Sunday, March 26, 2017

Stalker’s Prey (Stargazer Films, Synthetic Cinema International, Johnson Production Group, Lifetime, 2017)

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

The first of last night’s two Lifetime “premiere” movies was Stalker’s Prey, listed on as Hunter’s Cove (presumably a working title, since Hunter’s Cove is the name of the beach town where it takes place). Directed by Colin Theys from a script by John Doolan, it’s a pretty typical by-the-numbers Lifetime piece in which high-school senior Laura Wilcox (Saxon Sharbino) and her younger sister Chloe (Alexis Larivere) are being raised by their mom Sandy (Cynthia Gibb) as a single parent. Dad is still alive but he hovers over the action as a sort of irritating non-presence and is never seen as a character, though at one point an argument between Sandy and Laura establishes that it was their father who left their mom, not the other way around. In the opening scene, we see Laura and her boyfriend Nicholas Jordan (Luke Slattery) making out and getting ready to have sex in Nicholas’s pickup truck — a real cool restored oldie with a double cab — when mom comes home early from an outing and catches them. She orders Laura into the house and tells her she’s not to see Nicholas anymore — it becomes clear she just plain doesn’t like him and doesn’t regard him as a suitable mate for her daughter — and when she resists, Sandy tells Laura she’s grounded for the weekend even though it’s her birthday and she was counting on being able to go out to celebrate. Laura duly sneaks out, and equally unsurprisingly her sister Chloe rats her out to mom; where Laura is going is to the local beach with her friend Bre Hendricks (Gillian Rose) — the first name is pronounced “Brie,” like the cheese — and the two end up on a boat called Open Wide (as in what, Laura’s legs?), from which they dive to do a swim in the local cove. Only there’s a shark prowling the water (and director Theys can’t resist some vaguely Jaws-ish musical themes while this is happening — no composer is credited so the music may be stock recordings, but whoever is responsible knocks off not only John Williams’ famous shark-attack theme from Jaws but the shrieking violins Bernard Herrmann used for the shower murder in Hitchcock’s Psycho) and it attacks our young lovebirds: Nicholas is killed by the shark (a real pity because we straight female or Gay male viewers don’t want to lose the cutest guy in the film at the end of the first act!) but Laura is rescued by Bruce Kane (Mason Dye), of whom we’d also got some choice man-meat views in swim trunks and nothing else.

Mason Dye is an actor whose most famous previous credit is probably as Christopher Dollanganger in Lifetime’s 2014 adaptation of V. C. Andrews’ trash-Gothic thriller Flowers in the Attic — though his page lists recurring roles in short-run TV series like Secret Diary of an American Cheerleader (2013), Teen Wolf (2014), Finding Carter (2015) and Roommates (2016), as well as feature films like Natural Selection (2015), My Stepdaughter (2015) and Vanished: Next Generation (2016), an entry in the series based on Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins’ aftermath-of-the-Rapture books. When I posted on Flowers in the Attic I confessed, “I was interested in watching this partly because the previews for it on Lifetime had shown some quite appealing footage of Mason Dye, the juvenile male lead, going around shirtless — and while young blond boys with no chest hair aren’t exactly my biggest ‘type’ he was aesthetically appealing enough I decided I wouldn’t mind sitting through the whole movie for more glimpses of his partially unclad bod.” Dye is still nice-looking and it’s not his fault that Luke Slattery, whom I’d previously seen as the stuck-up rich-kid defendant in the premiere episode of the TV series Bull, is even hotter — but since this time he’s playing an out-and-out villain instead of a morally ambiguous character, he’s shown as considerably more stuck up and stiff.

The gimmick is that once Bruce, the son of a local City Councilmember, sees Laura he’s instantly smitten and believes she is The One for him from then on — and this being a stalker story his affections get creepier and creepier, including taking on a job baby-sitting for Laura’s sister Chloe (ya remember Laura’s sister Chloe?) and getting a key to their house, ostensibly so he can show up whenever Sandy needs a baby-sitter but really to show up whenever he wants Laura — whom he makes it to bed with once (at a garden party given by his dad to raise money for his re-election campaign — Bruce tricks Laura into going by saying he merely wants an escort but he turns it into a real date, necking with her by the backyard swimming pool to the strains of the 1913 song “You Made Me Love You” (I wasn’t sure, but I think the singer was Patsy Cline) and ultimately having sex with her. This immediately gets Laura read out of the ranks of the cool kids in school, especially when Bruce turns up as a substitute English teacher leading Laura’s class and the rest of the students, including Bry and their Black friend Parker Lowe (Camrus Johnson), write “Hot for TeAcher” (the “A” in bright red as if it represents the grade Laura will get with her body whether she deserves it or not) on the front of her locker. As the film progresses (like a disease), Bruce’s actions get weirder and weirder — the oddest scene has got to be the one in which he sneaks into her house just so he can lay next to her in bed — and also more and more psychotic. He has a former girlfriend named Alison whom he claims still to be in touch with and to consult as if an old friend — and we hear her voice (supplied by actress Christina Sciongay) on his cell phone as he leaves her a message on her voicemail. Only when Laura tracks down Alison and meets her mom, she’s told that Alison has been dead for four years — she died in a car accident. Later, of course, we get a flashback to the event and find out, not at all to our surprise, that it wasn’t an “accident” at all: Bruce deliberately sped his car with himself and Alison in it to the point where it crashed, and he escaped but she was killed. 

The big problem with Stalker’s Prey is the big problem with a lot of Lifetime’s thrillers: not content to keep Bruce’s villainy within reasonable and believable bounds, writer Doolan makes him a figure of almost preternatural evil, knocking off not only Alison in a flashback — though he’s continued to call her regularly and get her voicemail (after she’s been dead four years would her voicemail service still work?) — but Laura’s and Bry’s Black male confidant, fellow student Parker Lowe (Camrus Johnson), whose body he sticks in his car so he can shock Laura with the sight of it. When Bruce isn’t doing all this he’s giving interviews to the local TV station (whose reporter is a woman with a striking resemblance to both Alison and Laura — apparently this is Bruce’s only “type”) telling the townspeople he’s personally going to kill the shark they’re convinced has left the area but he’s sure is still out there — at one point he spots the shark and shoots him with a harpoon gun but misses — and at the end, it having finally penetrated his thick skull that even though she let him have sex with her once, she has no interest in a long-term relationship with him, Bruce takes her out to his boat in the dead of night, intending to feed her to the shark … only she grabs the harpoon gun and wounds him with him, then after some more confused action manages to push him off the boat so the shark gets him in the end (selachimorpha ex machina). At times the moral of this story seems to be, “When your mom grounds you because she doesn’t like your boyfriend, listen to her: otherwise, if you sneak out, he’s going to be killed by a shark and you’ll be rescued by a cute guy who’ll become an obsessive stalker and threaten to kill you” — though one part of Doolan’s script I liked was the irony that Laura’s mom can’t stand the nice boy she’s dating at the opening and loves the one who turns out to be the demented stalker who nearly kills her. Other than that, Stalker’s Prey was pretty typical Lifetime fare, blessed with two cute guys we get to see in hot states of undress but preceding along well-traveled routes to a pretty predictable ending.

Forgotten Evil (The Asylum/Lifetime, 2017)

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

One thing Lifetime is doing lately is not only showing two “premiere” movies back to back on Saturday nights but picking films so similar in theme and plot premises they tend to reflect badly on each other. They did that again last night by running something called Forgotten Evil which, as you might guess just from the title, is an amnesia movie: a young woman (Masiela Lusha) is found wrapped in some sort of bag and nearly drowned. She’s taken to the local hospital and gets to stay there for six months as the people looking after her try to determine who she is and how she got there. When she’s finally asked to leave, Mariah (Angie Teodora Dick), one of the nurses taking care of her, offers to take her in as a roommate and helps her get a job as a file clerk and receptionist at a local school. Mariah also suggests that the amnesiac woman, whom at first she calls “Jane” as in “Jane Doe,” go see therapist Dr. Evan Michaels (Jeff Marchelletta) in hopes that he can work with her, hypnotize her and help her regain her memories. “Jane” decides to adopt the name “Renée” after she sees it in a booklet of women’s names (probably something along the lines of What to Name Your Baby Girl, the tome I suspected the organizers of the “Rachel, from Cardholder Services” Internet phishing scam used to run through other women’s names once “Rachel” was publicly exposed as a scam — usually it was “Heather, from Cardholder Services” but I’ve heard “Carmen” and other names) and she gets to see the hot Dr. Michaels at his home, which is also the site of his office.

