Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Sister’s Revenge (Capital Productions 8 [SV], Reel One Films 3, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a Lifetime movie that was having its so-called “world premiere” last night: A Sister’s Revenge, a pretty standard-issue bad-girl thriller for the Lifetime channel that shows how much Christine Conradt has set the format for these things and essentially become Lifetime’s auteur, to the point where a film that she had nothing to do with (this one had someone named John Serge as the writer and Curtis James Crawford —though leaves out his middle name — as the director) nonetheless hits all the major points of her formula. It begins with a woman in a light SUV running down another woman riding a bicycle; we don’t know who either of these two people are yet but the woman in the SUV runs down the woman on the bike and she ends up … well, we presume she’s badly injured and is going to be laid up for quite a while. Then the scene cuts to a restaurant called Michael’s Bar and Grill, which despite the unassuming exterior and the proletarian name is really a pretty upscale place once Crawford’s camera dollies us inside. The proprietor is Michael Miller (Tim Rozon, not exactly drop-dead gorgeous but a good deal handsomer than a lot of Lifetime leading men), who’s happily married to a woman named Catherine (Ashley Jones), though she’s getting restive because their son Evan was just born and Michael has insisted that Catherine take the first year of Evan’s life off work and mother him. Unfortunately, Michael needs to hire a new hostess because his previous one was in an unexpected accident and is going to be laid up for a while (and if you’re a veteran Lifetime movie-watcher you don’t need two guesses to figure out how that happened), and after turning down the first applicant (she tells him, “I can bench 250 pounds,” which makes me think she’d have been a good candidate for the job: with that amount of strength, she could be both a hostess and a bouncer) he hires Suzanne Dunne (Brooke Burns), a blonde who walked in on the job without bothering to turn in an application first but because she’s flirting with him (just because he’s married doesn’t mean he can’t look!) and his gonads are in play he hires her anyway.

At first I thought this was going to be another one of Lifetime’s “Perfect” movies, in which the unscrupulous bad girl goes after the good guy’s money and/or his bod and doesn’t let the fact that he’s already married to the good girl stand in her way one bit. Then we get a scene of Suzanne at home with her boyfriend Jimmy (Joe Marques) and it appears that they’re in some kind of plot to scam money out of Michael. Suzanne does everything she can to sabotage both Michael’s restaurant and his life — she sets fire to the kitchen, later she sneaks cockroaches into the place (both of which force him to close down for extended periods; the first time his clientele remains pretty much intact but business nosedives after the roach invasion to the point where he’s on the phone to his friends pleading with them to dine there, and they’re begging off), and one night when Catherine is away in New York on what was supposed to be a romantic vacation with her husband but turned into a solo bid because he had to supervise the reconstruction of the restaurant after the fire (ya remember the fire?), he’s talked by a young couple who work for him to take Suzanne on a night on the town, just the four of them. Suzanne has already planned this out and prepared for it; she’s had Jimmy score her some narcotic pills, which she’s ground into a powder so she can slip them into Michael’s drink, then bring him back to her place and seduce him, all the while filming him. In the film’s most grimly funny scene, he comes to in her bed and finds she’s handcuffed him to her headboard. Fortunately the headboard is cheap enough he’s able to break out by pulling it to pieces, and he goes to a local shop owner he knows to see if he can unlock the handcuffs and free him. The guy has a ring of all the standard handcuff keys and does the job, giving a knowing smile as if this isn’t the first time he’s had to render this service for an S/M practitioner after a scene went horribly wrong. Then Michael tells him he can keep the handcuffs.

Suzanne e-mails Michael a copy of their sex tape and threatens to post the whole thing to the Internet unless he pays her $75,000 in cash — which he does, taking out a home equity loan from his banker friend (played by writer John Serge) and forging his wife’s signature electronically since the house is in both their names and therefore they’re both supposed to sign it. It’s not until about two-thirds of the way through the movie that we finally learn what this is all about: before moving to Philadelphia (where the film takes place), marrying Catherine and building the restaurant, Michael lived in San Francisco and had a relationship with Suzanne’s sister Ariel (Allison Busner). We’ve only seen Ariel on computer videos Suzanne obsessively watches when she’s alone at home, and we weren’t sure who she was — and for that matter we weren’t sure whether these were old tapes or they were Skyping each other in real time (one nice thing about this movie — which hasn’t always been true of Lifetime — is at least the communications technology is up to date; there’ve been films set in high school in the mid-2000’s which asked us to believe that none of the students had a laptop, a smartphone or a Facebook account). Now we find out through some exposition from Suzanne and a few flashbacks (in which Tim Rozon actually does look credibly younger than he does in the main part of the movie) that Ariel took the relationship a lot more seriously than Michael did. When Ariel got pregnant she expected Michael to marry her; instead he rejected her and went to Philadelphia after leaving her the money for an abortion, and instead of having either the baby or the abortion she committed suicide. That is what Suzanne has been bent on having her titular “sister’s revenge” on, and in the film’s most chilling scene Michael pleads with her and asks what he can do, to which she replies, “Suffer.”

Indeed, Suzanne goes as far as to spike Catherine’s iced tea with ethylene glycol, commonly known as antifreeze (earlier she’s taken a wax impression of Michael’s keys so she can come and go in his house at will; she’s also hired herself out as Catherine’s physical trainer so Michael can’t get rid of her even though he’s fired her from his workplace), so she’ll end up in the hospital and it’ll look like Michael tried to murder his wife so he and Suzanne could be together, and Michael is duly arrested and accused of attempted murder. Catherine’s patience has been sufficiently tested that she leaves Michael and moves in with her friend Gwen (Rebecca Amzallag). So how does it all come out? You remember Michael and Catherine have a baby son named Eric? So how much you wanna bet that it’s going to end with Suzanne kidnapping Eric? You guessed it: Suzanne traces Catherine to Gwen’s home, knocks her out at her door and takes the kid, then calls Michael to meet her at the restaurant. Jimmy is with her and expects a payoff but Suzanne wants to kill Michael and set Jimmy up for the crime — and Jimmy understandably rebels but gets a bullet in his shoulder for his pains. Then Michael and Suzanne reach for the gun (Maurine Watkins, your plagiarism attorney is holding on line one) and Suzanne gets it in the gut, so the film ends “six months later” with Jimmy’s testimony exonerating Michael, Suzanne dead and Michael and Catherine reconciled while the restaurant (ya remember the restaurant?) is doing land-office business. A Sister’s Revenge is one of those obsessive Lifetime movies that isn’t terribly good as a movie but is redeemed by a marvelous villainess performance from Brooke Burns, who makes her twisted psyche believable and even a bit understandable (her background is that both she and Ariel were molested as children by their father, and when she saw her dad raping Ariel she killed him and got three years in a mental institution for her pains), but she can’t undo the effects of slovenly writing and by-the-numbers direction that portrays Michael’s Kafkaesque fate in all too matter-of-fact a manner.