Monday, July 24, 2017

Story of a Girl (Random Bench Productions/Lifetime, 2017)

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

My “feature” last night was a Lifetime premiere showing of a film called Story of a Girl, which was not only better than the usual run of their movies but better than the previews for it had made it look. The credits, at least, made this look like a prestige production: the director and co-producer was actress Kyra Sedgwick, her husband Kevin Bacon and their daughter Sosie Bacon were both in the cast (albeit not in the leads), and the story was based on a highly regarded young-adult novel by Sara Zarr published in 2007 which was a finalist for that year’s National Book Award and made the 2008 American Library Association’s list of Best Books for Young Adults. The promos for the film made much of its most salacious detail: three years before the main part of the film takes place, its central character, Deanna Lambert (played by Ryann Shane through most of the movie but Bailey Skodje in the flashbacks), then just 13 years old, had sex with her boyfriend Tommy Weber (Tyler Johnston, just the right sort of decent-looking but not drop-dead gorgeous young guy Sedgwick and her casting directors, Ann Goulder in the U.S. and Jackie Lind in Canada, should have picked). Tommy filmed them with his smartphone and the clip ultimately ended up on the Internet and “went viral,” instantly giving Deanna the image as a “slut” — indeed, quite a few online social-media posts about her denounce her whole family as “trash” — and also getting her father Ray (Jon Tenney) relentlessly angry at her. She’s not the only member of her family who got into trouble over sex: her older brother Darren (Iain Belcher) got his girlfriend Stacy (Sosie Bacon, who according to imdb.com was pressed into service by her parents after Mary-Kate Olsen, whom they’d originally cast, decided to withdraw from acting completely to concentrate on her and her sister’s fashion business) pregnant, and as a result both had to forsake their dreams of going to college and stay in the small beach town whose location is unspecified (the Wikipedia page on the book Story of a Girl specifies the locationt as Pacifica, California, though it looks like New England, especially given the shots of seagulls Sedgwick inserts at various points for atmosphere) but which is portrayed throughout the movie as a place where dreams (and dreamers) go to die.

They’re currently living in the Lamberts’ basement and raising their baby, April, and Ray Lambert is crabbing almost constantly about their presence as well as the likelihood that her daughter, with her presumably “loose” sexual morals, may also end up “with child” — in some ways Ray is the most unsympathetic character in the film, essentially Archie Bunker without the charm. As for the mother, Debbie (Caroline Cave), she’s pretty much just along for the ride; her attempted “solution” to the domestic disputes swirling around her is pretty much to try to corral her errant kids around the breakfast table and make them deliberately “homey” specials like French toast and oatmeal. Things heat up (in more ways than one) for Deanna when she decides she wants a job — she’s in the second year of high school but it’s just about to let out for the summer and she wants to make enough money that she can get a place of her own; she’s counting on Darren and Stacy to move out as well so the three can live together without her parents around — and she goes to the various coffeehouses and food places around town. At one she’s told by the counter boy, who’s barely older than she is, that she looks familiar, and she snipes back, “Maybe it’s my online sex video.” “You’re going to have to work on your interviewing skills,” says her Black friend Lee (Naika Toussaint), whose boyfriend Jason (Andrew Herr) is Deanna’s favorite (but strictly platonic) soulmate and sounding board. Eventually Deanna does land a job with Craven Pizza, whose owner Michael (Kevin Bacon) is first shown lying out on a couple of chairs inside his establishment — it’s closed at the moment so he figures he can behave any way he likes, including smoking inside — with no shirt or shoes on. At first we figure he’s going to hit on our heroine, but eventually he turns out to be the most decent man in the movie (I guess that’s the role you get for sleeping with the director!) and the one male from whom Deanna’s virtue is in no threat, mainly because he’s Gay (though, as usual with movie Gays, we’re just told that: we never see him in any romantic, emotional or sexual relationship with a man).

Deanna’s real sex-related problem at work is Tommy Weber, who by luck (or Sara Zarr’s authorial fiat) also works at Craven Pizza (which got its name from Michael’s love of recent horror films in general and Wes Craven’s work in particular[1]), and he’s too good a cook for Michael to risk losing him, so Deanna puts up with the cold war around Tommy (who makes it clear he’d like to screw her again) and also the snide sexual comments of the male patrons who congregate at Craven Pizza for beer pitchers and pizza (in that order of importance — it’s obviously the sort of place that has a “with food” beer-and-wine license but to many of its customers the food is clearly just a pretext to get the drinks). Lee goes off on a summer spiritual retreat (Sara Zarr’s Wikipedia page reveals she grew up in a Fundamentalist Christian household and she’s contributed to an anthology by writers who had that experience) and Jason, who’s previously confided in Deanna that he wants to have sex with Lee but so far she’s put him off, suddenly finds himself on the receiving end of an unwanted sexual advance from Deanna (who we get the impression hasn’t had sex at all since the viral-video encounter with Tommy), who gets as far as unbuckling his belt before he tells her to stop. The other big thing that happens is that Stacy, tired of both figuratively and literally being cooped up in that basement with her and Darren’s baby, has Deanna dye some red streaks in her hair. When Darren doesn’t notice, Stacy uses this as an excuse to disappear for two days, sticking Deanna with April and not telling anyone where she is, or with whom. She eventually comes home the worse for wear, and there’s a crisis in which she and Darren have an argument but eventually reconcile and move out, albeit without Deanna. In the end Deanna and her dad also reconcile and he, an auto mechanic at a car lot, helps her pick out her own car, which she buys with the money she saved up from her summer job at Craven Pizza.

Story of a Girl, written by Laurie Collyer and Emily Bickford Lansbury from Zarr’s novel and quite effectively directed by Sedgwick ­— who has the usual actor-director’s gift for getting understated performances from her cast (one shudders to think what one of the usual Lifetime hacks would have done with this story and how much scenery the actors would have been allowed to ingest) and also has a quite sensitive camera eye — is not only a more psychologically and emotionally complex story than the Lifetime norm, it’s given a quiet, dignified, mostly unsentimental presentation here that emphasizes the story’s theme that the beach town where it takes place is a place where dreams go to die. At one point Deanna tells Lee that she will have a chance to break out of the town, go to college and make something of her life, while Deanna, her brother and his girlfriend, and Lee’s own boyfriend Jason are just going to be trapped there for the rest of their lives. Later Michael makes his own sad confession, saying that decades earlier he had gone to Stanford but dropped out during his sophomore year because “I just didn’t like doing homework,” and after that he was married to two different women, both of whom he loved non-sexually but ultimately left because he knew the whole time he was Gay. The big surprise twist at the end is that it was actually Deanna, not Tommy, who posted their sex video to the Internet three years previously: after they finished Tommy stepped out of the car where they’d done it to pee, and Deanna grabbed his phone and e-mailed the video to three of her friends with the legend, “OMG! I just DID it!” — not thinking that it would go any farther and end up wrecking her life in general and her relations with her dad in particular. Story of a Girl is probably the best thing I’ve seen on Lifetime since Speak (also based on an acclaimed young-adult novel and also about an alienated teenage girl whose life was ruined by a sexually predatory male, and which starred Kristen Stewart before she did the Twilight movies and was so good it made me want to see the Twilight cycle), and I certainly hope the Bacons will get to make a few more films like this and their marvelous collaboration in the 2004 The Woodsman.



[1] — It was called “Picasso Pizza” in the novel.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Seduced by a Stranger (Pender Street Pictures/Lifetime, 2017)

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

Last night’s Lifetime movie was Seduced by a Stranger, only there were at least two other titles considered — the imdb.com page on it lists it as He Loves You Not (as in the old flower petal-plucking game, “He loves me … he loves me not … ,” which actually is featured in the final act) but shows a graphic advertising the film as Ring of Deception (a bit deceptive itself because quite a lot of jewelry figures in the story, but a ring isn’t the key item — it’s a bracelet). One would think a Lifetime movie called Seduced by a Stranger would be either about a married woman having a sexual fling with someone other than her husband, and her adultery partner turning out to be a crazed stalker out to kill her husband and get her for himself permanently; or a single woman having a sexual fling with someone who turned out to be a crazed stalker. Instead Seduced by a Stranger, directed by Scott Belyea and written by Suzanne Dunn, is about a con artist and jewel thief, Martin Hale (Steve Bacic, who’s O.K.-looking but considerably heftier and beefier than either the tall, lanky, sandy-haired types Lifetime casts as its sympathetic men or the hot studs Lifetime casts as its male villains), who along with his partner André (Jim Shield) introduces himself to rich young (or youngish) women, seduces them, gets them to trust him, then rifles their safes, steals their valuables and gives the loot to André, who fronts as a legitimate jeweler, to fence.

