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The Girl He Met Online (2014)
Surprisingly sympathetic villainess
"The Girl He Met Online" turned out to be surprisingly engaging even though it was very much to the Lifetime formula - one of those in which Christine Conradt was not involved directly but it's clear the people who were have absorbed her plot templates and situations and know how to crank these things out at least as well as the Old Mistress. The directors (plural) were Curtis Crawford (in previous productions he's been Curtis James Crawford) and Anthony Lefresne (though CRAWFORD's name was in BIG LETTERS across the screen and Lefresne's was in tiny type below it) and the credited writer was David DeCrane, but overall it's pretty much a chip off the old Christine Conradt block. When the movie starts we see the girl some poor sap is going to meet online, Gillian Casey (played by Yvonne Zima as a blonde, though otherwise with the same kewpie-doll appeal of Rose MacGowan in the first "Devil in the Flesh" movie from 1998 and Jodi Lyn O'Keefe in the 2000 sequel), trashing the home of her previous boyfriend, spray-painting everything in sight she can't render totally nonfunctional (like his TV - she sprays the letters "TV" behind where it used to be - and his stereo). We get the point immediately: this is a girl that doesn't take rejection well.
What's most interesting about "The Girl He Met Online" is that David DeCrane gives Gillian such a hellish background - her real parents died in a car accident when her age was still in the low single digits, and she and her sister Bethany (Tara Spencer-Nairn) were adopted by Agatha Casey (Mary-Margaret Humes), who made it clear to Gillian throughout her childhood that she never loved or cared about her and the only reason she adopted her was she wanted to raise Bethany and the adoption agency insisted that the sisters come as a package deal. Gillian has literally slept her way into a nice job as receptionist with an OB-GYN, Dr. Harris Kohling (Gary Hudson), who insists on her performing sexual services for him whenever his wife is out of town, which seems to be a lot. But that hasn't stopped her from trying to land a rich guy whom she can get to marry her and Take Her Away from All That. Her current target is Andy Collins (Shawn Roberts, at least marginally cuter than most of Lifetime's leading men), who works for a software company founded by his father and managed since dad's death by his mom Susan (Caroline Redekopp), and whose sister Heather (Samantha Madely) is also a major player in the firm. Most of the film is taken up by Gillian's intense pursuit of Andy and her ability to look normal and even genuinely charming when she's on her best behavior, though as the plot progresses the obstacles start to trip her up and writer DeCrane seems to go out of his way to put Gillian in contact with people who can expose the worst sides of her character.
What I liked about "The Girl I Met Online" was the writing of Gillian's character - though Curtis Crawford and Anthony Lefresne are hardly in Alfred Hitchcock's league as masters of suspense (nor is DeCrane anywhere nearly as good as the writers Hitchcock used), they do manage to play the double game Hitchcock pulled off in a number of his films: making the villain, if not sympathetic, at least attractive and put-upon enough we're kept hoping he - or, as here, she - will get away with it even as we know his or her actions are evil and she deserves arrest and punishment.
A Man Called God (2013)
Great personal story of cultism and disillusionment
A Man Called God is a remarkable movie that has its roots in the 1970's in the careers of two men: Blaxploitation actor Christopher St. John, whose best-known credit is probably as the leader of the "Lummumbas," the Black nationalist group who work with Black detective John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a Black businessman in the original 1971 Shaft. He was married to a white actress and had a son, Kristoff; then they broke up and he married another white actress, Maria, and the couple raised Kristoff. In 1972 Christopher St. John wrote, produced, directed and starred in Top of the Heap, but then got a reputation in Hollywood as a troublemaker and got blacklisted. At loose ends, Christopher and Maria St. John drifted into an involvement with Eastern religion and eventually became devotees of a guru named Sathya Sai Baba. For anyone whose mental image of an Indian guru is an old guy with long hair and an unkempt beard -- the appearance of Paramhansa Yogananda, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Meher Baba and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh -- the first sight of Sai Baba in this movie is going to be startling: he was baby-faced, clean-shaven and, quite frankly, looked more African than Indian: he had a broad nose and his hair was in a tall "natural." He always dressed in an orange robe -- at least during his public appearances -- and though his background was Hindu, he claimed to be synthesizing all the world's major religions in his teachings. He also literally claimed to be God on Earth and to have (presumably in a previous incarnation) fathered Jesus Christ.
