Monday, April 24, 2017

The Psycho She Met Online (Reel One Entertainment, NB Thrilling Films, Thrill Films, Lifetime, 2017)

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

Last night Lifetime ran two “Premiere” movies — unusually given that it was Sunday instead of Saturday, the night they usually reserve for these sorts of shows — including one called The Psycho She Met Online which, despite its formula title, I had hopes for because Christine Conradt was the screenwriter and her frequent collaborator, Curtis James Crawford, was the director. Alas, this time around Conradt put all too little flesh on the bones of her (and Lifetime’s) usual formula. This time the heroine is Karen Hexley (Chelsea Hobbs), an emergency medical technician (EMT) in Philadelphia who makes national headlines when the man whose life she saves after he’s involved in a car accident is her husband Andrew (Matthew Lawrence, who for some reason wears his hair long in a “do” that makes him look like Caitlyn Jenner immediately before her final transition), even though she hadn’t known when she went out on the call that the victim would indeed be he. The titular psycho she’s going to meet online is Miranda Breyers (Charity Shea — inevitably I find myself wondering if she has sisters named Faith and Hope), who answers Karen’s ad to rent out her spare room on “Vacay ’n’ Stay,” a fictitious Web site obviously patterned on Airbnb — yes, it’s Lifetime’s latest attempt to keep up with the times and plug their familiar formulae into the world of smartphones and apps. Having already given us a rapist who meets his victims by being an Uber driver, now they have a psycho locating her victim via Airbnb (or something very much like it). Of course, one key element of the formula is that the heroine has to have a best friend who cottons onto the game the psycho is really playing even as she poses as nice ’n’ perky to win the heroine’s trust — though in this story that role is split between two people. One is Aubrey Hunt (Alexis Maitland), Karen’s sorority “sister” from college — with whom she’s sustained a strong relationship since she was (at least as far as she knows) an only child and never had a real biological sister — and the other is her other “Vacay ’n’ Stay” tenant, a charming old British nature photographer named Evander Swanson (Robert Welch) whom Miranda ambushes and kills because he’s getting too nosy about her and her background and she’s worried he will find her out.

Exactly what there is to find out about her remains a mystery: when we first meet Miranda she’s in Portland, Oregon, living with a creepy layabout boyfriend who bears a striking resemblance to the late Kurt Cobain, only without the scraggly beard, and when he tries to keep her from leaving she kicks him in the balls until he falls down, then kicks him again with the stiletto heel of one of her shoes (which, it’s later established, she stole from a store and did a three-month jail sentence for shoplifting) and walks out. Her departure for Philadelphia, where the main part of the story takes place, is explained by her seeing a story about Karen Hexley saving her husband’s life on the Internet, and at first we (or at least I) think she recognized Andrew as a former boyfriend and wanted revenge on the woman who took him away from her. When Miranda shows up in Philadelphia and “randomly” answers Karen’s Vacay ’n’ Stay ad, she’s as sweet as can be at first but also awesomely possessive about Karen, to the point of bugging her bedroom with a video camera (one wonders if she’s interested in eavesdropping while Karen and Andrew are having sex, but as it turns out that’s about the last of her concerns) and going into a jealous hissy-fit when she sees how closely bonded Karen and her sorority sister Aubrey are. Miranda — who tells Karen she’s working as a personal trainer but is actually a stripper — also sets out to seduce Andrew’s brother Tyler (Yani Gellman, to my mind considerably cuter than Matthew Lawrence!), apparently as a means of bonding ever closer to Karen’s family, since she’s already told Karen that she’s her half-sister — Karen’s mom had an affair with Miranda’s dad while still married to Karen’s dad. We’re half-expecting that Karen will find that Miranda is lying about that, but as things turn out that’s the one thing Miranda says about her background that’s actually true — when Karen’s dad found out that his wife was pregnant by another man he agreed to take her back but only on condition that she put the baby up for adoption, and as a result Miranda was raised by another family and the adoption records were kept secret until a recent change in the law opened them, whereupon Miranda traced her mom to an alternative cancer clinic in Mexico. The story Miranda told Karen was that mom committed suicide when her cancer was so advanced she was going to die anyway — but in fact Miranda killed mom when mom refused to have anything to do with her, then strung her up by a shower rod to make it look like she’d killed herself. 

Eventually there’s a typical Christine Conradt confrontation scene in which Miranda sneaks into Karen’s home (by this time Karen has thrown her out) and grabs a kitchen knife, intending to murder both Andrew and Karen with it — she gets as far as stabbing Andrew, though not fatally, and is about to kill Karen when the police arrive in the person of a very butch woman detective who shoots Miranda down before she can kill Karen. Christine Conradt’s usual trademark as a Lifetime writer is moral ambiguity — she likes to make her villains complex characters so we feel for them even as we root for the rather simple-minded heroines (or, more rarely, heroes) they’re attempting to entrap — but on this script she offered us way too little on What Made Miranda Run and mostly ran the Lifetime cliché machine on autopilot. Either that or she was rewritten: this was actually filmed under the title The Guest She Met Online and changed to the more florid and obvious title The Psycho She Met Online, and while no other writer is credited it’s possible someone rewrote Conradt’s script, not enough to qualify for credit but enough to make the film itself, as well as its title, more blatantly black-and-white in its morality. The acting is O.K. — no one really stands out, and Chelsea Hobbs is such a blah screen presence it’s hard to root for her (especially since Conradt makes her a whiz at her job — though one would think that in the final scene, once her own life was no longer in danger she’d make a bee-line to her wounded husband and treat him, and she doesn’t — but a dolt in virtually everything else), while Charity Shea delivers a good but by-the-numbers performance as the titular psycho: she’s engagingly evil but we’ve seen this sort of acting in a million other Lifetime movies. And the men are simply along for the ride, though Yani Gellman has some nice moments when he realizes the woman he’s just taken home and screwed is his sister-in-law and he’s revolted because it feels incestuous even though they’re not biological kin.

