Monday, November 20, 2017

45th Annual American Music Awards (Dick Clark Productions/ABC-TV, November 19, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I spent the rest of the evening watching the 45th American Music Awards on ABC, one of those rump “awards” shows produced by Dick Clark Productions (the man finally croaked, but his production company lives on, though I remember reading that it’s either been sold or is in the process of being sold to a Chinese company — oh, well, the Chinese are going to end up owning America after all this is over, especially if the Republican tax bill goes through and leaves us owing an even larger national debt to them) but mainly an excuse to present a succession of music stars in more or less representative performances. The big news about this show was that they were presenting a lifetime achievement award to Diana Ross — and quite frankly, one of the attractions of the show for me was to see how well she’s held up, both physically and vocally. The answer is “quite well” — you had to wait until the very end to hear her, of course, but she did a medley that showed off her voice as it stands now. Her voice sounds pretty much as it did in the glory days — most of the songs in her medley were her solo hits from the 1970’s (the host — more on her later — said that probably everyone remembers the lyrics to all Ross’s songs, to which I naturally responded, “I don’t think too many people out there still know the words to ‘Muscles’,” her attempt at a hit when she briefly left Motown Records for RCA in the 1980’s) and they started out pretty forgettably, but the voice itself is in excellent shape and she didn’t have to resort to the dodges a lot of white singers of similar vintage need: taking down the keys or just dropping the top notes they can’t sing anymore to safer, lower ones. Ross’s medley started with “I’m Coming Out,” then did “Take Me Higher” and “Ease On Down the Road” from The Wiz (of course I’m going to recount my reaction when I heard Diana Ross was being cast as Dorothy in the film of The Wiz — “Not content to trash the legacy of Billie Holiday, she’s going to trash the legacy of Judy Garland as well”) and “The Best Years of My Life” before she closed with a great song, her cover of the Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” that was one of her first solo hits. Before that she was saluted with a montage of her film and TV appearances, including a clip of her singing “Strange Fruit” from Lady Sings the Blues (“They had to ruin it for you,” Charles joked), after which they showed a montage of clips from her film Mahogany and boasted that in addition to starring in the film Ross designed her own outfits for it (remember that she was playing a fashion model who had three men lusting after her, including Anthony Perkins doing essentially Psycho lite and the one she finally ended up with, Billy Dee Williams, her co-star from Lady Sings the Blues this time cast as a Black community activist in Chicago clearly modeled on Jesse Jackson). When I saw Mahogany I thought it was comparatively inoffensive next to Lady Sings the Blues but it also wasn’t much as a movie — it was essentially a 109-minute music video for one of her best solo records, “Do You Know Where You’re Going To?”

Ross’s segment came at the end of a three-hour extravaganza hosted by her daughter, Tracee Ellis Ross, one of the stars of the hit sitcom Blackish which by pure coincidence (not!) just happens to air on ABC, and as La Diana wrapped up the show she was surrounded on stage by her children and grandchildren, many of whom looked awfully white (remember that both Ross’s husbands have been white men). The show opened with a duet by Pink (blessedly earthbound, which was not the case for her later appearance on the show — see below) and Kelly Clarkson doing R.E.M.’s classic “Everybody Hurts” as a tribute to the recent terrorism victims in New York, Texas and elsewhere. It was one of the best moments of the show, largely because it was one of the few times a song of real weight and power was sung by voices capable of doing justice to it. Then, after they gave out a few awards — as usual in a show like this these days, the “awards” just seemed like an afterthought to the performances — Demi Lovato, who somehow got the reputation as a lightweight but strikes me as a singer of real power and soul, did “Sorry/Not Sorry,” a show about male-female relations and the different expectations straight people of both genders bring to their encounters and yet another anthem in which women are saying that they’re no longer going to take being exploited by sexist, domineering or abusive men. Next up was Nick Jonas attempting to pursue a post-boy band career with a song called “Where to Find You” (some of the titles are my best guesses because the titles weren’t always announced on air, a recurring annoyance to me about music shows), after which Hailee Stansfield (another young singer who’s quite impressed me, not only because she’s a strong, emotionally powerful singer but she’s written a piece with a positive message to young women to believe in themselves and not follow the entertainment and fashion industries’ expectations of what a “beautiful woman” must be) and someone named Bebe Rieza (or something like that) joined Florida Georgia Line, a more or less “country” group, for “Let Me Go.” After that “adult contemporary” award winner Shawn Mendes sang “Ain’t Nothing Holding Me Back” — it was a nice song and Mendes was easily the sexiest guy on the show (Nick Jonas has not weathered the years well — even though he’s still young, he’s got an angular face and those Clark Gable ears: if I were he I’d grow my hair longer to cover them up), but it’s interesting that the men on the program were doing old-fashioned (lyrically, not musically) songs about manipulating women into having sex with them, while the women were singing anthems of strength, defiance, independence and autonomy.

Though there were a few of the now-obligatory “digs” at Trump and his politics, mostly at the beginning and the end, what moved me most about the show’s politics was precisely the messages of independence that came from virtually all the songs sung by women — and it also confirmed my belief that for the last quarter-century (ever since the emergence of Tori Amos in 1990) the torch of creativity in popular music has passed from men to women: both the biggest stars and the most artistically advanced musicians of today are female. Another woman with a voice of strength and power, Selena Gomez, made a rare TV appearance with a song called “To Get to You” and was the first performer on the bill to do one of those overwrought productions that annoy me about many modern music shows — all too often I’ve seen a singer whose voice was powerful enough to move people without all the frou-frou drown herself in production values (the worst example these days is Beyoncé, whose real talent is as a soul singer in the Dinah Washington/Diana Ross mold but who’s drowning herself in ridiculous production numbers even Busby Berkeley would probably have regarded as over-the-top) — though it was a good enough song to withstand the video assault. After that came an inexplicable salute to the 25th anniversary of one of the worst movies ever made with a major musical star, The Bodyguard (if you want to read the gory details of how I feel about this film, see https://moviemagg.blogspot.com/2012/02/bodyguard-warner-bros-1992.html), and instead of doing what I would have done if I wanted for whatever reason to pay tribute to The Bodyguard — bring on the still-living Dolly Parton to sing “I Will Always Love You,” which she not only wrote but sang far more understatedly and, therefore, more powerfully than Whitney Houston did — the producers gave Christina Aguilera a medley that include “I Will Always Love You” and two other songs from the film, “I Have Nothing” and “I’m Every Woman.” Aguilera seemed determined to out-Houston Houston on “I Will Always Love You” and take the song even farther from its plaintive white-country origins, practically screaming out the last verse in a higher key than the rest. I generally like Christina Aguilera but her voice is considerably better than some of the uses she and the people running her career have put it to, and that was certainly true last night.

Then, after a snippet of one of the contestants of the revitalized American Idol — an intriguing singer named Masia doing, of all things, a bit of Billy Eckstine’s early-1950’s hit “Fool That I Am” (there were a few instances in which you could actually vote on some of the awards, but true to form, ABC allowed you to vote only if you lived on the East Coast: in the contemptible tradition of East Coast media mavens once again reminding us on the West Coast that we suck hind tit as far as the media establishment is concerned, they showed the program out here on a three-hour tape delay and by the time we got to see it, all the public voting opportunities had been closed), Lady Gaga was shown from the middle of a performance in Washington, D.C. (the main part of the program was done in L.A., which makes the West Coast being made to suck hind tit again with a time delay even more infuriating), doing something called “I’ll Fool You with My Love” and looking great, in a white knit outfit over a flesh-colored body stocking. The piece wasn’t much but at least it was well structured — one of the things I like about Gaga is that, unlike a lot of dance music artists who just bark a few words out over a dance groove and call it a “song,” her songs have identifiable beginnings, middles and endings, and this one in particular began with a long piano-and-vocal introduction which Gaga, playing the piano herself, used to remind us that she’s really a classically trained musician. Then rapper Macklemore did a duet with a woman whose name I wrote down as “Spartan Grail” (I highly doubt I got it right!), something supposedly inspirational which I assume was called “I Feel Glorious” after the refrain the woman was singing in counterpoint to Macklemore’s too-fast rapping. After that came an odd number by someone who calls himself Portugal: The Man, “Feel It Still” — the lyrics proclaim his desire to re-live the 1960’s, and the stage set and in particular the light projections did evoke the 1960’s rock shows, but Portugal: The Man wears his hair super-short and has little glasses that make him look much more like a nerd than a hippie. Still, it’s a nice song. Then one of my current favorites, Alessia Cara, came out with someone named Zed for one of her emotionally wrenching songs, “Stay,” and after that a Black artist named Khalid (heavy-set and with way too much beard, but cute enough I couldn’t help but wonder what was under those baggy tan shorts) joined the rock group Imagine Dragons for “Lightning and Thunder” (usually those two words come in the reverse order in song titles, but Imagine Dragons deserve credit for putting the L-word first, since because light is faster than sound you see the lightning flash before you hear the thunderclap).

