Sunday, June 17, 2018

Batman: Three 1960’s TV Episodes (Greenway Productions, 20th Century-Fox Television, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I headed out to the Vintage Sci-Fi screening in Golden Hill (http://sdvsf.org/) for a program of six episodes from the first season of the sensationally successful 1966-1968 TV series Batman. I have vivid memories of this one, mainly because I was 12 when it made its on-air debut and my mom, my brother and I watched the first episode together — and midway through it my mom explained, “It’s camp!,” an expression I never heard (I’d always thought “camp” was a place where parents better-heeled than mine sent their kids to the summer to suffer outdoors while they enjoyed a time rid of them). The show became a nationwide sensation and some phrases from it, like “Same Bat-Time, Same Bat-Channel,” still linger on as slang in the language. It also introduced me to superhero stories, which I’d been aware of before that but not terribly interested in; for the next few years I read a lot of superhero comics even though I didn’t get as obsessed with them as some people did, and I remember some of the ancillary merchandise sold as part of this show, including a series of 45 rpm records whose covers were head-shot portraits of the various Batcharacters and whose contents were rather silly songs about them — “It’s the Batman,” “Look Out for the Batman,” “There Goes Robin,” “The Joker Gets Trumped” and “Ho, Ho, Ho, the Joker’s Wild.” The series also became known because for its first two seasons ABC, desperate for programming, ran it two nights in a row each week and put in a serial-style cliffhanger at the end of every Wednesday night’s episode that was then resolved at the start of Thursday’s.

One of the quirkier aspects of the show was that each episode featured a “Special Guest Villain,” and some of them were played by actors with genuinely major reputations — notably my favorite, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, who alas was not represented in the episodes shown last night. (Meredith recalled having families visit him at his home; he’d show the children through his wall of stills representing his acting roles, and they’d be totally uninterested in shots from his serious movies like Winterset and Of Mice and Men but they’d light up when they saw the Batman stills and go, “You were the Penguin?”) Alas, of the major villains on the show — the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), the Penguin, the Joker (César Romero — who wore heavy makeup above his upper lip because he refused to shave off his trademark moustache to play the clean-shaven Joker) and the Catwoman — only the Catwoman was represented last night. The screener wisely chose the episodes that introduced her, “The Purr-fect Crime” and “Better Luck Next Time,” with the marvelous Julie Newmar as the Catwoman. (Later, when she was shooting another film during the time allotted for a feature-film production based on the series, Newmar was replaced in the role by the much less effective Lee Meriwether — and still later the marvelous Eartha Kitt showed up as the series’ third, and arguably best, Catwoman.) The other two special guest villains represented last night were False Face (wearing an obviously fake rubber mask and billed only as “?” in the opening credits — much the way Boris Karloff is billed as “?” in the opening credits of the 1931 Frankenstein and only listed by name in the closing “A Great Cast Is Worth Repeating” credits — it took until the closing credits of the second episode featuring him before he was revealed as veteran character actor Malachi Throne) and the Bookworm (a marvelously eccentric performance by Roddy MacDowall even though the character himself isn’t particularly interesting — he’s shown as a failed novelist who can’t write anything on his own because he’s read so much every plot he thinks of has been used before, which hasn’t stopped some people who’ve made quite a lot of money writing pop potboilers, so he decides to dramatize his fictional crime schemes in real life).

While other writers were credited with these specific scripts, it was Lorenzo Semple, Jr. as the series’ head writer who set the tone for it and in particular the outrageous lampooning of the superhero story conventions — I remember one famous scene in the opening episode in which Batman and Robin crash a disco party in full regalia and Batman says to Robin, “Try not to be conspicuous” — and producer William Dozier who hired the special guest villains and in some cases also brought in guest stars for cameo appearances as people looking out their windows in the tall buildings Batman and Robin scaled with their Batrope (hooked at the top of the building with the Batarang — the tendency of this show, copied from the original Batman comics by Bob Kane and Bill Finger but ramped up to the nth degree, to preface just about every object Batman and Robin used with the prefix “Bat-“ itself got lampooned a lot, notably in the song “Goodbat Nightman” by the Scaffold, a British rock band that was sort of the Beatles meet Monty Python and was led by Roger McGough and Michael McGear — “McGear” was really Paul McCartney’s brother Michael, using a different last name to avoid coasting to fame on his brother’s coattails — in “Goodbat Nightman” Batman oratorically announces to Robin that nature is calling; “Where are you going, Batman?” Robin asks, and Batman says, “To the Batroom!”). In the Bookworm episode the cameo was by Jerry Lewis — and I was astounded enough that I asked, “Was that the real Jerry Lewis?,” thinking they might have used an impostor. The principal cast was also excellent: as I noted in these pages when Charles and I watched the 1967 Batman movie with this cast, Adam West was absolutely perfect casting for this conception of Batman (though I still think the very best on-screen Batman was Lewis Wilson, who played him in the first Batman movie, the 1943 serial from Columbia; Wilson looked more credible in the Bruce Wayne identity than any Batman since and he was in good but not obstreperously muscular shape; he genuinely looked weary after each fight scene, reminding us that Batman was not a super-powerful being but an ordinary human who willed himself to be a superhero and trained both physically and mentally for the job): oracular, sometimes prissily self-righteous (when he insists that Robin put on his seat belt in the Batmobile even though they’re just driving two blocks, the scene plays very differently in the modern age of legal requirements for seat-belt use than it did in 1966, when seat belts were a novelty), and every inch the pure 100 percent hero without any of the thuggish behaviors of the Kane-Finger Batman (especially in the very earliest comics) or the self-doubt of the later “Dark Knight” version of the character in the comics and the Christopher Nolan films with Christian Bale as a Robin-less Batman. (Bale actually said he wouldn’t play the character in any script that included Robin.)

