Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Bohemian Rhapsody (GK Films, New Regency Pictures, Queen Films Ltd., 20th Century-Fox, 2018)

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

Last night’s “feature” was Bohemian Rhapsody, the 2018 biopic of the rock band Queen and its lead singer, flamboyant Bisexual Freddie Mercury, who died of complications from AIDS in 1991. Bohemian Rhapsody was written by Anthony McCarten and Peter Morgan (they’re both credited with “story” and McCarten only with “screenplay”) and directed by … well, there’s an asterisk on that one because Bryan Singer receives sole credit but either was fired, quit or just stopped showing up (depending on which account you believe) for the final week of principal photography and another director, Dexter Fletcher, was brought in to finish the shoot and supervise post-production. With Bryan Singer subjected to allegations of sexual misconduct with underage boys and thereby subjected to the #MeToo witchhunt that also has claimed the career of another prominent Gay male filmmaker, actor/director Kevin Spacey (as I noted in my comments on the Elton John biopic Rocketman — which was directed by Dexter Fletcher and was pretty obviously green-lighted in the wake of the success of Bohemian Rhapsody — Spacey[1] has become an Orwellian “unperson” in the film industry — “He does not exist. He never existed” — and so has Singer), it was Fletcher who got the career boost from this film’s success. 

Bohemian Rhapsody eschews the gimmicky presentation of Rocketman (largely copied from Spacey’s Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea) and doesn’t show us Freddie Mercury as a boy interacting with the adult Freddie Mercury (played superbly in an Academy Award-winning performance by Rami Malek). Instead it’s a pretty straightforward VH-1 Behind the Music-style presentation of the Freddie Mercury Story — the other Queensters are relegated to supporting players, as they are in most tellings of the Queen story. (Even though the band’s guitarist, Brian May, played by Gwilym Lee with the same shock of long, curly hair as the real one, wrote half of Queen’s songs, including some of their biggest hits, he tends to get overlooked in Queen’s histories. It’s as if people writing about the Beatles claimed they were the late John Lennon’s band and ignored or slighted Paul McCartney simply because, unlike Lennon, he’s still alive.) Queen starts out as a band called Smile (their slogan is “Don’t Forget to SMILE”) whose lead singer, someone named Tim, walks out on the group just before Mercury — or, to use his original name, Farrokh Bulsara — shows up to see them and drafts himself as Tim’s replacement. (Whoever “Tim” might have been, I can’t help wondering if he’s gone through the rest of his life thinking of himself as the Pete Best of Queen.) 

I’ve long suspected there was a strong influence from the Beach Boys on Queen — especially in the vocal harmonies when the band members sang together (the a cappella opening of “Bohemian Rhapsody” is pure Brian Wilson!) — and when I pointed this out to my husband Charles while we were watching the movie, he said, “The Beach Boys never wrote a song about murder and capital punishment,” to which I replied, “No, but if they had, this is what it would have sounded like!” Indeed, when I first heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” (which was not until the movie Wayne’s World came out in 1992) I thought, “This is what the Beach Boys’ unfinished album Smile would have sounded like if they’d finished it,” and so it wasn’t surprising that before the band was called Queen it was called Smile. I also had got Freddie Mercury’s true-life ethnicity wrong — I’d thought he was half-British and half-Turkish; he was really part of a Parsee (modern-day Zoroastrians) community that had fled Persia (modern-day Iran) when the Muslims took over and started persecuting the Parsees, gone to India until Hindus started persecuting them, and ended up on the African island of Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) until the Muslims persecuted them (again!) and forced the Bulsaras to flee to London. According to Freddie Mercury’s Wikipedia page, Freddie was born in Zanzibar but his family moved to India, where “he attended English-style boarding schools in India from the age of eight and returned to Zanzibar after secondary school.” The Bulsaras finally fled Zanzibar after a 1964 revolution and settled in London when Freddie was 18. 

There are the predictable (in a rock biopic) Jazz Singer-ish confrontations between Bulsara’s parents and the nascent Freddie Mercury (including one in which he comes home, announces that “Freddie Mercury” is his new name, and when one of his family members says, “That’s just a stage name,” he says, “Oh, no, I had it legally changed”), who insists on going out, hanging out at pubs, and ultimately meeting and falling in love with a white girl, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), whom he describes to her deaf-mute father as an “epic shag” (i.e., great in bed), thinking he can’t hear it. “He can read lips,” she tells him. I come somewhat back of scratch in evaluating a Queen biopic since I was never that a big fan of theirs — at least partly because they emerged in the mid-1970’s, when I was listening to almost no rock or currently popular music. That only changed when an old friend of mine from junior college introduced me to Bruce Springsteen and then I did a couple of semesters at the college radio station at San Francisco State University and got introduced to the punks, who to me (to paraphrase the Trump campaign slogan) made rock ’n’ roll great again. Once I discovered Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Nick Lowe and the Clash, I was hooked on rock again — though I remained (and still remain) a musical omnivore who will listen to, give a fair chance to and end up liking almost anything (though I draw the line at rap — most rap, anyway, because I find it aggressively ugly musically and hopelessly sordid lyrically — and much, though not all, of the collection of dance genres usually tabbed “EDM” — for Electronic Dance Music — today). 

I did hear a few Queen songs I really liked, including their single “Bicycle Race” b/w “Fat-Bottomed Girls” (the latter appears in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody but quite a bit earlier in the story than Queen actually wrote and recorded it) and the nice bit of neo-rockabilly “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” Also, as a huge fan of the Marx Brothers I couldn’t help but think that a group which named two successive albums after Marx Brothers movies, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races, couldn’t be all bad. (Oddly, the McCarten-Morgan script for Bohemian Rhapsody shows them coming up with the name A Night at the Opera without any reference to its Marxian origins.) I also found myself resenting that after the Marx albums they put out a record called Jazz which had absolutely nothing to do with jazz. I admired Queen for being able to make radical changes in their style — which the movie depicts via an argument between them and a clueless EMI record executive, Ray Foster (Mike Myers), in which Foster tells them to stick to the commercially successful formula that has generated their first hits and they refuse — but often the changes seemed totally arbitrary, as if the band (particularly Mercury and May, their main songwriters) were simply throwing out anything in hopes of finding something that would stick commercially. It seems strange that in an argument between a band signed to EMI (Queen’s records were released on Elektra in the U.S. and EMI everywhere else in the world, though after Mercury’s death the band sold the U.S. rights to Walt Disney Corporation’s Hollywood Records label) and an EMI executive, neither party mentions the Beatles — EMI’s (indeed, anybody’s) most successful rock act of all time and another band that refused to follow standard rock conventions or stick to a successful formula. But the Beatles grew and changed as part of a consistent artistic progression, which I don’t think could be said of Queen. 

The film makes a lot of the irony that when Queen finishes A Night at the Opera, turns in the master tape to EMI and insists that “Bohemian Rhapsody” be their next single even though it’s over six minutes long and the lyrics can best be described as abstract (“Galileo” 4x, “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, can you do the fandango?”), Foster is reluctant because, as he puts it in the movie, “We need a song teenagers can bang their heads to in a car. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is not that song” — the irony being that Myers, as co-writer and star of Wayne’s World, insisted on including a scene in that film in which teenagers bang their heads in a car to “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (There’s also a nice line in which Foster — based on real-life EMI executive Ray Featherstone — tells Queen that their six-minute song “goes on forever,” and Mercury fires back, “I pity your wife if you think six minutes is forever.”) One thing I give Bohemian Rhapsody and its writers credit for is depicting Freddie Mercury’s sexuality relatively accurately — though the film is surprisingly circumspect in depicting actual sex between Mercury and either his girlfriends or his boyfriends, obviously in order to preserve the film’s chances at a PG-13 rating (which it got). It reminded me of Elton John’s comment on the imdb.com page for Rocketman that previous producers had approached him for the rights to his life story but had said they wanted to make it a PG-13 movie, to which he replied, “But I didn’t lead a PG-13 life.” Mercury’s first girlfriend, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), is clearly shown as the love of his life even though they break up sexually (but remain friends) when he comes out to her as Bi — though the film doesn’t depict the intense fling with a German actress he had while in Berlin making his solo album Mr. Bad Guy in the early 1980’s. 

