Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Superman: The Movie (Dovemead Productions, Film Export A.G., International Film Production, Warner Bros., 1978)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013, 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I saw yesterday at the downtown library was the 1978 Superman: The Movie, a ground-breaking film in that it was the first movie based on a comic-book superhero that not only made money but was a blockbuster hit, the sixth highest-grossing film Warner Bros. had released to that time, and its success has shaped much of the movie industry ever since. It’s a film that has entered the ranks of legend because of its bizarre production process; it was the brainchild of scapegrace producer Alexander Salkind — a business buccaneer whose activities seemed to produce as many lawsuits as movies — and his son and business partner Ilya. Somehow the Salkinds had acquired the movie rights to the Superman character from DC Comics, and they mounted an intense production process, platooning in various teams of writers — including Mario Puzo (who got credit for the original story even though almost nothing he wrote ever got into the final film — but after the success of the films based on his novel The Godfather Puzo’s name was big box office) and the team of Robert Benton and David Newman, who’d written Bonnie and Clyde — along with an uncredited Tom Mankiewicz and Leslie Newman, David’s wife, who got called in because director Richard Donner (who got the job after the original director, Guy Hamilton, withdrew when the shoot was moved from Italy to England and Hamilton, a British tax exile, had to give it up because he could only spend 30 days per year in the U.K. before being subject to British taxes) thought he needed a woman to write credibly for the Lois Lane character. The original plan was to shoot enough footage not only for the Superman movie but its sequel, Superman II, but that got screwed up when the Salkinds decided to fire director Donner from the second film and hired Richard Lester (whose most famous credits were the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night and Help! — not exactly the credentials one expects for a superhero movie), who reshot about two-thirds of Donner’s footage for the sequel.

Just about everybody involved with the production ended up suing Alexander Salkind — even Ilya filed a suit against his old man — including Donner and Marlon Brando, who earned $3.7 million plus points for 12 days’ of work as Jor-El, Superman’s natural father, who presumably perishes after the opening sequence in which the planet Krypton, Superman’s ancestral home, is destroyed when its sun goes nova or something and Jor-El and his wife Lara (Susannah York) send their baby boy Kal-El on a miniature spaceship to Earth, where he’s going to grow up to be You Know Who. (I recently joked in these pages that a real trivia buff is someone who knows all three of Superman’s names, including his original one from Krypton.) The Salkinds cut a distribution deal with Warner Bros. and approached a lot of well-known action stars for the role of the Man of Steel, including Clint Eastwood (too old) and Sylvester Stallone (were they kidding?) as well as Jon Voight (who would have been an interesting but also a rather loopy choice) before they finally settled on a little-known 26-year-old actor named Christopher Reeve, continuing the casting tradition of previous live-action Superman projects of using a relatively fresh-faced performer who didn’t have a lot of associations with other parts to live down. Part of the writing problem with this film is that, like a lot of big action blockbusters since, the basic concept and the packaging were the main attractions and the movie’s actual plot was really an afterthought — one doesn’t get the impression through a lot of these films that there was a story at the heart of them that the filmmakers were just burning to tell. The 1978 Superman was the film whose blazing success launched a hundred superhero movies — the cycle is still going on and, with two of the biggest studios in Hollywood literally being invested in comic-book characters (later Warners bought D.C. Comics to gain the film rights to all their characters, and more recently Disney has done the same with Marvel), it shows no sign of stopping any time soon. But seen today it’s really not a very good movie: it’s perfectly acceptable popcorn entertainment but it lacks the richness and sheer perversity of the 1989 Tim Burton Batman (which if pressed I’d name as my all-time favorite comic-book superhero film).

The 1978 Superman is clearly a transitional work, stuck in time between the outright camp of the 1960’s Batman TV series (and the disappointing feature film made from it) and the more “serious” approach to superhero legends we’ve seen since, and the movie seems weirdly unbalanced, comically campy at times and earnestly serious at others. Part of the problem is Christopher Reeve; he’s drop-dead gorgeous as Superman (he worked out and added about 25 pounds of muscle to his frame for the role), he’s utterly convincing when he takes to the air — apparently Reeve could really fly, not of course under his own power, but he’d had enough experience with aircraft that he could pitch, roll and yaw in front of the blue screen (they were still using blue instead of green screens for special effects then — and that meant having to use a lighter shade of blue for Superman’s costume than the one in the comics because the original one washed out in front of the blue screen) and make the movements credible. But as hot and muscular as he is as the superhero, he’s way too nerdy as Clark Kent — and frankly, I like my Supermen more butch, more along the lines of Kirk Alyn and George Reeves. (Supposedly Reeve based the Clark Kent part of his characterization on Cary Grant’s performance in the screwball classic Bringing Up Baby — but he wasn’t a talented enough comedian to pull that off, and as good as she is as Lois Lane, Margot Kidder was hardly in Katharine Hepburn’s league either.) Where the 1978 Superman scores is in its special effects: though made 35 years ago, pre-CGI, the effects work compares favorably to anything being filmed today. The tagline for the film was, “You’ll really believe that a man can fly!” — and you do. The film was dedicated to the memory of the great cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who died shortly after it was finished — and I suspect Unsworth, who’d worked as a camera operator for Jack Cardiff on Michael Powell’s masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death and 22 years later had been the director of photography on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (to my mind the finest film made during the second half of the 20th century), was hired largely because he’d done such a good job simulating weightlessness on 2001 that he’d be able to use the same techniques to simulate aircraft-less human flight.

