Monday, June 26, 2017

My Daughter Is Missing (MarVista Entertainment, Headlong Entertainment, Red Production, Benattar Thomas Productions, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I spent most of last night watching two Lifetime movies, getting my weekly “fix” of them — it seems that Lifetime has moved the “premiere” showings from Saturday to Sunday, which is going to be a problem once the new TV season starts if they conflict with other things I want to watch on Sunday nights, like the excellent CBS-TV series Madam Secretary and Elementary — last Saturday’s Lifetime movies were just reruns of things I’d already seen but last night they presented two that were new for me. First up was My Daughter Is Missing, which seems to have originated with writer Jenny Paul thinking about redoing the movie Taken (starring Liam Neeson as a father who’s frantically searching for his daughter, who’s been kidnapped by human traffickers) with a woman in the Neeson role. My Daughter Is Missing turned out to be an excellent thriller, unoriginal but exciting and well staged by director Tamar Halpern, who showed a real flair for neo-noir in color. It’s also interesting in that it’s not only set in Belgrade but was actually shot there, though one wonders how the producers (no fewer than four production companies are credited: MarVista Entertainment, Headlong Entertainment, Red Production and Benattar Thomas Productions) got the government of Serbia to let them film there when Paul’s script describes their country as a hotbed of human trafficking and official corruption. The plot centers around Sara (Miranda Raison), a middle-aged woman who was formerly a computer hacker — it’s what brought her and her husband together in the first place — only he got greedy and started using his hacking skills to steal from banks and people’s accounts. He got caught and the couple lost everything — they had to give up their house and everything else they owned to make restitution for the money he’d stolen — and ultimately they broke up and Sara was left to raise her daughter Karissa (Sophie Robertson) as a single parent. 

Sara, like a lot of real-life ex-hackers, found a legitimate way to make a living from her skills by becoming a computer security consultant for major corporations, and in that capacity she’s invited to give a speech at a computer security conference in Belgrade, which by coincidence is also where her daughter Karissa has gone to be an exchange student. Karissa is rooming with a Serbian girl named Lara (Jovana Stojilikovic), and after Sara gives her speech Karissa and Lara decide to go out clubbing to a spot called The Haven. What they don’t know is that what The Haven is a haven for is human traffickers — the owner is part of an elaborate ring working throughout Europe to kidnap young women and sell them on the “dark Web” as sex slaves to rich men — and while Karissa and Lara are having a thrilling night on the Belgrade club scene and being cruised by Dragan (Miodrag Radonjic), who unbeknownst to them is the traffickers’ recruiter, Sara is on a date of her own with Belgrade police captain Kozarski, the first man she’s been attracted to since she and her husband broke up. Dragan drugs Karissa’s and Lara’s drinks and Karissa, realizing what’s happened, attempts to call her mom but passes out before she can say much, and Dragan seizes her phone and steps on it. The two girls are taken by the sex ring and handed over to Mira (Milena Cucilovic), a red-headed woman overseer who in a lot of ways is the most interesting character in the piece, a grimly determined hatchet-faced woman whom I presume, based on how real-life traffickers operate, was once a trafficking victim herself and rose through the ranks from prostitute to madam. The scenes in which Mira, assigned to take pictures of the “merchandise” for their dark-Web site, vainly tries to get Karissa to smile so she’ll look more attractive to potential buyers are grimly amusing. At one point Karissa and Lara attempt to escape, but Lara is shot in the back and Karissa is recaptured — they’re less interested in Lara because Serbian girls are a dime a dozen, but an American will fetch a good deal more on the traffickers’ slave market — the traffickers leave Lara for dead on the street but she’s found alive and taken to a hospital. 

Sara risks her life sneaking into the back room of The Haven and downloading the security footage that shows exactly how her daughter and Lara were kidnapped — there’s a The Firm-style suspense sequence in which we wonder whether Sara will be able to finish downloading the files to her flash drive before she’s caught and thrown out, beaten or worse — only Sara makes the mistake of giving the flash drive to her cop friend Kozarski. Kozarski is so uninterested in investigating the case that we realize well before Sara does that he’s corrupt and in league with the traffickers. Fortunately there is an honest cop on the Belgrade force, Alek (Emmett J. Scanlan), though for a few acts both we and Sara are kept in some uncertainty as to which of the cops is honest and which is corrupt, and it’s not clear whether Alek is a local officer or an agent of Interpol, which is after the trafficking ring because it operates throughout Europe. Jenny Paul’s script tracks so closely to the Taken model that the final “auction” of Karissa takes place on a boat, and against impossible odds Sara and Alek manage to take out the kidnappers and get Karissa back — while the fellow computer geeks at the conference Sara was in Belgrade to speak at (ya remember the conference?) helped her trace the location of the “auction” and downloaded enough information from the ring’s computers that Interpol will be able to take it down. Despite its derivativeness, My Daughter Is Missing is actually a quite good thriller; director Halpern maintains the suspense and tension and moves the story along fast enough we don’t have time to think about the plot improbabilities (like why on earth the traffickers waited to kidnap Karissa and Lara until Karissa’s mom was in town — one would think they could have grabbed her earlier and never got caught). The piece is also quite well acted, with Sophie Robertson especially convincing as the resourceful young woman who keeps her wits about her in a terrible situation and remains focused on how she can get out of it. Despite the rather clinical title (though the working title, Missing in Europe, was even more blah), My Daughter Is Missing is a quite impressive piece of work that manages to do its job even if it does seem like you’ve seen it before.

Deadly Ex (Creative Arts Entertainment Group/Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alas, after My Daughter Is Missing Lifetime showed something considerably less interesting, Deadly Ex, which was a disappointment despite Christine Conradt’s presence on the writing credits — she worked out the original story in collaboration with Chris Lancey and did the actual script by herself. The first surprise came when I looked up the film’s page and read the following synopsis: “A woman interprets a kiss at a high school reunion as an invitation to follow her ex across the country and supplant his current family.” That was a surprise because I would have assumed a Lifetime movie called Deadly Ex would have been about a woman terrorized by a male ex-lover, not the other way around! The “deadly ex” is Valerie (Natasha Henstridge), who 20 years before dated Gary (Jason Gerhardt) when they were both high-school students in Kansas City and he had ambitions to go to law school and become a prosecutor. Only within a year and a half they broke up and Gary married Jess (Marguerite Moreau). He dropped out of law school after two years and ended up in Los Angeles starting a trucking company with his friend Walt (Ben Reed). Alas, the business is barely hanging on financially, and Jess’s job as a yoga teacher doesn’t add that much to the family income. They have two kids, teenage son Zach (Matt Cornett) — who like virtually all movie teenagers spends his entire life wearing headphones and listening to loud music, and who wears a long-sleeved T-shirt bearing the logo of a business called “Burger Records” (we see him in that shirt in virtually every scene, so much so that we get the impression it’s the only shirt he owns!) — and a daughter, Carissa (Sammi Hanratty) — not another Carissa! — whom the family wants to send to a fiercely competitive prep school and they have a slot to admit her but they need to come up with the tuition. Valerie is actually doing considerably better economically — she lives and works in Seattle and has come up with a successful business selling high-end purses, handbags and cases for tablet computers — but though Christine Conradt doesn’t spell out what her emotional life has been like, we get the impression that if she has had a sex life since she and Gary broke up, it’s been pretty loveless, opportunistic and not “serious.” 

The script intercuts between present action and whatever it was happened between Gary and Valerie at the high-school reunion at which they re-met — we see her cruising him, him confessing to her that his marriage is in trouble and he and Jess are considering a divorce, and the two getting as far as an open-mouthed kiss and Valerie inviting Gary back to her hotel room, an invitation Gary virtuously declined but came close enough to accepting Valerie thinks it’s only a matter of time before she can wear him down and get him to leave his wife and kids for her. The script shows the “Conradt touch” in making the three principals multidimensional characters, though I agreed with the reviewer who complained that Gary is such a milquetoast it’s hard to believe both women are so invested in him they’re fighting this bitterly over him. Natasha Henstridge is so much sexier than Marguerite Moreau one gets the impression that Gary traded down big-time when he left Valerie for Jess — she’s also a much better businessperson than Gary or his wife — and Jess (giving her such an androgynous name was a nice touch on Conradt’s part) doesn’t help her cause by being ferociously and counterproductively jealous, constantly ragging Gary about his association with Valerie, finding lipstick on one of his shirts (which Gary had hidden precisely to avoid his wife having a jealous hissy-fit about it), refusing to believe that he and Valerie never actually got to the down-’n’-dirty in the 2.0 phase of their relationship, and peremptorily throwing him out of the house without giving him much of a chance to explain. Valerie is easily the show’s most interesting character — like Jett Rink, James Dean’s character in the film Giant, we get the idea that there are more sides of her that we’d want to see explored and we’d like to see the story “remixed” to focus on her and how she made it in the business world even as she failed to find romance or happiness in that department — and though she’s considerably more zaftig than the common type of female leads today, I doubt very many straight guys watching this movie would pick Jess over her! 

