Sunday, November 29, 2015

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (20th Century-Fox, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, a 2013 sequel to the delightful 2010 movie Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. These films began as a series of books — I’ve never seen one so I don’t know whether they’re considered children’s or “young adult” literature — by Rick Riordan based on the conceit that the Greek gods actually exist. Not only that, but they’re still continuing their habitual practice, documented in the original myths, of descending to earth, having sex with opposite-sex mortals (I guess the target audience for these stories is too young for them to get into Ganymede territory!) and generating children, who in the first episode were called “demigods” but here are called “half-bloods.” The gods have set up a sort of boot camp for their half-human offspring during which they’re trained to be warriors, and in this episode Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman), who in the first film in the series recovered the lightning bolt with which Zeus rules the world, is training with a new recruit named Clarisse (Levan Rambin, who was deleted from the first book when it was filmed but is brought to the screen now that Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games has made women action heroines, especially young teen ones, fashionable; incidentally Rambin’s head shot on shows her as blonde but she wore a dark wig for her role here) who keeps beating him to the top of a peculiar contraption that’s the demigods’ version of an obstacle course but looks something like the mills in Frankenstein (the 1931 one) and White Zombie. A prologue explains that early in the demigods’ camp’s existence, four people were going there but only three made it; Zeus’s daughter Thalia (pronounced “Tah-lee-uh”) was killed by a monster just outside the gates.

To save her in at least some sort of life, Zeus turned her into a tree and gave the tree the power to protect the camp by setting up a force field around it (an obvious ripoff of the Daphne myth), only when the movie opens the force field is being attacked by a weird sort of half-bull, half-robot that can crash the force field because it too has a god in its bloodline. Thalia the tree is brought near death by this and in order to revive her, the kids have to get together to recover the Golden Fleece from the cyclops Polyphemus, who you’ll recall lost his eye to Odysseus in The Odyssey but now has regained at least some of his sight through the universal curative powers of the Fleece (which in this version is a blanket instead of a piece of sheep’s fur). Unfortunately, the bad half-blood Luke (whom I still think is far sexier than Logan Lerman!) wants the Fleece for another, more dastardly reason: to revive the Titan Cronus, who was killed by his son Zeus so Zeus could take over as master of the universe. The officials at the school for half-bloods organize an official party to look for the Fleece, but Percy, his girlfriend Annabeth (Alexandria Daddario), their Black satyr friend Grover (Brandon T. Jackson) — they would make the Black guy a satyr! — and Tyson (Douglas Smith), half-brother of Percy because he’s also the son of Poseidon, though his mom was a water-nymph and when you cross a god and a water nymph you get a cyclops — form their own expedition. They run into three female New York cabdrivers who have only one eye between them (“Shouldn’t the one who’s driving have the eye?” Percy rather sensibly asks) who are supposed to be the “Gray Sisters” (Mary Birdsong, Yvette Nicole Brown and Missi Pyle) and who take them as far as Washington, D.C. before the drivers realize the kids don’t have any drachmas and therefore can’t pay them. The kids end up taken to the Bermuda Triangle — the so-called “Sea of Monsters” referred to in the title — and they end up in the belly of Charybdis, a giant sea creature, only by irritating her insides they get her to puke them up again.

They still have to fight Polyphemus to get the Golden Fleece — Tyson was hoping to get Polyphemus to give it to them by talking to him cyclops-to-cyclops — and the climax takes place at an amusement park called “Circeland” (played by Jazzland, a former amusement park in New Orleans taken over by the Six Flags company and then condemned because it was so badly damaged during Hurricane Katrina — the setting of the climax in an abandoned amusement park couldn’t help but remind me of Carnival of Souls!) in which the good guys from the official and unofficial crews get together and sail to the park in an old Confederate warship, the C.S.S. Birmingham (built on the same ironclad principle as the more famous Merrimac, a.k.a. Virginia) to confront Polyphemus, get the Fleece and use it to revive Thalia — only the Fleece works too well and instead of just keeping her alive as a tree, it restores her to half-blood human status (in which she’s played by someone with the marvelously multicultural name of Paloma Kwiatkowski). Other characters include Chiron, the half-human, half-horse character who runs the school (and is played this time around by Anthony Stewart Head instead of Pierce Brosnan, who played him in the earlier film) and Dionysus, who centuries earlier made the mistake of seducing someone Zeus was also interested in and is being punished by having the wine in his glass turn to water as soon as he pours it. “You know, the Christians have a guy who can do this trick in reverse,” Dionysus says. “Now that’s a god.” Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters isn’t anywhere near as good as the earlier film in the series — which had a considerably better constructed plot (this time around Thor Friedenthal instead of Chris Columbus directed and Marc Guggenheim, not Craig Titley, wrote the script) and more genuine suspense and excitement — but it’s still a fun romp through some familiar mythology given a new and delicious “spin.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

American Experience: “The Pilgrims” (PBS, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on PBS for a fascinating American Experience episode called “The Pilgrims,” a Thanksgiving-themed show directed by Ric Burns (Ken Burns’ brother) aimed at telling the story of the Plymouth colonists and also gently exposing the myth-making surrounding them. It became as much a show about historiography than history, noting how the Separatists (their own name for themselves, though they also called themselves “Brownists”; the common term for them comes from a brief passage in William Bradford’s autobiographical manuscript comparing them to “pilgrimes” — that was the spelling he used, just as he called their colony “Plimoth” in his title — in the original meaning of the term as someone who goes on a journey in search of religious or spiritual enlightenment) created a lot of the imagery by which they’re known today via Bradford’s and (less famously) Edward Winslow’s manuscripts. Ric Burns couldn’t follow his brother’s style of having actors read the surviving letters of the people he was biographing because there weren’t any letters — the only people the Separatists would have written to would have been their co-religionists they had left behind in Leiden, The Netherlands, and they would have no way to get letters to them because no ships were regularly crossing the Atlantic at the time. So he had an actor playing Bradford quote extensively from the autobiography as well as appear on screen in silent re-enactments of the Separatists’ activities in England, Holland and America, and there’s one bizarre shot near the end in which we get a black-and-white image of the actor playing Bradford that I think was supposed to look like what an actual photo would have if photos had existed that early.

The show overall was a quite engaging history of the Separatist clique around the village of Scrooby in England and how they were caught up in the religious politics that had been temporarily settled by Queen Elizabeth, albeit with measures that seem absurdly harsh to us today. Not only had Elizabeth steered the Church of England onto a safe middle course between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, she had made church attendance mandatory, with heavy fines imposed on people who didn’t show up for Sunday services at the established Anglican churches. For the Separatists, who were basically hard-core Protestants who believed that individual church members ought to read the Bible for themselves and not trust a priestly hierarchy (Catholic, Lutheran or Anglican) to explain it to them, the idea of being forced by law to attend a church they didn’t believe in was horrifying — and things got even worse when Elizabeth died in 1603 and was replaced by James I, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, who in order to answer charges that he and his Stuart family were really closet Catholics seeking to re-impose the rule of Rome on the British church, got even tougher about enforcing the laws regarding Anglican church attendance. The Separatists responded by fleeing to the Netherlands in 1608, which as this show recounts itself was a cloak-and-dagger affair because in order to leave England on a ship you needed an official pass, and the government was not forthcoming with passes for religious dissenters seeking to escape the official church. They settled first in Amsterdam and then in the port city of Leiden, but they grew restive there partly because, for people who had been used to supporting themselves as farmers, they were uncomfortable in an early industrial town in which the big jobs available were in weaving and other textiles. They also grew anxious about wanting to remain an English (and English-speaking) community, and got worried when their kids started assimilating and speaking Dutch instead of English.

