Monday, July 16, 2018

The Nanny Is Watching (Captive Nation, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Lifetime “premiere” movie was called The Nanny Is Watching, and they programmed it as part of a day-long festival of nanny movies (nanny movies have been a staple of Lifetime at least since 2000, when Christine Conradt kicked off her “The Perfect … ” cycle of scripts with The Perfect Nanny), showing Nanny Seduction before it and Nanny Killer (a switch on the formula because it’s about nannies being driven to their deaths by a psycho child they were supposedly there to take care of) afterwards. The Nanny Is Watching seems to have come about as a deliberate attempt by writer Blaine Chiapetta and director Olumide Odebunmi (the director is a Black man who was apparently mentored by Mark Rydell; is silent, though, on whether “Blaine Chiapetta” is a man or a woman) to see how many of the typical Lifetime thriller tropes they could combine in one movie: the psycho nanny, the terminally naïve young couple who hire her, the self-programmed house which goes Scottgerously haywire and the birth mother of an adoptee who will stop at nothing to get her kid back. (The last was supposed to be a shocking reveal in the final act, but Lifetime’s posted synopsis gave it away.) The terminally naïve couple are Scott (Adam Huber) and Mara (Talyn Carroll) Franklin, and they have a four-year-old daughter Beth (Olivia Sembra) whom they adopted, as well as a baby named Amy (Winnie Zir-Oldak) whom they conceived naturally after adopting Beth. There’s been a role reversal between the Franklins: Scott has a rather indifferent career as a RealtorTM but we only hear about that when he goes to show a house in the opening scenes, but Mara is a hotshot information-technology consultant who’s just got a plum assignment to redesign the Web site for a better-living magazine with the ghastly name InHABIT. Only she barely makes it to the crucial presentation in time and gets the job only through the intervention of Eric Messer (Black actor Sawandi Wilson), who seems to have the hots for Mara — he keeps asking her out to lunch or dinner on the pretext of “work” — but is willing to take, “No, thanks, I’m married” for an answer.

Both adult Franklins are scared shitless when a hooded man wielding a tire iron breaks into their home one night, and their nanny Rachel (Cinta Laura Kiehl, who seems to have modeled her perky-psycho performance on the one Rose MacGowan gave two decades ago in the original Devil in the Flesh) recommends a security system she says her mom Sarah (Donna D’Errico) had installed and swears by. The Franklins take the bait and go for the deluxe package, which includes not only a home security system but a robotic personal assistant, sort of’s “Alexa” meets HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, who’s addressed as “Sam” and speaks in a flat monotone the person voicing him obviously cribbed from Douglas Rain’s marvelous turn as the voice of HAL in 2001. What they don’t know is that Rachel has hacked into the system from her own laptop at the home she shares with her mom — with whom she’s totally reversed roles, giving the orders and leaving mom frantically begging her psycho daughter for favors (the scenes between them are the most chilling ones in the film, and no doubt the writer Chiapetta intended the Biblical symbolism of the women’s names) — and she can use it not only to eavesdrop on the Franklins at home any time she chooses (including when they’re having sex), she can also shut down the system or open it at will and she can make the Franklins’ home appliances, all of which are now controlled by “Sam”, go haywire any time she wants them to. At one point Mara Franklin gets suspicious enough she traces Rachel to her home and talks to Sarah, who said they don’t have a security system and she wonders why her daughter would say they did, and when Rachel finds out Sarah talked to one of the Franklins she has a hissy-fit and the two women have a fight which ends with Rachel knocking Sarah to the floor, killing her. Mara returns to the women’s home and narrowly misses discovering Sarah’s corpse when Rachel surprises her in the hallway, overpowers her and takes her phone.

