Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Craft (Columbia Pictures, Red Wagon Entertainment, 1996)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I was in Hillcrest last night to see a movie being screened by FilmOut San Diego, which is ostensibly the Queer film festival organizing group in San Diego (though they announced they’re not having another full-dress festival until 2020) but also do monthly screenings of movies that aren’t necessarily Queer-themed but do have camp value. (I remember one year they announced they were doing a Hallowe’en-themed horror festival but it was all schlock from the 1970’s — I remember the lead-off movie was Suspiria — and it occurred to me that if I were the head of a Queer film group doing a horror festival the films I would lead off with would be The Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula’s Daughter.) The film they showed last night was a 1996 movie called The Craft, directed by Andrew Fleming from a script he co-wrote with Peter Filardi and starring Robin Tunney as Sarah Bailey, a high-school girl whose father, who’s raised her first as a single parent and then with a stepmother because her real mom died giving birth to her, has just moved her from San Francisco to Los Angeles and bought them a house that looks like it was built in the 19th century and whose roof leaks so relentlessly in the torrential rains that drench southern California (remember when it actually rained in southern California?) it seems like it hasn’t been fixed since. Naturally, when she shows up for her first day of school, she’s snubbed by virtually everybody — as Dorothy Parker wrote of Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth, if Messrs. Fleming and Filardi had outlined this plot to a friend and said, “Stop me if you’ve heard this before,” a good chunk of this screenplay would never have been written — only she’s embraced by three fellow students, all women and all self-proclaimed witches, who need a fourth member for their coven because they need one person to represent each of the four directions in their spells. 

The would-be witches are Nancy Downs (Fairuza Balk, 11 years after her quite remarkable performance as Dorothy Gale in the 1985 film Return to Oz, a quite good movie that didn’t deserve critical scorn and commercial oblivion even though I haven’t seen it since it was new), Bonnie (Neve Campbell) and the token Black witch, Rochelle (Rachel True). Sarah falls in with this group and goes shopping with them to an occult bookstore and supply shop owned by Lirio (Assumpta Serna), who’s sort of the Edward Van Sloan of this tale: dispensing not only supplies but also wisdom, warning the girls that whatever energy they put out, good or bad, will be returned to them three-fold. Sarah also finds herself attracted to good-natured but typically dumb jock Chris Hooker (Skeet Ulrich, whose baby face is hauntingly beautiful in his close-ups but the rest of his body seems like an afterthought) and puts a love spell on him — only she overdoes it, with the result that he hangs around her like the proverbial puppy dog, calls her at 3 a.m., shows up outside her home and ultimately takes her for a drive in the Hollywood Hills, whereupon he parks and tries to rape her. If Charles had been there during the screening I would have turned to him and joked, “36 years from now he’ll make it onto the Supreme Court,” but instead Nancy (who quickly emerges as the leader of the witch pack and the most thoroughly evil of the three) exacts revenge on Sarah’s behalf by going to a party Chris is throwing, assuming Sarah’s appearance, seducing Chris, then revealing her real self and pushing him out a second-floor window to his death. 

The Not-So-Fantastic-Four also take their revenge on Laura Lizzie (Christine Taylor), who’s sabotaged Rochelle’s attempts to make it onto the diving team because “I don’t like negroids,” by casting a spell on her to make her hair fall out. Then the four assemble on a beach with a book called Invocation of the Spirit, which is supposed to enable them to conjure up a being of incredible power who’s represented by giant lightning flashes sweeping across the sky; the being incarnates inside Nancy and makes her even more powerful and malevolent. Eventually Sarah gets the proverbial cold feet about the nasty, lethal shenanigans Nancy and the others are pulling. She wants out of the coven but is told that “in the old days” witches who wanted out of their covens were killed. In the film’s climax, Sarah’s home is beset by an invasion of snakes (earlier a homeless guy with a pet snake had tormented her and the other three girls had cast a spell on him so he’d be run over by a car; Nancy had also shown off her power to turn the red traffic lights green so they’d never have to stop when they were out in her car), worms, frogs and whatever annoying beasties the special-effects departments of Columbia Pictures and their co-producers, Red Wagon Entertainment, could come up with, and she also sees a TV news report that a plane containing her dad, stepmother and a whole bunch of other people flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco has crashed with no survivors. Sarah escapes by conjuring up the spirit of her dead mother, who was a “natural witch” and, unbeknownst to Sarah until this point, passed on her powers to Sarah — with the result that Sarah has full witch mojo while the other three girls lose their powers, and Bonnie and Rochelle have to continue their high-school careers as normal girls while Nancy is shown, in the film’s final scene, in an isolation cell in a mental institution, tied down to her bed and injected with tranquilizers while babbling about how she has the ability to fly. 

It was ironic to watch this movie the day after seeing Drop Dead Fred because for the second night in a row I was seeing a 1990’s film which had a great central concept and did disappointingly little with it — out of all the directions they could have taken their story, Fleming and Filardi went for the most obvious ones and I couldn’t help but think of the Twilight movies and Stephenie Meyers’ relative skill in doing a similar theme (a student newly arrived at a new school encounters supernatural powers and connects with them) and doing it far better, with much more emotional resonance. One surprise from the imdb.com page on The Craft is that Fairuza Balk is a practicing Wiccan and appointed herself a consultant to the filmmakers — she even briefly owned the real-life occult store on which Lirio’s business is based — and put them in touch with Wiccans who could answer questions about “the craft” that she couldn’t. But this film takes such a stereotypically negative view of witches and “the craft” that the revelation that one of its stars is a real-life Wiccan is like Paul Robeson starring as Little Black Sambo. The Craft is yet another bad (or at best mediocre) movie that could have been great, and it occurred to me that not only did its basic situation seem like the sort of thing that makes it onto Lifetime, but a modern-day Lifetime version (especially if Christine Conradt wrote it) might even be better!

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Montserrat Caballé: Queen’s Fund Recital, Madrid, 1981 (Spanish TV/VAI)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I had a couple of videos I had in mind for last night’s program, and the first was a VAI release of a 1981 concert in Madrid by the great Spanish-born soprano Montserrat Caballé with pianist Miguel Zanetti. Caballé was in great form in a program that didn’t make any major demands on her, one of those this-and-that song recitals that worked up chronologically through the history of music — it began with Baroque selections like an aria from the oratorio Juditha Triumphans by Vivaldi, the familiar “Caro mio ben” by Giovanni and/or Tommaso Giordani (misspelled “Giordano” on the chyron) and an aria from the opera Adriano in Siria by Galuppi; then it moved into the Classical era with a lovely aria from the French version of Gluck’s Armide and a surprisingly good piece by Antonio Salieri, the composer Peter Shaffer (and Alexander Pushkin before him!) cast as Mozart’s murder, literally and figuratively, from an opera called Les Danaïdes. It’s time to rehabilitate Salieri from all the Amadeus calumnies: though hardly at Mozart’s level he was a major composer, and this aria, “Où suis-je?,” was excellent even though during the long instrumental introduction I missed hearing the orchestra that would have originally accompanied it. Zanetti was a perfectly fine pianist (though on the first few Baroque selections I found myself wishing he were playing harpsichord!) but he’s just one person and Salieri’s music pretty clearly demanded the weight and power of a full orchestra. The concert then moved into slightly more familiar territory, though even so it was clear Caballé and Zanetti were programming towards the obscure: an aria from Bellini’s little-known opera Bianca è Fernando and another from the Temistocle opera by the relatively unknown composer Pacini. (A while back I heard an Opera Depot release of a Temistocle opera by Johann Christian Bach, one of Johann Sebastian’s sons — J. S. Bach had 20 children and 12 of them grew up to become professional musicians — and was mightily impressed; Mozart named J. C. Bach as one of his key influences, and it showed. But Pacini was hardly in the same league as a composer as Bach Söhn.)

Then Caballé ended up in the late 19th/early 20th centuries with five songs by Ravel, by far the most major “name” among the composers represented: Three Hebrew Songs and one-offs (including a parody song in German) and two by Bizet, before she headed into three Spanish songs as her encores. The concert was given in 1981 at the Teatro Real in Madrid, and not only was the venue called the “Royal Theater” but King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia (dressed in normal clothes — monarchs, even relatively powerless constitutional ones, don’t go about in fur-trimmed robes anymore) were in attendance and it was a benefit for her charitable fund. Charles and I were watching this as an envoi to the recently departed Caballé, and it worked as such even though there was a sameness to the material — almost all of it in slow or medium tempi, evoking a mood of reverie and not offering Caballé much chance for coloratura fireworks or the kind of haunting, floating high-register pianissimi that were one of her vocal trademarks. I had had this disc in the backlog for some time mainly because when Charles and I watched the companion Caballé disc in VAI’s catalog — two Spanish telecasts, a 1971 concert performance of the first act of Bellini’s Norma and another televised recital with Zanetti in 1979 — the Norma performance had been subtitled but the songs hadn’t been. They weren’t this time around, either, which left Charles and I pretty much at sea over what the songs were about — and Caballé’s diction, though considerably better than Joan Sutherland’s (I remember on the previous VAI disc Caballé sang a song in English, “Oh, had I Jubal’s lyre,” and she sang it more clearly than Sutherland had even though Caballé, unlike Sutherland, did not come from an English-speaking country), wasn’t that great shakes and Charles confessed he sometimes had trouble telling whether she was singing in Italian or Spanish.

