Lifetime Theater: Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy

Like the majority of the civilized world, I spent the latter half of last year listening to Serial. While I can’t call my interest an obsession — a friend of mine has taken that term and now holds it in a death grip she will never release it from — I was enthralled by the story of Adnan Syed. I’ve always had an interest in true crime, I suspect because I have yet to be a victim of anything truly horrible, and thus it’s darkly entertaining rather than PTSD-inducing. One of the more irresponsible, yet completely irresistible, consequences of the true crime genre is that it pretty much guarantees you’re going to speculate and even decide on everyone’s guilt or innocence. You know, that whole thing that we have a ridiculously complicated justice system to deal with. We’re not going to get the full story, but the format, whether it’s movie, podcast, article, or anything else, makes us feel like we are. So by the end of it, we “know” who is guilty and who is innocent, and that’s kind of a terrible thing.

Except, come on, we all know Jay did it.

This week’s movie is one such example. I read the case in the two phases of public opinion it went through. I had assumed everyone was on the same page about Knox’s guilt, but after talking it over with friends, that appears not to be the case. Then again, my entire knowledge of the case comes from the original news coverage, some later articles, and of course, this production from the good people at Lifetime. What do I actually, for sure know? Not much. Yeah, I’m a published detective novelist, but that doesn’t mean I know shit. If I try the case entirely from what I’ve seen? Foxy Knoxy is innocent.

This is another one of those movies that feels like it’s straddling the Lifetime of the past and the Lifetime of the future. It’s the story of a mother and a daughter (and two father-figures who have like three lines of dialogue between them) persevering over a corrupt system more interested in slut-shaming than justice. It’s also a Law & Order-ready retelling of a famous case. Unlike some of the other recent Lifetime productions, that really look like they’re trying to look like, you know, actual movies, this one is shot almost like a sitcom, with the overwrought performances the casual viewer has come to expect. Yes, there are times where this retelling of the tragic murder of a young woman is fucking hilarious. I feel like maybe Meredith Kercher deserved better.

That’s the crux of the story. Meredith Kercher was a British exchange student studying in Perugia, Italy and living in a house with three other young women, including Amanda Knox of Seattle, Washington (played here by Hayden “the Cheerleader” Panettiere). I have no idea if the depiction of Perugia is accurate, but if it is, holy shit, the streets are paved with weed there. It’s less a town and more an object lesson in why parents should never allow their kids out of the country. That was probably the intent of the movie in the first place. “See, if you go to Italy, you’ll have premarital sex with a creepy Italian programmer, do all the drugs ever, then get implicated in a horrific murder.”

Knox returns home one morning after a night of sex and drugs with the aforementioned programmer, Raffaele Sollecito to find a little blood in the bathroom and a locked door. The cops fortuitously just show up and break into Meredith’s room (the door’s locked and she never does that), and find her dead on the floor. The cops quickly focus on Knox, whose alibi is shaky, whose behavior is strange, and who gets fingered (not like that) by some inconvenient, though not damning, eyewitnesses. They even get a bit of a confession from Knox, who also implicates her boss, Patrick Lumumba. Open and shut, right? Let’s do to her whatever it is Italians do to criminals. I’m guessing feed them substandard lasagna and table wine?

When you’re here, you’re guilty of a crime.

Not so fast. Here’s the thing: there’s really no physical evidence implicating Knox (or, obviously, Lumumba). The extremely salacious tale cooked up by the prosecution — an argument turned to gang rape turned to accidental murder — looks to be just that. The only witness against Knox is the guy they eventually convicted of committing the murder, and he got a reduced sentence in exchange for the testimony. As for Knox implicating herself, it was like the Italian cops read up on how to elicit a false confession. Well, not the cheesy montage part. That was all Lifetime. As was the weird focus on that scene on her water cup. This… this is not the best one of their movies.

Meanwhile, Marcia Gay Harden plays Knox’s mom, who would also be the POV character for who Lifetime imagines their average viewer to be. So while Amanda herself has some flaws — sex, drugs, and not cleaning up the bathroom — Edda Mellas (she remarried, and still is on good terms with Amanda’s father) is allowed to be relatively perfect. Lifetime moms come in two varieties, the steely matriarch who crushes opposition with righteous cowgirl lightning, and the weepy-yet-determined mama who didn’t ask for this, thank you, but she’s going to get through it one way or the other. Mellas is the second, and she kind of doesn’t, as history has conspired to make this Lifetime movie end on a bit of a down note. Knox was convicted of the murder and got twenty-six years.

Because the Italian justice system was based on the Roman system of “let’s all drink water our of lead pipes and see what happens,” it’s completely bananas. Knox appealed and won her case, but then was re-tried (double-jeopardy is not a thing over there, except on Jeopardy), and convicted again. I think she even got a worse sentence the second time, too. Knox was no dummy and now lives in the States. While I’m certain the Italian government would like her extradited, the State Department has presumably replied to any such requests with a few condescending chuckles.

So why is Knox still convicted in the minds of the public? Well, there’s the obvious: she might have done it. I don’t think she did because of my deeply flawed understanding of the case. I think that a drooling press corps — the term “paparazzi,” is, after all, Italian — took a pretty American college student who was enjoying the freedom of living in Perugia and again, this place seems like a nonstop ‘70s party, and assigned her guilt. Some of this was due to her having a lot of sex and attempting to smoke her weight in hash, but isn’t that the purpose of college? As for why she might not have been super-deeply effected by the murder on an emotional level: She knew Kercher for all of two months. Remember, the best motive the cops could come up with was “they fought about cleaning the bathroom.”

