Wednesday, January 31, 2018

On the Town (MGM, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008, 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I did make it to Being Alive and ran the movie On the Town for a fairly good audience — five people — after which I headed home and waited for Charles to call (he’d turned off his answering machine and so I couldn’t leave him a message). The film holds up pretty well — Charles later mentioned he remembered it particularly for the risqué lyrics of the songs (“Come Up to My Place,” one of the few Leonard Bernstein songs retained from the original stage play — most of the songs in the movie were written by all-purpose composer Roger Edens with words by the show’s original lyricists, Betty Comden and Adolph Green — and “Prehistoric Man,” a pretty obvious ripoff of Cole Porter’s “Find Me a Primitive Man,” in particular) — and though the opening “city at dawn” sequence is pretty blatantly reminiscent of Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight, it gains a lot of energy by being shot on actual New York locations (directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen wanted to shoot the whole film in New York, but the studio vetoed that idea). — 3/23/96


On the Town started life as a ballet called Fancy Free, composed by Leonard Bernstein for the Ballet Theatre and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. It dealt with three sailors with a one-day pass to visit New York City and their efforts to find female companionship for the 24 hours they have before they have to report back to their ship. The ballet premiered in 1943, and the next year Bernstein, Robbins and writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green expanded it into a stage musical called On the Town, with Bernstein songs (oddly, they didn’t tap any of the themes of Fancy Free for the musical — Bernstein wrote all new music with Comden and Green supplying the lyrics), and MGM put up $250,000 for the stage production in exchange for the movie rights. When Louis B. Mayer and his assistants, Eddie Mannix and Sam Katz, saw the show in New York they were put off by it and regretted having had anything to do with it, so the property lay fallow for five years until Freed revived it as a vehicle for Gene Kelly and his two co-stars from Take Me Out to the Ball Game — the period baseball musical he’d done just before — Frank Sinatra and comedian Jules Munshin. Unfortunately, Freed and the MGM “suits” decided that Bernstein’s music wasn’t commercial, so they threw out all but two of his songs — the famous opening, “New York, New York,” and “Come Up to My Place” — and had Comden and Green write new ones with Roger Edens. 

Though Edens was an excellent arranger and vocal coach (in both those capacities he’d been instrumental in making Judy Garland a star), he was a mediocre songwriter and the ditties he came up with for the film are either ideas other people did better (when Ann Miller’s character latches on to Munshin because he resembles a statue in an anthropological museum of Pithecanthropus erectus, she sings “Prehistoric Man,” a pretty obvious — and inferior — ripoff of Cole Porter’s “Find Me a Primitive Man”) or simply forgettable (like the title song he wrote for all six principals). They did, fortunately, tap Bernstein to compose two wordless ballets, one showcasing the various aspects of Vera-Ellen’s “Miss Turnstiles” character and a long one called “A Day in New York” in which Kelly, frustrated in love, dreams his way into a sequence that showcases his dancing skills and his imagination — essentially it’s a paper sketch for the magnificent final ballet of An American in Paris and Turner Classic Movies did his memory no favors by scheduling the two movies in reverse chronological order, since it made On the Town look like an inferior workout on the ideas of An American in Paris and made it harder to appreciate its own unique qualities. The great virtues of this film are its sheer exuberance and the brilliant opening number, which was actually shot on location in New York City, on the famous landmarks referenced in the Comden-Green lyric (which was regrettably bowdlerized because of the Production Code — in the movie New York had to be “a wonderful town” instead of “a hell of a town”). It was the first time anyone had tried to shoot a musical number on New York streets, especially in midday with the usual traffic — dramatic films, including The Lost Weekend, had shot on location in New York but there it was easier to control and “loop” dialogue in post-production if a traffic noise drowned out a line. Hugh Fordin’s biography of Arthur Freed, The World of Entertainment!, summed up the problems:

There must be a playback machine [to reproduce the pre-recorded song] always in earshot of the director and the performers. This is not much of a problem in stationary shots; but in moving shots, in confined spaces or in long shots, it becomes quite a problem. To hear the record for synchronization, the performer has to be relatively close by, but if the loudspeaker is in earshot it often gets within camera range. In each individual shot the trio [Kelly, Sinatra and Munshin] not only had to synchronize to their pre-recorded voices, but had to walk in strict tempo to the music, even in the instrumental portions of the number.

They had another, non-technical problem shooting the sequence: though Frank Sinatra was coming down from his early career peak in 1949 and starting on the four-year decline that would only end with his Academy Award-winning performance in From Here to Eternity, he was still enough of a teen idol that whenever he was seen in the street, he would be mobbed — and so the filmmakers had to keep one of their stars literally under wraps, hiding him in the bottom of cars and only letting him out when they were actually ready to shoot. Sinatra had been reluctant to do the movie — he had no desire to make another film as a singing sailor just four years after Anchors Aweigh — and hearing the songs he was assigned, two novelties and one mediocre ballad duet with Betty Garrett, one can readily understand why: there’s nothing here that does justice to his voice. (This is probably why, as Will Friedwald pointed out in his Sinatra bio The Song Is You, Sinatra recorded nothing from the film and only one song from its predecessor, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, which also cast him mostly as a novelty singer.) The other thing that makes On the Town an unusually interesting musical for the period is the plot, which is essentially three interlocking stories involving each of the sailors and the girl he meets. Gabey (Gene Kelly) sees a poster of Ivy Smith on the subway — she’s been picked as that month’s “Miss Turnstiles,” representative of the city’s subway riders, and Gabey thinks that makes her far more of a celebrity than she really is (she’s working as a cooch dancer on Coney Island but she’s also studying classical ballet with a dragon-lady teacher named Madame Dilyovska, played by Florence Bates much the way Maria Ouspenskaya played a similar role in Dance, Girl, Dance). Chip (Frank Sinatra) gets cruised by the butch female cab driver with the improbable moniker Brünnhilde “Hildy” Esterhazy (Betty Garrett), who literally drags him home with her (they’re the only one of the three couples who get to be alone together long enough that they could conceivably have had sex). 

Ozzie (Jules Munshin) gets attention from anthropology student Claire Huddesen (Ann Miller) who’s attracted to him as a throwback to primitive man, and they symbolize their attraction by accidentally collapsing the anthropology museum’s dinosaur skeleton (much the way Howard Hawks and his writers, Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde, had symbolized Cary Grant yielding to Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby by similarly collapsing the dinosaur he had been reconstructing for years). This means that in two of the three couples, it’s the woman who’s the sexual aggressor — unusual even in a comedy context in a 1949 film. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen directed jointly, their first such credit (they’d do two more, Singin’ in the Rain — a great movie and a major hit — and It’s Always Fair Weather, an almost-as-great movie and a major flop), and they do a marvelous job of keeping the show on the go even though the final chase scene through the MGM backlot looks even more fake than it would have if we hadn’t seen the real locations in the big number at the beginning. (Twelve years later, a different film crew would make a movie of Bernstein’s other hit musical, West Side Story, and though at least they’d keep all his songs, they likewise made the dumb decision to shoot the opening number in New York City — in a neighborhood of old tenements that were about to be torn down to make room for Lincoln Center — and the rest on a soundstage, again making the non-location parts look that much more phony by comparison.) — 8/18/08


After the State of the Union I kept on MS-NBC for about an hour and then I put on Turner Classic Movies for most of the 1949 MGM musical On the Town, an “upper” I needed after all the gloom-’n’-doom coming from President Trump. It’s a movie I hadn’t seen in a while and I remember it being on a previous TCM screening in which they did a day-long tribute to Gene Kelly and ran it right after An American in Paris, which was like seeing a beautiful oil painting and then looking at the pencil sketches for it. Charles and I missed the famous opening sequence of On the Town, shot to one of the few songs from Leonard Bernstein’s original stage musical actually retained from the score — MGM underwrote the stage production in exchange for the movie rights, then when Louis B. Mayer saw the show in 1944 he declared it hopelessly uncommercial, put the project on the back burner for five years, and when it finally got filmed Mayer and producer Arthur Freed threw out most of the Bernstein songs and replaced them with new ones by Roger Edens (Judy Garland’s musical godfather) with the original lyric writers, Betty Comden and Adolph Green — and the only major part of the film actually shot in New York City. (I had wondered whether TCM had scheduled this as part of the celebrations this year of the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth, but they hadn’t; it was part of a series of films set wholly or partly in New York City.) 

