Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Karen Cries on the Bus (Cajanegra Producciones, Schweizen Media Group, Filmmovement.com, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was a 2011 Colombian indie called Karen Cries on the Bus, which was billed as a modern-day rewrite of Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House (which I don’t know, and which according to the notes director/writer Gabriel Rojas Vera contributed to the press kit ends where his movie begins: with the unfulfilled wife leaving her asshole husband and suddenly facing the task of making both a living and a life on her own) but seemed to me to be sort of an update of Diary of a Mad Housewife, An Unfinished Woman and those other 1970’s first-flush-of-feminism (second wave) movies in which a personally, emotionally, psychologically and sexually unfulfilled housewife leaves her boring and/or passive-aggressively abusing husband, has a brief relationship with another man and emerges single but also proud and with a new sense of her own identity.

The film takes place in Bogotá, which for once in a movie is not depicted as a hell-hole of corruption, drug-dealing and murder, but a pretty ordinary place, and as the movie opens the first thing we see is, indeed, Karen (Angela Carrizosa) crying on a bus. She’s carrying all her belongings in a small suitcase — one of those ones with rollers and a pull handle so you can drag it along with you instead of having to carry it — and she shows up in the middle of the night at a ratty rooming house whose landlady doesn’t want to open the door for her but changes her mind when Karen says she can pay three months’ rent, 540,000 pesos (maybe Colombia isn’t the drug-fueled danger zone it used to be but it seems as if it’s still subject to one of Latin America’s other chronic economic diseases, inflation), in advance. She tries to make as comfortable as existence as possible in a sleazepit where the sink hangs loose from the wall, the shower is chronically dirty (this flashed me back to my days living in a residence hotel, where I took cleanser into the communal bathroom and cleaned out the tub every time I bathed) and there’s a cockroach crawling across the bathroom floor. (Karen complains to the landlady and asks what she should do — and the landlady tells her, calmly, “Kill it.”) Karen also looks for a job, leaves a résumé at a bookstore but is told they’re not hiring, and instead takes a job with a scam “sales” outfit called “American Dream” that supposedly sells English courses to Colombians eyeing el Norte but really makes its money ripping off its salespeople. Later she picks up an odd job distributing flyers on the street. She also gets to see a woman give a man a blow job in the window across the courtyard from hers on the first night she spends there.

Later she meets neighbor Patricia (Angelica Sanchez), who has a boyfriend named Horacio but who also dates other guys, including a married man named Alfredo who treats her to nice meals and drinks in exchange for sex — Patricia is drawn as the sort of person who’s effectively a prostitute but has managed to avoid the direct exchange of sex for money and therefore can remain in denial of what she’s doing with the men in her life. Meanwhile, Karen hits on a scam that becomes one of her main sources of income when her purse is stolen in a restaurant — or at least she says it is — and she leaves the proprietor with her wedding ring as collateral, then regularly shows up at bus stops and says her purse has just been stolen and begs for change, which she gets from a surprising number of people (probably more than would give money to such a person here!). Later she’s caught shoplifting in a supermarket and it’s touch and go whether she’s going to be charged restitution (apparently according to Colombian law, or at least that store’s policy, she can be held liable for three times the value of the items she stole), made to have sex with the store’s creepy security person, or just allowed to leave — which is what he does in the end, telling her never to come back there again.

Eventually, through Patricia and Alfredo, she meets a potential boyfriend named Eduardo (Juan Manuel Diaz Oroztegui), who has a professional job in an office but also writes plays in his spare time and has actually got one produced (or did he bankroll it himself?). Eduardo and Karen become an “item” and they start seeing again and ultimately make it to bed — despite Karen’s concern that he won’t like her because she has small breasts — and the film’s climax comes when the bookstore she left her résumé at finally calls her with a job offer at just the time Eduardo wants her to come away with him to Argentina, where he’s been offered a writing job. At first she’s willing to go with him, but at one point he tells her, “Pick up my jacket for me, will you?” — and at that point she realizes that even though he may be hotter and more interesting he’s as much a male-chauvinist pig as her ex-husband Mario, so she stays in her ratty room, works at the bookstore and ends up single but proud, and in the final scene she’s watching as another woman is crying on the bus she’s on.

Karen Cries on the Bus may have an awkward title (it’s a literal translation of the original Spanish one, Karen llora en el Bus) but it’s a marvelous film, not really extending the art of the cinema very much but telling a warm, human story, keeping us identifying with the central character and wanting the best for her, and telling its story in a series of anecdotes that seem to have no more connection with each other than the events of a real life. It’s also quite remarkably directed and cast; Angela Carrizosa as the lead is neither more nor less attractive than she should be — neither the old bag nor the sexpot that Hollywood would cast in a role like this; she’s not drop-dead gorgeous but she’s easy on the eyes and one could readily imagine a man of the world like Eduardo being genuinely attracted to her emotionally as well as sexually. It’s the sort of understated drama that American filmmakers almost never make (though the truth might be that they aren’t allowed to make them unless they finance them themselves), and it made it to the library as a selection of the alternative DVD club filmmovement.com, which should be worthwhile checking out.

Fury Below (George Mercader Productions, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Fury Below, a 1938 drama about coal mining produced and written by George Mercader, directed by Harry Fraser and originally shot under the title Hell Diggers until the Production Code Administration informed Mercader that he could forget about getting a Code Seal if he put it out with “Hell” in the title. (The American Film Institute Catalog lists quite a few films from the 1930’s with “Hell” in the title — Hell and High Water, Hell Below, Hell Below Zero, Hell Bent for Frisco, Hell Bent for Love, Hell Bound, The Hell Cat, Hell Divers, Hell-Fire Austin, Hell in the Heavens, Hell-Ship Morgan and Helldorado — but all but Hell-Ship Morgan were released before the crackdown on Code enforcement in 1934.) It’s an engaging movie but it’s the sort of story where once the basic premises are established in reel one, you know what’s going to happen for the rest of the film. Once we’re told that coal-mine owner James Cole (Phil Dunham) is about to enter a sanitarium and is handing over control of the mine to his grandson James Cole III (Russell Gleason, usually a comic-relief player but reasonably assured as a lead), only both the miners and the other office people — particularly foreman Joe Norsen (Rex Lease) and his sister Mary (Maxine Doyle, second-billed), who’s the elder Cole’s secretary — think there’s no way a college boy can come and take over a coal mine, we just know that little Jimmy is going to come through in the clutch and save the day.

Once Cole I tells Cole III that the three people he can trust are Mary, Joe and general manager Fred Johnson (LeRoy Mason), we just know that Johnson is going to turn out to be a corrupt slimeball — and indeed he does. And once we learn that the mine has been beset by a series of accidents, including one that has just claimed the lives of two people, and that in addition to the human toll these accidents are also slowing production and threatening the Cole family’s ownership because if they can’t meet an outstanding delivery contract they will lose the mine through foreclosure, we can guess that Johnson’s perfidy will include deliberately running the mine sloppily so that the contract deadline is missed, the Coles lose the mine and he gets an employment contract and a raise from the people set to take it over after that. What’s more, once we’re introduced to Johnson’s sister Claire (Sheila Terry) and she immediately latches onto Cole III and takes him away from the mine the day Johnson’s latest scheduled “accident” is supposed to occur, we’re sure that she’s going to be the “bad girl” from whose clutches he’ll have to extricate himself so he can end up with “good girl” Mary at the end.

