Arthur and Elizabeth start a December-May romance and he didn’t have the ragtag choir win — they consider it enough of a triumph that they placed third. There are also some rather witty moments, like the one in which the organizers of the final competition want to disqualify the OAP’Z because the men aren’t dressed in suits and ties and the women in at least business-formal wear, only Arthur defiantly takes the stage, Elizabeth joins them and the two refuse to leave until the OAP’Z are allowed to compete. Unfinished Song is a pretty calculated tear-jerker, but at least it’s well made and genuinely moving in the way Williams clearly wanted it to be — and it also has the benefit of those marvelous British actors. I don’t know if there’s something special in their DNA or just the long-established infrastructure in which they’re trained, but the Brits consistently produce the greatest actors in the world, with none of this nonsense about “motivation” with which the Method-trained American actors of the last three generations have saddled themselves with: like the musicians of a symphony orchestra, British actors simply face the audience (or the camera), speak their lines, hit their marks and convince you they are the people they’re playing, no muss, no fuss, no heavy-duty “straining” to be “expressive.”

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Eric Clapton: 70th Birthday Concert, Royal Albert Hall, London (EPC Enterprises, Eagle Rock Entertainment, Examinaton Production, 2015)

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

The PBS program was a telecast of eight songs from Eric Clapton’s 70th birthday tribute concert in 2015 at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and as is PBS’s usual maddening habit in pledge-break programs like this, we had our noses rubbed again and again in the fact that what we were seeing on TV was only a portion of a concert we could only get to see if we gave PBS a whacking great amount of money (like $180). My first horrible thought was that the producers of the concert would do it the way similar telecasts are generally done in the U.S., with a plethora of guest stars each plowing their way through one song or another from Clapton’s repertoire whether it suited them or not, but I was pleasantly surprised that the entire concert was performed by Eric Clapton and his band with no additional guests. What’s more, he was in absolutely phenomenal form: his chops have weathered the years and his former history of substance abuse (heroin and alcohol) surprisingly well, and his current band — aside from two rather buxom long-haired Black backup singers — isn’t that much younger than he is: the keyboard player (who stayed on electric organ instead of synthesizer most of the night) is a grey-haired, grey-bearded white man, the bassist (who used a five-string electric instrument and took up an old-fashioned bass fiddle for the two acoustic numbers) a bald Black guy, and the drummer another grey-head of indeterminate race. 

One might compare Clapton and Jimi Hendrix to Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke — two contemporary pop-music geniuses, one of whom died young with much of his potential tragically unfulfilled, and one of whom not only stayed alive but continued to produce great music — though in the case of Clapton and Hendrix is was the white guy who survived and the Black one who croaked early, not the other way around as with Louis and Bix. I’ve read Clapton’s autobiography and in it he makes the interesting comment that he had the soul of a sideman — he’s always been at his best surrounded by other musicians at his level and he never really wanted the added responsibilities of stardom — and after a brilliant start to his career with the Yardbirds (where he got the nickname “Slowhand” because he would break strings so often during his solos that audiences would start a slow hand-clap while waiting for him to put a new string on his guitar and resume), John Mayall and His Bluesbreakers and the “supergroup” Cream, a detour through the all-too-appropriately named “Blind Faith” with Stevie Winwood (he and Clapton would collaborate far more effectively in a round of concerts in 2008), then his first solo album and the Derek and the Dominoes project, which produced his searing electric love anthem “Layla,” then he started to slip. In 1974 Clapton released the album 461 Ocean Boulevard, which was hugely successful and broke one of Clapton’s biggest hits, “I Shot the Sheriff,” but after some good blues guitar on the opening track, a cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Motherless Children,” for the rest of the LP we got Clapton the pop singer rather than Clapton the blues-rock guitarist. 