Mercury had a succession of more or less ongoing (but not exclusive) male lovers in the late 1970’s and the 1980’s, and one of my home-care clients looked up a YouTube video which documented that most of Mercury’s male partners of any seriousness themselves died of AIDS complications a few years after he did. This suggests that Mercury might have been following the line of thought of a lot of Gay men at the height of the AIDS epidemic (a term that’s thrown around loosely and sometimes used as if it’s still going on: strictly speaking the AIDS epidemic — the period in which the numbers of people with the disease grew exponentially — lasted from 1981 to about 1992 and thereafter it became endemic) that people should let the HIV antibody test determine their marketplace for sexual partners, with HIV-positive men dating only other HIV-positive men. The video raised the question of why Mercury willed his entire estate to Mary Austin and gave only smaller (but still substantial) bequests to his boyfriends, but the boyfriends’ later fates suggest that he consciously thought, “My male lovers have the same disease I do and they won’t live much longer than me, while Mary will live a normal lifespan and be a much better heir for the long-term management of my estate.” 

One part of the film that really rankled me was the decision of the filmmakers to have Queen effectively break up in the early 1980’s (which they didn’t; Mercury’s solo album was strictly a side project and he frequently broke off the recording of it to join Queen for record sessions and live shows) and reunite for the huge “Live Aid” concert on July 13, 1985, where Queen supposedly gave the greatest live performance by a rock band ever. Sorry, but that’s not how I remember Live Aid at all: I watched the entire concert on TV (and recorded it on audio cassettes from the simulcast on radio) and I didn’t think Queen’s set was all that great. The band on Live Aid that really knocked me out was U2, who did a two-song set of “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and an extended version of “Bad,” and though “Bad” was cut off by technical glitches before it was quite over U2’s set struck me as the most powerful music of the day. I had never heard U2 before and instantly became a huge fan.  I had heard Queen before and, as I noted above, I liked some of their music but never became a fan, and I suspect it was because of Bono’s intensity, power and commitment to causes greater than himself and his own fame (even though later Bono’s commitment to causes would get overdone, preachy and somewhat counterproductive), while Freddie Mercury seemed to be all about Freddie Mercury. 

The film certainly does depict him that way; even before it portrays him as sexually active with men he acts like a screaming queen (one wonders if that, not the British monarch, was the real inspiration for the band’s name!) and a prima donna in more ways than one. Ironically, the spot Freddie Mercury did on Live Aid that impressed me most wasn’t any part of his performance with Queen; it was his solo voice-and-piano rendition of a song called “Is This the World We Created?” that not only fit in to the theme of Live Aid (raising money for famine relief in Africa) but seemed to be serious and moving in a way most of the Queen songs were not. Ironically, six years before Live Aid Queen had appeared in another benefit concert, The Concerts for the People of Kampuchea (a briefly-used alternative name for Cambodia), organized by Paul McCartney at the Hammersmith Odeon in December 1979. The two-LP set of recordings from this concert features excellent performance by 1960’s veterans McCartney (with the “Rockestra,” a large pickup band that also featured David Gilmour of Pink Floyd) and the Who along with heroes of the British New Wave like Elvis Costello, the Pretenders (though their main attraction was U.S.-born singer Chrissie Hynde), Rockpile (with Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant joining them as guest artist for one song) and the Clash. Queen came on for one song, “Now I’m Here,” and it was by far the ugliest song on the album, a major bringdown in what was otherwise an excellent recording.


[1] — Kevin Spacey was relevant to Rocketman because that film blatantly and shamelessly copied key plot devices and gimmicks from the Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea, which Spacey directed, co-wrote and starred in: notably having the protagonist as a boy and the protagonist as an adult interact with each other in the same scenes.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Her Secret Family Killer (Beta Films, Cartel Pictures, Reel One Entertainment, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

There were a couple of Lifetime movies I wanted to watch last night, a “premiere” called Her Secret Family Killer (a title that just seems to scream “Lifetime,” though the working title was DNA Killer — which would have suggested, at least to me, a murderer who was intent on eliminating an entire family one by one) and a repeat showing of the previous night’s “premiere,” You Can’t Take My Daughter. Her Secret Family Killer takes place in a suburban community in Washington state — our friend Garry was over to watch it with us and, since he’s lived there, he recognized some of the locations, including Whidbey Island, though I suspect that was just second-unit footage and the studio work was done across the border in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (A lot of Lifetime movies take place in the Pacific Northwest so they can shoot in Vancouver and take advantage of Vancouver’s studio infrastructure as well as the cheaper Canadian salaries — probably cheaper because, among other things, Canadian employers don’t have to pay for their employees’ health care.) It’s a typically messy Lifetime story, written by Brooke Purdy and directed by Lisa France (she gets some good suspense moments into it but this is not a Lifetime movie that is going to advance the cause of women directors in Hollywood; she’s not at the level of Christine Conradt or Vanessa Parise), in which the central character is Sarah (Brooke Nevin), who’s inherited an ice-cream shop from her Aunt Windy (Pamela Roylance) — though Aunt Windy is still alive and periodically inserts herself into the action to give April and us important exposition about their family and who’s related to whom. 

April has a husband named Will (Darin Brooks) and they have a friend named Ian (Gustavo Escobar) who’s skeptical when Will orders an ancestry.com (or whatever they call it here) DNA test for Sarah as a birthday present. The plot kicks off when Sarah’s friend Victoria (Carmen Moreno) suddenly disappears and is found a day later, dead, in the local woods. The cops do a test for any other person’s DNA on the corpse and find Sarah’s — which leads them to conclude either that Sarah herself is the killer or that the murderer is someone with virtually identical DNA to hers. At this point I was guessing that Brooke Purdy was going to pull the old gimmick of having the killer be an identical twin of Sarah’s who was raised somewhere else and of whose existence Sarah had no idea. As it turns out, Sarah does have a previously unknown sibling, Lyle (David Crittenden), but since he’s only a half-brother (same father, but his mom was a woman Sarah’s dad had an affair with before he married Sarah’s mother) his DNA isn’t close enough for him to be the match. The cops ultimately arrest Sarah’s full brother Matt — the one she and we did know about (and he’s played by a really cute actor who regrettably isn’t identified on imdb.com) — for murdering not only Victoria but also Sarah’s cousin April Baxter (Diora Baird), who had come to town (wherever “town” is in this movie) to help out at the ice-cream parlor even though there was a lot of joking around about how she was threatening the survival of the business by eating too much of the product. 

Brooke Purdy throws too many characters at us and has a hard time keeping us up on who’s related to whom, and the whole thing creaks along to an ending in which the real killer turns out to be [spoiler alert!] Roger (Matt Shevin), the tall, hunky, butch cop in charge of the investigation. Roger, it turns out, was the husband of Victoria, and while he’s posed as a man who both as a grieving husband and a cop wants to find his wife’s killer (wouldn’t a real police department have pulled him off the investigation because of his conflict of interest? Or does this little community in Washington state not have enough police officers to do that?), he really murdered his wife because she was having an affair with another man and wanted to leave him. Then he killed April because she stumbled on a key piece of evidence and started putting two and two together, and at the end of the movie he’s stalking Sarah through her home and her main concerns are not only keeping herself alive but keeping her and Will’s pre-pubescent daughter from stumbling onto Roger stalking her and getting herself added to the body count too. Eventually April gets Roger’s gun away from him, though this is one Lifetime movie in which the killer is taken alive instead of shot either by his vengeful would-be victim or the non-involved cops. Her Secret Family Killer is a clever “take” on the use of DNA in crime-solving — Roger tricked Victoria into getting Sarah to take the DNA test and then got a copy of her report as well as some of her fluids so he could plant them on Victoria’s body and thus frame her in a high-tech manner — but just writing the above synopsis has made me even more aware than I was while actually watching the movie what a preposterous plot device this is. The movie is decently acted and the direction is O.K., but the script seems to be more the work of a writer ticking off each Lifetime plot cliché off a checklist as she incorporates it — and casting director Paul Ruddy followed Lifetime traditions in casting the hunkiest guy in the movie as the villain (though the unnamed actor playing Matt gives Matt Shevin serious competition in the looks department, even though he’s twink-ish instead of butch).

