Sunday, February 19, 2017

Britney Ever After (Asylum Entertainment, Front Street Pictures, Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Britney Ever After was a heavily hyped “world premiere” on Lifetime of a film based, as one might suspect from the title, on the life and career of Britney Spears. One wonders why anybody would think the world needed a biopic of Britney Spears, but whatever management team is handling her these days has managed to create an image for her of unparalleled success, saying she’s sold over 100 million records. Her Wikipedia page was obviously written by someone in her organization because it’s a description of one overwhelming success after another, sort of like Donald Trump’s depiction of his own business record, and there’s only a passing nod to the bizarre set of acting-out behaviors in public that nearly sank her career and turned her into a national joke: “In 2007, Spears's much-publicized personal issues sent her career into hiatus. … Her erratic behavior and hospitalizations continued through the following year, at which point she was placed under a still ongoing conservatorship.” Needless to say, those “much-publicized personal issues,” “erratic behavior and hospitalizations” are the subject of this movie, written by Anne-Marie Hess but, alas, directed by Leslie Libman instead of her usual collaborator, Vanessa Parise.

The film begins with Britney’s parents, alcoholic father James Spears (Matthew Harrison) and domineering mother Lynne Spears (Nicole Oliver), driving across country from their native Louisiana (Spears was actually born in McComb, Mississippi — and Natasha Bassett, who plays her, uses a quite strong proletarian Southern accent — but her parents moved to Kentwood, Louisiana when she was three) to Florida for what’s supposed to be her big break: a chance to tour as opening act for the boy band ’NSync. There’s nothing of her background before that, including her stint on the Mickey Mouse Club when Disney tried to revive that franchise in 1992; indeed, the opening is shot deliberately to make Our Britney look like just another showbiz wanna-be instead of someone with one foot already in the door and the other on its way. Britney is flabbergasted by having a whole tour bus set aside for her and her entourage, which is mainly her parents and manager Larry Rudolph (Peter Benson), who at the time the film begins had already signed her to Jive Records and sent her out on a tour of shopping malls to promote her upcoming first album. During the tour with ’NSync she meets and falls in love with their lead singer, Justin Timberlake[1] (Nathan Keyes), but their relationship is on-and-off due to clashing schedules once she becomes big enough to headline — and also due to Britney’s fierce possessiveness: when she can’t get her man of the moment on the phone she mounts relentless attacks on his voicemail, becoming ever more desperate and pleading. (I remember watching a Grammy Awards telecast shortly after Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears broke up for good, and hearing him do a breakup song that was so bitter it sounded like he’d written it about her and the overall message was, “I’m glad I dumped that crazy bitch!”) The film kind of drones on and on as Britney responds to the breakup with an impulsive Las Vegas marriage to some guy (we only see him in bed with her and then in his underwear, as her parents and Rudolph tell him to go to the lobby of the hotel where they’re staying so they can get the marriage annulled) and then into another marriage with one of her backup dancers, Kevin Federline (Clayton Chitty), which lasts long enough for her to give birth to twin sons — though given the ferocity of her touring schedule it’s a wonder when she  could have carried a pregnancy to term without it interrupting things and getting noticed by her fans and the omnipresent paparazzi (Libman and Hess are particularly good at dramatizing this plague loosed on the famous) — though almost as soon as the kids are born Kevin walks out on her.

The film is framed as a documentary, supposedly being shot about Britney in 2008 and recounting her various performances at the MTV Video Music Awards — though the only people we see actually being interviewed for this film-within-the-film are Britney and her mom — and it recounts her “hell year” of 2007, in which her behavior becomes increasingly diva-ish and irresponsible. Not only does she suddenly and impulsively shave her head (leading her makeup people to have to glue “extensions” onto her scalp because it isn’t growing back fast enough to allow her to keep doing live gigs, video shoots, photo shoots and such), she starts doing wild rides through Hollywood with her girlfriend and at one point, being photographed in a borrowed red haute couture gown, she screams at everybody, tells Larry Rudolph he’s fired (and then, after she hits bottom, has to go to him hat-in-hand to rehire him), has a snack and then wipes her fingers on the dress, and finally tears out of the photo studio in it for yet another one of her wild rides. At one point she also starts assaulting the paparazzi with a tire iron (at least I think that’s what it was) — though given how relentless they’ve been in their pursuit of her this almost looks like legitimate self-defense — and eventually her parents, who had previously divorced each other over James’s drinking but reunite, if not as a full-on couple, at least as concerned parents, get her committed to a mental institution and force her to sign papers making them her legal guardians (just like when she was still a kid!). About the only usual item on the cliché list of stories about celebrities falling from the big-time this film doesn’t contain is drug use — she’s shown with one bottle of a prescription medication but it appears to be legitimately obtained and used — and it’s possible that in a movie that was already skating on the edge of legal thin ice (Britney Spears herself put out a statement that she had nothing to do with the project and was against this film being made) Libman, Hess and the producers avoided even the hint of drug abuse for fear Britney would sue them.

The fact that this is an unauthorized biography also seems to have prevented them from using any of Britney Spears’ actual trademark songs; though there are a few bits of funky dance music that sound more or less like Spears’ style, the only numbers Natasha Bassett gets to perform at length are three songs identified with others that the real Spears covered: the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” (which was actually a cover of a song recorded by a British band called the Arrows in 1975, and written by two of the Arrows’ members, Alan Merrill and the late Jake Hooker) and the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller “Trouble” which was written for Elvis Presley’s film King Creole. (The last comes from Britney’s famous breakdown on the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, where she sang a few bars of it, lost control of herself and then recovered with one of her own songs, “Gimme More” — but the film just leaves her hanging after the breakdown.) What’s really appalling about Britney Ever After is that it’s just boring: we’ve seen so many of these down-to-earth-kid-becomes-celebrity-loses-it-and-then-finds-it-again stories that it would take a lot to make one compelling again, and while the fall, comeback attempt and premature death of Whitney Houston (one of Britney’s idols when she was growing up, by the way) was a genuinely tragic story (great singer with a once-in-a-lifetime voice seems to have it all and blows it on drugs and a bad choice of man) that Lifetime screwed up, Britney Spears is simply too boring, and her problems too commonplace, to be of much interest. The Britney Spears Wikipedia page claims she has a three-octave (plus two notes above that) vocal range, but on the admittedly rare occasions I’ve heard her records she doesn’t sound like she has those kinds of vocal chops; indeed, I’d always assumed that her voice was largely manufactured by vocoders, auto-tune software and all the other gimcracks available now to turn someone who can’t sing into someone who kinda-sorta sounds like she can. (And even if Britney has a three-octave plus a tenth vocal range, she doesn’t do anything particularly interesting with it; Billie Holiday never had more than one octave plus a tenth, but my God, how she could break your heart with it!)