Most of the anecdotes around On the Town center around the filming of this opening sequence with the three stars — Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and comic-relief actor Jules Munshin — shown singing and dancing around real-life New York City locales. Though Sinatra’s original popularity was on the wane by 1949, he was still enough of a babe magnet to bobby-soxers that they literally had to keep him under wraps — they wrapped him in a carpet and drove him on the floor of a car to get him to the various locations so he wouldn’t be mobbed and disrupt filming — and Jules Munshin was terrified of heights, which made the shot of the three of them atop Rockefeller Center particularly excruciating for him and the crew. (They tried tying a rope around him to catch him if he fell, but that just made him more nervous and it looked artificial on screen.) There’s a later scene in which Munshin is shown dangling over the Empire State Building, but that — like the whole rest of the movie after those spectacular opening minutes — was filmed back at the MGM studio in Culver City with a mockup of the Empire State Building’s roof that was only a few feet off the studio floor. 

The genesis of On the Town is well known; in 1944 Bernstein and Jerome Robbins collaborated on a Ballet Theatre dance piece called Fancy Free, in which three sailors get off a ship on a one-day shore leave in New York City, meet and hook up with three young women, then lose them again and have to high-tail it back to their ship. Bernstein then worked with Comden and Green as both book and lyric writers to turn the ballet into a stage musical — though Bernstein used almost none of the Fancy Free music in the score to On the Town — and it premiered later in 1944 and was a stage success. The film as it stands, a joint directorial effort of Kelly and Stanley Donen, suffers from the omission of Bernstein’s songs — the only ones they kept were the famous opening, “New York, New York” (though because of the Production Code they had to bowdlerize the lyric from “New York, New York, it’s a hell of a town” to “it’s a wonderful town” — ironically Wonderful Town was the title of Bernstein’s next stage musical, an adaptation of My Sister Eileen), a duet between Sinatra and Betty Garrett called “Come Up to My Place” (a surprisingly frank sexual invitation for a Code-era movie — indeed On the Town features a lot of Code-bending, including some weirdly homoerotic by-play between Kelly and Munshin and a final scene in which the three sailors don drag to evade the police on a chase through Coney Island[1]) and instrumental music for two ballet sequences featuring Vera-Ellen, who plays an aspiring ballet dancer studying with an imperious teacher (Florence Bates, pretty obviously channeling Maria Ouspenskaya in Dance, Girl, Dance) and supporting herself as a cooch dancer in a “Middle-Eastern” concession at Coney Island. 

One of the ballets, “A Day in New York,” drew on the Fancy Free music as well as a Bernstein song called “Ain’t Got No Tears Left” that was deleted from the stage show during out-of-town tryouts and is a forerunner of the classic Kelly ballets from An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain and shows once again that, despite the openly propagandist agenda of Singin’ in the Rain to present silent films as inferior to talkies, many of Kelly’s most powerful screen moments are wordless; had he been born 20 years earlier one could readily imagine him becoming as great a star in the silent era as he actually became in both musicals and dramatic roles in sound films. The Roger Edens songs are clever and tuneful (and benefit from the wordplay of Comden and Green) but aren’t at the level of Bernstein, and Sinatra — who hadn’t want to make yet another singing-sailor movie with Kelly five years after Anchors Aweigh — was particularly disappointed that he didn’t get to sing “Lonely Town,” the haunting ballad from the original stage score of On the Town. He’d been promised the song when he signed for the film (the last under his multi-year contract with MGM, though after his comeback in the early 1950’s he’d work there again as a free-lancer) and he got as far as making a pre-recording of it, but then directors Kelly and Donen decided not to film Sinatra singing “Lonely Town.” Instead he got a charming but trivial Edens-penned duet with Garrett, “You’re Awful,” and a few lines here and there in other people’s numbers. On the Town holds up as a genuinely charming musical in its own merits — and the Kelly “Day in New York” ballet sequence is really special — though it would have been better with more of Bernstein’s songs, and of course the irony wasn’t lost on me that just after President Trump’s State of the Union we were watching a film that at least began as the work of a Bisexual Left-winger and charter member of Richard Nixon’s “enemies’ list”! — 1/31/18

[1] — It’s also surprising that when Claire Huddesen (Ann Miller) tells woman cab driver Brunnhilde “Hildy” Esterhazy (Betty Garrett) that her interest in sailor Ozzie (Jules Munshin) is strictly scientific — she’s an anthropologist and is struck by his resemblance to a statue of prehistoric man at the New York Anthropological Museum — and she insists she only wants to study Ozzie, not to date him, Hildy fires back, “Dr. Kinsey, I presume?” Four years later the Production Code Administration forced MGM to delete Cole Porter’s reference to Kinsey in the lyric to “Too Darn Hot” from Kiss Me, Kate.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (Paramount, 1938)

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

I had the rare opportunity these days of catching a movie on Turner Classic Movies, which used to be my favorite cable channel in the days when Cox’s service was still analog and I could record shows from it for later viewing without paying a queen’s ransom to the cable company on top of the king’s ransom I’m already paying for basic service, mainly because a film was coming on that fit the schedule of the rest of my TV-watching. The film was Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, an odd little screwball comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch and marking the first collaboration of screenwriters Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, who worked together for the nest 12 years from this film in 1938 to Sunset Boulevard in 1950, then had a spectacular falling-out — though in that time they rose from just being two more writers in Hollywood to Wilder being a major (and Academy Award-winning) director and Brackett being a producer (and even after he and Wilder broke up Brackett made a few interesting movies, notably the 1953 Marilyn Monroe film noir Niagara). Wilder recalled being ushered into an office at Paramount and asked if he knew Brackett, which he said he didn’t; then he was asked if he’d heard of a play called La Huite Femme de Barbe-Bleu by French writer Alfred Savoir. That he’d heard of, so he agreed to work with Brackett on a script based on both the original French play and an English-language adaptation by Charlton Andrews that had premiered on Broadway in 1921 and turned into a silent film two years later with Gloria Swanson in the lead. Lubitsch was on his way out at Paramount at the time; in 1935 the “suits” running the studio had appointed Lubitsch the head of production, and he proceeded to blow a lot of Paramount’s money on sophisticated Continental-style films, many of which were box-office flops. This was one of his last projects there before he was fired both as studio head and as contract director, and after four years at MGM (where he made at least two great films, Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner), he started at 20th Century-Fox in 1943 with the film Heaven Can Wait and worked there for the last six years of his life. 

Contrary to the idea you might get from the reference to Bluebeard in the title, the film is actually a screwball comedy starring Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper (in that order!) and Cooper’s character, American investor and tycoon Michael Brandon, has been married seven times before the film’s story begins but has not knocked off his previous wives. One of them died of natural causes and he divorced the other six, paying them off according to the terms of his pre-nuptial agreements (a rarer device then than now) with a settlement of $50,000 per year for life. Michael is vacationing on the French Riviera when he has a meet-cute with Colbert’s character, Nicole de Loisette (so for once Colbert gets to play her true nationality, though she doesn’t get to do anything to indicate she’s French — like speaking any French; she plays her whole part in her normal English, which by 1938 had only a slight trace of a French accent) when he wants to buy pajamas, but only the tops. The store refuses to sell him just the tops and he’s bailed out when Nicole comes along and agrees to buy the bottoms for her father, the Marquis de Loiselle (Edward Everett Horton). The de Loiselles are a long-time aristocratic family with no money; when the Marquis learns that Brandon is a multimillionaire, he encourages his daughter to marry him — but of course she resents being sold off as a piece of merchandise to bolster the family fortune. Nonetheless, she agrees to a dinner date with him, they dance and she ultimately falls in love with him for real — only she insists that her pre-nuptial contract be for $100,000 per year. When she learns he’s had seven previous wives she threatens to bail on the marriage, then agrees to go through with it but insists that she’s going to sleep apart from him and is only in it for the money. 

The rest of the movie is a kind of battle royal between the two — at one point he reads a copy of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and decides to use it as a model, slapping Nicole for no reason and then seeming surprised when she slaps him right back. Eventually they actually divorce but then, this being a “post-Code” movie from Hollywood in 1938, they remarry as a genuinely loving couple. Like a lot of Lubitsch’s movies, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife is more entertaining for the various Lubitsch “touches” — including a porcelain bathtub the Marquis sells Michael, claiming it was used by Louis XIV, which is big but not big enough for Gary Cooper’s lanky frame: trying it out unfilled, he breaks it in two — than as a whole, and the brutality of some of the gags is hard to take today even though Nicole is giving as good as she gets, at one point hiring prizefighter “Kid” Mulligan (Warren Hymer) to pose as her adulterous lover and knock Brandon out. I’d seen it only once before, at a screening in the mid-1970’s at UC Berkeley (along with another Lubitsch screwball comedy from Paramount, an adaptation of Noël Coward’s play Design for Living), and I liked it then a bit better than I do now, at least in part because Lubitsch way overdid Cooper’s stiffness; other directors, including Frank Capra in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Howard Hawks in Ball of Fire, got him to loosen up more and be funnier in comic roles. At times I wished Lubitsch had cast Cary Grant instead!