New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell (Mountainair Films/Lifetime, 2017)

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

After The Psycho She Met Online Lifetime showed a movie they’d been heavily hyping for weeks now: New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell, based on a real-life New York prison escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in June 2015. The escape, in which two convicts with the unfortunate names David Sweat (Joe Anderson) and Richard Matt (Myk Watford) broke out and had help doing so from two prison employees, Joyce Mitchell (Penelope Ann Miller) and Gene Palmer — and were at large for three weeks before Matt was shot down while threatening police with a shotgun and Sweat was taken alive two days later — made national news. Indeed, I can remember thinking when the story broke, “Someday this will be made into a Lifetime movie” — and now here it is. It’s also quite well done, written and directed by Stephen Tolkin — who’s done reality-based Lifetime movies before, including The Craigslist Killer and Cleveland Abduction, and also has some feature-film credits — and vividly acted by the three principals as well as by Daniel Roebuck as Joyce’s husband Lyle, a hapless guy with a penchant for boring the shit out of her with conversational rambles. He’s still turned on by her but she couldn’t be less interested in him — they both work at the local prison and at one point, when he finally suspects she’s smuggling contraband to the prisoners, chews her out for jeopardizing these great jobs they both have, making $50,000 a year each with full health coverage, including dental (reinforcing how prisons have become one of the few industries where well-paying blue-collar jobs are still available — reason enough for working-class voters to support candidates who are “tough on crime”) — even though, as she tells Sweat one day when they’re alone together in the storeroom of the prison’s tailor shop (they make uniforms for the New York state police), she was carrying on an affair with Lyle while still married to husband number one, and in one particular throe of passion they were caught screwing on the railroad tracks behind where they worked. “Didn’t you get splinters?” Sweat asks — though the message Joyce’s story sends him is that here is a woman with a strong sex drive who’d be a sitting duck for a concentrated seduction campaign and would be willing to do anything for a man who’d give her ashes a good hauling, or even throw hints in that direction. We also know that about Joyce because we see her in bed — her husband is there but she’s ignoring him, and he’s already nodding off while she has earbuds on and is listening to a particularly lubricious soft-core porn passage in an audiobook version of a romance novel.

Actually Joyce never gets it on with Sweat — even when she’s caught after the escape and interrogated, and is admitting to just about everything she did (including smuggling the prisoners hacksaw blades and evading the metal detectors by stuffing them in hamburger meat and freezing it), she insists that she and Sweat were never lovers, though she and the much homelier Matt were. We’re told in the dialogue that he has an especially impressive “manhood,” and we get an unmistakable scene in that storeroom in which Joyce gives him oral sex and then he pulls her up for the full “treatment.” Despite its rather clinical title, New York Prison Break works on just about every level, from the intrinsic kinky interest of the story to the highly atmospheric direction Tolkin gives it, to the Hitchcockian game he plays throughout where he shows so much detail of how Sweat and Matt are literally digging their way out of the prison we end up rooting for them to succeed even though Tolkin tried to forestall that sort of moral reversal by beginning his film with a graphic depiction of the crime Sweat and Matt committed (a robbery of a gun store that included shooting down a police officer and torturing the gun-store owner into revealing the location of a secret cash stash the crooks believed he had even though we suspect that, like the victims of In Cold Blood, the “stash” was just a rumor in the crime world and didn’t actually exist). Most prison-escape movies hedge their bets by making the prisoners sympathetic and the jailers the bad guys — either they’re Nazis running a concentration camp or the authorities on Devil’s Island or some such place lording it over unjustly convicted victims — but in this one the bad guys are bad guys, and yet through Tolkin’s writing and direction and the appropriately edgy acting of Anderson and Watford they come off as just the sort of sexually irresistible studs that might turn on a woman like Joyce Mitchell full of unfulfilled sexual longings and desires. Penelope Ann Miller’s performance as Joyce is also excellent, particularly when she switches from bored housewife and career woman to acting like a giddy teenager in the first throes of romantic passion when she gets lurid notes from Sweat and contemplates a future with him on the outside — a dream of hers he, of course, has no intention of fulfilling! Miller manages to bring her (and the character’s) actual age (the actress herself is 53 and looks it — a well-preserved 53, but still 53) and her teenage-style immaturity in her crush on Sweat (even though it’s Matt, not Sweat, who does the down-’n’-dirty with her — and we see her fantasy of the three of them in Mexico jointly canoodling at a beach resort) into a nerve-wracking and rather repulsive juncture that makes us want to walk into the screen and tell her, “Just act your age already!”

