Monday, September 28, 2015

The Perfect Girlfriend (Reel One Entertainment, Thrill Films 2, Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Perfect Girlfriend, latest entry in Christine Conradt’s series of scripts about the perfect _____ (fill in the blank) who turns out to be a manipulative, life-threatening psycho. So far she’s done The Perfect Nanny (2000, her first credit as a writer), The Perfect Marriage (2006), The Perfect Assistant (2008), The Perfect Teacher (2010), The Perfect Roommate (2011), The Perfect Boss (2013) — which quite frankly would have worked as a title for this one as well — and now The Perfect Girlfriend. The perfect girlfriend is Simone Matthews (Adrienne Frantz), second-in-command of an advertising agency which maintains an office in New York but whose central location is in that hotbed of advertising and the media world, Portland, Oregon.[1] (I’m not making this up, you know!) The perfect boyfriend Simone latches onto and decides she wants is Brandon Moore (Jon Cor, who’s easy enough on the eyes but not especially sexy, and if he has much in the way of a dick the baggy jeans he wears throughout do a pretty good job of concealing it, but let’s face it, this is Lifetime and he’s playing the victim, so he can’t be too good-looking since in Lifetime’s iconography genuinely hot guys are almost always villains). She gets the boss of the agency, George Brixton (Barry Blake), an old guy who’s pretty much letting her run the place as she wants (it’s not specified in Conradt’s script but we do get the impression that she’s bestowing her body on him to get him to give her the real power in the agency), to give Brandon the highly prized promotion to creative director.

The problem for Brandon and the not-so-perfect girlfriend he’s already got, Jensyn Bannet (Ashley Leggat — did Christine Conradt decide that since the actress already has such a dorky name, her character should, too?), is that taking the promotion involves him leaving New York and moving to Portland, and Brandon and Jensyn have some predictably anxious discussions over whether they can make a long-distance relationship work. Jensyn is a nice-looking woman with long brown hair, and she’s studying to be a doctor; she’d be just right for Brandon except she’s such a drip, and a boring drip at that; Simone sizes her up at once and realizes she’ll offer no real resistance to her plan to take Brandon for herself. Simone plots her campaign to win Brandon with the meticulous precision of a general planning a major battle. First she gets Brixton to give Brandon the promotion instead of it going to another young executive with more seniority. Then, when Brandon books a two-week stay at a Portland hotel, thinking that will give him enough time to find a place when he moves there — but Simone calls the hotel and cancels his reservation, and when he gets to Portland all the hotel can give him is an inferior room for just three days because after that a medical convention is coming to town and all the rooms will be booked. No problem, Simone says; you can stay at my place. Then she keeps Brandon so busy he can’t go back to New York to visit Jensyn as planned, and later she goes so far as to hack into Brandon’s cell phone and e-mail account, intercepting Jensyn’s messages and impersonating her online. (When she opens Brandon’s e-mail to steal Jensyn’s address, there’s a neat in-joke: one of the other names that appears in Brandon’s inbox is “Christine Conradt.”) So Simone is able to send Jensyn e-mails and texts posing as Brandon, and send Brandon e-mails and texts posing as Jensyn, and in both personae she tells him/her that s/he never wants to see him again. Then she pretends to have a date with a boyfriend named Harrison, only the alleged boyfriend stands her up and she goes out with Brandon instead, gets him roaring drunk, and has her wicked way with him when she gets him home.

Along the way Simone brings Brandon over to see her family, which consists of her mother Kathy (Deborah Grover) — who takes Brandon aside and tries to warn him that her daughter is a manipulative bitch and he shouldn’t get caught up in her web — and her brother Cole (Jonathan Koensgen), who has some sort of (unspecified) developmental disability and who takes Brandon aside and asks him, in all seriousness, which side would win in an all-out battle between vampires and zombies. (Jonathan Koensgen is actually the most attractive man in the movie, and for a brief moment I was wondering if Simone had seduced him, too, à la Die Walküre. She’s certainly drawn as kinky enough she’d get a perverse thrill out of doing her 11-years-younger brother, especially if he’s not quite “there” mentally enough to be capable of saying no!) It’s when Cole asks Simone what became of Harrison and why she brought this other guy over instead that we realize Harrison was a real person — before that I had assumed Simone just made him up as part of her seduction scheme, much the way she told Brandon that one reason she wanted him to move in with her was so he could look after her dog, “Bentley,” while she’s out of town on business. She then has to order a dog because she didn’t have one, and when the dog arrives the first thing he does is chew up one of her expensive designer shoes (serves her right!). Brandon is getting ahead in the company, thanks to all the contacts Simone is arranging for him, and he’s also having the greatest sex of his life, so you’d think he’d be happy, wouldn’t you? No-o-o-o-o, this is a Lifetime movie after all, so instead he’s having guilt feelings over Jensyn (despite all Simone’s fake e-mails and texts that she doesn’t want to see him again and has moved on) and misses her, so he spends time getting drunk at fancy bars in the company of a male friend from the office, Trevor Wilkins (Scott Bailey, considerably hotter than Jon Cor and also quite a bit younger-looking, which makes it hard to believe when he says he’s already been through two divorces!). At one point Brandon and Trevor take a bachelor trip to Las Vegas (where there’s a music-video style montage sequence showing the Strip and the various casinos they go to and lose money at, set to a pretty banal soft-rock song that works in the context, that’s by far the finest bit of direction frequent Christine Conradt collaborator Curtis James Crawford[2] does here), and at the same time, back in New York, Jensyn is hanging out with her buddy Haylie (Brianna Barnes), lamenting that Brandon doesn’t want to see her anymore.

Haylie talks her into going to Portland and seeking out Brandon to see if that’s true, and needless to say, when she arrives, she manages to get to Brandon, they both learn that neither’s authentic messages have reached the other (a plot device that’s as old, if not older, as Lucia di Lammermoor!) and they both immediately realize that Simone has got in the way and attempted to sabotage their relationship. Brandon tells Simone that he wants to move out of her place, end their sexual relationship and “just be friends” — “What is this, the 10th grade?” she snarls at him — and she plots her revenge by ordering a case of expensive wine and using her computer-hacking skills to make it look like Brandon bought it for himself and paid for it with a company credit card. Brandon moves in with Trevor and just as Jensyn is visiting him there, Simone shows up with a gun, but Jensyn sneaks behind her with what looks like a fireplace poker, conks her on the head, knocks her unconscious and disarms her easily — way too easily for a Christine Conradt maiden-in-distress; usually it’s much harder to take out a Conradt villainess than that! Jensyn calls 911, the police arrive, and the final scene shows both Simone and her brother Cole at the family home, both with monitoring bracelets on their ankles (what he’s been put under house arrest for is left utterly mysterious), commenting on the irony that now they’ve met the same fate. After the brilliance of The Bride He Bought Online, with its multidimensional characterizations (a villain who’s oddly sympathetic and a victim who’s a bitch we want to see taken down a peg, though certainly not as far down as she goes!) and finely honed direction by Conradt herself, The Perfect Girlfriend seems like a return to formula, with Christine Conradt creating a nice psycho-villainess role for Adrienne Frantz (who plays it to the nines — I especially liked the scene in which she’s coming on to Brandon by wearing a tight white dress that looks like a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen, with the tops of her breasts threatening to lead the rest out of it at any moment: a considerably sexier scene than all the mammary-exposing in Galaxy Girls!) but otherwise pretty much writing it on autopilot. It also seems like she took the message board criticism on to heart, because in this one she didn’t even try for moral ambiguity or dramatic complexity: the bad girl is 100 percent bad and the good guy’s only flaw is his naïve stupidity — one wonders what either of the women in his life see in him!

[1] — The synopsis says it’s Seattle, but the actual film says Portland.

[2] — Though he’s now taking his director credit without his middle name.