Then Pink came back for a song called “Nothing but You” — and ramped up her Cirque du Soleil antics to totally absurd lengths, rappelling herself and her backup singers and dancers up the side of the Marriott Hotel and singing the song virtually in mid-air. I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened if a Vegas-type shooter had decided to attack the event and been able to pick off Pink while she was floating helplessly with nothing to keep her in place but a thick wire cable. Then someone named Niall Horan did a song called “Slow Hands” — Charles, who’d come home by this point, joked, “Where is Alicia Pointer when we need her?” — though I answered that Horan’s song could be considered an answer record to the Pointer Sisters’ big hit. The final numbers before Diana Ross’s tribute were a medley of two songs by Kelly Clarkson — one her first hit from her star-making win of the first American Idol and one her current record (she’s got pretty heavy-set by now but that voice is still powerful, and 15 years later it’s still intact) — and a bizarre performance by a six-man South Korean boy band called BTS, whose song was pretty incomprehensible because its lyrics are a mishmash of English and Korean and are spat out at such a rate it would be hard to understand them even if you knew both languages. The 45th annual American Music Awards was quite a good show in may respects — especially when women were performing; as I noted above, for the last quarter-century women in music have been considerably more creative than their male counterparts, both in terms of performance (the voices of modern-day pop women are strong and powerful, while most of the men sound pretty wimpy and the few that don’t, like Frank Ocean and Drake, weren’t on this program) and in terms of songwriting: men are still writing songs about wearing down women or tricking them into sex, while women are writing songs that say, “Oh, no, you don’t! I’m just as strong and powerful as you are, and we’re not having a relationship unless you meet my needs!”

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Reptilicus (Saga Studios, Cinemagic, American International,1961)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I cooked my home-care client John P.’s dinners and also one of my own (I’d bought myself some pork chops as a treat and also made up a salad), and when our houseguest Peter returned from doing laundry he and I jointly watched one of the most horrible films ever made: Reptilicus, a Sidney Pink production from American International that was made in Denmark in 1958. It’s your standard-issue revivified-dinosaur monster movie, with singularly bad acting all around (the all-Danish cast acted in English, which they all spoke so s-l-o-w-l-y that, except for two impossibly perky girls who were obviously channeling Sandra Dee as Gidget, the women all sounded like Greta Garbo on Quaaludes and the men all sounded like John Wayne on heroin) and a ridiculous script. This is the sort of movie that really belongs on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 — as it was, all Peter and I could do about it was do a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 number on it by ourselves (which annoyed John P. no end — he was sitting at the dining table, which meant he couldn’t see the movie but he could get a good idea of its quality, or lack of same, just by listening to its soundtrack) — especially the special effects, which were done with a unique process Pink owned called “Cinemagic.” Basically, this meant drawing the monsters with two-dimensional animation and then processing them into the screen with live actors and real backgrounds — which resulted in a monster so blatantly fake-looking that it made Godzilla look like the Jurassic Park T. Rex by comparison! And the monster itself was the best of the effect; when it lifted up a person to eat him, the person became an out-and-out cartoon in mid-scene; and when it attacked, it did so by spewing blatantly animated-looking green slime all over the scene, which then freeze-framed like the famous sound-effect balloons in the old Batman TV show (and the appearance of the green slime suggested to me that instead of bringing in the U.S. Army to fight the monster, the Danish authorities should have called in the Ghostbusters — in which case this movie would at least have been funny by intent!). — 4/25/98

•••••

Last night’s “Vintage Sci-Fi” movie night in Golden Hill (http://sdvsf.org/) was a tribute to the giant-lizard genre and featured one unsung masterpiece — the original 1954 Japanese version of Godzilla, Gojira, which I gave a rave review to on moviemagg.blogspot.com when Charles and I watched it together on DVD (https://moviemagg.blogspot.com/2014/12/gojira-aka-godzilla-original-version.html) and which I still regard as one of only two truly great movies ever made in the giant-monster genre (the original 1933 King Kong is the other) and which engendered the same reaction from some of the attendees (particularly the ones who’d never seen it before) that Charles and I had had: it’s a far, far better film than the tacky, heavily re-edited and with new scenes added (that’s how Raymond Burr got to be in it) by distributor American International and former Warner Bros. “B” director Terry Morse that we got in 1956. Alas, that’s not the movie we’re dealing with here: the other film on the Vintage Sci-Fi bill was a 1961 production called Reptilicus, a co-production of the Danish Saga Studios and Cinemagic, a U.S. indie headed by a character named Sidney Pink. According to his Wikipedia page, Pink got his start as an associate producer on one of the most legendarily bad movies of all time, Bwana Devil (1952), the one that introduced 3-D to American moviegoers (there had been sporadic exhibitions of 3-D movies before but this was the one that started the craze) and was promoted with the slogan, “A Lion in Your Laps — A Lover In Your Arms!” (One foreign-film distributor spoofed this ad campaign and advertised one of their releases, “What do you want — a good movie or a lion in your lap?”) 

He’s also credited on Wikipedia as an associate producer on Arch Oboler’s The Twonky (but then they date The Twonky as 1953 when every other source, including the old Filmfax article that was my primary source for information on it, says 1950), and Pink went on to produce movies with titles like I Was a Burlesque Queen (1953), Flame Over Viet Nam (1957 — and it would be interesting to see how Viet Nam and its conflicts were depicted in an American film almost a decade before the major phase of the war) and The Angry Red Planet (1959). The Angry Red Planet was an intriguing plot premise — Pink and his writer, Ib Melchior (Lauritz Melchior’s son and a writer specializing in science-fiction novels and movie scripts), had the idea that instead of doing yet another story about Martians invading Earth they’d do one about earthlings invading Mars — but it went wrong at almost every turn, including a much-ballyhooed but absolutely terrible effects technique called “Cinemagic.” “Cinemagic” was basically an attempt to patch in animated cartoons into live-action films (something Walt Disney had been experimenting with since the 1920’s!), and in The Angry Red Planet not only were the monsters (including the engagingly named “Ratbatspidercrab,” spelled as all one word) either puppets or cartoons, the action shifted to a solid red tint whenever a scene took place on the Martian surface (it’s “the angry red planet,” get it?) and the whole effect was tacky (albeit engagingly tacky). For some reason I had thought Reptilicus was made before The Angry Red Planet, but its imdb.com page says it was two years later and it was planned from the get-go as a U.S.-Danish co-production (though oddly Ib Melchior, despite his Danish ancestry, doesn’t seem to have been involved in the Danish version). 

