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Call Her Savage (1932)
Masterpiece of the so-called "pre-Code" era!
The film was "Call Her Savage," a 1932 Fox Film (three years before the 20th Century merger) production that represented something of a comeback attempt for silent star Clara Bow, whose career had risen in the late 1920's with the Paramount production "It" only to fall with the rise of the talkies, Bow's own mental problems and a lot of sleazy rumors about her. According to her Wikipedia page Bow wasn't interested in a comeback even though she was getting offers from MGM (who wanted her for "Red-Headed Woman," which instead became Jean Harlow's star-making film), RKO (who wanted her for "What Price Hollywood?", eventually filmed with Constance Bennett) and Howard Hughes as well as Fox. She was willing to make a couple more films because she and her husband, Western star Rex Bell, needed the money to maintain his ranch in Nevada, but she didn't want to be tied down to a long-term contract and she apparently picked Fox because they only wanted her for two movies, this one and "Hoop-La" from 1933. I was interested in "Call Her Savage," which TCM was showing as part of their Friday festivals of so-called "pre-Code" productions, partly as a late Clara Bow vehicle and partly because Vito Russo's book "The Celluloid Closet" said it was the first film in history to depict a Gay bar.
"Call Her Savage" had all the earmarks of an interesting but not particularly good movie a faded star trying at once to live down a scandalous reputation while playing a "bad girl" role that capitalized on it; a story by a racy novelist, Tiffany Thayer, whose reputation was for writing as close to porn as could be got into mainstream print in 1932; and a studio that already had the reputation of being a place where careers went to die. Well, surprise! "Call Her Savage" turned out to be a masterpiece, one of the glittering gems of the "pre-Code" era alongside "Love Me Tonight," "I'm No Angel," "Safe in Hell," "Sensation Hunters," "Three Wise Girls," "Virtue" and several others, one which used the relative freedom of loose Production Code enforcement to create an artistically and emotionally intense world in which people's sexual drives are depicted as integral parts of their nature and characters fall in and out of love (or in and out of bed) with each other for reasons similar to those that obtain in the real world. John Francis Dillon, a director I've never thought much of (mainly because the most prestigious film I've seen of his before this one is "Sally," the 1929 filmization of Marilyn Miller's hit musical, done as dully and in the same stage-bound manner of most pre-Berkeley musicals), turns in a magnificent job here, using oblique angles and surprisingly noir-ish lighting; aided by the superb cinematographer Lee Garmes, he throws together a dazzling array of different visual "looks" to bring home the point of each scene. I suspect only his early death at age 49 in 1934 prevented Dillon, who'd worked himself up from Mack Sennett comedies to silent features, from remaining a major director well into the talkie era.
The screenplay is by Edwin J. Burke, who managed a tough assignment bringing a Tiffany Thayer novel to the screen and making it both cinematically coherent and agreeable to the Hays Office, enforcement arm of the Production Code (and anyone who reads the American Film Institute Catalog entry on "Call Her Savage" will quickly be disabused of the notion that the 1930-34 era in American movie was truly "pre-Code"! Fox went through several drafts and several writers before Will Hays' enforcer, Col. Jason S. Joy, finally reluctantly gave his O.K.) and came up with a script full of both wisecracks and surprisingly emotional situations to show Bow's emotional range as an actress. And Bow's emotional range as an actress is probably the biggest surprise about this movie; there are sequences in which she's the uncontrollable flibbertigibbet she'd been in her silent films, but also scenes, especially when her character is suffering, in which she is almost Garbo-esque in her non-acting, her refusal to "milk it," her somber, serious mien. After seeing a bunch of films both old ("Something for the Boys," "Doll Face") and new (the most recent "Godzilla") that fell far short of their potentials, it was refreshing to watch a movie like "Call Her Savage" where everyone concerned got it right and nailed every aspect of their story they were aiming for: Dillon's assured direction, Garmes' deep cinematography (the "down" parts of the story in which Nasa is suffering were obviously inspired by the "street" films about urban poverty that had been the rage in Germany in the 1920's, and Garmes copied the shadowy chiaroscuro look that in the 1930's would have been called "the German look" and nowadays is known as film noir), Burke's mordant script and, most important, the surprisingly nuanced and multidimensional acting of Bow combine to create one of the finest films of its era.