The climax occurs at the Franklins’ home, where they’ve just had the security system rewired and are backing it up with door chains and other low-tech locks just in case Rachel tries to break in again, but what they don’t realize is that the person in charge of the security installation, Dan (Steven Allerick), is also Rachel’s boyfriend and he opens it for her disguised in the same hooded costume and wielding the same tire iron as he did to stage the “break-in” he did earlier on to scare the Franklins into installing the Big Brother Is Watching You security system in the first place. There’s a fight between Scott Franklin and the security guy, and Rachel corners Mara in the laundry room and holds a knife on the Franklins’ natural daughter Amy, which she threatens to use on the baby unless Mara gives Beth, whom Rachel now reveals is her biological daughter (she got pregnant at 16 and wanted to keep the kid, but mom refused her permission so she had to put Beth up for adoption), to Rachel and lets her and her hot security-tech boyfriend get away without calling the police. Only the Franklins somehow manage to get the upper hand and it ends with Mara getting the big kitchen knife away from Rachel and stabbing her with it, following which we hear police sirens — and then there’s a title, “One Month Later,” and one month later the Franklins are back to normal, with Mara having arranged with Eric to work from a home office so she can watch her own kids without having to have a nanny, and with the accoutrements around them, including a normal alarm clock and an intermittently functioning coffeepot, back to their low-tech originals. The Nanny Is Watching has its silly aspects, but mostly it’s one of Lifetime’s better efforts in the genre; Odebunmi’s direction, aside from some jarring cuts, is generally suspenseful and thrilling, and Chiapetta’s writing and Kiehl’s acting combine to create a truly terrifying and powerful villainess.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Father Brown: “The Dance of Death” (BBC Studios, Albert+ Sustainable Productions, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I put on a quite engaging — and surprisingly recent (first aired January 9, 2018) — episode of the British TV series Father Brown, a period-set (the 1950’s) mystery series loosely based on G. K. Chesterton’s series character. I haven’t read any of Chesterton’s Father Brown books (the only thing of his I have read is The Man Who Was Thursday, about a group of anarchists plotting in turn-of-the-last-century London, only all but one of them turn out to be police agents and the one who isn’t is Satan himself) but I like this show for its offbeat charm. This episode was called “The Dance of Death” and though there are far more illustrious works with the same title (notably the famous play by August Strindberg), this one was quite a charmer. Father Brown (Mark Williams) is attending a dance contest at the home of aristocrat Lady Rose (Diana Kent) and noticing the young man named Alexander Walgrave (Jarrad Ellis-Thomas) who’s dancing the contest with Lucy Dawes (Holly Weston) as his partner — much to the disgust of Lucy’s slimeball fiancé Oliver DeWitt (Seb Carrington), who’s clearly jealous of Alexander even though, like John in David Bowie’s song, they’re only dancing. Actually Alexander is drawn to wallflower Bunty (Emer Kenny), but when Lucy is found stabbed to death in her room Oliver is suspected even though Father Brown, dealing with an even dumber set of local police than usual, is convinced that he may be a slimeball but he’s not a killer. Alexander is also blind, courtesy of an accident he had at the same house some time earlier in which he was knocked down stairs by an intruder.

His blindness has given him an unusually sensitive ear for sounds and he insists that Lady Rose was the real killer because he heard the sound of her cane being used as the killer went down the stairs after dispatching Lucy. He searches her room, with Bunty’s insistence, and they find a blackmail letter from Lucy in which she claims to be Lady Rose’s illegitimate daughter, put up for adoption two decades earlier, and threatens to “out” her as her mom, which will ruin Lady Rose socially. It turns out, though, that the real killer is Merryn Tyrrell (Rosie Holden), who hated Lady Rose because Merryn’s father had partnered with her in a big investment and lost all his money doing so. Lady Rose swooped in and grabbed all the Tyrrell family assets at fire-sale prices, leading to the suicide of Merryn’s father and her mom’s death from illness shortly afterwards, and Merryn determined to kill Lucy and frame Lady Rose for the killing by stealing Lady Rose’s cane, which served both as the murder weapon (the cane contained a concealed knife) and a distraction: Alexander would hear Merryn ascend and descend the stairs using the cane and assume it was Lady Rose. There’s also an odd confession from Lady Rose to the effect that in her wilder, more sexually rambunctious days she had contracted a sexually transmitted disease that made it impossible for her to have children, which for some reason Father Brown thinks dismisses the allegation that Lucy was blackmailing her even though a) we have only her word for that and b) even if it’s true, she could have conceived Lucy, given birth to her and given her up for adoption before she got the STD. I was quite impressed by this little vest-pocket mystery and in particular I liked the performance of Jarrad Ellis-Thomas as Alexander; one reviewer thought he was unskilled as an actor but I thought his rather quixotic gestures and halting line delivery appropriate for playing a character who had suddenly become disabled and had adapted to it on some levels but still felt awkward presenting himself around other people.

