Sunday, July 31, 2016

Killer Coach (Shadowland, Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I had my heart set on watching the two Lifetime movies being shown last night from 8 p.m. to midnight, Killer Coach (billed as a “world premiere”) and Killer Assistant. Frankly, I needn’t have bothered; though they were produced by different entities in the universe of companies that supply “content” to Lifetime (Killer Coach by Shadowland and Killer Assistant by Cartel), the two were pretty similar. One nice thing was that both had ample supplies of the soft-core porn that’s been absent from all too many recent Lifetime movies but is now making a welcome return. Another unusual thing about Killer Coach is that the aspiring female swimmer who’s at the heart of the story, Samantha Morgan (Javicia Leslie), is Black, while both her regular boyfriend Lucas (Cameron Jebo) and Bryce Hinge (Tom Maden), the titular “killer coach” who first seduces and then stalks Samantha, are white — though as I noted in my comments on the 1993 film The Bodyguard with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, by some quirk of American racism a white man and a Black woman is considered a less bothersome pairing than a white woman and a Black man. Actually Bryce Hinge is merely an assistant coach; the actual coach at the L.A.-area high school where the story takes place is Gina Morgan (Keesha Sharp), who’s sufficiently hot and in good enough shape she looks more like Samantha’s older sister but is in fact her mom, who years before made it to the U.S. Olympic swimming team (obviously with the actual Olympics coming up and starting with the opening ceremony this Friday, a story dealing with the Olympics and fictional contenders for spots on the U.S. team is timely!) and fell a second short of a gold medal, finally winning bronze. Now Gina is pushing her daughter because she sees Samantha as her ticket to the podium-topping glory at the Olympics that eluded her way back when, and indeed she’s spending so much time coaching Samantha that her other students, including school “fast” girl Emily (Madison Iseman), are starting to complain about her obvious favoritism.

So partly to relieve the stress on her and partly to give the other girls some hard-core coaching, too, Gina hires Bryce Hinge as an assistant coach — and, as it turns out, he’s also the offspring of a swimming legend, Thomas Hinge (Ivar Brogger), who rose from being his own Olympic competitor to head the U.S. swimming federation (I think writers Tracy Andreen and Kentucky Robinson — one wonders if this would have been a better script if Tennessee Robinson would have worked on it instead — gave it a slightly fictionalized name instead of its real one, but I can’t recall what they called it). Bryce had his own shot at the Olympics but blew it, so Thomas explains to Samantha and us about two-thirds into the movie, because he had a tendency to get obsessed and fiercely possessive about whatever woman he was interested in at the moment, whether she was interested in him or not. He actually gets Samantha to have sex with him in the school’s pool after hours — she routinely practices at night and one night he catches her there, coaches her and then fucks her in the pool, the whole thing being filmed by director Lee Friedlander in dim light that makes the scene both romantic and creepy but, alas, denies us (or at least denies me) the stark contrasts between the colors of the bodies that for me is the principal “charge” in an interracial sex scene. Then he starts pestering her for more, and her performance both in the classroom (this is one film set in an American high school that actually shows us the classroom!) and in the pool drops. Her mom notices, but Samantha doesn’t want to tell her what happened, not only because she’s ashamed and afraid her mom will punish her but because Bryce is blackmailing her with video of them having sex he got from the security cameras around the pool — the angle was such that she’s easily recognizable but he isn’t — and he’s also threatening to “out” Samantha’s mom Gina because during the run-up to the Olympics in which she competed, Gina briefly took human growth hormone and came up positive for it on a drug test. Bryce got the documents of this from his dad, who covered up the incident at the time, and tells Samantha that if she goes either to her mom or the police and tells them she and Bryce had sex, he will release this information and Gina will be retroactively stripped of her bronze Olympic medal.

The one person Samantha thinks she can confide in is Lucas; they spend several acts on the “outs” because Bryce showed Lucas the video of Samantha having sex in the pool and he’s unsurprisingly jealous of her anonymous lover, but eventually Samantha corners Lucas outside his parents’ home (he says his parents are there so he can’t invite her in, and she says, “That never stopped us before” — the first indication we get that she and Lucas were getting it on before Bryce stepped into the picture and therefore she wasn’t a virgin, though previously writers Andreen and Robinson had led us to believe she was), she tells him the man in the video was Bryce and he seduced her. Eventually Lucas believes her and the two have sex — and director Friedlander shoots their soft-core porn scene more straightforwardly and gives me the thrill of her Black body against his white one I wanted all along — only before they can decide what to do, Bryce comes to the Morgan home and overpowers Gina, tying her up and then calling Samantha to tell her he’s got her mom captive but he’ll release her unharmed if she resumes their relationship. The film ends at the pool, where Bryce wants to reproduce the whole scenario that led them to have sex in the first place — they raced in the pool, then he seduced her — only he’s brought a gun with him, though instead of carrying it in the pool he’s left it on the side with his clothes. Somehow Samantha manages to distract him long enough to get out of the pool and grab the gun, and when Bryce comes towards him she drills him one and scores a perfect shot to the heart. (Maybe if she’d been established as an ace target shooter as well as a fantastic swimmer, it would be more believable that she could do that — though at least it’s nice for a change in a Lifetime movie for the put-upon heroine, what Maureen Dowd called the “pussy in peril,” to be able to take out the bad guy herself instead of relying on the police, an accident or another character as deus ex machina to do it.)

Killer Coach had the makings of a pretty good Lifetime thriller but director Friedlander and writers Andreen and Robinson were entirely too gloomy about it; true, Tom Maden, with his hard swimmer’s body clad mostly in tight black jeans (though oddly, given that he’s a swimming coach, we don’t get to see much of him in Speedos — darnit) and an infectious face topped by a mop of tousled black hair, is the closest thing to a male sex god I expect to see on basic cable, and though Cameron Jebo is nowhere near as hot as Maden, he’s easy enough on the eyes — taller, blonde, a bit dorky but still incredibly attractive — he’s both exciting to look at and enough less sexy than Maden that it fulfills the Lifetime iconography that the hottest guys are always the villains. The show is also sunk by an overly dire musical score by Steve Gurevitch (I’ve seen his name on previous Lifetime films and had the same complaint about his music there than here) that makes ordinary actions like climbing up a set of household stairs or getting into a pool seem so scary Gurevitch has few musical tricks left to score the scenes that are genuinely supposed to be frightening. Despite the hot soft-core porn scenes the film otherwise just plods along, and the few hints of multidimensionality Andreen and Robinson try to give their characters are mostly unexploited — at one point Samantha tears into her mom and says that competitive swimming was her mom’s dream, not hers, but then this potentially interesting antagonism between the women gets dropped as Bryce’s actions pull mom and daughter closer together. Killer Coach has little to offer aside from two guys (and some girls, if you’re into that sort of thing) who are nice to look at and a couple of hot sex scenes; otherwise it’s a by-the-numbers Lifetime thriller that just isn’t all that thrilling. Also, though Ken Sanders, creator of the “Whittendale Universe” — the sequence of Lifetime movies taking place either at Whittendale University (which is either in Pennsylvania or Vermont — accounts differ) or among high-school students desperate enough to go there they’re turning to prostitution or other gamy income sources to raise enough money to pay its tuition — is listed as a producer (but not a writer!) for this one, the name of Whittendale isn’t mentioned among the colleges both Samantha and Lucas plan to apply to in hopes of getting admitted to the same one and thereby being able to continue to go together no matter where they end up.

