Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Lego Batman Movie (Warner Bros., DC Entertainment, LEGO System A/S, Lin Pictures, RatPac, 2017)

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

Exhausted with politics and “seriousness” in general after the two-hour Democratic Presidential candidates’ debate last night, my husband Charles and I watched The Lego Batman Movie, a 2017 follow-up to The Lego Movie and a film that when I first saw the trailer for it I assumed would be terminally and unwatchably silly. But the last time we were at Target Charles found a DVD copy on sale for just $5 and we grabbed it — and it turned out to be an utter delight, an expert spoof of the whole superhero genre and its pretensions. It opens with a black screen and dire music, over which we hear a narration by Batman (Will Arnett) setting up the film’s irreverence: “Black. All important movies start with a black screen... And music... Edgy, scary music that would make a parent or studio executive nervous... And logos... Really long and dramatic logos... Warner Bros. Why not ‘Warner Brothers’?[1] I don’t know... DC... The house that Batman built. Yeah, what, Superman? Come at me, bro. I’m your Kryptonite... Hmm... Not sure what RatPac does, but that logo is macho. I dig it... Okay. Get yourself ready for some... reading. ‘If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change. Hooo.’ No. I said that. Batman is very wise. I also have huge pecs and a nine-pack. Yeah, I’ve got an extra ab. Now, let’s start the movie.” The movie is at once an animated superhero tale, a mad set of references to all the various incarnations of Batman on film and, of all things, a “bromance” between Batman and the Joker (Zach Galafianakis) as well as a father-and-son bonding tale between Bruce Wayne a.k.a. Batman and Dick Grayson a.k.a. Robin (Michael Cera in what claims is his first movie with only a PG rating), who in a neat role-reversal essentially adopts him while Batman is lustfully cruising Barbara Gordon a.k.a. Batgirl (Rosario Dawson), who’s just taken over as Gotham City’s police chief following the retirement of her father. (There’s also a weird cameo appearance by Mariah Carey, of all people, as the voice of Gotham City Mayor McCaskill.)

The plot, if it matters, concerns the attempts of two rival camps of super-villains to aid the Joker in his ongoing plan to take over Gotham City (and do what with it we’re never quite told, though there’s a nice seen in which the Joker takes over Bruce Wayne’s island estate and turns it into a hideously garish amusement park), including not only the familiar menaces from the Batuniverse but also King Kong, Sauron from The Lord of the Rings, Voldemort from the Harry Potter tales and even some of the killer dinosaurs from the Jurassic Park franchises. The rivalry is between the terrestrial villains and the ones from Krypton who survived their planet’s destruction by being exiled to the Phantom Zone, only they’re released because Batman has had Robin steal the Phantom Zone Projector from Superman’s Fortress of Solitude — he uses Robin because, like the pygmy in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel The Sign of Four, he’s little and lithe enough to evade Superman’s security system — and also Batman considers him “110 percent expendable.” Only the Joker steals it and uses it to let all the criminals from the Phantom Zone out to become his replacement gang after Barbara Gordon traps the Earthling bad guys (and gals) in a high-tech prison. The Lego Batman Movie was the brainchild of Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote the original story — though a lot of other people (Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern and Jake Whittington) joined him in making it into a script (thereby making this at least a partial exception to my general field theory of cinema that a movie’s quality is inversely proportional to its number of writers) — and the direction is by Chris McKay. In case you were wondering, they did not do the film as stop-motion animation with Lego blocks; it’s really computer animation, and though I continue to have a problem with the thick, blocky look of computer animation (it has neither the realism of live-action nor the fluidity and artistry of drawn animation), I’ve seen a lot of movies in which the quality of the writing and voice-acting overcame the inherent limits of computer animation, and this is one.

[1] — Actually in the 1910’s and 1920’s it was “Warner Brothers,” fully spelled out. In 1931 they shortened it to “Warner Bros.”

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Wrong Mommy (Hybrid/Lifetime, 2019)

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

Last Sunday night, February 23, I watched a couple of Lifetime movies that were part of an all-weekend marathon of “Wrong … ” movies featuring Vivica A. Fox, a buxom, middle-aged African-American actress who usually plays the Black authority figure who helps the white characters sort out their problems. The two I watched last night, The Wrong Mommy (2019) and The Wrong Tutor (2018), were both Hybrid LLC productions, with Fox credited as one of the “executive producers” as well as an actor, and both were directed by David DeCoteau, though they had different writing teams. The Wrong Mommy was credited to Jeffrey Schenck, Peter Sullivan and Robert Dean Klein (the first two for “story” and Klein for “script”) while The Wrong Tutor was written, apparently solo, by Adam Rocks-Off — oops, I mean Rockoff. Both adhered quite tightly to the Lifetime formula, though with some intriguing variations. The Wrong Mommy — not to be confused with another Lifetlme movie from 2017, The Wrong Mother, produced by a different team for a different company (Cartel Entertainment) — deals with the Anderson family: dad Alex (the genuinely hot Jason Shane-Scott — for once the innocent husband in a Lifetime movie is played by someone genuinely sexy instead of the usual tall, lanky, sandy-haired blah type); mom Melanie (Jessica Morris); and daughter Tina (Jillian Spitz). Melanie’s mother, Carol Graham (Dee Wallace, the mother of the central human family in E.T.), also lives with them but leaves on an extended trip at the beginning of the show and doesn’t return until the end. Melanie is the family breadwinner; she’s got a promotion at the ad agency she works for, owned by Samantha (Vivica A. Fox, in flattering pantsuits and long, flowing hair instead of the “sensible” dresses and butch cuts she usually wears as the African-American authority figure). Alex also has some sort of job, but it’s less well paid and the writing committee never bothers to tell us what it is.