New York Prison Break is obviously an exploitation film aimed at taking advantage of the publicity surrounding the real event, and yet it’s also a finely honed piece of drama — not a great film by any means, but a solidly appealing one that manages to offer quality entertainment and is particularly good at dramatizing the sexual frustration that leads Joyce Mitchell to her fatal infatuation with Sweat and Matt. (One thing Tolkin’s focus on Joyce’s literal and figurative “seduction” led him to do was write Gene Palmer, the other prison employee who helped the two men escape, entirely out of the story — as well as anyone else on the prison staff who might have aided and abetted the escapees: at least some members of New York state law enforcement were convinced that other prison employees besides Mitchell and Palmer helped the escape, even though Mitchell and Palmer were the only two people charged and convicted of doing so.) New York Prison Break is a fun movie, appealingly dark without being so gloomy as to be unwatchable, and where Tolkin scores best is in the clashes between the three main characters — Mitchell the infatuated mature woman (it’s established that she’s already a grandmother) who’s acting like a giddy teenager; Matt the confident seducer who’s able to get what he wants with his gifts as an artist (he paints quite a few pictures, including ones of Mitchell and other prison staffers which he trades for favors, and he has one of Marilyn Monroe in his cell) and a lover; and Sweat the callous but deliciously hunky brute (hell, if he were really as Joe Anderson plays him I’d have probably had the hots for him!) who’s willing to exploit not only Joyce but Matt as well — in one of the film’s most chilling scene, after the two have broken out together (and after Sweat has peremptorily told Matt he won’t be included in the escape unless he loses enough pounds to be able to fit through the prison’s ventilation pipes they’re going to use as part of their way out), Sweat dumps Matt and tells him that now that his plans have changed and they’re fleeing to Canada instead of Mexico, he won’t need Matt because the only reason he included Matt was that Matt spoke Spanish and he doesn’t have to have a Spanish-speaker on board if he’s going to Canada instead. New York Prison Break is the sort of quirky delight that keeps us unlikely Lifetime buffs watching this often exploitative (particularly in their “reality” series, less so in their movies) but also often oddly compelling network.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Night the World Exploded (Clover/Columbia, 1957)

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

The films at last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi screening were surprising in that, though both were “B”-pictures released by Columbia in 1957, one of the movies had some surprising points of social comment and the other not only had major amounts of social comment but was actually quite a good film. The first one shown was called The Night the World Exploded, and was made by Sam Katzman’s Clover company in association with Columbia. It was directed by Katzman’s go-to director in those days, Fred F. Sears (who also did his rock movies and his production Calypso Heat Wave, which not only featured some odd casting — including Joel Grey, Alan Arkin and Maya Angelou during her brief attempt at a singing career, at which she was quite good — but clearly showed that Sears was more inspired by calypso than he was by rock) from a script by Jack Natteford and Luci Ward. It’s unusual for a 1957 science-fiction film in that a woman is top-billed — Kathryn Grant, who made this film a few months before she became the second wife of Bing Crosby. She plays Laura “Hutch” Hutchinson, collaborator of scientist Dr. David Conway (William Leslie), who’s just invented a device that looks like a giant mimeograph machine (or a small printing press) but actually is a machine to predict earthquakes.

Only Conway and Hutch keep getting readings that indicate far more impending seismic activity than they expected, and the earthquakes not only happen on cue (represented by whatever stock footage Columbia could scarf up of accidents, disasters or wars — much of the footage representing the aftermath of the quakes seems to have come from previous films depicting or dramatizing World War II bombing raids) but keep getting worse. When the film starts Hutch is proclaiming that she will soon be quitting the lab to get married to some guy named Brad, whom we don’t see — yet more evidence of how taken for granted it was in the 1950’s that women had to decide between a career and a marriage, and could not have both. A third person in the lab, Dr. Ellis Morton (Tristram Coffin, though the credits shorten his first name to “Tris”), takes Hutch aside and tells her he knows that her real romantic attraction is to Dr. Conway, but she laments that he sees her only as a co-worker and not a woman. With the quakes and the amount of stock-footage damage they’re doing rising, the three scientists locate the epicenter in Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico — represented by an artfully designed set that’s considerably more elaborate than we expect from a “B” budget — and Hutch freezes with fear as they lower her down a cave in a portion of the cavern that isn’t open to the public. “Wouldn’t you know a woman would pull a stunt like this?,” Dr. Conway chews her out. “You’re all scientists until there’s the slightest bit of danger, then you fold up! Want your mommy and daddy?” — yet more evidence of the extent to which sexist prejudices were simply taken for granted in the 1950’s. Kirk (Paul Savage), one of the park rangers enlisted by the scientists to help them dig under the caverns for evidence of what’s causing the quakes, finds a small black object and, being a rock collector, wants to take it home — only it expands to several times its original size and blows up, taking Kirk and his home with it. 

Eventually Dr. Conway deduces that the black substance is a hitherto unknown element, whose atomic number is 112 and which blows up almost instantly when exposed to air. (There really is an Element 112 — it was discovered in 1996, 39 years after this film was made, and in 2009 it was officially recognized and named copernicum — only it’s a highly unstable radioactive element and of its two known isotopes, one has a half-life of four seconds and the other has a half-life of 30 seconds, nothing at all like the “Element 112” in the film.) In the film’s intriguing bit of social comment, Dr. Conway informs the authorities and us that Element 112 once existed so deep in the bowels of the earth that it never came into contact with air and therefore was not dangerous, but all the fossil-fuel extraction the human race has been doing — all that drilling for oil and digging for coal — has opened so many holes in the earth that air is getting down there and coming into contact with Element 112, thereby setting it off and causing the quakes. He and Hutch are finally able to seal off the pit inside the cavern where air and Element 112 were having their explosive unions, and the final shot is of the world saved and Conway and Hutch hugging and kissing for a presumably explosive union of their own. The Night the World Exploded is a pretty good science-fiction movie of the time with some odd touches — nothing special but nothing too embarrassing, either — and an interesting and unusual ecological sub-plot for its time (though the 1948 Columbia serial Superman had also hinted that Superman’s home planet, Krypton, was disintegrating because its inhabitants had so extensively plundered its environment for energy and other resources it could no longer hold together).

