Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Danger: “Padlocks” (CBS-TV, aired November 9, 1954)

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

Charles and I stuck a half-hour crime drama in last night between the end of Elementary and the beginning of Stephen Colbert’s program, and it was the next in sequence from the James Dean TV boxed set, a Danger episode called “Padlocks” which according to the opening commentary from Dean’s cousin Marcus Winslow, Jr. (though since Dean was orphaned and Winslow’s parents Marcus and Ortense raised him, they grew up more like brothers than cousins) had long since been thought lost and only surfaced shortly before the boxed set was assembled. It turned out to be one of the best items in the set and a real surprise given that my only knowledge of the Danger program had been from John Frankenheimer’s recollections of it as an associate producer in the early 1950’s in the book The Celluloid Muse, in which he called it a dumping ground for directors who had bombed out on other shows: “I was put on the show to try and help these bums, to try and get these damned things on the air. And of course they would know they were on the verge of being fired, and they’d be very tense before the rehearsal ever started, and they’d give me these ridiculous sums of money to help them keep their jobs. I didn’t want their money, but they insisted on it. And no matter what I did, I couldn’t help them keep their jobs, because they were just terrible.” 

My surprise was that “Padlocks” turned out to be a great little piece of filmmaking even though the director, Byron R. Kelley, isn’t even listed on the imdb.com page for it (or anywhere else on the site); unless he had Frankenheimer or someone else “ghosting” the show for him he actually turned in a marvelous job, and though some of the opening shots and scenes of the police stalking out the New York apartment building where most of the action takes place might have been filmed inserts, Kelley seamlessly blends a wide variety of locales for a quite stunning effect, especially by the standards of live TV that all too often reduced potentially compelling stories to just a bunch of people talking in a cheaply built set of a room. “Padlocks” was originally aired on CBS-TV (not NBC, as the credits on the Dean box falsely claim) on November 9, 1954 — just two months after the immediately preceding item in the Dean box, “Run Like a Thief” from the Philco Television Playhouse, and likewise a product of the interregnum during which Dean had already completed his first starring feature film, East of Eden, but was waiting for it to be released — and it’s interesting that after his performance in “Run Like a Thief,” in which he’s playing a sympathetic character and speaks in a clear, distinct tone of voice, here he’s back to playing the out-and-out crook he usually got typecast on in his TV shows and is mumbling à la Brando in the curious voice Dean adopted to express alienation. The plot is simplicity itself: a middle-aged woman (Mildred Dunnock — the final credits identify her simply as “The Woman” and James Dean as “The Man”) who lives in a seedy apartment in a section of New York City so run-down the building next to it is condemned is suddenly accosted, while opening the padlocks that are the only way she has to secure her apartment or anything in it, is suddenly accosted by a young man who’s just fled the scene of an attempted armed robbery of a local store where he shot and presumably killed the clerk. 

For half an hour of screen time director Kelley and writer Louis S. Peterson maintain the suspense — will the woman be able to talk the man out of shooting her? Will she be able to hold him off until the police arrive? Will he kill her before the police can get to her apartment, and when the police do come will they merely arrest him or kill him? They also maintain the suspense around Dunnock’s character, who has a series of rooms in her apartment, each of them separately padlocked, that contain what she calls her “treasures,” though the only one she sees is a large old Raggedy Ann-type doll and Dean’s character can’t stand the thing and can’t understand why Dunnock’s reveres it so. We get the impression that it’s probably a souvenir from Dunnock’s childhood — though Peterson doesn’t spell this out for us, and indeed he keeps the situation ultra-simple, employing that marvelous economy of narrative that made it possible for 1950’s TV to do quite enthralling half-hour crime dramas (and, for that matter, half-hour dramas in all sorts of genres), where today the half-hour TV drama is as dead as the Hudson Terraplane. I particularly liked the ambiguity over to what extent Dunnock’s character is genuinely crazy and to what extent she’s merely pretending to be crazy to mind-fuck Dean into letting her live. Eventually the ending is predictable — the cops storm the place and shoot down Dean before he has a chance to kill Dunnock or anyone else (the final credit roll lists only three actors — Dunnock, Dean and Ken Konopka as the cop who finally takes Dean out, though the imdb.com page lists a fourth actor, Robert Snively, playing “Charlie”) — but “Padlocks” is an excellent little mini-drama that keeps the suspense going and also ends up surprisingly moving.