All of that happens, and it also turns out (in a plot twist Mercader probably “borrowed” from The Hound of the Baskervilles) that Fred and Claire Johnson are merely posing as brother and sister; that they’ve got a corrupt union boss, Dorsky (Matthew Betz), in cahoots with them, and that part of their plot is that Dorsky will use the latest “accident” to give the miners an excuse to strike, thereby making sure the contract deadline is missed. There are a few semi-original twists in this story, including Cole III ostensibly firing Joe Norson and putting Dorsky in charge of the mine — causing Mary to walk out on him until he calls both Norsons into his private office and tells them that this is part of the trap; he’s learned that Fred Johnson and Dorsky are in cahoots and he basically wants to give them enough rope so their plot will be revealed and he can have them both arrested — and the way Cole III learned of their involvement in the plot in the first place: he overheard Johnson and Dorsky talking about it while sitting in the Johnsons’ living room waiting for Claire to join him on a date.

The ending is also at least a bit different from what we expect: having failed in all his previous attempts to delay production, Fred Johnson sends Emil (John Merton), a miner who had lost his sanity due to a brain injury suffered in the last “accident,” into the mine, and Dorsky has him drill near a sealed door labeled with the words “DANGER GAS.” (“‘Danger gas!’ That’s the most dangerous kind — except maybe ‘deadly gas,’” Charles joked.) The idea is that will cause an explosion that will stop production on the mine altogether — only Cole and the Norsons figure the plot out in time and, though they can’t stop Emil from drilling, they’re able to confine the conflagration to one floor of the mine and keep the rest of it producing. Dorsky and Emil died, Fred Johnson is arrested and Cole III and Mary end up together at the fade-out. Fury Below (whose opening credits, at least in the archive.org downloaded print we were watching, appear to have been added to the film in the 1960’s) is an incredibly predictable film but also a reasonably engaging one even though it’s the kind of movie you think you’ve seen before even if you haven’t.

Monday, January 30, 2012

American Experience: Custer's Last Stand (PBS, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ended up screening the recent PBS program American Experience: Custer’s Last Stand, which despite its title was actually a fairly complete biography of George Armstrong Custer, an historically ambiguous figure of whom many details are obscure — even his actual rank in the officer corps of the U.S. army. The tombstone for him on the site of his last battle at the Little Big Horn (though his body is actually buried in the cemetery at West Point) in what was then Montana Territory has an inscription that refers to him as “Brt. Maj. Gen.,” with the “Brt.” standing for the no-longer-used military term “brevet.” It meant an officer who was temporarily promoted from a lower rank to a higher one during a war but only for its duration, with him being reduced automatically to his original rank when the war ended. In Custer’s case, he was promoted to brevet general from captain during the Civil War, rose from captain to colonel during the Indian Wars and when he went into battle at the Little Big Horn he was a brevet general (but only a brevet general!) again. The show, written and directed by Stephen Ives, blessedly kept those tacky re-creations of actual historical scenes with actors (usually filmed at angles avoiding showing their faces so as not to expose their non-resemblance to the images of the real people!) that have burdened many recent PBS documentaries, and it made at least a partial attempt to parallel the lives of Custer and Sitting Bull. (Oddly, the show did not mention Crazy Horse at all, even though when an historical commission had oral interviews done of survivors of the Little Big Horn — on the side that had survivors, the Indian side — in the 1920’s, the actual fighters said that it was Crazy Horse who had led the battle and was the person they credited with commanding the victory.)

The show’s version of Custer was basically a brilliant scapegrace, always falling behind on his classwork at West Point and then suddenly catching up, challenging authority even while attempting to rise in an institution — the military — probably more obsessed with order, discipline and hierarchy than any other human-created entity, and also (like his first Civil War superior, the notorious General George B. McClellan) convinced that he was destined for greatness. At times Custer seems a 19th century prototype of Newt Gingrich in his sheer egomania, and at other times he seems to have cast himself perfectly as the hero-villain of a typical war movie, the gung-ho commander who puts himself and his men at unnecessary risk but ultimately prevails. (It’s no accident that one of the most famous war movies of all time, They Died With Their Boots On, was made about Custer — or that an equally flamboyant, larger-than-life personality, Errol Flynn, played him.) The show also has a running theme of America’s treatment of the Indians, which was basically to drive them into ever smaller and smaller “reservations” on the ground that the whites were a superior race and therefore they should be able to expand their settlements across the whole country, the previous inhabitants be damned. When the Americans did it, they called it “Manifest Destiny”; when the Nazis tried it in 20th Century Europe they called it Lebensraum — “living space.” Like just about every honest depiction of the settling of the West, this program confirms that Adolf Hitler’s famous remark to Edward R. Murrow — “I’m only doing to the Jews what you did to the Indians” — was dead-on accurate. (Remember that Hitler’s favorite reading materials were the German-language Western pulps of Karl May, who had never visited the American West but had learned all the conventions of the Western genre from reading its American practitioners and faithfully copied them.)

Indeed, when this show mentioned that Custer had studied Indian languages and customs and considered himself sympathetic to them, I could only think of how Adolf Eichmann similarly researched the tenets of the Jewish religion and even considered himself a Zionist (he was one of those Nazis who favored exiling the Jews over killing them, but once the final decision was made to exterminate them he was totally on board), and when he was captured he astonished and revolted his captors by reciting the holiest prayer of the Jewish religion in the original Hebrew. The final battle of Custer’s life — after his genocidal attack on an Indian village at the Washita River in Kansas in 1868 — was the result of an expedition he had led into the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory (one of the holiest sites to the Lakota people; anyone who’s seen both this show and the movie Avatar won’t be able to ignore how much James Cameron drew on Native American spirituality, in particular the idea of being destined by God to inhabit certain areas of land and thereby literally being damned if they move from there, whether willingly or by force, in creating the culture and beliefs of the Na’vi) in 1873.

At the time the Black Hills were part of a reservation that had been deeded to the Lakota and the Cheyenne “in perpetuity,” a U.S. government bit of Newspeak in Indian treaties that never meant its literal meaning of “forever.” With white settlers already pushing on the bounds of this reservation, and the government looking for an excuse to seize the Black Hills, Custer led his expedition and found one: the two miners he’d brought along discovered gold, leading to the next great gold rush in American history after the one in California in 1850 and before the Klondike in 1890. Immediately word of the discovery got back to the east and settlers flooded the area — and, when the Indians fought back, they demanded federal protection. Part of the government’s strategy was to insist that the local Indians cross into the reservation and “register,” essentially giving up their hunter-gatherer lifestyle and becoming domesticated in both the human and animal senses of the term — and Ives’ program describes Sitting Bull as a “conservative,” a leader of the old-school people who regarded any compromise with the U.S. government and the reservation system as a denial of the destiny God had ordained for them. The show detailed Custer’s conflicts with his fellow officers and also his and the other officers’ racist disdain for the Indians, figuring that they would never attack en masse but, confronted with an organized force, would always withdraw into the hills. (In that sense the Little Big Horn was sort of like the Tet Offensive in the Viet Nam War in 1968 — also a mass attack by an enemy the U.S. commanders had been sure would never launch one.) Ironically, the most effective fighters Custer had in his force were the Indians on his side — mostly Crow and Arapaho, the traditional enemies of the Lakota and Cheyenne — who at least knew what they were up against.

The show mentions Custer’s legacy as well, how his life has been used for propaganda purposes — his widow Elizabeth “Libby” Bacon Custer commissioned a fawning biography and later wrote three books of her own (she died in 1933) — and paralleled clips from They Died With Their Boots On and the 1971 film Little Big Man to show how a World War II-era America lionized Custer and a Viet Nam-era America turned him into caricature. It was a fascinating if sometimes draggy documentary of a figure at once antique and modern in his awareness of P.R. and his ability to sell himself as a dashing hero, a 19th-century knight-errant and cavalier — he not only had reporters accompany him into battle but he wrote for magazines himself (indeed, that was how he supported himself during his one-year suspension from the Army after the Civil War).

