Monday, July 29, 2019

Anniversary Nightmare (Feifer Worldwide/Lifetime, 2019)

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

Last night’s Lifetime “premiere” movie was actually unusually good, despite some typical plot holes from writer-director Michael Feifer. It was called Anniversary Nightmare and it begins with Liz Thompson (AnnaLynne McCord, top-billed) and her husband Andrew (Philip Boyd) deciding to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary by taking a vacation to Hawai’i and leaving their two kids behind with her mom and dad. They rent a lavish villa at a Hawai’ian resort and have a hot first night together — they even have sex, and Feifer shows some delicious soft-core porn of them doing so — only when Liz wakes up the next morning Andrew isn’t next to her. In fact, he isn’t anywhere at all; she can’t find him, and when the police arrive at the villa they find a burning corpse outside the villa and arrest Liz for the murder of her husband. Liz’s mom, an attorney (as was Liz before she gave it up to get married — how retro!), takes her case and raises the bail money so Liz can get out of custody in Hawai’i — but then mom makes the mistake of having jurisdiction of the case transferred to Los Angeles, where they live (can you move a state criminal case from one jurisdiction to another? I don’t think so!), so Liz can be in town and spend the time awaiting trial at home with her kids.

Only, while the Hawai’ian judge granted her bail, the L.A. judge (who’s also a long-time friend of Liz’s mom) announces that under the California court rules, she can’t grant bail and has to hold Liz over until her trial — which could be months or even years away. (The judge cites “extenuating circumstances” she’s learned from the court in Hawai’i that forbid her from granting bail — which didn’t ring true, not only because those would have had to be disclosed to Liz’s defense counsel but also the phrase “extenuating circumstances” usually means factors that suggest the defendant should be treated more leniently, not more harshly; I think the word Feifer meant was “exigent” or “aggravating” circumstances.) In a film that’s already put its heroine through some pretty Kafka-esque nightmare situations — including waking up one morning on vacation and finding her husband missing, while she herself was full of drugs she didn’t normally use (obviously someone went through a great deal of trouble to frame her, including forcing drugs into her so she’d sleep through the crime) — her fish-out-of-water stint in the Los Angeles county jail is the best part of the movie. She befriends her cellmate and two other hard-core cons — one of whom is a hard-bitten white woman who declares a Lesbian interest in Our Heroine, and the other is a Black prisoner with a disarming manner whom I thought was being set up to be the African-American best friend who discovers the villain’s sinister plot against the heroine but gets killed for her pains. As part of the prison routine the inmates are transported in orange jump suits but have to change into mauve shirts and pants for their actual incarceration — “I guess mauve is the new orange,” I couldn’t help but joke — and eventually one of the prisoners smuggles in a copy of the dental records of the burning corpse the Hawai’ian cops found at the villa — and they don’t match Andrew’s, leading Liz to wonder if her husband is still alive.

At this point my husband Charles was beginning to think Andrew had staged his own disappearance and faked his death to rid himself of an inconvenient wife and family, and start over — but Feifer, who’s actually done that plot line in previous Lifetime films like His Secret Family (a movie about bigamy that still haunts me), didn’t go there this time. Instead, Liz starts having flashbacks to That Night in Hawai’i and decides she needs to escape from prison and go back to the villa to jog her memory of what happened. She does this by faking an illness, getting admitted to the jail infirmary — which seems to be considerably less secure than the rest of it — stealing an emergency medical technician’s uniform and sneaking out of the ambulance again once it leaves the jail and getting picked up by an appealingly butch woman truck driver (a character I’d have liked to see more of) and makes it back to her parents’ place. (Remember that mom is an attorney and therefore an officer of the court who is legally required to report a fugitive to the authorities on pain of losing her law license — even if the fugitive is her own daughter. I say remember that because Michael Feifer seems to have forgotten it.) Mom and dad arrange for her to fly to Hawai’i, hurrying before her name shows up on a do-not-fly list, and she meets up with Gabriel (Jabez Armodia), who claims she’s a friend of a fellow inmate back home who used her connections with him to get him to help Liz prove her innocence. Then she runs into Jesse (Mark Medeiros), who tells Liz that he kidnapped her husband and made it look like she murdered him because, as a junior attorney with the Hawai’i prosecutor’s office, she prosecuted him and sent him to prison for 10 years for being the lookout in a robbery where two people were murdered and he was the only one prosecuted because his three confederates successfully got away. So now he’s going to show her what it’s like to serve a long sentence for a crime you didn’t commit.

Jesse says he’ll tell Liz where her husband is in exchange for $250,000 ransom — which is Liz’s and Andrew’s entire life savings — and it turns out Gabriel is Jesse’s younger brother and the two were both in on the scheme. Only when the exchange is about to be made Gabriel just wants to take the money and flee, while Jesse is so angry with Liz that he wants to shoot her and Andrew. Gabriel talks his brother out of it and they escape with the money, while Liz and Andrew return home and Liz decides to return to her legal career and form a firm that will reach out to women in prison and help them win better conditions and appeal their cases. Despite some plot holes, all too typical of Feifer’s writing, Anniversary Nightmare is actually a quite good piece of neo-noir, and the situations and predicaments Feifer puts his heroine through are almost Kafka-esque in their intensity. There’s legitimate suspense here not only over the question of what really happened to Andrew and who’s behnd the elaborate attempt to frame Liz for his murder (though it’s hard to believe two such small-time grifters as Jesse and Gabriel could have concocted such an elaborate plot) but how Liz is caught up in the conventional wisdom among law-enforcement officers that if a married person is murdered the initial suspect is almost always the person they were married to. I wouldn’t say Anniversary Nightmare is Lifetime at its very best, but it’s pretty damned close and a lot better than I usually expect from Michael Feifer!

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Heaven, a.k.a. V. C. Andrews’ Heaven (EveryWhere Studios, Front Street Pictures, Fork in the Road, Jane Startz Productions, Lifetime, 2019)

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

Lifetime’s “premiere” last night was of a film called Heaven, actually listed as V. C. Andrews’ Heaven, part of their “Book to Screen” series which began with an adaptation of a genuine literary classic (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, carefully reworked by Tracy McMillan into Pride and Prejudice Atlanta, setting Austen’s tale amongst the modern-day Black 1-percenters of Atlanta) and has spiraled downhill from there to films based on books by writers who have little more in common with Austen than their gender. V. C. Andrews (she got her pseudonym by using her real last name but flipping her first and middle initials; she was originally Cleo Virginia Andrews) was a Gothic horror writer who was born June 6, 1923 in Portsmouth, Virginia but didn’t take up novel writing until she was nearly 50. During the space of a little over a decade — from the publication of her first book, Flowers in the Attic, a smash best-seller in 1975, until her death from breast cancer in 1986 — Andrews cranked out at least one book a year and left ideas and outlines for other novels which were completed (or quite likely written from scratch) by Andrew Neiderman, who was assigned by her publisher to keep the “V. C. Andrews” name and oeuvre alive even after its original owner was dead. Andrews’ (and Neiderman’s) works typically appeared in a cycle of five novels about the same family: the first four telling a multigenerational saga and the fifth reaching back to give the backstory of the original characters and their parents. Flowers in the Attic was the first such sequence and apparently the only one Andrews completed before her death; it told the story of the Dollangangers, and in particular a brother and sister who were locked in the attic of a crumbling Southern mansion and who ended up in an incestuous relationship simply because as they came to sexual maturity there was no one else available. Andrews followed this up with a quintology about the Casteels, a backwoods Southern family of a father and five kids, the first one born of a mother named Angel who died giving birth to a baby girl whom dad named Heaven.

At the start of Heaven Heaven Casteel (Annalise Basso) is in high school and has a more or less serious boyfriend, Logan Stonewall (James Rittinger, a nice piece of masculine eye candy), but everyone else in her school shuns her because the Casteels have a reputation, earned or otherwise, as total sluts. Anyway, daddy Casteel parcels out his two teenage daughters to other families — Heaven’s sister to a reverend who rapes her and gets her “with child” on the first night she lives with him and his wife, and Heaven herself to Kitty Dennison (Julie Benz) — I had the impression she was supposed to be Heaven’s aunt, but Andrews was not that great a writer in terms of sorting out the family relationships between her characters — who’s working as a waitress to support herself and her wastrel husband Cal (Chris McNally), an aspiring novelist who’s endlessly working on a manuscript we know he’ll never finish (and which would probably not be any good if he did, though maybe he could get a literary agent who could sell it to a publisher with the pitch, “It’s just like V. C. Andrews!”). The time frame of the story appears to be the mid-1960’s, judging from the blue Ford Falcon convertible Cal Dennison drives and the large manual typewriter on which he writes his novel. Heaven encounters the ultra-strict parental rules of Kitty and Cal; at one point Kitty instructs Cal to whip Heaven for some infraction of her vague but severe house rules, though Cal saves her by whipping the kitchen counter instead and instructing Heaven to scream out as if she were really being flogged. Also Kitty decides, once she learns Heaven has sneaked out of their house (which she literally never wants Heaven to leave, claiming that the air outside is “dirty”) to see her ex-boyfriend Logan (ya remember her ex-boyfriend Logan?), to clean the dirt and sluttiness out of her literally by pitching her into a bathtub filled with boiling water. Cal rescues Heaven from Kitty’s attempt to scald her, and just then cancer cells appear as a deus ex machina to take Kitty out of the action[1] and leave Heaven alone with Cal, who like a typical V. C. Andrews character has managed to seduce her simply by being the only other person there.

