Monday, August 14, 2017

Cradle Swapping (Feifer Worldwide, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2017)

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

My “feature” last night was a Lifetime movie from Feifer Worldwide Productions, written, directed and produced by Michael Feifer (given the ubiquitousness of his name on his credits, I once joked that he’d have a son whom he’d put to work as an associate and his credit would read, “Assistant Producer, Michael Feifer, Jr., A Michael Feifer Production”), called Cradle Swapping, which from the title and the basic premise — two babies are switched in a hospital room right after they’re born — I had assumed would be Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore without the laughs or the great tunes. It actually turned out to be better than that, though (as typical of Feifer’s work) with some egregious plot holes that made it hard to believe and sapped audience credibility. It starts out with two couples, one affluent and married, one lumpen and not. The lumpen couple are the ones we meet first: they are Tony (Tyler Johnson, who as usual for a Lifetime villain is the sexiest guy in the film!), drug dealer, thief, con artist, petty crook and, when he isn’t pursuing those avocations, worker in an auto body shop; and his girlfriend Michelle (Laura Slade Wiggins), whom he’s impregnated purely for mercenary reasons. He’s heard of a sub rosa adoption agency in New York that will pay him $50,000 for a healthy baby they can then sell to a 1-percent childless couple for twice that. So he forces her to get pregnant and patiently waits the usual nine months for his payday, insisting that she have the baby at home without medical (or any other) help because hospital or doctor bills will just eat into his profits — but she starts giving birth on their living-room floor and finally convinces him she’s going to need professional care or she’s going to lose the baby and he’s going to lose his meal ticket. So they check in at the emergency room under assumed names (she calls herself “Mary,” which in the classic Hollywood era was the all-purpose name used to denote female innocence) and she has her child — only when the kid is born Tony realizes that she’s desperately ill because Michelle, unbeknownst to him (and the “unbeknownst to him” part is where this film starts to stretch audience disbelief to the breaking point), has been shooting heroin all through the pregnancy and the child will suffer from NAS, which is short for “Narcotic Abstinence Syndrome” — med-speak for the way a fetus exposed to addictive drugs in the womb will be born already addicted and will go through classic withdrawal symptoms once he or she is no longer getting mom’s drug-infested nutrients.

No problem: Tony just hangs out sinisterly in the area where the various newborns have been placed after delivery and before they’re returned to their moms, and switches ID bracelets so he can present the adoption agency with a healthy baby girl instead of the drug-addicted one Michelle just gave birth to. The baby Tony switches so he can sell the agency a healthy child is Hannah, newborn daughter of Ray and Alicia Thompson (Brandon Barash, who’s hardly in Tyler Johnson’s league as a male sex god but is considerably hotter than the common run of Lifetime’s sympathetic leading men, and top-billed Amanda Clayton), only they notice things oddly wrong with “their” baby from the get-go, like she cries all the time, she doesn’t seem to be “bonding” with mom like all the experts say she should, and Alicia’s mother Joan (Patrika Darbo) — the voice of reason in this entire movie — notes that “their” child doesn’t look like either Alicia or Ray. They take the baby to their pediatrician, Dr. Billing (Pamela Roylance), who diagnoses her with NAS and wonders how on earth this nice well-to-do suburban couple could have given birth to a baby exposed to dangerous drugs while in utero. Alicia confesses that she became addicted to prescription opiates after originally taking them for pain following an accident, but insists that she broke the habit and became “clean” a year before she and Ray conceived their child. (Once again, as with Michelle’s continuous heroin use being a surprise to Tony. Michael Feifer asks us to believe that both Alicia’s addiction and her recovery are total surprises to her husband Ray.) Eventually both the Thompsons and Dr. Billing take sufficiently seriously the possibility that Hannah isn’t the Thompsons’ biological child that Dr. Billing compares the footprint taken of Hannah after her birth to a new one taken now, and though she can’t make a definitive comparison they look different enough that Dr. Billing orders a DNA test which proves that the baby the Thompsons are raising isn’t their biological offspring.

The police show up in the person of a tall, avuncular African-American detective named Warren (John Eric Bentley), but for some reason his manner, and in particular his calls for patience, tick the Thompsons off. So they decide to investigate themselves, and after Ray gets the key clue by remembering the name of the business on Tony’s uniform when he went to the hospital to snatch their baby, Maru’s Auto Body, he and Alicia go there, get Tony’s address, drive out there (this is supposed to be Walnut Creek, California but the desert locations look like the Southwest and there are some heart-stoppingly beautiful landscapes that look like Georgia O’Keeffe would have painted them) and talk to Michelle, who gives them the whole story and hands them her copy of the contract Tony signed with the adoption agency. Then Tony shows up, and from the dire music and also the fact that Feifer and his director of photography, Jordi Ruiz Masó, are making him look sexier than he has before, complete with an enviable basket flashing at us through his grey jeans, we can tell that he’s going there to murder Hannah in order to shut her up — though he doesn’t notice that her copy of the incriminating adoption contract is missing. With the contract documents giving them the name and address of the agency, run by a slimy dude named Mr. Valentini (Nicholas Guilak, who gives a nicely controlled performance of seedy but superficially charming villainy), the Thompsons fly to New York City and pose as potential customers. Somehow Ray manages to rip off the access code to the building from the receptionist and has no trouble hacking into the agency’s computer to find out whom they placed their girl with — and with that information Alicia is able to trace the red-headed woman who adopted their child. The final act depicts the confrontation between the two women over the baby, which takes place in Central Park, and how the adoptive mother at first wonders who this crazy woman is who wants “her” child, then realizes Alicia is telling the truth about being the birth mother from the way the girl bonds with  her in a way she hasn’t with the adoptive mother, and after a bit of the best anguish Michael Feifer could write (which isn’t very anguished), finally agrees to give the girl up, seek prosecution that will put Mr. Valentini and his slimeball operation out of business, and continue to seek a baby to adopt, hopefully through more reputable channels this time.

There were a few directions Feifer could have taken this story that I was fully expecting him to use — like having Ray Thompson be suspected of Michelle’s murder, and a final confrontation between Alicia and the woman who unknowingly adopted her baby, leading to a court battle in which the judge (which, given how Lifetime producers usually cast these parts, would probably have been an African-American woman) would have made the almost obligatory King Solomon reference as she faced the impossible (or nearly impossible) task of deciding which woman deserved this baby more, and maybe even reached the Solomonic decision of regularly bouncing the baby across country so both women could have partial custody. Cradle Swapping was actually a better-than-average Lifetime movie — Feifer’s writing, as silly as it gets sometimes, is often quite powerful, especially when depicting the strains this whole impossible situation puts on the Thompsons’ marriage, and he maintains effective suspense in his direction and takes advantage of some stunning locations, both rural and urban; also Laura Slade Wiggins, despite having only a few scenes, turns in an indelible performance and brings real pathos to her role as essentially a piece of human flotsam, lured into cooperating with Tony’s scheme in the forlorn hope that his romantic and paternal instincts would kick in and he’d marry her and let her keep the child instead of demanding to turn it into cold, hard cash. Amanda Clayton and Brandon Barash as the “good” couple aren’t on the level of Laura Slade Wiggins and Tyler Johnson as the bad one, but, aided by a meatier script with more genuine emotional conflicts than Lifetime’s actors usually get to play. This could have been even better than it is if Feifer hadn’t thrown in so many unbelievable plot premises and copped out at key dramatic points, notably the ending — but even as it is, it’s a good story and better than just about anything I’ve seen from Feifer Worldwide aside from the even more chilling His Secret Family!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Unfinished Song, a.k.a. Song for Marion (Steel Mill Pictures, Coolmore Productions, Egoli Tossell Film, 2012)

