Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Basketball Fix (Jack Broder/Realart, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran The Basketball Fix, an intriguing 1951 independent “B” from Jack Broder Productions and Realart Pictures (I’d assumed Realart was just a reissue label for Universal but it seems they did some initial releases as well) that listed as a film noir. It really isn’t — it’s not particularly inspired visually (despite the credit to Stanley Cortez as the cinematographer!) and it’s not morally ambiguous either: the good guys are very, very good, the bad guys are very, very bad and the only truly conscience-stricken member of the dramatis personae, high-school basketball star Johnny Long (Marshall Thompson), who as the leading scorer of the State College (state carefully unspecified) team has to wrestle whether to live in poverty and accept not being able to get married or even to buy his kid brother a Christmas present or to accept the bribes from the slimeball gamblers who want him to shave points off State’s winning margins, simply isn’t well enough written or acted for his dilemma to serve as the starting point for noir.

But it’s a well done movie for its budget and its time — the director is Felix E. Feist (best known for two credits that couldn’t be more different: the 1936 musical short Every Sunday with Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin, and the 1953 version of Donovan’s Brain with Lew Ayres and Nancy Davis, later Nancy Reagan) and the writers are Charles K. Peck, Jr. and Peter R. Brooke — and the star is John Ireland as Pete Ferreday (that’s the spelling the filmmakers insisted on when we see his name in print, and since he’s playing a sportswriter we see the character’s name in print quite often), who discovers Johnny Long at a high-school game (all the high-schoolers in this movie look old enough to be in grad school, but that’s a common enough movie failing it doesn’t really matter) and recommends him to State College coach Nat Becker (Walter Sande). Becker is a decent guy whose one addiction is to food — an odd habit for a 1951 movie (his doctors warn him to get off his high-cholesterol diet, but he ignores them, not that Peck and Brooke do much with that as a dramatic issue) — and he has Johnny work with team captain Jed Black (John Sands) to get him to play more stylishly.

The plot has Johnny as the sole breadwinner of his little family; his dad is in a sanitarium, his mom is presumably dead (we don’t hear anything about her but that’s the usual presumption in a 1950’s movie since divorce, outside of deliberately raffish romantic comedies, was hardly ever heard of in films back then no matter how large it may have loomed in the actual married lives of the stars), and he’s supporting not only himself but also his kid brother. During the off season Johnny works as a lifeguard and swimming teacher at the Cresthaven country club, so he gets to observe the lives of the rich just close enough to get a big-time case of status envy and to meet Pat Judd (Vanessa Brown), whom he falls in love with even though she’s pretty ditzy and has the most annoyingly grating voice I’ve heard from a female lead in the movie since the days of Dorothy Lee at RKO in the early 1930’s. Johnny also meets the two people who will ultimately ruin him, gambler Mike Taft (William Bishop) and his girlfriend Lily Courtney (Hazel Brooks). The scenes early on in the high-school locker room offer us some nice shots of shirtless guys (though Johnny himself is pretty scrawny-looking — oddly, he’s about the only person on the basketball team who has the tall, thin physique that’s the current stereotype of what all basketball players look like) and the Cresthaven scenes give us some more beefcake as well as some cheesecake as well — though I found William Bishop and Hazel Brooks considerably sexier than Marshall Thompson and Vanessa Brown (and in Bishop’s case that was largely because he had chest hair — woof!), and indeed it was nice to see the principal villain played by someone genuinely attractive rather than the overweight middle-aged guys with raspy voices who usually got cast in parts like this in 1951.

Anyway, Johnny gets tempted down the primrose path by Mike and Lily — mostly Mike (indeed, some of their scenes together look almost like Gay seductions!) — and at first he resists, but his inability to afford either to take Pat on dates at swanky nightclubs (well, as swanky as Jack Broder’s production budget could afford, anyway) or to buy his little brother a toy for Christmas ultimately leads him to take Mike’s dirty money. (So does the fact that team captain Jed is already on Mike’s payroll.) Johnny’s undoing comes when he gets $1,000 worth of Mike’s dirty money together to buy Pat an engagement ring; he tells the jeweler (Lester Sharp) to have it engraved “J. L. to P. J.” but then suddenly decides to give his name as “Walker,” and the jeweler recognizes him and reports him to the police — who immediately start an investigation based on nothing more (or less) than the suspicion of a (presumably) amateur college athlete coming into the store with enough money to pay cash for a $1,000 ring. (All this suggests that Johnny would have escaped unscathed if he’d merely had the wit to think up an alias beginning with the same last initial as his real name.)

Johnny goes along with the point-shaving scheme for a while but then has an attack of conscience and gives it up — and Mike, who in his smarmiest moment in the film has warned Johnny, “I’m not a man of violence; don’t make me become one,” sends two goons to beat up Johnny on the eve of the national championship game. (The idea that the national basketball championship is determined by just one game itself dates this movie big-time! So does the fact that all the basketball players we see are white.) Hounded by Ferreday’s suspicions that he’s taking bribes and shaving points, Johnny is determined to play the championship game all-out, but when he sees the seat he saved for Pat empty, he assumes that the baddies have kidnapped her and will harm her if he doesn’t keep the point spread down — so State ekes out a five-point victory and it turns out, in the most legitimately surprising aspect of the script, that Pat had been taken not by the bad guys but by the cops: they were grilling her to get the last piece of evidence they needed to bust Johnny and Mike, and in the fashion that’s become standard on the Law and Order TV shows, Johnny is actually pulled off the court while the game is still going on and put in handcuffs in front of everybody.

The Basketball Fix isn’t a particularly good movie — though it’s at least entertaining and holds the interest through the workings of its all too predictable plot — but it’s almost astonishingly prescient; in a town where members of a major college basketball team (the University of San Diego’s) have recently been arrested on strikingly similar charges it’s almost impossible to miss the parallel, and the fictitious Pete Ferreday has had plenty of real-life counterparts in and around the sports world who have made the same demand that the sponsors of so-called “amateur” college sports drop the pretense and allow colleges to pay the players openly and thereby share some of the revenue high-level college athletics bring the schools with the people the ticket buyers pay to see. Just as the cycle of college-football exposé movies in the early 1930’s (serious ones like College Coach, The Big Game and Saturday’s Heroes as well as the Marx Brothers’ spoof Horse Feathers, which took the same real-life scandals as a premise for the Marxes’ zany comedy) seem all too relevant today as major schools like USC are found to have violated the Byzantine “recruiting rules” in getting the star players they needed for championship-contending teams, The Basketball Fix seems all too current even though one gets the impression that the way to end point-shaving would be to run bets on team sports the way horse-racing bets are run — in which your horse actually has to win, place or show for your bet to come in and the odds rankings determine how much you make on your bet rather than how many seconds your horse has to win, place or show by to pay off.

Friday, April 29, 2011

I Love Trouble (Cornell/Columbia, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I watched a movie we’d downloaded from called I Love Trouble, a really strange film that was the worst-quality item we’d ever got from the Internet: in addition to the splices (and resultant missing footage) we’re used to from public-domain items, there were portions in which the screen went all wavy and blurry, portions in which it blacked out altogether, and beginning about midway through the movie the picture and sound got inexplicably out of synchronization, with the soundtrack running ahead and the picture vainly trying to catch up with it, producing some hilarious results in which the men started speaking with the women’s voices and vice versa — the sort of thing that happened in the early days of Vitaphone when the sound was on a separate record (and a splice in the film or a scratch on the record could spell disaster) and was hilariously spoofed in Singin’ in the Rain but which one thought was relegated to history once sound-on-film replaced the sound-on-disc Vitaphone process.

It’s a pity because I Love Trouble comes across as a potentially good (if not great) film noir, in which private detective Stuart Bailey (Franchot Tone — the same character was later played by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. in the 1958 film Girl on the Run and the subsequent TV show 77 Sunset Strip) is hired by a rich man to find the wife he married seven months earlier, who has now disappeared. The film was produced and directed by S. Sylvan Simon — not exactly the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of noir directors, but his work is surprisingly atmospheric and I especially liked his technique of showing phone conversations: an inset photo of the person the caller is talking to shows up on screen but as either a diagonal split-screen or just a ghostly image in one corner, rather than the straight-line split usually used to show both participants in a phone call — from a script by Roy Huggins, who’s probably best known today as the creator of the TV series The Fugitive, based on a novel he wrote called The Double Take.

The gimmick is that the wife, Jane Breeger (Janis Carter), is hiding in plain sight; Bailey spends a lot of time in Portland, where she was from, tracing her movements to L.A. — she’d been a stripper in Portland and when the authorities closed the club at which she worked, she moved to L.A. with comedian Buster Buffin (Sid Tomack) and they opened a club together, only he gets murdered and so do a lot of other people who once crossed her path, mainly because in the meantime she’s married yet another man, John Vega Caprillo (Eduardo Ciannelli), under yet another identity, and like Velma in Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely she’s systematically eliminating anyone who could link her to her sordid past. At least that’s what I think this movie is about; watching it under such wretched conditions made Huggins’ already confusing plot line — this story is so convoluted The Big Sleep looks like a model of narrative clarity by comparison — almost totally incomprehensible.