Renée also finds herself with a hot new boyfriend, Randy Dumas (Kyle McKeever), a nice-looking blond, though given the usual iconography of Lifetime that their best-looking males turn out to be their creepiest, we’re wondering whether Randy is all he seems to be and if he might be one of the people Renée is convinced are part of a conspiracy to keep her from regaining her memory even if that means they have to kill her in the process. Meanwhile we occasionally see a hulking black-clad man in the shadows — he’s heavy-set and is dressed all in black, including a black hoodie — and he seems to turn up everywhere Renée does, though for about two-thirds of this movie it’s not clear whether he’s supposed to be real or a figment of her imagination. He’s real, all right, and no sooner do Renée and Mariah have a falling-out, Renée announces she’s moving in with Randy, and Mariah warns Renée that she really knows very little about Randy and shouldn’t be so trusting of him, than we get a glimpse of the heavy-set man in the black clothes and hoodie, the hood comes off and we realize it’s Randy. Apparently his real name is Jack, Renée’s is Veronica, and the two were married until five years previously, whenfor reasons writer-director-editor (so he really has no one to blame but himself!) Anthony C. Ferrante never bothers to explain, Jack decided to kill Veronica and got as far as putting her in a bag and dumping her off his boat — only a local found her before she could croak and saved her in a scene that seemed awfully reminiscent of The Bourne Identity when it began the film. As with your typical Lifetime villain, Randy once again spirals out of control from understandable garden-variety madness to out-and-out craziness, including getting her fired from the school job by sending them photos of her bound and gagged in S/M style (apparently when they were together one of his ways of making money was shooting and selling such pics of her) and later getting into a gunfight with Veronica’s brother Jensen (Adrian Bustamante) and killing him.

The climax takes place aboard a boat called the Renée (which is how we know how Veronica nèe “Jane Doe” took that as her new name) in which Randy, like Bruce in Stalker’s Prey, wants to knock her off by throwing her in the water — only, of course, she takes him out instead. Forgotten Evil, which may have been intended for theatrical release (partly because of the expert Gothic finish director Ferrante gave the material and partly because there are some odd blips on the soundtrack — one woman gets to say “ass-” but not “asshole”), seems like just another Lifetime movie with amnesia as their “disease of the week” and a cop-out ending that really doesn’t make sense. Why is Randy so determined to kill Renée? Why didn’t he just leave her for dead and be done with her? Why is it so important to him that he knock off anyone who might potentially expose Renée’s name and past? Ferrante doesn’t explain any of this, and while as a director he’s got a great eye for Gothic night scenes, as a writer he’s got a lot of work to do to get good enough even to give us a coherent Lifetime movie, let alone anything feature-film worthy. It doesn’t help that the acting in this one is pretty nondescript — yes, I know the characters themselves are pretty nondescript, and Masiela Lusha has the confounding task of portraying a woman who literally doesn’t know anything about who or what she is, but the only player who comes across as genuinely interesting and charismatic is Kyle McKeever as the villain.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (Universal-International, 1955)

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

Our “feature” last night was the next-to-last film in sequence of the Abbott and Costello boxed set from Universal (though there are three so-called “bonus features” in the box, including a 1960’s documentary called The World of Abbott and Costello, a 1994 production about them introduced by Jerry Seinfeld, and a more recent film about their horror-comedy movies called Abbott and Costello Meet the Monsters): Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops. This was made in 1955, two years after the immediately previous A&C feature, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, because in the meantime Lou Costello had had one of the serious, debilitating illnesses that wracked him in their later career and led to his death in 1959. In 1954 Universal had planned to team Abbott and Costello with wacky bandleader Spike Jones for a film called Fireman, Save My Child, but after doing long-shots and stunt scenes Costello had fallen ill and Universal had put two contract players, Hugh O’Brian and Buddy Hackett, in the film instead. (In the 1970’s Hackett would play Lou Costello in a made-for-TV biopic.) Leonard Maltin called Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops “another big disappointment, with … very little of the verve and action of silent comedy,” but in fact it’s a quite funny film, not on the level of the best of Mack Sennett’s silent work (though Sennett himself makes a brief appearance as himself directing a pie-fight scene — what else? — he had just published his autobiography, King of Comedy, and he was willing to do just about anything to promote it) but still appealing and funnier than just about anything else being made in 1955 except the marvelous Marilyn Monroe-Billy Wilder collaboration The Seven-Year Itch. The plot centers around con-man Joseph Gorman (Fred Clark, a considerably better comic nemesis than most of the co-stars A&C got in their later years), who swindles Harry “Slim” Pierce (Bud Abbott) and William “Tubby” Piper (Lou Costello)[1] out of $5,000 belonging to Tubby’s aunt and sells them a phony movie company. (The company’s “studio” is actually the Edison “Black Maria,” the first purpose-built structure for shooting movies, with black tar-paper walls and mounted on a giant turntable so it could be revolved to get the maximum amount of sunlight during the shooting day.) Realizing they’ve been swindled, they do an unexpectedly smart (for Abbott and Costello characters, anyway) thing and contact the New York police, who attempt to arrest Gorman — but he and his girlfriend and co-conspirator, actress Leota Van Cleef (Lynn Bari), disguise themselves as foreign movie personalities and high-tail it to California, where he establishes himself as Russian director “Sergei Toumanoff” (though, like virtually all Hollywood parodies of stuck-up movie directors, he comes off like Erich von Stroheim, complete with monocle) and plans to make an epic Western.

Only the big final action scene of his epic Western is ruined when Slim and Tubby hijack the covered wagon that’s supposed to drive through the scene and be attacked by Indians and rescued by the Seventh Cavalry. The studio head, Mr. Snavely (Frank Wilcox), sees the sequence, which includes a gravity-defying drive of the covered wagon across a gorge (a remarkably convincing effect, especially considering it was done decades before CGI), and immediately demands that Toumanoff hire Slim and Tubby as stunt doubles — and Toumanoff works out a plot to kill them so they can’t find out he’s Gorman and testify against him. The result is a big action sequence involving a mid-air dogfight between two planes, one of them flown by Costello in drag (he’s doubling for Leota) — something Costello had often done: he’d worked as a Hollywood stunt man in the 1920’s and had frequently donned drag to double for women. (Women stunt doubles didn’t become common until the 1950’s, when Doris Day insisted that her stunt double for Calamity Jane be a woman, Donna Hall.) Once again, Snavely thinks the scene is hilarious and assigns Toumanoff to direct a comedy featuring Slim and Tubby — which means he has to tell all his henchmen that the plans have been changed and he now needs to keep them alive instead of knocking them off. Then Toumanoff t/n Gorman learns that the $75,000 needed to make the first Slim and Tubby comedy is being kept in a safe in Snavely’s home, and he determines to break in, steal it and abscond with the money to Europe, where he can continue to work as a director (presumably under yet another pseudonym). Slim and Tubby end up in a spectacular chase scene in which the Keystone Kops, or a reasonable simulacrum thereof (at least three real Keystone Kops — Hank Mann, Harold Goodwin and Heinie Conklin — played character parts in this film), are enlisted by mistake by Slim and Tubby to arrest Gorman and Leota. Ultimately good triumphs over evil, real L.A. cops arrest the baddies and Slim and Tubby recover the money — only, in a scene that anticipates the ending of the serious crime film The Killing by two years, Tubby opens the case containing the money and the backwash from the propeller of one of the planes blows it out of the valise and scatters it all over the countryside. The End. 

Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops isn’t much of a movie as a whole, but it’s got some screamingly funny scenes, including one in which A&C are lost in the desert and a squirrel sneaks its way into their bread loaf and starts eating it from the inside (and Costello plays this with a lot more pathos than he usually showed) and one in which they plan to break into Gorman’s house to see if they can get evidence against him — Slim will be the burglar and if anything goes wrong, Tubby, wearing a cop’s uniform, will come and “arrest” him — only it so happens that a real burglar picks that night to burglarize Gorman’s home and a real cop shows up to arrest him, and the result is a marvelous mistaken-identity free-for-all we’d expect more from the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy than Abbott and Costello. Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops isn’t a great movie, and as an evocation of the Sennett days it’s well below the great scene in the 1939 film Hollywood Cavalcade in which Buster Keaton (who in fact never worked for Sennett) led a revived force of Keystone Kops, but it’s still a lot of fun and one wishes A&C had made more movies like it instead of the horror-comedies which had been novel in their inception but by the mid-1950’s had grown rather tiresome. It’s also an indication that as their careers progressed A&C relied more on slapstick (and their own stunt doubles — though Costello still did a lot of his own stunt work, and when he didn’t his double was usually his brother, Pat Cristillo, which helped in the verisimilitude department) and less on dialogue, even though John Grant, who in the early days had contributed mostly funny dialogue routines like “Who’s on First?,” was the sole credited screenwriter on this one (though Lee Loeb has a credit for the original story). Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops is a minor gem that’s well worth seeing and a nice excursion by A&C into the realm of traditional movie clowning; it was made at a time when silent films were just trickling back into circulation on TV via Paul Killiam’s Silents, Please! show and a syndicated rerun of some of Charlie Chaplin’s early films, and audiences were just beginning to discover that silent film was a great art form in itself and not just an inept and unwittingly funny precursor to sound film!