Only Heaven ends up with an even stricter and crazier foster mom, Grace (Ingrid Tesch), and when Logan learns that Heaven has had sex with Cal he decides that everyone was right all along — she’s a slut — so he dumps her. The film was followed by a promo for the immediate sequel, Dark Angel (apparently the only other book in the cycle written by Andrews herself; the third, Fallen Hearts, was apparently started by Andrews and finished by Neiderman, while the last two, Gates of Paradise and Web of Dreams, were written by Neiderman and only, according to their title pages, “inspired” by Andrews), in which she takes a bus from Georgia to Santa Cruz (presumably the one in California), where she’s going to meet with more people out to exploit her, emotionally, sexually or both, including a paterfamilias in a big mansion — the dad is played by Jason Priestley, and judging from the clips he’s probably sexier now than in his teen-idol days, but the lascivious eyes we saw him displaying in the promo indicate that, like a typical V. C. Andrews male, his interest in the put-upon heroine is far more sexual than paternal. He’s supposedly also got a crazy brother locked up in a cottage on his estate that’s reachable only by a maze which he warns Heaven never to enter — which, of course, she does. The fact that in Heaven Heaven receives a copy of Jane Eyre as a present from Cal seems to be prefiguring this plot line — though it’s also an ill-advised move on the part of V. C. Andrews and/or her adapters (screenwriter Scarlet Lacey and director Paul Shapiro) to reference a great Gothic book by a woman writer in their version of a terrible one. Lacey, Shapiro and their cast seem to have set out to do the best they could with the material they had, though not only couldn’t I help but wish that they had done an updated version of Jane Eyre along the lines of Pride and Prejudice Atlanta (indeed, Charlotte Bronté’s story would probably have been easier to transmute into modern times than Austen’s was!),

I got the feeling along the time Grace entered the action that the actors had simply given up. They knew they couldn’t utter Andrews’ wretched dialogue as if it were the speech of real people, so they seemed about midway through the film to have simply stopped trying. Charles had a comment afterwards that the problem with V. C. Andrews is that her villains never let up — they start at 11 and go up from there, and they never have a moment of respite in which they kick off their shoes and just behave like normal people. I keep flashing back to the documentary Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, an extended interview with Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge, who told us what a wonderful guy Hitler was and an easygoing boss to work for when he wasn’t doing things like starting World War II and ordering the Holocaust — and a great writer, or even a not great but at least sensible one, knows enough to endow a fictional villain with such human qualities and bits of lovability so the evil they do will be that much more frightening. (But then what would a future historical novelist do with Donald Trump, who isn’t as far-reachingly evil as Hitler but doesn’t seem to have any of his warm and lovable qualities either?) Andrews also is an all too typical modern writer (even though her heyday was 40 years ago) in that, aside from her much put-upon heroine, she doesn’t really give us anyone to like: all the people around Heaven seem committed to exploiting her in one way or another — if this film had been made in the silent era it would probably have been called The Horrors of Heaven — and when she moves from one situation to another the only suspense seems to be how her next set of foster parents will exploit her and whether they’ll be content merely to torture her or they’ll want to rape her as well.

[1] — By a macabre coincidence, Kitty dies of breast cancer — also the disease that killed V. C. Andrews for real.

The Madam of Purity Falls (Beta Films, Dominion Films, Stargazer Films, Lifetime, 2019)

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

After Heaven I watched another recent Lifetime movie, The Madam of Purity Falls, originally shot under just Purity Falls as the working title but for once a Lifetime title change was an improvement: the irony of the words “madam” and “purity” in the same title hits home and no doubt attracted audiences to this one. This was the third week in a row Lifetime had advertised this film, and I’d missed it in its previous go-rounds but I caught it this time. I’m glad I did; maybe to this Gay male viewer one reason this seemed more fun than most Lifetime movies is that the titular madam of Purity Falls, Courtney McQueen (a solid old-pro performance by the still hot Olivia d’Abo) has a stable, not of young women, but young men: horny high-school students whose services she sells to middle-aged matrons whose husbands are frequently away on “business trips” (during which they’re no doubt engaging in extra-relational sexual shenanigans of their own!). The central characters are the Johnson family: mom Nicole (Kristanna Loken), high-school senior son Jason (Trevor Stines, a tall, wiry but well-muscled man with eight-pack abs — I wish the guys in Gay porn looked this good instead of the scrawny boyish types they cast!) and his younger sister Justine (Sloane Avery). In the opening scene they’re a complete family, but Nicole’s husband has a heart attack while playing catch football with Jason and the Johnsons survive for a year, burning through their savings, until Nicole gets a job heading the counseling department at Purity Falls High School. She uses her remaining savings to buy a house in town that just happens to be right across the street from Courtney McQueen’s. Courtney introduces herself, brings over some lasagna to welcome the Johnsons to the neighborhood, and she’s also got a hot young man named Chad Griffiths (Jonathan Bouvier) watering the lawn on her grounds. At first both we and the Johnsons assume Chad is Courtney’s son, but then they walk off with their arms around each other’s waists in what’s obviously a more sexual than paternal gesture. In the next scene a mysterious figure confronts Chad in a swimming pool and drowns him in it.

We also get an establishing scene in which we learn the writers (Anthony Del Negro, Shane O’Brien and Jack Bryant) and Sam Irvin, who directed, are worshipers at the shrine of St. Anton Chekhov, who once decreed that if you introduced a gun in act one it had to go off in act three. In this case the gun is Papa Johnson’s old hunting rifle, which Jason took with them when they moved because he figured it was part of his inheritance — and his sister Justine told him they should just throw away. Like a classical recruiting pimp both in Lifetime movies and in real life, Courtney wins Jason over to her stable by seducing him herself. Then she offers him a job as a “landscaper,” and gives him an odd document — a psychedelically designed visiting card with an address but no phone number and the name “Karen” — as Jason’s first “client.” Karen, of course, is interested in Jason for other reasons than getting her weeds pulled — and there’s a bit of a glitch in the writing in that Jason shows up to her place in shorts and carrying a couple of plastic buckets but none of the tools (like shovels, shears and rakes) we’d expect him to have if he were really doing landscaping, or thought that’s what he was there for. She comes on to Jason, he bolts, and she calls Courtney to complain that her boy didn’t render the services she was expecting from him. Jason doesn’t want to become a paid boy-toy of rich married women, but Daniel (Anthony Matthew Welch), his friend from the school wrestling team (and yes, we get a lot of hot shots of the boys on it grappling each other — yum!), who’s also one of the boys in Courtney’s stable, talks him into continuing even though Jason sees a scene of an older man breaking into the team’s locker room and threatening Daniel. Courtney then bribes Jason by offering him her husband’s old car but pointing out that he’ll need an income to fuel and maintain it, and he agrees to become one of her gigolos.

His first client is a local judge named Tiffany (Katherine Morgan) who peremptorily orders him to take off his clothes, one garment at a time, then tells him to do the same to her. Jason lasts for a while but worries because Courtney is sending him on so many dates his schoolwork is suffering because he has no time to study, and also because his mom is giving him the third degree every time he comes home late from one of them. At one point he has a crisis of conscience and tells Courtney he won’t do it anymore — and Courtney sends her “enforcer,” Benjamin Carr (Kendall Ryan Sanders), to confront him in the locker room (Purity Falls High School seems to have the least secure locker room of any American high school!), wave a knife at his neck and threaten that if Jason doesn’t keep working for Courtney he’ll do unspeakably mean things to his sister. Meanwhile Courtney is building up an impressive reputation around town and the age-peer guy who wants to be her boyfriend wins her the title of Purity Falls Entrepreneur of the Year, only at a banquet party held at Courtney’s home to celebrate this honor mom Nicole spots one of Courtney’s friends with one of her young-boy bits of merchandise having at it in a bedroom and tries to forbid her son from seeing Courtney again. Meanwhile, Jason accidentally left his belt behind at Karen’s place and Karen’s husband Bill (John Newburg), the older guy who threatened Daniel in the locker room, found it, put two and two together, and said he was going to divorce her and invoke the terms of their pre-nup by which if she cheated on him she gets absolutely nothing. Karen demands $100,000 from Courtney in blackmail money, but Courtney sends Benjamin to kill Karen — then kills Benjamin herself after Karen, using her husband’s gun, wounded him while he was strangling her.

The climax — in more ways than one — occurs at Courtney’s home, where Jason has been invited for a “special date” with Courtney and her age-peer boyfriend, in which it seems that they want to do S/M with him (Jason spots some leather toys on the bed when he arrives) and also that Courtney’s boyfriend wants to pop Jason’s Gay cherry. He rebels and gets manacled to a work bench in Courtney’s garage, where it seems she’s going to eliminate him, only in the meantime mom Nicole and sister Justine have figured out what’s going on and where Jason is. They manage to overpower Courtney and knock her out, but like the usual typical stupid Lifetime heroes they don’t bother to grab Courtney’s gun, so she’s able to retrieve it and it looks like Courtney’s going to shoot both Jason and his mom dead when sister Justine shows up with her dad’s hunting rifle (ya remember her dad’s hunting rifle?) and takes out Courtney before she can render Justine an orphan. The Madam of Purity Falls had a lot of hot-looking young men and a lot of lubricious soft-core porn scenes between them and Courtney’s clients — after a while this film was starting to turn me on! — and when it wasn’t offering titillation (or, more accurately, dickillation — I’m sure a lot of Lifetime’s core audience members wished there’d be a service like Courtney’s in their neighborhoods!) it was offering a smooth, relatively coherent, fast-moving and entertaining run-through of the Lifetime formula with the all-important difference that this time it was young men, not young women, being turned into sexual commodities by the titular villainess.