Love Island (Elliott-Shelton Films, Inc., 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alas, the “feature” Charles and I watched after the Father Brown show was nowhere nearly as good — though it would have made an excellent candidate for the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 treatment. It was called Love Island and was a South Seas action-adventure film done on the really cheap by something called “Elliott-Shelton Films, Inc.” — if this thing actually got sold to a reputable distributor I have no idea — in 1952. The stars — if, to paraphrase Dwight Macdonald, I may use the term for courtesy — are dancer Paul Valentine, whom I’ve seen elsewhere only in the Marx Brothers’ last film, Love Happy, and Eva Gabor, whose bizarre miscasting as a South Seas beauty — including the long black wig that covers up her normal blonde tresses and looks like someone made it from straw and then spray-painted it black — gives this film camp appeal even though it doesn’t make it any good. The stated running time on is 66 minutes, and that’s the version we saw, but there seems to be some uncertainty about just how much content is in this film: the credits list two songs, “Across the Sea” and “Love at First Sight,” written by Jerry Bragin, but “Love at First Sight” was the only one we heard. The credits also promised that there was a narration by André Baruch (there wasn’t) and that the film was in color (Cinécolor, according to, but the print we were watching was an download in black-and-white (probably copied from a TV print made in black-and-white because back then typically shortsighted Hollywood “suits” thought, “TV isn’t in color — why should we spend the money to strike color prints for them?” That’s why I love the story about Walt Disney’s brother Roy, who ran the financial end of the company, asking him, “Why did you spend all that money making the Davy Crockett TV shows in color? TV isn’t in color” — and Walt just smiled at him and said, “It will be”). The story begins with U.S. Navy Lieutenant Richard Taber (Paul Valentine) talking to a friend on board what’s supposed to be a commercial airliner but which looks like it was never farther off the ground than the beams supporting the set on the soundstage floor. He’s lamenting the loss of his best friend in a plane crash during World War II and explaining how he himself survived by parachuting to a South Seas island whose native name translates as “Love Island.” There’s an awful lot of love going on on Love Island but also an awful lot of forced marriage and women made miserable by the repulsive, and usually abusive, middle-aged men they’re forced to marry.

Heroine Sarna (Eva Gabor) is in love with local boy Tamor (Dean Norton) but, much to not only her own distaste but that of her father Aryuna (Frank McNellis), who seems to be the only older man on the island with a moral sense, she’s going to be forced to marry the horrible, mean, nasty, repulsive and generally no-good Uraka (Malcolm Lee Beggs) because … well, it’s not quite clear but it seems to have something to do with the fact that Uraka is the richest man on Love Island and he can apparently buy anything he wants, including multiple wives. There’s also another love couple, Ninga (Bruno Wick) and Klepon (Kathryn Chang); Ninga and Klepon are genuinely in love but have to carry their affair clandestinely because she’s already been married either to Uraka or someone equally as unattractive and grotesque. Once Sarna gets a look at the hunk who’s descended from the skies with a parachute, she immediately forgets about Tamor and falls in love with the new guy instead, and just at the time she’s decided he’s the guy she really wants to marry she hears the bells of a ceremony that’s about to hitch her to Uraka. The footage of the ceremony is from a 1935 film called Legong: Dance of the Virgins, directed by Gloria Swanson’s ex-husband Henri de la Falaise in two-strip Technicolor and shot in Bali, since it features gamelan music (and one of the few appeals this movie has is the opportunity to see a gamelan orchestra in action — as well as the hauntingly beautiful shirtless Balinese guys who play in it!), which not only takes place in far more elaborate settings than the ones the producers could come up with for the South Seas island of their dreams (or nightmares) but is much more creatively directed and photographed as well. Every time we cut to the Balinese footage, however grainy it may be, we’re enthralled by the sheer beauty of it and also the imagination with which it was filmed compared to the relative dullness of director Bud Pollard’s work on the main movie. (Bud Pollard didn’t get a Worst Director of All Time nomination from Harry and Michael Medved in their book The Golden Turkey Awards, but he arguably deserved one: his best-known films were the late-1940’s cheapies he did with Louis Jordan but in the 1930’s he made a ridiculous film called The Horror that apparently was released only in Japan until a decade later, when he cut it down to four reels, printed on 16 mm and offered it to church groups as a cautionary anti-alcoholism film called John the Drunkard!)

Pollard’s direction and the script by John E. Gordon and Daniel Kusell (never heard of any of these people? There’s a reason for that) plod along as Ninga gets killed, presumably by his lover Klepon’s husband, only no one seems interested in apprehending the killer and the plot’s focus stays on just how, if at all, Sarna is going to get out of her social obligation to marry the creep Uraka and who she’s going to end up with if she can finagle her way out of the wedding. Sarna has the brilliant idea of hiding her new American boyfriend Lt. Richard Taber in a giant teak-and-gold box her native squeeze Tamor has given her as a wedding present; Taber makes sure to tell Sarna not to lock the box so he can get out of it when he needs to, but Uraka catches on, grabs the key from Sarna and locks the box himself, then tells two of his manservants that after the wedding they’re supposed to carry the box over a nearby bridge and “accidentally” lose control of it and throw it over the bridge so its occupant will drown. All ends well, as Taber somehow makes it out of the box and throws Uraka into it, thereby ensuring that he will meet the fate he decreed for either Taber or Tamor, he didn’t seem to care which, and then after we’ve heard that story we cut back to the interior of the plane (ya remember the plane?) and Taber’s friend is asking him what happened to the girl on the island, and whether he’s got a girl waiting for him back home à la the “real American wife” Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton insisted he’d someday marry in Madama Butterfly. Taber says he indeed has a girl waiting for him, but not back home, and the camera pans to a shot of Sarna — that’s right, Eva Gabor in all her black-wigged glory — lying recumbent on a couch (a couch? On an airliner? I’m not making this up, you know!). I had trouble staying awake through Love Island and it wasn’t just my general level of exhaustion, either; one laments the waste of Paul Valentine’s talents on crap like this (he got a splendid start in great movies like Out of the Past and House of Strangers but never got the kinds of parts he deserved after that), and as for Eva Gabor … well, one reviewer noted that she seemed to have less of an accent here than she did on her TV series Green Acres, though that’s less important than the fact that she had no idea how to act in 1952 and she didn’t learn to act any better in the intervening 14 years between those two credits!

