Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Blade Runner 2049 (Warner Bros., Sony/Columbia, Alcon Entertainment, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I went to the San Diego Public Library to see the 2017 sequel to Blade Runner, director Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, which involved one of the original screenwriters, Hampton Fancher, creating a “new” story based on the characters and situations of the original film (which he had adapted — rather freely, according to the imdb.com page of the original — from Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and co-writing the actual script with Michael Green. Alas, Ridley Scott, director of the original Blade Runner, wasn’t involved in this one except in some shadowy “associate producer” capacity, and the result was a terrible movie, one of the worst sequels ever made and a total disgrace to the memory of the film it was supposedly a sequel to. The talent gap between Scott and Villeneuve as directors is even broader than that between Stanley Kubrick and Peter Hyams on 2001: A Space Odyssey and its sequel, 20102001 was such a great and amazing film no one, probably not even Kubrick himself, could have made a sequel that would have equaled it, but Hyams came a lot closer than Villeneuve did. I’d never seen the original Blade Runner until the night before, when I ran it for Charles at least in part so I could see the two on consecutive nights and come to the new one with the first vividly in my memory, and though the version of Blade Runner we watched on Sunday was the 1991 edition billed as the “Director’s Cut,” it actually was the least “authoritative” version in terms of Ridley Scott’s actual involvement in the editing. The original film was taken away from Scott by its producers at the last minute and, though he was kept on salary and not officially fired, a voice-over narration was added without his consent or involvement (or that of the original writers, Fancher and David Webb Peoples) — and judging from the quotes on the imdb.com page it was awfully cornball and ridiculously close to the conventions of 1940’s film noir (and its writer, Roland Kibbee, was someone old enough to have contributed to actual 1940’s films!). 

The version released in 1991 was actually edited without Scott’s involvement since he had already moved on to his next film, the Christopher Columbus biopic 1492: Conquest of Paradise, though the people who did edit it tried to follow Scott’s notes as much as possible. It seems from imdb.com’s “trivia” notes on the new one that the versions Villenueve, Fancher and Green considered canonical and to which they made their film a sequel were the original 1982 theatrical release (which contained an unambiguously “happy” ending in which Deckard and Rachael, the characters played by Harrison Ford and Sean Young, got together and fled the scene in the post-apocalyptic Los Angeles where the film took place) and the 2007 “Final Cut,” ironically the only one in which Ridley Scott was directly involved in the editing (and in which, among other things, he used digital technology that hadn’t existed in 1982 to erase the wires suspending the flying cars and do other “tweaks” on the effects). I got my first warning that Blade Runner 2049 would not necessarily be my cup of tea when Tracy, the woman from the San Diego Public Library who has just been put in charge of their film screenings and was making her debut in that role last night, announced that the film’s running time was 164 minutes — just 16 minutes shy of three hours — compared to the original film’s 110 to 117 minutes. I remember losing all interest in seeing Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake after finding out it ran three hours and 10 minutes (the original King Kong’s first cut was 140 minutes; producer and co-director Merian Cooper edited it down to a 100-minute release and many of the technicians, lamenting the immense amount of time and energy they had put into creating beautiful and vivid sequences no audience would ever get to see, were horrendously upset, but as Orville Goldner — an effects technician on the original film — and George Turner acknowledged in their book The Making of “King Kong,” “Cooper was right, of course. He set his jaw and cut his own ideas with a ruthlessness that must have given him nightmares. In doing this he delivered to the public a movie that holds the attention during every one of its scenes, each second of its 100 minutes.” 

I think modern filmmakers are all too conscious of 1) the immense investment of time and money any film sequence involves, which leads them to throw everything they shot into the final cut whether it actually helps tell the story and move the viewer or not, and 2) the high cost of movie tickets, which leads at least some audience members to feel short-changed if a film doesn’t cross the 2 ½-hour mark even if it could have told its story better, and hence entertained the audience more, if it had been shorter. Blade Runner 2049 lasts an hour longer than its predecessor and offers surprisingly few of the elements that made the original interesting (and though I don’t think it’s one of the finest science-fiction films ever made it is a work of obvious power and quality, and it’s set the template for how to film stories by Philip K. Dick as well as other writers tapping his paranoid, surrealistic world view). The original was one of the most glorious-looking films ever made, with a fumata (smoky) quality Scott and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth created which led me to comment while Charles and I watching it that this is what a science-fiction film directed by Josef von Sternberg would have looked like. Though Roger Deakins won an Academy Award for cinematography for Blade Runner 2049, his work is quite dull, shot in the steely grey that seems to be filmmakers’ default look for everything that they don’t make all dirty, yucky-looking browns and greens (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if modern filmmakers are so bound and determined to use so little of the visible spectrum, why don’t they just shoot in black-and-white like their classic-era forebears?) — Blade Runner 2049 has the look of the Underworld movies, only there it worked because it served as a convenient visual shorthand to separate the world of the vampires and werewolves from normal human reality even though the Underworld films, like Anne Rice’s vampire tales, are supposed to be taking place in our own time. 

At least part of that may be due to a twist in the story writer Fancher invented to cover the 30 years between 2019, when the first Blade Runner takes place, and 2049: in the 2020’s the entire ecosystem of Earth broke down and the human race would have died out completely if not for super-capitalist Niander Wallace (played by Jared Leto after Villeneuve’s interesting first choice, David Bowie, died before the film was made), who invented a way of making synthetic food that could sustain the human population. He also invented a new run of replicants — the robots from the first film — to run his synthetic farms, and he programmed them to make sure they would be obedient and not rebel against humanity like the first batch of replicants made by the now-defunct Tyrrell Corporation had. Enough of the first replicants survived — including the Nexus 8 models, one step higher than the Nexus 6’s depicted in the first Blade Runner and not subject to the deliberately limited four-year lifespan of previous replicants — that there is still a need for Blade Runners, the members of a special police force designed to exterminate (though the euphemism they use is “retire”) any of the leftover Tyrrell Nexus replicants, which in the first film were still legal in the “Off-World” colonies but are now illegal everywhere, “Off-World” as well as on Earth itself. Also, the ecological catastrophe of the 2020’s has decimated the population of the future Los Angeles, so instead of a polyglot world crowded with people of different nationalities and speaking a language Philip K. Dick called “Cityspeak” — his conceit was that all the languages spoken in the future Los Angeles would have got mashed up with each other and coalesced into a new argot, sort of like “Spanglish” only more like Spangrussofinndutchjapanchineseglish — the new Los Angeles is a now-fashionable dystopian wasteland, barely populated and so denuded of natural vegetation that the wooden toy horse that figures prominently in the plot is actually worth more money than a real horse would be. (According to the imdb.com “trivia” section on Blade Runner, in Dick’s original novel virtually all animals have become extinct, too.) 

The paucity of life in the current Blade Runner 2049 matches the paucity of imagination in Fancher’s new script and Villeneuve’s dull direction, which stretches a story premise that just might have made a taut, fast, exciting 90-minute film into just about twice that much running time. The plot centers around a new Blade Runner, K-D6-3.7 (Ryan Gosling, who seems to think that if he glowers throughout his entire role he can get people to accept him as the legitimate successor to Harrison Ford — though he’s not helped much by Fancher and Green, who don’t give him any scenes like the marvelous one in which Ford’s character posed as a morals enforcer to question a stripper, reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart’s masquerade as an effeminate professor to question the employee of a crooked bookstore in The Big Sleep), though he’s later nicknamed “Joe” in what’s variously been considered a reference to the Old Testament Joseph (the young man sold into slavery in Egypt who later became Pharoah’s prime minister), the New Testament Joseph (Jesus’s father, stepfather or foster-father, depending on which version of the legend you believe), or the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial, Joseph K. He’s assigned by a quite androgynous woman who’s his direct supervisor to track down a child — which later turns out to be two children, a boy and a girl with identical DNA (which, of course, is impossible) — who was actually born out of a replicant’s womb even though replicants aren’t supposed to have uteruses, produce eggs or do any of the other things human females have to for our species to reproduce. Niander Wallace wants to find the mother of these kids because he’s concerned that he can’t produce enough replicants in his factories to supply the demand for them in the Off-World colonies — in his insistence that civilization depends on there being a permanent servant class he sounds a lot like John C. Calhoun in his famous speeches defending slavery, especially when he protests that with all our damned-fool notions about human equality the permanent service class can’t be human, just as Calhoun said that because the U.S. was built on the proposition that all white males were created equal, our permanent servant class couldn’t be white — and he wants to find the mutation that allowed a woman replicant to have kids like a human so he can duplicate it and the future generations of replicants will simply grow themselves.