A Daughter's Nightmare (2014)
Unusually good, relatively nonviolent Lifetime chiller
Last night I watched the "world premiere" of a Lifetime TV-movie called, in the best tradition of Christine Conradt's titling strategies even though she didn't write this one, "A Daughter's Nightmare." It's one of those Lifetime productions (the company is credited as "Sepia Films," even though the movie is actually in color) that takes place in Washington state so the actual shoot can be just across the border in British Columbia, Canada (specifically the town of Kelowna), and it starts at the funeral where the heroine, Dana (Victoria Pratt), is burying her husband after he lost a long battle with lung cancer. The main attendees are Dana's daughter Ariel (a quite good Emily Osment) and the late husband's veterinarian brother Cameron (Richard Karn), though in the background we see a heavy-set man lurking around. When next we see him we learn that his name is Adam Smith (Paul Johansson, physically well cast in that he's not drop-dead gorgeous but he looks good enough to come off as a plausible romantic partner for Dana) and that he has a nice-looking but disturbed young son (stepson, actually, a point screenwriter Shelley Gillen is careful to make) named Ben (played by the quite hot Gregg Sulkin in a performance that avoids the twin traps of playing a psycho the obvious wall-crawling one of Lawrence Tierney and the ridiculously boyish approach of Anthony Perkins in Psycho), whom Adam has taken to a therapist (Janet Anderson) and who resists being labeled as having a mental illness. Ben and Ariel attend the same college, and since Ariel makes it a point of going home to mom's place every weekend, Adam makes it a point of giving Ariel a ride so he can meet Dana, whom he intends to start dating.
Of course, being the male protagonist of what Maureen Dowd called a "pussies-in-peril" movie, his intentions are considerably darker than that, though Gillen and director/cinematographer Vic Sarin (whose name in the credits led me to joke, "Oh, no! It's directed by a poison gas!") take their time letting us know just what they are. They do make a point that Adam had wanted to become a doctor, only his grades weren't good enough for medical school so he became an ER nurse instead which gives him a point of commonality with Ariel, who's studying to be a vet like her uncle and it also gives him an entrée with Dana. He meets Dana at a grief group Ariel told him she was attending when the sequence started and she introduced herself with a full name, and was told, "First names only, here," I joked, "My name is Dana and I'm an alco- oops, wrong group." Though there are a few familiar Lifetime-style plot holes in Gillen's script, it's actually a quite chilling suspense tale, made more interesting by the absence of much in the way of outright violence (Adam isn't a thug, and it makes him a considerably more interesting villain), the ambiguity over Adam's motives and the nice reversal that that hot young man the young girl is dating isn't the crazy one in his family his (step)dad is. It also helps in the verisimilitude department that Victoria Pratt and Emily Osment look enough like each other to be credible as mother and daughter (though, oddly, Paul Johansson and Gregg Sulkin also resemble each other enough that they'd be credible as father and son even though the script tells us they're not biologically related). A Mother's Nightmare is not a great movie, but it's a genuinely chilling thriller, several cuts above the Lifetime norm.
The Girl He Met Online (2014)
Surprisingly sympathetic villainess
"The Girl He Met Online" turned out to be surprisingly engaging even though it was very much to the Lifetime formula - one of those in which Christine Conradt was not involved directly but it's clear the people who were have absorbed her plot templates and situations and know how to crank these things out at least as well as the Old Mistress. The directors (plural) were Curtis Crawford (in previous productions he's been Curtis James Crawford) and Anthony Lefresne (though CRAWFORD's name was in BIG LETTERS across the screen and Lefresne's was in tiny type below it) and the credited writer was David DeCrane, but overall it's pretty much a chip off the old Christine Conradt block. When the movie starts we see the girl some poor sap is going to meet online, Gillian Casey (played by Yvonne Zima as a blonde, though otherwise with the same kewpie-doll appeal of Rose MacGowan in the first "Devil in the Flesh" movie from 1998 and Jodi Lyn O'Keefe in the 2000 sequel), trashing the home of her previous boyfriend, spray-painting everything in sight she can't render totally nonfunctional (like his TV - she sprays the letters "TV" behind where it used to be - and his stereo). We get the point immediately: this is a girl that doesn't take rejection well.
What's most interesting about "The Girl He Met Online" is that David DeCrane gives Gillian such a hellish background - her real parents died in a car accident when her age was still in the low single digits, and she and her sister Bethany (Tara Spencer-Nairn) were adopted by Agatha Casey (Mary-Margaret Humes), who made it clear to Gillian throughout her childhood that she never loved or cared about her and the only reason she adopted her was she wanted to raise Bethany and the adoption agency insisted that the sisters come as a package deal. Gillian has literally slept her way into a nice job as receptionist with an OB-GYN, Dr. Harris Kohling (Gary Hudson), who insists on her performing sexual services for him whenever his wife is out of town, which seems to be a lot. But that hasn't stopped her from trying to land a rich guy whom she can get to marry her and Take Her Away from All That. Her current target is Andy Collins (Shawn Roberts, at least marginally cuter than most of Lifetime's leading men), who works for a software company founded by his father and managed since dad's death by his mom Susan (Caroline Redekopp), and whose sister Heather (Samantha Madely) is also a major player in the firm. Most of the film is taken up by Gillian's intense pursuit of Andy and her ability to look normal and even genuinely charming when she's on her best behavior, though as the plot progresses the obstacles start to trip her up and writer DeCrane seems to go out of his way to put Gillian in contact with people who can expose the worst sides of her character.
