Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Astronaut (Universal Television, 1972)

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

The two films at last night’s Mars movie screening in Golden Hill ( were both made in the 1970’s and were products of the conspiracy theorizing fashionable at the time, which seems to have started with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the totally impossible “explanation” that the U.S. government put forth that it was all the work of Lee Harvey Oswald, a lousy shot with a lousier rifle in a sixth-floor window shooting at a motorcade that was moving away from him. Both these films were based on the common assumption of a lot of people back then that the U.S. had never really landed people on the moon — that the whole thing had been faked in a movie studio by professional filmmakers (at least one version of the conspiracy even named the professional filmmakers who had allegedly faked it: Stanley Kubrick and his crew from 2001: A Space Odyssey, working on that film’s leftover sets) and the dastardly conspiracy was just waiting to be unraveled by an intrepid reporter, detective or free-lance do-gooder (or troublemaker, depending on your point of view) with sufficient luck and determination to figure it out and avoid being assassinated himself for his pains. The first one was The Astronaut (a title that surprisingly has only one other listing on, a 1972 production of the TV-movie division of Universal (you can tell from the very dull block-lettered design of the credits) directed by Robert Michael Lewis from a script by Charles Kuenstle, Robert Biheller and Gerald Di Pego. 

The conceit of this film is that the U.S. actually sent up superstar astronaut Col. Brice Randolph (Monte Markham, who apparently was in a lot of made-for-TV movies at the time but whom I remembered only as the star of the disastrous and short-lived 1970’s attempt to reboot the Perry Mason TV series) to Mars and he got to the planet’s surface while his colleague Higgins (James Sikking) stayed in the part of the spacecraft that merely orbited Mars without landing on it. Only some toxin in the Martian atmosphere — either biological or chemical, nobody in the movie (or the people writing it) ever decided — seeped through Randolph’s spacesuit and killed him. Kurt Anderson (Jackie Cooper, top-billed), the head of the U.S. space program, fears that revelation that the first human on Mars died will lead a budget-conscious President and Congress to zero out the whole space program, so he puts into action a plan he and the real Randolph cooked up before the flight in case anything went wrong: they would recruit a double, Eddie Reese (also Monte Markham), to impersonate him and fake a successful return of the spacecraft to earth from which Reese would return and take over Randolph’s identity. Reese learns Randolph’s voice and the key elements of his past via tapes Randolph made for that purpose before he left, and goes through a high-tech version of plastic surgery to alter his already strong resemblance to Randolph to virtual identity. The one person he doesn’t fool is Randolph’s wife, Gail (Susan Clark), who was expecting the real Randolph’s child when he blasted off; though she can’t tell the difference physically, she realizes the new “Randolph” is considerably tenderer and more considerate than the old one. She finally confronts him and the man who’s moved into her life (and her bed, though the assumption seems to be that that far along in her pregnancy he wouldn’t be having sex with her) admits that he is not Randolph. 

The two find that they are being essentially held prisoner because the people running the U.S. space program fear they’ll escape and tell the world the truth — they’re not even allowed to leave their home, though at one point Reese wangles them a special pass so they can go to a nightclub and dance (the band at the club advertises “Music of the ’50’s” but the song we actually hear is “I’ll Remember April,” written by Don Raye and Gene De Paul in 1942 for the Universal Abbott and Costello movie Ride ’Em, Cowboy and similarly used in 1955 as the song nightclub patrons are dancing to when the Gill-Man turns up in the sequel Revenge of the Creature), only they have to flee in a hurry when a patron recognizes Reese as “Randolph” and he and Gail realize they’re going to blow their cover if they don’t leave immediately. As the film progresses Eddie and Gail realize they’re falling in love with each other for real — Eddie is so much nicer and more considerate than that stuffed-shirt husband of hers who conveniently died on Mars — and they make plans to run away together even though they’ll do heaven knows what. (I suspect the writers ripped off this plot line from the 1937 screwball classic Nothing Sacred, in which the woman at the center of a newspaper hoax and the reporter who cooked it up have to hide out from the world forever.) Only a deus ex machina emerges when the Soviet Union (ya remember the Soviet Union?) launches their own manned mission to Mars and Kurt Anderson (ya remember Kurt Anderson?) has a crisis of conscience: let the Soviet cosmonauts land on Mars and get killed by the same whatsit that knocked off the real Randolph, or admit the truth before the Soviet spacecraft lands and thereby spare their cosmonauts at the risk of a major political embarrassment and the possible end of the U.S. space program? Fortunately for all concerned, Kurt does the right thing and goes public with the truth.  

The Astronaut is that frustrating sort of movie that has a compelling central premise but deserved better execution: it doesn’t help that not only Randolph and Reese but a lot of the males in the film look similar to each other, and the tackiness of the production on a Universal TV budget occasionally takes its toll on the film, but it gets considerably better when Susan Clark appears and turns in a whirlwind of a performance as the wife. For a while she and Markham as Reese have such bitter arguments this almost looks like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the science-fiction version, but eventually they reconcile and Clark adroitly nails the transformation of her attitude from hatred to love as well as her frustration in this ridiculous situation in which her husband has been replaced by an impostor but she finds she likes the impostor a lot better than she liked the original. (This was a gimmick used in quite a few previous movies about impersonations — like the 1942 MGM “B” Nazi Agent in which good anti-Nazi refugee Conrad Veidt replaces evil Nazi agent Conrad Veidt and his cover is blown when the bad Nazi’s dog, who always hated the bad Veidt, snuggles up to the good Veidt and lets Veidt pet him, or the 1948 Bette Davis melodrama A Stolen Life, in which the predatory Davis steals Glenn Ford from the good Davis, then drowns in a boating accident that was caused by her trying to kill the good Davis, who emerges and takes the bad Davis’s place as Ford’s wife — but it still works.) The Astronaut is an indication of how capable Universal’s TV-movie division was in the early 1970’s, even though the basic premise would seem to have been good enough to merit a feature film with a decent budget and bigger names than Monte Markham and Susan Clark in the leads!

Capricorn One (Associated General Films, ITC Films, 1977)

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

Indeed, the basic premise of The Astronaut got a bigger-budgeted feature film in 1977 when writer-director Peter Hyams got the green light from Sir Lew Grade’s ITC corporation (best known for screwing the Beatles out of the copyrights to their own songs and bankrolling the original Muppet Show on TV) to produce Capricorn One. Hyams apparently got the idea from watching the Apollo 13 moon landing in 1969 and thinking, “There was one event of really enormous importance that had almost no witnesses. And the only verification we have … came from a TV camera.” In one respect Hyams’ script mirrored The Astronaut — both involved NASA (given a different name in The Astronaut but using its real name in Capricorn One) faking a Mars expedition and using the tricks of filmmaking to do it — but in The Astronaut the real astronaut was dead and the plot was to make him seem still alive, while in Capricorn One the astronauts are alive but the plot is to make them appear dead. The film begins with the U.S. about to launch Capricorn One, the first human-piloted mission to Mars, only just before the rocket carrying the spacecraft is about to lift off the head of the space program, Dr. James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) whisks the three astronauts — mission commander Charles Brubaker, Sr. (James Brolin), universally nicknamed “Bru”; Peter Willis (Sam Waterston); and John Walker (O. J. Simpson, cast at the insistence of the “suits” in Grade’s operation instead of Robert Hooks, the talented and experienced Black actor Hyams really wanted — and at least one reviewer suspects that Simpson’s current disrepute is what has kept this movie from being better known and available on DVD or Blu-Ray) — out of the space capsule and onto the secret, ostensibly abandoned Jackson Air Force Base in Texas (it’s really in Mississippi, as several “Goofs” posters noted, and the travel time to it is considerably quicker in the movie that an actual journey by car from Cape Canaveral, Florida to Texas would be), where they re-enact a Mars landing on an impromptu soundstage with a red backdrop and sandy red soil on the studio floor. Kelloway tells them that the reason for this is that the scientists in charge of the Mars voyage have discovered that, because the private contractor they hired to build the ship’s life-support system cut corners to pad their profits, the system is substandard and wouldn’t keep them alive for longer than three months. (This was four years after Simpson appeared in The Towering Inferno, another movie in which a contractor’s profit-driven cost-cutting led to a disaster.) 