Monday, January 29, 2018

60th Annual Grammy Awards (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences/CBS-TV, January 28, 2018)

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

The 60th Annual Grammy Awards were telecast on CBS starting at 4:30 p.m. — an odd starting time which seems to have been set up for the convenience of attendees and viewers in New York City, where the show was held for the first time in 15 years (and the New York chauvinism of some of the guests got really wearing) and where it would have started at 7:30 p.m. their time. At least it’s better than us getting palmed off with a taped rebroadcast three hours after the actual event (though they re-ran the entire show after it ended), which is still pulled on us for some of the lesser awards shows but has blessedly been made intolerable for the big awards by the advent of the Internet and its capacity for communicating major news in real time. The show opened with one of the most hideous and awful presences in pop music today, rapper Kendrick Lamar, whose seemingly endless song (if, to quote Dwight MacDonald about Israeli actress Haya Harareet, I may use the term for courtesy) was interrupted by another of the most repulsive celebrities currently operating, Dave Chappelle, an excruciatingly unfunny Black “comedian” who got on my shit list when he signed a huge contract with one of the major networks to renew his TV show — and then disappeared for months. Chappelle interrupted Lamar’s number — an incredibly overproduced farrago of chorus boys in black costumes that made the piece look like yet another attempt at Metropolis: The Musical — to say that we needed to listen to the “truth” of what he was saying about the status of Black people in America. I wouldn’t have minded listening to what Kendrick Lamar had to say about the status of Black people in America, except that was impossible because, with the exception of a stray word or phrase here and there, I couldn’t for the life of me make out what he was saying. One would think that the sine qua non of a rapper would at least be able to make sure the audience understood the words, but Lamar’s piece was so overproduced, and he spat out whatever he was saying so fast and often in such strict rhythm that his drummer was literally drowning him out, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it — which was also my problem with his similarly overproduced, militaristic number at the Grammys two years ago, immediately following the opening number of the musical Hamilton, of which I wrote at the time, “Alas, after we got a demonstration from the Hamilton cast of what rap can be, we got 10 seemingly endless minutes of Kendrick Lamar demonstrating the musical disaster it usually is, in a so-called ‘song’ which begins with Lamar declaring that he’s Black (‘I think I would have noticed that; you didn’t have to tell me,’ I joked) and is supposedly being performed in a prison (a gimmick Elvis Presley did better in the title number to Jailhouse Rock — I’m not usually that big an Elvis fan but Kendrick Lamar makes him look better by comparison!).” 

Lamar and Jay-Z were up for Album of the Year last night, but blessedly they both lost … to Bruno Mars, another performer I can’t stand but at least someone who makes music. I’d like Bruno Mars better if his overweening ego hadn’t led him, on a previous Grammy telecast, to refuse to appear (which since he didn’t have an album in then-current release actually made sense) unless they whipped up a pointless, ridiculous “tribute” to Bob Marley in which he sang two of Marley’s lamer romantic ballads and Sting did one of his vaguely reggae-ish originals in between — a disaster that enraged me at the time because it not only ignored Marley’s socially conscious material (like “Get Up, Stand Up,” “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Rasta Man Chant”) it didn’t even do any of his good love songs like “Is It Love?” I also don’t like Bruno Mars because it seems like he’s trying so hard to channel Michael Jackson — though I haven’t heard it, on the strength of her previous work I’d have wanted to see Lorde’s Melodrama win Album of the Year — but at least Mars saved the top three awards (Album, Record and Song of the Year) for real music instead of rap-crap!!!!!! The show droned on for nearly four hours and, as usual with the Grammys, the musical performances were far more powerful and interesting than the actual awards: after the show began with Kendrick Lamar’s disaster Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson redeemed things with a beautiful ballad called “Girl (Where Do You Think You’re Going?)” that once more underscored that, like a lot of the powerful female talents of today (two of whom, Maren Morris and Alessia Cara, were showcased later on the program, though in numbers with other artists that took the edge off their effectiveness), Lady Gaga is too talented to stay stuck in only one style. 

The next song was “Beautiful Prayer” by Sam Smith, who came on wearing an odd white jacket that looked like some fashion designer’s idea of crossing a lab coat with a monk’s robe — is there some Grammy rule that openly Gay performers have to dress androgynously? (The only other openly Gay artist on last night, Elton John, performed his much-ballyhooed duet with Miley Cyrus on “Tiny Dancer” wearing a sequined black leather jacket with his first name emblazoned on the back. He also has almost no voice left — Elton John never had more than a serviceable voice; he achieved stardom because he and Bernie Taupin wrote such fabulous songs and his voice, though not great, at least in its early days was powerful and flexible enough to put the songs over.) Then the group Little Big Town did a song called “Better Man,” apparently written for them by Taylor Swift, and while there’s an even better song called “Better Man” by Pearl Jam this was a good one and an especially fine vehicle for the great white soul voice of the Little Big Town female member with long, dark hair. Then there was a tribute to the late Chuck Berry and Fats Domino that was disappointing simply because it wasn’t longer; given Berry’s importance in the history of rock his “final exit” should have been heralded on the Grammys by an extended medley with various artists paying tribute to him with a snippet of his songs; instead he and Fats got lumped together with Jon Batiste of Stephen Colbert’s backing band, Stay Human, doing “Ain’t That a Shame” (and playing a considerably flashier, trickier piano part than the original) and Gary Clark, Jr. playing “Maybelline.” Then someone or something called Childish Gambino — his name sounds like a particularly immature Mafioso character on The Godfather or The Sopranos but he’s actually a quite good Black neo-soul singer — did a song called “Terrified,” and Pink turned in one of the highlights of the evening with a power ballad called “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken.” 

I loved this performance because it stayed simple: for once Pink didn’t have herself hoisted to the rafters on a trapeze with Cirque du Soleil wanna-bes as her chorus line; instead she stood on stage and sang her heart out in one of the most powerful and vivid white-soul performances of a night that had quite a few good ones. Next up was a surprisingly amusing routine with James Corden, who hosted and was generally inoffensive even though the few times I’ve watched his own show I’ve found him boring and wondered how this guy with no discernible talent got on TV, taking Sting and Shaggy on a New York subway, trying to do a Big Apple version of his schtick of doing sing-alongs with his musical guests in the car ostensibly taking them to his studio — and getting a lot of irate passengers telling them to just shut up. The next number was a forgettable entry by Bruno Mars with someone named Candy B. as his duet partner on a song called “Finesse,” after which Sting got trotted in to sing a three-decades-old song, “Englishman in New York.” Sting originally wrote it about Quentin Crisp but it got trotted out because he was an Englishman in New York last night, and he did it competently enough and reminded us of how great he was, especially in the decade between the breakup of the Police and the recording of his masterpiece, The Soul Cages. After that came a teaming of Rihanna with two rap people, rapper Bryan Taller (at least that’s what I think I wrote in my notes) and D.J. Khalid, on a forgettable song called “What I Wish.” Then Maren Morris, one of my current favorites, came out with the Brothers Osborne and Eric Church, all of whom had performed at the country music festival in Las Vegas that ended tragically with a mass shooting just after the set by headliner Jason Aldean, to memorialize the fans lost that day with … well, I was hoping they would do a classic country song on the subject like the Carter Family’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?,” but instead they trotted out Eric Clapton’s bathetic “Tears in Heaven” (though Morris did make the song sound more soulful than anyone else has, including Clapton himself). 

