Sunday, March 26, 2017

Stalker’s Prey (Stargazer Films, Synthetic Cinema International, Johnson Production Group, Lifetime, 2017)

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

The first of last night’s two Lifetime “premiere” movies was Stalker’s Prey, listed on imdb.com as Hunter’s Cove (presumably a working title, since Hunter’s Cove is the name of the beach town where it takes place). Directed by Colin Theys from a script by John Doolan, it’s a pretty typical by-the-numbers Lifetime piece in which high-school senior Laura Wilcox (Saxon Sharbino) and her younger sister Chloe (Alexis Larivere) are being raised by their mom Sandy (Cynthia Gibb) as a single parent. Dad is still alive but he hovers over the action as a sort of irritating non-presence and is never seen as a character, though at one point an argument between Sandy and Laura establishes that it was their father who left their mom, not the other way around. In the opening scene, we see Laura and her boyfriend Nicholas Jordan (Luke Slattery) making out and getting ready to have sex in Nicholas’s pickup truck — a real cool restored oldie with a double cab — when mom comes home early from an outing and catches them. She orders Laura into the house and tells her she’s not to see Nicholas anymore — it becomes clear she just plain doesn’t like him and doesn’t regard him as a suitable mate for her daughter — and when she resists, Sandy tells Laura she’s grounded for the weekend even though it’s her birthday and she was counting on being able to go out to celebrate. Laura duly sneaks out, and equally unsurprisingly her sister Chloe rats her out to mom; where Laura is going is to the local beach with her friend Bre Hendricks (Gillian Rose) — the first name is pronounced “Brie,” like the cheese — and the two end up on a boat called Open Wide (as in what, Laura’s legs?), from which they dive to do a swim in the local cove. Only there’s a shark prowling the water (and director Theys can’t resist some vaguely Jaws-ish musical themes while this is happening — no composer is credited so the music may be stock recordings, but whoever is responsible knocks off not only John Williams’ famous shark-attack theme from Jaws but the shrieking violins Bernard Herrmann used for the shower murder in Hitchcock’s Psycho) and it attacks our young lovebirds: Nicholas is killed by the shark (a real pity because we straight female or Gay male viewers don’t want to lose the cutest guy in the film at the end of the first act!) but Laura is rescued by Bruce Kane (Mason Dye), of whom we’d also got some choice man-meat views in swim trunks and nothing else.

Mason Dye is an actor whose most famous previous credit is probably as Christopher Dollanganger in Lifetime’s 2014 adaptation of V. C. Andrews’ trash-Gothic thriller Flowers in the Attic — though his imdb.com page lists recurring roles in short-run TV series like Secret Diary of an American Cheerleader (2013), Teen Wolf (2014), Finding Carter (2015) and Roommates (2016), as well as feature films like Natural Selection (2015), My Stepdaughter (2015) and Vanished: Next Generation (2016), an entry in the series based on Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins’ aftermath-of-the-Rapture books. When I posted on Flowers in the Attic I confessed, “I was interested in watching this partly because the previews for it on Lifetime had shown some quite appealing footage of Mason Dye, the juvenile male lead, going around shirtless — and while young blond boys with no chest hair aren’t exactly my biggest ‘type’ he was aesthetically appealing enough I decided I wouldn’t mind sitting through the whole movie for more glimpses of his partially unclad bod.” Dye is still nice-looking and it’s not his fault that Luke Slattery, whom I’d previously seen as the stuck-up rich-kid defendant in the premiere episode of the TV series Bull, is even hotter — but since this time he’s playing an out-and-out villain instead of a morally ambiguous character, he’s shown as considerably more stuck up and stiff.

The gimmick is that once Bruce, the son of a local City Councilmember, sees Laura he’s instantly smitten and believes she is The One for him from then on — and this being a stalker story his affections get creepier and creepier, including taking on a job baby-sitting for Laura’s sister Chloe (ya remember Laura’s sister Chloe?) and getting a key to their house, ostensibly so he can show up whenever Sandy needs a baby-sitter but really to show up whenever he wants Laura — whom he makes it to bed with once (at a garden party given by his dad to raise money for his re-election campaign — Bruce tricks Laura into going by saying he merely wants an escort but he turns it into a real date, necking with her by the backyard swimming pool to the strains of the 1913 song “You Made Me Love You” (I wasn’t sure, but I think the singer was Patsy Cline) and ultimately having sex with her. This immediately gets Laura read out of the ranks of the cool kids in school, especially when Bruce turns up as a substitute English teacher leading Laura’s class and the rest of the students, including Bry and their Black friend Parker Lowe (Camrus Johnson), write “Hot for TeAcher” (the “A” in bright red as if it represents the grade Laura will get with her body whether she deserves it or not) on the front of her locker. As the film progresses (like a disease), Bruce’s actions get weirder and weirder — the oddest scene has got to be the one in which he sneaks into her house just so he can lay next to her in bed — and also more and more psychotic. He has a former girlfriend named Alison whom he claims still to be in touch with and to consult as if an old friend — and we hear her voice (supplied by actress Christina Sciongay) on his cell phone as he leaves her a message on her voicemail. Only when Laura tracks down Alison and meets her mom, she’s told that Alison has been dead for four years — she died in a car accident. Later, of course, we get a flashback to the event and find out, not at all to our surprise, that it wasn’t an “accident” at all: Bruce deliberately sped his car with himself and Alison in it to the point where it crashed, and he escaped but she was killed. 

