Monday, December 31, 2018

The Stepfather (Screen Gems, Maverick Films, Imprint Entertainment, 2009)

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

Last night’s Lifetime feature — blessedly returning the channel to the “pussies in peril” (Maureen Dowd’s term) thrillers they show the rest of the year instead of the treacly holiday fare they give forth with in late November and most of December — was The Stepfather, a 2009 made-for-TV remake of a 1987 big-screen thriller of the same title that turned out to be surprisingly good. The film starts with a man packing his bags to leave his home on an extended trip, making himself a cup of coffee and a slice of toast he leaves way too long in the toaster (until he put peanut butter on it he reminded me of me!) after he’s shaved off his beard, and calmly leaving the place. We see that the license plate on his car identifies the locale as Utah, just after we get a pan shot of his living room to see a woman and three children all massacred therein. The Salt Lake City cops who get the call on this macabre crime scene note that the killer, whoever he might have been, left no clues as to his identity and made sure to wipe everything down so he wouldn’t leave fingerprints. Since the victims were a recently widowed woman and the three children she’d had with her late husband (only three? In Utah?), the woman detective in charge of the investigation deduces that they have a psycho serial killer on their hands and unless they catch him within 48 hours, he could end up anywhere. “Anywhere” turns out to be Portland, Oregon (once again director Nelson McCormick gives us a shot of a license plate to tell us what state we’re in), where said killer, using the name David Harris (Dylan Walsh), stages a meet-cute in a supermarket with his latest victim, recently separated mom Susan Harding (Sela Ward, whose performance was criticized by an user reviewer but whose dorky acting makes the character’s absurd naïveté believable). Susan falls head over heels in love with him from the get-go but his kids are somewhat less impressed with their new potential stepdad — especially since their real father, Jay Harding (Jon Tenney), is still very much in the picture, enjoying regular visitation rights before he tears off on one of the many out-of-town trips he takes for his job, though precisely what he does for a living isn’t specified in the script by J. S. Cardone (adapting the earlier screenplay by Donald E. Westlake, a writer of suspense novels with some at least semi-major credits to his name).

Susan’s and Jay’s eldest son Michael (Penn Badgley, a cast member of Gossip Girl and the boyfriend of Miley Cyrus, Zoe Kravitz and his Gossip Girl co-star Blake Lively before he ended up marrying someone named Domino Kirke in February 2017) is the immediate recipient of David’s most obvious attempts at male bonding — David offers Michael a glass of tequila he keeps hidden in a locked cabinet in the Hardings’ basement (the Hardings’ home has so many secret passages leading to both an attic and a basement one wonders if one of the former art directors for Universal’s horror classics was its architect) — but Michael is immediately suspicious of him. So is Susan’s youngest child, son Sean (Braeden Lemasters), who understandably complains to dad when David, responding to Susan’s request that Sean turn the volume of his video game down, enters Sean’s room and literally grabs the controller for the game out of his hand. Jay responds by bursting in the home when he’s there to pick up Sean and the middle child, sister Beth (Skyler Samuels), for his weekend with them and telling David that he’ll kill him if David ever lays hands on one of his kids again. Michael asks Jay to check out David’s background and David responds by overpowering Jay, dragging him down to the basement — lined with secret compartments in which David presumably keeps all manner of sinister objects that might link him to his past — knocking him out with a crystal bowl (which, ironically, was a wedding present to the Hardings from Jay’s sister way back when) and then tying a plastic bag over his head, killing him. In one of the movie’s many unusually macabre (at least for a Lifetime movie) moments, he’s doing this just as Michael is asking if he can come to the basement and David is putting him off with various excuses.

David also kills Mrs. Cutter (Nancy Linehan Charles), an elderly local neighbor lady who keeps a lot of cats (to which Susan is intensely allergic, though the script makes surprisingly little of that plot point) because she’s gone onto the Web site of America’s Most Wanted and identified him as Grady Edwards, the suspect in those family murders back in Utah (ya remember those family murders back in Utah?), and while he leaves Mrs. Cutter’s body to be discovered by her niece two days later and her death written off as an accident, he stuffs Jay’s into a big white freezer in the basement in which he also keeps more normal, less sinister frozen goods. Michael and his girlfriend, Kelly Porter (Amber Heard) — whom we mostly meet clad either in a white T-shirt and white panties or a bikini, the better for the delectation of any straight guys who might be watching this (just as this old Gay guy was having a lot of fun watching Penn Badgley play most of his role wearing nothing but bathing shorts, and when the knives came out literally at the end my main concern was he might get slashed and end up with a scar across that beautiful smooth chest of his, with enviably well-defined nipples, he’d been showing off all movie!) — get into arguments because she wants them to fill out college applications together (they’ve known each other since grade school and sort of slipped into a potentially sexual relationship and she wants them to go to college together) while all he wants to do is investigate this strange man who’s horned (in both senses, though darnit we don’t get any soft-core porn scenes between Dylan Walsh and Sela Ward) in on his mom.

David has tried to cover by using Jay’s cell phone to send Michael text messages allegedly from his dad (who’s actually dead in the Hardings’ big freezer) saying that he’s checked out David and David is O.K. There’s also a friend of Susan’s named Jackie Kerns (Paige Turco) who briefly hired David as a real-estate salesperson, only he abruptly quit when she insisted that he had to provide identification documents for tax purposes and to establish who he was so he could legally work. She meets the same fate that befalls anyone else who gets suspicious of David; he comes over to her house one night and drowns her in her own swimming pool. The big climax occurs at the Hardings’ home, once Michael has discovered first his dad’s attaché case in one of David’s secret storage lockers, then dad himself in the freezer, and David gives Susan a sleeping pill so he can do her in without her being able to fight back, only she fights off the effects of it well enough that she stabs David in the neck just as he’s about to kill Michael, and in the end Michael and the wounded David end up in a fight to the death on the house’s roof, all this taking place in a driving rainstorm, and at the end both fall off. Matthew ends up in a coma with mom and his girlfriend Kelly (ya remember his girlfriend Kelly?) nursing him back to health and consciousness, but the final scene is one of those irritating the-villain-gets-away-with-it tags that were innovative and shocking on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV shows in the 1950’s but now are just annoying: David a.k.a. Grady, now calling himself “Chris Ames,” is in another city, cruising a grocery store (doesn’t he meet his potential victims anywhere else?), when he comes across another young woman, widowed and with her late husband’s kids …

The Stepfather is actually one of the better Lifetime movies — its theatrical-film pedigree may help here (especially given that we know from the get-go that David is a killer — Westlake and Cardone didn’t play coy and have us think he’s a nice guy for the first few acts — and the violent scenes have an over-the-top Gothic quality rare in a Lifetime film) and so may the fact that it was still 2009 and the conventions of the Lifetime movie hadn’t yet hardened into the predictable clichés they’ve become now. It does suffer somewhat from the fact that the three central male characters look an awful lot alike — it’s nice that the actor playing Michael’s father looks enough like him that it’s believable they’re father and son, but Jon Tenney looks enough like a slightly larger, more rugged version of Dylan Walsh it’s not easy to tell them apart until the script dispatches Tenney’s character about a third of the way through. Still, The Stepfather is an entertaining thriller diversion (and not just for the frequent glimpses of Penn Badgley’s almost unclad bod!) that maintains suspense and excitement all the way while at the same time making David a villain of such precision one wonders how on earth they’re going to triumph over him!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Adwan, Moody & Van der Horst: Orfeo & Majnun (Theatre La Monnaie, Brussels, July 8, 2018)

