Tuesday, February 28, 2017

When We Rise, episode 1 (ABC-TV, aired February 27, 2017)

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

I put on ABC for the much-hyped first episode of When We Rise, a four-part series chronicling the Gay liberation movement (I’m old enough to remember when “Gay” was considered a sufficiently inclusive term for all Queer folk, and rue their disappearance and ultimate replacement by that series of initials, which now seems to have expanded to “LGBTQ” and will probably get even longer before the madness stops — the Queer student group at UCSD identifies itself as “LGBTQQIAA,” meaning “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual and Allies,” the last being the term of art for straight people who support Queer rights) from its initial validation by Life magazine in 1972 (they run a feature called “1971: The Year in Pictures,” and one of its stories is about the heady early days of Gay liberation) and around three real-life people in particular: Cleve Jones (Austin P. MacKenzie, later played by Guy Pearce), a young Gay kid from Arizona whose dad is a psychiatrist who makes no secret that he thinks homosexuality is a mental illness and out of “love” for his son wants him subjected to electroshock, lobotomy or one of the other nasty standard “treatments” for his “disease”; Ken Jones (Jonathan Majors, later played by Michael Kenneth Williams), a Black Gay Navy guy whose white boyfriend Michael gets killed in action in Viet Nam, and his grief is compounded by his inability to acknowledge their relationship; and Roma Guy (Emily Skeggs, later Mary-Louise Parker), who discovers her Lesbianism when she falls in love with a fellow woman volunteer in the Peace Corps. All three of these people end up in San Francisco and live out the history of the Queer rights movement from the early days dealing with police repression and Queer-bashing in San Francisco (under Right-wing Democratic Mayor Joseph Alioto the city’s cops, most of them Irish-American and hard-core Roman Catholics, set out to eliminate the city’s hippies and Queers by virtually any means necessary — this is a bit of an historical exaggeration but it’s close enough to the facts to work as period drama) to the AIDS epidemic and its decimation of the Gay male community and the modern era in which marriage equality became the movement’s defining demand and was achieved when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA) unconstitutional in 2013.

Alas, the main creators of the production are two of my least favorite Queer filmmakers, director Gus Van Sant (who made one great film, Drugstore Cowboy, which he followed up with two of the all-time worst movies ever made, My Own Private Idaho and the abysmal Gerry, which has the same place in the credits of recent Best Actor Academy Award winner Casey Affleck as Grease II had in Michelle Pfeiffer’s) and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who between them came up with the O.K. but heavily sanitized biopic Milk, in which tall, gangly, Gay Harvey Milk was played by short, wiry, straight Sean Penn (though as I joked when I reviewed Milk for my movie blog, maybe Van Sant and Black considered Penn an “honorary Gay” because he’d been married to Madonna). Despite Van Sant’s proclamation in the production notes for Gerry that he doesn’t like films that emotionally involve the audience — “Holding audiences in their seats: Why is that a filmmaker’s job?” he asks. “I think there are a lot of ways of enchanting audiences, but I’ve noticed that today, no matter what the subject is, the filmmaking is exactly the same, whether it’s a really depressing story or one about a guy who saves the world. It tries to get a rise out of the audience, and it’s got to be exciting. Everything a filmmaker does is an effort to make it exciting for you as an audience member” — When We Rise, or at least the first part thereof, is at its best when it is at its most exciting, vividly dramatizing the horrendous risks involved in being Queer, and especially in being “out” and open about it, in 1972. (One aspect of this film was personal to me; it made me glad I didn’t come out until the relatively “safe” time of 1982, a decade later, at the tail end of the first decade of Queer liberation and before AIDS not only threatened our lives but scared the shit out of us and reinforced the homophobes’ argument that we were committing “crimes against nature” and, as Pat Buchanan put it, nature was taking its revenge against us.) Though Van Sant’s attempt to poach on Alfred Hitchcock’s territory by remaking Psycho was an epic box-office bomb, here he shows himself a capable suspense director, especially in the scenes in which the younger, baby-faced twink incarnation of Cleve Jones confronts police and finally gets Gay-bashed.

Aside from its intense emotional moments, When We Rise is perched unevenly between “official history” and a richer, deeper treatment of its subject; Black and Van Sant were all too well aware when they were making it that this was likely to be just about the only chance the story of the Queer movement was going to make it to a major commercial TV network, and they tried as hard as possible to present the history according to the orthodox Queer leadership’s consensus — though I give them major points for acknowledging that it didn’t all start with the riots at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in 1969 (elsewhere I’ve pointed out that not only was there a continuous Queer activist movement in the U.S. from 1950, 19 years before Stonewall, but virtually all the major landmarks in Queer activist history happened in my home state, California — about the only ones that didn’t were Stonewall and the founding of the very first Queer-rights organization in U.S. history in Chicago in 1924). When We Rise works best when it presents the political and personal dilemmas of its characters as individual choices —when it offers them as people rather than exemplars of a movement — and it’s at its weakest when it tries to go for the Big Picture and present their individual struggles as symbols of the broader whole (like the scenes in which Roma tries to recruit Gay men to support her radical feminist march against police violence against women, and the other women involved turn on her because they regard men, all men, as their enemy).

I’m looking forward to the next episode, scheduled for this Wednesday, March 1 at 9 p.m., but I’m also dreading how the series is going to present AIDS — of which the orthodox view has become that it was a terrible disaster and a major human tragedy, but it also did the Queer community a service in that it helped break down the barriers between Gay men and Lesbians (Lesbians famously rallied around their stricken Gay male comrades and, with the life expectancy of Gay men plunging faster than the stock market during a depression, largely took over leadership of the movement) and it ended the intense period of sexual liberation that followed the explosion of the Gay male movement in the early 1970’s and scared us all back into embracing monogamy and demanding marriage and the right to raise children. While the Queer movement isn’t the only civil-rights movement in history that started on the fringes of its community among the people who had the least to lose, and then moderated itself as more and more people with established jobs and well-off lifestyles followed the trail blazed by the pioneers, it’s probably the only one that tells such a highly moralistic story about itself, as if it needed the lesson of a deadly disease associated with sexual experimentation and freedom to be scared collectively back to the established social values of committed relationships and what the more radical, liberationist Queers used to call “straight-aping.” One silver lining in the terrible dark cloud of AIDS was that it demonstrated to the world that Gay men did form committed and enduring relationships — all those scenes of people showing up at hospitals and demanding to see their dying partners helped break down the barrier of alienness and alerted at least some of straight America to the fact that we love each other and form the same bonds of caring and mutual emotional feeling as they do — but it’s come at a cost in that the history of the 1970’s has been rewritten as a morality lesson that the wages of nonmonogamy are literally death. It’s one reason why I held back from full support of marriage equality for quite a long time — I didn’t want Queers who choose not to get married and don’t want to commit to just one sex partner isolated and shamed the way all too many straight people who make that same choice are in their community — and despite my own history of a 22-year relationship and a legal marriage of nearly nine years to that person, it still bothers me that Queers who don’t want to get married are made to feel like second-class citizens within our own community.