Monday, July 9, 2018

Murdered at 17 (N.B. Thrillling Films, Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Lifetime “premiere” was of a film called Murdered at 17, co-written by Christine Conradt (she came up with the “original” story in collaboration with Gemma Holdway and Cyndi Pass, but wrote the actual script solo) and directed by her frequent collaborator Curtis Crawford. Alas, though Murdered at 17 had its points it wasn’t anywhere nearly as good as Lifetime’s previous “premiere” Killer Single Dad, which I’d watched the night before on its second go-round and which, though not written by Conradt, had more of the multidimensional characterizations (especially of the villain) she’s known for than her script for Murdered at 17. I was also struck by the irony that this was the second Lifetime “premiere” in a row in which the bad guy was named Jake; here he’s Jake Campali (Blake Burt), who grew up in a hellish family with a crazy disciplinarian father who abused him physically and psychologically (though not sexually) and denied him the money to go to college. Jake managed to learn enough computer skills, despite the lack of college, that at age 17 he wrote a killer app he was able to sell to a major company and get enough to live on for the rest of his life — and he spent the money much the way you’d expect a young straight boy in his late teens to on a palatial home, a nice car (a black Mercedes-Benz sports model that virtually becomes a character in the film) and a lot of outings to strip clubs. All that changes — well, at least the strip clubs part does — when he meets 17-year-old high-school student Brooke Emerson (Cristine Prosperi) and immediately decides she’s the girl of his dreams, the one predestined to share his life (and his fortune).

Murdered at 17 begins with one of its most powerful scenes: a blonde woman comes to visit Jake and tells him she’s his sister Francine (Allison Graham) and their father Mike (Rick Amsbury) is dying of cancer and needs money for his health care bills. Jake makes it clear to her that as far as he’s concerned, the sooner their dad croaks the better he’ll like it, and he vividly narrates his tales of childhood abuse to explain why he can’t wait for his dad to die. Alas, we really don’t get much more of a sense of “what makes Jake run” than this, and Conradt, Crawford and their collaborators soon cut to the romantic politics at Brooke’s high school. Brooke’s friend Maddie Finley (Emily Galley) is upset with Brooke because Maddie’s ex-boyfriend Tryg Bailey (Mike Stechyson) sent Brooke a text reading, “Hi, gorgeous!” Just why Maddie should be so upset that a guy she’s already dumped should be sending romantic texts to her friend is a bit of a mystery, but it soon developed that Tryg has long had the hots for Brooke and Maddie never amounted to any more than “sloppy seconds” for him. Alas for Tryg, Brooke has also attracted the attentions of Jake, and compared to a hot young blond with a baby face, a multi-million dollar fortune and a fancy car, Tryg is definitely out of his league in the competition. Jake takes Brooke on a series of dates and keeps her out for long periods that unnerve her mom Carley (Susan Emerson, top-billed), though mom feels a good deal better about Jake as her daughter’s boyfriend once she has him over for dinner and he turns on the charm for her and Brooke’s stepfather. At one of their dinner dates Jake and Brooke go to a fancy restaurant named Wally’s (which the friend I was watching this movie with thought sounded more like the name of a diner, and whose interior was convincing but the exterior was represented by one of Lifetime’s usual suburban-home exteriors with just a free-standing sign outside supposedly identifying it as a public business) and Tryg turns up there because he works at Wally’s as a waiter. Jake contemptuously dismisses him and, just to make sure he gets the point, Jake puts on a black sweater and a hood and corners Tryg in the parking lot after he gets off work, clubbing him with a tire iron and stealing his wallet. (Remember, this is a guy who has more money than God.)

