Monday, May 16, 2016

I Didn’t Kill My Sister, a.k.a. Murder Unrecognized (Odyssey Media, Lifetime, 2015, released May 14, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I spent most of the evening watching two back-to-back movies on Lifetime, one of which was billed as a “World Premiere” while the other had had the “World Premiere” designation when it had originally been shown on Saturday. They re-aired the Saturday “world premiere,” I Didn’t Kill My Sister, at 7 p.m., and followed it up with the new “world premiere,” Trust No One, at 9. Surprisingly, both turned out to be TV-movies made by a company called Odyssey Media in 2015, and both were shot under different titles than the ones Lifetime used when they aired them: I Didn’t Kill My Sister was originally Murder Unrecognized (so they replaced a blah title with a silly one), while Trust No One was originally Corrupt (and according to one message board poster a trailer for it under the Corrupt title appeared on YouTube before it and all printed references to it on the Internet mysteriously disappeared). What was even more odd was that I Didn’t Kill My Sister, despite that dorky title, turned out to be a quite good crime thriller, a sort of neo-noir set in and around the Los Angeles TV news community, while Trust No One was a boring organized-crime story enlivened by a few action scenes but otherwise deathly-dull. From the title I’d assumed the sisters, one of whom died and the other was accused of murdering her, would be teenagers; instead they were both 30-something women.

The one who gets killed was Carmen Pearson Campbell (Gina Holden, turning in a nice bitch performance that makes it unfortunate she exits permanently early on — though writer Gemma Holdway and director Jason Bourque give her a lot more screen time than is common in a plot like this, which was nice), and the sister who’s suspected of killing her is Heather Pearson (Nicholle Tom, who began her career as one of the kids Fran Drescher was nanny-ing on The Nanny but has had a decent if unspectacular career as an adult actress). In the opening scene Carmen, home alone, drinks a small glass of wine, then suddenly loses consciousness and ends up taking a fall into her swimming pool, where she apparently drowns — though later on a medical examiner attributes her death to an overdose of Xanax (the wine was “spiked” with the drug) and said she had croaked before she even got to the pool. Then there’s a typical Lifetime title flashing us back “Two Days Earlier,” and we learn that two days earlier Carmen was the co-host of Citywatch, a phenomenally popular news program on L.A. TV station KPPQ Channel 3. She was also in the middle of a bitterly contested divorce from her husband Mason Campbell (Chris William Martin), and their marriage has so totally disintegrated they’re literally not speaking together off camera. Unfortunately for both of them, they’re the co-hosts of Citywatch and therefore have to speak to each other on camera, and if that weren’t bad enough they’re also the parents of a teenage daughter, Brooke (Sarah Desjardins). Also, Carmen has talked to her attorney, Sandra Carson (Ona Grauer), about changing her will so instead of her husband getting her money, it’ll go into a trust fund and remain there until Brooke is old enough to inherit it herself. So when Carmen is found dead in her swimming pool of an overdose of Xanax, the cops at first suspect it was an accident until they find the remaining spiked wine, whereupon they not surprisingly make Mason Campbell the number one suspect — until he’s able to prove that he didn’t do it (just how he proved he didn’t do it — whether he established an alibi or what — isn’t really explained in Holdway’s script), whereupon they, and in particular Cruz (Sharon Taylor), the lead detective on the case (and it was a neat trick on Holdway’a part to make her seem more intimidating by not giving her a first name), fasten on Heather as a suspect.

