Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Most Hated Family in America (BBC, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Bill Moyers’ Journal I ran the film Charles had downloaded immediately after it, the 2007 BBC documentary The Most Hated Family in America, directed by Geoffrey O’Connor with Louis Theroux doing an on-camera commentary in a sort of bemused British version of Michael Moore, about the Westboro Baptist Church of the Reverend Fred Phelps, Jr. and his bizarre activities picketing funerals, Jewish synagogues (“Jew churches,” his minions call them with a sneer before saying that the reason they’re targeting the Jews is “they killed Christ” — to which one slumps in one’s chair and thinks, “Oh, no, not that again”), Swedish establishments (apparently someone in Sweden denounced Rev. Phelps and as a result he put the entire country under his interdict — O’Connor and Theroux politely don’t mention that Phelps announced that the 2004 tsunami that wiped out much of Thailand’s tourist industry was God’s revenge against … Sweden, supposedly because many Swedes go to Thailand as sex tourists), the U.S. military and just about anyone who runs afoul of his curiously skewed interpretation of the Bible.

Rev. Phelps is right about one thing — the Bible clearly and unmistakably calls for the death penalty for [male] homosexuals — despite the attempts of Gay and pro-Gay Christians and Jews to explain that away by giving it some sort of “context” that denies the plain and bloodthirsty language of Leviticus 20:13: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (That’s why it remains a deep-seated mystery to me why any self-respecting Queer can still believe in Christianity, Judaism or Islam.) Where Phelps goes wrong, even by the standards of the radical religious Right (which is why even the late Jerry Falwell denounced him as a dangerous nut), is his broad-brush application of the term “fag” to just about everybody: not just men who lie with men and women who lie with women but men who lie with women they’re not legally married to and/or for purposes other than procreation (when Louis Theroux for some reason admitted to the Phelpses that he was living with a female partner and had had a child with her without benefit of clergy, that was it: they totally discounted everything he had to say about anything after that, and in an “interview” for which Phelps had allocated all of five minutes Phelps called him one of the stupidest men he’d ever met and a few other even less kind things.

What I hadn’t realized about the Phelpses before I saw this — I was aware that virtually all the members of Phelps’ congregation are Phelpses, either by blood or by marriage — mostly by blood; his daughters married and had kids but his granddaughters don’t seem all that interested in doing so, largely because (like the earliest Christians) they believe the End Times are going to come in their lifetimes and therefore perpetuating the human species is a non-issue for them — but what I hadn’t known is how anti-American, in the literal sense, they are. Along with “God Hates Fags” (which, as I mentioned above, is a word they define even more broadly, if such a thing is possible, than the John Birch Society defined “Communist”) and the celebrity dishonor roll (that includes people like Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Diana — and since Theroux is British the inclusion of Di as someone whose death “split Hell wide open,” to use a metaphor of which the Phelpses are unduly fond, seemed to strike him personally), they also carry signs reading, “Thank God for 9/11” and “Thank God for IED’s,” and the reason they target the funerals of U.S. servicemembers who were killed in Iraq is that they believe President Bush was trapped into starting that war by Satan and he’s only serving the devil’s purposes — as are the people actually doing the fighting.

What’s fascinating about the Phelpsians is their utter contempt for the rest of the world, their absolute (self-)righteousness and conviction that they and they alone are going to heaven while the rest of us are bound for hell, and — which seems to set them apart from most of the Christian Right — their absolute, unconcealed delight in that prospect. Louis Theroux noticed one of the Phelps granddaughters giggling when she said that the servicemember whose funeral they were picketing would wind up in hell, and their joy at pronouncing damnation on everyone else isn’t tempered by the least bit of sorrow for their unconverted souls. At the end one of the Phelpses (they tend to blend together after a while, partly because most of them are female — out of the members we see, only Fred Phelps himself and Steve Drain, who came to the Phelps church as a Queer-friendly Libertarian to do a documentary film on them and ended up converted, becoming one of the few people in Phelps’s operation who is not a blood Phelps, are male — not even the people who married into the clan seem to be in evidence in this movie — and one suspects the only reason the Phelpses put up with Theroux’ openly mocking attitude for as long as they did was they were hoping lightning would strike twice and they would convert him) is calling what they’re doing a “courtesy” — that they’re informing people that the wrath of God’s judgments are going to send them all to hell, there’s nothing they can do to stop this (unlike most religions — even most cults — they don’t offer the poor benighted souls in the outside world much of a chance for redemption).

The other thing that amazed me about the Phelpses is that they’re a perfect example of both ends meeting in the middle on the opposite sides of the circle; after all, it’s become accepted dogma on the Left that Bush was hoodwinked into starting the Iraq war by Dick Cheney and the devotees of the Project for a New American Century, who got him to abandon the kinder, gentler, reluctantly interventionist (if not downright noninterventionist!) foreign policy he’d promised during the 2000 Presidential campaign and instead to seize on 9/11 as a pretext for pre-emptive war, torture, indefinite detention of citizens and aliens alike, and an overall “our way or the highway” attitude towards the rest of the world, coupled with the U.S. maintaining a military budget larger than that of every other country in the world combined to make sure that no country or combination of countries could ever threaten the U.S. on the battlefield again. For all the looniness of their readings of Scripture (when I told Charles that I thought the one thing Phelps got right was the clear, unmistakable condemnation and death sentence for homosexuality in the Bible, he said, “The Bible also says, ‘God is love’” — to which I can only reply, “Yeah, but the Bible sure puts a lot of asterisks on that one”), the Phelpses sound an awful lot like my friends on the Left when they’re condemning America’s foreign policy and predicting its downfall as a nation, even if we tend to believe the downfall will come from secular rather than supernatural causes — particularly the unsustainability of our current course both economically (the current issue of the Atlantic has an article I’ll probably want to read because it’s about China, America’s biggest creditor, and the conditions they’re going to start setting on us in return for funding all the bailouts by continuing to buy U.S. Treasury bills) and environmentally (both in terms of the exhaustion of resources in general and fossil fuels in particular, and also the potential secular/scientific apocalypse of global warming).

Not only did I find myself feeling oddly sorry for the Phelpsians (and fearing that the laws being passed to keep them away from military funerals will be used to hamstring anti-war protests as well!), I also found them uncomfortably close to me in terms of our very different but equally strongly held beliefs that humanity is at a crossroads and our current ways of living and managing the earth are not sustainable.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Intimate Stranger (Lifetime, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

This morning I ran a surprisingly good Lifetime TV-movie I’d recorded over the weekend: Intimate Stranger, a 2006 production whose synopsis in TV Guide (“A single mom falls in love with a younger man”), I was expecting one of those stories in which a middle-aged woman falls in love with a hot young hunk and the dramatic issues are either her own concerns about how long she can hold him or her friends’ disapproval of the age gap in the relationship. Instead it was a tale about the boyfriend from heaven who turns out to be the boyfriend from hell: Karen Reese (Kari Matchett) is a successful investment banker at a firm in Kansas City, Kansas who divorced her husband John (Corey Livingstone) because she found him too controlling — and who has that problem with a number of men she’s dated since, including Randy (unseen in the film), whom she dumped after three dates, but whom she suspects of stalking her.

Into her life comes fellow investment banker Denis Teague (Peter Outerbridge) — perhaps because much of this movie was shot in Canada, the entry on it spells his first name in the British style — who sweeps her off her feet and ends up in bed with her (giving us an excuse for a quite good Lifetime-trademark soft-core porn scene) — and, perhaps more importantly, winning over her family and especially her young son Justin (Matthew Knight). What makes this above-average for Lifetime is the substantial script construction by Michael Vickerman and the accomplished direction by Bert Kish, who shows himself equally adept at romance and suspense. Early on Vickerman’s script drops a hint at Denis’s real agenda when he lets slip to Karen, “I’ve studied you and everything you like,” but she doesn’t pick up on the hint and it goes by.

It turns out Denis figured out a way to get into the attic of Karen’s house and used it to spy on her well before they ever formally met, so that when he appeared in her life he knew everything about her and everything he’d need to appear to be for her to see him as her perfect man. When she tells him he’s going too fast and needs to back off, he turns on her and starts sending her unwelcome gifts and doing hang-up phone calls on her, to panic her into thinking that her last boyfriend is stalking her and thereby make her more dependent on him — and in a florid but exciting finish he kidnaps and threatens to kill her, they drive out to a deserted country road, she deliberately crashes the car (had she seen Dangerous?) and wrests back from him the (unlicensed) gun he stole from her earlier and is about to shoot him when the police, alerted by a 911 call from her son, come to the scene and threaten to shoot her unless she puts the gun down and allows them to take him alive — which she does.

There are well-done complexities and bits of symbolism in the script — Denis is a lifelong butterfly collector (the sort of person who kills them, mounts them between panes of glass and displays them that way), and though he presents that as an innocent childhood hobby that’s become lifelong, it grosses out Justin when he takes him on a butterfly-hunting trip and eventually it becomes a metaphor for his character much the way it did in Madama Butterfly (in which Cio-Cio-San briefly suspects Pinkerton of being after her for his collection the way Americans catch real butterflies, stick them with pins, kill and display them). Denis’s butterfly-collecting hobby also establishes that he knows how to use chloroform, with which he sneaks into Karen’s bedroom in order to drug her so she’ll get sick and screw up her ability to function at work; he also tries a few other crazy-making techniques on her, including Second Woman-like plot complications in which Karen’s ex-husband John complains that he never got an invitation to Justin’s birthday party (Karen gave the invitations to Denis to mail) and an important report for work she was working on at home disappears just as she’s finished it and is about to turn it in. (Didn’t she have it backed up on her computer? She doesn’t even seem to have a computer, a major anachronism in a film about an urban professional made in 2006.)

There are a few wince-inducing lines and bits of plot construction, but overall Intimate Stranger (a marvelous title) is an exciting, emotionally stimulating and moving film about an obsessive love (Vickerman keeps the reasons for Denis’s obsession powerfully ambiguous instead of throwing in some movie-cliché “explanation” of them) turned into destructive mania — and Peter Outerbridge as Denis isn’t drop-dead gorgeous but is rather tall, gangly, sandy-haired and balding: not unattractive (we certainly don’t ask ourselves, “What does Karen see in him?”) but not exactly Mr. Babe Magnet either. It’s also nice at the end to see Karen paired up with Alex (Jonas Chernick), her five-years-younger boss who’s been more-or-less seriously cruising her all through the movie and to whom she suddenly but understandably turns to for support after the disaster with Denis.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Woman in Red (Warners, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was one I hurriedly dug out of the backlog: The Woman in Red, a Warners (in “First National” drag) melodrama from 1935 directed by Robert Florey (a more interesting “name” than one usually got with these things, though only an occasional oblique angle gave away that this was something more than the typical competent Warners’ hack) starring Barbara Stanwyck as a woman named Shelby Barrett, who tours the country riding in horse shows for pay. She meets up with Gene Raymond as Johnny Wyatt, a poor relation to a wealthy and influential upstate New York family who also tours the country riding in horse shows, though he does it without being paid just for the exposure and free housing and food.

The two fall in love and thereby run afoul of Nicko Nicholas (Genevieve Tobin in one of her usual bitch roles) — yes, that’s right; not only is there a woman named “Shelby” in this film, there’s also a woman named “Nicko” — in any case, Nicko has relationships with both the lovebirds, given that she was Wyatt’s lover before Shelby came into his life and she’s also Shelby’s employer. So she fires both of them and, with Wyatt’s family unwilling to help, they’re reduced to opening a small corner of the Wyatt estate as a boarding and training stable for the Wyatt family neighbors who need some place to leave their horses when they take the months-long vacations typical of movie rich people.

To get working capital to fix up the stable and open it, Shelby — without consulting her husband — contacts another suitor, Eugene Fairchild (John Eldredge) — an ex-working class parvenu who’s trying, now that he has money, to buy his way into the circle of snobby rich people represented by the Wyatts and their class. Eugene gives her a loan of $9,000 to open the stable and he talks her into taking a cruise on his yacht, where catastrophe strikes: the only other guests are a straight couple whose female member, Olga (Dorothy Tree), falls overboard in a drunken accident and drowns. Since Olga was also a former flame of Fairchild’s — it’s hard to tell the lovers in this film without a scorecard — he’s assumed to have murdered her, and he goes on trial.

The prosecutor is a lawyer named Foxall, played by none other than Dracula’s nemesis Edward Van Sloan (billed as “Ed” for some reason). Shelby is the mysterious “woman in red” whose testimony could conceivably exonerate Fairchild, but she refuses to come forward because that will ruin her reputation and her chances for business success and personal happiness with her husband. Eventually, though Shelby breaks down (as only Barbara Stanwyck could break down!) and testifies, and though Foxall attempts to impeach her testimony by saying she’s doing it for love of Fairchild, the Wyatts pull together and decide to drop the charges and save the family’s face after Johnny (falsely) says he knew all along Fairchild was loaning money to his and his wife’s business. She walks out of the courtroom sure that she’s lost her husband, but he turns out to be in the car that pulls up for her and at the end they’re proclaiming their love a “closed corporation” (a line Charles particularly liked, as I imagined he would when I was cueing this disc).