The plan is that the astronauts will re-emerge, ostensibly rescued from the Capricorn One spacecraft when it supposedly drifted off course and landed 200 miles away from where the ship was supposed to pick it up, only when they bring the actually empty Capricorn One through the earth’s atmosphere the heat shield falls off it, the spacecraft disintegrates and the astronauts presumably die. (Hyams stages this in a scene obviously copped from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: the medical indicators supposedly indicating the astronauts’ vital signs literally “flatline” and the machines thereby register their deaths. In 1984, seven years after making this film, Hyams would direct a sequel to 2001, 2010: The Year We Make Contact.) The astronauts themselves, realizing that NASA will have to kill them to make sure their plot is not exposed, attempt to flee by stealing a general-aviation jet plane conveniently parked at the base — but the plane has so little fuel in it they have to crash-land in the desert and they rather stupidly decide to split up to see who can get out of the desert and encounter civilization first. O. J. Simpson’s character virtually disappears, Sam Waterston’s is tracked down and killed by crews flying two mysterious dark unmarked helicopters — though in the close-ups we see they’re olive-green, in the long shots they looked black and made me think this might be the origin of all the conspiracy theories about the U.N. supposedly flying “black helicopters” around for various nefarious persons), but Brubaker survives encounters with a rattlesnake (which he kills and cuts open for food and moisture) and a scorpion and finally interfaces with crusading reporter — not another crusading reporter — Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould, top-billed — so this film features both Barbra Streisand’s ex-husband, Gould, and her current one, Brolin), who’s about to be fired by his assignment editor (we’re told he works for a TV outlet but we don’t see any movie or video cameras anywhere) because he keeps coming up with loony-tunes ideas for “scoops” instead of covering the bread-and-butter stories they want him to do. 

Caulfield gets suspicious when one of his sources at NASA, a man at Mission Control who noticed anomalies between the readings he was getting on his computer and the ones that would have been expected if the astronauts really were flying to Mars and back, disappears, and in a scene Hyams pretty obviously cribbed from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, when Caulfield visits his friend’s home, the person living there is a woman, the apartment is completely different and she has documentation, including several months’ worth of magazines she ostensibly subscribed to, to prove it. Then Caulfield interviews Brubaker’s wife Kay (Brenda Vaccaro) and notices an anomaly in her husband’s recorded communications with her: he said when he returned he was going to take his family to Yosemite “like we did last year,” but the previous year they didn’t go to Yosemite: they went to a deserted Western ghost town where a movie crew was shooting a film and Bru took home movies of the film crew at work. Caulfield goes out to the ghost town and finds himself shot at, then federal agents come to his home and arrest him for possession of cocaine (which they planted), and he’s bailed out by fellow reporter Judy Drinkwater (Karen Black), whom he’s been after for years both professionally and sexually. Caulfield traces Bru to the deserted Johnson Air Force Base and hires a local crop-duster pilot, Albain (Telly Savalas in a schticky performance that makes his ridiculous work on the old TV series Kojak seem understated by comparison), to fly over and see if they can find Bru. They find the two sinister olive-green helicopters sent by NASA to kill Bru and anyone else who can expose the plot, and though they’ve more-or-less rescued Bru he has to hang preposterously to the plane’s wing because the cockpit has room for only two people. The helicopter pilots try to force down the plane by striking its wings with their landing skids, but Albain fights back by releasing his crop-dusting chemicals, causing the helicopter pilots to lose visibility and conveniently crash into a nearby cliff. 

The finale takes place at a memorial service to the Capricorn One crew, to which Mrs. Brubaker has been invited, but Caulfield shows up with the real and very much alive Brubaker and … we don’t get the big confrontation scene we’ve been expecting all movie because instead of bothering to write one, Hyams (who as I like to say about incompetent writer-directors, is also the writer and therefore has no one to blame but himself) has Caulfield and Brubaker approach the ceremony in mid-progress (interrupting a speech by a typically otiose gasbag President of the United States) and the crowd sees that Brubaker is still alive. But we don’t get any audible reactions because Hyams drowns his soundtrack in sappy “inspirational” music by Jerry Goldsmith and stretches out the approach of the two men by filming it in slow motion. Like The Astronaut, Capricorn One gives the impression of being a better idea for a movie than the one that actually got made, and there are plenty of Hyams’ annoying directorial trademarks that marred the 2010 movie as well (though in fairness to him about 2010, no one — probably not even Kubrick himself — could have made a viable sequel to 2001). The biggest problem with this movie is the abrupt cuts from the investigative-reporter clichés with Elliott Gould to the survivalist clichés with James Brolin —just when we’re finally interested by one of Hyams’ plot strands we’re suddenly yanked away from it and thrown into the other — and it also doesn’t help that Elliott Gould as an investigative reporter is as unbelievable a casting decision as Elliott Gould as the worst-ever Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s horrible desecration of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. There isn’t even a strongly etched female character here like the one Susan Clark played in The Astronaut, and though this plot line would have presented its own set of problems, Capricorn One could have been more dramatically interesting if Caulfield and Mrs. Brubaker had started to fall in love with each other, only to have to squelch those feelings in a hurry once her husband turned out still to be alive.  

Capricorn One was clearly a product of the same world-weary and conspiracy-minded post-Watergate Zeitgeist (Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are even mentioned in the dialogue) as such other, more interesting 1970’s movies as The Parallax View, and Hyams seems to be alluding to Jimmy Carter when he has the characters complain that the country is getting nothing but bad news and the President isn’t giving them any reason to hope. The idea that there is some “deep” truth kept carefully hidden from us has become an accepted belief on both extremes of the political spectrum: the Right posits a “deep state” comprised of government bureaucrats and the academics they supposedly take their orders from out to keep the heroic, brilliant President Trump from accomplishing his agenda to drive them out of power and “make America great again,” while much of the Left’s writing about Trump seems to posit the existence of a “deep ruling class” above the ruling class we know about, one that extends worldwide and profits, literally and figuratively, on a massive scale far greater than the capitalist establishment we’re allowed to know about. And while Ronald Reagan saw the Right’s way to political dominance as one in which they would take the optimistic high road and proclaim “morning in America” after the “malaise” of the Carter years (a word Carter himself never used, by the way), Donald Trump’s has been to proclaim the “American carnage” that “only I can fix” and to make clear his utter disinterest in doing anything to help the Americans who didn’t vote for him. Capricorn One has an optimistic ending — “This time, at least, the good guys win” — but in some ways it’s part of the trend away from the utopian science fiction of the 1950’s to the dystopian stuff like The Hunger Games and Divergent that dominates today, in which the world is run by sinister secret conspiracies that you might temporarily derail but can never ultimately defeat.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Seduced by My Neighbor (Stargazer Films, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

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

I watched last night’s Lifetime “premiere,” a film quite misleadingly called Seduced by My Neighbor that doesn’t actually feature the central character being seduced by her neighbor (any more than the previous night’s “premiere,” Sorority Stalker, actually featured any scenes set in a sorority, probably a disappointment for any straight guys who turned it on expecting to see a lot of young, nubile actresses playing sorority girls in various stages of undress). Seduced by My Neighbor (originally shot under the more subtle working title The Neighborhood Watch) starts with a scene in which husband Neal Goodwin (Tim Bensch) is driving home to his wife Sarah (Andrea Bogart, presumably no relation) and teenage daughter Allie (Sierra McCormick) and telling them how much he loves them when his car is suddenly driven off the road by another vehicle going in the other direction, and he ends up dead. Then we get a chyron reading, “Two Years Later,” and two years later Sarah and Allie have finally fulfilled Neal’s plan to move them to the community of Pine Ridge, Kentucky where Neal had just placed his mother Gladys (Beth Broderick) in a nursing home, so they can be near her. Sarah will make her living by working as a nurse at the nursing home, which probably puts her into closer contact with her former mother-in-law than any normal person would want, but it’s all sweetness and light between the three surviving generations of the Goodwin family. The bad guy is Mike Aaron (Trevor St. John), the on-site security guard at the complex in which the Goodwins’ new home is, who immediately takes a decidedly unrequited crush on Sarah and uses a variety of nasty stratagems to get her. First he dresses as a burglar, all in black and with a ski mask, and breaks into Sarah’s and Allie’s home, then he shows up in his normal uniform and offers to revamp their security system so that doesn’t happen again.

He not only gets their security code — so he can let himself into their house any time he wants to —he wires the place so he can eavesdrop on them and watch Sarah in bed and also see who’s using the hot tub. Grandma Gladys has her own idea of who her former daughter-in-law should be dating — Chris (Rocky Myers), a firefighter in the community and the son of one of her fellow nursing-home residents — and, remarkably, Rocky Myers is genuinely hunky and actually more attractive than Trevor St. John, a rare example of a Lifetime movie in which the good guy is hotter than the bad guy. In fact, one of the nicer aspects of Seduced by My Neighbor is the sheer amount of appealing beefcake: when the Goodwins get to their new community the first man they see is a young guy named Dylan (Greg Rogstad) who’s introduced, blessedly topless, in his backyard shooting hoops. Writers David Hickey and Scott Collette have clearly introduced Dylan to serve as a love interest for Allie, and later on in the film when Dylan and Allie have a party in Sarah’s hot tub with another young couple, the male of that couple is just as hot. Sarah and Chris have an old-Hollywood-style “meet-cute” when one of the kids tries to microwave a metal popcorn container and starts a house fire which Sarah learns about from the super-security system Mike has installed; it’s put out without damaging anything but the microwave, but it just adds to the sense of Mike as a sort of Big Brother wanna-be using his control over their security system to eavesdrop on the Goodwins and hopefully get Sarah into his life (and his bed). Alas, Mike is such a wimp by Lifetime villain standards that the film is an hour and a half old before we finally get to see him kill somebody: Julia Stevens (Reagan Pasternack), a woman who’s had her eye on him and threatens to tell Sarah all Mike’s dark secrets if Mike doesn’t abandon his quest of Sarah and pair with Julia instead. Later he kills Gladys Goodwin by sneaking into the nursing home (he installed their security system, too) and smothering her with a pillow when she was about to “out” him to Sarah, and the two murders finally awaken whatever Pine Ridge has for a police department.