The 27th Day (Romson/Columbia, 1957)

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

The 27th Day, which followed The Night the World Exploded on the Vintage Sci-Fi film program, turned out to be a much better movie! Also released by Columbia, it had different production auspices: the co-production company was named “Romson Productions,” the producer was Lewis J. Rachmil (who would go on to do some important films, including Hawai’i and Footloose) and the director was William Asher, who would go on to create the Columbia TV sitcom Bewitched and marry its star, Elizabeth Montgomery. The screenwriter was John Mantley, adapting his own novel — a good sign — and the story turned out to be an artful reworking of The Day the Earth Stood Still but with bits of Red Planet Mars and some quite unique variations that were clearly part of Mantley’s contribution. Five ordinary people in various parts of the world — Los Angeles reporter Jonathan Clark (Gene Barry, making at least his third appearance in a science-fiction thriller after The Atomic City and The War of the Worlds); British something-or-other Eve Wingate (Valerie French) — she’s first shown on a familiar-looking beach with her painter boyfriend (it’s familiar because it’s the same stretch of Malibu coastline where Burt Lancaster had romanced/roughhoused Deborah Kerr in yet another 1950’s Columbia movie, From Here to Eternity) and she tells us we’re in “Cornwall, England” (Cornwall is actually in Wales, not England) — German scientist Prof. Klaus Bechner (George Voskovec); Russian prison guard Pvt. Ivan Godofsky (Azemat Janti) and Chinese woman Su Tan (Marie Tsen), who disappears midway through the action and it’s not at all clear what happens to her — are all accosted by an alien from another planet (Arnold Moss — we never see him full-face or full-body, but just as a silhouetted image).

They’re beamed aboard his spaceship (represented by some long shots of a flying saucer that are either stock clips or outtakes from the 1956 film Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, which led to credit Ray Harryhausen with special effects on this film even though he had nothing to do with it) and each are given a clear round item containing three capsules. The alien explains that in 35 days his race’s home planet is going to self-destruct, and they’ve identified Earth as a planet they can relocate to — but it’s against their moral principles to stage a war of conquest and just take us over. So they’re giving five randomly selected Earthlings clear plastic containers, each about the size of a ladies’ compact. Each compact contains three objects that look like large pills, which the alien explains are actually a super-weapon developed by his planet’s scientists that has several hundred times the destructive power of the largest H-bomb either the U.S. or the Soviet Union had then developed. One gimmick is that only the people actually receiving each packet can open it — but once it is opened anyone can use the weapon just by speaking aloud the latitude and longitude where they want it to detonate — and the weapon capsule will go there and blow up itself and whatever else is there. Another gimmick is that the weapon is effective only against human life — it doesn’t harm either physical objects or other animals or plants — so effectively John Mantley thought up the neutron bomb at least a quarter-century before anyone took the idea at all seriously. The whole point of this is that if humankind starts a war within the next 27 days (hence the title), the alien super-weapon will destroy the entire human race and leave Earth depopulated of homo sapiens but with an otherwise intact biosphere and infrastructure so the aliens can migrate en masse to our planet and take it over. If the humans can hold off from using the weapons in the 27-day period, the alien race will spare us but itself die off. It’s an intriguing premise for a science-fiction story and Mantley and Asher make the most of it.

At first the people who received the super-weapons have the idea of throwing them away — and Eve actually does that with hers on the same stretch of beach at “Cornwall, England” [sic] — really Malibu, California — at which she had her date with her disposable artist boyfriend in the opening scene. Then the alien, like Michael Rennie’s character in The Day the Earth Stood Still, takes over all Earth radio and TV and delivers a 10-minute spiel in which, among other things, he announces the names and whereabouts of all the recipients of the super-weapons. That immediately makes them the most wanted people in the world, and in the meantime the British authorities and population freak out, thinking that the weapon is an undersea mine and Eve wasn’t throwing it away but planting it. Another gimmick, which the alien uses his hack of earth broadcasting to explain, is that if any of the recipients is killed, this will automatically neutralize the weapon (which we see in action when the Chinese woman is killed in her country’s civil war — a bit dated a plot point in 1957 or, for that matter, in 1955, when Mantley first published his book — and the insides of the capsules crumble into dust). Eve flies to the U.S. and meets up with Clark, who’s disguised himself by the simple expedient of shaving off the moustache he was wearing in the early part of the film, and the two hide out at the Santa Anita racetrack, which is being patrolled by a security guard who drives through every hour in a Jeep but is otherwise deserted because the racing season isn’t going on. In an earlier scene, in which Clark and Eve are riding in a cab discussing the situation but Clark doesn’t want the cab driver to be able to hear what they’re talking about (yeah, right), Clark plays a portable radio very loud and the music we hear is a typical 1950’s hybrid, a big-band instrumental with a drum backbeat to make it sound a bit more rock-ish — but Clark identifies it as “rock ’n’ roll — music, almost.”