So what did we learn? “Foxy Knoxy” was a nickname that comes from her pee wee soccer team, suggesting that if I ever have a daughter, I won’t let her play soccer in Seattle. We also learned that the Italian police are just as devoted to false confessions as the LAPD, and that if they get one out of you, don’t implicate anybody else. Unless they promise you reduced jail time, in which case go nuts.

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Extra #2: What is Yakmala?

Your Satellite ShowYou hear us discuss Yakmala movies every month, but in this special Long Beach Comic Expo appearance discover the secret origin of the word, what we think it means and the Yakmala movies that have stuck with us over the 9+ years we have gathered together to find movies of questionable quality and shout “Yakmala!” Recorded live at Long Beach Comic Expo. Moderator: Erik. Panel: Louis, Justin, Clint, Dante, Rob.

Click here or subscribe on iTunes.

We’ve also added a number of the clips used during the presentation onto our YouTube channel, including our “Yakmala: Films of Questionable Quality” intro:

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Now Fear This: Cast a Deadly Spell

That would be a VHS cover box. Another form of magic.

There was a time before HBO was known for its original programming. The first shows they did try were hardly the critical juggernauts and audience darlings of today, either. Tales From the Crypt might have enthralled a young Captain Supermarket, but it is primarily famous for the terrible puns slung around by its puppet host. Dream On was a mildly smutty sitcom that promised far more nudity than it ever delivered. Yet there was a brief period in 1990-1991 when HBO produced two great cult flicks that indelibly imprinted themselves on my psyche: the revisionist comic-western El Diablo, and this week’s movie, the occult neo-noir Cast a Deadly Spell.

The concept, as explained in a quick graphic, is brilliant in its tantalizing simplicity: it’s 1948 in Los Angeles, and everyone used magic. Because of the year and location, it can only be film noir. The best way to get into a “everybody does/is something” conceit is to have it star the one person that doesn’t/isn’t. In this case, that’s the only detective in LA who doesn’t use magic, ex-cop and current private dick (his sex machine status with all the chicks is unconfirmed) H. Philip Lovecraft (Fred Ward). While it would be tempting to call this movie the rosetta stone of my entire aesthetic, that’s slightly inaccurate. The cult cinema of the ‘80s (and I’m including 1991 as the ‘80s because fuck you I make the rules here) is the true rosetta stone. But I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge the heavy debt I owe this particular movie, especially for a certain book about the “only normal detective in old Los Angeles.”

Like every good film noir and supernatural detective plot, it uses one of my very favorite tropes, the “minor crime reveals major plot.” Essentially, this means that a simple errand for our heroic shamus rapidly turns complex as his employers and enemies have vast, world-shaking conspiracies. While it’s immediately recognizable from classic films like Chinatown, it has a strong basis in reality. Ted Bundy was captured by a routine traffic stop. Enron’s wrongdoing was uncovered because people thought the stock was priced a little high. Watergate, the shorthand for all scandals, was uncovered after a simple burglary revealed widespread corruption in the Nixon white house. In Cast a Deadly Spell, the employer, Amos Hackshaw (David Warner, doing his David Warner thing), hires Lovecraft to find this missing chauffeur who also absconded with a rare, but ultimately harmless book. The book’s name, however, is instantly recognizable to anyone who has read the real Lovecraft’s work or even just likes Bruce Campbell movies: it’s the Necronomicon. And we know that harmless is the last thing it is.

Lovecraft, though, is clueless. And like any good hardboiled protagonist, wastes no time getting himself neck deep in trouble. While his landlady, the delightful witch Mrs. Kropotkin tells him that the omens are seriously bad and he should leave town (she suggests Miami), Lovecraft isn’t going to follow that warning. Instead, he stumbles over his old partner, Harry Borden (the great Clancy Brown) who was chased out of the force on corruption charges, is now a nightclub owner and probable organized crime figure. His diminutive button man Mr. Tugwell uses magic in his hits, but for more conventional muscle, they rely on zombies. “Thirty dollars a head, six to a box,” Borden says. “Like bonbons,” Tugwell adds dryly. Borden’s top draw in his club — The Dunwich Room — is the gorgeous singer and Lovecraft’s old flame Connie Stone (a young Julianne Moore).

When this came out, I was at the height of my Call of Cthulhu playing career. The relentless Lovecraft references, especially those at the heart of the mystery, might as well have been crack to my young mind. It was the first time I felt like those making the entertainment I consumed were fans of the same things I was. While this feeling seems common now, especially with the way social media has compelled and encouraged artists to connect with fans, at the time it was a revelation. With my weird noir fandom already firmly in place, it felt like a movie aimed directly at me, and it hit the target.

The impressive thing about the movie is that the world feels lived in. Director Martin Campbell (Goldeneye, Casino Royale) and writer Joseph Dougherty (lots of TV shows I’ve never seen) really run with the idea of a culture utterly reshaped by magic. It’s the small details at the fringes that bring the world to delirious life, whether it’s a group of kids chanting until the hubcaps blow off a car, a man lighting a cigarette on his own hand, or a murder-by-voodoo doll. The monsters aren’t left out, with the cops grilling a werewolf, a gargoyle henchman, and in the best of these sequences, a hapless zombie work crew putting up a suburban housing development. The actual in-plot uses of magic are just as good, with Tugwell’s murderous whirlwind made from a dummy payoff counting as my favorite. Best of all, we never get an origin story of when magic shows up. The characters know when this was — and it’s implied to be recently — so they don’t waste time flapping their gums about it. Why would you when it’s raining blood outside and your car engine is infested with giggling gremlins?

All they want is a little civilization.