Aside from that, When We Rise is also yet another one of those cultural artifacts that plays quite differently in the era of TrumpAmerica than it would have a few years ago (or would now if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency); while it still seems unlikely that America is going to change as radically in its attitude towards Queers as Germany did when the Weimar Republic fell and was replaced by the Nazis (almost overnight Germany changed from being the most accepting country in the world towards Queers to one that viciously repressed us to the point of including us along with Jews, Gypsies and Communists among the populations they wanted to exterminate), the administration of President Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence has signaled that on Queer rights, as on just about every other part of the progressive agenda, they’re going to throw the arc of history into reverse and bend it towards injustice, repression and prejudice in the name of making America great again — at least for white straight men with money.

Monday, February 27, 2017

89th Annual Academy Awards (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences/ABC-TV, February 26, 2017)

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

Last night’s 89th annual Academy Awards was a typically lumbering spectacle, marked by host Jimmy Fallon dragging in some of the regular features of his late-night show on ABC (probably not coincidentally the network that telecast the Oscars as well), including “Nasty Tweets” and a lot of vicious barbs attacking actor Matt Damon (who apparently is to him what Rosie O’Donnell was to Donald Trump all those years), including one making fun of him for not playing the male lead in the film Manchester by the Sea (he produced the movie but hired Casey Affleck to star — and Affleck won the award for Best Actor) and instead playing a “ponytail role” in the film The Great Wall, which Fallon declared a flop. (I don’t know how he knows because the film has barely opened — yes, I know it’s common these days to declare a film a hit or a flop based on how it does on its opening weekend, but The Great Wall was the second most-popular movie in the country on its first weekend in theatres. Besides, when I saw the TV ads I thought I came up with a better joke about it: “Matt Damon plays Donald Trump in The Great Wall.”) There were a lot of Trump jokes during the awards — interesting the Los Angeles Times had hired a rather kvetchy Right-wing columnist to denounce the whole idea of celebrities speaking out on political issues, arguing that they’re basically society’s court jesters and shouldn’t presume to do more than entertain us both on- and off-screen (what this author didn’t realize was that in medieval times court jesters regularly commented on political and social issues because they were the only ones that could: in these highly repressive, authoritarian societies the only way you could criticize the king or the feudal lords was by pretending to be “just” making fun of them), but to me there’s a big difference between what Meryl Streep said on the Golden Globes (she carefully avoided using Trump’s name and spoke from the heart like the class act she is) and the sniggering comments that peppered last night’s show. At the same time Trump is virtually irresistible as a butt of humor — probably the real reason he’s not attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (it would require him to sit in a room of people making fun of him, and you know how much the famously micrometer-thin-skinned Trump would enjoy that!) — including one in which Kimmel announced that reporters from any paper with the word “Times” in its name (“even the Medieval Times,” he said) would be barred from the event.

The big news last night was that the expected sweep for the film La La Land (a musical starring Ryan Gosling as an aspiring jazz musician and Emma Stone as the aspiring singer and actress he falls in love with — as I noted about this film after the Golden Globes, it seems like they simply took the plot of the 1978 musical New York, New York and moved it to L.A.!) didn’t materialize, and instead it won six awards out of its 14 nominations, including Best Director, but did not win Best Picture. Instead there was one of the most spectacular snafus in the history of the Academy Awards, as Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were dragged out 50 years after they became stars through their roles in Bonnie and Clyde to present Best Picture, and for some reason Beatty was given, not the envelope containing the Best Picture winner, but a duplicate of the one that had already been read announcing that Emma Stone had won Best Actress for La La Land. Just seeing the title, he announced La La Land as the Best Picture winner, and the gaggle of producers involved with it (I joked, “It takes a village to produce a movie”) came up on stage to accept the award — the Academy once had a rule that only three producers could be named on an awards citation but they’ve long since given up on that one — only one of them noticed that the real Best Picture envelope named Moonlight (the “other” movie about Black people, besides the seemingly more prestigious Fences which starred and was directed by Denzel Washington and was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson) as the winner. So another, only slightly smaller, gaggle of producers came up on stage to accept the award, and of course I couldn’t help but joke, “La La Land won the popular vote, but Moonlight won the electoral vote.” Aside from that it was a lumbering spectacle (after the even more interminable red-carpet prologues featuring the pretty ghastly costumes the women in attendance were wearing) that started at 5:30 and droned on until 9:15, and Jimmy Kimmel was an O.K. host except that he rather annoyingly treated it as if it were just another episode of his late-night show, complete with gimmicks like steering the passengers of a Hollywood tour bus into the Dolby (nèe Kodak) Theatre and putting them on camera in the middle of the awards, and periodically having candy and other snacks lowered to the Academy audience on miniature parachutes.

There was a ballot to make predictions handed out at the viewing party I was attending but I didn’t bother with it because, though I might have guessed a few of the awards just from the “buzz” in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, I have hardly seen any of the movies nominated and therefore I really didn’t have any skin in the game in terms of who won — though I suppose one could interpret the Best Picture going to a movie about a young Black Gay man coming to terms with his identity as itself a slap in the face at Trump and everything he stands for from a celebrity culture that’s clearly on the other side of America’s Great Divide from the self-proclaimed “real Americans” who elected Trump and the Republicans to take their country back from all the “libtards” who seized it when Obama won. I did see an hysterical (in both senses: crazy and funny) post on Breitbart News (http://www.breitbart.com/big-hollywood/2017/02/26/trump-fans-urge-oscars-boycott/) calling on people to boycott the Oscars, reporting on a campaign launched by something called Tempe Republican Women that “went viral” — most of the story consists of various tweets from Right-wingers endorsing the boycott call, but the story did contain this good call: “Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director of the Oscar-nominated film The Salesman, will sit out the awards show to protest Trump’s temporary ban on immigration from seven countries, which was blocked by the 9th Circuit Court this month. A win for Farhadi could lead to more politicized moments at the show.” It did: Farhadi didn’t come to the awards show but did send a written statement which was read, and was probably the political statement that came closest to the class Meryl Streep had shown on the Globes.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Infidelity in Suburbia (Annuit Coeptis Entertainment/Lifetime, 2017)

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

Last night’s first Lifetime “world premiere” was something with the rather clinical title Infidelity in Suburbia, though it’s different from all Lifetime’s other movies about infidelity in suburbia only in the relative affluence of the characters: they all have big homes with spectacular views and both the hero and the villain own boats which are parked next to each other in the local marina. Greg Halpern (Peter Benson) is a successful attorney — at least we think he’s an attorney because there’s a passing reference to a big case he’s supposedly working on — only he’s so busy he leaves his wife Laura (Sarah Butler, top-billed) home a lot. Looking for something that can occupy her during his long absences and also help overcome her sexual frustration — even on the rare occasions they’re under the same roof at the same time they can’t make love, it seems, without being interrupted (in the opening scene, even before we know who these people are, Greg’s attempt to get it on with Laura is broken up when their son Jamie, played by Arlo Hajdu, innocently but annoyingly walks in on them in their bedroom) — Laura persuades Greg to allow her to get their kitchen remodeled. Alas, Greg makes the mistake of hiring as his contractor hot young Elliot Graverston (Marcus Rosner, a glorious hunk of man-meat director David Winning makes even more delectable by showing him with his shirt off a lot), and Elliot soon makes his lascivious interest in Laura quite apparent.