[1] — Ironically, though his character is called “Tubby” Costello looks considerably slimmer in this film than we’re used to seeing him — doubtless the result of his long succession of debilitating illnesses.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Transsiberian (Filmax International, Canal+ España, Filmax Group, First Look Pictures, 2008)

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

Our “feature” last night was a DVD Charles pulled from our ever-growing backlog: a 2008 movie called Transsiberian (notice the one-word spelling even though most references I’ve seen to the Trans-Siberian Railway, on which most of this film takes place, hyphenate it) from the usual modern-day mishmash of production companies — Filmax International, the Spanish branch of the French cable-TV operation Canal+, Filmax Group (how does that differ from Filmax International?) and First Look Pictures — whose producers appear to have been Spanish but they recruited an American director, Brad Anderson, and American leads, Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer. The film opens with a scene set, the subtitle tells us, in “Vladivostok, Russian Far East” (and Charles gave Anderson and his co-writer, Will Conroy, points for not making the common mistake of putting Vladivostok in Siberia!), a confused (and confusing) bit of action which establishes that a Russian gang is using the Trans-Siberian Railway to smuggle heroin. Then the film cuts to Beijing (introduced in the subtitle as “Beijing, China,” to which I joked, “As opposed to Beijing, Manitoba”), where married couple Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) are wrapping up an assignment to teach English to Chinese schoolchildren as part of a missionary organization. They’re ready to go home and Jessie would be just fine with flying, but Roy is a train buff and seizes on the opportunity to ride on the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway to its western terminus in Moscow and then fly home from there. Big mistake: Roy and Jessie end up sharing a compartment with another couple, Spanish adventurer Carlos Ximénez (Eduardo Noriega, easily the sexiest male in this film by a very wide margin) and his Seattle-born 20-year-old girlfriend de jour, Abby (Kate Mara, who to my mind is not only much better looking than Emily Mortimer but a better actress as well). Transsiberian is one of those maddening movies that really seems like two separate films arbitrarily joined together at the midpoint, the first a romantic melodrama and the second an action-adventure thriller.

One thing Transsiberian does well is dramatize the continuing privations Russians endure and seem to have endured throughout their history, whether their overlords were named Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Lenin, Stalin or Putin — the toilets on the train are clogged, the “meals” are a joke, the trains themselves are overcrowded and the four principals’ fellow-travelers so ugly after a while we start to wonder if there are any nice-looking people in Russia. (Siberia was “played” by Lithuania in the film.) The big thing that happens in part one is that Roy gets left behind — he gets so wrapped up in exploring an old railroad yard and seeing the antique locomotives that he misses the train he’s supposed to be taking, and as best as she can understand them through the language barrier, Jessie is told that she’s just going to have to wait in a small town in the middle of Nowhere, Siberia for the next train to come in the next day, which Roy will no doubt be on. Carlos seizes this opportunity to seduce Jessie — he’s been eyeing her all movie with obviously disreputable intentions — and takes her out to some remote locations by bus, including a disintegrating old church he’s sure will appeal to Jessie, an amateur photographer (her Canon digital camera figures prominently in the film). While they’re out there alone in -23° weather (hardly, one would think, the best conceivable environment for outdoor sex!) he at first tries to get her to have sex with him willingly. When she refuses, he attempts to rape her, she runs away, and eventually she picks up a piece of wood and clubs him to death with it, then leaves his body out in the cold and returns on the Russian bus to the village, where she meets Roy as planned the next day. This scene also establishes that Jessie led a dissolute life with plenty of alcohol, drugs and men until she went into rehab, cleaned up, met Roy, married him and got involved with his church — which explains why, except on one occasion with Carlos, she regularly turned down the ubiquitous vodka shots she was offered on the Russian train.

While we’re clearly intended to regard Jessie’s killing of Carlos as justifiable homicide, we’re also aware that about the last thing she wants to do is hang around and face the decidedly un-tender and corrupt mercies of the Russian judicial system, such as it is. When Roy returns to the action, they’re on a different train and have a different roommate, Ivan Grinko (Ben Kingsley), who introduces himself as a Russian police officer and, since he speaks English, at least eases our couple’s language difficulties since he can interpret for them. Only Jessie begins to suspect that, rather than being a police officer, he’s really part of the drug gang she’s begun to hear bits about on the Russian media — and it turns out they’re both right: he’s a cop, but a corrupt one who’s part of the gang. They’re looking for the heroin Carlos was smuggling for them, which he was able to conceal by adding chemicals to solidify it and mold it into Russian toy dolls, and unbeknownst to Jessie Carlos concealed his dolls by putting them in her camera case — of course she freaks out when she discovers they’re there. The gangsters capture Carlos’s girlfriend Abby — ya remember Abby? (this film is full of Anna Russell moments) and torture her, thinking she knows where Carlos stashed the drugs, but eventually a train wreck ex machina derails, literally and figuratively, the characters and their clashing agendas, and the Russian authorities are able to capture Ivan and his fellow conspirators, Abby is freed and is in a Russian hospital recovering from her torture, and Roy and Jessie are allowed to go home — though there’s an odd tag scene at the end of a woman we haven’t seen before coming on Carlos’s body in the Siberian cold and presumably reporting it.

The short synopsis of Transsiberian on — “A Trans-Siberian train journey from China to Moscow becomes a thrilling chase of deception and murder when an American couple encounters a mysterious pair of fellow travelers” — made it sound like a knock-off of Alfred Hitchcock in general and The Lady Vanishes in particular, but Brad Anderson and Wes Conroy make several basic mistakes Hitchcock wouldn’t have let himself or his writers get away with, including that jarring mid-movie break between romantic melodrama and thriller. Hitch would have insisted that the drug gangsters be on the train with the principals and would have periodically cut between them so we would know the threat the lead couple were under instead of us forgetting about the drugs until we were forcibly reminded of them in mid-movie (“Ya remember the drugs?”). Most significantly, St. Alfred would have ramped up the pace — as he in fact did in his films that took place wholly or largely on trains (not only The Lady Vanishes but The Secret Agent — from which Anderson and Conroy probably got the idea of a train crash that both literally and figuratively upends the agendas of the various characters, both good and evil — Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest) — and a Hitchcock-directed Transsiberian wouldn’t have the maddening longueurs between action scenes Anderson’s does. Transsiberian emerges as an O.K. movie but not a particularly distinguished one — and it doesn’t help that Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer are perfectly credible but not especially charismatic actors (they’re not Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint by a long shot!) — an O.K. time-filler, a basically romantic thriller but one with some modishly dark elements (like Abby’s fate — she’s a more interesting character than our leads and one could imagine a remix of this story to put her fate front and center) and the sort of movie you want to like better than you do.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Mommy’s Little Boy (NB Thrilling Films, Reel One Films, Lifetime, 2017)

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

Last night Lifetime showed two “premiere” movies from 8 p.m. to midnight (or shortly thereafter) under the rubric “Mommy Madness,” of which the first was Mommy’s Little Boy, a clear follow-up to the 2016 production they had re-run just before it, Mommy’s Little Girl. Created by the same people — Lifetime’s ace writer, Christine Conradt (she had help from Mark Sanderson on the script for Mommy’s Little Girl but wrote Mommy’s Little Boy solo), and her frequent directorial collaborator, Curtis James Crawford, Mommy’s Little Boy wasn’t a ripoff of The Bad Seed the way Mommy’s Little Girl was. It was promoted on the Lifetime Web site by a 29-second trailer that showed Mommy’s little boy, Eric Wilson (Peter DaCunha), out with her in the dead of night helping her bury a tarp-wrapped body, which made it looked like mommy Briana Wilson (Bree Williamson, an oddly similar name to her character!) was knocking people off and enlisting sonny-boy’s help as an accessory after the fact. The truth, when we finally get to see the movie start to finish, is more complex and more morally ambiguous than that — moral ambiguity is the biggest thing that separates Conradt’s scripts, as insanely melodramatic as some of them (including Mommy’s Little Boy) get, from those by the rest of Lifetime’s writers.

When we first meet Eric he’s being all too blatantly bullied by his older half-brother Max (Auden Larratt) — the two have different fathers and both men disappeared from Briana’s life without so much as a by-your-leave, though one of them left her a nice house which she can still afford to live in because of some sort of legal settlement she got that enables her not to work. What she does do with her time is drink — sometimes at sleazy bars, in one of which she meets a boyfriend de jour named Shane Reed (Sebastian Pigott) who figures prominently in the later action, but mostly at home, straight from a bottle of liquor which, since the fluid is clear, we assume is either vodka or gin. During one afternoon she’s lying next to their backyard swimming pool, laying in a chaise longue, listening to music via ear buds and doing the best she can to drown out the sounds of her sons as they horseplay in the pool. Somehow Max falls to the bottom of the pool, a wound opens up and he dies — director Crawford keeps it uncertain whether Eric deliberately killed him, whether he was fighting back against Max’s bullying and just pushed too hard, or Max had an accident and Eric’s only culpability was that he didn’t bother to tell mom until it was too late because he knew he would be better off with his brother dead than alive. Nonetheless, mom convinces Eric that he’s a murderer and he’s going to have to do exactly what she says or else he’s going to end up in prison. The Wilsons have a nosy neighbor who lives across the street, Barbara Nolan (Brigitte Robinson), who notices that the Wilson boys aren’t eating especially well — since one of the things their mom is too hors de combat from all that drinking to do for them is make meals — so she brings over some sort of taco pie (I think that’s how the dish was described in the dialogue) and mom overreacts hysterically to the idea that she needs some interloper to help her feed her kids. So she clongs Barbara on the head with a frying pan, knocking her unconscious and leaving Eric alone with the body. Eric notices that Barbara is still alive and is about to reach for the phone to call 911 when mom comes back into the room. Eric tells her, “She’s not dead,” and mom’s response is to grab that frying pan and keep hitting Barbara over the head with it until she really is most sincerely dead.

