Monday, March 30, 2009

Pursuit (MGM, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Pursuit is a truly remarkable 1935 MGM “B” (I know Louis B. Mayer frowned on designating any MGM production a “B,” but with a 61-minute running time, a cast high in acting skills but low on star power, some cheesy stock music and no one billed above the title, what else would you call it?) that’s one of those movies that blended so many of the clichés together in such a unique and original way that it achieved a kind of unwitting surrealism and a genuine charm. The TCM schedule description of Pursuit — “The reward in a kidnapping case attracts a variety of desperate characters” — and the presence of Chester Morris and Sally Eilers in the leads made the film seem like a gripping, intense gangster melodrama; instead it’s, more than anything else, a comedy — at least a lot of it evokes laughter, and clearly that was the result intended by director Edwin L, Marin and writer Wells Root (adapting a magazine story by one Lawrence G. Blochman called “Wild Goose, Golden Goose,” later revised and republished as “Gallant Highways”).

Morris plays Mitchell, an out-of-work aviator whose plane has been repossessed. He’s hired by private detective Nick Shawn (C. Henry Gordon) to fly Donald McCoy (Scotty Beckett, who like virtually all of the movie kids of the 1930’s — whatever their gender — comes off as a saccharine Shirley Temple wanna-be) to Mexico to keep him safe from relatives of his rich, now-dead father, who want to grab him away from his mom (Dorothy Peterson), a former actress, and raise him themselves. Mom is offering a $4,000 reward to keep her son out of the clutches of his dad’s family, and Mitchell and another of Shawn’s operatives, Maxine Bush (Sally Eilers), agree to the flight — though Mitchell first demands proof that his client really is the boy’s mother (to make sure he’s not being lured into a kidnapping plot, which in 1935 — three years after the Lindbergh baby — was still a major concern to a lot of people), which he gets when the kid himself greets her affectionately. Alas, the kid accidentally starts the plane while he’s supposedly sitting in it waiting for the takeoff, it crashes, and Mitchell and Maxine have to drive.

Mitchell concocts a plot to hide their car under hay and transport it on the bed of a truck — ostensibly the truck is just transporting a load of hay — and when the police and the detectives for the family discover the truck, they can abandon it and drive the car instead. Only a police officer (Erville Anderson) who’s driving down the road eating an ice cream cone is run off the road by the truck, and he figures out much of the plot. Mitchell tries to abandon Maxine and she retaliates by reporting the car as stolen to the conveniently present cop, and when he tries to arrest Mitchell, Mitchell grabs the handcuffs and he and Maxine end up handcuffed together. (In case you were wondering, the makers of Pursuit did not rip off this gimmick from Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps — the two movies were actually in production at the same time, but on different hemispheres, and The 39 Steps wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1938, three years after Pursuit.)

They end up at an “auto court” (“auto courts” or “tourist cabins” were what motels were called in the 1930’s), where the film ventures into It Happened One Night territory as the two handcuffed hatebirds have to pose as newlyweds until Mitchell can separate them with a hacksaw he’s lifted from the tool racks in the gas station attached to the auto court. (Charles noted one vast difference between the 1930’s and today: when they drive up to the pumps to get gas, they don’t have to worry about how they can operate the pumps while handcuffed to each other — self-serve gas stations are a far more recent development.) Alas, they’re spotted again, this time by an obnoxiously nosy paperhanger named Tom Reynolds (Henry Travers, in a surprisingly Harry Langdon-esque performance not at all what you’d expect from an actor best known as the good scientist in The Invisible Man and the guardian angel in It’s a Wonderful Life — even though he’s so annoying through most of the film we half-expect Mitchell and Maxine to knock him off and send him to guardian angel-dom early). They escape from Reynolds by stealing a little girl’s dress from the auto court’s clothesline and dressing Donald in drag, figuring that the authorities and detectives will be looking for a little boy and not a little girl.

It gets even crazier when Mitchell learns that the family of Donald’s deceased dad is offering $20,000 for whoever takes the kid to them in San Francisco, and Mitchell is about to double-cross the kid when the boy runs away, Mitchell has to recapture him — and save him from drowning when the boy ends up hanging from the edge of a cliff and the tide slams both of them against the rocks below (these sequences were filmed on location at Laguna Beach). They finally get the kid to the Mexican border but still have to figure out a way to get across — their attempts to crawl through the barbed-wire fence are stopped by a Mexican mounted policeman with a typically stereotyped accent — and they ultimately get across by joining a Black traveling revival and disguising themselves in blackface (so Scotty Beckett is doing both a transgender and a transracial impersonation!) — while in the meantime it turns out that Nick Shawn, the man who hired them, planned to double-cross Donald’s mom for the big reward (well, he’s played by C. Henry Gordon — what did you expect?), but it all ends happily with the good guys evading both the authorities and Shawn’s goons (including one who’s just been released from a mental institution!), delivering the kid to his mother and falling in love themselves in the process.

Pursuit is the sort of movie that, had it been made a few years later by Preston Sturges at Paramount with a star cast (say, Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck), would have a reputation as one of his demented genre-bending masterpieces; as it is, it’s a surprisingly wonderful film, unpretentious and very, very funny in a sort of loopy way that wasn’t at all typical of most movie comedies of the day — it’s not laugh-a-minute slapstick or screwball but it is consistently amusing, and Chester Morris’s totally deadpan performance (he plays Mitchell the same way he played similar characters in serious movies of the time) and his clear chemistry with Eilers (who also acts with power and authority in a role that, according to the American Film Institute Catalog, was originally intended for Jean Arthur — just as Charles Butterworth was also announced for this movie, almost certainly in the part ultimately played by Henry Travers) just make it all that much funnier. A real gem from the studio era!

Lies He Told (Lifetime, 1997)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Lies He Told — the DVD cover depicted on the Web site gives the title as The Lies He Told, but both the film itself and the entry on it omit the definite article — is a pretty wild story (an opening disclaimer says it’s fictionalized but based on a true incident) dealing with Dave Bay (Gary Cole, top-billed), who picks up Alyson (Karen Sillas) at a Hallowe’en party at a bar and gets her to fall in love with him by claiming he’s part of a secret military unit with the U.S. government and he’s not allowed to tell her exactly what he does or where he does it. (I couldn’t help thinking of the old joke — “Well, I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”)

The part about the military is correct — he’s a member of an elite Air Force unit (they wear red berets instead of the famous green ones of the Army Special Forces) and he had personally been decorated by the President and the British prime minister — but just about everything else he tells Alyson about himself and his background is a lie. He says “Bay” is the name of his foster parents, who took him in after his real parents died (in fact “Bay” is his birth name and his mom, at least, is still alive and appears later in the story as an on-screen character) and that he’s never married because he has to be ready to go anywhere in the world on secret missions at a moment’s notice and he doesn’t want to leave a wife back home and have to worry about his future.

In fact, he’s already married to Cindy (Teddi Sindall), has two kids by her, and has been forced to ask his C.O. not to assign him any more overseas missions because when he went on them she worried about him. He proposes to Alyson without bothering to tell her he has a wife already, and it turns out the proposal is part of a sinister plot he’s worked out to fake his own death (he crashes his bicycle into a bridge and makes it look like he drowned in the creek below), assume a new identity as “Dave Haywood” (he tells Alyson that “Haywood” is his true birth name), and essentially mooch off her family (both her dad and her brother loan him money) while pretending to make a living buying fixer-upper houses and “flipping” them. (This was made in 1997, when the housing market still moved in normal up-and-down cycles instead of the big boom followed by the even bigger bust, and the cycles are part of the story.) He also keeps stringing her along, saying that he’s quit the service but is expecting a major amount of money in back pay with which he’ll pay off his debts to her relatives and their other creditors. In fact, he plans to use his military expertise to rob banks, which leaves him the problem of explaining to her why he’s being paid in cash and why the cash is wet (his escape route on his first bank job took him across a creek so he could lose the security dogs who were chasing him), and later on why he comes home with a bag full of Mexican gold pesos.

Lies He Told is one of those Lifetime movies where it’s hard to muster much sympathy for the heroine because she’s so stupid — he keeps telling her more and more outrageous lies and she keeps buying them all — and even the final confrontation is disappointing; instead of the suicidal shoot-out we’ve been expecting all movie he allows his former military colleagues to take him alive, and a closing credit announces that he was tried in a court-martial and sentenced to four to six years. (That was something of a surprise since I would have expected the civilian authorities to have jurisdiction.) Indeed, this one was a virtual compendium of everything silly and wrong about Lifetime movies, though at least we got lots of hot shots of Gary Cole with nothing on above the waist (as well as a few nice glimpses of his jeans-clad basket, notably an especially hot one as he walks away from the bike accident he faked to make himself seem dead), and that gave this one an aesthetic appeal if nothing else.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Milk (Focus Features/Universal, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I pulled out the film Milk, the 2008 biopic of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, directed by Gus Van Sant from a script by Dustin Lance Black and decidedly not based on Randy Shilts’ biography The Mayor of Castro Street — which has lingered in development hell for most of the two decades-plus since its publication — though since Black interviewed most of the people Shilts did, and they obviously told him substantially the same stories, the book (which I read ages ago but still remember a good deal of) and the film track pretty closely. I had major issues with this film even while it was still in production, and though Charles wanted to see it during the theatrical run I begged off for two reasons.