They have sex for the first time while taking a shower together and then they become a typical American adulterous couple, with her constantly expressing guilt feelings about what she’s doing and then going ahead and doing it anyway (the attitude Mike Nichols and Elaine May brilliantly satirized in their 1960 comedy routine “Adultery” on their album An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May). One of the reasons Laura let herself have the affair with Elliot was she was convinced Greg was cheating on her with his office assistant Hannah (Lucie Guest), not only because they were working long nights together but because she found a pair of purple panties on her husband’s boat and later looked up Hannah on a singles’ dating Web site and saw a photo of her wearing similar purple panties. It turns out that Greg and Hannah were just working together those long nights, and the panties were left there by a teenager who sneaked on to Greg’s boat with her boyfriend for their own sexual experience at night — but in the meantime Laura is predictably in over her head with Elliot. That’s right: Infidelity in Suburbia is yet another Lifetime movie in which the writer (Christie Will this time) can’t be content just with making her character a master seducer and so drop-dead gorgeous no woman in the dramatis personae can resist him — not Laura, not her single friend Mira (Miranda Frigon), and not Hannah when she finally meets Elliot at a party Greg is throwing in his backyard. No, he has to be an insanely possessive psycho as well, determined to get Laura to leave Greg for him and willing to stop at nothing, including murder, to make that happen.

At that party he gets Hannah to leave with him and come to his boat — only he can’t get it up for her and she realizes why when she sees that the walls of the boat’s cabin are plastered with candid photos of Laura. She says she’s going to tell on Elliot — and Elliot responds by strangling her. Elliot’s craziness is explained by Christie Will in typical Lifetime fashion: like Norman Bates in Psycho, he loved his mother and hated his dad for cheating on her (we get some of this in flashbacks in which young Liam Butler plays Elliot as a kid), and this has made him obsessive about bedding as many women as he can find and causing them as much havoc as possible. After Elliot kills Hannah he breaks into Laura’s home and leaves a series of signs on every surface he can find announcing that she is his forever and he’s going to dump that husband of hers for him … or else. Eventually they have a final confrontation in which she pushes him out of a window on the top floor of her house, killing him and putting herself, the movie and its audience all out of our miseries. At one point Elliot kidnaps Greg, ties him to a pipe inside Elliot’s boat, and leaves him there; later he assaults him and we worry that he’s going to be a-goner, but as many people get killed in Lifetime movies, the stalwart husband who stands by his wife as she deals with her crazy suitor is almost never one of them. Infidelity in Suburbia has a few good aspects, including a lot of soft-core porn between Elliot and Laura — did I tell you this old queen thought quite a lot of the appeal of this film was seeing Marcus Rosner as unclad as the producers could get away with on basic cable? — though there are also some odd moments, including one scene in which Elliot has shaved (more or less) the sides of his moustache but not the part under his nose, thereby giving his face an odd resemblance to Hitler’s. Other than that it was pretty much another Lifetime loser, and as with some previous movies on this channel (including Open Marriage) I’ve had the feeling that if, instead of portraying the “other man” as crazy and evil, they had kept it a story about a couple tempted to the sexual underground but ultimately deciding that they’re better off both physically and psychologically staying together, director Winning and writer Will (names that seem to invite bad puns) would have had a stronger and more moving film.

Deadly Lessons (Odyssey Media/Lifetime, 2017)

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

Lifetime did the director (David DeCoteau) and writers (Eve Holdway and Taj Nagaoka) of Deadly Lessons no favors by scheduling the “world premiere” of their movie right after the “world premiere” of Infidelity in Suburbia because the juxtaposition of the two heightened their formula similarities — a woman menaced by a lover who turns out to be a psycho, her best friend who tries to warn her and is killed for her pains, even [spoiler alert!] a climax in which the heroine dispatches her psycho boyfriend by pitching him off a tall place (a second-story window in Infidelity in Suburbia, a spectacular scenic bridge in Deadly Lessons) — when Deadly Lessons was actually a much finer, more moving and more entertaining piece of work. This time the damsel who unbeknownst to her has just sent distress an engraved invitation is a college student named Lisa (Christie Burson), a third-year undergraduate with ambitions to be a doctor, and in the opening scene she’s with her friends Tiffany (Sammi Barber) and Patrick (James Drew Dean — obviously he uses the middle name because just “James Dean” was rather famously taken over 60 years ago; he’s nowhere near as hot and sexy as his namesake but he’s easy enough on the eyes) attending a class in ethics being taught by Michael Harris (Ryan Scott Greene).

Michael is a younger version of the tall, lanky, sandy-haired types Lifetime generally likes for their middle-aged leading men — usually as the husband the heroine is being sorely tempted to stray from — and for some reason he has to hold his lecture class outside on the campus lawn. (Is this university — an unnamed college in the Pacific Northwest so it can be “played” by locations in British Columbia, Canada — that crowded that he’s leading what amounts to an overflow class?) Michael is giving Lisa a hard time in class and, when the bell rings, he rather peremptorily announces to her that he expects her to meet him in his office immediately. We’re expecting that he’s going to hit on her, perhaps blackmailing her into having sex with him in return for a better grade, but [surprise!] as soon as they get into the office and close the door, they start sucking face. They’re already lovers, and what’s more, she’s as happy about that as he is. Only Tiffany and Patrick are spying on the lovebirds and use their smartphones to catch them being affectionate at Michael’s home that night — and they report him to the dean (Cedric De Souza). The dean immediately asks Michael to resign, but promises him a good recommendation so he can still get a job somewhere else in academe (was he a Roman Catholic staffer in his previous career?), and he says Lisa can continue at the college and it won’t go on her record that she slept with a professor. No way, says Lisa: where my man goes, I go — even though that means losing the tuition she already paid for that semester, losing her chance to continue in college and losing her relationship with her mother, who announces to her that if she does such a dumb thing as sacrifice her education and her ambitions for some guy, mom wants nothing to do with her anymore.