Unfortunately, this film also shows Christine Conradt’s weaknesses as a writer big-time, particularly her penchant for insanely melodramatic climaxes: after Jess has thrown him out, Valerie comes to Gary’s hotel room, waits for him to fall asleep, steals his credit cards and his keys, lets herself into Gary’s and Jess’s house and grabs whatever weapons she can find — a kitchen knife and a ball-peen hammer — using these to assault and seriously wound Jess and Carissa. In one of Conradt’s typical bits of irony, Zach is home when his mom and his sister are being assaulted by the Crazy Bitch from Hell but he doesn’t notice because he’s got his headphones on and has his music cranked up so loud he can’t hear the noise from the attacks. Eventually Zach catches on to what’s going on and calls a male friend of his on Skype to ask him to call the police, since Valerie has managed to destroy or steal every cell phone in the house, and the cops come — but in the meantime Jess has wrested the knife from Valerie and stabbed her with it, and though Conradt doesn’t spell it out we get the impression that she killed Valerie with the knife because Valerie doesn’t respond when the cops come to take her into custody. Deadly Ex was originally filmed under the title Inconceivable — for once Lifetime changed a working title and came up with something better, though not by much — and it’s given workmanlike direction by Tom Shell, who seemed to be holding his nose and jumping into the pool of melodramatic gimmicks Conradt supplied him in lieu of a script. But it does have an excellent performance by Natasha Henstridge, who burns up the screen for sheer sexiness and manages to make Valerie believable as a put-upon victim — at least until the final scene, when Conradt’s script requires her to lose it completely and she responds with the kind of over-several-tops acting Christine Conradt’s scripts seem to demand at their melodramatic worst! Frankly, the best job of direction I’ve ever seen on a Conradt script came from Conradt herself, as both writer and director of The Bride He Bought Online (which according to has been retitled Flirting with Madness), and she’s apparently made two more films as director, Killer Mom and the upcoming 12 Days of Giving, which should be interesting.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Rock, Rhythm and Doo-Wop (PBS, 2001)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

My “feature” last night was yet another PBS pledge-break special with the typically awkward title My Music: Rock, Rhythm and Doo-Wop, whose entry on PBS’s Web site denotes that it was aired November 10, 2016 but doesn’t say how old the show is — a significant omission for this type of program, which presents old rock ’n’ roll, rhythm-and-blues and doo-wop acts in recent concert but it would be nice to know how recent it was. After all, these acts are, shall we say, venerable, and in particular I’d like to know if anyone who was featured on this show has died since it was filmed. From my point of view the program — directed by T. J. Lubinsky as one of his innumerable forays into programming the pop music of the 1950’s and early 1960’s for PBS — was weighted too heavily towards doo-wop and not enough towards rock and rhythm, though it did have one advantage over some of Lubinsky’s previous productions. This time he didn’t show any dead people; in some of his shows he’s represented deceased artists via film clips, which had the ironic effect of presenting the dead performers more advantageously than the live ones, since we were seeing the dead ones in clips from their artistic and commercial primes while we were seeing the living ones as they appear now (or at least as they appeared when Lubinsky filmed them — the title Rock, Rhythm and Doo-Wop is not to be confused with Rock, Pop and Doo-Wop, which Lubinsky made in 2011 with some of the same performers he featured here). The show opened with a pure rock ’n’ roller, and one of the greatest of all time, Little Richard — he may not have quite invented rock (as Jerry Butler, who MC’d the show but oddly didn’t perform himself), and there are arguably people who were doing what became rock ’n’ roll even earlier than he was (like Louis Jordan, Roy Brown, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Professor Longhair and his disciple, Fats Domino), but he’s one of the great practitioners of the form and the only one left from a classic rock show I saw in San Francisco in 1971 that also featured Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. What I remember about that show is that Berry and Diddley were content to work with a pick-up band (the guitarist in it was cute but overall they were uninspired; occasionally an audience for a Chuck Berry show got to see him play with a then-unknown musician who’d later become a star in his own right, like Steve Miller in San Francisco in 1966 or Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey in 1973, but those dates were few and far between) but Richard brought his own group and benefited handsomely by it. Last night he did the song “Keep A’Knockin’,” the last piece he recorded in 1958 before he abruptly (and, blessedly, temporarily) quit the music business to study for the ministry — it was a 57-second tape he gave to his producer, Art Rupe of Specialty Records, who repeated sections of it and thereby stretched it out to 2:17, and it got even more stretched out in the Rock, Rhythm and Doo-Wop show as Richard kept on repeating it for about five minutes, periodically shutting up so the fine saxophonist in Lubinsky’s studio band could show off and solo. 

Little Richard’s only concession to age is that he hardly moves around on stage at all anymore — he basically stood still at the piano but he could still hammer out those power-chord triplets he learned from the gospel records of singer-pianist Arizona Dranes in the late 1920’s (Richard himself named her as one of his biggest influences, which probably had a lot of rock fans scratching their heads and thinking, “Who the hell is Arizona Dranes?”) — and that shrieking voice of his is as intense and viscerally grabbing as ever. Indeed, I wondered why T. J. Lubinsky had put Little Richard on first because just about anything else would sound weak and wimpy by comparison — ideally Richard should have been on last — but at least Lubinsky was savvy enough to put on as his second act a group that wasn’t even trying to mine the same territory Richard had. They were the white group Kathy Young and the Innocents, and they did the closest thing they ever had to a hit, a song called “A Thousand Stars” that was light, innocent and a nice depiction of teenage love. Then the Rays came on and did their big hit, “Silhouettes” (an interesting revamping of the same theme Bing Crosby and his songwriters had trolled in the early 1930’s with a song called “Shadows on the Window,” though in the Rays’ version — unlike in Bing’s — the singer who thinks he sees silhouettes on the window shade of his girlfriend making out with another guy turns out to be “on the wrong block”), after which one of Berry Gordy’s early signings from Motown, The Contours, tore through their one hit, “Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance)?” I remember reading about this song in Herbert Kohl’s book 36 Children, in which he as a well-meaning young white Jewish teacher in a Harlem grade school naïvely asked his students about that song, thinking it shouldn’t really matter to a young girl whether her boyfriend can dance, and got a thorough taking-down of his white-boy naïveté when the kids told him, “Dancing is a soul thing.” I also remember first hearing the song in the Dave Clark Five’s cover on their first album, Glad All Over, and thinking it was one of the best things on the disc — and then I heard the Contours version, and of course the Black Detroiters totally blew away the white Londoners on this one! 

After the Contours came a doo-wop group called the Duprees, a Black group covering the white song “You Belong to Me,” a big hit for Jo Stafford on Capitol in 1952 — though to my mind the very best version ever was by Judy Garland, also in 1952, when she was substituting for Bing Crosby on his radio show while Bing was with his wife, Dixie Lee, who was in a hospital dying of cancer. The Duprees’ cover was pleasant but hardly in a league with either of the solo white women who made this song special! Then came the first of the interminable pledge breaks that make these shows, and PBS in general, incredibly annoying — and which we’ll probably have to endure more of (along with commercial interruptions in the middle of PBS’s major programming as well) once the Republican Congress and the Trump administration have their way and totally defund PBS — and afterwards they showcased a singer-songwriter I’d never heard of, Earl Townsend, who in 1958 instead of having to record for teeny-tiny labels with substandard sound quality and chancy distribution, got a crack at a major-label contract when Joe Zerga of Capitol Records heard a demo he’d made of a song called “For Your Love” (a romantic ballad and not the similarly titled but far more rocking song that became the Yardbirds’ first hit). Townsend saw himself mainly as a songwriter and was hoping Zerga would give “For Your Love” to a Capitol artist to record — instead, much to Townsend’s astonishment, Zerga suggested that Townsend record it himself. Townsend got the full Capitol treatment — not only a single deal but an entire album with no less than Nelson Riddle as his arranger/conductor, though it was another big-band veteran, ex-Lunceford arranger and trumpeter Gerald Wilson, who arranged “For Your Love.” (Incidentally, I got most of that information from an online obituary on the Los Angeles Times Web site,, which states that Townsend died in 2003 — which really dates this program and shows just how far in the past it was filmed.) 