Britney Spears always struck me as a Madonna wanna-be — though whereas Madonna was already a grown woman when she started and honed an elaborate act that included dancers and elaborate stage effects to highlight both her own sexuality and our whole society’s ridiculous and contradictory attitudes towards sex in general, Britney started while she was still a teenager and her appeal was largely the pedophilic thrill of seeing someone at the cusp of the age of consent flaunt her body and her sexuality in such a precocious way. (Later Miley Cyrus, another refugee from the Disney reservation, would pull the same thing.) Madonna’s malign influence can be seen in all the overstuffed productions that clutter the world’s pop concert stages today — including Beyoncé’s ridiculously overwrought numbers at the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show and the 2017 Grammy Awards — all the singers who think they need enough choristers to stage a coup in Central America, pyrotechnics, Cirque du Soleil-style performers flying over their heads (and in some cases, notably Pink’s, the stars themselves joining the Cirque du Soleil-style performers flying in the wings) and all the other crap all too many singers inflict on us because they don’t trust their voices to communicate without that garbage around them. (One reason I like Adele so much is she’s the total opposite of that: she stands on a bare stage, looking unglamorous, and projects the sheer power of that remarkable voice without drowning herself, her songs and her show in ludicrous pretension. She has a voice and she knows how to use it!!!) Britney Spears’ inexplicable popularity was originally quite obviously an offshoot of the Madonna phenomenon — when I first saw her on TV I thought, “Who needs a G-rated version of Madonna?,” and about her only transition was to stop trying to do a G-rated version and going all-out for the same sort of precocious sexuality and falling far short of her model. I was hoping that, even if Britney Spears the performer bores me, Britney Ever After might move me with the story of Britney Spears the human being — but it didn’t because everything about that woman, including her traumas, is just dull.


[1] — Actually they’d already known each other — they were co-stars on that ill-fated attempt to revive the Mickey Mouse Club — and this script drops a reference to them knowing each other since kindergarten, but the way their initial get-together as adults is filmed makes it seem like they’re meeting for the first time.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Doughboys (MGM, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Doughboys, a really quirky 1930 movie made by Buster Keaton at MGM — his fourth film for them and his second talkie. As the title implies, it’s about World War I — or “The Great War,” as World War I was usually referred to before there was a World War II — and Keaton drew on his own experiences for some of its story even though other writers (Al Boasberg — whom he’d worked with before on the 1926 silent classic The General — Richard Schayer and Sidney Lazarus) got the credit. In the film, Keaton plays one of his usual spoiled rich-kid characters, Elmer Julius Stuyvesant II (once again Keaton often gravitated to upper-class characters, perhaps as a deliberate way to differentiate himself from Charlie Chaplin by playing the other end of the socioeconomic scale from Chaplin’s lower-class “Tramp” — indeed, I’ve argued that the major male silent comics all seemed to stake out particular positions on the class trajectory: Chaplin lower-class, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle working-class, Harold Lloyd middle-class and Keaton upper-class), who’s angrily turned down by the woman of his dreams, Mary (Sally Eilers), who indignantly tells him off when he asks her for a date because “you Rolls-Royces think you can have anything.” Then the U.S. gets involved in the war and Elmer (a character name Keaton used a lot, especially in his talkies, perhaps because he, like W. C. Fields, had discovered it was the funniest name a male could have) finds himself suddenly losing his chauffeur because the man has run off and enlisted. Keaton’s manservant/bodyguard/factotum/whatever, Gustave (Arnold Korff), suggests that he contact an employment agency to hire another — an immediate necessity because neither Elmer nor Gustave know how to drive. (The moment we hear Gustave speaking with a pretty thick German accent we know the screenwriters are making a deposit into the Cliché Bank which they will later withdraw — and they do.) Only what used to be an employment agency specializing in chauffeurs is now the recruiting office for the U.S. Army — the sign explaining its change of identity has fallen off and we don’t realize this until Gustave picks it up while Elmer is already inside — and Elmer, in a gag Abbott and Costello repeated in their sensationally successful service comedy Buck Privates 11 years later, finds himself mistakenly having enlisted. Elmer and a few other unpromising-looking recruits, including Nescopeck (Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards), find themselves under the ultra-domineering leadership of drill sergeant Edward Brophy (he’s actually called “Sgt. Brophy” in the dialogue), who’d already acted with Keaton as the other man trapped in the changing room at the beach resort in The Cameraman (and his training with Keaton stood him in good stead years later when he appeared in Swing Parade of 1946 with the Three Stooges and joined so heavily in their slapstick he virtually became a Fourth Stooge).

Brophy’s performance here is so intense and mean he’s one of the three most sadistic drill sergeants ever put on screen, alongside Frank Sutton’s Sergeant Carter in the 1960’s TV show Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. and R. Lee Ermey (a real drill sergeant only hired as a technical advisor but then given the part himself because no mere actor could duplicate him) in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Viet Nam war film Full Metal Jacket. In one bizarre scene Sgt. Brophy leads his recruits into bayonet drill and, dissatisfied with the way the men are jabbing the training dummies (and Elmer’s bayonet keeps falling off his gun in an obvious self-plagiarism from The General — the gag of the sword which kept losing its blade whenever Keaton’s character tried to draw it), Brophy attacks the dummy himself, sticking the bayonet in and twisting it again and again in what looks like an orgasm of hate — while the men he was supposed to be training faint dead away at the sight. Doughboys also contains a romantic triangle, as Mary has an on-again off-again attraction to Elmer while Sgt. Brophy has appointed himself her boyfriend — even though she finds him as appalling as we do — and threatens any other man who approaches her with bodily harm. About midway through the film the principals actually ship out to the combat zone in France — and the film becomes a grim slog through the gritty realities of combat. What’s fascinating about Doughboys is that instead of mixing comedy and drama the way one would have expected from a Keaton film (especially if one came to this movie with the expectation, “Cool! He’s going to do to World War I what he did to the Civil War in The General!”), it’s really a dramatic film and the funny scenes seem more like comic relief than the main event — and, at least partly because it lacks musical underscoring — though, as Charles pointed out, in all other respects — fluidity of camera movement, variety of angles and naturalistic delivery of dialogue instead of all that damnable … pausing … afflicting all too many early sound films — technically it looks more like a movie from 1935 than 1930.