The direction is surprisingly good for someone with as hacky a reputation as Simon, and though Tone isn’t in the Bogart/Powell/Mitchum/Ladd league as a noir hero he’s a lot better than a number of other actors who tried it at the height of the cycle, and he gets better as the movie goes on and his superficial demeanor in the opening scenes gets more (and more appropriately) serious. I’d like a chance to see this under better circumstances, and it’s frustrating to know that a much better print exists — Columbia Pictures, which co-produced this with an independent company called Cornell, struck a new one for the 2007 Noir City 5 film noir festival in San Francisco and it was shown there to great acclaim; one commentator on wrote enthusiastically, “This is a must-see for any film noir aficionado. Alas, it’s not yet on DVD and was never on VHS; if you see it coming on cable, Tivo it, tape it, miss work, skip your vacation, stand up your date, do what it takes as long as you DON’T MISS THIS GEM.” Just don’t watch it on this crappy download that utterly fails to do justice to this interesting, if not necessarily gemlike, film!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Rabbit Hole (Olympus Pictures, Blossom Films, Oddlot Entertainment, Lionsgate, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Rabbit Hole, a 2010 Lionsgate (the studio is now spelling it as just one word!) release of a production by Olympus Pictures, Blossom Films (the production company owned by its star, Nicole Kidman) and Oddlot Entertainment, directed by John Cameron Mitchell based on a stage play by David Lindsay-Abaire about the effect on an ordinary suburban couple, Becca (Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) Corbett, when their four-year-old son Danny (not seen as a living character in the film but shown in a flashback — a video of him on Howie’s cell phone — and played therein by Phoenix List) is run over and killed by a teenage driver, Jason (Miles Teller). Danny’s death has occurred well before the movie begins but the focus is on the effects of it, and though the overall mood of the piece is pretty somber (throughout much of it I kept thinking of my joke about Kidman’s previous film The Hours — “Wow, suicide! Cancer! AIDS! The feel-bad movie of the year!”) there are some quite nice, if rather nervous, jokes during the show.

The parents have virtually turned their house into a shrine to Danny — until one day when Becca gets tired of seeing Danny’s childhood paintings wherever she goes and rips them off the walls, boxing them and putting them in her basement because she can’t bear to throw them away. Complications ensue when Becca’s scapegrace sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) gets pregnant by her new boyfriend, a racially ambiguous musician named Auggie (Giancarlo Esposito), and at one point Becca decides to give her sister all Danny’s old clothes until Izzy says that even if her baby is a boy (at this point she doesn’t know) it would still seem weird to her for him to be walking around wearing his dead cousin’s wardrobe. Also involved is Becca’s and Izzy’s mother Nat (Dianne Wiest) and a grief counseling group which Becca and Howie attend until they get tired of hearing the same sad stories from the same sad people every week. Becca drops out of the group but Howie stays a bit longer and befriends another member, Gaby (Sandra Oh), whose husband breaks up with her and with whom Howie is sorely tempted to have an affair, especially after they start sitting in Gaby’s car and smoking marijuana to keep themselves sane during the dreary grief meetings — leading to the film’s most bizarre moment, in which they helplessly launch into a stoned giggle right when one of the most self-dramatizing and self-aggrandizing men in the group thunders out that of course he’s feeling rage — “My daughter died of leukemia!”

The plot thickens still further when Becca sees Jason on the school bus — at this time we don’t know who he is and we’re wondering if she’s attracted to him because she thinks he looks like what her son would have if he’d lived to be Jason’s age, but later on it turns out she’s well aware who Jason is, and she starts following the school bus that takes him home, learns where he lives, and ultimately starts meeting with him in a park and confronting him, finally letting down her own defenses, accepting his apology and building a quirky friendship with the young man. He gives her a homemade comic book he’s written and drawn, Rabbit Hole, about parallel universes (he recommends a book on the subject to her), and when she asks if one of the time-traveling characters in his fantasy is supposed to represent his father, he gets defensive and says, “No, it’s just a story.” (Like hell it’s “just a story”!)

Rabbit Hole has one weakness — throughout much of it the Kidman and Eckhart characters respond to the lingering trauma of their son’s death by becoming excessively obnoxious, and while we “get” the dramatic significance, it also makes much of the movie actively unpleasant to watch (the low point is when Becca confronts a woman in a supermarket — her son is with her, pleading to be allowed to buy a fruit wrap, and when she says no Becca butts in and says she should let the boy have it; the woman defensively says, “We don’t allow candy in our home, and he knows that,” and Becca slaps her) — but it’s not only serious in intent but a lot of it is profoundly moving, and in a story that could have become ripe from the treacly sentimentalism with which Hollywood usually does dead or dying children, director Mitchell (who responded personally to the subject matter because when he was 14, he lost his 10-year-old brother to heart disease) and writer Lindsay-Abaire deliberately play the story for raw emotion instead of tear-jerking, and resolve a virtually unresolvable plot line with a genuinely powerful ending. It’s nice to see Nicole Kidman back on form in a role like this and even nicer to see Aaron Eckhart in a film this good instead of turning in good performances in otherwise awful movies like The Black Dahlia and The Dark Knight.

The Godless Girl (DeMille, Producers' Distributing Corporation, Pathé, 1928)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I got home from the library showing of Rabbit Hole around quarter to 9 and had time to watch another movie, a rather different one: The Godless Girl, a Cecil B. DeMille production from 1928 (though it wasn’t released until the following year) and his last silent film, which TCM showed as part of their Easter salute to religion in general (and Christianity in particular) on film. The story of The Godless Girl really begins in 1925, when DeMille had a falling out with his employers, Adolph Zukor and Jesse Lasky of the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (later known by the name of its distribution arm, Paramount Pictures), and having already helped build one major studio DeMille thought he could do it again. So he looked around for financial backing and ultimately started a company called Producers’ Distributing Corporation (PDC), for which he intended to direct major films himself and also to make smaller-scale productions he would produce and other people would direct.

Alas, things went poorly for PDC when DeMille’s second film for them as director, The Volga Boatman, flopped, and his backers insisted on merging the company with Pathé — whose parent corporation in France was a well-established major studio but whose American branch was considered a cheap, low-budget studio whose only major star was Harold Lloyd (and even he only used Pathé as a distributor; he owned his own studio and produced his films himself). DeMille protested but his backers held firm, and the PDC/Pathé merger went through just in time for the bean-counters at Pathé to get their hands on DeMille’s next film, The King of Kings (1927), a biopic of Jesus (based, all too loosely, on the Gospels) and a blockbuster hit. In the enviable position of coming off a super-success and thereby being able to make any sort of film he wanted, DeMille commissioned his favorite writer, Jeanie MacPherson, to come up with a wild tale that in a way serves as a modern pendant to The King of Kings the way the second, contemporary-set half of the DeMille silent The Ten Commandments (1923, and to mind a far better movie than its all-Biblical 1956 remake) served as a pendant to the Biblical story. (Gloria Swanson noted in her autobiography that many of DeMille’s films, even ones with contemporary settings, frequently flashed back to earlier historical periods with the same stars playing previous incarnations of their modern-day characters; she said DeMille did those scenes because he actually believed in reincarnation.)

The Godless Girl begins with a couple of hysterical titles by MacPherson and Beulah Marie Dix: “It is not generally known that there are Atheist Societies using the schools of the country as their battle-ground — attacking, through the Youth of the Nation, the beliefs that are sacred to most of the people. … And no fanatics are so bitter as youthful fanatics.” Then the film starts and we see one of these societies, headed by Judy Craig (Lina Basquette), at work in one high school, where one member sneaks its leaflets into students’ lockers and the school principal (William Humphrey) speaks to a class, announcing that blasphemy is a crime, that the people printing and distributing the leaflets are liable to imprisonment, and that every student who has one of those leaflets should hand it over to him immediately. The student-body president, Bob Hathaway (George Duryea, later known as Western star Tom Keene), a member of a believing family who’s both in love with Judy and is trying to win her for religious belief, tells the principal that he and the other (believing) students will handle things their own way. The principal tells them to go ahead but warns them, “No violence” — a warning the angry students predictably ignore as they crash a meeting of the Atheist Society which Judy is chairing.

They bring rotten eggs and other foodstuffs to throw at the atheists — who give as good as they get in a sequence that’s supposed to be high-tension drama but looks at this date more like the food fight in Animal House — and the confrontation escalates until a railing on the second-floor hallway (the atheists’ meeting room was on the second floor of a walk-up building) gives way and one of the atheist students (Mary Jane Irving) falls to her death. As she expires her face is transfigured with bright lights (courtesy of cinematographer J. Peverell Marley — who’s in superb form throughout this film, aided by the fact that we’re watching DeMille’s own personal print and it’s in excellent shape) and she says that she can’t believe this is the end; she insists there must be something beyond this life. Judy, Bob and Bob’s friend Samuel “Bozo” Johnson (Eddie Quillan), the comic-relief character, are all convicted of manslaughter and put into a reformatory — and the film, as risible as much of its sermonizing has been to this point (though to this hardened atheist, at least, at this point the atheists have come across a lot better than the believers: the atheists are the ones who are holding peaceful meetings — including a lemur they put on display as a demonstration of evolution, no doubt a powerful image in a film made just three years after the Scopes trial — while it’s the believers who have used both the threat of law enforcement and physical violence to shut the atheists up), acquires overwhelming power and force.

