Sunday, July 15, 2018

Father Brown: “The Dance of Death” (BBC Studios, Albert+ Sustainable Productions, 2018)

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

Last night I put on a quite engaging — and surprisingly recent (first aired January 9, 2018) — episode of the British TV series Father Brown, a period-set (the 1950’s) mystery series loosely based on G. K. Chesterton’s series character. I haven’t read any of Chesterton’s Father Brown books (the only thing of his I have read is The Man Who Was Thursday, about a group of anarchists plotting in turn-of-the-last-century London, only all but one of them turn out to be police agents and the one who isn’t is Satan himself) but I like this show for its offbeat charm. This episode was called “The Dance of Death” and though there are far more illustrious works with the same title (notably the famous play by August Strindberg), this one was quite a charmer. Father Brown (Mark Williams) is attending a dance contest at the home of aristocrat Lady Rose (Diana Kent) and noticing the young man named Alexander Walgrave (Jarrad Ellis-Thomas) who’s dancing the contest with Lucy Dawes (Holly Weston) as his partner — much to the disgust of Lucy’s slimeball fiancé Oliver DeWitt (Seb Carrington), who’s clearly jealous of Alexander even though, like John in David Bowie’s song, they’re only dancing. Actually Alexander is drawn to wallflower Bunty (Emer Kenny), but when Lucy is found stabbed to death in her room Oliver is suspected even though Father Brown, dealing with an even dumber set of local police than usual, is convinced that he may be a slimeball but he’s not a killer. Alexander is also blind, courtesy of an accident he had at the same house some time earlier in which he was knocked down stairs by an intruder.

His blindness has given him an unusually sensitive ear for sounds and he insists that Lady Rose was the real killer because he heard the sound of her cane being used as the killer went down the stairs after dispatching Lucy. He searches her room, with Bunty’s insistence, and they find a blackmail letter from Lucy in which she claims to be Lady Rose’s illegitimate daughter, put up for adoption two decades earlier, and threatens to “out” her as her mom, which will ruin Lady Rose socially. It turns out, though, that the real killer is Merryn Tyrrell (Rosie Holden), who hated Lady Rose because Merryn’s father had partnered with her in a big investment and lost all his money doing so. Lady Rose swooped in and grabbed all the Tyrrell family assets at fire-sale prices, leading to the suicide of Merryn’s father and her mom’s death from illness shortly afterwards, and Merryn determined to kill Lucy and frame Lady Rose for the killing by stealing Lady Rose’s cane, which served both as the murder weapon (the cane contained a concealed knife) and a distraction: Alexander would hear Merryn ascend and descend the stairs using the cane and assume it was Lady Rose. There’s also an odd confession from Lady Rose to the effect that in her wilder, more sexually rambunctious days she had contracted a sexually transmitted disease that made it impossible for her to have children, which for some reason Father Brown thinks dismisses the allegation that Lucy was blackmailing her even though a) we have only her word for that and b) even if it’s true, she could have conceived Lucy, given birth to her and given her up for adoption before she got the STD. I was quite impressed by this little vest-pocket mystery and in particular I liked the performance of Jarrad Ellis-Thomas as Alexander; one imdb.com reviewer thought he was unskilled as an actor but I thought his rather quixotic gestures and halting line delivery appropriate for playing a character who had suddenly become disabled and had adapted to it on some levels but still felt awkward presenting himself around other people.

Love Island (Elliott-Shelton Films, Inc., 1952)

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

Alas, the “feature” Charles and I watched after the Father Brown show was nowhere nearly as good — though it would have made an excellent candidate for the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 treatment. It was called Love Island and was a South Seas action-adventure film done on the really cheap by something called “Elliott-Shelton Films, Inc.” — if this thing actually got sold to a reputable distributor I have no idea — in 1952. The stars — if, to paraphrase Dwight Macdonald, I may use the term for courtesy — are dancer Paul Valentine, whom I’ve seen elsewhere only in the Marx Brothers’ last film, Love Happy, and Eva Gabor, whose bizarre miscasting as a South Seas beauty — including the long black wig that covers up her normal blonde tresses and looks like someone made it from straw and then spray-painted it black — gives this film camp appeal even though it doesn’t make it any good. The stated running time on imdb.com is 66 minutes, and that’s the version we saw, but there seems to be some uncertainty about just how much content is in this film: the credits list two songs, “Across the Sea” and “Love at First Sight,” written by Jerry Bragin, but “Love at First Sight” was the only one we heard. The credits also promised that there was a narration by André Baruch (there wasn’t) and that the film was in color (Cinécolor, according to imdb.com), but the print we were watching was an archive.org download in black-and-white (probably copied from a TV print made in black-and-white because back then typically shortsighted Hollywood “suits” thought, “TV isn’t in color — why should we spend the money to strike color prints for them?” That’s why I love the story about Walt Disney’s brother Roy, who ran the financial end of the company, asking him, “Why did you spend all that money making the Davy Crockett TV shows in color? TV isn’t in color” — and Walt just smiled at him and said, “It will be”). The story begins with U.S. Navy Lieutenant Richard Taber (Paul Valentine) talking to a friend on board what’s supposed to be a commercial airliner but which looks like it was never farther off the ground than the beams supporting the set on the soundstage floor. He’s lamenting the loss of his best friend in a plane crash during World War II and explaining how he himself survived by parachuting to a South Seas island whose native name translates as “Love Island.” There’s an awful lot of love going on on Love Island but also an awful lot of forced marriage and women made miserable by the repulsive, and usually abusive, middle-aged men they’re forced to marry.

Heroine Sarna (Eva Gabor) is in love with local boy Tamor (Dean Norton) but, much to not only her own distaste but that of her father Aryuna (Frank McNellis), who seems to be the only older man on the island with a moral sense, she’s going to be forced to marry the horrible, mean, nasty, repulsive and generally no-good Uraka (Malcolm Lee Beggs) because … well, it’s not quite clear but it seems to have something to do with the fact that Uraka is the richest man on Love Island and he can apparently buy anything he wants, including multiple wives. There’s also another love couple, Ninga (Bruno Wick) and Klepon (Kathryn Chang); Ninga and Klepon are genuinely in love but have to carry their affair clandestinely because she’s already been married either to Uraka or someone equally as unattractive and grotesque. Once Sarna gets a look at the hunk who’s descended from the skies with a parachute, she immediately forgets about Tamor and falls in love with the new guy instead, and just at the time she’s decided he’s the guy she really wants to marry she hears the bells of a ceremony that’s about to hitch her to Uraka. The footage of the ceremony is from a 1935 film called Legong: Dance of the Virgins, directed by Gloria Swanson’s ex-husband Henri de la Falaise in two-strip Technicolor and shot in Bali, since it features gamelan music (and one of the few appeals this movie has is the opportunity to see a gamelan orchestra in action — as well as the hauntingly beautiful shirtless Balinese guys who play in it!), which not only takes place in far more elaborate settings than the ones the producers could come up with for the South Seas island of their dreams (or nightmares) but is much more creatively directed and photographed as well. Every time we cut to the Balinese footage, however grainy it may be, we’re enthralled by the sheer beauty of it and also the imagination with which it was filmed compared to the relative dullness of director Bud Pollard’s work on the main movie. (Bud Pollard didn’t get a Worst Director of All Time nomination from Harry and Michael Medved in their book The Golden Turkey Awards, but he arguably deserved one: his best-known films were the late-1940’s cheapies he did with Louis Jordan but in the 1930’s he made a ridiculous film called The Horror that apparently was released only in Japan until a decade later, when he cut it down to four reels, printed on 16 mm and offered it to church groups as a cautionary anti-alcoholism film called John the Drunkard!)

Pollard’s direction and the script by John E. Gordon and Daniel Kusell (never heard of any of these people? There’s a reason for that) plod along as Ninga gets killed, presumably by his lover Klepon’s husband, only no one seems interested in apprehending the killer and the plot’s focus stays on just how, if at all, Sarna is going to get out of her social obligation to marry the creep Uraka and who she’s going to end up with if she can finagle her way out of the wedding. Sarna has the brilliant idea of hiding her new American boyfriend Lt. Richard Taber in a giant teak-and-gold box her native squeeze Tamor has given her as a wedding present; Taber makes sure to tell Sarna not to lock the box so he can get out of it when he needs to, but Uraka catches on, grabs the key from Sarna and locks the box himself, then tells two of his manservants that after the wedding they’re supposed to carry the box over a nearby bridge and “accidentally” lose control of it and throw it over the bridge so its occupant will drown. All ends well, as Taber somehow makes it out of the box and throws Uraka into it, thereby ensuring that he will meet the fate he decreed for either Taber or Tamor, he didn’t seem to care which, and then after we’ve heard that story we cut back to the interior of the plane (ya remember the plane?) and Taber’s friend is asking him what happened to the girl on the island, and whether he’s got a girl waiting for him back home à la the “real American wife” Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton insisted he’d someday marry in Madama Butterfly. Taber says he indeed has a girl waiting for him, but not back home, and the camera pans to a shot of Sarna — that’s right, Eva Gabor in all her black-wigged glory — lying recumbent on a couch (a couch? On an airliner? I’m not making this up, you know!). I had trouble staying awake through Love Island and it wasn’t just my general level of exhaustion, either; one laments the waste of Paul Valentine’s talents on crap like this (he got a splendid start in great movies like Out of the Past and House of Strangers but never got the kinds of parts he deserved after that), and as for Eva Gabor … well, one imdb.com reviewer noted that she seemed to have less of an accent here than she did on her TV series Green Acres, though that’s less important than the fact that she had no idea how to act in 1952 and she didn’t learn to act any better in the intervening 14 years between those two credits!