So they determined to strike out for a totally new land in the U.S., and for this they got financial backing from someone named Thomas Weston, who headed a company called the Merchant Adventurers. Judging from the way they’re portrayed in this show, Weston was essentially the 17th century’s version of a venture capitalist, underwriting the Separatist colony in the New World in hopes of making money from its exports, and the Merchant Adventurers were basically a hedge fund. (According to Wikipedia, major enterprises that were bulwarks of the British Empire of the 17th and 18th centuries, including the Hudson’s Bay Company and the British East India Company, were spinoffs of the Merchant Adventurers.) Indeed, after some testy business issues that reminded me of what modern-day entrepreneurs have gone through with their “V.C.’s,” mainly due to the failure of the colonists to bring Weston and company any marketable goods (the first ship they sent back — a return voyage by the Mayflower — had an empty cargo hold and the second one was plundered before the Adventurers could have it unloaded and its valuable cargo, beaver pelts, was stolen) — the company wrote them off as a bad investment but insisted that they pay back what they had been advanced (which they were able to do thanks to an unforeseen spike in the price of beaver pelts between 1627 and 1628). One thing I the hadn’t known about the Separatists were that they were not only not the first people in the part of Massachusetts where they ended up (they were originally supposed to colonize around the mouth of the Hudson River but, trying to navigate the stormy North Atlantic in the worst possible time of the year — September to November — they drifted off course and landed 200 miles north of their official destination, at what is now Cape Cod), they weren’t even the first white people. A few years earlier a white Englishman who was there either as a fisherman, a trader or both had shown up among the Wampanoag Indians carrying a plague germ that wiped out huge numbers of their population, so when the Separatists arrived and settled in what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts the place was literally a ghost town; it had had Native inhabitants, but the plague already brought by a preceding Englishman had decimated the population and only a handful of people were left.

What’s more, only about half of the 102 people who made it across on the Mayflower, the old trading ship Thomas Weston contributed to the project (it had primarily been used to ferry wines across the English Channel), were Separatists; the others, whom William Bradford and the other Separatists on the journey called “Strangers,” were people Weston had recruited for the voyage intending that they would govern the colony and contribute needed skills in construction and other work. Bradford’s wife Dorothy made it across the Atlantic but fell overboard, in what could have been a suicide, not long after the ship anchored in Cape Cod (though he eventually remarried), and the first winter was bitterly harsh. The group survived largely by having planted corn they had plundered from the graves of dead Natives, and it wasn’t until the spring that the sachem (chief) of the Wampanoag, Massacoit, cut his famous deal with the settlers that he’d teach them how to farm the New England land and how to keep themselves alive if in exchange they’d help him and the other surviving Wampanoag in their wars with the Narragansett, Massachusetts and other local tribes that had historically been the Wampanoag’s enemies. (At least two Native spokespeople were interviewed for this show, including a survivor of the Wampanoag who’s part of their tribe’s history project.) The so-called “First Thanksgiving” really didn’t take place until 1623, after the colony had been settled for three years, and the event that really kick-started Thanksgiving as a concept didn’t happen until decades later, after a far better supplied and officially sanctioned group of Puritan colonists had established the city of “New Boston” and formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, and the Natives, led by Massacoit’s son and heir, Metacomet (who became known for some reason as “King Philip” by the whites), led a war to wipe out the English from their territory once and for all. (In this war, ironically, the Narragansett allied with the English against the Wampanoag.)

One particularly cruel story told in Edward Winslow’s memoir, but not in Bradford’s, put a grisly spin on the early years of white-Native conflict; Winslow recalled that the colonists would put people who were nearly dead and prop them up with muskets in their hands, so the Natives would see them and think the white army protecting the settlement was much bigger than it really was. From this reality sprang the myths that the dead settlers were merely being buried at night, not propped up like a phantom army. Indeed, one of the themes that runs through this show is how the “Pilgrim myth” got created in the first place and why Plymouth — not Jamestown, Virginia, which was settled 13 years earlier — is generally considered the “birthplace of America” and the start of Anglo-American culture and life in the New World. (When the narrator mentioned that the so-called “Pilgrims” are considered the foundation of the U.S. and not any of the earlier colonists, Charles joked, “That’s because they were the only ones who weren’t prisoners or slavers!”) The commentary notes that the colonists who wrote their memoirs, William Bradford (who was elected governor after the first one, John Carver, died, and served in that capacity for 32 of the first 38 years of the colony’s independent existence until his own death) in particular, consciously shaped and guided their accounts of events, and after Bradford died later historians — including Increase Mather (father of Cotton Mather of Salem witch trials infamy) — added to and gilded the legend. The Pilgrims is as much a show about how history is written as about what “really” happened — to the extent we can even discern it about things that happened nearly 400 years ago, and how the Separatists’ experience was chopped and channeled by themselves and later historians to provide a suitable “origin story” for what became the United States of America. After the show PBS was showing a Secrets of the Dead episode about Jamestown, which I was rather interested in when it appeared that they were going to be doing an origin story of the real first surviving British colony in the Americas, but I turned off (in both senses: I lost interest and decided to watch something else) the show when it turned out it was going to be about a young woman whose remains were found by modern archaeologists and who appeared to be a victim of cannibalism.

Young Man of Manhattan (Paramount, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Instead I ran Charles Young Man of Manhattan, a 1930 Paramount production (filmed at their New York studio in Astoria, Queens so they could use actors who were also appearing on Broadway — they could act in films by day and in plays by night) which, based on an ambiguous notation on the site I downloaded it from, I had assumed co-starred Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman, who when this film was being made were co-starring on Broadway in the Gershwin musical Girl Crazy. (Merman introduced “I Got Rhythm” in this show, with Red Nichols’ orchestra in the pit backing her, and it was her star-making song.) As things turned out, Merman wasn’t in Young Man of Manhattan but Rogers was — it was her first film and she was still wearing her hair in its natural black color (later she would bleach it and go blonde), though you don’t see much of her hair since she’s wearing a helmet-like cap in most of her scenes. The film was actually more soap opera than musical (though Rogers sings two songs in it, “I’ve Got ‘It’ but ‘It’ Don’t Do Me No Good” and “Good ’n’ Plenty”) and it’s really a vehicle for Claudette Colbert and her then-husband, Norman Foster, and the opening is an interesting anticipation of the first Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn film Woman of the Year from 12 years later. They’re both newspaper reporters for rival papers — she does general coverage with a special emphasis on celebrity interviews for a morning paper, and he covers sports for an evening paper — and the film opens with a stunning overhead shot of a boxing match. It turns out that the fight is taking place outdoors in a driving rainstorm and everyone there is getting drenched (and according to the fight is represented by stock footage of the real 1927 heavyweight championship bout between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney). Toby McLean (Norman Foster) offers to give Ann Vaughn (Claudette Colbert) a ride home, and on the way he bets her that he’ll marry her that night. He does, and they set up housekeeping together and agree that no matter what happens between them, they won’t get jealous or possessive of each other. (The film, written by Robert Presnell and Daniel Reed based on a novel by Katharine Brush — best known at the time as an F. Scott Fitzgerald imitator — and stunningly directed by the usually hacky Monta Bell, has the refreshing and salty honesty about people’s real relationships, including their sex drives, that marks it as a product of the Hollywood glasnost, the so-called “pre-Code” era between 1930 and 1934.)

Of course, the exact opposite happens; Ann gets an offer from magazine publisher Dwight Knowles (Leslie Austin, in the sort of role Neil Hamilton played earlier and Ian Hunter played later) to write a series of six star profiles for $200 each, and while at an out-of-town game Toby’s “friend” and tempter Shorty Ross (Charlie Ruggles in a surprisingly non-comic role for him) introduces him to the so-called “gilded girl,” Puff Randolph (Ginger Rogers), a devil-may-care flapper with a voice like Helen Kane’s (whom Rogers actually replaced in Paul Ash’s dance band) and a cheerful disregard for traditional morality and anything connected with it. She immediately starts cruising Toby and isn’t going to let such minor details as his having a wife get in her way, and she also proudly announces that she’s going to be moving to New York so he’ll have easy access to her. Toby starts losing it not only because of Puff’s seemingly omnipresent temptations but also because he’s feeling “unmanned” because Ann is making more money than he is — which, as Charles pointed out, became a quite common clichés in movies of the later 1930’s but was still relatively novel when this one was made — and he responds by drinking too much, to the point where he’s missing deadlines and Shorty and his other sportswriter friends are covering for him by writing his columns for him. Things come to a head when he has to go to cover a baseball team’s spring training in Florida (actually a pretty chintzy-looking attempt to reproduce “Florida” on an Astoria sound stage) — he makes it onto the train, leaving an opened but undrunk bottle of bootleg booze on his kitchen table, but he’s pretty hopeless as a writer once he gets there — and meanwhile Ann, his wife (ya remember his wife? He’s pretty much forgotten her!), returns from doing celebrity interviews in Hollywood, pours herself a drink from the bottle her husband left opened but undrunk, and promptly goes blind.

