Monday, August 13, 2018

Babysitter’s Nightmare (The Ninth House, Marvista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

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

Last night Lifetime ran a “premiere” movie called Babysitter’s Nightmare and then a relative oldie from 2017 called The Bachelor Next Door — I’m not sure why Lifetime chose these as double-bill partners unless it’s that actress Brittany Underwood was in both of them, in a supporting part in The Bachelor Next Door and as the lead in Babysitter’s Nightmare. The plot of Babysitter’s Nightmare, written and directed by Jake Helgren and set in Los Angeles (though our only real clue as to the latter is the mention of Lankershim Boulevard, famous as the location of Universal Studios), deals with nurse Daphne Hart (Brittany Underwood), who’s just been fired from her hospital job because a child she was supposed to be caring for died under her watch. She protests that the responsibility really lay with the attending physician, who sent her out for coffee and then himself turned away from watching the monitor and getting to the child in time to save its life. But she gets laid off anyway and the experience leads her to leave the city and break up with her boyfriend, resident physician Jeremy (Mark Grossman), who’s training to live up to the old joke, “What do you call a person who thinks he’s God? A schizophrenic. What do you call a person who knows he’s God? A doctor.” She moves to L.A. and gets a live-in job taking care of Toby Andrews (Jet Jurgensmeyer), son of a well-to-do couple who are leaving town for a month to visit family. Toby is staying behind because he has an intense fear of flying; he’s also diabetic and requires regular insulin injections, so Daphne figures it’s not just a babysitting job and will tap into at least some of her skills as a nurse. 

She’s encouraged to take it by her African-American best friend back at the hospital, Dr. Kaci Washington (Shanica Knowles) — and of course the moment we realize the heroine’s best friend is Black we can start measuring her for her coffin. The film starts with a prologue whose connection with the main action doesn’t become clear until much later: another young blonde woman with a live-in babysitter job is awaiting the arrival of a pizza delivery person — we hear enough of her end of the phone call between them to realize she’s expecting more from him than pizza — and later we learn that she was found in the hills, murdered. Daphne soon realizes she’s being stalked by the same pizza guy, who turns up unannounced the day after he’s delivered to them claiming that she overpaid him and asking her to do lunch with him sometime, and other things start to happen to indicate that she’s being stalked. At one point a young dark-haired woman named Audra (Arianne Zucker) shows up and says she is a newly assigned worker for the Andrews’ maid service, which explains why she has the key to the place, only later on Toby’s mother Karen Andrews (Reagan Pasternak) says in one of her ongoing phone calls to Daphne that they’ve never used a maid service. Kaci comes out to visit Daphne and the two of them find themselves menaced inside the Andrews’ big house by a sinister, unseen assailant. Daphne’s ex Jeremy also shows up, but the mystery assailant — who wears a hood and a black cloak that resembles the legendary Grim Reaper, though without the scythe — sneaks into his car while he’s exploring the house, and when he returns to the car the killer strangles him with a leather cord and leaves him in his car in front of the house. 

In the end the killer traps both women in the house and turns out to be [spoiler alert!] not the twitchy pizza guy but Audra, who was the mother of the child who died in the hospital under Daphne’s care and who determined to avenge herself against everyone she held responsible for the death, including her own babysitter (the earlier victim) as well as Daphne. The three women use a variety of weapons against each other, and at one point Audra breaks a wine bottle to get a sharp instrument with which she can stab Kaci — though Kaci makes it to the next-to-last act (it usually doesn’t take that long for Lifetime writers to dispatch the heroine’s African-American best friend) and when she dies it’s not from Audra stabbing her with one end of the broken bottle, but Audra knocking her over until she picturesquely falls on the shard of the other end. In the end Daphne manages to knock out Audra and eventually the police, called by Karen Andrews after Daphne’s frantic pleading for her to do so, come and save the day. There’s also a cute guy playing a cop, Gavyn Michaels as Officer Chase, who shows up when Daphne makes a 911 call and then feels embarrassed that it’s just the maid (and it’s only much oater, of course, that both she and we realize it’s the principal villainess posing as a maid!), and for a moment it looked like they were setting the cop up as a replacement boyfriend for Daphne once Jeremy got killed, but they didn’t go there and in the end Daphne decides to move back to her home town, Atlanta, and go back to medical school to become the doctor she really wanted to be. Babysitter’s Nightmare is pretty routine stuff, though the final half-hour is a quite nicely honed, almost wordless tale of suspense and terror; a pity Helgren’s writing before that is pretty slovenly and by-the-numbers Lifetime formula!

The Bachelor Next Door (Michael Feifer/Lifetime, 2017)

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

The Bachelor Next Door was also pretty routine, made up by writer/director/producer Michael Feifer from bits and pieces of previous Lifetime scripts about romantic obsessives carrying unrequited torches on heroines for over a decade. In this case the obsessive is Donnie Bradford (Michael Welch), who suddenly turns up in the home next door to the main couple, Alex (Haylie Duff) and her live-in boyfriend, investment advisor Gavin Barnett (Steven Bruns, who throws the usual Lifetime formula “off” a bit by being better-looking overall than Michael Welch, though one scene with the three principals together reveals that Welch has the bigger basket). Alex is an aspiring artist and Gavin wants them to get married, but Alex is holding off because she wants an independent career and doesn’t want to be just a “wife.” The house next door is owned by an older couple, William and Cindy Bradford, and Donnie claims that he’s their nephew and is essentially house-sitting for them. This film contains a prologue, set in 2007 at a university in Colorado, in which someone sexually assaulted Alex and someone else pulled him off her — though we’re not told until the very end just who did what to whom in this incident. All we really know about it is that Alex still has nightmares in which she flashes back to it.