What I liked about "The Girl I Met Online" was the writing of Gillian's character - though Curtis Crawford and Anthony Lefresne are hardly in Alfred Hitchcock's league as masters of suspense (nor is DeCrane anywhere nearly as good as the writers Hitchcock used), they do manage to play the double game Hitchcock pulled off in a number of his films: making the villain, if not sympathetic, at least attractive and put-upon enough we're kept hoping he - or, as here, she - will get away with it even as we know his or her actions are evil and she deserves arrest and punishment.
A Man Called God (2013)
Great personal story of cultism and disillusionment
A Man Called God is a remarkable movie that has its roots in the 1970's in the careers of two men: Blaxploitation actor Christopher St. John, whose best-known credit is probably as the leader of the "Lummumbas," the Black nationalist group who work with Black detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a Black businessman in the original 1971 Shaft. He was married to a white actress and had a son, Kristoff; then they broke up and he married another white actress, Maria, and the couple raised Kristoff. In 1972 Christopher St. John wrote, produced, directed and starred in Top of the Heap, but then got a reputation in Hollywood as a troublemaker and got blacklisted. At loose ends, Christopher and Maria St. John drifted into an involvement with Eastern religion and eventually became devotees of a guru named Sathya Sai Baba. For anyone whose mental image of an Indian guru is an old guy with long hair and an unkempt beard -- the appearance of Paramhansa Yogananda, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Meher Baba and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh -- the first sight of Sai Baba in this movie is going to be startling: he was baby-faced, clean-shaven and, quite frankly, looked more African than Indian: he had a broad nose and his hair was in a tall "natural." He always dressed in an orange robe -- at least during his public appearances -- and though his background was Hindu, he claimed to be synthesizing all the world's major religions in his teachings. He also literally claimed to be God on Earth and to have (presumably in a previous incarnation) fathered Jesus Christ.
Christopher and Maria St. John got so involved in Sai Baba's organization that they ended up living in his main ashram in Puttaparthi, India -- the tiny village where Sai Baba had been born and which turned into a major religious center as his movement grew. Because he had movie-making experience, Christopher St. John was hired by Sai Baba to make a documentary film that would hopefully recruit more people to the movement. The bulk of the film consists of the footage Christopher St. John shot during his months at the ashram, which came to an abrupt end right after Sai Baba's elaborate 55th birthday celebration in November 1980; when Sai Baba threw him out he demanded that St. John leave all his film behind, but the elder St. John got the film out of India with him and resettled in Hollywood -- where the footage sat for over two decades until his son finally hit on the idea of making a movie out of it and telling his own tale of his life in the ashram and how and why it ended. Kristoff St. John and Marc Clebanoff (who's credited on the postcard announcing the film merely as co-editor but clearly had a key role in writing the script and working out the film's overall structure) at first they show the positive aspects of Sai Baba's movement, including the money they put into hospital construction and social improvements, but later they start dropping hints of the darker side of the story. Kristoff recalls how dazzled he was by Sai Baba's purported power to materialize objects, including rings, medallions and sacred vibhuti ash, out of thin air. As a boy in Sai Baba's ashram, Kristoff was jazzed when Sai Baba gave him a silver medallion he had supposedly created out of thin air; only years later, after his and his family's disillusionment, did Kristoff realize that this was a simple sleight-of-hand trick that any stage magician could do.
Things got worse as hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from India but also from all over the world, thronged the ashram for the three weeks of celebration before Sai Baba's birthday in 1980 -- and Christopher St. John, with his film credits as both actor and director, was ordered to direct a play about Jesus Christ. Though Kristoff recalls that there were certain parts of the ashram he and his crew were not allowed to film, they did get to record one of the rehearsals for this play -- the scene in which Jesus is throwing the moneylenders out of the Temple -- which looks as wretched as you'd expect given that he was working with a nonprofessional cast and an awfully stiff script. Then the St. Johns learn about Baba's darker secrets, including at least one that affects them personally.
