Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Sleeping with the Enemy (20th Century-Fox, 1991)

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

Last Saturday night Lifetime showed a movie from 1991 that became quite famous but which had somehow eluded me before: Sleeping with the Enemy, a domestic violence drama featuring Julia Roberts as an abused wife in Cape Cod, Massachusetts (though the location work was done in Abbeville, South Carolina, and Julia Roberts told reporters she couldn’t get out of there fast enough because she had a hard time dealing with the racist attitudes of the locals) and Patrick Bergin as Martin Burney, the husband who abuses her. This gets trotted out on Lifetime now and again because it’s sort of the ur-Lifetime movie, even though it was a theatrical release from a major studio (20th Century-Fox) and Roberts got a $1 million guarantee for appearing in it (at 23, the youngest woman ever to get that much of a guarantee for one film), and in its “pussy in peril” plot line — Roberts’ character, Laura Williams Burney, steals a bankroll and flees halfway across the country, ending up in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where she finds a rental house, a job at the local university library and the love of a drama teacher, Ben Woodward (Kevin Anderson) — certainly helped set the template for Lifetime’s set of clichés.

The film borrowed its title (it was based on a 1987 novel of the same name by Nancy Price; the screenplay was by Ronald Bass and the director was Joseph Rubin), ironically, from a slogan used by Lesbian separatist feminists in the 1970’s to describe women who called themselves feminists but still had sex with men. Another of their slogans was, “Feminism is the theory; Lesbianism is the practice,” which led a few straight women feminists to try to re-invent themselves as Lesbians, with the same dismal results suffered by Gay and Lesbian people who try, for reasons of social acceptance, religious belief or whatever, to reinvent themselves as heterosexual. Sleeping with the Enemy is important probably more for its trailblazing nature than its actual merits as a film — in the latter it’s a frustrating example of the good movie that could have been even better — it was an important milestone in the growing social awareness that domestic violence was a problem and that the most perfect-looking, seemingly idyllic relationships could really be tyrannical and abusive behind closed doors. The scene early on in which Patrick Bergin gives Julia Roberts a back-handed slap with such force he literally knocks her down still makes an impact — it’s the only time we see him hit her, but it’s the only time we need to. We get the point that Laura lives in continual terror — especially since Martin is not only physically abusive, he’s also got a huge case of OCD that leads him to insist that the hand towels in the bathroom be laid and folded out exactly evenly and the canned food in their cupboard all be lined up with military precision.

She finally gets her chance to get away when, despite her fear of water, Martin orders her to accompany him on an evening sail on a boat owned by a local man whom he had earlier accused Laura of flirting with. A storm conveniently blows up and Laura is washed overboard and presumed drowned. Martin stages a funeral service for her, complete with his own smarmy remarks on how much he misses her, but of course she’s not dead: she’s stolen a bankroll and used it to flee to Iowa, where she settles in Cedar Falls and rents a home. (One “goofs” contributor wrongly called the filmmakers out on this, saying that she wouldn’t have had enough money to buy a home even in relatively cheap small-town Iowa, but the dialogue makes clear she’s only renting it, and we do get the impression she had enough cash on her to do that.) She uses the name “Sarah Waters” and meets Ben, whose attentions to her at first seem so creepy that a 2018 viewer will wonder if he, too, is going to abuse her — a situation which would have made Sleeping with the Enemy a more interesting movie than it is, but in 1991 the filmmakers were already being daring enough just to acknowledge the existence of one abusive partner for the heroine and audiences wouldn’t have believed that Julia Roberts, of all people, could have encountered two of them. It soon develops that we’re supposed to believe he’s the nice guy who’s going to redeem her from the abuse she suffered from bad-guy Martin — who eventually realizes she’s still alive, hires private investigators to track her down, and finally traces Laura’s mother Chloe (Elizabeth Lawrence) to a nursing home and, by impersonating a cop, tricks Chloe into revealing Laura’s whereabouts. Earlier we’ve seen Laura herself donning one of the least convincing female-to-male drag disguises in movie history to visit her mom — her moustache in particular is so risible that when she stops on the way out to drink from the facility’s water fountain, I was expecting her to do the old Keaton gag of having it wash off in the water. (Isn’t anybody else ever going to do FTM on film as well as Katharine Hepburn in the 1935 film Sylvia Scarlett?)

Eventually Martin traces Laura a.k.a. Susan to Cedar Falls and there’s a big confrontation scene in which he threatens to kill her on the if-I-can’t-have-you-no-one-can principle, but she manages to turn the tables and kill him (just like innumerable Lifetime heroines after her!). There are some nice bits, including the one in which Martin, having heard that his wife’s new inamoratus is a drama teacher but not knowing which one, ambushes one of them in his car and is told by the drama teacher that he can’t be involved with Martin’s wife since he’s Gay and lives with a man. (I joked that Martin would have to work through all six of the school’s drama teachers to find the one who was straight.) But Martin makes the same too-fast transition from comprehensible villainy to almost supernatural evil many subsequent Lifetime villains have, and the film is also hampered by Julia Roberts’ severe limitations as an actress. She can’t do much more than look mildly annoyed by Martin’s murderous intentions (which he’s signaled by rearranging her bath towels and canned foods in the order he insisted on back when they still lived together) and turn her doe eyes at the camera in a silent plea for our sympathy. Sleeping with the Enemy was a ground-breaking film in its day, and it holds up as an exposé of domestic violence among the rich and powerful, but it’s oddly dated simply because as awareness of the issue has grown, so has the range of possibilities available to filmmakers and other artists to explore it.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Her Worst Nightmare, a.k.a. Trigger Warning, a.k.a. Degrees of Fear (Sunshine Films, Marvista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

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

Last night’s Lifetime “premiere” was Her Worst Nightmare, though it seems to have had at least two other titles — lists Trigger Warning as an alternative title and shows a poster ad for the film giving its name as Degrees of Fear. Under whatever title it’s a quite capable piece of suspense filming which opens with our heroine, Dakota Hagerty (Claire Blackwelder), being held captive with two other women, Terri (Kelly Heyer) and Minda (Alexandra Sedlak), by a monster named Jake Weber — whom we never see and who in some ways assumes an almost godlike presence because we don’t see him. The three are plotting an escape attempt and are just about to execute it when the door to the basement where they’re being held is crashed open and a police SWAT team rescues them. The film then cuts to a college, where Dakota is a student in the abnormal psychology class taught by professor John Campbell (Taylor St. John). Though she didn’t have the usual prerequisites for the class, Campbell admitted her anyway on the recommendation of another professor and said her paper on sexual deviance was way better than that of any of her other students, even though she’s just bombed out on the midterm and got a D. She pleads with Campbell to be allowed to stay in the class and improve her work so she can keep the work-study job at the campus library she needs to survive.

Then she realizes that someone is stalking her and leaving reminders of her past, including a plastic model of the P-51 Mustang World War II fighter (Jake Weber hung models of that plane from the ceiling of the basement where he held his captives) and a VHS tape (Jake was still old-school enough he watched VHS tapes) that’s new surveillance footage of her taken after her release. The film was produced under the same auspices as the previous night’s Lifetime “premiere,” Killer Night Shift — the companies were Florida’s Sunshine Films (though this movie was actually shot, and presumably set, in Kentucky) and Marvista Entertainment, the director was Damián Romay (solo this time, and showing himself a good enough suspense director he deserves a chance to break out of the Lifetime ghetto and make theatrical features) and some of the production staff were also the same, though the writer, Angelle Halley Gullett, was different. She (I’m presuming “Angelle” is a she) left one huge plot hole: though Dakota Hagerty was featured prominently in a real-life case that got major publicity, and she has a relatively unusual name, no one on campus except for one student, Ally (Jasmine Johnson), an African-American reporter on the school newspaper who becomes Dakota’s friend and confidante (given what usually happens to Lifetime heroines’ Black friends and confidantes I was expecting her not to make it out of the movie alive, but for once I was wrong) recognizes her or associates her as one of Jake Weber’s victims. Ally wants to get a first-person interview with Dakota to get her story of her abduction and life as Jake’s sex slave, but Dakota — who was the one of Jake’s three victims who refused to testify against him at his trial — doesn’t want to talk about any of it. Instead she walks around campus and mopes, then after she sees the stalking video made of her she suddenly turns around and is eager to nail the new person who’s tormenting her with information about the case that was never publicly released and which the person therefore could have known only if they had a direct line to Jake himself.

