Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Roseanne: First Two Episodes of the Reboot (Carsey-Werner Productions, ABC-TV, aired March 27, 2018)

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

At 8 p.m. I switched from MS-NBC to ABC for the first episode — the first two episodes, actually, since they told a two-part story — of the bizarre reboot of Roseanne, the TV series built around Roseanne Barr (who renamed herself Roseanne Arnold after she married Tom Arnold, then called herself simply “Roseanne” after she and Arnold divorced, and is now Roseanne Barr again) playing proletarian housewife and mom Roseanne Conner, with John Goodman as her on-screen husband. The series ran nine seasons, from 1988 to 1997, and at its height it was one of the most popular shows on television, rivaled only by The Cosby Show. I never watched it until just recently, when one of my home-care clients would have it on while I worked, and I found it essentially The Honeymooners with the genders reversed, a clever show that was occasionally quite funny but nowhere near as consistently amusing as its writers (or its laugh tracks) thought. It was hailed in its time as bringing the working class back to TV, and so someone at ABC and/or its original producing company, Carsey-Werner Productions, thought it would be a good idea to bring it back in the Trump era even though Roseanne’s real politics are quite at the opposite end from her character’s, who proclaims early on in the reboot that she voted for Trump and is quite proud of it. The real Roseanne Barr, says her page, “is a spokeswoman for various pro-choice groups, has asserted pro-choice views in publications such as The Advocate, and has appeared at benefits sponsored by pro-choice organizations such as the Fund for a Feminist Majority. In several episodes of Roseanne (1988) Roseanne Conner defends a woman’s right to choose.” (I guess she won’t be doing that in the new version!) 

This version of Roseanne not only reunites Roseanne Barr and John Goodman, it also brings back the same actors who originally played her kids, Sara Gilbert as Darlene and Alisa Goranson as Rebecca, though of course by now they’re adults and their characters have kids of their own even though financial reversals and marital breakups (a subject the real Roseanne should be an expert on by now, since she’s been through three of them) have forced them to move back in with their parents. The gimmick in the first episode is that Rebecca has agreed to become a surrogate mother for a well-to-do woman who’s offering her $50,000, not only to be a rent-a-womb but to use one of her own eggs for in vitro fertilization, since apparently the woman who’s hiring her is so reproductively dysfunctional she can’t use one of her own. “Is she going to watch while her husband has sex with you?” Roseanne asks her daughter in that peculiarly whiny, nasal voice she developed for this character (her own voice, as revealed in the PBS series Pioneers of Television, is several registers lower and nowhere near as annoying). “They don’t do it that way!” Rebecca says. Her big fears is that the parents-to-be will call the deal off if they find out she’s 43 — she lied and said she was 10 years younger than she was — and they’ve also wanted to meet her family, which means Becky wants to de-proletarianize the house and in particular to hide all the photos of her mom and dad so her employers don’t get the impression that she’s from a family whose members genetically run towards large size. 

The writer, Bruce Rasmussen, occasionally comes up with some lines that are genuinely funny — at one point Roseanne is rummaging through the garage and comes across a book manuscript about her life, which apparently she attempted to sell in the old days and which ended with the death of her husband (which was presumably the producers’ attempt to explain how John Goodman returned to the cast when the last episode of Roseanne 1.0 ended with his death). She mournfully regrets that she wasn’t able to get the thing published and says, “It needed bondage and wizards waving wands!” Mostly, though, it’s meet the new Roseanne, same as the old Roseanne except the leads are older and even less attractive, either as bodies or as characters, and there are some odd attempts to do All in the Family-style political clashes, as when Roseanne meets her sister — or is it her sister-in-law? Her kids call  her “aunt” but never make it quite clear which of their parents she’s a blood relative of — who tearfully confesses that Roseanne’s relentless attacks on Hillary Clinton’s honesty, trustworthiness and overall fitness for the presidency led her to change her vote … to Jill Stein. (“Who’s that?” Roseanne asks. “Some doctor,” is the reply. She was the Green Party candidate for President and is blamed by some Democrats for drawing enough votes away from Clinton to give Trump some key swing states, and hence an Electoral College victory.) 

For my money, by far the most interesting character in the new Roseanne is Mark (Ames McNamara), Roseanne’s nine-year-old grandchild who wears his hair long and likes to dress in women’s clothing — the first day of school in his new neighborhood he insists on going in a long, flowing knit scarf and a pair of skin-tight, sequined girl’s pants, and the second day he dresses in something that could either be a plaid skirt or a kilt — which of course makes Our Heroine and her clueless husband Dan (John Goodman) wonder about his sexual orientation and/or his gender identity, and leads Dan to give him a pocket knife, which he offers to give to the school bully who torments him at recess until he’s busted by school security and sent to the principal’s office. I guess I can identify with the character, not only because he has my name but because Roseanne’s advice to him is just what I ended up doing — if the cool kids at school won’t befriend you, find your fellow misfits and make friends with them (when I first saw the TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and they got to the “Island of Misfit Toys” scene, I thought, “That’s me! That’s where I belong!”). Mark’s plot line genuinely moved me in a show that otherwise, aside from the nice blues harmonica used in place of the usual bombastic orchestral score to signal changes of scene — a welcome touch from the original show re-used here — the new Roseanne is pretty pointless television, one of those retreads of something that (like the original Will & Grace) was well remembered but hardly as good as people remembered it!

Dolores (Carlos Santana Productions, 5 Stick Films, PBS, 2018)

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

Last night at 9 p.m. I watched a quite compelling documentary called Dolores about Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers with César Chávez and one of the most compelling figures in radical American politics in my lifetime. The film was directed by Peter Bratt (brother of actor Benjamin Bratt, who’s listed as a “consulting producer”) and produced by, of all people, Latin-American rock musician Carlos Santana — and though Mark Kilian is credited with the music I’m sure Santana had a hand in it. The story is a familiar one to me and one I literally grew up with; in the mid-1960’s my mother subscribed to the United Farm Workers’ newsletter, El Malcriado (literally “The Bad Worker”), and I got to follow the story — their side of it, anyway — as it was happening. The story of the formation of the UFW is a bit more complicated than the version told here, and I give PBS a lot of credit for filling out the two-hour time slot with a short documentary called The Delano Manongs (“manongs” is “old men” in the Filipino language Tagalog), which showcased the third and least acknowledged individual in the union’s formation, Larry Itliong. What really happened is that beginning in the 1930’s the big growers in California’s San Joaquin Valley brought in Filipino men to work in the grape fields. They worked alongside the Mexicans who were already there, but were never allowed to mix with them; separate Mexican and Filipino crews worked in different areas of the giant agribusiness plantations, deliberately kept apart by the growers so they could use classic divide-and-conquer strategies against them. One of the reasons the growers wanted a workforce of two different, and mutually antagonistic, nationalities was so that if the Filipinos went on strike, the Mexicans could be hired as strikebreakers; and if the Mexicans went on strike, the Filipinos would scab on them and break their strike. 

In 1962 the AFL-CIO officially formed the Agricultural Workers’ Organizing Committee (AWOC), along the model the original CIO had used to form the big industrial unions in the 1930’s: appoint an “organizing committee” to unite workers in an unorganized industry, then if they were successful in winning at least one collective bargaining contract with an employer, they could take the words “organizing committee” off the end of their name and be admitted to the CIO as a full-fledged union. Larry Itliong was the head of AWOC, but it only recruited Filipinos. In 1963, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta founded the National Farm Workers’ Association (NFWA) and started holding private meetings in workers’ homes, following a strategy Huerta had learned in doing community organizing for a mostly white group called the Community Services Organization under a man named Fred Ross. At the time Huerta had six children and had been through two divorces, but in spite of that she was living a relatively comfortable life in Stockton and was able to pursue her avocations, music and dance, frequently attending jazz concerts. (One later sequence intercuts the UFW’s work in the fields with a clip from a jazz-festival performance by Dizzy Gillespie, playing his Latin-jazz classic “Manteca.”) The original idea of Huerta and Chávez was to build support among farmworkers slowly until the NFWA had enough members and outside donors and supporters to sustain a strike, but Itliong and the AWOC jumped the gun: on September 6, 1965 they held a meeting at the Filipino Community Center in Delano, California (the building not only still exists but looks pretty much the way it did then) and called an immediate strike vote. Ten days later — by coincidence (or maybe not) also Mexico’s Independence Day, September 16 — Chávez, Huerta and the NFWA called a meeting at a church in Delano where the attendees voted to have the NFWA join the AWOC’s strike, so for the first time Mexicans and Filipinos joined together in a labor action and the growers didn’t have the option they’d had before of playing one group against the other. Chávez and Huerta brought Itliong into their group and made him executive vice-president of the NFWA, later merging NFWA and AWOC into one union under AFL-CIO auspices as the United Farm Workers’ Organizing Committee (UFWOC). 