Pink and Melchior came up with a standard-issue Godzilla knockoff in which a group of copper miners in Lapland (which the filmmakers seemed to think was part of Denmark, which it isn’t) would come upon blood in one of their core samples and would dig up a frozen animal from the Cretaceous era, a sort of reptilian missing link between dinosaurs and mammals. Their idea was to film in Denmark and to use an exclusively Danish cast (Nora Hayden, who’d starred in The Angry Red Planet and whom Charles remembered as the author of self-help books, including one aimed at men to teach them how to sexually satisfy a woman, was offered a part in this one but turned it down because she wanted top billing) but one who were bilingual in Danish and English, so Pink could use their actual voices for the dubbed English version. Only when Pink sent the finished film to American International, they decided that the Danish-accented English voices would be unacceptable to an American audience (did the “suits” at AIP actually think anyone who went to the drive-ins where their movies were playing really watched them?), so they erased the soundtrack and dubbed in new voices speaking American English. (AIP would do that again when they got the U.S. rights to the first Mad Max: they decided that the Aussie accents on the original soundtrack would put off American viewers, so they redubbed the whole film from Australian English to American English — Mel Gibson got to do his own dubbing but the rest of the cast had voice doubles.) Reptilicus is pretty much your standard-issue monster movie, and though there’s a review on imdb.com by a Danish viewer who grew up with the Danish original and says some of the more risible elements in the one we saw last night weren’t in the one he saw as a kid, like the monster emitting green slime (we see the stuff spurt out but never see what it does when it lands, though since the dialogue tells us it’s “acid slime” it presumably dissolves whatever it touches and instantly kills anyone in its vicinity) and the scene in which Reptilicus comes on a farmhouse and eats the entire family living there — who turn into cartoons on their way into Reptilicus’s mouth. (According to imdb.com, the boy who’s consumed as part of this unfortunate household was Ib Melchior’s 12-year-old son Dirk.) 

The effects work on Reptilicus is a bit better than on Pink’s previous productions — the monster itself is convincing enough (I suspect it was done with good old stop-motion animation rather than the more common 1950’s expedient of gluing fins, tusks, spines and whatnots to actual lizards, filming them in slow motion and trying to pass them off as dinosaurs), and if the imdb.com “trivia” posters are to be believed, the tacky effects I found so ridiculous the last time I saw this are AIP’s faults, not Pink’s or his Danish co-director’s, Poul Bang. It’s just not a very good movie (and I doubt that watching the Danish version would be the sort of revelation watching Gojira was after being familiar with AIP’s butchery of that masterpiece), a by-the-numbers film with one genuinely hot-looking actor (Bent Meiding as Svend, the mining supervisor who discovers Reptilicus in the first place), one really repulsive comic-relief character (Dirch Passer, who was apparently actually popular in Danish comedies at the time, as “Petersen”), a bunch of fuddy-duddies playing professors and a plot conceit that Reptilicus could regenerate his entire body just from its tail once the frozen tail the miners had found out and turned over to scientists. There’s also a U.S. general who commands the fight against Reptilicus — who, naturally, can’t be harmed by firearms or even artillery because of the spines that grow out of his body — and either Carl Ottosen, who played him on screen, or whoever supplied his voice for the U.S. version seemed to think that if he delivered all his lines like John Wayne he’d sound suitably tough. There’s also a tag scene in which, after one of the professors has declared that Reptilicus is dead (thanks to a well-aimed shot with a bazooka rocket into his mouth) and there’ll be no more of his kind left, the film cuts to an underwater sequence in which a limb previously severed from Reptilicus’s body seems to be starting to grow into a new one. Apparently either Sid Pink or someone in his operation thought Reptilicus was going to do well enough to merit a sequel; fortunately, they were wrong … — 11/19/17

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Conquest of Space (Paramount, 1954-55)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’ve screwed up my sleep schedule royally of later, this time staying up so I could record the 1955 movie Conquest of Space from the Sci-Fi Channel. It’s the fourth and last of George Pal’s cycle of science-fiction movies in the early 1950’s (following Destination Moon in 1950, When Worlds Collide in 1951 and The War of the Worlds in 1953) — and also by far the least of them in terms of quality. Based on a book by “astronomical artist” Chesley Bonestell and expatriate German rocket scientist Willy Ley (who had been one of the technical advisers on the very first major feature on space travel, Fritz Lang’s 1928 Woman in the Moon), Conquest of Space is gorgeous to look at — Paramount was still using three-strip Technicolor while other studios were abandoning it for cheaper but far inferior in-house processes, and Bonestell’s vivid matte paintings and designs (an art director is credited but it’s clear Bonestell was primarily responsible for the look of this film) give it a beautiful sheen even though there are some bizarre boners in his work (for example, it never occurred to him that a view from the Earth from outer space would show it mostly covered by clouds — which made the first actual photos of Earth from space highly disappointing to me when I saw them because they didn’t look like Bonestell’s paintings!). Alas, it’s really a terrible movie; without the work of a major novelist to draw on (as they’d had with Heinlein in Destination Moon, Wylie in When Worlds Collide and Wells in The War of the Worlds), Pal and his writers fell back on every tired old cliché from World War II movies, from the arrogant commanding officer who dragoons his son into his special operation to the ethnically mixed (all white[1] but from different Euro-American nationalities) crew, to animate this space opus. Add to that a no-name cast (the only actor whose name I recognized was Eric Fleming, who starred in the TV series Rawhide — his sidekick was the then-unknown Clint Eastwood) and what you ended up with was a movie that was technically impeccable and visually beautiful, but dramatically deserved to be on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. — 9/18/97

•••••

Last night’s Mars movie screening at Golden Hill (http://marsmovieguide.com/) featured a short about three astronauts who are sent on the first [hu]manned spaceflight to Mars but who crash-land and die from lack of oxygen; an episode of My Favorite Martian that was probably the funniest I’ve seen (it’s called “Rx for Martin” and deals with the Martian, played by Ray Walston, falling down stairs, spraining his ankle, ending up in the hospital and confounding the doctors since a Martian’s vital signs are so different from an Earthling’s); a rerun of a film shown on the proprietor’s “Vintage Sci-Fi” program two years earlier called World Without End which he wanted to re-screen because he’d previously shown it from an old VHS tape with washed-out color and no attempt to letterbox or pan-and-scan the image (instead the people doing the tape just put up what was in the middle of the screen, which led to a lot of half-people on either side) and now there’s a letterboxed DVD with a beautiful transfer that does justice to the rich, vibrant color scheme of the film (for my previous comments on World Without End see https://moviemagg.blogspot.com/2015/09/world-without-end-allied-artists-1956.html); and the co-feature, a film from George Pal’s sci-fi unit at Paramount called Conquest of Space. The Conquest of Space (the book uses the definite article; the film title does not) began life as a series of spectacular paintings of astronomical vistas by artist Chesley Bonestell, who in the 1940’s and 1950’s became known as the mainstream media’s go-to guy for what the rest of the solar system was likely to look like. My stepfather had a copy and I recall it as a large-format “coffee-table” book dominated by Bonestell’s glorious paintings with brief bits of explanatory non-fiction text by Willy Ley, who’d been one of the German rocket scientists under the Weimar Republic and later under the Nazis; he was an uncredited technical advisor on Fritz Lang’s 1928 film Woman on the Moon and, like credited technical advisor Dr. Hermann Oberth, was recruited by the U.S. after the war to work on our rocket program. 

George Pal was a Hungarian-born puppeteer who drifted into filmmaking after his original choice for a career, architecture, dried up during the Depression. In the early 1930’s he’d risen to be the head of the cartoon department at Berlin’s UFA Studios until the Nazi takeover forced him to flee, first to Prague and then to Eindhoven, The Netherlands, where he and his wife developed a series of stop-motion films using animated puppets. Paramount signed Pal to a producer’s contract and gave him a unit and the necessary equipment to produce what they called “Puppetoons,” one-reel shorts with animated puppets — the only one I’ve seen was The Perfume Suite from 1947, which featured Duke Ellington in live action interacting with a bunch of animated perfume bottles as Ellington and his orchestra played the first three movements of the suite that gave the film its title. In 1950 Pal wanted to branch out into features, so he bought the rights to several stories Robert A. Heinlein had written about humans’ first trip to the moon (which Heinlein, a Right-wing Libertarian politically, had envisioned being financed by private entrepreneurs because the government wouldn’t have the vision to fund it publicly) and developed them into a script, with Heinlein as one of the credited screenwriters as well, called Destination Moon. Paramount’s executives turned the project down because they didn’t think a film about travel to the moon would have an audience, so Pal took it to the independent Eagle-Lion company (formerly PRC) and made it there. It was an enormous hit, and by chance the theatre Eagle-Lion booked it into in New York was two blocks up from Paramount’s office building, so all the “suits” at Paramount got to watch the long lines of people waiting to pay to see the film they had turned down. 