During all this we get a confrontation scene between Dakota and her former fellow victim Terri, who’s changed her name to “Cynthia” and is determined to live her life as if none of this ever happened — she’s even engaged to a man who has no idea of her past. We also learn later that the third victim, Minda, killed herself. Dakota and Ella find out from the prison records that psych professor John Campbell leads a group for sex offenders at the prison where Jake Weber is being incarcerated, and from that Dakota deduces that Campbell is her mystery stalker and he got the information about her from Weber himself in his group — only when Dakota confronts Campbell at a bar (where he’s invited her for more prosaic seductive purposes — he’s the sort of letchy professor who’s been a staple of college fiction, as well as college life, though in the era of #MeToo it’s getting much harder for randy male professors on the make to seduce and fuck their more attractive female students) he convinces her that Jake Weber has never been in his group. Then it turns out the real villain is Max Peterson (Bryan Lillis), who at the start of the movie replaced Campbell’s former teaching assistant Ella (Denise Johnson) when Ella suddenly disappeared and throughout the film has been sidling up to Denise, acting supportive and obviously cruising her in what we think is a maybe creepy but not inappropriate fashion. Though Her Worst Nightmare has a different writer from Killer Night Shift, Romay and his producers were obviously going for the same gimmick — a “surprise” reversal (in quotes because it’s really not that surprising) in which the guy we’ve been led to believe was the creep turns out to be O.K. and the guy we’ve been led to believe was nice turns out to be the villain, a copycat obsessed with Jake Weber to the point of wanting to repeat his crimes. It was Max who kidnapped Campbell’s former assistant Ella and held her in his basement à la Jake Weber, and he’s now decided to add Dakota to his harem — only Dakota ends up breaking free of his bondage, helping Ella to escape and ultimately stabbing Max with the hobby knife with which he was threatening her until she got it away from him (though there’s a final scene in which he appears to be alive and headed for prison rather than death).

Her Worst Nightmare is a quite good suspense thriller and a well-done exploration of the long-term traumas faced by women after they’re freed from long-term sex-slave captivity — even some of the stories based on, and with the involvement of, real-life victims haven’t gone so far into the long-term effects of this awful and inhuman ordeal. The writing here is surprisingly sensitive and insightful, and the movie overall is quite worthwhile and well acted, especially by the principals. Claire Blackwelder (despite her ridiculous name) is a quite good actress who manages to delineate the forces tearing apart her character, including the conflict within her over whether to seize the initiative or just slink back into inactivity. She’s especially powerful when she responds to the news of her former fellow captive Minda’s suicide by saying that she, too, has been tempted in that direction just to make the traumas go away. And Bryan Lillis matches her and makes both the openly solicitous and secretly deviant parts of his character believable, while Trevor St. John is quite good as the snotty professor who thinks it’s one of the perks of the job to help himself to whatever nubile female body in his class will hold still for him, and is increasingly resentful that changing mores, norms and laws are getting in the way of his sordid pursuits. Jasmine Johnson — at least that’s who I think played Ally, though I’m guessing since she’s not listed with a character name on the page of the film and there isn’t a photo of her on the site — is an electric personality and welcome in the part of the heroine’s good buddy and ultimate rescuer. This is definitely one of the better items I’ve seen on Lifetime — Killer Night Shift was surprisingly good but this is an even more accomplished piece of filmmaking — and it certainly marks Damián Romay as a director to watch!

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Killer Night Shift,a.k.a. Night Nurse (Sunshine Films, Marvista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

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

Last night I watched the latest “premiere” on Lifetime, a movie from Sunshine Films (apparently, according to, there are several companies called “Sunshine Films” and this one is based in Florida, though the only giveaway that the film was shot there was several stunning shots of sunsets over a swampy river with a bridge in the foreground) and our old friends at Marvista Entertainment. The film was originally shot under the title Night Nurse, which is how lists it (and which evokes comparison to the marvelous film Night Nurse which William Wellman directed at Warners in 1931, with Barbara Stanwyck as the titular character and Clark Gable as a gangster for whom a single mom neglects her kid — in the film’s most amazing scene Stanwyck knocks her down and, as she’s lying on the ground, says, “You — mother!”), but Lifetime aired it under the more Lifetime-y title Killer Night Shift. The film opens at Milton General Hospital — well, it really opens with a scene in which a shadowy figure has tied up a woman and is holding a scalpel menacingly against her abdomen, but that’s just a prologue and surprisingly it isn’t followed by one of Lifetime’s usual chyrons stating that we’ve moved x days/months/years earlier or y days/months/years later. We see a visibly pregnant (though her swollen belly is a pretty obvious fake) woman named Patricia Rosen (Christie Burson) leadng a class in an online video called “Yoga Time with Trish.” She’s expecting the birth of her daughter — that’s right, she and her husband David (the not unattractive Johnny Pacar, who’s better-looking than the average run of actors playing the “good” husbands in Lifetime movies even though I wish he didn’t have such a scrawny ass) have not only done the sonogram tests to find out that their baby will be a girl, they’ve even given her a name, “Hope” — and is treating her online audience to a special series of exercises especially suitable for pregnant women. Meanwhile, a blonde nurse named Irene (Vanessa Reseland) with a really bad attitude has just got herself suspended from her job at Milton General for one week because on at least three occasions, inventory from Milton’s drug stash disappeared and she was the only one who could have taken it. Desperate for work, she accepts an assignment as Patricia’s in-home caregiver after two other things happen: Tricia (as she’s called throughout the movie) is diagnosed with “placenta previa,” in which a bit of the placenta descends over the cervix and causes higher-than-normal bleeding; usually it means the baby will have to be born with a Cesarean section but Tricia’s doctor tells her that won’t be necessary in her case, but she will need bed rest and shouldn’t do things like climb up and down stairs. The other thing is that her husband David (ya remember her husband David?) is summoned away on a two-week business trip to Scotland, though since her due date is three weeks hence he’s confident that he’ll be able to get back before their baby is born. 

David inadvertently drinks her “ginger pregnancy tea” and therefore Tricia has to go to a drugstore, where she meets a really nice maternity nurse named Katy Lyle (Cynthia Evans), who suggests raspberry lime tea as an alternative and mentions that she’s Tricia’s neighbor as well as a professional nurse who can help her. For an act or so it looks like Katy will be the nice nurse who protects Tricia from the evil nurse Irene, whose take-charge attitude puts Tricia off her from the start, but within a commercial break or two directors Damién Romay and Ernesto Rowe and writers Jo Hannah Afton and Tom Freyer start dropping hints that they’re going to pull a reversal on us and Katy will be the mean nurse from whom Irene will have to protect Tricia as best we can. We get a long sequence in which an unseen figure sneaks into Tricia’s bedroom when she’s asleep and leaves a drug amongst all her other drugs — the new drug is something she was on before but which is contraindicated in a pregnant woman (for those of you not up on basic medspeak “contraindicated” merely means “you shouldn’t take it”) — and then a series of increasingly bitter and nasty confrontations between Katy and Irene over Tricia that ends with Tricia learning the hospital suspended Irene for stealing drugs and firing Irene so Katy can look after her alone. Only this turns out to be a bad move. as Katy herself gets more tyrannical and Tricia begins to wonder if she’s leaped from the frying pan into the fire. On her way out the door on what’s supposed to be her last day Irene stumbles upon Katy’s wallet, which reveals that her real name is Rachel Daumler, and her nursing license was actually revoked the year before was patient abuse. I was hoping writers Afton and Freyer would allow Irene to redeem herself by being the instrument by which Tricia was rescued from Katy’s clutches, but no-o-o-o-o: though Irene manages to convince the Black woman who sent her out to Tricia’s in the first place to believe her, everyone else at the hospital is still convinced Irene is a maniac and Katy a godsend. So is Tricia herself, especially when Katy picks up a drug bottle containing a forbidden substance from the table on which Tricia keeps her meds and claims Irene left it there. 

We’re pretty sure by this point that Katy did it herself — that she was the shadowy figure we saw with her back to the camera adjusting Tricia’s meds — and as things turned out I have seen enough Lifetime movies before I not only guessed Katy as the killer night-shift nurse but even guessed her motive: back in college Katy had dated Tricia’s husband David (once again, ya remember Tricia’s husband David?) and he had got her pregnant, but she’d had a miscarriage and the complications from that left her unable to conceive again — actually there was an odd explanation that said she could conceive but her womb would be too screwed up actually to carry a pregnancy to term — so she nursed her grievance and got more and more frustrated by helping other women deliver babies while she could not do so herself until she learned David had got his wife pregnant and she determined to insinuate herself into Tricia’s life and steal “her” baby. Along the way Katy clubs Irene to death after Irene discovers her true identity and threatens to call the police on her — once again a stupid movie whistleblower gets herself killed by telling the victim she’s going to report her to the police instead of walking away quietly and then doing so — and in the film’s most macabre scene Katy disposes of the body by spending an entire afternoon digging a grave where Tricia had wanted to plant tulips. (We know it takes an entire afternoon because there’s a cool time-lapse shot of Katy doing this, starting when it’s still full daylight and finishing at twilight.) Fortunately she’s witnessed doing so by two neighbor kids in an adjoining house. The climax occurs at Tricia’s home — which once belonged to David’s grandmother, which explains all the retro furnishings and also that toys David played with as a kid are still there and they’re cleaning them to get them ready for Hope — when Katy ties Tricia to a bed and forces her to give birth au naturel. David arrives since he’s left his business trip early to be with his wife when she delivers, but he also gets caught in Katy’s web and there’s a touch-and-go scene between the three in which Katy puts David under with an injection, then tells Tricia she’s just put an anticoagulant in her IV so she’ll bleed to death while Katy gets away with little baby Hope. 

