Monday, May 22, 2017

American Epic, part 1: “The Big Bang” (Lo-Max Films/PBS, 2015-2017)

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

Last Tuesday, May 16, PBS nationally broadcast “The Big Bang,” the first part of a three-part miniseries (each episode lasting only an hour, unfortunately — they could have been considerably longer!) called American Epic, about the movement among American recording companies begun in the mid-1920’s to broaden the market for records and record players by going out into the country and recording both Black and white “roots” artists, the people who would eventually form the bedrock of the genres we now know as blues and country music, respectively. The version of the story told here is that record sales were beginning to fall in the mid-1920’s because of the growing competition of radio, which offered music for free once you invested in a receiving set, and so record companies sent talent scouts to parts of the country — mainly the Deep South — where there was very little broadcasting and therefore radio hadn’t penetrated yet. The truth is a bit more complicated; both Black and white “roots” artists had been mainstays of the record business since its earliest days, and two of the most enormous record hits of the early 1920’s were Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” — produced by Ralph Peer for Okeh Records (Peer is a very important part of American Epic) — and Vernon Dalhart’s “The Wreck of the Old 97.” Both of those records sold over a million copies and showed the commercial viability of recording blues and country music, respectively. 

The record business was aggressively challenged by radio, and was so decimated by the 1929 Depression that there were quite a few people who thought it would never recover (it did, starting in 1934, as the overall economy recovered as well). The show mentions Ralph Peer and also his great rival at Columbia, Frank Walker, who in 1923 discovered and signed Bessie Smith (and in 1945, driven out of Columbia by parent company CBS’s mandatory retirement policy, he joined MGM Records and there signed Hank Williams), and includes archive audio interviews with both of them as well as film footage of their sons. The real story was that in 1925 Peer quit Okeh Records in a dispute over salary and set his sights on the biggest record company of all (at the time), Victor. The only problem was that Victor didn’t want to pay him. Fine, said Peer: he’d sign with Victor and produce records for them for free as long as he and his newly formed music publishing company, Peer Music (now Peer-Southern and still run by the Peer family) got ownership of the copyright of any original songs Peer’s artist recorded. Peer had seen that the real long-term income possibilities in the music business weren’t in recording artists, who came and went (Peer told one of his most important artists, pioneering blues-country singer Jimmie Rodgers, that he shouldn’t expect to be a big record seller for longer than three years), but in ownership of the songs themselves, which meant he would get royalties not only from the original recordings but from anyone else who covered them. (“You may forget the singer, but don’t forget this song,” goes a line in one of the Carter Family records Peer produced.) One quirk of this arrangement was that Peer’s artists weren’t allowed to cover other people’s songs because then Peer wouldn’t make any money from them — Rodgers broke the rule when he recorded “Frankie and Johnny” in 1929 and a furious Peer blocked release of the record until 1938, when Rodgers had been dead for five years and Victor was putting out just about everything they had on him. They could only record their own compositions, old folk songs they’d tweaked enough to claim them as “originals” for copyright purposes, or other songs owned by Peer’s company.

In August 1927 Peer took portable recording equipment (which wasn’t all that portable; at the time professional-quality recording equipment was heavy and massive, and because the engineers couldn’t count on a steady enough electrical current to keep the cutting turntable running at a constant speed, the turntable ran on power generated by falling weights controlled by a pendulum like an old grandfather clock) to Bristol, Tennessee and advertised for anyone who wanted to sing and play for his microphones to give this recording business a trial. The biggest artists he landed were Rodgers and the Carter Family, who were more or less extensively profiled on this program (I say “more or less” because while they were the principal focus of the first half of “The Big Bang,” PBS did an earlier documentary on them that was longer and did a much better job of telling their interesting story) even though when they showed up in Bristol the Carters had never performed professionally. Like a lot of the other artists who showed up before Peer’s microphones, the Carters — A. P. (Alvin Pleasant) and Sara Carter, who were both first or second cousins (accounts differ, but it’s known that “Carter” was both Sara’s birth name and her married name) and husband and wife; and Maybelle Carter, who was A.P.’s sister and Sara’s cousin — had previously thought of music as something you did for fun, picking and singing on your porch for your own amusement or for your relatives and friends. The idea that you could actually make money off it was totally foreign to them. A. P. persuaded his reluctant womenfolk to make the journey from their home in Maces Spring, Virginia to Bristol, Tennessee — one reason for their reluctance was Sara had just given birth and Maybelle was reaching the end of a pregnancy — to try out in Bristol, and Peer heard an electrifying quality in Sara Carter’s voice and signed them instantly. Under his arrangement with Peer, A. P. Carter realized he’d have to keep him supplied with a steady stream of “new” songs, and when the Carters had established themselves as recording and radio stars (sometimes accompanied by Lesley “Esley” Riddle, a Black guitar player from Kingsport, Tennessee) A. P. would tour the South looking for folk songs he could take, tweak and offer to Peer’s company as copyrightable “originals.” Nolan Porterfield,  Jimmie Rodgers’ biographer, noted in his book that grabbing folk songs, changing them a bit and copyrighting them as your own work might seem exploitative, but it did mean that a lot of songs that might otherwise have been lost forever were preserved. 