Alex meets Donnie when he happens to come along with a fire extinguisher and puts out a fire in their kitchen; she proclaims him her “hero” and Donnie gradually insinuates himself more and more into their lives, doing home repairs and dating Alex’s sister Sage (Brittany Underwood — see, I told you she was in this movie!). The four of them spend time at a deserted mountain cabin (not another deserted mountain cabin in a Lifetime movie!), at which Donnie comes on to Sage, though when they get together and are about to have sex Donnie blows it with her by saying, “I’ve always loved you, Alex.” So Sage catches on that this guy is just using her as a proxy for her sister. Somewhere along the way Gavin proposes to Alex, who accepts, only Donnie decides to break them up by stealing an earring from Gavin’s boss, and former lover, Jennifer Green (Preeti Desai), and writing Gavin a fake e-mail, ostensibly from Jennifer, stating how glad she is that Gavin has finally decided to resume their affair. Naturally Alex is pissed off and mega-jealous about this, and she and Gavin have a fight which ends with Gavin getting in his car and chasing after Donnie. Donnie spots him and calls the police, saying that he’s being followed by a road-rage driver; Alex tries to call Gavin and get him to turn around and come home, but too late: Gavin is arrested, taken into custody and interrogated by an avuncular Black police detective (Kim Estes). Eventually Gavin is able to sort out the misunderstanding, get the detective to realize Donnie set all this up for his own reasons, and get Alex to accept that whatever he had with Jennifer is long over and he has neither resumed it nor shown any interest in doing so. So Donnie sneaks up behind Alex with a cloth containing a knockout drug and uses it to kidnap her and take her at gunpoint to the deserted mountain cabin (you just knew it was going to end at that deserted mountain cabin, didn’t you?), which he’s picked as a location because it’s out of cell-phone range.

Both Gavin and the police have caught on that Donnie really isn’t the Bradfords’ nephew — he set them up to burn to death in a car accident and simply took over their home — and the detective traces Donnie back to college in Colorado in 2007. We’ve assumed all along that Donnie was the man who tried to rape Alex way back when, but in fact [spoiler alert!] Donnie was actually the one who saved Alex from being raped by Johnny, a frat boy who also had the hots for her, and Gavin, who was also at that college, saw the incident but didn’t intervene because he didn’t see the attempted rape and thought it was just two frat boys beating each other up as part of a hazing ritual. Donnie had a crush on Alex even before he rescued her, and him saving her from a rapist turned that crush into a lifelong obsession. (Kudos are in order to Feifer’s uncredited makeup person for making Michael Welch look a decade younger, considerably nerdier and acne-ridden in the flashback sequence.) Ignoring the good advice of the detective to stay out of it and let the local police handle the situation, Gavin drives up to the cabin with a gun of his own; he shoots Donnie in the chest, Donnie fires back at him and misses, and then Alex gets the gun away from Donnie and uses it to drill him with a clean shot to the forehead, so when the cops arrive Donnie is already dead. An epilogue set a year later shows Gavin and Alex finally getting married. The Bachelor Next Door is in the middling run of Lifetime movies, so predictable and clichéd (except for that neat reversal over what really happened back in 2007) one pretty much guesses what’s going to happen an act or two in advance, though it’s not as dementedly silly as some of Feifer’s scripts have been and it works O.K. within the formula. Michael Welch’s superficially charming and blessedly restrained performance as the psycho also helps, but for the most part this is a pretty forgettable film.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Ready Player One (Warner Bros., Amblin Entertainment, De Line Entertainment, Dune, RatPack, Village Roadshow Pictures, 2018)

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

Charles and I watched the Blu-Ray disc of the 2018 film Ready Player One, directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline based on Cline’s novel of the same title, which Charles and I had both read and enjoyed. The film was considerably changed from the book — despite the presence of the original author as one of the screenwriters — but the basic outline of the plot remains the same: in the U.S. in 2045, conditions for most people have deteriorated so much that they live in “stacks,” essentially giant columns of old trailers stacked on top of each other. Real life has become so oppressive and dull that most people spend most of their time online in an overarching virtual-reality simulator called “OASIS,” invented 20 years previously by reclusive computer genius James Halliday (Mark Rylance, dressed so baggily and unsexily it’s hard to remember this guy has a very large and blessedly uncut cock — I know that because I’ve seen him in the film Intimacy, a sort of Last Tango in Paris knockoff in which he got to go full-frontal quite a lot) and his former business partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). Cline has admitted that the obvious parallel with Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak was intentional, though a lot of the material has the gloss of fiction — it seems that at one point Halliday had a crush on a woman named Karen, screen name Kira (just about everyone in this movie has an online OASIS avatar as well as a real name), only he was too shy to get to first base with her and she eventually married Morrow just before Halliday forced Morrow out of the company. Early on in the film we see a video Halliday left to be shown after his death (I suspect Cline was basing this at least partly on Timothy Leary and his decision literally to broadcast his death online) in which he declares that there will be a worldwide contest in the OASIS to find three hidden keys and an Easter egg (computer slang for a message or object hidden in a program), and the first person to find all these items in the OASIS will inherit the entire system from him. This, of course, has attracted the attention of the villain, CEO Nick Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) of the sinister company IOI (which stands for Interactive Online Industries), who have thousands of staff members toiling away at Halliday trivia looking for clues to the keys and the egg, which are hidden and accessible only to people with an extensive knowledge of 1980’s cultural trivia. (As Ernest Cline readily admits in one of the bonus featurettes, he was a teenager in the 1980’s and therefore remembers and experiences the culture of that period with the sort of nostalgic glow I bring to anything from the 1960’s.) 

