Saturday, April 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Ten Commandments (Motion Picture Associates/Paramount, 1956)

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

After a Bible discussion at Unity Fellowship Church in which, among other things, Charles and I had participated in a brief conversation about what’s gone wrong with most movies based on Bible stories, I decided to get out our DVD of one of the most intriguing and perfectly wrong-headed Bible movies ever made: Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments. One of the most famous atheists of all time, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote a book called Beyond Good and Evil; any fair assessment of the 1956 DeMille Ten Commandments might well be called “Beyond Good and Bad.” It’s virtually impossible to judge this movie by normal cinematic criteria of excellence (or the lack thereof) because it is so much itself, so much governed by its own artistic code, it seems to exist in a movie netherworld, a perfect expression of a basically corrupt artistic (and commercial) impulse. When Cecil B. DeMille emerged as a director in the late 1910’s, he was considered one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, and a lot of aspiring directors — including Erich von Stroheim, Sergei Eisenstein and Fritz Lang — looked up to him. Watching his silent films like Male and Female (1919) and The Affairs of Anatol (1920), one can see why: early DeMille combined a fine aesthetic eye with a strong sense of drama. Indeed, if you want a shock run The Affairs of Anatol and Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), back to back — and note that though the films are strikingly similar in plot and theme (both are based on stories by turn-of-the-last-century Viennese author Arthur Schnitzler), DeMille’s movie is far more sophisticated artistically, culturally and even morally. Then, after the William Desmond Taylor and Fatty Arbuckle scandals of 1922 rocked the film industry and started the calls for censorship that would result in the promulgation of the Production Code in 1930 and its full-out enforcement four years later, DeMille realized that the movies he’d made his reputation on — full-out tales of sexual decadence among the 1 percent, who in his films (designed by his openly Gay art director, Mitchell Leisen) bathed in tubs the size of Olympic swimming pools — were becoming more dubious both politically and commercially. 

So he discovered the Bible. In 1923 he made a silent version of The Ten Commandments that ran 2 ½ hours, and for its first hour it told the story of Moses and the Exodus while for the rest of its running time it presented a freshly minted (by DeMille’s long-time screenwriter, Jeanie MacPherson) tale of business, political and sexual corruption in modern-day San Francisco that was supposed to illustrate the enduring importance of the Ten Commandments as rules to live by. The film was a huge box-office hit, and four years later (temporarily separated from his long-time home at Paramount, a studio DeMille and his original business partner Jesse Lasky had helped found, and working independently) DeMille followed it up with a biopic of Jesus, The King of Kings, that was the first film he made based entirely on a Bible story. DeMille would turn to the Bible and to faith in general for material again and again, including making The Crusades (1935) — a surprisingly fair-minded presentation that treated Islam quite fairly instead of turning the Crusades into the “Christians good, Muslims bad” parable one would have expected from that time and that director (I’ve long suspected that Dudley Nichols, who co-wrote The Crusades and is a surprising writer to see on a DeMille movie, was responsible for its intellectual and religious sophistication) — and the ghastly Samson and Delilah (1949), starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr, of which Groucho Marx famously said he wouldn’t watch it because “I never see movies in which the man’s tits are bigger than the woman’s.” Old and conscious that his time on Earth was limited, after he finally won a competitive Academy Award for his Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus film The Greatest Show On Earth (1953), DeMille went to his bosses at Paramount (he’d returned there in 1932 for the blockbuster hit The Sign of the Cross and never worked anywhere else again) and got them to green-light a full-out Biblical remake of The Ten Commandments. 

The finished film lasted three hours and 40 minutes — making it seem, quite frankly, more an endurance test than an entertainment — it was shot in three-strip Technicolor (one of the last gasps of the process that was being replaced by Eastmancolor and monopack Technicolor) and Paramount’s patented wide-screen process VistaVision (which rejected the anamorphic “squeeze” principle of CinemaScope — a lens that distorted the image so a wide frame would fit on ordinary 35 mm film, and a compensating decoder lens on the projector that undistorted it again — and instead shot on 35 mm film but turned the image sideways so it could be wider without the distortion of CinemaScope) — and DeMille extensively ballyhooed the fact that he was shooting the film on location in Egypt. He had gone to Egypt’s new revolutionary government, headed by General Gamal Abdel Nasser, with some trepidation — Egypt was already turning to the Soviet Union for funding the Aswan High Dam after the U.S. had refused to do so — and had prepared an elaborate presentation to convince Nasser to allow him to work in Egypt. Nasser and the other generals in his government who met with DeMille startled him by telling him up-front that as kids they had so enjoyed The Crusades, and in particular its fair-minded treatment of Islam, that as far as they were concerned DeMille could go anywhere and shoot anything he wanted in their country. At that, only 5 percent of the finished film was shot in Egypt; the rest was done on Hollywood soundstages with some of the most obvious painted backdrops and process screens in history — and though audiences in 1956 raved about the special effects, they seem dated and tacky today (especially the parting of the Red Sea, in which the waters recede to the sides of the screen and form solid-looking walls flanking a virtually dry sea bed), despite the participation of master effects technician John P. Fulton (who 23 years earlier had figured out how to make Claude Rains invisible) as well as Farciot Edouart, Paramount’s usual effects head. (I remember that when I first saw the 1923 silent version I was struck by how much more convincingly DeMille and his effects person then, Roy Pomeroy, had parted the Red Sea than DeMille, Edouart, Fulton et al. did it 33 years later.)  

The Ten Commandments achieves a sort of perfect tackiness throughout all three hours and 40 minutes. DeMille’s direction is surprisingly static, letting his splendiferous sets and cast of thousands (literally — back then a “cast of thousands” actually meant having to hire, pay and feed that many extras instead of creating them digitally à la Titanic and Gladiator) tell his story for him; more than any other director I can think of, DeMille’s command of storytelling and the grammar of film actually declined as he got older. The script is written by committee — Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse Lasky, Jr. (son of DeMille’s first business partner in films), Jack Gariss and Fredric M. Frank — and draws on a multitude of sources, including The Holy Scriptures as well as the works of other ancient historians like Philo and Josephus (needed, DeMille explains in an extraordinary prologue he delivers in front of a drawn curtain as well as supplying an omniscient voice-over narration at particular junctures in the film itself, to fill in the missing parts of Moses’ story from the Book of Exodus, which jumps from Moses the baby in the bulrushes to Moses as a young man in the Egyptian court who’s suddenly “outed” as a Hebrew) and at least three modern books DeMille had obviously bought so he could give their authors money and credit and thereby avoid plagiarism suits: Dorothy Clarke Wilson’s Prince of Egypt, J. H. Ingraham’s Pillar of Fire, and A. E. Southon’s On Eagle’s Wing. The dialogue achieves a near-perfect balance of quasi-Biblical tonalities and Hollywood sillinesses, and the script as a whole is content to dramatize the most superficial aspects of the story and avoid any real attempt to probe What Made Moses Run. It also doesn’t help that the cinematography by Loyal Griggs makes the entire movie look like those heavily saturated, tackily designed color postcards of Biblical themes intensely believing Christians used to post to their walls (and for all I know still do).