Much of the remaining hour and a half looks like a beta version of all those tense, exciting prison dramas Warners cranked out by the yard in the 1930’s — and DeMille’s directorial skills, which actually seem to have deteriorated over his long career, are on display and quite impressive. (The death of the woman in the meeting hall is represented by a still shocking subjective camera shot from her point of view.) The reformatory is literally hell on earth, and DeMille’s reactionary sermonizing is mostly held in abeyance and his dramatic skills are shown at full force — and for someone with such a Right-wing reputation as DeMille, his attitude towards penology is quite progressive; our sympathies are kept with the put-upon inmates and the villains of the piece are the authority figures, particularly the head guard (Clarence Burton) of the male wing of the reformatory, who turns a fire hose full-blast on Bob for some trivial infraction of the rules. Judy isn’t having a much better time of it on the female side, though she befriends another inmate, Mame (Marie Prevost), even while pushing away the Bible Mame offers her. Mame starts the film wearing the “Honor” armband of a trusty and telling us she worked three years to earn it — only to lose it when she tells a matron that the Bible fell to the floor accidentally and Judy says no, she knocked it to the ground deliberately, and the matron penalizes Mame for being willing to lie for a fellow inmate.

What makes this sequence significant is that just before Judy knocked the Bible out of her hand, Mame had it open to a New Testament passage in which Jesus is talking about loving one another — and Judy’s hard atheistic heart is softened not by threats of violence or punishment, but by her first experience of religion as something compassionate and humanistic. For someone with DeMille’s reputation as an Old Testament moralist, these bits of ecumenism — here and again in my favorite DeMille talkie, The Crusades, with its astonishingly sympathetic portrayal of Islam and his refusal to turn the story of the Crusades into the “Christians good, Muslims bad” parable one would have expected from that director and that time (1935) — are amazing and reveal a filmmaker who was capable of subtlety and sophistication even though he didn’t often show it (at least partly because he was also a hard-headed commercial artist who noticed that the more morally and cinematically simple his films were, the better they did at the box office).

Eventually Judy and Bob meet again on either side of an electrified fence — they press their hands against each other’s through the fence and just at that moment the sadistic head guard turns the current on, leaving crosses burned on Judy’s palms in an odd high-tech version of the stigmata — and finally they escape and hide out in a hayfield, in sequences that almost certainly inspired later filmmakers like Mervyn LeRoy (in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) and Frank Capra (in It Happened One Night), only they’re recaptured and put in solitary confinement. Just then the head guard causes an accident that sets fire to the reformatory — DeMille, whose mania for realism sometimes approached Erich von Stroheim’s, built a full-scale set of a reformatory, deliberately burned it down and refused to allow his actors to use stunt doubles (his assistant, Mitchell Leisen — who later became a director in his own right — designed fireproof asbestos undergarments for the actors, but even with that protection some of them were burned for real, and Lina Basquette complained in later years that her eyelids had been singed and never grew back properly) — and it’s touch and go as to whether Bob will be able to get out in time himself, rescue Judy and save that sadistic head guard (whom he’s ready to let die, until Judy convinces him the decent thing to do is to rescue him if they can); they pull the guard out of the fire, and though they’re too late to save him, with his dying breath he recommends that they be pardoned, and so they are, with Bob paired off with Judy and his comic-relief friend Bozo paired off with Mame.

The Godless Girl was filmed during the last gasp of the silent-film era, and when DeMille turned in his director’s cut to his new bosses at Pathé — who were in the middle of yet another merger, with the Radio Corporation of America’s new movie studio, RKO (a merger that accelerated when a real-life fire broke out on the set of a Pathé musical being filmed in New York and 11 people were killed — still the highest death toll of any accident during the actual shooting of a film — and all of a sudden the Pathé brand was box-office poison for reasons other than the quality, or lack of same, of their films) — they decided no one would want to see a silent film anymore. DeMille had already left the company — he had signed a three-film deal as an independent producer-director with MGM, to disappointing commercial results, and after it ran out in 1931 DeMille went hat in hand to Paramount, got a budget to make the historical spectacular The Sign of the Cross, had another huge hit and stayed at Paramount for the rest of his career — so the two talking sequences for the end of the movie were directed by Fritz Feld, normally a character actor (one of whose appearances was playing a director — a broad caricature of von Stroheim — in the 1937 film Stand-In), and the movie went out in a version DeMille disowned and was a commercial failure.

Interestingly, Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne seemed unaware of which version his employers were showing; he mentioned the sound sequences in his introduction (though he didn’t say that DeMille didn’t direct them!), but the actual print was DeMille’s all-silent director’s cut, taken from DeMille’s own vaults, with a musical score by Carl Davis, recorded in modern sound quality — which worked pretty well for the film, except for the rather cornball Paul Whiteman-style jazz he concocted for the scenes involving Quillan’s character; the gong sound effects he contributed over DeMille’s titles telling how gongs were used to run the inmates’ lives are especially chilling. The Godless Girl is a surprisingly good movie — fast-paced, consistently exciting and dramatic (except when it gets preachy, which fortunately isn’t too much after the first half-hour), and while it doesn’t seriously engage the debate over whether or not God exists (but then again, why would one — in 1928 or today — have expected it to?), it’s a good deal better than its reputation and shows what a great director Cecil B. DeMille could be (and why so many later filmmakers cited him as an influence) when he wasn’t making empty-headed historical spectacles and letting his enormous sets and thousands of extras direct his movies for him.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Like Mother, Like Daughter (Lifetime, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was something I’d recorded off the Lifetime channel, Like Mother, Like Daughter, though it wasn’t quite what I expected from the title. What I thought we’d be getting was a Lolita-esque story of a single mom and her teenage daughter both after the same man, but what the film — written by Lifetime’s greatest auteur, Christine Conradt, from an “idea” by one Nikea Gamby-Turner, and directed in workmanlike (and sometimes better than that) fashion by Robert Malenfant — is really about is a psychotic anthropology professor, John Collins (William R. Moses), who has a penchant for seducing his students (which already makes him enough of a slimeball right there!) and then knocking them off. Mom is Dawna (Michelle Stafford, top-billed, who manages to come off as attractive and even rather sexy even though she also looks old enough to be the mother of a college-age daughter), who runs a museum (a bit of futuristic Gehry-esque architecture that is apparently really the Canadian Museum of Civilization) and first encountered Collins when she needed an expert to authenticate some Inca (or allegedly Inca) objets d’art that had been donated to her museum.

Daughter is Emily (played by Danielle Kind as a precocious prick-tease with a penchant for blue denim mini-skirts and low-cut tops that show off a pair of small but well-formed and appealing breasts), who asks mom for a favor: she needs to get into a social-studies class to fulfill a college requirement and she left it too late to register for one through normal channels. Dawna calls John, who’s as nice as he can be as he bids her enroll Emily in his class on the Incas, which will fulfill the requirement — and as soon as Emily shows up for her first day he instantly falls in lust with her and ends up actually starting an affair, meeting at clandestine places on the campus and ultimately inviting her to his home for dinner even while swearing her to absolute secrecy because of the potentially negative consequences to his career if he’s caught doing it with a student. (I couldn’t help but flash back to The Wild Party, the 1929 film that was Clara Bow’s first talkie, in which she was a college student who sets out to seduce her anthropology professor, played by Fredric March in his first film, and not only succeeds but ends up marrying him and going off on an expedition with him at the end — my, how times have changed! In 1929 we were clearly meant to read this as a happy ending!)

Alas, the night Emily visits the professor at his home she spills a wine glass on his irreplaceable handwritten notes for an upcoming presentation at a conference (for a film made in 2007 it seems wildly anachronistic that he wouldn’t have these all-important notes on his computer — it would have made more sense for her to sneak onto his computer to check her e-mail or something and accidentally erase them, costing him valuable information he hadn’t yet backed up) and thereby costs him one month’s worth of work — and he responds by killing her in a fit of anger, then driving out to a secluded spot in the woods and burying her body. Unfortunately for him, he made the mistake of burying her cell phone with her, and thereby once the 24-hour mandatory waiting period for a missing person’s report is up and Dawna can involve the police, they use the tracking feature on the phone to find her corpse almost immediately. Fortunately for John, the police have another suspect: Keith, the boyfriend Emily dumped as soon as she met John and they mutually seduced each other, who’s a bartender and aspiring rock musician but whom Emily resented because he wasn’t either very intellectual or very ambitious. John eliminates Keith by buying him a drink and spiking it with an overdose of a drug — a plausible way to kill him because he had a prison record for drug offenses — then plants the keys to Emily’s apartment on Keith’s body.

The cops assume Keith killed Emily and drop the case, but Dawna gets suspicious and finally traces John’s background via the Internet and found that once before he was implicated in the death of a student, Francesca (dead well before the film begins but seen in an hallucinatory memory sequence that is supposed to represent John’s mental flashback, and played therein by Mercedes Papalia), who disappeared on a field trip to Peru; the Peruvian police bobbled the investigation and never made a case, but Dawna (that’s how the name is spelled on the film’s page, though as I watched it I assumed the actors were pronouncing the much more common name “Donna”) becomes convinced that John murdered both Francesca and Emily — even though she’s also seeing a lot of John in hopes that he can help lead her to her daughter’s killer (sort of like Phantom Lady and all the other classic noirs in which the man the heroine leads on to find the killer is himself the killer she’s looking for).