It’s the human aspects of Superman that let the side down, particularly the lack of a really intimidating super-villain. They hired Gene Hackman to play Lex Luthor (reuniting him with the writers of his star-making film, Bonnie and Clyde) but Hackman threw the filmmakers a curveball by refusing to have his head shaved to resemble the famously bald Luthor of the comics. Instead he insisted on keeping his real hair, and the filmmakers had it sculpted in a series of deliberately awful “do”’s to give the illusion that Luthor was wearing a series of ill-fitting wigs. What’s more, they gave Luthor only two henchpeople, both of them played as comic relief: Otis (Ned Beatty) and his sort-of girlfriend, Eve Teschmacher (played by Valerie Perrine in the mold of the character of Adelaide from Guys and Dolls) — and made them such idiotic klutzes that when Luthor complains that the greatest criminal mastermind in history has been stuck with such lame assistants, it’s hard not to feel for him. The filmmakers would have been better off casting Brando as Luthor (and having him play it like he did Kurtz in Apocalypse Now) and Hackman as Jor-El, though Brando isn’t half-bad — and I say that as a decided non-fan of Manic Marlon. For once he doesn’t mumble; he uses much the same voice as Jor-El he used as Mark Antony in the 1953 MGM Julius Caesar and he manages to capture the orotund solemnity the writing committee clearly meant the character to have — even though it gets risible when he keeps popping up even after he’s supposedly died in the apocalypse that consumes Krypton, appearing as a spectral presence and giving his son unneeded advice. (Ironically, Brando went on playing this role even after he died; his unused footage for the Superman II sequel got incorporated into the recent “reboot,” Superman Returns.) Were we supposed to believe this was all in Superman’s head, or did Jor-El beam himself into the Phantom Zone just before Krypton exploded so he could survive and stay in contact with his son telepathically?

Superman is also an odd action movie in which the women out-act the men; Margot Kidder continues in the Noel Neill tradition of spunky Lois Lanes — when she takes on the mugger who’s trying to steal her purse and beats him even without super-assistance from the hapless Clark Kent, it’s nice to see we have a Lois for the feminist era (and Neill herself makes a welcome cameo appearance as the mother of a pre-pubescent Lois in an early scene) — and even though her character is a walking cliché, Valerie Perrine manages to bring real pathos to the dipshit she’s playing. The 1978 Superman is a mess as a movie and yet it’s nice to see Christopher Reeve trim and fit — even though there’s an overlay of unintended pathos from Reeve’s later real-life fate that gives the film in general, and his performance in particular, a weirdly sad aspect its makers didn’t intend and couldn’t have anticipated (much the way there was a deep sadness in Fred Astaire’s last appearance on an awards show in 1985, a few months before his death, in which a man famous for his dancer’s ability and grace could now barely walk to the podium, let alone dance). There are enough elements in this film that do work — the long, romantic flight on which Superman takes Lois Lane is a marvelously lyrical set-piece that communicates the gentler emotions that have been pretty much excluded from superhero films since, and I’ve always loved the in-joke when Clark Kent is looking for a place to change into super-drag and sees one of those hooded pay phones that by 1978 had taken the place of the fully enclosed phone booths he used in the comics (the one scene in this film I remembered from the only other time I saw it, a badly cut TV version I watched on a black-and-white set on its first TV airings after the theatrical release) — that the 1978 Superman is still worth watching for reasons other than its historical importance establishing the comic-book movie as an audience attraction for all ages. But one wishes it could have been a better film and one that really rose to the potential of the Superman mythos. — 4/4/13

•••••


Our “feature” last night was the 1978 Superman: The Movie, which I just got as part of a three-movie package featuring it, the immediate sequel Superman II in the Richard Donner cut that wasn’t officially released (the film was largely reshot by Richard Lester — whose best-known credits were the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, hardly the credentials one would have thought a studio making a superhero film would be looking for) and the Superman Returns with Brandon Routh in the Superpart. I’d seen the original Superman twice before, once in the late 1970’s in a cut-down TV airing on a bad black-and-white set (the only part I remembered from that viewing was the hilarious gag in which Clark Kent looks for a phone booth in which to change into Superdrag and finds only those hooded public-phone enclosures that had replaced the fully enclosed phone booths in the Superman comic books — which have themselves almost totally disappeared as pay phones have largely ceased to exist in the cell-phone era) and once on April 3, 2013 at the old San Diego Public Library at 8th and “E” streets — the last film I ever saw there before the library closed and moved to its current location at 12th and Imperial. (I mused on the irony that after all the weird, esoteric or just oddball films I’d seen there over the years, the last movie I saw at that location was something so mainstream as the 1978 Superman.

Oddly, this time I found myself liking it considerably better than I had seven years before; Christopher Reeve’s performance has an engaging doofus-ness about it suggesting that this alien from Krypton may have had a human upbringing but he still had never quite cottoned to what these Homo sapiens were all about (and of course there’s a tragic overlay to Reeve’s Superman from his real-life fate, being crippled in a horse-riding accident and spending the last decade or so of his life in a wheelchair — a horrible fate that gives a sad cast to his obvious control of his body here). In 2013 I criticized this film for being essentially plotless — though that’s become such an integral part of the superhero genre it hardly seems to matter anymore — even though the film had some genuinely talented writers attached, including Godfather author Mario Puzo (who got credit for the original story even though, according to imdb.com, virtually nothing of what he wrote ended up in the movie) and Bonnie and Clyde writers Robert Benton and David Newman. (Newman brought his wife Leslie in as part of the writing team because he felt he needed a woman to write for Lois Lane.) There are some things that continue to bother me about the 1978 Superman — including the outrageous “cheat” of the ending, in which Lex Luthor hijacks a nuclear missile and uses it to set off an earthquake that will plunge the western half of California into the ocean, thereby annihilating San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego and thereby making Luthor’s real-estate holdings in eastern California worth far more because now they will be the West Coast. The missile also has the side effect of burying Lois Lane’s car and killing her, but no problem: Superman simply reverses time by flying in orbit around the Earth (apparently being “super” means you don’t even have to be able to breathe to survive!) so the missile’s damage (including blowing up Hoover Dam) is reversed and Lois lives after all. (Charles, almost a decade younger than I, remembered Superman comic books in which he could reverse time; I didn’t, and I suspect that was a later development in the Superman mythos.) It also bothered me that Gene Hackman refused to have his head shaved to play Luthor — though at the end he wore a pate so his wig could be removed after Superman citizen’s-arrested him and his assistant Otis (Ned Beatty) and deposited him in prison and he finally looked like the egg-headed Luthor from the comics (and from Lyle Talbot’s performance in the 1951 serial Atom-Man vs. Superman). 