One of the perks of Melanie’s new job is she gets to hire her own assistant, and though she has her eye (so to speak) on a male candidate, ultimately Phoebe Sutton (Ashlynn Yennie) gets the job. Needless to say, given that she’s a character in a Lifetime movie with the word “Wrong” in the title, she’s Up To No Good from the get-go. She seems nice enough but she has a chip on her shoulder that comes, we find out later, from having been an orphan: her mother died of cancer when she was three and her father died when she was six. She was briefly taken in by a grandmother but grandma decided she couldn’t handle going through the child-raising thing again and palmed her off on the foster-care system, where at least one of her foster dads raped her. She frequently tells Melanie that some people have it all and others have nothing, and though Melanie ignores this we know it’s a warning that Phoebe is planning to move in and take over Melanie’s life: her job, her husband, her daughter, her home. Through the whole movie we’re kept in suspense as to What Makes Phoebe Run: she gets cruised by one of the agency’s biggest clients, car dealer Roger (Eric Roberts, who seems to be reduced to playing these seedy old letches on Lifetime films), and they trade dirty pictures of each other’s private parts online and finally meet — only Phoebe strangles him to death, apparently because he resembled the foster father who molested her. She also kills a couple of other people who catch on to her secret, including Jason (Jared Scott), a teenager with a skill for computer hacking who caught on to Phoebe’s real name — Lisa Nolan — and history: she was in a halfway house for two months after having been released from a women’s prison on an assault charge; and Kellyanne (Dominique Swain, a talented actress who deserves better — and longer — parts than this), who was her Lesbian lover in prison, followed her to the halfway house and agreed to serve as a fake “reference” for her so she could get the job with Melanie.

Phoebe also steals a list of potential contacts for new accounts from one of her co-workers and justifies it in an almost Trumpian manner that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and you need to do what you have to do to get ahead — and she’s so good she even fools Samantha, who wonders if she should fire Melanie and give Phoebe her job. (It’s ultra-rare for a Vivica A. Fox character to be taken in by the villainess.) Then Carol Graham (ya remember Carol Graham?) returns from her long-term vacation and we find out what this was really all about: for much of the movie I was thinking the Lifetime cliché they were going to pull was that Alex had had an affair — or at least a one-night stand — with Phoebe and Phoebe had formed an obsession about it, but the ultimate resolution is a bit more creative than that. Remember that Phoebe’s mom died when she was three and her dad died when she was six? Well, it seems that in the intervening period after her mom died, her dad remarried — only after dad died his new wife decided she wanted no part of the burden of raising a child as a single mother when she had no biological connection with her at all. So she palmed little Lisa on her dad’s mom, who then threw her onto the untender mercies of the foster-care system — and the woman who did that to Lisa was Carol Graham, Melanie Anderson’s mother. So Lisa, now Phoebe, blames Melanie and her mom for cheating her out of the life she deserved. The Wrong Mommy is an O.K. Lifetime movie redeemed by Ashlynn Yennie’s performance as Phoebe; she manages the barely motivated shifts in the character’s character on a dime and etches a vivid portrait of a woman torn apart by a rough life filled with rejection that has left her literally homicidally crazy. Despite her tongue-twisting mouthful of a name, this is a woman that deserves major stardom!

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Wrong Tutor (Hybrid/Lifetime, 2019)

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

Alas, while the preceding Lifetime movie telecast last Sunday, February 23, The Wrong Mommy, at least had a compelling villainess performance by the oddly named but quite good Ashlynn Yennie, the movie they followed it up with, The Wrong Tutor  — also a production of the Canadian studio Hybrid and directed by David DeCoteau — was a strictly formula piece with nothing much to recommend it aside from some nice shirtless glimpses of the male lead, Eric (Nate Wyatt), a soccer star at the high school in Caroline County (we’re not told in what state), who as the film begins is at a party with his girlfriend Jessica “Jess” Brand (Li Eubanks). They’re in an upstairs bedroom in the house where the party is taking place, and Jess wants Eric to spend the night with her — it’s not sure whether she’s expecting sex from him or just wants them both to sleep off their drunks rather than try to make it home. But Eric begs off and ends up being busted by a cop for DUI and having his license suspended. This just adds to the heap of troubles facing him: he’s being raised by a single mom, Carol (Vivica A. Fox) who’s made it clear she blames Jess for his current troubles and wants him to dump her. He’s also depending on a soccer scholarship to be able to afford college, only he’s in danger of being dropped from the team because of his slipping grades. 