Monday, June 25, 2018

A Night to Regret (BondIt, CreativArts Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

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

I was particularly anxious to see the Lifetime “premiere” last night, A Night to Regret, partly because it had looked interesting when it was being “hyped” the night before and partly because Christine Conradt was one of the screenwriters, and her scripts often show more multidimensional characters and a greater sense of character development than the Lifetime norm — indeed, The Bride He Bought Online, which she not only wrote but directed as well, is one of the very best things I’ve seen on the network, with its genuinely pathetic (in the best sense of the term) villain and a central female character whom we want to see punished for her arrogance and hubris but who meets a far worse fate than we would have wanted for her. Alas, A Night to Regret wasn’t anywhere near that level, though on its own terms it was a nice, exciting thriller. Conradt merely co-wrote the original story with Chris Lancey; a third writer, Mark Sanderson, turned it into a screenplay and Tom Shell directed with a nice flair for suspense. The story deals with the tense relationship between Chelsea Bilson (Mollee Gray), who’s attending law school and also studying film — she’s won an award with a student film and is currently making another even though mom worries it will get in their way of her legal coursework — and said mother, Beverly Bilson (Marguerite Moreau), who raised Chelsea as a single parent (we’re never told what happened to Chelsea’s dad) and has high hopes for her law career which an avocation, especially one as time- and money-consuming as film, will just side-track her from. Naturally Chelsea has a best friend, Sara Lopez (Gigi Zumbado), and she also has a boyfriend, though in the opening scenes he breaks up with her for reasons that aren’t altogether clear. His name is Eric Reese (Rory Gibson) and he re-enters the action after Chelsea has her big “night to regret.” She goes to visit her old friend Milla Walters (Kirsten Pfeiffer), the town “bad” girl who got thrown out of high school, bounced around among various homes, substances and boyfriends, but finally settled into a lucrative career running a page on a Web site called “Dahlia’s Playhouse” in which she gets young, nubile women to take their clothes off for the delectation and electronic tips of men.

Milla gets Chelsea to do this by feeding her spiked champagne, and though Chelsea only does it once, once is enough: she attracts the bizarre attentions of Jake Peters (Kevin McNamara), a local gym owner who decides, as soon as he sees Chelsea topless on line, that she’s the girl of his dreams and he’s going to have her by any means necessary. He records her video on his computer and manages to read the filmmaking award for her on her wall, thereby obtaining her real name, and soon he learns her address. He approaches the family by offering free gym memberships to her and her mom — he appears to be following the good ol’ Humbert Humbert strategy of getting access to the daughter by courting the mother — and it’s not clear what he’s after, whether he plans a grand seduction of Chelsea or something nastier. Jake has left a trail of misdeeds across the Internet, including a supplements company he ran that went bankrupt after he embezzled from them and a couple of convictions of assaults against women, and Milla’s business partner and former lover Liam Gregg (Tyler Sellers, easily the cutest guy in this movie) goes to confront Jake about it, only to get stabbed to death for his pains. Eventually Jake kidnaps both Chelsea and Sara — Sara just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time — and everybody else in the cast gets together to trace her and ser her free, including mom, Milla and Dean (Jeremy John Wells), a person whose presence in the dramatis personae is pretty unexplained and who looks so much like Jake I wondered if it was Jake and he was getting information and screwing with people’s heads by posing as someone helping investigate the crime he had himself committed. 