Michael and Lisa get married at city hall and move to Seattle, where he’s landed another teaching gig and they rent a house by a lake with a spectacular view. Lisa gets invited to a faculty barbecue and is asked by the host to bring her husband, only he begs off going and when she shows up, someone accosts her as “Wendy,” and she has no idea who that is. It turns out Wendy is the name of Michael’s former girlfriend, who (supposedly) committed suicide on the eve of their marriage — though of course we suspect Michael murdered her — and Lisa is already the spitting image of her. The resemblance becomes even closer when Michael buys Lisa a frilly off-white dress and tells her to wear it at all times when they’re home alone together — and later on Lisa finds a photo of Wendy wearing an identical dress. There’s also a sequence in which we see an old wooden trunk in Michael’s and Lisa’s hallway, and we have no idea what’s in there but we know from the sinister music we hear when it’s shown on screen that there’s something incredibly evil about it. As Michael and Lisa settle in and Lisa tries to do her best to make the marriage work — only Michael gets mad at her for things as trivial as burning his morning toast — he gets more maniacally possessive. She pleads with him to allow her something to do during the day when he’s teaching — either go back to school or get a part-time job — and he says the part-time job is O.K. as long as she can get home and have dinner ready for him when he returns from his teaching job. (Apparently her skills in the kitchen have improved since that disastrous early morning when she burned his toast.) Accordingly she walks into a coffeehouse with the horrible name “Crêpe Vine” and gets hired to start immediately (with no paperwork, which amazed Charles, who couldn’t believe that a business would just hire someone who walked in off the street without any documentation at all), only her boss turns into yet another one of the people who’s genuinely worried about her and her marriage. In between all these events, we’ve also seen Patrick hanging around Michael’s and Lisa’s home, setting up a possible red-herring ending in which it would turn out that Michael was blameless and it was Patrick who was wreaking all this havoc in Lisa’s life out of jealousy and bitterness that Michael got her instead of him. We also wonder if Patrick is perhaps the younger brother of one of Michael’s previous female victims … but writers Holdway and Nagaoka don’t go there.

Instead they have Lisa discover that Michael killed his first wife, a woman named Rachel, and Wendy — who ostensibly committed suicide but whom we’ve been thinking Michael killed — actually turns up in Crêpe Vine alive, having faked her own death and taken another identity because that was the only way she could get away from the psychotically possessive Michael. Meanwhile Tiffany (ya remember Tiffany?) has found out about Rachel online, but of course Michael kills her before she can warn Lisa. The case is ultimately unraveled by a woman detective with the Seattle Police Department, but because Michael and Lisa are living in such a remote area, Lisa has to confront Michael herself — she knocks him out with a frying pan but, rather than flee immediately, she picks the lock on that trunk (ya remember the trunk?) and grabs a tin case inside that contains photos of Rachel, and Michael catches her on a scenic bridge and they struggle until, you guessed it, Lisa gets the upper hand long enough to push Michael off the bridge to his death. Though obviously drawing on the same cliché bank as Infidelity in Suburbia, Deadly Lessons is a far more powerful and moving piece of work: Michael is a genuinely conflicted character, far more than the cardboard villain of Infidelity in Suburbia, and as the film progressed I found myself reminded of similar movies in the 1940’s in which naïve young women found themselves married to mysterious men with sinister secrets: Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, George Cukor’s Gaslight, Max Ophuls’ Caught. I’m not for a moment suggesting that David DeCoteau is in Hitchcock’s, Cukor’s or Ophuls’ league as a director, but he’s working with a script far more sophisticated than the Lifetime norm, with more complex characterizations in both the lead roles, and he’s alive to its complexities and fully realizes them on screen despite some bits in the movie that tend towards the usual Lifetime sillinesses. On its own Deadly Lessons is a quite impressive movie within the limits of the Lifetime formula, and though showing it right after Infidelity in Suburbia made the films look too similar, it also showed how much better DeCoteau, Holdway and Nagaoka did their jobs than David Winning and Christie Will did!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Jason Bourne (Universal, Captivate Entertainment, Double Negative, Kennedy-Marshall Company, 2016)

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

Last night Charles and I ran as our “feature” Jason Bourne, which depending on how you reckon it is either the fourth or the fifth in the current Universal cycle based on Robert Ludlum’s enigmatic character of an amnesiac spy who comes to without any memory of who or what he is, and slowly finds out when some people are ready to give him money, hotel rooms, access to secret bank accounts, etc., while others are trying to kill him. The first film of Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, the book in which he introduced the character, was a TV-movie from 1988 starring Richard Chamberlain as Bourne in a film that relatively closely followed Ludlum’s book (at least according to what I’ve heard about it online since I never actually read the book). In 2002 the franchise was revived by Universal and several affiliated production companies as a vehicle for Matt Damon, who repeated the role in sequels called The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). In 2012 they made a film called The Bourne Legacy which, despite the title, didn’t actually feature the Bourne character; instead Jeremy Renner played the lead and he was called “Aaron Cross.” Evidently this was a box-office disappointment, because in 2016 Universal commissioned a new Bourne script from Paul Greengrass (who also directed) and Christopher Rouse and brought Matt Damon back to the role of Bourne for a film originally called The Bourne Resurgence but eventually titled simply Jason Bourne. It’s by far the weakest of the four films in which Damon has played Bourne; it begins with a wild car-chase scene in Athens and ends with a wild car-chase scene in Las Vegas, and in between it’s sort of like a Republic serial updated to the modern world, with bits of boring exposition that only serve to get us from one action highlight to another.

Oh, there are a few bits of the social comment that made earlier films in the Bourne series so interesting — the CIA is posited as having created a number of “Black Operations” departments, including Treadstone (the first one and the one for which Bourne was recruited to be trained as a killer and brainwashed into forgetting his birth name, David Webb, and his original identity), Blackbriar and the current one, Ironclad. The gimmick this time is a Manchurian Candidate-style plot twist in which Bourne’s (or Webb’s, actually) father was the CIA official who actually thought up Treadstone in the first place, only he objected when he found out that unbeknownst to him, the Agency officials in charge of Treadstone recruited his son as a participant — and for his pains he was assassinated by fellow CIA agents, though David Webb a.k.a. Jason Bourne was told his dad had been killed by terrorists and he should go with the program and become a heartless assassin to avenge his father by slaughtering the kinds of people who killed him. All this is masterminded by CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, older than we remember but as twitchy as ever), and in his plot to get rid of Bourne he has the aid of a hired killer known in the film only as “The Asset” (Vincent Cassel) and an assistant named Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), the most interesting character in the film because she seems to have a twisted admiration for Bourne’s skill and resourcefulness and also she’s hoping to bring him back into the program and turn him into a loyal CIA agent again. (This inevitably reminded me of the CIA’s attempts to win back the loyalty of Osama bin Laden in 2000-2001; bin Laden and the nucleus of what became al-Qaeda had worked with U.S. intelligence in the 1980’s to take down the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan, and the CIA’s last approach to bin Laden trying to bring him back was in August 2001, just five weeks before 9/11.) There’s also an intriguing subplot involving a social-media company called “Deep Dream” whose founder, Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), was given his seed capital by the CIA, in return for which he’d build back doors into his software so the CIA could spy on Deep Dream users any time they wanted to — and with the new version of his program the CIA believes they’ll be able to maintain 24/7 electronic surveillance literally on everyone in the world. Only Kalloor is rebelling and insisting that he’s going to build privacy safeguards into the new version of Deep Dream so the CIA can’t do that — and director Dewey’s response to that is to order “The Asset” to kill Kalloor at a joint appearance they’re supposed to be making together at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show.