On the plus side is Reeve’s winning performance, a script which seemed a good deal more coherent this time (Benton and the Newmans were clearly interested in making an all-around entertainment instead of just inserting bits of ponderous exposition to set up the action scenes the way the Republic serial writers had done earlier and most scribes of superhero movies have done since) and encompassed emotions like warmth and charm that have been pretty much purged from more recent comic-book movies (I especially love the date Superman takes Lois Lane on and literally flies her around the city — including at one point scaring the shit out of her by letting her go, only to rescue her by catching her in free-fall — and I like the way Benton and the Newmans capped the gag by having Clark Kent show up for what he thinks is going to be a date with Lois, albeit a terrestrially grounded one!). I also liked some of the in-jokes, including the dating of the explosion that destroyed Superman’s home planet, Krypton, as happening in 1948 (the year Columbia Pictures made the first of their two live-action serials with Kirk Alyn as Superman) and Superman’s arrival on Earth as 1951 (the year Columbia made their second Superman serial, Atom-Man vs. Superman), and the scene towards the end in which Lois Lane wonders why she’s never seen Superman and Clark Kent at the same time, thinks they might be the same person, then decides, “That’s the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever had.” I also liked Margot Kidder’s tough, no-nonsense performance as Lois Lane, a throwback to the aggressive woman reporters Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell played in 1930’s Warner Bros. films (who were probably the inspiration for Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — who settled a long-running suit with D.C. Comics just before this film was made and finally got public acknowledgment for creating the character and the Supermyth — in inventing Lois Lane in the first place, even though they made her dark-haired and Blondell and Farrell were both blondes) — and Charles told me he’d actually known one of the actors in a minor role (John F. Parker, who is listed on imdb.com as “4th Reporter” and appears only in one brief scene in the Daily Planet office). 

I gave the 1978 Superman: The Movie a lukewarm review on the moviemagg blog after the 2013 screening, but now it seems far more delightful, especially by comparison to the 2016 reboot Man of Steel, which took us over an hour to get Superman to Earth in the first place (the writers and director of Man of Steel fell too much in love with Krypton — especially its mixture of high-tech machinery and reliance on living animals for transportation, on which I suspect they were influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars — and didn’t want to leave it) whereas Benton, the Newmans and director Donner spent only about 20 to 25 minutes on the Superbackstory from Krypton. Marlon Brando got $3.7 million for 12 days’ worth of shooting as Jor-El, Superman’s biological father from Krypton, and fortunately he did not mumble through his part the way he so often did; instead he used the same voice he’d used as Mark Antony in his 1953 film of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and turned in a memorable performance even though he refused to memorize his dialogue in advance: he read the lines of his big speech sending off his son Kal-El (Lee Quigley, who if he’s still alive would be 42 now) to Earth from cues printed on Quigley’s diaper. (Brando’s paycheck was supposed to cover his contributions not only here but to Superman II as well, only much of his footage for Superman II was removed when Richard Lester was brought in to reshoot and re-edit the film and some of it ended up in Superman Returns — thereby allowing Brando to play the part two years after he died, weirdly appropriate for a character that continues to appear after his on-screen demise, handing Superman advice sort of like a cosmic Mary Worth.) I quite liked the 1978 Superman: The Movie this time around — better than I had seven years ago on my last go-round with it — and I especially liked the filmmakers’ skill at making the story serious but not so serious that you lose the essential silliness of the whole concept of a comic-book superhero, as has happened with all too many superhero films since (though movies like Black Panther and Logan have managed to broaden the superhero genre to include genuine tragedy as well as social comment). — 4/1/20

Monday, March 30, 2020

Remember Me, Mommy? (MV Pictures, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched yet another Lifetime movie in their “Mommy Madness” series, Remember Me, Mommy? It turned out to be surprisingly good even though the title and the previews were “spoilers” in that they gave away the key plot point writers Adam Rockoff and Zachary Valenti were careful not to reveal until the very end of the movie. The story takes place at the exclusive Clark Academy all-girl prep school, where Rebecca Barton (Natalie Brown) attended years before as a scholarship student (the discrimination faced by scholarship students from the ones whose parents paid their way to Clark is very much a part of the story and recalled to me George Orwell’s essay, “Such, Such Were the Joys … ”, about his own days as a scholarship student in one of Britain’s elite “public schools”) and where she now teaches. She isn’t married (the school dean carefully refers to her as “Miss Barton”) but she, a creative writing teacher, is dating and having a hot affair with Jason, an English teacher at the same school (Kristopher Turner). A new scholarship student, Elana Johns (Sydney Meyer), arrives for her senior year at Clark having previously gone to public schools (in the U.S. meaning of the term) and won her way into Clark through writing a killer essay that impresses everyone with the depth of its insights, that seem more like those of an adult than a teenager (hmmm, there’s a clue there … ) and thus impressing the scholarship board. Once Elana gets to Clark she’s assigned to room with a Black student, Grace Walker (Taveeta Szymanowicz), who’s also there on a scholarship. Elana gets bullied by a trio of girls The Outsiders writer Sue Hinton would have called “soc’s”, headed by Jamie (Jenna Warren) — though the imdb.com page calls her character “Lily” — whose blonde tresses compared to the dark hair of Rebecca and Elana seem in themselves to mark her as a villainess. Among the nasty tricks Jamie pulls on Elana are presenting her with a candy box full of worms and squirting a flammable chemical on her work station in chem lab.