Though I could have wished for a bit more material in A Man Called God about what attracted people in general and the St. Johns in particular to Baba's cult (to me that's the most interesting aspect of cult stories: why do people get involved in these things in the first place; and once they're involved, how do they rationalize staying in even as they learn some of the cult's darker secrets?), the film as it stands is a chilling tale which alleges that Sai Baba could do literally anything he wanted, confident that his connections with some of the most powerful people in India would ensure that his crimes would never even be investigated, much less prosecuted. Like most cult stories, A Man Called God is another illustration of how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely; once you're surrounded by people who literally believe you're a prophet, or a god, or some other sort of "special" person (the entourages of celebrities, especially notoriously reclusive ones like Michael Jackson, are not that different from the literal cult shown in this film), and who have essentially granted you the power of life and death over them, they will do just about anything to stay in your good graces -- and you'd have to be an extraordinarily humble and saintly human being not to take advantage of that for some sinister purpose or another.
Hot Guys with Guns (2013)
I loved it!
Last night Charles and I attended the FilmOut San Diego screening of Hot Guys with Guns, a special event at the Birch North Park Theatre advertised as an action movie for the Gay male audience, a sort of spoof of the James Bond mythos that judging from the advance publicity was going to be a film about a super-spy attempting to foil some horrendous international crime scheme and this being aimed at a Gay male audience in the process bedding an assortment of "Bond boys" instead of "Bond girls." Actually the film turned out to be considerably better than that, owing quite a bit less to James Bond and more to the 1960's TV series I Spy, particularly in the pairing of a white and a Black character as the leads and the rather diffident relationship between the two the white guy more impulsive and daring, the Black guy more reasoned and "cool."
After a marvelous credits sequence using Warren's song under a set of visuals cribbed from the 1960's Bond movies, the original I Spy credits and just about every other 1960's film in the genre, the opening scene turned out to be a decent-looking but decidedly not hot middle-aged man awakening from a drugged stupor with a lot of younger and hotter but similarly indisposed bodies draped across his bed. It turns out his stupor wasn't his idea; he threw a sex party but it was crashed by two interlopers, one dressed in a black hoodie and a death's-head mask and the other more or less au naturel, who entered it and set off an aerosol bomb containing a mixture of party drugs and anesthetics to put the entire crowd under so they could rob them. The principals turn out to be Danny Lohman (Marc Anthony Samuel), a Black Gay actor who's taking a course on how to be a private detective not because he wants to do that for a living but because he's up for a part as a P.I. in a TV series called Crime and Punishment; and his ex-partner Patrick "Pip" Armstrong (Brian McArdle, whose other main credit on IMDb.com is a voice-over narration for a documentary called It Is No Dream about Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism), a spoiled rich white kid who lives with his mother Patricia (a wonderful bitch-goddess performance by Joan Ryan) and dumped Danny for another aspiring actor, Robin (Trey McCurley), who's hot-looking but is enough of an airhead we in the audience definitely get the impression he's trading down. When Pip is a guest at the next sex party that gets hit by the mystery bandits with their drug bomb, and his Rolex watch (important to him because it's the only legacy left to him by his father, who abandoned the family for reasons we're never told) and his car are stolen (and the car is recovered, stripped and covered with anti-Gay graffiti), Danny decides they should use the skills he's learning in detective class and solve the crime themselves.
Despite saddling it with the silly title that makes it sound like a hard-core porn film, Spearman manages to pull off something that's eluded a lot of more prestigious and better-known directors: he manages to fuse comedy and drama so the mystery and the satire reinforce each other instead of clashing. There's also a marvelously funny sequence in which, staking out the home of one of the victims, Danny starts delivering a voice-over narration in the persona of the P.I. character he's auditioning to play on TV and the dialogue is a perfectly turned parody of Raymond Chandler's prose, particularly his penchant for blender-mixed metaphors. "Hot Guys with Guns" is a quite capably produced and written mystery, well acted by a strong ensemble cast, though Marc Anthony Samuel in the lead stands out. With Denzel Washington already having aged out of the Black juvenile category and Will Smith rapidly following suit, Samuel, playing a part Spearman wrote for himself but at the last minute realized he was too old for, looks like a good candidate to take over these parts.
Baby Sellers (2013)
Make this a series with Jennifer Finnigan's character as the lead!