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Reckless Moment (Columbia, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I had watched a quite remarkable movie from 1949, a Columbia film noir called The Reckless Moment, directed by Max Ophuls from a script by Mel Dinelli, Robert E. Kent (“adaptation”), Henry Garson and Robert Soderberg (“screenplay”) based on a Ladies’ Home Journal story called “The Blank Wall” by a writer with the rather awkward name Elizabeth Sanxay Holding. It’s a rarely shown movie that I’d been curious about ever since seeing, reviewing and absolutely raving about the 2001 remake, The Deep End, by Scott McGehee and David Siegel as co-writers, co-directors and co-producers. The film stars Joan Bennett as Lucia Harper, whose husband is off in Europe helping with the post-World War II reconstruction and whose 17-year-old daughter Bea (Geraldine Brooks, who praise be looks enough like Joan Bennett that they’re perfectly believable as mother and daughter, a rarity in any movie; all too often casting directors merrily assign people who look nothing like each other and try to pass them off as biological relatives!) is messing around with a 30-year-old lounge-lizard slimeball named Ted Darby (Sheppherd Strudwick). Bea met Darby in Los Angeles, a 50-mile drive from the small beach community of “Balboa” (Santa Barbara?) where the Harpers live, where Lucia had allowed her to attend art college instead of going to a university. Lucia goes to the hotel bar where Darby hangs out and tears into him, ordering him not to see her daughter again, and Darby of course tells her to go get stuffed. Later Darby comes to Balboa for reasons that aren’t especially clear and Bea meets him there; he asks her for money, and that convinces Bea that every nasty thing her mom had to say about him was absolutely true and she confronts him then and there — they fight, Bea hits him with a flashlight, and he takes a header off their deck and lands on an anchor, impaling himself.

Thinking she’s actually helping, Lucia loads Darby’s body into her outboard-motor boat, dumps it in mid-bay and returns it, all in the dead of night, and decides to cover for Bea’s actions by telling the police (if they ask) that she and Darby never knew each other — only a blackmailer named Ted Donnelly (James Mason, star of Ophuls’ immediately preceding film Caught and billed first on the imdb.com page for the film and its entry in The Film Noir Encyclopedia but second to Bennett on the actual credits — was the film later reissued, when Mason was a more important star, with his name first?) shows up with a packet of love letters Bea wrote Darby and demands $5,000 for them. From then on the film becomes a clash between Lucia’s visits to the noir underworld in a frantic attempt to raise the blackmail money without having to tell her husband what’s going on, and the fascinating pull-back of her middle-class suburban lifestyle — symbolized by her buttinski father-in-law (Henry O’Neill), Bea’s obnoxious kid brother David (David Bair) and their Black maid, Sybil (Frances Williams), who all seem to be hanging around whenever she wants to talk to Donnelly on the phone or he shows up. Donnelly has an attack of conscience about what he’s doing and seems inclined to go easy on Lucia, so his partner in crime, Nagle (Roy Roberts), turns up in person to put the squeeze on Lucia — only Donnelly confronts him, they fight, the wounded Donnelly strangles Nagle and then takes him out in his car and deliberately crashes it, killing himself and making Nagle’s death look accidental.

The Reckless Moment and The Deep End are surprisingly close; McGehee and Siegel made one major change in the story — instead of a straight daughter, Bea becomes Beau, the heroine’s Gay son (and the blackmail device becomes, not a packet of letters, but a videotape of Darby fucking Beau) — and a handful of minor ones; they moved the setting to Lake Tahoe (and turned the California-Nevada border into a metaphoric boundary between decency and corruption much the way the U.S.-Mexico border served in Touch of Evil) and changed the blackmailer’s agent from an Irishman (casting Mason as an Irishman seems to have been inspired by his success as an Irish revolutionary in the film Odd Man Out two years earlier) to a refugee from the former Yugoslavia — but both films turn on the marvelous contrast between Lucia’s (forced) walk on the wild side and her sturdy suburban values, and in particular the household members that hem her in so much Donnelly even comments, “These people really have you trapped, don’t they?” The acting is excellent throughout, with Bennett ironically appearing as the ordinary person trapped in the noir underworld just a few years after making The Woman in the Window (1945) and Scarlet Street (1946), in which she was the femme fatale and Edward G. Robinson the milquetoast she was leading to destruction. But what makes The Reckless Moment special is Ophuls’ direction, particularly his use of the moving camera — it seems to have been Ophuls’ style never to cut until he absolutely had to, but instead to take us from place to place on a camera dolly, and according to an imdb.com poster James Mason said about the film that at one point Ophuls wanted to have two sets fully lit simultaneously so he could dolly from one to the other. Columbia president Harry Cohn said no, and, according to Mason, “Ophuls could not smile anymore from this day.”

The Reckless Moment dramatizes, just as vividly as The Deep End did, the contrast between the heroine’s safe suburban existence and the noir underworld in which she is plunged; and contrary to what’s been written about the film, there really isn’t the hint of a romantic interest between Lucia and Donnelly; instead, as in The Deep End, what seems to change Donnelly’s moral status and lead him to sympathize with the woman he’s trying to blackmail is his attraction towards her “normal” suburban lifestyle. Also, though the film is not explicitly Gay (as its remake is — under the Production Code, of course, it couldn’t have been), there’s an interesting intimation of a homoerotic relationship between Donnelly and Nagle (“You have a family, I have Nagle,” he tells Lucia at one point), anticipating the role Mason would play 10 years later in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest as the rich, decadent Bisexual who’s clearly keeping Eva Marie Saint as a girlfriend and Martin Landau as a boyfriend. (In North by Northwest, when Landau’s character tries to warn Mason’s — accurately — that Saint’s character has betrayed him to the government, Mason whines, “Leonard! I do believe you’re jealous!”) Just as Joan Bennett had gone from playing the femme fatale who draws the ordinary person into the noir world to playing the ordinary person who gets drawn into it and has to cope with its weirdly inverted values, so James Mason would go from the innocent young man drawn into both a criminal and a homosexual relationship with a decadent older partner to playing the decadent older partner pulling the same sort of thing with both genders in North by Northwest.

Special Agent K-7 (C. C. Burr Productions, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked last night was a recent archive.org download called Special Agent K-7, an intriguing 1936 indie from C. C. Burr Productions, directed by old Western hand Bernard B. Ray and a movie of such low repute that one archive.org reviewer posted a comment that Special Agent K-9 would have been a better title. (The joke is actually somewhat appropriate since Ray did direct several of the movies starring one of the later Rin Tin Tins.) It’s actually a much better movie than that jibe would indicate, though it’s also one of those 1930’s thrillers that takes an audacious plot premise and moves it along at such a stately pace that despite a relatively short running time (imdb.com lists 71 minutes and the print we watched was 64) it gets surprisingly dull. It’s yet another movie from the classic era that would have been vastly improved if it had been made at Warner Bros., with James Cagney as star and one of their speed-demon directors, but as it stands it’s still an engaging if somewhat slow-moving thriller. FBI agent “Lanny” Landers (Walter McGrail), code-numbered K-7, wants to retire but is told by his superior, John Adams (Richard Tucker), that now that he’s traveled around the world busting crime syndicates, his services are needed at home to attack organized crime in the U.S. He’s particularly needed to bring down crooked nightclub/casino owner Eddie Geller (Willy Castello), who as the film opens is on trial for murder but isn’t convicted because the jury is hopelessly deadlocked.