But the writers are so disinterested in the social-comment implications of their plot that when Bourne’s girlfriend Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) literally gives her life in the opening scenes to get him a flash drive containing full accounts of all the CIA’s secret black ops (as I joked, a Bourne girl’s life expectancy is even worse than that of a Bond girl — at least a Bond girl usually gets to stay alive until the end of the movie!), all Bourne cares about is the documents relating to his own past — once he’s seen those he lets the CIA delete the rest of the files by remote control, much to the chagrin of the German hacker (they’re in Berlin — this is one of those movies that flits around the world wherever the producers could get a cool location and a tax break, to precious little dramatic effect) who helped him decrypt the file and wanted to do the Edward Snowden thing (Snowden’s name is actually mentioned twice in the dialogue, and the Blu-Ray disc contains a promo for Oliver Stone’s Snowden biopic) and release the info to the world. There are a few good things about Jason Bourne, including the very long list of stunt doubles — though some computer graphics people are also credited, it’s nice to see a movie these days which relies more on flesh-and-blood stunt people than on CGI for its big action scenes — but for the most part it’s simply dull and unmoving. Bourne was a more interesting character when neither he nor we really knew who he was, and though the ending of Jason Bourne is open-ended in a way that indicates the filmmakers are clearly setting up the possibility of a fifth Bourne/Damon film (Heather Lee tells the CIA’s new director that she still holds open the possibility of bringing Bourne back to the reservation, and then laconically adds that if he refuses “we’ll just have to take him out”), there’s so little life left in the old franchise that one imdb.com reviewer said this film should have been called The Bourne Redundancy.

Friday, February 24, 2017

A Perfect World (Malpaso Productions/Warner Bros., 1993)

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

Our “feature” last night was the oddly titled A Perfect World, a 1993 genre-bender combining thriller, comedy and soap opera, directed by Clint Eastwood from a script by John Lee Hancock (who’s since become a prestigious writer-director of such films as The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks and the Ray Kroc biopic The Founder) and co-starring Kevin Costner and Eastwood himself. Set in Texas in the early 1960’s, A Perfect World starts with an escape from the prison at Huntsville, Texas, in which Robert “Butch” Haynes (Kevin Costner) and Terry Pugh (Keith Szarabajka) manage to burrow their way through the walls of their cell into an air vent, which leads to a fan which they stuff up with a folded-up sheet so they can stop it from rotating. Then they remove it and make their getaway by hijacking a 1960 Chevrolet (the car’s famous curved back fins that came to a point in the middle of the trunk lid in back are readily recognizable to me, who saw plenty of cars like that when I was a kid) and holding its owner hostage. The two escaped cons don’t really like each other and keep arguing as they look for a better car they can steal — Butch holds out for a Ford because he says his father always drove Fords — and the main intrigue begins when they crash into a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses and take an eight-year-old boy, Phillip “Buzz” Perry (T. J. Lowther, who had a brief adult career later though imdb.com doesn’t list any credits for him since a Grey’s Anatomy TV episode in 2009), as hostage.

From then on the movie — Costner’s part of it, anyway — turns into a weird modern (well, early-1960’s “modern,” anyway) update of Treasure Island; like Jim Hawkins with Long John Silver, Phillip starts out as a hostage but soon starts to bond with his captor, especially when the guy starts exposing him to trick-or-treating (the movie starts on Hallowe’en and takes place over the next day or two afterwards), roller-coaster rides (which he simulates by strapping the kid to the roof of a stolen station wagon the two pick up along the way) and carnivals. Indeed, the boy is so taken with the new father figure in his life that he stays with Butch even when he has a few chances to escape —including one in which they stop at a store called “Friendly’s” to buy clothes for the boy (he was taken in his underwear and Butch wants to get him a pair of pants, though Phillip shoplifts a Casper the Friendly Ghost Hallowe’en costume that’s been remaindered and wears that for most of the rest of the movie) and at which they’re treated well until the proprietor hears a radio report on the escaped con and realizes who Butch is, whereupon the owner calls the police and as Butch leaves he says, “Not too friendly after all.” Earlier Butch had stopped at a small grocery (this is the middle of nowhere in the Texas Panhandle and all the businesses are small, and as Eastwood’s character — the Texas Ranger who’s coordinating the manhunt for Butch and Terry — laconically says, that part of the state has “more roads than people”) to buy food and also bullets for his gun, which has run out of them — and he uses the newly reloaded gun to shoot Terry after a quirky scene in which Phillip tries to flee through some fields and Terry chases him and looks like he’s going to rape the boy if he catches him.

Clint Eastwood — who originally planned only to direct this film but ended up in it largely at Costner’s insistence, since Costner didn’t want to make a film with Eastwood unless Eastwood was actually in it, though the two don’t appear in the same scene until the climax — is inhabiting a virtually different movie, a sort of Dirty Harry Lite in which he makes clear his impatience with the Texas governor (who’s supposed to be John Connally) and the bureaucracy he has to deal with, particularly the bizarre trailer from which he is supposed to coordinate the manhunt and the assistant he’s given to coordinate it with, Sally Gerber (an effective Laura Dern), who annoys him by referring to the escape as a “penal escape situation” but whom he later protects from an unwanted sexual advance by the FBI agent who’s also part of the law enforcement crew. (So both Eastwood’s and Costner’s characters protect someone in their entourage from being raped.) A Perfect World isn’t a great film but it’s a quite good one — better than the more successful vehicles both Eastwood and Costner also made in 1993 (Eastwood’s In the Line of Fire and Costner’s awful The Bodyguard) — mainly because of the moral ambiguity of the characters: Butch is presented as a basically decent person who slipped into a life of crime, and he’s killed two people but clearly for sympathetic reasons (he shot his father because his dad was about to beat up his mom — or at least so he tells us — and we’ve seen him shoot Terry when Terry was about to sexually assault Phillip). What’s more, though through most of the movie we’re not aware of any previous history between Butch and “Red” Garnett (Eastwood’s lawman character), about two-thirds of the way through we find out there was one; one of the people in the law-enforcement crew asks why Butch got a four-year prison sentence for so relatively minor a crime as joy-riding, and Garnett in Eastwood’s most authoritative tones said that he bribed the judge with a T-bone steak to give him such a stiff sentence because Butch’s father was “a career criminal” and Garnett feared Butch would follow in his old man’s footsteps if the law didn’t come down hard on him.