Through much of the movie it’s hinted that K. is one of the two kids — though that’s never made clear in the film, just as it was never made clear either in the original Blade Runner or this one whether Harrison Ford’s character, who reappears here as the actor has naturally aged, was or wasn’t a replicant himself. (Charles and I actually argued about that after we watched the first film: I was convinced Deckard was a replicant and he was equally convinced he wasn’t, and the fact that he has aged in the new film is persuasive but not decisive evidence that he isn’t.) In the search through all those ugly, deserted streets and his encounters with other creatures, both human and replicant, who beat him up and/or get beaten by him, K. a.k.a. “Joe” tracks down the old Deckard and finally K. takes Deckard to meet the woman he tells Deckard is his daughter, Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Duri), who lives in a glass bubble because she has a compromised immune system and can’t be exposed to germs or just about anything else in this highly degenerated and filthy human environment — and who seems to have been included in Fancher’s and Green’s script only because they wanted a Yoda-like figure in their mix (which probably gave Harrison Ford dèja vu feelings when he read the script!). There are some intriguing touches in the script reminiscent of the ones Fancher supplied in the first one, including the explanation K. gets that the children he’s looking for were “born, not made” (from the “begotten, not made” explanation of Jesus’s origins in the Nicene Creed) and the ruin Deckard is living in when K. first encounters him. It’s called the “Vintage Casino” and I’m presuming it’s what’s left of the Shanghai Gesture-ish casino/bar where one of the most effective sequences from the first Blade Runner took place, and among the entertainment on offer via machines that have somehow remained in working order are holographic simulations of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. I’m sure Fancher was using those particular entertainers because both Sinatra and Elvis have been the stars of fake “live” performances staged after their deaths, with their parts supplied from film clips and voice-only recordings while live musicians perform as accompanists.

For the most part, however, Blade Runner 2049 is just monumentally dull; Ryan Gosling, ordinarily one of my favorite living actors (he’s been high up on my list since his magnificent performance as a troubled teen in the film The United States of Leland, which I saw at a press screening and gave the rave review it deserved, and it looks like with his next film, playing Neil Armstrong in First Man, a casting director has finally realized a long-standing hope of mine and put Gosling into a movie in which he gets to play someone normal!), is just dull here, and so are the pretty interchangeable actresses who play the women more or less in his life (a far cry from the strongly etched female characters of the first Blade Runner!). This film almost arbitrarily ignores just about all the elements that made the first Blade Runner interesting and substitutes almost nothing in their place but boredom and a sense of High Importance not borne out by the relative banality of the material. Rarely has so much money, time and effort been wasted on a cause as hopeless as Blade Runner 2049; I don’t rate the original as highly as some people do (its imdb.com “Trivia” page cites a number of polls in which it was voted the best science-fiction film of all time — in my mind Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is the finest science-fiction film of all time, hands down, and I’m certainly not expecting to see a better one in my lifetime, while the next four in my ranking would be the 1972 Russian Solaris — not the ghastly remake with George Clooney — Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in the intermediate restoration, and the original 1950’s versions of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the last of which deserves the “first science-fiction film noir” title often given to Blade Runner), but the original Blade Runner is a fine enough film it did not deserve the dishonor of this dull, putrid sequel! (And I read from imdb.com that Denis Villeneuve’s next proposed project is a remake of Frank Herbert’s Duneplease, Monsieur Villeneuve, don’t desecrate another great science-fiction story by a major author in the genre!)

Monday, June 18, 2018

Blade Runner (Warner Bros., The Ladd Company, Shaw Brothers, Blade Runner Partnership, 1982, revised 1991)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a movie last night, and it was a doozy: Blade Runner, the 1982 adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (a title my late roommate and home-care client John P. thought they should have kept) and, even though it was a box-office disappointment (the film’s estimated budget was $28 million and in its initial release it grossed only $27 million, which under the usual rule of thumb that because of advertising and distribution expenses a movie has to make at least twice its production cost to break even, would mean it was a pretty big money-loser for Warner Bros.), the film that established Dick’s world of surrealism and paranoia as suitable for filming. The film’s opening is quite close to the central premise of Karel Cápek’s play R.U.R. (for “Rossum’s Universal Robots” — the play not only was the first major work about a race of mechanical humanoids but even gave them the name “robots,” from the Czech robotnik, meaning “worker”): a group of humanoid creations, called “robots” in Dick’s novel but here given the catchier, snazzier and separately copyrightable name “replicants,” rebelled on an off-world colony of normal humans and slaughtered them all. Since then replicants have still been allowed on Earth’s off-world colonies but have been banned on Earth itself, and a squad of special police officers called “Blade Runners” are authorized to hunt them down and shoot them on sight — which, the opening title crawl explains, isn’t called “execution” but “retirement.” 

The replicants are made by the Tyrrell Corporation (I assume the name is a deliberate reference to Sir James Tyrrell, Richard III’s hired assassin in Shakespeare’s play) and the company’s founder, Dr. Eldon Tyrrell (Joe Turkel), is shown in the opening scene giving a test to a job applicant, Leon Kowalski (Brion James), to test for emotions like compassion and empathy, the absence of which would give him away as a replicant trying to infiltrate the company. (Blade Runner was made in the early years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and this premise that replicants differ from humans in showing no compassion “plays” quite differently in an era in which the current President is a man who not only utterly lacks compassion and empathy, but sees their absence as a sign of his personal strength and superiority to the rest of humanity.) When the test exposes Kowalski as a replicant, he draws a gun and starts shooting, and though he’s easily subdued and blows himself up (at least I think that’s what happened), the scene establishes the film’s central conflict even before we meet the central character. He is ace “blade runner” Rick Deckard and is played by Harrison Ford, who until this had been known to movie audiences almost exclusively for uncomplicatedly heroic roles like Han Solo in Star Wars and Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Obviously he wanted to “stretch” his chops as an actor and show he could play a more complicated character, though he’s so taciturn through the whole movie I was expecting a plot twist at the end in which he’d turn out to be a replicant himself. 

The plot consists of Deckart’s search through the mean streets of a post-apocalyptic L.A. swarming with people (mostly Asians — Blade Runner was made during a period of intense American paranoia that the Japanese were going to buy all our major corporations and take over our economy by stealth, and that’s reflected in the movie in the innumerable ads shown for Japanese companies like TDK, Atari and Kawasaki) and bathed in fog. He’s looking for six replicants who shot up an outer-space colony and fled to Earth, and one of them, Rachael (Sean Young, who turns in a highly competent performance that should have marked her for stardom — alas, she ran afoul of Harvey Weinstein and became one of the actresses whose careers he ruined because she wouldn’t have sex with him), becomes his more-or-less love interest. Blade Runner is clearly a great film but it’s also an oddly cold one — ironic given the story’s postulate that emotion is what sets humans apart from replicants — though the visual look is stunning and quite 2001-ish (probably due to Douglas Trumbull’s work as an effects artist on both), and the film also resembles 2001 in its reliance on imagery and use of very little dialogue. It was adapted from Dick’s novel by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, who trusted the story to tell itself and trusted us to get the point without a lot of explanation; and directed by Ridley Scott, who like his star was coming off an enormous blockbuster hit (the original 1979 Alien) that had earned him the brownie points he needed to get a personal project like this green-lighted. Just as the science-fiction novel I’m currently reading, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (a story Ridley Scott optioned for film but never actually got to make), strikes me as the sort of science-fiction novel Ernest Hemingway would have written if he’d ever done one, so Blade Runner strikes me as the sort of science-fiction movie Josef von Sternberg would have made if he’d ever done one: the sheer density of the images, the fumata effects, the overall air of sleazy corruption (one key scene in a bar is straight out of The Shanghai Gesture) and the enigmatic female at the center of the action who may or may not be a replicant (Sean Young doesn’t outright copy Marlene Dietrich but the air of world-weary inscrutability is definitely there) are quite Sternbergian. 