Monday, July 9, 2018

Murdered at 17 (N.B. Thrillling Films, Lifetime, 2018)

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

Last night’s Lifetime “premiere” was of a film called Murdered at 17, co-written by Christine Conradt (she came up with the “original” story in collaboration with Gemma Holdway and Cyndi Pass, but wrote the actual script solo) and directed by her frequent collaborator Curtis Crawford. Alas, though Murdered at 17 had its points it wasn’t anywhere nearly as good as Lifetime’s previous “premiere” Killer Single Dad, which I’d watched the night before on its second go-round and which, though not written by Conradt, had more of the multidimensional characterizations (especially of the villain) she’s known for than her script for Murdered at 17. I was also struck by the irony that this was the second Lifetime “premiere” in a row in which the bad guy was named Jake; here he’s Jake Campali (Blake Burt), who grew up in a hellish family with a crazy disciplinarian father who abused him physically and psychologically (though not sexually) and denied him the money to go to college. Jake managed to learn enough computer skills, despite the lack of college, that at age 17 he wrote a killer app he was able to sell to a major company and get enough to live on for the rest of his life — and he spent the money much the way you’d expect a young straight boy in his late teens to on a palatial home, a nice car (a black Mercedes-Benz sports model that virtually becomes a character in the film) and a lot of outings to strip clubs. All that changes — well, at least the strip clubs part does — when he meets 17-year-old high-school student Brooke Emerson (Cristine Prosperi) and immediately decides she’s the girl of his dreams, the one predestined to share his life (and his fortune).

Murdered at 17 begins with one of its most powerful scenes: a blonde woman comes to visit Jake and tells him she’s his sister Francine (Allison Graham) and their father Mike (Rick Amsbury) is dying of cancer and needs money for his health care bills. Jake makes it clear to her that as far as he’s concerned, the sooner their dad croaks the better he’ll like it, and he vividly narrates his tales of childhood abuse to explain why he can’t wait for his dad to die. Alas, we really don’t get much more of a sense of “what makes Jake run” than this, and Conradt, Crawford and their collaborators soon cut to the romantic politics at Brooke’s high school. Brooke’s friend Maddie Finley (Emily Galley) is upset with Brooke because Maddie’s ex-boyfriend Tryg Bailey (Mike Stechyson) sent Brooke a text reading, “Hi, gorgeous!” Just why Maddie should be so upset that a guy she’s already dumped should be sending romantic texts to her friend is a bit of a mystery, but it soon developed that Tryg has long had the hots for Brooke and Maddie never amounted to any more than “sloppy seconds” for him. Alas for Tryg, Brooke has also attracted the attentions of Jake, and compared to a hot young blond with a baby face, a multi-million dollar fortune and a fancy car, Tryg is definitely out of his league in the competition. Jake takes Brooke on a series of dates and keeps her out for long periods that unnerve her mom Carley (Susan Emerson, top-billed), though mom feels a good deal better about Jake as her daughter’s boyfriend once she has him over for dinner and he turns on the charm for her and Brooke’s stepfather. At one of their dinner dates Jake and Brooke go to a fancy restaurant named Wally’s (which the friend I was watching this movie with thought sounded more like the name of a diner, and whose interior was convincing but the exterior was represented by one of Lifetime’s usual suburban-home exteriors with just a free-standing sign outside supposedly identifying it as a public business) and Tryg turns up there because he works at Wally’s as a waiter. Jake contemptuously dismisses him and, just to make sure he gets the point, Jake puts on a black sweater and a hood and corners Tryg in the parking lot after he gets off work, clubbing him with a tire iron and stealing his wallet. (Remember, this is a guy who has more money than God.)

Later Brooke goes to a party being hosted by one of her age-peer and class-peer friends, Riley Pratt (Blake Canning), and this being a teen party in a Lifetime movie there’s a lot of drinking, drugging and screwing going on (though this is also one of those “wild” movie parties whose function seems to be to make the demi-monde look so boring real-life teen viewers are discouraged from entering it themselves) and Brooke, who’s not supposed to be drinking at all because she’s on psych meds for a condition called “IED” (“Impulsive Explosive Disorder” — I’d never heard of it before and the only context in which I’d heard “IED” before was as an acronym for “Improvised Explosive Devices,” the homemade bombs with which Iraqi resisters bedeviled U.S. and allied forces in the second Iraq War in the early 2000’s) that makes her explode with rage at the slightest provocation, has way too much to drink and passes out in an upstairs bedroom. Later Brooke’s friend turned enemy Maddie (ya remember Maddie?) ends up passing out in the same bed, and Jake, who wasn’t invited to the party but turned up anyway, grabs a knife from the kitchen and stabs Maddie to death while Brooke obliviously sleeps through it all. He then leaves the bloody knife next to Brooke so that when she comes to she’ll think she committed the crime — and Brooke, instead of doing the obviously sensible thing and calling the police, wraps the bloody knife in a blood-spattered pillowcase and dumps the evidence in a dumpster. Alas, Jake is following her and immediately retrieves the evidence from the dumpster, then tells Brooke that he’s keeping it safe and he’ll sit on it if Brooke agrees to marry him (he even gives her an over-large engagement ring to seal the deal!) but will give it to the cops if she doesn’t.

It ends with a scene in which Brooke, carrying a gun, calls Jake and asks him to meet her at a truck stop on the outskirts of town. In the phone call she says she’s going to commit suicide because she can’t stand the stress of being a murder suspect anymore, and she tells him she’s left a note for her mom and stepdad explaining what she’s going to do and why. Jake duly shows up, admits to Brooke that he killed Maddie, then grabs the gun away from her — only just then the police arrive on the scene and tell Jake to drop the gun and surrender. Brooke’s mom and stepfather are also on the scene — obviously they were in on the plot to entrap Jake into confessing so the cops could arrest him — and when Jake briefly considers shooting it out with the cops, Brooke tells him, “Did you really think I’d give a killer a loaded gun?” Realizing he doesn’t have a chance, Jake surrenders — and there’s a chilling final scene in which Jake’s dad and sister are going through his stuff and laughing at the scam they tried to pull on him in the opening scene. “What sort of cancer was I supposed to have had, anyway?” Jake’s father says, as we realize that these incredibly creepy people who were responsible for Jake’s homicidal madness in the first place are going to get all his money. Murdered at 17 has its appeal, but especially after Killer Single Dad it was a major disappointment; Jake Campali simply isn’t as interesting a villain as Garrett Penderson, and Blake Burt gives him a one-dimensional reading of perpetual spoiled-brat irritation whenever anything doesn’t go his way — a far cry from Cameron Jebo’s subtle, nuanced performance as the psycho in Killer Single Dad. This is especially disappointing coming from Christine Conradt, whose scripts are usually above Lifetime’s norm precisely in giving multidimensionality to the characters — only in this case Ken Sanders and Daniel West were the writers who gave us a complex and even quasi-sympathetic villain character and Conradt and her co-authors who didn’t.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Room for Murder (Film Biscuit, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

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

Last night’s Lifetime “premiere” movie was a pretty typical tale called Room for Murder in which college student Kristen Atherton (Lorynn York, dark-haired) returns to the small town in which she grew up with her tail between her legs after she failed to get an on-campus job that was crucial to her being able to stay in her college town for the summer and afford to attend the next year. She shows up at the home of her mother Moira (Tanya Clarke, blonde) expecting to be able to spend the summer staying in her old room, only she finds out that mom has rented out the room to a mysterious stranger named Jake (James Maslow, top-billed). What’s more, she finds out that Jake is considerably more than just Moira’s roommate: first she catches them locking lips on the back stairs, and then she gets kept awake all night by the sound of them fucking. Kristen is naturally shocked at the thought of her mom having an affair with a man just two years older than Kristen herself — indeed, her adjustment to her mom’s new studly lover while Kristen herself has rotten luck with men, though a guy she used to date when she lived in town and was still in high school, Ryan Jessop (Adam Huber), is still interested in her even though she broke up with him when she caught him having sex with someone else, might in itself have made for an interesting movie. Alas, this is Lifetime and some of their veteran producers, directors and writers — the director is Rob Schmidt and the writer Jed Seidel — who know the formula well enough that instead of the ambiguous title they shot the film under, The Boarder, they had to call it Room for Murder and duly supply a few murders. When she isn’t too busy tearing up the sheets with her hot new lover, Moira owns a beauty salon in town and should be making a lot of money, only she’s losing it all and doesn’t know why. Kristen offers to help her sort her books and decides that the reason Moira’s salon isn’t profitable is she’s got too many employees working too long shifts and collecting mandatory overtime, so Kristen lowers the boom on her mom and tells her she’s got to start either cutting people’s hours back or laying them off altogether. The first person who gets the ax under Kristen’s regime is Moira’s friend and confidante Mi (Jenna Kanell) — once we see her on screen and register that she’s African-American we don’t hold out much hope for her life expectancy; somehow or other, we realize, she’s going to stumble onto the truth about Jake and he’s going to find out and kill her.