The latest pigeon he’s latched on to is the film’s heroine, Julie Stevens (Chandra West, top-billed), who’s his neighbor in the “Salt Lake” community he’s just moved into and who has made nearly $2 million running a modern-art gallery with her partner Elizabeth Smith (Françoise Yip, a marvelously multicultural name). Julie is the single mother of a teenage son, Charlie (Madison Smith) — ordinarily I’m not attracted to guys that young but he seemed a lot hotter than his mom’s would-be seducer — and by Suzanne Dunn’s authorial fiat, Charlie falls in love with Martin’s daughter Dana (Cate Sproule) just as Martin is mounting a full-court press to seduce Charlie’s mom. Exactly what happened to Julie’s ex, Charlie’s father, is a bit of a mystery: at first we assume they just divorced but later we see Julie at a high point in the mountains surrounding the town where she’s gone for a jog and she tells a woman of her acquaintance that this is the first time she’s been back to that spot since … which of course leads us to assume that Julie is a widow and her husband died in an accident that occurred there. Anyway, Martin gets Julie’s sexual juices working for the first time since her husband died, disappeared, divorced her or however the marriage ended — much to the approval of her business partner, who thinks it’s about time Julie had a man in her life again. Meanwhile, the Stevenses notice they’re being stalked by someone in a mysterious black car; actually it’s two people stalking them. One is Sloane Draycott (Lucie Guest), who turns out to be the real villainess of the piece: she’s a former victim of Martin’s (or “Eli,” as she knew him when they dated before he ripped her off), and she’s determined to have her revenge and make him suffer by killing everyone he cares about before she gets around to offing him. The other stalker is her friend Stu Brown (Robert Moloney), though his actual relationship to Sloane isn’t specified and neither is why the hell he’s got so involved in her plot.

In some ways the most interesting character is Martin’s daughter Dana, the one other person besides André who knows Martin is a con artist, seducer and jewel thief, who keeps reminding him that he promised her this was going to be different, that once he moved to this neighborhood he wouldn’t steal but would instead live a normal, above-board life and allow her to finish high school, have friends and maybe even hook up with a potential boyfriend, which she has in Charlie. Naturally she’s afraid of what’s going to happen to her own relationship when Charlie’s mom realizes that Martin is a crook and is just making love to her in order to steal from her — only Dunn makes Martin a morally ambiguous character, too, and keeps us guessing whether he sees Julie as just another victim or is genuinely falling in love with her. This ambiguity made me wonder if Christine Conradt had written this — this kind of complexity is what usually sets Conradt’s scripts apart from and above the Lifetime norm — only Dunn takes it too far: the climax occurs when Martin has summoned Julie to his home, pulling her away from a well-heeled client at the art gallery, to tell her something that’s really important. Meanwhile, Dana has told Charlie that they need to get over to her dad’s even though that means they have to ditch school — only just when Martin is about to spill the beans to Julie, Sloane, the real villainess of the piece, walks in with a silver gun (she’d previously used it to shoot André when he refused to give her back a bracelet Martin had stolen from her after previously giving it to her — it seems this is the same bracelet he uses over and over, giving it to all his victims and then stealing it back — and André went for his own gun instead) and threatens to kill first Julie and then Martin. Martin protests that he doesn’t really love Julie, that she was just another “mark,” hoping that if he can convince Sloane of that she’ll at least let Julie live and just kill him — only Charlie and Dana arrive, they call the police, the cops arrive almost immediately (much sooner than you’d expect them to unless they’d already been staking Martin out), and Martin suffers a flesh wound from Sloane’s gun but will be all right, while Sloane is arrested.

Where the film really goes over the top is after that, when we’re expected to believe that the cops have no idea Martin is a jewel thief (earlier he’s told Dana that he’s hidden his crimes perfectly and so can stop any time he wants to and live off his previous proceeds and send her to college on them, but it’s hard to believe he’s hidden them that well and even harder to believe Sloane, whom they’ve taken alive, won’t tell them), that he and Julie are genuinely in love with each other, and it’s all going to end with the four of them — Martin, Julie, Charlie and Dana — all living together in a bizarre relationship that isn’t literally incestuous but certainly feels that way. (One can imagine Charlie trying to explain this to a show-and-tell session at school: “My stepfather is also my father-in-law!”) Even Christine Conradt didn’t try to pass off something as sick as this as a happy ending; where I thought this would end was that Martin and Sloane would both die in a shoot-out and Julie, realizing that Dana would be left without a dad, would take her in. The weird ending left me with a bad taste after a film that for most of its running time was just mediocre, considerably better acted by the youngsters playing the principals’ kids than the principals themselves, and also beset by the fact that of the four women playing major roles, three — Chandra West as Julie, Cate Sproule as Dana and Lucie Guest as Sloane — look an awful lot like each other. Especially when they confront each other, it’s really hard to tell Chandra West and Lucie Guest apart except Guest has curlier hair. Seduced by a Stranger was hardly the slice of good clean dirty Lifetime fun I was expecting, and director Belyea didn’t give us any of the soft-core porn we expect and hope for in Lifetime movies (especially disappointing given that we have two sexually involved couples in the dramatis personae), though I give writer Dunn points for at least trying to make the characters (some of them, at least) morally complex, even though that bizarre “happy” ending pushed the moral ambiguity too far for me — maybe she saw Martin as a basically good man who’d just fallen into a trap, but I saw him as a no-good rotter who deserved his comeuppance, not a good woman’s hand in marriage!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Sleepwalking in Suburbia (Annuit Coeptis Entertainment, Johnson Production Group, Lifetime, 2017)

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

I watched the latest “premiere” movie on Lifetime, a bizarre concoction called Sleepwalking in Suburbia (it seems that “_____ in Suburbia” has joined the ranks of Lifetime’s film “series” alongside “The Perfect _____,” “The _____ S/he Met Online,” “Wrong _____,” and “_____ at 17”) brought to us by one Alex Wright, who directed and co-wrote the script with Bryce Doersam. Michelle Miller (Emilie Ullerup, yet another one of those names that in classic Hollywood would have been changed — even “Lucille Le Sueur,” which wouldn’t have been a bad star name at all, got rechristened “Joan Crawford”) is more or less happily married to Dan Miller (Giles Panton, a not-bad looking actor who resembles the young Christopher Meloni enough I could have thought he was Meloni’s younger brother) except that — stop me if you’ve heard this before — they’re trying to have a child and Michelle just had a miscarriage. It appears to be the trauma over this that snapped Michelle back into her former habit of chronic sleepwalking, for which she’s in therapy with the couple’s friend Dr. Kate Ford (Miranda Frigon). One night, Michelle sleepwalks her way into the home of neighbor Luke Williams (Carlo Marks) while his wife Nancy (Lucie Guest) is out of town, and though her waking relations with Luke are (at least on her end) a perfectly proper friendship, in her sleepwalking state she comes on to him so strongly she virtually rapes him. She continues in that vein, including at one point making her way into the home of Kate Ford and her husband, criminal defense attorney Tyler Ford (Ryan S. Williams), and starting a Bisexual three-way with both of them (it’s established that both Fords are only barely conscious and think they’re having sex with each other, not a third person), until Kate comes to enough to realize she’s being kissed by another woman instead of her husband, wakes up enough to register who the other woman is, shakes Michelle awake and Michelle comes to without any knowledge of how or why she’s there. Though Michelle has no memory of having had sex with Luke, not only does Luke vividly remember it, it’s made him decide to leave his wife Nancy and pair up with Michelle even though Michelle has no conscious interest in him “that way.” It seems that the four principals have known each other for years and Luke had the hots for Michelle all along, and only married Nancy on the rebound after Michelle married Dan. (In the final scene there’s a marvelously ironic glimpse of a photo of the four of them, looking like two friendly suburban couples, stuck with a magnet on the door of Luke’s and Nancy’s refrigerator which director Wright lets us see on his way to the climactic catastrophe.) Also, Michelle finds herself pregnant but, as it slowly dawns on her that during one of her somnambulistic jags she really did have sex with Luke, she has no idea who her baby-to-be’s father is. 

As with a lot of Lifetime’s thrillers, Wright and Doersam can’t leave well enough alone: a wife who unwittingly has an affair with another man while she’s sleepwalking and then has to face her husband’s and his wife’s jealousy and recriminations might have been interesting and even moving — but no-o-o-o-o, given that they’re making this through the Johnson Productions Group for the Lifetime audience, they lard on the melodrama. Michelle finds herself being shot at by a mysterious assailant in a pickup truck and, in a panicked search for some kind of cover, she dives into a convenience store attached to a gas station and begs the young man at the counter to close the store’s doors and let her hide out there — and the kid playing the store clerk actually does the best acting of anyone in this movie, showing genuine perplexity as this strange woman tells her exotic tale and he wonders if she’s just crazy or really is in mortal danger. Nancy disappears, and for a while we’re led to think she is the mysterious attacker — especially when the police turn up documents that show she rented the pickup truck. Nancy does indeed reappear in her home, fueled with murderous rage as she confronts Michelle with a kitchen knife and threatens to stab her to death for having had sex with her husband — who himself is lying on the floor dead from a knife attack, with Michelle having blood all over her, clearly having been framed for the fall by Luke’s killer. There’s a great scene in which Michelle attempts to hide in the basement (even though, like a lot of the plot of this film, it makes no sense for her to hide in a house her assailant knows a lot better than she does instead of bolting for the front door and calling the police) and Nancy drives hole after hole in the flimsy basement door with her knife — but it turns out Nancy is only a subsidiary villainess: the real killer is [surprise!] Michelle’s husband Dan, who went into a jealous fury when he smelled Luke’s sweat and aftershave all over his wife when she returned from her somnambulistic sex with him and determined to take his revenge by killing both Luke and Michelle. (Just how did he know what Luke’s sweat and aftershave smelled like? Were they having an affair? Indeed, a plot denouement in which Dan and Luke are Gay lovers determined to eliminate their inconvenient opposite-sex spouses so they can be together might have been more believable, and certainly would have been more appealingly kinky, than the film we got! But then Wright and Doersam were pushing the limits of what’s acceptable on Lifetime just by showing that brief scene of Emilie Ullerup and Miranda Frigon kissing each other.) 