Of course the show also portrays Robert Kennedy’s doomed campaign for President in 1968 and shows that one of the names he called out for special thanks in the victory speech he gave at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (which now has been converted into a high school but which I find memorable not only because it was where Bing Crosby made it as a solo artist — and though it was deserted the day I was there I walked through the Coconut Grove nightclub space and got to see it before it ceased to exist — but was also the place where I lost my virginity at 19 with a young woman from the same delegation from the College of Marin for a youth journalism conference; I didn’t have sex again until I was 24, and that time it was with a man) just minutes before he was killed. The documentary includes footage of RFK’s famous confrontation with the Delano sheriff, who like most people in company towns were used to being enforcers for the bosses against the workers, when he told a Senate committee Kennedy was chairing that he had arrested the UFWOC pickets not because they’d actually broken any laws but because it looked like they were about to — to which Kennedy famously replied, “While we take our lunch break, I would suggest the sheriff read the Constitution of the United States.” 

The film treats Kennedy sympathetically — ironically, as strongly as my mom and I supported the farmworkers at the time, she couldn’t stand Robert Kennedy and her hatred of him got passed down to me (indeed, when my mom came down so viciously against Barack Obama and called him the worst president of all time, I remembered how much she’d hated RFK as well), and though the film presents him as a presidential candidate whose attacks on corporations and their privileges would never be heard in a major-party presidential campaign today (memo to Peter Bratt: does the name “Bernie Sanders” mean anything to you?), it also seems to make the assumption a lot of the progressive books and films about the period do: that Robert Kennedy would have won the Democratic nomination and the presidency had he lived. No way: at that time there were only 14 out of 50 states that had primaries, and the Democratic Party bosses were even more in control of the nominating process than they were in 2016 when they shafted Bernie Sanders and forced the doomed loser Hillary Clinton on the party — and Donald Trump on the country. Once Hubert Humphrey announced for President, essentially as Lyndon Johnson’s surrogate, he was able to nail down all the bosses and get the nomination sewn up without having to enter a single primary — though what I think would have happened had Kennedy lived to the Democratic Convention was that Humphrey would have likely offered him the vice-presidential nomination as a gesture of party unity, and that RFK would have accepted — thereby alienating and trashing himself with his progressive base, who would have walked away from him and thought, “Just another politician, after all,” for his willingness to run on the bottom half of the ticket with someone who was a strong public supporter of the Viet Nam war. 

One issue that doesn’t get discussed in this film is that Chávez and Huerta were both strongly anti-immigration; they knew that one of the ways the big farm owners had of breaking any union activity was by being able to bring in fresh workers from Mexico to replace any who went on strike. They didn’t even try a walkout until the expiration of the U.S. government’s bracero program, which had initially been passed in 1942 as a war emergency measure to bring Mexicans in to work the fields of California while the U.S. citizens were fighting the war, but it lasted until 1964 and gave growers a safety valve in case of labor unrest. (The bracero program was so notoriously exploitative that when I went on one of the big immigrant-rights marches in 2006 among the speakers were former braceros who said they were still owed back pay for their work under the program, even though it had ended 42 years earlier! Incidentally, the bracero program is also responsible for inventing the burrito: knowing that they had to feed the workers something but not wanting to spend too much money doing so, the growers came up with a cheap, easily made concoction of beans wrapped in a flour tortilla, figuring it would look and taste enough like real Mexican food the workers would be O.K. with it.) 

Another issue that doesn’t get mentioned in this film is that in 1935 the U.S. government had passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which officially gave American workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers, but because the Democratic Party then relied on votes from the South to maintain their Congressional majorities and win national elections (one reason the New Deal coalition collapsed in 1968 and the Republicans became the dominant party in U.S. politics was that with the “flip” in the two major parties’ positions on civil rights in general and African-American rights in particular, the “Solid South” eventually changed from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican — one reason George W. Bush became President was he was able to win all the former Confederate states, and Donald Trump won them all except Virginia, largely because Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, was Virginian), the Southern planters who had effectively re-enslaved the Black agricultural population through sharecropping insisted that farm workers not be covered under the NLRA. So even if the UFWOC could get the majority of workers on a particular farm to vote for union representation, there was no legal way they could compel the grower actually to bargain with them until California passed its own law, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA), in 1975. But not being covered by the NLRA wasn’t all bad for the UFWOC: in 1947 a Republican Congress had passed the Taft-Hartley Act over Democratic President Harry Truman’s vetoes, and that had amended the NLRA to forbid unions covered by it from organizing boycotts of their employers’ products. Not being bound by that restriction, the UFWOC was able to organize a nationwide boycott of table grapes, which was successful to the point where one of the ways you could tell the political orientation of the people who’d invited you into their home was whether or not they served grapes. (It’s been decades since the grape boycott ended and I still have an odd feeling every time I eat grapes.) 

Campaigning for the boycott nationwide was the issue that took Dolores Huerta out into the broader community and flung her in the middle of the great ferment of political and social issues in the 1960’s — not only the civil-rights demands of African-Americans and other communities of color but the anti-war movement, the feminist movement and the Queer movement. At first Huerta was unwilling to refer to herself as a feminist and to embrace the women’s movement because as a Roman Catholic she was intensely opposed to abortion (though being a Roman Catholic hadn’t stopped her from going through two divorces and eventually having an affair with, and having children by, César Chávez’s brother Roberto even though he was still married to someone else), but eventually she mellowed out on the issue and accepted the pro-choice position on that ground that it had been her choice to have 11 children but it was a legitimate choice for another woman to have none. Also the United Farm Workers, like the rest of the labor movement, slowly moved away from their original opposition to immigration: I remember reading in 2000 that the AFL-CIO had just passed a resolution endorsing the rights of undocumented immigrants, and none of the people reporting this, even the ones for independent progressive media, seemed to be aware that this was a huge change of position for a U.S. labor movement that for years — over a century, in fact — had fiercely tried to limit immigration on the ground that more immigrants meant a higher supply of workers and therefore lower wages. In 1970 the UFW finally won a series of contracts with California growers — only when the contracts expired three years later the growers signed sweetheart deals with the Teamsters Union instead, and there was more labor unrest in the fields as the big, bad Teamsters that had got expelled from the AFL-CIO both for poaching on other unions’ territories and for their Mafia connections tried all their own classic intimidation tactics, as well as the growers’ classic intimidation tactics, to try to break the UFW once and for all. 

The fortunes of the UFW soared upwards when the California legislature passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) — one of the top priorities of recently elected Governor Jerry Brown in 1975 — and Brown appointed strongly union-sympathetic members to the board. Chávez and Huerta also launched a nationwide campaign in the 1970’s targeting the growers’ use of pesticides, which they applied to their crops in massive doses, often while workers were actually in the field without protective clothing, threatening the health not only of farm workers but also of consumers who would someday buy these products and eat them. I remember seeing Chávez speak at the National March on Washington for Lesbian/Gay Rights in 1987 (obviously this was before the legitimate demands of Bisexual, Transgender, and other subgroups for inclusion led to the ridiculous non-solution of referring to us by an ever-growing set of initials — “LGBT,” “LGBTQ” and in one horrible example, the UCSD student groupo, “LGBTQQIAA” — for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex — the people with indeterminate genitalia formerly known as hermaphrodites — Asexual and Allies, the last being the term of art for straight people committed to Queer rights) and listening to him go on and on and on about pesticides, until I realized he was doing something extraordinarily radical even for him: traditionally unions had seen their role as winning better wages and benefits for their members, not questioning the techniques their employers used in actual production unless they posed a direct and dramatic threat to the health and safety of the workers involved in production. What Chávez was doing was framing his argument against pesticides in terms of a warning to consumers — essentially telling people, “The stuff we grow is unsafe for you, so don’t buy it until our employers clean up their act” — and he got criticized for it within the labor movement as well as from outside.  

Dolores ends sadly, not only with the near-fatal beating she got from San Francisco police officers while participating in an ACT UP anti-AIDS demonstration in 1988 (she was laid up in hospital for several months — and the fact that Huerta was out there picketing on behalf of Gay men with AIDS is yet another indication that, well before that horrible word “intersectionality” was coined, she was living it) but the way the board of the United Farm Workers passed her over for the union presidency after César Chávez died. They kept her on the board but gave her less and less to do until she reluctantly stepped down from the UFW in 2002 — it’s interesting that this film does not address the flagging fortunes of the UFW since then and the criticism that’s been made of its current president, Arturo Rodriguez (whom the board elected after Chávez died in 1991 and who is still there) — though she’s still active in various causes at 87 and she’s lived one of the most extraordinary lives of all time. Charles and I saw Dolores Huerta as part of a lecture series at UCSD in the 1990’s, and while I don’t remember much of what she actually said (she seemed to be gratified to be around a group of people who were aware of her importance — part of Peter Bratt’s agenda in making Dolores seems to have been to set the record straight and establish that her role was equally significant to Chávez’s in organizing the UFW, including the fact that it was she, not he, who coined the phrase “¡Si se puede!” — but as I noted above, the records I’ve seen acknowledge her importance and if anyone who was involved in forming the UFW has been unjustly neglected in the historical record, it is Larry Itliong, mainly because, despite Chávez’s and Huerta’s understanding that the UFW had to be a multi-racial movement to succeed, Mexican-American progressives in general have claimed “ownership” of the UFW and ignored the crucial role of Filipinos in the movement’s early days) I can vividly recall the rock-star charisma with which she gripped a full-house crowd. ¡Viva Dolores Huerta!