Townsend’s other big hit was for another artist: he co-wrote and co-produced Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” Incidentally, a YouTube posting of “For Your Love” features a cover scan of a Townsend-Riddle album called glad to be here (the all-lower case spelling is on the original) in which Capitol’s photographer seemed to be aiming him towards the “Black Sinatra” image, complete with hat — and on the Rock, Rhythm and Doo-Wop show the arrangement was close to the original and Townsend’s voice, though lower, rougher and gravellier than it had been in 1958, certainly communicated the song’s moving message of commitment. Townsend had three women backup singers in back of him and was wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the legend “Big Poppa” — a bit of bravado one wouldn’t associate with the singer of such a romantic ballad, though maybe it’s more understandable when you realize this guy did co-write “Let’s Get It On.” After Townsend’s number (both the original recording and the clip from this program are available on YouTube, in case you’re interested: the 1958 original on and the Rock, Rhythm and Doo-Wop version on came what I thought was the most interesting number on the program performed by white artists: the Reflections, of whom I’d never heard of before, who had a #6 hit single in 1964 with a song called “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet.” Given what happened to Romeo and Juliet at the end of Shakespeare’s play, I’m surprised that any young teenage lovers would want to compare themselves to them, but the song itself is great. The Reflections were from Detroit but I suspect their record filtered out to the New Jersey music scene, if only because it sounds so much like an early Bruce Springsteen song it seems likely to me the Boss heard it when it was new and was influenced by it. 

After that they brought on Lou Christie for his one hit, “Lightning Strikes” from 1966, and though he doesn’t have the killer falsetto that made the original record so much fun (when the song had to go high, the three women backup singers — I think the same ones Townsend had used — had to cover for him), Christie’s normal male-range voice is actually quite nice even though it’s more Sinatra-lite than a real rock voice. Then Little Anthony and the Imperials came out and did three songs — a rare privilege in a show like this, whose message to most of the acts seems to have been, “You only made one record anybody remembers. Sing that and then get off the stage” — “Tears on My Pillow,” “Shimmy-Shimmy Ko-Ko Bop,” and probably their best record, the lovely ballad “Going Out of My Head.” Little Anthony’s voice was hard to hear at first — the sound engineers on this program didn’t always get the lead singer loud enough for the first few bars — but once they got the mix adjusted he was in excellent form, one singer who has kept his falsetto from his glory days. After yet another pledge break Bobby Lewis came out for two songs, one of which I didn’t write down in time but the other was his great hit, “Tossin’ and Turnin,” and he too had held up surprisingly well vocally. Then the Fleetwoods, one of the better white doo-wop groups, did their haunting hit “Mister Blue,” following which another group I’d never heard of before, Larry Chance and The Earls, did a song called “Remember Me” — not the one Bing Crosby so beautifully recorded in 1938 and Tommy Dorsey’s most underrated male singer, Stuart Foster, revived with the Dorsey band in the late 1940’s. After that a Black vocal group called the Limelights (whom I remembered getting confused with the white folk group The Limeliters — I mistakenly typed the name “The Limelighters” into a search engine and kept getting references for the Limelights) did their biggest hit by far, “Daddy’s Home.” 

After yet another pledge break Lloyd Price, the singer who’d been having hits since his 1952 song “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy” became Specialty Records’ first crossover hit (label owner Art Rupe recalled that he’d see white people buying it throughout the South and saying, “Oh, it’s for my chauffeur,” or, “It’s for my maid,” when of course they really wanted it for themselves) and who previously had been seen on the show co-MC’ing with Jerry Butler (original lead singer for The Impressions, who broke through with the haunting R&B ballad “He Will Break Your Heart” and was the first singer to record “Moon River” — it wasn’t Andy Williams, and having Butler sing either “He Will Break Your Heart,” “Moon River” or both would have considerably boosted this show’s quality: instead he only MC’d), came out and did “Stagolee.” I hadn’t realized until I saw the recent folk documentary American Epic that the first record of what I’d always regarded as such a quintessentially Black song came from a white artist, West Virginia coal miner and part-time singer Frank Hutchison in 1928 (though Mississippi John Hurt covered it a year later for the same label, Okeh, and thereby established it as a Black song). What I did know was that this was the first record Lloyd Price made after he jumped from the Specialty label to ABC, a major company then (they’d also lure Ray Charles from Atlantic), and that he recorded it in two versions. The first rocked the song up but stuck closely to the original folk lyrics, in which Stagolee shoots his friend Billy Lyons after Billy accused Stagolee of cheating him in a craps game. The second was made after Dick Clark told ABC’s promotion people that he loved the record musically but couldn’t play on his American Bandstand show such a raunchy record that seemed to be glorifying murder, so someone wrote a cleaned-up lyric in which Stagolee and Billy were two teenagers arguing over a girl and ultimately making up as friends. Fortunately on Rock, Rhythm and Doo-Wop Price sang the original, uncompromised version — and belted it out beautifully. 

After that came another group I’d never heard of, Lenny Coco and the Chimes, doing another doo-wop cover of a standard: “Once in a While,” written in 1937 by Michael Edwards and Bud Green and stunningly recorded by Sarah Vaughan in 1947 — her version swoops up and down the scales in her trademark style and manages to blend astonishing technique with intense emotion. It was actually introduced by Louis Armstrong and covered by quite a few great singers, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Patti Page and Mose Allison (on his last album, The Way of the World), but to my mind young Sassy owns this song and a doo-wop version, however cleverly arranged (which this one was), was hardly going to come even within hailing distance of the great Sarah. Afterwards they brought on another one-hit wonder group, Gene Hughes and the Casinos (like Earl Townsend, Hughes died early in the 2000’s — February 3, 2004, age 67, from complications following an auto accident), a nine-piece doo-wop group from Cincinnati whose one hit was a hauntingly beautiful ballad called “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye.” I’ve heard this song other places because other oldies cover groups have done it, and interestingly it became a hit in 1967 — a bit late in the day for the doo-wop style given that the sounds that were ruling the charts just then were psychedelic rock and the blues-rock style that eventually became heavy metal — and the song itself was written by country singer-songwriter John D. Loudermilk, a bit of a departure for him given that his most famous piece was the anti-poverty plea “Tobacco Road.” According to their Wikipedia page, “The Casinos were playing in a Cincinnati club where WSAI disc jockey Tom Dooley liked to visit. Dooley had a song he wanted to record but needed a band to provide the music. The Casinos had been getting great reaction to ‘Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye’ at the club and wanted to record it. Dooley offered to pay for studio time at Cincinnati’s King Records Studio for the group to record their song if they would back up Dooley on his song. While Dooley’s song didn't see success beyond WSAI, the Casinos’ tune quickly became a national hit.” 

The finale of the show was much-ballyhooed — we were breathlessly promised a reunion of a famous band in such fulsome terms one would have thought we were going to see a Beatles reunion with a spirit medium channeling John Lennon, but instead it was Fred Parris rejoining the Five Satins to sing lead on their biggest hit, “In the Still of the Night,” which Parris wrote in 1954 while stationed with the U.S. Army in Germany: the song was inspired by the long nights during which he was on watch duty and therefore had to stay up all night. (Johnny Cash wrote his first song, “Hey Porter,” in Germany when he was serving with the U.S. Air Force in 1954.) Parris’s voice was in excellent form and “In the Still of the Night” is one of the greatest doo-wop songs, a heartfelt ballad that challenges and transcends the rather stupid clichés of the form and achieves the emotional power of the later soul style. My previous impression of shows in the My Music (or, as PBS sometimes spells it in obeisance to the ridiculous nomenclature of computer programs, MyMusic without the space) series had been that of the veteran singers brought back on stage for these programs, the Black singers’ voices have generally held up better than the white singers’ voices — which I attributed to the fact that most of the Blacks who sang this music began in African-American churches and were given professional vocal training by the church choir directors, while white singers who took up this sort of music bought into the myth that the Black singers’ voices were “untrained” and quickly destroyed their voices thinking that all they had to do to sing soul was to scream. (Exhibits A and B: Bonnie Tyler and Stevie Nicks.) This time around, the survival rate (or lack of same) among the Black and white voices sounded pretty even, and the overall show was pretty good even though I’d have liked more clarity as to just when this was recorded (according to an Internet search it was 2001) and, as I said at the start of this piece, I’d have liked more rock and rhythm and less doo-wop!

