Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Battlestar Galactica: Razor (Universal Network Television, David Eick Productions, R&D Productions, 2007)

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

I screened a science-fiction film from the DVD archives since Charles and I are doing the ConDor science-fiction convention this Friday, Saturday and Sunday and I thought it would be a nice idea to get into the spirit of it in advance. The film I ended up screening was a 2007 Universal Television production called Battlestar Galactica: Razor, though the Battlestar Galactica itself doesn’t feature in the plot of this one at all. Written by Michael Taylor, “developed by” Ronald D. Moore (who apparently was the producer and writer in charge of the early-2000’s Battlestar Galactica reboot) and with Glen A. Larson credited with creating the characters for the original 1977 Battlestar Galactica and also listed as “consulting producer” on the credits of this one even though he had nothing to do with making it, Battlestar Galactica: Razor actually tells the story of another vessel in the space fleet of Battlestars, Battlestar Pegasus. It alternates between present-time reality, a flashback to 10 months previously and other flashbacks to 43 years before, at the end of the first Cylon war. Cylons, for those of you not up on Battlestar Galactica minutiae, are the malevolent robots who are the principal villains on the series — and who in the original 1977 incarnations looked as much like the Empire’s Storm Troopers in Star Wars (the property Battlestar Galactica was obviously ripping off — down to hiring John Dykstra, who’d done the model spaceships for Star Wars and for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey before that, to do the models here as well) as Universal dared without risking a plagiarism suit from George Lucas and 20th Century-Fox.

The new Cylons are skinnier and look more “mechanical,” but they also can shape-shift and assume human form, disguising themselves as people in order to commit espionage and thereby gain a leg up in the renewed hostilities between humans and Cylons that started up again 43 years after an armistice ended the First Cylon War. I was curious about this one for some of the same reasons I’d wanted to watch the recent Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: it was a way to re-enter the fictional universe without having to watch a whole bunch of shows in succession since it was billed as a one-off. It wasn’t, really: for the first third of this film Charles and I both found it awfully confusing since it presupposed quite a lot more familiarity with the Galactica universe than either of us could muster. The central character is Kendra Shaw (Stephanie Jacobsen), a young woman who previously served on the officer corps of the Battlestar Pegasus but disgraced herself in some way we don’t learn definitively until two-thirds of the way through the film. Ten months earlier the Pegasus, then under the command of Admiral Helena Cain (Michelle Forbes), had encountered a Cylon battle fleet and barely survived the engagement. At one point, in order to replenish her crew, Cain had sent a landing party to a planet colonized by Earthlings in order to capture and forcibly draft people for the crew — an interesting transposition to science-fiction of the practice of “impressment,” by which British naval ships would board American vessels in the early 19th century and kidnap crew members or even passengers and force them to serve on the British ships (which was one of the issues the War of 1812 was about and is also at the heart of Melville’s novel, and Britten’s opera, Billy Budd). Earlier she had launched a direct attack on part of the Cylon fleet, contradicting her previous instruction that since her battle forces were vastly outnumbered by the Cylons, she’d only fight in guerrilla fashion — and when her second-in-command (her “XO,” to use the Galactica argot — it stands for “executive officer”) declined to obey her order, she pulled out an old-school pistol (one of the quirkier parts of the Galactica universe is that though it’s supposed to take place centuries in the future, some of the technology, including portable radios as well as small arms, looks like what we have today) and shot him on the spot.

This time she orders that if anyone on the planet resists impressment into the Pegasus crew, not only they but their entire family is to be killed — and Kendra Shaw carries out the order and kills 10 people before the rest of the people realize that resistance is futile and go along with Cain’s press gang. Word gets around that Shaw committed a war crime, and so 10 months later, with Cain having died in battle to preserve the Pegasus, no one will hire Shaw for an officer position — until the Pegasus’s new commander, the boyishly handsome Lee “Apollo” Adama (Jamie Bamber), who got the job because his dad, Admiral William Adama (Edward James Olmos), is a high official in the fleet, insists on Shaw as his XO. The intrigue involves a Cylon attempt to kidnap people and turn them into human/robot “hybrids” who can be used to take over … well, whatever the Cylons are interested in taking over instead of just destroying, since a passing piece of dialogue hints that the Cylons have already destroyed Earth and all its colonies, so the 60,000 people on board the various Battlestars are the only part of humanity that’s left — and the heroic decision of Kendra Shaw to blow herself up with a nuclear weapon in order to kill the hybrid as well, sort of like Sigourney Weaver at the end of the original Alien. (At least that’s how I read the ending of the original Alien — Weaver’s character killed herself in order to make sure the alien was destroyed before it ever got to Earth — though they put her through increasingly ridiculous revivifications in order to create the sequelae.) I liked Battlestar Galactica: Razor better than I had Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, though both had the same problem — they were ostensibly prequels to the series but they still presupposed a large amount of knowledge of the previous items in the oeuvre and really didn’t work all that well as one-offs. I’ll give Razor credit for several things, including making Helena Cain a Lesbian whose girlfriend turns out to be a Cylon spy and at least attempting to deal with serious issues like father-son rivalry and whether war crimes are ever justified because the enemy is so implacable and so relentlessly evil that any tactics, however inhumane or wrong, are morally acceptable to win.