Charles and I were both disappointed that one of the most powerful sequences in the novel — a duel between hero and villain within the 1980’s video game Joust — didn’t make it into the movie, though I suspect many of the differences between book and film were based on what rights could or couldn’t be cleared. Ready Player One isn’t the film either Charles or I imagined when we read the book (for one thing, I had wanted the real-world scenes outside the OASIS to be filmed in black-and-white, with only the OASIS scenea in color, to reflect the drabness of real-world existence in the film’s 2045), and a friend of mine who liked Blade Runner: 2049 as much as I hated it said one of the reasons he liked Blade Runner: 2049 is it undermined the convention of the “quest” narrative in which the chosen individual finds the magic object or completes the task that redeems all. Certainly Ready Player One is a classic “quest” narrative in which the hero Parzival (on-line avatar of Wade Wells, played engagingly if not brilliantly by Tye Sheridan) uses his knowledge of video games, 1980’s culture and Hallidayiana to conquer the villainous forces of IOI and win the prize. By picking the name of the hero of the Holy Grail quest story in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s prose poem (a fascinating work in its own right because it’s one of the few first-person accounts from the Middle Ages of just what it was like to be a knight) and Richard Wagner’s opera, Cline underscored the “quest” part of the narrative and the extent to which his hero is the “Chosen One,” though for someone who at the start of the film resolutely refuses to “clan” with anyone else he ends up with a group of confederates with whom he sticks, including his girlfriend Art3mis a.k.a. Samantha (Olivia Cooke) whom he meets and falls in love with in the OASIS long before he’s met her in the real world, along with Aech, a young Black woman who’s assumed the avatar of a Black male in the OASIS (Lena Waithe); and two Asian-American kids, teenager Daito (Win Morisaki) and 11-year-old Sho (Philip Zhao) — though Daito died midway through the novel, in its most tragic scene, all five of the modern musketeers live to the end of the movie and they take over the OASIS as a joint enterprise, turning it off two days a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) so people will regain some involvement with the real world and try to better it instead of just retreating into the fantasies of the OASIS. 

Some of the changes between book and film seem to have been dictated by rights issues, some by director Spielberg not wanting to come off as a total egomaniac (he had the writers cut way down the number of references to films he directed or produced), and some simply to bring the effects budget closer to something resembling reason — though even so the movie’s post-production effects work took so long that Spielberg was able to make a whole other movie, The Post (the recent drama about the Washington Post acquiring and publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971), while waiting for the various effects houses to finish all the special-effects shots. There was potential for an even more interesting movie in Ready Player One the book, but the film as it stands is quite good, engagingly entertaining in the best Spielberg manner. I did have one quibble: the sequences in the OASIS looked just too video-gamey, with the actors taking on the cartoonish appearance of game characters — real video games in 2018 have a greater visual clarity than much of this movie and I had imagined the OASIS delivering state-of-the-art resolution comparable to that of a digitally shot movie. According to a “trivia” post on, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shot the “real” parts of the movie on film and the OASIS scenes in digital to establish the sort of visual contrast between the worlds I would have wanted to do by having the real-world scenes in black-and-white — and in one sequence in which the heroes fool the villain by hacking into his OASIS feed and thereby presenting him a scenario he thinks is real, Spielberg expected the fact that this sequence was shot in digital to give it away to the audience. Ready Player One is also an example of the anti-corporate tic that still runs through a lot of popular entertainment; despite the takeover of virtually all our lives by giant corporations, the popular artists of the world still take enormous amounts of corporate money to produce these at least mildly anti-corporate entertainments. Just as I was beginning to see the Frank Capra parallels in this plot, writers Penn and Cline hammered them home by quoting the line from It’s a Wonderful Life, “No man is a failure who has friends.” 