The cast does an admirable job anchoring the weirdness in well-worn noirish performances. No one is playing to the cheap seats, and the winks are never condescending. This is the kind of ready-for-cult-adoration flicks that were thick on the ground back then. It’s right on the tail end of the era where movies like this could get made, before Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino ushered in the cinematic ‘90s which were great for crime and slice-of-life indies, but not wonderful for genre oddities. The downside is that this was a made-for-TV movie, and the lack of budget can sometimes show on screen. More than anything, it looks like an episode of Tales From the Crypt, and it would not surprise me if both productions had largely the same team.

Like the best noir, I feel compelled to keep the mystery largely under my hat, though genre savvy viewers could probably unravel it. Though it has another of my favorite tropes, when a seemingly pointless subplot becomes of vital importance later on. Of course, this is also horror, so that subplot turns relevant in the most ironic possible way. Much like Belloq learned, just because you can talk to a god doesn’t mean the god wants to talk to you.

The worst part of this is that there is no DVD release for Cast a Deadly Spell, and unlikely there will ever be one. It exists now on Youtube, and from the looks of it, was uploaded from a flawed VCR copy made at the time. So you can (and should) watch it, though it’s basically like viewing a movie through a haze of cigarette smoke. Then again, there’s nothing more appropriate for the genre.

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Best of Yakmala 2015: Tuff Turf


Tonal. Whiplash.

Going into the 2014 season of Yakmala, I didn’t expect it to be the single most important theme of the year, and yet, here we are. Of this year’s selections for our table of champions, none exemplify tonal whiplash quite as much as this week’s film, the seemingly bit of teen fluff known as Tuff Turf. Starring The Blacklist‘s James Spader and Hollywood Legend Robert Downey Jr., the film undergoes a shocking metamorphosis halfway through that vaulted it past films like Flashdance and Battle of the Year for Best of status. But, I might be getting ahead of myself.

The Blacklist‘s James Spader stars as Morgan Hiller, a troubled teen whose family moves across the country to the San Fernando Valley. I think his trouble is that he can’t yet control his Spadervision or found the ruby-quartz glasses that prevent the unsuspecting from becoming his victims.

Spadervision effectiveness is cut to 10% when he wears them.

Spadervision effectiveness is cut to 10% when he wears them.

Before his first day of school, however, Morgan gets on his bike and rides the night in search of trouble to stop. He finds it in the form of the Tuffs, a local gang that harasses late night businessmen waiting for the bus. Okay, geography lesson! While the film is meant to take place in the Valley — 20 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles — a lot of it was shot on my home turf, the Highland Park area of Los Angeles (a mere five miles northeast). In the 80s, it was legit tough … but the movie refuses to acknowledge this, so I’m going to assume that the bulk of the story takes place in Reseda, the second worst place on Earth. You might remember it as the town Daniel Larruso moves to in The Karate Kid.

Sadly, Morgan has no Myagi to train him in his Spadervision, so the next day, Tuff leader Nick sees him on the bike and immediately swoons. Or, at least, he starts to rub his unclothed chest every time Morgan loops around the school entrance. When the other Tuffs notice and identify him as the guy who stopped them the night before, they plot to make Morgan pay. Oh, also, Nick’s girlfriend Frankie gets a blast of Spadervision, but tries heroically to ignore it.

In a history class, Morgan meets Robert Downey Jr. I’m sure the character has a name, but who cares? I would like to point out, though, that RDJ is not yet Tony Stark and there is an appreciable difference. For one: Downey was subsisting on cocaine at the time and it shows in every shot of Tuff Turf. During the Best of screening, we invented the Downey scale to indicate how coked up he might be during any given shot. On a scale of 1-10, the record moment was a 15 during a scene where he playfully tries to run down Morgan in Nick’s car.

But back to day one: The Tuffs run over Morgan’s bike and he goes home to fix it. His parents freak out because it might be “happening again.” Since the film never really states what happened back East, I’m assuming he had an explosive Spadervision episode that caused a building his realtor father was selling to collapse. Oh, but keep dad in mind for later. It might explain the Spadervision …

An indeterminate time later, Morgan steals a car and drives it over to an abandoned warehouse/performance venue where RDJ is playing with (the) Jim Caroll. While there, a musical number breaks out and Morgan uses the synchronized dancing to woo Frankie and dance with Nick when he becomes aware of what’s happening. Honestly, I think he was jealous that Morgan didn’t try to dance with him first.

But since the other Tuffs see this and feel they must reaffirm heteronormative roles, they sucker punch Morgan outside the warehouse. They also steal his car, which, if you’ll remember, was stolen. The Tuffs end up in jail for their troubles and RDJ steals Nick’s car.

Also: This oddly prescient tag is scrawled outside the performance space.

Also: This oddly prescient tag is scrawled outside the performance space.

When Frankie and her friend Ronnie see Nick’s car pull up at the local Jim’s Drive In, they rush in and are surprised by Morgan and RDJ. Ronnie has the hots for RDJ (I mean, who wouldn’t, even when he’s coked to the gills?), so she readily climbs into the backseat to mack with 110 pounds of freshly processed Bolivia’s Best. Frankie is less sure of the situation, but succumbs to Morgan’s 100 Watt Spadervision gaze.

Morgan takes this newly formed team to a posh country club where they engage in some slobs-versus-snobs humor worthy of Valley Girl or even Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. And then, Morgan unleashes one of his most powerful seduction tactics. It is a song so glorious, words cannot describe its power. Well, maybe the words themselves can:

Let’s examine some of the lyrics:

I feel the thunder I feel the pain
I know the struggles you keep the night’s in the rain
I feel your face, I hear your eyes
I know the nights that you cried
but still we survive
I walk the night,I walk the night

“I hear your eyes” has to be one of the greatest, cheesiest lyrics ever committed to a recording medium. What makes this whole thing work? Spadervision.

