Monday, March 25, 2019

Married to a Murderer (Johnson Production Group, Synthetic Cinema International, Stargazer Films USA, Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

At 8 p.m. last night I switched on Lifetime for a movie that was not one of their “premieres” but turned out to be two years old: Married to a Murderer (the title is not only a bit of a “spoiler” but a misnomer as well, since the film’s heroine is shown planning a wedding but doesn’t actually get married, to a murderer or anyone else). It was disappointing after seeing the previous night’s two Lifetime movies, a “premiere” of something called A Daughter’s Deception and (before it) a rerun of the “premiere” from two or three weeks ago, Mommy Group Murder. Married to a Murderer was even more disappointing because it was the work of Nick Everhart, talented filmmaker who had both written and directed Mommy Group Murder, and one would have expected more from the man who had ably mixed Gothic horror into the usual Lifetime formula in Mommy Group Murder. Alas, Everhart, who was both co-writer (with John Doolan) and director of Married to a Murderer (which has at least two other titles, Splitting Image — the main male characters are a pair of twins; the usual phrase for people who look alike is “spitting image” but perhaps Everhart and Doolan were making a pun — and I Married a Murderer), overdid the horror this time and also filled his movie with weird Hitchcock allusions which only underscored the vast gap in talent between Hitchcock and Everhart as filmmakers. The central characters are Emma Kelly (Anna Hutchison) and twin brothers Ted and Frank Taylor (played by actual twin brothers Austin and Aaron Arnold — Austin plays Ted and Aaron plays Frank). In the opening scene, one of those baldly cut-in prologues Lifetime is notorious for in which we see action that is obviously going to be important but we have no idea who this person is or why it’s going to be important, a guy gets on a motorcycle and starts speeding on windy mountain roads until he reaches a section where the road is out, tries to stop but can’t do so in time, and the motorcycle spins out of control and falls to the ground with the man on board.

It turns out the rider is Frank Taylor, he did his wild ride on a dare while drunk, and while he survived he used his long stay in the hospital to give up his alcohol and drug habits and rehabilitate himself. Meanwhile, Frank’s twin brother Ted has become engaged to Emma Kelly, and while Frank is living a hand-to-mouth existence Ted is well-to-do, has bought a big house on top of the old one their mom was still living in when she mysteriously disappeared, and Emma is marrying him as much for money as for love. To add to the complications, the Taylors’ mom was something of a celebrity; she hosted a cooking show on TV (Everhart and Doolan make her sound like a sort of combination Martha Stewart and Julia Child) which Emma remembers watching with her mom when she was a kid. In fact, her show was still getting fairly high ratings when she disappeared. Most of the movie consists of Emma getting more and more intimidated by the Taylors, who as Frank explains to her one afternoon have always shared everything together, including their homes. Each one has always had a key to the other’s abode, and one day Frank uses his to let himself into the house Ted has bought for himself and Emma. He enters while Emma is in the shower and skulks around her bathroom while she’s doing that, making us think of Psycho even before composer Ryan Garrison copies the famous violin shrieks with which Bernard Herrmann scored Anthony Perkins’ murder of Janet Leigh in the shower in Psycho. Emma notices Frank stalking her in her shower and tells him to wait downstairs (the bathroom is on the second floor) while she gets dressed, and after she does that Frank makes a pass at her and gives her the speech about he and Ted have always shared everything, naturally making her wonder if she’s part of the deal and she’s essentially marrying both brothers. Later she and Ted make love on a big bed in their bedroom, only there’s a fade to black and an abrupt cut, leading to a scene in which she wakes up in the morning and we see — though she’s still too tired to notice — that it was Frank, not Ted, who was sharing the bed.

Nothing much happens throughout the film except that Emma goes through a series of experiences with both brothers that leads her to wonder whether Ted’s presumed fortune is really worth it, and at one point Emma’s best friend Becca (Evalena Marie) enters the action because in addition to being the maid of honor at the upcoming wedding (ya remember the wedding?) she also has the hots for Frank. The impression we get is that she thinks both Taylor brothers are hot, and since Emma is marrying Ted, Becca thinks she’s entitled to sloppy seconds. Only Becca gets herself killed after she discovers a flash drive in Ted’s room safe, which Frank has opened in search of it as well as some money, and when she screens it it’s film of one of the Taylor brothers burying a corpse wrapped in black plastic in a crudely dug grave in their garden. Frank sneaks up behind her and clubs her from behind, and as she collapses and dies her glasses fall off her face and we get a shot of them Everhart ripped off from the murder at the merry-go-round in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. And his viewing of Hitchcock’s films extends beyond the established classics: the moment we see a checkerboard-style pattern of tiles on the floor of the hallway leading from the front door into mom’s home, we just know that at some point we’re going to see a dead body sprawled out on those sorts of tiles the way Hitchcock did in one of his least known and acknowledged films, Topaz (1969), in which a Cuban secret service agent kills his mistress in what Hitchcock staged to look like a love scene — she goes to embrace him and gets strangled instead — the one creative moment in a dull and disappointing film that’s still worlds better than Married to a Murderer!

Given the title, we’re braced through much of the film for a revelation that it’s really the presumably more stable brother Tim, not flighty, crazy Frank, who’s the murderer — only it turns out [spoiler alert!] they both are. Years before, Tim accidentally killed his mother by pushing her down the stairs, and Frank covered for him by burying the body. Mom fell down the stairs (just about all Hitchcock’s films feature long stairways in them somewhere, so Everhart did here, too) and sprawled out picturesquely over Those Tiles the way anyone who’d seen Topaz would expect her to. Tim filmed the scene as digital video and saved it both on his computer and on a flash drive so he’d have something on Frank as well as Frank having something on him, only in an over-the-top climax that occurs on the very day Tim and Emma are supposed to get married, Tim becomes convinced Frank is going to report him and stabs Frank to keep that from happening — only Frank manages to grab the knife and stabs Tim as well, and as if that weren’t enough, as Frank is starting to expire he loses control of the knife and Emma grabs it. Tim pleads with her to go ahead with the wedding as if nothing untoward was happening and ignore the fact that if she did she’d be — dare I say it? — married to a murderer. Instead Emma stabs him too, and eventually both Taylor brothers end up on that same patch of ornamental tile in their entrance-room hall their mother expired on years earlier.

There’s a peculiar final scene in which all the Taylor boys’ well-to-do relatives are hosting a party on the grounds at which Emma is the guest of honor — and just when we’re wondering why they’d be having a party in her honor when she never actually married into their family, she pats her distended tummy and we realize she’s pregnant with one of the Taylor brothers’ baby. (We don’t know which one, which only adds to the weird and kinky thrill of this film.) Married to a Murderer might have been better if it had actually been closer to what the title described — a woman marries a superficially attractive man and gradually realizes he’s a killer — and if Everhart and Doolan had made the Taylor boys more charming on the surface so the revelation of what they really are would have been more of a surprise (as it is, we keep rooting for Emma to bail out of marrying into this preposterous family even before we learn just how evil they are!). After all, many of the best films about serial killers, from the 1944 Edgar G. Ulmer Bluebeard (written by Pierre Gendron and starring John Carradine) to The Silence of the Lambs, have scored by making their central characters charming, witty, good-hearted and absolutely wonderful except when they were actually killing people. The real disappointment about Married to a Murderer is that it has me believing Nick Everhart wasn’t as good a filmmaker as I thought he was when I saw Mommy Group Murder — or did he just get better in the intervening two years?

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Mommy Group Murder (Reel One Entertainment, Stargazer Films USA, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Lifetime’s 6 p.m. fare last night was a surprisingly good riff on some of their usual themes, Mommy Group Murder — yes, the title looks as if some people in a writers’ room asked each other, “What’s the most ridiculous title a Lifetime movie could have?,” the film actually turned out to be pretty good, artfully done and putting a nice “spin” on some old, familiar Lifetime clichés. The film begins with a woman being rushed to a hospital to give birth: she is Natalie Westport (Lifetime regular Leah Pipes) and her husband Ryan (Ryan Carnes) is with her. The film then offers one of Lifetime’s familiar time jumps — though this time it’s only five months instead of years or even decades — and when we meet the Westports again they’re the proud parents of baby daughter Hannah (in case we didn’t get her name, they’ve already outfitted her with her own room in their house with big letters spelling out H-A-N-N-A-H on the wall), only mom is suffering from the Mother of All Post-Partum Depressions and is having nightmares. In one of the most chilling scenes in writer-director Nick Everhart’s film, she’s taking a bath, getting a rare respite from taking care of her baby, when all of a sudden she has a nightmare hallucination that the baby is in the bathtub with her and it’s drowning. Things reach a head when Natalie goes jogging in the local park, pushing Hannah in her stroller (Charles thought the stroller was so large it reminded him of a tank, but I’ve seen real-life moms on the street pushing considerably larger ones), when a couple of young punks race up beside her while she’s drinking from a portable water bottle and steal her cell phone. Natalie lets go of Hannah’s stroller to give chase to the phone thieves, and Hannah’s stroller rolls off for a potentially dire fate from which she’s saved only by the timely intervention of Grace Gable (Helena Mattsson), a woman about Natalie’s age, who blocks the stroller with her own body and enables Natalie to recover her baby unharmed. Grace says she’s a member of a new mothers’ support group whose members help each other through the various traumas associated with raising babies and who also do a lot of socializing together, including various lunches.