Drop Dead Fred (PolyGram Films, Working Title, New Line Cinema, Artisan Entertainment, 1991)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Caballé recital we moved, as Charles joked, from the sublime to the ridiculous: a 1991 comedy called Drop Dead Fred which received legendarily bad reviews (Gene Siskel called it the worst movie of its year) even though it didn’t do all that badly at the box office (it made $43,878,334 on an estimated production cost of $6,788,000), and according to Charles — who’d seen it at the time — it pretty much killed the potentially hot careers of two of its male leads, Rik Mayall and Ron Eldard. The gimmick is that Drop Dead Fred (Rik Mayall) was the imaginary friend created by eight-year-old Elizabeth “Lizzie” Cronin (Ashley Peldon) to provide an outlet for the traumas she went through being raised by her dragon-lady mother Polly (Marsha Mason in a performance that steals the movie). The opening shows Polly reading the story of Cinderella to her daughter, who asks how mom knows Cinderella and the Prince lives happily ever after. “Because, she was a good little girl,” mom replies. “If she would have been naughty, the Prince would have run away.” “What a pile of shit,” Lizzie fires back — an expletive which pretty much sets the tone for the entire movie. We then get a title that reads, “21 Years Later,” and 21 years later Lizzie is played by the film’s star, Phoebe Cates. She’s having the Mother of All Bad Days: first her husband Charles (a marvelously slimy performance by the unexpectedly handsome, especially given what he looked like in his other roles, Tim Matheson) announces he’s leaving her for another woman named Annabelle; then, as she parks her car to make a call at a pay phone (which itself dates this movie!) a guy reaches through the open window of her car and steals her purse. Then another guy gets into her car and drives off with it. Lizzie makes it to her job as a court reporter but she’s so discombobulated by the events of her day so far she can’t concentrate on her work and the judge calls her to his bench and fires her on the spot. On her way out the door the one good thing that happens to her all day arrives in the form of Mickey Bunce (Ron Eldard), who was a playmate of hers when they were both kids before he moved away. When Lizzie returns to the apartment she was sharing with Charles, mother shows up and insists that she move in with her — which she does.

Once she’s back at mom’s home Drop Dead Fred, her childhood imaginary friend, returns — only he’s not totally imaginary. He’s much like the ghosts in a lot of filmed ghost stories: though Lizzie is the only one that can see him, he can manipulate physical objects and destroy things — for which Lizzie is, of course, blamed. Drop Dead Fred’s first act when he invades the Cronin home is to cover his feet with dog poop and get it all over Polly’s pristine, newly shampooed white carpet as well as her white furniture. That pretty much sets the tone for the whole movie, which could have been great fun if only Drop Dead Fred weren’t so relentlessly obnoxious and destructive. At one point, Lizzie gets away from mom by becoming the house guest of her friend Janie (Carrie Fisher in a nice small role) on her paddle-wheeled houseboat, only Fred takes over the controls and, pretending to be a pirate, ends up sinking the houseboat. Then Mickey actually gets Lizzie to go on a lunch date with him at an Italian restaurant — only Fred screws that up for her by throwing food off her table at the other customers, and Mickey gets into the groove by throwing food himself and gets them both thrown out. In the end Fred arranges for Lizzie to crash Charles’ wine-tasting party, where she directly confronts Annabelle (Bridget Fonda, who apparently took the role as a favor to her friend Phoebe Cates) and manages at least briefly to seduce Charles back — only she catches him making a secret phone call to Annabelle; obviously Charles wants his wife and his mistress too. Finally there’s an odd fantasy sequence in which Drop Dead Fred departs Lizzie’s life and she hooks up with Mickey, who had just gone through a divorce and has custody of his own eight-year-old daughter — although Drop Dead Fred reappears in Lizzie’s life by becoming the imaginary friend of Mickey’s daughter and covering her in chocolate, which Mickey finds repulsive even though he should be relieved that it is chocolate, not mud or dog shit.

Drop Dead Fred could have been a deeper, richer movie if one of the two actors who was obviously “right” for the role of Fred, Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, had played him (according to an imdb.com “Trivia” poster, Williams was actually offered the role but turned it down to play the grown-up and boring Peter Pan in Steven Spielberg’s Hook); instead Rik Mayall portrays the character as so relentlessly obnoxious one feels sorry for Lizzie that her imagination couldn’t conjure up a nicer and more genuinely helpful make-believe friend instead. Oh, and did I mention that at one point Polly takes her daughter Lizzie to a psychiatrist who specializes in relieving kids of their make-believe friends — or that the coming-together of Drop Dead Fred with the other kids’ imaginary friends is actually one of the funniest and most charming parts of the film? I can see why Drop Dead Fred got the derisive reviews it did and why a number of distributors passed on it before Roger Corman’s New Line Cinema took it on, but as it stands it’s an uneven movie with moments of genuine wit and humor mixed in with appalling bits of gross-out “comedy” (one of Fred’s nastier habits is picking his nose and depositing the residue on other people), and one feels sorry for the director, Ate de Jong (which sounds like something on a Chinese menu!), trying to get a coherent film out of a committee-written script (Elizabeth Livingston, story; Carlos Davis and Anthony Fingleton, screenplay) that veers off in too many directions and also involves Fred in way too many awful, destructive deeds to make him the tragicomic figure he could have been in better surer hands both in front of and behind the camera.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Terror in the Woods (Swirl Films, ThinkFactory Media, Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Lifetime “premiere” was the rather generically titled Terror in the Woods, which turned out to be a good deal better than it had seemed from the previews. The central characters are two girls who’ve just entered middle school, Caitlin (Sophie Grace) and Rachel (Ella West Jerrier), who form a fast friendship based on their mutual interest in fantasy stories in general — Caitlin walks around in an odd costume with a skeleton design in front and wings and a tail in back that are supposed to make her look like a dragon — and in particular an Internet meme called “The Suzerain,” a mysterious hominoid creature who lives in the woods near their home in Atlanta, Georgia and who seems to be a mashup of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and the witch in “Hansel and Gretel.” He’s tall, he has normal arms but also tentacle-like growths coming out of his head, and he promises kids he’ll take them to live with him in his spectacular palace but he’s really going to eat them. He also threatens to kill the kids’ parents unless they offer him blood sacrifices. Caitlin and Rachel spend an awful lot of time watching homemade Internet videos by other kids their age or slightly older who claim actually to have seen “The Suzerain” — one such video is even prefaced by one of its makers warning the viewer that if you value your sanity, you won’t keep watching (which of course just piques the curiosity of the intended audience!). Since this was Lifetime, I had thought the titular terror in the woods would come from a reclusive child molester who had created “The Suzerain” and put the character on line to lure kids to join him in the woods, where he would molest and kill them — a more prosaic but still loathsome form of evil — but Charles recognized the film’s basis in a true story. In 2014 two 12-year-old girls in Waukesha, Wisconsin were arrested for stabbing and nearly killing a classmate on the basis that they needed to make a blood sacrifice to “Slender Man,” a spirit in the local woods whom they believed (like Caitlin and Rachel in the film) would kill their parents if they did not kill someone else for him.

“Slender Man” was an online character created by a man named Eric Knudsen in 2012 and posted to a Web form called “Something Awful.” The character went viral and eventually even found its way into several films. Like more organically derived folk-tale characters, Slender Man went through various incarnations and descriptions as people logged on to the Web site and wrote their own variations, which they reposted on their own sites — though the Wikipedia page on Slender Man describes Knudsen’s attempt to control the character by copyrighting it and licensing the media rights to a third party he has not named publicly, who arranged for Sony Pictures to make a movie, released in August 2018, that from the online descriptions I’ve seen attempts to make him another Mike Myers/Freddie Kruger instrument of wanton destruction and murder. Charles got a lot more interested in this movie once he recognized its real-life derivation, and the film turned out to be an odd combination of vividly imaginative moviemaking and demented silliness. Director D. J. Viola (working from a script by a writer whose name I vaguely recall as “Amber Brown” but isn’t listed yet on the film’s imdb.com page) showed he’s seen the Val Lewton masterworks and copied from them — there are a lot of the famous “bus” sound effects, in which both characters and audience are startled by sounds that seem scary at first but turn out to be innocuous — and s/he has an excellent command of Gothic atmosphere that makes their plain suburban neighborhood seem like it houses a steaming cauldron of terror underneath. At the same time I think Viola and his writer really overdid the brokenness of the families of both Rachel and Caitlin — Rachel is living with a Black stepfather even though he and her mom have already separated, while Caitlin’s parents are still together but her dad, Nathan (Drew Powell) is mentally ill, unable to work and takes enough psychotropic medications he needs one of those weekly dose trays to sort them all. At one point the principal of the middle school — who, like so many of Lifetime’s avuncular authority figures, is African-American — suggests that the two girls visit the school’s psychotherapist, but Caitlin’s and Rachel’s moms both decline and the implication is that Caitlin has inherited her father’s insanity (not that old chestnut again!).