Later Brooke goes to a party being hosted by one of her age-peer and class-peer friends, Riley Pratt (Blake Canning), and this being a teen party in a Lifetime movie there’s a lot of drinking, drugging and screwing going on (though this is also one of those “wild” movie parties whose function seems to be to make the demi-monde look so boring real-life teen viewers are discouraged from entering it themselves) and Brooke, who’s not supposed to be drinking at all because she’s on psych meds for a condition called “IED” (“Impulsive Explosive Disorder” — I’d never heard of it before and the only context in which I’d heard “IED” before was as an acronym for “Improvised Explosive Devices,” the homemade bombs with which Iraqi resisters bedeviled U.S. and allied forces in the second Iraq War in the early 2000’s) that makes her explode with rage at the slightest provocation, has way too much to drink and passes out in an upstairs bedroom. Later Brooke’s friend turned enemy Maddie (ya remember Maddie?) ends up passing out in the same bed, and Jake, who wasn’t invited to the party but turned up anyway, grabs a knife from the kitchen and stabs Maddie to death while Brooke obliviously sleeps through it all. He then leaves the bloody knife next to Brooke so that when she comes to she’ll think she committed the crime — and Brooke, instead of doing the obviously sensible thing and calling the police, wraps the bloody knife in a blood-spattered pillowcase and dumps the evidence in a dumpster. Alas, Jake is following her and immediately retrieves the evidence from the dumpster, then tells Brooke that he’s keeping it safe and he’ll sit on it if Brooke agrees to marry him (he even gives her an over-large engagement ring to seal the deal!) but will give it to the cops if she doesn’t.

It ends with a scene in which Brooke, carrying a gun, calls Jake and asks him to meet her at a truck stop on the outskirts of town. In the phone call she says she’s going to commit suicide because she can’t stand the stress of being a murder suspect anymore, and she tells him she’s left a note for her mom and stepdad explaining what she’s going to do and why. Jake duly shows up, admits to Brooke that he killed Maddie, then grabs the gun away from her — only just then the police arrive on the scene and tell Jake to drop the gun and surrender. Brooke’s mom and stepfather are also on the scene — obviously they were in on the plot to entrap Jake into confessing so the cops could arrest him — and when Jake briefly considers shooting it out with the cops, Brooke tells him, “Did you really think I’d give a killer a loaded gun?” Realizing he doesn’t have a chance, Jake surrenders — and there’s a chilling final scene in which Jake’s dad and sister are going through his stuff and laughing at the scam they tried to pull on him in the opening scene. “What sort of cancer was I supposed to have had, anyway?” Jake’s father says, as we realize that these incredibly creepy people who were responsible for Jake’s homicidal madness in the first place are going to get all his money. Murdered at 17 has its appeal, but especially after Killer Single Dad it was a major disappointment; Jake Campali simply isn’t as interesting a villain as Garrett Penderson, and Blake Burt gives him a one-dimensional reading of perpetual spoiled-brat irritation whenever anything doesn’t go his way — a far cry from Cameron Jebo’s subtle, nuanced performance as the psycho in Killer Single Dad. This is especially disappointing coming from Christine Conradt, whose scripts are usually above Lifetime’s norm precisely in giving multidimensionality to the characters — only in this case Ken Sanders and Daniel West were the writers who gave us a complex and even quasi-sympathetic villain character and Conradt and her co-authors who didn’t.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Room for Murder (Film Biscuit, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Lifetime “premiere” movie was a pretty typical tale called Room for Murder in which college student Kristen Atherton (Lorynn York, dark-haired) returns to the small town in which she grew up with her tail between her legs after she failed to get an on-campus job that was crucial to her being able to stay in her college town for the summer and afford to attend the next year. She shows up at the home of her mother Moira (Tanya Clarke, blonde) expecting to be able to spend the summer staying in her old room, only she finds out that mom has rented out the room to a mysterious stranger named Jake (James Maslow, top-billed). What’s more, she finds out that Jake is considerably more than just Moira’s roommate: first she catches them locking lips on the back stairs, and then she gets kept awake all night by the sound of them fucking. Kristen is naturally shocked at the thought of her mom having an affair with a man just two years older than Kristen herself — indeed, her adjustment to her mom’s new studly lover while Kristen herself has rotten luck with men, though a guy she used to date when she lived in town and was still in high school, Ryan Jessop (Adam Huber), is still interested in her even though she broke up with him when she caught him having sex with someone else, might in itself have made for an interesting movie. Alas, this is Lifetime and some of their veteran producers, directors and writers — the director is Rob Schmidt and the writer Jed Seidel — who know the formula well enough that instead of the ambiguous title they shot the film under, The Boarder, they had to call it Room for Murder and duly supply a few murders. When she isn’t too busy tearing up the sheets with her hot new lover, Moira owns a beauty salon in town and should be making a lot of money, only she’s losing it all and doesn’t know why. Kristen offers to help her sort her books and decides that the reason Moira’s salon isn’t profitable is she’s got too many employees working too long shifts and collecting mandatory overtime, so Kristen lowers the boom on her mom and tells her she’s got to start either cutting people’s hours back or laying them off altogether. The first person who gets the ax under Kristen’s regime is Moira’s friend and confidante Mi (Jenna Kanell) — once we see her on screen and register that she’s African-American we don’t hold out much hope for her life expectancy; somehow or other, we realize, she’s going to stumble onto the truth about Jake and he’s going to find out and kill her.