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

Charles and I came home from dinner and I announced that our movie selection would be, in the immortal words of Monty Python, “something completely different.” It turned out to be a download of a modern opera called Orfeo & Majnun (given the multilingual and multicultural nature of the production — more on that later — I’m not sure which of the three languages used that “&” should be translated into!) which was produced by the Theatre La Monnaie in Brussels and was the culmination of several months’ worth of events, some of them open to public participation, built around the themes of desire and longing and in particular about two mythic couples who lost each other through forces beyond their control. One, Orpheus and Eurydice, you’ve almost certainly heard about: Orpheus was the master musician of ancient Greece who became engaged to Eurydice, only she died suddenly the day before their scheduled wedding. Orpheus charmed Hades, the Greek god of death (and also the name for the physical underground afterlife the ancient Greeks believed they were going to when they croaked — interestingly the Greeks did not, as the Abrahamic religions did, posit two afterlives, a pleasant one for the “good” people and a highly nasty one of eternal suffering for the “bad” people), into letting him descend into the kingdom of the dead and bring Eurydice back to Earth and to normal life. Only Hades told him that he was not supposed to look back at her when they made the journey from the underworld to Earth, and when he did so she immediately disappeared from his sight and died permanently. This legend, especially given that the hero was a musician and singer, was a “natural” for the early opera composers, and while Carlo Gagliano’s La Dafne from 1600 is the earliest opera known to exist, it is the L’Orfeo of  Claudio Monteverdi from 1607 that is the earliest opera actually in the modern repertory. The other story they drew on for this production is more obscure — frankly, before this I’d only heard of it as the basis of Eric Clapton’s song “Layla” — a Bedouin Arab story about the well-born Layla al-Aamiriya and her lover, the penniless poet Qays ibn al-Mulawwah. Unfortunately, Layla’s dad didn’t want her to “marry down” and so he arranged for her to marry an upper-class guy, and Qays became so obsessed with her he stalked her and wrote poems to her, being so aggressive in his pursuit he acquired the nickname “Majnun” (literally the Arabic for “crazy,” though since the Majnun and Leyla story became popular it’s come to mean specifically someone made crazy by frustrated love. Though the basic story is Arabic in origin, the most famous literary treatment of it (and the one that “froze” its details for future writers and scholars much the way Bram Stoker’s Dracula did for European vampire mythology) was a 12th century poetic novel by Persian writer Niāmi Ganjavi.

The Theatre La Monnaie’s presentation of Layla & Majnun involved three composers — Moneim Adwan, Howard Moody and Dick van der Horst — though only one credited librettist, Martina Winkel, and with Airan Berg in overall artistic charge of the work. It also involved three languages: a narrator (Sachii Gholamalizad) and chorus sing in French, while Orpheus (the quite hunky Yoann Dubruque) and Eurydice (Judith Fa) sing in English — I guess there aren’t that many singers out there trained to sing in classical Greek — and Majnun (Loay Srouji) and Layla (Nai Barghouti) sing in what I presume is Arabic (though given the story’s detour into 12th century Persia it might have been Farsi). Throughout the performance I kept thinking of the Fanfare magazine critic who wrote that if modern-day opera producers and directors want to create productions that deal with modern-day social, political and psychological issues, they should commission new works with those concerns built-in rather than attempting to tweak old operas to include such themes, violating the original intentions of composers and librettists. Orfeo & Majnun seemed like a successful effort to do just that — to take the age-old dramatic themes of love and desire and create a work rooted in operatic tradition but also fully contemporary and with a sense that the production is communicating what the work’s creators intended instead of some directorial agenda grafted on decades or centuries after the piece was originally written. It also offered an interesting insight into the surprising similarity between Western-style coloratura composition and traditional Arabic music, especially the way both call on singers to do extensive ornamentation over many notes on a single vowel.

The performance dragged in places, and one element — the crude puppets (with their human manipulators clearly visible on stage) used to denote the animals that figure in the tale — seemed almost risible, but for the most part I was impressed. Charles complained that Judith Fa and Nai Barghouti looked too similar — Barghouti was shorter, stouter and bushier-haired, but they were not only similar “types,” they were both wearing white dresses and Charles thought the producers should have costumed them in different colors so we could tell them apart before they started singing and we noted which language they were singing in. It didn’t help that La Monnaie was performing this in an outdoor venue and as a result the singers had to wear microphones stuck to their cheeks that looked like tumors until you realized what they were — but I liked the production overall. No doubt I’d have liked it even better if it had come with English subtitles (it was subtitled in French) — even the parts that were in English were only sporadically comprehensible (a problem with coloratura music in general — though I still remember the 1959 broadcast recording of Handel’s Rodelinda in English in which Joan Sutherland was her usual mush-mouthed self and Janet Baker, in a supporting role, had excellent and vividly clear English diction) — but Orfeo & Majnun is a quite compelling new opera and I hope it has sufficient “legs” to be given more stagings, hopefully with the choral parts and the narration performed in the native language of the country where it’s being performed (much the way Stravinsky composed Oedipus Rex in Latin but specified that the narration be in the language of the country where it’s being performed).

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Wagner: Das Rheingold (Leeds, England: Opera North, 2016)

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

Last night I ran a recent download of a performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, first of the four parts of the Ring cycle, from Opera North in Leeds, England in 2016. I had made two mistaken assumptions about this performance: first, I had thought it would be staged and instead it was a “concert performance,” with the orchestra on stage behind the singers and everyone clad in normal business attire. Second, and much more disappointing, I had assumed that since this was a TV broadcast from an English-speaking country it would have English subtitles, which it didn’t, though there were occasional summary titles giving the basics of the story in language that seemed consciously designed to relate it to that “other” Ring cycle. The show was produced and directed by Peter Mumford for an enterprise called Scene TV, and though it was a concert performance and regrettably unsubtitled (albeit I know the story of Rheingold well enough that I was able to follow it and register when the Big Moments were happening), it also turned out to be quite good. None of the cast members are world-renowned stars — the principals are Michael Druiett (Wotan), Jo Pohlheim — that’s a guy (Alberich), Richard Howard (Mime), Yvonne Howard (Fricka) and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Loge) —but they all had fresh and stirring voices, there were no wobbles or “Bayreuth barks” (fortunately the idea that you can’t sing lyrically and beautifully just because you’re singing Wagner seems to have died out long ago), and they related to each other in ways star casts flown in from all over the world for a single production or set of recording sessions often don’t. There were risible aspects to Rheingold in concert — in matching blue dresses, the rather zaftig Rhinemaidens (Jeni Bern as Woglinde, Madeleine Shaw as Wellgunde and Sarah Castle as Flosshilde) looked even more like what Anna Russell called them, “aquatic Andrews Sisters,” than usual, and the screens behind the performers were used for projections of special effects, including surfaces of water (which had Charles complaining that it still didn’t look like the Rhinemaidens were in the Rhine as the libretto specified — but then the bizarre merry-go-round contraption Wagner spun them around in when the Ring premiered at Bayreuth in 1876 was probably even sillier) and vague psychedelic effects supposedly representing the shifts in scene from one locale to another.

Das Rheingold is in one continuous act (though after Wagner died someone rewrote it to be in two acts for theatres, like the Met in the 1930’s, which were contractually obligated under their deal with whoever ran their refreshment counters to provide at least one intermission) but four separate scenes: in act I Alberich, one of the Nibelung dwarfs who live underground in a giant cavern called Nibelheim, comes to the surface because he’s horny and wants one or more of the Rhinemaidens to have sex with him. They find him, as Anna Russell put it in her famous parody of the Ring, “excessively unattractive” and reject him. Just then the first ray of morning sun falls on the Rhinegold, a lump of gold hidden in a rock under the Rhine’s surface, and the Rhinemaidens make the mistake of telling Alberich that anyone who steals this gold and turns it into a ring can rule the world — but only if he first renounces love. Alberich renounces love, steals the gold, makes the ring and uses its power to enslave the other Nibelungs, including his long-suffering brother Mime. The scene then shifts to the mountains in which the gods dwell. Wotan, the principal god (Odin in the original Norse myths on which the Ring was based), has just commissioned a giant castle for the gods called Valhalla. He hired the giants Fasolt (James Creswell) and Fafner (Mats Almgren) to build it for him (incidentally, in this odd concert performance the giants are the best-dressed males in the dramatis personae), only in exchange he rashly promised to hand over to the giants Fricka’s sister Freia (Giselle Allen), who tends the tree of golden apples which the gods have to eat to remain immortal. Without Freia the gods start aging and getting weak, and so Wotan has to go back to the giants to see if there’s anything else they’ll accept in payment so he can get Freia back and restore the gods’ immortality. Just then Loge — who in this version is neither the trickster god of the original legends (by coincidence earlier in the evening Charles and I had watched a Jeopardy! episode in which the Final Jeopardy clue was about Norse mythology and specifically the legend that Loki, the original spelling of his name, had turned himself into a female horse and given birth to an eight-legged steed which was Odin’s favorite ride, though it’s hard to imagine Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as either transspecific or transgender!) nor the out-and-out villain of the Mighty Thor comic books and the films based on them — appears as Wotan’s consigliere and tells him that the Rhinemaidens are complaining to the gods that their Rhinegold was stolen and they want the gods to recover it for them.