This duly happens when she’s walking by a laundromat and sees Jake removing clothes from a washer someone else is using; the someone else, another Black woman more heavy-set and darker-skinned than Mi, takes strong exception to this and Jake literally screams at her, losing his cool completely before he recovers his composure and offers to pay for her dryer load (which she, virtuously, refuses); Mi confronts him about this (instead of just observing it and then confiding to Moira, or calling the police — all too often Lifetime characters, both good and evil, do dumb things like that when the smart alternative is readily obvious to more than the most pea-brained audience members) and for her pains she’s strangled in a convenient alleyway and no one seems to find her body. Moira briefly wonders why Mi isn’t showing up for work but otherwise she just totally forgets about her, and so do the filmmakers! Kristen becomes convinced that Jake is a serial killer who targets joggers and strangles them in the middle of the night — and director Schmidt and writer Seidel go the Hitchcock route (not that I’m comparing them in terms of level of talent!) of letting us know from the outset that Jake is a killer and creating suspense not out of revealing who the murderer is at the end but making us wonder how the characters will find out what we already know and how many of the dramatis personae will end up as collateral damage before he’s finally brought to book. I’ll say one thing for Schmidt and Seidel: they give us lots of soft-core porn, not only between James Maslow and Tanya Clarke but between Adam Huber and Lorynn York as well — for, not knowing whom to turn to, Kristen goes to see her ex-boyfriend Ryan, who was a scapegrace ne’er-do-well when she left town but now has got hired onto the local police force. Accordingly Kristen steals a sneaker from Jake’s room that has red spots on it and gives it to Ryan to have it sent to a police lab and tested to see if it’s blood and, if so, if its DNA matches one of the mystery jogger-killer’s victims. Ryan says, “What will you give me for this?,” and his price is a dinner date, that soon enough blossoms into several dinner dates and then a lubricious sequence in which Adam Huber turns out actually to be nicer-looking than James Maslow (we get lots of shirtless shots of both of them, and Huber is more muscular and has bigger pecs: yum!). This is one Lifetime movie in which the hottest guy in the dramatis personae is not the villain, though frankly, until we actually saw Jake strangle Ni he and Ryan looked enough alike — both tall, slender, with dark hair and trimmed beards — I was waiting for a twist ending in which it would be Ryan who’d be the killer and Jake would save Kristen’s life by taking him on at the end.

The film begins with one of Lifetime’s sometimes engaging, sometimes annoying flash-forward prologues in which we see the front of the Atherton home with a young man in a cop’s uniform lying face-down in front of it, obviously wounded, and other cops driving to the door, finding him and calling in, “Officer down!” Then we get a typical Lifetime title reading Four Days Earlier, and it’s a wonder in some ways that Schmidt and Seidel crowd so many incidents and such a total breakdown of the Atherton family’s relations in just four days of filmic time — but though Room for Murder is O.K. entertainment (and the lubricious scenes of hot young men having their way with willing women definitely give it a boost — Lifetime has been cutting back on their soft-core porn lately and it’s nice to find it return!) it’s little more than that. Jake tells the Athertons that he’s a retired Wall Streeter who found working 70 hours a day just to make himself even more insanely rich than he already was too stifling and wanted to get out of that life — we never learn whether that’s true but he’s obviously not hurting for money, and we also learn that in his native Georgia he was tried for murder of a high-school classmate but was acquitted (though this is the clue that enables Kristen to trace him online and find out who he is), but aside from that he’s pretty much a blank. Interestingly, the Lifetime “premiere” movie scheduled for the very next day — Sunday, July 9 — is called Murdered at 17 and the character in that one who may or may not be the perpetrator of the titular murder is also named Jake!

Killer Single Dad (Lietime, 2018)

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

After watching this week’s Saturday “premiere” movie I caught up with last week’s much-hyped one, Killer Single Dad, and despite the ridiculous title it actually turned out to be quite good, considerably better than Room for Murder if only because it had a much more interesting and multidimensional villain. It was directed by Rob Malenfant (I used to make the unfair but obvious pun on his name, “Rob Malefactor,” but he actually turns in an excellent suspense job here) from a script by Ken Sanders (story, though it blessedly does not take place in Sanders’ “Whittendale universe”) and Daniel West (screenplay). The titular killer single dad is Garrett Penderson (Cameron Jebo), who as a college student in Georgia once made some quick money by making a sperm donation to the Breck Fertility Clinic under his real name, David Miller. Then disaster struck: he, his wife Natalie and the two kids they had conceived the old-fashioned way were involved in an auto accident and David a.k.a. Garrett was the sole survivor. Out of grief and rage over the loss of his entire family, he then conceived a crazy and ultimately evil but still understandable plan: he’d trace all the children conceived of his sperm donation, kidnap them and raise them as his own. When we first meet him he’s interviewing potential nannies and he hires an elderly woman named Olivia (played by a charming old British character actress named June Cole, who even gets a special credit — “And June Cole as ‘Olivia’,” indicating that she has some greater reputation than most of the other actors in this piece) to look after the one kid he actually has living with him. Then he fires her after he catches her breaking into his locked office door, which he demanded she stay out of because it contains a map of the United States with pins stuck in it indicating where the mothers are who have conceived children with his sperm, or are still pregnant therefrom. He settles in Los Angeles across the street from one such woman, Jennifer Monroe (Kaitlyn Black), who when director Malenfant cuts to her is in the middle of an argument with her husband Matt (Robert Parks-Valletta). It seems that Jennifer caught Matt kissing another woman, and while Matt insists that’s as far as it went, Jennifer doesn’t believe him and she wants him out of the house immediately. He stalks out, she starts having contractions and falls, and just then Garrett, who had been stalking the Monroes’ home looking for his best shot at grabbing the child once he’s born (it’s established that it’s a son and the Monroes have already named him Connor), sees her collapsed on the floor and calls 911, telling the dispatch operator that he witnessed the Monroes having a fight and he knocked her down. The cops and the ambulance arrives, and the latter takes Jennifer to the hospital, where she hears that if it hadn’t been for that nice young man who wanted to remain anonymous she’d probably be dead.

Jennifer gets out of the hospital and Connor, whose seemingly endless stash of cash to finance his operation is eventually explained by a $500,000 life insurance policy he and his late wife Natalie had on each other, leases the house across the street and moves his whole operation there, both the child we saw him kidnap in the opening scene and the one he’s going to grab in San Diego as the next step in his plan. Only things don’t go according to plan in San Diego: the woman he’s trying to kidnap his baby from catches him in the act, and he strangles her and then burns down her house. The crime gets reported in the media and the story reaches L.A. but no one in law enforcement knows who committed the crime or why. With Matt exiled and not in Jennifer’s good graces, Jennifer has her father John (Paul Messinger) move in with her and she accepts the help of Garrett, who assembles the Ikea (at least that’s what it looked like!) crib she and Matt had bought for the baby and otherwise helps her out around the house, even accompanying her to Lamaze birth classes after her dad, citing a bad back, begs off on getting this involved in her upcoming parenthood. Garrett invites Jennifer’s ex Matt to his home to settle things man-to-man, but then he hits himself over the head with a beer bottle and bashes his own face into a mirror so he can claim Matt assaulted him and get him arrested. Matt traces Garrett’s real name and learns the truth about him, but Jennifer still can’t stand him and won’t take his calls, and it’s only when the baby is about to be born that Garrett kidnaps her, takes her to a remote location in the country (yes, that’s right, he’s another Lifetime villain who has a remote location in the country!), where he plans to deliver her baby himself and then leave her to die. The baby is born safely but Matt is able to trace them, albeit when he shows up and grabs a beam hoping to use it as a weapon, Garrett easily takes it away from him and it’s Jennifer, showing a surprising amount of strength for someone who’s just given birth the really old-fashioned way with no hospital intervention and no anesthetic, who finally grabs a knife from the bizarre set of old-style medical tools Garrett had brought if he needed them for the birth, and stabs him to death — whereupon we see Garrett having a vision of playing with his two original, and long since dead, children as he expires.

What makes Killer Single Dad better than most Lifetime movies is not only the multidimensionality of the writing — Garrett becomes a Christine Conradt-style villain, with understandable motives that make us feel sorry for him even as we hate him — and the superb acting of Cameron Jebo as Garrett. Blond-haired and baby-faced instead of darkly handsome and butch like most Lifetime bad guys, Jebo probably has the most disarming and low-keyed manner of any movie psycho since Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins rewrote the book of how to play homicidal maniacs on screen in Psycho. His overall manner is so cool that it’s genuinely surprising on the few occasions he does lose his temper — I liked Seidel’s touch of having him rage at getting caught in traffic and thereby risking being delayed on his current psycho errand, and then paralleling that with a shot of Matt losing his temper at getting caught in traffic while he’s racing to rescue Jennifer from Garrett — and between them, Seidel as writer and Jebo as star manage to put a surprising amount of flesh on the bare bones of a typical Lifetime villain. Cameron Jebo is one actor who deserves a route out of the Lifetime ghetto and onto full-fledged stardom!

