Sunday, July 31, 2016

Killer Assistant (Cartel Pictures, Marvista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

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

And the next movie Lifetime showed Saturday night, Killer Assistant, was just about the same: a different production company (MarVista Entertainment and Cartel Pictures), different writers (Sophie Tilden and Shanrah Wakefield) and a different director (Danny J. Boyle, obviously billed with his middle initial to differentiate him from the genuinely talented Danny Boyle, maker of Trainspotting, The Beach, Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later and Steve Jobs), but the same formulae with only a few slight variations. The story centers around a San Francisco-based fashion magazine called Style Harmony — we know it’s San Francisco because we get a few stock shots of the Bay Bridge (though not the arguably more iconic Golden Gate Bridge) — and its editor, Suzanne Austin (Arianne Zucker), who’s a success on the job but a pretty miserable failure in her home life. She’s married to a former rock musician, Robert Austin (George Stultz) — we’re told he still performs but we never see him either playing or practicing; we learn that a generation earlier he and his band had a huge hit which paid for the Austins’ home, but they remained one-hit wonders and were eventually pretty much forgotten. Now the Austins — Robert, Suzanne and their rebellious teenage daughter Calista (Natalie Lander), who keeps trying to date guys her parents don’t approve of and they retaliate by barring them from the family home — live off her money (at one point Robert bitterly complains that she makes more in a year than he will for his entire life). Meanwhile, the stresses from her job in general and the upcoming 50th anniversary issue of Style Harmony in particular become so overwhelming for Suzanne that, without consulting her, her boss Janet McAlper (Joanne Baron) hires her a personal assistant, David Barinas (Brando Eaton). The film actually begins with a peculiar prologue whose significance isn’t explained to us until the very end: a sandy-haired boy (we’re told he’s supposed to be seven but he looked about 10 to me) catches the woman who’s looking after him sitting on top of the washing machine while some guy has sex with her. Then his dad comes home unexpectedly and tells him the woman is not his mother, but just his babysitter, and so he shouldn’t get so worked up that the woman stopped looking after him in favor of getting it on with the other guy. Then the film cuts to the present and introduces the Austins as characters, along with the other people she works with on the magazine: the hot Black guy Charles (Darryl Stephens), the nellie Gay guy Ian (Brett Ryback) — writers Tilden and Wakefield drop hints that he’s Gay but, of course, never actually show him dating, having sex with or having a genuine relationship with a man — and the dedicated and excellent research assistant and fact-checker Mary, who the night David starts working at Style Harmony is jumped in the magazine’s parking lot by a hoodie-wearing assailant who wields a knife and cuts her Achilles’ tendon, laying her up on crutches and forcing her to work at home.

Mary is suspicious of the new assistant — especially since she had suggested to Suzanne that she prepare a PDF of all the covers the magazine had run in its 50-year existence, and David told her he’d already done it as part of his research for the job — but everyone accepts him the way the people around Margo Channing at first accepted Eve Harrington, taking his all-smiles demeanor and super-dedicated attitude at face value. We know there’s something sinister about him — after all, the film is called Killer Assistant (though the original working title was just The Assistant and no doubt if Christine Conradt had been involved its title would have been The Perfect Assistant) — but the characters, except for Mary, remain ambivalent about him. David lands the perfect cover story for Style Harmony’s 50th anniversary issue: an exclusive interview with former child star Nora Patters (Sierra Love), who’s blazed a trail of bad behavior, including alcohol and drug use and a DUI accident in which she ran down a pedestrian and nearly killed him — only she’s about to be released from court-ordered rehab and will be resuming her career in a prestigious independent film made by a major director (the writers were clearly thinking Lindsay Lohan here, though in a later sequence in which she has a drug-fueled meltdown while doing a live TV interview they were also clearly inspired by Charlie Sheen!). Only just before Nora and her agent are supposed to call to finalize the interview, Suzanne finds that her notes have been erased from her computer just after David was using it, supposedly to update her anti-virus software. Suzanne finds plenty of hints that David is out to sabotage her, but she’s told by Janet as well as her co-workers that she’s just being paranoid. One night David invites her to dinner after their work shift, and she accepts — only he gets her drunk, seduces her and films them doing the dirty deed, and by the time she comes to it’s morning, she’s sleeping on the office couch and she’s missed the TV morning show on which her would-be cover girl Nora Patters has just told the world about the glories of doing cocaine and other controlled substances. Janet tells her there’s no way she can condone Style Harmony promoting someone or something like this, and thinking quickly, Suzanne says she’ll revamp the story about child stars in general, the ones who make it to a decent, responsible and substance-free adulthood as well as the ones who don’t.