The reason the jury is hopelessly deadlocked is because Geller’s attorney, Lester Owens (Irving Pichel), has bribed two of its members to hold out for acquittal no matter what. District attorney Ames (George Eldredge) announces his intention to hold Geller for a retrial, and the judge in the case — who’s already read the jury members new assholes, stating from the bench that there was ample evidence to convict and he’s ashamed of them (a gimmick used in several movies of this period even though today it seems awfully far out of line for a judge to say that from the bench!) — says that Geller will remain in custody until then. Owens promises to have him out on bail and indeed wins his release. The trial is being covered by woman reporter Ollie O’Dea (Queenie Smith), whom Landers used to date but who is now engaged to Billy Westrop (Donald Reed), a rich man’s son who ran up $2,000 in gambling debts at Geller’s casino and whose promissory note has been altered to read $5,000. The principals meet at the casino — Landers wants a chance to get to know the man who’s engaged to marry his ex — and Westrop is summoned to Geller’s office, shown the (altered) note and told to come up with the $5,000 immediately … or else. Westrop and Geller get into an argument, the door of the office closes, a shot is heard, Tony Blank (Duncan Renaldo) is seen in the corridor, and when the door opens again Landers finds Geller dead, killed with a gunshot. Westrop is immediately suspect number one, but he insists that he and Geller merely struggled over the gun (Maurine Watkins, your plagiarism attorney thanks you for keeping him in business!), it went off and he left Geller still alive.

Landers figures out that if Geller and Westrop had actually been struggling the way Westrop said they were, the shot would have gone wild and the bullet would have gone into the office wall — and, sure enough, he finds a bullet hole in the wall at precisely the trajectory he predicted. Only that doesn’t let Westrop off the hook because, even though only one gunshot was heard, the slug recovered from the wall and the one in Geller’s body were fired from the same gun. (Ballistics tests were a relative novelty in 1936 — as was the scientific investigation of crime scenes in general — and the FBI were widely credited as pioneers in forensic science.) Tony offers to meet Landers and turn state’s evidence, but (in a quite creative scene that stands out in an otherwise pretty plainly photographed and staged film) Landers sees a commotion on the street below from his apartment window and realizes that Tony has been shot dead just in front of his building — and it turns out the killer used the same gun as the one that killed Geller. Suspicion falls on Westrop again — Ollie arranges for Lester Owens to represent him but Owens is clearly throwing the case — and when Westrop is proven not to be the killer Owens tries to frame another character, small-time gangster “Silky” Samuels (Malcolm McGregor), but not surprisingly it turns out that Owens himself committed both murders, that he was the secret “Mr. Big” bankrolling Geller and all of organized crime in the city, and at the end Landers arrests Owens and says a bittersweet farewell to Ollie (with whom he’s still in love) and her new husband Westrop.

According to a long note from an imdb.com reviewer, Special Agent K-7 was based on a hit radio show and was intended as the first in a series — though only this one was made; producer C. C. Burr promised exhibitors not only a whole series of K-7 movies but also musical Westerns starring George Eldredge, none of which materialized. As it stands, it’s a good though not great movie: the script by Phil Dunham and Lester Spillet is a serviceable assemblage of thriller clichés with just enough fresh spins that we don’t get the feeling (as one sometimes does with 1930’s “B”’s) that we’ve seen this movie before even if we haven’t. Ray’s direction is serviceable — there are a few shots that anticipate film noir but mostly the framing and lighting are straightforward and plain — and so is the acting, with Irving Pichel taking the honors as the villain and a quite appealing performance by Joy Hodges as Peppy, Tony’s girlfriend and a singer at Geller’s casino (she does a song called “Actions Speak Louder Than Words” and is shot playing a piano — whether it’s her on the soundtrack, either vocally or instrumentally, the number is appealing and it looks like Hodges actually knew how to play). Walter McGrail is a bit too much like Walter Huston for comfort — their voices are almost indistinguishable and one gets the impression McGrail would have been the sort of actor sent out in the road companies of Huston’s big Broadway hits — and he seems oddly avuncular for an action hero, but like most of the rest of this film, his performance “works” even though it seems quite a bit less inspired than it could have been.

The Pregnancy Project (Front Street Pictures/Lifetime, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a Lifetime TV-movie that had its “world premiere” last night, The Pregnancy Project, not to be confused with the recent The Pregnancy Pact though it too, at least ostensibly, is based on a true story that actually broke just last year, when in April 2011 a high-school senior in Toppenish, Washington named Gaby Rodriguez revealed at a school assembly that for most of the school year she had been faking being pregnant as part of a student project to document how her family, teachers and fellow students would treat her differently. The movie, directed by Norman Buckley from a script by Teena Booth, comes off as a sort of modern-day version of Gentleman’s Agreement, only instead of an adult male reporter pretending to be Jewish to get a series of articles on anti-Semitic prejudice, it’s a teenage girl pretending to be pregnant and ending up documenting a world of social and racial (racist) stereotypes. It’s the sort of movie that starts out being almost unwittingly silly but gets stronger and more emotionally intense as it winds on, thanks to Buckley’s understated direction and some quite good performances, notably by Alexa Vega as Gaby and especially by Laci J. Mailey as Tyra, the foster child whose actual pregnancy inspired Gaby’s “project.”

The film comes with a lot of heavy-duty baggage on the Lifetime Web site, including a downloadable two-page “discussion guide” for use of this movie in schools, but aside from the social intent of its makers (to prevent teenagers from having sex, or at least to persuade them to use “protection” — though, intriguingly, birth control for girls is not mentioned as an option even once and, in line with the way the AIDS scare has reshaped sexual morality, the onus of preventing teen pregnancy is put on the males to use condoms), but on the whole it’s a well-done movie that explores not only the clash between sexual responsibilities and hormonal drives but also the ethics of unknowingly involving other human beings in a research project and putting them through emotional changes for the sake of knowledge. One of the more powerful parts of the story is that Gaby herself is the result of her mother’s teen pregnancy, and her sister Sonya (Mercedes de la Zerda) was also a teen mom — and her uncle Javier (Michael Mando) is fiercely judgmental of Gaby and her boyfriend Jorge (Walter Perez) even before her (supposed) pregnancy, and afterwards they nearly come to blows over Jorge’s (whose name, incidentally, is pronounced “George,” Anglo-style, even by the Latino/a characters) knocking up his niece and thereby allegedly ruining her life, driving her off the college-bound track her general smarts and good grades had put her on and sticking her in the same proletarian existence as her own, her sister’s and Jorge’s families.

Gaby finds her reputation at school plummeting even farther and faster than she expected — and a lot of the attacks on her are explicitly racist, including references to “those people” and one fellow student calling her entire family a “baby factory” — while Tyra thinks Gaby is (relatively) lucky because at least Jorge is still part of her life, whereas Devon, the father of Tyra’s unborn child, just walked out on her (as Gaby’s own father did on her mom way back when). There’s also an effectively done suspense element in whether or not Gaby’s secret will come out before her big “reveal” — the only people who actually know are her mom, Jorge (there’s a nicely sour bit of dialogue from him when he asks her, “Just when are we supposed to have this pretend ‘baby’?” — it’s clear he’s not thrilled to have all the stigma of teen fatherhood and none of the joys of unprotected sex with his girlfriend!), the two teachers who are advising her on the assignment and her friend Claire (Sarah Smyth), whom she’s enlisted as her research assistant to document what gets said about her out of her presence — and it’s also fascinating how the strains of a pretend “pregnancy” and the traumas Gaby faces trying to keep both her composure and her cover at least temporarily break up her and Jorge.