The Carter Family finally broke up in 1944 after A. P. and Sara separated over Sara’s affair with yet another member of their extended family — A. P.’s cousin, Coy Bayes (Sara wrote a song for the group, “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” as a love song for Bayes, and every time the group sang it on the radio it was a signal to him that she wanted them to get together after the show), and A. P. ended up leaving show business and running a two-bit grocery store in the middle of nowhere. The previous PBS documentary on the Carters showed a photo of this rather sad-looking store with a sign out front reading “A. P. Carter, Prop.”, and I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone who shopped there associated that A. P. Carter with the male member of the original Carter Family that had sold millions of records and largely established country music as a viable genre. Maybelle Carter became a major solo artist on the Grand Ole Opry and her offspring continued the tradition: Maybelle’s daughter June Carter married Johnny Cash and June’s daughter Carlene (not from Cash but from her previous husband) also became a country star in her own right, while up until the 1980’s various combinations of Carter generations toured either as “The Carter Family” or “The Carter Sisters.” This show also doesn’t mention (though the previous documentary did) that Maybelle Carter invented a way of playing lead and rhythm guitar simultaneously that became known as the “Carter Scratch” (it means picking lead parts on the lower strings and chords on the upper ones) and is still one of the basic techniques used by country guitarists. Ralph Peer, Frank Walker and the other great record talent scouts of their generation (including probably the greatest record producer of all time in terms of discovering and incubating new talent, John Hammond) said that what they listened for in a potential new signing was an electrifying quality that moved them on an intense emotional level and they felt would move other people as well — and as crude as they are (by comparison not only with the recording artists since but even with contemporaries like Jimmie Rodgers who had performed professionally before they recorded), the Carter Family’s records hold up beautifully because of their simplicity and direct, heartfelt emotion. (The Carter Family seem to me to be strongest in their religious songs, including what’s probably their most covered piece, “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?”[1]; virtually all African-American music is rooted in the Black church tradition, and quite a few white artists from the South also had their roots in the church, including the Carters, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton.)

The second half of American Epic’s first episode, “The Big Bang,” focused on a Black group considerably more obscure than the Carter Family (and also, quite frankly, sounding considerably more dated even though a surprising number of their songs were covered by folk and rock bands in the 1960’s): the Memphis Jug Band, described on their Wikipedia page as “an American musical group active from the mid-1920’s to the late 1950’s.[1] The band featured harmonica, kazoo, fiddle and mandolin or banjolin, backed by guitar, piano, washboard, washtub bass and jug. They played slow blues, pop songs, humorous songs and upbeat dance numbers with jazz and string band flavors. The band made the first commercial recordings in Memphis, Tennessee, and recorded more sides than any other prewar jug band.” The musical legacy of Memphis is one of the most famous and yet most bizarrely misunderstood of that of any major American city, largely because the current Memphis city government has turned their city into a virtual theme park for Elvis Presley and in the process crowded out just about any other commemoration of their town’s rich musical history. (The converted movie theatre in which the Stax company recorded some of the greatest soul records of the 1960’s and 1970’s was torn down and is now a vacant lot.) I would go so far as to say that Memphis was to rock ’n’ roll what New Orleans was to jazz: the place where the various styles came together and fused into something new and appealing to millions of people around the world. (One of my favorite photos from Memphis shows Elvis and B. B. King hanging out together behind a Memphis movie theatre at a time when virtually no one outside of Memphis had ever heard of either of them.) Various players came and went in the Memphis Jug Band — its records were made in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s but the band remained a live attraction until the late 1950’s — but the key figures were singer-guitarist-songwriter-harmonica player Will Shade (who according to the Wikipedia page on the group also was known as Son Brimmer, sometimes spelled Sun Brimmer) and guitarist and second vocalist Charlie Burse (pronounced “Bursey”). Like a lot of Black groups of the period (including Duke Ellington’s band, who also recorded as “Connie’s Hot Chocolates” and “The Harlem Footwarmers”), they honored the “exclusive” part of their record contract more in the breach than in the observance, recording under such alternate names as the Picaninny Jug Band, the Memphis Sanctified Singers, the Carolina Peanut Boys, the Dallas Jug Band, the Memphis Sheiks and the Jolly Jug Band. (The “Memphis Sanctified Singers” name probably came about so they could record religious material and sell records to a market that was not only disinterested but morally repulsed by blues.)

What holds up about the Memphis Jug Band’s records today is not so much their music as their lyrics, particularly their dispassionate descriptions of dissolute lifestyles: “Cocaine Habit Blues,” “A Black Woman Is Like a Black Snake” (the title is a reflection of the internal racism within America’s Black community at the time, in which lighter-skinned Blacks were considered higher-class and more moral while darker-skinned Blacks were considered lower-class and dangerous: one can see this division in a lot of the “race” movies of the time, made with Black casts for Black audiences; usually “race” movie producers, both Black and white, cast lighter-skinned actors as the heroes and darker ones either as villains or as comic relief) and “Stealin’, Stealin’.” The American Epic show depicts rapper Nas covering “A Black Woman Is Like a Black Snake,” rapping the lyric instead of singing it the way Shade did, and using it as a defense of rap (or “hip-hop,” the euphemism for rap generally used by people who like it) by saying that he’s working in the same tradition that Shade was when he wrote the song. I think there’s a difference — and I’m well aware much of my distaste for rap may be a simple generation gap: I’ve now become the representative of the older generation muttering about the awful music the kids are listening to — and I think the difference was that the older musicians who wrote songs about the darker sides of life were simply describing them, whereas the rappers actively take pride in doing all those dirty, disgusting things like raping women, beating Queers, committing armed robbery and murder and collecting aggressively ugly and tasteless jewelry (“bling”). Rap really doesn’t have its roots in older forms of African-American music (though the cadences of most rap do derive, in a weird and twisted way, from the cadences of Black ministers in the ways they preached) as much as it does in “The Dozens,” an old street-corner word game played by Black men in which the idea was to boast as much as possible about your own physical, financial and sexual prowess and come up with as many put-downs of the person you were “dozening” with as you could think of.