Indeed, it’s a surprisingly grim movie for something whose star’s reputation is as a comedian; only the great scene in which the men of “K” Company put on an amateur show in France (that gets broken up when a German plane bombs the theatre where they’re performing) and Buster Keaton does drag and plays the partner of an apache dancer is actually laugh-out-loud funny. Keaton based much of the movie on his own experiences in the war; he was drafted in 1918 and went through basic training but the war was over by the time his unit arrived in France, and so he spent much of his time drilling and participating in amateur theatricals, in some of which he donned drag as his character does in the movie. (Busby Berkeley also got drafted into World War I but arrived in France too late to actually fight; instead he and his company drilled, drilled, and drilled again, and his biographers agree that it was this constant drilling that led him, as a Broadway and Hollywood choreographer, to manipulate his dancers in militaristic formations.) Doughboys was Keaton’s fourth film after his producer, Joseph M. Schenck, had closed down the independent Schenck-Keaton comedy studio and arranged for Keaton to work at MGM, whose president was Schenck’s brother Nicholas — but Nicholas Schenck ran the business end of the company from New York and had no creative involvement. Keaton ran into the Hollywood studio system at the height of its power and became one of the great, innovative filmmakers who couldn’t deal with MGM’s factory-like structure. A lot of nonsense has been written about Keaton, MGM and the sound revolution; the truth is that, unlike Chaplin, Keaton welcomed the advent of talking pictures and couldn’t wait to start making them. Alas, MGM decided to keep his second film for them, Spite Marriage, silent, and released it with a music-and-effects track rather than doing it as a talkie as Keaton had wanted. Then they gave him a silent dance number in the film Hollywood Revue of 1929 and, for his first starring sound feature, concocted a totally inappropriate vehicle for him, a tearjerking musical called Free and Easy.

At least on Doughboys the MGM production staff came closer to letting Keaton be Keaton, giving him relatively little dialogue (later Keaton recalled that he’d wanted to use dialogue the way he’d used titles in his silents: a few lines to set up a comic situation he could later improvise and build on the way he had in silent days — and instead MGM’s writers expected him to wisecrack) and allowing him to draw on his personal experiences for at least some of the plot. Keaton does get a few funny lines that show that, given time and sympathetic screenwriting, he could have developed into a deadpan-style verbal comedian in much the style Woody Allen used when he started making films, and contrary to the rather silly critics who say Keaton could never have been a talking-picture star because uttering dialogue required him to break the “Great Stone Face,” his voice was actually an appealing monotone that, while not “great” in itself, certainly fit the “Great Stone Face” character he’d created in his silents. Alas, when sound came in Keaton’s life was heading full-tilt into a perfect storm: his marriage to Natalie Talmadge (sister-in-law of his former producer Joseph Schenck) was falling apart, he was largely losing control of his career to the “suits” at MGM, and both his professional and personal disappointments were fueling his alcoholism. Eventually he moved out of the big home he’d shared with Natalie and into something he called his “land yacht,” a converted bus (essentially Buster Keaton invented the RV) in which he held parties (and, according to some accounts, orgies) and which he parked on the MGM lot when he was filming so he could drink to his heart’s content, sleep it off and not have to face a commute when he needed to work the next day. All the drinking took its toll on both his personal appearance and his coordination — meaning he had to start using stunt doubles for scenes he could once have done easily on his own — and by 1933, after a comedy about Prohibition called What, No Beer?, MGM fired him.

But when Keaton made Doughboys he was still good-looking and in excellent physical shape — even though the script gave him some good slapstick scenes (including one early on in which, resisting the attempts of the officials inducting him to undress him for the physical, he grabs a chandelier and swings back and forth on it and Doughboys at last looks like a Buster Keaton movie) but none of the elaborate “trajectory” gags he’d done in his silent days — and though the script rather overdoes his character’s naïveté (towards the end he crashes the German lines, runs into his old friend and employee Gustave — see, I told you the writers would do something with that! — as a soldier for the enemy, and offers them food; they give him a shopping list which he writes down on a large piece of paper which turns out to be the battle plan of the German army, and when he returns to his own lines the Americans seize on this and use it to coordinate their final offensive), Keaton’s performance is quite good in that oddly fatalistic way of his, the grim stoicism with which his characters reacted to everything around them as if nothing good was going to come out of life and even his moments of happiness would be fleeting at best. Doughboys is a film of individual scenes rather than a well-constructed story (another aspect, besides the war setting and the crazy drill sergeant, it shares with Full Metal Jacket), and just when it seems Keaton and his writers can’t come up with a happy ending, a deus ex machina arrives in the form of the war suddenly ending. It’s a fascinating movie that isn’t really funny enough to fit comfortably into the Keaton canon but it’s also considerably better than any of his other MGM talkies, and for virtually the last time Keaton was able to make a starring feature that reflected his surprisingly dark vision of the world. Doughboys is a movie that sometimes seems decades ahead of his time — the scene with Brophy leading the bayonet drill and getting a quasi-sexual thrill out of “killing” the training dummy seems like it could have come out of a 1960’s anti-war movie, and as Charles pointed out Doughboys could be remade today with only minimal updating (“dirty words and blood,” he said) — and certainly there are few films like it even though the darkness and grimness through much of its running time is hardly what one expects from a movie featuring one of the greatest comedians of all time.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