It all ends with Mike tricking Sarah and Allie by offering them a ride to the nursing home, which has been on lockdown since Gladys’s body was discovered, though since they’ve been unable to reach the place by phone they have no idea that Gladys has been killed. Instead Mike drives the two terrified women down a deserted mountain road, saying that his wife and their daughter were killed on the same stretch of road as Sarah’s husband. It turns out it was the same accident: Mike’s wife and daughter were running away from him to be with another man she’d been having an affair with, and while they were on that road they encountered the car being driven by Sarah’s husband Neal. The two cars swerved to avoid colliding but Mike’s wife and daughter were killed, and though Neal survived the crash Mike killed him on the spot for revenge. (The writers could have made the plot even kinkier if they’d had Neal been the man Mike’s wife was going to run off with, or if they’d followed up on a brief early hint that Mike’s lascivious interest was not with Sarah but her daughter Allie, and he was following the Humbert Humbert strategy of romancing the wife to get to the daughter — but the lovey-dovey cell-phone prologue precluded the former and it’s probably just as well they didn’t go with the latter.) Mike has knocked out Chris and stashed him in the trunk of his car, and he demands that Sarah choose between them — if she picks Mike he’ll only kill Chris but if she picks Chris he’ll kill them all and make it look like an accident. Sarah plays along with him but her daughter takes a pepper-spray container she’d hidden on her person (it had been passed along from Neal to his mother to Sarah to Allie — pepper spray as a family heirloom?) and sprays it in Mike’s face, causing him to drive off the road and enabling the women to knock him out before the cops arrive and arrest him.

The film ends with a chyron reading, “Six Months Later,” and six months later Sarah and Allie are still ensconced in their security complex and Chris is still part of their lives and on his way to becoming Sarah’s husband and Allie’s legal stepdad — only Mike, in prison, bribes a guard to get him a smartphone and uses it to eavesdrop on Sarah and Chris having sex in her still-wired bedroom. Seduced by My Neighbor isn’t the lubricious fun we would have expected from that title — for all the sexual energy that’s driving the plot, we get virtually nothing in the way of the soft-core porn that’s given a lot of Lifetime movies their entertainment value — and Lifetime’s other writers and directors (the director on this one was Sam Irvin) have got a lot more out of these particular formulae than these people did. Though there are a lot of nice-looking men in the cast, which helps, Seduced by My Neighbor is a pretty ordinary Lifetime movie that fails to live up to the deliciously erotic promise of its title!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sorority Stalker (Reel One Entertainment, Cartel Pictures, 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 Sorority Stalker — though it was shot under the more haunting working title No Good Deed (as in “no good deed goes unpunished,” which succinctly describes what happens to the hapless heroine of this film) — directed by Craig Goldsmith from a script by Sandra Bailey, who also appears in the film in a short but important role. Aya Stevens (Haley Webb) is the owner of the Dylan Keith beauty salon in Los Angeles — why a woman-owned business is named after a man is explained by her statement fairly well on in the running time that she didn’t have the capital to start her own salon from scratch but had to buy an existing one instead — when she and her receptionist Deanna (Lily Anne Harrison) notice a young blonde woman (Haley Pullos — so both the heroine and the villain of this piece are played by women with the first name “Haley”!) hanging around outside the salon. Aya approaches her and the woman explains that her name is Taryn, she knows little about her biological parents because she grew up in foster care, she was working as a concierge for a New York hotel when she met a man named Steve Reisner (Bryan Durfee, a nice hot blond piece of man-meat with great pecs, but also someone we see only briefly). She fell madly in love with him, so much so that she quit her job and moved to L.A. to be with him — at least that’s what she tells Aya — only he’s ignored all her phone calls and texts, so she’s alone in town with nowhere to stay and no job. 

Aya invites her to move in to her home — she’s renting a house from her aunt and she’s got a roommate, Vicki (the role Sandra Bailey wrote for herself), but at the moment Vicky is out of town for two weeks with her boyfriend Matt (whom we never see) and so Aya invites Taryn to stay in Vicki’s room until Vicki gets back. Aya’s masseuse, Lauren (Christel Khalil), goes on an online dating site and sets Aya up to meet a guy named Aaron (whom we also never see), but Taryn sneaks access to Aya’s phone and sends Aaron a text breaking the date, then erases Aaron’s number from the phone so when Aya goes to the restaurant they were supposed to meet at, she not only thinks he’s stood her up but she can’t call him to find out what happened. So we already know that Aya is up to no good. Aya explains that she particularly bonded with one foster mother named Sarah, only Sarah had an abusive partner named Jack and one night their house burned down: Sarah got Taryn out in time but then went back into the burning house to rescue Jack, so they both died and Taryn was presumably scooped up and placed somewhere else. We had seen some of this action in a prologue, and we learn more about this because it’s the only shred of an explanation Sandra Bailey is going to give us for What Makes Taryn Run and in particular why she’s so pathologically jealous of anyone that comes between her budding “sismance” with Aya. First she dresses up as a mugger and knocks out Aya’s receptionist Deanna one night so Deanna will end up in the hospital with two broken legs, she’ll have to take off work (though Charles wondered why, since she doesn’t need to stand up to work and therefore she could still do her job with broken legs), and of course Taryn talks herself into taking over as Deanna’s replacement.

Then her happy little idyll with Aya both at home and work is broken by the sudden appearance of Aya’s roommate Vicki (ya remember Aya’s roommate Vicki?), who comes home unexpectedly because she and her invisible boyfriend Matt had a fight and she bailed on her out-of-town trip early. Vicki spots Deanna’s wallet and ID in her room and confronts Taryn, saying that she’s going to call the police on her because she may have fooled Aya but Vicki has caught on to her — only Taryn is ahead of her: she takes care of the immediate danger by sneaking behind Vicki and clubbing her to death. (Oops.) Then Lauren, still looking on dating Web sites for guys she can set Aya up with, stumbles on a photo of Steve and recognizes him as Taryn’s love object even though no one at the salon has ever laid eyes on him — are we supposed to believe he’s the only young single guy named Steve in L.A.? She naturally wonders why Steve still has his profile on dating sites when he’s supposed to be Taryn’s boyfriend, and Lauren and Aya set up a meeting during which Aya will confront Steve and ream him a new asshole over his shabby treatment of Taryn. Only when they meet, Steve explains to Aya that he’s not in love with Taryn. Far from it: he hooked up with her at the hotel where she worked and he was staying for out-of-town meetings with clients and they had sex once, but then Taryn started stalking him, leaving him endless messages until he finally reported her to her bosses at the hotel and they fired her. Taryn interpreted this to mean that Steve had wanted her to get fired so there’d be nothing keeping them apart anymore, and so she came out to L.A. and resumed her stalking of Steve there — and when Taryn finally realizes that Steve has no ongoing interest in her, she takes a gun Aya had bought for self-protection and hid in the salon, goes to Steve’s house and shoots him dead. (It’s really a shame to see Bryan Durfee’s beautifully smooth, creamy chest defaced by a wound like that, even though I’m sure the actor himself remained undamaged and it was only a special effect.) 

Aya catches on when she gets worried about how long it’s been since she saw Vicki; she calls Matt and Matt explains that she left him days earlier and he hasn’t heard from her since: all Matt’s calls to Vicki have gone to voicemail, and so do Aya’s. She uses a find-your-phone app on her laptop at home to find Vicki’s phone, and finds that it’s still on her property in the hand of a very dead Vicki, whom Taryn left buried in a crude grave in Aya’s garden. (Just how Taryn handled the dead weight of a body — especially one considerably larger and more buff than hers — is a mystery.) Meanwhile, the police are interrogating Aya as a potential suspect in Steve’s murder (ya remember Steve?) because according to his phone records she’s the last person who communicated with him while he was alive. The climax occurs at the salon, where Lauren (ya remember Lauren?) has figured out that Taryn is up to no good when it turns out that Taryn was never a member of the sorority Aya was in, though she wore their insignia as a pendant — she’d stolen it from her foster mother Sarah’s corpse as the ambulance wheeled her away — and therefore the bond Taryn used to get in Aya’s good graces (“sisters before misters,” the sorority slogan went) and get Aya to take her into both her home and her business was B.S. Only Taryn, of course, turns up and conks Lauren on the head, then threatens Aya with the gun she stole from Aya’s drawer (ya remember the gun?) and says she’s going to make all Aya’s dreams of a new salon of her own come true by burning the current one down and allowing Aya to collect on the insurance. When Aya makes the mistake of asking Taryn why she thinks she can get away with that, Taryn says, “Because I’ve done it before,” and then we learn that she burned down her foster mother’s home, hoping that would allow Sarah to get away from that abusive man — only instead of fleeing with Taryn, Sarah went back into the house to rescue Jack and got killed herself. 