Christopher and Maria St. John got so involved in Sai Baba's organization that they ended up living in his main ashram in Puttaparthi, India -- the tiny village where Sai Baba had been born and which turned into a major religious center as his movement grew. Because he had movie-making experience, Christopher St. John was hired by Sai Baba to make a documentary film that would hopefully recruit more people to the movement. The bulk of the film consists of the footage Christopher St. John shot during his months at the ashram, which came to an abrupt end right after Sai Baba's elaborate 55th birthday celebration in November 1980; when Sai Baba threw him out he demanded that St. John leave all his film behind, but the elder St. John got the film out of India with him and resettled in Hollywood -- where the footage sat for over two decades until his son finally hit on the idea of making a movie out of it and telling his own tale of his life in the ashram and how and why it ended. Kristoff St. John and Marc Clebanoff (who's credited on the postcard announcing the film merely as co-editor but clearly had a key role in writing the script and working out the film's overall structure) at first they show the positive aspects of Sai Baba's movement, including the money they put into hospital construction and social improvements, but later they start dropping hints of the darker side of the story. Kristoff recalls how dazzled he was by Sai Baba's purported power to materialize objects, including rings, medallions and sacred vibhuti ash, out of thin air. As a boy in Sai Baba's ashram, Kristoff was jazzed when Sai Baba gave him a silver medallion he had supposedly created out of thin air; only years later, after his and his family's disillusionment, did Kristoff realize that this was a simple sleight-of-hand trick that any stage magician could do.
Things got worse as hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from India but also from all over the world, thronged the ashram for the three weeks of celebration before Sai Baba's birthday in 1980 -- and Christopher St. John, with his film credits as both actor and director, was ordered to direct a play about Jesus Christ. Though Kristoff recalls that there were certain parts of the ashram he and his crew were not allowed to film, they did get to record one of the rehearsals for this play -- the scene in which Jesus is throwing the moneylenders out of the Temple -- which looks as wretched as you'd expect given that he was working with a nonprofessional cast and an awfully stiff script. Then the St. Johns learn about Baba's darker secrets, including at least one that affects them personally.
Though I could have wished for a bit more material in A Man Called God about what attracted people in general and the St. Johns in particular to Baba's cult (to me that's the most interesting aspect of cult stories: why do people get involved in these things in the first place; and once they're involved, how do they rationalize staying in even as they learn some of the cult's darker secrets?), the film as it stands is a chilling tale which alleges that Sai Baba could do literally anything he wanted, confident that his connections with some of the most powerful people in India would ensure that his crimes would never even be investigated, much less prosecuted. Like most cult stories, A Man Called God is another illustration of how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely; once you're surrounded by people who literally believe you're a prophet, or a god, or some other sort of "special" person (the entourages of celebrities, especially notoriously reclusive ones like Michael Jackson, are not that different from the literal cult shown in this film), and who have essentially granted you the power of life and death over them, they will do just about anything to stay in your good graces -- and you'd have to be an extraordinarily humble and saintly human being not to take advantage of that for some sinister purpose or another.
Hot Guys with Guns (2013)
I loved it!
Last night Charles and I attended the FilmOut San Diego screening of Hot Guys with Guns, a special event at the Birch North Park Theatre advertised as an action movie for the Gay male audience, a sort of spoof of the James Bond mythos that judging from the advance publicity was going to be a film about a super-spy attempting to foil some horrendous international crime scheme and this being aimed at a Gay male audience in the process bedding an assortment of "Bond boys" instead of "Bond girls." Actually the film turned out to be considerably better than that, owing quite a bit less to James Bond and more to the 1960's TV series I Spy, particularly in the pairing of a white and a Black character as the leads and the rather diffident relationship between the two the white guy more impulsive and daring, the Black guy more reasoned and "cool."
