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The Murder Pact (2015)
Unusually good for Lifetime
"The Murder Pact" an unusually well done thriller which begins with a nice-looking but chunky young woman named Camille (Alexa PenaVega that odd spelling of her last name, with the two words jammed together but with a capital letter in the middle as if she were a computer program, is what both the official credits and IMDb.com gave us) belting out a power-rock ballad as an audition piece for some bored Broadway producers who are really looking for an established star to play the lead in their next show and only agreed to see her as a favor to her 1-percenter boyfriend Will LaSalle (Beau Mirchoff). Will seems to have it all money, social position and good looks and he never lets anyone forget it; he's officially engaged to Camille but that doesn't stop him from bedding any young woman who'll hold still for him. What's more, he's got his bedroom bugged so he can photograph his sexual encounters and relive the experiences any time he wants by playing them on his laptop. The principals are Camilla, Will, Will's less secure friend Rick (Michael J. Willett, who incidentally has his hair dyed blonde on his IMDb.com head shot though he's dark-haired in this movie) and Annabel (Renée Olstead), a hanger-on and (of course) occasional trick of Will's who's also an aspiring dancer and is super-concerned about her weight. All of them are students at Camden College, a New England university whose most prominent architectural feature is a spectacularly ugly round building that looks like Frank Gehry re-imagined the Capitol Tower. Will has living parents but they almost never see him a picture of his dad hangs over his mantel as if it's keeping an eye on him, but we never see his mom at all and his dad (John Heard) only makes a brief surprise appearance towards the end to warn Will that he can do everything he likes as long as he doesn't besmirch the LaSalle family name. If he does, dad solemnly warns Will, he'll be disinherited at once. That happens in the middle of an event that has completely discombobulated Will's carefully constructed life: Heidi (Madeleine Dauer), yet another young co-ed Will has got drunk, drugged and put the make on, takes a tumble off the railing on one of the Camden dorm balconies and falls to her death.
It appears to be an accident director Colin Theys, working from a script by John Doolan, makes it look even to us as if that particular section of the railing was just loose and gave way under Heidi's weight but while the altercation on the balcony was going on a student photographer named Lisa (Sara Kapner) happened by and took photos of the whole thing. Lisa contacts Will and his friends and threatens to blackmail them, demanding $4 million for the photos or she'll take them to the police and Will will get popped for Heidi's murder. The four principals meet to discuss how they're going to handle the situation and collectively decide that as members of the financial and social elite they have way too much to live for to let a nobody from "the other side of the tracks" as Lisa get in the way and threaten their futures. So, at Will's instigation, they decide they're simply going to kill her. The film, which Doolan proclaims is an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" (it isn't, but there are similarities not only to that one but at least two other Poe stories, "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Premature Burial"), is a genuinely suspenseful thriller with a legitimate and believable surprise ending. Though some of it seems a bit arbitrary the climax takes place at a masquerade ball Will is throwing (a family tradition he insists on carrying on even though his folks, who usually host it, are out of town) that seems more to reflect a desire on the part of writer Doolan and director Theys to do a knockoff of "Eyes Wide Shut" (also a story of decadence among the 1 percent!) than anything else and the moral about spoiled rich kids thinking they can do literally anything they like because their (or their parents') money will always be there to buy them out of it is done well here but was done even better in the previous Lifetime movie "Restless Virgins" for the most part this is an amazing film, and it's especially nice to watch a Lifetime movie in which the two male protagonists are definitely exciting, hot young men (Beau Mirchoff as Will even has something of a James Dean quality, though Dean never played a character who was born to this much money), even though inevitably, given Lifetime's well-established iconography, hot young man = black-hearted villain!