The most important members of the group — at least the ones Everhart fleshes out most as characters — are Maria (Kate Mansi), an emergency room doctor (she’s not fully licensed yet but she’s in the last year of her residency) who’s convinced her husband Tony (Joshua Leary) is cheating on her but doesn’t know where or with whom; and Roz (Nichole Galicia), the obligatory African-American voice of reason (who looks through most of the film like Nick Everhart is setting her up to be the obligatory Black person who figures out the white villainess’s scheme but gets killed for her pains), whose husband takes a lot of long “business trips,” leading Roz to fear that he’s cheating on her. Midway through the movie Natalie gets a phone message from someone she doesn’t know, Savannah Bowen, warning her that Grace isn’t who or what she claims to be and that her real name is “Rachel Temple.” (I liked Everhart naming both of Grace’s identities after major movie stars of the 1930’s, Clark Gable and Shirley Temple.) As any hardened Lifetime movie watcher could have figured out almost as soon as she appeared, Grace turns out to be the villainess of the piece. Grace has shown Natalie her own baby boy, Thomas, and tells her that she’s a single mom since Thomas’s dad divorced her before the kid was born, but Bowen’s text message arouses Natalie’s suspicions and she starts to investigate Grace. She finds out that there’s no record of Grace being married or giving birth, and while she lives in a nice house in the nice suburban neighborhood where all this is taking place, there’s no evidence of her having assumed legal title to it and, indeed, no indication in official records of where her income is coming from. It turns out that Grace is the woman Maria’s husband Tony is cheating on her with —Tony keeps trying to break it off and Grace keeps threatening to kill herself if he does so, though one night Grace loses it and stabs Tony with the knife she originally threatened to use on herself. Then she washes the crime scene and gets blood off the knife but still leaves a blood spot on her face until she notices it and takes it off with her own spit (a scene repeated in the next movie Lifetime showed, the “premiere” of A Daughter’s Deception).

At one point Natalie goes to visit Grace’s home, needs to use the bathroom, and mistakenly thinks the door to Grace’s basement is the restroom and asks Grace why it’s locked. That’s a deposit in the old cliché bank Everhart is sure to redeem to give himself an ending! In the end it turns out that Grace is the product of 30 foster homes and thus got a fixation on the concept of “family” even though she was too crazy to hold on to a man long enough to have one au naturel (a bit of Christine Conradtian backstory Everhart blessedly gave her so she’s not just the bad girl and we have at least a bit of understanding of who she is and why she’s doing what she’s doing, and the story is also Conradtian in that the working title for the film was The Perfect One). Instead she staged some sort of home invasion at the home of Drew (Ryan McIntire) and Lydia (April Billingsley) Jackson, not only the real owners of the house Grace is living in but the real parents of “her” baby, whom they named Bobby instead of Thomas. Grace knocked off Drew but kept Lydia alive as a sort of brood cow to provide mother’s milk for Thomas, and the reason the basement is kept locked is that’s where Grace is keeping Lydia and literally milking her. Natalie and her Black friend Roz (ya remember her Black friend Roz?) figure all this out and Roz tries to get Natalie to call the police, but Natalie goes to confront Grace and ends up locked in that basement inside a freezer (which fortunately at least is not turned on). Roz gets knocked out by the villainous Grace and is sprawled out on her living-room floor, but Lydia — who had some help from Natalie before Grace caught both of them — frees herself of the bondage Grace has held her in. Natalie figures out how to break out of the freezer and does so, and though Grace has a gun, Natalie gets it away from her briefly, it ends up on the floor, and just as it looks like Grace is going to strangle Natalie to death Lydia (ya remember Lydia?) grabs the gun and shoots her.

It ends with the police arriving — with Marie in tow giving Natalie emergency care from the gunshot wound Grace inflicted on her before she lost control of the gun; Natalie has to break the news to Marie that her husband Tony is dead at the hands of his paramour, and there’s a sad coda to the effect that with her husband dead Lydia has to move herself and Bobby out of that ritzy neighborhood but she’ll get enough money from the sale of the house to start elsewhere. Then there’s a flash-forward of a year, and Natalie has not only recovered from post-partum depression but has resumed the career of high-school history teacher she put on hold because she wanted a year off to bond with her baby. Mommy Group Murder, despite the risible title, scores higher than most Lifetime movies though Everhart’s skillful direction — the last two acts in particular come off almost like a horror film — along with his well-constructed script and some nice performances he gets out of his cast, Helena Mattsson as the coolly controlled psycho in particular. It also helps that he and casting director Anthony Del Negro found an actor considerably hotter than the tall, sandy-haired “type” Lifetime likes for its clueless husbands to play Natalie’s other half, Ryan (apparently Ryan Carnes has a reputation of his own from being in the current cast of the endlessly running soap opera General Hospital). Everhart and hair department head James Frederick should have done something more definitive with Leah Pipes’ hair, though; sometimes she looks brown-haired, sometimes she looks blonde (so much so that in a few two-shots with her and the consistently blonde Mattsson it’s not easy to tell them apart), sometimes she wears it straight, sometimes in a pony tail and sometimes in braids.

A Daughter’s Deception (MarVista Entertainment, Ties That Bound, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Mommy Group Murder Lifetime ran a “premiere” of something called A Daughter’s Deception, which was a curious variation on one of their frequent tropes — the long-lost child of a couple turns up and identifies themselves, but are they really the person they say they are? This time the directors are Devon Downs and Kenny Gage, and the writer Adam Rockoff — who previously created the film Devious Nanny — and they cast Kennedy Tucker as the mystery woman who comes to the home of Michael (Rusty Joiner) and Laura (Jade Harlow, top-billed) Parker and claims to be Bree Hogan, long-lost daughter of Laura back when she was still living at home, her last name was Bishop, and she “made a mistake,” had sex with some no-goodnik (we’re never told who he was or how they met, but we can guess), got “with child” and was turned out by her ferociously religious parents, who wouldn’t allow her to have an abortion but worked out a deal to turn her child over to an adoptive family as soon as she was born. We see her in the delivery room and then we cut to a title reading, “Twenty Years Later” — we’re used to sudden time jumps between the prologues and the main parts of Lifetime movies but 20 years is a bit much even for them. Twenty years later the Parkers receive word that Laura’s ferociously judgmental ultra-religious parents have just died in a household accident — their home filled with carbon monoxide and it killed both of them — but two police officers, a white one named Detective Holmes (Jordan James Smith) and his Black partner, whose name I can’t recall and who isn’t listed on imdb.com, show up and say it’s a 50-50 chance whether the fatal event was an accident or an intentional murder. Laura hasn’t seen these people since they turned her out for getting knocked up 20 years earlier and so she’s no more than intellectually upset by their deaths, but she regards the convenient appearance of Bree, the daughter those crazy parents forced her to give up for adoption two decades earlier, as a sort of cosmic compensation. Laura takes to Bree instantly and Bree even wins the affections of Skylar (Brianna Gage), Laura’s and her husband Michael’s natural-born child, not only by being the big sister Skylar always wanted but threatening the school bully, Chloe Lopresti (Katelyn Dunkin), after Chloe chest-punched Skylar in the high-school hallway for allegedly looking at Chloe’s (unseen) boyfriend. But Michael remains suspicious, though not so suspicious that he says no when Laura decides to throw a backyard party for the neighbors to celebrate her long-lost daughter’s return to the fold.

Michael runs a computer company and his star programmer is the young, very hot twink Gareth Drury (Max Gray Wilbur), who does a Web search and realizes “Bree” is not who he seems, but he doesn’t last very long because at the party he confronts Bree and she says, “You’ve found out a lot about me. Too bad you’ll never live to tell anybody.” Then she raises a large rock behind him and crushes his head with it. Surprisingly, it takes almost an hour of running time for anyone to notice that Gareth is missing even though Michael and the company’s attorney, Arthur Bishop (David Starzyk), keep trying to reach him on a cell phone which keeps going to voicemail. The Parkers also get a visit from Jon Lopresti (Andrew Pagana), father of the bully who tried to beat up their natural child Skylar and herself got warned off by Bree, and they’re able to tell him off without either them or Skylar getting in any more trouble. In the end it’s Skylar who decides to investigate Bree, and to that end she tracks down Bree’s adoptive parents, the Hogans (Brian McGovern and René Ashton), after Bree has told her that the Hogans actually favored her over their own biological child Jessie, and Jessie got so resentful of her parents for favoring the adopted daughter over her she went crazy and ended up in a mental institution. The moment we hear that we figure that directors Downs and Gage and writer Rockoff are preparing us for a big switcheroo that [spoiler alert!] will explain that “Bree” is really Jessie, who either got released or escaped from the mental institution and decided to avenge herself against her parents by targeting everyone Bree would have cared about, starting with her natural mom and extending to Gareth — whose body she stashed in a shed on the Parkers’ property (wouldn’t it have started to smell?) — as well as Detective Holmes, who seems to have watched too many reruns of Columbo and decided to adopt the modus operandi of Peter Falk’s fabled character in getting murderers to confess by irritating the hell out of them. Alas, Detective Holmes makes the mistake of turning his back on “Bree” and she stabs him to death, then takes his body out to join Gareth’s in the shed. (Wouldn’t it start to smell as the bodies disintegrated in the warm weather?)