In some ways Ready Player One is a Libertarian fantasy of the heroic entrepreneur who creates an alternative universe and his heroic-entrepreneur successor who saves it from a corrupt bureaucracy — like The Hunger Games, Ready Player One can sustain both a Libertarian reading and a quasi-socialist one in which the capitalists are the bad guys and the heroic radical the good guy (and one of the most chilling aspects of Ready Player One is the off-handedness with which Nick Sorrento orders and carries out the destruction of the “stacks” in which Wade lives, just to eliminate him as a rival to the contest — he survives because he’s somewhere else when the attack occurs, but the aunt who had raised him and her asshole partner get blown up). It’s also ironic that Wade’s home base is Columbus, Ohio, which also figures in Omar El Akkad’s American War as the new capital of the United States (this book is also set in the late 21st century and describes a future in which climate change has eliminated much of the California coast, including Los Angeles and San Diego, and all of Florida except for a few scattered high bits that survive as islands; what’s left of the U.S. government passes a law providing for the death penalty for anyone who still uses fossil fuels; and as a result Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, along with South Carolina and Texas, secede and form the “Free Southern State,” resulting in a 20-year civil war and a bioplague that kills millions since both sides in the war use bioweapons) and figured in the recent special Congressional election in Ohio, in which Republican legislators split Columbus between two Congressional districts to keep them both reliably in Republican hands, only a Democratic challenger was able to mobilize enough voters from Columbus and its suburbs to come heartbreakingly close to defeating the Republican in a district that went for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 11 percent. Who knew that Columbus would suddenly become a focal point for American politics both in fiction and in real life?

Monday, August 6, 2018

A Sister’s Secret (Lifetime, 2018)

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

Last night I watched two Lifetime movies, including a “premiere” of something called A Sister’s Secret that is so obscure doesn’t even have a page for it yet. I had to glean what information I could about it from Lifetime’s own Web site and a page at A Sister’s Secret is billed as starring former dance music diva Paula Abdul, though she plays the supporting part of Aunt Rose Abbott, who raised twin sisters Elizabeth and Kallie Abbott (both played by Margaret Ann Florence) after their parents were killed in a car crash in 1995. There’s a prologue set at a high-school swim meet in which one of the sisters substitutes for the other in a relay race and helps their school win it, then ogles the cute guy Rick (I don’t know who played him but he’s easily the cutest guy in the film!) who’s hanging out on the diving board even though a comic shot after the sisters leave shows him just jumping off the board, not really diving. The point of this prologue is to establish that no one can tell the sisters apart, though there’s one scene of them together that gives us the main difference between them: one of them loves salsa, the hotter the better, while the other can’t stand the stuff and will poop in her pants if she tries to eat it. I had thought the writers were putting this in on the Anton Chekhov principle that if you introduce a pistol in act one, it has to go off in act three, but no-o-o-o-o, the filmmakers just get their little gag out of this plot point and then dump it completely. The film flashes forward (though we don’t get Lifetime’s usual chyron telling us how many years forward) and Kallie is still living in the sisters’ original home town of Fayetteville, Georgia and is married to an excessively dull and not terribly attractive man named Grady (Donny Boaz) and has had two kids by him. Elizabeth has met a man named Jackson and is working with him in a big office in Atlanta, where they’re partners in an investment management firm. They’re not partners outside the office, though Jackson clearly would like them to be. Elizabeth and Kallie get together one weekend for a visit to Aunt Rose, and out of the older woman’s earshot they make a deal to swap each other’s lives for one week. Elizabeth presents this to Kallie as a lark and expresses concern about what’s going to happen if Kallie’s husband Grady wants to have sex with her. “Don’t worry,” Kallie says. “We haven’t done that in years.” The two make the swap, with Kallie driving off in Elizabeth’s Porsche while Elizabeth takes Kallie’s nondescript something-or-other back to Fayetteville.

Only things turn dark when Kallie decides to use her new-found freedom to go for a night on the town, doing Atlanta’s club scene and getting cruised by a hunky Black D.J. Alas, she’s followed out of the club by another Black man, a sinister, bearded figure named Dylan Fried, and he runs her down with his car, killing her. It turns out that Elizabeth actually knew this might happen and conceived of the swap of identities with her sister in hopes it would save her life — which it did, but at the cost of Kallie’s. Aunt Rose notices the imposture right away but Grady and the kids are clueless, and Elizabeth settles into Kallie’s life of domesticity — while back in Atlanta, Dylan Fried crashes Jackson’s office and demands the return of money Dylan invested in Jackson’s company. Jackson says he no longer has it — he had warned Dylan the investment was speculative and there was a chance that he would lose it all, which indeed happened — but Dylan isn’t the kind to take no for an answer. He responds by pitching Jackson through the big window of Jackson’s office, killing him, then he starts typing on Jackson’s computer. I thought at first he was hacking the computer to get the money back, but it turns out he’s writing a note so police will read it on Jackson’s computer and think Jackson committed suicide. Back in Fayetteville, Elizabeth gets wind of Jackson’s death and realizes his killer will be targeting her next as soon as he realizes he ran down the wrong sister back in Atlanta. She’s approached by a woman cop who’s investigating the deaths of Jackson and Kallie, who doesn’t realize that Elizabeth isn’t Kallie but does notice something “off” about her responses, as if she’s concealing something. Elizabeth eventually breaks down and tells Grady her real identity, and like the boor he is he responds by throwing her out of their house — only Dylan Fried finds their redoubt in the country and starts stalking them.