Monday, March 26, 2018

My Husband’s Secret Life, a.k.a. Sleeper (Blue Sky Films, Lifetime, 2018)

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

I put Charles through a Lifetime “premiere” movie which the network dated 2018 and showed under the title My Husband’s Secret Life — though in the promos (but not in the actual credits) they rather gave away the “secret” by spelling the “r” in “secret” with a backwards letter to make it look Cyrillic — thereby letting us know that the “secret” was going to turn out to be that he was a Russian spy. Produced by our old friends at Incendo Media, with Jean Bureau listed as both “executive producer” and “producer” (I joked, “Was this movie produced by a hierarchical agency or a chest of drawers?,” and Charles responded, “Both,” referencing the marvelous gag in Mel Brooks’ least-known film, The Twelve Chairs, about the “Bureau of Furniture Not Covered by All the Other Bureaus”), written by Thom Richardson (who on the evidence here is one of those Lifetime scribes who, to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, insists on writing at least six impossible things before breakfast) and directed by Philippe Gagnon, My Husband’s Secret Life is a curious mash-up of a typical Lifetime soap opera and a Jason Bourne movie — though obviously Brett Donahue, who plays typical-looking suburban florist Freddy Jones in Richmond, Virginia who’s really Russian “sleeper” agent Sasha Sergeivich Volkov, is hardly Matt Damon in the looks department! He’s easy enough on the eyes to establish to the Lifetime audience that he’ll probably turn out to be a villain even though at the beginning he seems to be the average suburban businessperson (the locale is Richmond, Virginia, obviously chosen by the filmmakers because of its proximity to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia) who as the film opens is with his wife Jennifer, usually addressed as “J. J.” (Kara Killmer, top-billed), getting ready to celebrate their seventh wedding anniversary. 

She’s joking about the “seven-year itch” as they get ready for an anniversary dinner they’ve reserved at an Italian restaurant called Traittoria (I remember being amused in the 1980’s when there was a brief vogue for fancy, upscale Italian restaurants that used the word “Traittoria” in their names — the reason that amused me was that I’d seen enough Italian movies to know that in Italy a “traittoria” is a really cheap eating place, essentially what we call a “diner”), only instead he takes her to his florist shop, where he’s set up a private dining space, including food catered from Traittoria (though all they seem to have to eat is one pizza slice each) and a bottle of champagne. It seems that their marriage has been strained since she lost a baby to a miscarriage (not another Lifetime miscarriage!) — in Kara Killmer’s best acting in the movie she laments first having not told any of their friends that she was going to have a baby, then having to tell them she was going to have a baby but now she isn’t. Then, while out on a lunch date with her neighbor and friend Connie (Mylène Dinh-Robic), J. J. spots Freddy having an argument with another woman, Anna (Ravisa Kondracki), and she assumes the two are having an affair. (Gagnon, Bureau and their casting director — the last uncredited on, which lists this film under its working title, Sleeper — screwed up big-time by casting two women who look so much alike as J. J. and Anna: they’re both tall, leggy blondes and the only reliable way you can tell Kara Killmer and Ravisa Kondracki apart is Kondracki  has a few more waves in her hair.) The truth is even worse than that: Freddy Jones is really Sasha Sergeivich Volkov, one of 500 Russian “sleeper” agents — “sleeper” is spy-speak for an agent sent to another country to live there for months or even years and not to do any espionage until his or her headquarters sends a signal for them to be active — sent to the U.S. to blend in, marry American women, start families and be as inconspicuous as possible until the day came when their country needed them as spies. 

This plot was worked out by Sasha’s father, Sergei Volkov, back in the days of the Soviet Union (ya remember the Soviet Union?) when Russia’s spy service was called the KGB (it’s currently the FSB), and he was so concerned about keeping it secret that he never gave anyone at the KGB the list of who and where the sleeper agents were. He kept that info to himself, passing it on only to his son, so now that he’s dead “sleeper” Sasha, a.k.a. Richmond florist Freddy, is the only one who has it and the current Russian spymasters want it. So does the FBI; it turns out J. J.’s friend Connie (ya remember J. J.’s friend Connie?) is really an FBI agent staking out the Joneses and waiting for him to do something operational or make a mistake so they can bust him and get him to give them the list. The plot unravels when Arthur Stern (Joe Cobden), founder of a company called Sternet which Freddy has been pumping for secret information of use to his Russian bosses (and which he’s apparently extracted from Stern by blackmailing him rather than paying him, though just what Freddy has on Stern is kept ambiguous), snaps and stops supplying Freddy with information. What’s more, he tries to kill Freddy outside his house by running him down with a car, and J. J. determines to trace this strange person and find out just why he tried to kill her husband. Freddy survives the accident but spends the next two days in a coma, during which time his formidable mother Barbara (Barbara Gordon) shows up — and so does Anna, whom Barbara (who unbeknownst to us until a few reels later is Freddy’s Russian control agent, not really his mother) assigns at first to kill Freddy, later to capture him and take him back to Moscow so he can be debriefed and the FSB can get the list of agents. J. J. looks through old boxes in a secret basement and discovers photos from Freddy’s boyhood in Russia (earlier we’d seen Freddy burn a sepia-toned photo of himself as a boy with his real mother, standing in front of a tacky-looking car that resembles an early-1960’s Ford Falcon but is probably a Soviet knockoff), and eventually she confronts him and he admits everything, though he also insists that after having lived so long in the U.S. and married an American woman he’s genuinely in love with, he doesn’t want to go back to Moscow to get debriefed (and likely tortured and/or killed) by the FSB. 

J. J. convinces him that the only way he can get out of his situation alive is to turn himself in to the FBI, and he does so, though Connie works out a scenario which involves J. J. turning on her husband in a fit of rage and shooting him dead while Anna and Barbara watch. Of course this is a setup — the bullets are real but Freddy is wearing Kevlar, so he survives, Anna and Barbara get arrested and Freddy turns over the list of agents to the U.S. At the end he and J. J. are reunited, presumably for a new life together in witness protection. Oh, and did I mention that J. J. gets pregnant in the middle of all this, though since she had a miscarriage in the backstory there’s no guarantee that the baby will be born — though that’s obviously what we’re meant to think at the end. My Husband’s Secret Life is a movie that chokes on its own preposterousness; the story is so dependent on dorky plot twists and the most unbelievable thing about it (despite the formidable competition) is the whole idea that J. J. could have been with this man for seven years without any idea he was really a Russian spy, only to have his carefully constructed cover fall apart in a day or two. It’s decently directed by Gagnon, who has a flair for the kind of suspense and action the plot requires — one could readily imagine him helming a James Bond or Jason Bourne movie — but the acting is fair-to-middling, and in Barbara Gordon’s case worse than that: it’s all too clear that, despite a striking screen presence, she really has no clue how to portray the sort of dragon lady she’s supposed to be playing (and which Lotte Lenya managed superbly in the second James Bond movie, From Russia with Love). All in all My Husband’s Secret Life (as opposed to My Husband’s Secret, a 2006 documentary about three women and what they went through when their husbands came out to them as Gay) is a nice-looking guy and two nice-looking women and some good visual atmospherics dressing up one of the most ridiculous stories ever conceived by the mindlessness of man — or at least the mindlessness of Thom Richardson!

Stalked by a Reality Star (Blue Sky Films, Lifetime, 2018)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I had watched another Lifetime movie that was considerably better than My Husband’s Secret Life despite having an even more risible title: Stalked by a Reality Star, which sounds like writers Ken Sanders (story — he was also one of the producers and, though this film isn’t set in it, he’s the creator of the “Whittendale Universe”) and Aidan Scott (script) brainstormed over the question, “What’s the most ridiculous title we can think of for a Lifetime movie?” Stalked by a Reality Star is the story of 17-year-old Kendra (Emily Bader); her ludicrously overprotective mother, Linn (Cynthia Preston, top-billed), who works long hours as a nurse at the local hospital (this is set in L.A.); her best friend at school, an African-American girl named Mischa (Asia Jackson) — a girl named Mischa? — and Brad Banton (Robert Scott Wilson), the titular reality-TV star and hunk to die for whose show, Finding Love (t/n: The Bachelor) is moving towards its climax. Watching Finding Love is about the only regular entertainment Linn allows herself — even when she’s on duty at the hospital she insists on watching it, in the patients’ rooms if necessary — and she makes sure that Kendra watches it with her because Kendra’s school schedule and Linn’s work schedule clash so much it’s about the only thing they can actually do together. (Charles and I can relate!) One day, Mischa scores two invitations to an exclusive party at a Hollywood nightclub and fake I.D.’s so they can get in and drink, and at first Kendra begs off because it’s the night Finding Love is on and she and her mom always watch it together. Then Kendra catches her mom at the hospital sucking face with Dr. Ty Warson (Brian McGovern), the first man Linn has been interested in since Kendra’s father died in the backstory, and she’s so upset by this that she bails on Finding Love — figuring that her mom has already found it anyway and would rather spend the night on a date with Ty than watching that stupid show — and goes to the party with Mischa. 