The film was "Baby Sellers," billed as a "world premiere" Lifetime showing of a quite powerful and well-done thriller from producer Robert Halmi, Sr. (he and Halmi, Jr. are known for socially conscious TV-movies) which had some of the usual Lifetime sillinesses and improbabilities, but had enough energy and power to transcend them. The star is a young, compactly built blonde woman named Jennifer Finnigan, who plays Detective Nicole ("Nic") Morrison of the (presumably fictitious) "Homeland Security Investigations" law-enforcement agency, or HSI. When the film starts she and her male African-American partner (alas, not identified on the cast list on IMDb.com) are hot on the trail of Rafael Ochoa (Zak Santiago), a crime kingpin involved in a number of illegal enterprises, including smuggling undocumented immigrants into the U.S. in the backs of large trucks. The film actually opens in a small village in India, where kidnappers literally steal Mira, the recently born baby of a young couple, Dilip (Arjun Gupta) and Noureen (Veena Soud), who can recognize her if they see her again because she has a tear-shaped birthmark under her left eye. Then it cuts to the U.S., where Nic and her partner almost catch Ochoa's agent but the agent and Ochoa himself escape. They do, however, recover the truck in which they were smuggling in their latest batch of undocumented immigrants pregnant women. Ochoa is shipping them into the U.S. so they'll give birth on this side of "la linea" and therefore the kids will be U.S. citizens; then the babies will be taken away from their mothers and placed with wealthy Anglo families for adoption.
At the crux of all this is an adoption agency with the typically smarmy title "Road to Love" run by Carla Huxley (Kirstie Alley) and I can't help but think writer Suzette Couture deliberately named her after an author whose most famous work is "Brave New World," a novel about the mass production of babies. Huxley delivers a well-honed sales talk to prospective adoptive parents in which she trots out her own Third World-born adopted daughter Alyssa (Corale Knowles) and tells what a wonderful success her own adoption has been "My mom is awesome!" Alyssa tells her mom's prospective customers, before we get a scene between the two of them in which Carla turns out to be a tough taskmaster with an obsessive concern about her daughter's diet. Directed by Nick Willing, "Baby Sellers" flits confusingly between the U.S., India and Brazil (another important stop on Carla's baby-selling network), and at times you have to look closely to determine which Third World country with dirt roads, shaky buildings, grinding poverty and nut-brown people is which (some of the switches in location are indicated by chyron titles but most aren't), but it's generally well plotted and it's powered by fascinating female characters as both heroine and villainess. It's also a movie which, despite the sometimes confusing changes in locale, manages to tell convincingly tragic plot lines and avoid the soap-opera trap of too much blatant tear-jerking.
At the end there's a title about the impact of human trafficking, including the claim that it's now the world's second largest and most lucrative criminal enterprise (after drugs but before weapons), which reminds us that the Halmis were also the producers of the Lifetime movie "Human Trafficking," which, when I reviewed it for IMDb.com, I headlined my review, "Good intentions doth not a great movie make." I wouldn't call "Baby Sellers" a great movie, either, but it's far better than "Human Trafficking;" it's not only a fast-paced, exciting thriller (we open in the middle of a chase scene instead of getting the usual 20 to 40 minutes' worth of dull exposition typical of Lifetime's thrillers) but it has two great tour de force roles for women. Kirstie Alley is absolutely brilliant, capturing not only the character's evil but the smarmy self-righteousness and gooey sentimentality with which she conceals the evil not only from the people she interacts with but from herself. And she's matched by Jennifer Finnigan, who manages to be just as tough as Mariska Hargitay in "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" without being either as self-consciously butch or as annoyingly schoolmarmish. Finnigan's combination of little-slip-of-a-girl appearance, implacable will and surprising toughness and skill with the action scenes is remarkable, eminently watchable and makes me wish the Halmis and Lifetime would get together and build a series around this remarkable actress and her character here.
The Falcon in Hollywood (1944)
I'll say it too
I switched on TCM and watched "The Falcon in Hollywood," a 1944 entry in the series made after George Sanders, the original lead actor in the role, was replaced by Tom Conway (Sanders' real-life brother, though Conway had changed his last name so he wouldn't find the path to success greased by his brother's coattails), a remarkable little movie that's most noteworthy for its plot premise (spoiler alert!), which is the same as "The Producers" only carefully not played for laughs: an unscrupulous Broadway producer, Martin S. Dwyer (John Abbott), best known for dramas he did a production of "Hamlet" on the Main Stem and proudly displays a poster for it in his office, along with a bust of Shakespeare, whose dialogue he's fond of quoting comes to the "Sunset Studios" in Hollywood to make his first film. He picks a musical, Magic Melody, and sells 200 percent of the film to various investors, including John Miles, a playboy with a fortune which he's willing to use part of to bankroll a movie so he can act the lead role even though he's never acted before; Alec Hoffman (Konstantin Shayne), a Stroheim-like director with a string of flops behind him; and Louie Buchanan (Sheldon Leonard), a gambler who was imprisoned in New York for fixing horse races but escaped.