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Dead Reckoning: War, Crime and Justice from World War II to the War on Terror (Saybrook Productions, WNET, PBS, 2017)

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

Earlier in the week Charles and I had watched an hour-long documentary on PBS with the awkwardly long title Dead Reckoning: War, Crime and Justice from World War II to the War on Terror. What I hadn’t realized is that what we were watching was the last episode in a three-part series, dealing mostly with the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the role of one of the original Nuremberg prosecutors in creating it, and also the special tribunal set up to punish Slobodan Milosevic and the other perpetrators of the genocides in the former republics of Yugoslavia (I write “genocides,” plural, because it seemed as if the leaders of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the breakaway “Republika Srpska” of Serbs within Bosnia were seemingly competing to kill the most people) and also the way the genocide in Rwanda against the minority Tutsis by the majority Hutus was dealt with. One of the things that struck me most about this show was the way the rhetoric used by the Serb, Croat and especially the Rwandan government used to incite their people to kill sounded awfully like the rhetoric President Trump is using against immigrants; the Hutu leaders of Rwanda called the Tutsis “cockroaches” and Trump has said Central American immigrants “infest” our country. Whether this is Trump’s intent or not, this kind of name-calling, dehumanizing rhetoric is the usual way genocide starts: compare people to insects, vermin or scum and you ready your population to kill them en masse

The other interesting point about this show was the Rwandan way of dealing with their genocide, which was so massive it was estimated that one-quarter of Rwanda’s 8 million people had participated in the killing. It seems to have dawned on the international community that it would be impossible to prosecute the murderers according to Western ideas of justice without decimating the population and continuing the hatreds that had sparked the killing in the first place. So the aid workers and the Rwandans themselves seized on a traditional tribal system of justice, the gacaca (pronounced “Guh-CHA-cha”), in which members of a tribal community themselves sit in judgment over an accused person and are more interested in determining whether the defendant is truly sorry for what he’s done than whether he can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to have done it. The most poignant story dealt with a Tutsi man who had married a Hutu woman, gone to their family gatherings countless times, then ended up on the wrong side of the genocide when his brother-in-law became an enthusiastic death squad leader and racked up a huge number of casualties. The Tutsi barely escaped the murderous wrath of his brother-in-law when the mayor of their village abruptly changed from opposing the genocide to supporting it and even participating in it, and the Hutu brother-in-law claimed thousands of victims until he fled the country following the restoration of order and something resembling law. Then he returned and faced the gacaca court in his own district, with the brother-in-law who had fled for his life from him appearing as one of the key witnesses against him. The defendant eventually broke down, pleaded guilty and confessed, and he did a good enough job convincing the people sitting in judgment against him in the gacaca that he deserved a murder sentence of only 10 years instead of the 40 years genocide participants who didn’t confess were given. In the end, there’s a fascinating final scene in which the Tutsi victim reconciles with the Hutu brother-in-law who tried to kill him and they’re even going to family gatherings together again. Like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commissions — formed on the orders of the African National Congress under the country’s first Black President, Nelson Mandela — the gacacas aimed at reconstructing society and putting the past behind them more than punishing the perpetrators as a means of creating “closure” (a horrible term) for the victims — every time I hear a relative of a murdered family member tell a reporter they need to see the killer executed so they can have “closure,” I pity them for having not only suffered the loss of their loved one but themselves having curdled so much inside they need to see blood spilled to assuage their own pain. 

The gacacas are the good news in a program that otherwise is one of those all too common shows these days that depict the vileness of humanity with precious little evidence of its good: the International Criminal Court is a great idea on paper but, like the original League of Nations after World War I, it suffers from the refusal of the United States to participate. Even before Trump, the prospect of getting enough U.S. Senators to ratify the treaty creating the Court was so hopeless no President dared try to accomplish it — the main concern was the possibility that somewhere, somehow, some U.S. servicemember might actually be punished for a crime against humanity in a foreign tribunal, and the United States of America is too much of an empire ever to let its citizens be held to account overseas. (One demand the U.S. makes whenever it sites a military base in another country is that the host country’s government agrees not to prosecute U.S. servicemembers for any crime they may commit there; instead, the U.S. retains sole jurisdiction over the alleged misdeeds of its servicemembers. This was the main reason the U.S. didn’t stay in Iraq after the George W. Bush administration left office: the new Iraqi government wouldn’t give us the right of extraterritoriality and so the U.S. said fine, then you don’t get our continued presence in the country.) I still have a hard time with the whole concept of “international law” — one could say about international law what Mahatma Gandhi famously said about Western civilization, “It would be a good idea” — “international law” is nothing more than a set of norms countries pay lip service to, or don’t, and we currently have a U.S. President that in terms of civilized norms of how you deal with other countries not only breaks them but boasts about it — just as he’s said he not only wants to resume waterboarding accused terrorists but wants to do worse to them, in the sort of “gleeful cruelty” Jon Stewart, in a recent guest appearance on Stephen Colbert’s show, said was the hallmark of virtually everything Donald Trump says or does.

Danger on the Air (Universal, 1937)

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

Over the past week Charles and I have watched a couple of interesting movies we downloaded from public-domain sources. One was Danger on the Air, a 1937 “B” production from Universal co-financed with Doubleday, the book publishing company which had a mystery series called the “Crime Club” (as opposed to a rival publisher’s “Clue Club,” which had a deal with Warner Bros.). Universal made eight “Crime Club” films in 1937 and 1938, the first under an independent production deal with Irving Starr — which meant that Starr, not Universal, had the copyrights on them and they slipped into the public domain after the original term of their copyrights, which was then 28 years with an option to renew for another 28, expired. For the second four Universal took over the production themselves, though with Starr still in charge as an in-house producer, and therefore they retained ownership of the copyrights (and still do). As a blog about the Doubleday Crime Club series (https://the-crime-club.blogspot.com/2010/08/crime-club-mystery-films-from-universal.html?showComment=1530671169874#c2884286387545299686) explained, “Each film was based on a popular mystery novel that had been published in hardcover under Doubleday’s Crime Club imprint. You could buy Crime Club books at bookstores or get them in the mail as a subscriber. Beginning in 1928, Crime Club released four books per month. One book each month was designated the ‘Crime Club Selection,’ and that book was automatically sent to subscribers, just like the Book-of-the Month club.” Danger in the Air was based on a satirical mystery about the world of radio called Death Comes to Mr. Kluck signed by “Xantippe,” which according to the Wikipedia page (not the imdb.com page!) on the film turns out to have been a pseudonym for radio writer Edith Meiser. 

Given how savagely the film depicts the world of radio in general and the prima donna antics of commercial sponsors in particular, one can readily see why Meiser had to sign her book with a pseudonym (derived from the real Xantippe — sometimes spelled Xanthippe — who was the wife of Socrates, though she probably had a lot of lonely afternoons and evenings while he was hanging out with the hot young boys in the gymnasium!); had word got round in the radio world of how she was writing about them, she’d have never worked again! Meiser’s book was adapted for the film by Betty Laidlaw and Robert Lively, and directed by Otis Garrett (a better-than-average journeyman who helmed a lot of the Crime Club movies), though the cast was singularly low-voltage. The stars were Universal contractee Nan Grey and recent Warners washout Donald Woods (at his home studio he’d played mostly petty villains, though occasionally he got to do better things — he was the good brother to James Cagney’s bad brother in The Public Enemy and he also got to play Perry Mason in the last of the six 1930’s “B”’s Warners made based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s character — films which Gardner hated because they made Mason too much of a gentleman instead of the roughneck he’d conceived and Raymond Burr vividly realized on the 1950’s TV series) playing engaged but not-yet-married couple Christina “Steenie” MacCorkle and Benjamin Franklin Butts. (Just how did Universal get away with his last name? Where were the Production Code people when we really needed them?) They work in sponsor relations at a large radio station, and their main responsibility is the proper care and feeding of the enormous ego of Caesar Kluck (Berton Churchill), whose soft-drink company sponsors the station’s most popular program. Kluck is an egomaniac who insists on distributing balloons with his picture on them to all and sundry, and while it’s a common enough trope of mystery fiction to have the impending murder victim be so hateful and vicious to so many people there are plenty of other characters in the dramatis personae who have reasons for wanting him dead, few stories have pushed it as far as this one — Kluck is so ridiculously hateful that by the time he’s found alone in a locked studio room (yes, this is a “locked-room mystery”) dead of asphyxiation, we’re actually relieved to be rid of him. 

Most of the movie consists of various doings, misdoings and other events at the radio station, including a character almost as annoying as Kluck — Harry Lake (Peter Lind Hayes), an office boy at the station who’s trying to get on the air and thinks his ticket to doing so will be his repertoire of celebrity impressions. He does a reasonably convincing Bing Crosby, but most of his screen time is just a bother and it’s hard to recall that Peter Lind Hayes actually showed quite a bit more personality and talent in some of his other films, both before this one (notably his Warner Bros. musical shorts in the 1930’s, frequently paired with his real-life mother Grace Hayes) and after (notably The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, in which he plays a good but naïve plumber in love with a war widow played by his real-life wife, Mary Healy). One of the nastier things Kluck is doing is spreading rumors about disease epidemics allegedly infecting the workers of his competitors, and in at least one case this was so successful that a rival soft-drink CEO committed suicide after Kluck’s rumors drove his company out of business. Ms. MacCorkle and Mr. Butts eventually realize that Kluck was killed by poison gas concealed in one of the Kluck balloons, and when another victim is found — the station’s elderly janitor, played under a lot of age makeup by the young Lee J. Cobb — Our Hero and Heroine finally figure it out: the killer is Dave Chapman (William Lundigan), and his motive was that he was the son of the CEO who killed himself due to Kluck’s machinations. Since he had an unusually good speaking voice, he got a job at the radio station, bided his time, and eventually got his chance to bring death to Mr. Kluck. Danger on the Air is a pretty good movie, with some inventive camera shots by the young Stanley Cortez (it was apparently both this film and the 1941 horror-comedy The Black Cat that inspired Orson Welles to hire him to shoot The Magnificent Ambersons), and while the denouement isn’t particularly exciting it at least makes sense — but I still think they should have done something about the leading male character’s regrettable last name!