Anyway, the four get kicked out. RDJ and Ronnie vanish — though, I’m assuming RDJ disappeared to get more blow — while Morgan and Frankie head off to Club 60s where she shows off her dancing skills to Jack Mack and the Heart Attack’s “She’s Looking Good” (Sadly, not available on CD, stream, or MP3) and proves she’s pretty much a match for Morgan and his Spadervision.

So it all seems like we’re set for a lighthearted romp as this new group of kids find love and vanquish a cartoony multi-ethnic gang of Tuffs, right?

Tonal Whiplash

I think you know where I’m going with this.

Nick gets released from jail and visits Frankie at her home above “The Coldest Beer in Town” liquor store her father apparently owns and operates. Nick and Frankie have sex that, at least on her part, is non-consensual. But not quite done with his confusion and unease, he and the Tuffs also metaphorically rape Morgan at school the next day.

Tell me how else this is supposed to be read?

Tell me how else this is supposed to be read?

So from this point on, the movie gets darker as Morgan and Frankie confront the very thin and very vague class distinctions between them and Nick becomes more unhinged. He becomes a serious threat to everyone, apparently paying Frankie’s father a good brideprice for her hand and while joyriding with her and the other Tuffs, he attacks Morgan’s father in his cab on Ave 57 in Highland Park — er, somewhere in Reseda. Remember when RDJ was coking it up in this thing and we were walking the night?

But let’s talk about Morgan’s father for a second. He’s played by Matt Clark, who happens to look like a mixture of Gomez Adams and Harry Dean Stanton. He comes across as someone who earned his way into the comfortable life the family seemingly abandoned back East and is okay with driving a cab while studying for the California realty exam. He’s also more understanding of Morgan’s problems than his mother or brother. Also, when confronted by the Tuffs, Morgan’s dad reveals that he walks the night by another name: Batman. The dude hands the Tuffs their asses without breaking a sweat. It almost feels like tonal whiplash away from the darker film, except Nick produces a gun and shoots Nick’s dad several times.

Man, but even then, the old cuss won’t back down and the Tuffs flee in terror.

This also sort of explains why Morgan behaves the way he does. I imagine whatever happened back East, Morgan’s father backed him up and all hell broke loose. And let’s face it, when your dad is Taxicab Batman, you might grow up feeling a bit empowered.

Morgan arrives at the hospital to see Frankie helped his father get there and the two run off to have sex. I’m not sure if I should deploy J.K. Simmons again, but it surely is a different tempo. So, finally having a sexual experience in which she wasn’t trying to wish it all away, Frankie tells her father that she doesn’t want to marry Nick. Despite whatever dowry he might’ve been promised, he respects her wishes. Nick, however, reacts badly, beats up her old man and kidnaps her to that warehouse from when the film was super-fun-happy times.

Nick lets Morgan know where to find them and he powers down his Spadervision to become Ezio Auditore da Firenze: Master Assassin. He stealths his way into the warehouse, takes out most of the Tuffs and has a final confrontation with Nick.

Oh! But before that, RDJ reappears with two Dobermans! And Frankie gets a hold of Nick’s gun only to see it’s empty in that classic bit of “You won’t shoot me, you’re a girl” that these sorts of movies like to pull.

But when Nick and Morgan have their final confrontation, Nick ends up going over the side of some scaffolding and apparently dies from the fall … but it could’ve been weaponized Spadervision, just like in Less Than Zero. The surviving characters congregate to look at Nick’s apparently dead body as sirens can be faintly heard in the distance. They clearly need counseling after all this and — ah, fuck it, here’s some more Jack Mack and the Heart Attack:

The movie is straight up crazy with its tonal shifts. Nick is such a non-threat in the first half, that his sudden upgrade to psychotic comes as a surprise. I can’t help but think RDJ’s disappearance for the bulk of the film has something to do with it. He just straight up vanishes with no explanation only to be summoned by Morgan in the last ten minutes. That seems a little too convenient, but it lead to one of the great Yakmala finds. In the midst of all the tonal whiplash, we get two amazing Jack Mack and the Heart Attack songs, a pretty good Jim Caroll performance and, of course, “We Walk the Night.” Tuff Turf played for the first time at a Dancemala program with the a fore mentioned Flashdance and Battle of the Year. I fully expected Flashdance to ascend, but this tipped the scale by never really deciding what movie it actually was: light-hearted romp, gritty urban teen drama or fantastic quasi-musical. It is all of those things and none of them, but one thing it definitely is: enjoyable.

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Yakmala: Winter’s Tale

“Your nose smells like hot dogs.”

Some movies take a long and circuitous route to cult infamy, from a chance viewing by a tastemaker to sold-out midnight showings presided over by a delusional auteur. Some movies hit their notoriety out of the gate, baffling viewers with a very simple question: “How the fuck did anyone allow this to happen?” 2014’s magical realist romance Winter’s Tale is one of the latter.

Tagline: This is not a true story. This is true love.

More Accurate Tagline: This is not a true story. True stories generally make at least a lick of sense.

Guilty Party: Akiva Goldsman is a legitimate Hollywood powerhouse. He’s written some terrible movies that a lot of people have seen for some reason and has produced other, different terrible movies that a lot of people have seen for presumably the same reasons. This is sometimes known as the Blueprint of Hollywood Success. He cashed in some of this power to create a true passion project, adapting the novel Winter’s Tale and serving as writer, director, and producer of his own film. This makes Winter’s Tale an anomaly in the modern blockbuster era: a true auteur project. It’s also completely insane and borderline unwatchable, also marks of about half auteur films.

Synopsis: Christ.

The movie opens by bouncing between times like Marty McFly after he got into the Ritalin. First, there’s 2014 New York, where Colin Farrell is a surprisingly clean homeless Jesus who lives in a ceiling room in Grand Central Station. Then we’re in 1895, where a family of immigrants from The Old Country try to get through Ellis Island only to find that they’re not wanted. Instead of returning to the pogroms and potatoes (oh god, the endless potatoes), they put their infant child in a model boat, complete with nameplate “City of Justice” (because fuck you, subtlety), and set him adrift in the harbor.