What seems like salvation arrives in the form of Emily Miller (Ivy Matheson), a blonde white girl — Nate Wyatt is racially ambiguous but both the actors playing his mom and his girlfriend are clearly and obviously African-American — who’s just transferred from another school in the area and meets Eric in his calculus class (why is an aspiring athlete taking something as academically challenging as calculus?), on which he’s got an F on the latest test. She offers to tutor him, but what he doesn’t know — though we do — is that she’s not only got the hots for him, she’s been secretly stalking him. Her tutoring works — she gets his calculus grades up from F to B — but he gets progressively irritated at the moves she’s putting on him and keeps reminding her that he already has a girlfriend. At one point she makes the mistake of telling her, “If Jess didn’t exist … ,” and this leaves Emily determined to create the conditions for Jess’s non-existence. She’s got a clue as to how to do this — earlier she’s seen Jess carrying an EpiPen in her locker because she’s deathly allergic to stinging insects, including bees and wasps — so she slips some wasps into Jess’s car and the insects sting her and nearly kill her. Only she gets out her EpiPen in time and the dose keeps her alive long enough for her to be rescued and taken to the hospital — where Emily breezes in, all sweetness, light and faux concern. In the one interesting and ironic switch on the usual Lifetime formulae screenwriter Adam Rockoff pulls, Eric’s mother Carol, who can’t stand Jess, adores Emily and wishes her son would date Emily instead of Jess. Only Eric makes it clear that as appreciative as he is of Emily helping her with his calculus, he really doesn’t like her “that way” — whereupon Emily responds by breaking into his house (she’s stolen his key and also observed him turn off the burglar alarm, so she knows its code) and slipping next to him in bed while he sleeps, obviously hoping his teenage hormones will respond and he’ll fuck her no matter what the potential repercussions to his other relationships, including Jess’s. 

When he doesn’t take the bait, she responds by making a sexual harassment complaint against him, which is heard by the school principal (Jackée Harry) in one of those grotesque perversions of due process that have become endemic in the #MeToo era: he’s told that the complaint exists but he isn’t told what the charges are against him because that would be violating the complainant’s privacy. (One of the things I don’t like about the #MeToo movement is their blithe insistence that the basic protections of the Sixth Amendment — that someone accused of a crime has the right “to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him” — come with a secret asterisk and a footnote attached that reads, “Unless the accusations have something to do with sex.”) When he finally does find out what he’s being charged with, the principal evidence against him is her allegation that in trying to force himself on her, he grabbed her and left bruises on her arm; the bruises are real, all right, but he caused them while trying to throw her out of his bedroom where she had come to force herself on him. Threatened with the loss of everything he cares about — his schoolwork, his place on the soccer team, his chances for college and his relationship with Jess — Eric fights back, and Jess helps by tracing Emily’s true background. It seems that at the school she previously attended before transferring to Eric’s, Emily cruised Rob O’Shea (Nathan Varnson), the star of their soccer team, and they had a brief affair, only he broke it off because she was crazy. Jess gets this story out of him and he receives a text asking for a meeting after dark to discuss this further — only this text actually came from Emily, who hacked and “mirrored” Jess’s phone after having followed Jess when she drove out to her old school to talk to Rob. Emily stabs Rob with her favorite weapon — a knife that looks like the sort of thing you gut fish with — and leaves him for dead. 

Eric and Jess drive out to Emily’s home, where she’s supposedly living with her grandmother (her mom abandoned her after her dad died) — only grandma isn’t there, and Eric and Jess discover a past-due bill from a nursing home and realize Emily has been living alone in a big house all this time. They enter the house unannounced and start searching for things — and of course Emily comes home unexpectedly and threatens to kill both of them. Fortunately, they get the knife away from Emily and save themselves, but unfortunately she gets away — and in one of those maddening open-ended endings Lifetime is sticking on all too many of their movies (sometimes, as in the film Lost Boy, in a credible and even moving way; other times, as here, unbelievable and annoying), Emily, using a different name, is in another high-school classroom making eyes at the star athlete and offering to tutor him. Writer Rockoff does offer us an explanation of What Made Emily Run — it seems her mom ran off with a star soccer player and she never forgave her, so she decided in her twisted way to seduce high-school soccer players and ruin them — hey, I told you there was an explanation. I didn’t tell you it would make sense! Aside from a couple of nice topless shots of Nate Wyatt’s magnificently ripped chest, The Wrong Tutor really has little to offer — and a comparison of Ivy Matheson’s performance as the psycho here to Ashlynn Yennie’s in an older version of the same role in The Wrong Mommy is a comparison between an amateur who’s just beginning to learn to act and a consummate professional who knows how to make the character live and breathe.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

“Science Fiction Theatre”: First Season, Seven Episodes (ZIV TV, 1955-1956)

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

Last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi screening ( consisted of seven 25-minute episodes from the first season of a quite compelling science-fiction anthology series from 1955 to 1957 called Science Fiction Theatre — which ironically went off the air just before The Twilight Zone came on. In yet another example of what I call “first-itis” —the tendency of historians to attribute something as being the first of its kind, or someone as the first to do something, even though earlier examples exist — The Twilight Zone is often cited as the debut of serious science-fiction on TV, but even before Science Fiction Theatre there was Tales of Tomorrow, a short-lived 1951-1953 anthology series on ABC in the early 1950’s and got revived on the Sci-Fi Channel in the early 1990’s long before it acquired the ridiculous but trademarkable name “Syfy.” I saw it then and got the impression that Tales of Tomorrow would be as well known today as The Twilight Zone if it had been shot on film instead of being done live — which means the only recordings of it that survive are kinescopes (crude copies that were made simply by sticking a movie camera in front of a TV monitor and were used to air the shows on the West Coast; East Coast viewers would see the show live and then the networks would fly the kinescopes cross-country so they’d be seen on the West — so even that early in the history of broadcasting we West Coasters were made to suck hind tit by the East Coast-based media mavens, and one reason Desi Arnaz insisted on doing I Love Lucy on film was so they could remain in Los Angeles and the show would be seen at the same level of visual quality everywhere in the U.S.). Science Fiction Theatre was done on film — at the pioneering TV production company of Henry Ziv, who in the 1950’s made quite a few TV series and sold them on a syndicated basis to stations without national network affiliations. His biggest hit was Sea Hunt, with Lloyd Bridges starring as a deep-sea diver, but he also produced quite a few other series.