This duly happens when she’s walking by a laundromat and sees Jake removing clothes from a washer someone else is using; the someone else, another Black woman more heavy-set and darker-skinned than Mi, takes strong exception to this and Jake literally screams at her, losing his cool completely before he recovers his composure and offers to pay for her dryer load (which she, virtuously, refuses); Mi confronts him about this (instead of just observing it and then confiding to Moira, or calling the police — all too often Lifetime characters, both good and evil, do dumb things like that when the smart alternative is readily obvious to more than the most pea-brained audience members) and for her pains she’s strangled in a convenient alleyway and no one seems to find her body. Moira briefly wonders why Mi isn’t showing up for work but otherwise she just totally forgets about her, and so do the filmmakers! Kristen becomes convinced that Jake is a serial killer who targets joggers and strangles them in the middle of the night — and director Schmidt and writer Seidel go the Hitchcock route (not that I’m comparing them in terms of level of talent!) of letting us know from the outset that Jake is a killer and creating suspense not out of revealing who the murderer is at the end but making us wonder how the characters will find out what we already know and how many of the dramatis personae will end up as collateral damage before he’s finally brought to book. I’ll say one thing for Schmidt and Seidel: they give us lots of soft-core porn, not only between James Maslow and Tanya Clarke but between Adam Huber and Lorynn York as well — for, not knowing whom to turn to, Kristen goes to see her ex-boyfriend Ryan, who was a scapegrace ne’er-do-well when she left town but now has got hired onto the local police force. Accordingly Kristen steals a sneaker from Jake’s room that has red spots on it and gives it to Ryan to have it sent to a police lab and tested to see if it’s blood and, if so, if its DNA matches one of the mystery jogger-killer’s victims. Ryan says, “What will you give me for this?,” and his price is a dinner date, that soon enough blossoms into several dinner dates and then a lubricious sequence in which Adam Huber turns out actually to be nicer-looking than James Maslow (we get lots of shirtless shots of both of them, and Huber is more muscular and has bigger pecs: yum!). This is one Lifetime movie in which the hottest guy in the dramatis personae is not the villain, though frankly, until we actually saw Jake strangle Ni he and Ryan looked enough alike — both tall, slender, with dark hair and trimmed beards — I was waiting for a twist ending in which it would be Ryan who’d be the killer and Jake would save Kristen’s life by taking him on at the end.

The film begins with one of Lifetime’s sometimes engaging, sometimes annoying flash-forward prologues in which we see the front of the Atherton home with a young man in a cop’s uniform lying face-down in front of it, obviously wounded, and other cops driving to the door, finding him and calling in, “Officer down!” Then we get a typical Lifetime title reading Four Days Earlier, and it’s a wonder in some ways that Schmidt and Seidel crowd so many incidents and such a total breakdown of the Atherton family’s relations in just four days of filmic time — but though Room for Murder is O.K. entertainment (and the lubricious scenes of hot young men having their way with willing women definitely give it a boost — Lifetime has been cutting back on their soft-core porn lately and it’s nice to find it return!) it’s little more than that. Jake tells the Athertons that he’s a retired Wall Streeter who found working 70 hours a day just to make himself even more insanely rich than he already was too stifling and wanted to get out of that life — we never learn whether that’s true but he’s obviously not hurting for money, and we also learn that in his native Georgia he was tried for murder of a high-school classmate but was acquitted (though this is the clue that enables Kristen to trace him online and find out who he is), but aside from that he’s pretty much a blank. Interestingly, the Lifetime “premiere” movie scheduled for the very next day — Sunday, July 9 — is called Murdered at 17 and the character in that one who may or may not be the perpetrator of the titular murder is also named Jake!