Eventually Clark and Eve realize that they’re going to have to turn themselves in, and while they ultimately hook up with Prof. Bechner and the American authorities, the bad ol’ Russians are torturing poor Private Ivan Godofsky to get him to open the container and release the weapons, so they can attack the United States and North America in general and thereby eliminate their only superpower competition. Unfortunately for them but fortunately for the good guys, they torture him within an inch of his life, then give him pentothal, which gets him to release the capsules — and the Russians issue an ultimatum to the U.S.: withdraw all American troops and investments from Europe and Asia and pull back to the borders of the continental U.S. (when this film was made Alaska and Hawai’i hadn’t yet been admitted as U.S. states), or else the Russians will set off their super-weapon (which of course, being 1950’s movie Commies, they’re going to do anyway). It’s up to Prof. Bechner to figure out a way to stop them, which he does: first he decides he wants to test the weapon, for which he needs a human sample since it only affects human life. He gets his test subject when his colleague Dr. Karl Neuhaus (Frederick Ledebur) announces that he’s deliberately exposed himself to gamma rays, so it will actually be more humane to send him out in the middle of the ocean and have him taken out by the alien super-weapon than leave him alone to die a painful death from radiation sickness. Neuhaus is shown standing up in a raft — and when the weapon goes off he simply disappears from his clothes like the titular characters in the contemporaneous Columbia “B” horror film Zombies of Mora-Tau. Now Bechner knows the weapon works as advertised, but looking at the two capsules he has left he also sees markings etched to the side of them, which he figures out is a mathematical formula and if he can decipher it, he can reprogram the weapons. Only he’s already used one of his capsules, so he has to get Clark to open his container so he can complete the set.

The ending is as compelling and thought-provoking as the rest of the movie: Neuhaus takes down the formula and uses it to reprogram the weapons so they take out everyone in the world who harbors evil intentions against their fellow humans, while leaving everyone else alone — and there’s a final sequence in the United Nations General Assembly in which the U.S. representative extends an invitation to the 30,000 aliens from the planet that’s about to blow up in eight days to come to Earth and live in peaceful coexistence with humans. (This would have set up some intriguing possibilities for a sequel, especially if Mantley or whoever wrote it posited that some Earthlings and/or aliens with evil intentions had escaped and the nice Earth people and the nice aliens found themselves having to come together to defeat their nasty brethren armed with the aliens’ super-technology.) Though its derivations from The Day the Earth Stood Still and (less significantly) Red Planet Mars are obvious, The 27th Day is a quite impressive movie, well directed (like Frank R. Strayer, who went from some quite interesting and quirky horror films and thrillers in the early 1930’s to making the Blondie series at Columbia in the late 1930’s, Asher gave up a potentially interesting career as director of films like this to take up a commercially successful but artistically uninteresting sitcom series like Bewitched) and decently acted (even though Gene Barry’s butch act gets a bit wearing after a while), and making its points through a compelling dramatic idea, effectively realized. And Asher wasn’t the only creative talent involved with this film who went onto a less compelling career on TV: John Mantley ended up the producer of the Western series Gunsmoke in its later years.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Race to Mars (Galafilm Productions, Arte France, Discovery Channel Canada, 2006)

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

The movie at last night’s Mars film screening was a three-hour Canadian TV movie called Race to Mars, made in 2006 and split into four 42-minute episodes — though the page on the film makes it appear it was shown in just two parts. It deals with a cooperative mission to Mars in the years 2029-2031 (it takes a year to get there and a year to get back, and the astronauts only have about 11 days to spend on the planet’s surface) undertaken by a consortium of nations including the U.S. (which contributes two members of the crew, flight commander Rick Erwin [Michael Riley] and engineer Lucia Alarcón [Claudia Ferri], while the other nations involved get only one each), Canada, France (representing the European Union — given the way French politics are going and the likely outcomes from their presidential election tomorrow, the prediction that France will still be in the E.U. in 2029 is almost as optimistic as the one that we’ll actually be going to Mars!), Russia and Japan. The other crew members are the ship’s doctor, Antoine Hébert (Lothaire Bluteau) — that’s a man, by the way, despite the gender ambiguity of both the character’s and the actor’s first names — along with Jackie Decelles (Pascale Bussières), the only other woman besides Lucia; Mikhail Cerenkov (Frank Schorpion) and Hiromi Okuda (Kevan Ohtsji). The gender box score is four men and two women, and while we’re told the characters have families they’ve left behind back on Earth, the only relatives we see are Rick’s: his wife Lynn (Macha Grenon), their son Adam (Robert Naylor) and Rick’s father (David Rigby), with whom they communicate via videophone — and writers Garfield and Judith Reeves-Stevens build in the characters’ frustrations over the minutes-long gaps between the signals from Earth and Rick Erwin’s responses from space.