Nonetheless, displaying a high level of strength for someone who’s been through a birth and is now under the influence of a drug designed to make her bleed uncontrollably, Tricia manages to extricate herself from her bondage, confront Katy and finally stab her with Katy’s scalpel, following which there’s a tag scene six months later (this time Lifetime does supply us with a chyron to give us the time jump) with David, Tricia and little Hope as one big happy family, though it’s not clear just how they got rescued when, as Charles pointed out, David and Tricia both were in need of major medical attention and it’s not completely clear that Katy is dead. I had hoped Irene would live to the end of the movie, redeem herself as a character and actually be the Seventh Cavalry-style instrument of Tricia’s rescue, but no-o-o-o-o, writers Afton and Freyer went for the more common Lifetime trope of killing her off instead. Killer Night Shift, despite that tacky title (one would have thought it would have been about a woman forced to work late who encounters a stalker during those night shifts who proceeds to make her life miserable), is actually one of Lifetime’s better movies, with at least some pretense at character development — there’s a tearful confession scene in which Irene confesses that she stole drugs from work but only to give to her sick mother, who needed them and had no health insurance, and we wonder what’s going to happen to this unseen character once Irene is out of the picture — and better than average direction from Romay and Rowe (they’re listed as co-directors but Romay’s credit is in larger type than Rowe’s). It’s just that Lifetime’s formulae have become so established one wonders if the guides for their writers are literally set in stone, and it was all too easy for me to guess not only who the real villain was but also What Made Katy Run.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Safety Last! (Harold Lloyd Productions, Hal Roach Studios, Pathé, 1923)

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

Last night’s film at the annual silent-movie screening at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park, with Steven Ball providing a live organ accompaniment, was a comedy classic, Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! (I hadn’t realized the title contained an exclamation point) from 1923. Other people got credited with the direction (Fred Newmeyer, who went from Lloyd staffer to director in his own right, making independent films in the 1930’s: I’ve seen two of them, Discarded Lovers from 1932 — which was quite good within the strangling budget limitations of an early-1930’s indie — and A Scream in the Night, made in 1935 but so abysmal it didn’t get released until 1943, and that only to take advantage of the popularity of its star, Lon Chaney, Jr., through his horror films and mysteries at Universal; and Sam Taylor, who directed and scripted the 1929 version of The Taming of the Shrew with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, leading to the infamous writing credit, “By William Shakespeare. Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor”) and the writing (Hal Roach, who also produced — the film was a collaboration between Lloyd’s and Roch’s companies and was distributed by Pathé — along with Sam Taylor, Tim Whelan and title writer H. M. “Beanie” Walker, one of the few title writers who made the transition to talkies by learning to write whole screenplays; he’s credited with a lot of the Laurel and Hardy films of the 1930’s), but Harold Lloyd was clearly the auteur. Lloyd was the most “normal” of the great silent comedians, both in terms of his characterization and his personal life; of the great male stars in silent comedy (Chaplin, Arbuckle, Keaton, Langdon) Lloyd was the only one who married just once — to Mildred Davis, who co-starred with him in Safety Last! as his girlfriend back home in Great Bend. 

I’ve argued in these pages that most of the silent comedians played well-identified “types” within America’s class system: Chaplin the lower-class “Tramp,” Arbuckle the proletarian working-class survivor, Lloyd the middle-class striver and Keaton the upper-class twit (though, aside from Chaplin, they sometimes dabbled in each other’s socioeconomic strata — Lloyd plays an upper-class twit in the marvelous For Heaven’s Sake and Keaton a middle-class Lloydian character in Sherlock, Jr. and Seven Chances). In Safety Last! Lloyd (playing a character listed only as “The Boy” in the credits but identified as “Harold Lloyd” on screen) leaves his small town of Great Bend to try his luck in the big city (obviously Los Angeles since a number of signs identify it as being in California). He gets a job as a sales clerk at DeVore’s department store but writes his girlfriend back home every day (including Sundays — back then mail came all seven days of the week and in some places there were still morning and evening mail deliveries) and, of course, makes her think he’s a good deal more successful than he is. At one point he gets her a lavaliere pendant and his roommate, “The Pal” (Bill Strother), points out that she’ll need a chain for it — and there’s a surprisingly Chaplinesque scene of pathos the next time he gets his pay envelope (he’s paid $15 a week in cash) and the chain costs $15.50, meaning he has to forgo the 50¢ lunch he was counting on. There’s a marvelous effects touch as each item on the display of the lunch fades out as Lloyd hands over his last five dimes, one by one, to a stereotypical Jewish jeweler in full Tevye drag. (One “Goofs” poster pointed out that a store owner who was that observant a Jew would not be open on a Saturday, when this transaction is supposedly taking place.) 

There are also some great scenes in which Lloyd is shown at work in the fabrics department dealing first with an incredibly picky customer who, it turns out, just wants a sample; then, when there’s a sale at the fabrics counter, poor Harold is inundated with the ugliest, meanest-looking women his casting department could find, all demanding immediate service from him until he has a brainstorm: showing a degree of public resourcefulness rare in a silent comic’s characterization, he yells out, “Who dropped that fifty-dollar bill?,” and all the women descend to the floor to look for it and he gets a moment of peace. He tries to impress his roommate when he learns that one of the big-city cops is an old friend of his from Great Bend — he dares the roommate to kick the cop in the ass and then Lloyd will square it with his old friend — but in the meantime, of course, Lloyd’s friend goes off duty and the cop who replaces him is significantly less sympathetic, chasing his friend Bill (like Harold Lloyd and Mildred Davis, Bill Strother is playing a character with his own first name) up the side of a building. Harold asks Bill how he could climb the building, and Bill said he’s had years of experience doing this sort of thing — Safety Last! was made at a time when there was a fad for “human flies” doing death-defying climbs up tall buildings, and that’s undoubtedly where Lloyd got the idea for this film (an “trivia” contributor said Lloyd actually witnessed Strother doing a human-fly stunt, got the idea for the film then and there, and hired Strother to act in it) — and Lloyd and his writers bank that piece of information for later withdrawal before moving to their next plot issue. Their next plot issue is that Mildred (ya remember Mildred?) is coming to visit Harold in the big city, and since he’s been so fabulously successful (well, that’s what he’s written her, at least) she’s expecting him to marry her and buy her a house right away. 

The film deals with the various subterfuges with which Harold tries to maintain the pretense that he has a more important job than he does, from sniping at his supervisor Stubbs (Westcott Clarke, who’s taller but pretty much the same “type” Franklin Pangborn played later) to impersonating the store’s general manager. Nearly fired for his shenanigans, Harold hears the general manager — the real one — say to his top staff that he’ll give $1,000 to anyone who will come up with a new idea to promote the store. Harold thinks of his friend Bill the human fly and proposes that a mystery man climb the 12-story Bolton Building in which the store is located at 2 p.m. the next day. The DeVore publicity people do a great job promoting the stunt, drawing a huge crowd and also attracting a drunk (whose appearances throughout the movie were signaled at the Organ Pavilion by live organ accompanist Steven Ball playing the “Libiamo!” drinking song from Act I of La Traviata — Ball announced before the film that it takes him 40 hours of work to score a silent film, but both modern silent-film accompanists and those in the actual silent-film era frequently used pre-existing music in their scores — especially when, as here, the original lyrics or the song’s content were analogous to those parts of the film) who ends up with a huge tennis net draped over him as Harold executes the climb. Bill was supposed to do it but that pesky cop (Noah Young) has traced him to the building and is leading him a merry chase up the stairs; the idea was that Harold would climb the first story, duck into a window and then change clothes with Bill, who would do the rest of the climb. But every time Harold makes it to the next floor Bill is still being chased by the cop and is unable to make the substitution — the dialogue title, “Make this next floor faster. I’m having a little difficulty in ditching the cop,” becomes a running gag throughout the film — so Harold has to contend with bloodthirsty spectators crowding the windows inside the building as well as a crowd below (in 1923, before process screens, the only way Lloyd and cinematographer Walter Lundin could have got those shots is to mount the camera on a construction crane), including a supercilious twit who’s worried that Lloyd’s climb will injure his precious dog, and an old woman who tells him, with genuine concern, “Young man, don’t you know you might fall and get hurt?” 

The big scene that everyone remembers from this film — and the one whose stills have been reproduced so often they’re familiar even to people who’ve never heard of Harold Lloyd — is the one in which he encounters a huge clock hung on the side of the building and has to maneuver around it, a task made harder by the giant clock spring in which his shoe gets stuck and what’s supposed to be an electrical charge inside it that shocks him. Eventually he makes it to the top of the building — after a last battle with a pesky anemometer (a device for measuring barometric pressure) that gets in his way on the roof — and of course Mildred is there waiting for him, and they clinch as we can “hear” in the background (represented by the “I’m still trying to ditch the cop” title printed in small type) Bill Strother still being chased by that pesky cop over various building rooftops. There are differing reports of how the famous stunt sequences were done — whether Lloyd was climbing over a real building (some reports are that he actually used a horizontal set of a vertical building the way Adam West and Burt Ward ascended in the 1960’s Batman TV series), how much danger he was in for real and whether it was even he doing all the climbing. While Lloyd was alive the word was that he’d done the stunt for real and it was all he, but after his death a man named Robert Golden, credited on the film as an assistant director, claimed he was also Lloyd’s stunt double for parts of the sequence (notably the one in which a mouse climbs up his pants leg and Lloyd has to shake it loose). It is known that in 1919, three years before making this film, Lloyd had suffered a terrible accident when a prop bomb unexpectedly exploded in his right hand and blew off two of his fingers. The ever-inventive Lloyd made a special glove so it would look like he still had nature’s full complement of fingers, but in his heavy-duty stunt films, including this and the early talkie Feet First (of all the great silent comedians, Lloyd was the only one who made a fully successful transition to sound) he was grasping ledges and pulling himself up from them with just eight fingers. (Later, after he married Mildred Davis, Lloyd made another special glove for his left hand so he could still play a single man on screen without taking off his wedding ring.) 