Wotan and Loge hit on the idea that if they can trick Alberich into giving up the Rhinegold and the treasure he’s used the ring’s power to amass for himself, that might be enough to bribe the giants into giving back Freia. So they descend into Nibelheim — where Alberich is just now playing with his new toy, the Tarnhelm, a helmet Mime gave him that enables its wearer to become invisible and also to shape-shift. (Charles once told me that one big difference between Wagner’s Ring and Tolkien’s is that in Tolkien’s the Ring and the Tarnhelm are the same object.) Wotan and Loge challenge him to become first a serpent and then a frog, and in frog guise they capture him and drag him back to the mountainside where the gods have been dwelling while waiting for their giant contractors to finish Valhalla already. (Though this is a concert performance, Alberich’s transformations are suggested by changing the lighting on his face and having him push back his hair — and when he’s supposed to be a frog the lights on him appropriately turn green.) In the finale the giants return Freia to the gods but insist that they’ll only exchange her if the treasure is piled high enough above her that they can’t see any part of her. Wotan is O.K. with giving up the treasure but he understandably wants to keep the Tarnhelm and especially the ring, but he has to sacrifice the Tarnhelm to cover Freia’s face and then the giants say they can still see a glint of her hair through the pile of gold. They demand that Wotan give them the ring, Wotan is reluctant and then the earth goddess Erda (Claudia Huckle), whom Anna Russell described as “a green-faced torso coming out of the ground” but who in this production is, rather disconcertingly, the most physically attractive woman in the cast, comes on the scene and tells Wotan, “Weiche, Wotan, weiche,” which means “Be careful, Wotan, be careful.” She tells him that he has to give up the ring to fulfill the destiny of the gods, and he does so. The opera ends with Wotan and the rest of the gods ascending the rainbow bridge to Valhalla (built by Donner, the German name for Thor, who gets to sing one of the score’s towering lyrical moments, “Heda! Heda! Hedo!”) to move in to their new home, while the Rhinemaidens complain that truth lies only under the water and “false and fake are those who dwell above.”

The Leeds Opera Rheingold was actually quite good, blessed with a conductor, Richard Farnes, who does not subscribe to the currently accepted view of Wagner that his scores will sound more “spiritual” and “profound” if played very, ve-e-e-e-ery slowly. His Rheingold times out at 2 hours 32 minutes (one recent CD Rheingold with Mark Elder as conductor is so slow it required three CD’s instead of the usual two), and he’s got a fully competent cast — no one particularly stands out but no one embarrasses the side, either. It’s true that Yvonne Howard doesn’t sing Fricka with the riveting authority Kirsten Flagstad brought to the part in Georg Solti’s legendary 1958 recording — but then, who has? It doesn’t help that the anvils that are supposed to heard at the beginning and the end of the Nibelheim scene are simulated with metal blocks — for the 1958 recording Solti and producer John Culshaw borrowed 18 real anvils from something called an anvil school in Vienna (Culshaw said in his memoir Ring Resounding, “To this day I have no idea what goes on at the anvil school, or what career you adopt when you have graduated there, but we were grateful for its existence”) and created the sort of spectacular din Wagner no doubt had in mind — and the fluttering hand gesture Ablinger-Sperrhacke makes through much of his part just looks stupid (the producers also had Michael Druiett pantomime yanking the ring off Jo Pohlheim’s finger, not to particularly good effect), but overall this Rheingold, even without subtitles, made an effect and was true to Wagner’s genius. Wagner remains my favorite composer of all time (with J. S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Debussy filling out my pantheon), and this Rheingold showed off not only his skill at tying together huge spans of music but skillfully scoring every bit of action and making it clear what’s going on. It’s no wonder that the film composers of Hollywood’s classic era copied Wagner more than anyone else — particularly his Leitmotif technique of associating each person, place and event in his story with a little bit of music so you would associate those notes with that character or situation whenever they appeared, which proved an economical means of tying together a film as well as an opera. Wagner lives, and productions like this Rheingold show that the world is still producing singers and conductors capable of doing justice to his musical dramas.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

“Star Trek,” Season Three: Four Episodes (Paramount, Norway Corporation, NBC-TV, 1968-1969)

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

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi movie screening in Golden Hill ( was a follow-up to two previous events at which the proprietor pulled together the four highest-rated on episodes of the first two seasons of the original Star Trek series on NBC from 1966 to 1969. Last night he showed the most highly rated shows from Star Trek’s third and last season, one of the most controversial parts of the whole Star Trek canon because it entered the world under less than optimal conditions. Disappointed in the low ratings and high production costs of Star Trek, NBC ordered the show canceled after its second season. Then a woman named Bjo Trimble started a public petition campaign to get people to write NBC and plead with them to keep the show on the air, and for the first time in TV history a major network relented and restored to the schedule a show that had been canceled because of public pressure to retain it. Alas, NBC and Star Trek’s creator and executive producer, Gene Roddenberry, then had a public pissing contest over just when Star Trek would appear on the TV schedule; instead of keeping it on in the previous season’s time slot, Fridays at 8 p.m., they moved it to Fridays at 10 p.m. Roddenberry knew that this would be the kiss of death for the show, and at one point he threatened that if NBC kept it at such a hopeless time slot he would withdraw from direct creative participation and appoint another person to produce and be the show runner. NBC called his bluff and, in order to maintain his credibility with the network on potential future projects, Roddenberry picked Fred Freiberger as the new Star Trek show runner.

Freiberger’s best-known previous credit was producing the 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, loosely based on Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Foghorn” — in the book It Came from Hollywood, containing the original story sources for a number of 1940’s and 1950’s science-fiction films, there’s a marvelous essay by Bradbury telling how Freiberger tried to hire him to do a rewrite of the script for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Bradbury read the script they wanted him to revise, noticed the similarity between it and his old story and threatened to sue. They gave him a token payment for the rights and the final film listed Bradbury as the author of the original story and Freiberger and Lou Morheim as the screenwriters. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a mediocre movie whose only saving grace is the marvelous Ray Harryhausen animation of the title character, a revivified dinosaur who emerges from the sea after a nuclear bomb test. (Bradbury was much better served by Hollywood in 1953 through Universal-International’s It Came from Outer Space, with a screenplay by Harry Essex from an outline by Bradbury that apparently contained most of the film’s dialogue, and direction by Jack Arnold that matched the quiet strength of Bradbury’s writing.) Anyway, thanks to Roddenberry’s step-down as show runner and his replacement by the schlock-meister Freiberger, the third season of the original Star Trek has had a bad rep over the years that it may partially deserve (the third-season opener, “Spock’s Brain,” in which a woman steals the titular organ for purposes the script, at least as I dimly recall it, never made clear, is generally considered the worst-ever original Star Trek episode), but three of the four episodes shown last night are among the very best of the original series and show the skills of Roddenberry’s writers (plus at least some of the first-timers Freiberger hired) at weaving tightly knit tales and sneaking in social and political commentary on the issues of that turbulent time in the guise of science fiction. It’s also interesting that, despite the continuing desire on the part of NBC for more “planet shows” — more episodes actually taking place on alien worlds and fewer confined to the interior of the starship Enterprise — the three good episodes shown last night were all “ship shows.” They were:

The Enterprise Incident (September 27, 1968): A tightly-knit tale of ambiguous morality which begins with Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) apparently going paranoid and ordering his ship into the Romulan Neutral Zone on his own authority, and then past the Neutral Zone into Romulan space, thereby risking war between the United Federation of Planets and the Romulans. This has one of the most infamous cop-out lines in TV history — the appearance of the Romulans flying a Klingon battle cruiser and Spock’s [Leonard Nimoy] sudden explanation, “Intelligence reports that Romulans are now using Klingon design.” The page for this episode on lists two contradictory explanations for this: one that it was caused by an accident when a member of the film crew stepped on the model of a Romulan starship and broke it, and since it couldn’t be repaired in time the filmmakers used a Klingon model instead; and the other that writer D. C. Fontana intended the Romulan ship to be based on a Klingon design from the get-go. (One “Goofs” poster said that in this episode the Romulans have a ship capable of faster-than-light “warp speed” travel where in the episode from season one that originally introduced the Romulans, “Balance of Terror,” they only had impulse rockets — which somewhat contradicts the impression I had from both the TV episode “Balance of Terror” and James Blish’s short-story adaptation of it that the Romulans had used their resemblance to Vulcans to infiltrate Starfleet and steal the full monty of Federation warp-drive technology — but if the Romulans hadn’t had a ship capable of warp drive before that would be one explanation of why they bought one off-the-shelf from the Klingons.) D. C. Fontana was one of the very best of Star Trek’s original writers; her real name was Dorothy Fontana but, like quite a few women writers before (and since: does the name “J. K. Rowling” mean anything to you?), she concealed her gender by signing her scripts with initials — and as she explained when Charles and I heard her speak at the 2016 ConDor science-fiction convention, where she was the guest of honor to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek, it was so she could sell action-adventure scripts to producers who would have pigeonholed her as a sitcom and soap-opera writer if they’d known that “D. C. Fontana” was a woman. 