The plot really goes into melodramatic overdrive with the revelation that Michelle is in mortal danger from her own husband as well as Luke’s widow, whom she clonged on the head with a frying pan just before Dan showed up and attacked her, only she fatally stabbed him with a knife in self-defense. The cops finally arrive and clean things up as best they can, taking Nancy into custody and taking away the corpses of Luke and Dan as we wonder what the hell Michelle is going to do now, whether she’s going to have her baby and whether the events of the last two acts are going finally to snap her already fragile hold on sanity — during the final confrontation she had told her murderous husband she hadn’t really been sleepwalking but had just faked this all, but we’re not sure whether we’re supposed to believe this or not. Sleepwalking in Suburbia is a real disappointment for those like me who thinks Bellini’s La Sonnambula is the best dramatic piece ever done about sleepwalking: it’s a pastoral comedy in which the titular woman sleepwalker, Amina, ends up in the bed of Rodolfo, the largest landowner in the little Italian village where it takes place, and naturally her boyfriend Elvino is upset and thinks they’re having an affair — but Amina pleads that she was merely sleepwalking, and in the final scene Bellini and his librettist, Felice Romani, have her do a much more hazardous sleepwalk that nearly kills her while she’s trilling away in some of the most beautiful music ever written for coloratura soprano until Elvino rescues her and wakes her up, then forgives her for a happy ending. Sleepwalking in Suburbia might have been good clean dirty fun in the best Lifetime manner if writers Wright and Doersam had known when to stop instead of starting their intrigue at 11 and ramping it up to about 25.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sergeant Dead Head (Alta Vista Films, American International Pictures, 1965)

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

I had asked Charles if he wanted to go to the Vintage Sci-Fi screening in Golden Hill rather than do any of the Pride evening events (most of which involve partying, drinking and/or tricking), and we went even though the two movies being shown were uninspiring choices. One was a truly preposterous movie from 1965 called Sergeant Dead Head, made by the “beach party” unit at American International — and yes, the term “dead head” is spelled as two words, and since the Grateful Dead didn’t exist as a band yet it couldn’t have meant a member of that bizarre assemblage of camp followers they built up over the years who criss-crossed the country to see as many of the shows on each tour as possible. Instead it casts Frankie Avalon in a dual role: as the titular Sergeant Dead Head (that’s actually the character’s name!) and as Sergeant Donovan. Donovan is a straight-ahead officer but Dead Head is a classic screw-up in the manner of Private Snafu and the Sad Sack, doing slapsticky things like sitting on the “Panic Button” his commanding officer, General Fogg (Fred Clark), has installed on top of his desk and thereby calling out the entire base for evacuation. It’s unclear just what branch of the service the characters are in, since the females on the base are referred to as WAC’s (which stands for Women Army Corps) but the enlisted personnel are called “airmen” (both men and women are so called, which really dates this movie) and their job seems to be to fly things. 

There are quite a few people in this movie who had illustrious careers outside of it, including several supporting players who had got to make films with “A”-listers of previous eras and one who’d been on the “A”-list in a previous era: Buster Keaton. He plays a sort of civilian handyman around the base, who installs Fred Clark’s panic button and successively gives himself, General Fogg and his adjutant, Lt. Charlotte Kinsey (Eve Arden — between them Keaton and Arden make this movie and give it what meager entertainment value it has), electric shocks in the process; later he turns up as the groundskeeper, assigned to water the lawn of the training field, and of course he screws up the process and gets a huge splash of water in his face. He was nearing 70 and would die the following year, but Keaton still knew how to get laughs — and some of the slapstick scenes involving other actors in the movie suggest that in addition to appearing in the film, Keaton was also serving as a gag man. The main intrigue is that the base is working on a super-secret project called “Monkey Shines” in which a chimpanzee is going to be launched into space orbit — previously they’ve done this with lower animals and the creatures have returned with no ill effects except they got hornier. (Made during the last dregs of the Production Code era, this movie has a lot of teasing about sex, some of it genuinely funny — the intense sexual attraction between the Fred Clark and Eve Arden characters, who have to maintain the appearance of professional decorum whenever anyone else is around but who are literally all over each other when they’re alone, seems to have been the model for the Frank Burns/“Hot Lips” Houlihan relationship in M*A*S*H — and some just annoying: when the panic button goes off, the women in the showers on the base have to leave, and in order to stand at attention they have to drop the towels they’ve wrapped around themselves: this movie has a lot of prick-teasing that probably infuriated the teenage straight boys who were part of the target audience, though maybe they were too busy making out with the teenage straight girls in their cars at the drive-in to notice or care!) 

Of course, Sergeant Dead Head gets trapped in the capsule with the chimp, and the result is when he gets back he’s a lot more aggressive towards his fiancée, Airman Lucy Turner (Deborah Walley, the in-house replacement American International groomed for Annette Funicello when Walt Disney stopped loaning l’Annette to them), who as in a lot of her movies seems like a genuinely intelligent, “together” character whose attraction to terminally dull, klutzy Sgt. Dead Head remains totally inexplicable. (Blame Louis M. Heyward, who “wrote” this movie — or at least assembled it from clichés probably as old as Aristophanes.) The imdb.com synopsis claims, “When they return to Earth after their orbit, it is discovered that the chimp has the brains of the astronaut, and the astronaut has the brains of the chimp” — which isn’t what happens, though this film would have been considerably funnier if it had been! Instead, like the previous animals shot into space, all that happens to Frankie Avalon is he gets hornier and more sexually aggressive with Deborah Walley (whose real-life husband at the time, John Ashley, is in the movie as one of Avalon’s fellow guardhouse inmates in the pre-spaceflight scenes), and writer Heyward decides to go for the Nutty Professor out of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tropes as Frankie Avalon turns out to have a more responsible double, Sgt. Donovan. 

The base command arranges a marriage ceremony between Airman Turner and … which one? The intent seems to be to marry her off to Donovan but she actually goes through the ceremony with Dead Head, who shows up at the honeymoon suite in the hotel where the climax (in more than one sense) occurs and Heyward turns it into a French farce with Turner alternately being romanced by Dead Head and Donovan, who gets locked in a convenient closet while Dead Head and Turner finally consummate their marriage, despite ceaseless interruptions by Fogg, Kinsey (it’s obvious Heyward deliberately picked her name after the celebrated sex researcher!) and a trio of obnoxious officers: Navy Admiral Stoneham (Cesar Romero), psychiatrist Captain Weiskopf (Gale Gordon, Lucille Ball’s sidekick on two of her post-I Love Lucy series), and Lt. Commander Talbott (Reginald Gardiner), a British officer sent to the U.S. military, presumably as part of the same exchange that sent Peter Sellers as Captain Mandrake to Burpleson Air Force Base in Dr. Strangelove. Sergeant Dead Head has some genuinely entertaining moments, notably the slapstick scenes Buster Keaton designed for the other actors as well as the ones he performed himself, and two good songs, one for Eve Arden (“You Should’ve Seen the One That Got Away”) and one for Donna Loren (“Two-Timin’ Angel”), who doesn’t appear elsewhere in the movie but turns up in a rock ’n’ roll nightclub and belts out this song with what I believe is the fabled “Wrecking Crew” studio band behind her. (I particularly noticed the unique solo style of their main guitarist, Tommy Tedesco, whose son Danny directed the documentary The Wrecking Crew.) The rest of the songs are as embarrassingly bad as the rest of the movie — they were all written by the deathless songwriting team of Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner — and the lowest point is a duet (or should I call it a trio?) between Deborah Walley and both Frankie Avalons on a lousy song called “Let’s Play Love.” 