Well, if you’ve seen more than two Lifetime movies in your own lifetime you’ll know instantly who the guest of honor is: that’s right, Brad Banton, who’s as dreamy in person as he is on the show. As fooled by Kendra’s fake I.D. as everyone else at the party, Brad takes her home with him, comes on to her big-time and is about to embrace her preparatory to sex, whether she really wants it or not, when she blurts out, “I’m 17!” The threat of a statutory-rape charge is enough to calm him down for the moment, but something about Kendra has snagged a trip-wire in his consciousness: he immediately decides she’s the woman of his dreams and if he has to wait a few months until she turns 18 and is therefore “legal,” he will. Until then he’s going to keep in touch with her constantly, not only clogging up her smartphone with his texts (Lifetime’s writers are finally acknowledging how young people communicate with each other these days!) but stalking her at home and even crashing the school’s drama department, where she’s auditioning to play Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Needless to say, the sight of him instantly freezes her up and she bolts the audition. Abandoned by Ty, who thought Kendra was a bit too much to take on, Linn gets courted by Brad, who’s hit on the Lolita plan: date the mom to get close to her nubile young daughter. What’s more, Linn falls hard for Brad — he already was her TV crush object, remember? — and refuses to believe anything bad Kendra has to say about him. At one point Kendra complains to the police, but the calls are taken by a detective named Bartlett (D. Elliot Woods), who at first seems like the kind of avuncular African-American authority figure Lifetime often brings in to save the white characters from the consequences of their own stupidities. Later, though, he becomes convinced that there’s nothing wrong with Brad and everything that seems wrong with him is a product of Kendra’s overactive imagination. At one point he asks Kendra, “Have you ever heard the story of the boy who cried wolf?” “Yeah,” she says, “and you know how it ended? There was a real wolf!” 

The only person in Kendra’s life who does believe her is a cute blond boy named Jake, who’s played by someone named Jordan Doww (that’s right, “Doww” with two “w”’s), who’s described on as “an actor, writer, director, comedian and YouTube personality” who grew up in Detroit and moved to L.A. in 2014 “to pursue his dreams of acting, improv work and theatre.” For once I found the good guy in a Lifetime movie considerably more appealing than the bad guy — and for once a Lifetime casting director put a good-looking actor in the role of a computer nerd instead of looking for an overweight kid with glasses. Jake examines Kendra’s computer and realizes it’s been tampered with, injected with malware that had to be uploaded through a physical connection to it instead of from the Internet  — only Kendra’s mom Linn says she installed the software to track her because she thinks Kendra’s delusions are becoming more dangerous to her. Kendra decides to burglarize Brad’s house, not knowing it has a security system that alerts him immediately wherever he is if he’s broken into, and when Jake finds out what she has in mind he insists on coming along. The MacGuffin they’re after is a Polaroid selfie Brad took of the two of them the night she was there; they find it and Kendra gets away, but Jake is caught photographing Brad’s secret wall, where there’s a photo of every girl with whom he’s had a similarly obsessive relationship — including the one he told Kendra was the only other “real love” of his life, Allison (dead at the outset of the story but played in flashbacks by Amanda Maddox), who was killed in a car crash just as he was about to marry her. Jake disappears and we assume he’s been killed by Brad — Kendra even saw someone loading what looked like a body into the trunk of Brad’s car but it turned out to be a set of golf clubs — but in the end Kendra and Linn end up at Brad’s home. 

The real villain turns out to be not Brad but his formidable manager, Mrs. Hall (Cinda Adams), who it turns out is also his mother; she realized she could build Brad into a huge TV star but his dick kept getting the plans in trouble, and when she realized he was genuinely serious about Allison she killed her and faked it to look like an accident. It also turns out that Jake is still alive, though tied up in the home Brad and his mom share, and in the end the police, finally convinced the threat to Kendra is serious, come and arrest Brad and his mom, and the good people are rescued — with Kendra giving a quick kiss to Jake as he’s carted in a gurney into the ambulance that will take him to be saved from whatever it was Brad and Mrs. Hall did to him. Stalked by a Reality Star is a silly title and most of the movie is pretty much cut to Lifetime’s usual pattern, but the people involved in this one — including the usually slovenly director Robert Malenfant — did it better than usual, and I was glad and relieved to see Jake kept alive and headed for Kendra’s arms at the end. (Actually I thought it was going to be Kendra’s African-American friend Mischa who’d discover Brad’s secrets and get offed for her pains.) The part of Stalked by a Reality Star I found especially engaging was the parallel between Kendra’s and Linn’s relationship on one side, and Brad’s and Mrs. Hall’s on the other: both rather immature young people being kept under control, and arguably overcontrolled, by overprotective mothers — one gets the impression Brad isn’t a total villain and in fact could have turned out to be a good human being if his mom hadn’t so totally shielded him and got him out of the scrapes he was supposed to learn from and grow up!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Hope and Fury: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Movement and the Media (NBC-TV, aired March 24, 2018)

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

Charles and I spent much of the evening watching a compelling documentary on NBC-TV, Hope and Fury: Martin Luther King, the Movement and the Media, timed for the approaching 50th anniversary of King’s assassination and promoted (less on NBC itself than its cable news channel, MS-NBC) as a documentary comparison of the ways King and his associates handled the media with what’s going on now with the Black Lives Matter movement. There was surprisingly little comparison — just brief clips of the actions in Ferguson and Charlottesville (though the Charlottesville clips were especially chilling following some footage of early-1960’s anti-integration riots by racist whites, including one young man with a “skinhead” haircut, short even by pre-Beatles 1960’s standards, who would have looked right at home in Charlottesville … and indeed it’s all too easy to imagine his grandsons marching with the neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis at Charlottesville) — but it was an interesting story nonetheless, narrated by African-American NBC news host Lester Holt (you remember, the man to whom President Trump confessed in front of millions of viewers that he did fire FBI director James Comey over the Russia investigation) and whose presence, along with those of other modern-day Black Americans in professional jobs, was itself an indication of how far we’ve come. The story as told by NBC begins in Mississippi with the lynching, beating and murder of Emmett Till and its coverage, not by the white press, but by the Black press. It was Jet magazine — generally known as a lightweight who’s-who-in-Black-entertainment paper — which first published the notorious photo of Till’s corpse, which showed he had been so brutally beaten before he was killed his face had turned from an attractive young African-American male into something that looked like makeup for the monster in a bad horror movie — which led the exposé of the Till case. The show then documented the emergence of King as a civil rights leader in the 1955-1956 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger — a story I’m familiar with mainly from King’s own memoir, Stride Toward Freedom, in which he describes himself as virtually an accidental leader, just the one of Montgomery’s Black ministers who emerged as the head of the boycott and applied the philosophy of Satyagraha (literally “soul force”), the power of nonviolent resistance to oppression, Mahatma Gandhi had used to lead the ultimately successful campaign to end British colonial rule of India.

Not all the big civil rights stories of the period directly involved King, and NBC’s writers don’t pretend they did: the next segment after the Montgomery bus boycott introduces King as a character is about the 1957 campaign to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas and the ferocity of the white resistance it evoked, not only from white mobs in the streets (though King wasn’t directly involved, the people leading the struggle followed his example of passive resistance in the face of white violence) but from Arkansas’ governor, Orval Faubus (about whom Charles Mingus wrote a song, “Fables of Faubus” — “Who’s the guy that’s the most ridiculous?/Faubus, Faubus” — which during Watergate he changed to “Fables of Nixon”), who called in the Arkansas National Guard (the successor to the “well-regulated militias” of the 18th and 19th centuries referenced in the Second Amendment that, according to historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, were organized to keep the Native Americans from taking back the land we’d stolen from them and also to keep African-American slaves from escaping) and had them keep the nine African-American students who had decided to enroll in Central High School from defiling its sacred all-white precincts. The grimmest story was that though all nine students were supposed to go in together to the school’s 14th Street entrance, one girl missed that information because her parents didn’t have a telephone — so she showed up on her own at the 16th Street entrance, got the full force of the white racist threats literally in her face, and was so shaken up and traumatized she refused to speak to white reporters, though she did drop her guard long enough when a Black reporter from an independent Black paper showed up and she agreed to talk to him.