American Experience: “Ruby Ridge” (Ark Media, WGBH, PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I put on KPBS for a couple of interesting documentaries about young men with guns: an American Experience program on Randy Weaver and an Independent Lens presentation called “Tower,” of which more later. The program on Randy Weaver was a sort of prequel to the American Experience episode the week before on the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, since the shootout at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in which Weaver’s wife Vicki and son Samuel were killed by federal agents in 1992 was one of the three incidents, along with the death of white supremacist Robert Mathews in a similar shootout with the feds at a similarly isolated house on Whidbey Island in Washington State in 1984 and the destruction of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas in 1993, that Timothy McVeigh cited as inspirations for his attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 (the second anniversary of Waco). The weird thing is that, despite my loathing for just about everything he stood for, from Book of Revelation-inspired apocalypse to white supremacy, Randy Weaver emerges from this show as a hero, a former Green Beret who was radicalized in a Rightward direction by the collapse of family farms in Iowa, where he’d settled after his tour of duty in Viet Nam and which he experienced more or less personally: he was a salesperson for the John Deere company and noted how strongly their business fell off because debt-burdened farmers owed too much on their land, were getting foreclosed on and therefore the market for John Deere products largely dried up. He moved his wife Vicki and their small kids to an isolated plot of land in Idaho so they could be left alone and lead what they considered to be a Biblically based lifestyle, with no electricity or telephones, since Vicki had become an avid student of the Book of Revelation and was convinced that Armageddon was imminent. (It’s interesting to note the parallel with David Koresh’s theology, which was also based on a reading of Revelation that regarded its predicted cataclysms as imminent.)

Whatever the Weavers’ madnesses were, they weren’t particularly involved with white supremacism until they started hanging out at the camp of Richard Butler’s Aryan Nations about 50 miles away from their land mainly because Butler and his tribe were virtually their only neighbors, and as white survivalists they were welcomed with open arms by the Aryan Nations and their very odd religious offshoot, the “Church of Jesus Christ Christian.” One of the main denominations of the so-called “Christian Identity” movement, the Church of Jesus Christ Christian held that the Aryan (white) race were the true chosen people of the Bible — whites, they preached, were the children of Seth, the only son of Adam and Eve, while Jews were descended from a liaison between Eve and Satan that produced Cain, and Blacks and other people of color were another subhuman species altogether. Weaver ran into trouble with the federal government when an undercover agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms infiltrated Butler’s compound and got Weaver to agree to saw off the barrels of some shotguns for him. Apparently they were hoping to implicate Weaver in a federal crime in order to “turn” him and get him to inform on Butler and the Aryan Nations; instead Weaver failed to appear in court, whereupon the Federal Marshal’s Service got his case and treated him as just another fugitive who needed to be apprehended. The situation escalated and the FBI eventually got involved, leading to a months-long standoff outside Weaver’s cabin in which up to 400 Federal agents surrounded the place to fight the dastardly terrorist plots about to be implemented by … a man, his wife and four kids. Once the FBI got called in they were given military-style rules of engagement that regarded anyone with a gun as fair game — the FBI agents were told not only that they could but should use deadly force against anyone who was armed, and as a matter of course all the Weavers were armed. (If you’re living in the middle of the wilderness and you’ve cut yourself off from electricity and most modern conveniences, a supply of guns and ammunition is an absolute necessity because if you can’t shoot game, you’re likely to starve.)

The unlikely heroes in this story are Weaver himself and Col. James “Bo” Gritz, Right-wing activist and independent Presidential candidate, who offered himself as a negotiator hoping that Weaver would have enough trust in him that Gritz could persuade him to come out peacefully. Along the way a federal marshal was killed, as were Weaver’s son Samuel and his wife Vicki — and to add insult to injury, for a week after they shot Vicki the federal agents, having no way of communicating with the Weavers and therefore no idea that Vicki was dead, kept calling out to her because they thought she would be the reasonable one, while Randy heard them calling out to a wife who was dead on their kitchen floor and thought the agents were deliberately taunting him. As much as I loathe what Weaver stood for (and still does; he was actually acquitted of murder in 1995 and his Wikipedia page mentions a few appearances he’s made at radical-Right events since, including a visit to the Waco site in 2000 that was filmed for a documentary and a press conference with tax protesters Edward and Elaine Brown in New Hampshire on June 18, 2007), the way Barak Goodman presented the story he was entirely sympathetic and the feds were the villains, first entrapping him into a crime, then surrounding his little cabin with 400 people in an hysterical display of overkill, and finally shooting his wife and son. I’m sure at least part of my sympathy for Weaver comes from the fact that the way they dealt with him is the way they routinely deal with Left-wing dissenters as well, including their genocidal campaign against the Black Panther Party from 1968 to 1975 (when enough Panthers had been killed that their infrastructure was devastated and they were thus no longer considered a threat).

Independent Lens: “Tower” (Tower Documentary LLC, Go Valley Productions, Independent Television Service, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Weaver program KPBS ran an Independent Lens documentary called “Tower,” about the first mass school shooting in American history: the murder of 16 people and the wounding of 33 others at the University of Texas in Austin by Charles James Whitman on August 1, 1966. This could have been a great show except for director Keith Maitland’s bone-headed decision to turn virtually the whole thing into an animated cartoon — no, I’m not making that up. Maitland’s approach was a combination of actual footage from the event (and I’m surprised at how much actual footage still exists), what appeared to be reconstructions of a few scenes shot in a deliberately blurry fashion to make them blend in with the old footage, and a lot of reproductions turned into shoddy-looking animated footage with the Rotoscoping process (a way of shooting live actors and then digitally tracing their bodies to make them look like cartoons). It got even weirder in the scenes in which Maitland stuck his cartoons in the middle of the actual footage.

A more straightforward documentary presentation of this treasure trove of footage with interviews with the survivors as they look now (or looked when Maitland’s crew interviewed them, since people who were college-age in the 1960’s would be in their 70’s now and even some of the people who were interviewed for this film weren’t still alive when it was completed) would have done far more justice to this story. So would more insight into how weird this crime seemed when it occurred — though it was largely coupled in the public imagination with Richard Speck’s previous rampage in the dorm of a Chicago nursing school, where he knifed eight young women to death (and was held to account for it largely because a ninth person there successfully “played possum,” survived the incident and was the key witness against him in his trial). There’s a chilling montage of all the school shootings since (or at least some of them) played over a commentary Walter Cronkite gave on the CBS Evening News at the time to the effect that “society” was to blame for Whitman’s killings — a trendy 1960’s notion no one takes seriously anymore, especially the Right, which says that the people who do school shootings are just “bad people,” and yet it would be an imposition on our “freedom” to do anything like keeping crazy people from getting guns. (One of the Obama-era federal regulations President Trump and the Republican Congress are determined to get rid of is a ban on people with diagnosed mental illness from buying guns.) Monty Python made fun of the “it’s society’s fault” in one sketch in which a man arrested for murder says that and the cop who arrested him says, “Society? Then let’s bring in the lot of them, too.”

