Sunday, June 28, 2015

Perfect High (Brainstorm Media, Just Singer Entertainment, Sepia Films, Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Lifetime “world premiere” was something called Perfect High — note the absence of a definite article — written not by Christine Conradt but by Anne-Marie Hess and directed by Vanessa Parise, whose work I’d previously seen on the Lifetime movie #popFan (though this time she’s blessedly without the Twitter-style hashtag in front of her credit) but seemed to me to do a considerably better job here. It helped that she had stronger material; though on one level Perfect High (a marvelously punning title representing the “perfect” high school the protagonists attend — it’s called “Spectrum High” and its walls are done in rainbow-flag colors; in the U.S. a high school so decorated would probably be one of those ones specially set aside for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender students who were being so severely bullied they would need a special school where they could feel safe enough to concentrate on schoolwork and learn anything at all. Here in Canada, though it’s a bit unclear whether this time Canada is playing itself in a Lifetime movie or standing in for the U.S., it’s apparent that this is a regular large high school — and it’s big enough that it has a dance ensemble called the “Rhythm Chasers” that’s about to audition for a hugely important TV series called “Talent Scout.” The star of the troupe is Amanda (Bella Thorne), a nice white girl with blonde hair and the usual Lifetime dysfunctional family: her dad works for a company that has just been acquired by another one and is worried that this will mean he’ll be laid off; her mom is a stay-at-home housewife with a particular horror of her kids falling prey to illegal “drugs,” and her younger brother Robbie (Ryan Grantham, who on the basis of his appearance here is someone I would expect to be very hot when he gets older) has been diagnosed with ADHD and put on Ritalin. During a game in the lavishly equipped Spectrum High gym where the Rhythm Chasers are performing as an opening act and a modern-day substitute for cheerleaders, Amanda lands wrong after one of her leaps and injures her leg. For this she’s hospitalized briefly and sent home with a prescription for hydrocodone, the generic form of Oxycontin, and like such classic-era stars as Lionel Barrymore, Bela Lugosi and Edith Piaf, she starts using opiates medicinally but soon ends up addicted.

In her descent into drug-movie perdition Amanda naturally has the help of some of her high-school friends, including the vaguely Asian-looking Nate (Ross Butler), his sort-of girlfriend Riley (Daniela Bobadilla), and Carson (Israel Broussard, a bay-faced twink whom I found hot as hell even though he’s not my usual “type” — between Israel Broussard and Ryan Grantham this movie is a treasure trove of potential male sex symbols of the future!), an aspiring filmmaker who alone of Amanda’s friends shares her taste for classic old movies instead of stuff like The Night of the Living Dead. In one chilling scene Amanda shows up for a party with these three and they offer her booze, and when she points out that her doctor has warned her alcohol and her meds don’t mix, the other three say they’re all on something psychoactive and they drink all the time and don’t believe the warnings. Soon Amanda develops enough of a habit that she starts losing her coordination — there’s no sign of these “high school students” actually attending classes, but we see Amanda’s growing loss of control in her dance rehearsals, in particular her inability to keep up with the rest of the troupe and the slowness and clumsiness that creeps into her performances. Also Amanda’s habit gets too big for her official prescriptions to fill, so she and her friends start seeing a dope dealer — and when they can no longer afford official “prescription” drugs, their dealer starts giving them packets of stuff he says is Mexican hydrocodone, ground up into a powder for sniffing. What it really is is heroin — though even before this Amanda has seen some of her fellow stoners at parties smoking heroin by laying it on tinfoil, lighting a flame under it and snorting the smoke — and at the same party Amanda has seen Carson sneaking off with a former girlfriend just after he and Amanda had had sex for the first time. Amanda finally hits bottom when Riley overdoses — the four are in a car together and Carson is driving, and he doesn’t want to go to a hospital at first for fear they’ll be busted, but ultimately he relents and drives to the nearest E.R., but too late to save Riley’s life. But even that doesn’t stop the remaining trio from using; in one particularly pathetic scene (after Riley had stolen the money from Amanda’s fellow dancers to pay for her fatal fix and set it up in a way that Amanda would be blamed — all this after Amanda was finally fired from the dance troupe for being too stoned all the time to perform) she and Carson are begging their dealer for drugs they don’t have the money to pay for. The dealer says he’ll give them the drugs if Carson will pimp out Amanda to another guy in exchange — and Amanda is finally horrified enough to dump Carson and confess to her parents that she needs “help.” In some ways Perfect High is your usual clichéd high-school drug movie — I can remember seeing vaguely similar stories on the ABC Afterschool Special when I was the age of this film’s protagonists — but it has a couple of modern-day wrinkles that make it a fascinating index of how much attitudes have changed between then and now.

One is the sheer ubiquity of legal drugs; it seems that until the very end, every time Amanda’s parents or the school authorities notice that something is wrong with her, they take her to a therapist — only instead of actually talking to her about what might be going on with her life, the “therapist” merely reaches for his or her prescription pad and writes her a prescription from some other drug. In the 1960’s, when I was growing up, there was still a line of sorts between medical drugs and recreational drugs — though the line was blurring since tranquilizers had been widely introduced in the 1950’s and were being widely prescribed, especially to women using them to cope with what Betty Friedan called “the problem with no name.” (Ironically, while they themselves were heavy-duty users of illegal recreationals, the Rolling Stones were also recording songs like “Mother’s Little Helper” calling the older generation on its hypocrisy for damning young people for drug use while themselves consuming mind-altering substances and declaring their drugs “O.K.” because they came in amber bottles with doctors’ names on them.) With all Amanda’s friends on one medically prescribed drug or another, with her brother on Ritalin (in one scene she nervously fingers his bottle of it and wonders what new exciting high it would give her) and with “therapy” having disintegrated into just another, albeit legal, form of pill-pushing, it’s no wonder she doesn’t think “drugs” are a big deal — though she’s still heard enough stories of the Big Bad H to be shocked and disgusted when she finds out she’s been using, and become addicted to, heroin without even knowing it. (When she texts the dealer asking if the “Mexican hydrocodone” is really heroin, he texts back, “I thought you knew.”) The other thing that makes this movie a snapshot of 2015 instead of the late 1960’s is the teen characters’ heavy use of social media; though the script shied back from using actual names like Facebook or Twitter, the screen is filled with reports and photos the kids are texting each other, and social-media posts are used to tell us exactly what Amanda’s friends and acquaintances think of her and just where she is in the school’s pecking order. Indeed, the kids themselves are so obvious about what they post that if their parents logged on to social-media sites themselves they could trace what their kids are doing pharmacologically, socially and even sexually without having either to confront them or physically spy.

There’s something to the argument made by defenders of the NSA’s spying program that they’re not collecting any more information than people, especially young people who’ve grown up with the Internet and think social-media “sharing” is second nature, are voluntarily putting up on the Net for anyone with the right social-media accounts to see. (And these things are increasingly coming back to bite the posters; employers today routinely do social-media searches of potential employees, and people are losing out on jobs because embarrassing footage of themselves doing drugs, sex, graffiti, vandalism or other forms of youth rebellion are turning up on the Internet years after they were posted — and often, I suspect, after the people who posted them have forgotten about them.) I did ask myself whether we kids who went to high school in the late 1960’s would have been so forthcoming with details about our lives on social media and the Internet if these had existed yet, and my guess is that we were proud enough of our “rebel” streaks we probably would have (even though my Facebook posts from the 1960’s, had Facebook existed then, would if anything have probably been even duller than my Facebook posts today). I quite liked Perfect High as a movie, especially since director Parise (working with much stronger and more compelling material than she had on #popFan) and writer Hess don’t adopt the lab-rat detachment of so many of today’s filmmakers; instead they really make us care about the characters and indeed make us (make me, anyway), want to walk into the screen and tell them to stop being such nitwits — and that goes not only for the high-school kids but the authority figures who keep writing them prescriptions; when one more “counselor” or “therapist” reached for a prescription pad, I kept wanting to yell at them, “Idiot! The last thing Amanda needs is more drugs!” And as much fun as it was to watch the cute guys in this film, in all fairness the acting honors are taken by Bella Thorne as Amanda — even though, according to an post, she was cast at the last minute after all the other roles were filled: caught between intensely anti-drug parents (she knows that because, in a flashback, we’ve seen them come down on her brother mercilessly for having tried marijuana) and an alienating school situation in which drug users are really her only friends, she’s over-the-charts alienated even for the central character in a modern-day teen movie — and Thorne nails the character’s shifting moods and deep conflicts in a performance that I hope marks her for biggers and betters.