When Rebecca disciplines Jamie, the next morning she finds her car vandalized with the words “BITCH” and “LIAR” in huge letters with white spray paint, and Jamie’s school I.D. under her front tire. Of course Rebecca assumes Jamie is the culprit, while the little blonde bitch insists that someone stole her I.D. to frame her. Then writers Rockoff and Valenti take the story in a dramatically different direction as they start dropping hints that Elana isn’t all “there” mentally. We learn that the address she gave the school was just the latest of a long series of foster homes she lived in ever since her real mom gave her up just after she was born, and in at least one of those homes she used the name “Claire Bigelow.” Grace, Elana’s roommate, finds an I.D. for her with the “Claire Bigelow” name and finds that the foster parents of a girl with that name were killed in a car accident, and she’s convinced that Elana is mentally unstable. She even sees Jamie bullying Elana and tells her that Elana is too dangerous to be playing those sorts of games with, and she also asks the school to move her to a different room. Unfortunately, just before she moves out she decides to take a shower in the bathroom she and Elana were sharing, and anyone who saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (which Grace apparently hasn’t) could guess what happens next: Elana comes into the shower and, instead of stabbing Grace, strangles her with a bath towel because she wants the killing to look like — and be written off as — an accident. It turns out that years of being mistreated in one foster home after another turned Elana bitter and drove her crazy, and she plagiarized an essay from an adult author and used it as a way to get into Clark Academy because she’d traced her parentage through the Internet and discovered that Rebecca Barton was the biological mother who abandoned her to the untender mercies of the foster-care system just after she was born. There’s a typical Lifetime climax in which Elana, with an expression of grim determination on her face, corners Rebecca and is about to kill her with a kitchen knife (one gets the impression she picked that rather than a more imposing weapon because she wants to torture Rebecca and kill her slowly and painfully as part of her revenge) when an unexpected dea ex machina arrives in the form of Jamie, who clobbers Elana with a backpack and knocks her out long enough for the cops to arrive.

Remember Me, Mommy? — the very title is a “spoiler” and the alternate title, Daughter Dearest, wouldn’t have been much better (as well as riffing off Christina Crawford’s long-forgotten memoir of her adoptive mom Joan Crawford, Mommie Dearest — Joan Crawford’s fame endures but Christina’s 15 minutes expired long ago) — is actually better than the common run of Lifetime movies; Rockoff and Valenti manage to give the characters some of the complexity and multidimensionality Christine Conradt brings to her Lifetime scripts, director Michelle Ouillet stages it effectively; but what really “makes” this movie is the extraordinary performance of Sydney Meyer as Elana. While Natalie Brown is little more than a barely credible typical Lifetime “pussy in peril,” Meyer as the pussy imperiling her is absolutely brilliant, nailing all the changes in her character as she comes on like a nice little girl we’re rooting for against the bullies and make it fully believable when she is revealed as a serial murderer (she’s knocked off a number of her foster parents and has always been savvy enough to make the killings look like “accidents”) and especially at the end, when Elana confronts the wounded Natalie (she’s collapsed while fleeing down the stairs of her two-story apartment and tripping) with the grim, expressionless impassivity with which Bette Davis consigned her inconvenient husband, Herbert Marshall, to oblivion by withholding his heart medicine from him in The Little Foxes. There’s no comparison between the grim intensity of Sydney Meyer here with Audrey Whitby’s utterly unconvincing turn as the same sort of character in last night’s The Perfect Mother — evidence enough that even in a genre as ruthlessly formulaic as the Lifetime movie (the very name “Lifetime movie” has entered the language, and Lifetime even did a short-lived series called My Life Is a Lifetime Movie about real-life stories similar to Lifetime’s classic plots) having talented people to execute it still matters: Remember Me, Mommy? was gripping and genuinely scary while The Perfect Mother seemed to be just a time-filling blip.

The Lady Confesses (Alexander-Stern Productions, Producers’ Releasing Corporation, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Remember Me, Mommy? both my husband Charles and I were getting tired of Lifetime movies, so we looked for something older and shorter — and found it, ironically, in a 1945 “B” from PRC called The Lady Confesses that anticipated enough of the Lifetime clichés one could readily imagine Lifetime remaking it today. Written by Irwin Frankyn (“original” story) and Helen Martin (screenplay), and directed by the incredibly prolific Sam Newfield (whose brother, Sigmund Neufeld, was a PRC producer — Sam “Anglicized” the name and Sigmund didn’t), The Lady Confesses begins with Vicki McGuire (Mary Beth Hughes, the superb femme fatale of Anthony Mann’s superb 1945 film noir The Great Flamarion but somewhat wasted here as a “good girl”), on the eve of her marriage to playboy Larry Craig (Hugh Beaumont — and naturally Charles couldn’t help but make jokes about the contrast between his role here and his most famous part as the father in the 1950’s TV sitcom Leave It to Beaver), being confronted by a woman who announces that she’s Larry Craig’s wife Norma (Barbara Slater) and that, though she doesn’t want him back, she won’t let him marry Vicki — “or anyone else!,” she adds menacingly. It seems that Larry and Norma had separated years before, and then she disappeared and had been gone for six years and 10 months.

Larry was planning to go ahead with the marriage to Vicki because in just two months Norma would have been gone for seven years and under New York law (the story is set in New York City) he could have her declared dead and thus be free to remarry. Only Norma turns up two months before the literal “deadline,” and the next thing we learn she’s been killed for real, strangled with a thin wire in her apartment. The cop assigned to the case is Detective Harmon (Edward Howard), an avuncular figure with a penchant for letting himself in to the homes and offices of the various suspects, including Vicki, without any of that bothersome nonsense about a search warrant. The investigation centers around the 7-11 Club, a night spot owned by sinister gambler Lucky Brandon (Edmund MacDonald), where Larry Craig showed up the night of Norma’s murder already inebriated (he’s drinking so heavily when we first see him we figure Vicki would be better off not marrying him just because he’s an alcoholic!), falls asleep in the dressing room of club singer Lucille Compton (Claudia Drake), and as far as anyone knows stays asleep in that dressing room from 10:45 p.m. until 1 a.m., when the cops turn up at the 7-11 club looking for him to question him about Norma’s murder. The film is surprisingly good for a PRC production, with glimpses of film noir visual style (enough that if Edgar G. Ulmer had directed instead of Sam Newfield, all the noir tricks he learned from working as a production designer for Murnau and Lang in 1920’s Germany and the bizarre intensity he brought to his PRC films Bluebeard, Out of the Night and especially Detour could have made this a masterpiece!) and a mystery plot that for once is genuinely mysterious.

