Thursday, May 30, 2019

Frontline: “Sex Trafficking in America” (WGBH-TV, PBS, 2019)

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

Two nights ago, on Tuesday, May 28, PBS aired a fascinating Frontline episode called “Sex Trafficking in America,” which in some ways was what you’d expect and in some ways wasn’t. In 2012 and 2013 I went to a few events, including a film screening in East County, about what was being done about sexual trafficking in San Diego County, though in some ways what was being talked about then was pretty old-school: pimps or their representatives cruising the bus stations and other places teenage runaways from out of town might be arriving, talking to them, ingratiating themselves, seducing the runaways to fall in love with them and then slowly, gradually turning them into prostitutes — usually by preposterous lines like, “If you really love me, you’ll have sex with this friend of mine who wants you.” The film PBS showed last night was centered around Phoenix, Arizona and opened with the 2015 Super Bowl about to take place there — and, like other big events that attract a large number of 1-percenters, including 1-percent males who want to get their rocks off into any convenient female orifice (boys get sex-trafficked, too, but somewhat to my disappointment this show depicted only heterosexual trafficking), a Super Bowl dramatically drives up the demand for prostitutes in the city in which it takes place. Most of the show depicted a new approach being taken by the Phoenix Police Department — which wasn’t exactly “new” since the meetings I’d gone to in San Diego and the film I’d seen also mentioned it — which involves reconditioning local line police officers to stop seeing prostitutes as criminals and start seeing them as victims. If anything, with the rise of the Internet the process of recruiting teenage girls for sex trafficking has become quicker and more brutal than the stereotype of the seductive pimp attracting a young girl, convincing her he’s in love with her and spending about three to five weeks “seasoning” her (the term I’m using actually comes from the term slavemasters used in the U.S. to describe the process of breaking down the resistance of newly trafficked Africans and psychologically bludgeoning and terrifying them into accepting their status as human property) into turning tricks and giving him all or most of the money therefrom. 

Now they do it quicker: Kat, a trafficking victim who got out of “the life,” got her life back and is the real heroine of this show, recalled that she met her trafficker (actually one member of a gang of at least three) online through a site called MeetMe and, after a brief online “courtship,” agreed to meet him: “He offered to give me a ride up to Phoenix, and with everything in my head, I was like, ‘You know what? It’s just a ride, you know. Nothing is going to happen.’ When he got here I climbed out of my bedroom window and got into his car. He was like, "I’m not dropping you off.’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He covered my eyes so I couldn’t see where we were going. It was really dark.” Her three traffickers — Rafael Quiroz (the one who’d cruised her online), Jesse Cisneros (the one  who picked her up and gave her the first clue something was wrong when he wouldn’t drop her off where she asked him to), and Bryant Flemante (whom Kat described as “the enforcer”) — drove her to a motel and, Kat said, “That’s where Jesse explains, ‘You have a client.’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about, I have a client?’ He was like, ‘You’re going to have sex with this man. … You’re going to tell him you’re 19 and your name is Rose.’ And this stranger comes in, he did those things to me, he puts the money in the drawer and then he leaves.” The show didn’t make clear just how long Kat was stuck in “the life” or how she got away, but it did mention that she had an unusually good memory not only for faces but also for locations — she recalled the address of the motel and the room number in which she turned her first trick — which was helpful to the cops in busting her traffickers. What wasn’t helpful was the sheer delay in the court proceedings after the men were arrested; they dragged out the case for three years and demoralized Kat to the point where she wasn’t sure anymore whether she would have the psychological strength to take the witness stand against them. Fortunately, in the end she didn’t have to: all three cut deals with prosecutors and plea-bargained the cases away in exchange for pretty hefty prison terms (one got 10 years, one 16 and Jesse got 24). 

The show, produced by Lauren Mucciolo, directed by Jezza Neumann and narrated in the warm, comforting tones of Frontline’s resident narrator, Will Lyman (also a spokesperson for BMW in their car commercials), discusses other strategies in the war against human trafficking, including busting the prostitutes’ customers (the Phoenix Police Department and other law-enforcement agencies successfully lobbied the Arizona legislature to change the law so that “johns” weren’t just given tickets and sent home, they were actually forced to spend at least a night in jail and often had to deal with the shame and humiliation of having to call their wives from jail to bail them out) and taking down Web sites like Backpage that featured thinly veiled ads for prostitution. When the show mentioned Backpage in its earlier stages Charles, who was home and watching it with me, said, “That’s a mistake. Closing down Backpage just drove it more underground and turned them back onto the streets.” Surprisingly, by the end the filmmakers were making that point themselves: closing down Backpage and similar, relatively visible sites for prostitutes to meet potential customers has forced a lot of prostitutes back onto the streets (where they’re in danger both from pimps and other baddies trying to rob or rape them) and the online hookups are now taking place at less centralized, harder-to-find sites on the so-called “dark Web” (i.e., sites deliberately set up not to appear on standard search engines) where it’s harder for police to pose as prostitutes to entrap johns. (This is a long-standing law enforcement tactic against the sex industry but it became easier with the rise of the Internet, which meant police decoys didn’t have to disguise themselves as prostitutes and physically pick up johns to arrest them. Instead the decoys could be not particularly attractive women, and not necessarily women at all.) 

While I can’t watch any heartfelt media denunciation of human trafficking without recalling the comment of late-19th century investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens that doing exposés of “white slavery” (as sex trafficking was called then, an interesting turn of phrase that suggests a mindset that being enslaved was an O.K. fate to visit on Black people but not on whites) was one way lazy publishers and reporters could appear to be fearless investigators without risking doing anything that would impose on the economic and social powers that be — and I also can’t help but wonder if the late activist Gloria Johnson had a point when she said the way to put the traffickers out of business was to legalize, license and regulate prostitution (she got into a lot of arguments with other feminist women about that one!), treating naïve girls (and I deliberately call them “girls” instead of “women” because they’re generally young and immature, desperate to get out of bad family situations — and try as they might to portray them as sympathetic victims in their own right, Kat’s parents as depicted in the film look pretty creepy and you can understand why she wanted to get away from them in the first place!) as hardened criminals instead of victims was a huge law-enforcement mistake and it’s nice that that, at least, is finally being corrected.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Kingdom of Heaven (20th Century-Fox, Scott Free Productions, BK, 2005)

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

Last night Charles and I watched the film Kingdom of Heaven, officially dated 2005 (the year it was officially released), though apparently it took quite a long time to make, including 15 months on the editing alone. We were watching it on a full-screen DVD of the original 144-minute theatrical release, which director Ridley Scott disowned; later there was a 194-minute “director’s cut” which got a brief theatrical release in road-show format (which meant that some of those extra minutes were taken up by a pre-film overture, an entr’acte for an intermission, and exit music, so there were only about 45 minutes of added footage and much of that was taken up with a subplot involving the son of one of the leading characters). The film begins with title cards explaining, “France, 1184. It is almost 100 years since Christian armies from Europe seized Jerusalem. Europe suffers in the grip of repression and poverty. Peasant and lord alike flee to the Holy Land in search of fortune or salvation. One Knight returns home in search of his son.” The knight who’s searching for his son is Godfrey de Ibelin (Liam Neeson, who delivers by far the most authoritative performance in the movie but regrettably is killed only half an hour in), and the son he’s searching for is Balian (Orlando Bloom, who got the script while he was wrapping up his role as Paris in Troy; he wasn’t keen to do another historical epic as his next film but took the role for the chance to work with Ridley Scott), the hero of this tale to the extent it has one. 

Godfrey is riding off to join the Second Crusade — the one that took place about a century after the first one, which established the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem in the middle of the otherwise Muslim Middle East, to defend said kingdom against Muslim armies led by Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), more correctly known as Salah al-Din and a hero among Arabs then and now for his successful reconquest of Jerusalem even though he wasn’t himself an Arab, but a Kurd. Godfrey wants Balian to join him, but Balian is working as a blacksmith — because of the impending crusade he’s doing a land-office business making swords for the would-be warriors — and he’s also upset because his wife has just committed suicide following the death of their child. But when the local priest comes by and starts prattling about how Mrs. Balian consigned herself to hell by killing himself, Balian gets super-upset and shoves the obnoxious priest into his forging fire, thereby killing him and giving him a need to get out of town quickly. So he joins the Crusade, not only as an escape but also in hopes that if he fights for the Christians against the infidels in the Holy Land God will forgive him for his murder of the priest. Godfrey teaches Balian how to handle a broadsword (and I give Scott points for showing a sword technique that relies mostly on brute strength and force instead of the fencing exhibitions we got in 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s movies set in this era — though I suspect the real innovator here was Orson Welles in his film Chimes at Midnight, whose depiction of medieval war was probably closer to the sheer random brutality of the real thing than those in most movies) and how to fight in a battle, but then gets ambushed and killed. 