Father Brown: “The Lepidopterist’s Companion” (BBC-TV, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ended up watching KPBS, including a surprisingly recent (first aired January 11, 2017) Father Brown episode called “The Lepidopterist’s Companion.” The synopsis reads, “When Mrs McCarthy takes over the running of the mobile library, Father Brown discovers a shocking secret.” The show actually starts with the killing of Lewis Ward (the genuinely attractive Thomas Pickens, whom it’s a pity to lose so early), an amateur photographer who works for camera-shop owner (a marvelous period advertisement for Kodak is seen as a stand-up display on his counter) Graham Cartwright (Andrew Greenough), who hears an intruder about in the “live” parts of his live-work space and gets out of bed with his wife Margaret (Elizabeth Berrington), grabs an old cricket bat and wallops the kid, only learning later that it was his assistant and he didn’t need to break into the space — he had a key. Police Inspector Mallory (Jack Deam) is convinced that Lewis was stealing from his employers and that Graham caught him at it and killed him in legitimate self-defense, but like your standard-issue amateur sleuth in a British mystery, Father Brown (Mark Williams, who blessedly pronounces the “t” in “often”!) doubts this. His doubts are confirmed when it turns out that Lewis Ward was actually fatally ill before Graham clobbered him with the cricket bat, courtesy of some strychnine poison someone else fed him earlier. In the process of mounting his own investigation Father Brown discovers some photographic negatives that were in Lewis’s possession; he sets up a darkroom in his home — much to the consternation of his housekeeper — and prints them. They turn out to be pornographic images of naked women, and the police immediately suspect the town ne’er-do-well, Blind ’Arry (Alan Williams), of running a porn ring with Lewis as his accomplice and the actual photographer. Father Brown and his friend Mrs. McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack), who’s just taken over running the mobile library from Margaret Cartwright, go through the pictures and realize they recognize at least one of the models, Ada Rawlins (Holly Bodmeade), who had been dating Lewis Ward until she suddenly broke up with him — someone overheard them arguing, so it was known she initiated the breakup, but why remained a mystery. It turns out the real culprit was Margaret Cartwright, who, pissed off at her husband because they were chronically poor due to his gambling addiction, hit upon making and selling porn as a way to make herself some money. The episode title “The Lepidoperist’s Companion” refers to the way she figured out to distribute her dirty pictures: she hid them in a book about butterflies, and anyone wanting to buy her pics checked out that book, deposited the price in the library’s box for overdue fines, then returned it a day later sans porn. 

Only her scheme got blown one night when Lewis Ward came into the Cartwrights’ basement unexpectedly and caught Margaret in the act of photographing his then-girlfriend Ada in the nude, and, anxious to eliminate him before he blows the whistle on her whole sordid racket, later that night, as Lewis was in the Cartwrights’ basement darkroom developing his own pictures, Margaret offered him a cup of hot cocoa laced with strychnine, intending to make it look like Lewis had killed himself. Only her husband blew that one by hearing him stumbling around their house and hitting him with the cricket bat, and once the authorities discovered poison in his body and realized Graham Cartwright hadn’t killed him, in self-defense or otherwise, Margaret determined to frame Ada for the crime. The ending was a surprisingly exciting action sequence for a British mystery: Margaret has kidnapped Father Brown and Ada and put them in the back of the bookmobile, where she intends to kill them by bailing out of the van just before it heads off a cliff, then telling the authorities that its brakes failed — only Father Brown figures out how to break out by crashing one of the bookshelves inside the van against its back door so he and Ada can leap out as the van is moving but before Margaret has a chance to kill them. Of course Margaret, once she realizes her captives have escaped, turns the van around, intending to run them over, and Father Brown dead-pans with perfect calm to Ada, “It might be a good idea to get out of the road” — only just then the bookmobile’s worn and much-abused engine comes to a grinding halt and Margaret has to flee on foot, not that she gets very far before the police capture her. In the end Mrs. McCarthy begs off running the bookmobile and the city fathers decide to give Ada the job, essentially buying her argument that she didn’t want to pose for nude photos but Margaret blackmailed her into it. Father Brown is one of the most charming of the plethora of British and Commonwealth detective shows that clutter up the PBS schedule, and this one was unusually good because of the overall kinkiness of the plot premise (even though porn as a secret racket had already been done to a turn in The Big Sleep!) and because writer Kit Lambert and director Paul Gibson actually managed to get some action into it without compromising the overall laid-back “feel” fans of British mysteries expect from them.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

20/20: Otto Warmbier (ABC-TV, aired June 23, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Otto Warmbier

The Yanggakdo International Hotel, Pyongyang: don’t go to the fifth floor!

At 10 p.m. last night I watched an unusually good episode of the ABC-TV news show 20/20, which is usually a pretty sensationalistic true-crime show but in this case acquired a rare degree of power, dignity and genuine tragedy from their choice of subject: Otto Warmbier, the young man who graduated from high school in the small town of Wyoming, Ohio who, as second in his class, was invited to speak at his high school graduation. He enrolled in the University of Virginia and spent most of the school breaks traveling, first as an exchange student at the London School of Economics and then to Israel (his mother was Jewish) and China. While in China he learned about a tour group called Young Pioneers that ran trips to North Korea. For some reason Warmbier thought it would be fun to ring in 2016 with a five-day New Year’s trip to the Hermit Kingdom, and he signed up. Like all official tours to North Korea, the trip was extensively chaperoned by government “minders” who made sure the tourists saw only what the North Korean government wanted them to see — well-stocked stores, happy children singing group songs whose melodies were of stupefying banality while the lyrics were specifically anti-American (apparently that bizarre opening sequence in the film The Interview, in which a bunch of North Korean kids sing a melodically trashy song whose lyrics go, “[We] wish … for the United States to explode in a ball of fiery hell. May they be forced to starve and beg, and be ravaged by disease. May they be helpless, poor and sad and cold! They are arrogant and fat. They are stupid and they’re evil. May they drown in their own blood and feces. Die America, die. Oh please won’t you die? It would fill my tiny little heart with joy,” isn’t that far off from the reality), ordinary North Koreans going about their business on the squeaky-clean streets of Pyongyang and the famous unison marches with people kicking, goose-stepping and waving things in unison. 

But the Young Pioneers also advertised their North Korea trips as an outlaw experience — “This is the trip your parents don’t want you to take!” they said, while insisting that the trips were perfectly safe for Americans despite the fact that North Korea and the U.S. are still technically in a state of war with each other (the cease-fire that ended the Korean War in 1953 was just that, not an official peace treaty) and the North Korean government had decided, just before Warmbier went on his trip, that from now on they were going to treat any Americans arrested in their country as prisoners of war, not as ordinary criminals — which meant denying them even the pathetic excuses for due process that ordinarily exist under the North Korean judicial system. The 20/20 episode vividly depicts not only North Korea’s isolation but also its backwardness, including showing the famous satellite photo of the region at night, in which North Korea exists as an inky blackness in between the vividly lit vistas of China and South Korea: there are virtually no electric lights on in North Korea in the wee hours. It also covers the history of the North Korean regime, from its founding after World War II by dictator Kim Il Sung (still enshrined in North Korea’s constitution as the “Eternal President,” as well as the “Great Leader,” even though he’s been dead since 1994), who was succeeded by his son, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il and then, after the second-generation Kim’s death, by his youngest son Kim Jong Un. The show discusses Kim Jong Un’s regime, including the accusation that he had his relatives murdered so they wouldn’t pose a threat to his succession or galvanize a revolution, and his paranoid (or maybe not so paranoid) insistence that the United States is planning to overthrow him by subsidizing North Korean expatriates to start a revolution à la the Arab Spring, the “color revolutions” in the former Soviet republics et al. (This morning’s Los Angeles Times has an interesting article arguing that the Russian government believes the U.S. is the one interfering in their internal affairs — and with the recent revelation from the Washington Post that U.S. intelligence has high-value sources well up in the Putin regime, they’re probably right.) Anyway, Warmbier probably didn’t realize what a hornet’s nest he was walking into when he signed up with Young Pioneer Tours for his five days in North Korea, during which he not only got the official guided tour but was able to make side trips to North Korean breweries and sample the local wares. (Who knew Pyongyang, so strait-laced about virtually everything else, has brew pubs?) 