Killer Single Dad (Lietime, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After watching this week’s Saturday “premiere” movie I caught up with last week’s much-hyped one, Killer Single Dad, and despite the ridiculous title it actually turned out to be quite good, considerably better than Room for Murder if only because it had a much more interesting and multidimensional villain. It was directed by Rob Malenfant (I used to make the unfair but obvious pun on his name, “Rob Malefactor,” but he actually turns in an excellent suspense job here) from a script by Ken Sanders (story, though it blessedly does not take place in Sanders’ “Whittendale universe”) and Daniel West (screenplay). The titular killer single dad is Garrett Penderson (Cameron Jebo), who as a college student in Georgia once made some quick money by making a sperm donation to the Breck Fertility Clinic under his real name, David Miller. Then disaster struck: he, his wife Natalie and the two kids they had conceived the old-fashioned way were involved in an auto accident and David a.k.a. Garrett was the sole survivor. Out of grief and rage over the loss of his entire family, he then conceived a crazy and ultimately evil but still understandable plan: he’d trace all the children conceived of his sperm donation, kidnap them and raise them as his own. When we first meet him he’s interviewing potential nannies and he hires an elderly woman named Olivia (played by a charming old British character actress named June Cole, who even gets a special credit — “And June Cole as ‘Olivia’,” indicating that she has some greater reputation than most of the other actors in this piece) to look after the one kid he actually has living with him. Then he fires her after he catches her breaking into his locked office door, which he demanded she stay out of because it contains a map of the United States with pins stuck in it indicating where the mothers are who have conceived children with his sperm, or are still pregnant therefrom. He settles in Los Angeles across the street from one such woman, Jennifer Monroe (Kaitlyn Black), who when director Malenfant cuts to her is in the middle of an argument with her husband Matt (Robert Parks-Valletta). It seems that Jennifer caught Matt kissing another woman, and while Matt insists that’s as far as it went, Jennifer doesn’t believe him and she wants him out of the house immediately. He stalks out, she starts having contractions and falls, and just then Garrett, who had been stalking the Monroes’ home looking for his best shot at grabbing the child once he’s born (it’s established that it’s a son and the Monroes have already named him Connor), sees her collapsed on the floor and calls 911, telling the dispatch operator that he witnessed the Monroes having a fight and he knocked her down. The cops and the ambulance arrives, and the latter takes Jennifer to the hospital, where she hears that if it hadn’t been for that nice young man who wanted to remain anonymous she’d probably be dead.

Jennifer gets out of the hospital and Connor, whose seemingly endless stash of cash to finance his operation is eventually explained by a $500,000 life insurance policy he and his late wife Natalie had on each other, leases the house across the street and moves his whole operation there, both the child we saw him kidnap in the opening scene and the one he’s going to grab in San Diego as the next step in his plan. Only things don’t go according to plan in San Diego: the woman he’s trying to kidnap his baby from catches him in the act, and he strangles her and then burns down her house. The crime gets reported in the media and the story reaches L.A. but no one in law enforcement knows who committed the crime or why. With Matt exiled and not in Jennifer’s good graces, Jennifer has her father John (Paul Messinger) move in with her and she accepts the help of Garrett, who assembles the Ikea (at least that’s what it looked like!) crib she and Matt had bought for the baby and otherwise helps her out around the house, even accompanying her to Lamaze birth classes after her dad, citing a bad back, begs off on getting this involved in her upcoming parenthood. Garrett invites Jennifer’s ex Matt to his home to settle things man-to-man, but then he hits himself over the head with a beer bottle and bashes his own face into a mirror so he can claim Matt assaulted him and get him arrested. Matt traces Garrett’s real name and learns the truth about him, but Jennifer still can’t stand him and won’t take his calls, and it’s only when the baby is about to be born that Garrett kidnaps her, takes her to a remote location in the country (yes, that’s right, he’s another Lifetime villain who has a remote location in the country!), where he plans to deliver her baby himself and then leave her to die. The baby is born safely but Matt is able to trace them, albeit when he shows up and grabs a beam hoping to use it as a weapon, Garrett easily takes it away from him and it’s Jennifer, showing a surprising amount of strength for someone who’s just given birth the really old-fashioned way with no hospital intervention and no anesthetic, who finally grabs a knife from the bizarre set of old-style medical tools Garrett had brought if he needed them for the birth, and stabs him to death — whereupon we see Garrett having a vision of playing with his two original, and long since dead, children as he expires.

What makes Killer Single Dad better than most Lifetime movies is not only the multidimensionality of the writing — Garrett becomes a Christine Conradt-style villain, with understandable motives that make us feel sorry for him even as we hate him — and the superb acting of Cameron Jebo as Garrett. Blond-haired and baby-faced instead of darkly handsome and butch like most Lifetime bad guys, Jebo probably has the most disarming and low-keyed manner of any movie psycho since Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins rewrote the book of how to play homicidal maniacs on screen in Psycho. His overall manner is so cool that it’s genuinely surprising on the few occasions he does lose his temper — I liked Seidel’s touch of having him rage at getting caught in traffic and thereby risking being delayed on his current psycho errand, and then paralleling that with a shot of Matt losing his temper at getting caught in traffic while he’s racing to rescue Jennifer from Garrett — and between them, Seidel as writer and Jebo as star manage to put a surprising amount of flesh on the bare bones of a typical Lifetime villain. Cameron Jebo is one actor who deserves a route out of the Lifetime ghetto and onto full-fledged stardom!