Bailan goes to the Holy Land and meets King Baldwin IV (Edward Norton, who at his own request was unbilled in the original theatrical prints but his credit was added for the DVD and Blu-Ray releases), who’s wearing an iron mask and a hooded cape to conceal the fact that he has leprosy. At one point Baldwin challenges Balian to a game of chess, and (referencing Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal) I joked, “A knight plays chess with a masked, hooded figure — where have we seen that before?” Balian also meets Queen Sybilla (Eva Green), who’s Baldwin’s sister rather than his wife, but who was formerly the lover of Balian’s father Godfrey and later becomes the lover of Balian himself. (Ironically we were watching this the same day I’d read a “Miss Manners” column in the Los Angeles Times featuring a letter by a woman who’d begun a sexual relationship with her late husband’s son by another woman and defended it by saying they were, after all, not biological kin and she hadn’t been involved in raising him — but her own kids from the same father had cut themselves off from contact with her and Miss Manners agreed with them, calling her new relationship “icky.”) The big problem with Kingdom of Heaven is it’s just slow-moving and dull; writer William Monahan’s script alternates between ponderous exposition scenes and grotesquely gory battles. Monahan takes a few feints at some Grand Statements about religion, many of them through the character of the Patriarch of Jerusalem (David Thewlis) and his willingness to proclaim as “God’s will” whatever the Crusaders want to do at any given moment — notably the scene in which the principal villains of the piece, Guy de Lusignan (Marton Czokas) and Reynald de Chatillon (Brendan Gleeson), order the Crusader army to attack a peaceful, unarmed caravan of Arab traders and massacre it. 

Guy wants to replace Baldwin IV as king of Jerusalem as soon as Baldwin croaks from leprosy, and to that end he breaks the modus vivendi between Christians, Muslims and Jews that Baldwin had established. This provokes Saladin to attack and a war in which, bereft of their allies the Knights Templar of Malta, also known as the Hospitallers (the origin of the words “hospitality,” “hospital” and “hospice”) and headed (in this film, anyway) by a character just called “Hospitaller” and played by David Thewlis, the Christian armies are slaughtered by Saladin’s forces. First Saladin takes out the Knights of Malta and then, having finished them off, lays siege to Jerusalem — and Balian finds himself commanding the defense of the city until the Muslims’ seemingly invincible weapons, burning projectiles fired from catapults as well as flaming arrows from bows, destroy much of the city and the Muslims’ siege towers finally breach its walls. Saladin offers all the Christians in Jerusalem safe passage to ships that can take them to Europe (in historical fact, at least according to an imdb.comc contributor, Saladin only gave safe passage to those who could afford the fees he charged; the ones who couldn’t were sold into slavery) and, in an ending that remarkably anticipates the end of Mockingjay, the final story in the Hunger Games cycle, by about a decade, Balian and Sybilla end up together in his old blacksmith’s shop in France literally watching their garden grow as the Crusades continue without them — in a cameo appearance Richard the Lion-Hearted (Iain Glen) shows up hoping to recruit Bailan to rejoin the Crusades, and Balian keeps repeating that he’s just a blacksmith but gives Richard the same directions Godfrey had given him (“You keep going past where the people speak Italian until you hear people speak something else”) at the start of the film. For the most part Kingdom of Heaven is surprisingly dull — so much so that I can’t imagine a version of this film that’s 50 minutes longer (though apparently much of the extra running time is taken up with a plot involving Sybilla’s son, who doesn’t exist in the version we saw) — and it’s the sort of maddening film whose ending is beautiful and moving enough one wishes it had a better, worthier preface leading up to it. 

As much as intellectual cinéastes love to hate Cecil B. DeMille, his 1935 film The Crusades remains the best movie ever made about them (just as his 1920 film The Affairs of Anatol was far better than Stanley Kubrick’s semi-remake, Eyes Wide Shut), stepping right up to and tackling the themes of ecumenism this film tiptoed around — when Loretta Young tells the assembled multitudes on both sides of the religious divide that they’re both worshiping the Supreme Being and “what does it matter if we call him Allah or God,” that hammers home the silliness of the whole conflict far better than anything Scott and Monahan could come up with in this lumbering behemoth of a film. It doesn’t help that Orlando Bloom, a fine actor in the right sort of role, really isn’t cut out to be an action hero (even though he worked out and bulked up 20 pounds to play Balian), but then the only actor in this film who really makes an impression is Liam Neeson and he’s killed way too early. I also suspect Kingdom of Heaven has some Zeitgeist issues; the project was kicked off just a couple of years after the 9/11 attacks, which were not only horrific in themselves but renewed a lot of people’s conviction that there was an existential war between Christianity and Islam and 9/11 was just the latest Muslim attack in it. The film was produced with the personal assistance of a Muslim monarch, King Mohamed VI of Morocco, who apparently is a personal friend of Ridley Scott and provided full cooperation of the Moroccan government in finding him locations and extras. But articles attacking the film started appearing on Muslim Web sites, saying it was going to be yet another Western movie making the Christians the good guys and the Muslims the bad guys, and Mohamed VI got worried enough about Ridley Scott’s safety he ordered a detachment of the palace’s own bodyguards to protect him. As it stands, Kingdom of Heaven is perched uneasily between an attempt to present the story ecumenically and be fair to both Christians and Muslims, and a post-9/11 call to the barricades for Christians to defend themselves in the worldwide battle with those cunning, dastardly, cowardly Muslim — with an ending that, like the one in the Hunger Games cycle that’s almost a direct copy of it, sends the message that activists of all sorts are unscrupulous bastards and the best thing you can do for yourselves and other people is to ignore all movements claiming to be changing the world and just live your lives and grow your gardens.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Fatal Getaway (MarVista Entertainment, Sunshine Films Florida, 2019)

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

I watched two Lifetime movies on last night, a “premiere” of something called Fatal Getaway (the working title was Scare B&B, an obvious pun on the name of the airbnb Web site, which would have worked better than the one they went with, since I had thought it would be the story of an innocent young couple who ended up being taken hostage by an escaping criminal) and a repeat of a film called Psycho Grandma. Psycho Grandma was as silly as you’d expect from the title but Fatal Getaway, despite the misleading title — the “getaway” is actually a weekend four female friends plan to spend together at a beach rental in Biscayne Park (presumably in Florida, though that’s not specified in the script by James S. “Jamie” Brown) — turned out to be a quite good and tough thriller. The four friends are dark-haired Eliza Moore (Christie Burson) — the only one we ever get a last name for, and that not until the end — who’s just coming out of an abusive relationship with a man named Steve (we hear his voice in a message he left on her voicemail but never see him, which is probably just as well); two interchangeable white blondes named Bridgette (Karlee Edwards) and Vicki (Laura Ault) — one of these is an heiress from a super-rich family and one is a married woman with two kids — and the token African-American, Monica (Shein Mompremier), who I assumed was being set up for the role of the heroine’s Black best friend who learns the villain’s plans but is killed by the villain before she can warn the heroine.

The four are uniting for one last weekend together before the demands of families and jobs send them on their separate ways, and they decide to do that at a handsomely equipped villa owned by James (Tilky Jones, the drop-dead gorgeous Lifetime actor whose characters seem to be getting worse with each film). The villa is at an out-of-the-way location, and though it’s on the beach it’s far enough away from any cell-phone towers that the girls don’t get any reception there. The house is wired up to James’s computer system and it’s outfitted so that you can tell the house to do just about anything you want — open, close, lock or unlock doors; start your shower water and adjust its temperature; start music playing; and open James’s private Wi-Fi connection so you can still get on the Internet and communicate with the outside world even though there’s no regular cell service — with voice commands to its controlling computer. The moment we hear that we just know, based on previous Lifetime movies (can you say Tiny House of Terror?), that at some point, either by accident or because the villain is making them do that, the house control mechanisms will malfunction and one or the other of the tenants will be subjected to doors that won’t open and showers that are so hot they threaten to scald her to death.

What’s more annoying, they won’t have privacy: James is going to be staying with them during the entire duration of their stay at his home. This particularly annoys Eliza because she really wanted an all-women gathering since she’s just coming out of an abusive relationship and was hoping for a weekend entirely without men around, but she goes along with it and ultimately she’s the one who’s subjected to the locked bedroom door that won’t open and the shower that runs hot enough to scald her and won’t turn itself down when she tries to instruct it to. The girls also find that they’re being watched by a neighbor of James’s named Hector (Fedor Steer), who’s not only keeping an eye on them outside James’s house but also has the inside of the place bugged (albeit rather crudely with video cameras that produce only blurry black-and-white images) and is keeping an eye on the four girls and taking notes on them. At this point we hardened Lifetime-movie watchers could see three possible directions in which Jamie Brown and director Damián Romay could be taking us: 1) James is really a black-hearted villain and Hector is an undercover police officer trying to take him down before he completes his latest scheme; 2) James is really a nice guy we only think is a villain because Lifetime’s usual iconography is to cast nice-looking guys as black-hearted villains, and Hector the creepy stalker is the real bad guy; or 3) James and Hector are both evil, and whatever the plot is they’re in it together. The truth turns out to be #1, albeit with modifications — Hector isn’t an official police officer working undercover but a free-lance spy; and the official police officer in Biscayne Park, at least the one we see, is Officer Martin (Antoni Corone), and James has bought his loyalty through regular deliveries of bagels to the local police station.