Killer Assistant (Cartel Pictures, Marvista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

And the next movie Lifetime showed Saturday night, Killer Assistant, was just about the same: a different production company (MarVista Entertainment and Cartel Pictures), different writers (Sophie Tilden and Shanrah Wakefield) and a different director (Danny J. Boyle, obviously billed with his middle initial to differentiate him from the genuinely talented Danny Boyle, maker of Trainspotting, The Beach, Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later and Steve Jobs), but the same formulae with only a few slight variations. The story centers around a San Francisco-based fashion magazine called Style Harmony — we know it’s San Francisco because we get a few stock shots of the Bay Bridge (though not the arguably more iconic Golden Gate Bridge) — and its editor, Suzanne Austin (Arianne Zucker), who’s a success on the job but a pretty miserable failure in her home life. She’s married to a former rock musician, Robert Austin (George Stultz) — we’re told he still performs but we never see him either playing or practicing; we learn that a generation earlier he and his band had a huge hit which paid for the Austins’ home, but they remained one-hit wonders and were eventually pretty much forgotten. Now the Austins — Robert, Suzanne and their rebellious teenage daughter Calista (Natalie Lander), who keeps trying to date guys her parents don’t approve of and they retaliate by barring them from the family home — live off her money (at one point Robert bitterly complains that she makes more in a year than he will for his entire life). Meanwhile, the stresses from her job in general and the upcoming 50th anniversary issue of Style Harmony in particular become so overwhelming for Suzanne that, without consulting her, her boss Janet McAlper (Joanne Baron) hires her a personal assistant, David Barinas (Brando Eaton). The film actually begins with a peculiar prologue whose significance isn’t explained to us until the very end: a sandy-haired boy (we’re told he’s supposed to be seven but he looked about 10 to me) catches the woman who’s looking after him sitting on top of the washing machine while some guy has sex with her. Then his dad comes home unexpectedly and tells him the woman is not his mother, but just his babysitter, and so he shouldn’t get so worked up that the woman stopped looking after him in favor of getting it on with the other guy. Then the film cuts to the present and introduces the Austins as characters, along with the other people she works with on the magazine: the hot Black guy Charles (Darryl Stephens), the nellie Gay guy Ian (Brett Ryback) — writers Tilden and Wakefield drop hints that he’s Gay but, of course, never actually show him dating, having sex with or having a genuine relationship with a man — and the dedicated and excellent research assistant and fact-checker Mary, who the night David starts working at Style Harmony is jumped in the magazine’s parking lot by a hoodie-wearing assailant who wields a knife and cuts her Achilles’ tendon, laying her up on crutches and forcing her to work at home.

Mary is suspicious of the new assistant — especially since she had suggested to Suzanne that she prepare a PDF of all the covers the magazine had run in its 50-year existence, and David told her he’d already done it as part of his research for the job — but everyone accepts him the way the people around Margo Channing at first accepted Eve Harrington, taking his all-smiles demeanor and super-dedicated attitude at face value. We know there’s something sinister about him — after all, the film is called Killer Assistant (though the original working title was just The Assistant and no doubt if Christine Conradt had been involved its title would have been The Perfect Assistant) — but the characters, except for Mary, remain ambivalent about him. David lands the perfect cover story for Style Harmony’s 50th anniversary issue: an exclusive interview with former child star Nora Patters (Sierra Love), who’s blazed a trail of bad behavior, including alcohol and drug use and a DUI accident in which she ran down a pedestrian and nearly killed him — only she’s about to be released from court-ordered rehab and will be resuming her career in a prestigious independent film made by a major director (the writers were clearly thinking Lindsay Lohan here, though in a later sequence in which she has a drug-fueled meltdown while doing a live TV interview they were also clearly inspired by Charlie Sheen!). Only just before Nora and her agent are supposed to call to finalize the interview, Suzanne finds that her notes have been erased from her computer just after David was using it, supposedly to update her anti-virus software. Suzanne finds plenty of hints that David is out to sabotage her, but she’s told by Janet as well as her co-workers that she’s just being paranoid. One night David invites her to dinner after their work shift, and she accepts — only he gets her drunk, seduces her and films them doing the dirty deed, and by the time she comes to it’s morning, she’s sleeping on the office couch and she’s missed the TV morning show on which her would-be cover girl Nora Patters has just told the world about the glories of doing cocaine and other controlled substances. Janet tells her there’s no way she can condone Style Harmony promoting someone or something like this, and thinking quickly, Suzanne says she’ll revamp the story about child stars in general, the ones who make it to a decent, responsible and substance-free adulthood as well as the ones who don’t.

Meanwhile, Suzanne’s home life is also coming unglued: while visiting Nora and her entourage Suzanne spots her husband Robert passionately kissing another woman, and it turns out this isn’t the first extra-relational sex Robert’s had; his misadventures include a few visits to prostitutes as well as a long-term affair with someone named Ellie, whom we never see but gets talked about a lot when Robert and Suzanne see a couples therapist in hopes of pulling themselves back together. While all this is happening David sets his sights on seducing Suzanne’s daughter Calista (ya remember Suzanne’s daughter Calista?) and gets her to run off with him. David also sees Mary the researcher come back to work, and that very night he goes to her apartment and finishes her off by beating her with a blunt object — his favorite murder technique. He also takes out Suzanne’s husband Robert the same way after luring him to an outdoor meeting. The cops suspect Suzanne of her husband’s murder and Janet fires her from the magazine — there’s a sad little scene in which she’s carrying a banker’s box full of her personal belongings out of the building. In the finale, David is holding Calista hostage — Calista texts that she’s with him but he catches her before she can give mom the location — and when mom arrives David, whose real name is Curtis (something that slipped out when he and Suzanne were in a coffeehouse and someone called out to him, “Curtis?”), explains that he was the boy she was supposed to be baby-sitting way back when, but she neglected him to have sex with Robert, who was the guy his dad caught her with (though the scene is supposed to have happened so long before the main action different actors appear: Shaelan O’Connor as Suzanne, Ryan Cargill as Robert and Maverick Thompson as the boy), and his feelings of abandonment, compounded by the suicide of his real mom (when she offed herself he was the one who first found the body), led him to a lifelong obsession with destroying her by researching her magazine, stealing the “David Barinas” identity, wangling a job as her assistant, driving her crazy and killing everyone near and dear to her.

Like Killer Coach, Killer Assistant has some good soft-core porn — though there’s only one big sequence between Suzanne and David, it lasts a long time, and David has a pretty dorky face but a hot bod, especially when we get to see him working out at home wearing nothing but a pair of black shorts (yum!) and Calista comes in on him looking that way. Eventually David overpowers Suzanne but it’s Calista as the designated deus ex machina who picks up the baseball bat mom brought as a weapon and whacks him over the head with it, killing him with one blow (really?). Like Killer Coach, Killer Interview is a would-be thriller that isn’t especially thrilling, though at least Suzanne Austin is a more interesting victim than Samantha Morgan, if only because she’s older, has a family and a great (if exhausting) job, and therefore has a good deal more to lose. Indeed, when the film ends she and Calista seem to have no one left but each other! It also shares with Killer Clown a ridiculous musical score (by Maximilian Eberle and Chris Forsgren) that telegraphs every dramatic point well before director Boyle and the writers make it, and imbues even the most innocuous actions with sinister “significance.” These were both movies with potentially great themes — the tainted legacy both principals of Killer Coach receive from their parents and, in Killer Interview, the ease with which a sufficiently dedicated psycho can burrow under the skin of someone who seems to have it all and systematically take it all away — that went for the sleaziest aspects of their stories and weren’t especially entertaining even as good clean dirty fun.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Kentucky Fried Movie (KFM Productions, 1977)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a surprisingly entertaining DVD of a 1977 film called Kentucky Fried Movie, one of the last items in an odd cycle of compilation comedies released in the 1970’s that featured a series of sketches lampooning other movies and TV shows (and commercials, and newscasts) that were a sort of template for Saturday Night Live. This was one of the last in the cycle but it was important for some of the careers it launched: the director was John Landis (and it was after screening this Ingrid Wansomeone at Universal thought Landis would be the right director for National Lampoon’s Animal House, a blockbuster hit and the making of Landis’s reputation) and the writers are David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (that’s the sequence in which the names were always billed), who later created and directed the Police Squad! TV series, the Naked Gun films derived from it, and the Airplane! movies. The first scene is of a newscaster telling the audience, “The popcorn you are eating has been pissed in. Film at 11.” I groaned inwardly at that one, expecting that we’d be subjected to a whole run of scatological jokes I wouldn’t find amusing, but the film turned out to be genuinely funny and not overwhelmed by its tastelessness the way more recent raunchy “comedies” have been. The “plot,” to the extent there is one, is about a young man (dressed in one of those puffed-out hairdos that definitely mark this film as a 1970’s product) who watches a lot of TV and goes to a movie theatre, where he gets to see a film in “Feel-a-Rama,” which means that a theatre usher stands behind him, blows smoke in his face when one of the on-screen characters smokes, sprays perfume when the male lead references the perfume the woman is wearing, kisses the man when the on-screen characters kiss (there are quite a few joking references to same-sex love in this movie that play quite differently now than they did in 1977), and spills water in the poor guy’s lap when an on-screen character spills their drink.