After a marvelous credits sequence using Warren's song under a set of visuals cribbed from the 1960's Bond movies, the original I Spy credits and just about every other 1960's film in the genre, the opening scene turned out to be a decent-looking but decidedly not hot middle-aged man awakening from a drugged stupor with a lot of younger and hotter but similarly indisposed bodies draped across his bed. It turns out his stupor wasn't his idea; he threw a sex party but it was crashed by two interlopers, one dressed in a black hoodie and a death's-head mask and the other more or less au naturel, who entered it and set off an aerosol bomb containing a mixture of party drugs and anesthetics to put the entire crowd under so they could rob them. The principals turn out to be Danny Lohman (Marc Anthony Samuel), a Black Gay actor who's taking a course on how to be a private detective not because he wants to do that for a living but because he's up for a part as a P.I. in a TV series called Crime and Punishment; and his ex-partner Patrick "Pip" Armstrong (Brian McArdle, whose other main credit on IMDb.com is a voice-over narration for a documentary called It Is No Dream about Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism), a spoiled rich white kid who lives with his mother Patricia (a wonderful bitch-goddess performance by Joan Ryan) and dumped Danny for another aspiring actor, Robin (Trey McCurley), who's hot-looking but is enough of an airhead we in the audience definitely get the impression he's trading down. When Pip is a guest at the next sex party that gets hit by the mystery bandits with their drug bomb, and his Rolex watch (important to him because it's the only legacy left to him by his father, who abandoned the family for reasons we're never told) and his car are stolen (and the car is recovered, stripped and covered with anti-Gay graffiti), Danny decides they should use the skills he's learning in detective class and solve the crime themselves.
Despite saddling it with the silly title that makes it sound like a hard-core porn film, Spearman manages to pull off something that's eluded a lot of more prestigious and better-known directors: he manages to fuse comedy and drama so the mystery and the satire reinforce each other instead of clashing. There's also a marvelously funny sequence in which, staking out the home of one of the victims, Danny starts delivering a voice-over narration in the persona of the P.I. character he's auditioning to play on TV and the dialogue is a perfectly turned parody of Raymond Chandler's prose, particularly his penchant for blender-mixed metaphors. "Hot Guys with Guns" is a quite capably produced and written mystery, well acted by a strong ensemble cast, though Marc Anthony Samuel in the lead stands out. With Denzel Washington already having aged out of the Black juvenile category and Will Smith rapidly following suit, Samuel, playing a part Spearman wrote for himself but at the last minute realized he was too old for, looks like a good candidate to take over these parts.
Baby Sellers (2013)
Make this a series with Jennifer Finnigan's character as the lead!
The film was "Baby Sellers," billed as a "world premiere" Lifetime showing of a quite powerful and well-done thriller from producer Robert Halmi, Sr. (he and Halmi, Jr. are known for socially conscious TV-movies) which had some of the usual Lifetime sillinesses and improbabilities, but had enough energy and power to transcend them. The star is a young, compactly built blonde woman named Jennifer Finnigan, who plays Detective Nicole ("Nic") Morrison of the (presumably fictitious) "Homeland Security Investigations" law-enforcement agency, or HSI. When the film starts she and her male African-American partner (alas, not identified on the cast list on IMDb.com) are hot on the trail of Rafael Ochoa (Zak Santiago), a crime kingpin involved in a number of illegal enterprises, including smuggling undocumented immigrants into the U.S. in the backs of large trucks. The film actually opens in a small village in India, where kidnappers literally steal Mira, the recently born baby of a young couple, Dilip (Arjun Gupta) and Noureen (Veena Soud), who can recognize her if they see her again because she has a tear-shaped birthmark under her left eye. Then it cuts to the U.S., where Nic and her partner almost catch Ochoa's agent but the agent and Ochoa himself escape. They do, however, recover the truck in which they were smuggling in their latest batch of undocumented immigrants pregnant women. Ochoa is shipping them into the U.S. so they'll give birth on this side of "la linea" and therefore the kids will be U.S. citizens; then the babies will be taken away from their mothers and placed with wealthy Anglo families for adoption.