Then mom concocts the plot for concealing her crime into which she enlists Eric and which involves the scene we saw in the trailer: mom buries Barbara’s body in the local Kern Campgrounds (the film supposedly takes place in Philadelphia but the settings look more suburban to me) and abandons Barbara’s car and purse, hoping that either or both will get stolen, the police will find them and, if Barbara’s body is ever discovered, the cops will blame her murder on whoever stole her car and/or purse. Only it doesn’t work that way because nobody goes near the car, and when she isn’t doing bouncy-bouncy with Shane or getting plastered, she’s noting the news reports as the cops find first the car and then Barbara herself. Meanwhile, Eric has managed to escape from mom’s bizarre clutches into one of the local parks, where he runs into a girl his age named Kaylee Davis (Jadyn Malone) and her parents, local schoolteacher and coach Michael Davis (Paul Popowich, one of those rare males in a Lifetime movie who’s both hot and sexy and actually gets to play a good guy!) and his wife Sherry (Natalie Lisinska). We immediately get the impression that the Davises would make far better parents for Eric than his mother would, not only because there are two of them but because they’re strong, loving, supportive and have better things to do with their lives than drink themselves into oblivion. Michael recruits Eric to try out for the school’s baseball team, at which he sucks and gets teased by the other kids (one of whom even has the gall to tell him that the wrong Wilson brother died), and he tries to help Eric as much as possible without arousing suspicion as to his own motives. Meanwhile, as mother Briana’s crude attempt to cover up her crime starts to unravel, she hatches a plot to get herself, Shane and Eric out of the country and over to Mexico in Shane’s elaborate RV, which he’s so emotionally committed to it’s clear the vehicle, not any human, is the great love of his life. Eric doesn’t want to leave and Shane wants it to be just him and Briana without that obnoxious kid of hers anyway, but mom insists that the two are a “package deal.” Alas, Shane is so protective of his RV that when he finds out that Eric has been going through his possessions and discovered first his porn collection and then his gun, he threatens to beat Eric to within an inch of his life with his belt — and Eric panics and shoots Shane.

When mom realizes that they’ve got another corpse on their hands she’s even more anxious to get out of the country — though somewhere along the line it peeks through even her alcohol-soaked mind that Canada would be a closer and more feasible place to run to than Mexico — and in the meantime Michael has alerted child protective services to Eric’s plight at home and the Philadelphia police have assigned a woman detective, Jan Myers (Allison Graham), to the case. Mom left her cell phone behind when she abandoned her car and went with Shane in his RV, but Eric has his own phone and uses it to call Michael, who tells him to keep the line open so the police can trace them. Director Crawford and editor Jordan Jensen create effective suspense as it becomes a race of time — can the cops stop the runaway RV and its mother-and-son fugitive occupants before mom discovers her son is alerting them on his cell phone and beats the shit out of him, or worse? When Michael and detective Myers finally corner them, Briana comes out of the RV holding Eric at gunpoint, hoping to use him as a hostage, only he manages to get away and Briana refuses Myers’ command to drop her gun and essentially commits “suicide by cop.” As melodramatic as it sometimes is, and as clear that Conradt has been doing these for so long (her first Lifetime script, The Perfect Nanny, was made in 2000) she’s got the clichés down pat and knows what her audiences expect, she also manages to make her characters believable as flesh-and-blood people with flaws as well as good points. We basically like and root for Eric but he does leave his brother in the pool to die, and later he shoots someone whose only crime was wanting to discipline him; and Briana comes off as a figure of real pathos even though we generally loathe her; we basically like the nosy neighbor Briana offs early on but could see how her constant butting in to the Wilsons’ lives could become a real trial; and Shane comes off as a no-account pleasure-seeker but also a proud and independent man who’s just in over his head with this woman and her troubled son. The Davis family are the only members of the dramatis personae of Mommy’s Little Boy who really are too good to be true; otherwise the characterizations are intriguing and make this something more than just your standard-issue Lifetime movie with a provocative title and premise.

Double Mommy (Johnson Production Group, Shadowland, Lifetime, 2017)

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

After Mommy’s Little Boy Lifetime showed another “premiere” (note they’re no longer advertising them as “world premieres”!) called Double Mommy, which like the earlier film is also a follow-up to a previous Lifetime hit, Double Daddy — in which a young man impregnates two women, his regular girlfriend and a rich bitch who drugged him and essentially raped him, on the same night and had to deal with both babies. Double Mommy has at least one creative behind-the-scenes person in common with Double Daddy, screenwriter Barbara Kymlicka (and as I’ve commented on her before I wonder how she can write such sexy scripts and go through life with a name that looks like “cum licker”!). It’s directed by Doug Campbell and one of the credited producers is Ken Sanders, and as you might expect from those credits it takes place at least around, if not definitively in, the “Whittendale universe” — Whittendale University being the college the young high-schoolers in the dramatis personae aspire to attend, though as Charles pointed out when he arrived home midway through the movie, given that most of the films in the Whittendale universe have depicted Whittendale as a place whose women students all seem to be selling their bodies as prostitutes or mistresses to afford the school’s tuition, they’re probably better off not getting in there. Anyway, the leading character who gets doubly pregnant is Jessica “Jess” Bell (Morgan Obenreder), whose boyfriend Ryan (Griffin Freeman) deserted her for the summer to take an internship in Sacramento (the Whittendale universe films have been ambiguous as to just where Whittendale is; early on it seemed to be back East — Vermont, maybe — but later films in the series took place definitively in California and I got the impression that “Whittendale” really means Stanford) and left her with the attentions of Brent Davick (Mark Grossman), the hottest guy in the movie and therefore, according to Lifetime’s usual iconography, its principal villain. Brent has befriended Jess and hung out with her throughout the summer, but being a teenage male (and especially a teenage male on Lifetime!) he wants more than that, and when he makes an advance towards her and she says no, he’s grimly determined to have his way with her whether she wants to or not. So he offers her a cola which he’s spiked with a date-rape drug — since Brent’s dad is the CEO of a pharmaceutical company he had no trouble obtaining it — and he parks his SUV in front of some stadium lights on campus and tells her, “No one ever says no to me,” before he has his wicked way with her and she passes out completely. Next thing she knows she’s in her bed at home, only her pants are undone and her leg has a bruise on it. She washes herself and hears someone at her door — and of course it’s Ryan, back from his Sacramento internship and ready to resume their relationship, particularly its sexual component, then and there. She ends up this bizarre day in her life carrying twins, one male and one female, and two and one-half months later — the earliest you can have this done — she has DNA drawn from her fetuses and learns that they have different fathers: one of the babies is Ryan’s but the other is … well, we know it’s Brent, and the Bells manage to get the police to order him to submit to a DNA test that proves it.

But Brent is able to weasel out of the rape charge against him by claiming that Jess had consensual sex with him and intimidating virtually all of the students who were at the party into saying that Jess was “all over” him and clearly was hot for him. When one Black student who plays with Ryan and Brent on the Lexington school’s soccer team threatens to report to the police that he actually saw Brent spike the drink he gave Jess, Brent turns over the task of discrediting him to his dad, whose investigators dig up a DUI conviction the Black kid got and threaten to disclose that to Whittendale and any other college he might apply to — so the Black boy gets the message and lies to protect Brent. In a movie from an earlier era the Davick parents’ cover-up of their son’s misdeeds (plural because, as it turns out, Jess isn’t the first woman he’s drugged and raped) would work — daddy Davick even offers Jess’s parents a check for $500,000 in exchange for their and Jess’s permanent silence, which Jess’s dad is tempted by but her mom tears up — but they haven’t reckoned with social media. Getting revenge on Brent for having sent out a succession of tweets with attached photos of the two of them together that made it look like she wanted his body, Jess sends out tweets of her own denouncing Brent as a rapist and then puts up a big banner at school, across the lockers, with the same message. Brent and his dad respond by suing her for defamation, potentially burying her family in legal costs that will ruin them completely, and Jess agrees to back off — but Ryan points out that he and her school friends can still go after Brent since they’re not being sued. So Ryan, whose animus towards Brent got him kicked off the Lexington soccer team (ya remember the Lexington soccer team?)  hatches a plot: at the team’s biggest game of the season Ryan and Jess’s other friends will all unfurl banners and signs denouncing team member #18 — Brent — as a rapist. Jess doesn’t dare attend the game but she watches the demonstration from an opening that allows her to see the stands, and later when the participants tweet the photos of it, they get a “like” from Emily, Brent’s previous victim, whose parents took the Davicks’ payoff and used it to send her to Whittendale. Jess calls Emily and arranges to meet her, but before the meeting can happen Brent tracks her down and runs her car off the road with her own, killing her in what the cops write off as an accident.