Among the accusations made against Young Pioneer Tours on 20/20 was that not only the tourists were getting drunk on the local craft beers, so were the tour guides, and it’s quite likely they were getting so plastered they weren’t either willing or able to warn the members of their tour groups when they might be crossing the line and be about to do something that could get them into big trouble. Warmbier and the rest of his tour group stayed at an odd hostelry called the Yanggakdo International Hotel, on an island in the middle of a river running through Pyongyang. Every part of the hotel was open to tourists except the fifth floor, which was so far off limits there weren’t even buttons in the elevators you could push to stop at it — the elevator button sequence went directly from 4 to 6. Exactly what was so highly sensitive about the fifth floor, nobody quite knows — one member of another Young Pioneer tour group sneaked onto it and shot some cell-phone video, which showed little or nothing but empty space and a few bits of miscellaneous clutter, along with posters and slogans on the walls hailing the greatness of the Kim family and warning about death to Americans. (One cartoon the tourists would have seen showed a bomb marked “USA” headed straight for downtown Pyongyang.) Apparently Otto Warmbier decided to sneak onto the ultra-forbidden fifth floor and steal one of the posters hailing one of the Kims — according to the Wikipedia page on him, it contained a slogan reading, “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il’s patriotism!” — and he got caught at it, though he had no idea he’d been caught until January 2, 2016, the very last day of his tour, when at the airport about to board the plane back to China for the journey home, Warmbier was tapped on the shoulder by a North Korean police officer and taken into custody. 

Warmbier’s roommate on the tour, British tourist Danny Gratton, was quoted both by Wikipedia and ABC because he was apparently the only witness to Warmbier’s arrest. “No words were spoken,” Gratton recalled. “Two guards just came over and simply tapped Otto on the shoulder and led him away. I just said kind of quite nervously, ‘Well, that's the last we’ll see of you.’[1] There's a great irony in those words. That was it. That was the last physical time I saw Otto, ever. Otto didn’t resist. He didn’t look scared. He sort of half-smiled.” Warmbier next appeared on North Korean television giving a tearful “confession” — obviously sweated and/or tortured out of him in the classic manner of dictatorships everywhere, including the Stalinist gulag that was obviously North Korea’s model for their own prison system — saying that taking the poster was “the worst thing I have ever done.” If he was hoping by being as apologetic as possible that the North Korean government was going to treat him decently, declare him persona non grata and send him home, he had another think coming: he was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor in one of North Korea’s gulag camps — and from that point he simply disappeared. The 20/20 program interviewed another U.S. citizen (albeit one of Korean ancestry), Richard Kim, who got popped by the North Koreans and sentenced to 15 years, of which he served two, because he was a member of a Christian community in the U.S. and had brought copies of the Bible in Korean — and that, apparently, is one of the worst things you can do in the eyes of the North Korean state because they don’t cotton to a religion that worships any family other than the Kims: Kim the father, Kim the son and now Kim the grandson. 

Various envoys from the U.S., including former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, tried to negotiate Warmbier’s release, but to no avail. Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy, said the Obama administration was absolutely no help — they contacted Secretary of State John Kerry as well as the White House, and the staff members they talked to sounded sympathetic but refused to commit actually to do anything — and among other things the show seemed to be supportive of Donald Trump and the idea that once he got into the White House, his toughness and refusal to take shit from anyone would secure Warmbier’s release (much the way Republican mythology has analyzed the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981 as tough Ronald Reagan securing the release of the hostages after wimpy Jimmy Carter had been unable to get them out). Of course, exactly what happened to Otto Warmbier during his 17 months in custody remains a black box — we have literally no idea of what he went through except for the X-rays taken of his body after his death. Fred and Cindy Warmbier refused to permit an autopsy after their son died just one week after North Korea finally released him and sent him home on June 12, 2017, but X-rays taken at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where Warmbier spent the last week of his life in a futile attempt by the doctors there to revive him, indicate that he was not physically beaten. According to a woman neurologist from New York, who looked at the X-rays and gave 20/20 her professional opinion about what they showed, had Warmbier been beaten on either side of his head, there would have been evidence of swelling — so whatever was done to him to put him in a comatose condition, a) it happened relatively early in his incarceration and b) it did not involve at least the most obvious forms of physical violence. Among the possible causes for Warmbier’s condition that have been suggested by doctors are a blood clot, pneumonia, sepsis, kidney failure, sleeping pills or botulism (which the University of Cincinnati doctors who actually treated him during his last week said they saw no evidence of, but several neurologists said it can’t be ruled out because of how long it took between Warmbier’s incarceration and his release to the U.S.). 

What makes the story so interesting is the genuine compassion with which the people at 20/20 told it, a far cry from the shrieking melodrama with which they approach just about every story they cover. Otto Warmbier emerges as a likable, charming young man, intelligent in some aspects and almost appallingly naïve in others, doing a few of the dumb things you’re expected to do in your late teens and early 20’s and paying an appalling and way out of proportion price for them. His friends (including a quite beautiful young blond man) interviewed for the show remember him as brilliant but also funny, and they seem to be dealing with their grief largely by concentrating their reminiscences on his silly, partying, good-time-loving side — the one that, ironically, got him into so much trouble. At the same time the show is a cautionary tale about the sheer arbitrariness of dictatorial government — that, depending on what side of the bed the dictator got up that morning or whether he’s having a bad hair day (though judging by the photos we’ve seen of Kim Jong Un he seems to be having a bad hair life), a foreigner that steps on the wrong side of the country’s rules could be let off with a warning or dumped into the gulag for decades. A number of commentators have compared Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump as personality types, and certainly there seem to be similarities — the vainglory, the egomania, the status anxiety (Kim Jong Un is well aware that as the youngest in his generation of the Kim family he was not supposed to inherit the family fortune, and as I’ve noted before Donald Trump grew up with status anxiety because his dad had been able to make money as a developer in New York City’s outer boroughs but hadn’t been able, as Donald was, to crack the sacred precincts of Manhattan) and the cultivation of unpredictability for unpredictability’s own sake — so much so that various writers have wondered whether we might blunder into the world’s first nuclear war (at least the first in which both sides had nuclear weapons) simply because two nuclear powers are being ruled by freaking crazies!

[1] — That seems like a last exchange which for sheer macabre irony rivals Waylon Jennings, on Buddy Holly’s last tour as his bass player, telling Holly as he got on the plane out of Clear Lake, Iowa, “I hope your old plane crashes” — just minutes before Holly’s plane did crash, killing him and the other three people on board.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Panic on the Air (Columbia, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s movie was taken from a January 2016 Turner Classic Movies tribute to Lew Ayres, Panic on the Air, a 55-minute Columbia “B” from 1936 (a bit late in the day for the charmingly cheesy, cartoonish version of the Columbia logo that appeared on this print) directed by D. Ross Lederman (I used to make fun of him, joking that one should never trust the work of a director whose name looks like it should have the letters “D.D.S.” after it, but then I saw the one truly great film he made: End of the Trail, the remarkable pro-Native American Western made by Tim McCoy at Columbia in 1932) from a script by Harold Shumate based on a short story called “Five Spot” by Theodore A. Tinsley. Charles wondered if the word “Air” in the title referred to aircraft or radio, but the diagonal shot of a radio transmission tower gave that away, while the montage of various sporting events seen under the opening credits indicate that Lew Ayres was going to be playing a sportscaster. Actually his character, Jerry Franklin, has two jobs at the fictitious “Continental Broadcasting Service”; in addition to sportscasting he’s also a late-night news reporter doing a show called “You Heard It First” sponsored by Gordon’s Garters (it’s a measure of how dated this movie is that Gordon’s company could stay in business making nothing but garters), whose slogan is “Gordon’s Garters Never Let You Down.” Gordon is threatening to pull his sponsorship of Jerry Franklin’s show because the newspapers are beating him to too many spectacular scoops. Jerry sees his chance to break a big story and get back in the good graces of his sponsor when he and his sidekick Andy (Benny Baker, a Stuart Erwin imitator who manages to be even more obnoxious than the original) come across a $5 bill with what looks like a moustache drawn across President Lincoln’s upper lip. On closer examination, they realize it’s actually a string of numbers — 15-6-10-15 — only when they take it to a cryptographer Jerry knows, Major Bliss (Wyrley Birch), he tells them that the numbers aren’t part of any code he’s aware of and there aren’t enough of them for him to be able to break it. Bliss tells them the meaning is probably arbitrary, something that the sender and the intended recipient of the message would be aware of but no one else would. Then Jerry and Andy, along with their Asian houseboy who in a neat bit of humor on the part of the writers is named “McNulty” (Eddie Lee), receive an anonymous note from a woman telling them that their lives are in danger unless they rendezvous with her at a particular time and place — the place being the lobby of the Cateret Hotel (which was probably an odd name for a hostelry even in 1936) and the time being 6 p.m. that day.