Eventually the principals learn from a TV news broadcast that Dylan himself has been murdered, but there’s a white guy Dylan was working for who shows up at the country cabin where the principals are staying, and there’s a big fight scene in which the bad guy gets killed — we never find out what illegal enterprise he and Dylan were involved in, but we really don’t need to know — and afterwards one of the return-to-normalcy scenes Lifetime is so big on, in which Elizabeth and Grady have reconciled, they’re clearly attracted to each other, and Elizabeth is about to tell the kids (ya remember the kids?) she’s really their aunt, not their mother, but Grady and Aunt Rose pull them away to go fishing just in time … and there’s a title indicating that Grady and Elizabeth got married nine months later, they told the kids the truth “when they were old enough,” and they’ve been together for 20 years since. The opening credits had proclaimed this film was “inspired by a true story,” but what it comes off like to me is a combination of the 1940’s films A Stolen Life and Hollow Triumph. A Stolen Life, directed by German expat Curtis Bernhardt and co-starring Bette Davis, Bette Davis and Glenn Ford, featured Davis as lookalike twins; the bad Davis seduces Ford away from the good Davis, then tries to kill the good Davis in a rowboat on a lake, only the bad Davis dies instead and the good Davis tries to “steal” her life as Mrs. Glenn Ford. Hollow Triumph, also known as The Scar, was directed by Hungarian expat Steve Sekely and featured Davis’s friend and co-star Paul Henried as a petty criminal who murders and then impersonates a psychiatrist who looks just like him, except for a scar just below his lower lip, only to find out that the psychiatrist was heavily in debt to illegal gamblers who are out to kill him, and therefore Henried’s character is in more trouble in his new identity than he was in his old one. A Sister’s Secret comes off as decent entertainment but no more, O.K. in the usual Lifetime manner but offering no particularly unique or compelling twists on their usual formulae.

The Wrong Cruise (Hybrid/Lifetime, 2018)

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

After A Sister’s Secret I stayed with Lifetime for a repeat showing of one of their recent “premieres,” The Wrong Cruise, which judging from the title and the basic premise I thought was going to be a modern-day version of the marvelous 1934 film Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, a combination murder mystery and musical set on an ocean liner with the obvious frisson that the other characters can’t escape from the killer since they’re all together on a ship in the mid-Atlantic. Instead it was a depressingly ordinary thriller set mostly on land — La Paz, Mexico, to be exact — and deals with middle-aged African-American woman Claire Turner (Vivica A. Fox) and her daughter Skylar, generally called “Sky” (Sidney Nicole Rogers). Some months before the film starts, Claire’s husband was killed in an accident, and ever since then Sky has been acting up in school — in the opening scene we see her punch out another girl in P.E. because she’d been bullying a third girl, but since she remains silent on why she hit the bully, she gets a two-week suspension and the threat of expulsion if she’s ever caught acting out of line again. Claire has already booked a three-day cruise down the West Coast to Baja California, Mexico, and she takes Sky along as planned mainly because she doesn’t want to let her daughter out of her sight. Unfortunately, some sinister people are on to their identities — we know that because we’ve seen a scene of otherwise unidentified hands doing a search on a computer and turning up the Tanners’ identities — and so they go on the cruise facing danger to which they’re oblivious.

It turns out they’re being set up by a gang of three crooks, Dante (Andres Londono), his young ward Rico (the genuinely hot twink Adrian Quinta, who deserves a shot at better roles than this), and the cruise director Pat (William McNamara), who’s willing to sell out his passengers for a third of the take. (Actually it was only supposed to be 20 percent, but midway through the plot Pat holds out for more.) Their first task is to seduce their pigeons — Dante manages to have sex with Claire and Rico with Sky — we get the impression that this is the first time Claire has had sex since her husband died and the first time Sky has had sex at all — and the next morning Dante offers, while the ship is stopped at La Paz, to take Claire out for a day trip on his sailboat. Only he pretends that the motor is broken and strands Claire out in mid-sea, then gives her drugged champagne and when she comes to reveals that he’s actually kidnapped her for a nefarious purpose. Meanwhile Rico offers to take Sky to the police, but instead drives her at night to an out-of-the-way location where he and his confederates are going to hold her and threaten to kill her if Claire doesn’t pay them the $1 million in life insurance she got from the death of her husband. We also learn the significance of the scene we saw at the opening — a blonde woman frees herself from rope bondage — that the Terrible Trio have done this sort of thing before and at least four women have “disappeared” from earlier cruises on the same line. It seems that Dante, the ringleader of the three, originally was just after the money but as he’s done this more often he’s become more openly sadistic, having fun psychologically torturing their victims and then killing them, despite Pat’s protests that this will blow the whole thing if his cruise line becomes notorious for having middle-aged women mysteriously disappear on every voyage. Rico has a crisis of conscience which better, more sensitive filmmakers than the ones we got here (director David DeCoteau and writers Jeffrey Schenck, Peter Sullivan and Nick Everhart, all old Lifetime hands) might have made into a real dramatic issue instead of an annoying affectation, and my expectations that Rico would eventually turn state’s evidence against the gang and give the Mexican police the evidence needed to bust them were dashed when Dante, realizing Rico can no longer be trusted, off-handedly kills him just after he’s ambushed and shot both Pat and Pat’s girlfriend, who had come out to the deserted country cabin (not another deserted country cabin!) to rendezvous with him.