O.K. Lifetime Thriller
Saturday night's Lifetime "world premiere" was an odd production written, produced and directed by David Olen Ray (though two other people, Jeffrey Schenck and Peter Sullivan, are credited with the "original story" Ray adapted into his script) called "River Raft Nightmare," though listed on IMDb.com under the title "Eyewitness" apparently this was the working title but it wouldn't given much of an idea of what the film was actually about. It's about Sharon (Brigid Brannagh), 30-something mother of rambunctious teenager Cassie (Leah Bateman), whom she's been raising as a single mom since her husband, Cassie's father, left her eight months before the story begins. Since then Sharon has sold the river-country cabin her ex bought for the family's vacation home, but she's nostalgic enough for old times that she decides to do a river-rafting trip, which is supposed to be a seven-hour day trip just rowing a rubber raft from one end of the river to the other while the staff of the raft-rental company drives your car to the end of the river so it will be there, waiting for you, when you arrived. At the same time, three convicts ringleader Frank (the genuinely hot Ivan Sergei), bad-ass Cole (Tim Abell) and boyish Jimmy (Daniel Booko), have recently escaped from the local prison and are hunting down the fourth member of their gang, Jesse (Bob Bragg), who escaped the rap and hid the $500,000 they stole from an armored car. As if that isn't enough to keep the old plot pot boiling, Cassie is also a diabetic who predictably goes into insulin shock during the journey (which she's making under duress anyway; through the whole first part of the movie, about all Leah Bateman gets to do to play her is pout), and there's also a forest fire sweeping the woods around the river that forces the local sheriff, Lee Decker (Perry King), to fly helicopters across the region with speakers broadcasting messages to any people in the area that they need to evacuate.
"River Raft Nightmare" is a movie heavily, shall we say, "borrowed" from previous city-slickers-in-mortal-peril on a wild river movies, including "Deliverance" and the 1994 Curtis Hanson film "The River Wild," which sounded like Hollywood's attempt to take the Great Actress Meryl Streep down a peg by casting her as the heroine of a very ordinary actioner. I've never seen either of the predecessors, but according to one IMDb.com message board contributor, "River Raft Nightmare" is a virtual scene-for-scene remake of "The River Wild," down to one of the baddies tying one of the women to the raft with her shoelaces to make sure she doesn't escape. "River Raft Nightmare" is an O.K. thriller, pretty predictable and lacking any of the kinky rape (or near-rape) scenes we expect Jimmy rather bashfully looks at Cassie but he seems too shy either to ask her for consensual sex or rape her obviously Lifetime didn't want to risk an adults-only rating from the TV censors!
A Teacher's Obsession (2015)
Not-bad Lifetime fare, with some interesting variations
Last night I watched yet another heavily hyped Lifetime movie, "A Teacher's Obsession," which differed from most of the previous Lifetime movies about crazy teachers trying to get over-involved in the lives of their students (or, a sub-genre they've probably pursued more often, crazy students trying to frame the teachers for this the very best TV-movie I've seen about a teacher who got in trouble for having sex with a student was "All-American Girl: The Mary Kay LeTourneau Story," and that was made for the USA Network, not Lifetime) in that the crazy teacher and her victim are of the same sex. The crazy teacher is Janet Cunningham (Boti Bliss, who's been a regular on Lifetime movies for so long she's aged out of the crazy-teenager roles and gets to play the crazy-grownup roles instead), who returns to the prestigious Edgington Academy (i.e., a private "prep" high school) after a three-year sabbatical and takes over the life of the victim, Bridgette (Mia Rose Frampton, daughter of late-1970's rock star Peter Frampton), a blonde who's grades have gone south enough that, despite the clout of her mother Candace (Molly Hagan), who's on the school's board of directors, the school's headmaster, York (played by Adrian Sparks as a typical piece of avuncular cluelessness), puts her on academic probation and thereby kicks her off as the star of Edgington's women's lacrosse team. (I'm not making this up, you know.) Bridgette reluctantly and grudgingly relinquishes the title of captain of women's lacrosse to her roommate Dani (Madalyn Horcher), and she also agrees to give up her boyfriend Bobby (Dillon James), a computer science major, because mom is convinced her grades trended downward because she was giving more attention to Bobby and to lacrosse than to her studies. No problem, says Janet; she takes Bridgette under her wing, offering to coach her in her studies and actually writing her English papers for her which naturally, as her newly assigned English teacher, she gives an A+ grade to as well as scoring her the answers to an upcoming calculus midterm. Janet also offers Bridgette a cell phone so she can contact Bobby without leaving any evidence her mom can trace, and offers her the use of her apartment so she and Bobby can have sex. "A Teacher's Obsession" is a not-bad Lifetime movie, and I give writers Trysta A. Bissett and Preston DeFrancis credit for powerfully keeping Janet's motives ambiguous they did not have her slobber all over Bridgette or attempt Lesbian rape on her, which was nice but that's about the only real subtlety, aside from the performances by the two older women: Boti Bliss is chilling, reminding me of the similar role played by Louise Lewis in the 1958 American-International horror "Blood of Dracula," and Molly Hagan is great as what seems at first to be just another Overprotective Mother from Hell in a Lifetime movie but has depths that are only revealed to us late in the film.