About the only comic relief in the film is the scene in which Gaby and her mom cut a basketball in half to make a faintly convincing false belly for her to make her look pregnant (though at the big “reveal” she lifts her shirt and what she’s actually wearing under it is a professionally made medical appliance), and one sequence in which she’s trying on a prom dress and is worried that if she buys one made for a non-pregnant figure, that will “out” her. It’s a neatly done movie, though just how close to the facts it is I have no idea (Gaby herself wrote a memoir which is one of the books listed in the “discussion guide”), and it was a bit disappointing from an aesthetic point of view that the hottest-looking young man in the movie, Aaron (Richard Harmon), was also one of the nastiest in terms of the catty comments he made about Gaby and the sorts of girls who “let” themselves get pregnant in the first place.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Kid from Broken Gun (Columbia, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s curtain-raiser was an intriguing Western item called The Kid from Broken Gun, last in a seven-year series of “B” Westerns from Columbia that starred Charles Starrett (one of those actors, like Randolph Scott, who extended his career about 20 years longer than it would otherwise have run by focusing on Westerns exclusively) as the Durango Kid, a.k.a. Steve Reynolds. Framed by a trial sequence and liberally filled out with stock footage from previous Durango Kid efforts, notably a movie called The Fighting Frontiersman, The Kid from Broken Gun is intriguing because it features Smiley Burnette as Starrett’s comic-relief sidekick — Burnette worked with Gene Autry so long (not only on-screen but also as co-writer of many of Autry’s original songs) it’s somewhat jarring to see him without Autry, especially since he’d got quite a bit more heavy-set than he’d been in his early days with Autry and he’d grown out his hair to a tousled mop that gave him an odd resemblance to Chico Marx.

The Kid from Broken Gun is a fascinating little movie, written by Barry Shipman and Ed. Earl Repp (the period after the two-letter first name is actually on his on-screen credit) with a bit more creativity than the norm for a “B” Western and quite well directed by Fred F. Sears, who was usually pretty hacky but who opens this film with some fascinating overhead shots of a courtroom with a trial in progress five years before the launch of the Perry Mason TV series, which made these sorts of angles a trademark. Sears also delivers a few bits of narration on the soundtrack, telling us that in the old West the sentence for murder was to be hanged by the neck until you were dead, before introducing us to defendant Jack Mahoney (also the real name of the actor playing him, though he was usually credited as Jock Mahoney and the actual name on his birth certificate was Jacques O’Mahoney), who’s on trial for murdering Matt Fallon (Chris Alcaide) in what, in a series of flashbacks representing the stories told during the trial testimony, turns out to be an altercation over a strongbox containing a part of the gold Antonio López de Santa Anna left behind as he and his army were fleeing Texas following their rout at San Jacinto in 1836. Mahoney is being represented by a female attorney, Gail Kingston (an effective Angela Stevens) — this is Wyoming, the first state to give women the vote — and Steve Reynolds, a.k.a. the Durango Kid (Charles Starrett), is watching the trial with his friend Smiley Burnette (also using his own name for his character) when he isn’t out riding around with a black bandana across the lower half of his face — the total extent of his “Durango Kid” disguise and which, as I’ve noted about earlier films in the series, seems to have been effected only to allow stunt doubles to substitute for Starrett in the action scenes. (There’s a comic tag scene at the end which pathetically tries to make us believe that Smiley has no idea his friend is the Durango Kid.)

What sets this apart from most “B” Westerns is, first, the excellent shape it’s survived in — Fayte M. Browne’s cinematography is rich in high-contrast chiaroscuro black-and-white images and the print as it stands does full justice to it: the images are crisp and clear and there are no visible or audible splices or scratches in the film (a boon to anyone who’s suffered through cloudy, grainy, splice-ridden prints of “B” Westerns from the 1930’s) — and the surprising inventiveness of the writing: towards the end Shipman and Repp give us some neck-snapping but still believable reversals, including revealing that Matt Fallon’s girlfriend, saloon entertainer Dixie King (Helen Mowery) was actually attorney Gail Kingston’s sister, and was also part of a plot headed by local 1 percenter Martin Donohugh (Tristram Coffin) and also involving Matt Fallon — that’s right, this is another one of those plots in which not only did the good guy not commit murder, the person he’s supposed to have murdered isn’t really dead at all! — to steal the gold-filled strongbox and set up Mahoney for the theft as well as getting him hanged on a murder charge. This isn’t exactly a world-beater of a movie, but it is a reasonably entertaining way to spend 53 minutes and the clever writing, acceptable acting (and in Angela Stevens’ case considerably better than that; she’s quite good both as the good girl and the bad girl, and she and Helen Mowery look enough like each other to be believable as sisters) and excellent print condition make this one a cut above most “B” Westerns.

Hollywood Without Makeup (Ken Murray Productions, 1963)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I screened a rather interesting 48-minute TV-movie we’d downloaded from archive.org called Hollywood Without Makeup, a production of a man named Ken Murray who had had a minor career as a bit actor in the 1920’s and had taken a home movie camera to the sets of films he was working on and shot candid off-screen footage of the stars. Though he dropped out of the creative end of picturemaking shortly after, he continued to work as a Hollywood journalist and film the movie stars both at work and at play — and this film takes his documentary history all the way up to 1963, when it was compiled and first shown, offering backstage footage of Fred MacMurray working on the Disney lot in the then-new film Son of Flubber (there’s a charming bit of MacMurray taking some kids for a drive around the Disney backlot in the Model T Ford he drove in the film, and Murray’s narration tells us that the kids kept asking MacMurray, “Make it fly”) and closing with footage of the recently deceased Marilyn Monroe at a movie premiere, waving to the audience and looking utterly gorgeous and plastic (Murray didn’t get any truly candid footage of her and so we don’t get the side of Marilyn we see in some of Milton Greene’s stills or in her best-looking movie, The Prince and the Showgirl — in which Jack Cardiff photographed her artistically for the first and only time in a color film, taming her aggressive looks and making her sensual rather than blatantly sexual).

One of the most fascinating aspects of Hollywood Without Makeup is how accurate the title was — you really did get to see at least some of the stars without makeup and being essentially themselves instead of playing to the camera — and though some of them (notably Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart) proved every bit as charismatic being photographed by Ken Murray’s camera as they were getting the full-dress professional treatment in their actual movies, others (including Norma Shearer) turned out to be quite plain-looking, only ordinarily attractive without the help of makeup and studio lighting. People who knew both Rudolph Valentino and Marilyn Monroe (that’s two different sets of people, but they made strikingly similar comments) both said that off-screen they were no more than decent-looking people, physically easy on the eyes but nothing special — yet on film they acquired a glow that made them seem far sexier than they were in person. “The miracle happened on the film emulsion,” said Billy Wilder on Monroe (he directed her twice and she gave him such a hard time that he joked the Screen Directors’ Guild should award anyone who made more than one film with her a Purple Heart) — and what’s most interesting about Hollywood Without Makeup is not only that some of the “candid” footage appears to have been staged (notably an early-1930’s toy-car race between the young Jackie Cooper and Groucho and Harpo Marx — the ½ to 2/3 of the Marx Brothers were in full on-screen regalia rather than their rather ratty off-screen appearances) but the layers on layers of image-making that went into even a “casual” appearance by a star in the glory days.