So is the excellence of the ensemble cast, which includes a brief but indelible star turn for the young Daryl Hannah; Rutger Hauer shines as Roy Batty, the out-and-proud replicant who infiltrates Tyrrell’s compound and murders both him and his chief genetic engineer, J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), after they inform him there’s no way they can reverse the “terminator” gene that cuts short a replicant’s life after just four years (if they let them live longer than that, the theory goes, they could develop memories from which they could derive emotions, and then they’d be indistinguishable from humans on the standard tests). The confrontation scene between the three is by far the best in the film: it seems to me to come closer to the spirit of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein than any of the films of Frankenstein itself. Blade Runner and 2001 also have one intriguing point in common: narration, or the lack of same. Through much of the planning for 2001 Stanley Kubrick had planned to have a third-person narrator running through the film explaining the plot as it went, and even hired an actor to read it (Douglas Rain, who ended up in the film as the voice of HAL), but he ended up deciding against it almost at the last minute. In Blade Runner Warner Bros. insisted at the last minute on adding a first-person narration by Harrison Ford’s character, much to Ridley Scott’s opposition, so the first theatrical release of Blade Runner in 1982 went out with a narration that made it seem like even more of a science-fiction film noir than it does without one. (Blade Runner is often referred to as the first science-fiction film noir, which it isn’t; I’d give that honor to Donald Siegel’s original 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a much better movie than the remakes.) The version we were watching was a DVD of the 1991 “director’s cut,” whose main difference from the 1982 version was that Scott got to eliminate the narration and thereby make the story foggier and more elliptical — much to its benefit, I suspect, just as Kubrick’s last-minute elimination of the narration from 2001 gave the film much of its hallucinatory power. (Most of the proposed narration for 2001 ended up in Arthur C. Clarke’s novel of the story.) There’s been a further tweak of the material in a 2007 edition called the “final cut” — this incessant tweaking with something that was presumably a finished product recalls George Lucas being asked by a New Yorker interviewer when he was going to stop tinkering with the Star Wars movies, to which he answered, “When I die” — though my understanding is there weren’t any big changes between 1991 and 2007.  

Blade Runner is also interesting in light of the controversy in the science-fiction world today over why sci-fi writers of the 1950’s and 1960’s offered hopeful versions of the future, with energy abundance, interplanetary travel, moving sidewalks and flying cars, and now all they seem to generate is dystopian futures and post-nuclear or post-plague apocalypses. The odd thing about Blade Runner is that though it’s clearly dystopian, it still has flying cars and an overall high-tech sheen — in 1982 even the dystopian visions of the future were cooler than the one we actually got! In fact, one could make the case that instead of proceeding outward as most science-fiction writers of the past predicted — towards space, towards gargantuan cities and the development of snazzier and more convenient infrastructure — the technological development that’s actually occurred has been turned inward, with the rise of the Internet and its progeny (notably social media and the smartphone), that have allowed people more and more to cut themselves off from the rest of the world, form smaller and smaller (and more exclusive) communities, and thereby lose any sense of a common purpose for humanity — which explains quite a lot of the political evolution of the last 40 years or so and in particular the rise of Libertarianism, with its exaltation of the rich and powerful as morally superior because they are rich and powerful (actually the philosophy is that their moral and intellectual superiority are proven by their wealth and power) and its insistence that, as Margaret Thatcher put it, “There is no such thing as ‘society.’ There are only individuals.” Movies as a form have always tended to glorify the heroic individual facing the corrupt, oppressive social order, and what makes Blade Runner a great but also rather off-putting (at least to me) film is that its makers are at once presenting Harrison Ford’s character as an heroic individual facing down a corrupt order and undermining our ability to see him as such. The material could readily have accommodated a Fahrenheit 451-style twist ending in which Deckert realizes that massacring replicants is wrong and switches to the other side, but Ridley Scott and his writers wisely didn’t go there.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Batman: Three 1960’s TV Episodes (Greenway Productions, 20th Century-Fox Television, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I headed out to the Vintage Sci-Fi screening in Golden Hill (http://sdvsf.org/) for a program of six episodes from the first season of the sensationally successful 1966-1968 TV series Batman. I have vivid memories of this one, mainly because I was 12 when it made its on-air debut and my mom, my brother and I watched the first episode together — and midway through it my mom explained, “It’s camp!,” an expression I never heard (I’d always thought “camp” was a place where parents better-heeled than mine sent their kids to the summer to suffer outdoors while they enjoyed a time rid of them). The show became a nationwide sensation and some phrases from it, like “Same Bat-Time, Same Bat-Channel,” still linger on as slang in the language. It also introduced me to superhero stories, which I’d been aware of before that but not terribly interested in; for the next few years I read a lot of superhero comics even though I didn’t get as obsessed with them as some people did, and I remember some of the ancillary merchandise sold as part of this show, including a series of 45 rpm records whose covers were head-shot portraits of the various Batcharacters and whose contents were rather silly songs about them — “It’s the Batman,” “Look Out for the Batman,” “There Goes Robin,” “The Joker Gets Trumped” and “Ho, Ho, Ho, the Joker’s Wild.” The series also became known because for its first two seasons ABC, desperate for programming, ran it two nights in a row each week and put in a serial-style cliffhanger at the end of every Wednesday night’s episode that was then resolved at the start of Thursday’s.

One of the quirkier aspects of the show was that each episode featured a “Special Guest Villain,” and some of them were played by actors with genuinely major reputations — notably my favorite, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, who alas was not represented in the episodes shown last night. (Meredith recalled having families visit him at his home; he’d show the children through his wall of stills representing his acting roles, and they’d be totally uninterested in shots from his serious movies like Winterset and Of Mice and Men but they’d light up when they saw the Batman stills and go, “You were the Penguin?”) Alas, of the major villains on the show — the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), the Penguin, the Joker (César Romero — who wore heavy makeup above his upper lip because he refused to shave off his trademark moustache to play the clean-shaven Joker) and the Catwoman — only the Catwoman was represented last night. The screener wisely chose the episodes that introduced her, “The Purr-fect Crime” and “Better Luck Next Time,” with the marvelous Julie Newmar as the Catwoman. (Later, when she was shooting another film during the time allotted for a feature-film production based on the series, Newmar was replaced in the role by the much less effective Lee Meriwether — and still later the marvelous Eartha Kitt showed up as the series’ third, and arguably best, Catwoman.) The other two special guest villains represented last night were False Face (wearing an obviously fake rubber mask and billed only as “?” in the opening credits — much the way Boris Karloff is billed as “?” in the opening credits of the 1931 Frankenstein and only listed by name in the closing “A Great Cast Is Worth Repeating” credits — it took until the closing credits of the second episode featuring him before he was revealed as veteran character actor Malachi Throne) and the Bookworm (a marvelously eccentric performance by Roddy MacDowall even though the character himself isn’t particularly interesting — he’s shown as a failed novelist who can’t write anything on his own because he’s read so much every plot he thinks of has been used before, which hasn’t stopped some people who’ve made quite a lot of money writing pop potboilers, so he decides to dramatize his fictional crime schemes in real life).