Battlestar Galactica in both its incarnations is very much a story of its times: the first one came out in 1977 and I’ll never forget that the first five minutes of its premiere were pre-empted by the live coverage of the peace deal then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter brokered between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Then, when the special news flash ended and the series came on, the first dialogue we heard was about the fragility of alliances and how easily treaties were broken — as if the writers of Battlestar Galactica had set out to blunt the good news that Israel and Egypt had signed a peace treaty. Like Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica came out while Carter was still President but anticipated the trends in U.S. political and ideological thinking that would defeat him and elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, including the desire for “toughness” and “strength” both at home and abroad. And the reboot of Galactica came out in the wake of 9/11, when another Republican administration was proposing authoritarian “anti-terror” measures and arguing that they were justified and, indeed, necessary because the enemy we faced was so implacably evil any means to defeat it were morally acceptable. The very strong pro-military, anti-peace sentiment is common to both Galacticas and is as integral a part of this material as it was of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and the film based on it — even though Michael Taylor isn’t as good a writer as Card was and therefore he doesn’t communicate the message quite as powerfully. Indeed, this film piles flashback on top of flashback so relentlessly that at one point I joked, “Casey Robinson lives.” (Casey Robinson was the early-1940’s Warner Bros. writer who was known for piling flashbacks on top of flashbacks; he was also known around the industry for having written the love scenes between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca but declining screen credit because at the time he was taking credit only for films he wrote entirely by himself — which meant he did himself out of an Academy Award.) According to an imdb.com “Trivia” post, Battlestar Galactica: Razor (the title is a reference to Cain’s advice to Shaw that she turn herself into a “razor,” a merciless, compassion-free instrument of war to ensure humanity’s survival) was originally intended for theatrical release, but eventually was sold as a TV-movie because by a quirk of Universal’s contract with Battlestar Galactica creator Glen A. Larson, Universal owned the TV rights to the property but Larson retained the feature-film rights — and he vetoed the release of this story, which he’d had nothing to do with making despite his “consulting producer” credit, as a theatrical feature.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Deadly Revenge (Feifer Worldwide/Lifetime, 2013)

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

For my “feature” last night I ran an item from my DVD backlog, a Lifetime movie called Deadly Revenge that turned out to be pretty good — not as good as this channel can be, but considerably better than the more recent Lifetime features Deadly Delusion (catch the pattern in the titling?) and I Am Elizabeth Smart. This was especially surprising since Deadly Revenge was a product of Michael Feifer’s production company, Feifer Worldwide, and he directed it personally — though at least this time he let someone else, Jenna Mattison, do the writing, which probably helped. Architect Harrison (Mark Hapka, boyishly handsome rather than sexy or butch but still very easy on the eyes and fun for this old queen to look at!) — we don’t get many of the central characters’ last names — is based in L.A. and needs a landscape designer for a project he’s currently working on. So he sends to San Francisco for one (aren’t there any in L.A. itself?) and gets Cate (Alicia Ziegler, blonde and with curly hair and a great figure which we get to see a lot of in a very revealing bikini), with whom he falls in love almost immediately — and she reciprocates — so by the time their project is finished she’s already planning to move to L.A., move in with him and eventually marry him. Cate’s roommate in San Francisco, Kym (Constance Wu), is understandably nervous about whether her friend is doing the right thing, but Cate goes ahead with her plan.

Harrison lives in a lavishly appointed condo in the city but his mother Evelyn (Donna Mills) has an even more lavishly appointed mansion in the suburbs — the moment we see this house we recognize it from other Michael Feifer productions for Lifetime and I found myself wondering whether it’s Feifer’s own home and he uses it every time he needs a location for an affluent character to live. The house has a huge swimming pool in the backyard, and this is important not only because it gives director Feifer the chance to show a lot of Alicia Ziegler’s appealing (at least to straight men and Lesbians) figure, with as much breast revealed as he could get away with on basic cable, but also because years earlier Harrison’s father drowned in that very same pool. Harrison’s high-school girlfriend, Katie Rice (so the dead girl gets a last name even though the living characters don’t!) mysteriously disappeared just after graduation, right when she and Harrison were planning to move to New York to attend college (he at NYU’s architecture school and she in the dance program at Juilliard), and so instead he stayed in L.A., lived with his mom and trained there. We’ve already got an intimation of an unusual (and unhealthy) mother-son fixation when Cate sees a photo of a young woman at Harrison’s apartment, naturally assumes it’s an ex and instead he tells her it’s his mom as a young woman, before she met his dad (though the photo and especially the hair style look contemporary rather than period). From the moment Evelyn greets Harrison and Cate and practically rapes him with her eyes we know mom is going to turn out to be the villainess of the piece — which she does — though Feifer and screenwriter Mattison fill the film with hints that Harrison is actually a psycho killer who knocked off his clingy girlfriend and is trying to do the same with Cate. Feifer relentlessly overdirects, filling the movie with shots of the moon in the night sky and water reflections from the surface of the pool into the camera lens as Cate swims, but after a while his overdirection itself has a certain camp appeal. He also quotes Alfred Hitchcock, including a shot of scissors from Dial “M” for Murder and a shower scene that incorporates some of the classic shots from Psycho even though Cate isn’t stabbed to death by her boyfriend in drag the way Janet Leigh was in Hitchcock’s classic.

In the end, it’s revealed that Evelyn has eliminated anyone who might come between her and her son — including her husband, who accumulated the fortune that paid for that huge house in the first place, as well as Katie — and she’s planning to do the same to Cate by filling the pool full of copper sulfate (used as a pool cleaner in small doses to kill algae, but in large concentrations highly toxic to humans), though when Cate catches on Evelyn goes to Plan B and hits her with a hammer, knocking her out, then tying her up and pouring the copper sulfate powder directly on her instead of dunking it in the pool and drowning her. Just then Harrison, who’s been worried because Cate hasn’t been returning his phone calls, drives to his mom’s house and, despite the ambiguity of the scene — for a moment I thought it would end with him mistakenly concluding it was Cate who was attacking his mom, not the other way around — catches on. Evelyn falls into the copper sulfate-laced pool and dies, and Harrison and Cate get back together. Deadly Revenge is pretty standard Lifetime fare, but with some welcome variations; for once the drop-dead gorgeous male lead is not the villain (though since Mark Hapka is boyishly handsome rather than darkly sexy Feifer could make an exception to the usual sexy = evil Lifetime typecasting) and Cate’s friend Kym does not stumble onto the villain’s plans and get killed before she can reveal them. It’s also an indication that with someone else writing the script and resisting his more over-the-top inclinations, Michael Feifer can actually direct a relatively coherent and believable movie — something of a reversal from the many Lifetime movies in which one sees a director of some talent vainly trying to make a believable movie out of a ridiculously overwrought and melodramatic script!