They expect a hard-bitten woman and one duly materializes — and Andy cruises her, only to find that she’s married and both her husband and her family have violent tempers and know how to use their fists. The real woman who sent them the note is Mary Connor (Florence Rice, who like Lew Ayres later decamped from Columbia to MGM — at MGM she played simpering ingénues like Kenny Baker’s love interest in the Marx Brothers’ film At the Circus, but here she’s surprisingly good, not at the level of Joan Blondell but portraying a similar combination of surface toughness and inner vulnerability), and when our intrepid radio reporters trace her to her apartment, there’s a dead body inside. They realize the cops are going to suspect Mary but Jerry, noting how much the victim’s blood has congealed and deducing from that that the murder occurred while he and Andy were still with Mary, deduces that she didn’t do it. The murder victim turns out to be the wife of a notorious criminal who kidnapped a rich man and extracted a $250,000 ransom from his family, then got caught but only had $50,000 on him when he was captured. The bill has been traced all over town by Martin Danker (Murray Alper), member of the gang of Lefty Dugan (Gene Morgan), and when Jerry and Mary finally catch up with each other they go to Major Bliss’s home to see if their guess that the numbers are code for an address where the missing $200,000 is being stashed is correct. Only Bliss slips them a note that the gangsters got to him first — before that I was wondering if Bliss himself was going to turn out to be the mastermind behind the crime and that’s why he was so unforthcoming when Jerry and Andy first visited him for help, but Tinsley and Shumate blessedly didn’t take us down that set of clichés. Instead they have the gangsters figure out the location of the money, and Jerry has to phone his radio station and get himself broadcast over the phone line so he can alert police captain Fitzgerald (Charles Wilson) to the address so the cops can catch the crooks and recover the money. Once all the parties arrive there there’s a surprisingly violent, especially for a 1936 “post-Code” movie, shootout between cops and crooks; the cops win, though Lefty attempts to escape with the money and gets taken alive even though the other three members of the gang get killed, and of course at the end Jerry not only gets his contract renewed, he gets Mary.

Panic on the Air is actually a quite well-done thriller; though one might have expected a better movie to result from the collaboration of the star of All Quiet on the Western Front and the director of End of the Trail, what we have here is quite stylish, fast-moving (it’s only 55 minutes long, unusually short even for a “B” — a lot of “B” Westerns in the 1930’s were that brief but a “B” with a contemporary setting usually hit at least the 65-minute mark), well acted by the leads (though you do want to strangle Bobby Baker — all too few of the so-called “comic relief” characters in these films were actually funny) and moved at a quite smart and engaging pace by director Lederman, who’s quick enough we don’t spot the plot holes until we start thinking about this movie well after it’s over. It’s this kind of nice, reliable, comfortable entertainment that you really don’t get anymore — not in features (a modern movie based on the plot of Panic on the Air would probably be at least twice as long and would drag in sinister crime bosses and international intrigue — as a motivator for criminal scheming, $200,000 just doesn’t go as far as it used to!) and not on TV either (one could imagine Dick Wolf’s writers generating a plot similar to this bout it would be a lot more violent and grim).

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Marie Antoinette (Columbia, American Zoetrope, Pricel, Tohokushinsha, 2006)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a peculiar movie from the DVD backlog: Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola’s 2006 adaptation of Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: The Journey, which attempted to refute a lot of the allegations made about Marie Antoinette from her own time to the present, and in particular the line she’s supposed to have said, when told that the people of France were starving for bread, “No bread? Well, then, let them eat cake!” (This was actually an urban legend about clueless royals that first appeared in print about 100 years before Marie Antoinette’s time.) The film was both written and directed by Sofia Coppola, and it’s a frustrating movie because she did so many things right and so many things wrong. The biggest thing she did wrong was deciding to score the film not with the music of the period (though Marie Antoinette was a big opera fan, and we know as a matter of historical fact who her favorite composer was: Christoph Willibald Gluck, a German who’d first achieved fame in Italy, then won the appointment as court composer to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Vienna; the reason we know Gluck was Marie Antoinette’s favorite composer was that when she left Austria to become first Dauphine and then Queen of France, she spent a lot of the French court’s money to hire Gluck away from Vienna and bring him to France — and Gluck was so renowned in his own time that when he left the Austrian court hired Mozart to replace him but only paid Mozart half of what they’d paid Gluck) but with modern-day rock songs, specifically from the so-called “New Romantic” sub-genre popular in the early 1980’s.

The soundtrack list includes “Natural’s Not In It” by Gang of Four (heard under the opening credits, and a jumbled set of lyrics which may have something to do with the extreme inequality of wealth and income typical of both 18th century France and the 21st century world, but the only word I made out clearly was “fornication”), “Jynweythek Ylow” and “Avril 14” by Aphex Twin, “I Don’t Like It Like This,” “Pulling Our Weight” and “Keen On Boys” by The Radio Dept., “I Want Candy,” “Aphrodisiac” and a lame cover of the Johnny Mercer-Rube Bloom standard “Fools Rush In” by Bow Wow Wow, “Plainsong” and “All Cats Are Grey” by The Cure, “Ceremony” by New Order, “What Ever Happened” by The Strokes, and “Ou Boivent Les Loups” by Phoenix, who got into the movie because their lead singer, Thomas Mars, is Sofia Coppola’s boyfriend. (This movie reached pretty big heights of nepotism: Sofia’s cousin Jason Schwartzman was cast as Louis XVI, her brother Roman Coppola was the second-unit director, her famous dad Francis Ford Coppola lurked around the shoot as an éminence grise, and her mom Eleanor directed the “Making Of” featurette on the DVD.) Just about every time Sofia Coppola and her staff, including cinematographer Lance Acord, art directors Pierre do Bousberranger and Anne Seibel, set decorator Véronique Melery and costume designer Milena Canonero, managed to create a convincing illusion that we were really in the late 18th Century at Versailles and Trianon, France, she trotted in one of those damned rock songs to blow the illusion and turn Marie Antoinette into a sumptuous music video. The one time one of the rock songs actually worked the way Sofia clearly intended it to was the use of Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” over a montage of the preposterous cakes, pastries, candies, aspics and other lavish desserts that were a regular feature of Marie Antoinette’s dining table — indeed, there are so many lovingly shot and lit close-ups of insanely luxurious comestibles Charles joked that the middle third of the movie was “food porn.” (My own joke was that maybe they were going to debunk the legend that Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake,” but they were sure going to surround her with an awful lot of cakes.)

The other big thing Sofia Coppola did wrong was set virtually the entire movie in Versailles and Trianon, showing us Marie Antoinette’s world with no intimation of what was going on in the rest of France. I can see why she made this decision — she wanted to show just how hermetically sealed the French royal court was from the rest of the country and how clueless they really were about what their insanely extravagant lifestyle and foreign adventurism (including striking a blow against the rival European superpower of the time, Britain, by aiding the revolutionaries in America) was doing to the economy of France and the welfare of its people — but as we get scene after scene of insane splendor, with the characters wearing sumptuous clothes, ridiculous hairdos (there’s a scene of Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette resting in her prop bathtub — remember that this was a time when taking a hot bath was itself a luxury item since the water had to be heated by fire and carried in by minions with buckets — and getting sprayed with modern hair spray to get her hair to stand up in an historically accurate fashion, which made me wonder how they did it in the pre-aerosol 18th century) and powdered wigs (in Fraser’s book she mentioned that the French used so much talcum powder at court it provoked a worldwide shortage of the stuff), living in rooms of absurd size, grandeur and opulence and gorging themselves on sweets, the sheer weight of the spectacle gets oppressive. Indeed, as the movie was drawing to a close I was beginning to think, “Will the French people please hurry up and start the Revolution already?” I said that when the movie had only about 15 minutes left to run, just before the courtiers at Versailles received word that a mob had just stormed the Bastille, following which they got word that another mob was on its way to Versailles itself to loot the palace and hopefully capture the king and queen — and, oddly, Sofia Coppola decided to end her movie with the monarchs fleeing Versailles for the countryside, a trip arranged by Marie Antoinette’s friend and lover, Swedish ambassador Count Axel Fersen (Jamie Dornan, who doesn’t have the almost unearthly beauty of Tyrone Power, who played the part in the 1938 MGM Marie Antoinette, but he’s hot enough he’ll do), without mentioning that they were caught shortly thereafter and spent their last days in prison in Paris before the revolutionaries got around to executing first him and then her — events Antonia Fraser described in her book.