One odd thing about the periodic rediscovery of “roots” music is that it’s not always the most interesting artists that get rediscovered and hailed as the masters. I thought of that when the American Epic producer-director-writer, British filmmaker Bernard MacMahon (who whimsically named his production company “Lo-Max Films,” after Alan and Louis Lomax, the pioneering Black folklorists who traveled the South with portable recording equipment in the late 1930’s and 1940’s, recorded “folk” artists and gave them $20 each as a token payment — earning the gratitude of amateurs like Dockery’s Plantation sharecropper McKinley Morganfield, who later moved to Chicago and became a blues star as Muddy Waters; and the ire of Blind Willie McTell, who responded to the Lomaxes’ payment with, “What is this $20 shit? When I was on Victor I used to get $100 a side!” It was an ironic choice because MacMahon consciously avoided noncommercial field recordings and concentrated on artists who were signed, however tenuously, to established record companies whose executives hoped to make money from them) included a bit of “Old Jim Canan’s” by Robert Wilkins, a classic-era blues artist whom I regard as one of the most unjustly neglected blues musicians of all time. (I think he was better than the more highly hyped Robert Johnson, but maybe that’s just because I find Wilkins so much more admirable as a human being. Johnson begged his record producer for a nickel because the cheap prostitute he wanted charged 50¢ and he was a nickel short; Wilkins quit the music business altogether in 1936 when a crowd in a juke joint he was playing rioted, became a born-again Christian minister and faith healer, and when he returned to music in the early 1960’s it was as a gospel singer.) Ironically, the illegal nightclub Wilkins recorded the song about is the only one of the old Memphis blues clubs that hasn’t been torn down, but the place where Wilkins boasted you could get “beer and cocaine” is now — get this — a police station. (Wilkins’ masterpiece, “That’s No Way to Get Along,” was covered by the Rolling Stones using his more Biblically-themed rewrite of the lyric, “Prodigal Son,” but he’s never achieved the cachet with the rock audience Johnson has.)  

American Epic has come with the PBS hype machine (such as it is) working hard; they got Robert Redford to narrate it (though his voice is not distinctive enough to be recognizable if you can’t see him as well) and in addition to selling the show itself on DVD and Blu-Ray they’re also selling a five-CD compilation of the artists represented and a two-CD album of modern artists, including Jack White, Elton John, Taj Mahal, Alabama Shakes, rapper Nas, East L.A.’s Los Lobos and more, not only recording the old songs but recording them on reconstructed 1930’s equipment, direct-to-disc on fragile wax masters that had to go through an elaborate set of electroplating process so they could be turned into molds from which records could be pressed. (Methinks it occurred to whoever was in their marketing department to ask themselves, “What can we possibly do to attract people like Mark Conlan to our project?” If that’s what they were thinking, they were right!)


[1] — For some reason most of the covers of this — including the one by Willie Nelson depicted on American Epic — change the first word of the lyric to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Secrets of My Stepdaughter (Cover Productions, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2017)

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

As has become their practice, Lifetime last night (Saturday, May 20) scheduled two movies back-to-back in prime time that were too similar in plot and theme — both are about stepmothers threatened, intimidated and put in mortal peril by their stepchildren — this practice tends to make each film seem weaker than it is simply because the comparisons can’t help but expose how the writers are going to the same plot devices and gimmicks and the actors are playing similar characters in similar ways. Last night’s pairing was a bit different than the norm in that the first one they showed, the “premiere” of something called Secrets of My Stepdaughter, was considerably better than the second one, a year-old opus called The Bad Twin. Secrets of My Stepdaughter was originally shot under the title A Murderer Upstairs, which sounds more chilling but was probably rejected because it gave too much of the plot away. The central characters are mom Cindy Kent (Josie Davis), her husband Greg (Cameron Bancroft) — a trial attorney whose job takes him out of town a lot — and their kids Rachel (Tierra Skovbye) and Addy (Ali Skovbye). The identical last names of the actresses playing the sisters at least shows why they look so credible as blood relatives — they really are! — though in Conor Allyn’s screenplay (effectively and unobtrusively directed by Jem Garrard) they’re only half-sisters. Addy, the younger of the two girls, is the biological offspring of Greg and Cindy, but Rachel is Greg’s daughter by a previous wife named Martha whom we don’t meet until towards the end of the film. Martha suddenly abandoned Rachel just three months before the film begins, and Greg and Cindy took her in and tried to break through to her. Rachel got a job at a fashion store alongside her best friend Leslie (Madelyn Grace), only in the opening scene Rachel is discovered tied to a chair in the store and Leslie is next to her, bludgeoned to death with the store’s cash register. Rachel’s story is that two robbers, both wearing ski masks and gloves, burst into the store, attacked both her and Leslie, killed Leslie and left Rachel for dead — and she’s got strangulation marks on her neck to support the story. The cops uncover a young (cute, blond) man named Aaron Barker (Jared Ager-Foster) who several months earlier was stalking Leslie to the point where Leslie and her mom got out a restraining order against him, and he was in the store that night, but Aaron insists that when the murder occurred he was at home with his mother. That’s not much of an alibi, as police lieutenant Brian Smith (a big middle-aged white guy played by Garry Chalk) says; he becomes convinced early on that Aaron killed Leslie and utterly refuses to listen to any other possibilities. (Stop me if you’ve heard this before.)