Last night’s documentary on NBC, Hope and Fury, continued its potted history of the 1960’s civil rights movement after the 1957 school desegregation showdown in Little Rock, Arkansas with a brief segment on the 1960 lunch-counter sit-ins that launched the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the civil rights career of the man who more than anyone else gets trotted out as a living icon of the civil rights movement if only because he’s about the last remaining participant and leader who’s still alive, Georgia Congressmember John Lewis. (He’s aged so oddly the footage of him now is virtually unrecognizable as the same person he was in the early 1960’s, when he marched beside Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1965 voting rights march in Selma, Alabama and a famous photo shows them together just before the police broke up the demonstration.) Then there was an interesting segment on one of the least known of the civil-rights campaign King led: one in Albany, Georgia in 1962 aimed at ending the local ordinances that enforced segregation even beyond what the state mandated. King got outsmarted that time by Albany’s police chief, Laurie Pritchard (a man, and one who was smart enough to pronounce the “t” in “often”), who carefully instructed his officers not to attack the civil-rights protesters or rough them up in any way, but just quietly, efficiently and peacefully to arrest them. The white media from New York who had come to cover King’s latest campaign left in disgusted boredom because Pritchard’s arrests were just dull — not suitable fodder for sensationalism on the network news shows (which had just expanded from 15 to 30 minutes per night) — and though the Albany City Council did make some pro forma revisions of their local segregation ordinances, the campaign was widely regarded as a King failure. One wonders how Pritchard restrained not only the police officers who were responsible to him but the white crowds in Albany from committing racist violence against the Blacks. Then there’s a brief segment on the one-man campaign by Air Force veteran James Meredith to integrate the University of Mississippi in Oxford, colloquially known as “Ole Miss,” in October 1962 despite the determination not only of Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett but a good chunk of the townspeople to keep Ole Miss all-white — it’s here that this film’s director intercut sequences of the riots in Oxford in 1962 to the ones in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 (the ones of which President Trump said there were both good and bad people “on both sides,” equating the neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates who came to Charlottesville aiming to foment violence with the anti-racists who came there to resist them) to show how identical both the motives of the white racist rioters were in each case and their tactics. 

Then the documentary showed the campaign King led in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, in which the local police chief, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, gave him everything he wanted in terms of showing the world what white racism looked like up close and personal that Laurie Pritchard in Albany had been savvy enough to avoid. Connor famously turned firehoses and dogs on not only adult protesters but the children King and his fellow organizers recruited to march, and the images of kids being pushed down the streets with high-pressure water and chased down with dogs had the desired effect: millions of Americans were shocked into action, white people began joining the movement en masse and President Kennedy finally committed, after 2 ½ years of dithering on the issue, to put the full weight of the White House behind the civil rights bill then languishing in Congress. (Ironically, the 1964 Civil Rights Act almost certainly would never have passed if Kennedy hadn’t been assassinated: Georgia Senator Richard Russell, who led the opposition to it, said later, “We could have beaten John Kennedy. We could never have beaten Lyndon Johnson.”) There follows a segment on the 1963 March on Washington, which the program rather hagiographically depicts as King’s idea even though Gay Black activist Bayard Rustin originally had had the idea and indeed had been pushing it on the rest of the movement for 20 years; we get a bit of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech without any of its interesting background — that King had come prepared to deliver a rather ponderous and dull speech on the history of Southern racism when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who’d been invited to perform, saw he was bombing and started yelling at him, “Give ’em the dream, Martin!” The next checkpoint in the civil rights movement’s history was the Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign to register Black voters in 1964, in which white volunteers came down from Northeastern and Midwestern college campuses, were warned they were literally taking their lives into their hands, and three volunteers — whites Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and Black James Chaney — were murdered outside a small town in a conspiracy that turned out to include the local sheriff and his principal deputy. (My mom, who was heavily involved in support for the civil rights movement, had a picture of the two of them, who looked like the stereotypical stupid and obese white Southern law enforcers, with the ironic caption “SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL POLICE.”) 

The incident made a media star of Schwerner’s wife Rita — there are clips from 1964 in which she’s become a sort of diva of martyrdom while Chaney’s wife is complaining bitterly that the media wouldn’t have paid any attention to her if her husband had been killed with two other Black people instead of two whites — and, along with the bitter confrontation in early 1965 in Selma, Alabama in which the local sheriff, Jim Clark, showed he was just as crazy and insensitive in how open racism and violence against civil-rights marchers would “play” in the rest of the country, led President Johnson to push the 1965 Voting Rights Act through Congress. The show illustrates this with a clip from Johnson’s famous speech in which he began, “I speak tonight for the dignity of man,” and ended quoting the famous anthem of the civil rights movement, the old Black church hymn “We Shall Overcome.” Selma and the subsequent passage of the Voting Rights Act were the high points of what Michael Harrington later called the “Beloved Community,” the coalition of Blacks and whites that had come together to make the campaigns of the early 1960’s and the resulting passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act possible. The film then cuts to the emergence of Stokely Carmichael as the new head of SNCC in 1966 and his evasive answers to media questions as to whether he was advocating that the civil-rights movement become violent. One fascinating thing about this documentary is that it makes Carmichael and his proclamation of “Black Power” — a phrase that had almost as many definitions as it had adherents, though what it seemed to me to be was taking the basically sound idea that the liberation of oppressed community X must be the work of X people themselves and running it into the ground, not only rejecting but actively driving away white allies and in some ways becoming almost as racist as the white supremacy it was officially against — seem like it had come out of nowhere. 

The show totally ignores that before Carmichael there had been Malcolm X, who had openly criticized King’s insistence on only “passive resistance” and said that he called it not violence but “self-defense” for Blacks to fight back against white violence. It attributes the rise of “Black Power” mainly to the impatience of younger African-Americans who didn’t think King and his strategies were bringing equality fast enough — and it also shows the frustrations of King’s last years, including the failed struggle to bring an end to housing discrimination in Chicago and its almost all-white suburb of Cicero (otherwise known as the home base of gangster Al Capone in the 1920’s). Though the so-called “white backlash” had already been in evidence in the North as early as 1964 — when George Wallace successfully challenged Lyndon Johnson in the Wisconsin primary for the Democratic Presidential nomination — the opposition with which King’s efforts were met in the North was a lesson to him that there were a lot of whites who would support civil-rights campaigns in the South but not in their own backyards. One bizarre omission in the program is the lack of any mention of the Viet Nam war, which not only split the “Beloved Community” even further but opened up fissures within the civil rights movement itself (Bayard Rustin, who’d been a conscientious objector in World War II, supported Viet Nam mainly because he thought it was important to maintain the movement’s alliance with President Johnson, while King regarded Viet Nam as a moral issue first and foremost and was one of the earliest and most eloquent U.S. opponents of the war) and drove a wedge between President Johnson and the white Left, which was one of the big factors in the defeat of the Democratic Party in the 1968 Presidential election and the rise of the Right-wing coalition (in 1968 Richard Nixon and George Wallace between them got 57 percent of the Presidential vote to Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent) that has largely dominated American politics ever since. 

The show also only hints at how radical King was becoming in his final years, not only getting involved in a union organizing campaign for garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee (which is what he was doing when he was killed) but organizing the “Poor People’s Campaign” for Washington, D.C., an encampment/tent city that was supposed to last two months and dramatize income inequality in the U.S. King never officially declared himself a socialist but he was pretty clearly moving in that direction towards the end, towards a broader critique not only of U.S. racism but of capitalism in general. The Poor People’s Campaign is not mentioned in this show at all, though if anything NBC deserves credit for presenting King as a deeper, richer and more radical figure than the anodyne version who’s been enshrined in the American pantheon, the one who famously said he wanted his four children “to be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” — just about the only thing King said the modern-day American Right likes to quote. (Among other things, they use that quote to suggest King would have opposed affirmative-action programs — when in fact he explicitly supported them.) Overall, I would guess this show is as good a portrait of King and his relationship to the media — and in particular the odd moral position he, like Gandhi before him, was put in because in order to make his political points and achieve the public impact he wanted, he had to put the people he was asking to join him in direct physical danger and risk their lives. The show closes with a discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement and how it’s taking place in a very different media landscape, where the “gatekeeper” function of the three major TV networks and the big-city newspapers has largely disappeared and the Internet in general and social media in particular have enabled activists to upload and communicate with each other and get their message out without mediation. 

One thing the show didn’t mention is that the U.S. media have largely reverted to what they were in the 19th century, when openly partisan media competed with each other; today you have a universe of Right-wing outlets, including talk radio and Fox News, that not only communicate an openly propagandist message to their adherents but shape how many Americans — including the current President, who not only gets virtually all his information from Fox News but is in the process of staffing his administration with a lot of their people — see the world and their place in it. I would say there’s an inevitable sense of how-far-we’ve-come-and-how-far-we-still-have-to-go about this show; today, in Donald Trump, the U.S. has the most openly racist President in our history since Woodrow Wilson, and both his public statements and his actual policies (including the bill he’s supporting to slash documented immigration into the U.S. in half and institute a “merit-based” immigration system that’s designed to reverse the demographic trends that are increasing the proportion of the U.S. population composed of people of color — Trump’s price for letting the “Dreamer” kids stay in the U.S. is that the Democrats agree to this horrible bill whose purpose is, and whose effect would be, to “Make America White Again”) show it. What’s more, he was elected by an older, whiter slice of America that really does want to see all those “uppity” [insert racist epithets here] put back “in their place” and want a white supremacist America even if they don’t necessarily call it that. The U.S. Supreme Court’s evisceration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Republicans’ determination to use the end of federal “pre-clearance” of state election laws in the South to exclude as many voters of color as possible is more evidence of the determination of the people currently in charge of this country to reverse the gains of the civil rights movement and restore what they consider to be the “natural order” of white supremacy.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Midwife's Deception (Distilled Media/Lifetime, 2018)

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

I put on Lifetime’s latest “premiere,” a film called The Midwife’s Deception which sounds, like the recent Bad Tutor, like the Lifetime producers, directors and writers are running out of seemingly “perfect” service jobs whose holders have psycho designs on their employers. This time the script was written and directed by the same person, Letia Clouston (yet another talented woman filmmaker who deserves opportunities at bigger outlets than Lifetime and this film’s production company, Distilled Media — as opposed to Tap Media or Spring Media?), and though she ran through a lot of the usual items on the checklist for Lifetime scripts (psycho, innocent victim, innocent victim’s decent but clueless spouse, and innocent victim’s best friend who tries to expose the psycho and gets knocked off for her pains), she turned in a better job than usual at both writing and direction. I think what makes this a better movie than the Lifetime norm (though not by all that much) is that Clouston, like Christine Conradt, is willing to make her characters complex and also keep a lot of the backstory unstated instead of throwing everything at us. The central characters are Daniel Miller (Billy Armstrong, a hot-looking guy who for once on a Lifetime movie is not a villain) and his very visibly pregnant wife Sara (Katie Savoy, who looks so convincing as a woman in the later stages of pregnancy I wondered if Clouston had cast an actress who actually was pregnant for the role). The Millers have just moved from Los Angeles, where she had worked as an attorney until taking time off to have her baby and spend the first year or two of her (they know it’s going to be a her and they’ve named her Eloise) life bonding with her, to the small town in Kentucky where he grew up.