At the crux of all this is an adoption agency with the typically smarmy title "Road to Love" run by Carla Huxley (Kirstie Alley) and I can't help but think writer Suzette Couture deliberately named her after an author whose most famous work is "Brave New World," a novel about the mass production of babies. Huxley delivers a well-honed sales talk to prospective adoptive parents in which she trots out her own Third World-born adopted daughter Alyssa (Corale Knowles) and tells what a wonderful success her own adoption has been "My mom is awesome!" Alyssa tells her mom's prospective customers, before we get a scene between the two of them in which Carla turns out to be a tough taskmaster with an obsessive concern about her daughter's diet. Directed by Nick Willing, "Baby Sellers" flits confusingly between the U.S., India and Brazil (another important stop on Carla's baby-selling network), and at times you have to look closely to determine which Third World country with dirt roads, shaky buildings, grinding poverty and nut-brown people is which (some of the switches in location are indicated by chyron titles but most aren't), but it's generally well plotted and it's powered by fascinating female characters as both heroine and villainess. It's also a movie which, despite the sometimes confusing changes in locale, manages to tell convincingly tragic plot lines and avoid the soap-opera trap of too much blatant tear-jerking.
At the end there's a title about the impact of human trafficking, including the claim that it's now the world's second largest and most lucrative criminal enterprise (after drugs but before weapons), which reminds us that the Halmis were also the producers of the Lifetime movie "Human Trafficking," which, when I reviewed it for IMDb.com, I headlined my review, "Good intentions doth not a great movie make." I wouldn't call "Baby Sellers" a great movie, either, but it's far better than "Human Trafficking;" it's not only a fast-paced, exciting thriller (we open in the middle of a chase scene instead of getting the usual 20 to 40 minutes' worth of dull exposition typical of Lifetime's thrillers) but it has two great tour de force roles for women. Kirstie Alley is absolutely brilliant, capturing not only the character's evil but the smarmy self-righteousness and gooey sentimentality with which she conceals the evil not only from the people she interacts with but from herself. And she's matched by Jennifer Finnigan, who manages to be just as tough as Mariska Hargitay in "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" without being either as self-consciously butch or as annoyingly schoolmarmish. Finnigan's combination of little-slip-of-a-girl appearance, implacable will and surprising toughness and skill with the action scenes is remarkable, eminently watchable and makes me wish the Halmis and Lifetime would get together and build a series around this remarkable actress and her character here.
The Falcon in Hollywood (1944)
I'll say it too
I switched on TCM and watched "The Falcon in Hollywood," a 1944 entry in the series made after George Sanders, the original lead actor in the role, was replaced by Tom Conway (Sanders' real-life brother, though Conway had changed his last name so he wouldn't find the path to success greased by his brother's coattails), a remarkable little movie that's most noteworthy for its plot premise (spoiler alert!), which is the same as "The Producers" only carefully not played for laughs: an unscrupulous Broadway producer, Martin S. Dwyer (John Abbott), best known for dramas he did a production of "Hamlet" on the Main Stem and proudly displays a poster for it in his office, along with a bust of Shakespeare, whose dialogue he's fond of quoting comes to the "Sunset Studios" in Hollywood to make his first film. He picks a musical, Magic Melody, and sells 200 percent of the film to various investors, including John Miles, a playboy with a fortune which he's willing to use part of to bankroll a movie so he can act the lead role even though he's never acted before; Alec Hoffman (Konstantin Shayne), a Stroheim-like director with a string of flops behind him; and Louie Buchanan (Sheldon Leonard), a gambler who was imprisoned in New York for fixing horse races but escaped.
Tom Lawrence (Tom Conway), nicknamed "The Falcon," is in Hollywood on a vacation when he encounters movie star Lili D'Allio (Rita Corday), a believer in numerology, at a horse race. He also encounters Peggy Callahan (Barbara Hale, a bit of a surprise to see as a baddie since we're used to her role as Della Street in the 1950's Perry Mason TV series), Louie Buchanan's girlfriend; and Billie Atkins (Veda Ann Borg in a great vehicle for her), a lady cabdriver who zips Tom Lawrence around the L.A. streets (playing themselves instead of being safely represented by the RKO backlot) at near-warp speeds. She explains that she's a stunt driver in movies when she isn't working as a cabbie, and her salty performance makes her a considerably more interesting character than the more openly attractive glamour girls the cast abounds in Hale, Corday and Jean Brooks (Richard Brooks' first wife and the star of the magnificent Val Lewton production "The Seventh Victim") as Roxanna Miles, costume designer for Magic Melody and John Miles' estranged wife, who has the hots for director Hoffman and hopes to marry him as does D'Allio. There's a lot of running around the "Sunset" lot and the character of an old gatekeeper who becomes a red herring, but eventually Tom Lawrence figures out the whole plot: producer Dwyer was sabotaging his own production, including murdering his leading man, wounding his director with a supposedly blank-loaded gun (and deliberately exposing the day's film, ruining it so that it couldn't be developed and reveal the truth about the attempted murder of Hoffman), and eventually killing Buchanan with a trick ring from India that contains poison in its metal so that as the wearer has it on, the poison is slowly leaching into his system and ultimately knocking him off.