Though he still doesn’t realize that his son has become a murderer, daddy Davick gets called in by the board members of his pharmaceutical company — which was founded by his own father and which he was grooming Brent to take over — and told to resign because now that it’s associated with date rape, the Davick name is dragging the company’s stock price down. Daddy Davick responds by disinheriting Brent, and Brent mutters something about “I’m going to do what I should have done all along,” which both his dad and we realize means that he’s going to go to Jess’s house with his daddy’s gun and shoot her. Dad himself shows up there to stop him and ends up taking the bullet himself, and there’s an epilogue set “two months later” in which Jess has had her babies — daughter Charlotte, who’s Ryan’s; and son Charlie, who’s Brent. Jess, her parents and Ryan are all cooperating in raising the kids, and it looks like we’re heading for happily-ever-after territory when in comes Candice Davick (Mandy June Turpio), Brent’s mom, who protests that with her husband dead and her son facing prison for most of the rest of his life, her grandson is all she has left. She asks to be allowed to hold the boy, and when she does so she mutters to him in sinister tones, “You’re a Davick, and don’t ever forget that” — no doubt Barbara Kymlicka’s way of setting up a possible sequel in which she’ll sue the Bells for custody and put them through hell trying to get the boy. At times Double Mommy plays as if Kymlicka was aware her movie was going to be shown right after one of Christine Conradt’s and she wanted to make sure she could write something even more insanely melodramatic than the Old Mistress — though she lacks Conradt’s skill (or inclination) in creating complex and morally ambiguous characters. Instead Double Mommy comes off as a work created more to exploit a provocative title (it worked the first time; my post on Double Daddy got more hits than anything else I’ve written in the nearly nine years I’ve been doing this blog) than to tell us anything new (or even not so new) about the human condition, and though I liked the social commentary about how the 1 percent think they can get away with anything and their money can always buy their way out of disastrous or downright evil actions for which the rest of us would pay big-time, other Lifetime movies (can you say Restless Virgins?) have done this considerably better.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Zombie Cats from Mars (Mwb3 Problems, 2015)

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

The two films shown last night at the monthly Mars Movie Screening in Golden Hill ( were pretty much dregs from the bottom of the barrel, as you could tell from their titles: Zombie Cats from Mars and Cave Women of Mars, both of them 21st century pastiches of all the lousy science-fiction and horror movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s with similar titles and agendas. Zombie Cats from Mars was dated 2015, the direction was credited to someone or something called “Montetré” (I had assumed this was either one of the actors, one of the crew members or nobody in particular, but according to “Montetré” is a pseudonym for Monty Wayne Benson III and he has several other credits, including MoonPi, Holed-Up and Marty in Transit). It’s set in and around Portland, Oregon (though Portland is “played” by Vancouver — not the one in British Columbia, Canada but the one across the border from it in Washington, U.S.A.) and deals, as the title suggests, with miniature flying saucers from Mars that come bearing cats with eyes that glow red when they’re about to attack. Supposedly the cats live off eating human brains à la the zombies in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the myriad sequelae, remakes, reboots and ripoffs of that surprisingly successful film (Night of the Living Dead is no great shakes as cinema, but Zombie Cats from Mars makes it look like a masterpiece by comparison — hell, Zombie Cats from Mars makes Oversexed Rugsucker from Mars look like a masterpiece by comparison!).

Written by Ryan Cloutier — or at least compiled by him from old science-fiction clichés, many of them quite likely dredged up from his subconscious, perhaps under the influence of mind-altering substances (one attendee of the screening wondered how much pot was being smoked during the conception of this script, though I suspect it must have been laced with PCP or some other equally unpleasant adulterant) — Zombie Cats from Mars posited that at some point in the past a super-cat named Sassafras relocated to Mars and founded a cult which became known as the CATholic Church. Its ultimate aim was to conquer the universe for zombie cat-dom and eliminate all competing species, and as the first step towards this aim it sent a spaceship to Portland in 1915 and let out some zombie cats who killed four people before flying away again. Sassafras’s cult decided to try it again 100 years later — it’s established that at some point in their history the zombie cats figured out how to make themselves immortal — and they knock off nine people. The hero of our story is Billy Robers (Bransen Sands Koehler, who’s cute enough that he has a potential movie career ahead of him if only he learns to act), who lives in Portland with his mom Holly (Stephanie Leet) and her 10-year-old son Tommy (Benni Harper). It’s established that Billy and Tommy have different fathers — throughout the movie, whenever anyone refers to Tommy as Billy’s brother, Billy corrects them and says, “Half-brother.” It’s also established that both men in Holly’s life simply walked out on her, though it appears that she knows the whereabouts of Billy’s dad, at least. Anyway, Billy and Tommy do a paper route together (a pretty recherché plot gimmick for the 21st century) and continually get bullied by someone named Cody (Edward Zopf, who looks like he’s got potential to grow into a quite attractive “bear” type).

When he’s not on his paper route Billy spends a lot of time in his room watching ancient science-fiction movies — the page on this one claims the film we see on his TV is Manos: The Hands of Fate, a particularly notorious Mystery Science Theatre 3000 “target” and one of the few movies on earth even worse than Zombie Cats from Mars — and for some reason the page about this film describes Billy as “effeminate.” I presume that’s because there’s one scene in which Billy and his best friend Cameron (Estevan Muñoz) are shown in bed together, but they’re not touching each other or doing much of anything except staring straight ahead, presumably at the TV showing one of those old tacky movies Billy loves. One night Billy and Cameron see one of the Martian flying saucers land, and then people start dying: first a jogger in the hills, then a heavy-set middle-aged local woman named Percis (Janae’ Werner) who has a house full of cats (which helps spread the death toll as other people in the neighborhood take in her cats, not realizing that some of them are the lethal zombie cats), then an ice cream truck driver (Greg Fish) and two would-be customers, then Billy’s mom and (half-)brother, then the couple Lester (Joon Rhee) and Carolyn (Cheyanne Shaw) who work at the local church, and then the Black police detective (Bobby Bridges) who’s investigating the killings and who was unsurprisingly dismissive when Billy tried to explain to him, based on a book he’d found among his dad’s effects at home, that the killings were being carried out by (dare I say it!) zombie cats from Mars. Finally the town’s mayor (Josh Edward) is killed, bringing the death toll to nine, and according to the book Billy read the cats can only be killed if they’re sprayed with holy water. Accordingly Billy gets a big squirt gun and practices in his backyard with ordinary water and cardboard cut-outs of cats, then decides he’s ready for prime time and goes to the local church to steal some holy water — only he’s caught by the priest (Ernest Adams) and soon learns that this is a CATholic Church, meaning they’re on the other side. The parishioners surround Billy with murderous intent in Montetré’s most direct visual quote from Night of the Living Dead, and just when they’re about to add him to the death toll, the film cuts to Billy’s bedroom and … it was all a dream. Or was it? There’s another shot of a cat with glowing red eyes, the signal for an upcoming zombie-cat attack, and then Billy wakes up again.

Done with the right campy tone, Zombie Cats from Mars could have worked — there are some marvelous scenes, notably the opening credits that parody the FBI anti-pirating logo and the disclaimers on DVD’s that the commentaries and interviews don’t reflect the opinions of the producing studio or anyone associated with them, and the scenes with two newscasters, a man and a woman, gossiping about the other people working for their TV station (including who’s having sex with whom and whose lawfully wedded spouse better not find out about it) and, when they’re actually on camera, cutting back and forth between news of the murders and the most light-hearted fluff pieces writer Cloutier could think of. But most of the film is shot with a dreary dullness that works neither as legitimate entertainment nor as camp, and about all we’re given to watch are some remarkably pretty young men (notably the therapist who’s interviewing Billy in the opening scene, who may or may not have turned up later as one of the victims) doing not particularly interesting things. Zombie Cats from Mars is that particular sort of horrible movie that was intended to be horrible but turned out even worse than intended! One reviewer said that Zombie Cats from Mars started out as a YouTube serial — which would explain why it’s a series of disconnected incidents with little more than a central premise connecting them — and it reaches its silliest moments when one of the zombie cats saws through a gas pipe to fill up the home of the church couple with gas and thus asphyxiate them. (I’m not making this up, you know; it couldn’t help but remind me of how my late roommate/home-care client John P. turned against the original Jurassic Park movie when it asked us to believe that the velociraptors could have figured out how to manipulate a doorknob and open a door.)