Last night’s program consisted of the seven episodes from season one (1955-1956) that got the highest ratings on, and it kicked off with the second show of the series — and one of the best, “Time Is Just a Place.” This was the one with probably the most competent behind-the-camera help — the director was Jack Arnold (best known for Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came from Outer Space, the latter a story with quite obvious similarities to this one) and, though Lee Berg wrote the screenplay, the story was by Invasion of the Body Snatchers author Jack Finney. Many of the Science Fiction Theatre episodes, including this one, begin with a normal suburban family to whom something untoward is about to happen: in this case, it’s the Browns, consisting of father Al (Don DeFore), mother Neil (Marie Windsor) and their two boys, who make the acquaintance of the young daughter of their new neighbors, the Hellers: father Ted (Warren Stevens) and mother Ann (Peggy O’Connor). The girl starts a game of catch with the boy Browns but says she can teleport the ball instead of having to throw it normally — though when they start giving her a hard time she agrees to play catch the usual terrestrial way instead. Even before that Al Brown has dropped in on the Heller home and seen a robot vacuum cleaner — the Hellers call it a “sonic broom” but it looks astonishingly like the modern-day Roomba product (a great call from this show’s production designers!) — and later Ted Heller has trouble starting his car and doesn’t know where the lever is under the dashboard that releases the hood so Al Brown can look at it for him.

Later one of the Brown kids looks through the Hellers’ window and spies Ted Heller talking into a tape recorder, describing a futuristic vision of himself as a being from another planet sent to live among Earth people and observe them. In the show’s most intense moment, the Hellers’ daughter is run over by a truck but feels no pain — not from the truck and not from the iodine one of the Browns pours onto the wound on her arm. Ted Heller insists that there’s a normal explanation for all this and the conclusion the Browns have come to that he’s an alien from outer space is incorrect: he’s a science-fiction writer who dictates his stories into a tape recorder so his wife can transcribe them, and his daughter is an otherwise normal Earth human who lacks the ability to feel pain. (In the 1960’s I read an article about people who can’t feel pain — and wish they could, since pain is an early-warning signal that you’re doing something dangerous to yourself. One person interviewed for this story remembered having their hand in a fire and feeling nothing but a vaguely itchy sensation; it wasn’t until they saw their hand burning that they realized they were in danger.) Then, just as the writers and director have seemingly assured us that nothing is going on here and the Hellers are perfectly normal humans, Ted Heller gives a speech and has some furrowed-brow close-ups as he delivers it, and these hint that he and his family are outer-space aliens after all. One of the nice things about Science Fiction Theatre that became apparent through all seven of these episodes was that the show’s writer and show runner Ivan Tors (a name on a lot of speculative projects in the 1950’s, including the fascinating films The Magnetic Monster and its sequel Gog — though he’s best known today as the creator and show runner for Flipper, and he’s got a bad name since the trainer who coached Flipper turned against the whole idea of making marine mammals perform for human audiences and gave a series of interviews denouncing how Tors and his crew had allegedly mistreated and abused their dolphin star) were consciously building their stories as extrapolations on then-current scientific researches and speculations in hopes of making them seem like logical extensions of current technology.

The second show on the screening program was “The Stones Began to Move,” a weird show that benefited from the presence of Basil Rathbone at the head of the cast. It begins in a penny arcade, in which a mysterious stranger named Dr. Paul Kincaid (Robin Short) goes into a recording booth that allows you to make a one-sided, one-minute 78 rpm record for 10¢. (I remember these from my childhood in the early 1960’s, though by the time I encountered them the price had gone up to 75¢,) He starts saying he needs to get in touch with the eminent scientist Dr. Victor Berenson (Basil Rathbone, a bit older and seedier than he was in his prime but still acting with the same imperturbable authority he had when playing Sherlock Holmes), who’s made a discovery he thinks could explain how the ancient Egyptians built the great pyramids without access to modern construction equipment that could have lifted those two-ton blocks of sandstone into place. Alas, just as he’s finishing the recording an unseen sniper picks him off and he dies — and in a pretty dumb plot twist, the sniper does not go back to the recording booth, pick up the record and destroy it. Instead the cops recover the record and, since it mentions Dr. Berenson, seek him out. Apparently the ancient Egyptians were able to build the pyramids because they had a now-lost mineral (the sort of thing the New Yorker review of the film Black Panther called “MacGuffinium”) that could literally reverse the force of gravity, and two tiny chunks of that material survived in the eyes of a statue of a panther in the tomb of Pharoah Cheops. An archaeological team co-sponsored by the British and Egyptian governments has recovered the panther statue, but its eyes are missing — though they’re eventually recovered when Dr. Berenson deduces (just like Sherlock Holmes!) that Dr. Kincaid hid the two panther’s eyes in a double light switch in his basement (and he’s somehow able to extract them without either turning off the power to the circuit or shocking himself), only just as he recovers them he ends up with a gun held to his head by Dr. Ahmed Abdullah (Richard Flato) — of course the Arab from a Muslim country would be the villain! — who demands them. But Dr. Berenson uses a Holmesian trick to get Dr. Abdullah to turn away, grabs the gun, gets Abdullah arrested for Kincaid’s murder and tests the eyes. They have a very weak anti-gravitatioal effect — apparently they’ve worn down over thousands of years —but enough to demonstrate that the minerals worked and could have been the secret of how the pyramids were built. The behind-the-scenes personnel on this episode were far less illustrious than those on “Time Is Just a Place” — this time the director was “B”-movie schlockmeister Lew Landers and the writer was Doris Gilbert, who did the screenplay solo from a story by her and Ivan Tors — and it showed in the flat scripting and the plot holes, but this was still a show worth watching.