As it comes out in this film, Moses’ tale is essentially a coming-out story, in which the baby Moses (Fraser Heston, Charlton Heston’s son, in what his dad said in his published journals was his first and last acting credit) is set adrift by his Jewish parents and found in a basket by the Egyptian princess Bithiah (Nina Foch), who’s just lost her husband and accepts the presentation of a baby as if he has impregnated her and fathered her son from the afterlife. Moses grows up in the Egyptian court as the heir apparent and favorite of Pharoah Seti (sometimes spelled “Sethi” in the documentation on the film), played in his usual droll manner by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, thereby pissing off Seti’s son Rameses (Yul Brynner, who was still acting on Broadway in The King and I when The Ten Commandments was filmed — he had to do all his work on the Egyptian locations in one day so he could fly back and meet his stage commitments — and would make The King and I as his next film). The gimmick is that Seti is going to name either Rameses or Moses as his heir, which will mean not only becoming Pharoah but also getting to marry Princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter — virtually all the actors seem to be locked in a competition to show who can be least convincing as a Biblical-era Egyptian or Jew, but Baxter wins hands down; it also doesn’t help that she and Nina Foch look the same age on screen even though they’re supposed to be of different generations), who’s got the hots for Moses and has no idea he’s really a Hebrew until Bithiah’s slave Memnet (Judith Anderson) “outs” him by showing the piece of red-and-white Levite cloth he was wrapped in back in the basket 30 years earlier. Bithiah kills Memnet for revealing the secret, but the damage has been done, and Moses leaves the Egyptian court and is consigned to slavery along with the rest of the Jews in Egypt — including his real mother Yochabel (Martha Scott), whom he previously saved from being crushed to death on one of Pharoah’s big construction projects without having any idea who she was; his brother Aaron (John Carradine); his friend and eventual heir Joshua (John Derek); and Joshua’s girlfriend Lilia (Debra Paget).

They’re being pushed to complete the Pharoah’s grand city by master builder Daka (Vincent Price, who actually turns in one of the best performances in the film even though he responds to the script’s silliness by camping it up big-time the way he did in a lot of his later horror films — it’s a real shame he gets killed an hour in) and the Jewish overseer Dathan (Edward G. Robinson, who’d been blacklisted for his Left-wing politics until DeMille, one of the most well-known Right-wingers in Hollywood, got him taken off the blacklist so he could appear in The Ten Commandments), who parlays his knowledge of who and what Moses really is into a lavish mansion, the job as Daka’s replacement and Lidia as his sex slave. Charlton Heston plays Moses as a grim monomaniac; he’s not a good enough actor to suggest any moments of doubt or torment — not that the script supplies him any such opportunities — instead he goes through the whole movie with a fanatical devotion to his Cause and an intolerance for dissent that rather plays against the film’s theme (expressed by DeMille in his prologue, which makes it clear he saw The Ten Commandments as a Cold War parable of resistance to Communism) of liberty vs. tyranny. The film also comes to a dead stop for various production numbers — it seems that just about any time DeMille can find an excuse to have scantily clad girls dance (or something like it) before the giant VistaVision cameras, he does — and of course he makes the most of the opportunity the Golden Calf sequence presents for the film’s biggest and tackiest orgy. (Of course DeMille was still working under the Production Code — indeed, one of the attractions of The Ten Commandments as a subject matter for him, in 1956 as well as 1923, was the opportunity to present spectacular sinning and then punish it on screen — though the Paramount Home Video DVD contains a “G” rating, obviously from a theatrical reissue in the early days of the rating system that replaced the yes-or-no Production Code; today, as Charles pointed out, the sex and violence in this movie would probably get it a PG, or even a PG-13.)

Oddly, the film turns considerably less interesting after the intermission (Paramount split it onto two DVD’s and blessedly spotted the break where the original theatrical intermission fell), when the at least potentially dramatically compelling confrontations between Moses and Rameses and the death of Rameses’ son are over and DeMille actually has to show the Exodus. When composer Elmer Bernstein — who won an Academy Award for this film just three years after making his movie debut in Cat Women on the Moon (I thought that was the most embarrassing debut credit for a composer who went on to do major films and win an Oscar, but John Williams’ credit on the 1958 juvenile delinquency drama Daddy-O certainly rivals it!) — turned in his score for the start of the Exodus, DeMille decided it was too somber and sad, so he ordered Bernstein to come up with something more joyful — and Bernstein responded with a wildly inappropriate action theme that sounds like the score he wrote for The Magnificent Seven three years later. One would have thought the parts of the movie most strongly and clearly based on the Book of Exodus would have inspired DeMille and his writing committee more than the rest of it — instead they come off more like a checklist (“Red Sea parts? Check. Pharoah’s army drowns? Check. Golden Calf orgy? Check. Moses sees the Burning Bush and God etches the Ten Commandments onto two stone tablets on Mt. Sinai? Check”), and the film lumbers to a close, with Moses looking older in every scene but in a totally unconvincing way (when DeMille as narrator introduced his final appearance, I joked, “And the Lord anointed Charlton Heston’s face with much crêpe paper to make his beard look long and white so he would seem older”) and a final credit that reads, not “The End,” but, “So it was written, so it shall be done.” And, as was virtually pre-ordained by its overall conception and the era in which it was made, The Ten Commandments did exceedingly well at the box office and DeMille’s and Paramount’s coffers did overflow with its profits; it was the second highest-grossing movie to that time (only Gone With the Wind had made more) and the audiences, if not the critics, pronounced it good.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Secrets in Suburbia (MarVista Entertainment, Sunshine Films, Lifetime, 2017)

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

I put on the TV last night for the second “Premiere” movie on Lifetime, something originally called Secrets and Sins but aired under the much duller title Secrets in Suburbia. One would think it’s really not that novel an observation that people in suburbia often have affairs with people other than the ones they’re married to, but Damián Romay, who both wrote and directed this (and therefore, as I like to say about bad movies in which the director and writer were the same person, he has no one to blame but himself), seems to act like he’s just discovered it. The page on the film fails to identify one of the four leading actresses (there’s only one significant male part) — the young, attractive Black woman who plays Monica, the divorce attorney who as the film begins has just successfully represented Scarlet (Tara Conner) in her divorce from a man named Troy. The film begins at a party where Scarlet is celebrating her divorce and thanking the friends who made it possible and supported her through it at their regular Thursday night get-togethers at which they absent themselves from any menfolk in their lives, get drunk on wine, play card games and gossip, gossip, gossip. It’s also established that the action takes place in a college town and all the principal characters — Monica, Scarlet, Kim (Linn Bjornland), Gloria (Brianna Brown, top-billed) and her husband Phil (Joe Williamson) — attended the college, which is called St. Francis. However, while Scarlet, Gloria and Kim all came from families with money, Monica and Phil were scholarship students and, as George Orwell described his life in a British prep school in his grim essay “Such, Such Were the Days,” the students with money looked down heavily on the students without it, bullied them and called them “charity cases.” That didn’t stop Gloria from agreeing to marry Phil when he proposed after Scarlet dumped him, but she’s kept him on a strict allowance and has set up the $10 million she inherited from her father in a tightly controlled trust fund he isn’t allowed to touch because it’s being saved for their kids (they have a son named Bradley, played by Brody Behr, and a daughter who’s sort of in the background, and they pack the kids away to summer camp at the start of the plot so writer Romáy doesn’t have to slot them into the later action).