Eliza, who’s clearly the smartest — or at least the least dumb — of the four, discovers a pendant with a quartz stone under the dresser in her bedroom and later recognizes it as the same pendant shown on the picture of Jennifer Garner (Anja Akstin) on a poster advertising her mysterious disappearance and asking anyone with information about her to come forward. James tells Eliza that Jennifer was a former vacation renter from Hector until she got antsy about him and moved into James’s place for the last day of her weekend getaway, but Hector hunts down Eliza and the member of the foursome she’s jogging with. Hector tells them he’s never done a vacation rental of his home, but he’s got suspicious of James and what happened not only to Jennifer but to four other girls who mysteriously disappeared right after they stayed with James. Eliza gets more suspicious of James when the quartz pendant mysteriously disappears from her room and turns up in James’s office, and about two-thirds of the way through the movie we finally learn what’s going on. It turns out James is a recruiting agent for a gang of human traffickers who kidnap American women and sell them to wealthy customers all over the world for use as sex slaves — though it was my understanding that most real-life human traffickers selling sex slaves look for women (or men) in their teens rather than the twenty-somethings shown in this film. We learn this when a mysterious man named Rio (Patrick Michael Buckley) calls James to inquire about the status of the four “assets” he currently has at the house, and for a while it’s an open question as to whether James is going to kidnap our decidedly non-fantastic four heroines and sell them as per plan or just kill them and write them off as a loss.

Brown’s screenplay has the big climax occur with about a half-hour of running time left to go and he has to work overtime to keep the film going long enough for Lifetime’s two-hour time slot, but he manages a quite spectacular exit for James: he’s in the house’s big swimming pool when Eliza, carrying a knife from his kitchen, dives into the pool and stabs him fatally. (Sunset Boulevard meets Psycho.) Officer Martin finally realizes what was going on and announces he’ll relaunch his investigation into Jennifer and the other missing girls to see if they can be recovered and rescued from their enslavers. Fatal Getaway suffers from the predictability of the Lifetime formula of late, but it’s also a crackling-tough thriller and director Romay shows himself quite adept at both Gothic atmosphere and suspense. It’s also capably acted, especially by Tilky Jones, who’s become quite adept at this superficially charming young man in a glorious bod (with a quite impressive tattoo on his left arm — I’ve seen this in his previous movies and I wonder if it’s real, not the henna makeup job I’d assumed before) with a black heart underneath (though the first time I saw him on Lifetime, in Open Marriage, he wasn’t a villain but the rather befuddled husband who goes along with his best friend’s invitation for him and his wife to explore the sexual underground). The women are more problematical because, except for Christie Burson (who’s quite good), they don’t have really well-defined characters to play: they’re just four damsels in distress whom we get to see a lot of in shorts and shirts open about halfway down, in one of Lifetime’s periodic attempts to get straight guys to watch their channel. Still, Fatal Getaway has enough variations on the usual Lifetime formulae, and is sufficiently well plotted and staged (and offers this old queen plenty of delectable look-sees at Tilky Jones’ hot bod, as unclad as they could get away with on basic cable!) to rank a cut or two above their normal output.

Psycho Granny (MarVista Entertainment, Buz Wallick Productions, 2019)

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

Alas, the movie Lifetime showed right after Fatal Getaway, Psycho Granny, is a terrible film that fully lives up to the ridiculousness of its title! The film opens with a grim scene in which grandmother Colleen Barton (Robin Riker) holds court at a dinner table with a family of four she’s just poisoned. Though they’re either dead or unconscious and well on their way to being dead, she insists on addressing them and cataloguing everything she thinks is wrong with them that made her feel forced to kill them. At first we wonder whether writer David Ian McKendry (whose wife of 16 years, Rebekah McKendry, directed this film — and I’m sorry to say this movie is not going to give any boost to the cause of women directors; Christine Conradt or Vanessa Parise she is not) intends this as a climactic scene in the story and the rest of the film will be a flashback as to how we got here, but no-o-o-o-o; the next thing we see is Colleen pasting computer print-outs of articles about this and other mysterious murders or presumably “accidental” deaths into a scrapbook, so we can assume she’s looking for her next pigeon. Her next pigeon duly arrives in the form of Samantha Kirkpatrick (Brooke Newton), tall, blonde, leggy and even dumber and more naïve than your common run of Lifetime heroines, whom Colleen runs into accidentally/on purpose at the funeral home run by Mrs. Wicker (Caroline Williams).

Samantha is there because her mother has just died in an apparent accident (though as the film progresses we get the impression Colleen killed her to set up their meeting), and Colleen shows up in mourning for the same purpose. Though Samantha was her mom’s biological child, her mom was raised by an adoptive family and Colleen is claiming to be the biological mother of Samantha’s mom. Samantha is totally convinced that Colleen is indeed her long-lost grandmother despite the doubts of her husband Brad (Matthew Lawrence, who’s reasonably easy on the eyes and much hotter than the tall, lanky, sandy-haired bores Lifetime usually casts as the husband, but not so attractive we don’t start suspecting him of wrongdoing given the usual Lifetime iconography that Sexy Guy = Black-Hearted Villain). Unfortunately, the McKendrys have left so many loose ends in their story it feels like a Calder mobile, most notably the sheer ease with which Colleen kills just about everyone who comes between her and Samantha with a cheery lack of concern as to what she’s going to do with their bodies. She kills Brad’s business partner Todd (Jacob Young) on the doorstep of the Kirkpatricks’ home without either Samantha or Brad even suspecting that a murder has been committed on their front porch. She later takes out Samantha’s best friend Aimee (Mary O’Neil) by first clubbing her with a tea kettle and then strangling her with a pull cord used to open her garage door (this macabre murder, with plenty of extreme close-ups of the greenish-yellow tennis ball used on the cord as a handle to open the garage door as Aimee expires, is actually Rebekah’s best piece of direction in the film), though once again we don’t get even a hint of how she disposed of the body. Fortunately, before Colleen killed her Aimee asked her friend Jill (Makeda Deklet), who luckily gets to play the African-American who discovers the villain’s plot but does not get killed by her before she can alert Our Heroine (obviously the McKendrys split this usual Lifetime character into two, the white woman who’s offed by the villainess before she can warn the heroine and the Black woman who got the information against her).

Jill works in some capacity for law enforcement and/or adoptive services that gives her access to national databases, and she finds out that “Colleen Barton” has had a number of aliases and a long record of run-ins with the police, including one from back in 1983 in which she was on vacation with her then-husband Michael, who mysteriously disappeared on a vacation to the Grand Canyon just before Colleen was about to give birth to their baby. (One has visions of Colleen and Michael re-enacting the famous scene from Auntie Mame in which Mame’s husband falls to his death in a canyon just as he’s trying to take a picture of her.) Samantha finally realizes what she’s up against when she steals the photo of the young Colleen at the Grand Canyon that’s among the many hung on the walls of her home, takes it out of its frame and sees that it’s been folded back to conceal Michael, who was originally in the image (but then, in the pre-selfie age of 1983, who took it?). She also realizes Colleen is crazy when she visits Colleen at home and finds she’s already outfitted a room in her house as a nursery for Colleen’s baby-to-be — which Colleen hopes will be a girl so she and Samantha can raise her without any men around. (Never Give a Sucker an Even Break meets Forbidden Planet meets a Lesbian separatist’s wet dream.) Samantha finally realizes that Colleen isn’t her grandmother, but she gets the information from Jill (ya remember Jill?) and uses it to trace the real baby Colleen gave birth to after killing the father and put up for adoption, a divorce attorney named Melanie (Austin Highsmith) who blows her off on the ground that she doesn’t give a damn about her birth mother; as far as she’s concerned her real mother is the one who adopted her and raised her, and the fact that she didn’t come out of her womb is immaterial. (I’ve interviewed adoptees and read accounts of them that take wildly different points of view over whether they ever want to seek out their birth parents and what might happen to them psychologically if they found them.)