Stolen from the Suburbs (2015)
Exciting, if a bit didactic
I watched another Lifetime "world premiere," with the rather bland title "Stolen from the Suburbs" leaving me wondering just what might have been stolen from the suburbs that a Lifetime filmmaker (in this case Alex Wright, who both wrote and directed the show) would be interested in depicting. It turned out it wasn't a what, but a who: Emma (Sydney Sweeney), restive 16-year-old daughter of Kate (who oddly isn't listed on the IMDb.com page for the film even though she's playing the leading role!), a single mom who moved from Wisconsin to Los Angeles after her husband died and is so neurotically overprotective she freaks out when Emma tells her she wants to do horrible, perverted things like hang out at shopping malls and date boys. Before the main characters are introduced we get a scene showing the modus operandi of the ring of human traffickers who will ultimately "steal" Emma and her Black friend Courtney (Tetona Jackson) from the suburbs, kidnap them and hold them in what amounts to a boot camp for underage prostitutes of both sexes. Recruiter Johnny (the genuinely hot Mark Famiglietti as usual with a hot guy in a Lifetime movie, the moment you meet him you know he must be up to no good) approaches a couple of homeless teens, one male and one female, who are hanging out under a lifeguard tower at a beach. He lures them out with promises of food, shelter and a place to clean up at the "Los Angeles Teen Shelter," and claims there will be no police there and no curfew. The two are suspicious but eventually agree to get into Johnny's white van whereupon two heavy-set thug types, Ivan (Rick McCallum) and Mike (Karl Dunster), grab them and tie them up. Johnny (who's referred to as "Tom" on the film's IMDb.com page evidently there were some changes before the film was finished) is then told by Malena (also unidentified on IMDb.com but played by a quite good blonde actress who delivers a chilling portrait of matter-of-fact evil, especially later in the film when she explains to Kate that as far as she's concerned the kidnapped children are just merchandise and all she cares about is the money) that homeless kids are already such damaged goods that they are of little use to her, and he needs to find her nice suburban teens. Johnny protests that such kids will be more difficult to recruit, but he accepts the marching orders and turns up at the mall to which Emma and Courtney have sneaked.
"Stolen from the Suburbs" suffers from didacticism a more subtle filmmaker than Alex Wright might have been able to create a story in which mom's very overprotectiveness lures Emma to the dark side and shown a longer seduction process before she realizes what her "boyfriend" really wanted from her (in real life the pimps who do this sort of recruiting can spend weeks getting their victims to the point where they're so convinced the pimps "love" them that they're willing to turn tricks to show their own affection), but instead he seems to be saying, "Girls, when your mother tells you not to date guys she hasn't met, just follow her orders, or you'll end up a sex slave!" It also suffers from some pretty gaping plot holes and the usual loose ends of sloppy thriller writers. There's even a scene early on in which Kate, who works for a building contractor, tears down a missing-child poster from a tree near the latest project her boss is developing he's told her to because advertising that children go missing from the neighborhood would be bad business for the developer and the volunteer who runs the agency that put up the poster upbraids her and asks, "What if it was your daughter?" But for all its messiness, "Stolen from the Suburbs" is actually quite a good thriller; Wright manages to sustain the suspense until the end, and we're genuinely in doubt as to how it's going to turn out and whether mom will save her daughter in time. "Stolen from the Suburbs" is gripping filmmaking and well worth watching, and if Alex Wright can give himself a cleaner and more coherent script next time (or get someone else to write one for him), his future films should also be worthwhile entertainment.