It all starts to fall apart when Skylar visits the Hogans and just as she’s getting ready to leave the real Bree (Skyler Wright, who also played a secondary role in the same filmmaking team’s Devious Nanny), shows up. Skylar asks the Hogans who she is and they tell her, and then Skylar realizes the “Bree” they’ve been hosting and letting into their family is really Jessie Hogan, the Hogans’ biological daughter who never got over her parents bending over backwards to make the adopted one feel at home by ignoring their own natural child. Skylar tries to alert her own parents but doesn’t reach them in time, though in the climax the Parkers are rescued by Detective Holmes’ surviving Black partner (once again, in a Lifetime movie, the sensible Black character shows up to save the dumb white ones from their stupidities) and, somewhat to my surprise, though she’s murdered two people Jessie Hogan is merely returned to a mental institution, where in the final scene she’s hanging outside a group that is supposedly doing therapy and muttering to herself, “The next time I pick a family it’s going to be a real one” — which I wondered if writer Rockoff intended as a reversal of his reversal and wanted us to think that the one in the institution was Bree and the one out, free and clear was Jessie. A Daughter’s Deception is actually a pretty good Lifetime movie, though watching it after Mommy Group Murder probably did it no favors — still, the performances by the two young leading women, Kennedy Tucker as the psycho and Brianna Gage as the teenager who figures her out, help make up for the relative dullness of Jade Harlow as the mother, who seems to go through the whole movie with a fixed expression of mild suffering; and Rusty Joiner, who’s genuinely sexy but looks so young we’d be more likely to believe her as Harlow’s son than her husband!

Thursday, March 21, 2019

bublé (NBC-TV, aired March 20, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night at 10 p.m. NBC aired a one-hour special featuring Canadian singer, songwriter and pop star Michael Bublé called simply bublé (all lower-case), sponsored by a sparkling-water soft drink called bubly (Bublé appears in their commercials doing a pun between his name and that of the product). I’ve seen some of Bublé’s holiday specials but it was a bit of a surprise for him to turn up just doing a pretty ordinary performance show. I don’t think he’s a great singer — and the songs he’s written himself seem like pretty anodyne pop that don’t rise anywhere near to the heights of the Great American Songbook selections he also performs — but as I’ve said before about his previous shows, it’s nice to know that the standards repertory of the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s will have someone who can still sing it once Tony Bennett finally croaks. I liked this Bublé show more than I have some of his others mainly because it seemed much lower-keyed — at least until the final segment. He was backed by a big band with a string section, but most of the arrangements were relatively understated and allowed him to project the songs effectively without having to strain against shrieking strings and shrill brass. There were also the predictable montages about his early career, including one compiled from home videos Bublé’s parents took of him when he was a kid singing into a “mike stand” he’d improvised from a broom, and another in which he paid tribute to Warner Bros. Records for signing him 18 years ago even though one Warners executive said, “Why do we need him? We’ve got Sinatra on Reprise.” Bublé reminded him that Sinatra was already dead and they’d need a living talent if they wanted new records of that sort of music and singing style. 

Bublé opened bublé with “When You’re Smiling,” a standard if there ever was one, composed by Larry Shay, Mark Fisher and Joe Goodwin; the Wikipedia page on the song shows a photo of Billie Holiday in 1947 (10 years after she made a particularly beautiful recording of it with Lester Young — two takes exist and Young’s solo is almost completely different in each — and her version and Louis Armstrong’s from when the song was still relatively new in 1929 remain my favorites). Bublé’s version was relaxed and made the most of the song’s optimistic lyrics. Then he did a medley of songs associated with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Louis Prima — he rates Prima considerably higher as a talent than I do and as he croaked his way through a reasonable simulacrum of Prima’s assault on “Just a Gigolo” I couldn’t help but wish he’d learned that song from the 1931 recordings by Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong instead. The Sinatra part of his medley was “Fly Me to the Moon” — in a quite good reproduction of the arrangement Sinatra and Count Basie recorded for their album It Might as Well Be Swing, compete with a pianist who perfectly reproduced Basie’s famous plunks on the keys at the end. Dean Martin was represented by “You’re Nobody ’Til Somebody Loves You,” which Bublé sang with a bit of Martin’s famous swagger, and after “Just a Gigolo” Bublé followed it up with “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” also a Prima vehicle others had done better before him, with a tenor saxophonist who did a pretty good job copying Prima’s player, Sam Butera (who, along with Bill Haley’s Rudy Pompilli, was one of the first white tenor players to honk). 

After the medley Bublé evoked memories of yet another great singer of the past, Nat “King” Cole, on “When I Fall in Love” — he made a few irritating changes in the melody and lyric but caught at least some of the eloquence of Cole’s phrasing — and did an odd arrangement of “My Funny Valentine” which he admitted had a “sinister” quality, with some odd boom effects from his drummer and minor-keyed riffs from the strings. The number was photographed in a “sinister,” almost neo-noir way, but at least it was a “different” approach to this once so overperformed a song one 1950’s LP liner-note writer said people were actually walking into record stores asking for albums that did not contain it. After that came the one guest star featured on the program, a Black Canadian (I think) singer whose name, as nearly as I could decipher it from Bublé’s quickly spoken announcement, is Carla McLoren South. She had close-cropped hair that was shorter than Bublé’s, and the song they chose to perform together was Edith Piaf’s standard “La Vie en Rose,” which they sang in a mishmash of the original French and the English translation that got covered by several American artists in the early 1950’s (though the words “la vie en rose” were not translated). Once again, as far as I’m concerned the winner and still champ for the English version is Louis Armstrong — for some reason his gravelly voice rang truer to this song’s naked emotion than the smoother pipes of the crooners who trudged through it — though Bublé’s version with his mystery guest was quite artful and the two voices counterpointed very well. After that there was another historical montage of Bublé’s career and performance footage from a different venue of Bublé’s three biggest original hits: “It’s a Beautiful Day,” “Haven’t Met You Yet,” and “I Want to Go Home.” 

After the quality of the standards Bublé’s own songs seemed to be a letdown, and the final segment of the show returned to other people’s material but didn’t improve things. The next song was “Such a Night,” which was recorded in the early 1950’s by Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters and covered by the white singer Johnnie Ray, though the definitive version remains Dinah Washington’s: on her record she sang it with a boogie shuffle rhythm throughout, but there’s an even better version she filmed for the TV show Harlem Variety Revue in which after she sings the first chorus, she reprises the last 16 bars with an electrifying shift in the rhythm from boogie-shuffle to straight four-four. Bublé appears to have learned the song from Ray’s cover rather than either of the two Black versions, though at least he made a nice noise and once again his tenor sax soloist got a chance to shine. After that Bublé did one of his most ghastly selections, Anthony Newley’s and Leslie Bricusse’s “Feelin’ Good,” a song done to perfection by Carmen McRae on her 1964 live album Woman Talk. Alas, the version Bublé learned it from was Nina Simone’s, which was fine as far as she was concerned but was beset by a terrible arrangement by Hal Mooney, who as house arranger for Mercury Records did his level best to ruin otherwise great records by Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Patti Page and Dinah Washington. Bublé’s version all too faithfully copied Mooney’s ghastly, overwrought chart, and even more than on “When I Fall in Love” he reached for “different” phrasings that didn’t work all that well. Bublé closed the show with Leon Russell’s early-1970’s ballad “A Song for You,” a lovely song (though Russell’s own version suffered from him having virtually no voice at all and, once again, the definitive version was done by Carmen McRae on a live album, this time 1972’s The Great American Songbook) to which he did full justice. My comments on Bublé probably sound appallingly nit-picky: the fact was I enjoyed the show a lot and even the faults I noticed in it were more of the “with all thy flaws, I love thee still” variety. Whatever I think of his interpretations of this song or that, overall Bublé puts on a very pleasant show and it’s nice to hear someone in 2019 sing 1920’s and 1930’s songs with such a deep, rich understanding of what they’re about and how they should go.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Mommy’s Little Princess (Thrilling Films, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Lifetime movie was actually a pretty good one, though a bit disappointing given that Christine Conradt was the screenwriter and I expect better things from her than the Lifetime norm. It was called Mommy’s Little Princess and was slotted into Lifetime’s schedule during a weekend in which they were emphasizing dysfunctional relationships between mothers and daughters — only it’s an ironic context because none of the characters are biologically related as mother and daughter. We see a family of a man, a woman and two girls living together — but the woman, Julianna Mathis (Alicia Leigh Willis), and the man, Greg Trousseau (Jeff Teravainen), aren’t married to each other (despite the implications of his last name!) The two daughters they’re raising are Allie Trousseau (Kelly Whyte), who’s Greg’s biological child but by a previous partner (whom we don’t see; Allie’s real mom is talked about but only to set up the plot point that Allie doesn’t like her and would rather stay with dad); and Lizzy Mathis (Sarah Abbott), whom Julianna adopted after it turned out she’s biologically incapable of having kids of her own. (The official Lifetime synopsis says both Julianna and Greg adopted her but that’s not at all clear in the film itself.) Lizzy is the titular “mommy’s little princess,” and from what we learn about her previous life is that she was the child of a 1-percent woman who was so wealthy she had her own private plane — until she crashed it and died. She was also so, shall we say, “free” with her affections that Lizzy has no idea who her biological father was. The official synopsis says that Lizzy’s real mom was a drug addict and hints that’s why she crashed her own plane, but that’s not at all clear in the film itself. 