Eventually Colleen kidnaps Brad and puts him under long-term sedation, basically inducing a coma (it’s previously been established that she worked as a nurse and thereby knows her way around both injection needles and drugs), then when she lures Samantha to her home and overpowers her explains that she’s going to deliver Samantha’s baby herself and then presumably eliminate Samantha’s now-inconvenient husband. It looks like Colleen is going to succeed in her dastardly plan when the McKendrys decide to bring Melanie back into the action as a dea ex machina, arriving at Colleen’s home in time to get her arrested and rescue Samantha and Brad. Psycho Granny might have had some potential despite the risible title (which could easily have been changed), but Rebekah McKendry’s direction is slovenly and doesn’t even attempt the noir atmosphere the story virtually demands, while her hubby’s script leaves so many plot holes it might have been called Loose Ends ’r Us. About the only people I can think of who’d actually enjoy this one are hard-core Right-wing Republican Trump supporters, and they only because in the role of the crazy “grandma” Colleen (who carries on conversations with herself à la Anthony Perkins in Psycho, a film which just about anyone who makes a movie with the word “Psycho” in the title can’t help but rip off from!) Robin Riker bears a striking resemblance to Nancy Pelosi. Indeed, one could readily imagine Riker playing Pelosi in a biopic, and given that one of the current Republican propaganda talking points is that Nancy Pelosi is mentally ill (and Right-wing propagandists have produced two, count ’em, two doctored video clips supposedly proving this, at least one of which was retweeted by Rudy Giuliani and Trump himself!), I’m sure a lot of people on the American Right just now would love to see a film in which an actress who resembles Pelosi is playing a homicidally crazy woman! (Clips from Psycho Granny may even end up in their next anti-Pelosi fake video.)

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Breakthrough, episode 6: “The Smartphone” (Bigger Bang Productions, PBS-TV, 2019)

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

The TV show I’ve been wanting to comment on since it aired last Wednesday was the final episode in the Breakthrough series on PBS: “The Smartphone,” which was actually an exploration of long-distance communication in general. It began with various visual systems for communication used by the ancient Romans, who in order to win their imperialist battles had to be able to give and receive orders over long distances, and in particular a mathematician named Polybius who managed to enclose the entire Roman alphabet (the one we use today and in which I’m writing this) in a box of 25 squares, five across and five down. (He got the 26-letter alphabet into 25 squares by using the same box for “I” and “J.”) With this system — really an ancestor of semaphores — he was able to communicate a message by having the sender hold up his hands with fingers raised, and by counting the number of figures on each hand the receiver could look up what letter that represented in Polybius’ square. Obviously the drawback was the length of time it takes to spell out a message one letter at a time! From there the show jumped all the way to the 1830’s and the familiar tale of Samuel F. B. Morse, who was in Washington, D.C. making the family a lot of money painting a particularly prestigious portrait while his wife was back home in New York having their third child. Alas, Mrs. Lucretia Morse died in childbirth and Samuel was broken-hearted not only by the loss of his wife but the fact that it took him a full week to receive the news. From this Morse determined to figure out a way to send messages virtually instantaneously via electricity, and within 20 years or so the telegraph was a national fixture and the whole nation was “wired” to send and receive telegraph messages (though they still had to be sent letter-by-letter in the code Morse invented for that purpose). 

The story then shifts to the invention of the telephone, for which this show takes a print-the-legend approach, telling the familiar story of Alexander Graham Bell and the patent battle between him and Elisha Gray (who was actually working for Western Union, whose bosses realized that the telephone had the possibility of putting the telegraph out of business) that was resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote in 1888. The program acknowledged Gray but didn’t mention the other claimants for the title “inventor of the telephone,” including Antonio Meucci (an Italian immigrant who had worked as a lab assistant for both Bell and Gray) and Nikola Tesla (whose patent drawings on his incarnation of the telephone, allegedly submitted to the U.S. Patent Office a month before Bell’s or Gray’s, were reprinted on the cover of a CD by the heavy-metal rock band Tesla). After depicting Marconi and his invention of radio telegraphy, the story of the smartphone then takes some interesting twists and turns, including an amateur inventor named Homer Dudley who conceived of the idea of dividing a human conversation into binary bits and reassembling them — he got the idea from the way a player piano records music as a series of on-or-off patterns representing each note of a piano — and the “Voder” or “Vocoder” he built by which one could play a set of keys resembling a musical keyboard and come up with a synthesized version of human speech. The Voder was a big hit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and led in turn to an unbreakable (at least at the time) code system called SIGSALLY, by which the Allies in World War II could secure their own telephone conversations — and one of the developers of SIGSALLY was Alan Turing, who in addition to helping break the German Enigma code and inventing the computer in order to do it also helped the war effort by working on SIGSALLY for the U.S./British side (for which he was rewarded by being criminally convicted, chemically castrated and driven to suicide for being Gay). 

The show then takes a detour to Hollywood and the researches of Hedy Lamarr, who in addition to being a beautiful and glamorous movie star for MGM was also an early anti-fascist before anti-fascism was cool (she’d been married to German arms company CEO Fritz Mandl during the mid-1930’s and had overheard him and his friends, including officials in the Nazi government, discuss their plans for rearming Germany and launching a second world war they hoped would end with the Nazis ruling the world) and an accomplished inventor and technological researcher. In 1942 she set out to solve the problem of how to keep the German navy from intercepting the radio messages between Allied ships in convoys, identifying their locations and sending U-boats to sink them, and also how to keep the U-boats from jamming the radio signals guiding the Allied torpedoes to their underwater targets. She came up with a principle called “frequency hopping,” in which the radio signals wouldn’t go out on just one frequency; they would “hop” around different parts of the radio spectrum, so if the enemy tuned to one frequency they would hear an occasional blip of audible message but mostly static. The problem with this is the one that has dogged all secret communications since Polybius: you have to ensure that the intended recipient of your message has the exact same frequency sequence you do, and also that the enemy can’t hack the system and discover the frequency sequence that would enable them to decode the message. The U.S. military didn’t take Lamarr’s invention seriously — both sexism and snobbery seemed to have been at work here (“What the hell does a Hollywood movie star — and a woman, at that? — know about radio signals?”), but 20 years later it was used by the U.S. for secret communications during the Cuban missile crisis. 

The next inventor profiled was Frank Kilby, a researcher at Texas Instruments (best known for developing the transistor radio and pocket calculator) who didn’t have enough seniority to take a holiday vacation the way the rest of their staff did, so he hung around the company’s headquarters and invented the integrated circuit (IC), which enabled complex electronics to be mass-produced without the intricate wiring needed to construct old-style circuit boards and to be made considerably smaller. The show claims that the first modern-style cell phone was developed and marketed by Motorola in 1973 (I’m old enough to remember when Motorola’s main reputation was as a maker of old-style black-and-white cathode-ray tube TV sets! In fact, my family had a Motorola TV and they were already using the same spread-out stylized “M” logo they use today), though I happen to know that’s not true. As early as 1949 cell phones were in use by police departments so people in police cars could communicate over longer ranges than their standard portable radios could manage and maintain long-distance pursuits. I know this because the 1949 film White Heat, directed by Raoul Walsh for Warner Bros. and starring James Cagney as outlaw Cody Jarrett, contains a sequence in which the police use gigantic cell phones the size of shoeboxes to try to track down Jarrett — who escapes them by finding a dead spot where their system has no coverage. (When I wrote about White Heat in my journal I acidly commented that some aspects of cell-phone technology have not improved — modern cell-phone users are still bedeviled by dead spots.) My notes on the show contain a reference to Philippe Kuhn who in 1997 did something important regarding digitizing communications that was the final step towards the modern cell phone, but I can’t decipher my own hastily scribbled note and I can’t find him on the Internet — my Web searches took me to too many other people named Philippe or Philip Kuhn. 