You Can't Take My Daughter (Bad Dreams Entertainment, Lifetime Pictures, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After that mediocre piece of Lifetime cheese they aired one of the best movies they’ve done in quite a while: You Can’t Take My Daughter, one of Lifetime’s “Ripped from the Headlines!” movies (the slogan was originated by the Warner Bros. publicity department in the 1930’s to indicate films that were based on notorious then-current news stories even though usually they changed the names of the real people involved — as Lifetime and their co-producers, Bad Dreams Entertainment, did here) that, like a lot of the films in this series, has gained a lot from its real-life origins and forced the filmmakers (here writer Karen Lee Hopkins and director Tori Garrett, who makes a far better case for women directors than Lisa France did for Her Secret Family Killer) to play the story for far more moral and psychological ambiguity than usual for Lifetime (or most movies these days, come to think of it). You Can’t Take My Daughter was based on the real-life case of Florida woman and law-school graduate Analyn Megison, who was raped in 2003. The rape resulted in a pregnancy and Megison decided to give birth and raise her daughter as a single mother — until, in 2010, her rapist filed a lawsuit demanding parental rights and at least partial custody on the ground that he had never been convicted of raping her and he had a right to see and be part of the life of the child he’d fathered. Megison fought back and ultimately lobbied for laws to protect women who became mothers through rape from having to share their children with their rapists. (It did occur to me that Megison was at least fortunate that she wasn’t a Muslim living under a country governed by Sharia law, under which she could have been forced to marry her rapist.)

In the movie the central character is called “Amy Thompson” and is played with real power and authority by Lyndsy Fonseca, who’s been ghettoized into Lifetime movies but is a quite talented and capable performer in roles like this as a woman who goes through a really traumatic experience and fights back. The story begins at a graduation party for Amy and others in her law-school class in Charlotte, North Carolina — including the traditional African-American best friend, Letty (Tia Hendricks), who perhaps because this is a true story does not meet the untimely end typical of Lifetime heroines’ African-American best friends — when most of the other women there at the bar where the party is taking place are doing shots but Amy confines herself to wine. The rapist is someone Amy knows: Demetri Hogan (Hunter Burke), who runs a physical training center near the law-school campus where some of the women worked out; as she’s leaving the party Demetri asks Amy if she’ll go out with him, but he’s not the sort of guy who’ll take no for an answer. He gets into her home because one of the other women has booked a taxi and the three of them are going home in the same car — only he goes in with her, assaults her, slams her head against her kitchen wall and takes her over her kitchen counter. Then he keeps stalking her, driving by her place, “accidentally” catching up with her on the streets, and in one chilling scene breaking into her place, holding a gun on her and telling her, “Last time was a romantic evening compared to what I’m going to do to you next time.” (The scene with the gun was so outré at first I thought it would turn out to be a nightmare Amy was having about him until it became clear this was a real event in the story.)

Meanwhile Amy ends up in a nightmarish situation with law enforcement that’s sort of Franz Kafka’s The Trial in reverse; instead of a man being prosecuted in a mysterious process on charges he has no idea about, Amy runs smack into the legal system’s indifference to rape cases in general and rape cases involving attractive women who go to bars in particular. The cops who show up — a Black man and his partner, a white woman — couldn’t be less interested in investigating the rape charge and even talk her out of doing a rape kit at the hospital, whose examining camera is broken and so she and Letty would have to drive to another one 300 miles away. So there’s no physical evidence connecting Demetri to her rape until her child is born — and Amy also has to deal with a monumentally anti-supportive mother, Suzanne (played by former Cheers star Kirstie Alley, to whom the years have not been kind), who appears to make her living judging children’s beauty pageants (yuck!) and is more concerned about making Amy up to cover her bruises and countering the bad “reputation” both Amy and Suzanne will supposedly develop from Amy’s having a child out of wedlock (never mind that getting pregnant was decidedly not her idea!). Amy also landed a dream job with a local law firm, only to have to give it up again when her doctor warned her that her cervix was shrinking and therefore she had to stay home under bed rest until her child was born. Between a rapist who’s still stalking her, a mother who couldn’t be less helpful if she tried and a law-enforcement system that moves at a glacial pace (that would actually be an insult to glaciers) — she spends over a year hoping for hearings on both her rape and the restraining order she asked for to keep Demetri away from her — she gives up and, on the night Hurricane Andrew hits North Carolina, decides to take herself and her daughter, whom she’s named Maddie (Noah and Preston Willbourn — I’m not surprised that the producers used the familiar gimmick of casting identical twins as a very young character to avoid breaking the laws on how long in a day children are permitted to work, but I’m really surprised they cast her Transgender!), out of town and relocate to Atlanta, Georgia.

Then there’s a cut to several years later, when Amy has established a career in Atlanta (though doing what we’re not sure: for someone with a law degree she seems awfully naïve at times about how the legal system works) and Maddie (now played by Madison Johnson) is a cute, precocious little kid doing little-kid things and blissfully unaware of how she came to exist in the first place. Amy has just placed Maddie in pre-school (even though Madison Johnson looks about 7) and has anxiously asked about the school’s level of security. The rather unctuous young man in charge of admission assures her that they’ve never had a problem, but Amy worries anyway — and her worries are confirmed when one day a Black process server comes to her door and serves her with a complaint from Demetri Hogan demanding custody of Maddie. At first she tries to represent herself — she is a lawyer, after all — only that raises the ire of the quirky judge assigned to the case, Judge Bonner (David Raizor). She finds a lawyer when an old guy with a white beard, Jim Pike (Michael Woods), agrees to take her case pro bono because he feels she’s right. Demetri himself has a high-powered woman lawyer who represented him back in Charlotte as well, but Amy has a secret weapon up her sleeve: a karate teacher who used to be a cop and helps her not only by teaching her self-defense but also using his old law-enforcement contacts to obtain a record that Demetri lost his job with the Wilmington, North Carolina police after being charged with sexual assault. Demetri shows up at Maddie’s school on the night of their big school play (in which Maddie is playing a sunflower) and confronts Amy in the parking lot, attempting to assault her again and also boasting of raping her — Amy fights back with her newly acquired self-defense skills and also records his salacious conversation on her cell phone, then gets permission from the judge to play it in court.

Demetri has refused to take part in the proceedings himself — he’s listening in and occasionally contributing by speakerphone — because he claims he can’t leave his job in North Carolina even though Jim Pike’s investigator has learned he’s unemployed. Eventually Judge Bonner rules that Amy should be able to keep Maddie — though the decision is not based on her having been raped (since there was no trial and no plea, legally speaking Demetri is not a rapist even though we know he is) but on his record of lies, including saying he was in North Carolina when he was actually in Georgia (proved not only by Amy’s recording but surveillance photos taken by the cameras at Maddie’s school when Demetri parked his car outside it and lurked), and his lack of employment and other factors. (This is something of a divergence from the real story; Analyn Megison said in a USA Today op-ed in 2019 that her rapist eventually simply gave up his case against her for her daughter.) You Can’t Take My Daughter is powerful drama, well written, staged and acted: Lyndsy Fonseca is superb in the lead (even though, as noted above, it’s the kind of part she’s played before) and Kirstie Alley is a real piece of work, vividly bringing Suzanne to life even though the part is so much a construction of cornpone clichés one could have well imagined Leslie Jordan playing it in drag. If Her Secret Family Killer was an example of Lifetime at its lazy, clichéd worst, You Can’t Take My Daughter was an example of Lifetime at its best: a tough, no-nonsense tale featuring multidimensional characters in a (roughly) true story that keeps us interested, involved, aware of Amy’s plight and rooting for her all the way.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Ford v. Ferrari (20th Century-Fox, Chernin Entertainment, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched quite a good movie: Ford v. Ferrari, a 2019 dramatization of a story I remember vividly from my childhood in the 1960’s when the Ford Motor Company decided not only to enter auto racing big-time but take on Ferrari at the 24-Hour Race at Le Mans, France. The stars of this movie are Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby, the Texas-born driver turned sports-car builder who made a deal with a tiny British car company called AC to put Ford engines in their cars, thus creating the legendary Cobras; and Christian Bale as Ken Miles, British-born racing driver who helped develop the Ford GT 40 into a Le Mans competitor. The film opens with Carroll Shelby winning the 1959 Le Mans race in a British Aston-Martin — the only time between 1958 and 1965 any car that wasn’t a Ferrari won that race — only his continuing heart problems lead to his retirement from race driving as his doctor warns him that he can’t stand the strain of it and it could lead to a heart attack. It then cuts to Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) fighting a corporate war at the Ford Motor Company, trying to convince CEO Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), the grandson rather than the son of the company’s founder, Henry Ford (Ford II’s father was Edsel Ford, after whom Ford named one of its biggest failures in the late 1950’s) that the youngsters who were conceived in the post-World War II “baby boom” are now teenagers, and as they become old enough to drive they’re going to want sportier cars than their parents’. Iacocca green-lights the project to create the Ford Mustang, which was sensationally successful commercially even though (like the previous Ford Thunderbird, which isn’t mentioned in the story) it wasn’t really the high-performance sports car it claimed to be (or that Ford’s hated rival, Chevrolet, was building with the Corvette). Iacocca’s first idea was simply to buy Ferrari’s company — Iacocca has heard that, despite its long string of racing wins, Ferrari is in poor financial shape — only the negotiations between Ford’s executives and the feared Commendatore Enzo Ferrari (Commendatore means “Commander” and was an honorary title bestowed on Ferrari by the Italian government) end up in a series of mutual recriminations and insults. (I joked to Charles that the last time we’d heard Italian spoken in a movie it was in a very different sort of film: the 1950 Alberto Lattuada-Federico Fellini movie Variety Lights.) So Iacocca decides, as one sports-car magazine put it, “If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em,” and he gets Henry Ford II to green-light the Ford GT project to develop a car that will win Le Mans, show Ferrari who’s boss in the auto world, and also give Ford a high-performance image that will lead young people to buy Fords rather than Chevys or imports. (After the success of the Mustang both General Motors and Chrysler attempted imitations — the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Charger.) 