He also gets to see a movie called A Fistful of Yen, which is quite the longest sketch in the film, and whereas from the title I was expecting it to be a spoof of Clint Eastwood’s “spaghetti Westerns” with an Asian cast (would that be a “ramen Western”? Just asking … ), in fact it’s a spoof of Bruce Lee’s martial-arts movies, in which Evan C. Kim as “Loo” is assigned by British intelligence to bust a Chinese super-villain called “Klahn” (Bong Soo Han), who’s obviously based on Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu Manchu. It’s got plenty of laughs, including one in which Loo meets up with Ada Gronick (Ingrid Wang), the hot nuclear physicist he’s supposed to spirit out of Klahn’s compound before she builds him a nuclear bomb, and as the two of them try to have a confidential conversation they keep coming across the multitude of microphones with which Klahn’s people have bugged the room — including one in which, just after they’ve talked about bribing Klahn’s people to let them go, Loo grabs the mike and says, “But it would be wrong.” (It’s a reference to the Watergate scandal, specifically the White House tape of March 21, 1973, in which President Nixon was confronted with E. Howard Hunt’s demand for hush money and he insisted that the money be paid, but then said, “It would be wrong, that’s for sure” — a line Nixon’s defenders seized on to say he was against the cover-up even though the full context showed Nixon only thought it would be strategically, not morally, wrong to pay Hunt because he’d just ask for more.) The producers of Kentucky Fried Movie scoured the martial-arts studios of L.A. for participants for these scenes, though their role was mainly to “look right” as Loo took on entire armies of martial-arts practitioners and defeated them single-handedly. There are some bits of surprisingly anti-corporate satire — especially a mock commercial about all the sleazy energy projects pursued by something called the Argon Corporation (“Here at our multi-billion dollar refinery in Fairbanks, we’re extracting 2.5 billion barrels of crude oil each day from teenagers’ faces”), whose final statement of their corporate purpose is, “At Argon, we’re working to keep your money!” (This is especially surprising since the writing team of the Zucker brothers and Abrahams later became some of Hollywood’s most outspoken political conservatives.)

There are also mock trailers for movies, including one called Cleopatra Schwartz that spoofs the Blaxploitation craze of the time (bad-ass Black action heroine Cleopatra, played by Madeline Joy, marries rabbi Schwartz, played by Saul Kahan), as well as one for an out-and-out porn film called Catholic High School Girls in Trouble (“Never before has the beauty of the sexual act been so crassly exploited!” boasts the narrator in that breathless style we’ve come to associate with mainstream movie ads), and a commercial for a “Joy of Sex” record album that comes complete with romantic mood music, step-by-step instructions and, if the male has a premature ejaculation, a substitute boyfriend called “Big Jim Slade” (made up to look like the height of 1970’s muscleman tacky-chic and introduced by, of all pieces of music, a Jewish song called “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem”). There’s also a surprise ending to the Fistful of Yen sequence that turns it into, of all things, a parody of The Wizard of Oz (with the Bruce Lee action hero coming to from his “dream” in full drag as Judy Garland’s Dorothy), and another black-and-white sequence called Courtroom! that’s a pretty obvious parody of Perry Mason and features the two brothers from Leave it to Beaver as older characters (though Jerry Mathers, the original Beaver, turned down the opportunity to re-play his part here, Tony Dow, who’d been his older brother on the TV show, eagerly took his role). Incidentally, the Courtroom! sequence is in black-and-white in the actual film, but the clips of it in the movie’s own trailer are in color — the trailer, which appears on the DVD as a bonus item, also begins with a “G”-rated placard even though from what we’ve just seen this is one film that couldn’t have got a “G” unless the entire ratings board was put under mind control. (The trailer ends with the actual rating, “R” — though at least one contributor said that today standards are tighter and it would be an NC-17.) Kentucky Fried Movie started slowly but turned out to be a delight, with enough non-raunchy jokes (as well a few that were raunchy but also genuinely funny!) one could forgive the ones that were raunchy but not funny, and for me the turning point came during a mock TV talk show interview between host Paul Burmaster and guest Claude Lamont, an undersea adventurer obviously patterned on Jacques Cousteau. The gag in this one was that the boom mike kept working its way into the picture, at one point falling into the water pitcher on the set and making gurgling noises, and at the end lighting Burmaster’s cigarette in the sort of physically impossible gag Stan Laurel loved (and the Laurel and Hardy producer, Hal Roach, hated).

There are also a few lines that anticipate the Airplane! movies — in the Fistful of Yen sequence Loo asks Klahn to “show me your operation,” and Klahn raises his shirt and shows off his surgical scar; elsewhere during the Courtroom! sequence an attorney asks for time to “check my briefs,” he opens his belt and looks down at his underwear, then says they can continue; and in one scene a public-service announcer says, “This is not a drill — drills go Black-and-Decker-Black-and-Decker-Black-and-Decker...”. There’s also a rather sick but still screamingly funny segment with Henry Gibson as himself promoting a charity called the United Appeal for the Dead, which essentially pushes the idea that just because your relatives are dead doesn’t mean you can’t keep them around and still enjoy their presence. Kentucky Fried Movie is the sort of wild, rambunctious comedy they really don’t make anymore — though in the 2000’s there was a marvelous film called The Independent which melded the sensibility of Kentucky Fried Movie with an actual plot (about the comeback attempt of movie producer Morty Fineman, played by Jerry Stiller — Ben Stiller’s considerably funnier dad) and had even more mock movie trailers for equally absurd projects (including Fineman’s breakthrough movie, Brothers Divided, in which a hard-core military man who insists on serving in Viet Nam and an equally hard-core peacenik who actively resists the war are also conjoined Siamese twins) — and it’s genuinely funny, which all too many movies today that are clearly intended to be comedies actually aren’t. Oh, and did I tell you about the industrial film promoting zinc oxide (possibly a parody of The Tree in a Test Tube, a 1943 industrial short produced by the federal government to promote plastic) which shows vividly all the disasters that would occur if zinc oxide didn’t exist?

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Indiscretion (Granfalloon Productions/Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched last night’s latest “world premiere” movie on Lifetime, Indiscretion. This one was obviously intended for theatrical release, not only because a lot of swear words (ranging, most likely, from “fuck” to “shit” to the “God-” in “Goddamn”) were deleted from the soundtrack — at times the sound got awfully patchy as the Lifetime censors took out the seven deadly words from the script by John Stewart Muller (who also directed) and Laura Boersma — but because the page for the film says it was shot in the 2.35-1 old CinemaScope ratio even though we were watching it at the common 1.85-1 digital TV ratio, and also because the lead actress was advertised as “Academy Award™ winner Mira Sorvino!” She plays Veronica Simon, psychiatrist (we get to see her “in session” with several of her patients and we get periodic shots of her with a Black woman whom we assume is her therapist until … ) and wife of U.S. Senate candidate Jake Simon (Cary Elwes), who’s currently a New Orleans City Councilmember and is running as a Republican for the Senate against a Democratic incumbent on a platform that includes support for gun control. Some of the other people in the movie comment on the unlikelihood of that, noting that Muller and Boersma were aware that a Republican — and a Southern Republican, at that — would never in the real world take any position on guns other than abject fealty to the Second Amendment and the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s and the National Rifle Association’s reading of it. Jake Simon’s poll numbers are going down because of rumors that he had an affair, so apparently on the principle that what’s sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose, Veronica launches into an affair of her own with Victor Barnard (Christopher Backus) and director Muller gives us quite a few hot soft-core porn scenes between them that make it look like they’re ravenous with lust for each other.

Then what’s begun as a steamy sex thriller quickly snowballs into a series of barely connected incidents that spiral farther and farther into total unbelievability, as Veronica tries to break off the affair and Victor responds by becoming the stalker from hell, turning up at her office (while her husband is there because he hoped to surprise her and do a quickie lunch date!) and then leaving a bouquet at her home. When mom won’t see him Victor seduces the Simons’ rather airheaded daughter Lizzy (Katherine McNamara, a luscious piece of blonde teenagerhood that probably had the straight guys in the audience at least sitting up in their chairs, if not outright creaming) and takes Polaroid pictures of them making love the way he had previously done with Veronica — only Veronica at least had the good sense to burn them almost as soon as they were taken, while Victor saved the ones of him and Lizzy and “let” Veronica discover them later. The film climaxes (so to speak) at a hunting party Jake has gone on with the state’s governor, Wallace (Marco St. John), both to get an “in” with the governor’s 1-percenter contributors and to re-establish his hunting bona fides after his stand for gun control tanked his standing in the polls. Jake, Victor, Veronica (who wasn’t invited to the party — it was supposed to be male-only — but crashed it after “discovering” the pics of Victor and Lizzy) and a bunch of other people are running around with guns, and at one point Victor trains his gun, not at the deer they’re supposed to be shooting at (which makes this sound like the prequel to Bambi), but on Jake. Jake turns around in time to see Victor aiming at him and gets the gun away. They struggle and Jake’s face is bloodied, then they both reach for the gun (Maurine Watkins, your plagiarism attorney called to tell you he’s doing just fine in Gstaad) and Victor kills Jake, after which Lizzy picks up the gun and fires it at Victor. At first we think they’re both dead but it turns out Victor is alive and makes a full recovery but ends up in a mental institution. It also turns out that when Jake was killed Veronica was picked to replace him as Louisiana’s Republican candidate for U.S. Senate and won, and the Black woman we thought was her therapist was actually a reporter for “GNN” (apparently they couldn’t use the real name of CNN but they copied their logo almost exactly except for replacing the “C” with a “G”) interviewing her for a TV broadcast and getting the whole story public.