World Without End (Allied Artists, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago the third film on the triple bill at the Vintage Sci-Fi screening in Golden Hill turned out to be unexpectedly interesting: World Without End, a 1956 production by Allied Artists, nèe Monogram, directed and written by Edward Bernds, who began as the sound recorder for the 1930’s shorts featuring the Three Stooges. Eventually he rose through the ranks to start directing the Stooges as well — his first film as director, the 1945 radio spoof Micro-Phonies, is considered by Leonard Maltin to be the Stooges’ best short — and by the 1950’s he had become a feature-film director, oddly concentrating on science fiction. Some of his sci-fi movies, including the 1958 howler Queen of Outer Space starring Zsa Zsa Gabor, are pretty silly, but this one is quite good even though the first 15 minutes or so are pretty slow going. Like the other two movies on the Vintage Sci-Fi bill, La Jetée and Beyond the Time Barrier, World Without End is about a post-apocalyptic future in which humanity has experienced a self-inflicted catastrophe (a nuclear war) that has essentially destroyed most of civilization and left the world in shambles. A crew of four astronauts on a mission to Mars — John Borden (the rather wooden Hugh Marlowe, inflicted on Bernds by his producer after the actors he really wanted, Sterling Hayden and Frank Lovejoy, were too expensive); Dr. Eldon Galbraithe (Nelson Leigh); Herbert Ellis (Rod Taylor); and Henry “Hank” Jaffe (Christopher Dark) — loop around the Red Planet and get to look at it from their spaceship but aren’t allowed to land there. They’re put out about this but that turns out to be the least of their worries: like the lone test pilot in Beyond the Time Barrier, their loop accidentally puts them through a gap in the space-time continuum so they end up landing not on Mars, but on Earth; and not in 1956, but in the 25th century. Humanity has split into two races, the Mutates (which Bernds thought sounded cooler than “mutants,” the accepted term now) who live on the surface, look monstrous (as monstrous as an Allied Artists production budget could make them, anyway) and have reverted to a barbarous existence — they’re led by a leader named Naga (I inevitably joked they were going to kill him and turn his skin into Nagahyde) who got power by killing the previous leader and will rule until someone else kills him — and the other ones, the more “civilized” but also more effete group who’ve hid out underground.

Led by Timmek (Everett Glass), the underground race is governed by a council of five; Timmek is nominally the chair but the real power belongs to Moires (Booth Colman), who insists on taking the astronauts’ guns away because he doesn’t want to see any recurrence of the sort of violence that left the world in this pickle in the first place. Of course Timmek has a daughter, Garnet (Nancy Gates), who immediately falls for John Borden — as does her maid Deena (Lisa Montell), a former dweller on the surface who was left to die because that’s what the Mutates do to anyone who’s actually born good-looking (which couldn’t help but remind me of Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints driving out the young, hot teenage boys from their community for fear the young, hot teenage girls will fall for them and not want to become the “plural wives” of the old and middle-aged horndogs running the place) and was rescued by the undergrounders. As one “Trivia” poster noted at great length — and as was obvious to me while watching the movie — World Without End is an elaborate allegory of the Cold War from a Right-wing perspective: the Mutates are the Communists and the undergrounders are the effete weaklings of the Free World too scared of violence to stand up to them and fight them like men. They need the astronauts from 20th century Earth to stand up and teach them to fight. At one point Gordon says that the women of the underground society seem to have the guts; it’s only the men who have turned terminally weak from their long lives underground hiding from the enemies instead of going to the surface and facing them head-on. Moires steals the astronauts’ guns from the place he’s hidden them and knocks Deena over the head with one, then tries to frame Gordon for the crime — but Deena comes to, tells Garnet and Timmek what really happened, and the astronauts head for the surface with Deena in tow because she’s the only one around who speaks the Mutates’ language. Once there, they use a crudely-made rocket launcher (fabricated for them by the undergrounders’ workmen once Timmek has been convinced by Moires’ treachery that the astronauts are right and the time has come for armed resistance) to flush out the Mutates in general and Naga in particular, and Gordon challenges Naga to one-on-one combat with only a knife and a tomahawk, the closest he has to the crude weapons of the Mutates. Of course Gordon wins, kills Naga, claims that as Naga’s killer he has the right to rule the Mutates, and sets them to work building settlements on the earth’s surface so they and the undergrounders can reunite the human race as the surface-dwellers we were meant to be.

What was interesting about that ending is not only that the unwitting time travelers did not get to return to their own time, as they did (more or less) in the other two films on the bill, but that it anticipates THX 1138, Logan’s Run and Divergent in this intriguing sub-genre of science fiction in which a race of humans is living underground because they’ve been told the surface is too dangerously radioactive or otherwise hostile to human life — which may have been true at one time but isn’t by the time the story takes place because enough of the radioactivity has dissipated the surface is habitable again, but the people running the underground society either don’t realize that themselves or keep that realization a secret from their people. The proprietor of the Vintage Sci-Fi screenings showed World Without End from a 4:3 print on a VHS tape and announced his frustration that immediately after he’d announced the screening, he learned that the film was coming out on DVD in a letterboxed version — which would really help; the people who prepared the 4:3 version didn’t even bother to pan-and-scan it. Instead they just showed whatever was dead center in the middle of the original CinemaScope image, which means there are an awful lot of shots with half-people at either end of the screen. While there are a lot of other movies I want to see before going through World Without End again, the announcement that a DVD is available is awfully tempting — especially since the DVD probably also has considerably more vibrant color than the faded version on VHS we were watching — and even though the politics of this movie aren’t mine, the fact that it has political and social commentary makes it unusual for a 1950’s sci-fi movie, while the listing of Sam Peckinpah as uncredited dialogue director ties it in to the major films Peckinpah made later, which also offered the “moral” that humans cannot be fully alive and protect what is near and dear to them without being able and willing to resort to intense amounts of violence.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

La Jetée (Argos Films, 1962)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I went to the “Vintage Science-Fiction” screening at the Golden Hill Micro-Cinema, whose proprietor showed three movies, all made between 1956 and 1962 (they were shown in reverse chronological order) and all not only dealing with time travel but dealing with post-apocalyptic futures and the people in them who attempt to escape or alter their fates by exploiting someone who has traveled forward in time from our (or at least the filmmakers’) present to their dystopian future. I don’t know if I’ll get to commenting on all the movies tonight but the first one was La Jetée (variously translated as “The Jetty” or “The Pier”), a 1962 French film by Chris Marker. It was a 28-minute short and, with only one fleeting exception, all the shots in it are still photographs which illustrate the story while a narrator tells us what’s going on. The film deals with a post-apocalyptic future in which World War III has occurred and been followed by a great plague that has wiped out most of mankind. The survivors have taken refuge underground and have formed a highly stratified society consisting of a handful of “victors” and a mass of people they’re exploiting as slave labor. They seize on one particular individual (Davos Hanich) because he has a particularly strong memory of an image he saw as a child of a woman’s face, which he witnessed at the Orly Airport, where the titular pier or jetty was actually a sort of balcony where people could stand outside and watch the planes come in. Just after he saw the face, out of the corner of his eye he saw a corpse descend off the jetty and he realized he had witnessed a man die, but he had no idea who the man was. In a series of experiments, a group of scientists (the narration notes that he expected a Dr. Frankenstein and the person running the experiment proved to be flat and ordinary) sends him back in time, using his image of the woman on the jetty as his reference point, and while he’s traveling back in time he meets her, they date, they have an affair and, in one quite remarkable shot, she’s shown slightly moving her head and blinking her eye as she wakes up: the only actual live-action movie scene in a film that’s otherwise simply a collection of stills. The context isn’t spelled out but, this being a French movie, we’re pretty obviously supposed to read this as the woman waking up after just having had sex with the mystery man from the future who’s been dating her.

The film’s climax, if you can call it that, occurs on the jetty, where emissaries from the future have come hunting down the man, and he sees the image of the woman on the jetty just before he falls to his own death — the corpse the child saw on the jetty was himself, returning from the future and dying there. Before the screening, the proprietor commented that this was a film frequently shown in college film appreciation classes — and by coincidence that happened to be where I first saw it, at the College of Marin in 1972 (though I believe that version had the narration in French, with English subtitles, while the one we watched last night had a narration in English — since no one is shown actually delivering dialogue, it’s a film that could be dubbed into a different language without hurting it much), and I vividly remember not only the film itself but pissing off the teacher of the class by suggesting in the post-film discussion that it would have worked better as a conventional live-action movie. “You mean you actually would have wanted to see all those mad scientists running around?” he sneered. La Jetée is the sort of movie that transcends the conventional boundaries of science fiction; it’s a rich, romantic and ultimately tragic story of doomed love set against the backdrop of a dystopian future. Marker, who both wrote and directed, seems to have meant the film to be a romantic tragedy of the atomic age, but it’s more than that; it strikes a vein of romanticism almost never tapped in science fiction either on the printed page or on film. The only other sci-fi film I can think of that’s as romantically wrenching as La Jetée is Solaris (the 1972 Russian version directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, not the Classic Comics version Steven Soderbergh made with George Clooney starring in 2003), and La Jetée manages to be equally moving and unforgettable at about one-sixth the length.