They got the message and re-signed Pal to make more science-fiction films for them, and for his next project they gave him the rights to Philip Wylie’s 1932 novel When Worlds Collide, which they’d bought for Cecil B. DeMille but then canceled because they didn’t think there’d be enough of an audience for a science-fiction subject. When Worlds Collide was a hit and Pal’s next science-fiction film, a 1953 adaptation of H. G. Wells’ classic novel The War of the Worlds (ironically another project Paramount had bought decades earlier for DeMille!), was an even bigger hit. So in 1954 Pal and Byron Haskin, his director on The War of the Worlds, re-teamed for a film ostensibly based on the Bonestell-Ley book The Conquest of Space but actually a screen original by a writing committee. The film credits three writers with “adaptation” — Philip Yordan, Barré Lyndon and George Worthing Yates — and James O’Hanlon for the final script. What they did was basically shoehorn the multi-ethnic military unit that had been de rigueur in films made about and during World War II and stick them on a mission to space. The film begins on “The Wheel,” the giant space station designed and built by Col. Samuel T. Merritt (Walter Brooke) as a jumping-off point for a trip to the moon. A peculiar-looking spaceship is being built in space next to “The Wheel” by construction crews based there — like Arthur C. Clarke on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Gene Roddenberry on the original Star Trek, the authors of Conquest of Space had posited that the spaceship would actually be built in space so it could fly to wherever it was going without having to contend with passing through earth’s atmosphere or escaping its gravity. The initial conflict of the film is set up between Col. Merritt and his son, Captain Barney Merritt (Eric Fleming, one of the great might-have-beens in cinema history; in the early 1960’s he did a TV series about cattle drives called Rawhide and got offered the lead in an early “spaghetti Western” called A Fistful of Dollars, only he turned it down and the producers instead went with the actor who’d played Fleming’s sidekick, “Pardner,” on Rawhide, a man named Clint Eastwood of whom you’ve no doubt heard since). 

Though participation in the space service was supposed to be strictly voluntary, Col. Merritt signed his son up for him without asking him first, and Capt. Merritt has asked for a transfer to Muroc Air Force Base (itself a legendary name in the early space program, as anyone who’s read Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff or seen the film based on it will know; it was out in the California desert and was later renamed Edwards, and it was where Frank Yeager first set off on the flight that would break the sound barrier and most of the other experimental X-plane flights took off from there as well) — only everything chances when the Merritts receive sealed orders that their spacecraft is not going to go to the moon after all, but to Mars. (There’s a neat bit of exposition before the “reveal” in which one of the Merritts asks why the ship has been equipped with wings, which wouldn’t be needed for flight over the airless moon but would be helpful if the ship went somewhere that has an atmosphere.) The Merritts assume command of a crew that includes Sgt. Imoto (Benson Fong — nearly a decade after World War II ended they were still casting Japanese characters with Chinese actors!), André Fodor (Ross Martin, in his first film) and Jackie “Brooklyn” Siegle (Phil Foster), along with Sgt. Mahoney (Mickey Shaughnessy), a long-time friend and aide to General Merritt (his promotion from Colonel was contained in those sealed orders) whose relationship to him is depicted in surprisingly homoerotic terms for a 1954 movie. (That’s the copyright date, though imdb.com dates it as 1955.) The trip to Mars goes reasonably well until an antenna on the spacecraft jams, cutting them off from radio contract with mission control on “The Wheel,” and during the extra-vehicular activity needed to repair it Fodor is lost in space and dies. This sends General Merritt bonkers; from a hard-nosed but relatively rational scientist he suddenly turns into a religious lunatic, raving about the Bible and how nothing in it gives man permission to explore space, and ultimately trying to sabotage the project by blowing up the ship once it reaches Mars. (The fact that the villain is motivated by religious fanaticism makes this unusual for a 1950’s sci-fi films; usually the religious people were the good guys and the scientists the bad guys, as in The Thing, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and all those other movies in which the scientists give up their lives in a desperate, foredoomed attempt to reason with the monster. This reflects the same institutional religiosity of the period that defined our Cold War enemy as not just “Communism” but “Godless Communism,” and in which the words “under God” were stuck into the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” was put on our money.) 

So Captain Merritt has to shoot and kill his own father to save the ship and the rest of the crew, and Sgt. Mahoney goes ballistic with anger and hurt, threatening to report the younger Merritt and get him court-martialed for killing the older one. But thanks to the older Merritt’s sabotage attempt, the crew has virtually no water to sustain them for the months they will have to remain on Mars until it and Earth are once again close enough in their orbits for the crew to return home — until they’re saved when an unexpected snowfall on Mars proves that the Red Planet has water after all. There are some weird bits in Conquest of Space — like the sudden cut from the science-fiction stuff to a big musical production number with an Arabian Nights theme, featuring Rosemary Clooney as a singing, dancing harem girl, that turns out to be a film screening on board the “Wheel” (the film is the 1953 Paramount production Here Comes the Girls) — but mostly it’s pretty straightforward 1950’s sci-fi. The character conflicts may be pretty simple, but just the fact that there are any makes this an unusual movie for the time. One odd and less positive aspect of Conquest of Space is that there are surprisingly few special-effects shots, and the ones there are don’t seem all that interesting: despite some quite illustrious names in the technical credits (the cinematographer is Lionel Lindon from the original King Kong and the head of the effects crew is John P. Fulton, the man who figured out how to make Claude Rains invisible), there are a few process shots with tell-tale black lines around the forward images, a sure sign of sloppy process work. Still, I was quite impressed by Conquest of Space: I’d seen it before on American Movie Classics back when that was still a movie channel, but this time around it came off considerably better, generally well produced and with a level of characterization in its people that, while not especially sophisticated, certainly set this above a lot of science-fiction films of its time. — 11/18/17


[1]  — Not so: see below.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Batman: The Movie (20th Century-Fox, William Dozier Productions, Greenlawn Productions, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Batman: The Movie, the 1966 film with the TV-show cast (and a thoroughly stupid plot involving a scheme to take over the world by turning the members of the U.N. Security Council into a glittery powder with the sinister “dehydration machine,” then rehydrating them). The campy conceits of this plot line were better done on the TV show, where you only had to watch them for half an hour at a time (at that length, they were funny!). Over feature-film length,the gags got a bit wearing after a while, and Adam West and Burt Ward looked merely tired through much of the film (West in particular seemed exhausted by the sheer effort involved in the attempt to pronounce this drivel as if it were meaningful dialogue), but on the whole, it was at least an entertaining movie, and the guys I screened it for seemed to like it. — 2/3/96

•••••


I went through the DVD backlog and brought out my copy of the 2001 DVD reissue of the 1966 film Batman: The Movie, thinking it would make an interesting comparison/contrast with the 1989 Batman I had screened us last Sunday. It certainly did: as the reviewer from imdb.com whose post came up with I downloaded their page on the film (with the oddly appropriate screen name “spikeopath”) said, “Remember when Batman was fun? Not a serious scene in sight, no tales of revenge or personal demons to burst from the screen in a day glow burst of thunder. For many of us who grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s this was the only Batman that mattered, pure unadulterated fun, all campy veneer and skin-tight Technicolor suits.” I’ve seen Batman: The Movie several times, first on TV in black-and-white (which is how I first saw the TV series as well, since I didn’t regularly have access to a color set until the early 1970’s), then on the VHS release (which, pack rat that I am, I still have) and now on this beautifully transferred, luminous DVD release. (It was put out when the DVD format itself was just three years old and it has a humorous promo at the beginning with the “suits” at 20th Century-Fox hailing the state-of-the-art excellence of the DVD format, which has since been displaced in the relentless pace of planned ultra-obsolescence of anything involving computer technology for consumers by Blu-Ray and now “4D UHD Blu-Ray”). The original plan of Batman: The Movie’s producer, William Dozier (who earlier had been the final studio head at RKO in its dog days in the mid-1950’s, during the three years between Howard Hughes’ sale of the company in 1955 and its going out of business in 1958, during which — as I’ve commented before — RKO seemed to be going through a sort of corporate post-traumatic stress disorder: maybe corporations are people after all!), was to release the property first as a feature film and then spin it off on TV. But the plans got changed when ABC, then the last and weakest of the three major TV networks, asked for the series to start as a mid-season replacement in January 1966. 