First, Harvey Milk was played by straight actor Sean Penn, and as much respect as I have for his talents (including two previous credits, The Assassination of Richard Nixon and the 2006 remake of All the King’s Men, that indicated he’d be as right for this part as any non-Gay actor would be), I really, really, really wanted to see the great Gay hero played by one of us. During one of the attempts to package The Mayor of Castro Street, when the Los Angeles Times announced that Robin Williams was going to play Milk, I wrote a letter to the editor — which they printed — saying that casting a straight actor as Milk would make about as much sense as casting a white actor as Martin Luther King. I didn’t want a Harvey Milk movie to be a star turn for a straight actor; I wanted it to be a star-making turn for a Gay one! When this project was announced and Sean Penn was mentioned as a star, I made the rather grim joke, “Well, maybe they consider him an honorary Gay man because he was married to Madonna.” (To make it even more ironic, Denis O’Hare, the actor playing California State Senator John Briggs — whose initiative to allow school districts to fire teachers for being Gay or supporting Gay rights was Milk’s main preoccupation during the last months of his life — is Gay, so we have a Gay actor playing a homophobe and a straight actor playing a Gay hero.)

The other reason I didn’t want to see this movie was that Gus Van Sant was directing, and while he actually is Gay, he’s not one of my favorite filmmakers. The first movie of his I saw was Drugstore Cowboy, which I absolutely loved, but most of his other films — particularly the pretentious My Own Private Idaho and the utterly atrocious (and deservedly forgotten) Gerry — have actively repelled me; in fact, if I were asked to make a list of what I thought were the 10 worst films of all time Gerry would definitely be on my list. So when I ordered the DVD of Milk from the Columbia House video club it was more because Charles wanted to see it than because I did, and when I got it out last night my thought was, “Well, we have to watch this sometime.”

As things turned out, Milk was better than my expectations but nowhere near as good as a film of Harvey Milk’s life deserved to be. The good thing about Gus Van Sant’s direction was that it was faceless and impersonal, a pretty straightforward job of handling a biopic — which given how appalled I’ve been by Van Sant’s “personal” films is actually a good thing. The director it really needed was Pedro Almodóvar, but not only has he not shown any inclination to come to the U.S. and make films in English but he’s probably not the first name on anyone’s short list of directors for a movie about American politics — though given what a fine job Fritz Lang did with an anti-lynching “message” film in Fury, his first U.S. film, an Almodóvar-directed Milk biopic is a fascinating movie to imagine, especially since he would have insisted that Duncan Lance Black broaden his script to include more of the sexual context in which Milk lived and thrived (more on that later).

The Milk we have is a pretty normal biopic, lionizing its subject and ignoring or shading his less attractive characteristics, and it’s also normal for a movie about American politics in focusing on the public rather than the private life of its hero. What really makes the film are the performances, not only Sean Penn’s as Milk — given my obsession verging on hatred for the very idea of a straight actor playing Milk, I must say that he got me to suspend my disbelief enough that for the two hours of the movie I really believed in Sean Penn as a Gay man — but also Josh Brolin’s as Dan White, Milk’s rival on the Board of Supervisors and eventually his killer. (This means that you get to see Barbra Streisand’s stepson kill Madonna’s ex-husband.) In a few short scenes, Brolin manages to create a carefully controlled picture of a decent guy who was driven to murder by changes, both political and personal, he simply couldn’t handle (and nothing in his Irish Catholic background prepared him to handle it — as a Gay Irish-American it’s a weird experience to watch a film in which I have something in common with both the hero and the villain!) — no wonder Oliver Stone wanted him to play George W. Bush in his political biopic!

As for Penn, though shorter than the real Milk, he nonetheless manages to suggest the gangliness of the real Milk, the sense that Milk gave in his public appearances that he was not quite in control of his own body — though, according to, he had major help in undergoing the physical transformation to make him look like Milk: “Sean Penn’s cosmetic transformation in the film included a prosthetic nose and teeth, contact lenses and a redesigned hairline. His makeup was done by Academy Award winner Stephan Dupuis.” Though Milk is a much better movie than the 2006 All the King’s Men, it’s clear that Penn’s experience making that film — also about a political outsider who wins office by taking on his state’s establishment and assembling a coalition of outsiders — helped him in making this one, though where the remake of All the King’s Men was unashamedly cynical about the very idea of making change through the political system (far more so than the 1949 original had been!), Milk is such an uplifting movie (despite the downer ending) that through much of it — especially when Black’s Milk (like the real one) is dropping the word “hope” about 20 times in every speech — Milk comes across like a Gay white prototype of Barack Obama, another tall, geeky-looking politician who won high office against all the odds.

Milk is the sort of movie that frustrates the viewer not because it’s bad — it’s a quite good movie within the limitations of Van Sant’s and Black’s approach to the subject — but because the life of Harvey Milk had the potential to be the basis for a far greater movie than this. Black decided to start his script in 1970, when Milk and Scott Smith (James Franco) cruise each other in the New York subway; within the space of one jump-cut they’ve moved in together and are seen in bed from the waist up, not doing anything but talking about how bored they are and they need a change. Within a few minutes of screen time they’re in San Francisco, renting a ratty apartment in the Castro and pondering what to do when Scott’s unemployment insurance runs out when Milk hits on the idea of renting the commercial space on the ground floor of their building and opening some sort of small business out of it, something that will keep them together and enable them to scrounge up some sort of living while not having to work too hard. They end up opening a camera and film developing shop — I can imagine the young audience, who’ve grown up in the days of digital photography, having no idea what film was, and I’m sorry they didn’t include the charming origin story of Castro Camera as told in Shilts’ book: someone else ruined a roll of film Milk and Smith had shot, and they decided they could develop film better than that.

The film flashes through Milk’s first three political campaigns, two for San Francisco Supervisor under the citywide elections system (San Francisco’s government is a combination city and county and therefore their equivalent of a city council is called the “Board of Supervisors”) and a Democratic primary for state assembly against machine candidate Art Agnos (which is when I met him for the one and only time: though I was living in the East Bay, I was working with a Left-wing political group headquartered in San Francisco and they asked me to be on a panel asking the candidates questions at a candidates’ night they were presenting), where he’s crushed. Along the way he meets Advocate publisher David Goodstein (Howard Rosenman) and his protégé, Rick Stokes (Stephen Spinella), who basically come off as Booker T. Washington and Robert Russa Moton to Milk’s W. E. B. DuBois: the acommodationists who want to work through friendly white/straight politicians versus the militants who want to elect their own.

Forty-five minutes into the movie Milk finally wins his supervisorial seat under the district-elections system enacted by San Francisco voters in 1977 (and quickly repealed again after Milk and Mayor George Moscone were killed), and from then on — once we’ve reached the part of Milk’s life Black was clearly most interested in — the events move in a whirlwind, as Milk takes his seat on the board, writes the city’s first Queer-rights law and cultivates Dan White, his rival on the board and a man drawn as representing the old Irish-Catholic working-class San Francisco and winning his board seat by talking about the breakdown in moral values and the takeover of the city by “special interests.” Milk wants the vote on the Queer-rights bill to be unanimous and White offers to vote for it if Milk will vote against granting a permit for a psychiatric hospital to be built in White’s district, and when Milk gets convinced by the idealists on his staff to vote for the hospital project, White never forgives him and Milk seals his own fate — though the film also shows Milk as the only one of the supervisors White invited to his son’s christening who actually accepted (and according to, the real adult Charles White is in the sequence) and Milk telling his aides he’s getting more and more scared of White because he’s become convinced that White is a latent homosexual and being in such close professional association with an “out” Gay man is bringing all that out in him to a dangerous degree.

While all this is going on in San Francisco, Anita Bryant is launching her infamous “Save Our Children” campaign in Miami and Queer-rights laws are losing by two to one in every city where our opponents can challenge them on the ballot (a salutary reminder to those — like me — who are afraid the American people will never vote to legalize same-sex marriage that there was a time we were equally convinced, and on just as solid evidence, that they would never vote to allow us basic anti-discrimination protections in civil-rights law either), and State Senator John Briggs (openly Gay actor Denis O’Hare, who actually does a great job conveying his character’s visceral distaste of homosexuality that goes way beyond its value to the Right as a political issue) puts his initiative on the ballot that would call for the firing of Queer and Queer-friendly teachers. With all the commentary this film has evoked because of the supposed similarity between the campaign on the Briggs Initiative, Proposition 6, in 1978 and the campaign on the same-sex marriage initiative, Proposition 8, in 2008, there’s one big difference that has virtually escaped attention even though it’s made very clear in the film itself: Proposition 6 was far ahead in the early polls (“We might even lose San Francisco,” Milk is told in an early scene in the film — and that fear of an overwhelming statewide defeat that would bury Queer rights for generations was very real; I remember it well!) and therefore the Queer community knew what it was up against and how it literally had to mobilize for its lives, while Proposition 8 was behind in the early polls, we were lulled into a false sense of security and it was the homo-haters who pulled off the great come-from-behind victory.