The big problem with Stalker’s Prey is the big problem with a lot of Lifetime’s thrillers: not content to keep Bruce’s villainy within reasonable and believable bounds, writer Doolan makes him a figure of almost preternatural evil, knocking off not only Alison in a flashback — though he’s continued to call her regularly and get her voicemail (after she’s been dead four years would her voicemail service still work?) — but Laura’s and Bry’s Black male confidant, fellow student Parker Lowe (Camrus Johnson), whose body he sticks in his car so he can shock Laura with the sight of it. When Bruce isn’t doing all this he’s giving interviews to the local TV station (whose reporter is a woman with a striking resemblance to both Alison and Laura — apparently this is Bruce’s only “type”) telling the townspeople he’s personally going to kill the shark they’re convinced has left the area but he’s sure is still out there — at one point he spots the shark and shoots him with a harpoon gun but misses — and at the end, it having finally penetrated his thick skull that even though she let him have sex with her once, she has no interest in a long-term relationship with him, Bruce takes her out to his boat in the dead of night, intending to feed her to the shark … only she grabs the harpoon gun and wounds him with him, then after some more confused action manages to push him off the boat so the shark gets him in the end (selachimorpha ex machina). At times the moral of this story seems to be, “When your mom grounds you because she doesn’t like your boyfriend, listen to her: otherwise, if you sneak out, he’s going to be killed by a shark and you’ll be rescued by a cute guy who’ll become an obsessive stalker and threaten to kill you” — though one part of Doolan’s script I liked was the irony that Laura’s mom can’t stand the nice boy she’s dating at the opening and loves the one who turns out to be the demented stalker who nearly kills her. Other than that, Stalker’s Prey was pretty typical Lifetime fare, blessed with two cute guys we get to see in hot states of undress but preceding along well-traveled routes to a pretty predictable ending.

Forgotten Evil (The Asylum/Lifetime, 2017)

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

One thing Lifetime is doing lately is not only showing two “premiere” movies back to back on Saturday nights but picking films so similar in theme and plot premises they tend to reflect badly on each other. They did that again last night by running something called Forgotten Evil which, as you might guess just from the title, is an amnesia movie: a young woman (Masiela Lusha) is found wrapped in some sort of bag and nearly drowned. She’s taken to the local hospital and gets to stay there for six months as the people looking after her try to determine who she is and how she got there. When she’s finally asked to leave, Mariah (Angie Teodora Dick), one of the nurses taking care of her, offers to take her in as a roommate and helps her get a job as a file clerk and receptionist at a local school. Mariah also suggests that the amnesiac woman, whom at first she calls “Jane” as in “Jane Doe,” go see therapist Dr. Evan Michaels (Jeff Marchelletta) in hopes that he can work with her, hypnotize her and help her regain her memories. “Jane” decides to adopt the name “Renée” after she sees it in a booklet of women’s names (probably something along the lines of What to Name Your Baby Girl, the tome I suspected the organizers of the “Rachel, from Cardholder Services” Internet phishing scam used to run through other women’s names once “Rachel” was publicly exposed as a scam — usually it was “Heather, from Cardholder Services” but I’ve heard “Carmen” and other names) and she gets to see the hot Dr. Michaels at his home, which is also the site of his office.

Renée also finds herself with a hot new boyfriend, Randy Dumas (Kyle McKeever), a nice-looking blond, though given the usual iconography of Lifetime that their best-looking males turn out to be their creepiest, we’re wondering whether Randy is all he seems to be and if he might be one of the people Renée is convinced are part of a conspiracy to keep her from regaining her memory even if that means they have to kill her in the process. Meanwhile we occasionally see a hulking black-clad man in the shadows — he’s heavy-set and is dressed all in black, including a black hoodie — and he seems to turn up everywhere Renée does, though for about two-thirds of this movie it’s not clear whether he’s supposed to be real or a figment of her imagination. He’s real, all right, and no sooner do Renée and Mariah have a falling-out, Renée announces she’s moving in with Randy, and Mariah warns Renée that she really knows very little about Randy and shouldn’t be so trusting of him, than we get a glimpse of the heavy-set man in the black clothes and hoodie, the hood comes off and we realize it’s Randy. Apparently his real name is Jack, Renée’s is Veronica, and the two were married until five years previously, whenfor reasons writer-director-editor (so he really has no one to blame but himself!) Anthony C. Ferrante never bothers to explain, Jack decided to kill Veronica and got as far as putting her in a bag and dumping her off his boat — only a local found her before she could croak and saved her in a scene that seemed awfully reminiscent of The Bourne Identity when it began the film. As with your typical Lifetime villain, Randy once again spirals out of control from understandable garden-variety madness to out-and-out craziness, including getting her fired from the school job by sending them photos of her bound and gagged in S/M style (apparently when they were together one of his ways of making money was shooting and selling such pics of her) and later getting into a gunfight with Veronica’s brother Jensen (Adrian Bustamante) and killing him.

The climax takes place aboard a boat called the Renée (which is how we know how Veronica nèe “Jane Doe” took that as her new name) in which Randy, like Bruce in Stalker’s Prey, wants to knock her off by throwing her in the water — only, of course, she takes him out instead. Forgotten Evil, which may have been intended for theatrical release (partly because of the expert Gothic finish director Ferrante gave the material and partly because there are some odd blips on the soundtrack — one woman gets to say “ass-” but not “asshole”), seems like just another Lifetime movie with amnesia as their “disease of the week” and a cop-out ending that really doesn’t make sense. Why is Randy so determined to kill Renée? Why didn’t he just leave her for dead and be done with her? Why is it so important to him that he knock off anyone who might potentially expose Renée’s name and past? Ferrante doesn’t explain any of this, and while as a director he’s got a great eye for Gothic night scenes, as a writer he’s got a lot of work to do to get good enough even to give us a coherent Lifetime movie, let alone anything feature-film worthy. It doesn’t help that the acting in this one is pretty nondescript — yes, I know the characters themselves are pretty nondescript, and Masiela Lusha has the confounding task of portraying a woman who literally doesn’t know anything about who or what she is, but the only player who comes across as genuinely interesting and charismatic is Kyle McKeever as the villain.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (Universal-International, 1955)