“The Enterprise Incident” was apparently inspired by the capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo by North Korea just two months before Fontana wrote the script; and, like the Pueblo, the Enterprise actually is on an espionage mission: the aim of the whole endeavor is to steal the “cloaking device” by which the Romulans can render themselves and their ships invisible and undetectable by enemy sensors. (An earlier, less effective version of the cloaking device appeared in “Balance of Terror.”) The episode features the first woman starship commander in Star Trek history (in the later spinoffs, as more women worked themselves into positions of power and authority in real life, the Federation as well as its enemies acquired women commanders): identified only as “Romulan Commander,” she’s played by Joanna Linville, and it’s a real shock when we see that she’s running the Romulan ship and Tal (Jack Donner), the Romulan representative who appeared on the Enterprise’s view screen to tell Kirk and his officers that they needed to depart Romulan space immediately or face destruction, is merely her second-in-command. There are some quite chilling and well-done seduction scenes in which Linville attempts to seduce Spock, pointing to the shared heritage of Romulans and Vulcans as twin spinoffs from the same ancient race, and suggesting that Spock’s talents are being wasted by being first officer to a mere human and if he defects to the Romulans, they’ll give him a ship of his own to command. 

At the demand of the Romulans, Spock and Kirk have beamed into the Romulan flagship — with two Romulan red-shirts beaming to the Enterprise as reciprocal hostages — and to establish his bona fides as a defector Spock gives Kirk a “Vulcan death grip” and apparently kills him. Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley, who in the third season got a co-equal credit title of his own right after William Shatner’s and Leonard Nimoy’s) demands to be transported to the Romulan ship to look after Kirk, but when he gets there Kirk is apparently “dead” — though not really, since there is no such thing as a “Vulcan death grip” and all Spock did to Kirk was give him a nerve pinch that put him under for a few hours and made him look dead. (Afterwards McCoy acidly observes that for Kirk’s sake it’s a good thing the Romulans didn’t decide to give him an autopsy.) The ending shows Kirk, after a quickie plastic-surgery job to give him the pointy ears and tilted eyebrows of a Romulan (or a Vulcan), infiltrating the Romulan ship in disguise and stealing the cloaking device, following which in order to get out of Romulan space before the commander’s flagship and the two other Romulan vessels in their fighting group can annihilate the Enterprise, engineer James Montgomery Scott (James Doohan) has to figure out how to install it and make it work so the Enterprise can use the cloaking device to escape the Romulans. “The Enterprise Incident” is a tough-minded, excellently plotted, well directed (by Marvin Chomsky) and acted by the irreplaceable Star Trek cast — for once William Shatner’s overacting makes sense given that he’s pretending to be crazy in the opening scenes!

Day of the Dove (November 1, 1968): Once again directed by Marvin Chomsky, this time from a script by Jerome Bixby, in some respects “Day of the Dove” is an even more striking and politically aware comment on then-current events than “The Enterprise Incident.” The Enterprise shows up at a planet in response to a distress call from a Federation colony, only when they arrive they find not only no survivors but no evidence that a colony ever existed. Then Captain Kirk and his key officers are confronted with a Klingon battle cruiser commanded by Kang (Michael Ansara), who insists that 100 Klingons were just killed by a Federation sneak attack on the ship — exactly the same number as the colonists supposedly killed on the planet whom Kirk was trying to rescue. While all this is going on we see a mysterious ball of flickering lights hovering around in space — the lights are normally white but they glow orange and then red as the humans and the Klingons get angrier at each other. Klingon commander Kang and his second-in-command, his wife Mara (Susan Howard) — the first female Klingon ever depicted on Star Trek — board the Enterprise and insists on taking her over as a prize of war and compensation for the attack on their ship. Eventually — though it takes them long enough — both sides realize that they’re being provoked into combat by the alien ball of light, which is a pure-energy life form that feeds on hatred and fear and which has worked it out so that there are 38 humans (including the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock) and 38 Klingons on board and able to fight (the others in the Enterprise’s 400-person crew are locked behind bulkheads), and the alien has destroyed all modern weapons on both sides and given them swords, spears, maces and other medieval weapons to fight each other in hand-to-hand combat. 

The alien won’t even let the combatants on either side die: if a Klingon kills a human, or vice versa, the alien will revive the slain fighter so the war can continue. Eventually Kirk and Kang realize that the only way they can drive the alien away is to bring peace and love to each other, and though fortunately they stop short of singing “Kumbaya” (I was actually dreading that Bixby would have Kirk say, “I remember a song from 20th Century Earth that people used to sing when they wanted to make peace with each other … ”), they manage to pull enough warm affection between them that the alien gives up and goes away. The parallels between the story and the real-life Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and also with the pointless proxy war the U.S. was fighting in Viet Nam (where we were literally throwing hundreds of thousands of troops into an attempt to suppress a national liberation struggle under the guise of “fighting Communism” and stopping the “dominoes” from falling — with the ironic result that we lost the military struggle but eventually won the peace: today Viet Nam is a haven for capitalists who want to make their stuff in Third World sweatshops and think Chinese workers are now overpaid), are obvious in Bixby’s writing, and the overall message of this show is, as Rodney King said a decade and a half later, “Can’t we all just get along?”

The Tholian Web (November 15, 1968): Written by Judy Burns (apparently this was her first produced screenplay; she was still a college student and used the money from it to go on a study trip to Africa) and Chet Richards (her husband), and directed by Herb Wallerstein (and an uncredited Ralph Senensky, who had worked on previous Star Trek shows but was fired from this one in mid-shoot), this is yet another Enterprise-confined episode and another tough battle of wills between the Federation crew and an alien. The Enterprise has been called out to a corner of space to rescue a sister starship, the Defiant, only the Defiant has been caught in “interspace,” an area in which two space-time continuua come in contact with each other and objects — including a starship, or a human body — can disappear from one and reappear into another. As if that weren’t plot enough (the way they packed this script full of story lines Mr. and Mrs. Richards seem like they were warming up for the Law and Order shows!), the interspace area is right next to the space of the Tholian Assembly, an enemy we learn very little about in this show but who became significant adversaries on some of the later Star Trek spinoffs. The one Tholian we see, giving Kirk and the Enterprise crew to get the hell out of his space fast or face annihilation, looks like a kid smeared brightly colored paints all over his teddy bear, but the titular “Tholian Web” gets spun out of energy beams and, if completed, will entrap the Enterprise — which can’t leave because they have to wait for the next time the two space-time continnua come into contact with each other so they can beam Captain Kirk aboard again. 

Four Enterprise crew members beamed aboard the hulk of the Defiant but the limited energy field or something meant that only three could come back before the space-time continnua diverged again, and as temporary commander Spock had to hold the Enterprise in place until they made contact with each other so they could retrieve Kirk — who’s floating in outer space in one of the most ridiculously tacky spacesuits ever put on film by a major studio (Paramount, who by this time had acquired Desilu Productions, Star Trek’s original producing company — that’s right: it was Lucille Ball, of all people, who originally green-lighted Star Trek after MGM and other more prestigious studios had turned it down!), complete with a mesh visor that looked O.K. on the black-and-white and low-resolution color TV’s of the 1960’s but just seems tacky today. (We were watching the Star Trek episodes on a Blu-Ray boxed set that ballyhooed versions with revised special effects — though the effects don’t look that different and the improved resolution of Blu-Ray just showed up some of the short-cuts the original producers thought they could get away with, not realizing that some day these shows would be viewed on big screens in high-resolution formats.) Also the effects of interspace create a mental illness among the Enterprise crew members that make them become paranoid and attack each other — it’s established that the Defiant suffered a similar fate: like the legendary 19th century ship the Marie Celeste, it was found with all its crew members dead, and in the Defiant’s case (buffs are still arguing about why and how the Marie Celeste drifted into port with all its crew members dead) it’s because that mysterious mental illness made them all kill each other. 