The girl they target for their blood sacrifice to the Suzerain is Emily (Skylar Morgan Jones), who’s intelligent enough to realize the Suzerain doesn’t really exist but is clueless enough to walk into the woods with her two murderous classmates — the gimmick is that back in grade school Emily was Caitlin’s best friend until she dumped her for Rachel — and the attempted murder is shown surprisingly explicitly for basic cable. Eventually Emily is rescued by a passer-by in the woods and the cops bust both Caitlin and Rachel, though their fates are kept ambiguous — in the real-life case the girls were found mentally incompetent to stand trial, and there’s a hint of that in the final scene of the film, in which Caitlin, incarcerated in a mental hospital, has festooned her walls with extravagant Gothic drawings of the Suzerain and his lair in the forest. Terror in the Woods — an awfully generic title for such a wild story — is that frustrating sort of mediocre movie in which we sense a potentially great movie lurking under the surface and occasionally trying to break through, though the kids who play Caitlin and Rachel deliver superb and absolutely believable performances, and the whole story (and its real-life counterpart) raises issues the film doesn’t really address of how much responsibility the creators of a story, in print, on film or online, bear for the crimes committed by people who buy into the fictional universe and actually do real-life dirty deeds based on it. Certainly the way the “Suzerain” videos are constructed seem like they’re begging their young, impressionable viewers to commit antisocial acts to appease this nonexistent deity. Of course, Charles, being Charles, couldn’t help but joke after the movie that we were going to be visited by a mysterious “Quesadilla Man” who would make us do bad things!

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Call Me by Your Name (RT Features, Frenesy Film Company, Cinéfactures, Sony Pictures “Classics," 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Call Me by Your Name, a Queer-themed movie that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017 and got scheduled for the San Diego Italian Film Festival in Balboa Park after it had already made the rounds of a theatrical release from “Sony Pictures Classics” (a name Charles and I both find oxymoronic because how can a new movie, or a new anything, get instantly acclaimed as a “classic”?) and a DVD release before the Italian Film Festival organizers scheduled it as their bow to inclusion of the “LGBT Community.” (I find that set of initials to describe us even more repulsive when it’s actually spoken out loud in person than when I see it in print; I want to scream out, “I’m a person, not a fucking sandwich!”) For me, Call Me by Your Name turned out to be another Brokeback Mountain, another movie that had been acclaimed by virtually all the opinion-makers, Queer or straight, who wrote about it as the great Queer screen love story and which I found myself not liking despite some admirable qualities. Call Me by Your Name began life as a 1987 novel by André Aciman about a summer romance between Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), 17-year-old son of a character identified only as “Mr. Perlman” (Michael Stuhlberg) and his wife Annella (Amira Casar), and Oliver (Armie Hammer), identified in the official Sony synopsis as 24 but looking about a decade older than that on screen (Hammer was 31 when he made this), a visiting graduate student from the U.S. who’s joining Mr. Perlman on an anthropological study of ancient Greek ruins in northern Italy in general and the homoerotic works of the sculptor Praxiteles (most of whose originals are lost and all we have to judge them by are Roman copies) in particular. The director is Luca Guadagnino, and he and writer James Ivory (the survivor of the Merchant-Ivory production team, notorious for slow-moving, overly literary romances — though their one Gay-themed film, Maurice, was considerably better than this one!) decided to move the time of the story four years earlier, to 1983, so they wouldn’t have to deal with the subject of AIDS and how it not only decimated the Gay male community but added a whole new set of traumas for males dealing with homoerotic feelings to go through on their way to deciding whether or not to come out and definitively identify as Gay. One thing I like about this story is that, like Brokeback Mountain, it takes a non-essentialist, non-biologically determined view of sexual orientation: Oliver has an off-and-on relationship with a woman back home in the U.S. and Elio has affairs going with at least two women, an Italian girl named Mafalda (Vanda Capricio) and a French girl named Marcia (Esther Garral) — though I didn’t realize she was supposed to be French until I heard her say “pourquoi” (“why”) instead of “perché.” 

But the biggest thing I didn’t like about Call Me by Your Name is I really, really, really, really didn’t like the character Armie Hammer was playing. For the first half-hour of this 129-minute movie (about half an hour too long for its own good) I was reading him as a sexual predator, not only cruising the local womenfolk (there’s a scene at a dance in which Oliver zeroes in on Mafalda after Elio stops dancing with her and starts dancing with Marcia instead) but carrying on a calculated seduction of Elio, including putting his hand on Elio’s shoulder, ostensibly to give him an on-the-spot mini-massage during a pickup volleyball game but … well, we know what he really wants. Later Guadagnino and Ivory try to turn the tables on us, having Oliver say he doesn’t want to be “bad” and having Elio grope Oliver instead of the other way around, though this lame attempt to make it seem like Oliver is the seducee instead of the seducer had the opposite effect on me — “See? He’s the kind of sexual predator who’s so good at manipulating people, he makes the other person feel like having sex was their idea.” Hammer is also the sort of actor, like Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt (and Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman before them, though Newman grew out of it when he got to be a better actor and didn’t feel he needed to), who periodically stares at the camera as if it were the magic mirror in Snow White and they were waiting to hear it tell them, “You’re the fairest one of all.” (It also doesn’t help that his lust object is supposed to be 17 but looks about 15; maybe with a more butch actor than Timothée Chalamant as Elio it wouldn’t have looked quite as much like Oliver was robbing the cradle.) Though at least one Gay man tweeted about this movie, “Yeah, sure, I’d have liked my first time to be with Armie Hammer,” I didn’t like him not only because he’s playing a predatory character but because he also seems to be the sort of person who’s so convinced of his own attractiveness all he has to do, in a movie or in real life (though I’m speculating about the latter since I don’t know anything about Armie Hammer’s real life), is walk through the scene and know he’s going to turn heads. (In at least two close-ups he looked so self-righteous and sanctimonious he forcefully reminded us that one of his previous roles was the Lone Ranger.) 

Oliver hangs around Elio, reduces him to a quivering mass of sexually aroused jelly, has his wicked way with him a few times, and moves on back to the U.S. — there’s a tearful parting at a train station that looks like just about every other tearful parting at a train station that’s ever been filmed — whereupon he calls six months later (we know it’s six months later not only because we’re told that but because the lake where Elio and Oliver skinny-dipped during their idyll — this movie contains so many shots of the characters in water I wondered if they were going to devolve back into being amphibians — is frozen over and the trees around its shore are covered with snow; we also know that because the characters are celebrating Hanukah — they’re Jewish, remember? — and of course the filmmakers got the arrangement of the candles wrong) and lets Elio and his parents know that he’s married that woman he was seeing off-and-on back in the States. This ending turns it into a sort of Queer version of Madama Butterfly, though at least Aciman and Ivory resisted the temptation to have Elio commit suicide at the end — which may be simply because they wanted to keep him alive for a sequel. (According to an imdb.com “trivia” poster, Aciman’s novel portrays two reunions between Oliver and Elio, one 15 years after the main action and another five years after that, after Elio’s dad has died.) The most charitable reading of Oliver’s actions could be that this scholar of ancient Greek culture is deliberately and consciously reviving the Greek tradition of pederasty — an older man becoming both the intellectual mentor and the physical lover of a younger one, before both the sexual and mentoring relationships end and both parties go back to being straight (scholars of Greek culture are still debating whether the ancient Greeks accepted any sort of homosexuality other than pederasty, and certainly modern Greece is one of the most homophobic countries in the world).  

Call Me by Your Name was an interesting contrast to A Ciambra because it took place in northern Italy (specifically Crema, a beach town just outside Milan) instead of southern Italy (Italians, like Americans, tend to regard their Southerners as déclassé, and Sicilians the worst of all Italians — at least partly because Sicily was the birthplace of the Mafia), and the characters were considerably higher up the class scale. Indeed, one of the things that irritated me about Call Me by Your Name is that all the people in it who spoke English at all spoke it with perfect American accents — maybe we’re supposed to believe Elio learned it from his U.S. expat father, but still the moment Timothée Chalamant opens his mouth his Valley Boy English is so good I can’t believe him as a born-and-bred Italian with an Italian first name. Not only does the fact that both he and Armie Hammer speak not only the same language but the same dialect of it eliminate the culture clash one expects in a story like this, it gets even weirder when, no matter where we’re told the characters are from — Italy, France, Patagonia or wherever — they’re all talking the way you’d expect to hear at an American suburban shopping mall. (This bothered me a lot more than the Frito Bandito accents the cast members of The 33 adopted to convince us they were Latin American even though they were speaking English.) Call Me by Your Name was a disappointing movie, and it’s even more dispiriting to read on its imdb.com page that they’re preparing a sequel — at a time when so many Queer love stories remain to be filmed! As far as I’m concerned, Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education remains far and away the best Queer-themed film of the 21st century, though Call Me by Your Name makes me want to re-watch the 2010 French film Come Undone (Presque Rien), also a summer Gay male love story set in a beach town but with the two lovers closer in age, and which I  recall as having more of a real sense of emotion, and less of a sense of sexual and emotional exploitation, as Call Me by Your Name.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Actually (‘Live’ at San Diego Repertory Theatre, October-November 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I were offered tickets to the latest play at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, Actually, written by Anna Ziegler and directed by Jesca Prudencio, and we went. The Rep lucked out by producing this play when they did because its subject is sex between drunken college students and the repercussions therefrom, specifically the “hearing” Princeton University puts on between the woman student and the male student she’s accusing of raping her in his dorm room after a big party in which both got smashed on keg beer and stronger alcoholic beverages from a flask she was carrying around to be cool. The Rep outfitted their lobby with an art exhibit consisting of works mostly by college students revolving around the whole idea of sexual consent and how it applies to people in real-world situations — though most of the paintings were pretty grim and just reinforced the play’s depiction of a world in which sex is seen not as liberating, but as a ritual men enforce on women and women have to deal with in some way. It’s also a grim depiction of the extra-legal processes by which universities enforce codes of sexual conduct between students in ways that are far looser, more punitive and less due-process oriented than official legal proceedings. For one thing, there are no judges or juries, just one or more “impartial investigators” who combine the function of police, prosecutors and judges in the real legal system. For another, the standard of proof required to find a student guilty of sexual assault is a mere “preponderance of evidence” — i.e., “more likely than not” — which the male student being accused in the play describes as a feather landing on one side of an otherwise equally balanced and heavily weighted scale. (The last thing that happens in the play, at least in the Rep’s production of it — I haven’t read Ziegler’s script so I don’t know if she specified this ending — is a feather floats down from the rafters to the stage.) Actually is a two-character play in which white freshman Amber Cohen (Emily Shain) and Black freshman Thomas Anthony (DeLeon Dallas) are summoned to a college disciplinary board because Amber told her friend Heather that Thomas raped her after a drunken frat party, and Heather told the residential assistant (RA) of her dorm, who in turn reported the incident to campus authorities, who according to university policy convened a three-person fact-finding committee to hear from both Amber and Thomas and decide whether he did indeed force himself on her against her will. The play’s title comes from the fact that at one point, during a sexual encounter that both parties agree at least began consensually, Amber said, “Actually … ,” which could have been meant as a signal for Thomas to back off and not be so rough with her or as a sign that she wanted the sex to stop even though she didn’t actually say “No.”