Hi Diddle Diddle (Andew Stone Productions/United Artists, 1943)

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

Earlier in the week Charles and I had watched a truly bizarre movie from Andrew Stone Productions in 1943, Hi Diddle Diddle, starring Adolphe Menjou as Col. Hector Phyffe, scapegrace father of Navy servicemember Sonny Phyffe (Dennis O’Keefe), who’s in town on a leave and hopes to marry his girlfriend Janie Prescott (Martha Scott) before he has to ship out again. The film’s irreverence is showcased by its opening sequence, in which a cartoon introduction gives way to a series of shots of O’Keefe saying to Scott, “This time it’s going to be different!,” in a variety of locations, which suggests that what we’re about to see is going to be a film in which O’Keefe and Scott are playing a couple of movie stars attempting to sustain a relationship in the face of career pressures. The running gag’s payoff comes in the last clip, when it’s she who says to him, “This time it’s going to be different!” The film’s main plot is that Hector is a scapegrace who puts on elaborate pretenses to make people think he has money when he really doesn’t, while the Prescotts are genuinely rich and intend to throw a lavish wedding for their daughter —and they expect Hector to come up with a gift sufficiently elaborate and expensive to back up his pretensions. Hector brings in a bouquet the management of the local opera company has given to his wife, diva Genya Smetana (Pola Negri, attempting a comeback a decade after her starring run in silent films in Europe and the U.S. was brought to a screeching halt by the advent of sound — I can’t say for sure whether the singing voice is her own but it’s good enough we can believe in her as an opera star as she warbles bits of Wagner from Tannhäuser and Walküre), and presents it to Janie — but it also contained an incredibly valuable diamond bracelet, while the replacement bouquet Hector gets her is a bunch of old, dying flowers with a note saying that this is what the giver thinks of her — and of course she thinks she’s been insulted and responds by threatening to cancel out of her current round of performances. Most of the movie is about a stock deal involving Atlas International Copper, a worthless stock Hector tries to talk up to various investors in hopes that he can make a killing bidding up its price by spreading rumors that the company has discovered a new vein of copper. 

Andrew Stone was one of those filmmakers who did his best work in his early “B” years before he got bigger budgets and used them to make more pretentious and more tacky entertainments. His best-known film is probably The Last Voyage (1960), a doomed-ocean-liner tale anticipating The Poseidon Adventure and the James Cameron Titanic for which, not content to do special-effects work with models, Stone and his wife and co-producer Virginia bought an actual ocean liner that was about to be scrapped, filmed the entire movie aboard it and sank it for real to provide their film’s climax. There’s also some French-farce aspects as Sonny and Janie attempt to sneak out for a honeymoon under World War II rationing conditions (earlier it was established that every guest to their wedding had to contribute food coupons!) and finally spend the wedding night in what they hope will be private circumstances in the Prescott home, and a typically ditzy performance by Billie Burke as Janie’s mother, who in her best scene shows off her own pretensions at opera singing and does a (mostly) wordless version of “Je suis Titania” from Ambroïse Thomas’s Mignon. There’s also a female character who pops in at the oddest places and breaks the frame when she explains both to the characters and to us, “I’m a friend of the director. He said he’d put me in the movie everywhere he could.” Hi Diddle Diddle could have been a good deal better with W. C. Fields in Menjou’s role — Fields was super-skilled at playing this sort of lovable rogue whereas Menjou was always too testy for this sort of part, as if he could do the rogue superbly but had trouble with the lovable part — and I would have liked a Bank Dick-style plot twist at the end in which it turns out that Atlas International Copper really did find a new strain of ore and therefore Sonny didn’t help swindle his new in-laws by selling them worthless stock. But even as it stands it’s a film of almost Sturgesian weirdness, an expert deconstruction of some of film’s hoariest conventions and a welcome return to screwball comedy at a time when most of the major studios had left it for dead.

Friday, July 6, 2018

NBC Fourth of July Celebration (NBC-TV, aired July 4, 2018)

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

Given that Cox Cable’s horrible change to “all-digital” signals has made it impossible for me to record shows for later viewing (I could do that, but only in “the cloud” and only by paying Cox yet more money on an already astronomical bill) about all I can do with the conflicting Fourth of July programs is to do what I did both last year and this — watch the first hour and a half of NBC’s show, which includes all the musical performers, then just before they begin their display of fireworks over the New York sky switch to the PBS A Capitol Fourth and watch their entire show, including the fireworks over the Washington, D.C. sky. The NBC telecast was clearly aimed at a younger demographic than the PBS one (no surprise there!) and featured Kelly Clarkson holding forth at a big venue in New York City, Blake Shelton from the Grand Old Opry stage in Nashville, a rock band I’d never heard of called American Authors from a rooftop concert in New York City (I inevitably joked, “Do they think that if they play on a rooftop people will think they’re the next Beatles?” — and later, when a banjo featured prominently in their sound, “Do they think that if they have a banjo people will think they’re the next Mumford and Sons?”), Keith Urban (who sounded even less “country” than Blake Shelton did; with his long dirty-blond hair he both looked and sounded like he was trying to take over Tom Petty’s market slot now that the original is dead) from a venue in Clarkston, Michigan (and no, I’d never heard of it before either!), Ricky Martin from Las Vegas, and a show-closer from that rooftop with Hamilton cast member Brandon Victor Dixon and the Harlem Gospel Choir (they were billed in the opening as the “World-Famous Harlem Gospel Choir,” which led Charles and I to the same kinds of jokes we’d made about the “World-Famous Glenn Miller Orchestra,” until we realized that in this case “World-Famous” was simply a hyped designation and not part of the Harlem Gospel Choir’s actual name).

The music was generally appealing but not great; it began with arguably the greatest song of the night, Kelly Clarkson’s Nietzschean anthem “Stronger” (as in “What doesn’t kill you makes you … ”), which came out a few years ago and seemed to have a gutsiness missing in most pop music these days. Then the show cut to Blake Shelton (his ability to get the affections of far more charismatic, talented and sexy women than he — first Miranda Lambert and now Gwen Stefani — never ceases to amaze me) and his song “Honey Bee,” a nice novelty but also one whose rather sexist attitude towards male-female relationships makes me think that’s why Miranda left him. Next up was American Authors with a song called “The Best Day of My Life” that if they’d used a synthesizer would have sounded like 1980’s pop-rock — in a way it came off as The Knack redux, which wasn’t a bad thing except that, like The Knack, it meant the song was pure ear candy, a pleasant set of sounds that didn’t really compel or move. After that they showed Keith Urban with one of his neo-Tom Petty numbers called “Never Coming Down,” and then they trotted out Ricky Martin for his signature hit “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” It’s still a fun song, and though Ricky Martin is stouter than he was in his prime, his voice is more gravelly and he doesn’t move as well, that didn’t matter much because he was surrounded by an excellent chorus line in a quite spectacular Vegas production that actually jump-started this old song into some life.

The next song was a nondescript piece by Blake Shelton called “Gonna,” and then it was back to the New York City rooftop for American Authors and a song called “Deep Water,” considerably better than “The Best Day of My Life” largely because they added some Black background singers (perhaps members of the Harlem Gospel Choir waiting to perform “America, the Beautiful” later in the show?) and achieved a beautiful church-rooted feel that helped their song rank with Clarkson’s quite different “Stronger” as the best music of the night. Just about anything would have seemed like an anticlimax, and in fact the show cut back to Clarkston, Michigan for Keith Urban doing a song called “Going Home” that was sort of a duet with Julia Michaels. I say “sort of a duet” because Michaels sang with Urban on his record of it, so his live audiences would expect to hear her, but since she’s apparently too big a star actually to tour with her (though I’ll have to take that on faith since I’ve never heard of her before) Urban sang his part live but hers came via a recorded voice and a film clip shown above the stage. Then Clarkson — whom I admire not only for the strength of her voice and the gutsiness of her songs but her willingness, like Adele, to appear as a full-figured woman instead of starving herself to look like a concentration-camp survivor — sang a song I originally thought I heard as “Hate” (which I can imagine as a song title, especially about a breakup) but actually turned out to be “Heat.” The show then cut back to Las Vegas for Ricky Martin doing his other big hit, “Shake Your Bon Bon,” which got cut off early as the technical people at NBC faded it out during the coda to his song to hurry up and get the commercials in. After that it was back to Nashville for Blake Shelton to sing a song reflecting someone else’s sexism — Jerry Reed’s “She Got the Gold Mine (I Got the Shaft)” — an odd song choice for someone who’s recently been through a highly publicized divorce.