The Woman in Red gives Stanwyck two big emotional scenes, both towards the end; otherwise her flame is at a low simmer, but she’s still the only reason to bother with this film; based on a 1932 novel called North Shore by Wallace Irwin, it’s a pretty typical Depression-era you-may-think-the-rich-have-it-better-than-you-but-they-really-don’t effort and only the sincerity of Stanwyck and Raymond in the leads makes it work.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Escort Girl (Continental Pictures, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Escort Girl turned out to be a pretty quirky movie in its own right, a film that though clearly a product of 1941 in its relative photographic clarity has the “feel” of an exploitation movie from about a decade earlier. When I first saw this listed on the Turner Classic Movies schedule I was startled that the star was Betty Compson, who had been born in 1897 and had starred in some of the earliest Warners talkies after a 12-year career in silent films, whom I therefore would be quite long in the tooth to be playing an escort girl. As it turned out, she wasn’t; she plays Ruth Ashley, the madam running the escort service in partnership with the man in her life, Gregory Stone (Wheeler Oakman), who appears to be her husband or at least her lover even though the dialogue describes them as having separate apartments.

She must have been married, or at least involved with someone else, before because she has a daughter, June (Margaret Marquis), whom she’s used the profits from the escort service to educate and keep her as far from Los Angeles as possible — only June has fallen in love with Drake Hamilton (Robert Kellard), he’s moving to L.A. to take a special job he’s been offered and June suggests that she go with him so they can live in the same city and be married. At this point I thought that the fate writers Ann and David Halperin had in store for June was that she would get to the Big Bad City, drift downhill (perhaps as the result of a transitory falling-out with Drake) and become an escort girl herself — and give her mom the shock of her life when she turned up as a staff member in mom’s agency — but instead, as luck (or the scriptorial fiat of the Halperins) would have it, the special job Drake is in town to do is to go undercover and bust the escort services — which extend to far more than just escort services: Stone also owns his own hotel and a nightclub/restaurant in it to which the “escorts” (he offers escorts of both genders, though the services they provide are strictly heterosexual) are instructed to bring their clients. When Drake and June choose Stone’s club as the scene of their first date in L.A., they’re waited on by a man with such a terrible phony French accent (and the supercilious manner to go with it) that Charles joked, “Hi, I’m your waiter and I’m going to cleep you now.”

There’s quite a lot of padding in this movie, including shots of the dance team that entertains at this establishment (according to, the female dancer was the very young Cyd Charisse!) and a clip of a strip tease which is played on a Soundies machine and, though grainy and visibly from another cinematic world than the main part of the film, includes a performer in pasties and underwear who projects far more charisma than any of the actors in the plot portions. Eventually it groans to a conclusion when Drake calls Stone’s front man, Breeze Nolan (Guy Kingsford), to request an escort girl as his entrée into the racket he’s trying to bust, Stone sends June to Drake’s room for what she assumes are innocuous purposes, only to have him accuse her of being an escort girl and the two of them get into an argument that leads to a jealous hissy-fit that lasts for a couple of reels until June finally figures out what happened and realizes that Stone is the brains behind the escort gang.

Like a typically stupid movie protagonist, instead of going straight to the police — or to Drake — with this information, she confronts Stone directly — and Stone fires back that June’s own beloved mother is his partner in the escort gang and that’s where she got the money to pay for June’s expensive education and vacations. A better writing team than the Halperins might have done more with June’s crisis of conscience — let my mom continue her illegal racket or turn her in? — or come up with a more inventive resolution than Drake and Stone both reaching for a gun (Maurine Watkins, call your plagiarism attorney!) and accidentally shooting June’s mom in the process, allowing her to weasel out of legal responsibility by conveniently dying — while Drake ultimately pitches Stone out the window, also by accident, and he dies in the fall.

Escort Girl is a pretty silly movie, competently directed by one Edward E. Kaye (one wonders what Edgar G. Ulmer could have done with this script, given his success even with something as silly as Girls in Chains) and acted with authority by Compson and spectacular incompetence by everyone else — and it doesn’t help that the extant print is so riddled with splices much of it is almost unwatchable and Charles was joking that the producers could have got rid of anything potentially censorable simply by deleting it and pretending the frames were lost in a splice.

Two 1950’s Educational Films: “As Boys Grow … ” and “Gang Boy”

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put in the DVD I’d recorded the night TCM showed The Road to Ruin and ran the next three items on it, a feature (well, 58 minutes anyway) from 1941 called Escort Girl and two really quirky shorts, As Boys Grow … and Gang Boy. As Boys Grow … was a bizarre educational film from a company called “Medical Arts Productions” that began with a high-school track coach (or at least an actor playing one, Joseph Miksak) working out his boys on the field and then calling them together for a series of lectures on sex, reproductive organs and the other strange glandular changes that are happening to his charges as they reach puberty -— a term he’s asked to define at several times during the film, a question he consistently ducks.

This film was clearly noble in purpose, and was surprisingly explicit for 1957 — particularly when one of the boys confesses to another that he’s had a wet dream — though the stylized diagrams that are brought on that supposedly illustrate sex organs are spectacularly inept: the one of a woman’s uterus and vagina looks like an automobile hood ornament from the period and the drawing of a penis just had me thinking how many anonymous artists working on bathroom walls have done a better job depicting one. The fact that the kids were played by the Boys’ Clubs of San Francisco probably made the whole thing seem “Gayer” than it really was!

Gang Boy was a 1954 film from Sid Davis Productions in badly faded color (so badly faded it looked like a modern-day past-is-brown depiction of the world of 1954!), allegedly inspired by a real-life truce between Los Angeles street gangs but actually filmed in Pomona, where a Latino gang and a white gang have a few tiffs that are threatening to explode into all-out gang war when a sympathetic police officer brings them together and negotiates a truce. The film was produced and photographed by Sid Davis and written, directed and edited by Arthur Swerdloff — who apparently had to move heaven and earth to keep the bits of dialogue in synch since Davis had shot it with a silent camera, though technically this is better than several Mystery Science Theatre 3000-quality features we’ve seen in this regard!

The only credited cast member is Curly Riviera as Danny, the head of the Latino gang, who also narrates the movie and describes himself as a troubled kid wronged in unspecified ways by society — Swerdloff’s script is modishly (for the period) sociological in terms of explaining why boys join gangs, but the film resolutely avoids any but the vaguest explanations of what happened to Danny (or anyone else in the film) that would lead him down the gang path. (There’s a hint that Danny joined a gang because of the way his psyche had been twisted by anti-Latino racism — but in that case, why did the white kids in the film join gangs?)

What’s most interesting about this movie is the physical atmosphere of 1954 — particularly the agricultural life (the gang members make money by picking oranges or green peppers) and the cars of the period — and the low-tech weaponry available to the gangs: when they’re not beating each other up with fists they have axes and baseball bats but nothing nastier … a far cry from today’s drug-fueled (and drug-funded) gangs that have ready access to firearms, including fully automatic weapons!

Gay Purr-ee (UPA/Warners, 1962)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Gay Purr-ee, an odd childhood favorite of mine since I saw it on the old NBC “Saturday Night at the Movies” — with no credit sequence, so I wasn’t aware of what this movie was called. All I knew about it was that it featured the voices of Judy Garland and Robert Goulet as a star-crossed cat couple in turn-of-the-[last]-century France and that it was done in the highly stylized animation style typical of its production company, UPA (United Productions of America). It’s a testament to the interest of this film — I wouldn’t quite call it “great” but it is a work of real quality and charm — that I fell in love with it even watching it on a black-and-white TV and therefore deprived of what’s probably its most interesting element, its color design, a flat-out copy of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters active in France when it was set (the opening is a blatant copy of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” painting fading into a scene of real sunflowers in the farm village in Provence where the film opens).

The film was ballyhooed by Warner Bros., its distributor, as a brand new idea in screen entertainment, which it wasn’t — the idea of anthropomorphizing animals and having them have animated adventures similar to those engaged in by live actors in live-action movies had been done again and again, and the screenplay by Dorothy and Chuck Jones, Joan Gardner and Ralph Wright drew on a wide variety of sources, some familiar (John Huston’s 1952 Moulin Rouge and the Arthur Freed-Vincente Minnelli 1958 Gigi in particular) and some not so familiar (the basic love triangle comes straight from Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris and one important deus ex machina device comes from another Chaplin film, The Gold Rush) to tell the tale of Mewsette (Judy Garland), a cute little white cartoon cat who’s loved by Jaune-Tom (Robert Goulet), an off-orange mouser, but who’s attracted to Paris and the promise of champagne, champignons, and the Champs-Elysées (“I wonder what they taste like,” Mewsette mewses).

No sooner does she arrive in the big, bad city than she falls into the clutches of evil Meowrice Percy Beaucoup (Paul Frees) and his gang, the Money-Cats. Meowrice hires Madame Rubens-Chatte (Hermione Gingold, the only actual cast overlap between this film and Gigi) to train Mewsette to be a lady-cat instead of the farm-bred she actually is, and when Mewsette is ready Meowrice intends to ship her off to Henry Phtt in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a repulsively ugly (we wisely never see him, but we see Mewsette’s revulsion at a photo of him) but rich cat who’s paid Meowrice handsomely for Mewsette as a mail-order bride, or courtesan, or something. To get rid of Jaune-Tom — who’s walked his way to Paris with his side-cat Robespierre (Red Buttons) — Meowrice has the Money-Cats kidnap him and sell him to a ship’s captain who’s going to the Yukon to join in the Alaska gold rush, and Jaune-Tom accidentally leads him to a fabulous strike that allows him to return to Paris in triumph, trace Mewsette, vanquish Meowrice and the Money-Cats and send Meowrice to the U.S. in the box intended for Mewsette.

The film is quite clever and has a lot of witty dialogue — which probably sailed over the heads of much of the pre-pubescent audience when this film was released in 1962; the movie was a box-office flop on its first release and most of Hollywood thought that was because it was just too sophisticated for a cartoon. At the same time the colors are so dazzling (much more so than the rather jerky “limited animation” style UPA was famous for; had they had the budget and the time to do Disney-style full animation Gay Purr-ee would be an even better movie than it is) and are used so psychedelically that had this been released five years later it would probably have made money from the hippie audience; they would probably have watched the film under the influence of various mind-altering substances the way they did when Disney re-released Fantasia in 1966.

Gay Purr-ee has its problems, and frankly they’re inherent in the concept; Mewsette is supposed to be a feline naïf, a young ingénue, and yet she sings in the well-worn voice of the 40-something Judy Garland and the songs she sings are by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg — she insisted on using them as a condition for her doing the film (a wise move, too; though nothing in this film is at the level of “Over the Rainbow” the songs they wrote for Judy are great and deserved a life outside of it — particularly “Little Drops of Rain,” which Judy was hoping would replace “Over the Rainbow” as her theme song — with great, soaring melodies that show off Garland’s voice, still strong and mostly on pitch in 1962, and clever if somewhat arch lyrics like “The chestnut, the willow/The colors of Utrillo”), and she probably also insisted on Mort Lindsey as the musical arranger and director (and his arrangements are superb, ably setting off the songs and Judy’s great performances of them).

Judy’s strongly emotional, heartbreaking interpretations of these sophisticated songs knocks the rather simple-minded concept of the story into a hat — both she and her songs are far better than the novelties most of the other cast members get (though the Money-Cats’ song is fun and so is “The Horse Won’t Talk,” Paul Frees’ featured number as the villain) — but she’s marvelous, and the elements that hold up most strongly in the film today are Judy's vocals, the “Women-yuck!” adolescent angst expressed by Red Buttons’ character, and all the bizarre puns on the names of the famous landmarks of Paris to make them appropriately “catlike” for this story (the Mewlon Rouge, the Felines Bergere, Meowmartre and the name of Garland’s character, Mewsette).

The film is consistently imaginative visually (especially in the famous sequence in which Meowrice shows off a series of portraits of Mewsette painted by the famous names in the Paris art world of the time — which must have been a lot of fun for the artists at UPA to design!) and clever and charming, even though it never really found an audience because, as a Newsweek reviewer said when it was new, “There seems to be an effort to reach a hitherto undiscovered audience — the fey four-year-old of recherché taste.” Today, when it’s not so odd that an animated film might deliberately appeal to adults, Gay Purr-ee doesn’t seem as strange as it no doubt did in 1962!

Dr. Who: “The Next Doctor” (BBC-TV, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The latest Doctor Who episode, aired on Christmas Day in Britain (the credit was from the Welsh wing of the BBC), was called “The New Doctor,” since it apparently signals the passage of the latest “Doctor” torch from middle-aged David Tennant to the genuinely young and hunky David Morrissey (any relation to the sexually ambiguous pop singer?). This is the first time we’ve watched any of the current Doctor Who series (though we have the third-season boxed set in the backlog) and the first impression I had was how good the production values are. Well, in the age in which computer-generated imagery has become standard in feature films they could hardly hope to get away with the delightfully campy special effects (or attempts thereof) of the classic Doctor Who series in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

This time around the action is set in 1851 London, and at first I wondered if their Christmas show would be an update of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with Dr. Who and his sidekicks taking the roles of the three spirits and teaching a reprobate capitalist the true meaning of Christmas. Instead, 1851 London was used as the backdrop for a surprising attack by the Cyber-Men, whom I’d seen in a video transfer of a cycle of episodes from the 1960’s in which they were played by actors in the standard “robot” costumes of the time — the ones that looked like cardboard boxes sprayed with metal paint and with holes cut in them so the actors could get inside and stick their arms and legs out. This time I wasn’t sure whether they were actors or entirely computer-generated, and they looked like taller, more menacing silver-colored versions of C3PO from Star Wars.