The play is obviously timely — Ziegler wrote it in 2017 at the beginnings of the “#MeToo” movement and its basic situation of two people arguing before a group of unseen officials about a sexual experience between them that may or may not have been a sexual assault — couldn’t help but remind audience members (this one, anyway) of the recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing between Supreme Court nominee (and now Justice) Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who said that 36 years ago, when he was 17 and she was 15, he attempted to rape her at a drunken party — especially when Amber complains in a monologue addressed directly to the audience (Ziegler sometimes has the characters re-enacting whatever happened on the night of the party, sometimes has them talking to the panel, and sometimes has them talking to us directly about the experience, and she manages the transitions a lot more seamlessly than other playwrights who’ve used this device) that the people on the supposedly “impartial” panel seemed to have made up their minds already as to what happened and their actual testimony was just a pro forma exercise they had to go through to check off the box that that part of their process had been completed. In other respects the situations are clearly different — notably in that Thomas is being held to account for his actions (whatever they were) soon after the fact instead of 3 ½ decades later. What I found strongest about Actually is the play’s calculated ambiguity — Ziegler doesn’t spell out for us what she thinks happened but leaves us to try to figure out for ourselves whether what happened to Anna constituted consensual sex gone wrong or out-and-out rape. If there’s one thing I didn’t like about the Rep’s challenging production of Actually it’s that they ended it conventionally, with the actors taking bows on stage and the audience applauding and going home, because if ever a show demanded the chance for a post-performance audience discussion, this is it! Indeed, if I were producing the show I’d be tempted to hand the audience ballots at the beginning inviting them to vote on whether Anna was raped or not, and it would be interesting to count the ballots after each performance and see how each audience skewed on the play’s central issue.

Actually seems particularly strong to me in dramatizing what I call “consent” — in quotes. As I’ve watched the #MeToo movement unfold I’ve been struck by the difference between consent and “consent” — between sex between two people who both genuinely want the experience for the pleasures (physical, emotional, or both) it provides and situations in which one person psychologically forces the other to have sex and the other person “consents” because at that moment it’s easier to say yes and go through with it than to say no and try to fight the other person off. (I think that the sexual encounter between Donald Trump and Stephanie “Stormy Daniels” Clifford, as she described it on 60 Minutes, is an example of what I call in-quotes “consent” — as a socially and sexually experienced woman, she realized she’d made a mistake she shouldn’t have, letting a sexually exploitative man get her alone with him in a hotel room with the lure of a role on a TV show, and she felt in that moment she’d have an easier time getting out of the situation by going through with it, having sex with him and getting it over with, than she would have by trying to escape from the room.) I know I’ve pressured other men to have sex with me when they technically “consented” but they really didn’t want to, and I’ve been in situations on the other end of that dynamic as well. (One of the perspectives being Gay gives you on this experience is to be on both ends of the power dynamic that among straight people usually traps men on the dominant side and women on the submissive.) Actually also reinforces my belief that a lot of the revelations of “#MeToo” complainants are coming from women rerunning the memory tapes of previous experiences in a new and harsher, more revealing light: things they might have accepted as “par for the course” in male-female relations when they happened, they remember now and realize, “Hey! I was sexually assaulted! That wasn’t just innocent horseplay; that was attempted rape!” (That’s what I think the dynamic between Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford was: I’m sure her account of the incident is dead-on accurate to the best of her recollection; I also think that Kavanaugh experienced it at the time as “no big deal,” just him and his friends indulging themselves on a piece of anonymous meat, laughing all the while because they thought of themselves as part of the “elite” and therefore they would never be held to account for anything they did, and he was stunned at this woman coming from that far back in his past throwing his high-school hijinks back at him and calling them “attempted rape.”)

The play’s climax (a bad word choice) occurs when Amber recalls that at one point she left Thomas’s bed and he pulled her back in — which certainly shifts the scales away from consent and towards rape — which he at first insists did not happen and then he retreats into “I was drunk … I don’t remember.” The Rep’s production of Actually is excellent, especially in the casting — Emily Shane is not especially attractive but is personable and cute, as the role requires, and DeLeon Dallas has a kind of heavy-set hunkiness that’s also not conventionally attractive but one would see why a naïve young white girl whose only previous experiences of sex had not been especially pleasant would be drawn to him — especially since even in the post-Obama era there’s still a “forbidden fruit” aura around Black men and there are lingering traces of the stereotype of Black men as uncontrollable sex maniacs who will stick their oversized cocks into anything that will get them off. There’s a major significance, I think, in that out of all the male sexual predators who’ve been exposed in recent years, the one who’s been punished most severely — not only disgraced and fired but actually imprisoned — is Bill Cosby; I’m not denying the justice of the case against him but I do think there’s an element of racism in how he was treated more harshly, I think, than a white man accused of the same conduct would have been. Actually runs through November 4 at the Lyceum Space Theatre in Horton Plaza downtown, and it’s oddly sharing the theatre with a quite different and far campier show, The Addams Family, in the Lyceum Stage — and the merch table for The Addams Family sits oddly side by side with all those dire artworks being exhibited in connection with Actually!

Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Ciambra (Stayback, RT Features, RAI Cinema, Piccadilly Pictures, 2017)

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

Last night’s movie was A Ciambra (“Ciambra” is the name of a small town in southern Italy inhabited mostly by Roma people, better known as Gypsies, and “A” is simply the Italian for “the”), a San Diego Italian Film Festival entry shown at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park and also Italy’s official submission for the 2017 Best Foreign-Language Film Academy Award. The movie was followed by a post-film discussion which revealed a fact about it I hadn’t realized and which profoundly affected my reading of the film: the actors playing the extended family of the film’s central character, 15-year-old Pio (Pio Amato), are in fact his real family: a grandfather who dies during the story, his parents and his six older siblings, some of whom have started having kids of their own. There had been a brief mention in the introduction by several Italian Film Festival officials that the film was “semi-documentary” in character, but I hadn’t realized what that meant until I saw the closing credits and a whole bunch of people with the last name “Amato” were credited with the leading roles. The film has been hailed as ground-breaking in its treatment of Roma people and an attempt to break through the stereotypes surrounding them, but there’s one negative stereotype of the Roma this film totally reinforces: “They’re all crooks.” 

It seems the entire Amato family survives on the income from whatever they can steal and sell on the open market, or collect ransom from the rightful owners (according to an imdb.com “Trivia” poster, the writer-director, Jonas Carpignano, first met the Amatos when Roma people stole a Fiat full of camera equipment from the location of one of his previous productions and he had to pay ransom to get it back), and one wonders whether any of the Roma actually have jobs and attempt to make honest, legal livings. The film was billed as a coming-of-age story for Pio, and also a story of family obligations given that Pio’s older brother Cosimo gets him started and shows him the criminal ropes until he is arrested and sent to prison (in a marvelously ironic scene, when he gets out — he’s given compassionate release to attend his grandfather’s funeral — he tells Pio that the Roma people are treated with respect in prison, unlike the Blacks), whereupon Pio hooks up with a community of African immigrants who are also involved in crime. They’re from various African countries but the one who particularly befriends Pio is Ayiva (Koudous Seibon), who’s from Burkina Faso and seems to be the only person in the movie who genuinely likes Pio and wants to help him. Alas, at the end of the film, once Cosimo gets out, he plans to loot Ayiva’s storeroom of stolen goods and he wants Pio to help him, and Pio has a moral dilemma — stand with my brother or stand with my friend? Of course I was hoping he would tell his brother to go fuck himself and stand with his friend, but the opposite happens and Cosimo tells Pio that by sticking up for his biological family (and for the Roma people in general against an even more oppressed minority of immigrants), he has finally “become a man.” Cosima initiates Pio into manhood by buying him a blow job from a prostitute (when this scene arrived I noted how Federico Fellini seems to have set a permanent template for the depiction of prostitutes in Italian movies), and the film comes to a grim ending. 