Monday, July 22, 2019

My Stepfather's Secret (Feifer Productions, SF Productions, Lifetime, 2019)

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

Last night’s Lifetime movie was billed as a “premiere” but it must have been shown somewhere before since there were already five reviews of it on, including one from a viewer who said s/he couldn’t evaluate the movie because the music was so loud it drowned out the dialogue. It was called My Stepfather’s Secret and was an O.K. movie within the Lifetime genre. It was a product of Michael Feifer’s production company and, like a lot of his movies, dealt with a man who comes into a relationship with a woman withholding a deep, dark secret — though we don’t find out what the secret is until the very end of the movie and it’s something of a surprise compared with the usual ones Lifetime’s writers cook up. (Feifer directed this one personally and the script is by Stephen Lyons, though I suspect Feifer, the producer as well as the director, pretty much dictated the basic elements and left Lyons to flesh them out.) Bailey Kershaw (Paris Smith) has just completed her freshman (freshperson?) year in college when she returns home for the summer to her mother Tina (Vanessa Marcil — her last name sounds like a drug you inhale to cure your sinuses from an attack of hay fever). The main way we can tell mother and daughter apart is mom wears granny glasses — the big ones with black frames that were briefly fashionable in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s — and her hair is even longer and straighter than her on-screen daughter’s.

Tina has been raising Bailey as a single parent since the death of her father five years earlier — he was shot on a rooftop by the usual hooded assailant in a prologue we’re shown even though its significance, as usual with Lifetime, won’t be explained until the end — and judging from the flashbacks we see of a young Bailey with her dad, it seems the biggest thing her parents had in common was similarly bad eyes that required them to wear those big glasses. When Bailey returns home she finds her mom in the middle of an intense affair with a mysterious man named Hugo (Eddie McClintock, who’s so tall, muscular and hunky — he’s working, or at least says he is, as a physical trainer and his body is buff enough it’s believable — we hardened Lifetime movie-watchers know instantly that he’s a villain), whom she’s passionately in love with and wants to marry. (Writer Lyons carefully establishes that Hugo is the first man Tina has shown any romantic or sexual interest in since the mysterious death of her husband.) Bailey notices that Hugo seems to be taking an unusual interest in her, and for a while I wondered if this plot was heading towards Lolita territory (the pedophile marries the mother just to get access to the daughter) or, even worse, that he was a human trafficker who was going to murder Tina and sell Bailey to a crime ring as a sex slave. At one point Hugo receives a shipment of protein packs that blocks Bailey from getting her car out of the garage, so Hugo lends her his car — and while driving it she’s accosted by a heavy-set bald-headed thug type straight out of Cueball-meets-Luthor who seems disappointed that it’s she and not Hugo driving.

Bailey also notices Hugo doing her laundry, including carefully folding her underwear, which she and we both think is “creepy.” Mom, of course, pleads with her daughter to give the new man in her life a chance, while the daughter finds out that Hugo has hacked into the computer in her room (a desktop model she inherited from her dad) and is using its video camera to spy on her. Bailey hooks up with her former boyfriend Anders (played by beautiful baby-faced Tanner Fontana, who probably had most of whatever Gay male audience there is for Lifetime drooling) to do some computer hacking of their own, and they finally discover that Bailey’s dad was involved with a father-and-son team of Japanese computer geniuses to create an international cryptocurrency, only their third partner — you guessed it, Hugo — was upset about being frozen out and wanted to steal the $3.7 million Bailey’s dad had accumulated in a secret fund. The money is encoded in a flash drive — how’s that for a 21st century MacGuffin? — but Hugo also needs the password set by Bailey’s late father (whom Hugo shot when Bailey’s dad refused to tell it to him) to access the fortune. It’s basically a high-tech version of Gaslight — for some reason the basic gimmick of a man marrying a woman he doesn’t love to gain access to some physical possession that will make him rich but she doesn’t know she has has become a popular trope these days and is even referred to in screenwriting and filmmaking circles as “gaslighting” — in which the secret treasure is not jewels or rare paintings (as it was in Kind Lady, a film that came even before Gaslight) but something to do with computers and their increasing conquest of the world.

Spoiler alert: It all ends at, you guessed it, a deserted mountain cabin, formerly owned by Bailey’s dad but unused since his death except when Bailey and her boyfriend Anders would go for a clandestine rendezvous — where Bailey and her two girlfriends — including Fee (Dara Renee), a Black girl Bailey met at college and whom Feifer and Lyons seemed to be setting up for the Lifetime cliché role of the African-American best friend who stumbles onto the villain’s plan but gets killed before she can reveal it to the heroine, but is blessedly alive at the final credits — converge and get trapped by Hugo, who’s overheard Bailey’s conversation to Anders and thus learns where the flash drive is. Hugo threatens Bailey and Anders with a gun; Anders clubs Hugo with a shovel but stupidly neglects to grab Hugo’s gun before Hugo comes to, only Bailey gets the gun away from him and shoots him herself — not fatally, however, because in the meantime Bailey’s mom Tina and her friend Fee have called the police and they take Hugo alive, while a tag scene shows Bailey reconciled with her mom (it helps that while Bailey and Hugo were confronting each other, Bailey had her cell phone on with her mom at the other end of the call, so Tina got to hear Hugo tell Bailey how repulsive he found it that he had to sleep with Tina for his plot to work), her girlfriends alive and well, and she and Anders giving each other a peck-like kiss to indicate that they’ve reconciled (earlier Bailey had broken up with Anders because she’d hoped he’d go to the same college she did, and he didn’t want to go to college at all). It’s an O.K. movie even though Michael Feifer is unlikely to make anything again with the hallucinatory power of His Secret Family (in which the shocking secret the heroine learns about the villain is he’s a bigamist, she’s wife number two, and with his finances having taken a hit in the recession he’s calmly planning to eliminate the extra expense of a second family by bumping off both her and their daughter — who, just to show how Michael Feifer can both ramp up the tension and pull the heartstrings, also suffers from a rare blood disease and only a bone-marrow transplant from her father can treat her), and he checks off the Lifetime cliché boxes and fills the cast with talented, workmanlike actors who play their parts professionally but don’t bring much special to them.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Movies: The Nineties (CNN, 2019)

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

After last night’s showing of the documentary Apollo 11, shown to commemorate yesterday’s 50th anniversary of the first human landing on the moon, CNN showed a couple of episodes of their series The Movies. I had got entirely the wrong idea of this show from the promos of it: I had assumed it would be a series of hour-long segments each focused on the production of a particular classic film. Instead it was yet another vacuum cleaner-style documentary which lasted two hours per episode and focused on an entire decade — the one I saw last night was “The Nineties” and heralded an era of a few films I remember, a few others I’ve caught up with only recently (like GoodFellas[1] and Fargo), and others I’ve still not seen. As depicted here the 1990’s were a schizoid period in film in which the process of manufacturing and delivering blockbusters, which had begun in the 1970’s with films like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and George Lucas’s original Star Wars (now given the awkward name Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope to place it within the overall nanology of the Star Wars cycle), was being perfected. At the same time the 1990’s was also a flowering of independent film, thanks to Robert Redford’s formation of the Sundance film festival and the resulting development of major studios’ specialty branches that would release lower-budget and more “serious” films.

Today just about all the specialty branches have been either cut back or closed down altogether — and the big studios only seem interested in pre-sold properties from comic books or previous film cycles that can be produced for inflated budgets and give the theatrical film audience (what’s left of it) huge thrills from computer-generated special effects. The 1990’s were a period in which the big movies were just starting to be made digitally — Tim Burton, who produced the film The Nightmare Before Christmas (he didn’t take credit for formally directing it but he’s clearly the auteur), is one of the interviewees on this show and he speaks with pride about using the old technology of stop-motion animation on that film just before digital technology took over. The big harbinger of the transition to digital effects work was Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Jurassic Park (based on Michael Crichton’s novel about an attempt to build a theme park on a remote island off the coast of Costa Rica featuring living dinosaurs, genetically re-engineered from the left-behind fragments of dinosaur DNA), for which he’d originally intended to do some of the dinosaur effects with stop-motion and some digitally, but the digital effects worked so well that he abandoned stop-motion and did all the dinosaurs with CGI. Jurassic Park was an enormous hit and started a franchise for Universal that’s still going strong — and it also wowed filmmakers who realized that with digital effects they could now do stories that had previously been unfilmable because of the difficulty of doing the effects with costumed actors or stop-motion models.

The film also mentioned the other big movie that established CGI, the Disney-Pixar production Toy Story (which also launched a franchise that’s still going today), which established computer animation as the standard way to make films without on-screen live actors. I must say I really don’t like the blocky look of computer-animated films; they seem to inhabit a neither-fish-nor-fowl genre position and I’d much rather watch films made either with live actors or drawn animation. The 1990’s were also the decade that launched the careers of quirky auteurs like Quentin Tarantino (whose movies I avoided until some friends of mine were running Inglourious Basterds — I was put off him mostly by the reputation that his films featured wall-to-wall violence but I quite liked I.B. even though I resented Tarantino’s chutzpah in single-handedly rewriting the history of World War II for his story), Paul Thomas Anderson (I’ve seen Magnolia — featuring Tom Cruise in what’s probably the most unctuous performance of his career — and his early film Hard Eight, which I admire mainly because of his daring in casting an incredibly ugly middle-aged actor in the lead, but one whose very homeliness made him just right for the part!), and a run of highly competent Black and women filmmakers who in the relatively more liberal (business) climate of the 1990’s got opportunities they’re not getting today (though I still think Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, a superhero extravaganza with Black leads and a Black director at the top of his game, is one of the greatest films of recent times). The film showcases the multiple sides of Spielberg — it contains a long segment on Schindler’s List (including Spielberg’s revelation that he cast the relatively unknown Liam Neeson in the lead after seeing him on Broadway in a play) and then a long segment on Jurassic Park without mentioning the connection between the two movies: Universal stipulated he had to make the dinosaur blockbuster in order to get to do his personal film about the Holocaust. (As things turned out, both films were huge hits.)