That wrapped up the musical portions of the special, though there were also some supposedly “inspirational” segments in which various ordinary people (including the Italian-born inventor of the Philadelphia cheese-steak sandwich) talked about what America meant to them — if President Trump was watching he probably would have regarded these segments as more examples of the “fake news media”’s bias against him, since they emphasized how immigrants have built this country and made positive contributions to America. A decade ago these would have been relatively uncontroversial sentiments for a Fourth of July TV special, but in the modern era in which a regime fundamentally opposed to this vision of America reigns supreme and high-handedly separates children from their parents and threatens to reunite the families only if they self-deport, run by a President who wants his Homeland Security Secretary to tell prospective immigrants, “We’re closed,” the idea that immigrants — especially immigrants of color — are actually good for this country and don’t constitute, as this President has unforgettably called them, an “infestation” (the sort of language that’s usually the first step towards demonizing a minority group so the majority can be built up to hate them — the final step in that process is all too often a genocide), is a classic example of what George Orwell called oldthink, the sort of lingering trace of humanity the current rulers are trying to eliminate from the population once and for all. Aside from the traces of an older, more humanistic attitude towards immigrants as helping rather than hurting America, the NBC Fourth of July special (the three-fourths of it I saw, anyway) was an engaging series of contemporary music performances, none of it downright annoying (at least partly because they blessedly avoided contaminating their program with any rappers, thank goodness; is there anyone out there, aside from the shrinking number of guilt-ridden white liberals with self-hatred complexes, who actually likes Kendrick Lamar?) but only two of which, Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” and American Authors’ “Deep Water,” even approached greatness.

38th Annual A Capitol Fourth, July 4, 2018 (Michael Colbert Classical Productions, WETA, PBS-TV, 2018)

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

As I noted above, the PBS A Capitol Fourth concert (the 38th annual, built around the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jack Everly, who’s led these concerts ever since their founder, Erich Kunzel, died) played mostly to an older audience demographic — though there were a few younger talents on display. The show opened with the vocal group Pentatonix — who present themselves as an a cappella ensemble, though when I first heard them I thought they were cheating by using a drum machine; it turns out that the “drum machine” is one of the Pentatonickers imitating one vocally, and I wish they would stop doing it because I think they sound better without it — with a song called, as best as I could figure it out (unlike NBC’s announcers, PBS’s were not always scrupulous in announcing just what song the musical act was about to play, nor did they run chyrons) either “Sing, Sing, Sing” or “Don’t Let ’Em Break You Down.” Then a young singer named Hylie Jean came out and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a.k.a. “To Anacreon in Heaven” (those are the words of the old British college drinking song for which John Stafford Smith composed the melody in the first place), after which the first of the great (or not-so-great) old-timers on the program came out. He was Jimmy Buffett and he came out surrounded on stage with a company of performers from his just-closed Broadway show Escape to Margaritaville (which apparently is not a Buffett bio-musical but a show about a serious, political woman and a party boy stranded together on a desert island — apparently, to quote Dorothy Parker’s lines about Sinclair Lewis’s novel Dodsworth, Buffett didn’t approach any friends with the outline of his story and say, “Stop me if you’ve heard this before”). Buffett is an O.K. entertainer who’s written one imperishably great song ­— you guessed it, “Margaritaville” — but for some reason the dramatis personae of his musical (including a young man who looked like Buffett recruited him to play Jimmy Buffett as a young man) turned Buffett’s cynical, despairing tears-in-my-cocktail lament into an anthem to good booze and good times.

Afterwards came a young country singer named Luke Combs who’s heavy-set and not especially sexy (I’ll confess that to me a lot of the attraction for modern-day “country” music is all those tall, hot, sexy guys in skin-tight jeans who are so much fun to look at I really don’t care whether then can sing or not!), and whose song “Honky Tonk Highway” doesn’t get many brownie points for originality either, but who sounded a lot more convincingly “country” than either Blake Shelton or Keith Urban had on the NBC show. “Honky Tonk Highway” had a part for pedal steel guitar, this once-paradigmatic country instrument that seems in recent years to have gone the way of the arpeggione or the ophicleide, and it occurred to me that if Hank Williams could be brought back to life long enough to hear it, he’d recognize it as part of his tradition where he wouldn’t feel that way about Shelton’s or Urban’s songs. The next group was the Temptations, or rather a rump group of Temptations recruited by the current owners of the name (basically whoever still owns or controls Motown Records) to do three of the original Temptations’ biggest hits, “Get Ready,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “My Girl.” The last two were written for the original Temptations by Smokey Robinson (though on “The Way You Do the Things You Do” he had helped from Bobby Rogers of Robinson’s own group, The Miracles), and a line like “If good looks were a minute, why then you could be an hour” is pure Smokey Robinson. The new Temptations may not have any personnel connections with the original ones (for years a Temptations group circulated with one old guy as one of the background singers who was at least 20 years the senior of everyone else on stage; he was Otis Williams, last survivor of the originals) but they suffered considerably less than the rump Four Tops that performed on one of the previous Capitol Fourth telecasts. I think that’s because the original Temptations’ lead singers, David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, both had great voices but didn’t have the distinctive sonic signature of the Four Tops’ original lead singer, Levi Stubbs, and therefore one could appreciate “My Girl” without thinking, “This guy doesn’t sound anything like David Ruffin” (he actually sounds a great deal like Ruffin!).The next performer up was opera star Renée Fleming, who like a number of other opera singers at the end of their careers decided to take a part in a musical and got to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the current Broadway revival of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s Carousel. (Charles resents the way this song has become a sort of acme of sentimentality when in the context of the full show it’s about a woman being haunted by the ghost of an abusive late husband.)

After that film composer John Williams appeared as a guest, though he didn’t take over the podium — Jack Everly continued to lead the orchestra as it played a medley of themes from the 1976 film Superman accompanied by clips from the film — which was fun even though if you’ve heard one John Williams score for an action-adventure movie you’ve pretty much heard them all. Next up was one of the relatively young people on the bill, country singer Lauren Alaina, doing her big hit “Road Less Traveled,” which didn’t impress me as much as “Honky Tonk Highway” had but was still nice enough. The next artist was superstar classical violinist Joshua Bell, who was billed as playing a “Spirit of ’76” medley but really just did variations on “Yankee Doodle,” probably the only song from 1776 most Americans are likely to know. Bell also played what was billed as a medley from Leonard Bernstein’s musical West Side Story — it was prefaced with a prclamation about Bernstein and his centennial from Chita Rivera, second lead in the original 1957 Broadway production of the show — but which included only two songs, “America” and “Tonight.” The number was accompanied by still photos of the stage original and also by clips from the 1961 multi-Academy Award-winning movie, which I remembered thinking was the greatest movie ever made when my age was still in single digits. When it was reissued in 1970 I was all too well aware that Natalie Wood was miscast (and it didn’t help that the vocal parts were totally beyond her and were dubbed by the ubiquitous Marni Nixon), Richard Beymer completely untalented, the second leads (George Chakiris and Rita Moreno) completely stole the film from the principals, and the marvelous opening scene shot in the streets of New York City (in a tenement district about to be torn down to make way for Lincoln Center) just made the rest of the movie, filmed in one T-shaped set in a Hollywood studio, look that much more “fake.” (That had been a problem with a previous film of a Bernstein musical, On the Town, too.) After the West Side Story tribute Pentatonix returned with a dull song called “Stay in the Middle,” and a young country singer named Andy Grammer — no relation to Kelsey — did an O.K. song called “Back Home” that was a hit single for him a few years ago.

The show’s main event was the Beach Boys — or at least what’s left of them: a few years ago all the surviving members of the Beach Boys (all the key ones, anyway) united for an album called That’s Why God Made the Radio and a concert tour that generated a live album which — praise be — encompassed material from the Beach Boys’ entire career, not just the early fun-surf-cars hits. Unfortunately, the epic love-hate relationship between the two most important Beach Boys, singer-songwriter-producer Brian Wilson and his cousin Mike Love, went south again after this project and Love, who in earlier legal proceedings had grabbed exclusive rights to the name “The Beach Boys,” organized his own rump group — though at this performance he paraded one other semi-original member, Bruce Johnston, who was recruited to fill in for Brian Wilson after the mercurial (to put it politely) Brian decided at the end of 1964 he would never appear live with the band again. Their repertoire was predictable — “I Get Around,” “Kokomo” (the novelty record they did in the 1980’s for a movie set in Florida, which seemed to appeal to the Beach Boys because it gave them the opportunity to celebrate a beach town on the other side of the country from their native California) and “Fun, Fun, Fun,” and their performance was — well, fun, fun, fun. After that came the more celebratory, patriotic parts of the concert: the last four minutes of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (complete with fireworks — the fireworks had actually begun during the closing bars of the Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun” — cannons and a chorus intoning the Tsarist Russian national anthem whenever the score quoted it), pop-gospel star CeCe Winans doing “God Bless America,” the orchestra in a medley of George M. Cohan’s “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and probably the dullest patriotic song ever written about America, “This Is My Country,” Renée Fleming doing “America, the Beautiful,” and the orchestra in John Philip Sousa’s greatest hits (“Stars and Stripes Forever” and “Washington Post March”), which closed out the telecast even though it’s possible the concert itself continued after the 90-minute PBS time slot. It was a fun event and a good way to celebrate America’s birthday.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