One of the odd aspects of A Ciambra is that ethnic Italians are hardly seen: they come in as authority figures (two carabinieri come to the Amato residence looking for copper they’ve stolen from a construction site — a strange sort of crime because it would seem to be hard for crooks to dispose of this stuff and get money for it, though it happens often enough they must have ways to “fence” construction supplies), priests (at least one priest, who officiates at grandfather’s funeral), and one odd character whose connection to the story is pretty ambiguous. He owns a large house in town and Pio works out a plan to steal the security code for his property by pretending to have lost his soccer ball on the premises — “I kicked it over,” he tells the man — and then let himself in and steal whatever he can grab. Only he’s caught, and the owner seems to have some sort of connection with the Amato family because he knows exactly who Pio is and regards his crime as a personal betrayal — so much so that he says he’s going to charge them for everything Pio stole. Shortly after that mysterious assailants burn down the Amatos’ house and the impression I got — and some of the other audience members did, too — was that the homeowner had organized this arson attack as payback. While I was watching A Ciambra I didn’t like it — I had a hard time staying awake through all those scenes of family dysfunction and I found myself invidiously comparing the film to the Brazilian production City of God, a far better depiction of teenage boys living a life of crime because they’re so beaten down by poverty and racial and social oppression they don’t see any alternative — though the post-film discussion made me feel a bit better about it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Apatow Productions/Universal, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles and I the 2008 romantic comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, produced by Judd Apatow, directed by Nicholas Stoller and written by and starring Jason Segel. He plays Peter Bretter, a typical Apatow schlub leading man who’s the composer for a hit TV series called Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime (the show, which we see in some surprisingly sexually explicit clips — the murders its detectives investigate always seem to involve a male victim who had just reached a sexual climax when he was killed, is an obvious parody of both the CSI and Law and Order franchises). For five years he’s been in a live-in but unmarried relationship with, you guessed it, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), the show’s sexy but butch female lead (of course I couldn’t help but compare her to Mariska Hargitay in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit!), only one morning for reasons she at first is ambiguous about Sarah tells him that she’s leaving him. She does this while he’s naked, and at least in the unrated extended cut on the DVD we were watching we get to see him full-frontal (his cock is decently sized but nothing to write home about, which is a pretty good description of the rest of his body as well). Eventually she admits that she’s involved with another man, rock star Aldous Snow (Russell Brand), leader of the band Infant Sorrow which has a penchant for writing banal socially-conscious songs and doing videos of equal pretentiousness, including one that parodies the opening of the Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back in which Snow holds up a sign reading, “Sodomize intolerance.” (But what if intolerance likes being sodomized?) Peter’s scapegrace stepbrother Brian (Bill Hader, who’s rather dorky-looking but still is sexier than Jason Segel!) and Brian’s wife Liz (Liz Cackowski) advise him to cruise the bars and pick up as many women as he can for anonymous, meaningless sex, and despite his general lack of attractiveness (he’s not bad-looking, he’s just not that good-looking either!) and his total lack of seduction skills — he’s the sort of man who flat-out tells a woman he wants to fuck her instead of going through the usual build-up — he actually has a surprising amount of luck in that department. Brian’s next piece of well-meant but dumb advice to Peter is that he take a vacation and get away from everything that reminds him of Sarah Marshall — and instead of doing a ski resort in the Alps, which is Brian’s suggestion, Peter decides to go to Hawai’i.

Unfortunately, he can’t get away from Sarah Marshall there, either: he sees her delivering a commercial for Hawai’ian tourism on the plane going over there, he stays at the same resort she recommended to him years before, and she’s there in person spending an island idyll with Aldous just before his band embarks on an 18-month world tour. (Aldous wants her to join him on the tour as one of what he calls the “infant suckers,” and doesn’t see why she can’t — especially since the network has just canceled Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime. We get the message: like Keith Carradine’s characters in his mid-1970’s films Nashville and Welcome to L.A., he’s the sort of man who uses women like Kleenex.) When he arrives he finds out that the only accommodation available in the resort is the “Kapua Suite,” which is reserved especially for celebrities like Oprah because it costs $6,000 per night and therefore they’re the only ones who can afford it — but the hotel’s desk clerk and social director, Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis), offers it to him at a discount if he agrees to clean it himself. Once writer Segel gets all four of his principals in Hawai’i — is it really going to be that much of a surprise that Peter is attracted to Rachel, or that Segel and Stoller carefully build her up to the point where we feel she’s a much better match for him than Sarah is? — he seems to be going on a checklist to make sure he gets all the typical Hawai’ian elements into his script, including surfing (a guy named Kono gives Peter surfing lessons and Peter is, of course, hapless on a board), luau (a large Hawai’ian who looks like the guy in the Kona beer commercials enlists Peter to help stick the pig that’s going to be the main course — incidentally Kona seems to have had a product placement in this film since the beer the characters drink when they’re not loading up on more exotic alcoholic potables — all except Aldous, who went through a drink-and-drugs crisis seven years earlier and is now working overtime to maintain his sobriety — is one of Kona’s brands) and Hawai’i’s spectacular scenery, including a hill climb and a leap off a cliff into a lagoon which Rachel dares Peter to do. (This is a pretty obvious cop of “Leonard’s Leap” from the 1937 Fred Astaire musical A Damsel in Distress.) While all this is going on Peter is also more-or-less working on his next project, a musical adaptation of Dracula called A Taste for Love which he intends to stage with puppets, and which Rachel encourages him to complete even though Sarah thinks it’s stupid. (They’re both right: eventually Peter stages the show after he realizes the whole concept is so ridiculous the only way to make it work is to turn it into a spoof.)

The film ends much the way you expect it to, with Sarah getting abandoned by her hot rock-star boyfriend and turning to Peter on the rebound — only Peter is so uninterested in her by then he literally can’t get it up with her, and eventually Rachel takes him back and the two fly back to L.A., where he puts on his Dracula musical and she returns to college after having dropped out to live in Hawai’i with her surfer boyfriend (who’s now her surfer ex-boyfriend, though he’s still jealous enough of anyone else she sees he beats them up, Peter included) — we’re never told what she was studying or what sort of career she was preparing for before she dropped out. Forgetting Sarah Marshall is an obvious modern-day attempt to revive 1930’s-style screwball comedy which, like a lot of other such attempts, is hampered by the absence of the kinds of actors needed to make farces like this work. The obvious choice for Jason Segel’s character in the 1930’s would have been Cary Grant, who could do comic exasperation and romantic glamour equally well — he could look like a nerdy ditz throughout an entire movie and then suddenly come on as the epitome of male sexiness in the final reel, and he didn’t have to flash his dick at the audience to do it! That’s another problem with this movie: the greater sexual frankness available to modern-day moviemakers since the Production Code collapsed in the late 1960’s has the down side in that Segel and Stoller don’t have to work as hard as their 1930’s counterparts did to suggest sex in subtle ways. Segel even copies one of the most famous gags from Noël Coward’s play Private Lives — thrown out of the Kapua Suite because Dakota Fanning and her entourage need it, Peter lands another suite that happens to be right next to the one in which Sarah and Aldous are staying. Only instead of just walking between the connected balconies of each room and running into each other there the way Coward’s protagonists did, the broken-up couple, each stationed with their new partner in rooms with only a paper-thin wall between them, hear each other having sex. Peter and Rachel are having a great time; Sarah fakes an orgasm to try to keep up with the competition, but the well-practiced Aldous catches her and knows she’s faking it. There’s also an odd comic-relief couple (yes, this is one of those comedies, like the 1937 Artists and Models, in which the writer thought the comedy needed comic relief!), newlyweds from religiously conservative backgrounds who are having trouble figuring out how to have sex and actually enjoy the experience.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall is an O.K. movie with some inspired dialogue and situations; one gets the impression it could have been better than it was but as it stands it’s a pretty good time-filler even though director Stoller reprised the character of Aldous Snow (once again played by Russell Brand) two years later to better effect in his film Get Him to the Greek, in which Snow has fallen off-the-wagon big-time following the failure of his pretentious concept album African Child (which a reviewer blasted as “the worst thing that’s happened to Africa since apartheid”) and the breakup of his marriage to a supermodel (were they thinking David Bowie and Iman?), and Jason Hill — who appears in Forgetting Sarah Marshall as a bartender at the resort who futilely tries to get Aldous Snow to listen to his demo CD of a new song he wants to sell him (in real life a star like Snow would never listen to a demo he got outside the normal channels for fear of being sued by plagiarism, and a better writer than Jason Segel would have had him use that as an excuse why he hasn’t played it) — as the hapless roadie who has to get Snow to the Greek Theatre for his big comeback concert and, once there, to prompt him on the lyrics to his songs since in his drink- and drug-soaked haze, he’s forgotten them. Get Him to the Greek is a funnier movie than Forgetting Sarah Marshall, largely because the stoned Aldous Snow is a considerably more entertaining character than the sober one we get here. One reason Forgetting Sarah Marshall stuck in my mind even though I hadn’t seen it before and it’s 10 years old is that when it was first released, Universal rented planes to fly skywriting messages like, “I Hate You, Sarah Marshall,” over cities in which it was playing. Women who were actually named Sarah Marshall reported getting phone calls from concerned friends wondering if everything was O.K. with their husbands or boyfriends, and a few of the real-life Sarah Marshalls went to the authorities to see if there was any legal way they could stop Universal from doing these overflights denouncing them. Of course, there wasn’t, and all they could do was reassure their friends that they weren’t going through real-life breakups and those sky-written messages were just a studio’s stupid trick to promote a movie!