When you look at the illustrious level of talent involved in this movie — the director was Norman Taurog, who’d made his bones back in 1931 directing Jackie Cooper in Skippy, had helmed many of the Martin and Lewis movies (and said that working with Martin and Lewis was like working with kids!) and had somehow hung on to a feature-film career while a lot of second- and third-tier directors with his sort of résumé were being relegated to retirement or TV series work; the actors included Keaton, Fred Clark (who had been in Sunset Boulevard and The Solid Gold Cadillac as well as one of the last Abbott and Costello Universals, A&C Meet the Keystone Kops), Eve Arden (who’d worked with the Marx Brothers on At the Circus, for which one of the gag men was Buster Keaton, and later turned up as Deborah Walley’s mother on the short-lived TV sitcom The Mothers-in-Law, Desi Arnaz’s only post-Lucy production), Cesar Romero and Reginald Gardiner (who worked with both Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, though only severally, not jointly: with Astaire in A Damsel in Distress and Rogers in the 1954 Black Widow) — and compare it to the meager level of what was achieved, the first conclusion you reach was, “Why did they bother?” Obviously because they were making a lot of money with this crap, though by this time the whole concept was losing steam and the combination of superficial cock-teasing and underlying unshakable wholesomeness that had made the original Beach Party and its immediate sequelae, Muscle Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo, successes was wearing thin with audiences and American International decided to salvage the formula by combining it with the other sort of movie that was making them money at the time, horror films. The end credits for Sergeant Dead Head promised the next film in the sequence, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, which had many of the same cast members as this one but added Vincent Price. Though it’s not entirely without entertaining moments (emphasis on “moments”), for most of its running time Sergeant Dead Head is the sort of annoying bad movie you sit through just asking yourself, “When the hell is this going to end, already?”

The Reluctant Astronaut (Universal, 1967)

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

After the disastrous Sergeant Dead Head I wondered whether the proprietor of the Vintage Sci-Fi screenings, http://sdvsf.org/, had shown his two movies last night, that one and the 1967 Don Knotts vehicle The Reluctant Astronaut, in that order to make The Reluctant Astronaut seem even better than it is. (He said no: the order was just chronological.) The Reluctant Astronaut is a better movie than Sergeant Dead Head, though that’s really damning it with faint praise. I must say that even when Don Knotts was making these rather ramshackle rural comedies with himself as the milquetoast lead, I really didn’t like them much: I had enjoyed Knotts’ lovable incompetence as Andy Griffith’s sidekick on The Andy Griffith Show but didn’t — and still don’t — think he was a strong enough personality to carry a film. The Reluctant Astronaut opens with Roy Fleming (Don Knotts) in the interior of a spacecraft, receiving instructions from Mission Control on how to launch himself into space … and then the camera pulls back (stop me if you’ve heard this before) and we find that his “spacecraft” is a mockup that’s part of a ride in an amusement park called “Kiddieland” that looks like they took it over from the “Kiddyland” in Abbott and Costello’s last film, Dance with Me, Henry (though not only was the spelling different but Dance with Me, Henry wasn’t a Universal film). The ride is staffed by Fleming inside and a bored old carnie outside who has to be cued when to throw the rocks onto the exterior of the prop spacecraft when Fleming’s narration tells them they’re supposed to be experiencing a “meteorite shower.” (My understanding is the term “meteor” is the correct one for a rock hurtling through space and “meteorite” is specifically the word for a fragment of one that actually lands on Earth.) There’s a somewhat tasteless but still funny gag when Fleming goes into his spiel to end the ride, saying the ship will touch down on earth in 20 minutes. One of the girls inside the ride protests, “I have to go to the bathroom!,” whereupon Fleming says, “We have just touched down!” It turns out that Fleming still lives with his parents, his dad Buck Fleming (Arthur O’Connell) and his mom (Jeanette Nolan, who played Lady Macbeth in Orson Welles’ film of Macbeth — so Sergeant Dead Head isn’t the only one of these two films featuring someone who once played in the cinematic majors, as frightening as it is to think that Don Knotts’ mother was Lady Macbeth!), and his dad is still obsessed with his experience as a combat soldier in World War I 50 years earlier. Indeed, he’s so obsessed with it that when his son, who’s supposed to be 35 years old, is at home Buck literally barks military commands with him, sort of like Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music

Buck Fleming has also secretly sent a job application for his son to join the Houston Space Center (which supposedly plays itself in some scenes) which he thinks will make him an astronaut, though Roy is so scared of heights he keeps sneaking out of the line to get on the plane to fly him there and taking the bus instead. (Apparently this plot gimmick came from a brainstorming session between the film’s writers, Jim Frizell and Everett Greenbaum, who were trying to figure out what the unlikeliest job would be for a man who was afraid of heights: they concluded it would be an astronaut.) When Roy arrives at Houston he finds that he’s been hired solely as an apprentice janitor, and his big concern is to make sure his parents don’t find out he’s a lowly menial at the space station instead of a trainee astronaut. About the only friend he makes in Houston is real astronaut Major Fred Gifford (Leslie Nielsen in a totally serious role — a lot of people who only know him from the Police Squad and Airplane! movies don’t realize he was a straight dramatic actor before he got sidetracked into those loony comedies, and when he says he’s been in space before, we science-fiction connoisseurs are likely to think, “Yes, we know — we’ve seen Forbidden Planet”), who at one point gets him into a photo with the astronaut crew, which gets printed in the home-town paper in Springfield, Missouri and leaves Roy’s parents even more convinced that he’s an astronaut. Roy’s parents and their friends decide to pay a surprise visit to their son in Houston — and in order to impress them Roy mounts a rocket sled and runs it down its track, then presses the eject button and flies through space before his drogue parachute opens and he comes back to earth. Alas, this gets him fired from the Space Center and leads to a tearful mutual confession scene in which he admits he was only a janitor there — and his dad admits that in World War I he served only as a librarian at Fort Dix and never fought in combat or even left the U.S. It’s the one piece of pathos in an otherwise amusing but curiously unmoving film. 

Then a deus ex machina emerges in the form of a Russian spaceship that is about to be launched in four days, and is distinguished from other spacecraft in that it’s flown purely by automation — the guy inside literally has nothing to do — and therefore they don’t have to hire someone who’s trained as a pilot or who has any military experience at all. The U.S. has a similar spacecraft, Eclipse, and in order to fly it they pick, you guessed it, washout janitor Roy Fleming, for the same reason Lenore Aubert’s character in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein picked Lou Costello’s brain to transplant into the Monster because he’d be perfectly docile and easy to control. So Roy Fleming becomes the first person without any military experience to be shot in space (Charles liked that the film was not, as Sergeant Dead Head and most comedies about space flight were, about an innocent person being trapped in a spacecraft when it lifts off), only he screws things up when he gets ordered to make himself a snack of crackers and peanut butter in space. Alas, under zero gravity the crackers go flying all around the ship, the peanut butter emerges in a long black string that looked too much like shit to me to find the sequence amusing, and Fleming, bumping into things while weightless (actually Don Knotts was suspended on wires that are all too visible on screen), knocks himself into the big reel-to-reel tape deck that contains all the information the guidance computer needs to fly the ship and guide it safely through re-entry. He tries to piece the tape back together but does so with peanut butter and cracker crumbs, rendering it useless. Fortunately, in a nice bit of writing by Frizell and Greenbaum, Fleming remembers how to guide a spacecraft through re-entry from the script of his carnival ride simulating it back in Springfield, and he ends up touching down safely — there’s a nice gag when his capsule lands, not in the water next to the aircraft carrier that’s supposed to send out a helicopter to pick it up, but on the deck of the carrier itself — and he ends up an international hero in the arms of the girl he loves, fellow carnie Ellie Jackson (Joan Freeman) — only in the final scene, even though he’s been in space, he’s still so scared of flying in a terrestrial aircraft he and Ellie sneak out of the line and end up back on the buses.  