While other writers were credited with these specific scripts, it was Lorenzo Semple, Jr. as the series’ head writer who set the tone for it and in particular the outrageous lampooning of the superhero story conventions — I remember one famous scene in the opening episode in which Batman and Robin crash a disco party in full regalia and Batman says to Robin, “Try not to be conspicuous” — and producer William Dozier who hired the special guest villains and in some cases also brought in guest stars for cameo appearances as people looking out their windows in the tall buildings Batman and Robin scaled with their Batrope (hooked at the top of the building with the Batarang — the tendency of this show, copied from the original Batman comics by Bob Kane and Bill Finger but ramped up to the nth degree, to preface just about every object Batman and Robin used with the prefix “Bat-“ itself got lampooned a lot, notably in the song “Goodbat Nightman” by the Scaffold, a British rock band that was sort of the Beatles meet Monty Python and was led by Roger McGough and Michael McGear — “McGear” was really Paul McCartney’s brother Michael, using a different last name to avoid coasting to fame on his brother’s coattails — in “Goodbat Nightman” Batman oratorically announces to Robin that nature is calling; “Where are you going, Batman?” Robin asks, and Batman says, “To the Batroom!”). In the Bookworm episode the cameo was by Jerry Lewis — and I was astounded enough that I asked, “Was that the real Jerry Lewis?,” thinking they might have used an impostor. The principal cast was also excellent: as I noted in these pages when Charles and I watched the 1967 Batman movie with this cast, Adam West was absolutely perfect casting for this conception of Batman (though I still think the very best on-screen Batman was Lewis Wilson, who played him in the first Batman movie, the 1943 serial from Columbia; Wilson looked more credible in the Bruce Wayne identity than any Batman since and he was in good but not obstreperously muscular shape; he genuinely looked weary after each fight scene, reminding us that Batman was not a super-powerful being but an ordinary human who willed himself to be a superhero and trained both physically and mentally for the job): oracular, sometimes prissily self-righteous (when he insists that Robin put on his seat belt in the Batmobile even though they’re just driving two blocks, the scene plays very differently in the modern age of legal requirements for seat-belt use than it did in 1966, when seat belts were a novelty), and every inch the pure 100 percent hero without any of the thuggish behaviors of the Kane-Finger Batman (especially in the very earliest comics) or the self-doubt of the later “Dark Knight” version of the character in the comics and the Christopher Nolan films with Christian Bale as a Robin-less Batman. (Bale actually said he wouldn’t play the character in any script that included Robin.)

Though on balance the best Batman movie as a movie is the 1989 Tim Burton masterpiece with Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the very best Joker (alas, Burton blew it in the sequel, Batman Returns, by casting Danny DeVito as an almost totally charmless Penguin: ah, if only Nicholson’s Joker and Burgess Meredith’s Penguin had got to appear in the same movie!) — a film which was my all-time favorite comic-book superhero movie until I recently saw Black Panther and it zoomed to the top — the performances of Adam West and Burt Ward are perfect for this conception of their characters, utterly serious in the world of camp around them — and so were veteran character actors Neil Hamilton as Commissioner Gordon (Hamilton had been pushed as a romantic leading man in the early days of the talkie era, usually as the ne’er-do-well rich playboy redeemed by the love of a poor but honest woman, but his performances were as boring as the stereotype itself, while the elderly Hamilton brought just the right gravitas to this role — incidentally he had played Nick Carraway in the 1926 now-lost silent version of The Great Gatsby and Sam Waterston, who played the part in the 1974 version with Robert Redford as Gatsby, also went on to a career as a TV law enforcer, as assistant district attorney Jack McCoy on Law & Order), Alan Napier as Batman’s butler Alfred (the only character privy to Bruce Wayne’s and Dick Grayson’s secret identities as Batman and Robin — Napier reached his career height as the Holy Father in Orson Welles’ film of Macbeth, his depth in the 1956 Universal horror, in both senses, The Mole People, and this was in the middle) and Madge Blake (probably best known otherwise as the gossip columnist who introduces the various characters at the opening of Singin’ in the Rain) as the annoying character Aunt Harriet, who lives in Wayne Manor and whom Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson have to keep unaware that they’re really Batman and Robin. It’s also a sign of the (old) times that both False Face and the Bookworm have bimbo girlfriends in tight costumes who try to seduce Batman into letting them go (while Julie Newmar’s Catwoman is denied the hints of genuine sexual interest between her and Batman her successors got to play), but otherwise Batman still seems fresh and decidedly undated, well produced technically for the time (even though some of the wires attaching the supposedly breakaway objects are all too visible and it’s also obvious the Batmobile is being shot with fast-motion photography since the real one had so much lead in the body, put there by veteran car customizer George Barris to resculpt its appearance, it could only go 40 miles an hour) and marvelously entertaining in the ways its producers originally intended.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Shape of Water (Fox Searchlight Pictures, Bull Productions, Double Dare You, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I went to the San Diego Public Library to see Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, The Shape of Water. I’d previously seen the films I regard as del Toro’s masterpieces, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), both fantasy-horror melodramas about children victimized by the oppression of the late-1930’s Civil War in Spain. I watched Pan’s Labyrinth at a Landmark Theatres press screening when it was new and gave it a rave review which began, “Like the title character(s) of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — which would actually make a good story for him to film — Guillermo del Toro is two personalities in one body. The American Guillermo del Toro knows what’s required of a modern-day horror-film director, and methodically churns it out: steel-grey Gothic imagery, teenagers in peril and blood, blood, blood spurting everywhere. But get him out of this country — either to his native Mexico or to Spain, where he’s made his two best films, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth — and he turns into a different director altogether, filling his films with human emotion and genuine terror, and creating legitimately frightening sequences instead of just freaking out his audiences with the modern-day de rigueur blood and gore.” The Shape of Water was his attempt to combine his two approaches, making a movie in English and with an American studio (20th Century-Fox’s Searchlight specialty film division) backing him — though the movie was actually shot in Canada — with at least some of the poetry and emotion of his Spanish masterpieces. It emerges as an oddly schizoid film, restrained in some ways while all too blatant in others, and at times genuinely moving and touching in ways del Toro and his writing collaborator, Vanessa Taylor (the first woman he’s ever worked with in co-writing a script), intended, while at other times it gets so risible it begins to look as if Mel Brooks had seen Pan’s Labyrinth and decided to do a parody of it. The Shape of Water takes place in a super-secret U.S. government lab in Baltimore run by five-star general Hoyt (Nick Searcy) and his straw boss on the project, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).

While on a trip to South America Strickland discovered a Creature from the Black Lagoon-like evolutionary throwback, an aquatic hominid who has both gills and lungs so he can breathe either air or water. He captured the creature but it bit off two of his left-hand fingers, though they’ve been surgically re-attached. Hoyt and Strickland decide to kill the creature so they can autopsy it, figure out how it breathes and use that information to help the American space program. Meanwhile, a sinister group of Russians are determined to break into the lab and kill the creature themselves so the U.S. can’t use the information from it to help their astronauts survive in space. Early on in The Shape of Water it becomes apparent from the big cars and the black-and-white console TV’s that the time the film is set in is not the present, but it’s only about two-thirds of the way through, when we hear President John F. Kennedy deliver his speech announcing the Cuban missile crisis and demanding that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev pull out the missiles he was sending Cuba, that the time is definitively established as October 1962. So this is the height of the Cold War and after the Russians embarrassed us big-time first by sending a dog into space in 1957 and then a human, Yuri Gagarin, into earth orbit in 1961. As part of their plot the Russians have infiltrated a scientist into the lab, Dmitri, under the identity “Robert Hoffstetler” (Martin Stuhlberg), only Martin has become scientifically fascinated by the creature and believes the human race can learn more from it alive than dead. The film’s heroine is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute (but not deaf) cleaning woman at the lab, who accidentally stumbles on the creature and instantly takes a liking to it, offering it a hard-boiled egg and playing music to it via a portable phonograph and two big-band LP’s, The Great Benny Goodman on Columbia and Music from “The Glenn Miller Story” by Glenn Miller. (The Goodman LP has the correct red-and-black label Columbia was using in 1962 but the Miller is on a green label. Miller’s record company, RCA Victor, used black labels with white lettering and the colored “His Master’s Voice” logo for their LP’s at the time. Miller never recorded for a company that used a green label.) She thus breaks through the creature, determines that he (it’s definite from later on that it’s a “he”) has emotions and can communicate — he picks up some of her sign language — and therefore it’s intelligent and the last thing that should happen is that he should be killed for science.