Beyond the Time Barrier (Miller Consolidated Pictures/American International Pictures, 1960)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Next up was Beyond the Time Barrier, a 1960 film with some pretty illustrious names from old-line classic Hollywood: the director was Edgar G. Ulmer, the make-up artist was Jack P. Pierce and the art director was Ernest Fegté, who worked out the simple but quite effective triangle-motif sets that represented the world of 2024. It starts in 1960, with a simple scene in which test pilot Major William Allison (Robert Clarke) takes up a plane called an X-80. The original “X”-series aircraft were planes that were taken up attached to other planes — usually B-29 or B-52 bombers — and detached themselves in mid-air so they could make a run to the reaches of outer space without having to carry enough fuel to reach escape velocity on their own. Though the “X-80” is represented by stock footage of F-102’s and F-106’s (and some contributors had fun pointing out that the flight numbers painted on the planes change from shot to shot, indicating that Ulmer and producer Robert Clarke — yes, he’s also the star — used different stock clips of the same brands of aircraft and thought the audience would read the different planes as identical), it’s supposed to have two sets of engines, an ordinary jet and a rocket, which will kick in when the plane reaches the outer limits of the atmosphere and turn it into a hairpin curve from which it will briefly reach outer space before re-entering earth’s gravity. Only the flight path intersects with a post-Einsteinian physicist’s hypothesized curve in the space-time continuum (screenwriter Arthur C. Pierce was one of those scribes who was able to make the science behind the movie sound good even though any actual physicists in the audience were probably laughing their heads off), so he lands in the same place from whence he took off, but 64 years into the future. Humankind has retreated into the caves and in the process most of the people of the future have become deaf, dumb and sterile, though the one fertile woman is Princess Trirene (Darlene Tompkins), daughter of “The Supreme” (Vladimir Sokoloff) — of course I couldn’t help but joke, “Actually there are three Supremes, they’re Black women, and they sing!”), and it doesn’t take long before Major Allison realizes that what The Supreme and his council want from him is for him to fuck Trirene on a regular basis and thereby replenish the population of their cave society. The Supreme also warns Allison of two dastardly enemies of his society, General Karl Kruse (Stephen Bekassy) and Dr. Bourman (John Van Dreelen), and at one point he has Allison imprisoned in a dungeon with a bunch of shabby-looking (and badly made up — Jack P. Pierce wasn’t going to win any plaudits for this movie the way he had — or deserved — for Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Wolf-Man!) killer mutants. The scene in the dungeon is the one part of the movie that really engaged Edgar G. Ulmer’s attentions — the film was actually made in Dallas along with a second production, The Amazing Transparent Man (a pretty straightforward invisible-man story in which, as in The Invisible Man’s Revenge, the unseen character was a psychopathic villain before he became invisible), and according to the producer lost control of the negative when the initial distributor went out of business, the processing lab repossessed the film and sold the distribution rights to American International, with the result that Robert Clarke lost all the money he’d invested in the two films and the only pay he got for them was what he had paid himself as an actor.

Anyway, Allison eventually reaches the people he’s been warned against, Kruse and Bourman, along with a Russian woman scientist named Captain Markova (Arianne Arden, who according to was also known as Arianne Ulmer — so no two guesses on how she got the job!) who’s got the hots for Allison herself and is having jealous hissy-fits over his attraction to Trirene (Allison may resent being called on by the Supreme to be his society’s stud servicer but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t want to have sex with Trirene without anybody else’s agendas getting in the way!). Eventually he learns from them how he ended up 64 years ahead of where he started, and also learns that while there wasn’t an atomic war, human civilization collapsed anyway because of a plague from outer space caused by cosmic rays, and atomic bombs were at least the indirect cause because all those atmospheric A-bomb and H-bomb tests in the late 1950’s blew a hole in the protective layer of the atmosphere, thereby letting in those pesky cosmic rays that killed most of Earth’s population. The only ones who survived were the handfuls who got into the caves soon enough; the ones trapped on the surface, who became the mutants; and the colonists who were living on Mars or Venus when the plagues happened and therefore escaped them. Kruse, Bourman and Markova were all space colonists who got boomeranged into the future Earth after the plagues by similar time-space physical phenomena to the one that brought in Allison from before the plague, and eventually Allison manages to persuade everyone that if he’s allowed to return to his plane and duplicate his original flight, he’ll be able to warn the people of 1960 to stop testing nuclear weapons so the ozone layer or whatever it was won’t disappear, the cosmic rays will stay out of Earth’s lower atmosphere, the plagues will never happen and therefore their dire future won’t occur. He makes the flight home, but Trirene gets killed before she can join him, and when he returns an Einsteinian space-time effect has taken place on his body and he’s a prematurely old man. Beyond the Time Barrier is a well-done movie, quite good for the budget and solidly entertaining, though the attempts at grafting philosophical depth onto what’s really a pretty ordinary sci-fi shoot-’em-up don’t come off that well and the third film on the night’s program, a 1956 production from Allied Artists (nèe Monogram) called World Without End, was actually quite a bit better even though that film used a similar plot to communicate a Right­-wing instead of a vaguely liberal political message.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Oversexed Rugsucker from Mars (Riproring Productions, Marketing Media Corp., 1989)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan •Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Mars movie screening featured two films hovering between the so-bad-it’s-good and the so-bad-it’s-unwatchable end of the movie spectrum. The first was a 1989 production called Oversexed Rugsucker from Mars — the page for the movie gives the second word of the title as plural and hyphenated, Rug-Suckers, but the actual credit is in the singular and it’s more accurate because there is in fact only one “rugsucker” in the dramatis personae (or, perhaps more appropriately, dramatis mechanicae). The film was written and directed by Michael Paul Girard, a personal friend of the Mars movie screenings promoter (who worked for him as a cinematographer on some of Girard’s later projects), who mentioned that the film was made on Super-8 and the total budget was $4,000. This explains why a lot of the images are grainy and the soundtrack runs the gamut from acceptably clear to almost totally incomprehensible. Also, Girard’s working title for the film was Vacusapien, which was actually considerably wittier and closer to an accurate description of what the film was about, but the distributor he sold it to insisted on Oversexed Rugsucker from Mars on the incomprehensible belief that that title would actually draw people to see the film instead of driving them away. Oversexed Rugsucker begins with a prologue in really crude Claymation featuring two characters from Mars, both of them naked and with quite obvious sex organs (and built pretty much on the human plan except they’re considerably smaller and made of clay) who’ve come to Earth to see what’s happened to the experiment they started 10 million years earlier to “seed” Earth with life forms and see how they (we) evolved.

The first human they see is Vernon (Dick Monda), a homeless man as disheveled as time, lack of bathing and whatever meager amount Michael Paul Girard had for makeup could make him look, and the Martians see him and immediately write off their experiment as a failure. Only the male Martian pisses into Vernon’s gin bottle, the female Martian infiltrates a broken vacuum cleaner and thus brings it to independent, animate life, and when Vernon drinks the Martian pee it immediately turns him into a horndog who has an intense, passionate sexual experience with the vacuum cleaner. We then shift to another set of characters altogether: Tom (Billybob Rhoads), a British émigré with a thwarted desire to be a science-fiction writer; his nagging wife Beverly (Lynne Guini — I’m not questioning these transparently, almost porn-like aliases, just recording what the clever credits, in which a vacuum cleaner sweeps up the scraps of paper on which are written the names of cast and crew almost as soon as we read them, tell us these people are called); and Rena (Jean Stewart), a 20-something bimbo who works as a secretary after the 90-something gazillionaire she married died and she ran through her entire inheritance from him in a vain attempt to become a rock star (and Jean Stewart could really sing; her regular band is featured with her in the film and even listed in the credits, though not on the page, and she’s a good female punk singer in the Chrissie Hynde/Wendy O. Williams/Siouxsie mold). Tom locks himself in his bathroom and tells his wife he’s shaving when he’s really jacking off while looking at Rena parading around her apartment in the nude (he uses suntan lotion as a lube, which is not recommended because it stings — voice of experience here!), and when Beverly is raped and killed by the oversexed vacuum cleaner just after she used it to clean up some spilled aphrodisiac tea (the brand name is “Weeping Wanger,” which is a pretty good indication of Michael Paul Girard’s sense of humor), naturally the police suspect that Tom did his wife in so he could be with Rena. Rena has a boyfriend, Charlie (Bill Monsour), a New Ager who’s decided that sex is merely a physical distraction from his search for the higher plane — and Girard brilliantly and accurately satirizes New Age pretensions in his writing for Charlie — leaving Rena desperately horny and fed up with getting psychobabble from her boyfriend when she wants her ashes hauled.