This was actually a significant risk from bootleg liquor; to enforce Prohibition the government insisted that companies making alcohol for industrial or medicinal use add adulterants that could have near-lethal side effects if drunk, and the bootleggers’ chemists worked out ways to remove the adulterants so their products wouldn’t blind or kill their customers (which even in the free-wheeling 1920’s would have been bad for business). At least one other film from 1930, Puttin’ On the Ritz — a vehicle for Broadway star Harry Richman — also features a character becoming blind from drinking bootleg liquor whose makers hadn’t got the adulterants out properly, and one contributor to the Bix Beiderbecke online forum has suggested that Bix got at least two doses of adulterated hooch, one in November 1928 (which led to his significant impairment, increasingly erratic behavior and ultimate loss of his job with Paul Whiteman) and one about a month before he died in August 1931, which finally poisoned him. In Puttin’ On the Ritz it’s Richman’s charater, an egomaniac star, who’s blinded by the bad liquor and learns humility even as he has to rely on his wife (Joan Bennett) to support and care for him; in Young Man of Manhattan Toby responds to the news that his wife has gone blind from a bottle he meant to have himself and share with his friends by rushing home, sobering up, writing the novel he’s long wanted to do but never applied himself long enough, getting a $1,000 advance and using it to pay for the series of treatments that at least partially restore her sight. Young Man of Manhattan isn’t the sort of feel-good musical romp I’d have expected from the title and Ginger Rogers’ presence in it, but on its own terms it’s quite good even though Norman Foster is a bit too whiny for us to believe both the Colbert and Rogers characters find him irresistible, and a part of me wishes that Paramount had waited two years to make it until Cary Grant would have been available for the role — but the alcoholism plot thread anticipates The Lost Weekend (also a Paramount production) by 15 years and once again gives the lie to the oft-repeated legend that until The Lost Weekend Hollywood treated alcoholics and their disease only as the stuff of jokes!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Marooned (Frankovich/Columbia, 1969)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s movie at the Vintage Sci-Fi showing in Golden Hill was a big-budget epic from 1969 (the last year the venue organizer considers “vintage”) called Marooned, made by Columbia in 1969 and co-produced with an in-house “independent” company headed by the studio’s then-production chief, Mike Frankovich. Marooned began life as a novel by Martin Caidin, who also wrote Cyborg — the basis for the TV series The Six Million Dollar Man — though his emergence as a writer of science fiction, or indeed any fiction, in the 1960’s was a surprise because until then he’d been known mostly as an author of nonfiction books about World War II (including The Night Hamburg Died and A Torch to the Enemy, about the U.S. bombing raids against Germany and Japan, respectively). The first person to think about turning Marooned into a movie was veteran director Frank Capra, who, coming off the spectacular failure of his 1961 film A Pocketful of Miracles (the bloated and casting-compromised[1] remake of his 1933 classic Lady for a Day), did a 20-minute short about space travel, Reaching for the Stars, for showing at the New York World’s Fair. The experience led him to space as a possible subject for another feature film, and he seized on Caidin’s Marooned, selling it to Columbia (his old stomping grounds from 1926 to 1939) and persuading Frankovich, who ironically had got his start in films on a major Capra project (he had a bit part as an announcer in Meet John Doe), to greenlight it. “Mike went for Marooned in a big way,” Capra recalled in his autobiography. “I moved back into Columbia Studios in May 1964. Walter Newman began writing what was to become a most magnificent script. Three long, frustrating years later, I backed off from Marooned, a beaten, frustrated man. Using his powers of script and budget approval, Frankovich finally forced me into an impossible position: make the film for under $3 million or give up the project. I gave up the project. Whereupon Frankovich took it over as his personal production, engaged John Sturges to direct it, and spent $8 million in filming it.”

It’s hard to imagine Marooned fitting into Capra’s oeuvre — unless the whooping horns that go off at the space center in Houston when at least some of the marooned astronauts are rescued are supposed to represent their guardian angels getting their wings — but it doesn’t really fit into Sturges’ oeuvre either. His best-known films are the taut modern-Western melodrama Bad Day at Black Rock and the action-fests The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, two key films in the career of Steve McQueen, and he was available to take over Marooned because McQueen had just fired him from the auto-racing drama Le Mans after they’d been having arguments over McQueen’s insistence on fewer lines. (Most actors read a script and demand the writers give them more dialogue; McQueen, who was convinced he was at his most star-powered when he reacted on screen to what others were saying or doing, asked for less dialogue, and on Le Mans his penchant for silent reaction grew to the point where he said nothing for the first 30 minutes of a two-hour movie. “Steve, you’ve got to say something!” Sturges pleaded. McQueen fired him.) Marooned was problematic for a director whose best films range widely across picturesque countrysides because virtually all of it takes place in confined spaces: first, the spacecraft being ridden by the Apollo “Ironman I” mission and the space station in which they live for five months (it’s supposed to be seven, but the fuddy-duddies at Mission Control cut it short after they notice the astronauts are becoming cognitively impaired by their long period of weightlessness), then the control room at the space center in Houston and finally the interior of the XRV which flies a hazardous rescue mission to save the three astronauts who ended up trapped in their spacecraft when the retro-rockets (the backwards-firing rockets that are supposed to slow their descent into the atmosphere so they land safely and don’t disintegrate into ash in the atmosphere upon re-entry) mysteriously fail.

The plot (as conceived by Caidin and scripted by Mayo Simon — a name that seems to inspire so many bad jokes I won’t go there — after Frankovich junked Newman’s “most magnificent script” — judging from Newman’s work on Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, also a drama about a rescue, a Marooned made from his script would probably be better than the one we have) concerns the three trapped astronauts, Jim Pruett (Richard Crenna), Clayton Stone (James Franciscus) and “Buzz” Lloyd (Gene Hackman) — by coincidence, one of the astronauts on the first Apollo mission actually to land on the moon was also nicknamed “Buzz,” Bob Aldrin — along with Charles Keith (Gregory Peck, top-billed), the fussy Mission Control head who’s in charge of trying to talk them down; hot-shot former astronaut Ted Dougherty (David Janssen, who steals the first half of the film out from under the other principals until he’s locked inside the XRV for the second half and becomes just another anonymous guy in a spacesuit — one lesson you learn from the film is that if you’re wearing a spacesuit your ability to act is severely limited no matter how good you are in normal clothes), who insists on launching a rescue mission even though the only available rocket was designed for something else and the XRV has never actually been tested for manned flight; and the astronauts’ Stepford wives: Celia Pruett (the overqualified Lee Grant), Teresa Stone (Nancy Kovack, whom I’d otherwise heard of only as the female romantic lead in the Three Stooges’ last film, The Outlaws Is Coming, with Adam “Batman” West as the male lead), and Betty Lloyd (Mariette Hartley, who’s almost as overqualified for her role as Lee Grant). When one of the women says that they understand their job is to keep house and hold down the fort while their menfolk do exciting things like explore space, the two women in our audience groaned and the screening’s organizer said, “Now do you believe this is a vintage movie?” (And this film was released in 1969, six years after the Soviet Union had launched the first woman into space; I remember pissing off a woman in a grocery line in 1983 when I was saying people were making way too much of Sally Ride being the first American woman astronaut to fly a space mission, and she thought I was just being a male-chauvinist asshole until I added, “20 years after the Russians did it,” and she understood and got my point.)

The big problem with Marooned is it’s surprisingly boring — the most frustrating sort of bad movie, one with a good movie trapped inside and desperately trying to get out — it’s a plot that had been done before (in overall outline even if not in the details) and would be done far better later (in the masterly Apollo 13 and, from what I hear, in Gravity, a film that’s still sitting in my DVD backlog but which I’m interested in watching because other people at the screening said they felt Gravity succeeded where Marooned failed), but it still should have had potential for a better film than the one that got made. Deprived of the wide-open spaces of his Westerns and chase films, director Sturges muffs one opportunity for suspense after another; the astronauts look almost indistinguishable from each other in their spacesuits (and Gene Hackman, the most talented actor of the three, just makes himself insufferable in an attempt to “spin” his character and establish a difference from the other two); Gregory Peck goes through the entire movie showing almost no emotion at all (I understand taciturnity was part of his stock in trade as an actor, but in his best films, like To Kill a Mockingbird, you at least got the impression there were things he cared about emotionally) and coldly weighing the alternatives of leaving the astronauts up there until the oxygen in their spacecraft runs out and mounting a rescue attempt that just got more difficult because a hurricane is aiming straight for the launch site at Cape Canaveral (though it’s called “Cape Kennedy” here during the short-lived renaming of the site for the 35th President) — a problem Peck’s character solves by waiting to do the launch until the rocket is in the eye of the hurricane; and the sheer sang-froid of the Stepford wives the astronauts are married to is a thing of ugliness and a horror to behold. (Even when Mrs. Pruett is called over and informed that her husband has just sacrificed his own life so the other two will have enough oxygen to hold out until the rescue vehicle arrives, she doesn’t seem to break a sweat over the news: she’s upset but neither angry, grief-stricken nor shocked.)