Now for the good things about Marie Antoinette. First, the physical production is incredible; Sofia Coppola got permission to shoot in the actual historical locations, even though Versailles was in the middle of a big restoration at the time so there were only parts of it she could use[1] — and, as was explained in the making-of featurette, they could use the rooms themselves and show the art but they could not use the historical furnishings or drapes: they had to make their own replicas and bring them in. Second, instead of copying the past-is-brown look her dad did so much to establish as movie orthodoxy in The Godfather, Sofia Coppola and her cinematographer and art directors designed the movie in pastel tones, copying the look of French paintings of the period — especially those set outdoors, which often featured pastel-dressed members of the French 1 percent cavorting in similarly pastel natural settings. (The real Marie Antoinette was fond of playing at being a shepherdess, and she even staged amateur theatrical productions in which she could play a peasant, one of which is shown in the film.) In the making-of feature, she and her staff said they went out of their way to avoid showing bright colors — except for the vivid red dress worn by Asia Argento as Madame Du Barry, marking her as a “scarlet woman” both literally and figuratively — and the look is absolutely stunning. Also, Sofia Coppola deserves credit for casting the movie quite creatively; I’ve been a fan of Kirsten Dunst since the played the little-girl vampire in Interview with the Vampire (in which she and Antonio Banderas totally stole the movie out from under the nominal stars, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt) and I marked her as being headed for a major adult career; maybe she hasn’t been the superstar I thought she’d become, but she has had a good career and she and Sofia Coppola have worked together since (notably in the recently released film The Beguiled, a quirky choice for a remake since the 1971 original, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood as a Civil War soldier who ends up in a house full of women who are so intent on keeping him there one of them does an unnecessary amputation of his leg, was a major box-office flop; fortunately Eastwood and Siegel immediately followed it up with Dirty Harry and rehabilitated both their careers). I would have liked a bit more temperament from Dunst in the role but she plays Sofia’s cool reading of the character brilliantly and is totally believable in the part — certainly more so than Norma Shearer in the 1938 MGM Marie Antoinette (based on a biography by Stefan Zweig called Marie Antoinette: Portrait of an Average Woman, which apparently had a much more negative portrayal of her than Fraser’s book or this film), who kept falling back on the Hollywood clichés of the time whenever she had to have a big emotional moment.

Her Louis XVI is Jason Schwartzman, Sofia Coppola’s cousin (his mom, Talia Shire, is Francis Ford Coppola’s sister), who’s good at conveying the rather befuddled nature of the character (though Robert Morley in the MGM version was even better; as Charles pointed out, Morley’s overacting was more effective than Schwartzman’s underacting, and judging from the surviving paintings, the real Louis XVI looked a good deal more like Morley than Schwartzman), a guy who just wants to be left alone to hunt and play with locks and couldn’t care less about running the country. He also has an ultra-low sex drive — though they eventually had four children, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were sexless for the first 7 ½ years of their marriage, and one gets the impression from this film that neither of them even knew very much about sex. One thing Sofia’s script does is reproduce Fraser’s depiction of the acute interest the rest of the court took in whether Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were getting it on because it was a major political concern that there be an heir to the French throne — a male heir because France, unlike Britain, did not allow women to rule (when their first child is born and it’s a daughter, whom Marie Antoinette names Maria Theresa, after her mother, the sense of disappointment from just about everyone around her is palpable). Their bed is in a preposterous room in which virtually the entire court got to watch as they made preparations to go to sleep, and the only concession to privacy was that the bed was ringed by a curtain (sort of like a modern-day hospital room) which they could draw once it was time for lights-out. Marie Antoinette keeps getting anxious letters from her mom saying that the entire alliance between France and Austria depends on her getting her husband interested in having sex with her so they can produce an heir to the French throne, and given that Marie Antoinette was just 14 when she was shipped off from Austria to France (and handed over in a humiliating ceremony in which she had to be stripped naked to cross the border so she would not carry anything Austrian with her — she was re-dressed in French clothes once she crossed the line and wasn’t even allowed to bring her pet dog with her; instead she was told, “You can have all the French dogs you want” — later she learned that at the French court she was not allowed to dress herself; there was a separate servant assigned to each article of her clothing and they all had to be put on in the proper sequence, and if one of the servants was late for work that day she just had to wait, half-dressed, until the servant arrived and the proper sequence could resume; both of these situations were vividly described in Fraser’s book and, of course, Sofia Coppola could hardly resist putting Kirsten Dunst through these scenes!), she didn’t have the slightest idea of how to get a man interested in her physically. (Fraser’s book quotes a document of the period in which a doctor who’d examined Louis XVI wrote a detailed analysis of his attempts to have sex and what was going wrong with them.)

Getting back to casting, some of Sofia’s choices were absolutely brilliant, including Marianne Faithfull as Maria Theresa (it turns out Marianne Faithfull was actually part of a long-standing aristocratic family herself; she’s a distant relative of the Baron Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of the book Venus in Furs, whose taste for sexual humiliation was the source of the word “masochism”) and Rip Torn as Louis XV, and there’s a marvelous scene in which Sofia cuts between him randily pounding away at Madame Du Barry and the latest pathetic attempt of his son and his daughter-in-law to get it on. In a lot of ways Marie Antoinette is a great movie, but it could have been much better — if it had given us more of a sense of what was going on in the rest of the country as Marie Antoinette lived this utterly ridiculous caricature of a court lifestyle at Versailles; if Sofia Coppola had got rid of the rock songs and stuck to music of the period (all we hear of the music of Marie Antoinette’s time are two opera sequences with music by Jean-Philippe Rameau, who was actually active about a century before Marie Antoinette’s time; she deleted a sequence of mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in drag, singing the aria “Che faró senza Euridice” from Orfeo ed Eurydice by Gluck, Marie Antoinette’s favorite composer, but even if she’d included it the scene would have been anachronistic because the version Marie Antoinette would have heard performed would have been Gluck’s French rewrite, Orphée, in which the aria would have been called “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” and would have been sung by a tenor, replacing the soprano castrato who had sung the part in the original Vienna version) and, most importantly, if she had carried the story through to its end and given Kirsten Dunst a chance to face the guillotine bravely and finally achieve in death some of the dignity that had eluded this preposterous character in life.

[1] — It’s quite possible Sofia Coppola got permission to shoot in Versailles because, though the Coppola family is Italian in origin, they’ve had a long-standing connection with France: Francis Ford Coppola’s grandfather, Piero Coppola, was a major symphony and opera conductor in Paris in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Girlfriend Killer (Concord Films, Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I switched to the Lifetime channel and stayed there for four hours watching a couple of movies, both dated 2017 even though neither was billed as a “premiere.” The first one was Girlfriend Killer, which was written by Christine Conradt but a disappointment coming from her because she utterly failed to bring any sort of multidimensionality to her villain (the usual aspect that raises Conradt’s scripts above the Lifetime norm). The real auteur of this one is neither Conradt nor the traffic cop — oops, I mean director — Alyn Darnay, but Barbie Castro, who not only starred as the usual Lifetime damsel in distress but co-produced the film with Eric R. Castro (presumably her husband) and cast her daughter Taylor Castro as her character’s daughter in the movie (well, that’s one way to avoid the bugbear of having two people in a movie who don’t look at all alike passed off as genetic relatives: cast a real mother and daughter as the mother and daughter in the film) and also hired one Rhys Castro as the propmaker — there are more Castros in this movie than there ever were in the Cuban government! Barbie Castro has done at least three “_____ Killer” series films for Lifetime before, Assumed Killer, Patient Killer and Boyfriend Killer, though Boyfriend Killer is the only one I can recall seeing before. It was also written by Christine Conradt and directed by Alyn Darnay, but I said of it that “this time [Conradt] seems merely to be following her formulae instead of legitimately extending them the way she did in The Bride He Bought Online,” and the same could be said of Girlfriend Killer as well. Girlfriend Killer does have its points, including the off-beat profession Conradt thought up for her heroine, the Barbie Castro role. She’s a divorcée named Carmen Ruiz (I got the last name off and don’t recall hearing it mentioned in the film) with a teenage daughter named Ayla (Taylor Castro) and a boyfriend named Ryan Gerner (Brian Gross — not exactly a hunk to die for but a nice-looking piece of man-meat with great pecs). 

Carmen has created a business for herself that is a combination consultant and videographer for men seeking to make marriage proposals to their significant others (and not just women: one of the most delightful scenes in the film is one in which Carmen stages the proposal of a Gay man to his partner! I guess it’s progress of a sort that we at last exist on Lifetime). She stages the date on which the guy will pop the question and uses a hidden camera and either a shotgun mike or mikes concealed in flowerpots and bushes (just like in the early days of sound film in the late 1920’s!) to record the proposals, then presents the lucky man with an Internet link to download the video and collects her fee, while Ryan helps her as an editor and a grip. Only one of her customers, Emerson Banes (Jason Cook, who for once is not the hottest guy in the movie even though he’s the villain — both Ryan and Carmen’s ex Nick, played by Khotan Fernandez, are sexier!), isn’t as lucky as the service advertises: he makes his proposal in Carmen’s elaborate staging, but his girlfriend Marissa Stefans (Elisabetta Fantone) turns him down, saying that she’s been seeing someone else for four months, he’s someone Emerson doesn’t know that she met at a “trade show,” and they hit it off better than she and Emerson ever have. Emerson is your typical spoiled Lifetime 1-percenter; he drives a red Maserati sports car that practically becomes a character itself and his response to Marissa’s turn-down is to knock her off. Before Marissa mysteriously disappears — she’s missing for several days before her body is found — Ryan gets an odd phone call which he tells Carmen is from his brother Jason but is really from a woman, which made me think for a bit that Christine Conradt was going to have Ryan be the man Marissa was seeing behind both Emerson’s and Carmen’s backs. But that little pink herring (it really isn’t well-developed enough to be considered red) gets dropped in a hurry and the rest of it is a typical tale of Obsessed Psycho 101 stalking Carmen — she tried to console him after his proposal got turned down and he instead concluded that it was Carmen who was meant to be a soulmate. 