The pattern continued through additional albums like Slowhand and Backless, and his sales fell off in the 1980’s and made a comeback due to a terrible tragedy: his son Conor fell out of an open window of a 53-story building. In 1992 Clapton responded with a horribly sappy song called “Tears in Heaven,” which he recorded acoustically as part of an MTV Unplugged set that also included an acoustic version of “Layla” that turned it from a passionate love anthem to a mild display of affection. Since then he’s bounced back and forth between pop and tributes to the great American blues artists he originally tried to play like, and fortunately for his 70th birthday concert he stuck mostly with his blues repertoire: “Somebody Knocking at My Door,” “Who’s Been Fooling You?,” his cover of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” (which he originally started playing in 1968 as a member of Cream) and “Cocaine.” The other songs included among the eight PBS broadcast (which apparently includes only about half the full concert) included “I Shot the Sheriff” in a considerably more passionate version than the one he recorded in 1974, when the song’s composer, Bob Marley, was still a little-known cult artist desperately trying to build a U.S. following. I remember hearing Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff” in 1974 and thinking it was one of the dumbest songs I’d ever heard — “He says he shot the sheriff but he didn’t shoot the deputy — so what?” Then I heard Marley’s version and I was totally blown away: I said to myself, “So that’s what that song is about!” Clapton began his 2015 Albert Hall version with his Black backup singers chanting the original wailing melody and then came in on voice and guitar, both far more powerfully than he had on the original record. (There was a pledge break after “I Shot the Sheriff” and the female host — there were two, one of each of the mainstream genders — made the silly statement that it was “an iconic Eric Clapton song.” Being me, I responded by yelling at the TV, “It is not! It’s an iconic Bob Marley song that Clapton covered!”) 

After that he broke for an acoustic set of “Tears in Heaven” (which sounds less treacly now that Clapton is farther distant from the tragedy that inspired it, but it’s still not a very good song: Duke Ellington’s “Reminiscing in Tempo” it isn’t) and “Layla” (the woman who’d made an ass of herself in the previous pledge break redeemed herself somewhat when she lamented that Clapton no longer seems to perform the electric version live), and he also did the song “Wonderful Tonight” as a bow to his pop years. (I’d always assumed this was a cover of a J. J. Cale song, but according to Wikipedia, Clapton wrote it himself.) All in all, it was a marvelous show — good enough it piqued my curiosity to see the whole concert on DVD or Blu-Ray, though not enough to pay the extortionate “contribution” rates PBS and its local stations demand — with Clapton playing surprisingly well; he’s lost some chops but he can still play rings around a lot of younger players, and perhaps because of the sense of occasion, he turned in an excellent performance. He’s never had a great voice but it’s good enough to put most of his songs over, and age has given him a sense of lived experience that adds weight and gravitas to his show, while at the same time he’s remained fresh and vital enough as a musician that this concert could be enjoyed on its own merits and not written off as just another “remember how good he used to be?” nostalgia item.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Hidden Figures (Levantine Films, Chernin Entertainment, Fox 2000 Pictures, 20th Century-Fox, 2016)

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

Last night Charles and I got to watch one of the most remarkable recent films we’ve seen: Hidden Figures, a 2016 release loosely based on a true story about the early days of the U.S. manned spaceflight program. During the two years (1960-1962) in which the story takes place, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) ground control operation was headquartered in Hampton, Virginia (before President Lyndon Johnson got Congress to move it to Houston in his home state, Texas) and for the mathematics needed to plot the trajectories of space flight they relied on “computers,” back when the word “computers” still meant what it had in the 19th century: not electronic devices but human beings who performed mathematical calculations and reported the results — and quite a few of the human computers who performed this service were African-American women. Of course, they were subjected to both the racist and sexist prejudices you would expect from white men in the South in the early 1960’s, including being stuck in the comparatively menial job of calculating and being segregated in the “West Computing Room” on the west side of the base while the white male engineers, technicians and higher mathematicians did their thing in the east wing. 