The film alternates between comedy, sentiment and thrills, sometimes awkwardly but mostly effectively (as a director, Eastwood knows what he’s doing, and A Perfect World is refreshingly free of the advocacy of vigilante justice from some of Eastwood’s other modern-dress crime films, notably Mystic River) — the attempts of the local cops to ambush Butch after he’s recognized at Friendly’s are straight out of the Keystone Kops (and Butch and Phillip escape them easily), while the climax is deadly serious: Butch and Phillip are spotted in a field sharecropped by a Black family: Mac (Wayne Dehart), his wife Lottie (Mary Alice) and their grandson Cleveland — “Cleve” for short (Kevin Jamal Woods). Butch finds an old 78 rpm phonograph and recognizes one of the records — actually a weird instrumental for violin and bagpipes called “Big Fran’s Baby” that’s supposed to represent Cajun folk music but was actually written by Eastwood and his usual musical director, Lennie Niehaus — and makes Lottie dance with him to it. Later their relationship turns and Butch nearly strangles Mack, eventually tying up the three with rope and duct tape, and just then the law enforcement officials finally zero in on Butch’s whereabouts. Butch isn’t going anywhere because Phillip shot him in the stomach when he was about to kill Mack — it hasn’t killed Butch but it has incapacitated him and made it virtually impossible to escape — and in the final confrontation, though Butch tries to tell them he isn’t armed, the FBI guy who earlier tried to rape Sally Gerber unpacks a sniper rifle, ready to pick off Butch as soon as he releases Phillip. A police helicopter flies in Phillip’s mom and Butch makes her promise to drop all the Jehovah’s Witness objections to holidays and fun and let her boy have a normal childhood as a condition for releasing him — only the kid turns back to Butch about halfway across the field, obviously concerned enough about Butch that at the very least he wants the cops to take him alive instead of shooting him down. So does Garnett — speaking through pursed lips from the characteristic Eastwood scowl, he gives the FBI sniper the order not to shoot unless Garnett specifically orders him to — but the FBI guy ignores the instruction and plugs Butch in the heart, finishing him off.

A Perfect World is a peculiarly haunting film, one which would have played quite differently if Eastwood had gone with his original idea of casting Denzel Washington as Butch — obviously if the crook had been Black there would have been utterly no suspense as to whether the cops were going to take him alive or dead (Black lives mattered to white law enforcers even less in 1963 than they do now) — and one wonders who Eastwood would have got to play Garnett with Denzel Washington as Butch. (I garbled this one to Charles and thought Eastwood would have had Washington play the law-enforcement leader, which as Charles pointed out would have been utterly inconceivable: a Black official would never have had supervisory authority over whites in 1963 Texas.) John Lee Hancock, a Texas native, went on to write another movie Eastwood directed, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, before moving on to the prestige projects he’s done since (mostly for Disney), and Eastwood wisely shot all of A Perfect World on location in Texas so the landscape actually becomes a character in the story. The oddly tacky country music Butch and Phillip listen to on the radios of the various cars Butch has stolen (some of it quite good songs by people like Bob Wills, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, some of it pretty much the clichéd country of the time) also helps create the mood (though Cash’s “Guess Things Happen That Way,” one of his Sun recordings, is oddly credited to Columbia on the closing credits). According to imdb.com, A Perfect World was a box-office disappointment in the U.S. but did better overseas — it deserved a better fate when it was new and has been largely and unjustly forgotten since!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

American Masters: Maya Angelou (PBS, 2017)

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

Last night PBS showed an American Masters show on Maya Angelou, a figure I’m really not that familiar with — I’ve never actually read any of her books but she’s certainly become enough of a force to conjure with in the cultural mainstream I’ve heard of her even though I hadn’t realized she died in 2014 (and oddly that was not mentioned on the program either — directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack, two names which seem to invite bad puns, didn’t mention that she was no longer among the living). I’d probably have liked this better if I had read her, though one thing I liked about the show is it didn’t pretend that her life between her growing up in Stamps, Arkansas (a small town to which her parents shipped her when she was 4 to live with relatives there because they didn’t want her around them in Los Angeles, where she was born and her dad had a prestigious, at least by the standards of employment open to African-Americans then, job as a doorman at a fancy hotel) and her publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969 didn’t exist. I’d known she originally tried to make it as a singer and dancer — she always felt she danced better than she sang — and that she’d worked briefly as a personal assistant to Billie Holiday (which she mentioned in her last book in her autobiographical cycle, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, though it wasn’t mentioned in this show), who reportedly once told her, “You’re going to be famous for something one day, but it’s not going to be for singing.” Angelou released at least one album, Calypso Girl, and she appeared in the 1957 movie Calypso Heat Wave (this was at a time when a lot of people thought rock ’n’ roll was a passing fad and calypso was going to replace it as the “in” music of the young) doing two songs. When Charles and I watched this movie I wrote about it in my blog post, “That’s right, the famous African-American poet and memoirist sought a musical career in the 1950’s, and on the evidence here she was actually damned good; she sings two songs, Louis Jordan’s calypso novelty ‘Run Joe’ and a piece she wrote called ‘All That Happens in the Market Place,’ and her voice is strong, clear, authoritative and more than a little reminiscent of Nina Simone’s. In fact, as I said to Charles later, one could readily imagine an alternative universe in which Angelou’s career trajectory paralleled Simone’s: first getting a major reputation in the music world and then writing songs, rather than books or poems, dealing with the kinds of serious issues of racism, sexism, violation and such Angelou actually covered in her books.”

Angelou’s entertainment career was checkered: she got to be in one of the touring companies of Porgy and Bess even though she wasn’t a classically trained singer (one of the reasons George Gershwin put it in the terms of the Porgy and Bess copyrights that only genuine African-Americans could be cast in its Black roles was to give Black singers who were classically trained parts that they could sing without having to face the discrimination that kept Marian Anderson off the Metropolitan Opera stage until 1955) and she gave a concert in Cairo where all the other Porgy and Bess cast members sang classical songs or opera arias. She complained to the conductor, Alexander Smallens (who had been shepherding Porgy and Bess productions since the world premiere in 1935), that she didn’t know any, and he said, “Do you know any spirituals?” Given that Angelou had grown up in a fiercely religious household and been dragged to church almost every day of the week, that wasn’t a problem: she sang “City Called Heaven” and tore up the audience. The low point of her career was when she auditioned for the all-Black version of Hello, Dolly! and was offered the job as understudy to the show’s star, Pearl Bailey. She was looking forward to this because it would have meant living for a year or two in New York, making good money and being able to parent her son (who’d been born out of wedlock out of one of those infallible pregnancies at single contacts — a man had been bugging her in San Francisco to have sex with him, she kept saying no, then one night she said yes, and thereafter realized he’d impregnated her) — and then Pearl Bailey, treating her with the same withering condescension with which Ethel Waters had treated Billie Holiday when Billie auditioned to open for her at the Apollo Theatre in 1932, said she didn’t want that ugly bitch understudying her. (Later Angelou got one of her lifetime achievement awards and Pearl Bailey was tapped to present it — and both women had the grace not to speak to each other about the incident. But this story surprised me because Bailey, unlike Waters, had a reputation of treating newcomers well.)