Monday, January 15, 2018

I Am Elizabeth Smart (Lifetime, 2017)

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

Last night Lifetime did a rerun of a film they “premiered” last November, I Am Elizabeth Smart, based on the June 5, 2002 kidnapping of nice 15-year-old Mormon girl Elizabeth Smart from her Salt Lake City home by Brian David Mitchell, self-styled Mormon prophet who called himself “Emmanuel” and told Smart that God had told him to take her as his second “wife.” He already had a first wife, Wanda Ileen Barzee, who had left a job as a music teacher in Boston that she loved to marry and follow him, and the literature on the case disagrees as to whether she was a co-conspirator or a victim or maybe some of both. Smart was held captive by Mitchell and Barzee for nine months, during which time they mostly lived in the mountains around Utah until Mitchell decided in late November 2002 to move them to San Diego for the winter (he may have been crazy but he wasn’t stupid!), during which time he left Smart and Barzee in the mountains (which don’t look like San Diego scenery — I think the filmmakers, director Sarah Walker and writer Victoria “Tory” Walker — this is Sarah’s only credit on imdb.com and Tory’s only other credit is for the silly TV series Psych — did all their location work in Utah) for a week with only two days’ worth of food. When he came back he told them he’d been in prison and that’s why he hadn’t come back sooner. I’ll give the Walkers (imdb.com doesn’t have bios on either of them, so I don’t know whether or not they’re related to each other) credit for a lot of things, including an appropriately creepy atmosphere and a good feel for the sense of disorientation Elizabeth Smart must have felt to be yanked away from her home and family and forced to live with a man who raped her every night (and sometimes during the day as well), terrorized her, kept her literally locked up via metal-and-plastic ropes and padlocks he used to tie her to trees, and continually threatened that he had a group of several hundred followers (he didn’t) who would kill all her relatives if she tried to escape.

The Elizabeth Smart story was also the subject of a CBS-TV movie aired in November 2003, just months after she was finally rescued by cops in Utah — courtesy of Smart herself, who when Mitchell decided San Diego had got too “hot” for him managed, by invoking the tenets of what Tory Walker’s script called Mitchell’s “made-up religion,” to convince him to go back to Utah instead of moving to the East Coast. The earlier production was called The Elizabeth Smart Story and the principal consultants and sources were her parents, Ed and Lois Smart. When I saw it back then I noted, “Where the film most totally disappointed was in its utter refusal to consider issues of faith and their impact on the case — and I suspect the reason [writer] Nancey Silvers dodged this part of the story in her script was because (as they made it clear their recent interview on Larry King Live) the Smarts remain utterly faithful, dyed-in-the-wool Mormons who credit their God with their daughter’s survival from her nine-month ordeal[1] and utterly refuse to consider any suggestion that Elizabeth Smart’s abduction had anything to do with the dark side of Mormonism and its history.” That was true of I Am Elizabeth Smart as well, which took on a really didactic air because this time the filmmakers’ principal source was Elizabeth Smart herself, who is listed as one of the film’s five producers and who also appears in it doing a voice-over narration and appearing as herself in front of a blank screen in scenes that bring the action to a dead stop while she explains what was happening to her and how she felt at that point of her story. These insertions have at least one good aspect: they show how well Alana Boden was cast as Elizabeth Smart in the film’s dramatic portions — the two women look fully credible as the same person as different ages — but they also make the film seem awfully preachy. It sometimes comes across as if Elizabeth Smart participated in this production because she wanted to settle scores with various people who’ve written about her ordeal, in particular ones who’ve accused her of having the “Stockholm syndrome” and genuinely falling in love with Mitchell. In one of the inserts she denies point-blank that she ever had the “Stockholm syndrome” and never felt anything towards Mitchell besides loathing and fear. 

A quite interesting movie could have been made about Elizabeth Smart’s readjustment to normal life after her rescue; according to the Wikipedia page on her she returned to the mainstream Mormon church and also became an activist for laws to protect children from similar abductions and abuse, including lobbying Congress to pass the bill creating the AMBER Alert system. She also went on a Mormon mission to Paris in 2009, returning only to testify against Brian David Mitchell at his trial (he got two life sentences and Wanda Barzee got 15 years — actually seven since the time she’d already served was counted — because she cut a plea deal and turned state’s evidence against him), and while there she met a Scottish Mormon named Matthew Gilmour. They married in 2012 and have two children, a daughter in 2015 and a son in 2017. Just how she got into a normal life after her ordeal, and especially a normal sex life after being repeatedly raped by a crazy kidnapper while still in her teens, might have made for a more interesting movie than this odd piece of score-settling on Smart’s part, in which over and over again she tells us that no one can possibly understand the experience she went through unless it’s actually happened to them. I Am Elizabeth Smart was shown with a lot of interstital segments not only featuring Elizabeth Smart herself but also Alana Boden and the actors who played the other two principals, Skeet Ulrich as Mitchell (who, as he did in The Elizabeth Smart Story as well, comes off as a combination of Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden — one wonders in both films why, in the post-9/11 atmosphere, he could get away with traveling in a long robe with two veiled women without the three of them being arrested as Muslim terrorists) — he complained, much the way Heath Ledger did when he was filming The Dark Knight and playing the Joker, that it was the first time in his career he’d had to enact someone without any good qualities at all — and Deirdre Lovejoy as Barzee. I felt sorry for her because Barzee was easily the most complicated character in the story — when I watched The Elizabeth Smart Story I called her “the mother of all co-dependents” and a less didactically oriented script, with less involvement from the subject, might have actually given Lovejoy more to work with in creating a character and getting us to feel sorry for the woman while at the same time understanding that what she did was wrong. As it is, the only times Lovejoy got to shine were the rare instances in which Tory Walker depicted her arguing with Mitchell and questioning whether a man into drinking and porn was really the Second Coming of Christ. 