The Reluctant Astronaut is a decent movie that suffers, as does Sergeant Dead Head, from the fact that when it was made there simply weren’t that many people around who could do great physical comedy. The late 1950’s and early 1960’s were a golden age for stand-up comedians (or, as they had been called in vaudeville days, “monologuists”): Steve Allen, Shelley Berman, Mort Sahl, Don Adams, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, Godfrey Cambridge, Bill Cosby. But, as John McCabe complained in his biography of Laurel and Hardy in 1962, the demises of the British music halls and American vaudeville had cut off the training ground for physical comedy — though eventually slapstick would make a comeback as people who’d trained in improv, and therefore had had to learn to get laughs with their bodies as well as their mouths, started to emerge: Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and a lot of the people who graduated to films from Saturday Night Live. Alas, that sort of talent simply didn’t exist in the mid-1960’s (though it’s tempting to imagine how The Reluctant Astronaut might have played with the young Woody Allen in the lead, just as it’s interesting to imagine the basic plot of Sergeant Dead Head with the young Jerry Lewis, who for all his weaknesses would at least have brought some energy to it!), and Don Knotts did the best he could with the gags he got but The Reluctant Astronaut is pleasant and amusing without being as all-out funny. It was directed by Edward J. Montagne, who had actually begun as a film noir director and had received industry notice with a cheap independent production from 1950 called The Tattooed Stranger which RKO picked up for distribution, then landed a lot of directorial assignments on the noir TV series Man Against Crime before getting sidetracked into comedy, first as a producer on the McHale’s Navy TV show and then ending up working on a lot of Don Knotts vehicles: The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, this one and The Shakiest Gun in the West (Knotts’ remake of the Bob Hope-Jane Russell vehicle The Paleface). Montagne’s career represents one of the most frustrating transitions out of serious filmmaking, which he was surprisingly good at, into comedy, which he wasn’t — one has to go back to Frank R. Strayer, who abandoned a career as a potentially great thriller and horror director in 1938 to helm the Blondie series of “B” sitcoms at Columbia, to find a career change as artistically regrettable even though no doubt both Strayer and Montagne made reasonably comfortable livings making people chuckle instead of thrilling or scaring them.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Story of China, parts 5 and 6 (MayaVision International, Mandarin Film Productions, PBS, 2017)

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

My “feature” last evening was the final two episodes of a PBS mini-series called The Story of China, written, produced and directed by Michael Wood for something called “MayaVision International” (though the imdb.com page on the show lists the production company as “Mandarin Film Productions,” which frankly makes more sense for a movie about historical China!). Wood is one of those annoying Brits who clog up most of PBS’s travel shows, but the Chinese series — the last two of its six episodes, anyway — is surprisingly good. Part five, “The Last Empire,” starts in the 17th Century, when China was conquered by the Manchus, Mongol-descended armies from the northern province of Manchuria, four centuries after the previous Mongol conquest by Genghis Khan and his Golden Hordes. Like those Mongols, these ones may have won the battle but eventually China assimilated them; the Manchus, also known as the Qing (pronounced “Ching”) Dynasty, took over the political and administrative system of China and just installed themselves at the top. They also absorbed traditional Chinese culture much the way the Romans absorbed Greek culture after they conquered what was left of Alexander the Great’s Hellenistic empire, both China’s artistic traditions and its spiritual ones — particularly the reverence for ancestors and the teachings of Confucius. The early Manchu rulers of China were three long-lived princes who seemed to have been trying to run a benevolent despotism much the way Kemal Atatürk would do in early 20th-Century Turkey; like the people running China today, they offered the Chinese a system that functioned effectively and brought relative economic prosperity as long as the Chinese didn’t dissent and politely and calmly paid the Manchu rulers the taxes they demanded. 

It’s occurred to me that the Chinese do empire considerably better than the U.S. — partly because they’ve literally been at it for millennia — mainly because when they conquered a territory, instead of running roughshod over it they let the local authorities pretty much continue to run things, and all they asked for was “suzerainty and tribute” — “suzerainty” meaning that the people accepted the Chinese as the folks generally in charge and “tribute” that they agreed to pay a pretty large sum of money to the Chinese central government. (There have been exceptions — notably the attempt by the Chinese in Tibet in the 1950’s not only to conquer but to obliterate Tibetan culture — and Wood makes an interesting contrast between the way the Manchus treated Tibet when they moved in, including offering protection to the Dalai Lama and actually building a reproduction of his palace in their capital, Beijing, and the way Mao’s Communists treated Tibet in the 1950’s.) It’s occurred to me that such a large part of the U.S. national debt is owed to the Chinese government — they and the banks they own are our single largest creditor — that some day they may simply announce that they are foreclosing and from now on they own us, but they will probably treat us like the Manchus (and the previous imperial dynasties from China’s largest ethnic group, the Han) did their dependent territories: ask us for recognition of their ultimate authority (including suppression of any political or cultural material opposing China — something that’s already started to happen, actually: the reason you haven’t seen any pro-Tibetan or anti-Chinese movies out of Hollywood since the brief spate of them two decades ago, including Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun, is that studios are too committed to getting their films shown in China to risk doing anything to alienate the Chinese authorities) and large sums of money to pay off the interest on our debt (since we’re way too much in hock to them to have any hope of paying the principal), but will otherwise pretty much leave us alone. 

Anyway, “The Last Empire” had some interesting points, though in keeping with Wood’s rather whirlwind survey (he was a triple-threat player here as director, writer and narrator) the final deterioration of the Qing court and in particular the control of the Empress Dowager aren’t even mentioned. The film does depict the last Emperor, Pu Yi, via what appears to be a clip from Bernardo Bertolucci’s marvelous film The Last Emperor (well, on a British TV budget they were hardly likely to be able or willing to duplicate a Chinese accession ceremony themselves!); he took the throne, so to speak, at age two and was deposed at age six (much the way the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, fell from the throne at age four), and it attributes the collapse of Qing China to the West, particularly the British. China’s problems with the West in general and Britain in particular, according to Wood’s portrayal, date back to the 1780’s, when the British obsession with tea led to a severe balance-of-payments problem with China. The British East India Company had already moved in and literally conquered India (a lot of people don’t know that there was a century during which India was under “Company rule” — the private British East India Company literally governed India as its corporate property before it ceded it to the British government in the mid-19th century and formed what became known as the Raj), but India alone couldn’t supply the enormous British tea market. China insisted on being paid for tea in hard currency — gold and silver — and this led to an enormous balance-of-payments problem as Britain’s trade deficit with China threatened to suck its treasury dry. The British racked their brains to come up with something, anything, they could trade with China to pay for their tea, and after organizing a huge trade show for the Qing Emperor and having him express total disinterest in all the manufactured goods and gimcracks they were offering as “not fit even for children’s toys,” the British hit on something they could produce in quantity in India and sell in China: opium. By 1841 there were so many Chinese hooked on opium (a problem also being dealt with by our failing empire!) the Qing government attempted to ban it — and the British actually fought a war with China to demand that the opium trade remain legal and that eight “treaty ports” be opened to British commerce. 

Contrary to popular belief, the Chinese had artillery, but they mounted their guns in fixed locations and they couldn’t be maneuvered to hit the British ships that were shelling their harbors — and so the British easily defeated the Chinese, got their treaty ports and got China to repeal their anti-drug laws, and humiliated a country and a culture which attached so much importance to “face.” One response came from a man named Hong, who heard a U.S. Christian missionary speak in China, decided he was the Chinese version of Jesus, and launched a revolutionary movement that was a bizarre mixture of progressive economics (he proposed to end all private ownership of land and instead the government would own land and license it to the people) and a degree of social control rivaling Cromwell’s Puritans or the Taliban: they proposed to ban all entertainment, gambling, sex between men (just why these asshole authoritarians are always so down on Gays is beyond me, but it really does seem to come with the territory) and, of course, drug use. At their height Hong’s Taiping rebels controlled about one-fourth of China, ruling from what later became the Nationalist Chinese capital of Nanjing, and the Qing had to rely on European military aid to suppress them. Just before he was executed, one of the Taiping leaders warned the generals who were about to put him to death that they should buy the very best cannon Europeans had to offer, have Chinese craftsmen study them and learn how to duplicate them, and make thousands of them so the Chinese could have an effective defense against future European incursions. Needless to say, they didn’t bother: instead the Qing court became fair game for the various rapacious European powers, each of which staked claims on China’s east coastal regions — while the U.S. proclaimed an “Open Door” policy towards China, which basically sent a message that the U.S. wouldn’t tolerate one European country trying to colonize China directly the way the British had with India; instead, all Western countries — including, of course, the U.S. — should be free to exploit China and bully the Chinese equally. 

It got so ridiculous that after the Boxer rebellion at the turn of the last century (led, like the Taiping revolution, by a mystic who had absorbed some half-baked notions of Christianity and decided that he was the second coming of J. C. himself), the International Legation in Beijing was literally sealed off so only foreigners, not Chinese, could enter. Wood even showed a shot of the remaining “French Post Office” that was built during those years and was, as the name suggests, administered directly as a department of the French post office in France. Wood argued that it was the crippling reparations payments the Europeans demanded from the Qing government for the property destroyed by the Boxers that sank the Qing government, especially since the only way they had to raise the money was to tax the peasants even more than they’d been doing (an interesting anticipation of the reparations payments the victors in World War I extracted from the defeated Germans, which collapsed their economy and helped Adolf Hitler come to power). It didn’t mention that an additional humiliation for the Chinese was that the Europeans imposed what was called “extraterritoriality” on them — that meant that if a European committed a crime in China he or she would be tried in a court of Europeans according to the laws of his or her home country, and the Chinese would have no jurisdiction whatsoever. (The U.S. claims a similar extraterritoriality to this day when it comes to crimes committed by U.S. servicemembers stationed at overseas bases: one reason the U.S. precipitately withdrew all its military from Iraq at the end of the George W. Bush Presidency was the Iraqi government refused to extend extraterritoriality to U.S. servicemembers at the elaborate network of bases the U.S. had built there — and without the guarantee of extraterritoriality, meaning it was possible that a U.S. servicemember who committed a crime against an Iraqi might actually have to stand trial in an Iraqi court under Iraqi law, the U.S. refused to keep its servicemembers there.) 