Maitland was more interested in the stories of the victims — particularly Claire Wilson, the pregnant woman who was one of the first people attacked (and her boyfriend, Tom Ekman — whom she’d only been seeing for two months, which means he was not the father of her never-born child — was killed by her side) and who was finally rescued after a young man who had been a corpsman in Viet Nam got three of his friends to carry her from the scene — and the cops who finally ambushed and killed Whitman from his redoubt on the observation deck of the university’s bell tower, than he was in What Made Charles Run — though it was interesting that, like Adam Lanza, Whitman began his rampage at home by killing his mother (and, in Whitman’s case, his wife as well) before he headed to the bell tower and started picking off victims at random. The Whitman shooting deserves a better documentary than this!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Universal-International, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the next film in sequence from the Abbott and Costello boxed set, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a 1953 production that was the second and last film the comedy team made with Boris Karloff, who plays the other two title characters — well, one of them anyway; as per the usual casting tradition of the role, Karloff is credited on-screen as both Jekyll and Hyde but he really only played Jekyll. Hyde was played exclusively by Karloff’s stunt double, Edwin Parker; by the time he made this film Karloff was 65 and hardly the sort of person who should be clambering up the sides of buildings and racing around rooftop sets. The film begins with the hideous Mr. Hyde clubbing to death Dr. Jekyll’s esteemed colleague, Dr. Stephen Poole (Herbert Deans), in a scene pretty closely adapted from Hyde’s murder of Sir Danvers Carew in Robert Louis Stevenson’s original novel — and then it cuts to by far its best and funniest scene, in which a rally of suffragists in Hyde Park is led by heroine Vicky Edwards (Helen Westcott), who leads her fellow feminists in a high-kicking chorus number to a song called “Till We Women Get the Vote,” which is basically a threat by the women to withhold their affections from men, Lysistrata-style, until women get the vote. The sexist men in Hyde Park confront the women and start a big fight which the women are actually winning when two bumbling, inept bobbies, Slim (Bud Abbott) and Tubby (Lou Costello), try to break up the riot and make arrests. They end up at the bottom of a large pothole, trying to make their way out of it through the women’s bass drum, and when they return to headquarters at Scotland Yard they’re fired. (Instead of attempting to affect British accent, the script by Lee Loeb and John Grant explains that Slim and Tubby are American police officers working in London to learn British crime-fighting methods. Also, it’s ironic that Costello is called “Tubby” in this film when he’s visibly lighter than usual; it’s likely those bouts with rheumatic fever that had made Costello’s filmmaking schedule so erratic — he would fall ill again the next year and so after this one there wouldn’t be another Abbott and Costello film for two years — had also led to Costello’s noticeable weight loss.)

They determine that the only way they can win back the good graces of their bosses is to capture the hideous monster that killed Dr. Poole, and the rest of the film is their attempt to do just that as they encounter Dr. Jekyll (Boris Karloff), who’s the guardian of Vicky, and also the reporter, Bruce Adams (Craig Stevens), who met Vicky at the feminist rally and was smitten by her. She eventually returns his affections — thereby pissing off Dr. Jekyll, who like quite a lot of movie mad scientists (though not Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll!) has the hots for his young ward and has no intention of letting anyone else have her. The bulk of the film is a series of chase scenes and situations, in one of which Dr. Jekyll invites Slim and Tubby to spend the night in his home, offering them five pounds but instead intending to use Tubby as the subject of one of his sinister experiments. At one point Tubby actually corners the monster in a wax museum (where there are statues of Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster, the latter of which is animated briefly when a broken electrical cable contacts it and makes it move) and locks it in a mock jail, only by the time Slim comes the monster has metamorphosed back into Jekyll and Slim, of course, refuses to believe that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person. (This is one Abbott and Costello movie in which Costello is portrayed as smarter than Abbott. It’s nice when that happens.) Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde isn’t much of a movie overall, but it’s got some great scenes, including the one in which Tubby drinks from Jekyll’s water cooler and metamorphoses into a giant mouse (after which Slim and Tubby retire to a pub, where there are enough lovable English eccentric characters to fill a James Whale movie and of course everyone who sees Tubby in mouse I.D. assumes he’s just their drunken hallucination; the high point of the sequence is when a real mouse emerges from inside a wall, looks at Tubby and recoils in horror), and a gimmicky finale that for once is actually funny: through an accidental injection of Jekyll’s serum Tubby has also metamorphosed into Hyde, and the cops — already run ragged by the reports of the monster being sighted all over London (with it never occurring to them that there could be two of the creatures) — capture Tubby, whereupon Tubby-in-Hyde-drag bites them and turns them all into Hydes.  

Abbott and Costello Meet. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an O.K. film, with plenty of evidence that the formula was wearing thin — at one point Costello even recycles a joke from one of their previous films, and when he said, “I forgot something at home,” and Abbott asked him what that was, I chanted along with him, “I forgot to stay home” — but it helps that, as Charles pointed out, most of the laughs came from slapstick rather than comic dialogue (despite the presence of A&C’s ace dialogue writer, John Grant, as one of the screenwriters) and the horror aspects of the tale, such as they are, are ably staged by director Charles Lamont and cinematographer George Robinson, who’d shot many of Universal’s best serious horror films. Alas, Boris Karloff’s presence doesn’t help that much; he’s gentle and courtly in his Jekyll guise, but he’d played this whole business of the gentle mask hiding the fiend beneath so often that he’s visibly bored and all too aware that he was just giving out with what audiences expected of him by then. The more one watches the mostly sorry films Karloff made in the last two decades of his life — he was too good a professional to walk through them or drown his silly horror roles in camp the way Vincent Price did — the more one wishes he, not Walter Pidgeon, had played Dr. Morbius in Forbidden Planet; not only could Karloff have out-acted Pidgeon in the role by several parsecs, it would have been the artistic boost he needed at that point his career, the kind James Whale had given him with Frankenstein in 1931 and Val Lewton with The Body Snatcher (also a Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation!) in 1945.