A woman named Margot Lee Shetterly wrote a book called Hidden Figures about these outrageously unsung heroines of the U.S. space program, and it was turned into a film by director Theodore Melfi from a script he wrote with Allison Schroeder. The film focuses on three of the African-American women “computers” — all real-life people — Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) — “Coleman” was her birth last name; “Goble” the name of her first husband, who fathered her three daughters but died before the events of the film begin; and “Johnson” the name she acquires from Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), the Black Marine colonel she meets and instantly can’t stand (because he makes a sexist remark about her) but of course, this being a movie, falls in love with and marries during the course of the film; Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who’s stuck in the computer room even though she really wants to be an engineer; and Dorothy Vaughan (Olivia Spencer), the oldest of the three, who sneaks into the whites-only section of the local library, steals a book on the computer programming language FORTRAN and uses it to get the center’s newest acquisition, an IBM 7090 electronic computer, to work after all the hoity-toity white guys have abjectly failed. Obviously she’s learning to use an electronic computer so she can keep her and the women under her supervision (in yet another example of the ridiculously petty racism that pervades this story, she demands that she be given the job title — and the pay — of a supervisor since she’s doing the work of one, but she’s routinely told that’s impossible) employed, much the way some carriage drivers looked askance at the advent of automobiles, while others realized that if they wanted to keep their jobs they’d have to learn to drive the new cars. 

If nothing else, the film shows just what it must have been like to live under segregation and the sheer pointlessness of the exercise: in one of the film’s recurring scenes, Katherine is promoted to a position in the east wing but she’s still not allowed to use the one women’s restroom there because it’s reserved for white women. When she needs to relieve herself, which is often since she’s pretty much living on coffee (which she has to make for herself because she’s not allowed to use the whites-only coffeepot either!), she has to dash across the entire campus to use the “colored ladies’ room” in the west wing — carrying the big binders containing the information she’s working on and continuing to calculate even when she’s on the toilet — and when one of the big NASA cheeses she’s working for, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), wonders why she’s so often absent from her desk, the explanation she blurts out becomes essentially her Norma Rae moment: “There are no colored bathrooms in this building, or any building outside the West Campus, which is half a mile away. Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself! And I can’t use one of the handy bikes. Picture that, Mr. Harrison. My uniform, skirt below the knees and my heels. And simple necklace pearls. Well, I don’t own pearls. Lord knows you don’t pay the colored enough to afford pearls! And I work like a dog day and night, living on coffee from a pot none of you want to touch! So, excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day.” Harrison’s response is to march down to the west wing with a large metal object with which he starts whacking down the “colored ladies’ room” sign, then announce to all and sundry that the days of segregated restrooms at NASA are over: “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.” 

Melfi and Schroeder take advantage of the fact that the 1960-1962 time period was not only the beginning of manned spaceflight but also the headiest times for the African-American civil rights movement: we see stock footage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black church minister in Hampton, Levi Jackson (Aldis Hodge), proudly proclaims himself part of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and preaches resistance to segregation from the pulpit. Mary Jackson acquires a white mentor, Karl Zielinski (Oleg Krupa, in a rare appearance as a good guy), who as a refugee from Nazi Germany who lost his family in the Holocaust has zero patience for racism and makes it clear to Mary that she’s got the skills needed to be an engineer and she’s essentially doing the work of one, so why doesn’t she apply for an engineering job? Only just when she’s ready to do so the NASA honchos impose a requirement for additional math training at the University of Virginia, which of course is an all-white institution; they offer extension courses at Hampton High, but that too is restricted to whites and Mary has to go before a white judge to ask for permission to attend there. She persuades him to do so by researching his background and pointing out that he was the first member of his family to get off the family farm, go to college and build a professional career as an attorney and a judge, so he shouldn’t object to her wanting to be the first Black woman to become a NASA engineer — though as he’s ruling in her favor, he still puts in a caveat: “Only the night classes, you hear?” And of course not all the NASA supervisors are as supportive as Al Harrison and Karl Zielinski: the women also have to deal with people like Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), Katherine’s immediate boss, who keeps tearing her name off the trajectory reports she submits because “computers don’t write reports”; and Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), who keeps giving Mary the runaround about her application to be given a supervisor’s title and be paid for the supervisor’s work she’s already doing.  