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

Last night NBC showed an entire movie — a welcome throwback to the glory days of their Saturday Night at the Movies program in the 1960’s during which I saw some of the Hollywood classics that are still among my all-time favorite films, including Sunset Boulevard, Monkey Business (the sci-fi screwball comedy from 1952 with Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe — not the 1931 Marx Brothers film, which I encountered later), The Seven-Year Itch, The Solid Gold Cadillac and the 1960 version of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (which gave me a lifelong phobia about clocks — to this day I cannot sleep in a room with a ticking clock: all my bedroom clocks have to be electric and silent). Just what quirk of network scheduling led to this unexpected revival of an old television tradition is unknown to me, but it was a joy: the movie was a 2012 Weinstein Company release of a British-German co-production called Unfinished Song, though the original working title was Song for Marion. Written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams, Unfinished Song deals with an elderly long-term married couple in Britain, Arthur and Marion Harris (Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave), who deeply love each other but on the surface kvetch a lot. Arthur is introverted and mistrustful of people; Marion is outgoing and has been singing for several years with a local choir called the OAP’Z (and no, we’re never told why it has that name or what it stands for). After having seen the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College at Cambridge University at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, I suddenly felt I understood just how seriously the British take competitive choir singing, to the extent that that episode of the Father Brown series which depicted rival choir directors resorting to blackmail, espionage and even murder to win a local singing contest suddenly seemed more believable than it had when I’d watched it. Though the contest rivalries in this story aren’t quite so dire, it’s clear this chorus is not only intent on practicing to get good enough to win an audition to a major regional contest, they’re going all out to win it and their director, Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton, who learned to play piano for this film and played the parts herself, as Stamp, Redgrave and the other cast members playing the choir did their own singing), takes this ultra-seriously.

What sets this group aside from every other choir in the competition — or, one suspects, in the entire U.K. — is their repertoire: their featured numbers include the B-52’s “Love Shack,” Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex,” the Motown classic “Nowhere to Run” and the heavy-metal song “Crazy.” When the film opens Marion has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and is expected to have only weeks to live, but she’s still feisty enough that when she thinks Arthur has insulted her friends in the choir, she responds by literally refusing to speak to her husband or allowing him to speak with her. About two-fifths of the way through the movie, she finally dies just after having debuted the big solo she was expecting to sing at the competition — Cyndi Lauper’s hit “True Colors” (a wrench to me because it was also the song I heard the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus sing live while my late client Bettie Pulcrano was in the nursing home and I knew she was not long for this world, and I used it to kick off a mix CD because it summed up the way I felt about her and how I’d been able to look beyond her surface crankiness and temper to see her “true colors, because you’re beautiful like a rainbow”) — and through a series of unlikely encounters Arthur goes from hanging outside as the remaining members of the choir rehearse for their big day to coming into the building to joining in. What’s remarkable about this film is the quiet dignity and strength of both the writing and the acting, and also the complexity of the relationships between the characters: Arthur and Marion have an adult son, James (Christopher Eccleston), but there’s so much bitterness between father and son that at Marion’s funeral Arthur literally tells James he doesn’t want to speak to him again. Arthur also runs afoul of the school authorities when he stops by one afternoon and calls out to his granddaughter (James’s child) to say hello to her and give her a chocolate bar — and he’s chewed out by a nastily overprotective teacher who wonders just who this strange old man is who’s accosting one of the kids and doesn’t relent just because he says he’s the girl’s grandfather. There’s also a marvelous scene in which the expected relationship between Arthur and the choir director Elizabeth suddenly reverses and it’s he who is supporting her through the breakup of her latest romantic involvement instead of her supporting him through the grief over his wife’s death.

If Unfinished Song has a flaw, it’s that it’s too predictable: Paul Andrew Williams has obviously seen a million previous movies and he knows all the old devices. Every time Arthur gets cold feet and walks away from the choir, we know he’ll be back, he’ll sing a big solo at the competition and he’ll be happy with himself in a way that helps him get over the loss of his wife. Williams did stop short of some things he could have done with this story, and I’m glad he didn’t: he didn’t have Arthur and Elizabeth start a December-May romance and he didn’t have the ragtag choir win — they consider it enough of a triumph that they placed third. There are also some rather witty moments, like the one in which the organizers of the final competition want to disqualify the OAP’Z because the men aren’t dressed in suits and ties and the women in at least business-formal wear, only Arthur defiantly takes the stage, Elizabeth joins them and the two refuse to leave until the OAP’Z are allowed to compete. Unfinished Song is a pretty calculated tear-jerker, but at least it’s well made and genuinely moving in the way Williams clearly wanted it to be — and it also has the benefit of those marvelous British actors. I don’t know if there’s something special in their DNA or just the long-established infrastructure in which they’re trained, but the Brits consistently produce the greatest actors in the world, with none of this nonsense about “motivation” with which the Method-trained American actors of the last three generations have saddled themselves with: like the musicians of a symphony orchestra, British actors simply face the audience (or the camera), speak their lines, hit their marks and convince you they are the people they’re playing, no muss, no fuss, no heavy-duty “straining” to be “expressive.”

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Eric Clapton: 70th Birthday Concert, Royal Albert Hall, London (EPC Enterprises, Eagle Rock Entertainment, Examinaton Production, 2015)

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

The PBS program was a telecast of eight songs from Eric Clapton’s 70th birthday tribute concert in 2015 at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and as is PBS’s usual maddening habit in pledge-break programs like this, we had our noses rubbed again and again in the fact that what we were seeing on TV was only a portion of a concert we could only get to see if we gave PBS a whacking great amount of money (like $180). My first horrible thought was that the producers of the concert would do it the way similar telecasts are generally done in the U.S., with a plethora of guest stars each plowing their way through one song or another from Clapton’s repertoire whether it suited them or not, but I was pleasantly surprised that the entire concert was performed by Eric Clapton and his band with no additional guests. What’s more, he was in absolutely phenomenal form: his chops have weathered the years and his former history of substance abuse (heroin and alcohol) surprisingly well, and his current band — aside from two rather buxom long-haired Black backup singers — isn’t that much younger than he is: the keyboard player (who stayed on electric organ instead of synthesizer most of the night) is a grey-haired, grey-bearded white man, the bassist (who used a five-string electric instrument and took up an old-fashioned bass fiddle for the two acoustic numbers) a bald Black guy, and the drummer another grey-head of indeterminate race. 