The third Science Fiction Theatre episode we were watching was called “The Strange People at Pecos,” a title which had me wondering if it would be a science-fiction Western like the 1935 Gene Autry serial The Phantom Empire and the recent Cowboys & Aliens. No: it’s yet another tale set in modern (then) suburbia in which the central character, Jeff Jamison (Arthur Franz), is at a NASA (or whatever it was called that early) base in Pecos, New Mexico monitoring test launches of a new U.S. missile called “Big Sam” (though what we actually see are stock shots of the German V-2 rockets from World War II which the Americans captured along with their inventor, Wernher von Braun, and used for missile tests). He’s supposed to be monitoring the path of these rockets via radar, but each time there’s a launch two other radar blips appear on his screen, which he takes to be flying saucers (the script by Doris Gilbert — her again! — at once uses the term “flying saucers” and mocks it, and I joked, “It’s more like a flying samovar”) from another planet following Big Sam and therefore keeping an eye on the U.S. missile program. He progressively alienates his family, including his wife Celia (Doris Dowling, playing a typical suburban housewife: a far cry from her best-known role as the faithless wife, fooling around at home and killing her son in a drunk-driving accident while her husband, good-guy servicemember Alan Ladd, was away at war in Raymond Chandler’s The Blue Dahlia) and their sons Jeff, Jr. (Barry Froner) and Terry (Andrew Glick), and becomes convinced that their neighbor Arthur Kern (Dabbs Greer) and his family — wife Amy (Judith Ames) and daughter Laurie (Beverly Washburn) — are the spies from outer space coordinating with the alien spacecraft flying alongside Big Sam. Directed by Eddie Davis, “The Strange People at Pecos” kind of lumbers along and peters out into an inconclusive ending far weaker than the one of the quite similar “Time Is Just a Place.”

After “The Strange People at Pecos” came one of the very best shows on the program: “The Human Equation,” which begins with a respected elderly scientist named Dr. Albert Finch (George Meader) suddenly attacking and killing a cleaning woman in the hallway of his building. Dr. Finch was working on a research program to develop a new antibiotic that could save thousands of people’s lives, and writer Norman Jolley creates an interesting greater-good issue in the scene in which Dr. Lee Seward (Macdonald Carey), who’s been assigned to take over the project in Dr. Finch’s absence, lobbies the state’s governor (Herbert Heyes) to pardon Dr. Finch on the grounds that a) everyone at the lab who worked for him attested to his kindly disposition and said he couldn’t have possibly murdered someone, especially the cold-blooded killing of someone he barely knew; and b) even if he is guilty, the thousands of lives Dr. Finch could save if he were set free and allowed to continue his researches far outweighed the one life he took. (I found myself wondering why Dr. Seward didn’t suggest that, instead of setting Dr. Finch free — which the governor was clearly unwilling to do — the governor commute his sentence to life imprisonment and order him to be provided a research lab within the prison hospital, so he could continue his researches while still being punished for his crime.) Dr. Seward takes over at the lab but finds the other staff members incredibly hostile to him — Nan Guild (Jean Byron), a widow with a cute tow-headed son (not another cute tow-headed son!) and someone Dr. Seward is clearly interested in both professionally and personally, chews him out and calls him a “scavenger” for taking over Dr. Finch’s work — only the next day everybody couldn’t be nicer to him and Nan even accepts his dinner invitation. Dr. Seward eventually figures out what was going on: just as penicillin was derived from bread mold, the new antibiotic is being made from ergot, a fungus that afflicts rye and is known to have hallucinogenic properties. 

Jolley’s script here is scientifically accurate; I first heard of ergot and its effects in a PBS documentary on the witch scares of the Middle Ages (and since, including the Salem witch trials of the 1720’s and a more recent one in France in 1948 that was recorded and photographed) that suggested the witch scares were triggered by people eating ergot-contaminated rye bread and the people “seeing” each other become witches were actually accurately testifying as to what they were perceiving under ergot’s influence, even though it wasn’t real. From the rapid alternations of support and hostility he’s getting from Nan and the rest of the research staff, Dr. Seward deduces that they’re inhaling spores from the ergot they’re working with, and to test his theory he injects himself with the stuff and becomes belligerent and homicidal — and on that basis he’s able to prove to the governor that Dr. Finch should be pardoned because, though he did commit the murder, he was under the influence of ergot and therefore was not legally responsible. He also institutes new safety precautions in the lab so the staff can work on ergot without inhaling it and going crazy. The Science Fiction Theatre episodes were all introduced by a narrator, Truman Bradley, and while most of the narrations were pretty obvious and just repeated things we had seen (or would see) happening on screen, the one at the end of “The Human Equation” was surprising and fascinating: Bradley announces that there’s a new synthetic chemical called LSD which researchers were hoping to use to study mental illness. The original intent behind the invention of LSD (in 1938 by chemist Albert Hofmann at the Sandoz drug company in Basel, Switzerland) was to produce something called a “psychotomimetic” — a drug that would artificially induce the same chemical changes in the brain schizophrenics undergo when they have attacks of altered consciousness — and the narration on this show repeats that original hope for the drug. Alas, later research showed that while the effects of LSD were superficially similar to the symptoms of schizophrenia, the brain chemistry was totally different and therefore it was not helpful to researchers seeking to develop a drug that could reverse the chemical manifestations of schizophrenia and therefore treat it.