Cave Women of Mars (Saint Euphoria Unlimited, 2008)

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

Cave Women of Mars was better than Zombie Cats from Mars — almost anything would have been — as we can tell from the initial scene, in which after a set of opening credits that not only spoofed the 1930’s Flash Gordon serials but even used the same theme music (Franz Liszt’s “Les Préludes”) as the last of them, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, Captain Jackson (Josh Craig), commander of the first manned (or should I say “piloted”?) mission to Mars, calls Mission Control officer Jackson (also Josh Craig — the two are supposed to be father and son so it’s O.K. they look so much alike the same actor is playing them) and requests permission to land on Mars. From the moment Josh Craig speaks we heave a sigh of relief — at least if we’re watching this movie right after Zombie Cats from Mars — that we’re finally hearing an actor who knows how to deliver a line with some authority and dramatic credibility. Alas, he’s an O.K.-looking guy but his partner on the mission, Lieutenant Elliott (Daniel Sjerven), is a stocky, homely, not particularly interesting man. The conceit is that once the two male astronauts land on Mars, they learn that not only is there a local population, but the leaders are all women. Martians are divided into two tribes, the Zill and the Liek; the Zill are blonde, dress in white and are more or less the good Martians, while the Liek have black hair, dress in black halter tops and leather things and look like they just auditioned for Russ Meyer, only he turned them down because they didn’t have big enough tits. Still, they have the bad-ass attitude of Meyer’s buxom heroines down pat. Martian women have basically enshrined themselves as the absolute rulers of the planet; Martian men exist, but they’re there only to work as slaves in the coal mines and, presumably, to have sex with Martian women just to propagate the Martian race. The women carry staffs and use them as weapons — the good blonde Zill Martians carry white staffs and the bad brunette Liek Martians carry black ones — and both have no particular trouble outwitting our rather dim Lieutenant Elliott. He ends up at the home base of the white-clad priestess of Mars (Stephanie Mihm), who tells him that he’s supposed to mate with a Martian and father the child that will bring the Liek and the Zill back together and end the conflict between them — and as a result, when Captain Jackson is ready to fly home, Elliott elects to stay on Mars with his Zill girlfriend Eina (Brooke Lemke).

The film was produced, directed and written by Christopher R. Mihm, presumably Stephanie Mihm’s husband (his self-penned imdb biography doesn’t mention him having a spouse), and apparently he’s been doing a number of these deliberately retro movies, starting with The Monster of Phantom Lake (2006), It Came from Another World! (2007), Terror from Beneath the Earth (2009), Destination: Outer Space (2010), Attack of the Moon Zombies (2011), House of Ghosts (2012, and apparently a deliberate homage to William Castle in general and his weekend-in-a-haunted-house movies like The House on Haunted Hill and Homicidal in particular), The Giant Spider (2013), The Late Night Double Feature (2014, a faux-double bill containing two shorts, X: The Fiend from Beyond Space and The Wall People), Danny Johnson Saves the World (2015) — starring Elliott Mihm, presumably the son of Christopher and Stephanie — and Weresquito: Nazi Hunter (2016). Mihm’s page, probably written by Mihm himself, describes him as “the king of ‘new old, good bad’ movies,” though quite frankly Cave Women of Mars simply isn’t good enough to be “good-bad” — it’s just “bad-bad,” and suffers from the fact that the films the Mihms are parodying simply weren’t that interesting to begin with and the comic “spin” he puts on them isn’t funny enough to make up for that. To my mind, Larry Blamire’s The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001) is the touchstone for modern-day attempts to ridicule the abysmal 1950’s sci-fi cheapies (though I somehow missed the 2009 sequel, The Lost Skeleton Returns Again), and neither Cave Women of Mars nor Zombie Cats from Mars even came close to Cadavra as either filmmaking or comedy.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Manchester by the Sea (Amazon Studios, K. Media, Pearl Street Films, Lionsgate, 2016)

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

Our “feature” last night was Manchester by the Sea, a 2016 Academy Award contender that helped get its writer-director, Kenneth Lonergan, out of the “movie hell” he’d fallen into through the fiasco of his previous film, Margaret (bankrolled by Fox Searchlight and shot in 2005 but not released until six years later because Lonergan and Searchlight had a struggle over the movie’s length — the studio wanted a film no longer than 2 ½ hours and Lonergan couldn’t figure out how to get down to that length from his “final” cut of three hours and 20 minutes). I referenced the New Yorker piece on Lonergan, the Margaret experience (which ended with his producer suing him for breach of contract) and his new film, and it seems as if Manchester by the Sea has a strikingly similar plot. Margaret dealt with a teenage woman (Anna Paquin) whose life is upended when she accidentally causes the death of a pedestrian; Manchester by the Sea deals with a 30-something handyman, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who’s carrying a burden of guilt because when he was living with his wife and two kids, one night he put two logs on the fireplace in the kids’ bedroom, failed to put the screen up in front of the fireplace, and as a result the burning logs rolled out, set the house on fire, and killed his two kids. His wife Randi (Michelle Williams) escaped the blaze but was unable to make it upstairs to save their children; she broke up with Lee and got involved with another man and is about to have his child. We don’t learn this until about midway through the film, through one of the confusing flashbacks Lonergan annoyingly intercuts with his main present-day action — yes, he’s one of those annoying directors who keeps us confused not so much as to where we are as when we are — and the principal issue of the film’s plot is that at the beginning Lee is racing to a hospital in Boston to see his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), who’s dying of congestive heart failure.

Lee runs into his dad at the hospital but learns that Joe died an hour before he arrived, but if you think that just because the character is dead at the outset of the film we’re not going to see him again, you’ve got another think coming. Indeed, Kyle Chandler is so visible in flashbacks he gets virtually more screen time than anyone else in the cast except Casey Affleck — certainly more than either actor playing Joe’s son Patrick (Ben O’Brien pre-pubescent, and Lucas Hedges as a teenager), whom Lee finds himself stuck with after Joe’s will is read and turns out to contain a specification that Lee is to raise the 17-year-old Patrick until he turns 21 and is emancipated under Massachusetts law. The “Manchester” the film takes place in is not the familiar one from New Hampshire but one in Massachusetts, whose city government in 1989 rather pretentiously and controversially changed its name from just “Manchester” to “Manchester-by-the-Sea” — note the hyphens. Whatever Joe did for a living (we’re not told — Kenneth Lonergan is not the sort of writer who’s going to spell everything out for us), it was sufficiently lucrative that he could afford a fishing boat, and the fate of the boat is a key issue in the plot as Patrick insists they keep it and Lee says there’s no way he can afford to maintain it on a handyman’s salary. Another issue is that Patrick predictably wants to remain in Manchester, where he’s in the middle of high school and all his friends (some of whom play with him in a pop-punk band called “Stentorian,” whose rehearsal sequences are in some ways among the most interesting parts of the film), including the two girlfriends he’s juggling, all are. Lee wants to stay in Boston even though, as Patrick notes, there’s no particular reason why Lee can’t look for a handyman job in Manchester — “Toilets get stopped up here, too,” he tells his uncle. The film is a long succession of confrontations between the two, emphasizing the burned-out nature of Lee’s character and his inability to face up to the adult responsibilities of parenthood and emotional connection — we spend much of the movie wondering why Lee can’t have a normal human relationship with anybody, male or female, sexual or not, and ultimately realize that the trauma of losing his kids and feeling responsible for it has left him emotionally devastated and drained.

There’s one partly funny, partly grim sequence in which Patrick brings Lee over to his girlfriend’s mother’s house, hoping that Lee and the girlfriend’s mom will either get it on themselves or at least carry on a flirtatious conversation that will allow Patrick to fuck his girlfriend in peace instead of worrying about her mom knocking on her bedroom door every two minutes. (She’s nosy enough about her daughter we could readily imagine her going to work for the NSA.) Earlier we’ve seen Lee at work as a handyman, including overhearing one Black woman whose toilet he’s unsticking tell a friend she’s talking to on the phone that she has a crush on him and would love to be having sex with him (he responds to this with a bland look of total burned-out disinterest) and another scene with Mrs. Olsen (Missy Yager), who takes an instant dislike to him and later complains to his boss about his attitude. (That part of this film seemed like a busman’s holiday to me!) Of course, our movie-conditioned attitude is that Lee will finally break down his defenses and accepts Patrick as both a surrogate son and a friend — that he’ll come out of his slacker deep-freeze and accept the responsibility his late brother stuck him with — but no-o-o-o-o, instead Lonergan has Lee dig up another relative with whom to place Patrick and gets the hell out of Manchester-by-the-Sea back to his shitty (literally and figuratively) job in Boston and the miserable little basement hovel in which he lived that was given to him as part of his pay. Charles said Manchester by the Sea brought back memories of his childhood, which he spent at least part of in places with actual snow (during one scene in which piles of dirty-looking snow have accumulated beside the sidewalk from which it’s been shoveled, Charles said, “That’s what snow looks like! It’s not all white and fluffy; it’s dirty and brown!”), a dubious pleasure I as a lifelong Californian have been spared.