The film has some interesting real-life L.A. locations, including a confrontation at the Coliseum as well as an opening scene at the Hollywood Turf Club at which we meet most of the principals, but the most fascinating thing about it is the "Producers" plot element (Dwyer was sabotaging his own film so he wouldn't have to pay off the investors since either it would never be released at all or would fail) done deadly seriously. It was actually an urban legend on Broadway for decades before Brooks filmed it indeed, Groucho Marx actually wanted to use it as the plot for "A Night at the Opera" but MGM production chief Irving Thalberg vetoed it.
Shake, Rattle & Rock! (1956)
Good even when Fats Domino and Joe Turner aren't on screen!
The early omens on this one weren't good; American International generally made lousy movies aimed mostly at the drive-in audience (and this was only their third year in operation), the director was Edward L. Cahn and the writer was Lou Rusoff, who was usually associated with American International's rather silly horror movies. Surprise! "Shake, Rattle and Rock" turned out to be a little gem, with two of the all-time greats of rhythm and blues, singer Joe Turner and singer-pianist-composer Antoine "Fats" Domino, and a plot that was genuinely entertaining in and of itself and wasn't just a way to mark time between the musical numbers. While other 1950's rock movies occasionally touched on the controversies over rock and the determination of some moralists to shut it down, Lou Rusoff decided to make the controversies the focal point of his film. It opens in the studio of a local TV station, where Garry Nelson (Touch Conners, the young, personable actor who later became a surprisingly credible private detective on the long-running CBS-TV series Mannix) is hosting a rock 'n' roll TV show with a group of teenage kids he's been able to pull off the streets and away from a life of crime by harnessing the righteous power of this music to lure them into wholesome recreation. Right now in the (unnamed) city where the film takes place he's built 78 rock 'n' roll clubs and got the young people in them interested in raising money for "safe" social causes. His latest project is to take over an abandoned building and turn it into a teen center.
But he's run afoul of self-appointed moralists Eustace Fentwick III (Douglass Dumbrille) and Georgianna Fitzdingle (the marvelous Margaret Dumont so two supporting players in this film have Marx Brothers connections!), who organize a group with a tongue-twisting name to fight back against rock 'n' roll by organizing petitions and letter-writing campaigns to get the TV station to take Nelson's show off the air. He's also run afoul of gangsters Bugsy Smith (Paul Duboy, proving that they didn't break the mold after they made Sheldon Leonard) and his comic-relief sidekick Nick (Eddie Kafafian), who are upset that Nelson's rock 'n' roll clubs have turned potential hoodlums towards more constructive pursuits and thereby deprived Bugsy's gang of its biggest pool of young talent. Of course, Nelson has his own comic-relief sidekick, Albert "Axe" McAllister (Sterling Holloway, whom writer Rusoff and director Cahn try to pass off as a teenager even though he was already making movies in the early 1930's, before any authentic teenager alive in 1956 was even born!).
Fats Domino does two of his biggest hits, "Ain't That a Shame" and "I'm in Love Again," as well as "Honey Chile" (a song I've always liked that didn't get the attention it deserved because it was the flip side of an even greater Domino record, "Blueberry Hill"), and Turner sings "Feelin' Happy" a rock adaptation of the 1930's Kansas City blues standard "Do You Wanna Jump, Children?" twice, once over the opening credits and once on screen. He also does "Lipstick, Powder and Paint," "The Choker" and "Rock, Rock, Rock." The one white rock performer we see, Tommy Charles (doing a song by Wayne Walker called "Sweet Love on My Mind"), is O.K. but quite obviously not anywhere in the same league as Domino and Turner. "Shake, Rattle and Rock" turned out to be a minor gem, a genuinely entertaining movie even when Fats Domino and/or Joe Turner weren't on screen!