Alas, Henry Ford II puts an executive named Leo Beebe (John Lucas) in charge of the racing program, and Beebe throws his weight around, ruling Ken Miles off Ford’s first Le Mans team because he doesn’t think the maverick Miles presents the right sort of image for Ford. (Before he became John F. Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara had been chief operating officer of Ford, and though he was gone from the company when the events of this film take place his influence on Ford’s corporate culture was still so strong that virtually all the Ford executives shown in the film wear McNamara’s trademark black suits and thick-rimmed black-framed glasses.) Even if you’re not particularly interested in auto racing (as I was when this film’s events took place, though I’m not now), Ford v. Ferrari, directed by James Mangold from a script by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and James Keller, is an excellent, gripping film. Mangold is a quite underrated director who’s especially good with stories of men under stress — he did the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line and two of the best films in the X-Men cycle, Wolverine and Logan — and in this one he’s got quite a few fascinating conflicts to work with. There’s the weird inversion of the David and Goliath story — in the consumer-car world Ford was Goliath and Ferrari was David, but in the racing world it was the other way around — though it’s also an eerie anticipation of Michael Bloomberg’s Presidential campaign: the conviction among certain super-rich men that they can buy absolutely anything, whether an auto racing championship or the presidency of the United States, if they have essentially unlimited money and the ability to throw it at what they want. Ford v. Ferrari is also a relatively honest depiction of corporate capitalism and the difficulty of getting any visionary project through a major corporation without the layers of bureaucracy between the visionaries and the CEO getting in the way and screwing things up. 

Ford v. Ferrari has its weaknesses — virtually the only female character in the film is Miles’ wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), depicted as a perfect little woman who serves her man without question despite her anxieties about the danger of what he does for a living (she meekly fetches Coca-Colas for her husband and Shelby after they get into a fight on her lawn), and there’s only one scene in which the existence of Ford’s workers is acknowledged (when Henry Ford II orders the assembly line shut down to illustrate the existential threat GM in general and Chevrolet in particular poses to the company). But overall it’s a surprisingly powerful movie that ably demonstrates, as no auto racing movie I can recall has done, just how dangerous this sport really is. At times the start of the Le Mans race — in which the drivers are on one side of the road, the cars on the other, and when the green flag drops they’re required to run to their cars, enter them and start them — looks like a bumper-car attraction at an amusement park, only the cars are crashing into each other and bits of body parts are flying through the air. (The 1950’s British driver Stirling Moss used to practice Le Mans starts; he was ridiculed for this — what did a fraction of a second matter in a 24-hour race? — but he explained that he wasn’t concerned about the time advantage; he wanted his car to start first so he wouldn’t get caught in a traffic jam of other drivers behind him, often crashing into each other and taking themselves and their cars out of the race at its start.) 

Ford v. Ferrari is an excellent, understated movie with finely honed direction — Mangold is one of those un-flashy filmmakers who quietly and understatedly gets the job done — and surprisingly good performances from his leads, particularly Damon, who in other parts has basically let his good looks do his acting for him. Not this time — even though I always thought of Carroll Shelby as having a more noticeable Texas accent than Damon uses here. And the relationship between Shelby and Miles is drawn as so convincing a “bromance” that we believe its tragic ending — Miles dies in an accident while testing the latest version of the GT40 and Shelby is still emotionally devastated six months later — and Ford v. Ferrari emerges as an understated but still powerful tribute to masculinity, male vulnerability and male bonding.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Rocketman (Paramount, New Republic, Marv Films, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan

Last night’s “feature” was Rocketman, the 2019 sort-of biopic of Elton John (the distributors, Paramount, called it “a musical fantasy about the fantastical human story of Elton John‘s breakthrough years,” which warned me not to expect a literal depiction of the story), directed by Dexter Fletcher from a script by Lee Hall. The film opens with Elton John (Taron Egerton, a straight actor who predictably gave interviews in which he said the hardest part of his role was having to kiss men on screen to portray the Gay Elton John) walking into a rehab group in New York in a burnt-orange costume designed to make him look like the Devil. We later learn that he bailed out on a sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden to seek rehab for his various addictions — alcohol, cocaine, sex and shopping — though the real-life Elton John not only played that concert in 1974 but invited John Lennon to join him for the encores. (John had played on Lennon’s solo single “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” and had dared him to perform with him at the Garden. Lennon, petrified of performing live again, said, “I’ll only do it if ‘Whatever Gets You Through the Night’ hits number one on the U.S. charts” — which it did. It was Lennon’s last live performance ever, even though he had six more years to live.) The obvious inspiration for this film, both in subject matter and structure, was Beyond the Sea, the stunning 2004 biopic of Bobby Darin directed and co-written by and starring Kevin Spacey, but virtually none of the publicity surrounding Rocketman mentioned Beyond the Sea because, thanks to the accusations of Spacey making sexual advances on teenagers, Spacey has fallen afoul of the “#MeToo” witchhunters and become an Orwellian “unperson” in Hollywood: “He does not exist. He never existed.” (In Beyond the Sea a Gay man, Kevin Spacey, played a straight man, Bobby Darin; in Rocketman a straight man, Taron Egerton, played a Gay man, Elton John.) Rocketman borrows quite a few devices from Beyond the Sea, including having Elton John as a boy (Matthew Illesley) — called “Young Reggie” after Elton’s real name, Reginald Kenneth Dwight — not only appear in scenes of Elton’s childhood but interact on screen with Egerton as the adult Elton John. Like Rocketman, Beyond the Sea is framed as its subject taking stock of his life and looking back on it — in Beyond the Sea the gimmick was that Bobby Darin was preparing to direct and star in a biopic of himself — and both films present their subjects’ songs not as straightforward performances but as musical production numbers. 

The scene showing Elton John’s U.S. debut at Doug Weston’s (Tate Donovan) Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles shows him literally levitating not only himself but his audience as well — many of them members of rock royalty themselves, including Neil Young and “half the Beach Boys.” (In his 1982 autobiography Wouldn’t It Be Nice? Brian Wilson recalled a young, scared Elton John showing up at an L.A. hotel to meet him and play him his songs. Elton played most of what became his first two U.S. album releases, Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection, and the quality of Elton’s material freaked Brian Wilson out and helped convince him that he was burned out as an artist and the future belonged to younger performers like Elton John.) I’ve had a lot of conflicted feelings about Elton John over the years: when he first came on the scene I thought he was good but incredibly overrated (the Down Beat reviewer of the Elton John album said he’d received more “hype” on him than any other artist he’d written about — literally pounds of press releases and other publicity from his record label). It didn’t help with me that his first U.S. hit was “Your Song,” a drearily sappy romantic ballad that remains my least favorite Elton John song — and given that Elton famously writes only the music to his songs I joked that the lyric should be, “I hope you don’t mind/That my friend Bernie/really wrote the words” — though I liked some of his other early pieces, including “Border Song” (triumphantly covered by Aretha Franklin, who not surprisingly made far more of its Black-gospel rip-offs than Elton did!), “Take Me to the Pilot” and “Burn Down the Mission,” a lot better. I was put off by the Tumbleweed Connection album because it took feints at the country-music tradition (the movie depicts John and Bernie Taupin, played by Jamie Bell and depicted as the voice of reason in John’s life, as country-music fans at a time when country music was considered hopelessly retro — when Dick James, played by Stephen Graham as a cigar-chomping stereotype of a music industry profiteer, auditions Elton John he says he hopes he doesn’t play “Streets of Laredo,” and later John and Taupin jokingly sing a duet of that song) but totally misunderstood it. 