Through it all there’s some narration in an English accent (we find out later this is the voice of Beverly Penn, the female lead), babbling about magic or some such. The 1895 scenes and the vanity cards are all in sepia and I’m already exhausted.

Then it’s 1916, so for anyone keeping track, 37-year-old Colin Farrell (assuming his imdb page isn’t shaving points) is playing 21-year-old Peter Lake. Now, Farrell doesn’t look bad for his age, but he’s not a young 37. He’s a partied-a-lot 37. He’s running from a gang of thugs led by scarred kingpin Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe). Pearly’s mad about… something. Peter escapes when he happens on a white horse that can fly on CGI rainbow wings. Yes, that’s about as much preparation as you get for that.

Meanwhile, the wealthy Penn family is dealing with elder daughter’s Beverly’s tuberculosis. For some reason, the movie seems to think that consumption and the slow transformation into the Human Torch are the same thing, because Beverly is literally being boiled alive. She has to sleep in a tent on the roof (it’s winter, you know, because of the title), and takes chilly baths. Her dad, William Hurt, is concerned in that weary way that William Hurt feels everything. She thinks her fever gives her superpowers, but it only lets her see CGI lens flare.

The ideal of Victorian beauty.

Pearly, still upset, puts a bounty on both Peter and the horse, which he claims is actually a dog. This later gets “explained” by Graham Greene’s character (who shows up to be Native American), as the angel known as the “White Dog of the East” appearing as a horse. I’m sure this is the kind of thing that sounds so brilliant and magical on the page, but seriously, just pick a goddamn animal. Either it’s a horse or it’s a dog, but don’t call it a dog unless you’ve been hit so hard on the head that the word “horse” leaked out along with your ability to control your bowels.

Influenced by the White Dog of the East, Peter breaks into the Penn household and meets Beverly. They flirt and fall in love. Yes, it’s just that fast. Graham Greene also tells Peter about how everyone has a miracle and each miracle is intended for one other person. Angels and demons will try to influence this one way or the other.

Pearly draws up a truly terrible sketch of who everyone assumes is Beverly, and sends his people out to look for her. Around here, it becomes clear that Pearly is actually a demon disguised as a gangster. Somehow his awful sketch leads the demons directly to Beverly, but then Peter rides up at full tilt out of nowhere and saves her. They ride upriver to the fancy Penn house, where William Hurt warms up to him (motif!) after they fix the boiler (motif!) together.

Pearly is upset, so he visits The Judge (more on him later). See, demons can’t go upriver because stories like this always have bullshit “reasons” that the supernatural creatures can’t do whatever. The Judge shoots him down, so Pearly gets an angel who owes him a favor to spike Beverly’s drink. All it will do is raise her heart rate if she gets excited. So, when Peter takes her on a romantic journey to Pound Town, she dies. Her little sister Willa had a special “princess bed” made in a greenhouse, and said if Beverly’s kissed there, she’ll recover. Peter takes her there, but nope. She dies.

Angry, Peter rides into town and confronts Pearly, who seems to think his own head is a fist. He headbutts Peter into submission then throws him in the Hudson. Peter crawls out, and loses his memories until 2014. Now he’s drawing a version of Pearly’s crappy police sketch.

One day in the park, he runs into single mom Jennifer Connelly (she has a name, but seriously, who cares, this is the last half hour) and her adorable moppet who is dying of cancer, because fuck it, we’re in a Nicholas Sparks novel now. It turns out that the little girl is who the picture is really of, so Peter’s miracle might be for her. So with the help of the horse, he’s going to fly the little girl to the princess bed, where he’s going to kiss her cancer away.

And look, I like Colin Farrell. He’s been in a couple really good movies, and he’s been great in them. But you can’t have him kissing a little girl on a bed and not have it sound fucking horrifying.

Pearly senses that Peter is still alive somehow, and he gets permission from The Judge to fight Peter. Problem is, he’ll have to do it as a mortal. So Pearly rolls up on Peter just outside the Penn house on a frozen river. Only Pearly, like a dipshit, shows up with six carloads of goons. That’s when the horse shows him one of the principles of frozen water, by jumping on it until it cracks and spills the bad guys into the drink. Then Peter and Pearly fight, which ends when Peter shanks him with the “City of Justice” nameplate.


Pearly turns to snow… I don’t know, magically or whatever. Peter takes the little girl inside, kisses her better, and that’s his miracle. See, Beverly’s miracle was just making him love so much he didn’t die, I guess, and so he could save the cancer girl. Then Peter flies up and is a star.

Life-Changing Subtext: Everyone gets a miracle, but if you’re a woman, it’ll only be about helping a man do something cool.

Defining Quote: From the opening narration: “What if, once upon a time, there were no stars in the sky at all? What if the stars are not what we think? What if the light from afar doesn’t come from the rays of distant suns, but from our wings when we turn into angels.” I think I read this on a Precious Moments figurine one time.

Standout Performance: Russell Crowe is terrible, but man, he’s entertainingly terrible.

What’s Wrong: Even if you hold with the glacial pacing and the magical realism hokum, the movie goes wrong in some weird ways. The accents are fucking bizarre. In the most obvious, you have Colin Farrell doing his standard Oirish brogue. Only he’s the child of Eastern European immigrants raised an orphan in New York. It’s implied that Russell Crowe raised him (though after Graham Greene also raised him), and Crowe is doing a straight-up Lucky Charms accent. So we’re supposed to think that’s how it happened?