A Sister's Revenge (2013)
O.K. but pretty typical Lifetime fare
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 IMDb.com 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, and 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 Lifetime 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." "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.
Restless Virgins (2013)
Great exposé of America's class system
The film was "Restless Virgins," a made-for-TV movie premiered on the Lifetime channel a few weeks ago (March 9) which I'd been interested in watching because it promised some good clean dirty fun about a group of upper-class students at the exclusive Sutton prep school (based on the real Milton Academy in Massachusetts, located eight miles south of Boston) who decide that as their annual "legacy hand-off" to the undergraduates who'll remain there next year after they leave to make a clandestine sex tape, blur out their faces and burn it to DVD. Though not without its flaws Andy Cochran's script (based on a book by Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley that's listed on IMDb.com as a "novel" even though the film's credits say it was a nonfiction book about a real scandal at Milton in 2005) and Jason Lapeyre's direction occasionally fall into typical Lifetime slovenliness it's a powerful tale about the sense of entitlement shared by the children of America's 1 percent and the way they believe they can literally do anything they want, no matter how many other people suffer in the process, because their money and their family connections will always be available to bail them out of the consequences the rest of the world has to deal with when they commit similar crimes.
There's also another theme: the tension between the people who get to go to schools like Sutton because they're part of America's hereditary ruling class the principal villain, Dylan Whitman (Charles Carver, whose dark, charismatic handsomeness and whole attitude that the normal rules don't apply to him nail this role to perfection), is referred to as "the son of a billionaire Senator" and the ones that have got there through scholarships. Anyone who's read George Orwell's essay "Such, Such Were the Days " will recall his vivid description of how the scholarship boys at elite schools were always made to feel like they didn't really deserve to be there, they were being given this incredible education at the sufferance of both the school authorities and the fellow students whose parents could afford the full tuition, and they were never allowed to forget that even though they had been admitted to this elite institution they were still second-class citizens (with the rest of humanity being considered third-class, or even lesser, citizens). The world of Sutton is a microcosm of the American so-called "meritocracy" quotes intended because "merit" has little or nothing to do with it; it's really an hereditary aristocracy as hard if not harder to crack than anything Old Europe ever came up with (indeed, modern economic statistics indicate that the U.S. actually has less upward mobility than Western European countries) in which the class system is overlaid on top of the usual pecking order of a high school, with the popular kids forming cliques and excluding the rest of the student body, while sex and partying are used as ways either to get yourself in with the "in crowd" or to get yourself even more definitively excluded.
The central characters, in terms of people who actually display a sense of idealism that clashes with what they know they have to do to get ahead in this foul world, are Emily (Vanessa Marano), a reporter for the school newspaper who narrates the story, and Lucas (Max Lloyd-Jones), who was briefly attracted to Emily until he realized that he couldn't get to the upper-class circle in general and Dylan in particular if he burdened himself with a girlfriend so far down on the pecking order. So instead he started dating Heather (Elise Gatien) and eventually, once he was admitted to Dylan's residential suite, lied that he and Heather were having sex. While all this is happening Dylan and his friends, including oil heir Cotton (Jedediah Goodacre) whose masculinity is under suspicion since fellow members of the clique caught him looking at Gay porn on a computer are plotting to shoot their clandestine sex tape, which involves borrowing a special low-light camera from the journalism school and recruiting Madison (Christie Burke) to be their clandestine "star," making it with six guys in a gang-bang she, of course, doesn't know is being filmed. The tape is duly made, and Dylan and friends blur out their own faces so they can't be identified though Madison is clearly visible and recognizable and Dylan makes the rest of his posse swear to secrecy. Only one of them leaks the tape to a friend, and soon it goes viral throughout the school and naturally comes to the attention of the school administration.