The final episode, “The Age of Revolution,” was a whirlwind tour through the tumultuous history of China in the 20th century — the fall of the Empire in 1911, its replacement by a more or less republican government under Sun Yat-Sen until his death in 1925, the civil war that lasted in China throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, the emergence of rival warlords taking on the government of Chiang Kai-Shek and above all the rise of the Communists under Mao Zedong, son of a peasant couple from China’s northwestern province of Hunan. (One story I always got a kick out of as an illustration of the power of a dictator is that when he came to power, Mao always insisted that only Hunanese food, the spiciest of all Chinese food, be served at the state dinners — and he reportedly got a sadistic kick out of seeing people from other parts of China, unused to the hot Hunanese cuisine, try to get it down.) The show races through some of the highlights of Mao’s rise to power — the Long March that decimated the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party, the cave compound Mao lived in between the Long March and his re-alliance with Chiang’s Kuomintang (“Nationalist”) Party to fight the Japanese when they invaded mainland China in 1937 (six years after they’d already conquered Manchuria, renamed it Manchukuo, and installed our old friend Pu Yi, the boy who’d been the last Qing emperor, as a puppet ruler), followed by the post-World War II civil war which the Communists won relatively easily and the extreme Communist policies Mao enforced after that, including forced collectivization of agriculture (despite how dismally that had worked in the Soviet Union), the wanton destruction of Chinese culture, the imposition of a one-child policy (actually a more nuanced idea than the total disaster Wood made it seem), and the forced relocation of intellectuals to the countryside, where they had to do manual labor because that was considered the only “really” socially worthwhile sort of work. 

The Chinese Communists practiced a lot of self-destructive policies but weren’t quite as evil as Wood depicted them, and though he doesn’t devote a lot of screen time to post-Mao China he approaches it with a sort of Cold War triumphalism we’ve become all too familiar with in American historiography: the idea that free-market capitalism is the natural order of humanity and that Communism, by attempting to abolish individualism and the Free Market, was going against the human grain and therefore could bring only misery, famine, mass starvation and political repression. The show rather petered out as it attempted to return to the multigenerational Chinese families Wood had endeavored to trace throughout his series — I’d have much rather seen a plus ça change, plus ça meme chose ending noting how much the current Chinese regime resembles its predecessors in maintaining tight controls on the country’s political and cultural life while welcoming and encouraging economic development, hoping to make the country (or at least its urban elites — Wood points out that now, as throughout Chinese history, most of its people have been peasants and rural China has barely been touched by social, economic or technological change at all) sufficiently prosperous that its people can basically be bought off and the good times will keep them from rebelling.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Tiny House of Terror (Sepia Films/Lifetime, 2017)

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

My “feature” last night was a Lifetime movie with the almost risible title Tiny House of Terror, and after the relative quality of The Wrong Crush and Deadly Secrets by the Lake this was a return to typical Lifetime slovenliness and silliness. The “original” story for this one came from Jill Sanford, usually an associate producer, and she worked it into a script in collaboration with our old friend from the Whittendale universe, Barbara Kymlicka, whom I’ve wondered before why she didn’t change her name when, given that virtually all her scripts revolve around sexual obsession in general and nubile young women working their way through Whittendale University by becoming prostitutes or mistresses of rich men in particular, it would seem that she’d see the downside of being known as “Cum-Licker.” For most of its running time this didn’t seem like the sort of story that would attract the attentions of Ms. Kymlicka, until a surprise twist at the end … well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The central character is Samantha Hastings (Francia Raisa), wife of Kyle Hastings (Jesse Hutch), who in partnership with his friend Mark Chadwick (Matte Bellefleur) became an Internet gazillionaire developing a successful Web site called Host, which enables all the aspects of your home — lights, heat, air, appliances, entertainment, you name it — to be controlled by a single app.

I’ve heard of such applications being tested in real life and being vulnerable to the same thing that happens in the movie: either an accidental glitch or a deliberate hack can mean your house basically takes you over and starts turning lights on and off, playing your TV at whatever channel it wants, locking your doors so you’re essentially trapped inside, and any number of otherwise undesirable outcomes. Such duly happens to Our Heroine, whose story begins on one of those bucolic evenings beloved of Lifetime writers doing their exposition, in which Samantha, Kyle, Mark and Mark’s wife Lindsay (Tammy Gillis) are in Kyle’s house (which features a set of concrete stairs leading from the first to the second floor that reminded me of a human vertebra) playing charades and arguing intensely, but comically, over every play. Later Kyle and Samantha get into a much more serious argument when Samantha, pregnant with Kyle’s child, suddenly goes into spasms in their living room and has a miscarriage — her second one. After this experience she obtains birth-control pills and starts using them because she doesn’t want to go through either the physical or mental agonies of any more useless pregnancies, and when Kyle stumbles on the truth he’s furious that she’s gone on birth control without telling him and therefore deprived him of the opportunity to have a child. (If these were real-life people of my own acquaintance, this is about the time I would be thinking of a way to tell them that maybe if they want a child so badly they should give up on the natural route and consider adopting.) 

Then Kyle goes off on one of his regular rock-climbing vacations, only he doesn’t come back and he’s reported as missing. Then Samantha has a traumatic experience in which her TV suddenly comes on and starts replaying all the recorded news reports of Kyle’s disappearance, freaking her out both with the content of the reports and her inability to get Host to turn the TV off: she keeps telling it to do so and it responds merely by changing the channel. (Why it doesn’t occur to her to unplug the TV was a mystery to me — unless Host has the TV cord booby-trapped so you can’t unplug it without shocking yourself to death.) Though the house Kyle and Samantha were living in at the start of the story already seemed pretty small to me, especially for people who were supposed to be super-rich, it turns out that Kyle had planned a present for Samantha: the titular tiny house, only 300 square feet, located in a section of pristine country which Kyle and Mark wanted to develop, but to do so with ultra-small houses to make as little of a “footprint” on the site’s natural beauty as possible. Just why Samantha would have needed a house of her own when she and Kyle were getting along decently, except for Kyle’s desire for a child and Samantha’s inability to bring a pregnancy to term, is a mystery locked in Ms’s. Sanford’s and Kymlicka’s heads, but after Kyle’s disappearance she decides to move into the titular tiny house of terror. 

It soon turns out that the “terror” she’s involved in isn’t either electromechanical or supernatural, but entirely explicable: someone is regularly breaking into the house and doing things like setting the garbage disposal to turn itself on when Samantha has opened it up and is trying to retrieve her wedding ring from it, and stealing all the photos of herself with Kyle and erasing the final text she got from him so she’ll have no physical evidence of their relationship. About the only people Samantha has to turn to in her hours of need are Mark, Lindsay and Samantha’s older sister Jackie (Nazneen Contractor — that’s what imdb.com says her name is!), a nurse who’s put her on anti-anxiety pills she’s stolen from the hospital where she works (and got into trouble for doing so), along with Ben Oxley (William Vaughan), a local environmental activist who offers himself as her handyman. It turns out that after Kyle disappeared, Mark needed a new partner for his land investment and found him in local developer Darren Zucker (David Stewart), only Zucker isn’t interested in building a bunch of tiny houses and otherwise retaining the land’s pristine natural beauty. His plan is to level the whole thing and put in condos and a strip mall, and Mark reluctantly goes along with him on the ground that with Kyle gone, that will be the only way he can salvage his investment in the property. This sets up all manner of red herrings for Ms.’s Sanford and Kymlicka to play around with — was Kyle killed by the developer who wanted a bigger project than the one Kyle was willing to build, or by the environmentalist who didn’t want any development on that land at all? — and Darren the Bad Developer even gets clubbed inside the Tiny House of Terror, though when Samantha finds his body it’s inside his car and the scene has been staged to make it look like he died in an accident. 

Eventually it turns out that the real culprit is [surprise!] Samantha’s sister Jackie — though that’s not as much of a surprise as the writers intended because virtually all the women in the cast physically resemble each other and when Jackie turns up and identifies herself as Samantha’s tormentor one’s first reaction (my first reaction, anyway) is to replay the movie in memory and try to figure out, “O.K., which one is she?” What’s more, Kyle, Samantha’s husband, is alive after all. He didn’t go on his planned rock-climbing trip because before he could do that, Jackie kidnapped him with the intent of offing Samantha and marrying Kyle herself. It seems that Kyle briefly dated Jackie when they were both in high school, only he broke up with her after a few weeks when he decided that Samantha was the woman he was actually in love with him — and Jackie not only is still carrying a torch for him, she’s convinced she’d be a better match for him than Samantha because Samantha has tried and failed twice to give him a child and that part of Jackie’s anatomy presumably still works. Of course Jackie is also jealous that she’s had to spend her life working long and tough hours as a nurse while her sister married a man who became rich and doesn’t have to do anything — though she’s pursuing a sort of hobby career as a landscape architect and has submitted a design for the tiny-house development. 