Besides, in the early 1970’s my hero was David Bowie, who was openly Bisexual and presented as such while Elton John was still playing the coy Liberace game — “I’ll act so blatantly like one that no one will believe I could actually be one!” (One of the few touches of irony in Lee Hall’s script is that Elton calls to come out to his mother while she’s watching a TV show featuring Liberace.) Ironically, John later definitively came out as Gay while Bowie edged away from the Gay world — Bowie ended up in a long-term relationship with a woman (his second wife, the supermodel Iman) and John in a long-term relationship with a man (his husband David Furnish, who’s listed as one of the four “executive producers” of this film). Rocketman is a good movie that had the potential to be a great one — it’s entertaining as it stands but a lot more could have been made of the conflicts between Elton John’s celebrity and his sexual identity. The real Elton John came out as Bisexual in a Rolling Stone interview in 1976 — and his record sales plummeted immediately and didn’t recover until a year and a half later, when he married a woman: his sound engineer, Renate Mueller. (Their relationship is depicted in the film but only in one scene in which she’s helping mix one of his albums.) After cranking out best-selling records at a breakneck pace in the early 1970’s (according to this movie, his initial contract with Dick James’ record label called for three albums per year — more than almost anyone, especially a singer-songwriter, did in that time!) Elton John released nothing between early 1976 and late 1978, when he put out a single co-written with Bernie Taupin, “Ego,” and then worked with other lyricists (Gary Osborne and openly Gay British rocker Tom Robinson) on a 12-inch EP produced in disco style by Philadelphia soul master Thom Bell and then a full-length album that at least started to rebuild his commercial standing, even though his sales never again reached the heights they had in the mid-1970’s. 

My favorite Elton John song of this period — indeed, of all time — was “Flinstone Boy,” a song he sneaked out as the B-side of the “Ego” single and which not only directly and unmistakably depicted the Gay lifestyle but was unusually personal in that Elton John wrote it entirely himself, words as well as music. I wish a film that dealt with Elton John’s growing awareness of his own sexuality — in the movie he gets his first male-to-male kiss from a Black soul singer his early band, Bluesology, is backing up on a British tour, and his first serious affair is with his manager, John Reid (Richard Madden), with whom he abruptly breaks up with after catching him getting a blow job from someone else at a party — would have included “Flinstone Boy.” As it is, Rocketman emerges as a “Behind the Music” special stretched out to feature length with big production numbers — it’s still the story of popular but alienated rock star drinking, drugging and screwing himself to near-oblivion before he finally sees the light, sobers up and finds true love, or at least a stable relationship — and though Taron Egerton does his own singing well enough he doesn’t have the unearthly falsetto Elton John had in the early days. Then again, Elton John doesn’t have it either: I joked to Charles after we watched the movie that Egerton doesn’t sing as well as the young Elton John but is considerably better than the current one, whose voice we hear over the closing credits in the new song John and Taupin contributed to the film, “I’m Gonna Love Me Again” — the old Hollywood dodge of dragging a new song into a film so they’ll have a piece eligible for the Academy Award for Best Song (which it won).

Monday, February 10, 2020

92nd Annual Academy Awards (ABC-TV, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, aired February 9, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 92nd annual Academy Awards was most notable for the surprise Best Picture win for the South Korean movie Parasite, which I’ve been hearing a lot of “buzz” about — mostly from film critics outraged that it didn’t sweep the previous awards shows. The Golden Globes had given their two Best Pictures to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood for “Best Comedy/Musical” even though it’s neither a comedy nor a musical, and Sam Mendes’ 1917 for “Best Drama.” I had assumed the Academy would give the Best Picture Oscar to one of those two, even though Quentin Tarantino is still considered one of the Bad Boys of Hollywood for the excessive violence in his movies and the liberties he takes with history (in Inglourious Basterds — the only fllm of his I’ve actually seen — he brought World War II to a decidedly different ending than the one history supplied, and my understanding is that in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood he has an over-the-hill Western movie star and his stunt double kill off Charles Manson and his gang before they have a chance to kill Sharon Tate and her friends) and his reputation has not mellowed with age the way Martin Scorsese’s has. Instead they gave the award to Parasite, a movie I suspect not that many Americans outside the Academy membership have actually seen, for what might be the same reasons they gave it to Moonlight instead of La La Land two years ago in what still stands as one of the most infamous snafus in Academy history. (At the start of the show Tom Hanks joked that there won’t be any similar mistakes this year because they’ve adopted the Iowa caucus system of reporting the results.)

Instead the director of Parasite, Bong Joon Ho (who, in accordance with the Asian system of putting the family name first and the given names last, was referred to as “Mr. Bong” and some people got a good laugh out of that), kept getting called for award after award when all he wanted to do was go out and celebrate his win in the “Best International Film” category (name-changed this year from “Best Foreign-Language Film”) by getting drunk on whatever it is he drinks (I asked Charles what Koreans drink, and he said Soju — the Korean version of sake — though he also is sure they have all the major Western spirits just like other Asian countries do: remember that in the film Lost in Translation the company that flew aging, over-the-hill Western star Bill Murray to Japan to do an endorsement commercial was a real company called Suntory which makes whiskey), and instead he kept getting called back to the stage for award after award after award until he, his film and a dumpy-looking older woman who was apparently one of its multiple producers (Charles joked that there were more Koreans on that stage than there are in the K-Pop boy band BTS) and who made me joke, “I didn’t know they had Jewish mothers in Korea,” all won the big one. Lorraine Ali, TV critic for the Los Angeles Times, published a rather pissy instant review of the show lamenting that since virtually all the nominees were white people — and mostly white men, at that (the biggest snub of the year was the good old boys in the Directors’ Guild of America refusing to nominate Greta Gerwig for the latest version of Little Women) — the show filled the performance sections with as many people of color as they could find, starting with Janelle Monáe and Billy Porter in an entertaining but somewhat overblown song about the people and movies that didn’t get nominated.

The high point of the show was the spectacular performance of the song “Stand Up” from Harriet, the biopic about Harriet Tubman, by the film’s star, Cynthia Erivo (even though it turns out she’s not African-American but African-British), who also co-wrote the song. Though we’ve heard a million of these stand-up-to-oppression songs before, Erivo and the Black choir who accompanied her delivered a riveting, emotion-filled performance that made me think Erivo would be the perfect person to star in a biopic of Nina Simone. Alas, as Charles pointed out, Harriet didn’t do well enough at the box office to make that likely — that will probably lie on the ash heap of my dream biopics along with one about Sister Rosetta Tharpe starring Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, and one about Janis Joplin starring Maren Morris (though one of the biopics I dreamed about actually did get made — Queen Latifah playing Bessie Smith — and, aside from the phony and counter-factual ending, it was quite good). The low point of the show was a horrible rap number featuring Eminem — Lorraine Ali ridiculed the Academy for dredging up a performer who had his 15 minutes 18 years ago, while all I could think during the performance was, “I hope I live long enough to see rap cease to be popular.” About midway through them was the “In Memoriam” segment, which was up to date enough to include the recently departed (at 103!) Kirk Douglas and was accompanied by Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas performing the Beatles’ song “Yesterday.” (If I were keeping a list of the artists I thought were least likely ever to do a Beatles cover, Billie Eilish would have been on it.) Charles also commented that the win for the film Ford vs. Ferrari in Best Sound Editing was the confirmation of my late roommate/home-care client John Primavera’s theory that the sound categories function as consolation prizes for films that don’t win anything else. (There used to be only one sound category, Sound Recording; now there are two, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, and the Sound Mixing category went to 1917 in what I thought was a warm-up for it winning Best Picture … well, I’ve been wrong many times before.)

The multiple announcers — for the second year in a row the Academy decided to do without a host, and I have mixed feelings about that (a great host like Bob Hope or Billy Crystal can really tie the show together, but there aren’t that many people left at that talent level) — ultimately pointed out that Parasite was the first Best Picture ever in a language other than English, which provoked Charles and some of his Twitter friends to point out that the very first Academy Award for Best Picture went to William Wellman’s Wings, a World War I aviation drama that was a silent film. (Then again, I would count Wings as an English-language film because most of the Academy voters would have seen it with intertitles in English.) I reminded him that in 1927 the Academy gave two Best Picture winners, Wings for “Best Production” and Friedrich Murnau’s Sunrise for “Most Artistic Quality of Production,” and quite frankly I wish the Academy would adopt that again. That way they could give Best Picture awards to the movies people actually go see, like Star Wars 9: The Rise of Skywalker, which got relegated to one nomination in one of the effects categories even though it was easily the most popular film of 2019, while the indies like Moonlight and Parasite could get the Artistic Quality award. (This is essentially the reverse of the Academy’s short-lived proposal to give a special award to “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film,” which was widely laughed at and not pursued.) The acting awards were a mixed bag, with Best Actor going to Joaquin Phoenix for Joker (making him the second actor, after the late Heath Ledger, to win for playing the Joker!); Best Actress to Renée Zellwegger for playing Judy Garland in Judy (and to her credit she gave the Academy the dissing it deserved for never having given the real Judy Garland an award … though that’s not quite true since she won a short-lived miniature Oscar for “Best Performance by a Juvenile” for The Wizard of Oz); Best Supporting Actor to Brad Pitt for Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and Best Supporting Actress to Laura Dern for Marriage Story (and among the people she thanked were her parents, Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd).

