Friday, July 28, 2017

The End of St. Petersburg (St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad) (Mezhrabpom-Rus, 1927)

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

Our “feature” last night was The End of St. Petersburg, a.k.a. St. Petersburg-Petrograd-Leningrad, a 1927 production by the “other” great Soviet silent director, Veslvolod Pudovkin, who along with Sergei Eisenstein (the first name that comes to mind when discussing Soviet silent directors) was commissioned by the Soviet government to make a movie to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution that had brought down Russia’s provisional government just seven months after it had been established in the wake of the abdication of the last Czar, Nicholas II. Eisenstein’s film, October, was a dramatization of the Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin (played by a Moscow butcher with no acting experience because Eisenstein thought he looked just like the real Lenin) and Trotsky, but it didn’t get shown until 1928 because in the meantime Stalin had ousted Trotsky from the Soviet leadership and Eisenstein was obliged to re-edit his film to eliminate Trotsky and all the other upper-echelon Bolsheviks who had supported him. (He left in two sequences in which the actor playing Trotsky had his back to the camera — and at the premiere Stalin’s police goons ordered the film stopped and the house lights turned on so they could find out who in the audience had applauded when Trotsky appeared on screen.) 

Pudovkin got his film completed and shown on schedule because it didn’t depict any of the Bolshevik leaders; instead he and his screenwriter, Natan Zarkhi (though the film’s imdb.com page gives the writer’s first name in its English form, “Nathan”), managed to create a parable of both rural and urban oppression and impoverishment that pulled off the trick just about any political film has to: giving us enough individual characters to identify with we can see how the repression affects people directly and also giving us a sense of the largeness of the events overall. A character identified only as “A Worker” (Aleksandr Chistyakov) and his wife (Vera Baranovskaya) leave the farming region around Novgorod to come to St. Petersburg looking for work since his mother has just died and a recently born daughter has just added to the burden of feeding his extended family. Clearly they’re hoping that he’ll land a job paying well enough not only to support them in St. Petersburg but give him money he can send as remittances back to the rest of his family in Novgorod, and he has a contact — another relative who has a job at the factory of capitalist Lebedev (V. Obolensky). Unfortunately, his timing turns out to be rotten: he arrives in St. Petersburg just as a communist agitator at Lebedev’s plant successfully organizes its workers to stage a wildcat strike in response to Lebedev’s order that the workers put in longer hours so he can fulfill a government contract, which he used to bid up the price of his own company’s stock. (There’s a weird scene early on in which, after we’ve seen only handfuls of rural peasants and urban proletarians, a whole crowd of stock speculators masses on the steps outside the St. Petersburg stock exchange and bids up the price of Lebedev’s stock. It seemed odd, to say the least, that a film about the class struggle ostensibly taking the side of the 99 percent would show so many more of the 1 percent. “That’s so they could have fewer superheroes and more villains,” Charles commented.) 

Then World War I starts, the Worker gets drafted and he survives three years at the front, only when he comes back Russia is in the middle of its revolution, the Czar has been toppled and the Provisional Government is haplessly hanging on as best it can against the onslaught of the Bolsheviks, who won the support of the rank-and-file in the Russian military primarily by promising them an end to the war while the other parties were pledging to continue it. They also won the support of the peasants by promising to expropriate the big landowners and distribute the land to individual peasants — a promise that kinda-sorta got honored until 1929, when Stalin abruptly decided that the future of Russian agriculture lay in collective farming, and he implemented that policy with his usual thug-like determination and fervor. An officer still loyal to the Provisional Government tries to order his troops to shoot the Bolshevik militants, but instead the troops switch sides, the crew of the cruiser Aurora mutinies and threatens to shell the city if the Provisional Government doesn’t resign in favor of the soviets (the roughly organized workers’ and peasants’ councils through which the Bolsheviks ultimately gained control), the Czar’s Winter Palace gets stormed and the Worker’s wife finds him in the street, dying — in a piece of heart-rending (if somewhat predictable) irony, he survived World War I only to get mortally wounded in the Revolution, but she’s able to say his last goodbyes to her before he expires and she shows off her collective spirit by giving the food she’d brought him (it was hard to see what was in her little bucket — they looked like potatoes but the people she gave the foodstuffs to were able to eat them immediately instead of having to cook them) to the other Bolshevik fighters. She strolls through the now-deserted Winter Palace — obviously Pudovkin got permission from the Soviet government to film in the real one — and the contrast between her state and the preposterous decorations of the Palace’s walls makes the point Pudovkin and Zarkhi intended about the fundamental injustice of a handful of people at the top of a society living lavishly while most everybody else, whose labor is generating the wealth that the upper class seizes, is starving. 

One French critic said of Russia’s two great silent directors, “Pudovkin’s films resemble a song; Eisenstein’s, a scream,” and there are certainly some quite lyrical shots in The End of St. Petersburg, including ones of rivers flowing and others of farmers tilling fields (still with human-pushed plows in the early 20th century!). The overall effect of this film is somber and sad — if you want an exuberant celebration of the revolutionary spirit, watch Eisenstein’s October instead — and of course it’s impossible to watch this film today without imagining the sequel, the 74 years during which the Communist party tyrannized Russia and ruled by force and terror, then collapsed and led to yet another Russian oligarchy that has restored St. Petersburg to its original name. (The Russian title St. Petersburg-Petrograd-Leningrad reflects that in 1914, since Russia was fighting Germany in World War I, the Czar’s government decided to change the ending of the city’s name from the German “-burg” to the Russian “-grad,” both meaning “city,” and after the Bolsheviks took over they took Peter the Great’s name off the city he’d founded and put their own leader’s name on it instead, and since it was the name for only three years almost nobody calls it “Petrograd” unless they’re writing or talking about the Revolution.) The End of St. Petersburg is a brilliant film, an acknowledged and deserved classic; it’s true, as an imdb.com reviewer said, that it’s “great without actually being entertaining,” though at least part of that depends on what you consider “entertaining.” Just as Dwight Macdonald once wrote that to him the French art film Last Year at Marienbad was entertaining (he defined “to entertain” as “to hold the attention agreeably”) and a Jerry Lewis comedy wasn’t, so to me The End of St. Petersburg is entertaining and a modern-day gross-out comedy with farts, belches and semen hair-gel isn’t.