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

Our “feature” last night was the next-to-last film in sequence of the Abbott and Costello boxed set from Universal (though there are three so-called “bonus features” in the box, including a 1960’s documentary called The World of Abbott and Costello, a 1994 production about them introduced by Jerry Seinfeld, and a more recent film about their horror-comedy movies called Abbott and Costello Meet the Monsters): Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops. This was made in 1955, two years after the immediately previous A&C feature, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, because in the meantime Lou Costello had had one of the serious, debilitating illnesses that wracked him in their later career and led to his death in 1959. In 1954 Universal had planned to team Abbott and Costello with wacky bandleader Spike Jones for a film called Fireman, Save My Child, but after doing long-shots and stunt scenes Costello had fallen ill and Universal had put two contract players, Hugh O’Brian and Buddy Hackett, in the film instead. (In the 1970’s Hackett would play Lou Costello in a made-for-TV biopic.) Leonard Maltin called Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops “another big disappointment, with … very little of the verve and action of silent comedy,” but in fact it’s a quite funny film, not on the level of the best of Mack Sennett’s silent work (though Sennett himself makes a brief appearance as himself directing a pie-fight scene — what else? — he had just published his autobiography, King of Comedy, and he was willing to do just about anything to promote it) but still appealing and funnier than just about anything else being made in 1955 except the marvelous Marilyn Monroe-Billy Wilder collaboration The Seven-Year Itch. The plot centers around con-man Joseph Gorman (Fred Clark, a considerably better comic nemesis than most of the co-stars A&C got in their later years), who swindles Harry “Slim” Pierce (Bud Abbott) and William “Tubby” Piper (Lou Costello)[1] out of $5,000 belonging to Tubby’s aunt and sells them a phony movie company. (The company’s “studio” is actually the Edison “Black Maria,” the first purpose-built structure for shooting movies, with black tar-paper walls and mounted on a giant turntable so it could be revolved to get the maximum amount of sunlight during the shooting day.) Realizing they’ve been swindled, they do an unexpectedly smart (for Abbott and Costello characters, anyway) thing and contact the New York police, who attempt to arrest Gorman — but he and his girlfriend and co-conspirator, actress Leota Van Cleef (Lynn Bari), disguise themselves as foreign movie personalities and high-tail it to California, where he establishes himself as Russian director “Sergei Toumanoff” (though, like virtually all Hollywood parodies of stuck-up movie directors, he comes off like Erich von Stroheim, complete with monocle) and plans to make an epic Western.

Only the big final action scene of his epic Western is ruined when Slim and Tubby hijack the covered wagon that’s supposed to drive through the scene and be attacked by Indians and rescued by the Seventh Cavalry. The studio head, Mr. Snavely (Frank Wilcox), sees the sequence, which includes a gravity-defying drive of the covered wagon across a gorge (a remarkably convincing effect, especially considering it was done decades before CGI), and immediately demands that Toumanoff hire Slim and Tubby as stunt doubles — and Toumanoff works out a plot to kill them so they can’t find out he’s Gorman and testify against him. The result is a big action sequence involving a mid-air dogfight between two planes, one of them flown by Costello in drag (he’s doubling for Leota) — something Costello had often done: he’d worked as a Hollywood stunt man in the 1920’s and had frequently donned drag to double for women. (Women stunt doubles didn’t become common until the 1950’s, when Doris Day insisted that her stunt double for Calamity Jane be a woman, Donna Hall.) Once again, Snavely thinks the scene is hilarious and assigns Toumanoff to direct a comedy featuring Slim and Tubby — which means he has to tell all his henchmen that the plans have been changed and he now needs to keep them alive instead of knocking them off. Then Toumanoff t/n Gorman learns that the $75,000 needed to make the first Slim and Tubby comedy is being kept in a safe in Snavely’s home, and he determines to break in, steal it and abscond with the money to Europe, where he can continue to work as a director (presumably under yet another pseudonym). Slim and Tubby end up in a spectacular chase scene in which the Keystone Kops, or a reasonable simulacrum thereof (at least three real Keystone Kops — Hank Mann, Harold Goodwin and Heinie Conklin — played character parts in this film), are enlisted by mistake by Slim and Tubby to arrest Gorman and Leota. Ultimately good triumphs over evil, real L.A. cops arrest the baddies and Slim and Tubby recover the money — only, in a scene that anticipates the ending of the serious crime film The Killing by two years, Tubby opens the case containing the money and the backwash from the propeller of one of the planes blows it out of the valise and scatters it all over the countryside. The End. 

Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops isn’t much of a movie as a whole, but it’s got some screamingly funny scenes, including one in which A&C are lost in the desert and a squirrel sneaks its way into their bread loaf and starts eating it from the inside (and Costello plays this with a lot more pathos than he usually showed) and one in which they plan to break into Gorman’s house to see if they can get evidence against him — Slim will be the burglar and if anything goes wrong, Tubby, wearing a cop’s uniform, will come and “arrest” him — only it so happens that a real burglar picks that night to burglarize Gorman’s home and a real cop shows up to arrest him, and the result is a marvelous mistaken-identity free-for-all we’d expect more from the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy than Abbott and Costello. Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops isn’t a great movie, and as an evocation of the Sennett days it’s well below the great scene in the 1939 film Hollywood Cavalcade in which Buster Keaton (who in fact never worked for Sennett) led a revived force of Keystone Kops, but it’s still a lot of fun and one wishes A&C had made more movies like it instead of the horror-comedies which had been novel in their inception but by the mid-1950’s had grown rather tiresome. It’s also an indication that as their careers progressed A&C relied more on slapstick (and their own stunt doubles — though Costello still did a lot of his own stunt work, and when he didn’t his double was usually his brother, Pat Cristillo, which helped in the verisimilitude department) and less on dialogue, even though John Grant, who in the early days had contributed mostly funny dialogue routines like “Who’s on First?,” was the sole credited screenwriter on this one (though Lee Loeb has a credit for the original story). Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops is a minor gem that’s well worth seeing and a nice excursion by A&C into the realm of traditional movie clowning; it was made at a time when silent films were just trickling back into circulation on TV via Paul Killiam’s Silents, Please! show and a syndicated rerun of some of Charlie Chaplin’s early films, and audiences were just beginning to discover that silent film was a great art form in itself and not just an inept and unwittingly funny precursor to sound film!



[1] — Ironically, though his character is called “Tubby” Costello looks considerably slimmer in this film than we’re used to seeing him — doubtless the result of his long succession of debilitating illnesses.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Transsiberian (Filmax International, Canal+ España, Filmax Group, First Look Pictures, 2008)

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

Our “feature” last night was a DVD Charles pulled from our ever-growing backlog: a 2008 movie called Transsiberian (notice the one-word spelling even though most references I’ve seen to the Trans-Siberian Railway, on which most of this film takes place, hyphenate it) from the usual modern-day mishmash of production companies — Filmax International, the Spanish branch of the French cable-TV operation Canal+, Filmax Group (how does that differ from Filmax International?) and First Look Pictures — whose producers appear to have been Spanish but they recruited an American director, Brad Anderson, and American leads, Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer. The film opens with a scene set, the subtitle tells us, in “Vladivostok, Russian Far East” (and Charles gave Anderson and his co-writer, Will Conroy, points for not making the common mistake of putting Vladivostok in Siberia!), a confused (and confusing) bit of action which establishes that a Russian gang is using the Trans-Siberian Railway to smuggle heroin. Then the film cuts to Beijing (introduced in the subtitle as “Beijing, China,” to which I joked, “As opposed to Beijing, Manitoba”), where married couple Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) are wrapping up an assignment to teach English to Chinese schoolchildren as part of a missionary organization. They’re ready to go home and Jessie would be just fine with flying, but Roy is a train buff and seizes on the opportunity to ride on the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway to its western terminus in Moscow and then fly home from there. Big mistake: Roy and Jessie end up sharing a compartment with another couple, Spanish adventurer Carlos Ximénez (Eduardo Noriega, easily the sexiest male in this film by a very wide margin) and his Seattle-born 20-year-old girlfriend de jour, Abby (Kate Mara, who to my mind is not only much better looking than Emily Mortimer but a better actress as well). Transsiberian is one of those maddening movies that really seems like two separate films arbitrarily joined together at the midpoint, the first a romantic melodrama and the second an action-adventure thriller.

One thing Transsiberian does well is dramatize the continuing privations Russians endure and seem to have endured throughout their history, whether their overlords were named Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Lenin, Stalin or Putin — the toilets on the train are clogged, the “meals” are a joke, the trains themselves are overcrowded and the four principals’ fellow-travelers so ugly after a while we start to wonder if there are any nice-looking people in Russia. (Siberia was “played” by Lithuania in the film.) The big thing that happens in part one is that Roy gets left behind — he gets so wrapped up in exploring an old railroad yard and seeing the antique locomotives that he misses the train he’s supposed to be taking, and as best as she can understand them through the language barrier, Jessie is told that she’s just going to have to wait in a small town in the middle of Nowhere, Siberia for the next train to come in the next day, which Roy will no doubt be on. Carlos seizes this opportunity to seduce Jessie — he’s been eyeing her all movie with obviously disreputable intentions — and takes her out to some remote locations by bus, including a disintegrating old church he’s sure will appeal to Jessie, an amateur photographer (her Canon digital camera figures prominently in the film). While they’re out there alone in -23° weather (hardly, one would think, the best conceivable environment for outdoor sex!) he at first tries to get her to have sex with him willingly. When she refuses, he attempts to rape her, she runs away, and eventually she picks up a piece of wood and clubs him to death with it, then leaves his body out in the cold and returns on the Russian bus to the village, where she meets Roy as planned the next day. This scene also establishes that Jessie led a dissolute life with plenty of alcohol, drugs and men until she went into rehab, cleaned up, met Roy, married him and got involved with his church — which explains why, except on one occasion with Carlos, she regularly turned down the ubiquitous vodka shots she was offered on the Russian train.

While we’re clearly intended to regard Jessie’s killing of Carlos as justifiable homicide, we’re also aware that about the last thing she wants to do is hang around and face the decidedly un-tender and corrupt mercies of the Russian judicial system, such as it is. When Roy returns to the action, they’re on a different train and have a different roommate, Ivan Grinko (Ben Kingsley), who introduces himself as a Russian police officer and, since he speaks English, at least eases our couple’s language difficulties since he can interpret for them. Only Jessie begins to suspect that, rather than being a police officer, he’s really part of the drug gang she’s begun to hear bits about on the Russian media — and it turns out they’re both right: he’s a cop, but a corrupt one who’s part of the gang. They’re looking for the heroin Carlos was smuggling for them, which he was able to conceal by adding chemicals to solidify it and mold it into Russian toy dolls, and unbeknownst to Jessie Carlos concealed his dolls by putting them in her camera case — of course she freaks out when she discovers they’re there. The gangsters capture Carlos’s girlfriend Abby — ya remember Abby? (this film is full of Anna Russell moments) and torture her, thinking she knows where Carlos stashed the drugs, but eventually a train wreck ex machina derails, literally and figuratively, the characters and their clashing agendas, and the Russian authorities are able to capture Ivan and his fellow conspirators, Abby is freed and is in a Russian hospital recovering from her torture, and Roy and Jessie are allowed to go home — though there’s an odd tag scene at the end of a woman we haven’t seen before coming on Carlos’s body in the Siberian cold and presumably reporting it.