Hidden Figures isn’t a ground-breaking movie, and there are bits in which Melfi and Schroeder “tweaked” the story to fit the movie conventions (astronaut John Glenn, played by Glen Powell, did indeed specifically request that Katherine personally perform the trajectory calculations for his orbital flight in 1962, but several weeks before the event: Melfi and Schroeder couldn’t resist the transparent movie device of having him make the request while he’s already on the launching pad at Cape Canaveral getting ready to enter his capsule), and I can think of a few minor flaws. According to, director Melfi wanted to create a visual difference between the “cold” sets of sterile offices at NASA where the calculations were made and the “warm” environments in which the women lived when they weren’t at work, but alas, the way he and cinematographer Mandy Walker did that was to shoot the women’s home environments in full-out past-is-brown mode. As I pointed out in my comments on the film Selma, the past-is-brown schtick is even more annoying in a film in which the central characters are Black because their brown skin tones tend to blend into the brown backgrounds and it’s not always easy to pick them out. Also Melfi hired Pharrell Williams to be the film’s music director and to write and sing a series of songs commenting on the action, and though his contributions aren’t bad, when the Black women are driving to Hampton and Ray Charles’ “Sticks and Stones” plays over their car radio as source music, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “At last! A great record!” Williams’ contributions aren’t bad (there’s nothing here as infuriatingly banal as his song “Happy” — for a long time I’d thought Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was the most banal song that would ever be written about happiness, but Williams surpassed him), but I couldn’t help but wish through much of the film that Melfi had gone with a deeper, richer African-American singer-songwriter (like Rhiannon Giddens, maybe? It would have been especially appropriate in a film about both Blacks’ and women’s empowerment to have an African-American woman instead of an African-American man on the soundtrack). Also Glen Powell is cute and fun to look at but was way too young to be playing John Glenn, who at 41 was the oldest of the original seven Mercury astronauts and was (famously) already virtually bald — Ed Harris, who played Glenn in the film The Right Stuff, was closer to the real one in both appearance and mannerisms. 

But what’s wrong with Hidden Figures is virtually irrelevant compared to what’s right about it: obviously the filmmakers wanted to create an inspirational tale about heroic Black women who beat all the odds and not only made their contributions to the U.S. space program, but (at least eventually) got honored for what they did — and in that they succeeded magnificently. I suspect the only reason Hidden Figures got short shrift in the Academy Awards was that it was up against two other major Black-themed movies, Moonlight (the eventual Best Picture winner — at least once they got the mixup with the envelopes sorted out!) and Fences (indeed, the two films got so confused that during the Golden Globes Hidden Figures was often referred to as Hidden Fences), but Hidden Figures is a magnificent film in every way, impeccably acted, strongly directed, sensitively written. It’s also one of those movies that plays very differently in the Trump-era Zeitgeist: it’s impossible to watch President John F. Kennedy (depicted in a stock clip of his famous “We seek to go to the moon, and to do all these other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard” speech) and not make invidious comparisons between the way we were governed then and the way we’re governed now, and between a President who spoke to uplift us and the current one, who speaks to bring us all down to his level of evil, malevolence, pettiness, and spite.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Trapped Sisters, a.k.a. 12 Feet Under (Citizen Skull, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

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

Last night’s Lifetime movie was billed as a “premiere,” though according to the film was actually made in 2016, and there’s some confusion about the title: Lifetime’s Web site and the Los Angeles Times TV listings called it Trapped Sisters, called it 12 Feet Under, and the actual credits listed both names: Trapped Sisters 12 Feet Under. The film apparently reflected director and co-writer (with Michael Hultquist) Matt Eskandari’s lifelong fear of large bodies of water, swimming pools in particular. “Pools and oceans all trigger a bona fide sense of dread for me. Just the whole idea of being trapped in a pool makes me sweat,” Eskandari told an interviewer. “I decided to tap into that fear and the concept blossomed from there.” He got his inspiration from a news story from December 2015 about how a young woman had drowned in an indoor swimming pool when its management, not knowing she was in there, closed the fiberglass lid to the pool and left her trapped inside. What Eskandari and Hultquist came up with was a grim story in which two young women, sisters Bree (Nora Jane Noone) and Jonna (Alexandra Park) — the name is pronounced “Jonah” and Eskandari and Hultquist acknowledged she was named after the Biblical Jonah — are being pestered by McGradey (Tobin Bell) to get out of the public pool already so he can close its fiberglass cover, lock up the building and go home for the three-day holiday weekend, during which the pool will be closed. (Why? One would think the pool should be kept open during the holiday weekend because that’s when there would be peak demand for it!)