The next Science Fiction Theatre episode up was “Project 44,” an historically interesting story by Lou Huston about preparations to assemble and train a crew of eight — four men and four women, which in itself makes it far more progressive than the actual U.S. space program (which sent its first astronaut up in 1961 but didn’t fly a woman until 1983 — 20 years after the Soviet Union sent their first woman into space) — for a human-piloted mission to Mars. Like a lot of movies and TV shows about space flight in the years before we started actually doing it, this one emphasized the physical and psychological training and testing would-be astronauts were put through, including the centrifuges in which astronaut trainees were whirled at high speeds to simulate the effects of acceleration, particularly the increased gravity (up to 12 to 14 times normal Earth gravity) people aboard a spaceship experience as it accelerates to escape velocity and finally breaks free of the Earth’s gravitational pull. In addition to the centrifuges, the trainees are put through psychological testing, being locked in a small room with each other in teams of twos or threes to see how they’ll fare in confined spaces that they’re not allowed to leave (though this was already a problem the Navy had had to address with crews in nuclear submarines, which sustained undersea voyages for six months or more without any need to surface and put into a port to refuel). The program is being directed by a husband-and-wife team, Dr. Al Bryan (Bill Williams, whose wife Barbara Hale was then playing secretary Della Street on Perry Mason) and Dr. Janice Morgan (Doris Dowling again — why this woman didn’t parlay her indelible characterization in The Blue Dahlia into a run of femme fatale roles is a mystery to me, though at least here she’s independent enough not only to keep her own last name instead of using her husband’s but to tell him off during one of his meetings with the would-be crew and make it clear what a stupid and dangerous program she thinks a staffed mission to Mars is), and Dr. Bryan has some typical furrowed-brow worrying when the crew members who have previously passed the tests with flying colors suddenly start washing out on them and he’s ready to call the project off on the ground that humans can’t actually survive in space. I was beginning to wonder if the payoff in Huston’s script was that a sinister foreign power had a “mole” inside the crew and was sabotaging the training, but the “mole” turned out to be closer to home — Ed Garrett (Biff Elliot), a medical student who had signed up for the Mars mission simply because the pay for it had included a free ride for the rest of his education, and who had violated the requirements of the program by attesting he was single when he signed the application when he’d really married a woman in Germany when he was stationed there in the post-World War II occupation and wanted to become a doctor and make enough money to bring her over and start a family without being burdened by crushing student debt. (Sounds all too familiar!) In the end Dr. Bryan washes out Garrett and one of the women from the program — his demand was that all the astronauts be single when they entered the training but he wouldn’t mind if they started dating each other and even got married to each other — and he and his wife take the places so there’ll be a full crew of eight when the Mars spaceship launches during the right window in which Earth and Mars are closest to each other in space.

I had suspected that there’d be a problem with a program of seven episodes of the same TV show — that it might be too much of a good thing and watching so many of them, without the one-week break between shows the original audience had, might start to get dull and the repetition of similar effects and plot tropes would jar. So it was that we plunged into “Operation Flypaper,” which starred Vincent Price — though it looked after a while like Price, like Basil Rathbone in “The Stones Began to Move,” was simply being used as gimmick casting and there wasn’t much in the role that really played to his special talents. He’s Dr. Philip Redmond, head of a secret research project to develop ways to mine and drill for minerals on the ocean floor (after the Deepwater Horizon disaster this seems like a far less benign plot point than it no doubt did in 1956!) that’s being carried out at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla (and yes, for a San Diego resident it’s fascinating to see the establishing shots of what it looked like then). Only both important research papers and models of the equipment keep mysteriously disappearing — literally! — and no one can figure out how or why. Not only are objects being stolen from people who are never out of their physical presence, but every time it happens they lose between 45 minutes and an hour and a half of their lives. Eventually Dr. Redmond and the staff overseeing the project from Washington, D.C. set up a phony research project and a special room which will be monitored with tape recorders, TV cameras and still cameras to record who the thief is and how he’s doing it. The live action suddenly freezes and a man enters the room carrying a long glass wand with an electrical charge that is emitting a high-pitched sound that instantly hypnotizes everyone in the room into unconsciousness — like the victims of the incapacitating gas in the film Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, they simply freeze in place and remain in position, unconscious and paralyzed, until the thief takes whatever items he’s looking for and then leaves, following which everyone comes to when they’re no longer exposed to That Sound. Dr. Redmond call the security people, who arrest the culprit — Dr. Richard Owen (William Vaughan), a former assistant Redmond had to fire when he went crazy — who smashes his glass wand to smithereens and is blown away by police, thereby taking the secret of how the wand works with him. In the closing frames, both Redmond and narrator Truman Bradley lament that the wand was destroyed, and the knowledge of how to make it died with Owen — on the ground that it could have been an effective anesthetic for surgical operations and eliminated the need for chemicals in that application. (Apparently the writer — Doris Gilbert again — didn’t stop to think that that high-pitched sound would incapacitate the doctors and nurses doing an operation as well as the patient; or did she think they could just wear earplugs?)