One parallel that does strike home comes in the scene in which Milk, summoned to a meeting with the big straight progressive Democratic bosses of California, sees a draft of an anti-6 flyer that presents it as an abstract “civil rights” issue and makes not one mention of Gays — and he pulls one of his spectacular drama-queen gestures and burns the draft flyer in the room’s fireplace, refusing (as we all too meekly agreed to do in the Proposition 8 campaign!) to step back in the closet and essentially become extras in our own struggle for rights. The plot threads come together in Milk’s active campaign against Proposition 6 and his public debates with Briggs — whose anti-Queer arguments sound chillingly familiar (these folks haven’t changed their script much since Bryant and Briggs, though they’ve had to retreat as we’ve slowly advanced from having to fight for our right to exist to having to fight to avoid discrimination to having to fight for official recognition of our relationships and the legal right to call them “marriages”) — and much of the commentary that linked this film to the Proposition 8 campaign has consisted of regret that there wasn’t a Harvey Milk in our community willing to stand up to the wimpy get-back-in-the-closets-and-let-straight-people-argue-for-your-rights strategy Equality California and their consultants cooked up for the No on 8 campaign. (On April 2, Delores Jacobs, executive director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center in San Diego, will host a town-hall meeting on the future of the same-sex marriage struggle in California, and a lot of the Equality Whatever types will be there — which strikes me as about the same as organizing a “How to Survive the Recession” financial-planning seminar and inviting the former AIG executives to lead it.)

The film quickly moves from the triumph of the Briggs defeat to the tragedy of the dual assassination of Moscone (who becomes in this film, as he was in White’s trial, the forgotten victim — his assassination is not depicted on screen but Milk’s is, though there isn’t a trace of the expression that flashed across Milk’s face before he died that White later cited in saying he killed Milk because “he smirked at me”), and it ends on the candlelight vigil that took place on the night of the murders, while only an American Graffiti-style “what happened later” series of titles mentions that White got off on a diminished-capacity defense and was sentenced to only seven years (and got out in five) for a double murder, or the “White Night” riots that took place thereafter.

Milk is a good film (not a great one) as it stands but it could have been a good deal better if they’d seized on more of the opportunities Milk’s life offered for dramatization. I’d have liked to see more of the pre-San Francisco Milk, the young Republican (his first political involvement was campaigning for Barry Goldwater in 1964) stockbroker and man-on-the-make who earned enough money to attend the Metropolitan Opera regularly (Milk’s lifelong love of opera — and the culture clash between him and his young supporters over that — are shown in the movie, but without the background Milk’s opera fandom seems like a bizarre and inexplicable affectation) and was scared shitless that someone would find out he was Gay, he’d be fired and his high life would be over.

I’d also like to have seen more of the sexual ferment that gripped San Francisco in those 12 years between Gay Liberation and AIDS, in which Milk fully participated; the film depicts his breakup with Scott Smith as coming from Scott’s desire not to be a political “wife” any longer, and Milk’s bizarre, destructive affair with Jack Lira (Diego Luna), the whiny Latino hustler he picks up and lets move in with him, as more of a Gay version of a midlife crisis than anything else, with virtually all his friends in the movie telling him, “You can do better than that.” What the film avoids showing is that by 1978 Milk had decisively rejected monogamy (or, as my husband Charles would call it, monandry) as an appropriate model for Gay relationships and was himself an enthusiastic participant in the casual-sex culture of San Francisco — and he made no bones about it, either; the film suffers from the absence of any depiction of just how in-your-face Milk was not only about his sexual orientation but about his sex life, at one point telling one of his partners to tell people who asked, “No, Harvey doesn’t fuck me — I fuck Harvey,” and at another point telling one of his straight supporters, “You wouldn’t want to shake my hand — because you don’t know where it’s been!”

It’s evident that in avoiding such scenes Van Sant and Black were consciously sanitizing Harvey Milk, turning him from an apostle of free Gay love to a born-again monogamist (Black even wrote a cornball scene of Milk seeking out Smith and offering him a reconciliation just before he gets shot, a scene that was a movie cliché before Harvey Milk himself, let alone any of the filmmakers, was born!), a suitable Queer icon for an age in which AIDS (and particularly the widespread misconception that it’s a sexually transmitted disease caused by a single virus) has been interpreted in the common consensus as a biological judgment against a sexually open community lifestyle (an argument in which the Queers themselves begin to sound an awful lot like the radical Right in their arguments against “unprotected” — i.e., natural — sex between men) and the principal political demand of the Queer community has become the right to get married.

I wish the filmmakers would have honestly depicted the sexual Bacchanalia San Francisco was during the last few years of Milk’s lifetime — which is one reason I wish Almodóvar would have directed it (Gus Van Sant is simply not good enough a filmmaker to show scenes like that without making them overly sensational or disgusting — even if Black hadn’t sanitized the script of this film and instead had given him the chance) — and I also wish they would have worked into the Jonestown massacre into the script. Anyone who was living in San Francisco in 1978 (as I was) remembers the sense that the times were out of joint — the assassinations of Moscone and Milk hit a city that was just recovering from the catastrophe of Jonestown (and the two events were intimately connected because Jim Jones had been a strong political supporter of Moscone’s mayoral campaign, had ordered his People’s Temple members to canvass for Moscone, and had been rewarded with an appointment to head the city’s housing commission), much the way one would expect a film about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy to mention the killing of Martin Luther King two months earlier: the conjunction of Jonestown and the Moscone/Milk killings was a sort of double-whammy that made the later event even more traumatizing than it otherwise would have been and created that same swimming sense that the times were totally out of joint.

Making the sort of Harvey Milk movie I would have wanted to see would have taken a lot more guts than it did to make this one — not only a nervier director and an unknown Gay actor (instead of a well-known non-Gay one) in the lead, but a script that would have dared to confront the way the Queer community functioned in Milk’s time even though much of that would have been read as outrageously politically (and culturally, and sexually) incorrect by a 2008 audience — and it was hard enough for the people who made this one to get the greenlight for it, but one still gets the impression that the definitive movie about Harvey Milk has yet to be made.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Hellcats (Gemini American, 1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I picked the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of a 1967 biker-gang film called The Hellcats, which from the standpoint of physical production wasn’t at all bad: most of it was shot outdoors, which eliminated the need for most of the tacky sets that destroy the verisimilitude of similar cheapies with more interior scenes; the cast members, even if none of them could be called “actors” except in the most generic sense, were (mostly) attractive and at least looked believable as their characters (and one cast member, Tony Lorea as “Six Pack,” was heavy-set and not especially hot but did flash a quite promising basket); and the director, Robert F. Slatzer (who also appeared in the movie as a gangster called “Mr. Adrian”), actually had something of an eye — much of the film consists merely of people riding motorcycles through deserted back roads in desert locations, but at least he aimed the cameras in their general direction.

The basic problem with this one is a plot that makes utterly no sense even by the meager standards of “B” or sub-“B” filmmaking — it appears to have something to do with the murder of a cop, Detective David Chapman (Bro Beck), early on (he’s blown away in a parked car by a sniper while his girlfriend is nearby, and the similarity of this sequence to the assassination of John F. Kennedy really inspired the MST3K gang — they mentioned him having got the gun from a schoolbook warehouse in Texas and made two references to Abraham Zapruder), and the desire of Chapman’s brother (also a cop), Sergeant Monte Chapman (Ross Hagen, top-billed and sporting a hairdo that makes him look like the beta version of Rod Blagojevich — it’s a pity Blagojevich didn’t do his crash-and-burn act while Mystery Science Theatre 3000 was still on the air, since they would have had a field day lampooning him!), for revenge — and also for his brother’s girlfriend, Linda Martin (Dee Duffy).

Basically this is a three-way crime drama involving police, bikers (who are also drug dealers, though from the evidence in this movie they merely pass around packets of substance — no one actually seems to be using drugs in this film, even though one of the characters is identified in the credits as “Dea [Addict]”) and gangsters, looking like your standard stereotype movie Mafiosi wearing black wool suits (which must have been damned uncomfortable in the hot sun of the California desert) and black felt hats they pull over their foreheads in a vain attempt not to be recognized — only there’s not much clue as to who’s doing what to whom and the movie just lumbers along until it reaches the end of the running time. Yes, this is one of those films that doesn’t end — it just stops. Somewhere in the mix are some not-bad soft-rock songs, two each by the groups Davy Jones and the Dolphins (presumably not the Davy Jones who was in the Monkees) and Somebody’s Chyldren (continuing the tradition of deliberately misspelled band names begun by the Beatles and continued by the Monkees, the Byrds, Led Zeppelin, Def Leppard et al.), drowned out in this version by the MST3K comments — though for the most part the commentary was brilliant, especially the JFK references and the comment towards the beginning that the abstract background used for the credits was probably done by Jackson Pollock — after his (fatal) car crash.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Duplicity (Universal, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film we picked out was Duplicity, which I’d been alternately curious and skeptical about ever since I read a profile of its writer-director, Tony Gilroy, written by D. T. Max and published in the March 16 edition of The New Yorker. Gilroy had previously written and directed the film Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney as a sell-out corporate attorney who regains his conscience after realizing that his law firm is on the wrong side of a product-safety case, which I thought was a good movie but would have been even better if Gilroy hadn’t played so fast and loose with the time frame and given us information in the same cautious dribs-and-drabs way a chemist would use a pipette to add drops of chemicals into a solution to measure the result.

Duplicity is an even more confusing, less coherent movie that takes one particular thriller trope, the “reversal,” and runs with it. As D. T. Max explained in his New Yorker profile, “Gilroy told me, ‘A reversal is just anything that’s a surprise. It’s a way of keeping the audience interested.’ … Duplicity is so crammed with reversals that Stephen Schiff, a screenwriter who is a friend of Gilroy’s, says that the story ‘achieves a kind of meta quality’” — a polite way of saying that Duplicity is so totally built around reversals that essentially the reversals become the story.