The other swimmers (all nubile young women, it seems) get out on time but one of them realizes she’s lost her engagement ring, which has wedged itself in the drainage grate at the pool’s bottom. She dives for it, the other sister dives in as well to help her, and just then McGradey punches the buttons that seal the pool shut for the weekend and goes home. The women realize they’re trapped in the pool, and to screw up the melodramatics even further Bree realizes that she’s left her insulin pen in her purse. She’s diabetic — though Jonna hasn’t known that about her sister until now — and without the shot she’s liable to go into a coma, which under their current circumstances means she’ll drown. As if that weren’t enough of a plot for you, Eskandari and Hultquist introduce a villainess, Rita (Diane Farr) — the page on the film lists her name as “Carla” but “Rita” is the name I heard on the soundtrack — who’s the woman hired to clean the outside of the pool and who took the job because it was the only one she could get after being released from prison nine months earlier. Rita hears Bree and Jonna cry for help, but instead of unsealing the pool she decides to torment the two rich bitches who until now have seemingly had everything their own way. (They haven’t: in the sort of settling-accounts conversations people, at least in movies, have when they’re facing imminent doom, they’ve talked about how their father molested both of them and died in a house fire, though by the end Bree has confessed that she killed him, knocking him out with the usual blunt instrument and leaving his body to be burned up instead of attempting to rescue him.) Rita, who comes off like a graduate of the Aileen Wournos School of Charm, torments the two women, demanding the password to Bree’s cell phone (her fiancé David has been calling her regularly and is starting to get concerned about her) and the PIN code for her bank account. She extracts both those pieces of information but gets even more upset when the account turns out to have only $80 in it. Then she demands the engagement ring, and a desperate Bree gives it to her. “A pawn shop will give me something for this,” Rita says heartlessly. (It occurred to me that if the stone in the ring was a diamond, the two women could have used it to cut through the fiberglass cover and escape.)

Rita tortures the women by shutting off the lights and heat in the pool, thereby ensuring that the water will get colder and give them hypothermia in addition to all their other problems, and at one point, when one of the women stabs Rita through the hole in the covering they’ve been able to cut with a shard of fiberglass they found under the water, Rita responds by turning on the valves to add more water to the pool and threatening to dispatch them that much sooner. Then she relents, but she’s made the point that the two women are totally at her mercy down there. Once she decides she’s tormented them enough, she tries to open the pool — only the code won’t work: McGradey must have changed it without telling her what the new code was. Ultimately the women get out when one of them pulls up the grate at the pool’s bottom and they use the heavy metal grate to poke a large enough hole in the cover that they can get out — and Rita develops enough of a conscience that, after threatening to shoot the two women then and there (with a hot-looking gold-colored gun — where did she get it?), she relents and even gives them back the engagement ring (ya remember the engagement ring?). Trapped Sisters a.k.a. 12 Feet Under seems like a movie perfectly suited to the Trump-era Zeitgeist: the heroines are rich and the villains are proletarians (though Rita drops hints that she, too, once had money and a privileged lifestyle until she fell — one presumes from alcohol, drugs or maybe a more exotic form of addiction), and it’s actually well made, several cuts above Lifetime’s usual fare (it was produced by one of Lifetime’s usual partners, MarVista Entertainment — an ironic name given the subject matter and the director’s phobia — in association with a company called “Citizen Skull,” whose logo is a skeleton reading a newspaper) and suffering more than usual from the inevitable commercial interruptions. But it’s also beset by typical Lifetime melodramatics and sillinesses, though at least Nora Jane Noone and Alexandra Paul are capable as the damsels in distress (and they look enough alike to be credible as sisters on screen), while — in a genre in which the villains are almost always more interesting than the heroes — Diane Farr as the hard-bitten Rita easily takes the acting honors.