Though on balance the best Batman movie as a movie is the 1989 Tim Burton masterpiece with Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the very best Joker (alas, Burton blew it in the sequel, Batman Returns, by casting Danny DeVito as an almost totally charmless Penguin: ah, if only Nicholson’s Joker and Burgess Meredith’s Penguin had got to appear in the same movie!) — a film which was my all-time favorite comic-book superhero movie until I recently saw Black Panther and it zoomed to the top — the performances of Adam West and Burt Ward are perfect for this conception of their characters, utterly serious in the world of camp around them — and so were veteran character actors Neil Hamilton as Commissioner Gordon (Hamilton had been pushed as a romantic leading man in the early days of the talkie era, usually as the ne’er-do-well rich playboy redeemed by the love of a poor but honest woman, but his performances were as boring as the stereotype itself, while the elderly Hamilton brought just the right gravitas to this role — incidentally he had played Nick Carraway in the 1926 now-lost silent version of The Great Gatsby and Sam Waterston, who played the part in the 1974 version with Robert Redford as Gatsby, also went on to a career as a TV law enforcer, as assistant district attorney Jack McCoy on Law & Order), Alan Napier as Batman’s butler Alfred (the only character privy to Bruce Wayne’s and Dick Grayson’s secret identities as Batman and Robin — Napier reached his career height as the Holy Father in Orson Welles’ film of Macbeth, his depth in the 1956 Universal horror, in both senses, The Mole People, and this was in the middle) and Madge Blake (probably best known otherwise as the gossip columnist who introduces the various characters at the opening of Singin’ in the Rain) as the annoying character Aunt Harriet, who lives in Wayne Manor and whom Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson have to keep unaware that they’re really Batman and Robin. It’s also a sign of the (old) times that both False Face and the Bookworm have bimbo girlfriends in tight costumes who try to seduce Batman into letting them go (while Julie Newmar’s Catwoman is denied the hints of genuine sexual interest between her and Batman her successors got to play), but otherwise Batman still seems fresh and decidedly undated, well produced technically for the time (even though some of the wires attaching the supposedly breakaway objects are all too visible and it’s also obvious the Batmobile is being shot with fast-motion photography since the real one had so much lead in the body, put there by veteran car customizer George Barris to resculpt its appearance, it could only go 40 miles an hour) and marvelously entertaining in the ways its producers originally intended.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Shape of Water (Fox Searchlight Pictures, Bull Productions, Double Dare You, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I went to the San Diego Public Library to see Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, The Shape of Water. I’d previously seen the films I regard as del Toro’s masterpieces, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), both fantasy-horror melodramas about children victimized by the oppression of the late-1930’s Civil War in Spain. I watched Pan’s Labyrinth at a Landmark Theatres press screening when it was new and gave it a rave review which began, “Like the title character(s) of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — which would actually make a good story for him to film — Guillermo del Toro is two personalities in one body. The American Guillermo del Toro knows what’s required of a modern-day horror-film director, and methodically churns it out: steel-grey Gothic imagery, teenagers in peril and blood, blood, blood spurting everywhere. But get him out of this country — either to his native Mexico or to Spain, where he’s made his two best films, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth — and he turns into a different director altogether, filling his films with human emotion and genuine terror, and creating legitimately frightening sequences instead of just freaking out his audiences with the modern-day de rigueur blood and gore.” The Shape of Water was his attempt to combine his two approaches, making a movie in English and with an American studio (20th Century-Fox’s Searchlight specialty film division) backing him — though the movie was actually shot in Canada — with at least some of the poetry and emotion of his Spanish masterpieces. It emerges as an oddly schizoid film, restrained in some ways while all too blatant in others, and at times genuinely moving and touching in ways del Toro and his writing collaborator, Vanessa Taylor (the first woman he’s ever worked with in co-writing a script), intended, while at other times it gets so risible it begins to look as if Mel Brooks had seen Pan’s Labyrinth and decided to do a parody of it. The Shape of Water takes place in a super-secret U.S. government lab in Baltimore run by five-star general Hoyt (Nick Searcy) and his straw boss on the project, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).

While on a trip to South America Strickland discovered a Creature from the Black Lagoon-like evolutionary throwback, an aquatic hominid who has both gills and lungs so he can breathe either air or water. He captured the creature but it bit off two of his left-hand fingers, though they’ve been surgically re-attached. Hoyt and Strickland decide to kill the creature so they can autopsy it, figure out how it breathes and use that information to help the American space program. Meanwhile, a sinister group of Russians are determined to break into the lab and kill the creature themselves so the U.S. can’t use the information from it to help their astronauts survive in space. Early on in The Shape of Water it becomes apparent from the big cars and the black-and-white console TV’s that the time the film is set in is not the present, but it’s only about two-thirds of the way through, when we hear President John F. Kennedy deliver his speech announcing the Cuban missile crisis and demanding that Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev pull out the missiles he was sending Cuba, that the time is definitively established as October 1962. So this is the height of the Cold War and after the Russians embarrassed us big-time first by sending a dog into space in 1957 and then a human, Yuri Gagarin, into earth orbit in 1961. As part of their plot the Russians have infiltrated a scientist into the lab, Dmitri, under the identity “Robert Hoffstetler” (Martin Stuhlberg), only Martin has become scientifically fascinated by the creature and believes the human race can learn more from it alive than dead. The film’s heroine is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute (but not deaf) cleaning woman at the lab, who accidentally stumbles on the creature and instantly takes a liking to it, offering it a hard-boiled egg and playing music to it via a portable phonograph and two big-band LP’s, The Great Benny Goodman on Columbia and Music from “The Glenn Miller Story” by Glenn Miller. (The Goodman LP has the correct red-and-black label Columbia was using in 1962 but the Miller is on a green label. Miller’s record company, RCA Victor, used black labels with white lettering and the colored “His Master’s Voice” logo for their LP’s at the time. Miller never recorded for a company that used a green label.) She thus breaks through the creature, determines that he (it’s definite from later on that it’s a “he”) has emotions and can communicate — he picks up some of her sign language — and therefore it’s intelligent and the last thing that should happen is that he should be killed for science.

Elisa’s only friends are her fellow cleaning worker, Zelda Delilah Fuller (Octavia Spencer), an African-American who’s married to a singularly uncommunicative male-chauvinist asshole named Brewster (the appropriately named, given his unsympathetic character, Martin Roach), and her roommate Giles (Richard Jenkins), a super-closeted Gay man who laments that age and the loss of his looks keeps him from having sex with anybody anymore. He’s also an artist who at the start of the film gets fired from an advertising agency and keeps submitting work with which he hopes to get his job back. We don’t realize Giles is Gay until he goes to a pie stand and hears the owner making snippily racist comments about two Blacks, including Zelda, who try to buy pie from him; then the pie man makes some comments along the lines of Howard da Silva’s comments as the bartender in The Lost Weekend to the effect that he’s as much a psychiatrist as a dispenser of comestibles. Somehow this convinces Giles that the pie guy is interested in him, and he puts his hand around the pie man’s arm — and the pie man flinches and orders him never to come to his shop again. (One wonders if del Toro, a cultural omnivore if there ever was one, deliberately copied that scene from one of the most famous literary “outings” in the pre-Gay Liberation era: the crude pass teacher Adolph Myers makes at one of his students in “Hands,” the opening story in Sherwood Anderson’s collection Winesburg, Ohio.) The plot thickens as Elisa realizes that they’re going to kill the creature within hours unless she can rescue him, so he enlists Giles in their plot, he makes them fake ID’s and paints a van to look like a laundry truck — only the very night and time they pick to kidnap the creature and hold him somewhere until the river floods the canal outside town and they can safely release the creature back into the water is also the night the Russians (ya remember the Russians?) use an Israeli gadget to turn off the building’s electricity and enable the four plotters — for “Robert” and Zelda have stumbled into the plot as well — to get the creature away, where they keep it in Elisa’s bathtub and buy large quantities of salt because it’s a salt-water creature and needs to be in water that contains 3 percent salt.