The reason they’re so convinced Heather killed her sister is that Heather had been relegated to a job as Carmen’s personal assistant, and Carmen regularly humiliated her. Heather has had dreams of being a TV journalist herself, and there’s a quirky scene in which she and Mason meet on the Citywatch set after hours and run through a practice of what the show would be like with Mason and Heather co-hosting — only during that session Heather makes a passing remark that it would be easier for both of them if Carmen were out of the way, and unbeknownst to Heather but beknownst to us because director Bourque pans to a shot of a TV camera with the red recording light on, the session was secretly recorded and Mason later gives a copy of it to the cops. Heather realizes she’s being framed but neither she nor we are sure by whom — Mason? Lois Summer (Dominika Julliet), the bimbo blonde who replaced Carmen on Citywatch after Carmen’s death? We do get the impression Lois is involved from the smirk on her face after she does her first Citywatch program, and from a later phone call between her and Mason in which she says “it’s all working out as we planned” — but it turns out that though Mason is involved, the real mastermind of the murder plot is (surprise!) Sandra Carson. It seems that they met 15 years earlier when Mason went to see her as a reporter following the “mysterious” death of her husband (obviously we’re supposed to assume that she killed him, too), they got the hots for each other and whenever they could they sneaked away to vacations at gambling meccas like Las Vegas (Heather stumbles onto this secret when she finds a poker chip from a Las Vegas casino), where Mason lost scads of money — which is why he needed his wife out of the way before she changed her will, so he could inherit her money and use it to pay off his gambling debts.

There’s also a sequence in which Heather learns that her sister went to rehab for her prescription drug addiction, and she talks to the person running the rehab center, Seth, who’s actually quite forthcoming about Carmen and what she was doing at his facility — unlike all the taciturn doctors, social workers and other “helping” professionals on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit who insist that their pledges of confidentiality apply even to the dead. And there’s a weird plot twist I’m still trying to figure out, in which Sandra refers Heather to another attorney to handle her criminal case, Wayne Hamilton (Philip Granger, who gets a special credit identifying him with his role — an unusual privilege for an actor in a film like this), only Wayne is himself murdered almost as soon as he takes the case (why?). There’s also another oddball character, Michael Warren (Christos Shaw), who’s obviously supposed to be Gay even though, like most movie Gay men, he’s never seen showing any romantic or sexual interest in another man; he works at KPPQ in some unexplained general-assistant capacity and we can tell he’s Gay not only because of the mincing-queen way Shaw plays him but because at one point Heather gets a whiff of him and complains about how much cologne he’s wearing. Eventually Sandra decides that she and Mason have to kill Heather because they can’t trust that the police will “buy” the frame they’ve concocted to get her sent away and (hopefully, from their point of view) executed for the murder, and Heather and Sandra have an all-out fight with Mason intervening on Sandra’s behalf, and it looks like curtains for Our Heroine until Cruz and a squad of cops come on the scene, arrest Mason and Sandra, and save Heather. There’s a postlude that shows Heather hosting the KPPQ news show, now called The Pearson Report, with Seth — her late sister’s addiction counselor and, it’s hinted, Heather’s next romantic interest — as her first guest. 

I Didn’t Kill My Sister has a few of Lifetime’s most cherished conceits, including the one that we’re supposed to believe the tall, lanky, graying-haired and O.K.-looking but not especially sexy Mason has three women in love with him — Sandra, Heather and Lois — and some pretty appalling loose plot ends, but for the most part it’s a crackerjack thriller, well acted, well cast (Nicholle Tom and Gina Holden look enough alike they’re believable as sisters), effectively directed for maximum suspense value out of a rather familiar but still compelling plot (the attraction between Mason and Sandra certainly has its Double Indemnity aspects, and under her cool, lawyerly exterior Sandra is pretty much a typical femme fatale of film noir), while the physical “look” of the film is surprisingly shadowy and noir-ish for a 2015 made-for-TV movie. There aren’t any soft-core porn scenes, but then Chris William Martin isn’t so drop-dead gorgeous that we’d miss them. I Didn’t Kill My Sister is actually a quite professional piece of filmmaking, not innovative but cunning in its deployment of old clichés, and for once the ending is a genuine surprise but also a believable one instead of a whiplash-inducing reversal that negates all or most of what has gone before. It also had an interesting road-not-taken aspect in that the character I found myself caring most about was Mason’s and Carmen’s daughter Brooke, and the trauma she’s undoubtedly going to face given not only that her mother was murdered but her father was involved in the killing; I couldn’t help but recall the story of country singer Shelby Lynne and her younger sister, Alison Moorer, who were inevitably traumatized by the murder-suicide of their parents — in 1986, when Shelby was 17 and Alison 14; their dad killed their mom and then himself, while Shelby watched — and the psychological number that did on them.