At one point Jake takes Chelsea and Sara to an out-of-the-way mountain cabin (“Does every Lifetime villain have to own a cabin?” Charles asked at this point), and Sara escapes and joins the manhunt, but the climax, over-the-top in the best (or worst) Christine Conradt manner, takes place on the roof of a building, where Jake gets confronted by Chelsea’s mom and is ultimately shot down by an Asian-American woman police detective, Morita (Tina Huang), who has finally got access to the information about Jake’s whereabouts. A Night to Regret was an O.K. Lifetime movie, disappointing in how little Conradt and her colleagues gave us in the way of insights into What Made Jake Run (Conradt’s best scripts make her villains multidimensional and even make us feel a bit sorry for them, but this one doesn’t) but exciting in its action scenes and titillating in the shots of Chelsea in bondage at Jake’s various locations, writhing her shorts-clad body in her efforts to get free. It just wasn’t the movie I was expecting from the title or the promos; frankly, I had expected Jake, Milla and Liam to be in cahoots in a human-trafficking business and their ultimate objective being to sell Chelsea into sexual slavery — only Jake screwed up the business deal by genuinely falling in love with her and wanting to get her for himself regardless of what his partners wanted. That would certainly have made him a worthier Christine Conradt character!

Philco Television Playhouse: “Run Like a Thief” (Showcase Productions, NBC-TV, aired September 5, 1954)

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

Afterwards Charles and I watched the next item in the three-DVD boxed set of James Dean’s television appearances: Run Like a Thief, an episode of the Philco Television Playhouse from September 5, 1954 (which means he made this after his first starring film, East of Eden, though it aired “live” on NBC before Eden was released) which impressed Charles considerably more than it did me — Charles even called it “James Dean’s fourth film.” It was actually a vehicle for German-American actor Kurt Kasznar, who plays Alexander Ingles, a headwaiter who divides his year between resorts in Florida where he works the winters and a lavish hotel owned by Madame Pollard (Barbara O’Neal, former Bette Davis co-star) in the summers. He has just returned to Pollard’s establishment, where he lives as well as work, from his Florida season and he has particularly high hopes for his favorite assistant on the Florida job, Robbie Warren (James Dean), whom he hired as a busboy but whom he proclaims as a born waiter with an instinctive understanding of how the 1-percenters who are Madame Pollard’s clientele want to be served. He cites Robbie as an example for his other two busboys of how they should do their jobs, and Robbie duly arrives and gets hired by Alexander, with Pollard approving on his recommendation. Then disaster strikes: a diamond bracelet falls off Madame Pollard’s arm in the restaurant and Alexander picks it up and shows it to his wife Della (Gusti Huber). He wants to return it but she wants to keep it, and their dull moral dilemma over it takes up most of this TV show’s running time. Madame Pollard is reluctant to report the disappearance of her bracelet to the police because she’s worried people will stop coming to her hotel if word gets out that a valuable item of jewelry got stolen there, but instead she works with Robert Wheelock (Ward Costello), a private investigator from her insurance company, who hopes to recover the bracelet so his company won’t have to play a claim for it. In the end, of course, Alexander overrules his wife and gives back the bracelet.  