Eventually there’s a typically melodramatic Christine Conradt climax set at John’s home, in which he catches on that she’s on to him (she’s been in his bedroom looking for the autographed soccer jerseys Francesca gave him, which will prove that he knew her and therefore he probably killed her and Emily, too) and threatens her with one of those weird ax-like kitchen utensils with which you pound meat to make it tenderer, while she grabs one of the kitchen knives and holds it behind her back to be ready to defend herself, and John’s friend David comes over with two bottles of expensive Chilean wine intending to share it with the other two and witnesses Dawna stab John and kill him — though apparently both he and the police buy her self-defense claim because there’s a tag scene, “three months later,” of her opening the new wing of her museum and a male official congratulating her for getting the project done despite “everything you went through this year.” Even for a Christine Conradt script, Like Mother, Like Daughter is melodramatic as all hell, and yet it’s good clean dirty trash, Lifetime at its most competent if not necessarily at its best.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Abandoned (Hybrid Entertainment, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Lifetime film I watched this morning was Abandoned, the next-to-last production of the late actress Brittany Murphy — who I must admit was totally off my radar screen until she croaked — and it apparently had a theatrical release in 2010 (she died on December 20, 2009 at age 32 of pneumonia, anemia and drug intoxication, and her husband Simon Monjack died just five months later, also shockingly young — 39) since the page for it listed a motion picture association rating. It’s actually quite a good movie, a nail-biting suspense tale about Mary Walsh (Brittany Murphy), an executive with the Empyrean International Bank who’s had far better luck with her career than with men. As the film begins she’s been dating Kevin Peterson (Dean Cain) for four months even though she has only the dimmest idea of his family background or what he does for a living (he’s told her he’s in insurance and works out of his home).

He’s wearing a leg brace because he’s been injured while hiking, and as the film begins … well, as the film really begins Our Heroine is in mortal peril in a parking garage, with a car filled with people with guns chasing her with murderous intent, but then there’s a title that reads, “Nine hours earlier … ,” and we find that nine hours earlier she was driving Kevin to a hospital to have his leg operated on by an orthopedic surgeon. He’s checked in by a nurse who introduces herself as Amanda (America Young) and tells Mary that the operation will take about an hour. Mary is sent off to wait in the lobby, and while there she meets a quirky old man named Cooper (Tim Thomerson) who says he’s there to visit his wife, who’s suffering from breast cancer and scheduled to receive chemo.

Mary waits for two hours and gets worried because she hasn’t been called yet — so she starts approaching the hospital personnel and finds that there’s no record of a Kevin Peterson being admitted for surgery (or any other reason); that no nurse named Amanda is on staff; that the hospital was about to close down for remodeling and therefore there weren’t scheduling any operations; and the doctor who was supposed to perform the surgery, Dr. Harding, is real enough but is out on vacation. She makes herself obnoxious chasing various wild geese through the hospital corridors, and at one point she drops a bottle containing a powerful anti-depressant drug she’s been prescribed, which leads the hospital’s chief of staff, Victoria Markham (Mimi Rogers), to think she’s crazy and refer her to the head psychiatrist, Dr. Markus Bensley (Peter Bogdanovich in an appropriately smarmy cameo).

A police detective, Franklin (Jay Pickett), who was at the hospital for his own issues (he’d been reassigned to a desk job after his partner was killed in the line of duty and he was told to avoid stress, and in all of this his wife decided to leave him because she could no longer stand being married to a cop), gets involved and at first he’s convinced that Mary is crazy — but he changes his mind when he looks through the book she brought along to read, a novel called Abandoned which is inscribed to Mary from Kevin. Meanwhile, Mary gets a cell-phone call from Kevin, who tells her he’s been kidnapped — and then she’s contacted by Cooper, who says he’s holding Kevin and will kill him unless Mary electronically embezzles $10 million from her bank and wires it to his account in the Cayman Islands. (He gets a lot of self-justifying dialogue about how Mary’s employers got $2 billion in bailout money from the government and paid themselves enormous bonuses with it while their customers lost money and got foreclosed on.)

Mary tries to comply but can’t get a wi-fi signal on her laptop, so she has to find one of the hospital’s computers that is already logged on (since she doesn’t know the hospital’s passwords and isn’t a good enough hacker to get on without them) — which she does in Victoria Markham’s office — only when she shows up to receive Kevin in exchange for the money, she finds (in a reversal that won’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s seen more than two movies in his or her life) that Kevin is part of the plot; that Amanda, the “nurse” that checked him in, is also part of the plot as well as his real girlfriend; and that another member of the gang, John Holloway (Scott Anthony Leek), has been impersonating a hospital security person and is supposed to kill Mary as soon as the wire transfer goes through — which it hasn’t yet because she needs to send e-mail confirmation via her smart phone, and Holloway bungles the job and gets killed instead, giving Mary time to reverse the transfer and giving the gang new impetus to let her live.

The final confrontation takes place on a catwalk in the older part of the hospital building — one that wasn’t in use because that was the part they were going to remodel — and Mary shoots Cooper with Holloway’s gun (she failed to pick it up the first time she knocked him out but did get it the second time) and is then confronted by Kevin, who gives him a sex-reversed version of the usual last-ditch appeal by the femme fatale to the guy she’s screwed over, pleading with her to go off with him so they can double-cross the rest of the gang and keep the $10 million for themselves — only she refuses and Kevin tries to kill Mary but she’s saved in the nick of time when detective Franklin returns with a police back-up squad and shoots him dead. Later it turns out that the novel Abandoned was the key to the whole plot because its final chapter described a crime similar to the one Kevin and his associates actually tried to pull, including finding a woman in a major position with a bank who had a history of depression and could be seduced (in more ways than one) into embezzling to ransom a supposed “boyfriend” from a fake “kidnapping.”

Abandoned isn’t a great movie but it’s quite a good one; director Michael Feifer stages much of it without dialogue, composer Andres Boulton contributes a tension-building electronic score, the script by Peter Sullivan (based on a story by him and Jeffrey Schenck) is tight-knit and the reversals are at least within the realm of cinematic possibility (if not necessarily real-life credibility) — and while it’s grimly ironic, to say the least, that the central character who evades a life-threatening situation is being played by an actress who didn’t live long enough to see the film completed and in release (the final credits have a dedication to her memory), Brittany Murphy turns in an excellent performance and she’s well matched by Dean Cain (who’s considerably hotter than most of the guys Lifetime itself casts in these roles) and especially by Jay Pickett as the cop (indeed, I was rather hoping he and the heroine would get together at the end à la Hitchcock’s Blackmail and Shadow of a Doubt, but instead Sullivan drops a line of dialogue indicating that he’s going to reconcile with his wife — darn!) and Tim Thomerson, who does a marvelous transition from avuncular charmer to criminal mastermind.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Blind Adventure (RKO, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Blind Adventure, a 1933 RKO “B” starring Robert Armstrong and Helen Mack in a film produced by Merian C. Cooper (then production head at RKO), directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack (his long-time producing partner and co-director of King Kong) and written by Schoedsack’s wife, Ruth Rose. So it involved all the key personnel of the sequel, Son of Kong, and was filmed in the summer of 1933, between King Kong and Son of Kong — though there aren’t any horrific or fantastic elements in it. It’s a fish-out-of-water tale of an American oil baron, Richard Bruce (Robert Armstrong), who decides to take a vacation in London and arrives just in time to experience a “real pea-souper,” one of the great fogs that, if you believed American movies of the period, was what English weather was like all the time. (Charles, who’s actually been to London, said that while the place is still prone to fog, the “pea-soupers” as depicted here are things of the past; with fewer coal-burning factories and power plants, and pollution controls, the air there just doesn’t get that dark anymore.)

Richard chats up Elsie (Beryl Mercer), the maid in his room — who’s astonished at his informality — just to have someone to talk to. He goes to the dining room of his hotel and finds that everyone else there is in full evening dress and resents it every time he does anything that makes the slightest bit of noise — he even gets raised eyebrows when he orders his meal, and ends up whispering or pointing at the menu to order, and having his meal changed to room service. (The same gag was done earlier in the 1929 Bulldog Drummond and later in the 1935 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Top Hat.) Richard goes out for a walk and gets so lost in the fog that instead of re-entering his hotel, he walks into a house whose door happens to be unlocked — and he sees a body with a bullet hole in its head sitting in a chair in the living room. He goes out to report it to the nearest police officer, but when he returns to the house with the cop, there is no dead body and instead there are a number of live ones, including Major Thorne (Henry Stephenson), his wife and his niece Rose (Helen Mack).

Richard is convinced he’s in the wrong house — until he sees the dreadful tapestry on the wall he saw just before he found the body — and later the supposed “corpse,” Jim Steele (Ralph Bellamy), turns up alive and tells Richard and Rose that the couple who are supposedly her uncle and aunt are actually impostors (she’s grown up in Canada so she’s never actually met these people before), and that he’s a Secret Service agent who needs them to deliver a cigarette case to his headquarters. Only it turns out, in the one reversal Ruth Rose indulges herself in (as opposed to the multiple ones that modern filmmakers like Tony Gilroy throw at us), that Major Thorne really is Rose’s uncle; that Steele is a crook; and that Steele is working with another criminal named Regan (John Miljan) to blackmail Major Thorne into giving him the secret for a new gun through letters the Major wrote which sounded like he was already turning traitor even though he was innocent. With the Thornes’ butler in on the plot, Richard and Rose have to escape by climbing across the roofs of several houses, and on their way they meet a sympathetic burglar (Roland Young) who helps them break into a house where the rather dotty Lady Rockingham (Laura Hope Crews) is throwing a major party. (At one point they jokingly refer to themselves as Watson and their burglar friend as Holmes — and he tells them his name really is Holmes.)