Elisa’s only friends are her fellow cleaning worker, Zelda Delilah Fuller (Octavia Spencer), an African-American who’s married to a singularly uncommunicative male-chauvinist asshole named Brewster (the appropriately named, given his unsympathetic character, Martin Roach), and her roommate Giles (Richard Jenkins), a super-closeted Gay man who laments that age and the loss of his looks keeps him from having sex with anybody anymore. He’s also an artist who at the start of the film gets fired from an advertising agency and keeps submitting work with which he hopes to get his job back. We don’t realize Giles is Gay until he goes to a pie stand and hears the owner making snippily racist comments about two Blacks, including Zelda, who try to buy pie from him; then the pie man makes some comments along the lines of Howard da Silva’s comments as the bartender in The Lost Weekend to the effect that he’s as much a psychiatrist as a dispenser of comestibles. Somehow this convinces Giles that the pie guy is interested in him, and he puts his hand around the pie man’s arm — and the pie man flinches and orders him never to come to his shop again. (One wonders if del Toro, a cultural omnivore if there ever was one, deliberately copied that scene from one of the most famous literary “outings” in the pre-Gay Liberation era: the crude pass teacher Adolph Myers makes at one of his students in “Hands,” the opening story in Sherwood Anderson’s collection Winesburg, Ohio.) The plot thickens as Elisa realizes that they’re going to kill the creature within hours unless she can rescue him, so he enlists Giles in their plot, he makes them fake ID’s and paints a van to look like a laundry truck — only the very night and time they pick to kidnap the creature and hold him somewhere until the river floods the canal outside town and they can safely release the creature back into the water is also the night the Russians (ya remember the Russians?) use an Israeli gadget to turn off the building’s electricity and enable the four plotters — for “Robert” and Zelda have stumbled into the plot as well — to get the creature away, where they keep it in Elisa’s bathtub and buy large quantities of salt because it’s a salt-water creature and needs to be in water that contains 3 percent salt.

Elisa and the creature ultimately make love twice — the second time they flood her bathroom with shower water so she can be in his sort of environment — and there’s a bizarre sequence in which Elisa pantomimes for Zelda’s benefit how the creature opened its body to let out its cock. (This would answer Charles’ objection to the Creature from the Black Lagoon that the creature as depicted couldn’t be male because you never saw evidence of a penis — so, he reasoned, since it kept falling for human females it must be a Lesbian Gill-Woman.) Unfortunately the second time she floods the bathroom and it starts leaking into the movie theatre below — a grungy third-run place that only shows old 20th Century-Fox films like The Story of Ruth and Mardi Gras — and ultimately, on a night when a driving rainstorm signals that it’s time for the creature to return to the sea, everyone converges on it. Strickland finds out the creature’s whereabouts, he also pulls out his severed but reattached fingers because they’re turning gangrenous, and he hijacks another staff member’s car to chase the creature — whom he corners at the canal and shoots Bob, tasing him with the electric cattle prod he’d previously used on the creature, and getting him to reveal who helped him abduct the creature and how many Russian special forces agents are involved. The dying Dmitri a.k.a. “Bob” tells him it’s just the janitorial help, which freaks out Strickland that much more that a bunch of mere shit cleaners and piss wipers (as he referred to them earlier) outwitted him, and eventually Bob is mortally wounded but Giles gets the gun and shoots Strickland, while the creature returns to the sea and Elisa returns with him, presumably to drown for love of him, though one imdb.com “trivia” contributor suggested that the slashes on her neck, which we were told earlier were made by the injury that rendered her mute, may actually be nascent gills so she’ll be able to be with her aquatic boyfriend under water as well as on land. The Shape of Water has some of the rich stew of allusions that made The Devil’s Backbone and especially Pan’s Labyrinth so great, but it’s also got some bits that are just silly — I found myself laughing through much of the film, and though some of the laughs I believe were intentional, I doubt that others were.

The film’s most bizarre scene occurs when Elisa is alone after one of her nights with the creature and she’s starting to make little noises with her mouth — earlier she’s been depicted as totally silent — and they soon take the form of a vocal to Irving Berlin’s song “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” del Toro changes the image to black-and-white, and soon she’s dancing with the creature against a backdrop of columns from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Follow the Fleet and they’re duplicating Fred and Ginger’s moves in Carroll Clark’s original setting. Indeed, I believe del Toro and his effects crew simply used digital CGI technology to “paint” Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones, the tall, lanky actor who played the creature (and who did similar roles for del Toro in Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies) over Astaire and Rogers, thereby posthumously turning Fred and Ginger into motion-capture actors. It’s supposed to be a magical moment but it just seemed risible to me! It also doesn’t help that, despite the wide array of computer artists and technicians listed on the final credits, the creature, especially in its first appearance, looks like del Toro did it the old-fashioned way, dressing up Doug Jones in a body suit with a helmet-like mask over his head, and just like in the old days at Universal in the 1940’s and 1950’s, you can all too easily see where the creature’s eye sockets end and Doug Jones’ real eyes begin. And it doesn’t help that del Toro tried to turn Strickland into a psychopathic villain in the mold of General Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth whereas the film might have been more chilling if he’d been a cold, insensitive “just following orders” bureaucrat instead of a monster in human guise — though there is a nice scene in which he and his wife are having a sexual quickie, she begins to speak and he puts his hand over her mouth in a threatening-looking gesture and tells him that only if she keeps completely quiet can he reach orgasm. (It’s one of del Toro’s sophisticated allusions, only reinforced when he makes a crude, Weinsteinian pass at Elisa later in the film — this is a man who’s so afraid of women speaking up that he can only have sex with one who’s totally silent.) To sum up, nice try, Guillermo del Toro, but you won the Academy Award for this film you really deserved for Pan’s Labyrinth! Indeed, it does seem as if del Toro’s inspiration for this film was the thought, “Hey, what would The Creature from the Black Lagoon have been like if the leading lady had actually reciprocated the creature’s affections?”

Monday, June 11, 2018

72nd Annual Tony Awards (Broadway League, American Theatre Wing, White Cherry Productions, CBS-TV, aired June 10, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched last night’s 72nd annual Tony Awards on CBS. There were a few fun facts I learned about this program, like the fact that the American Theatre Wing — the group that officially puts on the Tonys in association with the Broadway League, the management group of Broadway theatres — was not organized during World War II but one war earlier, during World War I, not only to provide entertainment for servicemembers but to coordinate bond drives and other ways celebrities could help raise funds for the war effort. (Indeed, one of the original organizers was Antoinette Perry, the actress for whom the Tony Awards are named — the full name, which appears on the award itself, is the “Antoinette Perry Awards.” Like most awards shows these days, the 72nd Annual Tony Awards was a rather lumbering spectacle, and this one was both helped and hurt by the fact that the two people hired to co-host, Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles, are both singers. It helped in that they sang a lot of the portions that in the hands of less musical hosts would have been comedy monologues, but that also was a disadvantage in that their songs together were mostly parodies of songs from current musicals and the point of the parodies was pretty much lost on people like me not up on the originals. (The funniest one was a parody of a song from the musical Waitress, whose plaint about the long hours and rotten conditions of waitressing got changed to a lament about having to perform the same show eight times a week.) 

It was also annoying that while the show presented numbers from famous musicals past and present — the major contribution the Tony telecasts have made to cultural history; without them we wouldn’t have any visual representations of Julie Andrews’ performances in My Fair Lady and Camelot (both of which were far better than those by the people who replaced them in the movies — the Audrey Hepburn/Marni Nixon combo in My Fair Lady and Vanessa Redgrave, a mediocre singer but a good enough actress to be able to pretend she could sing, in Camelot) — they didn’t label the individual performers, just attributing them to the “company.” They also didn’t always represent the musicals with the best songs: for the revival of Carousel (which got saddled with the expanded title Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, just as the revival of Edward Albee’s play Three Tall Women got called Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women — as opposed to Gladys Horowitz from Paducah, Kentucky’s Three Tall Women?) they picked Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s mock sea shanty “Blow High, Blow Low” (which I keep getting confused with the real sea shanty “Blow the Man Down”) instead of one of the show’s imperishable love ballads. (At least the costumes in “Blow the Man Down” showed off some nice baskets — there’s a thoroughly non-musical advantage for a Gay male viewer when they show an all-male number!) For My Fair Lady they at least represented it with a medley of three of the show’s best songs, “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and I wish I knew who the cast member playing Eliza Doolittle was so I could congratulate her on her excellent channeling of Julie Andrews in the role. 