ABC, sucking hind tit with show producers and studios generally — so many shows on the network had such short runs the joke around Hollywood was, “You want to know how to end the Viet Nam War? Put it on ABC and it will be canceled in 13 weeks” — liked Dozier’s idea that each show would be run in two half-hour parts, with an old-style serial “cliffhanger” ending part one on Wednesday night and the second part shown the following Thursday. Batman debuted in January 1966 and became an immediate sensation; I remember watching the first episode with my mom, and about midway through episode one she suddenly declared, “It’s camp!” I’d never heard the term before — to me “camp” meant an outdoor facility to which parents sent their kids in the summer (not me, though; I never went to summer camp, just as I never joined the Boy Scouts) — but it was in the air: two years earlier Susan Sontag had published her famous essay, “Notes on Camp,” and while she’s been criticized for not acknowledging camp’s birth in the Queer community she did set the intellectual standard for defining and recognizing camp as something that at once exploited the cliché bank of a popular entertainment genre and spoofed it. Film historian William K. Everson argued that you couldn’t consciously create camp — he said the only real “camp” came from artifacts like “B” movies from studios like PRC and Monogram that were intended seriously but over the years acquired an unintended patina of humor through their ineptitude, both in physical production and the sheer manipulativeness with which their writers exploited the clichés — but that didn’t stop people from trying. 

Dozier actually hired competent people: to write the script for this movie and also for the TV show’s pilot he brought in Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (according to imdb.com, Semple wrote the first four episodes and also authored the “bible” given to the series’ later writers as a guide), a writer with previous credits on “serious” TV shows like Burke’s Law and The Rogues. As director he brought in Leslie Martinson, a serviceable hack who got the job done though without the élan Tim Burton would bring to his two Batmovies in 1989 and 1992. What made the 1960’s Batman TV show and this movie derived from it (which was made in 1966 after the first season of the TV show, released on June 30 and then put out in other countries ahead of the TV show so Dozier and his backers at Fox could sell other nations’ broadcasters on the concept) so much fun was precisely the element of ridicule: instead of looking for drama, social comment and even tragedy in superhero stories Dozier and Semple grabbed hold of the preposterousness of the whole concept of the masked, caped superhero and ran with it. Their camp approach extended to the villains as well — though the comic-book Batman fought conventional criminals as well as flamboyant super-villains, Dozier’s TV Batman went up against super-villains exclusively and became a prestigious guest opportunity for actors who wanted a chance to spoof their usual images on TV and reach a large audience doing so. Dozier perfectly cast Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as his sidekick Robin — in the comics Robin was originally a pre-pubescent boy (he was billed in his early appearances as “The Sensational New Character Find of 1940”!) who later grew up to be a teenager, but Ward played him as a young adult (he was depicted as a high-school student but was visibly in his early 20’s). 

I’ve blown hot and cold on who was the best movie Batman of all time — indeed I’ve made a case for Lewis Wilson, who played the Caped Crusader in the very first live-action Batmovie, the 1943 Columbia serial Batman (arguably the best serial ever made — the only serious competitors are 1934’s The Return of Chandu with Bela Lugosi in an unusually sympathetic role, and arguably the first Flash Gordon from 1936 — and directed by Lambert Hillyer, next to Burton the best director Batman’s ever had on screen), who looked more credible than anyone else has in the character’s alternate identity as millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and who also acted visibly weary after the big fight scenes, reminding the audience that Batman wasn’t a super-powered being but an ordinary human who had willed himself to be a superhero and had trained, both physically and intellectually, for the job. But Adam West was absolutely perfect casting for this version of Batman, bringing a stuffy self-righteousness to his portrayal — at one point he and Ward stop the action dead in its tracks to give a lecture on the need to support your local police, at a time when “Support Your Local Police” was one of the rallying cries of the ultra-Right John Birch Society, and in accordance with the series’ camp agenda you can read this either seriously or as a lampoon of the idea of supporting your local police whatever they do, including treating the Black community as if they were occupying hostile territory and thus sparking race riots. He and Ward have an infectious on-screen chemistry that makes up for the deficiencies in Dozier’s casting of the villains, on which he was batting .500. Burgess Meredith is unforgettable and absolutely brilliant as the Penguin, and Frank Gorshin (who’d previously been best known as a comic impressionist) surprisingly mobile and effective as the Riddler, but César Romero as the Joker is so offensively unfunny and stupid one wants to strangle him (in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns from 1992 Danny DeVito was similarly annoying as the Penguin and one of the great cultural tragedies of our time is that Meredith’s Penguin and Jack Nicholson’s definitive Joker never appeared in the same movie) and Lee Meriwether (whom, intriguingly, Adam West called “Lee Ann” in the interview he and Ward gave as a bonus item for the DVD) as the Catwoman is certainly good-looking enough for the role but doesn’t have the charisma of Dozier’s other two TV Catwomen, Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt. (West explains during the interview bonus that Newmar was off shooting the movie McKenna’s Gold and was thus unavailable for the Catwoman role in this film.) 

The plot of Batman: The Movie, in case you cared, was purely pretextual: Commodore Schmidlapp (Reginald Denny) of the Big Ben Distilleries in London has sailed his yacht across the Atlantic to offer a fearsome new invention to the authorities in Gotham City, only on his way over his yacht was waylaid and mysteriously made to disappear (Semple doesn’t stop the action long enough to tell us how) by the villains, who call themselves the “United Underworld” and plan to use the invention — a machine that sucks every bit of water out of the human body and leaves the person it’s used on a pile of colored sand — to take over the world. The Penguin has bought a submarine to stage this assault from, and there are quite a few action scenes as well as something out of a silent comedy, a famous sequence in which West as Batman tries to dispose of a bomb but can’t find a place to throw it without hitting innocent people — a Salvation Army band, a group of nuns, a family with kids and even a few ducks on the water. “Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb,” Batman says in a like Adam West claimed in his interview routinely got quoted back to him by fans; it seems like something Harold Lloyd would have done and is an oddly sophisticated moment in an otherwise pretty lowbrow movie. West agreed to do the role in the film as long as Semple rewrote the script to give him more screen time as Bruce Wayne rather than Batman — the plot features Catwoman disguised as a Russian journalist who attempts to seduce Bruce Wayne and then stage her own kidnapping so Batman will come to rescue her and the villains can capture him, and for some reason Our Hero never cottons to her impersonation even though she drops two big clues: she says the word “perfect” as “purr-fect” both as Russian journalist Kitka and as the Catwoman, and she pronounces the Russian word “steppes” as “steps” instead of the correct “styeppes,” a mistake a real Russian would not have made. Seen today, Batman: The Movie dazzles in its brilliant Technicolor (a reminder of the days when color films were actually colorful instead of shoehorning their color schemes into dank greens and browns the way they do today), unintentionally dated items like the then-high tech and now totally preposterous banks of computer equipment in the Batcave, and the overall insouciance of it all that does indeed bring us back to the days when superhero movies were fun and didn’t try to make their stories into deep, dark, depressing meditations on the human condition. — 11/15/17

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Oscar Pistorius: Blade Runner Killer (Thinkfactory Media/Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was Oscar Pistorius: Blade Runner Killer, made in 2017 by a company called Thinkfactory Media and released on the Lifetime channel as part of their current, heavily promoted run of movies based on real-life stories. They kicked off this series October 28 with Flint, a superb portrayal of the sort of story Lifetime usually stays miles away from: the deliberate pollution of the water supply of Flint, Michigan by a state-appointed “emergency manager” who took over from the elected city government and, purely to save money, ordered Flint’s water source moved from the relatively clean Lake Huron to the heavily polluted Flint River — and the resulting deaths and poisonings of Flint residents, including children who suffered both physical illnesses and learning disabilities from the lead-tainted water. Though a bit hamstrung by its similarities to Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich — as if that’s the only way Hollywood knows how to depict ordinary women heroically mobilizing and standing up to some evil being perpetrated by the corporate-government complex — Flint was an amazing movie, vividly directed, stunningly acted and an intense condemnation of the whole calculus of capitalism that puts profit above people’s lives. Alas, after Flint Lifetime’s “true-life dramas” moved away from social comment and towards the kinds of sordid sex scandals Lifetime does best. Last week they ran The Lost Wife of Robert Durst (which I skipped because Charles was home that night and we ran the Blu-Ray of Wonder Woman instead), yet another Lifetime tale of a husband knocking off his wife out of jealousy, possessiveness, sheer spite or who knows why — a description that could apply to Oscar Pistorius: Blade Runner Killer as well. Oscar Pistorius (played in the Lifetime movie by Andreas Damm) was (is, actually) a white South African who lost both his legs when he was just 11 months old due to a genetic defect called fibular hemimelia (yet another one of the beautiful-sounding words the medical industry cooks up for utterly horrible conditions). 