The big thing that happens at Scarlet’s divorce party is that her ex, Troy, shows up with a gun, threatens her and her three best friends, then shoots himself in front of her guests — but that is pretty much forgotten through the rest of the film. Instead, we get periodic flashbacks to the party as we learn what else is going on between the four women and Phil. We’re led to believe that Phil’s and Gloria’s marriage is rocky but we don’t realize how rocky it is until we see Phil use a hypodermic to extract a toxic fluid from a blue plastic bottle (it’s antifreeze, we later learn) and inject it through the cork into the wine bottle Gloria is going to take to the next get-together. Gloria pours herself some of the wine and their dog Lulu gets into some of the substance when she throws the cork away and Lulu upends the trash can and drinks it. The result is that Gloria gets severely ill with kidney failure and almost loses her leg, while Lulu’s little kidneys get overwhelmed and the dog croaks. Gloria accuses Phil of still being interested in Scarlet, but via a flashback at the party we learn that Scarlet actually attempted to seduce Phil and got as far as unbuckling his pants (presumably getting ready to go down on him) before Phil told her, “I can’t do this. I’m married.” Nonetheless, Gloria’s suspicions that Phil is cheating on her are proved correct. Phil then attempts to pressure Gloria into breaking, or at least loosening, the restrictions on the trust so Phil can get his hands on Gloria’s father’s money, but Gloria explains that she was so appalled by what her dad did to earn that money she’s sworn never to touch it herself and to leave it to her children to make the moral choice of whether they should use the money or not.

Then we get a scene between Phil and Monica in which it’s established that he hired her to break the trust in exchange for $500,000 of the $10 million Phil would get — only Monica is upping the ante and demanding a full $5 million, half the fortune, and when Phil offers to become her lover instead she makes it clear to him — and us — that all she wants is the money. Finally we learn that it’s the last woman in Gloria’s and Scarlet’s social group, Kim, who’s Phil’s alternate lover and the one he was planning to run away to Buenos Aires with (Gloria found the order for the tickets on Phil’s computer and that’s one reason she was so convinced he was having an affair and planning to leave her), and Gloria not only figures it out but gets a gun and pulls it on Phil while he’s taking a shower. The film then cuts for commercials, and when it resumes Gloria shows up for her usual Thursday night party with the girls with blood across the front of her dress, saying she’s just shot Phil dead in self-defense and asking for their help — only the situation deteriorates. Monica drinks quite a lot of the poisoned wine and ends up crashing her car after she leaves the party, and Kim threatens Gloria with a knife, giving Gloria the excuse to shoot her with the gun and say that was self-defense, too. In a tag scene that suggests Damián Romay has been watching the films of Tony Gilroy as well as those of Alfred Hitchcock, it turns out that Phil wasn’t dead at all: Gloria faked the blood on her dress as part of a revenge plot against him and her supposed “friends,” and instead of killing Phil she reported him to the police so they would arrest him at the airport for attempted murder as well as having embezzled from his employer to finance his Buenos Aires trip.

Charles came home one-third of the way through Secrets in Suburbia and told me when it was over that what he’d seen made no sense — and I assured him that it didn’t make any more sense to me even though I’d seen the film all the way through. It seemed through much of the running time as if Romáy had been attempting to crowd all the Lifetime clichés he could think of into one script, and about the only even remotely creative thing he did was in his casting of Joe Williamson as Phil. Instead of the drop-dead gorgeous type that usually portrays a Lifetime male villain, he cast a stocky guy of medium height and tousled hair, reasonably nice-looking but hardly irresistibly attractive, the sort of actor that generally gets cast on Lifetime as the understanding husband who helps his wife fend off the maleficent attractions of the hot-looking stalker or psycho who’s after her for nefarious reasons. Other than that, and some bizarre touches like the quartet of four cellos that entertains at Scarlet’s party and the use of the fast theme of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville overture (Charles once heard the overture and asked, “Is this the overture to The Barber of Seville, the overture to Aureliano in Palmira or the overture to Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra?” — the joke being that Rossini used the same piece as the overture to all three of those operas) as running gags — it’s established that Gloria herself was an amateur cellist and was good enough to pursue it professionally but gave it up when she married Phil (and there’s a nice scene that shows her frantically playing her cello when she returns home after killing Kim and waits for the police to show up and interrogate her), Secrets in Suburbia is just a typical Lifetime movie, and not an especially good one at that: other Lifetime writers and directors, notably Christine Conradt, have got considerably more out of these familiar situations than Romay did.

Friday, April 14, 2017

American Experience: The Great War (PBS-TV, aired April 10-12, 2017)

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

PBS ran a three-part series called The Great War under the rubric of their American Experience program from April 10-12 — I saw the last two episodes when they originally aired and “streamed” the first last night from the PBS Web site — which was timed for the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I (“The Great War” was what World War I was usually called before there was a World War II). In 1996 PBS had run an eight-hour series from the BBC called The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, which dealt comprehensively with the entire conflict, but this new one from American Experience — as that tag suggests — focused exclusively on the effect of World War I on the United States and in particular America’s political move from official neutrality (but an unmistakable “tilt” towards the Entente powers of Britain and France, and against Germany) to actually fighting in the war to its role in attempting to determine the peace. The “star” of the show, naturally, is President Woodrow Wilson, who had essentially come into the White House accidentally — he’d won a three-person race in 1912 after the Republican Party split into the progressive faction led by former President Theodore Roosevelt and the conservative faction led by incumbent William Howard Taft (and when Hillary Clinton’s partisans in the 2016 election were proclaiming her the “best prepared” Presidential candidate of all time, I noted the uncomfortable truth that that description could have just as well applied to Taft — who made such a hash of his Presidency that when he ran for re-election in 1912, he placed third) — and for the first 18 months of his term had focused largely on enacting the progressive economic agenda, including creating the U.S. income tax and the Federal Reserve. Then war broke out in Europe in 1914 for reasons that are still being argued — and about which most Americans were totally clueless at the time.