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The 33 (Alcon Entertainment, Phoenix Pictures, Dynamo, Warner Bros., 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was The 33, a quite remarkable 2015 movie about the Chilean mine disaster in 2010: 33 miners were trapped thousands of feet below ground in a mountain outside Copiapó, Chile after a mountain that had been continuously mined for gold and copper since 1889 became dangerously unstable and finally collapsed. It took a rescue crew from the Chilean government (which intervened when the mine’s private owner immediately bailed out and denied either responsibility or any resources to help their workers) and some international help 17 days to get a drill through the so-called “Refuge,” a safety enclosure within the mountain to which the miners retreated after the accident, so they could get fresh air, food and water to the trapped men. But that was only the beginning of the rescue: it took nearly two months more before they were able to drill a hole in the mountain large enough actually to evacuate the men. In the meantime the men lived on whatever supplies could be lowered to them through the little hole they had dug, including water and liquid food supplied by NASA (because after 17 days of starvation their stomachs could no longer handle solid food). Teams from three other countries — the U.S., Canada and Brazil — all came to Chile to drill the necessary hole in the mountain through which the men could be brought out, but the Canadian and Brazilian crews bailed out and the U.S. crew hit a snag when a part of their drill bit broke inside the hole and they had to use a powerful magnet to get it out again so they could put on a new bit and keep drilling. (According to an imdb.com “Goofs” contributor, that wasn’t how it really happened: “They did not use a magnet to get the broken drill bit out. In fact they had to manufacture on site what they call a spider drill. It had a open spiral teeth design at the end of the drill, to try to surround the bit. Using the pressure of the down force, the teeth would collapse on itself [sic] and capture the drill bit.”)

Eventually the large hole reached the miners on the 69th day of their captivity, and the Chilean government supplied a rescue capsule called the “Fenix-2” which could bring the miners out again — but only one at a time, and the final suspense was whether the mountain could hold together long enough for the Fenix-2 to get all 33 miners out before it collapsed again or shifted enough to cover up or shrink the hole. There’s a scene in the movie in which the man who emerges as the leader of the 33 trapped miners, Mario Sepúlveda (Antonio Banderas, thoroughly deglamorized and excellent in the role), is reported to have cut a book deal with a publisher for a major advance — and the other 32 naturally resent that he’s going to be the only one to profit from their collective misery. (In fact, the 33 miners cut a deal that they would share equally in the fees for any retelling of their story.) A final title in the film reveals that the mining company was found not guilty of criminal negligence and therefore the miners didn’t get any compensation for their ordeal from the company or the government — which figures. The 33 was directed by Patricia Riggen from a committee-written script — the writing credits list José Rivera for the story and Mikko Alanne, Craig Borten and Michael Thomas for the script, and while he isn’t credited in the film imdb.com lists Hector Tobár as the author of the book on which it was based — and turned out to be an excellent movie that avoided the two traps inherent in filming a story like this: making it too dark and dreary, or going the other way and making it too treacly and sentimental.

The 33 evokes comparison to The Hurt Locker, another film directed by a woman about men in tough, life-threatening circumstances, but whereas Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal didn’t give us any important woman characters, Riggen and her committee of writers created a rich, powerful fabric by alternating between the plight of the miners underground and the encampment their families — including María Segovia (Juliette Binoche), whose younger brother was one of the trapped miners and who survives herself by making empanadas and selling them on the street (in an opening scene she comes upon her brother catching some last bits of sleep before he descends into the mine for his workday, and leaves him two empanadas which he leaves behind), and who becomes the lead spokeswoman for the families once the disaster happens — create above ground to wait for their men to be rescued and to pressure the government to mount a rescue effort. The rescue is ordered by Chilean President Piñera (Bob Gunten), depicted as a cynical old opportunist who doesn’t want to spend the money on a rescue effort but also doesn’t want his government to look bad in the eyes of the world by not trying to save the miners. He sends his minister of mining, Laurence Golborne (Rodrigo Santoro), to supervise the project and assigns him a mining expert, Carlos Mamani (Tenoch Huerta), to run it on the ground. There’s some nice byplay between the crusty old guy and the young whippersnapper over how to do the rescue and in particular how to handle the problem of “diversion,” where because of things in the substrata you can’t see from above the drill goes off course and doesn’t end up where you want it to, though it’s Golborne who hits on the rather obvious idea of compensating for the diversion by drilling in what seems like the “wrong” place, only the diversion will send the drill where it really belongs. The 33 is a great film that works on nearly every level — about the only flaw I found in it were the Frito Bandito accents with which the Chilean characters speak English to establish their “Latin Americanicity” (apparently the DVD offers an option to allow you to watch the film with a Spanish soundtrack), and even that objection faded away as the film continued and I got into the story.

It’s an intrinsically powerful tale but also one that could have become hideously botched in the execution — as the film Deepwater Horizon, also about a major accident in an extraction industry, did — and it’s an unusually successful movie in that it uses a number of major actors (the ones cited above and also Lou Diamond Phillips as the mine foreman — seeing him old gave Charles the same he’s-so-much-older-so-what-does-that-make-me? feeling I’d had watching the 52-year-old Jason Patric in the Lifetime movie The Girl in the Bathtub the night before) but successfully deglamorizes them so they fit into their parts and become part of an ensemble cast instead of sticking out like the usual sore thumbs. One would have thought this film would have been Patricia Riggen’s ticket to a major directorial career — but the film industry, which is a lot less progressive than it likes to pretend, hasn’t given her the big feature-film assignments that would seem to be her due after The 33. Her only subsequent credits are something called Miracles from Heaven (about a mother with a 10-year-old daughter suffering from a fatal disease — according to the synopses on imdb.com it’s another story about a woman pushing the authorities into an incredible rescue attempt), three episodes on the Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series (so once again, as with Kathryn Bigelow, a woman director is forced to “make her bones” with a story about macho males!), a series she’s producing called Presumed Innocent and two TV-movies, Run for Your Life and Surveillance. The 33 evoked comparisons with Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Ace in the Hole (also about a rescue of a man trapped underground, but a much more cynical and depressing film with an unhappy ending — not surprising given who the director and co-writer was) and also the 1954 Left-wing indie Salt of the Earth (notably in the scenes of the women forming a community and confronting the authorities when their men are prevented from doing so) — but on its own merits it’s a fascinating film and a major work that presents a story that would seem to be sure-fire but could have been screwed up in many ways Riggen and her writers avoided (and this is one movie that contradicts my general-field theory of cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers!).

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Girl in the Bathtub (Lighthouse Pictures, Sokolow Media Group, Sony, Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the latest Lifetime “premiere,” a film called The Girl in the Bathtub which Lifetime has been heavily hyping all week with an inventive trailer showing the titular heroine, Julia Law (Caitlin Stacey), in one of those maddeningly vertical videos beloved of smartphone users while her voice-over narration boasts that the day she died this video got 2 million hits online. Yes, that’s right: like the masterpiece Sunset Boulevard and the messterpiece Scared to Death, this is one of those movies that’s narrated from beyond the grave by a central character who’s dead at the outset of the film. The story is framed as an extended set of flashbacks showing, day by day, the last week of this 27-year-old Philadelphia paralegal’s life. It was both written and directed by Karen Moncrieff, who seems on the evidence of this to be a talented filmmaker but also a rather scattered one who, like her heroine, needs to learn to discipline her gifts. It’s supposedly based on a true story, but the only people in it who have the same names as their real-life equivalents are Julia and her boss, defense attorney A. Charles Peruto (played by a middle-aged Jason Patric who looks oddly like John Travolta did at his age — 52 — and for those who remember Jason Patric from his hot-young-man roles in films like The Lost Boys and Rush, apropos of which I wrote that Patric “got his 15 minutes of fame more for dating Julia Roberts briefly than for any of his actual films,” seeing him bigger, heftier and with a more bloated face but still pretty good-looking is going to induce one of those moments in which you realize that the extent to which he’s aged is indicative of the extent to which you have too). Everyone else has their name changed, and according to a Philadelphia Inquirer story blasting the film (http://www2.philly.com/philly/entertainment/television/julia-law-girl-in-the-bathtub-chuck-peruto-philadelphia-doctor-who-20181004.html), one particularly nasty incident in which Julia is slipped a date-rape drug in a bar and raped by a man she later recognizes in a drugstore and humiliates publicly is totally fictional. Julia Law’s actual story, as chronicled months after her 2013 death by Lisa DePaulo in Philadelphia Magazine (DePaulo’s piece is given “in part” based-on credit in the film), gets turned by Moncrieff into a cautionary tale about a 27-year-old woman who’s clearly (as someone once said about self-destructive jazz genius Charlie Parker) burning the candle at both ends and holding a blowtorch to the middle. 