The program ends with a prediction that future smartphones will connect directly to our brains — it showed a woman connected to a smartphone that allows her to focus mental energy and thereby move a ball around a table — which is a prospect I find utterly horrifying: if they set up smartphones that can connect directly to our brains, future authorities will be able to monitor the thought patterns of every human being who has one of these devices. Already, many years ago, Jeff Ellison, the founding CEO of Oracle, said of the Internet, “Privacy is over. Get used to it.” With devices that can see into the electronic impulses that travel around our brain and can therefore literally read our thoughts, future authoritarian regimes will have a direct power over us of which the “Inner Party” that was the ruling class of George Orwell’s 1984 could only dream — and, even more frighteningly, they could control our thoughts and go beyond monitoring us 24/7 and literally feed us our thoughts, meaning that democracy, individuality and free will would join privacy on the junk heap of digital technology. A lot of these scientific shows end with glowing predictions of a brave new world that I find utterly horrifying — especially since Brave New World is also the title of Aldous Huxley’s famous novel in which the ruling class literally controlled people’s lives and ensured they would stay content with their lot by genetically engineering them and massively conditioning them to accept the social status the genetic engineers had decreed for them. This sort of super-smartphone technology would make both Orwell’s and Huxley’s dystopias far easier to achieve — and I’m not sure which apocalypse I fear more: a future in which a handful of ruling-class technocrats literally run our brains by remote control and stamp out all dissent before it can even have a chance to form as thoughts, or a future in which the current ruling class’s obstinate refusal to accept the reality of human-caused climate change leads to a collapse in the environment and the extinction of all or most of the human race.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Breaking Away (20th Century-Fox, 1979)

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

Last night’s library movie was the third and last in their series of films about bicycling — it seems that somebody out there proclaimed May “National Bike Month,” something I wouldn’t have known except that Tracy, the woman currently in charge of programming movies for the library, decided to make May’s showings an expression of “National Bike Month” by showing films about bicycling. The film last night was Breaking Away, a 1979 production by 20th Century-Fox (back when it still usually took only one production company to make a movie!) which I vaguely remember seeing in the early 1980’s on a black-and-white TV but had no recollection other than that it had an awful lot of scenes featuring reasonably cute young men riding bicycles through the Indiana countryside. Though it was nominated for five Academy Awards, won for Best Original Screenplay and helped launch the career of Dennis Quaid (who’s actually the second male lead to Dennis Christopher, a young blond hunk of almost ethereal beauty who should have had more of a career than he did — much the way Annabeth Gish starred in Mystic Pizza and then saw that film’s second lead, Julia Roberts, overshadow her and have a superstar career), Breaking Away has fallen so far below the cultural radar that Tracy was unable to get hold of a U.S. DVD — instead she bought the British version and had to play it from her laptop computer since the San Diego Central Library doesn’t have a multi-region DVD player. (She kept the closed-caption subtitles open during the film and that came through in a number of British-style spellings, including a reference to someone paying for something with a “cheque,” the “chequered flag” that signals the end of the big bike race that climaxes the film, and one odd scene in which the central character calls his female parent “Mom” but the subtitle said “Mum.”) 

The film started life as two separate screenplays by Steve Tesich, who had grown up in Bloomington, Indiana and in 1962 had participated in the 500-mile bicycle relay race in Bloomington, called the “Little 500” to distinguish it from the famous auto race in Indianapolis as member of a team of town residents who competed against the spoiled college brats from Indiana University (located in Bloomington) and were led to victory by David K. Blase, who rode two-thirds of the distance, became an Indiana sports legend, and served as the model for the film’s central character, Dave Stohler (Dennis Christopher), as well as appearing in the movie himself as the announcer of the big race at the end. One of Tesich’s two scripts, The Cutters, was about the limestone quarry that was Bloomington’s big industry until it got hit by deindustrialization — the film includes a lament spoken by Dave’s father (Paul Dooley), “I was proud of my work. And the buildings went up. When they were finished the damnedest thing happened. It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that. It just felt uncomfortable, that’s all” — and the other, The Eagles of Naptown, was about the Little 500 bike race. Director Peter Yates read Tesich’s scripts and decided that neither one was strong enough to make a movie on its own, but asked Tesich if he could combine them. 

The result was a tale of four 19-year-old Bloomington town boys — Dave, Mike (Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern) and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley, who to my mind almost stole the film from the taller, hunkier Dennises) — who hang out together, go swimming in the pool left over from the quarry factory (which is still in operation but at such a lower level of business Papa Stohler quit it and opened a used-car lot) and talk about how they’re going to stay friends forever even though they’re also typical horny straight guys and therefore interested in girls. (Indeed, one of them actually gets married during the course of the movie and I couldn’t help but think of Sammy Fain’s old song, “Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine.”) Dave’s great passions in life are bicycle riding in general and the Italian bike-racing team sponsored by the Cinzano vermouth company in particular, and he’s gone so far in his obsession with all things Italian that he listens to Italian opera (though the aria we hear most often is actually German — “Ach, so fromm” from Friedrich von Flotow’s Martha, though sung in Italian as “M’appari tutt’ amor”), addresses his father as “Papa,” insists that mom (Barbara Barrie, who actually looks enough like Dennis Christopher they’re believable as mother and son) serve Italian dishes like sautéed zucchini, and says “Ciao!” when he leaves the house to go hang out with his buddies. He’s also courting one of the college girls, Katherine (Robyn Douglass, who got an “Introducing” credit), calling her “Katarina” and inventing a background for himself as one of a large Italian family and even serenading her outside her dorm window with “M’appari” (which to my mind couldn’t help but recall Van Johnson’s similar serenade in Thrill of a Romance from 1945, though Johnson had a real opera singer, Lauritz Melchior, on hand to voice-double for him), which predictably amuses her friends no end. (The whole business of the town kid pretending to be something he isn’t to get a girl to fall in love with him was done much better by Sherwood Anderson in his short story “I’m a Fool,” vividly brought to life by James Dean in a 1955 TV adaptation.) 

On learning that the Italian team is coming to Bloomington for a race against all local comers, Dave enters it — then is disillusioned when the Italian team cheats, first using some sort of tool to knock his bike’s gears out and then, when that doesn’t stop him, clubbing him mid-race with a metal rod. Knocked out of the race and humiliated by his friends having to pick him up from the road where he spilled, Dave takes down all the Italian bike-racing posters from the wall (though he leaves the Cinzano logo on the headboard of his bed) and tells Katherine he isn’t really Italian — which she responds to by slapping him. Meanwhile, the college kids pick on Dave’s friend Cyril and beat him up, and the townies get their revenge by picking a fight at a local bowling alley that ends with a bowling ball getting stuck on someone’s fingers, then flying off again and taking out the glass case holding the alley’s trophies. (This has really nothing to do with the main plot but it’s one of the most entertaining scenes in the film!) Eventually the climax occurs at the Little 500 bike race, in which Dave and his friends enter a four-person team and defiantly call themselves the “Cutters” (as in “stonecutters”), the college kids’ derisive nickname for the locals. (The real-life nickname was “stoners,” but Yates told Tesich they couldn’t use that in the film because then people would think it was a movie about drugs.) The Cutters enter the Little 500 and Dave, with only minimal help from his teammates, stages two dramatic come-from-behind finishes (he takes the lead, loses it when he gets injured and has to yield his bike to a teammate, then takes the lead again) and wins the race in a photo-finish. (Since then, according to, the rules of the Little 500 have changed so you have to be college students to enter, though locals who are attending the University of Indiana in Bloomington qualify.) 

Breaking Away is a really charming movie whose only fault is its utter predictability; Steve Tesich abided so tightly by the rules they teach you in screenwriting classes — the three-act structure, including a second act in which the central character loses almost everything and is devastated, followed by a third act in which he (or, more rarely, she) dramatically comes from behind and triumphs, that this film could be used as course material in those classes. When the race announcer (played in a breathless voice by the real David K. Blase, whose actual win in the Little 500 in 1962 inspired the film) says, “Can Dave Stohler come from behind again and win the race?,” I answered, “Of course he can! It’s a movie!Breaking Away is an inspiring movie but also a sad one to watch because it’s precisely the kind of “little movie” — it cost $3 million and made $17 million — that almost never gets made today, especially under major-studio auspices. None of the characters originated in comic books, they don’t have super-powers and they deal with recognizable human emotions and conflicts like the rest of us. Steve Tesich got the film’s one Academy Award and went on to adapt John Irving’s The World According to Garp for the screen — he died young (at 53) in the 1990’s but had had a brief vogue writing scripts like this in a time when the big studios were still greenlighting them. It was also nice to see the film’s actors and principal crew members credited at the beginning and the credit roll at the end still a relatively modest and manageable size (interestingly, 1950’s director W. Lee Wilder — two of his films, Phantom from Space and Killers from Space, we saw last Saturday — back-loaded all his credits to the end, unusual then but standard now). Breaking Away holds up quite well, even though its structure and plot devices are so much a part of standard Hollywood one could well imagine this film having been made in the 1930’s, and of course the sight of so many hot young men, often with their shirts off, gives it added appeal to this old queen!

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Red Line, episodes 7 and 8 (Berlanti Television, Array Television, CBS Television Studios, 2019)

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

The TV show I was most looking forward to was the closing episode of — no, not Game of Thrones (which is on a premium channel I don’t get anyway) but The Red Line, the fascinating eight-part series (shown two hours a night on the last four Sunday nights) dealing with issues of racism, homophobia, police violence and political culture. To recap, the show is set in Chicago and the action kicks off with the shooting of unarmed African-American Dr. Harrison Brennan (Corey Reynolds, who’s killed early on in episode one but reappears in a flashback sequence at the start of episode seven) by police officer Paul Evans (Noel Fisher). The shooting occurred in a convenience store where Dr. Brennan had stopped to buy milk for himself and his family — his (white) husband, teacher Daniel Calder (Noah Wyle, top-billed), and their adopted daughter Jira (Aliyah Royale). Alas, he went in just as another Black man was robbing the store and threatening the life of the cashier, and after the robber pistol-whipped the cashier and fled, Dr. Brennan moved towards the cashier to offer first aid and the cashier, apparently thinking it was the same man, started screaming at him. Just then the police arrived and Evans fired his gun into Dr. Brennan’s back without either calling out to him to halt or put his hands up, and with the hood of Dr. Brennan’s jacket down so he could see that Dr. Brennan was Black.