The climax is so preposterously melodramatic that compared to Ms.’s Sanford and Kymlicka, Christine Conradt seems like a mistress of understatement: determined to get rid of her sister once and for all (the drugs she was giving Samantha were supposed to do her in slowly, but Samantha took herself off them before they could have that effect), Jackie steals a bulldozer, sets the internal security system of the tiny house to lock Samantha in, then crashes the bulldozer into the house and starts demolishing it with Samantha and Kyle both still inside it — and this keeps up until the police arrive just in time and stop Jackie from doing her sister and brother-in-law any further damage. Tiny House of Terror has some nicely Gothic suspense direction by Paul Shapiro, but the writing is ridiculous (though things lighten up a bit when we discover not only that Jackie is the killer but that sex was her motive: at last we’re into the kind of storytelling that turns Ms. Cum-Licker on) and the cast is just dull — Nazneen Contractor doesn’t even seize the opportunities for full-throated villainy her character offered (and some other actresses in Lifetime movies have made the most of), and the sympathetic characters are just sleep-inducing. Given the success of Lifetime’s series Little Women I had half-expected and half-dreaded that Tiny House of Terror would be a story about little people being terrorized by full-sized humans in houses built tiny because they don’t have to be any bigger to accommodate them; that would have been totally tasteless but might also have offered a sleazier Terror of Tiny Town-type fun Tiny House of Terror doesn’t even begin to offer as it stands!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Deadly Secrets by the Lake (Reel One Entertainment, LMN, Harlequin, 2017)

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

The film Lifetime showed at 10 p.m. yesterday had the rather intimidating title Deadly Secrets by the Lake but was actually pretty good, effectively written by Roma Roth (also listed as one of the project’s four producers) and Al Kratina, and directed by Don McBrearty with an effective sense of atmosphere. Jennifer Riley (an actress saddled with the indigestible name “Stefanie von Pfetten” — the sort of name that in the days of classic Hollywood got changed: back then nobody thought anyone would go see a movie billed as “The Wizard of Oz, starring Frances Gumm”) is a New York City police detective who just arrested a man she caught in the act of preparing to rape the woman he’d already kidnapped, bound and gagged. She’s been in a relationship for two years with a man named Santos Alvarez (played by an actor named Tahmoh Penikett — it almost seems as if the casting director worked hard to find a co-star with as ridiculous a name as the female lead, and despite the name of the character he doesn’t look particularly Latino) but they’ve neither got married nor moved in together, and her life gets upended when she receives a call from her father back home in the small town of Thornwood Heights, where she grew up (and whose precise location is unclear — I wondered if it was supposed to be a lakefront community in upstate New York or a Midwestern town on one of the Great Lakes, though of course this being a Lifetime movie the actual location was somewhere in Canada!).

Her dad is the police chief of Thornwood Heights but an ambitious deputy, Lewton (Dean Armstrong), is trying to push him out of that position. It seems one of Chief Riley’s other daughters, Lauren (Ferelith Young), has been arrested for murdering Victor Townsend, the owner of the blog for which she worked and which was trying to expose the misdeeds of the town’s richest man, coal magnate Connor Blake (Chris Gillett). Lauren was found next to Victor’s corpse, with his blood all over her and the knife that killed him in her hand, but of course Our Heroine Jennifer is convinced that her sister can’t have killed anybody, and she’s determined to investigate the case herself even though she has no jurisdiction — as Lewton viciously reminds her when he addresses her as “Ms. Riley,” she corrects him — “That’s Detective Riley” — and he fires back, “Maybe in New York City, but not here.” Jennifer is hated in Thornwood Heights because 20 years earlier she was supposed to meet her best friend, Connor Blake’s daughter Abby, for a platonic date — only she didn’t show up because she was too busy having a decidedly non-platonic encounter with Abby’s brother Hayden (Steve Byers). For some reason the police in general (other than her dad) and Lewton in particular decided that Jennifer must have killed Abby, and while they had neither Abby’s body nor any other actual evidence against her, she didn’t have a provable alibi either. Hayden refused to say they’d been together that night because his dad had previously lied and said the two had spent the evening together — a double lie because dad had actually been cheating on Hayden’s mom with another woman, and if Hayden had told the truth about his own whereabouts he would have exposed his father’s lie. So he didn’t and let Jennifer take the blame for Abby’s disappearance, and though Jennifer was never prosecuted she was forced to leave town — whereupon she went to New York City, became a cop and hooked up with the racially ambiguous Santos.

Meanwhile, back home Hayden attempted to work in his dad’s coal business, decided he didn’t like it — though it’s not all that clear how he did make his living — and he also got married, but by the time Jennifer returns Hayden and his wife have separated. Jennifer is convinced that Abby’s disappearance and Victor’s death are linked, and she investigates both crimes despite the open hostility of Connor Blake, who warns her not to see any member of his family; Lucky Martin (Conrad Coates), a nice-looking middle-aged African-American whose daughter was a co-worker of Lauren’s at Victor’s blog (which had aroused the ire of Connor Blake by printing material from an environmentalist organization challenging Connor’s attempts to expand his coal mine); Jennifer’s sister Nova (Claire Rankin), who works as a file clerk in the Thornwood Heights police department and is worried Jennifer’s investigation is going to get her fired; and even Jennifer’s dad (Fulvio Cecere), who tears into her one afternoon when he catches her with Hayden Blake at their home and demands she never see him again. Needless to say, she ignores the demand — Hayden and Jennifer become lovers (again) during the course of her investigation — and Jennifer is torn at the end between New York and Thornwood Heights and between the two men in her life, dull, boring Santos and darkly fascinating Hayden. While all this is going on Jennifer also realizes that someone in Connor Blake’s operation had been leaking compromising financial information to Victor’s blog, and she reaches the conclusion that the leaker was also the murderer. Roma Roth and Al Krastina throw us a few red herrings along the way — including Hayden’s cuter but far less butch brother Daniel (Jon Cor) — but the real killer turns out to be someone we haven’t met before, Daniel’s assistant at Blake Enterprises, Jamie Chen (an actor with yet another unfortunate last name, Shannon Kook), who was having a Gay affair with Victor Townsend, got pissed at him when Victor refused to leave his wife for him, killed him and drugged Lauren’s drinks at the bar so her tox screen would be through the roof and the cops would believe Lauren killed Victor in a drink- and drug-fueled jealous rage.

At the end it looks like Jennifer has wrapped up the cases — she’s even found a skeleton in the Blakes’ boat house she’s convinced is Abby (ya remember Abby?) — and is ready to go back to New York and her boring boyfriend Santos, only she gets a phone call from a mysterious stranger she becomes convinced is Abby, who we’re led to believe didn’t disappear at all and who is still alive. The ending, which struck me as reminiscent of the “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” schtick on the original Twin Peaks and “Who Shot J. R.?” on Dallas, was written that way to set up a series, Thornwood Heights, and the credits even invite you to keep abreast of Abby’s mystery at the series’ Web site, www.thornwoodheights.com, indicating that this is a co-production of Lifetime’s premium channel LMN (for “Lifetime Movie Network”) and Harlequin, the romance-novel company, and it’s going to be the start of a series. I could have done without the “teaser” aspect of the ending, but for the most part this is actually quite a good program, rich and redolent with atmosphere and genuine suspense (despite the killer being surprise-revealed as someone we’ve never seen or even heard of before, which breaks the first rule they teach you in Whodunits 101) and also ably capturing the mephitic atmosphere of small-town life, the metaphorically incestuous relationships that build up between all these people who have literally known each other all their lives, and above all in the classism of the piece. At one point Connor Blake makes his objections to Jennifer’s activities so clear he grabs her arm and says, in a low, threatening voice, “I’m used to people doing what I tell them” — and though this movie was probably made before the last Presidential election there’s certainly a lot of Trump in his attitude, this whole sense of noblesse oblige that because I have more money than you I am a naturally superior person and therefore I can demand your obedience and punish you however I see fit if I don’t get it.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Logan (20th Century Fox, Marvel Entertainment, Donners’ Company, Kinberg Genre, 2017)

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

Our “feature” was Logan, ninth and (presumably) last of the X-Men series movies in which Hugh Jackman portrays the character of Wolverine, a biologically engineered assassin whose big trademark is that when he needs an invulnerable weapon, claws made of a synthetic metal called adamantium emerge from between his regular fingers, and these are sharp enough he can literally decapitate someone with them. The film was released earlier this year, and if your idea of a superhero film is a joyous romp through various elaborate action sequences with clearly defined heroes and villains, this is definitely not your movie. Indeed, it’s so relentlessly dark that the Blu-Ray package includes three discs, alternate Blu-Ray and DVD versions of the film as theatrically released plus a third Blu-Ray disc with something called Logan Noir, which is the same movie in black-and-white. Of this smorgasbord of options we watched the color version of the Blu-Ray, and while much of it was in the dirty brown-and-green color scheme that seems to be modern-day cinematographers’ default look for virtually everything, a) there were a few shots that contained bright colors (including a sequence set at the “Liberty Motel” that seemed to me inspired by the “Victory Motel” climax at the end of L.A. Confidential) and b) the entire look of the film was so dark for once that dirty brown-and-green look was actually appropriate. 