They hang out at the party and Richard gets into a conversation with one of the guests about his hobby, which Richard pretends to share even though he has no idea what it is (a close relative of the mock campaign speech made by the hero of The Thirty-Nine Steps, one of the few incidents from John Buchan’s novel Alfred Hitchcock retained in his 1935 film), all so that Holmes can put on the man’s clothes and escape from the party along with Richard and Rose. The film moves smartly along to the expected final confrontation at Regan’s home, where the fear of discovery forces the crooks to move to their alternate hideout, only Our Heroes hold them off long enough for the police to be alerted and arrest them. Blind Adventure is one of those little gems of the studio years, not a great movie but one made with a real élan and flair that makes it genuinely entertaining and several cuts above the routine; indeed, it’s reminiscent of the light thrillers Alfred Hitchcock would start making the following year with the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, and while less is made of the fish-out-of-water aspects of the tale than one might expect (all hints of culture clash seem to go by the wayside once the MacGuffin is introduced), it’s a fun movie that manages at once to be a good thriller and enjoyable as camp.

Piccadilly Pickups (Millivres Multimedia, 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Unfortunately, the movie Charles and I watched Tuesday night, Piccadilly Pickups, was one of the worst we’ve seen in some time, an attempt at Gay sexploitation that failed on all counts — as drama, as satire and as erotica. I had bought this DVD at the Auntie Helen’s thrift shop along with Get a Life, an independent Gay production from Chicago that had been shot on video and bore the tackiness of a limited budget but, within those limitations, was a quite nicely done bit of satire on Queer male life that offered real poignancy and pathos as well as the campiness that seems to be the default setting for most Gay humor. Alas, this movie wasn't anywhere near as good!

The advertising copy on the DVD box for Piccadilly Pickups actually promised a pretty good movie: “Jake’s exams didn’t go too well, and it’s time to leave home. He heads for Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens to earn money for a trip to the bright lights of London’s Piccadilly Circus, where the living’s easy as a rent boy … but where are the punters [customers]? Money’s tight — but to the rescue comes [porn director] Henri de la Plus Oooh Arrgh” (played by American Transgender actress Alexis Arquette, sister of Rosanna, Patricia, Richmond and David Arquette — though Alexis didn’t complete her transition until 2006 and therefore she was still technically a male when she made this film). The blurb promised a nicely picaresque entertainment, a sort of Gay male version of Tom Jones or Fanny Hill in which the hayseed from the country would lose his innocence and ultimately find joy in his own sexuality.

No such luck; instead writer/director Amory Peart, who apparently graduated — so to speak — from actually making Gay porn to making this movie about Gay porn, made Henri (whose name seems to be a parody on the real-life American Gay porn director Chi Chi LaRue) the central character and framed the movie as an interview a TV newscaster named “Tristram Hand Shandy” (Chris Green) is supposedly doing with Brad (Spike St. John), another rent boy in Henri’s porn stable. Jake’s story turns into a mere subplot — a real pity, since the actor who’s playing him, billed as B. J. Wallace (all too many of the names by which these people are billed sound like porn aliases), is one of the best-looking men in the film and is one of the few who isn’t the hairless barely-of-age twink type that haunts most Gay male porn today. (U.S. law requires that porn producers have birth certificates on file that document that all their performers are 18 or older; I’ve joked about some Gay porn movies that the producers should probably certify that the actors just turned 18 ten minutes before shooting began.)

The film is a series of sketches, some mildly amusing, most just boring, and the main gag is the humiliation Henri wreaks on his performers, forcing them to dress in bras, women’s panties, high heels and nothing else, and advertising them as “Lesbians.” It’s not a particularly funny joke to begin with — indeed, the truest emotion in this movie is the humiliation these men, most of whom realized early on in their lives that they were totally Gay and completely turned off by anything even remotely feminine, feel when Henri dresses them up and casts them in these preposterous gender-bending scenes. The film is billed as “Sexploitation” rather than hard-core porn — you see dick but you don’t see erections or penetrations, and in order to suggest they’re having sex the actors have to arrange themselves in positions almost as contorted as the ones used to suggest sex in mainstream movies — but it’s not particularly erotic any more than it’s particularly funny, and one suspects you’d have to be as sick as Henri is drawn in order to find it sexually stimulating.

There are some nice-looking guys — including a charismatic fellow billed only as “Mason” who plays T.F., and who frankly did more for me aesthetically than anyone else in the film — and there’s a cat who, like previous members of his species stuck in bad movies like Ring of Terror, shows more intelligence than any of the humans on either side of the camera by continually trying to get away. Amory Peart closes the film with a sequence in a porn theatre, for which he uses a previous production of his called Straight Acting, but as far as films by Gay porn directors about Gay porn is concerned, at the top of the heap is Wash Westmoreland’s genuinely moving and dramatic The Fluffer — and at the bottom is Piccadilly Pickups.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

When You’re Strange (Eagle Vision/Dick Wolf Productions, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was When You’re Strange, a recently produced documentary on the Doors from, of all people, Dick Wolf, the mastermind behind Law and Order and about the last person I would have thought would be interested in making a movie, documentary or otherwise, about major players in the 1960’s counterculture. Despite one silly conceit — shots of Jim Morrison (actually an actor playing him), supposedly driving around southern California tuning his car radio and hearing a news report of Morrison’s death, intercut with the rest of the footage — When You’re Strange is actually an excellent film, well directed by Tom DeCillo with a commentary delivered by Johnny Depp without a hint of his own native strangeness. To his credit, DeCillo manages to suggest the 1960’s in his visual concepts without going overboard and making the movie self-consciously “psychedelic” — just as Oliver Stone did in his 1991 biopic, which I think is the best film yet made about a major rock musician (and let’s face it, though the Doors tried to maintain the idea that they were a band and all four members were equal, they were Jim Morrison’s show and any book or film about them is going to focus mainly about him — just as almost nobody bought the two albums the surviving Doors made as a three-piece band after Morrison’s death, Other Voices and Full Circle), just as Clint Eastwood’s Bird remains the best film ever made about a major jazz musician.

The film mentions that the Doors began when Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek met when they were both studying film at UCLA; what it doesn’t mention is that one of their teachers was Josef von Sternberg, the famous director who had discovered Marlene Dietrich and who, especially in his seven films with her, had pushed the boundaries of popular entertainment in the early 1930’s much the way the Doors, in a different medium, did in the late 1960’s. (It was due to the influence of the director of The Blue Angel that the Doors covered the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht “Alabama Song” from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny on their first album — and did it superbly; though the song was written for a high-voiced soprano Morrison managed to get the edgy, sickly quality it needed whereas later rockers who tried it, like David Bowie and David Johansen, drowned it in pseudo-cabaret schmaltz.) It shows some unusual film clips — probably because of their cinematic background, the Doors documented themselves on video more than virtually any other major band of their time — including rough rehearsal footage (probably shot on black-and-white video) of “Light My Fire” and “The End,” along with the clips everyone knows like the controversial appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in which Morrison, instructed to sing a substitute lyric for the line “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher,” duly sang the substitute in the dress rehearsal but sang the song come scritto on the show itself. (The year before, Sullivan had similarly ordered Mick Jagger to change the line in the Rolling Stones’ hit “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together,” but the savvier Jagger merely mumbled something vaguely in between the two — so the Stones continued to get on the Sullivan show while the Doors were blacklisted and got only one other commercial TV appearance in their whole career, on the rule-breaking Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.)

The point the film makes is that the Doors’ music remains very, very strange, partly because the four members all had different backgrounds — keyboard player Ray Manzarek had studied classical piano and drifted into jazz before taking up rock; guitarist Robbie Krieger had started playing flamenco and taken up bottle-neck blues guitar; and drummer John Densmore was a jazz player whose favorite musicians were Charles Mingus and John Coltrane. (Densmore’s jazz training is evident in the number of Doors’ songs for which he uses cymbals, rather than actual drums, to set the basic rhythmic pulse, the way jazz drummers have been doing since the 1940’s.) At a time when most rock bands played in pretty simple time signatures and most rock singers phrased right on top of the beat, the Doors explored polyrhythms (no doubt Densmore’s listening to Coltrane had left him influenced by Coltrane’s drummer, the great Elvin Jones!) and offbeat times, often having more than one rhythm in the same song. They tended to be a bit deficient in the bass lines since they didn’t use a bass player — Manzarek played the bass lines with his feet on his organ pedals (not, as DeCillo’s narration has it, on the keys of his electric-piano keyboard), which was adequate for live performances, but the last three Doors’ studio albums (The Soft Parade, Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman) all used session bassists to bolster the bottom — but their music remains complex and textural, and it’s an index of how far ahead of their time they were that their albums still sell a million copies a year, 40 years after Morrison’s death effectively ended the group.