Chess Fever (Mezhrabpom-Rus, 1925)

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

Charles and I watched The End of St. Petersburg on a compilation disc of Russian silent classics from Kino with two other films, Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930) and a comedy short by Pudovkin called Chess Fever (1925). Soviet filmmakers were inspired by American movies, but not always in the ways you’d think; they absolutely revered D. W. Griffith (the great Soviet directors had access to a print of Intolerance and screened it continually to study how Griffith had intercut between four separate plot lines, and it’s obvious from films like The End of St. Petersburg that they’d learned how to dramatize the class struggle largely from Griffith’s still-powerful Biograph short A Corner in Wheat, with its intercuts between the speculators making and enjoying their profits and the ordinary people reduced to penury and starvation by the speculators’ success in monopolizing, or “cornering,” the market in wheat), and in Chess Fever it’s obvious that Pudovkin and his writer, Nikolai Shpikovsky, had been studying America’s silent comedy classics. The basic element of this film was a real-life international championship chess tournament held in Moscow in 1925 — the first person we see, playing himself, is Cuban grandmaster José Raul Capablanca, the actual world champion chess player at the time — and, in the manner of Mack Sennett grabbing footage of a children’s auto race or a lake being drained and building a fiction film around it, Pudovkin and Shpikovsky decided to make a half-hour short about a young man (Vladimir Fogel) who’s so crazy about chess he plays it by himself, switching sides at his chess table so he can play both white and black. 

About his only other interests are his fiancée (Anna Zemtsova) and a large number of kittens who share his house and nestle in his coat sleeves and even his shoes — there’s a screamingly funny scene in which he realizes he’s got so wrapped up in his solo chess game he’s forgotten he was supposed to meet her at the registry office to get married at 10 a.m. It’s now noon, and he frantically gets dressed, only to find cats in his coat sleeves, his pockets and even his shoes — and it gets even funnier when he’s distracted on the way to the registry office by a local chess shop. By the time he gets to his girlfriend’s place it’s already evening and she insists that he’s going to have to decide between her and chess. He tries — he really tries — in a series of scenes that briefly make Chess Fever look like a modern-day film about addiction, but just about everything he has on is in a black-and-white chessboard pattern, and when he tosses out the books of chess games and problems he has on him, every one is picked up by someone on the street who himself is so wrapped up in chess they begin working on the problems and playing al fresco chess games. Eventually both hero and heroine are so frustrated by the collapse of their relationship that they plan to kill themselves, him by drowning (which gives Pudovkin a chance to do more of the shots of a flowing river he also included in The End of St. Petersburg) and her by poison, which led me to joke, “Now it looks like a Russian story” — only, wouldn’t you guess it, the pharmacist she goes to in order to buy her poison is wrapped up in a chess game, and instead of wrapping the poison for her, the pharmacist wraps up the queen piece he’s just captured from his opponent. Frustrated at her inability even to commit suicide without being confronted by something to do with chess, the heroine wanders the streets of Moscow — where she’s cruised and picked up by, who else, world’s chess champion José Raul Capablanca. He takes her to the tournament, where her boyfriend has also gone after he found himself unable to take his own life, and she suddenly decides that she’s a chess fan after all and the two reconcile over a mini-chessboard and homemade pieces. 

The influences of American slapstick are obvious, though instead of Charlie Chaplin (a big favorite of Russian filmmakers because he was not only a committed Leftist but he incorporated his politics in film after film) the real models for Chess Fever are Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Fogel as the hero is given Lloyd-ish glasses to wear (though with wire rims instead of the horn rims of Lloyd’s famous pair) but his rambles around Moscow are very Keatonesque and one could well imagine Buster doing the gag of a whole row of people desperately clinging to each other to keep up with the trolley car they’ve hitched a ride from. Dwight Macdonald, in his 1939 essay on the rise and fall of Soviet filmmaking, said even before Stalin took over and imposed his “Socialist Realist” style on all Russian art he hadn’t found Russian comedy films particularly funny — but Chess Fever is screamingly funny start-to-finish and one could easily imagine Keaton or Lloyd remaking it in the U.S. Viadimir Fogel turns out to be a first-rate slapstick comedian, though Anna Nemtsova is a striking screen presence but one who, like Vera Baranovskaya in The End of St. Petersburg, isn’t obliged to do much in the way of acting. If these two films are any indication, Vsevolod Pudovkin was a great director of men but he wasn’t either able or interested in creating truly multidimensional female characters: it seems all the women in his films get to do is stand stoically by the action and register suffering. But with that caveat these are both excellent movies, well worth watching even now — and the true heirs of films like The End of St. Petersburg today are The Hunger Games and the other near-future dystopias that assume (probably accurately) that the current inequalities of wealth and income will only get worse and that any attempts at revolution will only produce their own, equally arbitrary tyrannies.

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.