Lloyd himself was rather kvetchy about Safety Last! in his later years — in one interview he said, “I just made six thrill pictures, and those are the only ones anyone remembers me for” — but what’s remarkable about this movie is that it’s not just some ponderous exposition to set up a big action climax: it’s incredibly funny all the way through. It’s also a great example of the nearly lost art of building one gag on top of another (though before the film began both Charles and I mentioned Scott Prendergast’s 2007 comedy film Kabluey, in which he directed, wrote and starred, as one of the few modern comedies that emulated the silent greats in being able to build one gag on top of another to make the audience laugh even harder at each permutation). Harold Lloyd tends to get lost in the shuffle of the great silent comedians because both he and his character were so normal — he married just once, saved his money, ran a functioning business and invested most of the proceeds from his film career in Los Angeles real estate just before it zoomed in value during the suburban boom after the Second World War. He also played the most “normal” character of the silent comedy greats, and his films may sometimes seem relatively ordinary because Lloyd didn’t have the intense romanticism of Chaplin or the doomed fatalism of Keaton — but he sure knew how to make people laugh, enough that British film historians Kevin Brownlow and the late David Gill aptly called their biographical documentary on Lloyd (a follow-up to the ones they did on Chaplin and Keaton) “The Third Genius.”

Monday, August 20, 2018

My Husband’s Secret Wife (Stargazer Films, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

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

I watched what turned out to be an intriguing bigamy double bill on Lifetime, the “premiere” of something called My Husband’s Secret Wife followed by (stop me if you’ve heard this before) My Husband’s Double Life. My Husband’s Secret Wife was a not-bad thriller in which at the beginning artist Avery Stinson (Helena Mattsson) is accosted in a department store where she’s with her pre-pubescent son Jack (Ethan J. and Oliver Green), whom she’s raised as a single mom since the death of her husband Jesse in a roadside accident a few years earlier. The figure that accosts her is dressed in a black hoodie and matching pants and is wearing a smiley-face mask, and it attempts to kidnap her son but is thwarted by the store’s security guard. In the process, however, Avery meets Alex (Josh Kelly), a hunky guy who seems to be the man of her dreams — they have a whirlwind courtship and within two months they’ve got married. Only a mysterious woman is stalking them at the wedding and is noticed by Avery’s sister Cat (Sofia Mattsson), who’s dating Avery’s gallery assistant Hugh (Brock Harris, who for my money was even more drop-dead gorgeous than Josh Kelly). Alas, Alex is a big-time attorney who’s often leaving town on “business trips” which turn out to be trysts with the mystery woman, Melanie (Briana Evigan), who is actually Alex’s previous wife. In a quite nicely written bit of pathos by Catherine Hurd, Tamar Halpern and Dave Hickey that seems to be setting up Melanie as a Christine Conradt-esque figure of real complexity, Melanie tells Avery that the reason Alex married her without bothering to divorce Melanie first was that Avery had the one thing Melanie hadn’t been able to give him — a child.

Alas, for the rest of the movie Melanie becomes a single-minded, revenge-driven maniac as she stalks the other principals and ultimately corners Hugh in the gallery. At first she comes on to him but then, when he threatens to call the police on her (like so many movie idiots, he tells her he’s going to do that instead of just slipping out of the space and then doing so out of her earshot), she grabs an artist’s hammer and clubs him over the head with it, killing him. (It’s disappointing, to say the least, to lose the movie’s hottest male so early.) It all ends in a climax at a mountain cabin (not another mountain cabin — though at least these writers make it clear that one reason they set the climax at a mountain cabin is that they wanted a location so remote the heroine would be cut off from cell-phone service) in which Melanie has taken Jack. Avery’s sister Cat has found out the location and called the police (she remembers the location because Avery’s and Alex’s wedding took place there) and, after the writers and director Tamar Halpern have kept us in legitimate suspense over whether Alex is an innocent victim of Melanie’s madness (his excuse to Avery for their bigamous marriage is she disappeared on him and he tried to locate her so he could divorce her) or a participant in her plot, in the last act the truth emerges: Alex was in on the plot from the get-go. Their first idea was simply to kidnap Jack and raise him as his and Melanie’s own, but when that didn’t happen his Plan B was to romance Avery until he could do a legitimate second-parent adoption of Jack, then kill Avery and raise Jack with Melanie. My Husband’s Secret Life is actually a pretty good Lifetime thriller, with huge gaps in the credibility department but decently acted and quite capably directed by Halpern, even though he and his writing colleagues have a lot to answer for in the plot holes of their script!

My Husband’s Double Life (Headlong Entertainment, Benattar/Thomas Productons, Red Production, Lifetime, 2018)

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

Certainly My Husband’s Secret Wife is a masterpiece by comparison to My Husband’s Double Life, which achieves a level of demented silliness rare even for Lifetime. Someone posted a “trivia” item on which read, “Two hours of crap. Don’t waste your time.” While that sounds more like a review than a trivia item to me (though I believe imdb’s site guidelines require a review to be longer than that), it’s also pretty accurate. This time the innocent victim of bigamy is the first wife, Sabrina Rees (Amy Nuttall), whose husband Fletcher (Daniel Lapaine) is ostensibly a land developer in New York but takes frequent business trips to Paris, leaving Sabrina and their teenage daughter Zoë (the marvelously named Chloe Sweetlove) in the lurch. Neither Fletcher nor Sabrina are exactly drop-dead gorgeous sex gods, but then Lifetime had to cast them as middle-aged so it would be believable that they had a teenage daughter, though they also made a more recent attempt at conception that resulted in a miscarriage and Sabrina’s ongoing depression. Sabrina is an accountant who gave up most of her business to raise Zoë but still maintains a few clients, and she’s sharp enough with a column of figures that she recognizes something is amiss when she spots among Fletcher’s credit-card receipts a bill for an item from a fancy lingerie shop in Paris. With that clue she decides to fly to Paris herself and “surprise” her husband on his latest “business” trip, only she’s the one who gets surprised. Not only does Fletcher have another wife, Bridgette Novak (Tamara Aleksic), her father Sergey Novak (Dragan Micanovic) is a Russian mobster and ostensibly Fletcher’s European business partner, though it’s obviously Sergey who’s calling the shots. Sergey threatens Fletcher with the usual dire movie consequences in case he does anything to dishonor Bridgette — like having another wife and child in New York — and it also turns out there’s a secret ledger in Fletcher’s office that records the bribery payments and extortion income of the Novak enterprise. Sabrina realizes what’s going on when she finds several letters addressed to Fletcher at the home he shares with Bridgette — thereby giving away that he doesn’t just stay in hotels when he’s in Paris but actually owns a home there — she goes out there and meets Bridgette, then hangs out at Fletcher’s office with his assistant Diane (Katarina Korra), who shares two important characteristics with Sabrina: a shock of bright red hair and a moral sense that leads her to cooperate with Sabrina to collect the data that will blow the whistle on Sergey’s enterprise and get both Sergey and Fletcher arrested.