The 92nd annual Academy Awards show moved at a pretty decent clip — though it still lasted three hours and 40 minutes — and perhaps the most disappointing aspect of it was how lame the writing was, including a long gag sequence between two women dressed in red who made jokes that supposedly lampooned the industry’s sexism but just kept landing with dull thuds. There’s a lot to kid about #OscarsSoWhite and #OscarsSoMale (though I liked the fact that they brought on a woman conductor to lead the orchestra in the excerpts from the nominated scores — and a woman composer, Hildur Guðnadóttir, won for her score for Joker — the first woman to win in 20 years) and the Oscar writers took the easiest and cheapest shots. There were also quite a few political comments that made it clear that in America’s Great Divide most of its creative filmmakers are on the anti-Trump, pro-diversity, pro-cosmopolitan (I’m still reeling from the shock I felt when I read an interview with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon in which he used the word “cosmopolitan” as an insult!), pro-immigrant and pro-environmentalist side. Joaquin Phoenix used his acceptance speech for a long political tirade which alternately annoyed and bored me even though I agreed with most of what he was saying; he sounded more like he was running for President than accepting an acting award, and any moment I expected to hear an announcement that he was the real winner of the Iowa caucuses. The fact that the mavens of America’s movie industry talk a much better and more pr wogressive political game than they actually play is just another of the many contradictions of capitalism in general and entertainment capitalism in particular — along with the irony that while most of the celebrities who speak out politically are more or less Left of center, the ones that have actually got elected to office (Ronald Reagan, George Murphy, Clint Eastwood, Sonny Bono) have generally been men of the Right.

Johnny Allegro (Columbia, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Academy Awards Charles and I had time to watch another movie, and it was Johnny Allegro, an oddball 1949 film noir from Columbia directed by Ted Tetzlaff (who’d risen from cinematographer to director on the strength of his camerawork for Hitchcock’s Notorious) from a script by Karen DeWolf and Guy Endore based on a story by James Edward Grant — best known in Hollywood as John Wayne’s favorite writer: if you signed the Duke for your movie one of his conditions was that you had to put Grant on the payroll to rewrite the script for him. The star was George Raft and the movie was an indication of the downward trajectory Raft had sent his career on with his stupid decisions to turn down the Warner Bros. vehicles High Sierra in 1940 and The Maltese Falcon in 1941. Both those movies went to Humphrey Bogart, who used their unusually complex leading roles to ride out of the ghetto of cookie-cutter gangster parts and into Casablanca and superstardom. By 1949 their positions in the movie industry had reversed: instead of Bogart being the actor you got if you couldn’t get Raft, now Raft was the actor you got if you couldn’t get Bogart — and with that in mind I couldn’t help not only noticing all the elements of Johnny Allegro the writers ripped off of Bogart vehicles (The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca and Key Largo in particular) but wondering how much better it might have been with Bogart in the male lead. The film has a highly convoluted plot: Johnny Allegro (George Raft) owns and runs the flower concession in the lobby of a Los Angeles hotel when he’s accosted by two familiar film noir figures: a morally ambiguous woman named Glenda Chapman (Nina Foch) and a cop named Schultzy (Will Geer, who puts the rest of the cast one degree of separation from The Waltons) who recognizes Johnny Allegro as former Mafia hit man Johnny Rock. “Allegro” was his original family name (and the writers couldn’t resist the obvious joke about it: when he’s cruising Nina Foch’s character and she complains she’s going too fast, he says, “That’s what my name means”) and he got into gangster life when he was called upon to supply the big bouquets common at Mob funerals and he decided he wanted the easy life of a gangster — only he drew a 10-year prison sentence at Sing Sing. But he escaped and, when World War II happened, he went into the Office of Strategic Services (since the Army wouldn’t take him because of his lowlife associations) and did an heroic parachute jump in the Pacific Theatre that saved the lives of an entire detail. Got that? Basically good guy with a criminal past who’s redeemed by being a war hero — just like Casablanca, though the writers of Bogart’s masterpiece were a good deal more subtle about it.

Anyway, Glenda asks Allegro for help escaping the hotel, and in the basement they’re cornered by Schultzy and two other cops; Allegro shoots it out with them and Schultzy dies — only he doesn’t really die: Schultzy is a U.S. Treasury agent on the trail of a ring of crooks passing counterfeit money in Florida (counterfeit actually printed up by the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, who intended to flood California with it and thus destabilize the U.S. economy) and the whole shoot-out was a setup, staged with blank cartridges in Allegro’s gun. The idea is to encourage Glenda to recruit Allegro into the gang, which is headed by one of the most interesting film noir villains: Morgan Vallin (George Macready), a man of culture and a hunter quite like General Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game who regards guns as uncouth and messy and shoots his prey with a bow and arrow instead. Allegro flies cross-country with Glenda and ends up on an island off the coast of Florida which contains a large mansion that looks like the one in which Bela Lugosi was trying to transplant Lou Costello’s brain into the Frankenstein Monster in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Vallin lives on this island but every so often goes to the Florida mainland to dump his counterfeit currency at the racetrack (presumably Hialeah, though that’s not specified) and gets a bundle of real green in exchange from a gang member who works for the track. Vallin, who confiscated Allegro’s gun at the beginning of his stay with him, ultimately discovers that Allegro’s gun is loaded with blanks, realizes that Allegro is a law-enforcement undercover agent, and tries to kill him on the island with his trademark longbow but ends up being pushed off a cliff and falling to his death below.

Thanks to a phone conversation between the two picked up on a phone line Allegro had deliberately left open so the Coast Guard and the Treasury agents he was reporting to could hear it, Schultzy says he’s willing to recommend clemency for both of them. The End. Johnny Allegro is an O.K. movie from a time when film noir was a mature enough genre it was already hardening into cliché, and I got the impression that the final two-thirds were set in Florida only because Bogart and Lauren Bacall had just made Key Largo, set in Florida. Its best parts are some almost textbook noir compositions from Tetzlaff and cinematographer Joseph Biroc (doing Tetzlaff’s old job!) and Macready playing a quirky villain role pretty obviously derived from his previous role in the Rita Hayworth vehicle Gilda (one imdb.com contributor noted the similarity in character names — Macready was “Ballin Mundson” in Gilda and “Morgan Vallin” here). Its weaknesses are in the script, which is not only convoluted but depends on our believing that a sophisticated criminal enterprise like Vallin’s (and the two sinisterly-accented people who are his bosses in it and have someone even higher in an unnamed sinister foreign power they report to!) would be so sloppy in their recruitment strategies that they’d let Allegro basically walk in — though Charles gave the film points for having the counterfeit $500 million stored in an entire shack. One of the things that rub him the wrong way about a lot of movies is they assume a large sum of cash is far more compact than it is; showing a movie in which people are walking around with half a million dollars in cash in a small attaché case and he’ll lose the suspension of disbelief instantly.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Neighbor in the Window (A&E Studios, Front Street Productions, Lifetime, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was a Lifetime “Ripped from the Headlines” movie called The Neighbor in the Window, though it was somewhat different from most of the ones we’ve seen lately in that, though it was based on a true story and a book written by the person it really happened to, the real person, Kathie Truitt, changed both her own name (to “Karen Morgan”) and the name of her victimizer (to “Lisa Beasley”), and she also moved the story from Washington, D.C. (where it actually happened) to Seattle. The story as it’s told in the movie (with its rather clunky title, which kept reminding me of Fritz Lang’s noir classic The Woman in the Window; Truitt called her book False Victim, which I think would have been a better title as well as being the official name of her stalker’s mental illness, “False Victim Syndrome”) is that Karen Morgan (Jamie-Lynn Sigler), her husband Scott (Geoff Gustafson, stocky, of medium height and with black hair instead of the tall, lanky brown-haired “type” that usually gets cast as Lifetime’s innocent husbands) and their grade-school age son Miles (Azriel Dalman) relocate from Salt Lake City to Seattle when the engineering company Scott works for offers him a promotion but requires him to move. They end up buying a large house on a cul-de-sac but Karen is originally surprised that the previous owners not only left a surprising amount of stuff behind, they hung dark black curtains over the big picture windows in the living room, and she can’t imagine why they would have denied themselves all that wonderful natural light.