Lizzy is a big diva around the house even before she learns a piece of news that sends her prima donna antics into overdrive: her (adoptive) mom Julianna orders both of them tests from a genetics company called “Me and My Genes” (an obvious Conradt pun on the real-life company “23 and Me” — 23 being the number of chromosomes in the human genome, in case you were wondering), and Lizzy discovers from the test results that she’s part of the Wittelsbach (called “Wittelsbaum” in Conradt’s script) family, hereditary rulers of the southern German state of Bavaria. (What you’re likely to know about the Wittelsbachs is that their most famous member was the “mad” 19th century King Ludwig II, who built Neuschwanstein — “new swan castle” — and other insanely designed medieval-style edifices; he was also Gay and the principal patron of composer Richard Wagner, and he gave Wagner money, according to his surviving diaries, in the hope that exposure to the highly heterosexual Wagner’s music would turn him straight.) Lizzy immediately demands that everybody in the family, from Julianna and Greg to the sort-of “sister” she’s never liked to her school acquaintances, teachers and Mila Watson (Benedicte Belizaire), one of two African-American voices of reason in Conradt’s plot this time (the other is Lizzy’s classmate Finlay Breslin, who’s supposed to be part-Black and part-Irish — like Billie Holiday! — and is played quite capably by Jaeda LeBlanc, though “the white” is itself a rather ironic name for a person of color) and the head of a summer camp Lizzy desperately wants to go to. Out of all the possible directions she could have taken this story — a spoiled young girl loses the life of privilege she was raised to expect, ends up in a relatively ordinary suburban family, dreams that she’s “better” than her current existence would indicate and finally discovers a piece of evidence that seems to her to “prove” her superiority — Conradt and her director, her frequent collaborator Curtis Crawford, essentially turn it into a knockoff of The Bad Seed. When Lizzy pressures her parents to enroll her in a week-long “away camp” instead of the “day camp” she’s already in, and Mila tells her that there were only 10 slots available and she just missed out, Lizzy plots her revenge. She sneaks a peek at the records of the students who were admitted and finds one of them, Bronwyn Greenly (Lillian Sagriff), is allergic to penicillin — so she grinds up some penicillin her mom was prescribed on a previous occasion and spikes Bronwyn’s bottled orange juice with it. 

Bronwyn duly succumbs to an allergic attack and so Lizzy gets the slot in week camp — which she’s particularly after because a TV crew is scheduled to film the camp’s student play, the play is Cinderella and she’s determined to portray the lead since the news from Me and My Genes that she’s related to a German noble family makes her feel like she is Cinderella, the girl who’s been plucked from a humble background, magically transformed into a princess and ultimately married off to Prince Charming. There’s even a real Prince Charming in the story, a member of the Wittelsbaum family back in Germany who’s being written up in their media as Germany’s most eligible bachelor. She wants Julianna to dump Greg and marry the German Wittelsbaum so the three of them can live there and Lizzy can finally be accepted as a princess in her own right. Lizzy sees her mom’s chance to marry the German prince and the three of them to become literally a royal family when the Wittelsbaums announce that they’re having their annual house party at the castle to which anyone in the world is invited … in two weeks. Julianna and Greg actually decide to make this a vacation — Greg is an aspiring painter who’s just sold a big commission but it’s clearly Julianna, a hospital administrator, who’s the breadwinner in the family — but obviously it’s going to screw up Lizzy’s plan to “royalize” her mom if Greg and that pesky Allie come along. So she decides to pour vinegar on Greg’s newly completed painting to ruin it and force him to remain home and fix it (in a day-camp art class Mila had helpfully explained to her that vinegar ruins paint) and impregnate Allie’s clothes with poison ivy. (The setting is Philadelphia, in the 215 area code.) Lizzy gets into the week-long “away camp” but has arguments with Mila, demanding the role of Cinderella in the camp play and attacking her, leaving her alone in the bushes, when Mila tells Lizzy she’ll have to audition for it like everyone else. With Mila unavailable to direct it, the camp play is cancelled and Lizzy has a hissy-fit about that. Eventually Lizzy gets so impossible that the other girls get Drew Frommer (Jonathon LeRose, the only genuinely sexy man in the dramatis personae), the camp counselor who takes over from the missing Mila, to expel her.

When she gets back home she learns that Mila was discovered in the woods and she didn’t die — she’s in a coma but expected to recover in a day or two — and, convinced that Mila will report her as her assailant when she comes to, Lizzy decides to run away. She grabs her plane ticket to Germany and hails a cab driver to take her to the airport. He’s a little nonplussed that he’s getting that instruction from an unaccompanied 10-year-old, but Lizzy says, “My mom is meeting me there.” Mom reports Lizzy missing and, among other things, the police send an alert to all cab drivers, instructing anyone who’s picked Lizzy up to drive her home. The cab driver tells her he’s under a legal obligation to do that, but Lizzy escapes and hides out in a pizza parlor — where mom and Allie stand outside the (gender-neutral) restroom and try to coax Lizzy out. Eventually they succeed, and now that Lizzy’s princess pretensions have been exploded by reality — a friend of Julianna’s from work who’s an amateur genealogist found that while Lizzy really does have Wittelsbaum blood in her, it’s too far removed to qualify her for a title — the four dysfunctionals we met at the beginning become a truly integrated family at last. Mommy’s Little Princess is essentially The Bad Seed lite — though Sarah Abbott plays Lizzy devastatingly and even captures the same self-satisifed little smirk Patty McCormick had on her face in the 1956 film of The Bad Seed whenever she offed somebody (suggesting she’d have been a better choice for Lifetime’s recent Bad Seed remake than McKenna Grace), Christine Conradt carefully frames the story so that Lizzy never actually kills anybody. Both Bronwyn and Mila merely get hospitalized from her attacks on them, and apparently both Mila and Bronwyn’s family are understanding enough that they’re not going to press charges. Mommy’s Little Princess is actually a better-than-average Lifetime movie, though the ending is too saccharine and I wanted Lizzy to go full Bad Seed on us and finally face a legal comeuppance for her actions! I love you, Christine Conradt, but I know you can do better than this …

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Outer Limits: “The Architects of Fear,” “The Sixth Finger,” “The Man Who Was Never Born,” “A Feasibility Study” (Villa di Stefano Productions, Daystar Productions, United Artists Television, 1963-1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi movie screening (http://sdvsf.org/) was four episodes of the brilliant, compelling 1963-1965 science-fiction TV series The Outer Limits, selected by the proprietor because they were the highest-rated episodes from the series’ first season on imdb.com — though there was also an odd coincidence in that the first three of the four shows he ran all featured actors who later in the 1960’s achieved stardom in TV series in which they played secret agents: Robert Culp, later Kelly Robinson in I Spy; David McCallum, later Ilya Kuryakin in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (and my first boyhood Gay crush object, though I didn’t realize it at the time!); and Martin Landau, later Rollin Hand in Mission: Impossible. Also, the first two shows were obvious offtakes on the Frankenstein premise: scientists attempt to improve the lot of humanity by tweaking with the human genome, only their experiment goes awry and they’re unable to control the monster they have created. The first show, “The Architects of Fear,” originally aired September 30, 1963, dealt with a secret research group and begins, Citizen Kane-style, with a group of people watching a movie of people fleeing in terror while the unctuous narrator — the one listed as “the Control Voice,” actually actor Vic Perrin, who told us at the beginning of the show that for the next hour “we” were taking control of your TV set (probably a lot more people sat through the opening narration than actually stuck around for the show itself!) — announces, “Is this the day? Is this the beginning of the end? There is no time for wonder, no time to ask why is it happening, why is it finally happening. There is time only for fear, for the piercing pain of panic. Do we pray now, or do we merely run now and pray later? Will there be a later, or is this the day?” Then the house lights go on and we realize that we have merely been watching a film-within-the-film, and the people screening it in the story are a group of scientists who reason that the only way to bring about world peace is to stage a phony “alien invasion” that the world’s nations will need to come together to repel. Accordingly they arrange for a fake spacecraft — actually a real spacecraft, though it’s launched under the guise of a weather satellite — to fly back to earth bearing one of their number who’s been surgically altered to look like a monstrous alien. They draw lots to determine which one will have to undergo the transition — of course when the head of the group was picking the (un)lucky winner I couldn’t help but joke, “Today’s MegaSuperLotto jackpot winner is … ”. 

The “winner” is Allan Leighton, Ph.D. (Robert Culp), who’s put through a series of injections, operations and other medical treatments to remodel him so that he looks like he’s got cream cheese stuck all over his arms, leading to his final “horrifying” appearance in an immobile rubber-and-plastic mask that fortunately director Byron Haskin, showing the same Lewtonian restraint that marked his brief blink-and-you’ll-miss-it depiction of the Martian invaders in his 1953 film of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, doesn’t let the young Conrad Hall’s camera linger too long on. The Outer Limits had an eccentric but often marvelous talent list behind the cameras as well as in front of them: the show’s overall producer was Leslie Stevens, who made one of the worst movies of all time — Incubus, a 1966 would-be horror-thriller set in the California mission country and done entirely in Esperanto, and badly pronounced Esperanto at that — which makes it mysterious indeed that he could have created a show this good, which rivals Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone for inspiration and in some ways comes off better because its episodes were an hour long and therefore left more room for character development and real emotional identification. One of his assistants was Lindsley Parsons, Jr. — I’ve never heard of him in any other context but Lindsley Parsons, Sr. was a producer and sometime director for Monogram in the 1940’s — but in addition to talents with cheesy backgrounds like that, they had some people with excellent credits on their résumés. 

The line producer (and sometimes writer) was Joseph Stefano, who’d written the script for Hitchcock’s Psycho; the directors included Byron Haskin; the cinematographers included Conrad Hall (though even the episodes he didn’t shoot have a marvelously atmospheric quality far beyond what most TV shows of the time were attempting — or what most TV sets of the time were capable of reproducing); and though Dominic Frontiere’s music contains the words “Production Supervisor,” hinting that he was hiring other people to write the scores rather than doing it all himself, the music sounds pretty consistent throughout the episodes and is of a remarkably high quality, suggesting alien-ness without overusing the theremin (as so many sci-fi scores of the period did) or trotting in other electronic effects. Anyway, the “treatments” Professor Culp goes through to make himself look “alien” couldn’t help but remind me of what Transgender people go through during gender-reassignment surgery, but the chief intrigue in Meyer Dolinsky’s script deals with Mrs. Leighton (Geraldine Brooks), who’s convinced her husband isn’t really “Gwiabout what happened to him. Needless to say, in the best Frankenstein tradition of man-made monster stories, nothing ends the way it’s supposed to — or at least anywhere near what the people in charge of the experiment were hoping for — and that unctuous narrator preaches to us at the end of the episode, “Scarecrows and magic and other fatal fears do not bring people closer together. There is no magic substitute for soft caring and hard work, for self-respect and mutual love. If we can learn this from the mistake these frightened men made, then their mistake will not have been merely grotesque; it will have been at least a lesson — a lesson, at last, to be learned,” before telling us the mysterious “we” are now returning control of our TV set to “you” until we tune in next week.