The Perfect Boyfriend (Shadowland/Lifetime, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alas, the film Lifetime showed last night right after Perfect High, The Perfect Boyfriend, wasn’t anywhere near as good — they were doing a “Perfect” day yesterday with The Perfect Assistant, The Perfect Neighbor, The Perfect Marriage and The Perfect Teacher (the only one of these I’d seen before: a typical Christine Conradt melodrama about a nubile young high-school student who has a crush on her hunky thirty-something male teacher — and when he won’t fuck her willingly she gets back at him by claiming he raped her). Conradt didn’t write The Perfect Boyfriend, alas, and the person who did, Corbin Mezner (I’m presuming that’s a guy though the page on him is singularly unenlightening about their gender: no photo, no pronouns, in fact no biography of any kind other than to indicate they were born April 24, 1979 somewhere in California, are 5’ 8” tall, and their other credits are A Teacher’s Crime from 2008 (co-written with Conradt, so Mezner has obviously learned the Lifetime formula direct from the hands of the Mistress) and Killer Crush from 2015, also known as Girl, Obsessed (an obvious takeoff on Girl, Interrupted). The Perfect Boyfriend was made in 2013 and is described on with the one-sentence synopsis, “A charming but devious man conspires to bilk a wealthy veterinarian of her money.” That’s part of this movie, but there are so many plot strands it seems hard to believe Mezner and his director, Robert Malenfant, could keep track of them all. The wealthy veterinarian is April Hill (Ashley Scott, who is tall, rail-thin and so butch her hair is shorter than that of virtually any of the men in this film!), who two years earlier divorced her husband Chuck Hill (Jason Brooks, a former villain on the soap opera Days of Our Lives and still an engagingly attractive, if a bit avuncular, man), though she’s still in touch with him because they’re co-parenting their son Sammy (a cute tow-headed kid named Blake Bertrand).

April is also in touch with her mother Clare (Susan Blakely, virtually the only person in this cast I’d heard of before) and her sister, Riley Parks (Carrie Witta) — yes, Lifetime showed two movies in a row with women named “Riley”! Riley just broke up with her husband Aiden (Thor Knai) because he lied to her and cheated on her — though she’s beginning to have second thoughts as to whether he actually did the down ’n’ dirty with anyone else. (I was going to write “any other woman,” but Thor Knai is boyishly cute enough you could easily imagine him swinging both ways.) As if that weren’t enough plot for you, Chuck is also involved in corrupt real-estate dealings with a developer who’s really a gangster, Marco Rizo (pronounced “Rizzo”), and is channeling payoffs to Rizo in the form of contractor payments to a son-in-law of Rizo who owns a cement business (and one has to wonder how many bodies are buried in the cement they lay). April’s mom Clare is a retired newspaper journalist who still runs a blog, and she wants to do an investigative piece on Rizo but hesitates because her son-in-law’s name will have to be mentioned. The (supposedly) perfect boyfriend is the British-accented Jacob (Aiden Turner), who went to high school with April but dropped out of college and disappeared for years — though when he shows up at a high-school reunion (and thereby meets April for the first time since their high-school days) he immediately gets April to fall for him. As if that weren’t enough plot for you, Jacob also has a girlfriend, Karen (Jennifer Taylor), and the whole idea of their plot against April is to get their hands on her husband’s multi-million dollar fortune, which he hasn’t been allowed to inherit but his father set it up as a trust for the son. Their idea is for Karen to kill Clare and them to frame Chuck for the crime, after which Jacob will wed April, then April will meet her own demise a year or so later, and Jacob will be the only adult left with a claim on the Hill family fortune and therefore he will be the trustee on the son’s account and can burn through the money however he likes. Clare gets killed, all right, but so does Chuck — Jacob comes over to his house one night and does him in because he’s worried Chuck is starting to investigate the situation — only in the meantime Riley and Aiden reunite and, along the lines of the marvelous 1936 movie The Ex-Mrs. Bradford at RKO with Stephen Roberts directing and William Powell and Jean Arthur as the stars, the thrill of investigating a real murder case brings the couple back together.

The weak link of Jacob’s plot is Karen; instead of meekly accepting that he has to make love to April and do a good enough job of it (both emotionally and sexually) for April to be willing to marry him for their plot to work, Karen literally stalks them, watches through the windows of April’s house as the two make love with each other, and has jealous hissy-fits over the sight of her man in bed with another woman. In the final confrontation, Karen shows up just as Jacob has got April alone in her mom’s old beach house and is about to propose to her; Karen brings along a gun and announces that Jacob can’t marry April because he’s already married to Karen — the longer synopsis identifies Karen as Jacob’s wife but that’s supposed to be a big surprise reveal at the end (so the site that comes down so hard on people who post “spoilers” without warnings posted a “spoiler” without a warning themselves!), and the ring Karen flashes on her finger to buttress her claim that she and Jacob are legally hitched looks more like an elaborate jeweled engagement ring than the usual wedding band. Karen shoots Jacob in a jealous fury and then is about to kill April when Riley and Aiden show up with the police, Karen is taken into custody and April is left without either of the men in her life but still has her veterinary career, her son and custody of the Hill multi-millions her boy will one day inherit. After the wrenching emotionalism and integrity of Perfect High, The Perfect Boyfriend was a reversion to Lifetime norm — though at least well-done Lifetime norm — and oddly, though the page on the film credits the production design to Sarah Taub, she’s listed merely as “Tink” on the opening credits — which inevitably led me to joke, “Clap your hands and say with me, ‘I do believe in production designers’ … ” Also on Lifetime last night were promos for a repeat showing of last Saturday’s “world premiere,” A Deadly Adoption, the one people online have been saying was made by stars Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig (both people with stronger current big-screen reputations than the folks who usually act in Lifetime movies) as a joke, with a narrator that said that if you liked it and wanted more … eventually it just meant they were re-running the first film, but for a horrible moment I thought they had actually made a sequel to it!

Vera: “Young Gods” (Independent Television Service/PBS, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I had finally caught up with one of the Friday night British detective shows currently being run on KPBS, Vera, which I had thought was about a young and sexy policewoman being appointed to run the force in an out-of-the-way British location. Actually Vera Stanhope is a rather frumpy woman who’s either hit senior citizenship or come awfully damned close to it, and my fantasy was that her tales (the characters were created by Ann Cleeves and this particular screenplay, “Young Gods,” was written by Gaby Chiappe) were concocted by a writer who asked herself, “What if Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple had actually joined the official police force as a young woman and eventually risen through the ranks?” DCI Vera Stanhope runs the police of the small British town of Northumberland, in the north of England on the Scottish border, and in this particular case she and her young, hunky assistant John Warren (John Hutch, whom Charles thought looked like Justin Timberlake — he does, too) are trying to solve the unexplained death of 25-year-old investment banking hotshot and extreme sports devotee Gideon Frane (Darragh Horgan), who was seen dashing through the North England countryside on fire before he leaped off a cliff and ended up drowning. One could readily imagine this tale of murder and mayhem among the 1 percent as an episode of Law and Order or its spinoffs, but reflecting the general differences between British and American murder mysteries, this one is a good deal quieter and more genteel. At first Vera and John Warren suspect Kit O’Dowd (Kevin Trainor), a Gay hairdresser who took in, A Taste of Honey-style, a former girlfriend of Gideon’s who was being stalked and threatened by him — and though as usual with movie Gays there’s no depiction of Kit actually being romantically or sexually involved with a man, Kevin Trainor is boyishly cute enough (and we do get to see him shirtless, or almost so!) to make the concept work even though “Gay hairdresser” is, if anything, an even hoarier stereotype than “Gay Broadway choreographer.” Then they find out that Gideon and an old friend of his from prep school, Jamie Levinson (Mark Quartley), were both dating a Black woman who’d been admitted to the school by its current headmaster, Dr. Vivienne Ripman (Maureen Beattie), who’s dressed so severely in a black suit of men’s cut and hair even shorter than April Hill’s in The Perfect Boyfriend — though on her face she’s made one concession to traditional femininity: she’s plucked her natural eyebrows and painted in new ones, which seems jarring (and she’s also insisted that the students call her “The Master” just like previous classes addressed her male predecessors, mainly because the sexual connotations of “The Mistress” would render it ridiculous and risible), who’s easily the most interesting character in the movie.