His associate, detective Pam Cherfils (Lucia Walters) —oddly her last name means “dear son” and, though younger than these characters usually are in Lifetime movies, she’s the all-wise African-American who’s going to come into the story and save the white characters from their stupidity and naïveté —isn’t so sure. She sees too much of a disjunct between the meticulous planning that went into the crime as Rachel described it — robbers wearing masks and gloves to avoid being recognized and leaving fingerprints — and the seeming impulsiveness of whacking someone over the head with a cash register as a murder weapon. She also notices the bruise patterns on Rachel’s neck, which seem to her more consistent with self-inflicted bruises than a serious attempt by someone else to strangle her. Meanwhile, Rachel becomes a mini-superstar at school and gets a lot of media attention as the woman who heroically survived a terrible attack. Gradually, however, her cover-up unravels and Cindy realizes that Rachel is a psychopathic monster — especially when she murders the dog Cindy and Greg got for Addy — and Rachel does everything she can to drive wedges between her dad and her stepmom, including logging on to the Web site of a law firm specializing in divorces so her dad can look at it and think Cindy is going to break up with him. Cindy also goes to see Leslie’s mother, and though Cindy is about the last person Leslie’s mom wants to talk to, nonetheless they converse long enough for Leslie’s mom to tell Cindy that the two women were stealing expensive clothes and accessories from the store they worked for. Cindy invades Rachel’s room and discovers a large chest under her bed containing the stolen items, and as things happen she makes this find just when Pam shows up with a search warrant and the cops end up arresting Rachel for shoplifting — though Pam is hoping that charge will merely be what they hold her on while Pam continues her investigation and uncovers evidence that Rachel murdered Leslie. 

Cindy is in a Kafka-esque predicament in which she becomes more and more convinced that Rachel is a stone-cold crazy killer — she even warns Addy not to let Rachel pick her up from school, advice Addy of course ignore — while just about everyone else but Pam, including Greg, Addy and Lt. Smith, is convinced that Aaron killed Leslie and Cindy is just being paranoid. We’ve also been told that Maggie, Rachel’s biological mother, had a long-standing drug problem and gave Rachel away because she’d rather do drugs than raise her kid — and for a few acts we get the impression that Rachel got damaged as a person from growing up with a drug-addicted mom who was probably in quite a lot of trouble with the law and had to make many sudden escapes — but when Cindy finally traces Maggie, who’s calling herself “Norwood” and working as a hotel maid (a white woman working as a hotel maid?), Maggie shows the scars on her arms and tells her they came from Rachel attacking her with scissors. It comes to a head in a confrontation in which Rachel manages to drug Addy and overpower Pam when Pam comes to the house, and when Cindy returns Rachel holds a gun on her and gives Cindy a knife, telling her to stab Pam to death, whereupon Rachel will shoot Cindy with the gun and claim she did so in self-defense after Cindy totally lost it. Greg comes home and originally seems prepared to believe his daughter over his wife, but eventually he realizes how crazy Rachel is and helps Lt. Smith subdue her and take her into custody. Secrets of My Stepdaughter may not sound like much in synopsis, but it’s actually a quite effective suspense thriller, powered by Jem Garrard’s effective direction and a nicely honed performance by Tiera Skovbye as Rachel, who in the best tradition of Lifetime’s psychos is quite matter-of-fact about her actions and convinces us that she simply doesn’t see anything wrong with them.

The Bad Twin (Maple Island Films, Daro Film Distribution, Litetime, 2016)

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

Alas, the quality of Secrets of My Stepdaughter cast something of a pall over the next film up on Lifetime’s schedule, The Bad Twin (neither imdb.com nor Lifetime’s own publicity had the definite article in the title, but it’s there in the opening title credit). This time the protagonist is played by Haylie Duff, one of the rare actresses in a Lifetime lead who actually has a reputation in the bigger world of entertainment (though judging from her imdb.com credits list, her reputation seems to be more from being Hilary Duff’s sister than her own résumé). Duff plays Dr. Kim Burgess, a psychiatrist who hosts a local radio show in which she gives advice to various callers with “issues.” One day during her broadcast she gets a call from a woman who claims she’s just a fake and doesn’t know anything at all about how people really tick, and screams about how Dr. Burgess can represent herself as an expert on “families” when her own is wildly dysfunctional. Kim gives her call screener a nod and the screener hangs up on the woman in mid-call, but the woman later confronts her outside the studio where she’s signing a few copies of her books for fans and turns out to be her sister Cassandra “Cassie” Murphy (Jacy King). Cassie is the mother of 15-year-old twin daughters Olivia and Quinn, both played quite effectively by Grace Van Dien, who turns in an accomplished performance in which she’s able to communicate by slight differences in intonation and posture which girl is which. (The effects work that allows both Van Diens to appear on the screen together is also quite good, though there are a number of shots in which one twin has her back to the camera and it’s obviously a stand-in or a double.) 

Cassie has just been declared an unfit mother by the child protective services department and has been put in a mental hospital, and rather than let her nieces go into foster care Kim agrees to take them in even though she doesn’t know the first thing about parenting. Kim has a boyfriend, Kevin (Scott Bailey), who’s cute and so young-looking he seems more like her son than her partner, but he’s a pretty milquetoast character. At first the twins carry on a war of intimidation against their aunt, including stealing valuables from her home and burying them in her backyard, but then in a video call with their mom in the institution mom gives them written instructions so the hospital staff can’t see what she’s communicating with her daughters. She instructs them to find Kim’s will — which, when they do, it turns out leaves her entire fortune to a charity instead of the sisters or their mom — and then, when they get a face-to-face visit, she plays Scrabble with them and spells out the words “ADOPTION” and “BE NEEDY.” This gives the girls the message that they’re supposed to go all out to get Kim to adopt them legally — and Olivia, who’s clearly the “alpha” of the two, seeks out not only to get Kim to adopt them but to knock off anyone who might stand in the way of that plan. The first to go is Kim’s producer and close friend Gail (Charlotte Graham), whom Olivia knocks off by taking her to the beach, burying her in the sand (all except her head) and letting the tide come in and drown her. An imdb.com poster noted two plot holes in this sequence: “[F]irst, the damp sand over her was not deep enough to prevent her from freeing her arms and digging herself out. Second, the rising tide would have taken hours to reach the point it did instead of the minutes shown. Due to this time delay, Gail would have been discovered and rescued.” Still, as powerfully directed by John Murlowski (working from a script by Alix Reeves), it’s one of the best and most frightening scenes in the movie even though it might have worked even better if Olivia had been shown piling rocks on top of the buried Gail so she really could not have got out on her own. Later Olivia overhears mom’s boyfriend Kevin questioning whether she should adopt the girls, and Olivia responds by picking poisonous mushrooms and substituting them for safe ones in the dinner she and Quinn are making for Kim and Kevin that night — only Quinn, who though she’s heavily under Olivia’s spell does have a conscience, takes out the poison mushrooms and puts in the ones originally intended for the meal. 