There are some nice ironies in I Am Elizabeth Smart, including a scene relatively early on in her captivity in which Mitchell forces Smart to drink wine — even though she’s not only just 15 years old but had taken the usual Mormon pledge never to consume alcohol — and of course she hates it but later realizes that drinking at least makes her captive existence slightly less miserable. For the most part, though, this is a pretty white-bread treatment of a story that potentially offers a lot more complexity than we’ve been allowed to see in depictions controlled either by Elizabeth Smart’s parents or by the woman herself. And what still amazes me about the story — as it did back when it was happening — is that nothing in Elizabeth Smart’s ordeal caused either her or her family to have so much as one jot of doubt about their Mormon faith even though Brian David Mitchell’s religion wasn’t as “made-up” as Smart describes it in her narration: it was a dark extrapolation of some of the nastier sides of Mormonism as practiced, especially in the early days before the church officially gave up polygamy in 1890 because the U.S. government was about to send in an army and occupy Utah if they hadn’t. One could argue that the beliefs of Mitchell, or of Rulon and Warren Jeffs, or any number of other oddball self-styled “Fundamentalist Mormon” groups (including some, like Ervil LeBaron’s cult, the one Pete Earley described in his book Prophet of Death and another Jon Krakauer depicted in Under the Banner of Heaven, whose leaders descended to murder) are just as legitimate derivations of the teachings of Joseph Smith, Jr. than the white-bread mainstream Mormon Church headquartered in Salt Lake City. Maybe it’s my own questioning nature and my agnosticism that leads me to be skeptical of any religion’s claim to divine authority — I’ve long believed that if there is a God, His (or Her) nature is so far beyond our ability to comprehend that no one religion is likely to know more about it than any other — but I suspect I not only wonder why Elizabeth Smart’s experience didn’t lead her or her family to question the basic tenets of Mormonism but wish it had made them question them!



[1] — This is one of the big things about religious people that drives us atheists crazy: their insistence on crediting God with all the good things that happen in their lives and simultaneous refusal to blame him or even hold him responsible for the bad things that happen to them.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Deadly Delusion (Formula Films, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2017)

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

Last night I watched a worse-than-usual Lifetime movie called Deadly Delusion, though it was filmed under the working title The Lease. The gimmick this time around is that the heroine, Julia McNeil (Haylie Duff, who had a nice turn as the villainess in Napoleon Dynamite but since then seems to have been relegated mostly to TV work), has an unspecified mental illness that supposedly causes her to hallucinate and see people who aren’t there. She and her husband Shane (Mike Faiola), who’s so attractive I immediately assumed he was part of a plot to drive her crazy à la Gaslight since the usual iconography of Lifetime movies, with only very rare exceptions, is that any genuinely hunky guy in the cast is going to turn out to be the villain, have just moved out to Los Angeles where she has connections as a photographer and he has some unspecified job as an executive with a film company. (We see him at a film shoot hanging on as a director shoots a scene with two actors, a man and a woman, in a classic Ford Thunderbird — the car isn’t going anywhere but it’s posed in front of a green screen, so when the film is completed some stock footage of road travel can be put behind them and make it look as if the car is moving.) Among the perks they’ve got from this employment is a lease on a killer house, free shipping to bring Shane’s motorcycle out to L.A. and a blue Ferrari that’s Julia’s to use whenever she likes. Julia also has a long-distance relationship with her therapist, Dr. Leary (Teri Polo), who keeps switching her medications and telling her she’s going to get better but who, until the very end of the film, never appears as a live character — all we see of her is an image on Skype, through which she conducts her “sessions” with Julia. 

The moment we met her and she was a totally different physical “type” from Julia — a short-haired blonde instead of a stringy long-haired brunette, dressed in tailored pantsuits instead of the casual shirts and jeans that seem to be Julia’s entire wardrobe — I immediately concluded that she and Shane were having an affair and were in a plot to drive Julia to commit suicide so they could be together, but the truth turns out to be more complicated and far-fetched than that. Instead of the Gaslight ripoff I was expecting, it turns out to be a ripoff of Paul Bartel’s little-known but marvelous 1966 short The Secret Cinema, in which the conceit is that a woman is being put through various trials and tribulations by people she thinks are just friends, bosses, lovers and whatnot, but who are really actors hired to make her life miserable so that a film director and camera crew can secretly film her and edit the results into a 24-part series that has become a sensation — unbeknownst to Our Heroine, who until she stumbles into a theatre that is showing the latest episode is totally unaware that she’s the star of a secret movie that’s supposed to end with her death. (At the end the director tells his latest assistant, a woman, that he has big plans for her, and when she says, “Do I get to direct?,” he says he has something else in mind — to make her the star of his next “Secret Cinema” production.) Bartel’s short seems to have been one of those movies that’s been highly influential even though few people have actually seen it; the makers of The Truman Show and other movies about people who aren’t aware that their lives are being secretly filmed were clearly influenced by it, and the rise of the Internet has made the concept more believable because, while it would be hard to conceal a theatrically released movie from its “secret” star, it’s easy to imagine that there would be people all over the world (in this one we meet customers from Montenegro, Dubai and Miami Beach) willing to pay large sums of money to a proprietor of a “dark Web” site who promised them they’d get to see a woman die. As the film progresses Julia realizes that the realty office from which she and Shane leased the house is just a front for something more sinister, and that their security installation has her whole house wired for cameras so she can be telecast wherever she is and whatever she’s doing in the house, including making love with Shane (a nice bit of the soft-core porn that used to be far more abundant in Lifetime movies than it is now, alas). 