Fortunately Lauren comes to — it seems for once Taryn’s blow wasn’t hard enough to kill — and knocks out Taryn before she can attack Aya or start the fire, and the two good women lock Taryn in the salon’s restroom and then call the police. Alas, when the cops come Taryn is gone — she opened the restroom’s window and escaped — and Aya ends up with the loan she wanted to expand her salon to the suddenly vacant adjoining property. She also ends up with a boyfriend, Eric Davis (Travis Caldwell), an old high-school acquaintance she ran into when he showed up at her salon for a massage (the closest thing we got to a soft-core porn scene in this one was Haley Webb working on Travis Caldwell’s back — he was shirtless but we never got to see the front of him because this is one place where “massage” means exactly that, and no more); when he turns up at the end and asks her for a date, and she explains that she has a hard-and-fast rule not to date her clients, he says, “O.K., you’re fired. Now can we have dinner?” (It’s the wittiest line in what’s otherwise a pretty much by-the-numbers Lifetime script.) Meanwhile, Taryn — escaping in the sort of open-ended ending Rod Serling was able to get away with on The Twilight Zone but which is merely irritating on Lifetime — latches on to another pigeon, an older woman named Sarah who comes upon Taryn at a bus stop, assumes the bruises on her face come from a battering husband she finally got up the courage to leave, and invites her to live in the empty guest house she and her husband have available … Sorority Stalker was an O.K. movie but hardly Lifetime at its best, and it didn’t have the marvelously haunting quality of Psycho Prom Queen (which Lifetime re-ran right after it), mainly because as the villainess Haley Pullos was just average, hitting all the right marks in delineating Lifetime’s Perky Psycho 101 but not really throwing herself into the role and projecting the kind of lovable dementia Allie MacDonald did as the (dare I say it?) psycho (would-be) prom queen. Also, Craig Goldsmith’s direction was just functional, without the neat suspense twists of Philippe Gagnon’s in Psycho Prom Queen, and though it was nice to see Sandra Bailey in the film as well as her writing it, she wasn’t as adept as Christine Conradt (or even Psycho Prom Queen’s writer, Barbara Kymlicka, whose name I love making dirty jokes about) in putting flesh on the bones of Lifetime’s clichés.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

K-19: The Widowmaker (First Light Production, IMF Internationale Medien und Film GmbH & Co. 2. Produktions KG, Intermedia Films, Paramount Pictures, 2018)

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

At 9 p.m. I turned off the political news and watched what turned out to be a surprisingly good movie: K-19: The Widowmaker, which I had assumed from the title would be a mountaineering film but is actually a movie about a real-life disaster that occurred to a Russian submarine in 1961. The Soviet Union had just commissioned the construction of its first nuclear-powered submarine armed with nuclear missiles, K-19, as a response to the U.S. deployment in 1959 of Polaris, a similarly powered and equipped craft. Only in their rush to get it into the water and show it off to the Americans, the Soviet Navy launched it before it was ready, when a lot of the safety systems hadn’t been installed yet and the ones that were hadn’t been tested for reliability, and as a result midway through the voyage — which was supposed to duplicate the U.S. sub Nautilus’s feat of sailing under the Arctic Circle and fire a harmless test missile just to let the Americans know the Soviets now had that deterrent capability, too — the cooling pipes feeding distilled water to the sub’s power reactors to keep its radioactive core from melting down started to leak, the core temperature went up to nearly 1,000° Celsius, and the crew started to worry about whether the reactor would not only melt down itself but set off the nuclear warheads in the missiles, thereby starting World War III as the Americans would read that as an all-out Russian first strike and retaliate against Moscow, Leningrad and the USSR’s other major cities. Complicating the plot is a struggle for control between two rival captains, Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) — the commander the crew were used to working with and with whom they had a good relationship — and Aleksei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford, top-billed, who got $25 million to make this movie), installed by the political authorities just before the K-19 is about to be launched, who takes command and demotes Polenin to his executive officer. The script by Louis Nowra (story) and Christopher Kyle (screenplay) borrows a lot from other submarine movies as well as things like The Caine Mutiny (at one point the ship’s political officer, concerned that Vostrikov’s refusal to issue a distress call to a U.S. destroyer monitoring K-19 will result in the deaths of all K-19’s crew members, attempts to arrest Vostrikov and re-install Polenin as captain, but Polenin himself forestalls the mutiny and orders Vostrikov freed), but it’s also a gripping tale of men in extreme conditions fighting for their own survival. 

The big plot twist is that the men have to go into the radioactive chamber to install a replacement pipe to get coolant into the reactor, and they have to do this twice because the first time works only temporarily. Because of the ultra-high level of radiation in the chamber, the crew members can only do this for 10 minutes — meaning there has to be a constant rotation of people in and out of the supposedly protective suits (a line of dialogue reveals that K-19 was supplied only with conventional haz-mat suits that are useless against radiation — which reminded me of the chilling real-life footage of the cleanup at Chernobyl, which was executed by people clad in costumes that looked like they were playing medieval knights in a Monty Python spoof and were no doubt similarly useless in protecting them against radiation), and seven of the crew members get fatal doses of radiation and die, while others expire later but still well before their time of the lingering effects. K-19 was directed by Kathryn Bigelow — yet another odd example of the first, and so far the only, female winner of the Academy Award for Best Director making a movie with virtually no women in the cast — and it was such a commercial flop (a $35 million gross on a $100 million investment) she didn’t get to make another film until The Hurt Locker seven years later — but of the three films of hers I’ve seen (the others are The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty) I liked this the best, perhaps because this was a the-“enemy”-are-human-too movie and not a piece of pro-“War on Terror” agitprop like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, and also I suspect because the conflicts are far more basic and, as reviewer “mozu” wrote, “The men sacrificed themselves not for The State or some ideology, but for each other, their fellow men & their leader.” K-19: The Widowmaker is quite a movie (even though the first third, until the accident happens, is somewhat slow going — though I liked the irony that Vostrikov has been putting his men through so many drills that when a real crisis occurs one of the sailors basically responds, “I’m sick and tired of all these drills”) and a real testament to Bigelow’s real talent for making macho movies about men under stress.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

La La Land (Summit Entertainment, Black Label Media, TIK Films, 2018)

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

Last night I deliberately wanted a movie that would at least briefly take my mind off all the depressing coverage of today’s midterm elections, and I also had a DVD of a film I’d been curious about since its release: La La Land, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s generally successful attempt to make an old-fashioned musical that would also reflect modern sensibilities. When the film first came out, the story as outlined in the reviews — aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) falls in love with jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and they have an affair, but their respective ambitions ultimately part them for a bittersweet ending — sounded so much like Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) I figured Chazelle had thought, “Hey! Let’s do New York, New York in Los Angeles!” Actually it turned out to have been a story Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz, who wrote the film’s songs, cooked up together back when they were college students in Boston and it was originally set there, though as it evolved they seem to have realized it had to take place in a city that was a major hub of the entertainment industry which would draw aspiring actors, singers and musicians and enable them to meet while they pursued their dreams. After suffering through all those Lifetime movies that had good moments but fell short of their potentials, La La Land was the reverse: a movie whose whole was greater than the sum of its parts. There are flaws: the songs (except for “Audition,” the wrenching piece with which Emma Stone’s character auditions for a movie, which would be a viable replacement for Stephen Sondheim’s “Send In the Clowns” for real-life auditions and performances by cabaret-style singers) aren’t especially memorable, and neither Ryan Gosling nor Emma Stone are exactly the world’s most scintillating musical performers.

Stone is one of those actresses who are perfectly serviceable singing and dancing, but no more than that — it’s hard on the basis of this film to believe that she starred as Sally Bowles in a successful stage revival of Cabaret, or that Chazelle saw her in that show and decided from it that she’d be the right person to play the female lead here — and Gosling has virtually no voice at all. (One key plot point is that he owns a piano stool previously used by Hoagy Carmichael, and the comparison is actually apt because Carmichael never had much of a voice, either, but he phrased well and he had enough of a voice to put his own songs over.) But they’re good enough actors they can convince us they’re better singers and dancers than they are —much the way Frank Sinatra once said of his musicals with Gene Kelly at MGM, “I could never dance, but Gene Kelly made me look as if I could.” La La Land’s greatest strengths are its visual look — Charles joked that the brilliant, vibrant color design looked as if Natalie Kalmus had come back from the grave to supervise it — and Chazelle’s skill at drawing on the plot conventions and clichés of 1930’s and 1940’s musicals while still putting enough of a modern “spin” on them that one could accept La La Land as a story taking place today. (New York, New York was a period musical, made in the late 1970’s but set in the late 1940’s.) One can note all the borrowings from musical classics, as well as the deliberately retro character of the film’s visual look — it begins with a special black-and-white version of the Summit Entertainment logo and the classic “Filmed in CinemaScope” logo from the 1950’s (though the film was actually shot in Panavision because no usable CinemaScope lenses still exist) — and its alternation between speaking and singing.