One neat kicker was that they actually enlisted a human of that time and place, a woman named Miss Hartigan (superbly played by Dervla Kirwan in a performance that channeled Bette Davis — especially when she shocked onlookers by wearing a red dress to a funeral! — and her ability to spit out the most hackneyed super-villain lines and still maintain dignity and credibility as a performer would make her an interesting choice for the villainess in the next Batman movie), who sought to attain world domination with the Cyber-Men’s help and instead found them locking her in a giant robot to be the Cyber-King (the idea was to do their own twisted version of the Nativity in which what was coming was not the Son of God but a gigantic robot that would rule over all Earth in a far more direct sense) and threatening to suck out her brain in order to turn her into a Cyber-Person herself.

The acting was quite good for the format (Morrissey was an O.K. performer but a sheer delight to look at, and his African-British sidekick Rosita, played by Velile Tshabalala, threw herself into the role with the sort of spunkiness one expects in a super-heroine) and the effects were excellent, though one prissy commentator complained that the scene taking place at a funeral was filmed in a real cemetery, with actors bumping into the tombstones and otherwise failing to show proper respect for the dead. (I don’t think much of this, but then I’ve never been one to stand on ceremony when it comes to what’s going to happen to me after I die — frankly, I want to be mulched, which is what is supposed to happen to dead organic matter: it’s supposed to return to the soil and continue the cycle of life — and Charles recently told me that his sister has got a funeral director’s license and is specializing in so-called “green funerals,” which means no embalming, no taking out the body parts and replacing them with cotton batting, none of the other horrors visited on the dead that Jessica Mitford so vividly described to give them a simulacrum of physical permanence in defiance of the same laws of nature that require us to die in the first place).

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Two Mr. Kissels (Lifetime, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I watched was The Two Mr. Kissels, a Lifetime “Crime of the Week” movie that premiered on the channel November 18 and out-rated NBC (with reruns) and ABC (with football). It was based on a true story about two brothers, Andrew and Robert Kissel, both born to a rich family (their dad was a real-estate investor in New Jersey), both making their careers in the stock market and both making a ton of money in their own right in the boom markets of the 1990’s and the 2000’s (and apparently weathering the Internet crash of 2000-2001 O.K.). Seen at a time when the economy has almost totally imploded, the ecstatic pronouncements of the woman stock analyst from CNN Andrew marries about how all you have to do to make money in the market (of the late 1990’s before the tech boom busted) is “wake up” seem even more out of touch with reality than they would have then — when similar sentiments fooled a lot of people who should have known better.

But the main subject of The Two Mr. Kissels is the marriage and family lives of the title characters — particularly Robert’s wife Nancy (Robin Tunney), a restaurant manager with a flair for partying and drugs that she manages to put into abeyance for a while (mostly because of the “high” she seems to get from spending her husband’s money) but which soon comes out when hubby takes a job assignment in Hong Kong, she initially moves there with them but is sent to the U.S. when the SARS epidemic hits, and back in their old home in Vermont she ends up falling for the cable guy (in real life it was a stereo repairman, but apparently “cable guy” was too juicy a cliché for writer Maria Nation to pass up). Returning to Hong Kong, she does Web searches on date-rape drugs with the intent of giving one to her husband so she can knock him off — which she does by bludgeoning him to death, then thinking that she can leave the body lying around their apartment building (in one chilling scene she has some workmen move it from their bedroom to their storage locker, and her four-year-old son holds the door open for them) and no one will notice. (She deserves as much condemnation for being dumb as for being evil.) She’s convicted — in a court that features British-accented English-speaking personnel and British procedure (though this was 2003, six years after Hong Kong reverted to China, apparently the Brits were still in charge of at least some of the criminal justice system) — and sentenced to life in a 7’ x 7’ cell in a women’s prison on the Chinese mainland with no one there, either guards or fellow prisoners, who speaks English.

Meanwhile, Andrew also gets into the investment business, only he does it crookedly and ends up losing millions for his investors — he’s appropriated most of the profits (most of the principal, in fact) and blown it all on fancy cars, prostitutes and drugs (he’s especially fond of sniffing cocaine off the hoods of his designer “wheels”) — and he’s arrested and released on bail but confined to his home under house arrest, whereupon his wife leaves him (this was beginning to look like Memron, but in this more serious context he didn’t try to chase her and set off his monitoring ankle bracelet) and the day before he’s supposed to stand trial he’s found stabbed to death in his Greenwich, Connecticut home. His chauffeur is the prime suspect and is held for the murder (according to the end credits the case is still pending and he hasn’t been tried yet), but a white-haired character who’s a composite for the various people Andrew ripped off in his investment business theorizes that Andrew really hired someone to kill him so his family could collect on his life insurance, which they wouldn’t be able to if he flat-out killed himself. (The end credits indicate that the insurance company froze payment on the claim anyway.) In fact, Nation’s script includes quite a lot of flashback narration, including some from the Kissel boys themselves, telling us about their lives and deaths from beyond the grave à la Scared to Death and Sunset Boulevard.

The Two Mr. Kissels seems to be trying to make some money-can’t-buy-happiness statements but Nation’s script is too diffuse and too much in search of a through-line to make this a moral tale, and indeed one problem with this movie is it’s one of those stories in which everyone is so repulsive there’s really no one to root for. Director Edward Bianchi gives the story to us straightforwardly and doesn’t let any directorial tricks get in the way of the soft-core porn (especially in the scenes in which Rob and Nancy are having sex and it’s all too clear that that’s her hold over him), but since one of the murders is all too obvious while the other is all too obscure, it’s impossible to get much suspense out of the story and Bianchi and Nation don’t really try. There seem to be an awful lot of potential resonances in the Kissels’ real-life story that get ignored or at best addressed half-heartedly in this movie, and to the extent that this has entertainment value it’s supplied by the acting. Former TV idol John Stamos plays Andrew (he also is listed as executive producer) and plays him as a compulsively dishonest moral basket case, while Anson Mount as Rob looks enough like him to be credible as his brother and delivers the goods in a much less juicy role. Still, this was an awfully depressing movie to be watching on Christmas Eve!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Universal's Three Modern Mummies

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched The Mummy, the 1999 version, written and directed by Stephen Sommers and owing a lot more to contemporary action films — particularly Raiders of the Lost Ark, Romancing the Stone and their sequelae — than to Universal’s earlier Mummy films (the 1932 Karl Freund/John Balderston/Boris Karloff classic and the 1940 film The Mummy’s Hand). It’s a quite modern combination of extraordinary special effects work, including the mummy’s morphing into and out of human form (nothing so simple as donning a long coat and a fez the way Karloff did in 1932!) and summoning other mummies to form an army (a scene clearly influenced by Ray Harryhausen’s famous army of skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts), being able literally to animate the sand, and summoning forth small armies of scarab beetles to devour alive anyone who got in his way; with pretty numb-skulled acting and plotting.

Arnold Vosloo as the Mummy — still called Imhotep but bearing little relation either to the historical Imhotep (the designer of the pyramids and the only person other than a Pharoah whom the ancient Egyptians deified) or the character Karloff played — was quite striking (and in his human form, if anything, he was sexier than the lead!); but foul-mouthed (in both senses of the word) Brendan Fraser and dorky Rachel Weisz could hardly match David Manners and the majorly underrated Zita Johann as the romantic leads. Not that the tones of the films are all that similar; whereas John Balderston’s script was a romantic fantasy with a few horrific elements, this one was an action-adventure film with horror (relatively mild horror, at least by today’s standards; there’s really not much blood-and-gore here, which was fine by both of us) and quite a lot of comedy — in that regard this film is closer to The Mummy’s Hand than the 1932 Mummy, even though the broad outline of the plot is closer to Balderston’s story and even a couple of his expository lines about the curse on Imhotep’s casket are heard in almost identical form.

The comedy isn’t all that funny, and Fraser’s performance is at its least convincing when he tries for a Clint Eastwood-esque toughness that doesn’t come naturally to him — and Adrian Boole’s cinematography is the past-is-brown look run riot (anyone seeing this film is going to assume that ancient Egyptians were gold-plated) — but nonetheless it’s a reasonably entertaining audience-pleaser even though the elements of the 1932 film that continue to make it great — its subtlety, its doomed romanticism, the pathos of Karloff’s performance and the genuinely conflicted acting of Johann, who really does look like she’s being torn apart psychologically between the English and Egyptian parts of her heritage, and between her previous incarnation as the princess (a plot element missing from the 1999 version, and sorely missed) and her current one — completely eluded Stephen Sommers and the others involved in the new one. — 10/7/02


Charles and I hung out in the bedroom and I ran him the tape I’d made the night before of the film The Mummy Returns, written and directed by Stephen Sommers as a sequel to his wildly successful 1999 remake of The Mummy. This was a regular commercial TV broadcast with a disclaimer that the film had been reformatted to fit the TV screen (apparently the great unwashed broadcast audience is still not considered worthy of letterboxing) and edited for content and to fill the time slot allotted — which made me wonder just how much more of it there could possibly have been in the theatrical version. (Then again I’m not entirely averse to content editing — I remember seeing Wes Craven’s original Nightmare on Elm Street on network TV and liking it, while also reflecting that had I seen the complete — and no doubt gorier — theatrical version I probably wouldn’t have liked it as much!)

The Mummy Returns is, if anything, even campier than the 1999 film to which it was a sequel — in which, even though Sommers very deliberately and campily played against the mood of doomed romanticism that made the 1932 Karl Freund/John Balderston version so appealing, there were still enough shards of Balderston’s plot left that the film had some emotional impact. This time Sommers’ script was structured as arbitrarily as a porn film, only with action set-pieces instead of sex scenes — and though the action scenes were quite vividly staged they did get tiresome after a while. The Mummy Returns is mindless fun, a real testament to the power of digital graphics — the film couldn’t have been made without digitalization and its capacity to realize all those shots Sommers so loves of rivers of animate beings (usually insects, humans or, in this film, a whole army of dog-faced people supposedly led by the dog-faced Egyptian god Anubis, who actually was just part of their pantheon but in this film takes on the role of Satan), sand melting into the shape of people or places and then melting away back into sand, the spectacular visions seen by the son of Brendan Fraser’s character when he puts on the scorpion bracelet created by the legendary Scorpion King, who 5,000 years before the main action of the film takes place attempted to conquer Egypt with the aid of Anubis’s dog-faced army.

The plot line of this film features so many villains, both supernatural and terrestrial, that it’s hard to keep track of who they are, who’s on who’s side or what they want, but it’s the sort of film where none of that matters anyway; and while Brendan Fraser gets one acting moment in which he shows a genuine talent for pathos (when he has to react to the death of his wife — the temporary death of his wife, this being a fantasy and thereby not subject to the normal rules of human existence), and for the most part he’s a bit more personable and restrained this time than he was in the previous Mummy film (in which his appalling antics — which director Sommers obviously thought were cute and funny — made me cast fond thoughts back to David Manners despite his almost terminal blandness as an actor), this certainly wasn’t going to win him any Academy Award nominations or even offers of better parts. I guess watching The Mummy Returns is like pigging out at McDonald’s; you know you’re not supposed to enjoy it, but in spire of yourself you do even though you want something more substantial the next time you go out! — 2/11/04


The movies Charles and I watched last night — we squeezed in two even when I wasn’t doing OperaShare downloads of obscure Puccini — were the new Universal Mummy series film, saddled with the awkward title The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, and one of the Jack Benny TV show episodes offered by Critics’ Choice Video. (They put out at least five volumes of Benny episodes but their current catalog offers only the first three; the fourth contains an episode with Marilyn Monroe and, knowing how fiercely protective her heirs are of her legacy, I imagine they threatened legal action if Critics’ Choice maintained it in their catalog.)

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is not written and directed by Stephen Sommers, as the first two episodes in the series were; instead it’s directed by Rob Cohen from a script by Alfred Gough & Miles Millar (and the fact that a big-budget action-effects extravaganza like this was actually written by just two people is pretty amazing in and of itself!), and instead of Arnold Vosloo’s reincarnated Egyptian mummy Imhotep it features an entirely new villain — and a new setting, China. The new villain is Emperor Han, who reigned two years ago and (like the real Chinese Emperor Qin) attempted to unify the various provinces of China at sword-point if necessary. In a rather clunky prologue narrated by Freda Foh Shen in a voice that sounds like the narrator of one of those “audio-visual” movies shown in grade and high schools when I was a boy, it’s explained that Han lusted after a witch who promised him the secret of eternal life, only she had eyes for his military commander, General Ming (Russell Wong) instead. Learning this, Han tricked her into revealing the secret of eternal life, then killed both her and Ming — not realizing that she had tricked him and put a spell on him that made his face turn into stone and periodically burst into fire, then put itself out and become stone again.