It’s also amusing to hear Murray’s narration referring to Hollywood’s glory days as if they were already in the past — and it’s fascinating to see some of the footage at San Simeon (William Randolph Hearst is virtually the only person depicted here who was a celebrity but not a movie star), which Charles (who’s been there) pointed out had been used in the official videos shown at the state park (and the commentary there duplicated some of Ken Murray’s mistakes in his narration). Also worth note is the sequence from Murray’s TV show in which Kirk Douglas appears as a guest star and complains that his mother thinks Murray is a bigger star than he is because he has a new TV show on once a week whereas Douglas only releases a new movie every three or four months. It would be nice to see Hollywood Without Makeup in better shape — the print we downloaded from archive.org was in terrible condition and looked like a silent movie rescued just in time before it decomposed completely (and the disc we’d burned from the download had its own set of glitches, often jumping ahead a full five-minute chapter) — it is a really charming film even though it’s something less than the glimpse of Hollywood stars totally letting their hair down (figuratively, and sometimes literally) Murray promised us in his narration.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Man in the Iron Mask (Burbank Studios Australia, 1985)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked last night was The Man in the Iron Mask, a quirky 1985 production from Australia — the production company was actually named Burbank Studios and they did a whole run of animated 54-minute TV versions of classic tales, obviously aimed at kids (there was a cute fox, dog and horse in an early scene) but with some of the terror and pathos of the original Alexandre Dumas père story intact. The plot is familiar: Louis XIII’s queen gives birth to twin sons, Louis and Philippe, and in order to forestall a civil war when both boys come of age, Louis is made the crown prince and inherits the throne, while Philippe is farmed out to a foster family of humble status — and for some reason they made his foster father, who’s also his home-school teacher, look like Benjamin Franklin. At age 15 Philippe finally meets the mysterious visitor who comes to the tiny village where he lives from Paris and reads a letter from the Queen that reveals she’s really her son and second in line for the throne of France. Some of the surviving Musketeers (this was actually the third in Dumas’ series, so the J. R. R. Tolkien/Janice Rowling tactic of writing a long string of books telling a continuous story and releasing them according to popular demand is nothing new!) contact Philippe and offer to help him lead a revolution to overthrow Louis, whose taxes, wars and general oppressions are destroying France, and install Philippe on the throne but, since the two look alike, with no one the wiser.

For a 1985 animated TV show this is pretty well done — the style is very “limited-animation” and barely credible people cavort over well-executed, colorful backgrounds, but there’s some creativity and at least one sequence, a dazzling abstract scene representing the court entertainment glorifying Louis XIV, that’s quite the best thing in the movie and was done by a different animation director (Antoniette Starkiewicz) than the rest of the film. It’s also rather remarkable in that the finale leaves Philippe, imprisoned in the titular iron mask, in an island prison and does not include the obligatory happy ending from other versions of the tale. Though not particularly creatively designed or staged (save for the court “dream” sequence), this Man in the Iron Mask is at least generally well acted — Colin Friels has the dual role of Louis and Philippe and the others are also good — and one hopes it served the same purpose the Mr. Magoo Theatre shows in my childhood in the 1960’s served of introducing me to classic stories I would eventually read, or at least watch more sophisticated movies of, and like better!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Walking the Halls (Johnson Production Group, ITV Global Studios, Shadowland, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’ve watched yet another recently aired Lifetime TV-movie, Walking the Halls, which they showed right after Sexting in Suburbia (though they re-ran Sexting right after it as well!) and which was a pretty wild tale in which Casey Benson (Caitlin Thompson), a nice young high-school senior who’s planning to major in earth sciences in college and is going to a school in New York — on the other side of the country from California, where she and her parents live — when she gets spotted in the hallways by Amber (Marie Avgeropoulos), head of a trio of “bad girls” who at the start look like all that’s wrong with them is they’re stuck-up snobs but who in reality are prostitutes, being run by a “manager” (i.e., pimp) named Jack (Matthew Alan — and it’s all too typical of Lifetime’s casting directors that the hottest-looking guy in the movie turns out to be the principal villain!), who’s also the head of the school’s on-site police force and figures his “cop smarts” will enable him to avoid prosecution. This one was written by our old friend, Lifetime auteur Christine Conradt, though after she finished with the script director Doug Campbell and his writing partner, Ken Sanders, tweaked it enough to gain co-credit — and it’s typical of a Conradt script in that it takes a provocative premise, occasionally plays it for its potential power, but also treads on the thin edge of camp and finally goes over with a melodramatic finale that puts our principals — Casey, her mom Holly (Jamie Luner, top-billed) and her dad Christopher (Al Sapienza) — literally in mortal danger from Jack and Amber.

The script plunges Casey into a perfect storm of dysfunction from the get-go — her rather nerdy boyfriend starts the story by breaking up with her, and later she overhears her parents arguing and learns that her dad has sucked all the money out of her parents’ joint account — including the family savings Casey was counting on to finance her way through college — and is having an affair. Mom confronts him about this, dad backhands her, and mom has him arrested for domestic violence. Meanwhile, Casey is recruited by Amber and her friends Taylor (Lindsay Taylor) and Kylie (Arden Cho) and is sucked into their ring when Amber sets up a date for her to go the Goldbar club on a Friday night — Casey is underage (at least for drinking; she’s 18 and therefore above the legal age of consent for sex, an important point since part of Jack’s plan is to recruit ’em young but not so young he’d face the far heavier penalties for prostituting the underage) but Amber says that’s no problem: all Casey has to do is e-mail her a photo of herself and Amber will concoct a fake ID.

Once there, Casey is immediately courted by 28-year-old Max (Jason-Shane Scott) and spends the night with him (though it’s later established that she’d done the down-’n’-dirty with that twerpy boyfriend of hers and therefore she wasn’t a virgin), thinking it’s pure love and not realizing that someone was paid for her services until the next day, when Amber flashes $500 in front of her and says that was her cut. She angrily refuses it, but then when her parents’ marriage suddenly implodes and she realizes her family is broke, she decides to continue hooking until several acts later, when just as she’s on the point of moving out of her home because her mom is spying on her and trying to figure out where she’s getting her money (like a lot of other Conradt scripts, this one depicts one or both of the heroine’s parents as such good spies one wonders why they don’t solve the family’s financial problems by going to work for the CIA), she has an attack of revulsion when Jack arranges a three-way between her, Amber and an older man who’s paying handsomely for their services — he looked rather distinguished to me but we’re supposed to believe he’s so unforgivably repulsive that Casey bolts rather than face having sex with him, and Jack fires her on the spot and says that if she ever reports him to the police, he will kill both her and her parents. Mom, who earlier had conducted a three-hour stakeout of the hotel where she turns her tricks and confronted her in the lobby — whereupon the stuck-up queen concierge threatens to have her arrested — worms the truth out of Casey and immediately reports it to the school principal (Patricia Belcher), yet another one of the avuncular African-Americans that always seem to turn up as the authority figures in these movies, and the principal reports it to … guess who. Just take a wild guess.

That’s right: Officer Jack, who immediately determines to make good on his threat to knock off all the Bensons and enlists Amber to help him by holding a gun on Casey and her mom while he goes out and kidnaps dad, brings him back to the house and announces that he plans to kill all three of them and stage it as a murder-suicide: a dumped ex-husband returning home, getting revenge by killing his wife and daughter and then taking his own life. (Then he’ll probably get rid of Amber as well since as a witness she could be dangerous to him.) There’s a confusing series of events that ends with mom persuading Amber to relax their bonds, Jack arriving with dad, and ultimately mom gets Jack’s gun and kills him. There’s a voice-over that announces that Amber got five years’ probation and left town, Christopher and Holly patched things up long enough not to save their marriage but at least to achieve a more amicable divorce, and Casey left for her New York college and “never looked back.” I suppose I should be grateful that they didn’t pull the old scene in which Casey gets sent out on an out-call and the customer turns out to be her own father (maybe Conradt wrote such a scene and Campbell and Sanders pulled rank on her and took it out again), but they hit all the other clichés of the genre, including the old one from the 1930’s exploitation films of making the demi-monde seem so boring that it hardly seems worth bothering with (though I give the filmmakers credit for making the club genuinely believable instead of antiseptically decorous the way the alleged punk party was in Sexting in Suburbia).