Duplicity opens in Dubai in 2003, where at a party given by the U.S. Embassy to celebrate the Fourth of July American CIA agent Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts, top-billed and playing her first starring role since she dropped out of moviemaking five years ago to have two kids — her character name is Gilroy’s deliberate tribute to classic-era actress Barbara Stanwyck) and British MI6 agent Ray Koval (Clive Owen, looking so beautifully to the secret-agent manner born it seems a wonder why he instead of Daniel Craig wasn’t tapped as the latest James Bond) meet, hate each other at first sight and naturally, this being a movie, end up having sex. Only Claire waits until he’s fast asleep and slips out of their room the next morning carrying a manila envelope, presumably containing some priceless secret they were both after. They run into each other again in New York in 2008, after they’ve both quit government work and gone into corporate espionage, hiring themselves out to various companies that are either looking to steal valuable formulae for new products from their competitors or prevent their new products from being similarly stolen.

At first we’re led to believe that they haven’t seen each other since Dubai and can’t stand each other, but later we find that they met in 2006 in Rome and they’re actually plotting together as both lovers and partners in a sting to make a big-bucks sale of some particularly exciting corporate secret and earn a pile on which they can retire together. The film goes back and forth in time, cutting in flashbacks with a title explaining the new date and location and returning to the current action by having the screen image shrink photographically, then get joined by three other images in a split-screen effect, which in turn dissolves to a full-frame image of the “present” time frame. It’s a horrendously confusing movie, based around a MacGuffin (a formula for a shampoo that can restore hair to bald men) that itself turns out [spoiler alert!] to be an elaborate fake, concocted to fool the CEO of a rival company and the Roberts and Owen characters, who have signed on with him to steal it.

There are a lot of things wrong with Duplicity, including the fact that it’s one of those cynical modern movies which contains no characters we actually like — the leads are slimeballs and so are all the other people they’re up against — and the fact that just about everything in it had been done earlier and better by other filmmakers. Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest was the movie I kept thinking of as I watched this one — though North by Northwest has its own flaws (the naïveté of Cary Grant’s character is almost risible — even granted that he’s supposed to be playing an ordinary person who’s unwittingly stumbled into an espionage plot — and the exposition scene in which we’re told that the international super-spy Grant’s character has been mistaken for does not in fact exist is clunkily and jarringly spliced in), somehow Hitchcock and his writer, Ernest Lehman, were able within a straightforward linear storyline to put far more drama, suspense, subtlety and emotional power into this sort of story than Gilroy has here.

Hitchcock also had a better female star; Eva Marie Saint is superb in her portrayal of a woman literally caught between several worlds, whereas Julia Roberts here seems to be channeling Elizabeth Taylor. All too often she pulls that nasty trick Liz used to — staring straight at the camera and saying to herself, “Here I am! Ain’t I beautiful?” Roberts’ good looks have been strikingly well preserved, but she’s never particularly impressed me as an actress (the best performance I’ve seen her give is at the start of her career, in Mystic Pizza, where she had the advantages of youth, freshness and not having to carry the entire movie; in Pretty Woman she was good, but no better than any other actress of the right age and figure would have been; and Erin Brockovich was a Capra ripoff that either of Capra’s favorite actresses, Stanwyck and Jean Arthur, could have played better). Owen does better but, like his co-star, he’s at the mercy of a Gilroy script that doesn’t give him much of a motivation for anything he does and refuses to decide whether we’re supposed to think these people are lovable rogues or detestable crooks.

And North by Northwest isn’t the only other older, better movie Duplicity rips off; the scene in which the protagonists discover that the formula they stole was a fake seems so much like the ending of The Maltese Falcon I half expected Roberts to whine like Mary Astor, “But that is the formula I got from Kemidov! I swear it!” There’s also a gimmick in which a key conversation between the two leads is recorded and played back several times in the movie, each time in a different context from which we’re supposed to infer a different meaning, which seemed to impress D. T. Max no end (“By now, the audience has heard their key exchange several times. They might not be sure who is gaming whom, but it is increasingly clear that they mean something to each other”), from which I infer that Max has never seen Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, which pulled the same gimmick but with far more chilling and powerful results.

Duplicity so far has been a box-office disappointment, and the people who liked it are saying that’s because the modern-day movie audience can’t handle moral complexity — though maybe it’s just because what they don’t like isn’t moral complexity but storytelling confusion from a writer-director (should I trot out my old joke that the director, Tony Gilroy, is also the writer and therefore has no one to blame but himself?) who thinks he can impress his audience by perplexing the hell out of them.

Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer (20th Century-Fox/Marvel Entertainment, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and though it’s hardly a great movie it turned out to be quite entertaining, blessedly short (92 minutes, about all the running time its rather slender plot could sustain) and uninhibitedly fun in a way that superhero movies are supposed to be but the most recent Batman and Spider-Man films haven’t been. I could probably nit-pick this film to death for the rather odd casting of Ioan Gruffudd as Mr. Fantastic — from the comic books and the 1960’s Hanna-Barbera TV cartoons I had always thought of him as taller and more buff, and with a deeper and more butch voice (the young Harrison Ford would have been ideal) — the even odder appearance of Jessica Alba as a blonde and some of the dorky dialogue (writers Mark Frost, Don Payne and John Turman were obviously trying for Nick-and-Noraesque banter in the run-ins between Reed Richards, a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic, and his bride-to-be Sue Storm, a.k.a. the Invisible Woman — promoted from the “Invisible Girl” she was in the comics — but their sense of wit hardly matches that of the Thin Man series writers, real-life couple Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich).

But the film is well constructed and the writers maintain a light touch throughout — even if the gimmick of having the Richards-Storm wedding continually interrupted by one world-threatening emergency or another was done to death in the 1930’s Perry Mason and Bulldog Drummond movies before most of the personnel connected with this one were even born. Director Tim Story throws a few weird camera angles into the mix (notably an overhead shot of the Fantastic Four entering their headquarters, the Baxter Building, that looks like they’re going to be followed by a Busby Berkeley chorus executing a flawlessly rehearsed dance number) but mostly gets the job done, presenting the action effectively and avoiding the mind-numbing pretension Christopher Nolan and Sam Raimi have brought to their Batman and Spider-Man films, respectively.

Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer deals with the superhero quartet — Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, Michael Chiklis as the Thing (a former football player turned into something that resembles a heap of animate orange rocks — and the makeup, a prosthetic outfit created by Bart Mixon, is utterly convincing) and Chris Evans as the Human Torch (Sue’s hormone-driven younger brother Johnny, though frankly Evans would be more believable as Ioan Gruffudd’s brother than as Jessica Alba’s!), whose body turns into a fiery-orange sheet of flame and allows him to fly (the only one of the Fantastics who can under his own power) and shoot fireballs at the baddies — up against the Silver Surfer, a beautiful motion-capture creation built on the body of actor Doug Jones, but with Laurence Fishburne providing his voice and continuing the tradition of using deep-voiced African-Americans for these characters begun with James Earl Jones’ service as Darth Vader’s voice in Star Wars even though, as here, someone else was actually inside the costume on screen.

The Surfer turns out to be a malevolent version of John the Baptist, heralding the coming of Galactus, an inconceivably enormous monster who survives by eating entire planets that the Surfer scouts for him using electronic gizmos conceived inside his equally silver surfboard, on which he flies through both outer and inner space without the necessity of life support or any visible means of power supply. The Silver Surfer was introduced into the comic books as a villain, but the character proved so popular that Marvel made him a hero and gave him his own magazine, and something of that duality is tapped in the film as the writers make him a figure of real pathos, lamenting his separation from his girlfriend back home and conscience-stricken over the Faustian bargain he’s made with Galactus: he’ll scout other living worlds for this malevolent creature to destroy if Galactus will leave the Surfer’s home planet (including his girlfriend, whom Sue Storm naturally reminds him of) alone.

The film also features the Fantastic Four’s usual nemesis, Victor Von Doom a.k.a. Doctor Doom (Julian McMahon), who by the usual fiat of superhero-story writers managed to survive the cataclysm that destroyed him at the end of the first Fantastic Four movie in 2005 (two years earlier than this one) and gets called in by Reed Richards’ nemesis, General Hager (André Braugher), to help the good guys stop Galactus’s plot to eat the earth — only of course what Doom is really interested in is the Silver Surfer’s board, since he (like Richards) has figured out that that’s the source of his power. (In the comics Doom’s face had been eaten away by cosmic rays and that’s why he wore the metal mask; in the film his face looks normal and the mask is actually an iron hood that doesn’t seem to serve any purpose except to make its wearer acutely uncomfortable.) The effects people do an excellent job of duplicating the powers we dreamed about when we read the comic books — Mr. Fantastic’s infinitely pliable body looks rather fake but the other effects are completely believable — and the motion-capture system on the Surfer is good enough that even within the silver computer-generated mask and body suit Doug Jones’ face is quite expressive and beautiful.

Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer is everything a superhero movie should be, and everything the recent Batman and Spider-Man films haven’t been: lively, exciting and, above all, fun — even though part of me misses the old conceit that the heroes had to keep their civilian identities secret; here Reed Richards and Sue Storm are full-fledged members of the celebriati, their activities (including all their previous abortive attempts to marry each other) grist for the tabloids and TV talk shows, and their superhero alter egos are not only open secrets but not secrets at all, reported by Fox News personality Lauren Sanchez (a blatant piece of cross-promotion across the Murdoch empire; Twentieth Century-Fox distributed this movie and co-produced it with Marvel Entertainment) in a mild but still welcome bit of satire of modern celebrity culture.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Rendition (New Line Cinema, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was Rendition, a 2007 thriller based on the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” which meant the U.S. government essentially kidnapping potential terrorism suspects (or anyone else) and shipping them overseas, usually to Middle Eastern countries like Egypt or Syria, so the locals could torture them and presumably extract information. The practice of rendition was actually initiated by the Clinton administration but was, not surprisingly, expanded under Bush after 9/11 — and since Obama has already announced that it will continue under his administration (he’s gone on record as saying, “The U.S. doesn’t torture” — as did Bush, albeit under Donald Rumsfeld’s elastic definition that something had to threaten life or permanent bodily injury before it was considered “torture” — but, as with so much else, why should Americans have to torture people when they can so easily outsource it?).

The central character is Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian-born legal resident of the U.S. since age 14, who’s married to an American, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon, looking larger than we’re used to her and not just because she’s pregnant during virtually the entire film) and has a son, Jeremy (Aramis Knight) and a lucrative career as a chemical engineer. The film opens with an explosion in a city in “North Africa” (a made-up country so the filmmakers — director Gavin Hood and screenwriter Kelley Sane — wouldn’t be accused of trashing any actual North African country in their story, though it’s quite clear they mean Egypt) set off by a suicide bomber, and Anwar is nailed when the cell-phone number of the head of the terrorist organization that claimed responsibility and whisked off the plane on which he was flying home from a chemical industry conference in South Africa (a real country) to be held briefly in America by the CIA and then “rendered” to “North Africa” for torture.

The white knight role this sort of story requires is actually filled by two people. One is Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal, top-billed), a CIA analyst who was in the same car as the American State Department official who actually died in the terror blast — he’s shown with the man’s blood all over his shirt as he rather querulously asks a person on his staff to get him another — and who agrees to “advise” the “North African” police chief, Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor), on what questions to ask El-Ibrahimi. The man’s torture is shown in literally excruciating detail, particularly waterboarding (if anyone can watch this movie and still maintain that waterboarding is not torture, they deserve to be waterboarded themselves) and electric shock, and Anwar holds out for an unspecified period of several days until he finally cracks, agrees to confess to meeting with the terrorist leader and accepting $40.000 to give him advice on what chemicals to use to make his bombs more deadly, and is pressed to name the names of fellow terrorists. Not knowing the names of any real terrorists, Anwar ends up giving the authorities the names of the 1990 Egyptian — oops, I mean “North African” — soccer team. This, along with the sheer unlikelihood of a man pulling down a $200,000 per year salary selling himself for $40,000, convinces Freeman that Anwar is innocent and should be released.

The other white knight is Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), aide to Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin),who at one point dated Isabella before she married Anwar, and when she seeks him out he can’t help but take her case and try to find out what happened to her husband. He manages to piece most of it together but runs into a stone wall trying to question CIA official Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep, in a role she probably enjoyed playing if only because it gave her an opportunity to play a villainess, which she does with a chilling understatement that only adds to the character’s fury) about what exactly happened to the nice young man with a terrorist’s number on his cell phone (and no, we don’t ever learn how exactly it got there).

Rendition isn’t a great movie, but it is a well-made thriller, maintaining audience interest and suspense while at the same time making a propaganda point against the rendition policy — though had Anwar actually turned out to be involved in terrorism, it would have been worse as propaganda but better as a film (much the way Sam Fuller’s great Korean War movie The Steel Helmet disguised itself for about two-thirds of its running time as a pox-on-both-your-houses anti-war film and in the last third took on chilling authority once the North Korean sergeant turned out to be a true-blue Communist instead of an unwilling conscript) and would have had some of the moral ambiguity of the great noirs by which it was obviously inspired.

Rendition is, however, thoroughly weakened by one of the worst uses of non-linear plotting in the history of the movies: intercut throughout the main plot involving Anwar, Freeman, Smith and the other principal characters is the story of young “North African” Khalid (Moa Khouas) and his affair with Chief Fawal’s daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach), which has to be conducted clandestinely because Fawal has already promised her to another man; while at the same time Khalid is meeting at a mosque led by a jihad preacher and slowly getting recruited into a terrorist organization plotting something. We spend the whole movie assuming that this is happening in parallel with the main action — over the same period of time, merely intercut according to what have been the standard conventions of cinema since Edwin S. Porter and D. W. Griffith — and it’s only at the end, when the Khalid-and-Fatima plot line leads back to the square that the original explosion took place in, we find [spoiler alert!] that all of this happened before the main action and this plot strand leads up to the explosion that sets off (pardon the pun) the other.

That put a real damper on what was otherwise a pretty good movie, well acted by its motley collection of American movie stars and non-American actors representing the Middle Easterners, and the ending (Anwar finally released from his “rendition” and returned to his wife, son, and his new baby — thank goodness Kelley Sane, despite her embrace of quite a few of the old movie clichés, at least avoided the temptation to have Mrs. Ibrahimi miscarry and lose the baby under the stress of her husband’s disappearance) seems unduly pat to me and neatly dodges the question of what his time under torture was going to do to Anwar’s character and his devotion to American ideals. How does someone who’s been treated that way avoid becoming a terrorist himself?

Born to Kill (RKO, 1947)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Born to Kill is a 1947 RKO film noir which featured Lawrence Tierney as Sam Wilde, a psychopathic killer who, as the movie opens, is living in Reno and dating Grace (Kathryn Card), the “fast” woman at the boarding house owned by Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell). When Grace decides to go on a date with a milquetoast, Danny (Tony Barrett), and lets him into her home where — unbeknownst to either of them — mean ol’ Sam is waiting and ultimately kills both of them. Then he high-tails it to San Francisco on the same train as another of Laury Palmer’s former roomers, the former Mrs. Helen Trent (Claire Trevor, top-billed), who is immediately attracted to him.

She lives in a big house in San Francisco in which way too much of the film takes place — these people don’t ever seem to work, go out or have any sort of life outside of their home — along with her foster-sister Georgia (Audrey Long) and her fiancé Fred (Phillip Terry, the third Mr. Joan Crawford). Sam ends up romancing both Helen and Gloria, in the process trying to get appointed to run the newspaper chain Gloria inherited from her father (since this is an RKO production one half expects Lawrence Tierney to snarl, “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper”), and in the end Fred breaks off with Helen, Gloria has the good sense to get away from this situation and Helen ultimately gets killed by Sam, who is then gunned down by the police.

Walter Slezak is billed third and plays Arnett, a spectacularly incompetent private detective hired by Laury — who also comes out to the San Francisco locations and is nearly killed by Marty Waterman (Elisha Cook, Jr.), who’s listed as Sam’s “henchman” but almost seems like his Gay lover — they sleep in the same bed and Marty literally fusses over Sam, lecturing him like a long-suffering wife and telling him that he needs to stop killing so many people because “it’s not functional.” It’s about the one degree of subtlety in an otherwise incredibly obvious script by Richard Macaulay (former collaborator with Jerry Wald on quite a few of Warners’ best films of the 1930’s) and Eve Greene, based on a novel by one James Gunn (a pseudonym?) called Deadlier Than the Male, which was also the working title for the film — and which leads one to expect a far edgier battle-of-the-sexes drama and an ending in which Sam would get his from one of the female characters, instead of the rather wimpy story we do get in which the women are merely victims.

For something that’s supposed to be a thriller, Born to Kill is surprisingly boring — the long scenes inside the San Francisco house are sleep-inducing and Lawrence Tierney’s growling act gets tiresome really quickly. I suppose part of the problem is that since Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins jointly revolutionized the movie portrayal of psychopathic killers in the 1960 classic Psycho, we have a harder time accepting a movie sociopath who so bluntly and unmistakably wears his pathology on his sleeve that he might as well be wearing a tattoo on his forehead reading “PSYCHO.” The director is Robert Wise, who already had some important films under his belt (notably his two for Val Lewton, The Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher) and a year later would make the superb noir Western Blood on the Moon with Robert Mitchum and go on to a major career (including The Sound of Music, about as different a script from Born to Kill as one could imagine!), but coming from a man whose other movies show off a major talent, this film is even more of a disappointment than it would have been if the name on the directorial credit had been William Berke or another of RKO’s “B” hacks (though at least there's the amusing coincidence that the director’s name is Robert Wise and his assistant’s is Robert Weiss!).

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Mamma Mia! (Universal, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Mamma Mia! began life on stage as a 1999 musical which debuted on London, the creation of director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Catherine Johnson, who got the idea of taking songs from the catalog of the 1970’s dance-pop band ABBA and writing a plot to fit them. ABBA has always been one of those bands I liked, but not enough to buy their records “in the day” — they always struck me as doing high-class ear candy but I have a lot of respect for them in that, unlike either their contemporaries in the disco field or the practitioners of so-called “dance music” today, they (at least the male members Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, who wrote all their songs) had the knack of constructing genuinely infectious melodies and rhythms that made you want to dance instead of making you feel like you were being ordered to. It’s still true; I found myself tapping my feet in time to the music through much of the film, even though the singers here were hardly on the level of the original ABBAns.