One of the gimmicks in Clouston’s script is that there are a lot of nubile young women who remember Daniel as the big hottie from high school and still have crushes on him — which understandably makes Sara feel jealous, even though the woman who actually was Daniel’s high-school girlfriend, Allie (Katie McClellan, who’s shorter than Katie Savoy but also has long black hair and a similar face — one wonders if this is Daniel’s “type”), becomes her best friend in town. Eventually we learn that Sara has been through two previous pregnancies but miscarried both of them, and she’s understandably anxious about this one and making sure she makes it and actually gives birth to a live baby. Enter the bad girl, Jina (Penelope Mitchell), who runs into Sara at a local café (which has the odd name “Shakespeare and Company” — I remember that as the name of a famous bookstore in Berkeley, back when there still were bookstores!) whose proprietor is yet another woman who knew Daniel back in high school and had the hots for him. Jina introduces herself as a certified nurse-midwife and offers to take charge of Sara during her pregnancy and help her through a home birth, despite the misgivings of Sara’s pediatrician, Dr. Collins (played by Matt Clouston, real-life husband of the writer-director — who seems to have named the central couple “Miller” after her own maiden name). One point Clouston’s script makes is how much life in small towns really is based on everyone knowing everyone else: Jina takes Sara to a meeting of mothers-to-be at the restaurant and Sara shows how much of a fish out of water she is by bringing a salad made from quinoa and kale. Of course no one else at the event has ever heard of quinoa! Though Sara is determined to avoid alcohol and caffeine during her pregnancy, Jina sneaks out her smartphone and uses it to take pictures of Sara with the forbidden drinks close to her mouth. Sara demands that Jina not post these to social media — she has a phobia about having any pictures of herself online, which Clouston keeps powerfully unexplained the way the writers of Casablanca carefully kept us in the dark as to just what Bogart’s character had done that prevented him from returning to the U.S.

Jina shows us she’s up to no good well before the other characters learn that; we see her in her grey SUV stalking the Millers at night, and later she gives them an elaborate candlestick for their bedroom with a red mug on top of it “to warm you up at night,” but the objet d’art is carefully bugged, with a hidden camera that allows Jina to log on from home and eavesdrop on the goings-on in the Millers’ bedroom. The biggest thing that happens in the Millers’ bedroom that we get to see is a nice Lifetime-style soft-core porn scene in which Daniel attempts to have sex with his wife, but the baby-to-be in her belly just keeps getting in the way. (Lifetime used to do a lot more soft-core porn than their norm now, and I miss it.) It’s only two-thirds of the way through the movie that we finally learn Jina’s true motive: she wants to kill both Daniel and Sara and take their baby for herself. They’re currently living in the house formerly occupied by Daniel’s mother until her recent death, and the house has uncomfortable Rebecca-esque memories; her plan is to burn down the house with an incapacitated Daniel and Sara inside, frame it to look like a murder-suicide in which Sara’s fetus died as well as both parents, and take the baby and raise it since no authorities will know the kid still exists. About the only explanation Clouston gives us as to why she’s doing this is a speech she gives towards the end in which she says she wants the girl to grow up with a proper appreciation of how tough the world really is instead of being sheltered by the Millers from the nastier realities of life. Along the way Jina posts her pics of Sara apparently drinking on social media — which leads to the rest of the women in town snubbing her as a hypocrite — and when Allie gets too close to the truth, Jina kills her, first drugging her and then smothering her with a large horseshoe-shaped cushion — after which she buries Allie on Daniel’s and Sara’s property, thereby (she hopes) framing Sara for her murder. She also steals Allie’s cell phone and continues to text Sara regularly in Allie’s persona, so when Sara finally stumbles onto the truth about Jina — her real name is Leslie Ann Phelps and under that identity she has a social-media page boasting about the imminent birth of “her” baby — instead of alerting a friend she’s tipping off Jina that she knows.

The climax takes place at the Millers’ home, which Jina sets on fire with a drugged Sara, who’s also starting to have contractions indicating the birth is imminent, inside. Daniel comes home but Jina quickly overpowers him, clubbing him into unconsciousness with a baseball bat, and there’s a big to-do about a gun Daniel’s mother left him which is locked in a safe somewhere in the house — but can Daniel get to it before Jina does? Jina guesses that the Millers have set Sara’s birthday as the combination to the safe, but it’s actually Daniel’s and Sara’s wedding date — and with that information Sara is able to retrieve the gun and shoot Jina to death just before Jina is about to dispatch her husband. (Letia Clouston quite literally took Chekhov’s advice to budding playwrights that if you introduce a pistol in act one, someone has to fire it in act three.) The Midwife’s Deception is well done, and Clouston’s powerful suspense direction and use of dramatic ambiguity in her script sets this one ahead of most Lifetime movies even though all too much of it is based on the network’s usual formulae; and given Lifetime’s recent penchant for endings in which the principal villain escapes to wreak his or her havoc on some other unsuspecting person in another city, it was nice to see Clouston end this one with a shot of Jina at the window of the burning house (an obvious quote from Alfred Hitchcock’s shot of Judith Anderson at the end of Rebecca), about to go out in flames with it. She even avoided the expected everything-is-back-to-normal coda of the Millers in the hospital with their brand-new baby girl! The Midwife’s Deception is a formula piece, but a quite good one within the formula’s limits, and I look forward to seeing more for Letia Clouston — she goes on my list along with Christine Conradt and Vanessa Parise of women directors on Lifetime who’ve clearly “made their bones” and shown they’re ready for feature films.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Invaders, Season One: Four Episodes

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

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi film screening ( consisted of four episodes from a surprisingly interesting TV series that ran from 1966 to 1968 (and therefore overlapped with the first two seasons of the original Star Trek): The Invaders, which was produced by Quinn Martin coming off the success of his hit show The Fugitive. The Invaders was basically an attempt to extend the basic concept of The Fugitive into science fiction: architect David Vincent (Roy Thinnes, who seems to have played the series’ only recurring character) is driving on a deserted country road one night when he sees an alien spacecraft land on a field in front of him. He immediately realizes that the occupants of the craft are not only from another planet, they have malevolent intentions. They can assume human form — though only by going through a machine that looks like a cross between a fluoroscope and a Star Trek transporter that not only makes them look like Homo sapiens but also allows them to breathe an atmosphere containing oxygen, which is ordinarily poisonous to them. This process gives some — but not all — of the aliens a slight deformity in one or more of their fingers, which is about the only reliable way you have of telling them from real people — until they die, when their bodies briefly turn into a red glow before vaporizing completely. Also anything the dying alien is touching when it expires similarly glows red and then totally disappears. One thing Quinn Martin did right on this show is get a lot of highly talented guest stars, both actors on their way down (William Talman, the hapless prosecutor on Perry Mason and also so good as a psychopath in Ida Lupino’s marvelous film noir The Hitch-Hiker that when we watched that together Charles joked, “No wonder he was such a bad D.A.! Now we know what side of the law he was really on!”, and Burgess Meredith — though Meredith would make a comeback as The Penguin on the Batman TV series and as the coach in the first Rocky) and ones on their way up (Jack Lord, William Windom, Ed Asner, Peggy Lipton). 