When the emperor finally died, he was buried in a tomb with plenty of booby-traps to make sure no one could reach his sarcophagus, exhume his body and restart him on his quest for immortality — on the ground that if he got up and was able to revivify his army of terra-cotta soldiers, he would be unstoppable and would literally conquer the world. The main part of the movie is set in China in 1946, where an expedition including Alex O’Connell (Luke Ford), son of the adventure couple from the first film — Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Evelyn (Maria Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz and for my money actually a better, more appealing heroine, though the consensus view is quite different) — has discovered the emperor’s tomb and is busy negotiating the booby-traps (I had a hard time suspending disbelief to accept that all the traps were still in working order after 2,000 years, but an “Trivia” contributor says the tomb is real and so are the traps — and that’s one reason why the Chinese are taking a lot longer to excavate it than they anticipated).

This being 1946, with the Chinese civil war still going (it would be three years more before the Communists definitively won), there’s a modern-day warlord called General Yang (Chau Sang Anthony Wong) who has decided that if he can dig up the emperor and bring back him and his terra-cotta army to life, he can conquer all China and then the world. Yang has the elders kidnapped and brought to the tomb site — aided by a treacherous British diplomat in league with him — and the emperor is indeed revived, while to go up against him all they have are a few of the O’Connells’ hangers-on and Alex’s girlfriend Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh), who it turns out is the daughter of the original witch (she’s immortal — and when a nonplussed Alex hears how old the girl he’s dating really is, he says, “I don’t mind older women”) and has a magic dagger on her person that’s the one weapon that can kill Han once he bathes in a pool inside Shangri-La that will make him (otherwise) immortal.

None of this really matters because, as with the last two modern-day Mummy movies (especially the second, The Mummy Returns), the “plot” is as pretextual as one in a porn movie: it exists merely to set up the action scenes — which are staged with a cool efficiency that makes them entertaining but not as exuberant or spectacular as they were in the earlier films. There’s nothing here as deliciously horrific as the waves of sand of the earlier films that metamorphosed into armies of insects sent into battle at Imhotep’s direction to menace the heroes — the closest is the big set-piece towards the end, in which Han’s revivified terra-cotta army does battle against another fighting force brought back from the dead, this time from Han’s former slaves who were buried in the foundations of the Great Wall of China after Han literally worked them to death in its construction (another detail that unctuous audio-visual narrator gave us in the prologue). This isn’t a great movie but it’s fun, it does what it set out to do — dazzle us with impeccably created digital imagery (there’s even a credit for “hair technical director,” Zack Weiler) — and it doesn’t last long enough to overstay its welcome: its official running time is 112 minutes but the last 10 minutes or so of that is the closing credit roll. — 12/23/08

Jach Benny Hour (TV, 1965)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright @ 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Critics’ Choice DVD on which we watched the 1965 Jack Benny Hour — before the show proper began, he stood in front of a curtain and said, “I don’t know why they call it a ‘special.’ It’s just a show, and the only difference is it’s an hour long. So think of it as two half-hours stuck together” — showed it in black-and-white, a disappointment because it was in color originally and Benny even has a few jokes relating to it being in color (notably a running gag about a stagehand assigned to strangle him periodically to give his cheeks the rosy-red glow desired by the color camerapeople). It had a nice assortment of guest stars, including Bob Hope (who does some quite amusing vaudeville-type humor with Benny), Elke Sommer and the Beach Boys, who sing “California Girls” and “Barbara Ann” and who appeared to be miming to a pre-recording: Brian Wilson was visibly present on bass (he usually wasn’t by 1965) and the version of “Barbara Ann” included the high vocal line from the original Beach Boys’ record (they weren’t the original group to do it; it was written by Fred Fassert and first recorded by a group called the Regents; later it was covered by Jan and Dean for an oldies album, and afterwards the Beach Boys did it on their Beach Boys’ Party! album with Dean Torrence coming in and doing the high part because none of the Beach Boys could sing that high, and though he’s not visible on the program it certainly sounds like him on the soundtrack).

It was a fun show and well worth watching, featuring such guest stars as Walt Disney (playing himself and essentially the butt of a gag in which Benny asks for 110 free tickets to Disneyland and Disney insists in return that they incorporate a Disney motif into the show somewhere — which they do by inserting a parody of Mary Poppins into a skit originally intended as a spoof of Italian movies, with Benny as the cuckolded husband and Hope as his wife’s chauffeur and paramour) and Elke Sommer, who as usual with women who looked that good is milked only for her looks. She also gets to sing a song, which Benny announced came off her new MGM label record — I had no idea Elke Sommer had ever recorded, and as things turn out she’s unable to project any degree of sensuality as a singer (unlike, say, Marilyn Monroe, whose recordings throb with erotic power even in a non-visual medium).

The show’s high points are the Beach Boys’ performances and a nice skit (excerpted in the documentary about them, The Beach Boys: American Heroes) in which Benny and Hope don mop-like long-hair wigs, carry a surfboard, drive in a ridiculously decorated hot-rod pickup and try to master the surfing lingo. Also of note was the fact that (as usual with Critics’ Choice) they left in the original commercials — for Eastern Airlines, a carrier I can only vaguely remember and certainly no longer exists (it was stripped for its assets by corporate raider Frank Lorenzo and went out of business in 1991) — including one promoting a travel agent (I remember travel agents!).

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Road to Ruin (Willis Kent Productions, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Road to Ruin turned out to be a surprisingly good movie by the meager standards of the exploitation genre — well above such 1930’s camp classics as Reefer Madness, Marihuana: Weed with Roots in Hell, Sex Madness, Cocaine Fiends and the like. The direction was co-credited to Mrs. Wallace Reid (Dorothy Davenport) and Melville Shyer, and though there was no screenwriting credit the two co-directors were probably responsible for the script as well, especially since Mrs. Reid — who got her exploitation-film cred by being the widow of the first of so many movie figures to die a drug-related death— had written a version of the same story, under the same title, for a 1928 silent film produced and co-written by Willis Kent (who produced this one as well) and directed by Norton S. Parker. Variety complained that the 1934 version was considerably milder than the “hotly sexed” silent, though another trade paper, The Exhibitor, called this one “a vast improvement over its silent brother” and said it “lends itself to commercial exploitation.”

Willis Kent produced non-exploitation films as well (including the 1932 mystery Sinister Hands, which isn’t an especially great film but does have Mischa Auer in a rare — and quite well played — non-comic role) and he wasn’t trucking around with a projector and a print the way really sleazy exploitation entrepreneurs like Dwain Esper (who liberally filled out his film Narcotic with clips from the silent version of The Road to Ruin) and Kroger Babb did, and where his film scores far above the exploitation brethren is in its quality of production. The directors and their cinematographer, James Diamond, clearly had an eye for composition and lighting — especially in the exteriors (notably a scene in which the protagonists take a boat ride and the dappled sunlight seen through the trees and reflected on the water recall those in the Sternberg An American Tragedy) — and they had a cast that, with one rather obvious exception (Paul Page as Ralph Bennett, the man who completes the heroine’s ruination, who delivers his lines in a first-day-of-drama-school monotone and has utterly no expression at all, though that may have been the directors’ idea to make him seem more sinister), is quite competent.

Helen Foster, who’d starred in the silent Road to Ruin as well, gets above-the-title billing as Ann Dixon, whose clueless parents (Richard Tucker and Virginia True Boardman) watch helplessly as she sinks from good little schoolgirl — we know she’s good because her classmates seek her out for help on their homework — to wanton passenger on the titular road to ruin, and she’s effective within the limits of the didactic script — while Nell O’Day as her friend Eve, who gives her the first shove onto That Road, is even better: she’s a striking screen personality and her platinum-blonde hair makes me wonder why a major studio didn’t snap her up and try to make her a competitor to Jean Harlow. (At the same time, a story about a girl named Ann — as close to “Adam” as they could get in a woman’s name — being led into temptation by a woman named Eve is an indication of how obvious this film’s symbolism really is.)

Ann gets tempted down the Road to Ruin when Eve pulls up in a car driven by her boyfriend Tommy (Glen Boles), who has the hots for Ann; and Tommy’s friend Ed, who’s interested in Eve and is hoping to pair Tommy with Ann so he can have Eve for himself. Gradually Ann and Tommy do develop a relationship, and Tommy takes Eve on that boat ride and then takes her to a wooded glade, where it’s not clear whether he actually has sex with her or not — first they’re making out, then there’s a cut and when the scene resumes they’re both standing up and she’s readjusting her clothes while he’s apologizing to her, but it’s kept ambiguous whether he actually got into her pants or she successfully fought off his attempts to do so.

They then turn up at a lodge that’s a sort of nightclub (though the film was released in 1934, the dates shown in written documents as part of the movie indicate the time frame as mid-1933 and evidently Prohibition is still in effect, since the customers at the nightclub are shown bringing in their liquor in flasks and our four wanton high-school kids are able to get in without being carded) with a wretched but somewhat appealing jazz band whose lead instruments are xylophone, violin and subtone clarinet. (They’re probably the best band Willis Kent’s budget could afford, but their mediocrity adds to the dramatic verisimilitude; one doesn’t get the impression, as one does in major-studio productions of the period, that we’re hearing a much better band than this sort of establishment could afford — though when the characters switch on radios and we hear the same musicians, it does jar because by 1934 radio stations were getting top-flight talent to play on-air.) Tommy and Ed get incapacitatedly drunk and two older seducers, Ralph (Paul Page) and Brad, see their opportunity and move in on Ann and Eve, respectively.

Things come to a climax at a party which is raided by the police after the participants go swimming in a pool in their underwear — in one example of the relative subtlety of this film compared to other exploitation numbers, the people who call are a middle-aged couple who live next door; the wife is determined to call the police and shut the party down, but the husband is unwilling to make the call because he’s having too much fun watching the scantily-clad young girls — and Ann and Eve find themselves confronted by a social worker (a butch woman wearing a severely tailored suit and a necktie, which was probably “read” by 1934 audiences — at least those sexually savvy enough to be watching a movie like this!) who insists that they’ll be released as soon as they’re “examined” (“Examined!” they respond in horror) but their parents will have to be told what they’ve been up to.

The medical examinations reveal that Eve has syphilis — she’s sent off for treatment (the standard treatment of the day would have been Dr. Ehrlich’s arsenic compound, salvarsan) and within a month or so she’s declared cured — but Ann, though she’s been spared any STD’s, has met an even worse fate: Ralph has knocked her up. She expects him to marry her — the fool! — but he explains that he’s already married, and he arranges for her to have an illegal abortion; when we hear the abortionist subtly slurring a few of his words, we’re all too aware what fate is in store for her, but it duly happens. Ralph at this point decides to turn Ann out as a “party girl” — in the virtual-prostitute sense that phrase usually meant in the early 1930’s — but that never quite happens (the American Film Institute Catalog plot synopsis says it does but the sequence was probably cut from this print) and instead she’s overcome by the infection that incompetent quack stuck her with, she sees a legitimate doctor but too late to do anything, and there’s a surprisingly moving death scene in which her parents are with her and try to take the blame for her fate, but she nobly refuses to blame her impending demise on anyone but herself and then expires.

The Road to Ruin is a surprisingly good film for the genre, but it’s still an awfully limited genre. As well shot and staged as it is, the titular road to ruin looks like an unbelievably decorous one. With one exception — a mysterious “brew” Ralph offers Ann just before he has sex with her for the first time — the characters don’t do any substances stronger than tobacco and alcohol (and Charles and I had a lot of fun trying to guess what the “brew” was, with him thinking it was a “Spanish fly”-style aphrodisiac and me thinking at first it was laudanum — opium dissolved in alcohol — or maybe absinthe; it certainly wasn’t a modern-style date-rape drug since Ralph was shown taking it himself, and there wasn’t the obligatory scene of him slipping something into her drink but not his own common to movie date-rape scenes then and now) — and the film really doesn’t have much of a sense of pace: Ann lumbers along on the road to ruination so slowly she’d be in no danger of being arrested for speeding.

It impresses more because the competition was so awful than because it’s all that great itself; the filmmakers try to show their story with humanity and understanding but their didactic purpose (or, rather, the didactic purpose they had to pay lip service to in order to get their film made and shown at all) defeats them — and while the participants on this film’s road to ruin at least seem to be having more fun than their confreres in such films as Reefer Madness, it’s still one of those movies whose main efficacy in deterring “sin” (or at least what its makers defined as such) is to make the demi-monde seem so boring it hardly seems worth the trouble!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Hancock (Sony/Columbia, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie Charles and I ran last night was Hancock, which I’d been mildly interested in but which the Columbia House DVD Club sent me unbid (I must have forgotten to respond to their mailers — I probably thought I’d gone online to cancel this one but hadn’t). It turned out to be a pleasant surprise and at least two-thirds of a good movie. John Hancock (Will Smith) is a super-powered human who thinks the usual skin-tight superhero costumes are “faggy” and who does his super-things in ordinary street clothes, looking awfully dowdy since when he’s not being a superhero he’s a down-and-out alcoholic who lives in two old, abandoned trailers he’s jammed together and whose only source of solid food is Jiffy-Pop popcorn. (I couldn’t help but wonder if the makers of Jiffy-Pop paid for this product placement!)

In the opening scene, three Asian-American baddies are careening down the street in a white SUV and causing havoc, but not so much havoc as the whiskey-soaked Hancock causes when he goes after them and ends up causing $9 million of damage to innocent people’s cars and properties before impaling the bad guys’ SUV on the spire atop the Capitol Tower. The L.A. County district attorney’s office (this is set in Los Angeles, which if nothing else made it easier for them to find locations) announces that they intend to prosecute Hancock for the rampage — and for the next one he starts, in which he comes across a car trapped in a traffic jam and stalled across a railroad track with a train bearing down on it. (For a moment I thought the filmmakers were going to pull Buster Keaton’s old gag of having the train miss the car, and then another train on a track going the other direction would hit it.)