Lloyd and Johnson, who adapted their own stage work for the film, didn’t pretend to be doing anything but creating a bit of amiable fluff that would succeed or fail on the basis of the music and, at least in the film version, the spectacular Mediterranean locations they picked for most of the film — it takes place on a Greek island and most of it was shot on one, and though the interiors were shot in England at the Pinewood Studios in London, virtually all the film’s most important sequences take place out of doors and look absolutely glorious (thanks largely to the rich, glowing, almost 1940’s-Technicolorish cinematography of Haris Zambarloukos, who eschewed the uniform brown tones of all too many movies today, possibly in an attempt to make his home country look so beautiful this film will attract tourists — which it probably will).

The plot is a trifle about Donna Sheridan (Meryl Streep), a hippie-chick who in the 1960’s led a girl group called “Donna and the Dynamos” before retiring to a Greek island and setting up a resort. Somewhere during a two-week period she had sex with three different men, resulting in a daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who’s about to marry a young Englishman (at least I gather he’s an Englishman because of his accent) named Sky (Dominic Cooper). As one commentator noted, the time frame of this film is “off” because Donna describes herself as a flower child in one of the songs, but the film is set in the present — meaning that she would have had to conceive her daughter in the 1980’s, not the 1960’s.

In any case, Sophie has grown up with no idea of who her biological father is, until on the eve of the wedding she discovers a diary her mom kept during those days (it’s an orange book with flower stickers on it) and in it she learns that the three men her mom had sex with at the appropriate time were Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), Harry Bright (Colin Firth) and Bill Anderson (Stellan Skarsgård). So, unbeknownst to mom, Sophie secretly invites all three of them to the wedding — and they all show up, precipitating a lot of typical old-fashioned musical complications and a surprise ending in which all the characters pair off more or less appropriately (and not exclusively heterosexually, either!) and Sophie and Sky run out on their own wedding and decide instead to see a bit more of the world than the little island on which Sophie has lived her entire life. Also involved in the cast are Sophie’s old band mates Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski), more to get a few additional voices into the cast than to add anything to the plot.

Mamma Mia! is a high-spirited romp, directed fairly straightforwardly by Lloyd — at times I missed the manic energy Baz Luhrmann might have brought to this project — and dazzlingly choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, Tim Stanley and Nichola Treherne (even though the “innovation” of having a Busby Berkeley-style chorus ensemble executed by males was first done in the Village People’s musical Can’t Stop the Music! nearly 30 years ago), with a pretty amazing performance by Meryl Streep. One doesn’t expect an actress of her, shall we say, vintage (she was born June 22, 1949, which would have made her 58 when this film was shot) not only to be this skinny but also this limber — she does the dancing marvelously and her singing voice is quite good and certainly more than adequate for the material; indeed, according to all the actors did their own singing (and mostly credibly, too, though Pierce Brosnan’s voice has a foghorn quality one would hardly associate with his character).

Another surprise was the number of ballad songs in the film; knowing ABBA’s music only from their singles, I’d assumed that all their songs were mid- to uptempo dance numbers. Indeed, when I heard the romantic ballads my first thought was that Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson had written them especially for this project, but no-o-o-o-o: insists that all the songs in the film were pre-existing ones from ABBA’s glory days, and the skill and poignancy of some of the slower songs here (especially in the appropriate dramatic settings Catherine Johnson concocted for them) gave me a greater appreciation of ABBA’s versatility.

Lost Continent (Lippert, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I wanted a movie that I thought would work better as a cinematic “dessert” to Mamma Mia! than a heavy (in more ways than one) modern action-fest like Batman Begins. The film I picked out was Lost Continent, a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of a 1951 “B” from Lippert Pictures that reunited some old PRC stalwarts: producer Sigmund Neufeld, director Sam Newfield (his brother — “They must have got into different lines at Ellis Island,” one of the MST3K crew joked) and cinematographer Jack Greenhalgh — along with a cast that was at least a bit better than what they’d been used to in their PRC days.

Cesar Romero headlined as Major Joe Nolan, who’s called away from a date with Marla Stevens (Hillary Brooke) to lead a search party that’s supposed to find a missile that wandered off its flight course during a test — it was supposed to double back and instead it kept going forward — and the people in charge of the U.S. rocket program, including Michael Rostov (John Hoyt) — whose peculiar half-German, half-Russian accent is explained in the script by Richard H. Landau and an uncredited Orville H. Hampton (based on a story by Carroll Young) by saying he’d spent time in both German and Russian prison camps — are determined to regain control of the wrecked missile before a sinister but (typically) unnamed foreign power can recover it and steal all our missile secrets (this was 1951, and I think the Rosenberg trial had just concluded when it was released).

This requires them to fly somewhere into South America and do a lot of rock climbing — around and around what are all too obviously the same papier-mâché rocks on the floor of Goldwyn Studios, where this film was shot — including one point at which the characters have to leap a chasm to go from one mountain to its neighbor (at which point we’re wondering, even if they do find the rocket wreck, how on earth they’re going to bring it back — though maybe they didn’t have to bring it back and were planning to destroy it instead), at which point the film turns into a ripoff of The Lost World and shows us some quite obvious stock footage of dinosaurs which came either from the 1925 film of The Lost World, the 1940 One Million B.C. (long a go-to film for people wanting dinosaur footage and lacking the budget to create any themselves) or possibly some other source I didn’t recognize.

There’s a genuinely suspenseful bit in which one of the actors is menaced by a brontosaurus which shakes the tree he’s hiding in and tries to get at him (the MST3K crew joked about his idiotic flight up the tree, which only brought him up to brontosaurus level), but aside from that, not only is this film incredibly boring but also the print we were watching turns blue and becomes incredibly overexposed towards the end. According to, in the original release prints these sequences were actually tinted green, but when the film was “duped” on conventional black-and-white stock the tinted sequences turned an unearthly blue and got so washed out it’s almost impossible to tell during the final half-hour of this movie exactly what on earth (or elsewhere) is going on. The MST3K crew did a brilliant job on this one, throwing in references to movies as diverse as The Grapes of Wrath, The Wizard of Oz and even the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers and generally doing a quite good job livening up a quite stupid and boring film.

Sunny Side of the Street (Columbia, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ended up running a movie for Charles: Sunny Side of the Street, a disc I’d recorded from TCM last September which John P. had screened and warned me about a peculiar glitch in the soundtrack, though he hadn’t told me what it was: in the middle of a musical number by Billy Daniels and pianist Benny Payne (a medley of “I Get a Kick Out of You” — Cole Porter’s song was inadvertently credited to George and Ira Gershwin on the Web site! — and “I Hadn’t Anyone ’Til You”) Time Warner got its cable-station signals crossed and we heard a few heavy-metal chords announcing an upcoming event from NASCAR.

Sunny Side of the Street is one of the handful of musicals Columbia produced for Frankie Laine in the early 1950’s — this one was from 1951 and was the second in the series of five (though the last of Laine’s five films for the studio, He Laughed Last, was actually not a musical), and was an appealing if pretty clichéd musical story centered around the then-new medium of television. Frankie Laine plays (more or less) himself — at least his character is called “Frankie Laine” — and he’s a major singing star with a show on the Los Angeles CBS affiliate, though as the plot by Harold Conrad (story) and Lee Loeb (screenplay) has it he’s pretty much an extra in his own movie.

The plotlet is a familiar romantic-triangle routine with aspiring singer Ted Mason (Jerome Courtland) taking a job as a tour guide at the station and falling for information-desk worker Betty Holloway (Terry Moore) while at the same time fending off the advances of his former high-school sweetheart, Gloria Pelley (Audrey Long) — who in the meantime is advising her father, peanut-brittle tycoon Cyrus Pelley (Jonathan Hale), on what sort of program he ought to put on the network. Along the way we get to hear Frankie Laine and Jerome Courtland sing a bunch of interesting old songs, including “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Pennies from Heaven,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” a nice medley of “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “I Hadn’t Anyone ’Til You” (by Billy Daniels and Benny Payne —Daniels was a Black nightclub singer and Payne was his piano player; he’d formerly been second pianist in Fats Waller’s live band and he managed some nice, piquant Walleresque vocal gestures that cut the pretensions of Daniels’ vocals) and a version in Italian of “Come Back to Sorrento” by singer Toni Arden (playing herself, so she must have had some sort of reputation at the time) as well as a relatively new number called “I’m Gonna Live ’til I Die” that lent itself to Laine’s no-holds-barred manner of interpretation — he really does sound at times like Bessie Smith reincarnated as an Italian-American male!

There’s also an interesting comedy duo of John “J. R.” Stevens (William Waterman) and Al (William Tracy), who are attempting to write Pelley’s show and keep coming up with a series of ideas, each worse than its predecessor, which unsurprisingly fail to impress Pelley and his daughter — the gimmick here is that, except for occasional whispers to his writing partner, Al is mute à la Harpo Marx — and Tracy oddly looks even more like Jerry Lewis than he had in the Hal Roach service comedies from the early 1940’s in which he played a bookish nerd partnered with old-school idiot sergeant Joe Sawyer. Sunny Side of the Street is a nice, comfortable musical with a lot of good singing from Laine and a cop-out ending in which Gloria announces that she’s long since stopped being in love with Ted and therefore he can have his big TV break on her dad’s program without having to give Betty up for it — the sort of movie that no doubt accomplished its purpose of sucking off Laine’s popularity as a concert attraction and major record seller while not challenging him and requiring him either to dance (which he did have to in Bring Your Smile Along) or act (this one didn't even give him a comedy romance).