That was followed by Kesha’s song “Praying,” about the record producer who first discovered her and then raped her, leading to her refusal to work with him again, which since she was still contractually bound to him meant she couldn’t record at all for the next three years — an eternity in a music career — though the song she wrote about the experience, expressing her anger but also praying for his soul, would have been powerful enough on its own but got a wrenching performance from her that was one of the highlights of the night. The next performers were U2, who had done a cameo appearance in the middle of Kendrick Lamar’s travesty that provided its only redeeming moment but whose own song, “Get Out of Your Own Way” with a projected backdrop of giant eyes, performed on a barge parked in front of the Statue of Liberty, just made their act seem tired. (Bono is 30 years older than he was when he recorded The Joshua Tree, and looks it.) Then came the Elton John-Miley Cyrus duet, followed by a much more powerful duet on a song called “Middle” between Maren Morris and someone or something called Zodd — this was the full-length song paid for by Target as a commercial, and I hope its appearance means that a CD with this great song on it will be available there. After that Ben Platt did “Somewhere” as a tribute to the 100th anniversary of the birth of Leonard Bernstein — he was O.K. but the song itself is pretty indestructible — and then came one of the highlights of the night: as a tribute to the still-living Andrew Lloyd Webber (who was shown in the audience) Patti LuPone came out and sang “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” from Evita — she’d also sung it on the 1981 Grammys but her vocal chops were still intact and the song, which is midway between a Broadway show tune and an operatic aria, made its full effect; she’d be too old to play Evita on stage again but she can still belt out this number with wrenching power! 

The remaining songs were “Broken Clocks” by Sza (pronounced “Suzzah,” in case you were wondering) — a bitchy post on CNN at said it was a travesty that this person lost Best New Artist last year to Alessia Cara (the CNN writer, Maeve McDermott, also hailed Kendrick Lamar’s piece of incomprehensible shit as the best performance of the night, so it’s a safe bet that her taste and mine are diametrically opposed!), but to my mind Cara is far superior: Sza seems to be channeling Sade (not a bad model) whereas Cara sings with real emotion and soul. “Broken Clocks” is a nice song and Sza does it well enough, but it’s not in the same league as “Scars to Your Beautiful”! Chris Stapleton, the Bruce Vilanch of country music — I’ve noted in these pages before how this guy who looks like a drunken schlub at a bar rose from writing songs for other people to having a career of his own and has beat out all those hot guys in tight jeans for award after award on various shows — paid tribute to Tom Petty with a duet with Emmylou Harris on “Wildflowers.” For a finale Logic, a white rapper I liked much better than Kendrick Lamar — partly because with his close-cropped hair and tight blue jeans he looked like someone I might cruise in a Gay bar but mainly because at least he rapped slowly enough I could actually understand most of what he was saying — came out with Alessia Cara and Khalid for a song whose title was a phone number, “1-800-273-8155.” Given that the participants were wearing shirts with the phone number on one side and the slogan “You Are Not Alone” on the other, I presume that’s a suicide hotline; Alessia Cara once again proved that she, like Lady Gaga and Maren Morris, is one of those performers that can do almost anything, and her belting was the highlight of the production. 

Somewhere along the way there was a not particularly funny number spoofing the spoken-word Grammys and noting that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have both won for their audiobooks, and suggesting that if the current President is going to win a spoken-word Grammy it’s going to be for Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury. I had stepped out of the room while this was on but was still listening and noted that one of the voices did sound rather familiar — it was Hillary Clinton, delivering the evening’s most blatant anti-Trump voice (though some have pushed it more than others, the big awards shows have generally made it clear that in this divided country creative artists are generally on the other side from Trump) and pissing off Nikki Haley, Trump’s pick as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (and whom Wolff hinted in his book was having an affair with Trump), who tweeted, “I have always loved the Grammys but to have artists read the Fire and Fury book killed it. Don’t ruin great music with trash. Some of us love music without the politics thrown in it.” Donald Trump, Sr. so far hasn’t weighed in on the controversy, but Donald Trump, Jr. has: Baby Trump tweeted, “Getting to read a #fakenews book excerpt at the Grammys seems like a great consolation prize for losing the presidency. The more Hillary goes on television the more the American people realize how awesome it is to have @realDonaldTrump in office.” The show closed after Logic’s anti-suicide number (and his own anti-Trump statement to the effect that immigrants made this country great and their home countries are not s---holes — alas, CBS’s standards-and-practices people bleeped Trump’s obscenity) — marking the end of a predictably lumbering show that had some stellar moments (almost all from women — Patti LuPone, Lady Gaga, Maren Morris — though better on her Target spot than on the show itself — Alessia Cara and the awesome Kesha), and at least we were spared the indignity of having the Album of the Year award go to a piece of rap garbage!!!!!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Faith Under Fire: The Antoinette Huff Story (Topanga Productions, Inc,, Peace Out Productions, TDJ Enterprises, Lifetime Television, 2018)

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

I watched last night’s “premiere” of one of the most extraordinary original movies Lifetime has ever given us: Faith Under Fire: The Antoinette Tuff Story. Directed by Vondie Curtis-Hall (a Black man rather than the Black woman I’d previously assumed he was) who’s worked mostly as an actor — he was on episodes of both Law and Order and the spinoff Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, the latter during Christopher Meloni’s last season on the show — and whose main directorial credit before this was a Lifetime biopic of Toni Braxton called Toni Braxton: Un-Break My Heart, Faith Under Fire actually stars the real Toni Braxton — though all we get to hear of her singing voice is a bit in the opening scene in which her radio is broadcasting Sam Cooke’s recording of “This Little Light of Mine” from his Live at the Copa album and she starts singing along to it (and quite frankly there are worse “ghost duets” imaginable than Toni Braxton and Sam Cooke!) — as Antoinette Tuff, who on August 20, 2013 was working as a bookkeeper at the McNair Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia when she was asked to cover the front desk during lunch because the usual school receptionist had called in sick or something. While she was there a young man named Michael Brandon Hill (Trevor Morgan) sneaked onto the school campus with an AK-47 assault rifle and held Tuff at gunpoint, telling her that he was going to kill everyone in the school and she must do exactly as he said or she’d be victim number one. Showing a remarkable degree of courage and foresight and also an instinct that her own history of troubles — including a $14,000 debt and threats to repossess her car (crucial to her because in addition to working at the school she also ran a private transportation business on the side), a son in a wheelchair with a lifelong history of disabilities, and an ex-husband who on the previous New Year’s Eve had announced to her that he’d been having an affair and was leaving her for the new woman in his life — as well as a background that at age 10, she had lost her mother to cancer and her dad and his new wife had only reluctantly taken her and her siblings in, doing the Cinderella number on them and forcing them to sleep on the living-room floor while his wife’s kids by her previous husbands got the beds — would somehow make it through Hill’s consciousness and persuade him to give himself up before he actually hurt anybody. 

As things turned out, no one was killed in the incident and Tuff did eventually persuade Hill to give himself up — though quite frankly it helped that out of all the crazed gunmen who’ve staged mass shootings at public schools and other similar venues, Hill was one of the least competent. He came to McNair with a gun, a whole bag of bullets and several magazines but had not pre-loaded his weapon — most of the truly deadly mass shooters have come fully prepared, with magazines filled to their maximum capacity and one already plugged into the gun, and police who’ve had to answer such calls have told reporters that the deadliest moments in any “active shooter” incident are the first 10 minutes, when the killer is firing away and before anyone has had the chance to call the police and get them to respond. Fortunately Hill did not fire on any students or teachers in the school, just the police who came and surrounded the school to apprehend or kill him and a middle-aged Black schnook who happened to take his lunch break with headphones on, connected to a smartphone that was playing rap, and who returned to the building totally oblivious to what was going on and still with his headphones on so he couldn’t hear any sounds that might have indicated he was in danger. In a post-film “Biography” documentary on the real Antoinette Tuff, he was named as the school’s cafeteria manager (then wouldn’t he have been on duty during lunch hour?), but in the movie he just manages to come off as the typical innocent victim done in as much by his own unawareness of his surroundings as the malevolence of his would-be killer. Indeed, I found myself pointing to his image on TV and saying, “Stupid Black person,” then pointing at Toni Braxton as Antoinette Tuff and saying, “Smart Black person.” He didn’t kill anybody and the only person he even wounded was himself when he was winged by  a police bullet — his motive in the whole incident, at least as writers Laura Harrington and Stephen Kay portrayed it, seems to have been “suicide by cop” — and once Antoinette establishes that via her communications with 911 operator Kendra McCray (the ridiculously named Yaya DaCosta, who played Whitney Houston on yet another Lifetime biopic), she tells the story of her own wretched existence and thoughts of suicide to let Hill know that he’s not alone in the world and there are reasons for people to care about him, and therefore he should let the cops arrest him rather than follow through with his murderous plan. 