She suspects Robert Turner (Louis Mandylor), the smarmy realtor who got them the lease in the first place, of arranging the surveillance, and her friend Annie (Melissa Mars) of being Shane’s paramour, but the plot finally turns out to be far more extensive than even she has dreamed: the realtor is in on it and so is a character identified on imdb.com only as “The Director” (Stephen Brown), whom we first met on the set of the movie Shane visited with the two actors in the T-Bird in front of a green screen but who’s also the director of the secret Dark Web streaming series that’s supposed to end with Julia being killed by a professional hit man who’s supposed to break into her home and assassinate her live — and whom she’d previously seen years before, just before her parents died of carbon monoxide poisoning in their home (she barely escaped and the deaths were ruled accidental, but writer Jake Cashill is definitely hinting that the Big Bad Conspiracy offed them, too). Using a gun Annie gave her, Julia shoots her would-be assassin, only Shane takes the gun away from her and it turns out he’s part of the plot, too (I knew it!); he boasts that he’s been in several of the group’s previous productions under different names and identities — and at the end Julia gets the gun back (or finds another one, it’s not all that clear) and shoots and kills Shane. She’s then put in a psychiatric hospital for a month and, as she’s being released, she’s met not only by her therapist Dr. Leary but also by a nice-looking young man who offers to drive her back to her original home town — and the final close-up is of a sinister smile on Dr. Leary’s face, indicating that she too is in on the plot and the nice young man is her Plan B and is there to disarm, seduce and romance Julia into another life-threatening relationship so the Conspiracy can deliver Julia’s death, as promised to their customers. I don’t like thrillers with such nihilistic endings and the whole idea that Our Heroine could be victimized by such an extensive criminal enterprise encompassing virtually everyone she knows is more than a bit hard to swallow, but what really does in Deadly Delusion is the sense that we’ve seen it all before — even the nihilism and the refusal of the filmmakers, writer Cashill and director Nadeem Soumah (who, like a lot of his predecessors on Lifetime movies, has a real flair for Gothic atmosphere and suspense but is at the mercy of a silly script), to give us anyone in the dramatis personae we can actually like is all too common in modern-day filmmaking.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Big Easy (Kings Road Entertainment/Columbia Pictures, 1986)

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

Last night Charles and I watched the other movie on the 30-year-old VHS tape I’d just transferred to DVD from the long-ago days when John Gabrish and I had HBO: The Big Easy, the 1986 film that is almost unclassifiable: a drama about endemic police corruption in New Orleans that’s also a comedy and a sex film. It’s contributed its name to the common lexicon, not only as a nickname for New Orleans but as a term for any environment for which a certain level of corruption has become just the accepted order of the day, and anyone who tries to blow the whistle on it is going to be in bi-i-i-i-ig trouble. (One can see this in the Trump administration today, in which two of the people he’s currently maddest at, attorney general Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III — I like to use his full name because he’s a living Confederate war memorial — and former campaign manager and strategy chair Steve Bannon, have angered him because of the one bit of conscience they’ve shown: Sessions in recusing himself from the investigation of alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign and Bannon in calling the June 2016 “Miss V from Moscow” meeting between Russian attorney Natalya Veselnitskaya and Trump’s son, son-in-law and then-campaign manager “treasonous.”) 

The plot deals with a series of murders that rocks New Orleans’ drug trade and seemingly involves Mafiosi (or “wiseguys,” as they’re called by the cops who want to make sure no one thinks that New Orleans actually has a branch of the Mafia), Mexican smugglers, Black gangsters (the great soul singer Solomon Burke has a marvelous cameo as the head of the Black gangs in New Orleans, “Daddy Mention”), and — it’s hinted throughout the movie but not firmly established until about halfway through, corrupt cops. The lead characters are police lieutenant Remy McSwain (a young and surprisingly sexy Dennis Quaid — he later made Great Balls of Fire!, a biopic of Jerry Lee Lewis, but judging from his looks here a biopic of Elvis would have been better casting), a cop who gets his share of the proceeds from the institutionalized corruption but is also genuinely concerned about putting at least some of the bad guys — the ones that can’t bribe or sabotage their way out of the charges against them — away. He’s confronted by an assistant district attorney named Anne Osborne (Ellen Barkin) who’s been brought in by the feds to investigate New Orleans’ police corruption, and gets an office in the same station house McSwain operates from. Remy tries to neutralize the threat Anne poses to him by seducing her, and he persuades her to go out on a date with him at Tipitina’s (the famous — and real — New Orleans restaurant named after Professor Longhair’s great song, which is actually heard on the soundtrack — the performance is credited to “Professor Longhair” but the songwriting credit is to his real name, Henry Roeland Byrd), where the waiter solemnly informs him — much to Anne’s disgust — that “your money is no good here” (i.e, that one of the perks of being on the NOPD is being comped at places like that). Anne insists that if Remy doesn’t fork over money for their meal and drinks, she will — and ultimately he does so. 

Then he gets a call to see a strip club owner about collecting for the “Widows’ and Orphans’ Fund” — the 1930’s-ish cover for the outright bribes owners of legally chancy businesses like strip clubs pay the NOPD to stay open. The owner pleads with Remy to make it easy on him by giving him only one officer he needs to pay bribes to in order to stay open, instead of being hit on by cops from various squads. Remy agrees to be the one person who’ll take his bribe money and receives an envelope with eight $50 bills in it — only it’s a trap: Anne Osborne (whom we’ve previously seen him giving head to, though they were interrupted by a phone call about a triple murder before they could actually complete the sex act) and a Federal agent are there, they arrest Remy and put him on trial. They tell him they have a videotape of him accepting the bribe and then, when he realized he was being caught in a sting, throwing the bills out so the bar patrons would grab them and eating the envelope they had come in, thereby destroying the evidence. When he’s put on trial he testifies and Anne, who’s handling the prosecution herself, announces that the next day the state will show a videotape that shows Remy accepting the bribe and then destroying evidence by eating the envelope. What’s a casually corrupt but basically decent officer to do? In the next scene we see Remy, wearing a preposterous makeup — including a bushy-haired wig and a false moustache — that ought to have got at least a nomination for Worst Movie Disguises of All Time. He buys a super-powerful magnet and throws it through the window of a bank, and at first it’s not clear what he’s up to but eventually it turns out he did it so the magnet would end up in the police evidence room, and one of his confederates on the force puts it next to the videotape, erasing it. (One wonders why Anne didn’t have a backup copy made.) 