After pointing the finger of suspicion at Brandon (who saw Larry Craig in the club the night of Norma’s murder but told the police he didn’t) and Compton (until she becomes the second victim, also strangled with a thin wire), the writers pull a genuine surprise when [spoiler alert!] Larry Craig turns out to be the killer after all. He carries around something that looks like a tape-measure case that contains the thin wire that’s his murder weapon of choice, and he shocks both Vicki and the audience by pulling it out and threatening her with it until Detective Harmon comes along and saves her from him. He originally killed Norma to get her out of the way so he could marry Vicki, then killed the singer because she realized he hadn’t actually been sleeping a drunk off in her dressing room all night, and finally felt he had to kill Vicki as well because she’d figured him out. Like Lucille Ball — who played some fascinatingly “dark” dramatic roles in her 1940’s feature films (Dance, Girl, Dance, The Big Street, DuBarry Was a Lady, Lured and Easy Living) before she got “typed” by the huge success of I Love Lucy as a ditzy comedienne on TV — Hugh Beaumont is surprisingly credible in the part, especially once the mask comes off and he’s revealed as a killer, and this will be a jolt to anyone who knows him just from his TV work. The film’s title is a misnomer — no one actually “confesses” to anything in the film and the killer is a man, not a “lady” — but The Lady Confesses is actually a quite good bit of dark melodrama that’s missing only the last soupcon of genius PRC’s best directors (Ulmer, Steve Sekely, Frank Wisbar — all foreign-born) might have given it, but it’s still watchable and the characterizations are strongly etched by both writers and actors even though I’d rather watch Mary Beth Hughes as a bad girl than a good one!

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Perfect Mother (Beta Films, The Ninth House, Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I spent six hours “binge-watching” three Lifetime movies from the channel’s current “Mommy Madness” marathon — only one of the three films shown actually featured a potentially crazy mother, and even that one had a surprise twist ending (a double surprise, actually — more on that later). I started at 6 p.m. with The Perfect Mother, which from the title I would have expected to be one of Christine Conradt’s “Perfect … ” scripts in which the nanny/teacher/boyfriend/girlfriend/visiting nurse/physical therapist/life coach/whatever seemingly from heaven turns out to be from hell. In this one, though, it’s not the mother who’s crazy: the film opens with a blonde-haired young chicklet named … well, we don’t learn her name this early, but we see her with an older black-haired woman whom she force-feeds a cake with poison in it. After the dark-haired woman is dead Our Anti-Heroine doesn’t attempt to dispose of the body; she just leaves it tied up to a chair with glastly streaks of blood dripping from its mouth, and one wonders why no one in the neighborhood doesn’t notice the stench as the body inevitably starts to decompose. In the next scene we finally find out who the killer is — Peyton Kelly (Audrey Whitby), who even though she lives just a few doors down from her latest prey, has until recently attended a different high school. We also learn that the woman she was living with, whom she so spectacularly killed in the opening sequence, was her stepmother, whom she got stuck with following the deaths first of her real mother and then of her father, and whom she never could stand.

Right now she’s telling people that her stepmom has a really bad staph infection and she’s worried about catching it if she stays under the same roof with her (a plot line all too timely today!), so she’s staying with a fashion designer named Harper Pryce (Susie Abromeit) for whom her real mom used to work as a model. But she’s got her sights set on two women who do a mother-and-daughter blog (a vlog, actually, since they do it with their computer’s camera) and tell the world how wonderful their lives together are. The mother is Stella Marshall (Sunny Mabrey) and her daughter is Shay (Lily Sepe), though things aren’t as perfectly happy as they portray them online. I can’t remember whether Stella is raising her daughter as a single mom because Shay’s father left her for a younger woman or just died (details like that tend to blur when you watch three Lifetime movies in a row!), but for the first time since dad either departed the family or departed the planet mom has a boyfriend. Unfortunately for her relationship with Shay, her new boyfriend is Shay’s English teacher, Isaac Feldman (Rusty Joiner), and if your idea of a high-school English teacher with a Jewish name is a glasses-wearing nerd, think again: Rusty Joiner is a hot, hunky piece of man-meat, especially in the scene in which Shay catches him in the house wearing nothing but tight blue undies, showing a glorious bod featuring pecs to die for and obviously getting ready to haul Shay’s mom’s ashes. Actually Shay has a boyfriend of her own, Jake (Zach Peladeau), and though he’s hardly a patch on her mom’s man in the looks department he’s certainly cute and hunky enough to be fun to watch. Peyton moves in on this family like a shark cruising a school of fish, ingratiating herself with Stella and at one point faking an attack from Harper, the nice woman she’s staying with, by stabbing herself with a corkscrew (ouch!) and telling the police Harper attacked her.

Written and directed by Jake Helgren — whose work here in both departments is so sloppy it makes the last film of his I saw on Lifetime, Killer Dream Home, look like a suspense masterpiece by comparison — The Perfect Mother follows Lifetime’s formula of perky teen psycho all too rigidly, with Peyton using a variety of methods to murder or threaten anyone who stands in the way of her … well, it’s not all that clear what she wants to do, but it seems her ultimate goal is to eliminate Shay and replace her as Stella’s “perfect” daughter. It’s got an O.K. performance by Audrey Whitby as the perky psycho, but other actresses have done this schtick better in previous Lifetime movies and this one is decidedly unmemorable, though it does have a nice ending with Peyton a-goner (I think; maybe she got captured alive and institutionalized, but I don’t think so) and Shay surprising Stella with a vacation to Cabo San Lucas (maybe the bit about Peyton passing off her stepmother’s incapacitation as a staph infection is au courant, but the whole idea of actually going somewhere for a vacation, and especially leaving the country to do so, seems almost unbearably dated: taking physical vacations seems as obsolete a concept right now as eating indoors in a restaurant or drinking in a bar!) she’s paid for with the earnings from her job as a barista in a coffeehouse (remember coffeehouses? I suspect if the SARS-CoV-2 crisis goes on much longer restaurants, bars, coffeehouses, movie theatres, live theatres and perhaps even live church services will become things of ancient history and all of those activities will have moved in people’s homes or online).