The first episode, “Vikor” (aired February 14, 2018), was, I thought, the best of the four we watched, and given when it was made, when people were just starting to turn against the Viet Nam war, it has a refreshingly cynical attitude towards militarism and the people it proclaims as “heroes.” George Vikor (Jack Lord, surprisingly effective cast against type as a villain), is an industrialist who in 1952 got the Presidential medal for valor in the Korean War. He still has a recording (on an Audiodisc blank acetate) of the medal ceremony, including the applause that greeted him, but he remembers that when he tried to find work after his discharge he couldn’t find any. Bitter about this, he nonetheless somehow was able to start a small business refining steel out of scrap metal and he’s built this into a major operation. As the episode opens he’s working with a mysterious man named Mr. Nexus, who’s ordered a large quantity of something without being too clear about what it is or why he wants it. Of course, Mr. Nexus is one of the invading aliens, and he’s “outed” when a telephone lineman doing some rewiring at Vikor’s plant accidentally looks from his crane through one of the windows at the factory and spots the alien transformation machine in action. The aliens on Vikor’s security force, planted there by Nexus, kill the lineman, but his death makes the local paper and is spotted by David Vincent, who shows up, applies for work at the company, and gets hired by Vikor personally as chauffeur for his wife Sherri (Diana Hyland, who was cast as John Travolta’s mother in the TV-movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble and started an affair with him, then got terminal cancer; on her deathbed her last words to him were, “John, do that disco movie they’ve offered you”). 

Vikor wants a chauffeur for his wife because she’s responded to almost never seeing him because he’s working all the time by drinking a lot and driving her car (a Thunderbird — Quinn Martin had one of the then-common deals with an auto company to supply all the vehicles for the film, so every car or truck we see is a Ford product) very fast. The local cops have just popped her for driving under the influence and doing 90 miles an hour, and Vikor warns her that even his pull with the local police can’t keep her from the consequences of her actions much longer. Together Vincent and Sherri find out the secret of the aliens’ involvement in Vikor’s business, and the fact that they’ve promised him more than just money: they’re going to make her a sort of local collabò leader of their occupation, giving him the status he’s long craved from his fellow 1-percenters. (Why didn’t he just run for President?) Eventually Vikor realizes his mistake in getting in bed (figuratively) with the aliens instead of (literally) with his wife, but he dies, the alien operation disappears and once again Vincent, who begs off when Sherri expresses her romantic interest in him now that she’s a widow, walks away facing the dilemma that confronted him throughout the series: he claimed there was an alien invasion and the alien invaders were working with Earth people on various schemes to take power, occupy the earth and render it uninhabitable for humans, but with no physical evidence to back up his story people just think he’s a nut and at best don’t believe him, and at worst try to lock him up as mentally ill.

The next episode of The Invaders on our program was originally shown February 28, 1967, two weeks after “Vikor,” and called “Doomsday Minus One.” This time the aliens try to plant a matter-antimatter bomb in the Utah desert which will kill a million people, and they hit on the idea of using a normal underground nuclear test as cover for their bomb. David Vincent gets called in by Major Rick Graves (a surprisingly young-looking William Windom), who’d had inklings that there were alien invaders afoot on Earth and assigned a security person to tail them — only they got wind of him and killed him in a bar (the aliens have a round object with five points on it that, if they apply it to a human’s neck, can depending on how it’s set either stun him or kill him). Vincent discovers that the base’s commander, General Theodore Beaumont (Andrew Duggan), is the earth collabò in league with the aliens this time; he’s so bitter against the U.S. government, the military and the human race over the death of his son in combat that he’s ready to work with the aliens and knock off a million people just for revenge. Eventually, however, he sees the error of his ways and hijacks the truck containing the aliens’ bomb, driving it straight towards their redoubt in the desert and blowing at least some of them up. 

Following that we watched “Quantity: Unknown,” originally aired the next week after “Doomsday Minus One” (March 7, 1967) and with a quite moving performance by James Whitmore as Harry Swain, a man who tells Vincent his wife and daughter were killed by the aliens. This time the MacGuffin is a cylinder the aliens lost track of and killed the driver who was delivering it to the Sperrick Laboratories. Though the cylinder is made of metal, it’s a metal unknown on earth and the analyst in charge of studying it, Diane Oberly (Susan Strasberg), can’t get it open no matter what she does to it, including firing a laser beam (still a novelty in 1967) dead center at it. Vincent persuades the authorities at Sperrick to make up a fake cylinder and ostensibly send it to a lab in New Orleans for further analysis, but Col. Frank Griffin (former Perry Mason prosecutor Hamilton Burger in the last role of his career — he died a year and a half after this show was filmed at the comparatively young age of 53), yet another human who’s working with the aliens, spots the surveillance at the airport and waves to his confederates, thus signaling him not to pick up the cylinder. Vincent is therefore once again persona non grata among the people he’s been trying to convince of the seriousness of the alien threat, and he hatches a plot to steal the cylinder from Sperrick and take it to New Orleans himself — only in a big reversal that, thanks to the relative restraint of writers in 1967 compared to the stuff they pull on us today (the writers of this episode are Clyde Ware, original story; and Donald Brinkley, script), is actually believable, Harry Swain isn’t a man who lost his wife and daughter to the aliens; he’s an alien himself, and the whole point of his pretense was to get Vincent to take the cylinder to New Orleans, whereupon the aliens would recover it, open it and find what it contained: the instructions from their home planet on how to effect the conquest of Earth. In the denouement, Vincent confronts Swain at a water treatment plant and they fight at the edge of an artificial waterfall; Vincent survives but Swain falls to his death, though just before he expires he spots the cylinder floating in the water and touches it, thereby making sure that the cylinder vaporizes when his body does. 

The final show in our sequence, “Wall of Crystal” from May 2, 1967, was probably the spookiest of the four because this time the MacGuffin is a crystal the aliens have invented, using the earth mineral mica as well as a reagent from their own planet, and it sucks all the oxygen out of the earth’s atmosphere, thereby making our air more like theirs. The first people it works on are a young couple who’ve just got married, Bill (Jerry Ayers) and his new wife (Peggy Lipton), who are on their way to their honeymoon when a truck containing the alien crystals overturns, they spill onto the highway and asphyxiate both Bill and his missus when they get too close. The scene then shifts to San Francisco, where David Vincent has finally found a believer who has a high enough position of authority to help: journalist and TV commentator Theodore Booth (Burgess Meredith), who has promised to expose the aliens both on his TV show and his newspaper column if Vincent can get him any physical evidence at all. Vincent accordingly recovers one of the crystals, puts dirt around it and puts it in an air-tight bag because it only does its harm if exposed to air, then turns it over to a lab for analysis, with Booth promising to air the story if the analysis reveals it’s as toxic as Vincent says it is. Only the aliens get to the lab first, expose the crystal and kill the scientist who was supposed to analyze it. 

The aliens this time are led by Taugus (Ed Asner, younger than we’re used to seeing him and quite good in an implacable, matter-of-fact characterization — he’s the sort of “heavy” who doesn’t seem either excited or revolted by villainy, but just thinks it’s part of his job), and in order to intimidate David Vincent into silence they kidnap his brother, Dr. Richard Vincent (Linden Chiles), and later grab his wife Grace (Julie Sommars) as well. Fortunately Richard is able to give David a clue as to his whereabouts — an old winery near a now dried-up lake bed where, when they were kids and it still had water, David once saved Richard from drowning. Grace calls the police but before they arrive David gets to the old winery and manages to rescue his brother, but the aliens are able to vaporize themselves, the entire winery and Theodore Booth in the shoot-out (the last particularly distressed me because not only was I a journalist but Booth was easily the most interesting character in the show and it would have been wise for the producers to let him live and make him a series regular). When the police come they see no winery, no aliens and nothing that remotely looks like crime, and they make a few comments about how they’ve been victimized by typical pranksters wasting the cops’ time and the government’s money — and in the last shot we get a closeup of the lead cop’s hand and realize he’s an alien.  

The Invaders actually holds up surprisingly well — a friend of ours remembered it from its original air dates and said it was a combination of The Fugitive and John Carpenter’s more recent (1991) almost-masterpiece They Live, also about an alien invasion force who disguise themselves as humans and whose ultimate goal is to pollute the earth’s atmosphere until it resembles their home planet’s and they can take over. The show is reasonably impressive and the writers generally seemed to know just how far they could take the concept before it sailed off into total audience disbelief — and though Roy Thinnes isn’t as famous as the angst-ridden series lead as David Janssen became in the similarly plotted but non-sci-fi The Fugitive, he’s a capable actor even though ironically his most famous credit is probably for a film he wasn’t in: he was originally cast as the second lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s last film, Family Plot, but midway through the shoot Hitch decided Thinnes wasn’t what he wanted and William Devane replaced him. The version of The Invaders we were seeing was a DVD boxed set released in 2008 and with each episode produced by an introduction with Roy Thinnes in 2008 explaining the story he’d filmed 40 years earlier — and at least one member of the audience at our screening was impressed at how well he weathered the years. (According to, he’s still alive.)

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The War of the Worlds: The True Story (Pendragon, 2012)

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

The two films shown at last night’s Mars movie screening in Golden Hill ( were unusually good given some of the crap we’ve been presented before — though much of the crap was the sort of Mystery Science Theatre 3000-type fare that while inept as filmmaking has camp entertainment value simply by being so bad. The first was a film called The War of the Worlds: The True Story, whose odd conceit was that the war between Earth and Mars described in H. G. Wells’ classic 1897 novel actually happened and the last survivor of it, Bertie Wells (Floyd Reichman), was interviewed and videotaped in 1965 reminiscing about it. Hines, who apparently wrote the script as well, also assumed that in 2006 a cache of contemporary film footage of the actual war of the worlds was unearthed in a safe in a vault of a building that was about to be torn down, and so his film supposedly intersperses footage from the interview with Bertie Wells done six months before he died with the newsreel and documentary film of the actual war. What Hines really did was take a whole mass of stock footage, including newsreels from both world wars, as well as scenes from feature films of the classic era either made or set in times a few decades later than the 1900 date given of the actual war of the worlds. 