RBG (CNN Films, Storyville Films, Magnolia Pictures, 2018)

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

Charles looked up the local movie schedules and found that the Landmark Cinemas in Hillcrest were showing RBG, a 2018 documentary produced by CNN Films (who knew the pioneering cable news channel had a feature-films division?), Storyville Films and Magnolia Pictures about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That seemed like an appropriate movie to see on the Fourth of July, especially the second Fourth of July under the regime of President Donald Trump (or, as I’m sure he would prefer to be, Dictator Donald Trump), even though the outcome of the last election and the packing of the Supreme Court (and the federal courts in general) by Trump and his fellow Republicans made this film considerably sadder than it would have been if the election had gone the other way and Hillary Clinton had succeeded in cracking America’s last and thickest glass ceiling. Indeed, as I told Charles after it ended, the main open questions about Ruth Bader Ginsburg are how soon it will be before she croaks and which President Trump will get to appoint her successor — Donald or Ivanka. RBG was a quite good movie, co-directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West and effectively balanced between Justice Ginsburg’s personal life and her remarkable professional career. She met her husband Martin (universally called “Marty” or Yiddish-derived diminutives) at Cornell University in 1950, and judging from the photos we see, even in the loose-fitting and decidedly unflattering clothes college men generally wore at the time, he was a hunk and it’s no wonder Our Heroine fell hard for him — and stayed married to him for 53 years until his death in 2010. Ironically, though Marty ultimately died of cancer, he had had an earlier bout with it while he and Ruth were both still undergraduates and Ruth had just given birth to their first child, a daughter (they would have a son later), and he incredibly survived even though the cancer treatments of those days were pretty dire — they had radiation but chemotherapy didn’t exist yet and Ruth had to nurse her husband, raise their daughter and continue to pursue a college career. When she graduated from Cornell she applied to Harvard Law School and was told point-blank by the admissions officer, “Why are you taking a place that should go to a man?” Challenging sexism, and doing it politely but firmly, became the Leitmotif of Ginsburg’s career; she made Law Review in her second year at Harvard — an honor only open to the top 10 percent of her class — though she left Harvard after her second year to join her husband in New York City and finished her legal education at Columbia. (That seems to have been the only time Marty Ginsburg got his wife to move so he could pursue his career — he also became an attorney, though he specialized in tax law — instead of him having to move so she could pursue hers.) 

The film details the quite remarkable string of cases Ruth Bader Ginsburg litigated for women’s rights in the 1970’s — like such other liberal Supreme Court justices as Louis Brandeis and Thurgood Marshall, Ginsburg accomplished as much for the progressive legal agenda before joining the U.S. Supreme Court as she has on it — including one in which she took the case of Sharron Frontiero, a U.S. Air Force officer who demanded an on-base housing allowance and was told they were only given to men and she should consider herself lucky she was allowed in the Air Force at all. (I’ve read elsewhere that the Air Force is still the most sexist — and the most anti-Queer — of all the U.S. military services, and women who want to qualify as Air Force pilots are socially pressured into taking lower-prestige, lower-paying jobs such as radar operators or spotters instead.) Ginsburg won an 8-1 Supreme Court decision for Frontiero but was disappointed because only four of the nine Justices were willing to accept her reading of the Constitution as banning gender discrimination and making women a “suspect class” under civil-rights law. Frontiero was interviewed for this film and so was Stephen Weisenfeld, who lost his wife in childbirth and applied for Social Security survivor’s benefits so he could have the money to raise his daughter as a single father — and was told the benefit was called the “mother’s benefit” and was only available to women who’d lost their husbands, not men who lost their wives. Ginsburg took Weisenfeld’s case because she wanted to establish that discrimination based on gender was wrong and should be illegal no matter whether it harmed women or favored them, and in one of her most famous Supreme Court arguments she said that laws meant to “protect” women from the hazards of particular occupations or educational programs “put women not on a pedestal, but in a cage.” Ginsburg also represented women students in their legal battle to open the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) to women, and while she won the case she says in the movie she went to VMI years later and there were still men coming up to her saying, “Why did you ruin our school?” (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: nothing the human race has done to itself — not even all the wars and their accompanying destruction — has been as self-defeatingly stupid as our millennia-old refusal to use the full talents of the more than half of the human population that is female just because of some minor differences in reproductive plumbing.) 

Ginsburg got appointed to the Washington, D.C. Federal Court of Appeals in the late 1970’s by Jimmy Carter — who’s quoted in the film as saying that he looked at all the federal judges, found they all looked like him, and was determined to get both racial and gender diversity into the courts — and to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 by Bill Clinton. She was confirmed by a vote of 96 to 3 in the U.S. Senate — an amazing show of near-unanimity that seems virtually impossible in today’s highly polarized world — and there’s a comment from Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to the effect that he might not agree with Ginsburg, but that the American people had elected a Democratic President, he had a Constitutional prerogative to appoint a Supreme Court justice who agreed with his view of the law, and unless she was outrageously unqualified for intellectual or ethical reasons he was going to vote for her. Ginsburg came onto the Supreme Court hoping to be a consensus-builder and the justices she served with originally, including William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor, were conservatives but not so closed-minded she couldn’t at least discuss issues with them and sometimes reach a compromise. (Earlier, as an appeals court judge, she would present a fully written, cited, documented opinion on the case to the other two judges on the three-judge panels that generally decide federal appeals — and the other two judges would wonder, “Why are we here?,” though they’d generally decide she was right and would adopt her opinion.) That changed during the George W. Bush administration, when Rehnquist died, O’Connor retired and Bush’s appointees, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, were much more ideologically driven and hard-line in their Rightism, and from the consensus-builder she had hoped to be Ginsburg found herself in dissent on most of the big cases.  

RBG closes with a depiction of how Justice Ginsburg’s dissents have made her an icon not only among progressive law students but young people in general — earning her the nickname “Notorious R.B.G.,” after the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. (a clip from one of whose videos is included in the film). Asked how she feels about being compared to a rapper who was murdered, most likely as part of a gang rivalry (members of gangs associated with B.I.G. had just killed rival rapper Tupac Shakur, and Tupac’s gang affiliates killed B.I.G. in revenge — and people wonder why I consider “gangsta” rap an inherently immoral and evil art form?), Ginsburg replied that the two did have at least one thing in common: they both grew up in Brooklyn. The show touches on other aspects of Ginsburg’s life, including her love of opera (she and the late Justice Antonin Scalia bonded over opera and formed a close friendship despite their being ideological opposites on the Court; they even did a lecture tour together, a clip of which is shown here) and the controversial statement she made during the 2016 Presidential campaign in which she said that Donald Trump was unqualified for the office — which she had to take back after various commentators (and not just Right-wing ones, either) pointed out that as a Justice she might some day have to rule on a bill or an executive order signed by Trump and she shouldn’t say anything that might lead people to question her impartiality. RBG is a remarkable look at a remarkable life, though it’s also a profoundly sad film given how under President Trump and the Republican majorities in both houses of Congress the U.S. is moving at near-warp speed away from all the conceptions of justice Ginsburg has believed in and advanced through her entire career, both as an attorney and as a judge.

Monday, July 2, 2018

The Wrong Son (Stargazer Films, Synthetic Cinema International, Dominion Pictures, Lifetime, 2018)

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

I got my “fix” of Lifetime last night with the non-“premiere” film they showed at 10 p.m., The Wrong Son. As you might guess from the title, it’s another Lifetime movie in which the long-lost child of a pair of well-heeled suburban parents suddenly turns up after five, 10 or (in this case) 20 years missing — but is it the long-lost child or an impostor? Lost Boy was by far the best of these (at least the best of the ones I’ve seen) because it maintained the is-he-or-isn’t-he suspense longer than most of them and, even when the “lost boy” was definitively established as an impostor, who he really is and what he really wants are powerfully left ambiguous. This one was both written and directed by Nick Everhart, though Shane O’Brien got an “original story” credit, and it was well done, with finely honed acting — especially by Olivia D’Abo (one of the few Lifetime leads who actually has a reputation outside Lifetime) as the mother and a quite charismatic actor named Mason Dye, who was in Lifetime’s adaptation of V. C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic, as the phony Matt, her alleged son. It also benefits from Everhart’s neo-Gothic direction, in which many of the scenes are played almost as a horror film and there’s a peculiar color scheme. The plot deals with suburban mom Sarah Sherwood (Olivia D’Abo) and her picture-perfect husband, who one day take their two tow-headed blond sons Ian (Ryan Herzog) and Matt (Landan Riddell) to the beach, only Matt disappears. Twenty years pass, and Ian grows up to be a strikingly handsome blond man (Dan Amboyer), but a month before Ian is scheduled to get married, his dad dies in an auto accident. 