Nonetheless, he became a student athlete and managed to work his way up to South Africa’s team for the Paralympics, the Olympic-style international competition for athletes with disabilities. After beginning as a rugby player and a wrestler, he took up competitive running in 2004 and, in addition to the prosthetic legs he used in normal life, he was fitted with a pair of blade-like metal legs for use in running competitions that earned him the nickname “The Blade Runner.” Then he challenged the international sporting-world bureaucracy for the right to compete against able-bodied athletes in the real Olympics — a case he won in 2008, though he didn’t actually make South Africa’s Olympics team until 2012. Though he didn’t medal, Pistorius did well enough that he became a South African superstar. The film covers the four months of his romantic relationship with Reeva Steenkamp (Toni Garrn, top-billed), an aspiring model whose career took her to Jamaica and other exotic locations well away from South Africa. Pistorius met her in October 2013 and within two months they were living together and planning to build their own house. Then on Valentine’s Day 2014 shots were heard from the home Pistorius and Steenkamp shared, and it turned out he had shot her. His defense was that he had thought he heard a prowler breaking into his home and had shot Reeva thinking she was the prowler. The script by Amber Benson is structured so that we see the crime both as Pistorius said it happened and as the police later became convinced it really went down: Pistorius, furious at Reeva because she had got tired of his neurotic possessiveness and was going to leave him that night, first fired a pellet from an air gun to warn her not to go, then put on his standard legs, grabbed a pistol and fired at her through a locked bathroom door. Oscar Pistorius: Blade Runner Killer was an O.K. movie, obviously treading traditional Lifetime tropes — nice young woman falls in love with a psycho madman who tries to control her life, spies on her through social media and a constant stream of texts, and ultimately kills her when she tries to exit the relationship — and even following the standard Lifetime cliché that the most attractive man in the cast list is the psycho killer. 

Though we’re left in suspense until close to the end as to whether we’re supposed to believe Pistorius deliberately killed Reeva or it was a terrible happenstance — the police finally decide it was premeditated based on the angle of the bullets from Pistorius’ gun, from which they deduce that he had put on his prosthetic legs before confronting the alleged “prowler” and therefore he had shown premeditation — Oscar Pistorius as depicted in Benson’s script and Norman Stone’s direction shows all the classic signs of the movie psycho, including not only buying himself a sports car but driving way too fast and terrorizing the two passengers we see him with (one of them Reeva, the other a journalist whom he gave a ride to while the journalist was there to interview him) that he’s going to lose control of the car and get them both killed. In one of the film’s nicest scenes from the beefcake point of view, he spots three shirtless men eyeing Reeva from across the swimming pool at the resort hotel where they’re staying and chews them out — indicating that he’s got a problem with jealousy even though he’s the one messing around, with his former girlfriend (whom we only hear about in the dialogue) as well as others who are texting or messaging him. About two-thirds of the way through the film cuts to the sequences of Pistorius’ trial — though we still get some flashbacks about the relationship he had with Reeva and the evidence that he was basically a human time bomb ready to go off at any moment — with Reeva’s mother June (Jean Alexander) sitting front and center in the courtroom and glaring at Oscar almost literally as if looks could kill. In some ways the Pistorius case was a sort of South African version of O. J. Simpson: another star athlete pathologically possessive of “his” woman, to the point of knocking her off rather than risking losing her to someone else. It was like the Simpson case also — at least, so this film strongly hints — in the relative leniency with which Pistorius was treated compared with others who might have committed a similar crime: though the prosecutors had charged him with murder, he was found guilty only of “culpable homicide” (which I presume is the South African equivalent of voluntary manslaughter) and sentenced to just five years in prison. (Incidentally the judge we see in the trial is a Black woman — proof that sometimes things do change for the better — though the actress playing the judge is sufficiently light-skinned, about former President Obama’s color, that it’s possible we were meant to read the judge as “colored,” i.e. mixed-race, and in the wacky world of apartheid the “colored” weren’t given the full status of whites but were more privileged and less oppressed than Blacks.) 

A series of post-film titles tells us that Pistorius’ prosecutors appealed the verdict, saying he should have been convicted of murder (a power American prosecutors don’t have), and the South African Supreme Court did indeed raise Pistorius’ conviction to murder but still gave him only a six-year sentence. What’s more, they allowed him to leave prison and serve his sentence under house arrest. The prosecutors have appealed again, but the final title tells us that if they lose the appeal Pistorius could be free as early as 2019. Had this been just another Lifetime movie without the added cachet of a real-life basis, Oscar Pistorius: Blade Runner Killer would have been pretty run-of-the-mill, well acted by the leads but with uninspired by-the-numbers direction and writing — though there’s a certain tragedy in the story (athlete who fights a battle with the authorities in his sport to be allowed to compete at all, thereby inspiring his country’s population and turning himself into a public hero, then loses it all over his temper and his psychotic possessiveness) that really pretty much falls through the cracks in the version we get here. Next week Lifetime is continuing the cycle of true-life movies with I Am Elizabeth Smart — the nice little mainstream Mormon girl who was kidnapped and held for nearly a year by a psycho who wanted, according to Joseph Smith’s original teachings, to make her his second wife — one which was already done by CBS as a TV-movie, The Elizabeth Smart Story, in 2013!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Batman (Warner Bros., Guber-Peters Company, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, 1989)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 1989 Batman movie holds up quite well, actually, though I still find the ending sequence weak; Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker has always seemed to me to be superb — an excellent example of an actor taking all the most offensive, insufferable characteristics of his style (the grin, the vulpine laugh and the general aura of in-your-face decadence that surrounds him and totally undoes his attempts to play heroes) and using them for a character for which they are totally appropriate (much the way James Mason did in playing a very different type of villain in North by Northwest). — 2/10/96

•••••

I had recently picked up a DVD at Best Buy in Mission Valley of what I still consider the greatest superhero movie ever made (at least the best of the ones I’ve seen, and I doubt the ones I haven’t seen would alter my opinion): the 1989 Tim Burton Batman, starring Jack Nicholson as the Joker and Michael Keaton as Batman. (I believe it’s the only Batman movie ever made in which the actor playing Batman does not get top billing.) I ran it last night because I thought it would be both interesting and fun after Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming to run the granddaddy of them all, the superhero blockbuster that more than any other film set the tone for the cycle of big-budget comic book-based films that we’ve been inundated with ever since, with ceaseless “reboots” of all the major franchises in a not always well-advised attempt to keep them “fresh.” (I still remember the umbrage I took when the producer of the Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey, Jr. gave an interview in which he took credit for reviving an “outdated” character and making him relevant to today’s audiences; I like Sherlock Holmes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created him just fine, thank you, and I tend to judge modern Holmes adaptations largely by their fidelity to the spirit of Conan Doyle’s Holmes, even if they deviate from the letter.) Batman wasn’t the first big-budget superhero movie — that honor belongs to the 1978 Superman, first in the cycle of four featuring Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel (the last time Superman was properly cast: he was always drawn in the comics as taller and more robust than most people, and the original live-action Supermen, Kirk Alyn, George Reeves and Christopher Reeve, filled the bill, but ever since then the tendency has been to cast short, wiry actors as Superman: what a pity no one thought to make a Superman movie 20 years ago when Christopher Meloni would have been perfect for the role, both physically and in terms of characterization!) — but more than any other it set the model for the ones we’ve gotten since: a backdrop of severe urban decay against with the hero and his super-villain adversaries can shine. Though the Burton Batman was made in 1989, the Zeitgeist is that of the mid-1970’s, when New York City (the obvious model for the fictitious “Gotham City” in which the Batman comics took place, though given the penchant of Burton and production designer Anton Furst for dark, chiaroscuro backdrops, “Gothic City” would have been a better name for it!) was falling apart, the crime rate was sky-high, a rash of public employee strikes was breaking down the city government’s ability to provide services, and the bankers that held New York City’s debt responded essentially by taking over, forming what New York union leader Victor Gotbaum in 1975 called “a junta of bankers” which proceeded to run the place for the convenience of themselves and the inconvenience of everyone else, anticipating the results similar “emergency managers” would later impose on Flint, Michigan, Puerto Rico and Greece. There’s a story that when producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters (Barbra Streisand’s ex-lover, who had broken up with her right after they made the 1976 version of A Star Is Born together) brought Burton into the project, they told him, “We want it to be dark and gloomy. We don’t want to camp it up the way they did on the 1960’s Batman TV show” — and Burton protested, “But I liked the 1960’s Batman TV show!” 