The last Science Fiction Theatre episode on last night’s program was “The Other Side of the Moon” (where Pink Floyd will see you — just kidding), in which a scientist, Lawrence Kerston (played by Skip Homeier a decade after he played the fanatical German-American teenager turned dedicated Nazi in Tomorrow, the World! on both stage and film) at an observatory (represented by stock shots of Mt. Palomar) discovers unusual amounts of radiation on the dark side of the moon. Alas, he’s made that discovery with a new camera of his and the staff members he’s working for, including is direct supervisor Dr. Carl Schneider (Philip Ober), don’t trust him, his camera or the pictures of the moon he’s taken with it. Kerston — who like most of the male leads in this series is saddled with a wife, Katherine (Beverly Garland), who can’t stand how much time his particular sort of scientific investigation is taking from her — insists that the radiation on the moon is evidence of an alien invasion and the authorities need to be concerned about it. Kerston does indeed see evidence that a group of spaceships is landing on the moon — but they they go away again, and he and everyone else in the show realize that these are beings from another planet looking for a way to dispose of their radioactive waste and using the dark side of our moon to do so. Truman Bradley’s narration at the end explains that the U.S. government was itself thinking of disposing of radioactive waste on the dark side of the moon, since it’s too dangerous to get rid of the stuff anywhere on earth — one prediction this show made that turned out to be 100 percent accurate: though we haven’t started firing it off into space (yet), there is no way to store nuclear waste on earth safely, which is one more reason why we should stop producing it and consign nuclear energy, as a weapon or as a power source, to the scrap heap of history where it belongs — though some idiotic so-called “environmentalists” have claimed we need nuclear power to replace fossil fuels. Not only does the entire nuclear fuel cycle (including mining and smelting uranium, enriching it to a sufficient concentration of fissile material to be useful for energy and shipping it safely to nuclear power plants) consume an enormous amount of energy that comes from fossil fuels, it is also so inherently dangerous and so unforgiving of human error it should not be used under any circumstances.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

The Outer Limits (1990’s reboot): Three Mars Episodes (Atlantis, Trilogy, MGM, 1995-1998)

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

Last night’s Mars movie screening ( consisted of three Mars-themed episodes of the 1990’s reboot of the classic early-1960’s science-fiction anthology series The Outer Limits. I had never seen any of the second Outer Limits and am startled that this one lasted considerably longer (seven seasons) than the original (two). The screening opened with the show’s premiere, a two-part episode called “Sandkings” that was an interesting variation on the plot premise of Frankenstein: Dr. Simon Kress (Beau Bridges) has spent nine years on a project for NASA involving finding eggs of an insect-like life form from Mars in the samples of Martian soil brought to Earth from one of the Mars probes. He’s succeeded in hatching the eggs and getting the Martian bugs to breed, only when one of them escapes from the secure containment room and finds it way to another floor of the lab installation, the government orders them destroyed. Dr. Kress is allowed to freeze them in cryogenic storage indefinitely, but being a mad scientist with visions of grandeur and a penchant for practicing his putative Nobel Prize acceptance speech in front of his bathroom mirror, he steals some of the Martian soil with the eggs in it, takes it home and continues his experiments in the barn of his country property. Dr. Kress has a wife, Cathy (Helen Shaver), and a 10-year-old son, Josh (played by Beau Bridges’ real-life son, Dylan, who was 10 years old when this movie was made and had a few other credits as a child actor but hasn’t pursued it as an adult career), who not surprisingly get upset at his pursuit of his experiment and his use of their barn to breed deadly Mars bugs. Simon tries to feed the bugs a protein supplement in a cube, but they’re carnivores and will only eat live animals — including a lab mouse he feeds them and later the family dog, Cowboy, a present from Simon’s father, Col. Kress (played by Beau Bridges’ father, Lloyd Bridges — so not only are three generations of the Bridges family involved in this film, they’re playing the grandfather, father and son they actually were!), who sneaks out of the house, enters the barn, goes into the giant sandbox where Simon is keeping his “pets” and is devoured alive. (Director Stuart Gillard and writer Melissa M. Snodgrass — adapting a novel by, of all people, George R. R. Martin; I hadn’t realized he’d written anything other than the Game of Thrones series — are decorous enough not to show us the creatures actually devouring the animal, though I think a few more graphic scenes might have made this horror film even more terrifying.)

Simon manages to save his wife from a similar fate by pulling her out of the big sandbox in the nick of time, but the experience convinces her to leave him and take her son to stay with granddad. Simon is visited by Dave Stockley (Kim Coates), a former co-worker from the lab that fired him when they shut down his experiment, and Dave threatens to report him to the authorities — but Simon won’t have that and, in a terrifying scene reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” he mounts the frightened Dave onto a rope held by a pulley, slowly releases the pulley so Dave gradually descends into the sandkings’ realm, and … Eventually Simon realizes what he hath wrought and seals himself in the barn, releases some sort of gas and is apparently able to kill off the bugs as well as himself — but Josh hid one of the creatures in his lunch box and the final scene shows the sandkings burrowing into the Earth, with potentially lethal consequences for the human race and the entire animal part of the biosphere. “Sandkings” went on a bit too long for its content, and Beau Bridges is hardly at the level of Colin Clive in depicting the driven scientist meddling in things man was meant to leave alone (though in some ways Bridges’ sheer ordinariness in all other aspects of his life makes the character even more chilling), but on the whole it was a nice, grim little frisson of a story that shows George R. R. Martin can write a compelling tale set in modern reality and isn’t just a faux-medievalist.