Angelou had enough of a reputation that in 1968, a year before she published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she hosted a PBS TV series about African-American history and culture (and the clips included in this documentary indicate it would be well worth reviving). It also mentioned odd presentations she was in like the Broadway production of Jean Genêt’s The Blacks (a role-reversal in which Angelou played a white queen deposed by her Black subjects; the gimmick was that all the parts were played by Black actors, and the ones who were playing whites did so by donning stylized white masks), and it depicts a number of her co-stars from that production (including Louis Gossett, Jr. and Cicely Tyson) as well as later Black actors she mentored (like Alfre Woodard). And it shows her in the original Roots as Kunta Kinte’s mother, as well as some of the films she directed herself (reportedly she was the first African-American woman admitted to the Screen Directors’ Guild). Among the interviewees for this program are Bill and Hillary Clinton, who invited Angelou to write and perform a new poem for Bill’s 1993 Presidential inauguration. Bill Clinton wanted a poet for his inaugural — there hadn’t been one since John F. Kennedy had invited Robert Frost in 1961 — and they picked Angelou because she was not only a celebrity but, at least by adoption, a fellow Arkansan. The show included clips of Angelou reading her poem “On the Wings of Morning” at Clinton’s inauguration, and it was yet one more cultural artifact that comes off quite differently in the Age of Trump than it did at the time: a poem about building bridges between cultures and celebrating diversity seems quite dated, quite (to use a George Orwell Newspeak word) “oldthinkful,” now that we’re living under TrumpAmerica and the president is preaching endless rants of hatred and division!

Frontline: “Forever Prisoners" (Guantánamo) (PBS, 2017)

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

After American Masters: Maya Angelou PBS showed a Frontline episode about Guantánamo and its aftermath, “Forever Prisoners,” showing what happened to the last people who were detained there and got cleared for release under the final days of the Obama Administration before President Trump, who’d promised during the campaign to “keep Guantánamo open and fill it up with bad dudes,” took over. The show profiled a man named Mansour who had been picked up in Afghanistan at age 20 and was finally released after 15 years in detention — only because he was from Yemen and Yemen is in political chaos right now, the policies wouldn’t allow him to be repatriated to his homeland. He asked to be placed in an Arab country where he could at least have a fighting chance at assimilation — where he was familiar with the culture and spoke the language — but instead he got sent to Serbia, of all places, where the people there had nothing in common with him ethnically, culturally or linguistically. What’s more, in the 1990’s the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic had announced its intention of “ethnic cleansing” by killing off all the country’s Muslims, so Mansour already went there wondering just how welcome he would be and if he’d even be able to survive. He was living on resettlement money given to him by the U.S. and whatever he could scrape up, and at one point he was not only followed by Serbia’s secret police, he noticed three hidden cameras in his apartment filming him 24/7. He called the reporter in the U.S. who was covering the story and ripped out the bugs while he was filming the process on his smartphone, and when he took out the bugs a group of Serbian police came to his home, threatened him and confiscated his phone and laptop. (Fortunately the reporter was able to record the whole thing on his computer.) When those items were finally returned to him everything on his hard drives had been erased. The reporter later went back to Guantánamo and heard an inmate calling to him; the inmate turned out to be Mansour’s best friend, who unlike Mansour hadn’t been processed for release when Trump took over and canceled plans to release the remaining detainees — and indeed the prison camp is expanding as the people running it prepare for the expected onslaught of new detainees Trump promised during the campaign (and one thing we know about President Trump is that he’s bound and determined to fulfill every nasty, prejudicial, racist promise he made during the campaign: he may not be able to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. but he’s nonetheless going to do everything in his considerable power to make lives miserable for Latinos and Muslims in particular!).

The show also included a quite interesting mini-segment of how Guantánamo came to be used as a prison in the first place: it happened in 1991, a decade before the 9/11 attacks, when Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a military coup d’état and thousands of Haitians fled in leaky boats, hoping to make it to the U.S. and claim political asylum. The U.S. regarded this influx of Haitians as a threat and had the U.S. Navy intercept the boats in the Caribbean and make sure the refugees didn’t reach U.S. soil — and, desperate for a place to put them, they hit on the idea of interning them at Guantánamo and claiming that they couldn’t have attorneys or any real due process to handle their asylum claims. A group of students at Yale Law School took up their plight as a class project and eventually got their cases before a federal judge in New York, who ruled that they should be allowed to have their asylum claims adjudicated under U.S. law. There was a complication in that a number of the Haitian refugees tested HIV positive, and under the hateful Helms Amendment then in force all immigrants with HIV were banned from the U.S. At one point they were even told they would be held at Guantánamo until a cure for AIDS was discovered! The show interviewed the judge (an African-American who, if he ruled similarly under the Trump administration, would probably be denounced in a Trump tweet as a “so-called judge” — as I’ve argued before, it’s quite clear from Trump’s public statements that he doesn’t consider people of color to be full U.S. citizens and when he says he would have won the popular vote if it hadn’t been for millions of people voting “illegally,” it’s a plaint that people of color in this country are allowed to vote at all) and recounted the history that the U.S. government planned to appeal his decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Fearful that the Supreme Court, which had already rejected a case involving Haitian refugees on other grounds, would rule against them, the law students who had brought the case agreed to a settlement that the Haitian refugees would be allowed into the U.S. but the case would not stand as a precedent — which led to the George W. Bush administration being able to cite the Haitian detention as a precedent on their side and claim that Guantánamo was a “lawless” jurisdiction where the normal due-process rules of American law didn’t apply.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Kraft Television Theatre: “A Dark Night Till Dawn” (Kraft Foods, J. Walter Thompson, NBC-TV, November 11, 1953)