••••••••••

The next Outer Limits episode on the program, “The Sixth Finger,” directed by James Goldstone from a script by Ellis St. Joseph (it’s nice that the episodes of this series — at least the ones we were watching — were by just one writer; it’s long been Mark’s General Field Theory of Cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers), is another Frankenstein-style tale of a scientific experiment gone horribly wrong. This time the setting is a Welsh coal-mining town and the central character is Gwyllim Griffiths (David McCallum), who when we see him is virtually unrecognizable, given that his hair is tousled and he’s covered in coal dust (as is his brother, who’s so covered in the stuff at first I thought his character was supposed to be Black), as the blond cutie-pie from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. He’s got a chip on his shoulder and a The Corn Is Green-style desire to escape from a life in the coal mines. His girlfriend Cathy Evans (Jill Haworth) gives him his chance when she introduces him to a middle-aged man on her route of bread deliveries: Professor Mathers (Edward Mulhare), who’s invented a process to speed up evolution and hopefully create the Nietzschean Superman. Mathers tests Cathy’s blood but decides she’s the wrong “type” for his experiment, but Gwyllim fits his needs perfectly; he locks Gwyllim into a metal box and irradiates him with something or other, pushing a control marked “Forwards” forwards (if you pull it back you go “Backwards” and the evolutionary process is reversed). He’s already tried this with an experimental ape, who retained his ape appearance even though he learned simple human tasks like filing folders in alphabetical order. With Gwyllim, the transformation changes him not only mentally but physically as well: at first it just washes off the coal dust, straightens his hair and makes him look (except for the dark hair) like the David McCallum we know from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Then he starts to go bald as his cranium swells to accommodate the increasing brain power he’s developing — he can read stacks of books in one night, and when he stumbles upon a book of musical score paper he deciphers it instantly and the next thing we hear is him playing that piece (one of the preludes and fugues from Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier) on what at first sounds like a harpsichord but turns out to be a piano. He’s also developed a psychopathic personality and coolly dismisses Mrs. Ives (Nora Marlowe), the maidservant who threatens to report him to the villagers, by using his mental energy to make her heart stop beating, thus chillingly off-handedly killing her. 

By the end of the movie he’s changed appearance so much he looks like one of the Talosians from “The Cage,” a.k.a. “The Menagerie,” the very first Star Trek film (originally rejected but later expanded to a two-part show for the series’ first season), and like them — and the Krell in Forbidden Planet — Gwyllim is talking about using his huge brain energy to dispense with a physical body altogether and become pure mental energy. (If whatever movie theatre that little Welsh coal village had had ever shown Forbidden Planet, Gwyllim would have known that was a bad idea.) The resemblance is probably not a coincidence: Robert H. Justman worked as an assistant director on 20 Outer Limits episode and then repeated that function on the first few Star Trek episodes, and I suspect it was he who brought Gene Roddenberry that makeup. In order to do that, Gwyllim needs another exposure in Dr. Mathers’ evolution machine, and he needs Cathy to run it for him, only in a plot twist we could see coming a mile away Cathy, who just wants her normal boyfriend back, pulls the lever “Backwards” again and Gwyllim reverts all the way back to a rather hirsute cave person before she pushes the lever forwards just enough to turn him into the normal David McCallum. (This is also reminiscent of Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, published in 1961 — two years before this show was filmed — and itself filmed as Charly in 1968, which is likewise about an experiment designed to make someone super-intelligent that goes horribly wrong.) The Outer Limits, like The Twilight Zone (and Tales of Tomorrow, a precursor to The Twilight Zone which didn’t achieve its successor’s cult reputation mainly because it was aired live and all that survives are lousy-quality kinescopes), is proof that there was intelligent science fiction on TV before Star Trek — even though the show got cancelled after only two seasons (The Twilight Zone lasted five and the original Star Trek three, and there were massive hues and cries when their cancellations were announced), though it was rebooted for three seasons in the 1990’s and some of the scripts were remakes of the original episodes. What was unique about Star Trek was that it was the first serious sci-fi show on TV that had continuing characters, rather than an anthology show with different characters (and actors) in each episode.

••••••••••

The two other Outer Limits episodes shown at last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi screening (http://sdvsf.org/) included one that immediately followed “The Sixth Finger” on the show’s original schedule, but some probably long-forgotten show pre-empted it in the intervening week. It was called “The Man Who Was Never Born” and was the third show in a row run at the screening which starred an actor who later became famous on TV playing a secret agent: Martin Landau from the original cast of Mission: Impossible (and from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest before that — so Joseph Stefano wasn’t the only person involved with The Outer Limits who had a Hitchcock connection — in which, at least .as I read the film, he played the Gay lover of James Mason’s Bisexual villain; at the end, when Landau’s character tries to warn Mason’s that his girlfriend, played by Eva Marie Saint, has betrayed him — which she has — Mason drawls out, “Leonard! I do believe you’re jealous!”). “The Man Who Was Never Born” starts out with astronaut Captain Joseph Reardon (Karl Held — “Held” is the German word for “hero,” incidentally) going out for a flight that is apparently bound for a Mars orbit, only he crosses a time barrier and lands on Earth in 2148. No, he doesn’t see a wreckage of the Statue of Liberty on a beach, but he does see a creature with rock-like skin (something like the Thing in the Fantastic Four comics and movies) ambling around. The creature is named Andro (and it’s pretty obvious writer Anthony Lawrence picked that name to make him a representative of the entire human race of his time), and he explains to Reardon that Earth has become a post-apocalyptic wasteland not from nuclear war, the usual popular apocalypse in 1960’s science fiction, but from a genetically engineered disease inadvertently created by a scientist named Bertram Cabot, Jr. 

The few remaining humans (all of whom presumably look like Andro, though we never see any others) have memorized the details of Cabot’s life, including the fact that his mother was named Noelle — of course Andro savors the irony of a woman named for the Christmas holiday giving birth to a son who, instead of redeeming humanity, destroyed it. Reardon offers to take Andro back with him to the Earth of 1963, reasoning that they can intervene to make sure Bertram Cabot, Jr. either never exists at all or never embarks on that horrendous experiment that will kill off most of the human race and leave the few survivors looking like animate rocks. Only it turns out that Earth of 1963 is too far back in time to intervene: Andro, who like the radio version of the Shadow can hypnotize people into viewing him differently — though instead of making himself appear invisible he makes people think he looks like the ordinary humanoid Martin Landau — has moved into a boarding house (shades of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Teenagers from Outer Space) and Noelle is a fellow roomer there. Noelle is expecting to marry her boyfriend, Bertram Cabot, Sr. that weekend while he’s on leave from the Army, and he’s going to settle in that town and work for the local university once his Army hitch ends in a year. Andro makes himself an asshole horning in on Bertram’s upcoming marriage and demanding that Noelle must not marry him — of course, Bertram gets jealous and has reason to believe, for aside from his motive in making sure Bertram Cates, Jr. never gets conceived and therefore isn’t around to create the microbe that destroys the human race, he’s also falling in love with Noelle himself. The sequences between them are dramatized in a wooded area, including a lake into which Noelle releases a frog she’s caught (evoking memories of Little Maria beside the creek in the original 1931 Frankenstein film) and encounters the monster — or, rather, Andro in his actual form, with director Leonard Horn and cinematographer Conrad Hall (again!) going all Griffith and Sternberg on us to dramatize the growing, and thoroughly mutual, attraction between Noelle and Andro. 

Finally Noelle decides she’s not going to marry Bertram after all because she’s in love with her hot young spaceman (at least he’s reasonably attractive when he doesn’t let his guard down and reveal himself in his natural monster state — one conceit in the story is that Andro needs time to hypnotize people into seeing him as a normal human, so if he’s taken by surprise, as the landlady does in one scene, he appears in his monster form and they usually run screaming from him), and rather than stay behind, marry the Army jerk she doesn’t love and who if she does marry him will be the father of the kid that will destroy humanity, she gets on board the spaceship (Reardon was killed on the way back to 1963 Earth because he’d appeared in a time line in which he was not supposed to be) and she and Andro flee — only they both disappear in mid-space because by making sure Bertram Cabot, Jr. never exists, they’ve altered the time line so that they don’t exist. I was sure the plot would have a different resolution and the apocalypse would happen after all — either Andro would carry the plague microbe with him and that’s what would infect the human race, or he would have sex with Noelle before she married Bertram and therefore he’d be the father of the sinister humanity-destroying scientist Bertram Cabot, Jr. — but the way it turns out has a certain jagged appeal even though we’re disappointed that we never get to see how the earth of 2148 turned out without the apocalyptic disease. (Then again, on a 1960’s TV budget it would have been foolhardy even to try to depict that.) Though the derivations in the Outer Limits scripts are obvious, so are the influences this show left on later science-fiction stories; one of the guests at the screening pointed out the similarities between the 1980’s graphic novel Watchmen (and its 2015 film) and the plot of “Architects of Fear” (acknowledged within Watchmen by the appearance of a panel showing one of the characters watching The Outer Limits), and “The Man Who Was Never Born” seems to anticipate “The City on the Edge of Forever,” the beautiful Star Trek episode written by Harlan Ellison (though, typically, he couldn’t stand the way it was rewritten by the usual suspects in Gene Roddenberry’s writers’ room), which is also about a human from the future who has to let his girlfriend die to prevent the entire human race from an evil future fate. Though Ellison contributed to The Outer Limits, he had nothing — or at least nothing credited — to do with this episode, yet the air of bittersweet longing and the pathos of the self-sacrificing leads is very similar.