Monday, February 13, 2017

59th Annual Grammy Awards (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences/CBS-TV, February 12, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the 59th annual Grammy Awards on CBS — all 3 ½ hours of it, broadcast “live” and actually shown that way. One good effect of the Internet is that the sorry old practice by which we got the major awards shows three hours after they actually occurred — the East Coast media establishment’s constant reminder to us on the West Coast that we sucked hind tit media-wise — has ended; with the awards results available online instantly to anyone with a computer and Internet access, there’s no way to sustain suspense over the outcome except to show the awards in real time. The Grammy Awards opened with a great performance by Adele of her signature song, “Hello,” and I give her major points for avoiding any “production.” There were no pyrotechnics, no laser beams sweeping the stage, no flashing colored lights, no Cirque du Soleil performers doing their thing over her head — just a stocky blonde woman (when I first saw Adele on a previous Grammy telecast I fell in love with her instantly for allowing herself to appear as a “woman of size” instead of slimming herself down to look like she just got rescued from Auschwitz) standing on a bare stage, accompanied by an unseen band and the only other sight being a black-and-white blow-up image of her in real time, as she poured her heart out and made the song come alive.

There were basically two main contenders for the big awards — Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Song of the Year — Adele and Beyoncé, whose big number in the middle of the show drowned in its own pretensions. It was a medley of three songs that seemed to center around the concept of motherhood, and indeed Beyoncé was introduced by her real mother, Toni Knowles (I’m old enough to remember when Beyoncé still used her last name professionally). The song began with a long speech set to music — it wasn’t declaimed rhythmically so it can’t really be called a rap — and then went through about three phases, each more and more pretentious and dull as Beyoncé traipsed in enough choristers to fill out a Busby Berkeley number and an already not-very-interesting song just got overwhelmed by the unwitting silliness. Ironically, when Adele finally won Album of the Year she gave a tear-stained acceptance speech in which she said she thought Beyoncé had deserved the award for a great album that had made all her friends, “especially my Black friends,” feel better about themselves. It’s yet another indication of the vast gulf between Adele and Beyoncé as both artists and people that Adele’s speeches were (or at least appeared to be) off the cuff and delivered from the heart, whereas when Beyoncé won for “Best Urban Contemporary Album” (“urban” in this setting being code for “Black,” reminding me of Art Hoppe’s satirical column in which a Black person explains to him that “now they call me a City … When politicians say, ‘We have to address the problems of our Cities,’ that’s me they’re talking about!”) she read a long speech from a leather case she opened like a miniature version of one of President Trump’s executive orders and made the most blatantly political comments of the night.

My only encounters with whatever is on Beyoncé’s Lemonade album have been her performance of the song “Formation” at the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show (it’s supposed to be a song against police brutality, but, silly me, I had just thought it was called “Formation” after how a football play starts) and the even more bizarre production she put on last night, and neither has convinced me that the rest of the album is worth my time or money. I don’t want to dis Beyoncé — I still think she turned in a stunning performance as the Diana Ross character in the 2006 film Dreamgirls and she wasn’t acknowledged for it only because Jennifer Hudson was even more overwhelming — but her sort of music simply doesn’t speak to me emotionally, and Adele’s does. (I could probably be accused of racism for saying that, but nobody who looked at the totality of my music collection and did a ratio of Black to white artists could possibly make that accusation seriously.) The 2017 Grammy Awards were hosted by James Corden, whom I’d briefly encountered in bits of his late-late night show (when I could still record shows for later viewing before the damnable “all-digital” conversion took that away from me — I’m certainly not going to stay up that late to watch anything “live”!) and whom I regard as one of the most bizarrely repulsive presences ever put on TV — I wouldn’t mind him being stocky and ugly if he had any discernible talent, but he isn’t funny, he isn’t an appealing personality, he isn’t able to make his unappealing qualities entertaining the way Jackie Gleason did, he’s just a tacky-looking schlub CBS dredged up from under a rock and for some reason gave a major TV show to. Corden’s funniest moment was when he invited people to tweet their reactions to the show in real time and said they would be displayed as they came in — and what came in were a barrage of fake tweets saying how awful Corden was as well as one purportedly from Donald Trump calling Corden the “greatest host ever” and saying he was “terrific.” (Whoever wrote the fake tweet from Trump forgot to end it with an exclamation point; Trump’s 140th character on his actual tweets is almost always an exclamation point. It’s true!)

The show didn’t get that political — there was nothing here comparable to Meryl Streep’s brilliant evisceration of Trump on the Golden Globes — but there were enough anti-Trump digs to indicate that the recording business is part of the Great Establishment of liberals and progressives whom the Trump voters regard as the enemy within that’s destroying the “real America” and demands the attentions of their Führer to “make America great again.” As usual, the main interest for me in the Grammy Awards were the performances — though I must say I was pissed when Maren Morris lost Best New Artist to someone or something called Chance the Rapper, who made two pretentious acceptance speeches (he also won for Best Rap Album, and one of the commentators mentioned that his record was only released as an Internet stream, and giving my utter loathing for the whole idea of streaming technology that just gives me another reason to hate him) in which he thanked God (award winners who thank God always irritate me), though when he eventually performed towards the end of the show he brought on a gospel choir and did a song whose text indicates that he takes the religion stuff very seriously; in essence, Chance the Rapper has brought rap back to its origins in the cadences of Black preaching. Morris did win Best Solo Country Performance and, rather than do her big song “My Church” (the one I heard her do on a country awards show and which had me listening with my jaw open at the sheer power and intensity of what she was singing and the way she was singing it — I still want to see someone sign her to play Janis Joplin in a biopic before she ages out of the role: she’s got the face and the voice for it!), she did one called “Once” as a duet with Alicia Keys, both of them singing brilliantly and bringing great soul moves to the song. Early on in the show The Weeknd and Daft Punk (dressed this time like dueling Darth Vaders) did a nice song called “I Feel It Coming” (I wish I still did!) and then Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood did something called “What If I Fall? (I Won’t Let You).”