It’s not confined to them. William Hurt does his American Standard accent and his daughter could not have been more British if she’d been played by a crumpet. Does Goldsman think we pick our accents out of a hat?

Ages are pretty problematic as well. Crowe is only 12 years older than Farrell and he’s supposed to have raised him. Okay, he’s an immortal demon, so maybe that works out. But again, Farrell is supposed to be 21, and he’s romancing Beverly, also 21. That’s fine. The actress is 13 years younger than Farrell, and she’s British prep-school young. It’s a skeevy old man trying to hook up with a virginal apple-cheeked shut-in. But you know, romance!

Flash of Competence: The sets are really nice, and some of the shots of 1916 New York are legitimately beautiful.

Best Scenes: There’s a character in the film called “Cecil Mature.” He appears twice, first when Peter gets the horse and wants to board him, then later to help Peter run into cancer girl. Cecil Mature is what happens when a writer sees the idea of the “Magical Negro” and goes, “That’s an incredible idea!” Seriously, if they replaced the character with a coin, maybe with a plot point scribbled on it, there would be no difference in the film.

Come to think of it, that’s the purpose of every non-white person in this movie. And non-male person as well.

Okay, it’s time to talk about The Judge, since that’s the big cameo here. It’s Will Smith. And it’s not even Will Smith playing a character. He’s even wearing pretty much what you imagine Will Smith wears in his day to day life. The anachronistic clothes are supposed to be a nod to the fact that he’s Satan — yeah — but it comes off like they found him wandering in the parking lot and decided to put him in the movie. Pearly refers to him several times as “Lou” which is exactly the kind of flourish idiots think is clever.

Transcendent Moment: The sketch. Oh, god, the sketch.

Pearly initially paints it in the blood of a waiter who refused a request for spotted owl (don’t ask). It’s about at the level of a two-year-old with motor neuron disease discovering fingerpaints for the first time while in the middle of an earthquake. Eventually, it becomes apparent that this is a sketch of the back of someone’s head. Also known as the part of the head without the identifying bits.

That’s what this dumbshit was sending his goons out to find. The back of a woman’s head, and then he had the temerity to be shocked when they got the wrong person.

Turns out he was just waiting for Faceback.

Winter’s Tale oozes with sincerity in every frame, and along with its other surreal miscalculations, makes its early reputation as a famous trainwreck entirely deserved.

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Best of Yakmala 2015: Diff’Rent Strokes – “The Bicycle Man”

DiffrentstrokesTonal whiplash is the unofficial theme of this year’s Best of selections. They all have it to varying degrees. Tonal whiplash is when the movie (or TV show) your watching does something wildly out of step with the established tone. Imagine if a film like Better Off Dead took a dark turn with Lane actually murdering all of his classmates instead of learning the International Language (of Love), skiing the K-12 and absconding to Dodger Stadium with Monique. The goofy surreal tone of Savage Steve Holland’s classic would be shattered and impossible to retrieve. A real example is in the video release of Showgirls, where the extended rape scene shatters the (intentionally?) campy tone. In fact, lots of campy movies of the 60s and 70s make this same mistake. Only previous Best of Yakmala selection Shanty Tramp seems to whiplash out of it, but that’s largely a product of the film’s complete incompetence.

But if you’re a child of the ’80s, tonal whiplash came best in the form of Very Special episodes of family sitcoms; an occurrence now largely absent from television. At the time, sitcoms were more formulaic than Law & Order and inflexible in the belief that a punchline was required every 60-90 seconds. Still believing they needed to serve the public trust, sitcom producers and writers forced uncomfortable topics into their strict sunny-day-all-the-time formats. Few of these live on in our memories as profoundly as the 1983 episode of Diff’Rent Strokes entitled “The Bicycle Man” in which Arnold and Dudley encounter a sex predator played by WKRP in Cincinnati‘s Gordon Jump (who would eventually become the Maytag Repairman, making it impossible for a generation of kids to ever buy a washer/dryer from that august company).

Just imagine the Law & Order music sting here.

So a little background for those who did not watch an appalling amount of broadcast TV in the 1980s, Diff’Rent Strokes was an NBC sitcom about Arnold and Willis Jackson, a pair of orphaned kids from Harlem taken in and eventually adopted by their mother’s former employer, Phillip Drummond. Though Mr. Drummond already had one child, Kimberly, he had plenty of room in his Park Avenue penthouse for two more kids and housekeeper Mrs. Garrett (or Adelaide or Pearl in subsequent years). The rags to riches premise saw the kids learning to acclimate to their sudden change in economic standing, tackle typical teen troubles and provide excuses for Arnold to say his catchphrase, “What’chu talkin’bout, Willis?”

Cue laugh track.

Cue laugh track.

Like most family sitcoms of the time, it was fairly benign with the occasional blip to confront racism, drug abuse (and guest star Nancy Reagan) and in later seasons, epilepsy.

After several years of nothing more serious than Sanford & Son‘s Whitman Mayo attempting to stop Drummond’s adoption of the boys and crossovers with the now forgotten sitcom Hello, Larry, it was time for the show to take on a weightier subject and being a show popular with kids, they chose pedophilia (or, really, grooming considering the way it plays out) and forever changed the way kids my age looked at Gordon Jump.

The episode opens with the Drummond family returning rental bikes to bike shop owner Mr. Horton (Jump). He tells lame jokes that they all laugh at for some reason and convinces Mr. Drummond to put money down on a bike for Arnold. He also gets Arnold to hand out flyers at his school for an upcoming sale by promising him a new radio for his bike.

At school, Arnold’s ego gets in the way and pal Dudley has to help him with the flyers. Dudley also gets him to put in a good word with Mr. Horton so he can earn something as well. Arnold visits the bike shop to get more flyers. Horton convinces him to come to his back room apartment — that happens to look like a dummy run for the main Silver Spoons set with video games and similar wood paneling — for a banana split. “You know, Arnold, I think we’re gonna have a lot of good times,” he says after convincing the boy to keep the midday snack a secret.