Fatal Flip (2015)
O.K. Lifetime Gothic
I watched last night's Lifetime "world premiere," a film called "Fatal Flip," a pretty routine production from that channel it was also shot under the working title "The Fixer Upper" but if Christine Conradt had written it (she didn't, though it might have been better if she had!) she would have called it "The Perfect Handyman." Jeff (Michael Steger) and Alex (Dominique Swain), a young couple who've been living together but have avoided even getting formally engaged, much less married, decide to take out a loan, buy a dilapidated house somewhere (this is nominally taking place in New England but, being a Lifetime production, it was almost certainly shot in Canada), fix it up themselves and then "flip" it sell it to someone else for a higher price that will cover the loan and their expenses. Only because of the terms of the loan, if they can't finish the job and resell the house in 45 days they're going to be socked with heavy interest penalties and will lose so much on the deal they'll probably have to declare bankruptcy. They quickly realize they're in over their heads on the repair job, and one day at the analogue of Home Depot in this fictional world they run into Nick (Mike Faiola), an all-purpose handyman. Jeff cuts a deal with Nick to hire him to help them with the remodel in exchange for a share of the profits they expect from flipping the house, and since he's homeless part of the deal is that he can live in the house while they do the job.
There seem to be only two other significant characters, both women: the realtor who sold them the house (unidentified, at least this early, on IMDb.com's cast list), and Alex's friend Roslyn (Tatiana Ali the only cast member I've heard of before), whose plot function is obscure but who at least provides some nice eye candy for any straight guys who might be watching this. Both the women are instantly attracted to Nick and they even make a bet with each other over who can get him first, but Nick is casting lascivious eyes at Alex and challenging her to go to bed with him just to prove she wants something more than the boring life she's trying to escape. Of course, being a reasonably attractive man in a Lifetime movie, he's also got other particularly unpleasant quirks. "Fatal Flip" is a pretty straightforward Lifetime movie, neither as bad as some of them nor as good as others, and though director Bharoocha gets some nice Gothic effects during the silent scenes in which Nick is sinisterly stalking Jeff and Alex through the crumbling old pile they're trying to restore into something saleable, she's hamstrung by the weaknesses of her cast. Mike Faiola as Nick is a reasonably attractive man but hardly the drop-dead gorgeous babe-magnet the script tells us he is, and Michael Steger looks like the result of a bizarre genetic experiment that attempted to cross-breed Harry Langdon and Tim Allen. I can't really tell you how good these people are as actors since the script doesn't require much from them in the way of acting, but I suspect there's a reason Tatiana Ali is the only cast member here you're likely to have heard of before!
Sorority Murder (2015)
Typical Lifetime fare
The "feature" I watched Sunday night was yet another Lifetime "world premiere," "Sorority Murder," directed by Jesse James Miller (just what were his parents thinking when they gave him that name?) from a script by J. Bryan Dick and Ken Sanders, and set in the fictitious "Whittendale University" world that has also given us such previous Lifetime movies as "The Surrogate," "Dirty Teacher" and "Sugar Daddies." (At least this one finally and definitively identifies "Whittendale University" as being located in Vermont, though like most Lifetime movies this is actually Everywhere, Canada "playing" Everywhere, U.S.) The plot of "Sorority Murder" is pretty much the usual Lifetime same-old, same-old: Jennifer Taylor (Scarlett Byrne) is an architecture student who's just transferred from a community college to Whittendale and is hoping the school will be a home away from home, since her real home is dominated by Melissa Taylor (Sarah-Jane Redmond), her mother, who's become an alcoholic since Jennfer's dad died and spends a lot of time either drinking at home or hanging out at skuzzy bars with an equally pathetic boyfriend identified in the cast list just as "Drunk Guy" (Jeffrey Klassen). Casting directors Don Carroll and Candice Elzinga deserve credit for having come up with two women for these roles who actually look enough alike they're credible as mother and daughter; the suspension-of-disbelief all too many movies require when people who don't look at all like each other are passed off as biological relations is a pet peeve of mine.
