Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Dictator’s Playbook: Manuel Noriega (Cream Productions, Twin Cities Public Television, PBS, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched an episode on KPBS of a series called The Dictator’s Playbook, hour-long profiles of six especially nasty dictators — Benito Mussolini, Saddam Hussein, Francisco Franco, Manuel Noriega, Idi Amin and Kim Il Sung (current North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s grandfather). I had hoped last night’s episode would be about Franco, but instead it was about Noriega, and the show told Noriega’s story with an odd mix of admiration and horror: admiration that by sheer hard work and the educational opportunities it earned him, Noriega rose from a super-poor childhood in the slums of Panama City to a major position in the Panamanian military, to second-in-command to Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos and effective power (though he ruled through figurehead “presidents” to satisfy the U.S. precondition of turning the Panama Canal Zone over to Panamanian control that Panama become and remain at least formally a democracy) once Torrijos died in a still-mysterious plane crash in 1981 that a lot of people both inside and outside Panama thought Noriega had “arranged” to take over. The program presented what’s become the orthodox view of Noriega as basically a military thug who used his power as Panama’s intelligence chief to sniff out and suppress dissent before it became a threat — though at least one major dissident, Hugo Spadafora (Panamanian-born but the son of Italian immigrants), used the major non-government newspaper La Prensa to build opposition and expose the regime’s excesses until Noriega had him killed in 1985. Reportedly he was tortured and beheaded alive, and photos of Spadafora’s headless corpse circulated worldwide and helped build revulsion against Noriega’s regime. 

The film detailed Noriega’s involvement in the cocaine industry and his willingness to allow the Colombian drug cartels to use Panama as a transshipment center for drugs flowing from Colombia to the U.S., while at the same time he was taking revenge against cartels that crossed him by working as an agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and turning them in. Noriega’s dangerous double game unraveled in late 1989, when a Panamanian soldier shot the driver of a car that had run through a government checkpoint without stopping — and the driver turned out to be a U.S. Marine. President George H. W. Bush, desperately looking for an international arena in which he could look “tough” and ensure his 1992 re-election, ordered a U.S. invasion of Panama, ostensibly to protect the lives of Americans still living and working in what had once been the Canal Zone. The show doesn’t go into the late reporter Gary Webb’s accusations that the CIA had allowed the drug trade in Central America to go on with impunity because it was helping finance the Nicaraguan contras and other Right-wing paramilitaries fighting against Left-wing resistance movements, nor does it mention the widely held view on the U.S. Left that Noriega had been tolerated as long as he dealt in cocaine for the U.S.’s benefit but got on our shit list and had to be taken down when he stopped dealing in cocaine for the U.S. and started dealing in it for himself. Noriega’s story had an odd ending in that he was arrested and tried in the U.S. after he attempted to flee the country from a redoubt in the Vatican embassy (the show doesn’t mention the notorious campaign the U.S. mounted to get him out of there, including using sound trucks to blast heavy-metal rock music at ear-splitting volumes), spending the rest of his life incarcerated first in the U.S., then in France and finally back in Panama until he died behind bars in 2017. 

Watching a show about Noriega right now was interesting because of the obvious parallels between him and the currently embattled president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, who like Noriega took over from a military man (though, unlike Torrijos, Maduro’s mentor, Hugo Chávez, was elected instead of seizing power in a coup) who had his dictatorial sides but also attempted to be a genuine populist. It’s the same succession from unscrupulous but at least partially principled man to total thug the Soviet Union went through from Lenin to Stalin, and it’s difficult to get any fix on events in Venezuela right now (with the head of Congress claiming he should be recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate president because Maduro prevented the most popular potential opposition candidates from running against him — though I don’t recall anyone in the international community suggesting that the world shouldn’t recognize Vladimir Putin as President of Russia even though he prevented the most popular opposition candidates from running against him — and the open question being whether the military will intervene on Maduro’s behalf or switch sides and join the opposition). It’s interesting that the producers of The Dictator’s Playbook attempted to put a positive “spin” on Panama’s history since Noriega’s fall: according to the program they’ve run the Panama Canal responsibly and used its revenues to spark an economic boom, they’ve become a functioning republic and they’ve attempted to prevent the rise of another Noriega by following the example of their neighbor Costa Rica and disbanding their army altogether.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Love You to Death (Sony Pictures Television, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night the Lifetime channel ran two dramatically contrasting movies, one which was pretty typical of its usual fare and one which was extraordinary, telling a fact-based tale and telling it effectively through strong direction, skillful writing and two glorious performances in the leading female roles. It was called Love You to Death, a title which in the Lifetime context would probably lead one to believe you’d be watching a film about an obsessed male stalker threatening the life of the innocent young woman who wouldn’t or couldn’t love him the way he loved her. Almost nothing could have been further from the truth: Love You to Death riffed off a real-life case of a woman named Dee Dee Blanchard who psychologically dominated her daughter, Gypsy Rose Blanchard (an almost too ironically appropriate a name given that what her namesake Gypsy Rose Lee is most famous for today is being the subject of the musical Gypsy, about her relationship with her neurotically controlling mother), and convinced her she was desperately ill with cancer, in constant pain and needed a wheelchair, when in fact the daughter was perfectly healthy. In Love You to Death the mother is named “Camile Stoller” and is played by Academy Award-winning actress Marcia Gay Harden — a far more illustrious name than one’s used to seeing in the cast of a Lifetime movie — and her daughter is called “Esmé” and is played by Emily Skaggs, whom you probably haven’t heard of but, if there’s any justice in the entertainment business, you will. Love You to Death premiered last Saturday and the Sunday showing was billed as a “special edition,” which meant that in between the movie and the commercial breaks there were segments with Harden and Skaggs talking about the movie and the acting challenges it posed for them. Love You to Death begins with the police coming to the home where the Stollers live and finding signs of a fatal struggle, including blood spatter, though screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski and director Alex Kalymnios carefully avoid showing us who killed whom. The film then flashes back to 2013, when the events started happening, and we meet Camile Stoller and her daughter Esmé at the clinic where Esmé, in a wheelchair and bald, is being treated for cancer.

For the first third of the movie we are led to believe it’s a story of a put-upon caregiver having to deal with a patient from hell — a premise that was sort of a busman’s holiday for me! — until about a third of the way through we get a voice-over from Emily Skaggs announcing that we’ve seen her mom’s version of events and now we’re going to see hers. (This rather wrenching bit of exposition is the one weakness in Jaswinski’s script; Love Her to Death might have been even stronger if it had used the Citizen Kane-style narratage technique and had the story narrated by the participants and the people who were peripherally involved in it. But it’s still quite good, moving, intense drama as it is.) We begin to suspect something is wrong about Camile’s behavior when she reacts strongly to the help of a neighbor couple, Alan (Kurt Ostlund) and Denise (Kayla Deorksen) — visually Alan’s a stereotypical biker but he has a heart of gold — who have made Esmé a long-haired blue wig for the princess costume she wants to wear to a local Comic-con-style festival. Mom at first forbids Esmé to go — she gave Esmé a laptop and software to play video games but had no idea her daughter had registered to attend a festival and had got her neighbors to make her a costume — but later she relents. There Esmé meets up with a young man named Scott (Brennan Keel Cook) whom she’d met before at a county fair (they’d been in a shooting contest and she was hopeless because she’s virtually blind, but he gave her the tickets he’d won to claim a Rapunzel doll — appropriate because one of the symbols of mom’s dominance over Esmé is a scene in which she shaves Esmé’s head and hair thereby becomes a symbol of her enslavement to her mom), who takes her away from mom’s ever-present supervision and corners her in a room. We see Esmé alone in the room, looking shocked, and mom takes her back into custody. Then we hear the voice-over from Esmé instructing us that what we’re going to be seeing after that is the events from her point of view, and while the first presentation of this scene made it look like Scott took her into that room to rape her, it turns out she went with him willingly and they made love as best they could given that she was in a wheelchair, though they stopped well short of the actual down-’n’-dirty. Also complicating the situation is that Esmé’s former doctor, a woman, left the clinic where she was being treated and was replaced by a Black man, Dr. Price (Garfield Wilson), and Camile is worried about this.