A Mother Knows Worst (Blue Sky Films, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Next up on the Lifetime “Mommy Madness” marathon was the week’s Saturday “premiere,” A Mother Knows Worst, a bizarre piece of melodrama from three old Lifetime hands, writers Rebeca Hughes (that’s how imdb.com spells her first name) and Stephen Lyons, and director Robert Malefactor — oops, I mean Malenfant. (I’ve made that joke on his name before.) This was the closest any of these three movies came to depicting a genuinely “mad” mother, though even in this case Hughes and Lyons pulled a couple of surprise twists at the end that [spoiler alert!] the mother who supposedly knew worst was really innocent after all. Mom is Olivia Davis (Katie Leclerc), who just happens to be giving birth to her first child while in an adjoining room in the maternity ward another woman in the final stages of pregnancy is also about to give birth. Her name is Brooke (Victoria Barabas) and she’s the wife of a rich man named Glen (Todd Cahoon) who has some sort of business that has afforded him and his wife a lavish lifestyle (complete with a house with big bay windows — lately just about all rich Lifetime characters have lived in houses with bay windows) but also has left him with cash-flow problems. Brooke has had a series of miscarriages — it’s obvious the writers are going for the irony that all their money hasn’t been able to buy them the one thing they really want (though I would have found myself asking — not for the last time in this movie — “Why don’t they adopt?”) — while Olivia has never been pregnant before.

Both women give birth, attended by a nurse named Nancy (Heather Ankeny) who has a mom named Holly (Corinne Laurance) who’s very ill with cancer and needs quite a lot of expensive care. Glen and Brooke go home with a healthy baby but Olivia is told by the nurse that her own baby died minutes after being born. Glen offers Olivia’s husband Harry (Jeff Schine, even more of a milquetoast than usual for a Lifetime husband) a job with his company, whatever it is (or does), as a sort of consolation prize because they had their baby and Harry and Olivia did not. Olivia sinks into the Mother of All Post-Partum Depressions, insisting that she’s going to keep the baby room they were preparing for their newborn daughter and going over to Glen’s and Brooke’s every chance she gets to help out with the baby, to which she feels a mystical connection. Olivia catches Brooke bottle-feeding the baby, a girl whose name is Sienna (Ocean Tauber), and launches into a lecture about how breast-feeding is healthier for both parties — only Brooke complains that baby Sienna never “latched” on to her (I guess that’s the actual term) and therefore she had to bottle-feed. Olivia offers to baby-sit for Glen and Brooke any time they need her, but they say they’ve already hired a nanny to take care of Sienna full-time while Glen and Brooke go out into the work world and do whatever they need to do. Meanwhile, Harry (ya remember Harry? Olivia’s husband?) goes through the books of Glen’s business and finds they’re $50,000 short, and he’s trying to figure out who embezzled the money, how they did it and where it went. While all this is going on someone else sneaks into Glen’s and Brooke’s house at night and kills the nanny by giving her wine and then holding her head down in the couple’s swimming pool. (Did I tell you they have a swimming pool? They’re affluent characters in a Lifetime movie, aren’t they?)

Glen tells Harry he’s going to leave Harry and another executive in charge of running his office while he goes on a business trip to London — meaning a big promotion for Harry and a lot more money — only someone files an anonymous sexual-harassment complaint against Glen, he has to call off the trip to stay home and fight it, ad there goes Harry’s promotion and extra money. Brooke finally gets so tired of Olivia coming around and wanting to help parent Baby Sienna that she takes out a restraining order against her, only the truth finally comes out when Harry at last figures out where the $50,000 went (ya remember the $50,000?): it went to Nancy, the nurse at the hospital who’s been consoling Olivia and acting like her best friend. It seems [surprise!] that Brooke’s pregnancy ended in yet another miscarriage, and [double surprise!] Glen, figuring that Brooke would be totally devastated and might break down completely if she found out she’d lost yet another baby, bribed Nancy to tell Olivia and Harry that it was their baby who died while his and Brooke’s lived. The show ends up in a typical Lifetime sequence in which Glen locks Harry and Olivia in his basement, intending to kill them now that they’ve learned his secret, and to do that he pulls a gun on them — only Brooke gets the gun away from him and threatens to shoot him over the way he deceived her. Eventually They Both Reach for the Gun (Maurine Watkins, your plagiarism attorney now has a huge Manhattan office and 35 assistants) and Glen gets himself shot as he and Brooke are wrestling over it, while Harry and Olivia not only survive but get back Sienna, who after all is biologically theirs. It’s decently directed by Malenfant (as much as I like to ridicule his name, he does have a real flair for suspense and action — far more than Jake Helgren), though I should have been able to guess how the story would come out given that Todd Cahoon as Glen is so much hotter than Jeff Schine as Harry: in Lifetime movies the hottest guy in the cast almost always turns out to be the villain!