Elisa and the creature ultimately make love twice — the second time they flood her bathroom with shower water so she can be in his sort of environment — and there’s a bizarre sequence in which Elisa pantomimes for Zelda’s benefit how the creature opened its body to let out its cock. (This would answer Charles’ objection to the Creature from the Black Lagoon that the creature as depicted couldn’t be male because you never saw evidence of a penis — so, he reasoned, since it kept falling for human females it must be a Lesbian Gill-Woman.) Unfortunately the second time she floods the bathroom and it starts leaking into the movie theatre below — a grungy third-run place that only shows old 20th Century-Fox films like The Story of Ruth and Mardi Gras — and ultimately, on a night when a driving rainstorm signals that it’s time for the creature to return to the sea, everyone converges on it. Strickland finds out the creature’s whereabouts, he also pulls out his severed but reattached fingers because they’re turning gangrenous, and he hijacks another staff member’s car to chase the creature — whom he corners at the canal and shoots Bob, tasing him with the electric cattle prod he’d previously used on the creature, and getting him to reveal who helped him abduct the creature and how many Russian special forces agents are involved. The dying Dmitri a.k.a. “Bob” tells him it’s just the janitorial help, which freaks out Strickland that much more that a bunch of mere shit cleaners and piss wipers (as he referred to them earlier) outwitted him, and eventually Bob is mortally wounded but Giles gets the gun and shoots Strickland, while the creature returns to the sea and Elisa returns with him, presumably to drown for love of him, though one imdb.com “trivia” contributor suggested that the slashes on her neck, which we were told earlier were made by the injury that rendered her mute, may actually be nascent gills so she’ll be able to be with her aquatic boyfriend under water as well as on land. The Shape of Water has some of the rich stew of allusions that made The Devil’s Backbone and especially Pan’s Labyrinth so great, but it’s also got some bits that are just silly — I found myself laughing through much of the film, and though some of the laughs I believe were intentional, I doubt that others were.

The film’s most bizarre scene occurs when Elisa is alone after one of her nights with the creature and she’s starting to make little noises with her mouth — earlier she’s been depicted as totally silent — and they soon take the form of a vocal to Irving Berlin’s song “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” del Toro changes the image to black-and-white, and soon she’s dancing with the creature against a backdrop of columns from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Follow the Fleet and they’re duplicating Fred and Ginger’s moves in Carroll Clark’s original setting. Indeed, I believe del Toro and his effects crew simply used digital CGI technology to “paint” Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones, the tall, lanky actor who played the creature (and who did similar roles for del Toro in Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies) over Astaire and Rogers, thereby posthumously turning Fred and Ginger into motion-capture actors. It’s supposed to be a magical moment but it just seemed risible to me! It also doesn’t help that, despite the wide array of computer artists and technicians listed on the final credits, the creature, especially in its first appearance, looks like del Toro did it the old-fashioned way, dressing up Doug Jones in a body suit with a helmet-like mask over his head, and just like in the old days at Universal in the 1940’s and 1950’s, you can all too easily see where the creature’s eye sockets end and Doug Jones’ real eyes begin. And it doesn’t help that del Toro tried to turn Strickland into a psychopathic villain in the mold of General Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth whereas the film might have been more chilling if he’d been a cold, insensitive “just following orders” bureaucrat instead of a monster in human guise — though there is a nice scene in which he and his wife are having a sexual quickie, she begins to speak and he puts his hand over her mouth in a threatening-looking gesture and tells him that only if she keeps completely quiet can he reach orgasm. (It’s one of del Toro’s sophisticated allusions, only reinforced when he makes a crude, Weinsteinian pass at Elisa later in the film — this is a man who’s so afraid of women speaking up that he can only have sex with one who’s totally silent.) To sum up, nice try, Guillermo del Toro, but you won the Academy Award for this film you really deserved for Pan’s Labyrinth! Indeed, it does seem as if del Toro’s inspiration for this film was the thought, “Hey, what would The Creature from the Black Lagoon have been like if the leading lady had actually reciprocated the creature’s affections?”

Monday, June 11, 2018

72nd Annual Tony Awards (Broadway League, American Theatre Wing, White Cherry Productions, CBS-TV, aired June 10, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched last night’s 72nd annual Tony Awards on CBS. There were a few fun facts I learned about this program, like the fact that the American Theatre Wing — the group that officially puts on the Tonys in association with the Broadway League, the management group of Broadway theatres — was not organized during World War II but one war earlier, during World War I, not only to provide entertainment for servicemembers but to coordinate bond drives and other ways celebrities could help raise funds for the war effort. (Indeed, one of the original organizers was Antoinette Perry, the actress for whom the Tony Awards are named — the full name, which appears on the award itself, is the “Antoinette Perry Awards.” Like most awards shows these days, the 72nd Annual Tony Awards was a rather lumbering spectacle, and this one was both helped and hurt by the fact that the two people hired to co-host, Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles, are both singers. It helped in that they sang a lot of the portions that in the hands of less musical hosts would have been comedy monologues, but that also was a disadvantage in that their songs together were mostly parodies of songs from current musicals and the point of the parodies was pretty much lost on people like me not up on the originals. (The funniest one was a parody of a song from the musical Waitress, whose plaint about the long hours and rotten conditions of waitressing got changed to a lament about having to perform the same show eight times a week.) 

It was also annoying that while the show presented numbers from famous musicals past and present — the major contribution the Tony telecasts have made to cultural history; without them we wouldn’t have any visual representations of Julie Andrews’ performances in My Fair Lady and Camelot (both of which were far better than those by the people who replaced them in the movies — the Audrey Hepburn/Marni Nixon combo in My Fair Lady and Vanessa Redgrave, a mediocre singer but a good enough actress to be able to pretend she could sing, in Camelot) — they didn’t label the individual performers, just attributing them to the “company.” They also didn’t always represent the musicals with the best songs: for the revival of Carousel (which got saddled with the expanded title Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, just as the revival of Edward Albee’s play Three Tall Women got called Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women — as opposed to Gladys Horowitz from Paducah, Kentucky’s Three Tall Women?) they picked Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s mock sea shanty “Blow High, Blow Low” (which I keep getting confused with the real sea shanty “Blow the Man Down”) instead of one of the show’s imperishable love ballads. (At least the costumes in “Blow the Man Down” showed off some nice baskets — there’s a thoroughly non-musical advantage for a Gay male viewer when they show an all-male number!) For My Fair Lady they at least represented it with a medley of three of the show’s best songs, “The Rain in Spain,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and I wish I knew who the cast member playing Eliza Doolittle was so I could congratulate her on her excellent channeling of Julie Andrews in the role. 

For the newer musicals they not only didn’t identify the performers, they didn’t identify the songs either: the number(s) from Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical (I’m not making that up, you know!) actually had a certain professional charm (well, they were written by Billy Joel, who also turned up on the show to introduce Bruce Springsteen and joke that his one-man show Springsteen on Broadway could have been called “Jersey Boy” — or, as I counter-joked, “Jersey Boy Who Became a Rock Star Without Having to Sing in Falsetto”). One of the high points of the evening was the performance by the drama department of the Margery Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which won the annual award for drama education — and while getting shot at by a mad killer seems like one of the weirdest ways to win an award, the students did a quite moving song and one white woman in the chorus stood out — she has a great soul voice and deserves a shot at stardom even with the cruel boost to her career presented by this bizarre exposure. The Tony Awards also indicated that the American artistic community is in many ways a private preserve cut off from the overall politics of the country — or at least of the 46 percent of it that elected the current President, whose name went unmentioned in the entire show (unless the reports of actor Robert De Niro’s speech — he was blipped almost from the get-go and the producers not only silenced him but put a blur over his face so you couldn’t read his lips — are accurate and he said “Fuck Trump! Fuck Trump!” over and over again — to which Stormy Daniels could respond, “Actually, I did — and it was boring”). Most of the musical awards, including Best Musical, went to The Band’s Visit, a stage adaptation of a 2007 film about an Egyptian band stranded in Israel and forced to spend the night with a local woman — and virtually everyone who won in connection with it mentioned that they hoped the show would actually help bridge the divide between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East at a time when President Trump and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who, you’ll recall, has blamed the Holocaust on Palestinian Arabs!) both seem to be going out of their way to increase tensions in the Middle East in general and Palestine in particular. 