As if the malfunctioning retro-rockets, the lack of testing of the rescue vehicle, and the hurricane weren’t enough melodramatic elements to keep the plot boiling, a Russian space vessel (which you can tell is Russian not only because its name is in Cyrillic lettering but it looks like a giant samovar — where the Apollo spacecraft looks like a giant vacuum cleaner and the red XRV looks like a giant budgie) comes along and saves Lloyd, while Stone is rescued by the XRV. The audience at our screening watched the film in stunned silence for the first two hours of its swollen 132-minute running time (about 100 minutes would have been the right length for this story) and then, during the final sequences in which various astronauts are floating around, untethered, in deep space either being rescued or missing it, started laughing. If there’s one thing that can be said for Marooned, it’s that it carried over from Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey from the previous year the taciturn emotionlessness of the astronauts themselves and all the people on the ground helping them — I remember that auteur critic Andrew Sarris hated 2001 when it was first released but said it looked more believable after the Apollo 11 moon landing because the real astronauts had behaved in the same emotionless fashion as the ones in Kubrick’s film — but whereas 2001 was exaltation Marooned is just a bore, and it didn’t even do well at the box office, earning just $4,350,000 in its initial release. And because it takes place in the filmmakers’ present and depicts only technology that actually existed at the time, I’m not even sure Marooned qualifies as science fiction; it’s just a bad quasi-military melodrama about space travel that could have been a nail-biting thriller but fell far short of its potential.

[1] — Capra wanted Helen Hayes for the part of Apple Annie, the young Steve McQueen as gangster Dave the Dude and Shirley Jones as his nightclub-owning girlfriend. He was forced to settle for a miscast Bette Davis as Annie, Glenn Ford as Dave the Dude and Hope Lange, Ford’s then-squeeze, as the girl.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Babylon 5: “Objects in Motion” (Babylonian Productions, Warner Bros., 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The TV shows shown at last night’s “Mars Movie Night” — an episode of Babylon 5 from its last season (in fact, there were just two more episodes after this one) and two shows from the interesting series spinoff, Crusade — proved surprisingly compelling, and after last week’s events in Paris these shows (especially the latter Crusade episode, “Ruling from the Tomb”) seemed deeper and richer than they might have otherwise, especially given that they were written and produced in 1999, two years before the 9/11 attacks brought the “war on terror” home to the U.S. Babylon 5 was originally based on an idea by Harlan Ellison, a marvelously creative writer but also notoriously tetchy and protective of his ideas. Ellison gave interviews before the show went into production saying that he wanted it to be the ultimate “answer story” to Star Trek, for which he’d written one of the best and most highly regarded episodes (“The City on the Edge of Forever”), but the producer, J. Michael Straczynski, took over, rewrote the whole concept and used so little of what Ellison had provided that he got listed as “creator” of the series while Ellison got only the nebulous credit “conceptual consultant.” Later, when he spun off Crusade for Turner Network Television (TNT), it was Straczynski who had to fight off notes he got from the bosses at TNT, including their insistence that the first episode begin with a fist fight (why?), so it was Straczynski who got to enact the role of the put-upon Artist forced to compromise his vision at the behest of the “suits.” (Karma — ain’t it a bitch.) I hadn’t watched any of either of these shows until I started seeing them at the Mars movie nights, but as nearly as I could tell from what I’ve seen so far of Babylon 5 it seems to center around a spaceship called Bellerophon which gets involved in what amounts to a war between Earth and its former colony Mars, in which the human outpost on Mars helps dethrone a corrupt Earth President and declares its independence.

The main dramatis personae on the episode we watched last night, “Objects in Motion” (which was followed, almost inevitably, by “Objects at Rest,” though the cultural referent that occurred to me was “ … may be closer than they appear”), in addition to the series regulars (led by Bruce Boxleitner as John Sheridan, the captain of the Bellerophon — or was it the Agamemmnon, as I recorded it the last time I posted about this show?), were Tessa Holloran (Marjorie Monaghan), first president of the newly independent Mars (she’s also referred to as “Number One” and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was an oblique reference to the character of “Number One,” the cold, emotionless woman who was going to be the second-in-command on the original Star Trek until the first pilot, “The Cage,” was rejected and her coolly logical demeanor was grafted onto the Vulcan Mr. Spock to give Leonard Nimoy the character all Trekkies know and love); and Lise Hampton-Edgars (Denise Gentile), who’s just inherited ownership of one of the biggest companies exploiting Mars’s resources in its colonial period. She’s also engaged to Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle, second billed to Boxleitner on the series’ regular cast list), who as the episode begins she’s helping detox from a long spell of heavy-duty drinking (so he hardly seems like a prize catch), but whose help she needs to get rid of a corrupt board of directors who tried to have her assassinated because they were worried that she and Garibaldi would uncover their corrupt machinations and get them jailed for ripping off both the company and the Martians.

Another part of the plot concerned the farewell party being given for G’Kar (Andreas Katsulas), one of the indigenous Martians on the show — you can tell the indigenous Martians because they’re wearing ugly and pretty blatantly fake-looking helmets to make their heads look bulging and their skin look mottled — which is where Garibaldi and Lise figure the hit people hired to kill her will strike. This episode had the look and feel of something being drafted to tie up loose ends before the show completed its run (indeed, one reviewer, the quite prolific “planktonrules” from Florida, wished the show had ended with this episode because “the final two were amazingly depressing and maudlin”), and it seemed quite beautiful and moving even though one would have to have a lot more knowledge of what happened in the previous 4 ¾ seasons to appreciate it fully. But then I’ve long felt that is one of the annoyances of TV serials: whereas episodes of classic series like Law and Order and its spinoffs were self-contained and you could generally enjoy them without having to have watched them all, too many modern shows tell you basically that in order to enjoy them you have to watch all the episodes in sequence, and when TV producers tell me “all or none,” they’re pretty well guaranteeing I will watch none.

Crusade: “War Zone” (Babylonian TV, Turner Network Television, Warner Bros., 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Though just about everyone thought Crusade — itself a title fraught with unintended significances these days, given that to the West the term “Crusade” just connotes a major struggle that mobilized a large number of people for an idealistic end, to the Muslim world it’s a reminder of a genuine holy war once waged by Christian Europe against Islam and a word used by Muslim terrorists eager to portray themselves as heroes in a millennial “clash of civilizations” with Christian nations — was inferior to Babylon 5 (the people at the screening thought so, as did the critics at the time, the reviewers and the TV audience, since its ratings were poor and it was canceled after just one season), I found it much more profound and moving. At least part of that was due to its plot similarities to the entire “war on terror” in general and its most recent battlefront — the November 13 attacks in Paris by groups either part of or associated with or allegiance to (the lines between those relationships do get blurred) Islamic State, sometimes known as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) or DAESH (which is apparently a transliteration of their initials in the Arabic alphabet and can also be “bent” in its pronunciation to sound like an Arabic slur). The plot of Crusade, which was apparently outlined in a special two-hour episode of Babylon 5 called “A Call to Arms” which was presented as a TV-movie, is that an alien race called the Drakh mounted an all-out assault on Earth, intending to conquer it. Their spaceships were vanquished and they retreated, but they left behind a genetically engineered plague virus that, once it learns how to infect earth organisms — a process Earth’s scientists have figured will take about five years — will destroy all life on Earth.