My Mom’s Darkest Secrets (Thrilling Films/Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyight © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The third Lifetime “Mommy Madness” movie I caught last night turned out to be the best of the three by a pretty wide margin — as I guessed it would from the moment I looked it up on imdb.com and found that Christine Conradt had written it. (The director was one of her usual collaborators, Curtis Crawford.) It was called My Mom’s Darkest Secrets — though apparently the working title for Conradt’s script was The Mother She Met Online — and the central character is Ashley Beck Ford (Nia Roam). She was adopted in Pennsylvania by a Lesbian couple, Kelly (Dawn Lambing) and Maricella (Amanda Martinez), who are about to celebrate their 25th anniversary and are expressing their joy that the state of Pennsylvania has at last allowed them to marry each other. The state of Pennsylvania has done one other thing that helps drive the plot of this movie: they’ve recently passed a law unsealing formerly closed adoption records, and Ashley uses this law to unseal the records of her own adoption and find out who her birth mother is. She does this absurdly easily in the space of one commercial break — real-life adoptees I’ve talked to, including Patrick McMahon (whom I interviewed for Zenger’s Newsmagazine in 2011), have told me this is generally a much harder and time-consuming (and money-consuming) process than this — and she finds out that her biological mother is Sara Hillman (Laurie Fortier), who’s currently married to a wealthy and successful man named Trevor Hillman (Scott Gibson). When Ashley gets Sara to come visit her and meet her adoptive mothers I joked — referencing the infamous children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies — that Conradt could have called this script Ashley Has Three Mommies. The only problem is that, while Trevor and Sara never had children together, Trevor had a daughter from a previous marriage, Amy Hillman (Hannah Gordon), who has never got along with Sara (“All she does is spend my dad’s money,” Amy tells Ashley) and takes an instant dislike to Ashley as well. Meanwhile, Trevor has a scapegrace alcoholic brother named Michael (Ash Catherwood), whom Trevor has been bailing out of various crises with money, shelter or what have you. Michael is married to a woman named Kelsie (Sophie Gendron) who seems way too good for him. Then Trevor is suddenly found murdered in his home and Sara, who has a whole medicine chest full of psychotropic drugs, claims she heard nothing because she had taken three very powerful red-and-black sleeping capsules and slept through her husband’s murder.

Though Ashley and Amy have every reason to hate each other — especially once Sara announces that she’s going to rewrite her will, disinherit Amy and leave all Trevor’s fortune to Ashley — they’re both too decent to want to see Sara, whom they’re both convinced was innocent, get convicted and executed or imprisoned for life for Trevor’s murder. Eventually they realize that Trevor was having an affair with his sister-in-law Kelsie, and that Michael had found out about it and responded by hiring a hit man named James Wilson (Michael Coady, who in accordance with Lifetime’s casting practices is the hottest-looking guy in the movie: he’s middle-aged and balding but he’s still in excellent physical shape and what hair he does have is blond, which at least to me makes him sexier) to kill Trevor and set Sara up for the crime. Ashley gets one of her adoptive parents, Maricella —who’s a branch manager for a bank — to run a check on Michael’s financial records, and they learn about his payments to Wilson (and Trevor’s payments to him, so in a typical bit of Conradtian irony Trevor was actually financing his own murder) and the deserted mountain cabin he owns, where he’s gone to hide out while he figures out how to deal with the pesky teenagers who are after him. Only when they get there, with no weapons and no clear idea of what they intended to do, Michael easily overpowers them, holds them hostage and is prepared to kill them when James Wilson shows up, picks off Michael through the cabin window with a sniper rifle (hey, if he was so good why did he have to kill Trevor at his home with a knife?) and hopes to escape detection by shutting up the one witness against him — but Ashley and Amy have their cell phones out to record Michael’s dying declaration, confessing all and naming Wilson as the actual killer, and though Wilson escapes the cabin the girls learn that the police caught him less than an hour later. The finale consists of Ashley, her two adoptive mothers, her biological mom, her new friend Amy and Ashley’s boyfriend Ben Green (Kitaro Akiyama) as the only male in the gathering, all uniting and going forward as a family.

My Mom’s Darkest Secrets — the title refers to the dissolute life Sara led before she married Trevor: she was a heavy alcoholic and drug user and worked as an “escort,” which is how she met Trevor in the first place (so at some time in her life Christine Conradt had seen Pretty Woman!) — is an engaging film, suffering a bit from Conradt’s tendency towards melodramatics but benefiting from her ability to create truly multidimensional characters and keep us in at least some degree of suspense as to how we’re supposed to feel about them. More than any other Lifetime writer, Christine Conradt is able to create ambiguous characters; her heroes have flaws, her villains at least act for understandable motives instead of just to be evil or kick off a murder plot; and she’s able to make us feel for the people she creates instead of just seeing them as puppets to enact a thriller plot. And most of the actors in My Mom’s Darkest Secrets are good enough to take full advantage of Conradt’s script complexities to create multidimensional characters (though I was a bit disappointed she didn’t do more with the Lesbian couple who raised Ashley — Amanda Martínez has one brief character conflict, whether to uphold the law that bank accounts are confidential or give her daughter the information they need to track down Michael — but Dawn Lambing as Kelly is pretty much just there — and though the two women don’t show much physical affection beyond one kiss, I didn’t mind that so much because they’ve supposedly been together for 25 years, as have my husband Charles and I, and we don’t slobber over each other as much as we used to, either!). I was especially haunted by Hannah Gordon as Amy; she’s had a short but impressive career and is currently set to play a prosecutor on a TV series called A Higher Loyalty and is in post-production on a film called The Craft — a remake of a 1996 film I saw at a San Diego screening some time ago — in which she plays Ashley, the leader of a coven of teenage witches. I’d definitely like to see more of her, and I suspect I’ll like her more as an A.D.A. than a witch!

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Campanile Productions, George Roy Hill-Paul Monash Production, Newman-Foreman Company, 20th Century-Fox, 1969)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a DVD of the 1969 Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which I originally saw when it was (relatively) new on a double bill with Planet of the Apes. I wasn’t all that interested in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and actually thought I’d fall asleep through most of it — only about five minutes into it I said to myself, “Hey! This is good!” Seen today in a good DVD transfer that does justice to Conrad Hall’s Academy Award-winning color cinematography (even though the technicians at 20th Century-Fox’s in-house color process, DeLuxe, pissed Hall off by tweaking scenes he’d deliberately overexposed to make the color less bright and vivid, and returning them to full-color glory), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid emerges as a quite good movie but also a really quirky one. It co-starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the first film they made together — there would be only one other, The Sting, also directed by George Roy Hill (a pity because in both movies they worked together so well) — with Newman as Butch Cassidy and Redford as the Sundance Kid. 