What actually happened was that Burton and his writers, Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren (imagine! A superhero movie written by only two people! That would be unthinkable today; Spider-Man: Homecoming had no fewer than eight writers credited, and it looked it) managed to thread the needle, creating a dark, gloomy, Gothic cityscape but also supplying a lot of 1930’s-ish wisecracks for the characters (perhaps the best line is when Jack Nicholson as the Joker sees some of Batman’s tools in action, he says, “Just where does he get such wonderful toys?”) and intermingling images from the late 19th century, the 1920’s, the 1930’s, the 1950’s, the 1970’s and the 1980’s so thoroughly that during the robbery sequence at the Axis Chemical Company (a front for the crooks. led by Jack Palance’s Lee Grissom, that are secretly running Gotham City despite the best efforts of the mayor, the police commissioner and the district attorney to stop them — and naming the factory after the bad guys in World War II is just one of the many allusions that make this script unusually deep and rich for a superhero film) Charles proclaimed it a steampunk movie. A large part of this movie was clearly inspired by both the artistic and commercial sense of Ivan Reitman’s original 1984 Ghostbusters, which likewise took a bunch of comedians and set them loose over a dark, gloomy, Gothic cityscape — thereby making a film in which the comedy seemed even funnier from the contrast. Tim Burton had clearly been inspired big-time by Ghostbusters since his first major film was Beetlejuice, also with Michael Keaton, which flipped the central premise of Ghostbusters — instead of ghosts haunting people it was people haunting ghosts — and for Batman he managed to achieve a superb balance between the overall attitude of gloom and despair in the streets of Gotham City and the bizarre, sometimes campy doings of both Batman (Michael Keaton) and the Joker (Jack Nicholson, top-billed) in the foreground. Burton was helped by the cinematography of Roger Pratt and by the presence of two major rock musicians in his music department. 

One was Danny Elfman, former leader of Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (a mouthful of a band name later mercifully shortened just to “Oingo Boingo”), who’d already worked for Burton as an orchestral composer on Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice and here turned in a masterly score, combining sweeping Korngoldian action themes with deliberately sentimental music (like the romantic “waltz of death” to which the Joker forces Batman’s girlfriend Vicki Vale, played by Kim Basinger, to dance with him) — just about every composer who’s scored a big superhero film has had both Elfman’s work here and John Williams’ scores for the Christopher Reeve Superman movies as models. The other was Prince, who wrote an entire cycle of songs based on the Batman mythos and recorded them as an album, though only a few of them actually made it into the movie (the imdb.com “soundtrack credits” lists five but I only counted three, and one, “Scandalous,” is heard only over the closing credits) — one that isn’t used here, “Batdance,” became a surprising hit even though it was merely an instrumental reworking of Neal Hefti’s famous theme for the 1960’s Batman TV series. (As a result of meeting him on this film, Kim Basinger had a brief affair with Prince which she later said was one of the biggest mistakes of her life.) Another aspect of Batman that distinguishes it from more recent superhero films is that its plot is not only coherent but actually interesting; this is one superhero movie in which we don’t impatiently twiddle our thumbs waiting for the next big action scene. Gotham City is torn between its elected city government — the mayor (Lee Wallace), district attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams, yet another talented actor of color who was ill-used by Hollywood — two movies later in the cycle, in Batman Forever, the character would return but played by Tommy Lee Jones, and though the character was white in the comics it still seemed a retrograde step to take the role away from the excellent Black actor who played him here) and police commissioner James Gordon (Pat Hingle giving a more exasperated, less gentlemanly reading of the character than Neil Hamilton did in the 1960’s on TV), who promise to control the city’s criminal element in time for the scheduled festival commemorating Gotham City’s 200th anniversary; the criminal element, led by Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) until his crazy lieutenant, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), survives a setup — a robbery at a chemical plant that was supposed to knock him off by exposing him to lethal chemicals, only instead it turned his skin stark white, froze his face into a permanent grin Batman comics creator Bob Kane admitted he copped from Jack P. Pierce’s makeup for Conrad Veidt in the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs — and kills both Grissom and another gang member whom he literally fries to death with a specially rigged joy buzzer. (The image is a quite gross and grisly one, surprisingly so for a PG-13 movie.) 

Along the way to his final confrontation with Batman, the Joker manages to sneak contaminated beauty products onto the shelves of Gotham City’s supermarkets and chain drug stores (the mock commercial with which the Joker advertises these products is one of the most deliciously entertaining parts of this film); he vandalizes the “Flugelheim Museum of Art” and kidnaps Vicki Vale there and again at her home (where Keaton, who’s fallen in love with her in both his Bruce Wayne and Batman identities, tries to get up the courage to tell her he’s Batman in what Burton, Hamm and Skaaren made a pretty obvious parody of a coming-out scene); and at the end, after the city has canceled the official 200th anniversary celebration because with the Joker loose they can’t guarantee public safety at a major outdoor event, he stages his own celebration, floating jolly-looking balloons over a crowd (pretty obviously inspired by the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man at the end of Reitman’s 1984 Ghostbusters), throwing $20 million in cash and then releasing an asphyxiating gas which threatens to kill them until Batman comes flying in in his Batplane and severs the cables connecting the balloons to the Joker’s float so they rise and dispense their gas harmlessly in space. The final action sequence is a bit disappointing (it disappointed me in 1989, too, when John Gabrish and I saw the film theatrically and were especially impressed by the surround-sound effect in which the Batmobile seemed to be driving through the theatre in one scene) but even there it’s clear Burton is referencing other movies to good effect — this time the 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame and 1925 Phantom of the Opera, both starting Lon Chaney, Sr. (and Burton even inserts a direct quote from Phantom’s two-strip Technicolor “Red Death” sequence of Nicholson as the Joker hiding out next to the gargoyle statue outside a large building, the way Chaney did as the Phantom). It’s disappointing that Burton, Hamm and Skaaren staged the final confrontation in an abandoned, deserted cathedral — the script has gone so far out of its way to depict both Batman and the Joker as characters heavily in love with their own theatricality, consciously putting on shows for their audiences, one expected the final scene between them to take place with all Gotham City watching either live or on TV — but aside from that one mini-lapse the 1989 Batman is everything you’d want a superhero movie to be, deep and rich in its allusions without sacrificing the campy, joyous spirit of the whole comic-book superhero genre