Unlike such other recent musicals as Chicago and Dreamgirls, it doesn’t present the characters singing and dancing only when they would be doing so for real (though Chicago anticipated this movie in its alternation between normal reality and musical fantasy and its use of songs as much to comment on the story as to tell it), and its main story takes place over a year and it’s divided by titles reading “Winter,” “Spring,” “Summer” and “Fall” (a device I suspect Chazelle borrowed from Meet Me in St. Louis, another film with the name of a city in its title) — though there’s a great gag in which, right after we see the big opening number, “Another Day of Sun,” with characters singing and dancing on top of their cars as they’re stuck in a freeway traffic jam (I noted that in a musical set in New York there’s a number on the subway; in L.A. we get one in a traffic jam), we see a title reading “Winter” over bright, sunny, cloudless skies. (I suspect that joke was even funnier to someone who lives in a place that actually has snowy winters than it is to a lifelong Californian like me.) Sebastian and Mia “meet-cute” on that freeway when Sebastian’s sporty convertible cuts off Mia’s plain-Jane sedan, and they meet again at a dull Hollywood party Mia has been talked by her girlfriends into going to in hopes of meeting some influential people who can give her parts. (In today’s “#MeToo” climate I worried that she’d run into some lecherous Harvey Weinstein-type asshole who’d sexually assault her, and maybe if this film had been made in 2018 instead of 2016 she would have met Sebastian when he saved her from some lecherous producer trying to rape her.) Mia is living with three roommates and working as a barista in a coffeehouse on the Warner Bros. studio lot; Sebastian is an aspiring pianist who wants to play serious jazz — he gets to sit in with a band at the Lighthouse (not coincidentally the name of a real L.A. jazz club in the 1950’s owned by bassist Howard Rumsey, who also led the band there) and has hopes of taking over the legendary Van Beek jazz club, which now offers “samba and tapas,” and starting his own jazz club there which he wants to call “Chicken on a Stick” after one of the supposed origin stories for jazz great Charlie Parker’s nickname, which first was “Yardbird” and then got shortened to “Bird.” (According to this movie, it came from Parker’s taste for fried chicken; other versions I’ve heard was that he was briefly in the military until he washed out and “Yardbird” was a common name for a private in World War II, and the one I think is most credible, that when he was growing up in Kansas City passers-by would walk past the Parker home and see and hear him practicing in the back yard.)

To support himself Sebastian takes a job as an anodyne cocktail-lounge pianist cranking out Christmas songs — until he goes into a jazz piece he’s learned by ear from a Thelonious Monk record and the owner fires him on the spot — and later he gets a gig as keyboard player for a band called “The Messengers” led by an old college friend of his, Keith (John Legend). The benefit is that the job is well paid and will enable him to amass enough savings he can finally open his club after two years; the downside is that the Messengers are so continually busy either recording or touring it takes him away from L.A. — and from Mia — for that long. Meanwhile Mia goes on a series of auditions — in one of which she’s playing a script much like Jean Cocteau’s play The Human Voice, in which a woman gets a telephone call from her lover saying he’s breaking up with her (Chazelle copies Cocteau’s gimmick of only letting us hear her end of the call), only one of the people auditioning her takes a phone call of their own while she’s in mid-performance. She decides to book a theatre for a one-woman play referencing her origins in Boulder City, Nevada, only the performance is a disaster — either no one shows or the people who do come think she’s awful — and the experience leads her to give up her dreams and move back to Boulder City. Only in her absence Sebastian takes a phone call for her from a serious casting director who wants her for a part in a big movie set in Paris, and he drives out to Boulder City, traces her and brings her back to L.A. for the audition. Mia gets the part and the film jumps forward five years — Mia is now married to someone else and they have a three-year-old daughter, and they stumble into Sebastian’s jazz club. There’s a fantastic (in both senses) dance number that replays the events of Sebastian’s and Mia’s affair as a romantic musical production — I joked that this was the film’s Bollywood ending (producers in India are notorious for ending their movies with big musical numbers that have either no relation at all or only a tangential one to the overall plot), only to cut back to the bittersweet reality.

La La Land ends the way I always thought the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Swing Time should have ended — with Astaire and Rogers literally dancing out of each other’s lives to the song “Never Gonna Dance” and the overall story being one of two people who loved each other very much but were unable to make their relationship work — only in 1936 no one at RKO was willing to dare an unhappy ending for an Astaire-Rogers movie and there’s a silly postlude to get Fred and Ginger together at last. The ending Chazelle wrote was a hard sell in the 21st century, too; the “Trivia” page on the film indicates that before Summit and producer Marc Platt greenlighted it, Chazelle got a lot of requests from potential producers to rewrite the ending for a more conventional musical finish in which Sebastian and Mia end up together after all. I think the film is far more powerful the way it is, even though the bittersweet ending was used in New York, New York as well. On the whole, Chazelle’s film is a lot happier and less angst-ridden than Scorsese’s — though Ryan Gosling’s character has its eccentricities, it’s a much more normal person than he usually plays (indeed, this film is the first half of the fulfillment of my long-standing wish, completed with his casting as Neil Armstrong in the moon-flight film First Man, that some casting director somewhere would cast Gosling as someone normal already, and now that that’s happened I maintain the same wish for Paul Dano!), and there’s an obvious contrast between him and Scorsese’s male lead, Robert De Niro, as both characters and “types.” I quite liked La La Land for its artful blending of realism and fantasy — I especially liked the scene in which Sebastian and Mia celebrate their new-found love by literally dancing on air (an effect I suspect Chazelle borrowed from one of Fred Astaire’s lesser-known films, The Belle of New York, where he decided to follow his gravity-defying room-turning solo in Royal Wedding by dancing in mid-air: in 1952 the only way Astaire could do that is to dance on a large pane of clear glass and hope the technicians could figure out a way to light it without showing reflections of the camera and lights, while Chazelle and his performers had access to CGI) — and Charles said what he liked about the overall ending of the film is it avoided the hair-shirt tragedy of the multiple A Star Is Borns and its progeny (as well as Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and the 1952 film of it), in which one of the lovers rises to huge stardom while the other is either ruined or dead.

La La Land is a quite likable movie, one which succeeds on its own terms in reviving the conventions of old musical while at the same time putting enough of a modern “spin” on them it’s believable as a story of today, and there are plenty of nostalgic symbols in the movie, like the Rialto revival theatre — where Sebastian takes Mia to see Rebel Without a Cause, only the film literally breaks and burns in the projector during the screening — and which later closes down and still later becomes the venue Mia rents for her one-woman show. There’s also an irony in the plot strand involving “The Messengers,” the band John Legend’s character leads — not only is he appropriating the name of one of the most famous jazz bands of all time, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (a group that launched the careers of, among others, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter and the Marsalis brothers, Wynton and Bradford), something one would expect Sebastian to take umbrage at, but after Keith has lectured him about trying to revive the jazz styles of the 1940’s his own band plays the 1970’s funk style that fused hard-bop jazz and soul music and paved the way for disco — so Keith’s act is in its own way as retro as Sebastian’s. (There’s a real-life irony in that John Legend, a pianist, had to learn guitar for this role, while Chazelle insisted that Gosling, an amateur guitarist, had to learn piano well enough to be able to synchronize on screen with the recordings of his piano double — to his credit, he didn’t want to use a hand double or resort to those ghastly shots in which the bulk of the piano is interposed between camera and actor so we can’t see what he or she is really doing with his fingers.) I can’t say if La La Land deserved the Academy Award for Best Picture it briefly won by mistake over the actual winner, Moonlight, until I actually see the latter film, but La La Land is certainly an estimable genre piece and a film of real quality and joy.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Watergate, part 3 (Representational Media, History Channel, 2018)