Jennifer seems to have got her wish when she's recruited by Alex Johnson (Nicole Muñoz) that's right, a woman named Alex to join the school's most prestigious sorority, whose official name is Beta Sigma Eta but whose Greek letters appear to spell out the English expletive "Beh." The student leader at the sorority is a domineering bitch named Breanne Bartley (Clare Filipow, who turns in easily the most powerful performance in the film and makes it a pity she exits so early), who's viciously insulting towards Jennifer and says she'll never really be one of them. Jennifer moves into the sorority house and rooms with Alex, who's on Breanne's blacklist for having put the moves on Breanne's boyfriend Eric (Madison Smith).
Breanne is found murdered outside the house while most of its residents are at a party being given by the fraternity next door. Jennifer hadn't planned to go because she had a major assignment due the next day a model she had built of the building she'd designed in her architecture class only she finds the model smashed, blames Breanne and angrily confronts her not only about the destruction of her model but a previous prank in which a dead rat was placed under Alex's bed. (Thinking of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?," I joked, "It could have been worse. She could have served it to you for dinner.") So naturally, when Breanne turns up dead, Jennifer is instantly the prime suspect, and she determines that the only way she can convince the typically dull movie cops (Patrick Sabongui and Rukiya Bernard) she didn't do it is to act like an Alfred Hitchcock hero and find out on her own who did.
"Sorority Murder" is pretty typical Lifetime fare; it's actually better acted than usual, and director Jesse James Miller (will he ever get to do a movie about his namesake?) brings it to the screen with a real flair for suspense and atmospherics, but he's done in by the relentless ridiculousness of the Sanders-Dick script and the sheer obviousness of the conventional thriller tropes the lazy writers used to pad out their film to the obligatory Lifetime running time. Still, Orion Radies as Jennifer's boyfriend-to-be Darren is a nice-looking man and Clare Filipow is genuinely powerful as the bitch who gets her comeuppance . . . permanently
They did it better in 1931!
The film was Lifetime's latest "world premiere," something called "Sugar Babies" (oddly, the IMDb.com entry on the film spelled the title as one word, "Sugarbabies," but the actual credit listed it as two so that's what I'm going with) about a Web site called sugarbabies.com to which nubile young female college students can subscribe so they can attract the attentions of older, wealthier men who will make an "arrangement" with them and pay them for "companionship" which may or may not but, of course, usually does include sex. If this sounds familiar, it's because Lifetime has already done this schtick at least twice before in 2015 alone with "Babysitter's Black Book" and 'Sugar Daddies" (which Lifetime re-ran right after "Sugar Babies" just in case anyone in their audience missed the connection) and all three of these movies couldn't help but remind me of how much better MGM did this story idea back in 1931 in the film "The Easiest Way," with Constance Bennett as the sugar baby, Adolphe Menjou as her sugar daddy, Robert Montgomery as the age-peer boyfriend who gets understandably upset when she finds out just how his girlfriend is making her living, and Clark Gable (in his first film as an MGM contractee) as the rather stuffy proletarian brother-in-law who leads her family in opposition to the Bennett character's lifestyle. What's more, the story wasn't exactly fresh and original even then; "The Easiest Way" had debuted as a stage play in 1909 and been filmed previously as a silent in 1917 there's a reason prostitution is colloquially referred to as "the oldest profession."