Only there’s a twist which is still baffling me and which I can’t figure out whether Muller and Boersma intend us to believe this or just regard it as one of Victor’s delusions: Veronica goes to visit Victor in the institution and Victor “reminds” her that the whole plot was Veronica’s idea: she would seduce him and trigger his mental issues so that he would kill Jake, then she would kill Victor, pass it off as self-defense, enter the Senate race and win it — only the plot went off the rails when Victor seduced Lizzy, which wasn’t part of her mom’s plan. Victor pleads with Veronica to admit all this publicly, Veronica says he’s just being delusional, and she walks out on him and leaves him behind in the institution. I suspect the writers were being pretty delusional themselves expecting anybody to believe this as a legitimate reversal, especially since it comes at the very end of the proceedings and therefore can’t even be justified as a mid-movie “goosing” of the plot to keep the audience interested. Frankly, through most of the movie I had thought Victor was in the pay of Jake Simon’s political opponents, assigned to seduce his wife and then get caught having an affair, thereby embarrassing both Simons and plunging his poll numbers even farther into the abyss — and that at least would have been slightly more believable. Director Muller brings quite a strong sense of style to this film, especially in two suspenseful scenes where women are being stalked — in one, Lizzy has just walked out of a party hosted by one of her age-peer friends when she realizes it was just a set-up to get her to have sex with a rather nerdy guy who’s interested in her, and there’s a thrilling scene in which she walks down the mean streets of New Orleans and several sinister-looking males pass by her before her mom finally locates her and drives her home. In another, it’s Veronica who’s being stalked by Victor in a parking garage, and just as she gets to her car and we think she’s evaded him, he turns up inside (how did he get in?). But those are just two good scenes in an otherwise ridiculous movie whose writers — one of whom is also the director, meaning that he has no one to blame but himself and his script collaborator — pile so many unlikely incidents on top of each other we run out of reasons to care about these people. It also doesn’t help that it’s one of those stories in which the only way it hangs together at all is if we believe these people are such complete idiots they don’t do anything any normal person would do in this situation, like call the police — O.K., we get that Veronica doesn’t want to involve the police because it could hurt her husband’s chances in the election, but really! Especially when it involves a direct threat not only to her but her daughter!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Drums in the Deep South (King Brothers Productions/RKO, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I picked to screen last night was Drums in the Deep South — an odd title because neither the film itself nor its soundtrack depicts anyone playing drums — a 1951 “B”-plus Western set during the Civil War made by producers Maurice and Frank King and released through RKO. It was shot in Supercinecolor (the follow-up to the Cinecolor process of the early 1930’s, which managed to photograph blue before Technicolor did but did not have the vibrancy of three-strip Technicolor at his best) — though the print we were watching, a public-domain download, had faded to green and brown, looking more like a color film of today than either Techncolor or Cinecolor (“super” or not) at their best. The film began life as a story by Hollister Noble (whose only other credits on are for the stories for Errol Flynn’s 1952 film Mara Maru and another 1952 production, Mutiny) that got turned into a screenplay by Philip Yordan and Sidney Harmon. The most interesting behind-the-camera credit by far on Drums in the Deep South was its production designer and director, William Cameron Menzies, who got his start in films in the early 1920’s and designed the spectacular sets for the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. fantasy The Thief of Baghdad. In 1931 he became a director and eventually became known for movies that were visually spectacular but a bit dramatically static, including the 1932 Chandu the Magician (a potentially great movie let down by its dull cast — the magnificent Bela Lugosi as the villain excepted — and overshadowed by the much cheaper but also considerably better serial sequel The Return of Chandu, in which Lugosi got promoted from villain to hero and totally out-acted Edmund Lowe as Chandu), the 1936 Things to Come (another magnificent-looking movie, fascinating in parts but laden down by the didacticism of its screenwriter, as well as author of the source novel, H. G. Wells), and later sci-fi cheapies like the original Invaders from Mars (1953) and The Maze (1953).

Menzies’ most famous production designer/art director (the two mean essentially the same thing: the person who designs the sets and works with the director to determine the overall visual “look” of a film) credit was on the 1939 epic Gone With the Wind, and since that’s also a story set during (and immediately after) the Civil War in the South — indeed, both films take place in Georgia and center around a big plantation — comparisons between Gone With the Wind and Drums in the Deep South are inevitable. The problem is they aren’t very flattering: Drums in the Deep South is only 85 minutes long (Gone With the Wind is nearly four hours) and has some interesting actors, but James Craig is hardly in the same league as Clark Gable (as MGM learned when they tried him and John Carroll as replacement Gables in the early 1940’s while the real one was in combat during World War II) and Barbara Payton, despite some genuine edginess in her performance (her best work in films was opposite James Cagney in the 1950 Warners gangster drama Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye) that showed her to be an actress of promise, was hardly comparable to Vivien Leigh. The story begins at the Georgia cotton plantation of Albert Monroe (Taylor Holmes) and his niece, Kathy Summers (Barbara Payton). One night in 1861 Kathy’s husband, Col. Braxton Summers (Craig Stevens), brings over two of his classmates from West Point, Major Will Denning from Boston (Guy Madison) and another Southerner from a nearby plantation, Major Clay Clayburn (James Craig, top-billed). The reunion is an edgy one because Clay once dated Kathy before the married Summers instead, and the Clayburn family went downhill — they lost their plantation because their father ran up so much debt he couldn’t pay it back — and Clay briefly claims to have regained his family’s land and fortune, but he quickly confesses to Kathy that he really didn’t and one wonders why he bothered to lie about it. The reunion gets even edgier when the plantation residents, including a lot of happy, contented Black sla- — oops, I mean servants —receive word that Fort Sumter has been fired on and the Civil War has started. Col. Summers goes off to fight with the Confederacy — and is never seen again in the entire film, though towards the end Kathy gets word that he survived the war — while Major Denning returns to Boston and ends up back in Georgia as a Union commander with General Sherman’s army. As for Clay, he becomes some sort of Confederate commando (where, oddly, his uniform isn’t the regulation grey but, through some quirk of Supercinecolor and/or the condition in which it’s survived, blue, albeit a light powder blue instead of the deep blue of the Union uniform). Three years pass, represented by a montage with dates spread across it, and then it’s 1864, Sherman is marching through Georgia and the Confederate command has figured out that the one place on his train route where he’s vulnerable to attack is Snake Gap, which just happens to be next to the Monroe plantation and is overlooked by a tall bluff called the Devil’s Mountain and, Charles and I were convinced, is actually the same Devil’s Tower in Wyoming that in 1977 was used as the meeting point between earthlings and the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The Confederates realize that if they can get four 12-pound Brooke cannon on top of the mountain, they can shell the Union army’s oncoming trains, put them out of commission and thereby delay Sherman’s march by a month until he can come up with replacement supplies and another way of getting them to his men. The problem is how to get them up there, since the face of the Devil’s Mountain is virtually sheer. Only Clay, being from the neighborhood, knows that the inside of the mountain is honeycombed with caves that will provide a commando force of 20 men an opportunity to pull four cannon to the top, assemble them there and fire them at the Union trains. He picks a team of people who are all too aware that, because there’ll be no way to resupply them once they get to the top of the mountain, this is essentially a suicide mission. The cannon get dragged through the caves, though not without a few accidents — including a sequence in which one man nearly falls into a cavern and has to be pulled out with a rope — and one finally gets why William Cameron Menzies was interested in this story: he responded to the whole challenge of making a film set largely inside caves and keeping it interesting. Unfortunately, the cave sequences are by far the most exciting in the film; otherwise it’s a rather dull love triangle between Clay, Denning (who’s absent from the next 60 percent or so of the film after the opening sequence but suddenly returns as an officer with Sherman’s army and the challenge of knocking out the Confederate cannon atop Devil’s Mountain — for a while this starts to seem like The Guns of Navarone in the Civil War, though The Guns of Navarone wouldn’t be filmed for another decade) and Kathy, who gets threatened with rape by a Union officer occupying her home (her uncle shoots the guy before he can subject her to the Fate Worse Than Death, but is shot himself for his pains; later she sees a photo of her would-be assailant’s kids and is conscience-stricken enough to write a letter to his family back home in Michigan), sends signals to the Confederates on top of Devil’s Mountain what the Union officers bivouacking in her home are planning to do about the guns. The Union army brings in a 24-pound Dahlgren naval gun, intending to park it on the railroad tracks just out of range of the Confederate guns on the mountaintop so they can aim it at the top and take out the Confederate cannon, but the Confederates work a plan around that: they load their own cannon with double the usual amount of gunpowder, increasing the range but also making it more likely for the cannon to blow up when fired. To prevent the latter, they need to reinforce the cannon by wrapping them in wire — and Kathy figures out how to get them the wire: by taking it from the innards of her family’s piano. (One of the Union officers discovers this when he bangs the keys of the piano — and they make only the clunking noise of their mechanism, not musical sounds.)