Faith Under Fire is an excellent film in all respects, vividly and straightforwardly directed by Vondie Curtis-Hall and containing two brilliant tour de force performances by Toni Braxton and Trevor Harris. Braxton plays her role with a quiet mixture of implacability and strength reminiscent of Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple, and Harris avoids the usual clichés of actors playing psychopaths (the snarling of Lawrence Tierney in Dillinger, Born to Kill and The Hoodlum and the nice-guy exterior of Anthony Perkins in Psycho) and manages to convince us that his mental state is really that jumbled that he can’t do anything right, including perpetrating a mass shooting. The documentary on the real events they showed after the dramatic film was a bit jarring — when the incident happened the real Antoinette Tuff was wearing her hair similarly to the way Braxton does in the film, but since then she’s cut it considerably shorter; also the real Michael Brandon Hill was (unsurprisingly) considerably less physically attractive than Trevor Harris; and the pregnant woman who’s allowed to leave at the outset of the incident and whom Tuff had been trying to help get health insurance for her baby’s birth was cast with a racially ambiguous actress in the dramatic film but was definitely Black in real life. But Faith Under Fire: The Antoinette Huff Story is one of Lifetime’s most astonishingly good productions, vividly dramatic, genuinely suspenseful and ending most movingly with the phone call then-President Barack Obama placed to the real Antoinette Huff to congratulate her for her heroism — and the gentle, soothing tones of our last President stand in vivid contrast to our current one and make one wonder how Trump would handle a similar situation if one occurred on his watch: probably make some pro forma acknowledgment of the courage of the person he was talking to and then, as he always does, steer the conversation entirely towards himself.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Live at the Belly Up: Blind Boys of Alabama, Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet, Irma Thomas (KPBS, aired January 26, 2018, filmed late 2017)

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

Last night KPBS announced that at 10 p.m. — an hour earlier than usual — they were going to present a Live at the Belly Up episode that the moment they announced it became a “must-watch” item for both Charles and I: a show featuring the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet and New Orleans-born soul singer Irma Thomas. The Blind Boys of Alabama first came together in 1939 when they were students at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in Talladega, Alabama and worked almost exclusively in Black churches singing straight-ahead gospel until they were discovered at the Knoxville, Tennessee World’s Fair in 1982 and then got cast collectively as Oedipus in Steven Berkoff’s musical The Gospel at Colonus, a mash-up of Greek mythology and gospel music that proved unexpectedly popular in L.A. One of the current Blind Boys, Jimmy Carter (obviously not the same one!), has been with the group since its inception; another, Clarence Fountain, is in ill health but still sings with them whenever he can. The current lineup is Carter, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, Ben Moore and Joey Williams; Williams also plays guitar for them (you could tell he was an official part of the group even though he sang on only one or two of the songs because he was wearing the same sort of cream-colored suit as the rest), and Carter and McKinnie were chosen as the spokespeople for the group in the obligatory interview segments. 

Their most recent album is a tribute to Blind Willie Johnson called God Don’t Ever Change, though they didn’t do any Johnson songs on Live at the Belly Up. Instead they did a set of gospel standards, mostly dealing with the soon-this-life-will-be-over-and-I’ll-be-with-God theme — not entirely inappropriate considering the group members’ advanced ages. (There’s a fascinating Wikipedia page on the group but it doesn’t go into detail about how long each of the current members have been with the Blind Boys or how they went about finding replacements when the original members retired, tried for solo careers, or died.) They began with, of all things, a song called “I Can See” — though previous PBS documentaries, including the quite beautiful film The Eyes of Me, have made it clear that blind people don’t mind using, or hearing other people use, the word “see” as an overall term for perception even if they can’t literally see — and then did a quite beautiful gospel ballad called “Almost Home.” Then they did a song called “God Knows Everything” that had something of the same feel as Mahalia Jackson’s “God Knows the Reason Why” — and after that the horn section of the Preservation Hall Legacy Band joined them for the gospel standard “Uncloudy Day” (a song I first heard from the Staple Singers, though they may not have been the first to record it; according to Wikipedia the song was actually written by Josiah Kelley Atwood in 1879, though the Staple Singers’ two versions, from 1956 and 1965, were the ones that established it in the gospel repertory and inspired Willie Nelson, of all people, to cover it in 1977) and a beautiful wailing version of “Amazing Grace” in which they kept the familiar words but tweaked the melody into a minor key, to quite moving effect. 

The Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet is an offshoot of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which was started in 1960 by a white couple, Alan Jaffe and his wife, who were running an art gallery in New Orleans and decided to assemble the survivors of the glory days of New Orleans jazz — though New Orleans revivalists had been putting bands together of the survivors at least since the rediscovery of trumpeter Bunk Johnson in 1940 and his first recording session in 1942. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band adopted an unusual solution to the problem of mortality among its members: when a member died he or she was quite likely to be replaced by a direct descendant. I noticed this on a previous PBS special on the parent group in which some of the listed personnel had the same last names as ones I’d heard on their previous performances and records (including a free concert they gave at San Francisco’s Stern Grove in 1972 which featured at least two musicians who’d recorded with Bunk Johnson, trombonist Jim Robinson and bassist Alcide “Slow Drag” Pavageau) but different first names, and I quickly caught on that the deceased musicians were being replaced by their kids, many of whom played the same instruments as their forebears. That show featured drummer Joseph Lastie, whose father Melvin Lastie had been the drummer of Cosimo Matassa’s great New Orleans studio band which backed Fats Domino and Little Richard, as well as lesser-known but almost equally great New Orleans R&B and rock artists like Huey “Piano” Smith. 

The Legacy Quintet was apparently founded in order to be able to send a band out on tour while the main personnel hold down the fort in New Orleans, and it’s not entirely a traditional New Orleans Dixieland ensemble; though there’s a trumpet and a trombone in the front line (and both the trumpet and trombone players also sing), their reedman (who looked younger than the rest) plays saxophone instead of clarinet — usually he plays a Sidney Bechet-style soprano sax during the traditional ensembles but also doubles on alto and tenor (and played a quite lovely tenor solo during “Amazing Grace”). Also they use only two rhythm instruments, a drummer and an electric keyboardist whose instrument is basically set up to sound like the Hammond B-3 organ/Leslie speaker combination Jimmy Smith made de rigueur for jazz organists; the camera didn’t get close enough to show whether this instruments has foot pedals for playing bass lines like a regular pipe or electronic organ, but it sounded like bass notes were coming from somewhere and that’s the most likely place. The Legacy Quintet played two songs, “Bourbon Street Parade” — which Louis Armstrong recorded with the Dukes of Dixieland, so the Legacy Quintet’s trumpeter not only sang on the song but did part of his vocal as an Armstrong impression — and “St. Louis Blues,” which began with a surprisingly cacophonous collective ensemble from which the melody gradually emerged. Then Irma Thomas came out and, alas, got to do only one song solo, “Love Don’t Change.” 

The Wikipedia page on her describes her as a contemporary of Aretha Franklin and Etta James, which will give you an idea of what she sounds like even though the Wikipedia writer ruefully notes that she “never experienced their level of commercial success.” Perhaps that was because she spent virtually all her recording career on small labels, many New Orleans-based, like Specialty, Ron and Minit; in the late 1960’s she cut some sides for Chess, which had broken Etta James as a major soul star, but she didn’t really reach beyond the Black R&B audience until Jim Jarmusch used one of her records in his 1985 film Down by Law. Irma Thomas’s Wikipedia page also notes that “as a teenager she sang with a Baptist church choir,” which of course is absolutely no surprise; I’ve been harping on this point for a long time, but I’ll say it again — one of the most pernicious and destructive myths of the music business is the one about how African-American singers in the R&B and soul styles had these “untrained voices.” B.S.: you do not sing as well as Aretha or Tina Turner or Patti LaBelle do for as long as they have without having had professional vocal training, and these great singers got their voices trained right by the choir directors in the churches where they started out as kids. The myth of the “untrained” Black soul voice is particularly destructive to white singers who grow up believing it and thinking that the only thing they have to do to sound like Aretha or whoever is to stand up in front of a band and scream. So many aspiring white singers like Bonnie Tyler and Stevie Nicks blew out their voices way too early because they didn’t realize that soul singers need vocal training just as much as opera singers do — and I’m convinced that even if Janis Joplin had lived her career wouldn’t have lasted much longer because her voice wouldn’t have withstood the punishment she inflicted on it. (When I heard the posthumously released version of Janis covering Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” my thought was, “Damn! She died just when she was starting to learn how to sing.”)