The next day, in court, Anne has to admit that something has gone wrong, their key piece of evidence has been destroyed, and therefore she has no alternative but to move that the case be dismissed, so Remy gets reinstated to the police force and returns to investigating the spate of drug-related murders that have been plaguing his district. (The judge in the courtroom sequence is not only named “Jim Garrison” but is played by the real Jim Garrison, who in 1967 started an investigation into the conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy; he ultimately indicted Clay Shaw, a New Orleans businessperson who in his private life was into S/M, and lost the case when the jury decided they’d proven to their satisfaction that a conspiracy existed but not that Shaw was part of it. Garrison survived his 1969 re-election bid but was then defeated in 1973 by Harry Connick, Sr., whose son Harry Connick, Jr. would become a popular singer of jazz songs and standards — and would briefly play an assistant district attorney on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.) But the experience has chastened Remy enough that he decides he no longer wants any part of the proceeds from the “Widows’ and Orphans’ Fund” — “The widows and orphans can do without me,” he laconically says — and when his brother Bobby (Tom O’Brien, who doesn’t have Quaid’s beautiful face but has a hotter bod which we get to see a lot of shirtless — yum) is shot by the bad guys (just like in a 1930’s movie, though in the 1930’s it was as likely to be a reluctant female witness’s sister who got shot and convinced the survivor to talk as it was to be the brother of a dirty cop), and this convinces Remy that the killers are cops — especially when he recognizes the car the shooter gets away in as one of the impounded cars cops use on undercover assignments. 

Remy’s new-found conscience is complicated by the fact that virtually his entire family has been New Orleans cops (they ironically refer to one cousin who became a firefighter instead as “the black sheep of the family”) — and, like him before he was nearly convicted and his brother was nearly killed, they were basically decent cops but helped themselves to their share of the dirty money. It turns out that the mastermind of the plot to steal 28 kilos of Mexican heroin and kill everyone else with any claim to it — the Mexicans who smuggled it into “The Big Easy” in the first place, the Mafia and the Blacks — is veteran NOPD officer Jack Kellom (Ned Beatty), who was about to retire and marry Remy’s widowed mother (Grace Zabriskie) but wanted more money to live the rest of his life than what was available on his NOPD pension. His main enforcers were two other cops on Remy’s squad, Detective André DeSoto (John Goodman — and yes, seeing the man whose most famous credit is as Roseanne Barr’s hapless husband on her legendary sitcom playing a black-hearted villain is a shocker) and Ed Dodge (Ebbe Roe Smith), who when he isn’t killing people is so obstreperously fiddling around with his bad toupée (did he get it from the same store where Remy got the bushy-haired wig he wore in his disguise?), and there’s an exciting final shootout on a boat between the two killer cops on one side and Remy and Anne, who in the tradition of post-Princess Leia movie heroines actually gets to wield a gun and show she knows what to do with it, which ends with an explosion that blows up the bad guys and the drugs. 

The film ends with a charming sequence of Remy and Anne, just married, dancing to a zydeco song (though the British cut includes the scene of Remy proposing to her between the explosion and the ending) as the final credits roll over them. In fact, zydeco and other bits of New Orleans funk punctuate virtually the entire movie; though Brad Fiedel gets a credit for scoring the film about the only time conventional movie background music is heard is towards the start of the shootout at the end. The rest of it is accompanied by the good-time R&B of the “second wave” of New Orleans musicians, the ones who occupied Cosimo Matassa’s studio and formed his band (one of the three greatest studio groups of the era, along with the Funk Brothers that backed the Motown artists in Detroit and the Wrecking Crew from L.A. — Fats Domino made all his records at Cosimo’s studio with this great band, which makes sense because he was a New Orleanian; but Little Richard also insisted on making his records there even though he was from Macon, Georgia and his record label, Specialty, was based in L.A. — and the way these players were able to adapt and back both Domino’s fat, rolling piano chords and Richard’s jabbing triplets was a testament to their skill and versatility), and the local zydeco musicians who came into prominence after that. Among the zydeco players we see are Terrence Simien and the Mallet Playboys, who play the house band at Tipitina’s, as well as another group that play a party at the McSwaim home to which Remy has Anne literally kidnapped while she’s jogging — and which she leaves in a cab, indignant at her treatment by Remy and his clan.  

The Big Easy could easily have been a neo-noir exercise in grimness and darkness, but that seemed to have been the farthest thing from the minds of director Jim McBride and his co-writers, Daniel Petrie, Jr. (son of the director of some almost painfully earnest social-problem films in the 1960’s — Petrie, Sr.’s best credit is the adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which seemed to get dragged out during my high-school days every time there was racial tension, but which is a movie I quite like if only because it gave Sidney Poitier a rare opportunity to play an unsympathetic character, and he rose to the challenge magnificently) and Jack Baran, couldn’t have been less interested in neo-noir. Instead they were going after the look and feel of The Thin Man and the other movies of the 1930’s (including a particular favorite of mine, Stephen Roberts’ The Ex-Mrs. Bradford from 1936, in which Thin Man star William Powell and Jean Arthur play a divorced couple who investigate a murder together and reconcile as a result), which played for comedy even though they involved murder and other nasty sorts of crime. The Big Easy is an easygoing thriller, dark when it needs to be but mostly a rollicking action piece with an overlay of sexual politics; the sort of dark humor on which this film was based is summed up in the names of the two boats in the final sequence, the Faux Pas (French for “mistake”) and La Mordida (Mexican slang for the routine corruption their country’s cops routinely expect from illegal enterprises in exchange for leaving them alone). According to imdb.com, McBride’s use of fast-paced dialogue was inspired by the films of Howard Hawks — and there’s a lot of Hawks influence here, not only in the mix of crime thriller and screwball comedy but in the character of Anne Osborne, who’s just as butch as Remy and willing at any point to take him on “man to man.”  