Run Like a Thief isn’t particularly impressive, but it is an intriguing outlier in James Dean’s brief career even though in one respect it parallels his three big features: once again he’s a young man in conflict with a father figure (in Eden and Rebel Without a Cause it was his biological father; in Giant it was his surrogate father Bick Benedict, played by Rock Hudson; and here it’s Kasznar’s character as a surrogate father) whom he idealizes and then realizes has feet of clay. What makes this an outlier in Dean’s work is that he speaks his lines clearly and distinctly instead of affecting the Brandoesque mumble he’d used in East of Eden (and would also employ, albeit less extremely, in his other two starring features) and he’s playing a wholly sympathetic character — as he did in the immediately previous program on the Dean TV box, the Robert Montgomery Theatre’s Harvest. These shows prove that Dean had a wider range as an actor than you’d guess from his features and he could play other things besides alienation. Indeed, it occurred to me from watching this show that had Dean lived into his 30’s “new Bogart” would have been at least as logical a career trajectory for him as “new Brando”; he could have conceivably turned the youthful alienation of his early roles into Bogart-esque world-weariness and soured, but ultimately regained, idealism (just as the real Bogart built on his remarkable early performance in John Ford’s 1930 Up the River into the powerful characterizations of The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and his other great films from the 1940’s). There’s also an odd sense of classism about Run Like a Thief, directed by Jeffrey Hayden from a script by Sam Hall based on a story by Mann Rubin: throughout the show Alexander hails Robbie as a natural waiter and tells him he can look forward to a long career as a headwaiter like the one he’s had — and while this would be a stronger show if Hall had given Dean some lines about how he had broader ambitions and didn’t want to be just a waiter all his life, we do get the sense that these are people who have so totally accepted the class they’re in and mothballed any aspirations for anything better (in 1930’s movies people who were as good at headwaiting as we’re told Alexander is would have told their friends and significant others that their ultimate ambition would be to own a restaurant of their own), and we all too readily understand how possession of that bracelet, however legally dubious and however brief, gives Alexander a sense of belonging to the world of 1-percenters he’s been so faithfully serving without even dreaming, much less hoping, that he could ever be one of them.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Did I Kill My Mother? (Active Entertainment, DARO, Lifetime, 2018)

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

I put on the Lifetime channel for two of their movies, including one advertised as a “premiere” and saddled with the echt-Lifetime title Did I Kill My Mother? Directed by David Bush from a script he wrote with Marcy Holland and Emily Moss Wilaon, Did I Kill My Mother? turned out to be pretty good by Lifetime standards. Significantly imdh.com lists it as a “mystery” rather than a “thriller,” and it’s a genuinely effective mystery in that Bush, Holland and Wilson give us a sufficiently enigmatic crime and a wide variety of suspects with credible motives, and the ending makes sense and doesn’t give us the sense we sometimes have on this channel of a villainous character being brought in at the end as a diabolis ex machina just to resolve the plot. The plot centers around Natalie Romero (Megan Park, an actress I’ve actually heard of before), who until a year before the main action was a highly motivated high-school senior who’d done well on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and was excited about going to law school and following in the footsteps of her dad, a successful attorney. All that ended when dad was killed, ostensibly in an auto accident — he was a recovering alcoholic who had apparently relapsed after five years of sobriety, crashed his car and died — and Natalie stayed at home with her mother Laura (Alicia Davis Johnson) when she wasn’t hanging out at bars, getting way too drunk for her own good (are we supposed to believe alcoholism is genetic? Actually I think there is some research that indicates it might be) and dating a handsome slimeball named Ethan Jones (Jordan Salloum). Mom and Natalie have arguments about her slacking, her drinking and her lousy taste in men, and one night the conflict between them gets so intense that Natalie announces her intent to move out the next morning. Then she goes out to the local bar, Rudy’s, where one of the bartenders is Natalie’s African-American confidante, Shelby (Karina Willis). Knowing the low life expectancy of the heroine’s sidekicks in Lifetime movies, especially when they’re Black, I feared that Shelby wouldn’t make it to the fadeout. Anyway, Natalie gets drunk — so much so that she abandons her car near Rudy’s and walks home rather than risk either driving herself and having an accident (remember that her father died in a car accident while drunk — or at least that’s what both she and we think!) or accepting a ride home from a stranger at the bar. (There’s a nicely hunky bear type named Lawrence who gets thrown out of the bar while Natalie was there, and I wish we’d got to see more of him than just that one scene.) Anyway, when Natalie gets home she goes upstairs to bed, passes out, then gets up the next morning, goes to the kitchen for something to eat, and finds her mother’s dead body, bludgeoned to death with the usual “blunt instrument.”