An imdb.com message board poster put up this plot synopsis from Lifetime’s Web site that may indicate what got changed between Conradt’s script and the final film: “When 17-year-old Casey Benson, new to Los Angeles, starts to make friends with some of the beautiful, popular cheerleaders at her school, her mother Holly is pleased. Casey seems happy but when her attitude and behavior begins to change, Holly is alarmed. Becoming increasingly estranged, Holly hired P.I. Sue Ann to sort things out. Casey and her cheerleading friend are spending their evenings dating wealthy older men.” In the finished film, the family have lived in their current home nearly 20 years (dad makes quite a few nasty remarks to mom about how his job — though how he makes his living remains a mystery — has supported them all for 20 years and paid for that house), Amber, Taylor and Kylie are not depicted as cheerleaders (cheerleading practices would probably have taken too much time away from their actual nocturnal pursuits) and there is no private investigator (probably just as well, since when Conradt drags in a P.I. he or she usually gets killed well before the denouement). Walking the Halls is a pretty typical Lifetime movie, good in spots — at least Campbell directs it straightforwardly, without the music-video “flanging” effects other Lifetime directors (especially those who came out of music videos) have indulged in — but almost risibly campy in others, and frankly the unmistakably and unashamedly campy movie Mini’s First Time got more out of the situation of a high-school girl turning to prostitution because of her family’s dysfunction than this ostensibly more “serious” film did!

Mr. Adam's Bomb (Ernest Green Productions, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie last night was a weird little race item called Mr. Adam’s Bomb starring Eddie Green (who also directed), Jessie Grayson, Mildred Boyd and Gene Ware — none of whom are identified with their roles on imdb.com — and it begins with a grandfatherly man who we’re told is the heroine’s father doing a hot jitterbug dance in his apartment with the maid to a record that’s the best thing in the movie, an intense instrumental that’s on the cusp between jazz and R&B, with (seemingly) improvised solos against a grinding, repetitive riff from the other horns. Alas, the avuncular old man (played by the only person in this movie who can actually act!) gets called out by his wife (we presume they’re the parents of the young ingénue leading woman even though she’s supposed to be playing their daughter but looks more like their granddaughter!) and told he shouldn’t be dancing to that awful music. The main plot is the presentation of the daughter’s singing voice at a musicale where the audience, having just heard a great piece of R&B-flavored jazz (or is it the other way around?), is asked to get excited about the daughter singing a boring romantic ballad that could easily have come out of a white sing-along movie of the time (1949). The title comes in because the musicale is also being crashed by a couple of federal agents suspecting Mr. Adam of having built his own nuclear bombs — though the “bomb” turns out to be a metal sphere with an innocuous present for Mr. Adam’s daughter. This was really nothing more than a curiosity; it didn’t even have the hot, infectious music we expect to hear in a movie otherwise this good!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Drew Peterson: Untouchable (PeaceOut Productions, Silver Screen Entertainment, Lifetime, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Drew Peterson: Untouchable, a 2012 production from a couple of companies called PeaceOut and Silver Screen for release on the Lifetime TV network, based on the true story of Drew Peterson (Rob Lowe), 50-something police officer in the small town of Bolingbrook, Illinois, with a remarkable ability to get 20-something girls to fall head over heels in love with him (he attributes this to the size of his penis, which he calls “Big Daddy,” and given the hotel-room sexcapades that are the biggest thing — pardon the pun — anybody remembers about Lowe’s off-screen life, it seems cruelly appropriate to have cast Lowe in this part!). When the story opens Peterson has already burned through two marriages and the third one is definitely on the rocks; whatever fires of love ever burned between him and Kathleen Savio (Cara Buono) have burned out into embers of hate, enough that Peterson keeps turning up the pressure on her by harassing her at their home while sneaking in his new girlfriend Stacy (Kaley Cuoco) into their home and their bed even when Kathleen and their two sons are there. Kathleen tries to throw him out and get a restraining order against him, but he’s protected by his brethren on the Bolingbrook police force.

Eventually they divorce so he can marry Stacy, though not before Kathleen gives her a talking-to and warns her that Drew is a controlling bastard and a wife-beater as well — warnings that, of course, go in one of Stacy’s ears, through the apparently near-totally empty space in between and out the other. (Drew likes them young, blonde and dumb.) Drew and Stacy marry, and Kathleen’s body is eventually found in the bathtub of her home — at first the death is ruled an accidental drowning — only three years and two more children later, Stacy is as fed up with Drew’s domination, his keeping her on a short leash because of his paranoid conviction that she’s having an affair, and his occasional bursts of domestic violence that she wants out of the marriage … and it’s at that point that Stacy suddenly disappears. Drew tells everyone she’s probably at the beach, hanging out long-term with the guy she was having the affair with, but her sister and many of Drew’s female friends are convinced he murdered her. Stacy is never found, dead or alive, but the furor around the case gets Kathleen’s body exhumed, and a new autopsy reveals that she was deliberately drowned, so the case gets reclassified as a murder and Drew, not surprisingly, is suspect number one.

It’s not much of a story, and the fact that it was filmed while Drew is still awaiting trial for Kathleen’s murder forced writer Teena Booth to pussy-foot (once again, pardon the pun) around some of the dicier parts of the story — it’s pretty obvious from the way she wrote it that she thinks Drew murdered both Kathleen and Stacy, but she can’t come right out and say so without potentially prejudicing the trial, but it has one saving grace: the acting of Rob Lowe. He’s able to tread the fine line required for a character like this, making him despicable enough that we believe he’s capable of murder but also charming enough that we can see what attracted all these women (including, almost unbelievably, the fresh piece of 20-something blonde meat he’s got an affair going with when he’s arrested!) to him in the first place. Instead of raving through the role he goes along with a serene sense of his own invincibility, his belief that since he’s part of law enforcement the “blue wall of silence” will protect him no matter what he does, and whether he’s driving his motorcycle at the wall of media people who surround his home (Larry King and Anderson Cooper both appear in the film as themselves, and the real Peterson gave self-serving TV interviews that are re-created in the film and are some of Lowe’s most effective scenes in the role) or calmly rattling off his charms (physical and otherwise) — down to a tour de force final scene in which, arrested and told to take his clothes off so he can be dressed in the orange jumpsuit that’s become the de rigueur outfit for prisoners these days (striped shirts and pants are so 20th century!), he starts humming David Rose’s song “The Stripper” (badly) and turns it into a routine, shaking “Big Daddy” at the (male) officers who are taking him into custody as if he expects them to be jealous of his natural endowment.

It’s a great performance that deserved a better movie; the director is Mikael Salomon, who made the Lifetime TV-movie about Natalee Holloway (when I commented on that one I noted that the two shared ridiculously pretentious spellings of their first names!) — another movie that was pretty mediocre overall (Teena Booth wrote its script, too) but was salvaged by a brilliant performance by the actor in the leading role (in that case it was Tracy Pollan as Beth Twitty, Natalee’s mother — and though he’s mostly a series-TV director he has done at least one other true-crime movie for Lifetime, Who Is Clark Rockefeller?, about a Rockefeller impersonator who kidnapped his daughter after the girl’s mother learned the truth about him.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sexting in Suburbia (Moody Independent/Mar Vista Entertainment, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Sexting in Suburbia — which may have had a theatrical release, or at least originally been slated for one, since the imdb.com page on it has a poster with the alternate title Shattered Silence and lists an MPAA rating (PG-13, “for mature thematic material including a disturbing image, some language and sexual content”), though I watched it in what was billed as a “world premiere” on the Lifetime channel — apparently takes its inspiration from a real-life case in 2008, in which Ohio high school student Jessica “Jesse” Logan killed herself after months of being bullied following the mass Internet posting of a nude photo of herself she had e-mailed to her boyfriend, who had cross-posted it and sent it “viral” out of revenge after they broke up. In the movie, directed and edited by John Stimpson (the unusual spelling appears on his on-screen credit as well as imdb.com) from a script he co-wrote with Marcy Holland, the put-upon girl is Dina Van Cleve (Jenn Proske; her imdb.com page doesn’t reveal her birthdate but she looks about a decade too old to be playing a high-school student), star of the girls’ field hockey team at Westfield High School (when I saw the name I reflected on the mysterious “Westfield Shoppingtown” company that quietly bought all the major malls in San Diego County and wondered if they had set this up as a charter school!) and an “A” student in line for a college scholarship who was also elected homecoming queen.