One might compare Clapton and Jimi Hendrix to Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke — two contemporary pop-music geniuses, one of whom died young with much of his potential tragically unfulfilled, and one of whom not only stayed alive but continued to produce great music — though in the case of Clapton and Hendrix is was the white guy who survived and the Black one who croaked early, not the other way around as with Louis and Bix. I’ve read Clapton’s autobiography and in it he makes the interesting comment that he had the soul of a sideman — he’s always been at his best surrounded by other musicians at his level and he never really wanted the added responsibilities of stardom — and after a brilliant start to his career with the Yardbirds (where he got the nickname “Slowhand” because he would break strings so often during his solos that audiences would start a slow hand-clap while waiting for him to put a new string on his guitar and resume), John Mayall and His Bluesbreakers and the “supergroup” Cream, a detour through the all-too-appropriately named “Blind Faith” with Stevie Winwood (he and Clapton would collaborate far more effectively in a round of concerts in 2008), then his first solo album and the Derek and the Dominoes project, which produced his searing electric love anthem “Layla,” then he started to slip. In 1974 Clapton released the album 461 Ocean Boulevard, which was hugely successful and broke one of Clapton’s biggest hits, “I Shot the Sheriff,” but after some good blues guitar on the opening track, a cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Motherless Children,” for the rest of the LP we got Clapton the pop singer rather than Clapton the blues-rock guitarist. 

The pattern continued through additional albums like Slowhand and Backless, and his sales fell off in the 1980’s and made a comeback due to a terrible tragedy: his son Conor fell out of an open window of a 53-story building. In 1992 Clapton responded with a horribly sappy song called “Tears in Heaven,” which he recorded acoustically as part of an MTV Unplugged set that also included an acoustic version of “Layla” that turned it from a passionate love anthem to a mild display of affection. Since then he’s bounced back and forth between pop and tributes to the great American blues artists he originally tried to play like, and fortunately for his 70th birthday concert he stuck mostly with his blues repertoire: “Somebody Knocking at My Door,” “Who’s Been Fooling You?,” his cover of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” (which he originally started playing in 1968 as a member of Cream) and “Cocaine.” The other songs included among the eight PBS broadcast (which apparently includes only about half the full concert) included “I Shot the Sheriff” in a considerably more passionate version than the one he recorded in 1974, when the song’s composer, Bob Marley, was still a little-known cult artist desperately trying to build a U.S. following. I remember hearing Clapton’s “I Shot the Sheriff” in 1974 and thinking it was one of the dumbest songs I’d ever heard — “He says he shot the sheriff but he didn’t shoot the deputy — so what?” Then I heard Marley’s version and I was totally blown away: I said to myself, “So that’s what that song is about!” Clapton began his 2015 Albert Hall version with his Black backup singers chanting the original wailing melody and then came in on voice and guitar, both far more powerfully than he had on the original record. (There was a pledge break after “I Shot the Sheriff” and the female host — there were two, one of each of the mainstream genders — made the silly statement that it was “an iconic Eric Clapton song.” Being me, I responded by yelling at the TV, “It is not! It’s an iconic Bob Marley song that Clapton covered!”) 

After that he broke for an acoustic set of “Tears in Heaven” (which sounds less treacly now that Clapton is farther distant from the tragedy that inspired it, but it’s still not a very good song: Duke Ellington’s “Reminiscing in Tempo” it isn’t) and “Layla” (the woman who’d made an ass of herself in the previous pledge break redeemed herself somewhat when she lamented that Clapton no longer seems to perform the electric version live), and he also did the song “Wonderful Tonight” as a bow to his pop years. (I’d always assumed this was a cover of a J. J. Cale song, but according to Wikipedia, Clapton wrote it himself.) All in all, it was a marvelous show — good enough it piqued my curiosity to see the whole concert on DVD or Blu-Ray, though not enough to pay the extortionate “contribution” rates PBS and its local stations demand — with Clapton playing surprisingly well; he’s lost some chops but he can still play rings around a lot of younger players, and perhaps because of the sense of occasion, he turned in an excellent performance. He’s never had a great voice but it’s good enough to put most of his songs over, and age has given him a sense of lived experience that adds weight and gravitas to his show, while at the same time he’s remained fresh and vital enough as a musician that this concert could be enjoyed on its own merits and not written off as just another “remember how good he used to be?” nostalgia item.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Hidden Figures (Levantine Films, Chernin Entertainment, Fox 2000 Pictures, 20th Century-Fox, 2016)

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

Last night Charles and I got to watch one of the most remarkable recent films we’ve seen: Hidden Figures, a 2016 release loosely based on a true story about the early days of the U.S. manned spaceflight program. During the two years (1960-1962) in which the story takes place, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) ground control operation was headquartered in Hampton, Virginia (before President Lyndon Johnson got Congress to move it to Houston in his home state, Texas) and for the mathematics needed to plot the trajectories of space flight they relied on “computers,” back when the word “computers” still meant what it had in the 19th century: not electronic devices but human beings who performed mathematical calculations and reported the results — and quite a few of the human computers who performed this service were African-American women. Of course, they were subjected to both the racist and sexist prejudices you would expect from white men in the South in the early 1960’s, including being stuck in the comparatively menial job of calculating and being segregated in the “West Computing Room” on the west side of the base while the white male engineers, technicians and higher mathematicians did their thing in the east wing. 

A woman named Margot Lee Shetterly wrote a book called Hidden Figures about these outrageously unsung heroines of the U.S. space program, and it was turned into a film by director Theodore Melfi from a script he wrote with Allison Schroeder. The film focuses on three of the African-American women “computers” — all real-life people — Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) — “Coleman” was her birth last name; “Goble” the name of her first husband, who fathered her three daughters but died before the events of the film begin; and “Johnson” the name she acquires from Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali), the Black Marine colonel she meets and instantly can’t stand (because he makes a sexist remark about her) but of course, this being a movie, falls in love with and marries during the course of the film; Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who’s stuck in the computer room even though she really wants to be an engineer; and Dorothy Vaughan (Olivia Spencer), the oldest of the three, who sneaks into the whites-only section of the local library, steals a book on the computer programming language FORTRAN and uses it to get the center’s newest acquisition, an IBM 7090 electronic computer, to work after all the hoity-toity white guys have abjectly failed. Obviously she’s learning to use an electronic computer so she can keep her and the women under her supervision (in yet another example of the ridiculously petty racism that pervades this story, she demands that she be given the job title — and the pay — of a supervisor since she’s doing the work of one, but she’s routinely told that’s impossible) employed, much the way some carriage drivers looked askance at the advent of automobiles, while others realized that if they wanted to keep their jobs they’d have to learn to drive the new cars. 

If nothing else, the film shows just what it must have been like to live under segregation and the sheer pointlessness of the exercise: in one of the film’s recurring scenes, Katherine is promoted to a position in the east wing but she’s still not allowed to use the one women’s restroom there because it’s reserved for white women. When she needs to relieve herself, which is often since she’s pretty much living on coffee (which she has to make for herself because she’s not allowed to use the whites-only coffeepot either!), she has to dash across the entire campus to use the “colored ladies’ room” in the west wing — carrying the big binders containing the information she’s working on and continuing to calculate even when she’s on the toilet — and when one of the big NASA cheeses she’s working for, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), wonders why she’s so often absent from her desk, the explanation she blurts out becomes essentially her Norma Rae moment: “There are no colored bathrooms in this building, or any building outside the West Campus, which is half a mile away. Did you know that? I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself! And I can’t use one of the handy bikes. Picture that, Mr. Harrison. My uniform, skirt below the knees and my heels. And simple necklace pearls. Well, I don’t own pearls. Lord knows you don’t pay the colored enough to afford pearls! And I work like a dog day and night, living on coffee from a pot none of you want to touch! So, excuse me if I have to go to the restroom a few times a day.” Harrison’s response is to march down to the west wing with a large metal object with which he starts whacking down the “colored ladies’ room” sign, then announce to all and sundry that the days of segregated restrooms at NASA are over: “Here at NASA we all pee the same color.” 