Irma Thomas didn’t get to show much of herself in this show — I suspect she had more to do in the complete Belly Up appearance at which this telecast was filmed, especially since this was part of a late 2017 concert tour at which all three acts received billing but Irma was on top. She just sang “Love Don’t Change” (the song’s next line is, “But people do,” which will give you an idea of what it’s about) and then joined the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet for a finale on the Pete Seeger-Lee Hays song “If I Had a Hammer.” Charles and I had just heard this song similarly gospel-ized on Sam Cooke’s live album from the Copacabaña nightclub in 1964. (Cooke’s live album from the Harlem Square Club in Miami in 1963, though not released until 1985, is generally considered better than the one from the Copa because, playing to a Black audience, he was considerably wilder — but his choice of material at the Copa was more adventurous, including “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”) Charles joked, “This is what Pete Seeger would have sounded like if he’d been Black and gone to church,” and the artists on this Live at the Belly Up show (copyrighted 2018 but obviously filmed in late 2017) completed the process of “gospel-izing” the song and putting over its message of justice, freedom and love between all humanity at least as well as Seeger’s group The Weavers did and considerably better than the pop versions by Peter, Paul and Mary and Trini Lopez we got in the 1960’s.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Angry Films, International Production Company, 3D Productions, 20th Century-Fox, 2003)

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

Our “feature” last night was yet another fantasy inspired by our recent attendance at the ConDor science-fiction convention: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a 2003 20th Century-Fox production largely based on the comic book — oops, “graphic novel” (the term of art for a comic book as long as a standard novel) — scripted by Alan Moore and drawn by Kevin O’Neill. The comics began in 1999 and continued through three main volumes and two side projects, ending in 2016 when Moore announced his retirement from writing or even reading comic books; apparently Volume III of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is going to be his last work. Moore, whose attitude towards the film industry makes J. D. Salinger’s seem like a model of sweetness and light by comparison, agreed to take credit for the film version of The League even though the script by James Dale Robinson departed radically from Moore’s and O’Neill’s vision, ending in a secret armaments factory in Tibet (oh, so that’s where it was! When I was watching the movie I thought it was in Antarctica!) where the super-villain is producing a series of ultra-high-tech weapons with which he intends to set the superpowers of the day — the film is set in 1899 — against each other in a world war that will profit him immensely because both sides will want to buy his arms. The League — the movie — begins with a spectacular scene of a tank (designed to look like the actual first tanks, which Britain pioneered as a war weapon in the real-life World War I in 1915) literally crashing through the Bank of England and running over a bobby who futilely orders it to stop in the name of the law.

Naturally British authorities blame the attack on their rising enemy, Germany — until a similar tank attack occurs in Berlin and the Brits realize that a secret enemy led by someone called “The Fantom” and wearing a Phantom of the Opera-style mask is attacking both countries and trying to spark a war between them. The film then cuts to Africa, where the adventurer Allan Quatermain (Sean Connery, who gets a producer credit as well as starring in it and being, quite frankly, the only cast member I’d previously heard of) — whose name is misspelled “Quartermain” throughout the movie (“Quatermain,” without the first “r,” is the name the character’s creator, H. Rider Haggard, used) is living in semi-retirement until an emissary from the British secret service recruits him to return home and be part of a group of “extraordinary gentlemen” (plus one extraordinary lady, more on her later) who will go after the Fantom and stop him from sabotaging an upcoming international conference in Venice that has been convened to try to forestall the impending world war. The head of the British secret service, “M” (an obvious in-joke because “M” is also the designation for the British secret service head in Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories, whose original films made Sean Connery a star — in real life this official is called “C,” for “Chief”), played by Richard Roxburgh, recruits an odd assortment of characters in late-Victorian fiction, including a grown-up Tom Sawyer who’s an American secret service agent (Shane West), Captain Nemo (Naseerrudin Shah) — who contributes his own set of high-tech devices, not only the submarine Nautilus but also a 1930’s-style car which looks incredibly anachronistic in an 1899 setting (the script pretends that automobiles of any sort didn’t exist in 1899, which is not true), to the effort — Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), Dr. Henry Jekyll (Jason Flemyng), Rodney Skinner (Tony Curran) — a sneak thief who stole the invisibility formula invented by Jack Griffin in H. G. Wells’ The Invisible Man and took it himself — and Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), who in this version of her story was permanently turned into a vampire herself as a result of her interaction with Count Dracula.

Midway through the action, when the characters have moved from London through Paris and are now in Venice at the peace conference, the city starts literally blowing up around them and the big switcheroo comes: “M” is really The Fantom and Dorian Gray is in league with him (and maybe Skinner is too — his loyalties are pretty ambiguously drawn). Directed by Stephen Norrington and acted by a quite capable cast of the usually efficient British actors (as I’ve wondered in these pages before, is there something special about the Brits that keeps cranking out these great actors? Is it genetic? More likely it’s the existence of an extensive network of publicly subsidized acting schools and theatres that preserve this tradition and extend it to future generations), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has the typical failing of a movie based on a comic book — excuse me, a “graphic novel” — a series of absolutely stunning visuals hooked onto a plot that made no sense. Alan Moore not only allowed his name on the credits (the last time he’s done that for an adaptation of his work) but even testified on behalf of 20th Century-Fox when producer Martin Poll and screenwriter Larry Cohen filed a plagiarism suit against the studio, claiming that The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was ripped off from an unproduced script of theirs called Cast of Characters. “They seemed to believe that the head of 20th Century Fox called me up and persuaded me to steal this screenplay, turning it into a comic book they could then adapt back into a movie, to camouflage petty larceny,” Moore said. Nonetheless, the studio paid a settlement to Poll and Cohen, which seems to have so incensed Moore it soured him on the film world in general, and for the next project based on one of his stories, “V” for Vendetta, Moore not only declined credit but denounced the movie far and wide. (Actually “V” for Vendetta is a considerably better movie than The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; though I haven’t read Moore’s original — I generally don’t read comic books or “graphic novels” anymore — I suspect the changes the Wachowski siblings, who wrote and produced the film, made turned it into a story that actually made sense and had a genuinely tragic arc for its central character.)

The film is absolutely stunning visually but after a while you just have to abandon any hope that the story is going to make sense and just groove on how gorgeous it all looks — and the lack of much in the way of character motivation leaves a highly talented cast pretty much at sea, though Peta Wilson (even if her name sounds like Pete Wilson underwent gender reassignment and became an animal-rights activist) brings Mina Harker to vivid life and looks like she and the character deserved a better movie (like a direct sequel to Dracula in which she continues the vampiric tradition Dracula started) and Shane West is cute and effective as the one American in the dramatis personae. (His page says he was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and shows a tall, dark and broodingly intense head shot that doesn’t look like the tow-headed blonde he is in this film.) As for Connery, he’s fun to watch even though he’s pretty obviously being doubled in his big action scenes, especially the one early on in which he’s taken on in Africa by a whole gang of machine-gun armed assailants sent by the Fantom as a pre-emptive strike — let’s face it, the man is not only playing Alan Quatermain but had previously played James Bond (and indeed it might be a nice project to have Connery as a retired, gentlemanly Bond called back into action for one final case), so the Fantom’s assassins, despite out-numbering and out-weaponing him, didn’t stand a chance!

Jason and the Argonauts (Morningside World-Wide Productions, Columbia, 1963)

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

Three nights ago, after Charles and I returned from the three-day ConDor science-fiction convention, I figured we’d want to watch a film in the science-fiction or fantasy genres and I ended up showing us Jason and the Argonauts, the 1963 fantasy classic from Columbia Studios and a paper production company called “Morningside World-Wide Productions” ( also lists an enterprise called “The Great Company” as one of the producing entities but they don’t get screen credit). It was produced by Charles H. Schneer and directed by Don Chaffey, though the real reason anyone would want to see this film is because of the spectacular special-effects sequences created by Ray Harryhausen, the second of only two world-class masters of stop-motion animation. (The first was Willis O’Brien, the special-effects genius behind the original 1933 King Kong, from whom Harryhausen learned the technique working as his assistant on the 1949 film Mighty Joe Young.) Harryhausen consistently made his best films, including The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), for Schneer, who seems to have been the producer most willing to go to bat for him and get the studios to cough up the money needed for the long production schedule stop-motion animation requires. For example, the most famous sequence in Jason and the Argonauts, in which Jason (Todd Armstrong, dubbed with British actor Tim Turner — so many voices here were dubbed with people other than the ones who play the characters visually this film has a place alongside the first Mad Max as one of those films dubbed from English into English) fights an army of skeletons, took four months to film even though it lasts only about five minutes on screen.