••••••••••

The last Outer Limits episode shown last night at Vintage Sci-Fi was one I actually remembered from when it first aired when I was 10 — particularly yet another awesomely wrenching and self-sacrificing ending. It was called “A Feasibility Study” and was directed by Byron Haskin (again!). This time the script was by show runner Joseph Stefano himself, and it dealt with a sorry little planet out in the middle of nowhere on the edge of our galaxy. The planet is called “Luminos” and, judging from its overall environment, it appears to be in about the same position relative to its sun as Mercury is to ours. The Luminites, as the inhabitants are known, are the victims of a devastating disease similar to that which afflicted the Earthlings of 2148 in “The Man Who Was Never Born”: they are born normal and active, but in their teens they start to develop lesions that grow over time to cover their skin completely and progressively deprive them of the ability to move. In the intermediate stage of the disease they can still walk slowly, though they lose defined fingers and with them the ability to manipulate objects. At the end they become like rocks, capable of speech but rooted down in one location and unable to move at all. Like the Krell in Forbidden Planet and the Talosians on Star Trek (and the various versions of the initial Star Trek pilot that involved assistant director Robert Justman, who worked in that capacity on 20 Outer Limits episodes and even acts in this one, playing the head Luminite who explains all this to us, were clearly influenced by this story just as the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” was obviously influenced by “The Man Who Was Never Born”!), the Luminites have used their inability to move as a way of becoming ever-more powerful intellectually, making their minds as powerful as possible in order to make up for having useless, immobile bodies. Among the things they’ve figured out how to do is move matter through space almost instantaneously — though they do this not with an effervescent sparkle machine like Star Trek’s transporter, but with a spacecraft (how did they build it?) that looks like a giant badminton shuttlecock and scoops up six ordinary blocks of a Beverly Hills suburb, which it transports to Luminos. The principal Earth characters are two childless married couples who’ve lived next door to each other for at least a year but have never got to know each other until now. Ralph and Rhea Cashman (David Opatoshu and Joyce Van Patten) are the picture-perfect representatives of suburban bliss, while their neighbors the Holms are anything but. 

Dr. Simon Holm (Sam Wanamaker, returned to the U.S. after years of working in England because he was blacklisted for his Left-wing politics) is often out seeing patients well into the night, but he expects his wife Andrea (Phyllis Love) to be waiting for him at home with dinner ready whenever he gets back. Andrea was a globe-trotting magazine photographer before they married and she wants to continue her career and resents being expected to be a stay-at-home wife and give up her career ambitions for her husband. This show originally aired April 13, 1964, 14 months after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique — the criticism of men’s attitudes towards women and the inferior social role women were expected to assume which helped launch second-wave feminism — and it seems to me that in the way he created the Holms Joseph Stefano was dramatizing the issues raised by Friedan’s book and incorporating the social debate it had sparked into his script. In the end the principals realize that the rulers of Luminos have imported them as slaves as part of a “feasibility study” to determine whether they should kidnap the entire population of Earth and set them to the tasks the Luminites can no longer do for themselves since they require manual dexterity — and as the Earthlings realize what’s happened to them (a realization they come to inside a church, in yet another example of how the quasi-official religion the U.S. adopted in the 1950’s — the one which led us to identify our Cold War enemy not merely as Communism but “Godless Communism” and got our money and the Pledge of Allegiance polluted with words like “under God” and “in God we trust” that have told atheistic and agnostic Americans, as well as Americans who don’t believe in an Abrahamic “sky god” religion, that they are at best second-class citizens and at worst not “real” Americans — seeped into quite a lot of science fiction, including the portrayal of the microbes that felled the Martian invaders in The War of the Worlds as a form of divine intervention in the 1953 film — which would have appalled the famously agnostic H. G. Wells if he hadn’t conveniently died seven years before the film was made), they decide the only way they can stop the Luminites from abducting and enslaving Earth’s entire population is to touch each other, thereby giving themselves the Luminites’ disease, rendering them useless as slaves, and letting the Luminites know enslaving Earthlings en masse is “unfeasible” because any other Earthlings they bring to their planet will resist similarly. 

That was the part of this show that has stayed with me all these years — particularly Dr. Simon Holm’s last speech: “We are their guinea pigs. But we are human guinea pigs, which gives us some choice in this experiment... human choice. We can choose to make their enslavement of our Earth infeasible. We can choose not to escape infection. We can deliberately become what they are. My wife has already been infected. I’m going to take her hand. Will someone take mine?” It’s an obvious forerunner not only to “The Cage”/“The Menagerie” on the initial Star Trek — in which the Talosians realize that Earthlings are too rebellious, too attached to freedom, to be anyone else’s servant race — but to the original Alien, which I read as Sigourney Weaver’s character nobly sacrificing her life to keep the alien species from reaching Earth and wreaking havoc on us. (That’s why I was so disappointed when they started making sequels to Alien, with Sigourney Weaver’s character still in them, and resorted to increasingly ridiculous expedients to explain her continued presence — leading up to the fourth one in the sequence, in which she played her own clone.) The Outer Limits remains one of the most compelling science-fiction TV series ever — indeed, I’d rate it ahead of The Twilight Zone if only because its writers didn’t go for the annoying trick endings Rod Serling slapped onto so many of the Twilight Zone scripts — and though the screening proprietor picked these four shows because they were the highest-rated episodes on imdb.com, they were only relatively so — 8.0 ratings instead of 7.2. It’s a show that deserved its cult reputation and, despite the tacky effects (remember that all those rubber-masked monsters were originally meant to be seen on blurry black-and-white TV’s receiving signals over the air), it still holds up surprisingly well.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Warlords of Atlantis (EMI Films, 1978)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Mars movie screenings (http://marsmovieguide.com/) was an odd pairing of two pretty cheap movies — though the second one was considerably better than the first, with a higher production budget, better actors and much more convincing special effects. The first one was a 1964 cheapie called The Wizard of Mars, which is so off the radar that the proprietor was showing it from a VHS tape. That had been shown at the screening in August 2017 — though the person running the screening missed it on his Web search of his own site and thought he hadn’t run it since 2012, which explained why he’d decided to run so tacky a movie so soon. You can read the gory details on my moviemagg blog post from back then, https://moviemagg.blogspot.com/2017/08/the-wizard-of-mars-aka-horrors-of-red.html, and all I’d care to add is that the acting (aside from John Carradine, who was top-billed but the producers could only afford one day of his services, so they used him in front of a black screen so they could show him as a disembodied head à la The Wizard of Oz — this film was supposed to be a pastiche of that classic but doesn’t really work as such, or as anything else for that matter — oracularly declaiming endless and ponderous exposition) is pretty terrible and Eve Bernhardt as the spaceship’s one female crew member, Dorothy, so far as the other end of the talent scale from Judy Garland, is the worst. Her dialogue delivery is such perfect porn-star monotony one wonders whom she was sleeping with to get the part! The other movie on the bill, The Warlords of Atlantis, was made in 1978 and is considerably better: directed by Kevin Connor from what appears to be an original script by Brian Hayles, it’s set in 1896 and stars Doug McClure, who at the same time was making sci-fi films based on Edgar Rice Burroughs novels like At the Earth’s Core and The People That Time Forgot. The Warlords of Atlantis, though not based on a Burroughs work, was clearly in the same sensibility. A wealthy professor of antiquities, Professor Aitken (Donald Bisset), has chartered a small ship, the Texas Rose (an improbable name for a vessel home-ported in Boston; when it’s wrecked at the end of the film I joked that the surviving cast members would be rescued by the Massachusetts Rose out of Galveston!), with a diving bell with no cover in the bottom. This seems to have been Hayles’ idea that if you didn’t seal the bottom of your diving bell, your divers would have the air trapped in the thing as it sank and therefore wouldn’t need pumps to feed them air through hoses so they could stay submerged. Not so, says one imdb.com “Trivia” poster: “An open diving bell cannot go very deep unless it is pressurised. For an open diving bell it would require increasing volumes of air to be pumped into it. Without pressurisation, the air inside the bell would be at the same pressure as the water — it would literally crush the bell but not until all occupants had been squeezed to death.”