At first we think it’s simple racism, since all this is happening in the South (Esmé was born in Shreveport, Louisiana and her mom moved them to her own original home town, Joplin, Missouri, after she and Esmé’s dad broke up), but as we see events from Esmé’s point of view and learn that she doesn’t really need the wheelchair — she can get up and walk perfectly normally any time she wishes and can get away with it — it dawns on us that what’s really going on here is the awkwardly named mental illness “Munchhausen Syndrome by Proxy,” in which a person causes another person harm and then comes along to “help” them out of it. It’s usually been dramatized in characters who are both arsonists and firefighters who get off on putting out the fires they themselves set, but in this case it’s a woman deliberately making her daughter sick, forcing her into a wheelchair and giving her powerful drugs, so she can pose as a concerned caregiver without whom the daughter would be helpless. The plot proceeds as Scott takes an interest in Esmé that’s both romantic and carnal — he plays up to her fantasies of the prince who will rescue her from the wicked mom — and reaches a climax one night in which Scott arrives to take Esmé out of the house, mom tries to stop them with a gun, Esmé flees the room and Scott and Camile have a struggle which ends up with mom dead. (We don’t like Esmé for running instead of helping either her boyfriend or her mom, but we understand it even though it’s possible that had Esmé stayed and witnessed the struggle, Scott could have won an acquittal on grounds of self-defense.) Scott and Esmé have a beautiful but troubled idyll as they flee in Scott’s red car, and there’s a remarkable scene in which Scott and Esmé are skin-diving in a motel pool at night in a driving rainstorm when they witness red and blue lights shining down on them into the pool. The lights, of course, are those of the cars being driven by the police there to arrest them for Camile’s murder. In the denouement, Esmé is visited by a public defender who tells her that if she pleads guilty she can get a reduced sentence (though it’s not clear from what we’ve seen that Esmé knew in advance that Scott would kill her mom, and if she didn’t one would think she’d be in the clear legally), and when Esmé protests that she’s only 17 and therefore shouldn’t be put in adult jeopardy, the attorney tells her that she’s really 21 and her age was just one more thing her mom lied to her about.

The one good thing that happens to Esmé at the end is she reunites with her biological father Travis (Tate Donovan), whom mom had told her was an abusive monster but who turns out to be sensitive and caring, and he makes it clear that when she’s released Esmé will be welcomed into his family along with his second wife and the two daughters he’s had with her. Love You to Death is a triumph on every level: sensitively directed, effectively written and well acted not only by Harden (which we’d expect) but by Skaggs and Brennan Keel Cook as her morally ambiguous boyfriend — though enough scenes take place in supermarkets watching this movie would have been as much a busman’s holiday for Charles as it was for me! It was interesting to hear the comments from Harden and Skaggs, including Skaggs recalling that Harden was genuinely sensitive and helpful to her — the opposite of their characters’ relationship in the film — and that Skaggs had to wear a cap to make her look bald for 15 of the 18 days she worked on the movie. (The cap is totally convincing, though it’s possible they used some sort of CGI to blend it more perfectly to Skaggs’ real head than it would have looked on its own — and it did save Skaggs the trouble and aggravation of having to shave her head for real.) The only problem with Love You to Death was that it was so profoundly moving and disturbing it was almost a relief to return to the standard Lifetime fare afterwards!

Best Friend’s Betrayal (Cover Productions, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyight © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The next movie Lifetime showed last night, Best Friend’s Betrayal, was the epitome of Lifetime’s standard fare. It takes place in a small town called Kirkwood Falls (one of Lifetime’s typical Everywhere, U.S.A. communities that can be “played” on screen by Everywhere, Canada) where local coffeehouse owner Katie Sanders (Vanessa Walsh) and event planner Jess Walker (Mary Grill) are best friends. They first met in seventh grade, where they latched on to each other after the “cool kids” snubbed them both in the school cafeteria. (I suffered so much in seventh grade, mostly from bullies, it’s probably just as well my junior high school — I hate that more recent neologism “middle school” — didn’t have a cafeteria.) The scene then cuts to the present day with raven-haired Katie and blonde Jess becoming “besties” (Besties was the working title for the film and I think it would have worked better because it would have captured the careful ambiguity of Rebeca Hughes’ story and Aidan Scott’s script) — the original implication is they’ve stayed in touch ever since seventh grade and we only learn quite later that they fell apart and then re-bonded since both were getting over marital breakups, Katie with Kevin Lewis (Patrick Rinehart) after she caught him cheating on her with a 19-year-old redhead in his office, and Jess with Marco (Matt Hamilton), who beat her and after their divorce (which still isn’t final when the movie begins) descended into alcoholism and then broke into Jess’s home and demanded she come back to him then and there — only Katie warded him off with a convenient can of pepper spray she was carrying with her. The relationship between Katie and Jess starts to unravel when incredibly successful and devilishly handsome thriller writer Nick Moore (Jaime M. Callica) comes back to Kirkwood Falls to do a book signing for his latest novel, and Jess works with him as his event planner and the two fall into at least mutual lust.

We’re told that Nick was born and raised in Kirkwood Falls — a mystery because, despite his Latino-sounding name, Jaime M. Callica is actually African-American and there’s no evidence of any other Black people in Kirkwood Falls (and the former girlfriend of his we learn about during the story is also white). But when his first novel was a success he moved to New York City and wrote his second, which sold but got criticized by reviewers who said the characters weren’t as well rounded — so he cancels the rest of his book tour and decides to re-settle in Kirkwood Falls and write his third book there. The fact that he has a major case of the hots for Jess helps him make that decision, too. Only nasty things started happening — first Jess’s ex-husband Marco takes a drunken fall down the stairs of the motel where he’s been staying since Jess threw him out, and while the police, in the person of Detective Perkins (unidentified on the cast list but played by a portly white guy on the cusp between middle age and senior citizenhood), rule his death an accident we know better because we saw the killing go down — or at least heard him say, “What are you doing here?,” to a hooded figure at the top of his stairs just before he fell. Then there’s a scene in which Katie is apparently struck by a car as she’s leaving a parking garage (I’ve seen enough Lifetime movies to know how much mayhem goes on in parking garages in them!), and she ends up in the hospital with a few broken bones and tells Jess she saw Nick driving the car that ran her down. Between that and the plots of Nick’s novels, which are about sexually motivated serial killers written in the first-person voice of the killers themselves, Jess becomes convinced that Nick is a psycho interested in seducing, raping and killing her in a way similar to that of the people he writes about. Nick reinforces that impression when he makes a mysterious phone call to an unseen party asking for “work” on Katie — he’s just calling a private investigator to research her background (and most of what he comes up with is pictures and report cards from her seventh-grade year) but writers Hughes and Scott and director Danny J. Boyle (no, not that Danny Boyle!) make it sound like he’s hiring a hit man to knock Katie off to get her out of the way so he can have his wicked way with Jess.

Meanwhile, Jess gets talked by her assistant Anna (Britt McKillip) to come out with her for a night at a trendy yuppie bar with her 20-something friends, where Jess gets drunk on shots and Anna dares her to do something she’d ordinarily never do — so the two women give each other a deep-mouthed kiss and an intense embrace that makes them look like Lesbian lovers. We see Nick stalking them outside in his car and looking disgusted at his would-be girlfriend making out with another woman, and we also see Katie, whom Jess had invited to join them and who showed up outside the bar but never went in because she too was disgusted at seeing Jess lip-locked with another woman — though Charles was starting to wonder if the payoff would be that Katie had her own Lesbian attraction to Jess and was thinking, “If you’re going to go homo, do it with me!” About two-thirds of the way through the movie there’s a typical Lifetime switcheroo (though it was telegraphed by the title and also the page’s synopsis — for a page whose editors are so obsessed with “spoilers” it’s amusing they posted one themselves): Katie turns out to be a relentlessly possessive clinger who’s been latching onto people and driving them away since seventh grade, when she latched onto Kevin Lewis (ya remember Kevin Lewis?) and got jealous when he started dating a girl named Michelle again. Katie’s cover-up unravels when she tells Jess that the woman she caught Kevin cheating with was a blonde — earlier she’d said she was a redhead — and eventually Jess traces and visits Kevin and learns that he and Katie were never married and the blonde in question, Michelle, is the only woman he’s ever been interested in and is his first and only wife. Katie just made up the story about her and Kevin being married and breaking up so she’d have a way to re-bond with Jess, who really was going through a breakup with an awful man.

The movie ends with the predictable confrontation between Jess and Katie, in which Katie — who pushed Jess’s ex Marco down the stairs and later strangled Anna (ya remember Anna?) to death out of possessive jealousy — goes after Jess with a kitchen knife (why do people in Lifetime movies leave their kitchen knives in knife blocks on their counter when, if they ever saw Lifetime movies, they’d know that would just make it easier for the psycho killers to assault and potentially kill them in the last reel? It’s like Charlie Chan always leaving his windows open so people can aim rifles through them and pick off his house guests), only Nick shows up in the nick (pardon the pun) of time and grabs the can of pepper spray Katie gave Jess earlier on and incapacitates her until the police can come and arrest her. (Fortunately, the movie ends with Nick and Jess paired up and Nick using Jess’s experience as raw material for his third novel; it does not include one of those annoying tag scenes Lifetime has been giving us lately showing Katie in jail either obsessively clipping photos of Jess or forming another murderous “bestie” crush on one of her fellow inmates.) Best Friend’s Betrayal is an O.K. Lifetime movie, powered less by anything unusual about the plot (though it’s nice that the drop-dead gorgeous male lead does not turn out to be the villain, and even nicer in a how-far-we’ve-come sense that he’s Black and the writers and directors do not make that a Big Issue in the plot) than some nice acting, especially by Vanessa Walsh as the actual villain — though it’s so well established that her coffeehouse is the only source for a decent cup of java in the whole town one wonders, once she’s in custody at the end, where Kirkwood Fallers will be able to go for a good cup of coffee!