Not even Schneer got enough money for some of Harryhausen’s most extraordinary ideas — when they made their last film together, Clash of the Titans, Harryhausen wanted to depict Cerberus, the giant dog that guards the gate to Hades in Greek mythology, with the three heads the mythical writers said he had, but he had to content himself with two. This time Schneer got Columbia, the producing studio, to cough up for enough to do the skeleton army, the seven-headed Hydra Jason battles in the immediately preceding sequence (the skeletons supposedly arise from the Hydra’s teeth when the film’s principal villain, King Aeetes of Colchis [Jack Gwillim], sows them into the ground and they grow into animate skeletons), the Greek god Talos (a giant bronze statue that creaks to life in one scene — Harryhausen deliberately made the animation of this sequence clunky instead of smooth to indicate this was a metal statue coming to life and literally creaking in the joints, and he got letters wondering why this sequence didn’t have the fabled smoothness of most of his work!) and Triton, son of the sea god Poseidon, who rises from the ocean in one scene to menace Jason and the Argonauts. (Triton was actually played by a live actor — since he looked human Harryhausen decided he’d be easier to create that way than as a stop-motion model, and also he had to rise from the sea and using water in stop-motion sequences is always tricky because the miniature photography enlarges a drop of water to unnaturally huge size. To get him to rise with the precise ponderousness needed to make him look real, the crew had to shoot the scene at 96 frames per second, four times the standard speed, to give him ultra-slow motion, and at one point the camera literally blew up from having to handle running at that speed.)

Jason and the Argonauts is, along with The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, one of Harryhausen’s two best films because they’re the best constructed and the ones most engagingly faithful to their mythological sources: Zeus (Niall MacGinnis, getting a promotion after playing King Menelaus in the 1955 film Helen of Troy), king of the Greek gods, sends word to Acastus (Gary Raymond) that he’ll be allowed to overthrow the rightful king of Thessaly and take his place, only Acastus goes beyond Zeus’s authority and kills the king’s two daughters and tries to kill the king’s son Jason as well — but someone spirits the young Jason away and he grows up, determined to get his family’s throne back. Hera (future Bond girl Honor Blackman), Zeus’s wife and queen, takes Jason’s cause and looks down at him through the water-screen TV the Greek gods must have got from the Egyptians, since a similar device is seen in the 1932 film The Mummy in which the reincarnated mummy Imhotep (Boris Karloff) uses it to show modern girl Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) her life in past incarnations, including the one in ancient Egypt in which they were illicit lovers until he was caught and sentenced to being entombed alive. Hera offers Jason, not the usual three, but five wishes he can use when he needs help in the quest for the Golden Fleece, which he’s told he needs to acquire to re-establish himself as the rightful heir and king of Thessaly — and being a typically feckless movie hero, he uses them up in the first 40 minutes and for the rest of the film he’s on his own. At least the story makes internal sense, and though we’re getting a bowdlerized version of the myth — Medea (Nancy Kovack, who later played the female romantic lead in the Three Stooges’ last feature, The Outlaws Is Coming, with Adam “Batman” West as the male lead) turns into a Valley Girl and a traditional movie girlfriend for the hero — at least it plays well.

The production standards this time are substantial enough that the Golden Fleece is genuinely impressive even though it looks more like a whole sheepskin than just a fleece — I remember one other sword-and-sandal non-epic, the original 1958 Hercules from Italy with Steve Reeves in the title role, in which, as I wrote about it in an earlier post on this blog, the Golden Fleece “turns out to be a bit of mangy-looking wool dipped in gold paint hanging off a branch on a tree that appears to be planted on the head of a Godzilla-style monster” — and the sets are substantial (probably Schneer and Chaffey had the run of sets from previous productions set in ancient Greece or Rome; though most of their cast was British the movie was filmed entirely in Italy) even though they have that just-new, freshly painted look critics like Dwight MacDonald used to complain about (and directors like Terry Gilliam have gone out of their way to reverse — Gilliam even called one of his companies “Poo Poo Productions,” reflecting his obsession with covering his characters in mud and shit to show just how dirty ancient times were). Though it leaves out the character of Medea’s younger brother Absyrtus (whom, as Jason and the Argonauts leave Colchis and Aeetes’ ships are pursuing them, Medea kills and cuts up into little pieces which she throws into the sea, knowing that Aeetes’ sailors will have to pick up the pieces and reassemble them so they can give Absyrtus a proper burial) as well as all the events of the sequel (in which Jason keeps Medea as a mistress, then gets engaged in a dynastic marriage to another woman, to which Medea responds by killing Jason, his new fiancée and, most famously, her and Jason’s children), Jason and the Argonauts — produced in the waning days of the Production Code and later given a “G” rating under the ratings system that replaced it — is a fun romp through Greek mythology and one of the few Harryhausen films that’s entertaining even when his dazzling stop-motion creations aren’t front and center on the screen.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Battlestar Galactica: Razor (Universal Network Television, David Eick Productions, R&D Productions, 2007)

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

I screened a science-fiction film from the DVD archives since Charles and I are doing the ConDor science-fiction convention this Friday, Saturday and Sunday and I thought it would be a nice idea to get into the spirit of it in advance. The film I ended up screening was a 2007 Universal Television production called Battlestar Galactica: Razor, though the Battlestar Galactica itself doesn’t feature in the plot of this one at all. Written by Michael Taylor, “developed by” Ronald D. Moore (who apparently was the producer and writer in charge of the early-2000’s Battlestar Galactica reboot) and with Glen A. Larson credited with creating the characters for the original 1977 Battlestar Galactica and also listed as “consulting producer” on the credits of this one even though he had nothing to do with making it, Battlestar Galactica: Razor actually tells the story of another vessel in the space fleet of Battlestars, Battlestar Pegasus. It alternates between present-time reality, a flashback to 10 months previously and other flashbacks to 43 years before, at the end of the first Cylon war. Cylons, for those of you not up on Battlestar Galactica minutiae, are the malevolent robots who are the principal villains on the series — and who in the original 1977 incarnations looked as much like the Empire’s Storm Troopers in Star Wars (the property Battlestar Galactica was obviously ripping off — down to hiring John Dykstra, who’d done the model spaceships for Star Wars and for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey before that, to do the models here as well) as Universal dared without risking a plagiarism suit from George Lucas and 20th Century-Fox.

The new Cylons are skinnier and look more “mechanical,” but they also can shape-shift and assume human form, disguising themselves as people in order to commit espionage and thereby gain a leg up in the renewed hostilities between humans and Cylons that started up again 43 years after an armistice ended the First Cylon War. I was curious about this one for some of the same reasons I’d wanted to watch the recent Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: it was a way to re-enter the fictional universe without having to watch a whole bunch of shows in succession since it was billed as a one-off. It wasn’t, really: for the first third of this film Charles and I both found it awfully confusing since it presupposed quite a lot more familiarity with the Galactica universe than either of us could muster. The central character is Kendra Shaw (Stephanie Jacobsen), a young woman who previously served on the officer corps of the Battlestar Pegasus but disgraced herself in some way we don’t learn definitively until two-thirds of the way through the film. Ten months earlier the Pegasus, then under the command of Admiral Helena Cain (Michelle Forbes), had encountered a Cylon battle fleet and barely survived the engagement. At one point, in order to replenish her crew, Cain had sent a landing party to a planet colonized by Earthlings in order to capture and forcibly draft people for the crew — an interesting transposition to science-fiction of the practice of “impressment,” by which British naval ships would board American vessels in the early 19th century and kidnap crew members or even passengers and force them to serve on the British ships (which was one of the issues the War of 1812 was about and is also at the heart of Melville’s novel, and Britten’s opera, Billy Budd). Earlier she had launched a direct attack on part of the Cylon fleet, contradicting her previous instruction that since her battle forces were vastly outnumbered by the Cylons, she’d only fight in guerrilla fashion — and when her second-in-command (her “XO,” to use the Galactica argot — it stands for “executive officer”) declined to obey her order, she pulled out an old-school pistol (one of the quirkier parts of the Galactica universe is that though it’s supposed to take place centuries in the future, some of the technology, including portable radios as well as small arms, looks like what we have today) and shot him on the spot.