It ends with Kim and Cassie going for a drive in the country, only Olivia has brought along a wooden box containing bees from a hive on Kim’s property — Kim is deathly allergic to bees (which makes one wonder why she allows a hive to remain on her property instead of having it removed) and she goes into shock when Olivia releases the bees in the confined space inside the car and they get in her hair and repeatedly sting her. Kim loses control of the car and drives it off the road, and the other three throw her out of the car — only Quinn, once again having an attack of conscience, throws out Kim’s antidote pen and so Kim is able to bring herself to and watch as crazy Cassie drives the car into a tree. Cassie is killed — a scene heralded by a title saying “Eight Months Later” and a shot of her tombstone — and Quinn is, or at least seems to be, ready to adjust to life with Kim and Kevin, while Olivia is in a mental hospital, though the final shot shows the two girls together and, even though they’re separated by a wall, Olivia’s hold over her still seems strong. The Bad Twin is a good movie but it didn’t seem as interesting as it would have if it hadn’t been preceded by the superior Secrets of My Stepdaughter, and I think the main problem with it is there’s no real suspense. Unlike in Secrets of My Stepdaughter — or the obvious model for this sort of story, The Bad Seed, which writer Reeves was so blatantly ripping off she might have well have called it The Bad Seeds — we know from the beginning the twins, Olivia in particular, are up to no good. And as well as Grace Van Dien acquits herself as the twins, it’s all too obvious she’s modeling her performance on Patty McCormick’s in The Bad Seed — which pretty much has set the template for how to play a child psycho. The Bad Twin is decently done and offers a few of the frissons Murkowski and Reeves were clearly after, but it’s not that good and it doesn’t offer the sinister progression of its models in which we first took the psycho girl(s) at face value and only later realized they were psycho.

Austin City Limits: Tedeschi Trucks Band (KLRU, LickonaVision, PBS, 2016)

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

After those shows I watched Austin City Limits in its “ghetto” time slot on KPBS, midnight to 1 a.m., featuring the Tedeschi Trucks Band (no hyphen in the name even though it represents the band’s co-leaders, guitarist Derek Trucks (whose uncle, Butch Trucks, was the drummer for the original Allman Brothers Band — Derek himself also played for a later edition of the Allman Brothers Band) and vocalist and guitarist Susan Tedeschi, who are also husband and wife. (There’s an ironic interview at the end of this show in which Trucks noted that they found it easier to get married, have children and raise their family than it was to co-lead a band together!) I’d heard of this group before as one of the many, almost innumerable Allman Brothers spinoffs, but I’d never heard them before. They turned out to be quite good, mainly due to Susan Tedeschi, who reminded me a good deal of Bonnie Raitt — they’re both white women singers and blues guitarists, they have similar vocal timbres and they manage to sing soulfully without resorting to the ornamentation and “worrying” of their Black models — and who proved herself as capable a lead guitarist as her husband. Interestingly, they played only seven songs during this 50-minute appearance (Austin City Limits runs in an hour-long time slot but there are so many promos, interviews and “enhanced underwriting opportunities,” PBS’s Newspeak for “commercials,” the bands actually get to play for only 50 minutes and most Austin City Limits episode split the time between two music acts), indicating a penchant for 1960’s-style long rock jams — the final song they played, which I think was called “Midnght Down in Harley” (or was that supposed to be “Harlem”?), began with a long, atmospheric guitar solo by Trucks that had little to do with blues or with the song once it emerged from the textures and Tedeschi began to sing. If this show had a flaw it’s that the Tedeschi Trucks Band’s songs sound too similar to each other; aside from covers of the Box Tops’ “The Letter” and Tim Hardin’s “Bird on a Wire,” they were all mid-tempo pop-blues that showed off Tedeschi’s voice effectively but pretty much plowed the same musical territory.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Assignment — Outer Space (Ultra Film, Titanus, 1960)

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

Last night’s Mars movie screening in Golden Hill (http://marsmovieguide.com/) consisted of two Italian-made cheapies, Assignment — Outer Space from 1960 (released in the U.S. in 1961) and Battle of the Worlds from 1961 (released in the U.S. in 1963). Both films were directed by “Anthony Dawson” and written by “Vassiliji Petrov” — the reason for the quotes is that those were both pseudonyms for the Italians who actually did the work, director Antonio Margheriti and writer Ennio de Concini — and featured the usual crazy quilt of actors from various European countries, some of them given Anglo pseudonyms and some allowed to be billed in all their Continental glory. Assignment: Outer Space deals with Ray Peterson (Rik Van Nutter), a reporter for the Interplanetary Times in 2168 (this film’s prediction that there will still be newspapers 150 years from now is looking increasingly like something de Concini a.k.a. “Petrov” got wrong) who on an assignment to cover outer space ends up on a spaceship where everyone has an alphanumeric nickname — though, unlike the people in Just Imagine, they still have normal names like the ones we know — and where everyone else on board, particularly commander George (David Montresor), resents his presence. 