Melfi and Schroeder take advantage of the fact that the 1960-1962 time period was not only the beginning of manned spaceflight but also the headiest times for the African-American civil rights movement: we see stock footage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black church minister in Hampton, Levi Jackson (Aldis Hodge), proudly proclaims himself part of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and preaches resistance to segregation from the pulpit. Mary Jackson acquires a white mentor, Karl Zielinski (Oleg Krupa, in a rare appearance as a good guy), who as a refugee from Nazi Germany who lost his family in the Holocaust has zero patience for racism and makes it clear to Mary that she’s got the skills needed to be an engineer and she’s essentially doing the work of one, so why doesn’t she apply for an engineering job? Only just when she’s ready to do so the NASA honchos impose a requirement for additional math training at the University of Virginia, which of course is an all-white institution; they offer extension courses at Hampton High, but that too is restricted to whites and Mary has to go before a white judge to ask for permission to attend there. She persuades him to do so by researching his background and pointing out that he was the first member of his family to get off the family farm, go to college and build a professional career as an attorney and a judge, so he shouldn’t object to her wanting to be the first Black woman to become a NASA engineer — though as he’s ruling in her favor, he still puts in a caveat: “Only the night classes, you hear?” And of course not all the NASA supervisors are as supportive as Al Harrison and Karl Zielinski: the women also have to deal with people like Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), Katherine’s immediate boss, who keeps tearing her name off the trajectory reports she submits because “computers don’t write reports”; and Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), who keeps giving Mary the runaround about her application to be given a supervisor’s title and be paid for the supervisor’s work she’s already doing.  

Hidden Figures isn’t a ground-breaking movie, and there are bits in which Melfi and Schroeder “tweaked” the story to fit the movie conventions (astronaut John Glenn, played by Glen Powell, did indeed specifically request that Katherine personally perform the trajectory calculations for his orbital flight in 1962, but several weeks before the event: Melfi and Schroeder couldn’t resist the transparent movie device of having him make the request while he’s already on the launching pad at Cape Canaveral getting ready to enter his capsule), and I can think of a few minor flaws. According to imdb.com, director Melfi wanted to create a visual difference between the “cold” sets of sterile offices at NASA where the calculations were made and the “warm” environments in which the women lived when they weren’t at work, but alas, the way he and cinematographer Mandy Walker did that was to shoot the women’s home environments in full-out past-is-brown mode. As I pointed out in my comments on the film Selma, the past-is-brown schtick is even more annoying in a film in which the central characters are Black because their brown skin tones tend to blend into the brown backgrounds and it’s not always easy to pick them out. Also Melfi hired Pharrell Williams to be the film’s music director and to write and sing a series of songs commenting on the action, and though his contributions aren’t bad, when the Black women are driving to Hampton and Ray Charles’ “Sticks and Stones” plays over their car radio as source music, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “At last! A great record!” Williams’ contributions aren’t bad (there’s nothing here as infuriatingly banal as his song “Happy” — for a long time I’d thought Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was the most banal song that would ever be written about happiness, but Williams surpassed him), but I couldn’t help but wish through much of the film that Melfi had gone with a deeper, richer African-American singer-songwriter (like Rhiannon Giddens, maybe? It would have been especially appropriate in a film about both Blacks’ and women’s empowerment to have an African-American woman instead of an African-American man on the soundtrack). Also Glen Powell is cute and fun to look at but was way too young to be playing John Glenn, who at 41 was the oldest of the original seven Mercury astronauts and was (famously) already virtually bald — Ed Harris, who played Glenn in the film The Right Stuff, was closer to the real one in both appearance and mannerisms. 

But what’s wrong with Hidden Figures is virtually irrelevant compared to what’s right about it: obviously the filmmakers wanted to create an inspirational tale about heroic Black women who beat all the odds and not only made their contributions to the U.S. space program, but (at least eventually) got honored for what they did — and in that they succeeded magnificently. I suspect the only reason Hidden Figures got short shrift in the Academy Awards was that it was up against two other major Black-themed movies, Moonlight (the eventual Best Picture winner — at least once they got the mixup with the envelopes sorted out!) and Fences (indeed, the two films got so confused that during the Golden Globes Hidden Figures was often referred to as Hidden Fences), but Hidden Figures is a magnificent film in every way, impeccably acted, strongly directed, sensitively written. It’s also one of those movies that plays very differently in the Trump-era Zeitgeist: it’s impossible to watch President John F. Kennedy (depicted in a stock clip of his famous “We seek to go to the moon, and to do all these other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard” speech) and not make invidious comparisons between the way we were governed then and the way we’re governed now, and between a President who spoke to uplift us and the current one, who speaks to bring us all down to his level of evil, malevolence, pettiness, and spite.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Trapped Sisters, a.k.a. 12 Feet Under (Citizen Skull, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

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

Last night’s Lifetime movie was billed as a “premiere,” though according to imdb.com the film was actually made in 2016, and there’s some confusion about the title: Lifetime’s Web site and the Los Angeles Times TV listings called it Trapped Sisters, imdb.com called it 12 Feet Under, and the actual credits listed both names: Trapped Sisters 12 Feet Under. The film apparently reflected director and co-writer (with Michael Hultquist) Matt Eskandari’s lifelong fear of large bodies of water, swimming pools in particular. “Pools and oceans all trigger a bona fide sense of dread for me. Just the whole idea of being trapped in a pool makes me sweat,” Eskandari told an interviewer. “I decided to tap into that fear and the concept blossomed from there.” He got his inspiration from a news story from December 2015 about how a young woman had drowned in an indoor swimming pool when its management, not knowing she was in there, closed the fiberglass lid to the pool and left her trapped inside. What Eskandari and Hultquist came up with was a grim story in which two young women, sisters Bree (Nora Jane Noone) and Jonna (Alexandra Park) — the name is pronounced “Jonah” and Eskandari and Hultquist acknowledged she was named after the Biblical Jonah — are being pestered by McGradey (Tobin Bell) to get out of the public pool already so he can close its fiberglass cover, lock up the building and go home for the three-day holiday weekend, during which the pool will be closed. (Why? One would think the pool should be kept open during the holiday weekend because that’s when there would be peak demand for it!)

The other swimmers (all nubile young women, it seems) get out on time but one of them realizes she’s lost her engagement ring, which has wedged itself in the drainage grate at the pool’s bottom. She dives for it, the other sister dives in as well to help her, and just then McGradey punches the buttons that seal the pool shut for the weekend and goes home. The women realize they’re trapped in the pool, and to screw up the melodramatics even further Bree realizes that she’s left her insulin pen in her purse. She’s diabetic — though Jonna hasn’t known that about her sister until now — and without the shot she’s liable to go into a coma, which under their current circumstances means she’ll drown. As if that weren’t enough of a plot for you, Eskandari and Hultquist introduce a villainess, Rita (Diane Farr) — the imdb.com page on the film lists her name as “Carla” but “Rita” is the name I heard on the soundtrack — who’s the woman hired to clean the outside of the pool and who took the job because it was the only one she could get after being released from prison nine months earlier. Rita hears Bree and Jonna cry for help, but instead of unsealing the pool she decides to torment the two rich bitches who until now have seemingly had everything their own way. (They haven’t: in the sort of settling-accounts conversations people, at least in movies, have when they’re facing imminent doom, they’ve talked about how their father molested both of them and died in a house fire, though by the end Bree has confessed that she killed him, knocking him out with the usual blunt instrument and leaving his body to be burned up instead of attempting to rescue him.) Rita, who comes off like a graduate of the Aileen Wournos School of Charm, torments the two women, demanding the password to Bree’s cell phone (her fiancé David has been calling her regularly and is starting to get concerned about her) and the PIN code for her bank account. She extracts both those pieces of information but gets even more upset when the account turns out to have only $80 in it. Then she demands the engagement ring, and a desperate Bree gives it to her. “A pawn shop will give me something for this,” Rita says heartlessly. (It occurred to me that if the stone in the ring was a diamond, the two women could have used it to cut through the fiberglass cover and escape.)