The British National Theatre production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (a show I avoided when it came around the first time because I was such a committed AIDS dissident I didn’t think a play that assumes the truth of the HIV/AIDS model would entertain me) won for Best Revival, and Kushner himself was one of the acceptance speakers and referenced the show’s inclusive politics even though, surprisingly, he did not mention that the real-life Roy Cohn, whom he incorporated into the play as its principal villain, was a major mentor, influence and role model for Donald Trump. I was also surprised to see Andrew Garfield accept an award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his Angels in America role, exhibiting the British accent he successfully suppressed in his Spider-Man movies — one doesn’t expect to see an actor who’s been in comic-book superhero blockbuster films turn up on Broadway and win a Tony! There was a much-ballyhooed performance by Bruce Springsteen that turned out to be a disappointment — he sat at a piano and played it while narrating a lo-o-o-ong story about growing up in Freehold, New Jersey and being surrounded by churches and graveyards, and ended it with just one chorus (the last) of his song “My Hometown.” If this is representative of Springsteen on Broadway, it seems he created the show by expanding the stage raps from  his concert and shrinking the amount of actual music. Springsteen is a compelling singer and songwriter; he’s not a compelling spoken-word artist, and this material will already be pretty familiar to anyone (like me) who read his recently published autobiography Born to Run. I was surprised that the 1990’s musical Once on an Island beat out Carousel  and My Fair Lady for Best Revival of a Musical — based on the number from it shown here it’s a fun showcase for Black performers but hardly at the level of the other two revivals nominated — and one of the best moments for me was the song that represented The Band’s Visit, “Omar Sharif,” if only because I’d associated Sharif only with his big-budget Western productions like Doctor Zhivago and Funny Girl, and here he is featured in a song sung by an Israeli woman who recalls seeing him in black-and-white movies made in Egypt which by a freak of signals she was able to receive on her TV from Egyptian stations!

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Psycho Brother-in-Law (The Asylum, Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I got to see the second Lifetime rerun on last night, a film from 2017 from The Asylum (which actually releases theatrically, though their theatrical films tend to be quickies attempting to grab the audience for a public-domain story or plot premise: they rushed out versions of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars just before major studios released big-budget versions, and other films on their list include Ghosthunters and The Fast and the Fierce) called Psycho Brother-in-Law. An opening credit says this was inspired by a true story, though as Charles said about the film Shine it’s obvious that if this is a true story, the filmmakers (director/co-writer José Montesinos and his co-writer, Delondra Williams) chose it because they could easily shoehorn it into the familiar Hollywood clichés — in this case, the familiar Lifetime clichés. Set in Brisbane, California (though filmed in Pacifica), Psycho Brother-in-Law opens with a prologue in which young Brisbane High School student Eric Campbell (Marc Herrmann) is about to be beaten up by a blond bully when his brother David (Mitch McCoy) comes onto the scene and starts whacking the guy with a baseball bat, and though Eric tries to warn David off once Eric is out of danger, David continues the assault and eventually kills the bully. Then we get a typical Lifetime title, “23 Years Later” — a lot of Lifetime movies begin with these sorts of prologues but the time jump is rarely as long as 23 years — and 23 years later Eric (Mike Duff) is a rising high-tech executive. We’re really not sure what he’s doing or why he’s taking so much time doing it (if Montesinos and Williams had made him an entrepreneur doing a start-up it would be more believable than if he’s just an employee, even one relatively high up in his organization), but his long absences from home and his general exhaustion when he does show up are getting under the skin of his wife Kay (Brittany Falardeau, top-billed) and their teenage daughter Laura (Megan Ashley Brown), who’s inherited her dad’s mathematics skills and is practicing for some sort of school competition in the subject. David (Zack Gold, who for once in a movie looks enough like the actor cast as his brother that we can believe they really are brothers), Eric’s younger brother, shows up out of a clear blue sky one day and says he’s on vacation from a lucrative job crab-fishing in Alaska. Eric isn’t there when David shows up but Kay impulsively invites him to stay in their guest room until he’s ready to return to work. Then the usual incidents of a Lifetime movie start to happen that indicate David isn’t the charming, genuinely cute guy he seems to be.

When the two brothers are out drinking in a singularly unconvincing bar set and a fat guy with a beard (who looks like the director and former All in the Family actor Rob Reiner really gone to seed) claims Eric jostled him, David practically starts a fight then and there until Eric is able by the skin of his teeth to call off his wild brother. When yet another work commitment — of which there are so many Kay starts wondering if there’s a woman involved in the “work” situation and Eric is cheating on her, though he insists there isn’t and it’s clear that, unusually for a husband in a Lifetime movie, we’re supposed to believe him — causes Eric to break their “date night” and David offers to go on Kay’s date in her husband’s place, the two have a great time and Kay admits later she’s starting to develop “feelings” for David even though she’s not pursuing an affair. Later, however, we learn that David served a four-year term in a psychiatric hospital for manslaughter after he killed Eric’s assailant there and he’s been diagnosed as paranoid and potentially violent — and in a key scene that lets us know just when, how and why he’s going to go off the rails, Montesinos shows him unscrewing a pill bottle and then closing it again. Obviously David’s decided to go off his meds, and the results are predictable: he runs into the fat guy whom he and Eric had that run-in in the bar several acts earlier and strangles him on the street — the guy has a gun on him and tries to pull it, but David overpowers him, gets the gun away and takes it with him after he’s killed the guy (remember the sacred words of St. Anton Chekhov that when you establish a pistol in act one, someone has to fire it in act three). Then, when Laura’s boyfriend Ron (Billy Meade), a wanna-be musician who drives around in a dowdy, once-hot Pontiac Firebird, drives her home after a date and wants to get more physical than she does), David comes to Laura’s rescue, pulls her out of Ron’s car and then beats Ron nearly to death — obviously this is a man who is ferocious and animalistic when it comes to defending members of his family! Eric and David, who in the meantime has confessed that he was fired from that crab-fishing job instead of just taking a layoff from it, go on a male-bonding fishing trip — only David brings along the gun (ya remember the gun?) and shoots Eric because he’s decided to eliminate his inconvenient brother and take his place as Kay’s husband and Laura’s dad.

The finale takes place at Eric’s and Kay’s home, when David comes, holds the two women at gunpoint and announces that he’s killed Eric and will be taking over as head of the family — only, natch, there’s been a deus ex machina in the form of another fisherman who was walking through the woods with his fishing pole whistling (the shot is so much like the opening of the old Andy Griffith Show on TV one expects him to be with his son and whistling the TV show’s theme!) when he comes upon Eric, realizes he’s been shot but is only wounded instead of dead, calls 911 — and eventually Eric comes to enough to alert the police to what’s going on and tell them his homicidal maniac brother is threatening his wife and daughter. The cops duly arrive and tell David to put his gun down and surrender, but instead he “commits suicide by cop” and lets the police blow him away on the home’s staircase. Psycho Brother-in-Law is yet another Lifetime movie whose hackneyed, clichéd situations are at least partially redeemed by the skill of the participants: Zack Gold turns in a nicely controlled performance in the title role, managing both the character’s infectious charm when he’s on his meds and the dangerous craziness that overtakes him when he isn’t. José Montesinos proves skilled at building suspense and creating a sense of menace even in pretty ordinary suburban settings, and overall this is one of Lifetime’s better efforts even though there’s one major plot hole. In the prologue it looks like David is older than Eric, but in the main story he’s younger — which led both Charles and I to expect a plot twist in which it would turn out that way back when it was Eric who killed David’s tormentor (since in the prologue the two brothers never addressed each other by name) and then framed David to take the blame for it. For that matter, I also half-expected David to have the hots, not for his sister-in-law, but for her daughter — one of Laura’s schoolmates even kids her about being with such a hot guy, and she insists, “He’s my uncle!” — adding incest to Lolita-style injury. Psycho Brother-in-Law also fits with the usual Lifetime trope in that the genuinely hot guy is the villain; though (as I noted above) Mike Duff and Zack Gold look enough like each other to be believable as brothers on-screen, Gold, playing the psycho, is clearly the sexy one!