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

I watched the third episode of the History Channel’s Watergate show, which covered the period from the “Saturday Night Massacre” in October 1973 to Richard Nixon’s resignation as President in August 1974 and Gerald Ford’s controversial pardon of him a month later. One of the interviewees was Jill Wine-Banks from special prosecutor Leon Jaworski’s staff (then she was known as Jill Volner), who viscerally recalled her revulsion at Nixon’s pardon and her belief that it established that Presidents are above the law after all. A lot of people who opposed the pardon originally later came around to the logic Ford gave for issuing it in the first place — that it was necessary to “put Watergate bPhiehind us” and start healing the divisions in the country — but Our Jill isn’t one of them (and she’s continued frequent appearances on MS-NBC comparing Donald Trump’s multiple corruptions to Watergate). The show depicted the House Judiciary Committee’s deliberations on Nixon’s impeachment and relied largely on the recollections of New York Congressmember Elizabeth Holtzman, one of the few committee members who’s still alive, though it stressed that committee chair Peter Rodino was determined to get some Republicans on board to make sure that the impeachment would not be seen as a partisan affair. It’s indicative of how polarized our politics have become — and how much the former norms and courtesies of Congress, which used to make the minority party a sort of junior partner in power instead of being frozen out completely, have either eroded or been outright trashed — that the next time the House of Representatives seriously considered a Presidential impeachment, the Republicans in charge of the 1998-1999 effort to impeach and remove Bill Clinton couldn’t have cared less about whether they had any support from Democratic House members: they were determined to impeach Clinton because they were the majority and they could. (They were also hoping that enough Senate Democrats would be so disgusted by Clinton’s conduct with Monica Lewinsky and the other “bimbos” they would vote to remove him from office — and had a Republican Congress gone after a Democratic President in the “#MeToo” era they might have been right, but in the late 1990’s it was the Democrats who successfully cried “witch hunt” and got to keep their man in office.) As I’ve pointed out with regard to the other two episodes, the most dramatic point made by Watergate is just how much overall standards of political decorum and decency have declined since the Nixon era: the profanities and vicious insults Richard Nixon spoke behind the closed doors of his offices with his closest aides are the daily currency of Donald Trump, who says them out loud in front of audiences of tens of thousands of people and by now has repeated them so often the audience members themselves chant them like crowds at a Rolling Stones concert singing along with “Satisfaction.”

Psycho Prom Queen (Incendo Media/Lifetime, 2018)

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

After Watergate I watched the second go-round of last night’s Lifetime “premiere,” a movie rather clinically called Psycho Prom Queen which was directed by Philippe Gagnon from a script by Barbara Kymlicka — and while her usual collaborators in creating the “Whittendale Universe,” J. Bryan Dick and Ken Sanders, weren’t involved in this one, it was very much in the mold of previous scripts by Ms. Cum-Licker. The central character is an unscrupulous bitch named Amy Turner (Allie McDonald), a senior at Avondale private high school who will literally do anything to get her and her boyfriend Dylan Wade (a quite exciting young man named Trevor Momesso, who’s a lot of fun to look at even though Kymlicka’s script gives him little to do except hang around in Amy’s wake and get one scene at a party in which he wants to fuck her and she puts him off, saying she wants them to wait until prom night after they’ve been crowned prom king and queen) elected king and queen of the school prom. Her principal antagonist is her trigonometry teacher, Julie Taylor (Zoe McLellan, top-billed), who took what she euphemistically called a “leave” from her teaching gig a year earlier but has been called back to take over a class formerly taught by Joanne Harvey (Anana Rydvald) until Joanne mysteriously disappeared. Her car was found abandoned on an old road near the woods, and the police assumed she committed suicide even though her body was never found. Joanne and Julie were old friends and Julie had just received a postcard from Joanne congratulating her on a year of sobriety before Joanne’s disappearance — yes, that mysterious “leave” was really an alcoholic burn-out triggered by the death of Julie’s mother that led to the breakup of Julie’s marriage to Mark (Matthew Alan Taylor — so the actor has the same last name as his character), who sued for custody of their daughter Miya (Nia Roam) and nearly won it. Julie won joint custody but only by agreeing to go into rehab and join Alcoholics Anonymous afterwards. 

Amy decides to wage war on her new trig teacher by befriending Miya, thereby letting Miya into the “cool kids’” circle and using that as a way to worm herself into Julie’s home, where she sees an AA card on Julie’s refrigerator and splits Julie and Miya by planting a bottle under Julie’s bed to make it look like Julie has relapsed. Apparently Amy is determined to do everything she can to make sure she passes trig except actually studying it (though I was so bored by trigonometry in high school I can readily identify with her!); when she fails her test and it threatens to pull her grade point average below the threshold of eligibility for prom queen, she sweet-talks Julie into giving her a makeup, and she worms an advance copy of the test out of Mr. Peters (Matt Holland), a male teacher she’s scared into doing her bidding by threatening to (falsely) report him for sexually assaulting her if he resists. She’s sure she can pass the makeup because [spoiler alert!] the previous teacher, Joanne Harvey, is not dead: Amy kidnapped her and is holding her in a shed on her family’s property she calls her “clubhouse.” She’s regularly stealing drugs from her mom Elaine (Judith Baribeau), a nurse who’s working so many hours she’s almost never home, and using them not for herself but to keep Joanne narcotized and therefore unable to escape. Amy has Joanne fill out the test for her and manages to get Mr. Peters to distract Julie long enough to substitute Joanne’s test paper for the one Julie had given her normally — only Joanne deliberately sabotaged Amy by filling in the wrong answers. By threatening to kill her, Amy gets Joanne to give her the answers to the final and fill out the test paper in her own hand — only Julie recognizes Joanne’s handwriting on the test and figures out, if not all Amy’s scheme, enough of it that she follows Amy and discovers her in the woods — whereupon Amy says she’ll claim that Julie got drunk and hit her, and to make it look real she hits herself in the head three times. The school authorities buy Amy’s story — there’s a strong suggestion that they’re all cowed by her and her unscrupulousness (earlier Julie had visited a former teacher at the school who resigned after Amy ruined her career and broke up her marriage — presumably by seducing her husband, though we’re not told that) — and fire Julie, but Julie’s daughter Miya (ya remember Miya?) is still going to the prom and in fact has volunteered for the committee that runs the events and counts the votes for prom king and queen. Amy confronts Miya in the vote-counting room and, when she learns that she’s lost, beats up Miya and knocks her unconscious, then locks her in the room and substitutes the card listing her and Dylan as king and queen for the correct one, sort of like La La Land and Moonlight at the Academy Awards. 

Fortunately Julie and Amy’s own mother Elaine (who look almost alike — casting directors Linda Berger, Sara Kay and Jenny Lewis slipped up badly by casting two women as the mothers who are annoyingly hard to tell apart!) figure out what’s going on and rescue Joanne from the box in which Amy has nailed her shut. The three of them then report the whole affair to the police, who do a Law and Order-style arrest of Amy just as she’s delivering her big speech accepting the honor of being prom queen. Though much of Kymlicka’s script is just silly, Psycho Prom Queen has an oddly haunting quality, much of it coming from Allie McDonald’s terrific performance as Amy. Sauntering through the action with electrifying platinum-blonde hair and an air of dominating every environment she’s in, McDonald turns in a performance that hits all the marks for a Lifetime teen psycho but also totally transcends them: we believe in Amy’s drivenness as well as her unscrupulous, and “get” how she’s so totally intimidated everyone around her, including the teachers and school officials who are supposedly her superiors. Director Philippe Gagnon doesn’t do much but at least he doesn’t get in McDonald’s way — and I was relieved when Kymlicka’s script allowed Joanne to be rescued alive instead of found dead (when Gagnon shot Amy walking into the woods with a hammer in her hand I assumed she was going to use it to bludgeon Joanne to death once her usefulness to her was ended). Psycho Prom Queen — originally filmed under the less risible and more legitimately sinister title Mean Queen — is cut pretty much to the usual Lifetime formula but also manages to transcend it.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Watergate, part 2 (Representational Pictures, History Channel, 2018)

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

Last night I watched the second part of the History Channel’s multi-part documentary Watergate, written and directed by Charles Ferguson and quite a good presentation of a slice of political history I still remember vividly. Watergate (the event, not the movie) so totally rewrote the book both on how political scandals happen and on how the media covers them that for decades later the suffix “-gate” got affixed to virtually every subsequent scandal in politics. The basic facts are that Richard Nixon, beset from his earliest years with an intense degree of status anxiety and a sense that the people really running things — the Ivy League-educated WASP elites and their Jewish paymasters (one thing that comes across from Ferguson’s documentary is the depth of Nixon’s anti-Semitism — even though his Mideast policies favored Israel and Henry Kissinger was his top foreign policy advisor, for the most part he hated Jews with a passion and bought into a lot of the nasty anti-Semitic myths that were current when he was growing up, including the one that they were the secret paymasters behind both capitalism and Communism) — didn’t want him in their club, managed to claw and scratch his way into the White House but didn’t feel comfortable there. Though he at least won a plurality of the popular vote (unlike George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016), he only got 43 percent and he was determined that when he ran for re-election in 1972 he would not only win but amass such a huge popular vote total and win in such a sweeping landslide there would never again be any question about his legitimacy. (And he didn’t necessarily intend to stop there, either; there are reports that Nixon had people investigating what it would take to repeal the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution — passed, ironically, in 1947 by Republicans who wanted to make sure a future Democrat couldn’t repeat Franklin Roosevelt’s achievement of winning four straight Presidential elections — so he could run again and again in perpetuity.)