Hancock saves the car’s occupant, public-relations consultant Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), though typically he also destroys most of the other cars caught in the traffic jam and, instead of merely lifting Ray’s car out of the way of the train, stops the train with his own body (in a move that, as Charles pointed out, would have killed everybody on the train from the sudden deceleration — though it turns out to be a freight train and therefore the only people on board, aside from any hoboes or runaways, would have been the people driving the locomotive). Ray agrees to give Hancock a P.R. makeover and tells him to work on his landings — he can fly but he can’t seem to come down to earth again without tearing up great chunks of pavement in the process — and also that he should turn himself in and do a stretch in county jail, which he does via a press conference that’s probably the most pointed moment of the script by Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan, an hilarious send-up of celebrity rehab!

Ray lives in an ordinary suburban house in the San Fernando Valley with his wife Mary (Charlize Theron) and his — but not her — son Aaron (Jae Head); we’re told later that Aaron’s mom died giving birth to him and then Mary came along as an “angel” to redeem Ray’s life and get him over his grief. (This will become an important plot point later on.) For the first hour or so this is a truly delightful comedy — and it is a comedy — that makes gentle but unmistakable fun of the superhero genre and manages to answer questions I’ve always had, like wouldn’t the residents of a city where a superhero operated finally decide he was more trouble than he was worth because of all the super-villains he’d attract; just how would anybody repair the damage the hero caused in his crime-fighting activities; and whether a being with super-powers could possibly have sex with a being without them without burning out her insides. (In one early scene, Hancock attracts a young Black woman groupie, takes her back to his place and warns her to pull back before he climaxes — and when she ignores his warning, the power of his orgasm literally pushes her away from him, across his room and through his wall until she collapses outside.)

Then the script takes more conventional paths and introduces a plot twist that turns this film from an engaging comedy to something considerably less fun. Hancock finds himself romantically and sexually attracted to Mary Embrey, and one day while he’s at their house and Ray and Aaron are out Hancock makes his move, they get almost to the point of a kiss (supposedly the DVD contains a 102-minute extended version of the film, 10 minutes longer than the standard theatrical release, in which they do kiss, but the one we watched was the 92-minute theatrical version), and suddenly she flies him across the room. Yes, folks, it turns out that she is a super-being just like himself, though she’s given up the superhero life and is content to be the normal suburban housewife, sort of like Elizabeth Montgomery’s character on Bewitched. (You didn’t think that after her star-making, Oscar-winning part in Monster they’d cast Charlize Theron as a real suburban housewife, did you?)

What’s more, it turns out that they’re both over 3,000 years old and that they were destined to be a pair, only part of the deal that gave them their super-powers in the first place also was that if they actually got together and lived as a couple, they would both lose their super-powers forever and would also lose their immortality, living the rest of a human life span and then dying at the regular age. The two recall the previous times they did actually live together, including one in the 1860’s and one “80 years ago” — a somewhat confused time sequence because their idyll ended after they went to a movie theatre in Miami together to see the James Whale Frankenstein on its initial release — the dialogue said they saw it 80 years earlier, which would have been 1928, three years before Frankenstein (and someone with sharper eyes than mine these days, and no doubt the advantage of having seen this in a theatre, noted that on the ticket stub for the showing, which she’s carefully preserved, one contributor to noted that the date on the stub was June 21, 1931 — the right year but still almost five months before the actual release of Frankenstein on November 4) — only they were set upon by a lynch mob upset at the sight of an interracial couple in Miami in the Jim Crow era (Charles was upset at this plot twist, finding that even within the suspension of disbelief required by a superhero movie it was way too hard to believe that they could have lived in Miami together without becoming aware of the danger of racist vigilantism well before this!) and, with his superpowers ebbing, Hancock was beaten so badly he lost his memory … which led to his being called Hancock; when a nurse asked him to “put your John Hancock” on the admission form, he thought she was calling him by name.

Then both Hancock and Mary are near-mortally wounded and there’s a major crisis that resolves itself into the movie’s final action scene, edited in typical modern-day Cuisinart style in which Hancock and Mary seem to be in synch so that every time one of them has a life-threatening crisis the other does, too — until both more or less recover and accept the need for geographical separation, so Hancock goes to New York to do his superhero thing there while Mary stays in L.A. with Ray — and as a final thank-you Hancock goes to the moon and burns onto its surface the read “All Heart” logo Ray was trying to sell various major corporations on — the idea being that it would become a symbol that his pharmaceutical-company clients were giving away their drugs free to Third World people who really needed them (the board members he was pitching this to, including director Peter Berg in a cameo, respond with a predictable lack of enthusiasm, just as they do to Bono and other would-be savants in the real world offering similar advice).

The finale of Hancock is a bit of a let-down, taking what’s been a well-pointed spoof of the superhero genre into serious action-film territory, but it’s a nice movie anyway, largely due to the excellent acting of Will Smith, who as he’s got older has got more character in his face; he really does look like a down-and-out man laboring under severe psychological burdens and a set of super-powers that all too often seem like far more trouble than they’re worth. It’s a star vehicle for him — even Charlize Theron’s role could have been played by just about any actress of the right age and figure — and it works (and while seemingly no one was looking Will Smith quietly took over from Tom Cruise as the world’s most popular movie star, as measured by the consistently stratospheric box-office grosses of his films: yet another triumph for racial equality in the year of Obama!).

MIracle on 34th Street (20th Century-Fox, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I got home early enough last night to run a movie, and we decided on the 1947 feature-film version of Miracle on 34th Street even though the only copy I had of it was a colorized VHS release from Fox Home Video in the early 1990’s (evidently before Rupert Murdoch bought the company, because the logo does not have “A News Corporation Company” across the bottom) and the colorization, though not as offensively bad as some of them from this period, bathes the movie in dreary browns — at times it looks like it was shot in sepia and then highlighted in the manner of the “tinting and toning” processes used extensively in the silent era but pretty much abandoned when sound came in.

Charles and I were both curious about this movie because we’d just watched a quite effective 1955 TV abridgment of it shot for a 20th Century-Fox TV anthology series (they launched a TV show to promote their movies in 1955, the same year MGM and Warners did) and this piqued our curiosity about seeing the whole thing again. Miracle on 34th Street was produced and directed by George Seaton, who’s not one of Hollywood’s most highly regarded auteurs but who made some engagingly quirky and envelope-bending films — including the 1946 comedy The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, a major feminist movie at a time when most of Hollywood (and most of the mainstream media generally) were telling women, “Hey, girls, the war’s over, time to get back into the kitchen and let your husbands take back the jobs.” Miracle was a personal project for Seaton — according to the “trivia” section on, he had to promise Darryl F. Zanuck to make three studio assignments sight-unseen to do it (and Zanuck insisted on releasing the film in May because he thought a Christmas movie would be dead on arrival at the box office, so even though the plot of the film centers around the existence of Santa Claus the ads carefully avoided any hint that it was a Christmas-themed movie at all).

Miracle on 34th Street involved quite a lot of location shooting — the scenes taking place in the Macy’s department store in New York City were actually filmed there (though the movie company had to bring their own generator because Macy’s power supply couldn’t handle the amount of current needed to run film equipment) — and in order to depict the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the filmmakers not only shot the actual 1946 parade (with multiple cameras to make sure they got everything they needed since retakes were impossible) but arranged for Edmund Gwenn, hired to play Santa Claus in the film, to appear as such in the parade and fill all the normal duties of the actor playing Santa in the parade — including officially opening the Macy’s toy department for Christmas shoppers.

Miracle on 34th Street is a marvelous movie, clearly derived from Frank Capra — the overall sweetness, the charm, the use of faith as a story driver and even the finale, a trial in which the nice young man who’s courting the heroine has to go to court to prove that his friend and confederate is not insane, are all clearly derived from Capra’s great films of the late 1930’s. So is the vaguely anti-capitalist message — including the idea that by recommending that his customers shop at other stores if they want an item Macy’s doesn’t have in stock, Macy’s will make itself more money in the long run as well as earning valuable public goodwill. (This is a quite venerable plot device that even turns up in modern movies; we’d just seen it in the “All Heart” campaign Jason Bateman’s character futilely tries to sell to at least two corporate boards in Hancock.)

Maureen O’Hara plays the lead role, Doris Walker, a woman who went through a divorce (kudos to Seaton and Valentine Davies, who wrote the original story, for not taking the easy way out for 1947 and having had her husband killed in the war!) and was stuck raising their daughter Susan (Natalie Wood, seven years old, in a star-making performance that’s one of the best pieces of acting ever done by a child and miles ahead of the cloying sweetness Shirley Temple established as the norm for pre-pubescent performers in films) while working in the toy department at Macy’s and running the annual Thanksgiving Day parade. When the Santa Claus she’s hired for the parade (Percy Helton) turns up drunk — “Well, it’s cold outside. A man’s gotta do something to keep warm,” the man explains — she latches onto a passing stranger, Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), and impresses him into service as the parade Santa — at which he’s so convincing that she also drafts him to play Santa Claus in the Macy’s toy department.

There’s only one hitch: Kris Kringle insists that he really is Santa Claus — and when Doris traces him to the old-folks’ home he was living at before, its director, Dr. Pearce (James Seay), confesses that he knew of the man’s delusion but thought it was harmless because it didn’t make him a danger to himself or others — it just gave him a compulsion to walk around doing good for people. Doris, clearly embittered by her divorce (though Seaton is a subtle enough writer not to hammer that into our faces the way a modern scribe probably would), has trained Susan to be a hard-core rationalist, carefully keeping her away from fairy tales (when she’s told the story of Jack and the beanstalk she’s surprised because she’s never heard it before!) and training her to acknowledge that Santa Claus does not exist. (When you work in a department store and have the power to hire and fire Santa Clauses, that’s easier than it is for most parents.)

The overall plot of the film is the breaking down of both Walkers’ resistance to faith, belief and Santa Claus by the pincer movement of Kringle and the male romantic lead, attorney Fred Gailey (John Payne — and did George Seaton have to give him such a “queer” last name?), who lives in the same apartment building as the Walkers and is wooing Mrs. Walker by befriending her daughter Susan. There’s also a veiled Gay subtext in the character of Alfred (Alvin Greenman), the nellie 17-year-old overweight janitor at Macy’s whom Kringle befriends against the pressure from Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall), who runs the personnel department’s aptitude testing program and fancies himself a psychologist — who gives the poor boy a lot of nonsense about guilt complexes and hating his father (“I didn’t know I hated my father until Dr. Sawyer told me so”), and says that he has to give up playing Santa at the old-folks’ home even though, being overweight and constantly teased about it, playing Santa every Christmas is the one joy in his life. (This isn’t spelled out as a Gay metaphor — in 1947 under the Production Code it couldn’t have been — but it’s not hard to figure out!)

The whole thing gets resolved when Kringle strikes Sawyer on the head with his cane while defending Alfred in an argument, and Sawyer has Kringle committed to Bellevue and draws up the papers to institutionalize him. Gailey agrees to represent Kringle in the legal system and demands a competency hearing, presided over by Judge Henry X. Harper (Gene Lockhart), who in yet another Capraesque touch in a film full of them is really controlled by political boss Charlie Halloran (William Frawley) — who, stopped from coming into court with a lit cigar, refuses to throw it away and instead merely pinches the burning end with his fingers (ouch!), thereby putting it out. The marvelous character actor Jerome Cowan is the prosecuting attorney, Thomas Mara, who thinks he has the case won when he puts Kringle on the stand and gets him to say out loud, in so many words, that he is really Santa Claus.

Gailey demands the right to present the case that there is in fact a Santa Claus, and that Kringle is he — and to prove the first he puts Mara’s son (Robert Hyatt) on the stand. Thomas Mara, Jr. testifies that he knows there’s a Santa Claus because “my daddy told me so, and my daddy wouldn’t lie to me.” Judge Harper says he’ll consult “a higher authority” before ruling on whether Santa Claus exists or not, and of course the “higher authority” is Halloran, who points out that if he rules that there is no Santa Claus there’ll be such hostility from voters that it will sink their whole ticket in the next election. Accordingly, Harper rules that there is a Santa Claus but that Gailey must still prove that Kris Kringle is he — and he gets a break when two overworked clerks at the New York post office (one of them played by a very young and almost unrecognizable Jack Albertson!) decide not only to deliver the letter Susan Walker wrote to Kris Kringle at the New York courthouse but all the Santa Claus letters to him — and Gailey brings all 21 bags of these letters to court and says, “Your Honor, every one of these letters is addressed to Santa Claus. The Post Office has delivered them. Therefore the Post Office Department, a branch of the Federal Government, recognizes this man Kris Kringle to be the one and only Santa Claus.” There’s a happy ending in which Susan Walker finally gets the house in the suburbs she’d asked Santa Claus for — and she also gets a new daddy in the person of Fred Gailey, who in a film that has otherwise totally avoided the subject of sex finally gets to kiss Doris Walker at the fade-out.