The Killer Vacuum proves to be polymorphously perverse — it cornholes Tom with its extension hose and later sexually assaults Rena as well — and while all this is going on Vernon (ya remember Vernon?) is searching for his lost amour de suction and he’s simultaneously the subject of an experiment by a psychiatrist, Dr. Welling (Jeff Wilson), who’s going to get fired from his county job if he can’t turn Vernon around from a homeless derelict to a respectable citizen in 10 months. Of course, Vernon’s constant babbling about being in love with a vacuum cleaner isn’t helping either! There’s also a police investigator, Lt. Krane (Ralston Young), who plays his entire part either channeling Humphrey Bogart or Peter Falk’s Columbo character — who proclaims his traditional family values and his commitment to his wife, who turns out to be a sheep — and a defense attorney who’s also Rena’s employer and agrees to take Tom’s case pro bono if Rena will give him blow jobs in the office. It all comes to a climax — in more ways than one — when a visibly pregnant Rena gets up from the witness stand at the trial and gives birth to a rather crude white doll whose body is a box that reads “Dustbuster,” thereby confirming her story that the father of her baby was a vacuum cleaner. Tom and Rena don’t get together but the notoriety surrounding the case enables him to get his sci-fi book published and her to get a recording contract and an album that goes triple platinum. Oversexed Rugsucker from Mars is as awful a movie as you’d suspect from the above description — according to it was one of three movies the producers of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 rejected as too tacky and tasteless even for them (I suspect one of the other two was my choice for the worst movie ever made, Shriek of the Mutilated) — yet in the middle of this putrid sex comedy cum sci-fi would-be thriller there are some genuinely funny lines and gags that deserved to be in a better film — and whoever “Billybob Rhoads” was, he was a genuinely attractive heavy-set actor who would do quite well at a Bears gathering and it was fun to look at him with his shirt off, which Girard allowed us to do often, and admire all that body fur!

Galaxy Girls (Falcon Films, 1997)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After that the Mars movie showing went on to a film alternately called Galaxy Girls and Alien Escape, produced for a considerably bigger budget than Oversexed Rugsucker from Mars ($1,000,000 as opposed to $4,000 — when I posted the budget figure from Oversexed Rugsucker to I got back an error message reading, “The budget figure appears to be too low” — which undoubtedly Michael Paul Girard agreed with!) and aimed by its makers, Falcon Films (in the business of soft-core porn for straight guys rather than namesake Falcon Studios, which made hard-core porn for Gay guys), at an audience of straight men desperately to see reasonably attractive women going topless. Oh, there’s a plot of sorts — a spaceship has landed and buried itself near a women-only ranch where the three heroines, Cindy (Gail Harris), Becky (Heather Ford) and Shauna (Yvette McClendon), were planning to stay, only when they get there the proprietess, Janet (Monique Parent), has mysteriously disappeared and her place has been taken by Laticia (Leslie Kaye), whom we first see adorning her nude body with sunscreen. Laticia is a hard-bitten mystery woman without a clue how to cook — she prepares an elaborate lamb stew that turns out to be a mix of unchopped vegetables and overly spiced broth; she got the recipe from a cookbook but totally misunderstood the instructions — and she may or may not be a space alien impersonating a human. There are at least two aliens from the spaceship — which isn’t identified as being from Mars anywhere in the film’s actual dialogue, though the theme song, “Martians at the Window” by Kaliedoscope (so spelled on the page and probably deliberately misspelled to avoid confusion and lawsuits from the members of the real 1960’s psychedelic band Kaleidoscope), does use the M-word — who are running around killing people, including Brad (Christopher Leman), asshole prosecutor who’s both the employer and the boyfriend of one of Our Heroines, and the woman hitchhiker he picks up (in both senses of the word) on his way down the mountain — and at one point they take possession of one of the big-bosomed girls in this movie (as I’ve joked about other films like this before, it doesn’t feature women, it features girls) and one of the other girls has to shoot her. Galaxy Girls has a few genuinely funny lines — when two of the girls are about to walk into the buried spaceship and one of them warns the entrance might be “the Gates of Hell … like a hole in the ground that leads right to Satan,” another jokes, “You’re thinking about a singles bar” — but the movie pretty much drones on and on and on, and about the only interesting character is Matt (Bernie Van De Yacht, which I was sure was a pseudonym but turns out to be the actor’s real name — he was the last of 12 kids from a German-American family in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and he’s worked mostly as a casting director but has nine credits as an actor, though only three are for feature-length films and one of them, Married People, Single Sex II: For Better or Worse, has a title that virtually guarantees Charles would hate it), the genuinely attractive man who comes in on the action in mid-movie, has a hot soft-core porn sex scene with one of the bimbos and turns out to be a secret agent from the aliens’ home planet sent to capture them before they kill too many more earthlings. Galaxy Girls isn’t much as a movie — one suspects the audience most likely to like it would be guys who’d been either on a desert island or a chain gang for decades and had forgotten what women look like — yet at least the character of Matt gave straight women and Gay men a reason to see this!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Crimson Romance (Mascot, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a quite intriguing movie we’d downloaded from Crimson Romance, a Mascot production from 1934 at a time when Nat Levine was both the studio owner and its head of production. In 1935 Herbert Yates, president of Consolidated Film Laboratories, the top independent film processing lab in Los Angeles and therefore the go-to company for producers who didn’t have an “in” with the major studios (which, of course, had their own labs) to get their film developed, decided he wanted to get into the filmmaking business himself, so he took over Mascot and Monogram in exchange for forgiving the debts they’d run up to him in unpaid film processing fees. He called the combined company Republic and soon alienated the former heads of Mascot and Monogram, eventually buying them out; Monogram’s founder, W. Ray Johnston, got enough of a settlement that in 1937 he relaunched the second iteration of Monogram as an independent company (alas, at a considerably lower quality level than the first iteration; the first Monogram had made genuinely good films like 1933’s The Phantom Broadcast and the 1934 Jane Eyre, but the second-iteration company produced virtually nothing but low-grade schlock); Nat Levine got a similar settlement but, a gambling addict, he blew it on bad horse-racing bets and within a year he was trying to get jobs at whatever studio would hire him. At one point he even signed to make low-budget films at MGM, of all places, but they fired him after just one production, a story about nursing students called Four Girls in White (1939). As Mascot head, Levine’s strategy, like most of his confreres in the lower end of the movie business, was to get them “on their way up and on their way down.” At least one of Levine’s stars, John Wayne, was both: he’d been cast as the lead in Raoul Walsh’s spectacular epic wide-screen Western from Fox in 1930, The Big Trail, but that film had flopped and Wayne had done a quick descent down the studio food chain from Fox to Warner Bros. to Columbia to Mascot, Monogram and their successors, Republic — indeed, he would make his star-making film, Stagecoach, on loan to Walter Wanger and United Artists while still under contract to Republic. Crimson Romance was definitely an on-their-way-down movie: it was a World War I aviation story starring Ben Lyon, on the downgrade after his triumph in a much bigger, starrier World War I aviation story, Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1929); and Erich von Stroheim, who had once been a feared director at Universal, MGM and Paramount, but whose inability or unwillingness to bring in his movies at a reasonable cost and length had cost him his director’s chair. In the early 1930’s he’d still managed to get some prestigious gigs as an actor, including Friends and Lovers and The Lost Squadron (another World War I aviation movie!) at RKO and As You Desire Me alongside Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas at MGM, but by 1934 he was relegated to cheapie companies like Mascot and Chesterfield subsidiary Invincible. Stroheim biographer Thomas Quinn Curtiss called Crimson Romance “happily forgotten,” but in fact it’s an intriguing film whose only real flaw is how many other movies made around the same time did similar plot tropes and did them better.