The one crew member of the first ship — there are at least three of them and it’s hard to keep track of which dime-store prop model is which — who actually gets along with Our Hero even though he calls him a “parasite” because he performs no useful function to facilitate the flight is named Al, nicknamed X-15 (which by coincidence, or maybe not, also happened to be the name of a quite famous high-tech experimental aircraft being tested by the U.S. Army when this film was made). Al is an unusual character for a science-fiction movie in the early 1960’s because he’s played by African-American actor Archie Savage, and until this film and 12 to the Moon (which featured an international space flight including a Nigerian played by Muzaffer Tema, billed as “Tema Bey”), both made in 1960, there had not, to my knowledge, been any Black people depicted in science-fiction films. (In the 1951 movie When Worlds Collide, the 40 people selected to keep the human race going after Earth is destroyed in a collision with a runaway planet from another solar system are all white, which probably escaped 1951 audiences but seemed quite infuriating to me the last time I saw that film.) There’s one other crew member who can’t stand Peterson at first but ultimately comes to like — or at least get the hots for — him, and that’s the token female in the cast, Lucy Y-13 (Gabriella Farinon), who’s there as a navigator and also as a botanist who keeps the crew supplied with air by cultivating flowers that change hydrogen into oxygen. (That drew a lot of laughs from our audience, who if not outright geniuses are certainly more scientifically literate than most Americans these days. There are plenty of scientific howlers in Assignment — Outer Space, but that’s the biggest and most egregious one — though if writer de Concini a.k.a. “Petrov” had said the plants were converting carbon dioxide into oxygen the scene would have been believable.)

The gimmick that gives this seemingly interminable movie (it’s only 73 minutes long but seems to last almost twice that) whatever semblance of a plot it has is that one of its virtually indistinguishable spaceships (the one that looks like a giant hypodermic needle with a bulb attached to one end) loses its guidance capability and is about first to enter orbit around Earth and then to crash into it, and the atomic fuel the rocket carries will incinerate and/or poison Earth and everyone and everything on it unless the rocket is somehow stopped. And guess who volunteers to stop it? That’s right, our reporter hero, who’s desperate to prove that he can contribute something to the mission besides being obnoxious and hauling the heroine’s ashes. He takes a two-person space vehicle (a sort of shuttlecraft but flown by people sitting in an open-space cockpit in full spacesuits) and flies it into the null region between the rogue ship’s two hourglass-shaped force fields so he can crash it into the rogue and destroy it — only just before impact he bails out (that’s right — this film is full of people “bailing out” in the middle of outer space and somehow managing to get back to their home craft), they catch him in time just before his spacesuit runs out of oxygen, and they revive him so he and the heroine can get together. Assignment — Outer Space is one of those frustrating movies that had potential, maybe not for greatness but at least for solid entertainment, but it goes wrong at virtually every turn: the props are horribly cheap (the main rocket ship’s nozzle looks like a shower head, and probably was one!), the model work unconvincing, there are a few lame attempts to explain why there’s no depiction of weightlessness (though it’s obvious that’s because the producers’ budget didn’t extend to the wire work that would have been necessary to show the real effects of zero gravity) and the actors — except for Montresor, who at least gets to portray attitude as the commander who wants no part of Our Hero — pretty nondescript. Charles applauded when “The End” credit came on (I miss “The End” credits), explaining later that seeing those words on screen were by far the best thing about watching this movie!

Battle of the Worlds (Ultra Film, Sicilia Cinematografica, 1961)

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

This morning I watched another video cheapie, a much newer — and tackier — movie called Battle of the Worlds, credited to 1963 on the box but actually looking like it might be a few years newer than that (its star, an aging Claude Rains, died in 1967). The film was clearly an Italian production, though its director was credited as “Anthony Dawson” — given that all the below-the-line people on the credits (including a very interesting composer, who wrote a quirky theme song for the film that sounds like late-1960’s “psychedelic” rock) are Italian names, I suspect “Dawson” is simply an Anglo pseudonym for an Italian director. The film was tacky enough to be a camp classic — especially the “special effects” of cigar-shaped rockets fighting alien flying saucers in space, which by the standards set by 2001 and Star Wars are virtually laughable — and it was terribly dubbed (a separate dialogue writer/director, George Higgins, gets screen credit), though it also had some intriguing plot elements and a strong, moving performance by Rains as an eccentric scientist whose offbeat ideas about the mysterious “Outsider” invading Earth turn out to be right (now there’s a character more like Peter Duesberg than the murdering scientific thug of The Vampire Bat, who actually more closely resembles Robert Gallo!), and who — like the non-“mad” but stupid scientist of The Thing — gives his life, in the end, to be true to his quest for knowledge. Basically, the plot of Battle of the Worlds concerns a mysterious mini-planet which invades our solar system and sends out robot flying saucers to seek and destroy any enemy spaceships threatening it. It also seems to have the power to alter gravitational fields in its proximity, either to attract objects to it or drive them away. What makes this movie a bit more interesting than the many, similarly plotted films that were made in the 1950’s and 1960’s is that the inhabitants of the “Outsider” (the name Rains’ scientist character gives this object) are all dead, killed by the radioactivity of the nuclear reactor that provided power for their spacecraft, but their attack-and-defense mechanisms work automatically, and therefore the machinery of the spacecraft is fighting a war on behalf of the now-dead “masters” who programmed it in the first place.