Julia is an alcoholic, a prescription drug abuser and a woman with at least three lovers (not counting the bar guy who date-rapes her). She’s got a bland, boring boyfriend named Paul (Paul Campbell), but she’s also allowed her boss Chuck Peruto to seduce her and she tells us that the real love of her life is Nick (played by Adrian Holmes, the drop-dead gorgeous Black actor whom I first saw in the 2006 TV-movie Cries in the Dark, in which he played a police detective and played him so well I wrote in an imdb.com review that he should have been Christopher Meloni’s replacement when Meloni left Law and Order: Special Victims Unit). We get a couple of blessedly intense soft-core porn scenes between Julia and Nick and a lot of shots of Adrian Holmes’ back in which we get to see his glorious musculature — maybe Jason Patric’s looks have deteriorated over the years but Adrian Holmes’ have definitely not! — and he’s not only by far the most physically attractive man in this movie, he’s also its most talented, authoritative actor and he’s playing the story’s only sympathetic character. Of the three (main) men in Julia’s life, Nick comes off as the only one who truly cares about her and wants to support her in overcoming her addictions — alas, he’s already got a wife, Grace (Kate Isaac), and three children (whom we never see), so our admiration for him and his role in Julia’s life is tempered by the fact that he’s cheating on his wife to be with Julia and he can only get away and be with her when he’s not encumbered by family responsibilities. The story shows Julia not only figuratively but literally being torn apart by the men in her life and her biological family — mom, an older sister and a brother — and on the crucial last weekend of her life she’s been invited to spend her birthday weekend with her relatives and to attend a big party Chuck Peruto is throwing. In the middle of all this we also learn that she’s seeing a psychotherapist and occasionally going to A.A.; at one point she determines to quit drinking once and for all, to the point of pouring out the liquor in all her bottles at home (a scene that’s been a staple of alcoholism movies at least since The Lost Weekend), only the therapist tells her that it’s physically dangerous to go cold-turkey and she says she should have someone with her for her first weekend detoxing. Julia asks Nick, who tells her that he’s busy with his kids that weekend but next weekend he’ll be free to give her all the time she needs. 

But Julia can’t wait that long: instead she gets her therapist to prescribe her benzodiazepine and Valium (that therapist should be reported to the medical board for giving an already addiction-prone patient two highly addictive drugs!). She ends up spending the last Saturday night of her life alone in Chuck Peruto’s beach house, taking the pills to ward off the hallucinations she’s having from alcohol withdrawal and then jumping off the wagon big-time and hitting Chuck’s multiple liquor cabinets because the drugs are making her nervous. She ends up in Chuck’s bathtub — an elaborate Italian antique Chuck tells her he’s never used — where the combination of alcohol and pills causes her to lose consciousness and drown. That’s the single biggest “cheat” of this movie: through the entire film we’re led to believe it’s going to be a murder mystery and the suspense is largely built up on the whodunit premise of which of the creepy people in Julia’s life did her in — but in the end Julia’s death turns out to be accidental, which is what the police ruled it in real life: they investigated Peruto but decided they didn’t have enough evidence to charge him with Julia’s murder, and the movie Peruto complains that the cops are only investigating him because the criminal-justice system has lost so many big cases to him. The Girl in the Bathtub had the potential to be a better movie than it is: if Moncrieff had thrown out Julia’s beyond-the-grave narration we would probably feel more sympathetic towards her because the narration makes her come off as a ditzy Valley Girl messing up her life and throwing us one rationalization after another for doing so. It also struck me that Julia Law as depicted in this film is showing all the signs of classic bipolar disorder, and one wonders why that horribly incompetent therapist never noticed them or even suspected that Julia’s extensive self-medication was due to an underlying mental illness. (One wonders if this was true of the real one as well.) 

It’s a haunting film but also an excessively annoying one that doesn’t really get us that close to What Made Julia Run, and she’s too self-absorbed to become a truly tragic character. The actors basically do the best they can with what they’re given: Caitlin Stasey handles the task of playing someone hurtling towards self-destruction well enough and it’s Moncrieff’s fault, not hers, that the character doesn’t have more pathos. Jason Patric is good at playing the slimy, self-righteous man who has some flashes of goodness but is also too self-absorbed for his own good — at one of his parties Julia is confronted by Peruto’s ex-wife, who warns him that he will never marry again no matter how many times he tells his current girlfriend de jour that she’s “the one” (she also runs into Nick and Grace and has to pretend she doesn’t know Nick already) — though it did occur to me that this character might make a good lead in a TV series, a modern-day Perry Mason in which the star defense attorney wins his cases despite (or maybe because of) his personal lack of any sense of morality. Adrian Holmes stands out among the cast members not only for sheer sexiness but for power and authority as an actor, making the basically decent character’s self-inflicted conflict between Julia and his family live in a way very little else about this movie does. One gets the impression there was a better movie in Julia Law’s story than the one we got (in some ways there’s a parallel between her and the female murder victim in the 1948 crime classic The Naked City, also a much-altered refraction of a true case), and we’re frustrated because this one is pretty good on its own merits (actually better than average for Lifetime, despite that exploitation title meant to tie it in with previous Lifetime productions Girl in the Box and Girl in the Bunker — though since the victimized heroines of those films survived their experiences and cooperated with the productions, there was less room for fictionalization than there was here) but so much more could have been done with this story!

Sunday, October 7, 2018

A Mother’s Greatest Fear (Dawn’s Light/Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Lifetime “premiere” movie was called A Mother’s Greatest Fear, though it was shot under the working title A Mother’s Worst Fear, and I originally didn’t plan to watch it because the title made it sound too much like Every Mother’s Worst Fear, a film I’d seen on Lifetime in 2005 even though it was a 1998 theatrical release from Universal featuring real-life mother and daughter Cheryl and Jordan Ladd in a story of a young girl who falls victim to a human trafficker and her mom, who rescues her with the aid of a police detective and a reclusive computer nerd who’s able to hack into the villains’ computers. A Mother’s Greatest Fear revolves around the Goulds: mom Alice (Katrina Begin, top-billed); dad Brent (Joey Lawrence), who’s a business partner with Alice in a land-development company as well as being her husband; and their daughter Maddy (Lily Delamere), who’s getting restive under her mother’s relentless overprotectiveness. It turns out that Alice was formerly a police officer whose specialty was negotiating in hostage situations, and she worked with a partner, a detective named Steve Roberts  (David Chokachi) who had the hots for her, though their relationship vibrated with mutual sexual attraction but stopped short of actual consummation. Their careers got derailed when they were assigned to go after a young man named Nick (Ian Niles), who had kidnapped his girlfriend Lily (Samm Wiechec) and was threatening to kill her with a knife at her throat if she didn’t leave home and run away with him. Alice tried to bring Nick down with a gun, but her shot went wild and wounded Lily instead of Nick, whereupon Nick stabbed Lily fatally — and Alice blamed herself for Lily’s death, quit the police force and joined her husband’s business as his partner. This experience has made Alice fanatically overprotective towards her daughter Maddy, who in the opening scene asks for permission to attend a party with her high-school classmates (she’s a senior but her mom is still driving her to school every morning, a fact for which her fellow students rib her), and mom gives her a flat-out no.

Maddy sneaks out and goes to the party anyway, putting cushions in her bed so when mom looks in she’ll think Maddy is still asleep. Maddy steals a pair of silver-flecked designer shoes of her mom’s and walks to the party but leaves when the other kids there start passing around a bottle of wine and drinking from it. (Of course I couldn’t resist the obvious Brett Kavanaugh joke that one of the guys who stayed at the party would try to rape one of the girls who stayed, and 36 years later he’d end up on the U.S. Supreme Court.) Alas, she’s followed on her way walking home by a stranger in a mysterious SUV, who parks in such a way as to block Maddy’s passage and knocks her out with an anesthetic, then throws her into the back of the car and drives off with her. The kidnapper then takes Maddy to what looks like a boiler room and ties her to a pipe, gagging her so she can’t scream for help, and when Maddy asks what ransom he wants, the kidnapper responds by flashing a note reading, “Do not call the police.” Maddy is allowed to talk to her mom on the phone just long enough to say she’s been kidnapped and the kidnapper has told her not to involve the police. Mom decides that since she and her friend Steve — who’s now working as a security guard after he quit the force over the Lily incident — used to be cops, they can solve Maddy’s kidnapping themselves without having to report the crime officially. The film then cuts between the rather dull scenes between Maddy and her abductor — who’s dressed all in black, with a hood and a plastic mask that makes him look like Darth Vader (or someone wearing a cheap knockoff of the Darth Vader costume altered just enough that it won’t infringe on Lucasfilm’s copyrights), and I couldn’t help but wonder why the kidnapper was staying mute instead of speaking with the dubbed voice of James Earl Jones — and the more interesting scenes as Alice and Steve investigate the crime. There’s also a third plot strain that emerges around Alice’s husband Brent, who in dealings he’s carefully concealed from Alice has formed a partnership to develop a New York condo building with a mysterious man named Tony, who keeps calling Alice to complain that Brent is dodging meetings with him during his latest business trip to New York.