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Post (20th Century-Fox, Amblin Entertainment, DreamWorks, Participant Media, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched The Post, the much-hyped feature film about the Washington Post and its race with the New York Times to publish the so-called “Pentagon Papers,” the secret study then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) asked the RAND Corporation to compile as a history of American policy towards Viet Nam from the end of World War II, when Harry Truman put the Americans on the side of the French colonizers against the Viet Minh liberation movement led by Ho Chi Minh, later known as the National Liberation Front (whose military arm later took the name Viet Cong), to 1967, when the Viet Nam war was in full swing, the U.S. was heading towards its peak commitment of 500,000 troops fighting a war for reasons so few Americans could understand that as the war dragged on and consumed more and more of America’s young men as well as the national treasury that was supposed to fund President Johnson’s Great Society, the percentages of Americans who supported the war effort steadily dropped. McNamara commissioned the study — at least according to this film’s writers, Josh Singer (who also wrote Spotlight, the film about how the Boston Globe exposed the scandal of pedophilia within the Roman Catholic priesthood and the extent to which non-pedophile priests covered for their child-abusing brethren) and Liz Hannah — as an historical record that would eventually see the light of day, but not for decades to come.

The study saw the light of day in four years, thanks to a disaffected RAND Corporation analyst named Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), who in the opening scene is shown actually in Viet Nam, going on an operation with some of the troops and writing about it on a portable typewriter afterwards, in a scene that supposedly takes place in 1966 but is underscored with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River,” which they didn’t record until 1969. (But then ever since Apocalypse Now it’s become de rigueur to score scenes of the Viet Nam war with 1960’s rock classics, and if they’re from bands like Creedence who were publicly opposed to the war at the time, so much the better.) Ellsberg is appalled first at witnessing the action in Viet Nam and realizing the U.S. is making no progress whatever in its stated military aims despite ever-increasing commitments of personnel and equipment, then by hearing McNamara tell him privately he’s convinced the war is lost, and then hearing McNamara get off the plane that has been flying him and Ellsberg back to Washington, D.C. and give an impromptu press conference about how wonderful things are and how we’re finally turning the corner — he doesn’t use the infamous phrase “light at the end of the tunnel” but he might as well have. Ellsberg determines to steal the RAND study and leak it to the news media, and he gets it first to the New York Times — whose legendary but also notoriously mercurial star reporter Neil Sheehan holes up for three months, reviews the study and finally starts publishing articles based on it — and then to the Washington Post, who has a contact with him because their star reporter Ben Bagdikian formerly worked at RAND with Ellsberg. The principal characters in the movie are Washington Post publisher Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), who are desperate to get their paper out from the shadow of the New York Times and establish it as America’s premier publication for political journalism, especially since they are based in the nation’s capital.

To this end Graham is having meetings with investment bankers to sell shares in the Washington Post Corporation to the public — which in this age of so-called “activist investors” who buy into a company to make themselves money even if it means totally wrecking the business in the process had me thinking of Henry Ford’s comment that “If you sell any part of your enterprise, that is the same as selling it all” and wanting to yell at the screen, “Kay! Don’t do it!” — so she can get a windfall that will enable her to hire more reporters and expand the paper’s ability to do quality journalism. The Post was directed by Steven Spielberg, who took on the project after he had completed principal photography on his big-budget science-fiction extravaganza Ready Player One but was waiting and waiting and waiting for George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic and the other effects houses working on Ready Player One to finish the elaborate CGI and other effects shots needed to complete that film. On the surface it’s a parable for our own time as well as an historical spectacle, with the heroes being the people who steal secrets and leak them to the newspapers (Richard Nixon is heard inveighing against Ellsberg — and the recorded voices of Nixon and his staff members are their own, from the White House tapes), and the newspaper people themselves, who dare to publish the papers despite negative reactions from their staff attorneys, their investment bankers (there’s a clause in the agreement that if some catastrophic event happens within the first week after the IPO, the bankers can call it off, and through screenwriter fiat that just happens to be the week the Post is considering whether to defy the Nixon administration and publish the papers) and their friends in high places. The top Post people are depicted as having close friendships with political figures that would be inconceivable in today’s far more hostile climate between politicians and the press: editor Bradlee not only regularly socialized with John F. Kennedy both before and during his Presidency but even wrote a book about it called Conversations with Kennedy, and publisher Graham socialized regularly with Robert McNamara and considered him one of her best friends.

It’s a movie that investigates not only the basic conflict of freedom of the press vs. the desire of politicians to manage the news, get their own versions of “the facts” before the public and suppress contrary views, but also the sexism rampant in the early 1970’s and still prevalent since (Katharine Meyer Graham was the first woman publisher of a major U.S. paper and, though her family had started the publication and run it since its inception, when she married Philip Graham she turned over the paper to him and he was publisher until he committed suicide in 1963 — and one of the things writers Singer and Hannah get right is the euphemisms the people around Kay use to refer to her husband’s death and her impatience with them) and the bitter rivalry between the Post and the New York Times. This becomes a major issue in the plot when the Nixon administration successfully gets an injunction to stop the Times from publishing the Pentagon Papers or any stories based on them, and Ben Bradlee notes that since the injunction names only the Times and its “agents,” a competing paper would be home free to publish the story. Then he gets grilled by the Post’s attorney, Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), over whether the Post’s source for the papers was the same as the Times’ — and Bradlee has to confess that while he can’t say for sure that the copies of the papers came from the same source, it’s highly likely. Apparently this means, at least in Beebe’s analysis, that the source could be considered an “agent” of the Times and therefore any paper that got the Pentagon Papers from him would be enjoined from publishing them. Nonetheless, after a lot of suspense back and forth and some superb acting from Meryl Streep in close-ups that show her inner conflict (in a performance that otherwise is pretty unspectacular — though she got her umpteenth Academy Award nomination for this film she’s pretty much “phoning it in” and largely repeating her characterization as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady — despite their ideological differences Streep clearly sees Thatcher and Graham as sisters under the skin, similarly powerful women who’ve made their way in a man’s world by showing unbreakable integrity), Graham gives the Post staff the go-ahead to publish the Papers and potentially piss off not only the Nixon administration but their investors as well.

The case eventually goes before the U.S. Supreme Court, which hears it on “expedited review” only a week and a half after the granting of the original injunction, and in a 6-3 decision the Court lifts the injunction and says, in the words of the late Justice Hugo Black’s majority opinion (Black was an Alabama politician who is probably the only former member of the Ku Klux Klan I genuinely admire; he was in the Klan briefly in the 1920’s before his attitudes towards civil rights did a major 180° in the 1930’s and he became known as one of the Supreme Court’s fiercest defenders of civil rights and individual liberties; he also wrote the Engel v. Vitale decision banning mandated prayer in public schools, and he wrote as a believer who said it contradicted his own sense of religion to force it on schoolchildren), “In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.” The Post was released in January 2018 though the copyright date was 2017, and it qualified for the 2018 Academy Awards and got two nominations (Best Picture and Best Actress for Streep), though it didn’t win and it’s really more a competent movie than a truly great one. Spielberg’s direction is professional but he relies on too many long zoom shots (and quick long zoom shots, at that) and he and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski are way too enamored of the past-is-brown look for my taste. The acting is also competent rather than great; Streep seems like he’s on autopilot and Hanks is good but he’s up against the competition from the unsurpassable Jason Robards, Jr. who played Bradlee in the 1976 film All the President’s Men. Indeed, The Post is presented quite deliberately as a “prequel” to All the President’s Men, since it ends with Kay Graham heaving sighs of relief and saying, “Glad I never have to go through this again” — and then it cuts to a scene almost exactly one year after the Supreme Court decision upholding the Times’ and the Post’s right to publish the Pentagon Papers: a Black security guard named Frank Wills notices the Watergate burglary in process and calls it in to the D.C. police. (It would be interesting to double-bill the two films.) 