It turns out that Gideon became a successful investment banker — though he had a leg up in that his family had so much money they even endowed a “Frane Wing” at the school — while Jason sank into drugs and overall squalor, and the woman (Pippa Benedict-Warner) joined a convent headed by an old teacher of Vera Stanhope’s, Sister Benedict (Rita Davies). She took the name “Sister Clare” and to make herself a more effective servant of God in the here and now returned to school to study psychology (and, once she completed that degree, to study social work), and her new-found psychological knowledge helped her understand what had happened to her back at the prep school where she was one of the first women and people-of-color students, a product of Ripman’s affirmative action program to give the place a student body that looked like modern-day England. It all turns out to do with a crime that happened years before when Frane, Jason and Clare were all students at the school, in which Frane ran down a local man and killed him, leaving behind his wife, his daughter, his disabled son (in a wheelchair due to spina bifida, which is why as a form of penance Jason lives in squalor and donates all his family income to charities dealing with spina bifida) — and the kids’ grandfather, who turns out actually to have killed Frane by poisoning him with atropine, the active ingredient of deadly nightshade, which is what made Frane run about so crazily after his killer threw a gas lantern at him and thus set him ablaze. The ending isn’t much — though there is a note of pathos when the killer explains that he’s not only old, he’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer, so he doesn’t fear the legal consequences of his actions because he’ll be dead long before the case can come to trial anyway — but overall Vera, made since 2011 by the Independent Television network in Britain (their commercial channel), is a quite engaging program and a good example of the quieter British sort of mystery at its best.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Super Cops (MGM, St. Regis Films, Tom Ward Enterprises, 1974)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Super Cops, a 1974 production from MGM based on the real-life stories of two New York police officers, David Greenberg (Ron Leibman) and Robert Hantz (David Selby, whose credit appears against the backdrop of the naked back of a Black man and led me to wonder if he were Black — he’s white and that naked Black back belonged to someone whom the “super cops” busted for drugs early on in the film), who chafed at assignment to the traffic detail during their stint in the Police Academy, started hanging out at locations like Coney Island and busting drug dealers while they were officially off duty, and ultimately for their screw-ups were sent to the largely Black Bedford-Stuyvesant district, where they went off on a holy war against the Hayes brothers (Charles Turner and Ralph Wilcox) who controlled drug distribution in the area. It’s a fascinating movie because the heroes — whose devil-may-care exploits and in particular their penchant for doing rope-climbs up buildings to chase after crooks earn them the nicknames “Batman” and “Robin” from the locals — seem to be up against it from everybody: not only the crooks but also their fellow cops, the ones who want to see the department run “by the book” as well as the ones who are on the “take” and the ones who aren’t on the take themselves but believe Greenberg and Hantz themselves are. It’s a movie that in some ways could only have been made in the early 1970’s, partly because it was a high-crime era and police officers like Harry Callahan and Popeye Doyle (of Dirty Harry and The French Connection, respectively — the latter also based on a true story) were movie heroes precisely because they went after criminals whole-hog and ignored anything that stood in their way, from the police bureaucracy to the Constitution. The film begins and ends with ceremonies in which Greenberg and Hantz are promoted out of uniform-wearing patrolmen into plainclothes detectives — in the opening ceremony Greenberg and Hantz play themselves and in the later one Liebman and Selby have taken over. The Super Cops began life as a 1973 book about the real “super cops” by L. H. Whittemore, and MGM won out over three other studios which were also bidding on the same material.

They assigned Lorenzo Semple, Jr. to do the script — ironically he had also written the pilot and the theatrical film script for the ABC-TV Batman series in 1966, the one that took such a campy approach to the material more recent Batman mavens have denounced it even though it was an enormous hit at the time and drew a lot of new fans to the character (including Yours Truly). In some respects it’s a film that could only have been made at its time — the haircuts of the men in the New York Police Academy’s Class of 1974 would be enough to give it away — though in others one could imagine it being made in the 1930’s, or for that matter today. The basic concept of rambunctious individualists joining highly hierarchical organizations like the military and police or fire services and screwing things up was the stuff of which a thousand movies were made — indeed, if The Super Cops had been filmed in 1934 instead of 1974, it would probably have been a Warner Bros. vehicle for James Cagney and Pat O’Brien and the payoff would have been that they would ultimately learn to follow the institutional rules implicitly and become better officers for it. Instead, after a series of picaresque adventures in which they scale buildings and, at one point. start looking for a squad of (white) hired killers who’ve been brought in from Detroit to target them, they’re trapped in a building, along with the crook they’ve been tailing and have provoked into a shootout, just when a large crane with a wrecking ball attached comes along and starts demolishing the building. They signal to the driver and literally ride the wrecking ball out of the building and use it to get back to the street. The other oddity about The Super Cops is the director, Gordon Parks, who became the first African-American ever hired as a photographer for Life magazine and, in that capacity, shot the iconic photograph of Malcolm X speaking that he later used in his film Shaft to decorate the walls of “The Lummumbas,” a group of thug-like but socially respectable and even appealing young men anxious to do what they could to cut down the level of Black-on-Black violence in their communities. Parks’ previous films, The Learning Tree and Shaft, hardly prepared one for a film in which, while Black people figure prominently in the dramatis personae, the two leads are white. One reviewer said it wasn’t as exciting as Parks’s Shaft — and apparently Parks thought so himself — but I liked this one considerably better than Shaft, I suspect at least partly because Parks had in the meantime “found” himself as a suspense and action director.

The Super Cops is full of big, exciting, rambunctious action scenes that not only entertain in themselves but also project the characters: everything we see Greenberg and Hantz do fits into who and what we’ve been told they are. The film is also quite remarkable in depicting the edgy relationship between the police (it’s an indication of the time period that we don’t see any women or Blacks in Greenberg’s and Hantz’s class at the Academy, though one Black police official later appears and plays an important role in the film’s denouement) and the communities they’re supposed to be “protecting and serving.” The mutual level of mistrust is shown in a scene in which the cops have busted the Hayeses, or at least some of their lower-level minions, and a group of Black locals forms at the door of the building and say they’re not going to let the cops take the “brothers” into custody. It’s also shown in the movie’s most fascinatingly multidimensional character, Sara (Sheila E. Frazier), who’s introduced standing in a doorway, wearing a revealing red dress, looking delectable and every inch the prostitute, whom the cops accost not for sexual services but information about the local gang and drug scenes — and she becomes a reluctant informer but her disgust both with the situation in the ghetto and with the cops themselves, and with the impossible bind it puts her in (inform and risk the opprobrium of her own people, or don’t inform and thereby do nothing while the ghetto sinks ever deeper into the trap of mass drug abuse), makes her a wonderful character and easily the most deeply and richly drawn person in the movie. The Super Cops is a marvelously picaresque movie, benefiting over Dirty Harry and The French Connection in actually having a sense of humor, and it owes its recent rediscovery to a writer-director named Edgar Wright, who quoted a line from it in his own film Hot Fuzz and lobbied Warner Home Video to issue it on DVD as part of thier Warner Archive Collection, as well as appearing as last night’s “guest programmer” on TCM and showing it as part of an oddly assorted bunch of four films: the 1934 Busby Berkeley musical Dames, the 1970’s Hollywood-themed murder mystery The Last of Sheila, and Lindsay Anderson’s 1973 O Lucky Man!, his second film with Malcolm MacDowell.