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Black Panther (Walt Disney Productions, Marvel Studios, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched one of the most overwhelming recent films we’ve seen: The Black Panther, the mega-hit from Walt Disney Productions and Marvel Studios — let’s just say that I’m not so sure anymore that the 1989 Tim Burton Batman with Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton is my favorite film based on a comic-book superhero. The Black Panther had its origins, both on paper and on film, as part of the “Marvel Universe,” the interconnected group of comic books with superhero characters Marvel started in the 1960’s (though the company, under its initial name “Timely Comics,” had been around since 1939 and at least two of their most iconic characters, Captain America and the Human Torch, had been introduced in the 1940’s). The Black Panther first saw the light of day in a Fantastic Four comic published in June 1966 (the publicity for the film took pains to note that this was two months before the formation of the real-life Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, though the black panther as a symbol of Black nationalism and assertive racial pride had first been used in Alabama by the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in 1965, and that’s where the Oakland Panthers got it from — and there’s an even earlier cultural reference to the “Black Panthers” in the 1950 biopic The Jackie Robinson Story, in which the Negro League team Robinson played for before he joined the Dodgers was changed from the real-life Kansas City Monarchs to the fictitious “Black Panthers”!). He got his own comic book in 1998 and made his screen debut in Captain America: Civil War as a supporting character in a “civil war” of Marvel characters in which Captain America and Iron Man ended up fighting each other. There had been sporadic attempts to put the Black Panther on screen before this, notably an attempt at Columbia in the 1990’s with Wesley Snipes in the part, but after positive audience response to the Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War the “suits” at Marvel and Disney decided to do a whole movie based on him. What they didn’t bargain for was that they would get not only a blockbuster hit but a masterpiece, thanks largely to their choice of director: Ryan Coogler, an auteur who also co-wrote the Black Panther script with Joe Robert Cole and created a movie with far deeper emotional resonances than your average comic-book shoot-’em-up (or blast-’em-up) movie. The Blu-Ray edition of the film is prefaced with a brief talk from Coogler in which he makes the predictable comment that he’d collected comic books as a young man but searched in vain for ones about people who looked like him; he also said he particularly wanted to create strong women characters instead of the usual femme fatale super-villains or bland damsels in distress most females in comics or comic-derived stories are. 

The film opens with a prologue that explains that millions of years ago a meteorite landed in the middle of Africa (one imdb.com trivia poster said the location was southern Sudan, but in the animated sequence showing it it looked like the Congo to me — and if that was the intent, it was a typical bit of Coogler subtlety to link the story to a real-life African country that has been plundered again and again, by Africans as well as Europeans, for its mineral wealth) containing a super-powerful element called vibranium, which not only is an energy source but also a material for making invulnerable armor and super-weaponry. (The opening reminded me of the 1936 Universal film The Invisible Ray, directed by Lambert Hillyer and starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, which also features an animated sequence of a meteorite containing a super-powerful mineral landing in Africa.) A recent New Yorker article joked about the tendency of modern-day superhero and science-fiction movie writers to posit these incredibly powerful elements and said that, in reference of Alfred Hitchcock’s term for the object the spies are after in a thriller plot, which the characters care about but the audience doesn’t, they should call them “MacGuffinium.” Anyway, in the plot the meteorite, containing earth’s only known source of vibranium, lands in a fictitious African principality called “Wakanda” over which five tribes have been fighting a civil war. The prince ruling Wakanda uses the power of vibranium to unite four of the tribes under his rule, but the fifth, the Jabari (also known as the “gorilla people” because of their tendency to spray themselves with gray powder to look like gorillas — or at least like the legendary grey gorillas of Edgar Rice Burroughs and other racialist writers who tapped Africa for stereotypical adventure tales — and worshipers of the Hindu monkey got Hanuman, whereas the other Wakandans worship the ancient Egyptian cat goddess Bast), decide to stay outside the confederation and be the odd tribe out. (According to imdb.com, the original idea was to have the Jabari live in a rain forest, but Coogler thought that was too clichéd and moved them to a barren mountain range instead, which gave him far more interesting visual possibilities for depicting them.) 

After giving us that bit of the backstory, Coogler gives us another slice in a prologue set in Oakland, California (Coogler’s home town and the setting of his first film as director, 2013’s Fruitvale Station — the title is one of the Bay Area Rapid Transit stations servicing Black Oakland) in 1992, in which we see a group of kids playing basketball in such impoverished conditions they don’t even have a proper net on their goal, just a plastic milk crate with the bottom cut out of it (recalling the peach baskets with the bottoms cut out James Naismith used when he invented basketball in 1895, and from which it got its name). One of the kids goes home to his father, who’s planning some sort of sinister-sounding enterprise with a friend, and two exotically dressed Black women with shaved heads show up at their door. One of the people says they look like Grace Jones — the legendary disco singer who shaved her head (and had a huge following among Gay and Bisexual men in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s) — and indeed shaved-headed women become a major motif in this film. The two women shoot the young boy’s father and leave the boy alone, and it’s also established that both dad and the kid are Wakandan — you can tell because when a Wakandan pulls down his or her lower lip, the inside of their mouth glows blue, signal of their exposure to vibranium. Then the credits come up, and the film reaches present-day New York, where a terrorist attack has just blown up the United Nations building and among the victims are the king of Wakanda. This means that the next in line to the throne is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), only he has to return home to claim rulership and he first has to undergo a ritual, strikingly similar to the Vulcan marriage rite depicted in the “Amok Time” episode of the original Star Trek series, in which any one from the royal lineage of one of the five tribes that originally coalesced to form Wakanda can challenge him to a duel, which lasts until one of the contestants either gives up or gets killed (and the duel is held in a pool on the edge of a waterfall, so if you can just throw the other guy off the waterfall you can kill him easily), and one of the Jabari challenges T’Challa but loses. 