Almost as soon as they move in, the Morgans make two new friends among their neighbors, Lisa Beasley (Jean Lyon) and Susie (Carmel Amit). Susie is cool and normal; Lisa is anything but cool. She’s given to spying on the Morgans from a vantage point on the top story of her own house through which she can see into those big picture windows. She also has her own son befriend Miles, and soon the two kids are happily playing together in the big back yard the houses share, and Karen agrees to hire Lisa’s older child, a daughter named Allie (Hannah Zirkey) whom Lisa describes as “13, going on 40,” a chance to earn some extra money baby-sitting Miles. Only the budding friendship begins to go haywire when Lisa, Karen and Susie go shopping together, Karen buys a short red dress on Lisa’s advice — and the next day, when they have a meeting with the officials at the prestigious and ridiculously named Dorothy Peacock Elementary School where both boys will be attending, Lisa wears an identical (though larger because she takes a bigger size) red dress and Karen is miffed. The style-swiping gets worse when Karen makes a tearful confession to Lisa one night that the silver necklace she wears is a gift from her husband to commemorate their earlier child, Rose, who died one month after she was born of sudden infant death syndrome — whereupon Lisa says that she, too, had a child who died of SIDS. The next time Karen sees Lisa, Lisa is wearing exactly the same necklace with exactly the same design. At a bit outdoor cookout in that common back yard, Lisa’s husband Dan — a good-natured schlub (the actor who plays him, Alistair Abell, looks like the guy you would have called 30 years ago if you couldn’t get Danny DeVito) who’s obviously exasperated by the trouble his wife has caused him over the years — tells Karen’s husband Scott that it was Lisa’s sister, not Lisa herself, who lost a child to SIDS. Karen confronts Lisa and Lisa tells her that she’s just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease — she even shows Lisa a little notebook with various colored tags sticking from some of the pages, ostensibly so she can remember medical appointments — and that’s why she misremembered having had a child with SIDS herself because Parkinson’s gets you confused about the details.

Lisa also shows up at the Morgans’ place on Hallowe’en when Scott Morgan is on duty to distribute candy to the trick-or-treaters, wearing a skin-tight black pants and matching shirt with a big oval-shaped hole in the middle of the front of the shirt so it shows off the wearer’s cleavage. The only other time I’ve seen this peculiar garment was on the ghastly March 21, 2016 show on Fox, The Passion, where it was worn by Trisha Yearwood — an even odder costume than it was here given that she was supposed to be playing Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, while Jenn Lyon here is playing a typical nosy neighbor who’s hoping to screw up the Morgans’ marriage by seducing Scott, or at least by making enough of a play for him that she can later claim he came on to her. The breaking point comes when Lisa asks Karen to lend her $5,000, saying she and her husband Dan need the money immediately because Dan has lost his job. Karen says no, and Lisa basically declares war, dragging her son out of the Morgan home where he’d been playing with Miles and cutting off contact between the two families. Lisa also makes an anonymous phone call to the principal of Dorothy Peacock Elementary, claiming that the Morgans are neglecting their son Miles (ya remember Miles?) and costing Karen her cherished volunteer stint reading to the kids in her son’s class. Karen sees Lisa in the parking lot of Dorothy Peacock — driving a silver Mercedes identical to her own, which since she’s just bought it blows the credibility of Lisa having told her that she and her husband were broke — and Karen angrily confronts Lisa with Lisa’s son present. Lisa goes to court and swears out a restraining order against Karen — which, among other things, means Miles can no longer play in that big cool backyard for reasons neither Karen nor his dad Scott bother to explain to him. Lisa also fills the Web page of the real-estate company Karen has gone back to work for — she got bored hanging around the house all day and figured Miles was old enough she could go back to work — with negative reviews of Karen’s performance, so Karen’s otherwise sympathetic boss is forced to give her a temporary layoff.

The film reaches its climax when Karen goes out to get her family fast food, only as she’s coming home — and driving unusually slowly because she’s got soft drinks in the car and doesn’t want them to spill — Lisa hurls herself in front of Karen’s car and claims that Karen deliberately tried to run her over. Karen is arrested and charged with attempted murder — Karen is confident that her other neighbor Susie (ya remember Susie?), who was watching the whole thing from her window, can exonerate her — but Susie refuses to testify, obviously because she doesn’t want to get on Lisa’s bad side and make herself the next subject of Lisa’s abuse. The case goes to trial with a peculiar courtroom procedure; though Karen is being charged with a crime, and therefore we would expect her to be prosecuted by an assistant district attorney who would make his opening statement first and go first with his witnesses, including Lisa, what we see is more like a civil case, with the prosecutor identified as Lisa’s (not the state’s!) attorney and getting to make his opening statement and examine the witnesses after Karen’s lawyer do so. The case seems to be running against Karen until Lisa’s daughter Allie refuses to lie under oath for her mom: she tells them that she and Lisa had been waiting outside the Morgans’ home for 20 minutes until Karen returned so Lisa could throw herself under Karen’s car and claim Karen tried to run her over. Karen gets acquitted but they can’t do anything about Lisa — the police won’t prosecute her (even though she perjured herself in the trial) and she’s still living in That House — so at the end the Morgans move out and the final shot is of Lisa, still looking out that window, watching the house’s new owners move in and plotting her campaign against them.

There was a 10-minute mini-documentary after the fiction film explaining the history of anti-stalking legislation — no such laws existed until the early 1980’s (before that cops told people that they couldn’t do anything about people who followed them around and harassed them until they physically struck them), when my state, California, passed the first one — and also the premises of “false victim syndrome,” a characteristic mental illness of borderline personalities who invent elaborate histories of their own victimization and constantly suck for pity to extract favors (including money) from the people around them. I couldn’t help but wonder if this is part of Donald Trump’s mental illness — no matter how many good things happen to him (including his recent acquittal in the impeachment trial because all but one Republican Senator stood loyal to him rather than to the Constitution), Trump can’t let go of his sense that he is a victim, as witness the public pity party he staged to celebrate his acquittal and his adding three more heads to the pikes of all the people he feels have “wronged” him. (That was the metaphor an unnamed Trump White House associate used to communicate a warning to any wavering Republican Senators that “their heads would be on a pike” if they had the lèse-majesté to vote against Trump.) I had begun to make that connection even during the movie — when Susie refused to testify for Karen I thought, “Just like a Republican Senator!” — and though the one weakness I found in the story was that nobody in it was fully honest with each other (in particular, Karen never told anybody in the story, including her husband and their son, that Lisa’s campaign against them really started when Karen refused to give her $5,000), otherwise this was a marvelous movie, chillingly directed by Menhai Huda, with a tough, no-nonsense script by Karen Stillman and excellent performances from the two female leads.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Aquaman (DC Comics,DC Entertainment, Panoramic Pictures, Warner Bros., 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Cbarles the Blu-Ray disc of the 2018 movie Aquaman, which turned out to be a spectacular movie visually — the five “executive producers” (Jon Berg, Walter Hamada, Geoff Johns, and Zack and Deborah Snyder) and the director they hired — James Wan, whose previous credits include The Conjuring and Annabelle horror series and number seven in the Fast and Furious series — enlisted apparently half the CGI technicians in the world to create a series of stunning effects, particularly the seahorses, sharks and aquatic lizards and the like that inhabit the underwater world of Atlantis and provide the Atlanteans their main means of transportation. Where it goes wrong is the plot; it not only draws extensively from just about every “quest” legend in history (particularly the tales of King Arthur — just to make sure we get the point, Aquaman’s non-hero name is “Arthur Curry” — but also Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, Raiders of the Lost Ark, H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, The Lord of the Rings (and a brief reference to Wagner’s Ring as well in the scene in which Aquaman’s weapon, called a “trident” but really a quindent since it has five tines instead of just three, is broken in two by the bad guy’s) and the Star Wars cycle — but it’s really (as I said of Raiders of the Lost Ark when it was new) just a Republic serial with a budget several orders of magnitude larger. 