Ultimately Major Denning, who remember also knows the area, says the way to get rid of the Confederate artillery is to blow up the mountain — given that it’s honeycombed with caves, it will collapse easily — only that means everyone inside as well as on top will be killed. Kathy asks Denning if she can make one last-ditch appeal to the men inside to surrender before they get blown up with the mountain, but she makes a b-i-i-i-g mistake: she dresses in a dark blue dress and gets picked off by one of the commandos who mistakes it for a Union Army uniform. With her dying breath she talks the other eight survivors of the original team into going down the mountain and emerging before Denning and his Union crew set off the charge — and she and Clay stay behind and get blown up for one of those bizarre “the lovers are united in death” endings that were all the rage during the Romantic era of culture that was going on during the Civil War but now just seem stupid. Drums in the Deep South is actually a pretty good idea for a movie, if you can forget how much better these tropes had been done again and again and again in earlier films, but Menzies’ direction is occasionally creative but shows the limitations of the strangulation-poor budget he was working with (for Invaders from Mars he planned the entire production in 3-D, including building sets with forced perspectives that would look especially good in 3-D, but just before he was scheduled to shoot he found that his producer didn’t have the money for a 3-D camera) and, aside from Payton (the only woman in the cast!), the acting leaves a lot to be desired. Also the plot has almost has many holes in it as the Devil’s Mountain itself — one energetic contributor put up five “Goofs” entries and all were about mistakes in the presentation of artillery (mostly saying that the guns mentioned in the dialogue couldn’t really do what the script showed or said they could do — though he got one point wrong which the film got right: he thought the Confederates were “double shotting” their guns, putting two cannonballs in each gun, which would reduce their range; in fact they were double-charging their guns, using one cannonball and twice the normal amount of gunpowder) — and overall Drums in the Deep South emerges as a pleasant time-filler, decent entertainment but also pretty forgettable, not good enough to be classic and not bad enough to be camp.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Universal-International, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I screened the next Abbott and Costello film in sequence in the Universal boxed set: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a 1948 production directed by Charles T. Barton (who also seems to have been the one who thought up the concept even though old A&C hands Robert Lees, Frederick Rinaldo and John Grant wrote the script) which, as the title indicates, united Universal’s famous comedy team with their equally famous cast of copyrighted screen monsters: the Frankenstein creation (Glenn Strange), Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi, playing Dracula on film for the second and last time — despite Lugosi’s reputation he only made five films in which he played a vampire: Dracula, The Mark of the Vampire, Return of the Vampire, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Old Mother Riley Meets the Vampire — and the last two were comic spoofs) and the Wolf Man, a.k.a. Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr., as usual). That makes this both a “doubles” movie (two Draculas: Lugosi and Chaney) and a “triples” movie (three Frankenstein Monsters: Chaney, Lugosi and Strange). Boris Karloff, the best-known Frankenstein Monster of all, wasn’t in this movie but agreed to help promote it as long as he didn’t have to watch it; he later appeared in two of Universal’s inevitable follow-ups, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949) — a red-herring title if there ever was one because Karloff’s character was not the killer — and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953). Lou Costello was originally reluctant to do the film — “My little girl could write a funnier script than this!” he said — but Universal-International (as the studio was then called) agreed to sweeten the pot financially, and the result was a solid commercial hit, a major comeback for Abbott and Costello and the studio’s biggest moneymaker of the year. It’s an oddly schizoid film in that the horror elements are presented almost completely “straight” — there’s no effort to make fun of the Frankenstein mythos itself the way Mel Brooks did in Young Frankenstein (though quite a few elements in this one anticipated Young Frankenstein and Charles and I were quoting a lot of Young Frankenstein dialogue as they came up: when Costello, stumbling around after hours in a “House of Horrors” wax museum, chops off the head of a dummy representing a guillotine victim I said, “Freshly Dead,” when A&C stumbled around the secret entrance to the basement of the old castle — actually the old set of the Paris sewers from Lon Chaney, Sr.’s legendary horror vehicle The Phantom of the Opera from 1925 — Charles said, “Put the candle back,” and when we saw the original journal of Frankenstein’s experiments, here called “The Secrets of Life and Death,” we both chanted in unison, “How I Did It!”) — and one can see the gears in Barton’s and cinematographer Charles Van Enger’s styles switched from heavy-duty Gothic in the prologue scene in London to the plain style Universal used in its comedies when the action switches to Florida, where the bulk of the film takes place.

The movie opens with Lawrence Talbot calling Chick Young[1] (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Smith (Lou Costello) long-distance from London to Florida to warn them not to deliver two crates to McDougal (Frank Ferguson), proprietor of a House of Horrors wax museum. The crates contain the remains of Count Dracula and the Frankenstein monster, and Talbot wants to warn Chick, Wilbur and anyone else he can get hold of that the creatures are still alive and Dracula is part of an elaborate scheme with Dr. Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert, who despite her French-sounding name was actually part-Austrian and part-Slovenian, though she’d been living in Paris for some years before coming to the U.S. and making her film debut, except for a bit in the 1938 comedy Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, as a glacial European femme fatale in Bob Hope’s 1943 film They Got Me Covered) to revive the Monster and bring him back to full power. To do this, they have somehow secured access to a large old-style castle built on an island in the middle of the Everglades, and Dracula — posing as a Hungarian scientist named “Dr. Lejos” — decides he wants to give the Monster a perfectly innocent, childlike brain so he won’t resist and will be totally subservient to Dracula’s commands. He starts by breaking out of his coffin in McDougal’s museum and attaching a cigarette-lighter style device to each of the Monster’s neck electrodes to give him a semblance of movement. (The Monster says, “Master,” as soon as Dracula does this — marking this as the third time in the Universal Frankenstein cycle the Monster has spoken: the first time was in The Bride of Frankenstein, the second at the end of Ghost of Frankenstein in which Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Monster starts speaking with the voice of Bela Lugosi as Ygor because the Monster has just received Ygor’s brain — which was why Lugosi was cast as the Monster in the next film, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man: originally the plan was for the Monster to speak throughout that film but when preview audiences started laughing at Lugosi’s lines as the Monster, they were erased from the soundtrack along with any reference to the Monster being blind, which he became at the end of Ghost of Frankenstein because of an imbalance between the Monster’s and Ygor’s blood types.)

The principals go out to the island in the middle of the Everglades — though a portion of the film’s action plays at a masquerade party, during which Abbott and Costello (remember them?) freak out Lon Chaney, Jr. by dressing up in wolf-man costumes. Costello’s character is also being romanced by two women — by Dr. Mornay, who wants to lure him to the island so she can take out his brain and transplant it into the Monster, thereby giving it the perfectly innocent, guileless, stupid, pliable brain Dracula wants it to have; and also by insurance investigator Joan Raymond (Jane Randolph), who’s been assigned by the company to process McDougal’s insurance claim and see if the bodies of Dracula and the Monster can be recovered so the company won’t have to pay the claim. Randolph is described on her page as “briefly in the limelight in the 1940’s,” and by the time she made Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein she’d already been in two of the finest horror films ever made in the U.S.: Val Lewton’s Cat People and (repeating her role) its sequel, The Curse of the Cat People. (She’d make only one feature film after Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, as an extra in a 1955 production called That Lady; she retired to marry producer Jaime del Amo and live with him as a socialite in Switzerland, where she died in 2009.) Raymond romances Costello to get a line on the whereabouts of the exhibits, but she also falls for Dr. Mornay’s assistant, Professor Stevens (Charles Bradstreet), who like the male ingénues in Mystery of the Wax Museum and its remake, House of Wax, is a decent young guy who’s totally unaware of the sinister doings of his employer. Abbott, predictably, can’t understand why two delectably pretty young women are falling for Costello, of all people; when he asks her why, Dr. Mornay says, “Blood … and brains.”