So McCoy and his lab assistants, including long-suffering Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett, who was originally cast as the female second-in-command, “Number One,” on the first Star Trek pilot, only 1960’s audiences reacted negatively to the idea of a woman authority figure — that again — but the test screenings said the audiences liked the actress, so Gene Roddenberry found another role for her as McCoy’s nurse[1]), have to come up with an antidote, which they make out of a nerve gas called Theragen that was originally used by the Klingons as a chemical weapon — it’s deadly when inhaled directly but it can be dissolved in alcohol that renders it non-toxic but effective in treating the mental distortions caused by exposure to interspace — and what results is an orange fluid whose resemblance to Tang didn’t escape the viewers at our screening (its proprietor even has a large container of Tang on hand so audience members can imbibe what became the more-or-less official drink of NASA) and which engineer Scott, the hardest-drinking member of the original Enterprise crew, seizes on, drinks more of than he needs and mixes with Scotch to get drunk. There’s also a lot of infighting between Spock and McCoy in Kirk’s absence, a tape Kirk left behind before he disappeared to be viewed by Spock and McCoy if he died to tell them to get along and respect each other’s authority, and even a memorial service for Kirk when the crew members think he’s dead (the largest crowd scene of Enterprise crew members ever done in the original Star Trek). Though a bit overcrowded in the sheer plethora of plot lines, and with a not very effective resolution (once they recover Kirk, alive, well and glad to be among fellow humans again instead of alone in the interspace universe, the Enterprise does a slingshot maneuver through the interspace and emerges safely away from the Tholians — ya remember the Tholians?), “The Tholian Web” is a nice, tight ensemble drama representing the original Star Trek at close to its best.

All Our Yesterdays (March 14, 1969): The one “planet show” of the four and the only clunker in the bunch, written by Jean Lisette Aroeste and directed by Marvin Chomsky (again!), a time-travel episode in which Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to the planet Sarpedion, whose sun, Beta Niobe, is about to go supernova and obliterate it. Thinking their services are needed to mount a rescue operation to save any remaining Sarpedians, the three find that there’s only one person left on the planet, Atoz (Ian Wolfe), who along with at least two robot replicas of himself (I joked that they could have been called Btoz and Ctoz, though apparently writer Aroeste was working in a library when she wrote this and meant the name as “A to Z”), who has supervised the relocation of the entire planet, not to somewhere else in space but to the planet’s own past. Atoz has a bunch of metal discs that each contains a record of an era in Sarpedion’s past and can be used to travel there, but only if one is first “prepared” — a mysterious requirement that only becomes significant later. The discs themselves are metal, have no spindle holes and are about twice as thick as CD’s but have about the same surface area. The episode’s plot as it develops has a striking resemblance to the legendary episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” but the differences only show the yawning quality gap between Harlan Ellison and Jean Lisette Aroeste as writers: like Ellison, Aroeste arranges for one of the three Enterprise officers to beam into one past era while the other two end up somewhere else (in “The City on the Edge of Forever” it was actually the same era but at different times). 

Kirk gets accused of witchcraft in a past that resembles 17th century England, with its fops and its witch scares, and he’s accused of witchcraft when he’s overheard talking to Spock and McCoy — who are in the planet’s ice age until they’re rescued by Zarabeth (Mariette Hartley, a talented, sensitive actress wasted here in a silly role). Zarabeth was a political prisoner of the government of Sarpedion so she was sent to the ice age as her punishment — the time-travel equivalent of exile to Siberia — and she was given just the bare minimum of food and clothing (her all-in-one tunic seemed to be going for the same appeal to straight teenage guys as Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years, B.C.) but apparently all the home permanent kits she can use, since her hair has a wave that is very obviously the work of a stylist. (This reminds me of the earlier version of One Million, B.C. in which the cave people were still hunter-gatherers but they had somehow managed to invent the push-up bra.) Five thousand years out of his normal time, Spock reverts to the barbarian origins of Vulcans, who were originally a warlike race who nearly destroyed themselves and their planet until they learned to discipline themselves and run their lives and their society by logic. (This was an aspect of the Star Trek universe dreamed up not by Gene Roddenberry but by Leonard Nimoy: in Roddenberry’s original prospectus Vulcans were instinctively logical and always had been, but when asked to write a backstory for Spock Nimoy came up with the idea that Vulcans had learned to live logically only as a form of self-discipline to keep from destroying themselves — and Roddenberry liked the idea so much he incorporated it into the official Star Trek guide.) 

Spock’s reversion to a pre-logical Vulcan existence is exhibited when he takes the meat Zarabeth proffers him (I had forgotten that all Vulcans are vegetarians) and responds to her sexual appeals as graphically as NBC’s Standards and Practices Department (the network’s official censors) would allow. Later on he feels sorry for himself and apologizes for doing so. Zarabeth tells Spock and McCoy that they can’t leave the previous time because their atoms have been altered to survive there but not in their original time, but Kirk learns from Atoz (whom he can still talk to even though he’s in a different time — I’m not making this up, you know) that that’s only true if you went through that mysterious “preparation” process: if you didn’t, it’s the past that will kill you within a few hours unless you escape back to the present. Eventually Spock bids a tearful farewell to Zarabeth and returns to his own time, as do the others, and they beam aboard the Enterprise and get the hell out of there just before Beta Niobe becomes a supernova and blows Sarpedion up. David Gerrold ridiculed this episode in one of his books on Star Trek (he wrote at least two, an overall history of the original show and a book about his experience writing one of the best-loved episodes, “The Trouble with Tribbles”), apparently upset at the whole idea of Spock getting laid — I wonder what his reaction was when the current cycle of Star Trek movies, presented as a prequel to the original series and featuring Chris Pine as a surprisingly effective Kirk (though most of the rest of the cast seems like very good cosplayers), presented Spock and Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols in the original shows, Zoë Saldana in the recent films) as hot if rather tempestuous long-term lovers!

[1] — Gene Roddenberry liked Majel Barrett, too. He married her for real.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Martian Chronicles (Charles Fries Productions, BBC, Stonehenge Productions, MGM, 1979)

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

Last night’s Mars movie screening ( was a marathon: all 4 ½ hours of a three-part mini-series based on Ray Bradbury’s 1950’s science-fiction classic The Martian Chronicles, produced in Britain by Charles Fries and with some formidable talent both in front of and behind the cameras. The director was Michael Anderson, whose résumé includes Around the World in 80 Days, the 1956 version of George Orwell’s 1984, The Shoes of the Fisherman (which I remember seeing on its initial release and I regard as an underrated film), and The Naked Edge (Gary Cooper’s last movie, made shortly before his death in 1961). The writer was Richard Matheson, who while hardly in Bradbury’s league was a capable science-fiction writer in his own right, best known for his short-story collection Third from the Sun and a lot of the scripts for the original Twilight Zone. The cast included Rock Hudson as Col. John Wilder, head of NASA and an astronaut on the fourth manned mission to Mars (though in the movie it’s the third and Matheson’s script omitted one of Bradbury’s most chilling tales: Earth astronauts land on Mars and try to explain who they are and where they’ve come from, and the Martians think they’re crazy and put them in a mental institution), who’s inflated into a continuing character and used to tie together the various stories of Bradbury’s book.

Both Charles and I were somewhat nonplussed by the description of the story source in the credits as “a novel by Ray Bradbury,” since the book is actually a thematically but not narratively connected collection of short stories, some of which were actually published as stand-alones in Street and Smith pulp magazines. (This is how they turned up adapted as radio scripts in the Dimension X and X Minus One radio shows in the early 1950’s: Street and Smith co-produced these shows and as part of the deal they gave the shows the rights to adapt any short story they’d published in their sci-fi pulps.) The Martian Chronicles was filmed in 1979 and originally scheduled for airing as a big “event” on NBC — it was two years after the mega-success of Roots and the networks were looking for big, prestigious projects that could be stripped as week-long “events” — but though 1979 is the copyright date it wasn’t publicly shown until 1980. Part of the reason was that Bradbury went public with his dissatisfactions with the script, and though the first third of the program, “The Expeditions,” is a reasonably close adaptation of three of the original stories, the rest of it veers into a freely associated version of events in which Bradbury’s stories are stuck like raisins in a cake. (The two other episodes are called “The Settlers” and “The Martians.”) The plot starts in 1976, when the real-life Voyager probe first lands on Mars (ironically, Bradbury’s book had assumed that Mars had a sufficiently temperate climate and enough oxygen in the air to sustain human life without the humans having to wear spacesuits, and it was the Voyager and subsequent probes that showed us that Mars isn’t like that at all: it’s bitterly cold and most of their atmosphere is carbon dioxide), and then cuts to 1999 for the launching of Zeus, the first manned mission to Mars.