And of course the film showcases James Cameron via Terminator 2: Judgment Day (a film I liked but not as well as the original Terminator simply because the first one seemed less bloated and more coherent — though I loved Robert Patrick’s shape-shifting in the villain role, and I remember when I saw the first two Terminators back-to-back that someone had finally found the right role for Arnold Schwarzenegger: as a robot!) and Titanic (for which he became the first director to fill out an ensemble cast with CGI instead of actually having to hire — and pay —enough extras to fill out “a cast of thousands”). My big problem with Cameron is he makes so few films — and I suspect that’s less for the “official” reason (the complexity and difficulty of realizing all the effects shots his scripts call for) than that he’s holding out for more deal points instead of actually making films. (Billy Wilder ruefully commented in the 1970’s, “In the 1940’s we spent 20 percent of our time making deals and 80 percent of our time making pictures. Today we spend 80 percent of our time making deals and 20 percent making pictures.”) Another movie showcased in this documentary is Thelma and Louise — or, as I jokingly called it when it was new, Bonnie and Claudette — including enough footage of the ending to make clear it was a deliberate suicide by two central characters who saw no other way out (sort of like James Cagney at the end of the 1934 film He Was Her Man) — so much for my joke, after seeing how many times the writers of the Republic serials had their heroes escape the cliffhangers by jumping out of the runaway car/train/plane/whatever by jumping, “Anyone who’d ever seen a Republic serial could have figured out how to do a sequel to Thelma and Louise — just before the car went off the cliff, they jumped out of it!”

[1] — Which I always thought was a silly title, both because it’s meaningless and I hate that convention, derived from the names of computer programs before they started to be called “apps,” of writing a compound word with a capital letter in the middle but no space before it. I still wish director Martin Scorsese had called the film Wiseguy, which was the title of Nicholas Pileggi’s nonfiction book on which it was based.)

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Game of Thrones, season one, episodes five and six: "The Wolf and the Lion”and “A Golden Crown” (Television 360, Grok! Studio, Generator Entertainment, Home Box Office, 2011)

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

Charles and I watched the next two episodes in sequence of Game of Thrones, “The Wolf and the Lion” and “A Golden Crown,” picking them up after over a month away from the show — and watching most of these episodes in a state of confusion as to who was who and what side they were on. Basically Game of Thrones is a modern-day medievalist reworking of the War of the Roses — the Lancasters are called “Lannisters” and the Yorks are called “Starks” (which, as I joked when we started watching this show, suggests that centuries later one of their descendants became Iron Man). It takes place in a supposedly mythical kingdom called “Westeros” which is pretty obviously the British Isles (when the brother-and-sister team of Viserys and Daenerys Targeryen,[1] played respectively by Harry Lloyd and Emilia Clarke, whine about wanting to conquer the mainland of Westeros even though they’re stranded on an island and they don’t have ships or the resources to construct any, I thought, “Oh, they’re in Ireland”) — actually seven kingdoms, sort of like pre-19th century Germany, loosely confederated and at the moment ruled by King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy). Yes, I know his last name sounds like a defense contractor, but he’s actually a Rabelaisian figure who reminded me of King Henry VIII — especially when he insists not only on holding a joust on the grounds of his palace but riding in it himself until it turns out that he’s grown too fat to fit into his suit of armor. (The real Henry VIII insisted on entering jousts even long after he was way too out of shape to compete — and the other knights had to figure out ways to let him win without getting killed themselves.) One of the knights is a pageboy-haired blond cutie who is hopeless in the lists — especially in the face of an unscrupulous guy in black armor who slaughters his own horse to force the pretty boy to engage in hand-to-hand combat (not an easy thing to do in armor) and makes the pretty boy get his ass saved by another warrior. Later there’s a scene in which the pretty boy shaves the chest hair of his ally and then goes down on him — the first hint we’ve seen that the Game of Thrones universe contains Gay people (or at least Gay sex — it wasn’t until the word “homosexual” was coined in 1865 that the idea began that being Gay was something you were and not just something you did), even though there have been a lot of hot young women flashing their breasts on screen and getting fucked, almost exclusively (at least from the camera angles the Game of Thrones directors use to shoot them) in the ass — which makes me wonder how any kids get conceived in this world. 

The most interesting scenes in these two episodes concerned Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), little-person brother of Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Walden) and Cersei (Lena Headey) Lannister, who’s captured by a couple of Stark princesses and their army and locked in one of the most intriguing jail cells in movie history: the front of it looks like a normal cell but the back end of it is an open window leading to a fall of thousands of feet, so he could leap out of the cell but only to a certain death below. Tyrion, one of the most interesting characters in the story (especially given how many women he’s able to seduce despite his diminutive stature — Peter Dinklage probably loved acting this role after all the stereotypical cute little-person roles he’s had to play!), eventually talks his way out of his imprisonment by demanding a trial by combat, and when he asks for another man to fight on his behalf as his champion, a knight rides in on a boat drawn by a swan and … oops, wrong story. One of the courtiers takes on the role of Tyrion’s champion and makes the mistake of winning. The sixth episode, “A Golden Crown,” ends with one of the show’s most chilling scenes: Daenerys Targeryen and her husband, Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) — whom she married just to gain access to his army so, once she figures out a way to get it across the Irish Sea (or whatever they call it in this universe), she can reconquer Westeros for her family and install herself on the Iron Throne (a nicely preposterous prop whose back is a bunch of swords jammed into its base) — decide to get rid of that annoying brother of his once and for all. They strip him of his golden belt, melt it down in a crucible, and pour the molten gold over his head — apparently Viserys couldn’t bleed or be wounded in battle, so they had to find this more outré way of killing him (though, as I once remember explaining to my late roommate/client John while he was watching The Lord of the Rings and he got to a scene in which Gandalf was pitched off a ledge into a seemingly bottomless pit, in a fantasy story just because you actually see someone die does not necessarily mean you won’t see them again — to which he replied, “I hate stories like that!”), albeit when the gold is poured over his head it forms an almost perfect helmet shape instead of just glopping all over him as would happen if anyone tried this for real. (This show should probably come with a lot of “Don’t try this at home” warnings.) 

Oh, and as Anna Russell would have said if she’d lived long enough to parody Game of Thrones the way she did Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung (which is actually a model of clarity compared to this — Wagner edited most of the auxiliary races and the subplots concerning them of the Nibelungenlied and came up with a taut, easy-to-understand story line even though Charles likes to make fun of Wagner’s Ring because there are so few characters in it and so many of them are Wotan’s progeny), “Ya remember the dragon eggs?” Charles and I haven’t got into Game of Thrones far enough to see actual dragons — all we’ve seen of them so far are three eggs that are being carefully coddled by their owners and which Viserys Targaryen tries to steal (though we’re not sure whether that nasty execution he gets was punishment for this or just his sister and brother-in-law deciding he was dispensable and getting rid of him) — and there’s also the crippled boy who wants to be a knight, who’s rescued from bandits in the woods who try to strip him of his silver spurs and his white horse. I can see why Game of Thrones “hooked” the huge audience it did — and also while the universe’s creator, George R. R. Martin, turned down all offers to make it as a feature film but accepted the one these producers, David Benoit and D. B. Weiss, made him to do it as a TV series. (It’s a real pity Erich von Stroheim, with his obsession with making mega-length movies out of not particularly long novels like Frank Norris’s McTeague, isn’t alive today: the cable and “streaming” formats in which books can be stretched out on screen to many hours of running time would have been ideal for him!) But it’s also a show that hovers on the thin edge of risibility and frequently goes over — I found myself quoting the dialogue from Monty Python and the Holy Grail at several points, notably when one of the knights’ throat is slashed, it spurts out geysers of blood, and I said, “It’s only a flesh wound!”

[1]Why do fantasy writers insist on giving their characters such tongue-twisting names?

Monday, July 15, 2019

In Bed with a Killer (Dawn's Light, BondIt Entertainment, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2019)

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

Last night I watched a couple of movies on Lifetime that were at least somewhat better than average: In Bed with a Killer and Trapped Model. Given Lifetime’s predilections you could practically write these yourself — particularly the former, since just three weeks ago Lifetime premiered a movie called I Almost Married a Serial Killer which not only had a similar title to In Bed with a Killer but a similar plot line as well — except that In Bed with a Killer had a “surprise” plot twist, and even that, given the conventions of recent Lifetime movies, wasn’t much of a surprise at all. Originally called A Deadly Romance until someone at Lifetime decided it needed a more sensational title to woo jaded viewers, In Bed with a Killer deals with heroine Lena (Jennifer Taylor) and her daughter Ashley (Rachel Rosenstein), who as the movie opens have just moved to a small town — the usual generic Anywhere, America in which a lot of Lifetime movies have been set (the movie was made in Guthrie, Oklahoma, so at least this time Anywhere, America is not being “played” by Anywhere, Canada) — two years after the death of Ashley’s father. The two women haven’t recovered from this and Lana hasn’t dated or even taken an interest in any other man since her husband’s death. She’s in town to open a cake shop, and to promote her new business she passes out cupcakes on the street, mostly to other small businesspeople — including Michael (the gorgeous Ryan Patrick Shanahan, who last appeared on Lifetime in the title role of something called Sinister Minister), who runs the local hardware store and settled there after giving up a career as a prizefighter following a bout in which he accidentally killed his opponent.