As a result, Earth itself has been placed under quarantine, and with Earth seemingly under a microbiological death sentence anyway, a number of apocalyptic religious cults have sprung up. They have their disagreements with each other but all subscribe to the deep-ecological notion that humans had become a pestilence on Earth even before the attack and the virus is actually a judgment from God that people have screwed up so badly everyone and everything on the planet needs to die. The two episodes of this very interesting show that were presented last night were the series opener, “War Zone,” and the eighth one, “Ruling from the Tomb.” The gimmick is that while the colony of Earth scientists on Mars are desperately researching the Drakh plague and seeking to find a cure within the five-year (literal) deadline, Earth authorities have also sent out a spaceship called the Excalibur and recruited hotshot space-fleet officer Captain Matthew Gideon (Gary Cole) to captain her. I’ve had a hot crush on Gary Cole since I saw him not long ago in a Lifetime TV-movie called Lies He Told, made in 1997 (two years before Crusade), in which he played an ex-Air Force servicemember who was using his special operations training to support himself by robbing banks, and he’d married (bigamously) to a woman so naïve she kept believing his more and more preposterous explanations about where his money was coming from and what he was doing when he set off and disappeared for days or weeks on end. (That’s a major part of the Lifetime iconography: just about any genuinely hot male on one of their shows turns out to be a villain!) The opening fistfight insisted on by the “suits” at TNT takes place between Gideon and a group of young crew members who attempt to mutiny on his previous ship, and whom he of course subdues easily through what appears to be a combination of upper-body strength and the sheer force of his star personality. Since the ringleader of the mutiny, and the participant Gideon personally slugged, was the son of a prominent Senator in the Interplanetary Federation (or whatever it’s called in this fictional universe), when Gideon is summoned to Mars he thinks it’s to get a dressing-down.

Instead it’s to get a promotion to command the Excalibur, a ship that’s 1.3 miles long (though that’s nothing compared to the one in Babylon 5, which was five miles long), whose mission it will be to hunt down the Drakh and see if they can either capture one alive or find out enough information that they will be able to help the scientists on Mars cure the plague and save all life on Earth. Gideon asks if he’ll be able to select his own crew and he’s told he’ll be able to pick some of them but not all — “We’ve had to make a lot of compromises to get this thing off the ground,” he’s told, in what one “Trivia” poster said might be an allusion to what J. Michael Straczynski went through trying to get the series on the air — and in particular he insists on carrying over his first mate from his previous command, Lt. John Matheson (Daniel Dae Kim — why this obviously Asian actor is playing a character with an Anglo last name is a mystery), and also he insists on hiring Dureena Nafeel (Carrie Dobro), a member of the “Thieves’ Guild” who persuades Gideon she’ll be a useful addition to his crew since she can hack any security system and break into anything. In the opening episode the crew — including Dr. Sarah Chambers (Marjean Holden), one of the crew members forced on Gideon by his superiors (and an odd-looking woman who resembles Mick Jagger in drag) — encounter an archaeological team on a planet on which a Drakh spaceship was forced to land after an Earth attack. Gideon finds a couple of befuddled archaeologists, Max Eilerson (David Allen Brooks), who has somehow managed to learn the Drakh language and talks his way onto the Excalibur crew with that skill; and the much younger (and hunkier) Trace Miller (Alex Mendoza, who in his later career apparently used the name “Zeus Mendoza”). They also capture the captain of the Drakh vessel that landed there, but he invokes the laws of war and refuses to talk — and Gideon is too nice and too ethical to torture or “enhance” him. Overall, “War Zone” was a good and provocative beginning for a series whose central premise seemed to me to be a lot more compelling than Babylon 5, and which promised great things.

Crusade: “Ruling from the Tomb” (Babylonian Productions, Turner Network Television, Warner Bros., 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The other Crusade episode shown last night, “Ruling from the Tomb,” delivered on the promise of “War Zone” and proved unexpectedly intense as drama — though its strong resemblance to the recent ISIS attacks on Paris (both led by nihilistic religious groups with a bizarre, twisted faith in their idea of God and a willingness to kill indiscriminately to fulfill their “spiritual” beliefs) probably made it more moving than it would have been if I’d seen it another time and seemed to carry parallels the writers (J. Michael Straczynski and Peter David) didn’t imagine when they were creating it. The setting is Mars, in and around a huge conference center in which a group of scientists and other experts are going to convene for a big meeting on how to deal with the Drakh plague. Just why they have to do a face-to-face meeting, with all the intendant security risks, when one would presume the technology of 2267 (when this show takes place) would enable them to do the meeting electronically with the participants appearing to each other as holograms (c’mon, guys, Skype exists already!), is a mystery, but much of the episode is a battle of wills between Matthew Gideon (Gary Cole), the series’ star and captain of the Excalibur, and Captain Elizabeth Lockley (Tracy Scoggins), who’s in charge of security for the conference. The plot kicks into high gear when one of the conference attendees is stabbed to death, and the killer turns out to be Dr. Alain Lebecque (John Novak), one of the classmates of Trace Miller (Alex Mendoza) when he was in seminary studying for the priesthood before Trace bailed out and went into archaeology instead. Lebecque has bought into the deep-ecological beliefs of the nastiest of the doomsday cults that have sprung up in the wake of the Drakh plague, the quarantine of Earth and the whole sense of impending doom that has gripped the human race — even those members who are safe, at least for the time being, on other planets or in space. The whole episode is chilling as a parable of the degree to which religious fanaticism can lead people to great actions for good or ill; it turns out Lebecque has become obsessed with the idea that he’s being addressed from the great beyond by no less than Joan of Arc, and when they find his journal in which he’s recorded everything she’s supposedly told him, all the entries are direct quotes from the real Joan of Arc as they’ve survived in historical records from her era. I don’t know what the entire Crusade series was like, but if it’s anything like these two shows the whole run would be very much worth watching!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Inspector George Gently: “Gently Going Under" (Company Pictures/BBC/PBS, 2013, released 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was a 2014 episode of the 1960’s-set BBC-TV mystery series Inspector George Gently, “Gently Going Under” (the copyright date was 2013 but the episode first aired in the U.K. on February 27, 2014), which seemed to be aiming for a plot that would almost literally have it all: Arthur Hawkes (Ralph Ineson, whose character is dead at the start but seen in enough flashbacks later on he actually has a fair amount of screen time) is a shop steward at the Burnsend coal mine until he’s found dead under mysterious circumstances in the mine. Apparently whoever killed him was trying to fake it to look like he died in a mining accident — his body was even placed next to a seam within the mine that had already been closed down as unsafe — only he lived long enough to crawl out of range so the pilings didn’t just fall on top of him the way whoever killed him was hoping for. Britain’s National Coal Board (which ran the mines from the time Clement Attlee’s Labour government had them nationalized in 1945 until Margaret Thatcher’s government had them denationalized again) is planning to close the Burnsend mine because it’s old, not especially productive and soon to be played out altogether, but the coal board’s representative is meeting with the miners and assuring them that the mine is likely to remain open. Arthur is an old-line labor leader who participated in a strike in the 1930’s (there’s a photo of him doing so on the miners’ union headquarters’ wall) and is trusted by the men, so they listen to him when he talks them out of striking. Then it turns out that he’s well aware the mine is closing and has asked the Coal Board to give him a new job at a mine in Leeds, and naturally when this comes out it ups the ante for Inspector George Gently in that it suddenly gives a lot more people the motive to kill him.

Arthur Hawkes has a penchant for spending his weekends at Newcastle with his best friends from the mines, Billy Shearer (Jack Deam) and Panda Wheelan (Dale Meeks), getting drunk and betting on dog races — in fact the three actually owned three dogs and were working a scam whereby one of their dogs would be doped to slow it down in preliminary races to drive up the odds, so the dog would win the big race when they doped him to run faster (which led to Arthur having 300 pounds in his locker at the mine when he was killed and led Gently to suspect briefly that bookies who’d lost big on this race might have had him done in). It turns out, though, that the real move for Arthur’s murder has to do with his family; his wife died of cancer some years before the story begins, but he has two children, a 20-something son named Sam (Lewis Reeves) and a 17-year-old daughter named Hannah (Poppy Lee Friar). Hannah is having an affair with Joe Turner (Michael Socha), son of a long-time friend of Arthur’s named Peter Turner (Simon Greenall); Joe is startled when his mom Margaret (Lucy Cohu) tries to break him and Hannah up, but he assumes she’s just worried about the age difference. It turns out, though, that the real reason Margaret is so het up about Joe dating Hannah is that they’re actually half-siblings; Joe was conceived when Peter was off fighting in World War II and Arthur Hawkes is his real father. This comes out after Hannah disappears, leaving a big puddle of blood in her home that turns out to be from an illegal D.I.Y. abortion Margaret helped her with, which went so badly Hannah had to be taken to the hospital, and one can readily imagine the writers, Mike Cullen and the uncredited Steve Lightfoot, high-fiving each other and saying, “Look what we got into this episode — coal miners, crooked labor leaders, class struggle, adultery, abortion, incest!” In case you were wondering, the killer is Peter Turner, who even though it's been over two decades since it happens still goes into a jealous hissy-fit when he learns his wife tricked out on him all those many years ago, and gets into an argument with the man she tricked with (and whom he suspect she’s still in love with) lo those many years ago.