Then Ed Sheeran — a British singer-songwriter who when I first saw him came off as so milquetoast I thought his name was “Shearing” and wondered if he were any relation to jazz pianist George Shearing (no) — did a song called “Shape of You” that was O.K. and I probably would have liked better if his entire accompaniment, other than his own guitar, hadn’t been provided by a synthesizer called “Chewie II.” (The name was clearly visible and one wonders if the company that made it had paid product-placement fees either to Sheeran or CBS.) After that Kelsey Ballerini (who’s got quite a nice voice even though, as new country artists go, she’s definitely in the shadow of Maren Morris) and Lukas Graham (who I hadn’t realized is actually Danish and whose real name is something longer and more obviously Scandinavian) did the quite nice song “Neverland” that I’d previously heard on a country show (and which made me compare it to the quite different “Lost Boy” as two contrasting takes on the Peter Pan mythos; “Lost Boy” romanticizes it and “Neverland” depicts it as something you grow out of). That was followed by Beyoncé’s bizarre production and then by a weird gag version of “Sweet Caroline” by James Corden with John Legend, Jennifer Lopez and Neil Diamond himself, pulled out of the audience for the occasion. Afterwards Bruno Mars, a micro-talent with a mega-ego, came out and did one of his hits — I think it’s called “Can I Take Your Time?” — and Little Big Town did a song called (once again, I’m just guessing at some of these titles) either “Living a Teenage Dream” or “Don’t Ever Look Back.” That was followed up by Katy Perry and yet another of the Marley kids, Skip, doing an O.K. song called “Chained to the Rhythm.” Then came a real surprise treat: Gary Clark, Jr. and someone introduced as “Stax legend William Bell” did a great version of Albert King’s hit “Born Under a Bad Sign” — it turned out William Bell wrote that song, and it was a delight to hear some honest blues in the middle of all the pretension and to see two singers who trusted themselves and their material to come over without flashing lights or mobs of choristers!

After that came the Morris-Keys duet and then Adele, who had opened the show with her own song, did a tribute to George Michael by singing his song “Fast Love” — only she stopped early on and asked to do it over, and she also apologized for swearing. My guess is that the show’s producers gave her a cleaned-up lyric to sing but she either purposely or inadvertently reverted to Michael’s original. Then came one of those bizarre “Grammy Moment” collaborations between Lady Gaga and Metallica, which actually came off quite well even though it sounded to me more like early Siouxsie and the Banshees than what I think of from either of those acts; Lady Gaga is a major talent who seemingly can blend with anybody, from Tony Bennett to Metallica, though the joint performance was hurt by a technical problem — one could see that Metallica’s lead singer was singing but it took them time to get his mike working so you could actually hear him (and of course even when his mike was on what he was singing, like heavy-metal lyrics in general, was almost totally incomprehensible). Then country singer Sturgill Stimpson (whom I could probably get to like) came on with the horn section from the Dap-Kings (whose great lead singer, Sharon Jones, was yet another of the music world’s casualties in 2016) and did “Love Me All Around You” — the song wasn’t much but Stimpson’s voice was eloquent and the Dap-Kings’ horns elevated it. Afterwards came an odd Bee Gees tribute with Tori Kelly, Demi Lovato, Audra Day and Little Big Town doing four songs from their disco period: “Stayin’ Alive,” “Tragedy,” “How Deep Is Your Love?” and “Night Fever.” The camera showed Barry, the one remaining Brother Gibb, in the audience, though oddly the show was routined so that John Travolta made his appearance much earlier instead of introducing the Bee Gees’ segment, which was where he obviously belonged. (Maybe he didn’t want the audience reminded of the contrast between what he looked like when he made Saturday Night Fever and what he looks like now.) The high point was Day taking “Night Fever” and turning it into righteous soul.

Then came time for one of the oddest features of recent Grammy telecasts: an entire song sponsored and paid for as an ad by Target, featuring Carly Rae Jepsen and Lil Yachty (that’s a rap group) in what was alleged to be a cover of the old Marvin Gaye-Kim Weston soul classic “It Takes Two” but had virtually no resemblance to it (at least the last time Target did one of these it was with Gwen Stefani, a genuine and important talent). Then there was a tribute to the pioneering rap group A Tribe Called Quest, one of whose key members was also one of the many 2016 casualties, with several guest stars whose names meant nothing to me — Busta Rhymes, Consequence and Anderson.Pauk — though their text was mainly a defense of political rap against the blind, evil “gangsta” crap that followed it and there was one section in the middle of the medley (Consequence’s, I think) that was genuinely moving and lyrical. After that came a tribute to Prince (intriguingly, neither David Bowie nor Glenn Frey rated tribute segments, but Prince and his white wanna-be George Michael did — and Bowie won the first Grammys of his career last night; he literally had to die to make the grade with the Grammy voters, and I was a bit disappointed that his widow Iman didn’t show to accept his awards) featuring Bruno Mars, once again showing off the vast gulf between his micro-talent and Prince’s mega-talent, and Prince’s old associates in the band The Time. Then the a cappella group Pentatonix (whom I’d like a lot better if their Mills Brothers-style instrumental simulations didn’t include one of a drum machine) did, of all things, the early Jackson Five hit “1-2-3,” and after Chance the Rapper’s sermon (there’s nothing else to call it) there was a quite moving in memoriam segment with John Legend and a white woman whose name I didn’t catch (Cynthia Erivo) doing “God Only Knows” (whose composer, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, is thankfully still alive) and doing it beautifully. There wasn’t a big final number — the show just sort of petered out after they gave the big awards — and overall the 2017 Grammy Awards was the sort of lumbering spectacle awards shows have turned into lately, but it had its moments and the contributions of Adele, Maren Morris, Alicia Keys, Gary Clark, Jr., William Bell and John Legend with Cynthia Erivo were timeless.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

From Straight A’s to XXX (Sepia Films/Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

First up on Lifetime’s prime-time schedule last night was a “world premiere” film with the provocative — to say the least — title From Straight A’s to XXX, telling the pretty sad tale of Miriam Weeks (the attractive and appropriately perky Haley Pullos — whose name is the sort of thing that in the days of classic Hollywood got changed; who, the studio chiefs thought back then, would want to see “The Wizard of Oz, starring Frances Gumm”?), who gets accepted to her “dream” college, Duke University (and it was a bit startling to hear the name of a real university in a Lifetime movie instead of a fictitious one like “Whittendale,” though given that this is the story of a young woman who pays for college by selling her body sexually it would have fit right into the “Whittendale universe”), only just as she gets the news that she’s in, her dad, Dr. Kevin Weeks (Peter Graham-Gaudreau), receives word that he’s being sent to Afghanistan. This means that the family’s income is about to take such a major nose-dive that the Weekses, Kevin and his wife Harcharan (Imali Perera) — I don’t recall hearing her first name on the soundtrack but that’s what imdb.com says it is — can no longer afford to cover her tuition. So what’s a poor young college girl to do? She discusses this with her college roommate Jolie (Sasha Clements) — who is really from Oklahoma but has spent enough time in New Orleans to acquire a (bad) Southern accent and a lassiez-faire attitude towards public displays of casual sex (of course Miriam asks her about Mardi Gras and Jolie fends off the question with a hauteur that indicates she’s bored with the whole ritual and if you’ve seen one Mardi Gras you’ve pretty much seen them all) — and they joke about various options. Miriam doesn’t want to take out student loans — “My dad didn’t finish paying off his student loans until I was in middle school!” she whines — and she doesn’t want a job as a waitress, not only because it’s demeaning but because the low pay for a waitress in North Carolina (where the minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, the same as the federal one) is barely going to make a dent in the $65,000 per year Duke charges for its education. “Maybe we could rob a bank,” Jolie jokes — and Miriam jokes back, “Or I could be a porn star.”