"Restless Virgins" is a story that hooks bigger issues than Messrs. Lapeyre and Cochran were aware of, yet their film has a refreshing honesty about just how firm the class barriers are in a so-called "classless society" like ours, and how F. Scott Fitzgerald was right when he said, "The rich are different from you and me" and how C. Wright Mills documented that the rich are different from you and me because they're trained to be different from birth: they're given an education that trains them to rule over the rest of us and they live in a different culture that shapes their sense of what is important both personally and politically. I guess I didn't think that a Lifetime TV-movie that was sold as a juicy bit of sexploitation would have so much to say about America's classless pretensions and class realities, but Restless Virgins proved to be a lot more than just the two hours (less commercials) of good clean dirty fun I had expected!
Willed to Kill (2012)
Fast-paced, well-made, well constructed modern thriller
This morning I watched a quite good thriller I'd recorded from Lifetime over the weekend: "Willed to Kill," a 2012 production from Incendo Media that featured Sarah Jane Morris (hot!) as Boston homicide detective Karyn Mitchell (the pretentious spelling of the first name what's wrong with "Karen"? bothers me a little), who's already blown away two previous serial killers when, in one of the most chilling opening sequences ever put on film, she enters a house where a knife-wielding psycho has tied up and gagged a real woman, set her at a dining table with a bunch of mannequins, and is preparing to torture and kill her. When Karyn crashes the scene, the baddie starts teasing her, asking who she would want to play her in the movie they're going to make of his life (for his own account, he's so closely channeling "The Silence of the Lambs" his choice to play himself would obviously be Anthony Hopkins!), then goes after her with his knife and she shoots him in self-defense. For this, she's christened "Dirty Harriet" by her colleagues on the Boston PD (of course, this being a Lifetime movie, Montreal is "playing" Boston), and the fruits of her labors are an internal-affairs investigation, a dressing-down by her chief, Lt. Schneider (David McIlwraith), a sour attitude from her partner and former fiancé, Gavin McNaab (Ross McCall), and mandatory therapy sessions with Dr. Aaron Kade (Michael Riley).
Then a couple of murders occur in which the victims are scarred post-mortem with the Greek letter that symbolizes Hades, trademark of the so-called "Hades Killer" who operated 15 years earlier. Karyn is convinced the new killings are the work of a copycat, and she has to deal with a succession of weirdos falsely confessing to the crimes as well as the watchful eyes of her fellow cops, who want her to catch Hades, all right, but to catch him alive this time and allow the judicial system to take its course instead of summarily executing him. Director Philippe Gagnon and writer James Taylor Phillips give us a surprisingly broad suspect pool namely by making just about every male in Karyn's vicinity so unbearably twitchy we're sure one of them must be the killer. Among the suspects she encounters are Arthur Brady (Kent McQuaid) whose recently deceased uncle was one of the suspects in the original Hades murders along with another wanna-be who actually kills someone in his efforts to convince the cops he is Hades, but whose crime has just the opposite effect when Karyn points out that he was considerably sloppier than the real Hades (or at least the new one you know a thriller plot is convoluted when one of the crimes is committed by a copycat of the copycat!).
"Willed to Kill"'s plot takes an interesting turn when Gavin invites Karyn to his upcoming wedding "You're not supposed to marry the rebound!" she insists, though he says he got her pregnant and therefore had to and Karyn has a meet-cute outside a gym with Mark Hanson (Dylan Bruce, a considerably hunkier good guy than we usually get in a Lifetime movie) and they have sex on the first date and "get serious" thereafter at least until Karyn decides, on the basis of his inside information and his similar background to the killer (notably the fact that they both lost their wives Karyn knows this because the killer has been in regular phone contact with her, slipping her bits of background and always hanging up just in time to make sure the police can't complete the trace on his calls), that he's Hades and arrests him. The film cycles through various false suspects and red herrings including the one I thought was going to be the guilty party, a twitchy reporter who was following her and stalking her to get stories about the case, until he was killed in the next-to-last act and finally reveals that Hades was (spoiler alert!) Karyn's therapist, Dr. Kade, and that Karyn's father was the original Hades. Karyn's father was never charged with those crimes but was bad enough he was caught and executed anyway, and Karyn actually turned him in when she was 16 but she agonized about doing that for six months, during which Hades I murdered Dr. Kade's parents, and rather than just kill her Dr. Kade decided to become Hades II, picking his victims from the ranks of career criminals so he wouldn't knock off someone who could be considered an "innocent victim," and comparing himself to Karyn as someone who also killed criminals instead of trusting the legal process.