Of course, in just about every Lifetime movie in which a married man takes a lot of out-of-town “business trips,” “business trip” is code for “affair,” and so it turns out here — though instead of being based in New York, as I might have expected, Brent’s adulterous inamorata is right here at home: she’s Victoria (Tandi Tugwell), Alice’s office assistant, and in addition to him taking her along on his out-of-town “business trips” he’s trysting with her in L.A., where the film takes place, often screwing her in out-of-the-way locations in the building where their office is. Alice and Steve are convinced that Maddy’s kidnapper is either a would-be boyfriend she rejected — they trace down a kid at a coffeehouse and also zero in on one of Maddy’s teachers, Josh Hammer (Demetrius Stear), because they’ve been carrying on an e-mail correspondence including romantic poetry, though that’s a dead end because he’s just her writing teacher and he was critiquing her work. They even think Nick might have masterminded the kidnapping from prison and got a friend of his outside to do it, but when they visit Nick in prison and confront him he’s able to convince them he wasn’t involved. Then they decide to look at Brent and Steve gets a tip from an old friend of his, a woman who works with the FBI, that Brent was under investigation for money laundering and quite a lot of illicit cash has been flowing through the business, recorded in secret online books Brent didn’t let Alice see. Tony, his mystery partner in the New York condo development, is a mobster whom Brent took money from because he was too much in debt on his other projects to get capital from legitimate sources (this begins to sound like Donald Trump and makes me wonder if 30 years later Brent will run for President and appoint one of the kids from that drunken party to the Supreme Court!). Alice and Steve conclude that Maddy’s kidnapping has something to do with Brent’s mob ties and Tony is involved somehow, but then there’s a confrontation scene back in the boiler room between Maddy and her kidnapper. Maddy gets close enough to the abductor to rip off that Darth Vader mask, and [spoiler alert!] the kidnapper turns out to be a woman — Victoria, the office assistant Brent was having his affair with. Her motive in kidnapping Maddy was that she was pissed off at Brent for breaking too many of their dates and spending his time either on genuine business or with his lawfully recognized family, so she concocted a scheme to kidnap Maddy and see which woman in his life Brent turned to when his offspring was in mortal danger — Alice or Victoria.

When it turned out to be Alice, Victoria determined either to kill Maddy or to sell her to a sex trafficking ring — “At least I can get some money from the bitch,” she offhandedly says — only she gets hers when Brent recalls a part of the building where he used to take Victoria to fuck her, and he, Alice and Steve realize that that’s where Victoria took Maddy. Victoria holds a knife to Maddy’s throat in an obviously deliberate parallel to the flashback of the scene with Nick and Lily we saw earlier, but ultimately Alice subdues her, Victoria is arrested, and in a tag scene labeled “Three Months Later” Alice and Brent are negotiating an amicable divorce, Brent is facing federal charges but Steve says he’s likely to get off with probation, Alice has agreed to let Maddy go off to college in New York (something she’d forbidden at the start of the film), and Alice and Steve are clearly headed out to a romantic date. I didn’t like the ending — frankly, I would have preferred it if Alice had said a sad goodbye to Steve, forgiven Brent and been there to stand by him through his legal ordeal and help him rebuild his business legitimately — and I also didn’t like some of the casting, particularly Alice. Katrina Begin looks too good for the role: young, sexy, clad in tight tops and even tighter jeans, she doesn’t for one minute look old enough to have a daughter who’s a senior in high school. Indeed, she and Lily Delamere look more like sisters than like mother and daughter. (Oddly, her hair designer gives Begin a considerably uglier hairdo in the tag scene than she has in the rest of the movie.) Also, neither of the two men in Alice’s life is particularly attractive — Joey Lawrence as Brent shaves his head and has a moustache (virtually all his scenes show him in close-up so we don’t get much of an idea what the rest of his body is like), while David Chokachi as Steve is tall, blond and has a great bod but is a bit too craggy-faced (and visibly old) to be man-meat dreamboat material. And Tandi Tugwell is so much less attractive than Katrina Begin — dark-haired and with an oddly lined face — one wonders why Brent is trading down by having an affair with her instead of staying with that hot, sexy wife of his! Nonetheless, A Mother’s Greatest Fear is a better-than-average Lifetime movie — at least the characters are personable and there isn’t a super-villain whose powers defy credibility — and it stuck closely enough to the Lifetime formula to “deliver the goods” while still offering a few neat variations on it.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Van Helsing (Universal, Sommers Company, Stillking Films, 2004)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles wanted to watch a movie last night, and I went looking through our DVD backlog and came up with Van Helsing, a 2004 horror extravaganza from Universal in which writer-director Stephen Sommers, who had made two commercially successful films based on the old Universal Mummy franchise with Brendan Fraser in the David Manners role and someone or something named Arnold Vosloo in the Boris Karloff role as revivified mummy Imhotep, The Mummy in 1999 and The Mummy Returns in 2001. For Van Helsing Sommers got to rewrite a lot of classic Universal monster characters, including Count Dracula, Frankenstein and his monster, and even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (though he doesn’t turn green, Sommers’ Mr. Hyde is larger than Dr. Jekyll — Robert Louis Stevenson described him as smaller because he only contained the evil within Jekyll, not the good — thereby making the Incredible Hulk’s derivation from Jekyll and Hyde even more obvious than usual), into a mashup of a story that literally made no sense. The film opens with a prologue in black-and-white (the modern-day Universal logo starts out in color, then fades to black-and-white, then catches fire and becomes a villager’s torch) in which the villagers in Transylvania (the Castle Frankenstein gets relocated from Mary Shelley’s original Switzerland to Romania) descend on Frankenstein’s castle just as he’s finally giving life to his creation. The black-and-white recreation of the original Universal monster classics is actually quite convincing, and Samuel West’s performance as Victor Frankenstein is good (he manages to suggest Colin Clive without being an outright “impressionist” imitator), but there’s something wrong here: the whole pace of the scene is wrong, cut too fast in that damnable modern-day editing style that decrees that audiences will be bored if you hold a shot on the screen longer than about three seconds. What’s more, there’s a subtly risible quality in Sommers’ writing that reminded me of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein — only Brooks and Gene Wilder (his writer as well as his star) intended Young Frankenstein to be funny.

It turns out that Victor Frankenstein is actually broke and he’s dependent on Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh in one of the worst performances I have ever seen in a major film — as tacky and stage-bound as much of Bela Lugosi’s acting in the 1930 Universal Dracula is, he was capable of far more subtlety than he was usually given credit for and he totally aces Roxburgh in this role; ironically the only other film I’ve seen Roxburgh in was another one in which he was channeling a far better performer in a 1930’s: Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 Moulin Rouge!, in which he was playing Nicole Kidman’s rich “keeper,” the equivalent of Henry Daniell’s role in the 1936 Camille) for his seed capital to build the monster. We also learn that Dracula has been married to three women (they made a brief cameo appearance in the opening scenes of the 1930 Dracula but then were pretty much forgotten about in the rest of the film) and he’s been having sex with them for hundreds of years, and they’ve been giving birth to his kids — only, since both Dracula and his brides are dead, the kids they bring forth are dead too. They’re hung from the walls of his castle in giant seed pods that couldn’t help but remind me of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and he can make them hatch — whereupon they emerge as gargoyles but don’t survive long because Dracula can’t figure out the secret of keeping them alive. He’s become convinced that Frankenstein’s technology can do that, which is why he provided Frankenstein his venture capital — only he killed Frankenstein almost immediately but kept the Monster (Schuler Hensley) alive and also hired Frankenstein’s servant Igor. (There’s a weird thrill when Richard Roxburgh and Kevin J. O’Connor, who plays Igor, have scenes together, if only because they’re both playing characters originated on screen by Bela Lugosi.) So where does Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) fit into all this? He’s an emissary of the Pope who, like Dracula, has been alive for hundreds of years — though somehow his memory of his previous existence got “wiped” — and he’s out to destroy Dracula and prevent his gargoyle kids from being loosed on the world en masse.

To do that he seeks out the help of Dracula’s surviving relatives, particularly Carpathian princess Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) and her brother Velkan (Will Kemp), who’s become a werewolf, and after about two hours of great-looking but ill-connected and totally preposterous action scenes (the film got a PG-13 rating “for nonstop creature action violence and frightening images, and for sensuality”) that make the film look like it was based on a “graphic novel” (i.e., a book-length comic book) even though it wasn’t, Van Helsing gets bitten by Velkan and is in danger of becoming a werewolf himself unless he gets the antidote from Dracula in time. Nonetheless, he goes into at least one werewolf transformation because it’s finally dawned on him and Anna that, since Dracula is immune to the traditional vampire-killing techniques (they drive a stake through his heart and he calmly pulls it out again and gives it back to them), only a werewolf can kill him. Van Helsing duly kills Dracula but in the process Anna dies too (a disappointment since I was hoping that, as a fantasy character, she could come back to life and she and Van Helsing could have a happy ending together) and Frankenstein’s Monster (ya remember Frankenstein’s Monster?) floats himself out to sea on an ice floe à la Mary Shelley’s novel. (Incidentally Bram Stoker gets a closing credit thanking him for creating some of the characters in the film, but Mary Shelley does not.) Van Helsing is one of the worst movies I’ve seen in quite some time, and as it unrolled I couldn’t help but make a lot of Mystery Science Theatre 3000-type jokes about it — including one after the scene in which Mariska (Josie Maran), one of Dracula’s brides, gets killed. “No, she’s not dead,” I said; “she just escaped to America and is starring on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.” I also noticed from imdb.com that Universal couldn’t leave ill enough alone with this story: there’s another Van Helsing, a TV series from 2016, though in this one the title character is a woman, Vanessa Helsing (Kelly Overton), who wakes from a decades-long period of unconsciousness to find that the world has been taken over by vampires. And it doesn’t help this movie that both Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale have been in better sci-fi/fantasy series than this — Jackman as Wolverine in the X-Men movies and Beckinsale as a vampire who hunts down werewolves in the Underworld films!