Arriving home late, Willis and Mr. Drummond are surprised to learn that Arnold isn’t hungry after a trip to “the pet store.”

The next day its raining, but Arnold and Dudley visit the bike shop in absurd yellow rain slicks. Horton is happy to see them and invites them into the backroom for a snack. He also ends up serving them some wine, which Arnold initially refuses, but is pressured into drinking. If you’ve ever watched Special Victims Unit, you know where this is going. It turns out he slipped a nudie mag into the pile of comics for the expressed purpose of telling the boys that it’s okay to appreciate the human body. He then shows them photos from a skinny dipping trip he took with some other boys. In retrospect, this dramatization of boys getting groomed for exploitation is pretty accurate (in as much as SVU would have me believe), but is constantly peppered with Arnold’s punchlines about liking food. After a couple of sips of wine, he gets the boys to play Tarzan and take some mostly-clothed photos.

This is where we get some of that tonal whiplash. In syndication, where most of us saw the episode, it is split into two parts.  Episodes customarily end with audience applause and this one is no different, accidentally making it seem as though they’re cheering Horton on as he gets Dudley to take his shirt off.

It’s a fantastic example of the problem this episode has and why it became a Best of selection: the format is uncomfortable with the material. Throughout the first half, Arnold makes jokes that are easily read as unfortunate double entendres. (“No thanks, I’d rather get bitten on the teetsi.”) While making the banana split, Horton relishes the use of words like “ooey” and “gooey.” I suppose in 1983, when the episode was fresh and its true aim unknown, the jokes wouldn’t seem so odd. Now, they’re just icky. I’d like to the think they’re the product of the writers having a difficult time working this theme into the show. Unlike episodes where the family faces racism and Mr. Drummond learns about his real privilege, this is a tough subject to joke about. Nevertheless, the format of the show required punchlines and this is the end result.

You'll notice I'm not trying too hard to yuck it up, either.

You’ll notice I’m not trying too hard to yuck it up, either.

… but Horton’s plans are interrupted by the arrival of Mr. Drummond in the storefront. Horton goes to deal with him and gets inadvertently cockblocked when Arnold discovers his dad is out front. He and Dudley, fearful of getting caught drinking, run out the back door.

Kimberly and Willis find Arnold arriving home with an enormous wad of chewing gum in his mouth and liquor on his breath. Arnold tells them that Dudley’s father let them have a sip of wine, but not to make a big deal out of it. They let it slide.

When Arnold and Dudley visit the shop the next day, Horton turns up the creep factor by showing the boys a pornographic cartoon. At this point, Arnold’s had enough and leaves Dudley behind to play “Neptune, King of the Sea” with Horton. Meanwhile, back at home, Dudley’s father Ted comes over to have a chat with Mr. Drummond about letting the boys drink. He’s surprised by this and Willis and Kimberly mention that Arnold told them Ted let them drink. All get suspicious when Arnold arrives home and finally tells them what’s been happening at Horton’s. Mr. Drummond calls the police before heading down there to confront him.

When they arrive at Horton’s, Dudley is in the bathroom, having had a bad reaction to a pill Horton gave him to make him “feel good.” He also tells the detective  on the scene (the first appearance of a Manhattan SVU cop on NBC?) that Horton tried to touch him. Dudley is reunited with Ted and, luckily, nothing too terrible occurred.

In a post-game wrap up back at the penthouse, the detective tells Mr. Drummond he did the right thing by calling them in. He said parents often go on their own to confront the child-molester, which gives him time to dispose of any evidence. Willis mentions his dismay that Horton was gay and the cop corrects his thinking, telling him that pedophiles are not really homosexual. It’s a surprisingly well-informed scene and free of having too many punchlines, a rather good one. Well, except for the fact that it’s happening on Diff’Rent Strokes.

In the amazing short film, A Very Special Episode, a curator at the Museum of Television and Radio warns the protagonist of the dangers in mixing “solemnity with a laugh track.” That phrase gets to the meat of the tonal whiplash on display in “The Bicycle Man.” In the decades that followed, sitcoms became nimble enough to confront these issues and not feel as pressured into a punchline every 90 seconds. The traditional sitcom format is meant to be easy-going and reassuring, but nothing is less reassuring than the presence of sex offenders. Hell, NBC turned around and created a nearly twenty-year series on the same topic. But for us, it’s the tension of a serious topic handled as callously as a sitcom must handle it that made “The Bicycle Man” a shoe-in for Best of consideration. Even though it redeems itself in the second half hour, its setup is just too strange and uncomfortable to serve its intended purpose. In that, it becomes a perfect choice for a television series’ first seat at our table of champions.

Within a month, the show doubled down on Very Special-ness with the anti-drug episode featuring Nancy Reagan and would continue to make Very Special episodes in subsequent years, but none of these remained in the memories of viewers who have any recollection of the program. Some thirty years on, any mention of Diff’Rent Strokes will lead directly to this episode. That speaks to the power of the tonal whiplash on display.

Or the power of  cheesy punchlines.

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Lifetime Theater: Foreclosed

There was about a minute back in 1996 when we thought Jamie Kennedy was going to be a reliably entertaining screen presence. Hey, don’t blame us for that shit. It was the mid-‘90s and the entertainment universe was in the process of going completely insane. Kennedy somehow wound up as one of the best parts of the best revisionist slasher flick ever made, the Wes Craven masterpiece Scream. Maybe I’m biased, because in that movie, he’s basically just playing me. If you didn’t know me in 1996, see Scream. Now you do. To all those who did know me back then, I am so very sorry for being such a tool.