Manchester by the Sea is the sort of frustrating movie you want to like better than you do: it’s obviously aiming for real quality, and it’s the increasingly rare sort of movie that’s actually about realistically depicted people in real-seeming situations instead of a battle between superheroes and super-villains for control of the world — but I found it sporadically moving but also rather annoying. Casey Affleck won the Academy Award for Best Actor in this film, but while he certainly makes the character believable he doesn’t make him especially likable and I, for one, just got tired of him well before the end. There were certainly better performances in movies in 2016 than this one, and one of them — ironically — was by his brother Ben in The Accountant, a far more melodramatic and action-oriented movie than Manchester by the Sea but also a stronger piece of entertainment. (Like his character in Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck has lived his adult life in the shadow of a more successful, more highly regarded and better-paid brother.) Casey Affleck co-starred with Matt Damon (who produced Manchester by the Sea and originally considered directing and/or starring in it) in Gus Van Sant’s mercifully forgotten Gerry, easily one of the 10 worst movies of all time, in which they both played annoying slackers who got lost on a desert hike and wandered around aimlessly for days until they presumably both died (and we didn’t care because they were such infuriating characters we really weren’t sorry to see them go), and while he’s considerably better here he’s playing the same kind of character (as Rebecca Mead put it in the New Yorker profile on Lonergan, “Lonergan’s work often has at its center a vulnerable slacker—or, as [his wife J.] Smith-Cameron puts it, ‘a character who is a very appealing, funny, interesting, tortured fuckup who means well’”) — but, pace Mrs. Lonergan, I don’t find Lee Chandler especially appealing, funny or interesting, just tortured, fucked-up and a not particularly pleasant person to spend two hours and 17 minutes with.

If anything, both the most fascinating character and the best actor in this movie is Lucas Hedges as the teenage Patrick, and one could easily imagine Lonergan recasting this story the way Stephenie Meyer redid the Twilight novels to put Patrick and his dilemmas front and center. Hedges is almost preternaturally gorgeous — a few years from now one could readily imagine him starring in a biopic of President John F. Kennedy if anyone still wants to make one about this, if anything, over-depicted figure — and he acts with such power and authority that he gives the impression, which Lonergan may or may not have intended, that he’s the mature one and Lee the child-man who needs his nephew’s guidance. Michelle Williams is O.K. in a rather underwritten role that has far less screen time than her billing (third) would indicate, though in an early flashback between her and Affleck (which takes place after their kids died in that fire but before we’ve been given that information) he tries to have sex with her and she pleads she’s “sick” and fights him off — strikingly reminiscent of her scene in Brokeback Mountain in which her husband, Heath Ledger (depicted throughout that overrated movie as Bisexual, not Gay!), wants to have sex with her and she says, “The next time I want you to make a baby you can’t afford to raise, I’ll let you know.” Manchester by the Sea is obviously a “quality” movie about real-seeming people in real-seeming relationships; it’s just not a particularly pleasant one to watch, the cinematic equivalent of castor oil (“Here, take this, it’ll be good for you after all those superhero shoot-’em-ups”), and though the people both in front of and behind the cameras have real talent, they have an all-too-common (these days) disinterest in creating characters audience members will actually like.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Trial & Error: First Two Episodes (Good Session, Wanrer Bros., NBC-TV, 2017)

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

I watched the hour-long series premiere (actually two half-hour episodes shown back-to-back) of Trial & Error, a “comedy” from writers Jeff Astrof and Michael Miller produced through Good Session and Warner Bros. that, like a lot of other frustrating shows these days, took a potentially good premise — a spoof of legal shows and “trial-of-the-century” case coverage — and ran it into the ground. The gimmick is that greenhorn attorney Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto) is sent to East Pike, North Carolina to represent poetry professor Larry Henderson (John Lithgow, vainly trying to bring some dignity to the proceedings despite the preposterous things Astrof and Miller make his character do), who’s being accused of murdering his wife by pushing her through a plate-glass window. Segal is a junior assistant at a big law firm that’s been retained by the late wife’s parents — until they suddenly cut off their funding once Larry is revealed to have been cheating on his late wife, and (horrors!) doing so with a man, his physical trainer. Apparently the writers intended this as a parody of the real-life case dramatized in The Staircase Murders, in which popular military novelist Michael Peterson was accused of beating his wife to death with a fireplace poker; like Lithgow’s character here, Peterson also turned out to be Bisexual and his previous wife had died under similarly suspicious circumstances, leading prosecutors to believe that he knocked off both women.

Trial & Error could have been a very funny show if Astrof and Miller had kept closer to their models and if they could have avoided the raunchy sex jokes — the forensic pathologist Segal retains is a compulsive masturbator (we’re shown this when he starts emitting orgasmic moans while standing in a hallway in Henderson’s home and then quickly rushes into a bathroom so he won’t cream in his pants) and his Black assistant, who works for him from his office next to a taxidermy shop (which is also the shop’s overflow room, so Segal is spooked by the constant sight of stuffed animals), has a weird catalog of the craziest mental illnesses and phobias Astrof and Miller could insert or invent. (Some of them, like dyslexia, are real; others, like her habit of fainting whenever she sees a nice piece of art, are harder to believe.) The nice things about this show are the fact that Segal and his principal investigator, a former East Pike cop named Dwayne (Steven Boyer), are both played by quite nice-looking actors — indeed, this old queen wanted to see them get it on (Boyer looks like his face lost an argument with a meat grinder but he’s got a great bod and the lumberjack shirts and skin-tight blue jeans he’s encased in by costumer Zora Dakir show it off nicely) — and Lithgow, like the cool old professional he is, acquits himself well even though he’s obliged to play a character whose principal avocation is roller-skating — oops, roller-cizing (he makes a big deal out of the difference) — and who’s clearly more broken up about the loss of his skate wrench (a supposedly irreplaceable one made in Germany) than the death of his wife. I had high hopes for Trial & Error and most of them were dashed — though there were good moments, including the prosecutor turning out to be a hot young blonde woman who virtually orders Segal to have sex with her even though they’re on opposite sides of the case (hey, what’s a little conflict of interest when lust is involved?), and the quirky daughter Larry adopted, Carol Anne Keane (Jayma Mays, who proves that “perky” is still a quality found in young actresses), who becomes a possible love interest for Segal as well as a source of information for him on the case. But too much of the “humor” is either unpleasantly raunchy or forced, and quite frankly Jerry Orbach’s line on a Law and Order rerun I also watched last night (a crazy Black defendant has just been arrested, the cops ask him his name, he says Regis Philbin and Orbach dead-pans, “Is that your final answer?”) was funnier that both debut episodes of Trial & Error.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Doctor Who: “The Reign of Terror” (BBC-TV, 1964)

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

Our “feature” last night was one of the discs I’d just bought at Costco: a Doctor Who six-part serial from the end of the show’s very first season in 1963, featuring the original Doctor, William Hartnell. Years ago Charles and I watched a 1943 “B” from the British branch of Warner Bros., The Dark Tower, and he recognized Hartnell as the first star of Doctor Who 20 years later (these episodes ran in 1964). There’s some confusion as to the actual name of the character: lists him as “Doctor Who” and so do the current credits (which almost certainly were reshot for this video release), but originally the name was just “The Doctor” and the title came from another character asking, “The Doctor? Doctor who?” These shows were a six-part serial originally shown episodically but compiled here into a continuous presentation called The Reign of Terror, and since the BBC then routinely erased the videotapes of their lighter programs (six of the original 45 episodes of Monty Python are lost and we owe the existence of the other 39 only to some anonymous bureaucrat at the BBC who said, “Save those. We may be able to do something with them in the States”) the only surviving sources for these were kinescopes sent to a TV station in Cyprus and one print of the final episode of the run that a British collector donated back to the BBC in the 1980’s.