Also — though this element is not stressed — Battle takes place in a near-future Earth (a permanent base on Mars has been established, and features prominently in the plot) governed by a benevolent dictatorship ruled by a committee. In fact, the level of social control is so great that the spaceship pilot who goes up to combat the Outsider’s defense system has no control over his ship; it’s directed from Earth, and when he breaks the control link on his own authority, his co-pilot feels it’s an act of insubordination and worries about what sort of trouble they’ll have from it. I’m not tempted to describe Battle as a bad movie that could have been good — given the circumstances under which it was (probably) produced, and the technical glitches (not only the bad “special effects” — I’m deliberately keeping that term in quotes — but also the rotten, cheap color, which in this admittedly well-worn print leads the characters to change color quite dramatically as they move around the sets, and also gives the impression that this near-future Earth is inhabited almost exclusively by redheads), it’s probably as good as it could have been. The sets themselves are also delightfully tacky; when Rains and company finally penetrate the interior of the “Outsider,” what they find is a series of long, curving corridors filled with what looks like giant red strands of spaghetti hanging from the walls and ceilings. “They’ve landed in a pasta factory!” I thought — appropriate enough, I suppose, given that this was an Italian movie … — 8/31/94

•••••

Battle of the Worlds was made by virtually the same production team as Assignment — Outer Space but turned out considerably better, not because it was that good a film but it did have points of appeal the earlier movie from this production group did not. The main one was an honest-to-goodness star in the lead, Claude Rains, playing a scientist named Dr. Benson who’s insanely reclusive and arrogantly dismissive of all his colleagues in general and one Dr. Cornfield (John Stacy) in particular. It also helps that there are at least three women with major roles in the cast, including Eve Barnett (Maya Brent), who in the opening scene is shown making out on the beach, From Here to Eternity-style (and it looks like director “Dawson” really tried to find an Italian beach that looked as much as possible like the stretch of Malibu where the Eternity scene between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr was filmed), with hunky male scientist Dr. Fred Steele (Umberto Orsini). The moment they mentioned her name I couldn’t help but joke, “Ah, Eve left that boring old Adam and hooked up with … Fred.” And the straight guys in the audience oohed and ahhed over the filmy white dress Eve was wearing when she and Fred jumped in the water, and wished it would get filmier and more revealing, while I of course was looking at Fred’s bare chest, his hot nipples and the well-defined basket under his tan swim trunks! Anyway, the scientists in the movie are noticing increasing levels of weather disturbance on the earth — represented by stock newsreel clips of fires, floods, hurricanes (some of the famous shots of palm trees blowing in the winds of the famous 1926 Florida storms make it into this movie) vaguely tinted to make it look like they belong in an (otherwise) color films — and Dr. Benson and his colleagues deduce that they herald the coming of a giant vessel from outer space, which Benson calls “The Outsider” (which would have actually been a good title for this film except it’s not especially science-fictiony and it had already been used for several other films, including the 1961 movie in which Tony Curtis played Ira Hayes, the Native American who was in the famous flag-raising photo on Iwo Jima and then, once he returned home, descended into alcoholism and an early death) and which appears to be intent on staging a War of the Worlds-style invasion of Earth with the object being to conquer us and take over our planet. 

The Outsider sends out fleets of flying discs (they actually look like cymbals, and may well have been) to attack the Earth spaceships trying to defend us against it, and when one of the discs is actually downed and Fred and his married commander, Bob Cole (Bill Carter), explore inside the wreckage, they see a lot of red tendrils inside but no sign of actual life. Dr. Benson deduces that the discs are essentially drones controlled by a hive-mind computer inside the Outsider itself, and eventually he, Bob and Eve end up as part of an expedition to land a spacecraft on the Outsider and try to get inside it. When they get in they find more red tendrils — in fact the wiring is so neon-colored and so stringy it looks like a giant vat of spaghetti, which I guess makes sense given that this is an Italian film — and still no sign of life, from which Dr. Benson concludes that the Outsider was a planet-killing machine built by an expansionist civilization that sent these things out willy-nilly throughout the galaxy, looking for new worlds to conquer — only the people (or creatures, or whatever) who made it long since died out. But the ships themselves continued to move through the galaxy on autopilot, and this was just Earth’s unlucky day. The film concludes with a surprisingly exciting suspense sequence in which the commanders back home on Earth send an order that the Outsider be destroyed — but Benson doesn’t want to leave the Outsider before the attack begins because he’s too committed to downloading all its central computer’s information about the creating civilization’s technology so it can be used to benefit Earth — a stone ripoff of the premise of Forbidden Planet and evidence that writer de Concini a.k.a. “Petrov” had seen that flawed but fascinating 1956 MGM film. In the end Benson dies when the Outsider blows up, Eve makes it back to her boyfriend Fred, Bob gets back to his wife Cathy (Jacqueline Derval) and the Earth is safe at least from this film’s interplanetary menace.  

Battle of the Worlds is hardly a great movie but it’s a damned sight better than Assignment — Outer Space, partly because it had a bigger effects budget (not only did it have more effects shots than Assignment — Outer Space, the effects it had were quite a bit more convincing), partly because there were at least three women in the dramatis personae even though one of them was Eve’s rival for Fred’s affections and the third, Cathy Cole, it was hinted had previously dated Fred before marrying Bob, but mainly because of Claude Rains. Yes, it’s the sort of highly stylized, schticky performances actors frequently give in their later years, when the mannerisms that originally gave their performances lift and pep have hardened into dull clichés. Rains doesn’t help his cause by bellowing almost all his lines in the raspy intonations and exasperated tones he used at the most traumatic moments of The Invisible Man and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (and when we first discovered him as a recluse I joked, “Well, he had to go somewhere after he was forced out of the U.S. Senate in disgrace”), but it’s still a star performance and the unforgettable voice (his own in this stew of voice doubles — George Higgins III was credited as dialogue director but it’s clear he didn’t have anything to do with making this film originally and his involvement was supervising the dubbing sessions) carries weight and authority even though he seems to be bellowing out the entire script the way he did his final lines — “Expel me, not him!” — in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And Rains wasn’t just a big name the producers slipped a few bucks to for one or two days’ work: his part runs through the entire film and adds a surprising degree of power even though as a movie this is hardly in the same league as The Invisible Man or Casablanca — from which one of the people at the screening couldn’t help but joke, “I’m shocked — SHOCKED! — to find that Claude Rains is in this movie!” —5/20/17