Miracle on 34th Street holds up as a very charming movie, a bittersweet but ultimately uplifting film, and since Charles and I had just watched the surprisingly impressive TV adaptation from eight years later comparisons were inevitable, especially involving the cast. Maureen O’Hara (despite the colorizers’ inability to decide on the color of her hair — in some scenes it’s russet-brown, in others flaming-red) brings a kind of hurt dignity to her role —but Teresa Wright plays it similarly and equally well on the TV adaptation, and though Edmund Gwenn’s Kringle won him the Academy Award and became legendary (and indeed it’s amazing that Gwenn could be equally effective as Katharine Hepburn’s scapegrace father in Sylvia Scarlett and as Santa Claus here!), Thomas Mitchell turns in just as good a job in the TV show (and, apropos of the long-running “in” joke between Charles and I, both of them sound the “t” when they say the word “often”).

Where the TV show cast suffered in comparison with the film is in the male lead — McDonald Carey is good in certain types of roles but he’s so unpersonable one really doesn’t want the heroine to get stuck with him. John Payne isn’t that much better — the role really cried out for James Stewart, but the budget for this film couldn’t have afforded him — but he’s at least young and likable — and the child. Sandy Descher is a perfectly competent child actor but she can’t hold a candle to the incandescent young Natalie Wood — even though I had to laugh out loud when I saw Wood early on turn her face into a pout and realized she had used that expression in different contexts throughout her career! Also, as I’d expected, Philip Tonge, the virtually unknown character actor playing Mr. Shellhammer (Doris’s immediate supervisor in the Macy’s toy department), can’t hold a candle to Hans Conried’s marvelously twitchy performance in the TV version — and the TV script, though heavily cut and eliminating the marvelous subplot involving Alfred, has a more effective way for Kringle to get in trouble with Sawyer (he challenges him when Sawyer is lecturing on the dangers of superstition at a “Progressive Association” forum) — which was the version Charles remembered from a book based on the film story that he read as a child.

The Smartest Girl in Town (RKO, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night we opened our movie evening with a 64-minute RKO “B” I’d had on the same tape as Finishing School (and The Tenderfoot, the quirky Joe E. Brown comedy, also with Ginger Rogers, noteworthy for including a clip from the ballet mècanique from the 1930 film Lilies of the Field, otherwise lost): The Smartest Girl in Town, one of the Gene Raymond-Ann Sothern series of “B” comedies and musicals that were sort of the second-string for Astaire and Rogers, though this one kept busy three of the droll comedians most familiar today for their character parts in the Astaire-Rogers films: Helen Broderick, Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes.

Raymond is top-billed but this time Sothern dominates in terms of screen time and plot importance; she plays advertising model Frances “Cookie” Cooke, who works for an agency that also employs her sister Gwen (Broderick) as a typist and receptionist. One day, having sneaked aboard a yacht to do a photo shoot, she mistakes the yacht’s owner, Richard Stuyvesant Smith (Raymond), as the male model she’s supposed to work with. Immediately smitten, Richard has his valet, Philbean (Blore), set up a mock agency and hire Cookie to work there at the outrageous sum of $25 per day, and the rest of the plot deals with his attempts to woo her and hers to resist because, even though she’s attracted to him, she’s determined to marry a man with money even though the only candidate she has is Baron Enrico Torene (Rhodes, playing the same foofy “Italian” character he used in the Astaire-Rogers Gay Divorcée and Top Hat).

The outcome is a foregone conclusion but the script (by Viola Brothers Shore from a story by Muriel Scheck and H. S. Krafft) is genuinely witty and charming, and in 64 minutes’ worth of running time the movie’s one joke at least doesn’t have time to overstay its welcome. (Today the gimmick is probably most familiar from the 1953 film of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — and since Anita Loos’s novel was actually written and filmed in the 1920’s it’s entirely possible Scheck, Krafft and Shore were deliberately ripping it off.) There’s even a pretty good song, “Will You?,” with which Richard serenades Cookie while accompanying himself on the ukulele (and, of course, the RKO orchestra uncredited off-screen), much in the vein of the early Arthur Freed-Nacio Herb Brown songs like “Should I?” and “Would You?” but noteworthy in that it was written by Gene Raymond himself — he’d graduated from playing a songwriter in Flying Down to Rio to being one in this film! — 1/27/05


Since I got so rushed yesterday I didn’t have time to comment on the movie Charles and I watched on Thursday night as a sort of cinematic palate-cleanser after Hancock: The Smartest Girl in Town, a little 1936 romp from RKO starring Gene Raymond and Ann Sothern, whom the studio was then trying to build up into a sort of second-string Astaire and Rogers. They first put them together in the 1935 musical Hooray for Love (a film I’ve always had an affection for even though the final musical sequence, the Harlem number “Living in a Great Big Way,” brings in Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Thomas “Fats” Waller and the attractive, personable Black actress Jeni LeGon, all of whom totally steal the movie out from under the white people) and made a few “B”’s with them thereafter, most of them musicals, though this one contains only one song — “Will You?,” which Raymond not only performs in the film but actually wrote himself — and is basically an offtake of the Cinderella myth. Frances “Cookie” Cooke (Ann Sothern) is a penniless woman who works as a model, wears incredibly expensive clothes for her photo shoots, and dreams of marrying a rich man so she can own such fabulous garments.

She works for a cheap ad agency and is managed by her sister, Gwen Mayen (Helen Broderick), who made the mistake of marrying the agency’s wastrel photographer, Terry (Harry Jans), and divorced him but still couldn’t get rid of him. Cookie arrives one afternoon for a photo shoot on a yacht — the agency has given Lucius Philbean (Eric Blore), the servant whose master owns the yacht, a $50 bribe to let them shoot there as long as they finish before the master returns — and when the master, Richard Stuyvesant Smith (Gene Raymond), does return unexpectedly, Cookie and Terry mistake him for the male model who’s supposed to appear in the photos and do the shoot with him. Warned by Philbean not to get involved with another woman who’s going to extract a major breach-of-promise settlement out of him — Philbean has even framed the cancelled checks and hung them on Smith’s wall — Smith decides to woo Cookie while posing as a man who’s as poor as she is.

He buys Terry’s camera and uses it to set up an “agency” of his own, with Philbean playing its CEO (and, in some of scenarist Viola Brothers Shore’s most delightful scenes, having trouble maintaining the imposture because he instinctively slips back into servant mode when he’s around Smith), and after 57 minutes’ worth of the best complications Shore and the writers whose “original” story she was adapting, Muriel Scheck and H. S. Kraft, he finally wins her by faking his suicide and borrowing a minister from another wedding to marry them before he (presumably) croaks. This is pretty much a one-joke movie, but at least the one joke is funny and the writers and director, Joseph Santley (who co-directed the Marx Brothers’ first film, The Cocoanuts), make the most of it — and it’s helped that no fewer than four veterans of the Astaire-Rogers series appear: Raymond, Broderick, Blore and Erik Rhodes, who repeats his Gay Divorce/Top Hat characterization as a malapropistic Italian baron with designs on Our Heroine and an avocation — collecting rare fossilized eggs — which turns her completely off. It’s also helped by the fact that it comes in under an hour and therefore doesn’t stretch this rather flimsy situation any more than it can handle. — 12/20/08

Thursday, December 18, 2008

“The Dark Knight” and All the Batmen

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

All right, I'll admit it: I love Batman. I fell in love with him via the campy 1960's TV series, with the general air of insouciant hilarity and in particular the over-the-top acting by the "special guest villains." I've collected all the commercially released videos and DVD's of the Batman movies, from the 1943 Columbia serial with Lewis Wilson (in some ways still the best Batman, particularly in looking authentically weary when it was called for) to the latest, "The Dark Knight." My favorite Batman movie remains the 1989 Tim Burton release that featured Michael Keaton in the role and Jack Nicholson as the Joker — mainly because it seemed to balance the thrilling atmospherics of the comic books at their best and the airy campiness of the 1960's show and because Burton and his writing team seemed aware that there are limits to how "serious" and "dramatic" you can get in a movie in which your central character is a guy who goes around at night in a skin-tight black suit and a cape.

The great appeal of Batman is that he wasn't from another planet, he didn't have a magic shield, and he wasn't exposed to a radioactive spider or gamma rays from a nuclear test site. He was an ordinary human being who WILLED himself to be a superhero — both physically and mentally — and he was independently wealthy, so he didn't have to worry about making a living and had the money not only to spend his days fighting crime but to invent all the cool Batgear he used. That's the aspect of the character I think Lewis Wilson captured better than anyone who's played him since; besides looking more credible in the Bruce Wayne identity than any subsequent Batman, Wilson came off at the end of all those serial-style escapes looking genuinely weary, as if the experiences had tired him out. Anyway, here are my notes on viewing the Batman movies over the years (mostly at home, though I have seen the 1943 serial and the 1989 feature in theatres):


The film I picked was the third and last DVD I just bought at Suncoast Video: Batman, the 1943 Columbia serial that was the Caped Crusader’s first screen appearance. My plan was to run the first seven episodes (i.e., the first disc in the two-DVD set) last night and finish the remaining eight episodes tonight — Charles looked a bit askance at that and said he’d prefer to do this one an episode or two a night along with other films, the way we watched The Clutching Hand — but in the end we watched all seven episodes and, while it was a bit of an endurance test, for the most part it was quite entertaining. Batman the serial is actually quite good for the genre, handsomely produced (Columbia in 1943 had already won Academy Awards for Frank Capra’s 1930’s films and attracted other major directors and free-lance stars like Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, and they were on the cusp of full-fledged major-studio status, which Rita Hayworth’s sensational popularity would give them) and directed not by a serial hack but by Lambert Hillyer, a silent-era veteran with two quite good Universal horror films under his belt (The Invisible Ray with Karloff and Lugosi, and Dracula’s Daughter, both from 1936) and a real sense of atmosphere.

A good deal of Batman is shot in relatively flat light, but there are also some beautifully dark chiaroscuro scenes in the expressionistic style of the silent films that had inspired Bob Kane’s visual look for the comic-book character in the first place. (As is well known, Kane’s inspiration for Batman was the title character of The Bat — first made as a silent in 1926 and remade in sound in 1930 — and he copied the look of the Joker from Conrad Veidt’s makeup in the 1928 silent The Man Who Laughs.) There are a few defects — the use of fast-motion photography in the fight scenes (an odd serial convention that’s hard to take seriously today, now that fast motion is associated almost exclusively with comedy), the risible high ears on the cowl of an otherwise quite credible Batsuit, the absence of a Batmobile (Batman and Robin drive around in the same big touring convertible they use as Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson) and the rather portly figure of Lewis Wilson in the title role (though in the character’s Bruce Wayne identity Wilson is more credible than anyone who’s played him since) — but overall this is a quite strong serial, decently written by Victor McLeod, Leslie Swabacker & Harry L. Fraser, effectively directed by Hillyer and especially fortunate in its choice of a villain.

Since this was made during World War II Columbia decided to go topical and have Batman fight a Japanese spy-and-sabotage ring operating here in the U.S. The principal bad guy is Tito Daka (J. Carroll Naish) — variously referred to as “Doctor” and “Prince” in that easygoing attitude towards continuity that affected many serials — who has his hideout in an otherwise abandoned area of town called “Little Tokyo” which the narrator, Knox Manning, describes thusly: “This was part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America and known as Little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street, where only one business survives, eking out a precarious existence on the dimes of curiosity-seekers.” While the reference to the Japanese internment en masse as the policy of a “wise government” is predictably wince-inducing today, the one surviving business on the street is a wax museum of Japanese war atrocities that — in a nice touch of irony from the writers — is the cover for Dr. Daka’s secret installation. (Since the producer was a man named Rudolph C. Flothow, it’s easy to see why the Japanese and not the Germans were the Axis enemies of choice for this project.)

I’d seen the Batman serial once before — in a 4 1/2-hour marathon at the UC Theatre in Berkeley (an enormous old single-screen house that was the forerunner of the Landmark chain) with my brother in the mid-1970’s; I think there were only about four or five other people in the theatre with the requisite craziness to sit through the whole thing on the big screen in one go — and he was at the height of his Madama Butterfly-induced love affair with all things Japanese and was impressed that even though the film’s intent was to be pro-war racist agitprop, the interior décor of Naish’s redoubt nonetheless reflected the beauty of Japanese culture. (It did, too.) Naish’s Daka is quite credibly made up (as Tom Weaver noted, this actor played every ethnicity except his genuine Irish one) and his manner is courtly but still implacably evil — a far cry from the eye-rolling villainy of some of the bad guys in other serials. Batman is a classy project from the get-go, making effective use of Columbia’s roster of standing sets (the nightclub in which a key confrontation happens looked like the same one in which Irene Dunne and Cary Grant played one of their big scenes in The Awful Truth) and coming up with some genuinely imaginative cliffhangers (this is one serial in which the good guys don’t escape seemingly mortal danger just by jumping — as I joked not long ago, anyone who’d ever seen a Republic serial could have figured out how to do a sequel to Thelma and Louise: just before their car went over the cliff, they jumped out of it). The acting is overall pretty good — Shirley Patterson as a more intelligent than usual ingénue is quite appealing and Douglas Croft’s Robin is a bit too chipper, though that’s the character more than the actor — and the action sequences are well staged without the too obviously pulled punches of later serials. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing the rest! — 2/26/06


I ran Charles episodes eight through 15 of the 1943 Batman serial. There are some curious unintended ironies about this film, including the fact that its plot is based on the premise that the Japanese have successfully designed an atomic weapon and plan to use it against the U.S. — the truth, of course, was the other way around — and the appearance of so relentlessly racist an anti-Japanese film under the present-day banner of a Japanese company, Sony (one of the many dubious miracles of globalization). It’s also ironic that its director, Lambert Hillyer, is best known today for his two 1936 Universal horror films, The Invisible Ray (which, like the Batman serial, involves radium — in that one Boris Karloff becomes a sort of human bomb after he descends into a mineshaft looking for a new radioactive element called “Radium-X” — alas, there was a hole in the glove of his protective suit and as a result the Radium-X contaminated him and made him fatal to the touch: I wonder if Steve Altman ever saw this film, since it seems to anticipate at least part of the premise of his Deprivers series) and Dracula’s Daughter (also a movie involving a mysterious quasi-human who lives in a cave full of bats) — and one other irony of the 1943 Batman is that both hero and villain have their clandestine headquarters in underground grottoes.