The complications include the campaign Jira’s biological mother, Tia Young (Emayatzi Corinealdi — isn’t that a dice poker game?), is running for the Board of Aldermen (Chicago’s city council) from Ward 6 against Establishment Black politician Nathan Gordon (Glynn Turman), who at the beginning of the show offered her a job on his staff and to make her his heir apparent if she’d drop the campaign against him. Tia is worried it will blow her campaign if it’s revealed that she got pregnant at age 15 and gave the baby up for adoption — and adoption by an interracial Gay couple, at that — and at the end of episode six Alderman Gordon, looking for a way to fight back against Tia’s charge that he pulled strings to send an innocent man to prison to protect his son from charges of manslaughter and auto theft (the two were joy-riding when the car they had stolen crashed and someone died), uncovers Jira and “outs” her as Tia’s biological daughter. The last two episodes — especially the finale, written by series creators Caitlin Parrish and Erica Weiss — maintained the quiet integrity and honesty o the previous ones. Daniel Calder and daughter Jira are pursuing a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city and are also trying to get Officer Evans indicted for murder. The local state’s attorney (what Illinois calls its district attorneys) convenes a grand jury and there’s some suspense as to whether the surveillance tape, which was stolen from the security camera outside the convenience store by Evans’ partner Vic Renna (Elizabeth Laidlaw), then stolen from her by Evans himself, then stolen by his new partner Diego Carranza (Sebastian Sozzi) and sent by him anonymously to Calder after he viewed it and decided the shooting wasn’t justified, will be admitted into evidence.

Vic Renna gets immunity for testifying before the grand jury — and gets fired from the Chicago Police Department for her pains — while Evans escapes indictment (the grand jury rules that he acted within acceptable police procedures and policies — which, as I’ve observed in real-life situations in which police have killed unarmed civilians, especially African-American ones, is precisely the problem; I’ve also long suspected that a lot of police racism is subconscious — officers are conditioned by police culture to believe Black people are more threatening than whites and more likely to resort to violence, and so in those split seconds in which they’re supposed to make that decision whether to use deadly force, they’re habitually more likely to use force against Blacks than against whites — and I was impressed that Parrish and Weiss wrote that into their script) but is so traumatized by the incident that in his first day back on the job he beats up a white guy over a dispute about a parking space. (Paul Evans, equal-opportunity harasser and thug.) In some ways Evans is the most interesting character in the piece: conflicted, genuinely sorry for what he did, and also a member of a hard-core police family (the Evanses are depicted as the “first family” of the Chicago PD the way the Reagans are of the New York Police Department in CBS’s compelling policier Blue Bloods) whose father and older brother were both cops (though dad retired and the brother ended up in a wheelchair due to a wound sustained while on duty) that have largely whelped a moral monster.

When the department makes Officer Rinna — who in the meantime has drifted into a brief sexual affair with Evans’ disabled brother (he’s in a wheelchair but, like a number of males I’ve done home care for, it hasn’t affected his ability to have sex) — the scapegoat, Rinna defends her decision to accept immunity and testify against Paul Evans by telling him and his brother that she has two sons and she didn’t want to risk going to prison and having their dad raise her kids because “then they’d turn out just like you.” The finale occurs at the election night party at Tia Young’s headquarters, where [spoiler alert!] Tia squeaks out a narrow victory in her election campaign, thanks to a donation of $100,000 she got from Daniel Calder’s settlement money from the city (plot hole: it would never have been paid out that fast), and Nathan Gordon’s parting shot is that, by using the $100,000 to bribe a young Black woman on his staff into passing her derogatory information about him, Tia has shown herself just as corrupt as he is. (I was expecting a plot line in which the whole thing was a set-up — Nathan Gordon had his staff member offer dirt on him for a price, with the intent that the supposedly high-minded Tia Young was willing to bribe one of his staff members — but Parrish and Weiss perhaps wisely didn’t go there.)

At the big party Jira appears and invites Liam Bhatt (Vinny Chhibber), an (East) Indian Gay Muslim who’s a fellow teacher of Calder’s at Jane Byrne High School and who’s had a crush on him for years but was honorable enough not to act on it while Calder’s husband was still alive — and the two of them lock lips in a deserted corner of the room, adding yet another fascinating issue to the already potent mix on this show: how soon should one grieve for a late partner before dating again? (This proved to be unexpectedly powerful for me personally; it brought back memories of my four years with John Gabrish and the sadness with which I greeted his loss before I finally got over it. What particularly broke my heart was that John G. always talked about wanting us to stay together long enough that we’d build up a “history,” a long line of shared experiences — and I’ve done that, alas not with John but with my husband Charles, whom I got together with five years after John G. died even though we’d known each other briefly over a decade earlier.) Though there were a number of directions the writers could have gone to resolve their multiple intersecting plot lines, the ones they chose were dramatically honest and moving, ably capping the show.

They also introduced other issues, including the dramatic reappearance of Jira’s birth father into her life — he’s an electrical worker who turned his life around after he moved from Chicago to Indiana after he walked out on Tia and her unborn child and became a born-again Christian. He shows up at one of Tia’s campaign rallies and later meets with Jira and tells her he wants to be part of her life — and Jira seems willing until he makes a passing remark to the effect that he considers homosexuality to be morally wrong and that Dr. Brennan is in hell for it. Jira naturally throws out this creep who has denounced her real parents — the ones who were there for her and raised her — as sinners destined for eternal damnation. “God made the rules, I didn’t,” he says, thereby choosing his faith over his family and blowing whatever chance he had to get back into Jira’s life. (Had it been me, I probably would have told him off: “You were just my mom’s sperm donor! Harrison Brennan was my real father!”) There’s also an interesting plot line at the end in which Calder uses part of the city’s settlement money to buy his way onto the board of Chicago Equality, the city’s major (and most Establishment) Queer political organization, and announces that he’s going to use his influence to make the organization more assertive and confrontational.

The Red Line has some flaws — notably some of the whiplash-inducing cutbacks from one story to another (at times we had to wait until we could identify which set of actors were involved to tell which plot line we were watching at any given moment) — but overall it’s a strong work of extended story-telling, exploiting the advantage of TV over film in that you can tell a full story without having to shoehorn it into the two- to three-hour running time needed to accommodate the schedules of movie theatres. (Erich von Stroheim, you should be alive now and making mini-series!) It also makes a lot of strong political points but mostly does that in a refreshingly non-didactic way, and the fact that  you feel as strongly about the internal moral conflict of Officer Paul Evans (who’s carefully drawn neither as the bad guy Black Lives Matter and other progressive activists would be painting him as in a similar real-life situation or the good guy the police and their community supporters would portray) as you do about Daniel Calder’s grief, Tia Young’s assertive challenge to the Chicago political establishment and the other plot threads of this series is a testament to the skill of its creators (including Ava DuVernay, the remarkable director of Selma — she’s listed as an executive producer and just what, if anything, she contributed creatively is not clear, but the show has the same kind of quiet, unsentimental dignity and subtlety in depicting political struggles as her great film) in creating a rich, multi-layered dramatic texture that comments on current events without degenerating into propaganda for either side in America’s ongoing political and cultural wars.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Phantom from Space (Planet Filmplays, United Artists, 1953)

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

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi screening in Golden Hill ( consisted of two movies produced and directed by W. Lee Wilder, either the brother or the cousin of the far more famous (and better!) director Billy Wilder — Wikipedia says brother but I remember Don Miller’s 1970’s book “B” Movies saying cousin — who began his filmmaking career producing one of the greatest and most underrated films noir of the original cycle, The Great Flamarion (1945) — though its quality is mainly due to the actual director, Anthony Mann (one of his earliest credits), and the cast Wilder Bruder assembled: Erich von Stroheim (so both Wilders worked with him!), Dan Duryea and Mary Beth Hughes (in a marvelous femme fatale performance rivaling the ones Barbara Stanwyck gave in Double Indemnity — with the “other” Wilder directing! — and Ann Savage gave in Detour for yet another German expat, Edgar G. Ulmer). In 1946 W. Lee Wilder made his directorial debut in something called The Glass Alibi and in the early 1950’s he formed a studio called Planet Filmplays that specialized in science fiction and mostly released through United Artists, but sometimes through the dying embers of RKO under Howard Hughes’ control and the three years of corporate post-traumatic stress disorder RKO experienced between Hughes’ sale of it in 1955 and its closure three years later. (Among the non-science-fiction films Wilder made through Planet Filmways is the quite interesting 1955 film The Big Bluff, featuring Martha Vickers from The Big Sleep in a role-reversal tale of a young invalid woman being exploited and abused by the no-good rotter of a man she’s married.) 