Rita tortures the women by shutting off the lights and heat in the pool, thereby ensuring that the water will get colder and give them hypothermia in addition to all their other problems, and at one point, when one of the women stabs Rita through the hole in the covering they’ve been able to cut with a shard of fiberglass they found under the water, Rita responds by turning on the valves to add more water to the pool and threatening to dispatch them that much sooner. Then she relents, but she’s made the point that the two women are totally at her mercy down there. Once she decides she’s tormented them enough, she tries to open the pool — only the code won’t work: McGradey must have changed it without telling her what the new code was. Ultimately the women get out when one of them pulls up the grate at the pool’s bottom and they use the heavy metal grate to poke a large enough hole in the cover that they can get out — and Rita develops enough of a conscience that, after threatening to shoot the two women then and there (with a hot-looking gold-colored gun — where did she get it?), she relents and even gives them back the engagement ring (ya remember the engagement ring?). Trapped Sisters a.k.a. 12 Feet Under seems like a movie perfectly suited to the Trump-era Zeitgeist: the heroines are rich and the villains are proletarians (though Rita drops hints that she, too, once had money and a privileged lifestyle until she fell — one presumes from alcohol, drugs or maybe a more exotic form of addiction), and it’s actually well made, several cuts above Lifetime’s usual fare (it was produced by one of Lifetime’s usual partners, MarVista Entertainment — an ironic name given the subject matter and the director’s phobia — in association with a company called “Citizen Skull,” whose logo is a skeleton reading a newspaper) and suffering more than usual from the inevitable commercial interruptions. But it’s also beset by typical Lifetime melodramatics and sillinesses, though at least Nora Jane Noone and Alexandra Paul are capable as the damsels in distress (and they look enough alike to be credible as sisters on screen), while — in a genre in which the villains are almost always more interesting than the heroes — Diane Farr as the hard-bitten Rita easily takes the acting honors.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Father Brown: “The Penitent Man” (BBC Studios, BBC Worldwide, PBS, 2017)

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

Last night I had hoped to watch a Lifetime movie but the two that were on, The Perfect Soulmate and The Perfect Stalker, were both reruns of ones I’d seen recently, so instead I watched a quite compelling episode of the Father Brown series on KPBS, one which originally aired in Britain on January 19, 2017 (usually it takes a lot longer than seven months for episodes of British mystery series to make it to the U.S.!) called “The Penitent Man.” It deals with the master criminal Hercule Flambeau (John Light), who in addition to being a running menace to Father Brown (essentially Moriarty to Brown’s Holmes) is also a devastatingly handsome (our first glimpse of him shows him shirtless) Continental charmer. He’s been arrested for the murder of Flynn Hardwick (Callum Dixon) even though Brown is convinced this is one crime of which he’s innocent because Flambeau’s criminal record, extensive though it is, doesn’t include any crimes of violence. Nonetheless Flambeau actually confesses to the murder and is locked in the condemned cell of the local prison — only Brown, who’s made an archaeological study of the area and in particular of the prison, deduces that what Flambeau is really after is a medallion carefully hidden in the condemned cell by an architect who was also a religious fanatic and believed that having a medallion hidden there would help the execution victims’ souls be redeemed, forgiven their crimes and allowed in to heaven. Brown ends up in the cell with Flambeau and together they search for the medallion’s hiding place — it’s 16 bricks up and 16 bricks over from a brick inscribed “MARK 16:16” (“He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned”). 

Brown’s friends Bunty (Emer Kelly) and Mrs. McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack) spy on the Hardwick home and see Flynn Hardwick, alive and well, having an argument with his wife Peggy (Emma Pallant) — eventually we realize that Flambeau was paying Hardwick to lie low and pretend to have been murdered, so Flambeau could get into the condemned cell and steal the medallion — only Flynn doesn’t stay alive for long because Peggy double-crosses him, hitting him over the head with a frying pan and digging a grave for him. Bunty and Mrs. McCarthy witness Peggy putting her late husband into a homemade grave she has just dug, and even photograph him (incidentally the beautiful red car they drive virtually becomes a character itself!), but Peggy catches them and holds them hostage wth a shotgun. Flambeau escapes with a file provided him by Brown, who steals it off the prison warden’s desk and gives it to Flambeau on the ground that that’s a lesser sin than allowing the state to execute an innocent (of that crime, anyway) man. This is a quite good British mystery, better than usual because it’s character-driven and not a whodunit (the greatest British-born director of mystery films, Alfred Hitchcock, hated whodunits and preferred to let the audience, if not the characters, in from the get-go on what was really going on), and the characters themselves are charming, while the plot resolution (Flambeau escapes by literally swimming through a river of shit with Brown — the two get out of the prison through its underwater sewer pipe — and Flambeau gets away with the medallion but later mails it back to Brown because the experience has “poisoned it for me”) is logical and blessedly free of the nihilistic “surprise” element that’s marred more than a few recent Lifetime movies. The whole Father Brown series is one of the most tasteful British mystery shows, lacking in action (well, the protagonist is a senior-citizen priest, after all!) but charming and quite pleasant — and this was an unusually good episode not only because it has a fascinating villain (an interesting villain is practically a necessity in a crime story!) but because of the understated quality of the writing (thank you, Rachel Flowerday and Tahsin Guner, along with the great G. K. Chesterton who created Father Brown in the first place!).

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Paramount, 1986)

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

Two nights ago, with Charles having one of his unusual evenings off so we could watch a movie together, I dug through the DVD collection and came up with the 1986 teen comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, written and directed by John Hughes and starring Matthew Broderick as high-school senior Ferris Bueller, who one bright sunny morning in his home town, Chicago, in April decides he’s going to tell his parents Tom (Lyman Ward) and Katie (Cindy Pickett) that he’s sick so he can sneak out of the house and take a “day off” from high school, and particularly from the all-seeing eyes of Dean Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones, who thinks he’s Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry but comes off more like Harvey Korman in Blazing Saddles). It seems that the policy in Chicago, at least at Shermer High School (one expects Hughes got the name of the establishment from the similar dean character in National Lampoon’s Animal House), is that if you have 10 unexcused absences from school, the administration can hold you back from graduating and force you to take the senior year over again, this time “under my personal supervision,” as Dean Rooney sententiously warns Bueller in one scene. I’d never seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off before and Charles had seen it in a theatre when it was new, but not since. 