It doesn't help that the actors available to MGM in 1931 were considerably better than those on board for a Lifetime producer in 2015 Alyson Stoner (any relation to Brad Stoner, the local housepainter whose commercials on San Diego TV stations I find irresistibly amusing given what I would think a person named "Stoner" armed with a bunch of paint cans would be likely to do to your house!) as Katie Woods, the central sugar baby; Giles Panton as James Smith, her sugar daddy (and once again the casting directors, Don Carroll and Candice Elzinga, have erred by casting a young, attractive and genuinely hot actor in this role, somebody whom Katie might well have been attracted to even if he didn't have money and they hadn't met on a gold-diggers' Web site!); Keenan Tracey as Sean Clark, the age-peer rival for Katie's affections; and Hrothgar Mathews and Kerry Sandomirsky as her disapproving parents, who (unlike their counterparts in "The Easiest Way," who took a don't-ask, don't-tell attitude to all the goodies their daughter was lavishing on them courtesy of her sugar daddy) object to receiving any of the proceeds from her scummy lifestyle.
The plot gets so convoluted it's hard for me to remember which sugar baby was paired with which sugar daddy, but the basic intrigue revolves around Katie and her roommate Tessa Bouillette (Tiera Skovbye), who is going on a date with her own sugar daddy but he's bringing along a friend, so she wants Katie to go along and be the friend's date. Katie at first is reluctant she's been cruised by Sean, a frat boy who's working his way through college by clerking at the campus bookstore but when she goes to a party at Sean's frat house and he gets drunk and pukes on her legs, she calls Tessa on her cell phone and asks if the double date is still on. It is, even though in a black top and blue jeans (she's done the best she could to clean Sean's puke off of them) she's way underdressed for the fancy restaurant the two sugar daddies have picked for their date. The one thing "Sugar Babies" gets right is its vivid dramatization of just how totally the ability of the female characters to realize their dreams one thing Tessa briefs Katie on early is the desire of the men who log onto sugarbabies.com for young women who have career goals of their own and aren't expecting to be supported by rich men all their lives is dependent on their ability to attract men already in the 1 percent and "put out" for them.
Oddly, the most pathetic (in the good sense) character is the oldest and richest sugar daddy of all, Saul Williams (Ken Camroux-Taylor), a septuagenarian who's built and sold several companies and is sitting on a huge fortune with no one to share it with since his wife died of cancer three years previously "It proved to me that there were some things money couldn't buy," he says ruefully in what's by far the best line of Becca Topol's and David DeCrane's script. It's not that "Sugar Babies" is a bad movie; it's just mediocre, with the Topol-DeCrane script given just the sort of functional but indifferent direction it deserves by Monika Mitchell.
Fatal Memories (2015)
Unusually gripping Lifetime thriller
I screened the Lifetime movie "Fatal Memories," and despite its hysterical opening and bizarre main titles (in what IMDb.com would characterize as "crazy credits," the names of the cast and crew appear as parts of pictures hanging on the walls of one of the two houses around which the action centers, and the director's name, Farhad Mann, is emblazoned on the roof in an overhead shot), "Fatal Memories" actually turned out to be a quite good film, a high-tension thriller with a provocative central premise. It opens in a scene in the home of Marjorie Parker (Elizabeth McLaughlin), a retired college professor with two adult daughters, attorney Sutton Roberts (Italia Ricci) and April Parker (Magda Apanowicz). Sutton breaks a prized bowl and, as she's picking up the pieces, she's alerted to a commotion from outside. The commotion is a fatal stabbing attack on her mom, and when she comes upon the body April is holding a bloody knife. April is arrested by police detectives Whitaker (Shauna Johannessen) and Martin (Michael Ryan). The arrest is filmed by nosy, obnoxious videographer and hacker Luke Conner (Ryan Bell, who's the usual sort of nerd-cute guy Lifetime's and most other people's casting directors like for parts like this), who posts edited versions on the Internet that make April seem both guilty and crazy. She's crazy enough that she's put in a mental institution for a year or so (the Lifetime credit reads "One Year Later" but one IMDb.com reviewer cited other evidence in the film that two or even three years had passed) until she can be adjudged legally competent to assist in her own defense so she can be tried for her mom's murder, and despite the incredibly obvious conflict of interest her sister Sutton insists on representing her as defense counsel.