The Texas Rose, under the command of crusty old sea-salt captain Daniels (Shane Rimmer) and with a crew of two or three other guys (two fully grown males and one adorable twink whose purpose isn’t readily apparent until the very end, though we can have a lot of fon speculating), sails to the Bermuda Triangle to look for evidence of the lost cities of Atlantis. It’s possible the main reason writer Hayles and director Connor made the diving bell open at the bottom is so the filmmakers could have the two people inside, Greg Collinson (Doug McClure), the diving bell’s inventor; and the scientist’s son, Charles Aitken (Peter Gilmore, who did more for me as an actor and a personality than McClure did), menaced by a giant prehistoric sea creature before the film’s main intrigue begins. (This film was made three years after Jaws and it looks like Connor was quite closely copying Steven Spielberg’s set-ups and the overall approach.) The film’s main intrigue involves a giant sea storm and various giant creatures who emerge to menace the Texas Rose and the diving bell it launches. Ultimately the little craft is sucked under the depths of the sea through a set of undersea caves until it emerges into a nice little patch of dry land and normally breathable air. Collinson and the junior Aitken have no idea what it was or how they got there, but it turns out they’re in Troi, one of the five remaining cities of the seven that originally comprised the lost continent of Atlantis (you remember). Atlantis is ruled by two monarchs who both get “guest star” credits because they come from a far more prestigious part of the movie world than the ones who generated the rest of the cast: Cyd Charisse as Queen Atsil and Daniel Massey (nephew of Raymond Massey, who played Noël Coward in Star!) as Atraxon, who seems to be her prime minister. Their presence puts the rest of the Warlords of Atlantis cast one degree of separation from Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Julie Andrews! Eventually the intrepid explorers find out that much of the population of Atlantis has been abducted from Earth’s surface, imprisoned in a dungeon, then subjected (unwillingly) to a mysterious operation and outfitted with breathing gills behind their ears. As I pointed out in my own imdb.com “Goofs” post, this is ridiculous. If the gills were designed to replace the normal lung-based system land-based creatures use to breathe, the people couldn’t survive in the environment we see, which is dry land and normal air. And if they were designed to supplement the people’s lungs and nose instead of replacing them, the people could still breathe surface air and they wouldn’t have to worry about dying if they tried to escape. Either way, it’s wrong.

Warlords of Atlantis is essentially a succession of scenes with the actors doing battle with various giant menaces, some of them based on really existing sea animals (including the hugely upscaled octopus who serves a deus ex machina function at both the beginning and the end of the film — more on that later) and some of them the creations of Roger Dickens, who gets a well-deserved special credit for “monsters” aside from the rest of the effects crew. At the end — or at least what appears to be the end — the good guys escape Atlantis in the diving bell as it navigates through an underground stream containing a succession of geysers, and I was expecting one of the geysers would catch the open underside of the craft and propel it out of Atlantis and back to the surface world like a rocket, but no such luck and it’s not all that clear how the people in the diving bell do get back to the surface — whereupon writer Hayles and director Connor have another trick to pull on us. Before the principals made it into Atlantis, the Texas Rose was the subject of a mutiny by three assistant crew members because Collinson and Aitken, Jr. had brought up a giant Atlantean totem of solid gold, and the mutineers want to steal it, sail back to a normal human community and either sell the totem itself or melt it down and sell the gold. After the principals get back to the Texas Rose, it turns out that crusty old Captain Daniels (who seemed in the early sequences to be aimed at being this film’s equivalent to Robert Shaw’s characters in Jaws and The Deep, another maritime melodrama made in the 1970’s and set in the Bermuda Triangle) has decided to throw in with the mutineers, kill the Aitkens and Collinson, and join in whatever treasure the others realize on the gold — only, wouldn’t you know it, that giant octopus comes in, kills the bad characters and recovers the gold totem (which in the octopus’s giant arm looks oddly like a chess piece), while the good characters end up in a lifeboat and force the would-be mutineers to swim behind it and push it along. The End — no, there’s no indication of how (or even whether) the principals get rescued. In addition to this film, which they list as Warlords of the Deep, imdb.com lists another project called Warlords of Atlantis as “in development,” though it’s unclear whether it’s going to be a remake of this one or an entirely different story.

Warlords of Atlantis is a silly movie, and it’s very much “of its time” (particularly the cheesy music that accompanies the Texas Rose as it sails in the opening sequences) — it even has anachronisms like “emergency back-up plan,” a phrase I’m pretty sure wasn’t in use in 1896 — but at the same time it’s engaging and there are some clever bits, like the one in which the warlords of Atlantis are explaining their plan to emerge from their underground (and underwater) caverns, conquer the surface world and develop nuclear weapons so they can enslave the whole galaxy. In an attempt to recruit Charles Aitken for this sinister plan, they put a globe on his head and use it to show him movies of Nazi Germany (represented by stock footage from Triumph of the Will — which, as usual when it’s used this way, shows how much greater Leni Riefenstahl was as a director, no matter what you think of her horrible politics, than the “B” filmmakers whose cheesy films her great scenes got shoved into) and nuclear bomb tests. Only Collinson manages to smash the globe from his head and thus end the brainwashing attempt — and of course as the globe smashed I couldn’t help but mutter under my breath, “Rosebud.” When I looked up Warlords of Atlantis on imdb.com the review that came up was from “phil-626,” an over-the-top fan of the film who gave it the maximum 10 stars and wrote, “Made before the onset of CGI effects, this film has an innocent, non-cynical feel. It has monsters, the lost city of Atlantis, guns, fight scenes and more monsters, what more can you ask for in a low budget sci-fi. Films like this are often belittled by people who cannot see beyond their De Niro’s and Oscar nominations.” Well, I like a good monster-fest as much as anyone, but there are quite a few movies in that genre I’d rate above this one, including the original 1933 King Kong (the winner and still the champ!), the 1954 Japanese cut of Gojira (the original Godzilla and the only real rival to 1933’s King Kong), Ray Harryhausen’s The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, and more recently the first 1993 Jurassic Park. And in case you’re wondering how Warlords of Atlantis fit in with a Mars film screening, there’s apparently one fugitive line of dialogue that identifies the Atlanteans as originally being from Mars, but the connection was so tenuous that even the person running the screening wondered whether it belonged in his Mars movie collection.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Aretha! A Grammy Celebration for the Queen of Soul (National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences/CBS-TV, aired March 10, 2019)