The films last night were Phantom from Space and Killers from Space, both copyrighted 1953 (though Killers is dated 1954 on and both, as the titles suggest, about aliens from outer space who visit Earth. In Phantom there’s only one alien and there’s no suggestion in the script by William Raynor or Myles Wilder (W. Lee Wilder’s son) of how he (or she — more on that later) got here or what the purpose of his/her visit was. What’s more, until the final scene we barely get to see the alien at all: yes, folks, this is one of those movies that had such a small production budget virtually all of it takes place in little rooms with the characters talking to each other endlessly and telling us what’s supposed to be going on. It starts in a police station where the cops on duty receive reports of an auto accident in which a man has been fatally injured and the woman with him — his much-younger wife, Betty Evans (Lela Nelson) — recovers and says the accident was caused by their encounter with a strange someone-or-other in a metal suit who appeared to have no head; the suit had one but if you looked through its visor all you saw was a blank. The cops immediately suspect the third person in the car, a boarder who went to high school with Betty and who they presume murdered her husband so he could be with her — but they let him go after other reports start coming in of people dying mysteriously after seeing the apparition. This could have been a good movie — certainly the idea of one outer-space being landing in a small town and being totally uninterested in the surrounding people, either for good or ill, was done better that same year by the makers of It Came from Outer Space, a quite good movie based on a Ray Bradbury story in which the alien has crash-landed on Earth and all he’s interested in is getting the parts and the time he needs to repair his spacecraft so he can fly away again — but it’s done in by a soporifically dull pace. Until the very end of the movie we don’t see the alien in action (obviously the spacesuit cost too much money for the filmmakers to rent it for more than a day or so); we just hear people talking about it and see a police artist’s sketch of it based on Betty’s description. 

The cast is a lot of nondescript veteran character actors standing around looking serious and sullen as they stand around in little rooms, one of which I recognized as the headquarters of the arctic expedition visited by a far nastier and more malevolent alien in The Thing (1951) — and the big twist is that under the spacesuit, the alien is invisible. (One wonders why, if the planet s/he comes from has the technology to render people invisible, it can’t also make their spacesuits invisible instead of having the guy clomping around in a big metal piece of hardware that everyone on Earth can see.) The alien itself, once its spaceship finally dissolves and it becomes visible again as it dies (a gimmick Raynor and Wilder Sohn obviously poached from the marvelously moving final scene of James Whale’s 1933 classic The Invisible Man), and there’s a certain degree of pathos in the ending (and when we finally see the alien, played by Dick Sands in a makeup simpler than but similar to the one James Arness wore as the malevolent vampire vegetable from outer space in the 1951 The Thing, s/he has a frustratingly androgynous appearance with no visible breasts but no basket, either — much the way the Gill-Man in Creature from the Black Lagoon and its two sequelae had no discernible dick, which led Charles to joke that it wasn’t a Gill-Man but a Lesbian Gill-Woman), but that’s hardly enough to rescue a surprisingly dull film. I nodded off during much of it, and I wasn’t the only one; the screening proprietor and several of the other guests also had trouble staying awake through it, and the proprietor attributed this to Wilder’s heavy, ponderous, slow-moving “German” direction (though I can think of plenty of German directors, including the other Billy Wilder, whose films are paced effectively and don’t serve as non-toxic alternatives to Sominex like this one does!).

Killers from Space (Planet Filmplays, RKO, 1953, released 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011, 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Killers from Space, a 1954 science-fiction film from producer-director W. Lee Wilder (Billy Wilder’s brother), and while he wasn’t anywhere nearly as formidable a talent he did make some surprisingly good low-budgeters, including this one and The Big Bluff), written by William Raynor from a story by W. Lee Wilder’s son Myles (that’s keeping it in the family!) and one of the first, if not the first, science-fiction film to use the premise of a protagonist whose mind and consciousness are taken over by aliens for use in a plot to conquer the earth — before The Quatermass Experiment, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Conquered the World, et al. The film starts with a lot of stock footage of the nuclear weapons tests then going on in Nevada — including shots of the regiments of soldiers about to be marched into Ground Zero (many of whose bodies would become ticking time bombs killing them with cancer 20 to 30 years later) — and a plane flying overhead as part of the Air Force’s preparations to observe the test. Only after the weapon is detonated, the two people aboard the plane, a pilot and scientist Dr. Doug Martin (Peter Graves, top-billed and the only person in this cast who had much of a subsequent career), see a huge white ball of energy on the ground and their plane is irresistibly drawn to it. 

Unable to work the controls to get away, they crash and the pilot is killed instantly, but Dr. Martin returns to the base in what seems to be perfect health except for a crosswise scar under his heart that looks like Piet Mondrian started sketches for a new painting on his chest. The first half-hour of this 70-minute film is a quite effective suspense thriller, as Dr. Martin breaks into the office of his colleague Dr. Kreuger (Frank Gerstle) and steals top-secret information, though even before he actually does anything the base command and FBI agent Briggs (Steve Pendleton) are suspicious of him precisely because he returned from a plane crash that killed the other person in the plane while leaving him unscathed except for those two surgical scars. At certain points along his flight his actions are controlled by two giant white circles with black dots in the middle — they’re apparently supposed to represent eyes but at times it looks like he’s being mind-controlled by giant Life-Savers candies — and when he’s caught in the middle of one of the familiar Bronson Canyon Western locations sticking a piece of paper under a rock (I joked that his spy contact worked, as a cover, as a stunt man for Republic), he’s brought back to the base hospital and given an injection of sodium amytal, which it’s explained will make it impossible for him to lie by eliminating his imagination (which would have rendered him qualified to write quite a few “B” movies, though not this one). 

Then Graves, under the drug’s influence, tells the doctors, FBI guy and base commanders what happened to him — he was kidnapped by aliens who wear black hoodies with sashes around their waists that make them look like traffic control cones, and though their faces are emblazoned with two huge, bulging eyes that look like someone painted black dots on golf balls, the rest of the makeup on their faces makes it look as if Our Hero has stumbled into a convention of Boris Karloff impersonators. The aliens have built a huge power generator with which they are enlarging normal earth life forms — insects, tarantulas, lizards (shown, natch, by microphotography of real insects, tarantulas, lizards, etc.) — with which they intend to depopulate the Earth so they can move the one billion people on their own planet here and take it over. Realizing that they’re getting their power from the nuclear tests and are storing it in devices underground, Dr. Martin tries to get the government to schedule another test immediately, which he believes will overload their circuits, collapse their power source and render them helpless. Unable to do that, he figures out another way to disarm them — cut off the power grid servicing the area for eight seconds, thereby taking out their source of control power (though why technologically advanced aliens would be dependent on earth energy sources to power their infernal gizmos is a mystery Wilder père et fils don’t bother to explain). Despite the usual plot holes and signs of cheapness (for the first 10 to 15 minutes it looks as if Wilder has come close to achieving Ed Wood’s dream of making a movie entirely from stock footage), Killers from Space is actually an excellent movie by the standards of the genre and the time: it’s well staged, suspensefully directed and reliant on tight, dramatic action rather than special-effects gimcracks (which wouldn’t have come off well on Wilder’s low budget anyway), and it’s also well acted even though Graves is the only person in it who had a long-term career. — 1/4/11


Oddly, Killers from Space — made just a few months later and with the same director, writers and many of the cast members — turned out to be quite the opposite, an exciting, suspenseful sci-fi thriller that, despite its obvious cheapness (including use of some of the same stock-footage clips we’d just seen in Phantom from Space), moved and provided genuine excitement and drama. It was also blessed with at least one actor with a semi-major career later on: Peter Graves, cast as atomic scientist Dr. Douglas Paul Martin. It takes place in Nevada during the nuclear tests the U.S. military was running in the early 1950’s — in some of which they actually ordered army units to march into the test site just after the atomic explosion, with the result that 30 years later a lot of them were dying of cancer and a piece of legislation had to make it through Congress to get the federal government to pay them compensation (the idea was to see if nukes could be used as battlefield weapons — the answer was no, they couldn’t) — and Dr. Martin is in a fighter plane along with a pilot to fly over the test site and observe it from the air. Only his plane crashes and he and the pilot are both presumed dead — the staff of the test, led by Col. Banks (James Seay, who was also in Phantom from Space and is described on as a “durable, dependable actor”), has the unenviable task of breaking the news to Martin’s wife Ellen (Barbara Bestar) that she’s now almost certainly a widow. Only Dr. Martin actually shows up, looking a bit disheveled but not much the worse for wear except for a big cross-shaped scar on his lower chest that’s so neatly done the medical officer on the base concludes it must have been a surgical incision. Mrs. Martin confirms that her husband didn’t have that scar before that flight (though given that they sleep in pajamas in the Production Code-obligatory twin beds, one wonders how she would know), and the authorities on the base decide that Dr. Martin must be kept away from all sources of stress for months until he recovers his composure. They give Mrs. Martin a list of all the things she should do to entertain him during his convalescence — though they don’t mention the obvious one that occurred to me (and why she doesn’t think of it herself is a mystery, especially since we get a lot of shots of Peter Graves shirtless and at this stage of his career he was a hunk!) — and Dr. Martin freaks out when he realizes that they’ve not only scheduled but staged another nuclear-weapons test without notifying him. (Given the huge amounts of light these things generate as well as the enormous sound, wouldn’t he have noticed?) 