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

Last night Charles and I watched an intriguing episode of the Kraft Television Theatre from November 11, 1953 called “A Long Night Till Dawn,” the next in sequence from the James Dean TV box and just about the first item in the box that really shows the familiar James Dean characterization from his three starring films. It opens in New York City, where Joe Harris (James Dean) has just been released from prison, where he served six months for assault — his second rap. He goes to the coffee shop owned by his friend Poppa Golden (Rudolph Weiss) and insists that he’s going to stay out of trouble with the law from then on — only his jittery affect and the ability of both Dean and scriptwriter Rod Serling (a more prestigious name than we expect to find on the credits of an early-TV vehicle for Dean) to show just how tumbled his psyche is and how barely in control he is of himself lead us to think, “Yeah, right.” Joe’s main priority is to get back in touch with Barbie (Naomi Riordan), only Poppa Golden tells Joe that Barbie has left him — and when Poppa Golden adds that he was the one who told her that for her own good she should break up with Joe and return to her small-town home, Joe gets explosively angry and beats up the coffee-shop owner he’d previously proclaimed his one and only friend. Joe flees the city and heads for the small New Jersey town where both he and Barbie grew up and first met, and he returns to the home he grew up in — only his father, Fred Harris (Ted Osborn), is less than glad to see him. By coincidence he’s arrived home on the same day another young man is getting back from a tour of duty in the Korean War and returning to his family — and though we never see this person, he’s referred to throughout the dialogue as the good boy counterpointed to Joe the bad boy. (In the 1930’s he would not only have been an on-screen character, he’d end up with Barbie after Joe was taken out in the inevitable shoot-out with police.) Barbie is staying in the home of Joe’s dad Fred, and naturally Joe meets her there and starts taking her out for long walks through the small town’s streets and doing so much reminiscing it occurred to me that if Marcel Proust had ever written a gangster story, this would have been it.

But Joe’s Javert-like nemesis, Lieutenant Case of the New York Police Department (Robert Simon), shows up in town to investigate Joe as a suspect in the assault on Poppa Golden. Lt. Case had been in Golden’s coffee shop just before Joe hit the guy, and while he didn’t witness the assault he did express his opinion that it was only a matter of time before Joe reverted to some sort of criminal behavior, and so therefore he was going to “keep an eye” on him. As Joe and Barbie reconnect in the small-town environment we get to see some of the gentler, nicer sides of his character — and Dean superbly modulates his acting so we believe in both the nice and the nasty sides of Joe, the romantic, dreamy, sentimental poet and the hard-ass tough kid with a hair-trigger temper. Alas, Lt. Case not only traces Joe to the small town but receives word that Poppa Golden has died from the injuries he sustained when Joe hit him, so Joe is now facing a murder rap and in an over-the-top scene that doesn’t quite harmonize with what we’ve seen before (we’re really more expecting Joe to tell Barbie ’tis a far, far better thing I do and turn himself in), Joe grabs a gun from somewhere (presumably his dad’s collection — they are rural people, after all, and movie rural people at that) and holes up in his old room, where he clutches a football he used in games as a kid to symbolize his lost innocence and waves his gun at the cops outside, who shoot through the window and mow him down. One reviewer on imdb.com noted the similarities between this show and two of the previous entries in the James Dean TV boxed set, “Something for an Empty Briefcase” (Campbell Soundstage, July 17, 1953) and “Life Sentence” (Campbell Soundstage, October 16, 1953, of which only an eight-minute fragment is known to exist) — those two previous shows also cast Dean as an ex-con named Joe and “Life Sentence,” judging from the excerpt that survives, also shows his character returning to his small-town home and family (something James Dean from Fairmount, Indiana could probably relate to personally!) — but to me “A Dark Night Till Dawn” looks both backwards and forwards.

Backwards: it seems to me a plot line one could readily imagine Warner Bros. making in the early 1930’s with James Cagney, who isn’t usually thought of as an influence on James Dean, but certainly Dean’s performance here seems Cagney-esque. He was already studying at Lee Strasberg’s Actors’ Studio when he made this show, but it seems that at this point in his career Dean was simply overlaying the Method mannerisms he was learning there on a basically Cagney-esque approach to playing a good-bad guy, using similarly fluid mannerisms (Cagney had started out as a dancer in vaudeville — indeed, Cagney wrote in his autobiography that his one career regret was he had made so few musicals — and though Dean was never a professional dancer he certainly moved like one: one of the most interesting aspects of his work in general is that he expressed the alienation of his characters in part by seeming much more in control of his body and more fluid in his movements than the other people he acted with) and grabbing every opportunity in Serling’s script for glare-ice switches in his mood and affect. Dean himself said of his acting style, “There’s Montgomery Clift going, ‘Help me, help me,’ and there’s Marlon Brando going, ‘Fuck you, fuck you!,’ and somewhere in the middle is James Dean” — and what’s amazing about Dean is how quickly he could veer between those extremes, looking both vulnerable and “tough” at the same time, but with the toughness just a thin veneer to mask the vulnerability. Indeed, the “forward” part of “A Dark Night Till Dawn” is how it sometimes seems like a pencil sketch for Dean’s first starring film, East of Eden; though he’s not literally a criminal when he returns to his small home town in Eden, he’s similarly alienated from the townspeople in general and his father in particular — even though his mom is alive, and her whereabouts known, in Eden where the fate of his mother in “A Dark Night Till Dawn” is a total mystery. (Given that mentioning divorce was a bozo no-no in TV in the 1950’s — and even well after that; the original premise of the Mary Tyler Moore Show was that she retreated from New York to Indianapolis after a divorce, but CBS’s censors said they couldn’t do that, so she merely went through a pre-marital breakup instead — we were probably supposed to assume that Joe’s mother is dead.)

“A Dark Night Till Dawn” has its problems — Ted Osborn’s performance as Joe’s dad is downright terrible (a far cry from Raymond Massey!) and Serling’s script, though generally taut and powerful, gets awfully didactic, especially in the perorations he gives to Osborn’s character (the worst actor in the piece has to declaim the worst writing) — but for the most part it’s a chillingly effective drama, by far the best piece in the Dean TV box up to this point and much closer to the Dean we know from his three starring film roles than anything he’d done on the small screen previously. There’s even a Biblical reference — dad says, “You think I’m going to feed you the fatted calf?,” when Joe returns — following the elaborate Biblical plot line of “Something for an Empty Briefcase” (in which a woman talks Dean’s character out of a life of crime by sharing the Good Book with him) and anticipating East of Eden, whose author, John Steinbeck, literally intended it as a modern-day version of the Book of Genesis. (Steinbeck had his own penchant for faith-based metaphors; his most famous book, The Grapes of Wrath, is as much a religious commentary as a political one, and if you read The Grapes of Wrath it won’t take you long before you realize that the reason Steinbeck named his central characters “Joad” is it sounds like “Job.”) “A Dark Night Till Dawn” works despite its flaws (not only a bad performance from Osborn but merely serviceable acting from the other principals — Naomi Riordan isn’t bad, exactly, but one could readily imagine a more powerful reading of Barbie that more vividly brought to life her contradictory feelings towards Joe) and is utterly haunting and the first time in this box you really feel like you’re seeing James Dean and not just some young New York actor who happens to look and sound like him.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Doughboys (MGM, 1930)

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

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

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

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

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

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