The filmmakers do one genuinely creative thing with their story: in the last half-hour Dante off-handedly surprises and kills a Mexican cop and then puts on his uniform and impersonates him (it’s been established previously that Dante speaks both English and Spanish perfectly), so for the last half-hour of the movie Claire and Sky are fleeing through Mexico while they’ve been reported to the authorities as fugitives from justice who killed a Mexican police officer. Alas, there’s a continuity glitch as the car Dante has stolen from the real cop he killed says “Policia Estatil” (State Police) while the jacket he’s wearing, ostensibly stolen from the real cop Dante killed, reads “Policia Municipal” (City Police). There’s also a bad mistake in that midway through their flight Claire and Sky stop at a Gilmore gas station in the interior of Baja and make off with the station owner’s car — all Mexican gas stations are run by the state-owned oil company Pemex (Petroleos Mexicanos) and carry the Pemex logo. Nonetheless, The Wrong Cruise takes on a Kafka-esque aspect as the heroines are fleeing not only from a psycho killer impersonating a Mexican cop but from the real Mexican cops — though when they’re finally caught by genuine police they persuade them ridiculously easily that they’re innocent and Dante, whom Claire has killed by smashing his head in with a wrench, was the real bad guy. The Wrong Cruise, like A Sister’s Secret, is a pretty ordinary Lifetime movie, and the only interesting visual effect director DeCoteau and cinematographer Ben Demaree get is some interesting color changes as Dante is seen in the alternating blinking blue and red lights of the police car he commandeered. As I said, this would have been a more interesting movie if it had all taken place (aside from the establishing scenes) on the ocean liner instead of on land — at the end officials from the U.S. consulate show up and offer the Tanners a flight back home — and the gimmick of having the bad guy pose as a cop makes the last half-hour a bit more powerful than it would have been otherwise, but this is still pretty ordinary to-the-Lifetime-pattern filmmaking, not offensively bad but nothing special either.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Killer Twin (Pender Street Pictures, Reel One Entertainment, Lifetime, 2018)

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

Last night’s Lifetime “premiere” was Killer Twin, originally shot as A Sister’s Obsession — for once Lifetime’s retitlers came up with something that was actually an improvement — which was basically a reworking of the Bette Davis vehicles A Stolen Life (1948) and Dead Ringer (1964), in which La Davis was cast as a good twin and a bad twin and one Davis literally tried to take over the other Davis’s life. This time the killer twin and her non-killer sister were played by Lindsay Hartley, who’s hardly in Bette Davis’s league as an actress but at least was competent and believable, and she and director David Langlois restrained the scenery-chewing so as bad twin Amber Sheridan she was believable instead of florid, while she actually seemed more suited to the role of good-twin Kendra Collins Walker. The multiplicity of last names is explained by a prologue set in an orphanage in Seattle (we could tell it was supposed to be Seattle because the first thing we see is an aerial shot of the Space Needle, and since this is Lifetime and the production companies are Reel One Entertainment and Pender Street Pictures, I instantly guessed — correctly — that writers Dave Hickey and Jenna Brister laid the story in Washington state so it could be filmed just across the border in British Columbia, Canada). The place is run by Eunice (Bronwen Smith), an imperious petty tyrant, and it makes Jane Eyre’s Lowood look like A. S. Neill’s Summerhill by comparison.

Eunice’s charges — at least the only two we get to meet — are sisters Kendra (Elise Irwin) and Amber (Amelie Irwin) Sheridan (though we don’t learn their last name until almost the end of the film), who are supposed to be three but looked more like five to me. Eunice cozies up to Kendra but treats Amber hatefully, and when a wealthy couple, Mr. and Mrs. Collins, comes to the orphanage looking for a child to adopt (in the usual tradition of Lifetime couples they’ve tried reproducing au naturel but she’s miscarried), Eunice presents them Kendra but lies to them and says she’s an only child — thereby breaking not only ethical but legal rules as well, since the law in Washington state (at least according to this movie) is that twins can only be adopted together. So Kendra gets a nice home with a well-to-do family and a classy career as a teacher, while Amber lives at the orphanage until she ages out at 18 and then becomes a petty crook, making her living (at least as far as we can see) by stealing high-end cars and selling them to a chop shop. The film flashes forward with a typical Lifetime chyron, “30 Years Later,” and 30 years later Kendra has just been named Washington’s Educator of the Year. She’s got her picture taken receiving this honor, and Amber sees the photo on the front page of a throwaway local paper and immediately starts hatching her revenge plot. She goes back to the orphanage and confronts Eunice — who, even though she was supposed to be a homely woman in the first place, still should have been made to look older than she did in the prologue set 30 years earlier — who refuses to give her access to the records of her sister’s adoption. So Amber simply kills Eunice, knocking her to the floor and then smothering her with a pillow, though incredibly when the police find the body they and their medical examiner miss all the evidence of strangulation and determine Eunice died from a fall. 