The film starts in New York, where intrepid test pilots Bob Wilson (Ben Lyon) and Fred von Bergen (James Bush) are working for a company making planes for Britain and France in World War I — only after the sinking of the Lusitania and the resulting turn in U.S. public opinion against Germany, von Bergen is fired from the job after his boss accuses him of deliberately sabotaging the two planes he’s crashed in — accidents actually caused by the planes’ poor design and construction. Wilson, who’s been a friend of von Bergen and his German immigrant family since they were both kids, walks out with him in sympathy. No other U.S. aircraft company will hire von Bergen — even though he’s a native-born U.S. citizen — and Wilson can’t find a job either because he insists that he and von Bergen are a “package deal.” Von Bergen impulsively enlists in the German army and goes off to fight in the war on the German side — and Wilson, unwilling to separate from his friend, joins the German army too. They end up in a squadron commanded by Captain Wolters (Erich von Stroheim), and Wilson, whose reputation back home was as a lady-killer, seduces von Bergen’s new girlfriend, nurse and ambulance driver Alida Hoffmann (Sari Maritza, who just before this film was made had a flaming two-year affair with Charlie Chaplin that ended only when he met Paulette Goddard). They stay out all night and as a result Wilson misses a key patrol flight Wolters ordered up — and of course Wolters thinks Wilson skipped the flight deliberately, either out of cowardice or because he didn’t want to fight against the British and French even though the U.S. hadn’t yet entered the war. When the U.S. does officially declare war against Germany, Wilson is torn — if he walks out on the German army Wolters will capture him and execute him for desertion, while if he stays he’s liable to be prosecuted by the U.S. for treason. His good friend von Bergen helps him to escape, helpfully pointing out a German plane on the runway, fueled up and with its engine running, and telling him that if he makes a break for the plane von Bergen will be obligated to stop him — but he does, von Bergen shoots at him but deliberately misses, and Wilson shows up at the headquarters of the British air force. At first they don’t believe his story and suspect him of being a German spy, but he eventually wins a chance to prove his bona fides by taking a British bomber that’s been disguised to look like a German Gotha and using it to blow up a munitions dump near where he was stationed as a German flyer. (One suspects this whole plot line is largely an excuse to use footage of a real Gotha — or at least one elaborately re-created with Howard Hughes’money — from the original Hell’s Angels, which served for years as a source for stock footage of World War I air battles.)

It ends about how you’d expect it to: Wilson’s mission is a success — though he’s obliged to shoot down von Bergen when von Bergen realizes the “Gotha” is really a British bomber and tries to shoot it down — and at the end, after the Armistice, he’s breaking bread with von Bergen’s family, whose understanding, in Nora Ephron’s phrase, passes understanding: they accept him and his new bride (Alida, of course, went home with him) as part of their family and conveniently forgive him for killing their son. There are quite a few other movies made in the early 1930’s that have a similarly dark view of World War I and in particular of the divided loyalties experienced by German-American immigrants who didn’t know whether to root for their original country or their adopted one. In 1928 John Ford’s Four Sons had been a major hit (it was also one of the first films released with a Movietone soundtrack, though virtually all the dialogue in it was “wild” — i.e., unsynchronized — though there was a heart-rending moment when one of the four brothers who ended up in the war on different sides calls “Mütterchen” as he’s dying; alas, the version of Four Sons in the Ford at Fox box was an all-silent version with a newly recorded instrumental score instead of the original Movietone release) and in 1933 Warner Bros. had made Ever in My Heart, in which the bond between the American and the German was matrimonial rather than just friendly — the American was Mary Archer (Barbara Stanwyck) and the German was Hugo Wilbrandt (Otto Kruger), whom Mary impulsively married instead of Hugo’s friend, her second cousin Jeff Archer (Ralph Bellamy), whom the family was expecting her to get hitched to. Jeff joins the U.S. army fighting against Germany, Mary volunteers for the World War I equivalent of the WAC’s, and Hugo leaves for Germany to “fight for my country,” as he explains it in a letter he leaves for Mary when he goes. Writers Bertram Millhauser and Beulah Marie Dix and the usually hacky director Archie Mayo made Ever in My Heart a great film, truly heart-rending, with an especially moving ending, and when Charles and I watched it, I had the thought that it could be remade today — in the modern version the heroine would marry an Arab-American and 9/11 would have the same plot function as the Lusitania sinking in the original, raising the level of prejudice against the husband until he left the U.S. and joined the jihad back home. Alas, that isn’t the film we’re dealing with here; had it not been for all the wrenching dramas that had already been made about World War I by 1934 (including the ones mentioned above as well as All Quiet on the Western Front and Ace of Aces, in which Richard Dix plays a returning flyer who suffers what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder) Crimson Romance might have been more moving, then and now, than it seems.

But it’s difficult to believe that a U.S.-born man with an Anglo name would be so upset at the discrimination suffered by his German-American friend that he’d actually enlist in the German air force — maybe a tougher, edgier actor like James Cagney might have made it believable, but Lyon can’t — and the film also suffers from the nondescript writing of Erich von Stroheim’s character. (It was a committee-written script — Al Martin and Sherman Lowe, story; Milton Krims, screenplay; Doris Schroeder, additional dialogue — and the director was David Howard, who made Eran Trece, the surviving Spanish-language version of the now-lost first Charlie Chan film with Warner Oland, Charlie Chan Carries On; he also made the serial The Lost Jungle with real-life animal trainer Clyde Beatty and William Haines’ Mascot film The Marines Are Coming, and died suddenly December 21, 1941 — just two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor that got America into World War II — in L.A. at age 45.) Von Stroheim gets to play neither the delightfully vicious and sadistic villain he had played in World War I movies made while the war was still going on — the ones that had earned him the sobriquet “The Man You Love to Hate” from Universal’s publicity department — nor the genuinely noble and pathetic (in the good sense) character he would portray three years later in yet another World War I film, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion — the “grand illusion” being that as an hereditary aristocrat he would have so much in common with his French counterpart, played by Pierre Fresnay, a captured flyer incarcerated in Stroheim’s prison camp — only Fresnay’s character aligned himself with fellow French captive Jean Gabin, deciding his country was more important than his class. Instead in Crimson Romance Stroheim is just a martinet officer, understandably concerned with maintaining good discipline and order in the ranks and seeing both Ben Lyon’s divided loyalties and his wayward dick as obstacles in his way. Crimson Romance also isn’t helped by the typically unfunny “comic relief” character played by Herman Bing, or the fact that all these people supposedly playing Germans speak in English — and mostly American-accented English at that. Still, at a time when the U.S. is in the middle of a Presidential campaign whose front-runner is openly and proudly fomenting hatred against immigrants and calling for their mass deportation — and who rises higher and higher in the polls the more hateful and mean his statements become — Crimson Romance does acquire a certain degree of timeliness!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Vagabond King (Paramount, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I ran Charles an intriguing movie I’d been curious about since I read Edward Baron Turk’s biography of Jeanette MacDonald: her second film, the 1930 version of Rudolf Friml’s operetta The Vagabond King, an oft-filmed tale (both musical and non-musical versions) loosely based on the life of François Villon. Villon was a scapegrace poet, beggar and thief in 15th Century Paris; he’s known to have been born in 1431 (the year Joan of Arc was executed) but no one knows when he died — there’s no mention of him after 1463, when he published Le Grand Testament, his most significant work. It’s also possible his real name was François de Montcorbier or François des Loges, and in 1461 he was released from prison as part of a general amnesty ordered by the newly crowned French king, Louis XI. Villon was a role model for Bertolt Brecht, who reportedly based the central character of his first play, Baal (1917), on Villon and ripped off some of Villon’s poems for the lyrics for The Threepenny Opera. In 1901 playwright and Irish politician Justin Huntly McCarthy wrote a fantasy novel about Villon (“fantasy” not in the sense of physically impossible but in the sense of writing a totally fictitious account of a character bearing the name of a real person) called If I Were King, in which Louis XI, faced with an impending invasion of Paris by the rebel Duke of Burgundy, goes out and about among the Parisian lowlife, runs into Villon and hears Villon sing an insulting song in which he says the real villain threatening France is not the Duke of Burgundy but Louis XI himself, a weak king more interested in astrology than organizing a defense of Paris against the invaders.