The Cyprus shows were missing episodes four and five — apparently these were destroyed as collateral damage from the 1974 war between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus’s future and Turkey’s invasion after a Greek Cypriot president unilaterally declared that he was merging Cyprus with Greece — but the soundtracks survived, I assume because BBC was simultaneously broadcasting the shows on radio and audiotapes are considerably less expensive as well as less bulky and easier to store than videotapes. BBC’s home video department filled in the missing episodes by creating crudely animated films of the action to go with the original soundtracks. The Reign of Terror reflects the uncertainty during the early years of Doctor Who as to just what the show was about and what its purpose was; apparently the concept was originally sold to the BBC as an educational series, in which The Doctor and his entourage — his granddaughter Susan Foreman (Carol Anne Ford) and his friends Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) — end up in France in 1794 at the height of Maximilien Robespierre’s (a quite effective villain performance by Keith Anderson) power and the Reign of Terror. The film mixes real-life characters like Robespierre; Paul Barras (John Law), the revolutionary activist who engineered Robespierre’s own downfall and guillotining; and Napoleon Bonaparte (Tony Wall), who ultimately emerged from the mess with virtually absolute power; with a series of invented one, including the jailer at the Conciergerie prison where guillotine victims were held pending execution (I joked that concierges can be pretty obnoxious people but I didn’t realize there was an entire prison for them), a group of moderates attempting to get people out of France before the Terror could catch up with them, one member of the group who’s really a spy for the Revolution, and Lemaître (James Cairncross), who’s really James Stirling, the British agent our four principals have been looking for the entire serial

It’s not particularly compelling drama and, as one reviewer noted, it’s not particularly effective as education either — he said he didn’t know enough about the relevant history to make heads or tails of the plot — but it’s interesting for its historical importance and also for the performance of William Hartnell as the Doctor. He bears a surprising resemblance to Quentin Crisp — the same plastered-down long white hair and the same prissy, queeny mannerisms — and his performance is appealing in a dorky way even though, like a lot of British actors over the years, he was also doing stage work while he was making the film and therefore he was unavailable for a scene in which the Doctor had to walk down a long line of poplar trees to indicate that, though the show was shot in England, it was set in France. They had a hard time finding a poplar-lined road in England — they finally found it outside Denham — and when the crew was available Hartnell wasn’t, so actor Brian Proudfoot, filmed with his back to the camera, doubled as the Doctor. Proudfoot had been so anxious about getting it right that he followed Hartnell around the studio to make sure he could duplicate the walk — and Hartnell, not surprisingly, was annoyed. This information came from a making-of documentary filmed in 2012 and included with the DVD; it featured interviews with the two surviving principals, William Russell and Carol Anne Ford, as well as production assistant Timothy Combe — who recalled that the show’s director, Henric Hersch, was a Hungarian émigré with a virtually incomprehensible accent who’d previously directed only on stage and was therefore totally thrown by the mechanics of three-camera TV taping, to the point where he had a nervous breakdown and collapsed on set. Combe couldn’t recall who filled in for him until he was ready to work again — he named two other Doctor Who directors who might have and also said he did a lot of the “camera scripting” himself (and it was valuable training for when he became a director later). It’s an interesting period piece but also a rather dull one, and it’s not hard to see why in its later years Doctor Who abandoned its “educational” pretensions and focused exclusively on science-fiction stories instead of slices of real-life Earth history!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Flying Saucer (Colony Productions, Inc., 1950)

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

Recently I got a three-DVD boxed set called Watch the Skies! from Image Entertainment via, which had ended up on my “save for later” list because I hadn’t been sure Charles and I would be able to make the Golden Hill “Vintage Sci-Fi” screening at which one of the items in the box, Stranger from Venus, was shown. As things turned out we did see that screening, so I decided last night to make our movie program for the evening from the other two films in the box, The Flying Saucer (1950) and The Cosmic Man (1959). There are two feature films called The Flying Saucer listed on, one from the U.S. in 1950 and one from Italy in 1964 (directed by Tinto Brass, who later made Caligula — the film which became infamous because writer Gore Vidal had his name taken off the credits because of what Brass did to his script, and then Brass had his name taken off the credits because of what the producer, Penthouse magazine founder Bob Guccione, did to his cut, and starring such luminaries of Italian cinema as Alberto Sordi, Monica Vitti — Antonioni’s favorite actress — and Silvana Mangano), but the one we have here is the 1950 version. It was produced, directed and written by its star, Mikel Conrad (so that horribly pretentious spelling of the first name “Michael” is nothing new!), which means that Conrad the actor had no one but himself to blame for the silly lines Conrad the writer made him say and the equally silly things Conrad the director made him do. (That may not be quite accurate since Conrad the writer only came up with the original story and someone else, Howard Irving Young, is credited with “screen adaptation,” but still the original “inspiration,” if you can call it that, was Conrad’s.)

The film was obviously an exploitation piece aimed at grabbing a then-current title and making a quick buck off it; New York playboy and “sportsman” Mike Trent (Mikel Conrad, as if you couldn’t guess) is summoned to Washington, D.C. by Col. Marikoff (Lester Sharpe, a character actor Charles and I remembered seeing even though we couldn’t recall his name) and told to go on a mission to Alaska, where he grew up, to investigate reports that a flying saucer has landed and forestall the efforts of Russian agents to capture the saucer and learn its technology so they can build their own fleet of flying saucers and use them to A-bomb the U.S. Mike is reluctant to go back to his home state until he’s told that he’s going to be traveling as a patient suffering from nervous exhaustion and going to the Alaskan countryside with a nurse to take care of him. He suddenly changes his mind when he gets a look at the “nurse,” Vee Langley (Pat Garrison), and while she’s not that drop-dead gorgeous she’s easy enough on the eyes he immediately decides to take the trip with her in hopes of adding her ass to his trophy wall. Alas, he’s bored silly by the trip, which seems to be a flight to Seattle followed by a lo-o-o-o-ong boat journey up the west coast of Canada until they finally get to Juneau — though producer Conrad must have acquired every frame of stock footage of rural Alaska he could find because the vistas they see, including the glaciers, are really spectacular and in fact the most entertaining parts of the film. (Through much of it we wish the silly people in front of the process screens would get out of the way and just let us enjoy looking at all that spectacular Alaskan scenery.)

Mike and Vee finally make it to their destination, the ranch house where he grew up, and which he’s not allowed to leave even though his real desire is to high-tail it back to Juneau so he can experience at least something of a night life as well as getting his ashes hauled with someone, since Vee isn’t about to put out for him. He also wants to look up an old friend named Matt Mitchell (Frank Darien, playing essentially a Walter Brennan role), and at one point Mike slips his keeper and maneuvers his motorboat across the late to Juneau, where he does a pub crawl that seems to last forever and shows us more about Juneau’s bar scene c. 1950 than we really wanted to know. Eventually he and Mike do hook up, and it turns out Mike has been renting his boat to those nasty Russian spies so they can look for the flying saucer. Just about everyone in the cast other than Mike and Vee seems to be on the Russians’ payroll, including their manservant at the ranch, Hans (Hantz von Teuffen), who gives himself away to the audience, if not to the other characters, through one scene in which he’s shown lurking at the door and trying to listen to the conversation going on behind it. (Later, when he offered the characters breakfast, Charles joked that he’d give himself away by serving Russian breakfast foods: kasha, blinis, symiki.) In about the film’s only legitimate surprise, the flying saucer (which we barely see — just a couple of shots of it zooming across the screen and a longer sequence showing it at rest) turns out to be not a craft from outer space but an advanced experimental aircraft developed by scientist Dr. Carl Lawton (Roy Engel), whose reclusive existence in upstate Alaska makes Rotwang from Metropolis look like a Rotarian by comparison — though Lawton did venture forth from his arctic redoubt long enough to try to sell the craft to a Seattle-based airplane manufacturer, who turned it down. Of course Lawton’s assistant Turner (Denver Pyle) is also a Russian spy, ready to turn the saucer over to the Russkies for $1 million in cash and the thrill of striking a blow for Communism, and there are a number of scenes in which Mike and Vee stand up for the U.S. and seem to be facing insurmountable odds until a glacier ex machina buries all the dirty Russkies and allow Mike, Vee and Lawton to escape. The saucer is destroyed in the process when Turner tries to steal it and Lawton destroys it in mid-air by blowing up a bomb he concealed in it as a booby trap, but Lawton still has his memory and, presumably, the saucer plans so he can always build a new one.

 The Flying Saucer could have been, if not a masterpiece, at least a reasonably good movie even with the budget (or lack of budget) they had, but what Conrad came up with is a film too dull to be entertaining on its own merits and not bad enough to work as camp (though one could imagine the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew doing a good job on it). That interminable drunk scene, complete with Mike being cruised by a loose woman named Nanette (Virginia Hewitt) — and of course attracting a jealous response from Vee when she sees them together — which made me wonder why the bar Mike was in at the moment felt he needed a B-girl when he was already getting plastered and thereby making them money without one — is the low point and about the only downright offensive sequence in a film that otherwise is just stupefyingly dull. One imdb reviewer said “the film plays largely as if it were funded by the Alaska Board of Tourism — ENDLESS tableaux of glaciers, and wildlife, and rivers, and more glaciers, but precious little action, and even less in the way of FX” — but in fact the footage provided by the Alaska Board of Tourism, or whoever shot it in the first place, is far more entertaining than the human antics going on in front of it! The biggest enigmas surrounding The Flying Saucer are over which companies were involved in making it: the extant print credits the production to “Colony Pictures, Inc” (“Before they declared their independence,” I joked), says the studio work was done at Hal Roach Studios (and the art director, Charles Hall, was employed by Roach after he reached mandatory retirement age at Universal), but there are a couple of sets we recognized from previous Universal films (the abandoned mine where the final shootout took place in Ken Maynard’s 1934 Western Smoking Guns and the cavern leading up to the sulfur pit from the endings of Son of Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff) and the final “The End” credit (I miss “The End” credits!) is in the typeface used for decades by Paramount, while the original theatrical trailer (included on the DVD as a bonus item) is from Realart Pictures, Universal’s usual reissue label!