The show was produced by Mark Samels but used a different director for each episode — Stephen Ives for episode one, “American Neutrality Erodes”; Amanda Pollak for episode two, “The First Mass Conscripted Army”; and Rob Rapley for episode three, “A Nation Comes of Age.” The first show told the story from the start of the war in August 1914 to the U.S.’s official declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, and made the interesting comment that Wilson was the most religious person ever to occupy the White House. I think Jimmy Carter could have given him competition in that department, and indeed there were a number of similarities between Wilson and Carter: both were convinced that human rights and humanitarian concerns in general should be cornerstones of U.S. foreign policy, and at least in their preachments, if not always in their actual practice, their attitudes and policies towards other nations were strongly influenced by idealistic concerns. (This led Henry Kissinger to call them the two worst Presidents in American history.) Wilson’s character, as depicted in this program, is a mass of bizarre contradictions; he was a progressive on economic issues; a thoroughgoing racist who put his stamp of approval on D. W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation not only as a President (“it is like history written in lightning”) but an historian (“It is all so terribly true”) and purged the U.S. civil service of the handful of African-Americans who had been hired under his immediate Republican predecessors McKinley, Roosevelt and Taft; and an idealist whose unbending sense of morality and insistence on American unity made him both the proponent and enforcer of some of the most draconian laws against political dissent (the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918) in U.S. history. (Displaying a typical bit of what I call “first-itis” — the tendency of biographers in any medium to argue that the person they’re biographing was the very first to do a particular thing even though there are ample historical precedents — the makers of this show argued that those laws were the most repressive in history; though in that regard they were preceded by the Alien and Sedition Acts passed by President John Adams and the Federalist Congress in 1798 and later by the Smith Act, the McCarran Act and other bits of repression of the so-called “McCarthy” period of anti-Left repression in the 1940’s and 1950’s.)

When World War I started the U.S. was remarkably split about it, not only because of our overall politics but specifically because the country was very much “a nation of immigrants” (in 1914 one-third of the U.S. population was either foreign-born or first-generation offspring of immigrant parents) and all the belligerent countries on both sides of the war had produced large numbers of immigrants to the U.S. The show argues that American “neutrality” in the first three years of World War I was largely a sham; in the modern parlance, the U.S. was definitely “tilting” to Britain and France for a number of interesting reasons. One was the heavy involvement of the richest and most powerful capitalist in America, J. Pierpont Morgan, who offered heavy credit to the British (he was a fierce Anglophile and definitely wanted Britain and the Entente to win, and the more money he invested in the British cause the more determined he was to see Britain win, even if it required the U.S. to enter the war on the British side, because he would have lost all his investment in Britain if they had lost — something like the similar stake the Rothschilds of Europe had had in the defeat of Napoleon a century earlier). Another was the influence of writers like war correspondent Richard Harding Davis and novelist Edith Wharton, both of whom observed the German advances through Belgium and France and wrote ardently pro-Entente articles and books which were best sellers and helped shape U.S. opinion in an anti-German direction (indeed, the filmmakers read an excerpt from one of Davis’s dispatches watching the German army move through supposedly neutral Belgium on its way to France, and his description of it as a “machine of destruction” reminds one of how a later generation of correspondents described the German occupiers in the Second World War and shows why many people during World War II didn’t make a distinction between Hitler and previous German leader but instead saw the Nazi regime as just a continuation of the Kaiser’s, both dominated by the Junkers and the Prussian military establishment who were bent on seeing Germany conquer first all other German-speaking countries, then all of Europe and finally the world).

The third was the British decision to cut all the transatlantic cables linking the U.S. to continental Europe — which meant the only cable U.S. war correspondents could use to send their dispatches back home was the one that started in Britain and was therefore controlled by British censors, who of course eagerly sent through dispatches favorable to Britain and its allies and held up or blocked completely ones that were favorable to Germany. There was a major propaganda counter-offensive among German-Americans, including a magazine called The Fatherland which attempted to portray the war from a German-friendly perspective, and there were also German espionage and sabotage efforts aimed at keeping the British from getting the supplies Morgan’s loans and other British funding sources were paying for — including a new weapon of war, the submarine, which proved brutally effective at sinking both cargo ships and passenger liners. The show discusses the sinking of the Lusitania and in particular the charge made at the time (and by later historians as well) that one torpedo from one German submarine would not have been sufficient to sink her in 20 minutes had it not struck below the waterline and set off the munitions stored in the ship’s hold for the British military. (In essence the passengers on the Lusitania were being used as cat’s-paws by the British company that owned her.) Indeed, after the Lusitania was sunk Wilson made a formal protest to the German government and got them to promise to call off the subs and be more careful about who and what they sank — especially in avoiding ships that were actually flying the U.S. flag — and it was Germany's abandonment of that policy and resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917 that was the pretext for Wilson’s request that the U.S. Congress declare war on Germany. (This was in an era in which Presidents still followed their Constitutional obligation to ask Congressional permission to fight wars instead of just starting them on their own.)

The second episode of The Great War focused largely on the propaganda effort Wilson started to “sell” the war to the American people, for which he recruited a public-relations man named George Creel to set up something called the “Office of Public Information,” which was basically an American Ministry of Propaganda that sought to get out the pro-war, pro-Entente message through all U.S. media. Among the projects were hiring artist James Montgomery Flagg to do the famous “Uncle Sam Wants You” poster (he based it on a similar poster used by the British and used himself as the model for Uncle Sam) and organizing so-called “Four-Minute Men” to give supposedly impromptu, but actually carefully prepared and scripted, pro-war talks in movie theatres when the reels of the film were being changed (apparently World War I antedated the era in which theatres had two projectors so they could switch reels in mid-film without any noticeable break between them) — a program that got extended so the four-minute speeches appeared during just about every venue in which people gathered for mass entertainment. There are also brief accounts of how the movie studios cooperated by making films showing the brutal atrocities supposedly being committed routinely by the German armies — though the film didn’t mention this, Austrian-born Erich von Stroheim became a star during World War I portraying one dastardly Prussian officer after another and was even billed by his studio, Universal, as “The Man You Love to Hate” — and how the music publishers of Tin Pan Alley abruptly shifted their output from pacifist songs like “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” (the number one song in the U.S. in 1915, which was subtitled “A Mother’s Prayer for Peace”) to jingoistic pro-war fare like the most famous propaganda song of the war years, George M. Cohan’s “Over There.” Wilson also pushed through the Espionage and Sedition Acts through Congress and used them aggressively both during and after the war to punish political dissenters, including Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs (who was imprisoned in 1918 for having made an anti-war speech and was not let out until December 1921, when Wilson’s Republican successor, Warren G. Harding, pardoned him) and suffragette Alice Paul — who led a radical group that put off more moderate women’s suffrage advocates (much the way ACT UP, at least in its early days, pissed off the AIDS establishment) — when Paul and the protesters she had recruited to put up a daily picket outside the White House saying that Wilson was being a hypocrite by claiming he was fighting for the right of European people to determine their own destiny democratically while denying that right to American women, they were arrested, they went on a hunger strike and were force-fed much like the more recent detainees at Guantánamo.