The Reeves-Stevenses and director George Mihalka build the Mars trip into a surprisingly understated suspense drama in which the characters — including Glenn Hartwell (Francis X. McCarthy), who’s running Mission Control back home in Houston (still! Lyndon Johnson’s gift to his home state that just keeps on giving!) and giving them instructions and advice that just seemed nit-picky to me — speak in formal, military jargon (including saying “Copy that?” and replying “Copy that” an awful lot to indicate they’ve understood the message they were given) that rings true because it’s basically the way real astronauts have spoken to each other and to the Mission Controllers back home on actual space flights. The Reeves-Stevenses are able to have a lot of things happen in that highly confined space in which the characters spend two years of their lives without underlining it with the melodrama typical of science-fiction flights about space travel (even such good ones as the pioneering Fritz Lang silent from 1928, Woman on the Moon, as well as Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M, clips from which are actually included here as an in-flight movie the crew members are watching and laughing at the scientific errors). First they find that a number of the circuit boards on which the various systems of their spacecraft, the Terra Nova, depend are faulty and keep going out on them — it turns out that, fearful that the Chinese (who didn’t join the consortium) would beat them to Mars and be the first ones to discover water and then life on the Red Planet (which they do and they don’t: they land a probe that drills for and discovers water, but it’s unmanned and thus Our Heroes get to be the first people to set foot on Mars), the company building the spaceship cut corners and used the boards without testing them first. (At this point I thought of Arthur Miller’s play All My Sons — in which an aircraft manufacturer used defective parts to build military planes during World War II, with the result that several pilots lost their lives unnecessarily — and figured the Reeves-Stevenses were ripping off that plot point and putting it in a science-fiction context.) Because so many of the boards are out of whack, commander Erwin has to order his crew to bypass as many of the automatic control systems as possible and run the ship manually. Then, just as the crew members are watching the meteor-shower sequence of Rocketship X-M and laughing at how much bigger the meteors are than real ones, the ship starts getting hit by a repetitive banging — at first I wondered if the Chinese ship was playing battering-cars with them in outer space, but it turns out to be neither that nor a meteor but one of the ship’s two grappling arms working itself loose, repeatedly hammering away at the ship, and forcing the crew to jettison it. (I joked, “The flying corkscrew has just jettisoned the flying nutcracker.” As in the more recent film Passengers, the spaceship looks like a flying corkscrew because it’s designed to spin on its own axis to generate artificial gravity, so the crew members can do their work without having to worry about how to control themselves and any objects they manipulate — and the producers can save a lot of money by not having to do all the wire work needed to simulate weightlessness.) All this has dented the exterior of the ship, but since the hull hasn’t actually been breached the crew members aren’t worried.

Then, once the crew have finally got to Mars, they get a message from Mission Control that due to all the problems they got into on the way, the Mission Controllers have determined that instead of actually landing on Mars, they should turn around and go back to Earth — only the crew members are predictably upset at having to turn back just when they’re so close and the other three (unmanned) rockets that were supposed to send up their support craft, including the Gagarin in which they’re supposed to land (named after the Russian cosmonaut who became the first human in space in 1961) and the “MarsHab” Atlantis in which they’re supposed to live, as well as the two vehicles in which they are able to travel around Mars’s surface — they quietly but firmly decide to land. Once on Mars they’re confronted with a new problem: one of the landing legs the Atlantis is supposed to rest on didn’t descend fully, and they’re not allowed to enter it until the leg is touching the Martian surface. (I read this as yet another surprisingly quirky literary reference made by the Reeves-Stevenses: Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, so much of whose plot turns on the inflexible rules of the British Navy and how even its captains were forced to abide by them, no matter what.) They finally get the leg down, but in the process Japanese astronaut Hiromi Okuda breaks his arm and Dr. Decelles orders him to remain in quarantine until his arm heals — and he’s naturally upset that he can’t be out on the Martian surface with the others. The crew sets up a drill to look for water on Mars — the Chinese unmanned probe found some, but it was so salty the human crew of the Terra Nova assume it was the remnant of an otherwise long-since evaporated Martian sea — only their drill bits keep breaking and the consortium back on Earth contacts the Chinese to see if their astronauts can cannibalize parts from the Chinese probe. They ultimately find water, which turns to snow in the frigid Martian temperature, but eventually the water well gushers and Okuda is buried in Martian slush and killed.

On the way back (we’re up to episode three of the four by now) the crew members start getting sick, and at first they assume it’s a common infection they brought with them from Earth. Later they conclude it’s actually something from Mars (so in addition to all the other stories the Reeves-Stevenses are “referencing,” as wold say, we can add The Andromeda Strain!). Dr. Decelles wants permission to open the samples of the Martian soil and water the expedition collected, but yet another standing order forbids them from doing that on the spaceship — not that that matters, anyway, because just when the crew is trying to decide whether to go ahead and open a sample even though it risks getting them all quarantined indefinitely if and when they make it back to Earth, the ship is hit by a solar flare. At first I was thinking that the energy from the solar flare would kill whatever the Martian organism was that was making them sick — but it turns out there isn’t a Martian organism that’s making them sick. Instead the rapid alternations between hot and cold on the voyage opened that dent in the side of the ship caused by the flailing arm and part of that solar flare fried some critical equipment, with the result that the ship’s systems are stuck on a particular time coordinate and the instruments that monitor the air quality are going haywire. The crew realize this when they find the mice, who were taken along for the same reason canaries are used in coal mines — to see when the atmosphere had become too dangerous to breathe — are dead (they must have been props since the film contains a “No animals were harmed” designation), and they ultimately realize that they have to go outside the vehicle and swap out some more damaged boards so the ship’s environmental controls start giving it breathable air instead of the heavy concentration of carbon monoxide that was actually making them sick. This means having to take down two of the cabin doors because the ship’s nuclear propulsion system (a concept that was actually researched in the 1970’s as a possible propellant for future spacecraft) has made the area dangerously radioactive, and the two crew members chosen for the mission, Erwin and Cerenkov, have a strict hour-and-a-half time limit on how long they can be out there before receiving a dangerously high dose of radiation. Fortunately everything works out in the end and the five surviving astronauts return home.  