He quite artfully patched in newly created effects footage of the Martian war machines and grafted them into his stock clips, though some of the clips themselves were so recognizable from their original contexts they were jarring and disconcerting: the Odessa Steps sequence from Eisenstein’s Potemkin, representing Londoners fleeing from the Martian onslaught; the famous sequence from Buster Keaton’s The General in which a train attempts to cross a burning bridge, the bridge gives way and the train collapses (the sequence Keaton insisted on staging with a real train really crashing into a river from a real collapsing bridge; the train remained in the river at his Oregon location from 1926 to the early 1940’s, when it was extracted so the metal could be used as scrap in World War II); a scene from Meet Me in St. Louis with Judy Garland clearly recognizable sitting on a couch; and other scenes with Shirley Temple and other actors from classic-era Hollywood (one “trivia” poster recognized William Shatner, though I didn’t). Part of the conceit was that Hines used not only the basic plot of Wells’ The War of the Worlds but also much of the actual prose from Wells’ novel, split between Bertie Wells in character and a third-person narrator (Jim Cissell) who sounded like the kind of voice actor they got for “audio-visual” movies they showed in schools in the 1960’s. The result was a fascinating movie but also a quite dull one at times, and I tend to agree with the reviewer who said that through a lot of this movie you are more amazed at the skill of Hines’ technique than moved or grabbed by the story. According to the Wikipedia page on the film (, which is a lot more informative than its entry ( only lists five of the actors in the film, while Wikipedia gives the full cast), Hines’ inspiration was the 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which updated the story to Welles’ own time and presented it as if it were an actual news event being broadcast in real time. (The famous panic that ensued as many people listening to Welles’ broadcast thought the Martian invasion was really happening was the subject of the other movie on our double bill.) 

He wisely cast two actors as Bertie Wells, Floyd Reichman as the older man recounting the Martian invasion from 1965 and a younger actor (not listed on either or Wikipedia) playing him in the supposed documentary footage — which actually features a lot of “cheating,” showing scenes no cameraman could possibly have been there to film (though there are a few sequences in which a character appears using the hand-cranked film cameras of the early days on screen — it wasn’t unknown in the real days for a newsreel producer to send several cameramen to shoot a major battle or public event and have one cameraman get into another one’s shot). Hines actually made an earlier version of The War of the Worlds in 2005, though it’s unclear whether the 2012 release we were watching was cut down from that first one or whether the two were different projects by the same writer-director and some of the same actors; according to Wikipedia, Hines originally planned a War of the Worlds film in 2001 that would relocate the story to modern times, then abandoned it after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made that seem tasteless and commercially dubious. He apparently got a version into release in 2005 but complained that he couldn’t get it shown in theatres because that was when Steven Spielberg’s version, starring Tom Cruise and released by Paramount, came out, so it went direct-to-video instead (along with another one, directed by David Michael Latt for The Asylum — a company that specializes in ripping off major-studio productions of public-domain stories or easily replicated premises — they put out their own adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars just before Disney released John Carter, and their other films include titles like Ghosthunters and The Fast and the Fierce), so he went to the Wells well again and came up with this version in 2012. It was a highly capable movie but, as the reviewer noted, one comes away more admiring the filmmaker’s ingenuity than being absorbed, moved or entertained by the story.

Brave New Jersey (The Shot Clock, BondIt, 2016)

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

The other film on the program, Brave New Jersey, was a real charmer! It was based on the October 30, 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which Welles produced as part of his Mercury Theatre on the Air series of radio dramas and which famously fooled people into thinking that the invasion was really happening because Welles and his co-writer, Howard Koch (who’s listed in the credits of this film as the sole writer of the broadcast — Welles was as upset by that as he was by the claim made by Pauline Kael and others that Herman Mankiewicz was the sole writer of Citizen Kane; he said that Koch had helped with the second part of the script but his contributions to the first part needed extensive revision) framed the events of Wells’ novel as if they were happening in real time and moved the setting from England to the U.S. — specifically the town of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey (cited in an in-joke in the final credits to Timothy Hines’ The War of the Worlds: The True Story, which say that shortly after the events of the film, Bertie Wells and his wife emigrated to the U.S. and settled in,  you guessed it, Grover’s Mill, New Jersey). Directed by Jody Lambert (whom I’ll call “they” because no online source I’ve seen specifies whether they’re a man or a woman) from a script they co-wrote with Michael Dowling, Brave New Jersey is set in the decidedly fictional town of Lullaby, New Jersey, just two miles from Grover’s Mill. The name “Lullaby” is a masterstroke on the part of Lambert and Dowling because it lets us know right away that this is a “sleepy” small town where nothing exciting ever happens. The biggest news in Lullaby in years is that a local farmer has just invented a contraption called a “Rotolactor,” an automatic milking machine that supposedly can milk 15 cows at once. (There’s a nice scene in which a man is shown drinking milk, realizing it’s sour and spitting it out again — and we’re obviously meant to assume that this milk was produced with the Rotolactor.) 

On the night of October 30, 1938 the town’s mayor, Clark Hill (Tony Hale), is scheduled to host a ceremony that will feature the unveiling and first exhibition of the Rotolactor — which looks like a giant merry-go-round for cows — in action, only the first time they turn on the Rotolactor in rehearsal the control board shorts out and they have to pour water on the machine to get it to stop. Clark Hill also has an unrequited crush on local housewife Lorraine Davison (Heather Burns), who on his recommendation is reading the novel Gone with the Wind (an obvious in-joke since the film of Gone with the Wind starred Clark Gable!), while unbeknownst to Lorraine, her husband Paul (Sam Jaeger) is receiving love notes from an out-of-town woman named Margaret. The Davisons have a daughter, Ann (Grace Kaufman), who’s shown wearing a fancy gown obviously too big for her — it’s her Hallowe’en costume, and mom says, “You look just like Bette Davis.” “I’m supposed to be Garbo!” she retorts. The Davisons have also taken in a distant relative from Poland, a kid named Ziggy (Harp Sandman), whose family sent him to the U.S. to keep him away from the Nazis — they wouldn’t invade Poland until 1939 but I guess we’re supposed to think his parents realized the danger they were facing and sent him to their American relatives a year early — and who speaks absolutely no English. He and Amy get caught outside — he’s been dressed as Abraham Lincoln for Hallowe’en despite, of course, having no knowledge who that was — and get caught up in a prank by the neighbor kids to throw water balloons filled with piss at the town’s reclusive old man, Ambrose P. Collins (Raymond J. Barry), who it turns out commanded a unit in a crucial battle in World War I, received a medal from President Wilson personally, and ever since then has been locked in his house with his memories looking for a chance to get into action again. (The whole plot line with him being targeted by the prankster kids seemed straight out of the “Mr. Brauckoff” Hallowe’en scene in Meet Me in St. Louis.) There’s also a nice young woman, Helen Holbook (Erika Alexander) with an overbearing fiancé, Chardy Edwards (Matt Olberg), and Sparky (Evan Jonigkeit), the town “bad boy” he catches her necking with after she’s turned down Chardy’s the-world-is-about-to-end-anyway-so-let’s-fuck-now-while-we-still-have-the-chance pass. 

In the end, the pranksters turn the switch to the Rotolactor, which not only sets it on fire but triggers the fireworks that were supposed to commemorate it, which Captain Collins and his motley crew — including the predictably hapless town sheriff (Mel Rodriguez) — “read” as the Martian attack and charge, while the local minister, Reverend Ray Rogers (Dan Bakkedahl), sailed his collection plate through his church like a Frisbie and interpreted that as a sign that the Martians were coming not to conquer the world, but to mediate man’s conflicts and bring us peace. Lambert and Dowling threw a few modern expressions into their dialogue, including “time frame” and “inappropriate” as a response from a woman receiving an unwanted pass from a man (in 1938 a woman turning down a crude advance would likely have chewed out the guy by saying, “You’re a masher!,” a bit of 1930’s slang incomprehensible to most modern audiences), but for the most part Brave New Jersey is a richly allusive (I especially liked the town meeting in the church that seemed cribbed from the one in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles), entertaining movie. About the only thing that rubbed me the wrong way was the use of a modern-day folk-rock musical score — built around a song the hapless Clark Hill writes as a love ballad for Lorraine Davison, which is heard in his own inept rendition during the movie (with Tony Hale forgetting that he had to move his hand down the fretboard of his guitar to look like he was really playing it) and in a fully professional version (but with Tony Hale this time turning in a decent vocal performance) over the closing credits. I think the film would have been more effective with a 1930’s-style musical score than a modern one, but otherwise Brave New Jersey is a one-joke movie but one which doesn’t overstay its welcome and depicts the War of the Worlds broadcast panic — which has been the subject of fictional made-for-TV movies as well as documentaries — in a light-hearted screwball-comedy manner.