One nice touch of the serial that was reproduced in the 1966-68 TV series was that Batman and Robin move from Wayne Manor to the Batcave via a secret entrance concealed in the grandfather clock in Bruce Wayne’s study, and one rather sad element is that the film’s most likable character, radium mine owner Ken Colton (played by Charles Middleton, best known as the sadistic commandant in the two Laurel and Hardy spoofs of the French Foreign Legion, Beau Hunks and The Flying Deuces, and as the villainous Emperor Ming in the Flash Gordon serials), sacrifices his own life in chapter 9 to blow up the mine so the Japanese baddies can’t get at it.

Overall, the second half of this serial confirmed my high impression of the quality of the first — though the state of preservation varied from episode to episode and the first episode was particularly washed out — and I particularly liked the vulnerability of the hero. The essence of Batman’s appeal was always that he was an ordinary human being who had willed himself to be a superhero — he didn’t come from another planet, get exposed to atomic radiation, or receive a magic incantation that gave him super-powers; instead he worked out and trained for the job, but retained the ability to get tired if the fight against evil overtaxed him and even to be killed by normal bullets and the thousand other shocks that flesh is heir to. And this film, more than the 1960’s TV show or the 1989-2005 film series, highlights the vulnerability of Batman (perhaps simply because Lewis Wilson wasn’t exactly Mr. Universe material): he clearly tires from the fight scenes, it takes him a while to get up when he’s escaped the villains’ latest trap for him, and he’s projected as a full-fledged human, genuinely concerned emotionally for the fates of the people he’s responsible for (especially Robin and Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend, Linda Page — played by Shirley Patterson in an enviably spunky performance that should have marked her for biggers and betters) — though the film ignores the darker parts of the Batman backstory and (perhaps blessedly, given how totally the more recent films have milked this plot point) doesn’t bother to tell us that both he and Robin got into the crimefighting business because they were orphaned when criminals killed their parents.

The cliffhangers in the second leg of the Batman serial weren’t as creative as those in the first — there was one in which Batman was trapped in a burning car that was about to go over a cliff and, you guessed it, he jumped out just in time (well, there had to be at least one jump — at least the writers didn’t use that device over and over again the way their colleagues at Republic did!) and another in which Batman is — stop me if you’ve heard this before — trapped in a room where the walls are not only coming together and closing in on him but they have knife blades attached so he’ll be skewered and stabbed well before he’s crushed. Since the villain, Dr. Daka, is running this contraption at the same time as he’s using his zombification machine (which resembles a giant hair dryer) to turn Linda Page, whom he’s kidnapped, into a zombie, I had the feeling the drain on Dr. Daka’s circuits would blow a fuse and cancel the power to allow Batman to escape — but no-o-o-o, Robin (previously knocked out) came to in time to wedge a crowbar between the closing walls and give Batman time to crawl out, and then turned the damned thing off. (I still would have liked it better my way!) — 2/27/06


I ran Batman: The Movie, the 1967 film with the TV-show cast (and a thoroughly stupid plot involving a scheme to take over the world by turning the members of the U.N. Security Council into a glittery powder with the sinister “dehydration machine,” then rehydrating them). The campy conceits of this plot line were better done on the TV show, where you only had to watch them for half an hour at a time (at that length, they were funny!). Over feature-film length,the gags got a bit wearing after a while, and Adam West and Burt Ward looked merely tired through much of the film (West in particular seemed exhausted by the sheer effort involved in the attempt to pronounce this drivel as if it were meaningful dialogue), but on the whole, it was at least an entertaining movie. — 2/3/96


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


I ran Batman Returns — it struck me how much of a family relationship there is between Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the first new-series Batman film, Danny DeVito’s Penguin in this one and Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face in Batman Forever — almost as if they have just one template of villain and they keep stamping them out with only minor variations (whereas the same characters were depicted very differently from each other in the comic books), and how indifferent and perfunctory Tim Burton is as an action director, for all his stunning gifts for atmosphere and a general sense of weirdness. — 2/24/96


Batman Forever is a pretty strange movie — directed by Joel Schumacher, vaguely “produced” by Tim Burton, it starts right in with a big action scene with no exposition at all! Well, after two previous movies in the series, maybe Burton, Schumacher and screenwriters Lee Batchler & Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman assumed we didn’t need any exposition — but it’s still nicer to ease into a movie rather than to have it in your face right from the end of the opening credits. The film casts Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face, a.k.a. former District Attorney Harvey Dent — whose origin is preserved from the comic books: a gangster he was prosecuting threw acid in his face during a trial and scarred the left side of his face, thereby leading to his mental derangement and his emergence as the villainous Two-Face. (Since Billy Dee Williams played Harvey Dent in the first Batman movie, the acid seems not only to have scarred part of his face, but to have changed the skin color of his entire body.) Jones is a superb actor, but he’s been playing demented villains of one sort or another for so long that it has scarred his acting talents as thoroughly as Two-Face’s face — and it doesn’t help that he decided to play this one as a flagrant imitation of Jack Nicholson’s beautiful performance as the Joker from the first Batman, all colorful vocal intonations and vulpine laughs.

Jim Carrey does considerably better as the Riddler — whose origin from the comic books was also retained, at least somewhat (in the comic books he was a sideshow trick artist; in the movie he’s an employee of Bruce Wayne’s research lab who gets fired for inventing a mind-manipulation device that offends Our Hero’s rather prissy sense of morality — but his real name, Edward Nigma — “E. Nigma” — is retained, though the last name is respelled “Nygma” for the film). He’s essentially playing the same dual character he did in The Mask, a mild-mannered clerk type who becomes a highly flamboyant, colorful person in his alternate identity — only he’s surrounded by so much padding that he doesn’t have the opportunity to build gag upon gag the way he did in The Mask, so whereas he had me falling-down laughing in the earlier film, he only evoked mild chuckles this time around.

Had The Riddler been the only villain in Batman Forever, the way Nicholson’s Joker was in the first Batman, and had the plot not been so drawn out with pseudo-psychological padding, Batman Forever would be a much better movie than it was. Indeed, the first half promised an intriguing change in direction for the series, a lighter tone that blended the campy approach from the 1960’s Batman TV show with the darker, more 1920’s-German look from the two Tim Burton-directed Batman films. When the new, redesigned Batmobile turned and started driving up a building — and, in a later scene, Batman swung down on his Batrope in a descent so long and steep it began to look as if he’d acquired his old friend Superman’s power to fly, and subsequently he survived gas fires and all manner of hazards that would have killed an ordinary human being, it appeared as if Schumacher and the new writing team were taking a cartoon approach to the movie that boded well for it as sheer entertainment, however much it may have been sacrificing Burton’s dark, Gothic vision in the two previous films.

Instead, about midway through, with the introduction of Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) as a police psychiatrist fascinated by Batman, the film made an odd turn into psychological depth and introspection that took a lot of the energy out of it. The writers set up the same old man/woman/superhero romantic triangle we remember from the Superman comics — remember how Clark Kent loved Lois Lane, but she only loved Superman, and even a five-year-old comic book reader could appreciate the irony of this given that Clark Kent and Superman were the same person (uh, being, or whatever)? Well, they did it again; Bruce Wayne loves Dr. Meridian, who only loves Batman — though by the end of the film, having been kissed by both men (I expected her to do a Mae West imitation and say, “A man’s kiss is his signature,” the way West did in My Little Chickadee, but she didn’t — though it would have been appropriate for a movie with so many “in” references, from H. P. Lovecraft and Hitchcock’s Saboteur to Ghostbusters and Superman), she’s figured out Batman’s dual identity.

Indeed, by the end of Batman Forever the fact that Bruce Wayne is Batman has become the worst-kept secret in Gotham City — not only does Dr. Meridian know it, but so does Dick Grayson (of the Flying Graysons, gunned down by Two-Face during a circus robbery — yes, Robin finally appears in the modern Batman series this time around, creating a surprisingly Bisexual ending in which Bruce Wayne/Batman ends up with both a girlfriend and a boyfriend!) and even the two villains — though Two-Face ends up dead and the Riddler totally insane (in a dramatic final scene at “Arkham Asylum,” where he’s visited by Dr. Meridian in the company of the asylum’s attending psychiatrist, “Dr. Burton”). All the psychological heavy breathing — in which, as in the first film, Batman relives, again and again, the murder of his parents that made him determined to be a crime-fighting superhero in the first place — really takes away from the action and makes Batman Forever — still an entertaining movie — a lot less fun than it could have been. — 11/2/95


The fourth film in the current Batman cycle — and the seventh in all (counting the two 1940’s serials for Columbia and the 1967 film with the TV cast — interestingly, though there have been seven Batman films only one actor, Michael Keaton, has ever played the Caped Crusader on the big screen twice) — Batman and Robin opens marvelously, with a highly baroque fight sequence between the Dynamic Duo and Mr. Freeze (played by a top-billed Arnold Schwarzenegger) that doesn’t even try for narrative relevance. All we see is the voice and face of Commissioner Gordon on a TV monitor in the Batmobile ordering Batman and Robin to the museum to fight a new villain called Mr. Freeze — and we’re in for 10 minutes of pure, joyous action that’s the best part of the whole movie, full of leaps, tumbles and dazzling effects that proceed in cheery disregard of the established laws of physics. (The final credits list no fewer than 77 stunt people for this film — I believe it — and also credits John Dykstra, the man who made the spaceships fly in 2001 and Star Wars, as head of the special effects. One can tell.)

From then on, alas, Batman and Robin sags — not as seriously as the last Batman film, Batman Forever, a dreary farrago partially redeemed only by Jim Carrey’s dazzling performance as the Riddler, mainly because it doesn’t take itself so mind-numbingly seriously. But the marvelous mixture of dark background and camp foreground that Tim Burton so beautifully hit in the 1989 Batman that started the current series has consistently eluded the filmmakers since. Akiva Goldsman, the rewriter of Batman Forever, gets sole screenplay credit this time, and perhaps it was his (her?) idea to minimize the “serious” subplots (we get only a few seconds of the young boy Bruce Wayne grieving the death of his parents this time, not the whole leaden flashback that brought Batman Forever to a dead stop for about five minutes). But I couldn’t help wishing that Goldsman and director Joel Schumacher had gone whole hog and done an all-out camp job a la the old TV series with Adam West and Bruce Ward.

As it is, Batman and Robin is good clean comic-book fun whenever the actors are actually in action, dreary and dull when they are in repose — and George Clooney’s Batman is no help. One would think that Clooney, with his more buff physique than either Michael Keaton or Val Kilmer, would have been a good Batman — and if he’d had a campier script he could have been a good Adam West-style Batman — but his military haircut and his wooden voice are all wrong for this conception of the Caped Crusader; and Chris O’Donnell, who was much more interesting in Batman Forever despite the longueurs of its script, this time tries to ape Clooney’s woodenness. The most charming performance in the film is Alicia Silverstone’s as Batgirl (even though we’re supposed to believe she’s Alfred the butler’s grand-niece from England, yet Silverstone doesn’t even make the slightest attempt at a British accent!); and Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy is a close second, though even with her character Goldsman and Schumacher miss some opportunities. She crashes a benefit Bruce Wayne is giving as a trap for Mr. Freeze and does a great dance number to an instrumental version of the old Coasters song, “Poison Ivy” — what else? — yet this scene would have been so much more charming had she sung the song as well!

Add to this Stephen Goldblatt’s overwrought photography — there are scenes in this film (mostly involving Poison Ivy and her artificially enhanced strongman sidekick, Bane) where there is so much color, and it’s so densely packed into the frame without regard to possible clashes, that it almost literally hurts one’s eyes to watch the movie at these points — and Elliot Goldenthal’s serviceable but unmemorable score (Danny “Boingo” Elfman, come back; we miss you!), and we have an all-too-typical example of modern mass entertainment with a few good moments — the kind of movie that, as one recent critic put it, doesn’t so much entertain the audience as bludgeon it into submission. I still love the whole mythos of Batman, but if the lucrative Warners franchise on this character is to continue, they have to make the next film more exuberant, lighter, cheerier, campier and more fun — in other words, lighten up! — 10/25/97


The movie I picked was Batman Begins, the latest (2005) entry in the Warners/DC franchise and the film that was generally acclaimed as the return to form for the series after the much-maligned Batman and Robin (which I actually rather liked, at least early on ), though which both Charles and I found to be a quite decent comic-book movie buried under a lot of pseudo-philosophical padding. It begins in Tibet (“played” by Iceland, by the way), where Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has escaped the rigors of growing up an orphan after her parents were gunned down by a street criminal (a central element in the Batman mythos, but less central in the comic books than in these films: this is the third time in the five Warners Batman films that we’ve seen this event dramatized) only to find himself in an Asian prison, from which he’s bailed out by an agent from the mysterious “League of Shadows” headed by the mysterious Ra’s Al Guhl (Ken Watanabe).