Of course The Post can’t be viewed out of context of the current political climate, in which the sort of open press-baiting from the White House associated with Richard Nixon has got worse and nastier under Donald Trump, who has publicly called journalists “enemies of the people,” insulted them to their faces and derided their reporting as “fake news.” Spielberg is quoted on the page for The Post as saying he wanted to make the film because of the Nixon-Trump parallels, and Meryl Streep is well known for having made a veiled but unmistakable anti-Trump statement at the 2017 Golden Globes, where (without naming him) she derided Trump for publicly insulting and mocking a disabled reporter, and he responded with a typically juvenile tweet calling Streep — who’s won more Academy Award nominations than any other actor of either gender — “overrated.” But The Post is about much more than just the age-old conflict between journalists and politicians; it’s also about sexism in the workplace (and the boardroom), about the conflicts between newspapers and the strangely diminished sense of journalism’s importance between 1971 and 2019 — especially given the rise of the Internet and social media, and the ability of just about anyone to filter out any reporting that might conflict with their previous opinions of what’s going on in their world. The whole sense of an institutional media has been weakened over the years, partly by technological change (the Internet has not only hit journalism by breaking the professionals’ monopoly over what is considered “news,” it’s also hit journalism’s bottom line by taking over a lot of the advertising that used to be the primary financial support of the press), partly by increasing polarization and fragmentation of the news audience, and also by the increasing “corporatization” of the news business and its vulnerability to so-called “activist investors” who are interested in publishing companies only to loot their assets and make money for themselves, public interest be damned. The Washington Post itself would quite likely have gone out of business in the last two years had it not been for founder Jeff Bezos bailing it out by purchasing it outright — which explains why Donald Trump hates Bezos so much: not only is Bezos, with a net worth of between $100 and $500 billion, way richer than Trump ever has been or could possibly be, he also kept the Post going when Trump was hoping both it and the “failing New York Times” would die natural deaths and thus eliminate two of the most potentially powerful and influential media critics of him.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Deadly Match (Cover Productions, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched two Lifetime movies, a “premiere” of something called Deadly Match — though lists it under the working title, College Dating App — and a rerun of something they’d been hyping a lot, a period piece called Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story starring two actresses who actually have reputations outside of Lifetime, Christina Ricci and Judith Light. The page on Deadly Match contained a “trivia” item embargoed by a “spoiler” tag — with the demise of the message boards people are sneaking the snarky message-board content onto the trivia page or into “reviews” — saying, “This is the worst movie ever made.” Actually Deadly Match struck me as a bit above the usual Lifetime fare, even though its central premise — nubile young girls meeting the increasingly high cost of college tuition by prostituting themselves to rich men — is one Lifetime has done quite a lot before. Deadly Match starts in a parking garage with the heroine, Trina (Alyssa Lynch), talking in a parking garage with her best friend Jade (Alyson Bath) when suddenly a black SUV parked in the garage starts up. The driver guns the motor and runs Jade down, killing her. In a normal Lifetime movie we’d then get a chyron title flashing us back days, weeks or even months earlier and we’d find out who Jade was and why the mystery driver would want to kill her. Instead writer Samuel Hayes (adapting an “original” — quotes definitely merited — story by Nicole Reid and Kelly Goodner) and director David Langlois have other directions in mind.

Trina, who’s balancing a scholarship, a work-study job in the student center and a ferocious class schedule that leaves her no time for dating or anything fun, deals with the tough business professor Savoy (Tatyana Ali in one of her usual African-American authority figure roles, though we’re not sure at first whether she’ll be the Black woman who talks sense into the stupid white characters or the Black best friend who discovers the villain’s plot and gets killed for her pains) by starting a dating app whose name seems to have morphed through various combinations before Hayes settled on “Make a Date” (the name is “Upfront” on the synopsis and “Let’s Date” on Lifetime’s own page). Trina enlists the aid of her friend Zach (Mitch Ainley, who’s handsome and fun to look at even though he’s not exactly a sex god) to help her with the coding for the site, and it takes off and is an immediate success even though Trina is too busy to use it herself. When her friends Raquelle (blonde, white Debs Howard) and Lacey (African-American Bethany Brown) urge her to take the plunge — and Raquelle supplies her a red gown in which Alyssa Lynch looks totally ridiculous, though it’s supposed to make her sexy — Trina ends up on a date with a creepy 28-year-old attorney who takes her to a fancy restaurant, orders appetizers and a bottle of very expensive wine, then says they should ditch the place before dinner and go back to his condo, where he wants “a girl who will follow orders.” Trina realizes not only that she’s been mistaken for a prostitute but her friends have hijacked her dating app to make sex-for-money dates with their johns. She also learns that her friend Jade was also hooking her way through college, though without Trina’s site to help her she must have run afoul of the “wrong people” and got herself killed. Meanwhile, both the local police (whom we never see) and the college security people (whom we do) are doing their level best to cover up the crimes, officially ruling Jade’s death an accident and Lacey’s — who’s found dead in her dorm room with a bottle of pills at her side and a supposed suicide note scrawled in lipstick on her mirror — a suicide. While all this is happening the school’s dean, Brackett (Ben Wilkinson), tells Trina that she’s lost her full-ride scholarship to state budget cuts (if she had a full ride, why was she also doing a work-study job?) but she can reinstate it under a different program if she transfers to the university’s other campus 200 miles away.

Spoiler Alert: Judging from the snarky closeup Langlois gives Wilkinson as he tells Trina all this, we know instantly that he’s the bad guy behind all the murders, and he gets to off Professor Savoy (so Tatyana Ali plays both the African-American authority figure and the best friend who discovers the villain’s plot and gets killed for her pains!) before the police, called by Zach after Trina stupidly went to confront the killer alone, come on the scene, save Trina’s life and arrest Dean Brackett — whose motive was that he started buying tricks from Jade, fell madly in love with her, killed her when she wouldn’t be with him permanently, then started knocking off anyone who could link them and expose his secret. The final shot is of Trina and Zach embracing and kissing — their shared ordeal has turned them from friends into lovers. Deadly Match (a title which suggests a story about a heroine being stalked by someone she met online and who became obsessed with her) is the stuff of a pretty ordinary Lifetime movie, but this is actually better than average, thanks partly to Langlois’ mastery of atmosphere (there are a lot of half-lit neo-noir shots and he’s able to find a lot of sinister-looking locations even though virtually the whole movie takes place in the college) but mainly to Alyssa Lynch’s tough, understated performance as Trina. Playing a woman who, unusually for a Lifetime heroine, knows exactly who she is and what she wants, she tosses off the role with a calm self-assurance that would make her a “natural” the next time someone wants to do a Law and Order: Special Victims Unit-style series about a female cop.

Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story (Bly Films, Julijette, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards they showed Escaping the Madhouse: The Nellie Bly Story, an engaging tale based on the true story of the pioneering woman journalist Elizabeth Cochrane, better known under her pen name “Nellie Bly,” who joined the Pittsburgh Dispatch and wrote a series of trail-blazing articles about the hard lives of working women — until their employers, also the paper’s principal advertisers, complained and the editor exiled her to arts and fashion, the usual domains to which women journalists were relegated at the time. Bly hooked up (platonically) with Joseph Pulitzer and the New York World and decided to expose the foul conditions at New York’s Blackwell’s Island, then site of an insane asylum for women (it’s now known as Roosevelt Island and is the site of a housing development). She rented a room at a boarding house and faked accusations against the other residents so she could get herself declared insane and locked in the asylum herself. After 10 days Pulitzer sent members of her staff to “out” Bly and get her released, and her articles led not only to a series of exposés in the World but a best-selling book, Ten Days in a Mad-House.

From these facts Lifetime writer Helen Childress and director Karen Moncrieff (kudos to Lifetime and their producers, Bly Films and Julijette, for giving both these jobs to women!) spun a tale in which Bly (Christina Ricci) runs afoul of the asylum’s authority figures, particularly Matron Grady (Judith Light in a superbly icy performance), who survived a history of childhood sexual abuse by becoming totally hard-ass towards her charges. Matron Grady makes Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest look warm and fuzzy by comparison, and the rest of the staff — most of them women who took the jobs because they couldn’t find anything else, and who are paid so little they are forced to live on the island (one woman tells Bly the cost of a ferry to the mainland is an entire week’s pay for them) and are almost as much prisoners as the inmates. Bly’s one sympathetic contact among the authority figures is Dr. Josiah (Joseph Bowman), a recent import from Britain and an advocate for more humane treatment of the inmates, including loosening the painful bolts by which their shoes are permanently attached to their feet. Bly also befriends an inmate who insists she’s from New York’s socially prominent Hollister family and who freaks out even more when her blue blanket — her one souvenir of the child who died in infancy, precipitating her mental breakdown — ultimately immolating herself with the kerosene in which she and the other inmates have been soaked to rid them of (nonexistent) lice, and setting the fire by stealing Matron Grady’s pipe.

Midway through the story writer Childress pulls one of the switcheroos so beloved of Lifetime’s scribes: after Matron Grady has accused Bly of cruising the good doctor and trying to pull him away from his marriage, it turns out that he’s the one who’s been after her. Indeed, he was fired from his last job in Britain and forced to emigrate because he was what today would be called “sexually inappropriate” with one of the inmates of the women’s asylum he was working at there. We learn this when Bly’s real boyfriend, Bartholomew “Bat” Driscoll, shows up demanding her release — and Josiah puts him off and says she’s already left. Ultimately it takes the intervention of Joseph Pulitzer himself to get Bly out so she can write her articles, publish her book and get both Matron Grady and Dr. Josiah arrested. Charles saw the promos for this and wished they’d done other aspects of the real Nellie Bly’s story — including her trip around the world (she was fascinated by Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days and wanted to see if she could beat his time — which she did, by eight days) — but as it stands it’s a quite good film, weakened by some of the usual Lifetime contrivances but with the period mostly convincingly reproduced (though in one bit of dialogue that zinged out as an anachronism to both Charles and I, Dr. Josiah refers to Bly as having “paranoia,” a Freudian term that wasn’t in general use in 1887, when the story takes place) and Ricci and Light living up to their feature-film reputations while Bowman effectively delineates both aspects of his character and the actors playing both Bat and Pulitzer (not listed — not yet, anyway — on the film’s page) making appropriate last-minute rescuers for Our Heroine.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Man in the White Suit (Ealing Studios, General Film, J. Arthur Rank Organisation, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s San Diego Vintage Sci-Fi film screening ( consisted of two acknowledged classics with only a peripheral relationship to the science-fiction genre: Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit (1951) and Walter Lang’s Desk Set (1957). The Man in the White Suit is one of those oddball comedies made by Britain’s Ealing Studios in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, most of them (including this one) with Alec Guinness as the male lead (though one of the few that didn’t feature Guinness, 1949’s Passport to Pimlico, may be the best of the lot: fed up with the continuation of British rationing four years after World War II ended, a small neighborhood in London discovers an old medieval land grant that allows them to declare themselves the independent duchy of Burgundy — a premise that in the era of Brexit and Trump’s border wall demand would probably seem even funnier than it did either when the film was made or in 2002, when I saw it). At the time Guinness was known almost exclusively as a comedian, and he had a particular admiration for Stan Laurel (of Laurel and Hardy fame) that comes through very strongly in this film — the next year he would play the comic-relief role of Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the Old Vic and acknowledge that he had borrowed a lot of his movements and gestures from Laurel.