One particularly grim story told in the series concerns a group of Hutterites in South Dakota who were arrested for refusing to register for the draft or wear uniforms on the ground that it was against their religion; they were literally tortured to death in a U.S. prison and their leader, Josef Hofer, was not only killed but after he died was dressed in the uniform he had given his life not to be forced to wear. Another aspect of the war discussed in this show was just how hard it was to pull together the U.S. Army into a fighting force, including passing a controversial conscription law (it was during World War I that “Selective Service” was coined as a euphemism for “draft”) and training people who had no combat experience and often didn’t speak the same language: one interesting statistic cited in the show was that at the start of the U.S. involvement in World War I its soldiers spoke 42 different languages, not counting English. Indeed, the difficulty of training inexperienced conscripts and welding them into an effective fighting force was one reason the U.S. commander, John J. Pershing (one of the most overrated generals in military history, by the way — the show mentioned that in 1914 he’d led an expeditionary force into Mexico to fight against Pancho Villa in the Mexican revolution; it did not mention that Villa’s troops kicked Pershing’s ass), insisted that the U.S. troops would fight under American commanders exclusively and would be merely “associated” with, not “allies” of, the British and French armies. If The Great War has a weakness, it’s that little of it is actually about the war: the major battles on the Western Front — the Marne, Verdun, the Somme — are depicted only in light of how they were reported in the U.S. and how the handful of U.S. volunteers who fought in them fared (a number of Francophile Americans, mostly from upper-class backgrounds, enlisted in the French Foreign Legion — officially La Légion Étrangere, literally “The Legion of Strangers” — as early as 1914 because they wanted to get into the war before their country did officially) — and the later battles in Belleau Wood and the Meuse-Argonne Forest are covered in more detail only because Americans were actually fighting in them after April 1917.

Another interesting aspect of the story The Great War covers quite well is the involvement of African-Americans in the struggle and the hope of a lot of Black community leaders that the war would give them a chance to show they were fully deserving of racial, social and political equality — and the grim dashing of those hopes when they got back from the war and found that, if anything, whites in both the South and North were more determined to drive them back into second-class citizenship than they had been before. (Remember that Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation — the film Wilson so admired — had said that the two things Black Americans must never be given were the right to vote and the right to bear arms.) One of the grimmer stories is of Black servicemember Leroy Johnson from Arkansas, who survived some of the most brutal fighting of the war — only to be lynched, along with his two brothers (also veterans), as part of the racial violence in his home state in 1919. The film also tells the story of the 15th Division, a group of African-Americans organized by community leaders in Harlem, who got their division accepted into the Army only after they pledged to fund it themselves (including buying all its arms and supplies) and they agreed to allow white officers to command it. It became a national sensation and was nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters,” and probably the most famous person associated with it was the Black bandleader James Reese Europe. Europe had more successfully “crossed over” to a white audience than any previous Black entertainer — and he had done it on his own terms, not enacting the ridiculous stereotypes most Black performers fell into. His band was the first Black orchestra to give a concert in Carnegie Hall and he was hired by the famous white dance couple, Vernon and Irene Castle, to accompany them. A sample of Europe’s music can be heard at the 1914 recording “Castle House Rag,” a piece Europe wrote to promote the Castles and their nightclub, which shows that Europe led a band whose core was the brass-reeds-rhythm split that later became the basis for the jazz-flavored dance music of the 1920’s and the swing bands of the 1930’s, but which also carried an ensemble of banjo players and an ensemble of drummers. (Alas, the limitations of 1914 recording make it difficult to hear them as more than just an undifferentiated din in the background.) Alas, Europe survived the war only to die in 1919, murdered by one of his drummers who thought Europe was after his wife.

Of course, it’s impossible to watch a show like The Great War without making the inevitable parallels between the history it depicts and things that have happened since — including the evaporation of Wilson’s idealistic hopes for peace, first in the negotiations at Versailles (in which he got “taken” by the British and French leaders, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau, and had to agree to a far more vindictive peace, especially in the punishing reparations imposed on Germany, than he had had in mind), then in his negotiations with the U.S. Senate, which in the 1918 election had fallen to the Republicans — and, like Barack Obama 96 years later, Wilson found the Republican Senate bound and determined to block everything he tried to do (and, again like Obama, he was succeeded in office by a largely unqualified Republican who sought to undo all that idealistic nonsense and, as Harding put it, “return to normalcy” — a Harding malapropism: he really meant the word “normality,” but “normalcy” stuck and actually entered the language). World War I also anticipates more recent conflicts in the way it was “sold” to the American people — indeed, one particularly fascinating aspect is the way babies have been used to sell people on wars, from the atrocity propaganda in 1914 put out by the British that the German soldiers liked to throw babies in the air and impale them on their bayonets, to the propaganda lies put out in 1990 that Iraqi soldiers invading Kuwait were stealing incubators from hospitals and throwing the babies in them on the floor; to President Trump’s (I had to mention him sometime!) assertion that “babies, beautiful babies” were being killed in Syria by Bashar al-Assad’s gas attacks.

Of course, gas warfare itself was also a World War I invention — indeed, one of the ironies of World War I was that in many ways it was an old-fashioned struggle even though it introduced a lot of new technologies to war (like the submarine, the airplane and the tank) — and among its victims was a young Austrian corporal named Adolf Hitler, who was in a field hospital recovering from a gas attack when he received word that Germany had surrendered and the war was over. Hitler was so affected by this experience that, even though he had no problem using poison gas for the mass extermination of millions in the Holocaust, he drew back from allowing its use on open battlefields — so Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer was actually right, albeit in a very limited and nit-picky historical sense, when he said that Assad had done something with gas even Hitler had refused to do. There are certain parts of the story The Great War pays short shrift to — even given its focus exclusively on the U.S. role in the war, I would have liked to see more on Wilson’s bitter struggle with the U.S. Congress post-war and how it almost literally incapacitated him (in 1919 he suffered a stroke while touring the country in support of the Versailles Treaty and U.S. membership in the League of Nations) — but it’s still a compelling story, beautifully told in a way that allows viewers to make the contemporary parallels for themselves instead of having them spelled out in sledgehammer fashion.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Girl Followed (Creative Arts Entertainment Group, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2017)

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

The first of the three films Lifetime showed from 6 p.m. to midnight April 8 was Girl Followed, an obvious pun on Girl, Interrupted but really a pretty conventional Lifetime tale of a young woman being the target of obsessive stalking and sabotage from a somewhat older man. This time around the girl was 14-year-old Regan Lindstrom (Emma Fuhrmann) — interestingly everyone pronounces her first name “RAY-gun,” the way Ronald Reagan did as a politician, rather than the “REE-gun” pronunciation one would think would go with the spelling without the first “a” (and which Ronald Reagan used during his movie-star days). Regan simply can’t catch a break; her parents Jim (Joey Lawrence) and Abby (Heather McComb) spy on her constantly and treat her with all the sensitivity and love of concentration-camp commandants — this is one of those stories in which the parents are so good at keeping tabs on their kids (not only Regan but her older sister Taylor, played by Gianna LaPera) one wonders why they don’t make some real money with these skills by working for the CIA or NSA. They’re particularly down on any boy she expresses even the slightest romantic interest in, and so of course Regan rebels at the earliest opportunity. When her crush object Austin (Jake Elliott) breaks up with her and goes with her cuter and richer best friend Sabine (Olivia Nikkanen) instead, Sabine tells Regan her secret was she sent Austin selfies of her in her underwear, and if she wants to get him back Regan should do the same. She does so, and Sabine critiques the photos, saying that she looks good in red (her bra was red) but she needs sexier undies to strike lust in the heart of her chosen male. Accordingly, on a shopping trip for clothes with her mom, Regan shoplifts a hot, sexy bra and panties — we get the impression it’s less because the family can’t afford them and more because mom would never buy things like that for her in a million years — and her new set of sexted selfies gets spread all over the school and instantly earns her a reputation as a slut.