The film was a personal project of its writer, William Goldman (who complained to friends that he’d be remembered for this and so little else he wrote his obituaries would begin with a reference to it — and when Goldman died his obituary in the New York Times did indeed lead off with his scripts for this film and another Redford vehicle, All the President’s Men). Among the imdb.com trivia comments were claims that Newman had to fight with 20th Century-Fox to get Redford cast as his co-star — among the studio’s choices were Marlon Brando (who probably would have insisted on playing Butch Cassidy and relegated Newman to the Sundance Kid), Steve McQueen (who insisted on top billing —when he and Newman finally did make a film together, The Towering Inferno, McQueen not only insisted on top billing but that he be given the first crack as to which of the two male leads he’d play, so he picked the butch, heroic firefighter and stuck Newman with playing the architect who designed the building) and Warren Beatty (who apparently felt it was too close to his own half-comic, half-serious crime film, Bonnie and Clyde). Redford was a popular leading man in 1969 but wasn’t considered a superstar — ironically, it would be the role of the Sundance Kid in this movie that would launch him into superstar status. 

Also, in 2014 PBS ran an American Experience segment on the original Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid which indicated (at least to me) that, while this film is quite good, an even better one could have been made had Goldman and Hill stuck closer to the facts. As I wrote in my blog post about the PBS documentary, “Am I really going to surprise anyone by saying the real Butch and Sundance, judging from the still photos reproduced here, didn’t look much like Paul Newman and Robert Redford?” The film tells at least the broad outlines of the real story — Butch and Sundance, as part of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang (the real gang was called “The Wild Bunch,” but Sam Peckinpah had famously used that as the title of a major Western the year before so Goldman’s script had to change it), stage robberies of banks and trains in the Southwest in the late 19th and early 20th century. When the companies they’re targeting — particularly the Union Pacific Railroad, whose robber-baron CEO, E. H. Harriman, becomes a running joke in the film — clubbed together to hire the notorious Pinkerton Detective Agency to assemble what amounted to a death squad to hunt them down and kill them (the Pinkertons were notorious for being able to do just about anything, including outright murder, to protect the capitalists from outlaws, union organizers or anyone else who got in the way of Big Money — thanks to supine state and local governments who were in the pay of the giant corporations, particularly the railroads and the banks, and essentially gave the Pinkertons immunity), the real Butch and Sundance, like their movie equivalents, fled to South America. 

In the film they go directly from the U.S. to the desolate and dirt-poor country of Bolivia, and one wonders, “Why the hell did they go to Bolivia? Why didn’t they go to a South American country that had money, like Argentina or Brazil?” The real Butch and Sundance actually did go to Argentina and worked legitimate jobs for the mining industries there and in Chile — including, like their movie counterparts, standing guard for mine payrolls against the people trying to rob them — only the Pinkertons’ death squad followed them there and forced them to flee in Bolivia, where the Pinkertons worked with the Bolivian military and police to hunt them down and kill them at last. The movie depicts the goon squad that went after Butch and Sundance but doesn’t refer to them as Pinkerton operatives, and throughout the film there’s a kind of nervous alternation between drama, violence, comedy and romance. The leading lady for both Butch and Sundance is Etta Place (Katharine Ross), a prostitute in real life but a schoolteacher in Goldman’s script, and in the film’s most charming (and best-remembered) sequence Butch takes her for a ride on the handlebars of a bicycle while B. J. Thomas’s performance of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David song “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” plays on the soundtrack. According to imdb.com, Thomas was hired after the filmmakers’ original choice, Bob Dylan, turned it down (Bob Dylan? If he’d sung the song the sequence would have turned into pure camp!), and he thought it would kill his career — instead it became the biggest hit Thomas ever had and it started him recording a whole lot of songs about rain (including the singularly beautiful “Everybody Loves a Rain Song”), just as after “Over the Rainbow” was a hit Judy Garland got inundated with more songs about rainbows. 

Charles noted that the film changed tone an awful lot — in some ways this was the 1960’s version of the portmanteau movies of the 1930’s which combined romance, action, music and comedy in an attempt to give every audience member something they’d like. When Hill created a montage sequence showing Butch and Sundance robbing every two-bit bank they could find in Bolivia and living it up on the proceeds at what passed for a high life there — all set to faux-ragtime music by Bacharach, who composed the film’s entire soundtrack instead of just the famous song (and who left a lot of the dramatic scenes powerfully unscored) — Charles said it looked like they mashed up Woody Allen’s films Take the Money and Run (Allen as an outlaw in 1960’s America) and Bananas (Allen as an American milquetoast who gets involved in a South American revolution), and later when the goon squad that dared not speak its name teamed up with the Bolivian army to shoot down Butch and Sundance (and gave Newman and Redford the chance to play a quite beautiful ’tis-a-far-far-better-thing-I-do joint death scene) Charles said it looked like Peckinpah (though at least Hill avoided the cliché of Peckinpah and Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn to have the outlaws die in slow motion). The film mostly got mediocre reviews from the early critics — they pointed out the anachronisms, including the modern haircuts Newman and Redford were sporting (created by Jay Sebring just became one of the victims of Charles Manson’s murderous “Family”) and the jaunty, “cool,” “with-it” character of Goldman’s dialogue (including the screamingly funny scenes in Bolivia in which Katharine Ross is trying to teach Our Antiheroes enough Spanish to be able to rob banks there — one wonders if the little phrase book she’s carrying is called Spanish for Crooks) — but audiences came out of the theatres loving it and telling their friends to see it back when opening weekends weren’t the be-all and end-all of a film’s theatrical career and a movie could be built into a hit if it could be kept in theatres long enough for people to see it and tell their friends, “No, really, you’ll like it!”