Michael’s former girlfriend mysteriously disappeared one night; he presumes she simply ran off and left him, but the prologue scene, in which a young woman was knifed to death by a hooded figure in the dark, suggests that Michael is the titular killer and he’s knocking off the town’s women. One sees the killer at work at least twice more and wonders how nobody seems to notice the escalating body count — including the town police, who are so lazy and inept they make Andy Griffith and Don Knotts look like a S.W.A.T. team by comparison. Midway through the movie writers Colin Edward Lawrence (who also directed), Richard Switzer and Erin Murphy West start letting slip hints that the real killer may not be Michael but may be a woman, Jenny (Jade Harlow), whose teenage son Charlie (the nice-looking if somewhat dorky Joseph Mann) is dating Ashley (which, for some reason the writers don’t explain, raises Lana’s ire — she continually tries to break them up and orders Ashley home whenever she catches her trying to visit Charlie). In the end it turns out that Jenny decided for some reason that she and Michael were destined to be together, and to that end she knocked off anyone who stood in their way, including her own husband and all Mike’s other girlfriends as well as Heather (Rachel Amanda Bryant), who had been investigating the case on her own and was convinced Michael was a serial killer — only Jenny knocked her off (the usual knife attack from a hooded figure dressed in sweat clothes that made it impossible, especially in the noir-ish half-light with which Lawrence and his cinematographer, Ben Demarce, shot the killings, to tell the killer’s gender) and therefore put Heather in the role (usually played by African-Americans, though here she’s white) of the heroine’s best friend who stumbles onto the villain’s plot but gets offed before she can reveal it.

In Bed with a Killer was pretty much to the Lifetime formula, but Lawrence’s neo-noir direction (and in particular his following Alfred Hitchcock’s advice to shoot murders like love scenes and love scenes like murders) make this one special. So does the quite beautiful finish Lawrence and his co-writers came up with: the cops, finally roused from their torpor, come on Lana and Jenny in a full-fledged confrontation — thanks to Michael, who’s best buds with the local sheriff and finally got him to take the situation seriously. The police arrive and hear Lana and Jenny each accusing the other of trying to murder her —but which woman are they supposed to believe? Lana hits on the idea of grabbing Michael and giving him a deep, passionate kiss — and sure enough that “hooks” Jenny’s jealousy; in a rage she spits out a confession and the police arrest her and take Charlie (who’s going to have one hell of a psychological breakdown over the revelation that his mom murdered not only his dad but quite a few other people as well) into protective custody until the courts can determine what to do with him. There’s a tag scene set “Four Months Later,” as the title tells us, in which Charlie and Ashley are shooting hoops together in her mom’s backyard (apparently the traumatic events have had at least one good effect on Charlie: they’ve remarkably improved his skills as a basketball player) and Lana and Michael appear headed for a permanent commitment. In Bed with a Killer is a good Lifetime movie that delivers on the formula even if it doesn’t really transcend it — and Ryan Patrick Shanahan is fun to look at, especially in one scene in which he’s taking a one-on-one yoga class and he’s dressed in only a T-shirt and nicely revealing grey shorts!

Trapped Model, a.k.a. A Model Kidnapping (Sunshine Films, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2019)

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

After In Bed with a Killer Lifetime rebroadcast a movie they “premiered” a week or two ago after heavily promoting it: Trapped Model, originally shot as A Model Kidnapping (neither a particularly good title), set in Florida (it starts in Biscayne Bay but mostly takes place in Miami) and actually produced by a Florida-based outfit called Sunshine Films in association with our old friends, MarVista Entertainment, who also distributed In Bed with a Killer. This time our “pussy in peril” (to use Maureen Dowd’s description of the Lifetime formula) is Grace Somerville (Lucy Lokan), a pretty but not especially gorgeous young woman who’s just graduated from high school. Her mom Megan (Kiki Harris, a blonde who doesn’t look much like the dark-haired woman supposedly playing her daughter) is after Grace to attend college, but Grace wants to be a model and in an early scene she answers an ad for a photographer who’s willing to shoot pictures of her for a price so she can have a portfolio. Only the photographer turns out to be the typical letch who wants Grace to get naked on camera so he can have his wicked way with her — though when he points out that a lot of superstars got their starts posing for naked pics, of course I couldn’t help but agree with him: I said, “Does the name ‘Marilyn Monroe’ mean anything to you?” (Of course, Grace could have come back, “You mean a pathetic drug addict who died at 36? No, thank you.”) The point of this scene is obviously to let us know that Grace will do almost anything to make it as a model, and to establish that she’s vulnerable to sleazy approaches but too “moral” a girl to follow through on photographers or agents who make sexual demands on her.

Enter the villain of the piece: Hunter Kelly (Wes McGee), a young, charismatic man who places ads on modeling Web sites offering young women contracts to model for him, with all expenses paid and a “model’s apartment” thrown in free for them to stay in while they work for him. Grace answers the ad and is told to go to Miami and meet Nicole (Katherine Diaz), Hunter’s assistant, who will drive her to Hunter’s home in a remote location outside Miami where the photo shoots will take place, and then take her back to the “model’s apartment” afterwards. Only, as we already suspect and Grace soon learns, there is no “model’s apartment”; instead Grace is tricked into staying in a room in Hunter’s home that’s locked from the outside (electronically), with heavy-duty plastic windows so she can’t break out, and what Hunter means to do is shoot her in a series of increasingly pornographic videos which he’ll post online for subscribers. He tells her that a lot of his former models are now big successes in Europe or Asia — a line in Andrea Canning’s script (directed quite effectively by Damián Romay, whose work I’ve seen before in the Lifetime movie Secrets in Suburbia) that hints that when he’s done with his kidnap victims he traffics them, selling them to rich men either as one-on-one sex slaves or prostitutes — though the truth is even more sinister: he simply kills them, photographs their corpses and presumably buries them on his estate. The good guys in this one are Grace’s mom Megan and Grace’s boyfriend Mark Harding (Seth Goodfellow), whose rugged good looks are a nice contrast to Wes McGee’s smarmy charms even though some of the body language between him and Kiki Harris suggests that he’s about to transfer his affections from the missing daughter to the very present mom.

Like In Bed with a Killer, Trapped Model is pretty much cut to the usual Lifetime formula — a card in the opening credits claims it’s inspired by a true story (and I can all too easily believe that!), but if so it’s, as my husband Charles said about the film Shine, a true story the filmmakers selected because the real events came so close to movie clichés. But it’s also got some distinctive touches; Canning, like Christine Conradt, is miles above most Lifetime writers in creating multidimensional characters and hanging some real flesh on these clichéd bones, and in Wes McGee director Romay and casting director Ellen Jacoby came up with an actor for the villain who’s cute, charming, sensitive and attractive enough one can see why women, especially naïve girls like Grace, fall for him and are so easily lured by him. (I can see him taking over the Leonardo di Caprio roles now that di Caprio is aging out of them.) The two women are also powerfully dramatized by Canning and brought to life by the actresses playing them: Canning keeps us in suspense as to whether Grace’s sexual overtures to Kelly are genuine examples of the Stockholm syndrome or ruses she adopts to gain more privileges and eventually escape. And in some respects Nicole is the most interesting figure of the three: genuinely in love with Kelly, jealous of his growing interest in Grace, and also surprisingly shocked when she realizes that her lover has been killing off his kidnap victims once he has no use for them instead of sending them home, as she had naïvely believed. Like Wanda Barzee in the Elizabeth Smart case, Nicole is the most dramatically ambiguous character in the piece — we feel sorry for her horrendously wrong choice of a man and at the same time we hate her for being his enabler as well as his enforcer (after one of Grace’s failed escape attempts Kelly decides to punish her by having Nicole whip her and livestreaming the event to his subscribers).

The good guys stumble onto the bad guys’ secrets when Mark and his college roommate, an excellent computer hacker played by a drop-dead gorgeous Black actor regrettably unidentified (yet) on, stumble on the livecast of Nicole whipping Grace. Only Kelly notices that someone out of his subscriber list has logged on and forces Grace to make a phone call to Mark to say that she’s all right but is happy with her new life and never wants to see him again. She ends the call saying “I love you,” a giveaway that she’s making the call under duress since she never used those words to him before her kidnapping, and eventually Mark and Megan track Kelly down to his home. Mark insists on going in alone and is easily knocked out by Kelly, but the police — who at first blew off Megan’s and Mark’s concerns, saying that Grace was obviously just another teenage runaway who didn’t want to be found — end up at the house and all ends well. This time the tag scene is preceded by a title that reads “One Year Later,” and one year later Grace’s photo is on the cover of Empowering Women magazine (so she finally made it onto a magazine cover, even though hardly in the way she originally planned) and it seems like she’s on her way to college after all, as well as into Mark’s waiting arms. Trapped Model didn’t seem all that interesting in the promos — “Oh, no, not another one of those,” I thought — but it turned out to be quite good, an engaging couple of hours in a sea of sordid kinkiness thanks to more subtlety than usual in the direction, the writing, and above all in Wes McGee’s wonderful acting as the villain. He’s got superstar potential if only he and his agents can break him out of the TV ghetto and get him the feature-film roles he deserves!