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Deadly Adoption (Gary Sanchez Productions, Marvista Entertainment, National Picture Show Entertainment, Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was A Deadly Adoption, a Lifetime movie which had its “world premiere” on Saturday and which was a completely typical Lifetime movie, a sort of compendium of Lifetime’s Greatest Hits, and remarkable only in that somehow the producers of this film (all nine of them) got Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig to star in it. Now Will Ferrell may not be as mega-popular now as he was a decade ago, but he’s still a name to conjure with on the big screen, and Kristen Wiig is a frequent co-star of his in movies like Anchorman 2, The Spoils of Babylon and Welcome to Me (and they met while they were both in the cast of Saturday Night Live — a stint on SNL seems as de rigueur for an aspiring comic now as a shot on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson once did), and much of the debate about this project on line centers around whether Ferrell and Wiig intended to take it seriously. Some of the “Trivia” posts about it say Ferrell, Wiig, director Rachel Goldenberg and writer Andrew Steele intended this as a “secret” project and either didn’t want it released at all or did it only as a parody of Lifetime as a genre. Whatever its intentions, what we actually get is an ultra-“serious” Lifetime film which begins with a scene in the lakefront home of writer Robert Benson (Will Ferrell) — he concocts financial self-help books and has become a star within the genre — and his wife Sarah (Kristen Wiig). They’re having a picnic with a few friends and Sarah, though six months pregnant with their second child, insists on going for a boat ride alone — only the dock, which Robert has told his friends was unsafe and he was planning to have repaired, collapses before she can get into the boat and she nearly drowns. She’s saved, but her unborn baby dies and a complication in the surgery that saved her life makes it impossible for her to have children again. In the meantime Robert and Sarah obsess over the one child they do have, daughter Sully (Alyvia Alyn Lind) — a first name that sounds jarring through the entire movie (not Sally, Sully — the only real person I’ve ever heard of with the first name “Sully” was Kay Kyser band singer Sully Mason, and he was a guy), and decide to go to an adoption agency to find her a brother to replace the one that died in the accident while he was still in Sarah’s womb. An added complication is that Sully is a heavy-duty diabetic for whom the merest bite of normal candy is life-threatening (and, not surprisingly, trying to keep a kid whose age is still in single digits from eating candy is a major parenting challenge for the Bensons).

They get a visit from Bridget Wilson (Jessica Lowndes), who’s willing to put up her unborn baby boy for adoption, and the Bensons have her move in with them for the duration of her pregnancy — only we get a typical Lifetime shot of Bridget smirking at Robert and looking at him with undisguised lust, indicating that like quite a few Lifetime anti-heroines before her she intends to do away with Sarah and take her place as Robert’s spouse. Later we get another typical Lifetime scene in which we see Bridget being accosted on the street by a sleazy-looking guy in a pickup truck; the sleazy guy turns out to be Dwayne Tisdale (Jake Weary, who since he’s playing a villain is naturally the hottest-looking male in the film!), and he and Bridget are in some kind of scam to make money off the Bensons. Still later we get a scene in which Sully stumbles upon Bridget in the shower and notices Bridget is wearing a prosthetic device over her chest to make her look pregnant when she really isn’t — and though Bridget gives her the preposterous explanation that she’s just wearing it to look more visibly pregnant than she is, we get it immediately. “Oh,” I said to myself at this point, “instead of doing the clichéd gimmick that she’s really pregnant and Robert is the biological father, they’re doing the clichéd gimmick that she’s merely faking being pregnant.” I was only half-wrong in my initial assumption; Bridget — whose real name is Joni Weatherly and who impersonated the real Bridget to get into the Benson household (and presumably either she or Dwayne murdered the real one) — did have an affair, or at least a one-night stand, with Robert when he was on his last book tour, and though for Robert it was a meaningless quickie, Bridget immediately fell in love (or the crazed Lifetime simulacrum thereof) with him and determined to get him permanently.

Writer Steele has so carefully “planted” hints about Robert’s fears — he hasn’t wanted to go back into the lake again since his wife’s accident (though he’s continued to live there — one would have thought if he were so traumatized the first thing he would have done is sell the house and move to one nowhere near any large bodies of water) — that it’s a lead-pipe cinch that the finale will involve him having to dive in the water and use a boat to rescue Sully, who’s been kidnapped by Joni and Dwayne. That was Dwayne’s plan from the get-go — to take the girl and hold her for a $1 million ransom from the Bensons — though it got complicated by Joni’s demented affection for Robert and her determination to stay with him and displace Sarah in his affections. Dwayne is discovered by Charlie (Bryan Safi), who’s Gay (though he’s a typical movie Gay man in that he’s never actually shown having a romantic or sexual interest in another man) and works for Sarah in her business selling organic fruits and vegetables at local produce stands. (Why she needs this preposterous job when her husband is a multi-millionaire from his writing is never quite explained; even if she wanted to work in the field, surely he could have bought her a supermarket instead of leaving her standing on streetcorner stands!) There is a nice little scene in which Charlie calls the police to report Dwayne’s existence and his involvement with Joni a.k.a. Bridget — and Bryan Safi deftly manipulates his voice to show that, even though he knows Dwayne is a dangerous criminal, he’s also got the hots for him — but later, when Charlie traces Dwayne and Joni to their hideouts in the woods near the lake, Dwayne punches him out and then kills him.

Eventually it ends with Joni invading the Bensons’ home, taking Sully, shooting Robert and locking Sarah in the garage with the motor of her car running so she’ll die of carbon monoxide poisoning and it will look like she committed suicide — and for good measure she shoots Dwayne as well, though she’s such an incompetent murderess all three people she tries to kill are still alive at the fade-out and Dwayne is traced by the police and arrested. Robert has to dive into the river and start an outboard motorboat to escape from Joni, who’s firing a gun at both him and Sully, only Joni’s murderous assault is stopped by … Sarah, who after Robert rescued her from their garage but before he set out after their kidnapped daughter, grabbed the gun Sarah had left behind after she (non-fatally) shot Robert at home and uses it to take Joni out before she can do their family any more harm. A Deadly Adoption — one wonders why it wasn’t called The Perfect Adoption, unless Christine Conradt owns the rights to the “Perfect … ” series title — is a virtual compendium of Lifetime clichés, including the kidnapping of a diabetic kid (who was done considerably better in 12 Hours to Live), and one can readily understand the conviction of writers like Drew McWeeny at ( that Ferrell, Wiig, Goldenberg and Steele made this as a deliberate parody of the Lifetime movie genre — but I think they were totally serious about it. I wondered if Will Ferrell’s film career has been tanking badly enough he would need to do a Lifetime movie, but his page says otherwise; it says he’s currently filming Daddy’s Home and Zoolander 2, has finished a film called Zeroville that’s already in post-production, and is in pre-production on three other projects: Tom’s Dad, The House and Russ and Roger Go Beyond (in which he’s playing 1960’s sexploitation filmmaker Russ Meyer in a film about the making of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls).

Son of Flubber (Walt Disney Productions, 1962)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I attended a screening of Walt Disney’s 1961 production The Absent-Minded Professor and its 1962 sequel, Son of Flubber. Seeing them both in one night was something of an endurance test but it was also fascinating. Both films star Fred MacMurray as Prof. Ned Brainard, chemistry teacher and researcher at Medfield College of Technology, who in The Absent-Minded Professor (a film that was so successful and reached so far beyond the target audience that “absent-minded professor” entered the language — even though according to there was a film called The Absent-Minded Professor as early as 1907) invented a black, gooey substance called “Flubber” — short for “flying rubber” — whose metastable chemical composition meant that it gained energy every time it bounced instead of losing it — and turned it over to the U.S. military for defense purposes. A sequel showing military hardware bouncing around and providing the U.S. an unparalleled advantage over its putative enemies (until their own “absent-minded professors” figured out how to neutralize it) might have had some interest, but instead Disney and his filmmakers — director Robert Stevenson and writers Bill Walsh (who also worked on The Absent-Minded Professor) and Don DaGradi (who didn’t) — took it in another direction.