Guinness plays Sidney Stratton, research chemist at a succession of textile mills in Sussex (he keeps getting fired when his researches get to the point of threatening life and limb) who’s reduced to taking a job at the loading dock at the Birnley mill, owned by Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker). Birnley’s daughter Daphne (a young Joan Greenwood) is more or less in love with Sidney, who seems torn between her and the butch co-worker, Bertha (a marvelous performance by Vida Hope), who’s also a militant Leftist and shows Sidney the ropes of his proletarian job while also berating him for not taking the tea break that’s offered him: “We had to fight for it!” she says. Sidney eventually talks his way into taking over the research lab at Birnley’s, where he invents a new miracle fiber that never wears out and repels dirt. He believes he’s done the business, its workers and the world a great service by inventing clothes that can be worn forever, but a combination of mill owners led by Sir John Kierlaw (Ernest Thesiger, older and more crochety than he’d been as Dr. Pretorious in The Bride of Frankenstein but still a welcome sight) immediately realize that a cloth that lasts forever will kill their business because no one will ever need to buy new clothes again. The workers at the plant also want to see the process suppressed because it will kill the jobs — and even Mrs. Watson (Edie Martin), the sympathetic landlady at the boarding house where Sidney lives, asks him, “Why can’t you scientists leave things alone? What about my bit of washing when there’s no washing to do?”

The members of the consortium lock Sidney into a room and plan to hold him there until he signs a contract agreeing to let them mothball his invention forever in return for a payment, and Birnley sends his daughter Daphne into Stratton’s improvised prison to seduce him into accepting the deal — only Daphne helps Stratton escape instead. Stratton flees the assembled forces of capital, labor and side contractors wearing a dazzlingly bright white suit made from his super-fabric — he explains that the same properties that lead it to repel dirt also make it repellent to dyes, so when the fabric is finally produced color will have to be added to it earlier in the manufacturing process — although, this being a slapstick comedy as well as a political and economic satire, in a case of mistaken identity the combined forces of capital, labor and side contractors end up chasing another man wearing a white suit, this one made from ordinary fabric. When they finally do catch up with Stratton his suit starts unraveling — an outcome signaled to us when his assistant back at the lab, Wilkins (Harold Goodwin), noticed the threads on the spool left over after they wove the cloth for Stratton’s super-suit are starting to split apart and look like a very large hair-ball. When the people chasing Stratton finally catch up with him the same starts happening to his suit — it gives off unpleasant-looking bits of fluff that look like someone sliced open a couch and started taking out the batting. Everyone except Stratton heaves a sigh of relief that his invention’s threat to the established economic order is over, and the film closes with Alan Birnley resuming the voice-over narration with which he began the film and announcing that “calm and sanity have returned to the textile industry.” The Man in the White Suit was based on a play by Roger MacDougall — though the story contains so many locations and is based on so many chase scenes featuring both actors and camera moving through them — and the screenplay is credited to MacDougall, John Dighton and Alexander Mackendrick, the last of whom also directed.

Mackendrick had one of the most checkered directorial careers in film history, making a number of quirky masterpieces, most of which expressed a cynical attitude towards establishments of all kinds: in 1957 he made his first American film, Sweet Smell of Success, a great film that seems almost to choke on its own relentless negativity in which virtually no one is likable (which makes it seem modern, come to think of it: the idea that a film should have a central character the audience can root for sometimes seems as old-fashioned as the idea that a film should be silent), and in 1965 he turned around and took on a potentially sentimental story called Sammy Going South (about a young British orphan stranded in Africa who determines to traverse the entire north-south length of the continent to reach his only surviving relatives in Durban, South Africa) and made a beautiful, surprisingly edgy movie out of it called A Boy Ten Feet Tall that gave Edward G. Robinson (as a trader who helps the kid on part of his journey) probably the best role he had in the last decade of his life. The Man in the White Suit is a bitter, stinging satire — though, as with a lot of Ealing’s films, its social comment is leavened by the sheer driven lunacy of the story and much of the acting — and, like a lot of the Ealing movies, its satire rings even truer now than it did in 1951, especially with the dominance of computers and other electronic products in which obsolescence is built in from the get-go at the design table. My computer keeps sending me nasty messages that I’m using an out-of-date operating system or an out-of-date browser or some other piece of out-of-date software, aimed at getting me to buy new software (and, of course, a new computer that will run it all); the idea that anything should be “built to last” has gone the way of the horse and buggy, trampled by the relentless pursuit of profit and its eternal demand that consumers have to be made constantly dissatisfied (to the point where some computer programs simply have “terminator” codes that render them unusable at all after a certain period of time!). The idea that something can be “classic,” that it can “stand the test of time,” is not only opposed but actually considered dangerous by people who run businesses today — and in skewering that attitude The Man in the White Suit is a more effective satire now than it was in 1951!

Desk Set (20th Century-Fox, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran my then-partner Bob the tape of the Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn movie Desk Set, from 1957, co-starring a state-of-the-art IBM computer with which efficiency expert Tracy plans to replace Hepburn’s job. Bob faulted the script for attributing powers to the computer (particularly in terms of being able to understand language inputs) that would tax the computing equipment of 1993, let alone 1957. But he enjoyed the movie otherwise — especially the scenes in which Tracy and Hepburn spar verbally with each other, and you realize these people are attracted to each other mainly by interest in each other’s brains (the main thing that’s kept Bob and I together this long, too — even a relatively weak Tracy/Hepburn film like Without Love is interesting because it’s about people who are both intelligent and unashamed of being intelligent, a refreshing change from the way most people behave in movies — and, come to think of it, in life as well). — 9/3/93


Desk Set couldn’t help but be better, and it was — despite a few longueurs in Walter Lang’s direction, it’s Tracy and Hepburn at close to their best, especially in the famous rooftop picnic scene. As my friend Cat said years ago to me while we were watching one of the minor Tracy/Hepburns, Without Love, it’s a real treat to watch a movie about intelligent people for a change, people who try to score points off each other with their brains instead of their muscles or their sex organs. This was a letterboxed version (which improved the rooftop scene immensely, though it didn’t make much difference for the rest of the film), and I’d never seen the film in its full width — while Charles saw it years ago on a black-and-white TV but had never seen it in color! Not surprisingly, Charles responded to every anti-computer gag in the film (and there were so many of them — notably the one in which the computer in payroll malfunctions and lays off everybody in the company, including the CEO — that it was surprising IBM gave full cooperation to this project, down to loaning Twentieth Century-Fox its hardware) — indeed, I think this was the first film outside the science-fiction genre that even depicted a computer at all. 

Desk Set also benefits from a good supporting cast, notably Joan Blondell as one of Hepburn’s colleagues in the research department of the Federal Broadcasting Company (where the whole film took place) and Gig Young as the manager who’s sucking off Hepburn’s gifts (the film anticipates Nine to Five by 23 years in its depiction of an unscrupulous male boss who’s building a reputation for himself in the company through reports his female subordinate is really ghost-writing for him) while simultaneously promising her, and completely failing to deliver, a personal relationship. (As I pointed out to Charles, when Ralph Bellamy got too old to play guy-who-loses-the-girl parts Gig Young took them over.) While I tend to agree with Cult Movies author Danny Peary that the four films Hepburn made with Cary Grant are much more interesting and entertaining than the ones she made with Tracy (just as the Jeannette MacDonald/Maurice Chevalier films are far better than the MacDonald/Nelson Eddy films), Hepburn and Tracy were a great team when they forgot about making grand statements on the condition of the world (i.e. Keeper of the Flame and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) and instead just used the battle of the sexes as a backdrop for making us laugh (Woman of the Year, Adam’s Rib and Desk Set) — though Charles told me he couldn’t fathom why the current film was called Desk Set, since the title told you little more about it than that it took place in an office. “It was based on a successful Broadway play, and they were stuck with the title,” I replied. — 7/18/97