The short synopsis of Transsiberian on imdb.com — “A Trans-Siberian train journey from China to Moscow becomes a thrilling chase of deception and murder when an American couple encounters a mysterious pair of fellow travelers” — made it sound like a knock-off of Alfred Hitchcock in general and The Lady Vanishes in particular, but Brad Anderson and Wes Conroy make several basic mistakes Hitchcock wouldn’t have let himself or his writers get away with, including that jarring mid-movie break between romantic melodrama and thriller. Hitch would have insisted that the drug gangsters be on the train with the principals and would have periodically cut between them so we would know the threat the lead couple were under instead of us forgetting about the drugs until we were forcibly reminded of them in mid-movie (“Ya remember the drugs?”). Most significantly, St. Alfred would have ramped up the pace — as he in fact did in his films that took place wholly or largely on trains (not only The Lady Vanishes but The Secret Agent — from which Anderson and Conroy probably got the idea of a train crash that both literally and figuratively upends the agendas of the various characters, both good and evil — Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest) — and a Hitchcock-directed Transsiberian wouldn’t have the maddening longueurs between action scenes Anderson’s does. Transsiberian emerges as an O.K. movie but not a particularly distinguished one — and it doesn’t help that Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer are perfectly credible but not especially charismatic actors (they’re not Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint by a long shot!) — an O.K. time-filler, a basically romantic thriller but one with some modishly dark elements (like Abby’s fate — she’s a more interesting character than our leads and one could imagine a remix of this story to put her fate front and center) and the sort of movie you want to like better than you do.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Mommy’s Little Boy (NB Thrilling Films, Reel One Films, Lifetime, 2017)

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

Last night Lifetime showed two “premiere” movies from 8 p.m. to midnight (or shortly thereafter) under the rubric “Mommy Madness,” of which the first was Mommy’s Little Boy, a clear follow-up to the 2016 production they had re-run just before it, Mommy’s Little Girl. Created by the same people — Lifetime’s ace writer, Christine Conradt (she had help from Mark Sanderson on the script for Mommy’s Little Girl but wrote Mommy’s Little Boy solo), and her frequent directorial collaborator, Curtis James Crawford, Mommy’s Little Boy wasn’t a ripoff of The Bad Seed the way Mommy’s Little Girl was. It was promoted on the Lifetime Web site by a 29-second trailer that showed Mommy’s little boy, Eric Wilson (Peter DaCunha), out with her in the dead of night helping her bury a tarp-wrapped body, which made it looked like mommy Briana Wilson (Bree Williamson, an oddly similar name to her character!) was knocking people off and enlisting sonny-boy’s help as an accessory after the fact. The truth, when we finally get to see the movie start to finish, is more complex and more morally ambiguous than that — moral ambiguity is the biggest thing that separates Conradt’s scripts, as insanely melodramatic as some of them (including Mommy’s Little Boy) get, from those by the rest of Lifetime’s writers.

When we first meet Eric he’s being all too blatantly bullied by his older half-brother Max (Auden Larratt) — the two have different fathers and both men disappeared from Briana’s life without so much as a by-your-leave, though one of them left her a nice house which she can still afford to live in because of some sort of legal settlement she got that enables her not to work. What she does do with her time is drink — sometimes at sleazy bars, in one of which she meets a boyfriend de jour named Shane Reed (Sebastian Pigott) who figures prominently in the later action, but mostly at home, straight from a bottle of liquor which, since the fluid is clear, we assume is either vodka or gin. During one afternoon she’s lying next to their backyard swimming pool, laying in a chaise longue, listening to music via ear buds and doing the best she can to drown out the sounds of her sons as they horseplay in the pool. Somehow Max falls to the bottom of the pool, a wound opens up and he dies — director Crawford keeps it uncertain whether Eric deliberately killed him, whether he was fighting back against Max’s bullying and just pushed too hard, or Max had an accident and Eric’s only culpability was that he didn’t bother to tell mom until it was too late because he knew he would be better off with his brother dead than alive. Nonetheless, mom convinces Eric that he’s a murderer and he’s going to have to do exactly what she says or else he’s going to end up in prison. The Wilsons have a nosy neighbor who lives across the street, Barbara Nolan (Brigitte Robinson), who notices that the Wilson boys aren’t eating especially well — since one of the things their mom is too hors de combat from all that drinking to do for them is make meals — so she brings over some sort of taco pie (I think that’s how the dish was described in the dialogue) and mom overreacts hysterically to the idea that she needs some interloper to help her feed her kids. So she clongs Barbara on the head with a frying pan, knocking her unconscious and leaving Eric alone with the body. Eric notices that Barbara is still alive and is about to reach for the phone to call 911 when mom comes back into the room. Eric tells her, “She’s not dead,” and mom’s response is to grab that frying pan and keep hitting Barbara over the head with it until she really is most sincerely dead.