It’s also flawlessly acted: Michael Keaton’s choice as Batman raised some eyebrows at the time it was announced (a lot of people expected someone taller, more robust, more like the comic-book image of Batman or the way Adam West played him in the 1960’s TV show) but he’s excellent in the role, a bit befuddled by the whole destiny he’s chosen for himself since he watched his parents gunned down by a robber while he was still a child, and interestingly equipped with glasses (and not the false frames Harold Lloyd wore) when he’s Bruce Wayne, which makes one wonders how he can see well enough to be Batman. (Maybe the hood of his mask was supposed to be equipped with special lenses that would provide him the correction he needed.) And Nicholson, who said at the time he looked forward to the part because it was a return to the psycho crooks he’d played in his early years as a contract actor at American International (where he’d made his first film, The Cry-Baby Killer, in 1958), is magnificent: I had never been a particularly big Nicholson fan, but the aspects of his acting that had put me off in his other films — the shark-like grin and the vulpine laugh — were absolutely perfect for the Joker. Nicholson seems to me to be the only actor of the three who’ve played the Joker in theatrical films to have understood the character: César Romero made him too campy; Heath Ledger made him too twisted and sick; Nicholson brought the two sides of the Joker together and made the character live as at once a figure of menace, evil and delight. As far as I’m concerned the 1989 Batman is “winner and still champ” among superhero movies — its only real competition, I think, is the 1943 Batman serial starring Lewis Wilson as the Caped Crusader and directed by the interesting Lambert Hillyer; in some ways Wilson was the best actor ever to play Batman — both he and Keaton never let us forget that Batman does not have superpowers: he’s a normal human being who willed himself to be a superhero and trained, both physically and intellectually, for the role; and Wilson looked wearier after the big fight scenes than anyone who’s played Batman since — but Keaton is surprisingly credible in the role, he gets to speak his lines as Batman in a relatively normal voice instead of the way Christian Bale had to in the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight cycle (in which poor Bale’s voice was run through a series of filters, equalizers and whatnots that made him sound like he was trying to gargle and bark at the same time), and he manages to convince us of his mastery as an urban fighter and his nervousness when he’s confronted with his emotions towards the heroine. — 11/11/17

Friday, November 10, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Columbia Pictures, Marvel Studio, Pascal Pictures, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was Spider-Man: Homecoming, the sixth big-budget Spider-Man feature from Columbia since the first one in 2002 and the third “boot” of the franchise. The first cycle featured Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man and Sam Raimi as director, and lasted for three films; the second, called The Amazing Spider-Man (the official title of the comic magazine) featured Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man and Marc Webb as director, lasted for two. This version stars British actor Tom Holland as Spider-Man (he speaks credible American English in the film itself but his real-life British accent is very noticeable in the promotional clip that precedes the feature on Blu-Ray disc) — he’s 21 but he plays the character as 15, a couple of years younger than the previous Spider-Men at an age where those two years matter. The director is Jon Watts and the script is committee-written: Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley are credited with the original screen story and share credit with a plethora of other writers — Jon Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers — for the actual script. Charles and I were somewhat back of scratch on this one because it’s actually a direct sequel to the last Marvel Avengers movie, and we haven’t been following the Avengers films; we’re told that the 15-year-old Spider-Man has just returned from an Avengers conference in Berlin and is sort of in Avengers pledge status and desperately pleading with the group’s chair, Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr., looking awfully tired of the role by now), to get admitted to full Avengers status. He returns home to New York City, where he lives with his aunt May Parker (Marisa Tomei) — for once drawn not as a wizened old woman but as someone still surprisingly sexy (there’s a hint that one of Peter Parker’s a.k.a. Spider-Man’s friends is attracted to her sexually, and I wish Watts and the writing committee had made a bit more of that!) — and attends the Midtown School of Science and Technology.

He’s also dropped most of his extracurricular activities because of the time demands of his internship with Tony Stark — the cover for his superhero training — though he’s still in the academic decathlon team and they’ve qualified for the national finals in Washington, D.C. The bad guys in this one get introduced before the good guys: they’re a bunch of proletarians who work for a salvage contractor, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton, almost unrecognizable as the same actor who played Batman nearly 30 years ago — was it really that long? — and is therefore one of the few actors who’s had major roles in both DC and Marvel films), who in the opening scene is booted off a salvage site by a hard-edged middle-aged blonde woman who announces that she’s there representing the federal government, they’re taking over the site and the private contractors who thought they had a deal with the city to keep anything they salvaged from it are out of luck. Toomes pleads that he just bought a whole bunch of new trucks and hired a large crew, and he’ll have to fire them all and go bankrupt himself if he loses the contract. It’s hard not to feel for him, but his response is to take the alien technology he’s already salvaged from the site and go into business for himself, selling super-weapons based on it to criminals — including a gang of bank robbers who disguise themselves as The Avengers. Maybe any more conventionally structured superhero film would have been a disappointment after Wonder Woman, which wasn’t a great film but was certainly a work of quality within a pretty disreputable genre, but Spider-Man: Homecoming just seemed to me to lurch from crisis to crisis, with not particularly interesting action scenes and an awful lot of footage devoted to Peter Parker and his interactions with his high-school classmates. Though it didn’t go as far in that direction as the Raimi cycle did — in Spider-Man 2, in particular, Peter Parker’s non-hero life was depicted as such a succession of failures and traumas I joked that they could have called it It’s a Wonderful Life, Spider-ManSpider-Man: Homecoming seemed to devote way too much time to Peter Parker and not enough to Spider-Man.

The most interesting conflict the writing committee came up with — and one which could have given them a film that in its own way would have been as powerful and as different from the normal run of the superhero genre as Wonder Woman — was that between Peter Parker and his surrogate father, Tony Stark, who gives him all this cool electronic gear (including a super-version of the Spider-Man costume that has an auto-attendant, “Karen,” who speaks to him in the sort of patronizing female voice of the real Siri from Apple and Alexa from Amazon.com) but puts “training wheels” on it, deliberately limiting the capabilities Parker can use until Start thinks he’s ready for him. The love-hate relationship between the orphan Parker and his surrogate father Stark is considerably more interesting than the petty intrigues between Parker and his classmates, including the half-Black girl Michelle (Zendaya) who becomes his sort-of girlfriend — only he’s always running out on their dates to go after one criminal or another (can you say “Superman and Lois Lane”?), and at the end, in what the writing committee obviously intended as a shock, turns out to be the daughter of Andrew Toomes, the big villain Spider-Man has been after all movie since he’s used his access to alien technology to build himself a set of artificial wings (actually a turbo-powered aircraft) and become the flying super-villain “Vulture.” Oddly, Charles liked Spider-Man: Homecoming better than I did — not our usual reaction to a superhero movie — and I suspect because he responded more than I did to the clear modeling of the high-school sequences on John Hughes’ 1980’s films. This was deliberate: imdb.com’s “Trivia” contributors noted that director Watts showed Hughes’ films to his cast members to show them how he wanted them to play high-school students (and a clip from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off appears in the film), and Charles said Spider-Man: Homecoming was what would have resulted if John Hughes had ever written and directed a superhero movie.

The film as a whole disappointed me, though there’s a nice coming-from-behind ending in which Spider-Man has to take on Vulture and his crew in what looks like an old pair of red and blue pajamas (let’s face it, there are Spider-Man trick-or-treat costumes that look more convincing than this!), because Tony Stark has taken away his super-suit because, as he explains, “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it.” At the end Spider-Man: Homecoming takes on the air of a classic coming-of-age tale in which the boy hero has to prove he’s become worthy of adult tasks and acceptance into the inner circle — though it ends rather peculiarly with Parker putting his Avenger ambitions on hold and staying “your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” (Gwyneth Paltrow makes a cameo appearance in the final scene as Pepper Potts, her usual part as Iron Man’s girlfriend in the sequence of Iron Man and Avengers movies.) Spider-Man: Homecoming is clever and engaging, though it also had the makings of a far finer and more complex film than it is — and I think part of the problem is that Columbia Pictures and Marvel Studios are too committed to keeping Spider-Man a teenager and putting him through all the tired paces of adolescent angst instead of letting him grow up. (I suspect that’s part of the reason they’ve done two reboots of the franchise: they keep having to bring in younger Spider-Men as the older ones “age out” of their conception of the character.) Among the promos at the front of the disc is an ad for a Spider-Man video game whose writers decided to make him 23 and already a veteran of the superhero biz for several years — and I wish the producers of the Spider-Man movies would use that conception of the character instead of keeping him in high school and, if anything, making him younger in each incarnation (in the Amazing Spider-Man cycle he was at least a high-school senior and one of the issues in his life was facing college; in this one he’s 15 and back to being a sophomore!).