What DeCillo’s film does is effectively show the contrasts that drove Morrison — sophisticated, imagistic poet vs. drunken lout — though it does not mention one that came through strongly in the 1980 Jerry Hopkins/Danny Sugerman biography No One Here Gets Out Alive: Morrison was quite strongly homophobic — on more than one occasion he beat up Gay men who made passes at him, and on the Absolutely Live album (the only live recording of the Doors released during Morrison’s lifetime) he complains that he hates playing New York because “the only people who rush the stage are guys” — yet many of his culture heroes, including the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, were Gay. What it does show, as did the recent John Lennon documentary LennonNYC, was that for all the drugs that became associated with the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle in the 1960’s — marijuana, LSD, cocaine and, eventually, heroin — the one that most seriously and negatively impacted the musicians’ creativity and ability to function was a legal drug, alcohol.

It was drink, not drugs, that led to many of the most famous Morrison flame-outs, notably the infamous incident in Miami in 1969 in which he talked his way through a concert, babbling on and on and on until, according to some accounts, he ended one of his monologues by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen — my cock!,” and whipped it out on stage. He was ultimately prosecuted and convicted of putting on a lewd performance — witnesses differ as to whether he actually dropped his drawers but no photo of this much-photographed event shows him doing so — though one photo that did get him into trouble was one of him kneeling in front of guitarist Krieger, with his mouth open, which was listed in the indictment as a “simulation of oral copulation.” (Three years later, in 1972, David Bowie made a similar gesture a trademark — and he was legally unscathed.)

I happen to have an insight into the Morrison Miami incident because a year before it happened, in 1968, I had met Alberto Gianquinto, pianist for the James Cotton Blues Band. He told me that the Cotton band had opened for the Doors in Detroit the previous year and Morrison had started to take his shirt off in the middle of the show. No one thought much of it — people just assumed that he was hot and took his shirt off to be cooler — until he started undoing his belt and taking off his pants, whereupon two of the Doors’ roadies quickly walked up to him and got him off stage. So the Miami incident had nothing to do with the Living Theatre (whose production Paradise Now, featuring the actors stripping to their underwear and then complaining that the law won’t allow them to get totally naked, Morrison had seen in L.A. before going out on that ill-fated tour) or any artistic message; Morrison had simply got drunk on stage again, and that night the roadies weren’t as quick to respond as they had been in Detroit.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area at a time when San Francisco was considered the home of psychedelic rock, and San Franciscans were rough on anybody from anywhere else in the country attempting to play in “our” style — but though the Jefferson Airplane’s music still holds up pretty well, the American bands from the 1960’s whose music stands above all others today are the Velvet Underground from New York and the Doors from Los Angeles — not only because they focused on the darker sides of human existence and rejected the mindless hippie optimism a lot of the San Francisco bands projected, but because they were simply more interesting musicians playing more musically and lyrically sophisticated songs. The fact that Morrison was an accomplished poet before he joined a band — in fact, the first Doors’ song, “Moonlight Drive,” was based on a lyric Morrison had written as a fantasy of a rock song — gave his images a weight and texture that, of all the 1960’s songwriters who tried for this sort of poetic abstraction in their lyrics, only Bob Dylan matched.

The Doors remain a legend, and one interesting story told in the film was that the other three Doors agreed to allow a car company to use “Light My Fire” for a commercial — it was one of those times when Morrison was incommunicado — but when he came back and found out about it, he was incensed, and Depp’s narration over the closing credits mention that to date none of the Doors’ songs have been used in a commercial. (The reason for that merits explanation: when the Doors drew up their incorporation papers in 1966, Morrison insisted that all decisions involving the band had to be made by a consensus of all four members. Though Morrison died in 1971, the consensus requirement still applies to the surviving three — and though Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger have been interested in licensing the Doors’ songs to advertisers, John Densmore has consistently blocked consensus and used his veto power to keep that from happening. Good for him — though it cost him the gig as drummer when Manzarek and Krieger tried to put together a Doors’ reunion band, with Ian Astbury as vocalist, in 2000; instead they hired Stewart Copeland, drummer for the Police, only he broke his arm in mid-tour and rather than hire a temporary replacement until Copeland could play again, they fired him outright.)

The film even touches on the myth that Morrison didn’t die — which seemed to get a lot of currency partly because he was buried in a sealed casket and no one was permitted to examine the body once he was declared dead, and partly because his idol, Rimbaud, had quit writing at the age of 20 and lived in seclusion for the remaining 17 years of his life. (Morrison’s girlfriend, Pamela Courson, had long tried to get him to give up the Doors and concentrate on writing poetry. The reason he was in Paris when he died was that he and Courson had moved there intending to do just that.) When You’re Strange barely mentions the other (major) woman in Morrison’s life, Jazz & Pop publisher Patricia Kennealy, a practicing witch who claimed to have married Morrison in a Wiccan ceremony — Kennealy got a lot more “play” in the Oliver Stone biopic (in which Val Kilmer played Morrison, Meg Ryan played Courson and Kathleen Quinlan played Kennealy) and after watching it I wrote that one could see Courson as Morrison’s Cynthia Powell and Kennealy as his Yoko Ono — but one could nit-pick this movie for the inevitable omissions in a 90-minute documentary; it’s still a major look at a major band featuring a fascinating front man whose contradictions encompass many of the competing forces within rock ’n’ roll itself.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Dangerous Child (Freyda Rothstein Productions, Hearst Entertainment, Lifetime, 2001)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Dangerous Child, produced by Freyda Rothstein (with Anne Carlucci as “supervising producer”) for Hearst Entertainment and originally aired in 2001; it was aired on the Lifetime channel but was several cuts above their usual fare. The protagonists are mother Sally Cambridge (Delta Burke, still zaftig but noticeably slimmed down from her peak years and with her Southern accent also toned down, to the benefit of her quite good performance) and her 16-year-old son Jack (Ryan Merriman), who after a lifetime of being a good little boy, getting straight A’s and making it onto the high-school basketball team is letting all that slide in the name of a teenage alienation which the script (by Karen Stillman and Alan Hines) carefully leaves ambiguous. The writers don’t trot out the usual cheap explanations for a teen running off the rails — drugs, sex, peer pressure (though the latter two are hinted at as part of, if not the whole, story) — and the story benefits from their reticence.

Sally is raising Jack and his nine-year-old brother Leo (Marc Donato) as a single parent; she makes her living as partner in an interior design firm and is just tentatively dipping her toes back into the dating waters by seeing one of her contractors, Frank (Barclay Hope) — who for some reason Jack takes an instant and visceral dislike to recalling the plot of The Magnificent Ambersons (which also turned on a willful, spoiled son breaking up his mother’s attempt at a new relationship). Jack’s father Brad (Vyto Ruginis — and the casting directors, Jon Comerford, Abra Edelman and Elisa Goodman, deserve credit for finding four actors who actually look enough alike to be believable as father, mother and two sons — though they fell down a bit in casting Frank, who’s the same time of stocky, sandy-haired guy as Brad and makes one wonder if that’s the only physical “type” of man Sally could ever be interested in; through much of the movie it was a struggle to tell Vyto Ruginis and Barclay Hope apart) has remarried and every time Sally has trouble with the kids, his immediate reaction is to threaten to fight her for custody. The grim irony that emerges as the film goes on is that Sally is living in physical terror of her son and his violent rages, while at the same time the child protective services system isn’t set up to protect parents from their children and so Sally is herself suspected of neglect and/or abuse.

Dangerous Child is a grim drama that propels us into the lives of these people — director Graeme Campbell honors the Stillman-Hines script with taut, suspenseful and ungimmicky staging — and though I never rebelled as extensively or lashed out quite the way Jack does, I could still identify with the characters in this movie and a lot of this felt like watching my own adolescence and remembering the strains on me from a mother who could go with glare-ice suddenness from being a buddy to being an authoritarian (and back). Lifetime had done the same plot trope — albeit with an out-of-control teenage girl instead of an out-of-control teenage boy — five years earlier in a film called Terror in the Family, but though the titular terror in that family was played by Hilary Swank (who would later go on to win two Academy Awards), Dangerous Child was considerably better — and judging from Merriman’s performance here it’s odd that he hasn’t made it to the A-list the way Swank has; his acting is full of life and vividly depicts the character’s own glare-ice shifts in mood, from ingratiating boy to vengeful, angst-ridden teenage rebel to humble, crying baby. At one point Jack lies to his dad that his mom’s boyfriend is abusing him — and dad immediately yanks both Jack and Leo out of mom’s home and takes them in, only Leo himself ends up in an angry outburst at his stepmom for making him lasagna, which he hates — and the final crisis is precipitated when Leo is seriously injured as a result of Jack’s latest attack on his mom, and the writers finally offer us an explanation for Jack’s rages: though Brad never physically attacked Sally during their marriage, he often viciously lost his temper and yelled at her, and both Cambridge boys thereby learned that screaming rage was an appropriate way to express themselves in a domestic disagreement.

Ultimately both Sally and Jack are handcuffed and taken into police custody, and Jack is forced into a six-month therapy program during which he’ll live in a foster home (which seems to me like it would just add to his problems!) while Sally is herself required to do therapy as a condition of not having to face child-abuse charges for having allowed her older son to injure her younger one. The ending is typically Lifetime-sappy but it’s not bad enough to vitiate the power of what has gone before — and the film succeeds not only in depicting Jack’s rages (while leaving their cause powerfully unstated) but giving us the terror Sally is being put through by this person whom she gave birth to, and who by law she is supposed to control when he’s not only physically stronger but far more willful and mean than she.