The film has some great lines — of which the best is, when Lawrence Talbot explains to him that when the full moon comes out he turns into a wolf, Costello answers, “Yeah — you and 20 million other guys!” — and is also surprisingly well staged as a horror movie, even though it suffers from the departure of Universal’s makeup genius, Jack P. Pierce. The new owners at Universal-International decided they could dispense with his services and brought in Bud Westmore, whose brothers Perc and Wally headed makeup departments at other studios; and Westmore decided that instead of using the laborious practices Pierce had employed to create the Frankenstein monster — wrapping the actor’s head in cheesecloth, applying facial putty and a special collodion and literally sculpting the face (and achieving the uncanny look of the Monster’s skin having pores, like real skin) — he would create the Monster’s face out of rubber appliances and glue it onto Glenn Strange. The result is a look that’s a lot less convincing and more visibly “fake,” especially in the close-ups. Also, in order to make Lugosi look the same age he was in Dracula even though it was 17 years later, Westmore plastered white makeup on his face, seemingly with a trowel, which made it virtually impossible for Lugosi to do any real facial expressions under all the white goo — and Universal cartoon department head Walter Lantz (best known as the creator of Woody Woodpecker) not only did a great animated credits sequence in which Abbott and Costello appear in skeletal form and their bones later fly apart and rearrange themselves into the name of the film, he also worked out a cool but not all that convincing effect of turning Dracula into an animated cartoon every time he turns from a bat into a human, or vice versa. (This was much the same technique Columbia was using the same year in the Superman serial with Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel — Alyn turned into a cartoon every time the script called on Superman to fly— though that was probably better than the way they did it on the 1950’s TV show, which was to hang George Reeves horizontally on a harness and pose him against a process shot of sky.)

Still, this is a nice film to be Lugosi’s (arguable) swan song for a major studio (his last completed film, The Black Sleep, was produced independently but released by the reputable United Artists company), and though this was a low-budget production at least they had a long enough rehearsal schedule for Lugosi to learn a substantial amount of dialogue phonetically — remember that Lugosi never learned more than rudimentary English and memorized his scripts phonetically, and the sleazy fly-by-night producers with which Lugosi did most of his work didn’t give him long parts because they either wouldn’t or couldn’t wait around to let him memorize a lot of lines that way. A number of commentators think Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is their best film; I don’t — I don’t even think it’s their best horror-comedy (that would be Hold That Ghost, made seven years earlier for their best director, Arthur Lubin, and funnier than this film precisely because it doesn’t have the mythic weight of all Universal’s monster legends hanging over it) — but last night I liked it better than I ever have before even though they really ran into the ground the gag of Costello seeing some horrific sight, summoning Abbott, and then when Abbott comes the scene has reverted to normal reality and he thinks Costello was hallucinating. They had already reached a point of diminishing returns with this gag in Hold That Ghost and really ran it into the ground in later “Abbott and Costello Meet _____” movies!

[1] — By coincidence, Chic Young was the name of the creator of the comic strip Blondie.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Paramount, 1962)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Saturday, July 16 — the day Charles and I marched in the San Diego “LGBT” Pride Parade (I can’t stand those initials even though I’m supportive of the inclusion of Bisexual and Transgender people in our movement) — I ran for us and our friend Leo Laurence the 1962 John Ford film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It was John Ford’s second-to-last film and his last commercial success (though apparently the song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, written to promote the film but not used in it and a hit record for Gene Pitney, was a bigger hit than the movie!), and when it was released it was promoted as the first on-screen teaming of James Stewart and John Wayne. I was especially interested in having Leo watch this film because he was one of the pioneers of Queer Liberation in San Francisco in early 1969 — months before the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City that have come to be celebrated as the birth of Queer activism in the U.S. even though there was a Queer rights organization as early as 1924 (the Society for Human Rights, based in Chicago and founded by Henry Gerber) and a continuous history of American Queer activism since Harry Hay (the real equivalent for the Queer community to Martin Luther King, Jr. and César Chávez — not Harvey Milk, who came along later and made a major contribution during his regrettably short life but was not the trail-blazing pioneer Hay was) and four others founded the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles in 1950. Leo is personally bitter that his and others’ “pre-Stonewall” contributions have been at best slighted and at worst completely ignored in the “official” histories of our movement, and every time he’s bitched about this I’ve been reminded of the famous line late in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!” (It’s become one of the most oft-quoted lines in any John Ford film, and one Ford biographer even titled his book Print the Legend.) I don’t think I’d ever seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance start to finish before, though I’d seen clips from it in documentaries about Ford and I caught the film’s marvelous ending scene at least once on TV.

Based on a story by Dorothy M. Johnson and scripted by Willis Goldbeck (who also produced) and James Warner Bellah (author of the story source for a previous John Ford-John Wayne Western, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance begins with U.S. Senator Ransom “Rance” Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) returning to the old frontier town of Shinbone (what state the film takes place in is deliberately kept ambiguous; the old Citadel Press book The Films of John Wayne stated it was Nevada but it’s not specified in the movie itself, despite the similarity Charles picked up on between the name of the film’s state capital, “Capitol City,” and Nevada’s real one, Carson City). When Charlie Hasbrouck (Joseph Hoover), an inquisitive young reporter for the town’s newspaper, the Shinbone Star, meets Stoddard at the train station (Charles inevitably joked that this was the railroad connecting Shinbone to Thighbone), he begs off of an interview and finally tells the reporter, “I’m here to attend a funeral.” The funeral is that of a totally unknown man, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) — though why the writers spelled his last name so oddly is a mystery, especially since the other actors pronounce it “Donovan” anyway — and eventually Stoddard agrees to meet with Hasbrouck and his editor, Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young), and tell them the story of his early days in Shinbone. He went there following Horace Greeley’s advice to “go west, young man, and grow with the country” — only as he was on his way through the unnamed territory his stagecoach was waylaid by a gang of bandits headed by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin in what proved to be a major step forward on his path to stardom; three years later he would play a dual role in the 1965 Western spoof Cat Ballou, one a sober, evil gunman copied from his part here and one a drunken, good gunman — a character itself parodied as Gene Wilder’s role in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles — and his Cat Ballou role would make Marvin a major star after he’d been “typed” as character villains for over a decade). Valance is a total psycho who carries not only guns but a cat-o’-nine-tails whip, with which he assaults anyone who particularly pisses him off — and Stoddard, with his lawbooks, his father’s watch, his $14 and change and his determination to bring “law and order” to the West, is instantly #1 on Valance’s hit list. Valance not only steals everything Stoddard has — at one point opening one of the lawbooks and contemptuously ripping out a chunk of pages from it — he whips him within an inch of his life, and only the timely arrival of Tom Doniphon saves him. Doniphon takes him to Shinbone and to Pete’s Place, a restaurant owned by Swedish couple Peter and Nora Ericson (John Qualen and Jeanette Nolan — he was a longtime character actor, one of the so-called “John Ford Stock Company” of actors he liked to use again and again, and she played Lady Macbeth to Orson Welles’ Macbeth in his marvelous 1948 film of Shakespeare’s play). The Ericsons agree to put Rance up and give him a job as a dishwasher — for which he has to wear an apron, an “unmanning” similar to that Nicholas Ray wreaked upon Jim Backus as James Dean’s father in Rebel Without a Cause — but he still has to worry about Liberty Valance returning to Shinbone and finishing the job of killing him.

Rance and Doniphon form an edgy friendship — the sort of thing a modern screenwriter would call a “bromance” — though they also get into arguments, with Doniphon, like a typical John Wayne character, arguing that the West is no place for law and lawyers because it’s a frontier community and men settle their own arguments. “That’s exactly what Liberty Valance told me!” Rance says in shock. Doniphon is also dating Hallie, the Ericsons’ daughter, but she loses interest in him and drifts towards Rance when Rance, shocked when he realizes Hallie can’t read, offers to teach her and sets up a class for Shinbonites of all ages who want to become (or make their children) literate. Doniphon convinces Rance that he needs to buy a gun and learn to shoot to protect himself against Valance’s return, but when the two go out to Doniphon’s ranch Rance is totally inept at aiming his gun — Rance misses three paint cans Doniphon sets up as targets and Doniphon not only hits all three paint cans in succession but does so in a way that drenches Rance in paint. Valance returns to Shinbone as agent for a group of cattlemen north of the “Picketwire,” which doesn’t mean a fence but is slang for the Purgatoire River (a tributary of the Arkansas), who want to keep the unnamed locale a U.S. territory instead of a state because that will mean the land will remain open range — while the homesteaders of Shinbone and other communities south of the Picketwire want it to become a state so there will be a functioning state government that will recognize their land titles. Valance and his gang (including a young Lee Van Cleef, who’d also become a major Western star later in the 1960’s, mainly on the strength of the so-called “spaghetti Westerns” shot in Italy which also made a star of Clint Eastwood) crash the election meeting at Hank’s Saloon that’s supposed to send Shinbone’s two representatives to the territorial convention in Capitol City that’s supposed to decide whether to apply to the federal government for statehood. Rance Stoddard chairs the meeting and insists that the bar remain closed during the election — much to the discomfiture of Shinbone Star editor Dutton Peabody (a virtually unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien in a role Ford would have no doubt cast with Thomas Mitchell if he’d been well enough to work — Mitchell died in L.A. of bone cancer on December 17, 1962). Rance nominates Tom Doniphon as one of the representatives but Doniphon turns it down, and eventually Stoddard and Peabody turn out to be the candidates against Valance, who runs but is disqualified because he doesn’t live in Shinbone. Valance insults Stoddard at Pete’s Place when he trips him while he’s carrying a steak, and Stoddard accepts Valance’s challenge to a gun battle even though he hates the idea of two grown men settling their differences with weapons in the street.