Meanwhile, Regan frequently visits mom, who works as a nurse, at her hospital, where one of mom’s duties is giving out tests and treatments for STD’s (which may be offered by the writers, Christine Conradt, Chris Lancey and Melissa Cacera, as an explanation for why she’s so otherwise inexplicably overprotective of Regan: she sees young people coming in with the wages of sexual experimentation every day!) — and she’s attracted the lascivious attentions of Nate (Travis Caldwell), the STD clinic’s 22-year-old receptionist. Nate is a young man who doesn’t need to work — he lives in a big house and is pretty much alone because his super-rich parents spend most of their time on vacation (indeed, I recognized the house from a previous Lifetime movie, though I can’t remember right now which one) — and he’s also a suspect in the mysterious disappearance of Lana, another teenage girl from the same town. Of course the moment we see Travis Caldwell, who’s tall, dark-haired, baby-faced and drop-dead gorgeous, we know he’s going to be the sinister stalker who’s going to menace Our Heroine — and indeed he does, though he ramps up his campaign of revenge or obsession or whatever to attack her parents as well. He sends copies of Regan’s underwear pics to the board of directors of the nonprofit her dad works for, thereby not only costing him the promotion he was hoping for but risking getting him fired, and in the film’s most sinister scene he trashes the medical chart of a child being treated by Abby at the hospital and substitutes a fake one, so Abby gives him a shot of penicillin even though the kid’s real chart warned that he was allergic to it. (This is yet more evidence of how modern medical care all too often relies on numbers and charts instead of actually talking to people; had Abby bothered to ask the boy’s mother, who was there the whole time, if her son was allergic to penicillin, she would have told her he was and so Abby would never have given him the potentially fatal shot.)

Conradt’s presence hints at a more interesting movie than the one that got made, and if she had been in charge of the whole project instead of just co-writing an “original” (quotes definitely appropriate!) story that got turned into a script by a third scribe, she probably would have made Nate a more complex character and given at least a hint of what made him “run.” Alas, she wasn’t, and so Nate got depicted as your typical generic Lifetime sex-crazed maniac who gets progressively crazier as the film goes on. Also, Conradt, Lancey and Cacera offered no clue about how Abby would have reacted when she realized that the mysterious figure menacing her daughter was someone she worked with and therefore knew well and trusted. But the real person who screwed up this movie wasn’t any of the writers, nor was it director Tom Shell (who did a perfectly workmanlike, though far from great, job with it), but the casting director, Mary Jo Slater. First of all, though Heather McComb and Emma Fuhrmann look enough alike to be believable as coming from the same family, McComb is young enough she looks more like Fuhrmann’s older sister than her mom — and Joey Lawrence looks even younger. Lawrence has got a hot, blond, butch male bod and certainly could give Travis Caldwell competition in the looks department (too bad the writers gave him a character whose virtually only emotion is blustering anger, hardly the stuff to evoke the sexual fantasies I’d probably be having about Lawrence if I got to see him in a different sort of role), but he and McComb simply don’t look old enough to have two teenage daughters. And what’s more, the actress actually playing Regan’s older sister, Gianna LaPera, is blonde, has curly hair and a different body type from Fuhrmann’s — though maybe we were supposed to think Regan took after her mom and Taylor her dad, looks-wise. Girl Followed is a pretty generic Lifetime thriller, not all that bad but not transcendent either — though it might have been considerably better if Conradt had got to write it solo — with nice-looking people of both (mainstream) genders enacting a pretty stupid story that offers the usual Lifetime formulae but nothing more than that.

The Wrong Mother (Cartel Pictures, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2017)

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

After Girl Followed Lifetime aired a much-hyped “premiere” that was considerably better: The Wrong Mother, also known as Deadly Devotion, which once again tapped the “perfect nanny” trope Lifetime has been using at least since Christine Conradt wrote the script for The Perfect Nanny in 2000, thereby launching her career at the network. This one, directed by Craig Goldstein from a script by Missy Cox, begins with Kaylene Larson (Vanessa Marcil) being struck by a car coming up from behind her as she rides outdoors on her bicycle. She survives but she ends up with a bad concussion, and even when the hospital releases her they want her to have home care, so she hires one of the nurses who was taking care of her to be her in-home caregiver. Alas, the in-home caregiver, Vanessa Renzi (Brooke Nevin), puts Kaylene on highly powerful opiates (getting three doctors to split the task of writing all those prescriptions) that leave her sleeping half the day and being totally groggy the rest, to the point where she can’t even read a bedtime story to her children Zoey (Arden Richardson) and Toby (Cooper Dodson) without stumbling over simple words. In case you’re wondering where Kaylene’s husband is in all of this, his name is Drew, he’s played by Stephen Snedden (your typical tall, lanky, sandy-haired type that’s the good guy in a Lifetime movie — he’s considerably less sexy than Joey Lawrence in Girl Followed!) and he works as a commercial airline pilot, so he’s almost never home and that leaves Kaylene at the untender mercies of Vanessa. In what’s become a pretty typical part of the Lifetime formula, we learn that Vanessa has already drawn blood before she enters the main action and that she’s the biological mother of Kaylene’s children: Kaylene had her kids via in vitro fertilization from her husband’s sperm and donated eggs, and Vanessa was her egg donor. Vanessa learned this by seducing a young man in charge of the database at the fertility clinic where she made the donation years before, only in the film’s kinkiest scene, just when he’s expecting her to straddle him and give him the sexual joyride of his young life, she wraps a cloth around his neck and strangles him instead. (Goldstein was obviously following Alfred Hitchcock’s suggestion that murders should be staged like love scenes, and love scenes like murders.)