Louis has Villon captured and taken to the palace (capturing Villon is relatively easy because McCarthy’s fictional Villon, like the real one, is an alcoholic and is easily “put under” by being fed drugged wine), and when he comes to he’s in a room of the palace, he’s been shaved and put into nice clothes, and he’s told he’s really the Baron de Montcorbier. The only people in the palace who know who Villon really is are the king and the royal barber who shaved and re-dressed him. The king says Villon can live like a nobleman and govern France for seven days, but will be hanged at the end of that time; either that, or they will throw him back into the gutters and let him live as long as nature, his fellow scoundrels and his alcohol consumption let him. During that week he successfully organizes Paris’s defense against the Duke of Burgundy’s army, wins the heart of the king’s niece, and ultimately bluffs his way into a royal pardon. McCarthy’s story, which he later rewrote as a play, got turned into an operetta by Brian Hooker and William H. Post, with music by Rudolf Friml, and both the non-musical and musical versions have been filmed several times. There was a silent version of If I Were King in 1920 (preceded by a 1914 short called The Oubliette) and another in 1927, retitled Beloved Rogue, starring John Barrymore. Paramount bought the rights to the operetta and made this version in 1930, starring Dennis King (who’s billed over the title and specified as “By Arrangement with Florenz Ziegfeld”) and Jeanette MacDonald (in her second film, after Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade). They assigned a German director named Ludwig Berger and filmed the whole thing in two-strip Technicolor, but though a Technicolor print exists and is in the vaults of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, currently circulating prints are only in black-and-white. (At least this film holds up better in monochrome than some of the Warners’ films in two-strip — the characters look relatively natural and it doesn’t seem as if all the actors, including the males, are wearing black lipstick.) In 1938 Paramount did a non-musical version under the title If I Were King, with Ronald Colman as Villon and Basil Rathbone as the king, and after a 1945 film called simply François Villon, the operetta was remade with Kathryn Grayson (a not-bad choice) and Oreste Kirkop (who?).

The 1930 version is a problematic film because some things are done really well and others aren’t; Dennis King is an overbearing screen presence — it’s true he’s up against the competition of John Barrymore and Ronald Colman, but his gravelly speaking voice (he seemed to be trying to speak his lines in imitation of Barrymore, even though Barrymore’s version had been silent) and stentorian singing voice lack the sort of roguish charm Villon has to have for the plot to work. Jeanette MacDonald couldn’t stand him; he kept trying to upstage her by sticking his face (including his quite prominent nose) into her close-ups, and at one point she bitterly joked that their big duet, “Only a Rose,” should be renamed “Only a Nose.” The parts that do work are MacDonald, Lillian Roth (I had downloaded this movie largely as a Roth item because I was trying to grab as many of her actual film in the wake of having seen I’ll Cry Tomorrow, the Roth biopic in which Susan Hayward played her) — even though Roth is way too modern a “type” to be believable as a street wench and (it’s obliquely hinted) prostitute in medieval Paris — and the magnificent ensemble scenes, including a virtual ballet number among the people waiting on Villon as he wakes up in nobleman’s guise. That’s the one part of the movie where I really missed the original color (UCLA has a fully restored Technicolor print but, like Fafner in Wagner’s Ring, it’s one of the treasures they are sitting on that remain frustratingly unavailable on home video or DVD, along with the restored, non-splicy print of Anthony Mann’s great 1945 film noir The Great Flamarion); otherwise the movie actually looks pretty good in black-and-white and Charles said the color version might look like we’re watching a St. Patrick’s Day parade go on in the background behind the main action. Berger’s direction is spotty; it’s refreshingly free of those long, annoying pauses between lines that afflicted many early talkies, but he’s unable to get his actors to abandon their stagy deliveries, as if they’re aiming to be heard beyond the footlights and don’t have a clue that film acting demands a quieter, more intimate delivery of dialogue. Even Jeanette MacDonald seems more stage-bound here than she did in The Love Parade, while Warner Oland as the villain of the piece, Thibault (Louis XI’s prime minister, whom Villon bests in a swordfight and thinks he’s killed, and who’s really a secret agent of the Duke of Burgundy), for some reason speaks his lines in the same halting cadences and pidgin accent he used in his much more famous role as Charlie Chan. For some reason Turk’s MacDonald biography made Berger seem like a stage director who’d never made a film before, even though his page lists directorial credits dating back to 1920, both silent and sound and both in his native Germany and in the U.S.

Much of The Vagabond King seems like a pretty plainly staged 1920’s stage musical (by coincidence Charles had asked me over dinner if anyone in the early days of sound had just taken cameras and equipment into a Broadway theatre and filmed a performance of a stage musical, and The Vagabond King is about as close as anyone came to doing just that: though it and other similar early musicals, like Marilyn Miller’s Sally and Sunny and the 1929 Rio Rita, were filmed in movie studios and not always with the same players as the stage productions, they were nonetheless pretty accurate reconstructions of the stage originals — as were the Marx Brothers’ first two movies, The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers), but there are also some surprisingly spectacular action sequences, including a chilling climax in which the Duke of Burgundy’s armies launch their long-threatened invasion of Paris and Villon organizers the beggars, thieves and street people to resist them, that contains a German-expressionist image of a soldier charging the camera with a fearsome, bestial look on his face that reminded me of the painting of cannoneer Löwe in the San Diego Museum of Art — a striking image indeed for a 1930 operetta film! I had assumed that these action scenes redeemed Berger as director from the relative dullness of much of the rest of the movie, but according to an “Trivia” poster, they were actually ghost-directed by Ernst Lubitsch, which may explain why they seem like so much more assured filmmaking than Berger’s scenes (though that marvelous levée in the palace bedroom when Villon wakes up in noble guise is also quite striking — unless that, too, was ghost-directed by Lubitsch). If Lubitsch was indeed involved in making this film (or any part thereof), it stands as an early credit for him on a color film 13 years before he made his first all-color movie, Heaven Can Wait. The Vagabond King is one of those frustrating movies that could have been considerably better than it was, especially with a more personable male lead … but who? Charles Boyer couldn’t sing, Maurice Chevalier couldn’t have negotiated Friml’s music that well, and Nelson Eddy (whom the part actually might have suited) was still singing and recording art music, including playing in productions like the U.S. premiere of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck in 1930 and a concert performance of Wagner’s Parsifal in 1931, both conducted by Leopold Stokowski — both inconceivable credits to anyone who knows Eddy only from the eight films he did make with MacDonald and the warmed-over operetta and faux-opera material he sang in them!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sherlock: “His Last Vow” (Hartswood Films, BBC Wales, Masterpiece Theatre/PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s program was an episode of Sherlock, the sometimes interesting, sometimes overwrought British TV update of the Sherlock Holmes stories with Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes (the role that made him a star) and Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson — oddly referred to through most of the shows by his first name, “John,” even though in the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Holmes never called him anything other than “Watson.” The appeal of Sherlock lies mainly in Cumberbatch’s performance (even though writers Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss made him considerably more antisocial than Conan Doyle did, to the point of having Holmes refer to himself as “a high-functioning sociopath” with Asperger’s syndrome, and as I’ve often paraphrased the opening of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” to me Basil Rathbone will always be the Sherlock Holmes) and the creative rescensions Moffatt and Gatiss have done with the canon, mixing, matching, slicing and dicing the Conan Doyle originals in sometimes intriguing and sometimes exasperating ways. The current episode, “His Last Vow” (dedicated Holmes fans will recognize the title as a riff on Conan Doyle’s “His Last Bow,” in which Holmes supposedly retires to keep bees on a farm in Sussex but really goes undercover to infiltrate a German espionage ring during the run-up to World War I), draws on that story as well as “The Case of Charles Augustus Milverton,” and the opening scene was so creative and audacious I thought we were in for a quite exciting and beautiful episode.