In fact I’d pretty much overlooked the entire John Hughes oeuvre when it came out, though in 1994 I bought a used copy of the Pretty in Pink soundtrack LP and quite enjoyed it even though I thought there was only one truly great song on it, Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Bring On the Dancing Horses.” (I played it again earlier this morning, courtesy of a download from iTunes, and liked a lot more of it, including the “Pretty in Pink” song itself by the Psychedelic Furs — a favorite of Nick and Katie, the lead characters in Francis Gideon’s novel Hopeless Romantic, about a Gay man and the Transwoman he falls in love with; it was reading Gideon’s novel and noting the characters’ admiration for the John Hughes oeuvre and teen romantic comedies in general that led me to want to re-examine it and watch this movie.) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off strikes me, 31 years later, as a truly weird movie, ahead of its time in at least one annoying detail: there’s no one in it you actually like. Ferris Bueller himself is a sort of Pied Piper character able to trick or fool just about anyone into doing whatever he wants, and though Matthew Broderick plays him with at least a superficial charm (and is clearly better than any one of the other discussed actors — Rob Lowe, John Cusack, Jim Carrey, Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise — really? — Robert Downey, Jr. and Michael J. Fox — would have been), the character himself quickly gets insufferable and his ability to talk anyone into almost anything is pretty wearing. Ferris takes his titular “day off” in the company of his sort-of girlfriend Sloane Peterson (Mia Sara, who’s superficially charming and right for the role but one can see why this was not a jumping point for major stardom for her) and his sort-of buddy Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck), who to me was the most interesting character in the film, a sort of reluctant Sancho Panza to Ferris’s Don Quixote and the one member of the dramatis personae whom John Hughes actually gave some dry wit instead of the rather dorky jokes that supplied most of this film’s comic content.

Ferris wants Cameron to come along with him on his “day off” because Ferris, though he has a driver’s license (or at least is able to drive, which is not necessarily the same thing, especially in a teen movie!), doesn’t have a car. He continually bitches about how his parents gave his sister Jeannie (Jennifer Grey, who though she plays his sister here actually became Matthew Broderick’s lover for a while) a car but just gave him a computer — though he uses the computer to hack into the Shermer High database and lower his number of recorded absences from the risky nine to a more tolerable two. (An imdb.com “Trivia” poster noted that Broderick had previously played a hacker in WarGames, but what this scene suggested to me was that they should have made a sequel to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in which he becomes an Internet gazillionaire running a Facebook-like company and running it like one gigantic frat party — indeed, one can readily imagine Ferris Bueller growing up to be Mark Zuckerberg, dropping out of a college IT program and starting an Internet giant.) What’s most fascinating about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is that the things Ferris, Sloane and Cameron do on their day off are quite prosaic and thoroughly wholesome — a Chicago Cubs baseball game (in Hughes’ original script the team they went to see was Hughes’ personal favorites, the White Sox, but he had to change it because during the time he was filming all the White Sox home games were at night, while the Cubs remain the one and only team in Major League Baseball who have never installed lights in their stadium and therefore don’t play home games at night), a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago (where Cameron has a life-changing experience staring at Georges Seurat’s masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, also the inspiration for Stephen Sondheim’s greatest musical, Sunday in the Park with George) and an unplanned involvement with the annual Von Steuben Day parade in Chicago. (A number of imdb.com posters noted that the film is supposed to take place in April — Ferris and Cameron both mention they have only two months of high school left before they graduate — but the Steuben Day parade, which honors a German officer who came over to fight for the U.S. in the American Revolution and became a key assistant to George Washington in whipping the Continental Army into a disciplined fighting force, takes place in September, when the film was shot, not when it supposedly takes place.) 

At the Steuben Day parade Ferris takes over one of the floats and lip-synchs to Wayne Newton’s original recording of “Danke Schön” — a song I remember from my childhood because I couldn’t make sense of it (I asked my mom, “What are ‘donkey chains’ and why would someone write a song about them?”) and the Beatles’ famous cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout.” (I found myself wondering how on earth John Hughes got what’s left of the Beatles’ organization to license him that record when virtually none of the Beatles’ records are ever licensed for movies — indeed, it wasn’t until the end credits that I was convinced it actually was the Beatles and not a Beatles tribute band’s re-recording of the song. There’s nothing on imdb.com about how Hughes got to use the record but there is a comment that Paul McCartney didn’t like how the marching-band horns were heard over the Beatles’ record in the film. Ironically, the Isley Brothers’ original version had horn parts, but they were quite different from the ones heard here.) There’s an odd, quirky connection between “Danke Schön” and the Beatles that deserves note: “Danke Schön” was co-written by German bandleader and record producer Bert Kaempfert, who also co-wrote Frank Sinatra’s hit “Strangers in the Night” and produced the Beatles’ first commercial recordings (in Hamburg, in 1961, when they were still a five-piece: John, Paul, George, Stu Sutcliffe on bass and Pete Best on drums). Unlike real teenagers going through these absurd lengths to ditch school, they don’t drink alcohol, do drugs or go anywhere sleazy; John Hughes’ original script included a scene in which Ferris, Sloane and Cameron went to a strip club, but the film was running over schedule and Paramount pulled the plug on the shoot before Hughes could film it (and doubtless they were also worried about losing their PG-13 rating and risking the film getting slapped with an R, which would have prevented much of its target teen audience from seeing it). As au courant as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was trying to be, there’s a certain decorousness about it as well as some gags that seem to belong more to the era of silent comedy than the 1980’s, notably the scene in which Cameron starts kicking his dad’s beloved Ferrari GT 120 out of jealousy that his dad loves the car more than he loves Cameron — only, wouldn’t you know it, he eventually knocks the car through the picture window of the room where it’s being kept (a car being kept inside a room with a picture window? I’m not making this up, you know) and it flies out of the room and off into a ravine, totaling it. (Paramount received nasty letters from automobile collectors protesting that they’d destroyed one of the only 100 Ferrari GT 120’s ever made, which they hadn’t; since renting an actual Ferrari would have blown their budget, they built a replica with a fiberglass body over an MG chassis.) 

Indeed, one could readily imagine a 1920’s version of this movie with Harold Lloyd as Ferris (he wouldn’t have been that much less believable as a high-school student than Matthew Broderick in the 1980’s!) and Al St. John as Cameron, while there’s something Keatonesque about the elaborate devices Ferris uses to make it seem as if he’s home sick, including a tape recording that plays when the Bueller doorbell is rung and a synthesizer (though some imdb.com contributors noted that in 1986 his synthesizer would have cost $80,000, far more than the car he says he can’t afford) that makes various coughing, belching and gurgling noises on cue and the elaborate dummy, held in place with pulleys that move it whenever the door to his bedroom is open, that inhabits his bed when he’s out. The gags in which Dean Rooney crashes the Bueller home and then is confronted by their dog also are straight out of the 1920’s, and there are other interesting bits, including Jeannie getting herself arrested after the cops mistake her for an intruder in her own house (the real intruder she called the cops on is Dean Rooney), and while waiting in jail for her mom to bail her out she meets and falls in lust with an anonymous “bad” teenage boy, played by the young Charlie Sheen, who frankly I thought was the sexiest guy in the movie. (Given Charlie Sheen’s later history, his one-word explanation for what he is doing in jail — “Drugs” — is almost unbearably ironic.) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is an agreeable light entertainment that could have been much more — frankly, I was hoping Hughes would have Sloane reject Ferris and embrace Cameron as her true love at the end, which would have been just about as clichéd as the ending we actually got but would at least have given Ferris a bit of a well-deserved comeuppance — and I probably would have liked this movie better and identified with it more if I’d been more of a teen rebel myself. 