Tom Lawrence (Tom Conway), nicknamed "The Falcon," is in Hollywood on a vacation when he encounters movie star Lili D'Allio (Rita Corday), a believer in numerology, at a horse race. He also encounters Peggy Callahan (Barbara Hale, a bit of a surprise to see as a baddie since we're used to her role as Della Street in the 1950's Perry Mason TV series), Louie Buchanan's girlfriend; and Billie Atkins (Veda Ann Borg in a great vehicle for her), a lady cabdriver who zips Tom Lawrence around the L.A. streets (playing themselves instead of being safely represented by the RKO backlot) at near-warp speeds. She explains that she's a stunt driver in movies when she isn't working as a cabbie, and her salty performance makes her a considerably more interesting character than the more openly attractive glamour girls the cast abounds in Hale, Corday and Jean Brooks (Richard Brooks' first wife and the star of the magnificent Val Lewton production "The Seventh Victim") as Roxanna Miles, costume designer for Magic Melody and John Miles' estranged wife, who has the hots for director Hoffman and hopes to marry him as does D'Allio. There's a lot of running around the "Sunset" lot and the character of an old gatekeeper who becomes a red herring, but eventually Tom Lawrence figures out the whole plot: producer Dwyer was sabotaging his own production, including murdering his leading man, wounding his director with a supposedly blank-loaded gun (and deliberately exposing the day's film, ruining it so that it couldn't be developed and reveal the truth about the attempted murder of Hoffman), and eventually killing Buchanan with a trick ring from India that contains poison in its metal so that as the wearer has it on, the poison is slowly leaching into his system and ultimately knocking him off.
The film has some interesting real-life L.A. locations, including a confrontation at the Coliseum as well as an opening scene at the Hollywood Turf Club at which we meet most of the principals, but the most fascinating thing about it is the "Producers" plot element (Dwyer was sabotaging his own film so he wouldn't have to pay off the investors since either it would never be released at all or would fail) done deadly seriously. It was actually an urban legend on Broadway for decades before Brooks filmed it indeed, Groucho Marx actually wanted to use it as the plot for "A Night at the Opera" but MGM production chief Irving Thalberg vetoed it.
Shake, Rattle & Rock! (1956)
Good even when Fats Domino and Joe Turner aren't on screen!
The early omens on this one weren't good; American International generally made lousy movies aimed mostly at the drive-in audience (and this was only their third year in operation), the director was Edward L. Cahn and the writer was Lou Rusoff, who was usually associated with American International's rather silly horror movies. Surprise! "Shake, Rattle and Rock" turned out to be a little gem, with two of the all-time greats of rhythm and blues, singer Joe Turner and singer-pianist-composer Antoine "Fats" Domino, and a plot that was genuinely entertaining in and of itself and wasn't just a way to mark time between the musical numbers. While other 1950's rock movies occasionally touched on the controversies over rock and the determination of some moralists to shut it down, Lou Rusoff decided to make the controversies the focal point of his film. It opens in the studio of a local TV station, where Garry Nelson (Touch Conners, the young, personable actor who later became a surprisingly credible private detective on the long-running CBS-TV series Mannix) is hosting a rock 'n' roll TV show with a group of teenage kids he's been able to pull off the streets and away from a life of crime by harnessing the righteous power of this music to lure them into wholesome recreation. Right now in the (unnamed) city where the film takes place he's built 78 rock 'n' roll clubs and got the young people in them interested in raising money for "safe" social causes. His latest project is to take over an abandoned building and turn it into a teen center.
But he's run afoul of self-appointed moralists Eustace Fentwick III (Douglass Dumbrille) and Georgianna Fitzdingle (the marvelous Margaret Dumont so two supporting players in this film have Marx Brothers connections!), who organize a group with a tongue-twisting name to fight back against rock 'n' roll by organizing petitions and letter-writing campaigns to get the TV station to take Nelson's show off the air. He's also run afoul of gangsters Bugsy Smith (Paul Duboy, proving that they didn't break the mold after they made Sheldon Leonard) and his comic-relief sidekick Nick (Eddie Kafafian), who are upset that Nelson's rock 'n' roll clubs have turned potential hoodlums towards more constructive pursuits and thereby deprived Bugsy's gang of its biggest pool of young talent. Of course, Nelson has his own comic-relief sidekick, Albert "Axe" McAllister (Sterling Holloway, whom writer Rusoff and director Cahn try to pass off as a teenager even though he was already making movies in the early 1930's, before any authentic teenager alive in 1956 was even born!).