Last night’s other “Vintage Sci-Fi” movie was even more marginal as science-fiction than The Man in the White Suit, though it contains two of Hollywood’s most legendary actors, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, in the eighth of their nine films together and the first one in color: Desk Set, a 1957 romantic comedy that lays a slight satire on automation over the usual Tracy-Hepburn byplay we’d seen from the oddly matched couples they’d played in their previous comedies. Desk Set actually began as a Broadway play by William Marchant, who was apparently inspired by the real-life character of Agnes E. Law, the first head of the research department at the Columbia Broadcasting System (you know it by its initials, CBS). He was also inspired by the new “electronic brains” — computers — being marketed by companies like Univac and IBM, so he created a story in which a Law-like character named Bunny Watson finds her job as head of research at the Federal Broadcasting Corporation (though the initial inspiration was CBS the filmmakers actually shot their exteriors at NBC, including the iconic Christmas tree set up every year at NBC’s headquarters in Rockefeller Center) finds the job security of herself and her staff threatened when the head of the network, Mr. Azae, calls in IBM technology expert Richard Sumner to install a computer in her department. Both Azae and Sumner himself insist that the computer is only going in to help them do their jobs, but Bunny and her crew immediately assume it’s there to replace them. On Broadway this story starred Shirley Booth as Bunny (Booth was a much less assertive character than Hepburn and I’d presume Bunny came off in the play as considerably ditzier and less authoritative than she does in the Great Kate’s hands in the film) and the men in her life — Sumner and network vice-president Mike Cutler — were played by Byron Sanders and Frank Milan. Desk Set premiered on Broadway October 24, 1955 and ran for 296 performances — a solid hit — and the Hollywood Reporter originally said that Booth would repeat her role on screen.

She didn’t; instead the “suits” at 20th Century-Fox recruited Hepburn, and she in turn brought Tracy into the project for their first collaboration in five years. Alas, one thing Fox didn’t do was hire a major director for the film; instead of the names Tracy and Hepburn had worked with at MGM (George Stevens, George Cukor, Elia Kazan and Frank Capra) they put an amiable hack named Walter Lang on the project. At least they gave the job of adapting Marchant’s play into a script to competent and arguably brilliant hands: the husband-and-wife writing team of Henry and Phoebe Ephron, whose daughter Nora Ephron would become a major writer-director in her own right in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Indeed, in 1998 she’d rework the old MGM classic The Shop Around the Corner into a vehicle for Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, You’ve Got Mail!, which was also about a woman who finds herself falling in love with a man even though she’s worried that he’s going to destroy her livelihood. The film of Desk Set starred Tracy (top-billed, as he was in all his films with Hepburn — the legend is that once she protested, saying that as the lady she should go first, and Tracy replied, “This is a movie, chowderhead, not a lifeboat”) as Richard Sumner the computer expert, Hepburn as Bunny Watson the ace researcher, Gig Young as Mike Cutler (in the 1950’s he had largely taken over from Ralph Bellamy as the third man out in these sorts of romantic triangles, the decent but boring guy the leading lady would abandon in favor of a much more exciting and stimulating male lead in the last reel), and Joan Blondell an absolute delight as Peg Costello, second-in-command in the Federal Broadcasting research department. Though worn down in real life by age and three broken marriages, Blondell as a screen personality remained level-headed and the voice of reason in all the madness, and Dina Merrill and Sue Randall fill out Bunny’s staff ably if not spectacularly.

The film’s best scene is a battle of wits between Sumner and Bunny on the roof of the FBS building — he’s invited her to lunch to give her a series of psychological tests, including making her solve complicated math and logic problems on the fly, and she passes them all with flying colors — and it’s not until the third act (it’s the sort of film that you would probably guess was based on a stage play even if you didn’t know that in advance) that we finally get to meet the computer. Though IBM itself supplied the prop — which was recycled in two later 20th Century-Fox films, The Fly (1958) and Dear Brigitte (1965) — the machine, which is called EMERAC (for “Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator”) and affectionately referred to as “Emmy,” like the TV award, is just a prop, with giant tape drives whose tapes rotate in opposite directions, lights that flash in two random patterns that have nothing to do with what the Ephrons’ script tell us it’s supposed to be doing, punch-card inputs that couldn’t possibly handle the amount of data being fed into it, and a rate of input far faster than any real computer extant even now, much less in 1957. The huge mainframe Sumner shoehorns into the little research office, where the four people who work there were already being overshadowed by their books and files, is by far the most dated thing about this movie; the parts that hold up best are the by-play between Tracy and Hepburn and the voice-of-reason contributions of Blondell.

Like The Man in the White Suit, Desk Set in some ways is a more incisive satire now than it was in 1957, as the blessing/curse of automation has reached far beyond the white-collar office sector (the subject of this film as well as Allan Sherman’s marvelous early-1960’s song “Automation”: “There’s an RCA 503/Sitting over there where you used to be/Doesn’t have your charm, doesn’t have your shape/Just a bunch of punch cards and lightbulbs and tape, dear”) into blue-collar manufacturing, the service sector and even such once seemingly unautomatable jobs as bank tellers, gas-station attendants and grocery clerks. In an economic and social order so totally dominated by the imperatives of capital that just about all the productivity gains since the early 1970’s have been relentlessly distributed to the upper echelons of the socioeconomic scale, automation — like globalization — has become yet another way for the rich and powerful to further impoverish and enslave the not-rich and not-powerful. While the Ephrons’ script for Desk Set presents the ultimate pairing of the Tracy and Hepburn characters as the triumph of true love over opportunism (and stacks the deck by making the Gig Young character so actively unpleasant, far meaner than Bellamy was when he played these sorts of roles), one could imagine a more cynical version of the ending as Hepburn’s character hard-heartedly realizes that the machines are going to put her and her colleagues out of business, so she’d better marry one of the guys who’s going to be making money off automation.

What works best about Desk Set are the scenes between Tracy and Hepburn as well as such zany inspirations as Hepburn crooning Cole Porter’s (a personal friend of hers) “Night and Day” at an office Christmas party — she doesn’t have a great voice but she’s not bad; certainly some well-known cabaret singers (can you say “Libby Holman”?) got by with less voice than hers! — and her recitation of the poem “Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight” as the computer endlessly spits out verse after verse of it, thereby shutting itself off from any other input since the script has established that EMERAC, for all its power, can only process one job at a time. There’s also the most morbidly satirical scene in the film, in which the computer previously installed in the payroll department goes haywire and sends pink slips to everyone in FBS’s employ, from Mr. Azae (Nicholas Joy) on down. That’s the one that really hurts: the idea that someday the machines may just decide they don’t need us anymore, and they’ll either let us die off or use us, Matrix-like, as an energy source …

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Seat 25 (Lagom Pictures, Red Kite Flims, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Mars movie screening ( was devoted to a couple of recent, independently made low-budget film with Mars-related themes. The first was Seat 25, a British production in which a billionaire capitalist, Macmillan (Daniel Brennan) — who seems to have been drawn by writers Nicholas Agnew (who also directed) and Madeleine Cooke as a combination of Richard Branson and Elon Musk — announces that he has privately funded the first human-staffed mission to Mars and has selected 12 men and 12 women for his one-way trip to colonize the Red Planet. (The Agnew-Cooke script incorporates the recent discovery of water underground on Mars and takes it a step further, positing water on the surface which could presumably be used to produce oxygen for the settlers to breathe.) The 25th seat on the rocket he reserves for the winner of a nationwide contest in which he asks people to write an essay explaining why they want to go to Mars — sort of like an admission essay to an elite college — and the winner turns out to be Faye Banks (Madeleine Cooke), who’s been married for about a decade to a blond asshole named Jim (Nicholas Banks). She has a sister named Pandora (Clare Fettarappa) who takes wild trips around the world while Faye is stuck with her married life and her boring husband. She’s a bit envious of her next-door neighbor Peter (Stephen Lloyd) because, even though he’s as badly mismatched with his wife as she is with her husband, at least he has a daughter and the two of them frequently play together. Faye works for the local town council but funding cutbacks are leading her to lay off a number of workers — including Teodor (Adnan Rashed), an Eastern European immigrant and a widower who still owns the cello played by his late wife even though he can’t play it himself. She sees him and he’s packing for what he says is a trip to his family, but the next time she goes to his home the police have sealed it with crime-scene tape and a testy woman police investigator (Amy Newton) asks her about their friendship and then tells him the old man had no family. He committed suicide and when he told Faye he was going to be “with his family” he meant he was going to join his wife in death. There’s also a subplot with Faye’s father, who married a much younger woman after breaking up with Faye’s mom and who wants to retire and live on the Continent, while Faye’s stepmom wants to stay in Sussex. 

For most of its running time Seat 25 is what the Brits used to call a “kitchen-sink drama” in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, including the intimations of a potential affair between Faye and her neighbor (who seems a much better match for her, physically and psychologically, than her actual husband). But when Faye turns out to be the contest winner of Seat 25 it essentially becomes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind (albeit with the genders of the latter reversed — through much of this film I was remembering the rather snide comment made about Close Encounters when it was new: “If I were married to Teri Garr I’d get on a flying saucer just to get away from her!”). Jim’s first reaction to the news that his wife is leaving him literally to go to Mars is disgust and anger — he even comes close to hitting her but draws back at the last minute — but then there’s a tender scene between them in which he’s obviously trying to win her back by showing her the first bit of concern he’s exhibited all movie. Seat 25 is a neat little film, though the only hint of space travel we see is a final shot of Faye in a spacesuit and a stock shot of a rocket blasting off with her in it, and it’s an intriguing combination of domestic drama and science fiction even though Mars is really just a symbol of all the old dreams Faye once had for her life that got lost in the boring swamp of suburban routine. It’s also hauntingly acted — once again, class, the British seem to produce the best actors in the world: a British cast doesn’t heave and strain through their parts, doesn’t show off their star charisma or make it all look difficult. They just become their characters and through the subtle force of their impersonations make you believe they are the people they’re playing.