T’Challa duly takes over Wakanda after some more rituals, including drinking a decoction made with ground-up vibranium as its major ingredients that gives him the super-powers of the Black Panther (like the Phantom, the Black Panther is an hereditary superhero whose powers are passed down from father to son) and then bathing in red sand that allows him one last ghostly communication with his father, sort of like Hamlet, before dad passes on completely. Meanwhile, a white scumbag named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis, for once playing a part as a normal human being without some other identity or appearance grafted onto him with CGI) organizes a robbery of the British Museum to steal a seventh century African weapon that supposedly came from Benin but was really a bit of vibranium, which somehow got lost from Wakanda and ended up in Benin. The Wakandans have maintained a strict policy of isolation from the rest of the world, mainly because their kings have realized that if the rest of the world knew they were literally sitting on top of a mountain of super-material of incalculable value, the rest of the world would attempt to seize it from them and either they’d get it or the Wakandans would have to forget their higher, more pacifistic values and get a bloodbath going to safeguard it. (Right after we finished watching the movie, Charles noted the lobby card from the 1937 film Lost Horizon on our wall and pointed out that Black Panther is essentially a remake of Lost Horizon: a super-secret outpost in the Third World that has access to an incredible technological resource but conceals it from the rest of the world because its leaders know the rest of the world would misuse it.) The Wakandans learn that Klaue is going to sell the vibranium he’s stolen in South Korea, and T’Challa and his girlfriend go to South Korea to recover it There they encounter the only other white principal character, a CIA agent named Everett Ross (Martin Freeman — since both he and Serkis had been in the Lord of the Rings movies, they joked to each other that they were the “Tolkien white cast members”) who’s on a similar mission. The big confrontation takes place in a casino right out of Josef von Sternberg’s delightfully decadent 1941 movie The Shanghai Gesture, and Klaue gets killed and delivered to Wakanda but they don’t get back the vibranium. 

We also meet Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan — obviously he uses his middle initial to avoid confusion with the basketball player who’s been in movies), who at first we think was merely the lookout in Klaue’s robbery of the British Museum but turns out to be the boy from Oakland who was left behind when the Wakandan kill squad took out his dad, grew up as a poor African-American street kid with all the discrimination and oppression that came with that, and now that he’s learned the secret of his own identity — that his father was the brother of the Wakandan king and therefore he’s T’Challa’s cousin and the next in line for the Wakandan throne — he’s participated in Klaue’s plot but his real agenda is to go to Wakanda, take over and export vibranium weapons to Black people all over the world so they can fight back against their oppressors, conquer their countries and form a worldwide Black-ruled confederation with Wakanda as its central authority. He shows up in Wakanda, establishes his royal lineage, challenges T’Challa to a duel and wins, throwing T’Challa off the waterfall — and once he’s in charge he starts acting like a Black version of Donald Trump, burning the garden that symbolizes Wakanda’s heritage and norms and ordering the army to load Wakanda’s flying vessels with vibranium weapons and send them to other countries to foment Black revolutions. (I can’t help but think at least part of this plot line was inspired by the Nation of Islam and its belief that Blacks had originally ruled the world and the point of their movement was to mobilize them so they could do so again.) Of course, T’Challa isn’t dead at all, and his women friends (including his sister, who seems to be the only member of the female half of Wakanda’s 1 percent who gets to have hair) sneak him over to the mountain redoubt of the Jabari tribe (ya remember the Jabari tribe?), where the Jabari king who previously challenged him agrees to give him asylum but not to commit any of his troops to invade the rest of Wakanda and restore him to his throne — though he has second thoughts about this and eventually, just as the good guys are about to lose the Wakandan civil war, the Jabari come in like the Seventh Cavalry and save the day. There’s a typical post-credits (for a Marvel movie) sequence in which T’Challa attends a session of the General Assembly at the new United Nations building, which has been relocated to Vienna, and announces that he’s decided that Killmonger was right about something: that Wakanda should export its super-technology and use it to help the oppressed peoples of the rest of the world. 

Black Panther is the sort of movie I didn’t think they were making anymore, a commercial blockbuster that is also a film of real quality and complexity — the sort of thing that in the eras that produced Gone with the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia regularly swept the Academy Awards, and deservingly so — and though the featurette on the disc we watched right after the movie stressed its connections to the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe (or “MCU,” as it’s unfortunately abbreviated), it’s a film that transcends its “MCU” origins and its overall comic-book heritage as thoroughly as Citizen Kane transcended all the other movies Hollywood was making about newspapers then. It’s an extraordinary achievement in a disreputable genre, and one that uses the much-maligned comic-book superhero genre to make real statements about oppression and resistance, about family loyalties and whether a nation can remain isolated or will have to deal with the rest of the world. It also seems a far stronger anti-Trump political statement than Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which in one of the more bizarre manifestations of the Right-wing political/media machine was accused of being deliberately anti-Trump propaganda (one of the weirdest “fake news” stories was that Rogue One had deliberately been pulled from release after the November 2016 election so its makers could write and edit in even more blatant anti-Trump propaganda); Killmonger’s attitude as soon as he takes over Wakanda (in an undemocratic but socially sanctioned process!) that he’s going to throw out all the old wisdom and do things his own way is obviously Trumpian (and profoundly anti-“conservative” if you define “conservative” in Edmund Burkean terms that there are certain patterns, institutions, beliefs and norms a society develops over time and, even if those don’t make “sense” and aren’t the way you’d design things if you were starting over de novo, they’ve acquired their own logic, people have come to rely on them, and any attempt to change them by administrative or legislative fiat will only make things worse). 

And yet Killmonger isn’t your typical crazy superhero villain; he’s a man whose bitterness has been shaped by his background (and at least possibly his racial history; Black Panther doesn’t come right out and say Killmonger’s mother was white, but we get that impression subliminally if only because Michael B. Jordan is lighter-skinned than Chadwick Boseman — in some ways Black Panther reverses the iconography of the 1930’s “race movies,” in which lighter-skinned Blacks were the heroes and ingénues while darker-skinned ones were the villains or the comic relief — reflecting the weird internal racism that permeated the African-American community then; throughout Black Panther the darker-skinned characters are physically, intellectually and morally superior to the lighter-skinned ones) and whose motives are at least understandable, if not forgivable. Black Panther is also a beautiful movie to look at; early on I was worried that Coogler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison were going to go for the overall brown tonality that’s annoying in all too many movies today (and, as I commented when I watched Selma, even more annoying in a movie whose protagonists are Black because it’s simply harder to pick them out from all that brown in the background!), but the Wakandan coronation/duel ritual was appropriately colorful, the African sunsets spectacular (even though the “African” scenes were shot in Georgia — the U.S. one, not the former Soviet republic — and only background process shots were actually made in Africa) and the film overall is a visual treat. 

Black Panther is a movie that evokes its cultural precedents but wears them lightly enough you don’t get the impression of a director and/or a writer using bits and pieces of other movies just because they don’t have the imagination to create something new, and it’s also blessed with a fine musical score by Coogler’s usual collaborator, Ludwig Göransson, which may seem like a weird credit to see on a movie about powerful Blacks in Africa but who did his homework and drew mostly on South African sources for his overall sound (just as the language of the Wakandans was based on KwaZulu, not any of the indigenous tongues of central Africa). The film even featured two songs by Kendrick Lamar, which I dreaded because I hated his contributions to the 2016 and 2018 Grammy Awards (I was incensed that the Pulitzer Prize committee, which never gave an award to Duke Ellington, just gave one to Kendrick Lamar), but whose two contributions here are surprisingly lyrical and free from the relentless ugliness, viciousness and meanness I’ve heard from him otherwise (and from all too many other rappers, which is one reason I basically dislike the genre). All in all, Black Panther is a groundbreaking movie, a film that transcends its comic-book superhero origins and achieves greatness, and as I wrote after the last Academy Awards ceremony (and after the Academy gave no nominations to Wonder Woman, which as a film was hardly at the level of Black Panther but did break ground with a woman protagonist and a woman director at a time when Hollywood is being forced to grapple with its long history of exploiting and discriminating against women both on and off screen), “Let’s see how many nominations all these Academy members who are prattling on about ‘inclusion’ give to Black Panther next year.”