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (MGM, 1941)

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

Last night’s San Diego Vintage Sci-Fi film screening in Golden Hill ( was an odd double bill of two stories about human transformation, the 1941 MGM version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and John Frankenheimer’s chilling 1966 film Seconds. The program also included the very first film of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — a 1911 two-reeler from the Thanhouser studio featuring James Cruze, later a director who did the first big epic Western, The Covered Wagon, for Paramount in 1923. (In 1928 Cruze directed a quite good late silent called The Mating Call for producer Howard Hughes; in 1938 he made the first version of Herbert Asbury’s novel Gangs of New York for Republic; and later Martin Scorsese did a far more elaborate remake of Gangs of New York and subsequently directed a biopic of Howard Hughes, The Aviator.) The effects of Jekyll changing into Hyde in the Thanhouser version were either crude cuts or scenes in which Cruze buried his head in his hands so he could do a quick real-time application of his Hyde makeup, but this film probably wowed audiences in 1911. In between there were several adaptations of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, including a 1915 three-reeler for Carl Laemmle’s IMP (Independent Motion Pictures, later Universal); a major-studio feature from Paramount in 1920 with John S. Robertson directing and John Barrymore as star; a quickly produced rival version from Louis B. Mayer pre-MGM with Sheldon Lewis in the title role(s); and a 1932 Paramount film directed (stunningly) by Rouben Mamoulian featuring Fredric March. Mamoulian’s film began with a 15-minute sequence in which the camera takes Jekyll’s point of view, and the movie was not only hailed as a masterpiece by the critics, it won March an Academy Award (which he had to share with Wallace Beery for The Champ, since in those days if contestants came within three votes of each other the Academy considered it a “tie” and gave the award to both of them).

Later MGM bought the remake rights to Mamoulian’s version, including the script by Samuel Hoffenstein (Mamoulian’s favorite writer) and Percy Heath, and in 1941 they produced an elaborate version with major talent both behind and in front of the cameras: Victor Fleming as director, John Lee Mahin as screenwriter (though he used enough of Hoffenstein’s and Heath’s material that under current Writers’ Guild of America rules MGM would have had to credit them — instead they listed Mahin as sole screenwriter and Stevenson as story source, as if Mahin had worked directly from the novel without any intervening adaptations) and Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner and Ingrid Bergman as stars. Tracy’s performance was much criticized when the film came out — so many reviewers blasted him as inferior to Fredric March in the role that March himself wrote an open letter to the Hollywood trade papers defending Tracy — and it’s had its knocks since, but though off the beaten path for him this was a deeply personal project. As a boy Tracy had seen the American stage actor Richard Mansfield in his pioneering adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (written for him by playwright T. R. Sullivan). The promotion for this play claimed that Mansfield would transform from Jekyll to Hyde and back on stage, right in full view of the audience, just by contorting his facial muscles without the aid of makeup. Tracy was so impressed by Mansfield’s accomplishment he decided then and there to make acting his life’s work, and for years he dreamed of playing Jekyll and Hyde the way Mansfield had, with no character makeup, just by contorting his facial muscles. Then writer W. Somerset Maugham visited the MGM lot, saw Tracy rehearsing and heard the MGM promo man he was with explain that Tracy was going to play the part without makeup because he was such a skilled actor he could make the transformations without it. “I see,” said Maugham. “And just which one is he supposed to be now?”

After Somerset Maugham pointed out to the folks at MGM that Spencer Tracy really didn’t look that different as Mr. Hyde than he did as Dr. Jekyll, they started making him up at least a bit — they didn’t put him through the extreme transformations Paramount’s makeup people had done with John Barrymore and Fredric March, but they darkened his hair and put lines on each side of his eyes. The result is that you wonder why more people — especially Ivy Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), the only person who has major interactions with him in both identities — don’t recognize Jekyll and Hyde as the same person before Hyde mixes his drugs in front of his friend Dr. John Lanyon (Ian Hunter) and changes to Jekyll on the spot. This is one of the few scenes in the film taken directly from Stevenson’s novel — Mahin, like Hoffenstein, Heath and Clara Beranger (who wrote the 1920 version with Barrymore), uses little more from Stevenson than the basic premise and the character names. It was apparently T. R. Sullivan’s idea, in the play version he adapted for Mansfield, to create female interests for both Jekyll and Hyde: Jekyll’s upper-class fiancée Beatrix Emery (Lana Turner, who in what passes for her big emotional moments stares right into the camera with that bovine look that served her for decades), daughter of Jekyll’s upper-class sponsor Sir Charles Emery (Donald Crisp); and Ivy Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), the lower-class woman (she was a prostitute when Miriam Hopkins played her in the “pre-Code” Mamoulian version with March but a barmaid and chorus girl here) whom Jekyll saves from being raped, treats her twisted knee and wards off her seduction attempt; and who later becomes Hyde’s mistress and abuse victim. 

Barred by the Production Code from showing much of Hyde’s evil, Fleming and Mahin made his treatment of Ivy the nastiest thing we see him do; it’s a portrayal of battered-woman syndrome far in advance of virtually anything else on screen (at least on U.S. screens) to its time, and the sheer eloquence with which Bergman acts the plight of a beaten-down woman who knows she deserves better than she’s getting but also feels helpless (especially with Hyde, like Julia Roberts’ evil husband in Sleeping with the Enemy 46 years later, threatening that if she tries to get away from him he’ll just track him down and kill her) is amazing and shows why, though this film was a box-office disappointment and the critics slammed it, it helped her career. (Her very next film was Casablanca.) Bergman had to fight for the role of Ivy; originally David O. Selznick, who held her contract, loaned her to MGM to play Beatrix Emery, but she had utterly no interest in the one-dimensional part of Jekyll’s good-girl fiancée. She begged Fleming to switch the two women’s roles, palm off the good-girl role on Turner and let her play Ivy — and though Bergman has trouble with her accent (she tries to sound like a Cockney but it just overlays rather uncomfortably on her real-life Swedish accent), she makes the role deep and vivid and makes her character a figure of real pathos instead of just a slatternly bitch. The 1941 MGM Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is also noteworthy in that it tries to carry over some of the moral lessons Robert Louis Stevenson worked into the story; in the original — particularly in the final chapter, Jekyll’s own confession before he takes his own life because he realizes he must kill himself to kill off Hyde as well — Jekyll states that had he been in a better frame of mind when he first took his drug, it would have turned him completely good instead of completely evil. Stevenson also states that because Hyde contained only the evil parts of Jekyll, he was physically smaller — which, when I first read that, suggested to me that the ideal casting in 1941 would have been Boris Karloff as Jekyll and Peter Lorre as Hyde. Karloff did get to play Jekyll, with stunt double Edwin “Eddie” Parker as his Hyde, but only in a 1953 Abbott and Costello spoof. 

One interesting aspect about this version is the streak of moralism appears, as far as I know, only in one other version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on film: the 1920 Sheldon Lewis knockoff which Louis B. Mayer, following the strategy later used by Asylum Pictures to do a quick ripoff of a public-domain story before the major studio filming it at the same time can get theirs out, produced for his independent company. So it may represent Mayer’s own input into the story. The 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was obviously a prestige production — it ran nearly two hours at a time when most horror films were 75-minute programmers or 60-minute “B”’s, it featured a superstar who’d already won two Academy Awards, it had a plush MGM production (though there are some tacky background shots — when Jekyll crosses over from his house to his secret laboratory, the buildings in the back are obviously glass paintings — and the substitution of a stunt double for Tracy in Hyde’s more athletic and acrobatic moments is also obvious) and some quite good direction by Fleming. Victor Fleming is best known today for two troubled productions he took over from other directors — The Wizard of Oz after Richard Thorpe and George Cukor, and Gone With the Wind after Cukor again — but here he turns in a quite remarkable directorial effort, moving the camera quite a lot (Judy Garland’s recollection of his working method was that he always rode atop a camera boom, from which he would yell down at Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr, “Would you three big hams move out of the way and give that poor little girl a chance?”) and adding a sense of motion to the otherwise static scenes taking place in people’s houses between the Big Moments (this film is already over one-quarter through its running time before Jekyll finally changes into Hyde). 

I also liked the symbolism of drinking used throughout the film; the characters always seem to be imbibing some form of potable liquid, whether tea, wine, sherry, harder spirits or Jekyll’s formula. I’ve long thought Stevenson’s tale was at least partly a just-say-no-to-drugs message story; it was written at a time when morphine, heroin and cocaine were not only legal but were being mass-marketed, and the addictive potentials and horrible health effects of these drugs were beginning to become known. (In the 1880’s and 1890’s pharmaceutical companies were actually marketing heroin pills as treatments for morphine addiction — much the way Purdue Pharmaceuticals claimed in the 1970’s that their newly invented opiate drug, Oxycontin, was contained in a timed-release pill and therefore could not become addictive. Wrong!) As a portrayal of the hazards of drug addiction — and especially how in the throes of an addiction, a normally honest and upstanding human being can lose all they morals and inhibitions and become so determined to keep obtaining the drug they will literally do anything to get it — Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a surprisingly modern story, notwithstanding that the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” has become part of the language to describe anyone with wildly different codes of conduct, and senses of morals and ethics, in different parts of their lives. This time around I found myself liking the 1941 MGM Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde better than I have before (as did Charles): it’s often ponderous and dull, but it does wrestle with the moral implications of the story better than some of the more obviously horrific and “thrilling” versions on film.