Charles Augustus Milverton becomes Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), not just a blackmailer but a worldwide media mogul obviously patterned on Rupert Murdoch, who in the opening scene is being grilled by an investigating committee of Parliament over his use of his newspapers to destroy public figures whenever he wants. Needless to say, Magnussen is almost literally above the law — even Sherlock Holmes’ brother Mycroft (played by series co-creator Mark Gatiss as a tall, thin, balding super-bureaucrat — I’d always imagined him from the stories as large and corpulent, and if he’d been included in one of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies I would have expected Robert Morley to have played him; as I’ve joked to Charles before, the Nero Wolfe stories are what the Holmes stories would have been if Conan Doyle had made Mycroft Holmes his central character) pleads with Sherlock to leave Magnussen alone because he’s so important to the national security of Great Britain that if a few innocent (or not-so-innocent but basically decent) people have their lives ruined by Magnussen’s tabloids, so what, that’s just collateral damage, the system must go on. Had Moffatt and Gatiss been willing to stop there, they could have created a quite chilling drama that would have fulfilled their series’ overall purpose of bringing the Holmes character into the 21st century while still remaining true to the values of Conan Doyle. They could also have made some interesting comments on the global power of the 0.001 percent, especially someone like Murdoch for whom everything, including his nationality (remember that he renounced his Australian citizenship and became a U.S. citizen so he could buy TV stations in this country, a privilege then still reserved for American citizens), becomes a tool to build his empire, fatten its profits and increase its influence. (In his original notes on Citizen Kane Orson Welles wrote that, with only rare exceptions, a man who has already made all the money he could ever need or want generally uses that money to acquire power; Citizen Murdoch has thoroughly proven that point over and over again.)

Alas, Moffatt and Gatiss couldn’t or wouldn’t stop there; instead they drag Sherlock Holmes into a drug den and have him arrested (and there’s a deliciously humiliating scene in which he has to pee in a cup for his drug test; he’s clean, but he was hanging out in a drug den to give Magnussen and his agents the appearance of something against him they could use), and they have young, innocent Mary Morstan from Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four (the only Holmes story in which Conan Doyle referenced Holmes’ drug use) turn out to be a hired killer for the CIA, who in a preposterous scene remixed (badly) from the burglary Holmes and Watson commit at the end of “Charles Augustus Milverton,” comes into Magnussen’s office with a silencer-equipped gun, posing as Magnussen’s latest blackmail victim Lady Smallwood, and shoots Holmes but aims precisely so she merely incapacitates him and doesn’t kill him. There are a few leaden flashbacks to Holmes’ childhood — as well as a ponderous family-reunion sequence later in the show — in both of which Holmes’ parents are played by Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham, Benedict Cumberbatch’s real parents. There’s also a preposterous scene in which Mary tells Holmes that if he wants to survive her shooting him, he has to fall on his back, which will expel the bullet or something (I was losing track around this time). At the end Mycroft offers Sherlock a six-month undercover assignment in Eastern Europe; Sherlock shoots Magnussen dead and then takes the job even though Mycroft has warned him it will almost certainly result in his death — but then he’s now a murderer and would end up in prison anyway (the U.K., being a civilized country, has long since abolished the death penalty). All this is obviously setting up Season Four (which has already been shown in Britain — we get Sherlock a year later than the home country does) of a series which, in the words of a Monty Python sketch, used to be great but now has just got silly.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Ungodly Acts (Front Street Pictures, Side Street Post, Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Lifetime ran one of their much-ballyhooed “world premiere” showings, this time of a film called Ungodly Acts, which is supposedly based on a true story but whose real-life basis, if any, I couldn’t find in an attempt to do a quick on-line search. (One message-board contributor said he’d seen the real cult leader on whom the leading character was based being interviewed on TV, but alas the message-board poster neglected to mention the man’s name.) The story opens with a young woman named Melissa Cooper Smith (Megan Park, the only person in the cast I’d heard of before, though I suspect only from other Lifetime movies) found hanged in the woods near a local town. The police initially judge her death to be suicide, but then a heavy-set white woman named Paula Martin from the Church of the Blessed Light Ministry (which actually exists — I did an online search for them and turned up their Facebook page, though I doubt that they’re the real church organization on which Paul Ziller based his script) comes to the two detectives investigating the case (a white man and a Black woman, played respectively by William Vaughan and Rukiya Bernard) with a young red-haired, bearded man named Adam Crider (Iain Belcher) in tow. Adam says that he killed Melissa and made it look like suicide, and he did this on the instruction of her husband, Daniel Cooper (Brant Daugherty), who was the “end-times prophet” and religious leader of a prayer group Daniel first organized in college and continued after graduation, and who said Melissa was full of sin and needed to be killed so God could reclaim her soul. The main portion of the film after that consists of flashbacks, as the police interrogate both Adam and Daniel and we cut back and forth between their stories to see what happened, starting five years earlier when Daniel was leading a prayer group at college and attracting a following of seriously Christian students who didn’t think the other religious student groups on campus were strict enough. Melissa has the hots for Daniel as soon as she sees him but as a good Christian is willing to wait until she attracts his attentions and he offers to marry her. She also recruits Adam to join Daniel’s group and Adam, who’s established early on as a standard-issue schizophrenic (“I hear voices,” he admits, and we all know what that means in this context) who’s much more in need of therapy (and possibly medications) than religiosity, is put through an exorcism by Daniel and feels something pop out of his mouth when Daniel announces he has exorcised at least one of the demons that was haunting Adam.

The students win a scholarship to study with the leader of the Church of the Blessed Light and his deputy, Paula Martin (the person we met in the framing sequence taking Adam into the police station to confess and nail Daniel — though why the church is so desperate to nail Daniel doesn’t become apparent until later), at their agricultural compound in Georgia, and Daniel eventually sets up his own communal living space. He also gets more authoritarian, more of a cult leader (having just heard the abridged audio book of Pete Earley’s Prophet of Death the formula was almost too familiar), ordering one of his members out of the group for having spoken at a meeting and challenged him. When the person he ordered out is found dead a few days later, Daniel tells his followers that God took his revenge against him for defying the will of the prophet. Daniel announces to his flock that from now on they’re going to pool all their money, one member, Ryan (Cole Vigue), objects, and instead of doing the sensible thing and getting the hell out of there, Ryan meekly accepts Daniel’s decision to “shame” him. This means making him stay in one room of the house without any food, water or contact with the others — and when one of the others asks how long Daniel is going to do that to Ryan, Daniel says, “Until God tells me he’s healed.” Daniel has applied himself enough to Church of the Inner Light doctrine that they’ve declared him an official “Prophet of the End Times,” with the idea that Christ’s return is imminent and Daniel is one of the people God has designated as the ones who will lead the community and keep it safe through the end of the world as we know it (and they’ll feel fine). Meanwhile Melissa keeps trying to get Daniel to notice her as a woman and not just a faithful follower of his cult, telling him she’s received “marriage prophecies” that they’re destined to get hitched and spend eternity together, and Daniel couldn’t be less interested in her that way. We eventually find out why when a young man named Eric joins the cult and admits he’s “struggling with homosexual urges,” and Daniel — who’s already staged so-called “cuddling sessions” in which his charges can touch each other and embrace even though they have their clothes on throughout and it’s not supposed to get any more intimate than that — latches on to Eric and says that Eric will just have to learn how to make love with a woman, and Daniel can help him do that by having sex with him himself.

Eventually we catch on that Daniel is also Gay and that’s the real reason he hasn’t wanted to marry Melissa — and so do the leaders of the Church of the Inner Light, who like most people of their religious ilk believe that homosexual experience is a deadly sin and anyone who indulges in it should be severely punished and is definitely not kingdom-of-heaven material. One peculiarity of the radical Christian Right — and Paul Ziller’s script gets this point right — is they don’t believe in the existence of Gay or Lesbian people. According to the Christian Right, everyone is naturally heterosexual, and the only reasons people ever have sex with members of their own sex is either they’re deliberately rebelling against God’s authority or they’re “broken” in some way, which leads in turn to the concept of “trauma-induced sexual sin” (in which they lump together homosexuality and child molestation), the idea that people act out homosexually because of horrible things that happened to them in the past and those things need to be brought to light and “cured” with “reparative therapy” so the people who are acting out with same-sex partners can be turned either heterosexual or celibate, and therefore will have a chance to reach heaven. The film’s key scene occurs when Paula Martin knocks on Daniel’s door early one morning and demands to see him immediately — and he slowly and dimly comes back to consciousness after a night in which he had sex with Eric and woke up in the same bed. He gets up, throws some clothes on and greets Paula, who much to Daniel’s discomfiture knows exactly what’s been going on between him and Eric — at least the broad outlines, if not all the gory details — and demands that Daniel turn away from this sinful lifestyle and get right with God … at once. Accordingly Daniel announces that he has finally been told by God that it’s time for him to marry Melissa, and he does so. They take a honeymoon in Hawai’i, but even that doesn’t move Daniel to want to take Melissa’s virginity (he can’t even do what Mel White said he did in his memoir — rouse himself to have sex with his wife by thinking of men the whole time), and that’s what leads Daniel to declare that Melissa is full of sin and only her death can redeem her. There’s a chilling postscript in which Adam is put on trial for Melissa’s murder but, despite his confession, he’s acquitted and Melissa’s death is ruled a suicide at long last, thereby getting not only Adam but Daniel and the Church of the Inner Light off the hook — though there’s a final scene in which Daniel applies for a job as a Bible teacher and is told he’s otherwise qualified but their “routine background check” has turned up information about the case that indicates he wouldn’t fit in.