Only Fletcher comes back to the office unexpectedly while Diane is grabbing the info Sabrina needs (for the 21st century it seems odd that she collects the data on paper instead of scanning it and e-mailing it to Sabrina on her phone) and Diane, like many another stupid movie character, attempts to flee by going up. Fletcher catches her on the roof and, seeing her only from the back and noticing only the red hair, pushes her off the roof thinking she’s Sabrina — so he’s shocked later on to find Sabrina still alive. Meanwhile Fletcher has asked his and Sabrina’s daughter Zoë to fly out to Paris and join him — apparently his intent is, now that he thinks he’s knocked off her mom, to settle her in the house he’s sharing with Bridgette and their son Nathan (whom we never see but we hear a lot of because he’s a baby and he’s crying a lot) — and the climax occurs at Bridgette’s home, where Fletcher gets pushed to his death into an empty swimming pool Fletcher was having dug there so Zoë could use it when she relocated there. Sergey survives scot-free and is not unhappy to see Fletcher dead (though it seems hard to believe that a fall of just a few feet could be fatal — but then there are a lot of things in this movie that seem hard to believe). My Husband’s Double Life has one truly great suspense sequence — the one in which Fletcher kills Diane while Sabrina watches, horrified but unable to do anything to stop it without giving herself away and getting killed, too — expertly staged by director Jonathan English (the writer of this nonsense is Jenny Paul, and the script is so mind-boggling incoherent I was starting to wonder what drugs she was on), but the rest of the story is just stupid, though it achieves a certain camp entertainment value as a sort of ur-Lifetime movie, the one in which all of Lifetime’s most absurd clichés went to die.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Walter Wanger Productions, Allied Artists Pictures, 1956)

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

The films at last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi showing ( were one acknowledged classic and one movie that, though a bit below its reputation, has acquired a major reputation far beyond that of most sci-fi/horror cheapies of the era. The acknowledged classic was the original 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, based on a novel called The Body Snatchers published the year before by writer Jack Finney. The film was produced by Walter Wanger at Allied Artists, nèe Monogram, after Wanger had shot at agent Jennings Lang because he suspected Lang of having an affair with Mrs. Wanger, actress Joan Bennett. Wanger served a six-month sentence and when he got out the major studios wouldn’t touch him. Because of his experience in prison he was interested in prison as a subject for a movie, so he developed Riot in Cell Block 11 at Allied Artists and hired the young, edgy action specialist Don Siegel to direct. He also got a couple of writers, Daniel Mainwaring and an uncredited Richard Collins, who’d been blacklisted at the major studios — not for shooting anyone but for their Left-wing politics — and four years before Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger got brownie points from liberal Hollywood for giving Dalton Trumbo screen credit on Spartacus and Exodus, Wanger put Mainwaring’s name on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. 

The story is probably familiar, not only because there’ve been two formal remakes but a lot of movies since then have used the basic premise, but just in case, here goes: Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his home town of Santa Mira, California (Jack Finney was a resident of Marin County just north of San Francisco and based “Santa Mira” on Marin County’s largest city, San Rafael) after a trip to Reno to get a divorce. When he gets there he finds his appointment calendar booked solid with people who insists that their family members have been replaced by impostors who have all the right memories but lack emotion. Miles also resumes his relationship with Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), who was his high-school sweetheart until he left Santa Mira to go to medical school, following which both married other people but have since divorced their spouses and so they resume their old affair. Eventually, at the home of his friend, writer Jack Belicec (King Donovan) and his wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones, later Morticia on the original Addams Family TV show), he discovers a dead body — only it’s not really dead: it’s a sort of first impression of Jack, lacking details like fine facial features and fingerprints — when Miles tries to take its prints he ends up with four solid blobs. Miles takes Becky home and finds that her father is hiding in the basement among giant seed pods which for some mysterious reason he’s cultivating. In the film’s most terrifying scene (and most difficult for the actors, who had to hold still while their bodies were cast to make molds from which their replicas could be built), Miles sees four of these seed pods open up and reveal rough, unformed replicas of himself, Becky and the Benicecs. Miles eventually deduces that these pods take over the bodies and souls of their models, but can only do that when the original people fall asleep, so he gives himself and Becky drugs to keep themselves awake and they manage to make it through the evening. 

When morning comes they find that everyone else in Santa Mira has been turned into a pod person, courtesy of spores from outer space that floated through the cosmos until they landed on Earth, and they are proclaiming how wonderful their new existence is because it’s freed them from all those pesky emotions that used to burden them and make their lives miserable. All this is explained by the town’s psychiatrist, Dr. Danny Kauffman (Larry Gates), who tells Miles, “Love, desire, ambition, faith — without them, life’s so simple, believe me.” Director Siegel, who saw the movie as a psychological rather than a political metaphor — in the early 1970’s he told interviewer Stuart Kaminsky that “there are real people who are pods — not vegetables from outer space, as in my movie,” and “I deliberately had the spokesman for the pods be a pod psychiatrist.” Siegel’s reading of the film is eloquently expressed in a speech for Kevin McCarthy in which he explains, “In my practice, I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind... All of us — a little bit — we harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us, how dear.” That hasn’t stopped people from trying to impose political readings on the film: some have interpreted the pods as a Cold War metaphor for the Communists, insidiously burrowing into free societies to strip people of their ambitions and make them all conform; while others, perhaps taking their cues from the Left-wing politics of the screenwriter, have suggested it’s actually an anti-McCarthyism metaphor of how the “Commie-fighters” in the government in the 1950’s tried to impose a sort of Right-wing groupthink on America. Some of the reworkings of the Body Snatchers premise have indeed used it for outspoken political purposes — Right-wing ones in Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World (1958) and Left-wing ones in John Carpenter’s marvelous (and woefully underrated) They Live (1991).

Anyway, Miles and Becky realize that everyone else in town has been taken over — including a smarmy-voiced phone operator who won’t let them call out of the city — and they flee, first in a car and then on foot after they realize the police (who are pods) have been alerted to arrest them on any pretext and hold them until they can be pod-ized. They hide out in a disused coal mine but Becky nods off just long enough to get transformed, and one of the scenes Siegel was proudest of was the one in which Miles kisses her “in a delicious, non-pod way” and her unresponsiveness makes him realize she’s now a pod. Miles flees to a freeway and tries to get the passing cars to stop for him so he can get to authorities in a town that hasn’t yet been taken over, but no one believes him and he’s reduced to a screaming figure yelling at everyone, “You’re next! You’re next! YOU’RE NEXT!” Siegel wanted to end the film with Miles yelling “You’re next!” at the camera, but Wanger and his bosses at Allied Artists wanted a more optimistic ending, so they had him shoot framing sequences at the beginning and the end in which Miles is apprehended by authorities and examined by a psychiatrist, Dr. Harvey Bassett (Richard Deacon, later Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show), to whom he tells the story in a voice-over flashback that’s one of the elements, like the darkly lit and obliquely angled cinematography by Ellsworth Fredericks (though the screening proprietor, himself a cinematographer, thought the camerawork and lighting were “lazy” because almost all of it came from overhead) and the overall mood of the story (a paranoid fantasy come true), marks this as the first science-fiction film noir (26 years before Blade Runner, which usually gets that title). As the film returns to the “Emergency Hospital” where the opening frame took place, the authorities who were ready to take Miles into custody suddenly receive word that a truck has crashed into a bus on the highway, and the truck was full of seed pods — thereby establishing Miles’ credibility, confirming his story and leading the cops to notify the FBI and seal off Santa Mira from the rest of the world.  

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is number five on my list of the five greatest science-fiction films of all time — the others, in order, are 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris (Tarkovsky’s, not Soderbergh’s!), Metropolis, and Robert Wise’s original The Day the Earth Stood Still — and though I hadn’t seen it in a while it held up quite beautifully. Ironically, Kevin McCarthy was a good friend of Montgomery Clift but was jealous because while Clift was at MGM shooting a prestige big-budget historical extravaganza, Raintree County, with Elizabeth Taylor as his co-star, McCarthy was making this “B”-budgeted science-fiction movie at a cheap studio. Little did either of them know that eventually Raintree County would be virtually forgotten and Invasion of the Body Snatchers would be acknowledged as a classic! Invasion of the Body Snatchers was not the first science-fiction movie in which aliens from outer space take over human bodies and turn them into obedient mind slaves — William Cameron Menzies’ Invasion from Mars (1953) did that not only before this movie but also before Jack Finney published his novel in 1955 — but it’s quite the best (rivaled only by Carpenter’s They Live, which as I’ve written before in these pages got more out of the central premise of The Matrix in one 105-minute movie than the Wachowski siblings were able to get in three 135-minute movies), a vividly dramatized and realized paranoid fantasy whose sheer relentlessness (apparently the original cut included some humorous elements but the “suits” at Allied Artists ordered them taken out, and for once the studio “suits” were right) makes it one of the most memorable and powerful films of all time.

The Day of the Triffids (Security Pictures, Ltd.; Allied Artists Pictures, 1963)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The other movie on the Vintage Sci-Fi bill last night was considerably weaker, though it has a good reputation: the original 1963 version of The Day of the Triffids, based on a novel by British science-fiction writer John Wyndham (that was an abbreviation of his full name, John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris) published in 1951. One of his later books, The Midwich Cuckoos (in which some alien force from outer space impregnates all the women in a small British town and the children, when they’re born, turn out to have mental super-powers and no emotions at all), had just been filmed as Village of the Damned (1962), and producer Philip Yordan saw an opportunity. He threw together a partly American, partly British cast and made a medium-budget thriller about a mysterious meteor shower that blinds everyone who witnesses it and leaves behind a batch of seeds that grow into huge (10 feet tall or more) killer plants that can move about under their own power and knock off people and any other life forms they encounter. The stars of this film are Howard Keel (playing a sailor, Bill Masen, who was lucky enough to have been blindfolded from an eye operation, with the ironic result that when he comes to in the hospital the morning after the meteor shower he can still see but almost no else can), Nicole Maurey (as Christine Durrant, the adult woman he picks up while fleeing the Triffid plants, along with the obligatory cute movie kid), Kieron Moore (the male lead to Vivien Leigh in her 1948 version of Anna Karenina, a film way overshadowed by the two Garbo versions) and Janet Scott (he plays Dr. Tom Goodwin, a burned-out ichthyologist who’s retired to a lighthouse in Cornwall, ostensibly to take a sabbatical but really to drink; and she’s his long-suffering wife Karen). 