Seconds (Joel Productions, John Frankenheimer Productions, Gibraltar Productions, Paramount Pictures, 1966)

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

This morning I also watched one of the most nihilistic movies ever made: Seconds, the 1965 John Frankenheimer-directed science fiction thriller featuring John Randolph as a middle-aged businessman who gets in touch with a secret organization and is offered a second chance at life through extensive plastic surgery that remodels him into avant-garde painter Rock Hudson. “Seconds had a theme that fascinated me: the old American bullshit about having to be young, the whole myth that financial security is happiness — you could keep going for half an hour about what Seconds really means,” Frankenheimer said to Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg in The Celluloid Muse. It’s one of those frustrating movies that doesn’t quite work, but manages to be a lot more interesting than less ambitious movies that do work (Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett, Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn and Marnie, and Welles’ The Trial are other examples on my list). What’s problematic about it is that, after a fascinating first half — detailing the minutiae of how Randolph lives his life, how alienated he is, why he would want the services of an organization like this in the first place and just how the mysterious secret organization actually remodels people surgically and gives them new identities (with the macabre final twist withheld until the ending for a last frisson) — the movie is a letdown.

As Frankenheimer readily acknowledged in the above interview, “We always knew we had a weakness in the second act, which was why he didn’t adjust to life in California.” The letdown isn’t simply that Rock Hudson is the film’s star (like Huston in Moby Dick, Frankenheimer wanted Laurence Olivier as his star, and was turned down because Olivier wasn’t considered a big enough box office “name”) but that Hudson’s own uncertainty about his gifts as an actor led Frankenheimer to abandon his original intent of having the same actor play the character “before” and “after.” Judith Crist called the entire second half of this film “funny by mistake,” mainly because of Hudson’s casting, but Hudson really did try to act the part, and actually managed it very well. The problem is the writing simply isn’t strong enough to suggest that he’s finding this life as dull and boring as he did his businessman’s existence — this movie’s whole nihilistic point for existing in the first place; as Frankenheimer put it in his interview, “[T]here are lots of people going to psychiatrists, trying to get away from what they are. You are what you are, and you live with yourself, and that’s what life is all about. This man couldn’t, and ended up with an appalling situation on his hands.” But Frankenheimer and his writer, Lewis John Carlino, never did solve that second-act problem of explaining why his “reborn” situation turned out so appallingly. (It’s interesting to note here the high suicide rate among post-operative transsexuals — people who are surgically remodeled in the same way as the Seconds character, and for the same reason: because they feel alienated from “life” as they have known and lived with, and believe a different arrangement of body parts will give them the happiness that has eluded them in the bodies they are born with. Sometimes it does seem to work; other times — more often, I dare say — it doesn’t.)

Also, the two actors don’t match that well. John Randolph was right-handed and Hudson was left-handed, and while Frankenheimer tried to work around that, he didn’t succeed — one notices Randolph lighting his cigarette with his right hand and Hudson pouring himself a drink with his left hand, and one figures the plastic surgeons in this movie are as remarkable as the one in Ed Wood’s Jail Bait, who managed to add six inches to Timothy Farrell’s height in the course of altering his face. Seconds is trying for a Kafka-esque effect, and despite James Wong Howe’s remarkable photography (with plenty of distortion effects — including such liberal use of the fish-eye lens he essentially educated the rest of Hollywood’s cinematographers about the existence of that particular piece of equipment), which really manages to create a disorienting effect even within pretty ordinary-looking environments, it doesn’t quite come off — and yet it’s a marvelously compelling movie in its own quirky way (especially the first half, and also the final scene, in which Randolph/Hudson finally realizes his second operation will not be another “rebirth,” but a simple execution so he can supply a dummy corpse for another one of the mysterious company’s “clients”). — 6/13/95


John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film Seconds was an obviously personal project for him. When he was interviewed by Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg for the book The Celluloid Muse, Frankenheimer explained, “Seconds had a theme that fascinated me: the old American bullshit about having to be young, the whole myth that financial security is happiness … [T]here are a lot of people in psychoanalysis, trying to get away from what they are. You are what you are, and that’s what life is all about. This man couldn’t, and ended up with an appalling situation on his hands. I thought that the film had a terribly important and a powerful statement to make.” Officially Seconds began as a novel by David Ely which Lewis John Carlino worked up into a script with the (uncredited) help of Frankenheimer and his producer, Edward Lewis, though it’s really a modern-dress version of the Faust legend in which middle-aged banker Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph, making his first film in 15 years after being a victim of the Hollywood blacklist) gets a mysterious phone call from his old college buddy Charlie Sykes (Murray Hamilton). Only, as far as Arthur and the rest of the world know, Charlie is dead. Charlie explains that he didn’t really die; he made a deal with a secret corporation which would put him through a process that combined plastic surgery with identity transformation that would make him a “Reborn” (a word that I suspect would have been a better title for the movie than Seconds!): younger, freer, able to live his life freely without the obligations of marriage, family and career, and without the inhibitions he had fallen victim to with age. In a sinister opening scene that looks more like the start of a John le Carré spy thriller than a science-fiction film — especially given the nervy way veteran cinematographer James Wong Howe shot it, in grainy black-and-white with handheld cameras (Seconds looks like a mashup of film noir and French New Wave, and like Duke Ellington, Howe not only had a long career, starting in the early 20’s as Mary Miles Minter’s cameraman and ending in the 1970’s, he continued to innovate throughout his life) — he’s given an address in a folded-up piece of paper by a mysterious man he (and we) never see again.

The address turns out to be a pants-pressing shop whose main worker tells Hamilton, “Oh, they’ve moved.” Their new address turns out to be a meat-packing plant (it’s a nice ironic touch to have this ultra-exclusive service catering to the 1 percent being run out of proletarian venues as fronts) run by a man named “Crazy Arnie” whose vans advertise his service selling, not used cars, but “used cows.” (This is a bizarre in-joke reflecting Frankenheimer’s first job on TV as writer and director for a program called Harvey Howard’s Western Roundup. Howard was a huckster who would rent you a registered Hereford cow, supply one of his bulls to impregnate it for you, and then you could sell the resulting calves. They “only had two cameras,” Frankenheimer recalled, “and there was a choice of cutting to Harvey or the cow, and since both looked exactly the same, it was difficult to tell the difference.”) When Hamilton finally encounters the sinister organization, among its secret locations are a giant room where people appear to be working at a row of desks not that different from the back area of Hamilton’s bank. He has misgivings about whether he really wants to undergo the promised “rebirth” but the organization takes that decision away from him by drugging him, putting him in a room with a woman, and filming him as, stripped of his inhibitions by the drugs, he apparently rapes her. He thinks this has all been a dream — and so do we — until he’s shown the film and told that the company will send it to his wife if he resists the process. So he goes through the round of operations and preparations for his new life that seems like a mashup between gender reassignment and witness protection. He’s given an elaborate body makeover (shot by James Wong Howe using a fish-eye lens — this film may have been a box-office flop but it was influential on other cinematographers: for at least a decade virtually every film that depicted surgery did so through a fish-eye lens. So did a lot of movies depicting other subjects) and also has a new identity created for him as Antiochus “Tony” Wilson, painter and resident of the arts colony on Malibu Beach. When the bandages are cut off Hamilton’s face and body have been given so extensive a makeover he’s now played by a different actor, Rock Hudson (who as a Gay man in Hollywood all those years surely knew something about living a secret life!), who’s the only person billed above the title in the credits.

Frankenheimer originally had the plan that both Hamilton and Wilson would be played by the same actor — he first wanted Laurence Olivier but was told by the distributing studio, Paramount, that they didn’t consider him “bankable” (just as a decade earlier John Huston had been told by Warner Bros. they wouldn’t let him film Moby Dick with Olivier as Ahab, forcing him to settle for the far inferior and utterly miscast Gregory Peck). Frankenheimer’s next choice, Marlon Brando, turned him down (though ironically Brando would star in Frankenheimer’s only other science-fiction film, the third version of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau [1996]), so he approached Rock Hudson. Hudson agreed to sign for the film but then told Frankenheimer that the task of playing two characters of widely different ages and aspects was beyond his skills as an actor, so he asked the director if he could just play the character post-op. This caused several problems, including that Hudson was left-handed and John Randolph was right-handed — in the opening scene Randolph is shown working a crossword puzzle on a subway train and writing with his right hand, but later in the headquarters of the mystery corporation he signs the contract for “rebirth” with his left hand, and likewise when Hudson is shown painting he’s doing it with his left hand. Once Wilson is ensconced in his new digs in Malibu, he meets a girlfriend named Nora Marcus (Salome Jens) and falls into a new circle of friends — but he slowly realizes virtually all of them are on the mystery corporation’s payroll, and the ones who aren’t are as shallow in their own counter-cultural way as the people he used to know in his former existence as a suburban banker. The highlight, if it can be called that, of his new life is a wine festival in Santa Barbara which attracts a lot of hippie types and features people stomping grapes in a big wine vat … in the nude. Paramount’s censors went to town on this sequence, cutting the nude scenes and, according to Frankenheimer, making it look dirtier than it did in his cut (which is what we saw; it was restored to the film for a theatrical and DVD reissue in 1996), and he was able to get permission to film the ceremony on condition that the studio buy them a new vat to replace the well-worn one they’d been using. Wilson then gets drunk at a party after he realizes that most of his guests are “company men” (and women) in the same boat he is, and he contacts the company again and demands a second transformation, after which he will make his own way in the world again without their suffocating guidance.