Though less atmospheric visually than its predecessor (which had a few oddly noir-ish scenes as Prof. Brainard and his girlfriend — now, finally, his wife in the sequel — Betsy (Nancy Olson) have to steal back their Flubber-equipped Model “T” Ford from the gangsters who are keeping it in a garage, having stolen it on the orders of both films’ principal villain, financier Alonzo Hawk, played by Keenan Wynn), Son of Flubber — at least for its first half-hour or so — is considerably darker thematically. Walt Disney’s exasperation with government bureaucracies and his growing conservatism are vividly shown in a grim scene in which the Brainards are visited by Mr. Hurley (Ken Murray) of the Internal Revenue Service, there to collect a tax bill of over $625,000 from the $1 million Ned Brainard estimated on his tax return he would earn from royalties on Flubber — only the U.S. government seized control of the invention, declared it top secret, forbade Brainard from licensing any commercial uses and left him even more broke than he was when he started. At one point, exasperated by Hurley’s attitude, Brainard snaps, “If need be, I’ll bet you’d put your own mother in jail.” “Funny you should mention that about Mom,” Hurley replies. “A little matter of some unreported income from jams and jellies. We nailed her dead to rights!” There’s also a marvelous satire of capitalist marketing as it stood in 1961, in which a delegation of corporate types anxious to license Flubber show the Brainards a film of all the industrial uses they have worked out for it — including Flubberoleum, a resilient floor you can fall on without hurting yourself and drop things on without them breaking — and present Mrs. Brainard with a fur coat and a check for $1 million, only to take them back when Alonzo Hawk comes by and correctly guesses how the government has screwed the Brainards over. Fortunately, as a side effect of Flubber, Brainard has discovered something called “Flubbergas” with which he thinks he can seed clouds and produce rain. He even manages to make it rain inside the car of his hated rival for Mrs. Brainard’s affections, Rutland College English professor Shelby Ashton (Elliott Reed, who like most of the cast members repeated his role from the earlier film), but when he tries it on a larger scale all he manages to do is shatter just about every glass object in the vicinity, including car windshields, store display windows and a valuable crystal punch bowl that Mrs. Brainard was about to sell for food money.

Son of Flubber drew not only on the original film and its source story, Samuel W. Taylor’s “A Situation of Gravity,” but also the first few “Danny Dunn” books, a series of young-adult novels written from 1956 to 1977 by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams (Abrashkin died after the first five of the 15 novels in the series but Williams continued to co-credit him because he’d been instrumental in developing the recurring characters) of which the first, Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint, is clearly plying the same territory as The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber. (In the books, Danny Dunn is a science student and the sidekick of researcher Professor Euclid Bullfinch of Midston University in New England.) Son of Flubber throws together some oddly assorted plot elements, including vampy Desirée de la Roche (Joanna Moore), who used to date Prof. Brainard before he fell in love with Betsy and whose attentions towards the prof are being encouraged by Shelby Ashton, who hasn’t given up on Betsy; a costume party Desirée invites Brainard to (naturally his wife insists on coming along!) in which Brainard dresses as a 1920’s college boy, complete with raccoon coat and baritone saxophone (on which Brainard plays a few notes — Fred MacMurray had actually started in show business as a sax player and occasional singer with dance bands in the 1920’s under his real name, Loren MacMurray, and he graduated to acting when the casting directors of Broadway shows Three’s a Crowd, 1930, and Roberta, 1933, saw him playing in the pit bands and decided he’d look good on stage; in The Absent-Minded Professor Brainard was shown playing a trumpet, an instrument MacMurray really couldn’t play, though he’d played the part of a trumpeter on screen before in the 1937 musical Swing High, Swing Low); and a big climax at a college game between Medfield and Rutland.

Only this time the sport is not basketball but football, though predictably Medfield is outclassed until Biff Hawk (Tommy Kirk) figures out a way to inflate the team’s quarterback with Flubbergas (via rubber bladders concealed inside his uniform) and pass him, as well as the football, to score enough last-minute touchdowns to put Medfield within two points of the game, then fill the football itself with Flubbergas so Medfield’s place kicker can kick a 98-yard field goal — indeed the ball ends up in orbit along with the artificial satellites that were such a novelty for 1962 audiences. The film ends with a sequence that appears to be either an homage to or a parody of the ending of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, in which Prof. Brainard is put on trial for all the damage he’d done to the town’s windows with his rain-making machine and he makes a big speech defending the individual entrepreneur against the pettifogging collectivists in both the government and corporate worlds: “The road to genius is paved with fumble-footing and bumbling. Anyone who falls flat on his face is at least moving in the right direction: forward. And the fellow who makes the most mistakes may be the one who will save the neck of the whole world some day.” He’s saved by agricultural agent A. J. Allen (Ed Wynn, Keenan Wynn’s father, who’d also appeared in The Absent-Minded Professor as his famous “Fire Chief” radio character, called to rescue Alonzo Hawk from uncontrollably bouncing up and down outside his office building because Brainard slipped him Flubber-soled shoes; Son of Flubber also features Keenan Wynn’s son Ned in an unbilled role as one of the Rutland football team’s assistants), who brings in hyperthyroid fruits and vegetables and said Brainard has transformed the hopeless farmland around Medfield into bumper-crop heaven because his gun has created “dry rain,” fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere and showering it down on the crops to make them super-sized. (Apparently one of the writers had read H. G. Wells’ The Food of the Gods.)

Though not as good as The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber is an engaging movie in its own right and also interesting for the looks it gives us at Walt Disney’s politics, which were hardly conventional Right-wing positions then or now but a sort of conservative libertarian populism and a defense of the “little man” against hierarchies, both governmental and corporate — and as I noted briefly in my comments on The Absent-Minded Professor, Fred MacMurray is almost ideal for his role precisely because he’s so deadpan he lets the humor come from the situations and the stunning special effects; in the 1997 remake, Robin Williams (of sainted memory) threw so many dazzling bits of improv into it he lost sight of the character in the process. (Williams’ version also suffered from his making it about 10 years too late; in the 1980’s he’d still have been able to do the pratfalls himself instead of relying on stunt doubles.) It’s also notable for the sheer number of performers both at the beginnings and endings of their careers; Disney had cast both Wally Brown and Alan Carney, RKO’s attempt to create their own bionic version of Abbott and Costello in the 1940’s, in The Absent-Minded Professor, and while Brown didn’t return for Son of Flubber, Carney did. Son of Flubber also benefits from Paul Lynde (in his film debut) as the announcer of the big football game, and though he’s hardly recognizable Jack Albertson appeared as one of the Rutland people. I suspect the next two films in the cycle, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964) and The Monkey’s Uncle (1965) — which carried over the Midland setting but dispensed with Fred MacMurray and were instead centered around students Merlin Jones (Tommy Kirk) and his girlfriend Jennifer (Annette Funicello), and Merlin’s attempts to keep Midvale’s (not Medfield’s!) star football players from flunking out by beaming them knowledge while they sleep — would date far more badly than these two, but they’d still be fun to see again.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Absent-Minded Professor (Walt Disney Productions, 1961)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Absent-Minded Professor has been called Walt Disney’s most openly autobiographical movie since Pinocchio. Disney’s character, according to this reading of his life (expressed most notably in Richard Schickel’s The Disney Version), was shaped largely by his father, Elias P. Disney, a small-time businessman and inventor with (at least according to Marc Eliot’s more recent biography) distinctly socialist — or at least populist — political leanings. Schickel analyzed Pinocchio as a parable of Disney’s own childhood and his desperate attempts to gain favorable attention from his father, and suggested that Fred MacMurray’s character in The Absent-Minded Professor — a small-town college professor who invents a revolutionary new compound in his garage — was also a portrait of Elias Disney (with the difference that the character, Professor Brainerd — the name an interesting compound of “brain” and “nerd” — actually succeeds, which Disney Sr. never really did). Besides having contributed its title to the language, The Absent-Minded Professor is a politically ambivalent movie in ways that the entire populist movement was politically ambivalent: reactionary in its idealization of a “traditional” small-town America (and also in the all-whiteness of the cast; perhaps the oddest thing about the movie to a contemporary audience is that a principal scene takes place during a college basketball game … in which all the players are white), while also very progressive in its indictment of capitalism. The villain, Keenan Wynn, is a small-town savings-and-loan operator (the character is similar to the one Lionel Barrymore played in It’s a Wonderful Life, though if anything even more matter-of-factly exploitative, since he’s not in a wheelchair and therefore his greedy acquisitiveness cannot be forgiven, as it can to an extent in the Capra film, as a product of his embitterment over being disabled) who is seeking to foreclose on his $500,000 loan to the college that employs Professor MacMurray so he can tear it down and redevelop the property. (It’s ironic that so many Disney films of the 1960’s criticize greedy land developers — the second Love Bug film also comes to mind — when Disney’s own company was behaving in an equally greedy way in putting together the land for Disney World in Florida and the ultimately unbuilt Mineral King ski resort in Northern California!)