And for Son of the Mask.

In the time since then, Kennedy has been doing everything he can to convince us that Scream was a total fluke. He manages to embody this unappealing cross between an overbearing frat bro and a sniveling nerd, while his standup comedy varies from the mildly hacky to the brutally unfunny. His “First Night 2013” was a legendary trainwreck before it was even finished airing. He has cultivated a mean-spirited persona, and while there’s nothing wrong with that on the surface, to sell it, you kind of have to be funny. It doesn’t help that he helmed a documentary, the thesis of which was “why are all these people being so mean to me?”

Kennedy was the star of this week’s Lifetime Theater, but in true career-implosion fashion, I had absolutely no idea he was in it until the cast list rattled off the screen. He isn’t the only recognizable name, either: Paul Sorvino and Academy Award-winning actress Marlee Matlin play father and daughter. So, if I told you Marlee Matlin and Jamie Kennedy were in a movie together, the chances of his character mocking Matlin’s for her voice are close to 100%, right? He does, several times, and it’s awful. Then again, Kennedy’s actually supposed to be awful in movie. I couldn’t help wondering if those were adlibs on set. And then I started wondering if Matlin could tell she was being mocked by reading lips or if someone had to tell her later. That would have been an awkward day.

The movie concerns one of the most popular problems of the post housing bubble pop: foreclosures. What, you couldn’t tell from the title? C’mon guys, get it together here. It purports to be based on a true story, but I’ll be honest. I didn’t check up on that, so we don’t know if it’s based on a true story in that everything happened but only the names were changed, or if foreclosures are a thing that happens in real life and something like this could have happened, if we all just dream a little harder.

Clap if you believe in home invaders!

The thing is, this did happen. In movie theaters. Foreclosed is a throwback to the early-mid ‘90s  preoccupation with films about ostensibly normal people who go berserk and take revenge upon a suburban family for possibly imagined slights. It feels a bit like The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, if instead of Rebecca de Mornay, you have Jamie Kennedy, and to everyone now picturing him in a soaking-wet nightgown, I’m sorry. So Kennedy is starring in a movie that was last popular right around his heyday as a welcome screen presence. I’m not even sure if that’s irony.

It’s the mid-’90s. We could ask the expert.

Jamie Kennedy plays the kind of creepy electronics genius loser that was in every other one of these movies. He has just enough know-how to wire an entire house with state-of-the-art security, hidden cameras, and listening devices, but not enough to hold down a job. That’s even a plot point: he had an electronics store that went belly-up. With the recent RadioShack news, this definitely qualifies as truth in television. Anyway, because of this, he is no longer able to make payments on the brand new McMansion his mother was living in. They also try to pretend that this thing, which was clearly a patch of hilly desert outside Los Angeles about 45 minutes before they started filming, has been in the family for at least a generation.

He gets foreclosed on, and Marlee Matlin’s family swoops in and buys it for a song. Not a literal song, so don’t expect Matlin to belt out “Cotton-Eyed Joe” or anything like that. Kennedy’s character — Forrest Hayes — isn’t taking that lying down, so he embarks on the kind of pranks, harassment, and outright murder that people do in movies like this, before he goes totally unhinged and builds a bomb in the third act. I always feel bad for the bystanders in movies like this, as the family can’t be harmed until the end (and they usually all make it out fine), but to prove the threat, the crazy person takes out a couple peripheral characters. In this case, it’s his lawyer (who realizes Hayes is a liar in the middle of a press conference), and the nosy/sweet next door neighbor. Hayes’s weapon of choice is one of those handheld stun guns, which he uses by grappling with the person, then shocking them. Bad news, dude. You just knocked yourself out as well.

Hayes first tries to get the family to turn on each other. It’s surprisingly easy, despite how close they are in the early going. The dad is a recovering alcoholic, so Hayes plants signs the old man is off the wagon. He cleans out their bank account with a bunch of bogus gambling charges. Hayes also poses as an online friend to the daughter, and he uses this hilarious deep voice that makes him sound like a parody of a child molester — and with the wispy mustache and the birth control glasses, it’s an easy leap to make. There’s a line that implies the daughter is reading 50 Shades of Grey, too, so maybe he’s preying on that. That movie might be a little different if they switched up Jamies — Dornan for Kennedy. Bet Christian Grey’s creepy-ass behavior might be seen in a slightly different light.

“Give me your tampon.”

Anyway, he does all of this inside an honest to god Batcave. The Jamiecave. It’s not revealed until the third act that this McMansion has an entire Gitmo below the surface, built as a bomb shelter by Hayes’s old man, so for the bulk of it, it’s just Hayes in the Jamiecave, watching the family. The movie really drops the ball by not giving him a Jamiemobile, Jamiebelt, and Creepo, the Boy Wonder.

The family pulls together just in time, after dad’s been arrested and both women have been trussed up, to stop Hayes’s scheme. Well, kind of. He ends up blowing both himself and the house up with a makeshift bomb in the kitchen. In all honesty, it’s exactly how you figure the real Jamie Kennedy will eventually go out.

Kennedy isn’t really even bad here. He doesn’t give us the gift of a Rob Lowe-esque performance, but does inhabit the strange skin of this man. He keeps his eyes averted, he stutters and shifts on his feet, uncomfortable in his own skin. His late-movie freakouts aren’t bad either. All in all, he makes a decent Lifetime bad guy. The best part, though, is when a noticeably out of shape Paul Sorvino has a fistfight with Kennedy in the kitchen. Sorvino is in his mid seventies, yet he ruthlessly pummels the doughy Kennedy until the stun gun comes out.

What did we learn? When buying a new house make sure Jamie Kennedy isn’t living in the vast underground complex beneath it.

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