Then mom concocts the plot for concealing her crime into which she enlists Eric and which involves the scene we saw in the trailer: mom buries Barbara’s body in the local Kern Campgrounds (the film supposedly takes place in Philadelphia but the settings look more suburban to me) and abandons Barbara’s car and purse, hoping that either or both will get stolen, the police will find them and, if Barbara’s body is ever discovered, the cops will blame her murder on whoever stole her car and/or purse. Only it doesn’t work that way because nobody goes near the car, and when she isn’t doing bouncy-bouncy with Shane or getting plastered, she’s noting the news reports as the cops find first the car and then Barbara herself. Meanwhile, Eric has managed to escape from mom’s bizarre clutches into one of the local parks, where he runs into a girl his age named Kaylee Davis (Jadyn Malone) and her parents, local schoolteacher and coach Michael Davis (Paul Popowich, one of those rare males in a Lifetime movie who’s both hot and sexy and actually gets to play a good guy!) and his wife Sherry (Natalie Lisinska). We immediately get the impression that the Davises would make far better parents for Eric than his mother would, not only because there are two of them but because they’re strong, loving, supportive and have better things to do with their lives than drink themselves into oblivion. Michael recruits Eric to try out for the school’s baseball team, at which he sucks and gets teased by the other kids (one of whom even has the gall to tell him that the wrong Wilson brother died), and he tries to help Eric as much as possible without arousing suspicion as to his own motives. Meanwhile, as mother Briana’s crude attempt to cover up her crime starts to unravel, she hatches a plot to get herself, Shane and Eric out of the country and over to Mexico in Shane’s elaborate RV, which he’s so emotionally committed to it’s clear the vehicle, not any human, is the great love of his life. Eric doesn’t want to leave and Shane wants it to be just him and Briana without that obnoxious kid of hers anyway, but mom insists that the two are a “package deal.” Alas, Shane is so protective of his RV that when he finds out that Eric has been going through his possessions and discovered first his porn collection and then his gun, he threatens to beat Eric to within an inch of his life with his belt — and Eric panics and shoots Shane.

When mom realizes that they’ve got another corpse on their hands she’s even more anxious to get out of the country — though somewhere along the line it peeks through even her alcohol-soaked mind that Canada would be a closer and more feasible place to run to than Mexico — and in the meantime Michael has alerted child protective services to Eric’s plight at home and the Philadelphia police have assigned a woman detective, Jan Myers (Allison Graham), to the case. Mom left her cell phone behind when she abandoned her car and went with Shane in his RV, but Eric has his own phone and uses it to call Michael, who tells him to keep the line open so the police can trace them. Director Crawford and editor Jordan Jensen create effective suspense as it becomes a race of time — can the cops stop the runaway RV and its mother-and-son fugitive occupants before mom discovers her son is alerting them on his cell phone and beats the shit out of him, or worse? When Michael and detective Myers finally corner them, Briana comes out of the RV holding Eric at gunpoint, hoping to use him as a hostage, only he manages to get away and Briana refuses Myers’ command to drop her gun and essentially commits “suicide by cop.” As melodramatic as it sometimes is, and as clear that Conradt has been doing these for so long (her first Lifetime script, The Perfect Nanny, was made in 2000) she’s got the clichés down pat and knows what her audiences expect, she also manages to make her characters believable as flesh-and-blood people with flaws as well as good points. We basically like and root for Eric but he does leave his brother in the pool to die, and later he shoots someone whose only crime was wanting to discipline him; and Briana comes off as a figure of real pathos even though we generally loathe her; we basically like the nosy neighbor Briana offs early on but could see how her constant butting in to the Wilsons’ lives could become a real trial; and Shane comes off as a no-account pleasure-seeker but also a proud and independent man who’s just in over his head with this woman and her troubled son. The Davis family are the only members of the dramatis personae of Mommy’s Little Boy who really are too good to be true; otherwise the characterizations are intriguing and make this something more than just your standard-issue Lifetime movie with a provocative title and premise.

Double Mommy (Johnson Production Group, Shadowland, Lifetime, 2017)

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

After Mommy’s Little Boy Lifetime showed another “premiere” (note they’re no longer advertising them as “world premieres”!) called Double Mommy, which like the earlier film is also a follow-up to a previous Lifetime hit, Double Daddy — in which a young man impregnates two women, his regular girlfriend and a rich bitch who drugged him and essentially raped him, on the same night and had to deal with both babies. Double Mommy has at least one creative behind-the-scenes person in common with Double Daddy, screenwriter Barbara Kymlicka (and as I’ve commented on her before I wonder how she can write such sexy scripts and go through life with a name that looks like “cum licker”!). It’s directed by Doug Campbell and one of the credited producers is Ken Sanders, and as you might expect from those credits it takes place at least around, if not definitively in, the “Whittendale universe” — Whittendale University being the college the young high-schoolers in the dramatis personae aspire to attend, though as Charles pointed out when he arrived home midway through the movie, given that most of the films in the Whittendale universe have depicted Whittendale as a place whose women students all seem to be selling their bodies as prostitutes or mistresses to afford the school’s tuition, they’re probably better off not getting in there. Anyway, the leading character who gets doubly pregnant is Jessica “Jess” Bell (Morgan Obenreder), whose boyfriend Ryan (Griffin Freeman) deserted her for the summer to take an internship in Sacramento (the Whittendale universe films have been ambiguous as to just where Whittendale is; early on it seemed to be back East — Vermont, maybe — but later films in the series took place definitively in California and I got the impression that “Whittendale” really means Stanford) and left her with the attentions of Brent Davick (Mark Grossman), the hottest guy in the movie and therefore, according to Lifetime’s usual iconography, its principal villain. Brent has befriended Jess and hung out with her throughout the summer, but being a teenage male (and especially a teenage male on Lifetime!) he wants more than that, and when he makes an advance towards her and she says no, he’s grimly determined to have his way with her whether she wants to or not. So he offers her a cola which he’s spiked with a date-rape drug — since Brent’s dad is the CEO of a pharmaceutical company he had no trouble obtaining it — and he parks his SUV in front of some stadium lights on campus and tells her, “No one ever says no to me,” before he has his wicked way with her and she passes out completely. Next thing she knows she’s in her bed at home, only her pants are undone and her leg has a bruise on it. She washes herself and hears someone at her door — and of course it’s Ryan, back from his Sacramento internship and ready to resume their relationship, particularly its sexual component, then and there. She ends up this bizarre day in her life carrying twins, one male and one female, and two and one-half months later — the earliest you can have this done — she has DNA drawn from her fetuses and learns that they have different fathers: one of the babies is Ryan’s but the other is … well, we know it’s Brent, and the Bells manage to get the police to order him to submit to a DNA test that proves it.