The Absent-Minded Professor benefits from quite good special effects (MacMurray’s Model T really does fly convincingly — and it’s clear, from those spectacular shots of it in midair, silhouetted against a cloudy twilight sky, where Steven Spielberg and Melissa Matheson got the idea for the fleet of flying bicycles at the end of E.T.!) and atmospheric black-and-white direction by Robert Stevenson (the same one who rivaled Hitchcock as a suspense director in Britain in the 1930’s, then came to America and shot the Joan Fontaine/Orson Welles version of Jane Eyre in the 1940’s and, through a process I’ve never quite been able to understand, ended up a house director at Disney, shooting virtually all their good live-action films of the 1960’s, including this one, Mary Poppins and The Love Bug). Stevenson even gets some noir-ish compositions into what is otherwise a wacky comedy, and the acting of MacMurray and Nancy Olson (as his fiancée, whom he leaves standing at the altar three times because he’s So Wrapped Up In His Work) is also quite adequate for the character. Largely due to its surprisingly anti-capitalist critique, as well as a witty premise (the story is credited to Samuel W. Taylor) executed with quite a lot of charm, this movie holds up surprisingly well (though I suspect the black-and-whiteness of it — Disney has colorized this film, but wisely opted to show it in its original state — had less to do with atmospherics or budget and more to do with the effects still, as of 1961, being easier to do in black-and-white than in color). Now, if they’ll only show the three sequels (Son of Flubber, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones and The Monkey’s Uncle)! — 7/24/95 


I was quite anxious for the opportunity to see The Absent-Minded Professor again because it’s the first movie I can recall sitting through start to finish in a movie theatre back in 1961, when it was new and I was seven. I may have seen bits and pieces of it on TV since but hadn’t sat through the whole thing since that early viewing in my childhood (at least that’s what I thought when I was watching it last night; while posting the above I found a note I had on my computer of a viewing, probably on the Disney cable channel, from 1995) — and it seemed to me just as good this time around. In the meantime Charles and I had viewed the 1997 remake, Flubber, starring Robin Williams, and I was surprised to note that the two versions track pretty closely: chemistry professor Ned Brainard (Fred MacMurray in the 1961 version; when Robin Williams played him 36 years later his first name was changed to “Philip,” and interestingly MacMurray seemed better in the role precisely because he wasn’t a brilliant, imaginative comedian and therefore he was more believable as a character), known not-so-affectionately to his students at Medfield College of Technology as “Neddy the Nut,” has stood up his bride-to-be, Betsy Carlisle (Nancy Olson), twice before and is scheduled to marry her at 8:30 one evening — only that evening he loses track of time as he experiments with various contraptions in his lab and emerges with a black, gooey substance that seems to defy the normal laws of physics by gaining, not losing, energy every time it bounces. He christens this discovery “Flubber” — short for “flying rubber” — only in the process of making it he’s blown up his lab, knocked himself out, and when he comes to it’s 8:30 all right — 8:30 a.m. the next day — and Betsy is naturally upset enough to consider the rival proposal of Professor Shelby Ashton (Elliott Reed), who teaches English at Medfield’s rival college Rutland (by coincidence, or maybe not, also the name of the fictitious British town the Rutles, the “Pre-Fab Four” profiled in the hilarious Monty Python/Saturday Night Live co-production The Rutles: All You Need is Cash) and prefaces his attempts to make love to her with garbled quotations from Shakespeare.

Betsy works as secretary to Medfield College president Rufus Daggett (Leon Ames), who’s worried because the college owes $500,000 to Alonzo P. Hawk (Keenan Wynn), CEO of the Auld Lang Syne Insurance and Loan Company, and Hawk is itching to see the college default on the loan so he can foreclose on the property, tear the college down and build a housing development in its place. Using the power of Flubber, Prof. Brainard rigs up an old Model “T” Ford he’d intended to restore so it can not only drive but fly — and the sequence in which he gets his revenge on Prof. Ashton by bouncing his Model “T” repeatedly on top of Ashton’s modern station wagon is delicious. All of this is happening while Medfield’s basketball team is preparing for its annual big game against Rutland, and while there’s a certain nostalgia in this movie watching both basketball teams be all-white, Rutland’s players both literally and figuratively tower over Medfield’s. The first half of the game — on which Alonzo Hawk has bet big against Medfield after Medfield’s star player, Biff Hawk (Tommy Kirk), was disqualified because he flunked Prof. Brainard’s chemistry exam — goes 46-3 in Rutland’s favor. Then Prof. Brainard hits on the idea of putting Flubber on the heels of the Medfield players’ shoes, and with the new-found jumping and bouncing ability given them by the gravity-defying stuff on their shoeheels, Medfield stages an amazing come-from-behind victory. Hawk is determined to gain the rights to Flubber so he can exploit it commercially, but Prof. Brainard is sufficiently patriotic he only wants to turn it over to the government for use in the national defense — and there’s a literal as well as figurative scramble by the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force to grab Flubber before their rival services can.

The film suddenly turns sort-of noir as Alonzo and Biff Hawk steal someone else’s Model “T” and substitute it for Prof. Brainard’s Flubber-equipped one — so the professor is embarrassed when he tries to make it fly and it does absolutely nothing — and he and Betsy have to break into the warehouse of Hawk’s company (which looks an awful lot like the disused storage buildings movie criminals of the day used as their hide-outs) and grab the real car, fly it to Washington and risk getting shot down as a UFO before they finally land on the Capitol lawn and the professor presents his discovery to the military. The Absent-Minded Professor is everything a good “family film” should be and almost never is: an entertainment with enough fun stuff to make kids like it and enough sophistication and wit so adults will like it to instead of regarding it as something they had to sit through out of parental duty. In some ways it’s what would have resulted if Frank Capra had made a science-fiction film: the rather nebbishy hero, so adept at molecular chemistry and so inept at every other aspect of life, is pure Capra and so is the villain, a financier attempting not only to put the hero out of business but take over the small town they live in and build a suburban nightmare in its place. It’s also arguably a personal film for Walt Disney: though its subject matter was a short story by Samuel W. Taylor (not the Samuel Taylor that wrote the script for Hitchcock’s Vertigo) called “A Situation of Gravity” and Bill Walsh wrote the screenplay, Disney biographer Richard Schickel argued that the character of Ned Brainard was Disney’s homage to his father, Elias P. Disney, a turn-of-the-century tinkerer and would-be inventor in Disney’s home town, Kansas City. It’s also a film that clearly draws not only on Capra’s formula but also Disney’s own experiences with the government during World War II; during the 1930’s Disney wasn’t especially political but he began to be active in conservative causes partly because of the strike called against him by several of his animators in the early 1940’s and partly because he was incredibly upset by the high-handed way with which the government dealt with him during World War II, when he offered to make cartoons to promote the U.S. war effort and had government bureaucrats not only micromanaging his productions but taking their own sweet time on paying him — a plot element that becomes even more important in the second film, Son of Flubber. 