2036: Origin Unknown (Parkgate Entertainment, Origin Unknown Films, Head Gear Films, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The other film on the program, 2036: Origin Unknown, had a bigger (though still relatively now by modern moviemaking standards) budget and loftier aspirations but didn’t work as well. The backstory is that in 2030 the world sent its first human-piloted mission to Mars and the spaceship actually made it to the Red Planet, only some sort of Martian electrical storm, a self-defense system from whatever technology was left on Mars, or something brought it down in a crash landing and killed everyone aboard. Therefore the super-agency running the world’s space program decided not to send any more people to Mars. Instead they developed a super-computer called ARTI — addressed, naturally, as “Artie” — and put it in charge of the next Mars mission in 2036, with the human commander, Mackenzie “Mac” Wilson (attractive, personable and talented Katie Sackhoff, who really deserved a better vehicle), relegated to a supporting role. Through most of the movie the only people we see are Mac and her sister Lena (Julie Cox), and even Lena we only see on a video screen through which she and Mac are passing instructions and information about the mission. There’s also Sterling Brooks (played by an African-British actor named Ray Fearon), who apparently was once Mac’s lover and is either alive or dead — he was supposed to go on the first mission, and either he did and what we see is just his hallucination, or he survived on Earth and gets called in to supply a critical computer password when things start going wrong. 

ARTI controls the Mars Rover which is supposed to land on the planet and travel around it to look for signs of the first expedition and find out what happened to it. Through their video feeds they discover a mysterious black cube on the surface of Mars which somehow teleports to Earth and ends up in Antarctica. Obviously the Earthlings involved in this project, both human and artificial, have hooked up with some alien race that has far advanced technology — we’re told that between 2030 and 2036 humans discovered a communications channel that can send radio signals faster than the speed of light (what in the original Star Trek they called “subspace radio”) — and anyone who’s seen 2001: A Space Odyssey will note all the Kubrick/Clarke elements this film’s writer-director, Hasraf Dullul, is ripping off: the monolith, the super-computer than can talk and ultimately goes crazy, even a psychedelic sequence at the end. And 2001 isn’t the only Kubrick film Dullul and his writing partner Gary Cole rip off: at the end ARTI decides to set off all the world’s extant nuclear weapons, blowing it up and making it uninhabitable to humans. Then Dullul and Cole cop the ending of Karel Capek’s R.U.R. and have the super-computer reproduce a world full of androids who will populate it now that there is no longer any oxygen to sustain human life — in the film’s most chilling scene ARTI informs Mac that she is now the last human alive, and when she uses up all the oxygen in her enclosed room she will die and the human race will be extinct forever. It’s obvious the makers of 2036: Origin  Unknown had lofty ambitions, but they came up with an intermittently interesting but also claustrophobic movie — it’s so tightly confined to that one high-tech headquarters it would probably work as well or better as a stage play than a film — and the ending has a sense of tragedy but also seems futile. The movie is so derivative we expect to hear both Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra and Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again” on its soundtrack!

Monday, January 14, 2019

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (Universal, Amblin Entertainment, Legendary Entertainment, Perfect World Pictures, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a recent blockbuster mega-movie that turned out to be surprisingly good: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. I’d just bought the Blu-Ray edition but hadn’t had that much hope for it since Charles and I had seen its immediate predecessor in the Jurassic Park/Jurassic World cycle, Jurassic World (2015) a sort of combination reboot and sequel to the first three Jurassic Park movies from 1993, 1997 and 2001 — the first two directed by Steven Spielberg (and the original Jurassic Park being the big commercial blockbuster he had to give Universal to get permission to film Schindler’s List immediately afterwards). Jurassic Park began as a novel by Michael Crichton, who’d made it onto best-seller lists in the late 1960’s with a book (also filmed by Universal) called The Andromeda Strain, about a pathogen from outer space that comes to earth aboard a returning spacecraft and has to be contained in a super-lab shaped like a hexagon. The soundtrack album from The Andromeda Strain was a piece of vinyl shaped like a hexagon and packaged in a cover with six cardboard petals that opened to reveal the LP, which since it wasn’t round probably destroyed the styli of a number of record buyers who tried to play it as if were a conventional LP. Crichton specialized in stories about experiments that went horribly wrong, though in later years he turned Right-wing and wrote a novel called Disclosure in which a male employee is sexually harassed by a female boss, and another in which the entire climate-change movement was revealed as a deliberate fake conjured up by radical environmentalists aiming to reverse the Industrial Revolution and revert humanity to a primitive state. Crichton’s first work written directly for the screen was the script to the 1971 film Westworld, about a super-amusement park in which animatronic figures would enact, and let you participate in, your wildest cultural fantasies, only things went horribly wrong and one figure in particular — a Wild West gunslinger played by Yul Brynner — started going around slaughtering the paying customers for no discernible reason. Westworld spawned an almost immediate sequel called Futureworld (though for that one Crichton descended the studio food chain from MGM to American International!) and eventually a streaming-channel TV series that is still going on. 

In 1991 Crichton published Jurassic Park, in which a mad multimillionaire named John Hammond bankrolled a project to genetically re-engineer dinosaurs from bits of their blood literally frozen in amber along with the mosquitoes which had consumed it. His objective was not only to bring to life the giant reptiles[1] that once ruled the earth but to populate them on a (fictional) island off the coast of Costa Rica, Isla Nublar, and turn the island into a giant amusement park where people would pay hefty admission and hospitality fees to spend their vacations among revivified dinosaurs. Only, this being a Michael Crichton story, things went horribly wrong and the dinosaurs went wild and started rampaging across the island and eating the paying guests as well as some of the human staff that were supposed to control them. Universal bought the movie rights and made the first film in the cycle, Jurassic Park, in 1993, with Spielberg directing from a script co-written by Crichton himself and David Koepp and Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum as his stars. The real stars, though, were the dinosaurs; originally Spielberg and his effects technician, Stan Winston, had planned to use some computer-generated imagery while doing some effects with stop-motion animation — the classic way dinosaurs had been put on film since The Lost World in 1925 and King Kong in 1933 — but the CGI turned out to be so lifelike that, aside from a few scenes with full-sized puppets (like a dying Triceratops which obviously had a bellows inside so the animal could appear to breathe), Spielberg and Winston went with it throughout. They inspired a new generation of filmmakers to explore computer effects and thus render stories filmable that couldn’t have been made before. Universal did two sequelae to Jurassic Park, of which the first one, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) was based on a Crichton novel that ripped off the title Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had used for his pioneering dino-novel which Harry Hoyt and special-effects genius Willis O’Brien had filmed in 1925. (When Charles and I watched the movie on VHS and got to the interminable credit roll, Charles joked — referencing the joke title at the end of Airplane! — “Author of A Tale of Two Cities: Charles Dickens.” I said, “No, ‘Author of A Tale of Two Cities: Michael Crichton.’ He’s going to rip off that title, too!”) The Lost World — the Spielberg-Crichton version — at least got us off the island and ended with a dinosaur rampaging through the streets of San Diego, which at least gave it a home-town appeal. We missed the third film in the cycle, Jurassic Park III, and only recently caught up with the semi-sequel, semi-reboot, Jurassic World

Made in 2015 by director Colin Trevorrow from a script he wrote with the usual committee — Rick Jaffe, Amanda Silver and Derek Connolly — Jurassic World opens with a new corporate owner having managed to tame Jurassic Park, renamed Jurassic World and turned into a relatively safe worldwide attraction. Only ticket sales are falling, and in order to juice them up the corporate baddies decided to engineer a whole new dinosaur, Indomitus Rex, not based on any ever actually-existing dino-species but genetically engineered for ferocity and fright. Alas, once again things go terribly wrong and the human heroes, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), barely escape with their lives as Indomitus Rex rampages through the park, causing death and destruction willy-nilly until a sort of deus ex oceania, a seagoing dinosaur called Masosaurus, eats it at the end. Both made and set three years later than Jurassic World, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom posits that after the disaster of Jurassic World humans abandoned Isla Nublar and left it to the dinosaurs — only a long-extinct volcano on the island has suddenly become active again and threatens to destroy it. This leads Congress to hold hearings after rival lobbying organizations start a political debate over whether to let the genetically engineered dinosaurs die a natural death when the volcano erupts and destroys the island (a plot twist obviously copied from Son of Kong, the 1933 sequel to the original King Kong) or try to evacuate them somewhere. Already we’re in more profound territory than we usually get from a big-budget mass-audience blockbuster as the debate centers around whether the dinosaurs are just monsters or they are part of the animal kingdom and we should try to save them as we would any other animals who were facing a mass extinction event. An old, grizzled Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, reprising his part from the first two films in the cycle and playing an older version of the character as he has naturally aged) tells the congressional committee investigating the Isla Nublar situation that the right thing to do is let the dinosaurs die — their creation, he argues, was an anti-natural mistake and nature is about to correct the error and make the dinosaurs extinct again — but, swayed by animal-rights activists who insist that the dinosaurs remain alive and the government try to find a home for them, Congress decides to allow their evacuation. 