This time she orders that if anyone on the planet resists impressment into the Pegasus crew, not only they but their entire family is to be killed — and Kendra Shaw carries out the order and kills 10 people before the rest of the people realize that resistance is futile and go along with Cain’s press gang. Word gets around that Shaw committed a war crime, and so 10 months later, with Cain having died in battle to preserve the Pegasus, no one will hire Shaw for an officer position — until the Pegasus’s new commander, the boyishly handsome Lee “Apollo” Adama (Jamie Bamber), who got the job because his dad, Admiral William Adama (Edward James Olmos), is a high official in the fleet, insists on Shaw as his XO. The intrigue involves a Cylon attempt to kidnap people and turn them into human/robot “hybrids” who can be used to take over … well, whatever the Cylons are interested in taking over instead of just destroying, since a passing piece of dialogue hints that the Cylons have already destroyed Earth and all its colonies, so the 60,000 people on board the various Battlestars are the only part of humanity that’s left — and the heroic decision of Kendra Shaw to blow herself up with a nuclear weapon in order to kill the hybrid as well, sort of like Sigourney Weaver at the end of the original Alien. (At least that’s how I read the ending of the original Alien — Weaver’s character killed herself in order to make sure the alien was destroyed before it ever got to Earth — though they put her through increasingly ridiculous revivifications in order to create the sequelae.) I liked Battlestar Galactica: Razor better than I had Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, though both had the same problem — they were ostensibly prequels to the series but they still presupposed a large amount of knowledge of the previous items in the oeuvre and really didn’t work all that well as one-offs. I’ll give Razor credit for several things, including making Helena Cain a Lesbian whose girlfriend turns out to be a Cylon spy and at least attempting to deal with serious issues like father-son rivalry and whether war crimes are ever justified because the enemy is so implacable and so relentlessly evil that any tactics, however inhumane or wrong, are morally acceptable to win.

Battlestar Galactica in both its incarnations is very much a story of its times: the first one came out in 1977 and I’ll never forget that the first five minutes of its premiere were pre-empted by the live coverage of the peace deal then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter brokered between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Then, when the special news flash ended and the series came on, the first dialogue we heard was about the fragility of alliances and how easily treaties were broken — as if the writers of Battlestar Galactica had set out to blunt the good news that Israel and Egypt had signed a peace treaty. Like Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica came out while Carter was still President but anticipated the trends in U.S. political and ideological thinking that would defeat him and elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, including the desire for “toughness” and “strength” both at home and abroad. And the reboot of Galactica came out in the wake of 9/11, when another Republican administration was proposing authoritarian “anti-terror” measures and arguing that they were justified and, indeed, necessary because the enemy we faced was so implacably evil any means to defeat it were morally acceptable. The very strong pro-military, anti-peace sentiment is common to both Galacticas and is as integral a part of this material as it was of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and the film based on it — even though Michael Taylor isn’t as good a writer as Card was and therefore he doesn’t communicate the message quite as powerfully. Indeed, this film piles flashback on top of flashback so relentlessly that at one point I joked, “Casey Robinson lives.” (Casey Robinson was the early-1940’s Warner Bros. writer who was known for piling flashbacks on top of flashbacks; he was also known around the industry for having written the love scenes between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca but declining screen credit because at the time he was taking credit only for films he wrote entirely by himself — which meant he did himself out of an Academy Award.) According to an “Trivia” post, Battlestar Galactica: Razor (the title is a reference to Cain’s advice to Shaw that she turn herself into a “razor,” a merciless, compassion-free instrument of war to ensure humanity’s survival) was originally intended for theatrical release, but eventually was sold as a TV-movie because by a quirk of Universal’s contract with Battlestar Galactica creator Glen A. Larson, Universal owned the TV rights to the property but Larson retained the feature-film rights — and he vetoed the release of this story, which he’d had nothing to do with making despite his “consulting producer” credit, as a theatrical feature.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Deadly Revenge (Feifer Worldwide/Lifetime, 2013)

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

For my “feature” last night I ran an item from my DVD backlog, a Lifetime movie called Deadly Revenge that turned out to be pretty good — not as good as this channel can be, but considerably better than the more recent Lifetime features Deadly Delusion (catch the pattern in the titling?) and I Am Elizabeth Smart. This was especially surprising since Deadly Revenge was a product of Michael Feifer’s production company, Feifer Worldwide, and he directed it personally — though at least this time he let someone else, Jenna Mattison, do the writing, which probably helped. Architect Harrison (Mark Hapka, boyishly handsome rather than sexy or butch but still very easy on the eyes and fun for this old queen to look at!) — we don’t get many of the central characters’ last names — is based in L.A. and needs a landscape designer for a project he’s currently working on. So he sends to San Francisco for one (aren’t there any in L.A. itself?) and gets Cate (Alicia Ziegler, blonde and with curly hair and a great figure which we get to see a lot of in a very revealing bikini), with whom he falls in love almost immediately — and she reciprocates — so by the time their project is finished she’s already planning to move to L.A., move in with him and eventually marry him. Cate’s roommate in San Francisco, Kym (Constance Wu), is understandably nervous about whether her friend is doing the right thing, but Cate goes ahead with her plan.

Harrison lives in a lavishly appointed condo in the city but his mother Evelyn (Donna Mills) has an even more lavishly appointed mansion in the suburbs — the moment we see this house we recognize it from other Michael Feifer productions for Lifetime and I found myself wondering whether it’s Feifer’s own home and he uses it every time he needs a location for an affluent character to live. The house has a huge swimming pool in the backyard, and this is important not only because it gives director Feifer the chance to show a lot of Alicia Ziegler’s appealing (at least to straight men and Lesbians) figure, with as much breast revealed as he could get away with on basic cable, but also because years earlier Harrison’s father drowned in that very same pool. Harrison’s high-school girlfriend, Katie Rice (so the dead girl gets a last name even though the living characters don’t!) mysteriously disappeared just after graduation, right when she and Harrison were planning to move to New York to attend college (he at NYU’s architecture school and she in the dance program at Juilliard), and so instead he stayed in L.A., lived with his mom and trained there. We’ve already got an intimation of an unusual (and unhealthy) mother-son fixation when Cate sees a photo of a young woman at Harrison’s apartment, naturally assumes it’s an ex and instead he tells her it’s his mom as a young woman, before she met his dad (though the photo and especially the hair style look contemporary rather than period). From the moment Evelyn greets Harrison and Cate and practically rapes him with her eyes we know mom is going to turn out to be the villainess of the piece — which she does — though Feifer and screenwriter Mattison fill the film with hints that Harrison is actually a psycho killer who knocked off his clingy girlfriend and is trying to do the same with Cate. Feifer relentlessly overdirects, filling the movie with shots of the moon in the night sky and water reflections from the surface of the pool into the camera lens as Cate swims, but after a while his overdirection itself has a certain camp appeal. He also quotes Alfred Hitchcock, including a shot of scissors from Dial “M” for Murder and a shower scene that incorporates some of the classic shots from Psycho even though Cate isn’t stabbed to death by her boyfriend in drag the way Janet Leigh was in Hitchcock’s classic.

In the end, it’s revealed that Evelyn has eliminated anyone who might come between her and her son — including her husband, who accumulated the fortune that paid for that huge house in the first place, as well as Katie — and she’s planning to do the same to Cate by filling the pool full of copper sulfate (used as a pool cleaner in small doses to kill algae, but in large concentrations highly toxic to humans), though when Cate catches on Evelyn goes to Plan B and hits her with a hammer, knocking her out, then tying her up and pouring the copper sulfate powder directly on her instead of dunking it in the pool and drowning her. Just then Harrison, who’s been worried because Cate hasn’t been returning his phone calls, drives to his mom’s house and, despite the ambiguity of the scene — for a moment I thought it would end with him mistakenly concluding it was Cate who was attacking his mom, not the other way around — catches on. Evelyn falls into the copper sulfate-laced pool and dies, and Harrison and Cate get back together. Deadly Revenge is pretty standard Lifetime fare, but with some welcome variations; for once the drop-dead gorgeous male lead is not the villain (though since Mark Hapka is boyishly handsome rather than darkly sexy Feifer could make an exception to the usual sexy = evil Lifetime typecasting) and Cate’s friend Kym does not stumble onto the villain’s plans and get killed before she can reveal them. It’s also an indication that with someone else writing the script and resisting his more over-the-top inclinations, Michael Feifer can actually direct a relatively coherent and believable movie — something of a reversal from the many Lifetime movies in which one sees a director of some talent vainly trying to make a believable movie out of a ridiculously overwrought and melodramatic script!