Meanwhile, Suzanne’s home life is also coming unglued: while visiting Nora and her entourage Suzanne spots her husband Robert passionately kissing another woman, and it turns out this isn’t the first extra-relational sex Robert’s had; his misadventures include a few visits to prostitutes as well as a long-term affair with someone named Ellie, whom we never see but gets talked about a lot when Robert and Suzanne see a couples therapist in hopes of pulling themselves back together. While all this is happening David sets his sights on seducing Suzanne’s daughter Calista (ya remember Suzanne’s daughter Calista?) and gets her to run off with him. David also sees Mary the researcher come back to work, and that very night he goes to her apartment and finishes her off by beating her with a blunt object — his favorite murder technique. He also takes out Suzanne’s husband Robert the same way after luring him to an outdoor meeting. The cops suspect Suzanne of her husband’s murder and Janet fires her from the magazine — there’s a sad little scene in which she’s carrying a banker’s box full of her personal belongings out of the building. In the finale, David is holding Calista hostage — Calista texts that she’s with him but he catches her before she can give mom the location — and when mom arrives David, whose real name is Curtis (something that slipped out when he and Suzanne were in a coffeehouse and someone called out to him, “Curtis?”), explains that he was the boy she was supposed to be baby-sitting way back when, but she neglected him to have sex with Robert, who was the guy his dad caught her with (though the scene is supposed to have happened so long before the main action different actors appear: Shaelan O’Connor as Suzanne, Ryan Cargill as Robert and Maverick Thompson as the boy), and his feelings of abandonment, compounded by the suicide of his real mom (when she offed herself he was the one who first found the body), led him to a lifelong obsession with destroying her by researching her magazine, stealing the “David Barinas” identity, wangling a job as her assistant, driving her crazy and killing everyone near and dear to her.

Like Killer Coach, Killer Assistant has some good soft-core porn — though there’s only one big sequence between Suzanne and David, it lasts a long time, and David has a pretty dorky face but a hot bod, especially when we get to see him working out at home wearing nothing but a pair of black shorts (yum!) and Calista comes in on him looking that way. Eventually David overpowers Suzanne but it’s Calista as the designated deus ex machina who picks up the baseball bat mom brought as a weapon and whacks him over the head with it, killing him with one blow (really?). Like Killer Coach, Killer Interview is a would-be thriller that isn’t especially thrilling, though at least Suzanne Austin is a more interesting victim than Samantha Morgan, if only because she’s older, has a family and a great (if exhausting) job, and therefore has a good deal more to lose. Indeed, when the film ends she and Calista seem to have no one left but each other! It also shares with Killer Clown a ridiculous musical score (by Maximilian Eberle and Chris Forsgren) that telegraphs every dramatic point well before director Boyle and the writers make it, and imbues even the most innocuous actions with sinister “significance.” These were both movies with potentially great themes — the tainted legacy both principals of Killer Coach receive from their parents and, in Killer Interview, the ease with which a sufficiently dedicated psycho can burrow under the skin of someone who seems to have it all and systematically take it all away — that went for the sleaziest aspects of their stories and weren’t especially entertaining even as good clean dirty fun.