Natalie calls the police and they duly arrive in the form of sheriff Nick Jackson (Dane Rhodes, who bears a striking resemblance to Dick Van Patten as he looked on Eight Is Enough) and a uniformed officer, though the case eventually gets assigned to detective Monroe (Austin Highsmith — that’s a woman, by the way), who of course is convinced Natalie did kill her mother. Natalie herself is sure she didn’t even though she was drunk all night and therefore can’t say for sure that she didn’t — which Bush, Holland and Wilson make much less of than previous filmmakers using the “I was so drunk last night I can’t be sure I didn’t commit the murder” (including Roy William Neill in his last film, Black Angel, based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, whose final twist is that the man we’ve been led to believe is the innocently accused suspect did commit the murder, then blacked out all knowledge of it) gimmick — and the suspects include Natalie, Ethan, a true-crime writer named Brody Long (Stephen Colletti) who turns up in town to write his next book on the case and worms his way into Natalie’s confidence even though the working title of his manuscript is A Daughter’s Deception — we suspect him not only because he’s the hottest-looking guy in the film but because his books got lousy reviews on amazon.com and we start to think he killed someone himself just to get a better-reviewed book out of it — and Sheriff Jackson himself, who seems so solicitous and protective towards Natalie because he was an old friend of her late father’s we end up thinking he must have some ulterior motive. When he first came on the scene he was attempting to console Natalie in her grief even while keeping such a stiff upper lip I couldn’t help but joke that he was a graduate of the Jack Webb School of Playing a Cop Deadpan, but we begin to wonder after a while if Natalie’s dad had uncovered some horrible corruption scandal involving the local police (incidentally the institution is referred to as “Police Department” on the outside of its building but “Jackson County Sheriff’s Department” on a bulletin board inside, a goof Charles spotted before I did, and the dialogue alternately refers to Nick Jackson as a police chief and a sheriff).

It turns out in the final climax that the scandal was that Sheriff/Police Chief Jackson was on the payroll of an organized-crime family called the Marzati Mob, that they used a lake outside of the town to dump the bodies of their murder victims, and that attorney Andrew Romero (Miles Dorleac, whom we don’t see in the prologue but do see in flashbacks, courtesy of video of himself he left on his computer, by which he essentially reaches out from beyond the grave and tells his daughter to go to law school already) caught on and was about to expose him when Sheriff/Chief Jackson killed him, set it up to look like an auto accident and faked a toxicology report that there was alcohol in his system, then redacted the real toxicology report that would have revealed there wasn’t. The big final scene involves Jackson kidnapping Natalie — he’s killed her dad and her mom (bludgeoning her with one of a set of bookends on her mantel — the close-ups of the books reveal Laura Romero to have had eclectic tastes running from Jane Austen to Lee Child — and taking it, then planting it in Natalie’s car to frame her) and now he’s planning to make it a trifecta, only she’s rescued by her friend Shelby and her new friend Brody Long (for once the handsomest man in a Lifetime movie does not turn out to be the villain!), Detective Monroe catches on and confronts Jackson, he gets her gun away from her but in the meantime Natalie picks up his gun and wounds him with it, and Monroe finally arrests her nominal boss and it looks like Natalie is going to have it all: a family inheritance, a hot boyfriend and a career as a lawyer as soon as she graduates from law school. Despite the clinical title, Did I Kill My Mother? is actually one of the better Lifetime movies I’ve seen lately, a reasonably surprising whodunit (I suspected the sheriff early on but I wasn’t sure because the writers were creative enough in spreading the suspicion around among the characters) with a logical resolution — and thankfully Shelby the usually doomed African-American confidante did make it to the fade-out alive and unscathed!

Prescription for Danger (Incendo Productions/Lifetime, 2018)