Basically, Logan is a “road movie” in which Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is working as a limo driver just across the U.S. border in Mexico. He’s also taking care of Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who since the destruction of his school for mutant kids in Westchester has been reduced to a pathetic existence living inside a giant oil tank and being kept shot up with drugs because he can no longer control his mental energies and unless he’s kept perpetually sedated he could send off “psionic” emissions that would be dangerous to anyone in his vicinity. In the opening sequence Logan is confronted by a Mexican street gang that wants to steal his limo, and he fights them off but in the process “outs” himself and reveals his whereabouts to the sinister corporate leader Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), head of a company called “Transigen” (a marvelously evocative name suggesting “intransigent,” “transgenic” — a euphemism for “genetically modified” — and “transgender”). The film is set in 2029 (though, as a number of imdb.com contributors noted, aside from the specially modified Chrysler limo Logan drives in the opening scenes the cars shown are all modern-day models with no attempt to make them look like cars from 12 years in the future) and in the universe in which it takes place, no new mutants have been born in the last 25 years. Given how effectively the whole X-Men premise has been used in previous films as a sort of metaphor for the Queer experience — particularly the anti-mutant repression as well as the internal dilemma every mutant faces as to whether to remain closeted or come out — the situation in Logan reflects the fear of a lot of Queer people that scientific research aimed at finding out why people are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender could be used as a means to eliminate us altogether from future generations. 

In the early parts of Logan it’s a mystery why no natural mutants have been born in the previous quarter-century, but midway through the movie Pierce explains that he and his fellow corporate baddies have deliberately contaminated humans’ food supplies with genetically modified corn syrup and other nasties that have prevented the mutations that created the X-Men in the first place from ever happening again. But that hasn’t been enough for the dark forces at Transigen: they’ve also bioengineered their own mutants, and one of them, manufactured from Logan’s DNA and therefore biologically his daughter, is Laura (Dafne Keen), who looks about 12. Laura’s mother Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) offers him $50,000 to take her and her daughter to North Dakota, site of the fictional “Eden,” supposedly a place where mutants can live unmolested by the forces of big government and big business that are out to enslave and/or slaughter them all. Logan insists that “Eden” doesn’t really exist — it’s just a fantasy created by the writers of the X-Men comic books (one of the things I like about this movie is the metafictional way the X-Men comics are incorporated into the story, much the way Michael Connelly incorporated into subsequent “Lincoln Lawyer” series books the fact that the first one was filmed — the “real” character in the later novels even boasts that Matthew McConaughey played him in the movie!) — but Laura insists that it’s real and Logan must take her there even though all the money she has is the $20,000 her mom gave Logan before she was killed. The film basically is a race across country between Logan, Laura and Xavier in a variety of trucks, each one seemingly skuzzier and more decrepit than the last; and the combined forces of Donald Pierce and his big-government and big-business allies (Logan clearly has elements of political allegory, but like a lot of other recent movies and TV shows it can be read either as a Left-wing parable about the evils of capitalism or a Right-wing one about the freedom of the individual against an oppressive government), who in order to trace Logan have kidnapped Caliban (Stephen Merchant, looking a lot like the “Riff Raff” character Richard O’Brien played in the original Rocky Horror Picture Show), the fellow mutant who was living with Logan in the Mexican desert and helping him take care of Xavier in the opening scenes. 

There’s a horrifying moment in which, in order to keep the albino Caliban under his thumb, Pierce throws open a window in his enclosure and exposes him to sunlight — and Caliban’s skin quickly turns red and blotchy, a condition that’s obviously going to kill him if it’s allowed to continue. One of the most fascinating aspects of Logan is the sheer extent of the armed forces Pierce is able to marshal whenever they find Logan’s whereabouts — reason enough that it appears he’s in league with the government, having already wiped out the natural mutants and being committed to recapture his genetically engineered ones at their redoubt in North Dakota, while they’re equally committed to sneaking across the border into Canada, where they will at least theoretically be safe. (Of course, in real life someone as unscrupulous as Pierce wouldn’t bother to stop his military campaign just because a borderline was in his way.) What sets Logan apart from other superhero movies is its unrelieved gloominess: we know that the good guys are being so relentlessly pursued by the bad guys that there’s no rest for the non-wicked in this film, and even when they appear to have found a temporary sanctuary — like the Vegas-style casino to which they briefly repair (and there are marvelous shots contrasting the bedraggled fugitives with the well-dressed tourists who are the place’s main customer base — I had assumed they’d actually driven to Vegas but according to imdb.com, the location is actually a Native American casino in Oklahoma) and where Xavier has a psionic outburst that literally causes the casino walls, as well as everyone inside, to shake (an effect created, according to an imdb.com “trivia” poster, by shooting the footage hand-held, deliberately making it shaky, and then using post-production technology to re-stabilize the frame, disorienting the audience as well as the characters with the combination of motion blur and smearing created by the effect) — their past and their uncertain present catch up with them. 

The film’s most tragic sequence is when Logan, Laura and Xavier meet up with an African-American family, Will Munson (Eriq LaSalle), his wife Kathryn (Elise Neal) and their son Nate (Quincy Fouse), when their truck has been run off the road and the horse trailers they were towing have come open, letting the horses out. Logan is reluctantly talked into helping him by Xavier, not wanting to get involved and wanting even less to inflict his rotten luck on yet more decent people who are just going to end up as collateral damage (“Bad shit happens to people I care about,” Logan explains to Laura) — as indeed they do, as Logan helps Will in a fight against local rednecks who’ve just cut off the access to water he needs to run his farm. He takes out some of the rednecks, slicing one’s head off in a gruesome scene that would be even more horrific if director James Mangold didn’t get it on and off screen in such a hurry, but this alerts Pierce and his minions to Wolverine’s presence and the result is a bloodbath in which, this being an X-Men movie, the nice people all die. In the end the “Eden” redoubt actually exists and Laura is reunited with her old friends from the These Are the Damned-style Transigen compound in which she grew up, but in the final scene they have to make a run across the Canadian border and Logan [spoiler alert!] deliberately O.D.’s on the drug that potentiates his super-powers and wards off the toxic effects of all that adamantium in his body, thereby getting his young charges across the border at the sacrifice of his own life. This doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be another Wolverine film — not only is this a fantasy, which means that just because you actually see a character die you can’t assume you won’t see them again, but at least two other characters, Laura and Pierce’s assassin, have the Wolverine mutation — though Hugh Jackman gave a number of interviews when this film came out swearing up and down that this will be, cross his heart and hope to die, his last appearance as Wolverine. (Yeah, right, I thought: if the producers dangle a check in front of him and the amount has enough zeroes at the end of it, I’m sure he’ll play the part again.) 

Jackman is one of my favorite modern-day actors — though my support of him comes largely from his brilliant performance in a tragically little-known film, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (and even there he was playing a character similar to Wolverine, a man of mystery who helps out a heroine in distress while himself remaining forbidding and remote) — but I can tell he’s getting as tired of the role as Lon Chaney, Jr. got of the Wolf Man (and there are similarities, especially the growling noises Wolverine emits as he transforms from normal human being into mutant killing machine), especially since about the only emotions he can register in the part are alienation and angst. Still, even though much of Logan is pretty slow going, I really liked the film: Mangold, who’d previously worked on the series in another Jackman vehicle, The Wolverine, directs superbly — and the script is also based on his story, though he directly collaborated with another writer, Scott Frank, on turning it into a screenplay and a third scribe, Michael Green, was brought in for subsequent revisions. Mangold’s résumé is full of movies about people put in extreme circumstances, many times skirting the thin edge of sanity — Girl, Interrupted, Cop Land, the remake of 3:10 to Yuma and the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line (in a sort of odd directorial trademark, the song we hear during the first part of the closing credits is one of Cash’s last records, “The Man Comes Around,” credited to Cash as songwriter but obviously a variant on the old spiritual “There’s a Man Goin’ ’Round Takin’ Names”) — and his two collaborations with Jackman as Wolverine are clearly in that line. The acting in this movie is well done, despite Jackman’s occasional hints of boredom with the role; Patrick Stewart plays well as a shrunken (literally; director Mangold wanted him to lose weight to suggest the character’s decrepit state — and also to make it easier for Jackman to lift him and carry him around, which happens several times in the film) version of the once powerful Master of the X-Men; and Dafne Keen as Laura is great, refreshingly unsentimental (it’s taken decades for the malign influence of Shirley Temple to wear off and allow filmmakers to depict children as multidimensional characters instead of drowning them all in gooey sweetness) and strong-willed. I’m going to make the same prediction about her I made (accurately) about Kirsten Dunst after Interview with the Vampire: she’ll have a great career as an adult actress.