But Brent is able to weasel out of the rape charge against him by claiming that Jess had consensual sex with him and intimidating virtually all of the students who were at the party into saying that Jess was “all over” him and clearly was hot for him. When one Black student who plays with Ryan and Brent on the Lexington school’s soccer team threatens to report to the police that he actually saw Brent spike the drink he gave Jess, Brent turns over the task of discrediting him to his dad, whose investigators dig up a DUI conviction the Black kid got and threaten to disclose that to Whittendale and any other college he might apply to — so the Black boy gets the message and lies to protect Brent. In a movie from an earlier era the Davick parents’ cover-up of their son’s misdeeds (plural because, as it turns out, Jess isn’t the first woman he’s drugged and raped) would work — daddy Davick even offers Jess’s parents a check for $500,000 in exchange for their and Jess’s permanent silence, which Jess’s dad is tempted by but her mom tears up — but they haven’t reckoned with social media. Getting revenge on Brent for having sent out a succession of tweets with attached photos of the two of them together that made it look like she wanted his body, Jess sends out tweets of her own denouncing Brent as a rapist and then puts up a big banner at school, across the lockers, with the same message. Brent and his dad respond by suing her for defamation, potentially burying her family in legal costs that will ruin them completely, and Jess agrees to back off — but Ryan points out that he and her school friends can still go after Brent since they’re not being sued. So Ryan, whose animus towards Brent got him kicked off the Lexington soccer team (ya remember the Lexington soccer team?)  hatches a plot: at the team’s biggest game of the season Ryan and Jess’s other friends will all unfurl banners and signs denouncing team member #18 — Brent — as a rapist. Jess doesn’t dare attend the game but she watches the demonstration from an opening that allows her to see the stands, and later when the participants tweet the photos of it, they get a “like” from Emily, Brent’s previous victim, whose parents took the Davicks’ payoff and used it to send her to Whittendale. Jess calls Emily and arranges to meet her, but before the meeting can happen Brent tracks her down and runs her car off the road with her own, killing her in what the cops write off as an accident.

Though he still doesn’t realize that his son has become a murderer, daddy Davick gets called in by the board members of his pharmaceutical company — which was founded by his own father and which he was grooming Brent to take over — and told to resign because now that it’s associated with date rape, the Davick name is dragging the company’s stock price down. Daddy Davick responds by disinheriting Brent, and Brent mutters something about “I’m going to do what I should have done all along,” which both his dad and we realize means that he’s going to go to Jess’s house with his daddy’s gun and shoot her. Dad himself shows up there to stop him and ends up taking the bullet himself, and there’s an epilogue set “two months later” in which Jess has had her babies — daughter Charlotte, who’s Ryan’s; and son Charlie, who’s Brent. Jess, her parents and Ryan are all cooperating in raising the kids, and it looks like we’re heading for happily-ever-after territory when in comes Candice Davick (Mandy June Turpio), Brent’s mom, who protests that with her husband dead and her son facing prison for most of the rest of his life, her grandson is all she has left. She asks to be allowed to hold the boy, and when she does so she mutters to him in sinister tones, “You’re a Davick, and don’t ever forget that” — no doubt Barbara Kymlicka’s way of setting up a possible sequel in which she’ll sue the Bells for custody and put them through hell trying to get the boy. At times Double Mommy plays as if Kymlicka was aware her movie was going to be shown right after one of Christine Conradt’s and she wanted to make sure she could write something even more insanely melodramatic than the Old Mistress — though she lacks Conradt’s skill (or inclination) in creating complex and morally ambiguous characters. Instead Double Mommy comes off as a work created more to exploit a provocative title (it worked the first time; my post on Double Daddy got more hits than anything else I’ve written in the nearly nine years I’ve been doing this blog) than to tell us anything new (or even not so new) about the human condition, and though I liked the social commentary about how the 1 percent think they can get away with anything and their money can always buy their way out of disastrous or downright evil actions for which the rest of us would pay big-time, other Lifetime movies (can you say Restless Virgins?) have done this considerably better.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Zombie Cats from Mars (Mwb3 Problems, 2015)

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

The two films shown last night at the monthly Mars Movie Screening in Golden Hill (http://marsmovieguide.com/) were pretty much dregs from the bottom of the barrel, as you could tell from their titles: Zombie Cats from Mars and Cave Women of Mars, both of them 21st century pastiches of all the lousy science-fiction and horror movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s with similar titles and agendas. Zombie Cats from Mars was dated 2015, the direction was credited to someone or something called “Montetré” (I had assumed this was either one of the actors, one of the crew members or nobody in particular, but according to imdb.com “Montetré” is a pseudonym for Monty Wayne Benson III and he has several other credits, including MoonPi, Holed-Up and Marty in Transit). It’s set in and around Portland, Oregon (though Portland is “played” by Vancouver — not the one in British Columbia, Canada but the one across the border from it in Washington, U.S.A.) and deals, as the title suggests, with miniature flying saucers from Mars that come bearing cats with eyes that glow red when they’re about to attack. Supposedly the cats live off eating human brains à la the zombies in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the myriad sequelae, remakes, reboots and ripoffs of that surprisingly successful film (Night of the Living Dead is no great shakes as cinema, but Zombie Cats from Mars makes it look like a masterpiece by comparison — hell, Zombie Cats from Mars makes Oversexed Rugsucker from Mars look like a masterpiece by comparison!).