Sutton is insistent that April couldn't have committed the crime, and in order to jog her memories she takes April to various locations associated with their family in general and her mom in particular in hopes that April will remember something that will exonerate her and enable Sutton to figure out who the real killer is. At the same time, mysterious attacks start affecting the family, and Sutton takes a lot of her anger out on Whitaker, who seems to be there whenever something embarrassing happens to the family. It may not seem like that much in synopsis, but as written by Verge, staged by Mann and acted by an excellent cast especially Apanowicz, who makes April's confused mental state all too real; she really has us believing this poor woman's brain cells are tumbling like clothes in a dryer, and she never knows what she's going to do next "Fatal Memories" is a gripping thriller, making us feel for the characters and keeping us in suspense even though, as noted above, there are really too few suspects for the mystery aspect to be all that mysterious. It's a brilliantly done movie and one hopes that Farhad Mann and Magda Apanowicz in particular can go on to biggers and betters!
Beautiful & Twisted (2015)
Another film that wasn't what it could have been
"Beautiful & Twisted" was directed by someone named Christopher Zalla from a script by Teena Booth (essentially Lifetime's go-to writer when they can't get Christine Conradt that week), Stephen Kay, Inon Shampanier and Natalie Shampanier I'm assuming those last two are a married couple and I can only hope their real-life relationship is better than the one they wrote about! "Beautiful & Twisted" is based on an actual story, the murder of hotel heir Ben Novack, Jr. (Rob Lowe) by his wife Narcisa "Narcy" Veliz (Paz Vega an ironic first name given the morals, or lack thereof, of her character!), Narcy's brother Cristobal (Hemky Madera) and a couple of hit people in Cristobal's posse. Ben Novack, Sr. built and ran the famous Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, and though his business eventually went south and he had to sell the hotel (and died a few years later), at the time this story opens his wife, Bernice Novack (played by Candice Bergen in a performance that essentially steals the movie), is still alive in the big house her husband's money bought them, with a living room the size of an Astaire-Rogers movie set whose centerpiece is a grand piano given the Novacks by Frank Sinatra.
The film is narrated by Rob Lowe's character in a posthumous flashback a gimmick that's been used in great movies like "Sunset Boulevard" as well as lousy ones like "Scared to Death" and that I recall on seeing on at least one previous Lifetime film, "The Two Mr. Kissels" (about two rich kids done to death by their grasping, gold-digging wives) as he explains the weird upbringing he had: he lived with his parents in a 17th floor suite at the Fontainebleau and literally never saw any kids his own age. The only women he ever met were dancers and showgirls at the hotel, so naturally when he grew up and came of age sexually dancers and showgirls were the only women he was attracted to which meant that when he wasn't pursuing his own business as a convention planner, he was hanging out strip clubs and paying handsomely for lap dances.
He meets Narcy at one such club, and finds that she's not willing to leap into bed with him at her first glance at his bankroll she's a single mom working as a dancer to raise her daughter May (Soni Bringas), and she's making a pathetic attempt to shield May from the sordidness of what she does for a living even though the girl is on to her and knows exactly how her mom is keeping the proverbial roof over their heads. Ben falls for Narcy big-time and insists she quit her job and marry him which is just fine with her and she's shown in the film as a full-blown femme fatale in the classic noir manner, keeping Ben (and every other male she encounters, it seems) hopelessly hooked by throwing her sexual wiles at them. The other aspect of Ben's character that provides interest is he's a huge devotée of superhero comic books in general and Batman in particular he boasts that he owns the second-largest collection of Batman memorabilia in the world and he even has a working version of the Batmobile used in the 1960's Batman TV show and he compares himself to Batman and Narcy to Catwoman. He rescues her from a drunken club patron who's trying to rape her in the parking lot (though even before he arrives she's done such a good job fighting the guy off she hardly seems to need rescue!) and the relationship spirals from there, as in "out of control."