Friday, March 13, 2009

I Was Framed (Warners, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I Was Framed was a 1942 Warners “B” that clocked in at 61 minutes and drew for its inspiration on two previous Warners movies from 1939, Each Dawn I Die and Dust Be My Destiny. According to the American Film Institute Catalog, both the earlier films were based on novels by Jerome Odlum — though it’s not clear whether Each Dawn I Die and Dust Be My Destiny were based on different Odlum stories or were combined initially, split apart by their original screenwriters (Robert Rossen and an uncredited Seton I. Miller for Dust Be My Destiny, Norman Reilly Raine and Warren Duff for Each Dawn I Die) and then re-combined by the ubiquitous Robert E. Kent to create I Was Framed.

Anyway, the plot of I Was Framed starts out as Each Dawn I Die, with Michael Ames (a.k.a. Tod Andrews) in James Cagney’s old role of Ken Marshall (in the Cagney film he was called “Frank Ross”), ace reporter for the Springfield Morning Record, who’s about to expose the corrupt machinations of gubernatorial candidate Stuart Gaines (Howard Hickman) in his paper when, at Gaines’ instigation, three goons kidnap him, knock him out, break a bottle of booze over his body and put him behind the wheel of a car, aim it down the street and thereby involve him unwittingly in an accident that kills three people. Marshall is arrested and convicted of manslaughter — and he arouses the ire of the judge when he insists he was framed — and he’s held in the county jail pending transfer to state prison.

His cellmate, “Clubby” Blake (a nice portrait of controlled small-time evil by John Harmon), works out an escape plan, luring Marshall into it by persuading him that he’d better get out in time to be with his pregnant wife Ruth (Julie Bishop, a.k.a. Jacqueline Wells), only on the night they’re supposed to break out “Clubby” is transferred to a new cell on the other side of the jail and Our Hero makes the break alone. Then Marshall hooks up with his wife and the two successfully flee to the small town of View Point, where the Dust Be My Destiny plot elements kick in along with a hint of Magnificent Obsession in the character of Dr. Phillip Black (Aldrich Bowker), who’s so compulsively altruistic that he not only takes the fleeing couple — who’ve taken the last name “Scott” as an alias, though they continue to use their original first names (appropriate for a pair of actors who were also making this movie under fake names!) — into his home and puts them up, he delivers Ruth’s baby at no charge (there’s a nice bit of dry wit, atypical of Robert E. Kent, in which Ken confesses he has no money to pay Dr. Black and the doctor sadly reflects, “I thought you were going to be different from all my other patients”) and agrees that they can live there rent-free for the three months Ruth will have to convalesce from her difficult delivery. As if that weren’t enough, he also arranges for Ken to get a job on the town’s newspaper, the View Point Gazette, with the idea that its editor/publisher, Cal Beamish (Oscar O’Shea), is getting ready to retire and needs to attract a talented successor he can groom to take over.

Then there’s a sudden jump-cut and the story advances five years; Ken is now the editor/publisher of the paper and their baby, Penny, is now a thoroughly obnoxious Shirley Temple wanna-be named Patty Hale who gets to recite long poems and even sing a song about fairy-tale characters. Needless to say, since Kent dropped a big hint to this effect several reels before, “Clubby” Blake turns up in town, determined to blackmail the “Scotts” out of all their savings and avenge himself against Ken for supposedly having left him to rot in prison — but eventually the town police catch up with “Clubby,” there’s a big shoot-out in which “Clubby” is captured and Ken is wounded, but while he’s recovering word comes that one of Gaines’ thugs confessed his role in framing Ken in the first place, so the governor (Gaines must have lost the election!) has pardoned him and he can go on being Mr. Small-Town Editor and keep going after the local utility for opposing the TVA-like dam project the government was projecting to build in the area. (Faith in the government to get a big project done and operate it more efficiently than the private sector — how New Deal!) There’s also a major influence of World War II in this plot, though the war is patched in only in the games little Penny plays — she puts her toy boat in the mop water being used by Dr. Black’s Black servant, “Kit Carson” (Sam McDaniel, playing older and at least slightly more dignified than the usual stereotype) and said that she’s previously had it in the bathtub and therefore “I have a two-front Navy!”

I Was Framed is better than the average Warners “B,” mainly because director D. Ross Lederman was a stronger filmmaker than the average Warners hack — there are some quite noir-ish atmospheric compositions in the first three reels — and he had a first-rate cinematographer, Ted McCord, who would go on to shoot The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and other important films with A-list stars.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bring Your Smile Along (Columbia, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a movie I’d recorded earlier from TCM: Bring Your Smile Along, a 1955 “B” musical from Columbia (who in the 1950’s picked up the mantle of leading “B”-musical maker that Universal had dropped after dominating the field in the 1940’s) starring Frankie Laine as aspiring singer Jerry Dennis, who rooms in a New York residential hotel with aspiring pianist Martin “Marty” Adams (Keefe Brasselle). They work at a burlesque house, where Laine hawks snacks to the audience and gets to sing to a roomful of dirty-minded middle-aged men who haven’t the slightest interest in any entertainer with a penis. (At the same time, the burlesque show as depicted here looks positively decorous in our era of lap-dancing.) Adams breaks off in the middle of accompanying the burlesque chorus’s number and starts banging out the Chopin Fantaisie-Impromptu (one wonders if this was one of José Iturbi’s pre-recordings left over from Columbia’s 1948 biopic of Chopin, A Song to Remember), thereby getting them both fired.

Meanwhile, Nancy Willows (Constance Towers), music teacher at Wilson High School in Boston, has taken a leave of absence from her job and her engagement to biology teacher David Parker (William Leslie) to move to New York and see if she can make it as a lyric writer for popular songs. As sheer luck — or scriptorial fiat from screenwriters Blake Edwards (who also directed, making his feature-film directorial debut) and Richard Quine — would have it, she moves into the same building as Jerry and Marty, overhears Marty playing his newest song melody from across the hall, and is inspired by the sound of it to scrawl out a lyric and slip it under Jerry’s and Marty’s door, along with her card. Alas, the hotel’s owner, Mrs. Klein (Ruth Warren), places the lyric on Marty’s piano but vacuums up the card, so Marty is presented with a great lyric for his song but no idea of who wrote it for him. The film proceeds for a half-hour or so with Marty and Nancy just missing each other, and when they finally encounter each other — Marty hears Nancy singing his song with her words, he knocks on her door, she’s showering and doesn’t hear him, he crawls around on the building’s ledge and breaks into her window, and she brains him with a potted plant before he has a chance to explain who he is and what he wants with her — they become a formidable songwriting team and their opi also allow Jerry to become a recording star.

The rest of the movie consists of the romantic triangle between Marty, Nancy and David — though both Keefe Brasselle and William Leslie are such bland, colorless actors (if you can call them that) one doesn’t envy her for having to end up with one of them — while Frankie Laine sometimes seems like an extra in his own movie, singing the supposed songs of his co-leads (“If Spring Never Comes” by Bill Carey and Laine’s long-time musical director Carl Fischer, and “Mama Mia” by Ned Washington and Lester Lee) as well as the title song (by Benny Davis and Carl Fischer) and “The Gandy Dancer’s Ball” by Paul Weston and Paul Mason Howard (a hit for Laine on the Columbia label and the excuse for the film’s one semi-major production number). Laine is an engaging personality but he’s just too homely and beefy to be the major lead of a film — he’s given a comic romance with Marge Stevenson (Lucy Marlow), the former masseuse turned secretary to Marty’s and Nancy’s music publisher — and he does his best in some simple dance numbers. He’s also forced to put himself through scenes that were done better in other people’s movies — the neighborhood kids who hang out outside the brownstone where Jerry and Marty live (played by the members of the Robert Mitchell Boys’ Choir) are straight out of the marvelous opening scene of An American in Paris, and at one point Laine and Brasselle duet on the old song “Side by Side” in a sequence that seems to have come from a Bing Crosby-Bob Hope Road movie, a resemblance that only makes us all too aware of how much more entertaining the number would be with Crosby and Hope performing it.

Constance Towers is a nice Doris Day-ish personality and she has a great voice — she begins the film singing “Don’t Blame Me” at a Wilson High dance, and while she’s not quite in the same league as Sarah Vaughan (whose gorgeously swooping, almost operatic version of this song for Musicraft in the 1940’s is its best recording), she’s quite capable and throws herself into the song instead of just standing up and blandly singing it. Keefe Brasselle is his usual anodyne self, utterly unable to do anything even resembling acting and so hopelessly bland we find ourselves rooting for the biology teacher to get Ms. Towers instead (just as we can’t help but question the 1950’s assumption that she has to pick marriage or career — real-life songwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green had a long and lucrative career as collaborators even though they were both married to others) — he’s so boring in all his other movies I still can’t figure out how Ida Lupino, making her directorial debut in the 1949 film Not Wanted, managed to get a tough, sensitive performance out of Brasselle that for the first and last time in his career actually made him seem like a human being.