Written by Ryan Cloutier — or at least compiled by him from old science-fiction clichés, many of them quite likely dredged up from his subconscious, perhaps under the influence of mind-altering substances (one attendee of the screening wondered how much pot was being smoked during the conception of this script, though I suspect it must have been laced with PCP or some other equally unpleasant adulterant) — Zombie Cats from Mars posited that at some point in the past a super-cat named Sassafras relocated to Mars and founded a cult which became known as the CATholic Church. Its ultimate aim was to conquer the universe for zombie cat-dom and eliminate all competing species, and as the first step towards this aim it sent a spaceship to Portland in 1915 and let out some zombie cats who killed four people before flying away again. Sassafras’s cult decided to try it again 100 years later — it’s established that at some point in their history the zombie cats figured out how to make themselves immortal — and they knock off nine people. The hero of our story is Billy Robers (Bransen Sands Koehler, who’s cute enough that he has a potential movie career ahead of him if only he learns to act), who lives in Portland with his mom Holly (Stephanie Leet) and her 10-year-old son Tommy (Benni Harper). It’s established that Billy and Tommy have different fathers — throughout the movie, whenever anyone refers to Tommy as Billy’s brother, Billy corrects them and says, “Half-brother.” It’s also established that both men in Holly’s life simply walked out on her, though it appears that she knows the whereabouts of Billy’s dad, at least. Anyway, Billy and Tommy do a paper route together (a pretty recherché plot gimmick for the 21st century) and continually get bullied by someone named Cody (Edward Zopf, who looks like he’s got potential to grow into a quite attractive “bear” type).

When he’s not on his paper route Billy spends a lot of time in his room watching ancient science-fiction movies — the imdb.com page on this one claims the film we see on his TV is Manos: The Hands of Fate, a particularly notorious Mystery Science Theatre 3000 “target” and one of the few movies on earth even worse than Zombie Cats from Mars — and for some reason the imdb.com page about this film describes Billy as “effeminate.” I presume that’s because there’s one scene in which Billy and his best friend Cameron (Estevan Muñoz) are shown in bed together, but they’re not touching each other or doing much of anything except staring straight ahead, presumably at the TV showing one of those old tacky movies Billy loves. One night Billy and Cameron see one of the Martian flying saucers land, and then people start dying: first a jogger in the hills, then a heavy-set middle-aged local woman named Percis (Janae’ Werner) who has a house full of cats (which helps spread the death toll as other people in the neighborhood take in her cats, not realizing that some of them are the lethal zombie cats), then an ice cream truck driver (Greg Fish) and two would-be customers, then Billy’s mom and (half-)brother, then the couple Lester (Joon Rhee) and Carolyn (Cheyanne Shaw) who work at the local church, and then the Black police detective (Bobby Bridges) who’s investigating the killings and who was unsurprisingly dismissive when Billy tried to explain to him, based on a book he’d found among his dad’s effects at home, that the killings were being carried out by (dare I say it!) zombie cats from Mars. Finally the town’s mayor (Josh Edward) is killed, bringing the death toll to nine, and according to the book Billy read the cats can only be killed if they’re sprayed with holy water. Accordingly Billy gets a big squirt gun and practices in his backyard with ordinary water and cardboard cut-outs of cats, then decides he’s ready for prime time and goes to the local church to steal some holy water — only he’s caught by the priest (Ernest Adams) and soon learns that this is a CATholic Church, meaning they’re on the other side. The parishioners surround Billy with murderous intent in Montetré’s most direct visual quote from Night of the Living Dead, and just when they’re about to add him to the death toll, the film cuts to Billy’s bedroom and … it was all a dream. Or was it? There’s another shot of a cat with glowing red eyes, the signal for an upcoming zombie-cat attack, and then Billy wakes up again.

Done with the right campy tone, Zombie Cats from Mars could have worked — there are some marvelous scenes, notably the opening credits that parody the FBI anti-pirating logo and the disclaimers on DVD’s that the commentaries and interviews don’t reflect the opinions of the producing studio or anyone associated with them, and the scenes with two newscasters, a man and a woman, gossiping about the other people working for their TV station (including who’s having sex with whom and whose lawfully wedded spouse better not find out about it) and, when they’re actually on camera, cutting back and forth between news of the murders and the most light-hearted fluff pieces writer Cloutier could think of. But most of the film is shot with a dreary dullness that works neither as legitimate entertainment nor as camp, and about all we’re given to watch are some remarkably pretty young men (notably the therapist who’s interviewing Billy in the opening scene, who may or may not have turned up later as one of the victims) doing not particularly interesting things. Zombie Cats from Mars is that particular sort of horrible movie that was intended to be horrible but turned out even worse than intended! One imdb.com reviewer said that Zombie Cats from Mars started out as a YouTube serial — which would explain why it’s a series of disconnected incidents with little more than a central premise connecting them — and it reaches its silliest moments when one of the zombie cats saws through a gas pipe to fill up the home of the church couple with gas and thus asphyxiate them. (I’m not making this up, you know; it couldn’t help but remind me of how my late roommate/home-care client John P. turned against the original Jurassic Park movie when it asked us to believe that the velociraptors could have figured out how to manipulate a doorknob and open a door.)