The sleuths are George Gently (Martin Shaw) himself — who injures himself in the leg tramping around the mine to investigate the scene of the crime — and his assistant John Bacchus (Lee Ingelby), who looks like he ended up on the Inspector George Gently set by mistake while en route to another BBC studio where they were casting a biopic of the Beatles (he could be passed off as the young John Lennon or George Harrison relatively easily) and whose dialogue is so full of Right-wing attacks on the coal miners and their unions as “Commies” and the like one gets the impression that once Thatcher takes power he’ll feel right at home in the New Britain. I hadn’t cared for the previous Inspector George Gently episode I’d seen — it dealt with anti-nuclear protests and didn’t really rise to the potential of their subject — but I liked this one even though it couldn’t help bur remind me of the Law and Order: Special Victims Unit fifth-season episode “Families,” which also centered around the character of a young man having an intense affair with a woman he doesn’t know (until the end) is his half-sister.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Fidel Castro Tapes (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

One of the PBS documentaries last night was called The Fidel Castro Tapes and was actually a rerun from September 2014, a unique and engaging program in that it told the story of Fidel Castro from his early days as a college radical to his retirement from power in 2008 (replaced by his only slightly younger brother Raúl) largely in Castro’s own words, from interviews and clips of his speeches. What was fascinating is that before Castro became the black-hearted enemy, the face of Communism’s one beachhead in the Western Hemisphere, according to the incessant U.S. propaganda against him, before he took power he was seen in the U.S. either as a sympathetic figure or at least an ambiguous one, a nationalist revolutionary who fought against the government of his predecessor, Fulgencio Batista (who had taken power in a military coup staged in 1952 on the eve of a national election in which Cubans would have voted for president and a legislature, and Castro was actually planning to run for a seat in the Cuban Congress) and who said all the right things about not seeking power for himself but only in the name of the Cuban people, to whom he promised democracy, free elections and freedom of thought. During his time in the Sierra Maestre mountains in 1958, as his guerrillas gained strength and defeated Batista’s supposedly professional army in one battle after another, he was quite frequently interviewed and even visited by U.S. news reporters, to whom he spoke in delightfully fractured English and explained that he was a nationalist and a democrat, not a Communist.

Just how Fidel Castro changed in U.S. propaganda from sympathetic democrat to loathsome Communist (recently Charles and I watched a 1959 movie from TCM called Pier 5, Havana, in which the Castro government were depicted as good guys and the hero foiled a counterrevolutionary plot by Batistanos to overthrow him) is unclear; relations between Castro and the U.S. in the first year and a half or so were a weird mess of misunderstandings. Castro actually went to Washington, D.C. in 1959 and sought a meeting with President Eisenhower, who begged off and instead sent his vice-president, Richard Nixon. Castro told reporters he thought the meeting had gone well, but Nixon told Eisenhower Castro was “a man to be watched” (though, as Charles joked, Nixon seems to have felt that virtually everybody ought to be “watched” in that pejorative sense) and the U.S. Congress first froze Cuba’s sugar quotas and then cut them off completely. That seems to have driven Castro into the arms of the Soviet Union, who sent their vice-chair to Cuba and negotiated an agreement to buy 1 million tons of Cuban sugar per year, and with that foot in the door the Soviets then negotiated a series of mutual aid treaties and, ultimately, a military alliance that led to Cuba definitively taking the socialist road, nationalizing the U.S. companies (there’s an interesting clip here of the names “United Artists” and “Warner Brothers” being chiseled off the façades of Cuban movie theatres) that had dominated Cuba’s economy before the Revolution, and ultimately leading to the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba which (despite the wishful thinking of the writing staff on the compelling CBS series Madam Secretary) continues to this day, with no end in sight. (Indeed, given that Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both sons of anti-Castro Cuban émigrés, are currently top contenders for the Republican Presidential nomination, it seems likely that even the small “opening” to Cuba President Obama had made in resuming diplomatic relations may well be reversed by the next President.)

The second half of the documentary is more familiar, covering the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 (and in particular the fact that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev withdrew the missiles from Cuba without consulting Castro, who was predictably livid that he’d been sold out), the brief “opening” to Cuba during the Carter thaw (during which I got to go to Cuba myself on a trip my mother arranged, and my greatest memory is the spectacular beaches, the pre-Revolutionary Meyer Lansky-build Habana Riviera Hotel where we stayed, the nightclub where at least part of the Cuban musical and cultural tradition was preserved, but best of all the ability to spend one week in an environment without public advertising: the only billboards to be seen had revolutionary slogans and pictures of people like Lenin and Ché), the Mariel boatlift of 1980 (which was largely an opportunity seized on by Castro to get rid of criminals and Queers; indeed Oliver Stone seized on this when writing the script for the 1983 remake of Scarface by changing the central character from an Italian-American to a Cuban immigrant with a criminal record in his own country who came over during the boatlift), the “special period” in which Cuba had to respond to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the overnight drying-up of the spigots of aid Castro had been relying on to keep his country afloat (earlier writer-director Tom Jennings had made the point that when the Batista government had fled into exile they had done such a good job taking the Cuban treasury with them that Castro and his crew literally didn’t have enough money on hand to run the country and they desperately needed emergency aid from somebody, and when the United States didn’t come through and the Soviet Union did, they got the influence they had sought and an unforeseen but welcome “beachhead” in the Western Hemisphere), the hysterical (in both senses) controversy over Elian Gonzalez, and ultimately the modus vivendi, including a partial (but often rescinded and then re-established) reopening of the possibility of private enterprise in Cuba and enough deals with non-American companies (despite a Congressional law passed in the early 1990’s that actually tightened the trade embargo by enforcing it against not only U.S. but other countries’ companies doing business in Cuba — the idea was to get the world’s capitalist enterprises to abandon Cuba en masse by forcing them to choose between selling to the U.S. and selling to Cuba, but most companies worked around it by routing their Cuba trade through subsidiaries and cut-out that had no U.S. presence) to maintain an economy.

There’s enough residual hatred against Cuba from the long-ago émigré Cubans in the Miami diaspora to keep the U.S. and Cuba at loggerheads for years or even decades to come, even though younger Cuban-Americans with no direct memory of life on the island would like to see the embargo lifted so they can see their relatives who stayed behind, and there are plenty of farmers and businesspeople in the U.S. who would like to see it fall because they’d like to sell to Cuba — but as with gun legislation (on which the National Rifle Association has the power to kill any reform, no matter how mild or how sensible or how broadly supported by the American people, because they can mobilize voters on their side and the gun-safety groups can’t), it’s the anti-Castro minority, still fighting the battles of the Cold War, that hold sway on the issue.

American Comandante: The William Morgan Story (PBS “American Experience,” 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After The Fidel Castro Tapes PBS showed a documentary on their American Experience series called American Comandante: The William Morgan Story — a Cuba-related tale that told the story of the revolution in a very different manner from the one we got in The Fidel Castro Tapes, and told it through the eyes of William Morgan, a ne’er-do-well from Toledo, Ohio who ran away from home at 14 to join the circus. His dad ran him down in Chicago and brought him back, but Morgan kept getting into trouble until he joined the Army immediately after World War II and participated in the occupation of Japan — until he got dishonorably discharged for stealing and selling guns from the armory. With a dishonorable discharge on his record he was virtually unable to find any other decent employment — not that he particularly seemed to want to; he joined the circus again and this time, since he was an adult, his parents couldn’t do anything about it. He married and had two kids, but got restive again and saw his main chance when he heard there was a revolution going on in Cuba and it needed fighters.