Only [spoiler alert!] this time the mystery company’s surgeons aren’t going to “rebirth” him — they’re going to kill him because they need to supply replacement corpses for the clients whose “deaths” they fake as part of their process. Hudson’s character realizes this as they’re wheeling him into the operating theatre (and as the surgeon who did his original operations laments that it’s a pity they’re going to have to sacrifice him — “I really thought this one was going to work out”), which an “Goofs” poster noted as a plot hole: not only would anyone going through a procedure like that be anesthetized first, the ending would actually be more terrifying if Rock Hudson went into the O.R. thinking he would be “reborn” again and we learned, from the surgeons’ dialogue, that he was really going to be killed while he was blessedly ignorant of that fact. Still, Seconds is a quite powerful movie, both an engaging “take” on an old legend and a film that makes some of the social commentary Frankenheimer was hoping it would — and it’s not surprising that this film has gained a cult following over the years. Frankenheimer also got more out of Rock Hudson than any director had since his eight-film series with Douglas Sirk ended with The Tarnished Angels (1957), and for the scene in which he gets drunk at the party Hudson really got drunk. And though Seconds is now available on DVD and hailed as at least a minor classic in the genre, for years the film was so obscure that the owners of a collectors’ video store in Hollywood once gave an interview to Turner Classic Movies in which they said that one day a customer came to their store and asked to rent their copy of Seconds. As part of their routine, they asked him for his I.D. and read the name on it: “John Frankenheimer.” The clerk checking him out said, “Wait a minute — you directed this movie, and you have to come to us to be able to see it?” — 7/14/19

Saturday, July 13, 2019

RocketMan (Caravan Pictures/Gold-Miller Productions, Roger Birnbaum Productions, Walt Disney Pictures, 1997)

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

I didn’t get to last night’s Mars movie screening ( until 8 p.m., just as the first movie, 1997’s RocketMan (that’s how the film’s page spells its title), was getting under way. It was a pretty silly film, essentially an uncredited remake of Don Knotts’ vehicle The Reluctant Astronaut with admixtures of Jerry Lewis’s Way … Way Out (both films I’ve seen at previous screenings from this source) in which the dumb “comedian” (if, in Dwight MacDonald’s words, I may use the term for courtesy) was someone named Harland Williams. Aside from looking through much of the film like he’s auditioning for a biopic of Jerry Lewis, Williams is a decent-looking chap and one wonders whether, in a better script than the one Craig Mazin, Greg Erb and Stuart Gillard provided for him here (with one Stuart Gillard as director), he might actually be kinda-sorta funny once in a while. He plays a brilliant but wildly eccentric computer designer who ends up on a mission to Mars when the originally scheduled astronaut is scrubbed at the last minute and he has to win a competition with the far more qualified Gordon Peacock (Blake Boyd) for the slot on the crew. He does this by driving Peacock crazy in the 24-hour isolation chamber that’s part of NASA’s regimen to see how people can handle the closed environment and sheer loneliness of space travel. 

Once we progress (in the manner of a disease) from the silly scenes based on NASA’s actual astronaut training (including the famous centrifuge, meant to simulate the effects of acceleration as gravity increases while the spacecraft reaches escape velocity, which of course Fred absolutely loves and insists on being taken to the max) to the even sillier scenes based on the spaceship itself — which is crewed by Fred (who suddenly realizes he needs to use the bathroom just as the rocket is about to launch; yep, it’s that sort of movie — and he also farts inside his spacesuit); Julie Ford (Jessica Lundy), who of course hates him at first sight and eventually falls in love with him; and “Wild Bill” Overbeck (William Sadler), as well as a chimpanzee named Ulysses (played by a chimp named Raven — of whom I couldn’t resist a Poe-themed joke: “Quoth the Raven: ‘My career is nevermore!’”) while their Mission Control guy is Bud Nesbitt (Beau Bridges, who once actually made good movies), who’s supposedly the guy who screwed up Apollo 13 — the gags continue stupidly until the astronauts actually land on Mars (shown as a series of red-filtered shots of the desert wilderness in Moab, Utah). 

There a sudden Martian wind storm kicks up and threatens their ability to relaunch their spacecraft and return to Earth, and stupidly three of the four crew members (including the chimp, whom Randall risks his own life to rescue — PETA would be proud!) go outside in it to save each other’s lives before their ship makes it off Mars and back to Earth. There are actually a few funny bits in RocketMan, including one in which Randall compares himself to the Cowardly Lion and warbles a few bars of “If I Were King of the Forest”; a scene in which Randall goes into the spacecraft’s toilet to rescue a gold medal given him by the overall Mission Controller (he says it’s one of three and the others he gave to Neil Armstrong and Jim Lovell) and he ends up with his face and right arm half-covered in blue goo just as the astronauts are supposed to do a live simulcast with the President of the United States, who asks, “Why does one of you look like a Smurf?”; and one in which Randall starts a worldwide singalong of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” in various languages — though the translations are hilariously inexact: in the “French” version he sings “Je suis le papillon sur la table”, which means “I am the butterfly on the table.” For the most part, however, this is one of those films which Dwight Macdonald (again!) said that “in form and intent must be characterized as comedies” but lack the seemingly key ingredient of actually being able to get an audience to laugh.

My Favorite Martian (Walt Disney Pictures, 1999)

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

The other film on the Mars movie bill was a 1999 theatrical version of the 1960’s TV show My Favorite Martian, a film so relentlessly unfunny it made RocketMan seem like a masterpiece by comparison! This time Walt Disney Pictures, which produced both films (a credit which has ol’ Walt himself doing a few cartwheels in his grave), got genuinely talented actors to play a script by Sherri Stoner (whose last name probably describes her state of mind when she wrote it) and Deanna Oliver, and hired a director, Donald Petrie, who’s at least the son of a genuinely capable (if rather stolid) filmmaker, Daniel Petrie. (At the same time anyone like me who grew up watching The Dick Van Dyke Show on TV in the 1960’s has a hard time taking seriously anyone named “Petrie”!) It was based, of course, on the dated but still quite amusing 1960’s TV sitcom My Favorite Martian, created by John L. Greene and produced by Jack Chertok, with the titular Martian (Ray Walston) living with and generally discombobulating Earthling Tim O’Hara (Bill Bixby), a reporter continually on the outs with his editor. The Martian posed as Tim’s “Uncle Martin” and got into various scrapes, as well as fending off the amorous intentions of their landlady, Mrs. Brown. This time Tim is played by Jeff Daniels — a talented actor but also a schlub who seems to have been cast mainly so Bill Bixby would look butch by comparison — and Martin is Christopher Lloyd, Disney’s go-to guy for comic villains just then. The schtick is the same as that in the TV series: due to a malfunction in his spacecraft (here shown as something that can shrink to miniature size and then swell up like one of those pocket life rafts that automatically inflates when needed — “Does it inflate with Earth air or Martian air?” I joked — Uncle Martin is stranded on Earth. Only where Ray Walston’s Martian was given a lot of acidulous comments about Earth’s customs but was mostly a charming person (well, as charming as Walston’s dry-ice persona could make him), Lloyd’s version was an out-and-out crab. 

Among the many unfunny gimmicks Stoner and Oliver came up with for this was a series of planetary gumballs which Martin uses to take on the appearance of an Earthling (and, when chewed by Earthlings, make them look like aliens from the planets represented on each gumball); giving Martin an allergy to ice cream (it literally drives him crazy every time he eats any); and having his spacesuit, Zoot (Wayne Knight), have not only a mind but a voice of its own. Apparently the original plan was for the suit to be animate but remain silent, but the filmmakers decided to add a voice in post-production, so they hired Knight to dub a line of patter obviously derived from the late and very much lamented Robin Williams’ virtuoso performance as the voice of the Genie in Disney’s animated Aladdin. Aside from one clever scene in which the spacesuit pops out of a washing machine and sings a bit of James Brown’s hit “I Feel Good,” almost nothing amusing comes out of this idea — or any other idea in the film, including the gag scenes of Martin dressed as a surfer dude. The plot features Tim O’Hara as a TV news producer in love — or at least lust — with Brace Channing (Elizabeth Hurley, far too good an actress for this dumb-brunette role), daughter of his boss (Michael Lerner). Only he embarrasses her on the air and gets fired, and he sees Martin’s alien status and presence on Earth as the story which will make Channing take him back. Meanwhile Martin desperately tries to repair his spaceship so he can go home, and a sinister deep-state conspiracy within the federal government led by scientist Dr. E. Coleye (Wallace Shawn) — and yes, it’s all too indicative of Mesdames Stoner and Oliver’s non-sense of humor that they named this character after the deadly bacterium E. coli, found in shit (which means this movie is probably full of it!), who’s determined either to kidnap Martin or, if he dies, to dissect him. 

About the only character in this movie who actually manages to maintain his dignity is Armitan, an acronym for “Martian,” played by Ray Walston with some of the same dry wit he brought to the original show. He’s supposed to be Dr. Coleye’s boss in the government program (which actually has the same name as a real one — SETI, for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) but at the end [spoiler alert!] it’s revealed he’s actually the same character Walston played on the original TV show, a Martian who’s been stranded on earth for 35 years (he complains that the gum he has to chew to keep from reverting to his normal Martian form lost its flavor in 1966) and who finally gets a chance to go home by hitching a ride on the new Martin’s spacecraft — only at the last minute the new Martin decides he wants to stay on Earth after all and continue to make living hells out of the lives of Tim and his new girlfriend Lizzie (Daryl Hannah, yet another highly talented actor who comes off in this movie as blitheringly incompetent). Walston gets a few genuine laughs towards the end of the film, but for the most part it achieves a near-perfect level of humorlessness, as if the filmmakers were trying to take Macdonald’s dictum about films that “in form and intent must be classified as comedies” but aren’t actually funny to the absurd level of making a film that contains no laughs at all. I joked during My Favorite Martian that if Ed Wood is in heaven, he’s probably looking down at films like this and saying, “And people thought my movies were terrible?”