The director of both The Absent-Minded Professor and Son of Flubber is Robert Stevenson, who had one of the weirdest career trajectories in movie history. In the 1930’s he was considered Alfred Hitchcock’s rival at the top of the heap of British directors, and made such excellent movies as The Man Who Changed His Mind a.k.a. The Man Who Lived Again (1936), with Boris Karloff in one of his best mad-scientist roles; King Solomon’s Mines (1937), which turned H. Rider Haggard’s adventure story into a feature for Paul Robeson (a much better movie than the mediocre remake from MGM in 1950); and Non-Stop New York (1937), a quasi-science fiction piece about a transatlantic airliner and the skullduggery surrounding its maiden flight. In the 1940’s he followed Hitchcock to the U.S. but, rather than specializing in one sort of film like Hitchcock did, his credits ranged all over the map, from the World War II thriller Joan of Paris to the 1943 Jane Eyre (though the extent of Stevenson’s contribution as opposed to that of his male star, Orson Welles, who took over much of the film’s direction, is still being debated; Joan Fontaine, who played the title role and couldn’t stand Welles, boasted in her autobiography that she helped Stevenson reassert his authority by insisting she would take notes on her performance only from him, not Welles, yet when Charles and I recently re-saw the film, during one of the many windblown chiaroscuro landscapes I said, “This looks much more like the work of the man who made Citizen Kane than the man who made Mary Poppins”); in 1950 he was the director who got stuck with Howard Hughes’ dream/nightmare assignment, The Woman on Pier 13 a.k.a. I Married a Communist (the assignment Hughes had offered to all the Left-leaning directors on his staff, figuring that if they turned it down they must be a Communist and should be blacklisted); and eventually, after spending most of the 1950’s doing TV (including, ironically, seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents), he got a sinecure at Disney, where he drew this assignment and the other three films in the Medfield College cycle (Son of Flubber, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones and The Monkey’s Uncle) as well as The Love Bug and its sequel, Herbie Rides Again, That Darn Cat and his final feature credit, The Shaggy D.A. — a 1976 sequel to a 1959 film, The Shaggy Dog, in which Tommy Kirk played a teenage boy who periodically changes into a dog; the sequel again starred Kirk as he had naturally aged and cast him as a young assistant prosecutor who … you guessed it.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Girl from Mars (Atlantis Films/South Pacific Pictures, 1991)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The program at last night’s “Mars Movie Night” was called “Mars for Kids,” and started with two unspeakably awful cartoons — a 2009 production from Walt Disney Studios that used the classic Disney characters (Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald and Daffy Duck, Goofy and Pluto) for some Sesame Street-style lessons to teach pre-school kids colors and shapes, and an episode of a blessedly forgotten (or never heard of) TV series called Galaxy High School created by Chris Columbus, of whom, when he made the film Home Alone in 1991, I joked, “Ah! His first hit in 499 years!” The synopsis of this episode, “Martian Mumps,” says it all: “Lox, a new student from Mars arrives and infects Milo with the Martian Mumps. Soon the entire school is looking green, sporting antennas and very punctual. Only Doyle and Aimee, being from Earth, appear to be immune. Captain James T. Smirk of the Medifederation Starship Eagle Eyes arrives on the scene and places Galaxy High under eternal quarantine and places it in orbit around Mars” — or at least he tries to until Doyle, Aimee and a character named Professor Eisenstein figure out how to cure the Martian mumps. The parts of the show that parodied Star Trek were actually wickedly funny, but the rest was so relentlessly stupid I wondered why writer Larry DiTillio wanted credit for coming up with its script.

Fortunately, the feature was a minor gem: The Girl from Mars, a 1991 TV-movie with Edward Albert as the star and his father, Eddie Albert, in an important supporting role — though the real lead is Sarah Sawatsky, playing Deirdre “Dee Dee” Puttman, daughter of Dan Puttman (Edward Albert). It takes place in the small town of Obegon, Washington, which is near Seattle (which explains why virtually all the outdoor scenes take place during rainstorms), where Dan is an environmentalist attorney who’s running for town council to save the city’s mountain from being bulldozed to make room for a parking garage for the local college. He lost his wife to cancer a year before the movie begins, and he has two daughters. Level-headed Liane (Christianne Hirt) is the older; she’s about to graduate from high school and go to college, and though Christianne Hirt was actually 17 years younger than Edward Albert they look the same age on screen — which is odd but not altogether inappropriate because Liane has decided to “play mom” to Dee Dee now that their real mother is dead.

Since her mom died Dee Dee has become obsessed with outer space, claiming to be an agent from the planet Mars sent to pose as an Earth high-school girl to learn more about Earth and its customs. She’s built her own flying saucer, a remote-controlled toy (today we’d call it a “drone”) she flies with a radio setup, also of her own construction, and she’s inserted a microcassette recorder so she can use it to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations and record them — though surprisingly little is made of this plot point by writer Brian Allan Lane. Dee Dee is written off as the school weirdo at the local high school, where she’s bullied by her fellow students in general and Earl West (Lochlyn Munro) and Ricky Swanson (Kaj-Erik Eriksen) in particular. They make fun of her not only for her Martian obsessions but also for befriending the school nerd; at one point they steal the control for her flying saucer and she bites Ricky on the leg to get him to drop it so she can recover it. As it happens, Earl West is also the son of college dean Wayne West (Jeremy Radick), the man who wants to bulldoze the mountain outside town to build a parking lot for the college, and who’s therefore Dan’s biggest political enemy. The dramatis personae include a news reporter from a Seattle station, Stacey Moliet (Gywnyth Walsh) from KXYX Channel 11, who’s sent to Obegon to cover Dan’s campaign by her boss as punishment for her refusal to have sex with him, and who seems to be attracted to Dan (though writer Lane doesn’t do much about that, either) even though her reports, as edited back at the station in Seattle, make him look like an idiot.

Whether she’s really from Mars or not, Dee Dee turns out to have telekinetic powers — at one point he makes a burner in chemistry class flare up unexpectedly, singeing the eyebrows of science teacher Mr. Sharbut (Leslie Carlson) who’s just given her an F on a test and read her answer to the class (she wrote a philosophical meditation on Earth instead of just writing the name of the planet closest to it in the solar system). Later she smashes out the glass of the cars of people who are being especially mean to her, though for some reason her power disintegrates windshields and glasses lenses but keeps intact the lens of the camera with which Stacey’s crew was filming this. Dee Dee also gets disappointed with her avuncular friend, scientist Dr. Charles Favender (Eddie Albert), for issuing an environmental impact report on the proposed development that says bulldozing the mountain and building the garage won’t have an environmental impact because the fabled “snowy,” a white owl that once lived on the mountain, hasn’t been seen in 10 years. (The moment you hear a hint like that, you just know a snowy white owl will be seen on that mountain before the film is over —and it duly is.) It all comes to a climax when Dee Dee manages to take over the screen of a drive-in movie theatre that’s showing a horror double bill and announces that she — wearing a silver metallic jumpsuit and with her head shaved, which she explains is so she can shed her skin more easily to revert to her “natural” Martian state as a pure energy being — is about to lift off and return to her home planet. She actually gets a commercial prop to fly like the rocket ship it looks like, only at the end she decides to stay on Earth because she’s come to love her (adoptive) family.

I wasn’t expecting much from The Girl from Mars — especially after the awful shows that preceded it — but it scored through the quiet dignity of Lane’s writing and Neill Fearnley’s direction and the impeccable acting of a mostly no-name but quite good cast — though Sarah Sawatsky takes the prize here. Like Chris Columbus’s Home Alone star, Macaulay Culkin, Sawatsky has an odd appearance but one that’s precisely right for this role, and she nails it while keeping us uncertain as to whether she really is from Mars and, if not, whether she believes it. (At one point, with Dan and Liane badgering Dee Dee about not having any plans for her future, I joked, “She could always become a backup singer for Sun Ra.”) In some ways it’s a kinder, gentler Carrie, with the put-upon teen getting her revenge by smashing their windshields and flying off into space instead of starting a bloodbath, but The Girl from Mars is genuinely charming and especially spoke to me since I, too, had a “weird” reputation in school (more in middle than high school — actually once I got to high school it was big enough I was able to find enough like-minded friends and not feel so isolated) and can remember all too vividly what it was like to be the “odd person out” in the school environment. One odd thing about The Girl from Mars was not only how retro it was technologically (Dee Dee has one of those old-style phone answering machines — the dreadful term “voicemail” had yet to be coined — with two cassettes, one for your outgoing message and one for incoming ones; also her flying-saucer toy features a microcassette recorder and Liane shoots home movies of the family with a full-sized camcorder instead of a smartphone) but that we were watching it on a VHS tape, with the telltale bits of snow and occasional tracking problems that itself connoted a sense of nostalgia — “Guess what, folks? In those days that was all we had!”