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Girl in the Bunker (Cineflix Productons, Rare Fish Films, Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I watched a Lifetime movie that’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen on that network: Girl in the Bunker, written and directed by Stephen Kemp and telling the true story of Elizabeth Shoaf, who at age 14 in the rural community of Lugoff, South Carolina (never heard of it? Neither had I) was kidnapped and held for 10 days in an underground bunker on private property. Her abductor, Vinson Filyaw, called himself “Benson” after the family that owned the property he was squatting on, lived in a trailer under which was a secret door connecting him to the bunker he’d dug, and lured Lizzie (her nickname, though only her parents and her brother called her that — a clue that became important in the story) into his clutches by posing as a police officer who had arrested her younger brother on marijuana charges. The promos for this movie made it seem like a titillating exploitation piece on the order of previous Lifetime excursions into stories (sometimes derived from real ones) of women being kidnapped and held as sex slaves for months or even years — Cleveland Abduction, Girl in the Box[1], etc. — but as it turned out this was considerably better than their norm. Part of the superiority is that Elizabeth Shoaf (played in the film by Julia Lalonde) was only held for 10 days — though the word “only” seems like being thankful for infinitesimally small mercies — and that, though just 14, she had the presence of mind to fight back against her attacker through strategy and guile instead of openly resisting him. 

When Vinson first kidnaps Elizabeth he tells her he’s doing this because his wife left him and falsely accused him of raping her (Vinson did have a police record and at the time he kidnapped Elizabeth was a fugitive from justice, wanted for sexual assault against a woman), but later he explains, “It’s complicated” — a phrase from Facebook that’s become part of the language used by people who don’t want to describe their relationship status in a way that might discourage their current lust object from having sex with them. It turns out the woman he supposedly raped, Katherine Heath (a nice beaten-down performance by Jessica Greco), is not only still in contact with Vinson but is helping him by sneaking food over to him, leaving it in the trunk of his old car (we’re not told specifically whether the car still runs but it’s rusty and grungy-looking enough we presume it doesn’t) and also running other supplies to him as needed, even though as he eventually tells Elizabeth, the girl he was really in love with was not Katherine but her 12-year-old daughter. It seems like he was pursuing the Humbert Humbert strategy of courting the mom in order to get close to the nymphet he really lusted after, and he tells Lizzie that the reason he took her was he needed someone now that his access to the girl had been cut off. He also tells her that he’s got the entire place booby-trapped, surrounded with D.I.Y. land mines, and the black necklace he puts around her neck and locks contains a bomb. Indeed, he says his whole place is wired with explosives, and as soon as he’s satisfied he’s achieved his goal (though neither he nor we are all too sure what that is) he’s going to pull a switch and annihilate his property in a murder-suicide. Elizabeth, though previously protective of her virginity (there’s a flashback scene in which she turns down her boyfriend Case Palmerston, played by Tristan Culbert, when he wants to have sex with her in one of the gladed meadows that abound around Lugoff, and she says she’s still waiting for “the right moment”), realizes that if she comes on to Vinson and makes it look like he’s interested in her sexually, maybe he’ll at least give up the plan of blowing them both up. 

Kemp maintains the suspense by cutting back and forth between Elizabeth’s ordeal and the increasing anxiety of her parents, Don (Stephen Park) and Madeline (Moira Kelly), and her brother Bobby (Dimitri Komocsi), and their frantic efforts to search for her and to keep the doofuses on the local police force interested in continuing the search. One of the towering ironies of this story is that in this relatively tight-knit rural community the hiding place where Vinson is keeping Elizabeth is just a short distance from her home, and through much of the search Vinson can hear the police patrolling the property — including flying helicopters over it — and can lord it over Elizabeth how the authorities keep missing them. He also has a giant piece of aluminum foil he puts over them at key moments because he believes this will shield him from detection by the infrared lights aboard the cops’ helicopters. Though I still think Emma Donoghue’s novel Room and the film made from it (with Donoghue writing the script and Lenny Abrahamson directing) are the best works made about this situation — at least partly because Donoghue was writing fiction and thereby wasn’t trapped by the events of the actual story — Girl in the Bunker is quite a good movie, very far above the Lifetime norm and with a writer/director skilled enough at both jobs he keeps Elizabeth’s peril front and center in the story without exploiting it for the obvious titillation. (I did regret it when Kemp cut short the soft-core porn scene between Julia Lalonde and Henry Thomas, even though I know why he did it: he didn’t want to run afoul of the Thought Police that come down hard on depictions of sex involving an underage character even if the actors actually playing the scene are of age, and he also wanted to keep the focus on Elizabeth’s ordeal instead of appealing to the kinkier fantasies of some of the audience members.)  

Girl in the Bunker has some faults, and one of the most annoying ones is how similar the leading male characters look: Henry Thomas, Stephen Park (playing Elizabeth’s dad) and Jeff Clarke (as one of the police officers involved in the search) are all the same “type” — thin, sandy-haired, attractive without being drop-dead gorgeous or genuinely sexy — that when Clarke appeared as one of the cops at first I thought he was Vinson and Elizabeth had been kidnapped by a genuine police officer who was also playing these sadistic sex games on the side, and involving himself in the investigation to steer his colleagues away from where she really was. Also, Lifetime’s decision to show the film in a so-called “special edition” in which, during the commercial breaks, we got brief interview segments from the real Elizabeth, Don and Madeline Shoaf which affirmed the basic accuracy of the story but also let us know that, as usual, the filmmakers had cast the role with considerably more attractive people than their real-life prototypes. Nonetheless, Girl in the Bunker is a well-done thriller and makes me hopeful Stephen Kemp can break free of the TV-movie ghetto and make some theatrical features — he’s no Alfred Hitchcock but he’s a damned sight better than a lot of the wanna-be Hitchcocks out there, some of whom have got to make theatrical features with “A”-list stars (can you say “Tony Gilroy”?)


[1] Also written and directed by Stephen Kemp.

Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Walt Disney Pictures, Lucasfilm, Ram Bergman Productions, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I went to the movie at the San Diego Public Library and saw Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. I have a curious relationship to the Star Wars saga because while I saw the first movie in theatres as soon as it came out in 1977 and liked it enough I went back to see it twice more, I missed all the rest in George Lucas’s Grand Saga and never saw a Star Wars movie again until a few months ago, when I bought the DVD of Rogue One — an interstital Star Wars movie not part of the main sequence which I thought might make a convenient way back for Charles and I to re-enter the saga without having to pick up the plot threads of who’d done what to whom in episodes 2 through 7. I was more than a bit disappointed in Rogue One, despite some interesting plot threads and the presence of a good, if rather inconsistent, director, Gareth Edwards (whose other films — at least the ones I’d seen — include Monsters and the latest reboot of Godzilla), because it lacked the quirky humor of the original Star Wars and, as I realized about a third of the way through, it was just The Guns of Navarone transposed into science-fiction: the bad guys have a super-weapon and the good guys have to send in a commando team to blow it up. At least partly because I was judging it as a stand-alone movie without reference to Star Wars episodes two through seven, I quite liked The Last Jedi even though it had its limits: it was pretty much just a high-tech space opera, and its occasional bouts of philosophizing (when I saw the first Star Wars I thought the Force was a metaphor for religion in general and Christianity in particular, but this time around it seemed more like Zen) only slowed things down. It’s also a grandly depressing movie — the good guys seem to lose just about every battle they get involved in, and in a way it’s weirdly appropriate that The Last Jedi came out the same year that two movies about the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk in 1940 were released, because that operation, too, was a military disaster but one that turned into a political success because it mobilized the Brits who were left behind to resist and ultimately win.  