On the day of the big gunfight (which takes place outside a Mexican cantina and therefore gets scored with cheesily clichéd “Mexican” music — most of the score is by the usually bouncy Cyril J. Mockridge but Ford also rips off the main theme Alfred Newman composed for Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln 23 years earlier) Valance shoots Rance in the arm, then shoots the gun out of his hand, then challenges Rance to pick it up again. Rance fires, Valance goes down and the town doctor, Dr. Willoughby (Ken Murray) — who, like Peabody and quite a few other members of the dramatis personae in Ford movies, is a drunk — pronounces Valance dead and Rance his killer. Valance’s gang members threaten to lynch Rance for killing Valance, but the rest of the town proclaims him a hero — only later, after Rance returns in triumph from the convention that has decided to pursue statehood, Doniphon tells him, “You didn’t kill Liberty Valance — I did.” It seems that Rance’s shot went wide and Doniphon picked off the outlaw with his rifle. Rance tells all this to Shinbone Star editor Scott and reporter Hasbrouck in the framing sequence, imploring them to print the story and thereby establish the truth of what happened a quarter-century earlier — but Scott tears up the notes Hasbrouck took of the conversation and tells Rance he isn’t going to run the story because “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” On the train leaving Shinbone to take Rance and Hallie back to Washington, D.C., Rance says that as soon as he finishes work on the irrigation bill he’s pushing he’s going to step down from the Senate and retire to Shinbone, and he’s given V.I.P. treatment on the train which he thinks is for his illustrious service as the state’s first governor, a multi-term U.S. Senator and ambassador to Great Britain — until the conductor tells him, “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance.” The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a great film despite some technical sloppiness — Ford either chose not to shoot on his spectacular Western locations like Monument Valley, Utah (though a couple of stock shots of Monument Valley’s famous elevated mesa appear as process-screen backgrounds) or wasn’t given a big enough budget by the studio, Paramount, to do so; and there’s one scene in which we see the exterior of Pete’s Place through a window and it’s a matte painting of surprising crudity (Ford’s grandson told biographer Lindsay Anderson that by then Ford was getting bored with the whole process of filmmaking and no longer considered it fun — and a similar ennui-driven technical sloppiness impacted Alfred Hitchcock’s last films as well) — mainly because of its elegiac quality.

It’s a film made by old men who were all too well aware that they weren’t getting any younger — James Stewart and John Wayne were both at least 20 years too old for their parts — and it’s a film that draws not only on the classic Western clichés but on quite a few other parts the stars, Stewart in particular, had played before: echoes of Stewart’s characterizations in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (the reluctantly drafted politician), Destry Rides Again (the Western lawman who’s afraid of guns) and Winchester .73 (an even darker film than The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and one I’ve described as “a film noir in Western drag”) appear here. Yet it’s also a film about the peculiar yin and yang that seems to drive American politics in general and its attitude towards political violence in particular — as well as drawing on the same sort of romantic triangle between a woman, a rather bookish man and a man of strength and power Ford had used in his unsung silent masterpiece Three Bad Men in 1926 (a little-known precursor of the “psychological Westerns” that became all the rage — and were considered so “innovative” — in the 1950’s). In modern equivalents Rance Stoddard is Barack Obama, convinced that any threat, no matter how immediate or dire, can be solved through negotiation and appeals to reason and due process; while Tom Doniphon (as befits the real-life politics of the actor playing him) is Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, and even more his possible successor, Donald Trump, in his conviction that the only way to meet violence is with more violence. John Wayne’s comment to John Ford on the set of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that he didn’t want any ambiguity in his character — “Screw ambiguity. Perversion and corruption masquerade as ambiguity. I don’t like ambiguity. I don’t trust ambiguity” — certainly comes from the same place as George W. Bush’s famous remark, “I don’t do nuance” — whereas Obama’s statements on terrorism both abroad and at home seem so mired in nuance it’s easy for the Rightists of today to proclaim him “weak” and say we need a strong, tough hand who will take out the bad guys “by any means necessary.” (The shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge have pushed American progressives into an odd position where they want to condemn the people who kill police officers while also maintaining the criticism of police officers for the way they treat people of color — while the Right has no problem: in their view, police officers are good and anyone who questions their tactics are bad and likely to get them killed.)

After we watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Charles said that the film’s politics were “all over the map” — Doniphon may be the spokesperson for political violence and taking the law into one’s own hands but he’s also a supporter of civil rights in the scene in which he forces a reluctant bartender to serve his Black servant Pompey (Woody Strode, whom Ford tried to make a star by casting him as a Black Civil War officer in 1960’s Sergeant Rutledge) — and this was true of Ford in real life as well: he was generally considered a conservative but in the late 1940’s he courageously spoke out against the Hollywood blacklist (of which his friend and frequent star John Wayne was one of the strongest and loudest supporters). The opposition of James Stewart as the reluctant warrior and John Wayne as the enthusiastic one gets even more ironic when you consider that during World War II it was Stewart who put his movie career on hold, signed up for the Army Air Corps and flew in combat, while Wayne wangled deferments and fought his “war” from the safety of Hollywood’s soundstages. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was also Ford’s last film in black-and-white, and explanations for why it was filmed that way vary — some sources say Paramount regarded Stewart and Wayne as waning stars and didn’t want to give Ford the budget to make it in color, some say it was a practical choice because it was easier to make Stewart and Wayne look younger in black-and-white than it would have been in color, and some say it was an aesthetic choice on Ford’s part. Whatever the reason, the black-and-white photography by William H. Clothier adds greatly to the film’s power; Clothier shot almost the whole movie through a red filter, which gives the sky an ominous, almost black look against which white clouds are silhouetted menacingly. Also, it’s unusual for a Western in that a great deal of the film takes place at night — though it isn’t as relentlessly dark as Winchester .73 or an even earlier noir Western, Blood on the Moon (1948), it’s clear that instead of opening up the vistas and locating the characters in great expanses of landscape, Ford and Clothier were closing them in and confining them to the settlement of Shinbone — oddly appropriate for a story which presents the urbanization of the West and the end of the open range as “progress.”

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is full of symbolism, some of it pretty ham-handed and obvious — it wasn’t enough for Ford to have Woody Strode recite the Declaration of Independence in James Stewart’s classroom; he had to do so with a photo of Abraham Lincoln in the same frame — some of it rich and moving (like the burned-out house Doniphon lived in, which he set on fire — and from which he was barely rescued — when he realized Hallie Ericson was going to marry Rance Stoddard instead of him, and which is still standing in its ruined state when Rance returns to Shinbone for Doniphon’s funeral, and the rose cactus flower Hallie gave Doniphon to plant in his front yard and which reappears at the end) — and it’s also a work that contains the “luminous quality” Walter Legge wrote is often found in an artist’s late work, “as if the creative mind had already seen the world beyond death and [was] conscious of things infinitely greater than the emotional experiences of this world.” John Ford never considered himself an “artist” in that sense and he was openly contemptuous of people (especially “intellectual” critics) who tried to present him as one, but he was an artist and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is an odd summing-up of themes that had been present in his films throughout his career — as well as being surprisingly innovative in at least one particular: Liberty Valance himself is an out-and-out psychopath, a trail-blazing departure from the standard Western tropes. Most Western villains had been rationally evil men with a specific goal in mind; Valance is willing to hire himself and his men out to the cattle barons who want to preserve the territory as lawless open range, but personally he couldn’t care less: like the Joker in the Batman film The Dark Knight Returns, he’s the sort of person who blows things up (or shoots them, or whips them) just for the sheer fun of doing so, and despite the thin veneer of idealism with which ISIS surrounds itself one gets the impression that a lot of its recruits — especially the ones in Western countries that are responding to the call to jihad without much, if any, connection to the “parent” ISIS in Iraq and Syria — are just signing on because they like to kill people and by pledging “allegiance” to ISIS they can do the psychotic things they’d like to do anyway with a thin veneer of “idealism.”