The Big Easy was a film I liked when it was new and I still do; it’s one of those movies that manages to take advantage of the greater sexual freedom of the post-Code era (it was rated R) while still keeping some of the sophisticated thrill movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s had to have to imply what the directors and writers dared not come out and say. The Big Easy is also remarkable for its bright, highly saturated colors — the overall atmosphere “sells” New Orleans as a really fun place to visit, which is probably why the New Orleans Film Commission green-lighted it for a tax subsidy and permission to film at some of the city’s iconic locations and didn’t seem to look askance at the way it depicted the Big Easy as a den of corruption (though, according to imdb.com, several Film Commission members were indicted in a kickback scandal shortly after the film was finished — talk about life imitating art!) — and its morally complicated characters; like Richard Widmark’s role in Don Siegel’s 1968 thriller Madigan (the far superior prototype for Eddie Murphy’s ghastly vehicle Beverly Hills Cop — or, as John Gabrisn and I called it, Beverly Hills Crap), Remy is “on the take” in small ways but that doesn’t stop him from genuinely caring about seeing that a rough sort of justice is done on the streets of New Orleans and the bad guys he can get successfully arrested and prosecuted are taken off them. Dennis Quaid plays this character brilliantly, and Ellen Barkin meets him all the way, especially in the way she’s torn between her physical attraction to Remy, her genuine respect for him as a cop and her hatred of the system that has at least partially corrupted him. Characterizations this sophisticated are a rarity in any movie and quite welcome whenever they appear!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Goosebumps (Columbia Pictures, Sony Animation, Expedition Films, LStar Capital, 2015)

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

Charles and I watched one of the most delightful recent movies I’ve seen lately: Goosebumps, a 2015 production directed by Rob Letterman based on a story by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the duo who wrote the film Ed Wood) worked into a screenplay by Darren Lemke. Goosebumps began as a seemingly endless series of young-adult horror novels by Robert Lawrence Stine, who signed them with his initials — R. L. Stine — and who cranked out so many of them (25 in the Goosebumps series, plus 42 in the Give Yourself Goosebumps series and eight more in a series called Give Yourself Goosebumps Special Edition — and that’s only a fraction of his total output) they ironically posed a problem for potential movie adapters: which Goosebumps story do you film? The solution Messrs. Alexander, Karaszewski, Lemke and Letterman hit on was to make it metafictional, work R. L. Stine into the story as a key character (played by Jack Black) and create a fictional device that would allow them to use all of the monster characters from the Goosebumps novels — or at least all the ones they wanted — in the film. A widow named Gale (Amy Ryan) moves herself and her son Zach (Dylan Minnette, one of those actors who isn’t drop-dead gorgeous but is cute and easy on the eyes) to the small town of Madison, Delaware. She’s got a job as assistant principal of Madison High School and she insists on driving her high-school-age son to school his first day and even using her car’s automatic door locks to ensure he can’t leave the car before she does. (Eventually she relents and gives him one minute on his own — which she counts down.) Gale has a crazy sister, Lorraine (Jillian Bell), depicted as an aging hippie who didn’t get the memo that the 1960’s were over, who also turns up in town. for its first half-hour or so Goosebumps looks like a pretty standard-issue alienated high-school student movie and one might wonder what its connection was to a series of cheap young-adult horror novels (which, at the series’ height in the 1990’s, were so ubiquitous you could barely get into a supermarket check-out line without tripping over a display of them). It turns out that Gale and Zach have a mysterious next-door neighbor who has surrounded his house with a fence and issues Zach a strong warning that he is never to cross the fence, and especially that his not to attempt to see or date his daughter Hannah (a nicely wistful performance by Odeya Rush) … or else.

The neighbor is, of course, Goosebumps author R. L. Stine, and the gimmick that kicks off the movie is that the monsters depicted in the Goosebumps books are real, and only by putting locks on his bound original manuscripts and keeping them in his home has Stine kept the monsters from escaping and wreaking havoc on Madison (and, presumably, the rest of the world after that). Of course, the inevitable happens: Zach and Champ (Ryan Lee) — the name is short for “Champion” and of course is the object of derision from other students (“Who has a name like ‘Champ’?” one of them asks — though I can think of at least one prominent person named Champ: Champ Clark, who in 1912 was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and Woodrow Wilson’s principal rival for the Democratic nomination for President that year — Charles guessed that Champ’s first name was short for “Champlain” but it was really an abbreviation of his middle name: his full name was James Beauchamp Clark) — sneak into Stine’s home, grab one of the manuscripts from his shelf and open it. Immediately the monster trapped inside it, the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena (the fact that the existence of the abominable snowman is attributed to snowless Pasadena is an example of the camp spirit behind Stine’s books), escapes and knocks all the other books to the floor, opening one and releasing a particularly nasty ventriloquist’s dummy who becomes the film’s principal villain. He releases all the other monsters from their books and burns the manuscripts so they can’t be trapped in them again, and for the film’s remaining hour the monsters — including such ripoffs from 1950’s films as a blob and a giant-sized praying mantis, as well as a series of malevolent little china elves and various other picturesque menaces — rampage through Madison while Our Heroes figure out how to stop them. It seems the only way the rampage will end is if they can prevail on R. L. Stine to write a new Goosebumps book in which they all die, whereupon they will instantly be summoned back into the manuscript and get locked up in it again.