Apparently the scenes with the Goodwins were added to the original script (by Yordan and Bertrand Gordon, a blacklisted U.S. writer for whom Yordan reportedly fronted) when the film’s main intrigue turned out to be only 57 minutes long and extra material had to be added to bring the movie to a releasable length. This may explain why the two plot lines don’t seem to coexist; the film just cuts from one to the other and back, and we don’t get the impression of any tension level building. I think the proprietor of the Vintage Sci-Fi screening did The Day of the Triffids no favors by double-billing it with the original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers — perhaps because both are about invasions of earth by malevolent plants from space — but whereas Don Siegel and Daniel Mainwaring carefully constructed their movie and took their time revealing who and what the pods actually were, Philip Yordan and his director, Steve Sekely (one of the most interesting “B” directors in 1940’s Hollywood — his best credit is the quite good PRC thriller Lady in the Death House from 1944, written by Harry Hoyt, director of the 1925 version of The Lost World, from a story by cult writer Frederick Brown called “Meet the Executioner”), bring the Triffids on way too early.  And the Triffids themselves just look too silly and campy to be genuinely frightening; though there’s one effective scene early on in which their roots start oozing themselves out of the ground and propelling the plants under their own power, once we see the full-scale Triffids ambling along (with all too obvious wires suspending them) the whole potential for shock flies out the window. 

The acting doesn’t help: Kevin McCarthy in Body Snatchers could credibly play an ordinary man driven to near-madness by the bizarre events that happen to him and everyone he knows, but Howard Keel is just too rhetorical: he intones every line in his deep, booming baritone as if he’s about to burst into song at any minute, which given that he was originally a musical star at MGM should be no surprise. In his memoir Hollywood Garson Kanin recalled being called to Louis B. Mayer’s office at MGM in 1951 and being told by Mayer that he had decided Howard Keel was going to be the next big dramatic movie actor. Mayer was asking Kanin to write a script for Keel that would take him out of musicals and establish his chops as a serious actor, but then Mayer was fired from MGM and his replacement, Dore Schary, shoved Keel back into musicals — wisely, if The Day of the Triffids is a fair indication of how well Keel could act without any songs to sing. Kieron Moore had proven he could act in previous assignments in films for British producers, but after a while he just gets annoying and one can’t imagine why his wife hasn’t left him long before. It also didn’t help that writers Yordan and Gordon changed the central premise of Wyndham’s story: in his book the Triffids are man-made, product of a biological experiment gone horribly wrong à la Frankenstein. In the movie the Triffids are invaders from outer space, thereby bringing the story even closer to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The Day of the Triffids seems not only to have been made in willful ignorance of the lessons provided by Invasion of the Body Snatchers on how to film a story about an invasion of Earth by malevolent alien plants, it also seems to have made in willful ignorance of the lessons provided by the genuinely chilling Village of the Damned in how to film a John Wyndham story in a way that was both dramatically moving and would scare the hell out of an audience. 

And while both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day of the Triffids have received two official remakes each (as well as other films that have reworked their central premises), it’s perhaps significant that the two Triffids remakes that have actually materialized so far ( lists a fourth version “in development”) have been TV mini-series, as if their makers realized that the premise needed more room to develop than provided by the 93-minute running time of this stand-alone film. As it is, The Day of the Triffids is one of those movies that seems less to end than just stop: Howard Keel’s character learns that the Triffids are attracted by sound and therefore can be made to go away just by keeping quiet and turning off anything that makes noise, while after that in one of those “Meanwhile, back at the lighthouse in Cornwall … ” cuts that abound in this film, Kieron Moore and his movie wife have a fire in their lab which they put out by flooding the place with salt water (well before the concept of “gray water” became common, they’ve outfitted their lighthouse with pipes leading to the ocean so in case there’s a fire they can let in the salt water, even though signs warn that they’re not to use the seawater for any other purpose because it’s “highly corrosive”), and when the incoming seawater kills the specimen of a Triffid they’ve had on their operating table (and which has just grown more every time they’ve tried to cut it, sort of like a starfish), they realize they’ve stumbled on the monster’s one vulnerability. The Day of the Triffids is the sort of film where you get the impression there’s a better potential movie in the central premise than the one that actually got made, and this is also one film from the classic era (or about two decades after it, really) that would benefit from the greater sophistication in modern-day effects work; while the $15,000 budget Ted Haworth, production designer on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, didn’t give him much to work with (something director Siegel actually thought was a plus, since it meant they had to build their movie around complex, well-motivated human characters instead of splashing a lot of effects on the screen and making the people out of cardboard), the Triffids really needed to be more impressive, believable and frightening than they could have been in 1963 — modern-day CGI would probably be able to create a far more threatening species of killer plants than what was available to Philip Yordan and his colleagues 55 years ago!

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Mars: First Three Episodes (Imagine Entertainment, Zak Productions, National Geographic, 2016)

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

Last night’s films at the Mars movie screening,, were the first three episodes of Mars, a 2016 mini-series produced by Imagine Entertainment and Zak Productions for the National Geographic cable channel and an uneasy mix of documentary and dramatized story. The documentary scenes took place in 2016 and featured then-President Barack Obama, SpaceX and Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk (one of the most repulsive presences in contemporary capitalism — a lot of my fellow sci-fi buffs are counting on him to build and finance a real-life Mars rocket and other big space projects, but personally I can’t wait to see him fall on his ass and his businesses go crashing down in flames like some of his test rockets), astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly (Scott did a tour of duty in the International Space Station for a year to test how the human body would react to being weightless for so long a time — let’s face it, we evolved in a world with a certain level of gravity and that’s how our bodies are designed to work, and apparently the body itself, and in particular the organs within it, atrophy when they have to function for a long period of time without that good ol’ gravity we’re used to) and other talking heads discussing both the challenges of a manned (or personned — this show is actually progressive in positing that half the crew members on the first human mission to Mars would be women) flight to Mars, as well as establishing a colony there, and the degree to which Mars itself is so inherently inhospitable an environment for humans that the people would continually be fighting the planet to survive. The show cuts from the documentary segments shot in and depicting 2016 to 2033, when the Daedalus, the first human mission to Mars, is ready to launch. The flight is being sponsored by a Vienna-based consortium called the International Mars Scientific Foundation (IMSF), though the prime mover and principal funder is a multi-billionaire pretty obviously patterned on Elon Musk who stands to lose his entire fortune if the mission fails. (Not long ago I read a quite interesting PBS program on the Mayflower pilgrims and noted that their mission to the U.S., as well as quite a lot of the other early colonizations of the New World, were funded by private entities hoping they’d make money from them, so the idea that the private sector will step in where governments fear to tread and bankroll space exploration in exchange for mineral rights or whatever actually has historical precedent.)

He keeps pressuring the reluctant fellow IMSF board members to keep the mission going and allow it to land on Mars instead of aborting when it ends up 75 kilometers from its destination, just far enough away that all the previously landed life-support systems are out of reach and the astronauts have to make a hazardous cross-planet crossing to get to something they can shelter themselves in and live relatively normally. The three episodes we saw — the first in the series; there were at least seven episodes in season one and, after a one-year hiatus, the series is scheduled to resume for a second season this fall — were written by the usual committees (Ben Young Mason and Justin Wilkes are designated as series creators, and the actual writing credits are to Karen Janszen and Paul Solet for episode one, “Novo Mundo”; André Bormanis and Paul Solet for episode two, “Grounded”; and Mickey Fisher and Paul Solet for episode three, “Pressure Drop”) and depict a crew nicely assorted in terms of gender, race and nationality, though the mission commander is an American, Ben Sawyer (Ben Cotton), and he’s the typical stiff-upper-lip Anglo hero type. The other crew members include Hana Seung (played by a woman billed only as “Jihae” who also plays her twin sister Joon, who’s part of the crew at Mission Control), Javier Delgado (Alberto Ammann), Amélie Durand (Clémentine Poldatz), Marta Kamen (Anamaria Marinca) and the most butch one of the bunch, Robert Foucault (Sammi Rotibi), who despite his French-sounding name is actually Black (I guess we were supposed to think he was a descendant of immigrants from one of France’s former African colonies) but is stuck with an underwritten role that gives him almost nothing to do. I give this show credit for a bit of creative plotting — Ben Sawyer is actually killed off at the end of episode two (which would have been like offing William Shatner midway through the first season of the original Star Trek), since he went on the Mars mission without disclosing to anyone that he had a heart condition that would have disqualified him in case anyone had known about it, and his heart finally burst on the long trek to the Mars base (something some members of the audience faulted the film about, since the walk was as excruciating as it would be under Earth’s gravity and the filmmakers ignored that Martian gravity is just a bit over half of ours — but perhaps we were supposed to believe that the crew was still adjusting to having gravity at all after eight months of weightlessness in space). We get a lot of hard-core medical porn, including scalpels cutting into his bodies and letting out rivers of blood, before he finally expires at the end of episode two.