I never wanted to cut school, partly because school (academic subjects, anyway) was one of the few things I was good at; during the scene in which the economics professor (Ben Stein) issues his famous call of “Bueller … Bueller … Bueller” before realizing he’s absent, then delivers a lecture about the Smoot-Hawley tariff and periodically breaks his talk in hopes that the students will supply the next piece of information and thereby prove they’re actually learning something (instead they sit, stonily silent), I’d have been interrupting the teacher, supplying all the right answers and getting myself righteously hated by my classmates for showing off. None of the characters in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are that likable (though I could see myself hanging out with Cameron or maybe even being him): Ferris himself is insufferable, the sister O.K. until Charlie Sheen turns her “bad” at the end, Sloane the typical empty-headed heroine of these sorts of films, Dean Rooney a caricatured villain (if he’d been made a sincere but clueless educator who wants the kids to stay in school because he really thinks it would be better for them, this would have been a funnier movie than it is), and the parents of our principals all so wrapped up in their roles in the capitalist world they barely acknowledge their kids’ existences. One of the most interesting characters is Dean Rooney’s secretary, Grace (Edie McClurg, who wanted to wear her hair in a 1960’s style and ended up doing it herself because the women’s hairdresser assigned to the film didn’t know how to set hair that way), who seems to reflect Nora Ephron’s comment about Rose Mary Woods that she was like many long-term secretaries in Washington, D.C. who were in love with their bosses, but in a strictly platonic way; she manages to convey real love and respect for Dean Rooney as well as exasperation with him over his screw-ups. With more complexity in the writing and particularly the characterizations of the adults, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off could have been a marvelous satire of capitalism and teen angst; as it is, it’s an agreeable entertainment but one I’d hardly assign “classic” status even though it’s held up well enough that Paramount is still able to sell DVD’s of it three decades later.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Manhunt: Unabomber, parts 1 and 2 (Lionsgate/Discovery Channel, 2017)

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

My “feature” last night was the first two episodes of the eight-part TV miniseries Lionsgate and the Discovery Channel came up with called Manhunt: Unabomber, about the mysterious homegrown terrorist who between 1978 and 1995 sent 15 bombs through the mails, killing three people and injuring 23 others. Since his initial targets were all either universities or airports, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) named the task force assigned to catch him UNABOM — for University and Airport BOMbings — which gave rise to the media calling him the “Unabomber.” His own name for himself was “FC,” short for “Freedom Club” — it’s quite common for lone-wolf terrorists to claim to be part of an organization even if they are fact its only member — and eventually his targets expanded to computer-store owners, geneticists and his final lethal victim, timber industry lobbyist Gilbert Brent Murray in Sacramento, California. After attacking a computer store in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1987 — where, for the first time, an eyewitness got enough of a look at him to result in the famous Unabomber sketch that made the cover of Newsweek and gave the FBI their first idea of his physical appearance — he laid low for six years but then started striking in 1993 with greater force than before (two of his three known killings occurred during the last two attacks: Murray and advertising executive Thomas J. Mosser). In 1995, after having mounted four new attacks during his “comeback,” the Unabomber wrote letters to media outlets saying he would give up terrorism if his 35,000-word essay Industrial Society and Its Future were published in a major newspaper. The New York Times and Washington Post published Industrial Society and Its Future on September 19, 1995, apparently with the permission of attorney general Janet Reno and FBI director Louis Freeh, who sanctioned publishing it in hopes that someone would read it, recognize, “Hey, I used to know a guy who talked that way,” and reveal that to the FBI, thereby enabling them to identify who the Unabomber was and therefore be able to catch him. 

What I hadn’t realized was that the people who read what became known as the “Unabomber Manifesto” (a term the Unabomber hated because it made his book seem like the ravings of a lunatic — and also, quite possibly, because it lumped him with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and their work The Communist Manifesto, and the Unabomber was ferociously critical of Leftists, saying that their attempts to impose their own morality on everyone else made them enemies of freedom — even though it was mostly Leftists, especially anarchist Leftists, who had published similar critiques of industrial and post-industrial society) and recognized that they’d known someone who talked like that would be his brother, David Kaczynski, and David’s wife Linda. The Unabomber turned out to be Ted Kaczynski, a scientific genius, a Ph.D. in mathematics and author or co-author of 12 published research papers. Only in 1971 he had given up his academic career and moved to a remote location just outside Lincoln, Montana, where he built himself a rustic cabin and loved without electricity or running water. He survived by reverting to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, shooting small game (there’s a scene of him in the TV show in which he’s seen bringing back to his cabin a rabbit he’s just shot) and making himself as self-sufficient as possible. He brought with him an old-fashioned manual typewriter on which he wrote his manifesto as well as letters to various media outlets explaining what he was doing. In Manhunt: Unabomber Ted Kaczynski is played by Paul Bettany — one of those actors, like Ryan Gosling and Paul Dano, who seems to have got typecast as crazies (though Bettany is also a star of the Marvel Comics Avengers movies and played the sidekick in the film Master and Commander, based on Patrick O’Brian’s novels about the early 19th century British navy, the roles I know him best for are as John Nash’s imaginary sidekick in A Beautiful Mind — also a movie about a crazy math professor! — and the hired assassin in The Da Vinci Code) — but the main focus is on one of the FBI agents instrumental in his capture, profiler Jim “Fitz” Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington). 

As the film opens Fitz is just graduating from FBI profiler school, and he’s depicted as brilliant but also arrogant and independent. His wife Ellie (Elizabeth Reaser) is hoping that profiling work will enable him to remain in Washington, D.C. and work a normal schedule so he can be a real husband to her and father to their kids, but no such luck: he’s almost immediately summoned to the other end of the country, to the San Francisco Bay Area, where the Unabomber Task Force is assembled and they’re trying to figure out who he is. So far they’ve come up with a half-page arguing that he’s a disgruntled worker who was laid off by United Airlines when they cut back their workforce in the early 1970’s and he’s a person of low intelligence. I suspect the FBI agents who insisted that the Unabomber was an uneducated proletarian were influenced by a particularly famous bombing case in the 1950’s, “Mad Bomber” George Metesky in New York City, whom authorities initially thought was a genius and turned out to be a proletarian angry over a workplace injury he had suffered years before and for which he felt he hadn’t been properly compensated. So with the Unabomber they made the exact opposite mistake. The FBI agent in charge of the task force, Dan Ackerman (Chrstopher Noth, one of those actors I can’t seem to escape: Law and Order, its spinoff Law and Order: Criminal Intent and The Good Wife), insists that Fitz merely work from the profile they already have to produce 15 pages, “no typos” (apparently not only the Unabomber but also the FBI was still using typewriters then, instead of computers), which they can send to Janet Reno and release to the media. But Fitz, acting like the usual hero in a police drama, defies his superiors and comes to the conclusion that the Unabomber is above average in intelligence, had extensive higher education and has a clear message that he’s trying to send through his bombs and their targets. When the Unabomber finally submits his manifesto to the media, Fitz is anxious to read it — here he’s become convinced that the bombings are meant to serve a political or social agenda, and here’s the bomber himself presenting his political and social agenda in 56 close-typed pages — but he has to cool their heels while the FBI agents dust it for fingerprints and search the papers for other forensic evidence before they’ll let him read the damned thing. The FBI eventually makes and distributes copies around the office, but Fitz is the only one who bothers to read it. 