For the newer musicals they not only didn’t identify the performers, they didn’t identify the songs either: the number(s) from Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical (I’m not making that up, you know!) actually had a certain professional charm (well, they were written by Billy Joel, who also turned up on the show to introduce Bruce Springsteen and joke that his one-man show Springsteen on Broadway could have been called “Jersey Boy” — or, as I counter-joked, “Jersey Boy Who Became a Rock Star Without Having to Sing in Falsetto”). One of the high points of the evening was the performance by the drama department of the Margery Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which won the annual award for drama education — and while getting shot at by a mad killer seems like one of the weirdest ways to win an award, the students did a quite moving song and one white woman in the chorus stood out — she has a great soul voice and deserves a shot at stardom even with the cruel boost to her career presented by this bizarre exposure. The Tony Awards also indicated that the American artistic community is in many ways a private preserve cut off from the overall politics of the country — or at least of the 46 percent of it that elected the current President, whose name went unmentioned in the entire show (unless the reports of actor Robert De Niro’s speech — he was blipped almost from the get-go and the producers not only silenced him but put a blur over his face so you couldn’t read his lips — are accurate and he said “Fuck Trump! Fuck Trump!” over and over again — to which Stormy Daniels could respond, “Actually, I did — and it was boring”). Most of the musical awards, including Best Musical, went to The Band’s Visit, a stage adaptation of a 2007 film about an Egyptian band stranded in Israel and forced to spend the night with a local woman — and virtually everyone who won in connection with it mentioned that they hoped the show would actually help bridge the divide between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East at a time when President Trump and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who, you’ll recall, has blamed the Holocaust on Palestinian Arabs!) both seem to be going out of their way to increase tensions in the Middle East in general and Palestine in particular. 

The British National Theatre production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (a show I avoided when it came around the first time because I was such a committed AIDS dissident I didn’t think a play that assumes the truth of the HIV/AIDS model would entertain me) won for Best Revival, and Kushner himself was one of the acceptance speakers and referenced the show’s inclusive politics even though, surprisingly, he did not mention that the real-life Roy Cohn, whom he incorporated into the play as its principal villain, was a major mentor, influence and role model for Donald Trump. I was also surprised to see Andrew Garfield accept an award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his Angels in America role, exhibiting the British accent he successfully suppressed in his Spider-Man movies — one doesn’t expect to see an actor who’s been in comic-book superhero blockbuster films turn up on Broadway and win a Tony! There was a much-ballyhooed performance by Bruce Springsteen that turned out to be a disappointment — he sat at a piano and played it while narrating a lo-o-o-ong story about growing up in Freehold, New Jersey and being surrounded by churches and graveyards, and ended it with just one chorus (the last) of his song “My Hometown.” If this is representative of Springsteen on Broadway, it seems he created the show by expanding the stage raps from  his concert and shrinking the amount of actual music. Springsteen is a compelling singer and songwriter; he’s not a compelling spoken-word artist, and this material will already be pretty familiar to anyone (like me) who read his recently published autobiography Born to Run. I was surprised that the 1990’s musical Once on an Island beat out Carousel  and My Fair Lady for Best Revival of a Musical — based on the number from it shown here it’s a fun showcase for Black performers but hardly at the level of the other two revivals nominated — and one of the best moments for me was the song that represented The Band’s Visit, “Omar Sharif,” if only because I’d associated Sharif only with his big-budget Western productions like Doctor Zhivago and Funny Girl, and here he is featured in a song sung by an Israeli woman who recalls seeing him in black-and-white movies made in Egypt which by a freak of signals she was able to receive on her TV from Egyptian stations!

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Psycho Brother-in-Law (The Asylum, Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I got to see the second Lifetime rerun on last night, a film from 2017 from The Asylum (which actually releases theatrically, though their theatrical films tend to be quickies attempting to grab the audience for a public-domain story or plot premise: they rushed out versions of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars just before major studios released big-budget versions, and other films on their list include Ghosthunters and The Fast and the Fierce) called Psycho Brother-in-Law. An opening credit says this was inspired by a true story, though as Charles said about the film Shine it’s obvious that if this is a true story, the filmmakers (director/co-writer José Montesinos and his co-writer, Delondra Williams) chose it because they could easily shoehorn it into the familiar Hollywood clichés — in this case, the familiar Lifetime clichés. Set in Brisbane, California (though filmed in Pacifica), Psycho Brother-in-Law opens with a prologue in which young Brisbane High School student Eric Campbell (Marc Herrmann) is about to be beaten up by a blond bully when his brother David (Mitch McCoy) comes onto the scene and starts whacking the guy with a baseball bat, and though Eric tries to warn David off once Eric is out of danger, David continues the assault and eventually kills the bully. Then we get a typical Lifetime title, “23 Years Later” — a lot of Lifetime movies begin with these sorts of prologues but the time jump is rarely as long as 23 years — and 23 years later Eric (Mike Duff) is a rising high-tech executive. We’re really not sure what he’s doing or why he’s taking so much time doing it (if Montesinos and Williams had made him an entrepreneur doing a start-up it would be more believable than if he’s just an employee, even one relatively high up in his organization), but his long absences from home and his general exhaustion when he does show up are getting under the skin of his wife Kay (Brittany Falardeau, top-billed) and their teenage daughter Laura (Megan Ashley Brown), who’s inherited her dad’s mathematics skills and is practicing for some sort of school competition in the subject. David (Zack Gold, who for once in a movie looks enough like the actor cast as his brother that we can believe they really are brothers), Eric’s younger brother, shows up out of a clear blue sky one day and says he’s on vacation from a lucrative job crab-fishing in Alaska. Eric isn’t there when David shows up but Kay impulsively invites him to stay in their guest room until he’s ready to return to work. Then the usual incidents of a Lifetime movie start to happen that indicate David isn’t the charming, genuinely cute guy he seems to be.

When the two brothers are out drinking in a singularly unconvincing bar set and a fat guy with a beard (who looks like the director and former All in the Family actor Rob Reiner really gone to seed) claims Eric jostled him, David practically starts a fight then and there until Eric is able by the skin of his teeth to call off his wild brother. When yet another work commitment — of which there are so many Kay starts wondering if there’s a woman involved in the “work” situation and Eric is cheating on her, though he insists there isn’t and it’s clear that, unusually for a husband in a Lifetime movie, we’re supposed to believe him — causes Eric to break their “date night” and David offers to go on Kay’s date in her husband’s place, the two have a great time and Kay admits later she’s starting to develop “feelings” for David even though she’s not pursuing an affair. Later, however, we learn that David served a four-year term in a psychiatric hospital for manslaughter after he killed Eric’s assailant there and he’s been diagnosed as paranoid and potentially violent — and in a key scene that lets us know just when, how and why he’s going to go off the rails, Montesinos shows him unscrewing a pill bottle and then closing it again. Obviously David’s decided to go off his meds, and the results are predictable: he runs into the fat guy whom he and Eric had that run-in in the bar several acts earlier and strangles him on the street — the guy has a gun on him and tries to pull it, but David overpowers him, gets the gun away and takes it with him after he’s killed the guy (remember the sacred words of St. Anton Chekhov that when you establish a pistol in act one, someone has to fire it in act three). Then, when Laura’s boyfriend Ron (Billy Meade), a wanna-be musician who drives around in a dowdy, once-hot Pontiac Firebird, drives her home after a date and wants to get more physical than she does), David comes to Laura’s rescue, pulls her out of Ron’s car and then beats Ron nearly to death — obviously this is a man who is ferocious and animalistic when it comes to defending members of his family! Eric and David, who in the meantime has confessed that he was fired from that crab-fishing job instead of just taking a layoff from it, go on a male-bonding fishing trip — only David brings along the gun (ya remember the gun?) and shoots Eric because he’s decided to eliminate his inconvenient brother and take his place as Kay’s husband and Laura’s dad.