Meanwhile, Kendra not only has a prestigious career (at least as prestigious as any career in K-12 education ever gets in the United States!), she’s also married to a drop-dead gorgeous hunk named Dane Walker (Jason Cermak), and we blessedly get a lot of nice shots of the two of them together in bed, with him topless and showing off a nice musculature. For once the “good husband” in a Lifetime movie is being played by someone genuinely sexy instead of the usual lanky, sandy-haired mediocre actor who generally gets these parts, and though one might suspect that somewhere along the way the evil sister seduced her good sister’s husband and got him to participate in her plot, blessedly writers Hickey and Brister didn’t go there. Instead they establish that Dane has actually got Kendra pregnant, so after years of joshing that she’s been taking care of other people’s children but hasn’t had any of her own, Kendra is aout to do what her adoptive mom was not and reproduce au naturel. Amber traces Kendra to her home and breaks in — Kendra hears her and calls the cops, but they arrive too late to catch the burglar — and she takes care not to steal anything tangible except for little things that wouldn’t be missed immediately, like her invitation to a dinner at which Kendra as Educator of the Year is supposed to give a presentation, and her safety-deposit key (which, as Charles noted, looks like an ordinary Schlage-style house key and not a real safety-deposit box key). But she does go through Kendra’s wallet and note down all her credit-card information, which she uses to max out all her accounts so the next time Kendra goes shopping, all her cards are declined and she has no idea why. Fortunately, the police — or at least the one police officer we see, Detective Nick Mahoney (Peter Flemming) — is smarter on the uptake than most Lifetime policemen, and he makes the connection between the burglary at Kendra’s home and the identity fraud against her. 

Then Amber starts posing as Kendra in public, and though she’s studied enough of Kendra’s public record she can convince people up to a point, she constantly gets tripped up by not knowing intimate details of Kendra’s life. When she shows up at Kendra’s bank to loot the safety-deposit box of the heirloom jewels Kendra’s mom Janet Collins (Candice Hunter) gave her — and which Kendra wanted to recover so she could wear them during her mom’s impending visit to celebrate her upcoming grandmotherhood — the bank officer, Marvin (Nelson Wong), inadvertently exposes her by thanking her for recommending that seafood restaurant where Dane proposed to her — and Amber doesn’t know its name. Marvin threatens to report her as an impostor, and Amber takes up the safety-deposit box itself and hits him over the head with it (blunt objects seem to be her preferred weapons through most of the film, though she’s also strangled someone and later she uses a knife). All this is captured on the bank’s security video, so not only are both Kendra and the police aware that there’s someone out there who looks like Kendra who’s impersonating her for criminal reasons, they have a pretty good idea who that is — even though Kendra had repressed any memory of even having a twin until she starts having dreams that flash her back to the orphanage and enable her to put two and two together and figure out who her impersonator is and what her motive is. Amber keeps giving herself away, and at one point Kendra’s best friend Monica (Bethany Brown), the typical Lifetime heroine’s African-American best friend who catches on to the villain’s scheme but gets killed before she can tell anybody, confronts Amber, notices she’s “off” and, you guessed it, gets killed by Amber with a knife before she can tell anybody. The finale occurs when Amber sneaks ground poppyseeds into a fruit basket being sent to Kendra — Amber is deathly allergic to poppyseeds and, as her identical twin, Kendra is too — and Kendra eats the tainted fruit and is hospitalized. Sure that she has killed Kendra, Amber impersonates her at the education banquet, gives Kendra’s speech, and then tries to make it with Kendra’s husband Dane in the kinky soft-core porn scene we’ve been expecting all movie — only Dane notices that Amber is missing Kendra’s birthmark, catches on and breaks off the proceedings before he’s had the chance to penetrate her. 

The finale occurs after Amber learns via an intercepted e-mail that Kendra is still alive, and she goes to her home to finish the job after first confronting Kendra’s adoptive mother Janet and asking why Janet and her late husband didn’t adopt her, too. Janet protests that she didn’t even know Amber existed, and they would have had no trouble taking a second child if they had, but it’s too late: Amber clonks Janet with the nearest blunt instrument and leaves her to die — though as things turn out, she doesn’t — and then she goes to Kendra’s and Dane’s home for a final confrontation (Kendra left the hospital early with Janet when they learned from a TV news show that Monica had been killed), with Amber armed with a kitchen knife and Kendra with a baseball bat. The two have a big fight scene (though I suspect director Langlois used doubles extensively to create the illusion of Lindsay Hartley fighting Lindsay Hartley) which ends with Kendra — stop me if you’ve heard this before — pitching Amber off the staircase rail and sending her plunging from floor two to floor one, though Amber survives and Detective Mahoney arrives on the scene in time to arrest her. The finale takes place Six Months Later and features a visibly pregnant Kendra with Dane watching TV coverage of Kendra’s latest career advance — she’s been promoted to superintendent of her school district — and then cuts to a scene of Amber in prison watching the same scene on a jailhouse TV and telling the other prisoners in the room to quiet down so she can hear the sound. One of her fellow prisoners, a diesel-dyke type with a killer Mohawk, says, “That woman looks an awful lot like you!” The End. Killer Twin is a pretty good Lifetime movie, though throughout it one’s reminded of all too many other movies that did these tropes better — and frankly I think I would have liked it better if one of the sisters had killed the other early on and then been forced to continue the imposture: in fact, at one point I had thought that Amber would kill Kendra, successfully take her place, then have the moment of truth occur later when everyone realized that “Kendra” was not about to have a baby!