He’s given a blue flower and told to ascend a mountaintop à la Ronald Colman at the end of Lost Horizon (about the last movie I expected to see ripped off in a Batman film!), where he finds a decrepit version of Shangri-La (well, it has been under Chinese occupation for 46 years) and is trained to become a League of Shadows warrior, only to draw back from that rather dubious honor when he’s told that his mission will include the total destruction of Gotham (Batman’s home town is shorn of the “City” that used to be part of its name); it turns out the League has historically taken down every city that was threatening to destroy the rest of civilization with its excesses, including ancient Rome, Constantinople, London (they sent plague-bearing rats thither in the Middle Ages), etc.

Since the director of this film is Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) and Nolan also co-wrote the script with Blade creator David S. Goyer, one can expect a lot of confusing flashbacks and playing with the time sequence, and indeed that occurs. At various points during the first hour of this film we learn that once upon a time the young Bruce Wayne and his childhood girlfriend Rachel Dawes (who grows up to be Katie Holmes, Tom Cruise’s current main squeeze) were playing in the Waynes’ gargantuan yard when Bruce fell down a well and was assaulted by a flock of bats (in a scene that’s an almost exact visual quote of Hitchcock’s The Birds, by the way) — giving him a lifelong phobia of bats that proves fatal to his parents when, in the first act of an opera (I thought it was either Turandot or Otello but according to the credits on it’s a piece based on the Faust legend with a bass as Faust, a soprano as Marguerite and a tenor as Mephistopheles), Bruce sees bat-like shapes descend from the theatre’s ceiling as part of the staging, and makes his parents take him out — thereby unwittingly setting them up for their murder by street robber Joe Chill (Richard Brake).

Chill later becomes an informant for the federal government against Gotham’s crime boss, Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), only to be shot down in the courthouse corridor by one of Falcone’s hit men just as Bruce Wayne was about to dispatch him himself. (This is depicted as taking place in the days before metal detectors and searches became de rigueur in public buildings in general and courthouses in particular; indeed, one of the most annoying aspects of Batman Begins is the general uncertainty as to when it takes place — the attribution of Chill’s crime to Depression-induced desperation suggests the 1930’s, the decade when the Batman character debuted, but the settings, fashions and cars are modern.)

This sets Bruce Wayne off on his wanderjahr and his rendezvous with destiny in the Icelandic version of Tibet, which ends with his presumed annihilation of the League of Shadows — though he preserves the life of his own teacher, Henri Ducard (played by Liam Neeson with full British accent, ignoring the presumably French derivation of his character) — his return to Gotham, his discovery that the CEO of Wayne Enterprises is about to sell the family stock holding and take the company public, and his hooking up with the Wayne family butler Alfred (Michael Caine, in the film’s most delightful performance), and Wayne Enterprises’ resident scientific genius, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, once again an éminence negre lending more weight and gravitas to a fundamentally silly film than it deserves), who manages to channel all the high-tech gadgetry in Wayne Enterprises’ vaults to Bruce Wayne without once suspecting he’s turning it all into Batgear.

As this film unrolls across two hours and 20 minutes of running time (though the last 10 minutes of that doesn’t really count because it’s the closing credit roll) the plot complications pile on: they include the revelation that even Falcone answers to a higher boss than himself; the theft of a microwave water vaporizer from Wayne Enterprises; a corrupt psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Crane (played by Cillian Murphy in a performance that has some of the same demented charm as his work in Breakfast on Pluto); a new hallucinogen that makes people look as if snakes are coming out of their heads and provokes them to fight each other out of fear; and the final revelation that Henri Ducard,the real head of the League of Shadows (ya remember Henri Ducard? Ya remember the League of Shadows? This film is full of Anna Russell moments) is the higher boss of Gotham’s crime syndicate and his plot is to destroy the city by using the microwave gizmo to vaporize Gotham’s water supply, already “spiked” with the hallucinogen, and thereby blow it all into the faces of the city’s entire population.

Batman Begins has flashes of the old camp spirit — notably in the scenes between Bruce Wayne and Alfred — but for the most part, even more than Batman and Robin, it takes itself way too seriously: instead of the annoying strategy of The Mask of Zorro, which camped up the action and took the exposition all too seriously (the Fairbanks/Niblo and Power/Mamoulian Zorro movies had camped up the exposition and taken the action seriously, a much more entertaining way to make a movie), in Batman Begins the exposition and the action basically sit on each other, with hero and villain barking pseudo-philosophical mal mots at each other during the big fisticuff sequences. (I began to miss the splattering of words like “Pow!” and “Zap!” across the screen, and at one point told Charles it made me want to run some of the 1960’s Batman TV shows just to remind myself that once upon a time, Batman was fun.)

Add to that a serviceable but pretty generic score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard that made me miss Danny “Oingo Boingo” Elfman’s contributions to the Tim Burton Batman films that much more, and that Mixmaster editing style in which shots are flashed so fast and cut so seemingly at random it’s hard to tell what’s supposed to be going on or who’s doing what to whom (this accursed style, born of music videos, that’s supposed to be the only way you can make a movie that holds the attention of teenagers), and Batman Begins turns into a sporadically entertaining but surprisingly dull movie whose annoying pretentiousness (like that of Spider-Man 2) may have wowed the critics but leaves me pretty cold. I find myself wanting to say to the suits at Warners what I said about Batman and Robin eight years ago: “make the next film more exuberant, lighter, cheerier, campier and more fun — in other words, lighten up!” — 12/29/05


The Dark Knight is a compelling movie but one that really doesn’t achieve the greatness it was clearly aiming for — and it’s a film that’s sincerely out of whack in its attempt to graft intense moral, social and political meaning onto a story based on an old comic book about a rich guy who fights psychopathic criminals dressed in a bat costume. It’s essentially a nightmare vision of Gotham (Batman’s abode is here shorn of the “City” that was traditionally the second word of its name) beset by dueling crime lords from various foreign countries (Italy, Hong Kong and Chechnya — the last of these villains is identified in the dramatis personae just as “The Chechen”) as well as home-grown psycho The Joker (Heath Ledger),who’s targeting the Mafia by sending his gangs to rob all the banks where the Mafia stashes and launders its money. The Joker also murders all his sidekicks so he won’t have to split the money with them — just like Bela Lugosi’s crime lord in the film Bowery at Midnight — and as with that movie one begins to wonder how he’ll be able to get anyone to work with him once his cavalier (to say the least!) treatment of his associates becomes known throughout the underworld.

On the side of good are Batman (Christian Bale, only the second person to play the Caped Crusader in a film more than once — Michael Keaton, who played Batman in both of Tim Burton’s Batmovies, was the first), his long-suffering butler Alfred (Michael Caine), his R&D chief Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, éminence noire as usual), along with Gotham’s crusading D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhardt, who was the one good thing about the 2006 film The Black Dahlia and equally dominates here); his assistant/girlfriend, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes from the first film), who’s also Bruce Wayne’s es-squeeze (so Heath Ledger ended up making movies with both Gyllenhaals!); and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), who in this version starts out as a police lieutenant commanding a squad of formerly “dirty” cops Dent investigated before as an internal affairs officer for the Gotham Police Department, and doesn’t get to be police commissioner until midway through the movie when the Joker assassinates his predecessor, Gillian Loeb (Colin McFarlane) — a boy named Gillian? — and Gordon gets the nod to replace him.

The part of this movie that rings truest is the sense of Gotham as an environment where law and order have almost totally broken down; criminals knock off city officials with impunity and have so thoroughly penetrated the official police that people who are trying to work within the system, like Gordon and Dent, are virtually powerless because they have no idea who they can trust. I’d have thought this portrayal was exaggerated were it not literally coming true in Mexico — where the police and the government are so honeycombed with agents for the drug cartels that through much of Mexico law enforcement has virtually ceased to exist (it’s one thing when that happens in a place as sufficiently remote as Colombia; it’s quite another when you read about it in Tijuana and realize how quickly and easily the poison could spread to our side of the border).

The film also aspires to be a metaphor for the “War on Terror,” especially when the Joker boasts that he’s been able to demoralize Gotham and virtually bring down its entire city government just with a few sticks of dynamite and some drums of diesel oil — it’s hard to miss the obvious parallel with the 9/11 hijackers and their ability to transform the politics of the United States and send us on a self-destructive course of invading Iraq and trashing our own constitution and laws just with a few box cutters on airplanes. The parallel breaks down, though, with the refusal of writers Christopher Nolan (who also directed), Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer to give the Joker any comprehensible reason, either ideological or financial, for his actions; Michael Caine’s Alfred describes him as “someone who just likes to watch things burn,” which is as close as we’re going to get to this character — at least Osama bin Laden, as maniacal as he is, has an idealistic goal behind his actions, however much his goals (“purifying” the world and re-establishing the Muslim empire from Spain to India on a hard-core fundamentalist path ruled the way the Taliban ruled Afghanistan) are as repulsive as his tactics. The clash between Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox towards the end — Wayne has used one of his high-tech gizmos to turn every cell phone in Gotham into a microphone so he can monitor all conversations throughout the city and eavesdrop on the Joker, and Fox says that if Wayne goes through with such a hard-core mass invasion of people’s privacy he will resign — also has its obvious parallels with the real-life debates of privacy vs. security during the Bush administration (security won, and given Barack Obama’s vote for the NSA spying bill security will probably continue to trump privacy for the foreseeable future in this country).

The Dark Knight is an impressive movie — the visuals are stunning and the use of real cityscapes (Chicago’s, even though “Gotham” was originally a metaphor for New York), though not quite as effective (at least to my sensibilities) as the Ghostbusters-out-of-Caligari painted (or digitally rendered) backdrops of Tim Burton’s two Batman films, works well and blends effectively with the studio work from Britain (with a side trip to Hong Kong for Batman to kidnap a Chinese gangster hiding out there — how they got the Chinese government to greenlight this sequence given how bad it makes them look is a mystery to me!). Where it’s less fun than it could have been — and I’m sorry I’m being a broken record about this in my comments about all the latter-day Batman movies — is in the sheer ponderousness of it all, the fact that the entire movie (even the action!) is taken at a deliberate pace to try to give the impression of Seriousness to the material when it’s really about a cop and a crook in funny costumes chasing each other across a cityscape.

Aaron Eckhart, a favorite of mine, really takes the acting honors; if he seems a bit too stuffily self-righteous as Harvey Dent it’s because the self-righteousness is part of the character, and when (way too late in the picture) he gets caught in the Joker’s trap, half of his face is eaten away and he becomes the villainous Two-Face (though in this reading of the character Two-Face only kills criminals and crooked cops), he acts the part with real authority and makes the character’s bitterness over the death of Rachel Dawes (yes, that’s right, Nolan and company kill off a major returning character from the immediately previous film, Batman Begins!) believable as motivation for his moral turn. Heath Ledger, by contrast, is just completely wrong; whereas Cesar Romero overdid the camp aspects of the character and Jack Nicholson married menace and camp superbly in what probably remains the greatest performance of his career, Ledger is so relentlessly evil, so utterly un-charming and creepy, that he can’t make an effect.

This was quite deliberate on the part of the filmmakers, but it pissed Ledger off; in the New York Times interview he did a month before he died (the same one in which he confessed he couldn’t sleep for more than about an hour or two at a time) he complained that the Joker was the first role he’d ever played in which the character had no redeeming qualities, nothing he could hold on to as an actor and build some depth. I don’t know that much of Ledger’s previous work — the only films of his I’m familiar with are Monster’s Ball and Brokeback Mountain — but I get the impression that he was a very closed-in performer and he was best at playing introverts, which is the exact opposite of what you need for a spectacular extrovert like the Joker. If Ledger gets any awards for this performance, it’ll be as a memorial and a gesture towards what he could have done if he’d lived rather than for any intrinsic quality he showed in this film!

But then the problem with the whole movie is its air of strained seriousness, the ponderousness with which it’s paced (it times out at 2 hours and 33 minutes, at least a half hour too long for its own good) and the sheer nihilism of the ending: the Joker is captured alive (Batman rescues him from a fall off a tall building), Harvey Dent a.k.a. Two-Face is killed, Batman agrees to take the rap for the five murders Dent committed in his Two-Face identity to preserve Dent’s heroic image and make him a martyr for law and order — which means Batman will be an outlaw and all the police in Gotham will try to capture him — Lucius Fox, on his way out the door at Wayne Enterprises, erases the entire computerized network and destroys the company’s whole R&D department; Rachel (the girl both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent loved) is already dead; and the mood is one of hopelessness and despair, not at all how one wants a superhero movie to end nor what one would expect from the most popular movie of the year Obama won the presidency! It also makes me wonder just how on earth even the best screenwriting brains Warner Bros. can hire can come up with the inevitable sequel! — 12/14/08