The Last Jedi was both written and directed by Rian Johnson, and a lot of the criticism of the film came from nit-picky Star Wars fans who resented the directions in which he took some of the fabled characters from earlier incarnations of the series — but I quite liked Johnson’s debut feature, Brick (a contemporary-set tale of high-school kids and drugs that avoided both the noble-outlaws and just-say-no sets of clichés available to people who write and/or direct drug movies), and while his later science-fiction film Looper didn’t seem as strong, it’s still a lot better than most of the big blockbusters that come out these days. Curiously, Johnson was fired from the last film in the main Star Wars sequence, which is due to be released in December 2019 (though another prequel, Solo, just came out to disappointing box-office returns, and one of the reasons cited in today’s Los Angeles Times article about the fiasco suggested it was because the Walt Disney Corporation, which bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion largely to get their hands on the Star Wars universe and characters, went to the well too soon and released another Star Wars movie just five months after The Last Jedi), and J. J. Abrams, who’s now in charge of both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, is apparently going to take back the directorial reins himself. The Last Jedi basically consists of three overlapping plot lines: Rey (Daisy Ridley) is determined to learn to become a Jedi fighter and seeks out the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, appropriately cast as a grizzled old man after his spectacular debut as the beamish-boy Luke in 1977), but Luke has exiled himself to a faraway planet where he wants to burn the accumulated Jedi textbooks containing their knowledge and die because he thinks the Jedi and their bad-guy equivalents, the Sith, both need to die for the universe to be reborn under decent auspices. Meanwhile, the First Order, the ruling junta of the Star Wars universe in this incarnation, and its leader, Snoke (played by all-purpose motion-capture guy Andy Serkis, who’s enacted so many of his roles with computer-generated faces and bodies grafted on top of his own it’s a surprise to see his imdb.com head shot and realize what he really looks like), are determined to wipe out the Rebellion once and for all. 

The Rebellion is led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, also playing her character from the first film as she had naturally aged; though it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the mavens at Disney and Lucasfilm have enough “wild” footage of her they can recast her in the next film even though she’s dead, if this is indeed Carrie Fisher’s last film she went out on a high level: her part is a lot longer than the reviews indicated, she’s crucial to both the opening and the closing of the film, and she turned in an excellent performance), though she gets injured and turns over the reins to her second-in-command, Vice-Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Both the women in control have a problem on their hands: a hot-shot male underling, Commander Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who’s constantly launching reckless attacks against the First Order’s giant dreadnoughts and star-destroyers that just get more and more of the rebels killed. Poe gets demoted from commander to captain, but nonetheless he still plots an attack against Snoke’s flagship. Unfortunately, the First Order’s scientists and technicians have figured out a way to track the rebel spaceships even when they do time-warp jumps and go into faster-than-light travel, so the good guys need a way to disable the bad guys’ tracking system — which means infiltrating a super-hacker with great skills to jam the First Order’s security system so they can get onto the First Order flagship and disable its tracking device so the rebel ships can make their escape to the original home planet of the rebellion before they run out of fuel. (Just how the spaceships of the Star Wars universe are propelled is never made clear — at least Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry came up with something faintly scientifically plausible — and one of the odd things to someone coming to the Star Wars universe after years of familiarity with the Star Trek universe is that no one in the Star Wars universe ever invented a teleporter — I had to keep reminding myself of that because my Star Trek-trained mind was wondering why the good guys couldn’t get out of the bad guys’ traps just by having themselves beamed up to safety.) 

Finn (John Boyega), a Black crew member on a Resistance vessel, meets up with Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a surprisingly homely Asian person on the same ship, and the two team up to go to a casino planet called Canto Bight to recruit their hacker; the guy they end up with is called DJ (no periods) and is played by Benicio del Toro; he gets them on to Snoke’s ship and they disable it long enough for the Rebels to make their escape, but then he sells Finn and Rose out to the First Order. While all that is going on Rey (ya remember Rey?) has mastered the art of levitating objects that you acquire with sufficient mastery of the Force, and she’s recruited by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a.k.a. Ben Solo, son of Han Solo and Princess Leia from the original cycle, who like his great-uncle Anakin Skywalker, a.k.a. Darth Vader, went over to the Dark Side big-time and is now Snoke’s second-in-command — only midway through the movie he assassinates Snoke with a lightsaber and declares himself the new leader of the First Order, sort of like Kim Jong Un and his relatives. Finn and Rose ultimately escape by stealing a First Order spacecraft, and they high-tail it back to the rebel planet base — only the First Order hunt them down and arrive on the planet with a giant star-destroyer cannon ready to blast the rebel base to pieces — only, against the advice of his field commander, General Hux (whom Poe derisively refers to as “General Hugs” and who’s played by Domhnall Gleason, who proves that they didn’t make the mold that produced Peter Cushing, who played a similarly cold, matter-of-fact, bureaucratic villain in the first Star Wars), Kylo Ren gets sidetracked into a duel to the death with lightsabers either with Luke Skywalker himself or an astral projection of him, and though Skywalker dies and virtually the entire Rebellion is annihilated in the battle, enough members of it are still alive (including Leia — one imdb.com contributor noted that of the three principals in the first Star Wars, Leia is the only one left alive since they knocked off Han Solo at the end of film seven, The Force Awakens, while Carrie Fisher is the only one of the stars of the first Star Wars who’s passed on: Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford are both still among the living) that they decide to revive the Jedi cult and keep on fighting. 

It’s true that some of the gimmicks are a bit wince-inducing — that new comic-relief “droid” character BB-8, who looks like a bowling ball with a pool ball sitting on top of it, is really annoying and I felt a sigh of relief when our old and genuinely charming friend R2-D2 made an all too brief reappearance — and some of Johnson’s cuts from storyline to storyline are so fast they almost induce whiplash, but overall I quite enjoyed The Last Jedi. I’m also fascinated by the fact that the Right-wingers who saw anti-Trump propaganda in Rogue One — and even started a (false) rumor that the film had been withdrawn from release and re-edited after Trump’s victory so the makers could insert more anti-Trump bits — didn’t come down on this one, since the First Order’s Snoke is pretty clearly an avatar for Trump and Kylo Ren comes off as a sort of interstellar Mike Pence, waiting for the idiot he’s serving to self-destruct so he can assume the dictatorship. (Adam Driver turns in a marvelous performer as Ren, a character who reminded me enough of Shakespeare’s Richard III I’d like to see him play that role; I’m sure he’d be a lot better at it than the overrated Benedict Cumberbatch.) The Last Jedi also deserves praise for a cast full of women as authority figures and enough people of color we don’t get the impression, as we did in the first Star Wars and virtually all science-fiction films that preceded it, that the future is going to be all-white!