As he dies he lets go of a piece of red rock which, as a child, he picked up in the Arizona desert in 2005 when his dad took him camping there and they built a scale model of the solar system (the flashbacks showing this are integrated far less well than the documentary sequences by Everardo Gout, who directed all three episodes — “Ah, it’s directed by a disease!” I’d probably have joked if it had just been Charles and I watching this at home), and of course as the rock fell from his hand I couldn’t help but intone, “Ro-o-o-osebud.” Earlier we’d got a dream sequence shot in Monument Valley, Utah (though most of the “Mars” scenes were actually shot in Morocco) which represented Ben Sawyer’s hallucinations as he died — one member of the audience remarked that he seemed to be on drugs and I pointed out that since an earlier bit of dialogue had specified that in order to go through the operation he’d been given Fentanyl, a very heavy-duty pharmaceutical opiate, as an anesthetic he literally was on drugs. Aside from the nice and unexpected touch of killing off the Anglo-American hero lead at the end of episode two and having Asian woman Hana Seung take over as mission commander, the dramatic portions of this series were pretty stock and had the disadvantage of having way too many built-in cliffhangers, not only between the episodes but where the commercial breaks fell on the original telecast. (The breaking points were more obvious than usual because at each one a title with the word “MARS” stretching across the screen came up.) I was sporadically impressed by Mars but some of it was a long, hard slog — and the rather doleful music by Nick Cave and his writing partner Warren Ellis didn’t help much: at the end of episode three, “Pressure Drop,” the crew finally finds the “lava tube” inside Mars, left by the eruption of a long-extinct volcano and containing enough ice they can thaw it and have a supply of drinking water, the filmmakers put on Bob Dylan’s record “Shelter from the Storm” and you had the rare experience of finding a Dylan song an upper in this sort of context! Mars was competently acted and decently directed, but the overall impression I got was of an uneasy mixture of documentary and docudrama that I wanted to like better than I did.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Babysitter’s Nightmare (The Ninth House, Marvista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

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

Last night Lifetime ran a “premiere” movie called Babysitter’s Nightmare and then a relative oldie from 2017 called The Bachelor Next Door — I’m not sure why Lifetime chose these as double-bill partners unless it’s that actress Brittany Underwood was in both of them, in a supporting part in The Bachelor Next Door and as the lead in Babysitter’s Nightmare. The plot of Babysitter’s Nightmare, written and directed by Jake Helgren and set in Los Angeles (though our only real clue as to the latter is the mention of Lankershim Boulevard, famous as the location of Universal Studios), deals with nurse Daphne Hart (Brittany Underwood), who’s just been fired from her hospital job because a child she was supposed to be caring for died under her watch. She protests that the responsibility really lay with the attending physician, who sent her out for coffee and then himself turned away from watching the monitor and getting to the child in time to save its life. But she gets laid off anyway and the experience leads her to leave the city and break up with her boyfriend, resident physician Jeremy (Mark Grossman), who’s training to live up to the old joke, “What do you call a person who thinks he’s God? A schizophrenic. What do you call a person who knows he’s God? A doctor.” She moves to L.A. and gets a live-in job taking care of Toby Andrews (Jet Jurgensmeyer), son of a well-to-do couple who are leaving town for a month to visit family. Toby is staying behind because he has an intense fear of flying; he’s also diabetic and requires regular insulin injections, so Daphne figures it’s not just a babysitting job and will tap into at least some of her skills as a nurse. 

She’s encouraged to take it by her African-American best friend back at the hospital, Dr. Kaci Washington (Shanica Knowles) — and of course the moment we realize the heroine’s best friend is Black we can start measuring her for her coffin. The film starts with a prologue whose connection with the main action doesn’t become clear until much later: another young blonde woman with a live-in babysitter job is awaiting the arrival of a pizza delivery person — we hear enough of her end of the phone call between them to realize she’s expecting more from him than pizza — and later we learn that she was found in the hills, murdered. Daphne soon realizes she’s being stalked by the same pizza guy, who turns up unannounced the day after he’s delivered to them claiming that she overpaid him and asking her to do lunch with him sometime, and other things start to happen to indicate that she’s being stalked. At one point a young dark-haired woman named Audra (Arianne Zucker) shows up and says she is a newly assigned worker for the Andrews’ maid service, which explains why she has the key to the place, only later on Toby’s mother Karen Andrews (Reagan Pasternak) says in one of her ongoing phone calls to Daphne that they’ve never used a maid service. Kaci comes out to visit Daphne and the two of them find themselves menaced inside the Andrews’ big house by a sinister, unseen assailant. Daphne’s ex Jeremy also shows up, but the mystery assailant — who wears a hood and a black cloak that resembles the legendary Grim Reaper, though without the scythe — sneaks into his car while he’s exploring the house, and when he returns to the car the killer strangles him with a leather cord and leaves him in his car in front of the house. 

In the end the killer traps both women in the house and turns out to be [spoiler alert!] not the twitchy pizza guy but Audra, who was the mother of the child who died in the hospital under Daphne’s care and who determined to avenge herself against everyone she held responsible for the death, including her own babysitter (the earlier victim) as well as Daphne. The three women use a variety of weapons against each other, and at one point Audra breaks a wine bottle to get a sharp instrument with which she can stab Kaci — though Kaci makes it to the next-to-last act (it usually doesn’t take that long for Lifetime writers to dispatch the heroine’s African-American best friend) and when she dies it’s not from Audra stabbing her with one end of the broken bottle, but Audra knocking her over until she picturesquely falls on the shard of the other end. In the end Daphne manages to knock out Audra and eventually the police, called by Karen Andrews after Daphne’s frantic pleading for her to do so, come and save the day. There’s also a cute guy playing a cop, Gavyn Michaels as Officer Chase, who shows up when Daphne makes a 911 call and then feels embarrassed that it’s just the maid (and it’s only much oater, of course, that both she and we realize it’s the principal villainess posing as a maid!), and for a moment it looked like they were setting the cop up as a replacement boyfriend for Daphne once Jeremy got killed, but they didn’t go there and in the end Daphne decides to move back to her home town, Atlanta, and go back to medical school to become the doctor she really wanted to be. Babysitter’s Nightmare is pretty routine stuff, though the final half-hour is a quite nicely honed, almost wordless tale of suspense and terror; a pity Helgren’s writing before that is pretty slovenly and by-the-numbers Lifetime formula!

The Bachelor Next Door (Michael Feifer/Lifetime, 2017)

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

The Bachelor Next Door was also pretty routine, made up by writer/director/producer Michael Feifer from bits and pieces of previous Lifetime scripts about romantic obsessives carrying unrequited torches on heroines for over a decade. In this case the obsessive is Donnie Bradford (Michael Welch), who suddenly turns up in the home next door to the main couple, Alex (Haylie Duff) and her live-in boyfriend, investment advisor Gavin Barnett (Steven Bruns, who throws the usual Lifetime formula “off” a bit by being better-looking overall than Michael Welch, though one scene with the three principals together reveals that Welch has the bigger basket). Alex is an aspiring artist and Gavin wants them to get married, but Alex is holding off because she wants an independent career and doesn’t want to be just a “wife.” The house next door is owned by an older couple, William and Cindy Bradford, and Donnie claims that he’s their nephew and is essentially house-sitting for them. This film contains a prologue, set in 2007 at a university in Colorado, in which someone sexually assaulted Alex and someone else pulled him off her — though we’re not told until the very end just who did what to whom in this incident. All we really know about it is that Alex still has nightmares in which she flashes back to it.

Alex meets Donnie when he happens to come along with a fire extinguisher and puts out a fire in their kitchen; she proclaims him her “hero” and Donnie gradually insinuates himself more and more into their lives, doing home repairs and dating Alex’s sister Sage (Brittany Underwood — see, I told you she was in this movie!). The four of them spend time at a deserted mountain cabin (not another deserted mountain cabin in a Lifetime movie!), at which Donnie comes on to Sage, though when they get together and are about to have sex Donnie blows it with her by saying, “I’ve always loved you, Alex.” So Sage catches on that this guy is just using her as a proxy for her sister. Somewhere along the way Gavin proposes to Alex, who accepts, only Donnie decides to break them up by stealing an earring from Gavin’s boss, and former lover, Jennifer Green (Preeti Desai), and writing Gavin a fake e-mail, ostensibly from Jennifer, stating how glad she is that Gavin has finally decided to resume their affair. Naturally Alex is pissed off and mega-jealous about this, and she and Gavin have a fight which ends with Gavin getting in his car and chasing after Donnie. Donnie spots him and calls the police, saying that he’s being followed by a road-rage driver; Alex tries to call Gavin and get him to turn around and come home, but too late: Gavin is arrested, taken into custody and interrogated by an avuncular Black police detective (Kim Estes). Eventually Gavin is able to sort out the misunderstanding, get the detective to realize Donnie set all this up for his own reasons, and get Alex to accept that whatever he had with Jennifer is long over and he has neither resumed it nor shown any interest in doing so. So Donnie sneaks up behind Alex with a cloth containing a knockout drug and uses it to kidnap her and take her at gunpoint to the deserted mountain cabin (you just knew it was going to end at that deserted mountain cabin, didn’t you?), which he’s picked as a location because it’s out of cell-phone range.

