Sunday, July 3, 2016

Newlywed and Dead (Reel One Entertainment/Young Rich Productions/Lifetime, 2016)

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

Last night I did my usual Saturday night ritual (when I don’t have anything better to do) and watched the two movies being shown on Lifetime, including the much-ballyhooed “world premiere” of something called Newlywed and Dead. (This time the working title, Young, Rich and Desperate, was even worse.) It begins with a title reading, “Eleven Years Ago,” and eleven years ago young rich kid Jay Morgan (William Dickinson, a cute tow-headed blond who doesn’t look at all like he’d grow up to be Christopher Russell, the actor who plays the adult Jay in the contemporary portions of the film) confronts his mom on the staircase of their palatial manor home in Paradise Valley, Oregon — which, we later learn, the Morgan family owns outright. He threatens her with a baseball bat. She says, “Give me the bat,” and he gives it to her. Oh, boy, does he give it to her: he wields it like a pool cue and knocks her down the stairs, killing her, though for his and the family’s sake her sister Barbara (Venus Terzo) pulls strings and uses the family’s influence to get it officially ruled an accident. Then the film flashes forward 11 years and Jay Morgan is a strapping, dark-haired young man whom we first see shirtless, with a smooth chest and pecs to die for; of course, being the leading man in a Lifetime movie and given the network’s usual iconography that sexy male = villain, he turns out to be a no-good rotter and a psycho besides.

He manages the Paradise Mountain Resort on his family’s property, an O.K. ski lodge which he wants to remodel into a year-round vacation spot, including an 18-hole golf course. He’s corralled a group of investors to back the project but he’s also aroused community opposition, and while his family so totally owns both the community of Paradise and its local law enforcement, represented by Sheriff Williamson (Forbes Angus), that he really doesn’t have to worry about grass-roots protesters, he does have to worry about Aunt Barbara’s opposition because she’s part of the family trust that holds the deed and she’s succeeded in getting an injunction against the wide access road he needs to build for his project. In the middle of all this Jay manages to charm, get to fall in love with and ultimately marry Kristen Ward (Shenae Grimes-Beech, top-billed), a woman he’s attracted to because her facial structure resembles that of his late mother. Indeed, he’s so determined to marry “a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad” (who apparently divorced mom and bailed on the family after Jay killed mom) that he goes full Vertigo on Kristen, demanding that she tie her hair back behind her head the way his mom did and wear similar clothes, including a shirt with a ruffled collar that seems incredibly weird for a woman to wear in a film set in modern times. Like so many movie husbands (and quite a few real-life ones as well), Jay goes into total-control mode once he’s got the ring on her finger and the license on his wall: he not only orders her about, he makes it clear that what he wants from her is just to be a wife and not butt into his business affairs. When she meets privately with Barbara and negotiates a compromise with her to allow Jay’s big development to go forward — or at least part of it; Barbara’s conditions including leaving part of the land wild forest instead of putting in the golf course (Kristen tries to point out to her husband that the forest itself would be a tourist attraction) and that Jay tell Kristen exactly how his mom died — Jay goes ballistic.

From doing online searches and looking at pages of the local newspaper’s archives (the paper looks more like a crudely produced apartment-building newsletter than an actual newspaper) Kristen learns that Jay was previously engaged to a woman named Ashley Brown (Laci J. Mailey), who supposedly was crippled in a skiing accident on the Paradise Valley slopes. Only, as Kristen learns when she traces Ashley to San Francisco — where she’s living in a studio apartment and eking out a living as an artist — Jay actually assaulted her and then he and Barbara once again used their contacts with local law enforcement to have it ruled an “accident.” Meanwhile, Kristen’s own mom Annie (Samantha Ferris) just happens to be Sheriff Williamson’s deputy, and she’s suspicious enough of Jay to be doing her own online research about him and the intriguing penchant people he doesn’t like have of dying in “accidents.” Aunt Barbara becomes the victim of Jay’s latest “accident” when he confronts her in her home, he slaps her and she falls, though the person who actually does her in is Jay’s henchman Mark Adams (Christian Sloan), who flips on the gas in her house so in case the cops don’t buy the “accident” story, their next level of defense will be to claim Barbara committed suicide. But Kristen, who saw Barbara in good spirits the day before she died, doesn’t believe the suicide story — and neither do her mom Annie or her sister Caitlyn (Lindsay Navarro). It all comes to a head when the Morgan family’s lawyer reads Barbara’s will and Jay learns that Barbara changed it so her interest in the Morgan trust would pass not to Jay but to his wife Kristen. Jay accordingly has Mark kidnap Kristen and hold her hostage to force her to sign papers transferring the inheritance to him, and when he can’t do that directly he decides to take her mom hostage and threaten to kill her if he doesn’t sign. Mom tries to get a rifle out of the back of the sheriff’s SUV and bring down Jay, but he catches her in time and it’s up to Kristen to recover Mark’s gun (Jay was setting Mark up to be the fall guy for all this and then shot Mark when he caught on and objected) and bring down Jay herself.

A tag scene shows Kristen inheriting Paradise Valley and promising to follow Barbara’s vision for its future as relatively unspoiled open space, presumably with the help of Gus Hoffman (James Kirk), a Gay man who’s on Jay’s staff but is totally clueless about what’s going on — and who, like most movie Gay men, drops a hint that he’s Gay but is never shown actually romantically or sexually involved with a man. Also the sheriff who covered up Jay’s “accidents” is himself arrested and Annie Ward takes over. Newlywed and Dead is an O.K. thriller that delivers the Lifetime goods, though it’s such slow going at first it seemed more like a romance drama than a crime story. As usual, the actor playing the bad guy stands out; not only is Christopher Russell drop-dead gorgeous, he manages the character’s hairpin turns and frequent resort to violent threats (as when he literally shoves down a community organizer opposed to Jay’s plan for the valley) vividly. It also occurred to me that the character’s tactics as a would-be developer seem so much like Donald Trump’s famously bullying style it’s likely writers Linda J. Cowgill and Rhys Davies intended Jay as a parody of Trump — only with a hotter bod and normal-looking hair. Certainly Russell conveys not only the character’s psychotic side but also his sense of entitlement, stretching up to and including the idea that he can get away with murder any time he wants to (after all, he already has!), and while it’s wish-fulfillment in real life I like stories in which rich people are finally held accountable and made to suffer for their crimes (though I’d liked it even better if Jay had been arrested and tried instead of killed). It’s also directed by a woman, Penelope Bultenhuis, and while there’s nothing that special about her work on it, it’s still nice to see women getting directorial credits on Lifetime and we can always hope — even if usually forlornly — they can rise out of the Lifetime ghetto and get some assignments to do theatrical features.