The finale takes place at Eric’s and Kay’s home, when David comes, holds the two women at gunpoint and announces that he’s killed Eric and will be taking over as head of the family — only, natch, there’s been a deus ex machina in the form of another fisherman who was walking through the woods with his fishing pole whistling (the shot is so much like the opening of the old Andy Griffith Show on TV one expects him to be with his son and whistling the TV show’s theme!) when he comes upon Eric, realizes he’s been shot but is only wounded instead of dead, calls 911 — and eventually Eric comes to enough to alert the police to what’s going on and tell them his homicidal maniac brother is threatening his wife and daughter. The cops duly arrive and tell David to put his gun down and surrender, but instead he “commits suicide by cop” and lets the police blow him away on the home’s staircase. Psycho Brother-in-Law is yet another Lifetime movie whose hackneyed, clichéd situations are at least partially redeemed by the skill of the participants: Zack Gold turns in a nicely controlled performance in the title role, managing both the character’s infectious charm when he’s on his meds and the dangerous craziness that overtakes him when he isn’t. José Montesinos proves skilled at building suspense and creating a sense of menace even in pretty ordinary suburban settings, and overall this is one of Lifetime’s better efforts even though there’s one major plot hole. In the prologue it looks like David is older than Eric, but in the main story he’s younger — which led both Charles and I to expect a plot twist in which it would turn out that way back when it was Eric who killed David’s tormentor (since in the prologue the two brothers never addressed each other by name) and then framed David to take the blame for it. For that matter, I also half-expected David to have the hots, not for his sister-in-law, but for her daughter — one of Laura’s schoolmates even kids her about being with such a hot guy, and she insists, “He’s my uncle!” — adding incest to Lolita-style injury. Psycho Brother-in-Law also fits with the usual Lifetime trope in that the genuinely hot guy is the villain; though (as I noted above) Mike Duff and Zack Gold look enough like each other to be believable as brothers on-screen, Gold, playing the psycho, is clearly the sexy one!

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Black Panther (Walt Disney Productions, Marvel Studios, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched one of the most overwhelming recent films we’ve seen: The Black Panther, the mega-hit from Walt Disney Productions and Marvel Studios — let’s just say that I’m not so sure anymore that the 1989 Tim Burton Batman with Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton is my favorite film based on a comic-book superhero. The Black Panther had its origins, both on paper and on film, as part of the “Marvel Universe,” the interconnected group of comic books with superhero characters Marvel started in the 1960’s (though the company, under its initial name “Timely Comics,” had been around since 1939 and at least two of their most iconic characters, Captain America and the Human Torch, had been introduced in the 1940’s). The Black Panther first saw the light of day in a Fantastic Four comic published in June 1966 (the publicity for the film took pains to note that this was two months before the formation of the real-life Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, though the black panther as a symbol of Black nationalism and assertive racial pride had first been used in Alabama by the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in 1965, and that’s where the Oakland Panthers got it from — and there’s an even earlier cultural reference to the “Black Panthers” in the 1950 biopic The Jackie Robinson Story, in which the Negro League team Robinson played for before he joined the Dodgers was changed from the real-life Kansas City Monarchs to the fictitious “Black Panthers”!). He got his own comic book in 1998 and made his screen debut in Captain America: Civil War as a supporting character in a “civil war” of Marvel characters in which Captain America and Iron Man ended up fighting each other. There had been sporadic attempts to put the Black Panther on screen before this, notably an attempt at Columbia in the 1990’s with Wesley Snipes in the part, but after positive audience response to the Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War the “suits” at Marvel and Disney decided to do a whole movie based on him. What they didn’t bargain for was that they would get not only a blockbuster hit but a masterpiece, thanks largely to their choice of director: Ryan Coogler, an auteur who also co-wrote the Black Panther script with Joe Robert Cole and created a movie with far deeper emotional resonances than your average comic-book shoot-’em-up (or blast-’em-up) movie. The Blu-Ray edition of the film is prefaced with a brief talk from Coogler in which he makes the predictable comment that he’d collected comic books as a young man but searched in vain for ones about people who looked like him; he also said he particularly wanted to create strong women characters instead of the usual femme fatale super-villains or bland damsels in distress most females in comics or comic-derived stories are. 

The film opens with a prologue that explains that millions of years ago a meteorite landed in the middle of Africa (one imdb.com trivia poster said the location was southern Sudan, but in the animated sequence showing it it looked like the Congo to me — and if that was the intent, it was a typical bit of Coogler subtlety to link the story to a real-life African country that has been plundered again and again, by Africans as well as Europeans, for its mineral wealth) containing a super-powerful element called vibranium, which not only is an energy source but also a material for making invulnerable armor and super-weaponry. (The opening reminded me of the 1936 Universal film The Invisible Ray, directed by Lambert Hillyer and starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, which also features an animated sequence of a meteorite containing a super-powerful mineral landing in Africa.) A recent New Yorker article joked about the tendency of modern-day superhero and science-fiction movie writers to posit these incredibly powerful elements and said that, in reference of Alfred Hitchcock’s term for the object the spies are after in a thriller plot, which the characters care about but the audience doesn’t, they should call them “MacGuffinium.” Anyway, in the plot the meteorite, containing earth’s only known source of vibranium, lands in a fictitious African principality called “Wakanda” over which five tribes have been fighting a civil war. The prince ruling Wakanda uses the power of vibranium to unite four of the tribes under his rule, but the fifth, the Jabari (also known as the “gorilla people” because of their tendency to spray themselves with gray powder to look like gorillas — or at least like the legendary grey gorillas of Edgar Rice Burroughs and other racialist writers who tapped Africa for stereotypical adventure tales — and worshipers of the Hindu monkey got Hanuman, whereas the other Wakandans worship the ancient Egyptian cat goddess Bast), decide to stay outside the confederation and be the odd tribe out. (According to imdb.com, the original idea was to have the Jabari live in a rain forest, but Coogler thought that was too clichéd and moved them to a barren mountain range instead, which gave him far more interesting visual possibilities for depicting them.) 

After giving us that bit of the backstory, Coogler gives us another slice in a prologue set in Oakland, California (Coogler’s home town and the setting of his first film as director, 2013’s Fruitvale Station — the title is one of the Bay Area Rapid Transit stations servicing Black Oakland) in 1992, in which we see a group of kids playing basketball in such impoverished conditions they don’t even have a proper net on their goal, just a plastic milk crate with the bottom cut out of it (recalling the peach baskets with the bottoms cut out James Naismith used when he invented basketball in 1895, and from which it got its name). One of the kids goes home to his father, who’s planning some sort of sinister-sounding enterprise with a friend, and two exotically dressed Black women with shaved heads show up at their door. One of the people says they look like Grace Jones — the legendary disco singer who shaved her head (and had a huge following among Gay and Bisexual men in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s) — and indeed shaved-headed women become a major motif in this film. The two women shoot the young boy’s father and leave the boy alone, and it’s also established that both dad and the kid are Wakandan — you can tell because when a Wakandan pulls down his or her lower lip, the inside of their mouth glows blue, signal of their exposure to vibranium. Then the credits come up, and the film reaches present-day New York, where a terrorist attack has just blown up the United Nations building and among the victims are the king of Wakanda. This means that the next in line to the throne is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), only he has to return home to claim rulership and he first has to undergo a ritual, strikingly similar to the Vulcan marriage rite depicted in the “Amok Time” episode of the original Star Trek series, in which any one from the royal lineage of one of the five tribes that originally coalesced to form Wakanda can challenge him to a duel, which lasts until one of the contestants either gives up or gets killed (and the duel is held in a pool on the edge of a waterfall, so if you can just throw the other guy off the waterfall you can kill him easily), and one of the Jabari challenges T’Challa but loses. 