Owen Grady and Claire Dearing (Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard repeating their roles from Jurassic World) get recruited to lead the evacuation effort, and the old, crippled and largely bedridden Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell, whose best-known film was a quite different sort of animal movie, Babe — after Babe was filmed Cromwell became a vegetarian in real life and when he was asked why, he said, “What? You think I should eat my co-star?”), business partner of John Hammond (played in the 1993 film by Richard Attenborough). Lockwood lives in an old Gothic mansion that looks like a set from a 1930’s Universal horror film — it’s really a castle they rented in England, but director J. A. Bayona, a Spanish filmmaker whose previous credits are all low-budget horror films, said the resemblance is deliberate — and his only companions are his granddaughter (at least we’re told she’s his granddaughter) Maisie (Isabella Sermon) and her governess Iris (Geraldine Chaplin). Lockwood has assigned the director of his family’s nonprofit foundation, Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), to be in charge of the evacuation operation, and Mills has shown Lockwood a model of the sanctuary, ringed by mountains, to which the Isla Nublar dinosaurs will be located. Only, as he warned us in his opening scene when he tells Owen and Claire that he took the job of running the Lockwood Foundation when he was “young and idealistic — and now I’m neither,” Eli is up to no good: instead he intends to sell the dinosaurs at auction to the highest bidder. His partner in this enterprise is a crooked entrepreneur named Gunnar Eversoll (Toby Jones, who in one of the 788 “trivia” posts on this film — about seven times as many as I’ve ever seen for any other movie — is quoted as saying he picked the ill-fitting blond wig he wears to make himself look like Donald Trump). 

The first half of the movie takes place on Isla Nublar just before its volcanic destruction, as Owen, Claire and the two obligatory comic-relief characters, Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) and Zia Rodriguez (Danielle Pineda), attempt to round up the dinosaurs and fend off the efforts of a military commander and his private security force to get them out of the way so they don’t interfere with the real plan he, Eli and Eversoll have in mind. Fortunately our not-so-fantastic four manage to escape both the private troops and the killer dinosaurs and smuggle themselves onto the ship taking the dinosaurs onto the Lockwood estate. Eli clubs Lockwood to death in his bed — the first time, according to the contributors, that one human has murdered another in the Jurassic Park/World franchise — so he won’t interfere, and in a film the director and his writers (Trevorrow and Connolly again — Trevorrow was supposed to direct but turned down the project to make the ninth and, presumably, last film in the basic Star Wars cycle, only he got fired from it over creative differences with producer J. J. Abrams, who took over the last Star Wars film himself; he’s slated to return to the Jurassic Park/World franchise to direct episode three in the current cycle) have acknowledged influenced them, they restage the house party held by the corrupt 1-percenters in the old 1994 Schwarzenegger vehicle True Lies. In the film’s most chilling scene, the dinosaurs are shown being auctioned off to the highest bidders from amongst a group of representatives of military dictators, arms merchants and safari organizers who want to give their clients something especially exotic to kill, and the creatures are fetching eight-figure sums — but the biggest bids go to a creature who isn’t supposed to be for sale, only the creeps bidding at the auction (which is staged as a cross between a Dad Mecum collectors’ car auction and a sale of slaves) immediately demand the right to bid on the prototype. 

The prototype is something called an Indoraptor, produced by Lockwood’s house geneticist, Henry Wu (the openly Gay Chinese-American actor B. D. Wong, reprising his role from Jurassic World) as a cross between the Velociraptor — a super-intelligent hunting dinosaur, introduced in the first Jurassic Park story and portrayed as an animal intelligent enough to figure out how to open a door — and the Indomitus Rex monster from the first Jurassic World film. Wu is hoping to breed future Indoraptors to bond with humans and follow their commands, but to do that he needs “Blue,” the pet raptor Owen figured out how to tame in the previous Jurassic World film (a video of him doing this figures prominently in Fallen Kingdom), to serve as a mother figure for the young Indoraptors and teach them how to behave around humans. Along the way it’s revealed that Maisie Lockwood is not the elder Lockwood’s granddaughter, but his daughter — or, rather, a clone of his daughter, who apparently died before she reached puberty and therefore never had kids of her own; but that didn’t stop him from having Dr. Wu and his assistants whip up a clone of her in the same basement lab that generated the dinosaurs. There’s a big fight between a runaway T. Rex — supposedly the one from the very first Jurassic Park movie — and the wild prototype of the Indoraptor, which dies when it falls through the glass roof of the Lockwood castle and gets impaled on the horn of one of the authentic dinosaur fossils on display in his study. The film has a surprising number of parallels to the old Universal horror classics of the 1930’s in general and Frankenstein in particular — director Bayona has said he saw the Indoraptor as a sort of modern-day Frankenstein’s monster, since the monster was spliced together from different parts of human bodies and Indoraptor has been gene-spliced from different species, and he quotes quite a few of James Whale’s shots from the original Frankenstein movie, including one of Maisie menaced by the killer dinosaur. 

At the end of the film the surviving dinosaurs are trapped inside airtight cages on the Lockwood estate, thanks to damaged circuits in their life-support system the cages are filling with hydrogen cyanide gas, and the dinosaurs are about to die. The only thing that can save them is if someone pushes a red button that will activate the emergency release, open all the cages and loose the dinosaurs out into the world — and both Owen and Claire are tempted to push the red button but think better of it and decide not to. Then Maisie rushes over to the button and pushes it — an interesting inversion of the final scene of The Bride of Frankenstein, in which the monster sends Frankenstein and his wife out of the lab just before pulling its self-destruct button and blowing up himself, his would-be bride and the mad scientist who created them, exiting with the line, “We … belong … dead!” — loosing the dinosaurs on the world and permanently changing the ecological balance, forcing humans to learn to coexist with dinosaurs as part of their normal everyday environment. (This is dramatized by a post-credits shot of a flock of Pteranodons buzzing the skyline of New York City.) The point is made by a quite moving speech by Jeff Goldblum’s character, who doesn’t appear in the rest of the movie but whose words of wisdom bookend the film — Bayona, Trevorrow and Connolly saw him as a sort of Al Gore character, grizzled with age and frustrated at humanity’s doggedly ignoring his warnings of impending doom — “How many times do you have to see the evidence? How many times must the point be made? We’re causing our own extinction. Too many red lines have been crossed. And our home has, in fundamental ways, been polluted by avarice and political megalomania. Genetic power has now been unleashed and of course, that’s going to be catastrophic. This change was inevitable from the moment we brought the first dinosaur back from extinction. We convince ourselves that sudden change is something that happens outside the normal order of things, like a car crash, or that it’s beyond our control, like a fatal illness. We don’t conceive of sudden, radical, irrational change as woven into the very fabric of existence. Yet, I can assure you, it most assuredly is. And it’s happening now. Humans and dinosaurs are now gonna be forced to coexist. These creatures were here before us. And if we’re not careful, they’re gonna be here after. We’re gonna have to adjust to new threat that we can’t imagine. We’ve entered a new era. Welcome to Jurassic World.” 

 Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is actually one of the best big-budget franchise films I’ve seen lately, surpassed only by Black Panther; it offers audiences the thrills and terror they expect from the franchise and its basic premise, but at the same time it deals with real dramatic and political issues, particularly the privileges of the 1 percent, their ability to wreck not only the economy but the environment the rest of us have to live in, and the whole issue of whether or not humans should be messing around with the gene pool of themselves or other life forms. There’s no doubt about where I stand on this — quite frankly, I think nuclear power and genetic modification are the two technologies I regard as, in the old catch line from the Universal horror classics, “meddling in things man was meant to leave alone” (and I’m horrified by so-called “environmentalists” who have embraced nuclear power as a supposedly “clean” alternative to fossil fuels, whereas nuclear power is so dangerous and costs so much energy over the entire fuel cycle that adopting it to stop human-caused climate change would really be leaping from the frying pan into the fire). When we start mucking around with the germ lines of various life forms we don’t know what we’re doing, and since life, once created, reproduces itself, cross-breeds and mutates in ways we can’t even predict, much less control, who knows what genetic horrors we may be loosing on the world when companies like Monsanto re-engineer soybeans to take higher doses of carcinogenic pesticides? If Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom has a moral, that’s it: we tamper with the genetic code at our own peril and we know not what we’re going to do to the biosphere when we attempt to rewrite the history of evolution nature has bequeathed us from the last few billion years.

[1] — At least that’s the traditional explanation of what dinosaurs were, though some modern paleontologists believe they were more like modern-day birds than modern-day reptiles, and Crichton incorporated that into his story.