Both Gavin and the police have caught on that Donnie really isn’t the Bradfords’ nephew — he set them up to burn to death in a car accident and simply took over their home — and the detective traces Donnie back to college in Colorado in 2007. We’ve assumed all along that Donnie was the man who tried to rape Alex way back when, but in fact [spoiler alert!] Donnie was actually the one who saved Alex from being raped by Johnny, a frat boy who also had the hots for her, and Gavin, who was also at that college, saw the incident but didn’t intervene because he didn’t see the attempted rape and thought it was just two frat boys beating each other up as part of a hazing ritual. Donnie had a crush on Alex even before he rescued her, and him saving her from a rapist turned that crush into a lifelong obsession. (Kudos are in order to Feifer’s uncredited makeup person for making Michael Welch look a decade younger, considerably nerdier and acne-ridden in the flashback sequence.) Ignoring the good advice of the detective to stay out of it and let the local police handle the situation, Gavin drives up to the cabin with a gun of his own; he shoots Donnie in the chest, Donnie fires back at him and misses, and then Alex gets the gun away from Donnie and uses it to drill him with a clean shot to the forehead, so when the cops arrive Donnie is already dead. An epilogue set a year later shows Gavin and Alex finally getting married. The Bachelor Next Door is in the middling run of Lifetime movies, so predictable and clichéd (except for that neat reversal over what really happened back in 2007) one pretty much guesses what’s going to happen an act or two in advance, though it’s not as dementedly silly as some of Feifer’s scripts have been and it works O.K. within the formula. Michael Welch’s superficially charming and blessedly restrained performance as the psycho also helps, but for the most part this is a pretty forgettable film.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Ready Player One (Warner Bros., Amblin Entertainment, De Line Entertainment, Dune, RatPack, Village Roadshow Pictures, 2018)

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

Charles and I watched the Blu-Ray disc of the 2018 film Ready Player One, directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline based on Cline’s novel of the same title, which Charles and I had both read and enjoyed. The film was considerably changed from the book — despite the presence of the original author as one of the screenwriters — but the basic outline of the plot remains the same: in the U.S. in 2045, conditions for most people have deteriorated so much that they live in “stacks,” essentially giant columns of old trailers stacked on top of each other. Real life has become so oppressive and dull that most people spend most of their time online in an overarching virtual-reality simulator called “OASIS,” invented 20 years previously by reclusive computer genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance, dressed so baggily and unsexily it’s hard to remember this guy has a very large and blessedly uncut cock — I know that because I’ve seen him in the film Intimacy, a sort of Last Tango in Paris knockoff in which he got to go full-frontal quite a lot) and his former business partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). Cline has admitted that the obvious parallel with Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak was intentional, though a lot of the material has the gloss of fiction — it seems that at one point Halliday had a crush on a woman named Karen, screen name Kira (just about everyone in this movie has an online OASIS avatar as well as a real name), only he was too shy to get to first base with her and she eventually married Morrow just before Halliday forced Morrow out of the company. Early on in the film we see a video Halliday left to be shown after his death (I suspect Cline was basing this at least partly on Timothy Leary and his decision literally to broadcast his death online) in which he declares that there will be a worldwide contest in the OASIS to find three hidden keys and an Easter egg (computer slang for a message or object hidden in a program), and the first person to find all these items in the OASIS will inherit the entire system from him. This, of course, has attracted the attention of the villain, CEO Nick Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) of the sinister company IOI (which stands for Interactive Online Industries), who have thousands of staff members toiling away at Halliday trivia looking for clues to the keys and the egg, which are hidden and accessible only to people with an extensive knowledge of 1980’s cultural trivia. (As Ernest Cline readily admits in one of the bonus featurettes, he was a teenager in the 1980’s and therefore remembers and experiences the culture of that period with the sort of nostalgic glow I bring to anything from the 1960’s.) 

Charles and I were both disappointed that one of the most powerful sequences in the novel — a duel between hero and villain within the 1980’s video game Joust — didn’t make it into the movie, though I suspect many of the differences between book and film were based on what rights could or couldn’t be cleared. Ready Player One isn’t the film either Charles or I imagined when we read the book (for one thing, I had wanted the real-world scenes outside the OASIS to be filmed in black-and-white, with only the OASIS scenea in color, to reflect the drabness of real-world existence in the film’s 2045), and a friend of mine who liked Blade Runner: 2049 as much as I hated it said one of the reasons he liked Blade Runner: 2049 is it undermined the convention of the “quest” narrative in which the chosen individual finds the magic object or completes the task that redeems all. Certainly Ready Player One is a classic “quest” narrative in which the hero Parzival (on-line avatar of Wade Wells, played engagingly if not brilliantly by Tye Sheridan) uses his knowledge of video games, 1980’s culture and Hallidayiana to conquer the villainous forces of IOI and win the prize. By picking the name of the hero of the Holy Grail quest story in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s prose poem (a fascinating work in its own right because it’s one of the few first-person accounts from the Middle Ages of just what it was like to be a knight) and Richard Wagner’s opera, Cline underscored the “quest” part of the narrative and the extent to which his hero is the “Chosen One,” though for someone who at the start of the film resolutely refuses to “clan” with anyone else he ends up with a group of confederates with whom he sticks, including his girlfriend Art3mis a.k.a. Samantha (Olivia Cooke) whom he meets and falls in love with in the OASIS long before he’s met her in the real world, along with Aech, a young Black woman who’s assumed the avatar of a Black male in the OASIS (Lena Waithe); and two Asian-American kids, teenager Daito (Win Morisaki) and 11-year-old Sho (Philip Zhao) — though Daito died midway through the novel, in its most tragic scene, all five of the modern musketeers live to the end of the movie and they take over the OASIS as a joint enterprise, turning it off two days a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) so people will regain some involvement with the real world and try to better it instead of just retreating into the fantasies of the OASIS. 

Some of the changes between book and film seem to have been dictated by rights issues, some by director Spielberg not wanting to come off as a total egomaniac (he had the writers cut way down the number of references to films he directed or produced), and some simply to bring the effects budget closer to something resembling reason — though even so the movie’s post-production effects work took so long that Spielberg was able to make a whole other movie, The Post (the recent drama about the Washington Post acquiring and publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971), while waiting for the various effects houses to finish all the special-effects shots. There was potential for an even more interesting movie in Ready Player One the book, but the film as it stands is quite good, engagingly entertaining in the best Spielberg manner. I did have one quibble: the sequences in the OASIS looked just too video-gamey, with the actors taking on the cartoonish appearance of game characters — real video games in 2018 have a greater visual clarity than much of this movie and I had imagined the OASIS delivering state-of-the-art resolution comparable to that of a digitally shot movie. According to a “trivia” post on, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shot the “real” parts of the movie on film and the OASIS scenes in digital to establish the sort of visual contrast between the worlds I would have wanted to do by having the real-world scenes in black-and-white — and in one sequence in which the heroes fool the villain by hacking into his OASIS feed and thereby presenting him a scenario he thinks is real, Spielberg expected the fact that this sequence was shot in digital to give it away to the audience. Ready Player One is also an example of the anti-corporate tic that still runs through a lot of popular entertainment; despite the takeover of virtually all our lives by giant corporations, the popular artists of the world still take enormous amounts of corporate money to produce these at least mildly anti-corporate entertainments. Just as I was beginning to see the Frank Capra parallels in this plot, writers Penn and Cline hammered them home by quoting the line from It’s a Wonderful Life, “No man is a failure who has friends.” 

In some ways Ready Player One is a Libertarian fantasy of the heroic entrepreneur who creates an alternative universe and his heroic-entrepreneur successor who saves it from a corrupt bureaucracy — like The Hunger Games, Ready Player One can sustain both a Libertarian reading and a quasi-socialist one in which the capitalists are the bad guys and the heroic radical the good guy (and one of the most chilling aspects of Ready Player One is the off-handedness with which Nick Sorrento orders and carries out the destruction of the “stacks” in which Wade lives, just to eliminate him as a rival to the contest — he survives because he’s somewhere else when the attack occurs, but the aunt who had raised him and her asshole partner get blown up). It’s also ironic that Wade’s home base is Columbus, Ohio, which also figures in Omar El Akkad’s American War as the new capital of the United States (this book is also set in the late 21st century and describes a future in which climate change has eliminated much of the California coast, including Los Angeles and San Diego, and all of Florida except for a few scattered high bits that survive as islands; what’s left of the U.S. government passes a law providing for the death penalty for anyone who still uses fossil fuels; and as a result Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, along with South Carolina and Texas, secede and form the “Free Southern State,” resulting in a 20-year civil war and a bioplague that kills millions since both sides in the war use bioweapons) and figured in the recent special Congressional election in Ohio, in which Republican legislators split Columbus between two Congressional districts to keep them both reliably in Republican hands, only a Democratic challenger was able to mobilize enough voters from Columbus and its suburbs to come heartbreakingly close to defeating the Republican in a district that went for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 11 percent. Who knew that Columbus would suddenly become a focal point for American politics both in fiction and in real life?