The reason she did this was so she could find out where her eggs had gone, and learning that the Larsons were the only family who had children from her donated eggs, she sought them out, ran Kaylene down herself (is that really a surprise?), then impersonated a nurse at the hospital where Kaylene was being treated (it’s established that she studied pharmacology in preparation for being a pharmacist but did not have a nursing degree) and used her knowledge of drugs to put Kaylene on so many opiates she’d be helpless to resist as Vanessa put her grand plan into effect. Apparently Vanessa lost it when she found out that her own reproductive organs had gone haywire and therefore she could no longer have any kids of her own, so with the knowledge that the children who had been born from her donated eggs were the only ones she’d ever have, she set out to find them and, once she did, to seduce Drew Larson away from Kaylene and get the kids to accept her as their “real” mom — which in fact she is, at least biologically. The first person who figures Vanessa out is Kaylene’s sister Samantha (Elizabeth Bond), whose role — the person close to Our Heroine who figures out the plot against her but is eliminated before she can warn her — is itself a staple of the Lifetime formula, though Vanessa’s way of eliminating her is rather creative: when Samantha makes the mistake of telling Vanessa she’s deathly allergic to peanuts, Vanessa offs her by lining the steering wheel of her car with peanut oil, which makes her lose consciousness and drive her car off the road into a convenient tree. (One wonders why no one on this community’s police force ever ponders at the “coincidence” of two sisters both being hurt — and one killed — in traffic accidents in the middle of nowhere.) Alas for Vanessa, Kaylene more or less realizes what’s happening to her, and she fights back from the drug-induced fog Vanessa has been keeping her in — and also fights back from an attempt by Vanessa to drown her in the family’s swimming pool (I guess if they could afford in vitro fertilization with donated eggs, they could afford a house with a pool) under the cover of doing physical therapy with her.

The script isn’t all that surprising and Goldstein’s direction (except for that marvelously kinky murder scene) is straightforward and effective but uncreative, but where this movie scores more than most other Lifetime films along the same line is in the marvelous performances by Vanessa Marcil and Brooke Nevin as the female leads. Not only is Nevin appropriately bland and perky in the usual manner of Lifetime villainesses (their woman villains tend to be more interesting and psychologically complex than their male ones!), complete with her smarmy bedside manner — every time Kaylene tries to fight back against Vanessa’s control, Vanessa assumes the guise of caring nurse and smarmily says thinks like, “I wouldn’t do that,” or “I’d advise against that” — she also plays the role in a tightly controlled manner that’s quite different from the florid insanity Lifetime tends to give us in their male psychos. Eventually Vanessa kidnaps Drew, Zoey and Toby — she holds a gun to Drew’s head and forces him to drink a drug-laced concoction (she calls it a “smoothie” but it looked like a pretty ordinary glass of milk to me) — and drives them out to her family’s old home by a lake, where Kaylene tracks them down; she’s able to break the kids out of there but Vanessa knocks out Drew and sets fire to the house, apparently intending a murder-suicide, only Kaylene is able to rescue her husband; they’re cornered by Vanessa and she shoots him, but then before she can finish them off a policewoman ex machina shows up and kills Vanessa instead. The Wrong Mother (not to be confused with The Other Mother or Killer Mom, upcoming movies Lifetime was showing promos for during this one) is a pretty standard Lifetime-formula story, but both the quality of the writing of the two female leads and the vivid performances of Marcil and Nevin bringing them to life makes this one at least somewhat special — the two have real chemistry together and are both totally believable as antagonists.

A Neighbor’s Deception, a.k.a. Next Door (MarVista Entertainment/Lifetime, 2017)

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

Lifetime’s last “premiere” on April 8 was A Neighbor’s Deception, also known as Next Door, and this time it was a triumph of direction (Devon Downs and Kenny Gage have a co-director credit but, judging from their pages, it’s Downs who was probably the lead director — the only other film that credits them both is called Cynthia and on that one Downs is listed as director and Gage as producer) over script and overall production. The film begins with a long Gothic-horror scene in which a woman is being stalked in a house by an unseen assailant; she hides under the bed while her would-be killer is circling around the bedroom waiting for her to emerge, and when the assailant leaves the room she makes a break for it — only to be caught at the foot of the stairs, and … Then the film cuts to the good-guy protagonists, young couple Michael (Adam Mayfield) and Chloe (Ashley Bell, top-billed) Anderson, who are just moving into a new house and encounter their next-door neighbors, Gerald (Tom Amandes) and Cheryl (Isabella Hoffman) Dixon. Michael is an incredibly busy attorney, which means he works a lot of late nights — much to his wife’s understandable displeasure — and for once he’s played by an actor who’s stocky and dark-haired, and while not drop-dead gorgeous is quite a bit sexier than the tall, lanky, sandy-haired and rather blank-looking guys who are Lifetime’s usual “type” as the good-guy husbands. Apparently the two have been on the rocks as a couple since they were unable, after years of trying, to have children, and the last failure (we assume she had a miscarriage, though writer Adam Rockoff doesn’t specify that) propelled her into a nervous breakdown from which she’s only starting to recover — I guess moving out of the city and into the suburbs was supposed to ease her emotionally and help her recover.

Gerald turns out to be a retired psychotherapist who mostly does research now but still likes to see patients privately in his home; he offers to treat Chloe but we suspect, based on the way we see him looking at her when both couples have dinner together, that he’s really after her sexually. Of course Chloe gets suspicious of him and starts investigating his past, especially after she gets a series of anonymous phone calls while she’s out jogging in the country (she jogs at all hours of the day and night and we start to wonder if she has any social life or ever does anything away from home other than jogging). The stranger who keeps calling her turns out to be James Rooker (Ben Whalen), whose wife Caroline (Marissa Labog) was a patient of Gerald’s years before until he seduced her and she, too, mysteriously disappeared; James is convinced Gerald killed his wife and wants Chloe to prove it. Gerald had told Chloe he did both his undergraduate and graduate work at Middlesex University, but she finds out he never finished there: he was a graduate student and a teaching assistant when he seduced one of his pupils, who mysteriously disappeared just before the college hearing at which she was supposed to testify against him. She and Michael eventually learn that his family was from Bakersfield — Michael casually jokes about him being “Norman Bates from Bakersfield,” which freaks him out (and it surprised me, too, because my impression was that Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho actually took place in Arizona) — when Chloe sneaks into Gerald’s house and finds a banker’s box of papers which gives her the clue as to where he came from originally. (There’s another nice long, largely silent suspense scene in which Chloe drops the banker’s box — crushing one of its corners — while Gerald is on his way home and arrives back while she’s still there: directors Downs and Gage shoot this in a way that deliberately and vividly evokes the film’s sinister opening.)