The other two episodes screened last night were hardly at the level of “Sandkings” but were good tales in their own way, if a bit too derivative. “The Voyage Home” is a story of a human-staffed mission to Mars with three astronauts — Alan Wells (Matt Craven), Ed Barkley (Jay O. Sanders) and Pete Claridge (Michael Dorn) — who stumble on an odd bit of Martian graffiti during their last day on the Red Planet before they have to take advantage of the “launch window” — the closest Earth and Mars come to each other in space — to make it home. I joked that the graffito read, “For a good time, call … ”, but oddly this plot point is dropped and nothing is made of it thereafter. The show then cuts from day 364 of the Mars mission to day 512 (most of the extended time of the mission was taken up merely with getting to Mars and back!), and one of the crew members notices a bit of exotic-looking goop that has attached itself to a wall on the spacecraft’s interior. When examined under a microscope, the goop turns out to be a culture of alien micro-organisms that reproduce themselves into space. Later the astronauts start to go crazy and one of them, Wells, actually transforms into your standard-issue space alien, a monster who looks like a cross between a lizard and a crab. 

Barkley decides he’s an imminent threat and ejects him into space via one of the ship’s air locks, and then Claridge explains that both he and the now-deceased Wells were taken over by spores from a planet outside our solar system, which was dying and sent out samples of its life form to take over the bodies of other beings and find a planet where they could replace the native population, survive and propagate. The parallels to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and to Walter Miller’s marvelous novella “Dark Benediction” (one of the greatest, and undeservedly little-known, science-fiction stories ever written) are obvious, and the ending is pretty much a rip-off of the original Alien (or at least how I read the original Alien when I first saw it, before the studio and its writers invented increasingly complicated and unbelievable explanations for how Sigourney Weaver’s character continued to exist in each new sequel), in which the human character deliberately maneuvers the spacecraft off-course so it will explode in space instead of landing on earth and allowing the aliens to take over and replace Earth’s entire human population. It was nicely done, though it also got a bit claustrophobic; whenever one of the astronauts complained about being confined in that dinky little spacecraft so long, I couldn’t help thinking that that’s what the writer (Grant Rosenberg) and director (Tibor Takács) were doing to the audience as well. 

Because of a glitchy DVD we only got to see about half of the third episode, “Phobos Rising,” ironically the only one of the three actually set on Mars, in which there are two Earth colonies on Mars, one run by something called the Alliance and one by something called the Federation — and Star Trek fans will be jarred that the “Federation” are referred to as the bad guys. The central character is Col. Samantha Elliott (Barbara Eve Harris), a short, wiry, compactly built African-American woman with ultra-short hair and a belligerent attitude that totally mistrusts every peace overture from the Federation. Midway through this — or at least the part we saw — we hear in a piece of passing dialogue that for some unexplained reason Earth has been annihilated and all life on it destroyed, something that one would think would affect the characters and traumatize them a lot more than it does. The Federation sends a drone aircraft over the Alliance base and Elliott mistakes it for an attack and orders an all-out missile attack on the Federation base. Her second-in-command, Major James Bowen (Alec Baldwin, top-billed), questions this decision and refuses to input the launch code needed to fire the missiles. Elliott questions his loyalty, especially since he’s been having an affair with a captured Federation officer, Dara Talif (Joan Chen), and orders him arrested. She also assigns another crew member, Stadetski (Gordon Currie), to hack the ship’s computers so the missiles can be launched without Elliott’s password. Elliott is also convinced the Federation is stealing tri-radium, the atomic material that powers everything in the human colonies on Mars, but it turns out the allegedly stolen canister is actually a decoy, filled with sand, the Federation was using to test their security protocols. 

Alas, all this is discovered too late as the Alliance missiles are already on their way to Federation territory, the damage the base has already sustained makes it impossible either to recall or self-destruct the missiles, the Federation launches an all-out response attack and everyone is killed except Bowen and Dara — so, depending on how you read the ending, either the entire human race is destroyed or Bowen and Dara will have to be the new Adam and Eve. I might have liked this one better if we’d been able to see the whole thing, but as it is it seems like little more than a rather simple-minded and obvious parable about the folly of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), the doctrine by which the U.S. and the Soviet Union managed to avoid World War III during the Cold War (ya remember the Cold War?) and one misses the sense of tragedy Ray Bradbury brought to essentially the same situation — Earthlings land on Mars to find a thriving Martian civilization, only they inadvertently kill it off with Earth germs (an obvious ripoff by Bradbury of the ending of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds), Earthlings build a thriving colony on Mars (back before we actually landed probes on Mars and found that its air is unbreathable by Earth people without spacesuits) but then get recalled to Earth en masse because Earth’s own conflicts are erupting into all-out war, and the book ends with the destruction of both planets — in The Martian Chronicles.

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 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 (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 — 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.