Some of the things Nixon did to ensure his massive landslide victories were good things, like the diplomatic opening to China (San Francisco Chronicle satire columnist Art Hoppe did a great spoof in which Nixon announced to his wife Pat, “Guess what? I’ve found China!” “Where was it, dear?” she asked, and he said, “Right where Harry Truman and Dean Acheson lost it” — a reference to decades of Republican propaganda that blamed Democrats in general, and President Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, in particular for having “lost China” when the Communist revolutionaries took over in 1949) and the détente with the Soviet Union, including starting the series of nuclear arms limitation treaties the current Republican President is trying to break up. (In 1970 Nixon had also signed into law the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and the bill creating the Environmental Protection Agency — also things the current President is out to destroy.) This episode of Watergate — it’s not altogether clear whether there’s just one more episode in the program (being shown tonight) or two — started where the first one ended, on March 21, 1973, when Nixon’s White House counsel John Dean came into his office and told him Watergate was becoming “a cancer on the Presidency” and that E. Howard Hunt was immediately demanding $120,000 in hush money for his legal fees or he’d blow the whistle on the whole White House cover-up; and the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” that October, in which Nixon determined to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox; Nixon’s attorney general, Elliot Richardson, resigned rather than do so; Nixon fired the assistant attorney general, William Ruckelshaus (who had previously been the first director of the Environmental Protection Agency — back when there were still Republicans who believed in protecting the environment — and then for three months interim director of the FBI) when he also refused to fire Cox; and Nixon finally turned to Solicitor General Robert Bork, the third in command at the Justice Department, who sacked Cox and issued an order officially abolishing the Office of Special Counsel.

Among the interviewees on this program are Office of Special Counsel veterans Richard Ben-Veniste, George Frampton and Jill Volner (she’s now known as Jill Wine-Banks and as such is a frequent guest on MS-NBC comparing Nixon’s and Trump’s obstructions of justice) — Ben-Veniste and Frampton wrote Stonewall, in my opinion the best single book on Watergate from the point of view of anyone involved in prosecuting it — and they recall that during the run-up to the “Saturday Night Massacre” they and other members of Cox’s staff had started taking files relating to the case out of their offices and hiding them in their homes or the homes of their relatives (Ben-Veniste recalled leaving one of the most sensitive sets of files with his grandmother) to make sure that Nixon and Bork didn’t follow up on their order abolishing the Special Counsel’s office by sealing its work space and denying them access to their own work product. In Stonewall Ben-Veniste and Frampton said they decided that they and the other staff members would continue to work as a prosecution team and await developments — which just weeks later led to the appointment of a replacement special counsel, Leon Jaworski, who remained on the job until the key Nixon staff members who had masterminded the Watergate cover-up were put on trial at the end of 1974. One of the most interesting parts of Ferguson’s treatment of the Watergate story is how he documents, based on White House tapes made between the resignations of H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman on April 30, 1973 and the exposure and dismantling of the White House taping system in mid-July, that the cover-up continued right along after Haldeman’s and Ehrlichman’s departures (indeed, Haldeman secretly entered the White House so Nixon could still confer with him at least once after his official departure) and the so-called “second Watergate cover-up,” led by Nixon in association with General Alexander Haig (Haldeman’s replacement as White House chief of staff) and Henry Kissinger, was never prosecuted (Jaworski having regarded his job as done once four of the five people he put on trial for the first cover-up — Haldeman, Ehrlichman, former attorney general John Mitchell and former deputy attorney general Robert Mardian — were convicted). This episode of Watergate showed clips from the famous hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Campaign Activities — that was its official name, though it was generally referred to as the “Senate Watergate Committee” — and in particular the explosive revelations former White House counsel John Dean came up with after he switched sides and turned state’s evidence in the case. The Watergate Committee’s staff, including majority counsel Sam Dash and minority counsel Fred Thompson, also turned up a witness named Alexander Butterfield, who revealed the existence of the White House recording system by which virtually all the President’s conversations were taped. My understanding based on how it was reported then was that Thompson was conducting a routine private interview with Butterfield in which he asked Butterfield if a particular White House conversation was recorded, and was startled when Butterfield told him they all were.

Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt had been secretly recording some of their White House conversations, ostensibly for historical purposes — though in FDR’s time the available recording technologies would have been disc recorders or grooved Dictaphone belts, not tapes — but all the Presidents from Roosevelt to Johnson had controls on the system so they could push a button to record a particular conversation. Nixon was the first (and, so far, the only — as far as is known, given what happened to Nixon no President since has routinely taped himself and the people he was talking to in the Oval Office or any of the President’s other work spaces) President who essentially, as one commentator at the time put it, bugged himself: he set up the system to record himself automatically, complete with “locator lights” that told the staff running it where he was at any given moment so they could make sure the appropriate recorders were turned on. (One writer at the time compared the “locator lights” to the way the U.S. targeted Viet Namese soldiers for bombing raids in the war.) Of course, once the existence of the tapes was revealed everyone — the special counsel’s office, the Senate committee, the media and the public — wanted to hear them, and Nixon utterly refused. John J. Sirica, who’d been involved as a judge in the Watergate case since he drew the assignment to preside over the trial of the actual burglars, ruled that Nixon could keep the tapes from the Senate committee but he had to turn them over to the special prosecutor. The White House appealed, and the Ninth Circuit federal appeals court in D.C. rejected their appeal. Then, rather than appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, Nixon and his people decided that the way to make the whole pesky problem of the special prosecutor go away was to fire him — only the principled stands of Richardson and Ruckelshaus against doing so highlighted just out of control Nixon was and how determined he was to set himself above the law, and that more than anything else was what turned public opinion so dramatically against Nixon and led to his near-impeachment and resignation from office a bit over a year later. Nixon’s justification for not letting anyone hear the tapes — that the confidentiality of executive communications had to be preserved, not only for him but for future Presidents — might have had some credibility if it hadn’t begged the question, “If you were so concerned about the confidentiality of White House communications, why did you make the tapes in the first place?”

Of course, much of the interest in a program about Watergate today — and no doubt central to the History Channel not only green-lighting the show but telecasting it during the run-up to the November 6 midterm elections — lies in the obvious comparisons and contrasts between Richard Nixon and Donald Trump, both Republicans, both consumed by personal status anxieties, both with an expansive view of Presidential power that regards the President as virtually above the law (after Watergate, Nixon was interviewed by David Frost and in the most chilling remark answered Frost’s question about what would happen if the President ordered someone in the Justice Department to do something illegal, and Nixon matter-of-factly answered, “When the President does it, that means it is not illegal” — and we’ve seen Trump go even farther in his recent statement that he could end “birthright citizenship,” the law that says anyone born on U.S. soil is a U.S. citizen, with an executive order even though that right is established in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — even Nixon never said a President could abolish part of the Constitution by executive fiat!), and both highly controversial figures who were accused of rigging their own elections. Nixon was accused of rigging the 1972 election with his own people; Trump is accused of getting help from Russia to rig his election, but in a lot of ways the accusations are similar: both Nixon and Trump are accused of sabotaging American democracy by illegally putting thumbs on the scales of political balance and thereby gaining unfair advantages over their opponents. I’ve already pointed out some of the differences between Nixon and Trump — and between technology as it existed in 1972 and in 2016, particularly the way in which computer technology has made it much easier to get the kinds of information Nixon and his people wanted on potential Democratic opponents and “weaponize” it against them. In 1972, if Nixon’s campaign wanted to eavesdrop on the personal communications of their opponents, they had either to hire “moles” to infiltrate the campaigns, steal written data and copy them (during Ed Muskie’s abortive run for the Democratic nomination in late 1971/early 1972 there was a Nixon staffer in his campaign doing just that!) or break into their offices and plant bugs (as Nixon’s people had done successfully in May 1972 — only the bug they placed on the phone of the chair of the Democratic National Committee didn’t work and the one they placed on the treasurer’s worked but mostly captured him making dates with various women, or trying to — it was to fix the bug on the chair’s phone that they broke in on June 17, 1972 and that time were caught).

Now all they have to do is hack the other campaign’s computer files — or get a volunteer from this country or another one to do it for them — the current special counsel, Robert Mueller, seems to be focused on an alleged pipeline in which Russia hacked the e-mail accounts of Hillary Clinton and her key campaign officials, notably John Podesta, then turned them over to the supposedly independent WikiLeaks organization headed by Julian Assange (a Swedish native who settled in Britain and became a hero to the American and worldwide Left when his group exposed video of U.S. war atrocities in Iraq, then a villain when he decided that between Clinton and Trump, Trump was the lesser of two evils and he was going to do whatever he could to ensure that Trump won), which in turn allegedly coordinated the releases of Clinton’s and Podesta’s e-mails with longtime Trump confidant and dirty-trickster (essentially Trump’s Donald Segretti) Roger Stone so they could be timed with maximum effectiveness to destroy Clinton’s election chances and boost Trump’s. Computers have facilitated political espionage the same way they facilitated identity theft — once upon a time, if you wanted to assume someone else’s identity, you had to forge physical documents saying you were that person; now all you have to do is hack into their online accounts and take them over. The other obvious contrasts between Nixon and Trump are the sheer unscrupulousness and boorishness of Trump compared to Nixon, who for all his own ethical challenges still wanted to appear to the public as a man of moral rectitude: Trump couldn’t care less, and one of the most striking things about the re-creations of the White House conversations of the Nixon years in this show (with a cast of actors playing Nixon and his staff) is how vividly they demonstrate that Trump is willing to say in public things Nixon only dared say in private, including denouncing the media and major celebrities as “enemies.” (One oddly wince-inducing moment is a clip from a TV news broadcast announcing the release of Nixon’s “enemies’ list” in which Bill Cosby is among the names on it. Today, of course, Cosby is notorious for something quite apart from his politics!)