Later on Dr. Martin starts doing strange things under the influence of two giant rings that appear on the screen, and he’s caught depositing a note under a desert rock, obviously for someone to pick up — remember that this movie was made just after the Rosenbergs were executed and the U.S. was caught up not only in the Red Scare generally but the fear that our most secret weapons were being stolen by “atom spies” who were leaving messages for each other and their Kremlin handlers in similar out-of-the-way hiding places — and he’s taken back to the base hospital and given sodium amytal. We’re told this is a supposed “truth serum” drug that strips the user of all his imagination (so I unfairly joked to Charles that the film’s writers had obviously been on it), and under it Dr. Martin narrates a seemingly preposterous flashback in which he tells the base staff that when the plane crashed he was kidnapped by four aliens with huge bug-like eyes. The aliens are the advance guard from a planet their two billion-plus people have had to abandon because their sun is going supernova — at first they just jumped to worlds in their own solar system farther from their sun (represented by clips from the futuristic scenes of H. G. Wells’ film Things to Come), but later they realized that they would have to find another planet somewhere that they could colonize. They locate their apparatus in the familiar environs of Bronson Canyon — about which I once wrote a mock classified ad that went something like this: “CAVE TO LET. Perfect for criminal gangs or interplanetary visitors seeking headquarters for a nefarious plot to destroy all humanity. Your deposit cheerfully refunded if your plot succeeds” — and in an engaging twist in the script by William Raynor and W. Lee Wilder’s son Myles, they decide to power their apparatus by draining off the excess energy released by America’s own nuclear tests. 

While the aliens held Dr. Martin captive they hypnotized him into going along with their plot, and when he tried to escape he was confronted by giant-sized lizards, insects and other dangerous beasts, artificially enlarged by the aliens’ technology, which they intend to loose upon the world and destroy humanity, whereupon the aliens will kill them and take over our planet. There’s an exciting climax in which Dr. Martin, realizing that if he can turn off the entire power grid in the area for about 10 seconds he can cause enough power feedback on the aliens’ system to blow itself, the aliens and the horrible monsters they’ve made from earth’s own species up to smithereens, breaks into the local power station (surprisingly easily — there’s a door heavily marked “RESTRICTED AREA” but nobody bothered to lock it, so Our Hunky Hero just walks right in) and grabs a gun from one of the security people who tried to stop him, then holds the guy working for the power company hostage and forces him to shut down the power. By this time the command staff at the base from which the nuclear tests have been conducted have arrived on the scene, and Dr. Martin tells them that if after 10 seconds of no power the aliens’ installation hasn’t exploded, he’ll surrender peacefully — but after just eight seconds the installation does blow up, there’s a huge mushroom cloud over the desert, but the prospect of alien conquest has been averted and Martin and his wife can go back to their bizarrely sexless marriage. (One wonders where the inevitable little Martins are going to come from.) Killers from Space is actually quite a good movie for the budget and the rather disreputable genre; it has its risible moments — like the oversized eyeballs and absence of eyelids on the part of the aliens and the furry costumes they wear —but for the most part it’s an attention-grabbing thriller that proves that W. Lee Wilder could direct, if hardly on the imaginative psychological level of his more famous relative.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Earth Girls Are Easy (Vestron, Kestrel, Earth Girls, De Laurentiis Productions, 1988)

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

Last night’s Mars movie screening ( consisted of two relatively recent films, Earth Girls Are Easy (1988) and Vampirella (1996), both of which were intended as campy spoofs of the science-fiction and fantasy genres. Oddly, Earth Girls Are Easy, despite some talented people both in front of and behind the cameras — the stars included Geena Davis, her then-husband Jeff Goldblum and Jim Carrey, while the story was written by Julie Brown (who made the screamingly funny Madonna spoof Dare to Be Truthful) and among the screenwriters were her then-husband, Terrence E. McNally (not to be confused with the much more famous and Gay Terrence McNally, author of The Ritz and The Lisbon Traviata) — was an almost total misfire, while the far less ambitious Vampirella was a quite entertaining film that aimed low but hit the target on all counts. I remembered hearing about Earth Girls Are Easy when it came out in 1988 but I had somehow formed an almost totally wrong idea about its content. I had thought it would be about a bunch of alien astronauts from Mars (the aliens in the film are actually from another planet, presumably outside our solar system, though there’s an apparent Mars reference some but not all of our audience members caught) hitting the San Fernando Valley, seducing the local dumb-bunny girls and then leaving them in a state of hopeless dissatisfaction with any terrestrial males. Indeed, my putative version would have ended with a Village of the Damned-like postlude set nine months after the main action in which all the women who’d been seduced by the Valley Boys from Outer Space suddenly gave birth since on their planet you do get pregnant the very first time you have sex with one of them.

Alas, Earth Girls Are Easy turned out to be a pretty ordinary love triangle with a few interesting supporting characters and one great musical number (in fact, the music — credited to Nile Rodgers but also including a quite good selection of pop-rock from the period, including the B-52’s “Cosmic Thing”) set on a beach in which one of the peripheral characters sings of the glories of being a dumb blonde. (According to, this number was prepared and shot after the rest of the film was completed to make up for the amount of footage they’d had to delete due to censorship and ratings considerations.) The plot: three Martian astronauts, covered head to toe in fur but otherwise humanoid, come to Earth when their spaceship malfunctions and land in the swimming pool (which she, alerted to their impending arrival, had drained for them) of Valerie (Geena Davis) and her fiancé Ted (Charles Rocket). Valerie and Ted are planning a big wedding but first she has to go to a hair-setting convention — she works in a beauty salon — only Candy Pink (Julie Brown), her co-worker and best friend, talks her into staying home. So she’s predictably nonplussed when, thinking she was going out of town for the weekend, Ted brings home one of the nurses at the hospital where he works, intending to carry on his affair with her. When she meets Valerie she figures she’s been invited over for a three-way and bails, and Valerie angrily throws Ted out of the house — leaving her fair game for the attachments of one of the aliens, Mac (Jeff Goldblum, who oddly does not do any of the campy asides he was famous for in his other roles and therefore makes his character personable but boring). The aliens — who look totally human once Valerie, with her hair-styling skills, removes their fur — also include Wiploc (Jim Carrey) and Zeebo (Damon Wayans, though there’s no racially related humor in this film — not that there’s that much of any humor in this film, even though it’s clearly intended to be a comedy!) — and they have a wild ride through Earth’s female humanity.

Actually Valerie and Mac pair up pretty seriously through the whole movie, but Wiploc and Zeebo go off with Valerie’s terrestrial friend Woody (Michael McKean, who turns in a far better and funnier performance than his better known co-stars) for a wild ride through the beach community in which they inadvertently hold up a convenience store (a toy gun has got stuck on Wiploc’s finger and the counterman mistakes it for a real one) and ultimately get caught by the cops when an accident hurls them into that huge doughnut-shaped sign that also figured prominently in a far better (and funnier!) Mars-invades-Earth movie, Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! The writers get the aliens out of that one by putting the “love touch” on the two (male) cops who’ve arrested them, thereby causing them to fall in love with each other (a gag done better in the Madonna-Griffin Dunne comedy Who’s That Girl?, made in 1987 and the third and lamest, but still engaging, incarnation of Bringing Up Baby). The finale is a mash-up of The Graduate and Close Encounters of the Third Kind — Ted (ya remember Ted?) emerges to re-propose to Valerie just as the aliens have their spaceship ready and are about to leave Earth, only at the last minute Valerie bails on her earthling partner and boards the ship (which was designed, probably intentionally, to resemble the one from Universal’s Flash Gordon serials) to fly off with Mac to his home planet (whatever and wherever it is). This could have been the premise for a good and very funny movie, but alas Earth Girls Are Easy falls flat on just about every particular except Nile Rodgers’ musical playlist — it’s nice to remember that he was good for something besides disco — the film attempts both romantic comedy and slapstick and isn’t particularly good at either. It’s just a cinematic waste of time, albeit with a provocative and engaging title, and it’s not surprising the original studio, Warner Bros., turned it down once it was finished and dumped it on Dino de Laurentiis’s company instead.