Ungodly Acts isn’t a particularly creative or original story, but it’s well written and effectively directed by Carl Bessai, who uses a surprising number of oblique camera angles to make it seem like a latter-day Orson Welles film sired by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (even though the sets are realistic instead of stylized), which in other hands (or another type of story) might seem like gimmickry but here is used effectively to add to the atmospherics and claustrophobia inherent in a story about a close-knit religious community being slowly driven collectively crazy by the increasing megalomania and paranoia of its founder. One weakness of the film is that it doesn’t do as good a job as other cult movies have of answering the question, “Why don’t they just leave?” — certainly with someone as borderline crazy as Adam, we can readily believe that Daniel’s version of religion has offered him a refuge not only from the voices in his head but what the rest of the world would want him to do about them (basically check himself into a hospital and let modern doctors drug and/or shock virtually all of his consciousness — the sane parts as well as the insane ones — into oblivion). But when someone who seems as grounded as Ryan is shown meekly submitting to Daniel’s authority and letting Daniel keep him in that room even with no visible security preventing him from leaving any time he wants to, it’s clear we’re missing something we need to know about the power of Daniel’s hold over him and the others in the group. But that one flaw can’t keep Ungodly Acts from being legitimately powerful drama, incisively written, vividly directed and powerfully acted, especially by Brant Daugherty (who nails both Daniel’s megalomania and the superficial charm with which he attracts his followers) and whoever the actor was who played Eric ( doesn’t identify him but on the basis of their head shots I’m guessing it was Edward Ruttle), especially in the heartbreaking scene in which Daniel is jilting him and we realize that Eric loved Daniel as deeply, if not more so, than Melissa ever did, and he’d already begun emotionally to identify himself and Daniel as a couple no matter what the overall church they were supposedly a part of had to say about “homosexual urges.”

A Wife's Nightmare (Sepia Films/Lifetime, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Before Ungodly Acts Lifetime re-ran a movie from 2014 called A Wife’s Nightmare (one of their A _____’s Nightmare series, not to be confused with their The Perfect _____ and The _____ S/he Met Online series) which also turned out to be a well-done thriller, albeit one in which the big reversal three-fourths of the way through wasn’t that much of a surprise after all. Directed by Vic Sarin (I’ve seen his credit on previous Lifetime productions and haven’t been able to avoid the joke, “Ah, it’s directed by a poison gas!”) from a script by Blake Corbet and Dan Trotta, A Wife’s Nightmare begins with what appears to be a perfect suburban family — Gabe Michaels (Dylan Neal), his wife Liz (Jennifer Beals, virtually the only person in this cast I’d heard of before), and their son A. J. (Spencer List), a kind-of dorky but basically good-looking teenage kid. Their apparently idyllic existence is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a 19-year-old blonde named Caitlin (Lola Tash), who claims to be Gabe’s son by a woman he dated briefly before he met Liz. Then we see that the family isn’t as idyllic as we thought at first: Liz is the breadwinner — she works for a P.R. firm and is currently in the middle of preparing a make-or-break presentation for a Japanese entrepreneur about to develop a resort in the U.S. which will spell mega-success or mega-failure not only for the entrepreneur but the P.R. company as well — and just resumed work two months earlier after a nervous breakdown. Gabe is a not-so-young man who in the 1990’s was in a rock band that put out two CD’s and had a minor degree of fame for their 15 minutes; when they expired, Gabe kept the dream and Liz has put a second mortgage on their house so he can complete a comeback album he’s recording in a studio he’s built in to their home. A. J. is a troubled student who’s already been suspended from high school for fighting with the other kids. Caitlin’s claim to be Gabe’s — but not Liz’s — daughter just upends these people’s already frail holds on their own as well as each others’ mental health. A draft of the presentation mysteriously disappears from Liz’s laptop just as she’s supposed to deliver it to her employer, and she’s solemnly warned that if her mental demons cause any more screw-ups she’ll be canned.

Liz notices Gabe and Caitlin at one of their many barbecue parties (the characters are shown having so many barbecue parties one wonders if they ever eat anything actually cooked indoors) and sees them embracing, with Gabe’s hand reaching down Caitlin’s back and giving it an affectionate pat in the small of her back that makes Liz wonder if the bond between them goes beyond that of a father and child. Between the attentions Liz is showing towards Gabe and those she’s showing towards A. J. — at one point the two of them kiss on the lips and that also raises Liz’s suspicions — Liz begins to wonder if Caitlin is really Gabe’s daughter and therefore she’s obliged to let this preposterous woman live in their house and bond with them as a family member. Caitlin announces that she’s got a job at an independent record store that sells CD’s but specializes in vinyl — it may be news to some readers but such places actually exist, fueled by a youth rebellion against digital music and the conviction that recordings sound richer and more “complete” in an analog medium — and the real-life stores I’ve been in (and sometimes bought things at) are laid out pretty much like the one in this movie, with the vinyl taking pride of place on the shop floor (the way it used to before CD’s existed) while the CD’s are relegated to shelves on the walls, and most of the people who come in are browsing the vinyl. Gabe, of course, is familiar with the place — he would be since he’s a retro-rocker himself — and he comes there often to see Caitlin and her co-worker Alison (Nicole Hombrebueno — and just how did her family get the name “good man”?) and to browse the store (one suspects he’s looking to see if they’re still selling copies of his old band’s 1990’s recordings). A. J. also comes to the store, and given that he’s being shown as one of those guys who’s terminally shy around girls and can’t bring himself to ask someone for a date even if he’s got reason to believe the someone might actually be interested in him, he’s obviously got such of a case of the hots for Caitlin one expects Caitlin to take him to a dark corner of the store and tell him, “We don’t just sell pop music here. We’ve got a copy of an opera you might be interested in — Wagner’s Die Walküre.” (Of course, my fantasy continued with his comeback, “You mean the one where the long-lost brother fucks his sister, and the next morning he has a duel with her husband and gets killed? No, thanks.”)

At one point Gabe produces the results of a DNA test which establishes conclusively that Caitlin is his daughter, but Liz’s suspicions are aroused anyway, especially when she tries to play matchmaker at one of the family’s barbecues between Caitlin and Paul (a hot-looking Steve Richmond), older brother of A. J.’s friend Sean (Alex Ferris, who looks nothing like Steve Richmond beyond them both being young white males), only Gabe has a jealous hissy-fit when he sees Paul coming on to Caitlin. The whole thing unravels one afternoon in which Gabe and Caitlin, thinking they’re going to be alone in the house for a while because Liz is at work and A. J. is at school, go into the master bedroom and start screwing — only A. J., who got into another fight at school, got suspended again, came home early and caught his dad and his “sister” pounding away at each other in the bed dad usually shares with mom. It turns out that Gabe met Caitlin when he casually dropped into that record store while Liz was in the hospital recovering from her breakdown, and the two hit it off, started an affair, only because Liz had all the family money Gabe couldn’t just divorce her to be with his nymphet, so he hit on the idea of driving her crazy permanently and establishing Caitlin in their home by passing them off as “family.” (The “DNA test” was a fake; when Liz drives by the address where the lab was supposedly located, it's an empty lot.) There’s a typically over-the-top climax in which Liz orders Gabe out of the house and takes her symbolic revenge by smashing his beloved guitar — a present she had given him when they were dating and which she really couldn’t afford (she was waitressing at the time) but felt it was important to make sure he had — and Caitlin escaping the whole situation while Gabe is left alone and bereft. The big reversal may be predictable, but at least its very predictability makes it believable (though we still wonder how Gabe thought he was going to get away with passing Caitlin off as his daughter indefinitely when he was also screwing her — especially with Gabe’s son still living with them and bound to find out sometime), unlike some of the plot points Tony Gilroy has thrown at us in movies like Duplicity. Overall, A Wife’s Nightmare is a quite entertaining thriller even though it’s not until the reversal happens that we finally realize why it’s called that!