Then Miriam decides to pursue porn seriously, though for a woman who’s supposed to be savvy enough about feminism that she’s double-majoring in pre-law and women’s studies, she makes a pretty dire mistake in signing on for her first scene with a company called “Facial Assault.” Not bothering to read the comments page on the Web search about them — which describes them as totally unprofessional and hell to work for — she shows up for her first scene, and is confronted with a male partner who looks like he just came from the USA Network’s “Raw” wrestling program and likes to refer to feminists as “feminazis” à la Rush Limbaugh. The guy slaps Miriam across the face — hard — as his idea of foreplay and she goes ahead and does the scene, gets the $1,200 she was promised for it and then goes back to Duke to lick her wounds. Eventually she hooks up with an L.A.-based porn agent and director who promises her better pay and nicer working conditions, and her first scene under this new arrangement is a girl-on-girl (Miriam, using the nom de porn “Belle Knox,” says in a pretty typically pretentious remark for someone of her intellect and background that she’d considered herself Bisexual but had never actually done the down-’n’-dirty with a fellow XX-er before) encounter set up with some pretty typically bad porn dialogue in which the two lament that they’re the first to arrive at a party and so “we’ll just have to entertain each other.” She and her on-screen partner Mandy (Jovanna Huguet) are shown doing so many of these scenes one begins to wonder whether Belle is ever going to shoot a scene with a guy — but eventually she does, and she finds her first male co-star genuinely attractive even though, not surprisingly, the film makes doing porn seem considerably more fun than it is for real. (I’ve never interviewed anyone from the straight porn world, but the Gay male porn models I’ve talked to say it’s an hours-long grind; as with any other sort of filmmaking, the actors are kept waiting for long periods while the director, camerapeople and other technicians set up the scene, and male porn performers have the problem of having to get hard-ons instantly on cue.)

Belle shoots to the top of the porn world even though maintaining her double life — neatly dramatized by director Vanessa Parise (a cut above the general run of Lifetime directors; the films of hers I’ve seen are Perfect High, #popFan and The Unauthorized “Beverly Hills, 90210” Story) in a series of intercuts between Miriam’s and Belle’s Facebook pages — gets harder and harder, as she’s shown frantically plowing her way through a thick and impenetrable women’s studies text during breaks on her porn shoots. As Belle’s reputation grows, so does her repertoire of scenes, including ones with Black partners and a sequence she draws back from in which she’s supposed to be playing a college student showing up to “discuss my thesis” with a 50-something professor. Belle draws back from this one — I had thought writer Anne-Marie Hess was going to go for the irony that a college girl who takes her studies seriously is playing one who’s willing to trade sex for good grades, but it turns out her problem is that she had made it clear that she didn’t want to perform with any partner older than 35. Her mentor, who’s also directing, says that unless she does the scene she’ll gain a reputation for being “difficult” and that will get in the way of her doing future work, so she plows on regardless. Meanwhile, an Asian-American student named Jeff (he’s not identified on imdb.com but, though he’s not all that great-looking, there’s a scene in which he’s wearing a shirt tight enough to show a nice pair of pecs) discovers Belle’s videos online and recognizes her as Miriam, and soon it’s all over Duke that one of their nice young freshgirls is doing porn. Miriam hoped that her two worlds would never cross, but now they have; she confides in Jolie, and soon she’s being harassed, threatened with gang-rape, literally assaulted with garbage and her dorm-room door is spray-painted “Slut.” At one point I thought this would have been an interesting project for her to write up as a paper for her women’s-studies class — they had earlier been shown discussing terms like “slut,” “whore” and “bitch” and how they’re used to objectify women, and Miriam is now getting a first-hand education in how this works for real — but instead Jolie talks her into doing an interview with Angela, a reporter for the Duke school paper, and eventually she goes full-public with an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan (playing himself) and her story becomes nationwide tabloid fodder. Of course Miriam’s family — her highly conservative Catholic parents and her brother, who cuts her dead when he finds out — learn about her unusual way of working herself through college, and they’re predictably condemnatory.

Though the credits say this film was “inspired by a true story,” it also travels down the same roads seemingly hundreds of previous Lifetime movies have gone before, though I give writer Hess credit for not having Miriam get hooked on drugs to sustain herself through her porn work — a plot twist usually de rigueur for these sorts of titillating stories about nice young girls who get involved in sex work and then lose control. (Maybe Hess and director Parisse figured they’d already done the innocent-girl-seduced-into-the-drug-scene number in Perfect High and didn’t need to do it again.) The film climaxes (so to speak) at the Risqué porn convention in Las Vegas, where Belle Knox receives the Best New Performer award but also finds that Mandy and the other porn women whom she thought were her friends instead have decided she’s getting too high-and-mighty for them and especially hate how in her mainstream media appearances she presumed to speak for all women who do porn. As familiar as most of this story is, that’s a new wrinkle Parisse and Hess got into this one: we never feel for Miriam so much as we do when it seems like she’s lost all sources of her community and been rejected by her family, her college friends and her porn friends. The story lurches to a close as Miriam closes out her freshman year and then, two years later, speaks at a rally of pro-sex feminists and says that feminism ought to be about a woman’s right to make choices about her own life — including selling her body on screen for money, if that’s what she wants and feels she has to do. It’s an O.K. ending but an oddly inconclusive one for a film that, as familiar as the paths it trods are, does have some unique aspects and also makes me wish Vanessa Parise would be able to break out of the Lifetime ghetto, get some decent scripts and take a run at feature films.