"Beautiful & Twisted" is one of those frustrating movies that could have been considerably better than it is I kept thinking of "Double Indemnity" throughout, also a story about a decent but weak man entrapped into a murder plot by a sexually aggressive and irresistible femme fatale, and also narrated, if not literally from beyond the grave, at least by a character knocking at heaven's (or hell's) door (the narration in "Double Indemnity" is dictated onto a Dictaphone machine by Fred MacMurray's character as he is mortally wounded), and wondering how 1940's people like James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder could get this story so triumphantly right while Christopher Zalla, Teena Booth and the rest of her writing committee fell far short of the story's interesting potential.
Part of the problem is Rob Lowe; given that the biggest off-screen thing anyone remembers about him is his sexual shenanigans in a hotel room during a Democratic convention, it's almost inevitable that he get cast in things like this and "Drew Peterson: Untouchable" (in which he was the killer, and he acted considerably better than he did as the victim here!), but there's something superficial about him, something too light-hearted to make him work as the driven Ben Novack, Jr. Fred MacMurray wasn't any great shakes as an actor, either, but Wilder got a laconic, emotionally restrained performance out of him that works far better for this type of story than Lowe's almost terminal charm it's as if Lowe and his director and writers desperately wanted us to like this guy and see him as a pathetic victim of a sexual snare, but he's too much of a sleazepit to make it work and instead we end up thinking through most of the movie that these two deserved each other!
With This Ring (2015)
A modern-day race movie
"With This Ring" is essentially a modern-day equivalent of a "race" movie from the 1930's and 1940's in that the character leads are all Black and they seem to move in a hermetically sealed world where they're able to socialize exclusively with other Black people and almost never encounter anyone white. Lifetime promoted this one heavily on the basis of the gimmick that the three female leads talent agent Trista (Regina Hall), gossip columnist Viviane (Jill Scott the great soul singer, probably the best "belter" between Aretha Franklin and Jennifer Hudson, is used in a role that doesn't allow her to sing!) and aspiring actress Amaya (played by someone billed on IMDb.com only as "Eve") make a pact on the New Year's Eve their friend Elise (Brooklyn Sudano) is being married and decide that within the year all three of them will tie the knot, either to someone they've met during that time or, if they can't find a suitable man, to the not particularly exciting but good-enough men they're dating. At the start of the film Trista is having a sexual quickie with Damon (Brian White), whom she's broken up with but still gets together with for hot times even though she doesn't consider him marriage material. Viviane has a troubled relationship with Sean (Jason George) they're not a couple anymore but they're stuck with each other because they have a son and are at least trying to be responsible parents and both take an interest in the boy's life and Amaya is dating a married man named Keith and trying to get him to leave his wife for her.
Alas, writer-director Nzingha Stewart (bearing one of those oddball first names that's either genuinely African or a jumble of letters either she or her parents concocted to sound African) doesn't do as much with this story as she could have, veering between light-hearted romantic comedy and drama and not doing either particularly well. It's a film of moments rather than a totality, and most of the best moments involve Amaya: she makes an appearance dressed as a catfish for a commercial advertising a Black-oriented fast-food outlet; the shoot required her to do 10 takes in which she bit into a foul-tasting catfish sandwich and had to pretend this was the best-tasting fare in the world. "With This Ring" seems in part to be a propaganda piece aimed at encouraging upper-middle-class Black women to look for upper-middle-class Black men instead of dating white guys they do exist, Stewart seems to be telling her sisters and it's also one of those how-far-we've-come films in that it shows that African-American actors definitely have equal access to the same screenwriters' cliché bank as white ones, but it's not a great movie and it's hardly the good clean dirty fun it could have been!