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

Alas, the movie Lifetime followed up with, Prescription for Danger, was much more formulaic: Ivy Fisher (Joanne Kelly) and Skyler Parsons (Genelle Williams) are partners in a Web site aimed at working women to give them advice on how to balance career and life, advice which needless to say the unmarried Ivy is unable to follow herself — she’s been known to stay in the office for a day and a half without sleep to finish a tweak to the Web site. On the eve of a major presentation to a couple of venture capitalists who are deciding whether or not to put $10 million into their company, Ivy spills some pills in the bathroom sink and, when she comes out, has a seizure and collapses just before she’s supposed to give the all-important presentation. Skyler fills in for her and they get the money, but meanwhile Ivy has been taken to the hospital, where she’s put in the care of Dr. Mark Ryan (Shaun Benson, easy on the eyes but not as drop-dead gorgeous as some of the Lifetime male villains). Dr. Ryan gives her oxycodone for her migraines but insists on doing an MRI as well, and he tells her the MRI reveals a “glioblastoma multiform,” a malignant brain tumor that, though it isn’t cancerous, is growing at such a rate it will kill her within 12 to 15 months. At a later visit Dr. Ryan tells her that the only alternatives are surgery — too risky for him to recommend it because of where the tumor is in relation to her scalp — or chemo, and having just lost her mom to cancer (mom, we learned later, actually committed suicide because she could no longer stand the painful side effects of chemo) Ivy won’t consider it herself.

Then Dr. Ryan tells her there’s an experimental drug being tried in Europe called VX 2043 (which sounds more like something you add to your gasoline to give your car better mileage) which isn’t FDA-approved, but he has a contact that can get it for him, only she’ll have to pay $12,000 a month for it and it will have to be in cash so there’s no record of him getting her an unapproved treatment for which he could lose his medical license. The two meet in all sorts of unusual locations, including her office and, eventually, her apartment, where they ultimately drift into an affair — and I give credit for writer James Phillips and director Caroline Labrèche making her, not him, the sexual aggressor even though we’ve been told earlier that there’s a previous woman patient of his suing him before the medical board and trying to get his license revoked for having similarly seduced her. After the genuine suspense of Did I Kill My Mother? this one was a return to typical Lifetime slovenliness — we know from the get-go who the good guy (or good girl, actually) is and who the bad guy is, though there’s some uncertainty as to what he’s after and why. We get him giving a Christine Conradt-style explanation that he married a young woman while he was still attending medical school, that she got a similar brain tumor and died within a year, and he’s still mourning her memory and that’s why he’s willing to risk his license and even his freedom to help her with an unapproved med, but later we find out via an Internet search conducted by Ivy’s partner Skyler (ya remember Ivy’s partner Skyler?) that that’s a lie, he’s never been married and he’s conducted this scam with others before.

Though she’s still alive at the fadeout, Skyler isn’t as lucky as the heroine’s African-American confidante in Did I Kill My Mother?; while she’s riding her bike to work one morning (how convenient!) she’s run down by a mysterious man in a car, and while Dr. Ryan has an alibi it turns out he hired someone else to do it, a middle-aged bald guy who looks like the Dick Tracy villain Cueball and was in thrall to Dr. Ryan because he was a drug addict and Ryan was supplying him — only Ryan knifes him to death after he threatens to reveal he not only attacked Skyler but earlier killed the complaining witness against him to the medical board and made it look like suicide. Prescription for Danger is one of those annoying Lifetime movies in which the villain’s behavior, cool and collected in the opening acts, becomes more floridly psychotic as the movie goes on, and it’s hard to believe anyone would think they could get away with that much killing. It ends in Dr. Ryan’s home, where he’s given Ivy a paralyzing drug and intends to force-feed her an overdose of oxycodone so it’ll look like just another accidental death of a pharmaceutical drug addict, only he’s delayed by a police officer named Fowler (Kent McQuaid, who looks like a younger version of the Addams Family’s butler Lurch), which gives Ivy time enough to recover enough to get out of the bed where Ryan left her, get to the edge of his staircase and push him down it when he returns to finish her off. There’s a fascinating final scene in which it turns out Dr. Ryan survived the fall — as Skyler survived her accident and gave Ivy the crucial clues as to what the doc was really up to — but ended up paralyzed and in a wheelchair, and Ivy visits him in the institution where he’s being held and torments him by pushing him to a particularly inaccessible place where he’ll be stuck. Prescription for Danger is an O.K. Lifetime movie but we do get the impression that we’ve seen it all before — and we don’t even get a soft-core porn scene of Shaun Benson and Joanne Kelly getting it on, though we do get a nice shot of them in bed together post-coitally and it includes a choice look-see of him shirtless.

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!