There’s a nice scene that sums up her frustration; she logs onto a computer in the library (this film was made in 2001, at a time when few homes even in the middle-class world this film’s characters inhabit had their own computers), does an internet search for “teen abuse of parents” and comes up with no online references at all — all the literature is about children as victims of parental abuse, not the other way around. (I just did a search with the same terms and did come up with a site: Dangerous Child is an example of Lifetime at its best: an intense social issue, vividly dramatized, well written, directed and acted, and offering us a sense of emotional involvement with these characters that makes us care about what happens to them.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Laugh and Get Rich (RKO, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Laugh and Get Rich, a 1931 production from the tail end of William LeBaron’s three-year reign as production head at RKO — I wondered if the odd title was a pun on Napoleon Hill’s best-selling self-help book Think and Grow Rich, but the book wasn’t published until six years after the film was made — and it was originally shot under the working title Board and Room, which came closer to describing what the film was about even though it was considerably less “sexy” as a box-office draw. The central characters are Joe and Sarah Austin (Hugh Herbert and Edna May Oliver) and their daughter Alice (Dorothy Lee). Joe has been out of work for years and Sarah is after him to search for a job with some degree of seriousness. She’s making the family’s ends meet (or at least come close together) by running a boarding house featuring the usual complement of eccentrics that always seemed to live in boarding houses in classic-era films, notably an artist named Vincentini (George Davis) who paints herds of cows.

The film was produced by Douglas MacLean and directed by Gregory La Cava, who between them wrote the script as well (the writing credits are MacLean for the story, La Cava for the script and Ralph Spence for additional dialogue), and the writing breaks virtually every Hollywood rule of the time about character development and through-lines. It’s the sort of movie in which things just happen, with something of the randomness with which things happen in ordinary life, and though some of the plot lines are pretty sturdy clichés, the assemblage of them is unusual enough that one’s definitely in suspense as to how it will all resolve. Among the leading intrigues in the plot are Alice’s romantic indecision — she’s really in love with poor inventor Larry Owens (Russell Gleason) but her mom wants her to date Bill Hepburn (John Harron) because she thinks the Hepburns are a “good family,” only what Sarah doesn’t know is that Bill Hepburn is actually a crook who kidnaps the man he thinks is the local patriarch, Mr. Pennypacker (Herbert Prior), but is really Joe. Joe is lured by Mr. Phelps, one of Sarah’s boarders, into stealing her cache of cash (it’s inside a hideous-looking lamp) to invest in an oil well, and just when we think he’s been conned out of that money and will never see it again (and Joe has responded to Sarah’s fury by taking a job as a ditch-digger, though as things turned out he only works one day — and Hugh Herbert, who plays his part relatively “straight” without the “woo-woo” mannerisms for which he later became famous, is about as believable as a ditch-digger as Arnold Schwarzenegger would be as a nuclear physicist), he hears from Phelps that their oil well has come in and they’re going to be rich.

Sarah insists on celebrating by going to visit her sister, Cassandra Palfrey (Louise Mackintosh) — just where she got the last name “Palfrey” (presumably from a now-deceased husband) is a bit of a mystery because her and Sarah’s family name is Cranston — only Joe is so put off by the airs surrounding the Palfrey household that he starts a game of golf in the house and smashes one of Cassandra’s (presumably) priceless vases — and Sarah gets into the swing of things and smashes another vase — and they’re just about to leave when Joe gets a telegram that the oil well has dried up and they’re broke again (that was quick!), only their bacon is saved by Larry Owens, who’s invented a whistling valve for inner tubes. Judging from the gags La Cava stages with his demonstration model, it seems like he’s invented the whoopee cushion, but the point of the device is that this way motorists will be warned because the valve will start to whistle when the air pressure in one of their tires gets low, and will know they need either to replace the tube or at least add more air. Larry left this object at Cassandra’s place and one of the wealthy men at her house party decides to make him and the Austins an offer for it, and they’re all arguing over just how high the royalties will be as the movie ends.

Laugh and Get Rich
is a bizarre little movie, ostensibly attempting to be a comedy (at least from Oliver’s and especially Herbert’s reputation — though they’re both playing surprisingly dry, which we expect from her but certainly not from him!) but actually surprisingly dark through much of its running time and offering a view of the Depression quite different from the one we got in the Warners movies of the period — indeed, the quiet desperation with which the Austins face living on the edge and the tensions between them over his long-term unemployment make parts of this movie seem contemporary today. There’s another odd connection with this movie: 10 years later at Universal, Herbert made a similar film, There’s One Born Every Minute, in which he’s also a man living on the margins without actually going over, who’s lifted out of poverty by an invention (his own this time), and among the actors playing his children was 10-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, making her screen debut. (Universal fired her when her option ran out, but the following year MGM director Fred M. Wilcox signed her for a small but important supporting role in Lassie Come Home after the first girl in the part, Maria Flynn, was too visibly scared of the canine star in their scenes together to be believable — and MGM put her under long-term contract and launched her superstar career.)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Salomé (Nazimova Productions, 1923)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was an item we got recently: the 1923 silent film of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, starring the 42-year-old Alla Nazimova in the title role. She had just extricated herself from her contract with Metro Pictures, where she’d made the marvelous 1922 silent version of Camille with set designs by her girlfriend de jour, Natacha Rambova (who later married the male lead of Camille, Rudolph Valentino, and infamously tried to run his career), and she not only starred in Salomé, she produced it and she and her (platonic) husband Charles Bryant co-directed and also co-financed it — and lost every penny of the $350,000 they put into it, leaving them broke. It was widely rumored that Nazimova had insisted that all the cast and crew members be Lesbian or Gay, which may well have led to the film’s disastrous box-office failure. (Nazimova went on to make two potboilers for First National and then retired from screen acting in 1925 and was forced to sell her mansion, the Garden of Allah, which was broken up into individual rooms and turned into a rooming house. Later on Nazimova ended up renting a room in the mansion she had once owned, which struck me as the sort of plot situation Nazimova’s nephew, the great horror producer Val Lewton, would have used. Ultimately she made a late-in-life comeback in 1940 in the film Escape and for the remaining five years of her life she worked steadily in character roles in films.)

It’s part of the bizarre luck of the draw of film preservation that many far more popular silent films are lost completely and Salomé survives, not only intact but still carrying its original titles (more important than for most silent films because Rambova designed the title cards to match her sets), and though one can see why it didn’t attract an audience in 1923, it remains an absolutely amazing film. The story is pretty familiar to anyone who’s a fan of Wilde or Richard Strauss, who based his most successful opera on Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Wilde’s French-language play (Wilde wrote it in French in hopes Sarah Bernhardt would act in it; Wilde’s boyfriend, Lord Alfred Douglas, translated it into English in what’s become the standard version; it had its premiere in Paris in 1897 and wasn’t performed in England until 1931): it’s set in the court of Herod (Mitchell Lewis), who has had the prophet Jokanaan (Nigel de Brulier), better known as John the Baptist, imprisoned in a disused well on the palace grounds. Herod killed his brother to become the Tetrarch (ruler) of Judea, then married his brother’s widow, Herodias (Rose Dione), only now the decadent Herod is bored with Herodias and has the hots for her daughter Salomé (Nazimova).

The lust-crazed Herod is obsessed with getting Salomé to dance for him, and offers her blandishments ranging from half his kingdom to piles of jewels, rare peacocks and the like, but after she does the dance she insists on having the head of Jokanaan served to her in a silver platter. Throughout the play (and the film) Herodias has insisted that her husband have the prophet executed, which he’s been reluctant to do because he fears an uprising from the Jews if he does so — only a bargain is a bargain, so Herod has his executioner (Frederick Peters) behead Jokanaan and bring his head to Salomé on the proverbial silver platter — and Salomé shocks even Herod and the rest of the court by kissing the head’s lips (earlier she’d made a pass at the prophet and been rejected), so Herod orders her killed by his soldiers, who crush her with their shields. In Wilde’s retelling the Biblical tale is filled out with various other characters, notably Narraboth (Earl Schenck), one of the queeniest screen presences in cinema history, who commits suicide when Salomé rejects him.

The edition we were watching was from the German ARTE TV network, with German subtitles run under the original English titles — which gave the odd impression that Salomé was a German film: certainly it looks much more like a German film than anything else being made in the U.S. at the time, with its frankly nonrealistic sets (which Rambova — who also wrote the script under the pseudonym “Peter M. Winters” — designed based on the drawings Aubrey Beardsley had supplied for the printed edition of Wilde’s play) and heavily stylized acting. It’s a rather slow-paced film — Nazimova, Bryant, Rambova or whoever directed it didn’t have much of a flair for suspense (and Robert Wiene had proven in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari that you could make a film with stylized sets, costumes and acting and still make it fast-paced and exciting) — but it also creates an absolutely vivid mood, and within the limits of the decadent style it’s also quite well acted.