The film’s committee-written script (Geoff Johns, James Wan and Will Beall, story; and Beall and David Leslie Johnson-McCormick, script[1]) was structured, if you can call it that, like a Republic serial script, with ponderous scenes of exposition there just to set up the next action highlight. The Aquaman comic book debuted in November 1941 as a part of a magazine called More Fun Comics, but he didn’t get his own stand-alone comic book until the 1960’s, when he was just a guy in tight swim trunks and nothing else. That wouldn’t have been so bad except that the parts of him you could see looked like a mannequin, with virtually no musculature or physical definition. At the height of my brief comic-book reading phase in the 1960’s (which had its apex when my mom, my brother and I spent three months in the summer in the fishing village of Ajijic, Mexico and I bought a lot of comic books because they were just about the only reading material available in English), I encountered Aquaman but thought he was just about the most boring character in the DC stable and I was much more interested in Marvel’s equivalent, Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, who like Aquaman came equipped with both lungs and gills so he could breathe either water or air, but unlike Aquaman came equipped with long ears with pointy tops (I’ve never seen this confirmed but I’ve long since been convinced that Gene Roddenberry ripped off the appearance of Mr. Spock from Prince Namor) as well as a compelling backstory in which he was the rightful ruler of Atlantis with a long-time agenda of regaining his throne. 

Well, starting in 2016 DC rebooted the Aquaman character to look more muscular and butch — he was still topless but now his chest was ripped, and instead of just a swimsuit he wore tight green pants with scales and fins to make him look more fish-like. It was apparently this version that supplied the plot line for the 2018 film — to the extent it has a plot line — in which Aquaman (played as a three-year-old by Tainui and Tamor Kirkwood —the old dodge around the rules of how long children can work by casting identical twins as the same character — Kaan Guldur at nine, Otis Dhanji at 13, Kekoa Kekumano at 16 and Jason Momoa as an adult) is really Arthur Curry. He’s the product of a love-match between his father Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison), a lighthouse keeper on a New England shore, and his mother, Princess Alanna of Atlantis (Nicole Kidman), who fled the undersea realm of Atlantis to escape an arranged marriage. She lasted long enough on Earth to marry Tom and bear Arthur before an Atlantean goon squad recaptured her and she agreed to go with them and marry the asshole the Atlantean ruling family wanted her to so they wouldn’t kill Tom. Got all that? While Tom was raising Arthur as a single parent, Arthur was frequently getting visits from Vulko (Willem Dafoe), who trains him to fight underwater and tap into his heritage as an Atlantean royal. Meanwhile, Atlantis is being (mis)ruled by King Orm (Patrick Wilson), who’s determined to start an all-out war on the surface world. In a bit of mildly pro-environmentalist social commentary, he explains his determination to wipe out the surface-dwelling population of Earth as being justified by the sheer amount of pollution we’re dumping into the ocean and the way we’re threatening the existence of Atlantis by underwater nuclear tests and other things we’re doing to fight our wars with each other. So he uses Atlantis’s energy technology to cause a series of tsunamis that washed up old warships and human garbage from the ocean floor. 

Meanwhile, the now grown-up and Jason Momoa-played Aquaman makes his superhero “bones” when he rescues the crew of a super-secret U.S. submarine from a father-and-son team of Black pirates (Black as in African-descended, just to be clear) pirates named Jesse (Michael Beach) and David (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) Kane. Though he’s unable to salvage the sub as a seaworthy vessel, he is able to make sure all the nice white crew members get in their life rafts and he lets Jesse drown as the wrecked sub sinks. David, of course, will never forgive Aquaman for letting his father die, and ultimately he hooks up with King Orm to rat out Aquaman and his girlfriend, red-haired Princess Mera (Amber Heard), for 30 pieces, not of silver but gold (inflation strikes again!), and a black, armored diving suit that turns him into a super-villain, Black Manta. Aquaman and Mera get a cylindrical recording that supposedly contains a message left behind by King Atlan, founder of Atlantis thousands of years before, and the two go on a chase across the world — including the Sahara Desert and Sicily, where remnants of the Atlantean race apparently ended up before dying out because they could no longer survive on the surface — for a playback machine that will play the record. They plugged it into one such device and it didn’t work — Charles joked at this point, “Sorry, but you need to upgrade to System 7” — until Mera realizes that it needs to be moistened, whereupon she manages to condense a bead of sweat from Aquaman’s forehead (Aquaman, in one of his few good lines in the film, says, “Show-off! I could have just peed on the thing!”). The record says, “Help me, Obi-Wan, you’re my on-” — oops, wrong movie. The actual message is a flashback narrated by King Atlan that makes this whole movie seem like a sequel to George Pal’s 1961 film Atlantis, the Lost Continent: the Atlanteans lived on the surface and had access to a limitless energy source, but they ultimately got greedy and as a result their technology backfired and sank their entire community into the ocean, forcing them to evolve and learn to breathe water to survive. 

The gimmick is that the good guys have to reunite the seven kingdoms of the former Atlantis and find the original golden trident King Atlan cast as his magic, invincible weapon — O.K., his Excalibur or Nothung — that will enable Aquaman to defeat King Orm in hand-to-hand combat, something he previously tried with the weapon his mother left for him, which is referred to as a trident but is more accurately a “quindent,” since it has five tines instead of three. Only in their first battle Orm broke Aquaman’s weapon in half with the shaft of his own, so Vulko called Aquaman back for more training. Meanwhile, the other kings of Atlantis — at least the ones who are still ruling viable underwater kingdoms — including Mera’s father, King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren), reluctantly go along with Orm’s proposed war out of fear of what he’ll do to them if they don’t, sort of like Republican Senators with Donald Trump. The big climax — at least the first one — takes place in a realm of ice and water in which the long-thought-dead Queen Atlanna (ya remember Queen Atlanna?), the part played by Nicole Kidman (ya remember Nicole Kidman?), turns out to be alive. To retrieve King Atlan’s magic trident Aquaman has to defeat a giant eel-like monster called the Karathen (whose voice is supplied by Julie Andrews, of all people — or is that another Julie Andrews? No, it is indeed she, our beloved Eliza Doolittle on stage and Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp on film; I guess in this film the seas are alive with the sound of music), though instead of the duel-to-the-death we expect Aquaman talks the Karathen into believing he’s the one true ruler of Atlantis and the Karathen lets him take the trident, with which he returns to Atlantis Central and overcomes King Orm in their duel — only Queen Atlanna stops Aquaman from killing Orm on the understandable ground that she doesn’t want one of her sons murdering the other. The film ends with everybody reconciled and Aquaman and Mera getting together to rule Atlantis — only a Marvelesque sequence in the middle of the credits roll lets us know that Black Manta (ya remember Black Manta?) is still alive, still has his strength amplified by Atlantean technology, and still wants to kill Aquaman (can you say sequel?). 

So much of this story sounds familiar — not only from old quest legends but more recent films from the comic-book universe — that when I first heard of Aquaman and got a précis of what the story was, I thought, “It’s like the writers decided, ‘Hey, let’s do Black Panther with white people — and let’s do it under water!’” The Black Panther parallels are pretty obvious — the rival claimants to the throne, one from the outside world and the other (the villain) raised indigenously; the quest to unite the seven kingdoms of a lost empire; the limitless energy source and the political and moral dilemma of what to do with it — but they only serve to illustrate the distinction between a work of power and beauty and a piece of entertaining trash. Within the context of the superhero genre, Black Panther dealt with serious social and moral issues — how does a community handle a limitless energy source, and what are its moral responsibilities? Does it stay aloof from the rest of the world, or does it share what it has and thereby risk being corrupted, especially when they’re part of an historically oppressed race and isolation was the only thing that kept them from being colonized? But these themes, which were at the heart of Black Panther director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer, Joe Robert Cole, couldn’t have been of less interest to the makers of Aquaman. The big problem with Aquaman is the gulf between the physical imagination — particularly the sea creatures the Atlanteans use as transport and beast of burden (including one remarkable scene in which an Atlantean band’s drummer is an octopus, playing a super-sized drum set with all eight limbs) and the lovely use of color, including the contrasts between blue and red (there’s quite a lot of red in the film since it’s established early on that Atlanteans have fire — no, the filmmakers don’t ask us to believe anything can burn underwater, but there sure seem to be a lot of underwater volcanoes in this film) — and the dramatic lack of imagination, the sense that we’ve seen (and heard) all this before as well as the sense that this film’s “story” is as pretextual as it was in the old Republic serials: just a lot of ponderous exposition to set up the next action highlight.



[1] — When I saw that long name on the credits I assumed it referred to two separate people!