One point The William Morgan Story made was that Fidel Castro was not the only revolutionary who was making war against the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in the late 1950’s. Havana was in the northwest corner of Cuba; the Sierra Maestre mountains where Castro had his redoubt were in the southeast; and in the middle of the island there was another mountain range called the Escambray, where the dominant revolutionaries were a group called the Second National Front of the Escambray and their leader was Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo. Morgan’s original intent was to join Castro’s group, the 26th of July Movement (named after the date Castro and a small band of fighters had tried to raid the Cuban army base at Moncada in what was the equivalent in Castro’s career to the Beer Hall Putsch in Hitler’s; it failed and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but after a lot of worldwide pressure on Batista to relax his treatment of political dissidents, he was part of a general pardon and was freed after just two years), but he couldn’t get all the way across the island from Havana without being apprehended by Batista’s troops, so he settled in the Escambray and joined Menoyo’s movement instead. Like Castro’s guerrillas, Menoyo’s won a key series of engagements against the better equipped but less motivated Batista regulars, and towards the end of 1958 as Batista’s fall looked imminent, Castro sent Ché Guevara to the Escambray with orders to negotiate with Menoyo and bring his force into the broader Cuban resistance as led by Castro. Menoyo’s response was to capture Ché and hold him at gunpoint, and though Menoyo more or less joined forces with Castro eventually, when the new Cuban government was organized Castro gave all the principal positions to his loyalists and relegated Menoyo’s to the second tier.

Later in 1959 William Morgan got a call from the Mafiosi who had occasionally employed him before he left for Cuba offering him a million dollars. “Who do I have to kill for it?” Menoyo said. The answer was Fidel Castro, whom the Mafia had marked for death because they had lost a lot of money in the elaborate casinos they had built in Cuba which the Cuban government had now closed. (The government later reopened the hotels as venues for international tourists — many of whom were Russians, since the Soviet government often used trips to Cuba as prizes for particularly hard workers or others they wanted to reward in some way — but kept the casinos closed.) It turned out there was an elaborate plot that had been worked out between the Mafia, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo (a nasty Right-wing creep who had taken Batista in after the Cubans had driven him out) that was to include the murder of Castro, an attack on the capital from the Batista supporters who had remained there, an anti-Castro uprising in the Escambray, and a massive invasion launched from the Dominican Republic to overthrow the Castro regime and ostensibly establish democracy in Cuba (but more likely just revert to the status quo ante and install a pliable dictator who would let the United Fruit Company and the Mafia alone to exploit the island). Morgan met with Castro and the two worked out a counter-plot that involved bugging Morgan’s entire house so every word uttered in it would be recorded somewhere and Castro would find out who the remaining Batistanos on the island were and be able to arrest and execute them en masse. The plotters were uncovered, but both J. Edgar Hoover and the State Department were so furious with Morgan they rescinded his American citizenship.

Then in 1960, as Cuba’s “tilt” to the Soviet Union increased and Castro announced his intention to make Cuba a socialist, and then a communist, country, Menoyo himself had had enough and he decided to launch a revolution of his own to overthrow Castro and start a new government loyal to the first principles of the revolution, including democracy and freedom of thought. Castro infiltrated two people into Menoyo’s security detail and was able to stop the plot before it really had a chance to start, and while Menoyo fled to Miami and eventually was allowed to return to Cuba (where he died in 2012), Morgan was captured and eventually executed under Castro’s orders after a sham “trial” before a military commission, two of whose five members slept through most of the proceedings. Morgan’s story is a fiction film waiting to be made, especially his progress from ne’er-do-well deserter to the world of circuses, carnivals and the Mafia and then to Cuba, where he married a Cuban woman and found a calling working for a revolution he helped to triumph and then opposed after he’d felt it had betrayed its original ideals. I couldn’t help but think this would be a great film for Tim Burton to direct and Johnny Depp to star! As things turned out for Morgan, not only did Castro have him executed, he worked overtime to erase him from Cuban history (as George Orwell would have put it, “He did not exist — he never existed”), and this film (and the book written by this film’s author and director, Aran Shetterly) only came about because he was in Cuba in 2001 and someone told him about Morgan’s story. A series of titles at the end mentions that Morgan’s wife (who was allowed by the Cuban government to leave, where she settled in the U.S. and apparently married another American, since she’s listed in the credits as “Olga Rodriguez Goodwin”) petitioned the U.S. government and got Morgan’s American citizenship restored posthumously in 2007, but his actual remains are still in Cuba.

Frontline: “ISIS in Afghanistan" (WGBH/PBS, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After that PBS ran a Frontline documentary that probably proved timelier than it had seemed when they commissioned it: a story about the campaign of Islamic State against both the government and the Taliban in Afghanistan. They were doing this as part of a split show that also covered the Taliban’s presence in Pakistan (which is pretty much old news by now) but I turned it off after the segment on ISIS in Afghanistan because I’d had enough coverage of terror and destruction for a while. I couldn’t help but think throughout this program of Margaret Mead’s famous quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Most people who cite that think of it in terms of a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens trying to do good in the world, but the problem is it applies equally well to small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens who wish to do evil. The Ku Klux Klan, the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, Operation Rescue, the Tea Party (the modern one) and ISIS all began as small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens (if one removes the positive value judgment usually attached to the word “thoughtful” and just thinks of it as meaning people who have thought deeply about what they are doing, whether the thoughts are positive or negative) seeking to change the world, and they all accomplished that. For me, the scariest moments of the show were the final words, from Abu Rashid, a former Taliban who defected to al-Qaeda, in which he said, “The garden of the caliphate wants a river of blood from us. Faith and belief demand blood. You must sacrifice to gain eternal life. God will expand this beautiful caliphate everywhere.” Once again we’re in the presence of people like the Nazis and the Communists who want to remake the world no matter how many millions of people’s blood they have to spill in the process — and while ISIS may not seem like a threat at the level of the Nazis or the Communists now, they very well could be, especially if they achieve state power in a country (as they are arguably close to doing in the parts of Iraq and Syria they control) and especially if they achieve state power in a country (like Pakistan, maybe?) that has nuclear weapons.

The Frontline segment on “ISIS in Afghanistan” was the work of expat Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi, who’s previously done other Frontline segments on the Taliban and who this time was reporting on a group of people so sinister, so evil, so vicious they actually make the Taliban look good by comparison. In one interview early in the show Abu Rashid explained that he had a moral duty to switch allegiances from the Taliban to ISIS: “Yes, we were fighting holy war as Taliban. Our holy war was just because there was no caliphate then. But God says when there is a caliphate, you must join the caliphate. There is a caliphate now, so we’ve left the Taliban. We’re fighting holy war under [the] caliph’s leadership.” Of course, some other ex-Taliban who’ve joined ISIS have had more mercenary reasons for the change in allegiance — like ISIS pays better: as Quraishi explained, “The commander told me ISIS offering them $700 per month. Once they join ISIS, they get a normal salary and they can feed their families. Afghanistan is a poor country, and you have to do something, you have to work something, and $700 is a lot in Afghanistan.” He shows an ISIS school where children are trained not only in the justice of jihad but in the use of weapons; they’re given a chance to play with Kalashnikovs, automatic pistols and hand grenades. “What is jihad?” says the teacher in the clip from a class shown in Quraishi’s documentary. “We must implement God’s religion over all people. God says do jihad until intrigue, idolatry and infidelity are gone from the world.” Elsewhere Abu Rashid says, “We want the Islamic system all over the world, and we will fight for it.” ISIS’s recent attacks against Lebanon, Russia (where they blew up an airliner in mid-flight from Cairo to Moscow) and now France have been at once a dramatic change in strategy for them — previously they’d been more like a guerrilla army than a terrorist group, concentrating on holding territory and governing it in Syria and Iraq rather than mounting major attacks against the West (indeed, ISIS broke off from al-Qaeda in Iraq precisely over their belief at the time that 9/11-style attacks on Western targets were ineffective in bringing about the Muslim Caliphate and re-establishing Muslim rule over all the territory between Spain and India, which was ISIS’s stated goal when it was formed) — and a wake-up call for the world that these people are not going to go away.