Chloe visits an old woman who was a friend of Gerald’s family in Bakersfield and learns from her that Gerald was not an only child, as he claimed; instead he had a sister named Cheryl and either Cheryl alone or the two of them together burned down their family’s house and killed their parents. Chloe realizes that the woman she’s been led to believe was Gerald’s wife was in fact his sister (an interesting inversion of the plot gimmick in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles in which the villain’s wife poses as his sister because, as Sherlock Holmes explains, “she could be more useful to him in the character of a free woman”), and ever since he signed her out of the mental institution she was incarcerated in after she burned down their parents’ home and killed them, she’s been knocking off anyone who threatened to expose him — and he, in turn, has been shielding and protecting her from the consequences of her actions. The film has an action climax in which the Andersons realize that Cheryl is the real killer, she tries to knock them off, they fight back and she dies — but in one of those annoying tag sequences they like so much, they depict Gerald as getting away with it and seeing yet another woman patient he’ll presumably try first to seduce and then to kill. A Neighbor’s Deception isn’t much of a movie, and the big “surprise” reveal at the end isn’t that much of a surprise (especially with the Psycho reference to clue us in — though I was thinking Rockoff was going for an even closer Psycho parallel in which Gerard would be committing murders under the psychotic delusion that he was his late mother), though Tom Amandes (about the only actor here I’ve heard of before) delivers a finely honed performance as Gerald — but it’s saved by Downs’ and Gage’s atmospheric neo-Gothic direction and the overall sense of menace they’re able to create even with a pretty bland, by-the-numbers thriller script.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Heyday Films/Warner Bros., 2016)

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

As just about the whole world knows by now, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the latest work by British author Joanne K. Rowling set in the Harry Potter universe, though she insisted in an interview about the film that it is neither a sequel nor a prequel to the Harry Potter books but simply another story set in the same fictional universe — though apparently there are direct references to the film’s central character, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) — the character name is an obvious pun on the fact that a newt is the larval form of a salamander — and the book he wrote, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, in 1927, a year after the events of this film take place. What makes this different from the eight Harry Potter films, based on Rowling’s seven novels in the series (the last one was divided into two separate films, a practice the makers of the Hunger Games movies also adopted), is that Rowling wrote the script herself and she conceived it as a screen original, though a book has since been published. (I don’t know if that is simply a publication of the screenplay or if Rowling novelized it.) What’s more, she originally intended Fantastic Beasts as the first of a trilogy, though (no doubt encouraged by Warner Bros., who are obviously hoping for a series of box-office winners that will continue the Potter franchise even though Rowling insists that Potter’s own saga is finished) she later expanded her plans to encompass a five-part series.

The film was widely reported as a prequel to the Potter series, since it takes place in New York in the 1920’s (70 years before the Potter books themselves, which are set in the U.K. in the 1990’s, when Rowling started writing them), but Rowling has said Fantastic Beasts “is neither a prequel nor a sequel to the Harry Potter series, but an extension of the wizarding world. Newt’s story will start in New York, seventy years before Harry gets under way.” Charles and I wondered if we’d be hopelessly confused by Fantastic Beasts because for some reason the whole Harry Potter cycle eluded us — neither of us have seen a Harry Potter movie or read any of Rowling’s books — but the film turned out to be occasionally confusing but mostly easy to follow. It begins with Newt taking an ocean liner from his native Great Britain to New York City with a small suitcase in hand containing the titular fantastic beasts, who among other things can shrink themselves to fit the available space. He goes through customs, whose officials are as mean-spirited and officious as they are now, and when the customs inspector insists on inspecting the inside of his bag, Newt hits a lever on its side that says “Muggle-Worthy” and so when it opens, all we and the inspector see are perfectly innocuous personal possessions. (“Muggles” is the term used in the Harry Potter books to mean ordinary people without magical powers, but in this U.S.-set offshoot of the franchise they’re called “No-Maj” — short for “no magic” — instead, perhaps because in America in the 1920’s “muggles” was a slang term for marijuana cigarettes and either Rowling or Steve Kloves, the screenwriter who adapted all but one of the Harry Potter movies and worked on this one as one of the producers, didn’t want their wizarding world to be associated with pot.) Alas, one of Newt’s fantastic beasts — something called a Niggler, who consumes silver, gold and anything containing them (and therefore keeps getting Newt into trouble as it raids banks, jewelry stores and any other high-security repository of its favorite food) — escapes when Newt doesn’t quite close his magic suitcase all the way, and the others get let out when his path crosses with Kowalski (Dan Fogler, whose no-nonsense proletarian performance is a great antidote to all the cutesy-poo wizardry we see in the rest of the film), a cannery worker who applies for (and gets turned down for) a bank loan to open a bakery just as Newt is there chasing down the Niggler before it eats all the bank’s coin.

The two end up with each other’s suitcases (with an overly high dose of irony, Charles said, “I bet that’s never happened in a movie before — two people get their suitcases mixed up!”) and Kowalski ends up palling around with Newt as the two chase through New York trying to re-collect all the fantastic beasts before they wreak havoc on the civilian population and break the omertá with which the wizarding population has maintained utter secrecy about their existence because if ordinary people knew about them, they’d pass laws against them. The magic people have founded a secret society called MACUSA whose president, Porpentina (Katherine Waterston) — “Tina” for short — “arrests” Newt for having a wand without a license (wands are important enough in the Harry Potter universe that every actor who used one in the film had to go to “wand school”), and their fears are justified: among the quirkier dramatis personae are Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton, who looks enough like Katherine Waterston you really have to listen closely to the dialogue to realize which one is which and what side they’re on), who at the beginning of the film is leading an anti-wizard protest rally demanding a new round of Salem-style witch trials to get rid of the magic people forever. (In an indication that the script is by a British writer, Mary Lou’s initial speech contains a listing of modern technological marvels that prove the world doesn’t need wizards anymore, including “the wireless” — of course a speaker in New York in 1926 would have said “the radio”!) Newt and Kowalski are taken in by Tina and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) — claims that Queenie was deliberately dressed like Blanche Du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire, appropriate because the male lead in that story is also named Kowalski — and together the four of them try to collect the fantastic beasts and also deal with the all-powerful evil wizard named Gellert Grindelwald who fled England and hid out in New York, ready to cause havoc.

There’s also a human baddie named Graves (Colin Farrell) who’s working in association with Mary Lou and her foster kids Credence (Ezra Miller, a good performance in a morally ambiguous Gollum-like role), Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove in her film debut), and Chastity (Jenn Murray), who turn out to be magical themselves and to have been abused by Mary Lou so systematically she makes the people who ran Lowood in Jane Eyre and the orphanages from hell in Diary of a Lost Girl and Little Orphan Annie seem like model caregivers by comparison. That’s about all there is to it plot-wise, and I could certainly have used a stronger story, but the whole conception is so charming it’s hard to hold anything against this movie — and there are marvelous bits and pieces in the film, directed by David Yates from Rowling’s original script, like the scene in which Eddie Redmayne as Newt pets one of the “fantastic beasts” — and the contact between Redmayne’s real hand and the CGI being is absolutely flawless and utterly convincing. The cast is good, with Fogler and Miller standing out; Eddie Redmayne is effective as a pretty milquetoast character (even though at the start he’s depicted as so endearingly incompetent that one wonders why he was entrusted with so important a mission as to bring the Fantastic Beasts to New York and get them across the Atlantic with no no-maj’s the wiser) but after seeing him in his tour de force role in The Danish Girl it’s a bit disappointing to see him back to playing a pretty routine character. At some times Fantastic Beasts gets too cute for its own good — just what can you do with a movie with a character named Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo)? — and the big revelation at the end that Graves is really the renegade wizard Grindelwald (even though the physical transformation is so great different actors play his two identities — Colin Farrell is Graves and Johnny Depp is Grindelwald) is nowhere nearly as much of a surprise as Rowling clearly intended, but nonetheless Fantastic Beasts is a lot of fun and well worth seeing.