Friday, June 19, 2015

I Killed My BFF (Red Hippo, Jackson, Shadowland, Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I finally got to watch the Lifetime movie I’d recorded last Saturday: I Killed My BFF. It’s one of the most ridiculous titles Lifetime or its producers (the Johnson Entertainment Group and Shadowland, in conjunction with a company called — of all things — Red Hippo) have ever concocted, which was fully appropriate because it was one of the most ridiculous stories they’ve ever concocted either. Even such mistresses of Lifetime melodrama as Christine Conradt or Barbara Kymlicka would have been ashamed to have their names on the credits of this one — the writers were Danny Abel and Blake Berris (it’s irresistibly tempting to note, with apologies to Dorothy Parker, that their script ran the gamut of emotions from A to B), and the (over)director someone named Seth Jarrett. It’s basically a mishmash of Lifetime’s Greatest Hits, and it suffers from the common failing of all too many modern movies that it really doesn’t give you anyone you can like. Indeed, for all the critical lickings Emmanuel Schickaneder has taken over the years for his character reversals in his libretto for Mozart’s The Magic Flute (in Act I the Queen of the Night is a heroine and Sarastro a villain; in Act II Sarastro is a hero and the Queen a villain), poor old Schickaneder had nothing on Messrs. Abel and Berris, who seemed bent and determined to put everyone of their characters through a moral reversal. It starts with Shane Riley (Katrina Bowden), a blonde bimbette and long-term girlfriend of Alex Lachan (Chris Zylka), who’s already borne him one child and is pregnant with his next one even though they haven’t bothered to get married yet: she’s ready to tie the knot officially but he’s reluctant. Meanwhile, Heather Thomas (Olivia Crocicchia) has just been dumped literally in the middle of the road by the father of her baby-to-be, Chase (Blake Michael), and they’re shown driving down the road in Chase’s truck, where she insists the baby is his responsibility because he pleaded with her to be allowed to fuck her without a condom, and he is so not into child-rearing or even child-supporting that he throws her out of the truck, and no sooner does that happen than she goes into labor.

She’s taken to the emergency room of the local hospital and then to the maternity ward, where she and Shane meet in adjoining beds and give birth. A supercilious nurse comes in and warns Heather that her placenta is still inside her — it didn’t come out when her kid did like it’s supposed to — and they can either try to push it out or remove her entire uterus. Shane tells Heather to ask to speak to a surgeon and not to undergo removal of her uterus as long as there’s a chance both she and it can be saved, and the two women bond as “BFF’s” (that means “Best Friends Forever,” in case you’ve spent the last several years in Timbuktu or Antarctica) and even move into the same housing development, where Heather is available to baby-sit Shane’s two kids whenever Shane needs her to — which is quite a lot because Shane is running a high-end (or as high-end as the nondescript and unidentified little town where all this is taking place can support) boutique called West Egg (at first I thought the place was “Nest Egg” and it was a breakfast restaurant, but it seems that whoever Shane is working for was an F. Scott Fitzgerald fan and named it after Jay Gatsby’s town of residence) and her boyfriend Alex works at a brew-pub called Troy’s even though he’s a recovering alcoholic with 18 months’ continuous sobriety when the film begins. Things start to go off the rails when Shane runs into Connor Savage (Wes Cannon), who used to manage the rock band of Shane’s now-deceased rock-star father and who now says he’s opening a new music club called Godot (as in Waiting for … ) and will let Shane in as a partner if she can come up with $15,000 to invest. (If he’s been such a successful rock manager, why does he need $15,000 from a woman who’s working for a living, as is her partner?) Shane is so determined to get the money she’s literally willing to kill for it — remember, this is a woman who in the opening sequences was presented as the voice of reason compared to Heather, who is literally bipolar (didn’t I tell you Heather was bipolar? Director Jarrett uses this as an excuse for some really horrible “flanging” effects where it looks like he’s rewinding his videotape in mid-shot in an utterly failed attempt to depict Heather’s muddled mental state) and is so prone to massive rages that her ex-boyfriend Chase and the new woman he’s hooked up with, Melanie (Jenny Jennings), are able to achieve enough family stability they get Heather’s baby away from her.

Shane first seeks the money through legal means, but the bank turns her down and so does Alex’s father, whom both she and we have been led to believe had money but must have lost a lot during the recession or something, because when Shane goes to ask him behind Alex’s back he says they can’t swing it financially and patronizes her as he hangs up on her phone call. Both the bank and Alex’s dad turn her down, and the owner of Troy’s reneges on the promised raise he offered Troy, so Shane hits on the idea of stealing the money from the safe at Troy’s and making it look as if outside burglars were responsible. In the film’s best and quirkiest scene, Shane comes to the back room after hours at Troy’s and literally seduces Alex into going along with her plan, only Troy’s is so hurt by the loss that the owner has to let Alex go completely — and Alex responds to being laid off by falling off the wagon and starting to drink. As part of the burglary plot, Shane had smashed the laptop computer on which Troy’s stored its security-camera footage — only Heather saw Shane throwing the wreckage away in the home garbage, retrieved the laptop and turned it over to the police. Shane had hoped to have a hold over Heather by agreeing to testify for her as a character witness in her child-custody hearing against Chase — apparently it doesn’t seem to occur to her that she wouldn’t be much good as a character witness with a burglary charge hanging over her head — and when Heather instead recruits another woman who lives on the same block, Shane makes a homophobic remark that Heather is trusting a Lesbian over her. When she realizes that Heather isn’t going to be her alibi witness and is going to give the laptop to the police, Shane decides that Heather must be killed — and she recruits Alex into the plot, having him lure Heather to an abandoned church in the woods outside of town, which he can do because Heather is in decidedly unrequited love with him. (A guy who’s lost his job and fallen off the wagon, with no prospects and a fiercely jealous girlfriend — gee, Heather, you sure can pick ’em!) Once they’re there and Heather is convinced she and Alex are going to have sex at last, Shane shows up with a rifle, the three confront each other, Shane orders Alex to shoot Heather and, when Alex refuses, Shane does the job herself.

A postlude explains that Heather turned over the incriminating laptop — its screen and keyboard have been smashed beyond repair but apparently the hard drive, or enough of it, survived intact, and the damning evidence on it against Alex and Shane was recovered — and the two are arrested for the Troy’s burglary right when Shane has told Alex to marry her on the ground that legally wedded spouses can’t be compelled to testify against each other, and they’re having the wedding ceremonies with Heather, ironically, as the maid of honor. Ultimately Alex and Shane are popped not only for the burglary but the murder as well — Heather deposited the incriminating laptop to her long-suffering mother (Jessica Lemon Wilkinson) and she gave it to the police — and though the film depicts Shane as the prime mover behind the crime, including shooting Heather herself after Alex refused to, a final credit line says that in the true story that “inspired” this film, Alex got a sentence of life without parole for kidnapping someone with the intent to murder them, while Shane only got a 25-year sentence after she testified against him. The film opens after the body had been recovered (by a Law and Order-style guest body finder, an old man who’s stumbled across Heather’s remains in a creek near where she was murdered), though the framing scene is deliberately ambiguous to keep us from seeing who murdered whom and force us to watch the entire movie to find out. I Killed My BFF — a stupid title that another producer had already used in 2012 for a TV series — was originally called Neighbors, which would have been more ironic but not much better — and it’s a virtual compendium of Lifetime clichés in which virtually the only suspense is over which of the two girls in it (not women, girls — and they’re both so impossibly young and perky only the differences in styles and colors of their hair allow you to tell them apart) is going to turn out to be the (worse) psycho. About the only remotely reasonable people in this entire movie are Heather’s mom and Alex’s dad — and maybe Chase’s later girlfriend Melanie, who seems to have wrested a level of responsibility out of him Heather was utterly unable to get from him — and when all your main protagonists are this wretchedly unlikable you find yourself watching less a whodunit (or whosgonnadoit) than a whocareswhosgonnadoit.