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Quickie (Pyramid, Pandora, Monarch, 2001)

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

Our “feature” last night was The Quickie, an oddball movie from 2001 produced by the German companies Pyramid and Pandora Films (and released on DVD by an outfit called Monarch), shot in the U.S. with two American stars but written and directed by a Russian, Sergey Bodrov (though he had help with the actual screenplay from one Carolyn Cavallero), and very Russian not only in its personnel (the male lead is played by an actor named Vladimir Mashkov) but its general mood. I had hoped from the video box that this would be a kinky thriller in which a good-time girl played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (who’s billed second in the credits but first on the DVD box) has a casual one-night stand with a Russian mobster and then is chased by both the police and the mobster’s gangland enemies on the idea that he might have told her something incriminating while he was fucking her. Instead Mashkov plays Oleg, a disillusioned and world-weary Russian mobster who lives in a big and horrendously overdecorated house in Malibu (though it was “played” by Hermosa Beach, probably because the licensing fees were cheaper) that we virtually never leave during the entire 99-minute running time. He’s planning to turn the whole mob business over to his brother Alex (Henry Thomas), who couldn’t care less — all Alex wants to do is go for a career as a concert pianist (Oleg has brought in a piano for him to practice on but it’s wretchedly out-of-tune — we hear him, or rather his piano double Sasha Adler, play the “Tonight We Love” opening of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and we notice the piano is out of tune, and later dialogue establishes that as a deliberate plot point), while their third brother Deema (played by Sergey Bodrov, Jr. — Bodrov was not content to co-produce, co-write and direct this film had to put his son in it as well, and the imdb.com page on Bodrov fils notes that a year after making this movie he died in an avalanche in Russia, while Bodrov père is still alive) has the unctuous look of a Republican politician and does want to inherit the illegal enterprises his brother wants to give up. Alex has surrounded himself with prostitutes, many of whom we see topless (this film got an “R”-rating from both the breast exposure and the constant F-bombs the characters are dropping — oddly, it was shot in the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio and only the topless scenes and incessant “fucks” in the dialogue distinguish it from a TV-movie), but he also gets the hots for Lisa Powell (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who’s got her own set of problems.

She’s living in a trailer that’s parked in an encampment in an old parking lot in downtown L.A. (Charles looked askance at this plot twist because he pointed out that any available space in downtown L.A. for a parking lot would be used as such instead of being abandoned and turned into an al fresco trailer park), and all we really know about her at first is she has a six-year-old daughter who’s in foster care but she’s given up on ever getting her daughter back from the child protective services system. We don’t even know she’s gainfully employed until about midway through the film, when her plotline and Oleg’s finally intersect; Oleg has noticed that his mansion is infested with cockroaches (we get extreme close-ups of a few of them and I was surprised the final credits didn’t list a “cockroach wrangler”) and he calls in an exterminator — and Jennifer Jason Leigh dutifully shows up driving a mini-van with “Western States Exterminators” painted on the side. She’s dressed in a cute brown uniform that does a good job of showing her ass — she looks considerably better in exterminator drag than she does in the too-big black dress Oleg dresses her in later for their titular “quickie.” Also in the dramatis personae are Lesley Ann Warren as Anna, who’s supposed to be Oleg’s, Alex’s and Deema’s mother but looks the same age as Oleg (this is one of those maddening movies in which the characters supposedly playing members of the same family look too dissimilar to be believable as genetic relations); the Venezuelan (or was he Colombian? I forget) gigolo she’s just married; and a guy in a wheelchair that gives a voice-over narration throughout the film and wins the house and the beach property it’s on in a card game with Oleg.

Oleg’s disillusion with the whole idea of life is summed up in a scene in which he invites one of the prostitutes to his bedroom and announces that he’s going to bet her fee, double or nothing, by playing Russian roulette: she’s supposed to bet whether he lives or dies, and she bets he’ll die. He lives and takes back the money he was supposed to pay her. (Both Charles and I thought she should have bet that he’d live: if he’d lived he would have given her the money, and if he’d died she could have taken it anyway.) The other thing that happens is that Oleg gets a call warning him that rival mobsters in Moscow have taken out a hit on him, and at first he suspects Lisa might be the hit person. Then Anna’s South American boyfriend offers to put his people in charge of Oleg’s security and they take over his house, and he thinks they might be the hit squad — so Oleg escapes his own house by hiding out in Lisa’s van as she leaves. Only, as anyone who’s seen Prizzi’s Honor could probably have guessed, Lisa is the hit person who’s out to kill him — I guess Bodrov couldn’t resist the pun of having her be an “exterminator” in both senses of the word — and the two have a final confrontation on the beach. He tosses a coin and calls heads, and it lands on heads, therefore giving her his rather twisted consent to complete her job and ending this weirdly unsatisfying movie on the expected downer note. The Quickie comes off like The Godfather would have if Dostoyevsky had written it: for something that’s supposed to be a crime thriller there’s virtually no action, and that house in Malibu gets as oppressive to us as it is to the characters, while the movie is so full of world-weariness and angst we also feel as trapped in it as Oleg does. It’s one of those frustrating bad movies that seemed to have a good movie locked up inside it and struggling to get out, and it also suffers from an all too common problem with modern films: there’s no one in the dramatis personae we actually like.