Fats Domino does two of his biggest hits, "Ain't That a Shame" and "I'm in Love Again," as well as "Honey Chile" (a song I've always liked that didn't get the attention it deserved because it was the flip side of an even greater Domino record, "Blueberry Hill"), and Turner sings "Feelin' Happy" a rock adaptation of the 1930's Kansas City blues standard "Do You Wanna Jump, Children?" twice, once over the opening credits and once on screen. He also does "Lipstick, Powder and Paint," "The Choker" and "Rock, Rock, Rock." The one white rock performer we see, Tommy Charles (doing a song by Wayne Walker called "Sweet Love on My Mind"), is O.K. but quite obviously not anywhere in the same league as Domino and Turner. "Shake, Rattle and Rock" turned out to be a minor gem, a genuinely entertaining movie even when Fats Domino and/or Joe Turner weren't on screen!
A Sister's Revenge (2013)
O.K. but pretty typical Lifetime fare
I watched a Lifetime movie that was having its so-called "world premiere" last night: "A Sister's Revenge," a pretty standard-issue bad-girl thriller for the Lifetime channel that shows how much Christine Conradt has set the format for these things and essentially become Lifetime's auteur, to the point where a film that she had nothing to do with (this one had someone named John Serge as the writer and Curtis James Crawford though IMDb.com leaves out his middle name as the director) nonetheless hits all the major points of her formula. It begins with a woman in a light SUV running down another woman riding a bicycle; we don't know who either of these two people are yet but the woman in the SUV runs down the woman on the bike and she ends up well, we presume she's badly injured and is going to be laid up for quite a while. Then the scene cuts to a restaurant called Michael's Bar and Grill, which despite the unassuming exterior and the proletarian name is really a pretty upscale place once Crawford's camera dollies us inside. The proprietor is Michael Miller (Tim Rozon, not exactly drop-dead gorgeous but a good deal handsomer than a lot of Lifetime leading men), who's happily married to a woman named Catherine (Ashley Jones), though she's getting restive because their son Evan was just born and Michael has insisted that Catherine take the first year of Evan's life off work and mother him. Unfortunately, Michael needs to hire a new hostess because his previous one was in an unexpected accident and is going to be laid up for a while (and if you're a veteran Lifetime movie-watcher you don't need two guesses to figure out how that happened), and after turning down the first applicant (she tells him, "I can bench 250 pounds," which makes me think she'd have been a good candidate for the job: with that amount of strength, she could be both a hostess and a bouncer) he hires Suzanne Dunne (Brooke Burns), a blonde who walked in on the job without bothering to turn in an application first but because she's flirting with him (just because he's married doesn't mean he can't look!) and his gonads are in play he hires her anyway.
At first I thought this was going to be another one of Lifetime's "Perfect" movies, in which the unscrupulous bad girl goes after the good guy's money and/or his bod and doesn't let the fact that he's already married to the good girl stand in her way one bit. Then we get a scene of Suzanne at home with her boyfriend Jimmy (Joe Marques) and it appears that they're in some kind of plot to scam money out of Michael. Suzanne does everything she can to sabotage both Michael's restaurant and his life, and it's not until about two-thirds of the way through the movie that we finally learn what this is all about: before moving to Philadelphia (where the film takes place), marrying Catherine and building the restaurant, Michael lived in San Francisco and had a relationship with Suzanne's sister Ariel (Allison Busner). We've only seen Ariel on computer videos Suzanne obsessively watches when she's alone at home, and we weren't sure who she was and for that matter we weren't sure whether these were old tapes or they were Skyping each other in real time (one nice thing about this movie which hasn't always been true of Lifetime is at least the communications technology is up to date; there've been Lifetime films set in high school in the mid-2000's which asked us to believe that none of the students had a laptop, a smartphone or a Facebook account). Now we find out through some exposition from Suzanne and a few flashbacks (in which Tim Rozon actually does look credibly younger than he does in the main part of the movie) that Ariel took the relationship a lot more seriously than Michael did. When Ariel got pregnant she expected Michael to marry her; instead he rejected her and went to Philadelphia after leaving her the money for an abortion, and instead of having either the baby or the abortion she committed suicide. That is what Suzanne has been bent on having her titular "sister's revenge" on, and in the film's most chilling scene Michael pleads with her and asks what he can do, to which she replies, "Suffer." "A Sister's Revenge" is one of those obsessive Lifetime movies that isn't terribly good as a movie but is redeemed by a marvelous villainess performance from Brooke Burns, who makes her twisted psyche believable and even a bit understandable (her background is that both she and Ariel were molested as children by their father, and when she saw her dad raping Ariel she killed him and got three years in a mental institution for her pains), but she can't undo the effects of slovenly writing and by-the-numbers direction that portrays Michael's Kafkaesque fate in all too matter-of-fact a manner.