Later Ian’s sister-in-law is murdered by a mysterious woman who turns out to be the woman who kidnapped Matt from the beach so many years ago, and raised him as her son — though she keeps him captive in a remote mountain cabin (as Charles has asked during previous Lifetime movies, why do Lifetime villains always seem to own, or at least have access to, remote mountain cabins?) and sent her own son to impersonate him so she could grab the fortune Ian’s and Matt’s dad left him — and for which she’s eliminating the other heirs by sabotaging their cars, which she did first to the father and then to Ian — though Ian survived. There’s a marvelously suspenseful scene in which Ian’s wife solicits Matt’s (the false one) help in getting her husband into a bathtub while he’s so zonked out on painkillers he can’t move under his own power, and while she’s out of the room Ian’s body slips under the water’s surface and Matt is clearly torn over whether to pull him out or let him drown. But once again a potentially good premise for a thriller is let down by the over-the-top melodramatics of the writing: it turns out the bad girl’s motive is she dated Matt’s and Ian’s dad during high school and expected to marry him, only he married Sarah instead, and when she ran into the four of them at the beach that long-ago day she was so incensed at the way she thought Sarah was neglecting her kids that she just took one of them — and at the end the real Matt (David Garelick, who does look more like Dan Amboyer’s brother than Mason Dye!) grabs the gun with which his foster mom was going to kill his real one and is about to shoot her when Sarah talks him out of it, the foster mom tries to make a break for it but the police — summoned by Sarah’s friend and partner in her real-estate business — arrive just in time to take the villainess and the false Matt into custody. Once again a story premise that could have been compelling just gets sunk by the sheer weight of its melodrama — though Mason Dye is a hot enough actor (in both senses of the word!) I hope he gets some opportunities to show his stuff outside of Lifetime!

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Killer Ending (Booking Production/Lifetime, 2018)

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

Last night’s Lifetime “premiere” was a truly weird film called Killer Ending, yet another movie in which an author is the victim of either a mad stalker or a mad fan or a mad best friend or a … well, in this case it’s all of the above. Written and directed by Christie Will Wolf (which led me to joke early on, when one of the characters said, “You know what happens when you cry ‘Wolf’?,” and I replied, “Yes, the director of this movie comes!”) — at least that’s how it’s listed on the film’s imdb.com page, though I dimly recall another author being credited as co-writer on the script — Killer Ending is an oddball production in which it seems like virtually everyone else in her life is out to get prominent mystery and true crime writer Agatha Sayers (Emmanuelle Vaugier). When I first heard the character name — an obvious mashup of the real-life 20th Century British mystery writers Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers — I went, “Oh, no,” wondering if the lack of imagination Wolf and her collaborator had shown in naming their central character would carry through to the rest of their script. Yes and no: Killer Ending is one of those films that really can’t be called original — as I’ve written before about movies like this, I get the impression that the script was less written than compiled — but does achieve a sort of camp entertainment value by the sheer multiplicity of the clichés it taps and the unwitting surrealism of their juxtaposition. The most fascinating thing about Killer Ending is that so many people are stalking or otherwise invidiously invading Agatha Sayers’ life it’s hard to keep track of them all (and it’s hard to imagine how Wolf kept track of them all!). In the opening scene she’s typing away on a laptop, writing her new book, a sequel to her hit novel Apollo’s Arrow, while at the same time her daughter Sarah Sayers (Kayla Wallace) is being kidnapped by a hoodied stranger who comes to her house with a vase of yellow roses — a symbol of death from one of mom’s books — and, when she opens the door, overpowers her and takes her away. I had thought this was a marvelous satire of how writers get so wrapped up in their work that they can ignore any distraction, including the sounds of a kidnapping going on in the same house, until about a third of the way through the film, when the cops investigate the crime scene and Wolf finally made it clear this was not the same house: mom was working on her book at her own home while her daughter was being kidnapped in the very similar residence she was living in while she had gone away to college (the improbably named “Georgia Blue University,” supposedly in Seattle, though it was actually Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, Canada).

In addition to her mystery kidnapper, Sarah Sayers is being stalked by Harmon Gillette (Woody Jeffreys), a middle-aged and rather seedy guy who got thrown out of Georgia Blue as a student 20 years earlier but has contacted her by claiming to be her professor in an investigative journalism class — only when mom checks with the school she finds out there is no “Professor Harmon” working there and they don’t even have a journalism department, much less an investigative journalism class. When he isn’t stalking Sarah Sayers he’s stalking her mom, secretly photographing her and the people around her and posting his pictures all over his walls in one of the classic ways moviemakers depict sick and alienated people. Agatha Sayers is also broke, thanks to her business manager, Max Finkel (Trevor Lerner), who’s embezzled all her money and forced her to self-publish the book she’s working on now as well as threatening to sue him. In the midst of all this maelstrom, Agatha is almost literally picked up at a book signing by Caroline Villos (Chelsea Hobbs), a woman with platinum-blonde hair and a forward manner who offers to become her assistant, helping her edit the book and also running errands for her in her personal life. The moment that happens, anyone with a familiarity with previous Lifetime movies (especially The Perfect … series written by Christine Conradt) knows what’s going to happen: the seemingly “perfect” assistant is going to turn out to be the stalker from hell, using her access to the computer file containing Agatha’s manuscript to alter it and commit crimes based on what Agatha is writing. It’s established that Caroline is an aspiring writer herself and is also a whiz with a bow and arrow (one might, if your imagination is properly demented, imagine this as the next episode in The Hunger Games, in which Katniss Everdeen gets dumped into our own time and goes really off the wall), which she uses to kill Max Finkel a third of the way through the story. Oh, did I mention that Agatha Sayers had an abusive husband until a year before the major action, when he mysteriously died in an auto accident, only he left behind the bow and arrow Caroline used to kill Max and also left behind some old clothes Agatha wanted her to throw out, only she kept one of the jackets and wore it herself? Sorry.

What’s more, when the police finally get around to investigating Sarah’s kidnapping (ya remember Sarah’s kidnapping?) the detectives they assign to the case are Roger Smith (Giles Panton), who was having an affair with Agatha while her husband was still alive and for a brief time after his death; and Emily Spector (Nicole Anthony), who has a decidedly unrequited crush on her partner but who’s also the object of a Lesbian cruise from Caroline, who proves her polymorphous perversity by also going after Roger and seducing Jack (Myles Montpetit), the age-peer boyfriend of Sarah until she caught him having sex with someone else and Agatha responded by paying him to leave Sarah alone with cash police find in his home — in an evidence envelope — when Caroline pays Jack a visit, gets him all hot and bothered by sitting on top of him while he’s in bed, then apparently wallops him with an arrow before strangling him and then shooting him with the arrow (we can tell that’s probably what happened, though director Wolf doesn’t show the actual murder, because though the police find Jack with an arrow stuck through his chest there’s no sign of blood around the wound). Agatha realizes that whoever is committing the crimes is following the manuscript of her new book as she’s writing it, and rejecting the advice of her ex-boyfriend Detective Roger Smith that she not put her daughter into further peril by writing more, she insists on adding to the manuscript, telling the killer that her fictitious kidnapper is about to move his victim to an abandoned warehouse so the real kidnapper will do the same and the police can flush him out.

It turns out not only that Caroline is the brains behind all the villainy, the kidnapper is her baby-faced son Stephen (Jared Ager-Foster), who was conceived as a result of Caroline’s own father molesting her when she was just 13, and he’s doing all this to further her mom’s plot to kill Agatha and steal her identity. It all comes to a climax in what looks like a non-abandoned industrial building, a factory rather than a warehouse, and Agatha goes there because the bad girl has sent her a text that she can find Sarah there — the cops, who are monitoring the action by reading the manuscript on their computer and also by the live feeds with which the kidnapper is cutting into local news broadcasts to show Sarah’s plight in real time, also arrive and Detective Smith arrests Caroline, only she leaves her alone with Detective Spector, who, apparently doing the Lesbian equivalent of thinking with your dick, is persuaded by Caroline that Detective Smith really murdered Agatha’s husband the year before and he’s committed all the newer crimes to cover it up. Then director Wolf cuts to a scene and a title reading “Nine Months Later,” and nine months later Caroline Villos is at a book signing for her new mystery novel, Do or Die, only now she has black hair and wears the same sort of glasses Agatha did — only it turned out, thanks to a deus ex machina appearance by Harmon Gillette (ya remember Harmon Gillette?), that Detective Smith caught on to what was really happening, Caroline escaped but was apprehended later, and both she and Stephen are in mental hospitals and likely to remain there for the rest of their lives — while the scene we saw of Caroline doing a book signing is simply a representation of one of her delusions.

Through much of Killer Ending I couldn’t help but think of how much more director Marc Forster and screenwriter Zach Helm got out of this basic premise in their 2006 film Stranger Than Fiction, which starred Will Ferrell as an IRS auditor who suddenly stars hearing a voice in his head narrating his life as it’s going on, and eventually realizes that the narrative is being written by reclusive novelist Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who’s writing his life story as her new book and who plans to kill his character off at the end of the novel — which means he will die for real unless he can track her down and persuade her to change her ending. Charles and I screened this movie when it first came out on DVD and I wrote an enthusiastic review on imdb.com which I headlined, “Who would ever have thought Will Ferrell would be in a masterpiece?” Though Stranger Than Fiction had a frankly supernatural element in its plot which Killer Ending avoided, Forster’s film just seems richer, warmer, more human and more “real” than Wolf’s. Like a lot of other Lifetime writers, Wolf just piled on the melodrama as she went, creating admirable suspense over just who of the apparently malevolent people in Agatha’s life are actually sympathetic and which ones are really out to get her but also making her plot line almost unbearably confusing.