Father Brown: "The Sins of the Father" (BBC/PBS-TV, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Saturday, July 16 I put on the latest episode of the Father Brown British detective series to be rerun on KPBS, “Sins of the Father” (originally aired in the U.K. January 14, 2016), in which aircraft manufacturer Robert Twyman (Robert Daws) receives a series of blackmail notes telling him to “confess” — though just what he is supposed to confess to is left powerfully ambiguous until close to the end — or his son will be killed. His son Calvin (Oscar Dunbar) is an amateur pianist who’s interested in going after a professional career and who arrogantly insists he doesn’t need to rehearse for the upcoming amateur show in town — an annual event at which journalist-turned-aspiring pianist Rosie Everton (Amy Noble) is also supposed to play. The town is both enthralled and upset by the visit of a well-known author and lecturer on Freudian theory, Dr. Mordaunt Jackson (Paul Bown), who in an early sequence manages to hypnotize amateur singer Mrs. McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack) into being unable to perform in public. The show is maddeningly uncertain about when it’s supposed to be taking place: the attitudes of the characters and some of the dialogue are contemporary but the cars and clothes mark it as the 1950’s. The lead “sleuth” character, Father Brown (Mark Williams), hears Robert Twyman’s generalized confession but doesn’t get the specifics about just what Twyman is supposed to have done. Calvin Twyman is found strangled to death in a room that was locked from the inside and to which only Robert and Calvin Twyman and their butler, former aircraft engineer Lester Wallace (Dean Williamson), had the key. Later Rosie Everton is also strangled, and Father Brown — with virtually no help from local law enforcement — deduces that Dr. Mordaunt Jackson is the killer: he committed the murders remotely through hypnosis, putting Robert Twyman under a psychological compulsion to strangle to death the nearest person whenever he heard the Chopin Nocturne No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 9, no. 1 and then sending his son Calvin a copy of the score and suggesting it be his piece at the concert, so Calvin would practice it and his dad would go ballistic and kill him — only after murdering his son and then forgetting that he had done so (which was also part of the hypnotic spell) Robert also knocked off Rosie Egerton when, while they were in the same room, she noticed the music for the Chopin Nocturne on a piano and started to play it. Dr. Jackson’s motive is that Rosie, a former journalist who had quit a big-city newspaper to become a concert pianist — but was still working for a local paper to make a living and keep her hand in — was about to publish a story about him selling airplanes with defective parts, and Dr. Jackson’s son had lost his life in a crash of a Twyman plane caused by the defective part. (All My Sons meets The Manchurian Candidate.) It’s a charming show, mainly due to the lovely performance by Mark Williams as Father Brown, even though some of the episodes have strained credibility and this one sails over the top.

Soul of a Banquet (Wayne Wang Productions/PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a show that had sounded interesting on the KPBS Web site listing of their schedule: Soul of a Banquet, a 2014 mini-documentary ( lists a running time of 79 minutes but it was cut to 58 minutes for this TV showing) by director Wayne Wang about Cecelia Chiang. Apparently Cecelia Chiang (no relation, as far as I know, to those Chiangs) fled the Chinese mainland in 1961, came to the U.S. and opened a restaurant called The Mandarin in San Francisco. “So what?” you might ask. “Someone flees China for the U.S., settles here and opens a restaurant.” Apparently what made Chiang’s story interesting and worth filming was that hers was the first Chinese restaurant in America that wasn’t located in a Chinatown and served anything other than Cantonese food. When Chinese were first brought to the U.S. in the 19th century — mostly by unscrupulous employers who wanted a docile workforce that would work for much less money than they had to pay people who were already in America (plus ça change, plus ça même chose … and the reaction on the part of U.S.-born workers was predictable: they formed labor unions and political parties aimed specifically at keeping the Chinese out of the U.S. — the speeches of Denis Kearney, founder of the Workingmen’s Party in San Francisco in the 1870’s, sound like they could have been given by Bernie Sanders when he’s talking about the power of corporate America … and like Pat Buchanan or Donald Trump when he’s talking about the danger of immigrants in general and Chinese immigrants in particular) — they were recruited almost exclusively from the province of Canton in southeastern China. As a result, they brought Cantonese as their language and Cantonese cuisine as their food — and virtually all “Chinese” food in the U.S. was the relatively bland Cantonese instead of the spicier Mandarin, Sichuan and Hunanese styles. (Hunanese is the most highly spiced of all Chinese food, and when Mao Zhedong, or however his name is spelled these days, was head of China he insisted on serving only Hunanese food at state dinners and got sadistic kicks out of watching people from other parts of China try to get down the highly spiced dishes.) Cecilia Chiang decided from the outset that her restaurant would not offer any of the familiar Cantonese dishes — “no chop suey, no egg foo yung” (ironically chop suey is usually believed to have been invented in the U.S. by Chinese immigrants, though the Wikipedia page on it quotes an anthropologist E. N. Anderson who argues that it was a dish from China’s Guangdong province and the original Chinese name is “tsap seui,” meaning “miscellaneous leftovers”).

When she tried to locate her restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Chiang found herself the victim of regional discrimination; no landlord would rent to her because, as a native of Shanghai, she did not speak Cantonese. So she opened the Mandarin Restaurant (the name itself is a statement of cultural pride!) in 1961, about the same time her friend Alice Waters opened the Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley and became internationally known as founder of the so-called “slow food” movement. Waters appears in Soul of a Banquet, as does Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, who is shown on screen but also narrates the film. While Chez Panisse still exists under Waters’ management, the Mandarin was sold by Chiang in 1991 and went out of business in 2006 (something not made clear in the film itself; the film notes that the Mandarin no longer exists but — unless this was explained in the first 10 minutes or so that I missed — doesn’t make clear why not). The film is basically divided into two parts, the first telling Chiang’s story (she was born c. 1920 to an aristocratic family near Shanghai, escaped having her feet bound in the usual fashion of upper-class Chinese girls because her parents were enlightened enough not to do that to her, fled with her sister from the Japanese occupiers in 1942 and got on the last plane out of Shanghai with her husband before Mao and the Communists won the Chinese civil war and took power in 1949, settled in Japan — ironically enough — and lived in Tokyo until she emigrated to the U.S. in 1960) and the second showing a special “banquet” meal of mouth-watering delicacies, including red braised pork (the item that was the one I’d most like to try), beggar’s chicken (it’s wrapped in paper and then covered in clay that hardens as it bakes, so you have to break it off with a mallet to serve it), and quite a few dishes involving abalone (some of these are usually made with pork but since they had an abalone they were determined to make the most use of it they could) which she served at Chez Panisse as a tribute to Alice Waters and an attempt to reproduce the experience of eating the multi-course Chinese banquets Chiang had regularly eaten as a child in the home of her wealthy parents.

Most of Chiang’s interviews were done in English, but there’s a long stretch of her speaking in Mandarin about the experience she had returning to China in 1974, just after the Cultural Revolution (though there were still young thugs running around wearing the Red Guards hat, carrying the Quotations from Chairman Mao book and literally whipping people whom they greeted if the people didn’t respond with the proper revolutionary fervor) and just before Mao’s death, when she found that her dad had died from malnutrition and a brother and sister had committed suicide. She also found that there were no longer any fancy restaurants in China because nobody left there could afford them; instead there were eating places where there were three large pots, you served yourself from one of them, and that was the menu. That was certainly the most moving and tragic part of Chiang’s story, but there were others — and the final sequence showing the preparation and serving of the great banquet is fascinating even though it’s also frustrating because until the dishes are completed you’re not given any information of what they are or what ingredients go into them. Soul of a Banquet is the sort of movie that even if you’re not ordinarily a food buff is nonetheless going to make you wonder just what on earth all this gorgeous-looking cuisine tastes like and where you can get it (or get the recipes to make it yourself), and as both a film about food and a film about cultural traditions lost, found and in some cases hanging by the skin of their teeth (Chiang complains during one of her interviews that younger Chinese and Chinese-American chefs are trying exciting new things but because they don’t have a thorough grounding in the traditions of Chinese gourmet cooking they really don’t have a foundation to build on), it’s a pretty typical movie for Wayne Wang to make.