Nazimova was way too old for her part (one wonders whether this film inspired Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, in which a 50-something actress plots her screen comeback in an adaptation of Salomé she’s written herself) but that’s only apparent in some of the close-ups, where Charles Van Unger’s camera “outs” Nazimova, even through her heavy rice-paper makeup, as a well-preserved but still middle-aged woman. She’s utterly convincing otherwise, using slight changes in expression and posture (and major changes in hairdo — she starts out wearing the “Jewish natural” wig, with what looks like bits of cotton in it, she’d worn in Camille; later she wears a mushroom-shaped wig surprisingly similar to the main one Lady Gaga uses, though Nazimova’s is white whereas Gaga’s is black; and finally she wears her hair black with a severe white scarf tying it down) to suggest Salomé’s evolution from innocent teenager to kinky sexual explorer to hard-core decadent at the end. I remember an article in the late, lamented Films in Review magazine that tried to come to an overview of Nazimova’s silent-film career even though this was the only movie of hers the author was able to see (mostly he was going by either production stills or surviving trailers for otherwise lost films), and he found it almost unbearably static and said Nigel de Brulier (looking considerably hunkier than he did in his later character roles) was the only actor who brought his character to life; the pace is slow (slower than it needs to be) and the full flavor of Wilde’s dialogue is missed (though the Jews, with their endless religious quarrels, are caricatured just as effectively in the visual medium as Wilde did it in words), but Salomé is a movie that draws one in to its world of decadence and, like its source play, is obviously more interested in exploring sexual obsession than offering the moral lesson of the Biblical tale that was its source.

One quibble I have with this version is the music, some rather doleful noodlings with a string quartet and an occasional brass instrument; one Ulderico Marcelli put this score together, but with Strauss’s opera having long since entered the public domain, a score based on his themes would have been far more effective (and at the same time the stylized but still “period” look of this film would offer an excellent model to anyone producing the opera!).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Warner Bros., Village Roadshow, Zanuck Company, Plan B, 2005)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton’s 2005 take on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel that had already been filmed in 1971 as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with a rather miscast (too somber) Gene Wilder as Wonka. I still think this story got filmed in the wrong decades — the Robin Williams of the 1980’s would have been ideal for it, and the Jim Carrey of the 1990’s less so but still more appropriate than Burton’s almost inevitable choice, Johnny Depp — but as the film progressed I found Depp utterly appropriate for Burton’s “take” on the story, which was to emphasize the darkness while still dazzling the eye with the sort of visual trickery modern digital-effects work lends itself to. I haven’t read the book in decades, nor have I seen the earlier film since it was still relatively new, but from my memories it’s clear that Burton’s direction and John August’s screenplay hewed a lot closer to Dahl’s novel than the earlier version — and I especially give them points for using Dahl’s original lyrics for the songs the Oompa-Loompas sing as the four not-so-good children get their comeuppances in Wonka’s super-factory.

The plot is probably known to just about everybody this side of Loompaland, but just in case, here goes: Willy Wonka, the best candymaker in the world, suddenly closes down his factory because he’s tired of his competitors hiring spies to infiltrate his workforce and steal all his ideas. Then it mysteriously reopens, but seemingly without employees: no one ever goes into or leaves the factory, even though it’s clearly in operation: its smokestacks emit smoke and trucks come by the gate regularly to take out the candy and ship it for sale. Then Wonka makes an announcement that galvanizes the world: he says that he’s hidden five Golden Tickets inside his candies, each of which will allow the lucky child who finds it to tour the factory along with one adult to supervise them. (In the book it was two adults; August cut it to one, meaning that each kid has to pick either a mom or a dad — or in the case of Our Hero, Charlie Bucket, his Grandpa Joe, who in this version was a former worker in Wonka’s factory who’s always wanted to see the place again.)

Four of the kids who find the Golden Tickets are total creeps: gluttonous Augustus Gloop (Philip Wiegratz) from Düsseldorf, Germany; spoiled rich-bitch Veruca Salt (Julia Winters); fiercely competitive Violet Beauregard (AnnaSophia Robb), who’s going for the world’s longest chew on a single piece of gum record; and TV addict Mike Teavee (Jordan Fry), who in this version not only watches TV incessantly but plays video games and has acquired a very violent temper by doing so. The fifth is Our Hero, Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore), who’s living with his parents and both sets of grandparents in a Dickensian shack, surviving exclusively on cabbage soup and living a life so impoverished that the Cratchits seem like spoiled suburbanites by comparison.

Charlie gets one candy bar a year, and naturally he hopes he’ll find the Golden Ticket — which he doesn’t; like Dahl, Burton and August keep us in suspense as to just how he and the Golden Ticket he’s obviously meant to have, this being a fairy tale, will come together (ultimately he finds a $10 bill in the street — in Dahl’s book it was a $1 bill, but inflation has taken its toll since then and today a $1 bill barely buys you one candy bar, let alone 10 — and for some reason August missed the plot complication in Dahl’s book that Charlie isn’t thinking of Golden Tickets; he wolfs down the first candy bar just because he’s hungry and it’s the second bar he can’t resist buying with his found money that contains the Golden Ticket) — and on the appointed day, February 1, all five kids and their minders (so to speak) assemble in front of the Wonka factory for the Grand Tour. Inside they see chocolate mixed by waterfall, whipped cream whipped by whips (my S/M friends would love that one!), giant-sized candies, gumballs that never shrink no matter how much you suck on them, and all the other wonders of Wonka’s factory. I think Burton and August brought out the magic glass elevator too late in the story, but otherwise they adapted the book quite closely until the bizarre ending, which was a “gimmick” tag much like The Wizard of Oz (one of many old movies referenced in this one: our first glimpse of the inside of the Wonka factory, with the little Oompa-Loompas working away, seemed so much like Dorothy’s first glimpse of Munchkinland both Charles and I registered the reference: I said, “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” and he said, “We’d better get out of here before the house falls on us”) only the moral lesson is in support of family, not home.

It seems that Burton and August decided Willy Wonka needed a backstory, so they gave him one: he’s the son of Wilbur Wonka, D.D.S. (Christopher Lee), who not only absolutely refuses to allow his son to eat candy under any circumstances whatsoever, he also is forced to wear a ridiculous outboard brace that encloses his entire face and makes his head look like a bird in a cage. (According to an trivia poster, Tim Burton was actually made to wear such a brace during his childhood.) As a result, Willy Wonka runs away and becomes a world-famous chocolatier, only he freezes up and goes into a psychological fugue state whenever the word “family” is mentioned. In the altered Burton/August ending, Charlie is offered the chance to take over Wonka’s super-factory when Wonka dies, and to live in the factory with him and learn the business, but only if he leaves his factory behind — and Charlie refuses (throughout the entire movie Charlie has been shown as so ineffably — or insufferably — altruistic he makes a Frank Capra hero look like Donald Trump by comparison) until Wonka eventually relents and says he can move his family into the factory with him. The ending is a bit on the sappy side, but for the most part Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a sheer delight start-to-finish, one which manages to harness the apparatus of digital-era filmmaking (like Mr. Smith in the Matrix films, all the Oompa-Loompas are played by the same actor, “Deep Roy,” and digitally duplicated to provide the hordes we see in the movie; also, when they sing the songs Danny Elfman set to Roald Dahl’s original lyrics, all the voices are Elfman’s, overdubbed scores of times) in the service of a great story rather than just doing digital effects for their own sake.

The in-joke references to other movies that abound — the nut-sorting squirrels’ attack on Veruca Salt is clearly a reference to The Birds, among the scenes Mike Teavee gets inserted into as he’s televised is the shower scene from Psycho, and after he’s stretched on the taffy-pulling machine he resembles one of the mannequins from Burton’s own The Nightmare Before Christmas — add to the fun (though Charles and I both wondered whether they would just sail over the heads of people who hadn’t seen the films they were referencing), and by far the best movie reference — and the film’s funniest gag — is the sequence in which the chocolate bar is being televised, which not only references 2001: A Space Odyssey (the chocolate bar is raised into an upright position like the monolith from Kubrick’s film, and when it’s televised it’s inserted into the film’s “Dawn of Man” sequence) but actually uses the same recording of the famous theme, the opening of Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” that Kubrick used: the 1959 British Decca LP with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. (On the closing credit roll of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory both Karajan and Decca were credited; on the credits of 2001 the only acknowledgment for the recording was to “The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra” — for some ridiculous reason, Decca would only license the recording if neither they nor Karajan were credited, which meant that Deutsche Grammophon, which had Karajan under contract when 2001 came out in 1968, were able to pass off Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic remake as “the 2001 version” and gain the added sales the film promoted.)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an example of modern-day studio filmmaking at its best, and also an example of the power of a star-director team — the collaboration of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton has been as productive of great movies as John Wayne/John Ford, Humphrey Bogart/John Huston or Rock Hudson/Douglas Sirk — which one rarely sees in this day and age when the long-term contracts of the studio system are dim history. Even though Depp’s most famous films, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, haven’t been Burton films, there’s a depth and richness to their work together — built mostly around Burton’s skill at creating misfit characters and Depp’s at playing them — that’s missing from his work with other directors. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory also gave Danny Elfman one of his best opportunities in film; not only did he get to create the dark, brooding orchestral score he usually does in Burton’s movies, he also got to write some nicely chilling songs and remind us of his start with a rock band called Oingo Boingo. This isn’t a ground-breaking movie by any means, but it is a lot of fun, a rare example of making a fairy-tale fantasy work on film (there’ve been all too many clunky attempts that failed — including, if my memory isn’t playing tricks on me, the earlier version of this story) and capturing just the right sense of whimsy and wonder to bring a classic of children’s literature to life.