General Electric Theater: “I’m a Fool” (MCA, Revue Productions, CBS-TV, aired November 14, 1954)

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

Afterwards Charles and I watched two intriguing episodes of the General Electric Theater TV show, which ran from 1951 through 1962 and was a key element in the political evolution of its host, Ronald Reagan. It put him in touch with General Electric and in particular its fanatically Right-wing CEO, Harold Boulware, who hired Reagan not only to host the TV show but to tour GE’s plants and give suitably “inspirational” talks to its workforce. Later, after Boulware retired, his successors let Reagan go because they thought his talks were getting too openly political and towing too much of a Right-wing line that wasn’t exactly what they wanted their workers to hear from their bosses. These both came from late 1954 and we were watching them as part of the three-DVD boxed set of James Dean’s television appearances, and though they came from the same program the two shows were dramatically different in their levels of inspiration and accomplishment. Both came from Los Angeles, where Dean was living following the completion of his first featured film role, East of Eden, but before the movie had been released. The first was an adaptation of Sherwood Anderson’s 1924 short story “I’m a Fool,” about a young man from a farm (so once again Dean was playing the farm kid he was for real) who heads for the (relatively) big city of Sandusky, Ohio to try to get a job as a “swipe,” basically the kid who cleans the horseshit out of the stables at a racetrack. He meets a philosophical old Black man named Burt (Roy Glenn, who actually turns in the best job of acting in the film!) who agrees to hire him, and Dean’s character (he’s just referred to in the cast list as “The Boy” and we never learn his real name) applies himself and works his way up enough to the point where, though he’s far from affluent, he can pose as at least a semi-rich kid enough to impress the guests of a fancy hotel. There he meets the genuinely affluent Wilbur (Leon Tyler), his girlfriend Elinor (Gloria Castillo) and their friend Lucy (Natalie Wood — so she worked with Dean before they made Rebel Without a Cause together!). “The Boy” is instantly smitten with Lucy — and she with him — but to impress her he makes up a phony story about being a rich kid from Marietta, Ohio. The two spend a day together before Lucy’s train is scheduled to leave at 10 p.m., and as “The Boy” realizes that Lucy is literally the girl of his dreams, the girl he’s always wanted to marry and settle down with, he desperately tries to get the chance to tell her he’s been lying about who he is and reveal his real identity — but he runs out of time, her train arrives, and she promises to write him — but of course the only address she has for him is the one for the phony identity he’s given her. 

I haven’t read the original Anderson story since I was in high school, but as I remember it took place just a short time after the events its narrator is recounting, and I believe the central character did have a name. Arnold Schulman, who adapted the story for TV, decided not only never to tell us the James Dean character’s real name but to have the framing sequences take place about 20 years after the main events and be narrated, on screen, by Eddie Albert as James Dean’s older self. (Since Dean died so young we don’t have a genuine older version to compare him to, the way we have the genuinely old Orson Welles to compare to how he was made up in the later scenes of Citizen Kane, but I sincerely doubt James Dean would have grown up to look anything like Eddie Albert.) Director Don Medford and production designer John Robert Lloyd worked out a quite creative design for the film that allowed the actors to walk between the story’s main locales — the rural community where Albert-as-Dean is living and from which he reminisces the events of the story, the farmhouse Dean leaves to seek his fortunes in the big city, the racetrack where he works, the hotel lobby where he meets Lucy and the fairgrounds where they spend most of their day together à la Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in Maytime — which are represented by sets of such Spartan stylization one is reminded of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. More recent live telecasts of major musicals have adopted this simple strategy of telling a story with multiple locales in live TV by allowing the actors to walk from one set to another so they can all be standing at once, but in 1954 it was a rare and unusual gimmick that adds to the poignancy of this story. It also includes at least two scenes in which the flashback scenes are shown on a process screen while Albert stands in front of it narrating his memories: one of the rare times a process screen has been shown on film, especially in a movie that is not itself about filmmaking. 

This film stands out among most of the items in the Dean TV box not only because it’s based on a story by a recognized major author (and its tale of bittersweet romantic tragedy with elements of comic absurdity is very typical of Anderson’s work) but because in a way it prefigures Dean’s role in his very last film, Giant. Though Dean’s character in Giant would become genuinely rich, not merely posing as rich as he is here, in the later stages of “I’m a Fool” his character grows a moustache because he thinks it lends him dignity (as Jett Rink grew one in the later scenes of Giant), and the point of the story is that he remains the same bitterly alienated person he always was no matter how much wealth and status, real or imagined, he pretends to, and in particular he blows his one chance at happiness and a normal family life. Dean’s performance is excellent — what reviewer Martin Hafer heard as Dean “tend[ing] to mumble and occasionally flub[bing] lines” I heard as Dean playing a poseur whose mumbles and stumbles are those of the character sustaining an imposture and not sure how long he can keep it up. “I’m a Fool” was one of the few Dean TV shows that was shown again as a memorial after his death, and the soundtracks from it and Dean’s final TV performance, The Unlighted Road (a Schlitz Theatre presentation oddly not included in the box, though it’s available on YouTube; Dean made it between Rebel Without a Cause and Giant and it was therefore the last Dean performance actually seen by a public audience during his lifetime), were taped off the air by someone who released a bootleg LP of them which Dean’s 1970’s biographer David Dalton was able to obtain a copy of and therefore fill in accounts of these entries in Dean’s otherwise then-lost body of TV work. It seems incredible that no one realized shortly after Dean’s death that his corpus of live TV constituted an important part of his legacy and therefore it was not only artistically but commercially a good idea to make a conscious effort to save it all. Instead it was considered just more of the flotsam and jetsam of the live TV world, and what survived did so pretty much by accident.