The first two episodes (the Discovery Channel is promoting this as an eight-part mini-series and the second episode wasn’t set to premiere until August 8, but they set episode two to run right after episode one on August 1) annoyingly cut back and forth between 1995, when Fitz is working out his profile of the Unabomber (and, at one point, going so far as to move into his own no-mod-cons cabin to try to get a feel for what his quarry is thinking), and 1997, when in order to avoid a showcase trial that would give Ted Kaczynski a platform for his ideas and turn into a circus, the FBI and the Justice Department assign Fitz the task of interrogating Kaczynski and seeing if he can get him to confess. It seems Ted Kaczynski asked for Fitz to interrogate him and agreed to meet Fitz against the advice of his own attorney, and things went fairly well between them until Fitz pushed him too hard for a guilty plea, and Kaczynski made a you’re-lile-all-the-rest speech to him. The cutbacks between 1995 and 1997 get jarring — it might have been better if the film had started with the interrogation and then periodically cut to flashbacks as Fitz got more information out of his target — but on the whole Manhunt: Unabomber is well done and quite compelling drama even though, as my husband Charles said of the film Shine, it’s the sort of true story the filmmakers chose to make because the real-life events play so much like the clichés of fictional film. The whole idea of the detective who gets so wrapped up in the mind of the criminal that he starts to lose his own identity and alienates those around him, including his own family, was probably most famously used in The Silence of the Lambs but is really decades older than that; so is the idea that the detective and the criminal have a great deal in common and the detective realizes in himself some of the passions and motivations of the criminal, only he’s channeled them into catching criminals instead of becoming one. (One could readily imagine director Fritz Lang making a version of this story in which Fitz would become so wrapped up in the Unabomber’s identity that he would start planting bombs himself once the Unabomber were either incarcerated, went totally crazy and was put in a mental institution, or died.) I’m not sure the Unabomber’s story and Fitz’s rather quirky (to say the least!) approach to catching him has the stuff of eight hours of TV, but I enjoyed the opening episode(s) and am looking forward to the rest.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Nanny Seduction (Active Entertainment/Lifetime, 2017)

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

Two nights ago I watched an oddball Lifetime movie called Nanny Seduction, in which virtually the only novelty or suspense value was attempting to guess which set of Lifetime clichés writer Marcy Holland would tap to resolve her next plot point. The film was directed by Emily Moss Wilson (Lifetime, to their credit, has given a lot of opportunities to women directors, and sometimes, as with Christine Conradt and Vanessa Parise, they’ve shown real talent that deserves a shot at major theatrical features; alas, Emily Moss Wilson is hardly in their league) and stars Wes Brown and Austin Highsmith (a woman named “Austin”?) as Ben and Kara Turling, who six months before the film began took on the formidable challenge of adopting an eight-year-old girl, Riley (Lauren Goluzzi in what’s far and away the best acting job in the film!), even though she’s relentlessly antisocial and virtually catatonic. The reason they’ve done this is that Kara herself grew up in foster homes and never got over the sheer trauma of being moved around so much and never being able to settle down in one home environment, with one set of parents, that could make her feel like she belonged. She’s determined to make sure no one else has to go through that, so she singles out Riley and gives her a home. There’s a scene between her and Ben in which she says she’s forgiven him for the “mistake” he made a year ago — and if you’ve seen more than two Lifetime movies in your life you’re instantly aware that the “mistake” he made was an affair. 

The plot kicks off when the live-in nanny the Turlings have been using, a grandmotherly Latina, announces that she’s leaving because her daughter has just borne her a grandchild of her own, and so Kara has to hire a replacement. We see her interviewing three people, two women and a man, and she ultimately hires the blonde woman even though her references were shakier than those of the black-haired woman — only when the blonde takes the job she spends most of the day talking on her cell phone about her friends and their boyfriends, including mentioning one of her female circle who’s “screwing” a particular guy. Then she realizes her possible faux pas of having said that in Riley’s presence and turns to her, saying, “You don’t know what that means, do you?” “I do,” says Riley — the first words we’ve heard her speak all movie. While all this has happened the would-be nanny burns the sandwich she was frying for Riley, Riley refuses to eat it, but we see the nanny carefully turn off the stove burner — only a mysterious stranger sneaks into the house (apparently neither the Turlings nor anyone they’ve let into the house has ever heard of door locks, since intruders seem to breeze in and out of there all movie without so much as a by-your-leave) and turns the burner back on, starting a kitchen fire it looks like the nanny started by her negligence. So Kara lets her go and instead hires the dark-haired candidate, Alyssa (Valerie Azlynn), who turns out to have an agenda. Given the ample supply of Lifetime clichés to motivate the psycho nanny/neighbor/teacher/caregiver/whatever, it’s not too surprising that the one Marcy Holland picks is that Alyssa is Ben Turling’s former affair partner, though it was just a one-night stand and Ben didn’t recognize her because the night they did it, her hair was blonde. Of course, Ben couldn’t care less about her — to him she’s just a “mistake” he made one night and which he wants his wife to forgive (though there’s a neat touch in Holland’s script that Alyssa’s coming on to him makes him hornier for his wife), but to her he’s the great love of her life and she’ll stop at nothing to get Ben away from Kara so she can marry him and she, Ben and Riley can be a “family.” 

Since she’s the psycho villainess of a Lifetime movie she naturally does what virtually all psycho villainesses in Lifetime movies do if their victims have kids: she kidnaps Riley and takes her to a yellow house in the country, the home in which she herself grew up. Fortunately, a drawing of the house Alyssa left behind gives Ben the clue he needs to find it, only when he and Kara drive there — and Kara hides out of sight in their SUV because Ben is going to try to lure Alyssa out by pretending to be ready to leave his wife for her — Alyssa has a gun, and it’s touch-and-go for a while before the police arrive, Alyssa is dispatched (though I’m conflating this one with The Wrong Neighbor so much I can’t for the life of me recall whether she’s captured alive or killed, and if the latter, by whom) and Ben, Kara and Riley reconciled. Also, through much of the movie we’ve been given a red herring — Riley’s birth mother, Vanessa Shaw (Erin Cahill), who also has been stalking the Turlings, though not because she’s after Ben (I had thought it might turn out that Ben was actually Riley’s birth father,but screenwriter Holland fortunately didn’t take us there) but because she simply wants to see Riley: she lost custody because her chronic alcoholism was leading her to neglect Riley, but now that she’s clean, sober and working, she wants, if not full custody, at least some involvement in Riley’s life — but in the end Vanessa turns out to be (relatively) innocent and she and the Turlings reach a modus vivendi that allows Vanessa to see Riley and be part of her growing-up. At least Holland didn’t pull the trick of a sinister open-ended “surprise” ending like the writers of The Wrong Neighbor, Jeffrey Schenck, Peter Sullivan and Robert Dean Klein, did, but Nanny Seduction is still pretty much a to-the-pattern Lifetime piece with little (aside from Lauren Gobuzzi’s amazing performance as Riley — it’s one of those shows in which you admire the child actor while at the same time wondering what long-term traumas are going to be caused by whatever director Wilson had to pull to get it from her) to distinguish or recommend it.