At first Zach offers to set Stine up on a computer, but Stine protests that the magic will work only if he writes his new novel on the same old Smith-Corona typewriter on which he wrote originally — which is in a display case at Madison High School. Stine eventually more or less finishes the book — though Zach has to type the last few pages to Stine’s dictation after one of the monsters breaks Stine’s fingers — and the climax takes place on a Ferris wheel in an abandoned amusement park (abandoned before it was even finished because the developers ran out of money, though the place is still lit so someone is paying its electric bill). The Ferris wheel was set up early in the action when, on one of their early dates, Hannah had Zach climb up it and sit in a car high above the city even though the only way they can get down is to climb back down the way they came up. (The director and writers have a panicked Zach ask, “How are we going to get back down?” Then director Letterman does a jump-cut to them both walking normally on the ground again, without showing us how they did get down.) In the climax, the Ferris wheel goes off its moorings and starts revolving through town with its reluctant passengers still aboard, and it ends after Stine finishes the manuscript and the monsters get sucked back into it (“That book should be buried under a ton of concrete!” said Charles, to which I replied, “What? And blow the possibility of a sequel?”) with R. L. Stine hired by Madison High School as a substitute English teacher. In a nice in-joke he greets “Mr. Black, the new drama teacher” in the school’s hallway — Stine is played by Jack Black and Mr. Black, in a cameo, by the real R. L. Stine — before showing up in class and beginning his lecture: “There are three elements to every story: the beginning, the middle, and … the twist.” Our screenwriters then duly deliver the twist when Stine’s typewriter starts typing, apparently by itself, and a voice announces that there is one Goosebumps monster, the Invisible Boy, who’s still alive because Stine forgot to write him into the last novel.

There’s also a marvelous plot device in which it turns out that Hannah doesn’t really exist — Stine wrote her and thereby conjured her into existence because without someone to love, he was lonely — and Zach has a crisis of conscience at the last minute because closing the book on the monsters will mean closing the book on his girlfriend and making her cease to exist as well — until, in yet another twist (the ending has more twists than a Red Vine!), Stine reveals that he wrote Hannah in a separate book and therefore brings her to life again. Goosebumps is an absolutely marvelous film, to my mind the most literate and genuinely funny horror-comedy since the original Ghostbusters (also a Columbia production, but made before Sony bought the company), to which it owes quite a lot — as it does to The Blob and Night of the Living Dead (Charles noted the deliberate parallel of having a Black man barricade the door when the monsters attack the high school in the middle of a big student dance). Combining horror and comedy would seem like a genre-bending natural, but there have been awfully few great ones: The Bride of Frankenstein from 1935 (and the spoof of it, Young Frankenstein, from 1974), the Bob Hope-Paulette Goddard Ghost Breakers from 1940, maybe a few of the Abbott and Costello “monster” films, the original Ghostbusters … and now Goosebumps, which is essentially the Stranger than Fiction concept applied to spoofing horror and, while not quite on the level of Stranger than Fiction (when I reviewed that movie for imdb.com my headline read, “Who would have thought Will Ferrell would be in a masterpiece?”), Goosebumps is screamingly funny and the monsters, realized mostly with CGI (Sony Animation is listed as a co-producing company with Columbia Pictures), are kept campily scary rather than truly frightening — which is how this film got a PG rating instead of the PG-13 most horror films aimed at the teenage audience get.

Monday, January 8, 2018

75th Annual Golden Globe Awards (Hollywood Foreign Press Association, NBC-TV, aired January 7, 2018)

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

We got home at 3:40 p.m., well in time for the advertised 4 p.m. start time for the Golden Globe Awards (thank goodness the Internet revolution has moved at least some of the awards show telecasts are finally being aired on the West Coast in real time, instead of on tape-delays that only remind us that the East Coast-centric media establishment always wants to make us West Coasters suck hind tit), though that was just the start of the interminable pre-awards show. The Golden Globes were the first major Hollywood awards telecast to take place after “the moment,” the welcome awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in Hollywood and the media that has produced some really bizarre results. Thanks to the efforts of online campaigns like #MeToo and Time’s Up (the latter was giving out pins for the male attendees to wear to show their solidarity with women speaking up against their own victimization by powerful men, and the campaign’s organizers ran out of them), women are finally getting the pervasiveness of the problem exposed — and as the example of Kevin Spacey and the recent telecast on Lifetime of the TV movie A Tale of Two Coreys (in which Corey Feldman and Corey Haim are depicted as rape victims and their descent into major drug habits are shown as delayed PTSD responses to having been molested by the men in the industry who were supposed to be protecting them), this isn’t a problem just women have to deal with. The anti-harassment groups called for everyone to wear black to the ceremony, and virtually all the attendees did — which gave the proceedings the appearance of a funeral, even if some of the women had costume jewelry studding their black gowns.

The high point of the evening for me was the Cecil B. DeMille Award to Oprah Winfrey, who gave a long and occasionally rambling speech but one which framed the whole issue of sexual harassment in a broader context of equality and respect for human rights. There were far fewer jabs at President Trump this year than last — maybe out of a consciousness that Hollywood has to get its own house in order before they start throwing political stones at the Right again — and most of the ones that were implied the message rather than actually stating it the way Meryl Streep did the year before. There was probably an implied statement from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in their choices for the two Best Picture winners: the Drama winner (announced by Barbra Streisand, who mentioned that she won the Golden Globe for Best Director in 1984 — and there hasn’t been a woman winner since, though the Globes at least deserve credit for giving a woman Best Director a quarter-century before the Oscars did!) was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, based on a true story about a mother (played by Frances McDormand in one of her few projects not also involving her husband, Joel Coen) in the titular small town who took out three giant billboard ads criticizing the local sheriff and law enforcement in general for not working hard enough to find the man who raped and murdered her daughter; and the Comedy or Musical winner was Lady Bird, written and directed by a woman (Greta Gerwig) about a teenager in Sacramento in the early 2000’s who yearns for a career in the creative arts and a better and more cosmopolitan life than that offered to a girl from “the wrong side of the tracks” in that environment. (Alas, Gerwig wasn’t even nominated for best director: all the nominees were men, and white men at that.) The Golden Globes can be frustrating in that not only have Charles and I not seen any of these movies (I think it’s been over a year since we went to a traditional movie theatre at all), but many of them are still in limited release and therefore we couldn’t see them even if we wanted to, while a lot of the nominated TV shows aren’t on traditional broadcast or cable outlets but on “streaming” services like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime, which we don’t subscribe to (we’re spending way too much money on television as it is!) and are based on both a technology and a business model that totally appall me — the business model being, “We’ll make you pay through the nose for one or two shows of real quality, and to get them you have to take the rest of our garbage.”