They encounter a bored middle-aged Martian couple (called Yll and Ylla in the book) whose female member has had erotic dreams about Earthlings — despite her husband’s insistence that Martian science has conclusively proved that there is no life on Earth — and so when some real-life Earthers actually land on the planet, Yll freaks out and kills them out of jealousy. (Martians au naturel look pretty much like us except their heads are rounder, more egg-shaped and lack exterior ears, which makes one wonder how they can hear each other when they speak. Perhaps they communicate via telepathy, but if that’s what we were supposed to think the actors playing Martians made the mistake of moving their lips when they speak: if you wanted to suggest people who communicate silently they should have had the actors’ lips stay closed and either pre- or post-recorded the dialogue.) The second expedition encounters uncannily exact replicas of the home towns on Earth where they grew up — this episode, called “Mars Is Heaven,” is probably the most famous part of The Martian Chronicles and the most often adapted as a stand-alone (including an episode of the later half-hour Ray Bradbury Presents TV series which I recall as a considerably more sensitive and effective adaptation than the one here — in fact, several of the chapters in The Martian Chronicles were adapted for Ray Bradbury Presents and those shows, though with much lower budgets than this one, seemed better written, staged and acted than this movie) — and, like the sentient ocean in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, the Earth environments and the long-dead replicas of the astronauts’ dead relatives have been created by the Martians as illusions. The idea is that, since Mars can’t repel an Earth invasion with their weapons — they’ve lived at peace with each other for so long that they’ve pretty much abandoned the techniques of killing each other (though in later episodes the Martians do have ray guns) — the only way they can fight back is through their telepathic mental powers, using them to create illusions that will lead the Earth people to abandon their mission and hang out with their dead relatives (actually Martians shape-shifting to impersonate them) so the Martians can poison them and hopefully discourage any future expeditions.

The next Earth expedition to Mars is led by Col. Wilder personally and includes a scientist named Jeff Spencer (Bernie Casey) — I noted the irony that, after having watched O. J. Simpson in Capricorn One at the previous month’s screening, this was the second time we were seeing a show with a professional football player that had adopted an acting career (though Bernie Casey is a far, far better actor than Simpson ever was and, indeed, turns in what I thought was the finest performance in the film!). It also puts an interesting “spin” on the tale to make the character who goes crazy, “goes native” and starts slaughtering his fellow astronauts to protect the Martian heritage from human destruction Black! The gimmick here is that between expeditions two and three the Martians have been exterminated because one of the astronauts on a previous trip had had chicken pox, and the chicken pox/shingles virus had escaped and wreaked havoc on the Martians because their immune system had no defense against it — an interesting “tweak” by Bradbury of the ending of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The second part of the Martian Chronicles TV series, called “The Settlers,” shows that Spencer’s prediction that humans would come to Mars en masse and wreck it (the way we’ve wrecked our own planet) has come true: Mars has become a huge boom town, with all the sleazy enterprises familiar to us from movies about gold rushes and an equally unscrupulous group of people pursuing get-rich-quick schemes to tap the mineral resources of the Red Planet. This part of the movie ends with news of an imminent nuclear war back on Earth, and virtually the entire Martian colony is evacuated just in time to be annihilated back home as nuclear weapons on both sides turn Earth into a lifeless husk. (Just why all the Earth settlers on Mars went home to virtually certain destruction was a weak point in Bradbury’s book and is even less well explained in the film.)

The third show, “The Martians,” deals with the stragglers left on Mars, and one of Bradbury’s tales is dramatized as a frustrated seduction story with Bernadette Peters as the ultimate cock-tease (once again this one was better done on the Ray Bradbury Presents TV show than it is here) while the payoff is probably the part of the show that infuriated Bradbury most: Rock Hudson, his wife (Gayle Hunnicutt) and their two kids realize they’re essentially the Adam, Eve and offspring of this tale, and they’ll have to rebuild the human race on Mars. As part of the break with their old life, Hudson burns all the books and briefing papers on the expeditions that got humans to Mars in the first place — and I can’t imagine that the author of Fahrenheit 451 looked kindly on an ostensible adaptation of one of his other books that ends with a book-burning sequence of which we’re clearly supposed to approve. One of the charms of the book The Martian Chronicles is the sheer elegiac beauty of Bradbury’s prose (like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bradbury at his best was a writer who beautifully blurred the distinction between prose and poetry) and its ironic contrast with the story’s nature as a tale in which the populations and civilizations of two planets are utterly destroyed. That gets lost in the sappy ending Matheson and Anderson concocted. The film’s cast is O.K., though Rock Hudson isn’t really an authoritative enough character to bear the dramatic weight of the story, and when the narrator early on in the film speculates that for centuries humans have asked, “Is there life on Mars?,” we get the unfortunate impression that Hudson was probably asking himself, “Are there Gay bars on Mars?”

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Day After Tomorrow (20th Century-Fox, Centropolis Entertainment, Lionsgate, 2004)

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

Last night Charles and I watched another DVD I pulled from the backlog: The Day After Tomorrow, a 2004 production from director Roland Emmerich, who along with producer Dean Devlin gave us the 1996 film Independence Day (and has since made a sequel and is working on a third film in the cycle) and other similar works of disaster porn. He’s made other movies, too, including The Patriot, which starred Mel Gibson as a farmer during the American Revolution who becomes a committed revolutionary after the British kill his son (Heath Ledger in his first important, star-making role). It seems that while making The Patriot Emmerich fell behind schedule because he was waiting for the right kind of weather for all the film’s many outdoor scenes, and he hit on the idea of doing a film about weather and in particular about the then-popular belief that humans were screwing it up by burning fossil fuels and releasing great amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It’s been one of the great triumphs of the political Right, particularly the American Right (which seems to have a venomous anti-environmentalism Right-wing movements in other countries are either less intense about or don’t share at all — I remember the year the Green Party won seats in Germany’s Congress, the Bundestag, and were embarrassed because the German tradition is the oldest member of your party’s delegation gives an opening speech, and the oldest Green in the Bundestag that year was an ex-Nazi who had joined both the Nazis and the Greens because they had promised to protect the Black Forest) that the idea that humans are wrecking the earth’s climate and threatening the continued existence of life, especially human life, on this planet has actually fallen in political importance and popular support in the 14 years since The Day After Tomorrow was filmed — even though climate scientists are issuing ever more dire reports that climate change is happening faster than they previously predicted and we have only 12 years to turn things around and preserve human life by switching to renewable energy and reversing the earth’s rising temperatures. The Day After Tomorrow was controversial when it came out — while researching the film online I dug up a May 12, 2004 e-mail sent out by urging people to vote with their money by seeing the film on its initial Memorial Day weekend release. The e-mail read, “While The Day After Tomorrow is more science fiction than science fact, everyone will be talking about it — and asking, ‘Could it really happen?’ This is an unprecedented opportunity to talk to millions of Americans about the real dangers of global warming and expose President Bush’s foot-dragging on the issue.”

One of the interesting things about The Day After Tomorrow is that its script — by Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachmanoff, ostensibly inspired by a book called The Coming Global Superstorm by Art Bell (a conspiracy theorist who did a popular radio show, and then an Internet podcast, widely ridiculed for his belief in UFO’s) and Whitley Strieber (a fantasy author who “made his bones” commercially with a modern-dress werewolf tale called Wolfen, then wrote books about aliens from outer space visiting Earth and abducting some of its inhabitants for sinister “research” about us, and still later claimed to have been abducted by space aliens himself — a lot of people joked about his claim to have had an experience similar to the stories he’d made up, though my joke would be the aliens kidnapped him to tell him, “Look at all the stuff about us you got wrong! We’ve been laughing our heads off about you for years!”) — is actually not about the planet getting unsustainably warmer, but quite the opposite. The film’s leading character, “paleoclimatologist” Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid, whose role here is an ironic contrast to his current appearances in TV commercials for an insurance company), has been studying Earth’s most recent Ice Age 10,000 years ago and come to the conclusion that rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere could trigger another one. Jack also comes equipped with an estranged wife, Dr. Lucy Hall (Sela Ward), and a son, Sam Hall (Jake Gyllenhaal — so Emmerich worked with both the male leads from Brokeback Mountain, albeit on different projects), who like his dad is an intellectual genius (he’s the leader of his high school’s academic decathlon team and his calculus professor flunked him because, while he got all the answers right on the final, he didn’t write down his calculations on his test paper because he did them all in his head, and the professor decided that meant he was cheating) but who’s been raised with an absentee father because dad was always tearing off around the world digging out ice cores to test them for evidence of prehistoric climate change. (It’s yet another story where one gets the impression, as Dorothy Parker said about Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth, that if the writer had outlined the plot to a friend and said, “Stop me if you’ve heard this before,” a good chunk of it would never have got written in the first place.)