T’Challa duly takes over Wakanda after some more rituals, including drinking a decoction made with ground-up vibranium as its major ingredients that gives him the super-powers of the Black Panther (like the Phantom, the Black Panther is an hereditary superhero whose powers are passed down from father to son) and then bathing in red sand that allows him one last ghostly communication with his father, sort of like Hamlet, before dad passes on completely. Meanwhile, a white scumbag named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, for once playing a part as a normal human being without some other identity or appearance grafted onto him with CGI) organizes a robbery of the British Museum to steal a seventh century African weapon that supposedly came from Benin but was really a bit of vibranium, which somehow got lost from Wakanda and ended up in Benin. The Wakandans have maintained a strict policy of isolation from the rest of the world, mainly because their kings have realized that if the rest of the world knew they were literally sitting on top of a mountain of super-material of incalculable value, the rest of the world would attempt to seize it from them and either they’d get it or the Wakandans would have to forget their higher, more pacifistic values and get a bloodbath going to safeguard it. (Right after we finished watching the movie, Charles noted the lobby card from the 1937 film Lost Horizon on our wall and pointed out that Black Panther is essentially a remake of Lost Horizon: a super-secret outpost in the Third World that has access to an incredible technological resource but conceals it from the rest of the world because its leaders know the rest of the world would misuse it.) The Wakandans learn that Klaue is going to sell the vibranium he’s stolen in South Korea, and T’Challa and his girlfriend go to South Korea to recover it There they encounter the only other white principal character, a CIA agent named Everett Ross (Martin Freeman — since both he and Serkis had been in the Lord of the Rings movies, they joked to each other that they were the “Tolkien white cast members”) who’s on a similar mission. The big confrontation takes place in a casino right out of Josef von Sternberg’s delightfully decadent 1941 movie The Shanghai Gesture, and Klaue gets killed and delivered to Wakanda but they don’t get back the vibranium. 

We also meet Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan — obviously he uses his middle initial to avoid confusion with the basketball player who’s been in movies), who at first we think was merely the lookout in Klaue’s robbery of the British Museum but turns out to be the boy from Oakland who was left behind when the Wakandan kill squad took out his dad, grew up as a poor African-American street kid with all the discrimination and oppression that came with that, and now that he’s learned the secret of his own identity — that his father was the brother of the Wakandan king and therefore he’s T’Challa’s cousin and the next in line for the Wakandan throne — he’s participated in Klaue’s plot but his real agenda is to go to Wakanda, take over and export vibranium weapons to Black people all over the world so they can fight back against their oppressors, conquer their countries and form a worldwide Black-ruled confederation with Wakanda as its central authority. He shows up in Wakanda, establishes his royal lineage, challenges T’Challa to a duel and wins, throwing T’Challa off the waterfall — and once he’s in charge he starts acting like a Black version of Donald Trump, burning the garden that symbolizes Wakanda’s heritage and norms and ordering the army to load Wakanda’s flying vessels with vibranium weapons and send them to other countries to foment Black revolutions. (I can’t help but think at least part of this plot line was inspired by the Nation of Islam and its belief that Blacks had originally ruled the world and the point of their movement was to mobilize them so they could do so again.) Of course, T’Challa isn’t dead at all, and his women friends (including his sister, who seems to be the only member of the female half of Wakanda’s 1 percent who gets to have hair) sneak him over to the mountain redoubt of the Jabari tribe (ya remember the Jabari tribe?), where the Jabari king who previously challenged him agrees to give him asylum but not to commit any of his troops to invade the rest of Wakanda and restore him to his throne — though he has second thoughts about this and eventually, just as the good guys are about to lose the Wakandan civil war, the Jabari come in like the Seventh Cavalry and save the day. There’s a typical post-credits (for a Marvel movie) sequence in which T’Challa attends a session of the General Assembly at the new United Nations building, which has been relocated to Vienna, and announces that he’s decided that Killmonger was right about something: that Wakanda should export its super-technology and use it to help the oppressed peoples of the rest of the world. 

Black Panther is the sort of movie I didn’t think they were making anymore, a commercial blockbuster that is also a film of real quality and complexity — the sort of thing that in the eras that produced Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia regularly swept the Academy Awards, and deservingly so — and though the featurette on the disc we watched right after the movie stressed its connections to the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe (or “MCU,” as it’s unfortunately abbreviated), it’s a film that transcends its “MCU” origins and its overall comic-book heritage as thoroughly as Citizen Kane transcended all the other movies Hollywood was making about newspapers then. It’s an extraordinary achievement in a disreputable genre, and one that uses the much-maligned comic-book superhero genre to make real statements about oppression and resistance, about family loyalties and whether a nation can remain isolated or will have to deal with the rest of the world. It also seems a far stronger anti-Trump political statement than Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which in one of the more bizarre manifestations of the Right-wing political/media machine was accused of being deliberately anti-Trump propaganda (one of the weirdest “fake news” stories was that Rogue One had deliberately been pulled from release after the November 2016 election so its makers could write and edit in even more blatant anti-Trump propaganda); Killmonger’s attitude as soon as he takes over Wakanda (in an undemocratic but socially sanctioned process!) that he’s going to throw out all the old wisdom and do things his own way is obviously Trumpian (and profoundly anti-“conservative” if you define “conservative” in Edmund Burkean terms that there are certain patterns, institutions, beliefs and norms a society develops over time and, even if those don’t make “sense” and aren’t the way you’d design things if you were starting over de novo, they’ve acquired their own logic, people have come to rely on them, and any attempt to change them by administrative or legislative fiat will only make things worse). 

And yet Killmonger isn’t your typical crazy superhero villain; he’s a man whose bitterness has been shaped by his background (and at least possibly his racial history; Black Panther doesn’t come right out and say Killmonger’s mother was white, but we get that impression subliminally if only because Michael B. Jordan is lighter-skinned than Chadwick Boseman — in some ways Black Panther reverses the iconography of the 1930’s “race movies,” in which lighter-skinned Blacks were the heroes and ingénues while darker-skinned ones were the villains or the comic relief — reflecting the weird internal racism that permeated the African-American community then; throughout Black Panther the darker-skinned characters are physically, intellectually and morally superior to the lighter-skinned ones) and whose motives are at least understandable, if not forgivable. Black Panther is also a beautiful movie to look at; early on I was worried that Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison were going to go for the overall brown tonality that’s annoying in all too many movies today (and, as I commented when I watched Selma, even more annoying in a movie whose protagonists are Black because it’s simply harder to pick them out from all that brown in the background!), but the Wakandan coronation/duel ritual was appropriately colorful, the African sunsets spectacular (even though the “African” scenes were shot in Georgia — the U.S. one, not the former Soviet republic — and only background process shots were actually made in Africa) and the film overall is a visual treat. 

Black Panther is a movie that evokes its cultural precedents but wears them lightly enough you don’t get the impression of a director and/or a writer using bits and pieces of other movies just because they don’t have the imagination to create something new, and it’s also blessed with a fine musical score by Coogler’s usual collaborator, Ludwig Göransson, which may seem like a weird credit to see on a movie about powerful Blacks in Africa but who did his homework and drew mostly on South African sources for his overall sound (just as the language of the Wakandans was based on KwaZulu, not any of the indigenous tongues of central Africa). The film even featured two songs by Kendrick Lamar, which I dreaded because I hated his contributions to the 2016 and 2018 Grammy Awards (I was incensed that the Pulitzer Prize committee, which never gave an award to Duke Ellington, just gave one to Kendrick Lamar), but whose two contributions here are surprisingly lyrical and free from the relentless ugliness, viciousness and meanness I’ve heard from him otherwise (and from all too many other rappers, which is one reason I basically dislike the genre). All in all, Black Panther is a groundbreaking movie, a film that transcends its comic-book superhero origins and achieves greatness, and as I wrote after the last Academy Awards ceremony (and after the Academy gave no nominations to Wonder Woman, which as a film was hardly at the level of Black Panther but did break ground with a woman protagonist and a woman director at a time when Hollywood is being forced to grapple with its long history of exploiting and discriminating against women both on and off screen), “Let’s see how many nominations all these Academy members who are prattling on about ‘inclusion’ give to Black Panther next year.”