And what’s more, they’re not a force that can be vanquished by conventional military means — ironically the Paris attack happened on November 13, the very day the U.S. had announced the killing of the ISIS official nicknamed “Jihadi John,” and President Obama had gone on TV to announce that ISIS had been “contained” (which in the history of bad calls ranks right up there with “Dewey Defeats Truman”) — which only underscored that a group like ISIS has a huge “bench.” It’s not dependent on one person, or a handful of people, because it’s recruited enough people that for every one ISIS official or fighter we kill, there will be 10 or more to take his place. And what’s more, every time we send in a drone strike or drop a bomb on a presumed ISIS headquarters, innocent civilians will die, their families will hate us forever and ISIS will have more recruits and more propaganda points with which to recruit them. It’s not clear how ISIS will ever be defeated but it is clear that the kind of retaliation both French and U.S. officials are talking about won’t do it — the clash between ISIS and the Western world is less a “clash of civilizations” (as both ISIS and many of their so-called “Christian” opponents would like to frame it) than a clash of ideals, and if the horrible last century or so of human existence has proved anything, it’s that you only defeat a bad idea with a better idea. It’s not clear at the moment what should be done about ISIS, but it’s clear that the U.S. strategy of trying to keep a three-way war going in Syria — between ISIS, the government of Bashir al-Assad, and the so-called “moderate rebels” (who are in fact an insignificant force; the U.S. recently spent half a billion dollars trying to “train” them and got no more than 128 active battle participants in return) — is utterly insane and the Russians are right when they say the only way to defeat ISIS in Syria is to support, arm and protect the Assad government and its professional, well organized military. Likewise the mutual threat of ISIS is one reason the U.S. should be pursuing more and better relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, who are predominantly Shi’a Muslims and therefore are considered apostates and heretics by the Sunni crazies that make up groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. ISIS has succeeded in the number one task of a terrorist organization — to spread terror — and the more we respond to them by staging bombing raids that kill uninvolved civilians, the more they will gain.

What’s more, they’ve been experts at using the Internet in general and social media in particular — a book on terrorism I read not long ago, by an author who had formerly worked in U.S. counterterrorism and therefore had to keep his name out of the book, said that the Internet is having the same disastrous effect on world peace as the invention of the printing press and its export to Western Europe in the 15th century. His argument is that new technologies for spreading information and ideology often have the opposite effect than the “bringing people together” optimists often think they will: he said that the ability of printers to disseminate information quickly in the 15th century led to hundreds of years of wars between different religious sects and their secular representatives in national leadership that virtually paralyzed Europe, and likewise the rise of the Internet will bring about more world war instead of world peace, as terror organizations like ISIS (which didn’t yet exist when he wrote, but he saw the signs) have a new tool of unprecedented effectiveness in bringing together disaffected young people, mostly but not always from Muslim backgrounds (there’s a provocative article in a recent Los Angeles Times that argues that it’s precisely Britain’s willingness to allow its Muslim immigrants to form their own insular communities and even run their own courts that has immunized the U.K. from the kind of sweeping attack we saw against France, where a tradition of separation of church and state originally designed to keep the Roman Catholic Church from dominating the government has been applied to Muslims and thereby made them feel like they have to choose between Islam and France). It occurred to me while watching the William Morgan documentary that he went to Cuba because that was the game in town for a wanna-be revolutionary in the 1950’s; had he had those feelings of isolation and alienation in the 1930’s, he might well have joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War — and today a person like Morgan might well be high-tailing it to Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan to join ISIS.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Mother Betrayed (Feifer Worldwide, Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was another “world premiere” on Lifetime, Michael Feifer’s (he’s one of four producers listed as well as director and writer, and the studio is called “Feifer Worldwide” — other studios that make bad movies may call themselves “International,” but his is “Worldwide”!) A Mother Betrayed. The mother who gets betrayed is Monica Hooper (Lynn Collins), who as the film begins is at the beach with her husband Jonathan (David Paetkau, who looks barely old enough to have graduated from high school but is supposed to be his wife’s partner in an up-and-coming architectural firm) when she tells him she’s pregnant and they take a rather grotesque-looking “selfie” of themselves on the beach as he responds to the good news. Alas, on their way back from the beach their car is run off the road by a mysterious driver and Jonathan is killed (and the shot of his corpse on the road is a singularly unconvincing one that looks like Feifer did it with a doll he bought at Toys ’r Us). Monica is taken to a hospital and it’s unclear what happens to her for the next nine months or so, since the next time we see her she’s in a hospital bed having just given birth to a daughter. We’re told by Monica’s mother Barbara (a first-rate performance by veteran actress Joanna Cassidy) that the doctors had to give her an emergency C-section to get the baby out, and since her daughter was hors de combat Barbara chose to name the girl Maddy. Then comes one of Lifetime’s usual titles to announce the passage of time, “Four Years Later,” and four years later Monica is the head of a multi-million dollar architectural firm bidding for projects in Australia, Tokyo and Dubai as well as Seattle (where she takes a two-day trip and we see a stock shot of the Space Needle to establish “Seattlicity”). Somehow she has managed to work herself as well as her principal associates into virtual exhaustion and build this fantastic business even while also suffering from crippling migraines and nightmares that frequently flash her back to That Night. Her principal assistant Lisa (Bree Williamson) suggests that it’s time for her to start dating again, and at a party Monica is throwing at her home for her firm and its (local) clients the seemingly right man turns up: Kevin Richardson (Adam Kaufman), who seems reasonably attractive without the level of drop-dead gorgeousness that generally signals villainy in the Lifetime iconography.

It turns out that Kevin is a villain, though; he’s part of a plot cooked up by Lisa to drive Monica crazy and take over her firm. We began to suspect this as soon as we saw the sinister glint in Lisa’s eyes as she watched Monica run things at the office, but it takes over an hour of running time before Feifer finally lets us in not only on what the plot is but also how Lisa and Kevin are connected. Monica is madly in love with Kevin, whom she not only marries but allows to legally adopt Maddy (who, in a common casting dodge, is played by identical twins Ariella and Isabella Nurkovic — it’s standard practice to cast an important child role with twins to get around the limitations on how long a child performer can work; one twin plays some scenes and the other twin plays others, so the director gets enough screen time for the character without breaking the law on how long each child can work). Then, about an hour and 10 minutes into this two-hour (less commercials) movie, Monica stumbles on an old photo showing Kevin and Lisa with her late husband Jonathan (ya remember her late husband Jonathan?) and she catches on to the whole scheme. Well, most of it, anyway; what she doesn’t realize is that Kevin is spiking her food with a drug of his own invention that is causing her to black out, have memory lapses and hallucinate (including one scene in which she imagines Jonathan in the car with her, telling her to “join him,” and for a brief moment I wondered if he was a real person, an actor Kevin and Lisa had hired to impersonate Jonathan and get Monica to commit suicide). Monica has complained about this to Lisa, and Lisa has recommended she see a psychiatrist, Dr. Sommers (Cain Coley) — who, aside from coming off like Nurse Ratched in her later career, is also part of the plot, as is Kevin’s attorney Jerry (John Griffin, whom we get some nice topless views of while he’s hanging out with Kevin and Maddy at Monica’s home — he is the sexiest guy in this film!), though they’re getting restive about when Kevin and Lisa are going to pay them off and whether their participation is really worth risking their licenses to practice.

Meanwhile, Barbara and Monica’s dad Harry (Richard Cox) are starting to figure things out — at one point they try to take Maddy away from Lisa and Kevin intervenes and comes close to strangling Barbara — and eventually it ends with Monica stealing Dr. Sommers’ cell phone and using it to record Kevin confessing all, including the revelation that Lisa is his wife (but then how could Kevin inherit Monica’s firm if his “marriage” to Monica is bigamous? If she’s declared mentally incompetent, control would pass to her parents! Or were we supposed to believe Kevin and Lisa had done a divorce of convenience before he married Monica?), and an exciting action scene in which Monica escapes from the hospital in Kevin’s SUV, Kevin carjacks a white Jeep and gives chase, and the police chase both of them until Kevin loses control of his vehicle and drives it off a cliff, while Lisa is arrested. A Mother Betrayed had the makings of a good Lifetime movie, but whereas another Lifetime writer like Christine Conradt would have made it both more suspenseful and more dramatically credible — she would have had Monica pick up little hints that led her gradually to realize all was not as it seemed with her and her “dreamboat” husband, and given Lynn Collins more of a chance to act internal conflict over whether she should keep trusting him or not — Feifer gave her one “Rosebud” moment that turns her instantly from trusting patsy to aware victim. Still, it’s a nicely done thriller, well acted (especially by Collins and Bree Williamson as Lisa — along with old-pro Joanna Cassidy, who it seems would give a great performance no matter what she was getting from the director’s chair) and reasonably entertaining even if severely weakened by the far-fetched plot devices Feifer relied on to power his script — and, as I’m fond of saying about not-so-good movies made by writer-directors, since the director was also the writer he has no one to blame but himself!