Jack Hall calculates that the next ice age is going to happen within decades, which gets changed to years, which gets changed to the next few weeks, which gets changed to … well, the day after tomorrow. He tries to warn vice-president Becker (Kenneth Welsh, whom director Emmerich admitted was deliberately made up to look like real-life vice-president Dick Cheney) about the coming climate apocalypse, and gets the usual B.S. about how the American and world economies are even more fragile than the climate, and he isn’t going to risk impoverishing America for some scientist’s loony-tunes notions about climate change. Anyway, the new ice age happens almost immediately and the film basically revolves around three plot lines, each involving one of the Halls: Jack is working to persuade the U.S. government to evacuate the entire population of the northern two-thirds of the U.S. and ask the government of Mexico to grant mass asylum to the people who can no longer live in the U.S. (Naturally Emmerich and Nachmanoff make a great deal of the ironies surrounding this, including shots of U.S. refugees fleeing and trying to cross the Mexican border while Mexican guards try to stop them until Becker, who takes over as President midway through the film when the previous President gets killed by the mega-storm, successfully negotiates a treaty with the President of Mexico to let our people in … a good thing nobody in this movie was dumb enough to try to build a wall between the two countries!)

The plot lines shift back and forth between the attempts of Jack Hall to convince the United States and United Nations bureaucracies to deal seriously with the coming global superstorm and the situations of his wife and son. His wife is a doctor working in a cancer ward and trying to keep a young boy named Peter (Luke Letourneau) alive through the disaster — yes, that’s right: Emmerich and Nachmanoff are not only doing a cancer patient, but a sickly-looking young prepubescent cancer patient for maximum tear-jerking value! — and his son is attempting to lead the members of his academic decathlon team (including a Black kid named Brian Parks, played engagingly by Arjay Smith) to safety through the suddenly ice-bound streets of New York City, where they end up hiding out in the New York Public Library (where, amazingly, the old pay telephones work even though the storm has wiped out electrical power and taken down the cell-phone grid). When one of the kids gets an infected leg and the teens need an immediate supply of penicillin to save him from having to undergo a D.I.Y. amputation, fate (or scriptorial fiat) provides one in the form of a giant Russian tanker, which gets lost in the middle of the storm and sails up a New York street (flagged as a “goof” on by someone who noticed that even the widest of New York street rights-of-way would accommodate the width of an entire ship). The kids think to board the freighter and raid its emergency medical supplies, but they’re endangered by a pack of wolves who escaped from the New York zoo when it was destroyed by the storm (though they looked to me like ordinary large dogs driven feral by the weather situation) and who provide some exciting if rather bizarre suspense moments on our way to an eventual plot resolution that involves what’s left of humanity resigning itself to living on the few parts of the earth’s surface that are still habitable after the Great Storm.

Made during the George W. Bush administration, The Day After Tomorrow seems even more current now that the percentage of people who believe human beings are responsible for climate change has actually gone down, and with it the support for the kinds of sweeping and extreme changes in human civilization and lifestyles needed to forestall its dangers. MoveOn’s 2004 e-mail criticized the Bush administration for paying lip service to the climate accords in Kyoto but doing nothing; today we have a President who is not only ignoring the dangers but arrogantly dismissing them, pulling the U.S. out of the subsequent accords in Paris (which themselves were way too weak to accomplish anything) and launching a change in U.S. policy from “energy independence” to “energy dominance.” As Antonia Juhasz writes in an op-ed column in today’s Los Angeles Times (, “Trump has unleashed a massive, untethered expansion of oil, natural gas and coal production, designed to make this country the world’s foremost dirty energy powerhouse. The policy not only worsens catastrophic climate change, it pushes the U.S. into a small and increasingly isolated club of autocratic regimes intent on maintaining a global commitment to fossil fuels” — which will mean, ironically enough given Trump’s stated agenda of making America great and self-sufficient again, that when the fossil fuel regime finally collapses and likely takes the world’s climate and ability to sustain its current world population with it, we will end up having to buy our renewable-energy technology from China because they’re one autocratic regime that does see where the energy and climate futures are going and they’re developing renewable-energy technology and we aren’t. 

I’ve long been convinced that the only way human civilization can survive climate change is if the climate scientists are wrong and are way overstating the imminence and the catastrophic impact of the danger, because if they’re right this is one crisis that humanity, with its current economic and political systems — particularly the dominance of global capitalism and the priorities of the giant worldwide corporations that really rule us, simply cannot muster the political will or overcome the entrenched opposition to solve. What Trump — and a lot of Republican propagandists before him — have done is to neutralize climate change as a political issue by undermining public support for the scientific consensus and therefore making sure enough people don’t want the issue to be addressed, especially if it means making short-term sacrifices for long-term survival, so we as a nation (and a world) continue pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the oceans continue to grow warmer, and more fresh water is released into the oceans — thereby changing the salinity balance which in turn affects the global currents that are responsible for preserving most of Earth’s relatively temperate weather (at least that’s the explanation Emmerich and Nachmanoff employ in their script to explain how, contrary to the snippy dismissals of Trump and Right-wing propagandists in general that the earth can’t be getting warmer when storms are becoming more frequent and short-term temperature trends getting colder). Watching The Day After Tomorrow 14 years after it was made — by people who deliberately ramped up the immediacy of their story and the speed with which it happens precisely because audiences wouldn’t be able to understand or emotionally get involved with a disaster that takes place over decades instead of days — one’s gripped by the ironies that climate change as a political issue has receded in importance and significance even as, according to the climate scientists, it’s becoming an ever more immediate threat to the world’s and humanity’s existence and we’re quickly reaching the “tipping point” beyond which any activity to stop it will be too late to make a difference.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Garth Brooks Live at Notre Dame Stadium (CBS-TV, aired December 2, 2018)

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

Last night’s main feature was a CBS-TV concert special featuring Garth Brooks playing live at Notre Dame stadium on the college campus in South Bend, Indiana — apparently the first time a musical event has ever taken place there. Brooks had promoted this show with an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show last week, an interesting interview (even though he just talked and was not featured as a musical guest as well, which was a bit disappointing) in which he said he originally wanted to be a professional athlete but he was so untalented in that regard the only sport he could play in college was javelin. Instead he discovered music when he would do amateur nights at nightclubs and found he was getting more popular and better liked, and realized he could have a career out of this so he could make a living without working a normal job. Garth Brooks erupted on the country-music world in 1991 and for the next three years, recording for what was left of the old Liberty Records label, he zoomed to the top of the country charts and each new record was an automatic #1. Then he derailed his own career with an album called The Chase, whose featured single was a song called “We Shall Be Free” — which included such intimidating lines as, “When we’re free to love anyone we choose.” Brooks’ core audience read that line correctly as a plea for acceptance of homosexuality in general and same-sex marriage in particular, and though he didn’t take as abrupt a tumble down the country charts as the Dixie Chicks did when they said publicly at a concert in London that they were embarrassed to be from the same state as George W. Bush, it did hurt him commercially.