Race to Mars is stuck with a deceptive title (since the Chinese probe they are supposedly “racing” to beat to Mars is unmanned, it’s not a real “space race” like the infamous one between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the early 1960’s, in which the Soviets kept beating us until they just gave up, so they won the race to be first in space, we won to be first on the moon, and then we gave up — supposedly when he was President in the early 1970’s Richard Nixon canceled all of NASA’s manned programs past Apollo and also canceled the research into the nuclear thermal propulsion system used in this film, and that’s why after Apollo 17 humans never went to the moon again instead of going on to Mars) and some hilarious uses of stock footage (notably in an unintentionally risible scene in which the various capital cities of the consortium countries are shown supposedly celebrating the astronauts’ safe landing on the Martian surface, and what we’re really seeing are stock shots of New Year’s celebrations in those cities), but for the most part it’s a quite well made film, nicely acted and staged with a quiet dignity that avoids the melodramatic complications of much science fiction and instead goes for a depiction of space travel the way we’ve actually seen it done in the footage from the Apollo missions and the shuttles. Race to Mars is one of the better recent space-travel movies and I was glad to have seen it — and particularly glad to have been able to see it in one “go” without the false suspense created by watching it as four discrete episodes of a TV mini-series.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Bells of Cockaigne (Armstrong Floor Company, NBC-TV, November 17, 1953)

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

I brought out the James Dean TV boxed set — a compilation of most (though, frustratingly, not all — it’s missing his episode of the ABC-TV science-fiction series Tales of Tomorrow and Dean’s very last TV appearance, The Unlighted Road, a fugitive tale he did between Rebel Without a Cause and Giant) of Dean’s surviving work on television from 1951 through 1955 — and screened The Bells of Cockaigne, an episode of the Armstrong Circle Theatre (a show sponsored by the Armstrong flooring company which aired from 1950 through 1963, a long run for a series like this). Originally aired November 17, 1953, The Bells of Cockaigne, an original TV script by George Lowther, is an outrageously sentimental soap opera about some sort of unloading operation (though it’s not clear from the tacky painted sets typical of live TV whether it’s at a dock or a train station’s freight yard) in which the star, Gene Lockhart, plays Gus, a janitor (at least we think he’s a janitor because the one piece of actual work we see him do is sweep a floor) who regularly plays a newspaper sweepstakes in which they publish the serial number of 10 $1 bills, and if you have the bill with that serial number you can go to the newspaper’s office and claim a $500 prize. Joey Frazier (James Dean) is one of the workers on the dock or freight yard or whatever, and we get to see him shirtless throughout virtually the whole program (and we get quite a few shots of equally hunky young men equally semi-clad).

He’s got a wife (Donalee Marans) who on payday tries to show up at the dock (or whatever) to collect his money before he can blow it on his co-workers’ poker game — they need money desperately not only for themselves but also their nine-year-old child (who’s referred to as their son in some scenes and their daughter in others — apparently George Lowther wasn’t big on plot consistency), who has such a severe case of chronic asthma the kid’s doctors have urged the Fraziers to get the hell out of New York and relocate to a warmer, drier climate that will be better for their child’s health. The grim business between Mr. and Mrs. Frazier about a drug their doctor has just prescribed for the kid that will make him considerably better, at least in the short term, but which they can’t afford because it costs $9 rings all too true today, in which thanks to America’s wonderful free-market for-profit health-care system all too many people have to choose between putting food on their table, paying their rent, paying their bills and buying the prescription medications they need. Anyway, Joey ends up at the poker game and actually wins, but another worker, Rivnock (John Dennis), threatens to beat him up if Joey doesn’t continue playing until Rivnock gets his money back. You can pretty much write the rest of it yourself: Gus (ya remember Gus?) finds he’s actually got the winning bill for the newspaper sweepstakes, which he’s been playing for years in hopes he could get the $500 to visit his native Ireland one more time before he dies (and Gene Lockhart seems to have got his whole idea of how to play an Irishman by having watched Thomas Mitchell’s performances in John Ford movies), only he gives it to the Fraziers (he’s actually smart enough to give it to Mrs. Frazier) so they’ll have the grubstake they need to get themselves and their kid out of New York. The Bells of Cockaigne is an O.K. mini-drama, indicative of the economy of storytelling that allowed TV producers, directors and writers in the early 1950’s to do half-hour drama shows, and while it’s not exactly fresh storytelling it is moving in most of the ways the creators clearly intended — and Dean, who didn’t usually get to play parts this sympathetic in his TV shows (most of the time he was cast as an ex-convict or a thug), turns in a performance well balanced between toughness and vulnerability and illustrating his own comment about himself: “There’s Montgomery Clift going, ‘Help me! Help me!,’ and there’s Marlon Brando going, ‘Fuck you! Fuck you!,” and somewhere in the middle there is James Dean.”

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Nazi Mega Weapons: The S.S. and the Siegfried Line (Darlow Smithson Productions, PBS, 2015)

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

I watched a couple of episodes of the TV series Nazi Mega Weapons, a British production from 2014, on PBS — lists three seasons for it (2013, 2014 and 2015) but even on these shows, the second season, the producers were obviously pumping up the project by covering aspects of the Nazi regime and its military machine that were not really “mega weapons” in the sense of the huge construction projects, many of them so big as to be impractical, covered in the show’s first season. One episode, originally aired January 21, 2015, was called “The S.S.” — which wasn’t a mega-weapon at all but an elite force, essentially the worst of the worst of Nazidom, who began before Hitler took power as his personal bodyguards but soon expanded under its commander, Heinrich Himmler, to run virtually the entire police force of Nazi Germany, to control the concentration camps (which were originally built before World War II as a place to imprison political enemies and turn them into slave laborers before they were expanded into the territories Germany conquered in the early years of the war — the most famous camp, Auschwitz, wasn’t in Germany but in Poland — and converted from forced-labor camps into extermination facilities) and in its later incarnation, the Waffen S.S. (which simply means “armed S.S.”), to fight alongside the regular German military in operations for which the Nazis wanted a particularly brutal and uncompromising force. The show contains at least one fortress the S.S. built (with slave labor) in Poland, where they dug under no fewer than 36 mountains to build an underground facility called “The Giant” which would have enabled the Nazis to maintain a government and continue a resistance movement even if German lost the war above ground (which in fact was never used because the Soviet troops advanced through that part of Poland and recaptured it before “The Giant” was anywhere near completion).