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Dead Reckoning: War, Crime and Justice from World War II to the War on Terror (Saybrook Productions, WNET, PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Earlier in the week Charles and I had watched an hour-long documentary on PBS with the awkwardly long title Dead Reckoning: War, Crime and Justice from World War II to the War on Terror. What I hadn’t realized is that what we were watching was the last episode in a three-part series, dealing mostly with the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the role of one of the original Nuremberg prosecutors in creating it, and also the special tribunal set up to punish Slobodan Milosevic and the other perpetrators of the genocides in the former republics of Yugoslavia (I write “genocides,” plural, because it seemed as if the leaders of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the breakaway “Republika Srpska” of Serbs within Bosnia were seemingly competing to kill the most people) and also the way the genocide in Rwanda against the minority Tutsis by the majority Hutus was dealt with. One of the things that struck me most about this show was the way the rhetoric used by the Serb, Croat and especially the Rwandan government used to incite their people to kill sounded awfully like the rhetoric President Trump is using against immigrants; the Hutu leaders of Rwanda called the Tutsis “cockroaches” and Trump has said Central American immigrants “infest” our country. Whether this is Trump’s intent or not, this kind of name-calling, dehumanizing rhetoric is the usual way genocide starts: compare people to insects, vermin or scum and you ready your population to kill them en masse

The other interesting point about this show was the Rwandan way of dealing with their genocide, which was so massive it was estimated that one-quarter of Rwanda’s 8 million people had participated in the killing. It seems to have dawned on the international community that it would be impossible to prosecute the murderers according to Western ideas of justice without decimating the population and continuing the hatreds that had sparked the killing in the first place. So the aid workers and the Rwandans themselves seized on a traditional tribal system of justice, the gacaca (pronounced “Guh-CHA-cha”), in which members of a tribal community themselves sit in judgment over an accused person and are more interested in determining whether the defendant is truly sorry for what he’s done than whether he can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to have done it. The most poignant story dealt with a Tutsi man who had married a Hutu woman, gone to their family gatherings countless times, then ended up on the wrong side of the genocide when his brother-in-law became an enthusiastic death squad leader and racked up a huge number of casualties. The Tutsi barely escaped the murderous wrath of his brother-in-law when the mayor of their village abruptly changed from opposing the genocide to supporting it and even participating in it, and the Hutu brother-in-law claimed thousands of victims until he fled the country following the restoration of order and something resembling law. Then he returned and faced the gacaca court in his own district, with the brother-in-law who had fled for his life from him appearing as one of the key witnesses against him. The defendant eventually broke down, pleaded guilty and confessed, and he did a good enough job convincing the people sitting in judgment against him in the gacaca that he deserved a murder sentence of only 10 years instead of the 40 years genocide participants who didn’t confess were given. In the end, there’s a fascinating final scene in which the Tutsi victim reconciles with the Hutu brother-in-law who tried to kill him and they’re even going to family gatherings together again. Like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commissions — formed on the orders of the African National Congress under the country’s first Black President, Nelson Mandela — the gacacas aimed at reconstructing society and putting the past behind them more than punishing the perpetrators as a means of creating “closure” (a horrible term) for the victims — every time I hear a relative of a murdered family member tell a reporter they need to see the killer executed so they can have “closure,” I pity them for having not only suffered the loss of their loved one but themselves having curdled so much inside they need to see blood spilled to assuage their own pain. 

The gacacas are the good news in a program that otherwise is one of those all too common shows these days that depict the vileness of humanity with precious little evidence of its good: the International Criminal Court is a great idea on paper but, like the original League of Nations after World War I, it suffers from the refusal of the United States to participate. Even before Trump, the prospect of getting enough U.S. Senators to ratify the treaty creating the Court was so hopeless no President dared try to accomplish it — the main concern was the possibility that somewhere, somehow, some U.S. servicemember might actually be punished for a crime against humanity in a foreign tribunal, and the United States of America is too much of an empire ever to let its citizens be held to account overseas. (One demand the U.S. makes whenever it sites a military base in another country is that the host country’s government agrees not to prosecute U.S. servicemembers for any crime they may commit there; instead, the U.S. retains sole jurisdiction over the alleged misdeeds of its servicemembers. This was the main reason the U.S. didn’t stay in Iraq after the George W. Bush administration left office: the new Iraqi government wouldn’t give us the right of extraterritoriality and so the U.S. said fine, then you don’t get our continued presence in the country.) I still have a hard time with the whole concept of “international law” — one could say about international law what Mahatma Gandhi famously said about Western civilization, “It would be a good idea” — “international law” is nothing more than a set of norms countries pay lip service to, or don’t, and we currently have a U.S. President that in terms of civilized norms of how you deal with other countries not only breaks them but boasts about it — just as he’s said he not only wants to resume waterboarding accused terrorists but wants to do worse to them, in the sort of “gleeful cruelty” Jon Stewart, in a recent guest appearance on Stephen Colbert’s show, said was the hallmark of virtually everything Donald Trump says or does.