It turns out he not only broke into Carmen’s home and stole all her video footage, including his own failed proposal, which he runs over and over again in his private projection rom, he even has plastered a whole wall of his house with photos of her — how 20th century; today the obsessed man would instead have a computer file of photos of his crush object and relentlessly scroll through them instead of posting them on his wall — and he’s determined to get her by any means necessary, including running down Ryan with that hot red car (Ryan emerges relatively unscathed but for a while Emerson thinks he’s killed him). Meanwhile Carmen’s daughter Ayla has been on a camping trip in the woods with her dad Nick, whom she likes, and Nick’s fiancée Zoe Kent (Vivi Pineda), whom Ayla can’t stand — only she runs away from camp and makes it back to Carmen’s home, where Emerson kidnaps her (as I’ve noted in these pages before, it’s virtually obligatory for a Lifetime movie in which the heroine in distress has a child for said child to be kidnapped as a set-up for the final sequence) and holds her, telling Carmen to charter him a boat and allow him to escape to the Bahamas, otherwise he’ll kill Ayla. At first Carmen doesn’t want to involve the police for fear Emerson will kill Ayla if she does, but Ryan talks her into it and the “boat” she offers Emerson is a set-up — its crew members are undercover police officers — and of course the film ends with Ayla recovered safely and Emerson arrested (though it is something of a variation on the usual Lifetime formula to have the principal villain captured alive instead of killed). Girlfriend Killer is a pretty typical Lifetime movie, neither especially good nor especially bad, decently done and with some nice-looking male cast members who for once aren’t playing villains, but a bit of a disappointment from Christine Conradt because one thinks that, given her head instead of locked inside a Castro family vanity production, she could have made Emerson a genuinely interesting and multidimensional villain character instead of just a “stick” psycho.

The Good Nanny (MarVista Entertainment, Fast Archer Films, Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Actually, Girlfriend Killer looked like a masterpiece compared to the truly weird movie Lifetime showed immediately after it, The Good Nanny, which seemed like a deliberate attempt by writer-director Jake Helgren to reverse the formula originated by Christine Conradt in her first Lifetime script, The Perfect Nanny (2000). Whereas that one, the first in Conradt’s long line of “Perfect _____” scripts, had given us a basically decent suburban family set upon by a seemingly perfect but actually psycho woman they hire as a nanny, Helgren’s script gave us a woman who isn’t even a professional nanny — she’s an interior designer, Summer Pratt (Lifetime veteran Briana Evigan), who’s been hired to decorate the home of Travis and Lily Walsh (Peter Porte and Ellen Hollman) and ends up agreeing to look after their rather squirrelly daughter Sophie (Sophie Gurst). Summer is at liberty to do this because her own fiancé, Hefner (David Tillman), is out of town because he’s just been hired to do lobbying for the company Travis and Lily Walsh own — and though they Skype each other regularly she’s getting restive as his absence gets longer and longer. Summer’s other big problem is that she has a medical condition that makes it difficult to conceive, and since she wants children more than just about anything else in the world that bothers her probably more than it should. (I’ve known many straight people of both sexes who would have loved to be able to have sex with each other without having to bother with either the risk of pregnancy or the affirmative steps needed to avoid it.) When she starts filling in as Travis’s and Lily’s nanny, Summer has a hard time getting through to Sophie because she literally doesn’t speak — our first intimation that she even can speak is when Summer hears Sophie talking to an apparently imaginary friend named “Sasha,” and though both the voices are Sophie’s they carry out an audible conversation in which Summer can hear both Sophie and “Sasha” exchanging misgivings about how the new nanny doesn’t like them any better than the last one did. Helgren shows a certain flair for the Gothic, though his effects with low-keyed lighting, offbeat camera angles and doomy music seem to be playing against his relatively straightforward story and he takes his own sweet time explaining to us just what’s wrong with this picture — why Sophie seems so alienated from her parents, why they seem to regard her as a burden and Travis in particular makes it pretty clear he doesn’t want her around at all.

Eventually, with the help of her friend, African-American pediatrician Dr. Monica Thorne (Tatyana Ali, the only cast member here I can remember seeing, or even hearing of, ouside the corridors of Lifetime) — the usual Lifetime Black person whose plot function is to serve as the voice of reason and try to steer the white characters away from all the stupid things they have to do for this, or any other Lifetime movie, to have a plot at all — Summer finally catches on that “Sasha” and Sophie are actually the same person. Her real name is Sasha Carter and she’s the daughter, not of Lily, but of her scapegrace sister Tara (a nicely slatternly bad-girl performance by Kym Jackson), who’s been a fugitive from justice ever since she stabbed her abusive husband (the father of Sophie a.k.a. Sasha) to death. Unfortunately Summer’s efforts to trace Tara succeed all too well; after risking her job in a restaurant kitchen by taking Summer’s call at work, Tara determines to crash Travis’s and Lily’s lavish Southern California home and steal back her daughter. Lily, it seems, took Sasha in the first place because she visited her sister and found the girl being neglected, but her interest in parenting beyond just providing food, clothing and shelter was virtually nil — and when Tara shows up to retrieve her daughter she’s carrying a gun. She uses a kitchen knife to stab Travis to death, intending that Lily will be blamed for this and Tara won’t be suspected, and all this leads to a final big confrontation on a beach (this is southern California, after all) in which Tara kidnaps Sasha, Summer and Lily get Sasha a.k.a. Sophie away from her, Tara shoots down her sister Lily and then demands that Summer give Sasha back to her, and Summer approaches Tara, seemingly about to return her daughter, only she has a knife on her and uses it to stab Tara and save the girl from her mom’s clutches. The Good Nanny is an annoying movie — the ending is powerful, if unusually melodramatic even for Lifetime (and where, oh where, is official law enforcement? In Lifetime’s earlier days it was actually fairly frequent for their movies to end in a free-lance bloodbath, but more recently there’s generally been some police involvement in the denouement even though it remains more common for Lifetime’s villains to be killed than to be arrested at the end), but it’s been a long, hard slog to get there.

There are some neat touches to The Good Nanny, including one in which Travis is getting out of his swimming pool (and yes, the sight of Peter Porte’s great bod clad only in swim trunks is an aesthetic delight!), sees Summer and invites her to join him — “I’m sure Lily has an extra bikini … if you feel you really need one,” he says — and later Summer tells Lily about her concerns about Sophie and the way she’s growing up, mentions her encounter with Travis as an aside, and all Lily cares about is, “You mean Travis came on to you?” There’s also a preposterous ending in which, with just about every other adult in her life dead, Sophie a.k.a. Sasha ends up with, you guessed it, Summer and her boyfriend, who’ve given themselves the challenge of raising her and trying to get her to be a normal kid after all she’s gone through. But Helgren also supplies one of the most blatant “cheat” sequences in Lifetime history — as often in Lifetime movies, we first get an opening “teaser” scene and then a flashback to the main body of the film, but in this one the “teaser” turns out merely to be one of Summer’s dreams which express her anguish at not being able to have a child of her own. If there’s a worthwhile element in The Good Nanny, it’s the fascinating performance of Ellen Hollman as Lily; she begins the story as a virtual Stepford wife, amazingly and almost annoyingly chipper, but as the story progresses and we see how sick all the adults in it are except for Summer and Dr. Thorne, Hollman’s acting rises to the challenge of the character and we realize that she and Tara are nowhere nearly as different as we thought when Tara first came onto the action (though by a glitch in the casting Kym Jackson looks more like Briana Evigan than like Ellen Hollman, and so we’d more likely believe that Tara and Summer were sisters than Tara and Lily!). Other than that, though, The Good Nanny is a pretty dreary and draining Lifetime non-epic whose attempts to “spin” fresh variations on the basic Lifetime formulae only come off as desperate and draggy.