The story is far-fetched and stretches the bounds of legitimate suspension of disbelief, but within that it at least makes sense, the resolution is (more or less) logical and the overall effect is quite chilling and offers everything you want from a suspense film. Director Gagnon stages the action expertly, up to and including the final confrontation (Dr. Kade is planning to take Karyn to the roof of the police building, push her off and then report to his superiors that in their last session she threatened suicide, so they'll believe him when he says she killed herself), which Karyn extricates herself from in a believable manner while it's Dr. Kade who falls off the building and dies. (That was a pity; I was hoping the final frames would be her turning him over to Lt. Schneider and saying, "See? I CAN take someone alive!")
Scrapheap Orchestra (2011)
Fascinating documentary about making music from garbage literally!
Scrapheap Orchestra is a film about a weird project conductor Charles Hazlewood embarked on in 2011: he hired major instrument makers to produce al fresco instruments out of garbage, literally, to see if they could come up, using exclusively discarded and recycled materials, with instruments that sounded, if not exactly like professionally made ones from first-rate resources, at least close enough that he could lead a group of experienced symphony musicians in a popular piece at one of the BBC's Proms concerts. He gave the instrument makers 11 weeks to manufacture 44 instruments for his "Scrapheap Orchestra" and decided that the work the group would perform would be Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture a good choice, as it turned out, because it's a) familiar, b) a fun piece of music if not necessarily an enduring masterwork, and c) sufficiently vulgar (in both the good and bad senses of the word) that it wouldn't suffer much from any deficiencies in the scrapheap instruments.
The result was an hour-and-a-half long movie that introduced us to a lot of quirky people my favorite was Paul Jefferies, the rather owl-like man in charge of making the percussion instruments (and the queeniest-looking guy in the film) both the instrument makers and the orchestral players who had to figure out how to manipulate these instruments and try to get at least halfway beautiful sounds from them. In general, Hazlewood and his crew got the most convincing sounds from the percussion instruments (though the makeshift cymbals made from automobile hoods, or "bonnets" as they're called in English English instead of American English didn't have anything like the resonance of real brass cymbals), then from the woodwinds (though they "cheated" a bit by allowing the reed players to use their normal reeds and mouthpieces instead of having to use ones made from trash clarinet and flute maker Andy Wheeldon tried to make a reed from one of those little wooden spoons that come with pre-packaged ice cream sundaes so you can eat them on the road, but it didn't work), then from the brass and least from the strings. At one point they tried to make stringed instruments from old drainpipes (there were a couple of lame jokes about what usually goes through pipes like that, and at the concert itself Charles Hazlewood said, "Don't worry, they've been cleaned"), with a serving spoon stuck at the end so the violin and viola players could clench the instruments between their chins and their shoulders the way they do normally but violist Tim Welch said it was literally too exhausting to play the instrument that way.
Eventually violin maker Rob Cain figured out a way to heat the plastic pipes in an oven, then use tools to bend the partially melted pipes into a flatter shape that made them more closely resemble normal violins and violas. He also did a bit of cheating by carving bits of wood for bridges and sound posts to add resonance. Cello and double-bass maker Ben Hebbert was proud of himself for discovering an old zinc tub that worked surprisingly well as the body of an al fresco double bass though what he came up with, four strings and a neck made from a sailboat mast, the whole thing lashed together with blue twine, was far advanced from the so-called "tea-chest bass" used by jug bands and skiffle groups in both the U.S. and U.K., which was one string fastened to the base of the tub, tied to a broom handle, with the player changing the tension by moving the broom handle and thereby being able to play more than one pitch.
The film's director, Paul Bernays, way overdid the talking heads he even had people talking over the final performance of the 1812 Overture, which both Charles and I thought should have been shown "straight," with no talking over the music but on the whole Scrapheap Orchestra was a quite good documentary, and it did offer some of the promised insights into "the history of instrument making and the science of music, why different instruments are made the way they are, why some designs have not changed for hundreds of years and why, when played together, the sound of an orchestra is like nothing on earth."