When the show’s narrator (who in some ways is its most risible feature; he sounds and looks all too much like Eric Idle parodying British newscasters on Monty Python’s Flying Circus) descended into “The Giant,” some of the original caves had become so flooded he had to go into them on a raft à la The Phantom of the Opera. The show also mentions the weird cult Himmler tried to create to give the Nazis in general and the S.S. in particular a “spiritual” basis, linking them to old Teutonic myths. The program didn’t describe Himmler’s spiritual cult as a direct attack on Christianity, but Himmler himself certainly did: he said, “We live in an era of the ultimate conflict with Christianity. It is part of the mission of the S.S. to give the German people in the next half century the non-Christian ideological foundations on which to lead and shape their lives. This task does not consist solely in overcoming an ideological opponent but must be accompanied at every step by a positive impetus: in this case that means the reconstruction of the German heritage in the widest and most comprehensive sense.” Himmler seized a castle that had been built on the site of a victory the ancient German tribes had won against the Roman Empire and remodeled it into what amounted to the Vatican of his S.S. cult, and (though this isn’t touched on in the program) he also sent out anthropologists worldwide to dig up “evidence” of his racial theories — an effort even some of the other leading Nazis thought was nuts. The show goes into some detail about how the S.S. were recruited (Himmler wanted people with blond hair, blue eyes, at least 5’ 11” tall and with perfect vision — even though Himmler himself was shorter than that, dark-haired and wore glasses) and how they were trained to wipe any amount of humanity or compassion out of them — though the S.S. training as shown here wasn’t that different from what any army puts its recruits through so they’ll lose their individuality and blend together as a unitary fighting force.

The other Nazi Mega Weapons episode shown last night was at least closer to what the show’s concept was originally: it was first aired January 28, 2015 and called “The Siegfried Line” — after the nickname Hitler’s enemies gave to the Westwall, the extensive fortifications and defenses Hitler ordered built on the border between Germany and France to prevent a repeat of the trench-warfare stalemate that had made World War I last four years and produced so many human casualties. (The French similarly built the Maginot Line but stupidly ignored the fact that in World War I the Germans had invaded France via neutral Belgium; so they stopped the Maginot Line at the French-Belgian border — and the Nazis, like the Kaiser’s army before them, once again crossed through Belgium and got into France without having to bring down the Maginot Line.) The Siegfried Line took advantage of the natural defenses of the Hürtgen Forest on the German-French border — with its closely packed trees and rolling terrain — and among its elements were “dragon’s teeth” (giant concrete outcroppings built to stop enemy tanks), huge pill-boxes and turrets from which German soldiers could aim machine guns at the enemy without being vulnerable themselves, and concrete abutments that reinforced the natural defenses of the Hürtgen Forest. Ironically, the Siegfried Line was at least in part a victim of the Germans’ early successes in the war: Hitler ordered many of its guns removed so they could be used in the Nazi invasion of France, and by the time the fortunes of war reversed and he once again needed to worry about defending the homeland, much of the Line’s fortification was obsolete because improvements in light artillery, tanks and other mobile weapons had made it possible for the Allies to break through the line.

Nonetheless, the Line was effective enough as a defense that the U.S. Army’s first attempt to break through the western border of Germany at the town of Aachen (also known, by the way, as the city where Herbert von Karajan got his first important job as conductor in 1938) turned into a bloodbath and delayed them long enough that Hitler was able to put together an army for the counteroffensive that became known as the Battle of the Bulge. “The Siegfried Line” tells its story largely through two experts, retired British Army Captain Patrick Bury and “battlefield archaeologist” Tony Pollard (one wonders just how you decide you want to be a “battlefield archaeologist” and where you go to train as one), as well as the diaries and letters of Fritz Tillmans, a German soldier who fought in the battle for Aachen — and it’s a compelling one, even though the moral of Nazi Mega Weapons as a whole is that the Germans hobbled themselves with their mania for size; instead of doing what the Allies did — building large quantities of small, maneuverable tanks and guns — the Nazis concentrated on a few big weapons they didn’t have the resources to mass-produce and which in some cases were absurdly vulnerable. One of the previous episodes of Nazi Mega Weapons was about an ultra-huge cannon that was so large they had to build special railway tracks just to move it — and it was so big and so difficult to move it was a sitting duck for enemy aircraft. I know we’re not supposed to make comparisons between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump — that’s considered very politically incorrect even by Trump’s bitterest enemies — but they have an awful lot in common, including this mania for making everything “yuge” as well as a maddening (to their associates as well as everyone else) tendency to base their decisions on whatever they’re told by the last person who discusses something with them — the surviving diaries of Joseph Goebbels and the memoirs of Albert Speer both describe their machinations to make sure they were the last people to see Hitler on a particular issue they wanted his support on, and their frustrations when someone else in the Nazi hierarchy got to der Führer before they did!