Brooks made a number of interesting career moves, including recording an album and doing a TV show under the alternate persona of “Chris Gaines” — an androgynous rocker along the lines of Bowie and Prince — and then, like John Lennon in the late 1970’s, he dropped out altogether and spent the next 16 years not releasing any new material and performing only rarely so he could concentrate on raising his kids. (He had his kids with his first wife, Sandy Mahl, whom he married in 1986 and divorced in 2001. In 2005 he married country singer Trisha Yearwood, a star in her own right, and they’re still together — literally, because she was with him on stage at Notre Dame as one of his backup singers.) In 2014 Brooks triumphantly returned to the stage in a giant tour which was billed as, “Featuring Special Guest Star Trisha Yearwood,” which inevitably led me to joke, “He must have worked really hard to get her to be his opening act.” (Actually, it seems possible to me that Yearwood told him, “Darling, you’ve been out of circulation for 16 years while I’ve been working regularly — maybe you should be opening for me!”) According to the narration on last night’s telecast as well as Brooks’ Wikipedia page, he’s now the best-selling solo recording artist of all time (having broken the mark set by the previous record-holder, Elvis Presley, which seems to me hard to believe), and the concert was less a presentation of Brooks’ music than a celebration of his repertoire and its importance in his fans’ lives. Brooks played 16 songs during the show, including some oddball covers — Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” and a medley of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and “Hey Jude” prefaced and ended by a snatch of a song with the tag line, “Sometimes You Have to Die to Live Again”) — and during many of his own songs his audience was singing along (which sometimes made it hard for someone like me who likes Garth Brooks but is not especially familiar with his oeuvre to figure out just what the lyrics were — also there was an odd echo on Brooks’ vocal mike which pushed him towards unintelligibility even when he was singing sans audience participation).

Brooks’ Wikipedia page says, “His integration of rock and roll elements into the country genre has earned him immense popularity in the United States,” though Brooks hasn’t gone as far into the rock sound as a lot of other modern “country” singers who have followed in his wake. I’ve commented on previous country music awards shows that much of modern “country” actually sounds more like the sub-genre that emerged in the 1970’s from groups like the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd and which then was called “Southern rock” than anything by Hank Williams or Johnny Cash. At least Brooks has retained violin and pedal steel guitar in his band — most of the modern-day Southern rockers who call themselves “country” have eschewed these once-paradigmatic country instruments — and his music overall is an appealing mixture of country and rock elements, while most of his lyrics are pure country. Though he avoids the bathos endemic to the country-pop style of the 1950’s and 1960’s (which led to the joke, “What do you get when you play a country song backwards? You get your house back, your job back, your car back and your wife back, and you sober up” — to which Charles added, “Yeah, and your mother and your dog come back to life”), his songs still fit the basic country lyric pattern of drinking, necking on deserted roads, and partying until the sun comes up. I was disappointed that of my three favorite Garth Brooks songs — “We Shall Be Free,” “American Honky-Tonk Bar Association” and “Friends in Low Places” — he sang only the last of those on last night’s telecast (and judging not only from the reaction it got but from the number of people in the crowd who held signs with the words “Friends in Low Places,” it appears to be Garth Brooks’ “Satisfaction”), but overall I enjoyed the show. I was amused that Trisha Yearwood was on stage throughout as one of Brooks’ backup singers — she was in the middle of a row that included a dreadlocked Black guy (who supplied the scream that joins the two parts of “Hey Jude” because Brooks couldn’t do that as Paul McCartney did on the Beatles’ original) on one side and a tall, striking-looking biker chick who seemed to have just stepped out of a 1960’s Russ Meyer movie on the other — the tall, striking-looking biker chick seemed to have a particularly strong voice and I’d like to hear her do an album sometime!

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Deep (EMI, Casablanca, Columbia, 1977)

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

I ran a movie I’d stumbled on in my backlog of DVD’s: The Deep, a 1977 production of Columbia Pictures in association with two now-defunct record companies, EMI and Casablanca (the latter got that name from the coincidence of its president being named Neil Bogart, though he was no relation to the Casablanca star, and its biggest acts were Donna Summer and KISS). The Deep began life as a novel by Peter Benchley, who had just had a huge success with his book Jaws — and with the film of Jaws finally surpassing Gone With the Wind as the highest-grossing movie of all time, it’s no surprise that there was a fierce bidding war for the movie rights to The Deep and the rights were won by Peter Guber, who had just stepped down as Columbia studio head to become an independent producer for the company. The Deep was conceived at the height of the hype surrounding the “Bermuda Triangle,” the location in the Caribbean where an unusually high number of ships had sunk and planes had crashed, and books were written claiming there was some supernatural element involved (while other books were written attempting to debunk those). Peter Benchley obviously had that in mind when he set The Deep on and just off the coast of Bermuda, since the intrigue revolves around the preposterous assumption that three ships sank just off Bermuda, two early 18th century sailing vessels and a World War II submarine, and they all happened to land just on top of each other underwater. A young American (we presume) couple, David Sanders (Nick Nolte, five years after People magazine named him “The Sexiest Man Alive” and with his looks still relatively intact) and Gail Berke (Jacqueline Bisset, who in the opening scene is shown diving underwater wearing just a white T-shirt, black swim trunks and SCUBA gear; the way the shirt clings to her while wet made it clear she wasn’t wearing a bra, and you could see so much of her nipples, her aureoles and the luscious mounds of flesh connecting these to her body that posters of her that way became iconic items on the dorm walls of young straight college boys the way posters of Racquel Welch in her ultra-revealing prehistoric bikini in One Million Years, B.C. had a decade earlier), are diving for buried treasure off the Bermuda coast when they stumble on the three conjoined wrecks: a Spanish flagship from 1714, a French freighter that sailed with the Spanish fleet as part of what would later be called a convoy but which itself sank a year later, and a World War II submarine. The French freighter contained a special collection of jewels made for King Philip of Spain (which one? The most famous one, Philip II, reigned in the late 1500’s and sent the Spanish Armada to England) to impress Elizabeth Farnese, the Duchess of Parma, whom he wanted to marry, but like the Maltese falcon the treasure never reached Spain. 

The sub has its own treasure: thousands of ampules of medical-grade morphine which could easily be refined into pure heroin, and which is what the drug cartel headed by Henri Cloche (Louis Gossett, Jr.) is after — though they’re the sort of freewheeling criminal enterprise that will deal in anything as long as it will make them money and so they’re attracted to the idea of Spanish gold even though all they will do with the Duchess of Parma’s treasure is melt it down and sell it as ordinary gold, pearls and whatnot. To recover the treasure and establish its provenance David and Gail call on Romer Treece (Robert Shaw, whose presence in the cast as the old-salt owner of a decaying but still serviceable boat brings this movie even closer to Jaws), who’s written several books on the sunken Spanish treasures around Bermuda and owns a copy of the Havana Manifest, supposedly a listing of all the ships that sailed to and from Spain in the era of the conquistadores. There are a lot of things annoying about The Deep, among them the fact that though it was made in 1977 (and is therefore older than Citizen Kane and Casablanca were when I first saw them) it seems like a modern movie: O.K. action sequences and boring plot exposition scenes between them. It doesn’t help that, even though Peter Benchley co-wrote the script with Tracy Keenan Wynn, the plot really doesn’t make sense — we’re lurched around from menace to menace with little or no provocation — and it also doesn’t help that the director, Peter Yates, is a competent filmmaker but hardly in Steven Spielberg’s league fur suspense or thrills. There are also nods to Benchley’s previous success in the appearance of a giant white sea creature (we’re told it’s an unusually large moray eel) that menaces the characters, or the attempt of Cloche and his men (one really off-putting aspect of this film is its racism: all the good guys are white and all the bad guys — except Adam Coffin [Eli Wallach], one of Treece’s associates who sells him out — are Black) to kill Our Heroes by throwing bloody meat into the water as chum to attract, you guessed it, sharks. 

I remember seeing it when it first came out at a press screening (I was working for a magazine that ordinarily would have been too small to get free movie tickets, but a major firm doing publicity for movies in San Francisco had its office and its screening room in the same building as our office, so we got in) and remembering nothing about it but how hot Jacqueline Bisset looked in her clingy T-shirt underwater. Now I can see why: aside from some quite beautiful underwater photography the film really has little or nothing to offer — it’s not actively bad but it’s not very good either. Robert Shaw’s overacting has been criticized, but a) after Jaws this was how audiences expected Shaw to act, especially in a story by Peter Benchley; and b) his overacting at least helps to make up for the non-acting of Nolte and Bisset, who seem to be doing nothing more than hurling their hot bods at the camera and letting their physiques do their acting for them. It also doesn’t help that Nolte is afflicted with one of those horrible pageboy haircuts and matching moustaches that were all the rage in 1977, or that Bisset sometimes speaks in an American accent, sometimes in a British one and sometimes in a mishmash of the two that renders much of her dialogue virtually unintelligible. Add to that a DVD so old it offered only a 4:3 pan-and-scan aspect ratio version of the film, and an image quality so below what we expect from DVD’s of more recent films that early on Charles was saying it looked like an download, and The Deep emerges (or should I say submerges?) as a viewing experience that isn’t exactly unpleasant (although the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew could have had a blast with this film!) but isn’t all that memorable or entertaining either.