Columbia tried to make Laine a movie star at the height of his recording success in the early 1950’s, having him make four musicals and one dramatic film (He Laughed Last, also directed by Blake Edwards), in which he inexplicably didn’t sing at all; Laine was a great singer — he named Bessie Smith as his main inspiration and his uninhibited delivery and frequent register shifts (especially in his 1950 hit “Jezebel”) anticipated Elvis Presley — but he wasn’t either good-looking enough or charismatic enough when he wasn’t singing to compete with Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra in building his vocal fame into screen stardom. Still, Bring Your Smile Along is a comfortable film that showcases Laine effectively, and though it’s predictable it’s also good fun.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Quentin Durward (MGM, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out was Quentin Durward, a frozen-funds production MGM made in Great Britain (with some exteriors in France — the credits listed acknowledgments of four real castles at which they filmed, though given how little they got out of them they could have saved the payments to their owners and built models in the studio) based on a Sir Walter Scott novel (star Robert Taylor had had a hit with a film of Scott’s Ivanhoe in 1952 and so MGM decided to go to the well once again) and starring Robert Taylor as a knight in 1465 in which, as the opening titles told us, the rules of chivalry were getting rather “droopy” (that’s the word they used!) and the advent of firearms was taking the edge off the conventions of medieval warfare.

I got the impression that Scott and his adapters, screenwriters Robert Ardrey (who later left the movie business and became, of all things, an anthropologist, writing the best-selling pop-anthropology books African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative) and George Froeschel, were showing the development of firearms far beyond what would have been historically appropriate for 1465 — one of the castles in the film is shelled with fully developed cannon that looked more like props from a film set in the 19th century, and one fleeing character is laid waste by three perfectly aimed bullets from three guardsmen firing three pistol shots (one each) in succession and all hitting him in the back. (At least they didn’t make the mistake of the 1939 James Whale film The Man in the Iron Mask, set in the 18th century, of having one person fire three shots in rapid succession with the same gun; 18th century firearms had to be reloaded after each shot.)

Directed competently but unspectacularly by Richard Thorpe, Quentin Durward was the last of Robert Taylor’s historical epics — he derisively called them “iron-jockstrap parts” and served notice to MGM that from then on he wanted to do only modern-dress films and Westerns (and his best film in the rest of his MGM tenure, Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl, was a quite good gangster movie set in the 1920’s with Taylor playing a crooked lawyer with a club foot who regains his moral sense after he undergoes surgery that cures his physical disability) — and a bizarrely boring film, a far cry from the entertainment values of his previous medieval movies. Part of the problem is Scott’s novel; it’s one of those confusing epic potboilers he liked to write in which it’s not altogether clear from scene to scene who’s who or which side they’re on.

At the story’s beginning Quentin Durward (Robert Taylor) is a knight who still takes the code of chivalry seriously — the gimmick is that this already makes him an anachronism in 1465 but all too little is done with that premise in the actual film — when he’s assigned by his uncle, Lord Crawford (Ernest Thesiger, a delight to see again even if Thorpe gets far less out of him than James Whale did in The Old Dark House and The Bride of Frankenstein), to go to Burgundy to investigate Isabelle, Countess of Marcroy (Kay Kendall, who got the job after Grace Kelly wisely turned it down and comes off as a virtual carbon copy of Deborah Kerr, red hair and all, though at least the red hair doesn’t flame quite so brightly in the Eastmancolor process used here as it would have in Technicolor), whom Lord Crawford has contracted with Charles, the Duke of Burgundy (Alec Clunes) to marry in order to cement the Burgundian/Scottish alliance that appears aimed at protecting the independent status of both dominions from the expansionism of France and England, respectively.

There are at least three other military forces in France involved in this bizarre farrago of a plot: King Louis XI (played by Robert Morley in the same droll fashion in which he’d played his character’s direct descendant, Louis XVI, in MGM’s Marie Antoinette 17 years earlier), who seems to be on Durward’s side in protecting Isabelle from Charles’ schemes and averting a civil war in France — since naturally, as soon as Durward and Isabelle met, he fell in love with her and lost all interest in winning her for his uncle — plus Count William de la Marek (Duncan Lamont), who has staked out a territory in the woods between Burgundy and France proper (his domain is designated as the Ardennes Forest, which would actually set the action of this film in Belgium — as does the convent in Liège in which Durward temporarily stashes Isabelle) and his forces, and a band of gypsies led by Hayraddin (George Cole), who give us the obligatory belly-dancing scene and are represented by a group of actors utterly at odds with each other as to what constituted a proper “gypsy” accent. Eventually Hayraddin becomes the character dropped and killed by an anachronistically accurate fusillade of pistol shots, de la Marek (why did Walter Scott always give his villains such tongue-twisting names?) is killed in a duel by Durward, and Louis XI and the Duke of Burgundy settle their differences and, after they can’t agree on whom she should marry, finally let her choose for herself — and you don’t need two guesses whom she chooses! (Lord Crawford has conveniently died off-screen, thereby releasing Durward from his original pledge.)

Hampered by a weak supporting cast and a plot that makes virtually no sense, Quentin Durward is at least partially redeemed by some intriguing Sternbergian uses of sound — while there’s plenty of typically rousing music, there are also some sequences “scored” only with amplified natural sound, notably one in which Durward and Isabelle are fleeing through a wheat field and all we hear are their footsteps and the rustling of the wheat as they move through it — and by a cheerily campy approach to the action sequences. The best part of the movie — and the scene everyone remembers — is the one in which Durward and de la Marek have a duel in the bell tower of a burning church, having to stay in touch with their inner Tarzans and swing from one bell rope to the next while simultaneously having at each other with swords and avoiding either being killed by the other or falling to a fiery doom below. Now that part is fun!

True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet (Lifetime, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on a DVD I’d recorded over the weekend from Lifetime called True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet, which I thought would be a cautionary tale about a young, innocent girl lured into the movie business, O.D.’ing not only on substances but all the trappings of fame, and ultimately crashing and burning. The opening sequence showed her flying on coach to Fort Wayne, Indiana after a four-month stint in rehab, and when we heard the voice of the central character, Morgan Carter (played by a young actress with the all-too-“starlet-ish” name of Joanna ‘JoJo’ Levesque) on the soundtrack, I assumed this would be the narrative voice by which we’d be introduced to the flashbacks of how she blew a promising career on drinking, drugging, partying and general diva-ish irresponsibility.

Instead, all that is the backstory; the “frontstory” tells us how Ms. Carter’s mother Bianca (Lynda Boyd) and her agent Sam (Justin Louis) concocted a plan to have her stashed away in Fort Wayne, Indiana to live with her “Aunt” Trudy (Valerie Bertinelli, still hot and so good-looking for her age it’s hard to remember she and Ms. Levesque are supposed to be playing a generation apart!) and attend high school for a normal senior year under an assumed name, “Claudia Miller,” and with a budget restricted to what your average lower-middle-class high-school senior’s parents could afford. Though Levesque narrates the movie (written by Elisa Bell from a novel by Lola Douglas) in a sort of prematurely grown-up wise-girl voice that periodically compares the “real” incidents of the story to those in the movie scripts about high school Morgan Carter has played in, we can pretty well predict what’s going to happen: she’s going to settle in and work through adversities, decide she actually likes a normal lifestyle and give up her film career (including a promised starring role in a Steven Soderbergh film!) in exchange for a normal senior year and the love of the obligatory hunky guy, Eli (Ian Nelson, who’s blond an a bit gawky but still someone I’d like to see more of).

There’s a somewhat unexpected turn of events in which Morgan is “outed” by Debbie (Leah Cudmore), her rival for Eli’s affections, after she sneaks away for a night at a club in Chicago with her Hollywood friend Marissa (Shenae Grimes) — who’s been quietly collecting all Morgan’s proffered parts in her absence — and almost relapses into alcohol (in order to preserve Morgan’s status as a “nice” substance abuser, Douglas and Bell carefully confine her addictions to alcohol rather than drugs) — and she’s photographed by the paparazzi who recognize her despite the elements of her disguise: dark hair, grown long, and a somewhat heftier body than the one she had in her Hollywood days.

The last is the result of one of the most annoying plot devices in this film — the fact that healthy eating is listed as one of the Hollywood affectations, along with drinking, partying, reckless spending and diva-ism, that Morgan/Claudia has to break with in order to be a “real” person again (she has to load up on cholesterol-filled cafeteria food, fast-food hamburgers and ice cream, and as Marissa points out to her when she shows up on the scene, porking out that way is going to be as devastating to her hopes for a Hollywood comeback as her long-standing disappearance). Anyway, Morgan not only has a revolution in her own life but pushes “Aunt” Trudy (she’s not her real aunt, just an old friend of her mom’s, whose own sexual life was so extensive that Morgan has no idea who her father is and calls him “the sperm donor”) towards fulfilling her lifelong dream of going to medical school.

As dumb as True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet is — and as obviously inspired by the real-life public meltdowns of mini-talents like Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse (I was once asked if I thought Lohan was the Judy Garland of our era, and I replied, “What? All the substance abuse and none of the talent?”) — the ending is actually moving; giving up the dream role in the Soderbergh film (though maybe it was just going to be Ocean’s Fourteen and she was going to play a precociously young card dealer in Vegas), she settles in to return to the high school in Fort Wayne, burdened by the fact that everyone now knows who she is and also on the outs with Eli, who resents the way she lied to him (she gave him a ludicrous tale of her previous life actually abstracted from a TV-movie she’d done for Lifetime — nice to see the Lifetime people ridiculing their own genre — though if she’d told him the truth — “I’m Morgan Carter, star of She’s the Bomb!” — he’d probably have said, “Yeah, right”) — I found myself caring about her, even crying a little, and wishing she’d take the route Jodie Foster did for real: get her grades up, get into a good college with a strong drama department, learn a lot more about life and acting and return to the movie business a stronger actress and a better person.