The other big difference between Nixon and Trump — though this is one that America’s voters may be able and willing to change on November 6 — is that Nixon had to face a Congress controlled by the opposition political party, and Trump has not. What’s more, Nixon lived in an era in which there was much less partisanship in Washington, D.C. than there is now; there were three Republicans on the Senate Watergate committee — Howard Baker, Lowell Weicker and Edward Gurney (though in this program Gurney is misidentified as a Democrat) — and of these three only Gurney was a total Republican loyalist. Weicker staked out a position as an independent early on and made it clear he was going to be as tough in his questioning of White House staff people as any of the committee’s Democrats; and Baker, after starting the investigation as Nixon’s point man on the committee (he was secretly leaking documents about where the investigation was going to the White House), stepped back early on as he was personally appalled by what the White House had done and became a tougher, more independent committee member. Today the committees in Congress supposedly “investigating” Trump are controlled not only by Republicans but by Republican toadies as well — there doesn’t seem to be anyone in Congress with the level of independence of Weicker (who ultimately got driven out of the Republican Party and continued his political career as an independent), Baker, Congressmember Tom Railsback (who became the weather vane on the House Judiciary Committee as to whether there would be any Republicans willing to vote to impeach Nixon, and whose other claim to fame was carrying the bill to authorize a government apology and financial compensation for the Japanese-Americans interned during World War II) and Senators Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott, who met with Nixon after the release of the so-called “smoking gun” tape (from June 23, 1972, just six days after the Watergate break-in, in which Nixon O.K.’d the plan to have CIA director Vernon Walters tell acting FBI director L. Patrick Gray not to investigate Watergate because it was a “national security” issue) and told him he would need to resign or there would be enough Republican votes in the Senate for the two-thirds majority to convict him and remove him from office.

The Republican fealty to Donald Trump — even among people who opposed him originally, and even among people he viciously insulted when they ran against him for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2016 (like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who’s eagerly accepting Trump’s help in his re-election campaign even though Trump once called him “Lyin’ Ted” and accused Cruz’s father of being part of the conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy on the basis of a photo in the National Enquirer, supposedly taken in 1963, of two blurry figures in a restaurant together which the Enquirer said were Cruz’s father and Lee Harvey Oswald) — is amazing by comparison and the biggest thing Trump has going for him. Indeed, I am convinced that if the Republicans maintain control of both houses of Congress this year (they are virtually certain to keep and even expand their majority in the Senate and  have a good chance of holding on to the House of Representatives as well), Trump will respond by staging a “Saturday Night massacre” of his own, firing attorney general Jeff Sessions and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein and installing a new attorney general who will in turn fire special counsel Mueller and make the entire Trump-Russia investigation go away — and Republicans throughout the country will applaud the move while Democrats will stew helplessly in their own juices.

Cowboy (Phoenix Productions, Columbia Pictures, 1958)

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

Before the second episode of Watergate last night I watched a moderately interesting movie on TCM: Cowboy, a 1958 Columbia production which they showed on a night of films about long cattle drives. They showed it right after Howard Hawks’ 1948 masterpiece Red River, starring John Wayne (in what was probably the best performance he ever gave) and Montgomery Clift as, respectively, a tough cattle baron and his foster son fighting over control of a large cattle herd being driven across the prairie to Abilene, Kansas. (Though Clift is supposed to be playing Wayne’s foster son, there’s enough homoerotic tension between them I’ve referred to Red River as the Gayest Western ever made until Brokeback Mountain.) Cowboy was based on a late 19th century memoir by a real-life cowboy, Frank Harris, but as my husband Charles once said about the film Shine, it’s clear the filmmakers (director Delmer Daves, one of Hollywood’s quirkier talents, and writers Edmund H. North and an uncredited — because of the blacklist — Dalton Trumbo) picked this true story to film because it was one that fit neatly into the Hollywood clichés. In the film Frank Harris is portrayed by, of all people, Jack Lemmon, who was already typecast as the urbane but klutzy city dweller in various romantic comedies, and he’s depicted as a hotel clerk who wants to become a cowboy and, ultimately, a cattle baron. Partly he wants the romance of the Western life (or at least what he thinks it is based on the highly romanticized literature of the time) and partly he wants to get into the pants of Maria Vidal (Anna Kashfi, Marlon Brando’s India-born first wife, with whom his relationship was so tempestuous his makeup people had to work hard to cover up the scars she’d inflicted on his face with her fingernails), daughter of Mexican cattle baron Vidal (Donald Randolph), who naturally doesn’t want her to marry a mere hotel clerk.

So Harris offers hard-ass cattle driver Tom Reese (Glenn Ford, top-billed) $3,800 he made from the sale of his dad’s farm and puts it up as seed capital so Reese can buy a cattle herd and drive it to market, since Reese has lost all his own money gambling — only Reese has won it back in the meantime and tries to pay off Harris so he doesn’t have to deal with it. The ill-assorted pair and their fellow cowboys set off on the big cattle drive and there seems to be a veritable checklist of situations the writers were ticking off one by one — an incident in which the cowboys are playing games with a rattlesnake and one of them is fatally bitten; a scene at a Mexican cantina where the cowboys try to connect with women of “easy virtue” while a super-trumpet player (real-life Mexican trumpet star Rafael Méndez, a showy virtuoso who recorded for Decca and Coast, a short-lived label owned by Westinghouse, mostly trumpet transcriptions of light classics like “Hora Staccato” and the Bell Song from Delibes’ Lakmé); a sequence in which Comanche Indians try to break up the herd and get the cattle to stampede (though the film never explains why the Indians wanted the cattle to stampede — U.S. movie audiences were so conditioned in 1958 to regard Indians as villains they probably just figured, “They’re Indians, that’s what they do”); a bizarre sequence in which Harris and Reese have to wrestle four cows who have fallen to the floor of a railroad car so they don’t start a sort of mass trample-in which will kill all the cows in the car; and a finale in which Harris gives a stiff-upper-lip salute to a dead member of the band and Reese, who’s earlier given the rattlesnake victim a similarly emotionless send-off, chews Harris for his unemotionalism and tells him he’s not being tough, just mean. (Oh, if someone who could have got him to listen would only have said that to Donald Trump when he was growing up!) In the end, of course, Harris becomes a real man in the cowboys’ eyes — and he proves that in a weird way, by killing a cockroach on the wall of his Chicago hotel room by blowing it away with a gun (which, of course, also knocks off a good deal of the outside of the wall).

Cowboy is an unsurprising but endearing movie whose principal virtue is it was one of the last gasps of three-strip Technicolor before the cheaper, simpler but also less effective processes like Eastmancolor and monopack Technicolor replaced it; in a story that today would be filmed all in dirty greens and browns, the scenes in Cowboy are genuinely colorful (even when we don’t necessarily want them to be; there are times when the visual look of cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr. and Technicolor consultants Henri Jaffa and the notorious Natalie Kalmus, gets in a way of the message of the writers that the West wasn’t anywhere near as glamorous as previous movies had told you it was, but it still makes the film an utter joy to look at!) and quite a relief from the look of most modern films even though there were times when I wondered if Cowboy might have been more effective dramatically in black-and-white. The performances are O.K., with Glenn Ford delivering his usual this-is-what-you-get-when-you-can’t-afford-John-Wayne tough-guy schtick and Jack Lemmon showing that he could be effective in a non-comic role, though he’d have to wait until he matured both as a performer and a person before he did films like Save the Tiger, The China Syndrome, Missing and Glengarry Glen Ross that really established his range. Anna Kashfi is just sort of there to establish exotic cred and get a woman into this movie somewhere — later there’s some byplay between her, Lemmon and the Mexican guy her dad forced her to marry and a preposterous combination of bullfighting and ring-tossing in which the husband and Glenn Ford compete to see who can throw a red ring over the horn of a killer bull in a stadium filled with other cattle as well. Cowboy is a pretty forgettable movie, and in some ways the production of it was more interesting than the actual result: when Jack Lemmon signed to do the film (on an are-you-chicken dare from Glenn Ford!) he was such a real-life tenderfoot he’d never even seen a horse in person, much less ridden one, so director Daves decreed he would shoot the film in sequence so the audience could see Lemmon’s skills as a horseman growing for real the way they were supposed to in the plot.