by MARK GABRISH CONLAN

Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched last night’s two-hour CBS-TV special Aretha! A Grammy Celebration of the Queen of Soul. The name “Grammy” has become a brand not only for the annual awards show that supposedly showcases the best in recorded music (but has become woefully limited just to the kinds of music that sell the most records today — the Grammy Awards shows used to acknowledge classical, jazz and other non-mainstream musical genres, but no more) but for various “tributes,” including ones to the Beatles and Stevie Wonder. I’ve already written extensively about Aretha in a Zenger’s Newsmagazine blog post, “R.I.P. Lady Soul” (https://zengersmag.blogspot.com/2018/08/rip-lady-soul.html), and as much as I love Aretha and her music I did get irritated at the “first-itis” (my term for people paying tribute to someone who wrongly insist that the people they’re paying tribute to were the first people to do something) at the heart of this show, particularly the references to Aretha as the “Queen of Soul.”
That she was, but only the second Queen of Soul: she ascended to the throne upon the death of Dinah Washington on December 14, 1963, and the succession was confirmed in a “The Queen Is Dead, Long Live the Queen” gesture when Columbia Records, for which Aretha then recorded, called her into the studio in February 1964 to make an album called Unforgettable: A Tribute to Dinah Washington. It doesn’t take away from Aretha’s great achievement to note that just about everything Aretha did, Dinah had done before her — Dinah’s 1955 Mercury record “I Just Couldn’t Stand It No More” sounds uncannily like the sort of material that catapulted Aretha to superstardom when she left Columbia and signed with Atlantic Records in 1967 — or to wonder if Aretha would have become quite as big a star as she did if Dinah had survived a decade longer, into the era of great rock songwriting which Aretha tapped into as a way of bringing her pure Black soul to a white audience (the way Dinah had done with white pop songs like the 1930’s hit “What a Difference a Day Made,” which became Dinah’s first record to break big in the white charts in 1959).
Fortunately for Aretha, Dinah took herself out early (at 39) with an overdose of prescription drugs, while Aretha — like another great Black voice, Ella Fitzgerald — avoided the temptations of the superstar lifestyle, remained rooted in the church values she’d grown up with (her father, Rev. C. L. Franklin, was pastor of the largest and most influential African-American church in Detroit), kept her private life private and lived to be 76.
The Aretha! celebration began with an act that threatened to render everything and everyone else anticlimactic: Jennifer Hudson came out on stage (in her current incarnation, considerably slimmer than she was when she “broke” commercially with her Academy Award-winning performance in the 2006 musical Dreamgirls) and tore through three of Aretha’s songs, “Think,” “Ain’t No Way” (written for Aretha by her sister Carolyn, a major musical talent in her own right — as was the third Franklin sister, Erma, the first singer to record Janis Joplin’s star-making hit “Piece of My Heart”) and “Respect,” a soul song originally written and recorded by Otis Redding — but considerably rewritten by Aretha, who added the “sock it to me, sock it to me” backing-vocal part (originally sung by the Sweet Inspirations, a vocal trio that included Cissy Houston, Whitney Houston’s mother) and the chorus that became an anthem to feminist pride: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T/Find out what it means to me/ R-E-S-P-E-C-T/Take care, TCB.” (The initials “TCB” — which stood for “Taking Care of Business” — were later adopted by Elvis Presley, who hired the Sweet Inspirations away from Aretha, and they appear on his tombstone along with a lightning bolt.)
Hudson’s performances were so breathtaking — earlier the MC introducing her had said that on her deathbed Aretha had told Hudson she should play the lead if they make an Aretha biopic, and it’s hard to understand who could play it better — it was hard to imagine that the motley crew of soul and gospel veterans and modern-day baby divas assembled for the rest of the program could reach her. The next voice we heard was Aretha’s own, courtesy of a film clip of her performing at President Bill Clinton’s inaugural gala in January 1993, singing a song called “I Had a Dream” that seemed like she was reaching from beyond the grave to shame our current President, with his out-front racism and willingness to shut down the government and build walls between countries.
The next segment was an odd one featuring singers Alicia Keys and Sza (pronounced “Sizzah”), who oddly introduced themselves as “sisters” when they’re not — at least in the biological way — though they have similar light-soul voices. Keys’ rendition of “Spirit in the Dark” seemed limp compared to Aretha’s original — but then the only person who ever lived who could keep up with Aretha in that song was Ray Charles, who joined her in mid-performance on her 1970 live album Aretha Live at Fillmore West. Then Sza joined Keys for the lead on a song I didn’t recognize which was either called “Hey, Baby, Let’s Go Away” or “Daydreamin’,” wisely showing off the deep Sade-like voice of Sza in a low-keyed ballad rather than one of Aretha’s gospel-soul flagwavers, which would have been beyond her. Then Keys and Sza did a formal duet on the song “You’re All I Need to Get By,” actually a Motown song written by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson for the Motown artists Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in 1967, and covered by Aretha four years after that.
Fortunately the emotional temperature heated up again when the next artist, Janelle Monáe, came out with a rock-steady verson of one of Aretha’s 1980’s hits, “Rock Steady,” though unlike some of the other artists Monáe only got to sing that one song. After an historical montage featuring highlights of Aretha’s career, the next artist was Andra Day, doing an impassioned cover of another 1980’s Aretha hit, “Freeway of Love” (and heightening the sexual double entendres of the song a lot more than Aretha did).
Kelly Clarkson did a surprisingly soulful version of Aretha’s first Atlantic single, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and the vocal duo Chloe x Halle (that’s how the name is officially spelled!), who unlike Alicia Keys and Sza really are biological sisters, did a nice version of the Aretha Franklin-Annie Lennox collaboration “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves” that, like a lot of Ike and Tina Turner’s covers of white rock songs, started with a soft and slow opening chorus and then sped up and got louder and more intense — though I missed the sheer bravado of the Franklin-Lennox original and wished they could have got Lennox to remake her original part and Tina Turner to take Aretha’s.
Then there was another montage sequence of Aretha herself, including clips of Otis Redding and her singing their rival versions of “Respect” as well as Aretha singing the gospel classic “Precious Lord” at the funeral of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 (a bit of a surprise to me since I’d always thought it was gospel great Mahalia Jackson who’d sung it at King’s funeral, and Aretha who had sung it at Mahalia Jackson’s funeral in 1972) and “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” at the inaugural of President Barack Obama in January 2009.
Then Céline Dion, who came out with a severely butch haircut and a billowing yellow something-or-other below the waist that looked like it could have been used as a floatation device and kept the Titanic from sinking, did Sam Cooke’s final record, the socially conscious “A Change Is Gonna Come,” which Aretha had covered in 1973 (though quite frankly I know the song only from Cooke’s version, one of those eerily appropriate-sounding songs recorded by performers on the eve of early deaths — along with Buddy Holly’s “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” Chuck Willis’s “Hang Up My Rock ’n’ Roll Shoes,” and Jim Morrison’s “Riders on the Storm”). She was followed by a clip of Aretha doing one of her most intense records, her cover of Ben E. King’s hit “Don’t Play That Song” (she raised the temperature and overall intensity much the way Tina Turner did when she covered Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”).
John Legend came out to pay tribute to one of Aretha’s most beautiful and most frustrating records, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The song began as a mock-gospel number written by Paul Simon to showcase the haunting white choirboy voice of Art Garfunkel. The good part of Aretha’s version was that she took it back to its Black church roots and added a moving and haunting introduction, “Don’t trouble the waters … still waters run deep … let it be,” for her backup singers. The bad part was that for some reason she left out the song’s first verse (“When you’re weary, feeling small/When tears are in your eyes I will dry them all”) and only sang the second and third verses, probably to keep its overall length closer to the usual three-minute limit of a pop single (though Simon and Garfunkel’s 4 ½-minute version had already broken the length barrier and become a major AM radio hit, as had the Beatles’ 7 ½-minute “Hey Jude”).
The bad thing about Legend’s cover was that he truncated the song the same way Aretha had; the good thing about it was that he sang with a rare degree of emotional intensity and soul — an approach I’ve heard from him before only in the duet he did with rapper Common on the theme song from the movie Selma. Legend’s other music has seemed to me to be appealing but dull — his performance as Jesus in the live telecast of Jesus Christ Superstar seemed awfully bland for someone playing Jesus Christ, even Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s bowdlerized Britpop-safe version of Him — but this time he, like a lot of other artists on the Aretha! program, rose to the challenge of paying tribute to one of the most openly emotional and committed singers who ever lived.
Next was Carrie Underwood (I think) doing “Do Right Woman — Do Right Man” — the original flip side of the “I Never Loved a Man” single and a far more appealing record ideologically, at least, since “I Never Loved a Man” is a typical blues lament about how much the woman loves the man even though he’s “a no-good heartbreaker … a liar and a cheat,” while “Do Right Woman” is a demand for equality and (dare I say it?) respect: “A woman’s only human/This you should understand/She’s not a plaything/She’s flesh and blood, just like a man.” It’s a song that’s thrown some other people who’ve attempted to cover it — even the haunting-voiced 1970’s singer Phoebe Snow, who missed the enduring superstardom that was her artistic due because she kept dropping out of music for long periods because of both her own and her daughter’s health issues, couldn’t either bring Aretha’s intensity to it or find her own way to project the song — but Underwood’s was quite a good try.
After a brief tribute to Aretha’s own duet recordings and the people who partnered her on them, Fantasia and Rob Thomas came on for a version of the duet Aretha recorded with George Michael, “I Knew You Were Waiting for Me,” which uncannily reproduced the original: a nice little white British boy with a nice little white British-boy voice got totally blown off the stage by a Black singer with incredible reserves of power and soul. Then there was a brief segment in which Motown great Smokey Robinson paid tribute to Aretha and lamented that clashing recording contracts prevented them from making a record together, though they did jam together and appear jointly on TV shows — the tribute included a clip of the two of them on a TV appearance singing “Just to See You Again” and making the listener (this listener, anyway), lament for what might have been …
Then came Alessia Cara, one of my favorite current singers (especially for her shattering lament against the beauty industry, “Scars to Your Beautiful,” even though she contradicted the message by licensing the song for a beauty-products commercial), doing Aretha’s ballad “(Until You Come Back to Me) That’s What I’m Gonna Do” and Yolanda Adams and Common came out for a workout of Aretha’s cover of Nina Simone’s “Young, Gifted and Black.” While I don’t think Aretha’s version was as good as Simone’s (Aretha’s soul screaming was no match, in this case, for Simone’s dark introspection), Adams gave a good account of the song and Common added a rap that paid tribute to the Black community and its talent pool, past and present. It’s the sort of racial-pride rap that I wish we could hear more of instead of the garbage spewed forth by unaccountably popular and highly regarded crap merchants like Kendrick Lamar, and it had the advantage over Lamar’s sleazy productions that you could actually understand what Common was saying — which would seem to me to be the sine qua non of a rap song.
Then came H.E.R., who seems to me to be one of the most amazing recent singers, who was wisely given the assignment to do the Burt Bacharach-Hal David song “I Say a Little Prayer,” originally recorded by Dionne Warwick and later covered by Aretha. H.E.R. understands her own voice and its limits well enough that the version she came up with, though excellent, would have fitted better on a tribute to Warwick than it did on one to Aretha. Then one of Aretha’s surviving contemporaries, Patti Labelle, came on and did a cover of a song called “Call Me” and showed off (as she had on the Grammy Awards a few years ago when a whole gaggle of baby divas tried to cover her song “Lady Marmalade” — and then she walked in and blew them all off the stage as if they were troublesome mosquitoes).
The next-to-last selection was a tribute to Aretha’s roots in the Black church as a gospel singer — not only was she the daughter of Detroit’s leading Black minister but Rev. C. L. Franklin was Chess Records’ best-selling artist (even though his albums were simply recordings of his sermons) and so when Rev. Franklin served notice on Leonard and Phil Chess in 1956 that his 14-year-old daughter Aretha wanted to record a gospel album, they weren’t about to say no. (As things turned out, the album — which I finally scored a copy of as part of a three-CD set of Aretha’s early recordings on the Spanish New Continent label — was a disappointment: instead of having Aretha do a dedicated studio recording they merely took it down during Rev. Franklin’s church services and clipped Aretha’s songs from the singing she’d done in his services with the tape machines they’d set up to make his best-selling sermon records.)
The gospel tribute included Yolanda Adams singing “Never Grow Old” (a song Aretha sang on that early 1956 Chess gospel album), Shirley Caesar singing “Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep,” Be Be Winans doing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (and doing to it what Blind Willie Johnson, Mahalia Jackson and other Black gospel artists did when they had to record white hymns: raising the temperature, intensity, ecstasy and overall power, commitment and soul) and all three belting out the gospel classic “How I Got Over.”

It was hard to imagine what could top that, but the finale wasn’t half bad: Fantasia, Brandi Carlile (another of my modern-day faves), Alessia Cara and Andra Day taking turns on “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” This was the song the Grammy Awards producers had chosen for the Aretha tribute on the last Grammy show (a similar group-sing with Day, Fantasia and Yolanda Adams), and though I could have wished they could have got this song’s writer, Carole King, to perform it (a reverse of the legendary December 2015 Kennedy Center Awards in which Aretha performed it as a tribute to King and revealed a set of vocal chops in incredible order — as I’ve said before, it’s the solid vocal training and technique they learned from Black church choir directors that enabled Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Patti Labelle and other Black soul divas to retain their voices into their 70’s while white singers like Bonnie Tyler and Stevie Nicks blew theirs out well before that), the four singers acquitted themselves well even though Day, as is her weakness, overdid the “worrying,” the soul singer’s ornamentation of a basic melody. Fortunately, the other three singers were there to keep her honest and keep the overall effect from being overdone, though it also underscored Aretha’s relative tastefulness, her skill at doing just the right amount of ornamenting to add emotional intensity to a song without going so far afield of the melody as to destroy it in the process.