Restless Virgins (2013)
Great exposé of America's class system
The film was "Restless Virgins," a made-for-TV movie premiered on the Lifetime channel a few weeks ago (March 9) which I'd been interested in watching because it promised some good clean dirty fun about a group of upper-class students at the exclusive Sutton prep school (based on the real Milton Academy in Massachusetts, located eight miles south of Boston) who decide that as their annual "legacy hand-off" to the undergraduates who'll remain there next year after they leave to make a clandestine sex tape, blur out their faces and burn it to DVD. Though not without its flaws Andy Cochran's script (based on a book by Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley that's listed on IMDb.com as a "novel" even though the film's credits say it was a nonfiction book about a real scandal at Milton in 2005) and Jason Lapeyre's direction occasionally fall into typical Lifetime slovenliness it's a powerful tale about the sense of entitlement shared by the children of America's 1 percent and the way they believe they can literally do anything they want, no matter how many other people suffer in the process, because their money and their family connections will always be available to bail them out of the consequences the rest of the world has to deal with when they commit similar crimes.
There's also another theme: the tension between the people who get to go to schools like Sutton because they're part of America's hereditary ruling class the principal villain, Dylan Whitman (Charles Carver, whose dark, charismatic handsomeness and whole attitude that the normal rules don't apply to him nail this role to perfection), is referred to as "the son of a billionaire Senator" and the ones that have got there through scholarships. Anyone who's read George Orwell's essay "Such, Such Were the Days " will recall his vivid description of how the scholarship boys at elite schools were always made to feel like they didn't really deserve to be there, they were being given this incredible education at the sufferance of both the school authorities and the fellow students whose parents could afford the full tuition, and they were never allowed to forget that even though they had been admitted to this elite institution they were still second-class citizens (with the rest of humanity being considered third-class, or even lesser, citizens). The world of Sutton is a microcosm of the American so-called "meritocracy" quotes intended because "merit" has little or nothing to do with it; it's really an hereditary aristocracy as hard if not harder to crack than anything Old Europe ever came up with (indeed, modern economic statistics indicate that the U.S. actually has less upward mobility than Western European countries) in which the class system is overlaid on top of the usual pecking order of a high school, with the popular kids forming cliques and excluding the rest of the student body, while sex and partying are used as ways either to get yourself in with the "in crowd" or to get yourself even more definitively excluded.
The central characters, in terms of people who actually display a sense of idealism that clashes with what they know they have to do to get ahead in this foul world, are Emily (Vanessa Marano), a reporter for the school newspaper who narrates the story, and Lucas (Max Lloyd-Jones), who was briefly attracted to Emily until he realized that he couldn't get to the upper-class circle in general and Dylan in particular if he burdened himself with a girlfriend so far down on the pecking order. So instead he started dating Heather (Elise Gatien) and eventually, once he was admitted to Dylan's residential suite, lied that he and Heather were having sex. While all this is happening Dylan and his friends, including oil heir Cotton (Jedediah Goodacre) whose masculinity is under suspicion since fellow members of the clique caught him looking at Gay porn on a computer are plotting to shoot their clandestine sex tape, which involves borrowing a special low-light camera from the journalism school and recruiting Madison (Christie Burke) to be their clandestine "star," making it with six guys in a gang-bang she, of course, doesn't know is being filmed. The tape is duly made, and Dylan and friends blur out their own faces so they can't be identified though Madison is clearly visible and recognizable and Dylan makes the rest of his posse swear to secrecy. Only one of them leaks the tape to a friend, and soon it goes viral throughout the school and naturally comes to the attention of the school administration.
"Restless Virgins" is a story that hooks bigger issues than Messrs. Lapeyre and Cochran were aware of, yet their film has a refreshing honesty about just how firm the class barriers are in a so-called "classless society" like ours, and how F. Scott Fitzgerald was right when he said, "The rich are different from you and me" and how C. Wright Mills documented that the rich are different from you and me because they're trained to be different from birth: they're given an education that trains them to rule over the rest of us and they live in a different culture that shapes their sense of what is important both personally and politically. I guess I didn't think that a Lifetime TV-movie that was sold as a juicy bit of sexploitation would have so much to say about America's classless pretensions and class realities, but Restless Virgins proved to be a lot more than just the two hours (less commercials) of good clean dirty fun I had expected!