Only at the homecoming after-party her boyfriend, Mark Carey (Ryan Kelley), tries to get her to have sex with him, but she’s still being a virtuous little girl and refuses. Indeed, she bails on the party and comes home to her mom Rachel (Liz Vassey, top-billed) well ahead of schedule, but once she’s home she goes into her room, undresses and sends Mark a weird sort of consolation prize, a nude photo of herself which she takes with the camera on her cell phone. Meanwhile Mark, put off by a girl who wouldn’t put out for him, finds one at the party who will: Skylar Reid (Kelly Goss), blonde sex bomb and Dina’s principal rival for the college scholarship and stardom on the field hockey team. Mark and Skylar become an “item” and Dina’s naked picture appears on cell phones throughout the school — posted by Dina’s friend Claire Stevens (Rachel Parsons) after Skylar intimidates her into it by telling her Dina’s actions risk getting the field hockey team disqualified from championship play. Dina’s new-found notoriety gets her the full-tilt bullying treatment, from graffiti all over Westfield High calling her “whore” and “slut” to being openly shunned by just about everybody in school — someone even dumps a large supply of condoms in her locker, and she opens it and they come spilling out Mark happens to be passing by and offers to help her pick them up, to which she replies, “Haven’t you hurt me enough already?” Eventually the pressure gets to be too much for her and she hangs herself in her bedroom.

The movie doesn’t take a linear approach to the material: it begins with mom Rachel showing a house to a couple who are thinking of buying it (like her own house, it has a leaky kitchen faucet), and she’s so late that by the time she gets home her daughter has already killed herself — and just in case we were encouraged by the ambiguity of the opening scene to hold open the possibility that mom had arrived home in time to rescue her daughter and cut her down from her D.I.Y. noose in time to save her life, we next see a wake at school in which Dina is awarded a posthumous letter in field hockey. The film cuts back and forth throughout its running time between Dina’s worsening situation — the last straw is her being fired from the team and losing her college scholarship — and scenes taking place after Dina’s death, in which Rachel enrages the rest of the town by going after Dina’s killers, specifically by investigating who distributed the photo over the Internet and then trying to get the police to prosecute them on child pornography charges (since Dina was still only 17 when the photo was taken). The opening parts of Sexting in Suburbia alternate between the deliberately depressing and the just plain silly, but once the basis outlines of the story are established it becomes surprisingly chilling and gripping drama, as the same mysterious people who bullied Dina and pressured her to kill herself now turn against Rachel. She gets multiple copies of a death threat, one of those criminal missives with letters clipped from magazine headlines and pasted on a fresh piece of paper to form a message, and the next time she goes to her daughter’s grave she finds the tombstone vandalized with “Dina — Slut” and the posthumous athletic letter set fire to and burned.

Through part of the movie I had thought it would have been more powerful if it had started with the framing sequence and then stuck with Dina’s story, as the bullying and harassment got worse and worse and her ordeal took on a Kafkaesque intensity that made it all too clear why she finally broke down and killed herself — but the dual-track construction Stimpson and Holland actually used creates a powerful sense of drama as Rachel becomes a passion-driven revenge figure, anxious not only to find out who was responsible for hounding her daughter to death but to indict the whole high school and, indeed, the whole town for allowing it to happen. At the same time the movie is a powerful indictment of the Internet and the “zero tolerance” climate that between them has made adolescence even rougher than it was when I went through it, when there was still room for error — a chance to make the stupid mistakes of youth, learn from them and go on with your life temporarily sadder but permanently wiser. The key line is spoken by the avuncular African-American woman guidance counselor Rachel talks to in order to make sense of her daughter’s needless death — and the counselor says, “The Internet is forever.” Even if Dina had overcome her bullying and found the strength to live, That Picture would have followed her through the rest of her life, turning up in unexpected places and probably costing her more than one job. (I’ve had at least two people whom I interviewed for Zenger’s Newsmagazine ask me to take their stories off the Zenger’s blog, one because it was coming up in searches by potential employers and costing him jobs, and the other because she had joined the military while “don’t ask, don’t tell” was still in place and she was afraid it would turn up and get her discharged. I told both these people that I would remove the articles from my own site but I couldn’t guarantee them that it wouldn’t stay lodged in some other part of the Web and still turn up to hurt them.)

Dina’s “sexting” her boyfriend was a reckless and stupid thing to do, but it was precisely the reckless and stupid thing teenagers often do and grow out of — only in the modern age the electrons and pixels preserve all the old stupid mistakes we made and wanted to share online. I’ve often warned people, “If you wouldn’t stand on a streetcorner and yell it out to all passers-by, don’t put it online.” At the same time I’ve often wondered how much of my own online conduct will come back to haunt me — especially if a future U.S. government dominated by Right-wingers decides to mount a new McCarthyite purge of the entire country, and finds the job far easier than McCarthy did because every petition we signed, every e-mail we sent, every protest we ever went to is documented on the Internet and all they’ll have to do is search willy-nilly and collect enough “evidence” to destroy people’s lives en masse. Indeed, while the Internet is often hailed as a venue of personal freedom, it’s also the ultimate tool for dictators: whereas the secret police of the Soviet Union and their Eastern European satellites could only mount their security cameras everywhere and scare their people into thinking they were being watched 24/7, the Internet really can watch people 24/7: modern computer technology can allow machines to collect evidence of political dissent far faster than the ordinary humans of the KGB or Stasi or SAVAK ever could. Sexting in Suburbia makes powerful comments on the vulnerability of anyone who posts anything to the Web and also the hermetic environment of a small town, in which virtually everyone turns against Rachel and she loses business because of her dauntless but deeply threatening effort to find the person responsible for driving her daughter to suicide by mass-distributing her nude photo.

What a pity that, after building to a really powerful drama in which the whodunit aspects of their plot actually add to the intensity, Stimpson and Holland can’t leave well enough alone and have to end their movie with two outrageously melodramatic twists — the texter turns out not to be Skyler (as we’ve been led to believe all movie) but Skyler’s mother Patricia (Judith Hoag), whom Rachel had ironically been turning to for support (they’ve been friends since before their daughters were even born) but who’d come to hate Dina because Dina was getting the star position on the hockey team and the scholarship Skyler thought was her due — and when Skyler finds out and turns against her mom, Patricia says the chilling words, “You’ll understand when you have children of her own.” Skyler responds by stealing her mom’s car and going on a wild ride that’s either ordinary teenage recklessness or her own suicide attempt, and she ends up alive but in a hospital and likely never to be able to walk again — and there’s a bizarre final scene at a school assembly in which, partly as a sign of respect and partly targeting the technology as the real culprit, Claire suggests that all the students give up their cell phones for the rest of the semester. The over-the-top silliness of the ending mars a movie that sometimes seems stupid (when Dina dies, the first scenes of Rachel after the suicide are marred by a sappy soft-rock song, and when the homecoming party occurs the band there is playing equally mediocre pop-punk) but sometimes is genuinely powerful and truly does justice to its subject, the multifarious ways humans work out to be cruel to each other and the extent to which the Internet has just facilitated the grim work of people senselessly destroying each other.